Chapter 30: Darkness Be My Friend
The night was nearly over, and the world waited for morning to creep into dark places. Outside the tents, dense fog filled the air, shrouding the pre-dawn sky in shades of gray. Jimmy shifted uncomfortably in his sleep, then sat bolt upright at the sound of muffled footsteps beside him. April clamped her hand over his mouth to stifle his sharp intake of air.
“Shh,” she hissed. “Wake the others.”
Shaking off sleep, he turned to the huddled group of kids sprawled out on makeshift beds on the floor. “Psst. Hey. Cindy, Libby…wake up. Hey.”
Cindy stirred and squinted over at him. “Neutron, what the…? ...the sun's not even up yet…”
“Shh, be quiet,” he whispered. “April was here just a second ago. Get Carl and Sheen up, and be quick about it.”
The girls rolled over and prodded the sleeping boys, who stirred fitfully before finally sitting up.
Carl rubbed his eyes. “Aww, I was having the nicest dream about my Swedish penpal Elke riding a llama…”
“That’s nothing!” blurted Sheen. “My dream had hula hoops, George Washington, and a hot tub filled with donut glaze.”
Aurora poked her head in through the tent’s metal flap. “Is everyone up?”
The kids moaned in response.
“Shh!” she urged, glancing back over her shoulder. “We’re leaving now. A low-lying cloud bank just rolled in, and it’ll provide the cover we need to take off. Be as quiet as possible. The villagers are back, and although Gorlocks tend to be pretty sound sleepers, it’s best not to take any chances.”
She ducked out, and the tent’s occupants grudgingly extracted themselves from the tangled mess of leaves and animal furs in which they had slept. In various states of waking, they shuffled out of the tent and into the misty clearing beyond the circle of huts.
Nav waited outside, buttoning up his gray coat. “Morning, compatriots. Man, I slept like a ROCK.”
“Ugh…” groaned Cindy.
“And would you get a load of this weather? Drab and miserable. Just the way I like to start another grim day of villainy.”
“Oh jeez. You’re a morning person, aren’t you.”
He pinched her cheek obnoxiously. “You're so adorable when you hate my guts.”
April joined them a moment later, and her lithe frame supported an astonishing number of weapons. She had a gigantic cannon strapped across her shoulders, and four sets of holsters lined her legs. Two curved knives glinted from a compartment on her left boot, and as if that weren’t enough, she carried what appeared to be the alien equivalent of an AK47 in her hands.
“Wow,” said Nav. “April, you look…um…”
“Well-equipped?” she provided hopefully.
“I was gonna say ‘homicidal’, but sure…”
“Aww, Nav, you are too kind.”
Carl’s voice piped out of the early morning darkness. “Umm, sorry, but…when’s breakfast?”
“No time to cook, I’m afraid,” replied Nav. “Luckily for you, my rotund friend, I brought these.”
He reached into his coat and produced five shrink-wrapped energy bars. He passed them out to the kids, who eyed them with some suspicion before sampling them gingerly.
“Behold the wonder that is the Astrobar,” he narrated cheerfully, “…’specially formulated for people who spend long periods of time traveling through space. Guaranteed to fill you up and keep you going for 18 hours. Unfortunately they taste like buttcrack, so…”
Cindy choked noisily and spat out the piece in her mouth.
“Your choice of words never ceases to amaze me, Nav,” said Aurora as she materialized out of the fog. “Lead the way, oh simile-challenged one. Sunrise is in twenty minutes.”
“Your wish is my command.”
Future Libby’s crystal voice echoed from somewhere inside one of the huts. “Wait for me!”
Aurora rolled her eyes. “Libby, you take longer to get ready than any other human being I’ve ever met.”
Scuffling sounds ensued, and Future Libby rushed out of the hut. All the males in the group immediately did a double-take when they saw her outfit, which consisted of a skimpy Mandarin dress and enough rings and bracelets to sink a small rowboat. She wore a golden bindi and a pair of hoop earrings, and there were henna designs painted on her hands and feet.
Aurora’s eyes grew wide. “Libby, WHAT are you wearing?”
“Well, I thought that since I might be seein’ Sheen, I oughtta look nice…” She trailed off.
“Libby, we are going into battle,” said Aurora, rubbing her temples. “And you’re in a dress. A impractical and revealing dress, I might add. Are you mental?”
“Well if it makes ya feel any better, I’m not wearin’ heels…”
Aurora threw her hands in the air. “Somebody tell me this is a dream.”
Nav smirked in Future Libby’s direction. “It's my dream.”
This remark earned Nav a smack upside the head, and a slow smile crossed Future Libby’s lips. “So…I look nice?”
“Sheen’s liable to have a brain hemorrhage, Libs,” said Aurora. “Congratulations. Now can we please get going?”
Nav orated dramatically. “Sagya drahat sha’a keel…”
“Say what?” asked Libby.
“It's one of those sayings that can't be literally translated. Means something like, 'It ain’t over till the fat lady sings' in Numerian.”
“But what does that…”
“Just felt like saying it.”
The tired and somewhat irate group followed Nav out of the village and across the steppes. They somehow managed to choke down the Astrobars, and by the time they reached the shipyard, the horizon was tinged with sunrise. The craft that awaited them was an ugly, bronze-colored wreck covered in dents and patches of rust. From the look of things, the Shahada was made up of three or four different spaceship models haphazardly welded together. Nav stopped in front of the ship, planted his hands on his hips, and gazed up at it with a sigh.
“Aww, home sweet home.”
“That thing is hideous,” said Cindy.
“It's better than my last heap, the Roadkill Sloth.”
“Don’t look at me,” said Nav. “Aurora named it.”
“The title fit, trust me,” she returned.
Goddard bounded down the gangplank and rushed to Jimmy, barking in excitement. He greeted his master with a slobbery face-licking, and Jimmy laughed as he pushed his pet off him.
"Glad to see you’re feeling better, boy. How’s your battery level?”
A screen popped up on Goddard’s chest, showing a fully charged energy bar and a power level of 98%.
“Looks like you’re good to go.”
Jimmy petted Goddard some more, and Aurora began to tap her foot anxiously.
Nav picked up on her impatience. “Right this way, ladies and gents.”
He swaggered up the ship’s copper-colored gangplank and came to a stop in front of the dinged-up metal entrance. The door was bolted to the fuselage by a series of forty or so separate locks. They came in all shapes and sizes, and they gave the entryway the look of a deranged, maximum security prison. Nav whipped out his left arm, and a shiny metal pin sprung from his mechanical finger like a Swiss army knife. He held it out for inspection by his audience and then, with dramatic flair, proceeded to pick the locks at lightning speed. Seconds later every bolt, padlock, and latch flipped open. Future Libby, Carl, and Sheen oohed and awwed at the performance.
“After you…” He pushed on the door and motioned for them to enter. April gave his arm a squeeze as she and Aurora breezed past.
Aurora glanced back at him with a suppressed smile. “Show-off…”
Nav stuck up his nose. “You’re just jealous of my mind-boggling talent.”
One by one, they filed into the bridge. In the dimness, the occupants could barely make out the piles of junk heaped chaotically throughout.
“Let there be light!” proclaimed Nav.
A tired, yellowish bulb flickered to life overhead. It blinked off and on sleepily, before illuminating the contents of the room in alternating splashes of gold and black. The kids surveyed their surroundings in awe. The entire room was filled floor-to-ceiling with stolen goods, ranging from broken-down farm equipment to chests heaped high with priceless gemstones and wads of cash.
“Welcome to the bridge, everyone. Make yourselves at home.”
Libby gazed around, starry-eyed. “So…much…stuff!”
Libby, Cindy, and Future Libby propped open a wooden trunk and started drooling over the fancy clothing inside; Sheen picked up an old, dirty shoe and gave it a sniff. Jimmy examined a half-crushed ray gun of some sort, and Carl jumped in surprise when he caught a glimpse of his Gothic reflection in a length of broken mirror. Future Libby lifted an intricately embroidered velvet dress from the trunk and held it out.
“That’s for my little sister, Laudya,” said Nav. “You like?”
“I’ll say! This thing looks fit for a queen!”
“Only the best for my angel,” smiled Nav dreamily.
Cindy tossed a shirt back into the trunk. “Was that sarcasm, or genuine?”
“Oh no, he was being serious,” said April. “He worships the ground she walks on. Isn’t that right?”
Nav shrugged. “Sad, but true.”
Jimmy made a face as he gingerly lifted a ladle from under a pair of gigantic underpants. He turned to face Nav, holding it as far away from his body as possible.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Nav, is there a reason behind these bizarre pack-rat tendencies? Do you steal for a reason, or are you just a kleptomaniac?”
“Oh, I have a reason. I'm no idiot. I know that money makes the world go round. And the more money I get, the more I get to say WHICH way the world goes round. Everything here has value. I can pawn off all this junk for profit.”
“What are you gonna do with all the money?” asked Libby.
“Why, I’m going to BUY Numeria, of course.”
Jimmy dropped the ladle. “You’re going to buy your home planet? Why?”
“Well, let’s just put it this way – my planet is a backwater cesspool of misguided religious fundamentalists ruled over by a bunch of selfish egotistical lying hypocritical bigots.”
Future Libby blinked. “…That’s a mouthful.”
Nav straightened. “But not for much longer. Once I buy Numeria, I can put those self-important windbags out of their misery. Then Numeria might actually stand a chance of becoming a place where people can live decent lives.”
“Sounds noble,” said Future Libby.
“Not really. I don't give a rat’s ass about what happens to the people I steal from, and I don't care who I have to kill on Numeria to set things right. All I know is, I’m not going to sit by and watch my baby sister grow up in a world where she has no rights, no chance at any future other than as the third wife of some drunkard who can beat her any time he pleases. That girl’s an angel, and there are a thousand others just like her with nobody to watch out for them. It's time somebody changed the way people think on Numeria, and I intend to do that, even if I have to personally burn every last copy of our oppression-filled, lie-spewing, sewer-scum Holy Book.”
“Does your sister like…know you’re a crazy notorious thief?” asked Cindy.
“Nah. I try to keep her sheltered from all that stuff. Course, then again, I don’t see her that often. When she was eight, I took her off Numeria so my idiot parents wouldn't marry her off the second she came of age. I brought her to Mejair, a rural planet with a matriarchal system. She’s been there ever since. It’s a nice enough place...lots of gardens. She likes that.”
“How old is she now?” pried Cindy.
“And she STILL doesn’t know?”
“What the heck?! Why haven’t you told her?”
A hint of anger leaked into his expression. “Hey!” he shouted defensively. “With this last ship-full of stuff, I’ll have enough to buy the stupid planet. Then I’ll explain everything to her. Satisfied?”
“Not really. Your plan makes next to no sense, but hey, if you want to lie to your sister and buy her a planet with stolen money, that's your choice.”
He turned to glare down at her. “What business is it of yours what I do with my life?”
Aurora stepped in and offered a gesture of pacification. “Um, I’m afraid that this time it’s MY turn to break up the argument. Nav, we need to go.”
“Ah, yes. Good point.” He shook his head, then forced a smile. “Sorry. I always get so riled up when I talk about this crap. I bloody HATE Numeria. Sometimes I wish the Dictator would just torch the place and be done with it.”
He strolled over to the pilot’s seat, which was nothing more than a swivel chair plunked in front of an antiquated control panel. He kicked off his boots, and they sailed across the room and crashed into a towering stack of gold coins. The kids watched as a fortune cascaded onto the floor.
“All righty Aurora, hit me with some coordinates.”
Aurora gripped the back of his chair and proclaimed the information confidently. “P24-505, outer spiral arm Delta, Sector B, 92.4 million miles from star B Arcturias Galladia, bearing mark 2 degrees on the ecliptic.”
Nav hurriedly punched in the information, and the ship lifted off the ground and rocketed skyward. The entire room shook and jostled from the force of the thrusters, and the ship’s occupants struggled to maintain their footing. Future Libby held on tight to Aurora, who seemed unfazed by the violently quaking cockpit. Cindy and Libby pitched forward, and the boys toppled backward and crashed into a pile of silver trinkets.
“Uh…you might want to hold on to something,” said Nav. “The Shahada’s inertial dampeners are pretty much shot…”
“I noticed,” grumbled Jimmy.
The passengers were subjected to one final, sharp jolt as the ship broke free of the clouds. All at once the ride became smooth, and the kids sat up again.
“OK, we’ve reached the exosphere…How are we doing back there?”
“Fine,” replied Aurora.
“How about you minis?” asked Nav.
They extricated themselves from the piles of treasure, brushing off coins and bits of jewelry as if they were dust. Nav saw Cindy and Libby stealthily slip a few into their pockets along the way, and he hid a smile.
“Makes me miss the Desperado…” said Libby, straightening her suit.
Carl stretched and let out a massive yawn. “I miss the bunk beds. I’m so sleepy all of the sudden.”
“Me too. Guess we haven’t been sleepin’ enough lately.” She yawned as well, and it swept through the room like a contagion.
“Man, I am WIPED,” said Sheen. “I feel like I’ve been doing battle against the Robofiend-Megatron Mechamorph from the Ultralord-Transformer Power Hour.”
“Why don’t you lie down?” suggested Nav. “There are a couple of bean bag chairs there in the corner. You can take a little rest.”
Jimmy wiped his eyes and nodded. “Hmm. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to lie down for just a little while…”
The five of them marched their tired limbs over to a circle of neon-bright beanbag chairs amidst the rest of the clutter. It took all of their remaining energy just to collapse onto the makeshift beds.
“Jimmy,” pleaded Carl, “will you rub my tummy and sing nonny…nonny … nonny…” His voice faded, and before long his loud snore reverberated through the cockpit. Within thirty seconds, the others followed him into sleep.
Aurora watched them with the slightest expression of concern. “OK, that was weird. I mean, I knew they were tired, but…”
“I certainly hope they are not ill!” exclaimed April. “That would be detrimental to our mission! Nav, how long till we reach the planet?”
Nav folded his hands behind his neck and reclined in his chair. “Don’t worry, they’ll wake up before we get there.”
Aurora turned on him slowly, eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Nav, that’s your evil voice. What did you DO to them?”
He toyed with a lock of hair, fluttering his eyelashes innocently. “Well, I may have drugged their astrobars…”
“I laced them with sleeping pills.”
“WHAT? Sleeping pills? Nav, you idiot! What could you possibly have been thinking?!”
“Relax. Did you see the circles under their eyes? They were exhausted. It takes like…what…five hours to get to P24-505? I knew that if they stayed awake they’d just stress the whole time. It’s better this way.”
“Why do you ALWAYS pull crap like this right before a mission?” demanded Aurora angrily. “You can’t just drug people without letting me know! Are you completely brainless? God, Nav, this kind of reckless behavior is exactly what gets you into trouble all the time!”
“Hey, what are getting mad at me for? I had their best interests in mind!”
April placed a consolatory hand on Aurora’s shoulder. “Aurora, I think he meant well. Perhaps you should calm down.”
Aurora threw her hands up. “Don’t defend him! Just…I don’t know! Ugh! Do something to punish him so he won’t do it again!”
April considered for a moment, then leaned forward and pronounced Nav’s punishment with perfect seriousness. “No licentious midnight trysts for a whole week, Nav.”
“Aww, man! What a rip-off!”
“Eew, April!” squealed Aurora. “Keep that sort of stuff to yourself!”
“What? You asked me to…”
“You know what? Never mind. I’m sorry, I guess I’m just a little tense. Maybe I should go do something to take my mind off it.” She paced up and down, radiating nervous energy as she pondered. She snapped her fingers. “Aha! I’ve got it. I’ll go to the cargo bay and check the fighter-ships.” She headed toward the sliding door that led out of the cockpit, turning circles around herself as she chattered. “I’ll run full system diagnostics and check the stabilizers, then make sure the restraints and inertial dampeners are working properly and…”
She continued talking as she exited the room, until the sliding doors abruptly cut off the sound of her preoccupied rambling. There was a moment of silence, then Nav spun around in his swivel chair. He glanced up at April and ran his hands over the front of the chair suggestively.
“So…April. How about a licentious midday tryst?”
-> Chapter 31 ->