Zoe slouched in her seat, eyes closed, listening to her music and feeling the structure of the plane deforming and vibrating under flight stresses.
She hadn’t been tested, but she knew what a psionic was from television and figured that she must have been one. As far as she knew, she was the only one in all of Brazil, and seeing how sensing metal was, in her opinion, fairly useless, kept it quiet. Not even her parents knew.
By the time the plane was out of New York, she was lost in sound and sensation. She missed the announcement that the plane was directing to Rio, but even she couldn’t tune out the sudden panic as a handful of her fellow passengers were alerted to the news through their various internet and broadcast outlets. It didn’t long for her to learn the gist of what was going on, and then she joined in the panic.
Their nation was at war, and their city was burning.
Juiz de Fora burned for six days. It only took two for the deployment of Groundwire to be declared an attack as devastating as the atomic bomb, and only one day for the international community to label it a war crime. Even after six days, the media were still unable to venture a casualty count as the area around the epicenter of the burst was a complete desolation.
Zoe watched it all on the big screens in the airport terminal. Despite what she felt, she wasn’t alone. Other flights had been diverted to Rio as well and soon there were dozens if not hundreds of people in the same situation as her; their homes, jobs, families, friends—their entire lives had been in Juiz de Fora and not it and they were, for the most part, gone.
A small part of her wanted to call her aunt, but for some reason, her palmtop wasn’t working and every courtesy phone she tried was out of order. It was like the world itself had turned against her. So she sat and she stared at the hours of news coverage, and she cried.
At some point, a stout older woman with steel colored hair and a floral print dress sat with her. She simply said her name, “Marissa”, and when Zoe responded with her own, took her hand. They cried together, hugged one another, rocking back and forth in their sorrow and loss.
It didn’t last. The world loved Marissa more than Zoe. Early the next morning, a man waded his way through the crowd and found her, bringing news: her adult son had been out of the house when the attack came; he had survived and was looking for her.
Marissa told Zoe to stay strong, to never give up hope. She said that God was watching over her and that she would be okay. None of it mattered to Zoe; she knew the truth; her parents had been at home, counting the hours before they would go to the airport to pick her up. It was easy for Marissa to talk to her about hope; she’d had it handed to her.
Gradually, the ranks of refugees started to thin. Some of them were lucky like Marissa and discovered that their loss wasn’t as complete as previously believed. Most simply realized that they couldn’t live in the terminal forever and left to file for relief and hopefully rebuild their lives.
Zoe didn’t leave. She ate little and drank only when a friendly gate attendant or other member of the airport staff made her take something. When asked, she insisted that her family would come for her. It got them to leave her alone for a while. And all through that time, she watched the news.
The American President, Claybourne, had resigned in disgrace the next day. His Vice President, Shay Martin, only remained in charge long enough to issue an official apology, dispatch a record breaking amount of aid, and tender his resignation. His was the shortest term in US history; twenty-seven hours. While the Brazilian media was understandably focused on the tragedy in Juiz de Fora, it was clear that the incident’s repercussions in the US had left the nation’s political system in chaos.
Good. She had nothing but venom for everyone involved for what they’d taken from her. It was a blood debt that would never fully be paid, but she truly wished she could give it a try. Somewhere in the middle of those dark thoughts, her chair broke; the aluminum legs warped almost beyond recognition. It was just another in a long line of little humiliations that seemed to compound atop her pain.
On the seventh day, as, finally, the first search and rescue teams had access to the city as a whole, more news came from America. Namely, from the scientists on the Groundwire project. It seemed that they had been cleared to offer excuses for what went wrong.
Zoe watched them with hateful intensity as they explained dispassionately about what was supposed to happen. Destroying everyone’s appliances, cars and jobs didn’t sound like an exactly noble goal to start with to her. They talked about a ‘bloodless’ weapons technology, but even a teenager’s mind wandered to hospitals, people with cybernetics, and things like heat and air conditioning.
A lot of their blame was aimed at and ‘unforeseen’ reaction to Brazilian standing field technology, which they repeatedly characterized as illegal. It made Zoe’s gorge rise. Here those men were, on international television; their creation had slaughtered millions and they were blaming their victims for having a citywide air filtration system?
The can of soda she’d been drinking crumpled into a dense ball, fountaining stickiness all over her hand, arm and the side of her face. The cold splash shocked her into attentiveness. Where once there was a can, now there was a very small ball of metal, soda and paint flecks. She could sense how tightly it had been compacted and felt a force bearing down on it even then moment.
And suddenly, she understood. The phones, the chair, the can—all were metal, the same material that she could sense in detail that bordered on the empathetic. She could tell stress, deformity, and shape—and only now did she understand that it worked both ways. What she could detect, she could also inflict.
“Are you alright, sweetie?” She looked up to see a lean faced and cheerful woman; one of the customer service reps that had often come to offer her something to eat or drink. This time, she was wielding a wad of paper towels. “What happened?”
Zoe quickly took the towels and used them to conceal the crushed can before cleaning up her arm. “I’m okay. I just squeezed the can too hard.”
The woman nodded and accepted the damp towels. “Can I get you another? Maybe something to eat?”
“No. Thank you.”
Normally, that was enough. The staff at the terminal was sympathetic, but they had better things to do than talk to the few refugees that remained. But this wasn’t a normal day.
“Have you…” The woman hesitated, “Spoken to your family?”
“They’ll be here.” Zoe responded in monotone. Her eyes were fixed on the screen again. An animated reenactment of what the team of scientists suspected happened was playing. In voice over, the lead engineer was describing something to do with conflicting frequencies, friction and phase shift. The local station’s Portuguese translator was mangling the explanation, but Zoe knew English well enough to know that it explained nothing to non-engineers anyway.
As poorly animated lighting and plasma rained down, Zoe averted her eyes, focusing instead on the plane that dropped it. The craft was labeled Jabberwock. She knew the poem it came from, she’d even liked the play when her school’s drama club put it on the year before. It seemed like an insultingly silly word to name a harbinger of death.
The animation ended and the head of the team gave his final remarks, ending with a promise that the Groundwire project was “being mothballed for the foreseeable future.”
Even as young as she was, she knew what that meant. The monster wasn’t dead, only sleeping. It could return at any time; all it needed was someone else arrogant enough to make it work, or cold enough not to care. And that smug bastard looked very pleased with himself for that. She’d committed their names to memory days ago. He was Dr. Trevor Finnegan, PhD Electromagnetic Physics, MIT and she wanted almost nothing more out of life than to surgically remove his smugness.
Two more days passed. The death toll was pegged at Two hundred and thirty thousand from the initial blast, with hundreds more succumbing to their injuries daily. The number of injured was much higher and getting worse as illness struck the survivors via toxic fumes and infection. The infections were higher even than expected from the sheer number of burn patients, and there were concerns on the news circuits that some of the bacteria strains were previously undocumented.
Zoe had given up on sitting in any of the chairs; she’s warped another one in a fit of sorrow and was now sitting on her jacket on the floor. She never abandoned the televisions. The news an information surrounding what happened had become an obsession. From the relief and rescue efforts, to the surge in nationalism and anti-American sentiment; she absorbed them all.
Nothing of the footage from the affected area was familiar, but she knew that somewhere on those smoking hills, where the fires got so intense that the towers had been obliterated down to their foundations, was her home. What used to be her home. Somewhere, there was a carbon smudge that used to be her room, her collection of seashells… her parents. And not just them, most of her friends were probably dead too, dead and all but vaporized in a moment of hellfire.
Lost in the crush of it all, she didn’t notice the man who approached the gate attendant, didn’t see the young man point her out to him. The first indication she had of his presence was when his black wingtips appeared in her line of vision.
She looked up to find him consulting his bulky palmtop. He was in his late fifties with black hair going gray. His skin was dark and weathered, and he looked out of place stuffed into the black pinstripe suit with its crisp, white shirt.
“Zoe McNamara?” He asked, his voice as rough as the hand that grasped the palmtop. Despite wanting to avoid him, she nodded. “My name is Luis Mignone. I’m with International Search and Rescue.” The identification he displayed confirmed it and described his job as ‘relocation and adjustment’.
“My family is coming for me.” She lied.
“In a way.” He said. The whole conversation was in Portuguese, but Zoe got the sense that it wasn’t his primary language. “I’m here on your parents’ behalf.” There was hesitation in his voice, and it told her not to take too much hope form it.
“Why’s that?” She asked, looking back at the television.
“They weren’t at home when it happened.” He explained slowly. “They were found outside the critical damage zone, but… they were badly burned and it took two days for the rescue crews to find what was left of their car.”
Zoe finally looked up at him. “Wait. You’re saying they’re alive?” She could hardly believe it. In the back of her head, she heard ‘badly burned’ and ‘what was left’, but what she heard the most was the implication that they hadn’t been obliterated in the attack. It was hope and she grabbed onto it fully.
Mignone nodded. “They’re in critical condition, but they’re alive. And they’re here in Rio; at one of the overflow hospitals. I’ve been sent to bring you to them.”
Before she even knew what she was doing, she was on her feet and hugging him.
The overflow hospital was a temporary structure put up overnight in one of the city’s parks. It was amazing what could be done with fabricated materials: it was an unsettling and sterile was any other hospital, the only evidence that it wasn’t a real building was the hollow sound the floors made when you walked over them.
Zoe found her parents in a crowded burn ward, bustling with volunteers and partitioned off with plastic curtains. They had been left together; her mother hooked up to a full respirator and feeding tube while her father only had the respirator. As the doctor Mignone wrangled to talk to her explained; they had both inhaled flame. They were lucky to be alive.
Then he told her the bad news: they both had infections; a disease no one had seen, but were seeing often in the aftermath of the Groundwire, even in people who weren’t badly injured. It started with a cough, which was deadly enough to two people with first degree burns in their lungs. They were trying antibiotics and nano-medicines, but nothing was proven against the bacteria and there was no promise that they would ind a cure in time.
At that point, Zoe noticed that the pens in his pocket were melting under her power and asked to be left alone, forcing down her power so as not to harm the delicate instruments that were keeping her parents alive.
Mignone pointed out there space had been made in a temporary shelter for her, but she refused. She sat down between her parents and cried well into the night, finally falling asleep from exhaustion.
It was early when she woke up, not that she could tell from the continuous activity around her. Mignone was gone, stepped out to make some called regarding her. Blearily, she got up and checked on her parents.
The first thing she saw was red: the red of blood in her mother’s respirator mask. Just seeing it made her stumble, almost knocking over some of the apparatus surrounding the bed.”Help me.” She murmured, unable to tear her gaze from the crimson droplets. “Help me.” She said louder, panic making her shake. “Somebody help!”
Some nurses took notice and came to investigate. They found a terrified girl staring at her mother, screaming and pointing.
“It’s okay sweetie.” One of them said soothingly. “Come on with me. We’re going to go get some air.” To another nurse, she said, “Bidu, call doctor Araujo. Now.” Zoe stumbled alone as the nurse took her out of the makeshift hospital and into the park itself.
She was Brazilian, probably a nurse from a private practice somewhere giving her time to help the thousands of wounded that overwhelmed every hospital in every city within airlifting distance of Juiz de Fora. A lot of those working at that particular hospital were international aid workers. Zoe didn’t realize just how international until they strolled, the nurse half- carrying her, to the edge of the park and she saw the trucks emblazoned with French, Korean, and Canadian insignia.
And there was another flag and emblem present too: US Army Corps of Engineers.
“Aren’t we supposed to be at war?” The nurse muttered, mirroring Zoe’s own thoughts. Technically, she had dual citizenship thanks to her mother. But her mother was in the process of drowning in her own blood, so the meaning was lost on Zoe at the moment.
With another glare at the truck, the nurse sat Zoe down on the bench and rubbed her back in a motherly fashion. “We’re going to do everything we can for your mother.” She promised. “Things are going to be okay, I promise.”
Zoe didn’t know how long they sat there, but eventually, the other nurse, Bidu, found them and took the first nurse aside. All she needed to hear was a small, sad ‘oh no.’ to know that her world was now officially over. Her father would be next and there was nothing she could do about it.
She looked up and all she could see was the USACE truck. Somewhere in her mind, she knew that it was there to help in the relief effort, knew that it was all a horrible mistake by a handful of people regardless of how callous they were about it even now.
But none of that mattered now. She didn’t even see the truck anymore; she saw the Jabberwock; the monster that killed everything in her life. She saw the Groundwire, the nightmare that was still lurking out there, waiting to do it again.
The bench creaked beneath her as the iron within melted and ran like hot wax. Only it ran upward, crawling up her clothes to puddle on her arms. One of the nurses exclaimed but Zoe didn’t care if they saw, didn’t even understand what she was doing.
All she saw was a beast, a terrible thing that mocked her. And the only way to kill it was to tear it apart, take its head.
Her hands lashed out, flinging streamers of liquid iron at the truck. Her range was small, but she found that as long as there was a contiguous line of metal in contact with her, she could reach much further. The ribbons of metal writhed in the air, looping around the offending military vehicle.