Chapter Nine: Tortuga
The Urtish, whose name was Zed apparently, shoved Jimmy and Pix into the box before squeezing in after them, leaving his chair-gun on the ground outside of the box. The door closed and everything went dark.
"So, uh, Zed...it's kinda cramped in here," Pix said after a few moments of silence.
"I know, it is." Zed didn't sound particularly annoyed to be jammed in up close to two aliens he had never met before.
"Wait, aren't you going to tell us to shut up?" Pix asked.
"Nope. In fact, I'd love to hear more about you, mostly so I know how much you're worth when I sell you."
"Great." Pix nodded, her pink eyes bobbling up and down in the darkness. "Greeeat. We get to be sold into slavery in a box smaller than my closet!"
“Well, to be fair...” The Urtish said, then paused. He kept pausing. “Uh, wait, sorry, my timing is-”
The floor of the blue box dropped out from under them. Well, it didn't really drop, but rather dropped a few inches than started to click downwards, as if each click was a ratchet not quite engaging. Jimmy put his hand on the wall and felt it sliding against his palm – they were moving down a shaft. The clicking sound continued and the elevator continued to go down, and Pix managed to slid around the Urtish – apologizing softly every few seconds – until she stood beside Jimmy and could hold his hand. He smiled at her, even if it was too dark for her to see.
After what felt like forever, the elevator hit the ground with a loud CLANG!
Zed barely staggered, but Jimmy almost took Pix down. Zed grinned at the two of them as they struggled to stay afoot – Jimmy could tell, because Zed had used bioluminescent toothpaste recently, though it was only visible in the darkness of the elevator.
The door opened and light bust into the chamber, blinding Jimmy and Pix for a moment.
"Welcome to Tortuga!"
“One second!” Jimmy siad, holding up his hand, still rubbing his eyes.
Zed sighed, shook his head, and muttered something that his translator helpfully picked up and piped out at full volume: “Pansy ass human eyes.”
Tortuga seemed instantly familiar to Jimmy. It sat in a cavernous room that was almost the exact shape and layout of the elevator junction that they had taken into the Armory. Where Tinsel and Tortuga wildly diverged was what had been crammed into the place. Buildings of every species and architectural style were smashed together with gleeful disregard for safety or urban planning. Graffiti was splashed on every wall and sidewalk. There were human neons, Yetel pictographs that blazed in infrared and UV light that Jimmy knew would blind him if he looked at them too long, Slor scentdibbles, and freaking Basilisk hacks that skirted the edge between provocative street art and potential war crime.
It was beautiful. But it was also dangerous.
Jimmy rubbed at his eyes, and looked at Pix, who was shaking her head. “Have these people ever heard of restraint?”
“No,” Jimmy said, though he was just guessing.
"That's just about right," Zed said, slapping him on the back. "Oh, look who's come down to visit."
Jimmy and Pix looked up, even though Pix's eyes were kept closed. "Who is it?" She whispered.
"I'm guessing," Jimmy bit his lip.
"That's my mom's jacket," Edna spoke with a prim, almost pinched voice. She looked nothing like anything like Jimmy expected. She was thin as a reed, had a pinched, almost ugly face that made her look closer to thirty than twenty despite her being Anna's daughter – though, the relationship didn't seem to be a blood relation, as she had no tail. She wore a simple, body-hugging jumpsuit that had been covered with hanging straps and catches that themselves were wrapped around a profusion of useful gadgets and tools. The most disconcerting thing was that she looked like she could and would kill you if you twitched in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, or with the wrong intent. Or, even, the right intent.
The Yetel soldiers and the Xorquin had been too alien for facial expressions to matter. But this girl was human through and through. She looked like she was half a hat from shooting Jimmy right there. He didn't see any guns in her sprawl of tools, but the two burly men behind her looked more than willing to use the shredder rifles they had strapped onto their shoulder.
"Uh, yeah," Jimmy took it off in a hurry and held it out to Edna. "It was the only thing of her's we could bring that didn't get stolen."
Edna bit her lip. Her expression softened, and for a moment, her ugly face reworked itself to look about Jimmy's age – a strange changing of lines, the set of her jaw, and frownlines smoothing away. Then, the hardness flowed back up like a sewer tide and she took the jacket. She looked at it, sighed, then handed it back.
"Thank you," she said, almost too soft to hear. "I don't want it."
Jimmy took the jacket back and slipped it back on. It was his jacket now. And it was comfortable like no one's business on top of that. He thrust his hands into his pockets as Zed spoke somewhat plaintively. "They owe me at least-"
Edna threw him a bag of coins. "Zed, make sure that Xorquin doesn't get in."
Zed, who was busy gaping at the bag he had caught, nodded. "Y-yeah. He won't get past me."
He turned around and hustled back into the blue box elevator. The elevator went up and Jimmy turned back to Edna. There was a moment of silence – interrupted only by the crowds of Tortuga doing their own thing – they acted as if two burly men with shredder rifles on their shoulders were nothing much of a much. Of course, Jimmy wasn't entirely sure why he should react like they were anything much of a much, considering how much he had to deal with.
"Well." Pix broke the silence. "We made it."
She reached down and tugged her shirt up, revealing her data port. "Here's the data. Now, we're not going to move," she glanced at the two men with guns. "till we figure out terms."
"What's going to stop me?" Edna asked.
"Well, this, this is going to stop you." Pix grinned. "I can wipe every bit of data if you shoot us, and you'll have to shoot us to get us to do anything we don't want to do." She raised her eyebrows up. Jimmy worked on keeping his face as blank as humanly possible – Pix was bluffing people with guns. If they called the bluff – they'd find out that Pix didn't and couldn't interface with the crystal.
Edna looked like she wanted to kill them again.
"Hey, mowing us down gets you nothing. And all we need is some protection. Shouldn't be that hard, right?"
"Fine!" Edna thrust her hand out. "You have a deal!"
Pix glanced at Jimmy. He gestured with his head. Take it, he tried to say with his eyes. Pix grinned, and took the hand that was offered.
They both squeezed as hard as they could.
Edna winced. But Pix let go first, rubbing her hand. "I've got reinforced bones. Hard to break."
"I killed more people by the time I was twelve than you have in your life."
Pix managed, somehow, to look nonchalant, but her eyes whirred as she clamped her iris down. After a moment, she said, "Well, what now?"
"Now? Now we go to our base, pay off whoever we need to pay off, then decrypt the information." Edna sighed. "But first, is there anything you need? Food?"
The city of Tortuga writhed with life. People were constantly doing things, twitching, bouncing, running to and fro. Xorquin clattered at one another, Urtish smoked their heads off, Tette<click><click>...sat there, but they were probably thinking really really loudly. Slor and Yetel that seemed to have forgotten, or were just ignoring, the war outside bargained and traded. Robots hummed in the sky, and the few E.L.Fs that were mixed among the profusion of aliens hawked their services from virtual street corners - Holograms and augmented realities shaped storefronts, turning cubical-sized physical locations into sprawling buildings, like dimensions were unfolding before your eyes – dimensions full of drugs and sex and bootleg guns.
Edna and her bodyguards flowed through the crowd like water through more water.
And Jimmy really needed to work on his similes.
Still, all the scrambling Jimmy and Pix had to do to keep up with Edna proved to be worth it: Soon, she led them to a restaurant built out of sheet metal with smart cloth strung between the gaps. The front door had a sign painted in glowing colors: BBQ. The scent that wafted from the deliberately less than perfect seals around the walls and cloth was, well, it sure beat the sewage out of protein bars. Jimmy's mouth filled with spit and his stomach growled. Pix started to giggle, then she sniffed loudly, and made a face.
“Like what you smell?" Edna cocked an eyebrow.
"Very yes." Jimmy grinned. Pix shrugged and shook her head at the same time.
"I dunno, smells to spicy to me."
"Oh, Pix, nothing can be too spicy, didn't you know that?” Jimmy asked. Pix stuck her tongue out at him.
One of the body guards, at a gesture from Edna, opened the door and ushered them inside. The room was dark and the smell was even stronger. Various people, mostly displaced humans, were eating there. From what Jimmy could see, the meat was slicked with a thick, delicious, and very brightly glowing sauce – it made the tables shimmer like embers in the rather darkly lit place.
Edna, Pix and Jimmy were seated by a pleasant E.L.F. waitress with a really big grin and three menus tucked under one armpit. The bodyguards sat at a different table. The waitress handed out the menus, and Pix got to flipping with a will. Jimmy chose a salad he knew he'd enjoy, then glanced at Edna, who was watching them both.
"Okay," she said, softly. "This place is pretty safe for talking, but Jack might have gotten a few bugs in here."
She slid out a small circle of metal and plastic with a dome on-top. Her thumb pressed down on the dome and it lit up bright red.
"This'll make sure any listening devices at this table won't work. Our guards-"
The body guards started to talk loudly about the latest football game. Their table was close enough that the conversation overlapped and covered their whispers.
Jimmy nodded. Clever. Cleverish, at the very least. He looked at Pix, and saw that she was still looking through the menu.
"The first question I have is: Can you translate anything on the data crystal into stuff we can understand? Wait, no, my actual first question is: Who is Jack?" Jimmy asked.
"If it's in Xorquin, we can translate it. And he's a rival crime lord, no need for you to worry about it."
"Well, there is something else." Jimmy glanced at Pix. "What did you call that stuff? That security stuff?"
"I called it security stuff." Pix grinned up at him, closing the menu with a snap. "The accurate name would be hardware scrambling programs. They screw up the power allotment of whatever you plug it in. Makes it short itself out. That's why it hurt when I tried to log into it. Not that I need to log into it to delete the files. And why it melted his computer." She jerked her thumb at Jimmy.
Edna nodded. "We can handle that but first, food." She whistled and the waitress came back, brushing a flop of green hair away from her eye. "I'll have the Brahman ribs. Double sauce. And a beer."
The waitress didn't even ask for an ID.
"Do you have root beer?" Jimmy's ears burned and he looked down.
"Beer, got it." The waitress grinned. "What do you want with that?"
"Salad." Edna broke in. "He was looking at salads."
"Salad?" The waitress shook her head. "Young men need meat. I'll get you some ribs."
"And you'll have?" The waitress looked at Pix.
"Steak. Rare. Not bloody or anything. But rare. And I'll take a beer too."
The waitress walked off, leaving Jimmy feeling profoundly out of his depth. He looked at Pix, who winked at him.
"Pix," he whispered, leaning in next to her. "We're underage."
"So?" She grinned. "I drink."
Jimmy's blinked. "You what?"
"Oh, not to excess, and definitely when I'm not driving. Which is easy, cause I don't own a car."
"You drink!?" Jimmy gulped, his throat suddenly dry. Why did this feel so creepy? Other kids drank, and Jimmy knew intellectually that drinking a bit of alcohol before you were twenty-eight wouldn't turn you into a horrible layabout drunkard. But, still...it felt so weird, to freak out about that when he had been dealing with guns and murderers and criminals.
But then again, he expected that stuff to shock him. But drinking and being underaged slipped back his growing jaded shell and stabbed him right in the back, because it was something close to normal.
Pix interrupted his inner thoughts. "What? You don't drink?"
"Well, no! And where did you get the drinks anyway?"
She snorted. "It's not like it's Red Sand or Dust or anything, Jimmy. I just nicked some of Richy's secret stash."
The waitress came back with some tall, frosty drinks. Jimmy looked at it. Pix knocked her dink back and hiccuped. Jimmy sighed. Edna sipped her beer, taking it slower. Jimmy scowled at her, then tried to drink a whole cup of beer at once, without ever having tasted it before.
Ow. That had been a mistake.
Pix snorted and slapped him on the back. He grinned at her. "I feel warm."
"That will happen."
"You're looking prettier by the moment."
"Don't you know you're not supposed to judge people by their looks?" Pix asked.
Jimmy sipped again, knowing to go slower this time. "You're also getting smarter by the moment."
"That's better." Pix poked him in the nose.
Edna glared at them. Jimmy shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. It had been almost two days since her mother's death. It had to be tearing at her insides. Jimmy felt rotten for his good mood. He shifted in his seat and coughed.
"So, uh." He bit his lip. "Are...your mom was a-"
"No, stop." Edna looked up at him. "I can't feel anything right now. We're in the middle of a tense situation, and I'm young and I'm a girl. This gang isn't a bunch of enlightened, modern people." Her eyes went flinty hard. "I can't let them see weakness."
"Ah." Jimmy felt cold despite the beer. He sipped again. "Those body guards, are they loyal?"
"As loyal as anyone can be in this stupid city." Edna grumbled. She played with one of their bottle caps, using her fingers to scoot it around. Jimmy felt a weight on his shoulder. Pix's head.
"Not very, eh?" Pix sighed. The waitress came back with the ribs and steak. Jimmy had to admit it smelled really good. And, heck, Edna was paying. Might as well enjoy the steak. It was not the best steak he had ever eaten but it wasn't the worst. Good. Pretty good even. Pix made soft mumbling sounds as she ate her.
"No, not very." Edna picked the conversation up again with ease. "Now, once this meal is done, we are going to make it to HQ. There, we can translate for you, and then we can dicker over how much this is worth us. Who knows-" Edna shrugged. "You two might be good business partners in the future, if you play things smart and don't screw up what leverage you have."
"You've got to be insane." Jimmy leaned forward. "We're not criminals."
"Fine." Edna shrugged. "But knowing I'll get more use out of you is one more reason why I should not just sell the info and then ransom you off."
Jimmy scowled. Pix sighed, sitting up. She said one word that summed up everything Jimmy thought.
The super computer in Edna's hands was less impressive looking than Jimmy had hoped for. It looked like several other computers that had all been stitched together. But, as Pix whisper-explained to him, the older junk acted like a failsafe. So, if the Counter-Defense Protocols failed and the crystal tried to short out the machine, the old junk would die rather than the new and shiney stuff. If the CDP did work, then the old stuff would wire the info to the new stuff and it would get cracking. At least...he thought that was the translation of what she had excitedly whispered. She had said “quantum” a lot, though. There was only one question that Jimmy had.
“Won't Edna realized you bluffed her?”
Pix blinked, then shrugged, and mimed crossing her fingers: I don't know, she seemed to say. Lets hope not!
Jimmy crossed his fingers. Barring treachery, this was their ticket home. And, in case of treachery, he was ready to...
To sign up with Edna, if she either called their bluff or just demanded it either-way. He knew Pix wanted to run. To try something heroic and brave and futile. Before Friday, Jimmy knew he if he was in a life or death situation, he'd want to run and try things that were brave and futile and heroic. Before Friday, he hadn't kissed a girl. He hadn't drunk beer or known just how amazing it was to...
Yes, to love someone. To be near someone who loved you for your flaws and your qualities. To be held. And before Friday, he hadn't known how alarmingly final death was, how absolutely fast it could happen.
He didn't want to lose that. So, Architects help him, he was going to do anything to live.
He looked at Pix. She connected her eyes with him. She smiled, slowly.
Yes, he thought. Anything.
Edna slid the data crystal into the computer. "Note." She held her finger up. "This computer doesn't have a copying drive. That is a different computer entirely."
"Good." Pix crossed her arms over her chest. She paused, then whispered to Jimmy: “It really doesn't.”
Jimmy nodded. If he couldn't trust Pix about computers, who could he trust?
Edna scowled, then pushed the start button. The center computer whirred on, humming softly. Something dinged and the central housing rotated till the center computer and the outer computer were connected. Information sparked down the wires, the entire machine humming now. The view screen flickered on and Jimmy grinned at Pix.
"It worked." Edna stepped back, rubbing her hands together. "Watch and let's see how much this is worth."
First, there were the indecipherable diagrams. Then, the Xorquin that Jimmy remembered from so long ago, appeared on the screen.
"James," he said. "I am going to send this message to you and Monica by way of Walter." He sighed. "It's true. The crazy bastards are really planning it. The schematics...they detail the entire plan. James, I th-"
Jimmy closed his eyes a moment before the shot rang out. That part he still remembered all too well.
Edna scowled. "Computer, play back the first bit of the message. Frame by frame, only going forward by command."
The first frame. Now that it didn't go by so fast, Jimmy saw that the lettering was translated as well. First, it showed a series of symbols: A square thing, a stick figure daggit, a half circle and a small blue box. Then it showed one of Harbinger's thousands of shuttle ports. The words "open" appeared and the shuttle port opened, letting out a shuttle. Something was attached to it, a big bobbly something. The word next to it translated after a few moments of whirring from the computer: Antimatter Warheads (5,000,000,000 Megaton Yield)
Jimmy gasped. Pix put her hand over her face. Edna's reaction was far more prosaic: “FUCK!”
The next frame was the shuttle attaching itself to one of Harbinger's engine pod. When it left, the AM-bomb stayed behind. The shuttle went back into the shuttle port. The last diagram, now it was labeled, turned from a nonsensical cone to a estimated blast damage and radiation exposure from the rupturing of the engine pod.
The thing Jimmy noticed the most was how the cone of radiation was aimed right at his city, at his people's home. And then the expected casualty charts showed up. If the Xorquin's plan was right, it would sterilize the entire sewage deck – blasting it with enough hard radiation that even Harbinger's inexplicable hull wouldn't be able to stop the humans from dying. And they would die fast...die with their hair falling out and vomiting up blood.
Jimmy felt sick.
"Those bastard," Pix whispered.
Edna slammed the off button on the screen, shutting down the images for the moment.
"Monica....James. Those are my parents names!" Jimmy blinked. "I got no idea who Walter is...but..."
"What?" Pix looked up at him
"It's just a theory." Jimmy waved his hand. "It's not important. What is important is...what the hell are we gonna do about that!?"
He and Pix looked at Edna. She was still staring at the screen as if she could still see the projected casualty lists on it. Then, she turned to face Jimmy and Pix. She drew in a deep breath...then let it out. "I have no idea."
They all looked at one another.
"Well, this is it." Pix stuck her hands in her pockets. "We're going to die."
Jimmy looked at her again. “Pix, you said that last time.”
Pix tried for a smile. It looked like a death's head grin. “It's still true, isn't it?”
Jimmy couldn't argue with that.
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