Friday, June 19, 2015

E.L.F: Chapter Fifteen

Author's Note: Why is it that 3 paragraphs takes five hours to edit, but the rest of the chapter takes a half hour?


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.

Ow...”

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!"

Howl paused.

"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?"

Silence.

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?” 

###

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Friday, June 5, 2015

E.L.F: Chapter Fourteen

Author's Note: I'm baaaaaaaaack! 




Chapter 14: The Slayer

Pictures don't do some things justice. Like watching porn was nothing like actually laying on the ground as your girlfriend did a strip tease. Like how fighting zombies in a video game was nothing like firing a gun at something in real life. Like all that, looking at the Traverse Tourism Guidebook was nothing like actually gaping up through a jagged hole in a bus at the actual, faction Traverse.

It was almost enough to distract Jimmy from the way the bus' hover systems kept whining like a kitten being slowly twisted in half. Almost.

The bus flew out over a thin jetty that thrust out of the connecting tunnel and into the Traverse itself – the size of the jetty against the vastness of the Traverse only reinforced the gut-punch feeling of awe that filled Jimmy. Pix looked up as well, and said the only thing that really could be said.

I think I'm going to be sick...”

The sky was the ceiling, and the ceiling was the sky: The Traverse curved and curved and curved until it met itself once-more: A trench the width of a continent, forming an inverse donut that connected the upper levels of Harbinger to the lower levels. Distant cities glittered overhead – several of them sprawling wide enough and large enough that their larger sykscrapers were visible even from this distance. The feeling of vertigo – of falling upwards and into infinity – was almost paralyzing. Jimmy tore his gaze from overhead and to the cracked and shattered pane of safety glass that was all that was left of the bus windscreen.

They were shooting towards another city – one similar to those that spread overhead.

It was built against the wall, with countless platforms, large and small, welded securely to the wall of the Traverse. And onto these platforms were buildings. They glittered like multicolored jewels – and between them wove vast amounts of sky traffic that made the cities of humanity look like...well, like slums in the sewage section of the ship. Jimmy shivered, trying to think of how many people lived there.

Millions?

Billions?

Pix shook her head. “I...never thought I'd see this stuff, you know?”

Yeah,” Jimmy murmured. “Nothing will-”

Jimmy never got a chance to finish that sentence. The bus side motors at that moment decided to finish dying – they cut out with a loud 'chkkunnnnnnnngh.'

Oh goodie! Life is getting more exciting,” Pix said, grinning at Jimmy – her eyes whirred and focused as she grabbed his hand and squeezed. Jimmy smiled at her and thought: I feel like I can fly. Also, wow, that was super clich√©. And now, thinking that it is clich√© is-

"HOLD ON!" the Urtish driver shouted – his translator spluttering and coughing and trying to speak in five languages at once. The bus started to tilt down to the right. The Urtish jerked on the stick, his face set with concentration. Jimmy grabbed Pix and held her close, trying to will the bus into staying in the air.

It...almost worked.

The bus skidded along with only some engines working, slewing and swerving in the air drunkenly as it half flew, half fell towards the city. Jimmy took a moment to thank the Architects that the city was on this side of the Traverse – not on the far side, as a continent sized space yawned between them and that.

The bus shuddered. The driver – his face slick with the thick oil that Urtish spurted out of their pores when stressed – jerked back on the stick.

The bus went up...and at the apex of its shuddering arc, the other side motors cut out with a sound like a gargling blender. The bus dropped. For a moment, Jimmy felt the weightless horror – looking at the city platforms they were rushing towards, and thinking: We're not going to make it.

The bus smashed into the ground with a CRRRUNCH! It started to drag along the broad, beautiful platform, scattering smashed tiling and metal in every direction as it slewed. The back of the bus clipped three trees, filling the air with splinters and a haze of leaves. People went screaming as the momentum of the bus jerked to the side and the front slammed into a store that had been built near the platform specifically to sell tourists new shoes. The windows shattered and the shoes went flying as more people ran screaming in every direction...but the bus stopped.
Jimmy picked himself up, groaning. "Everyone okay?" he asked, looking around. Pix stood.

"I'm gonna be sick." She stuck her head out the window and threw up.

Jimmy patted her on the back as the door to the side of the bus opened. The Urtish got out of the driving cab and wiped his forehead off with the back of his hands, flicking the goop onto the floor of the bus.
"Could someone please explain what just happened?" he growled at Jimmy. Jimmy coughed, waving his hand under his face to try and clear away some of the dust that their impactful landing had produced.

"Well, uh," Jimmy put his hand behind his back. "Okay, so, like, there was this Xorquin, and he's chasing us, and we were just planning to take the bus normally, but then he kinda tried to kill us again, and we're really, really sorry about damaging your bus."

"No, you didn't damage my bus." The Urtish slowly gestured around himself, looking away from Jimmy, then back to him. "You destroyed it!"

Jimmy looked up at the roof, peeled back like someone had taken a giant can opener to it. He looked at the windows, all riddled with bullet holes, turning the side of the bus into swiss cheese. He looked down at the dented and smashed up floor. He looked at the control console, bright red with failed systems and destroyed hover-engines.

"Um...sorry?"

Pix wiped her mouth as police cars started to arrive, their lights flashing.

"Sorry? Sorry!?" The Urtish was shaking Jimmy like a rag doll now. "This bus was just overhauled! I just had it fixed! My manager is going to kill me. No. Wait! He's going to kill YOU!”

"Well, uh-"

"Get down!" Pix tackled Jimmy as bullets started to zip through the air. The Urtish yelped and started to duck. A bullet burst through his arm, splashing Jimmy's face with green blood. The Urtish clutched at the wound, clenching his teeth in agony.

"Shit!" Jimmy looked around, then grabbed at his pockets, finding a bandage. He tossed it to the Urtish, who grabbed it gratefully and wrapped his wounded arm in a tearing hurry.

Pix looked at Jimmy. "Can we go anywhere without people shooting at us?"

Jimmy peeked up, through one of the swiss cheesed windows. His eyes widened.

"You gotta be kidding me,” he said, ducking down. He looked at Pix. "Xorquin!"

"What!?"

"Yeah." Jimmy nodded. But the police were firing on the Xorquin now. The gunshots were garnering attention from the people who had gathered around the crash. They screamed and ran like anyone sensible would.

The Urtish propped himself up against one of the chairs. Everyone in the bus was huddled down. Some had been hit, and their blood was getting all over the floor. Jimmy felt his stomach clench up. Every one of those bullets had been aimed at him...they should have hit him, not these...

"Run!"

Jimmy looked up. The Urtish waved at him. "Run!"

He blinked. Then he realized that the Urtish didn't want to be next to someone who was getting shot at. Then Jimmy realized he didn't want others to be around him while he was being shot at either.

Earlier, he had thought about doing something brave and heroic and how being in love had changed his opinions. But now, he found something, deep inside himself. Despite all of his logical thoughts, despite every bit of him that screamed no, he should stay down, he knew what he had to do. Jimmy squared his shoulders. "Pix, ready to crawl for your life?"

"Always, babe." Pix cracked her neck, face set and concentrated. "If we don't survive the next few feet, I really love you."

"I know."

Pix reached over and punched him in the shoulder as hard as she could.

The sounds of gunfire outside were even louder than Jimmy had expected. Bullets whined through the air. He crawled down the steps of the bus, which was far more awkward than he had expected. There was glass on the ground – glittering and dangerous. He put his hands down carefully, but with the adrenaline pounding through his body, he wasn't sure he'd even notice getting cut.

Pix had a harder time of it. She hissed, then kept crawling – leaving behind smears of blood on the ground. They squirmed behind the wrecked bus, bullets pinging and bouncing off the side of the hull. Jimmy coughed, shaking his head and looking at his hand, wincing – he had a thin cut along one thumb, while Pix gritted her teeth, clenching her hands into fists to try and keep her palms from bleeding too badly.

Jimmy looked around for the next place to scramble for. There was an alleyway, with a dumpster, it would give cover. Problem, there was a big open space between there and here. He gulped. "Pix," He pointed. "Run at three."

She nodded, clenching her bloody hand to her chest.

"One. Two. Three!"

They lurched to their feet and ran. It took forever and no time at all, with Jimmy's back itching every second of the way. Gonna get shot, gonna get shot, gonna get shot...

His shoulder slammed into the side of the alleyway and he staggered, hit the ground, rolled, and ended up behind the dumpster. Pix skidded like she was trying to make a base in bat-ball.

She rolled then, getting behind the dumpster too. This got her squished up against Jimmy. Normally pleasant. But right now, with an elbow in the belly and a hard spine in the groin, Jimmy was a little less than aroused.

"We made it," Pix said, leaning her head against Jimmy's chest. Her right hand was still clenched in a fist.

Jimmy gently grabbed her wrist. "Oooh..." He bit his lip, brow furrowing as Pix opened her fingers. It was not pretty.

She closed her eyes. "Ugh."

"Um..." Jimmy reached into his pocket. He found the multitool, but...

"Shit...no bandages. Hey, uh, hold your arms up."

He grabbed the bottom of her shirt. "Lean forward."

She did so. Jimmy then slipped the multitool against her belly. She shifted. "Cold!"

"Sorry, just stay still." He bit his lip and carefully cut with the multitool's knife. He cut his way around Pix's belly and, for his work, he got himself a a long strip. "Okay, arms down-"

"I know." Pix turned around, holding her hand out to him, still not looking at the wound.

Jimmy sighed. "We'll need to clean it as soon as we can."

"I know," she said around a hiss of pain as he jerked the bandage tight.

"How's it feel?"

"Better, but that might be cause I'm not looking at it anymore." Pix tested her hand. She looked at him. "Well, look at the bright side, I now get to show off my bellybutton."

He blinked, then looked down. Why, she was right.

"Hmm. I kinda like it. It's sorta punk."

She grinned, but it was weak. "What now?"

"Now-" Something exploded, flashing the alleyway with bright orange and a crack of sound. "Let's not go that way."

Pix and Jimmy had to creep along, ducked down low, till they got to the other end of the alleyway. People were off the streets, hiding inside their buildings. Jimmy looked from left to right. The coast was clear.

Jimmy chucked his gun into his pocket and then he and Pix ran. They passed shops and then ran into crowds who had not realized stuff was exploding near by. They vanished into the crowd. The police flew by over head. One shone its light at the bus and started to chitter something in Xorquin.

Jimmy paused, looking over his shoulder at the police cars. He grinned. "I think we made it Pix," he said. "They got him!"

Which was, of course, exactly the right time for the car to explode. Jimmy and Pix staggered backwards, despite being too far from the blast for it to actually effect them. Jimmy stood, eyes wide as he traced the line of smoke from the burning car to...to...the Xorquin, who had a sleek, deadly looking rocket launcher mounted on his shoulder, an aiming device unfolded around his eyes. The rocket launcher made a loud thumping noise and another rocket slid into the firing chamber. The Xorquin slipped the rocket launcher over his shoulder and pulled his shredder out. Another police car shot overhead, sirens blaring. The Xorquin dropped into the alleyway next to building.

"Won't that guy just DIE!?" Pix shouted. "Did he just...did he just pull a ROCKET LAUNCHER out of his ASS!"

"Edna," Jimmy put his finger to the comlink, which had been silent for a while now. "Any bits of advice?"

"Um..." Edna voice was a bit staticy. "Signals...breaking up...sewage...uh, Jimmy, there is a safe house...at this location"

"Okay, thanks!" Jimmy's neck was itching. The Xorquin was in the crowd, which was panicking and screaming and doing everything you are supposed to do when someone blows up a police car. His minimap started to blink out the trail. Jimmy shrugged. "Follow me." He grabbed Pix's hand and they ran forward.

The sounds of the panic spreading through the City followed them as they ran.

Jimmy got to an alleyway, the sounds of the commotion downtown fading. There were less people and the shops looked shabbier. They were still pretty posh, but they were less posh than before. The alleyway had a door at the end. "That's the dzzzr," Edna said. "Just head down...zzz...shld be umcked."

Jimmy nodded. "You're really breaking up."

"S-jam..."

Jimmy got the door open. He and Pix rushed inside and then slammed the door, plunging them into darkness. Jimmy felt around for the light switch.

"Edna?" Pix asked. "Edna!"

"She's being jammed."

"Who could be jamming her?" Jimmy snapped on the lights and they both gaped.

This safehouse was not big, not compared to the Armory or the Traverse. However, it WAS full of guns. And not just any kind of guns! Human guns. Guns that actually made sense and looked like they were something that he could use.

"Oooh, Flamethrower!" Pix grabbed the bulky collection of fuel tanks and tubes and bits of metal, then switched on the front end. A small blue flame burst up before the blackened nozzle. "Hehehe, sooo coool!"

"Uh, Pix, uh..." Jimmy held his hand up. The nozzle swung to aim at him. "Finger off trigger!" He shouted.

Pix blinked. "Oh! Shit!" She took her finger off the trigger, than aimed the flamethrower away from Jimmy. She then shut the flamethrower off, blushing as she did so. "Um, sorry."

Jimmy sighed. "Pix, maybe we should put the flamethrower down."

She bit her lip, looking at it.

Jimmy sighed. "Pix..."

"No." she whispered, eyes at the ground.

"Pix, we talked about thi-"

"Yeah, so, it's a big, phallic lighter!" She glared at him. "And you know what? No! I'm not going to throw my lighter away. You keep telling me to do that. You keep telling me to ball up my past and throw it away and forget about it. Well, screw that! I don't want to forget!" Her eyes started to brim with tears. "I c-can't forget, okay!"

Jimmy shifted from foot to foot. What could he say?

"Isn't it...really silly to be crying while holding a flamethrower?" Pix's voice cracked.

"A bit, yeah."

She shucked it off, the strap went around her shoulders catching on her antennas. She grunted, and sniffled, then bust into tears. Jimmy bit his lip. Should he help? Or would she punch him for invading her personal space?

Jimmy, you idiot, he thought, you've had sex with her, what, a zillion times?

He put his hand on her shoulder and she punched him in the face. Jimmy clapped his hand to his nose, eyes closed. "Augh! Pix! What the...what the hell!"

"Sorry!" She grunted and got the flamethrower off. She turned around, arms across her chest. "Just, I don't feel like touching right now, okay!"

Jimmy sighed, still holding his nose. It was bleeding.

Pix shifted from foot to foot, rubbing her arm, looking away.

Jimmy took his hand away from his nose, squinting at the blood, then he sniffed, trying to get the blood to stop.

"Um..." Pix bit her lip. "C-could I have that hug now?"

"No!" Jimmy snapped. "I mean...just a second. You punched me in the face!"

"I'm sorry." She looked at him, looking so completely miserable that his heart melted.

Jimmy melted. "I'm sorry too Pix."

He wiped his bloody hand on his hip, then hugged her tight, trying to not get blood on her shirt. She squeezed him tight and forced the issue, burying her face in his hair and sobbing.

"I-I miss my parents so much!" She sobbed. "A-an-and it's all...all my fault!"

Jimmy squeezed her again. He opened his mouth to say something and...

Then the door to the warehouse exploded. Fragments whizzed through the air and Jimmy cried out, hitting the ground, pain flaring in his back. Pix grabbed the flamethrower, flicked it on and pulled the trigger without a second thought.

The Xorquin, who stood in the now circular doorway, was engulfed in an instant. Didn't even have time to shoot his gun or rattle in fear. He just stood and burned.

As did the box of ammunition next to him. Flames flickered, then grew. The ammo did not cook off right away. Pix started dragging Jimmy toward the other door. The Xorquin was still walking forward, a dark shape in bright bright orange flames. He stepped out, then fell, face first on the ground. He lay there and burned and burned.

Pix got Jimmy out of the building.

BANG! The back of the building went up in a massive burst of flames, bullets cooking off like firecrackers, whizzing through the air, whining like angry insects.

The building started to collapsed, helped on by the occasional bang as the stuff inside exploded.

"Pix," Jimmy wheezed. "I...I can't move my legs."

'What!?" She pushed him up and looked at whatever had whanged his back. Blood was seeping around a hunk of metal jammed into his shoulder blade.

"Jimmy, your spinal column is not on your shoulder."

"Oh right." Jimmy wiggled his toes. "Okay, I can move my legs...I think I'm going to start screaming now. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGRRH THAT HURTS!"

The police were arriving, sirens following the bursts and the blasts. They settled down and the mixed race forces of the Traverse piled out. Xorquin, Slor, some Yetel, and a human. The human, a woman with bright red hair that she kept tied back under her blue cap, knelt down.

"Are you two all right?" she shouted, even as she looked Jimmy over.

"He's got a thingy in his back!"

"I can see that." The police officer tapped a com-bead in her ear. "We need an ambulance and some first aid here. We've got a broken shoulder blade, a major laceration on a hand, and a possible fatality inside of the building."

"I hope so," Pix whispered. The police officer shot her a look, then tugged out a small, one hand first aid kit. She pressed a hypo to Jimmy's neck.

"I'm going to be putting your arm in a brace," she said, even as everything got fuzzy and out of focus. Pix stayed in front of Jimmy. She grabbed his hand. The police officer was still talking. "This is going to hurt."

"AAAAAGH!" Jimmy screamed, eyes clenched tight shut as he felt the metal wrench out of his shoulder. Then the police officer just wrapped his shoulder up, which eased his pain, but it also made him feel all stiff. He could only bend his elbow, anything up above that was wrapped.

"Okay, that'll hold you." The officer moved on to Pix, opening up the bandage. She winced. "What did you do, crawl through glass?"

"Yeah." But Pix's eyes were locked on Jimmy's. Soft. Relived.

Part of the burning warehouse crashed in and smoke filled the air. Fortunately, Jimmy and Pix were walking away from the place. Pix looked back as the firefighters started to spray foam on the fire, but it wasn't doing much.

"Is he dead?"

"He's on fire, in an exploding warehouse." Jimmy sighed. "He's dead."

"So it's over?" Pix bit her lip. "Just like that?"

There was a shift in the burning husk. Some rubble was moving, prolly cause something under it was collapsing.

"I am going," Jimmy said as he turned to Pix and hugged her with his working arm. "To love our summer vacation..."

Pix made a sound halfway between a scream and a whimper, her fingernails digging into Jimmy's back. "No...no, no, no!"

Jimmy looked at the burning building. A blackened skeletal arm stuck out of the blazing wreckage, gleaming silver in the orange fire flight. Then a splash of fire-retardant foam splattered over it, covering the nightmarish vision. No, it must have been a trick of his vision. He must have mistaken.

Then the rubble shifted, like a disembodied lung rousing from the dimming fire. The rubble slid away, revealing a metallic muscle, all matte black surfaces mirrored to a shine. Semi-liquid black metal moved about hard steel bones. The arm cocked, then propped itself against the ground. Then up, up, the figure stood, revealing its matte black chest, its pyramid shaped head, its glowing red cyclopean eye. Its chest shone despite its blackness, ribcage branching over a glowing green power source. The legs were spindly, and one of the knees was busted up, twisting to the side of the quickmetal skeleton stood in the flames.

"You've gotta be kidding me," Jimmy whispered. The police and the firefighters looked just as surprised and shocked as anyone would feel, looking at that...thing.

The skeleton looked at its legs. The hip-joints exploded, then, letting the legs fall aside, crumbling to dust as they smashed to the ground. But the figure still stood, hovering in the air, spinal column trailing along the ground like a tail.

The figure held out its arms, then extended its fingers. Foot long claws snapped out to gleam in the firelight.

"Time to run?" Pix whispered.

"Y-" The nightmare skeleton flew forward, fast and deadly, like a bullet leaping from a gun. A bullet with claws.

###

Jimmy's eyes were closed, but he was awake. He didn't want to open his eyes, becase his head hurt and blackness was painful enough.

His hands were tied in front of him. It moved his shoulder slightly, but not enough to hurt. He just felt a stiffness. Okay, first, he slowly slid his tongue out and licked across his chapped lips, trying to think of what hurt so much. Okay...head. Hit on head? Um...chest...back...legs were tied together too.

He drew in a slow breath and opened his mouth. "Pix?"

"Don't whisper so loud," she whispered back. She was right: The sound sent throbs through his head.

"Wh...where are we?"

"I don't know, it's dark." There was shuffling sound. "The chair is fastened to the ground. No slipping out. I don't think."

"Shit."

"Well, you're both awake."

Jimmy's brow furrowed. That was not Pix, and that was not him...so who was it? He opened his eyes slowly. Darkness. He craned his head around as far as he could go.

"Who are you?" he asked, voice raspy.

"I am Howl." The voice sounded like one of those smarmy teachers. The kind who pretended to have 'American' accents cause they thought it sounded sooo intellectual.

Pix sighed. "Right, and who the hell is Howl!?"

"Howl is me."

Pix growled.

"Pix." Jimmy snapped. "Diplomacy. Sir, why have you tied us up?"

"I didn't tie you up. My servant, the Slayer, did."

"And your Slayer is?" Jimmy asked, though he had a sinking feeling he knew already.

A red light started to glow in the darkness. A familiar red eye. Watching Jimmy. Jimmy's throat went drier than space.

"Nevermind," he whispered. "Uh, so, are you behind this?"

"Of course!" Howl laughed, his drawl getting more obnoxious every sentence. "The plan, the data smuggling, the war between the Yetel and the Slor, Tortuga...everything."

Jimmy blinked. That crazy. "W-What are you talking about?"

"But enough of your questions. Where is the data crystal?"

"What data crystal?" Pix asked. Something blurred in the darkness and Jimmy cried out, feeling a sharp pain on his chest. A stinging cut raised across his skin and he tried to ignore it.

"If you ask stupid questions again, cyborg, my Slayer will do more than give your love a papercut. Now, where. Is. The. Data. Crystal."

"Not telling." Jimmy growled.

"I have it!" Pix shouted a moment after that. "I have it I have it, just...d-don't hurt him."

Jimmy gulped, eyes closing. The Slayer ghosted past, the sound of his passage like a woosh of a cape. Pix grunted. "It's in my data port...lower..."

There was a shink, crystal slipping against metal.

"Wait, Howl, aren't you going to explain...anything!?"

"No, I was actually planning to kill you."

"Oh no you won't." Pix sounded like she was smirking.

"And why is that?"

"I've got wireless," Pix said. "See, I've been decrypting the data crystal in some sub programs in my head." She sighed, slowly. "That's why I've been kinda unfocused lately, Jimmy."

Unfocused? Jimmy kept quiet, trusting Pix. Please do this right, he thought.

"Anywho, I've put those copies of data onto the ship net in a dozen different places. If I don't send a signal every five minutes, the files will be distributed in a fractal copying pattern, that will put them in everyone's inbox by next breakfast!" Pix's antennas sparked, illuminating a small circle of white light around her head.

Howl whistled, softly. "Clever girl. Slayer, bring them to me. I want to meet them face to face." 
###
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