A/N: This is the beginning of a new novel, which started with this as a prologue.
Thump. Alexander Simmons winced and rolled over in bed, groaning as he pulled a pillow over his head.
“No! Wake up, Xan!”
The pillow started inching out of his grasp, but he gripped it firmly.
Conceding, he rolled over again and sat up on his elbows. He rubbed his eyes sleepily and yawned, only to find himself greeted by the concerned face of his younger sister, Bailey. She pouted and prodded him in the side.
“Wake up!” she insisted.
“Go wake up Annilea,” he mumbled, pulling the blankets over his head.
“She already did,” came another voice. Xan’s twin sister, Annilea, emerged from the small bathroom of their train compartment. She slapped him in the vague area of his lower back. “Get up. Our stop is coming up.”
Xan yawned and toppled out of bed. He just had to have two sisters, huh? Lucky him. He stumbled into the bathroom, swaying with the rocking of the train. The overnight express was the fastest way home from their grandparents’ house in Carmel, where they’d stayed for the past week. Much as Xan loved his grandparents, he was glad this trip was almost over. As the oldest (by three minutes), he had been entrusted with getting himself and his sisters safely to Carmel and back. He and Annilea were almost eighteen years old, but Bailey was twelve, smart, imaginative, and full of energy. She didn’t purposely make trouble for the twins, but she certainly kept things interesting.
Annilea had already packed up everything except Xan’s toothbrush and the toothpaste. He brushed his teeth groggily, eyeing his reflection in the mirror. The train was far from the most comfortable place to sleep, and he looked terrible. His hair was sticking up at weird angles from the way he’d deformed the pillow around his head, and his eyes looked a little red because he’d been rubbing at them to wake up. Frowning, he spit and rinsed, then bent closer to the mirror. He and Annilea had the same dark brown hair, hazel eyes and lean build — unlike Bailey, who was blonde-haired, blue-eyed and skinny. Some called Xan and Annilea the quintessential twins — identical in face and mind — but in truth they clashed constantly in the way only twins could clash and still enjoy each other’s company. To their parents, Xan was often seen as the more rational of the two, for Annilea could be stubborn and argumentative by comparison. Then there was quiet little Bailey. Her age difference with the twins made her more often than not an observer at the dinner table, but she could be spontaneous and unpredictable if she wanted. Xan loved both sisters dearly, even if they did gang up to make his mornings miserable.
When he emerged from the bathroom five minutes later, his hair plastered down with water in a feeble attempt to make it presentable, his bed had been folded back into the wall and their luggage had been collected in the approximate center of the compartment. Annilea was browsing the morning news at the small wall terminal near the door, and Bailey was curled up on the window seat, her notebook cradled secretively in her lap as she scribbled away at some new story. Bailey had a certain talent with words, and these days she filled pages upon pages with her prose — not that she let anyone read it. Xan managed to weasel her into sharing sometimes, and he was always surprised by her eloquence.
Xan occupied himself digging through his suitcase for a clean pair of jeans as the train sped on towards Penryn Central Station. Outside their compartment window, the tunnel glowed brighter as they approached the city. Penryn was one of the first underground cities, first built during the Cold War and expanded by the Underground Metropolitan Construction Initiative of 2023. It started as a military base and, as with most military establishments of the time, no cost was spared for the underground city, but the lack of experience worked against those who designed, built, and later lived in Penryn. The newer underground cities took into account the water tables after Penryn flooded twice in its early years, and the excavation process for cities like Bellingham, where the Simmons family lived, took a tenth of the time it did for Penryn, which at the time was roughly the same size. It cost the city millions to convert the lighting system to mimic sunbeams, and a re-excavation of one district nearly collapsed the area, costing millions more. But the city remained, one of the only cities left from the Cold War, but rich with its own history. Annilea and Xan chose to spend most of their free time in Penryn, rather than the heavily residential Bellingham.
The train began slowing as it approached the station, and Xan checked his watch. Time to go. “Come on, Bales,” he said, beckoning to his sister. “Grab a bag.”
Reluctantly, Bailey slid down from the window seat and donned her backpack. Annilea took a suitcase and duffel, and Xan took the laptop case and last suitcase. They made one final glance around the room, then the trio left the compartment and trooped down the corridor towards the nearest exit. With a screeching chorus of brakes, the train slid to a stop in the vaulted chamber that formed Penryn Central. The three siblings dragged their luggage off and regrouped on the platform, Bailey gripping to her brother’s hand to avoid losing him in the crowd pushing onto and off of the train.
Xan glanced around, wondering why his parents would call him Xan instead of the usual Alex or Alexander. Instead he found himself face to face with Gabriel Forrester.
“Gabe!” he exclaimed, pouncing on his friend for a huge bear hug. Gabe was six inches taller than Xan, but that didn’t stop Xan from wrestling Gabe to the floor. They had first met in training for the Rainwalker Corps three years ago, and stayed fast friends ever since. The two went tumbling to the ground in the middle of the crowded metro station, each grappling valiantly for the upper hand. They struggled back and forth, neither able to keep the advantage for long enough to win. After about five minutes they finally started tiring, but Xan made one final push and pinned Gabe underneath him, only to catch sight of a familiar pair of loafers to his left. He looked up slowly.
“Hello, Alexander,” said his father.
“Hi, Dad,” he mumbled, scrambling up.
“Hi, Mr. Simmons,” called Gabe from the ground.
“Hello, Gabriel,” said Mr. Simmons, adjusting his glasses. “I trust your mother is well?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, wincing as he stood. “She just patented a new solar panel design. She wants to know if you’d like to order replacements for your lab.”
Mr. Simmons laughed. “Not yet,” he assured him. “Not for another five years, I’d say — especially at the rate she’s coming up with new ones.”
“I’ll let her know,” answered Gabe. “I’d better get going — I saw Xan on the platform and just wanted to say hello.”
“I know,” said Mr. Simmons, smiling. “Still rainwalking?”
“Good. Tell your parents I send my best.”
“I will, sir.” Gabe turned to Xan. “See you at the barracks on Monday?”
“Yeah,” answered Xan, gripping his friend’s arm as he left. “Sorry about that, Dad.”
His father frowned. Kenneth Simmons was an associate professor of chemical engineering at Penryn University, a leading researcher in oxygen generation, and an old-fashioned father. He expected nothing less than perfection from his firstborn, and the fact that he’d arrived to find his son flailing around on the floor of Penryn Central while his sisters watched on, bemused, was not something he would stand for.
“Alexander,” he began, “I hope you showed a greater sense of responsibility while staying with your grandparents.”
Annilea cut in for her brother. “He was fine, Dad. You can call grandma and grandpa if you want.”
The twins held their breath as their father stared them down. Luckily, Bailey chose that moment to pull on her father’s sleeve.
“Hi Daddy,” she said sweetly.
He looked down at her. “Hello darling,” he greeted her, stooping down to hug his youngest daughter. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yep,” she nodded, smiling widely. “May I go to the bathroom?” she asked.
“Yes, you may,” he told her gently. “Annilea, take your sister to the bathroom.”
“I can find it myself,” asserted Bailey stubbornly.
“I’ll go with you, Bales,” volunteered Xan. “I need to go, too. May I?” he asked his father.
Mr. Simmons nodded. Xan took Bailey by the hand, and the pair headed off down the station, Bailey dragging Xan along as she skipped ahead.
“Hey Xan…” she started, grinning, once they rounded the corner.
“Yeah?” he asked, craning his neck to look for the nearest bathroom, considering his mental map of the station.
“Do you like waterfalls?” she asked. “What about rivers and oceans? So much gushing water just pouring down everywhere!”
He groaned. “You evil little–”
“Do you know how many toilets the Niagara Falls can flush in a day?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know,” he answered. “This can’t be good for you either, Miss Pee Machine.”
They were right in front of the bathrooms now, where the alcove split off to doors for men and women. Bailey stopped and let go of her brother’s hand.
“You owe me big,” she said.
“I owe you?” he asked, incredulous. “Why?”
“You think I really had to pee?” she asked pointedly, crossing her arms.
Chuckling, he grabbed her into a big hug. “Thanks. You really know how to play the baby sister card, don’t you?”
Bailey just smiled. “Niagara Falls?”
Xan rolled his eyes and ruffled her hair. “Stay put. I’ll be right back.”
When he came out a few minutes later, he found her standing in the corridor reading a display case, her hands in her pockets with the air of a twelve-year-old trying to look casually cool. It was endearing, he thought, reminding himself that not too long ago he’d been the same age trying very hard not to be awkward. He went up and slung his arm around her shoulder.
“Okay, so I owe you,” he admitted. “What do you want?” They started down the corridor back towards the platform they’d left.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. What can you give me?”
“Well…” he thought aloud. “I could name a rock after you.”
“You mean on the surface?” she asked, intrigued.
“Yeah. I’m not a rainwalker for nothing, you know.”
She pondered for a moment. “How big of a rock are you–” Suddenly she stopped and grimaced. “Ew, Xan! Your hands are wet!”
He laughed as she squirmed away from his grasp. “Yeah, sorry, I peed all over them,” he teased her.
She yelped and twisted away from him, taking off across the station. Bailey was smaller and managed to dodge people much more easily than Xan, but he was faster and sprinted after her. People saw him coming and did their best to get out of his way.
“Bailey!” he yelled after her. “Get back here!”
“Go wash your hands!” she yelled over her shoulder.
“Oh come on!” he called, laughing. “It’s natural!”
He managed to grab her before she dodged behind a large synthetic plant in an alcove of the main hall.
“Hah!” he said, panting. “Gotcha.”
“Fatty,” she teased. Then she frowned as he wiped his hands dry on her jacket.
“You’re the–” he started, but his cell phone rang — it was Annilea. “Heyo,” he answered.
“Why are you out of breath?” she asked.
“How can you tell from just one word?” he demanded.
She ignored his question and let it go. “Dad says meet us up front. Mom’s circling with the car.”
He sensed from the way she ended her sentence that she wanted to say something more. “Okay,” he agreed. “We’ll be right there.”
“Anni–” he cut in before she could hang up.
“Yeah?” she asked.
They both paused for a moment, trying to find a way to phrase what needed to be said.
“Never mind,” he said. It was his way of saying they would find a way to talk about it later.
“Yeah,” she replied, acknowledging the suggestion in his words. “Hurry up.”
He hung up and found Bailey watching him.
“What?” he asked.
“You and Anni make weird faces when you’re on the phone,” she informed him.
“Nothing,” she said, looking thoughtful.
“Come on,” he said a little warily. “We’re meeting them out front.”
The two siblings made their way through the labyrinthine station. Xan only vaguely remembered his first time here, so many years ago that all the trips had blended together in memory. His parents had taken him and Annilea through the station, gripping their hands firmly, to see their father off to a big conference when the twins were four years old. Between him and Annilea, they’d managed to memorize the large station’s layout within the next few visits, and now, after about fourteen years of experience and a handful of afternoons spent waiting here for a delayed train, he could comfortably wander through Penryn Grand Central. He knew all the shortcuts, the cleanest bathrooms, the cheapest but tastiest food in the food court, and the favored locations of the persistent vendors he preferred to avoid. As for Bailey, she had a better sense of direction than the twins and picked up on station’s layout after just a few trips. Xan had rather unwisely played a game of hide and seek in the station with her when she was seven — he and Annilea combed the station four times between them before finally finding her quite happily eating a doughnut in an alcove over a large plastic shrub in the hall that led to the southeast platforms. He doubted that Bailey would ever get lost in Penryn Grand Central; otherwise he would have worried when she ran off earlier.
They took a shortcut at the food court, down an unmarked narrow hallway between two restaurants that looked like it would dead-end around every corner, but eventually opened up next to some phone booths just off the East entrance, which could accommodate the most vehicular traffic and was generally thought of as the “front” of the station. Through the row of glass doors, they caught sight of the family car alongside the curb.
Annilea was talking to their mother through the open passenger-side window, their father standing just behind her staring off into the distance as he mouthed something to himself. As Xan and Bailey drew near, he noticed their approach and promptly handed the luggage he was carrying to Xan in order to pull a piece of scratch paper from his pocket to perform some calculation. Bailey watched the cars zipping past beyond the curb, their drivers honking and yelling at pedestrians, and chose to crawl in from the passenger side to hug their mother hello. Annilea laughed and backed away as Bailey tumbled through the window. Still smiling, she turned to her twin.
“You’ve got to tell them,” she said in an undertone, her smile fading as she took a suitcase from him.
“Yeah, like there’s any good way to start that conversation,” he countered as they carried the luggage to the trunk.
“Lex,” she said firmly. “I can’t keep this secret for you forever. Dad’s in a decent mood because of the grant proposal, plus he just met with Senator Quale. Just bring it up at dinner tonight.”
Xan sighed, turning to watch their father as he scribbled away on a scrap of paper flat on the hood of the car. “The grant’s going well?”
“He’s been in lab all week…”
“You got all that out of him in the time it took me and Bailey to go to the bathroom?”
She grinned at him cheekily. “You know I’m Dad’s favorite.”
Frowning, he shoved the last suitcase into the trunk. “He’s been surrounded by post-docs and grad students tossing good and bad ideas at him all week. How could he possibly be in a good mood?”
“Lex, they’ll find out from Grandpa if you don’t tell them tonight. It’s not my place to do this for you, so you’ve got to grit your teeth and do it.”
He was about to reply, but their mother’s voice cut short their conversation.
“Annilea! Alexander! Get in before we get a ticket for loitering!”
In unison, they slammed the trunk closed and piled into the car for the ride home.