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|Realization Pt. 1: Close Encounters|
The Faceless One
July 25th, 2013
Fire... Air... Water... Earth. Currently, the four nations are enjoying a timely era of peace, but this was not always the nature of things. Half a century ago, the last and final Avatar, a waterbender named Korra, vanquished a maniacal extremist who called himself Amon, and hoped to rid the world of bending forever. Sadly, shortly after this triumph, Korra was killed by an illness in her sleep, and, for reasons unknown, was not reincarnated. Though at first her immediate absence was met with worldwide panic, this reaction was short-lived. As the years passed, the wounds left by her disappearance scabbed over, and have now all but faded entirely. Now, is an era of science, and it appears... spiritual figures such as the Avatar are no longer needed to maintain balance. However, there are some that say this peace is the calm before a great storm, one that, if the Avatar fails to return, will reduce the world to ashes. But these few are surely out of their minds. Surely.
Looking at Water
Monday, October 3rd, 2072 AD
Jefferson stared at the data readout, fists bunched tight in his pockets. Doctor Stone stood to his left, features hardened, as was the norm. Other scientists bustled around them, exchanging anything from cheers and pats on the back to speeches about the doom and gloom of Earth and the Universe.
One could say it was nothing more than a normal day in the National Aeronautics Alliance headquarters, a structure many had nicknamed "the Crow's Nest." Since their completion in 2051, the building's walls had held many of the world's strangest conversations. The highlights usually involved either alien life or parallel universes.
Today, Jefferson was about to have one involving both. "Stone, tell me what I'm looking at." No one could really blame him for his confusion. The "Ground-breaking" image relayed from the wormhole probe was little more than a big dark blur. There were a few white flecks here and there, but... Still, it could've just as easily been the bottom of someone's shoe as an alien ocean.
"You're looking at water," Stone explained, "at least 100 feet in depth."
"From over there."
That's what they'd been calling it. The place beyond the wormhole. "Over there" didn't have the same ring to it as "the planet of terrorists" or "the bane of all mankind," but it certainly reduced panic. The riots were still present, but less... Riotous.
"Have the liquid tests come back?"
Stone nodded again, and handed him a hologram tablet. He was a man of few words.
Displayed inside the glass was a feverish jumble of blurry shapes and blobs. These blobs were eating smaller blobs, which in turn, devoured blobs smaller than them. To the left was a sidebar of genetic info. A fully-sequenced Genome scrolled past.
"This is alien life." Jefferson stated. So that's what made it groundbreaking.
"A group of plankton-like organisms. Completely unrelated to anything cataloged on earth. Alive or extinct." He took back the tablet, and returned to the projection of the blurry water. "There were millions of them in the sample."
Jefferson had to sit down. Unfortunately, there weren't any chairs nearby, so Stone had to slide one in before he fell over. "Aliens. I'm looking at aliens."
Stone frowned. "That's not all we have." He prodded the tablet, and the image on the overhead screen changed in response. It now displayed a 3D model of the probe's entry into the planet's atmosphere. "The wormhole is closer to the planet than we thought," Stone explained, "It's not in orbit, or in deep space. It's in the upper atmosphere." A flick of stone's hand widened the model. Detailed statistics popped into existence as he drew his forefinger and thumb apart. "An atmosphere almost identical to earth's in content and air pressure."
"That's why it crashed."
"Yes. We didn't expect gravity to take effect before the lander could be engaged. However, I presume you'll agree that this discovery was well-worth the loss of the probe."
Now, it was Jefferson's turn to bob his head. "We can send airships over there."
"The Department of Defense is already priming a squad of four transports," Stone informed, "they should be ready to breach the wormhole within a few hours."
You're stuck here, just like me.
The words burrowed out of Jefferson's mind, surging through his auditory canals like the crackle of a rail gun. He cleared his throat, and drew his sleeve across his eyes. They had grown moist without his consent.
He tried to distract himself with a glance back at the atmosphere graph, yet to no avail. Before he knew it, he had focused on the panoramic window just behind it. Beyond this he saw New York, bio-spires glistening in the morning light. Farther still loomed the wormhole, a gale of distorted air and twisted luminescence. "Doctor Stone, one more question, before you're dismissed."
"This mission... I'm coming along."
Stone grinned. A rare occurrence. "Another suit certainly won't hurt anything."
The Headless Museum
Monday, September 26th, 270 AG - Seven days earlier
Chen had always sort of wondered what his death might feel like. Would it be painful? Would he die atop a pillar of his dead enemies, protecting Tara with his last breath? What if he just slipped away in his sleep?
Well now, at age 14, he was finally getting some answers. It was a shame he'd never wondered what natural gas tasted like, 'cause he was getting a lot of that too.
So much, in fact, that is was hard to stay conscious for the big event to go down. Maybe I'll die in my sleep after all.
But then, Min was reaching for him, shaking him back and forth. The vapors dripped out of his head as he propped himself up on an elbow, and surveyed the destruction around him. Walls had crumpled like paper. Torn bits of concrete littered the floor. A collapsed column lay where the submarine exhibit used to be.
A dying florescent lit the display, flicking on and off in time with the wails of injured civilians.
Min, like him, had thankfully avoided the worst of it all. She had a cut on her cheek, and her clothes were soaked in dust, but she could still stand. She was still breathing, albeit through a rag.
She handed a bloody shirt to Chen, and gestured for him to breathe through it, as she had done. Chen wanted to grimace.
But there was no time for that. "Where're?" He croaked through the shirt, "She was just—"
"Just here, I know." Min wrapped her hand around his waist to steady him. "I can't find them though. They were just here. They were just—"
Chen shushed her before the loop picked up speed. It was disturbing to see his sister this way. Covered in dust and wheezing through a rag. It just felt so wrong. "Have you tried earthbending a way out?" It was a stupid question, and Chen knew it.
A ragged cough from Min provided an answer. She could barely walk. Which was better than he was doing. Chen could barely breathe. Each time he did, the gas from the ruptured main raked his lungs, and the edges of his vision blurred. Eventually, it felt like he was walking through a paper towel roll.
Every few steps, he'd stumble. Each time, Min would catch him, and they'd keep walking. Where to? He wasn't sure. Min rasped out Tara and Ying's names every few minutes, but Chen didn't know if she knew either. Only silence answered her calls.
Until Chen tripped over Tara. Then, he got something. A grunt. A whimper. It was something. Chen knelt beside his friend, and shook her clumsily. His entire body hurt, and even that simple maneuver felt like weightlifting.
Tara's eyes drifted open, pupils dilating in surprise. After scraping her lungs with a fit of coughing, the girl extended a hand, which Chen took. He knew the look in her eyes. He'd made it just a few minutes ago.
Tara had noticed the gas.
"Close your eyes," she rasped, "I don't want to blind you."
Min and Chen did as they were told. Seconds later, an orb of dusty wind ripped past them, forcing the gas into the farthest corners of the room.
Chen's eyes creaked open, just in time to see Tara slide into a stance he'd never seen before. The hands resembled some freezing stances waterbenders used, but the footwork was all air.
Tara shot her arms forward, and all at once, the edges of the room erupted in a wave of frost. Spikes of ice materialized out of thin air. Pure white fuzz covered pretty much everything else. After she had finished, Tara collapsed into Chen's arms.
Min was lost for words. Eventually, she managed: "What the hell?"
Then it hit Chen. Tara hadn't just blown the gas away, she had bended it. She had extracted the natural gas from the air, and gathered it against the walls. Then, she had frozen it solid, like a waterbender freezing liquid. If this crazy dry ice move was an invention of Tara's... Chen figured the airbender would be getting her tattoos within the week.
That is, he reminded himself, if we make it out of here alive. It was a negative thought, but as of now, things were looking up. He was able to breathe again, which was a plus. He didn't have to suck air through a bloody shirt anymore.
All they had to do was find a safe spot, and wait for Min to recharge enough to bust them out of that stupid museum.
And that was only if the Republic City Survivor Rescue Squad didn't get to them first. Their earthbenders were top-notch. Equal to Min, at least.
"Alright," Chen's sister announced, as if on cue, "Let's get out of this damn museum."
The endeavor made Chen tired just thinking about it. After they'd felt the wall, and located a soft spot, Min bent a chunk of marble out of the ground—easily the size of Chen—and steadied it just above her target. Sweat dripped down her face as she prepared for the final blow. Her teeth ground together in concentration.
She whipped her arm back, sank into a horse stance, and shot out her fist. The marble obeyed at first, but sank and collapsed halfway through.
"Slow down," Chen warned, "You aren't strong enough yet."
But Min wasn't listening. In seconds, she'd found another chunk, and was trying again.
Again though, her arm burned out before she could finish. She let out a scream of frustration as the rock split apart, thudding uselessly into the drywall.
Chen didn't want to put his hand on her shoulder. He'd never really touched her before in any way. She'd punched him countless times, but their physical contact was pretty much a one way street. If he breathed on her, she'd knock him into next week.
But he did it anyway. And surprisingly, his hand didn't shrivel off. Or freeze off. Or even melt off. It just sat there, still connected.
Min got the message. She took a deep breath, and refocused. Her stance steady, she tried again. This time, the marble pillar ripped through the wall with ease, leaving a sizable passage into the adjacent room.
Min stepped through first, with Tara in the middle, and Chen bringing up the rear. This new room had lost all power in the collapse. Inky darkness lay before them. Disturbed only by a fractured power line, which sparked in a corner.
A soft hiss of a voice wafted out of the abyss. "Please," It whimpered, "Help me..."
Min lead he way. But it was Chen who did most of the gasping. Right there, in the spastic glow of the power cable, lay Doctor Huang. The man looked just like Chen imagined him to. Graying hair shot out from a hollowed face, just above a pair of crystal blue eyes. A crisp tweed jacket clung to his wiry torso while a pair of dark slacks hugged his legs. The man was bleeding badly from a wound in his side.
"Damn it," Chen cursed, "We need a waterbender. That's the one kind our gang doesn't have!"
Huang's blood-speckled mustache quivered to form words. "Thank god," He wheezed, "when the building came down, I thought I would never find you people."
"You were looking for us?" Chen asked.
"Of course I was. And don't you worry about me; he won't let me die. He's far too cruel for that."
Huang coughed wetly, and nodded. "You need to see my lab. You'll find answers there to all your questions." He fished a pen out of his pocket, and scrawled something on napkin.
He pressed this into Chen's hand. Then gave it a good shake. A tear slid out of his left eye, cutting a path through the blood on his cheek. "My boy, there is a war coming. A battle of unimaginable scale. The Catalyst is waking, and if it makes it here alive, it will consume both Earths in a matter of days."
Huang was seized with another bout of hacking, and Chen tried to wipe the bloody spit off his hand without ruining the moment.
"But as long as you unite the creatures from both sides of my wormhole before they destroy each other," Huang continued, "there'll still be enough of them left to stand up to the Catalyst when it arrives." His lips twisted into a half-smile. He reached out, and gave Chen a weak pat on the breastbone. "Just remember," he whispered, "A human is a human, no matter where it comes from. Keep that close to your heart, and maybe you will save us all."
Huang just managed to force out that last syllable, before his eyes lit up white, and his body erupted into convulsions. His grip on Chen's hand tightened, but then went slack. His form calmed as the life in his eyes finally flickered out.
The sapphire disks were empty; now they just stared up at the ceiling, frozen in shock. Chen closed them with his hand.
He didn't need to check for a pulse. "He's... gone."
Both girls stared at Chen.
At first, he didn't understand why. And then, he remembered the whole "avatar" thing... "I'll explain later," he muttered, "let's just get the hell out of here."
Min nodded. "Just find me a wall."
Through the Breach
Monday, October 3rd, 2072 AD
The salted wind would have toyed with Jefferson's hair, but he'd just had a Nano-trim, so the gusts had nothing to grab onto.
Doctor Stone's ponytail was getting assaulted though. It whipped back and forth hypnotically as he and Jefferson made their way down the on-ramp of their Jump Jet, and onto the concrete surface of the aircraft carrier's main deck.
Just like Stone had said, four massive transport jets were parked near the stern, bustling with men in maintenance suits and military uniforms.
He admired their bulky facets and formidable weaponry. They bore a strong resemblance to the space shuttles of old. Back when tiny planes where the best NASA could throw up there.
You're stuck here, just like me.
It was impressive, really, how much the organization had grown in the last half century. In just fifty years, it had gone from a civilian-powered satellite factory to large scale military operation. Ever since that whole alien ordeal in the 2020s had scared the higher-ups into funneling in more dough.
Of course, the extraterrestrial probe had whizzed in and out of orbit without giving Earth a second glance, but still, It had answered the question, and one spark was all it took.
And then the whole wormhole fiasco... NASA was getting enormous.
"Sir," a soldier said. He'd walked up to them some time ago, but had escaped Jefferson's notice. That kind of thing was commonplace for the man. He couldn't help how forgettable the peons were.
"Go ahead," Jefferson instructed.
"All four transports are ready. All cargo has been secured, including the hostages."
Jefferson turned to Stone. "What hostages?"
"The astronauts from the other side. We've experimented enough. The general says it's time to use them as insurance. A bargaining chip if things get nasty."
That seemed reasonable. First impressions were everything.
"We're ready for liftoff when you are, sir," the soldier announced.
Jefferson stepped into the cargo bay through a sliding door, and found a seat next to a guy the size of a refrigerator. Muscles stretched the fabric of his fatigues. Jefferson beckoned to Stone. But he only earned a head-shake in reply.
"It's best I sit this one out," Stone reported, "I need to run more tests on the bacteria."
"Stone, I'm your commanding officer, and I demand you accompany me. You can soak your feet in bacteria once we're there. Hell, you can drink it, if you want."
Stone frowned. "I suppose I can't disobey a direct order."
Jefferson gave the seat next to him a pat, and Stone slid into it. The men buckled their harnesses.
The soldier from before shut the doors, and shouted something to one of his comrades. A few seconds later, a low hum resonated through the hull, signaling their takeoff. The ground soon fell away below.
And Jefferson would not have noticed if he hadn't been looking out the window. With the vertical takeoff system, ground-to-air transition was a seamless process. However, once the jets kicked in, their ascent became very, very noticeable. Jefferson had to cram on a pair of headphones to keep his hearing intact.
The aircraft carrier became a speck in an endless expanse of blue as they powered into the air. The convoy made a low pass over the New York skyline, just out of reach of the highest hover cars. They were still far below the bio-spires though. Jefferson chuckled as he imaged the pilot, struggling to avoid the two nearest to the wormhole. The utmost caution had to be exercised when navigating bio-spire airspace. Blow up one of those, and the city-wide food network would be stretched paper thin. Some lower-class citizens might not eat for a week.
The thought faded quickly as they left the structures behind. Ahead lay the wormhole. Jefferson's face was pressed to the glass, like a little kid in an airplane. What if they didn't make it through? What if the vortex only had a taste for probes and 1960s rockets?
He had just begun to really start sweating, when the pilot finished running preparation protocol with the rest of the squad. Suddenly, they were moving forward, ripping towards the breach at ludicrous speeds.
They weren't gonna make it... They were gonna die. They would all burn alive halfway between two points in space-time. Neither here, nor there. They would...
Monday, October 3rd, 270 AG
They would be just fine. Like an injection from the early 21st century, the buildup had been the worst of it. The real passing through only took a few seconds. Aside from a cold jittery feeling that soon passed, Jefferson felt nothing.
Their jet zoomed through the breach, and out into another sky, convoy following close behind.
You're stuck here, just like me.
Monday, September 26th, 270 AG - Seven days earlier
Min smashed through the last wall just in time to catch a good view of the sunset. They emerged on the west side of the island, with a panoramic view of the setting sun. And, of the sea of sirens that wreathed the museum. The moment they emerged, a spotlight from a helicopter skewered Chen's retinas.
"We've got three more!" A man shouted through a microphone.
The fireman came first, then the police, and the paramedics. Pretty soon, Chen and his friends where their own island, in a sea of rescue officials. They were prodded, poked, given oxygen, and finally strapped onto stretchers.
Chen noticed his parents, sitting near a shored coast guard ship. Chen figured they had escaped minutes previously. He grinned as he imaged his earthbender parents blasting their way through piles of rubble.
Tara offered Chen a smile before they were guided onto the transport palette of a medical airship, and lost sight of each other. Seconds later, Chen's mind finally gave out, and he slipped into a restless unconsciousness.
He was immediately assaulted with a vision.
Within seconds, Chen was hovering above what had to be the Spirit World, fanning his vision across a carpet of twisted trees far below. The forest was permeated by taller growths, somewhat resembling elongated mushrooms. Their disk-like canopies were easily yards in diameter.
Next to him floated the spirit of Korra. Their eyes met, and she smiled at him.
"What you see below you is a landmark of the Spirit World. Most call it Desolation Point."
"Why?" Chen asked. "That rainforest looks anything but desolate."
"This is where the Catalyst was imprisoned for the first time, over 300 thousand years ago. After being subdued, its life force was blown to pieces, and strewn throughout the area, creating the forest you see now."
"Huang told me about the catalyst. Do you know what it is?"
Korra shook her head, locks of her transparent blue hair shaking this way and that. Chen noticed that even now, at this height, he didn't feel a single gust of wind.
"I've heard things here and there," Korra said, "whispers and rumors. And of course, there's this place. But nothing more than that."
"So then, why did you bring me here?"
"Because, Chen, I need to talk to you. To give you proper guidance. And I can't do that here, with you in the physical world." She examined her hand. "I'm already fading. At Haung's lab, you will find a machine, something that will grant you full passage into this realm. When you get here, you must free me from Xinzang's hovel."
She gestured to a plateau some hundred feet away, atop which lay a massive, tower-like construct of roots and branches, shaded by a grove of mushroom growths. Chen imagined Koh's tree on steroids.
"You are the first avatar in thirty years, Chen. And you must now not only bridge two worlds, but three."
"That's right. They're coming. The first humans. One by one—" Korra popped out of existence. Chen reached for her as she fizzed into nothing, but his fingers only touched the open air.
Seconds later, they were touching an IV tube. And the outstretched hand of his mother.
Just Like Me
Monday, October 3rd, 270 AG
Jefferson reminded himself, for the fifteenth time, that the coastal city he was gawking at was not one of Earth's. It had been built on an alien planet.
His planes descended over a placid bay, showcasing an island statue of humanoid figure clasping a staff. This had seen far better days, he was sure. The head had been knocked clean off, and the body below had crumpled into its base from the impact of whatever had struck it...
Jefferson turned to Doctor Stone. "The Probe."
Jefferson cleared his throat, and turned to the rest of the metropolis. It was quite large, mimicking Manhattan in its earlier days. A squad of airships caught his eye as they drifted above the rooftops, hundreds of feet below.
Before he knew it, the man had to steady himself. He felt like he was looking in a cracked mirror, one like so many he'd been forced to stare into throughout his childhood years. Below him lay a world of humans, like him and stone, only vastly different. The crack was visible through the airships, and the statue.
Tears filled his eyes for the briefest of moments. He found confidence in the fact that he wasn't the only one.
All around him, soldiers and scientists pressed their faces to the windows, prying at each other to get a better look.
Jefferson smiled. That alien probe hadn't answered the question.
At that moment, Jefferson saw himself in the mirror. A kid no older than three. Staring up at his corridor of sky, counting the stars bright enough to penetrate the fog of civilization.
He'd never had just one lucky star. He'd had thousands.
The pilot's voice shook him out of his trance, just as that of his stepfather had done each night, when it was time for bed. "You're stuck here, just like me."
Yowza! How rad was all that? I bet it'll make you wanna check out the next part, which can be found right here!
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