Chapter Eighteen: Jet Pack Blues
Alternately "The Story of Alex". Yes this is a prologue.
An incomprehensible murmur came from the speakers overhead, and a warning sign lit up: if you've been dumb enough not to put on your seatbelt yet, better do it now, and also we're not liable for anything that happens to your idiotic self for not doing it. So if footing a hefty hospital bill whilst nursing several broken bones is your thing, by all means leave that thing off, it's a free country. Or at least, that was the spirit of the alert.
Alex had already applied her seatbelt as advised by her newfound companion. News was just now getting around about the tragedy in the Citadel. It's surprisingly difficult to get news in about a mass tragedy when everyone inside the city limits was dead. Luckily for Alex, she had found herself curling in a ball inside her childhood home a minute after everyone was vaporized. Not exactly the least traumatic event for a twelve year old girl to witness.
As possibly the only survivor who wasn't in some sort of mechanized transport, Alex was most likely the last of the former Citadel residents to reach civilization, which she found in the form of the Eleka Mining Outpost three kilometers east of West Mindeavor. The first person to notice her was the brown-haired girl hauling up iron into a worn, nameplated chest. As a kindred spirit, and also as a thirteen year old excited to be saving a refugee, the girl decided to pay two bullet rail fares: one for herself and one for Alex.
Alex, in return, offered to help the girl mine, which she gladly accepted. Alex wasn't the most adept early on, and the afternoon consisted of a lot of bumping together, tripping over each other, and both girls reaching for the same mineral to put back in the inevitably spilled bucket. In essence, lots of collision. The girl showed Alex how to properly strip-mine, taking the corridors with a distance of three blocks between them. At the end of the day they had produced quite a bit more than her normal load of materials.
That was how Alex found herself pressed hard against a cushioned seat by inertia as the extremely speedy bullet rail train took off from the Eleka Outpost at the end of the work day. Initially extremely shaken, Alex held the girl's hand as they began the trip to West Mindeavor, which Alex could see on the horizon. They were there within minutes, and the girl introduced the refugee to her parents, who were surprised (as is natural, you'd be pretty surprised too). They were accepting, however, and after Alex had gotten dinner and a shower, she was offered with a slight blush and an averted glance to share the girl's bed, which she gladly accepted, having been roughing it for three days.
That night as Alex lay asleep, gently snoring, she rolled over, her arm softly caressing that of the girl wide awake next to her. Alex's skin was soft and cool to the touch. The girl's mind raced over the events of the day: her new friend tangled up with her in so many piles of limbs every time they tripped over each other, the many times their hands touched when grabbing the same piece of ore, Alex squeezing her hand hard when the train left the station, and the emotional hug she received from Alex in amazing gratitude for everything that the girl was giving. Her mind was racing and coming up with as many answers as possible, but one thought remained like an undertone to the others, pulsating behind her spinning memories, a rock at the bottom of the rapids rushing through her brain.
Jennifer was in love.
The two teammates of an unnamed alliance landed quick and hard on the skyscraper roof. A laserlike grid had been erected around and above the outer walls as thirteen hostages were brought onto the roof, the "bars" thin enough between that police flying machines couldn't fit through. What could were two girls with stolen, experimental jetpacks, and boy, did they. Tuned into Jennifer's mother's police radio, they jumped at the chance to use their newly taken technology.
Two years after the formation of the Corruptis, they set off thirteen harmless Distraction TNT blocks, carefully placed, at strategic positions in the City Defense Laboratory. The raid had been planned and set up for months, and it went off without a hitch; two unnamed troublemakers flew out of the CDL with new technology, and directly into the Underlands where they couldn't be followed, climbing out half a kilometer down the tubes and coming out in time to get home without alerting the parents. Yes, the raid was performed in plain daylight.
A month and a half later, they dropped onto a building at midnight wearing the same raid outfits they had donned during the CDL crime. Alex landed, throwing a net onto one of the two rooftop hostage-takers: Jennifer took a more direct approach as she realized was required, hitting the man with the gun straight on with her body, carrying him away from the hostages and down fifteen feet, two floors, to the lower roof. Jennifer herself remained on the roof.
Alex yelled to the hostages "We'll be back for you" before entering the stairwell with Jennifer to apprehend the terrorists attacking the five-story building.
Most of the group didn't notice and was taken out by nets fairly quickly. After all, since the two had left the laser grid alone (wouldn't want to get arrested yourself, right?) they worried none at all. A few got wind of the attack going on and rushed them in hand-to-hand combat, but unfortunately for them Alex was a master at it, effortlessly dispatching them while Jennifer worked to reenable the systems that had been broken.
"All clear," Jennifer yelled, "Let's get down, fix the last link, and get out of here."
They entered, quickly and quietly, the ground floor of the West Mindeavor Communications Hub. A curt "Something the matter, boss?" came from one of the attackers (speaking Eneri, not West Mindeavorian) but no more before being clapped hard on the temples and falling quickly and easily unconscious. The other two noticed her, but she engaged one quickly while Jennifer attacked the other by leaping and kicking from the raised floor behind him. They were both knocked out in a matter of seconds. Much, much too easy. Jennifer got to work undoing the hack that had been started on the comm towers, and when she finished they headed up together to the top of the building. They got busy untying the hostages, who then helped untie the others until there were none left.
"Listen up," Jennifer said to them, in a deeper voice than her normal one. "We're going to disable that box," she stated, pointing to the box projecting the laser grid. "Then we're going to fly out of here. Those police will pick you up," she said, referring to the flying machines around the building. "Wish us luck."
They walked over to the box, slowly but surely, and prepared to disengage. "This'll be the hardest part," Alex said grimly to Jennifer. "I'm expecting you to meet me at the house in half an hour, okay?" she commanded, holding Jennifer's face to hers as they looked at each other through their masks.
"Of course," Jennifer responded. She had been planning to do this since they had come up with the plot to split up when the counterattack was over, but she still got a huge adrenaline rush. She quickly pulled up her own cloth mask just a bit, did the same to Alex, and kissed her full on the lips for two glorious seconds. Then, before Alex could respond, she turned away, pulled her mask back down, and stabbed the box with an iron sword. The grid crackled off and she blasted off, straight off of the roof, and angled herself with the ground. She took one last look to verify that Alex had made it off, and headed straight towards the nearest Underlands entrance, flying parallel with the downtown buildings above the nighttime bustle of cars.
Alex, with no time to spare thinking about what happened, was also in the air. The police machines instantly split in three, with three or four flying machines chasing after her at high speeds. A high-speed projectile whizzed past, closer than she would have preferred, but she knew it wouldn't be accurate enough to hit her. Her problems were big, but not the biggest. She flew into a tunnel, and only one of the flying machines stayed behind and didn't follow. Three left. They were the dumb ones. The tunnel arched downwards and she kept with the curve at a high speed. She had mastered the technology very easily on her and Jennifer's test runs in the Underlands. She knew the layout of the city well, too. There were no errant signs that would render her an Alex pancake, and if there were, she would respawn in her and Jennifer's bed, which would debatably be the easier choice as it would leave no evidence. The thought had crossed her mind, but she didn't want to lose the jetpack, and equally as pressing: she was taking the long route through the Underlands, curving backwards and flying the tubes for a quarter of an hour, and would be arriving home after Jennifer. If she died and respawned, she would have to reveal to Jennifer that she could survive death, a fact she had not mentioned to anyone.
As she cascaded into the open Underlands, with its buildings, roads, and people laid out in three-dimensional space underneath the city, the police realized they were making a bad decision only as a single rubber missile crashed headlong into one of the speeding machines. The other two slowed quickly and turned to get out of the Underlands as fast as they could, but as the disabled police flyer exploded, two flying Reinbach units floated in front of them, blocking their way, and began firing. A shame, Alex thought to herself. She had hoped for no casualties.
The Reinbach were a clan of elite mobsters who ruled the Underlands with an iron fist. The police force had long since abandoned all attempts to fight them as they were simply too strong, and there were very cleanly two divided segments of the city. Alex and Jennifer had deep connections in the Reinbach, unknown to Jennifer's mother who worked for the West Mindeavor Police Force (which was, in itself, a fact the Reinbach did not know). For this reason they performed all their illicit escapes and tests within the Underlands; the police could not get to them there.
The tubes were the colloquial name for the three-dimensional highway spanning the entire Underlands, which many used on their way to work (it was really an in and out sort of deal) and many used as their main travel source of business. Some preferred to live in a town with rulers.
After fifteen minutes she found herself walking out of a tunnel on a pedestrian path which led right into her neighborhood. She ran for home, embraced the waiting Jennifer, and they took a good night's rest, all unknown to their sleeping parents.
Alex and Jennifer were at the back of an alley, faced with the business end of a Reinbach enforcer's laser bow. Unfortunately, their double life as police allies and Reinbach had come to an end, and a very bloody one. They had tried to fight but been defeated. Alex, knowing she would survive another tragedy and have to, once more, leave the city, sobbed as she embraced Jennifer.
"Before we die," Jennifer cried to Alex, "before it's over," she spoke in a normal voice quiet in contrast to the sound of fiery roars, gunshots, and police sirens, "I love y-"
They awoke clinging together in their bedsheets. Jennifer had not been able to finish her sentence. Of course she loved Alex. She'd said it many times. But Alex really didn't ever realize that Jennifer loved her.
The momentary levels of amazing surprise and relief felt by both parties gave way to the stomach-sickening realization that they could no longer stay in West Mindeavor, as explosions faintly sounded in the distance.
Alex and Steve laughed and crafted, building new tools to acquire new materials to expand the base. Jennifer knew well the way it was. She saw easily the way Alex saw Steve, the sidelong looks at every facet of his face and body. She knew what it meant because she had, so many times, seen Alex the exact same way.
And that, in truth, was the real reason behind Jennifer's irrational hatred of Steve by default; he was taking her Alex away from her.
She's in a long black coat tonight
Waiting for me in the downpour outside
She's singing "Baby come home" in a melody of tears
While the rhythm of the rain keeps time