(Part 3 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
"I saw that gleam in your eyes," Alphon Quince whispered to the mute image. "What was it, Maira? What were you thinking?" The indistinct details of her eyes nearly filled the frame in his hand. He'd been standing in one of the stations of her maker lab for several minutes, gazing into eyes that had reflected the world of thirty years earlier, before he was even born. He felt responsible for her death, and yet she was still a cipher to him. As much as he tried, it was a mystery he couldn't shake.
The rhythmic thrum of the 3D printer from across the domed lab helped to soothe his nerves. In his imagination, the sound seemed to come from the picture, lending her memory a semblance of life, if only through the machine's hollow heartbeat. He'd zoomed up the light-field holo, which the note said was taken shortly after she'd opened her first maker lab, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the spark that had been snuffed by an exploding drone three days earlier. He knew her name was really Meg -- her friend Ferd had corrected him at gunpoint when he found Alphon, still covered with her blood, in the compound -- but that's how she'd introduced herself, and so that was how he addressed the image.
"It wasn't enough that you killed her?" an angry female voice intoned from close behind him. "Do you have to violate her memory as well?" Her breath rasped in her throat. "You don't even know her goddamn name!"
Alphon swallowed hard when he realized it was the heavyset postal worker he'd asked to put a note in Maira's box when he came to the bayou in search of a missing data file. He put the picture down, and had just started to turn around when she put a firm hand on his shoulder. "But I do!" he protested, facing her squarely.
"Sure you do. Like you knew who owned that share when you came into my post office and cost me my job."
Alphon glanced at the intricate tattoo on her left arm as she withdrew it. Ferd had told him that she'd helped to design the memorial that he was printing, but apparently she wasn't expecting to find anyone else here. "I didn't kill her," he insisted. "It was the drone she downed."
"A drone," she shot back, incensed, "that wouldn't have been following her if you hadn't broken her routine. She's been getting her mail every Wednesday for years without raising any suspicion. Keeping to yourself is just simple common sense these days. What backwater did you come from, anyway?"
Backwater. He winced, recalling the video he'd watched just before fleeing his home in the evacuation zone. A news intern, reporting on the flooding in Oakland when the Golden State Barrage collapsed, inadvertently caught his own death as the undertow separated him from his phone. The old sea wall had kept the risen Pacific at bay for most of the 21st century. "The Sacramento Valley if you must know. I thought that file was a clue to what happened to the Barrage."
She looked away in disgust. "It was terrorists, idiot. Or are you one of those truthers who deny anything the government says?""
"No it wa--." He stopped short at the sight of what seemed a Tyvek-clad ghost from the past, the spitting image of that long-ago picture of Meg Butler, the woman who'd introduced herself to him as Maira Bundis.
Alphon's assailant turned to look. "Phoebe," she said. "Come to loot your mother's estate, have you?"
"Hello, Ellen." Her icy words betrayed a deep and bitter history between them. "Who's that you're steamrolling?"
"The jerk who's responsible for your mother's death. I was just about to escort him off the premises."
"Wait," she said, holding up a gloved hand. "You mean he was the last person to speak with her?"
Ellen pursed her lips and nodded.