Short Story: “In the Company of Vipers”

This series started with the story, ‘Bait‘.

“In the Company of Vipers”
(Part 4 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
[1/3/2014]

“He’s like one of those firebugs you hear about,” the man said. “You know the type. They torch a building, and then hang around to watch it burn? Creepy. Well, this was the same sort of thing, only instead of a fire it was the destruction of the Golden State Barrage, and Alphon Quince was hanging around to watch Oakland drown.”

Phoebe Butler — she’d reclaimed her family name even before Alex filed the divorce forms — tried not to be too obvious about watching the news vid playing on the phone that the passenger in front of her was holding, but the woman made eye contact in the reflection and angled it away. She had just left New Orleans on the HyperLoop, and was en route to collect her things before Alex had a chance to sell them. The only other passenger in the pod, the one in the bucket seat to her right, was the man being denigrated on the news. Flanking them, on the face of the twin gull-wing hatches, a sanitized version of the view beyond the carbon-fiber tubes scrolled past, healthy Louisiana scrub on the left, a pristine version of Lake Pontchartrain on the right.

She exchanged nervous glances with Alphon when the news reader said that he was the last person to leave their apartment building in the flood evacuation zone. Phoebe had done what she could to disguise him, but a change of clothes and hair color, and the addition of her mother’s retro eyeglass frames, which they’d fitted out with newly printed reflective lenses, didn’t do much to scotch the resemblance to the picture that was shown before the interview. “What were you doing?” she asked him in little more than a whisper.

“Searching for clues. You’ve seen the vids. A controlled demolition wouldn’t have looked like that. The official story was absurd.”

The programmatically inflected voice of the renderbot news reader echoed hollowly in the nearly empty HL pod. “Quince then took ground transport to the Gulf Coast,” it said, “where he murdered Megan Butler, a woman who had long been under surveillance for subversive tendencies, and then destroyed valuable government property.”

Phoebe winced at the official characterization of her mother. Meg was a former engineer who ran a secret maker lab after being pushed out of the job market decades earlier in the wake of the global intellectual property crackdown. She’d been murdered, all right, but not by Alphon. The two had been chased and fired at by a spy drone, which Meg was able to disable remotely. Then, after she fished it out of the bayou, it exploded in her arms. Alphon was the only witness. Phoebe studied his face idly, lingering on her mother’s eyeglass frames, and wondered what she’d think about the chain of events that had followed her death.

“A telepresence drone,” the bot reader went on, “was sent to investigate.”

Alphon huffed. That drone, he had told her, was there to retrieve a package that Meg and her friend Ferd had ordered, a package containing contraband IP.

“Quince and his accomplice, a man named Ferdinand Wu-McCrory, threatened to destroy the nation’s infrastructure, and then, days later, he masterminded the destruction of the Cold Comfort resort in Greenland, and the murder of dozens of high-profile figures from businesses and governments around the world.”

The woman glanced nervously over her shoulder at them.

“This man is extremely dangerous. He—.”

The pod suddenly bucked, throwing Phoebe forward and to the right, hard against the strap of her restraint. The woman in front of her screamed in fright as the phone slipped from her hand, smacked against the right-side hatch and spun dizzily for a moment before shattering against the fire extinguisher. The windowscreens on both hatches went dark. Seconds later, the pod jerked back to the left, seemed to roll backwards, downhill, for a moment, and then came to a canted stop. It was eerily quiet. She looked over at Alphon, who’d unbuckled his restraint, and was climbing over the seat in front of him. The sudden silence, Phoebe realized, was because the woman had stopped screaming.

Alphon dropped into the seat in front of his, and then knelt on it to see over the center rest. “She’s on the floor. I think she fainted or something.”

By this time, Phoebe had unbuckled her own restraint, and was leaning over the seatback, her head inches from the roof, to get a better look.

The woman opened her eyes and looked up at Alphon with a mixture of fear and relief. “What happened?”

He shrugged. “We’ve stopped.”

“I think you’ve been hurt,” Phoebe said, “your medalert’s flashing. Can you get up?”

“I think so.”

Alphon braced himself, and extended his hand. Once she’d taken it, he pulled her up and got her back into her seat.

“All right,” Phoebe said, “now what?”

The woman glared at Alphon, who was now seated next to her. “Aren’t you that guy on the news?”

“Aren’t you hurt?” he replied, deflecting the question. “Your medalert seems to think so.”

“He’s right,” Phoebe said, “do we need to call in an emergency?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s linked to my phone. They’ll already— where’d it go?”

He reached down in front of his seat, picked up the shattered device, and put it on the center rest. “It’s dead. You’re not. What’s more important? Do we call emergency, or see about getting us out of here?”

“Out of here?” she said, weakly. “How? We’re miles from the station in a locked pod?”

“What’s your medalert for?” Phoebe pressed.

“Pulmo. The drug I’m on makes me susceptible to clots. The thing monitors my blood chemistry, so I’ve probably got one already.”

“But is it an emergency?”

She looked down at herself for a moment. “I don’t hurt. They said the bad ones would hurt. How do we get out of here?”

Alphon glanced at Phoebe before answering. “You may have noticed,” he said tentatively, “that we’ve been moving kind of slow for a Hyperloop.”

“And now we’ve stopped. So?”

“If it goes slow like that, it also flies lower in the tube. When I ‘looped into New Orleans, the pod ran into something and had to stop.”

She shrugged. “Well you’re here, so they obviously cleared the blockage. What does that have to do with anything?”

He shook his head. “Actually, they didn’t. This leg of the network is very poorly maintained. That time, the hacker collective took control of the drive and worked the pod free.”

She smiled in relief. “Then we’re saved, right?”

“Not really. They’ve decided not to help out any more.”

“What? Why?”

“They’ve been accused of terrorism.”

She shook her head in confusion. “They’ve— I though you were the terrorist.”

He removed his glasses. “I’m not. Neither are they. We were trying to rescue the people at that resort, not kill them. Look. The point is that this section of tube is in disrepair. Sure, some pieces have fallen off their mountings, but this is different. I mean, look around: the pod’s not even level. Something serious must have happened to the tube. If this were a train, we would have been derailed.”

Phoebe pulled out her phone. “I’m sure that whatever it is, the HyperLoop company will deal with it.” She was about to look up the number when she glanced at the screen in disgust. “Select service provider? Dammit. Alex canceled my phone service!” She looked at Alphon. “Can we use yours?”

“It’s risky,” he said. “When I became public enemy number one, Ferd gave me a tricked-up phone like his.” He pulled it out and looked at it briefly. “He said it sneaks through the holes in the cell companies’ routing software. The hacker collective uses them to avoid being tracked and monitored by the intelligence goons. As long as the calls are between members of the collective, it’s completely private and off-the-record. But here’s the catch: if I use it to call anyone else, the call has to enter the commercial cell phone network, so it’s visible, and the person on the other end gets tagged as a terror sympathizer. Worse: if they know who’s calling, I could get dead real fast. We all could. For right now, I think we ought to start by checking in with Ferd.”

While Alphon did that, Phoebe turned her attention back to the woman with the flashing MedAlert. Her name was Mayzee, and she was on her way to see family before a major surgery. She’d gone to New Orleans to ask a mystic she trusted about her future, but came away disillusioned when he folded the reading without a word, and refused to tell her what he’d seen in the cards.

“Do you suppose he saw how this ends?” Phoebe asked, glancing around the pod for emphasis.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he did,” Mayzee said darkly. “Fortune tellers can be notoriously cagey about telling people they’re going to die a horrible death.”

“I don’t know,” Phoebe said with a forced grin, “maybe he just didn’t want to spoil the experience for you. Sometimes, good things come out of a bad situation. When I was ten, for instance, my mom lost her job. I could tell how much that hurt her even as a kid, but I didn’t realize until much later that she looked back on it as a blessing in disguise. It pushed her into turning her back on corporate jobs entirely and setting up what, for me, was a geeky wonderland. Her Maker lab made her deliriously happy. Who knows, you may look back at this mess we’re in and laugh.”

Alphon had finished his call, and he was keeping a doleful eye on the dark windowscreen on his side of the pod.

“So?” Phoebe asked him after a beat. “What did you find out?”

“A lot, but first things first. You know the fantasyland these things normally show? The vid stream is geocoded, and each frame is keyed to the precise location of the pods. That’s how it synchs the bogus scenery to the position of the pod, regardless of what speed it’s going.” He glanced at the front and rear of the narrow pod. “The supports that these tubes hang from along through here are in soggy ground, and the ones we’re between right now have tipped over.  Well, the reason these screens went black is that when that happened, the tube shifted. We’re off-course. “

Mayzee glanced uncomfortably at the low roof, as if she could see through it.

“Tipped over,” Phoebe said, “how far?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out. I told Ferd how to patch into the security chipcams on the skin of the tube.” He caught Mayzee’s frightened expression, and spoke directly to her. “I know about them because I troubleshoot infrastructure like this for a living, or at least I used to. Anyway, he’s geocoding a couple of them so we can get the feed on our windowscreens. They should go live in a few seconds.”

A few rapid heartbeats later, Phoebe found herself looking out a ‘window’ that was angled down at the filthy lake at about a forty-five degree angle. The reflected sky was littered with clouds from the tropical storm that was tracking through the Gulf. The sensation of looking both straight out and down at the same time was disorienting. Then a frame inset itself over a portion of the screen, showing Ferd in her mother’s Maker lab.

“Are you seeing it now?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Alphon said. “Is this the view directly to the side of the tube?”

“Uh-huh. But I’ve also got this.” The image changed to an aerial shot, looking down at the tube. “It’s an IndyMedia camera-drone that was close enough for us to borrow for a while. If anything happens, they plan to stream it live.”

“If anything happens,” Phoebe echoed. “Look, you two, if we’re in danger, shouldn’t you be focused on determining the situation? How stable are we up here, and how do we get out? This isn’t hypothetical, you know. We’re hanging out over the lake, for god’s sake.”

“Yeah,” Alphon said, “I was just getting to that. The tubes have expansion joints, which allows them to flex. In some places, that’s insurance against earthquakes; here it’s protection from hurricanes. From what I can see from that drone, the joints flanking us are at their maximum extension. They’re what’s holding us up at the moment. Worse, the supports we’re between are now hanging from the tube, and that’s putting even more stress on the next set of supports out. Can you get us a look at them?”

While Ferd turned the drone to sight along the tube, and then swooped down to show the expansion joint and the tipped support, Mayzee pushed into her seat and re-fastened the restraint. “I don’t know,” she said, “That all sounds like an accident waiting to happen.”

“It’s not really an accident, ma’am,” Ferd told her.

She peered suspiciously at Alphon, who was watching something on the windowscreen behind her. “Hey guys,” he said, “I think we’ve got company.”

Phoebe turned to look. The camera on that side of the tube was now angled up, so it was mostly just clouds and sky, but at the bottom of the screen there was a HyperLoop maintenance drone — a large, logoed quadcopter equipped with a variety of cameras, sensors and manipulators.

“Okay, good,” he said. “That means HyperLoop dispatch knows we’re stuck here. What they didn’t know until just now was that their tube’s at risk. We’re sitting on the edge of a potential avalanche, so to speak, and they’ve got to decide what to do.”

“They’d better make that decision pretty quick,” Ferd said. “IndyMedia’s front-paged the feed. We’re gonna have an audience.”

Just then, an alert tone sounded in the pod, and all of the seat-back screens lit up with the HyperLoop logo. That faded to the harried face of a company PR flack. “This is Cuthbert Robbins,” he said. “On behalf of everyone at HyperLoop Transit, I would like to apologize for the inconvenience and delay that you are experiencing. We are working to remedy the situation and to ensure that every passenger arrives safely. Unfortunately, we do not know how long this delay will last. Please remain calm. In the meantime, you may enjoy any of the content available on the seatback entertainment unit at no charge.”

Once the screens cleared, Phoebe shook her head doubtfully. “Remain calm? Who does he think he’s kidding? Judging from that performance, I’d say they’re worried.”

“So am I,” Mayzee said while massaging her leg. “What did your friend mean, it isn’t an accident? Did you people have something to do with the Barrage and that resort or not?”

All three spoke at once. “It’s complicated.” What followed was a confluence of details that Phoebe, Alphon and Ferd hadn’t taken the time to assemble before. Alphon described his work troubleshooting infrastructure failures, noting that he focused mainly on situations where a minor problem can cause catastrophic damage. It took a few examples before she finally understood why he’d spoken of an avalanche earlier. Ferd then jumped in with a brief history of the effects that climate change had had on sea life, and that when that’s coupled with all of the resin-based trash being tossed into the oceans, mankind had inadvertently evolved resin-eating bacteria.

“That’s what ties all of this together,” Phoebe said. “My mother discovered that a biological counteragent had been developed forty years ago, but it was snatched up in the IP crackdown and suppressed. She and Ferd managed to get a sample. Without it, anything made with resin will start to break down if it gets seawater on it with that bacteria.”

“That’s what happened to the Golden State Barrage,” Alphon said.

“What about the resort, then?” Mayzee asked, still massaging her leg. “Were those mutant bacteria of yours responsible for that, too?”

The thought of all those people intentionally frozen to death under the ice was enough to cause Phoebe to change the subject. “If your leg’s hurting that bad,” she said, “it could be a clot.”

Mayzee waved her off. “Even if it is, there’s not much we can do about it until we get out of here. Anyway, I really want to know. Did those people die because of resins, too?”

Nobody answered immediately, but Ferd finally broke the silence. “Indirectly.”

“Indirectly? What’s that, your idea of spin? Either it was an accident, or someone’s at fault, and the news seems to think it’s vipers like you.”

“It’s complicated,” he said. “The bacteria mutated because global warming acidified seas that were already clogged with mountains of resinous garbage. And although these climate changes began as the unforeseen consequence of unfettered industrialization of the world, when the greedy money barons realized how much profit was to be made from not only blocking any attempt at mitigation, but by actually encouraging it, they plunged the whole world into a one-way trip to—.”

Ferd’s rant was cut off by another announcement on the seat-back screens. “This is Cuthbert Robbins again. We apologize for the delay. A repair crew are now en route to your location, and should be there momentarily. As a safety precaution, please secure your restraints and stow any loose objects. The crew intends to uncouple the tube joint nearest you, so that the pod can be extracted and airlifted to safety. Please be assured, we have done this on other occasions, and there is absolutely nothing to worry about.”

Alphon angrily smashed his fist against the wall of the pod, causing it to shudder. “What crap!”

Phoebe spoke with enforced calm. “What? Won’t it work?”

“Well, for one thing, they’ve never tried that before, and even if they did, it wouldn’t work. Those carbon-fiber joints were knit. They weren’t designed to be uncoupled.”

Mayzee paled. “Then why are they going to do it?”

“Why do you think?” Ferd said as he swung the Indymedia drone around and started to sweep the area. “The HyperLoop run to New Orleans has been a white elephant for years. That’s why they don’t spend anything on maintenance. This ‘accident’ is all the excuse they need to declare it a lost cause, shut it down, and write off the investment.” He interrupted himself. “Hold on, here they are.” He zoomed in on the approaching air traffic: an industrial demolition airship equipped with torches, grappling hooks, and self-guided explosives.

While it drew near, Phoebe turned to face Alphon. “Tell me something. Is the tube made with resin, too?”

He nodded. “So’s the pod.”

She thought for a moment, and then her eyes grew wide. “Can this thing float?”

“For a while. Well, until it fills with water.”

Mayzee gasped. “You mean we’re all going to drown?”

“Gallows humor,” Alphon said darkly. “We might. You’ve got your choice of that or a fatal blood clot.”

Ferd moved the borrowed drone a safe distance away, and trained the camera on the airship, which had parked above the section of tube that was teetering over the water. Two men climbed out onto the equipment boom and started setting up what looked like a combination of a cutting disk and a high-powered laser. “What will happen,” he said, “when they split the tube?”

Alphon grimaced. “That all depends on how much the bacteria have weakened the resin holding it together.” He held his hands up as if he were grasping the tube from above. “In theory, and if it hasn’t been weakened, the tube should be stiff enough to remain horizontal. Severing it should make it act like two sections of flexible gooseneck.” He moved one hand away from him, and drew the other closer. “Then, if they moved them apart, it ought to be possible to hook some sort of harness to the pod, so they can slide it out of the tube. I’m guessing that’s what the airship’s for, to hang this pod from so it can be carried to somewhere that it can be set down and opened.”

“And,” Phoebe prompted when he didn’t drop the other shoe, “if it has been weakened? What then?”

“At least we’re not too high. The fall won’t kill us.”

Mayzee breathed heavily.

“Damn,” Ferd said. “None of this would have happened if they hadn’t suppressed that IP forty years ago. The stuff Meg and I got a sample of is supposed to disrupt the bacteria’s ability to build cell walls with the molecules it strips from the resin. Only we never got a chance to try it out.”

“I know,” Alphon replied. “The Golden State Barrage wouldn’t have failed either. The whole world would have been different. Cretins.”

Phoebe watched the windowscreen intently as the workers lit the laser. “What’s that for,” she asked, pointing at it.

“Believe it or not,” he said, “it’s for cooling. As I understand it, the beam is modulated to counter the vibrations in the cutting disk.”

As they touched the disk to the woven carbon fiber of the HyperLoop tube, an earsplitting shriek filled the pod. It went on and on as the tube shuddered from the action of the cutting wheel. And then, three things happened at once: the tube shifted again, moving the pod still further out over the lake, the horrendous noise stopped, and the screens went dark.

Alphon laughed humorlessly. “There goes our geocoded sweet spot.”

“About that gooseneck theory of yours,” Phoebe said into the momentary stillness, “did it include the weight of those broken supports hanging from the tube?”

He shook his head.

“I didn’t think so.”

Just then, the ground fell out from under them. The pod angled down, front end first. It thudded first against the floor of the tube, then against the roof as they bumped further along the severed sleeve. The pod’s downward slide turned into a sort of a padded bounce as it plunged into the lake and then bounced back up in the tube. It bounced several more times, each smaller than the last, until it finally stopped, with the pod angled down at about a forty-five degree angle. It was eerily quiet: the circulation fans had stopped, and everyone was holding their breath.

Mayzee, who was hanging limply from her restraint, broke the moment with a squeaked, “We’re all gonna die.”

“What we’re gonna do,” Phoebe told her firmly, “is get out of here alive. All of us. How’s your leg?”

She rubbed it briefly. “It hurts. Feels swollen.”

Phoebe looked over at the seat to Mayzee’s right. “Alphon? You okay?”

He stared right past her, dazed. “I’ve never—.”

“What?”

“Never been in one.” His voice was distant, his affect, flat.

Hers was gentle, almost a caress. “One what, Alphon?”

“A collapse. I’ve built fragile systems since middle school just so I could watch them fail. Now it’s my job. But it’s always been about someone else, not me. They’re always disasters. People die.” He twitched as traces of thoughts and memories worried his face. “It’s all so senseless, like that news intern swept under in Oakland. They drown, or they’re crushed, or burned. It’s why I look for causes: to save the next kid.” He closed his eyes. “But, now what do we do? We’re trapped in here. They think I’m a terrorist. They want me dead. Why would they want to save us?”

Phoebe snapped her fingers. “Alphon,” she said. “Listen to me. They don’t know you’re in here. As far as they’re concerned, we’re just three trapped tourists. They’ll get us out because it would be bad PR to do otherwise. Besides, you heard what Ferd said: IndyMedia front-paged the incident. It’s public. People, at least some of them, know what happened. They have to follow through on the rescue now. It’s like that avalanche you were talking about earlier.”

“Avalanche. Then what do we do? How do we get out?” He looked up, dazedly, at the rear of the pod. “We’re obviously still stuck in the tube.”

She nodded, hoping to prod him back into the moment. “Yeah. And we’re just as obviously nose-down in the lake. What does that tell you?”

He frowned, and looked down towards the front of the pod. “That the tube and part of the pod are bathing in a dilute solution of mutant bacteria.”

Phoebe completed the thought. “Which will eventually dissolve anything made with resin, like the tube, and probably this pod. How long does that take? How long do we have before the water starts getting in? How long do we have to get out of here?”

Mayzee glared uncomfortably at her. “I don’t understand why you’re so gung-ho. Don’t you get it? We’re like rats in a broken sewer pipe. We’re all gonna drown!”

Phoebe put her hand on Mayzee’s shoulder to calm her. “We’re not going to drown. How could we if we’re going to get that leg looked at?” She turned to Alphon, who was looking a bit livelier. “Speaking of which, shouldn’t you call Ferd back?”

“Ferd. Right.” He braced himself against the seat in front of him, and released his restraint. Standing athwart the seats, he pulled out his phone and made the call.

While Alphon was busy with the phone, Phoebe climbed over the center rest beside him, and helped to release Mayzee, whose leg was beginning to look a bit swollen. She thought back to a medical vid she’d edited, and realized that the clot was blocking a vein: blood was pushing a detour through the capillaries and building up pressure. A lot could happen, and none of it was good. The vein could rupture. Some of the clot could break off and damage the heart. It was so much like what Alphon was talking about, but it was a lot more personal. Mayzee needed medical help, but she had to keep it from him for now, or he might freak out again.

Alphon stood there for a long moment after lowering the phone, just staring into space. “Well,” he said abstractedly, “it looks like that’s our only option.”

“What is?”

“Hunh?” he said, startled out of his reverie. His face was pale. “The door. We’re going to have to crack the door.”

Mayzee glanced at the gull-wing door, and then looked up at him. “Are you nuts? You just said we’re nose-down in the lake.”

He nodded in agreement. “We are. We’re just not deep enough. In order to get out of here, we’ll have to get this thing a lot further underwater.”

“Could you back up a bit?” Phoebe said. “What did you find out from Ferd?”

He held out his arm so it was bent downwards at a forty-five degree angle. “Think of my arm as the tube. The bottom end is in the water. This pod is inside, and it’s floating. The airship can’t raise the tube, so the only way to get out is for us to go down. We can do that by cracking the door and letting some water in.”

“I get that. What did you find out from Ferd?”

Alphon didn’t answer immediately, so she let the question linger. Watching his face, she realized that whatever it was that Ferd had told him, he needed to work up the nerve to repeat it. When he finally did answer, it was in a hoarse whisper. “Those two men we saw. One of them was a rookie. Neither of them had ever tried to sever a tube like that before. Well, no one has.” Some earnestness returned to his voice. “It was one of the design flaws I’d researched for my thesis. The carbon fiber in those things is woven under enormous pressure. Because the bacteria had weakened the structure, when they cut through the moorings of the expansion sleeve, a slice of the tube sprang free and pretty much cut them in half.” He looked away and swallowed. “Two men. Dead. Killed trying to save the three of us. And the world saw it, thanks to that IndyMedia cam. So now we’re the top news story, and the commercial media are out there now to cover the horror show.”

“What’s the HyperLoop company going to do?”

He nodded and took a deep breath. “The government told them to stand down. The military have been called in, but they’re not saying what they’ll do when they get here.”

“So why not just wait?”

He stared at her in disbelief. “Wait? We’re accused terrorists. Well, at least I am. The last thing I want is for the military to save me. No, we’ve got to get out of here before they arrive. At least that way we can face the media on our terms.”

Phoebe thought it over. “Okay, so we sink the pod. Then what? I don’t see what that gains us. Once we’ve gotten enough water in here to drop out of the tube, we’re no longer floating. Wouldn’t we just sink to the bottom? How do we get out?”

“There’s a chance. If we’re careful about how much water we let in, the pod will slowly sink lower in the water. Ferd said the front end of the pod is already sticking out of the tube a bit. As we let the water in, more of the pod will emerge, and it will start to level out. So here’s the idea. If we move to the rear of the pod while we’re doing it, we can help to tip it around the edge of the tube, and then it’ll start to float up towards the surface.”

“That’s nuts,” Mayzee said. “If you let the water in, it’s going that way.” She pointed at the front of the pod. “What good would it do for us to move to the other end?”

Phoebe thought about it for a moment, and recalled some of the experiments she’d done as a kid at her mother’s maker lab. “No,” she said, “I think he’s got a point. All right, let’s do it. How do we crack the door?”

“The crank is behind the center windowscreen.” He ran his hand along the top of the bezel, and smiled when he found the latch. “Okay. That released the stiffeners.” When he threw the matching bottom latch, the screen rolled up into the top bezel, revealing a dedicated control panel, a crank that had been folded flat, and the port that it fit into. He pulled the crank off it’s mounting, reconstituted it, and stuck the end into the port. “When I turn this, the lower edge of the door will break its seal. It’s going to be messy. You two get as high as you can towards the back of the pod.”

Once they were in place, he slowly turned the crank until a spray of water spread across the lower edge of the gull-wing door. As the water pooled in the front end of the pod, all three exchanged worried glances. A moment later, the pod shifted. There was a scraping noise as they dropped lower in the water and the angle flattened a bit, at which point he hurriedly cranked it closed again.

“That’s good. That’s good,” he said, relieved. “The nose of this thing is free of the tube. From here, it’s just a matter of finding the midpoint.”

“Just?” Mayzee squeaked. “How’re you going to do that? This isn’t a game, you know.”

“Actually, it is, sort of,” Phoebe said lightly. She gestured for Alphon to continue and braced herself as high against the rear of the pod as she could, while describing an ancient game that her mother had once showed her. It was a physics simulator that could be set for any number of environments. The one she’d enjoyed the most as a kid was a reverse-gravity setup, which was a lot like trying to build something underwater with some pieces that floated, and others that sank.

The water was up past Alphon’s ankles when he cranked the door shut again and looked around. The pod was still canted at a slight angle, but was nearly level. “All right,” he said. “We’re there. In a way, we’re sitting at the top of the mountain, just before the avalanche lets loose. This thing’s still buoyant enough to rise if it weren’t for the tube holding us down, and we’re balanced on the edge. If we can get your end to slip a little further against the inside of the tube, we’ll slide out and up to the surface.”

“And how, exactly,” Mayzee asked, now wholly entranced with Phoebe’s vision of their situation as a real-life puzzle game, “do we do that?”

“Simple,” Phoebe answered. “We jump. All three of us at once.”

Alphon joined them at the rear of the pod, and together they bounced up and down in unison, until suddenly the pod shifted again, and the front became the highest point. The sound of the roof of the pod scraping against the edge of the tube moved further and further towards the rear, and then it stopped entirely as the pod floated free of the tube and began to wobble as it found its center of mass.

“See?” he said, elated. “I told you we could get out of there.”

“There is one other minor problem,” Phoebe reminded him. “How are we going to—?” Her question was cut short by a sudden movement, as the pod was clearly being lifted by something.

He grinned. “I think that’s been taken care of.”

A few minutes later, the pod was set down, the gull-wing doors started to lift and the water poured out. Before they had opened completely, Phoebe ducked out and looked around. The shadow of the giant construction claw looming over the pod reflected the foreboding in her gut. Like the avalanche that Alphon had alluded to, a chain of events had been set in motion that was beyond her control, and she was now in the center of them. It was work that her mother had begun, and that she was now firmly in the grasp of. And just as the pod had been lifted free of disaster by other hands than hers, so was her fear of following in her mother’s footsteps lifted free of the cage that Alex had lured her into. She steeled herself to whatever lay ahead, and demanded that Mayzee be immediately taken to the nearest hospital. While that was being seen to, the crush of reporters, bloggers and citizen journalists closed in and started firing questions at her.

“Hold it, hold it,” she laughed. “One at a time.” She scanned the faces arrayed before her and pointed at a middle-aged woman wearing a head-mounted A/V kit and a New Orleans press ID, a woman whose intensity reminded her of her own mother’s when she escaped her own captivity. “How about you first?” The other reporters acceded to Phoebe’s choice, and held their own questions while she described the vidgame they’d emulated in order to free the pod.

Alphon, who had put his borrowed sunglasses back on, stood quietly beside Phoebe and listened to the exchange. When Phoebe finished describing how she felt while they were bouncing the pod to freedom, the reporter suddenly stopped mid-sentence and peered at him curiously. “I haven’t asked for your names,” she said cryptically, “and I think you know why.”

He remained impassive, but said nothing.

“So let me ask you directly. Are you Alphon Quince?”

He removed his glasses and nodded. “First of all,” he said, “I’m no terrorist. It’s my job to analyze impending failures in the public infrastructure. That’s what I was doing the day the Golden State Barrage collapsed. It wasn’t blown up by terrorists; certainly not me, and not anyone else, either. It failed for one reason, and one reason alone: because the oceans have responded to what mankind has done to the planet. It failed because the resins holding it together were eaten by mutant bacteria, the same bacteria that weakened the supports holding up these HyperLink tubes, and which will destroy anything else they get on that’s made with resin. That means virtually everything in the modern world. But it didn’t have to be this way. Oakland didn’t have to be drowned. Forty years ago, a biological counteragent was developed, a counteragent that was suppressed by the same corporate and banking interests that have profited from encouraging the pollution that has plunged this planet into a vicious cycle of warming which made it necessary to have built the Barrage in the first place.”

When he stopped to catch his breath, the reporters pressed closer and peppered him with questions. While he was answering, his phone rang, so he handed it to Phoebe and continued to make his case.

She ducked back inside the pod and took the call. “That you, Ferd?”

“Yeah. That was superb. And thanks to IndyMedia, it’s being streamed everywhere. But I’ve got to ask you something.”

“Hmm?”

“Did you really know what Alphon was up to?”

“When?”

“Earlier on, when you were distracting Mayzee. Did you know what he had in mind?”

“Actually, I—. Wait a minute. How do you know what we talked about? I didn’t tell the press about that.”

“True,” he said, “but the pods do have security cams. The Hacker Collective, remember? We diverted the signal to give you some privacy. Come on. You’re in good company now. You two really have to stop trying to do everything yourselves.”

THE END

[The story continues in “Standing to Resist“]

Copyright 2014 by P. Orin Zack


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