26: The Council
Twenty minutes later, the whole group stood at the top of the hill, sweating and panting.
“I had no idea I was this out of shape…” said Future Libby, gasping for air. “I better start exercisin' or I’ll get fat. Oh no! Cindy, am I fat?”
“Don't be ridiculous. It's just the humidity. Besides, it’s hardly surprising to feel a bit drained after not sleeping all night and then climbing up a mountain.”
Lee, the only one in the group who seemed unfazed by the hike, threw her a puzzled glance.“I am not sure I understand you. This was certainly not a mountain, merely a small hill.”
Nobody had the energy to retort, and Lee gestured for his visitors to follow him inside. They passed under a portcullis, its metal prongs hanging down from the mouth of the door like crooked fangs. The building itself was fashioned from ancient stone, its surface white with age and mottled with patches of moss and lichen. The bricks had come loose in places, and iridescent reptiles crawled between the cracks, nesting in the dark places where stones once had been.
Jimmy looked up at the ruins as they entered. “How old is this place ?”
“Even we do not know,” replied Lee. “This building has been here for as long as our people can remember. It was constructed long ago, back before the 700 year civil war. We no longer know where it came from or what purpose it once served, but we figured from its sheer size that it must have been important, so we decided to make it our capitol building.”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “How clever.”
“Isn't it? I am part of the team working to decipher the runes on the interior walls...our traditional writing system has been lost for centuries, but I am confident that with proper study I can change that. Anyway, moving on...”
They proceeded down a darkened passageway, pushing aside the vines and tendrils that dangled from the low-lying ceiling. The muddy terrain and the cramped space only served to exacerbate the humidity. As they pushed through, a lithe Gorlock sporting two curved blades slunk past. She cast them a furtive glance, her magenta eyes narrowed in suspicion, and a collective chill shot up their spines.
Libby shivered once she had rounded the next corner. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“It is a bit on the unpleasant side,” admitted Jimmy, “but I’m sure there’s nothing to be afraid of…”
Jimmy trailed off when Lee burst into a rather disconcerting chuckle. “If you are not expecting danger, my diminutive friend, then you surely do not know the Gorlock way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means, small one, that you will be meeting some rather interesting people before the evening is out. Contrary to what many outsiders believe, the Gorlock Council is not exactly what you would call a 'legally upstanding' organization. It is comprised of some of the most notorious criminals alive today…some of whom are almost as dangerous as the Dictator himself.” The kids gaped at him, and Lee continued on nonchalantly. “After all, you must ask yourself: how do you defeat a power-crazed, criminal mastermind? Why, with other power-crazed, criminal masterminds, of course!”
He smiled again, as if the whole situation was somehow delightfully amusing. Carl’s eyes widened as he looked up at Lee.
“Are YOU a criminal mastermind?”
Lee laughed. “Far from it, I am afraid. I am merely a cultural relations expert…nothing to be proud of.”
Jimmy shot him a nervous glance. “Lee, just what kind of people are we talking about here? I don’t like the idea of walking into a room of murderous convicts empty-handed.”
“Well, Aurora and April are on the council, and as their guests I am sure they will not let harm befall you – unless it suits them. But we shall see, won’t we? Come now, we have arrived at the central chambers.”
Strange symbols and patches of red moss dotted the arched roof, while rays descended through a small skylight and lit up the empty stone table in the center of the room. Carved in the shape of a capital T, the table was pitted with craters and other scars of old age. Rows of stadium seating stretched along the curved walls like an Roman amphitheater, and spectators of a dozen species occupied the rows.
Future Libby glanced around. “Should we sit down, or…”
A rather ugly-looking Gorlock wearing a horned helmet entered the room. He cleared his throat and smashed his staff against the broken floor tiles. Every head in the room snapped over in his direction.
“Hear this!” bellowed the Gorlock. “All spectators to their seats immediately! Anyone found standing will be thrown out of the council chambers and beaten!”
As expected, nobody argued with such impeccable logic. Lee and his charges found spots facing the base of the table, which afforded them an excellent vantage point of the council members as they entered the room. The first to appear were five Gorlocks, led by a tall, willowy female laden with jewelry. Her light purple hair, which fell nearly to her waist, was streaked with ribbons of silver, and a string of luminous beads encircled her neck. Only a small blaster weapon hanging from her belt broke her formal attire. Four heavily-armed males followed her, running their fingers over their weapons with each scowling step. The group lined up along the edge of the table, all eyes upon them.
“Lee, who are they?” whispered Future Libby.
“This is the Gorlock High Council, the most powerful group of people on our planet. The female there – Lady Jaya – she is the High Council leader. The other four are the top-ranking Generals in the Gorlock army. The five of them act as an administrative panel, moderating the conferences with our allies and…sorting out those who need to be sorted out, if you catch my meaning.”
Jimmy shuddered, but Libby stared at Lady Jaya in admiration.
“I’ve never seen a Gorlock with such beautiful hair…I didn’t even know you guys HAD hair.”
“Ah, yes, well…in our culture, long hair is a sign of rank. Only those commanding the highest prestige may grow their hair long.” Lee lifted off his helmet to expose the thin covering of purple fuzz on his head. “I do not possess a high military rank, so my hair must be cropped short. April’s, however, is considerably longer…nearly chin length, an impressive accomplishment for one so young.” Lee laughed quietly, as if recalling an old memory. “I remember when the General in charge of our division tried to make Aurora cut her hair. Ha! That was a sight! She nearly…”
Jimmy whacked him in the ribs. “Shh, she’s saying something…”
Lady Jaya spread her arms in a gesture that showcased her well-developed muscles. When she spoke, her voice was sharp and full of power. “The 19th tribunal of the Gorlock Council and its allies will now begin.”
The remaining twelve members of the council filed into the room. Aurora entered first, and Jimmy caught her eye when she brushed past. He felt a momentary surge of confidence, until he got his first glimpse of the other council members.
“Hey, I know those guys!” burst out Sheen. “They’re…”
Cindy clapped a hand over Sheen’s mouth before he could blurt out the incriminating words. Her eyes flashed to catch Lee’s reaction, but he seemed distracted.
Jimmy, meanwhile, felt his heart freeze inside his chest. Aside from April and Aurora, the gathering contained six other familiar faces. There, in the very same room, were some of Jimmy’s oldest enemies: King Goobot, Eustace Strych, Beautiful Gorgeous, and the three space bandits, Zix, Tee, and Travoltron. Jimmy gulped audibly, and the kids inched further into the shadows.
Jaya’s voice rang out. “The council may be seated!”
They took their seats in unison. The five members of the High Council were stationed at the far end of the table; Aurora sat directly opposite them at the base of the T. Jimmy swallowed apprehensively, then whispered to Lee, his voice rising and falling with feigned innocence.
“Um, Lee, since we haven’t met ANY of these people before today, would you mind filling us in on their identities? Quietly, of course.”
“Certainly. Where should I begin?”
Cindy pinched Jimmy on the forearm. “You’re just lucky Lee is completely clueless,” she whispered, “or you could have just blown our cover. Try not to be such an obvious liar next time."
“I guess I just don’t have as much practice as some people around here…” he muttered with a covert scowl.
Before Cindy could offer a retaliatory comment, Lee indicated Beautiful Gorgeous, who was seated beside Aurora on the right. The single streak of white in her jet black hair was the only indication of the ten years that had passed since the destruction of Earth.
“The first one there on the right is a human female like Aurora. I am afraid I do not know much about her, as her criminal activities rarely intersect with my circles. From what I understand, however, she was an enemy of the Dictator in his youth. She apparently left Earth in her father’s unfinished escape device —”
“Sounds familiar…” muttered Cindy under her breath.
“— only to run out of fuel in space, where she was picked up by a group of interstellar environmentalists.”
Beautiful Gorgeous tapped her fingernails on the table, looking vastly bored by the constant jabbering of the man beside her: Eustace Strych. He was prematurely bald, and his prominent front teeth did little to improve his appearance. His custom-made designer business suit was perhaps his only attractive feature – that, and the wads of cash that he openly counted in front of everyone.
“Good God, look at Strych!” said Cindy.
Jimmy smirked. “Still think you two have a lot in common?”
She glared at him.
“I’m sorry,” said Lee, “perhaps I misunderstood. Do you two know the pallid male seated beside her?”
Cindy and Jimmy practically jumped out of their seats. “No!”
Lee looked confused for a moment, then relaxed and proceeded with his speech. “Well, he is also a human. His name is Master Strych, and he is an intergalactic business mogul whose vast funds help to finance the war effort. He is always asking Aurora out on these things called 'dates', but I do not think she appreciates the gesture. The last time he asked, she punched him in the face. Then again, he did attempt some unwanted physical contact that clearly…”
“Eeew, OK, enough,” Cindy waved him on. “Next please.”
“Next we have three members of a space bandits gang who routinely pass themselves off as asteroid inspectors...”
Lee told them nothing they didn't already know about Zix, Tee, or Travoltron, and his information on King Goobot proved similarly familiar. It wasn't until Lee moved on to the other members of the council that their interest truly peaked. April occupied the seat to Aurora’s left, and a hooded figure loomed beside her. The fabric enshrouding the creature was brown, ragged, and pockmarked with holes, and a mustard-yellow haze seemed to cling to him. His only visible feature was the hooked nose that protruded from the opening in his hood. Cindy bent over and whispered to Jimmy in disgust.
“That weird guy in the shroud…his nose is covered in boils and open sores. It’s gross.”
“I noticed. Lee, what’s up with the lumpy guy?”
“Ahh, yes. That is Hawk, named for the famous beak-like nose that sticks out from under his hood. Hawk is well known for his utter insanity and his expertise in the field of biological weaponry. He is one of the Seven Samarkandi…”
“Seven Samarwhat?” repeated Carl.
Lee looked surprised. “You must be very sheltered indeed if you have not heard of the Samarkandi. The Samarkandi are the seven most wanted criminals alive today. Guilty of crimes ranging from mass murder to grand theft: spacecraft, they are incredibly dangerous. They are ranked in order from one to seven, with one being the most lethal, and seven the least. I believe that you are all familiar with the 1st Samarkandi...Jimmy Neutron, the Galactic Dictator.”
“You mean this…Hawk person is right up there with Evil Jimmy?” asked Libby incredulously. “And you’re ALLIED with him?”
“Yes…though he’s not quite as dangerous as the Dictator. Hawk is the 6th Samarkandi. And you might not believe it, but the man sitting next to him is actually the 7th Samarkandi, Nav Aksha’at…”
He spoke the name almost scornfully, barely bothering to raise a hand to point him out. Nav was seated next to the hooded monstrosity. He appeared perfectly human in every way, with the exception of the metal plates, bolts, and screws welded to nearly every part of his body. His left arm was mechanical, and crisscrossing belts gleamed under his gray long-coat. His blonde hair stuck up almost straight, except for a few loose strands that dangled over his forehead, partially obscuring two smiling gray eyes. The strip of silver metal welded above his right eyebrow caught the light from time to time, spinning off reflections in all directions.
“That guy…” breathed Libby. “He’s…”
“A cyborg?” finished Cindy.
“Hmm. I don’t think so,” said Jimmy. “The mechanical parts look secondary to me. He must have been quite normal at one time; the metal additions were probably welded on little by little, perhaps as a crude way to treat injuries.”
“Poor thing,” crooned Future Libby. “He’s so cute, too…”
Lee turned his face away to mutter. “That is what they all think…” He cleared his throat. “Nav Aksha’at is a member of a race known as Numerians, whose similarity to humans points either to a spectacular example of convergent evolution, or perhaps (as some anthropologists speculate) to an alien relocation of a group of humans in antiquity. Numerians usually are not big on crime outside their own planet, but Nav breaks the mold, in more ways than one. Keep your eye on him for awhile, and you will see what I mean.”
“Will do,” said Future Libby. “So, are any of the other Samarkandi your allies?”
“We work with the 5th from time to time, but he is very unreliable. He is a pathological liar and is always skipping town at the most inopportune times.”
“What about the others?” asked Cindy. “The top four, besides Dictator Jimmy, I mean.”
Lee threw her a look. “Let’s just say that you would not to be in the same room with one of the top four Samarkandi. You would not last long.”
“But please, enough on this subject. Let us move on to more interesting things…like the creature seated beside Nav.”
The creature in question was as tiny as a sprite and had two yellow eyes set in a cherubic face. Its pink skin glistened with some sort of liquid coating, and two barbs protruded from its head, waggling as they tracked the sounds in the room.
“That thing is called Pinxit. Do not let its appearance fool you…it is extremely poisonous. Its skin secretes a neurotoxin, and the barbs on its skull contain enough venom to kill an adult Gorlock in less than 5 seconds.”
“Cool!” said Sheen. “I’d like to get my hands on some of that! Haha. Then rub it all over Carl!”
“Quiet!” hushed Jimmy. “Let Lee talk!”
“I’m sorry, what? Ah yes…finishing. Lastly, we have Tartune.”
Lee pointed out the final member of the council where she was seated on the far left. She turned out to be the same frightening Gorlock that they had encountered on the way in. Her hair was so dark purple that it appeared black, and two golden scimitars rested on her back, rising and falling with each breath she took.
“Tartune is…” Lee frowned. “…something of an enigma, actually. She cannot speak, but she is a prodigy in combat, and when Lady Jaya ventures outside her sphere of influence, Tartune acts as her personal bodyguard. She once defeated an entire squadron of highly trained Gorlock soldiers with her bare hands. She seems half-mad, and frankly, she terrifies everyone. That is why she is on the council, of course. Terror breeds respect.”
“Not in Nav’s case, I’m guessing,” said Future Libby.
“How do you mean?”
She pointed a manicured nail at him. “Look. I think he’s breakin’ the mold as we speak…”
The Numerian was entertaining himself by teasing the only person at the gathering who was conceivably more dangerous than him. After scrutinizing Hawk's features with comical intensity, Nav hunched forward and pulled his coat over his head as if it were a hood. He pursed his face into the surliest expression imaginable, then crooked his finger at the tip of his nose. He went on to copy every move Hawk made, and the mimicry was so perfect that it nearly sent the kids into a giggling fit…until they remembered their current situation and thought better of it. Grinning irreverently, Nav concluded the parody by wiggling his finger-nose at Pinxit, who hissed in response.
“I don’t believe it,” said Cindy. “He’s a total idiot.”
“He likes to appear that way,” said Lee. “He counts on his charisma to get him out of the worst situations...ones that he usually causes. He is ranked among the Seven Samarkandi for one simple reason: he has stolen more in ten short years than any other man who has ever lived. It is estimated that the cost of the stolen items equals more than 175 times the Galactic Annual Budget. Nav will literally steal ANYTHING that is not nailed down…and if it is, he will steal the nail and call it even. He has stolen many things...” Lee paused and cleared his throat. “Did I mention that Nav is April’s fiancé?”
“WHAT?” gasped Libby.
“Her FIANCÉ?” repeated Jimmy. “Are you kidding me?”
Cindy smacked her forehead. “Jeez, you think you could have told us this earlier!! It kind of seems like an important detail, don’t ya think?”
Lee looked away, eyebrow twitching slightly. It took him a moment to get his face under control before resuming his familiar tour guide manner. Future Libby surprised them all by leaning forward and touching Lee gently on the shoulder.
“You like her, don’t you? April I mean. You don’t want her to marry this Nav guy.”
Lee stuttered, taken completely off guard. “Well, I…I didn’t…How did you?…”
Future Libby shrugged. “I’m a girl. We know these things.”
Lee leaned back and sighed. “I don’t normally discuss personal matters with visitors, but since you have already inferred the truth of the situation, I see no harm in answering. Ever since I was a small child, I have thought of no one but her. But it does not matter – the fact is, I could never measure up to either her Gorlock suitors or to Nav. I am just a history geek who could not beat her in a fight, even if my life depended on it. What Gorlock woman would ever want a man weaker than herself? No, I am not like Nav. He has a talent for getting into all sorts of exciting adventures…and he is very handsome, at least by Numerian standards. April has a thing for foreign men.”
“Maybe if you told her how you felt, it’d change things?” suggested Future Libby.
“No, no. I know she would never want me, or I would have told her long ago.”
He looked down glumly, just in time for something to smack him on the head. Rubbing his newly acquired bump, he picked up the offending object, which turned out to be a scrap of paper folded into a triangular shape. He uncrumpled it and scanned the words:
Shut your yaps, will ya? You’re going to draw attention to yourselves with that little sideline conversation. While I appreciate you giving our guests a history lesson, I’d rather not have to explain to the High Council why I brought a bunch of tourists in here. Try not to be so obvious! -Aurora
Color rushed into Lee’s cheeks, and he instantly clamped his mouth shut. The kids followed his example when a loud shout snapped them back to the proceedings at hand.
Lady Jaya’s voice rung out across the chamber like a thunderclap. King Goobot melted back into his chair beneath her furious stare.
“I do not care who you are back on your planet! Here in this room, you will follow MY rules. If I hear even one more insubordinate word leave your mouth, I will empty out your insides! Now be silent!”
Nobody dared to make eye contact with her, except Nav, who leaned back comfortably and smiled. “That’s the spirit, love. You tell him.” He put his feet up on the table one at a time, then began idly tugging on the silver earring he wore in one ear. “Now, while I’ve got your attention, would you mind telling me why I always get sandwiched between the two most outrageously boring hunks of meat to ever set foot on Gorlock soil? Surely there must be more entertaining company than the anorexic pink dwarf and the potato sack propped up against the table to my right!”
The hulking mass next to him emitted a low rumbling sound, somewhere between a gurgle and a growl.
Nav clasped his hands in mock delight. “Oh! He said his first words…I’m so proud!” He beckoned excitedly at Aurora. “Quick honey, write this down! Our precious bundle of delight spoke! His first word: “Glurg”. You see? I knew he’d take after you!”
April covered a smile, and Aurora threw him a look of amused tolerance.
“That’s enough of your humor, Nav,” said Lady Jaya. “We have business to attend to.”
He slammed his fist down on the table. “Ya people! This is a criminal organization for Christ’s sake! Look sharp!” He leaned over and whispered to Aurora. “Mind telling me who this Christ character of yours is anyway? ‘Cause he definitely isn’t good enough for you, so stop seeing him.”
Lady Jaya sunk into her chair, rubbing her temples. “This is going to be a long meeting…”
Hawk’s voice reverberated out of his hood, a sort of rattling, hissing sound. “We need to discuss the issue of my payment. I refuse to cooperate further until I receive my money.”
Nav nonchalantly tossed a pile of cash his way, and Hawk’s clawed, wart-covered hand shot out to snatch the bills as they tumbled through the air like wayward leaves.
“That enough for ya?”
Eustace Strych began patting down his suit pockets, then looked up in astonishment. "Hey! That’s my money! How did you…?”
His mouth refused to form the rest of the sentence, and Nav shrugged casually. “It’s not like you’re going to run out any time soon.”
“Shut yo mouth, foo!” growled Tee. “We got more important stuff to talk ‘bout!”
“Ya, Strych,” said Zix. “You’re not the only one losing money here. I’d like to remind the council that we still haven’t divvied up the profits from our last operation.”
“And what about the proposal I submitted at our last meeting?” added Beautiful Gorgeous. “How much longer will you continue to ignore that? When I joined this organization, I expected an equal voice!”
Lady Jaya raised her palms in a gesture of pacification. “All in good time. Please, try to focus. Today’s meeting is an important one. We’re here today to confirm the details of the final attack on the Dictator. All other requests and questions will have to wait.”
“Oh, it’s always something, Lady Jaya,” said Eustace. “Can’t we ever discuss the issues WE want to talk about? I say we should postpone the attack a little longer. I have a big deal going down on one of the crime planets, and I’d like to finish up before starting a new project.”
“Quiet, moneybags,” scowled Beautiful, “the date of the final attack has already been postponed twice. There’s no way we’re postponing it again.”
Pinxit joined in the conversation. It spoke in a cold hiss, drawing out each word into a breathless whisper. “Yess, ssooner iss betterrr. Thisss planettt doess not ssuit me. We mustt killll himmmm…”
“Majority rules,” said Lady Jaya. “We have already taken a vote to confirm the date of the attack.”
Aurora raised her hand tentatively, and Lady Jaya shot her a sharp glance. “You wish to speak, Aurora?”
“With your permission, Lady Jaya, I’d like to take a few minutes to go over the details again…personally.”
Lady Jaya impatiently beckoned her to proceed. “Make it quick, human.”
-> Chapter 27
Note: The character
"Tartune" is owned by Krista, who won my "get your character in TOSOT!"