Issue #63 – Storm Cage

This entry is part 3 of 16 in the series The Descendants Vol 6: Returns and Departures

Part 2
“Professor! Good evening! Thank you so much, again for getting us invited.” Alexis said as she, Ian and Josh stepped off the elevator to find Professor Demetrius.
The deck was shaped like a circle, flattened on one end, with two levels. The lower level had monitoring stations along the curve of the wall for collecting and analyzing atmospheric data from the miles of sensors all over the Storm Cage, and a pillar running up the center containing the elevator up to the navigation deck and central maintenance level and down to the security area where the main concourses from the two gondolas to the central structure met. The upper deck was reached by stairs up from the lower and contained three backward facing stations for monitoring the actions and operation of Professor Kluge’s weather control scheme.
Demetrius smiled in a kind, fatherly way and took both of Alexis’s hands in greeting before shaking Ian’s. “Oh, you’re most welcome, Miss Keyes. As you know, I was always interested in enriching my students’ lives, and even those of you who have graduated and moved on will always be my students to me. Consider this a grand scale field trip.”
“Still, we’re just trilled to be here.” said Alexis. “Ian hasn’t stopped talking about it since I told him.”
Ian rubbed the back of his head bashfully. “I’m… a little bit of a science buff.”
From above them, someone let out a harsh laugh.”Ha! A bit? How can a man sip of the nectar that is Science, behold how it is the only discipline that allows us to understand, harness und then master the mechanics that govern the universe und then simply step back und abstain from drinking deeper? ‘A bit of a buff’ is just as lazy und complacent as any layman.”
The small party looked up to find a man standing on the upper level. He was clearly quite old, but stood at the safety railing with no signs of needing it for support or any health problems. He was short with a wispy half-ring of white hair going around the back of his head and hanging down in bushy tufts like free-hanging sideburns past his ears. His bald pate was liver spotted, his eyebrows thick and bushy, and his nose thin and long like the bill of a fishing bird. He wore a lab coat over a white shirt with a faded, red bow tie and equally faded slacks. Sunken eyes spoke of days and weeks of late nights and no sleep as they squinted at the people below him.
“I…” Ian started, but Demetrius stepped in.
“Alexis Keyes, Ian Smythe: this is Doctor Niklas Kluge, the visionary behind the Storm Cage and my mentor from my early days teaching at Tulane.”
The made Alexis take a second look. Professor Demetrius was over sixty himself. How old was Kluge?
“Please,” Kluge held up his hands. “Any fool can earn a doctorate. I much prefer Professor. Men may accomplish great things, but the greatness of mankind comes from casting his knowledge into the future.” Then it was as if he only just noticed Alexis and Ian. “Welcome, the two of you, to the Storm Cage: the first serious step taken by humanity to take command of meteorological phenomena. Come. I will show you the apparatus. Then we will see if the young man will remain a ‘buff’ forever, or strive for greatness.”
The young couple looked to each other a moment, but Josh urged them toward the stairs. On the way, he leaned forward between them and whispered, “Please don’t mind the Professor’s… out bursts. He’s always been prone to the dramatic.”
Demetrius, who couldn’t help but overhear and chuckled. “Oddly enough, he’s mellowed since he first took me under his wing.”
“Oh, that doesn’t bother us.” Alexis laughed. “I’m sure this trip will be a dream all around.”
What. A. Nightmare.
Alexis made her way from the stall of the unisex staff bathroom, two floors below Gondola 1’s VIP dining room where she should have been. The restrooms attached to the dining room were still under renovation, which had led to a frantic dash down the stairs when the queasiness hit her at breakfast.
It was the fifth time it had happened and they’d been in the air less than twenty-four hours. She didn’t even know that it was possible to get sea-sick inside a pressurized cabin floating in air. Apparently, she could. Often. The rocking wasn’t as bad as on a ship, but even as subtle as it was, her stomach noticed and wasn’t happy about it.
The seasickness pills Josh supplied her helped, but she’d forgotten to take on upon waking up and now half her breakfast had come back up on her as punishment.
With both hands flat on the edge of the sink, she leaned forward to take a better look at herself. As she turning green? To think, she’d been flying under her own power for over a decade and only on an all expenses paid cruise did she get airsick.
A toilet flushed behind her and when the door opened, she almost had a minor freakout until remembering that it was a unisex bathroom.
Science reporter J. Childress walked to the sink on the far end of the row to wash his hands. “Air sick?” He asked quietly, eyes focused on his hands.
Alexis laughed nervously. “You heard?” he nodded. “Sorry about that.”
“You couldn’t help it.” He shrugged.
“So how are you liking the trip so far?”Alexis asked, “Is your article coming along?”
Childress went to dry his hands. “A bit. I was supposed to interview the Air Force liaison this morning, but he never came down to breakfast. On top of that, they haven’t shown this ‘storm capture’ system yet, and I’m having my doubts about their claims of this being a green craft—those were clearly jet engines that pushed us to altitude.”
“Professor Kluge’s assistant told us that once it’s operational, this place should be able to stay at altitude for months, rotating passengers and crew by helicopter.” Alexis offered.
He nodded. “Interesting. I’ll have to add him to my interviews. Joshua…”
“You know, I never got his last name.”
“I’ll find out. Thank you for telling me that by the way. Just between you and me? I hope Kluge isn’t as crazy as most of the experts in his field think he is. Can you imagine how this thing could change the world?”
“Oh, I know.” Alexis nodded. She didn’t add that she’d been considering the good and the bad consequences. “Of course, it’s still too early to say: Professor Kluge himself insists that this isn’t a weather control machine.”
“Absolutely true.” Childress nodded. He started to leave, but paused and turned back. “You wanna know the secret to surviving air travel? After breakfast, head up to your room, take off your shoes and your socks then walk around on the rug bare foot and make fists with your toes.”
Alexis fought down a snort. “Fist with my toes?”
Childress looks sheepish. “I know, I know, it sounds crazy. Trust me, I’ve been doing it for years on more flights than just dirigibles. Better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.”
“Okay. I guess it’s worth a shot.” Alexis nodded. “Thank you.” She intended to do that later, back in her room, but for now, she turned on the cold water with the intent to splash some on her face.
“Huh.” there was a rattling behind her and she looked to find Childress pulling violently at the door handle.
“What’s wrong?”
“The door… I think it’s locked.” the reporter replied, stopping his assault on the door to step back and examine it. That revealed little. It was a steel door with an ’employees must wash hands’ sign on it, same as probably every bathroom door on board.
Alexis was about to have a look herself when a chime overhead indicated that there was an announcement forthcoming.
“Do you think there’s a problem with the ship?” asked Childress, frowning with his concern.
“Probably a misfire in the fire safety program. It definitely shouldn’t have locked with people inside the bathroom.” Alexis suggested, but realized her poor choice of words almost immediately.
“You think there’s a fire on board?” Childress asked. “I knew this entire thing was scientific folly.”
“Attention passengers.” Came a voice, not the kind of voice that was hired to relay information over PA systems, so much as the kind of hard, deep voice the spoke in monologues in movies about serial killers. “There has been a change in the posted schedule.
“As of ten hundred hours, this craft’s vital systems, including by not limited to navigation, flight control and security, are firmly in control of the Gaea Defense Front. Instead of becoming a tool to allow mankind to further exploit this planet and it’s biosphere, the Storm Cage will now become a force of equilibrium, with it and you, it’s ‘honored guests’ serving as hostages, whose ransoms will be the freedom of warriors in defense of Mother Nature and the dismantling of key corporations whose businesses are known to do the lion’s share of damage to our world.
“You should all be proud to finally be doing your part. But, as I suspect you aren’t, you will find that the entire ship is now in security lockdown and my heavily armed compatriots have been mobilized. Everyone in the VIP dining room, you are expected to follow the instructions of your ‘chaperones’. Those of you who are not, I suggest that you divest yourself of any and all weapons and lie face down on the floor until you are collected. We don’t want anyone to come to harm, but we will do what we must to those who can’t comply.
“And please don’t try anything you consider clever. The ship’s sensors are watching you.”
Childress turned and goggled at Alexis. “Terrorists? We’re being taken over by terrorists?!”
Alexis’s expression went stony. “Eco-terrorists. I’ve heard of them, they bombed a shipyard where a new deep sea mining craft was being built a few months back. Before that, they tried to introduce a toxin, non-lethal to most birds, but fatal to humans, to the feed at a big turkey farm right before Thanksgiving.”
They were on the Descendants’ radar because another of their plots that never got off the ground involved bombing Conquestech’s Mayfield Headquarters. The local PD took care of that before there was any danger to civilians, but the threat had been heard loud and clear.
“So… how bad are we looking at? If the government or whoever doesn’t just give in, and it seems unlikely that they would…”
“They’re the kin that would start executing hostages.” Alexis said. Hundreds of guests, staff and scientists, and among them her mentor and her fiance.
“What do we do?” Asked Childress.
Alexis looked around the room and found the cluster of fire sensors in the ceiling. Cameras were an invasion of privacy, but mere heat/motion detectors could be placed anywhere. They were marked by a white circle around the matte black dot the size of a quarter that was the actual array.
Once she knew what she was dealing with, she went to the sink and grabbed a handle, pushing it in the wrong direction. It slowly started to come unscrewed. “Can you fight?”
“I’m a science reporter. Um… no.”
“And I’m a school teacher.” Handle in hand, Alexis hiked up her dress and started to climb up on to the sink. “go in one of the stalls, climb up on the seat and push out one of the ceiling tiles, please.”
Childress blinked at her, but went to comply. “Alright, but I don’t get it. What are you doing?”
Alexis balanced on the sink, then stabbed upward, smashing the cover of the sensor with the sink fixture and grinding all the sensor heads apart with it. “Being clever.”
Martin was second generation when it came to radical environmentalism. His father and mother even met sabotaging foresting machinery in the Pacific Northwest. But frankly, he thought his parents were too conservative in their methodology. The way he saw it, Earth couldn’t sustain a billion humans, much less the ten it was getting by with. So what was the point of skirting around the issue? Screw sustainable resources and responsible technology: a lot of people would have to die off to make way for a better world anyway, so what did it matter of some ended up as collateral damage in the war to protect the planet?
And he was more than ready to demonstrate that one whoever caused the error messages coming from the bathroom he was being sent to investigate. In fact, he’d tried to helpfully suggest to Vargas that they should make a few examples of the passengers to show them they meant business.
Except Vargas had grown more and more soft ever since Mertama joined up. Everything was about increasing their numbers now, and that meant hiding many of the ugly truths from Mertama’s new recruits. It vexed Martin so that Mertama’s ‘weekend’ environmentalists outnumbered the truly faithful. Someone should show them exactly what it took to make things right.
He used his spoofed staff keycard to unlock the door and entered leading with his weapon: a compact submachine gun. The Front never used pulse or PSM weaponry; they took lots of electricity to charge and were therefore less eco-friendly than gunpowder armaments.
The bathroom was empty. A sink dripped, one of its handles gone, but where it went and where the two who should have been locked inside were remained a mystery. That is, until he looked up and saw the ceiling panel above one of the bathroom stalls askew.
Mindful that it might be a trap, he moved slowly, using the muzzle of his gun to push open each stall door on the way to the one beneath the disturbed ceiling tile.
One. Two. It was unbearably hot in there. He would have to ask if they might have accidentally killed the AC when initiating the lockdown.
Three. Four. The fifth door was the suspect one and it was pushed fully closed and locked from the other side. Luckily, the staff keycards could unlock those in the event of an emergency. He shifted his weapon to one hand and took out said card.
He was vaguely aware of a whuff of air and swirling darkness before a three inch heel was planted in his back. His head pitched forward and hit the stall door with a terrible clong sound. Punch drunk from the collision, he whirled, ready to aerate whoever was responsible with a burst of automatic fire.
But Alexis had already closed the distance between them and swept the gun wide with a forearm before planting her opposite fist in his gut. Martin started to double over and she took full advantage, grabbing two handfuls of his hair and using it to bring his temple into contact with her knee.
He dropped to the floor senseless and she was on him immediately. The gun was kicked away and the tie of his courtesy staff uniform pressed into service as a rope to bind his hands while the handkerchief from his breast pocket was stuffed into his mouth.
“You can come out now, Mr. Childress.” Alexis said once her work was done.
The reporter stepped out of the farthest stall from the entrance and gasped at the scene in front of him. “That was amazing! Are you sure you aren’t a cop, or a green beret or something? How did you even manage to get the drop on him?”
“I’m just really good at being unseen.” Alexis said cryptically as she pulled off one of the man’s shoes.
“What are you doing now?”
“There’s more than two hundred people on this ship.” She explained, kicking off her own shoes and slipping her feet into the loafers. They were a size too big, but better than nothing. “That means there are a lot more than just this one, and I’m dressed to impress, not fight, or even walk all that much.”
Shoes successfully donned, she frowned down at the man. “I can tell right now those pants aren’t going to fit me. Who would have thought terrorists were so petite?”
Childress looked away from her in hopes that she wouldn’t ask for his pants. “You’re not thinking that you can take on a horde of armed zealots, are you? Because that’s suicide.”
Alexis noticed an earbud in Martin’s ear and took it out, wiping it off on his pants. “Of course not. But doing nothing might be suicide too. What if they want to blow up the Storm Cage? Or put the government in a position where they have no choice but to do the same? People will die. Right now, the best thing we can do for everyone is to get somewhere safe, use this comm to spy on them, and formulate a plan.”
“Can’t we just call for help?” Childress pulled his tablet out of a large inner pocket of his jacket. After tapping a few times, he was greeted with a text box explaining that there was no available wireless service. “… or not.”
“They’ve taken over the communications dish then.” Alexis guessed. “If we can get to that though, maybe we can call for help.”
“Just how are we going to do that?”
Alexis smiled faintly as she had an idea. “Mr. Childress, I think you might have exactly what we need. As a science reporter, they gave you the ship’s schematics, right?”
“Such as they are. There’s entire decks that are still under construction.”
“Exactly what I was hoping for.”
Mertama strode confidently into the navigation suite located beneath and forward of the observation deck. It was a small, but uncluttered room with a single work station with three chairs facing a multitude of screens that controlled and monitored the systems that directed the ship’s course.
Vargas was in the center seat while two of his original members of the Front, a woman named Pat and a man named Cole plotted out the new course the Storm Cage would be taking. He looked up at Mertama came in.
“Halls are cleared.” Mertama reported. “I’ve got people escorting stragglers from the rooms to the VIP dining room—except for the ones we think might have some training. They can rot in their rooms.”
“I told you this would be easy.” said Vargas. “People are arrogant idiots. They see a shiny new piece of tech and they never think twice about what it means. If they did, the background checks would have been better for staff positions and they would have had real security instead of rent-a-cops.”
“Hmm.” Said Mertama. “So you told me to let you know when we had the communications section under our control. They were routing everything through the original dish in Gondola 2. It’s ours now. I have three people there.”
Vargas smiled. “Perfect. Time to address the UN then.”
“There’s one problem.” Mertama held up a hand to stop Vargas from getting up.
“What now?”
“This entire plan hinges on using the Storm Cage as a threat, then carrying out that threat. You mentioned bringing a hurricane to DC?”
Vargas settled back into his seat. “I did. And that’s still the plan.”
“And the problem,” said Mertama, “is that my people took a look at the weather control system—and they have no goddamn idea how to work it. We need someone to go through the hostages, find someone who can make it work, and make them teach us how.”
Vargas nodded. “I’ll break some people off of hall patrol to do just that.”

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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