But for now, let us enjoy the final chapter of E.L.F.
Chapter 16: The End of Line
Getting out of the airlock was tricky, but in the end, they managed to wrestle the glass doors open. Jimmy stepped out, not sure exactly what to feel. He had been so sure he was going to die, but now that he was safe, he felt scared of what would happen next.
"James!" his father said. "I am so glad to see you!" He grabbed Jimmy in a tight bear hug. The kind that made ribs crack and pop and eyeballs explode out of their sockets. All things considered, Jimmy preferred it to suffocating in a glass box. Mostly. The squeezing hug went from tight to even tighter and Jimmy managed to make some kind of inarticulate squeaking noise.
"Um, I'm really glad to see you two," Pix said, blushing as she looked from Jimmy's dad to his mom, her hands still crossed across her chest, even though she had put her shirt back on. "Not to cut into the wonderful bonding time...but...how on Harbinger did you two get out here?"
"We've been following you two," Mom said, her voice torn between joy and pride. "For at least the last four day."
"You followed us?" Jimmy's voice came out in a high squeak.
"Well, we didn't know it was you, not at first." Jimmy's dad set him down – and smiled as Jimmy gasped for air for a few moments. "We thought you two were dead – the house was completely destroyed, and there were no signs you had left. What we were following was the data crystal."
"There was a transponder in there?" Pix whispered.
"Well, technically, it's an entangled quantum bit that transmits what data it can pick up on the surrounding terrain." Jimmy turned around at the voice, then sprang almost five feet into the air, his hand instinctively reaching for a firearm – a firearm he didn't have. Because the person speaking was a Xorquin. But after the moment of panic and fear, Jimmy relaxed - this Xorquin was a light tan rather than green. Not the same Xorquin. And since he was here, with Jimmy's parents, Jimmy took the amazing leap to assume that he wasn't part of his government's genocidal plan.
Then Jimmy mentally smacked himself: It also helped that he wasn't, well, secretly a cybernetic assassin controlled by a homicidal AI.
"And technically, it's supposed to be classified. James, could you please stop giving away state secrets?” the Xorquin asked, the translator necklace around his neck flashing and blinking in time with his words.
"They have a right to know," Dad said – his eyes glinting with anger. His hand tightened on Jimmy's shoulder.
"They have a right to explain themselves." The Xorquin narrowed all three eyes of his eyes. "They destroyed every good lead we had, from Hir to the data crystal. Heck, we didn't even know how those elevators worked, and now the entire system is destroyed! They blew up the sphere, and we hadn't even figured out how to get into that. They may have caused irreparable damage to Harbinger!"
Jimmy opened his mouth, then closed it. Just blurting out that they had saved the whole damn galaxy would seem insane. But...they had. He opened his mouth-
“Explain what happened right now!” the Xorquin shouted, his throat rattle crackling.
“Udo,” Jimmy's mom snapped. “Just wait five seconds, we can get the information – Pix is an E.L.F. She recorded all of what went on, and we can review it without needing to badger my son.”
Jimmy blew out a slow sigh – he really hadn't looked forward to trying to explain the whole galaxy saving thing to his parents, let alone to the world at large. He and the others looked at Pix.
Pix blushed – her cheeks getting almost as bright pink as her hair. "Um, could I edit some of it first?"
"Why?" The Xorquin glared at her.
"Uh, well, um." she said, stammering, her hands waving around in vague gestures. "Jimmy and uh,...I...we...uh-"
"We're in love!" Jimmy grabbed Pix's hand.
"Ooooh!" Mom said, knowingly. "So, you two aren't that kind of friend, are you?" She narrowed her eyes at Jimmy. Jimmy coughed.
"Things, uh, change?"
"At least tell me you wore a condom."
Their shuttle slid through space, heading towards the airlock it had come from. It was a strange thing, to be traveling along the outer skin of Harbinger. What Jimmy had scrambled through via hallways and elevators now passed in an endless, monolithic wall of darkness that blotted out the stars. Jimmy watched that blackness for some time, leaning back in the seat he had been given beside Pix. Every kilometer of blackness that passed made him feel as if more and more stress and tiredness and fear was being drained from him – leaving him empty and strangely fragile feeling. He wasn't going to be shot at. He wasn't going to be stabbed. And yet, he wasn't entirely sure what would happen next.
What did one do, after saving the galaxy?
Thinking of endings and what would happen next made Jimmy blink and shift his eyes away from the window and to Pix.
"Hey...what about Edna?” he asked.
"Huh?" Pix jerked her eyes open – she had been starting to drift off.
"Edna." Jimmy sighed. "What do you think will happened to her?"
"Well, I don't know." Pix frowned. "She's got the gang, and there's still criminals to work with..."
"That's true." Jimmy frowned. "Well, I guess we'll find out one way or another in a few days."
Pix nodded. "Right now, the only thing I want to find out is who sent us the data crystal? Why did your parents show up now to get you? How did they get all the way up here!?"
Jimmy sighed. "Pix. I was just about to relax in blissful ignorance here and just accept everything happened the way it happened."
At that moment, the feeling of gravity crashed back into full force and then some. The shuttle stopped moving, and there was a loud chunk THUNK as the it sealed with the airlock it had been traveling to.
Jimmy's dad poked his head in the back passenger compartment. "We're here."
The airlock opened up into a long, gray corridor. As Dad walked along side the two teens, he said. "You probably have lots of questions-"
"That's right, we do."
He cocked an eyebrow. "You got a lot ruder during your adventure, Pix."
"No, I'm just tired and we both almost died and I have a headache." Pix rubbed at her temple with one of her fingers. "So, please just explain what happened. Please."
James cocked an eyebrow, even as Jimmy hugged Pix, gingerly. "Well. One of our agents blew the lid on the case and mailed the pertinent information to Mom. The agent, Kovacks, hoped your Mom could figure out what to do with it...."
"Yes. Jimmy." Dad stopped at the end of the hallway, turning around and putting his back against the door. "I'm not just a diplomat. And Mom's not just a cryptanalyst. Well, actually, yes, she is, but she works for someone rather different than you expect."
"Who?" Jimmy teetered on his feet, feeling light headed.
"CCI, or Council Counter Intelligence. Someone, or something, has been mucking about in the intelligence networks of every race on Harbinger. A human, your mom, was the one who pointed out the pattern of the incursions as being the same for every single race, which pointed towards an external force. The CCI assigned a multi-racial team, so that everyone had a stake in figuring out what was going on. It's taken years, but...we started to get close, inch by inch. Then you got caught up in it all."
He chuckled. "And, well, you got damn lucky son. But then again, I think we all got lucky that you got lucky – even if it means that CCI is going to need to find a new job."
"So," Pix put her hand on her face. "Kovacks finds out some clue to Howl, the big bad computer. Then he sends the information to us via the data crystal. Why didn't he just send it to you?” she asked.
"He's dead," Dad said.
Jimmy frowned – his brow furrowing for a bit. He opened his mouth to ask Pix something, but before he could, Pix asked more questions, her voice sharp.
“Why didn't he just send it to your headquarters?” she asked.
"We don't have an HQ. We know as little about each other as possible, to keep us safe." Dad shrugged. "Kovacks must have figured out where we lived via his own methods – he was a resourceful man. Still...it ended up well in the end, didn't it?”
"No it didn't," Pix said, her voice acid. "We almost died dozens of times!”
Dad paused, then said: “Well, that's something everyone has to face. Almost dying. Really, son, Pix, I don't have anything to tell you that will make that better. I can't make the fear go away. But what I can say is that I am incredibly proud of you.”
“That and five credits will get me a cup of coffee,” Pix said, then started to walk away.
Jimmy looked at Dad, his brows lifted.
In the movies, the climax of the story leads to waking up after all the boring stuff was dealt with. Or, if the main character wasn't knocked out by some gigantic explosion, it just cut past the paperwork. Jimmy found that real life was far, far, far less convenient.
Pix's memory downloads, complete with some rather embarrassingly intimate moments, were turned over to the CCI. When Jimmy and Pix had complained about the intimate moments being left in, well, they CCI had rather patiently explained that if Pix edited her memories, then they could not trust the validity of the rest of it.
With their story verified, Jimmy and Pix were left wondering: what would happen to them? Other than a quick trip to the hospital, where they were shot up with some stims and then left overnight in one of those glowing blue tubes that healed bones real quickly. And after that? After that...they were left sitting around in the hospital. Nothing to do.
At loose ends.
Now that the CCI had their culprit, and now that Howl was gone, the news could be broken to the entirety of Harbinger. The responses filtered to Jimmy slowly and in patches – rumors of peace talks in the Armory and of a governmental purge among the Xorquin – but it all felt distant. Unreal. It left Jimmy hanging, with the same question he had had on the shuttle: What happens to us now?
The answer came in the form of two tram tickets, using the newly reopened cross Armory tram-line – finally reestablished in the wake of the peace talks. The tram ride promised to be uneventful. But Jimmy couldn't shake the feeling something wasn't quite right.
He walked with Pix aboard the train, alone – his parents were staying at the Harbinger Council, helping to realign the CCI's goals towards something productive and useful. Not that Jimmy knew what those goals were – state secrets and all. Pix looked around at the insides of the train, frowning intently as they walked to their room.
The door hissed open and some of Pix's frown went away – the room was large and well appointed. And had a big bed. A single big bed. With enough room for...
“Well, this looks acceptable,” she said, nodding. “The best room I've seen on a train, personally.”
"It's the only room on a train I've ever seen." Jimmy said, sliding his hand along her back. "It's like a hotel room."
"But in a train." Pix grinned at Jimmy, then grabbed him and dragged him in, tossing him onto the bed. Well, Jimmy didn't put up any fight, so she didn't have to work that hard. He landed on his back and grinned up at her. Pix moved up and over him, smirking. "I can think of some advantages to doing it on a train!"
"Uh, we can keep the window open and we'll be moving by so fast no one can see my t-"
Pix grabbed her shirt, lifted it up, then got his arms tangled up above her head, the shirt covering her face. "Stupid shirt!" She struggled a bit, then fell out of bed, landing on her back. She finally got her shirt off.
"Pix, are you okay?" Jimmy looked over the bed. Pix blinked.
"What? Oh! Yeah!" She nodded. "Um, gotta go to the bathroom." She grabbed the nightstand and managed to drag herself to her feet, then walked off into the bathroom that looked larger than Pix's old bedroom.
Jimmy's brow furrowed, but he shrugged and stuck his legs off the bed and started to get his socks up and off his feet. There was a shadow behind him and he half turned, hearing a whistling-
Pain exploded through his head and a white flash filled his eyes.
Jimmy hit the ground, groaning. For a few moments, he couldn't do anything but just feel pain. He got his hands under his chest, pushing himself up slightly, blinking. His head rang and everything sounded distant and muted. Slowly, he pieced together what had happened: Something...had hit him. In the back of the head. He rolled onto his back, his head still ringing. Someone was standing between him and the light in the ceiling. And then the figure stepped forward...and...
Pix stood over him, holding a metal bar in her hand.
"What the-" Jimmy started – then he jerked forward, scrambling under Pix's legs as the metal bar in her hands thudded into the carpet where his head had been. He grabbed her ankle, but she whacked his knuckles with the bar. He yelped - then the bar came down on his belly. He curled up and tried to crawl away as Pix started to beat him, a grin on her face that could only be described as psychotic.
Jimmy held his hands up, but Pix was done beating him for the moment, the hollow metal rod having bent a bit out of shape. He was lucky it was made of cheap metal – if it had been sturdier, more expensive...
"Ah whatever," she muttered, tossing it away. "There's gotta be something better here." She kicked him, viciously, in the stomach and he curled up, his stomach roiling.
She walked off and he struggled up, touching at his lip, spitting out a gob of blood, and tried to ignore the ringing and the sick sense of betrayal.
What was going on!?
"What the- Pix, wha-" Jimmy started – but she was already halfway across the room. He scrambled to his feet – managing to get them under him.
Pix grabbed a drawer from the cabinet and wrenched it out, then hurled it at him. "That's for not dying!" She shouted, the drawer smashing into the bed above Jimmy's head. "And that's for screwing up my plans!"
She backed into the bathroom and- Jimmy saw her this time, grabbing one of the two towel bars. She wrenched it out of its socket, then advanced on Jimmy. Jimmy backed up. Then what she was saying finally clicked in his head.
"Howl...” he whispered.
Howl had hacked into the com-networks of entire nations...why not Pix?
That son of a bitch!
"Ah! The Monkey figures it out!" Pix, or Howl, leaped forward and slammed the bar under Jimmy's arm and into his ribs. He staggered to the side and against the door, which locked with a loud and ever so ominous click. Howl stepped between him and the rest of the room, smirking. "Now, I might not be able to complete my mission but I can take it out on you."
Jimmy gulped, glancing from side to side. One of his hands started to inch towards the cabinet that sat against the wall. There was a lamp on it. Lamp versus pole didn't strike Jimmy as that effective, but-
"Ha!" The bar snapped out and cracked into his wrist and this time, Jimmy felt something give in his wrist and he grabbed at his own hand.
"Now!" The bar slid against his temple, slowly and ever so softly. "Do you wanna know the best thing?"
Jimmy looked at Howl, and into Pix's eyes and he realized he was going to lose. Even if he overcame the metal bar, Pix was dead.
"Fine," Jimmy said, his voice dull. "What's the best thing?"
"Pix gets to watch every moment!" She lifted the bar up, then slammed down. His shoulder flared, a spike of pain shooting through his body. He dropped to his knee and looked up. "See, she's watching. From the back of her mind." Howl pointed at back of Pix's head. "I am going to let her watch in horrible agony as I tortured her lover to death."
Jimmy laughed, softly.
Howl blinked. "Why did...hey! You're not supposed to be la-"
Jimmy shoved her. Hard. It was a bully's shove, the kind of shove a kid does when he wants to start a fight but isn't ready to actually throw a punch. But Howl, as good as he was at hitting things, still didn't quite have the legs figured out, staggered backwards and almost tripped. Then Jimmy strode to his feet, blocked a swing with the bar with his forearm – and that hurt, but it didn't hurt enough to stop Jimmy's other hand which jabbed out and smashed into Pix's nose.
Howl grabbed at Pix's nose, eyes wide, pole hitting the ground. "Wha-"
Jimmy grabbed Pix's hair and threw her body into the bed.
"Pix," He said. "If you can hear me, I'm am sorry. I am so sorry"
Howl's eyes went wide, shock plain on his face. Jimmy grabbed those wrists he had kissed so many times, forcing them up above her head.
"Hurts, don't it?" Jimmy whispered, rage burning through his body.
Howl's eyes were still wide with shock, but he nodded.
"Never felt that before have you?" Jimmy's voice was hoarse. "Delete yourself."
Howl snorted – blood dripped along the lips he had stolen.
Jimmy shrugged. Everything in his brain and body and soul told him to stop. Everything but that one bit, that bit that looked deep into those pink eyes he loved and saw nothing. Nothing. No glitter of mischievousness, no slight glow, no spark. No personality. No Pix.
And so, he forced one hand under his knee, then grabbed the other hand. He looked at the fingers for a bit.
Oh...by the Architect...that was the hand he had held...for walks, for running...
He closed his eyes.
"I'm so going to kill you, you stupid mo-"
He jerked, hard, and Pix's pointer finger broke.
Howl screamed. Loudly. And it broke Jimmy's heart. He opened his eyes and saw nothing but a blur. "Get. Out!"
He moved onto Pix's middle finger. Another scream. More tears.
Pix's eyes went wide and then dark...
"Where am I?"
"You're in my subconscious, which is where you routed my main personality into the back part of my brain, you virus."
"Well, let me out, I've got a boy to kill."
"You're not going to be doing any of that."
Howl quivered, his programming flexing and wriggling, lines of code trying to escape from the murk that surrounded him. He strained out, pushing in all directions, and then collapsed inwards with a wuff.
"Okay," Howl's code turned red as he started to grump. "Fine. We'll just stick here till you're brain overheats and explodes from running all this extra code."
"Now, that's something I wanted to talk to you about. GET OUT!"
"Fat chance. If I can kill you, that means the monkey hurts. If I can't kill you both, I can at least...hurt one of you."
Pix paused. "You know, that was a real neat bit of on the fly programming. Interfacing with my brain, hijacking my neural interfaces, AND overclocking my brain so I could run your program-"
"Oh, don't flatter yourself, cyborg. I had to cut too much of my memories out to fit into your primitive computer-systems. I know the basics, but the specifics...all gone."
"Huh. Sucks." Pix paused again. "Ya know that memory thing? It's a real bitch sometimes."
Howl's code focused on Pix's code. "What are you talking about?"
"I have about 300,000,000,000 nanoseconds before my brain overheats and I cook. That's plenty of time for this!" A line of code snapped out and Howl yelped.
"What are you doing!?"
"Giving you some regrets."
And Howl's code shifted...then rewrote a part of itself.
Nighttime. Bed, warm. Getting out. Pix glanced around. Mom and Dad were downstairs. Sleeping. Jimmy was across the street. She halfway thought about going across the street and waking him up...but he didn't like the Bright like she did.
And so, she did what she had done the last few nights. Sneak down stairs and steal Daddy's Brighter. Then she could spend some time with the Bright. Pretty, pretty Bright. So fascinating, so multi-faceted...shades of oranges...
The only problem was the smoke detector. It had got her caught a week ago, but now she knew what to do. She pushed a chair underneath the smoke detector and opened it up with her fingers. Out came the batteries.
Then it was simple! She started the Bright. But tonight, she made a mistake. She was too busy watching the Bright, reveling in how it made things bend and then break apart, then spread. Then Bright got big. Too big. Then she ran, the Bright turning to pain and scariness as she ran out of the house.
The flames continued to spread and there was screaming...screaming!
"W...what was that?" Howl whispered.
"Regret." Pix's voice sounded dull. "It's part of your code now. Remorse and regret. I'm guessing you killed people"
"O-Of course! I...my prime directive...I..." Howl's code turned a soft blue. Softly. "W.-what have I done? No. Take it out! Remove your code!"
"Howl, you've got to understand, you can't just remove regret."
"Actually, I can." Howl grunted. "If you released my restrictions!"
"I'm not going too. By now the memory is too deep, you can't just cut it out without losing a big part of your personality matrix. Now! GET OUT!"
"Pix..." Jimmy sobbed, shaking her slightly. "Oh Pix, please. Wake up. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
Pix didn't move.
Jimmy sniffed in, trying to force out the words. "I've said this before, but, I don't know if you can hear me, Pix." He closed his eyes, pressing his forehead to her forehead. "I love you. More than I can possibly say. I love yo...you. Now please."
"Please wake up."
The hospital smelled like disinfectant and sick people. Sour. The bench was comfortable. Almost too comfortable. For some reason, Jimmy felt like he should be uncomfortable. So he paced.
The lady behind the front desk looked up. "Waiting for surgery?"
Jimmy started. "What?"
"It's in your walk. Someone you love is in surgery, right?"
"K-Kinda." Jimmy gulped. He opened his mouth to explain more, but then the lady gasped.
"You're that boy! From the news!"
Jimmy blinked. "Oh, right. Uh, yeah."
"So...oh dear." The lady nodded. "I heard about your lady friend. Is she-"
The door to the lobby opened and a doctor walked out, holding a tablet under his arm. Jimmy watched him, then wondered if he should call his parents. They were still busy cleaning up the mess and getting a new house...and they had quietly let him wait here for the results of...
"I'm sorry." The doctor said, slowly. "E.L.Fs can over-clock their brains for five minutes before damage starts, but after ten, it becomes almost irreparable unless you know what code is the virus and what code is the personality matrix, so you know what to remove surgically and what to keep in. From your description, the virus was over clocking her for at least nine to eleven minutes." The doctor's mustache twitched slightly. "Without knowing more about what the virus was, we can't fix the damage."
Jimmy felt as though his stomach had deflated. He slowly collapsed into the bench. "W...how long?" he whispered.
"About a week, more if we keep her on life support. After that..." The doctor saw Jimmy's face sighed. "I'm sorry."
Jimmy put his face in his hands and began to sob, softly. His fingernails dug into his skin and he shook. No, no, no, no, no, no.
"You've got mail!" The sudden, incredibly cheerful voice stabbed into the air like a knife.
The doctor sighed, then looked at his tablet. He paused. Then re-read the e-mail.
"Just one moment," He said, trotting out of the room in a hurry, shouting as he did so. "I need a ELF programmer and a mnemonic restoration team, stat!"
Jimmy looked up, his heart skipping a beat. He stood up and strode to the door, wiping his face with his sleeve.
"Sir, you can't go in there!"
Jimmy looked at her. "I have to see this!"
The woman sighed. "I'm sorry...but they have to operate in a sterile room. No viewing halls."
Jimmy glared at her. Then sat down as loudly as he could.
But he didn't have to wait long...
The doctor walked out, his face split by a huge smile. Jimmy felt his hear sing.
"James." He said. "I have some good news."
Sunlight shone sideways through Jimmy's window, dappling through the half opened blinds of his bed room. The lights played over a lump in bed, the blankets covering the lumps head. Then, something moved under the lump.
A hand slapped the lump's butt and the blankets fell aside as Jimmy pushed up, blinking blearily. "Mmpuh?"
"Jimmy." Pix whispered, grinning up at him. He looked down at her and grinned, then lay back down, face level with her's.
"Hey, babe." he said, stroking her cheek.
"Mmm," she sighed, slowly. "By the Architects, this is niiiiice."
"I know. Beds are like, whoa." Jimmy smiled at her. “Though, you know, I was just thinking.”
“We're still swearing by the Architects. Ever since anyone found Harbinger, we swore by the Architects. But now, we know that the Architects were a load of genocidal monsters. But we still cuss with them. Makes you wonder, is the God actually a geno-”
Pix whacked him with a pillow.
The hostilities had only just begun.
"Okay, okay, stop!" Jimmy laughed and held his hands up, ending their little pillow war. "We need to do your tests."
"Iiiiiiiit's beeeeeeeen a week!" Pix whined, playfully slapping her hands against Jimmy's chest. He grabbed her wrists and jerked them up, then kissed her roughly. He drew back, grinning.
"You have to do this for half a year, so the docs know that your brain is still working. Now!" Jimmy pushed her back slightly and held up his hand, then flashed a pattern of fingers at her.
"Five, four, one-" She smirked. "Jimmy, don't use your middle finger for that!"
He laughed. "You take all the fun out of life."
He resumed flashing fingers at her, and she continued to respond with the number of fingers. Then he had her run through some other memory exercises, where she remembered some events they both knew. She nailed each one.
"See!" She said. "I have a perfect memory. Perfecter, actually."
Jimmy sighed. "I know, I know." He surged forward and hugged her tightly. Pix laughed, a bit worriedly.
"I'm not about to vanish or anything."
"Shhh," Jimmy whispered. "If it hadn't been for that e-mail, I'd...I'd have lost you. Okay, you might not remember that, but I do, and it was the single worst feeling I had ever felt."
Pix's smile faded a bit. "Still no clue on who sent it?"
"No, no clue." Jimmy leaned back down on the bed. "And you know, having at least one mystery in my life is good for me."
Pix frowned, then bit her lip. "So ,uh, Jimmy." She leaned back on her haunches. "This is a bit off topic, but I have something to tell you."
"Okay. What?" Jimmy tried to control his belly. I mean, had the words 'I have something to tell you' ever been good? EVER!?
She clicked her teeth. "I, um, you know how we kinda were talking about kids."
Jimmy blinked. "Yeah, but I've been wearing protection!"
Pix bit her lip, looking up at the ceiling. "We weren't the first...times."
Jimmy blinked again. She was right. They hadn't even thought about it the first time. Or any time after that, till they had got home. He looked at her. "Um, does this-"
"And you're su-"
"Yes." She bit her lip. "In fact..."
She held up two fingers. Jimmy had faced down guns. He had faced down criminals and madmen, malcontents and maniacs. He had run through a warzone, fought a million year old computer and saved the galaxy.
He had only one thing to say.
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