Aether Chapter 3

(Note:  The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting.  As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)

Chapter 3

THERE ARE THINGS IN every person’s life that they will never forget. Maggie was firmly of the opinion that dying should not be one of them. It wasn’t an uninformed opinion, given that she’d died twice, and remembered both times perfectly. The first time, an alien railgun projectile slammed into her family’s car. Her parents had been vaporized, and what was left of the car had been knocked thirty feet sideways by the force of the impact and slammed into the side of a building. Her brother had been sitting in the passenger’s side back seat and been crushed by the impact with the building. Maggie’s pelvis and right hip were shattered, her femur was broken in three places, along with her calf, her back, and multiple ribs. She’d broken a total of forty-three bones on impact and punctured her right lung in two places. Then the car caught fire.

Red Coat, a British Ex-Pat who was a tier three metahuman, member of the Olympus Six, and the leader of the Sun City Sentries, had heard her screams as the fire melted her skin. He’d torn the door off the car and carried her to the nearest ambulance, which rushed her to the hospital.

Her heart had stopped on the way. The doctors had said it was shock, and she had no reason to doubt them, but the why was never as important to her as the fact that she remembered every moment of it. The way the ribs jammed through her lung tore at her with every chest compression as the EMT gave her CPR. The feel of the tube being forced down her throat. The way the defibrillator burned when they shocked her heart back to life.

The second time she died was somehow much less traumatic. She was laying on the quantum field imager, looking at Sierra, then she was filled with pain, but it was over almost instantly. She barely had time to register what was happening. She was just left with the memory of being engulfed in searing pain, like every part of her had brushed against a hot oven rack. Time slowed down to a crawl, and she was aware of everything. She could feel the electric current moving through the quantum field imager, she could feel the displacement of air as Sierra exhaled, she could feel the motes of dust in the lab as they drifted through the room, stirred up by the cooling fans on the imager and the computers.

She could feel the moment a small lump of carbon, less than a nanogram of it, blinked into existence, then blinked back out again as the entire mass turned into energy. Energy that exploded outward, hitting the wall behind her.

It was like she was watching the whole thing in slow motion. The first break in the wall was small, a hole less than half a millimeter in diameter, but enough for fire to pour through like water through a fire hose. The entire cinderblock shattered less than a hundredth of a second later, and that hole spread as other blocks broke free of the wall and were hurled forward. The heat bloom seared the left side of her body, doing to it what the car fire eleven years earlier had done to the right side.

It was the overpressure that killed her. It picked her up and hurled her against the steel, lead, and glass partition with enough force to shatter every bone in her body. She died on impact, just like her brother had.

The imager she had been laying on survived better than anything else in the room. It was built solidly enough that the steel housing took hits from the cinderblock and just shrugged them off. The sapphire imaging windows were dirty but intact, and the cooling loop and power lines were protected by heavy steel conduit. It kept running like nothing had happened, dutifully projecting the chromatic replica of Maggie’s soul into the space above where she’d been without a care in the world for the destruction that filled the rest of the lab.

The partition was built just as solidly as the imager, but not so solidly anchored to the floor. For day to day use, it was fine, but it had been designed to stop a few stray x-rays. Not an explosion. The anchor bolts ripped out of the concrete floor and the partition tipped and slid, crushing Maggie’s body between it and the side of the imager. The ramp created by the knocked over partition drove the explosion up through the acoustical times and into the drop ceiling.

Sierra was knocked unconscious when the partition hit her and knocked her to the ground. Maggie watched and felt more relief than she should for a dead person. Sierra might have a concussion when she woke up, but the partition had done its job. The radiation wave front had passed, and Sierra had barely gotten dosed. Nothing more than she’d get from an afternoon in Doctor Chow’s lab.

Garrett, who shouldn’t be in the building on a Saturday, was next door in Doctor Hastings’ lab when the explosion started. He wasn’t nearly as lucky as Sierra. He had no protection from the radiation or the heat bloom or the overpressure. He took a lethal dose of hard gamma, but before that could kill him, the heat bloom burned him to ash. Then the overpressure scattered the ashes as it destroyed everything in the lab.

The explosion didn’t stop there. It blew into other labs, shattering walls and puncturing storage tanks. Liquid helium and liquid nitrogen spilled and flash boiled in several labs before the blast broke through to the chemical vapor deposition lab. Methane, propane, and liquid oxygen tanks went off like bombs. Then the blast cut the natural gas supply lines that fed the chemistry and biolabs on the first and second floors. The gas in the lines sparked, carrying the explosion into the upstairs labs, setting off chain reactions even as the original explosion tore upwards through the floor.

It felt like hours passed as Maggie watched, but she knew it was less than fifteen seconds from the first flash of pain she’d felt until the entire building collapsed. Not counting her and Garrett, five people died. Two security guards who’d been sitting at their desk, talking about whether the Sun City Mantas had a chance against the Red Sox that night, the supply coordinator, who’d been prepping a load of spent chemical drums for the disposal center, and a grad student who was working in a biolab up on the second floor. The fifth person was a homeless man who was sitting under the awning by the loading dock eating lunch when the outer wall of the building came down on top of him.

Fifteen seconds for the explosion to tear through the building. Another twenty seconds for the building to finish its collapse. Maggie watched it all in silent horror, taking in details she couldn’t possibly know, as the whole thing played out in slow motion.

When it was finally over, she was just there, watching from outside of her body as the dust began to settle, but she didn’t understand why. She could see her body crushed been the partition and the imager. She knew she was dead, and she didn’t understand why she lingered. She wasn’t sure where she expected to go, or even if she expected to go anywhere. She wasn’t religious, wasn’t sure she believed in an afterlife at all, so she didn’t know if she expected heaven or hell or simply to cease to exist, but she did know she didn’t expect to just float there at the spot where she’d died while time seemed to drag at a snail’s pace.

It wasn’t that she wanted to leave. Not while Sierra was trapped, hurt, and unconscious. She wanted to help her. She was desperate for someone to help her. She just didn’t know how to get someone to help her when she was lying on the floor, dead.

She wasn’t worried about Sierra’s oxygen running out. The explosion had breached the machine shop and blown open the freight elevator shaft, so there was a huge path for fresh air to reach Sierra. Maggie was more worried about fire. There were still dozens of small fires burning. And there was the imager. That scared her more than the fires. By some miracle, the liquid helium tanks in the lab hadn’t been punctured and the cooling loop was still working, but if someone didn’t shut down the imager before the liquid helium ran out, the superconductors in the imager would hit transition temperature in a matter of minutes, and when that happened, the entire imager would explode. And there wasn’t a thing Maggie could do about it.

Seconds crawled by like hours. Minutes felt like days. It was barely ten minutes from the time the explosion had started until the Sun City High Guard, the local Tier Two Metahuman Emergency Response Team, arrived, but it felt like weeks to Maggie.

Delta V was the first one there, running fast enough that most people wouldn’t see anything but a blue and hot pink blur, surrounded by streaks of lightning. To Maggie, it looked like she was taking a leisurely Saturday morning jog as she ran up to the building and started circling it, checking people nearby for injuries.

The flyers arrived next. Industry in her power armor, Element riding a current of air, Hoplite on a pair of wings forged by Daedalus himself back before the Trojan War, and Nexus carried on the power of her own mind. Maker, Cinderella, and Mafic, the last three members of the field team, pulled up moments later in a flying car.

To their credit, they only hesitated long enough for Delta V to run up to them and give a report, but even that felt like hours to Maggie as she watched, but she wasn’t really paying that much attention to them until she heard what Nexus said.

“Someone’s alive down there. One, maybe two people. I can feel someone down there, unconscious but alive, but there’s a second presence. It’s strange, like there’s some sort of echo. She…Yeah, it’s definitely a she…She’s worried about the unconscious person. There’s some sort of danger. Not the building collapse. Something else that’s still a threat. I can’t make it out clearly though. The echo is making it all a jumble.”

“Where are they?” Element asked.

Nexus frowned. “Hard to say. The unconscious one is in the building, near the back left corner. The other one…I can’t localize it. It feels like she’s close to the unconscious one, but it feels like she’s right here beside us as well.”

“Astral projection, maybe?” Cinderella asked.

“We’ll figure it out later,” Industry said. “Right now, we’ve got people to dig out of this mess.”

They didn’t say much after that. They just went to work, and Maggie was filled with relief as she watched them. She didn’t really know a lot about the High Guard. She knew some, because it was impossible to live in Sun City and not know about the High Guard. Sun City had a total of seven Metahuman Emergency Response Teams. Five of those were Champions franchise teams that delt with small time issues like fires and traffic accidents, and Tier One threats like low level supervillains. Tier One teams were more of a superpowered neighborhood watch than anything else, and no one would have paid them much attention if it weren’t for the city’s superhero drama.

It was the two Tier Two teams in the city that caused all the drama. After the Sentries died fighting the Gacrux eleven years earlier, City Hall had put together a replacement team called the Sun City Protectors. They’d gotten a few heavy hitters in, led by a former Captain from the Marines who had developed powers during a chemical weapons attack. Six years ago, the Department of Metahuman Affairs arrested two thirds of the Protectors membership on corruption charges. When the man the city brought in as the new leader of the Protectors following the arrests got into a very public argument with Industry over her role in reporting the corruption among the Protectors to the DMA, Industry had quit the team and formed the High Guard.

Technically, the Protectors were still the official Tier Two MERT team responsible for Sun City, but since the US Marshals and the DMA had jurisdiction over dispatch for MERT Teams in the US, the High Guard got all the important calls, even though they were independent contractors.

Maggie understood why after watching them work. They moved quickly and efficiently. Element, Nexus, Mafic, and Hoplite cleared the rubble. Maker and Delta V moved around the outside, triaging the injured and helping the paramedics once they showed up. Cinderella turned large pieces of debris into steel I beams, which Industry used to brace unstable sections of the rubble and keep more of the building from collapsing while they worked.

Anyone else would have found the whole thing fascinating, and Maggie might have too, despite her general aversion to anything superhero related, if she wasn’t feeling so impatient. Sierra was still unconscious, and Maggie was still worried, and time was still running at a snail’s pace for her. She split her attention between watching the High Guard and watching the liquid helium supply. The needle was moving slowly, but it was a race between how quickly the coolant would run out and how quickly the High Guard could get to Sierra.

It was a race the High Guard won. The needle had just hit a quarter tank when Nexus lifted away a section of the floor that had fallen onto the lab. Industry flew in a moment later and dropped a steel brace into place, holding the section of floor away from the collapsed wall of the lab. Once it was braced, Nexus and Delta V dropped into the hole and Delta V ran into the lab.

Maggie watched as Delta V found her body and stopped, looking back at Nexus.

“Are we too late?” Delta V asked.

“No,” Nexus said. She pointed to where Sierra lay. “Other side of the wall.”

Delta V zipped around the partition. She had to crawl under it, but Maggie felt relief as Delta V found Sierra. She watched as Delta V checked Sierra’s pulse, before she backed out and ran up to one of the ambulances to grab a backboard and a neck brace, then walked over to Element, who followed her back down to the lab. Element used her powers to lift the partition out of the way, and Industry stepped in to brace it in its new position. Once the partition was out of the way, Delta V fitted the brace around Sierra’s neck, then loaded her on the backboard and eased her out from under the collapsed partition, before rushing her out of the lab and up to one of the waiting ambulances. While she was working, Nexus, Industry, and Element looked over Maggie’s body.

“I guess we were too late for the second one,” Element said.

“I’m not so sure,” Nexus said as she approached the imager, which was still cheerfully displaying the chromatic intensity map of Maggie’s neural activity. Something she didn’t understand, because she was dead and didn’t have any neural activity. Industry and Element both gathered around the imager as well.

“Here,” Nexus said. “I feel a mind here, but it’s weird. It almost feels like there are two minds, or like one mind is occupying two places at once.”

“But there’s no one here,” Industry said. “Just the body.”

Element closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, her eyes were glowing brightly, and Maggie felt something in the room shift. It was like Element was suddenly taking up a lot more space.

“She’s right,” Element said. “There’s something here.”

“A spirit?” Industry asked.

Delta V ran back into the room carrying a large black bag. Maggie was confused by it for a moment, until Delta V spread it out next to her body, and Maggie realized it was a body bag.

“What about a spirit?” Delta V asked as she unzipped the bag.

“No,” Element said. “It’s not a spirit. It’s something else. It feels human. Not a ghost. I’ve dealt with ghosts before. This feels more vital.”

Delta V stood up and looked at the imager. “Could it have something to do with this?”

“I think so,” Element said. “It feels like there’s a connection, somehow.” She turned to Industry. “Any idea what the machine is?”

“No,” Industry said as she looked at it. She started to circle around it, then she spotted the liquid helium feed lines and followed them over to the tanks. “We need to find out how to turn it off, though.”

“Why?” Element asked.

“I think this is a superconductor cooling loop,” Industry said. “The coolant supply is running low. If it runs out, the superconductors will heat up, and if that happens, the machine explodes.”

“Can’t we just cut the power?” Nexus asked.

“No!” Industry and Delta V said.

“If you cut the power, the coolant feed stops, which causes the same problem as running out of coolant. We have to find a way to discharge the superconductors first.”

“There’s a computer still running over there,” Delta V said, pointing to where she had found Sierra. “I think it’s the control system for this.”

“Then the girl you took out of here was probably operating the machine,” Industry said. “Has the ambulance left?”

“Let me check,” Delta V said. She turned the side of her head. “Maker, has the ambulance with the girl I brought up left yet?”

“No,” came the response.

“Can you see if she’s awake?”

There was a couple of minutes of silence, but while they waited, Nexus used her telekinesis to lift Maggie’s body into the body bag, and Delta V zipped it up.

“Not yet,” Maker said over the radio. “I asked the paramedic if they could wake her, but they’re worried about intracranial bleeding. They want to transport her.”

“Tell them to go,” Industry said. “Fractal, are you getting all of this?”

“Yes,” a voice Maggie hadn’t heard before responded over the radio.

“I need you here,” Industry said.

“I’m already warming up the second air car,” Fractal replied. “I’ll be there in ten.”

“Thanks,” Industry said. She turned to Delta V. “Is the body ready?”

“Yeah,” Delta V said. “I’m moving it now.” Delta V scooped Maggie’s body and disappeared in a burst of speed. Once she was gone, industry walked over to the area that had been behind the partition and started righting tables and getting the computer and monitors back into place. Once that was done, she opened the faceplate of her power armor, revealing a beautiful Japanese woman.

Maggie watched as she started fiddling with the computer. She wanted to tell her to stop, that she was messing with Sierra’s life’s work, but she knew that Industry was right. They needed to shut the system down. She watched for what seemed like forever before Delta V came back, holding a black woman in half mask and a dark gray jumpsuit with a Mandelbrot Cardioid pattern embroidered on the chest in a bridal carry. She set the girl, who Maggie assumed was Fractal, down.

“Okay,” Fractal said as she walked over to stand next to Industry. “I thought we had an agreement. I don’t play with your power armor, robot, and mechs, and you don’t play with horrifically dangerous computer systems.”

Industry rolled her eyes and stepped away from the computer.

“You do remember I have a PhD in computer science, right?”

Fractal just chuckled and shook her head.

“Yeah. I also remember half the assholes in DC who are running our country into the ground have degrees in law and political science. A piece of paper doesn’t mean a damn thing.” She pulled a cable out of her pocket and plugged one end into a USB port on the computer, then plugged the other end into a port on the back of her head. Her eyes glazed over for a minute, then refocused.

“Okay,” she said. “The good news is whoever built this thing was paranoid as fuck. If we cut the power, the internal battery backup will take over and the machine will start an automatic spin down of the superconductors.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Element said.

“Yeah,” Fractal said. “That’s because you’ve been doing this long enough to know there’s always a ‘but’ coming. And in this case, it’s a pretty big one. I’m pretty sure there’s a living mind caught in the machine.”

“What?” Delta V asked.

“The machine is…Well, it’s brilliant. That’s the only word I have for it. It uses quantum entanglement to replicate a quantum field and image it. It was in use when the explosion happened. I’m assuming the body Vee took out of here was the person being imaged. The imaging field was entangled with the quantum field generated by her brain. When the explosion destroyed her body, her consciousness persisted because it was entangled with the machine.”

“So, if we turn off the machine…” Industry said.

“She, whoever she was, dies,” Fractal said.

Everyone in the room looked over at the imager and the rainbow-colored image of Maggie’s soul still floating there in the space between the top and bottom halves. Maggie ignored them while they gawked and turned what Fractal had said over in her mind. It made a lot of sense. She was still there because she was tied to the machine. It didn’t explain everything. It definitely didn’t explain how she was seeing and hearing everything going on around her, or why time seemed to have slowed to a crawl. It didn’t explain how she was able to watch the explosion as it happened while her body was still alive, but it was a start. And probably an end because they were going to have to turn off the machine.

“Can we move the machine back to the Shiro without turning it off?” Delta V asked.

“I don’t think so,” Fractal said. “Besides, even if we did, what then?”

“So, you just want to let her die?” Delta V asked.

“She’s already dead,” Fractal said. “Her body is, at least. Her mind…God knows what she’s going through in there. Without a body, she’s got no sensory input. Do you know what kind of hell prolonged sensory deprivation is? She may want to die.”

“I don’t sense any distress,” Nexus said. “A little worry, but that seems to be directed towards the woman we took out.”

Delta V turned to Nexus. “Can you reach her? Talk to her?”

“I can try,” Nexus said.

“Do it,” Fractal said. “Ask her what she wants.”

Nexus gave a little nod and closed her eyes. Maggie could see the effort on her face, and a moment later, she felt the touch of Nexus’s mind on hers. It surprised her how physical the sensation was. It felt like being wrapped in a warm hug after coming into the house on a cold day. Maggie felt herself relaxing more than she had since the explosion. The more she relaxed, the less aware of her surroundings she was, until all that remained was her and Nexus.

<Hello,> Nexus said.

<Hi,> Maggie said.

<I’m Nexus.>

<Yeah. I got that part. I heard everything you guys said.>


<No fucking clue,> Maggie said. <Honestly, I don’t know what to make of any of this.>

<If you heard the conversation, you know what I’m here to ask you,> Nexus said.

<Yeah,> Maggie said. <Just do me a favor, okay?>

<If I can.>

<Sierra, the woman who was in here with me…Don’t tell her about this. Tell her I died in the explosion. Tell her it was quick, and I didn’t suffer.>

<I can do that.>

<Good. You’re not going to find a body, but there was someone else down here when it happened. His name was Garrett Whitehall. He was working in the lab next door. I think his experiment was what caused the explosion.>

<What happened?> Nexus asked.

<I don’t know exactly. The lab is supposed to be set up for quantum teleportation research, but I think they were really working on macroscopic teleportation. The teleport failed, and the test object was converted to energy. Not all of it, or the entire block would be gone, but enough. Don’t let Sierra get blamed. The person who runs that lab has a grudge against her, and if his research is responsible, he’ll try to pin this on her. And don’t let her blame herself, either.>

<What’s your name?>

<Magdalene Evangeline Bennett, but my friends call me Maggie.>

<Okay, Maggie. I’m sorry we couldn’t save you.>

<Don’t be,> Maggie said. <I’m okay with this. Just, please take care of Sierra for me. Garrett was her boyfriend up until a couple of days ago. A real piece of shit, but still.>

<I understand.>

<And thanks for giving me a choice this time.>

<This time?>

<Yeah. Look me up. You’ll understand.>


<Oh, and one more thing!>


<Clear a girl’s browser history? Some things my grandparents don’t need to know about me.>

Nexus laughed a little at that, and Maggie could feel her smile, even if she couldn’t see it. The mental hug seemed to tighten for a moment.

<I’ll get Fractal to take care of it,> Nexus said. <Goodbye, Maggie.>

The psychic hug ended, and Maggie found herself alone for a moment before the world around her came back into focus.

“She wants use to turn it off,” Nexus said. “She also gave me a pretty good idea of what caused the explosion.”

“Really?” Element asked.

“Yeah,” Nexus said. “Someone else died down here. Doesn’t sound like we’ll find the body, but they were messing around with teleportation and the experiment went boom.”

“That’s almost a relief,” Industry said. “No supervillain, no terrorist.”

“Just a lot of bodies,” Delta V said.

“But only these bodies,” Fractal said as she unplugged the cable from the back of her head. “Supervillains usually leave a trail of them.”

“Vee, are you okay disconnecting the power?” Element asked. Maggie could tell from the look on her face that Delta V had expected the question, and wasn’t happy about it, but she nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. “Probably safest I do it in case the failsafe doesn’t hold.”

“Okay, let’s clear out,” Element said. “Nexus, you grab Fractal.”

“Got it,” Nexus said.

Maggie watched as everyone but Delta V left. Nexus lifted herself and Fractal out telekinetically, while Element and Industry both flew out under their own power. All of the High Guard began moving people back, working with the police to create a safe zone around the building in case there was another blast. It took a few minutes to get everything set up, then Element radioed Delta V.

“We’re ready,” Element said.

Delta V walked over to the lab’s breaker box, took a deep breath, and pulled the main breaker.

Time, which had already been moving at a snail’s pace, stopped completely.

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