Issue #42 – Metal X

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

Part 2

The paths between the machinery were narrow and Warrick made certain that Tink remained in front of him, putting his body between her and whoever and whatever was after them.

He had lost sight of Metal X after the first turn, but his metal sense still gave him flashes of the baffling static feeling from before. Try as he might, he couldn’t categorize it. Where he often compared his metal sense to the sense of taste, this sensation felt like burning his tongue.

His metal sense wasn’t the only sense being assaulted. What had only been a low drone when they were standing near the turbines was multiplied and intensified by the surrounding pipes into an ungodly din that drowned out their footsteps.

For this, he was partly thankful. The deafening roar kept Tink from asking hard questions about who was after them and why. He had no answer even though he couldn’t shake the feeling that he should and that he wouldn’t like the answer to either.

Static lunged toward him in his metal sense. Acting on instinct, he reached out and caught Tink around the waist. She screamed, not realizing who it was, but he ignored it, jerking her out of harm’s way as a two-tined shape formed of the liquid material of Metal X’s tendrils surged through the gap between two turbines.

For one horrible moment, Warrick imagined what could have happened if he hadn’t acted. No more than a moment because Tink struggled free, whirled to see what had grabbed her and caught his eye. The look he found there made him shiver. He never wanted to see her like that again.

Then they were running again, back up the gap to an intersection they’d passed earlier. Overhead, there was the sound of metal sliding on metal and Warrick sensed a dozen or more of those tendrils, stabbing out overhead and securing to turbines and struts like grapnels.

Tink heard them too and took a blind corner. Warrick nearly plowed into her back when she stopped short. They’d come to the edge of the roof where a tiled walk just a few feet wide led between the bases of the wind turbines and the railing separating them from a long fall.

It only took Tink a second to pick up the sound of approaching danger and strike off to the right. Only now did he realize; she hadn’t been fleeing blindly: she was circling around, back to the stairs. In retrospect, he shouldn’t have doubted her.

Metal squealed behind them and Warrick spared a look back. Then he looked up.

Some fifteen feet above him and perhaps twenty behind, was Metal X, his frame supported in air by a tripod of metal rods that extended to the walk. His hat as gone and his coat had been torn into a tattered shroud by the emergence of his primary weapon. For the first time, Warrick was face to face with his attacker.

He was Chinese and in his early thirties at most. All of the hair on his head was gone and replaced by a spidery pattern of gold filigree that Warrick sensed extended down to the nape of his neck.

The silvery ooze he commanded crawled over him, adhering to his exposed arms, across the left side of his torso and up his neck, all emanating from the back of his head. Short, nubby tendrils trailed from his arms from his wrist to his shoulders as well as peeking over his back. The rods he was standing on emerged from a ring of the stuff around his waist.

As Warrick watched, he was lowered onto the walk and silver goo flowed completely over his body, solidifying into a smooth, featureless second skin the only left his face exposed. The tendrils and rods merged back seamlessly into the mass.

Regarding them with cool hatred, Metal X grasped the railing.

Something went wrong in Warrick’s metal sense. He could see that none of the strange, metallic mass was moving, and yet in his metal sense, it was surging toward him in a jagged, fractal pattern that seemed to occupy the same space as the railing.

Understanding dawned on him too late. The steel rail groaned and ground against the tile it was moored, in, cracking it in its efforts to break free. It curled at it’s edge, Cutting off Tink’s route so suddenly that she had to skid on the crumbling tile to avoid running into it.

Turning, Warrick made ready to do battle. His right hand touched the base of a wind turbine. It was made of recycled aluminum, not the hardest metal or the most durable, but with his powers directed through it, that hardly mattered.

“This doesn’t have to be a fight.” Warned Metal X, holding up a hand to stay Warrick’s. “You can survive this if you tell me what I want to know: Who is the Whitecoat?”

Warrick fought to keep a his expression from giving anything away. The Whitecoat was his hero, his mentor. Even if he did know his identity or whereabouts, he’d never give him up. “Leave us alone! Whoever you think I am, I’m not him, okay?” Behind him, Tink found her cell phone in her coat pocket and by touch alone, sent a text message to 911.

Metal X snorted. “Seriously? Maybe that works on the stupid, but I’m not one of them. I even tested to make sure. Would you like to see another demonstration?” Without warning, his liquid armor boiled at the shoulder, spouting forth two solid harpoons, identical to the ones he formed for his first strike.

On the narrow and unstable walk, there was no dodging, and even if he could, that would only mean the spears would find Tink instead. And given that choice, he’d rather have both strike his heart.

With a desperate surge, he pressed his power into the weapons. It wasn’t like commanding metal. He could shape and mold metal like wet clay when he pressed his power into it; instead, it was something like trying to slap a bucketful of water aside after it was tossed at you.

The first harpoon bent upward, flowing up and over him by a good two feet. The other jagged right, punching through the base of the wind turbine and tearing through the machinery hidden within. The structure shuttered violently as locked gears sought other means of transferring their power.

Much of that power came in the form of a tremor that ran through that entire section of roof. That was the final blow for the abused walkway; it cracked down the center and sheered off the building.

For one brief, terrifying moment, Warrick felt the world start to go askew, then fall from under him. Lost in a cloud of shock and adrenaline, one question still loomed large in his mind: Who was Metal X?

***

Years earlier

When the elevator lights came on, Woo didn’t bother looking up. He didn’t care anymore if he was being checked up on or not. Five long months had gone by of the same routine except for a trip to a Tong doctor for what turned out to be malnutrition.

His meals were of better quality now. It was a small thing and it made him all the more bitter whenever he caught himself being thankful for that small thing.

The intervals during which he was awake (he no longer found any use in keeping a day/night schedule in a room with no natural light) were given over to theorycraft and running numbers for various projects of Zhang’s interest.

On occasion, he was tantalized by updates from Caldwell’s Type VII. With each new step forward, each new theory, Caldwell drew nearer the cusp of changing the world. But hidden in the notes were worries that the change might not be worth the danger.

The method was perhaps too good, Caldwell worried. His method of alleviating the problem of transcription errors: a script in the programming that marked badly fabricated nanites to be recycled, meant that the process of fabrication was incredibly efficient. It also meant that if a stop order failed, the colony would become something of an inorganic cancer, degrading all ferrous metals they came in contact with in a voracious grab for materials.

It wasn’t the infamous gray goo scenario, but in a city of steel towers, it could be devastating.

Other nanite colony schemes didn’t have that threat: even if a stop order failed, transcription errors would render each successive generation more and more useless until the colony collapsed.

Woo was pondering the question of how to prevent this with such vigor that he failed to notice Zhang until he was at his side. He cursed himself for flinching when he finally did.

“I’m busy.” Woo said to save face.

“I know.” Zhang said smoothly. Woo had to stare that the man for a moment. He’d spoken in English. He’d been fairly convinced that Zhang spoke nothing but Cantonese, though he did know the man could read English. Why now?

He refused to let his surprise show. “Busy on something you asked me to do.” Ignoring the temptation to speak in his mother tongue, Woo spoke in the broken Cantonese he’d picked up from his captors. “Caldwell.” He added.

“I know.” Again it was in English. “I’m starting to lose my trust in Caldwell. I want you to start working on this. Not just checking his work. I need you to work in…” He searched for the English word. “Parallel.”

“I told you.” Woo said, sticking to Cantonese, “I can’t. Not alone. Caldwell has an assistant.”

“Yes. An assistant.” Zhang nodded, looking cruelly delighted. “We talked of that before. You said you needed a brilliant programmer to write the protocols.” He gestured and Woo’s attention was directed to the elevator. The guard had been doubled and it was easy to see why: there was a man lying on the floor of the elevator, badly beaten, but still breathing.

At Zhang’s direction, the extra guards lifted the man by his arms and dragged him inside. He hung limply in their grasp, his head covered by a burlap sack.

Pity welled up inside Woo. Pity and guilt. Another man would suffer his fate and all because of his advice. There would have been shame too if it hadn’t been stolen from him over the past months.

“When we took you,” Zhang was saying, “Do you remember how you begged? About how your family needed you, how your son had a bright future but needed his father for guidance?”

Woo narrowed his eyes at the mention of his family. He’d stopped protesting his imprisonment after the second time Zhang had threatened his wife, and children. It was one of those tiny blessings he counted in his silent hours, that there were no more casual threats against them.

Then it struck him like a physical blow, a heavy weight that hit him squarely in the chest and clung there, gripping his heart. If he was a praying man, he would have but in the same breath, he saw it was useless; Zhang was exactly the kind of man that would do such a thing.

Ham gaa caan.” He snarled at the man responsible for his woes. He’d learned the phrase listening to the elevator guards argue. He didn’t know what it meant, but it nearly led to a fist fight at one point.

“Be careful making threats on my family.” Zhang said boastfully. He gestured for the sack to be removed from the beaten man’s head. Woo’s hands made impotent fists. A cruel smile crossed Zhang’s face. “I can always return the favor.”

Finally free to breath comparatively fresh air, Woo’s son, Randolph took advantage of the opportunity. Without opening his eyes, he asked, “Dad?”

Suddenly Woo understood why Zhang had been speaking English: so Randy would understand his unknowing betrayal. Before he knew what he was doing, he was on his aching knees next to his son. “Randy… Randy, my God, I’m sorry.”

***

Warrick’s fugue only lasted a moment. The identity of Metal X wasn’t important right then They were falling. He and Tink were falling. It wasn’t a hundred story plunge that was entirely possible from some of New York’s buildings, but it was enough to be assuredly fatal.

Fatal, at least, to anyone else.

Tink wasn’t far. He could hear her screaming behind him and sense the circuitry in the various bits and pieces of electronics that accompanied her everywhere she went.

With less than a thought, Osp awakened from the snake-shaped band wrapped around his upper right arm and Isp from the left. Responding to Warrick’s urgency, they tore through the fabric of his shirt and coat rather than try and find the normal egress.

Osp darted out and wrapped Tink around the waist before pulling gently to draw the pair together through the air.

Tink’s scream cut off in his name as she scrambled to understand what was happening. Her arms latched onto him. “What…” Even if he’d given her a chance to ask, she wasn’t entirely sure what questions to ask.

For his part, Warrick clutched her as tightly as he could. “Hold on!”

It was Isp’s turn to act and it did in dramatic fashion, racing out in a twisting spiral as it’s leading edge widened into a fluke shape, lined with a half dozen hooked barbs which it deployed to powerful effect into the side of the building.

Their fall was arrested instantly and the only thing saving them from broken bones was Isp stretching with their weight to soften the impact.

Even with the fall halted, the danger wasn’t over yet. Ten stories above, the stricken turbine continued to shudder and tremble on it’s increasingly unsteady mooring, sending more chunks of tile and concrete hurtling down upon the pair.

Warrick hurriedly sought out a nearby gutter pipe. It bent to his will, deforming and stretching to his outstretched hand before smoothly morphing into a dome shaped shield. It was done just in time to protect them from the rain of debris.

Between the appearance of Isp and Osp and this latest display, the truth was laid bare to Tink. Forgetting they were still suspended eight stories above the ground, she looked at him through the skewed lenses of her glasses in utter amazement. “You’re Alloy.” She said quietly.

His mind racing from the last few seconds of frenzied activity, Warrick understandably missed both her expression and tone. “Tink, I’m sorry. I should have told you, but—”

She took advantage of their enforced embrace to tilt her head and kiss him as hard as she could. The last time they had kissed so deeply and so fully was after the Outliers mess back in Mayfield, when she’d been under the impression that he was injured or worse until her proved otherwise.

Always before, they were both so shy, so careful. It was as if certain doubts, in both of them, had finally been erased.

If nearly falling to his death was a shock to his system that nearly overloaded his thoughts, the kiss threw them right back on track. More or less. “I—what?” He stammered.

“You’re a superhero!” She said breathlessly. “Never be sorry to me about that.”

Warrick couldn’t formulate a reply to any of what was going on, but he did sense the mass of static that marked Metal X’s presence. He hadn’t fallen. In fact, he was moving diagonally down the building toward them.

“I’ve got to get you out of here.” Was all he could offer Tink at the moment.

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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