Author's Notes:

This is my first COMPLETED fanfic. I’ve got one for the Megaman X series in the works that I’m completely blocked on, and another story I wrote based on White Wolf’s Werewolf game that I’ve been blocked on for years. I was starting to wonder if I’d ever complete a story at all!! But this, my first fanfic, proves I have what it takes. I decided to keep it short—no point in trying to write a novel. I get blocked when I do that, apparently. This short story worked out well. I plan to write several more, detailing the continuing exploits of (sorry, no names, can’t spoil the story) the main character. If that goes well, I may branch off, "fleshing out" some extra characters into full-fledged protagonists. But keep in mind that I am a merciless author. Because I’m keeping complete profiles on EVERY character used in my story, I have an effectively infinite number of protagonists to choose from. Anybody can die—even the character you’re about to read about….. But I probably won’t do that. Or will I? Confused yet? No? Damn…I’ll try harder next time.

Anyway, I personally rate this story "PG-13". It’s pretty tame as far as language and violence goes, but it does deal with death in a roundabout way, and has some mild expletives. So basically, it’s an OK story for everyone. (For the record, my other stores are all DEFINITELY rated R—graphic descriptions of gore and violence, in addition to a whole pile of foul language. Yeah, gotta love rated R…but it wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I changed my style. And now I’m rambling)

OK, OK, I’ll shut up already! E-mail me at snarlsnap@yahoo.com or I’ll stick a Flare Buster up your butt! Hi-Yah!


Jack Schram III cleared his throat in an effort to choke back the sob that threatened to penetrate his stoic demeanor. Although it was successful, everyone else at the funeral knew the motivation behind it. His father and last surviving family member, Jackson Schram Jr., survived no longer. He lay in the glossy black coffin, at peace for the first time in years. Jack knew his father had never gotten over his mother’s death, nor had he. And when a Reaverbot struck down his father a week ago, it was almost a mercy killing. It was indeed terrible he had to suffer through those grievous wounds as long as he did before he finally passed on—no man as kind as Jack’s father deserved such torment.

Jack stared straight, eyes unseeing, as the priest recited his father’s last rites. His world was in a blur as his father’s coffin was shut and sealed. The entire funeral service, actually, seemed to be happening in some far-off galaxy, with Jack acting as an observer, rather than a participant. As the service concluded, he was the first to leave. The funeral was a small one, as not many people really knew his father. Jack and his father had always kept to themselves—the junk store had been his father’s life. And ironically, the junk store had also been his death. Fitting, in a way, Jack thought to himself as he drove his beat-up old van down the street. He would have wanted it this way.

But now what, Jack thought to himself. He pulled into his garage, killed the motor, and plodded up the stairs to his apartment. It was his, now. Not to be shared by his father any longer. He would have to make the calls now. Both in his home, and in his newly inherited junk store downstairs. Jack wandered dazedly down the hall and into his bedroom. He stood at the foot of his bed and uttered the first word he had spoken in nearly ten hours.

"Damn."

And with that, he collapsed onto the bed and was immediately asleep.

Jack flipped open the morning newspaper and took a swig of his coffee. His plate of breakfast, cooked more by force of habit than from hunger, had thus far gone untouched. One article in particular caught his eye.

"PIRATE INVASION AVERTED BY BLUE BOY"

Jack grunted and smirked. "Suckers," he taunted at the pirates. He perused the article, which detailed how a group of pirates attempted to break into a set of ruins on Kattelox Island, and how a single early-teenage boy was able to decimate their legions. That last part stung his pride severely.

"What, one kid can wipe up the floor with an entire pirate clan, and I can’t even manage a single damn store right?!" He violently mashed the paper into a ball and whipped it at the refrigerator. Quickly, he composed himself, took a couple deep breaths, then spontaneously gorged himself on his plate of scrambled eggs and toast in an attempt to distract himself. That done, he cleaned up his little mess and proceeded to prepare himself for another (uneventful) day of shop management.

It had been over a month since the funeral, and Jack had yet to total more than 10,000 zenny in sales. For a junk store, whose sales almost by nature vary dramatically day by day, that level of consistency was a dismal omen. The omen was magnified tenfold when the mailman delivered the monthly set of bills. Jack sat down and drew up the expense ledger, then briefly contemplated suicide. He tallied up total sales, plus the amount he would get if he liquidated the entire shop and inventory, threw in the value of his van and all his furniture, and even tacked on what little he could earn by donating plasma. Next, he subtracted out the bills delivered by the mailman (Jack was now half-convinced the mailman his own personal demon, assigned to deliver torment to him daily) and found he was 6,000 zenny in the red.

"So this is it, then," Jack sighed, dropping his pen. "I’m done for…sorry dad."

He leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. On impulse he jumped to his feet, snatched the inventory clipboard off the wall, and took stock of everything he had. For the next two hours, he tallied up every last piece of equipment on the shelves, appraised it’s value, and jotted it down. After he was done, he returned to his ledger and recalculated the numbers.

The sound of his head slamming into the desktop betrayed his results.

"Yep." Jack stood up, quietly organized his desk, then walked slowly into the back room. "I’m screwed."

"Hey, Jackie!" Bill Hodges, proprietor of the "Lucky Turtle Brewpub" called out. Jack waved a hand in response, then flopped his underfunded butt down on a barstool. "How’s the store going?"

Jack eyeballed Bill as if he had just said the single dumbest thing in the history of mankind. "Gimme 6 grand and we’ll talk about it."

"Ooh…that good, huh?" Bill grimaced. "Well…jeez, ya know…I don’t know what to tell ya. I’d like to help you, I mean you’ve always been a good custo-"

Jack cut him off. "No, forget it. Apparently I just don’t have what it takes to run a shop."

"Jack, don’t say that! You and your father did an excellent job! Why I’d have never gotten that pinball machine to work again if you didn’t sell me those springs! Plus the bag of ball-bearings work perfect as replacement pinballs!"

"No, that’s just it, Bill! I’m a mechanic! I fix things, not sell them! I just fixed up the junk dad brought back from the ruins! Occasionally make a weapon or two for him, or reload spent cartridges—he did all the business! With him gone, we have no influx of supplies!" Jack spat, growing louder with each word.

"Jack," Bill began, but Jack cut him off again.

"I’m not finished! My mother kept the house, my father kept the store, and I kept the equipment! My parents are gone, so that leaves me to do the work of three people! Not only do I not have the time to manage all three, I can’t afford to hire any help, and I don’t have any equipment to go on a dig with!" Jack finished. By now the entire bar was looking at them, although it didn’t look like they were looking at them. It just looked that way. That’s the way it looked, and when they were done looking, they looked away. Anyway….

Bill blinked, then returned the "you are an idiot" look (don’t worry, I’m not getting started on that again) Jack gave him earlier. "Listen to yourself, Jack. You’re a mechanic with an entire junk-store full of parts to screw with, and you’re complaining about an equipment shortage? Besides, you’re only 23. You’re young, strong, and healthy. You should at least be able to get something from the ruins."

Jack stared straight at the wall, contemplating his own unimaginable stupidity, then finally ordered a drink.

"It’s on the house," Bill said softly. "I hate to say it, but by suggesting you go into those ruins, I may have just condemned you to death."

Jack realized the truth—if his father, an experienced digger, fell to the ruins, what made him think he could survive?

But then, what choice did he have?

Jack returned to the store shortly before 5pm, but left the "open" sign off. He picked through the shelves, collecting various gear, then hauled it in back to his workbench. He threw scrap metals into the Port-A-Smelter, and set it to automatically press out as many one square-foot metal plates as possible. That done, he grabbed an old pipe, some copper tubing, a small generator, and various other pieces of ‘useless’ machinery from his collected pile, and with the old axiom "The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts" on his mind, proceeded to fashion himself a basic equipment set.

Jack’s watch beeped, and a quick glance revealed he’d been working for nearly 10 hours. However, gazing admiringly at his own handiwork told him it had all been worthwhile. He had crafted himself a stylish-yet-functional suit of digger’s armor, which he had painted black and gold. Lying next to it was a hybrid of a plasma-flare gun (used to signal rescue boats when stranded in a lifeboat) and an old "streetsweeper" (think fully automatic shotgun) that Jack had dubbed the Flare Buster. This combination enabled it to be charged with the standard hyper-cartridges that had thus far comprised 80% of his meager sales. He also combined an old grappling hook with a remote-arm, making a tool that would undoubtedly prove useful. He could fire the hand out to either punch distant objects, or grab them and reel them in with the cable. He just wished he had the right parts to create bionic upgrades. Those things had the capability of converting physical damage to your armor into an energy drain on both your life force and a built-in battery. Shoot a person and they bleed. Shoot a person with armor and you get dented armor and a hell of a bruise. Shoot a person with bionic armor and you get a brief show of sparks and a few less lights on an energy meter. Jack made a mental note to acquire this stuff ASAP.

Jack went through his equipment one last time, created a couple of simple five-second grenades as an afterthought, then went to bed.

"Tomorrow may well be my last day on Earth…" he muttered gravely as he drifted off to sleep.

Jack slept straight through the day, and didn’t wake up until nearly 6pm. He figured he might as well enjoy it. He got up slowly, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and staggered into the shower. His entire morning really seemed to revolve around some subconscious impression that it was his last day.

Jack literally punched himself in the face. "Don’t you dare think that you damn idiot!" he shouted at himself. "You should be happy! You’re finally going to do something instead of sitting on your butt all day!"

Rubbing cheek where he had slugged himself, he sat down to breakfast chuckling to himself. He kept imagining someone punching himself in the face over and over and over again, and before long, Jack was practically rolling in laughter!

As he quieted down, he came to a conclusion. He would go into the ruins, get what he could, then return. He’d make several small sorties, settling for a small amount of loot each time. He’d be able to boost his equipment and gear up slowly, progressing farther into the ruins each time, until eventually he vowed to succeed where nobody else on the Island had. He would recover the refractor from the heart of the complex.

He pondered this as he loaded his gear into his van. Rumor had it that there was an enormous bipedal Reaverbot in the final room. This thing had only been seen once, and the survivor barely escaped with his life. Actually, no…it had been seen twice. But the second time, the man who witnessed it did not survive. Jack was positive of that last fact—after all, he was now running the store the man left behind….

By now Jack was pulling up to the ruins’ entrance. He ditched his van behind some thick brush so as not to attract too much attention, then crawled between the front seats into the cargo area to put on his equipment. The armor was a perfect fit, although he already knew this when he tried it on the night before. He attached the Grapple to his left forearm, and fit the Flare Buster over his right hand. He was somewhat uncomfortable only having one free hand now, but seeing as how all the pro diggers had hand-covering weapons, he figured this must be the way to go. He slapped his helmet on, then stepped out the back door. He came around to the front of the ruins, and came face to face with a TV reporter!

"Misty Robbynz reporting live from the Kimanis Sub-Ruins Entrance, where a mysterious and unknown digger has just appeared out of nowhere! We heard sketchy reports that someone was planning to tackle these ruins—the very same ruins that claimed the life of Junk Store owner Jackson Schram Jr. Excuse me, Mr. Digger, sir! Over here!"

Jack could hardly believe his eyes! Misty Robbynz! He dated her two years ago! Since his armor covered his entire body, face included, she didn’t recognize him. It was all he could to to keep from laughing, but he decided to play along. He hefted his Flare Buster over his right shoulder, and strutted over trying to look professional.

"Yeah?" he said in the most mysterious, raspy voice he could muster.

"Mr. Digger, sir, what’s your name?" Misty asked.

Jack couldn’t give up the goods, that easily. "Why do you want to know?"

"Well…um…" she was taken aback! Nobody ever did that to Misty! It must be the snazzy armor, Jack decided. "Well…the public has a right to know who this previously unknown digger is! It’s not every day we get a real digger!"

That pissed Jack off, but swallowed his anger. His father wasn’t a real digger?! What a bitch.

"I am…." Think Jack think! Something cool! Dammit, you’re taking too long, come up with something now! "Grapple."

Misty blushed. Apparently his indecisiveness was interpreted as a dramatic pause! "Well there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! This strange digger named ‘Grapple’ has come to tackle the ruins! Good luck, Grapple! We’re all expecting big things from you!"

Jack about crapped his pants. This reporter wasn’t going anywhere, he realized. She’d wait for him to return…. And he’d made the mistake of leading the public to believe he was some superstar digger. Oh crap. If he revealed his true identity now, the town would practically crucify him for lying on live TV! And if he returned with his intended handful of stuff, the town would think he’s just some no-talent hack, and probably mob him!

Jack turned and entered the ruins, fully aware his entire plan had just gone to hell in a big fat handbasket.

He thumbed the ‘down’ button on the lift. "Yep. I’m screwed."

Jack stepped off the lift and immediately disengaged the safety on the Flare Buster. He stopped, listening to the distant drone of machinery, and to air currents blowing through the myriad corridors up ahead. Slowly he proceeded to the only other exit in this room—an ominous gray door with a green crystal in the middle. There was no apparent way to open it, but almost on instinct, he tapped on the crystal, and the door slid open!

"Interesting doorknob," he commented to himself. He proceeded through the door and into a long corridor that extended off into distant blackness. He stopped here and examined the surroundings.

The floor was comprised of symmetric hexagonal tiles, dull slate in coloration. The walls jutted upwards at perfect ninety-degree angles, and were also exceptionally well crafted. The ceiling extended so high as to be out of sight! Jack couldn’t imagine anything needing such a high ceiling, and quickly banished the fleeting thought of a 100-foot high Reaverbot stepping on his head. Jack picked up the pace then, proceeding down the hall at a decent jogging pace. In seconds he had reached the far end, rapped on the crystal to open the door, and proceeded through.

Jack was immediately accosted by three garbage-can-looking Reaverbots! They zipped towards him from three angles, leaving him no time to react!

"OOOUllghhh…" Jack was sandwiched between the Reaverbots and the door he had previously come through. As he was falling, he managed to tap the crystal. If he could back out of the room and get his bearings, he could strike back from a better vantage point! The door simply buzzed at him and remained closed. No help there!

Jack rolled forward, slipping between two of the Reaverbots. Fortunately, although they could zip forward like lightning, they had horrible turning. Jack rose behind one of them, heaved it over his head, and slammed it down into its ally. They tumbled and bounced away from him, sending sparks flying as they skipped off the stone floor. Jack raised the Flare Buster and pumped a few rounds into the third, smirking in grim satisfaction as it erupted in a ball of fire.

He heard the tell-tale ‘woosh’ as one of the Reaverbots zipped at him again, but this time he was ready! He leaped to the side as the Reaverbot went flying into the far wall. He fired off a couple more rounds into the Reaverbot that was still struggling to right itself, blasting that one into scrap as well. He turned to face the remaining Reaverbot. It was already badly damaged from being thrown, as well as from slamming into a wall—no point in wasting ammo. Jack raised his Grapple arm and let fly! The closed-fist thundered into the Reaverbot’s ‘head’, caving it in like an over-ripe watermelon. The Reaverbot, like it’s companions, blew completely apart.

Jack paused for a moment to catch his breath, then called out to no one in particular. "Reaverbots zero, Jack three. Halftime!" Then proceeded to gather up the refractor shards left over in the Reaverbots’ remains. He put a hand to his bruised ribs, and gazed longingly at the two energy cubes, wishing he’d had bionic armor that could take advantage of them!

They eventually faded away, their energy dispersing into the air, and Jack was forced to forget them. He explored the room. There were two exits, one left and one right in respect to the way he came in. There was also a hole in the wall the Reaverbot had made after it crashed. He got down on his knees, looking in, but couldn’t see a thing. On impulse, Jack fired the grapple inside open-handed, and heard a "clunk". He closed the claw and retrieved it, letting out a whoop of delight at his find!

"Yeah! That refractor’s gotta be worth at least ten grand! Success already!!" He threw it in his backpack, and started for the exit when he remembered the reporter outside.

Grudgingly, he went instead for the door on the left.

Jack’s skill was increasing almost exponentially! He had been underground for well over an hour now, and hadn’t been hit much since that first mashing! Jack dashed into one room and briefly glanced at the two crab-like Reaverbots inside. He barreled straight towards one of them, leaping clean over it. Whipping around, he fired his grapple into it’s butt, then began whipping it around over his head like a giant ball-and chain. With his other arm, he blasted about ten rounds into the other one, flipping it over from the force of the blast, then brought his claw down from it’s spin, Reaverbot in tow. The two crab-things exploded each other simultaneously from the force of the crash, and Jack happily gathered up the scattered shards. He even figured out what those little blue cubes were good for—he had thus far managed to keep the Flare Buster charged without using a single Hyper Cartridge!

Jack had completely cleared out the left side of the ruins by now, and had over 100,000 zenny worth of shards for his efforts! In addition, his pack was stuffed nearly to its limits with gadgets and chunks of machinery he had retrieved.

He knew he could return to the surface at any time now, and in spite of not finding the main refractor, he’d receive a healthy round of applause. But now he was determined. Digging, he realized, wasn’t just a job for the foolhardy. It wasn’t just something to keep the shelves stocked. No, it was more than that.

Digging was a method of being. As a digger, Jack realized his true passion—and everything became clear. Immersed in ancient technology—a stranger in a strange land, he got to know himself. He was able to push himself to the limits of his abilities, and he realized he was stronger than he had ever imagined.

And this was just his first dig!

Jack was so full of himself he hardly noticed the massive titanium foot crash into the ground inches away from his feet! He was already running at a good clip, and wound up sprawling on the ground after a high-speed collision. He propped himself up on his elbows and gazed upwards in absolute horror at the bipedal monstrosity that had nearly flattened him!

"The damn thing is a hundred feet tall!!" he cried! Scrambling to his feet, he whipped his backpack in to a safe corner, then bolted away from the Reaverbot as fast as his legs could take him! Instinct kicked in, and he fired his grapple to the left. The claw snagged a pillar and Jack jumped, letting his momentum and centrifugal force carry him in a half-circle around behind the Reaverbot! Congratulating himself on his own fantastic maneuver, he pumped dozens of rounds upward into the Reaverbot’s head. It jumped up into the air (how high are these ceilings, anyway?!) and slammed downward with the force of a thousand freight trains! A ripple of energy spread out from the impact, catching Jack off guard, and slamming him into a pillar.

He nearly fainted from the pain—if he hadn’t built the armor that well, he’d have been squashed into paste by that impact! He knew he couldn’t take another one of those, and forced himself to dive out of the way as the Reaverbot tried to kick him!

"Enough screwing around, I’ve gotta finish this!" Jack jumped up, catching the foot on its return swing. He fired his claw straight up, nailing the Reaverbot in the groin.

"Too bad you don’t have nads…" he muttered. He reeled himself up, swing back and forth a few times to avoid the Reaverbot’s attempts to grab him, then clambered up to its waist. He scaled the outside of the Reaverbot like a human fly, firing his grapple at its chin when he had a clear shot.

The Reaverbot suddenly started swinging its arms, stomping and leaping almost spasmodically! Jack was jerked from side to side, being bashed about like a ragdoll against the Reaverbot’s metallic chest! He thought his entire insides would be turned into jelly, but somehow managed to keep hold as he drew himself up. Then he realized what a mistake he’d made.

Hanging off the Reaverbot’s chin, he realized he was stuck. His cord wouldn’t reach to the ground, and although he could survive the fall thanks to his armor, it would leave him stunned long enough to become Reaverbot toe-jam. The thing’s massive hands were getting ready to make a fly-swatting assault to crush him flat. He glanced at his energy meter, and saw he had only one round left in his Flare Buster, and with his only free hand at the mercy of the very claw that held him in place, he had no way to pop in a Hyper Cartridge.

"Yep. I’m screwed," Jack admitted.

The Reaverbot’s hand extended out wide, getting ready to deliver the fatal crushing blow.

Then he had an idea!

He smacked the Flare Buster against his knee, popping the release catch, and dropping the weapon to the ground far below. With one hand freed, he reached down to his belt and produced the two things he had forgotten up until now—the grenades he had built as an afterthought!

Jack flicked the pins out with two fingers, tossed the grenades over his shoulder into the Reaverbot’s mouth, then released his grapple!

Jack fell.

He heard his weapon strike the ground far below.

A flash as loud as it was bright, followed by another.

Impact.

White-hot pain jarring through the spine.

Oh look, it’s raining Reaverbot….

Darkness.

Jack came to a few minutes later, completely amazed that he could be in that much pain without actually breaking any bones. He slowly crawled to his feet and greedily collected the refractor shards from the fallen monstrosity. He added them to his pack, which was still safely where he had tossed it.

The Flare Buster was a wreck, and although he could certainly repair it, it was of no use to him here. He slung the thing over his shoulder, glad to finally have two free hands! Almost not daring to go any further, he proceeded into the next room.

And about peed his pants!

He stood there, slack-jawed, as he gazed at the largest refractor he had ever laid eyes on! Sure, he’d seen bigger on TV, but this sucker was nearly as big as he was! Jack was almost drooling as he ascended the steps to the platform, then plucked the giant crystal out from its hovering state.

"And to the victor," Jack said, thrusting the refractor high over his head, "GO THE SPOILS!!!!"

Jack paused in front of the elevator. In spite of how much he got his butt kicked, his armor was still in good condition. He plucked a rag out of his backpack and quickly polished a few problem areas, then tucked it away. He tapped the "up" button on the lift, and returned to the world he thought he’d left for good.

"…-r there has been no sign of this mystery digger known only as Grapple," Misty’s voice came from the distance, "But we do know this—junk store proprietor Jackson Schram also supposedly ventured into these ruins sometime last night, and has not returned. Sources indicate Mr. Schram cannot be found, and although his van is missing from his garage, it has not been found either! While we—WAIT, IT’S GRAPPLE!"

Jack was wondering how long it’d take them to notice him…. Misty ran over to him, the poor cameraman huffing and puffing with his gear in tow.

"Grapple, did you—oh my god, ladies and gentlemen, will you look at the size of that refractor?!" So much for professionality, Jack thought.

He switched back to his raspy voice. "That ain’t the half of it," and opened his pack. Misty and the cameraman both stared slack-jawed at the fortune Jack had in his pack. The collection of refractors and refractor shards combined had to be worth nearly one-million zenny.

"Holy…that’s more than I earn in 5 years, and you got it in two hours!!" Misty exclaimed. "You’re without a doubt the best digger to ever cross this Island! I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of exploits you’ve had in the past!"

Jack chuckled in spite of himself. "Sometimes, neither can I. If you’ll excuse me…" He pushed past them and walked towards his hidden van (but not straight towards it—no point in revealing his hiding spot).

"Wait! Did you happen to find a young man while you were underground?" Misty called.

Jack knew immediately what they meant, and saw the opportunity to leave his old life behind.

"Yeah," he replied. "Some guy named Jack. He died in the mines."

Misty stopped short. "He…died?"

Jack half regretted those words. He and Misty didn’t exactly part on the best of terms, but he realized the ‘news’ still hurt. "Yeah. But his last words, actually, were for some bartender Bill. He said ‘You were wrong Bill—it was the best suggestion you ever made. You were wrong.’" And with that, he turned and left, leaving Misty to finish up her report.

Bill Hodges was staring at the TV screen, halfway though washing out a glass, when he heard the report that Jack had died. He nearly broke down crying then and there, until he heard Jacks ‘last words’. Then, he knew the truth. He emerged from the back room to a barfull of sad people. Some of them had just lost a drinking buddy, while others had lost a friend.

"I can’t believe it’s true…." One of the men mumbled. "I just can’t believe ol’ Jack’s gone…."

"Don’t worry," Bill said. "I’m sure wherever he is now, he’s got a better life than he had."

The patrons took it as a solemn epitaph, a final metaphor on one man’s sad life.

But for Bill, who meant it literally, it heralded the start of Jack’s new life. As Grapple.

Grapple, once known as Jack, sneaked through the brush and to his van. He waited there until the reporters finished their story and left. He knew nobody would come looking for his body—he had cleared the ruins. With all the recent ‘deaths’ there, it would be some time before anyone got up the nerve to explore them again. He’d have a good head start before people suspected the truth. Assuming they ever did.

He started up his van, driving slowly into town, taking back roads so nobody would see him. Back at home, he loaded up his van with food, supplies, and various pieces of engine parts. He emptied out his meager savings, leaving the bills opened and the money to pay them on the table. Sooner or later people would come by to collect, and he didn’t want Jack to be remembered as a man who died to escape his debts. Finally, satisfied he had what he wanted, he returned to his van and drove to an isolated spot on the Island.

Grapple parked his van inside an old cave, and unloaded his equipment. This project would take all his engineering skills and put them to the test. Grapple stripped the van down to its framework, set it up on blocks, and removed the entire engine and all related parts. That done, he took the engine parts he had in the store and bolted them to the frame. He rigged a myriad of other parts together, forming a crude engine of sorts. He was forced to make a couple runs back into town to buy some additional parts, but the image he had developed in the TV interview enabled him to get what he needed and get back to the cave without anyone following him. In the weeks that followed, Grapple was able to completely convert the van into a small aircraft. The van’s engine wound up being completely disassembled, and used for parts in the jet system. The giant refractor he recovered provided more than enough power for the small craft. By the time the entire operation was finished, even his own handiwork impressed him. He had altered the frame, making the jet more streamlined. Halfway through the construction, he altered the jets into a VTOL (vertical take-off and land) system, and sacrificed some speed to add hover capability. He fitted the sides with twin pulse cannons, giving the thing combat capabilities. Internally it was fitted with two seats, one facing forward, and one in the rear. He figured he could add a turret later if necessary, and someone could fire it from the rear. A small cargo area, food dispenser, and toilet device completed the internals. Finally, he attached armored plating to the outside, and painted the whole jet glossy black with gold trim.

He had enough parts left over to upgrade his weapons, and even add the bionic capabilities to his armor he wanted. The Flare Buster was repaired, and now held twice as many shots as before. In addition, recoil was reduced, allowing for better rapid-fire, and the power was bumped up a notch. He took his grenade idea to another level, creating the Grenade Launcher weapon, which he could attach either in place of his grapple or the Flare Buster. Finally, he equipped the grapple with retractable razor-sharp barbs, enabling him to get a solid grip on any surface.

Satisfied all was in order, he christened his ship the "Dark Sun", and prepared for his first flight. But where to go?

He pulled up a map on the computer and browsed his list of destinations. "Kattelox Island. Haven’t been there in years—let’s see how they’re holding up out there!"

Grapple punched up the throttle and rocketed out of the cave, up into the clouds, and towards his new future as a Digger.

Bill looked out his bedroom window, seeing the jet engines fade into the overcast sky, and grinned.

"Good luck, Jack."