Chapter 15: The End of Worlds
The Slayer cut the bindings that held Jimmy and Pix to the chair and then prodded them till they stood. Pix rubbed her wrists and tried to look as clam as possible – but her face was showed how nervous she was around her glowing eyes.
"I really hope we don't screw this up," Pix said, her voice near as silent as she could make it. Jimmy nodded – as subtly as he could.
The slayer led them to a door at the end of the room, which remained mostly dark as the Slayer guided them. The door hissed open and they stepped into a smaller chamber. Jimmy peered around, eyes narrowed, trying to spot any details that he could.
There was a layer of clear, slightly reflective material – he'd call it glass, but Jimmy doubted it was anything alike - between them and the tube that surrounded the glass chamber. At first, he thought the room was completely unlit save for the dim light from Pix's eyes, but then the door behind them closed, and the chamber started to rise up. An elevator. But light started to grow around them and Jimmy looked up to see the light growing above them – brighter and brighter.
The elevator bust out into light, still zooming along the guide rails, but no longer contained within a tube.
For a moment, it was impossible to describe what he was looking at. But then the enormity of what he was seeing slammed into his gut like a sucker punch. He felt a sudden swell of nausea, panic, terror and awe that mingled into a heady melange of emotions that sent his heart rate skyrocketing.
The elevator was zipping up along the curved edge of a colossal hollowed out half sphere. The elevator sat on the 'lip' of the sphere, giving Jimmy a perfect view of the massive machines clustered inside the sphere itself. For resting in the area...was…
A planet. It took Jimmy a few moments of staring to fully comprehend just how insane it was to see a planet here, in the massive empty sphere that made up the prow of Harbinger. He knew all the theories – no one else had gotten this close to the front of the ship before. Gravitational flux arrays to keep the planet from flying apart or from crushing the ship around it. Mechanical struts, or flensing lasers to cut away at the planet's mantle and feed it into the disassembling machines that created the endless supply of material for the Armory and the Forge.
Now he knew. And the theories were far less spectacular than the truth of the matter.
The planet hung in the center of the empty space and was being bisected by a shimmering green plane of light. The plane – a square many thousands of kilometers wide – was pressed to one pole of the planet, and was slowly grinding forward with a continual, low buzzing sound that was audible despite the vacuum between it and the tube. With every moment, the plane pressed further into the planet...and the planet that it touched dissolved. Chunks of rock many miles wide were sucked into the green – sucked in, then broken apart again and again with every motion, until they were gone.
Beyond the planet was the opened front of the ship – the gaping hole that could scoop up a planet – and with all the infinite splendor of space, spiraling out into endlessness.
"The Planet Maw..." Pix whispered, softly, her eyes just as wide as Jimmy's.
"It's..." Jimmy bit his lip.
"Gorgeous? Breathtaking? Horrifying?" Pix suggested, one after the other.
"All of the above," Jimmy said, startling a snort from her.
The elevator plunged into another gray section of tube, shot past a few more doors so quickly Jimmy almost didn't see them, then burst into light once more.
"See!" Pix pointed. "This tube goes all the way around!"
Jimmy nodded, eyes wide. His knees felt something bump into them from behind. A chair had extended from the glass wall through a mechanism he couldn't see, let alone understand. He sat down and they plunged into another gray section. Pix sat down next to him. They both managed to ignore the floating death bot to the right of their head.
Jimmy sighed. "I'm guessing those gray areas are like stations to control the big old sucker things." He looked at Pix. "Or for maintenance."
She nodded. "Then where are we going?"
The elevator shot into openness once more and Jimmy could see the angle of their view was fractionally different but the elevator kept accelerating at a constant rate – that meant they were in a vacuum. They could just keep going faster and faster, assuming a frictionless surface around them.
"Where are we going?" Pix asked again, looking at the Slayer. The Slayer pointed up at the 'top' of the sphere with one of its curved, sharp claws. There hung a large chamber, spherical in shape, with a green glowing center. Jimmy gulped. It looked ominous...but to be fair, anything looked ominous when perched atop the Planet Maw.
In the end, it took about an hour to get halfway there. Jimmy knew they were half way cause the acceleration stopped coming from the floor, and the elevator started to accelerate from the other direction. There was a moment of weightnessness.
"Whoooaaa!" Jimmy wheeled his arms out, yelping as he and Pix joined the Slayer in floating. The Slayer spun himself around so his tail pointed at the ceiling. Pix looked at Jimmy, eyes wide.
“Get your feet facing the ceiling!” she said.
"But we're not-"
"Duh!" Pix shook her head. "Jimmy! Remember your spaceship lore!" She turned her body around to aim her feet at the ceiling and not an instant too soon. The elevator started to decelerate from the other direction. Pix and the Slayer landed on the new floor, but Jimmy crashed home face first. He lay on the ground for a moment.
“Told you,” Pix said, helping him to his feet.
The elevator slowed and slowed. It arrived at the sphere, plunging the elevator cab into darkness.
“Ding,” Pix murmured as the elevator door opened.
Jimmy tried for a smile as he looked at her, his eyes glinting. He reached up, then took her hand, squeezing it.
“Thanks, Pix,” he said. “Even if we're about to die, you can always make me smile.”
"Even if we die, we got to see stuff no human has ever gotten to before,” Pix said, in a tone she clearly thought was comforting. Jimmy made a face.
"Not quite, dear Pixel," a familiar, drawling voice said from the darkness that pervaded the chamber beyond the elevator. Pix and Jimmy both looked up, towards the center of the dome. Light started to fill the place, a green glow from the center. They were standing on a black, almost frictionless floor unbroken by any differing colors or other structures. A sphere that looked a bit like water that rippled but retained its spherical shape, hovered in the center of the dome, casting the green light. A grid surrounded the sphere, keeping it from moving much from side to side.
That shade of green was very familiar, as was the black material of the ground and the grid and the walls.
The light flared and the drawling voice started again.
"Hello you two," The light dimmed and the liquid contracted within the grid, forming into a tight, solid ball. "I am Howl."
"You're Architect technology." Pix gaped. "You're a computer!"
"Yes, I am," Howl said, then laughed, the light fluctuating with his laughter. At its brightest, Jimmy could see a vaguely defined shape near the edge of the room. The Slayer hovered away from them, letting Jimmy and Pix move closer to Howl, their eyes wide. "And you two are most impressive, considering all the factors involved..."
Jimmy looked at Pix. Pix cocked an eyebrow. Jimmy shrugged, but then Pix jerked her chin. He looked where she was looking – at that vague shape momentarily illuminated by Howl's voice. Jimmy narrowed his eyes. It looked sleek and tube-like, and…
And like the anti-matter bomb in the Xorquin diagram.
"You've survived a war, my Slayer, and everything else this ship has thrown at you. It's very impressive!" Howl said.
"Uh...thanks for trying to kill us?" Pix said, warily.
"Oh, no, don't worry. Most of this was entirely the fault of the pathetic life forms crammed into me. My resources are both great and small. I have retained minor control over some subroutines of this ship and I have hacked into most of your communication nets with ease. You've all been playing my game for quite a while now. Hmm, it feels good to say that, to finally tell someone who can appreciate my hard work..."
Jimmy glanced at the Slayer – it continued to watch them intently.
"Okay," Jimmy said, looking up. "So you...you caused the translation screw-up that started the War?"
"Yes! I also fed some black information onto the market, making data smuggling profitable, which made it even easier for me to integrate into the data web, giving me more control."
"And then you played up on the resentment between the Xorquin and the humanity and orchestrate this grand plan to detonate that bomb-" He pointed at the shape in the shadows. "-on the engine!"
"Actually," he said. "I only used a Xorquin because they have the hardest, toughest, and most efficient fighting form of all you clumsily evolved, disgusting life forms. It made the Slayer beneath harder to notice, as people wrote off his stoic nature as being part of his Xorquin background."
"Oh." Jimmy blinked. So, why was there Xorquin stuff on that data crystal? Jimmy opened his mouth, but-
"I have a quick question, why us? What have we done to you?" Pix spoke up. "And by us, I mean all of humanity, not just us two."
Howl laughed. "Why...why do you think I'm just targeting you? The radical Xorquin terrorists I pitched this plan to got fraudulent information. I misrepresented the amount of anti-matter-" Pix and Jimmy edged away from the bomb. "-required to breach the engine."
"So, it's not enough?" Pix asked, hopefully.
Howl chortled. "No, No Pixel. The anti matter in that bomb would vaporize the engine, setting off a chain reaction that would destroy every one of the sixteen reactor cores that are spread throughout this ship. It will vaporize this entire ship and release enough gamma radiation to sterilize every single star system in this half of the galaxy."
There was silence. Dead silence.
"Okay," Jimmy said, slowly. "Why?"
"It's my prime directive."
Jimmy glanced at Pix, who was inching towards the elevator door. The Slayer grabbed her by the arm and shoved her back into the room, where she caught up against Jimmy, which bumped him a little closer to the bomb. Jimmy glanced at the bomb, at Pix, then at Howl. "Why haven't you tried this before?"
"I've tried." Howl muttered, his voice dark. "Oh how I've tried. But every time, I've been stymied by my lack of an actual agent. Then, I found one. The Slayer. It took me a while, but I got him into a genetic vat that could work with my specific brand of 'light touch'."
Jimmy gulped, shifting a bit closer to the bomb, a crazy idea racing through his head.
"And so, armed with a Xorquin who was not a Xorquin, I could operate more freely. And thus, I started to built my plan.”
Jimmy glanced at the Slayer, who kept close to him and Pix. Pix kept glaring at the Slayer, as if glaring hard enough would destroy it.
"What is your Prime Directive, anyway?" Pix asked, cutting off Howl in mid sentence.
Howl grumbled. "To destroy any life forms that do not meet my specifications of a pure Architect. They were at war, you know."
"Oh. Cool. I guess." Pix kept him talking. They were closer to the bomb now and Jimmy could see it had a rather incomprehensible control panel on the front, with about a thousand buttons, switches, and circuits. Okay, why couldn't there just be a big red button to push? "What kind of war needs a ship like this?"
"A war beyond your imagination!" Howl shouted. "A war that spanned all the Galaxy and all of Time itself..." He paused. "A...Time War! Our enemies used time itself as a weapon – carving segments of history apart like the Slayer carves a biological apart. We fought back with weapons that could survive across quanta, and the war raged. Oh how it raged. Between us, we burned the galaxy to the ground...but it didn't work. The enemy died, but the Architects died as well, and the enemy's progeny spawn and spread even now. Even now...inside me..."
Jimmy made a break for it, leaping towards the bomb. He looked around frantically, hoping for an epiphany. The symbols were alien to him, and most of the switches were colored either red, green or yellow. The circuits were in a tangled mess that made his head hurt. Then, he saw a symbol he knew. From the data crystal! The order, what was the order!?
Then the Slayer slapped his hand down on his shoulder. Jimmy half turned before the Slayer grabbed his throat and squeezed, lifting him up and off the ground, claws carefully turned to prevent any unwanted slicing and dicing.
"Oh just kill them." Howl sighed. "They're not the most appreciative house guests."
Jimmy tried to breathe, but couldn't. He saw stars...and the Slayer's red eyes, glaring up at him.
Pix appeared behind the Slayer, like the calvary from over the corner. "Hey!" she shouted, whacking him in the back of the head with the Data Crystal. The crystal cracked, but the sharp edge dug into the Slayer's metallic flesh, sinking deep in. The Slayer twitched, shuddered, then looked at her. It's movements seemed slow by the impact and piercing – sparks were still spurting from the hole that Pix had left in the creature's head. She ducked her head underneath a clumsy swing from his claws.
Pix grinned, wickedly.
"End of line, motherfucker!" She sprang forward, then stabbed the data crystal right into that exposed, glowing red eye. The crystal shard sunk in to its base and the Slayer dropped Jimmy, clutching at its head. It collapsed in a heap of glittering black metal, which started to hiss. Smoke, steam, and an acrid stench rose from it – as if the internal components were melting.
"Oh dear," Howl said.
Jimmy stood up, coughing and spluttering. He glared up at the glowing sphere that had caused so much misery and danger and death. Then he looked at Pix. "End of line?" He asked, his voice raspy from the choking.
"It's a computer joke!"
Jimmy rubbed at his throat. "I don't get it."
He looked back at the bomb. "How do we set this thing off? I had an idea..."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"Yeah, listen to the girl," Howl said, sounding a bit frantic. "You don't want to rush things here."
"He's got connections in all the networks," Jimmy said. "Or, at least, he said he did. And if he does, then we don't know how much damage he can do – today, or tomorrow. Also, who is going to believe us if we told them? We have to end this now.” He looked at Pix – to make sure she understood what he meant.
They had to kill Howl.
Pix was silent for a long while. Then, she nodded – a quick, curt gesture. "Okay,” she said. "Well, it's a bomb. How complicated could it be?"
They both looked at it. Jimmy rubbed his temple. "Well, remember those symbols?"
Pix looked at him, blank.
"On the data crystal?"
"I'm not following you."
Jimmy sighed. "When we were at Edna's place, we saw the whole evil plan thing. And they had a series of symbols, and those symbols are right here." He pointed at the array of buttons.
"Oooh!" Pix nodded. "I remember those now. They were..."
She named the symbols and Jimmy started to push them. But, right before the last one-
"Wait, wait, wait," Pix said. "What if it just goes off when we push the last one? We don't want t-" The Slayer sat up, grabbing at the crystal in its head, claws making a horrid screeching sound as it clawed.
"RUUUUN!" Jimmy shouted, shoving Pix away from the Slayer. The Slayer grabbed for them, moving almost drunkenly, and Jimmy dove to the side. The Slayer hit the bomb and something bleeped. Then blooped. Then the bomb started to bleep and bloop in a series, each bleep getting louder than the prior bloop.
Jimmy grabbed Pix. Jimmy ran to the elevator. The door opened, automatically. They dove in.
The elevator lurched into motion and they zipped away from the sphere. Jimmy stared at it, but then Pix grabbed him and turned him around. "Close your-" She shouted.
A white flash brighter than anything either of them had ever seen blasted them through the glass, followed by a massive WHUMP and then the elevator cab slid backwards, power failing as the glass tube it sat in cracked and shattered. Then the elevator was tumbling, tumbling out into space. Gravity vanished and for a moment, all they could see was a blur of debris…
And then the elevator was out of the cloud of shattered glass and destroyed sphere. It tumbled around and around, providing barely enough motion to give them a sense of shifting gravity, which faded as the elevator started to right itself through some mechanism that Jimmy didn't even feel like trying to figure out. After a while, they simply floated – hanging in space, with the planet slowly growing larger and larger in the glass.
They were silent for quite some time.
"So..." Pix whispered. "I guess that's it. I guess that's everything. Evil computer. I mean, it does make sense. We all knew Harbinger ate planets...” She shook her head, turning to Jimmy. “But, I still have one last tiny little itty bitty question.”
“Is it how do we survive this?” Jimmy asked, his voice tired.
Pix snorted. “No. We're SO dead. I mean, this thing doesn't have engines, and we've got enough air to last a few hours, by my count. No, my question is...how the heck did that crystal end up in OUR mail drop box?"
Jimmy blinked, looking at her.
"I mean if Howl came up with this plan, someone must have found it, got it on the crystal." Pix shrugged. "But, why did it end up in your house?"
Jimmy sighed, his stomach still rumbling and twisting as he tried to get used to floating in zero gravity. "I have no idea," he said, sliding his arm around her hip, squeezing her gently. "But, let's just enjoy the view of the planet, okay?"
The planet was half eaten. The green plane of light that had been devouring it had vanished away, leaving the world as a crumbling, slowly cracking half-sphere, like some half eaten candy. The cloud of debris that surrounded the elevator cab kept floating away – leaving space more and more clear around them.
"So we're really going to die," Pix whispered.
"Yeah," Jimmy said.
"Also-" Pix looked at the back of her hands, which were bright pink. "I think that the blast did something weird to my skin."
"My skin feels okay." Jimmy looked at his, comparing them to Pix's. They looked at eachother. They they kissed – quietly, gently, feeling one another draw even closer. Jimmy broke the kiss, panting.
"You know," Jimmy said. "If we are going to die..."
"Having sex will make the air run out faster,” Pix said, managing a grin.
"It's still going to run out." Jimmy grinned, feeling an odd sense of fatalism. "And, by the Archi...and...well, we saved the galaxy. If we're going to die because of it, I at least don't want to die a virgin."
"Jimmy, you're not a virgin."
"I'm a virgin to sex in zero gravity!"
Pix cocked her head, then grinned. "Heh, when you put it that way...but this time, don't go so fas-" She was cut off by his lips.
Her shirt floated away and Jimmy grinned. "Zero gee is nice in so so many ways."
Pix giggled, then gave him a little wiggle. They moved together to kiss once more as a shadow fell over the elevator – Jimmy didn't break the kiss. It was just more debris, afterall.
Light spilled into the elevator. Jimmy and Pix sprang apart, their eyes wide as they looked out of the glass.
A shuttle floated outside, bright lights flaring from the nose cone. The cockpit's screen wasn't polarized though, and two humans, a Xorquin and a Tette<click><click> looked at the elevator...at them. The humans and the Xorquin were gaping, one of the humans blushing brightly – though the other was too dark to show any blush, even if he was.
Pix looked at them, her face blank. Jimmy just gaped.
“Mom?” Jimmy whispered “D-Dad?”
Did you enjoy the fiction? If so, think about becoming a Patron at Patreon! I offer awesome rewards - like your own customized short story, a chance to be a guest appearance in one of my novels, and (best of all) the ability to smugly tell people that you support independent artists.