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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Sci-fi · #2166499
An inventor takes on a corporate behemoth to try and save the world from itself.
The horizon was a flat, sharp line of blue against blue. All that water, for as far as the eye can see, and a hell of a lot farther. Three quarters of the planet drowned in it. Now that it was finally feasible - no, easy - to separate it into its component parts, water was the most abundant, totally renewable energy source available to the human race. That should have been mankind’s salvation, Tucker mused, as he stood bent over on the beach, panting, and looked out at the still surface where, a couple of hours ago, his ship had been sunk. He could still see the ragged gap in the mucilage where it had gone down. It should have made Earth a paradise. He had dared to hope that the worst was over, that at last the nightmare had passed. I should have known better. He had tried to force the issue, tried to make the corporate Goliath play fair, and it had cost him everything: his fortune, his reputation, his family, and now, the last few people who believed in him. Soon, Tucker knew, he would make the final mistake in a long series of them, or he wouldn’t and they would still outmaneuver him, or he would simply collapse from heat stroke. Then, they would find him to collect the final installment of his lease on life, and stamp “paid in full” on the last invoice of his account.

The sandy shore was as still as death. The line of life boats bobbed in the surf, abandoned by him and his fellow survivors of the Photonaut. He had doubled back here, hoping to use one to get back out to sea. It was a stupid plan, the product of an exhausted, desperate mind. There were no oars in them, of course; he had checked. Not that oars would have helped him. He could row so hard that his arms dislocated, and the enemy’s new hovercraft would still overtake him in minutes.

Besides, there was nothing left for him out there. The Photonaut had gone down, sunk by the new hydrogen-powered hovercraft they called “skimmers”. The size of speedboats, they carried enough firepower that three of them had blown holes in Photonaut’s armored hull without seeming to try very damned hard. Even as she went down in the mouth of the lagoon, where the jungle blocked all but a buttonhole, Harry had kept up machine gun fire, holding them off long enough for the lifeboats to reach shore, before they blasted her heroic skipper right off her upthrust bow. Then the skimmers came through. They were too big to maneuver in the jungle, but their killdrones could go anywhere. They launched a couple dozen of the things, and sent them out to scour the island for Tucker and his crew. The ‘drones were effective as hell. Just a few minutes ago, Vince, the last of his friends, had died suicidally attacking a drone that had been about to blow Tucker away.

Run, Tucker! Run! Vince’s last words ran through his mind. God help him, Tucker had run. Vince’s screams had followed him through the jungle, to the accompaniment of the shrill whine as the LightSource Vince had been carrying in his pack built toward overload. The screams of man and machine rose in pitch and frenzy until the explosion ended them with a sharp punctuation. That particular killdrone was probably scrap metal, but there were plenty of others, and Vince... his best friend... was gone.

Now, Tucker was alone with his enemies. It was over. There was nowhere left to hide.

Well, that isn’t quite true, he thought. I could just walk out into the surf, and keep on walking until those warm, mucus-choked waters close over my head. I bet it would be easy. Disgusting, but easy. In fact, it would be a fitting end to the tale of George Francis Tucker. Ironic. He knew he wouldn’t take the easy way out, though. He still had one more thing to do. One thing, one last act of hope, before he finally had to admit that all hope was gone.

The atmosphere was hushed. All the island’s wildlife seemed to be holding its breath. There was a soft rustle of breeze through the canopy high above that didn’t stir the hot, moisture-laden air around him. Beyond that, nature seemed to have gone mute. As a result, he heard the skimmers coming even though they, too, were nearly silent. The hunters were literally beating the bush for him.

The corporation’s virtually limitless resources had him out-gunned from the very start. They had overwhelmed his factory’s defenses and forced him to run, while they whittled away at his ability to fight back. Sure, he had learned a lot about resisting them along the way. He told himself that the blows he had dealt them stung, and maybe he was even right. The money they’d spent to shut him down and shut him up would have run some third-world country for a decade, if its leaders didn’t steal it. As vast a fortune as it might seem to normal people, the expense was a drop in the bucket for the corporation. Most likely, it was less than they contributed to senatorial campaign funds last year. Their victory over Tucker was inevitable, and probably always had been.

The manuscript he clutched beneath his left arm weighed him down, so that it was difficult to stand up straight from where he leaned, propped up by the right hand that gripped his knee. Sweat dripped onto the sand from his sunburned face and trickled down his grit-encrusted neck as he pushed himself erect. No matter how well he knew their tactics, he wouldn’t be able to keep dodging them for much longer. They had cut him off once already - Run, Tucker! Run! - and he had had to scramble to avoid being hemmed in. Perhaps, he hoped, he had drawn them far enough away from his true objective. Perhaps he would be able to get there before they anticipated him. He hugged his journal to his chest, turned away from the shore, and lurched back into the bush. He forced one foot in front of the other again and again, and tried to look out for the thousand trip hazards. The noise he made as he tore through the tree branches and fern fronds sounded thunderous to him, but there was little to be done about that. They would either catch him, or they would not. As he ran, Tucker’s mind tortured him, rehashing yet again the events that had brought him to this miserable state.

The big money boys had it all worked out. They were several steps ahead of everybody else. Their big corporations had the human race in a stranglehold, and they were never going to let go.

This particular scam had started with “Montpelier Sparkling Water”. Jean-Claude Montpelier had conceived the idea of bottling the “naturally carbonated mineral water” from the spring on his land in the French Alps. This water had a pleasant, slightly salty taste, and was an immediate money-maker. Soon, enterprising men figured out how to infuse water with carbon dioxide and a dash of some sodium or potassium compound to create “sparkling water”, or “soda water”, or “club soda”, or whatever catchy name the marketers could think up, and they were all hawked everywhere. A wide variety of flavors were added, as well as sugar and, in some cases, habit-forming “energy boosters” like cocaine or, later, when cocaine was outlawed, caffeine. These were sold as “soft drinks”, to even greater success, leading to the growth of giant corporations whose sole business was to bottle and market these drinks to a seemingly insatiable population.

Then, someone came up with the idea of selling plain, non-carbonated water. At first, people with a smattering of common sense laughed and jeered the bottlers, saying that no one would buy water when they could get it free from their faucets. However, the bottlers hired advertising agencies, who employed very smart people. Those people launched campaign after campaign to convince Americans that the stuff coming out of their taps was suspect. They told folks that they needed to buy “safe” water, in order to be healthy and happy, while all the time, the bottling companies were buying up water from municipal reservoirs and selling it back to the rubes.

It worked like a charm. “Designer” water earned the bottling companies even more than soda water or soft drinks. After all, there was almost no overhead, and revenue-starved communities were happy to sell them more and more of their people’s liquid life.

Because of the effective persuasion of money-tongued corporate lobbyists, anti-trust regulations had been enfeebled by the “public servants” elected to enforce them. In a corporate feeding frenzy, the smaller bottling companies were bought up by ever larger ones, until a single giant was left: International Hyrdotech. IH owned the rights to a significant portion of the water in municipal reservoirs all over the free world, but that wasn’t enough to please them.

They wanted it all.

When people started to get sick, and some of them even to die - not many, of course, just a few thousand, scattered over the continental US and Europe, but enough to get the attention of the media and thereby stimulate the public’s fear - the cause was traced back to the ground water. The Center for Disease Control said it was e coli, but it didn’t respond to the usual remedies. Millions of gallons of chlorine were poured into the aquifer, but instead of getting better, the contamination got worse. More communities were affected, and more people died. Eventually, the governments declared a state of emergency.

IH, the big bottling giant, came to the rescue. Its R and D people miraculously figured out the exact bioagent necessary to control the “SuperE”, as they so aptly named it. People were so relieved that almost nobody even questioned how they could possibly have come up with the answer so quickly. Those few who questioned whether SuperE itself might have come from those same labs were labeled “fringe fanatics”, or “conspiracy freaks”, or simply “nutballs”.

Even the so-called miracle cure wasn’t enough to get rid of SuperE completely, only to knock it down. A few weeks later, it always came back. Soon, SuperE was found in the water beneath Asia, Africa, and Australia. IH said it had originated in the sea mucilage that had been growing out of control in the planet’s warming climate. This was a plausible enough explanation, since it had been long known that the stuff was rife with bacteria and viruses. Reality had conformed to the bottlers’ propaganda: tap water was no longer safe. The entire fresh water aquifer would have to be treated regularly, well by well, and IH had a patent on the genetic structure of the only treatment. The pushers could demand whatever they wanted, and the addicted world would have to pay.

This extortion should have caused outrage; the people should have put down their collective foot and said, “enough!” Ah, but the IH public relations tactics were pure genius. It was spun perfectly; IH was mankind’s savior. Many people were already used to paying for their bottled drinking water, so what difference did it make, they said, if IH owned the entire aquifer? Others argued that their wash water, laundry water, even the water they used to wash their cars and sprinkle their lawns, would be prohibitively expensive. IH responded that SuperE was so virulent that even skin contact with the bug was dangerous.

The corporation was magnanimous, however. In order to make sure that people paid only for what they actually used, every home with a private well was fitted with a meter, just like the ones on the municipal water grids, absolutely free of charge. Well, the meter was free. There was a modest installation charge, which they said covered the cost of labor and cartage.

The money rolled in faster than ever.

Tucker’s foot caught in a tangle of roots and he went down, hard. His battered journal slipped from his hands and opened like a yellow-white blossom as it tumbled through the air. It hit a low-hanging branch, and the worn binding released its tenuous grip. Tattered pages fluttered free, a flock of startled doves. His panic surged up like a newly-tapped oil deposit. The blood that pounded in his ears like a horse-head pump obscured the noise behind him as he scrambled forward on hands and knees, snatching pages from the foliage and stuffing them between the worn leather covers without regard for their proper order. All the while, the sound of his pursuers grew louder. By the time he had gathered up all of the precious pages and resumed his headlong flight, they were very close indeed. Oil wells... they used to call oil black gold, he remembered. These days, water’s liquid diamonds.

While IH was busily securing its hold on the water supply, other big corporations were making big money selling petroleum, coal and other fossil fuels to those same people, who had used the initial availability of cheap fuel and power to expand outward from the cities, entering into deep debt to build the dream homes the real estate development corporations told them they wanted. Gradually, they created far-flung suburban communities, from which the American Dreamers could commute to their jobs in the cities. This decentralization made them dependent on the petroleum mongers, both for fuel for their vehicles and for the electricity to power the many conveniences still other corporations sold them for their dream homes.

Irreplaceable fossil fuels were burned up faster and faster, until at last the polar ice caps were melting from the greenhouse effect, and the tepid seas were clogged with strangling, septic mucilage. Finally, the oil wells began to dry up, and the coal deposits were exhausted. Not soon enough, the naturalists said, but perhaps the planet would recover.

The question was: what now? The answer came as a surprise to all except the few who knew how vigorously alternative energy sources had been suppressed by the defenders of the status quo.

Long thought unfeasible because of the difficulty of separating it from the other elements with which it so readily bonded, hydrogen as fuel suddenly became not only possible, but elegantly simple. With photohydrosynthesis, a process based upon photosynthesis that used a genetically mutated form of chlorophyll, hydrogen could be extracted from water in much the same way that oxygen was extracted from carbon dioxide. The process was fast, non-polluting, cheap, and effective. Storage was accomplished by the use of a revolutionary metal-organic framework created through coordination copolymerization. This process created a sponge-like, microporous material with phenomenal storage potential. One thirtieth of an ounce had the approximate surface area of a football field. Hydrogen became the new petroleum, and water was suddenly worth a whole lot more. The price per gallon quadrupled overnight, and the latest padlock clicked shut on human independence.

Who owned the water supply? International Hydrotech. By yet another incredible coincidence, IH just happened to be tooled up and ready to produce the synthesizers and storage cells in huge quantities. They even had a catchy name - Hydrofuel - and an accompanying ad campaign ready to go. The slogan read, “Hydrofuel: IH saves the world... again.”

That would have been the end of it, were it not for a wealthy young inventor named Tucker, who came up with LightSource, a compact, super-efficient solar cell/battery, which he used to power a nifty little vehicle he called the Photrekker. This came at the worst possible moment for IH, but perhaps in the nick of time for everyone else.

IH got word of it through some spy in Tucker’s organization. It seemed that there was always somebody ready to sell out the world for a few lousy bucks. They immediately tried to buy it from him. When he wouldn’t sell, they cut off water to his factory and his home. Luckily, his premises were on the ocean, and the LightSource was perfectly able to power a desalination/purification system.

Next, IH used the power of their lobbyists to turn the government against him. That, however, had proved too slow, so they decided to play hardball.

Tears blurred Tucker’s vision and he almost took another header onto the rain forest floor as he remembered the call he had received in Geneva. It interrupted his meeting with potential European investors, and set his course to this very moment.

#


Lake Geneva glittered like diamonds beneath the bright sunlight. Tucker stood at the center of a crowd of people assembled in the Jardin Anglais on the southern shore of the lake, where the high-pressure fountain called the Jet d’eau was located. The fountain, which had been in operation at this location since it had been moved from the Rhone in 1891, had been shut down due to rising energy costs, since the city was at last being forced to convert to IH-controlled hydrogen power generation.

Switzerland was one of the last holdouts against the SuperE extortion, having decided that it would be cheaper to install a water-reclamation system that melted the ice of the glaciers that draped the Alps. They then piped that SuperE-free water to sealed, self-contained reservoirs located around the country.

IH had instituted a lawsuit claiming that the glacier water was included in the ground water rights they had been granted following the development of their SuperE bioagent. The Swiss fought back, saying that since the glacial water needed none of IH’s treatments, it was exempt from their control. The court battle dragged on, but now that fossil fuels were becoming scarce, the Swiss needed a new method of generating the energy it took to melt the ice and to pump it from place to place. The only alternative seemed to be IH, which threatened to withhold the technology unless the Swiss relinquished their claim to the glacial water supply.

In an effort to gain investors for his invention, Tucker had offered to install one of his units to power the landmark fountain, free of charge. The array of LightSource high-efficiency solar panels had been installed on the roof of a nearby government building, where they would be inconspicuous. The control interface was located in a small, whitewashed shack near the fountain. Tucker stood next to government administrators representing the City and Canton of Geneva and the city’s most prominent business people. Conspicuous by his absence was Hemmaldrich Logais, a member of the City Parliament who had argued vehemently against allowing Tucker’s donation, on the grounds that it might adversely affect the city’s relationship with IH, which, he said, had already been damaged by the national government’s attempts to undermine its activities in Switzerland.

Tibold de Astens, the city’s Minister of Finance, had demanded that Logais recuse himself, unless he would demonstrate to their satisfaction that the payments Logais was receiving from IH for “consultations” did not constitute a conflict of interest. To nobody’s surprise, Logais had refused, and was recused.

They all smiled for the photographers, then the government folks took turns making rousing speeches for the crowd. At last, the speeches were finished, the cheers faded, and they were ready.

Tucker let silence settle as his eyes passed over the crowd, then from one dignitary to the next, before he spoke.

“Honored officials, fellow business people, ladies and gentlemen. In the spirit of friendship and mutual advantage, I bring you an alternative to the corporate ‘energarchy’ being forced upon us all. As a symbol of humanity’s independence, I give you the means to indefinitely maintain the operation of one of Geneva’s most visible landmarks. The power comes from the source of all life, the light of the sun, via my invention, the LightSource. I give you... the Jet d’eau.”

He turned to the control shack and stepped up to the console. He tossed a last smile at the crowd and flipped the switch. From the surface of the lake just offshore, a column of water leaped a hundred and fifty meters into the air. Over five hundred liters of water per second shot upward at two hundred kilometers per hour. Sunlight refracted into a shimmering rainbow in the billion jewel-like droplets that showered down around the jet. The crowd erupted in wild cheers.

As Tucker went down the line shaking hands, the smile on his face did not reflect the apprehension he felt. Now comes the hard part.

After a trip back to his hotel near the Geneva International Airport, the cab in which Tucker rode crossed the Pont du Mont Blanc as it carried him to his meeting in the Rue du Rhone. Off to his left, the Jet d’eau sparkled, reassuring him that he had done everything possible to demonstrate the value of LightSource. He sat back and breathed deeply. Either they would go for it, or they would not.

Beneath the pristine azure sky, the Rive Gauche shopping district was packed with people; on the short walk from the cab to the dignified old bank building that he figured had loomed over the street for the last two or three centuries, he heard perhaps half a dozen different languages being spoken. He passed into the lobby and rode the elevator up to the fifth floor. He walked down the hall, his large briefcase hanging from his right hand. The conference room where the meeting was to be held was on the north side of the building, overlooking the lake and the fountain.

Here in the conference room, everyone spoke English, the only language in which Tucker knew more than a few common phrases.

Tucker stood at one end of the room. The fluorescent tube lights mounted along the high ceiling were turned off, and the recessed ashcan incandescents were dimmed to the point where the filaments emitted only a slight orange glow. A stripe of bright sunlight that slipped through the vertical blind on the first of the row of tall, narrow, old-fashioned sash windows painted the left side of his face. The glow of the holo-schematic of the Photrekker vehicle lit him from the right. The image slowly revolved above the portable hologenerator he had brought along, which was powered by a working LightSource unit that the assembled investors could inspect first-hand.

“I’m sure you can see, gentlemen, that Photrekker and the LightSource itself have unlimited potential in today’s marketplace. A modest investment in these technologies is certain to generate an unheard of return, and give Hydrofuel some stiff competition.

“As an added bonus - and this is something that the folks in marketing can get some mileage out of, so to speak - the competition from LightSource will serve to keep IH water and Hydrofuel prices under control. If they can’t compete in efficiency and affordability, they can’t compete, period.”

The men seated at the conference table before him wore dark suits and darker expressions. Tucker had made his presentation as best he knew how, but he was beginning to suspect that these men, like those in other countries to whom he had pitched his invention, were either in bed with International Hydrotech, or afraid of them.

Maybe I’m just over-reacting, he thought. After all, he had plenty of reason for paranoia. Up to this point, IH had confounded him at every turn.

He had been certain that the Swiss would jump at the chance to cut a slice out of the energy pie-chart. It didn’t make sense for them to balk. They might just be playing their cards close to the vest, in order to milk him for the best terms they could get. Well, he was willing to dicker.

The dickering was into its second hour. Mathel Visins, a young entrepreneur who had revolutionized the Swiss timepiece industry, was talking about financing the development of LightSource-powered supersonic aircraft to aid in distribution, when Tucker’s PDA bleeped.

He rose, stretched, and excused himself. He walked a few steps away from the table, while the conversation continued, and pulled his unit from his jacket pocket. The Caller ID said it was from his childhood friend, Vince Sturgis, a talented engineer who served as Tucker’s plant manager.

“Tucker here. What can I do for you, Vince?”

“Tucker, I...” The sound of Vince’s voice immediately sent a shiver through him. “I don’t know how to say this...”

Oh, God. “Vince, get hold of yourself. Just tell me what’s wrong.”

“There’s... there’s been an accident...”

The factory was gone, destroyed in an explosion. His wife Bonnie had been covering for him at the office, taking Preston Thomas, their two-year-old son, and Winnie, his 60-year-old nanny, with her. They, and hundreds of his employees had been killed.

That was the end of the negotiations with the Genevois. They were all sympathetic, but there was a look of horror in their eyes that told Tucker that he wouldn’t be making a deal with them. He took the first flight back.

Vince met him at the airport. Tucker, baggage in hand, saw him first, as he rode the escalator down from the security checkpoint. Vince’s swatch of red hair stood out against the blue ocean in the travel poster behind him. Watching him, Tucker got the distinct impression that his friend was acting strangely, like a kid with a guilty secret. He stood there fidgeting, his eyes constantly flicking left and right. It was so unlike Vince’s usual steady demeanor that Tucker felt a wash of uneasiness. Then, Vince saw him and raised an arm in greeting. His entire stance firmed up, and the Vince that Tucker knew emerged. A sad smile warmed his friend’s face, and Tucker’s feeling of unease faded. Vince was probably as devastated by the accident as he himself was.

“Hey, Tuck.”

“Vince.” They embraced and, as he had for as long as he could remember, Tucker took strength from his friend’s presence. Vince was the last remnant of the life he had known, and Tucker was grateful that he had survived. They stepped back and regarded each other for a moment, then headed for the parking lot.

“Any idea what caused the blast?” Tucker asked, as he weaved his way through the crowd of travelers with Vince at his side.

“No,” Vince answered. “Not that they’ve announced, anyway.”

“I don’t understand how the factory could go up the way you described. There wasn’t anything that volatile in the place.”

“Yeah. Well,” Vince paused as he slipped around an in-bound porter with a loaded baggage dolly, “the investigators have been crawling all over the place since it cooled off enough to allow it, but they won’t say a word about what they’ve found.” After that, they seemed to run out of things to say. Eschewing the shuttle bus, they walked the long distance out to the short-term lot, got into Vince’s Hydrofuel-powered Ford and drove to the scene of the disaster in silence.

Though he had tried to prepare himself for the sight, Tucker was stunned at the extent of the damage. Tucker Industries was leveled. Pieces of the building were scattered over a half-mile radius. Cars in the parking lot had been shoved back, even overturned, by the shock, and windows had shattered in buildings a mile away. The fire had been hot enough to cause the I-beams that supported the machine shop floor to sag like tired horses with lordotic spines.

Vince followed him like an anxious puppy as he poked through the still-smoldering ruins. As he went, Tucker could see his friend’s thinly-veiled emotion in every sideways glance. He could hear it in every response he gave to Tucker’s short comments and questions. As Vince twitched and fidgeted in the periphery of Tucker’s awareness, an unreasoning tension built slowly inside him. He felt like lashing out at his friend, attacking him, but why? He struggled to keep his muscles from tensing, and to keep annoyance from his voice. What the hell was the matter with him?

“It was just dumb luck that I was out of the office,” Vince said, “meeting Jenny for lunch at Casey’s after her morning class. She was so excited, talking about the campus, and the graduate program... Then, the whole place shook, and the front windows shattered.” He paused, shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe his own story. “People started screaming, and sirens, and... I didn’t know what had happened, of course, but I got this horrible feeling...”

Vince trailed off, and suddenly, it dawned on Tucker what was bothering him. It had been a mystery how IH had found out about what Tucker was doing, well before he was ready to announce it to the public. They had possessed quite a lot of detail, in fact. That kind of detail had been available to very few people. Tucker’s subconscious had nagged at him, had known that someone close to him had leaked the information, but he repressed the thought. He hadn’t had the courage to consider it.

The realization rushed into him, impacting his mind like a kick to the head. All the annoyance drained from him, replaced by the numbness of shock. Tucker stopped and turned to face his friend. They were standing in the ruins of the front lobby. The prototype Photrekker that had been its centerpiece was lying on its roof in the middle of the circular main drive.

His voice sounded dead to his own ears as he asked, “Why’d you do it, Vince?”

Vince jumped as if he’d been slapped. “Wh-what? What, Tuck?”

“What did they offer you? Was it worth it?”

“What are you talking about, Tuck?” Vince’s shoulders sagged, and there was little strength in his protest. “Look, I know you’re hurting, and...”

“You’re the inside man, Vince. You sold me out to IH. What I want to know is, why?” Tucker’s voice was soft, calm. Despair had overwhelmed his anger. Vince looked back at him for a moment, then his eyes dropped to the blasted floor beneath their feet as he groped for the words to justify his betrayal.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen. They sent people... they wanted to know what you were doing, Tuck. They offered me money, but I told ‘em to go to hell. Then they threatened Jenny... she’s had her heart set on getting into that doctoral program... Turns out, IH as good as owns the damned university, Tuck! Hell, they own damned near everything. So... I told them. I didn’t think it would make any difference. I didn’t...”

Vince stumbled to a halt, but his head slowly rose and his blue eyes bored into Tucker’s, searching. Tucker stared back, silent. After a moment, the weight of his guilt seemed to drag Vince’s eyes back down to the deck. He continued. “Once they got me going, they wanted more and more information. I didn’t know how to stop. They made it sound so reasonable, so... inevitable. They said that, at the price they’d offer, you’d be an idiot not to sell.

“I thought, why shouldn’t I get a little something out of it, too? I’ve put my whole life into your... I never imagined they’d just... kill everybody.” His voice broke, then moved from pleading toward accusing. “You were supposed to sell it to them, Tuck. You were supposed to take the money.”

“You know me better than that, Vince. You knew how I felt.”

“But there’s no way to win, can’t you see that?” His eyes snapped up, and there was fire in them to match his blaze of red hair. “IH can’t be beaten, Tucker,” he yelled. “They’re just too damn big! You could have walked away twice as rich as you already were, and nobody would have said jack! But no... you had to save the damned world! You’re the genius; can’t you get it through your head? The world doesn’t want to be saved!”

Vince stormed away, leaving Tucker alone in the wreckage of his life. He stood there for a long time, thinking about the choices he had made, and asking himself the same question he had asked Vince. Was it worth it? Wasn’t he every bit as responsible for this atrocity as Vince was? Maybe Vince’s reasons were less altruistic than his were, but weren’t they more realistic?

Eventually, he wandered away. He had to see to the arrangements for three hundred twenty-four funerals. He held a private memorial for Bonnie and P.T., and after a great deal of soul-searching, he decided to invite Vince. Preston had always loved his “Uncle Vin”. He was relieved when he got Vince’s voicemail.

“Vince, I...” The words came hard. He had to force them past the lump in his throat. “Please come to the memorial, at Falco’s. It’s for family only, and won’t be in the newsblog, but I wanted to make sure you knew, and... Please come, Vince. You’re family.”

Tucker was greeting mourners on the marble steps at the entrance of the memorial hall when Vince showed up for the service. He held back until the others had gone inside before he approached. They stood facing each other in silence for a long moment, neither of them knowing where to begin. Then Vince cleared his throat.

“I - I’m so sorry.”

“Me, too,” Tucker replied. He hugged his friend, Vince hugged him back, and they cried together, mourning all that they had lost. The tears seemed to wash the poison out of their hearts, and when they stepped back, they were friends again. No; they were more than friends. They were brothers.

Afterward, Vince resumed his accustomed place at Tucker’s right, and lent his support as Tucker handed out hugs and holospheres with pictures and videos of Bonnie and P.T., both to his own relatives and to Bonnie’s. After the eulogies, they all went out to Bonnie’s family’s hometown cemetery, where Tucker had a monument erected in their honor.

There was no need to dig a grave. There wasn’t enough left of his wife and son to bury.

#


Tucker stumbled on, journal held tight to his chest. He thrashed his way through the thick foliage while tears ran down his sunburned, dirt-smeared cheeks. He needed to concentrate, to move more quickly, but his mind would not leave off probing his wounds.

After the disaster, vicious rumors said that LightSource was unstable, and that it had been the cause of the explosion. The subsequent investigation uncovered no evidence to substantiate the rumor, for a very good reason. It was a lie. Tucker knew what had happened. IH was impatient with the sluggishness of legal channels, so they had simply blown his factory to smithereens.

Shattered by the loss of his family and his business, Tucker still would not give up. He moved his operation to this island and built a new factory. In retaliation, they had blockaded him, cut off his supply lines, driven him into bankruptcy, and, as icing on the cake, bombed his second factory to hell and gone. At least this time he’d been able to evacuate everyone.

At last, he had to face the fact that Vince had pointed out to him in the ruins of his first factory: IH was too powerful. He would not be able to beat the corporate moguls at their own game. The thing to do, he had told himself, was to change the game.

If he could not build the LightSource himself, he would make it available to anyone who wanted it. If it was ubiquitous enough, he figured, it would eventually become established, so he had published on the Internet the plans and instructions for building LightSource from materials readily available to most science hobbyists.

The problem with electronic publication was that it was even easier for a powerful entity to censor something it didn’t want people to have, especially since Net Neutrality had been repealed. They didn’t even have to hold a book-burning. They could just send out their army of cyber-spiders to find every reference to the objectionable material, and, instead of fetching it, the spiders would eat it. Yum-yum. All gone. There was much to be said for hard copies, even ones as battle-scarred as the one he now hugged to his chest as he’d once held his wife and beloved child.

He had run out of time. They were right behind him; he heard the snuffling hiss of spoor-sniffers. The killdrones have my scent. They would be on him at any moment. Only a little way to go.

The reason he had come back to this island, where stood the ruins of his second factory, was that the experimental satellite pod was here. He needed to get his original schematics into the pod and into orbit. He still had a friend on the space station. She would retrieve it, and somehow see that its contents saw the light of day. Samantha believes in my work, he thought. He had to believe in her. She was his last hope.

There it is. The shack was still standing. He pushed his exhausted body to move a little faster. The whine of the killdrones cut through the air as they closed to thermal scan range, and quickly rose in pitch as they accelerated. He dove through the door into the shack. The pod was on its cradle. He popped open the hatch on the cylinder’s side, rolled his manuscript into a tube and stuffed it inside without a care for the new dog-ears he was making on the pages. He snapped the hatch shut, yanked the chain to open the roof port, and activated the last LightSource in existence. The pod shot out through the roof, silent and swift. He watched it rise, and a smile dawned on his weathered face. There. They haven’t won yet.

The whine of the killdrones had risen to a shriek. The pod was a tiny white speck in the blue sky over the blue ocean. Then, his heart paused between beats, as a thin, sharp streak of light angled up toward it, and a tiny puff of smoke blossomed. An instant later, a black trail dropped toward the sea. His heart, now firmly lodged in his throat, had not yet resumed beating by the time the killdrones hit the shack and stopped it forever.

#


Out where the water stretched to the horizon in every direction, soft waves rocked a charred, cylindrical vessel. The vagaries of the current carried it where they would. One day, perhaps, some other refugee from corporate tyranny, a latter-day Robinson Crusoe, castaway on some distant shore, would brave the muck long enough to pluck it from the surf, and the message in a bottle would survive.

Maybe that pariah would recognize it for what it was, and dare to leave refuge to try to save a world that didn’t seem to want saving. Maybe that hypothetical hero would succeed where George Francis Tucker had failed.

The chances, however, were slim.
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