Chapter 21:

Off the Grid Pt. 2

Code: Zero Defect

We kept walking until we met a group of people relaxing against the railings at the edge of the banks. Most of them were chatting the night away, but a few were meticulously scanning the area... as if to keep watch. They all turned as soon as Freddy came into view.

"What's going on, Fred?" a woman greeted him with a friendly smile.

"Ain't much," he replied.

He then stopped and stared at the cigarette in between her fingertips.

"Didn't I tell you to drop those things?" he grumbled. "Ain't too long before you contract some kind of lung disease."

"Oh, quit your whining and mind your own damn business, pal," she scoffed. "You've done way worse when you were my age."

"Your age, huh? You make it sound like I'm some crippled old man."

"Might as well be."

She then turned to look at me. Her judgmental eyes studied me all over. "By the way, who's the kid?"

"So much for minding each other's business, eh?"

"Shut up."

Freddy turned and gestured for me to introduce myself. I pulled out my curved dagger from beneath my jacket and subtly displayed it for them to see.

"Strider," I said, causing a wave of gasps and murmurs.

"So you're the kid who avenged Manfred for us, huh?" the woman chuckled. "The name's Valeria. Good to meet ya."

She extended a hand, and I took it. As we shook, I couldn't help but notice her lifeless expression. Those narrow eyes glowed a slight silver color, dead and cold as if there wasn't a single thing left in the world that could surprise her.

Her long, white hair was tied into a ponytail with some strands of turquoise. All she wore was a bra beneath a puffy black jacket and a pair of shorts. Nothing more could depict the fashion of the undercity better than this.

"A pleasure as well," I said.

"Ohhh~, fancy tongue you got there," she chuckled. "Golden District?"

"You know I can't answer that."

"Hah! Figures. Anyway, what're ya doing all the way out here? Fred recruit ya?"

"Not this time. Freddy said he had a way for me to get into the refinery. I'm assuming you guys have what he's talking about."

Her eyes perked wide open, and so did almost everyone else in the area. She tilted her head at Freddy, who gave her a shrug.

"Kid... You ain't going in there," she said. "I get it. You're confident in your skills, and your wanted poster ain't no joke, but that place is too damn dangerous."

"I'm not leaving those people in there to suffer," I declared adamantly. "Even now, I'm losing precious time. If you're not gonna help me, tell me now so I can be on my way."

She hesitated for a moment. I don't blame her for not having faith in me. Sometimes, even my own self-confidence wavers. However, I learned to cast it aside no matter what. People are dying. If I'm still alive, that's enough for me to do something about it.

Valeria sighed and turned her attention to Freddy. "I leave you alone for one second, and you bring me a suicidal kid."

"What can I say?" Freddy chuckled. "Kid's a natural born defect. His bounty ain't fifteen million for nothin'."

Valera then looked back at me for a couple of seconds.

"Fine," she said. "If you're that set on getting yourself killed, you should at least go out in the best possible way."

She walked over to a hoverbike that was parked next to the railings. Unlike a wheeled bike, which is far cheaper by comparison, this one had no wheels at all. There were two parallel engines attached to the front. As the name states, it hovers a few feet off the ground. I've seen some of these before in the Golden District.

"Lance Operator Mk Six," Valeria said as if she were advertising a product. "Exclusively military-issued. Not only will this thing get you to places in a split second, it can also hover over liquid surfaces."

"So I can use this to get to the refinery from the canal itself," I said.

"Took the words right out of my mouth."

"But... are you really okay with letting me use it? Chances are, you'll never see it again."

"No need to worry about that. Let's just say... we have an infinite supply of these."

"Illegally swindled from the army, I'm assuming."

"We ain't called defects for nothing, kiddo. Take it and go. I'm curious to see how this'll end."

I sat on the seat and messed around with the variety of switches and buttons. I've only ridden a hoverbike one time in the past, and it was actually a lot easier than I thought. Granted, it has been well over a year since then, but I'm sure I can still do it.

With a flip of the power switch, the hoverbike sprung to life and subtly lifted itself off the ground. An electrical current began arcing in between the two engines. I put my hands on the handlebars and twisted them to get a feel for the controls.

"What do you think?" Freddy asked. "Got the chops for it?"

"No guarantees," I replied. "At the very least, I'll make it to the refinery."

"Stay safe, kid," Valeria said. "Wish we could go with you, but... we ain't cut out for this kind of job."

"This is more than enough. Thanks, guy."

"Hold up, kid," Freddy said.

He reached into his pocket and discreetly handed me a small item. I grabbed it and assessed it to which my eyes lit up.

"A pulse grenade...? High density, too," I muttered. "Where did you get this? This is highly illegal."

"In case you forgot, Ol' Manny was an arms dealer," he said. "I just so happen to be one of his customers."

Even in the afterlife, Manfred still manages to help me out. I never even got to say thanks. He always provided me with all the necessary equipment. It's because of him that I was able to get as far as I have.

"Thanks," I said as I slipped it into my pocket. "I'll make use of it for sure."

"You do that," Freddy grinned. "Don't go dyin' in there. The undercity could use more folks like you."

"There's too much trash in this world for me to die and leave behind. Don't worry. I'll make it out along with the missing people."

Deep down, I wonder if I truly think that I, of all people, can make a difference. The most obvious answer is no, right? I've helped so many people in the past. However, there are so many more that I've left to rot.

When I think about it, Leona was just one of the lucky ones that I happened to meet. Even that number pales in comparison to the sheer amount of people all across New Olympos who had no one to help them.

It's not my fault. It's not my problem. Never was, but... I made it my problem. When I first saw what was happening down here while I was living comfortably up there, I felt disgusted with myself, burdened by the fact that I could be so blind.

"I'll see you guys later," I said.

I turned the hoverbike and stepped on the pedal, flinging myself off the riverbanks and onto the canal. With the cold wind in my face, I raced across the waters, leaving a trail of ripples cascading behind me.

Even though I'm heading into battle, I feel so relaxed. Unobstructed freedom and the wind in my face. In moments like these, I'm glad that I'm still alive. At the same time, everything else makes me wanna drop dead on the spot. But for now, I'll enjoy this feeling.

I rode the lance all the way across the canal until I made it to a secluded shore right beneath the refinery. There, a rusty gate was half-closed which led into a tunnel system. How far it goes remains to be seen.

Carefully, I opened the gate, then I quietly tiptoed through the many corridors. Every step I took made a slight splash, as the ground was considerably damp. It was also dimly lit, so I was basically walking blind. Nonetheless, I found my way to a small opening right next to the courtyard within the refinery walls.

Hidden by the shadows, I peeked out as a deafening alarm blared. The front gates opened, allowing a pair of trucks to pass. All the while, people from outside were continuing their protest.

Coatsmen were patrolling all over the place. One of them approached the back of a truck and opened the doors.

"Alright, people, get your asses out here," he demanded.

One by one, a number of people began jumping out of the back. From the oldest-looking man to actual children, it seems like they rounded up random individuals from every corner of the undercity.

All of them had their wrists snared in electrical cuffs. They're designed to make escape practically impossible. If anyone tries to force them off, the cuffs will emit a shock that paralyzes its wearer.

"Lock them up along with the others," one of the coatsmen told another.

"Yes, sir!" the latter replied.

Looks like Leona was right. This is definitely the place where the missing people were sent.

I waited until the lot was cleared. With the last of the defects making their way into the refinery, the rest of the coatsmen scurried off to their prior positions, leaving me with enough breathing space to move as I please.

I unsheathed my dagger and took a deep breath. With that, I rushed out of the tunnel, sneaking from cover to cover while approaching a side door into the refinery.

This is by far one of the riskiest tasks I've ever done. Most of my prior handiworks involved obstructing a small group of coatsmen out in the streets.

'Certainly an upgrade,' I thought to myself.

Now that I'm here, I'm not sure what I was thinking, but that doesn't matter anymore. Operation is a go, and I'm gonna see this through until the end.