Short Story: “Hollow Threat”

This series started with the story, ‘Bait‘.

“Hollow Threat”
(Part 2 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
[11/6/2013]

When Ferd realized that the glow filtering through the trees ahead wasn’t the rising moon, he killed the raft’s built-in water jet and drifted amid the shadowy cypress.

“Something’s… wrong,” he whispered to a frog ribbiting crossly at him. “She knows better than that. Those lights might attract someone’s attention.”

He’d made the trip to her part of the bayou a day early because the package they’d been waiting for was supposed to have arrived at the Post Office today, and he just couldn’t wait to see what it was.

“Then again,” he rationalized to the frog, “if she’s as excited about this as I am, I can understand breaking protocol.” He reached down and restarted the jet.

As he rounded the barricade that obscured the boat ramp from casual view, he reconsidered that first impression: her jetraft was lolling from the tow-hook cable. It hadn’t been hoisted full onto dry land before the tide came in. She would never have done that, especially after bringing something home that could keep the crud that passed for water in 2095 Louisiana from dissolving the hull.

Wary of giving himself away, Ferd throttled the already quiet water-jet back a tad, and slowly drew closer. Rather than risk alerting anyone with the crunch of carbon fiber on concrete from driving the raft partway up the ramp under power, he killed the jet early, jumped out, lifted the front end and pulled it clear of the water. Then he unhooked her jetraft, gentled it the rest of the way up the ramp, and set it down next to his.

Turning back towards the compound, he eyed the nearest shed, a six by eight lashup where she’d stored spare parts for the raft’s water jet. Normally, it was locked, but right now the light was on and the door was ajar. He gingerly touched the edge, and swung it open a bit, but froze at the sight of a dark red splash on the inside. Blood. He steeled himself and looked into the shed.

It was ghastly. She lay sprawled across the floor, face down, the shattered remains of the fierce old woman who had nurtured his spark of activism and given him a reason to live. He gaped at the bits of flesh and fabric scattered across the floor and on the workbench. Her blood had pooled at the junction of two rotten floorboards she’d put off replacing.

Fighting off the desire to linger over his loss, he knelt beside her, brushed the blood-matted hair from her face and closed her eyes. “I don’t know what happened here, Meg,” he whispered, “but I’ll be damned if I let whoever did this to you get away with it.” He shut his eyes and pictured the woman he knew – lively and mischievous, and then recalled an old photo he’d seen from her youth.

He sighed deeply, and used the moment to clear his mind. Thinking that her murderer might still be in the compound, he snapped open the release on the well-worn holster at his hip, and pulled out his handgun. Home-printed units like his may have a limited life span, but they didn’t send a time-stamped, geo-tagged video report to the government every time you wrapped your fingers around the grip.

Rising to his feet, Ferd stepped outside and scanned the perimeter. The swamp beyond the boat ramp was dark, save for a swirl of fireflies. A cricket orchestra chorused the temperature to anyone willing to do the conversion. The sky peeking out between the trees was streaked with clouds, one of which was edged with the reflected glow of New Orleans to the northeast. Turning back towards the compound, he looked first at the camouflaged dome of the maker lab, the skylights of which leaked the colors of the lamps nearest them. It seemed like a huge iridescent bug, nestled among the smaller, angular sheds that she’d assembled into a rabbit warren of storage, workrooms and living quarters for herself and the dozen or so others who had once called this home. Until this evening, it had just been her. And now…

Ferd warily approached the entrance to the lab, listening for any suspicious noise. A rhythmic whirring was the only sound: one of her 3D printers was busily creating something that she’d never get the chance to use. He carefully opened the door and stepped inside. The soft clatter of the printer’s transport echoed hollowly as it repositioned itself, and then started laying down the next resinous layer of whatever it was. As he’d guessed from outside, the lights were on at each of the stations, even over the bench where the two friends had mused so often about the might-have-beens over lunch. He stopped beside the printer and saw that the drawers had been rifled. Someone was clearly interested in what she was doing. But who? And why?

He was midway across the lab when the door to her office flew open and a frightened-looking kid started through, intently reading some papers he was holding with one hand while resting atop the other. He was five-eight or nine, and his clothes were spattered with blood. Ferd made him out to be conscription-age or so. His gun hand rose instinctively. In practiced command voice, he said, “Hold it right there!”

The kid startled, dropping some of his papers, and spun around, ready to sprint back out.

“I said stop!” This time he barked it, as an order.

“Why, so you can kill me, or take me prisoner? I’m unarmed.”

Ferd laughed humorlessly.  “Sure you are. That’s why you’re covered in blood.”

“It’s Maira’s blood.”

“Who?”

“Maira Bundis. The woman who owns this place.”

Ferd shook his head. “This is Meg Butler’s property. Geez, didn’t they even tell you who your target was? Or did you just kill the wrong person?”

The kid lowered the papers and turned around. His other hand, the one that had been hidden before, was wrapped around the grip of a small angular weapon, and it was aimed at Ferd’s chest. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

“Not with that thing, you didn’t,” he said, indicating the kid’s weapon. “Well, not unless they were a robot or something.”

Suddenly self-conscious of his situation, the kid glared at the thing in his hand, and then stuffed the barrel under his belt. “Whatever. The point is, I didn’t kill anyone.”

“You. A drone. It doesn’t matter how you did it. She’s still dead. What were you looking for, anyway, and what’s in those papers you stole?”

“A drone?” The kid stepped closer, livid. “Didn’t you see…?”

Ferd steadied his gun hand on his other palm. “One more step, and I won’t bother with answers. Now who sent you?”

“Nobody sent me. Look, I came here looking for a missing file.”

He glanced at the papers on the floor. ”I’d say you found it. Was it worth killing an old woman?”

“I told you. I didn’t kill her. The camera-drone blew up after she downed it. She was holding it at the time. And besides, it was a computer file. But then you really ought to know that already. After all, you spooks have been spying on her long enough.”

Satisfied that there was a mix-up, Ferd holstered his weapon. “Truce, then. Look, I’m Ferdinand Wu-McCrory. I’m a friend of Meg’s. We were expecting a package today, and I came by to see what was in it. Who are you?”

The kid nodded knowingly. “Oh, the package. I see.” He turned serious again. “Is that why you guys were spying on her? Is it some kind of contraband? Drugs or something?”

“I told you. I’m a friend. Now you can either tell me your name, or I’ll shoot you now and look through your wallet myself.”

“All right, all right. My name’s Alphon Quince. I’m a freelance infrastructure troubleshooter from the west coast.”

“And that explains why you’ve got Meg’s blood all over you?”

The 3D printer pinged completion of whatever it was making, reset its mechanism, and fell silent. Alphon looked over at it for a second, and then back at Ferd. “You’ve heard about the Golden State Barrage?”

“The sea-wall in Frisco that was blown up by terrorists? What about it?”

“That’s not what happened. It failed for some other reason, and I was searching for clues on the Internet. There was a reference to something called the Green Party in the original design review, and the document it mentioned was supposed to be on Maira’s, I mean Meg’s, share at the Post Office. Only it wasn’t. She told me the missing reference was put there as bait.”

“Bait? Bait for what? Or whom?”

“Me, I guess. She said a friend of hers had put it there to hook the interest of someone who could help, um…”

Ferd relaxed a bit. “I get it, I get it. So what were you looking for? What’s in those papers?”

“These…?” Alphon turned his hand and glanced down at the printouts. He thought for a moment, and then he jerked his head back towards the entrance. “She’s dead. Meg, Maira, you knew her better than I did. We’ve got to do something to honor her memory, and I thought maybe—.” He stopped suddenly, a frightened look on his face. “Crap! We don’t have time for this.” He glanced frantically around the lab. “Whoever sent that camera drone she shot down is gonna be sending someone, or some thing, out here to— were they interested in that box she got today? Is that it? What did you two order, anyway?”

“Where’s the box?”

“Under the seat on her jetraft. We’d just—“

Before Alphon had a chance to complete the thought, Ferd spun around and ran towards the door. “If you’re right, kid,” he called over his shoulder, “we’ve got to get it somewhere safe, somewhere—.”

He stopped short soon after he was outside. A drone was hovering over the raft, a big one; the payload section was about a yard across. The thing was lofted on four fans. He recognized the steerable lenses at each corner: pulse-laser weapons. It was military grade. But it was something else entirely that sent a chill down his spine: the thing also had a vidscreen, and a stern-looking man with close-cropped hair and wearing a khaki shirt and cap was glaring out of it. It was a telepresence drone. They only sent those after high-value targets that had intel they wanted. The stakes here were higher than he thought. But why? Meg wasn’t anyone special. Well, not that special, anyway.

A spotlight came on, aimed directly at them, and the speaker warbled a warning tone. The operator grinned, and shook his head in satisfaction. “Freeze, both of you!” His tone reeked of superiority.

Alphon stopped beside Ferd and examined the drone. “Damn,” he whispered, “she was right. That’s from Basel.”

Ferd glanced at him. “Basel? Who’s that?”

“Switzerland. The bankers’ cartel.”

The drone operator flashed the spotlight to get their attention, and then pointed it down at the jetraft. “This box is contraband. Where’s the woman who ordered it?”

Ferd shrugged. “Woman? What woman? I think you’ve got the wrong address.”

The spot swiveled back and brightened considerably. “I can blind you in an instant,” the operator said tightly, “even if your eyes are closed. Now answer the question.”

“I don’t see why I should. If you blind me, I won’t be able to help you, will I? Who are you, anyway?”

“Who I am’s not important.”

“Sure it is,” Ferd countered. “You’ve claimed that there’s contraband here. If that’s what you sent the drone for, why are you asking about some woman? Don’t you have sensors in that thing to detect drugs, if that’s what you’re after?”

The drone operator looked off-frame for a moment before responding. “It’s not drugs we’re after. Now where’s the woman?”

“Good, good,” Ferd said, finding an angle to play, “now we’re getting somewhere. Look, if we’re going to negotiate, and I assume that’s why you sent a telepresence drone, then I’d like to know who I’m dealing with. What’s your name?”

The operator’s eyes narrowed. “I told you, that’s not important.”

“It is if you expect to negotiate with me. What’s your name?”

“Call me Joe, then. Where’s the woman?”

“Yeah. About that. Don’t you even know her name? I thought you guys were all about surveillance.”

The operator glanced down, probably at his controls, and one of the lasers flashed at Ferd’s left shoe.

He yelped in pain and momentarily lost his balance.

“Do I have to remind you who’s in charge here? Where’s the woman?”

Alphon took a step forward. “What’s so important about her, anyway?”

“Listen to me, Mr. Quince. Yes, we know who you are. You have no rights here. Absent the woman, you two are in possession of contraband IP. Failure to hand it over is a criminal act according to international corporate law. So here’s the situation. Either you two hand it over now, or I’ll destroy this entire compound, with you in it.”

Ferd winced, and rose awkwardly. “I think that clarifies things a bit, Joe: the IP you’re after isn’t important. All your masters want is to be sure that no-one can use it. Must be pretty important stuff.”

Joe glared angrily, and the drone wobbled a bit.

“You sent this drone,” Alphon said, stepping closer still, “because she shot down your surveillance bot. Do you know how she did it?”

Ferd looked a question at him.

“We can do the same thing to this one, and any other remote you send out here.”

Joe gave him a disdainful look. “Bull. If that was true, you would already have used it.”

“Who trained you, chimps?” Alphon said, growing bolder. “We let this toy of yours stay around so we could find out what your game was. Now that we know, we can—“

Two of the lasers flashed, and a section of the dome exploded. “Enough!” Joe was livid.

“Try that again,” Alphon said firmly, “and I’ll release a trove of information about your masters that’ll make the NSA scandals of the 2010s seem like a day at the beach, before they were too toxic to visit. Kill or injure either of us, and the same thing happens.”

Joe shook his head somberly. “You’re delusional, Quince. You can’t protect everyone you know.”

Ferd glanced back and forth between them, unsure how this was going to end.

“Yeah, I can,” Alphon said flatly. “I can expose the banking cartel behind the corporate façade, and I can name the people pulling the strings. You folks have hollowed out the world in your greed, and left large parts of it a hair’s-breadth from collapsing. I know. It’s my business to know. And I can pull it all down. Just give me an excuse!”

“You couldn’t,” Joe said confidently. “Too many people would get hurt.”

“And you’d be wrong. I’d do it to get your masters.”

“Be serious, Quince. We have complete control of the communications networks. All we have to do is drop you off the net. And don’t think we won’t!”

“Oh, I don’t doubt you’d try,” Ferd said, stepping to the side to force Joe to shift his focus. “The thing is, you’d be getting a hell of a lot more than you bargained for.”

Joe turned the droid and gave him an exasperated look.

“Who the hell do you think keeps the infrastructure running these days? It sure as hell isn’t the companies that decided to forego maintenance, on the bet that things wouldn’t fall apart while the jerks in the penthouse offices were still around. Your masters are probably congratulating themselves on being so lucky for so long. But luck had nothing to do with it.”

“Get to the point, or I’ll torch your other foot.”

Alphon had turned, and was now looking directly at Ferd.

“The underground hacker collective has been patching things together for decades. Take the Hyperloop run into New Orleans. The tubes are shit. They’re falling apart. We hacked an override so we could manually ease it past obstructions. Trust me. I was on duty yesterday when the number 32 magnet assembly fell off.”

“You mean that wasn’t just a clever AI?” Alphon blurted. “I thought…”

Joe sneered, ignoring Alphon’s outburst. “So what? New Orleans was written off a long time ago. You stop that run, and you’re only hurting yourself.”

Ferd’s stance stiffened. “Oh, no. I’m not just talking about one stretch of backwater HL tube. Just about all of the infrastructure that depends on tech to keep it running has been neglected like that to keep a few fat cats from having to give up some of their obscene profits. And not just here. All over the world. The collective is the only thing that’s holding what’s left of the tech world together.”  He stopped to catch his breath, and then dropped the other shoe. “You really don’t want to see what happens if we call a strike!”

The screen went dark.

Alphon smiled to himself briefly, and then drew the microwave gun from his belt. He aimed it at the drone and waited.

A few seconds later, the screen came on, and Joe glanced at them, a troubled look on his face.

“Oh good. I was hoping you’d seen the video from that camera drone you lost. This is how we downed it. Are you going to leave now,” he said calmly, “or are you going to let us unwrap your toy?”

Joe glared angrily for a moment, and then looked down at his controls. The drone turned and sped off into the night.

The two men looked at one another for a moment, and then broke into relieved laughter. Once they’d caught their breath, Ferd said, “Were you bluffing? I mean about that trove of secrets?”

“Yeah. I was.”

“So you can’t really bring down whole swathes of the infrastructure?”

“That I can do. Well, with a bit of help, I can. What I was bluffing about was that leaving us alone would stop me. But what was that about the collective? Could they really be convinced to strike?”

Ferd laughed. “Hardly. The struggle until now has been keeping them in line.”

THE END

[The story continues in “Under an Icy Sky“]

Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack

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2 thoughts on “Short Story: “Hollow Threat”

  1. Thanks. Is it short-sightedness, or a single-minded focus on increasing their wealth that creates the blind spot, though? Either way, when they’re busy attending to one thing, the necessarily have ignore another. It’s the sort of dynamic that could trip them up in the long run, and that intrigues me. Stick around… there will me more to this.

  2. Loved it! The plot thickens in the most tantalizing way. I love the bit about how the “cartels” put themselves in the precarious position they are in through overbearing, short-sighted, silk-suited, greed..The Rat-hair lining of their outwardly expensive coats seems to be showing through, aha ha ha!

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