Issue #63 – Storm Cage

This entry is part 3 of 16 in the series The Descendants Vol 6: Returns and Departures
Sky Hard Part 1
“What a wonderful day to take a ride on a weather machine.” Alexis chuckled as the private shuttle from the Norfolk Spaceport’s main terminal pulled up to a tiny service wing attached an utterly massive hanger. It was pouring rain outside; coming down so hard that it killed visibility and had actually suspended commercial flight operations in the rest of the spaceport.
 
Ian craned his neck to see if he could see the top of the hanger, but couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able too from inside the shuttle even without the rain.
 
“I’m so excited about this, I can’t even tell you. Do you know what that is out there?”
 
“A garage for skyscrapers?” Alexis laughed.
 
Ian grinned like a kid going to his first baseball game. “The Apophis Program Hanger B. It was the staging area for the American contribution to the mission that captured the asteroid Apophis. We’re going to go into the same building where they tested the orbital correction stages and the sky hook platforms. Hell, this is where half of the Indus River’s habitation modules were built too.”
 
Alexis smiled fondly. The Apophis program was before either of their times, but she remembered sitting with him, and Laurel in the latter’s dorm room the night the Indus River international habitable space station’s primary modules were placed into orbit and declared operational.
 
At the time, it meant nothing to her and everything to her scientifically minded friends, but looking back, she was glad she shared that memory with them. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you really geek out about anything. You’ve acted so cool and collected ever since we came to Mayfield.”
 
Ian lowered his eyes ashamedly and she reached out to touch his chin, lifting it back up. “It’s nothing you have to feel bad about. I love you and I love seeing you happy.”
 
“But isn’t ‘cool and collected’ part of what made you fall in love with me?”
 
She missed him softly on the lip. “Confident, I feel in love with. Compassionate, I fell in love with. And don’t think I haven’t seen through the cracks in the cool to geeky old Ian from High School: when you were helping the kids at St. Drausinus paint eggs, or being competitive with your brother, and everything about the ninjas after the fact. I was too dumb back then to see how endearing all of it was, but I’m not anymore.”
 
Ian leaned over and returned the kiss before smirking a bit. “I’ve still got a thing for the bad girl I knew in high school.”
 
“If past-us could see us now.” Alexis laughed.
 
They got out, sharing an umbrella between them, and walked in the rain to the service wing.
 
As it turned out, the extension to the hanger was only ‘tiny’ in comparison to the sheer immensity of the hanger itself. Once inside, they found it bustling with dozens of people, mostly press and scientists invited on the Storm Cage‘s maiden voyage. There were also functionaries from Vast Dynamics, Hudson Environmental Systems and Levinson Aeronautics, the three companies who had partnered to make the device a reality, plus some of the same from MIT, where Professor Niklas Kluge, designer of the Storm Cage and the sciences behind it was a professor.
 
As soon as they arrived, a man about their age made his way toward them. He was dark skinned, tall and thin with close cut hair, dyed dirty and wearing a bright red blazer that made Ian feel slightly better about his charcoal colored suit, his first new suit since moving to Mayfield. “Excuse me! Miss Keyes? Mr. Smythe?”
 
He arrived with an enthusiastic handshake for both of them and the harried manner of an intern saddled with too much responsibility. “My name is Josh, I’m Professor Kluge’s personal assistant. Professor Demetrius sent me to take care of the two of you.”
 
There was a beat as the mafia-esque connotations of the phrase reached his much beset mind and he reacted with mild panic. “Sorry! I meant take care of your arrangements. Forgive me, it’s been a big week, you have to understand. The Professor—uh, Professor Kluge—has had me take an active role in finalizing everything. I’m running on three hours of sleep so…”
 
Ian clapped the man on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Josh. We understand. I was my mentor’s go-to guy in college too.”
 
“And I’m a teacher,” Alexis added, “three hours of sleep sounds like bliss. So we’ll be as little trouble for you as possible.”
 
Josh smiled, relieved, and took a second to get himself more composed, straightening up his blazer and name tag that said ‘Josh G.’. “I really appreciate that. Alright, so first of all; your luggage is in the shuttle, I’m guessing.” They nodded. “Great, I’ll have your bag brought up to your suite.”
 
Ian raised an eyebrow. “Suite? I thought this was a scientific vessel. I was expecting bunks at best.”
 
“So was the Professor.” Josh started walking and they followed, heading for a pair of huge, open doors leading into the main hanger. “But there was no way he was going to get the funding to custom build a craft big enough for full scale operations from scratch. I’m sure you remember an announcement a few years ago about companies thinking of offering airborne cruises?”
 
“That never really got off the ground, I remember.” Ian said, missing the pun.
 
Josh didn’t and suppressed a laugh. “True. The insurers backed out of all the ventures after the Airfreight 105 crash in Wichita. But Levinson Aeronautics had already commissioned three cruiseliner class airships by that time.”
 
“So Storm Cage is built on the frame of one of those.” Ian guessed.
 
They emerged into the main hanger and both Ian and Alexis were left at a loss for words.
 
“Two, actually.” said Josh.
 
The Storm Cage hung overhead, held in place by mooring lines thicker around then a person’s torso. Beneath two reinforced envelopes large enough to challenge most apartment towers, hung gondolas that could have fit shopping centers. Some five hundred feet long and with a sixty-five foot beam, they were attached directly to superstructures that surrounded the envelopes and contained elevators up to flat decks atop the massive structures and also to a system of crossbeams and catwalks that connected both envelopes to both each other and to a central structure that was shaped like a rounded wedge. Odd spars and dishes stuck out at odd end everywhere and portable lifts rose up from the hanger floor to ferry both guests and equipment into the belly of both gondolas.
 
“That’s not what I was expecting at all.” Alexis admitted.
 
“Granted, a lot of the amenities have been gutted to make room for the equipment, but once all of the non-project related construction is done, the idea is to use the vessel’s missions; ending droughts, diverting hurricanes and the like, as a form of scientific tourism. School groups and other interested parties could ride aboard and learn about meteorology and the many branches of physics that make the system possible from inside a storm system.” Said Josh with no small amount of pride.
 
“Is that what we’ll be doing?” Ian asked.
 
Josh shook his head. “Sorry, Mr. Smythe, but this trip will mostly be the sales pitch for the technology. We have various investors, representatives from the Air Force, DARPA, and NOAA, as well as several corporations here, all interested in the various technologies we had to develop to support Professor Kluge’s primary design.”
 
He seemed to read their disappointment without actually looking at them. “But luckily, we do have entertainment booked, seeing as how this is a three day trip.”
 
By then, they had reached one of the portable lifts that sucked onto the underside of the nearest gondola like a vast remorra. They arrived just in time to see a man about to close the doors.
 
“Hold that please!” Josh called and jogged to stop the closing doors if the other man didn’t.
 
He needn’t have worried himself, as the man did indeed hold the elevator. He wasn’t tall, a half head shorter than Ian, but he was still large and wore it well under a dress shirt, sport coat and slacks. His hair was tied back in a short tail, and he was possessed of a prodigious beard that was fluffed out and just as black as the hair on his head. Watching the trio get on, he adjusted his glasses and gave them a quiet, almost shy nod of greeting before going back to studying his tablet.
 
The lift powered up and slowly, they began the slow ascent to Storm Cage. Not long after, Ian noticed the bearded man’s press pass. ‘J. Childress!’ He exclaimed. “Alexis, it’s J. Childress, the New York Principle’s science reporter.”
 
Alexis wracked her brain and finally came up with where she’d heard that name before. “I remember you complaining about some article he wrote.”
 
“He was against federal subsidies to major cities to get the cops powered armor.”
 
Childress grumbled to himself and refused to look up from his tablet. “I got a lot of hate mail for that. People accused me to wanting cops to die, or something, but the studies bear it out: forces that have a powered armor division misuse it. They deploy is for things like kids that look like they might be sparkies, or descendants with no dangerous powers at all. It’s dangerous, it’s overkill and it’s expensive to maintain all that armor when it’s being deployed every day. Not to mention increasing the chance someone might steal a suit.”
 
“And, Alexis added, “it wasn’t the police that were lobbying for it, it was the companies that make the armor.”
 
“Like Laurel’s dad.” Ian pointed out, unwilling to concede any points. Besides, with all the dangerous assholes running around now that don’t seem to fit in either the descendant or the interfacer column, those guys need all the help they can get.”
 
Childress glanced at them, but still didn’t make eye contact. “There are alternatives. Safer, cheaper alternatives that don’t give the officer the power to accidentally punch through a car door, or spray a busy freeway with high caliber weapons fire, as has happened with this mass produced armor. The new generation of repulsion armor, for example, or we could find a way to make old, dead end tech like ballistics cloth financially viable.”
 
“I have heard good things about ballistic cloth.” Alexis said, clearly enjoying the exchange and the look on Ian’s face.
 
Again, Childress nodded, “In fact, I have it on good authority from a source in Brant Industries that they’re planning on resubmitting to DARPA’s open armor solutions project by the end of the year. The lift stopped and opened up into the main concourse while he was speaking and after checking his room information, he left the elevator with haste, clearly happy to get out of the conversation.
 
“Friendly guy.” Ian mused.
 
“You didn’t have to be so mean to him.” Alexis chided.
 
“I wasn’t trying to. In fact, aside from that difference, I’m a fan of his work.”
 
Alexis sighed “Hopefully you’ll get the chance to tell him that before the trip is over.
 
Josh cleared his throat and reasserted himself as their official tour guide. “I’m sure you will. In the meantime, the professors are waiting for us on the central observation deck.”
 
***
A pair of staff members exited the cargo elevator in Gondola 2 on the far side of the hanger and worked together to push a large crate toward the freezers. Thankfully for them, this was their last crate to deliver that day and they weren’t expected to stay on for the voyage. That meant almost an entire week of paid leave for each of them, though at the moment, their strained back and tired minds wouldn’t let them celebrate. And then a savior arrived.
 
“Hey!” Another member of the staff, dressed in the dark blue suit coat and white tie of the hospitality staff jogged up to them. “I’ll take that. Launch prep is soon and I don’t want you girls getting caught aboard”
 
Since this was the most concern any of the normally snooty hospitality staff had ever offered to the ground crews, neither young woman was willing to look a gift horse in the mouth and just thanks him profusely before heading back down the elevator.
 
The hospitality staffer, Brett Mertama, continued smiling and waving until they were both gone. Then that smile became a malevolent smirk. He pushed the crate on its dolly to the internal cargo elevator, but instead of taking it down to the freezers, he took it up to a floor that, among other locations, had housed a night club when Gondola 2 was still slated to become a cruise ship.
 
Little had been done there, aside from removing all the branding and any fixtures that could be recycled into other projects. The wide, mall-like concourse was empty and the expansive windows that once looked out on one side were covered over, as it would have been too expensive to reinforce them just yet.
 
Mertama, made sure he was indeed alone before slipping himself and the crate through the blacked out doors of the night club. Once inside, he found himself facing three other crates, as well as his two dozen accomplices, standing and sitting on and around them.
 
The group’s leader, a man named Vargas, stood waiting in the middle of them.
 
They were the same, average height, but where Mertama was wiry, clean shaven and kept his blonde hair cut in what looked to be the standard style of accountants and insurance salesmen everywhere, Vargas was broad shouldered and heavily muscled. His head was shaven and he wore a short, roughly groomed beard. His engineer’s coveralls hid them, but Mertama knew he had tattoos on his neck and up his arms.
 
Vargas gestured to one of the other crates without greeting. “What the hell is this about?”
 
“Our smuggled gear?” Mertama shrugged.
 
“Hidden in frozen food containers. You packed out helmets, our guns, our comms—all under pig carcasses! Sometimes I don’t think you fully understand what we’re fighting for.”
 
Mertama scowled. “I understand entirely. You don’t think it makes me sick what they did to those poor animals? But the fact is, people don’t dig around in meat like they do with bags of frozen vegetables or wine bottles. Maybe they feel guilty deep down.”
 
One of the others in the group, a young man in his late teens or early twenties, held up a comm badge between a thumb and forefinger. “They’ve got thawed blood on them. This is disgusting.”
 
“I’ll bring down a load of alcohol wipes when I can get away again.” promised Mertama. “It still stands that I got them in here and everyone seems to have gotten safely aboard and in place.” He looked to Vargas, “How’s the rest of the plan going?”
 
Vargas gave him a look that conveyed that he didn’t have to tell him anything if he didn’t want to, but did so anyway. As much as he was loathe to admit it, Mertama had become instrumental in the group’s planning over the past few months on top of being amazing in the field of recruiting.
 
“Most of what we need comes from what’s already in place with the fire system. The bulkheads can lock down and isolate rooms in the event of a fire; we just need to spoof the sensors so they don’t recognize that there are people inside. We can put all the security personnel and anyone with military training under lockdown that way, then herd the rest of the guests to the dining room in Gondola 1 to keep an eye on them. I’ve got enough guys in engineering to take that no problem. Then all we need is the old man to tell us how to fly this thing.”
 
“Sounds… sound.” said Mertama.
 
Vargas nodded. “We’ll wait until we’re over international waters to set things in motion.”
 
“And the second phase of the plan?”
 
“Our girl’s still spinning her wheels five hundred miles off the coast of Georgia. Whether we get our demands met or not is immaterial compared with the good we can do with this ship.”
 
Mertama nodded in agreement. “They really were going to waste its true potential. Luckily, we get to correct that.” He raised his fist to the others in the room. “For the Gaea Defense Front!”
 
The others exuberantly echoed his cry.

About Vaal

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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