“Hey, Jada! Earth to Jada!”
Jada jolted as she became aware of her surroundings. She had gotten caught up, staring at the monolithic Grand Cathedral of the Sect of Metal that towered over the city. She had been so distracted, it took her a second to even notice Lenz’s hand waving in front of her face. The Underdogs’ videographer’s gloved palm blocked her vision.
“This is Earth to Stargazer, come in Stargazer,” Lenz teased. “You alright there?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Jada said sheepishly, giving an embarrassed smile to the other woman for having caught her not paying attention.
“You’re fine, Jada. But the market is probably not the best place to zone out like that.”
It was true. The marketplace was rough and crowded today, filled with people who were just as likely to pick Jada’s pocket as sell her the goods she needed. With Stingray and Artificer gone, helping Photon with an investigation out in the Nuclear Grounds, it fell on her and Lenz to get all the supplies they needed for the weeks that the others would be gone. All the food, all the electronic parts, and whatever salvage there was for Jada’s own experiments. The children still needed to be cared for and all in all, Jada found herself too busy to think more often than not.
The quiet moments she did have were often spent in contemplation of the world that was, the home she knew. The children were, in some ways, more fortunate. They were more amused and curious than anything. They were already adjusting to this new Earth better than she was. Jada tried to be a role model, but this world was so different than what she had expected…
“Ah!” Jada stumbled forward as she felt a shoulder shove her out of the way. The streets were too crowded and the people too impatient to step around the scientist. It was all she could do to keep her balance without dropping the food she was carrying.
“People are jerks,” Lenz said. She reached out and grabbed Jada’s hand, pulling her along and keeping the other girl close. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“No, he just pushed me. I’m okay,” Jada said. Lenz’s fierce determination to make it through the crowd almost felt like a comforting shield to her. “Thanks, Lenz. You’re really on top of things, aren’t you?”
“For you, Jada, anything,” The videographer teased again, gracing Jada with her smile. “And you can call me Cait, if you want.”
“Ah…” Jada nodded. “Thanks, Cait.”
“I think we have everything we need for today. We should be able to last a while, even with all our mouths to feed. Come on, let’s head back to the station!”
The two started on the way back to the pirate radio station that served as the Underdogs’ base, pushing crates of food and clothes on a trolley. After arriving on Earth, the Underdogs had made space for her and the children. They had been keeping a low profile, but it had left Jada feeling greatly in their debt. She wanted to do more for her hosts. Hiro and Le-Cait were so generous that she felt obligated to earn her keep.
As they approached the edge of the market, Lenz moved in front of Jada, putting her arm out to stop the scientist in a protective gesture. “Eh? What’s wrong, Cait?”
Jada looked over Cait’s shoulder. A few meters ahead, a gang of thugs were surrounding some local kids who were obviously coming back home from the market. They outnumbered the kids three to one. Cait pulled the pair of them around the corner, keeping a watch.
“Cait, we have to help, don’t we?”
“There’s too many of them. If we start a fight, they’ll likely grab the kids as hostages. It looks like they’re trying to shake them down.”
Jada shook in frustration, peeking around the corner as well. The thugs had grabbed the bags filled with food and clothes the kids had purchased, before running off. The guards of Metal City were nowhere in sight, but even if they were, Lenz was a recognizable member of the Underdogs. Jada couldn’t endanger her like that!
“Looks like they’re leaving. What a pack of dogs, stealing from children!”
“Well, we have supplies, right? We can share…”
For a moment, Cait tensed. “Those supplies were supposed to last us until ‘Ray got back.”
“They’re just kids, Cait! We can’t let them starve!” Jada grabbed the handles of her trolley and pushed it out around the corner. “H-hey, you lot, I saw what happened…”
The group of kids looked like they were about to turn tail and run. Jada wasn’t sure she could fault them after an experience like that. “We don’t have anything left! Don’t hurt us…Please, we just want to be left alone!”
“I’m not here to hurt you!” Jada said. She placed one of the crates of food on the ground. “Here. These crates have food and clean water. I can’t get back what was stolen but I’m not going to let you go hungry!” She gave them her warmest smile. The kids cautiously stepped forward, taking the crates and looking inside of them.
“Wow! We can really have these?”
“Of course!” Jada’s smile stayed wide and friendly, while inside she was already counting the value of the food she had just given away. They only had half the supplies they had set out to buy. With what remained, there wouldn’t be enough to last for Stingray’s return. Jada had no regrets about doing the nice thing but she had to take responsibility now.
“Hey, you alright?” Cait asked as she approached Jada from behind. “Don’t worry about the supplies. We’ll figure something out. You did a good thing.”
“Yeah, but it is still my responsibility to take care of the kids. I’ll need to figure out some way to get the money to pay for more supplies!”
“Well, you know what they say,” Lenz said, looking at a flier that was stapled to one of the walls near the market. Jada’s eyes followed hers. “There’s always work for those willing!”
“Yer lookin’ fer work? Well, we got work fer ya,” Billy Clunker leaned over the edge of his desk, tearing his eyes away from the television. “We’re lookin’ for a replacement part. Stabilizer counterweight doohickey, you see. The big lug’s gone through seven of them just this year.”
“A stabilizer doohickey?” Jada asked. The way that people in the modern age built machines still astounded her. Few even had blueprints or design plans. Most of the pilots just grabbed what scrap they could find, slapped it together and prayed for it to work. The Clunker brothers were a fine example of that.
“Yeah, stabilizer doohickey. Ya know, somethin’ to balance out and support all Rufus’s weight.”
“I can do that!” Jada said brightly.
“Good! Now, if yer not here t’ buy somethin’, get out. Th’ off-season preliminaries are startin’. We want t’ see what we’re up against.”
Jada nodded, heading out of the shop. She started searching through the piles of junk, but she couldn’t find anything. The Clunkers did not have anything sorted or easy to find. “This is ridiculous! I can just build one. I’ll make one even better!”
She picked out what she wanted from the piles, dragging it off in her machine back to her workshop. Jada worked through the night to complete it, hammering and soldering the metal together. Sparks flew as she attached the hydraulic counterweights of her own design to the machine. The gyroscopic centering would keep any machine stable, no matter how much weight was loaded onto the front end!
“Finished!” Jada said, as she put her tools away, her clothes filthy from the work. It had been a long night, but she had gotten it done. Looking at the clock, she realized the Clunkers were about to open their shop. “Guess I can nap after.”
A very tired Jada tied the very heavy machine she had built to her machine, driving carefully to the Clunkers’ junkyard. Billy was sitting there, feet up on his desk, his chair creaking as he had his breakfast; morning beer.
He greeted her with a belch and a wave. “Yo, yer back. Did ya get the doohickey?”
“I sure did!” Jada said, pointing to her vehicle. “It’s right outside. Can I–”
“HEY, RUFUS! YER FOOTREST IS HERE!”
“Yah! He always breaks the chairs under his weight, so we figured somethin’ to support his legs would keep us from havin’ to rebuild the chairs. Can’t enjoy a beer and the races if yer not comfortable!”
With a grunt, the larger brother strode out towards her machine to get the complex piece of machinery she had built. “Ooh, that’s a purdy one. Say, do you have a warranty?”
Jada couldn’t help feeling she had made a mistake even as she walked away with some cash in hand.
“And this should help you pinpoint your location when traveling the ice roads with real-time photographic images!” Jada held up a device with a small screen, focused on the Northern villages. “You can even draw maps to get real-time weather updates. It…receives messages from the sky that become images!” She was getting better at talking to people of this time. It had taken some time before she had realized that the Eye of the Machine God that they spoke of was the space station. At least, that’s what Artificer had said it was when she had asked.
Sigurd sat on the hood of his truck, nodding approvingly. “Not bad, little miss. Certainly a nifty toy ya got there.”
“Thanks! So are you interested in purchasing it? If it works for you, maybe the other Drakar drivers could make use of it?”
“Well, maybe, though I imagine CeeBee would get jealous if I had another talking box in my cabin. She can get pretty possessive.” The northman shrugged. He patted the hood of his truck. “I’ve done just fine with my baby for now, with CeeBee’s help. Though I’m not doing much ice runs for Drakar these days.”
“CeeBee?” Jada wasn’t sure what kind of name that was. It certainly didn’t match the names she had seen of people from Sigurd’s home villages. “Who’s that?”
“Ah, it’s my radio, of course!”
“Sure. It tells me when I’m about to enter a route overrun by demons and monsters. She’s pretty reliable when it comes to weather too, especially for magical storms.”
Jada just stared at him. “Your…radio talks to you? You mean someone talks to you through your radio.”
“Nah, it’s CeeBee. Not the best conversationalist though. She doesn’t like to talk around other people. Mostly just gives off static. Hey, where are you going?”
Jada clutched her invention close to her chest. She was pretty sure coming here might have been another mistake.
“So what was it you needed me to fix?” Jada said, peering into Little Monster’s Toybox. The chest was filled with smashed figures and broken model engines. The only word Jada could think to describe it was it looked like a tornado had blown through Little Monster’s toys, ripping them apart in the process.
“Restore them to life! Bring them back,” The youngest pilot said, folding her arms across her chest, clutching the wire-skull toy that she always carried in her left hand. “They’re useless! Fragile! Smashable things!”
“Alright, that’s doable. Though there’s a lot here. Are you paying for each toy?”
“Yes, whatever! I want them again!”
Jada let out a quiet sigh, but she couldn’t be too mad. Little Monster was still a child after all. Though this did seem a little bit like a waste of her talents. Still, it was the quickest work she could find. She sat there outside of Little Monster’s house, staring at the wreckage of machines she had beaten and claimed as trophies. The little girl stared at her as she worked with an unflinching gaze, breathing heavily through her gas mask.
“Here is the first one.” Jada said, holding out a repaired toy for Little Monster’s inspection.
The young pilot took it from Jada and looked it over with an inspecting eye. She turned it over every which way, before Jada heard a worrisome giggle from beneath the mask. “It’s playtime!” Little Monster said, grabbing the sides of the toy in both hands as she yanked it, trying to get it to make a sound.
And oh, it made a sound.
The metal casing in which Jada had placed the soundbox started to tear apart. Flashing lights meant to entertain shattered as their bulbs were smashed. Jada watched Little Monster destroy in minutes what had taken her several hours. When she was finished, the young racer clapped her hands together.
“Do another one!”
“I’m sorry, I think I should–”
“I SAID ANOTHER ONE!”
She had definitely made a mistake.
“So I was just wondering if you had any…” Jada stopped talking. Black Lotus had not said a word since Jada had found the pilot. All she could see in Black Lotus’s helmet was her own reflection. The other pilot tilted their head in confusion.
“…Forget it.” Jada said, her shoulders slumped. “Never mind. Sorry for bothering you.”
Of all the people to ask, she should have known better than to approach Black Lotus. The weight of this task was starting to get to her. She had earned back some money for clothes and food from all the work, but she had hoped to do a little more. She was part of the Underdogs now, after all.
“I wish Lenz was here…”
Jada let out a sigh as she started her walk back towards the radio station. She could at least pick up some more food along the way.
“That’s odd,” Jada thought, as she neared the base with the supplies. Normally during this time, Lenz was broadcasting something through the radio, but the radio on her belt was silent. Heading into the base, she moved cautiously. Had the Sect raided the hideout again? Not that she knew what to do if that was the case.
“Cait?” She called out.
“We’re in here!” Was the answer she got, coming from the mess room.
Jada headed in to see what was going on and her jaw nearly dropped at the sight of Lenz sitting with the children, reading some of the books Jada had brought with her in their frantic and desperate escape.
“You’re back! How did it go?” Lenz smiled, handing the book off to one of the older kids to continue reading from where she left off.
“It went okay. It’s harder than I thought to find work. I try to make things like I did in my time, but everything is so different now! I just don’t feel like I can give anyone what they want.”
“Hey, that’s not true at all.” Lenz put her hand on Jada’s shoulder, giving it a supportive squeeze. “You bring a lot to the table, Jada.”
“I’m not sure what.”
“Well, you’re smart and resourceful and a quick thinker. You might make things more complicated than they need to be sometimes, but you seem really good at planning things out!”
“Planning things out, hmm?” Jada thought about it for a second. “I got it! I know what I can do to help the Underdogs!”
The Sect was after her! Stargazer raced through the streets of Metal City, the hounds of the church close on her tail. Her maneuverable rover machine bounced off the curbs and passed through the tight squeezes as she tried to shake her pursuers. The Metal Sect had been relentless these last few days at trying to capture the Underdogs. Caitlyn had, laughingly, said it had been because of the latest video they had put up mocking the Metal Herald.
Jada wondered if she would be laughing if she was the one in this situation. There was the sound of a shot behind her. Jada teleported around the corner, the satellite on the station above tracking her positioning. She had found her own use for the machine. It certainly was proving its worth to her in this chase, as she always had a solid idea of where she was teleporting.
She kept her scanner open, trying to pick up any chatter from the Sect. It wasn’t until she heard the familiar words “We lost her” that she let a sigh of relief escape her lips. Jada was getting better at this. As her nerves settled, she broke into a smile.
This new world was strange and different. Its people seemed crazy compared to what she was used to, but Jada was starting to adapt.
She had found her place in the Underdogs. In this world.
As her machine slipped into the Underdogs’ garage, she saw her students already there, waiting for her.
“Looks like everyone is here! Today we’re going to be building our own telescopes!” From inside the machine, she pulled out a box of finely crafted lenses. She had had them specially made for her, but it had not come cheap. “Come get a lens, but be careful with them!”
“I thought I heard my name,” Lenz said with a smile. “Mind if I join you? I always wanted to learn more about the stars.”
Jada laughed. She hadn’t even meant to make that pun. “Sure. I was just about to begin my lesson.”