And so, without further adieu...E.L.F.
By David Colby
Chapter 1: The Crystal
Anyone who says hovering is an elegant mode of transport must never have ridden on a school bus. The engines, like most things associated with the public school system, desperately needed a massive overhaul and total upgrade to move from completely wrecked to barely functional. Every time the bus glided over one of the many potholes in City-18, the shock dampening fields failed to catch and Jimmy got to introduce the side of his head to the window. Again.
Despite many such introductions, the side of his head and the window hadn’t formed a lasting relationship and the constant breakups were really starting to wear on him.
"Unng." He closed his eyes. "Tell me Pix-"
"Cause life hates you."
"Good answer." Jimmy sighed, putting his hand over his face. The bus hit another pothole and Jimmy got to introduce his head to the window once more. “Shit!”
"Language!" Pix waggled her finger at him, her antennas sparking. "What would your father say if he heard you saying that?"
She snorted. "Now, enough of this jibber jabber. Let's get some work done." She snapped her fingers once and formed an AR bubble in the air over her wrist. The bubble was – like most really good and interesting things – fictional: A tickling of the optic nerves by some polite nanobots – short term augments that hadn’t yet been sneezed out after the end of the school day. Pix’s normal outline – pink and polka dots with the occasional hunk of rusted barbed wire – surrounded a haze of text that became filled in as the local networks crawled their way through the bus’ awful, low-fi mesh network.
As the mesh chugged along, the bus shuddered to a stop – the braking field catching desperately at the ground, squealing and whining at the exact right tone to send shooting pain through Jimmy’s head. While the bus skidded and squealed to a halt, Jimmy looked at the formerly gray bus station: Someone with too much time and too little respect for public property had sprayed it down with day glow, multicolored paint. Some of the art was kinda eye catching, if you didn't mind searing pink neon. Beyond the stop were row after row of identical houses, each with their small oxy-plants puttering away, and each with their own vain attempt to appear different from their neighbors, ranging from the bland (one of those spinning plastic flowers) to the heroic (a supped up spinning plastic flower with flamethrowers attached at the ends).
Suburbia in City-18.
"Now, section B of the Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test, question thirty four," Pix read, putting far more energy and aplomb into the reading than was appropriate for a high school exit exam. "Which major event changed the course of human history in the late twenty-fourth century. Was it A!" She held her finger up. "The Eugenics Wars? B-" Another finger. "-The arrival of the Tette<click><click> in Neh...Now... Jerk...Yer..." She scowled, reaching out with her finger to highlight the word which started to shift phonetics – upscaling from the ancient languages to more modern ones in an attempt to become readable. "Yark?"
"York," Jimmy said, slowly. "New. York."
"Stupid dead language," Pix muttered. "Where was I? Oh right! C-" Another finger. "The Scourge, or D, the discovery of Harbinger."
"Oh, oh, oh, don't help me." Jimmy closed his eyes and put his forefingers against his temples. "Uuuh...could it be D?"
"Drum roll please." Pix snapped her fingers. Jimmy provided one against the back of the chair in front of them, his index fingers tapping out a long rrrttttt.
"James Leonite Junior, you're absolutely correct! You have won the chance to go on to the next question!"
"Is it as mind numbingly easy and insultingly simple as the last thirty?"
"Ding, ding, ding, ding! You are correct!" The bus hit a pothole and Jimmy narrowly avoided cracking his head against the window. Pix’s backpack – which was sitting on her lap – leaped free and made a break for it, skittering under the seat in front of them. Pix rubbed her face with her hands, banished the AR bubble with a wave of her wrist, and bent forward to grab at the backpack.
"Hey Pixie," someone drawled out as Pix sat back up.
"Oh great," she whispered, as Jimmy glared over her shoulder.
Edward, Pix's younger foster brother, gave his trademark smirk. To parents, teachers and a disturbingly large percentage of the female population at school, that smirk made them, in Pix's words, 'go all dribbly'. But to people who were, you know, sane, it looked just as it actually was: Evil. Or if not evil, at least a good imitation, off brand, fifty percent off on sale kind of evil.
"Soo, Pixie." The bus stopped again, door hissing open. "I hear that you don't have a date for the Prom."
"I don't believe in the chauvinistic idea of a man being the one to ask a woman out on the date." Pix turned around, seat squeaking at her movement. "Also, I really hate it when you call me Pixie. It makes me angry."
Edward chuckled. "You're cute when you're angry, Pixie.”
She shook her head. "You won't like me when I'm angry..."
"Pix-" Jimmy started, reaching out for her shoulder. Too slow.
Edward jumped. "AH!"
Smoke puffed from Edward's shirt. Jimmy saw Pix's hand sneak back into her pocket, the shiny flash of metal.
"You bitch!" Edward shouted, beating against his shirt, long after the smallish fire had gone out. Pix laughed.
"What? Me? I didn't do anything."
"Pyro!" Edward grabbed her shirt, but by now the bus driver had noticed there was a scuffle breaking out. She stood up and lumbered down the central aisle of the bus, grabbing Edward and jerking him off Pix.
"You two," the bus driver growled. "Stop it."
"She started it!" Edward shouted. "Cyborg!"
Pix's lips went white and her eyes whirred loudly as the irises contracted to small dots, surrounded by pink. Jimmy recognized that look. He reached for her shoulder, grabbing and jerking her back before she could do something more easily connected to her than mysterious shirt fires.
"I don't like hearing cussin durin my bussin," the bus driver growled. "And I es-peci-ally don't like hearin racial ep-if-ets."
Edward looked at his feet, the picture of contriteness and apology. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said. The bus driver let him go, then looked at Pix, who was still straining at Jimmy's hand, fists clenched, knuckles white.
"And you, miss E.L.F...you don't do nothing stupid either." She frowned. "It's just words is all."
She lumbered back to the driver's seat.
Jimmy sighed. "Pix-"
"Shut up." She snapped. A moment later, she shook her head. "No, I...just a word." She made a face, her antenna sparking.
Jimmy gently patted her shoulder, wishing he could do more, like, say, punching Edward in his stupid, handsome face. Pix slumped her forehead against the seat in front of them. The bus lurched into motion.
Jimmy bit his lip. "Pix, where did you get the lighter?"
She was silent.
Jimmy looked out the window, watching the uniform gray and brown and silver of City-18 zip past, even as Pix's hand moved in her pocket. Jimmy could practically hear her hand closing around it, her thumb snapping it open and closed. Open and closed.
Edward's stop came up: Right slap bang in the really bad part of town, the part of the town that had grown up around the Processors: Monolithic, mile high machines built into Harbinger's superstructure itself. A lifetime of driving past them in hovercars and seeing them out the window had robbed Jimmy of almost all his awe. They were just parts of the landscape. But sometimes, when he remembered what he learned in school and remembered the words of his professor...he felt a shiver of vertigo.
The Processors were old. Older than the human race – and the human race wasn’t exactly what one might call sprightly. They had spent the time it took the human race to flower and burn itself to a cinder doing the same thing, day in, day out. Whoever the Architects had been, they had known what they were doing. But, time took its toll, even here, even with all that power, all that intense brainpower. The Architects might be able to build Harbinger, but they couldn’t make it last forever.
Just practically forever.
That ‘practically’ was why humanity was here. If one didn't think about what the Processors did, one might even be proud that humans were allowed to maintain them. Jimmy shook his head while Edward – still glaring at Pix and rubbing the burn on his jacket, trying to sooth the self-healing fabric back into its spotless condition – stepped off the bus. That glare dragged Jimmy’s mind from the ancient and relatively unimportant past to...well, the right now.
The bus lurched into motion. Jimmy knew that glare meant only one thing: Edward was going make Pix's life a living hell next week, after her two day reprieve at Jimmy's house.
"I stole it." Pix spoke up.
Jimmy closed his eyes. "You made a new cycle's resolution!"
"It helps me calm down, okay!" She slid her hands out of her pockets, playing with the lighter in the open. "Also, it's a great way to ward off dumb, semi-incestuous foster brothers."
"Yeah, Richy and Edward are screwed up." Jimmy bit his lip. "That doesn’t mean you should keep it."
"No, I'm fine." Pix looked away. "Say, want to study more?"
"Suddenly, it seems rather unimportant, Pix I ca...I don't want you to get in any more trouble. I mean, who else will I play Cogs of Conflict with?" He smiled, weakly.
She didn't look back. The bus rounded the bend, shooting past the Processors and towards the Heights. The houses got bigger, the oxy-plants were hidden better, and the people started to dress with flashier colors. As the bus waited at a red light that seemed to last forever, Jimmy watched a girl walking her rollerbug, wearing a skirt so high that it reached hypothetical territory.
“Are you going to ask Shira Xao out for the prom?" Pix launched back into the conversation with the verbal equivalent of throwing a hunk of junk in a turbo vent.
Jimmy put his hand behind his head, laughing and choking at the same time, jerking his eyes away from the distracting girl. "Uh, well, uh-"
Jimmy tried to count the number of times he had laid up at night, thinking out the words to say in these situations. It was really easy to think of words when you were in bed, in the dark, with only the thrumming of the oxy-plant to keep you company. In real life...
In real life, Pix barrels over your thoughts.
"She's pretty!" Pix grinned. “Though, you will never get her to wear that.” She eyed the girl with the hypothetical skirt.
“Well, maybe after you get her drunk.”
"What?" She shoved his shoulder playfully.
The bus came to a stop at Jimmy's station and the door hissed open.
“All off for the Heights,” the bus driver called.
Pix got up and grabbed Jimmy's hand and jerked him out of his seat.
"Come on," She grinned. "Let's blow off some steam! This is Friday. The week can't possibly get any worse. That'd be against the law."
Jimmy and Pix walked...well, no that's a lie: Pix dragged and Jimmy followed meekly, grinning all the way. They walked past the first few houses on the street, then stopped at the last house on the left. In a neighborhood of fancy houses, this one stood out not only because it was a full story taller than the others, but also because it was almost always empty. Jimmy sometimes looked at the other houses, where wives and husbands and partners would live at home and their families would head out to do their jobs or go to school, but someone was always home. Someone was always there to enjoy the benefits of credit. Not the Leonite house. He looked at the empty windows and the closed and locked doors.
“Home sweet home.” Jimmy glanced at Pix. She grinned at him. Shadows surrounded them and the only thing visible were her eyes, glowing a bright pink. As one, they both looked up. .
An airship floated overhead. A tripod dangled from the balloon, the tip of each foot projecting into the center area between them, creating a fairly good hologram.
“Did you ever want to visit the Upper Levels, but could never handle long trips?” The spokesperson asked, his voice pitched to carry. “Did you always want to visit all of Harbinger, but now you're over the hill? Well, come on down to Quark's Matrix Game Central and experience them in the safety of your own living room!”
Jimmy snorted. “Didn't they get sued for lobotomizing someone?”
“Yeah. Guess they won.” Pix walked with him to the front door. Jimmy put his thumb to the scanner and the door opened. As expected, no one shouted to say 'good afternoon’.
Jimmy shook his head. Here he was, feeling sorry for himself when there were kids that didn’t have enough credit to eat anything but the free gruel dispensed at the local fabbers.
Still, the expected lack of human response made walking into the house a decidedly bittersweet experience. Once Jimmy and Pix were inside, the door closed with a clunk, cutting off the stench from outside.
"Welcome home, Master Leonite," the house A.I. said, turning the lights up till the entire first floor gleamed. The cleaners had polished every surface to a mirror shine, and as Mom and Dad were never home often enough to make a mess, Jimmy found the cleanliness...cloying.
"Did you know Carl-" Pix never would and possibly never could call her foster father 'Dad' "-had his house A.I programmed to a sexy female voice yesterday?"
"I'm surprised he hadn't done it earlier." Jimmy sighed, slowly. Pix shucked her jacket off her shoulders, her hand plucking her lighter from the jacket pocket and moving it to her pants pocket. Jimmy tried his best to not notice.
"All right!" Pix grinned, turning to him. "I challenge you to a duel!" She pointed her finger at him, antennas sparking. "In a game of your choice."
"I accept, madam." Jimmy spun on his heel to face his friend. "I choose Cogs of Conflict!"
Clunk, thump, clunk. Pix started and spun around, looking at the door. The pneumatic tube that delivered the taxes and the occasional letter from Dad had just spat a small, rectangular box into the mail cage.
Pix plodded over to the mail cage and picked up the box. She sniffed at it. Jimmy put on his best action hero voice and play shouted: "IT'S A BOMB!"
"It is not a bomb." Pix grinned, putting her ear to it. "It's got something hard inside. Something hard...and long."
Jimmy nodded, solemnly, his lips pursed. Then quivered, his eyes closing, fingers digging into his arms as he tried to hold back.
"Don't you dare say anything!" Pix wiggled a finger at him.
"I wasn't planning to!"
"It doesn't have a name on it." Pix frowned. "Think it's from your Dad?"
"One way to find out!"
They plopped down at chairs around the kitchen table, plastic scraping against metal. Pix set the box down right in the middle of the table. Jimmy leaned forward and Pix started to slowly open it up, as if the package might explode, joke or no joke.
Jimmy scooted backwards slightly. What if it was a bomb? Pix shot him a 'seriously?' look. The cardboard fell open, revealing...
A data crystal. Green, thin, and about the size of a man's hand. Its triangular nose rested in a metallic cup that rested on the table, keeping the crystal upright.
"Um, yay?" Jimmy frowned, prodding the crystal. "Why didn't Dad just E-mail us? I mean, if it is from Dad..."
"Well, it IS a fifty terabyte crystal, Jimmy. Maybe he wanted to send fifty terabytes worth of porn? Like, the really good stuff you have to pay money for, not the stuff you can trawl the mesh for?"
"Possibly! And by that, I mean, I wish. Hmm..." Jimmy snapped his fingers. "Maybe it's a late birthday present?"
"Maybe!" Pix stood up and grinned. "It all depends on what's inside. Now, stay tuned gentle viewers!" She grabbed her shirt and lifted it up, exposing her belly button and her data port. That, along with the bubblegum pink hair and antennas, marked her as being an E.L.F and not just a normal human with hair paint. The crystal clinked in and she started. "EE! Tickles!"
"What's in it?"
Pix closed her eyes. Then she yelped and grabbed at her data port. The port opened up and ejected the crystal. Pix reached for it, but it slipped from her fingers and fell to the ground, point first.
It sunk half an inch into the metal of the floor, the tip cutting metal like butter.
Jimmy gaped. Pix knelt down next to the table, glaring at the crystal.
“Shit,” Jimmy whispered, reaching down and grabbing the crystal. He jerked it out, leaving a circular hole in the floor. “Double shit! Why is this so sharp!?”
“U-Uh, military level data crystals have those things,” Pix said, tapping her chin. “It makes the data exchange faster...ow.” She rubbed her temples.
"Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine!" Pix sighed. "It's just its got defense programs that are a bit stronger than most sane people would use for porn." She bit her lip. "So, it's either from your Dad, who is paranoid, or someone sent it to the wrong place."
Jimmy nodded, using his foot to slide the small carpet under the table to cover the hole. That would work. Hopefully. "Should I get an ice pack?"
Pix gave him a 'look', with one of those eyebrow cocks that went almost up above her bangs.
"Or the virtual equivalent of an ice pack?"
Pix sat down, sighing. "Nah, I'll be fine. It was just some nasty code."
Jimmy bit his lip, all those fancy words scattering to the winds again. "Can I get you...food...things?"
Pix laughed. "I'm not going to collapse or faint or swoon or anything." She looked up at him, smiling, slightly. "So, up for video games?"
"What about the crystal?"
"It's not a bomb, and your mom won't get home till later." Pix shrugged. "I'm not going to spend my whole afternoon worrying about it when nothing is going to happen."
Jimmy considered that. "I like how you think, Pix." He grinned. "Cogs of Conflict?"
"Sounds like a plan to me!"
The brrrpt brrrpt of rapid fire machine guns rocked the foundation of the Leonite household and rattled the windows in their panes.
Jimmy mashed the fire button on his controller, his thumb whamming down like a jackhammer. He leaned over to the right, trying to get his character to go faster.
It didn't work.
His character, projected in the center of the room by the Leonite's almost embarrassingly high-quality holosystem, smashed into cover, but not before some of Pix's bullets took big bites out of his Health-O-Meter.
Jimmy grinned and slammed down fire button and Parlus Menix propped his ram-bow up and shot an exploding arrow into a bugeyed monster's face.
The bug eyed monster grabbed at the arrow a moment after Pix shouted, "You son of a-"
The monster exploded into a million little giblets, eyeballs and intestines flying every which-a-way, turning the walls around it scarlet.
"HA!" Jimmy stuck his tongue out at Pix. "Gotcha, Bugger!"
"I hate playing as Buggers." Pix grumbled. But her character respawned and she started running him around the close quarter’s combat zone. Jimmy stood up to get a better angle on the projection, biting his lip as his character pulled a grenade from his pocket.
"I see what you are doing there." Pix said, moving to her side of the room, her antennas sparking.
Jimmy scowled. She could see his character, and he couldn't see hers. Then her character popped up holding the Orbsatgun.
"Oh goddamn it!" Jimmy tapped frantically at his controller, but the Orbsatgun had targeted his character. A moment later, a really big hunk of tungsten dropped through the ceiling and turned his character into a smear of red paste and giblets. Two holographic eyeballs rolled along the ground, nerves flopping.
"Ew." Pix looked a bit grossed out. Jimmy felt more annoyed than anything else.
A car drove up to the front of the house, hover engines squealing ever so softly as the car settled on the driveway. Mom!
"Shit! Uh, quick, get Mako Cart!"
Pix started to rummage around for the Mako Cart game, while Jimmy opened up the projector, gingerly removed the Cogs of Conflict data crystal. He hid it behind the dresser, Pix slid the Mako Cart crystal in, and by the time Mom opened the front door. Jimmy and Pix sat down and looked like they were playing the goreless games Mom preferred them to play.
Jimmy stood up and turned around. "Guess who's home early." A hand stuck out around the small wall that made it impossible to see the front door from the game room. It held a baggy of chickoon nuggets, fresh and greasy from Orkz and Crake's. Mom stuck her head around the corner a moment later and smiled.
"Hey mom!" Jimmy grinned and she spread her arms. Jimmy hugged her and the smell of chickoon nuggets wafted Pix over.
"Hey Pix." Jimmy's Mom smiled as Jimmy stepped back. Pix glanced at the package, which still sat on the table.
"Heya Miz Leonite." Pix sat on the table and kicked her legs, the package and data crystal hidden behind her.
Mom smiled then walked past Jimmy and put down the chickoon nuggets. "There's some fries in there too." She sighed. "I need to get out of these shoes."
Her shoes were pointy and had high heels, with retro-rings around the middle of the heels. The rings glowed slightly and served no real purpose other than making them look, well, retro. Mom walked back to her room.
"So, how were your days?" Mom called from the back of the room.
"Fine," Jimmy and Pix said simultaneously.
"Where did the box come from?"
Mom walked back around the corner. She still wore her working blouse, and she still looked really tired, but her feet were bare and she smiled. The light of her smile made her eyes glitter slightly and she stopped looking like she was fifty. "So, you two made the bus?"
Jimmy nodded. Mom smiled, then looked at the box suggestively after it became clear they weren’t going to speak up.
"Oh yeah." Pix nodded. "That arrived earlier today"
"Yup. Don't know who it's from though," Jimmy said, hands behind his back.
Mom picked up the box. She opened it. Her eyes narrowed. "Hmm..." Then she closed it, and, without a word, she walked into the office. The door closed and locked.
Pix and Jimmy looked at one another. "What was that?" Pix muttered.
Jimmy shrugged. "Maybe it's work related."
Pix grinned. "I know one way to find out!"
"Oh, no-" But Pix was already dragging him to the door. Jimmy didn't resist too much cause, well, he was curious too. His ear went against the door and he closed his eyes, trying to get a good listen.
"...I think it's definitely from Kellengaurd..."
"It's serious, if it's that Howl thing..."
Long pause, muffled sounds.
"I'm worried that...yeah, we should..."
"...the kids...well, dinner's getting cold...tell James to..." Muffled.
Pix's brow furrowed. Jimmy felt a sudden alarm, as if he was moments away from-
The door opened and Mom gaped.
"Well," she said, her eyes narrowed. "I never knew I had two Peeping Toms in my house."
"Actually, we were just Listening Larry's-" Pix started.
"Shh!" She hissed, glaring at Pix. "Your parents would be ashamed."
Pix looked away, her hands behind her back. Jimmy bit his lip. Yeah, Mom was mad, but she had to know that cut deep. Real deep.
"And you, Jimmy, you're supposed to know better. Both of you go to the dinner table."
Jimmy practically ran away, Pix doing likewise.
Behind them, Mom looked, for one moment, afraid. Then she sighed and, serendipitously, opened a secret compartment in the office. She pulled out a compact, gleaming pistol, checked the ammo, cocked it, then slipped it into her back pocket.
Dinner felt colder than the outer darkness. Jimmy pushed his chickoons around with his fork. He looked up at Pix, then at his Mom.
“How was work?”
"It's still classified, dear." Mom didn't look up.
Pix mechanically jammed her chickoons into her mouth, her pink eyes burning a hole through the middle of the table. Metaphorically, she didn't actually have eyelasers, those were illegal. Jimmy just wanted this Friday to be over so he could Saturday with a fresh, clean slate.
Mom finished eating and walked over to the kitchen to clean her plate off. She then hurried from the kitchen to the office, focused on her work as usual. Once she was gone, Jimmy slid his hand across the table and squeezed Pix's. She looked at him, her eyes widening and Jimmy scrambled for the words that had been bouncing through his brain for the whole dinner.
"Uh, you know, it's not your fault. What happened. Parents thing. I mean." Jimmy mentally kicked himself. But...Pix turned her hand over and squeezed back.
"It's okay." She smiled.
Ten years ago, a friendless ten year old had met an equally friendless ten year old and decided they should be friends – despite one being a girl (and thus icky) and the other being a boy (and thus, icky.) When Jimmy had brought Pix over to his parents’ house, his parents had been happy to see him with someone his own age, and let them hang out. In fact, his parents had immediately started talking about playing in the park, running around and playing tag, and maybe even taking the two children to an amusement park.
Before his parents had finished with the grandiose plans, Jimmy and Pix had already started lounging around playing video games instead. And thus, a eight year tradition had been born: Jimmy at the computer, playing video games, with Pix sprawled on his bed – also playing video games. He leaned back and sighed slowly. "Jeeze, this weekend has gotten off to a killer start."
"Tell me about it."
Pix kicked her shoes off. Her hand went into her pocket. Jimmy ignored it.
"Sometimes, I wish...." Jimmy trailed off.
“Hmm?” Pix rolled her head back, to look at Jimmy upside down.
“I guess I just wish that life was better. Which just feels selfish, sitting next to my awesome computer.” He grinned and flipped the on switch. The screen flickered into existence, the projectors fixed to Jimmy's desk and walls whirred into slow, clunky life. The image had scan lines and flickered every once and a while, but Jimmy's parents had put it bluntly: Better screen or college.
Well, that might have been an exaggeration. Still, he made do with the hopes of a future position in PSAU, assuming said university didn't shoot his application down.
Pix herself was planning to head off to PSAU too, but she took a strangely cavalier position on the whole 'studying' thing. Glad to help Jimmy, not so glad to be helped by Jimmy. Well, Pix was good at three things. Being a good friend, surfing the mesh with her brain and being stubborn like an Urtish.
"I'm thinking." Pix kicked her feet as she talked. "That I'm going to move out."
Jimmy blinked. “Out of here?”
"No, out of Ted's house. You know, get my own place."
Jimmy furrowed his brow, starting up the mesh.
"It'll be cheap." Pix mused, half to herself. "Maybe near one of the big methane tubes. Those really drive the rent down."
"Yeah, because they smell like farts." Jimmy looked over his shoulder. "Listen, Pix, it's just one more semester. You can handle one more half of a cycle. After all, you've got me."
She grinned, but it was a weak one.
Jimmy, continuing tradition, started tabbing his way through several screens of mesh faff till he got to his favorite political discussion forum. "Hey, look, Dad's made the headlines again."
"Nasty habit he's got there." Pix scooted up to the edge of the bed and leaned on Jimmy's shoulder, her chin pressing against him. He glanced down at her and she grinned, tilting her head to poke his cheek with her antenna.
She stuck her tongue out at him, but relented as Jimmy started to read the article aloud, using his own version of summarization.
"New Talks At Council, bla, bla, bla...oh it's about the War."
"Oh boy!" Pix bounced on the bed, her enthusiasm dripping with classic brand sarcasm. "The war, the war! We're not all tired about that stupid thing, not a bit!"
"Whoa, Pix, sarcasm. Original." Jimmy shook his head. Pix stopped bouncing and stuck her tongue out again, for bouncing while sticking your tongue out is a recipe for disaster. "Now, it seems the Yetel and the Slor are, wouldn't you know it, shooting at each other. Again."
"Aaand Dad is one of the five people willing to actually call attention to it at the council. Human news says yay." A few clicks and a quick translation program later. "And Yetel news says boo. Humans told to butt out."
"They do keep telling us that."
"That they do." Jimmy spun his chair around and sighed. "Well, I guess, with all these talks he's too busy to...call and stuff. Again."
"Yeah. Definitely." Pix nodded. "You know, we could always trade Dads."
Jimmy drew his head back, slowly. "Nah, cause then I'd be related to Richy and Edward."
"Pix, don't get into telemarketing."
"Well, I do have one advantage." Pix raised her finger in the air. "I can call people, with my miiind!"
The phone rang.
Jimmy shot Pix a look and picked up the phone. "Who is it?"
"This is Jimmy."
Dad! His voice sounded gruff, deep, and more like what Jimmy wished he sounded like –less like what he actually sounded like.
Jimmy sat up and grinned. "No, this is Jimmy."
Dad laughed loud enough to make Jimmy pull his ear away from the phone. He hastily put it back when the laughing died down and a muffled voice came through again. "-ws it going?"
"Oh, good." Jimmy nodded and smiled, leaning back in his chair. He half noticed Pix looking at him with that look. That look that meant she was thinking about her Dad, her real one. He turned the chair slightly, suddenly embarrassed.
"Who is it?" Mom shouted from downstairs.
"Dad!" Jimmy shouted back at her, before putting the phone to his hear. "Yeah, it's been going great. Amazing. Well, actually, no. Terrible."
"Yeah, standard issues. Bullies. Jerks. Boring teachers. Mrs. Finch is still trying to get me to babysit her larvae."
Dad laughed, to which Jimmy could only roll his eyes again. The connection crackled and Mom cluttered into the conversation. "James?"
"Monica." Dad sounded like he was beaming. "Listen, I was sorry I couldn't call last week. Or the week before that, things have been a bit hectic up here. The..." He paused. "Say, Jimmy, is Pixel there?"
Jimmy blinked, surprised by the sudden change of topic. He could practically hear the gears shift in Dad's brain. "Yeah, why?"
"Why don't you two finally listen to me and do something physically active. Throw balls. Kick rocks. That sort of thing." Dad had that ever so slight harsh undertone that Jimmy recognized as: Do what I say. Now.
Jimmy blinked again, hurt welling up. Well, okay, he thought, Dad just wants to talk to Mom about something...
"Yeah, sure." He hung up.
"Happy reunion?" Pix asked.
"I don't know." Jimmy leaned back in his chair. "Dad was weird."
"Jimmy, your dad is the most applauded, famous and well respected diplomat humanity has had since Derek Stratton arranged peace between us and the Arachnids." Pix leaned forward. "Of course he's weird."
Jimmy shrugged, then turned to her. "I guess. Still, up for some Pazanga?"
Pix slept in the spare room, sprawled face first against a pile of pillows and blankets. As she said, mattresses are for sissies. Jimmy watched her for a moment, sighing softly as she snored like a jackhammer.
He shook himself when he realized his eyes had lingered on her bottom longer than he should be. "She's your best friend," he muttered, closing the door and staggering to his room, not quite as sleepy as Pix, but still feeling the call of his bed. "Not your girlfriend."
Oh, but what if. He smiled. There were enough 'what if' books to fill the half of Harbinger...all of it, if you counted movies too. And Harbinger was pretty big.
He sighed and rolled his head to the side. His eyes fell on the data crystal, scattering the what ifs out of his fore-brain and back into his subconscious. The data crystal had been sitting on his desk ever since Pix went to bed – keeping things in her data port for too long made her ‘itchy’ apparently.
Jimmy glanced over his shoulder, then closed the door behind him. He then plopped down at his chair, sighed again and looked at the crystal. His brain started to toss around ideas, more to distract himself from all those what ifs than anything else.
Maybe it wasn't a human crystal, maybe it was an alien crystal, maybe it wasn't designed to be read by an E.L.F. Cause, humans invented E.L.Fs, and thusly, humans had the most E.L.Fs. There were, like, two Urtish E.L.Fs, but there were millions of human ones, enough to have their own politicians.
So maybe, maybe it would work in his computer, which had a standard data drive, rather than an E.L.F one.
He picked it up, then opened his computer's data drive. The crystal slid smoothly in, clicking into place. The drive didn't whirr, but it did made a soft humming noise and a green light blipped on.
Jimmy bit his lip.
The computer bleeped, a harsh sound. The projection went out of focus, as if he were looking at it through a fish eye, and for a single microsecond, something flashed across his screen. It vanished, gone so fast Jimmy couldn't tell what it was. But it was a jolt, one that sent his chair back and into the bed with a clunk. He slowed his breathing through sheer force of will, looking at his screen, half expecting something horrible to crawl out of it and rip his face off or something.
But nothing horrible crawled. Rather; a small box opened up on the screen, filled with Xorquin style text that scrolled past. Once the text vanished, some indecipherable diagrams that looked like Harbinger's engines and a dotted line connecting said engines to a shuttle port on the side of Harbinger blipped past. Then, finally, a video popped up. The video was, unsurprisingly, of a Xorquin, who looked right at the camera, all three eyes intent on what he was saying.
The video wasn't translated, so it just sounded like a souped up rattler, like the kind babies used, and a snare drum going in unison, the fleshy sack that hung under the Xorquin's angular, lizardish face twitching as it rattled. He blinked in a left to right pattern. Jimmy vaguely remembered his dad saying that was like a Xorquin shrug.
Then the Xorquin's head exploded.
Jimmy jumped out of his chair as the film ended with a bust of static. His heart jackhammered in his chest. He stared at the screen. No, no, no, that had to be fake. Had to be. But, he thought, there was something horrifically real about the whole thing. The Xorquin's forehead had crumpled and his brains had busted out like he was a fruit being stepped on.
Jimmy gulped, his gorge rising at the back of his throat, adding the burning taste of vomit to the situation. He turned around. Did he smell something?
Yes he did. He turned back around and saw smoke rise from his computer. Now fear and disgust had a new companion: Anger.
"Ohh no no no no!" He yanked open the data drive and saw the smoke was coming from that. He looked around, grabbed a discarded shirt- and, by the Codes, he hoped it was non-conducting- and used it as a glove as he yanked the power cable out of the wall. The computer went dead and the data crystal plopped out of the drive, annoyingly unharmed.
Jimmy stood there, tasting vomit, smelling ozone and burnt plastic. He closed his eyes and groaned. This Friday really couldn't end too soon. His clock made a soft clicking noise. He looked at it.
It was midnight, and the end of the weirdest Friday of his life.
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