Nic refused to look up, keeping his eyes fixed on his work.
“I said I’m borrrred!”
“I don’t think it’s possible for me to care any less,” Nic said.
“But I’m like, really, really bored!”
“Then go bother Master Orlin, I’m busy.”
Zephyr wiggled back and forth, a child stomping their foot.
“Orry won’t let me back in the tower.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
Nic returned to his task, refusing to give Zephyr the attention he so craved. The little sprite just wouldn’t take the hint and moved to peer over Nic’s shoulder.
“Whatcha doing anyway?”
“You’re only just asking that now? You’ve been bothering me for an hour.”
“I didn’t care before.”
Nic sighed, realizing his ignoring strategy wasn’t going to work. Not for the first time, Nic wondered why his master bothered keeping the wind spirit around. There had to be less exhausting familiars to be had out there.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?” Zephyr pressed.
Nic resisted the urge to snap back and instead stepped aside to let Zephyr see the cylindrical device sitting in the frame he’d assembled. A simple grey and white casing just over a foot long, its surface smooth save for the occasional spot weld. One end shared this trait while the other was studded with wire connectors, arranged in a tight circle around a longer, central prong.
“Oh, cool,” Zephyr said, pausing several seconds. “What is it?”
“It’s a power cell,” Nic said.
“Oh.” Another pause. “You sure?”
Nic blew out a long, low breath, reminding himself the little sprite was trying to get a rise out of him. The fact that it was working would not ruin this moment; not when he had three solid weeks of work invested in it.
After that whole business with Worthington was wrapped up, Nic had found himself with a burning desire to go back and really play with his new toy. His first rig had been a very “make now, fix later” effort. He’d been forced to ignore many, many rough edges, a fact that would have eaten him alive had he not been under the crushing weight of deadlines and panic.
Now free of both, Nic fully intended to strip things back to basics and build his rig the way he’d always wanted to. Priority one in that regard was making the damned thing lighter. Lighter and less bulky, ideally something he could wear with actual clothes rather than the form-fitting body glove his old design had demanded. If nothing else, it might make the casting lessons Master Orlin had been running him through easier if he didn’t have to do them with half a tank strapped to his back.
The power cell was the first step towards achieving that goal. It had been a tedious task designing and then assembling the dense nest of circuitry and reactive material, but he was quite happy with the result. Just over half the size of the original, light enough to hold in one hand yet still capable of outputting a comparable charge.
In theory anyway. Whatever the math might say, the only way to know for sure was to bite the bullet and fire the sucker up. Far from worrying him, the thought of seeing his creation made real for the first time excited Nic to no end. He’d been downright giddy when he’d announced his intention that morning over breakfast.
Master Orlin had promptly vetoed the idea. Nic’s protests had fallen on deaf ears, his master remaining firm in his stance that no such testing would be taking place inside his home. Something about “minimum safe distance” and “not destroying the tower again”. Nic had countered it had only been that one time and it had been ages ago but both points had fallen on the same deaf ears.
Still, his master had proven not entirely unreasonable and Nic had managed to negotiate being allowed to proceed so long as he did so outside. He’d even been pointed towards what Master Orlin had called an ideal place for the task: a plain span of dirt and scrag grass at base of the tower. It didn’t seem to be anything special, the only notable detail the above average attention the gardening bots seemed to be paying to the area. Not so much as an errant weed broke through the soft sandy soil, leaving a clean, if pitted, square of earth. It wasn’t a workshop but he supposed it would do.
He’d rolled out everything he would need, worrying briefly about how he was going to power everything, only to discover convenient outlets in a nearby utility box. A little work running extension cords around and he’d soon gotten everything situated just the way he wanted. Longer than the two seconds and a button press it would have taken in a proper workshop, but alas.
The rest of the setup had gone reasonably well, though not helped by Zephyr’s constant presence. Wry observations on every passing butterfly had eventually given way to humming, then at last to flatly demanding Nic entertain him. Somehow, Nic had pushed through to the moment of truth. Just a few more checks and he could get to the main event.
“Looks tiny,” Zephyr said, referring to the cell.
“Downsized, yes,” Nic said. “It’s supposed to be that way.”
“Well, that’s boring too,” Zephyr said. He did a lap of the device, sending off a little gust to rattle the frame.
“Zephyr, I swear to gods dark and dead if you break that-”
“I don’t think it’s big enough to hold all the zippy-zap,” Zephyr said. “Not gonna work.”
Nic rolled his eyes, turning back to his controls. “Well, I guess we’ll find out, won’t we? Now shoo.”
Surprisingly, Zephyr obeyed as the charging coils began to whir with electric charge. They grew in pitch for several seconds, in parallel to the program running on Nic’s screen. A simple sequence he’d thrown together, just keeping things moving in orderly stages.
Stage one was building up enough power to kickstart the reaction inside the cell. A simple process that took only a few more minutes, the program returning green when it had completed. Nic gave it the all clear to proceed, doing his best to shake off a last minute flare of doubt.
It was stage two where things got interesting. The system took the power gathered in the coils and forced it into the cell all at once, flooding the circuitry with a huge direct infusion. If he’d built it right, the circuits should be able to take it long enough to start the third and final stage.
That stage, by necessity, began without his input. At the speed of light, the charge leapt from the wires and into the reactive layer sitting at the cell’s core. These triggered smaller reactions in turn, little spits of electricity produced independent of the initial jolt. Normally these would sputter and fade, the reactions too unstable to hold on their own, but with the addition of outside power, they could be forced into becoming self-sustaining. Or at least self-sustaining enough to be useful as a power source. The magic of chemistry in action.
Things got halfway through stage three before it all went wrong.
It began as blips on the readout, appearing and vanishing too fast for Nic to really get a grip on them. He only just had time to grow worried before alerts started screaming, warning of imbalances in the reactive layer, growing exponentially worse by the second. The thought crossed his mind to hit the kill switch, but it was quickly squashed by a high-pitched whine that started to sound from places it was not supposed to. Driven by pure reflex Nic dove for cover, hitting the ground just as the cell exploded.
The young techne didn’t see much of what happened, his face remaining firmly planted in the dirt with eyes squeezed shut. He could hear it though, the snap of metal and hissing roar of fire rushing through the air like a frothing beast. It held for only a second before there came an ear-splitting crack, followed close by a shockwave that rattled him to the bone. A last great huzzah before all fell quiet.
Nic dared not look up at first, not trusting that the cacophony had truly passed. He counted to ten, then twenty, only gathering the courage to look up when he reached twenty-six. By thirty, he had raised his head far enough to look over and assess the damage.
Disaster seemed the best word to describe what he found. Smoke filled the air in a haze, smelling of scorched metal and ozone, lit by the glow of small chemical fires that still burned away. The frame had held up to some extent, though only in that it was still recognizable for what it had been, albeit melted and warped by the sudden inferno.
The cell had been granted no such mercy. It had split along the sides, splayed open like the jaws of some terrible monster to expose the charred remains within. The core still burned with a silver-green flame, spewing noxious fumes into the air as it ate away at what little of the reactive layer the explosion had not claimed. Total write off, no chance of recovery.
Nic made a sound in the back of his throat that might have been a curse or simply a pained grunt as he worked himself up to kneeling position. What the hells had he done wrong? Had the math been off maybe, some errant decimal or unbalanced equation? Clearly, he’d missed something, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of what, even as his mind swirled with the attempt. Although that may have just been the fumes as he was starting to feel a bit lightheaded.
“You alright there, lad?”
Nic almost snapped in frustration before realizing it wasn’t Zephyr’s voice that had spoken. Turning to look, he discovered a man he didn’t know walking towards him through the smoke. He was tall, a full two heads taller than Nic himself with a wide, plump figure that nonetheless fit quite naturally into his expertly tailored suit. His features were likewise soft and rounded, his bronze face adorned with a wide smile that looked ready to burst into laughter at a moment’s notice. It was so natural, so infectious, that Nic caught himself mimicking the expression.
“I-I think so,” Nic said. “Nothing hurts at least.”
“Lucky for you,” the man said, helping Nic to his feet. “That was quite the blast.”
“Yeah, yeah it was,” Nic agreed, a pang of disappointment creeping back into his voice. “Don’t know what went wrong…”
Before Nic could launch into a long-winded speculation, the man raised a hand to point at the smoldering wreckage. A mist formed from nowhere, heavy droplets coloured an unnatural hue of bright orange. In seconds the many lingering fires were quenched, winking out one by one with naught but a final puff of silver smoke. An impressive display, a fact Nic made no attempt to hide as he turned back to the stranger.
“You’re a techne?” Nic asked.
“Guilty as charged,” the man said with a bow. “Allow me to introduce myself, my name is-”
They both turned to find Master Orlin marching across the lawn towards them. He moved with purpose, not quite stomping but making no secret of where he was headed and the kind of thoughts he held for what was standing there. Nic swallowed heavily, bracing for the impending lecture. Before it could fall, the man stepped forward to intercept.
“Grey, my friend,” he said, throwing his arms wide. “Been too long.”
“We saw each other last week,” Orlin said to the man before turning to face Nic. “What happened?”
His master glanced over at the wreckage, then back at Nic with an unimpressed look.
“Oh, leave the lad be Grey,” the man said. “It’s not like you’ve never made a crater before.”
Master Orlin cast a withering glare at the man, only to have it masterfully deflected by a wide grin. He sighed, turning his attention fully to his guest.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“Ah, ah, ah, proper introductions first.” He turned to face Nic offering a hand. “Pleasure to meet you lad, Harrison Elmcroft’s the name.”
“Uh, Nicholas,” Nic replied, accepting the handshake. “Good to meet you sir.”
“Please, I’m no sir, my friends call me Harry,” he gestured where Master Orlin stood. “Unless you’re him of course, but I’ve been working on that one for, how many years has it been, Grey?”
Master Orlin looked away, muttering under his breath.
“Articulate as always, Grey,” Elmcroft chuckled.
“Again, why are you here?” Master Orlin asked.
“Touchy, touchy,” Elmcroft said. “Am I not allowed to stop by and see my old friend?”
Master Orlin crossed his arms, refusing to budge from the good grump he had built up. Elmcroft laughed heartily at the sight.
“But as it happens, I’ve some business to discuss with you as well. Birds, the stone, you know how it goes.”
For a moment, Nic wondered if Master Orlin might tell him to leave. Then his teacher seemed to deflate a little and gestured Elmcroft towards the tower.
“If you must.”
“Capital,” Elmcroft said with a clap of his hands. “Don’t suppose you have any of that jade blend left, do you? I’m plum out.”
Master Orlin looked unamused but turned to follow as his guest strode towards the tower. Nic went to do the same before being stopped by a raised hand.
“Get this cleaned up, then you may come inside.”
“No buts, get to it.”
He and Elmcroft disappeared inside the tower, leaving Nic standing out on the front lawn. Zephyr chose that moment to reappear, as was his great skill, and resume wafting around Nic’s head.
“I’m not bored anymore!” he beamed.
Nic refused to dignify that with a response.
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