Since the attack (She would never call it an accident, or incident, and she certainly wasn’t alone), it had come to be something more than just a broad category of ‘stuff’. It came to mean something to her.
Metal was power. Metal was freedom. Feeling the cool of it on her skin and the weight of it in her hands filled something in her she was sure most people didn’t even find lacking.
Ruy gave her family, someone to look up to, to care about, but metal somehow helped her know who she was. It made her different, but it was a difference that she embraced; one that let her see the world in a unique way.
For example, her burglary suit. Most people, even Ruy didn’t understand. It looked like the aftermath of a mishap in an office supply closet behind a low rent pawnshop. She’d taken a pair of black ballet legging and a tight, black turtleneck and carefully threaded them with triple ranks of paper clips along the backs of the arms and legs and encircling the major joints. To this, she’d added heavy duty hiking boots with steel cleats and buckles.
It looked ridiculously clunky, even with the shiny parts spray painted matte black, but like everything Zoe did, it had a purpose: When climbing, she could fuse the clips together down her arms, back and legs, all the way down to her boots, taking the strain off her arms and onto her legs. It also gave her plenty of raw material to use once she got to her destination, useful for cutting bolts, manipulating alarms, and tampering with cameras.
Tonight, she wore it along with a ski mask and goggles to protect her eyes from the light, cold and stinging drizzle that was coming down as she stood atop an adjacent building. Just as she’d expected, Kirk Ludlam lived in relative luxury in an upscale apartment tower, on the fifteenth floor.
On any ordinary night, Ruy would have been on the street level in a rental car, spotting for her. She usually depended on him to look out for ledges and handholds she couldn’t see from her perspective and also watching for anyone that might notice her on her approach.
He had offered to do so for her tonight. There was no true honor among thieves, but there were honorable thieves and Ruy was the best of them. As appalled and disgusted as he was at what she was about to do, he was still willing to help just because it was her. It might not have been in the way she dreamed, but he loved her.
And it was because she loved him that she didn’t allow him to become part of what he abhorred most.
It was his art and his legacy that no one died whenever he took something. No one even got hurt, or even noticed anything was amiss until something turned up missing. This would have been a stain on him right down to his soul. Someone was going to get hurt . This wasn’t going to be silent and unnoticed.
Zoe took several deep breaths to stop herself from shaking. In another life, she would have become the successor Ruy hoped she would be. Then again, in another life, they wouldn’t have met because no one murdered her parents and nearly everyone in her home town in a rain of fire and lightning.
Finally, after nearly an hour of reflecting and gathering all her nerve, she made her move.
There was a drainpipe, one of more than a dozen, running from the roof she was standing on all the way to the alley below. She knelt and touched it.
It was aluminum beneath a thin coating of paint meant to shore it up against the weather. With very little prompting from her, it separated from the wall four stories below and peeled off it like a decal from its plastic backing.
Inch by inch, she coaxed it to bend and stretch toward the building across the alley. The strain from gravity attempting to exert its toll on the length of metal made her head pound, but not nearly as much as the first time she’d tried this trick.
After a few minutes of strained concentration, the pipe touched the opposite wall and the end melted and reshaped to conform to an irregularity in the opposite wall. It was ten stories in the sky, twenty-seven feet across, and only eight inches wide even with her efforts to shape it into something more manageable, but it was done: her bridge.
It didn’t look strong enough to hold even her weight because it wasn’t not without help from her powers. With her first step out onto the span, she focused everything she had on the pipe. The cleats of her boots sunk into suddenly pliable segments while the rest became supernaturally rigid.
And all the while, she had to still concentrate on keeping her balance. Step by step, slowly, carefully until she reached the opposite wall.
She paused only to give a sigh of relief, releasing a breath she’d held all the way across. Then she shifted her attentions from the makeshift balance beam to her suit. The paperclips bounded together, becoming a rigid, but flexible exoskeleton. When she pressed her hands against the wall, her rings melted and ran into every crevasse and seam before solidifying.
With these sure handhold, she began to climb.
Kirk Ludlam wasn’t unaware of his infamy in Brazil. In the months after Juiz de Fora’s destruction, he’d written a book detailing his role in the Groundwire project, mostly explaining how the error that caused that tragedy wasn’t in Groundwire’s design, but the interaction between Groundwire and Brazilian standing field tech. He’d also alleged that if the Brazilians had just disclosed the nature and specs of the field generators that none of what occurred would have.
Understandably, there were some that disagreed with his blaming the people who were the victims, but he remained stalwart that those were his dispassionate, scientific findings and were in no way connected to his personal view of the tragedy.
And he honestly believed that. He hadn’t lost a night of sleep over Juiz de for a because he was secure in the certainty that the same technological disputes that led to the deployment of Groundwire led to the related deaths/ He was even suing to be allowed the patent on his contributions.
But that was all behind him, now, more than two years later. Sure, he fielded the call from the occasional reporter on the anniversaries, and during the election, but he had other things to do.
Like the room temperature superconductor.
Superconductors were immensely valuable for thousands of technological applications, but they needed to be kept at low temperatures for optimally low electrical resistance. It took energy to keep them that cool and thus made them less efficient and less portable than they could be.
Ludlam was on the trail of a crystalline structure that, once created, would only need minimal heat shielding and air cooling to do the same job. It would revolutionize the tech industry and the very idea that he might be able to make it happen generated a bidding war that even Sistemas Inteligentes de Diagnóstico, based in the nation that hated him, couldn’t resist.
He’d even received death threats for not going to one company or the other; his work was worth that much.
And so, his work ethic found him in his study on his off hours, pouring over the latest lab results and computer simulations. A hot mug of fresh coffee was near at hand, and he was settled in for another long night.
The work was engrossing, all consuming, and he didn’t hear the sharp, quiet snap from his window as the bolt on the lock was sheered by an impossibly thin wire. But he did notice then the cool, damp air from outside blew in, making him shiver.
He did a double take at the wide open window. That had definitely been closed.
Breath quickening, he pushed his chair away from his desk and stood up. The nearest thing he had for a weapon was the multitool he kept in his desk for day to day chores around the house. He grabbed that and flicked out the largest knife on it, a tiny four-inch blade. It wasn’t much, but at least he wasn’t completely unarmed.
An adolescence spent watching a steady stream of horror and action warned him against going to investigate the window itself, so he backed slowly toward the door. The well lit room was suddenly shadowing and foreboding in his mind’s eye.
A few cautious steps bought him to the door. He grabbed the handle and pulled.
It came off in his hand, cut cleanly away from the rest of the door with a ping sound.
“Kirk Ludlam.” a young, embittered voice said.
He wheeled around to find a figure squatting on his windowsill, damp from the light rain, and dressed in a strange dark suit. The voice sounded female, but it was hard to tell. A hard lump formed in his throat. He never actually believed anyone would make good on the threats.
“We can work something out.” The words left his mouth before he could think. “I can pay you—more than you’re being paid now. The company I work for will pay you.”
At least he hoped they would. They offered to set him up with a bodyguard detail, but he liked his privacy. How he wished he hadn’t turned them down.
The figure at the window slid fully into the room and stood dripping on the carpet. She was shorter than him and he didn’t see any weapons.
“This isn’t for money.” She said in a low voice. “You killed my parents. Not just my parents—my neighbors, my friends; my best friend lives two blocks from the epicenter. You killed her and there wasn’t even a body left!”
For two years, Zoe had been trying not to think of everyone and everything else she’d lost when Juis de Fora burned. Now it all came back to her in a torrent. The friendly couple that ran the flower shop across the street that always gave her a baby’s breath when asked, the old lady that lived on the floor below that was called on the babysit Zoe even though she insisted that she was old enough to not need a sitter, all the girls she knew from school, the boy she smiled at in the park who didn’t go to the same school as her.
Faces she’d never see again. People who died in agony while the the world turned into hell around them.
“You. You did this. You killed everyone.” She rambled, treading forward. The metal in her rings pooled in her palms, waiting to become what she needed next.
Kirk straightened his back against the wall. It was the same accusation he’d heard a thousand times. Answering it was almost an automatic response. “I didn’t kill anyone. Groundwire was meant to be a non-lethal weapon. WE were trying to be the first in making a new kind of war—one without bloodshed.”
That was the company line about Groundwire, but he held it up as his shield against the recriminations leveled at him.
“Half a million people died.” Zoe hissed.
Nowhere to go, Kirk had no choice but to stand his ground. “It wasn’t our fault. The propagation of energy along standing field’s ionization pathways was completely unforeseen. We didn’t even know phase shift was possible outside of a laboratory environment. Maybe if your people hadn’t been so goddamn secretive about the standing field generators, we could have seen it coming and—“
“Shout up!” Zoe shocked even herself. She never raised her voice, not since she’d known Ruy. But this was for good reason. She couldn’t take this; the same prepared statement, the same blame shifting, the same lack of anyone truly being punished.
She’d seen Ludlam himself say the same thing at least a dozen times, minus the cursing, on television.
Part of her, the girl that still hoped to go home—whether home was with Ruy, or with her Aunt Sandra and her family in New York, had wanted more. Maybe if he’d apologized, maybe if he begged for mercy; maybe if he’d done anything but give her the same non-answer to the question ‘why did my parents die?’ that she’d been given for twenty-eight months…
But he didn’t.
Zoe McNamara wasn’t prone to anger. She was even slow to frustration. Slow, but not lacking. Not prone to, but not immune to.
Ludlam opened his mouth and she knew it was to spout off more things about how none of the lake of blood where Juis de Fora used to be was on his hands. He, sadly, did not disappoint.
“Why me anyway? There were nine other men on the project.”
She might have told him to shut up again, but her mind, instincts and powers acted on their own accord. The wire was an amalgamation of the different metals she wore as rings or bracelets; lead, copper, brass, aluminum, iron; it snapped out of her outstretched palm like a frog’s tongue and wrapped around Ludlam’s neck.
He took his vorpal sword in hand.
Long time the manxome foe he sought
Ludlam gasped and tried desperately to relieve the pressure on his throat. With some effort, her managed to get two fingers, protected by a shirt sleeve beneath the wire loop.
“How did… Wait.” He gagged. “We can talk about this.”
She slammed into him, knocking his head against the wall and took hold of the wire. She’d seen a movie once where a hitman killed someone with piano wire. It seemed a fitting end to someone like Ludlam. For the second time, she was shocked to her core; this time at how sure she was now that Ludlam had to die.
“No.” begged Ludlam, but it was too late for that. His eyes plea pitifully as he struggled. “Please. I don’t… please, Jesus, I’m sorry.”
He didn’t mean it, Zoe told herself. He just wanted to save his life now.
But she wasn’t making much progress. Ludlam was on the defensive and off balance, but he was still just plain physically stronger than her. No matter how hard she pulled, he was able to protect his windpipe with his fingers.
She recalled her temper tantrum the night her parents died. The night she cut a truck apart. She now used the same principle to cut through bolts. All she had to do was thin the wire while keeping it strong wit her powers…
Ludlam yelped and blood began to stain his white shirt sleeve. Before he knew what was happening, he’d lost two fingers. Zoe pulled, the wire around her own fingers thick enough to bite into her own skin.
One two! One two! And through and through,
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack.
There was a moment of triumph when she knew she was past his fingers. And then horror as the thin wire simply continued on and suddenly, Ludlam’s head tipped forward onto her shoulder.
Zoe screamed and scrambled back, tripping over herself and landing painfully on the carpet. It was from there that she got her first look at what she’d done: Ludlam’s body slumped sideways along the door, hitting the wall before tumbling to the floor. But his head was already there; nose crooked against the carpet, eyes wide with the horror of his last moment.
Her moment of dumbstruck horror was broken as the body twitched through the final pain response that made it along the nerves. Somehow, it served to emphasize just how much blood there was. And it was everywhere; painting the door, pooling on the carpet, and all across the front of her burglary suit.
Zoe wanted to scream, but knew that doing that would mean she’d be caught. She wanted to run to Ruy for comfort, but she was unwilling to involve him in this. She wanted this all to be over, but she knew it wasn’t.
The death of Kirk Ludlam hadn’t made her feel better. It hadn’t given her closure. As he’d told her, there were nine other men on Project Groundwire. Plus a military chain of command that let it happen. Claybourne wouldn’t have given the direct order himself, after all.
Claybourne had taken the coward’s way out and was beyond her vengeance. But the others weren’t.
One shaking legs, she stood, and she forced herself to look, fighting the urge to throw up every second. Though she didn’t mean to, some dark part of her found it fitting that one of the men whose work would lead to the plane with the callsign Jabberwock would die by beheading.
And he wouldn’t be the first.
She wasn’t sure how she’d find the strength of both mind and stomach to do it again, but now, somehow, she had to see it through.