Short Story: “Under an Icy Sky”

This series started with the story, ‘Bait‘.

“Under an Icy Sky”
(Part 3 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
[12/1/2013]

“I saw that gleam in your eyes,” Alphon Quince whispered to the mute image. “What was it, Maira? What were you thinking?” The indistinct details of her eyes nearly filled the frame in his hand. He’d been standing in one of the stations of her maker lab for several minutes, gazing into eyes that had reflected the world of thirty years earlier, before he was even born. He felt responsible for her death, and yet she was still a cipher to him. As much as he tried, it was a mystery he couldn’t shake.

The rhythmic thrum of the 3D printer from across the domed lab helped to soothe his nerves. In his imagination, the sound seemed to come from the picture, lending her memory a semblance of life, if only through the machine’s hollow heartbeat. He’d zoomed up the light-field holo, which the note said was taken shortly after she’d opened her first maker lab, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the spark that had been snuffed by an exploding drone three days earlier. He knew her name was really Meg — her friend Ferd had corrected him at gunpoint when he found Alphon, still covered with her blood, in the compound — but that’s how she’d introduced herself, and so that was how he addressed the image.

“It wasn’t enough that you killed her?” an angry female voice intoned from close behind him. “Do you have to violate her memory as well?” Her breath rasped in her throat. “You don’t even know her goddamn name!”

Alphon swallowed hard when he realized it was the heavyset postal worker he’d asked to put a note in Maira’s box when he came to the bayou in search of a missing data file. He put the picture down, and had just started to turn around when she put a firm hand on his shoulder. “But I do!” he protested, facing her squarely.

“Sure you do. Like you knew who owned that share when you came into my post office and cost me my job.”

Alphon glanced at the intricate tattoo on her left arm as she withdrew it. Ferd had told him that she’d helped to design the memorial that he was printing, but apparently she wasn’t expecting to find anyone else here. “I didn’t kill her,” he insisted. “It was the drone she downed.”

“A drone,” she shot back, incensed, “that wouldn’t have been following her if you hadn’t broken her routine. She’s been getting her mail every Wednesday for years without raising any suspicion. Keeping to yourself is just simple common sense these days. What backwater did you come from, anyway?”

Backwater. He winced, recalling the video he’d watched just before fleeing his home in the evacuation zone.  A news intern, reporting on the flooding in Oakland when the Golden State Barrage collapsed, inadvertently caught his own death as the undertow separated him from his phone. The old sea wall had kept the risen Pacific at bay for most of the 21st century. “The Sacramento Valley if you must know. I thought that file was a clue to what happened to the Barrage.”

She looked away in disgust. “It was terrorists, idiot. Or are you one of those truthers who deny anything the government says?”

“No it wa—.” He stopped short at the sight of what seemed a Tyvek-clad ghost from the past, the spitting image of that long-ago picture of Meg Butler, the woman who’d introduced herself to him as Maira Bundis.

Alphon’s assailant turned to look. “Phoebe,” she said. “Come to loot your mother’s estate, have you?”

“Hello, Ellen.” Her icy words betrayed a deep and bitter history between them. “Who’s that you’re steamrolling?”

“The jerk who’s responsible for your mother’s death. I was just about to escort him off the premises.”

“Wait,” she said, holding up a gloved hand. “You mean he was the last person to speak with her?”

Ellen pursed her lips and nodded.

“Hold off on that, then. I’m going to want a word with him first.”

“Suit yourself,” Ellen said lightly, and strode towards the door. “I doubt he’s got anything useful to say, though. He didn’t even know Meg’s name.”

Alphon watched the larger woman exit the lab, and then gazed in wonderment at Phoebe. “You look just like her, like she did in this picture.” He grabbed the frame and held it up for her to see.

“Give me that.” She snatched it out of his hand, pinched the image back to normal size, and held it protectively. “What are you, some kind of perv? Why were you so interested in her eyes, anyway?”

He swallowed. “I was trying to forget the look on her face when that drone exploded. I can’t decide whether she knew it would happen or not. She was standing there, holding it to her chest.” He crossed his arms to show her. “I swear,” he said, looking at her intently, “I swear she was smiling for some reason, happy about something, and then the blast—.” He shuddered, and his arms fell limply to his sides. “It was terrible. Horrible.”

“And for what?”

“For this.” It was Ferd. He’d just come out of Meg’s office, followed by a bearded man wearing a protective get-up just like Phoebe’s, including the red stylized dragon emblem of Wyvern Sourcing, a notoriously bad place to work if you didn’t have gear like that. Ferd held up a sheaf of paper and waved it at her. “She was killed for this: contraband. Intellectual property.”

The man from Wyvern crossed the room and nudged Phoebe aside. “What do you want here?” he asked.

“Give him some space, Alex,” she said, her voice tinged with resentment. “He was there when mom died.”

Alphon did a take. Her sudden shift was whiplash inducing.

Alex nodded. “I know, I know. Mr. Wu-McCrory told me. He also said that he’d gone in halves on the cost of the contraband with your mother. If he makes anything off selling it, we get a split of the take.”

“A split of the take?” she echoed in alarm. “He just said its contraband. He and mom broke the law getting it, and we’d be breaking the law if we sold it.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Alex said derisively. “So what? The quicker we get rid of it, the safer, and richer, we’d be. I’m just sayin.”

Alphon took a step back from both of them, just in case he needed an exit. “Don’t you freaking get it? They sent a telepresence drone after Maira, er Meg, to get it back ­— after she was dead. That makes her a high-value target. They didn’t know she’d been killed.” He pointed at a hastily repaired section of the roof. “See that? The operator of that thing blew a hole in the dome just to get our attention. They’re serious. And I don’t think they’re going to care who else gets killed, as long as they get their IP back.”

“Yeah, right. So why’d it leave? For that matter, why are you two even still alive?”

“It left,” Ferd said firmly, “because we threatened to bring down the entire rotten infrastructure of this blighted country.”

Phoebe paled, and looked from one to the other.

Alex laughed. “You bluffed?”

“No,” Ferd said.

“We were serious,” Alphon said. “I troubleshoot infrastructure for a living. At least I did until last week. I know which parts of it are a hair’s-breadth from failure.”

Ferd pointed a finger at him. “And the hacker collective has been keeping a good bit of it from killing people for decades now. I know. I’m one of their remote operators.”

Alex shook his head in disbelief. “You’re both nuts.”

An alert sounded from Ferd’s pocket. “In fact, there they are now.”

Alphon looked a question at him. He’d turned his own phone off intentionally before he HyperLooped to New Orleans in order to minimize his digital footprint, and even chided himself for reaching for it later when he needed directions to Ellen’s post office. And yet Ferd apparently left his on. He’d have to ask about that.

Judging from Ferd’s expression, something serious had happened, but he didn’t say much for the first few minutes of the call. What he did was glance around the room a lot, at the random collection of controllers, head-mounts and displays that Meg and the others had used in various maker lab projects, and then at Alphon, Phoebe and Alex. Finally, he nodded, and said, “Yeah, okay. I’ve got a couple of ideas. And there’s someone here who could probably pitch in on the risk analysis. Give me a few minutes to see what I can do.”

Alex had crossed his arms, and was glaring at him suspiciously.

“Look,” Ferd said reluctantly, “I apologize for getting you all involved in this, but something’s come up, and I could use your help.”

Alex grimaced. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You’ve heard about Cold Comfort, that fantasy resort under the Greenland icecap?”

Phoebe nodded emphatically. “Sure. I saw the hovercam tri-vids from when they first explored the caves. That place is amazing. Why? What happened?”

Alex smirked, and spoke right over her. “My company staffs that resort. It may look dangerous, but that’s all for show.”

“Yeah,” Ferd said, and gave him a withering look. “Well, there’s a secret banker’s conference underway out there right now. Only it just got a whole lot less secret. The cavern entrance collapsed an hour ago, trapping the gnomes from Basel and their lackeys in governments and businesses from around the world. Apparently the resort is far more extensive than their PR flacks ever let on. Resort security is getting everyone back to the main complex to wait for rescue ops to cut their way in.”

“Cut their way in?” Alphon said, aghast. “That’s crazy! One wrong move and thousands of tons of ice hanging over the resort could collapse!”

“Oh, right,” Alex said dubiously. “And what do you know about it?”

He gave Phoebe’s husband a disdainful look before continuing in earnest. “Look. Building a resort under an ice sheet, even a disneyfied one like that, was never a good idea. Sure there were natural ice caves down there originally from the uneven melt, but they’re fragile. They’re certainly not permanent. Check the record. I mean, think about it. Trap enough heat down there, and you’ll eventually melt a hole all the way to the surface.”

Alex shrugged. “So what? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? After all, that would let the rest of the heat escape.”

“That’d take decades.” He focused again on Ferd. “Because the ice density is uneven, parts of it would melt out faster than others. Before it could ever get that far, the underside of the ice sheet would be riddled with holes, which weakens it. You can bet that constructing the resort produced a lot of heat, so does running it. That’s why they spend more money to preserve the illusion of an ice sheet over that site than Dubai does to keep all of their fictitious resort islands from weathering out.”

Ferd nodded, deep in thought. “Okay. So what do they do with all that heat? How do they keep the ice intact?”

“There’s a web of solid state heat exchangers woven through the ice like spider silk. They did it like that so the support infrastructure wouldn’t block the light, which is critical to the illusion. The resort itself is heavily insulated. They capture as much of the heat as possible, and channel it out through insulated ducts, but the rest rises to the roof of the cave and just sits there. And there’s nothing obscenely rich people like to do more than flaunt their privilege. They act like there’s no problem setting up space heaters and having a barbeque under an icy sky!”

Phoebe nodded unhappily. “That’s one of the biggest draws. I edited one of their travel vids.”

“Speaking of which, do you remember when those exploration vids were made?”

“Um. About twenty years ago, I think. And they started building the resort a few years later. Why?”

“Well, that gives us a rough idea of how long the roof of that cave has been getting cooked — in other words, how much is natural ice, and how much is man-made. The BIS, which owns the resort, hasn’t released any structural studies, or I would have come across them in my work. So I’m going to guess that by now the roof is riddled with hollows, even with the heat exchangers. The collapse is evidence that at least that portion of the ice’s structure traversed the critical state—.” He caught himself, and added, “like an avalanche. That relieved the stress in some places, but also increased it in others. There’s no way to know how stable it is, but suddenly changing the stress patterns again by cutting through in the wrong place could start another avalanche right on top of the resort.” He shuddered. “It’s like some demented collapse puzzle with people inside.”

Ferd nodded. “They know. That’s why the banking organization in Basel just did the unthinkable: they’ve asked the hacker collective for help.”

Alex looked from one to the other. “You know what? I don’t want any part of this.” He reached towards his wife. “Phoebe, you coming?”

She blinked nervously, and looked at Ferd. “You’ve been closer to her than I have lately. What would mom want me to do?”

“What do you think? I can’t imagine she’d pass up the chance to help save all those people.”

Alphon’s jaw dropped. “But they’re the Basel bankers,” he said. “One of their drones killed her. She said they’ve purposely encouraged governments and industry to ignore climate change, even to help it along, just so they can profit from it. Why would she want to save them?”

“I couldn’t case less about the bankers. This is about the workers — waitstaff, sanitation, tour guides, the operations crew that makes it possible to live under the ice. There’s a lot of people like us down there, too, you know.”

“Look, Phoebes,” Alex said, exasperated, “I’m leaving now. You can do what you want, but if you aren’t in the rental in five minutes, I’m going home, and I’ll file for divorce when I get there.”

She glared at him in agitation, glanced around Meg’s lab for a moment, and finally turned to face Ferd. “I’m staying.”

“Geez,” Ferd said as Alex reached the door, “I thought he’d never leave. Thanks, Phoebe. It would have meant a lot to your mother.”

“Too bad I didn’t do it sooner.”

“So what have we got?” Alphon said. “You told them you had some ideas. Like what?”

He nodded at Phoebe, who had started to unzip her Tyvek suit, revealing the designer t-shirt and jeans she had on underneath. “You had your finger on it earlier. Those hovercams.”

“What about them?”

“He’s right,” Alphon said excitedly. “The CalTrans hovercams at the Golden Gate Bridge caught the collapse of the Barrage last week. All we’d have to do is—.”

“Not so fast,” she said as she wadded up the suit. “Aren’t the ones in the caves keyed to transponders?”

“Yeah,” Ferd agreed. “They’re used for ubiquitous vids of work crews, prisoners, high-value targets and even school outings. Which means they’re mostly autonomous, and not set up for remote operation.”

“And you think you can override that?”

“We’ve done it before, on a drone we captured. That’s how we tested the tech that Meg used to down the one that killed her.”

Alphon winced. “Did that one explode, too?”

He shook his head. “No, but it didn’t get dunked either. I’m beginning to think that might have been why that one blew.”

Phoebe was visibly confused. “The water?”

“Uh-huh. The one that killed your mother had a high-density battery — the kind made with resin, for powering the neuroleptic laser it immobilized her with. I think that when it got wet, the mutant microbes started to eat away at it. Kind of turned it into a time bomb. But we’re wasting time here. What we need to do is rig up a remote controller. These drones have an array of chipcams that feed the nav system. We can route the metafeed here and pipe it into that headmount over there.” He pointed at a unit on a nearby shelf. “There’s an open source controller around here that I can use to drive the thing. But we also need someone to control the lights and the main vid, so the experts can get a good look at the ice. Phoebe, I think you ought to handle that part. Alphon, do you have any experience evaluating the stability of an ice structure?”

“No, but if that drone has a polarizing filter on the vid, I can fake it.”

“I’ll see what we can do.”

While Ferd conferenced with some members of the hacker collective and the Greenland rescue ops facilitator, Alphon started rounding up equipment that Ferd hurriedly pointed at, and Phoebe tracked down the manuals that went with it. Because there was a large area to examine, several other members of the collective were mirroring their preparations. The folks in rescue ops were also in contact with the facilities manager at the resort. She was having all of the hoverbots prepped, which included topping off their fuel cells, and attaching a remotely controllable polarizer to the main vid lens. Resort staff would have to command those from inside the cave, so everyone would also be staying in voice contact to keep their hands free.

Rescue ops were still setting up at their end, so the three had some idle time to kill. At first, they all just sat there quietly, the noise of their preparations replaced by the quiet thrum of the 3D printer. Alphon spoke first. He’d absently pulled out his phone, and was flipping it over in his hand for a while before he realized what he was doing. “Tell me something, Ferd,” he said, holding up the device. “How come you leave your phone on? Can’t they track you with it?”

“Not this kind. We’ve got our own cell network piggybacked on the majors. The protocols they use are riddled with holes, and we just took advantage of a few of them. Hackers, remember? Remind me to get you one.”

Phoebe filled the next long silence. “That picture you were studying, Alphon. What do you know about it?”

“Not a lot. Ferd told me about it. He said it was taken when your mother opened her first maker lab. He thinks it’s kind of special. Anyway, after what happened, I needed a way to connect with her, and that seemed to fit the bill.”

She tried to hide her smile. “It wasn’t just the lab that she was happy about. I was about ten when that was taken. It was the first time my parents let me come down here. God, it was like stepping into the best amusement park you can imagine. It’s what I remember best from my childhood.” The gleam in Phoebe’s eyes, which to Alphon mirrored what he’d seen in her mother’s picture, abruptly faded. It was as if a foul memory swept in and stole the passion from her heart. “Especially after—.” She broke off, visibly relieved, when the alert tone sounded.

They’d patched everything in already, so when Ferd flipped on the feed and put the headmount on, he smiled as the drone’s synthetic triD surround view synched with the thought-control gaming interface he was wearing, and turned to look around the workroom where the virtual ‘self’ he was hooked to was sitting. Alpon and Phoebe watched the forward array of vidfeeds on a set of displays they’d arranged to look like the view out of a cockpit. It was dim, but you could see two members of the resort staff opening the door to the outside, which was really the inside of the mammoth ice cave. There was one additional display, which showed the real triD feed from the main camera, and it was the one that Phoebe could steer by gesturing at the cockpit, courtesy of some expert hacking.

“Okay,” Ferd said. “We’re good. But I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with rendered gaming worlds after this.”

As he guided the drone slowly out past the doors, Alphon and Phoebe watched what could have been mistaken for the feed from an instrumented tour guide showing remote visitors around a campsite at dusk, or would be if we lived under a blue sun. It was a gentle, indirect light, enhanced by purplish bioluminescent markers lining the paths that led out from the door.

Phoebe reached into the cockpit’s sensor zone with just thumb and two fingers extended, and angled her hand up. The main camera followed, showing a full-depth view of the impossible sky. The glistening lower surface of the ice just hung there, weightless, about thirty feet up. Reflected light from the complex glinted off bits of it here and there, but there were also dark sections that jealously guarded any inkling of what secrets they held. She gazed at the spectacular view, and smiled. “Mom, “ she said, breathless, “I wish you could have been here to see this.”

As Ferd maneuvered the drone further into the cavern, two others came into view, each of which had a boxy protrusion over the outboard lens concentrator — the hastily rigged polarizers that Alphon had asked for. “Okay, guys,” he said, “could you please engage the polarizer for us?” A few seconds later, the image darkened a bit. “Now slowly rotate it.” As they did, the pattern of glints and darkness changed. “Good, good. We’re set at this end.”

Once all of the drone operators were organized, they headed for what had been the grand entrance to the ice cave complex, but was now a jagged slope, blocks of ice and hard-packed snow that ran up to the roof.

“Oh, geez,” Ferd said.

“Can you hear me, Mr. Quince?” The very businesslike voice on the com was Andreas, the rescue ops coordinator. His crisp delivery only served to heighten his Nordic accent.

“It’s Alphon, sir. How can we help you?”

“Here are the ground rules. There’s a high level conference underway at the complex right now. We want to resolve this problem as soon as possible, and with as little inconvenience for our guests as practicable. We have equipment and personnel on site to re-open the entrance. What we don’t have is eyes on the inside to help guide us through. The drones that your associates are controlling are our best surveillance resource, but they were not intended for this sort of activity. That was why, as distasteful as it is, we have asked the hacker collective for assistance. This is a highly sensitive situation, and I want to know that you will not divulge any details of what you see, under penalty of—, well, I think you know the rest.”

“Of course, sir. I have worked with government agencies before.”

“Good. Then we can begin.”

While Ferd kept up a running commentary with the other two drone operators to coordinate their movements, and Phoebe directed the main camera at the places that Alphon indicated, he pointed out to Andreas which portions of the debris pile were stable, and which were not. When they had climbed nearly to the roof of the cave, he asked her to aim the camera upwards, and told the people inside to rotate the polarizing filter.

“What are you looking for, Mr. Quince?” The impatience in Andreas’ voice was palpable.

“Air gaps.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bubbles of air in the ice along the filaments of the heat exchanger network. That can give us a read on how solid the structure is.”

“Look,” Andreas said, “we’re going to open the entrance. All we need from you is some guidance on where to do it. The roof is fine. It’s not an issue. Those heat exchangers have kept that ice stable for twenty years, and we don’t see any reason to be concerned about them now. So just tell me right now: is that section of the entrance blockage stable enough for us to tunnel through it?”

Phoebe gave Alphon an uncomfortable look.

“The debris pile is fine,” Alphon said, “but if you remove the support, this section of the roof will—.”

“I told you,” Andreas said sharply, “the roof is not your problem. We can dig through here?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now get that drone to safety and let us work.”

Ferd told the other drone operators to return to base, but before he followed them in, Phoebe asked if they had time for a look around. He agreed, and turned the drone towards the interior of the complex. The cave roof, which was thirty feet high over the area where the VIPs played at being in a subterranean fantasyland, dropped to just over the vault-like structures along the rock ridge further in.

“According to the map they sent me,” Ferd said, “that’s where infrastructure ops, storage, and the staff’s quarters are. There’s another—.” He stopped suddenly at the sound of a concussion. He spun the drone back around towards the debris pile just in time for Alphon and Phoebe to see a section of the roof ice begin to break free and dangle crazily from the sky. Ferd tried to back away before the ice fell, but the drone was suddenly upended as something struck it. The cockpit faced straight up for a moment as the ice tumbled towards the camera. Ferd grunted as he tried to right the thing. A second later, the main camera went black, and he gasped, “I’ve been hit!”

Phoebe turned to look at him, echoing, “I’ve?”

Alphon skidded around the corner and into Ferd’s station, where he found the man gasping for breath. “What?” He tore off the headmount and tossed it aside, leaving Ferd staring blankly ahead.

Phoebe joined him a moment later, unsure of what to do. A faint voice called out for Ferd several times before she realized where it was coming from: the headmount. She picked it up and told whoever it was that he’d been hurt. The voice turned out to belong to another member of the hacker collective, who was facilitating the hookup. After a quick exchange, they got a rough idea of what had happened. The gaming system Ferd was using not only fed him stereo imagery and turned his brainwaves into the commands that drove the drone, it also supplied a modicum of pseudosensory input that the brain interpreted as an avatar’s body sense. In other words, it made the player feel like they were really in the game’s universe, and he just had a severe shock as a result. The gaming system had had legal problems because of that risk, and was withdrawn from the market, but it also had other, less dangerous uses, which was why Meg kept one around.

Meanwhile, Andreas had started asking for Alphon again. “Yeah,” he said sharply, “what do you want now?”

“What happened to my drone?”

“It was probably hit by ice your fool crew dislodged from the roof. Look we’ve got a man down here, and—.”

“And I’ve got a resort full of world leaders trapped down there. Did you want to start a pissing match?”

Phoebe cut in. “Look,” she said angrily, “We could care less about what any of those people do. The only thing that’s important right now is that they’re in danger. Did you want to get them out of there, or what?”

Alphon gaped at the sight of Maira’s fire looking out through her daughter’s eyes.

“All right,” Andreas said. “So we’ve got two drones left, and the other operators have abandoned us.”

“I can’t really blame them,” Alphon muttered.

Phoebe reached for the headmount and shook her head slowly at Ferd. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I’ll drive the thing. What do you need done?”

Alphon put his hand over hers. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “It’s what mom would have done. How do I use this thing?”

With a little help from the hackers, and a lot of nerve, Phoebe got the feel of teleoperating the drone in less than fifteen minutes. “You know,” she said when they were ready to go, “I used to be a bit of a gamer myself before I was married. Alex thought it was frivolous, though.”

Together, they showed Andreas where it would be safe to enter from: on the edge of the ridge that lined the facilities area. That section of ice was not cantilevered over a broad open space, so the stresses would be spread out better, and the ice and snowpack above it was natural. If they could get the equipment over there, they could melt a hole through the ice and safely lift people out.

Andreas was aghast. “Do you realize how long that would take? And besides, how could we convince a conference full of political and business leaders to do anything like that?”

“Fine,” Phoebe said. “Do you have a better idea?”

“I certainly have a faster one. As long as everyone stays inside the complex, they’re safe. We can blow a hole in the roof of the cave and let our guests leave the way they came: through the front door.”

“Blow—?” Alphon said. “Are you crazy? You saw what happened when a chunk of ice came down out there. And you want to knock it all down?”

“We created this place, kid. We can tear it down and build it again. With a hole that big, we can land a VTOL on the patio and get them out in comfort a group at a time.”

Phoebe fumed. “And the workers? What about them? Or are you just going to leave them there, and let them slowly freeze to death?”

He didn’t answer.

Alphon spread his hands. “So now what?”

The feed from the drone was still active, so she landed it in view of the target zone and they waited. “I feel so helpless,” she grumbled.

He raised his eyebrows. “So must the people who work for those jerks. Well, I suppose we can at least tell the workers to keep clear until they’ve finished playing with their war toys.”

After the hackers got word to the resort staff, they settled in to watch the cockpit and see what happened next. While they were waiting, the 3D printer finished, and Phoebe started crossing the room to look at it. “Do you know what this is supposed to be?”

He shrugged. “Only that it was some sort of memorial for your mother, and that Ellen helped design it. Oh, and that the resin has some of her bone dust in it. Beyond that, I’m as much in the dark as you are.”

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to see for our—.” She stopped when the room suddenly filled with the sound of a massive explosion in Greenland.

“Those idiots!” Alphon said, staring aghast at the cockpit. There were flashes of light from above, and it wasn’t the blue glow of filtered sunlight. “They must have called in an airstrike or something. The whole roof of the cave just came down and flattened the main building of the resort!”

“What?” It was Ferd, making his way to the cockpit. “They did what?”

He opened the line to Andreas again. “You had to do it your way, didn’t you? Now look what you’ve done. Well maybe the world will be better off now that you’ve eliminated so many of the vipers responsible for destroying what’s left of it!”

“You are so naïve, Mr. Quince,” he said calmly. “In a few minutes, the world press will be informed that the conference center, and everyone in it, was destroyed by terrorists: you, Mr. Quince, and your associates in the hacker collective. The entire world will unite against the threat that you pose.”

“Who’s going to believe that?” Ferd said when he saw Alphon’s face.

“Everyone. He was responsible for the destruction of the Golden State Barrage. He’s an expert in infrastructure collapse. We even have a vid of him making threats to the global banking system. We know all about you, too, Mr. Wu-McCrory.” A second later, the cockpit screen went black.

Phoebe blanched. “They can do that?”

Ferd nodded. “They’ve done it before, as have those that came before them.”

“But what about the workers? Are they okay? Can they get out?”

“I doubt they’ll let them,” Alphon said. “There’s nothing further we can do.”

“There is one thing,” Ferd said, pointing across the room. “We set out to honor your mother today, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“Honor her?” Phoebe asked. “How? Why? After that, all I want to do is find a hole somewhere and—.” She stopped herself, fell into a chair, buried her head in her arms, and cried.

Alphon stayed to comfort her while Ferd walked over to the printer.

When he returned, he placed it on the table in front of her. “Open your eyes,” he said gently.

The sculpture was of a geode, open at the top, and lined with colorful crystals. She raised her head a bit to see it better. The crystals at the edge of the opening formed two thinning filaments, and then widened out into something extraordinary. Attached to the crystal threads, as if it were woven from the crystals themselves, was a butterfly, a fragile brown buckeye butterfly. The kind that spends part of the year in the bayou. The kind that has eyespot designs on the wings. Only these weren’t just any eyespots, they were Meg’s.

To Alphon, they were Maira’s. And they were Phoebe’s. But even more certainly, they were the eyes in that picture he’d been musing over. He looked at Phoebe, whose tears had turned to those of joy. And resolve. Now he knew what the gleam meant. This fight wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

THE END
[The story continues in “In the Company of Vipers“]

Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack

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