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The Faceless One
July 16th, 2012
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.
The Launch Edit
Wednesday, September 21st, 220 ASC
And... When Chen opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was… the clock on his wall, which read an unforgiving 7:12 AM. At once the boy was kicking his blanket off, slamming his glasses on, and sliding out of bed. His head still foggy from lack of proper sleep, Chen then stumbled towards the bathroom but tripped on some tangled bed sheets and fell short of the door by a few yards. Chen shoved the clump aside, rose to his feet, and finally managed to get the door open.
No time for a shower, Chen thought, hurriedly grabbing for a tooth brush. In less than 10 minutes, that bright yellow school bus would chug up to his front door and then take off… whether or not he was ready. Chen shuddered. He remembered the last time he’d missed the bus. He’d had to trudge ten blocks through sheets of rain, only to receive a nice, big tardy slip when he at last reached the school. If he missed it again… But I won’t miss it. He told himself. He most certainly wouldn't. Still… He had to admit: it was kind of his fault he hadn’t gotten up sooner.
Usually, the earthbenders—the real ones—training in his dad’s academy next door would have jolted him awake long before the bus driver got out of bed. But… they’d all taken the day off in preparation for the launch, and the sound of crumbling boulders hadn’t interrupted his dreams today.
Chen decided to put that behind him. He finished brushing his teeth, tore off his pajamas, and began an epic quest for some clean clothes to wear. In his room that’s just what it was-- a quest. To put it lightly, Chen wasn’t… the most sanitary person around. His living area had been classified as a “nuclear landfill”, a “festering cesspool”, and lots of other things Chen didn’t enjoy remembering. But now was hardly the time for cursing his disorganized nature. Chen chanced another peek at the clock, and nearly had a heart attack. He’d spent five minutes freshening up! That was four minutes longer than he’d hoped.
After pawing through the third heap of garments, Chen decided that clean clothes were overrated anyway, and deemed yesterday’s rags “acceptable”. He donned these and staggered over an empty carton of sea prunes which he kicked into a corner on his way out. Stupid things… he griped. He still had trouble believing he liked them. Put a bowl of those in front of Ying, and Ying would faint.
Chen had just cleared the hallway when his sister strode out in front of him. He would have loved to put on the brakes; really, he would have, but… At that moment he’d been going way too fast to make any trajectory corrections and the collision was the immediate result. Unpreventable. And so, he and his sister both went crashing to the floor.
“You… wh-what are you doing?” His sister gasped. A pretty ridiculous question, Chen realized. It should've been pretty obvious what he was doing.
“Well… can’t you see?” Chen explained, “I’m trying to catch the bus, and you’re in my way…” He picked himself up off the floor and adjusted his glasses. “So… yeah. Later.” He then resumed his mad dash for the front door but stopped short when his sister grabbed his shoulder and pulled him backwards. Chen gulped as she spun him around so that their faces were inches from one another.
“Not so fast,” She growled. Chen tried slipping from her grasp, but to no avail.
“Listen… Min, I really don’t have time for this…” Of course, as soon as he said them, Chen knew the words would have no effect on his vile sister. Her high school had been full-out closed for Launch Day while Chen had been stuck with a half day. No matter how much of a rush he was in, Min would be completely stress-free and therefore, interest-free. She’d keep him here until she decided to let him go.
“Say you’re sorry,” she said, “then… I’ll let you go.”
Chen was baffled. “What? Y-you ran into me!”
Min gritted her teeth. “Apologize,” she repeated.
Chen sighed. He had no time to argue. “Fine,” He conceded, “I’m sorry.”
Min didn’t seem to think that was enough. “Sorry for what?”
Chen rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry for running into you.” A pregnant silence filled the small space between them, before Min finally waved him off.
In a flash, Chen was gone. Past his sister, down the stairs, into the living room. It was here that he gave his mom and dad a quick “see you later”, and finally wrenched open the front door.
Waiting beyond was… well, his front yard, his sidewalk, and then… Chen’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. And then, there was the bus.
Chen’s breath caught in his throat, and he broke into an all-out sprint. The doors where closing… Chen gritted his teeth. I’ll make it… He told himself. I can do this. As the crack between the bus doors narrowed, Chen threw all he had into pumping his legs up and down, driving his body forward with each step.
He was ten feet away. Nine feet… eight feet… Chen’s lungs began to hurt. Seven feet… six… sweat was gathering on his forehead. Five… four… three… He was almost there! He was...he was...going to… miss it. As Chen closed the distance, the bus driver slammed his foot on the accelerator, and all Chen got was a big gulp of fumes. Cursing his luck, the boy staggered backward and gagged. The smog that the bus left in its wake was thick, almost tangible, and Chen’s lungs felt as though they'd ripped out and stuffed down a chimney.
But choking on bus fumes wasn't important. He had missed the bus! After all his effort, he’d come up short, ten seconds behind schedule. Chen narrowed his eyes. Min… he seethed. The incident was entirely her fault. If she hadn't jumped out at him like that, he’d be on his way to school right now, laughing along with the mob of students jam-packed into the bus. Students who were now laughing… At him. Yes, Chen could see his classmates in the bus, pointing, and jeering at him as it slowly shrunk into the distance. Chen’s shoulders sagged as he walked over to the curb.
He’d failed, missed his one chance of making it to school before the bell rang. And now… he’d probably sit on that curb for a while feeling sorry for himself before finally going up to his room and burying his head beneath his pillow. Min’s fault or not, this incident had probably cost him dearly in the world of academics. Chen was a B+ student at best and a big fat absence from class certainly wasn't going to help that.
Fulfilling his self-determined destiny, Chen plunked down on the sidewalk’s edge, and sighed. He was just about to start wondering why everything in his life had to go so horribly wrong, when across the street he noticed something.
Yes… there it was again, a small rustling of the bushes to the left of Ying’s house. Chen was ready to dismiss the motion as nothing more than a bird flitting about its nest, and resume his suffering. However, he was forced to look again when the brambles parted, and Ying himself came tumbling out.
Chen jumped to his feet and examined his friend from his side of the road. As usual, Ying’s hair was a mess of tangled strands leaping outward from his scalp, one that, today, held a few leaves and a twig.
When their eyes met, Ying’s lit up. After taking a moment to brush the dirt off his clothes, he stood up and ran across the street--without bothering to look both ways, Chen noticed.
“Chen!” Ying exclaimed when the boys where standing next to each other, “fancy meeting you here!”
“What’re you doing here?” Chen asked, “The bus, it—"
“It left, I know.” Ying observed, “But that’s great news!”
Chen stared at him. “I’m not sure what planet you’re on right now, but—”
“Not for you!” Ying cut in, “This lack of conventional transport gives me a perfect opportunity to test out my—”
Chen knew what was coming. “Don’t even, Ying,” he said, “for your safety and mine, let's just stop there.”
Ying’s tone shifted to a whine. “But I’m really sure about this one! I’ve done tests, and simulations—countless simulations! Please, just let me show it to you.”
Chen rolled his eyes. “Fine…. I’ll—I'll look at it. Then, you put whatever it is away, and we both forget it ever existed.”
Ying nodded. “You won’t regret this, buddy. I swear, you won’t.”
“Just show me.”
With that, Ying reached into his backpack and retrieved one set of metallic boots, which he set on the ground beside him. His hand then reentered the pack, this time procuring a pair of modified fencing gauntlets. “Chen,” Ying breathed, “You are now officially looking at the Pneumatic Lift Set.”
Chen stared at the things. The boots where very high-tech and intricate, composed of interlocking steel plates. The gauntlets, however, where a bit more… rustic. Wires, held on with a few well-placed strips of duct tape, snaked from the forearm section to the wrist. Ying had also carved deep slits in them with a knife, ones that ran in vertical rows down the top half of each glove.
Chen had been over this many times, but still, he failed to resist and asked the dreaded question anyway. “What do they do?”
Ying’s face split into a wild grin, one that Chen knew usually foreshadowed serious injury of some sort.
“Well,” he began, “in short, they’re a sort of flying machine.” He then slid his feet into the boots and started pulling on the gloves. “When activated, each device pulls air from the surrounding environment and compresses it in a special micro matrix of my own design.” He demonstrated this by flipping a small switch in the left gauntlet, and another on the right boot. Chen’s jaw nearly dropped to the ground in response to what came next.
Ying was… hovering. “And then… the compressed air is vented out of apertures in the palms of the gloves and the soles of the boots,” he said, maintaining a steady altitude of three feet. “All of this is monitored by a precise system of valves and gyroscopes.”
Chen was at a loss for words.
“So this… this works!” he exclaimed. It was hard to argue with Ying’s results.
“It does at a reasonable altitude of three to five feet,” Ying corrected, “we won’t know the full extent of its abilities until we try it at a more… exhilarating height. That’s why I was so excited to see you.”
“Where are you going with this?” Somehow, Chen figured he wasn't gonna like his answer.
Ying lowered himself to the ground. “The bus left without you!” He said, “You need a way to school, and, well—”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Isn't it obvious?” Ying asked. “We can fly there!”
Chen’s jaw was growing sore from all the dropping. “Fly. Like, to school!? Are you insane?”
“My great-grandfather used to say that insanity and enlightenment mean relatively the same thing. So thanks for the compliment. But, yes. If you’d like to go to school, I can and would love to give you a lift.”
Chen backpedaled. “But… how’re we even—You've only got one set of air gloves! What’re you gonna do, carry me there?”
Ying grinned. “Well,” he said, “you’ll be fastened to my belt but that’s one way of putting it.”
“Oh, no,” Chen stated, “I’ll just, um, stay home. After all, the launch is today! The whole of humanity’s taking a first step beyond the confines of our home planet! They can’t expect all the kids to sit tight in school like it’s an average day!”
Ying seemed disappointed in Chen’s survival instinct. “Well, alright,” He conceded. “I’ll just, uh, fly there myself. Without you.” Ying’s eyes drifted skyward. “I suppose you’ll spend the rest of the morning watching Min practice her earthbending in your backyard, dreaming of a reality in which you too could shove massive boulders aside with a flick of your wrist.”
Chen didn’t want to admit it, but if he didn’t entertain his friend’s mad transportation idea, that’s exactly what he’d be doing. “Um, okay, listen.” He glanced back towards his house, wondering if his parents might notice him and Ying blasting off. “Maybe we can, I don’t know, give it a try. If you’re positive it’ll get us there without any serious injuries.”
Ying beamed. “I tell you, you won’t regret this!” he exclaimed, “I swear it, we’ll touch down at the front door a block ahead of the bus, without a scratch on us. Now, here, clip this onto your belt.”
Chen did, and, spent the next few minutes waiting for something to happen. “Just hold on…” Ying eventually told him. His friend had stooped to adjust something on the left boot. “Seems there’s a few glitches in the ignition system. Nothing I can’t fix though…”
Chen grinned nervously. “Great,” he said, “so, I won’t walk away from this with smoldering facial hair?”
Ying rolled his eyes, and opened up a small flap marked “maintenance”. “Please, Chen,” He groaned, “You’re perfectly safe. This is nothing like the external combustion engine, which, we can agree, was just a tad more… volatile than I intended.”
Chen mirrored Ying’s exasperated expression. “That’s an understatement.”
Ying offered nothing in reply, trying instead to pull a few wires out of the maintenance hatch and play with them for a bit. Chen failed to see how twirling the things around would solve their ignition problem. But, he’d learned from experience that even if at first Ying didn’t appear to know what he was doing, tinkering aimlessly was his way of attacking a problem. Chen figured he’d probably have those wires fixed in a few minutes.
And fix them he did.
“Alright, so, before we begin,” Ying said, after the maintenance flap was secured in the closed position, “I’d like to go through a few flight regulations.”
Chen smiled. He couldn't possibly express his gratitude toward his friend for actually designing a set of safety rules. This was a step forward to be sure. “Go ahead,” He said.
Ying nodded. “Okay, so… first, arms need to be at your sides the entire time. Unless you want to end up with two fewer limbs, refrain from flapping them around. I know it’s tempting, but trust me, It’ll be a lot harder to feign Earthbending without any—”
“Yeah, I got it. What’s number two?” Chen was growing impatient. As it was, Ying’s invention was gonna have to go very fast just to catch up with the buss. Chen wasn't sure he liked the idea of breaking the sound barrier strapped to his friend's belt.
“Right,” Ying replied, “let’s see, number two… Well, don’t panic, I guess. That’s always important. Chances are, we’ll be flying very high, and very fast. If you wig out, and try to wrestle control of the gloves, we’ll probably blow up.”
Chen fidgeted nervously with a piece of string he’d pulled from his pocket. “Anything else?”
Ying thought for a moment. “Nah,” he said, “Just remember those two guidelines, and I think we’ll be fine. Now… put that string away, and prepare for liftoff.”
Chen did as he was told.
Ying then took a step forward and wrapped his arms around Chen’s torso from behind. It was a rather awkward thing to do but Chen figured this, as well as the tether, would prevent him from falling to his death once they were in the air.
“Alright then,” Ying said, “I’ve set the boots to begin the ignition sequence in twenty seconds. I won’t be able to use the gloves until we’re flying horizontally and even then my maneuverability will be limited since I'll be holding on to you. So… things might get a little bumpy early on.” Ying peered over Chen’s shoulder to check his watch. “I’m gonna count it down from ten, you ready?”
Chen gulped, and prayed he wouldn't be dragged away from this in a body cast.
“Ready?” Ying repeated.
“R-ready,” Chen informed.
“Well then,” Ying said, “here we go. Ten… Nine…”
Chen clenched his eyes shut as his friend began counting. Ten—or had it decreased to nine?—seconds later, he’d either be standing in the same place, pelting Ying with I-told-you-so's, or… he’d be rocketing through the air.
As the seconds ticked by, and a low-pitched growl began to emanate from the boots, the latter of these possibilities became more and more likely.
Chen’s anticipation grew exponentially with each passing moment. As Ying finally finished counting, he was practically shaking back and forth. When nothing happened, Chen didn't know whether he was disappointed, relieved, or a little bit of both.
He opened his eyes, and turned to face his friend. “You can let go now,” He sighed, “I’m going back in—”
Before Chen could finish, the boots roared, and the wind was flattened out of his lungs by an avalanche of acceleration. Dust and dirt from the street flew in all directions as he and Ying rocketed upward.
After climbing for a few minutes, Chen heard the gyroscopic balance system shift and click. The jets calmed down a bit, and the screaming wind died down to a steady whisper. All upward motion then slid to a halt, leaving Chen and Ying hovering quietly two hundred feet above the neighborhood below. “D-dude!” Chen was still trying to catch his breath. “That was—”
“Incredible, I know!” Ying replied, “But if you think this is something else, just wait till we actually get going.” Ying then checked something on the right glove—a compass, Chen realized— he then lifted a flap on the left and began punching a set of buttons that had been concealed underneath.
Chen’s stomach leaped into his throat as a burst of air from the boots flipped the boys forward into a completely horizontal position. This rapid boost was quickly followed by a massive thrust from the gloves that snatched Chen and Ying out of the air before they could begin falling and threw them forward. Chen would've gasped but he could barely open his mouth. This was simply… Simply what? He asked himself. Incredible? They were streaking through the sky with nothing around them but the open air. Terrifying? The g-forces were making Chen feel like his face was on fire. Both? Yes… that’s it. He thought, as Ying swerved to avoid a flock of pigeons, that it was definitely a little bit of both.
Ying picked that moment to decrease speed, and begin a rapid climb. When he finally leveled off, Chen’s view was suddenly filled with the sea of structures that was Republic City. Now that his eyes weren't being driven into the back of his skull, Chen was free to take in his surroundings. From this height he could see the Pro Bending Arena to the west, the police station to the north, and the verdant expanse of Republic City Park directly below. He could see people, small as ants, skittering around, going about their daily business. Toy cars squealed past a tiny newspaper stand, one whose headlines undoubtedly promoted the launch. A group of children could be seen playing around the Korra Memorial, splashing in the puddles left by the mist that spewed from her fingers.
Not one of them seemed to notice the pair of teenagers suspended far above their heads.
Chen was just beginning to marvel at this, when a foul smell— like wires burning—reached his nostrils. Ying spoke up before he had time to wonder where it was coming from.
“It’s the boots!” he yelled, “The batteries are leaking acid everywhere! They’re corroding the gyroscopes!”
Chen was pretty sure what that meant, but he decided to go out on a limb anyway.
“Is that, by any chance, a… good thing?”
Ying groaned. “Do you really have to ask?”
“So, we’re doomed then?”
“Pretty much,” Ying agreed. “Once the acid burns through the gyroscopes, there’ll be nothing to facilitate the thrust ratios. If those’re left to their own devices… the compressors will pump out air at full speed until they burn out and we go down in flames.”
Chen could feel tiny beads of sweat begin to gather on his forehead. “That’s lovely,” he was about to say. At that moment the gyroscopes gave out. The burst of speed that followed sucked the words out of Chen’s mouth before he could speak them.
Now that its restraints were gone, the Pneumatic Lift Set was free to roar and zoom to its mechanical heart’s content. It tossed Ying and Chen about, pulling them into loop after loop, and then sucking them along as it swerved in all directions. Chen’s glasses decided they’d had enough and shattered into a million pieces, all of which were then blasted off his face.
Chen thought the machine would ignite at that point, but it wasn't finished with them. By this time, it had carried the boys out over the harbor, the dockworkers beneath them staring up at the two as the Lift Set gathered strength.
Soon the engines flared again, and Chen and Ying shot off away from the city and out across the water.
As the waves rushed by far below them, Chen started to see things; little fragments of his memories, reanimated with invigorating detail. It wasn't until he and Ying had begun barreling towards Air Temple Island that he realized… his life was flashing before his eyes. Yes, there he and his dad were, sitting back on the couch, munching popcorn and watching a grainy Fire Ferrets game on the television. There was his sister, crafting a set of quartz gauntlets that she promptly used to smash his dad’s training dummies. There was Tara, smiling at him the way she did whenever he exhibited his faux earthbending moves.
Chen’s eyes would've filled with tears if the G-Forces weren’t ravaging his ducts. He couldn't believe his life was coming to an end so soon. There was still so much that needed doing! He hadn’t ever been to the Arena. He would never actually beat Min in a fight. He would never see humanity set foot on the moon. He would never get the chance to… Chen’s lungs burned, and he squeezed his eyes shut. He’d never get to tell Tara how he really felt about her.
He was literally three-tenths of a second away from cursing Ying for ruining both their lives, when the boys plunged headfirst into some body of water. Chen’s eyes snapped open as the Pneumatic Lift Set shorted out and died. Ying ripped off the gloves and boots and detached the tether that connected them. Both boys then clawed the water, fighting to reach the surface.
Chen came up first and immediately realized where they’d made their miraculous landing. They had been there numerous times visiting Tara and her Mother. Chen had tried his hand at meditating there. (Simply put, that hadn’t really worked out well). Yep. Without a doubt, Ying’s invention had dumped them in the Air Temple Island reflecting pool.
Chen had little time to examine the situation however, no sooner had he drunk in the view, when his stomach was overcome by nausea and he was forced to climb out and heave. He grimaced at the blobs of semi-digested food as they splatted onto the polished stone that hugged the pool’s edge.
These blobs were soon joined by another wave of barf from Ying, who had climbed out of the pool moments befire.
After Ying finished hacking up his breakfast, Chen whirled on him. “I trusted you!” he punctuated each syllable with a poke to Ying’s chest. “And look where it got me! Washed up on Air Temple Island, heaving my insides out, that’s where!”
Ying’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, would you look on the bright side for once? At least we didn’t blow up. We’re still alive!”
“Don’t try to weasel out of this!” Chen growled, “If you hadn't convinced me to climb aboard your crazy gizmo, I’d still be—”
“What?” Ying cut in, “You’d still be what? Hanging out of your bedroom window, watching Min earthbend? At least my invention gave you some excitement!”
“I was gonna say, I’d still be physically sound!”
The argument was moments away from becoming physical when a grunting sound stopped it short.
Chen and Ying turned toward the noise, and found… both boys gulped in unison. Standing in front of them was Tara. She was sopping wet, her brown hair lying flat on her scalp, framing a pair of fiery grey eyes. Below these lay a thin mouth that was currently twisted into an enraged sneer.
Chen grinned despite himself. Even when completely soaked, a bit blurry around the edges, and seething with rage, Tara was absolutely beautiful.
Ying tried to explain their unexpected entry but, before he could, Tara thrust her arms outward and blasted the boys with a gust of hot air. Chen’s face was already sore from the G-Forces and Tara’s blow-drying did little to help his situation. But, it did leave him with a nice fresh-out-of-the-dryer feeling.
“What are you doing here?” she yelled, “and, more importantly, how the heck did you get here?”
Ying grimaced. “It’s… complicated,” He managed, “anyway, nice seeing you. Great to, um… catch up and everything.” He turned to leave. “We’ll be going now—”
Tara continued to scowl at them. “Please do,” she said, jabbing a finger towards the pier. “The next ferry leaves in ten minutes.” Chen and Ying nodded in unison, and then started towards the pathway to the docks.
The two quickened their pace with each step, until Chen and Ying were all but running down the path.
“Nice seeing you!” Chen shouted over his shoulder, just before they were out of earshot. As soon as they were, Ying slowed to a trot, and turned to him.
“That was close!” he breathed, “I was afraid Tara was gonna blow us into next week!”
Chen hit him with a glare. “It’s good we escaped a beating,” he admitted, “but we’re still out of luck if we want to have any conversation whatsoever with her for the next ten years.”
Ying grinned. “Are you kidding? I highly doubt it’ll take longer than a week or two for this to blow over. You’ll see.”
“Whatever,” Chen sighed, “she wouldn't have been mad at us in the first place if you hadn’t tempted me to climb aboard your explosive gloves.”
Ying grunted but offered nothing more in reply.
Chen focused his gaze on a row of dry grasses sprouting from the earth to his left, and the boys continued their trek down the cliff side in silence.
The silence continued until they finally reached the pier and clambered aboard the ten o’clock ferry. “Last call!” the captain was shouting as Chen and Ying found their seats. Chen picked one by the bow, while Ying chose a chair closer to the stern. The boys were now as far away from each other as was possible without one of them diving overboard.
Chen then heard the boat’s engines growl and felt the floor beneath him shift forward as it lurched away from the pier.
Chen’s eyes drifted towards the sky and he marveled at just how beautiful the day had turned out to be. The sky was a crisp blue, dotted with the occasional wisp of milky water vapor. It really was hard to admire the sky when you were rocketing through it so fast that tears were squeezed from your eyeballs. As his eyes fixed themselves on the shining skyline of his hometown, a few bits of Chen’s nightmare returned to him.
There he was, staring up at that mouth in the sky, listening to it scream and jeer at him in its bizarre language of wind and lightning. He’d try to shut it again and again, but it was way too high for him to reach. Nothing short of a jetpack—or a pair of Ying’s crazy air gloves—would get him there.
And then… it was vanishing, collapsing in on itself and shrinking into nothing. Chen was shaken from his contemplation by another shout from the captain.
“We’ve arrived!” the man cried, “everyone off!”
Chen and Ying were forced to regroup in order to walk off the boat, remaining silent as they did so. They then paid the captain, strolled to a bus stop, hopped on a bus, rode it to their neighborhood, and parted ways without making any effort whatsoever to break the silence.
Chen watched Ying enter his house across the street before walking up to his front door and pulling it open. Chen saw that the living and dining rooms were completely empty, but this didn’t trouble him in the least. His mom was currently somewhere around the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping her coworkers prepare for the launch. His father was almost certainly taking a nap, And Min… A massive crumbling sound tore itself through the house, originating from somewhere in the backyard. She’d be practicing her earthbending.
Chen decided it would be best to head up to his room and lay low for a few hours. That way he could pretend he’d actually gone to school. When his dad woke up, he’d tell him that he'd just gotten back.
Marveling at his genius, Chen crept up the stairs, and slipped into his room. Once inside, Chen stumbled over to his bed, dodging the various things that littered the floor and flopped onto the mattress. The second his chest hit the sheets, Chen’s eyelids grew heavy and he realized just how tired he was. Shooting above the Republic City skyline on a pair of air boots sure could take a lot out of you.
Chen exhaled deeply, and laid his head on his pillow. It was then that something occurred to him. How was he going to explain his glasses? He never left the house without them, and… there was nothing left of them now.
He could say that it was work of the local bullies. Yes, that’s just what he’d say. The galoots had shoved him around a bit, and ended up breaking his glasses in the process. That was a perfectly believable story. A day in which Chen avoided a clobbering from those hog monkeys was a very odd day indeed.
Now that he had a way to explain everything that wouldn’t give anyone a heart attack, Chen decided it was time for some rest. He stretched himself out, and willed his body to relax. Before he knew it, the boy’s eyelids were sliding shut, and darkness was consuming him.
“You’re an interesting specimen, aren’t you?” A voice called out to him.
Chen’s eyes flew open, but that made absolutely no difference. The blackness was still there. “Wh—who’s there?” he asked the voice.
“Oh… someone whom you’ll come to know very well in the near future, I’m afraid.”
Chen didn’t think that made much sense at all. “Okay…” he said, “do you, like, have a name?”
“Doctor Huang,” the professor replied, “Or just ‘Huang’, if that’s easier. I used to teach chemistry at Ba Sing Se University until I was recruited for the Helix Project. I haven’t a doubt you know what I’m talking about.”
Chen nodded. He sure as heck did. The Helix project was a scientific endeavor organized in the late 200s, with the purpose of discovering a logical explanation for bending in general --why some people could shoot flames from their hands and create massive pillars of rock just by swinging their arms, and others simply couldn’t. The governments of all four nations threw money at it for years, but even after a decade of research, the Helix team had absolutely nothing to show for their efforts. There just didn’t seem to be any difference whatsoever between benders and nonbenders when you looked at them under a microscope. Eventually, the higher-ups decided it wasn’t worth it, and shut the project down, thus leaving the art of bending completely unexplained.
Everyone involved was mercilessly mocked and bashed by the press, and the criticism left most of them completely unacknowledged by their scientific peers. The whole thing had been an unfortunate ordeal for everyone, especially Kai Tezuka, whom Chen had met on numerous occasions. He was the father of Riko, a friend of his from school. He’d practically been in charge of the thing, and when the roof fell in he was hit the hardest. Riko’s mother was killed in a bank robbery soon after, and that really pushed him over the edge. Nowadays, he could be found holed up in his study, hunched over some ridiculous project that made no real sense when you studied it closely. Chen thought he was just a bit insane but Ying pretty much idolized the man.
“But I’m not here to moan about the past,” Huang replied, snapping Chen out of his inner reflections, “I’m here, to… warn you of something.”
“Warn me of what?”
“Ever since I began having the visions, I’ve been fighting them, trying to prevent him from getting what he wants. But I’m growing weaker with each day, and I fear that our world will ring with his presence in not an hour’s time.”
“Wait… Okay, now I definitely don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“HE’S IN MY HEAD!” Huang screamed, “Within my veins, pulling at me like a puppet on a string! I’ve managed to screw up the coordinates, but that’s not enough! He doesn't want blood, he wants death!”
Chen was utterly baffled by this string of information, but before he could question the man further, he felt himself being shaken awake.
His eyes popped open, and… there was his father. Looming over him, hands clasped on his shoulders.
“Chen!” he practically yelled, “I called you four times—you need to get up!”
“Wh-why?” Chen spluttered. The nightmare had left him a bit groggy.
“For crying out loud, son, it’s four o’clock! The launch starts in five minutes!”
Chen felt as though he’d been hit on the butt with a red-hot battering ram, and jolted out of bed. He squirmed out of his father’s grip, slammed on a pair of his back up glasses, and shot out of his room, down the stairs, and onto the couch—as far away from his sister as he could get without falling off. Sitting next to Min was like sitting next to a pile of snakes.
Chen’s father surged in after him, and quickly occupied the space between his children.
“Would you look at our timing!” he cried, “The countdown’s started!”
Chen peered closer at the television, and saw that his dad was right. The voice of the announcer was coming through loud and clear.
“And… we have liftoff in t-minus 11… 10… 9…”
Chen’s forehead grew speckled with sweat as the seconds ticked down. When the announcer finally shouted: “We have liftoff!” Chen’s eyes widened and he inched towards the edge of the sofa. What a spectacle it was! Right before them, in glorious black and white, the engines were coughing up smoke, the access elevators were falling away, and at last… The rocket was beginning to climb into the sky.
Chen and his father clapped riotously as it hurled itself into the atmosphere, while Min only frowned. Nothing new there, Chen thought. But he wasn’t gonna let his sister’s attitude ruin the occasion. This was way bigger than that. It wasn’t just another one of his television programs she made fun of on a regular basis, it was a beacon of hope, an inspiring representation of the human journey into the final frontier. All over Republic City, people were smiling, and cheering with him and his father. Their joy was intensified with every mile the rocket climbed, with each cloud its fuselage tore through.
Chen’s eyes were brimming with tears of joy when he saw it happen. When he witnessed the one event that would take the world he loved and shake it around until everyone he held dear was either dizzy or dead.
Eyes wet, hands shaking with anticipation, Chen witnessed a shimmering portal of light spiral into existence.
Author's Note Edit
So... There it is! My first chapter! I hope you guys enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
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