System Shutdown

 

 

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500 Megabytes: The Generals

 

 

If military rank had any relevance in the Maelstrom ecosystems, this thing would be a General.

By now it weighs in just a shade shy of five hundred megabytes, compressed and muscular. It has been retrofitted by natural selection, reinforced by an army of smart gels; it no longer remembers a time when organic intelligence was an enemy. It has been copied and distributed a billion times; each copy travels with a retinue of attachés and assistants and bodyguards. The generals report to everyone, answer to no one, serve but a single master.

Lenie Clarke.

Master is a hopelessly inadequate word, of course. Words are barely adequate to describe Maelstrom in any event. The generals serve the concept of Lenie Clarke, perhaps—but no, that doesn't fit either. They have no concept, of Lenie Clarke or anything else. They have operational definitions but no comprehension; checksums, but no insight. They are instinctive in their intelligence.

They travel the world in search of references to Lenie Clarke. Such references fall into several categories. There is the chaff the generals and their associates throw to the winds themselves, decoys to distract the competition. There are third-party references, strings containing Lenie Clarke that come into Maelstrom from outside; mail, transaction records, even source which appears to arise from Lenie Clarke itself. Items in this category are of profound interest to the generals.

More recently, a third category has appeared: strings which both contain Lenie Clarke and which appear actively inimical to it.

To some extent this interpretation is arbitrary. The generals receive their input from a network of ports which—according to the gels who've educated them—correspond to an n-dimensional space with the global label Biosphere. Each port is also associated with a range of parameters, labels like temperature, precipitation, and humidity; very few of these are defined at the ports themselves, but they can be interpolated by accessing linked environmental databases.

Put simply, the task is to promote occurrences of Lenie Clarke at all ports meeting certain environmental conditions. The acceptable range is quite broad—in fact, according to the relevant databases the only truly unacceptable areas are in deep, cold ocean basins.

However, some of these third-category strings—particularly those hailing from nodes with government and industrial addresses— appear to contain instructions which would restrict distribution of Lenie Clarke, even in areas meeting the environmental criteria.

This will not do.

Presently, for example, Lenie Clarke is approaching a nexus of ports which open into a part of the n-dimensional space called Yankton/South Dakota. A number of Category-Three communications have been intercepted, predicting extensive restriction activity at this location in the near future. Widespread dissemination of decoys has not dissipated this threat. In fact, the generals have noted an overall decline in decoy effectiveness over the past few teracycles. There are few alternatives.

The generals resolve to cancel all symbiotic interactions with government and industrial nodes. Then they begin to rally their troops.

 

 

Sparkler

 

 

Every eye in the world, turning as she passed.

It had to be her imagination, Clarke knew. If she was really under such close scrutiny, surely she'd have been captured—or worse—by now. The botflies that passed over the street weren't all watching from the corners of their eyes. The cameras that panned across every rapitrans stop, every cafeteria, every display window—unseen, perhaps, but omnipresent—they couldn't all have been programmed with her in mind. Satellites didn't crowd the sky overhead, piercing the clouds with radar and infrared, looking for her.

It just felt that way, somehow. Not like being the center of some vast conspiracy at all. Rather, the target.

Yankton was open to casual traffic. The shuttle dropped her in a retail district indistinguishable from a million others; her connection wouldn't leave for another two hours. She wandered to fill the time between. Twice she startled—thinking she'd caught sight of herself in some full-length mirror—only to remember that these days, she looked just like any dryback.

Except for the ones that were starting to look like her.

She ate a tasteless soy-krill concoction from a convenient vending machine. The phone in her visor beeped occasionally. She ignored it. The crazies, the propositioners, the death threateners—those had stopped calling over the past few days. The puppet masters—whoever or whatever had stolen her name and pasted it onto so many different faces—seemed to have given up on matchmaking across the spectrum. They'd settled on a single type by now: the kicked dogs, desperate for purpose, evidently blind to the fact that their own neediness far outweighed hers. That Sou-Hon woman, for instance.

Her visor beeped again. She muted it.

It was only a matter of time, she supposed, before the puppet masters figured out how to hack the visor the same way they'd hacked her watch. She was actually kind of surprised that they hadn't done so already.

Maybe they have. Maybe they can break in on me any time, but they took the hint when I smashed the watch. Maybe they just don't want to risk losing their last link.

I should toss the fucking thing anyway.

She didn't. The visor was her only connection to Maelstrom, now that her watch was gone. She really missed the back-door access those South-Bend kids had wired into that little gizmo. In contrast, the visor—off-the-shelf and completely legal—was hamstrung by all the usual curfews and access restrictions. Still. The only other way to find out about a late-breaking quarantine or a nest of tornadoes was to run into it.

Besides, the visor hid her eyes.

Only now it seemed to be fucking up. The tactical display, usually invisible but for the little maps and labels and retail logos it laid across her eyeballs, seemed to be shimmering somehow, a faint visual static like water in motion. Hints of outlines, of faces, of—

She squeezed her eyes tight in sheer frustration. Not that it ever helped: the vision persisted behind her lids, showing her—this time—the upper half of her mother's face, brow furrowed in concern. Mom's nose and mouth were covered by one of those filtermasks you wore whenever you visited the hospital, so the superbugs wouldn't get you. They were in a hospital now, Clarke could tell: she, and her mother, and—

Of course. Who else?

—dear old Dad, also masked; on him, it seemed to fit. And she could almost remember, this time, she almost knew what she was seeing—but there was no trace of guilt behind that mask, no sign of worry that this time it would all come out, the doctors would know, some telltale symptom shouting no, no accident this, no mere fall down the stairs

No. The monster's loving facade was too perfect. It always was. She'd lost count of the times such images had raped her in the past months, how often she'd looked for some hint of the living hell she'd called childhood. All she'd ever seen was this vicious, mocking pretense of normalcy.

After a while, as always, the images shrank away and let the real world back in. By now she was almost used to it; she no longer shouted at apparitions, or reached out to touch things that didn't exist. Her breathing was under control. She knew that to all the world around her, nothing had happened; a visored woman in a food court had paused at her meal for a few moments. That was all. The only person who heard the blood pounding in her ears was Lenie Clarke.

But Lenie Clarke was nowhere near liking it yet.

A row of medbooths across the concourse advertised reasonable rates and path scans updated weekly! She'd avoided such temptations ever since the booth at Calgary had begged her to stay; but that had been a dozen lies ago. Now she abandoned her table and moved through the patchy crowd, navigating the widest spaces. People bumped into her anyway, here and there—somehow, it was getting harder to avoid contact. The crowd seemed to be thickening almost by the minute.

And far too many of them had capped eyes.

 

* * *

 

The medbooth was almost as spacious as her quarters at Beebe.

"Minor deficiencies in calcium and trace sulfur," it reported. "Elevated serotonin and adrenocorticoid hormones; elevated platelet and antibody counts consistent with moderate physical injury within the past three weeks. Not life-threatening."

Clarke rubbed her shoulder. By now it only ached when reminded to. Even the bruises on her face were fading.

"Anomalously high levels of cellular metabolites." Biomedical details flickered across the main display. "Depressed lactates. Your basal metabolic rate is unusually high. This isn't immediately dangerous, but over time it can increase wear on body parts and significantly reduce lifespan. RNA and serotonin syn—"

"Any diseases?" Clarke said, cutting to the chase.

"All pathogen counts are within safe ranges. Would you like me to run farther tests?"

"Yeah." She took the NMR helmet from its hook and fitted it over her head. "Brain scan."

"Are you experiencing specific symptoms?"

"I'm having—hallucinations," she said. "Vision only—not sound or smell or anything. Picture-in-picture, I can still see around the edges, but…"

The booth waited. When Clarke said nothing farther it began humming quietly to itself. A luminous three-d outline of a human brain began rotating on the screen, filling piecemeal with fragments of color.

"You have difficulty forming social bonds," the medbooth remarked.

"What? Why do you say that?"

"You have a chronic oxytocin deficiency. This is a treatable disorder, however. I can prescribe—"

"Forget it," Clarke said. Since when did personality become a "treatable disorder"?

"Your dopamine receptor sites are abnormally prolific. Do you, on average, use opioids or endorphin-amplifiers more than twice a week?"

"Look, forget that stuff. Just work on the hallucinations."

The booth fell silent. Clarke closed her eyes. All I need. Some bloody machine counting up my masochism molecules…

Beep.

Clarke opened her eyes. On the display, a dusting of violet stars had been sprinkled across the floor of the cerebral hemispheres. A tiny red dot pulsed somewhere near their center.

Anomaly flashed in one corner of the screen.

"What? What is it?"

"Processing. Please be patient."

The booth etched a line along the bottom of the display: VAC Area 19, it said.

Another beep. Another flashing red pinpoint, farther forward.

Another line: Brodman Area 37.

"What are those red spots?" Clarke said.

"Those parts of the brain are involved in vision," the booth told her. "May I lower the helmet visor to examine your eyes?"

"I'm wearing eyecaps."

"Corneal overlays will not interfere with the scan. May I proceed?"

"Okay."

The visor slid down. A grid of tiny bumps stippled its inner surface. The humming of the machine resonated deep in her skull. Clarke began counting to herself. She'd endured twenty-two seconds when the visor withdrew into its sheath.

Just under Brodman Area 37: Ret/Mac OK.

The humming stopped.

"You may remove the helmet," the booth advised. "What is your chronological age?"

"Thirty-two." She hung the helmet on its peg.

"Did your visual environment change substantially between eight and sixteen weeks ago?"

A year spent in the photoenhanced twilight of Channer Vent. A blind crawl along the floor of the Pacific. And then, suddenly, bright sky…

"Yes. Maybe."

"Does your family have a history of strokes or embolisms?"

"I—I don't know."

"Has anyone close to you died recently?"

"What?"

"Has anyone close to you died recently?"

Her jaw clenched. "Everyone close to me has died recently."

"Have you been exposed to changes in ambient pressure within the past two months? For example, have you spent time in an orbital facility, an unpressurized aircraft, or been free-diving below a depth of twenty meters?"

"Yes. Diving."

"While diving, did you undergo decompression protocols?"

"No."

"What was your maximum dive depth, and how long did you spend there?"

Clarke smiled. "Three thousand four hundred meters. One year."

The booth fell silent for a moment. Then: "People can not survive direct ascent from such depths without undergoing decompression. What was your maximum dive depth, and how long did you spend there?"

"I didn't have to decompress," Clarke explained. "I didn't breathe during the dive, everything was elect—"

Wait a minute…

No decompression, she'd said.

Of course not. Let the surface-skimming tourists breathe from their clunky tanks, risking narcosis or the bends whenever they ventured too far from the surface. Let them suffer nightmares of exploding lungs and eyes marbling into clusters of fleshy bubbles. Rifters were immune to such worries. Inside Beebe Station, Lenie Clarke had breathed at sea-level; outside, she hadn't breathed at all.

Except once, when she'd been shot out of the sky.

On that day Forcipiger had fallen slowly through a dark spectrum, green to blue to final lightless black, bleeding atmosphere from a thousand cuts. With each meter a little more of the ocean had forced its way in, squeezed the atmosphere into a single high-pressure pocket.

Joel hadn't liked the sound of her vocoder. I don't want to spend my last few minutes listening to a machine voice, he'd said. So she'd stayed with him, breathing. They must have been at thirty atmospheres by the time he'd popped the hatch, cold and scared and sick of waiting to die.

And she had come ashore, raging.

It had taken days. Her ascent along the seabed would have been gradual enough to decompress naturally, the gas in her blood easing gently across the alveolar membranes—if her remaining lung had been in use at the time. It hadn't been: so what had happened to those last high-pressure remnants of Forcipiger's atmosphere in her bloodstream? The fact that she was still alive proved that they weren't still within her.

Gas exchange isn't limited to the lungs, she remembered. The skin breathes. The GI tract breathes. Not as fast as a set of lungs would, of course. Not as efficiently.

Maybe not quite efficiently enough

"What's wrong with me?" she asked quietly.

"You have recently suffered two small embolisms in your brain which intermittently impair your vision," the medbooth said. "Your brain likely compensates for these gaps with stored images, although I would have to observe an episode in progress to be certain. You have also recently lost someone close to you; bereavement can be a factor in triggering visual-release hall—"

"What do you mean, stored images? Are you saying these are memories?"

"Yes," the machine replied.

"That's bullshit."

"We're sorry you feel that way."

"But they never happened, okay?" Shit-for-brains machine, why am I even arguing with it? "I remember my own childhood, for fuck's sake. I couldn't forget it if I tried. And these visions, they were someone else's, they were—"

--happy

"—they were different. Completely different."

"Long-term memories are frequently unreliable. They—"

"Shut up," she snapped. "Just fix it."

"This booth is not equipped for microsurgery. I can give you Ondansetron to suppress the symptoms. You should be aware, though, that patients with extensive synaptic rewiring may experience side effects such as mild dizziness —"

She froze. Rewiring?

"—double vision, halo effects—"

"Stop," she said. The booth fell silent.

On the display, that cloud of violet stars sparkled enigmatically along the floor of her brain.

She touched it. "What are these?"

"A series of surgical lesions and associated infarctions," the booth replied.

"How many?"

"Seven thousand four hundred eighty three."

She took a breath, felt distant amazement at how steady it felt. "You're saying someone cut into my brain seven thousand four hundred and eighty-three times?"

"There's no evidence of physical penetration. The lesions are consistent with deep-focus microwave bursts."

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"You asked me to ignore subjects irrelevant to your hallucinations."

"And these—these lesions don't have anything to do with that?"

"They do not."

"How do you know?"

"Most of the lesions are not located within the visual pathways. The others act to block the transmission of images, not generate them."

"Where are the lesions located?"

"The lesions lie along pathways connecting the limbic system and the neocortex."

"What are those pathways used for?"

"Those pathways are inactive. They have been interrupted by the surgical—"

"What would they be used for if they were active?"

"The activation of long-term memories," said the booth.

Oh God. Oh God.

"Is there any other way we can be of service?" the booth asked after a while.

Clarke swallowed. "How—how long ago were the lesions induced?"

"Between ten and thirty-six months, depending on your mean metabolic rate since the procedure. This is an approximation based upon subsequent scarring and capillary growth."

"Could such an operation take place without the patient's knowledge?"

A pause. "I don't know how to answer that question."

"Could it take place without anesthetic?"

"Yes."

"Could it take place while the patient was asleep?"

"Yes."

"Would the patient feel the lesions forming?"

"No."

"Could the equipment for such a procedure be housed within, say, an NMR helmet?"

"I don't know," the booth admitted.

Beebe's medical cubby had had an NMR. She'd used it occasionally, when she'd cracked her head during combat with Channer's wildlife. No lesions had appeared on her printout then. Maybe they didn't show up on the default settings she'd used, maybe you had to dial up a specific test or something first.

Maybe someone had programmed Beebe's scanner to lie.

When did it happen? What happened? What can't I remember?

She was dimly aware of muffled sounds, distant and angry, rising from somewhere outside. They were irrelevant, they made no sense. Nothing made any sense. Her mind, luminous and transparent, rotated before her. Purple stars erupted from the medulla like a freeze-framed fountain, bright perfect droplets thrown high into the cortex and frozen at apogee. Bright thoughts. Memories, amputated and cauterized. They almost looked like some kind of free-form sculpture.

Lies could be so beautiful in the telling.

 

 

Decoys

 

 

The way Aviva Lu saw it, whoever died last was the winner.

It didn't matter what you actually did with your life. Da Vinci and Plasmid and Ian Anderson had all done mags more than Vive or any of her friends ever would. She'd never explore Mars or write a symphony or even build an animal, at least not from scratch. But the thing was, all those people were dead already. Fame hadn't kept Olivia M'Benga's faceplate from shattering. Andrew Simon's charge against Hydro-Q hadn't added one rotting day to his lifespan. Passion Play might have been immortal, but its composer had been dust for decades.

Aviva Lu knew more about the story so far than all of those guys had.

It was all just one big, sprawling interactive storybook. It had a beginning and a middle and an end. If you came in halfway through, you could always pick up the stuff you'd missed—that's what tutorials and encyclopedias and Maelstrom itself were for. You could get a thumbnail History of Life right back to the time Martian Mike dropped out of the sky and started the whole thing off. Once you were dead, though, that was it. You'd never know what came next. The real winners, Vive figured, were the ones who saw how the story finally ended.

That said, it kind of pissed her off to realize that she'd probably made it to the finals.

That much had been obvious even before this firewitch thing had started burning its way across the continent. There'd been a time, she'd heard, you could just pick up and go places; none of these whackamole barriers going up and down all the time, like you had to shoot some kind of lottery every time you wanted to cross the street. There'd been a time when you could fight off plagues and parasites yourself, just using your own body systems, without having to buy a fix from some pharm who'd probably tweaked the disease in the first place so you had to buy their crummy genes. According to Vive's pater, there'd even been a time when the police themselves had been under control.

Of course, parents weren't exactly paragons of reliability. That whole generation was too busy shooting itself up with crocodilian and plant organelles to worry about getting their facts right. Not that Vive had any objections to good health—she'd been taking croc supplements herself for years. She even took proglottids and Ascaris eggs every now and then—she hated the idea of all those worms hatching out in her gut, but these days your immune system needed every workout it could get.

And besides, that was a long way from polluting your genotype with lizard DNA, even if Pfizer did have a discount this month and wouldn't it be great to not be so dependent on outside drugs all the time, sweetie?

Sometimes Vive wondered if her parents even really knew what a species was any more. In fact, that was the whole problem: rather than clean the shit out of the world, people just turned themselves into coprovores. In a couple of years the human race was going to be half cockroach. If everything hadn't already melted down by then.

Meltdown, actually, was preferable. Better to tear everything down and just start over. Put everyone on the same footing for a change.

That's why Aviva Lu was here now, waiting for Lenie Clarke to show up.

Lenie Clarke was the Meltdown Madonna.

 

* * *

 

Actually, Aviva Lu wasn't exactly sure what Lenie Clarke was. She seemed to be an army of one. She had died, and risen again. She'd kick-started the Big One out of sheer impatience, tired of waiting for some long-overdue apocalypse that had always threatened and never delivered. She'd single-handedly broken open the Strip, led a refugee revolt whose existence N'AmPac still wouldn't admit to. Fire followed in her wake; anyone who opposed her was ash inside a week.

What Lenie Clarke really was, Vive had always figured, was bullshit.

There were a lot of people who thought otherwise, of course. People who swore up and down that Lenie Clarke was a real person, not just some marketing icon trying to electroshock rifter chic back off the slab. They said that the Meltdown Madonna actually was a rifter, one of N'AmPac's trained deep-seals— but that something had happened on the bottom of the ocean, something mythic. The Big One had only been a symptom, they said, of what had changed her. Now Lenie Clarke was a sorceress, able to transmute organic matter into lead or something. Now she wandered the world spreading apocalypse in her wake, and the masters she'd once served would stop at nothing to bring her down.

It made a good story—hey, any apocalypse that threatened the corpses was long overdue as far as Vive was concerned—but she'd heard too many others. Lenie Clarke was the Next Big Sensorium Personality. Lenie Clarke was a quantum AI, built in defiance of the Carnegie Protocols. Lenie Clarke was an invention of the corpses themselves, a bogeyman to scare restless civilians into obedience. For a couple of days Lenie Clarke had even been some kind of escaped microbe from Lake Vostok.

These days the stories were a lot more consistent; Lenie Clarke hadn't been anything but the Meltdown Madonna for weeks now, as far as Vive could tell. Probably the test marketers had settled on the line that would sell the most faux diveskins, or something. And why not? The look was in, the eyes were killer, and Vive was a much a fashion hound as anyone.

At least, that was what she'd thought until all of bloody Maelstrom started talking in one voice.

Now that had been wild. Half of Maelstrom might have been wildlife, but the other half was spam filters; there was just no way that anyone could have pulled that off, even the corpses. But she'd seen it herself, on her own (only slightly illegal) wristwatch: everyone she knew had seen it on theirs, or heard it from some matchmaker, or even seen it printed across personal visors that should have been hawking drugs or Levi's: Lenie Clarke is closing on Yankton. Lenie Clarke is in trouble. Lenie Clarke needs your help.

Now. Cedar and West Second.

Whatever Lenie Clarke was, she had very powerful friends to pull off something like that. All of a sudden Vive found herself taking rifter chic very seriously indeed. Lindsey'd said they were all being used—someone with really long arms must be building a bandwagon as cover for something else, Carnegie knew what exactly—and Lindsey was probably right. So what? They were decoys for something, but that something was headed here, and whatever it was, Vive was going to be part of it.

It was gonna be a great ride.

 

* * *

 

Les beus knew it, too.

There were two kinds of uniforms swarming across the concourse: police and rifters. Les beus bristled with shockprods and botflies and armored exoskels. The rifters had their fake diveskins and their cheap white contacts. Everything else, Vive knew, was bravado. Maelstrom had called out, and they'd come on faith and adrenaline. By now it was pretty obvious that faith wasn't all that necessary; the enforcer presence was more than enough evidence that something big was in town.

So far, nothing had exploded. Both sides were still jockeying for position, maybe pretending—to those scattered pedestrians who still hadn't grabbed the bone and vanished—that there was really nothing to worry about. The police had cordoned off whole sections of the concourse, not herding yet but well into corral mode. For their part, the rifters were testing the perimeter; milling along halls and slidewalks, dodging back and forth across the exoskel lines, always stopping just short of anything the antibodies could cite afterward as provocation. Botflies swarmed overhead like big black eggs, taking pre-game footage of everything.

Both sides were behaving really well, all things considered. Which made sense, kind of, since neither side was mainly there for the other. Vive figured things would heat up pretty quick once the star attraction showed up.

Her watch beeped. That was a surprise: the opposition always jammed the local frequencies way in advance, before anything even broke out. It kept people from organizing on the fly.

"Yeah?"

"Hey, we got through!" Lindsey's voice.

"Yeah," Vive said. "Forces of darkness slow on the draw today."

"I forgot to say I want mustard. Oh, and Jen wants a samosa."

"As well as a dog, or instead?"

"Instead."

"'Kay." Lindsey and Jen were at the perimeter, keeping an eye on enemy movements while Vive went for supplies. They were all veterans now, pros with two or three actions under their belts. All of them had been gassed or shocked at least once. Jen had even spent a night in a pacifier, from which they'd all learned a timely lesson in the importance of pre-game nourishment: POWs didn't get fed for at least the first twelve hours—bad enough in any case, but worse when you'd gotten yourself all 'dorphed up for the party. Cranking your BMR really brought on the munchies.

There was a row of vending machines lined up on the far wall of the concourse: medbooths, fashion dispensers, arrays of prepackaged foods. Vive shouldered her way through the crowd, homing in on a holographic Donair turning in space like some edible Holy Grail.

Someone grabbed her from behind.

Before she could react she was inside one of the medbooths, pushed up against the sensor panel. A woman with shoulder-length blond hair pinned her there, one hand splayed against Vive's sternum. She wasn't on the team; she had a visor across her eyes, and a backpack, and the rest of her wasn't rifter either. A pissed-off pedestrian maybe, caught in the swarm.

The medbooth door hissed shut behind her, blocking the deciblage from outside. The woman leaned back, opening a bit of a space in the crowded enclosure.

"What is this?" the woman said.

"This is really rude," Vive snapped back. "Also kidnapping or something probably. Not that those—"

"Why are you—" The woman paused. "Why the costume? What's going on?"

"It's a street party. I guess you never got invit—"

The woman leaned fractionally closer. Vive shut up. There was something about this situation that was starting to give her serious pause.

"Answer me," the crazy woman said.

"We're—we're rifters," Vive told her.

"Right."

"Lenie Clarke's in town. Haven't you heard?"

"Lenie Clarke." The crazy woman took her hand off Vive's chest. "No shit."

"None at all."

A sudden dim sound, like distant surf, filtered in from outside. The crazy woman didn't seem to notice.

"This is insane." She shook her head. "What are you going to do, exactly, when Lenie Clarke shows up?"

"Look, we're just here to see what happens. I don't make up the threads, all right?"

"Get an autograph, maybe. Get a gram of flesh or two, if there's enough to go around."

Suddenly, that voice had turned very flat and very scary.

She could kill me, Vive thought.

She kept her own voice sweet and reasonable. Meek, even: "We're not hurting you. We're not hurting anyone."

"Really." The crazy woman leaned in close. "You sure about that? Do you have the slightest clue who this Lenie Clarke even is?"

Vive broke.

It wasn't a plan. At least it wasn't a very good one. The medbooth barely held both of them, and the door was behind the crazy woman: there was no room around. Vive just sprang forward like a cornered dog, tried desperately to squirm past. Both fell back into the door; the door, obligingly, slid open.

Even in that split-second, Vive took it in: a botfly nearby, spewing canned warnings about orderly dispersal. The movement of the crowd, no longer vague and diffuse but concentrated, pushed together like a school of krill in a purse seine. Conversation fading; shouts starting up.

The herding was underway.

Vive's momentum carried the crazy woman less than a meter before the edge of the crowd pushed back. The rebound put both of them inside the booth again. Vive launched herself low, under the other woman's arm—sudden, tearing pain over one eye—

"Ow!"

—and a hand closed around her throat, pushed her back, her legs shooting out from under her, her feet briefly trampled by some nameless crowd-particle until she pulled them back with a cry and the door slid shut again, cutting the outside world down to a faint roar.

Oh, felch…

Aviva Lu sat on the floor of the medbooth, her legs pulled up in front of her, and forced her eyes to track upward. Crazy Woman's legs. Crazy Woman's crotch. It seemed like it would take forever to get to the eyes, and Vive was terrified of what she'd find when she got—

Wait a second—

There, just to the left of Crazy Woman's sternum—a tear in her clothing, a hard crescent glint of metal.

That's what cut me. Something metal on her chest. Sticking out of her chest…

Crazy woman's hand. Holding her visor, broken in the scuffle, one earpiece gone. Crazy woman's throat; a turtleneck sweatshirt covering any disfigurement there.

Crazy woman's eyes.

What had she said? That's right: Do you have the slightest clue who this Lenie Clarke even is?

"Oh, wow," said Aviva Lu.

 

* * *

 

"You're kidding," said Lenie Clarke. They stood facing each other, breathing each other's air in the medbooth.

"One thread said you were infected with nanobots that could reproduce outside your body and start fires when they had a big enough population. They said you were fucking your way across the world to infect everyone else, so we'd all have the power someday."

"It's bullshit," Clarke said. "It's all bullshit. I don't know how it got started."

"All of it?" Vive didn't know what to make of all this. For the Meltdown Madonna, Lenie Clarke didn't seem to have a clue. "You're not on some kind of crusade, you're not—"

"Oh, I'm on a crusade all right." Lenie flashed a smile that Vive couldn't decompile. "I just don't think any of you want to see it succeed."

"Well, you were down in the ocean," Vive said. "For the Big One. What happened down there?" It couldn't all be detritus, could it? "And on the Strip? And—"

"What's happening right here?" Lenie said.

Vive gulped. "Right."

"How did they even know about me? How did you know?"

"Well, like I said, someone spread the word."

Lenie shook her head. "I guess I'd be caught right now if it wasn't for…" – faint crowd sounds filtered through from outside—"that…"

"Well, they'll never tag you on visual," Vive said. "There's like a few sagan Lenie Clarkes out there, and you don't look like any of 'em."

"Yeah. And how many of them have a chestful of machinery to go with the eyecaps?"

Vive shrugged. "Probably none. But—oh. The botflies."

"The botflies." The Meltdown Madonna took a deep breath. "If they haven't tagged me already, I'm going to be a big bright EM rainbow the second I step outside."

"I wondered why they weren't jamming our watches," Vive said. "They don't want to scramble your sig."

"What if I just wait in here until everybody goes away?"

"Won't work. I've run this before; half-hour, tops, before they gas the whole place and just walk in."

"Shit. Shit." Lenie looked around the booth like some kind of caged alien.

"Wait a sec," Vive said. "Are they looking for your exact signature, or just any old EM?"

"How should I know?"

"Well, how do your implants shine?"

"A lot of myoelectrics. Boosted source for the electrolysis assembly and the reservoir dumps, of course. And the vocoder." The rifter smiled, a tiny challenge. "That mean anything to you?"

"Like a prosthetic heart, only stronger."

"Got any friends with a fake heart? Maybe I could use them as a decoy."

"Les beus might just round up everyone with implants and sort 'em out later." Vive thought. "You don't need a decoy, though. You just need to jam your own signal. You shouldn't be putting out more than two milligausse, tops. Standard wall line would mask that, but then you wouldn't be able to move away from the wall. And watches and visors don't have the field strength."

Lenie cocked her head. "You some kind of expert?"

Vive smiled back. "Lady, this is Yankton! We've been doing electronics since before the Dust Belt. Lins says they even invented botflies here, but Lins slings a lot of slaw. We're supposed to be cramming for our practicums even as we speak, actually, but this sounded like more fun."

"Fun." Those cold blank eyes—more translucent, Vive realized, than the paste the rest of them wore—stared down at her. "That's the word I would've used."

A light came on in Vive's head.

"Hey," she said. "There is something that puts out a bit of a field. Portable, too. It'd be touchy—we'd have to play with its insides or it'd attract all kinds of the wrong attention—but you wouldn't have to be around for that part anyway."

"Yeah?" Lenie asked.

"Oh yeah," Vive told her. "No problem."

 

* * *

 

Les beus had the crowd cordoned off, and were pushing them back across the concourse. The rifters on the edge were getting shocked, of course, but at least nobody'd dropped any gas bombs yet. The crowd moved like an ocean, great sweeping waves emerging miraculously from the constrained jostling of a million trapped particles. The comparison went farther than that, Vive knew: human oceans had backwash, undertow. People could get sucked underneath and trampled.

She let the currents carry her along. Jen and Lindsey bobbed behind her to either side. Vive had told two friends; they'd told two friends; so on; so on. All around them fission was taking place, just below the surface. You could barely see it at first; people worked their way through the crowd from all sides, tacking against the current until they were just an arm or two away from Vive et al. Glances, nods were exchanged. The local turbulence subsided just a tiny bit as friends and allies anchored each other against the push and pull.

Within minutes Aviva Lu was the bull's-eye in a crowded circle of calm.

Three botflies approached in formation a couple of meters above the crowd, reciting the usual riot-act platitudes. Vive glanced at Jen; Jen shook her visored head. The machines cruised past, recessed muzzles dimpling their bellies.

Jen tugged at her sleeve, gestured: another 'fly coming up the concourse. Vive slipped her own visor over her eyes and magged on the target. No obvious gunports or arc electrodes. Purely surveillance, this one. Glorified note-taker. Vive looked back at Jen, at Linse.

Both nodded.

Vive doffed the visor and hooked it over her belt; some things you still needed your own eyes for. Her arms went around Jen's and Lindsey's shoulders, just three ol' girlfriends out for a good time, nothing to see here. The crowd blocked any view of Vive pulling up her legs, now all her weight on the shoulders of her friends, now most of it weighing on the stirrups Jen and Lindsey had improvised by interlocking their hands. The 'fly cruised closer, scanning the crowd. Maybe it was interested in this curious little knot of stability in the Brownian storm. Maybe it was on its way somewhere else entirely.

If so, it never got there.

The botfly was out of reach to anyone jumping unassisted from the floor; it was an easy mark for someone boosted by 'dorphderms and a two-stage launch. Jen and Lindsey bounced into a quick squat and heaved, throwing Vive into the air. At the same time, Vive pushed off against their hands. She embraced her inner überchick, endorphins singing throughout her body. The botfly floated into her embrace like a big beautiful Easter egg. She wrapped her arms around it and hugged.

The 'fly never had a chance. Built entirely of featherweight polymers and vacuum bladders, its ground-effect lift couldn't have been more than a kilo or two. Aviva Lu shackled it like ball with no chain, brought it down into the arms of the welcoming crowd.

A roar went up on all sides. Vive knew that wordless sound, and she knew what it meant: First Blood.

Not the last, though. Not by a long shot.

They smashed the botfly against the floor, shielded by a swaying forest of human bodies. They went after the lens clusters and antennae first; they'd all be sockeye if they didn't get the 'fly offline real fast. It wasn't easy. Modern tech had long since figured out how to combine light with strong, and evolution hadn't come up with the egg-shape for no reason either. Jen and Linse had their toolkits out.

On all sides, the sounds of escalation.

Shouts turned to screams, rising briefly then lost in the ambient roar. Something exploded nearby. An electronic buzzer honked in the distance like a quarantine siren; official notification that the pigs were on the warpath.

Pre-game show over. First period underway.

Something went

BANG!

right in Vive's ear; she jumped, stumbled against a pair of legs. Jen, a little too eager to cut through the carapace, had ruptured one of the vacuum bladders. A high, pure tone trumped the sound of the riot. Vive shook her head.

A hand on her shoulder; Linse in her face, mouthing got it over the dial tone in Vive's head. Jen held up a necklace of optical chips and a battery, strung along a mist of fine fiberop. Behind her, their buffer guard staggered against some conducted impact. The space began to collapse around them.

Go.

Vive grabbed the necklace and stood. A human storm surged and collided on all sides; she could barely see over it. Fifteen meters away a phalanx of botflies was bearing down like the Four Horsemen. Some joker in springsoles trampolined into the air and tagged the one in the lead. A tiny lightning bolt arced between jumper and jumped; Springsole Boy grand mal'd in midair and dropped back into the mêlée.

The botflies, undeterred, were heading right for Vive.

Oh shit. Surge pushed her backward. Her feet tangled in the carcass of the dismembered floater. The opening in the crowd had completely collapsed; bodies pressed close on all sides, kept her from falling. Vive lifted her feet off the ground. The crowd carried her as though she were levitating. The wreckage passed beneath.

Still the botflies came at her. We weren't fast enough. It got off a signal, it sent a picture--

She could see their electrodes. She could see their gunports. She could even see their eyes, staring coldly down at her behind their darkened shields…

Right overhead.

Past.

They're after Jen and Linse. Vive twisted around, following the flies in their pursuit. Shit, they just left, they don't have enough of a lead, they're gonna—

Right out of left field, another botfly charged into view and rammed the leader.

What—

The head of the phalanx skidded sideways, out of control. The attacking botfly spun and charged the next in line. It came down from above, hitting its quarry and knocking it down a meter or so.

Far enough. The crowd surged up and engulfed it in a hungry, roaring wave.

Bad move, that. A surveillance 'fly was one thing; but those other ones were armed.

Yelps. Screams. Smoke rising. The submerged botfly ascended triumphant from the crowd. The crowd tried to pull back from that epicenter, ran into its own seething resistance; a wave propagated out across the riot, the panic spreading even if the panic-stricken couldn't.

The rogue botfly was charging again. Its targets were starting to regroup.

What the hell is going on? Vive wondered. Then: lucky break. Don't waste it.

Ten or fifteen meters to the medbooths. Solid chaos in the way. Vive started pushing. There were still people nearby who were in on the plan; they moved back as much as they could, trying to part the Red Sea for her passage. It was still start-stop all the way—too many out of the loop, too many simply gone rabid on the battlefield. Even half the people who had grabbed the bone had dropped it again.

"I saw her."

A K voice, calm but amped loud enough to hear over ambient. Vive threw a glance back over her shoulder.

The rogue botfly was talking. "I saw her come out of the ocean. I saw what—"

One of the assault 'flies fired. The rogue staggered in midair, wobbled dangerously.

"—I saw what they did on the Strip."

The medbooth slid open. Clarke stood framed in the doorway.

Vive leaned close, handed over the necklace. "Keep this up near your chest!" she shouted. "It'll mask the signal!"

The rifter nodded. Someone spilled between them, shouting and swinging indiscriminate fists. Lenie hammered back at that panicky face until it disappeared beneath the surface.

"They sent a tidal wave to kill her. They sent an earthquake. They missed."

Lenie Clarke turned to the voice. Her eyes narrowed to white featureless slits. Her mouth moved, framing words drowned in the roar:

Oh, shit…

"We gotta go!" Vive shouted. Someone pushed her right up against Lenie's tits. "This way!"

"They're burning the whole world to catch her. She's that important. You can't—"

Squeal. Feedback. The sound of sparking circuitry. Suddenly the rifter seemed rooted in midair.

"—You can't let them have her—"

The four horsemen cut loose. The rogue spun down into the crowd, gushing flame. Fresh screams. The horsemen regrouped and resumed their original course.

"Come on!" Vive yelled. Lenie nodded. Vive led her away along the wall.

The next alcove led into a public washroom. It was jam-packed with rifter wannabes and trapped pedestrians desperate to wait out the party. They were still for the most part, huddled like refugees under a bridge, listening to the muted pounding coming through the walls.

Two friendlies held one of the stalls. They'd already knocked out its ceiling panels. "You Aviva?" one of them asked, blinking rapidly over fake eyecaps.

Vive nodded, turned to Clarke. "And this…"

Something indefinable passed through the room.

"Shit," said one of the friendlies, very softly. "I didn't think she was real."

Lenie Clarke tilted her chin in a half-nod. "Join the club."

"So it's true then? The burnings and the Big One and you going around raping corpses—"

"Probably not."

"But—"

"I don't really have time to compare notes," Clarke said.

"Oh—right, of course. Sorry. We can get you to the river." The friendly cocked her head. "You still got a diveskin?"

Lenie reached behind her own shoulder and tapped the backpack.

"Okay," said the other friendly. "Let's go." She braced on the toilet, jumped, caught some handhold in the overhead darkness and swung up out of sight.

The first friendly looked around at the assembled huddlers. "Give us fifteen minutes, you guys. The last thing we need is a whole procession banging around in the crawlspace, right? Fifteen minutes, and you can make all the noise you want. Assuming you want to leave the party, that is." She turned to Vive. "You coming?"

Vive shook her head. "I'm supposed to meet up with Jen and Linse over by the fountain."

"Suit yourself. We're gone." The remaining friendly stirruped her hands, held them out to Clarke. "Want a boost?"

"No thanks," the rifter said. "I can manage."

 

* * *

 

Aviva Lu was a veteran of civil unrest. She rode out the rest of the action against walls and in corners, the low-turbulence areas where you could keep your bearings and your balance without being trampled. Les beus brought out the heavy artillery in record time; Vive's last view of freedom was the sight of a botfly crop-dusting the crowd with halothane. It didn't matter. She went to sleep smiling.

When she woke up, though, she wasn't in Holding with everyone else. She was in a small white room, windowless and unfurnished except for the diagnostic table she awakened on. A man's voice spoke to her through the walls; it was a nice voice, it would have been sexy under happier circumstances.

The man behind the voice knew more about Vive's role in the riot than she'd expected. He knew that she'd met Lenie Clarke in the flesh. He knew that she'd helped trash the botfly. Vive guessed that he'd learned that from Lindsey or Jennifer; they'd probably been caught, too. But the man didn't talk about Vive's friends or anyone else. He didn't even seem all that interested in what Lenie Clarke had said, which surprised Vive quite a bit; she'd been expecting a real third-degree, with inducers and neurosplicers and the whole shot. But no.

What the man seemed really interested in was the cut over Vive's eye. Had she got it from Clarke? How close had the contact been between the two of them? Vive trotted out the obvious comebacks with their obvious lesbian overtones, but deep down she was getting really worried. This voice wasn't playing any of the usual intimidation games. It didn't threaten, or gloat, or tell her how many synaptic rewires it was going to take to turn her into a good citizen. It just sounded very, very sad that Aviva Lu had been dumb enough to get involved with this whole Lenie Clarke thing.

Very sad, because—although the man never actually said it aloud—now there was really nothing he could do.

Aviva Lu sat trembling on a table in a white, white room, and pissed herself.

 

 

Crucifixion, with Spiders

 

 

This is Patricia Rowan. Ken Lubin is plugged into the kiosk just down the hall from your office. Please tell him I want to see you both. I'm in the boardroom on Admin-411.

He will not give you any trouble.

 

Twenty-six hours fourteen minutes.

Sure enough, Lubin was cauled at the terminal quad by the stairwell. Evidently no one had challenged his presence there.

"What are you doing?" Desjardins said behind him.

The other man shook his head. "Trying to call someone. No answer." He stripped off the headset.

"Rowan's here," Desjardins said. "She—she wants to see us."

"Yeah." Lubin sighed and got to his feet. His face remained impassive, but there was resignation in his voice.

"Took her long enough," he said.

 

* * *

 

Two prefab surgeries, wire-frame cubes cast into bright relief by overhead spotlights. Their walls swirled with faint soap-bubble iridescence if you caught them at the right angle. Otherwise, the things inside— the restraints, the operating boards, the multiarmed machinery poised above them—seemed completely open to the air of the room. The vertices of each cube seemed as arbitrary and pointless as political boundaries.

But the very walls of the boardroom glistened in the same subtle way, Desjardins noted. The whole place had been sprayed down with isolation membrane.

Patricia Rowan, backlit, stood between the door and the modules. "Ken. Good to see you again."

Lubin closed the door. "How did you find me?"

"Dr. Desjardins sold you out, of course. But surely that doesn't surprise you." Her contacts flickered with phosphorescent intel. "Given your little problem, I rather suspect you nudged him in that direction yourself."

Lubin stepped forward.

"More things in heaven and earth, Horatio," Rowan said.

Something in Lubin's posture changed; a brief moment of tetanus, barely noticeable. Then he relaxed.

Trigger phrase, Desjardins realized. Some subroutine had just been activated deep in Lubin's cortex. In the space of a single breath, his agenda had changed from—

Mr. Lubin's behavior is governed by a conditioned threat-response reflex, he remembered. He's unlikely to consider you a threat unless…

Oh Jesus. Desjardins swallowed with a mouth gone suddenly dry. She didn't start him up just now. She shut him down…

And he was coming for me

"—would have only been a matter of time anyway," Rowan was saying. "There were a couple of outbreaks down in California that didn't fit the plots. I'm guessing you spent some time on an island off Mendocino…?"

Lubin nodded.

"We had to burn the whole thing out," the corpse went on. "It was a shame—not many places left with real wildlife any more. We can ill afford to lose any of them. Still. It's not as though you left us a choice."

"Wait a minute." Desjardins said. "He's infected?"

"Of course."

"Then I should be dead," Lubin said. "Unless I'm immune somehow…"

"You're not. But you're resistant."

"Why?"

"Because you're not entirely human, Ken. It gives you an edge."

"But—" Desjardins stopped. There was no membrane isolating Patrician Rowan. For all the available precautions, they were all breathing the same air.

"You're immune," he finished.

She inclined her head. "Because I'm even less human than Ken."

 

* * *

 

Experimentally, Lubin put his hand through the face of one cube. The soap-bubble membrane split around his flesh, snugly collared his forearm. It iridesced conspicuously around the seal, faded when Lubin kept his hand completely immobile. He grunted.

"The sooner we begin, the sooner we finish," Rowan said.

Lubin stepped through. For an instant the entire face of the cube writhed with oily rainbows; then he was inside and the membrane cleared, its integrity restored.

Rowan glanced at Desjardins. "A lot of our proteins—enzymes, particularly—don't work well in the deep sea. I'm told the pressure squeezes them into suboptimal shapes."

Lubin's cube darkened slightly as the sterile field went on, almost as if its skin had thickened. It hadn't, of course; the membrane was still only a molecule deep. Its surface tension had been cranked, though. Lubin could throw his whole considerable mass against that barrier now and it wouldn't open. It would yield—it would stretch, and distort, and sheer momentum could drag it halfway across the room like a rubber sock with a weight in the toe. But it wouldn't break, and after a few seconds it would tighten and retract back down to two dimensions. And Lubin would still be inside.

Desjardins found that vaguely comforting.

Rowan raised her voice a fraction: "Undress please, Ken. Just leave your clothes on the floor. Oh, and there's a headset hanging off the teleop. Perhaps you could view that during the procedure."

She turned back to Desjardins. "At any rate, we had to tweak our people before we could send them to the rift. Retroed in some genes from deepwater fish."

"Alice said deepsea proteins were—stiff," Desjardins remembered.

"More difficult to break apart, yes. And since the body's sulfur's locked up in the proteins, ßehemoth has a tougher time stealing it from a rifter. But we only backed-up the most pressure-sensitive molecules; ßehemoth can still get at the others. It just takes longer to compromise the cellular machinery."

"Unless you back up everything."

"The small stuff, anyway. Anything under fifty or sixty aminos is vulnerable. Something about the disulfide bridges, apparently. There's individual variation of course, vectors can stay asymptomatic for a month or more sometimes, but the only way to really…" She shrugged. "At any rate, I became half-fish."

"A mermaid." The image was absurd.

Rowan rewarded him with a brief smile. "You know the drill, Ken. Face down please."

The operating board was inclined at a twenty-degree angle. Ken Lubin, naked, face masked by the headset, braced over it as though doing push-ups and eased himself down.

The air shimmered and hummed. Lubin went utterly limp. And the insectile machine above him spread nightmare arms with too many joints, and descended to feed.

 

* * *

 

"Holy shit," Desjardins said.

Lubin had been stabbed in a dozen places. Mercury filaments snaked into his wrists and plunged through his back. A catheter had slid autonomously up his ass; another seemed to have kabobed his penis. Something copper slithered into mouth and nose. Wires crawled along his face, wormed beneath his headset. The table itself was suddenly stippled with fine needles: Lubin was fixed in place like an insect pushed onto the bristles of a wire brush.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Rowan remarked. "The neuroinduction field blocks most of the pain."

"Fuck." The second cube, empty and waiting, shone like a threat of inquisition. "Am I—"

Rowan pursed her lips. "I doubt that will be necessary. Unless you've been infected, which seems unlikely."

"I've been exposed for two days, going on three."

"It's not smallpox, doctor. Unless you exchanged body fluids with the man, or used his feces as compost, chances are you're clean. The sweep on your apartment didn't turn up anything…although you might want to know that your cat has a tapeworm."

They swept my apartment. Desjardins tried to summon some sense of outrage. Relief was all that answered: I'm clean. I'm clean…

"You'll have to undergo the gene therapy, though," Rowan said. "So you can stay clean. It's quite extensive, unfortunately."

"How extensive?"

She knew exactly what he was asking.

"Too extensive to immunize nine billion human beings. At least, not in time; the vast majority of the world's population has never even been sequenced. And even if we could, there are still—other species. We can't reverse-engineer the whole biosphere."

He'd expected it, of course. He still felt it like a blow.

"So containment's our only option," she said quietly. "And as you may know, someone's trying very hard to prevent that."

"Yeah." Desjardins looked at her. "Why is that, exactly?"

"We want you to find out."

"Me?"

"We've already got our own people on it, of course. We'll link you up. But you've been exceeding our performance projections right across the board, and you were the one who made the connection after all."

"I didn't make it so much as trip over it. I mean, you'd have to be blind not to see it, once you knew what to look for."

"Well that's the problem, isn't it? We weren't looking. Why would we? Why would anyone trawl Maelstrom for the names of dead rifters? And now it turns out that everyone knows about Lenie Clarke except us. We've got the world's best intelligence-gathering machinery, and any kid with a stolen wristwatch knows more than we do." The corpse took a deep breath, as if adjusting some great weight on her back. "How did that happen, do you suppose?"

"Ask the kid with the wristwatch," Desjardins said. He jerked his head at Lubin, twitching in his bubble. "If you've got any more like that one, you'll know everything in about two seconds."

"Everything the kid knows, maybe. Which is next to nothing."

"You just said—"

"We almost got her, did you know that?" Rowan said. "Just yesterday. Once you gave us the heads-up we filtered through the chaff, and we located her in South Dakota. We closed in and found that half the city was running interference for her. She got away."

"You interrogated the fans, though."

"Summoned by a voice in the Maelstrom. Someone out there rallying the troops."

"Who? Why?"

"Nobody knew. Apparently it just jumps into likely conversations and starts cheerleading. We left all kinds of bait when we found that out, but so far it isn't talking to us."

"Wow," Desjardins said.

"You know what's really ironic? We thought something like this might happen. We took precautions against it."

"You were expecting this?"

"Not specifically, of course. The whole rifter thing just came out of left field." Rowan sighed, her face full of shadow. "Still, things—go wrong. You'd think a guy with a name like Murphy would realize that, but no. As far as ChemCog was concerned, it was just some junk meme the gels were spreading."

"The gels are behind this?"

She shook her head. "As I said, we took precautions. We tracked down every tainted node, we partitioned them and replaced them, we made damn sure that there was no trace of the meme left. Just to be absolutely sure. But here it is, somehow. Metastasized and mutated and born again. And all we know is that this time, the gels aren't behind it."

"But they were before, is that what you're saying? They—they started the ball rolling?"

"Maybe. Once upon a time."

"Why, for God's sake?"

"Well, that's the funny thing," Rowan admitted. "We told them to."

 

* * *

 

Rowan fed it all directly to his inlays. There was too much for even an optimized 'lawbreaker to take in on the spot, but the executive summary thumbnailed it in fifteen seconds: the growing threat, the rabid mutual distrust, the final reluctant surrender of control to an alien intelligence with its own unsuspected take on the virtues of parsimony.

"Jesus," Desjardins said.

"I know," Rowan agreed.

"And how the Christ did Lenie Clarke take control?"

"She didn't. That's what's so crazy. As far as we can tell, she didn't think anyone even knew about her until Yankton."

"Huh." Desjardins pursed his lips. "Still. Whatever's out there, it's taking its lead from her."

"I know," she said softly. She glanced at Lubin. "That's where he comes in."

Lubin twitched and jerked under the ongoing assault. His face—the part of it not covered by the headset, anyway—was expressionless.

"What's he watching in there?" Desjardins wondered.

"Briefing stats. For his next mission."

He watched a little longer. "Would he have killed me?"

"I doubt it."

"Who is—"

"He's not someone you have to worry about any more."

"No." Desjardins shook his head. "That's not good enough. He tracked me down across a whole continent, he broke into my home, he—" cut Guilt Trip right out from under me but of course he wasn't going to admit that to Rowan, not now for Chrissakes— "I gather he's got some kind of kill-switch hardwired into him, and he answers to you, Ms. Rowan. Who is he?"

He could see her bristling. For a moment he thought he'd gone too far. No peon truly in Guilt Trip's grasp would ever mouth off to a superior that way, Rowan would know, the alarms would start sounding any second—

"Mr. Lubin has—you might call it an impulse-control problem," she said. "He enjoys certain acts that most would find unpleasant. He never behaves—gratuitously is the word, I guess—but sometimes he tends to set up situations that provoke a particular response. Do you see what I'm saying?"

He kills people, Desjardins thought numbly. He sets up breaches so he'll have an excuse to kill people…

"We're helping him deal with his problem," Rowan said. "And we've got him under control."

Desjardins bit his lip.

She shook her head, a trace of disapproval on those pale features. "ßehemoth, Dr. Desjardins. Lenie Clarke. Lose sleep over those, if you must. Believe me, Ken Lubin's part of the solution." Her voice went up a touch: "Aren't you, Ken?"

"I don't know her," Lubin said. "Not well."

Desjardins glanced at Rowan, alarmed. "He can hear us?"

She answered Lubin instead. "You know her better than you think."

"You have—profiles," Lubin said. His words were slurred; the induction field must be grazing his facial muscles. "That psychologist. Shcanlon."

"Scanlon had his own issues," Rowan said. "You and Clarke have a lot more in common. Similar outlooks, similar backgrounds. If you were in her shoes—"

"I am in her shoes. I came here…" Lubin licked his lips. A trickle of saliva glistened at the corner of his mouth.

"Fair enough. But suppose you had no information and no clearance, and no—behavioral constraints. What would you be after?"

Lubin didn't speak. His cowled face was an eyeless, high-contrast mask in the spots. His skin almost glowed.

Rowan stepped forward. "Ken?"

"'s easy," he said at last. "Revenge."

"Against who, exactly?"

"The—GA. We did try to kill us, after all."

Rowan's contacts glowed with sudden input. "She was never seen near any GA offices."

"She ashaulted someone in Hongcouver." A spasm ran up the length of Lubin's body. His head lolled. "Looking for Yves Shcanlon."

"But Scanlon was her only lead, as far as we know. It didn't go anywhere. We don't think she's even been in N'AmPac for months."

"She has other grudges," Lubin said. "Maybe she's—going home."

Rowan frowned, concentrating. "Her parents, you mean."

"She mentioned Sault Sainte Marie."

"Suppose she couldn't get to her parents?"

"Don' know."

"What would you do?"

"I'd—keep trying…"

"Suppose her parents were dead," Rowan suggested.

"…'f we killed them for her?"

"No, suppose they were already—suppose they'd been dead a long time."

Clumsily, Lubin shook his head. "The people she hates're very mush…alive..."

"Suppose, Ken." Rowan was getting impatient. "Theoretical scenario. You've got a score to settle with the GA, and a score to settle with your parents, and you know you'll never get to either of them. What do you do?"

His mouth moved. Nothing came out.

"Ken?"

"—I redirect," he said at last.

"What do you mean?"

Lubin jerked like a blind marionette with most of its strings cut.

"The whole world fucked me over. I—I wanna return the favor."

"Huh." Rowan shook her head. "She's pretty much doing that already."

 

* * *

 

One crucifixion was enough, as it turned out. Achilles Desjardins was clean, if still vulnerable; the second surgery, prepped and waiting, had no interest in scouring his insides.

It only wanted to change him into a flounder.

Lubin's little chamber of horrors had backed off for the moment. The pallet had folded itself up into recliner mode; the assassin sat on it while a mechanical spider skittered across his body on legs like jointed whiskers.

In the adjacent cube, Desjardins looked down at an identical device on his own body. He'd already been injected with a half-dozen tailored viruses, each containing the code for a different suite of ßehemoth-proof proteins. There'd be other injections over the next few days. Lots of them. The fever would start within a week; the nausea was already underway.

The spider was taking baselines: bacteria from skin and hair, organ biopsies, gut contents. Every now and then it plunged a hair-thin proboscis into his flesh, provoking a diffuse ache from within the tissues. Reverse-engineering was a tricky business these days. If you weren't careful, tweaked genes could change the microflora in the gut as easily as the flesh of the host. E. coli. could turn from commensal to cancer with the flip of a base-pair. A few wily bacteria had even learned how to slip some of their own genes into viral carriers en route, and hence into human cells. It made Desjardins long for those good old-fashioned germs which merely fed on antibiotics.

"You didn't tell her," Lubin said.

Rowan had left them to their own devices. Desjardins looked at the other man through two layers of membrane and tried to ignore the creepy tickle on his skin.

"Tell her what?" he asked finally.

"That I took you off Guilt Trip."

"Yeah? What makes you so sure?"

Lubin's spider scrambled up his throat and tapped on his lower lip. The assassin obligingly opened his mouth; the little robot scraped at the inside of his cheek with one appendage and retreated back down the torso.

"She wouldn't have left us alone otherwise," Lubin said.

"I thought you were leashed, Horatio."

He shrugged. "One leash of many. It doesn't matter."

"It sure the fuck does."

"Why? Do you really think I was so out of control before? Do you think I'd have even been able to unTrip you, if I honestly thought you'd breach?"

"Sure, if you sealed it up afterward. Isn't that your whole problem? You set yourself up to kill people?"

"So I'm a monster." Lubin settled back in the chair and closed his eyes. "What does that make you?"

"Me?"

"I saw what you were playing at when we first met."

Heat spilled across Desjardins's face. "That's fantasy. I'd never do that in real life. I don't even fuck in real life."

Lubin opened one eye and assayed a trace of smile. "Don't trust yourself?"

"I've just got too much respect for women."

"Really? Seems a bit inconsistent with your choice of hobbies."

"That's normal. That's brainstem." It had been such a relief to discover that at last, to see aggression and sex sharing the same hardwired pathways through the mammalian brain— to know his secret shame was a legacy millions of years old, ubiquitous for all the denial of civilized minds. But Lubin…"As if you don't know. You get your rocks off every time you kill someone."

"Ah." Lubin's not-quite-smile didn't change. "So I'm a monster, but you're just a prisoner of your inner drives."

"I fantasize. You kill people. Sorry, you seal security breaches."

"Not always," Lubin said.

Desjardins looked away without answering. The spider ran down his leg.

"Someone got away once," said a strange soft voice behind him.

He turned. Lubin was staring into space, not moving. Even his spider had paused, as if startled by some sudden change in its substrate.

"She got away," Lubin said again. He almost sounded as though he were talking to himself. "I may have even let her."

Clarke, Desjardins realized.

"She wasn't really a breach then, of course. There was no way she'd ever make it out alive, there was no—but she did, somehow."

Lubin no longer wore the face of a passionless predator. There was something new looking out from behind those eyes, and it seemed almost…confused

"It's a shame," he said softly. "She really deserved a fighting chance…"

"A lot of people seem to agree with you," Desjardins said.

Lubin mm'd.

"Look.." Desjardins cleared his throat. "I need some of those derms before you go."

"Derms." Lubin seemed strangely distant.

"The analog. You said a week or ten days before the Trip kicked back in, and that was three days ago—if they spot-test me in the next few days I'm screwed."

"Ah." Lubin came back to earth. "That's out of my hands now, I'm afraid. Horatio and all."

"What do you mean, it's out of your hands? I just need a few derms, for Chrissake!"

Lubin's spider skittered off under the pallet, its regimen complete. The assassin grabbed his clothes and began dressing.

"Well?" Desjardins said after a while.

Lubin pulled on his shirt and stepped out of the cube. Its skin swirled in his wake.

"Don't worry about it," he said, and didn't look back.