"In the Company of Vipers"
(Part 4 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
"He's like one of those firebugs you hear about," the man said. "You know the type. They torch a building, and then hang around to watch it burn? Creepy. Well, this was the same sort of thing, only instead of a fire it was the destruction of the Golden State Barrage, and Alphon Quince was hanging around to watch Oakland drown."
Phoebe Butler -- she'd reclaimed her family name even before Alex filed the divorce forms -- tried not to be too obvious about watching the news vid playing on the phone that the passenger in front of her was holding, but the woman made eye contact in the reflection and angled it away. She had just left New Orleans on the HyperLoop, and was en route to collect her things before Alex had a chance to sell them. The only other passenger in the pod, the one in the bucket seat to her right, was the man being denigrated on the news. Flanking them, on the face of the twin gull-wing hatches, a sanitized version of the view beyond the carbon-fiber tubes scrolled past, healthy Louisiana scrub on the left, a pristine version of Lake Pontchartrain on the right.
She exchanged nervous glances with Alphon when the news reader said that he was the last person to leave their apartment building in the flood evacuation zone. Phoebe had done what she could to disguise him, but a change of clothes and hair color, and the addition of her mother's retro eyeglass frames, which they'd fitted out with newly printed reflective lenses, didn't do much to scotch the resemblance to the picture that was shown before the interview. "What were you doing?" she asked him in little more than a whisper.
"Searching for clues. You've seen the vids. A controlled demolition wouldn't have looked like that. The official story was absurd."
The programmatically inflected voice of the renderbot news reader echoed hollowly in the nearly empty HL pod. "Quince then took ground transport to the Gulf Coast," it said, "where he murdered Megan Butler, a woman who had long been under surveillance for subversive tendencies, and then destroyed valuable government property."
Phoebe winced at the official characterization of her mother. Meg was a former engineer who ran a secret maker lab after being pushed out of the job market decades earlier in the wake of the global intellectual property crackdown. She'd been murdered, all right, but not by Alphon. The two had been chased and fired at by a spy drone, which Meg was able to disable remotely. Then, after she fished it out of the bayou, it exploded in her arms. Alphon was the only witness. Phoebe studied his face idly, lingering on her mother's eyeglass frames, and wondered what she'd think about the chain of events that had followed her death.
"A telepresence drone," the bot reader went on, "was sent to investigate."
Alphon huffed. That drone, he had told her, was there to retrieve a package that Meg and her friend Ferd had ordered, a package containing contraband IP.
"Quince and his accomplice, a man named Ferdinand Wu-McCrory, threatened to destroy the nation's infrastructure, and then, days later, he masterminded the destruction of the Cold Comfort resort in Greenland, and the murder of dozens of high-profile figures from businesses and governments around the world."
The woman glanced nervously over her shoulder at them.
"This man is extremely dangerous. He--."
The pod suddenly bucked, throwing Phoebe forward and to the right, hard against the strap of her restraint. The woman in front of her screamed in fright as the phone slipped from her hand, smacked against the right-side hatch and spun dizzily for a moment before shattering against the fire extinguisher. The windowscreens on both hatches went dark. Seconds later, the pod jerked back to the left, seemed to roll backwards, downhill, for a moment, and then came to a canted stop. It was eerily quiet. She looked over at Alphon, who'd unbuckled his restraint, and was climbing over the seat in front of him. The sudden silence, Phoebe realized, was because the woman had stopped screaming.
Alphon dropped into the seat in front of his, and then knelt on it to see over the center rest. "She's on the floor. I think she fainted or something."
By this time, Phoebe had unbuckled her own restraint, and was leaning over the seatback, her head inches from the roof, to get a better look.
The woman opened her eyes and looked up at Alphon with a mixture of fear and relief. "What happened?"