You've Come A Long Way, Baby Chapter 18

By Imrahil

It was an uneasy celebration.

Crowds lined the paved streets of Hope Layer, cheering for the victorious police officers who paraded past. Streamers, balloons, confetti, and multi-colored smoke and lasers illuminated and decorated the night sky. Loud music played, enhancing the huge festival all the more.

Yet there were sad reminders of the horrible battle that had taken place earlier that day. Gigantic tracts of Hope Layer were scorched and riddled with craters. There were still bodies of fallen warriors rotting in hidden foxholes. Also, the many police officers standing guard around the celebration added to the tension of the atmosphere. But the people were doing their best to forget.

Overtures from Jacob Lehns had convinced the frightened Upper Wing members to readmit the Trade Layer denizens into “the educated class”, and thousands of plebeians had shown up for the festival, embraced by Hope Layer citizens as if they had always been kin. The plebeians were fighting just as hard as the Upper Layer citizens were, after all. They had been busy constructing huge barriers and teleportation inhibitors along the borders of their Layer, ceasing further transgressions from the Black Rebels. Their efforts had truly saved the day.

Far away from the celebrations, six dark figures could be seen resting on several park benches in one of the untouched atriums of Hope Layer. Each held on to another tightly, because to them, the war was far from over.

On the furthest edge of the atrium, a dark, tortured mage held a compassionate and intelligent woman in his arms. They didn’t speak, at least not vocally, but instead caressed each other lovingly.

Near the center of the atrium, close to a dry fountain shaped like a small cherub, a brash but proficient warrior aggressively kissed a regal and strong-willed woman with desperate motions. He felt like this moment would be their last time together, for he knew they would soon be venturing into suicide. Not for themselves anymore, not even for their new friends. He had realized something: he had been born to fight. He knew he was meant to fight in order to preserve life, even if it meant losing his own. The blonde woman felt the same, and she silently wept as she lovingly kissed her warrior.

Close to the entrance of the atrium, a tired police officer lay beside one of his best friends. He had his arm around his ex-partner as she slept on his chest. He had fallen in love again; perhaps he had always been in love with this woman. He had been too blind to see it, though. He knew she could never love him the way he loved her, but he was willing to sacrifice his emotions for her anyway. Hell, he was willing to sacrifice his life for her. And in only a few more hours, he knew he would get to do just that.

* * *

Birds chirped sweetly in the air when the companions woke. The beautiful green of the ivy-covered atrium welcomed them back to the conscious world, and an ambrosial scent wafted through their senses.

Without a single word, each pair got up and walked out of the atrium. The streets were still patrolled by police, and the joyous atmosphere of the night before had been replaced by a strange and eerie…military…feeling. The companions grasped onto each other as the walked toward a police transport car that was waiting for them. A portly sergeant doffed his hat as the group piled into the open car, and he quickly shut the door behind them.

The vehicle lifted off the ground, and after a quick and silent journey, they had arrived at the Law Center. The group left the sanctity of the vehicle and entered the huge, intricately-designed Law Center. They entered a vast hall filled with showering booths, where they quickly removed their armor and cleaned themselves. Their old, reliable armor was delivered to them, and the group emerged from their separate booths feeling both exhilarated and nostalgic.

Alex had left the group for a moment to be interrogated and examined by the Upper Wing committee, and everyone was staying in the shower area, musing their current situation.

“So, how long have you guys known Alex?” Kat asked. She was dressed in a new suit of armor which complimented her figure extraordinarily.

“Almost a week, now, but it’s like we’ve known each other forever. We’ve been through a lot,” Marle answered while clutching Crono’s shoulders.

“He’s a great guy; he’s kind, and compassionate, and really cool,” Lucca said. She was sitting beside Magus, holding his hand.

“Yeah, I know, it’s just taken him so long to get interested in me, you know? He’s never really wanted me…” Kat said forlornly. “And the way he looks at me, now, suddenly…it’s as if he actually cares for me…”

“He does,” Magus said grimly. “He loves you.”

“Can’t you tell?” Marle asked. Her tone changed, suddenly. “Don’t you love him?”

“Love him? What does that mean? Sure, I care about him, and I see him as a compatible partner, but that’s it. Love is something in fairytales, and fictional stories.” Kat moved her legs onto the bench she was on and put her arms over her knees.

“Ah yes, an officer’s inability to love. It is tragic, really. Alex probably has no idea that his affections aren’t returned.” Magus almost laughed. “Here’s the real question though: if I gave you the power to love, would you actually fall in love with Alex, or would you regard him in the same manner as you do now? As a ‘compatible partner’?”

“Janus,” Lucca said coolly, “everyone deserves to love another. Give her the ability.”

“But it is like I said before, my love; is it so wise to give her an undeveloped emotion that may push her away from Alex? I’d rather not hurt our friend in this way.”

“Let her make the decision; she deserves the right. Do you want to love, Kat?” Crono asked the police officer.

Without warning, Alex re-entered the room from the dark hall leading into the shower room.

“Hey, guys. The high-ups agree; we’re going in. They think it’s best if it was just us: a small team to disengage the Elders and the Rebel base for good. We’ve got an hour to get ready, until then—” Alex stopped suddenly after seeing the evasive glances of his friends.

“What? What’s going on?” Alex’s tone suddenly sounded playful as he tilted his head to the side and smiled. “Were you guys talking about me?”

“No, no, of course not!” Marle said sarcastically as she looked down at her feet. “Just saying, you know, what a great job you did, um, leading us to victory back on Hope Layer. Right, guys?”

Everyone nodded quickly, except Magus who nonchalantly stared at the floor.

“Oh, I bet, I bet. Anyway, the committee wants to meet all of you before we take off. Something about, ‘wanting to look in the faces of those who will give their lives to blah-blah-something-or-other.’” Alex threw a small gray pad that he had been typing commands on into the empty shower stall beside him. It rattled for a while as it hit the hard tile. “You guys ready?”

Magus quickly stood up and adopted his usual determined expression. “We are ready.”

“Yeah, c’mon, what have we got to lose?” Lucca said, then suddenly felt sorry she had spoken. This wasn’t their world; they had everything to lose, and basically nothing to gain…but she quickly forgot her doubts. She had already gained so much on the journey, and she thought it best at least see the thing through. She grabbed onto Magus’ hand as the mage began following Alex and the others through the shower room exit.

The group moved through the familiar corridors of the Law Center once again after emerging from the tiled showers, and the couples complacently chatted as Alex led them onto a lift and through the double doors of Jacob Lehns’ office.

As everyone entered the room, they were treated to an unexpected surprise. The huge black marble room was now extremely well-lit, and the it was finally revealed in all its true glory. Intricate runes flowered across the dark marble of the six enormous pillars, hinting at times of the past. A velvet drape had been pulled over the large window behind where Jacob’s desk used to be. Flickering, medieval torches were mounted into the walls beside the covered window. Yet most of the light came from the florescent white bulbs that now lined the ceiling. The room reeked of vinegar and cigarette smoke, and burned the companions’ eyes as they looked around.

Inside the expanse between the pillars lay a long, gray table at which were seated almost two dozen men and women. Each was unique in his or her own way; some were clothed in expensive fabrics, others in hastily-cleaned overalls. At the head of the table sat a smug Jacob Lehns, donning his tiny white cigarette.

The huge oaken doors closed shut after all of the companions had stepped through. The low muttering that had filled the room only moments before quickly died down. Jacob’s eyes suddenly lit up as he watched the friends approach, and he quickly sat up in his chair.

“Alex! Crono! Marle! Lucca! Magus! Lieutenant Durst! It is my pleasure to introduce you to the newly-formed General Committee of Earth.” Jacob grinned widely as he motioned the friends to come closer forward to the other end of the table, where an empty seat was located. “Please, Alex, take a seat. I’ll get someone to bring some chairs up for the rest of you.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Alex said, raising his hand, “we’re leaving very soon, so we won’t be here long.”

The room was silent for a moment, until a very portly individual in a dusty brown uniform spoke. His low, raspy voice was labored, as if the mere act of talking took a great deal of effort. He stood up as he spoke from the seat to the right of Jacob.

“I would…speak…with you, Officer, before…you leave…” he said, breathing heavily. Alex nodded to him.

“I am…Master Workman Naran…elected leader of the Trade Layer affiliates. I…wish to express my deepest thanks…and utmost appreciation…of your efforts to deliver equality…among the Layers.” Quiet clapping could be heard from around the table, but Naran motioned them to stop. The noise quickly subdued, and Naran took a deep breath, and began speaking once more.

“I would know…who the others behind you are…the brave ones who have…committed their lives to…our cause. You…the programmed one…tell me…” Naran slowly, as if in great pain, lifted his thick arm and pointed at Alex.

Before Alex could answer, Jacob quickly interjected. “Master Workman, just for your information, Alex’s actions were not a product of his programming, in fact, his programming was meant to prevent the sort of things Alex had been doing. I’d like the committee to know that, under my guidance, this officer overcame his genetic programming, and performed admirably. My protégé, Alex, is a true hero.”

The entire room erupted in applause, and Jacob stood up and bowed several times, until the wild clapping finally halted. Jacob was beaming. The companions, however, were disgusted.

“Please, Alex, if you would do the honor of introducing your comrades?” Jacob grinned at the large officer.

“Of course.” Magus and the others expected Alex to be furious, but their friend was eerily composed.

“Trade delegates and Law magistrates and Hope chancellors: I address you.” The first sentence he uttered was strangely mechanical, as if he had no control over his words, but quickly, he readjusted himself and began to speak more freely, forgetting the formalities he had been taught to use in the past. “These men and women behind me compose the best elite force in the entire world. Remember each of them, for they are sacrificing themselves so that you may live in peace.”

Alex quickly introduced all of his friends but Kat, and then he looked back to the committee. “The only reason that your world has stayed intact is because of the efforts of these people; do not forget what they have done. We take our leave.”

The companions left as quickly as they came, followed by the loud applause of the committee. Alex walked quickly and deliberately in front of their friends as they approached the lift that was to take them to the docking bay.

“Hey, Al, wait up!” Crono yelled as he ran to catch up with the fast pace of the officer. “Dude, why didn’t you just tell the committee how it really is?”

“There’s no reason to discredit Jacob Lehns now; if he can keep the Layers together, power to him. Who am I to make him look like a fool?” Alex nodded to the saluting officer who stood beside the lift. He quickly pressed his thumb to the black square beside the lift doors, and stepped into the opened room. Everyone else followed.

“A wise move, although you are foolish to trust Lehns.” Magus was the last one onto the lift, and the doors immediately shut behind him. A quiet whirring was audible as the lift moved downward. “It does not matter, really. What matters is that we are victorious.”

The lift came to an abrupt stop and the doors opened, revealing the docking bay hall. Alex quickly opened a huge room that contained a very familiar-looking transport vehicle. The officer led his friends over to it, and then turned around to speak.

“I know we have about forty minutes before we’re supposed to leave, but I figure now’s as good a time to leave as any. Unless any of you have something you want to do before…”

“I would like to say something,” Magus said as he stepped out from behind the other friends.

Everyone waited, expectantly.

Magus straightened himself up as if getting ready for a long-winded speech. Finally, he spoke.

“Let’s go. Now.”

* * *

Each of the companions were bathed in a dull red light. The small personnel portion of the transport vehicle was bland and dark, and had only six seats; three on either side. The friends were strapped in to the seats, facing each other in the dim light. The vehicle moved quickly and silently, and only rocked from side to side occasionally.

The atmosphere in the transport car was very solemn, and the friends were silent as they pondered their plights.

Marle looked down at her hands that were neatly folded in her lap. Despite her new lifestyle, her training as a princess would never leave her. Marle looked up at the three of her friends who were seated across from her. Alex, who was closest to the front of the car, stared straight ahead, his armor-covered chest thrust out as if he had been called to attention. His eyes seemed fixated on the face of Katherine Durst, who was seated directly in front of him. Beside Alex sat Magus and Lucca, who were holding on to each other lovingly, choosing to speak to each other silently. Marle felt Crono’s hand tenderly clutch her thigh as he slept beside her. She still couldn’t believe the young warrior could sleep before the coming conflict. She supposed he had always been that way, though.

Marle directed her attention to the porthole to her right in the back of the transport car, and she watched the outside world fly by. The window had gone dark now, however, and she felt dread begin to build up in her gut. They had finally entered the Darkscape.

The transport car deftly came to a halt on the unstable terrain of the earth. The soft, purring engine of the automated vehicle shut down, and the dim light in the car changed from red to a dull white. The seat harnesses quickly disengaged, allowing the companions to stand up.

Alex snapped out of his trance-like state and removed several large assault handguns from the rack at the front of the car. He handed one to Kat and then turned to the rest of the anxious group.

“We should be right in front of the Poe’s Garage we entered before. The Upper Wing is going to deploy an ion cannon to blow a hole through the Garage’s door. We’ll only have to wait a few seconds.”

Right on cue, an intense explosion from the outside rocked the frame of the transport vehicle, causing the companions to fall to the floor and crash into the walls. The automated doors of the transport vehicle immediately slid open after the shock of the explosion had worn off. The companions stood up and jumped outside.

An immense crater lay before them, rubble littering every inch of the ground. Plumes of dark smoke slowly curled up from the enormous hole in the ground. The world outside was eerily quiet, except for a few ominous howls that echoed in the distance.

“Move, people!” Alex said as he jumped into the crater and slid down its steep sides toward the bottom. Crono was the first to follow, leading the rest of the friends after the large police officer.

Huge billows of gray dust were driven into the air in the wake of the companions, obscuring the dark skeletal buildings that rose up around the crater. Alex reached the bottom of the crater and began to kick around rubble and large pieces of steel in hopes of discovering an entrance to the underground rebel facility. As soon as the others reached the bottom as well, they, too, began to search for a hole.

It was only a matter of time before Magus unearthed a dark hole underneath a portion of the Garage’s roof. Without a word, Alex jumped down the cavity in the earth, followed by the others.

The group landed in a tepid pool of water with a sickly splash. Kat broke a small green light stick in half, revealing their surroundings to be a small, dirty cavern. Further examination led to the discovery of a dank passageway in one of the corner of the cavern room. Alex broke a light stick of his own and motioned for his friends to follow him into the passage on all fours.

The group crawled through the tight passage, each doing their best to avoid touching the slime-covered walls of the corridor. The eerie green light of the light sticks danced on the stones around them, keeping the group members’ nerves on edge. Soon, the companions were able to stand again inside another large cavern room. The light sticks revealed a small settlement inside the large room, much like the one the friends had stumbled upon in the past. Only this one was abandoned. There were no neon lights or drunk mutants in these streets; only the quiet whispering sound of dripping water.

“Where do you suppose the people of this city have gone?” Lucca asked through clenched teeth as the friends made their way through the deserted community.

“They are dead up on Hope Layer. These Rebels are decimated,” Magus said gravely.

“Yeah, we’re just the clean-up crew,” Crono said as he unsheathed his sword.

The group carefully left the settlement behind them, and walked on a gravelly road towards the darkness ahead. Every once in a while, a dead man or woman lay along the road, innumerable wounds covering their bodies. Small blackened forms of dead symbiotic weapons lay on the ground beside them. It was obvious that many rebels had fled underground after the battles, only to die later from mortal wounds.

The group’s first battle was a trivial one. A few gangrenous mutant creatures suddenly bounded out of the darkness toward the companions, only to find the edge of Crono’s sword in their necks and abdomens. After the quick conflict, the friends continued on their way, into the unknown.

* * *

The stench of rotting flesh and day-old blood filled the young man’s nostrils. He heard a woman scream far behind him, and the people closest to him began to speak to each other in hushed tones nervously. He didn’t have time to be worried. He knew he had to move on. The end of their seemingly doomed trek was in sight, and there was no reason to concern themselves with the plight of others. But there were still problems holding them back; the same problems that had plagued them for the past few hours.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that half of the company had been decimated, it seemed as if the survivors were dropping like flies in the tunnels underground. The symbiotes that they had once depended on for strength were withering and dying away. Not because of the wounds that had been incurred during the battles the day before. No, it seemed as if the defeat of the day before had drained the life from the proud creatures, and their deaths led to the deaths of their hosts, as well.

Only a few men and women remained, and they all could feel death coming for them. They could see it all around them: on the faces of those expired on the road before them, and on their own slowly blackening arms. The young bald man led the crew through the twisting tunnels without emotion. They followed him not out of duty, but because his arms had not yet begun to rot like their own. They wanted his secret, and they thought him a savior as he seemed to lead them through the dark corridors to true salvation.

The young man knew his symbiote hadn’t begun to die for only one reason: he didn’t give a damn whether his people won the war with the Layers or not. He didn’t feel it was his fight; so, neither did the symbiote. Presently, he was much more concerned with the task at hand. He felt that something very bad was still occurring in his former home, and he hoped the Elders would be able to tell him what was happening, and why. He was unconcerned about the others he was leading; if they wished to follow him, that was their prerogative. The young man only wanted answers to his questions.

He knew the entrance to the Elders’ hall was inside Nexus, the greatest underground city. But once he finally neared his destination, it took all his strength to remain stoic and composed. Anticipating the great neon lights of the city, he was quite surprised when he found it hastily deserted. An uncanny silence lay over the dark city as he and his followers entered it. The young man didn’t let the abandoned city effect him, although the men and women following him were very worried; a few quietly sobbed.

The bald-headed young man quietly made his way toward the Nexus gate: a large, circular device that lay in the center of the town. He could already barely see it in the darkness, towering above the other buildings of Nexus. The rim of the circular construct peered over the warehouses and porn shops of Nexus, as if beckoning him. He breathed out a sigh of relief. They were almost there; finally, his questions would be answered.

Suddenly, a large, heavily wounded man behind him cried out in fear. The man turned around and used his weakening symbiote to fire large green bursts of deadly energy into the murky blackness behind them. The young man cringed as he watched a silver claw fly out of the darkness and slice the frightened follower into several chunks of rotten, blackened meat.

“Mutants!” the young man thought with despair. He broke into a run toward the gate, hoping that the creatures hadn’t yet surrounded them. He listened to the gunfire and screaming follow him as he darted through the Nexus’ empty streets.

He quickly turned his head as he ran and spotted several blurry shapes pursuing him at an incredible speed. He caught a glimpse of the sharp claws of the beasts and forced himself to run even faster. Unfortunately, as soon as the man looked forward once more, he crashed into a slab of warm muscle, causing him to fall backward on the ground. He cringed in pain as he felt the his tailbone snap.

Through his blurry vision, he watched a green-colored beast reach down and grab him by the neck, lift him up until they were eye-level. The beast shook him and screamed at him over and over. It took a few moments for the young man to realize that the beast was speaking to him in his own language, surprisingly.

“Where are the Elders, little one? Tell me! Speak!” the large creature yelled. The young bald man allowed his eyes to focus, and saw that the green-skinned beast was in truth a large man bathed in the light of a flare. He had very noble eyes that forced the young man to look away.

“It is no use, Alex; he is too far gone, like the others,” a strange voice rolled out from behind the young man. He realized there were several people standing around him; one with a large sword that looked like the claw that had killed one of his followers.

“Let me try, Alex,” a sweet feminine voice spoke from beside him. The young man felt the grip around his neck let go, and he fell to his knees on the ground.

The young man coughed and sputtered while holding his bruised throat. He barely noticed the soft hands that reassuringly clutched his shoulders. He slowly opened his eyes and looked up to find a beautiful woman’s face in front of his own.

“Do you know where we can find the Elders that govern over this underground city, friend?” Her words flowed forth from her exquisite lips as she spoke. The young man could barely take his eyes off of the creamy white skin of the tops of her breasts that peeked out over the top of her armored bodice. He gathered his wits and finally found the will to answer.

“The Nexus Gate over there; it goes straight to the Elders’ Hall. I was headed there until…” he trailed off as he fell into a deep sleep on the street.

“Was that necessary, Magus?” Marle asked after standing up.

“We are short of time. He will be relatively safe here. The scavengers here do not seem to go after prey unless it is moving,” the dark mage said as he walked toward the immense shape of the circular Nexus Gate. “Our journey is coming to an end, friends.”

“How do we even know the Elders are still alive?” Crono asked after a few moments of silence as the group moved toward the Nexus Gate.

“We don’t. But we have to make sure.” Alex spoke with a dangerous tone in his voice. He was anticipating the battle to come.

“The Elders weren’t soldiers; they were leaders. I doubt they were at the battle yesterday,” Lucca said. Lucca was holding her weapon with both hands and carrying it with the barrel pointed at the sky as the group jogged towards their goal.

“Why don’t the Elders just go back in time and change the outcome of the battle yesterday, guys? I mean, they could kill all the police officers before the battle even started, right?” Marle barely listened to herself as the Nexus Gate finally came into full view. It was an amazing construct; completely round and built in the shape of a large metallic donut. A small console was present at the bottom of the Gate at the top of a small staircase that led.

The group ignored Marle and slowly walked up the few steps to the console. The Nexus Gate towered over forty feet above them now, an imposing shape in the darkness.

“Lucca, can you figure out how to get the thing to work?” Crono asked his friend.

“Hold on a sec,” the purple-haired scientist muttered as she began to tinker with the console controls. Only a few seconds passed before the huge Nexus Gate lit up with a hundred white lights. A faint whirring sound emanated from the construct, and the center of the Gate became a mass of whirling white color.

“Do we merely walk through it?” Magus said while dipping the edge of his scythe into the Gate’s spinning body of bright light.

“Of course. Let’s go,” Alex said as he jogged through the Gate’s swirling colors. Kat followed Alex through quickly and without a word.

“Jeez, Al—dammit,” Crono cursed as he reluctantly chased after the eager police officers. “Let’s hurry, guys.”

The others swiftly stepped through the dizzying colors of the Gate, attempting to catch up with Alex and Kat.


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