Issue #63 – Storm Cage

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

Part 5
Climbing the ladder up the maintenance shaft was hard going at first, given Alexis was wearing loafers too large for her, but once she was sure she was out of sight of Childress, she surrounded herself and black heat and flew the rest of the way until she reached the hatch and dropped back onto the ladder for leverage when opening it.
Semi-bitter thoughts came to mind as she turned the wheel that opened it. If there had been a hostage situation ten times as big in Mayfield, she would have just flown in as Darkness and with her powers and the help of the others, easily dealt with it.
Except she couldn’t. Surely by then, the terrorists knew that she was one of the two people missing, and if Darkness suddenly showed up in the middle of the Atlantic, it wouldn’t take a hypercognitive to figure that one out. And from there, it would be open season not just on her, but on her parents and sisters, not to mention that if they gleaned her identity, it wouldn’t be hard to guess at those of the other Descendants.
So overt use of her powers was out, and overt was pretty much all her powers did. That left just her; Alexis Keyes, teacher. She knew how to handle a bo staff, plus above basic level self defense in hand to hand combat, but her opponents were many and they were well armed.
“Twenty against one unless I can free Ian.” She reasoned as the hatch began to creak open. “Good thing I learned not to fight fair back before the Academy.”
It hadn’t come out much once she was in a place where a fist fight could easily lead to lethal powers coming into play, but middle school and the first half of her freshman year of high school had seen her in a lot of fights, mostly because as a teen, she couldn’t keep her mouth shut or walk away from a slight. Girls, guys, older, younger, she’d fight anyone, and along the way, she’d learned plenty about taking the cheap shot and using anything she could swing to her advantage.
Cold air started to flood into the shaft as a hydraulic arm too over the job of opening the hatch. He hair whipped around her face and in slithered across the goggles she’d pulled over her eyes as a miniature cyclone formed.
“Alright, Alex.” She breathed. “Here goes nothing.”
Pushing off the ladder, she emerged into the open air. An azure sky stretched out above her and the noonday sun showed brilliantly down. There that an elongated half-dome behind the open hatch, facing forward to break the worst of the wind, but at the speed the ship was going, it did little to keep her from being buffeted around.
One hand still firmly gripping the hatch, she took the safety line attached to her harness and fastened the carabiner at the end to the long, uninterrupted rail that ran along the walkway leading from the hatch.
The walkway was a flat stretch that circled the top of the rigid envelope about a third of the way down from the top. It was actually the top of a ceramic ring that sported large metal and plastic knobs jutting from it every few yards, which hummed like generators on standby. The whole thing vibrated subtly in a way that had nothing to do with the wind or motion.
She pulled herself the rest of the way out of the hatch, secured herself with a second safety line, and took stock. Starting just above her height, the top part of the envelope was covered with high yield solar panels, enough to power a small city, except at the very top where a ridge of ceramic crossed it like a massive dorsal fin, containing even more of the strange, humming knobs.
Ladders with more railings to secure lines led up and down from the walkway, up to the dorsal ridge and down to another walkway halfway down the side of the envelope.
Massive, curved struts extended from beneath the walkway she was on and straight ones from the midpoint walkway to connect to the middle structure between the two conjoined airships, and cables as big around as her waist extended between the two envelopes. Much further down, Alexis could see the lone, tubular skyway leading from the gondolas to the central hub.
Her main concern as the communications tower: the very top level of that hub, from which she could hopefully reestablish the phones lines, and get a message back home to the others without detection. It didn’t take her long to find a flaw in her plan: the comm tower had no windows or other access point from the outside.
In retrospect, she realized that of course it didn’t, because there was no reason for it, but the only other way she knew to get inside was through what was probably the highest concentration of guards on the ship.
Alexis braced herself against the rail and hunkered there for a moment of thought. “If I had the whole team with the,” She reasoned aloud, “I’d have Warrick peel the ceiling off that walkway like an orange and drop in on them from surprise. Guns or no, we would have numbers. Now… Yeah, I’m good, but not take then ten armed people good.”
She took another look at the comm tower. “The actual tower starts there, and the wiring probably comes up the center. There might be other instruments on the walls but…” And just like that, she had a plan. It wasn’t as stealthy as she hoped, and it risked exposing her powers and secret identity, but right now, she wasn’t’ the tactical leader of a team; she was the one person, all alone who could help the hostages on board, including her love.
With one last look around to make sure the walkway was monitored only by sensors and not cameras, she ensconced herself in black heat and took flight.
“…shows us that humanity’s leaders will only react to the most dire of disasters.” Vargas’s message played on a loop on every screen in the communications center as the program’s stream was repeated over and over to an empty room.
Condemnations and threat repeated over and over as the program refreshed the page to count the number of hits it was getting. As Vargas had hoped, it had gone viral; five thousand hits in just a few minutes. Not that he would ever know it.
There was a groan from overhead, above the tile ceiling, and the acrid stench of hot metal began to seep in. One tile started to smolder in spots, then one of its neighbors, then a third took in the same instance that the the first caught fire completely.
There was a grinding sound and a pieces of ceramic plating with a metal outer coat broke through the tiles and clattered horrendously to the floor, scattering burning tile everywhere.
In the rising smoke, it was just possible to make out the semblance of a feminine form from the places hat the smoke moved around instead of through. She landed on the plating the preceded her and listened until she was satisfied she was alone.
Only then did Alexis release the invisibility that left her blind and made the gruesome discovery.
There were three of them: newly dead bodies just to the left of where she’d made her entrance. A man and a woman lay on either side of another man who was slumped backward in a computer chair. The man on the floor looked like he’d been moving away from the others, but the other two had simply dropped where they stood and sat.
All displayed bullet wounds and copious amounts of blood.
Alexis took a reflexive step back from them, her stomach turning at the sight. And in the same moment, rage built. The people holding everyone hostage were responsible or this. They had stormed the comm center and murdered the staff in cold blood, just to prevent anyone from calling for help. That could not be allowed to go unpunished.
As she fought for equilibrium and control of her stomach, the scent of burning caught her attention.
The man in the chair had been dusted with burning bits of tile and his shirt was starting to catch where it wasn’t soaked in blood.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry.” She muttered, and stepped forward to gingerly brush the blazing detritus off him before he was cremated without ceremony. Except doing so got his blood all over her hands in the process, once again making her gorge rise.
She backed away in disgust, almost bumping into the console behind her, and frantically wiped the blood off on her borrowed coveralls. “God help the guys that did this to you. I promise that I’m going to pour every ounce of my powers into making sure they got to jail for…”
For the first time since she’d entered the command center, she noticed the video playing and exactly who was delivering the ultimatum in it. The phrasing, the expression—that wasn’t a man who was being forced to read something at gunpoint.
“It was you.” She whispered. No matter what she did, she couldn’t take here eyes off the dead man with his own words playing behind him. “This… You’re part of it. But why are you dead? Something’s not right.” Suddenly, the spell was broken, and she looked around the control room, frantic to find something that explained what was going on.
Her gaze fell on the only other chair in the room. Atop a prodigious rat’s nest of cables and wires that reached into the open cases of the consoles nearby was a laptop, also playing Vargas’s broadcast, only this one was logged into the user account the video was posted to. There were other active icons running in the background besides. It couldn’t have been more obviously the machine jamming other communications if it had a big, red button flashing on it.
Alexis knelt in front of it to access the touch screen. Touching the other active icons brought up complicated readouts and command lines she didn’t understand.
“Note to self,” She said bitterly, “Learn more computer stuff than making presentations of class.”
She wasn’t completely sure how to shut those programs down, or if shutting them down was really what she wanted to do in the first place, so she left well enough alone for the moment. Instead, she returned to the internet browser playing the ransom tape.
That browser was able to connect to the outside even if nothing else was. And if that was true…
“Okay, L. I know you’re watching. Please, please, please have your palmtop on you right now.” Alexis said to herself as she typed ’20mindonlymatters49′ into the site’s user search. She didn’t even stop to check which video sharing site she was using, because if she knew Laurel…
Sure enough, the search turned up the public channel for 20mindonlymattes49. There was only one video shared there, because the account was just there to allow Laurel to monitor the site. Assuming she hadn’t already gotten the news about the hijacking Alexis decided to make sure she heard and got more information to work with besides.
She opened the video, a music video for an old song called Holding Out For a Hero, and scrolled down to the comments. Back when they were in the Academy, all forms of texting and chat programs are disallowed in the classrooms, but she, Laurel and Ian got around that by starting a fake blog that looked to be about American History, but was really just a bunch of facts copied and pasted from elsewhere. The real point of the site was the comments section, which they would use to post and reply to messages during classes while looking like they were learning.
The same principle applied here, only with the need for rudimentary code, which she made up on the spot, trusting in her friends’ superior mind to figure things out. It was a quick, rambling and off topic post, but among the other comments, it didn’t look out of place. She input her name as LexiDark, which had been her handle back when they were in class together, and peppered the whole message with keywords she knew Laurel monitored for news regarding Project Tome’s activities.
When it was sent, she sat back on her heels and caught her breath, looking around her.
The bodies still made her feel ill. They weren’t the first she’d seen since taking up the mantle of Darkness, but seeing death never lost it’s sting to her. What they did, at least as far as she was concerned, was keep things like that from happening: no more bodies, no more kids trapped in stasis. Every death felt like a failure, no matter how impossible it might have been to prevent.
These were no different, and yet, the circumstances tugged at her thoughts. There was a schism among the hostage takers and it was bad enough that they’d voluntarily reduced their numbers. What was really going on here?
As she turned it over in her mind, her eyes traced the various wires leading to and from the laptop. Someone on the wrong side of this whole thing was very good with tech.
“How much do I bet that they have it set up so they’ll know if someone messed with their set-up?” She asked the silent room. Before the words were even out of her mouth, she was getting to her feet because she knew the answer.
But where to go? Heading back outside meant flying blind again and she had no idea where it was safe to come back in again. And the elevator would be watched, of course.
The elevator shaft however…
She started toward the doors, then paused, looking back at the laptop.
“No sense in leaving this here for them to keep hacking the communications system.” Quickly, she unplugged everything and stuffed the laptop into the front of the too loose coveralls. No sooner did she do this than there was a trill coming from beneath the dead woman’s body: a palmtop chiming that it had reestablished a connection to its network.
With a nod of approval, Alexis made for the elevator once more.
“What. Did. He. Do?” Ian asked once more through gritted teeth as Karen jabbed his ribs again with her gun to shut him up. Ten minutes before, a smiling Mertama and a black man Ian hadn’t seen before emerged from the elevator all smiles and jocularity following what Ian was sure were gunshots overhead.
Whatever happened up there, Mertama told Karen and Lucas to make sure the Professor cooperated, then left with the other man for the VIP dining room.
“You. Don’t. Need. To. Know.” Karen punctuated each word with a sharp prod. “Now shut your mouth, or I’m going to ‘forget’ we’re supposed to keep you alive.”
Kluge looked up at her with naked disgust. “You do not have to continue to harm the young man, fraulein, I am complying as quickly as I can. There is a great deal of security involved with the system, for obvious reasons, und each step is on a timer explicitly to prevent the hasty application of it.”
Unsure of she should believe him or punish him, Karen looked askance of Lucas.
“I’ve been watching him the entire time. He’s telling the truth.” Lucas confirmed. “Which means they were slightly more responsible in building this thing than we gave them credit for.”
“He’d still better hurry.” Karen said, obliviously disappointed that she didn’t have cause to harm the old man, “We’re under two hours to Julia.”
Suddenly, there was a soft warble from Lucas’s pants.
“What was that?” twitch shooter that she was, Karen actually took her gun’s muzzle out of Ian’s side and pointed it at Lucas for a second.
Lucas gave her a long suffering stare. “It’s just my palmtop. You know, checking for updates, synching the clock?”
“Synching the clock with what?!” Karen almost shrieked, and now she was seriously pointing the gun at him. “We’re supposed to be a floating dead zone out here!”
Lucas’s eyes widened with understanding. Slapping Karen’s gun aside, he turned and looked toward the elevators. “The comm center. I heard the others talking about two of the hostages still being loose—maybe they made it up there.”
Unseen by them, Ian held his breath. If someone was causing trouble for the terrorists, he was pretty sure he knew who one of them was. And if Alexis was free and working with someone else (possibly one of the military officials on board?), it was his job to give her all the help he could.
“Stay with them.” Lucas continued. “I’ll got check it out.”
Snorting, Karen adjusted the strap on her gun. “Like hell. If there’s someone up there, they probably know how to fight and they’re probably waiting to ambush you. You can’t go alone, you idiot.”
Lucas glanced back at Ian and Kluge. “We can’t leave them alone. I’ll call someone guarding the hall below to go up with me.”
He started to leave and for a split second, Ian saw that no one was looking in his direction. Taking the chance, he lunged out of his seat and rammed his shoulder into Karen’s back, sending her stumbling into Lucas. In the same motion, he pulled the strap off her shoulder and used it to jerk the gun out of her hands.
Karen turned her stumble into a pivot and swung a fist for his face, which he blocked with the stock of the gun, her knuckles making a satisfying crack against the composite material.
Ian pressed forward, driving Karen into Lucas before the other man could raise his weapon, pushing them both over the railing behind them to crash in a painful and senseless heap on the floor below.
“Professor, shut it down!” He shouted and charged down the stairs to check on the pair. In route, he turned the gun around properly and aimed it at two Front members left behind to run navigation. “And none of you move. Hands up!”
There was a whirring sound and a clang above and behind him. Looking up, he found the a thick, transparent sheet of glass had fallen into place, sealing the controls for the weather control system off from the rest of the room.
“Professor? What’s going on?”
“Apologies, Young man.” said Kluge, his attention focused on the control panel. “But I had to act while I had the opportunity. For you see, I have long foreseen that perhaps the Storm Cage might be too tempting for the foolish und destructive among humanity. Therefore, I took great pains in ensuring that I can prevent exactly this situation.”
Ian tore his attention between holding the gun on the terrorists and Kluge above him. “So you seal yourself in? But they’re just going to threaten to kill people until you open up again.”
“Indeed.” said Kluge. “Which is why I will simply have to convince them that I am fully capable of killing them in turn.”
End Issue #63
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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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