This series started with the story, ‘Bait‘.
“Standing to Resist”
(Part 5 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Having a medicinal herb garden wasn’t exactly something you told the neighbors about in East Chicago. For one thing, self-medication was grounds for losing your government-mandated insurance card, which, eighty years after the Affordable Care Act became law, had become enough to get you ostracized from what became a grudgingly polite society, not to mention cut off from any government services you might have needed. But Rafi Thandri’s indoor garden was even more off-label than that. The really damning feature about it was the way it was watered: with rain collected in a modified recycling barrel that was hidden in the attic.
Right now, though, his main concern was the leak in the gutter that diverted water to the barrel. That was because his sister Eshana was running short of a few ingredients she used for compounding a salve that was especially popular among the maintenance crew at the Daley Transshipment Center, and the herbs didn’t much like the chemical cocktail in the city’s corporate water supply. He steadied himself and looked down at the puddle spreading out across the barren ground below. Trying to grow anything that wasn’t a genmod on land that used to be an old steel mill was a fool’s errand, so you could either shell out hard-earned money to green your yard, or do what the Thandris did, and turn it into a rock garden. Inside, however, hidden away from public view, they had a patch of what ought to have been healthy hydroponic greenery, except for that nasty leak. For the moment, the primary beneficiary of their rainwater was the rock garden, and that’s why he was on the roof on this brisk autumn day while she was inside keeping warm.
Eshana’s main concern, on the other hand, was about a thousand miles south of them. When he went back inside, she was still watching the IndyMedia vid feed of the stretch of HyperLoop tube in Louisiana that had tipped over and was hanging over Lake Pontchartrain.
“Did I miss anything?” he asked as he came up behind her.
She glanced up at him and chuckled. “Yeah. And you’ll never guess who was trapped inside.”
“Seriously?” he said, still wiping his hands. “Did he just come out and tell them, or did someone beat him to it?”
“That you, Rafi?” The disembodied voice was that of Ferdinand Wu-McCrory, better known as Ferd to other members of the Hacker Collective. Audio-only chats were hard-core retro, but when you’re tunneling through the corporate cell network, privacy trumped the bandwidth requirements of an illicit vid stream.
“It is. My sister said you’re driving the Indy-cam feed we’re watching. They planning on paying you a bounty for the scoop?”
The mystery HyperLoop passenger was Alphon Quince, a freelance infrastructure troubleshooter from California. He’d been accused of blowing up the Golden State Barrage, which had kept the risen sea at bay for most of the century, causing billions of dollars in flood damage to Oakland and the Central Valley; of murdering a known subversive named Meg Butler, whose daughter Phoebe was in the pod with him; and of masterminding the destruction of the Cold Comfort resort in Greenland, along with the murder of dozens of high-ranking financial officials from business and governments around the world, who were there for a conference. Ferd had borrowed the IndyMedia camera drone to help Quince and the others escape, and was now using it to stream the unexpected press event to the world.
“Nah,” Ferd told him, “for as long as this has taken, I should be paying them rental on the gear.”
Eshana shushed them both so she could hear. Ferd had auto-framed the vid on the man’s face, so it followed when he moved, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he weren’t so nervous. He couldn’t have been more than his early twenties, but the color in his hair was stripped to make him look prematurely gray, and he had the kind of unnaturally earnest expression that kept you hanging on his words, even when he wasn’t saying anything, which at the moment, he wasn’t. If anything, he looked thoughtful, as if he’d been asked the most important question that anyone had ever asked him. He was very still for a few seconds, and then stole a sidelong glance at Phoebe, before nodding at whoever had asked that question.
“You have every right to ask that, ma’am,” he said, “after all, the military are supposed to be here any minute now, and this is probably the last chance anyone will get to question me directly. So yes, I did study infrastructure failures for a personal reason. But it wasn’t revenge, like you said the government claims. It was because of my little brother, Tony.” Quince took a deep breath and wet his lips. “He died because the Central Banking Coalition in Basel was more concerned with profits than safety. To them, a few kids crushed to death in a public school collapse was just another cost of doing business, a minor wrinkle in their drive to eliminate what they called ‘engineering overkill’ in government-funded projects, such as schools and the public infrastructure.”
Rafi’s mood darkened. “Overkill,” he muttered. “It’s a wonder they haven’t registered that as a brand name for Chicago River water.”
The reporter, who Quince had singled out to lead the questioning, seized on the obvious follow-up. “Was that also why the ice cave over the Cold Comfort resort collapsed?”
“No,” he said, the wistful expression of moments before now replaced by a serious intensity. “That was a combination of short-term stupidity on the part of their rescue manager and what their lust for profits have done to the world’s climate over the past century.” He nodded towards his traveling companion. “It was something I learned from Phoebe’s mother, Meg Butler, the woman I’ve been accused of murdering. If national governments had been permitted to act in the public interest and address the causes of global warming, that ice cave wouldn’t have been so fragile, and the Golden State Barrage would still be standing. But the Basel cartel, which controls most of the world’s central banks and writes national fiscal policy, dictates environmental and social policy as well.” He shook his head in annoyance. “We’ve all been duped into acceding to governance that only serves them, governance that has done irreparable harm to the people and to the planet.”
A dozen reporters simultaneously leapt the niceties of self-restraint and fired questions at him. Did he have proof? Could he substantiate his accusation? Would he name names? He held up his hands to stop the onslaught, and was about to speak when he was cut short by a shriek and the sound of gunfire.
Eshana started and called out to Ferd, who’d already thrown the camera drone back into manual and was turning it towards the source of the attack: the military had arrived. When she saw the buzz-cut faces on the screens of three telepresence drones hovering over the VTOL disgorging ground troops, she muttered “Gotcha!” and bolted into action.
As she strapped on a head mounted neural-induction gaming controller, Ferd swiveled the Indy-cam away from the remote weapons platforms and headed out over the lake. “They’re going to want to shut me down,” he said. “I’ll lead them away to buy you some time.”
“What are you doing?” Rafi asked.
“Taking over one of those drones,” she said. “We cracked their security last year, but didn’t dare make use of it for fear of losing our in. This ought to even up the game a bit.”
While his sister wrestled control of the drone from its driver, Rafi found a wild feed from the press and put it on screen beside the Indy-cam’s view of the two approaching military drones. Quince was on his hands and knees, straddled over a very bloody Phoebe Butler. She’d been torn apart by that first shot. Clearly, Eshana was going up against military sniper pilots. “Better hurry,” he told her, “they’re closing on him.”
On the wild feed, Quince was just starting to stand up when the image froze, and was replaced by an error code, so Rafi wiped it aside in favor of the view from Eshana’s drone. She was coming up behind the two that had gone after Ferd’s borrowed Indy-cam. Without wasting a moment, she lasered the stabilizers on each of them. The sniper pilots broke left and right to try catching her in crossfire, but their craft didn’t respond smoothly enough to the tight maneuver and wobbled unsteadily.
Rafi smiled when he saw what was on the screen of the captured drone as it approached Ferd’s craft: it was a Guy Fawkes mask, long a symbol of the anonymous opposition to corporate governance. He was about to say something when the view spun crazily.
“Damn,” Eshana said, “he’s been clipped.”
His worried look turned to panic at the sound of a sudden pounding on the door.
“Police!” a muffled voice called out. “Open up! We have a warrant for your arrest!”
She glanced at him, and then at the door. Ignoring the interruption, she turned her drone around and began to close in on one of the snipers.
There was a much louder noise from a cupped explosive, and the door burst open, revealing three men in black armor, one of whom leveled a rifle in their direction.
“Raf Thandri?” the leader said.
Rafi stood and turned to face them, hoping that they’d think Eshana was busy with a video game. “What’s this about?”
The leader nodded at the other two, who then strode in and stood flanking Rafi. “You’re under arrest for felony water theft, for owning an illegal water barrel, and for operating an unlicensed growery.”
Eshana tore her attention away from the chase for a moment. “Those water laws only serve the company that owns the lake,” she said. “They’re unconstitutional.”
“The law’s the law,” he said flatly.
Rafi flashed to what his sister’s temper might unleash on them both, made a snap decision, and bought her some time by distracting the police with idle chatter while they cuffed him. Meanwhile, she re-engaged with the sniper, firing continuously until her drone was out of ammo, and the charge in its power cells went flat. As the scene in the vid frame whipped around, he caught a glimpse of Ferd’s Indy-cam plunging into the lake, followed closely by the sniper she was targeting. Seconds later, the captured drone plummeted towards the lake, and then the vid flashed to black.
* * *
Eshana disengaged from the faux reality that had been layered over her senses by the so-called ‘unsafe’ game controller. She slipped it off as she rose to face the police, and stood there, silently fuming against the enforced helplessness of the situation.
It had been her discovery of a banned book about Miranda rights that originally led to her joining the Hacker Collective, rights that had long since been abolished under pressure from the very same corporate-government treaty that forced the US and Canada to cede ownership of the Great Lakes to a faceless transnational in some kind of debt-for-resources scam. If you kept your head down and didn’t make trouble, you could live a relatively untrammeled life. But it was hardly a free one, and now that Rafi had been busted, it could never be a safe one.
After the police frogmarched him out to their military-style assault truck, they returned with sledges and crowbars, and proceeded to destroy the hydroponic herb garden in the back bedroom, and then to rip out every bit of the irrigation system that Rafi had so carefully hidden in the attic over it.
She wanted to kill them. She wanted to rip out their throats and then make them scream for mercy. But more than that, she wanted to skewer their masters and roast them over a volcanic vent. It was all she could do to restrain herself until they had satisfied themselves and finally left her home.
Rafi would be okay for the moment. She knew that. He’d prepared for his eventual ‘day in court’ by knowing the intricacies of the laws he was flouting. And that let her focus on how she was going to retaliate. Because now, it wasn’t just about them, it wasn’t just about two people ensnared in a web of disingenuous laws that prized profits over people. The truth about who was responsible for not just allowing, but encouraging changes to the world’s climate in the service of unalloyed greed, which she and the Hacker Collective had helped Alphon Quince announce to the world, meant that she, and those like her, who were responsible for making the oligarchy’s tech function smoothly, could no longer sit idly by. By their acquiescence, they were enabling it to continue. And that had to stop.
But first she needed a plan. She needed a target. And she needed to make sure that what they did would not be misunderstood. It had to be clear. It had to be focused. And it had to flow naturally from what the Collective had helped Quince to set in motion. In short, it meant she needed Ferd.
“Crap, Ferd!” she said, reaching for the tricked-up phone she used for Collective business. It didn’t take long for her to get him on the secure line, and then to round up the crew that had organized the group’s truncated effort to rescue the workers at the Cold Comfort Resort.
“While Eshana and I were keeping the sniper drones busy,” he told the others, “Alphon gave the press that stayed around an earful, more than I think he would have said if they hadn’t shot Phoebe Butler to try to isolate him.”
“With the Indy-cam out of action,” she asked, “how did they get the story out?”
“That’s where things got interesting,” another voice on the conference replied. “Simon J, here. Anyway, two of those reporters used sketchy uplinks to vid what happened next. And people – just regular folks who support our cause – started to jump on it. They passed word of what Quince had said, especially the bit about how the cretins in Basel figured it was more profitable to worsen the climate disaster than to let national governments try to fix it. In fact, when he brought up their heist of the Great Lakes—.”
“Wait, what?” she interrupted.
“The Great Lakes,” Simon repeated. “You didn’t know the Basel bankers owned the lakes?”
“No, but it sure explains a lot. It also gives me an idea.”
“Yeah. What do you know about the Chicago River?”
“Only that it’s a cesspool. Why?”
“Well, about two hundred years ago,” she said, “the Army Corp of Engineers flipped it on its ass. They dredged the crap out of it, built a canal and then some locks. The scheme was sold to the public as a solution to Chicago’s sanitation problem, but the shipping companies had a better use for it. They hauled freight up the St. Lawrence Seaway, through the lakes, then out through the locks on the Chicago River to the canal leading to the Des Plaines River, and from there all the way down to New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Okay,” Ferd said, “you’ve got my interest. What’s your idea?”
“It’s the locks. Even though the container freight is transferred from the lake fleet to the river ships at the Daley Transshipment Center, tankers still have to go through the locks. They’re demand-driven; a part of the just-in-time supply chain infrastructure those ‘Morons in Business Attire’ are always crowing about. They’re also a choke point of monumental proportions. If those locks were to get stuck open, the tankers couldn’t leave the lake, and their inland shipping route would be toast. It’s not like they can reroute those tankers through the Atlantic Hurricane Vortex. You saw what happened to the wildcat freighter that tried to buck those winds last year.”
“Hold it, hold it,” Simon said, aghast. “Are you nuts? Sure, that’d hobble the shipping industry for a bit, but what else would it do? Look, I live in Nebraska. We used to get our drinking water from the Ogallala Aquifer before Obama’s Folly fouled it with Canadian shale tar. You foul Lake Michigan with the swill in the Chicago River, and we’re all going to die of thirst out here. No, I think you should lay off messing with those locks. The world is too fragile to go messing with it like that. Besides, who knows what else might happen?”
“Alphon, would,” Ferd said matter-of-factly. “I think we should ask him what he thinks. Hold on, I’ll see if I can loop him back in.”
After several rings, a woman’s voice came on. “Hello?”
“Who is this?” he asked her.
“I’m Cinquetta Mills. Freelance reporter,” she said. “Who are you?”
When Eshana recognized the woman’s voice, she blurted out, “Hey, you’re the one who realized it was Quince trapped in that pod, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Look. This phone, or whatever it is, was on the ground. Phoebe Butler must have had it when she was—.” She suddenly broke off, leaving the line momentarily filled with an indistinct hubbub. “Who are you people?”
“Friends of theirs, Ms. Mills,” Ferd said. “We’re the Hacker Collective, and we need to speak to him.”
“Okay, but he’s kind of busy right now. Listen.”
The hubbub returned, and quickly resolved into a welter of overlapping voices. She must have stepped closer to Alphon because his voice grew louder and more distinct. “—and that makes it a war crime,” he said emphatically.
“But sir,” another voice said, “even if it is, what can we do about it?”
“What’s going on? Who’s he talking to?” Ferd asked.
“Ground support for those killer drones. Two of them fired on their commander’s drone when he murdered Ms. Butler, and blew it up. Then, several of the others raised their weapons, and were about to kill the first two, when Quince stood up after seeing what was left of Ms. Butler, and saluted them. He just stood there at attention, with his arm cocked and tears streaming down his face. That’s when it happened. I don’t know why, but the other soldiers lowered their weapons. One of them joined Quince’s salute, and then the rest followed suit. It was surreal.”
“Damn,” Eshana said. “Were there pictures? Vids? I mean, with you folks being the press and all. Is there a record of this?”
“I don’t know about the others, but my head-mount A/V set’s been live the whole time.”
There was an awkward silence, and then Ferd said, “Including now?”
“Um hmm. Is that going to be a problem?”
“I don’t know. But now we really need to talk to Alphon. Could you hand him the phone, please?”
While she was waiting for Quince to join the conversation, Eshana went into the back bedroom to survey the mess that the police had made, and shuddered from the stench. The neat rows of Rafi’s hydroponic herb plats had been hacked to shreds. The plants he’d been growing were piled up against the wall and then doused with some sort of foul-smelling poison. Quince came on the line while she was peeling the privacy film off the windows, so she finished opening them, and then headed back to the living room.
“Calculated? No, not at all,” he was saying when she sat down. “I was petrified. The only thing I could think of right then was that those two soldiers had avenged her death. They’d honored her dignity as a human being at the risk of their own lives, and I had to thank them for it. I mean, look. Phoebe is dead because of me. So is her mother. I’m so sorry, Ferd. I know they were like family to you. But what can I do? I’m too dangerous to be around now, even for these soldiers, and especially for the press that stayed.”
“I’ll tell you what you can do, buddy,” Ferd told him firmly, “you can help us to fight back. You want to take it from here, Eshana?”
It struck her, as she was about to speak, that Alphon Quince had enough on his plate already, and that she had no right to put a decision like this on him. “I’m sorry,” she said self-consciously, “this is probably a stupid idea, but—.”
“Those are usually the best kind,” he reassured her. “Go on.”
“Living in steel country, it’s kind of hard to not realize just how much power the owners of Lake Michigan have over us. The Great Lakes supply drinking water to the better part of both the US and Canada, and with the Atlantic shipping routes at the mercy of those hurricanes that never seem to go away, they’re also essential to the Mid-Continent Shipping Corridor, which passes freight through Chicago and down to the Mississippi. Anyway, I heard what you told the press earlier, and it’s the same people. The Basel banking cartel that profits from climate disasters also owns the lakes.”
“So what did you have in mind?”
“The locks on the Chicago River. Now that they’ve made collecting rain illegal, nothing’s free. Look, I can sabotage the locks remotely, freeze them open, but we’re not sure what would happen then. Ferd said you’d know.”
“I do. That’s because it’s already happened. Building those locks unleashed ecological havoc on both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basin. What arrogance! When the Army Corps of Engineers reversed the Chicago River and made it flow into the Des Plaines instead of Lake Michigan, those idiots connected two watersheds that should have remained isolated from one another. Invasive species flooded through in both directions, and it took the better part of a century to sort it all out. No. Please. That’s a terrible idea.”
Eshana felt broken. “But we’ve got to do something!” she pleaded.
“Absolutely,” he said, the bile rising in his voice. “We do. Just not that.”
He was quiet for a moment. When he spoke it was as if he’d just had an epiphany. “I’ll tell you what then: shut down the Daley Transshipment Center.”
“The Daley Center?” Simon J asked. “Why that?”
“Because it’s a key to their power. Have you read much about military history? The Bosphorus?” With some help from the soldiers, he explained that because the Istanbul Strait was a choke point in the trade routes between Europe and Asia, it was of immense strategic and economic importance. Wars were fought over it. The Roman Emperor Constantine built his capital city there. In modern terminology, it was a profit center, a big one, because whoever owned it could charge a toll, just like the Basel banking consortium that owned the Daley Center did. “If we shut that down,” he said, “we’ll damn well have their attention.”
“Sure, “ Eshana said, “and then they’ll swat us like flies.”
“They’ll never get the chance,” Quince said calmly, “not if that’s just the opening salvo in the war.”
“What war?” Ferd said.
“The one we’re about to start. Tell me something,” Eshana, “how much of the tech that keeps us all slaves to Basel and the governments they control is automated?”
“Just about all of it. Why?”
“And whose job is it to make sure all of the equipment operates correctly?”
“Wage-slaves like me. Sys-admins. Techs of various kinds.”
“And how many of them are either members of the Hacker Collective, or supporters of your work?”
“Just about—. Oh. I see your point.”
“Not all of it,” Quince said. “That’s how it starts. That’s how we get their attention. But that’s not where it ends, and I think these soldiers know why, because they’ve just been through it. You two, why did you break ranks and shoot down your commander’s drone?”
“He committed murder, sir,” one of the soldiers said. “Our mission was originally to extract that pod from the tube and bring it in. When we arrived and found that you were already addressing the press, our mission was changed to shutting down the event and escorting you to base. He acted outside his authority, sir. She was not the enemy. He dishonored the corps.”
“But why did you do it? Weren’t you afraid that you’d face court martial?”
“Well, yes, sir. But I felt that stopping him was more important.”
“Thank you. What happened next is the crux of it, Eshana. Now the rest of you immediately thought to retaliate by shooting these two men. They were clearly in violation of military rules, and yet you stood down. Could one of you please tell my associates why?”
Two soldiers spoke at once, and then one deferred to the other. “It was what you did, sir. When you saluted them.”
“Why was that?”
“Well, sir, I think we were all pretty disgusted by what the commander did. Standing orders are to target traitors in the ranks, but none of us was willing to be first to shoot, because, well, because what they did was right. But you chose to honor them, even though you knew we were all here to prevent you from speaking. I had to stand down. There really wasn’t any other choice. Not for me, anyway. But sir?”
“A backup force will be arriving shortly. I don’t think any of us should be here when they arrive. Can we take you somewhere?”
Ferd suggested that they go to Meg Butler’s hideout in the bayou, and Cinquetta Mills asked if she could come along. Once they were en route in the transport, Alphon got back to the point. “An avalanche,” he said, “is an unpredictable series of events that happens when a system that’s in a precarious state is nudged at just the right time and place. We’re going to provide that nudge by shutting down the Daley Transshipment Center. The corporation that owns it will retaliate in the only way they can, by making life even more miserable for the people. They’ll shut down the water supply from their lake. And that will be enough to push a lot more people into action. Phoebe’s mother was right. What frightens them most is a social event cascade: a mass, uncontrollable action by the people. When she died, I swore to take them all down, and you’ve just given us the means to make that happen. This is it.”
Eshana sat back and swallowed hard. “All right,” she said. “I’m game. But I feel a bit exposed here. After all, the police just trashed my house and arrested my brother. I’ve got to be on their radar. Do I have to do this alone?”
“You’re anything but alone, sis,” Rafi said from the doorway.
Relief flooded through her. “What? I thought—?”
“It was the strangest thing,” he said, spreading his arms to offer her a hug. “When we got to the Precinct, several officers were waiting to talk with me. They took me into an interrogation room, and I gotta tell you, I was afraid they were about to beat me bloody. But instead, they showed me a vid of Alphon Quince saluting the two soldiers who fragged their commander’s drone.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“One of them asked me if I knew who it was. I about freaked. I had no idea what was going on, so I told them it was the terrorist who’s been all over the news, and asked what it had to do with me.”
Eshana suddenly remembered that she was still holding the phone, and held it up. “He’s on the phone now.”
Rafi gave her a quizzical look. “Who is?”
“Quince. The soldiers are escorting him and one of the reporters back to Ferd’s HQ at Bayou Bundis. Here, say hello.”
“This is Rafi Thandri in East Chicago,” he said. “The cops here just told me that you’re a hero. They said they want to help. What the hell just happened?”
“A cascade, Rafi,” Alphon said, laughing, “a goddamn social event cascade. Hang on, it’s going to be a hell of a ride!”
[The story continues in “Lightning Strikes“]
Copyright 2014 by P. Orin Zack