This series started with the story, ‘Bait‘.
(Part 7 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Cinquetta Mills hadn’t set out to be the spokesperson for the most hated person in the world, but here she was, and the more she learned about him, the more she admired him. The thing was, Alphon Quince didn’t fit the role he’d been cast in by the governments and transnationals that wanted him dead and forgotten. To hear them tell it — and you could hardly go an hour between tellings, he was the terrorist mastermind behind not only the destruction of the Golden State Barrage in San Francisco Bay, but also the murder of dozens of global financial leaders when the ice shelf collapsed on the Cold Comfort Resort in Greenland.
She was sitting in a maker lab at what the Hacker Collective had been calling ‘Bayou Bundis’, idly stroking the glossy wings of a 3D-printed butterfly, when the biggest story of 2095 caught her eye and crossed the room towards her.
“That’s her memorial, you know,” Quince told her, indicating the sculpture.
Cinquetta glanced at the butterfly, which was incongruously emerging from an egg-shaped geode, and recalled that his traveling companion had been shot by military gunfire moments after they emerged from a HyperLoop pod that had fallen into Lake Pontchartrain. “Phoebe Butler?”
His pace faltered, and a fleeting look of regret escaped its hiding place. “No,” he said quietly. “It was for her mother, Meg.” He stopped beside her and looked at the sculpture for a long moment. “Well, Maira Bundis, really. That’s how she introduced herself to me before she was…” He trailed off as his finger touched the eerily human-looking eyespot on one of the wings.
“I’m sorry,” she said, afraid of opening yet another wound.
“Don’t be,” he said, regaining his composure. “Unlike Phoebe, Meg wasn’t killed because of me. It was because of a box.” He smiled at her and gestured vaguely at the head-mounted A/V kit she always wore. “Did you… want to record this?”
Normally, she’d have jumped at the chance. After all, it was the sort of scoop any independent reporter worth her salt would kill for. But if she reached up to her temple and tapped the record switch, she’d also have to turn off her emotions and approach the interview dispassionately. And that was something she didn’t want to do right now. Finding out who Alphon Quince really was meant being someone he could be at ease with when he spoke to her, and she couldn’t do that with the recorder on. “No,” she said, “there’s time for that later. So what was in the box?”
“Some goo, and the instructions for how to make it.”
“And that was worth killing her over?”
“Oh,” Quince said, taking a seat, “it’s worth far more than that. As far as the bankers in Basel are concerned, their entire world is at stake. But it’s not something they can sell. Its value lies in keeping it secret, because their global power structure was built on a lie, and that goo is the disinfectant.” He smiled, amused at his turn of phrase. “In a manner of speaking, it will blow their scam wide open. This is an event cascade I’m not going to want to miss.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s the counteragent to the bacteria that learned how to eat resin.”
Watching him grow serious again, Cinquetta thought back to the press event that started when he and Phoebe emerged from the rescued HyperLoop pod, and how it changed tenor the moment she identified him to the other reporters. “You’d said that you got into infrastructure analysis because your brother died in a collapsed school building when he was a kid. What drove you to hunt down that missing document from the Golden State Barrage archive?”
He sat back and looked up at the repair in the domed ceiling for a few moments, then took a deep breath and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. “There was a vid.” He closed his eyes tightly and frowned. “A news intern in Oakland was streaming the disaster when the sea swept in, pulled the phone out of his hand, and sucked him under. As the phone floated to the surface, and the sky rocked back and forth between fractured buildings, all I could think of was my brother. There had to be a reason, something I could understand.” He looked up at her. “A few minutes later, the government announced that the Barrage had been blown up, that it was a senseless act of terrorism. But it wasn’t that at all. It didn’t fit. It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t let it go. I just couldn’t.”
Imagining that intern’s last moments reignited the emotional fire that had driven Cinquetta to track Alphon Quince to the bayou. When the Cold Comfort resort was crushed under the ice, those financial bigwigs weren’t the only people who died. Her cousin was there, too. Marci worked in operations, so she was able to get a message out before the comms were shut. ‘Don’t believe what they say happened here, Cinq,’ she’d said. ‘The Hacker Collective were called in to help us. Quince is not what they say.’ She was still struggling to shake off the terror her cousin must have felt before the ice fell when Meg’s friend Ferd stepped out of the office and started towards them.
“Okay,” he said. “Break time’s over, you two. Cinquetta, there’s a backlog of field reports for you to wade through. Alphon, the collective have some questions about a situation they’ve been monitoring. Oh, and it seems our late host is making an announcement in Chicago.” He raised his phone and showed them the screen.
Cinquetta glanced at the image of a South Asian woman and then gave Ferd a puzzled look. “I don’t understand. That’s not Ms. Butler.”
He grinned. “You’re right. But she just introduced herself as ‘Maira Bundis’. It seems my old friend has managed to outlive her years! But seriously, that’s Eshana Thandri, from the Chicago contingent of the Hacker Collective.”
She knew the name, but until now didn’t have a face to put with it. This was the woman who had hijacked one of the drones sent to silence Quince after the rescue, and used it to go after the rest of them. Wary of violating their trust, she asked if it was a private communication.
Ferd shook his head. “No. This is open. Our friends at Soylent News made sure the IP’s been spread across who knows how many social networks, and the feed’s backed up by redundant off-grid tunnel IPs as well. There’s nothing going to shut this down.”
She smiled and activated the recorder while ‘Maira Bundis’ described some of the more memorable flash actions that had followed the government’s bungled attempt to silence Quince. The transit shutdown in Chicago, which was carried out by a virally-spread mod to the ubiquitous tracker bugs that the CTA relies on to match capacity to demand, had sent the heuristic schedulers for the city’s air, rail and tube traffic into a wild oscillation that brought them down as well, sending shockwaves across the transportation networks.”
The door opened, and two men in military uniforms that still had loose threads where their insignia were torn off entered and came over to listen. Marc and Jason were part of the force that had been sent in to abduct Quince after the HyperLoop rescue, but chose to switch sides instead, and escorted him and the others back here. Cinquetta checked the time. They’d just been relieved from watch duty.
“Similar tactics,” ‘Maira Bundis’ said, “had been used in other cities across the world, causing wave after wave of chaos that incited otherwise docile workers to take to the streets. When their collective anger reached critical mass, spontaneous demonstrations broke out, and people started demanding that their city governments get things working again. Well, you can imagine what happened next. The media started parroting official statements that Alphon Quince had organized it all, and that he’d done it with the help of his horde of obedient tech workers.”
Cinquetta winced, remembering how the complicit press had framed the disaster in Greenland. There wasn’t even a mention of all of the workers who were also killed. As if nobody mattered except the wealthy power brokers at the conference.
“It didn’t take long,” ‘Bundis’ went on, “for the techs in the streets to publicly tear those assertions to shreds. The fire’s been lit. Now we need to direct it. Meet Victor Schandrul.”
The image switched to a conservatively dressed man with a very serious, hyper-intelligent look in his eyes. “I’m a Heuristics Analyst,” he said, “and there are some things that you all need to know. Alphon Quince has already told you that, until recently, the Hacker Collective has been stepping in to shore up the technical infrastructure that we all rely on. When they stopped, innumerable problems were laid bare in the communications and transportation networks, and it suddenly got a lot more dangerous to travel. Well, they weren’t the only ones.”
Quince crossed his arms and nodded appreciatively.
“My job at the Port of Chicago has been to tweak the scheduling systems to compensate for the very real fact that the models we’ve relied on about how things work no longer reflect reality. They haven’t for decades. Weather forecasters were the first to run into this problem, way back at the beginning of the century, when the effects of climate change were just starting to assert themselves. Their job got a lot harder when the Gulf Stream shut down and we ended up with a permanent nest of hurricanes in the Atlantic. But now, the physical systems we rely on are being affected as well. The reason for this is that the mutant resin-eating bacteria that Mr. Quince told us about have been decimating those systems. The destruction of the Golden State Barrage was just the beginning.”
Cinquetta looked over at Quince. He’d closed his eyes, and let his head roll back. He looked like a weight had been lifted off him. She made a mental note to remember how relieved he looked watching Schandrul’s statement.
“Dams, sea walls, aqueducts, HyperLoop supports, you name it… a whole gamut of physical infrastructures, are on the knife-edge of failure. The locks on the Chicago and Calumet Rivers here have to be babied to prevent them from cracking, and the same thing is true at ports around the world. All of these things will fail because they were built with resins. But none of this is because of terrorism. Alphon Quince is not your enemy. Neither are we, the techs entrusted with keeping your world running. But there is an enemy here, one that’s been manipulating world events for centuries. They’ve tricked up the world’s economy to suck the few hard-earned dollars we make from every one of us, and they’ve used governments and corporations to do it. I’m talking about the world’s central bankers: the blood-sucking cabal of banking behemoths that run the world from Basel. The same group that owns that resort in Greenland, and that conducted a power grab when some of their less-accommodating pawns were murdered.”
Quince was grinning now, and his eyes showed the same fire she’d seen when he addressed the press after his rescue. What had been a solitary struggle to tell the hard truth was finally spreading. The man was breathing faster now, and excitedly tapping his fingers on the table as he watched the small screen.
“Like Alphon Quince said a few days ago, the Basel bankers have facilitated the destruction of the world’s climate because there was profit to be made from it. Well, that ends—.”
The screen suddenly went black. An instant later another face loomed out of it, a hard face with a look of steely determination. Cinquetta was about to ask what happened, when both Ferd and Alphon exclained, “Joe!?”
“You two didn’t think you were safe there, did you?”
She looked at Alphon, and mouthed a question.
“Your reporting career is over, Ms. Mills.”
While Cinquetta glanced frantically around, looking for hidden cameras, Ferd dropped his phone on the floor and smashed it with his foot. “Shit. We’ve been compromised. That’s the drone commander who demanded Meg’s contraband IP. This isn’t a government operation. He’s from Basel, and it’s a sure bet he’s closing on us right now.”
“Drones again?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No; in person. Clean-up operation. They’re out for blood this time.” He glanced at their military escort. “What’s the plan, Marc?”
“Those guys have no chain of command, sir. They’re autonomous strike teams, and they don’t play by anyone’s rules. As far as they’re concerned, everyone and everything is expendable.”
Alphon seethed. “Yeah. Like the rescue op at Cold Comfort.”
“If they backed off last time,” Marc added, “it was because they were playing you. We’d best be ready for them.”
Ferd opened a cabinet and pulled out a home-built weapon. “Meg and I fabbed this drone-killer, but it’s the only one we’ve got. I’ll watch your back.”
“Don’t forget the stinger,” Alphon warned him. “The one Meg shot got her with a neuroleptic laser.”
Cinquetta watched as Marc and Jason turned and started towards the door, with Ferd close behind. Then she turned back to Alphon. “What are you going to do?”
“Joe came here for me,” he said. “I’m going to talk to him.”
She was aghast. “Talk to him? You’ll be lucky if you get two words out.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m still going to try.”
“Well, in that case, I’m going to record it.”
The moment they got outside, she realized that there was a standoff in progress. Three camouflaged airboats were arrayed across the entrance, floating beyond the incline where Meg’s jetraft was tied up. Joe stood in the bow of the center one, flanked by two sharpshooters. There was another gunman in each of the two flanking airboats, along with a driver. Marc’s team each had one of the gunmen in his sights, and the situation had stabilized into a stalemate. Ferd trotted across the grounds, scanning the shadowed bayou for any sign of a drone.
Meanwhile, Alphon strode past the jetraft, stopped at the water’s edge, and glared at Joe. “Haven’t we played this stupid game before?”
“I don’t think so.” At that point, he nodded, and all of his gunmen fired. “And you’re right, Mr. Quince. Those are neuroleptic laser rifles. Traitors have more PR value if they’re captured and publically tortured.”
Alphon winced at the sight of the four fallen men writhing in pain. “Traitors to whom?” he demanded. “You don’t work for any government; they exist to serve your masters. So who are you going to turn them over to, some transnational?”
Cinquetta was suddenly distracted by the news feed in her HUD. She’d set it to only pass resin-related alerts, and now there were two of them. The new locks in the Canal Zone had just failed, turning the transoceanic gateway into a torrent, and trashing every ship in the queue. And Victor Schandrul’s statement had precipitated a concerted action by heuristics analysts at container ports around the world, tying up trade and sending business and government spokespeople into a tizzy. When she finished scanning the alerts, she refocused on Joe, who looked likewise distracted, with his finger pressed to the receiver in his ear.
Ferd had satisfied himself that there were no drones about, and drifted over towards her. “What’s with him?”
“Hard to say. Schandrul just inspired a massive port walkout. World trade is toast. Maybe the bankers are upset.”
“Goddammit!” Joe shouted at the air. “On whose authority?”
Alphon flashed a grin at them, and then strengthened his stance. “The clock’s running, Joe,” he said. “Either you have to come and arrest these men, or you’ll have to shoot them again. The thing is, a second shot before they’ve recovered will be lethal, and you said you wanted to take them alive.”
“What are you doing?” Ferd stage-whispered.
“Not a chance!” Joe told his caller, and glared menacingly at Alphon.
“Goading him,” Alphon whispered back. “Keeping him in the critical state. We’ve got to trip him up.”
When Cinquetta realized that Marc and the others had stopped twitching involuntarily, she took a moment to catch them each on camera, and then scanned across the three airboats. While she was zooming out, Joe made a sudden move, and she put him back in the crosshairs.
“That’s right, I’m refusing your order,” Joe said, and threw his earpiece away. “I’m not letting you go, Quince!”
Alphon nodded, and glanced knowingly at Cinquetta. “Okay,” he said quietly. “He’s over the edge now.”
While his men in the other airboats watched uneasily, Joe turned on the big fan long enough to beach his boat, and stepped onto the incline. Just then, there was a loud crack from offshore. The gunman in the airboat to the right muttered an oath and said his boat was sinking.
“Quit whining,” Joe told him without taking his eyes off of Alphon, “and get in the other boat.”
“Well, yeah,” the gunman said as the other airboat drew up beside him, “but then we won’t be able to take those four traitors back with us.”
Joe whirled around angrily. “Fine. Then leave. All four of you. The mission’s been called off anyway. But I’m not leaving here without Quince!”
The force of his assertion was so strong that it should have stifled any reaction, and yet Ferd chose that moment to start laughing.
“What’s so funny, Wu?”
“They’ll never make it back to wherever you jokers came from. Haven’t you been paying attention? There are mutant bacteria in the water. It eats resin, like what those boats are made of. And your weapons, too, by the way.”
By the time Cinquetta shifted her camera back towards the airboats, something else had changed. The normally placid water was visibly flowing towards the right, and it was rising. She pulled the focus back in to pick out the waterline as it inched towards where Joe was standing. With his support turning to leave, that left Joe and his two gunmen against Ferd and Alphon. Marc and their other three protectors were still minutes away from regaining their faculties, so whatever Joe had in mind, he’d have to do it quickly.
While she was focused on her comrades, Joe rushed over, snatched the A/V kit off her head, and threw it over his shoulder, where it landed with a splash. “Oh, no you don’t, Mills,” he said tightly. “You’re not going to record this. Now back off!”
By the time she regained her footing, the two gunmen had grabbed both Ferd and Alphon, and held them immobile, their arms wrenched tightly behind their backs. The water was continuing to rise, and the current was picking up speed as well. With her A/V kit lost to the bayou, Cinquetta vowed to preserve as much of the incident as possible. She made a conscious effort to be mindful of everything so she could recite the whole narrative on vid later on.
While the rear of his airboat was starting to bobble in the rising water, Joe strode to where Alphon was being held, and got right in his face. “You’re mine, now!”
“Look around you,” Alphon said. “It won’t matter if we’re all drowned.”
“I’ll still win. Without you leading it, this revolt of yours will die.”
Cinquetta had begun to step closer, but something about the look in Alphon’s eyes froze her mid-stride.
“An avalanche,” he said, the clarity of epiphany coloring his voice, “doesn’t need a leader.”
He was right, of course. But there was something about the way he said it, something about the certainty or the inevitability of it that struck a chord deep in her being. The feeling it left her with was of relief, of relinquishing all pretense of control and trusting in the metaphysical reality of consequence, for he had accomplished what he had set out to do, and now he could step aside and simply allow the results of his small part in it to run to its completion.
And in that moment, she also saw her own role in the onrushing torrent of events in a new light. She was the wildcard in this turn of fate, the only person whose path was in flux.
Joe was playing out the implications of his monomaniacal focus on stopping a man who no longer mattered. His two henchmen were trapped in the hierarchical control structure of subservience to self-appointed power, awaiting his orders or filling the gaps in whatever well-rehearsed riff on military precision he might set in motion. Ferd was playing backstop, and had transitioned from being a practiced accomplice to Meg Butler’s intuitively driven shadow dance, to performing as the conscience of his departed friend. And finally, their four military protectors, who had seen the limits of what they were willing to do in service to an authority they no longer accepted, and had changed their allegiance. They were close behind her in that respect, but until they were free of the effects of those lasers, it didn’t much matter.
Ferd caught her eye as she was coming out of that momentary reverie, but then a glint from his captor’s rifle drew her attention, and she knew what she had to do. It was made of resin.
Joe had started to pace, and he gave Alphon a withering look. “An avalanche? Really?”
The anger she’d suppressed since her cousin was murdered flashed over and filled her, head to toe, with resolve. The instant Joe started to raise his fist to threaten Alphon, she launched towards him, blind to everything except the rage that drove her on. She must have yelled or growled or something, because the soldier holding Ferd pushed him away and started to raise his weapon. To her heightened awareness, everything seemed to go in slow motion: Joe turning his head, Ferd regaining his footing, and the soldier’s gun jamming. As she slammed into Joe at kidney-level, the other soldier released Alphon and brought his own weapon up. But the force of her impact threw Joe into the man’s shoulder, and both of them fell backwards into the airboat, which slid into the rising water and was caught by the current.
Cinquetta tumbled to the ground beside Alphon and turned to see what happened next. Their four protectors were all struggling to their feet, still unsteady from the neural shock. Ferd had wrestled the remaining gunman to the ground. And Joe’s airboat was nowhere to be seen.
Alphon helped her back up. “Thanks,” he said, uncertainly, “but why’d you do it? You could have been shot.”
“So could you. That’s not the point.”
The gunman surrendered when he saw Marc and Jason converging on him. Satisfied, Ferd gingerly released him and backed away. Flanked, he raised his arms and wobbled to his feet. “Okay, okay,” he said. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Whatever it is,” Cinquetta said as the water reached the edge of Meg’s jet raft, “you might want to do it somewhere else. Does anyone know where all this water’s coming from?”
“I can guess,” Alphon said, and turned to look back at the maker lab. “There’s an awful lot of resin in the Army Corps’ dams, locks and levees. Old Man River’s making a comeback, and we’re in the way.”
Marc nodded in agreement. “There’s enough room in the quadcopters for all of us. We’re leaving in five minutes.” Jason nudged the gunman, and all five headed towards where the copters were hidden.
“Geez,” Ferd said, looking around the compound. “I’m going to miss this place. Meg and I made a lot of good memories here. I’ll meet you two at the copters.”
Cinquetta was about to ask Alphon something when he suddenly spun around and dashed towards the lab. A minute later, he opened the door, holding up the butterfly and geode sculpture. “Can’t leave this behind,” he told her.
“Then let’s get going.” She started walking, but he didn’t follow. “Something wrong?”
He shook his head. “No. But I won’t be coming with you.”
“Do you have some sort of death wish?”
“No. But I’ve had enough attention for one lifetime. I think I’ll lay low for a while.”
“But where are you going to go? And how are you going to get there? With all of that mutant bacteria in the water…?”
He’d reached Meg’s jet raft, which was starting to bobble, and stepped inside. “Doesn’t matter. The raft’s been treated. So what are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure. But I think Joe had a point.”
“Oh? About what?”
“My journalism career is over.”
“You’re just going to give it up? But why? You’re good at it.”
She smiled self-consciously. “And that’s part of the problem. Being good at journalism meant reporting on the news, not making it. I’m through with that. It’s something about what you said earlier.”
“That an avalanche doesn’t need a leader. There is something it does need.”
She grinned. “The rest of the mountain. You’ve started a movement, and I want to be part of it. I don’t know what that means yet, or what I might do, but I do know one thing: I want to see where it goes, and I can only do that by being caught up in the action.”
Alphon extended his hand. “It’s been an honor to meet you, Cinquetta.”
“And you, Alphon. But I do have one last question: what is it about that butterfly?”
He held it up so she could see the wings. “It’s the eye spots. They’re Meg’s eyes. And her remains are in the resin. So it’s like she can see what we’re up to.”
“But doesn’t that mean the bacteria are going to eat it? That it’s going to dissolve?”
“Not any more,” he said. “I’ve treated it. In a way, ‘Maira Bundis’ really opened my eyes. There are some things I want to show her now.” He turned, put it down on the bench, switched on the water jets and headed off into the bayou.
Cinquetta waited until he was gone before joining the others. “Good luck, Alphon.”
The gurgling of the rising water was overwhelmed by the thrum of rotors, and she turned to go. But after a few steps, she stopped and looked back at where Alphon had gone, the memory of her cousin once again in her mind. “I forgot to tell you something, Alphon,” she said to the bayou. “It was a message from Marci, her thanks for trying to help. May you always know what to wish for, and may all of your wishes come true.”
Copyright 2014 by P. Orin Zack