Short Story: “Lightning Strikes”

This series started with the story, ‘Bait‘.

“Lightning Strikes”
(Part 6 of a Series)
by P. Orin Zack

Victor Schandrul had been glaring at his clenched fist for so long that the reason he was angry had gotten lost in the fetid mélange of every argument he’d ever had with his parents. Ten years out of college, ten years as a Heuristics Analyst with the Port of Chicago, and he was still playing errand boy for them. “That does it,” he muttered to the autoCab as it turned left and entered the FlatOCL District, “I’ve got to move somewhere else; find another job.” The fact that his father worked for the Port might have made getting in the door easier, but the longer he stayed, the more he resented it.

As the cab pulled to a stop in front of a boxy prefab in a cramped development on the site of the old Indiana Harbor Works, his ire refocused, and he rebuked himself for agreeing to run the errand in the first place. For one thing, the stuff was illegal. Well, maybe not actually illegal, but there was no way a home-made herbal salve was on the healthcare formulary, even if his father did swear by it. He’d told his mother that buying it could get him trouble, but she’d insisted, and work was no place to make a scene. It was, however, the perfect place to look at his situation dispassionately, and let logic dictate a solution: if he had to buy the crap, then the only way to do it safely was with cash, because he certainly didn’t want a purchase like this sullying the credit score he’d spent ten years nurturing.

He confirmed the wait request that he’d logged when he ordered up the ride, got out, and took a quick look around. The neighborhood was pretty nondescript. Prefab developments usually were, but the Thandri’s house stood out anyway, because it looked like it had been recently vandalized. A section of gutter had been wrenched from its mounting and was laying in the rock garden surrounding the building, along with some roofing debris. That rock garden was the other thing that set it apart. All the other units were surrounded by a strain of genmod grass that was designed to grow in the same company’s home-store soils, a strain that was instantly recognizable by the signature green and blue striped blades. The ads were inescapable.

Approaching the house, Victor ticked off two more reasons to doubt the wisdom of this trip: there were blast marks on the door and on the adjacent siding that radiated out from the hinges, and the doorscreen was toast. Whoever had broken in wasn’t too concerned about being noticed. His pace slowed precipitously as a wave of discomfort rose from his gut. He stood there, fighting the urge to run, and unsure of how to announce his presence without an electronic intermediary. Fortunately, he was saved from that embarrassment when the door opened slightly with a loud crack, and then swung wide on complaining hinges to reveal a South Asian man with a bemused scowl. He quickly revised the tally to four as he made eye contact, and prepared for the worst.

“Who are you?” the man asked suspiciously.

He said, “I’m Vic—,” but then caught himself and started over. “Look, I was given this address for picking up a jar of Thandri salve. But I can see that you’re busy, so I’ll—.”

The man’s demeanor softened a bit. “Sorry,” he said, “We got busted. There’s no salve or much of anything else right now.”

Memories of his mother inveighing against him for giving up too easily swam through Victor’s mind. Weary of replaying that well-worn bit of melodrama, he decided to short-circuit the ploy. “When will you have some?” he asked hastily. “I could come back.”

“The truth is, the police ripped out my irrigation system. I have no idea what we’re going to do about it. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Victor sighed with relief. “No. It’s okay. Really. We’ll find something else.”

As he was getting back into the autoCab, his mind turned to the next stop on this slow-motion train wreck: his parents’ flat. Their address had already been laid in, so the nav worked out the most cost-effective route and timing, which left him with nothing to do but stew in the swamp of emotional turmoil he was about to step into.

His mother launched the first salvo before she’d even opened the door. “Show me the tin, Victor.”

He glared at the generic butler avatar on the doorscreen while two neighbors eyed him suspiciously as they walked past on their way to the elevator. “They didn’t have any, mom,” he stage-whispered. “The guy who answered the door said they’d been raided by the cops. Judging from the blast marks on the door, it wasn’t a friendly visit, either.”

She threw the door open and pulled him inside. “No salve? Oh, my lord. Your father is in terrible pain, Victor. What are we going to do?”

“We?” he echoed, and then realized that the emotional ground was about fall out from under him.

“How could you be so cruel?” she said, straightening. “After all he’s done for you. After getting you that job you keep throwing in our face, like you’re so superior because you push papers in the back office instead doing any real work.”

“It is work,” he shot back automatically as the emotional undertow took hold. “How many times do I have to tell you this? The only reason the Port of Chicago is still viable is because I’m constantly tweaking the feedback systems to keep pace with changes that break the underlying model? Dad’s on the front line of those changes. Reports from the maintenance yard are what tells us where the model breaks down. Dad would be out of work, without me, and he knows it!”

She glared at him for a moment, breathing hard through a half-open mouth.

Victor knew that look. He’d only met members of the Angolan side of her family through vid calls when he was a boy, but it was enough to realize that the flashes of anger she let slip from time to time were no accident.

“And you’d be out of work,” she said darkly, “if Rolff’s team weren’t out there getting you that precious data of yours. You need each other, Victor, and the sooner you get that through your bullheaded skull, the better off you’ll be.” With that, she turned her back on him and crossed her arms.

“What’s going on out there, Katrina?”

Victor winced at his father’s acquired German accent. The man was born in Cleveland, but he’d traded in his family’s solid Ohio inflections in the course of a foray into the cultural history of his more distant forebears. For the past two years, Rolff had stayed up nights, poring through all the German books, art, music and videos that the Internet had to offer. It was an obsession as all consuming as his mother’s life-long passion for ferretting out the so-called ‘truth’ behind the rock-solid historical events on which the nation was founded, and which have shaped the world for centuries, except that Rolff’s new accent had caused Port Security to start questioning Victor’s patriotism. His mother’s foolishness was more circumspect, but her interests were no less hazardous to his security clearance than was his father’s recent behavior.

“Your son is here, Rolff,” she said as she entered the room, the words exuding displeasure. “He didn’t get your salve.”

Victor followed her in, and flinched when he saw his father laying on the bed, propped up with pillows, “I couldn’t, Dad. They didn’t have any. And I don’t think they will. The police shut them down. Who are those people anyway?”

She rounded on him. “It doesn’t matter who they are, Victor. They could be convicted murderers for all I care. What’s important is that they make a salve that eases your father’s itching, and it’s the only thing that helps.”

Whatever it was that Rolff suffered from didn’t turn up in any of the tests that the insurance company’s doctors had run, so they wrote him off as a chronic complainer and told him to report back to work. Katrina didn’t buy it, and eventually discovered the Thandri’s salve, which at least made the condition bearable. Had it been simply a matter of a skin rash, any of a dozen over-the-counter treatments might have helped. But it wasn’t. The itching went far deeper, to the point where Rolff couldn’t stand it any longer. He’d been out for the past two weeks, complaining of an itch that was so pervasive that he couldn’t even eat or drink without making it worse. He said it felt like his whole inside was one continuous itch.

Rolff slowly and painfully turned his head so he could face Victor directly. “They’re good people,” he whispered. “Eshana is risking a lot to help me. Her salve isn’t on—.”

“Yeah, I know, Dad,” Victor said impatiently. “It isn’t on the formulary. But there’s a reason why the insurance company vets the drugs people are allowed to take. You don’t know what’s in that salve of hers.”

“And those company doctors,” Katrina said with thinly veiled contempt, “claim to not know what’s wrong with your father. But I’m pretty sure they do.”

“Oh, really? Is that the latest conspiracy theory you’re following?”

She glanced at Rolff. “It’s no theory. And you’ve been helping them. This is partly your doing.”

“My doing? What are you talking about?”

“Safety, Victor. I’m talking about the hazards that your father and his team are subjected to every single day in the maintenance bay.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

She gave him a stern look. “I’m not an idiot, Victor. I know that your job is to wrest every last penny of profit for your corporate masters by adjusting how the systems work. Well, a big part of that savings comes from eliminating the so-called ‘extra capacity’ in the equipment and procedures. But it’s not extra capacity they’re eliminating; it’s the margin of safety.” She had barely stopped to catch her breath when she started to cry.

Victor swallowed hard and tried to defuse the situation. “But Mom,” he said, “we’ve got solid data to back up those cuts. That extra—.”

“Your father’s job used to be safe,” she snapped, cutting him off. “The machines were fixed when they broke. He was issued a fresh hazard suit any time one got damaged. But all that changed. The machines are lashed up with baling wire, and they refuse to get new hazard suits. I don’t know what he’s been exposed to, but it’s something in that environment that’s done this to him. That’s why he has cuts that don’t heal properly, why he bruises so easily, and why he itches so horribly.”

He reflexively followed her gaze when she turned to look at Rolff, but the sight of his father’s anguished expression sent him fleeing for the door without another word. Victor felt trapped between his obligations to work and the demands of his family. Once he was back outside, he pulled out his phone and ordered up an autoCab to track him down on foot, the extra cost be damned. He needed to do something with the bottled-up anger, and it might as well be stomping aimlessly down the city streets until his ride found him.

All Victor could think of on the way home was what his mother had said about conditions in the maintenance bay. Broken equipment? No enviro suits? Was that really what his analyses were being used for?

By the time he fell asleep, his dark thoughts had sprouted questions about the integrity of the things that were supposedly being fixed in the maintenance bay. It was a fitful sleep, and in dream he found himself shackled to the bottom of the Thomas J. O’Brien lock on the Calumet River. One moment, the lock was dry and the sky above was blue; the next, it was a mass of steel-grey clouds that were rent by the simultaneous flash and crash of a nearby lightning strike, unleashing a downpour. Looking around, he realized that the lock’s massive gates were both sealed shut. And still the water kept rising. Fearing the worst, he screamed for help, but his own hollow echoes were the only answer. When the anguished echoes died, all that remained was the thunderous roar of the rain. He was alone, about to drown, and nobody knew he was there. Looking down, he realized he was holding a rusty spoon, so he tried digging a hole in the water. The hopelessness of the situation was so overwhelming that when he was finally shocked awake in the pre-dawn glow by an emergency alert he was so relieved he didn’t even notice that he was drenched with sweat.

Still shaken, he accepted the call without suppressing the vid. “Yeah?”

“Victor Schandrul?”

The voice was unfamiliar, so he peered at the screen for a few seconds before realizing whose face it was: Baris Fletcher, the Port Administrator. Fletcher? Where was his direct manager? Pushing that mystery aside for the moment, he straightened as best he could and asked what the situation was.

“We need you down here now, Schandrul. Our systems have been compromised, and we need to get things back under control.”

“Yes, sir. Immediately. I’ll be right there.” He was about to switch off when he changed his mind, and asked, “Where’s Nat?”

“Gone. We’ll have to make do with out her. Now get your butt in gear.”

One of the perks of working for the Port of Chicago was unlimited use of the city’s transit system. And although that saved Victor a lot of money, not owning a private car did mean that he had to shell out for the odd autoCab ride, like the one last night. But the trip to work was dead simple, or at least it usually was. At this hour, the light rail stop should have been deserted, but instead, there was a mob of restless people milling about, so he asked one of them, a woman in hotel livery, what was going on.

“I’m going to catch hell for being late,” she told him. “There was already a crowd here when I arrived. I figure there hasn’t been a train through in nearly an hour, but I’d rather believe it’s just some local system failure than what the rumors have been saying.”

He glanced around the crowd, and realized that many of them were engaged in heated conversation. “Rumors? Sorry. I haven’t checked the news. What rumors?”

She took a breath to steady herself before speaking. “That transit’s been shuttered in advance of a declaration of martial law.”

“Martial—? Why? Who?”

“The rumor is that it’s being ordered by the new Director of Financial Interests. You know, the guy who was railroaded through after the secretaries of treasury and commerce were killed in the terror attack at that resort in Greenland.”

Victor shook his head. “All I know is that there’s some kind of crisis at the Daley Transshipment Center. I got a call from the administrator. He said my boss is gone, and the control systems have been compromised. But even so, that shouldn’t have anything to do with the trains. Well, it doesn’t look I’d be getting a ride this way any time soon, so I might as well call a cab. Thanks.”

Things weren’t much calmer at the Port office. Half the crew was missing, and the rest looked frantic. Instead of reporting to his station, he went directly to Administrator Fletcher’s office.

“Good,” Fletcher said as he entered, “you’re here. Now maybe we can get things back under control.”

“You told me the system’s been compromised,” Victor said, not bothering to take the visitor’s chair. “What else do you know?”

Fletcher gave him a scornful look. “I’m an administrator, not a tech-head, Schandrul. That’s what you’re here to figure out.”

“Sure, but has anyone taken credit for it? I’ve heard rumors that—.”

“I don’t want speculation. Get me the facts, and get this place back under control! We’re hemorrhaging money here.”

“At once, sir.” He was about to turn around, when he caught himself and asked meekly, “If you don’t mind, sir, could you please tell me what happened to Natalie? And where are all the others?”

Fletcher frowned and looked away for a moment. Then he gestured for Victor to shut the door and sit down. “It’s like this,” he said. “The Hacker Collective took credit for shutting us down. They said it was because they didn’t like the politics of the owners.”

“The owners? What does the collective think the Basel banking consortium has to do with running the port? It’s just another asset in their portfolio.”

“Exactly. But once they made it political, people started taking sides. Some of them even refused to follow orders. Naturally, we had to show them the door. It’s bad enough that we’ve lost control of our equipment without having to fight our own employees to get things running again.”

Victor’s jaw dropped. “Natalie, sir? Are you telling me that my manager sided with those creeps?”

“Uh-huh. She even said that traitor Alphon Quince was a hero for murdering half the planet’s financial leaders in Greenland! That woman needs to be locked up somewhere. Unfortunately, the only thing we could do with her and the rest of her kind was to terminate them and get them off the property.”

Fortunately, Roue was still there. She was the senior Heuristics Analyst at the Port, and she’d shown him the ropes when he was first hired in, fresh out of school. She was busy at her station when he walked up, but paused to greet him as she always did at shift change. “You’re late.”

Victor laughed. “Come on, Roue,” he said as he plopped into his chair, “you know my shift doesn’t start for an hour.”

She shook her head. “Not that, Vic. You missed most of the excitement.”
He leaned closer and asked her what had happened.

“It was crazy,” she said, glancing around to see who was in earshot. “One minute the bots were shifting containers as usual, and the next everything just froze. Everything. All of the cranes stopped at once. It was eerie. There were full containers hanging out in mid-air that should have been loaded on trains or barges, empty containers that should have been positioned for loading but weren’t. The thing was, it was just the Port equipment that was stalled. The trains and barges were still all running on automatic, but we lost intersystem sync. The timing was toast.”

“So what did you do? How did you handle it?”

“Well at first, we figured the best option was to tell our shipping partners to hold fast. Just stop everything cold. That bought us some breathing room. But then the news came in.”

“News? You mean about the Hacker Collective?”

She nodded. “Yeah, and that’s when this place went nuts. You know how everyone keeps their politics on the down-low while they’re at work? Well, when that announcement hit the PA, all bets were off.”

“Why? Who was it? What did they say?”

Roue didn’t answer immediately. Then she said, “It was a woman. She said she was Maira Bundis, and that the Hacker Collective had shut down the Port to send a message.”

“A message?” Victor said incredulously.

“Yeah; to the Port’s owners in Basel. She said the world was going to know that they have used their power over businesses and governments to destroy the world’s environment because they could make a killing out of it. And since the only thing they understand is money, they were going to—.”

“Why are you two wasting time?” It was Administrator Fletcher, and he didn’t look pleased. “Get this operation back on track. Now!”

Roue looked him squarely in the eyes. “There’s nothing we can do right now, Mr. Fletcher. The folks in Maintenance Bay C are fixing a broken truss on one of the lifters. It’s got to go through the automated QC sequence before they can return it to service. Don’t worry, it won’t take much longer.”

Fletcher stiffened. “We don’t have time for that, Roue. Cut their testing sequence short and get that lifter back out there. Now!”

She pushed her chair back from the station. “No sir. It’s not safe to do that. Those procedures were put in place for a—.”

“You weren’t hired to be a safety engineer, Roue. I don’t care how long you’ve been here. Do your job, or I’ll find someone who can!”

She rose and backed away, eying Fletcher warily.

Victor looked around. Everyone else — all the people who hadn’t already been escorted off the site — had stopped what they were doing, and were slowly drawing near, like a mob about to coalesce into violence. He glanced at Roue, and then back at Fletcher, wondering what she was afraid of. And then two Port Security guards broke through the circle and flanked her.

“I’m sure you will,” she said fiercely, “but it sure as hell won’t be me.”

Fletcher nodded to the guards. They made sudden sweeping gestures to break up the crowd, and then turned and escorted Roue towards the elevators. When they had gone, Fletcher wheeled around to face Victor. “Do it. Now!”

He obediently logged in to his station and terminated the testing sequence. Then he sat back to watch the monitors as the lifter started moving back towards the loading bridge. Just as it reached the junction where it switches tracks, the lifter bucked, and in what seemed like a slow-motion dive, the entire assembly tipped over and fell backwards into the maintenance bay, ripping out a section of track as it went.

Emergency messages flooded the screens as a cascade of failures rippled across the system. And then the phone by Roue’s station sounded. It was the maintenance foreman, probably to upbraid her for prematurely canceling the test. Feeling testy about what had just happened, he reached over, touched accept, and prepared to pass the buck.

“Is Victor Schandrul there?”

He moved into camera view. “Speaking”

“Your father’s been hurt.”

Victor went cold. It felt like a spike had just been driven into his back. What had he done? “What happened?” he asked, wide-eyed. “How bad?”

“Um, look. I think you really ought to see this for yourself. We’ve called Port Emergency, but what with all the chaos out there right now, there’s not much chance they’ll get here in time to do anything.”

Victor squirmed, and stared into the eyes of the man in the vid: Rolff’s foreman. This was crazy. But he couldn’t just leave his post after what had just happened. “Just tell me, Buck. I’ll call my mom.”

“When that track ripped loose, the bulkhead he was standing near fractured, and a cable ripped his right arm open. The MedKit’s useless. Here, look…”

The image shifted as Buck turned his phone towards the deck. Rolff lay on his back. The arm of his patched-together hazard suit was shredded, and his whole right side was spattered with blood. Victor looked away in disgust, and then steeled himself, moving closer to the screen as the image focused on the injury. The lacerated flesh didn’t look right. It was like it was riddled with holes. “What…?”

“He said something before he lost consciousness.”

“Tell me,” Victor said, struggling to breathe. “What did he say?”

“It was weird. He made a claw with his other hand and started to reach across his chest. Then it fell, and he struggled to say something. All he got out was one word: resin. Do you know what he meant?”

“Not really. Look, do what you can to keep him comfortable. I’ll tell mom.”
Resin? Victor’s mind raced. He split his attention between making a flurry of hastily thought out changes to the control systems to work around the loss of that crane, and getting his mother on the phone. When she finally answered, he closed his eyes and tried to block out the memory of what he’d just seen.

“What is it, Victor? You never call me from work.”

“I think dad’s dying. There was—“ he hesitated, “—an accident. His arm was ripped open and he’s lost consciousness. Emergency’s been alerted, but they have their hands full. Buck told me he said something: resin. Any idea what that meant?”

Katrina looked out the vid at him for a long moment before speaking. “Resin. Yes, that means something, and I’ve told you about it several times, but you’ve always been too bullheaded to listen. That’s what your father has been suffering from.”

“Resin? How can he be suffering from resin? That’s not a disease, it’s building material.”

“That’s right, it’s building material. And because he doesn’t have proper protection, it’s in his lungs, embedded in his skin, and coating his entire digestive system. That’s why it itches so badly.”

“Resin,” he repeated dumbly.

“For god’s sake, Victor, didn’t you see what happened to the Golden State Barrage, to that Hyperloop tube in Louisiana? Alphon Quince says that—.”
“Quince?” he shot back, outraged. “He’s a terrorist! He was responsible for—.”

Katrina spoke right over him. “He was responsible for telling the world what really destroyed the Barrage. Victor, you may not be ready to believe this, but Quince is a hero. If it weren’t for him, nobody would know that the Basel bankers have conspired with business and governments to worsen this climate disaster so they could profit from it! The same microbes that ate the resin in the Barrage and the HyperLoop have been eating the resin in your father’s body.”

The memory of Rolff’s hole-ridden flesh swam before Victor’s eyes, and he broke down crying. “Oh, my god,” he muttered, “there’s resin in all of the joints.” He glanced around the room, mapping out what he knew about the politics of all the people who’d gone, including Natalie. “That’s what all of this has been about.”

“All what?”

“Half the crew’s gone, including my boss. Whoever it was that compromised the systems made an announcement before I got here, and they stopped work. Natalie refused a direct order from the Administrator.”

“That was Eshana Thandri,” she said evenly. “I just heard.”

“Thandri? Like the salve?”

“Uh-huh. She also hijacked a drone to protect Quince after he was rescued from the HyperLoop pod that fell into Lake Pontchartrain.”

“Geez,” he breathed, “no wonder the police shut them down.”

“The question is,” she said, “what are you going to do about it?”

“Best you don’t know, mom. I’ll see you when I get out of here. I hope.”


[The story concludes in “Maira Bundis“]

Copyright 2014 by P. Orin Zack


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