Issue #42 – Metal X

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series The Descendants Vol 4: Confluence

Christina ‘Tink’ Carlyle pulled her scarf up to protect her nose and mouth from the icy chill. New York in December was cold and being many stories high didn’t help. Still, her eyes practically sparkled at her boyfriend, Warrick Kaine, as he held the door open for her.

She was in New York for the day, visiting him at home over Christmas break, and he had promised a date she would love. Promised and delivered, she thought as her eyes ran over the rooftop.

“Warrick it’s amazing!” She said, breathlessly. “You told me about it, but… it’s better than I could ever imagine!”

Her eyes practically sparkled as she beheld the huge mirror and wind turbine arrays and the accompanying maze-like tangle of pipes, wires and converters that accompanied them atop Whitman-Connors University’s Gore Eco-science Center.

The arrangement was a test bed for student green power experiments, some of which sported the best size to output ratio and best efficiency ratings of any other urban solar/wind arrays in the city, powering not only the Gore Center, but the neighboring dorms.

“How did you manage to get them to let us see it?” Tearing her eyes away from the technological marvels, she turned them on to her boyfriend.

Much like her, he was swaddled in a heavy coat with a hood, but his face was left uncovered, allowing her to see him smile at her enthusiasm. “It wasn’t that hard.” He shrugged. “I called, told them I might be applying here next year, and said I was interested in seeing it. They even offered a guided tour.”

Tink laughed. “I guess not everyone’s as excited about stuff like this.” Grabbing his hand, she pulled him along to have a closer look at one of the stations. Along the way, she asked, “So are you?”

“Am I what?” Warrick blinked.

“Applying here.” She looked up at the central solar array. It’s hundreds of computer controlled mirrors glittered beautifully as their focused might concentrated temperatures hot enough to melt steel onto the central crucible where water flashed into steam at a rate of hundreds of gallons a minute. “They’ve got a great science program. It’s not Cambridge or MIT, but they are doing some pretty cutting edge stuff. It’s on my short list of fallback schools.”

Warrick was frankly surprised that Tink thought she even needed fallback schools. She was likely going to be the valedictorian, had nearly run out of advanced placement courses, and thanks to all her aid with lighting and other stage operations, had added a letter in Drama to her extracurriculars. He wasn’t an impartial judge, but he couldn’t imagine a scenario where she didn’t get into the school of her choice.

He shrugged “Probably. I can already see completely bombing the Written and Geopolitics sections of the Collegiate Aptitude Test, so I’m applying to everywhere and hoping something sticks.”

“They probably won’t look too hard at those if you got to a school with a good science focus.” Tink tempted.

“Yeah.” Warrick agreed, “But I’m not sure if that’s what I want to do. I’m pretty good at chemistry, but I really like Drama and Art.” He didn’t tell her why he was so adept and tried so hard at chemistry; something between predestination and a non-paying career choice.

Tink pulled down her scarf and smiled fondly at him. “Just pick whatever makes you happy.” She encouraged before leaning over to brush her lips against his. With him only topping 5’9” in boots and her somewhere over six feet, she ended up leaning down, but they didn’t make an issue of it.

He returned the kiss in kind, bringing one hand up to her cheek as he did. When they finally separated, she blushed and redirected her attention to the central array. “You know, unless something even better comes along, one day these things could go on the roof of every building. Can you imagine that? No more electric grid to worry about.”

Warrick nodded and drew his hood up to hide his own blush. “Or worry about people attacking it.” It had only been a few months before that the Descendants, including his heroic persona, Alloy had broken up a plan to take over a tidal station that supplied power to almost five thousand homes and businesses and ransom it’s fate.

“And that,” Tink said and led him around to the next point of interest; a first bank of wind turbines set against a railed off slope of the roof that both caught the sheer winds off the surrounding buildings and provided drainage into the water tanks attached to the deicing system. “Is why science is great. Can you believe my dad still wishes I wanted to go to business school?”

“I don’t get it; Cambridge is like your life’s dream.” Too late, Warrick noticed the flatness in his tone and mentally cringed. It was bad enough facing the reality that Tink would be moving across the Atlantic before the coming year was over, but on top of that , he’d recently received a foggy glimpse of what would come of it.

While he only remembered bits and pieces, thinking about Tink leaving now gave him a simultaneous shiver of both dread and regret in sympathy with some future version of himself.

Luckily, Tink had become enchanted with the ingenious, reciprocating design of the wind turbines and the small similar designs in the drain spouts that gleaned power even from the run off from deicing or the mirror array’s cleaning cycle.

“How much scaling down do you think could be done with something like this?” She asked.

Warrick could already see her mind working. Before they’d even met, Tink had built a much smaller mirror array sans the computer controlled mirrors that could, on a sunny day, light fires, toast marshmallows and melt plastic.

He could see the shape of weekends to come; refitting the device to generate power. He more than welcomed it like he welcomed all the times he’d helped her on her projects—their projects.

Before he could answer, door to the roof slammed closed behind them. “I think they’re about to kick us out.” He said.

Tink pouted. “But we haven’t even looked at the usage compensation systems. Or the reciprocating pumps. We can’t leave now.”

Warrick couldn’t help but smile. “I love when you get on kicks like this. I’ll go talk to the…” He trailed off because something strange had come into his metal sense; something he couldn’t figure out. The sensation was like static or a sudden fizzing on the tongue.

He turned quickly to see what it was, but there was no slab of alien metal there, just a man

Standing near his own height, with slumped shoulders, the man’s shape was obscured by a drab, tan overcoat and his face was hidden by the down-turned brim of a red baseball cap. His hands were thrust into his pockets and he stopped short when Warrick turned. Then he shied back a step when Tink stepped up beside her boyfriend.

“You Warrick Kaine?” Asked a voice that was trembling with unease or possibly restrained rage.

Something told Warrick not to answer in the affirmative. “Who are you?” He queried.

The wind briefly blew his coat partway open and Warrick got a glimpse of shiny, silvery metal beneath that wasn’t showing in his metal sense save for the strange ‘static’. “Call me… Metal X. And we’ll see if you’re Kaine are or not right now.” The stranger thrust out his hand and a silvery harpoon snapped out from under his sleeve.

***

Years Ago…

Mitchell Woo looked up from his calculations when the cargo elevator at the end of the room hummed to life. That didn’t happen every day. Sometimes a week would pass without someone coming down.

The last inspection of his work had been two days earlier and judging by the number of surplussed MRE’s stacked in the corner that served as his dining area, he had almost a week to go before the next delivery of food and toiletries.

Something was wrong.

Grabbing the cane he hadn’t needed when he first started his work, he levered himself out of the chair and came around the equipment strewn counter he was working at so he would have a clear view of the elevator when it opened.

The past months hadn’t been kind to him. The pepper component of his salt and pepper hair had gone, he had lost weight and become frail from lack of activity coupled with abysmal nutrition, and somewhere along the way, his knee had started giving him trouble.

Lights came on around the elevator, showing it had stopped on his floor. It opened in layers; first the outer doors, then the inner, then the cage-like lattice between them. That had been installed after one of his escape attempts.

The first out were the two huge men he knew to be the elevator guards. Armed with recoil damping shotguns, they stepped into the room carefully, sweeping the area before nodding the all clear to the others inside.

That behavior stemmed from another escape attempt where Woo had ambushed them with a length of metal taken from his bed. As a result, he now slept on an air mattress and when they finally wrestled the weapon from him, they used it the make it so he needed a cane..

Three more men got out of the elevator, but only one mattered. The other two were science students paid to examine and double check Woo’s work in exchange to a free ride at university. The last was Tai Yang Zhang, an under-boss in the Hip Sing Tong and Woo’s jailer.

“Good to see you’re in good enough shape to stand, Mitchell.” Zhang said smoothly. He spoke in Cantonese, a language Woo had only known enough of to survive a guided tour of Chinatown before he’d fallen into Zhang’s clutches. He’d learned much more as it was the only language most of the guards and errand runners spoke. “How’s the knee?”

Woo glowered at him and tightened his grip on his cane. He would be put down hard if he struck Zhang, but it would have been satisfying. “There were already students here.” He opted on saying. “Day before yesterday. Nothing has changed. What you’re asking for isn’t possible with today’s technology.”

“Is that so?” Zhang motioned to one of the students, who passed him a flat format stick. “Plug this into your computer.”

Still trying to look defiant and maintain his dignity, Woo took the proffered device and headed back around the counter. Zhang followed closely, casually flipping over a few scientific journals littered across the surface.

“What’s on it?” Woo asked once he’d taken his seat before the console.

“A scientist came to us looking for funding. He thinks that he’s solved your problem, but just doesn’t have the money or the material. The sponsors of his university don’t think it profitable.”

“Maybe that’s because he hasn’t actually solved the problem.” Woo suggested cynically as he plugged the stick into his console’s media slot.

“Caldwell thinks he has.” Zhang gestured to the computer. “I asked him to put together a proposal.”

Against his better judgment, Woo watched and over the next hour, he was amazed by the man’s theory and method. He now understood why he’d never been able to figure it out; he’d been going about it from the wrong direction.

“So it can be done.” Zhang said, reading Woo’s expression.

“It can.” Woo replied, still mystified by what he’d seen. “But Caldwell’s Type VII isn’t something a nanoroboticist can make alone, if you’re expecting me to do it. The necessary programming is too complex to program into the machine and especially too complex to trust a machine to program into another during replication. You need a control linkage that’s external.”

“But. It can be done.” Zhang asked again.

“Yes, but Caldwell can’t do it himself.”

“Then he has our full backing.” Zhang concluded, standing up to leave. Before he did though, he glanced back at Woo. “Could you do it, Mitchell? If you had help?”

“I don’t already do enough for you in exchange for this imprisonment? My designs already constructed your wonder alloy.”

“You did that for your family.” shrugged Zhang, “But you can do this for your freedom.”

Woo lowered his head. He knew it was just another carrot to keep him working, but it was too tempting to pass up, however slim the hope that Zhang would keep his word. “If I had help.” He said. “Yes.”

***

Metal X.

The name echoed in Warrick’s mind and harmonized with something he couldn’t remember. It conjured up the same sense of dread as thinking of Tink’s future departure. The dread blasted past his fight or flight response and kicked into effect reflexes he didn’t know he had.

His power slammed into the spire of liquid metal coming toward him and drove it hard off course. It wouldn’t’ be enough, nearly half a dozen more silver barbs tore exit holes in Metal X’s coat and streaked toward him.

The time between the first attack and those that followed was long enough for another little shock of horror to hit him: He’d used his powers in front of Tink. True, the fear of what was happening would mean she might not notice, but still, it was irresponsible when he could just dodge and…

Time resumed it’s normal course and he realized that he was being yanked sideways and down. At the same time, two of the tendrils struck the water pipe behind him, wrenching open a seam.

Warrick stumbled, but the same that pulled him aside held him up and set him running: Tink. If she hadn’t acted, he would have been skewered by Metal X’s attack or taken off his feet by the high pressure water that was now doing the same to Metal X.

Two of X’s remaining tendrils swung out in front of him and formed up into a rounded shield to deflect the water from him.

Even though it was quickly cut off, the blast had staggered him and knocked off his baseball cap. Underneath, his head was freshly shaven, all the better to seat a web of gold tendrils that stretched over his scalp and hooked into a collar where it locked closed at the base of his skull.

His eyes narrowed as he slammed a fifth tendril around the ruptured pipe and cinched it closed. The tendril detached, instantly solidifying into a pressure cuff around the pipe.

“Kaine.” He muttered.

Series Navigation<< Issue #41 – MachinationsIssue #43 – Love You Madly >>

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Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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