(part 1 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Alphon Quince was startled out of his reverie by the grating tones of his emergency alert. The 20-year-old physical systems troubleshooter absently waved aside the cross-section of a damaged HyperLoop tube he’d been studying and threw the open-hand gesture for the alert’s newsfeed to take over his tri-d.
A shaky vid filled the space with a wall of water coming at him at high speed. He’d just begun to wonder how anyone could have gotten a shot like that, when the phone was snatched from the owner’s hand. A dizzying whirl of light and shadow followed as he was dragged away by the undertow, culminating in a see-sawing of fractured building facades, debris and sky as the orphaned phone floated to the top of the rushing deluge.
“That… was the grisly scene in Oakland a few moments ago,” the announcer said, catching his breath, “just after the 75-year old Golden State Barrage protecting San Francisco Bay collapsed, severely damaging the new western span of the Bay Bridge. Our condolences go out to the family of Marty Fine, the intern who gave his life to get you that video.”
Alphon paled as he said, “Show map.” An annotated aerial-view inset floated into view while the announcer read the evacuation alert. He was too focused to listen. The Barrage, which ran parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge on the landward side, was highlighted, as was the set of locks that passed under the bridge and split the sea wall near its southern end. An orange glowing overlay that reached inland and spread north as far as Sacramento showed where the shoreline was expected to end up. The Barrage was all that had kept two meters of the Pacific Ocean from devastating the nearby California lowlands. It had been built early in the century, several years after the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was replaced, to prevent the rising seas from forcing several million people and trillions of dollars of industry to have to relocate.
He blinked, his mind racing through all of the technical papers and news stories he’d read in classwork about flood mitigation plans in Oakland, and the money that businesses had saved by not implementing them. Assertions that the Barrage had made such expenses irrelevant were the usual excuse. What crap.
“As horrible as it is, we’re told that this event was not an accident,” the announcer said gravely. That got his attention. “The government has just issued satpics that clearly show submersibles in the area just before the collapse. Although the images are not clear enough to positively identify those submersibles, we’re told that Intelligence reports confirm that the Barrage was destroyed as an act of war by one of our enemies. More details will be forthcoming this evening. In the meantime, we can show you what happened on the Bay Bridge.”
Another vid appeared. This one was streamed from the dashcam of a vehicle crossing the famously earthquake-proof bridge. At first, everything seemed normal enough, but then the roadway’s platoonlink must have failed because it nearly ran into the car ahead, at which point the autonomous safeties kicked in and stopped the whole line of selfdrives. A few seconds later, the car was jolted sideways into the guardrail, and a cascade of foamy water hit the window. Water. That high up.
“The bridge’s expansion joints,” the announcer said, “which have protected the structure from numerous earthquakes over the years, weren’t designed to withstand a direct blow of that magnitude from the side. The roadway hasn’t fallen, and nobody was killed, but many of those joints have now frozen. Until and unless they can be repaired, the bridge will not be safe in a severe earthquake.”
“Geez,” Alphon breathed, frowning. “They’ve got a bit of an event cascade going there. But who’d want to blow up the Barrage?” He flipped through several other feeds before settling on one that was showing a CalTrans fisheye hovercam vid from over the Golden Gate Bridge that had caught the event as it was happening. They’d reversed the lens distortion and overlaid the image with annotations and callouts, but it was clear enough for him to get the gist of it: the initial failure was at the joint with the lock, and then the damage spread north. A few seconds later, the whole thing fragmented.
When the feed’s announcer started reeling off a story about the Barrage having been demolished with a set of carefully timed explosives, he froze the image and stared at it for a long moment. “That was no act of war,” he said to the image, slowly shaking his head. “If you wanted to cause the most damage, you’d have pulled the whole thing at once. Sequenced charges are for cheating gravity in a skyscraper demo or reducing water impact in a dam demo. What’s going on here?”
Alphon drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, and then cleared everything from his tri-d except the map. “All right,” he told himself, “if the official story makes no sense, why are they telling it? Who benefits, and how?”
He realized that knowing what did happen might shed some light on his other questions, so he did a search that omitted any mention of explosives. What few results he got all agreed on one thing: there had been precious little money spent over the years on maintenance for the Barrage. The few repairs that were done always focused on the locks. He looked again at the map, and zoomed it to the joint where the sea wall met the lock. “There’s the key to this,” he murmured.
Looking through the entries that spoke about maintenance problems, he found one that mentioned some unaddressed structural issues that had once been raised. That sent him on a search for the original design documents. What he found was the original proposal for a project called the Golden Gate Barrage, which was turned down in 2007, and another one for the less ambitious project that was actually approved about a decade later. Since it was a government project, it had been put out for bid, and the lowest bidder was awarded a fixed-price construction contract. “Idiots,” he said in exasperation. “That’s a conflict of interest. It’s a good thing the HyperLoop systems weren’t built that way.”
Alphon was nearly finished skimming the original Barrage proposal when he suddenly looked up. “Wait a minute. Could someone have wanted the sea wall to fail?” Curious, he set up another search, this time for the people and organizations that had weighed in on either of the proposals when they were still under consideration, both for and against. Midway down the second page of results, there was an entry about something called the Green Party, but it didn’t have a summary beside it. There was an asset identifier, and the ID of the server it was supposed to have been on, but that was all.
He sat back and stared at it. “Green Party? What the hell is that?” The server ID was in the range used by public servers, which meant the file, whatever it was, had been hosted at a Post Office somewhere. Fortunately, there was a cross-index for public servers that identified which Post Office that was, and according to the index, this one was in the outskirts of the ruins of New Orleans. But who was the owner? A bit of rooting around in the Post Office’s faq answered that question as well: the same person who owned a particular post box at that office, and the box number was encoded into the server ID. But who was that?
He’d just copied down the details when an insistent banging erupted from his door. “Hey Quince!” a voice yelled. “You in there?”
Alphon glanced out the window – the street was still dry, and sprinted to open the door.
It was his neighbor, Bob. “Didn’t you hear the alert? We’re about to get deep sixed.”
“I heard it. But there’s something wrong—.”
“Yeah, there’s something wrong, idiot. You haven’t left yet. Do what you want. I’m out of here.”
He spun and glanced frantically around the apartment. What’s most important? What do I take? In a perplexing moment of calm, he raised his hand and stared at the sticky note. It was: the location of that missing file.
* * *
Alphon gazed at the vacant pod station across from him for a moment before answering. After two days of being crammed into an ancient Amtrak coach seat during the train trip to Chicago, even the Spartan waiting area of a HyperLoop station was comfortable. He’d had a few hours to kill after the HL whisked him to Memphis before the pod for the final leg of his trip arrived, and so he fell into idle chitchat with another traveller.
“Not really,” he said. “I study infrastructure failures in my job, so I’ve seen what sorts of fallbacks these things have. If one of the evac fans fails, for example, and the air pressure in the tube rises a bit, the pod just slows down to compensate.”
“Well, yeah. But what if they all failed. I read that these pods need low pressure for the air cushion to work.”
“You’ve seen them roll through the station here?”
A shrug. “Sure. Why?”
“Same thing. After all, when a pod’s at speed, it’s really just flying through the tubes on a cushion of air. As it slows, the pod’s compressors slow down, so it gets lower, until it’s riding the wheels. It’s not dangerous. Trust me.”
“Yeah, well,” the traveler said, chuckling. “But then they also said the San Francisco sea wall was solid.”
Alphon grimaced at the thought of everything he’d left behind. “Don’t remind me.”
“So anyway, that’s why I’m headed out into the hinterlands. I want to be as far away as possible from stuff that could fail and kill me.”
“Good luck with that. Is there really such a place any more?”
The man grinned sheepishly. “I guess I’ll find out. And where are you headed?”
“You’re kidding. That drowned-out ruin? What’s there?”
* * *
Alphon had been staring at the ‘window’ in the deserted HyperLoop pod for most of the past half-hour on the ride south from Memphis, blankly watching an image of scenery they weren’t really passing, which at the moment was an unpolluted Lake Pontchatrain. To make the trip through the windowless tubes feel more engaging, vidstreams from security chipcams along the tube were turned into a live panorama of what you could see if you were in a drone skimming the ground at pod altitude. But a few years ago, some marketing wonks decided they could do reality one better, and the live vids were replaced with ‘enhanced’ versions of what was outside the tube. Out the ‘window’, the weather was always beautiful, night skies were uniformly glorious, and the countryside or cityscape looked like something out of a real estate sim. In other words, it was utterly boring.
Several times, he had to resist the urge to pull out his phone. With what he knew about the line’s systems, he could easily have pulled up a raw vidstream. Before setting out, though, he’d decided to leave as few tracks as he could, which meant packing ample cash and keeping his phone turned off. And that only increased the boredom.
His eyes narrowed when he felt the pod slow down, and he tried to decide whether it was a normal maneuver or a sign of trouble purely by feel. It had been a tense trip, because he was still anguishing over what he was going to say to the owner of that PO box, but these last few minutes promised to be the hardest. Before the sea wall failed, he’d been analyzing the construction of HL tubes, looking for failure modes that could trigger a cascade rather than being stopped by the designed-in safeties. A well-maintained tube was rock-solid in that department, but the same could not be said of a neglected stretch, such as the one he was on now, because once the city had been ceded to the encroaching Gulf, the company didn’t see much point in maintaining their equipment. Riding that ancient Amtrak to Chicago might have been slow and uncomfortable, but at least he could see what was really outside.
Alphon was thrust forward against the restraint a few seconds later as the pod braked hard. He glanced left and right, at the places on the tube they were flying through where he knew the linear motors were mounted: the pod was being forcibly slowed by the HL system. But why?
It also got bumpy. “Turbulence?” he asked the walls, “why did we drop out of laminar?” They were just barely going fast enough for the compressors to draw enough air for the cushion effect to work. The only time that ought to happen was while slowing for the airlock at the entry to a station, and that was a momentary effect just before dropping to the wheels and braking smoothly to a stop, but they were still too far from the station for that. He sat up, his breath coming faster.
The pod may have slowed, but it wasn’t stopping. He held his breath, focusing on the tiny sensations that might betray their situation through the buffeting, and exhaled when he felt the gentle sideways nudge that meant the tube had turned east. He sat back and relaxed. They’d passed the narrow stretch of soggy land between Lakes Maurepas and Pontchatrain, and were on final approach to the airlock and the station. Slow was okay, as long as they got there.
If the faux scenery they’d already passed was annoying, what that ‘window’ showed now was ludicrous: dry land. He knew that the pylons holding up the tube for most of this stretch rose from the waters of the encroaching Gulf of Mexico. They’d been sunk deep enough to hold solidly when the ground was dry, but now the remaining miles of tube were held aloft on not much more than a prayer. Sinkholes had been reported in the area for decades. He shuddered at what might happen if another one opened around one of the supports. He gripped the arms of his seat, straining to hear or feel any sign of danger.
Safe, he thought to himself, mocking his reassurance to the traveler. Right.
Ten seconds went by. Fifteen. Then the pod decelerated again, and he felt the thrum of wheels. A few seconds later, the pod lurched to the side and ground to a screeching halt, canted at an angle. If it had still been moving, the pod could ride up the side of the tube to bank a curve, but the tube was straight here. Something was keeping the pod from rolling, so it couldn’t drift back down to the bottom of the tube. Unfortunately, that also meant it couldn’t power-roll to the airlock. He was locked inside an automated pod, somewhere in a low-pressure tube, miles from New Orleans. Trapped.
While he was contemplating turning on his phone anyway, the eerie silence was shattered as the pod’s compressor kicked in again. There was a harsh scraping sound as the pod danced against the tube wall and slipped sideways, righting itself. Then the compressor shut down and the pod started rolling slowly towards the station under power.
He laughed in quiet amazement. “You sly devils, you. I should have taken a closer look at the attitude control software when I had the chance. I wonder what other secrets you’re hiding in there?”
The pod stopped several more times as they hit something in the tube. Each time, the compressor came back on long enough to lift it free of the obstruction, one section at a time, while the wheels in the other sections moved them forward, and then shut down again. Finally, they reached the air lock, and emerged into the humid air of the New Orleans station, where the doors lifted and Alphon stepped onto the platform.
A passenger emerging from the next section of the pod turned to look at him in exasperation. “What the hell was that? I thought these things were supposed to be safe!”
“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging into the backpack he’d picked up in Chicago, “and I study Hyperloop systems for a living. Well, at least we got here.”
“Maybe so, but there’s no way I’m riding one of these cans back to Memphis.”
Alphon turned and headed for the exit. Getting to the Post Office was going to entail yet another mode of transport, because of how fragmented southern Louisiana had become in recent decades. After about an hour’s walk, which took him across the old interstate highway bridge and through Algiers, he reached an airboat rental he’d contacted en route. The sales agent chatted him up relentlessly, probing for some clue about where he’d be taking the boat, and insisted that he purchase the optional insurance rider that covered chemical damage, in addition to the standard liability coverage.
“Chemical damage?” he asked, glancing uncertainly at the line of airboats.
The agent shook his head and gave him a withering look. “From the water.” The tone was one you’d use for a backward child. “Or do you believe the tripe they spout on the news about how clean the Gulf is?”
“Sorry. I’m from the west coast.”
“Well that explains it, doesn’t it? The Pacific Ocean is all pristine, I suppose. Look, son, without the Gulf Stream to scour out the crud leaking from all those offshore wells out there, it just collects and festers, along with the rest of whatever’s tossed into the Mississippi by the industrial morons upstream. It’s toxic. Fish can’t live in it, and machinery doesn’t survive very long either. So I gotta insist that you sign that insurance form there, or you ain’t taking my boat out.”
Once the paperwork was finished, and Alphon paid with cash, the agent walked him out to his rental and briefed him on its use. “You sure you won’t tell me where you’re going?” the man pressed, one last time.
A few seconds thought about the specious official explanation for the failure of the Barrage and about the dead link he was tracking made it an easy question to answer. “I doubt that would be safe,” he said, for the first time really feeling the scale of the deception he was challenging, “for either of us.”
He was still feeling confident in having hid his trail thus far by paying cash for everything, money he’d withdrawn before boarding the Amtrak for Chicago, when he realized that he was about to use his phone for navigation. He’d remembered to keep it powered down thus far so it wouldn’t give his position away, but then absently pulled it out for a map. Stowing it back in his pocket, he pulled out the sticky note he’d been carrying, and entered the location of the Post Office into the boat’s onboard nav.
It was nearly closing time when he arrived, so he lashed the airboat to one of the hooks embedded in the dike surrounding the building, and hurried inside. It was an old building, and the patchwork of repairs was clearly evident. A heavyset woman with a cleverly laid out set of tattoos on her left arm was kneeling by a rack of post boxes, replacing one of the doors.
“Excuse me,” he said as he approached.
She rose, looked him over for a second, and smiled. “We don’t get many visitors down here. What can I do for you?”
“I’m trying to find someone who’s got space in your server farm.”
“Sure,” she said, starting back towards the counter. “What’s the name? You can leave a note in their box. But why come all the way here just to do that?”
“Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know the name. What I do know is the ID of the virtual server, and that gave me the code for the post office.”
She shook her head. “Well that’s too bad for you, I guess. Protocols won’t let me give out the owner’s name. Sorry.”
He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration.
“There is a chance, though…”
“Well, since we only get deliveries here one day a week, all my regulars tend to come down to visit for a bit and check their boxes. That’s tomorrow, by the way. Why else do you think I’d be fixing that box door? So anyway, if you were to keep an eye on which box each person opens, you might be able to meet whoever it is you’re looking for.”
He looked over at the wall of boxes for a second. “Wouldn’t that be considered stalking? I mean this is a federal office, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “I won’t tell if you won’t. Besides, all my regulars tend to come in armed. So I figure if you’re trouble, the worst that’ll happen is I’ll have to call the county coroner to pick up a corpse. Well, and maybe clean up a bit.”
Alphon felt weak. He didn’t even own a knife, let alone a handgun. Too much trouble when he was taking classes, and with all the police surveillance where he lived, there didn’t seem much of a point. “All right,” he said shakily. “I, uh, I guess I’ll be back in the morning, then. Thanks for your help.”
“Don’t… mention it,” she said. “I mean that.”
He was nearly to the door when he had an idea, so he turned back. “There’s another way to do this. Could you put a note in the box for me? This way, you don’t have to reveal the owner’s name, I don’t have to risk accosting them, and they can decide whether they want to speak with me. I think it’ll be safer for everyone.”
She stood for a while, considering the ramifications. Then, without saying a word, she pulled out a one-sided form from behind the counter, and set it down in front of him, blank-side-up. He took a pen from the cup, and wrote:
Missing info you have may explain the destruction of the Golden State Barrage.
I’ll be in the rental airboat.
He folded the paper and handed it back to her, then returned to his rental. The tension, which had masked his hunger until now, dispersed a bit, so he cast off in search of something to eat. On his return, he secured the airboat and settled in for the night, or at least he tried to. Looking around at the permanently flooded streets, and down the line of abandoned storefronts with water over the windowsills reminded him of home, and of what the area around his apartment must look like now. He awoke several times from nightmares, one of which put him in the drowned intern’s stead, and decided to just stay awake when a passing seabird’s shriek startled him just after first light.
The morning was uneventful. Several people came by to check their mail, most in motorboats, and one in a kind of catamaran, but none of them approached. Then, just after noon, an old woman with short white hair and an actual set of eyeglasses floated by in a raft that must have been powered by a hidden water jet. She lashed it a few spaces away, and went inside. Unlike the other patrons, she stopped after leaving the building and looked around. She went back to her raft, set down the package she’d gotten, and turned to look at him. A minute went by before she approached, and when she did, it was only to about halfway between his craft and hers. She raised a hand with the folded note.
He nodded, but didn’t move.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, barely loud enough to be heard at his distance.
He rose. “Some missing information. There was a dead link to a page about—.”
“I meant why.” She stopped for a beat. “Why are you looking? The world is full of dead links. What’s special about this one?”
A boat approached from down the flooded road to his left. Both of them watched warily until it had passed. They looked at one another for a while before he continued. “I study infrastructure for a living,” he said, speaking quietly. “My specialty is spotting event cascades before they’re triggered. The Golden State Barrage was not blown up. It wasn’t an act of war.”
She chuckled. “Oh, but it was,” she said, “but that’s not something we should talk about here.”
He craned to get a better look at her. “The clerk told me that her regulars are usually armed. How do I know I’ll be safe?”
She spread her hands. “You don’t. Neither do I. For all I know, this is a trap, and you’re from the government.”
“Government?” he echoed. “Are you in hiding for something?”
“Have to. Else I might have been offed years ago. I suppose I know too much.”
She got a far-away look. “The past. Look, Mr…?”
“Quince,” he said. “Alphon.”
“Alphon, then. Look, I don’t want to stand here in the open any longer than I have to. If you want to talk, leave your boat here and come with me.”
“Well, yeah. It’s probably bugged. Just about everything is, these days.”
Feeling rather exposed, he grabbed his backpack and followed her. But just before she reached the raft, her pocket beeped. She looked over her shoulder, said, “Trouble, Al. Move it,” and started casting off.
He looked up just in time to see a hovercam duck behind a tree. He ran to the raft, which was already moving, and leapt aboard. Wide-eyed, he gasped, “Who’s it after, you or me?”
The woman pointed at a hand-hold for him to grab onto, set her feet for stability, and turned up the water jets until they were racing down the flooded streets followed by a small roostertail. “Who do you think it’s after? I’ve been picking up my mail here every week for years. Until just now, it’s been ignoring me.”
He gaped. “But why? I haven’t done anything!”
She rounded on him. “Sure you did, kid. You came looking for me. They can ignore an old troublemaker like me as long as I keep to myself. But you broke pattern. You suddenly took off across the country, looking for me? That’s suspicious. They’ve been tracking you the whole time, waiting to see what you’d do. That’s how they work, you know.” She shook her head in disgust. “Like everyone else these days, you think you’re free, but you’re not. And now you’ve got them interested in me again. So give me one good reason to not toss you over?”
Panicked, he said, “Because I think we can help each other!”
She veered left, zipped past an abandoned house, and struck off into the bayou. Once they were deep in the cypress swamp, she slowed and let the raft drift. She took a deep breath and turned to face him. “How the hell do you think you can help me? You don’t even know who I am.”
“You’re right. You’re right. I’m sorry. All I know is that there’s a file on your share, or at least the link claims it used to be there, about something called the Green Party.”
“The Greens?” She laughed grimly. “Even if there was, what could they possibly have to do with the destruction of the Barrage? They haven’t existed for decades.”
He nodded. “But they did when that thing was built, and it was important enough to them to be involved in the design review process. What I want to know is this: why did someone go to the trouble to remove all traces of the Green Party from the record? All I found was one mention, and that one pointed at something that used to be on your share. You said I was wrong, that the destruction of the Barrage really was an act of war. Well, I think the Green Party, whatever it was, got wasted because they got in someone’s way.” He shook his fists in frustration. “So tell me: who were these Greens, and how was the Barrage destroyed, because it sure as hell wasn’t an explosive demolition. And one more thing… for the love of god, who the hell are you?”
“Well, if you must know, my name is Maira Bundis.”
“Thank you. Does that mean I don’t have to swim back?”
She smiled, and in a very gentle voice, said, “You don’t. Please forgive me. I’ve been living a quiet life for so long, I didn’t realize how much I missed living on the edge. I think we could both use a bite to eat, so how about we head back to my hideout?”
It was a long trip, especially at the speed they went. Judging by all of the turns she made, Alphon guessed she didn’t take a very direct route through the bayou, but then without much of a sense of direction, he couldn’t be sure. She felt him out on a number of subjects, including his work assessing the likelihood of event cascades during infrastructure failures, and why he chose to live where the rising Pacific Ocean wanted to move to – the rent was cheap because it wasn’t even possible to get flood insurance there. Then, after a lengthy pause in the conversation, he asked her what she used to do for a living.
“I ran a maker studio. A damn good one, too.”
“Oh, right,” she said, “people don’t do that any more, do they. Look, before the big IP crackdown in the ‘50s, it was possible for techies to make their own stuff. You could design just about anything, then fab some chips and print the parts for pretty much anything you wanted to build.”
“Why bother? If you want something, isn’t it easier to just order it?”
She gave him a weary look. “Things were different. I was trained as an engineer just before the field was overrun by AIs and all the corporate jobs were pink-slipped. But an out-of-work engineer is a seriously bored human being. So what happened was they made stuff on their own. But it had to be for personal use because it was illegal to even approximate a company’s intellectual property and try to sell it. Take this raft for example.”
He looked down. “What about it?”
“The water jets, for one thing, and the fuel cells that power them. I didn’t buy any of it. Couldn’t even come close to affording the commercial ones, so I made my own. That’s the kind of stuff you’d do at a maker studio. Like the one I’ve got at home. It’s how I’ve managed to stay off the spooks’ radar all these years. But I guess that’s over now.”
Since he’d finally managed to get her to open up about her past, he took another stab at digging for answers. “Was the Green Party still around back then? And what was it that used to be on your Post Office share?”
“You’re right, Alphon,” she said. “We do need to address that, don’t we? After all, it appears our lives are now at risk because of it. Well, as to the missing file, it was never really there.”
She turned off the jets and faced him, deadly serious. “Too dangerous,” she whispered. “As you said, all trace of the Greens was expunged decades ago. But a friend of mine, an old techie who died several years back, discovered that the automatic scans that were set up to trap for any new material about them didn’t check for links, only for content. He broke into that report you found and reinstated the mention of the Greens’ submission to the Barrage’s design review. You could call it bait.”
Alphon’s jaw dropped. “Bait?” he said in disbelief. “What was he trying to catch?”
“Someone curious about the vanished past. Someone like you. But really, I’d forgotten that it was even there until I read your note.”
“Do you even know what they had to say about the Barrage design? Was there a flaw? Is that why it failed?”
Maira closed her eyes and lowered her head. Looking a bit unsteady, she reached down to the bench and eased herself down onto it. “That’s the key to it, really. There wasn’t exactly a design flaw, because ocean chemistry wasn’t even considered.”
Alphon sat down beside her. “Okay. Now I’m confused. Didn’t you tell me that the destruction of the Barrage was an act of war?”
She nodded. “It was. Not that anyone would believe it.”
“Why? Who did it?”
They both looked around when a flock of startled birds broke cover. “Uh-oh,” she said, and reached under the bench.
He mouthed a question.
Maira glanced up at him. Puzzlement became surprise when he saw her eyes grow fierce at the sight of something behind him. He stepped back and whirled around in time to see the hovercam dive to the right. She’d pulled out a homemade device of some kind and was pointing it at the drone. It wobbled and lost altitude. She pulled a trigger. It careened wildly, but not before it caught her face with an oddly colored laser flash. She dropped the device and fell on her side, clearly in pain, her fingers twitching. The drone smacked into a cypress knee, spun around and fell into the swamp.
Alphon was frantic. He knelt beside her and cradled her head in his hand. “What was that? Are you okay?”
She took a breath. “Ne… Neuroleptic laser.” She had trouble pronouncing the words. “Those drones aren’t just for surveillance.”
“Why? What did we do?”
“Not… what we did. What… we might do.”
“What we might do? For god’s sake, what’s going on here?”
She struggled to get up, so he helped her onto the bench. “Aren’t you paying attention? You told me yourself that you specialized in identifying event cascades.”
Alphon shook his head in confusion. “What does that have to do with—?”
“So do they.”
“The people who sent that drone.”
She steadied herself and pointed a finger at him. “Social event cascades.”
He brushed the thought aside in the face of how she looked. “Later. Are you going to be okay?”
She nodded, the twitching abated. “For the moment. The surveillance drones are only equipped to immobilize their target for a while. It would have been worse if the thing had more time. But it would have reported our location, so my home’s not safe anymore. But we ought to have enough time to get a few things.”
She gestured in the direction where the drone had crashed. “It’s that way. Let’s go. You take the controls.”
He complied, and they set off through the swamp.
She leaned over the edge and scooped up the drone as they passed, and dropped it on the raft. “Spare parts. Might come in handy.”
“Yeah, yeah. I get it. You’re a maker. So who are we up against?”
Maira grimaced. “Don’t laugh. It’s the international banking consortium.”
“Bankers.” She was deadly serious. “You didn’t really think national governments were top dog, did you?”
“All right, all right. Back up. A lot. They’re who destroyed the Barrage?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“As an act of war?”
She looked at him as one might a backward child. “You rented an airboat yesterday, didn’t you?”
“Sure, but what does—?”
“And you paid for liability against chemical damage?”
He nodded understanding, and then shook his head in confusion. “They poisoned the water here, too?”
“The planet, Alphon. They poisoned the planet.”
“Why would they do that? Strike that. How would they do that?”
“The same reason they do anything. The same reason they’ve pit nations against one another for centuries. Profit. There’s money in it. There’s money in poverty, in crime, in prisons. Once they realized that swindling people in land deals and collecting interest on unpayable national debts was small change compared to what could be made by remaking the planet wholesale, they’ve been encouraging industries to rape the Earth, and forcing governments to institute policies that no sane person could possibly want to subject their children to living under. For nearly a century now, they’ve been encouraging activities that subvert the balance of nature. Why do you think the Barrage was needed in the first place? Global warming may have been triggered by accident, before people realized that increasing the carbon dioxide levels would melt the ice caps and glaciers, but when the bankers’ analysts presented their report, the biggest hoax in history was perpetrated on the planet. Alphon, they stopped the Gulf Stream. They pulled the plug on the only thing that was capable of driving the circulation of currents around the world. That’s why we’re floating on a toxic cesspool that will rot my raft if we don’t pull it out of the water and recoat it pretty soon.”
They’d reached her home, which was a spawling collection of cypress-colored sheds surrounding a large camouflaged geodesic dome, and she took the controls back.
“You’re saying that the Barrage failed because the ocean was changed?”
“I’m saying the Barrage failed because it was never designed to withstand the acids and other pollutants that have been eating away at it. Didn’t you wonder why the Hyperloop to New Orleans was in such bad shape?”
He blinked rapidly. “It’s not because they stopped maintaining it?”
“We have hurricanes, Alphon. Those tubes get coated with the same crud we’re floating on.”
They’d reached her boat ramp, and she told him to attach the tow-hook on a hoist she pointed at to the eye on the front of the raft. After the raft was dragged from the water, she grabbed the hovercam and led him into the nearest shed.
Once they were inside, he skipped ahead and turned to face her. “Okay, stop. I realize we have to get some things and leave before the bankers’ cleanup squad gets here, but there’s something I have to know.”
She calmed and looked at him.
“Social event cascades. You said they’re concerned about social event cascades. Why?”
“It’s their weakness.”
“What do you mean?”
Maira pointed at a nearby workbench. “I said I’m a maker. I build stuff. But there’s something else that I can make, and that frightens the hell out of them.”
“Trouble. It only takes one person to bring down the biggest adversary you can imagine.”
He shrugged. “The ringleader? I don’t get it. If they were so worried that you’d do something to hurt them, why haven’t they taken you out before this?”
“Because I kept to myself. And besides, the ringleader isn’t the person I was talking about.”
“The first follower. The person who realizes that the so-called leader has a point, and is willing to do whatever it takes to follow it through, to make something happen.”
Alphon shook his head. “So what?” He backed up a step. “They can kill that person, too! Me!”
“Whatever it takes,” she repeated, cradling the hovercam to her chest. “And what it takes is to make everyone a first follower. The puppet masters are paranoid about social event cascades because they know what will happen if one takes root. But that’s your specialty. And all the information you need to do it is right—.”
The hovercam exploded. What remained of Maira collapsed in front of him. He stared at her bloody remains in shock for a few seconds, and then started to hyperventilate. An instant later, he balled his fists and stiffened. “No! No! No! No! No!” he shouted at the walls. “That’s not going to stop this cascade, you cretins. You’ve picked the wrong guy.”
He raced from shed to shed, taking stock of what was where. He was surrounded by the means to stay alive. She said the information was here, too. And he knew their weakness. What remained was to prep all of the potential event cascades he’d already identified to get people’s attention, and use those events to show them what was really happening, and why. But most importantly, he needed to trick the greedy monsters into setting it all off themselves. He may have been Maira’s first follower, but he was about to set up the worlds biggest trap, with himself as the bait.
[The story continues in ‘Hollow Threat‘]
Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack