(Part 2 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
When Ferd realized that the glow filtering through the trees ahead wasn't the rising moon, he killed the raft's built-in water jet and drifted amid the shadowy cypress.
"Something's" wrong," he whispered to a frog ribbiting crossly at him. "She knows better than that. Those lights might attract someone's attention."
He'd made the trip to her part of the bayou a day early because the package they'd been waiting for was supposed to have arrived at the Post Office today, and he just couldn't wait to see what it was.
"Then again," he rationalized to the frog, "if she's as excited about this as I am, I can understand breaking protocol." He reached down and restarted the jet.
As he rounded the barricade that obscured the boat ramp from casual view, he reconsidered that first impression: her jetraft was lolling from the tow-hook cable. It hadn't been hoisted full onto dry land before the tide came in. She would never have done that, especially after bringing something home that could keep the crud that passed for water in 2095 Louisiana from dissolving the hull.
Wary of giving himself away, Ferd throttled the already quiet water-jet back a tad, and slowly drew closer. Rather than risk alerting anyone with the crunch of carbon fiber on concrete from driving the raft partway up the ramp under power, he killed the jet early, jumped out, lifted the front end and pulled it clear of the water. Then he unhooked her jetraft, gentled it the rest of the way up the ramp, and set it down next to his.
Turning back towards the compound, he eyed the nearest shed, a six by eight lashup where she'd stored spare parts for the raft's water jet. Normally, it was locked, but right now the light was on and the door was ajar. He gingerly touched the edge, and swung it open a bit, but froze at the sight of a dark red splash on the inside. Blood. He steeled himself and looked into the shed.
It was ghastly. She lay sprawled across the floor, face down, the shattered remains of the fierce old woman who had nurtured his spark of activism and given him a reason to live. He gaped at the bits of flesh and fabric scattered across the floor and on the workbench. Her blood had pooled at the junction of two rotten floorboards she'd put off replacing.
Fighting off the desire to linger over his loss, he knelt beside her, brushed the blood-matted hair from her face and closed her eyes. "I don't know what happened here, Meg," he whispered, "but I'll be damned if I let whoever did this to you get away with it." He shut his eyes and pictured the woman he knew -- lively and mischievous, and then recalled an old photo he'd seen from her youth.
He sighed deeply, and used the moment to clear his mind. Thinking that her murderer might still be in the compound, he snapped open the release on the well-worn holster at his hip, and pulled out his handgun. Home-printed units like his may have a limited life span, but they didn't send a time-stamped, geo-tagged video report to the government every time you wrapped your fingers around the grip.
Rising to his feet, Ferd stepped outside and scanned the perimeter. The swamp beyond the boat ramp was dark, save for a swirl of fireflies. A cricket orchestra chorused the temperature to anyone willing to do the conversion. The sky peeking out between the trees was streaked with clouds, one of which was edged with the reflected glow of New Orleans to the northeast. Turning back towards the compound, he looked first at the camouflaged dome of the maker lab, the skylights of which leaked the colors of the lamps nearest them. It seemed like a huge iridescent bug, nestled among the smaller, angular sheds that she'd assembled into a rabbit warren of storage, workrooms and living quarters for herself and the dozen or so others who had once called this home. Until this evening, it had just been her. And now"
Ferd warily approached the entrance to the lab, listening for any suspicious noise. A rhythmic whirring was the only sound: one of her 3D printers was busily creating something that she'd never get the chance to use. He carefully opened the door and stepped inside. The soft clatter of the printer's transport echoed hollowly as it repositioned itself, and then started laying down the next resinous layer of whatever it was. As he'd guessed from outside, the lights were on at each of the stations, even over the bench where the two friends had mused so often about the might-have-beens over lunch. He stopped beside the printer and saw that the drawers had been rifled. Someone was clearly interested in what she was doing. But who? And why?
He was midway across the lab when the door to her office flew open and a frightened-looking kid started through, intently reading some papers he was holding with one hand while resting atop the other. He was five-eight or nine, and his clothes were spattered with blood. Ferd made him out to be conscription-age or so. His gun hand rose instinctively. In practiced command voice, he said, "Hold it right there!"
The kid startled, dropping some of his papers, and spun around, ready to sprint back out.
"I said stop!" This time he barked it, as an order.