Chapter 20:

Off the Grid Pt. 1

Code: Zero Defect

The chill winds of winter filled the crowded street with a layer of ice. Every breath sent forth a fleeting cloud that disappeared into the air. Each step made either a splash in the puddles beneath or a soft crackle upon thin ice. Neon signs lit up the street in a plethora of fluorescent colors. I sometimes forget how peaceful it can be down here.

With a hood over my head and a mask to cover my mouth, I joined the masses in the undercity nightlife.

In my pocket was the earpiece that connected me to Astrid. For a solid ten minutes earlier, I debated on whether or not I should've contacted her.

Ultimately, I decided against it. I can't involve myself with them anymore. Just a week ago, Zephyr almost died trying to protect me simply because I'm Nelia's brother. That's not right. If it were to happen again, I wouldn't be able to stop it. If she... if any of them dies for my sake, it would ruin me.

The only problem now is that I'm kind of lost. I've gotten so used to Astrid picking out my assignments for me that I've forgotten how to act on my own. That's embarrassing, especially since I was a lone wolf for a year and a half prior to meeting her.

I walked around for a bit, embracing the lively atmosphere. Even though it's currently two past midnight, there were so many people around, having fun, living their lives, and simply expressing themselves in a way that I normally wouldn't see in the Golden District.

After a short walk, I found myself standing in front of a bar. A sideways sign rested above the entrance, and it read, 'Del Leona's.'

I stepped through the door and met with the bartender all the way in the back. Some heads turned to look at me, but that was it. Tons of people in the undercity conceal their faces. To them, I'm just another one.

I sat down on a stool where the beautiful owner of the bar greeted me. Her long, straight hair of red was tied into a thorny ponytail. Her narrow eyes were intimidating yet soft at the same time. A metallic line could be seen separating the area around the right side of her face. The moment she saw me, her brows raised.

"Honestly, I didn't expect you to make it this far," she scoffed.

"Give me a break, Leona," I said. "I try my best, but even that doesn't seem like enough."

"Never does, does it? So, what'll it be?"

"Traditional Sangria. Add a kick, if you can."

"You got it, boss."

Leona went off and began working her magic from behind the counter, tossing cups and bottles around like the masterful barista she was. While she was doing that, a huge man sat down next to me despite all the empty seats.

"Nice seein' you again, Strider," he spoke with a deep voice.

I tilted my head slightly to get a good look at his face. It was vague, but I somewhat remember who he was.

"You're that guy... who led me to Manfred," I said. "Didn't catch your name last time."

"Just call me Freddy," he chuckled. "I'm surprised a big shot like you remembers a nobody like me."

"You exaggerate."

"Ain't no need to be so humble. Everybody knows that you're teamin' up with Calypso. Coatsmen made sure to slap these new wanted posters wherever they went earlier today."

He slipped a rolled-up poster onto the table. I grabbed it and unrolled it, surprised to see a much more accurate depiction of myself. It was a grainy photo from the day Zephyr came to save me. The only saving grace is that they still haven't deduced my eye color. That's funny. Even the best camera is reduced to nothing when it's dark out.

The most interesting thing was my bounty. Although I was sort of expecting it, I can't say it didn't catch me off guard.

"Fifteen million credits, huh," I scoffed. "How generous of them."

"Ain't no bombshell if you think about it," Freddy said. "The lowest count on the Calypso squad is Minerva, sittin' at a whoppin' one hundred and fifty million credits."

That certainly doesn't come as a surprise. The Calypsos have been the most wanted defects since the Reclamation. Over the years following their disappearance, their bounties have only grown. Now that they're back, it's only gonna keep rising.

"Here you are, mijo," Leona said as she slid a cocktail glass over.

I took a sip, and immediately, I felt my head weighing down on me as if someone had rested a steel ingot right on top.

"Already?" she scoffed.

"You know I'm a lightweight," I sighed. "I just wanted to drink something before I head out."

"Where to?"

"Part of the reason why I came here. I'm not sure, so I thought you might know something."

"Hm... there is one, but... I think it's too dangerous."

"Hit me."

She pulled out a small stack of papers and handed it to me. "This is a list filled with names of those who've gone missing recently. It just so happens that the first disappearance happened right when the coatsmen began tightening up security around here."

"Do you know where they're being held?"

"Sources tell me about suspicious activity in the refinery that sits at the end of the canal. I don't recommend this, mijo. It's heavily guarded."

"Never stopped me before."

I stood up and took one final sip of the cocktail.

"Thanks for the drink, Leona," I said. "You can finish the rest, Freddy."

"You sure, bud?" she asked. "There's still a good amount in here."

"Can't get too drunk when I'm about to do something dumb."

"Wait... You ain't not goin' in there alone, are you?"

"That's the current plan."

He threw his elbows on the table and took a sip.

"Heh..." Leona chuckled. "Sometimes, I look back to when we first met and wonder how someone can be so selfless."

"Blame the High Order."

These past two years have been eventful, to say the least. During that time, I helped out a lot of people. Leona was one of them.

Some were on the run from coatsmen. Some of them needed requests such as saving their friends or families that got kidnapped. In those situations, I had to tread carefully. Even the most normal person is capable of horrible crimes.

Though, it looks like I won't have to worry about it this time. Since the coatsmen are behind it, I can kill without remorse.

"You're gonna need a way in," Freddy said. "Luckily, I've got just the thing that’ll help you with that. Follow me."

I pinched my chin. "Is that so? Lead the way."

He picked up the cocktail glass and drank the entire thing. "Follow me."

"Right behind you. Thanks again, Leona. You stay safe."

"Likewise, mijo," Leona smiled.

Freddy led me outside of the bar and we began walking along the busy road. Despite the beautiful scenery and the seemingly peaceful atmosphere, something was awry.

Amid passing citizens, a collection of people were running with distressed faces. They weren't the only ones, as another set of distraught individuals came running after them.

"I'm assuming this has to do with what Leona just told us," I said.

Freddy nodded his head. "Got that right."

Eventually, we made it to a large opening in the city. A massive canal separated two sides. Along the banks, high-rising seawalls rose. Towards the end of the canal, a huge refinery sat still amidst the wavering lights. Pipelines split off the lower half of the building and into the water.

"See that?" Freddy asked as he pointed at the building. "That's the place Leona was talkin' about. Been abandoned for almost thirty years because it caused too much pollution to the river. Now, it's up and runnin' like it never left. Just so happens that people are goin' missin' all of a sudden. The correlation?"

"Coatsmen," I said.

"Bingo. They're lined up all around the perimeters. A huge protest is goin' on right outside the front gates."

"So how am I getting in?"

"Heh, that's where I come in. Come on."

Freddy led me along the banks, further increasing the distance between us and the refinery. Even though I questioned it, I decided not to ask. I'm more curious about what he's got in store for me.