Chapter 4: Tinsel
Jimmy gave up talking after that. It was a bit self-defeating to try and say anything around a sock jammed in his mouth} and did nothing to ease the ache of his wrists, bound as they were by tight plastic. His eyes were covered by a scratchy fabric that smelled like it was out of some pre-historical adventure story, not modern self-cleaning stuff. With nothing to talk about and no way to talk and nothing to see, Jimmy had nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other.
The walk continued. It got cold. Then warmer. Then colder again. Then really cold. Jimmy shivered, his teeth trying to chatter around his gag. The person marching them along at gunpoint laughed at their misery. It was a kind of laugh Jimmy had heard a lot growing up, he could recognize it.
Suddenly, Pix made an indignant sound around her gag and Jimmy immediately strained against his cuffs. That did nothing but made his wrists sting and made the sock jammed in his mouth even more uncomfortable.
Eventually, Jimmy came to the conclusion that the walk would never end. His had jaw moved from cramping to painful to sheer agony. Then, finally, the blindfold was ripped off his head and the gag yanked from his mouth. He spluttered and worked his jaw, blinking his eyes. When his eyes adjusted to seeing again, he saw three gunrunners – no, four, he noticed Tlessia sitting on Anna’s shoulder. The only other one he recognized was Phil, with his trademark skeevy smile plastered on. Jimmy knew if his wrists weren't bound, he'd have tried to punch that grin right out of existence.
And then Phil would shoot him dead.
It scared him how certain he was of that.
Jimmy looked around for Pix, then saw she was behind him. The gag and blindfold came away from her and she spat on the ground.
"Bleck, ugh, your sock tastes like your face," she said, glaring at the sock, then at Phil.
Phil just sneered. He put his hand on Pix's butt. Pix strained at her handcuffs and Jimmy growled. Phil's hand came away, holding Pix's lighter.
"Nice lighter...cyborg." Phil smirked, taking out a c-stick and slipping it between his lips. He lit it and walked towards Anna, who edged slowly away from him. And now that Jimmy was done looking at the people he wanted to see in jail, he started looking at the room. Or, well, hallway.
There wasn't much to it. Two long walls, two doors, a ceiling and some lights that had been welded to the walls. The door behind Jimmy was unlocked. As he watched, Phil slammed the lock back closed with an audible clang.
"You okay?" Jimmy whispered to Pix. She shook her head, her face pale, her eyes tired. Jimmy had never seen Pix look so downhearted before. Even when Richy and Edward had been at their worst, tormenting her and Jimmy with a gleeful abandon, Pix still had that spark in the back of her eyes, the core of her personality that made her so fun to be around.
That spark looked dim, now. Dim and angry, smoldering like a coal. Uncomfortable memories...
Jimmy tried to smile. "Come on. We're almost-"
"Shh," Tlessia hissed. "Okay, you two, get over here."
Jimmy glared at the cat. The cat glared right back, then patted Anna's calf with her paw. "Come closer. Do it, or I'll have Phil manhandle you."
Pix stepped forward first. Jimmy followed, biting his lip. Tlessia looked from one to the other. Jimmy tried to read what she was thinking but...she was a cat. It was really hard to see anything other than adorable in her glittering eyes. Maybe that's why she exaggerated her anger and frustration, to break through that illusion via extremes.
Or maybe she was just annoying.
"Now, we're at a city called Tinsel, it's-"
"We know what Tinsel is." Jimmy frowned. "We've been to school, and I'm the son of a diplomat. "
"Well, fine, Mr. Son of Diplomat." Tlessia pointed her paw at him. "Tell me, what is Tinsel's main export?"
Jimmy shrugged. “Elevator use.”
Tlessia drew her head back. Jimmy hastened to explain. "That is, it's the only city actually built near one of the functional grav-shafts. So, it's like a trading port."
Tlessia stretched her neck up so that she was as close to his face as possible (which wasn't very close at all). Then she grinned, showing her fangs in a surprisingly expressive motion. "Exactly. So, that means you will know to not make any fuss at the terminal. Cause if you do, we will kill you."
Jimmy glanced at Pix, then at Tlessia. "But, wait-"
"If you make a fuss, you could bring the law down on our heads, and if you do that, you'll cost so much that killing you will actually make us a profit. And it'll make me feel better!" Tlessia's glare locked onto Jimmy's eyes. "And, so you know we're serious, I'm giving Phil the sniper rifle that will be aimed right at the back of your heads."
Jimmy kicked himself, mentally.
He had thought, a while ago, that this Sunday couldn't get any worse.
He needed to stop thinking that kind of thing.
The Urtish had evolved in the outdoors, lived in the outdoors, developed technology in the outdoors. They liked the outdoors, they liked nature. And Harbinger, fortunately, had rooms big enough for them to feel 'outdoors', even if they lacked the trees and forests of their homeworld. The grav-shafts of Tinsel happened to be one of these rooms. The ceiling sloped upwards and outwards, stopping about half a mile above the ground. Ten tubes, all about the width of a house, ran from the ceiling to the ground floor. Between those tubes sprawled Tinsel.
It had been well named. The buildings were a glittering pastel of paper thin metal that the Urtish spun and hung between intelligent poles of hardened plastics, which folded and interconnected in complex patterns. The structures did not differentiate themselves as much as the buildings Jimmy was used to – instead, tunnels and tubes connected spires of rippling fabric, distended and shifted by the weather patterns of the room and the hefty weight of the Urtish moving along them – shadows cast against the papery metal.
The center of Tinsel was dominated by a broad thoroughfare that led directly to a security terminal of hard, black metal that sat, spiderlike, at the center of the five grav-chutes. A throng of humans, Urtish, and other races in lesser degrees all headed towards that terminal, ready and eager to reach the upper levels of Harbinger.
And in the middle of that throng, Jimmy and Pix sat next to each other, trying to look completely unconcerned.
It was harder than it looked.
"At least we can talk," Pix said, keeping her face directly forward. The back of Jimmy's neck prickled as he imagined that psycho aiming a gun at him. By now, that sensation wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, and that was just a little bit depressing.
"Yeah," Jimmy said, reaching back to rub his neck. "Sorry about your lighter-"
"It’s okay," Pix said, her voice tight. After a long, long pause, watching the line around them mill about, and listening to the voices and the rippling of paper-metal buildings in the wind, Pix looked at him out of the corner of her pink eyes.
"Soooo, did you mean it?"
Oh great. Jimmy gulped, his dry throat suddenly seeming even dryer, somehow. After a bit of a struggle, he managed to speak. "Well...yeah."
The line shuffled forward as yet another person got through the interminable security check. Jimmy had never seen a group of people so thorough in their searching. And he'd been into the Council Chambers. Sure, he'd been a little kid, but he could still remember an Anachros checking him over...
That thought, though, lead to the serious problem of getting to somewhere where the security services might actually help. Tinsel wasn’t the Council Chambers, the Urtish weren’t the Anachros, and he was fairly sure that the gunrunners had their ways through this security. But what if there was a way they could trigger things?
No, wait, then Phil would…would…
Jimmy suddenly realized that Pix was saying things, the words going in one ear and out the other.
"Uh, yeah," Jimmy said, trying to catch up. She looked right at him.
"Then why did you wait till now!" She sounded annoyed. "I mean, leading me on and on like that."
"Listen, I'm sorry," Jimmy whispered. "But is now the time to talk about this?"
"Apparently! Apparently it takes me getting smacked by a crazy person to get you to..."
What had he missed when he'd been thinking of other things? His look of panic must have been way too obvious because Pix's eyes narrowed. "Wait, did you even listen to me earlier?"
"By the Architects!" Pix threw her hands up, her antennas sparking. "Jimmy, you...you...by the...I...thought you weren't...god I hate you sometimes!"
"I-" Jimmy's words clogged. Come on, say something! Something funny, something witty, charming, something to make her love you back. Just like every single other time he tried to think of something, his brain failed. But unlike the other times, he was already falling.
"Just drop it, okay?" She looked away from him, back tight.
What was she thinking? Was she as terrified as he was of losing what they had?
"So." She forced herself to sound normal. Normalish. "How long's the line?"
"Uh, long." Jimmy glanced back over his shoulder. Did he see the glint of a scope in the buildings around and above and behind him? Unlikely, as the whole rippling paper-metal effect created a wild profusion of sparkles and glints. "Listen, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't wait for a better time, I'm sorry I was so cowardly that I didn't say this sooner...I'm sorry I wasn't listening..." He bit his lip. "Um, w-what was the question."
"It wasn't a question," Pix said. "It was..." She trailed off.
Jimmy was just about to prompt her before her expression registered in his brain: Wide eyes, jaw dropping in shock. Jimmy turned around, to see what she was looking at.
The Xorquin was in the line right next to theirs, wearing his rumpled brown hat. Tall as ever, one of his arms had a dull white bandage wrapped around his bicep. All three eyes glared right into Jimmy, like laser beams.
Jimmy's mouth dried up like a Slor shoved into a fusion reactor. He half expected the Xorquin to whip out a few machine guns and blow him and Pix away, right there in line.
The Xorquin slid his hand toward his pocket. He froze, the motion incomplete. Jimmy blinked, then followed the Xorquin's eyes, to the red dot glowing on the back of the Xorquin’s hand. The dot whipped around, then settled on Jimmy's heart. Modern, civilian firearms had loads of smart systems designed to make them safer, while military firearms used a bunch of advanced optics and targeting systems that made laser dot sights a primitive affectation…which did nothing to make the little red dot – ingrained over millennium of social history – any less intimidating.
The red dot swept back to the Xorquin’s hand, then to his chest. The meaning seemed pretty clear to Jimmy. He could almost hear Phil’s voice in his ear: I can shoot anyone I want here, so why don’t we all keep moving?
"Okay," Jimmy said. “Maybe starting anything here is a bad idea, Mr. Xorquin.”
Pix’s hand closed tight around his, squeezing hard enough he felt his knuckles pop slightly. Jimmy didn’t really care.
The Xorquin took the advice as passively as he took anything from being shot at to being shot. What thoughts were going on behind that thing's forehead? His line started to shuffle forward faster than Jimmy's line, and soon the Xorquin was gone. For now.
"Okay," Jimmy turned to Pix, then shuffled sideways with their line, having to abandon their seats in the motion. "Um, he's gone. That’s good! We’re safer!"
"Jimmy, Phil is aiming at the back of your head."
Jimmy nodded. "Just ignore it."
"How can I!?"
"Think of it like Richy!" he suggested. Pix giggled, just this side of hysteric. Jimmy felt a tickle at the back of his neck. The dot. He tried to distract himself by looking at Pix. First he looked at her cheek. He noticed how cheek became ear and how her ear had a swirling pattern of cartilage and this cute little earlobe...
The tickle faded and Jimmy realized that he really could ignore a gun aimed at his head sometimes.
"We need to..." Jimmy whispered. Pix looked at him, a flash of annoyance on her face.
Jimmy choked slightly.
"Get back to the whole talk thing later," Jimmy said, feeling a lump in his throat. He had seen Pix annoyed, and he had seen Pix annoyed at him before. So why did it feel worse now? Well, firstly, this went beyond 'annoyance', and, well, because he, with his big mouth, had changed their relationship. It was like yanking the rug out from under the world.
"Yeah. Later. When we don't have guns aimed at us." Pix said. She looked down. "Jimmy, I..."
The line shuffled forward. Jimmy's hands slipped into his pockets, where they clenched into fists. "Yeah?"
"I want to go home." Pix's voice was soft.
Jimmy looked up. A tear slid down Pix's cheek and she looked so lovely, backlit by the slightly too white sunlamp that Urtish used, surrounded by bored looking aliens. Jimmy's heart stopped.
Who hugged first? Jimmy didn't know. First, they were standing apart. Then they were together. Pix rubbed her face against his cheek and Jimmy whetted her pink hair with his own tears. All the awkwardness, all the questions, all the unknowns. Forgotten for now.
The line eventually shuffled Jimmy and Pix into the spotlight, so to speak. An Urtish customs worker, looking deceptively large and menacing even though he barely came up to Jimmy's chin, walked up to the two of them. The Urtish’s look – bulging shoulder muscles, broad arms, fingers the size of sausages, and tusks that thrust out and curved up under their forelip, all of it worked to make the shorter race seem taller and more intimidating. The customs officer grunted, looking them over, then shoved a blunt metal probe at Jimmy's nose. Jimmy flinched and the Urtish growled something.
A moment later, a translator built into a bracelet stretched tight around the Urtish's huge wrist bleeped out, "Hold still, human."
Jimmy held still. The probe went back to his face and, faster than Jimmy could think, two wires slammed up his nose. He jerked, feeling them worm their way down his throat, then back up. He coughed and gagged as the probe was jerked away.
"You could have just used my mouth!" He gasped/coughed. From the amount of attention the Urtish paid him, he might as well saved his breath.
The Urtish then ran a blipping doobober over Jimmy's body. It never flashed red or anything, nor did it bleep REALLY loud. Just soft bleeping. The Urtish didn't say anything, but from half remembered courses on alien cultures, Jimmy didn't think the Urtish looked that angry or annoyed. Hopefully. Another scanner, this time looking alarmingly like a sex toy, waved over Jimmy's hair.
And then they were through. Jimmy looked at Pix, who was still rubbing her nose. They walked forward towards the waiting area set up around one of the many elevators. There was the Xorquin, standing there, staring right at them.
And there, sitting a bit to the left of the Xorquin, reading a newspaper, was Anna. Her tail twitched under her chair, slipping through the obnoxious hole most public chairs had between the backrest and the seat.
She stood up, folded her paper up, and walked over to Jimmy and Pix. She looked from one to the other. After deciding that everything was fine, she jerked her head towards the chairs. Pix pointed at the Xorquin. Anna glanced over.
Her eyes narrowed. The Xorquin stared at her, with that odd, unblinking look he had.
"Jimmy," Pix's voice quivered, like something in her was stirring. Jimmy looked at her, heart jerking up a bit. She motioned with her head towards...towards a security station! It may have been surrounded by metal-paper and crafted in the shape of a polyhedron, but it had the universal symbols for police and safety splayed over it.
"Phil?" Jimmy looked back, to see if he could see that glint – but the glittering of the Urtish city obscured his view.
Pix shrugged. "Think he can shoot us through the crowds and stuff?" she whispered.
"Good point." Jimmy glanced at Anna and the Xorquin, who were sizing one another up. Anna held her hand up.
"Don't move," Anna said. Jimmy nodded.
Then he ran. His hand grabbed Pix's elbow, but she was already running too. He grinned, on the inside, then started panicking, because when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Anna and the Xorquin unanimously decide they could both stop sizing each other up, just so long as their quarry didn't get away.
Out of the corner of Jimmy’s eye, he saw people looking right at them. Did anyone else think it was weird that two teenagers were running through a security terminal.
Yes, someone did.
"Now, hold on-" someone shouted, someone human, stepping out of the line as if to stop them.
Pix got to the security terminal. She ducked inside, then slammed her fist onto a bright blue button marked with the alarm symbol. A green light flashed above the button and Pix grinned at Jimmy before the Xorquin grabbed her. Anna grabbed Jimmy.
"Great," Anna muttered. "That way!" She pointed with one hand, her other arm looping around Jimmy's neck. He couldn't breathe.
The Xorquin saw whatever Anna was pointing at and they both moved off. Jimmy tried to drag his feet, but Anna hoisted him up and over her shoulder. It was rather undignified. And almost impossible to breathe. Her shoulder dug into Jimmy's chest and he saw a strange, disjointed view of the Urtish security running up, looking as confused as anyone would.
Then he was in a hallway – a Harbinger corridor, not an Urtish construction. The Xorquin kicked the door closed. Where was Pix? There she was, held under one arm like a notebook or something. "Put me down!" she shouted. "Put me down you scaly-"
The corridor, details indistinct, split off. Jimmy saw the Xorquin split off, heading down a different corridor.
"Pix!" he shouted. "PIX!"
Anna kept running.
Anna set Jimmy down. Jimmy shouted inarticulately and took a swing at her. She batted the swing aside, used the momentum to flip Jimmy around, and slammed her fist into the small of his back. Jimmy hit the metal floor chin first. He looked at the floor, cross-eyed, and then he stood up, shaking himself and turned around. Anna glared at him, arms crossed over her chest.
Jimmy didn't swing at her, his jaw still aching, his back screaming bloody murder. "Okay, listen, you want to make money off of me, right."
"You don't want to make money off me."
Anna sighed, slowly. "No."
"Okay. Then let me go."
Jimmy looked at the ceiling. Where were they, anyway? He knew they had taken at least two lefts, but a lot of the run had been one big blur. He looked back down. Where was Pix?
"Okay, we're going to have to talk. So drop your goddamn monosyllabic routine and-"
Anna glared at him. Jimmy glared right back, pointedly forgetting she was taller, stronger, armed and better trained than he was.
"Okay," Jimmy said, softly. "You've already said you don't like taking hostages."
Anna shrugged. Jimmy thought he saw something in her eyes. He wasn't sure what, but it was something. Okay, what would Dad do? He'd keep pushing, shoving, arguing and bullying till he got his way. Go Dad.
"So, do you want me as a hostage, or as a willing partner?" Jimmy stood up straight, shocked at how clear his brain was working. Aim a gun at him, he panics. Threaten Pix...everything became clear, but so much scarier. "See, if you let Pix get carried off by that Xorquin, I will fight you every inch of the way. Get her back, and I'll help you ransom me off."
Anna narrowed her eyes.
"Listen, Anna...Pix...I love her. Okay!" A big lump rose in his throat. He looked at Anna's impassive face, his heart stopping.
"Oh damn it," Anna muttered, putting her hand on her forehead. "Do you have any idea where the Xorquin might have been taking her? Or why?"
Jimmy's heart beat again. Who knew life and death circumstances could stop and start breathing, heart rate, blinking, saliva and so on.
"Well," Jimmy said, trying to not look relived. He tried and failed, but Anna didn't call him on it. "It all started when we found this Data crystal..."
Anna nodded once he was done. "He'll be heading out, to the Far Dark."
"That's bad, right?"
She nodded again. "Yeah. If you don't want to be found, then you head to the Dark."
Jimmy closed his eyes. He could see a million issues with his plan. Maybe he should just give up...
No, never give up. If he gave up, then he'd have to think Pix was gone forever. Gone and...
No. No. No.
"Okay, we have to head for the Dark, then."
Anna brought her eyebrows up and looked at him. Jimmy's forced optimism crumpled like tissue paper. He looked down. "Okay, what can we do then?"
Anna sighed, slowly. "Nothing."
Jimmy stopped. He looked at his feet. And then, like a spark popping between his eyes, a thought exploded in his mind. He jerked his head back up, grinning like an idiot. "Do...you have a phone?"
Anna looked confused. Pix didn’t have time for that. Jimmy stepped forward, holding his hand out. "Do you!?"
"Uh-" Anna pulled out a small black phone. Jimmy grabbed it, flipped it open and closed his eyes. Memories floated around his head.
"Pix, stay out of telemarketing."
"Yes, but I have one advantage…”
"I can dial phones with my mind," Jimmy finished out loud. Anna looked at the ceiling, crossing her arms over her chest. Jimmy could practically read her mind. It went something along the lines of 'why do all rich hostages have to be insane?'
Jimmy licked his lips, drew in a deep breath, then pressed eight numbers on the phone. He selected the texting option. Then, slowly, carefully, his thumbs typed out:
Pixie: Who is this?
A.Sinclare: Jimmy! Pix, are you okay?
Pixie: Jimmy! <3!!!
A.Sinclare: Listen, Pix, we're coming for you
Pixie: Okay, how?
Jimmy closed his eyes and looked at the ceiling. Shit, that was the question.
A.Sinclare: Are you blindfolded?
Pixie: Yup. And handcuffed. MFer.
A.Sinclare: Are you cold?
Pixie: Well, it's a bit chilly.
Jimmy sighed. "She might be going to the Dark, I can't tell."
He squawked when Anna plucked the phone from his hands. "Hey!"
She turned the phone around, shot a 'look' at him, then rummaged around in her jacket pockets. She had a lot of those, and after a few moments rummaging, she pulled out a doobobber. Well, it looked like a small holographic projector with two batteries duct taped to the side. A mini-computer was welded under the projector and a dangling cable strung out from under the casing of the mini-computer.
It looked like something McGuffin would build.
Anna plugged the cable into the phone, tapped a button on the mini-computer, and a fuzzy, three dimensional maze. In the center of the glittering greenish maze was a glowing blue-white dot, and a few corridors away from that dot was a red dot – which flashed and winked invitingly. It didn't move for a few moments, then started – tracking through corridors in quick, jagged motions. Anna handed the phone to Jimmy.
Pixie: moving, J. typing hard.
A.Sinclare: Don't focus on typing. We'll find you.
Pixie: actually idea I
The red dot vanished and a image showed up on the phone. It said: Pixie has disconnected.
The plastic click of the phone closing sounded painfully final to Jimmy's ears.
Anna sighed. "Let's go."
She started jogging down the corridor, heading for the nearest right turn, shoving the apparatus back into one of her infinitely deep jacket pockets.
Jimmy hurried after her. "Okay, what do-"
"Shh!" She hissed, pausing at the corner and glancing around it. She cocked her head...and Jimmy heard the faint sound of motion.
Anna glanced at him, then jerked her head in the direction of that sound.
They were two corridors closer when the sound of a SNAP and a "ARGH!" came. That snap had been metallic and the argh came from Pix!
There she was, running down the corridor, her arms still tied behind her back. Something was strange about her head, but Jimmy didn't have time to notice that. He shouted, hand waving: "This way!"
Anna drew a cheapo revolver and started to pop off shots. The shots made weird sploch noises rather than the normal bang Jimmy was used to hearing from guns. Six green globs slapped against the walls, marking off a circle around the middle of the corridor. One after the other, the globs stared to grow, till most of the corridor was covered with the greenish guck, dribbling and dripping from the ceiling. Like a giant's tissue after a bad cold. The distinct smell of acid wafted through the corridor. Jimmy realized, quite suddenly, that he didn’t want to see anything that wasn’t build out of Harbinger metal touch that green goop.
"Now run," Anna said.
The Xorquin, stuck on the other end of all the green, glared at them as they rushed away.
"By the...oh...I'm going to kill that son of a bitch!"
"It doesn't hurt as much as it looks," Pix said, her voice brave. Jimmy carefully ran his fingers along her hairline, face set with worry. He felt the smooth base of her left antenna, then a jagged edge-
"I'm going to kill him!" He growled, softly, wincing as his finger caught on a jagged bit of metal. "He just sapped them off!?"
Pix nodded. Jimmy slid his hand down to her cheek...put her face up. She looked into his eyes. She blurred, suddenly and Jimmy blinked away the tears, sniffling. "I was so worried." Talking around the boulder that sat on his chest was hard. It was worth it. Pix put her hand on his wrist, stroking his skin. Jimmy slid his palm down...shivered.
Her skin was so smooth.
Pix slid forward and Jimmy noticed a line of red on her cheek. Blood from his pointer finger, sliced open on the jagged end of her broken antenna. His fingers brushed over her ear, then slid into the back of her hair. She moved forward, pushing forward with her back foot. Breath hot.
Her nose bumped into his nose. Pix flinched back and Jimmy's arm dropped.
She turned a bright red. "Uh, what..." She looked and saw his bleeding finger. "Ah! Your finger."
"S'nothing," Jimmy muttered.
But the moment was broken. A bumped nose, the electric feeling of her skin, and that look in her eyes...all jumbled up...
Jimmy had no idea how he managed to stand still with all these thoughts tumbling through his head. Say you love her. Tell her how the thought of her being kidnapped or worse, how it had made his heart stop working, made it hard to breathe. Say SOMETHING!
Pix, being Pix, didn't move an inch. She just turned her head and glared at Anna. "Ahem yourself, we're talking here."
Anna sighed and pointed at her own wrist. She didn't actually have a watch, but the meaning was clear. Time.
Pix sighed. Anna turned back around and started walking slowly.
"I guess we'd bet-"
Pix grabbed the front of his shirt, turned her head this time, and slammed her lips into his. Jimmy's teeth bumped against his lips and her tongue slid into his mouth. His eyes went very wide, even as hers went very closed.
Five seconds and ten eternities later, she let him go and stepped back. She was panting, face flushed. Her left eye opened. Jimmy stared at her.
"Okay," she said. "Iwasdumbforbeingmadandumlet'sneverdothatagain."
Jimmy nodded, unable to speak. Pix nodded back at him, her two front teeth hooked over her bottom lip.
"Could...you...say that again slower?" Jimmy asked. Pix opened her mouth.
"Right." Pix took Jimmy's hand and dragged him after her.
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