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The Launch
Chapter information
Series

Avatar: Advent of Earth

Book

1

Chapter

1

Written by

The Faceless One

Release date

July 16th, 2012

Chronology
Last chapter

The Nightmare

Next chapter

The Final Frontier

Intro

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.

Previously... On Avatar: Advent of Earth

Chen Ruan weathered a particularly disturbing portion of his regular nightmare, in which he possessed the ability to earthbend, a trait he has dreamed of attaining since day one. Unfortunately, we all have to open our eyes eventually.

Awakening

Wednesday, September 21st, 220 AG

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 this morning

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 Min, his lovely sister form the black lagoon, 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 imminent. Unpreventable. And so, he and his sister both went crashing to the floor.

Min had yet to don her makeup, and the icy glare she impaled him with was accented by an assortment of pimples and whiteheads. Chen figured the average guy might've found her attractive, but all he could see where the zits.

"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 only to be stopped short by Min's grasp. 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 grip, 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 measly 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 saw fit.

"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 drowned the hallway, 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 bid his mom and dad a quick "see you later", and finally wrenched open the front door. Maybe he'd have breakfast tomorrow.

Just beyond the porch lay his dad's manicured lawn, a sidewalk rent with roots, and finally... Chen's breath lodged in his throat. Finally, there stood the school bus.

Chen 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, powering across the carefully-trimmed grass.

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 going to make it!

Chen was seconds away from mounting the stairs, when his foot caught a root protruding from a crack in the concrete. As Chen tumbled downward, the bus driver slammed his foot on the accelerator. The bus rolled away, and Chen's face splatted onto the sidewalk.

Cursing his luck, the boy picked himself up, and doubled over in a cuffing fit. The smog the bus spewed in its wake was thick, almost tangible, and Chen's lungs felt as though he'd ripped them out and stuffed them down a chimney.

But choking on 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 pressed against the rear window, pointing, and jeering at him as they trundled away down the road. Shoulder's sagging, Chen plodded 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 a 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 something across the street caught his eye.

Yes... there it was again, a quiet rustling in the bushes to the left of Ying's house. Chen quickly dismissed the motion as nothing more than a bird flitting about its nest. 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. His ripped jeans were stained green from the grass, and peppered with seed pods shed by weeds. Unlike Chen's yard, Ying's was a mess of un-trimmed moss and brambles.

Chen's friend staggered to his feet, and spat out a bur. Chlorophyll had joined the wide assortment of chemical stains adorning the lab coat which hung from his shoulders. The garment was easily three sizes to big for him.

When their eyes met, Ying's lit up. After taking a moment to straighten his coat, he stood up and dashed across the street.

"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!" he pleaded, "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 dipped 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, "behold... the Pneumatic Lift Set."

Chen stared at the contraptions. 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 countless times, but still, he failed to curb his curiosity. The dreaded question escaped his lips despite his best efforts. "What do they do?"

Ying's face split into a wild grin, one Chen knew from experience. Ying's "here's how it works" grin usually foreshadowed serious injury of some sort.

"Well," he began, "in short, they're a sort of flying machine." He slid his feet into the boots, and strapped a glove on each hand. "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. Chen's jaw nearly fell off in response to what came next.

Ying was... hovering. Pebbles and bits of dirt fled the blast zone as Ying carefully maintained an altitude of two feet.

"And then," the boy continued, "the compressed air is vented out of apertures in the palms of the gloves and the soles of the boots." Ying flipped the same switch into the "off" position, and dropped back to solid ground. "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 two 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 that wherever Ying was leading them, he wouldn't like where they ended up.

"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!"

Liftoff

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 wednesday!"

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 any of that. Too bad it was all true. "Um, okay, listen." He glanced back towards his house, wondering if his parents might notice him and Ying blasting off. The breakfast nook was in the rear, so they were probably okay.

"Look, maybe we can 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.

Chen leaned against the tree that had done him in while he waited.

A few minutes later, Ying had the things working for him.

"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's grip tightened on a clump of bark, until it came away in his hand. Then, he used the same hand to absentmindedly wipe his forehead, and the tree crud joined the sweat just above his eyebrows. "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 confirmed.

"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. debris 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 prodding a set of buttons which 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, it's 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 register 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 far out over the harbor, and the dockworkers beneath them stared up at the two as the Lift Set gathered strength. From this high up, the humble fishing boats and expensive yachts looked like bath toys.

Soon the engines flared again, firing the boys 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 the beautiful 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 already running his ducts ragged. 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.

Detour

Tara had plotted her path through the garden carefully. She had articulated every aspect with the goal of making her trek as long as humanely possible. These breaks from meditation were best savored at molasses speeds.

If one of the acolytes found her, she'd tell him that she'd be "right on her way," and change direction until he averted his eyes. She'd continue her stroll the second he was no longer looking.

What was the point of meditation anyway? Sure, she'd been told numerous times: "meditating focuses the body, and tunes the soul." But what did that even mean? As far as Tara was concerned, her soul was just fine, with or without her mother's brutal, hour-long sessions. Some acolytes raved about the exhilaration of meditating, but Tara just found it boring. Well, there had been that one time...

Chen and Ying had tried meditating once on one of their visits, and that had ended with the two at each other's throats, arguing over who was the most "placid."

That was the one time she'd found it exhilarating.

Tara thought about this as she rounded a final bend, and found herself back at the reflecting pool. She scanned the verdant grasses wreathing the pool's edge, and discovered her mother to be missing.

crap, she cursed. Jinora had probably risen to look for her. When the woman finally returned, a nuclear meltdown would probably occur. Maybe I'll be vaporized, Tara mused, taking a seat by the pool's rim, or maybe... I'll just be forced to start over.

Tara inched closer to the water, and dipped her feet beneath the surface. The latter option was preferable.

She glanced up at the morning's shipment of clouds. It was a pretty wimpy bunch. A few wisps here and there permeated an otherwise spotless blue sky.

A roaring sound reached her from somewhere high up, and Tara struggled to pinpoint the noise. It was too quiet to be a passing jet, and too mechanical to be the call of a sky bison.

Whatever it was, the sound grew steadily, until Tara thought it best to take a few steps back. It was good she did, for seconds later, a silver blur roared out from behind a wimpy cloud, and thundered downward like a meteorite. Tara screamed, and shielded her eyes.

The blur powered further through the air, eventually coming to a climactic crash-landing... right in the reflecting pool. A tidal wave ripped out from under the object. Smacked by the torrent, Tara fell flat on her back. Her clothes clung to her, seemingly for dear life.

She coughed violently, and slowly staggered to her feet.

Touchdown

Chen grappled to the surface first, and suddenly realized where it was that they'd made their miraculous landing. They had touched down in a deep, circular pool, hugged by a rim of white marble interrupted by the occasional half-scale monk statuette. A lush garden spread out beyond the rim, featuring meticulously-shaped shrubs and ornate flowerbeds.

Farther still stood a large white building, topped by a thick, multi-stepped tower. Tiny windows peeked through the walls, placed at even intervals.

Chen groaned as a sky bison drifted by overhead, undaunted by their surprise entry. They had landed in the Air Temple Island reflecting pool.

Chen had little time to brood over the situation however, for within seconds of witnessing the bison, his stomach was overcome by nausea. 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. Where had they even come from? As far as he knew, he hadn't eaten breakfast.

Whatever their origin, these blobs were soon joined by another wave of barf from Ying, who had clambered out of the pool moments before.

After Ying finished hacking up his breakfast, Chen whirled on him. "I trusted you!" He snarled, punctuating 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 boys continued to trade blows, until the patter of footsteps on polished stone sped towards them.

Chen and Ying turned toward the noise, and found...

Both boys gulped in unison.

Tara stood before them. She was sopping wet, her auburn hair lying flat on her scalp. The plastered strands framed a pair of fiery grey eyes. Chen thought they looked a bit like twin pools of mud. The boiling hot kind.

Below the mud pits lay a pair of thin lips, twisted in an enraged grimace.

Chen grinned despite himself. Even when completely soaked, a bit blurry around the edges, and seething with rage, Tara was absolutely beautiful. She totally pulled off the mud-eye thing.

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. Like that one time Min had actually trapped him in a dryer.

"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, just thought we'd drop in. 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 island's south flank, in the direction of its pier. "The next ferry leaves in ten minutes." Chen and Ying nodded in unison, and 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 cobbled walkway.

"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 strode onto 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 heard the boat's engines growl. He felt the floor beneath him shift forward as it lurched away from the pier.

Chen's eyes drifted towards the sky. He marveled at what a beautiful day his chaotic morning had metamorphosed into. 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 the air milked the tears from your eyeballs.

As his eyes fixed themselves on the twinkling 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. The captain's call guided him out of the fog which had settled upon his mind.

"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.

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. After kicking aside another tin of sea prunes, he flopped onto the mattress. The second his chest hit the sheets, Chen's eyelids grew heavy as sacks of wet cement. Shooting above Republic City on a pair of air boots sure could take a lot out of you.

Chen exhaled deeply, and tumbled into 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 was the story he'd stick to. 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 finally 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.

The Helix Project

"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 the man 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. 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.

Launch Day

His eyes popped open, and there was his father. Looming over him, hands clasped on his shoulders. The large man's rocky features were scored with anxiety--an alien expression for someone so quick with a smile.

"Chen!" he practically bellowed, "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 mammoth grip, slammed on a pair of his back-up glasses, and shot out of his room. He bolted down the stairs, and onto the couch, planting his rear end as far away from his sister as he could get without falling off.

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 pillar of energy surge up from nowhere, and pop a hole in the sky. The gaping wound breathed and roiled like a living being; like the upper atmosphere had reared up to roar at the earth. Clouds appeared, and twisted around the anomaly's glowing event horizon, forming a pair of thundering lips.

Yes, Chen saw the resemblance. The wormhole looked an awful lot like a mouth.

Author's Notes

So... There it is! My first chapter! I hope you guys enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was a blast to widen the focal point of the narrative a bit, give you guys an introduction to some of AoE's other main characters.

And what's this wormhole business? Well, you'll find out more as the story progresses. Either way, it doesn't seem like a good thing to have around.

Did you Know...?

  • Ying's character was greatly inspired by that of Jimmy Neutron, a cartoon character in a nickelodeon television program which aired in the early thousands, as well as that of various other eccentric geniuses in modern media. Tony Stark? Maybe even The Doctor? Fear not, however, for while I did draw influence form these characters, Ying's own personality will grow with the story in a completely original way.
  • Chen's lust for bending will be greatly explored in future chapters. His desire is meant to expand and draw awareness to similar wishes held by many a nonbender in the Avatar universe. I imagine, if I were stuck without any abilities in a world of super-powered freaks who can fire rocks from their hands or control the air I breathe, I'd feel pretty left out.
  • Chen's father's earthbending arena is quite popular throughout the neighborhood. His curriculum is rock-hard, and unforgiving, but his love for his pupils runs deep within him. Min trains in this academy, but is regularly embarrassed by her father's antics. She's a teenage girl, who can blame her?

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