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Life Arts

Short Story: "Bait"

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"Good luck with that. Is there really such a place any more?"

The man grinned sheepishly. "I guess I'll find out. And where are you headed?"

"New Orleans."

"You're kidding. That drowned-out ruin? What's there?"

"A mystery."

*   *   *

Alphon had been staring at the "window' in the deserted HyperLoop pod for most of the past half-hour on the ride south from Memphis, blankly watching an image of scenery they weren't really passing, which at the moment was an unpolluted Lake Pontchatrain. To make the trip through the windowless tubes feel more engaging, vidstreams from security chipcams along the tube were turned into a live panorama of what you could see if you were in a drone skimming the ground at pod altitude. But a few years ago, some marketing wonks decided they could do reality one better, and the live vids were replaced with "enhanced' versions of what was outside the tube. Out the "window', the weather was always beautiful, night skies were uniformly glorious, and the countryside or cityscape looked like something out of a real estate sim. In other words, it was utterly boring.

Several times, he had to resist the urge to pull out his phone. With what he knew about the line's systems, he could easily have pulled up a raw vidstream. Before setting out, though, he'd decided to leave as few tracks as he could, which meant packing ample cash and keeping his phone turned off. And that only increased the boredom.

His eyes narrowed when he felt the pod slow down, and he tried to decide whether it was a normal maneuver or a sign of trouble purely by feel. It had been a tense trip, because he was still anguishing over what he was going to say to the owner of that PO box, but these last few minutes promised to be the hardest. Before the sea wall failed, he'd been analyzing the construction of HL tubes, looking for failure modes that could trigger a cascade rather than being stopped by the designed-in safeties. A well-maintained tube was rock-solid in that department, but the same could not be said of a neglected stretch, such as the one he was on now, because once the city had been ceded to the encroaching Gulf, the company didn't see much point in maintaining their equipment. Riding that ancient Amtrak to Chicago might have been slow and uncomfortable, but at least he could see what was really outside.

Alphon was thrust forward against the restraint a few seconds later as the pod braked hard. He glanced left and right, at the places on the tube they were flying through where he knew the linear motors were mounted: the pod was being forcibly slowed by the HL system. But why?

It also got bumpy. "Turbulence?" he asked the walls, "why did we drop out of laminar?" They were just barely going fast enough for the compressors to draw enough air for the cushion effect to work. The only time that ought to happen was while slowing for the airlock at the entry to a station, and that was a momentary effect just before dropping to the wheels and braking smoothly to a stop, but they were still too far from the station for that. He sat up, his breath coming faster.

The pod may have slowed, but it wasn't stopping. He held his breath, focusing on the tiny sensations that might betray their situation through the buffeting, and exhaled when he felt the gentle sideways nudge that meant the tube had turned east. He sat back and relaxed. They'd passed the narrow stretch of soggy land between Lakes Maurepas and Pontchatrain, and were on final approach to the airlock and the station. Slow was okay, as long as they got there.

If the faux scenery they'd already passed was annoying, what that "window' showed now was ludicrous: dry land. He knew that the pylons holding up the tube for most of this stretch rose from the waters of the encroaching Gulf of Mexico. They'd been sunk deep enough to hold solidly when the ground was dry, but now the remaining miles of tube were held aloft on not much more than a prayer. Sinkholes had been reported in the area for decades. He shuddered at what might happen if another one opened around one of the supports. He gripped the arms of his seat, straining to hear or feel any sign of danger.

Safe, he thought to himself, mocking his reassurance to the traveler. Right.

Ten seconds went by. Fifteen. Then the pod decelerated again, and he felt the thrum of wheels. A few seconds later, the pod lurched to the side and ground to a screeching halt, canted at an angle. If it had still been moving, the pod could ride up the side of the tube to bank a curve, but the tube was straight here. Something was keeping the pod from rolling, so it couldn't drift back down to the bottom of the tube. Unfortunately, that also meant it couldn't power-roll to the airlock. He was locked inside an automated pod, somewhere in a low-pressure tube, miles from New Orleans. Trapped.

While he was contemplating turning on his phone anyway, the eerie silence was shattered as the pod's compressor kicked in again. There was a harsh scraping sound as the pod danced against the tube wall and slipped sideways, righting itself. Then the compressor shut down and the pod started rolling slowly towards the station under power.

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)
 
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Our immediate problems keep us all so busy that we... by Philip Zack on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 8:08:56 AM
What an appropriate story for our time. Ed Snowdon... by Paul Repstock on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 11:06:20 PM
Thanks. I'd introduced the idea of there being peo... by Philip Zack on Tuesday, Sep 24, 2013 at 11:33:54 PM