A/N: Kyttin is back. Yes he is. Oh, yes he is. And he has yet another story to post. Oh, yes he does. You'd better fuckin' believe it!
I'm only in a halfway decent mood at the moment, so I'll get right to the point: all of my other works are either done or discontinued. Period. Anyone who wants to pick up where I left off, please feel free to do so. I MIGHT come back and write Pushed to Breaking Point Part II, but I don't know yet. That all depends on my inspiration...and on this story.
I forewarn you: this piece is long because I have a lot going on and a lot to say. It's not long because I choose to impose a word count on myself; the minimum I must write is 5,000 words for the main body of the chapter (excluding the italics at the end). That's the only requirement I have is 5k. It's easy to reach, considering how much I have to say about what's going on.
Word Count: 8'363 (MSWord 2010); 8'367 (FFnet)
This story is also available on the I Dream of Jimmy forums. If you choose to visit and get the most up-to-date version of my story (with the most up-to-date list of chapters), please be sure to review and thank Mara S. for all of her hard work. She's an inspiration to everyone.
I don't need a disclaimer cuz I'm just that awesome. And it's fanfiction. Nothing here is owned by anyone, save maybe the plot-line and self-interpreted characterizations. Don't ask why, it just is.
But now that I've talked my ass off, as usual, I present to you the first chapter of what will hopefully be a long, long work. Here we have...
Chapter 1: Three Years Too Deep
A pair of glowing green eyes darted left and right, up and down, alert and overly cautious. One hundred yards to their left, a pair of sparkling blue eyes did much the same in the opposite direction. A breeze ruffled the long, dirtied blonde locks of the green-eyed girl, her brown-haired male companion pausing in his surveillance.
It was three years before that they had come to the surface of the corrupted Earth. What had started as a graduation gift for the five college-bound friends had turned into a raging bloodhunt to destroy all of civilized humanity in a parallel timeline, a fight that had ended the lives of three from the group. The remaining two were known as the Elite Alumni, the only two to have survived so long in search of the answer to the end of the Chaos.
The Parallel had been overtaken by a megalomaniac with an insurmountable power and aeons of history to bolster the movement. The One, as it was called, had an intelligence the likes of which had never been seen before, and had developed full-body plate-shield armor that protected and supercharged the body within, arming it with whatever weapon was pre-signed to the coded script within the mainframe of the suit. It wasn't on any technological grid, was invisible to radar, and was so unique that only three persons possessed it: The One and the Elite Alumni.
How the Parallel had degenerated was no mystery: The One had overtaken with a surprising ease, then had begun a totalitarian nuclear war with the rest of the godforsaken planet. Skies had turned reddish brown from radiation poisoning. Soldiers had all long since died. Now, robots guarded the city. Huge, twelve-foot-tall hulking beasts that looked as though they were made of scrap metal and nuclear fusion energy. They were lethal at best, cataclysmic at worst.
The Civil Defense Force wasn't the only worry, however. The Alumni had to watch out for mutations that had occurred in the gene pool. Hellhounds – dogs with rabies, two sets of razor-sharp teeth, six legs armed with six claws each, and three tails hanging from the backs of their rotted, degenerative skin, their fur having long since rotted off – and Zombies – humans whose brains had become swollen under radiation and had pressed against the cranium so long that all reason and virtue was replaced by nothing but sin and ravagement, coupled with elongated arms possessing hooked claws and talons for feet – were among the most common of beasts that existed in The Nether outside of Chaos. As it was, the green pair of eyes watched a small pack of four Hellhounds from their sunken, sleepless sockets. They were miles outside of Chaos, somewhere just on the outskirts of The Nether.
The dogs circled each other somewhat confusedly before sniffing the air all in perfect unison. They then lowered their heads and began trotting toward the base of the hill the green-eyed figure perched. She stiffened.
"James, they smell us," she lisped into her half-face visor.
"Four of them?" came the reply, clear as if he'd been whispering in her own ear right beside her.
"Yes. Four. The leader seems to be communing an attack for them to deploy. We must be the targets."
"We don't have proof of that. Hold your ground. If they begin a rapid attack approach, decimate them."
She inhaled slowly, calming her roiling nerves. James always knew the strategy. He was the absolute best. He knew everything about every creature they'd ever met, and even knew things that she couldn't begin to consider could be known. What's more, the man was excellent at doing a cold read. He could encounter an enemy he'd never seen before and find most, if not all, of its critical points and attack them all in proper succession to bring the foe down. He was a genius if nothing else and had been since childhood. Though, neither of them could have ever foreseen that they'd be warped into a demented, hellish place formerly known as Earth. It was too disgusting to be called reality. And yet, there they stood, haggard, dirty, and wielding weapons hijacked from Chaos itself, their armor testament to their value, dead or alive, to The One. After all, they'd had to steal the suits right out from under The One's nose.
She could see every huff of breath the decaying dogs let out, every puff of footstep they took on the dark red soil. Blood had been shed on just about every spot on the face of The Parallel, for better or for much much worse.
"Four bogeys inbound from the north. Appears to be four dogs; one alpha, three canines. Targets positioned at one hundred fifty yards, approach at three yards per second."
"Hold," came the whispered reply. They could only ever whisper to one another through the half-face helmets. Speaking would alert creatures from miles around to their presence, and whispering to one another openly was risky, as it put two targets in the same place at once and opened an opportunity for communication to be breached. The suits were secure and had their own tracer codes. They couldn't be overridden from anywhere or anything; not even The One possessed technology sufficient enough to overpower the suit. At least, not that they knew. A lot had changed in three years.
"Approach quickened to four yards per second."
"Ready weapon. Radar indicates two large bogeys headed westbound at eight yards per second. Possible feline connection; data unclear. Projected path crosses five yards due north of current position. Hold ground."
"James, they're getting closer," she whispered with urgency. She had seen the alpha raise its head and sniff the air before nearly doubling the pace toward them while James had been talking.
"Cynthia, hold ground. Ready weapon. Large bogeys closing. ETA: forty seconds."
"Alpha closing. ETA: ten seconds," she replied, the whisper somewhat breathy and very nervous. She'd never seen a Hellhound up close, much less fought one. She wasn't afraid of them, as the suit would protect her from most injuries, but she'd not been in a one-on-four combat situation, ever. Usually it was James with his reflexes and his genius gene that fought the monsters off, leaving her with the scraps or weaklings to kill.
"Bogeys closing. Confirmed feline relation. ETA: twenty seconds."
"Alpha has entered the perimeter. Weapon ready. Kill may be necessary."
"Kill on contact. Neutralization impossible."
She swallowed thickly. He was right, of course: trying to neutralize and tame a Hellhound was like trying to cut a cantaloupe open to get an apple. It wasn't possible.
"Targets inbound. Blade ready."
"Negative. Discharge rounds from a range. Eliminate targets before they can eliminate you."
She looked toward his figure. He crouched facing off into the western sun, apparently watching for the felines approaching. He didn't even seem bothered by the fact that four vicious Hellhounds were creeping up on him and their position. Then again, nothing ever seemed to scare or faze him. He had always been completely nonplussed by The Parallel, with the exception of when they'd first woken up to find out where they were. He'd freaked out for an hour, then calmed down and been totally calm ever since. Even stealing the suits hadn't bothered his demeanor.
"Targets confirmed. Discharge ready."
She slid what looked to be a very finely-crafted piece of machinery from her left hip into her right hand, something that looked like the hilt of a sword, though where the blade should have resided there was only a maw of black that led into the device. She twisted the knob that covered the entire end of the handle until a click was heard and the hilt vibrated gently in her hand.
"Charge set to four."
"Negative. Optimize charge setting at two, narrow shot. Aim between both eyes, one shot each."
"James, targets will fail to be eliminated at charge two."
"One shot to the cranium per dog will suffice. No need to turn them into Swiss cheese," he replied tubriskly. "Felines inbound. ETA: five seconds."
She rolled her thumb on the hilt and lowered the charge level. The hilt only hit a maximum charge of nineteen with the equivalent power of two hydrogen bombs. Hellhounds had notoriously high stamina and damage resistance, so a charge of two which could kill an ordinary human seemed unlikely to do much to the dogs.
She squeezed her palm and loosed a single neon-blue bolt into the Alpha. The charge made a direct hit and brains scattered outward like shotgun bullets. The dog dropped dead before its six legs stopped moving.
This of course alerted the other three canines to her presence, and they immediately began sprinting toward her. She gulped, sending her second shot through the next dog's head. Blood rained like bullets as it, too, hit the dirt before its legs stopped running. The other two dogs sprinted at full-bolt toward her location.
A steady hand eliminated a third target. The fourth began dodging left and right, making lock-on impossible. They were excellent at strategizing on the fly and it seemed this one had figured out how to dodge the shots.
"James, target movement is too rapid. I can't lock on."
"Hold for three seconds," he replied, speaking just above a whisper for once.
She looked between him and the dog.
The dog's feet pounded the ground, six in a perfect unified round, racing left and right even as she tried to scope it down.
She could see it huffing, could hear the growling as it drew so close to her, ready to tear her apart-
A blur of grey lanced from the left side of her peripheral vision and continued across to the right, catching the dog mid-leap and hurtling them both across the terrain. James hadn't lied; a seven-foot-long caracal, ash-grey and sleek-furred with a three-foot-long tail, had vault-tackled the hound from the air and had set about ripping its head off, tearing straight for the stomach and intestines in search of feast. She turned her head away from it to see the other scrounging off the remains of the three she'd killed.
A small buffer of air struck her left and she turned, hilt in hand, the lucid sword blade rippling outward with energy. James had knelt beside her, though, and she stowed the blade, her heart beating from the stress and panic.
"We can tame them," he voiced. "They haven't become corrupted by the radiation. It seems that this particular breed of caracal has adapted to the atmosphere. Smart cats," he said thoughtfully, an air of appreciation and reverence in his whisper. She nodded in agreement.
"They may be easy to tame," Cynthia said hopefully. James looked puzzled.
"Perhaps. I need to approach one to get an understanding."
The caracal to her right had finished scarfing on the dead dog and was snaking slowly back to its partner when it paused. It raised its head and looked right at the duo on top of the rise.
"It sees us," she informed him. James nodded.
"They knew we were here. That's why they came."
Now she was mystified. What would such large plains cats be doing tracking two of Chaos' most wanted persons?
"We led them straight to a food source," James explained. "Because we smell foreign and we are healthy meat, we attract predators from every angle. They can smell our faint scent from about three miles off."
"Even through the armor?"
"Even through the armor."
The caracal to the right had laid down, though its gaze was still focused on their figures. James locked eyes with it and gazed long and hard, kneeling, slowly outstretching his hand toward the animal. It sniffed, raising its chin, as if trying to get a sense of emotion from the human that beckoned to it.
Cynthia then noticed that the other large cat was approaching them openly, caution abandoned. It waltzed leisurely toward their location and looked as though it had not a care in the world. Its eyes, however, seemed to be focused on James as it approached.
He lowered his hand and looked around slowly, realizing with mild surprise that the cat was advancing on him so calmly. He stayed, knelt on the ground, arm retracted, eyes focused on the new target.
Cynthia resisted the urge to grab for her weapon. James hadn't indicated any presence of danger in the animals and continued to just look the cat in the eyes as it lessened the distance from three yards to three feet.
It stopped, nose almost pressed to his forehead. He didn't even blink, didn't falter in demeanor under the stare of the animal. It sniffed at him, very softly, very quietly, before licking his forehead with a rough tongue. Gravelly gurgling echoed from within the creature's body, and she thought for a moment that the creature was going to attack her partner. James merely chuckled at her visible stiffness and concern.
"The cat is purring, Cynthia. It trusts me."
Sure enough, much like the cats back home on their Earth, the cat began rubbing against his body rather sensually, looping its tail around his shoulders and neck somewhat protectively.
"This is a rare breed, isn't it?"
He nodded, scratching the feline behind the ears. The purring only grew louder.
"Caracals don't normally have this level of intelligence and trust in human companionship. This is a very rare breed of cat, indeed."
He stood up, resting his hand gently on the feline's crown, gently pulling his fingers on the scalp. The massage insighted more purring and even coaxed the other cat to join its partner in the benevolence.
"That was easier than expected," he commented. Cynthia nodded, gently scratching the cat's ribs. She too got to her feet and the more hesitant feline sniffed her hand before pushing its nose into her palm. She turned and smiled grimly, her lips a thin, chapped line, having not displayed a true smile in more than two years. The cat's grey-green eyes looking up at her and showed her their shared sentiments.
"Cynthia, nightfall is in thirty-six minutes. We need to forge a shelter or find a hole somewhere."
She looked around and saw his retreating form some four hundred yards away, the grey caracal still by his side, tail swishing idly back and forth. How did he get so far away so fast? She hopped her way down the rocky crag and reached the bottom without so much as a nick or a ding on her armor, not that it would scuff so easily anyways.
"My radar indicates there's a small, sheltered cave about a mile north of here, up by that plateau ahead."
She looked where he'd described, his retreating form growing ever-the-smaller. A very large mesa stood, tall and strong, jutting from the earth like a stage for titans. More reddish-brown clay-like dirt built the platform, a small ring of limestone running around its beltline. It looked to be very large and capable of providing a great deal of shelter, were the inside somewhat hollowed out. But that would be a fantasy come true; she hadn't even been inside a house in almost three years, let alone a proper, civilized shelter.
Fur grazed her hanging left hand. She scratched at the softness and purring ensued. James' figure had grown even farther from her, the distance slowly increasing. He moved so fast without even so much as a whisper of noise from his person. So lithe and agile, just like the cat beside him.
He disappeared from her line of sight, apparently into a fissure of sorts at the base of the table. With what energy she could pump into her legs, she set off toward the maw at a dead run, the cat galloping beside her, easily matching her pace. She could see every muscle of the cat humming and sliding and contracting and rippling as it ran, crossing the stained dirt with little effort and exertion. She, however, grew tired of running, even though she was in admirable physical condition; the filters in the helmet's visor could only clean the radiation from the air so quickly and hadn't been adapted for large intake volume. They were meant to protect and supercharge during heated combat, not to aid in physical exertion like running or jumping.
Still, she made it to the fissure only slightly out of breath, the cat landing in perfect stride beside her, unperturbed by the brief distance. It licked its nose and blinked at her, head tilted just slightly to the right, watching her carefully as she slowed her beating heart, one hand resting against a large boulder at the entrance to the fissure's maw.
A sapphire-blue flash temporarily blinded her green eyes from somewhere within the fissure, past the point where it closed overhead into a cave. Roars and shrieks met her ears and she gulped. The caracal's tufted ears flattened backwards against its head, tail lowered toward the ground, body slinking along the right-hand wall of rock, sensing imminent danger and enemy traces ahead. Cindy pulled out the hilt, this time engaging a chartreuse blade that rippled and glowed, much like a piece of stained glass held up to a light. James.
She sprinted into the cave, caution abandoned. All she had to guide her into the blackness around a right-hand corner was the light from her sword, the blade dimly illuminating the path before and behind her as her eyes struggled to adjust to the dark. Sounds of an altercation met her ears, and she watched as a blade, an exact twin of hers cast in sapphire blue, lit up the cave with sparks and light as it hacked through some unseen foe. In the brief flash, she could tell it was a large creature that resembled a bear. However, the extra arms it possessed persuaded her mind to think otherwise of it, and she lunged where she'd last seen it, blade forward, arm slightly bent and braced for impact.
She couldn't see as she sailed through the air, propelled only by the force of her own legs as she lunged, but her body passed cleanly between James and the animal as they separated for a brief moment before resuming their struggle.
"Cynthia, stay low. This thing can kill you with its trashbin-lid-sized hands. I've got it," he soothed, ripping a brutal backhanded uppercut into the animal, the blade ripping from its right hip up and out through its left shoulder. It roared and made a blind swing, and even in the semidark, her eyes were adjusting and could see that it was heavily wounded and quickly dying. She watched as the creature attempted to attack yet again, and when it left its neck open, she gasped as its head blew clean off its shoulders, the blade arcing a harsh, powerful swing through tendons and tissue and bone. The bear-monster fell dead to the floor, its cranium rolling across the cave into a corner. She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding as she slowly stood up, the blade retracting as she pushed off the wall she'd landed near.
James was panting just slightly, but still stood firmly on his feet, blade glowing lethally in the semidark. She watched him crack his neck and retract the blade, the latter of which darkened the cave considerably so that the only light source to be seen was the entrance. A low growl directed her attention toward the opposite corner of the cave.
"The caracal," he whispered, his voice sounding concerned. It was the first time she'd heard him lace any sort of emotion into his voice that wasn't his usual authoritative dialect in perhaps a year or so. He'd become more grim and emotionally rigid than she had; nothing had managed to get him to crack that shell, not until that moment.
"She tried to lunge at the Kumondo to clear the cave before I'd entered it. One of those massive hands caught her and pitched her somewhere. I'm going to assume it was she or your companion who growled and that they're united in the dark somewhere."
Something metallic hit the floor and then glowed with a blood-colored light. It looked to be a glass tube, about four inches across and sixteen inches long. Off across the cave, the light provided sight for one cat sprawled on the ground with labored breathing, the other sitting upright beside it, looking at James with mild uncertainty and anger.
"Shh, it's okay," he soothed, ignoring the upright cat. Cynthia drew closer, watching silently as he ran one hand gently down the side of the animal. He paused over its ribcage, just behind its forearm, and depressed very slightly, something which incited a growl from deep within the wounded animal.
"Seems to be a couple of broken ribs, perhaps some internal bleeding. Do me a favor and cut some of the meat from the breast of that Kumondo, will you Cynthia?"
She turned and heaved the bear-creature onto its back, careful not to lay it across the glowing rod. With one light swish and a hum from the hilt of her power sword, the meat was lanced cleanly from the bear's ribs, the meat warm to the touch. Even through her thick, black gloves, she could feel the warm weight of the meat, the blood that dripped from within and landed in a small pool in her palm.
She retracted the sword and moved delicately toward the wounded cat, holding the meat out before her. It sniffed, hesitant to the foreign substance, before grasping at the slab with its sharp canines and gnawing ravenously at the meat. Immediately, its shallow breathing became deeper and more full; larger gulps of air filling the cat's lungs as its body rapidly set about repairing itself, determined to undo the damage it had been caused.
James hadn't moved, other than to run his gloved hands gently over the cat's body, soothing it gently as it ate the meat it'd been offered. He almost looked like a father to the animal, even for as little as he'd known it. Cynthia didn't know what to make of it, other than that the man had to have been as starved for companionship as she was. Even though they had each other, nothing could replace the other three.
Carlton had been the first to go. The memory was so strong in Cynthia's brain, it was as though he'd been taken just moments before. The group of five had managed to break straight into the center of the Chaos Spire, the citadel in the center of the megacity. They'd somehow managed to stay under the radar and out of The One's clutches until they found the armor. Cynthia and James had been told to wear the armor, for they were the ones who were most apt and able to derive a solution to get back home and thus needed the most protection and advantage possible. The other three had gotten bracelets, one for the right hand which offered a weapon, one for the left which offered a full-body power-up. Nobody had even gotten to see Carlton's weapon or power-up. He'd been tranquilized and captured as they fled the base, and even though Sheen had tried to recover his large, semi-allergenic friend, he'd failed and been forced to flee or be destroyed. There had been rumor floating around Chaos that he'd become a test subject, a living science experiment, assuming he was even still alive after what The One would put him through.
Then it was Liberty and Sheen together. The group of four had come across a plain that harbored three massive Wurms under its surface. Radiation fallout had mutated common earthworm species into supermassive Wurm creatures, eighty-foot-long monsters that tunneled through the earth and ate anything their four-thousand-plus teeth could dig themselves into, their black, armored bodies flexing and coiling like giant, horrific snakes. James had been fighting one, slicing layer apart from layer while dodging its lethal, poison-tipped tail. Cynthia had been hacking and cutting through yet another, leaving the last one for the happy couple. Cynthia's dark-skinned friend Liberty had been eaten when her Hispanic boyfriend Sheen failed to double-back on his tracks and block a rogue dive from the Wurm, and its gnashing teeth had plowed downward and snapped Liberty up like she'd been a chocolate-colored snack. Sheen had blasted the Wurm to Hell and back, and when it refused to relinquish the love of his life, he'd jumped into its mouth and out of sight. The Wurm dove away into the ground and tunneled away from the fight, never seen nor heard from again. Cynthia hadn't even gotten a chance to say goodbye to any of them, and she'd cried for a long while after they'd each been taken from her.
But the sadness had turned to pent-up, well-concealed rage. Rage against The One for their situation. They were all but powerless to stop it. All it would take would be for one person to bring the Spire down and leave The One weak and defeated. She believed in James. He could do it. He had the strength and the intelligence.
"Rest, poor creature, and regain your strength," he sighed somewhat pitifully. The cat closed its eyes as its companion laid down beside it. Immediately James was on his feet, brandishing his sword, the blade glowing to a blinding white before separating itself in two, twin identical blades in each hand.
"Sleep, Cynthia. Nightfall is in eight minutes. I'll keep first watch."
"James, you had to fight that...that...that thing. You need the rest more than I do, and certainly sooner."
He moved quietly toward the entrance to the cave. "No, Cynthia. Three years of this madness has taught me very well how to survive with minimal sleep. It is you who needs to maintain your strength."
"Are you saying I'm not suited for this climate?"
"Neither of us are, but your strength doesn't stay with you when you forsake sleep."
"Just as yours shall fast leave you."
"Rest, Cynthia. Your mind is tired as your body and the things you say fail to match the fatigue I read from you."
"Are you calling me a liar?"
"I am telling you to rest."
She sighed, static thrumming through the line. "Well, at least if you want me to rest...stay by me."
"I'll not move from my perch unless need be."
She moved to him, laying one hand on his plated shoulder. "Then I'll stay here beside you. Maybe you've forgotten about our friends and have moved on since, but I haven't. I remember each of their lives as they were taken from us, James. Perhaps to you they all became collateral damage, but I remember a time not all that long ago when you were deeply rooted and connected to your friends. To me. And now you've become cold and silent. Where have you gone?"
He remained silent, the visor tinted black, his face invisible to her eye and thus unreadable. "I've done what I've had to in order to survive," he sighed.
"And in doing so, you've isolated yourself. If you can't accept and rely on some small form of human companionship from the only other human you know in this Parallel, you'll only serve to fall into insanity just as The One did."
She could almost see and feel him stiffen beneath his armor. She could tell just from the mention and reference that he'd become uncomfortable. She only hoped he wouldn't push her away and leave her to fend for herself. She knew she was entirely incapable, just as he was only slightly more capable of autonomous survival than she. After all, she'd been his companion for three long years in the Parallel and had managed to talk him through very difficult periods of time, especially after some of the killing sprees he'd been guilty of. He hadn't taken the losses as hard as she, though she knew he had harbored that resentment and anger and converted it into willpower and energy to vanquish other creatures that dared cross his path.
"How could I ever be like that monster?"
She gently turned him to face her. "If you don't want to be, don't be isolated."
Again, he became unreadable. She waited, patiently hoping for his reply.
Finally, "You can accompany me to my perch if that will make you most comfortable."
She removed her hand as he traipsed out of the fissure. With one swift kick from his right leg, he vaulted to the top of the rock wall and turned on his heel to face her. She stood directly beneath his person, staring up at him on the edge of the wall.
"Can you make it?"
She blinked behind her visor, fully aware that he couldn't read her expression. She didn't know if she had the strength left in her that day to jump some twenty feet straight up to scale a rock wall.
"We'll both find out in a moment, won't we?"
She crouched, compressing her muscles. James knelt at the top of the wall, slightly to her left. With only a half moment of forethought she extended her legs as fast as she could and catapulted herself upward.
Unfortunately, the exertion of jogging and attempting to aid in killing the Kumondo left her with only enough energy for her upper body to successfully land on the rock, her legs dangling like wet spaghetti below her. Her hands scrabbled as she swung her hips around, grasping for anything she could even as her body slid backwards toward the edge. If she couldn't pull herself up, she knew she'd most likely break or damage something, even through the armor.
A strong arm latched onto the back of the armor around her torso and hoisted her in the air, limbs flailing like an airborne turtle. James stood and gently lowered her to her feet, his arm relaxing and letting her land softly beside him.
"You've exerted yourself too much for today."
She could almost see him either smiling or frowning, but which he'd be inclined to do, she wasn't sure. If he were to smile, she'd feel thankful for his help. If he frowned, she'd be bashful and ashamed that she'd lost her had-been karate physique, having quit out during her sophomore year of high school with a double-black-belt to focus more intensely on her studies and intellectual rivalry with the unbested genius of the campus.
After some deep breaths and a handful of shoulder rolls, she stood up straight again, following her companion as he alighted the far edge of the fissure. He holed himself up against a boulder, the dead air sparing him a chill night breeze. She paused, standing next to him, knees weak from exertion. Their armor had been designed to alleviate the need for most bodily functions, including food consumption, food digestion, and hygiene, but it did absolutely nothing for physical fatigue, other than offer a shield against the elements and monsters within.
"Cynthia, if you stand much longer, your knees will give out and you'll hurt yourself."
She shakily dropped to his side, scooting back to rest against the rock. Once she was as comfortable as she could get on a rocky crag with her tight, knotted back resting against cold plate-armor pressed up to a jagged boulder, she let out a sigh of contentment.
"James…I'm so tired…"
"Sleep, Cynthia. I'll keep first watch. Chances are we won't be going too far for too long, at least not until the caracal heals."
She couldn't even manage a nod. Hearing his words in her ear, only staticky whispers of a voice she'd not heard loud and clear in three years time, was enough to shut her eyelids nice and tight and snug, and lull her into a secure, black dreamland.
(deep in dream...)
Fireworks blew off loud and bright in the distance. For them, it was the happiest night of their lives. All five of the high-schoolers had made it to graduation day, and they'd only been free of their scholarly bonds for a mere matter of hours.
Night fell warm and clear long about nine that evening. Cindy stood in front of her floor-length mirror hung in her closet, her cell phone laying open on the vanity to her left.
"Libby, can I really wear this sort of thing?"
A staticky breath crossed the line. Even speaker phone sometimes didn't cut it.
"Cindy, you've only been ravin' 'bout this night all your life, girl!"
"But I just don't know if it's too much. Maybe it's too formal."
"Cindy, stop the fussin'! Jimmy's gonn' be there. You wanna impress yo' man, don'cha?"
The way she'd said 'man' made Cindy laugh; it sounded like 'may-un' and had a light swagger to it that brought a blush to her cheeks.
"My man…it's so weird to say that."
"Well, that's how I felt 'bout Sheen when he an' I first got together, but now we're livin' it up, girl! You gotta show him yo' stuff! Show that big-brained genius what'chur workin' with! Show him what he's got and make him go afta it before he misses it!"
Cindy laughed heartily in her room, twirling the dress around her knees. It hugged her figure tightly and only made it a little hard to breathe, but the amount of cleavage she was showing made up for her air supply. Black, suave, suede-like material that had a large V down the front and wrapped thin, lace-embellished straps over her shoulders and down her back, where the dress finally closed back up somewhere between her middle back and the swell of her butt. It had little layers hanging daintily around her knees and even had two black trails of silk curling their way downward from her waist. She looked good, damn good, and she knew it. She knew she'd be one of the most irresistible girls at the party, but it was all about her and Jimmy.
"Libby, I don't know! I've never showed this much of myself to anyone before, not even Neutron! What if he doesn't like it? What if he thinks it's too weird? What if he doesn't want me to be his date tonight? What if-"
"Cindy! Think about it! Is he a guy?"
"Then he'll like it. Does he have somethin' you don't?"
"You mean the brain of a genius?"
"No, not like that. Y'know, the outdoor plumbin'! The faucet! His-"
"Jesus, Libby, YES, I'm sure he does!" Cindy cried, her face turning red. She heard laughter on the other end.
"Then he won't think it's weird. An' remember, he likes you. Bad. An' you've been datin' for the past, what, six months?"
"Seven months and three weeks…"
"Trust me, girl, you'll be FINE! Hell, you already fine!"
More blushing. "Thanks, Libby. I guess I owe you a bit for this pick-me-up, don't I?"
"Don' even worry 'bout it, girl. Ev'ryone has their nervous point."
"Alright, well, I'm gonna let you go get ready. I'm sure Jimmy's gonna-"
"Shit!" She clapped a hand to her mouth. "He's here. Libby, I've gotta go, I've gotta GO!"
"Make it good, girl! I'll see you at my house soon!"
The line went dead. Cindy took a deep breath, steadying herself in her strappy four-inch heels. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms and she blinked at herself in the mirror, admiring her subtle, but effective, make-up work. The hint of a shadow across her upper eyelids, the dark curl of her eyelashes, the life in her chartreuse eyes, it all made her look…sexy.
She gulped and shut the closet door, grabbing her purse. Her phone snapped shut as she tossed it into the small shoulder-strapped bag; it was slim and small enough to be easily hidden but large enough to not be unnoticeable.
She clicked her way down the stairs and onto the tile in the hallway that led off her foyer. Her mother rounded the corner from the kitchen and smiled softly.
"Looks like my little girl's all grown up, isn't she?"
Cindy giggled. "I'm still the same girl, mom. Just a little taller and a little smarter."
"And perhaps a little softer on the personality. This is the first boy I've actually seen you take a real liking to."
More pink tinged her high cheek bones. "Mom, stop…Jimmy's a nice guy, and I like spending time with him and his dorky friends. He's so good at making me laugh and at showing me a good time."
Sasha Vortex smiled again at her daughter, a light film of tears across her eyes. "I'm so proud of you, Cynthia. Now go have a wonderful night with your friends."
"I will, mom," she said, hugging her mother gently. She could smell the delicious aroma of chocolate chip cookies woven into her mother's clothing, the morsels baking slowly in the oven. She wondered if they only smelled so good because they were her mother's, or because her light vanilla-scented perfume made them smell better.
"Well, Jimmy's here. I'd better go meet him," she said, rubbing her mother's back before slowly stepping away from the embrace. Sasha nodded, her black bun of hair bouncing slightly.
"Take care of yourself, dear."
Cindy nodded and smiled at her mother, struggling with not crying. Her mom had been emotional all through the ceremony and it was starting to become contagious. She stepped around the woman, fighting tears, and moved slowly to the door, her hand contacting the cold brass of the handle. Outside, waiting for her, was the guy she'd wanted since he'd moved in ten years before, even before she knew what love was, before she'd even really had any particularly close friends or adventures.
She twisted the handle and opened the door gently to reveal none other than James Isaac Neutron himself. He had changed his fudge-like hairdo back in the summer before eighth grade for a longer, more shaggy style of cut that only ever hung to his shoulders. A white dress shirt beneath a dark blue suit jacket and black slacks with black loafers comprised of his outfit that evening, a fairly pleasant contrast to his traditional button-up shirts with atom symbols on the left breast pockets over dark blue jeans and grey sneakers. He had been straightening the handkerchief in his left breast pocket rather absently before being interrupted by the opening door. He cocked a half smile at her, his eyes growing wide in surprise. Cindy felt very self-conscious under his scrutiny.
"Neutron," she said softly, smiling brightly. He grinned up at her, completely at ease watching her step out onto her porch.
"Vortex," he returned just as softly, his tenor a thrum in her ears.
"Like what you see?" she asked, the door shutting behind her.
"My god, you're…"
"Hideous? You don't think it's too much, do you?" she fidgeted, drawing her thighs tighter together, her arms closing up to her body. "Libby said it'd look good on me, but you don't like it."
She balked, blinking rapidly. Her hands dropped and she looked up at him, away from the concrete step she'd been staring at.
"I'm a what?"
"You're a bombshell, Cindy. You look…stunning."
Red flooded her cheeks and she giggled as she nervously clicked down the stairs, sashaying just a bit as she drew closer to him.
He took her hand and kissed the back of it, a light smirk on his face.
"Yes, you do."
She giggled again, her cheeks the color of a ripe apple.
"Let's go. I'm sure Libby isn't too thrilled with the idea of waiting on you to start her house party."
Cindy laughed. "That girl? I don't even know if she's really ready for this to happen tonight. She didn't sound terribly concerned over the phone."
"The way Sheen went on about it earlier, you'd have thought it was like he'd been called Ultralord's best friend."
That got both of them laughing. "Wow. Is it really that amazing?"
"That's how they're making it sound."
"Well, then, we'd better get going, hadn't we?"
"As you wish, mademoiselle," he purred. He took her hand and turned slowly to his left. A blanket of warmth twisted through their bodies and left them standing outside Folfax Manor, buried somewhere within the middle of the Ivy Heights. Cindy gasped.
"There are many things I've left undisclosed, Cindy. That was just a bracelet with a power gem. Simply think about your destination, then turn to your left to go there. It won't bend time, though, so don't think you'll be getting a pocket-sized DeLorean any time soon."
She laughed. "I want one of those."
He snapped the silver band off his wrist and onto hers. It weighed less than a sheet of paper.
"Titanium, for energy dispersal," he commented. She smiled at him, resisting the urge to rumple his hair.
"Always the annoying genius type, aren't you?"
"I fear you'd be disappointed in me if I weren't," he replied, grinning like a loon.
"Well, Libby had better be ready for us," she said, chuckling. "I doubt too many people have showed up for this party of hers."
They walked up to the steps, her arm loosely curled around his, not wanting to be overbearing or overly possessive of the young man beside her. She could feel the slight muscle through the jacket as it flexed gently with his stride. All the wrench-work on the late nights of inventing must have been paying off for him.
A loud, raucous chiming noise sounded deep within the bowels of the house as Jimmy rang the bell. The door immediately opened to a dashing red-haired young man wearing a white collared shirt and black slacks with a leather belt. The man grinned down at the couple on the porch.
"Hey, Carl. How's football been treating you?"
The man was easily six feet tall, and his had-been portly stature had turned into his greatest strength: nobody at any football event had ever managed to tackle him or drag him down, no matter how persistent or heavy. Carl had become athletic, had kicked most of his asthma to the curb, and had grown a great deal stronger and more solid in his high school years, much unlike his mother and father. Even they were astounded at his transformation.
"It might not be as much fun now that I'm not against high school kids anymore," he jested.
"But those big, bad college guys will have your work cut out for you. Full ride scholarship, right?"
The large man nodded and grinned cheekily. "Well, anyway, come on in. The ballroom's wide open and the party's full swing. Libby's the center of attention right now, and I think she's got Sheen as the disc jockey."
The couple stepped across the threshold and Carl shut the door behind them with a loud, dull thud. However, the sound was utterly inaudible over the wall of sheer noise that was coming from within the double-doors under the balcony directly before them. Large, marble staircases curved gently up to the balcony and framed the doors like ivory sentries.
Carl headed into the throng of people moving and bouncing and shaking within the room ahead. Jimmy shook his head.
"I don't know how we'll stay alive in there," he commented dryly. Cindy laughed, linking her hands with his as she faced him.
"Come on, Neutron. Lighten up. It's a party, not a science convention."
She slowly began dragging him backward into the crowd, pulling and pulling until she had him up near the concert stage, at the head of which a dark-skinned young woman stood, snapping her fingers and twirling in circles as she danced to the music the young Hispanic man selected off to her right. Jimmy caught his eye and waved; the wave was returned before the man's eyes widened noticeably in the half-light. Both parties of the couple had a sneaking suspicion that the blonde-haired date had been spotted.
The song ended and the woman took to the mic again. "Thanks for that one, Sheen! I think this party's starting to be called a party now, don't you agree?"
Cheers erupted. Cindy chose that moment to step onto the stage and casually walked her way up toward center stage.
"How's everyone doing tonight?"
The crowd cheered again, this time with wolf whistles and cat calls. Cindy tapped the woman on the shoulder and she spun, eyes growing wide at the sudden distraction. Her gold, floor-length gown spun and glittered beautifully in the light.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Cindy called gently, "but it wasn't a party until I walked in!"
The crowd laughed and yelled again. Jimmy got onto the stage and snuck his way around to meet up with the Hispanic boy at the computer. Cindy, meanwhile, had embraced her best friend in front of the entire senior class of Retroville High.
"Ladies and gentlemen, our valedictorian, Cindy Vortex!"
More cheers, albeit with some groans mixed in; nobody wanted to be reminded of high school. Jimmy tapped the man on the shoulder and grinned.
"Hey, when you finally get some time with Libby after these shenanigans, tell her I'd like our group of five to meet up outside my clubhouse tomorrow at around noon if possible."
"You got it, Jimmy. Any requests?"
"None for the moment, Sheen. I'm not much of a dancer."
Both laughed a bit as the girls carried on upstage. Finally, Cindy joined her date and gave him a gentle peck on the cheek, something to which the crowd let out a loud, collective "aww" and all made kissing faces and noises at. Cindy laughed. Jimmy turned slightly pink. He wasn't too good with public affection.
"Alright, well, does anyone want to have Cindy or Jimmy make a speech?"
The crowd clapped and a dull cheer began to ring. "Jim-my! Jim-my!"
Libby looked his way, dress glittering like it'd been made by Rumplestiltskin. "Well, Jimmy?"
He sighed. "How can I resist?" he called. The crowd laughed as he took to the mic. Cindy stayed on his arm per his choice and accompanied him, feeling very self-conscious and very nervous in front of her entire graduating class with the guy who put butterflies into her heart by her side.
"Well, I'm sure everyone can agree when I say it's been a long time coming. The past twelve or thirteen years of our lives have been nothing but school and tests and not a whole ton of fun has come of it all."
Nodding ensued. "But, hey! We made it out alive, right?"
"What about Betty?" someone cried.
The room fell into an awkward silence. Jimmy and Cindy glanced at each other somewhat uncomfortably.
"Well…that was unforeseen, as it happens…she was just as good a student as any of us, and was a very talented actress-to-be. But…due to an unfortunate case of circumstance, she couldn't be with us on this wonderful day."
Some people had let themselves fall to tears. Jimmy remained composed. Cindy could feel heartbreak welling up. It hadn't been some unfortunate case of circumstance. She'd been found murdered in cold-blood, multiple stab wounds covering her lifeless corpse, her entrails ripped to pieces and gutted from her body like an Egyptian sacrifice to the gods. And to top it all off, she'd been discovered three days after her alleged death in an alleyway at the bottom of a dumpster, her clothing, hair, and body covered in remains of the killer's semen. He'd been apprehended and was serving four consecutive life sentences in prison for a string of similar crimes across the country, but nothing could ever replace the spark of life Betty had brought around. Hell, Cindy had even started to like the girl a bit once they'd sorted out their feelings for Jimmy and realized that Betty wasn't interested in him. They shared many common interests and both seemed to have similar upbringing, but only one of the two had made it to graduation day alive.
"Hey, guys, we aren't here to mourn Betty. She lives on with us! She graduated with us! I was there with you guys; I saw the diploma pass into the hands of her mother and father, given straight to her little sister. Don't be upset that she's gone, be thankful for the time she was able to share with us. Besides, honestly, do you think she'd want us moping about her death?"
He spun and grabbed a glass of champagne he knew Libby would be holding out to him.
"So, if there need be any reason to celebrate tonight, as if graduation and survival of the most boring years of our lives wasn't enough…" he held the glass high in the air, looking around the crowd with a large, bold grin, "…let's celebrate with our friend Betty Quinlan on the night we've become free of our scholarly chains. Let's celebrate, if not for ourselves and our own accomplishments, then for her!"
He downed the entire glass in one swallow while cheers and tears erupted throughout the crowd. The mood had been reignited and with a finger pointed to Sheen, the music restarted and everyone set about dancing again. Jimmy and Cindy waved as they backed off the stage, headed for the dance floor. On the way, Jimmy ran into Carl and traded high-fives.
"Tomorrow, the clubhouse, noontime?"
"Sure thing, Jim. See you there!"
Cindy tugged on his arm as they got lost in the crowd and began to move and sway with the beat.
"What was that about, Neutron?" she asked suspiciously.
"Well, Vortex, I trust you'll have to be there tomorrow around noon to find out, won't you?"
She laughed, punching him lightly on the shoulder as she bobbed and swayed in the midst of all the bodies. "Count on it, Jimmy."
He pecked her gently on the lips, and they danced the night away.
I will hope beyond all hope that this document upload manager saved and recognized every single bit of effort it took me to push this first chapter out of my mind. It was a lot of work to start this fic, and it doesn't seem to be getting any easier on me. Sometimes I get bouts of inspiration. Not often. It'll be a bit more structured than some of my other works, but it should still ultimately resemble a giant, tangled knot ball when I finish. I love you all, my gentle snowflakes, and I bid you a wonderful day. Be sure to review, and notify me if you want to be a beta for this work; I'm desperately in need of at least one person who can sift through my work and tell me where I've caused discrepancy, awkwardness, or error. Thank you all so much, and I'll see you when I post Chapter 2: Progressive Extension Technology. ~Kyttin