P. Orin Zack by Philip Zack
by P. Orin Zack
Alphon Quince was startled out of his reverie by the grating tones of his emergency alert. The 20-year-old physical systems troubleshooter absently waved aside the cross-secti on of a damaged HyperLoop tube he'd been studying and threw the open-hand gesture for the alert's newsfeed to take over his tri-d.
A shaky vid filled the space with a wall of water coming at him at high speed. He'd just begun to wonder how anyone could have gotten a shot like that, when the phone was snatched from the owner's hand. A dizzying whirl of light and shadow followed as he was dragged away by the undertow, culminating in a see-sawing of fractured building facades, debris and sky as the orphaned phone floated to the top of the rushing deluge.
"That" was the grisly scene in Oakland a few moments ago," the announcer said, catching his breath, "just after the 75-year old Golden State Barrage protecting San Francisco Bay collapsed, severely damaging the new western span of the Bay Bridge. Our condolences go out to the family of Marty Fine, the intern who gave his life to get you that video."
Alphon paled as he said, "Show map." An annotated aerial-view inset floated into view while the announcer read the evacuation alert. He was too focused to listen. The Barrage, which ran parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge on the landward side, was highlighted, as was the set of locks that passed under the bridge and split the sea wall near its southern end. An orange glowing overlay that reached inland and spread north as far as Sacramento showed where the shoreline was expected to end up. The Barrage was all that had kept two meters of the Pacific Ocean from devastating the nearby California lowlands. It had been built early in the century, several years after the eastern span of the Bay Bridge was replaced, to prevent the rising seas from forcing several million people and trillions of dollars of industry to have to relocate.
He blinked, his mind racing through all of the technical papers and news stories he'd read in classwork about flood mitigation plans in Oakland, and the money that businesses had saved by not implementing them. Assertions that the Barrage had made such expenses irrelevant were the usual excuse. What crap.
"As horrible as it is, we're told that this event was not an accident," the announcer said gravely. That got his attention. "The government has just issued satpics that clearly show submersibles in the area just before the collapse. Although the images are not clear enough to positively identify those submersibles, we're told that Intelligence reports confirm that the Barrage was destroyed as an act of war by one of our enemies. More details will be forthcoming this evening. In the meantime, we can show you what happened on the Bay Bridge."
Another vid appeared. This one was streamed from the dashcam of a vehicle crossing the famously earthquake-proof bridge. At first, everything seemed normal enough, but then the roadway's platoonlink must have failed because it nearly ran into the car ahead, at which point the autonomous safeties kicked in and stopped the whole line of selfdrives. A few seconds later, the car was jolted sideways into the guardrail, and a cascade of foamy water hit the window. Water. That high up.
"The bridge's expansion joints," the announcer said, "which have protected the structure from numerous earthquakes over the years, weren't designed to withstand a direct blow of that magnitude from the side. The roadway hasn't fallen, and nobody was killed, but many of those joints have now frozen. Until and unless they can be repaired, the bridge will not be safe in a severe earthquake."
"Geez," Alphon breathed, frowning. "They've got a bit of an event cascade going there. But who'd want to blow up the Barrage?" He flipped through several other feeds before settling on one that was showing a CalTrans fisheye hovercam vid from over the Golden Gate Bridge that had caught the event as it was happening. They'd reversed the lens distortion and overlaid the image with annotations and callouts, but it was clear enough for him to get the gist of it: the initial failure was at the joint with the lock, and then the damage spread north. A few seconds later, the whole thing fragmented.
When the feed's announcer started reeling off a story about the Barrage having been demolished with a set of carefully timed explosives, he froze the image and stared at it for a long moment. "That was no act of war," he said to the image, slowly shaking his head. "If you wanted to cause the most damage, you'd have pulled the whole thing at once. Sequenced charges are for cheating gravity in a skyscraper demo or reducing water impact in a dam demo. What's going on here?"
Alphon drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, and then cleared everything from his tri-d except the map. "All right," he told himself, "if the official story makes no sense, why are they telling it? Who benefits, and how?"
He realized that knowing what did happen might shed some light on his other questions, so he did a search that omitted any mention of explosives. What few results he got all agreed on one thing: there had been precious little money spent over the years on maintenance for the Barrage. The few repairs that were done always focused on the locks. He looked again at the map, and zoomed it to the joint where the sea wall met the lock. "There's the key to this," he murmured.
Looking through the entries that spoke about maintenance problems, he found one that mentioned some unaddressed structural issues that had once been raised. That sent him on a search for the original design documents. What he found was the original proposal for a project called the Golden Gate Barrage, which was turned down in 2007, and another one for the less ambitious project that was actually approved about a decade later. Since it was a government project, it had been put out for bid, and the lowest bidder was awarded a fixed-price construction contract. "Idiots," he said in exasperation. "That's a conflict of interest. It's a good thing the HyperLoop systems weren't built that way."
Alphon was nearly finished skimming the original Barrage proposal when he suddenly looked up. "Wait a minute. Could someone have wanted the sea wall to fail?" Curious, he set up another search, this time for the people and organizations that had weighed in on either of the proposals when they were still under consideration, both for and against. Midway down the second page of results, there was an entry about something called the Green Party, but it didn't have a summary beside it. There was an asset identifier, and the ID of the server it was supposed to have been on, but that was all.
He sat back and stared at it. "Green Party? What the hell is that?" The server ID was in the range used by public servers, which meant the file, whatever it was, had been hosted at a Post Office somewhere. Fortunately, there was a cross-index for public servers that identified which Post Office that was, and according to the index, this one was in the outskirts of the ruins of New Orleans. But who was the owner? A bit of rooting around in the Post Office's faq answered that question as well: the same person who owned a particular post box at that office, and the box number was encoded into the server ID. But who was that?