Chapter 13: Crossing
Putting one foot ahead of the other.
How much of my life has become just putting one foot ahead of the other? Jimmy thought, as he jerked his foot off the ground – the boot of the heat resistant suits that he and Pix wore used some kind of technology that made them stick to the ground, no matter how sheer and slippery it was. That did mean that every time he lifted his foot, he had to jerk and twist at it for a bit before the sole of his shoe let go of the ground and he could put his foot forward, then thump it down.
Jimmy kept his gaze down on the ground – the less he looked ahead, the less he could think about the vastness of the Foundry, the killing white heat that was outside of the suit, and the uncertain peril that lurked beyond it.
It felt as if the Foundry had become his whole world – the memories of everything before it fading into an indistinct dream – unreal against the heat and the light and the faint buzzing sound that was the only noise that came through his protective helmet.
Put one foot ahead of the other... He thumped his foot down, and then looked up.
Ahead, two Pix's intersected, hazy and indistinct.
Jimmy shook himself, slightly, blinking his eyes until Pix became one Pix once more.
"Let's take a quick break," Jimmy said, his breath fogging up the faceplate of his suit. He reached up and patted the side of his helmet, feeling it shift against his head. He found the button that turned on the comlink.
“Let's take a quick break, Pix?”
Pix took another few steps, stopped, then turned around.
Jimmy winced a bit as the buzzing static that came through his ear-piece added its unpleasant note to the droning noise that he had been hearing for the last few eternities.
"I said, let's take a quick break," he said, again.
“Zzzzzzzzz hat? Zzzzzzz”
Jimmy sighed, closing his eyes. "Can. We. Take. A. Break."
Pix turned and – by all the Architects, Jimmy wasn't sure he had ever seen a sight as brave and heroic as her walking backwards. Not because it was particularly hard. More that she had sacrificed five feet of ground covered in this place. That would be five feet that she'd have to get back!
She put her faceplate against his and spoke without the comlink – the noise sounding muffled, but audible.
“Sure,” she said.
Jimmy grinned and wished he could take this helmet off. Which lead to a round of horrible itching feelings, a desire to rub his hair, and the stinging of sweat dribbling into his eyes. He blinked it away, saying, “How far do we have to go, you think?”
“Halfway,” Pix said.
Jimmy closed his eyes, slowly breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. Trying to calm himself, he said, “Pix, something's not right about this Korban guy. I mean, beyond the racism thing."
Pix snorted. “Duh. He's out here in the middle of nowhere, and he says he's here to research the Foundry? Yeah. Right. Still, not much we can do about him here.”
Jimmy nodded, bumping his forehead against the faceplate a few times.
“Do you think he might be a threat or something?” Pix asked.
“Not sure,” Jimmy said. “But let's be cautious once we get out of the Foundry.”
Pix snorted. “As if we didn't have a reason to before now!”
After another three eternities of walking and trudging and drinking from a thin tube that ran along the inside of the heat suit helmets, Jimmy and Pix came to the other side of the Foundry. The wall grew larger and larger for the last hour of the trek, and Jimmy felt his heart race and race as the door on the wall got larger and larger, and then...finally, it was done.
The two of them stood before the door.
And...tt was locked.
"Oh by the goddamn Architects!" Jimmy wrenched on the door handle, panting and sweating. To feel as though rescue from this horrible suit was a moment away, only to have it yanked away...well, let's just say it was not something that Jimmy wanted to feel.
“Zzzz this is a repeating message,” Edna said, her voice ringing through his comlink. “Respond once you hear it you tzzz zzzz wo...”
“Edna?” Jimmy asked. “Edna, we're reading you!”
“Oh good,” Edna's voice – her non-recorded, non-repeated voice – came through his com. “Checking your location. Uh. You've veered off on your course. This door you're at is locked.”
“No DUH!” Pix shouted.
“Just go along the wallzzzzzzzzz-” Edna said, her voice fuzzing into static and crackles. “Zzzzzz go zzzzz say agazzz Spinward.”
They did so, their hands trailing against the wall – the white light was dazzling, and Jimmy didn't want to veer away. Touching the wall might have been overkill. But it worked. They came to the next door. Jimmy braced himself, grabbing onto the handle and pushing. The door creaked open and he laughed, ecstatically. Joy and fireworks exploded in his mind, and together, he and Pix charged out of the Foundry.
The instant the door closed, Pix yanked her helmet off, gasping loudly. “Praise all those Gods I don't acutally believe in, WE MADE IT!”
Jimmy yanked off his helmet a mere moment later. "That's us one, Foundry zero,” he said, grinning as he shook his sweaty head, droplets flying off his hair. He started to undo the straps on the suit, his knees shaking with eagerness to get the damn thing off.
Pix used her teeth to jerk her gloves off. Then her fingers grabbed the zipper on her suit and she jerked it off. Jimmy bit his lip as he noticed how her sweat caused her shirt to cling to her body like a second skin.
"So...my suit was only loaded with half a water canteen, you got any extra?" Pix asked, rubbing her throat with one hand.
With the suit off, Jimmy kicked it away, then knelt and grabbed the duffel he had slung around his shoulder. He jerked the zipper open and pulled out the supplies that they had stored inside – including a canteen. He grabbed it and underhanded it to Pix.
She knocked her head back and drank the entire thing. Once she had finished gulping and gasping, she wiped her mouth clean. “Oh...uh...sorry,” she said, looking sheepish. “Do you need any?”
"Don't worry." Jimmy felt faint. "I'll be fine."
They staggered to the supply room that Edna claimed Korban had stocked nearby. Her intel was good: The room was stocked with a water re-processor, a bathroom, a crate of nutri-bars, a shotgun, everything a sentient would need.
Jimmy slotted his canteen into the reprocessor, humming as the water filled the metal bottle, while Pix picked up the shotgun, looking it over. She nodded, and set it down again, then made a second discovery: She pushed open the thin door that was labeled BATHROOM and peeked inside.
She cooed. "Shower!"
"Shower?” Jimmy asked. Pix's fingers tapped on a small console and the bathroom whirred – cluing Jimmy into the fact that it was reconfigurable bathroom.
"Showaaaaaaah!" Pix said in a sing song. She tugged at her shirt, revealing her belly. "Wait...can that processor handle the shower?”
Jimmy frowned. The water re-processor was rated to four people. He nodded, slowly, then asked a question of his own: "Can door lock?"
"Door lock can." Pix nodded.
The door locked. Sweaty clothes hit the ground, and Jimmy tripped into the shower cubical.
The shower took longer than expected, but what really surprised Jimmy was how much noise the bed made. Korban really needed to change his springs.
Jimmy and Pix waited until they were a good four or five corridor junctions away from the safe room before sliding on their comlinks. The mini-map screens folded out and Jimmy spoke into his comlink first.
“Edna, we're back online,” Jimmy said.
"Mmph, one sec." There was a fizzing pop sound, then a soft 'glug glug glug'.
"Are you eating?"
"Girls gotta eat!" There was another glug, then a sigh. “And drink, considering how you two go at it like rabbits...”
“Hey!” Pix said. “Wait...I choose to take that as a compliment.”
"Sure you do," Edna said. "Now, I've been working out a route for you two. And, well..." She paused for a long time. When she spoke again, it was with a soft, almost shy tone to her voice. "This is going to sound weird, but...I'm enjoying this a lot more than what Mom had me doing before."
"What did she have you do?" Pix asked, her voice gentle. Edna's mom was a touchy subject, what with the whole...dead issue.
"Nevermind,” Edna said.
"No, no, I want to know!" Pix sounded plaintive, and even clasped her hands together.
Edna sighed. "Fine. She had me doing the accounts."
"Like an accountant?"
"Yes." She paused. "Stop giggling!"
"Okay, fine, where do we go next?” Jimmy said – as Pix was too busy giggling.
Edna sounded like she was grinning. "You'll be glad to hear this. The next bit is easy...all you need to do is ask for directions.”
After three hours of trooping through connecting corridors, Jimmy peeked around the corner and nodded. "Yup! It's a Slor!"
The Slor sat on a hovering bath of ooze. It sort of looked like a silvery bowl, floating at about shin height (Which meant the Slor came up to about Jimmy's chest). The Slor had two very small sensory organs which let it see above ground. They were almost entirely vestigial in the bygone era when the Slor had first evolved, but they were slowly becoming larger as the race spent more and more time above ground and thus, better eyes were a better survival option. At least, according to Slor nature magazines. The much larger Slor sensory organ was, well, their entire skin. Through their skin, they could feel vibrations, gusts, drafts. They could taste chemicals on the air, and could 'hear' voices. Now, the question was, did this one understand Interlac?
"Uh, hello?" Jimmy asked. The Slor turned its hovering device, its manipulator arm barely visible against the folds of its skin. To Jimmy, the Slor looked like a disgusting grubby thing stewing in its own pine-scented juices. He had to force himself to remember that to another Slor, this Slor would be a young, handsome, healthy male. At least, Jimmy thought it was male. And really, it'd have to-
"Questioning Greeting: Hello humans. Worried question: Are you lost?"
"Uh, no." Jimmy looked around for the translator. He spotted it a moment later – built into the hover-seat itself. Nice touch. "Well, sort of."
The hoverpad ghosted forward. "Eager to please: Please. Welcome to Slor Corridors."
Jimmy grinned. "Uh, smiling pleasantly: My friend and I would like the best directions to the nearest bus station."
"Bus station?" The Slor and Pix asked at the same time.
"Aside to Friend: Do you really want to walk the rest of the way?" Jimmy asked Pix.
"Graceful Admission: Good point," Pix said, sounding as if she was enjoying the qualifiers that the Slor – and any people who would want to talk to a Slore – had to use.
The Slor's body rippled, and then a thick, viscous green ooze sprayed from every pore of the creature, splattering Jimmy and Pix with a layer half an inch thick.
"Mournful: I don't have legs,” the Slor said via translator.
"Restraining Irritation: I noticed." Jimmy said, trying to keep his lips closed as Slor mucus slid down his face. He slowly wiped his arm off on his sleeve, only to find that said sleeve was soaked as well.
"Ick, ick..." Pix wiped at her hair. "I hope this doesn't gunk up my hair..."
Jimmy looked at her, then shook his head. "It's okay."
"Uugh." She shuddered. "I feel all icky. When do we get a shower again?
"When we get to the Upper Levels," Jimmy said, throwing another towel away – there was a single towel dispenser in the survival gear. It was running low after their run in with the Slor. "Also, and this is just a theory so don't take it to court or anything, we're both icky, so does that cancel it out?"
She mulled that one over as she wiped off the bits of the comlink that had gotten gunk on them with a towel.
They continued walking towards the bus station for a few moments.
"You know," Pix said, closing her eyes, fingertips trailing along the wall. "I was thinking about what I want from life. See, I've figured it out. I want to find a small house in the middle of nowhere. Maybe a little hydropnics bay so we don't need to buy food. And then I just want to lay down in bed and never ever let you out."
“Remarkably similar to my idea,” Jimmy said, grinning. “After this is over, I'm going to get you that bed. But we're gonna have to set up near a Orx and Crakes. I can't grow food to save my life."
Pix grinned. "And we could steal your dad's set of a hundred and one classic action movies."
"Sounds like a date."
Pix's smile faded slightly. "We haven't actually gone on a date."
"I know. It's pathetic, isn't it? True loves really should go on at least one date."
"And what makes you think this is true love?" Pix grinned. "How do you know the euphoria of your first physical relationship isn't making you mentally repress all my minor flaws, flaws that will become readily apparent after a few months of our relationship?"
"Cause you're my best friend." Jimmy poked her nose. "You've been my best friend for ten years and you're going to keep on being my best friend no matter how many times I have sex with you."
Pix giggled, then grabbed his hand. "Okay! Well, now we've got that out of the way...on with the adventure?"
"On with the adventure!"
They walked in silence for a bit.
“This adventure kinda sucks, you know,” Pix said. “There's been no dragons, no princesses, no nothing...”
At the prow-ward part of Slor territory, where their civilization started to integrate with one of the oldest civilizations on Harbinger – the Tette<click><click>, the architecture started to take on the same look. That was why, as Jimmy and Pix walked along the main street of whatever Slor city this was, there were actual...well, streets to walk down, not just tunnels burrowed through imported biomass. That didn't mean the buildings surrounding them weren't amorphous, reddish brown masses of lumpy tissue – which made low, steady breathing noises as they expanded and contracted.
Jimmy just wished it did.
The bus station proper, though, was all Tette<click><click>: The structure was crafted out of multiple layers of organic extrusions, which created a flowing, smooth structure that managed to disguise the utilitarian harshness that would have dominated a human bus stop. The benches were configured for all the local races.
Meaning none of them were comfortable for Jimmy and Pix. One had fifteen slots at the bottom for the Tette<click><click>'s legs. The other was a curved trough, full of a viscous, bubbling ooze that smelled strongly of acid.
Jimmy and Pix decided to stand and look at the curved bus schedules. They did so for about five, six seconds, before Jimmy spoke up.
“Pix,” he said.
“Yeah?” Pix asked.
“I do believe we're looking at a decoration and not the bus schedules,” he said.
“Yeah,” Pix said. Slowly, they turned, until they saw a booth holding a Slor – who was currently partially deflated and snoring softly. Jimmy and Pix walked over, looking at the space above the booth.
"So." Jimmy tapped his foot. "Which bus should we take?"
"Uh, are you asking me?" Edna asked after a moment of silence.
"Well, seeing as how neither of us can read Slor or Tette<click><click>..." Pix trailed off.
Edna sighed. "And how exactly do you expect me to read languages that are transcribed non-visually? Tette<click><click> imprint information psionically, and psi doesn't go through a camera. And the Slor language, you need to lick to-"
"Ah!" Jimmy snapped his fingers. He stepped up, then focused on a single word: INTERLAC. As he thought that word, the wall shimmered, and words in the interstellar language slowly formed out of nothingness – words that spelled out the bus schedule!
"Okay, Pix, there's a bus that will hit the Traverse heading out in about twenty minutes."
Pix tapped her chin and opened her mouth, then closed it. She thought about it for a few more seconds, while Jimmy watched – wondering what the hell it was she was thinking about. Then, grinning, he said. "No, that's not enough time to have sex. More's the pity."
"Actually, Jimmy, you horrible, sexist person you, I was going to ask if you knew where the bathroom was?"
"Oh! Um..." He frowned. "I don't know if they have human bathrooms here."
They both looked at the Slor attendant, who remained deflated. Jimmy carefully knocked on the window pane. The Slor filled up with a loud squelching noise, and then spoke.
"Quivery: How can I help yea twice?" The Slor had a translator built right into the desk and it was one that had not been updated in a long time. A long long time.
"Uh..." Jimmy blinked. "Is there a human compatible bathroom here?"
"Afferimnation!" the Slor said. “Reconfigurmation begun!”
"Thanks! Where is it?" Pix leaned on the desk, her antennas sparking. Her knees knocked together slightly, the unique Pix 'need to pee' signal.
"Right around the corner. Take this key." The Slor extruded a single tendril, to handed her what looked like a chain of beads, that had been smeared with mucus.
"Uh...right." Pix held it as gingerly as possible, then walked around said corner, making small 'ew' and 'gross' noises under her voice.
Jimmy tapped his fingers on the desk. How does one make small talk with a Slor?
The door to the bus station opened. Jimmy glanced over his shoulder.
That. Was. Impossible.
He wore the same jacket. It was a bit more stained now. His right arm was wrapped up in one of those inteli-casts, with the blue liquid in contained in a glass outer shell. The liquid seeped into wounds and healed them quicker than naturally. He walked slowly, with a limp, but he still had a definite presence. Like he could still rip Jimmy's spinal column out. The only thing going for Jimmy was the Xorquin had a big strip of cloth wrapped sideways over his head, covering two out of three eyes.
Jimmy shuffled slowly to the corner of the room, hands in his pockets, head away from the Xorquin. Don't turn. Don't turn.
The Xorquin stepped up to the desk and rattled at the clerk.
The clerk's translator rattled back.
The Xorquin held out his non wounded arm. The Slor dropped...a strong of mucus covered beads into that palm. Shit shit shit shit shit.
Jimmy shuffled towards the entrance, keeping himself behind the Xorquin (who was turning, slowly, to the corner that lead to the bathrooms).
Jimmy ducked out of the place. He drew his gun, gulping as he did so. Okay, okay, run run. He ran to the alleyway behind the bus stop, ducked around a dumpster that looked shockingly human, and then burst out in the back, where the bathrooms jutted out of the back of the bus-stop like a tumor.
Okay, maybe it wasn't so unlike a human bus stop.
The Xorquin was trying to thread the beads through the lock of the bathroom door, but he was having trouble getting them through the lock. Jimmy never thought he would thank the Slor for their fiddly, pointlessly complex keys. He reached for his gun, planning to-
Then the door opened. "Hey, Jimmy look what I found."
The Xorquin looked at Pix. Pix looked at the Xorquin. In her hand was...a lighter, a human style lighter, the silvery top popped off, Pix's thumb on the button to start the sparker.
The Xorquin reached into his jacket.
Pix blinked as his hand vanished into his jacket, then took advantage of having a computerized brain. Where Jimmy would have thought through every option and then gotten shot before making a decision, Pix came to the best decision, then...did it.
She clicked the lighter on and stuck her hand in the Xorquin's jacket, flames licking at the bandages the Xorquin had used to patch up his ribs, chest, arm and neck.
Jimmy did not know bandages were that flammable. The Xorquin jerked back, his shredder pistol hitting the ground with a clank, his hands beating at the flames on his chest. He backed into the wall of the bus station.
Pix blinked. The Xorquin tossed his jacket off, slapping himself with it.
"Run." Jimmy grabbed her arm. Pix was staring at the Xorquin, eyes widening. Widest. She didn't look away from the Xorquin, even as he was wreathed in smoke and a horribly familiar smell touched both Jimmy and Pix's nose.
Pix put her hand over her mouth. "Oh god, oh god," she whispered. "No, no, not again!"
"PIX!" Jimmy yanked on her. She blinked.
The Xorquin grabbed his jacket, his chest a big bunch of burnt scales. He ignored them, even as some popped off with the flexing of his muscles. They popped off and revealed burnt, raw flesh.
He yanked a second shredder from his jacket, cocked the safety back, aimed. Jimmy dragged Pix behind the bathroom. Shredder bolts peppered the wall, blowing hunks out of the material. A dark shadow passed overhead. Jimmy and Pix looked up and saw the bus!
It landed at the front. Jimmy fired his gun around the corner wildly. The Xorquin shot back, but then there was a pause. A rattle...a magazine hitting the ground?
Jimmy took the chance, dragging Pix towards the bus. The door opened. People – Slor and Tette<click><click> started getting out. The Xorquin slapped a new magazine into the shredder, aimed, and opened fire.
Jimmy and Pix were almost on the bus by then. People screamed and other people dropped and screamed louder, in ways that made Jimmy want to scream too. The bus doors closed and the bus driver slammed his foot down. He was an Urtish, so he had a LOT of foot to slam.
The bus lurched forward, those still on screaming and panicking and pointing at Jimmy. Jimmy realized he was still holding his gun. "Uh, I-" he started.
Shredder bolts thudded into the bottom of the bus.
"Whaz going on!?" The Urtish shouted, his translator shouting as well a moment later.
"Drive!" Jimmy shouted, aiming his gun in the vague direction of the Urtish (but not before flicking on the safety on). "NOW!"
The bus lurched into a higher speed, listing slightly to the side as it did so. Pix leaned against the wall, eyes still unfocused.
"Pix!" Jimmy grabbed her, looking into her eyes.
He paused. "Pix, snap out of it!
Pix kept staring over his shoulder.
Then bus jerked to the side and she whacked her head against the glass. "Shit!"
Jimmy half wanted to tell her to watch her language. But this was no school bus...even if it was Monday again. One week, and everything had changed.
"Jimmy, what the heck is going on!?" Edna shouted, startling him as effectively as the bus jerking to the side.
Something was smashing against the bus. The Urtish yelped. Jimmy looked at the side and saw that a large hover-car, painted bright red, was slamming into the side of the bus, the driver seat occupied by a still smoking, still badly burned, Xorquin.
Jimmy ignored Edna and brought his gun up and fired a few times out the window. That didn't do much.
At his side, Pix sat on the floor, trying to get her gun out, but her hands were shaking.
Jimmy braced himself and aimed, firing. Bang bang bang.
The Xorquin's car started to spurt smoke from the hood. The Xorquin kicked the door open with one foot as the hover-car started to lose speed.
"Oh you gotta be kidding me." Jimmy whispered.
The Xorquin jumped out of the car, which rolled off to the side, losing altitude faster than it lost speed. It smashed into the road and exploded, bits of shrapnel flying in every direction, some pinking off the bottom of the bus, which lurched to a forty five degree angle as the Xorquin grabbed onto the rim of the bus roof with his uninjured hand. He hauled himself up, cocked his leg up, then he was ontop of the bus.
Jimmy and Pix – who had picked up her gun from the floor - aimed up and fired. They blew holes in the top of the bus, but neither could tell if they were doing anything more than scaring what was left of the heck out of the other passengers.
A siren cut through the screaming and shouting and gunshots. A Slor police craft, sleek and rounded – like one of the flying saucers of ancient legend – came alongside the bus. It started to use the Slor's audio language, which was rather similar to the Xorquin's clicking and rattling, if only much much less complicated.
The Xorquin's claws grabbed the roof and started to rip it up through sheer brute strength. Jimmy gaped up at him. Pix shouted and slapped Jimmy shoulder: “Look!”
Jimmy looked. The Urtish was driving straight for a tunnel. The tunnel was very wide, but the Urtish was aiming so that...
Jimmy did not know whether to cheer for the Urtish, or to scream like everyone else.
The bus' roof smashed into the lip of the tunnel.
The bus jerked and a scream of metal filled the air as the roof was peeled up and back like the bus was being attacked by a giant can opener.
Then they were in the tunnel and wind roared through the roof. Alarms blared from the Urtish's console. The passengers kept up their versions of screaming their heads off.
The bus burst from the tunnel and shot out into the Traverse
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