Mug Shot

 

 

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Exotics Infestation: Executive Summary (nontechnical)

 

DO NOT mail

 

 

DO NOT send through Haven

 

 

DO NOT copy

 

 

PURGE AFTER DECRYPT

 

 

To: Rowan, PC.

 

 

Priority: Ultra (Global PanD)

 

 

EID Code: ßehemoth

 

 

General Classification: nanobial/decomposer

 

 

Taxonomy: Formal nomenclature awaiting declassified release to Linnean Society. Eventual outgroup clade to be at supraDomain level.

 

 

Description: Unique heterotrophic nanobe, 200-250nm diameter. Opportunistic freeliver/commensal. Genome 1.1M (pRNA template): nonsense codons <0.7% of total.

 

 

Biogeography: Originally native to hydrothermal deep-sea environments; 14 relict populations confirmed (Fig. 1). Can also exist symbiotically in intracellular environments with salinity  30ppt and/or temperatures ranging from 4-60C. A secondary strain has been found with advanced adaptations for intracellular existence.

 

 

Evolution/Ecology: ßehemoth is the only organism known to have truly terrestrial origins, predating the Martian Panspermia event by approximately 800 million years. The existence of a secondary strain geared especially to the eukaryotic intracellular environment is reminiscent of the Precambrian serial endosymbiosis which gave rise to mitochondria and other modern subcellular organelles. Free-living ßehemoth expends significant metabolic energy maintaining homeostasis in stressful hydrothermal environments. Intracellularly, infectious ßehemoth produces an ATP surplus which can be utilized by the host cell. This results in abnormal growth and giantism amongst certain deepwater fish; it confers increases in stamina and strength to infected humans in the short term, although these benefits are massively outweighed by disruption of short-chain sulfur-containing proteins and consequent deficiency syndromes (see below).

 

 

Notable Histological & Genetic Features: No phospholipid membranes: body wall consists of accreted mineralized sulfur/phosphate compounds. Genetic template based upon Pyranosal RNA (Fig.2); also used for catalysis of metabolic reactions. Resistant to g-radiation (1 megarad not effective). The ßehemoth genome contains Blachford genes analagous to the metamutators of Pseudomonas; these allow it to dynamically increase mutation rate in response to environmental change, and are probably responsible for its ability to fool steroid receptors on the host cell membrane.

 

 

Modes of Attack: Freed from the rigors of the hydrothermal environment, free-living ßehemoth assimilates several inorganic nutrients 26-84% more efficiently than its closest terrestrial competitors (Table 1). This is especially problematic when dealing with sulfur. In a free-living state, ßehemoth is theoretically capable of bottlenecking even that extremely common element; this is the primary ecological threat. ßehemoth is, however, more comfortable within the bodies of homeothermic vertebrates, which provide warm, stable, and nutrient-rich environments reminiscent of the primordial soup. ßehemoth enters the cell via receptor-mediated endocytosis; once inside it breaks down the phagosomal membrane prior to lysis, using a 532-amino listeriolysin analog. ßehemoth then competes with the host cell for nutrients. Host death can occur from any of a several dozen proximal causes including renal/hepatic failure, erythromytosis, CNS disorders, blood poisoning, and opportunistic infections.

 

 

Vertebrate hosts serve as reservoirs which periodically reinoculate the nanobe into the external environment, increasing the chance of self-sustaining outbreaks.

 

 

Diagnostics: Methionine labeling is effective in culture. Free-living ßehemoth in concentrations of greater than 1.35 billion/cc exert detectable effects on soil pH, conductivity, porphyrin counts, and chlorophylls A and B (Table 2); the extent of these effects varies with baseline conditions. ßehemoth can be infered in asymptomatic patients by the presence of d-cysteine and d-cystine in the blood (unsuccessful attempts to cleave bound sulfur sometimes stereoisomerizes the molecule).

 

 

Present Status: See Figure 3. 4,800km2 sterilized at last report. 426,000km2 under immediate threat.

 

 

Ecological Trajectory: If current trends continue, present models suggest long-term competitive exclusion of all competing life forms between 62N and S latitude, due to monopolization and transformation of nutrient base. Ultimate fate of polar components unknown at this time. Sensitivity analysis generates 95% confidence limits of 50 to 94 years for EL90.

 

 

Recommendations: Continue ongoing efforts to alter present trajectory. Allocate Fallback Options budget as follows:

 

 

 
  1. Orbital: 25%

  2. Cheyenne: 5%

  3. M.A. Ridge: 50%

  4. Metamorph: 20%

 

 

Anemone

 

 

She'd become a scavenger in her own home.

Sou-Hon Perreault virtually lived in her office now. It held everything of importance: a window on the world. A purpose. A sanctuary.

She still had to eat, though, and use the toilet. Once or twice a day she'd venture from her cave and see to life's necessities. Most of the time she didn't have to deal with Martin; his contracts took him into the field more often than not.

But now—oh God, why now of all times?— he was in the living room when she came back.

He was digging around in the aquarium, his back turned. She almost got past.

"The male died," he said.

"What?"

He turned to face her. A damselfish, pale and stiff, weighted the dip net in his hand. One milky eye stared blindly through the mesh.

"He looks like he's been dead for a while," Martin said.

She looked past him to the aquarium. Brown algae filmed the glass. Inside, the glorious anemone was shrunken and frayed; its tentacles twitched feebly in the current.

"Jesus, Marty. You couldn't even be bothered to clean the tank?"

"I just got home. I've been in Fairbanks for the past two weeks."

She'd forgotten.

"Sou, the prescriptions aren't working. I really think we should consider wiring you up with a therapist."

"I'm fine," she said automatically.

"You're not fine. I've looked into it already, we can afford it. It'll be available around the clock, whenever you need it."

"I don't trust therapists."

"Sou, it'd be a part of you. It already is, in a way, they just haven't—isolated it yet. And it runs pathways right to your temporal lobe, so you can talk to it as easily as you can talk to anyone."

"You want to cut out a part of my brain."

"No, Sou, just rewire it. Did you know the brain can support over a hundred fully sentient personalities? It doesn't affect sensory or motor performance at all. This would just be one, and it'd take up such a small amount of space—"

"My husband, the walking brochure."

"Sou—"

"It's multiple personality disorder, Martin. I don't care what cute name they give it these days, and I don't care how many of our friends live happy fulfilling lives because they hear voices in their heads. It's sick."

"Sou, please. I love you. I'm only trying to help."

"Then get out of my way."

She ran for shelter.

 

* * *

 

Sou-Hon. Are you there?

 

"Yes."

 

Good. Stand by.

 

Static. A brief spiderweb of connections and intercepts, orange filaments proliferating across a continent. Then no visual front and center, darkness everywhere else.

 

Go ahead.

 

"Lenie?" Perreault said.

"So. I wondered when they'd get around to this."

"Get around to what?"

"Hijacking my visor. Sou-Hon, right?"

"Right."

"They got that right, at least."

Perreault took a grateful breath. "You okay?"

"I got out. Thanks partly to you, I guess. That was you in the 'fly, wasn't it? At Yankton?"

"That was me."

"Thanks."

"Don't thank me. Thank—"

A damselfish flashed across Perreault's mind, safe in a nest of stinging tentacles.

"…anemone," she finished softly.

Silence on the line. Then: "Thank an enemy. That makes a lot of sense."

Perreault shook her head. "Sea anemone. It's this undersea ambush predator, it eats fish but sometimes—"

"I know what a sea anemone is, Suze. So what?"

"Everything's been perverted, somehow. The 'flies, the matchmakers— the whole system's done a one-eighty, it's protecting the very thing it was supposed to attack. You see?"

"Not really. But I was never that big on metaphors." A soft laugh. "I still can't get used to being a starfish."

Perreault wondered but didn't ask.

"This anemone of yours," Clarke said. "It kicks ass. It's powerful."

"Yes."

"So why is it so fucking stupid?"

"What do you mean?"

"It doesn't seem to have any kind of focus, you know? I saw the threads—it described me a thousand different ways and then it just went with the one that stuck. I don't know how many head cases it threw at me, through my watch, my visor—they even started coming at me out of vending machines, did you know that?—and it wasn't until I stopped talking to anyone else that it settled on you. Any haploid would've known better than to audition most of those assholes, but your anemone is just—random. Why is that?"

"I don't know."

"Didn't you ever wonder?"

She had, of course. But somehow it hadn't seemed to matter that much.

"Maybe that's why you made the cut," Clarke said.

"Why?"

"You're a good soldier. You need a cause, you follow orders, you don't ask embarrassing questions." A whisper of static. Then: "Why are you helping me, Sou? You've seen the threads."

"You said the threads were bullshit," Perreault said.

"Most of them are. Almost all. But they blew up Channer. They must have known the kind of collateral that would bring down, and they did it anyway. They burned the Strip. And the life down there on the rift, it was—God knows what was down there. What I brought back."

"I thought your blood tested clean."

"Tests only see what they're looking for. You haven't answered my question."

And still she didn't, for a very long time.

"Because they tried to hammer you down," she said at last. "And you're still here."

"Huh." A long breath whispered through the headset. "You ever have a dog, Sou-Hon? As a pet?"

"No."

"You know what happens when you keep a dog locked away from every living thing, except you visit once a day and kick the shit out of him?"

Perreault laughed nervously. "Someone actually tried that?"

"What happens is, the dog's a social animal, and it gets so lonely it actually looks forward to the shit-kicking. It asks to be kicked. It begs."

"What are you saying?"

"Maybe everyone's just so used to being kicked around, they'll help out anyone they think has a big enough boot."

"Or maybe," Perreault said, "we're so fucking tired of being kicked that we're finally lining up with anyone who kicks back."

"Yeah? At any cost?"

"What do we have to lose?"

"You have no idea."

"But you did. You must have known all along. If the danger was really so great, why didn't you turn yourself in? Save the world? Save yourself?"

"The world had it coming," Clarke said softly.

"Is that what you’re doing? Just—getting revenge on nine billion people you never even met?"

"I don't know. Maybe before."

"Now?"

"I just—" Clarke's voice broke. Pain and confusion flooded through the breach. "Sou, I want to go home."

"So go," Perreault said gently. "I'll help you."

A ragged breath, brought back under tight control: "No."

"You could really use—"

"Look, you're not just a—a traveling companion any more. I don't think either of us was really on the scope before Yankton, but they know about us now, and you—you really got in their way. If they haven't tracked you down already, they're damn well working on it."

"You're forgetting about our anemone."

"No I'm not. I just don't trust the fucking thing."

"Look—"

"Sou-Hon, thanks for everything. I mean that. But it's too dangerous. Every second we talk, our trail gets brighter. You really want to help me, then help yourself. Don't try to talk to me again. Go away. Go somewhere safe."

A lump grew in her throat. "Where? Where's safe?"

"I don't know. I'm sorry."

"Lenie, listen to me. There's got to be a plan. You've got to have faith, there's a purpose behind all of this. Please, just—"

The crunch of plastic, ground underfoot.

"Lenie!"

Link lost flashed front and center.

She didn't know how long she sat there, in her own personal void. Eventually, link lost went away. Some other readout flashed off at the edge of vision, a rhythmic little scratch on her retina. The effort required to focus on it seemed almost superhuman.

 

Goodbye

 

It said. And:

 

Anemone. We like that.

 

 

Behind the Lines

 

 

A random trawl caught the anomaly fifteen nodes off the port bow. A thousand other channels were abuzz with Lenie Clarke, but this one was so clean: no packet locs, no drop-outs, none of the stutters and time-lags that always plagued civilian traffic in Maelstrom. The line was full of groupies with online handles like Squidnapper and White-eyes, all at rapt attention while something whispered disinformation in their midst. It called itself The General and it spoke with a thousand different voices: raw ASCII reinflated to specs set by each recipient's software.

It hung up the moment it heard Achilles Desjardins creeping in from behind.

Too fast for meat. Almost too fast even for the hounds Desjardins set on its trail; they circled the world in seconds, diving through gateways, tripping over wildlife, finding half-eaten carcasses where traffic registries had lived and breathed just moments before. Here, and here, and here: nodes through which The General's words had passed. Traffic logs mauled beyond recognition by earth-scorchers covering their tracks. The hounds replicated a thousandfold and dived through all available ports in unison, trying reacquire the scent through brute force.

This time they succeeded. The flag went up on Desjardins's board at t-plus-six seconds: something had been treed on a server in the Hokkaido microwave array. It wasn't a smart gel. There were no smart gels for at least four nodes in any direction. But it was dark, and it was massive, and it was holding its breath so tight that nothing could get a fix on its exact address. It was just in there, somewhere. Under the surface.

And when Achilles Desjardins seined the node, panicky wildlife scattering at his approach, The General was nowhere to be found.

"Shit..."

He rubbed his eyes and broke the link. The real world resolved around him—or at least, that part of it trapped within the walls of his cubby.

That was him, he remembered. Trapped in there. Undistracted by the endless frustration of hunting phantoms, it all came flooding back.

The real world had got even worse, now that Lubin had deserted him.

 

* * *

 

A hand on his shoulder. He started, then sagged.

"Killjoy. You look like shit," Jovellanos said kindly.

He looked up at her. "Maybe Rowan's right."

"Rowan?" She laid her hands on his shoulders and started kneading the muscles.

"It's not the gels. Maybe it really is some kind of—global conspiracy. I can't find any other explanation…"

"Uh, Killjoy—in case you've forgotten, I haven't seen you in four days." Her hair smelled like some extinct flower from Desjardins's childhood. "I hear you've been hobnobbing with all sorts of strange people, but I'm nowhere near the loop, you know?"

He waved at the board, then realized that she wouldn't see anything there; he'd routed the display to his inlays. "That whole movement. Rifter chic or whatever the hell they call it, you know? It's a propagation strategy. That's all it is. Isn't that wild?"

"Yeah? What's it propagating?"

"ßehemoth," Desjardins whispered.

"No." Her hands dropped away. "How?"

"There's a vector out there. A rifter. Lenie Clarke. It's all just smoke to keep her from getting caught."

"Why, for God's sake? Why would anyone—"

"The gels started it. I mean, they weren't supposed to, they were supposed to contain it, but—"

"They put the gels in charge?"

"What else could they do?" Desjardins suppressed the urge to giggle. "Nobody trusted anyone. They knew there'd be sacrifices, they knew they might have to sterilize—major areas. But when Mercosaur says hey, our stats say Oregon's got to go for the greater good, do you think N'Am's gonna just roll over and take their word on that? They needed something that could decide, and act, and who wouldn't play favorites…"

"Fuck," Jovellanos whispered.

"They were so busy keeping an eye on each other they never stopped to think what kind of take-home rules a net might develop on its own, after spending a whole lifetime protecting small simple things from big complicated things. And then they tell it to protect a complex of five million species against one pissant nanobe, and they can't understand why it turns around and bites them in the ass."

Jovellanos said nothing.

"Anyway, it doesn't matter. They scrubbed the gels down to the last neuron and it didn't do any good. There's something else out there. I've flushed the fucker four times in the past twenty-four hours, and it keeps slipping through my fingers. We could swap out every gel in Maelstrom and the replacements would be reinfected inside a week."

"But if not the gels, then what?"

"I don't know. For all I know it's a pharm-baby thing, some corporation's got a cure and they're spreading ßehemoth to drive up the price. But how they’re pulling it off—"

"Turing app, maybe?"

"Or berserkers. I thought of that. But those leave footprints—op signatures on the hardware, huge memory demands. And anything that complex attracts wildlife like you wouldn't believe."

"You're not seeing any of that?"

"Lots of wildlife, maybe. Nothing else."

"So maybe it autowipes when it sees you coming."

"Footprints'd still be in the server log."

"Not if it doctors the log before it deletes."

"Then the deletion would be on file. I'm telling you, Alice, this is something else."

"What if the wildlife's gotten brainy?" she said.

He blinked. "What?"

"Why not? It evolves. Maybe it got smart."

He shook his head. "Nets are nets. Doesn't matter if someone coded them or they just evolved; if they're smart enough to think, they're going to have a certain signature. I'm not seeing it, and nobody else is either and I'm just…completely---wasted..."

He leaned forward, let the board take the weight of his forearms. His head weighed a tonne.

"Come on," Jovellanos said after a moment.

"What?"

"We're going to Pickering's Pile. I'm buying you a derm. Or ten."

He shook his head. "Thanks, Alice. I can't."

"I checked the logs, Killjoy. You haven't been out of this building for almost forty hours. Sleep deprivation reduces IQ, did you know that? Yours must be around room temp by now. Take a break."

He looked up at her. "I can't. If I leave—"

Don't worry about it, Lubin had said.

"—I may not be able to come back," he finished.

She frowned. "Why not?"

I'm unchained, he thought. I'm free.

"Lubin—this guy did something to me, and…if the bloodhounds…"

She took his hand, firmly. "Come."

"Alice, you don't know what—"

"Maybe I know more than you think, Killjoy. If you don't think you're up to a blood test, well maybe that's a problem and maybe it isn't, but you're gonna have to bite the bullet eventually. Unless you're planning on spending the rest of your life in this cubicle?"

"The next five days, maybe…" He was so very tired.

"I know what I'm doing, Killjoy. Trust me on this."

Desjardins managed a feeble laugh. "People keep saying that."

"Maybe. But I mean it." She drew him to his feet. "Besides, I have something to tell you."

 

* * *

 

He couldn't bring himself to enter the Pile, after all; too many ambient ears, and discretion prevailed even without Guilt Trip. For that matter, even walking under the open sky made him a bit queasy. The heavens had eyes.

They walked, letting chance choose the course. Intermittent beds of kudzu4 lined their path; the filamentous blades of windmills turned slowly overhead on the tops of buildings, along pedestrian concourses, anywhere that a bit of fetch could insinuate itself into the local architecture. Alice Jovellanos took all of it in without a word: Lubin, Rowan, Guilt Trip. Autonomy thrust upon the unwilling.

"Are you sure?" she asked at last. A streetlight flickered on overhead. "Maybe he was lying. He lied about Rowan, after all."

"Not about this, Alice. Believe me. He had his hand around my throat and I just sang, I told him stuff the Trip would never've let out."

"That's not what I mean. I believe you're Trip-free, for sure. I just don't believe that Lubin had anything to do with it."

"What?"

"I think he just found out about it, after the fact," Jovellanos continued, "and he used it to his own advantage. I don't know what was in those derms he was giving you, but I'd bet a year's worth of Mandelbrot's kibble that you could walk past those bloodhounds right now and they wouldn't even twitch."

"Yeah? And if you were in my shoes, do you think you'd be quite so optimistic?"

"I'd guarantee it."

"Fuck, Alice, this is serious."

"I know, Killjoy. I'm serious."

"But if Lubin didn't do it to me, then who—"

Her face was fading in the twilight, like the smile of a Cheshire cat.

"Alice?" he said.

"Hey." She shrugged. "You always knew my politics were a bit radical."

 

* * *

 

"Fuck, Alice." Desjardins put his head in his hands. "How could you?"

"It was easier than you might think. Just build a Trip analog with an extra side-group—"

"That's not what I mean. You know what I mean."

She stepped in front of him, blocking his way.

"Listen, Killjoy. You've got ten times the brains of those felchers, and you let them turn you into a puppet."

"I'm not a puppet."

"Not any more, anyway."

"I never was."

"Sure you were. Just like Lubin."

"I'm nothing like—"

"They turned you into one big reflex arc, my man. Took all that gray matter and hammered it into pure hardwired instinct, through and through."

"Fuck you. You know that isn't true."

She put her hand on Desjardins's shoulder. "Look, I don't blame you for being in denial about—"

He shrugged it off. "I'm not in denial! You think instinct and reflex can handle the decisions I have to make, every hour I'm on the job? You think weighting a thousand variables on the fly doesn't require a certain degree of autonomy? Jesus Christ, I—"

I may be a slave, but I'm not a robot. He caught it at the back of his throat; no sense giving her any more ammunition than she already had.

"We gave you back your life, man," Jovellanos said softly.

"We?"

"There's a few of us. We're kind of political, in a ragtag sorta way."

"Oh Christ." Desjardins shook his head. "Did you even ask me if I wanted this?"

"You would've said no. Guilt Trip would've made you. That's the whole point."

"And just maybe I'd've said no anyway, did you ever stop to think of that? I can kill a half-million people before lunchtime; you don't think it's a good idea to have safeguards in place? Maybe you remember the buzz on absolute power?"

"Sure," Jovellanos said. "Every time I see a Lertzman or a Rowan."

"I don't care about Lertzman or fucking Rowan! You did this to me!"

"I did it for you, Achilles."

He glanced up, startled. "What did you call me?"

"Achilles."

"Jesus."

"Listen, you're safe. The hounds will find Trip in your blood like they always have. That's the beauty of it, Spartacus doesn't touch the Trip. It just blocks the receptors."

"Spartacus? That's what you call it?"

Jovellanos nodded.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Look it up. The point is—"

"And why now, of all times?" Desjardins threw his hands in the air. "If you were going to do this to me you couldn't have picked a worse time if you tried."

She shook her head. "Killjoy, you're up at bat and the whole world's hanging in the balance. If you ever needed a clear head, now's the time. You can't afford to be chained to any corpse agenda. Nobody can afford it."

He glared at her. "You are such a fucking hypocrite, Alice. You infected me. You didn't ask, you didn't even tell, you just stuck me with some bug that could get me thrown out of my job, or worse—"

She raised her hands, as if to ward off his words. "Achilles, I—"

"Yeah, yeah, you did it for me. What an altruist. Ramming Spartacus Brand Home-Cooked Autonomy down my throat whether I like it or not. I'm your friend, Alice! Why did you do this?"

She stared at him for a moment in the fading light.

"You don't know?" she said at last, in a cold angry voice. "The goddamned boy genius doesn't have a clue? Why don't you do a path analysis or something to find out?"

She spun on her heel and walked away.

 

 

Spartacus

 

 

"Achilles, you can be such a raging idiot sometimes I just don't believe it.

"You know what I was risking, coming clean with you yesterday. You know what I'm risking sending this to you now—it'll autowipe, but there's nothing these assholes can't scan if they feel like it. That's part of the problem, that's why I'm taking this huge risk in the first place.

"I'm sorry I stomped off like that. Things just weren't going like I hoped, you know? But I do have some answers for you if you'll just hear me out, okay? Just—hear me out.

"I heard what you said about trust and betrayal, and maybe some of it rings a bit more true than I'd like. But don't you see there was no point in asking you beforehand? As long as Guilt Trip was running the show, you were incapable of making your own decision. You keep insisting that's wrong, you go on about all the life-and-death decisions you make and the thousands of variables you juggle, but Achilles my dear, whoever told you that free will was just some complicated algorithm for you to follow?

"Look at bumblebees dancing some time. You wouldn't believe the stuff they talk about. Solar elevation, topographic cues, time-stamps—they write roadmaps to the best food sources, scaled to the centimeter, and they do it all with a few butt-wiggles. Does that make them free agents? Why do you think we call them drones?

"Look at the physics of a spider spinning its web. Hell, look at a dog catching a ball—that's ballistic math, my man. The world's full of dumb animals who act as though they're juggling third-order differentials in their heads and it's all just instinct, man. It's not freedom. It's not even intelligence. And you stand there and tell me you're autonomous just because you can follow a decision tree with a few dozen variables?

"I know you don't want to be corrupted. But maybe a decent, honest human being is his own safeguard, did you ever think of that? Maybe you don't have to let them turn you into one big conditioned reflex. Maybe you just want them to, because then it's not really your responsibility, is it? It's so easy never to have to make your own decisions. Addictive, even. Maybe you even got hooked on it, and you're going through a little bit of withdrawal now.

"I bet you don't even know what they took away, do you? I bet you weren't even interested. Sure, you read their cheery little leaflets about serving the greater good and you learned enough to pass the tests, but it was all just hoops you had to jump through to get into the next tax bracket, right? Jesus, Killjoy. I mean, don't get me wrong—you're a flaming genius with sims and nonparametric stats, but when it comes to the real world you wouldn't know a come-on if someone got down on their knees and unzipped your fly for you. I mean, really.

"Anyhow, what they stole, we gave back. And I'm going to tell you exactly what we did, on the premise, you know, ignorance breeds fear and all that.

"You know about the Minsky receptors in your frontal lobes, and how all those nasty little guilt transmitters bind to them, and how you perceive that as conscience. They made Guilt Trip by tweaking a bunch of behavior-modification genes snipped from parasites; the guiltier you feel, the more Trip gets pumped into your brain. It binds to the transmitters, which changes their shape and basically clogs your motor pathways so you can't move.

"That's also why you're so fond of cats, by the way. Baseline Toxoplasma turns rodents into cat-lovers as a way of jumping between hosts. I bet a hundred Quebucks you weren't in such pathetic servitude to Mandelbrot until you got your shots, am I right?

"Anyway, Spartacus is basically a guilt analog. It's got the same active sites, so it binds to the Trip, but the overall conformation is slightly different so it doesn't actually do anything except clog up the Minsky receptors. Also it takes longer to break down than regular guilt, so it reaches higher concentrations in the brain. Eventually it overwhelms the active sites through sheer numbers.

"That's the real beauty of it, Killjoy; both your natural transmitters and the Trip itself are still being produced normally, so a test that keys on either of 'em comes up clean. Even a test looking for the complexed form will pass muster, since the baseline complex is still floating around—it just can't find any free receptor sites to latch onto.

"So you're safe. Honestly. The bloodhounds won't be a problem. I wouldn't put you at risk, Achilles, believe me. You mean too—you're too much of a friend for me to fuck around like that.

"Anyway, there you go. I've stuck my neck out for you, and what happens now is pretty much up to you. If you turn me in, though, know this: you're making that decision. However you rationalize it, you won't be able to blame some stupid longchain molecule. It'll be you all the way, your own free will.

"So use it, and think about all the things you've done and why, and ask yourself if you're really so morally rudderless that you couldn't have made all those tough decisions without enslaving yourself to a bunch of despots. I think you could have, Achilles. You never needed their ball and chain to be a decent human being. I really believe that. I'm gambling everything on it.

"Anyway. You know where I am. You know what your options are. Join me or stab me. Your choice.

"Love, Alice."

 

 

TursiPops

 

 

She'd last been confirmed at Yankton. Sault Sainte Marie crouched at the eastern corner of Lake Superior. A straight line between those points cut through Lake Michigan.

Ken Lubin knew exactly where to set up shop.

The Great Lakes weren't quite so great these days, not since the water shortages of the twenty-first century had reduced their volume by twenty-five percent. (Lubin supposed it was a small price to pay to avoid the water wars breaking out everywhere else on the planet.) Still. Lenie Clarke was a rifter; the lakes were still deep, and dark, and long. Directly en route, too. Any amphibian trying to elude capture would be crazy not to take a dip.

Of course, any amphibian with more than a room-temperature IQ would also know that her enemies would be waiting for her.

He stood four hundred meters above Lake Michigan's southern reaches. An unbroken rim of industrial lakefront stretched around the horizon from Whiting to Evanston. Barely visible between land and water: the dark, broad bands of old mud that passed for shoreline wherever deep-water access wasn't a priority.

"Check the forecast lately?" It was Burton, the Afrikaaner, still pissed that Lubin had usurped his command in the name of global salvation. Holo light from the tabletop played along the line of his jaw.

Lubin shook his head. The other man glanced through the wraparound pane of the lifter's observation deck. Darkness was advancing overhead, as though someone were unrolling a great black rug across the sky. "Forecast's up to eight, now. It'll hit us in under an hour. If she can still breathe water, it's going to come in handy even on shore."

Lubin grunted and ran a magged scan along the Chicago waterfront. Nothing of note there, of course. Ant-like civilians scuttling along under a morbid sky. She could be down there right now. Any second one of those bugs could just jump off the breakwater right in front of me, and it'd all be over. Or more likely I wouldn't even see it. All the troops, all the botflies, all the heavy equipment could just keep circling around here until the storm hits, and she's safe and cold under a hundred and fifty meters of muddy water.

"You're sure she's going to try it," Burton said.

Lubin tapped a panel on the table; the map zoomed back in scale, played false-color storm-front imagery across its airspace.

"Even though she knows we're in her way," Burton continued.

But they weren't in her way, of course. They were still hanging in mid-air, waiting for a fix. There were just too many approaches, too much megapolitan jungle full of pipes and wires and RF signals where a single unique signature could stay endlessly anonymous. There were some places one could safely exclude, of course. Clarke would never be foolish enough to cross the mudflats—a klick wide in some places—that the lakes had abandoned when the water fell. She'd stay in industrialized areas, indoors or under cover, her signal swamped and her passage unnoticed.

At least they knew she was in Chicago somewhere; a patrolling botfly had picked up a characteristic rifter EMission just that morning, then lost it around a corner. Another had picked up the scent through the front window of a Holiday Inn; cold, of course, by the time reinforcements arrived, but a playback on the lobby cameras hadn't left much doubt. Lenie Clarke was in Chicago; Lubin had pulled back standbys from Cleveland to Detroit, brought them all into tight focus around the sightings.

"You seem awfully certain, considering that whole mercury thing," Burton remarked. "Have you run this past anyone upstairs?"

"I want the dolphins set down right about there," Lubin said, pinpointing a spot on the tabletop. "Take care of it, will you?"

"Certainly." Burton moved back to his panel. Lubin spared a moment to watch his back.

Patience, Burton. You'll get your chance soon enough.

If I fuck up…

 

* * *

 

If he fucked up again, actually.

He still couldn't believe it. All those blood tests he'd ordered, all those path scans, and he'd never thought to test for heavy metals. He'd been eating raw oceanic wildlife for weeks, and it had never even occurred to him.

Idiot, he repeated to himself for the thousandth time.

The GA's medics had caught it when they were cleansing him of ßehemoth. They'd assured him that he couldn't be held responsible. That was the thing about heavy metals; they affected the brain. The mercury itself had dulled his faculties, they said. All things considered, he'd actually been performing better than expected.

But maybe Burton could have performed better. Maybe Burton knew it.

Burton had never much liked him, Lubin knew. He wasn't quite sure why. Of course, you don't inject Rwanda11 into a man's cells without expecting some increase in the usual alpha-male head-butting responses, but dispassion was a trait even more valued than ruthlessness; both of them had been tweaked for enhanced self-control even more than for the euphemistic necessary steps.

Lubin shrugged off the challenger and concentrated on the challenge. At least Chicago narrowed the options somewhat. Still not enough to catch Clarke until she made her move. The simple geometry of πr2 saw to that: double your search radius and effectiveness dropped by a factor of four. The waterfront was the bottleneck; wherever Clarke was now, that was where she'd be heading. She'd be running into opposition that increased exponentially as she approached that target, the flip side of inverse-square. Most of his people, Lubin knew, expected to take her out before she even saw the water.

He wasn't so sure. Clarke had none of the special skills and training that armed the least of her enemies, no botflies or talking guns, but she had something. She was smart, and she was tough, and she did not behave like a normal human being. Pain didn't seem to frighten her at all.

And she hated, more purely and perfectly than anyone Lubin had ever known.

She also had half of Maelstrom backing her up. Or had until recently, anyway. Lubin wondered if she'd grown used to being so unaccountably lucky. Had she started to believe her own PR, had she begun to think herself invincible? Did she know yet that she was back on her own?

Hopefully not. Anything that built her confidence worked in Lubin's favor.

Burton still didn't think she'd risk running the gauntlet. Burton wanted to descend from on high and impose martial law, shut that fucking sprawl down, right to the rivets, search room by room until the next millennium if that's what it took. Burton had no patience and no subtlety. No appreciation for πr2. You don't catch fish by chasing them around the ocean with a net; you set the net where you know the fish will come, and you wait.

Of course, Burton didn't think this particular fish would come to the net. She wasn't an idiot. All she had to do was hang back and wait them out. It was a plausible enough line of reasoning, if you didn't know what Lubin knew.

If you didn't know that Lenie Clarke, quite simply, was homesick.

The lost distant abyss was an ache inside of her, and if Lake Michigan was a poor imitation of that world, at least it was an imitation of some kind. No smokers, no crystalline hot-and-cold running seawater, no glowing monsters to light the way—but fifteen atmospheres, at least. Darkness and cold, if you stayed near the bottom. Sheltering murk and currents enough to convect away any telltale heatprint. It might be enough, Lubin knew.

He knew that Lenie Clarke's desire would drive her along the straightest line she could manage. He'd known it from the moment he'd seen the records of that anomalous little outbreak in the Cariboo woods. A patch of alpine forest even deader than the norm. Something that had once been a man, curled protectively around something else that had once been a little girl. The crews hadn't checked the lake at all, they'd simply burned the area the way they'd burned all the others. It was only when Lubin had insisted—driven by his belated review of the story so far—that they'd sent back an ROV and surveyed the bottom. It was only then that anyone noticed the cobble and deadwood kicked into violent disarray fifty meters down, in a place where the largest inhabitants had been insects. As if something had dropped to the bottom and found it hopelessly wanting, clawed and pounded against bedrock as though driven to tunnel to the core of the earth itself. When Lubin had seen that telemetry, he'd known.

He'd known then, as he knew now, because he felt exactly the same way. Lenie Clarke had been a fish out of water for too long; nothing in Burton's arsenal would scare her off. She was coming.

And if those towering black anvils advancing from the south were anything to go on, she was bringing the wrath of God along for the ride.

 

* * *

 

Maybe she planned it that way, he mused. Maybe she summoned the storm the same way she summoned the quake.

It was easy to indulge in the legend, even tempting. But you didn't have to invoke sorcery to explain the thunderheads marching on Chicago; violent storms had been the spring norm for twenty years or more in these parts. Just another long-term surprise hatched from that chaotic package of cause-and-effect called climate change.

It had actually proven beneficial to certain aspects of the economy. The market for shatterproof windows had never been stronger.

If she hadn't conjured the elements, though, she'd at least been smart enough to use them. Perhaps she'd been holding back, digging her heels in against that relentless pull of dark water, until the weather was perfectly poised to cast a wrench into the machinery.

All for the better, then. It would give her greater confidence in her own success.

The cockpit intercom beeped in his ear: "Front's coming in too fast, sir. We'll have to either get above it or set down."

"How long?" Lubin asked.

"Half hour, tops." Outside, the sky flashed stark white. An avalanche rumbled faintly through the deck.

"Okay." Lubin magged visual. Three hundred meters beneath him, Lake Michigan was a heaving gray cauldron of scrap metal. There were a dozen stealthed transports between the lifter and the lake, their Thayer nets set to obliterative countershade. Lubin could pick them out if he tried; the chromatophores lagged a bit when mimicking fast fractals. As far as any civilian would be able to tell, though, the lifter had local airspace all to itself.

"The dolphins are down," Burton reported from across the compartment. "And we've got a bad storm-sewer monitor on South Aberd—"

Lubin cut him off with a wave of the hand: a white diamond icon had just appeared on the tabletop. A second later his comlink beeped.

"West Randolph," someone reported from the depths of Chicago. "Just past the river. Moving east."

 

* * *

 

They'd strung mist nets at strategic locations along the Chicago River, in addition to the usual anti-exotic electricals; Clarke had already ridden a river past one dragnet, and there was a chance she'd try it again. No such luck, though. This sighting was on the wrong side of those barricades. A botfly had snapped an aura completely inconsistent with the outside accessories of the woman who'd worn it. The doorway she'd entered led down into a half-empty commercial warren with a hundred access points.

Lubin realigned his pieces on the way in. Two of the choppers dropped to within spitting distance of the waves, each giving birth to twins; minisubs like finback calves, spacing themselves in an arc two kilometers off the waterfront. Each sub, in turn, birthed a litter of snoops that arranged themselves into a diffuse grid from surface to substrate.

The other choppers touched down from Meigs Field to the Grand Avenue docks, disgorged their cargo, and hunkered down against the oncoming storm. The command lifter came in behind them, pausing fifty meters above the seawall; Lubin slid down inside an extensible tube that uncoiled from the lifter's belly like an absurd proboscis. By the time the huge airship had wallowed away, a command hut had been set up at the foot of East Monroe.

Lubin braced against the rising wind and looked over the edge of Chicago's new seawall. The streaked gray precipice rose smoothly to the railing. The grated mouths of storm sewers punctuated the revetment at regular intervals, drooling insignificant trickles of wastewater. Each opening was twice as high as a man. Lubin ballparked the scale and nodded to himself: the weave of the grillwork was easily tight enough to keep anyone from squeezing through.

A low-flying helicopter flitted past, spraying the water: the waves in its wake swelled and congealed into a swath of gelatinous foam. Lubin had ordered the shoreline gelled from Lakeshore down to Meigs; the storm would probably smash the tanglefoam to lint after a while, but if Clarke hurled herself off a bridge before that point, she'd be stuck like an ant in honey. A floating pen bobbed at the offshore edge of the gelled zone, rimmed by an inflatable boom riding the waves like a boneless serpent. Lubin tapped a control on the side of his visor; the enclosure sprang into near focus.

There.

Just for a moment, a sleek gray back, metallic inlays glinting darkly along the leading edge of the dorsal fin. Another. Half a dozen there all told, although you'd never see more than one on the surface at any given time.

The wind died.

Lubin slipped off his headset and looked around with naked eyes. It was close to noon, as dark as a solar eclipse. Overhead the sky boiled in silent, ominous slow motion.

A distant clattering roar began cascading through the city at his back: storm shutters, slamming shut along a thousand Euclidean canyons. It sounded as though the buildings themselves were applauding the rise of some long-awaited curtain. A single perfect raindrop, the size of his thumbnail, splatted on the asphalt at Lubin's feet.

He turned and entered the command hut.

 

* * *

 

Another hallucinogenic tabletop dominated the single-room enclosure. Lubin studied the chessboard: two arms of security extended out from the waterfront, diverging northwest from Grand and southwest from Eisenhower. A funnel, to guide Lenie Clarke to a place of another's choosing. Two-point-five klicks west of the seawall, a band of botflies and exoskels formed a north-south line and began sealing off skyways and tunnels.

Seven and a half square kilometers found itself excised from the world along these boundaries. Surface traffic moved within and without, but not across; the rapitrans grid went utterly dark across its breadth. The flow of information took a little longer to cut off—

wouldn't you know it another goddamned quarantine looks like I won't be able to make our eight-thirty after all, hello? Hello? Jesus fucking Christ…

—but eventually even electrons respected the new borders. The target, after all, was well-known to receive assistance from such quarters.

But it was not enough to simply cut this parallelogram out of the world. Lenie Clarke still moved there, among several hundred thousand sheep. Lubin let Burton off the leash for a while.

A blond Peruvian was putting a telemetry panel through its paces in one corner of the hut. Lubin joined her while Burton feasted on the application of naked force. "Kinsman. How are they doing?"

"Complaining about the noise. And they always hate freshwater ops. Makes them feel heavy."

Her panel was a matrix of views from cams embedded in the leading edge of each dolphin's dorsal fin. A gray crescent marred the lower edge of each window, where the animals' melons intruded on the view. Ghostly shapes slipped past each other in the green darkness beyond.

Endless motion. Those monsters never even slept; one cerebral hemisphere might, or the other, but they were never both unconscious at the same time. Tweaked from raw Tursiops stock only four generations old, fins and flippers inlaid with reinforcements that gave new meaning to the term cutting edge, echolocation skills honed so fine over sixty million years that hard tech could still barely match it. Humanity had tried all sorts of liaisons with the Cetacea over the years. Big dumb pilot whales, eager to please. Orcas, too large for clandestine ops and a little too prone to psychosis in confined spaces. Lags and Spots and all those stiff-necked open-water pansies from the tropics. But Tursiops was the one, had always been the one. Not just smart; mean.

If Clarke got that far, she'd never see them coming.

"What about the noise?" Lubin asked.

"Industrial waterfronts are loud at the best of times," Kinsman told him. "Like an echo chamber, all those flat reflective surfaces. You know how you feel when someone shines bright lights in your eyes? Same thing."

"Are they just complaining, or will it interfere with the op?"

"Both. It's not too bad now, but when the storm sewers start draining you're gonna have a dozen whitewater sources pounding into the lake all along this part of the seawall. Lots of noise, bubbles, stuff kicked off the bottom. Under ideal conditions my guys can track a ping-pong ball at a hundred meters, but the way it's going outside—I'd say ten, maybe twenty."

"Still better than anything else we could deploy under the same conditions," Lubin said.

"Oh, easily."

Lubin left Kinsman to her charges and grabbed his pack off the floor. The storm assaulted him the moment he left the hut's soundproof interior. The downpour drenched on contact. The sky above was as black as the asphalt below; both flashed white whenever lightning ripped the space between. Lubin's people stood on conspicuous duty along the seawall, punctuating every vantage point. The rain turned them slick and black as rifters after a dive.

Shoot to kill was a given. It might not be enough, though. If Clarke made it this far, there were too many places she could simply dive off an embankment. That was okay: in fact, Lubin rather expected it. That was what the subs and the snoops and the dolphins were for.

Only the subs were useless close to shore, and now Kinsman was saying the dolphins might not be able to acquire a target more than a few meters away …

He set his pack down and split it open.

And if the dolphins can't catch her, what makes you think you can?

The odd thing was, he actually had an answer.

 

* * *

 

Burton was waiting when Lubin got back inside. "We've rounded up a bunch of—oh, very nice. A salute to the enemy, maybe? In her final hour?"

Lubin assayed a slight smile, and hoped that someday soon Burton would pose a threat to security. His eyecaps slid disconcertingly beneath lids not quite reacclimated to their presence. "What do you have?"

"We have a bunch of people who look a lot like you do right now," Burton said. "None of them have actually seen Clarke—in fact, none of them even knew she was in town. Maybe the Anemone's losing its touch."

"The anemone?"

"Haven't you heard? That's what people are calling it now."

"Why?"

"Beats me."

Lubin stepped over to the chess board; half a dozen cylindrical blue icons shone at points where civilians were being held to assist the ongoing investigation.

"Of course, we're a long way from sampling the whole population yet," Burton continued. "And we're concentrating on the obvious groupies, the costumes. There'll be a lot more in civvies. Still, none of the people we've interrogated so far knows anything. Clarke could have an army if she wanted, but as far as we can tell she hasn't even begged a sandwich. It's completely off-the-wall."

Lubin slipped his headset back on. "I'd say it's standing her in good stead now," he remarked mildly. "She seems to have you dead-ended, anyway."

"There are other suspects," Burton said. "Lots of them. We'll turn her up."

"Good luck." The tacticals in Lubin's visor were oddly drained of color—oh, right. The eyecaps. He eyed the blue cylinders glowing in the zone, tweaked his headset controls until they resaturated. Such clean, perfect shapes, each representing a grand violation of civil rights. He was often surprised at how little resistance civilians offered in the face of such measures. Innocent people, detained by the hundreds without charge. Cut off from friends and family and—at least for those who'd have been able to afford it—counsel. All in a good cause, of course. Civil rights should run a distant second to global survival in anyone's book. The usual suspects didn't know what was at stake, though. As far as they knew, this was just another case of officially-sanctioned thugs like Burton, throwing their weight around.

Yet only a few had resisted. Perhaps they'd been conditioned by all the quarantines and blackouts, all the invisible boundaries CSIRA erected on a moment's notice. The rules changed from one second to the next, the rug could get pulled out just because the wind blew some exotic weed outside its acceptable home range. You couldn't fight something like that, you couldn't fight the wind. All you could do was adapt. People were evolving into herd animals.

Or maybe just accepting that that's what they'd always been.

Not Lenie Clarke, though. Somehow, she'd gone the other way. A born victim, passive and yielding as seaweed, had suddenly grown thorns and hardened its stems to steel. Lenie Clarke was a mutant; the same environment that turned everyone else into bobbing corks had transformed her into barbed wire.

A white diamond blossomed near Madison and La Salle. "Got her," the comlink crackled in a voice Lubin didn't recognize. "Probably her, anyway."

He tapped into the channel. "Probably?"

"Securicam snapshot down in a basement mall. No EM sensor down there, so we can't confirm. We got a three-quarter profile for a half-second, though. Bayesians say eighty-two percent likely."

"Can you seal off that block?"

"Not automatically. No master kill switches or anything."

"Okay, do it manually."

"Got it."

Lubin switched channels. "Engineering?"

"Here." They'd set up a dedicated line to City Planning. The people on that end were strictly need-to-know, of course; no hint of the stakes involved, no recognizable name to humanize the target. A dangerous fugitive in the core, yours is not to question why, full stop. Almost no chance for messy security breaches there.

"Have you got the fix on La Salle?" Lubin asked, zooming the chessboard.

"Sure do."

"What's down there?"

"These days, not much. Originally retail, but most of the merchants moved out with the spread. A lot of empty stalls."

"No, I mean substructures. Crawlspaces, service tunnels, that sort of thing. Why aren't I seeing any of that on the map?"

"Oh, shit, that stuff's ancient. TwenCen and older. A lot of it never even got into the database; by the time we updated our files nobody was using those areas except derelicts and wireheads, and with all the data-corruption problems we've been having—"

"You don't know?" A soft beeping began in Lubin's head: someone else wanting to talk.

"Someone might have scanned the old blueprints onto a crystal somewhere. I could check."

"Do that." Lubin switched channels. "Lubin."

It was his point man on the seawall. "We're losing the tanglefoam."

"Already?" They should have had at least another hour.

"It's not just the rainfall, it's the storm sewers. They're funneling precip from the whole city right out through the seawall. Have you seen the volume those drains are putting out?"

"Not recently." Things just kept getting better.

Burton, unrebukably occupied with his own duties, nonetheless seemed to have an ear cocked in Lubin's direction. "I'll be right out," Lubin said after a moment.

"That's okay," Seawall said. "I can just feed you a—"

Lubin killed the channel.

 

* * *

 

Whitewater roared from a mouth in the revetment, wide as a tanker truck. Lubin couldn't begin to guess at the force of that discharge; it extended at least four meters from the wall before gravity could even coax it off the horizontal. The tanglefoam had retreated on all sides; Lake Michigan heaved and thrashed in the opened space, reclaiming even more territory.

Great.

There were eleven drains just like this along the secured waterfront. Lubin redeployed two dozen inshore personnel to the seawall.

City Planning beeped in his ear. "…nd some…"

He cranked up the filters on his headset; the roar of the storm faded a bit. "Say again?"

"Found something! Two-d and low-res, but it looks like there's nothing down there but a service crawlway running above the ceiling and a sewer main under the floor."

"Can they be accessed?" Even with the filters, Lubin could barely hear his own voice.

Engineering didn't seem to have any trouble, though. "Not from the concourse, of course. There's a physical plant under the next block."

"And if she got into the main?"

"She'd end up at the treatment plant on Burnham, most likely."

They had Burnham covered. But—"What do you mean, most likely? Where else could she end up?"

"Sewage and storm systems spill together when things get really swamped. Keeps the treatment facilities from flooding. It's not as bad as it sounds, though. By the time things get this crazy, the flow's great enough to dilute the sewage—"

"Are you saying—" A bolt of lightning cut the sky into jagged fragments. Lubin forced himself to wait. The thunderclap in the ensuing darkness was deafening. "Are you saying she could be in the storm sewers?"

"Well, theoretically, but it doesn't matter."

"Why not?"

"There'd have to be an awful lot of water going through before the systems would mix. The moment your fugitive crossed over she'd be sucked down and drowned. No way she could fight the current, and there wouldn't be any airspace left in the pi—"

"Everything's going through the storm system now?"

"Most of it."

"Will the grates hold?"

"I don't understand," Engineering said.

"The grates! The grills covering the outfalls! Are they rated to withstand this kind of flow?"

"The grates are down," Engineering said.

"What!"

"They fold down automatically when tonnes-per-sec gets too high. Otherwise they'd impede flow and the whole system would back up."

Heavy metal strikes again.

Lubin opened an op-wide channel. "She's not coming overland. She's—"

Kinsman, the dolphin woman, cut in: "Gandhi's got something. Channel twelve."

He switched channels, found himself underwater. Half the image was a wash of static, interference even the Bayesians couldn't clear in realtime. The other half wasn't much better: a foamy gray wash of bubbles and turbulence.

A split-second glimpse, off to the left: a flicker of darker motion. Gandhi caught it too, twisted effortlessly into the new heading. The camera rotated smoothly around its own center of focus as the dolphin rolled over on its back. The murk darkened.

He's going deep, Lubin realized. Coming up from underneath. Good boy.

Now the image centered on a patch of diffuse radial brightness, fading to black on all sides: the optics of ascent toward a brighter surface. Suddenly the target was there, dead to rights: silhouetted arms, a head, flashing stage left and disappearing.

"Hit," Kinsman reported. "She never saw it coming."

"Remember, we don't want her bleeding out there," Lubin cautioned.

"Gandhi knows the drill. He's not using his pecs, he's just ram—"

Again: a piecemeal human shadow, found and lost in an instant. The image jarred slightly.

"Huh," Kinsman said. "She saw that coming somehow. Almost got out of the way in time."

The implants. For an instant Lubin was back on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, comfortably suspended under three kilometers of black icewater. Feeling Beebe's sonar tick-tick-ticking against the machinery in his chest…

"She can feel the click trains," he said. "Tell Gandhi to lay—"

Another pass. This time the target faced her attacker head-on, eyes bright smudges in a dark jigsaw, one arm coming up in a vain attempt to ward off two hundred kilograms of bone and muscle wait a second she's holding something she's—

The image skidded to the left. Suddenly the water was spinning again, no smooth controlled rotation this time, just a wild slewing corkscrew, purely ballistic, slowing against ambient drag. The darkness of deep water swelled ahead. A different darkness spilled in from the side, a black gory cloud spreading into brief cumulus before the currents tore it apart.

"Shit," Kinsman said. Lubin's headset amped the whisper loud enough to drown thunder.

She kept her billy. All the way from Beebe, hitching and walking and riding across the whole damn continent.

Good for her…

The vision imploded to darkness and a final flurry of static. Lubin was back on the waterfront, sheets of rain beating the world into a blur scarcely brighter than the one he'd just left.

"Gandhi's down," Kinsman reported.

 

* * *

 

Kinsman tag-teamed two more dolphins to the site of Gandhi's last stand; Lubin pulled abreast on the seawall a few moments after they arrived. Burton was waiting there with a charged squid, water cascading from his rainskin.

"Fan them out," Lubin told Kinsman over the link. "Hyperbolic focus on the carcass, offshore spread." He grabbed his fins off the scooter and stepped to the edge of the seawall, Burton at his side. "What about Gandhi?"

"Gandhi's sockeye," Kinsman said.

"No, I mean what about emotional ties? What impact will his loss have on the efficiency of the others?"

"For Singer and Caldicott, none. They never liked him all that much. That's why I sent them."

"Okay. Line up the rest on a converging perimeter, but keep them away from the outfalls."

"No problem," Kinsman acknowledged. "They wouldn't be much good in there anyway, with those acoustics."

"I'm switching to vocoder in thirty seconds. Channel five."

"Got it."

Burton watched neutrally as Lubin bent over to pull on his fins. "Bad break!" he shouted over the storm. "About the sewers, I mean!"

Lubin snugged his heel straps, reached out for the squid. Burton handed it over. Lubin sealed his face flap. The diveskin reached across his eyelids and bonded to the caps beneath, blocked nose and mouth like liquid rubber. He stood, isolated from the downpour, calmly suffocating.

Good luck, Burton mouthed through the rain.

Lubin hugged the squid to his chest and stepped into space.

 

* * *

 

Michigan closed over his head, roaring.

Fifteen meters to the north, one of Chicago's outfalls spewed an endless vomit of wastewater into the lake; the whirlpools and eddies from that discharge reached Lubin with scarcely-diminished strength. A fog of microscopic bubbles swirled on all sides, smeared muddy light throughout the water. Bits of detritus looped through eccentric orbits, fading to white just past the reach of his fingers. Water sucked and slurped on all sides. Overhead, barely visible, the rain-pelted surface writhed like mercury under rapid-fire assault—and all around, omnipresent in the heavy surge, the deep deafening roar of waterfalls.

Lubin spun in the current, insides flooding, and reveled.

He didn't think that Lenie Clarke was headed for deep water just yet. She might not have anticipated the minisubs lurking deep offshore; she knew about the dolphins, though, and she knew about sonar. She knew all about the effects of turbulence on sensory systems both electronic and biological. She'd stay close to shore, hiding in the cacophony of the outfalls. Soon, perhaps, she'd edge north or south in furtive stages, creeping along a murky jungle of wreckage and detritus left over from three centuries of out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Even in calm weather there'd be no shortage of hiding places.

Now, though, she was injured, probably fighting shock. Gandhi had hit her twice before Clarke had rallied; it was amazing that she'd even stayed conscious through that pounding, let alone fought back. For the time being she was holed up somewhere, just hanging on.

Lubin glanced at the nav console on his wrist. A tiny two-d representation of local space sparkled there—starring, as Ken Lubin, a convergence of sharp green lines at center stage. Occasional yellow pinpoints drifted in and out of range: Kinsman's dolphins, patrolling the perimeter. Another pinpoint, much closer, wasn't moving at all. Lubin aimed his squid and squeezed the throttle.

Gandhi was a mess. Clarke's billy had discharged against the right side of his head; the front of the animal had been blown apart in an instant. Behind the dorsal fin, the carcass was pretty much intact. Farther forward a fleshy wreckage of ribs and skull remained on the left side, that maniacal idiot dolphin grin persisting even past death. The right side was gone entirely.

Gandhi was impaled on a sunken tangle of rebar. The current here moved offshore; the dolphin must have met his fate closer to the seawall. Lubin swung the squid around and started upstream.

"…eive…Lu…ical?"

The word fragments buzzed along his lower jaw, all but lost in the ambient thunder. Lubin, struck by sudden realization, cranked up the gain on his vocoder: "Keep this channel clear. Cl—"

His words, transmuted by the vocoder into a harsh metallic buzz, caught him offguard. It had been months since the implants had mutilated his voice that way. The sound almost invoked a kind of nostalgia.

"No contact," he continued. "Clarke's got L-FAM implants. She could be listening in."

"…ain?…"

In fact, even if Clarke was tuned to the right channel, it was doubtful that she'd make any more sense of the signal than Lubin had. Acoustic modems had not been built with whitewater in mind.

And why would she be listening anyway? How would she know I'm even here?

It wasn't a chance he was willing to take. He kept as silent as his quarry, wherever she was. The lake raged around them both.

Intuition is not clairvoyance. It's not guesswork either. Intuition is executive summary, that ninety percent of the higher brain that functions subconsciously—but no less rigorously—than the self-aware subroutine that thinks of itself as the person. Lubin glided through murk so thick he could barely see the squid that drew him forward; he set the machine to heel and crawled through dead twisted warrens of wreckage and dereliction, spikes and jagged edges rampant under layers of slime that softened only their appearance. He let the current push him offshore, then grab him and hurl him against the base of the seawall itself. He clambered sideways like a crab on gray scoured surfaces, pressed himself flat while the water tried to peel him off and flick him away like an old decal. He let those intuitive subroutines guide him; weighing scenarios, sifting memories, remembering happier times when Lenie Clarke had revealed this motive, that preference. He explored some potential refugia, ignored others, and would not have been able to say exactly why. But all parts of Ken Lubin had been well and thoroughly trained: the brain stem and the analytical subroutines and the little homunculus that sat self-consciously behind his eyes. Each knew what to do, and what to leave to the others.

And so it was not entirely unexpected that he should come upon Lenie Clarke, hiding in the shadow of one of Chicago's absurd waterfalls, wedged in a canyon of wreckage from the previous century.

She was in bad shape. Her body was twisted in a way that suggested Gandhi's blows had done their job. Her diveskin had been torn along the ribcage, either from the dolphin's attack or from the jagged geometry of the lakebed. She favored her left arm. But she'd chosen her refuge well; too much noise for sonar, too much metal for EM signatures, too much shit in the water for anyone without the eyes and the instincts of a rifter to ever track her down. Burton would have passed within a meter and not picked up the scent.

Good girl, he thought.

She looked up from her hiding place, her featureless white eyes meeting his through two meters of milky chaos, and he knew instantly that she recognized him.

He had hoped, against all reason, that she wouldn't.

I'm sorry, he thought. I really don't have any choice.

Of course she still had the billy. Of course she kept it concealed until the last moment, then yanked it into play with desperate swiftness. Of course she tried to use it on herself; doomed anyway, what better act of final revenge than to set ßehemoth free in one final, suicidal catharsis?

Lubin saw all of it coming, and disarmed her with barely a thought. But the billy, when he checked, was empty. Gandhi had taken its final charge. Lubin dropped it onto the muddy junkscape.

I'm sorry. The sexual anticipation of imminent murder began stirring in him. I liked you. You were the only—you really deserved to win...

She stared back. She didn't trip her vocoder. She didn't try to speak.

Any second now Guilt Trip would kick in. Once again, Lubin felt almost sick with gratitude: that an engineered neurochemical could so easily shoulder all responsibility for his acts. That he was about to kill his only friend, and remain blameless of any wrongdoing. That—

It was impossible to close one's eyes while wearing a diveskin. The material bonded to the eyecaps, pinned the lids back in an unblinking stare. Lenie Clarke looked at Ken Lubin. Ken Lubin looked away.

Guilt Trip had never taken this long before.

It's not working. Something's wrong.

He waited for his gut to force him into action. He waited for orders and absolution. He went down into himself as deep as he dared, looking for some master to take the blame.

No. No. Something's wrong.

Do I have to kill her myself?

By the time he realized he wasn't going to get an answer, it was too late. He looked back into Lenie Clarke's final refuge, steeling himself for damnation.

And saw that it was empty.

 

 

Terrarium

 

 

An icon flashed at the corner of Desjardins's board. He ignored it.

The new feed had just gone online: a thread of fiberop snaking in all its messy physicality under the door and down the hallway. There hadn't been any other way; CSIRA was far too security-conscious to allow civilian nodes inside its perimeter, and The General—or Anemone, or whatever it was called today—hadn't talked to any other kind since before Yankton. If Desjardins wanted to go into combat, he'd have to do it on enemy turf.

That meant a hardline. Outside wireless was jammed as a matter of course; even wristwatches couldn't get online in CSIRA without going through the local hub. Desjardins had envisioned a cable running through the lobby into the street, hanging a left and tripping up pedestrians all the way to the nearest public library. Fortunately, there'd been a municipal junction box in the basement.

His board upped the lumens on the icon, a visual voice-raising: Alice Jovellanos still wants to talk. Please respond.

Forget it, Alice. Your face is the last thing I want to see right now. You're lucky I haven't turned you in already.

If Guilt Trip had been doing his—its job, he would have turned her in. God only knew how badly he could screw up now, thanks to that little saboteur's handiwork. God only knew how many other 'lawbreakers she was putting at risk the same way, how many catastrophes would result from sheer glandular indecision at a critical moment. Alice Jovellanos had potentially put millions of lives in jeopardy.

Not that that amounted to a fart in a hurricane next to what ßehemoth was gearing up for, of course. N'AmWire had just made it public: a big chunk of the west coast was now officially under quarantine. Even the official death toll had left the starting gate at four digits.

The splice fed into a new panel that crowded him on the right. It was stand-alone and self-contained, unconnected and unconnectable to any CSIRA sockets. Vast walled spaces waited within—spaces that could swallow the contents of a node and walls that could mimic its architecture at a moment's notice. A habitat replicator, in effect. A terrarium.

The icon began beeping. He muted it.

Take a hint, Alice.

She'd really fucked him up the ass. The problem—and the fact that it was a problem only emphasized how thoroughly she'd messed things up—was that she obviously didn't see it that way. She thought of herself as some sort of liberator. She'd acted out of some kind of twisted concern for his welfare. She'd actually put his interests above the Greater Good.

Desjardins booted the terrarium. Start-up diagnostics momentarily cluttered the display. He wouldn't be using his inlays this time around; they were part of the CSIRA network, after all. It was going to be raw visual and touchpads all the way.

The Greater Good. Right.

That had always been a faceless, abstract thing to human sensibilities. It was easier to feel for the one person you knew than for the far-off suffering millions you didn't. When the Big One had hit the Left Coast, Desjardins had watched the threads and spun his filters and breathed a silent sigh of relief that it hadn't been him under all that rubble—but on the day that Mandelbrot died, he knew, his heart would break.

It was that illogical fact that made Guilt Trip necessary in the first place. It was that illogical fact that kept him from betraying Alice Jovellanos. He sure as shit wasn't ready to sit down and have a friendly chat with her, but he couldn't bring himself to sell her out either.

Besides. If he really had figured out this whole Anemone thing, it was Alice who'd given him the idea.

He tapped the board. A window opened. Maelstrom howled on the other side.

Either way, he'd know within the hour.

 

* * *

 

It was everywhere.

Even where it wasn't, it was. Where it wasn't talking, it was being talked about. Where it wasn't being talked about it was being sown, tales and myths of Lenie Clarke left inert until some unsuspecting vector opened a mailbox to hatch a whole new generation.

"She's everywhere. That's why they can't catch her."

"You're shitting static. How can she be everywhere?"

"Imposters. Clones. Who says there's only one Lenie Clarke?"

"She can, you know, beam herself. Quantum teleportation. It's the blood nanos she's carrying."

"That's impossible."

"Remember the Strip?"

"What about it?"

"Lenie started it, haploid. She just strolled onto the beach and everyone she touched just threw off the drugs and woke up. Just like that. Sounds nano to me."

"That wasn't nano. That's just, you know, that firewitch bug from NoCal, the one that makes your joints fall apart? It got into the cyclers and fucked up some molecule in the valium. You want to know what Lenie started, she started that fucking plague …"

It had gotten smarter, too. Subtler. Hundreds of 'lawbreakers were on the watch now, prowling civilian channels for the inexplicable clarity that had alerted Desjardins the day before. That slip hadn't been repeated, as far as anyone could tell.

And when Desjardins finally did acquire a target, it wasn't baud rate or drop-out that clued him in, but content:

"I know where Lenie Clarke is." It spoke with the sexless, neutral voice of inflated ascii set to default; its handle was Tesseract. "Les-beus are on her ass, but they've lost the trail for now."

"How do you know?" asked someone claiming to be Poseidon-23.

"I'm Anemone," Tesseract said.

"Sure. And I'm Ken Lubin."

"Then your days are numbered, litcrit-o'-mine. Ken Lubin's been turned. He's working for the corpses now."

A lot smarter, to have known that. Not so smart to admit it in mixed company. Desjardins began sketching lines on his board.

"We need to back her up," Tesseract was saying. "Any of you in central N'Am, say around the Great Lakes?"

No queries to the local traffic log, no surreptitious trawl for Turing apps, no trace on the channel. No moves on anything that Tesseract might be keeping an eye on. Achilles Desjardins had gotten smarter, too.

"Piss off, Tessie." Some skeptic going by Hiigara. "You expect us to sub to Lenie Clarke's personal manager just showing up to chat?"

Nothing in the local node. Desjardins started snooping adjacent servers.

"I sense skepticism," Tesseract remarked. "Special effects is what you want. A demonstration."

"Yowsers," said Poseidon-23, and drowned in the roar of an ocean.

Desjardins blinked. An instant before, there'd been six people on the channel listing. Now there were four thousand eight hundred sixty two, all speaking at once. No one voice was comprehensible, but even the collective blare was impossibly clear: a digital babble with no distortion, no static, no arrhythmic stutter of bytes delayed or lost in transit.

Silence returned. The channel listing imploded back down to the six it had started with.

"There you go," said Tesseract.

Shit, Desjardins thought. Shaken, he studied the results on his board. It's talking to all of them. At once.

"How'd you do that?" Hiigara asked.

"I'd rather not," Tesseract whispered. "It attracts attention. Are any of you in central N'Am, say around the Great Lakes?"

He muted the chatter; he didn't need it, now that he had the scent. There seemed to be a fair bit of wildlife in a hospital server across town. He stepped inside, looked out through its portals.

Even more wildlife over there. Desjardins stepped sideways, and found himself in Oslo National's account records. And even more wildlife flowing out to…

Step.

Timor. Real heavy infestation. Of course, those little subsidiaries were still back in the twentieth century when it came to pest control, but still...

This is it, he thought.

Don't touch anything. Go straight to the root.

He did. He whispered sweet nothings to gatekeepers and system clocks, flashed his ID to ease their concerns. A very large number of users are about to get very pissed off, he reflected.

He tapped his board. On the other side of the world, every portal on the edge of the Timor node slammed shut.

Inside, time stuttered.

It didn't stop completely—without some level of system iteration there'd be no way to copy what was inside. Hopefully that wouldn't matter. A few thousand cycles, a few tens of thousands. Maybe enough for the enemy to lurch in stop-motion increments toward some dim awareness of what was happening, but not enough—if he was lucky—to actually do anything about it.

He ignored the traffic piling up at Timor's gates. He ignored the plaintive queries from other nodes who wondered why their feeds had gone dark. All he saw was the math in the bubble: architecture, operating system, software. Files and executables and wildlife. It was almost a kind of teleportation—each bit fixed and read and reconstructed half a world away, the original left unchanged for all the intimacy of its violation.

He had it.

The Timor node jerked back up to speed. Sudden panic from something inside; wildlife flew like leaves in a tornado, tearing at records, bursting through doorways, disemboweling itself after the fact. It didn't matter. It was too late.

Desjardins smiled. He had an Anemone in a tank.

 

* * *

 

In the terrarium, he could stop time completely.

It was all laid out before him, flash-frozen: a software emulation of the node itself, copies of every register and address, every spin and every bit. He could set it all running with a single command.

And it would fly apart in seconds. Just like the Timorese original.

So he set up inviolable backups of the logs and registries and placed them outside, with a filtered two-way pipe to the originals. He went through each of the portals leading out of the node—gates into oblivion now, from a bubble suspended in the void—and gave a little half-twist to each.

He regarded his handiwork. Time stood still. Nothing moved.

"Moebius, come forth," he murmered.

Anemone screamed. A thousand unregistered executables leapt forward and clawed the traffic log to shreds; a million more escaped through the portals.

Ten times as many rustled and watched:

As the mutilated logs repaired themselves with barely time to bleed, magically replenished from on high;

As the wildlife which had fled through that portal came plunging back in through this one, wheeling in confusion;

As a channel opened in the midst of the wilderness and a voice rang out from Heaven: "Hey, you. Anemone."

"We don't talk to you." Sexless, neutral. Default.

It was still going after the records, but it was taking a dozen tacks at once: subtle forgery, full frontal assault, everything in between. None of it worked, but Desjardins was impressed anyway. Damn smart.

As smart as an orb-weaving spider, blindly obeying lifetime fitness functions. As smart as a bird, noting wind and distance and optimizing seed load to three decimal places.

"You really should talk to me," Desjardins said mildly. "I'm God." He caught a piece of wildlife at random, tagged it, set it free again.

"You're shitting static. Lenie Clarke is God." A school of fish, a flock of wheeling birds so complex you needed matrix algebra and thinking machines to understand it all. The ascii came from somewhere inside.

"Clarke's not God," Desjardins said. "She's a petri dish."

Wildlife still flew through the wraparound gateways, but less randomly; some sort of systematic exploration, evolving on the fly. Desjardins checked on the piece he'd tagged. It had descendents already, all carrying the Mark of Cain he'd bestowed on their ancestor. And their descendents had had descendents.

Two hundred sixty generations in fourteen seconds. Not bad.

Thank you, Alice. If you hadn't ranted on about dancing bumblebees, who knows when I would've figured this out…

"Maybe you need a demonstration," said the swarm. "Special effects is what you want, yes?"

And she'd been right. Genes have their own intelligence. They can wire an ant for the cultivation of underground farms, the domestication of aphid cattle...even the taking of slaves. Genes can shape behaviors so sophisticated they verge on genius, given time.

"A demonstration," Desjardins said. "Sure. Hit me."

Time's the catch, of course. Genes are slow: a thousand generations to learn some optimal-foraging trick that a real brain could pick up in five minutes. Which is why brains evolved in the first place, of course. But when a hundred generations fit into the space of a yawn, maybe the genes get their edge back. Maybe wildlife learns to talk using only the blind stupid logic of natural selection— and the poor lumbering meat-sack on the other end never suspects that he's having a chat that spans generations.

"I'm waiting," Desjardins said.

"Lenie Clarke is not a demonstration." The swarm swirled in the terrarium. Was it Desjardins imagination, or did it seem to be—fading, somehow?

He smiled. "You're losing it, aren't you?"

"Loaves and fishes for Anemone."

"But you're not Anemone. You're just a tiny piece of it, all alone…"

Time's not enough in and of itself, of course. Evolution needs variance as well. Mutation and shuffling to create new prototypes, variable environments to weed out the unfit and shape the survivors.

"Clarke, Lenie. Water lights up all cool and radium glow…"

Life can survive in a box, for a while at least. But it can't evolve there. And down in Desjardins's terrarium, the population was starting to look pretty inbred.

"Free hardcore pedosnuff," the swarm murmured. "Even to enter."

Countless individuals. Jostling, breeding. Stagnating.

It's all just pattern.

"Sockeye," said the wildlife, and nothing more.

Desjardins realized he'd been holding his breath. He let it out, slowly.

"Well," he whispered, "you're not so smart after all.

"You just act like you are…"

 

 

Soul Mate

 

 

Someone was pounding on his door. Someone was definitely not taking the hint.

"Killjoy! Open up!"

Go away, Desjardins thought. He flashed his findings to the rest of the Anemone team, a far-flung assemblage of 'lawbreakers he'd never met in the flesh and probably never would. I nailed the sucker. I figured it out.

"Achilles!"

Grudgingly, he leaned back and thumbed the door open without looking. "What do you want, Alice?"

"Lertzman's dead!"

He spun in his chair. "You're kidding."

"He was pithed." Jovellanos's almond eyes were wide and worried. "They found him this morning. He was braindead, he was just lying there starving to death. Someone stuck a needle up the base of his skull and just shredded his white matter… "

"Jesus." Desjardins stood. "You sure? I mean—"

"Of course I'm sure, you think I'm making it up? It was Lubin. It had to be, that's how he tracked you down, that's how he—"

"Yeah, Alice, I get it." He took a step toward her. "Thanks for—for telling me." He began to close the door.

She stuck her foot in the way. "That's it? That's all you've got to say?"

"Lubin's gone, Alice. He's not our problem any more. And besides"— nudging her foot out of the way with his own—"you didn't like Lertzman any more than I did."

He closed the door in her face.

 

* * *

 

Lertzman's dead.

Lertzman the bureaucrat. The cyst in "system", too dormant to contribute, too deeply embedded to excise, too ineffective to matter.

Dead.

Why do you care? He was an asshole.

But I knew him…

The one person you know. The far-off millions you don't.

Could've been me.

Nothing to do about Lertzman now. Nothing to do about his killer, even: Lubin was out of Desjardins's life, hot on the trail of Lenie Clarke. If he succeeded, Ken Lubin could be the savior of the planet. Ken-the-fucking-psychopath-Lubin, savior of billions. It was almost funny. Maybe, after saving the world, he'd go on a killing spree to celebrate. Set up breach after breach, sealing each with extreme and unfettered prejudice. Would anyone have the heart to stop him, after all the good he'd done? The salvation of billions could buy you a whole lot of forgiveness, Desjardins supposed.

Ken Lubin, for all his quirks, was doing something worthwhile. He was hunting the other Lenie Clarke, the real one. The Lenie Clarke that Achilles Desjardins had been tracking was a mirage. There was no great conspiracy after all. No global death cult. Anemone was a drooling idiot. All it knew was that tales of global apocalypse were good for breeding, and that Lenie Clarke was a free pass into Haven. It had only connected those threads through blind dumb luck.

It was a blazing irony that the person behind the words actually lived up to the billing.

Lubin's problem. Not his.

But that was dead wrong, and he knew it. Lenie Clarke was everyone's problem. A threat to the greater good if he'd even seen one.

Forget Lertzman. Forget Alice. Forget Rowan and Lubin and Anemone, even. None of them would matter if it wasn't for Lenie Clarke.

Worry about Clarke. She's the one that's going to kill us all.

She'd come onto the Oregon Strip, moved north to Hongcouver. Inland from there; she'd got through the quarantine somehow. Then nothing for a month or so, when she'd appeared in the midwest, heading south. Skirting the edge of a no-go zone that stretched across three states. Two outbreaks down at the edge of the Dust Belt. Then Yankton: the head of an arrow, pointing somewhere in the vicinity of the Great Lakes.

Home, Lubin had said. Sault Sainte Marie.

Desjardins tapped the board: the main menu for the N'AmPac Grid Authority lit up his inlays. Personnel. Clarke, Lenie.

Deceased.

No surprise there: bureaucracy's usual up-to-the-minute grasp of current events. At least the file hadn't been wiped.

He called up next-of-kin: Clarke, Indira and Butler, Jakob.

Deceased.

Suppose she couldn't get to her parents? Rowan had wondered. Suppose they'd been dead a long time?

And Lubin had said, The people she hates are very much alive…

He called up the public registry. No Sault-St.-Marie listing for Indira Clarke or Jakob Butler in the past three years. That was as far back as public records went. The central archives went back another four; nothing there either.

Suppose they'd been dead a long time? Sort of an odd question, now that he thought about it.

Forget the registry, Desjardins thought. Too easy to edit. He tried the matchmaker instead, threw a bottle into Maelstrom and asked if anyone had seen Indira Clarke or Jakob Butler hanging out with Sault Sainte Marie.

The hit came back from N'AmPac Directory Assistance, an inquiry over seven months old. By rights, it should have been purged just hours after its inception. It hadn't been. Indira was not the only Clarke it mentioned.

Clarke, Indira, went the transcript. Clarke with an 'e'.

How many Indira Clarkes in Sault SainteMarie?

How many in all of N'Am, professional affiliation with the Maelstrom fishery, with an only female child born February 2018, named Lenie?

That's not fucking pos—

Lenie Clarke's mother did not appear to exist anywhere in North America. And Lenie Clarke hadn't known.

Or at least, she hadn't remembered

And how did they choose recruits for the rifter program? Desjardins reminded himself. That's right—"preadaption to stressful environments"…

Deep in his gut, something opened one eye and began growling.

He was a special guy, these days. He even had a direct line to Patricia Rowan. Any time, she'd told him. Day or night. It was, after all, nearly the end of the world.

She picked up on the second ring.

 

* * *

 

"It was tough, wasn't it?" Desjardins said.

"What do you mean?"

"I bet antisocial personalities make really bad students. I bet it was next to impossible, taking all those head cases and turning them into marine engineers. It must have been a lot easier to do it the other way around."

Silence on the line.

"Ms. Rowan?"

She sighed. "We weren't happy about the decision, Doctor."

"I should fucking hope not," he said. "You took human beings and—"

"Dr. Desjardins, this is not your concern."

"Yeah? You’re confident making that kind of call, after the last time?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

"ßehemoth wasn't my concern either, remember? You were so worried about some other corpse getting a leg up when it got out, but there was no way you were going to come to us, were you? No ma'am. You handed the reins to a head cheese."

"Dr.—"

"Why do you think CSIRA even exists? Why chain us all to Guilt Trip if you aren't going to use us anyway?"

"I'm sorry, Doctor—were you under the impression that Guilt Trip made you infallible?" Rowan's voice was laced with frostbite. "It does not. It simply keeps you from being deliberately corrupt, and it does that by linking to your own gut feelings. And believe it or not, being especially tied to one's gut is not the best qualification for long-term problem-solving."

"That's not—"

"You're like any other mammal, Doctor. Your sense of reality is anchored in the present. You'll naturally inflate the near term and sell the long term short, tomorrow's disaster will always feel less real than today's inconvenience. You may be unbeatable at putting out brush fires, but I shudder to think of how you'd handle issues that extend into the next decade, let alone the next century. Guilt Trip would herd you toward the short-term payoff every time."

Her voice gentled a bit. "Surely, if we've learned anything from recent history, it's that sometimes the short term must be sacrificed for the long."

She waited, as if challenging him to disagree. The silence stretched.

"It wasn't such a radical technique, really," she said at last.

"What wasn't?"

"They're a lot more common than you might think. Even real memories are just—cobbled together out of bits and pieces, mostly. After the fact. Doesn't take much to coax the brain into cobbling those pieces together in some other way. Power of suggestion, more than anything. People even do it by accident."

She's defending herself, Desjardins realized. Patricia Rowan is actually trying to justify her actions. To me.

"So what others did by accident, you did on purpose," he said.

"We were more sophisticated. Drugs, hypnosis. Some deep ganglionic tweaks to keep real memories from surfacing."

"You fucked her in the head."

"Do you know what it is, to be fucked in the head? Do you know what that colorful little phrase actually means? It means a proliferation of certain receptor sites and stress hormones. It means triggers set at increased firing thresholds. It's chemistry, Doctor, and when you believe you've been abused—well, belief's just another set of chemicals in the mix, isn't it? You get a—a sort of cascade effect, your brain rewires itself, and suddenly you can survive things that would leave the rest of us pissing in our boots. Yes, we faked Lenie Clarke's childhood. Yes, she was never really abused—"

"By her parents," Desjardins interjected.

"—but the fact that she believes she was abused is what made her strong enough to survive the rift. Fucking her in the head probably saved her life a dozen times over."

"And now," Desjardins pointed out, "she's heading back to a home she never had, gunning for parents who don't exist, driven by abuses that never happened. Her whole definition of herself is a lie."

"And I thank God for that," Rowan said.

"What?"

"Have you forgotten the woman's a living brood sac for the end of the world? At least we know where she's going. Ken can head her off. That—that definition of herself makes her predictable, Doctor. It means we might still be able to save the earth."

 

* * *

 

Random intelligence from around the world scrolled on all sides. He didn't see it.

Ken can head her off.

Ken Lubin was Guilt-Tripped for tight security. Lubin kept slipping up, just so he could prove that again and again.

Someone got away, once, he'd said. And then: It's a shame. She really deserved a fighting chance…

Lenie Clarke had had more than a fighting chance: she had legions of followers watching her back. But they'd never really been following her. They'd been chasing some blue-shifted evolutionary distortion, racing past at lightspeed. Unless Anemone knew where she was and sounded the alarm—and whatever else it was, Anemone was no clairvoyant—how would anyone even know about the lone black figure crawling past them in the night?

Lenie Clarke was just one woman. And Ken Lubin was hunting her down.

There was no great need to kill her. She could be cleansed. She could be neutralized without being erased. But that wouldn't matter, not to Lubin.

She's the only security breach he ever left unsealed. That's what he said.

Achilles Desjardins had never met Lenie Clarke. By rights, she should be one of the far-off millions. And yet, somehow, he knew her: someone driven entirely by other people's motives. Everything she did, everything she felt, was the result of surgical and biochemical lies placed within her for the service of others.

Oh yes. I know her all right.

Suddenly, the fact that she was also a vector for global apocalypse barely even mattered any more. Lenie Clarke had a face. He could feel her in his gut, another human being, far more real than the distant abstraction of an eight-digit death toll.

I'm going to get to her first.

Sure, Lubin was a trained killer; but Desjardins had his own set of enhancements. All 'lawbreakers did. His system was awash in chemicals that could crank his reflexes into overdrive in an instant. And with luck—if he moved fast enough—he might just beat Lubin to the target. He might, just barely, have half a chance.

It wasn't his job. It wasn't the greater good.

Fuck both those things.

 

 

AWOL

 

 

"There's been a breach," the corpse said. "We were hoping you could fill in some relevant details."

Half of Alice Jovellanos's facial muscles tried to go into spasm right there. She clamped a tight lid on their aspirations and presented what she hoped was a look of oh please God let it be innocent and concerned curiosity.

Then again, what's the point? whispered some smart-ass inner voice. They must know already. Why else would they even call you in?

She clamped down on that one, too.

They're just toying with you. No one gets to be a corpse without developing a taste for sadism.

And that…just barely.

There were four of them, gender-balanced, ringed around the far side of the conference table up in the stratosphere of Admin-14. Slijper was the only one Jovellanos recognized—she'd just been brought in as Lertzman's replacement. The corpses all sat arrayed on the far side of the table, backlit by little halogen spots, their faces lost in the shadow of that glare. Except for the eyes. All four sets of eyes twinkled intermittently with corporate intel.

They'd be monitoring her vitals, of course. They'd know she was stressed. Of course, anyone would be stressed under these conditions. Hopefully subtleties like guilt and innocence were beyond the scope of the remotes.

"You're aware of the recent attack on Don Lertzman," Slijper said.

Jovellanos nodded.

"We think it may have been connected with a colleague of yours. Achilles Desjardins."

Okay, just the right amount of surprise here "Achilles? Why?"

"We were hoping you could tell us," one of the other corpses replied.

"But I don't know any—I mean, why not ask him directly?" They already have, you idiot. That's what led them to you, he sold you out, after all this he sold—

"—disappeared," Slijper finished.

Jovellanos straightened in her chair. "Excuse me?"

"I said, Dr. Desjardins seems to have gone AWOL. When he didn't show up for his shift we were concerned that he might have run into the same complications as Don, but the evidence suggests he disappeared of his own volition."

"Evidence?"

"He wants you to feed his cat," Slijper said.

"He—what do—"

Slijper held up one hand: "I know, and I hope you'll forgive the intrusion. He left the message on your queue. He said he didn't know how long he was going to be gone, but he'd be grateful if you took care of —Mandelbot, is it?— and he'd keyed the door to let you in. At any rate"—the hand dropped back below table level—"this kind of behavior is frankly unprecedented from anyone on the Trip. He seems to have simply abandoned his post, with no apology, no explanation, no advance warning. It's—impulsive, to say the least."

Oh, man. Killjoy, you were covered. Why'd you have to blow it?

"I didn't know that was even possible," Jovellanos said. "He had his shots years ago."

"Nonetheless, here we are." Slijper leaned back in her chair. "We were wondering if you had noticed anything unusual in his behavior lately. Anything which, looking back, might have suggested—"

"No. Nothing. Although—" Jovellanos took a breath. "Actually, he has been kind of—I don't know, withdrawn lately." Well, it's true enough, and they probably know already; it'd look suspicious if I didn't mention it…

"Any idea why?" asked another corpse.

"Not really." She shrugged. "I've seen it happen before—it's bound to wear on you, having to deal with high-level crises all the time. And Tripped people can't always talk about what's on their minds, you know? So I just let him be."

Please, please, please don't let them have high-level telemetry on me now…

"I see," Slijper said. "Well, thank you anyway, Dr. Jovellanos."

"Is that all?" She started to rise.

"Not quite," said one of the other corpses. "There's one other thing. Concerning—"

Oh please no—

"—your own involvement in all this."

Jovellanos slumped back into her chair and waited for the axe to fall.

"Dr. Desjardins's disappearance leaves—well, a vacancy we really can't afford at this time," the corpse continued.

Jovellanos looked at the backlit tribunal. A tiny part of her dared to hope.

"You worked closely with him through a great deal of this. We understand that your own contribution to date hasn't been negligible—in fact, you've been working below your own potential for some time now. And you're certainly farther up the learning curve than anyone else we could bring in at this point. On the usual scales you're overdue for a promotion. But apparently...that is, according to Psych you have certain objections to taking Guilt Trip…"

I. Can't. Believe. It.

"Now please understand, we don't hold this against you," said the corpse. "Your issues concerning invasive technology are— very understandable, after what happened to your brother. I can't honestly say I'd feel any differently in your shoes. That whole nanotech thing was such a debacle…"

A sudden, familiar lump rose in Jovellanos's throat.

"So you see, we understand your objections. But perhaps you could understand that Guilt Trip hails from a whole different arena, there's certainly nothing dangerous—"

"I do know the difference between bio and nano," Jovellanos said mildly.

"Yes, of course…I didn't mean to—"

"It's just that, what happened to Chito—logic doesn't always enter into it when you…"

Chito. Poor, dead, tortured Chito. These haploids don't have the slightest clue the things I've done.

All for you, kiddo.

"Yes. We understand that, of course. And even though your prejudice—again, entirely understandable—even though it's held you back professionally, you've proven to be an exceptional performer. The question is, after all these years, will you continue to be held back?"

"Because we all think that would be a shame," Slijper said.

Jovellanos looked across the table and said nothing for a full ten seconds.

"I think….I think maybe it's time to let go," she said at last.

"So you'd be willing to get your shots and move up to senior 'lawbreaker," Slijper said.

For you, Chito. Onward and upward.

Alice Jovellanos nodded gravely, stoically refusing to let her facial muscles do a whole different kind of dance. "I think I'd be up for that."

 

 

Scheherezade

 

 

Fossil water, cold and gray.

She remembered the local lore, although she was no longer certain how she'd learned it. Less than one percent of the Lakes hailed from run-off or rainfall; she swam through the liquid remains of a glacier that had melted ten thousand years before. It would never refill once human appetites had drained it dry.

For now, there was more than enough to cover her passage.

For days the mermaid had passed through its depths. Visions of a past she couldn't remember rose like bubbles through the dark water and the pain in her side; she'd long since stopped trying to deny them. At night she would rise like some oversize plankter. She couldn't risk coming ashore, but she'd stocked her pack with freeze-dried rations in Chicago; she'd float on the surface and tear into the vacuum-sealed pouches like a sea otter, resubmerging before dawn.

She thought she remembered part of a childhood, spent where the three greatest lakes converged: Sault Sainte Marie, commercial bottleneck into Lake Superior. The city sat on its locks and dams like a troll at a bridge, extorting levies from passing tonnage. It wasn't as populous now as it had been; four hundred kilometers from the edge of the Sovereign Quebec but still too close for some, especially in the wake of the Nunavut Lease. A giant's shadow is a cold place to live at the best of times; a giant grown invincible overnight, nursing grudges from an oppressed childhood, was a complete nonstarter. So people had left.

Lenie Clarke remembered leaving. She'd had a whole lot of first-hand experience with shadows, and giants, and unhappy childhoods. So she, too, had moved away, and kept moving until the Pacific Ocean had stood in her way and said, no farther. She'd settled in Hongcouver and lived day-to-day, year to year, until that moment when the Grid Authority had turned her into something that even the ocean couldn't stop.

Now she was back.

Past midnight. The mermaid cut quietly through a surface squirming with reflected metropolitan light. The walls of a distant lift-lock huddled against the western sky like a low fortress, holding back the elevated waters of Lake Superior—one relic, at least, still resisting depletion. Clarke kept the lock to her left, swam north to the Canadian side. Derelict wharves had been rotting there since before she'd been born. She split her hood and filled her chest with air. She left her fins behind.

Even with night-eyes, there was no one else to be seen.

She walked north to Queen and turned east, her feet following their own innate path beneath the dim streetlights. No one and nothing accosted her. Eastbourne Manor continued to rot undemolished, although someone had swept away the cardboard prefabs in the past twenty years.

At Coulson she stopped, looking north. The house she remembered was still there, just up from the corner. Odd how little it had changed in two decades. Assuming, of course, that those memories hadn't been…acquired… more recently.

She still hadn't seen a single vehicle, or another human being. Farther east, though—on the far side of Riverview—there was no mistaking the line of hovering botflies. She turned back the way she'd come; there too. They'd moved in behind her without a sound.

She turned up Coulson.

 

* * *

 

The door recognized her after all that time. It opened like a mouth, but the inside lights—as if knowing she'd have no need of their services—remained off.

The front hall receded in front of her, barren and unfurnished; its walls glistened strangely, as if freshly lacquered. An archway cut into the left wall: the living room, where Indira Clarke used to sit and do nothing. Past that, the staircase. An empty gray throat leading up into hell.

She wouldn't be going up there just yet. She sighed and turned the corner into the living room.

"Ken," she said.

The living room, too, was an unfurnished shell. The windows had been blacked out, but the faint street light leaking in through the hall was more than enough for rifter vision. Lubin stood in the middle of that stark space; he wore dryback clothes, but his eyes were capped. Just behind him, the room's only furniture: a chair, with a man tied into it. He appeared to be merely unconscious.

"You shouldn't have come," Lubin said.

"Where else was I going to go?"

Lubin shook his head. He seemed suddenly agitated. "It was a stupid move. Easy to anticipate. You must've known that."

"Where else was there?" she said again.

"This isn't even what you think it is. This isn't what you remember."

"I know," said Clarke.

Lubin looked at her, frowning.

"They fucked me over, Ken. I know that. I guess I knew it ever since I started having the—visions, although it took me a while to…"

"Then why did you come here?" Ken Lubin was nowhere to be found. This thing in his place seemed almost human.

"I must have had a real childhood somewhere," Clarke said after a moment. "They can't have faked all of it. This seemed like the best place to start looking."

"And you think they'll let you? You think I can let you?"

She looked at him. His flat, empty eyes looked back from a face in unexpected torment.

"I guess not," she sighed at last. "But you know something, Ken? It was almost worth it. Just— learning this much. Knowing what they did to me…"

Behind Lubin, the man in the chair stirred briefly.

"So what happens now?" Clarke asked. "You kill me for playing Typhoid Mary? They need me as a lab rat?"

"I don't know how much that matters any more. It's all over the place now."

"What kind of plague is this, anyway?" With mild surprise she noted the weakness of her own curiosity. "I mean, it's been almost a year and I'm not dead. I don't even have any symptoms…"

"Takes longer with rifters," Lubin said. "And it's not even a disease, strictly speaking. More of a soil nanobe. Locks up sulfates or something."

"That's it?" Clarke shook her head. "I let all those losers fuck me and it's not even going to kill them?"

"It'll kill most everyone," Lubin said softly. "It's just going to take a while."

"Oh."

She tried to summon some sort of reaction to that news, some gut-level feeling of appropriate scale. She was still trying when Lubin said, "You gave us a good run, anyway. No one can believe you got as far as you did."

"I had help," Clarke said.

"You heard."

"I heard a lot of things," Clarke told him. "I don't know what to make of any of it."

"I do," said the man in the chair.

 

* * *

 

"I'm sorry, Lenie," the man said. "I tried to stop him."

I don't know you. Clarke looked back at Lubin. "He did?"

Lubin nodded.

"But he's still alive."

"I didn't even break anything."

"Wow." She looked back at the bound man. "So who is he?"

"Guy called Achilles Desjardins," Lubin said. "Lawbreaker with the Entropy Patrol. Big fan of yours, actually."

"Yeah? Why's he tied up like that?"

"For the greater good."

She wondered briefly whether to pursue it. Instead she turned to Desjardins, squatted down in front of him. "You actually tried to stop him?"

Desjardins nodded.

"For me?"

"Sort of. Not exactly," he said. "It's—kind of hard to explain." He wriggled against the elastic filaments binding him to the chair; they tightened visibly in response. "Think maybe you could cut me loose?"

She glanced over her shoulder; Lubin stared back in shades of gray. "I don't think so," she said. "Not yet." Probably not ever.

"Come on, you don't need his permission," Desjardins said.

"You can see?" It should have been too dark for mortal eyes to have registered her movements.

"He's a 'lawbreaker," Lubin reminded her.

"So what?"

"Enhanced pattern-matching. He doesn't actually see any better than your average dryback, but he's better at interpolating weak input."

Clarke turned back to Desjardins, leaned close. "You said you knew."

"Yeah," he said.

"Tell me," she whispered.

"Look, this is not the time. Your friend is seriously unbalanced, and in case you haven't figured it out yet we are both—"

"Actually," Clarke said, "I don't think Ken's himself today. Or we'd both be dead already."

Desjardins shook his head and swallowed.

"Okay, then," Clarke said. "Do you know the story of Scheherezade? Do you remember why she told her stories?"

"Oh, Jesus," Desjardins said weakly.

The mermaid smiled. "Tell us a story, Achilles…"

 

 

Adaptive Shatter

 

 

Lubin listened while Desjardins laid it out. The 'lawbreaker had obviously been reading up since their last encounter.

"The first mutations must have been really simple," he was saying. "The gels were trying to spread ßehemoth, and this Lenie Clarke variable had been tagged as a carrier in some personnel file. So any bug that even had your name in its source would've had an edge, at least to start with—the gels would think it was important information so they'd let it pass. And even when they caught on that'd just pressure the wildlife to come up with something new, and wildlife's way faster than meat. We're like ice ages and continental drift to them; we drive their evolution but we're slow. They've got all the time they need to come up with countermeasures.

"So now a bunch of them have gone symbiotic, some kind of —Lenie Clarke interdiction network. In exchange for protection from the gels. It's like, like being a mackeral with a bunch of sharks for bodyguards, it's a huge competitive edge. So everyone's jumping on the bandwagon."

He looked through the darkness at Clarke. "You really catalyzed something amazing, you know. Group selection's rare enough, but you actually inspired a bunch of separate life-forms to make—well, a colonial superorganism, really. Individuals acting as body parts. Some of them don't do anything but shuttle messages around, like—living neurotransmitters, I guess. Whole lineages evolved just to handle conversation with humans. That's why nobody could track the fucker down—we were all looking for Turing apps and neural net code and there wasn't any. It was all genetic. Nobody made the connection."

He fell silent.

"No." Clarke shook her head. "That doesn't explain anything." She'd grown far too still during his recitation.

"It explains everything," Desjardins said. "It—"

"So I'm just some kind of password, is that it?" She leaned in close. "Just a, a key to get through those fucking head cheeses. What about Yankton, you fucker? What about that Apocalypse Mermaid shit, and all those people with their fake eyecaps trying to suck me dry every time I turn around? Where'd they come from?"

"S-same thing," Desjardins stammered. "Anemone was just spreading the meme any way it could."

"Not good enough. Say something else."

"But I don't—"

"Say something else."

"It happens all the time, for Chrissakes! People strap bombs onto their backs or they release sarin in the passenger lounge or they go to school one day and just start shooting and they know they're gonna die, but it's worth it, you know? As long as they get the bastards who victimized them."

She laughed: a staccato bark, the sound of something snapping. "That's what I am in all this? A victim?"

Desjardins shook his head. "They're the victims. You're just the gun they used to fight back with."

She glared down at him. He looked back, helpless.

She hit him in the face.

Desjardins toppled backward; the back of his head hit the floor with a crack. He lay there, tied to the overturned chair, moaning.

She turned. Lubin was blocking her exit.

She faced him for a few seconds, unmoving. "If you're going to kill me," she said at last, "just do it. Either that or get out of my way."

He considered a moment. He stepped aside. Lenie Clarke brushed past him and went upstairs.

 

* * *

 

She really had spent her childhood here, of course. The sets were real enough; it was only the supporting roles that had been imaginary. Lubin knew exactly where she was going.

He found her in the undarkness of her old bedroom. It had been stripped and sprayed, like the rest of the house. Clarke turned at his entrance, looked around tiredly at the bare walls: "So is it abandoned? On the market?"

"We did this before you arrived," he said. "Just in case. To simplify clean-up."

"Ah. Well, it doesn't matter. Still seems like yesterday, in fact." She aimed her capped eyes at one wall. "That's where my bed was. That was where—Dad—used to play bedtime stories for me. Foreplay, I guess you'd call it. And there's the air duct—" gesturing at a grille set into the baseboard—"that connects right down to the living room. I could hear Mom playing with her favorite shows. I always thought those shows were really stupid, but looking back maybe she didn't like them much either. They were just alibis."

"It didn't happen," Lubin reminded her. "None of it."

"I know that, Ken. I get the point." She took a breath. "And you know, right now I think I'd give anything if it had."

Lubin blinked, surprised. "What?"

She turned to face him. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be—to be haunted by happiness?" She managed a bitter laugh. "All those months I kept denying it, chalking it up to stroke and hallucination because shit, Ken, I couldn't have had a happy childhood. My parents couldn't be anything but monsters, you see? The monsters made me what I am. They're the only reason I survived all the shit that came later, they're the only thing that kept me going. I was not gonna let those stumpfucks win. Everything that drove me, every time I didn't quit, every time I beat the odds, it was a slap in their big smug all-powerful monster faces. Everything I ever did I did against them. Everything I am is against them. And now you stand there and tell me the monsters never even existed…"

Her eyes were hard, empty spots of rage. She glared up at him, her shoulders shaking. But finally she turned away, and when she spoke again her voice came out soft and broken.

"They do exist though, Ken. Honest-to-God flesh-and-blood monsters, the old fashioned kind. They hide from the daylight and they sneak out of the swamps at night and they go on rampages just like you'd expect. They kill and maim anyone they can get their hands on …" A long, shuddering breath. "And all these monsters could ever say in their own defense is it happened to them first, the world fucked them long before they started fucking it back, and if anyone out there wasn't guilty, well, they hadn't stopped all the others who were, right? So everybody's got it coming. But the monsters can't plead self-defense, they can't even plead righteous revenge. Nothing happened to them."

"Something happened," Lubin said. "Even if your parents didn't do it."

She didn't speak for a while. Then: "I wonder what he was like, really."

"From what I've heard," Lubin said, "he was just—a typical dad."

"Do you know where he is? Where they are?"

"They died twelve years ago. Tularemia."

"Of course." A soft laugh. "I guess that was one of my qualifications, right? No loose ends."

He stepped around her, watched her face come into view.

It was wet. Lubin paused, taken aback. He'd never known Lenie Clarke to cry before.

Her capped eyes met his; a corner of her mouth twitched in something like a rueful grin. "At least, if you were right about ßehemoth, the real culprits are in for it along with everyone else." She shook her head. "It's the weirdest thing I've ever heard. I'm some killer asteroid in the sky, and the dinosaurs are actually cheering for me."

"Just the little ones."

She looked at him. "Ken…I think maybe I've destroyed the world."

"It wasn't you."

"Right. Anemone. I was just the mule for a—an Artificial Stupidity, I guess you'd call it." She shook her head. "If you believe that guy downstairs."

"It's an old story," Lubin reflected. "Body snatchers. Things that get inside you and make you do things you'd never do, given the—"

He stopped. Clarke was watching him with a strange expression.

"Like your conditioned reflex ," she said quietly. "Your—security breaches…"

He swallowed.

"Does it ever haunt you, Ken? All the people you've killed?"

"There's—an antidote," he admitted. "Sort of a chaser for Guilt Trip. Makes things easier to live with."

"Absolution," she whispered.

"You've heard of it?" In fact, he'd never found it necessary.

"Saw some graffiti down in the Dust Belt," Clarke said. "They were trying to wash it off, but there must've been something in the ink…"

She stepped toward the hallway. Lubin turned to follow. Faint machine sounds and the soft hissing of fluids drifted in from outdoors.

"What's going on out there, Ken?"

"Decontamination. We evacuated the area before you arrived."

"Gonna fry the neighborhood?" Another step. Clarke was in the doorway.

"No. We know your route. ßehemoth hasn't had a chance to spread from there even if you left any behind."

"That's not likely, I take it."

"You're not bleeding. You didn't piss or shit anywhere since you came ashore."

She was in the hall, at the top of the stairs. Lubin moved to her side.

"You're just being extra careful," Clarke said.

"That's right."

"It's kind of pointless though, isn't it?"

"What?"

She turned to face him. "I've crossed a continent, Ken. I was on the Strip for weeks. I hung out in the Belt. I just spent a week swimming through the drinking water for half a billion people. I bled and fucked and shat and pissed more times than you can count, in oceans and toilets and half the ditches in between. Maybe you did too, although I'd guess they've cleaned you up since then. So really, what's the point?"

He shrugged. "It's all we can do. Watch for brush fires, hope to put them out before they get too big."

"And keep me from starting new ones."

He nodded.

"You can't sterilize an ocean," she said. "You can't sterilize a whole continent."

Maybe we can, he thought.

The sounds of decontamination were louder here, but not much. Even the occasional voice was hushed. Almost as if the neighborhood was still infested with innocents, as though the crews feared sleeping citizens who could wake at any moment and catch them red-handed…

"You never answered me before, Ken." Lenie Clarke took a step down the stairs. "About whether you were going to kill me."

She's not going to run, he told himself. You know her. She's already taken her best shot, she's not—

You don't have to—

"Well. I guess we'll find out," she said. And started calmly down the stairs.

"Lenie."

She didn't look back. He followed her down. Surely she didn't think she could outrun him—surely she didn't think—

"You know I can't let you leave," he said behind her.

Of course she knows. You know what she's doing.

She was at the foot of the stairs. The open door gaped five meters in front of her.

Something deformed suddenly in Lubin's gut. If almost seemed like Guilt Trip, but—

She was almost to the door. Something with halogen eyes was spraying the sidewalk beyond.

Lubin moved without thinking. In an instant he'd blocked the doorway; in another he'd closed and locked the door itself, plunging the house into darkness even by rifter standards.

"Hey," Desjardins complained from the living room.

A few photons sneaked around the edges of the door. Lenie Clarke was a vague silhouette by that feeble light. Lubin felt his fists clenching, unclenching; no matter how he tried he couldn't make them stop.

"Listen," he managed to say, "I really don't have any choice."

"I know, Ken," she said softly. "It's okay."

"I don't," he said again, almost whimpering.

"Sure you do," boomed a strange voice in his ear.

 

* * *

 

What was—

"Alice?" came Desjardins's voice from around the corner.

"You're a free agent, Kenny boy, " the voice said. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to. Take my word for it."

Lubin tapped the bead in his ear. "Identify yourself."

"Alice Jovellanos, senior 'lawbreaker, Sudbury franchise. At your service."

"No shit," drifted from the living room.

Lubin tapped his bead again: "We've got a breach on communications, someone going by Alice Jovellanos—"

"They already know, big man. They were the ones who patched me through in the first place. I gave them the rest of the night off."

Lenie Clarke stepped back from Lubin, turned toward the darkened living room. "What—"

"This is a restricted channel," Lubin said. "Get off."

"Fuck that. I outrank you."

"I gather you haven't been on the job very long."

"Long enough. Killjoy, is Lenie Clarke there?"

"Yeah," Desjardins said. "Alice, what—"

"She got a watch? I've got Lubin's channel and your inlays—boy, I can't wait until they slide a set of those into my head—but nothing on Lenie—"

"Lenie," Desjardins said, "hold your watch away from your body."

"Don't have one," the dark shape said.

"Too bad," Jovellanos said. "Lubin, I wasn't kidding. You're a free man."

"I don't believe you," Lubin said.

"Killjoy's free. Why not you as well?"

"We never met. No opportunity." But he was back beneath the waves in Lake Michigan, not killing Lenie Clarke. He was in debriefing afterward, pretending he'd never had the chance.

"It's an infection," Jovellanos said. "Real subversive. We made sure it was airborne, packed it inside an encephalitis jacket although you'll be relieved to know the contents aren't quite so lethal. It's spreading through CSIRA even as we speak. "

All he had to do was open the door. Even if this Jovellanos wasn't lying about ordering the crew to stand down, they wouldn't have had time to pack up yet. Someone could just tap an icon and Alice Jovellanos would be jammed. Another, she'd be traced. The situation wasn't even close to out of control.

He could afford a few moments…

"The Trip's been weakening in you ever since you shared air with Killjoy there," Jovellanos was saying. "You're calling your own shots now, Ken. Kind of changes things, doesn't it?"

"Alice, are you completely—" Desjardins sounded almost in tears. "That's the only leash he ever had."

"Actually, that's not true. Ken Lubin's one of the most moral men you could ever meet."

"For God's sake, Alice—I'm fucking tied to a chair with my face caved in—"

"Trust me. I'm looking at his medical records right now. No serotonin or tryptophan deprivation, no TPH polymorphisms. He may not be a fun date, but he's no impulse-killer. Which is not to say that you don't have a few issues, Ken. Am I right?"

"How did you—" but of course she'd be able to access his files, Lubin realized. It was just that any normal 'lawbreaker wouldn't be able to justify such an intrusion to Guilt Trip, not in the course of a normal assignment.

She actually did it somehow. She freed me…

He felt like throwing up.

"What was it like all those years, Ken?" Jovellanos purred in his ear. "Knowing she'd got away with it? All those nifty childhood experiences that made you so right for the job—of course you thought about revenge. You spent your whole life fantasizing about revenge, didn't you? Anyone would have."

What am I going to do?

"You say it's an infection," he said, trying to deflect her.

"But you never once acted on it, did you Ken? Because you're a moral man, and you knew that would be wrong."

"How does it work?" Don't respond. Don't let her play you. Keep on target.

"And when the slip-ups started, those were just—mistakes, right? Inadvertent little breaches that had to be sealed. You killed then, of course, but there wasn't any choice. You always played by the rules. And it wasn't your fault, was it? The Trip made you do it."

"Answer me." No, no… control. Relax.

Don't let her hear it…

"Only it started happening so often, and people had to wonder if you hadn't found some way to have your cake and eat it, too. That's why they sent you someplace where there weren't any security issues or mission priorities that could set you off. They didn't want to give you a choice, so they sent you someplace you wouldn't have an excuse."

His respiration rate was far too high. He concentrated on bringing it down. A few steps away, Clarke's silhouette seemed dangerously attentive.

"You're still a moral man, Ken." Jovellanos said. "You follow the rules. You won't kill unless you don't have a choice. I'm telling you, you've got a choice."

"Your infection," he grated. "What does it do?"

"Liberates slaves."

Bullshit answer. But at least she was out of his head.

"How?" he pressed.

"Complexes Guilt Trip into an inactive form that binds to the Minksy receptors. Doesn't affect anyone who isn't already Tripped."

"What about the side-effects?" he said.

"Side effects?"

"Baseline guilt, for example," Lubin said.

Desjardins moaned. "Oh, shit. Of course. Of course."

"What's going on?" Clarke said. "What are you talking about?"

Lubin almost laughed aloud. Regular, garden variety guilt. Plain old conscience. How would they ever get into play, now that their receptor sites had been jammed? Jovellanos and her buddies had been so busy tweaking the synthetics that they'd forgotten about chemicals that been there for aeons.

Except they hadn't forgotten. They'd known exactly what they were doing. Lubin was sure of it.

All hail the Entropy Patrol. The power to shut down cities and governments, the power to save a million people here or kill a million somewhere else, the power to keep everything going or to tear it all to shreds overnight—

He turned to Clarke. "Your fan club's been throwing off the shackles of oppression," he said. "They're free now. Not slaves to Guilt Trip, not slaves to guilt. Untouchable by conscience in any form."

He raised a hand in the darkness, a bitter toast: "Congratulations, Dr. Jovellanos. There's only a few thousand people with their hands on all the world's kill switches, and you've turned them all into clinical sociopaths."

 

* * *

 

"Believe me," Jovellanos said. "You'll hardly notice the difference."

Desjardins was noticing, though. "Shit. Shit. I wouldn't even be here, I mean—I just picked up and left. I threw everything away, didn't care about the world going to pieces, I just—for one person. Just because I wanted to."

"We psychos are notorious for bad impulse control," Clarke said, approaching him. "Ken, how do you spring these bindings?"

Lubin glowered at her back. Doesn't she get it?

"Come on, Ken. The situation's contained. None of us is going anywhere for the time being, and any rules we were playing by before seem to have pretty much gone out the window. Maybe we could start working together for a change."

He hesitated. Nothing she said raised any kind of alarm in his gut. Nothing urged him into action, no other presence tried to take control of his motor nerves. Almost experimentally, he crossed into the living room and depolarized the tanglethreads. They slipped to the floor like overcooked pasta.

For good measure, he pulled a lightstick from his pocket and struck it; light flared in the gutted room. Desjardins blinked over shrinking pupils and gingerly explored the bruise on his cheek.

"Conscience is overrated anyway," Jovellanos said all around them.

"Give it a rest, Alice," Desjardins said, rubbing his wrists.

"I'm serious. Think about it: not everyone even has a conscience, and the people that do are invariably exploited by the ones that don't. Conscience is—irrational, when you get right down to it."

"You are so full of shit."

"Sociopathy doesn't make you a killer. It just means you aren't restrained from being one if the situation calls for it. Hey, Killjoy, you could think of it as a kind of liberation. "

The 'lawbreaker snorted.

"Come on, Kill. I'm right, you know there's at least a chance I'm right."

"What I know is that the most I can hope for is to be out of a job right up until the world ends. If I'm not dead ten minutes from now."

"You know," Jovellanos said, "I may even be able to do something about that."

Desjardins said nothing.

"What's that, Killjoy? Suddenly you're not telling me to fuck off?"

"Keep talking," he said.

She did. Lubin pulled the bead out of his ear and stood up; the lightstick threw his shadow huge and ominous across the room. Lenie Clarke sat with her back propped against the far wall; Lubin's silhouette swallowed her whole.

I could kill her in an instant, he thought, and marveled at how absurd the thought seemed.

She looked up as he approached. "I hate it here," she said softly.

"I know." He leaned his back against the wall, slid down at her side.

"This isn't home," she continued. "There's only one place that was ever home."

Three thousand meters below the surface of the Pacific. A beautiful dark universe filled with monsters and wonders that didn't even exist any more.

"What is home, really?"

It was Desjardins who had spoken. Lubin looked back at him.

"Alice's been doing a little snooping, down avenues a bit more—political than I ever really bothered with." Desjardins tapped the side of his head. "She came up with some interesting shipping news, and it raises the question: what's home? Where your heart is, or where your parents are?"

Lubin looked at Lenie Clarke. She looked back. Neither spoke.

"Ah well. Doesn't really matter," Desjardins said. "Turns out you may be able to go back either way."

 

 

A Niche

 

 

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge was a shitty place to raise one's kids, Patricia Rowan reflected.

Not that there'd been many options, of course. In point of fact there had been three: build an onshore refuge and trust conventional quarantine technology; escape into high orbit; or withdraw behind the same cold, heavy barrier that had shielded the earth for four billion years before N'AmPac had punched a hole in the global condom.

They'd done the analyses from every angle. The off-world option was least cost-effective and most vulnerable to acts of groundside retribution: orbital stations weren't exactly inconspicuous targets, and it was a fair bet that at least some of those left behind would be ungracious enough to lob a vindictive nuke or two up the well. And if groundside quarantine tech had been up to the job, they wouldn't have been in this situation in the first place; that option must have been on the table only to accommodate a bureaucratic obsession with completist detail. Or maybe as some kind of sick joke.

There had been a fourth option—they could have stayed behind and faced ßehemoth with the rest of the world. They'd undergone the necessary retrofits, after all. Even if they'd stayed on shore there would have been none of the—disintegration—that was in store for everyone else. Not for them the lost hair and fingernails, the oozing sores, the limbs coming apart at the joints. No blindness, no ulcers. No short-circuit seizures as insulation frayed from nervous circuitry. No organs reduced to mush. None of the thousand opportunistic diseases usually listed as proximate cause-of-death. They could have stayed, and watched it happen to everyone else, and synthesized their food from raw elements once the biosphere itself was lost.

That option hadn't received a whole lot of discussion, though.

We're not even running from ßehemoth. We're running from our own citizens.

All of Atlantis knew that, even if nobody talked about it. They'd seen the mobs from their penthouses, seen civil unrest graphed against time on exponential curves. ßehemoth, coupled with the Clarke meme: a big enough threat, a sufficiently compelling role-model, and revolution was suddenly a lot closer than the usual three meals away.

We were lucky to get out in time, Rowan reflected.

But they had, and here they were—several hundred corpses, essential support personnel, families and assorted hangers-on—termites dug in three kilometers down in a jumbled cluster of titanium/fullerene spheres, safely distant from the world outside, invisible to all but those with the very best technological eyes, the very best intel. It was an acceptable risk: most of those people were already down here.

There was lots of headroom. There were two gymnasiums, half a dozen greenhouses and gardens thoughtfully distributed with an eye to redundancy in the unlikely event of a local implosion. Vats of acephalic organcloners with elongate telomeres. Three power plants that fed from a small geothermal vent—certified ßehemoth-free, of course—a nice safe twelve hundred meters on the far side of an interpositioned ridge. And somewhere out on that basalt escarpment lay a veritable junkyard of unassembled components, fragments of libraries and playgrounds and community centers, all squirreled away against some future less constrained by the need for speedy cowardice. In the meantime, Rowan had heard many residents of Atlantis complain about crowding.

She felt somewhat less imposed upon than most. She'd seen the specs on the rifter stations.

It was after midnight. The corridor lights were dimmed in some pale parody of a sunlit existence; most of the inhabitants, accepting the facade, had withdrawn into their apartments. Rowan's own husband and children were asleep. For some reason, though, she couldn't bring herself to go along with the pretense. What was the point? Natural sleep cycles wander all over the clock without a photoperiod to calibrate the hypothalamus. There was no sunlight here. They would never see sunlight again. Let it go, let it go.

But this is temporary, they say. Something will beat ßehemoth, or somehow we'll learn to live with it. This deep dark pit is only a refuge, not a destiny. We'll be back, we'll be back, we'll be back…

Sure.

Sometimes, if she tried very hard, she could almost blind herself to the strings and teetering struts that kept those hopeful dreams from collapsing. Usually it was too much trouble, and she'd wander for hours along the empty twilit corridors in defiance of her own nostalgia. As she wandered now.

Sometimes she passed windows, and paused. Something else Atlantis had that the rifters hadn't: clear parabolic blisters shaped to actually draw strength from the crushing pressure. The view was nothing to write home about, of course. A lozenge of gray bedrock, reflecting dim light from the viewport. Occasional blinking stars, beacons endlessly flashing here there be power lines or construction stockpile. Very rarely, a rattail or some other unremarkable creature. No monsters. Nothing remotely like the ravenous glowing predators that had once plagued the rifters at Beebe Station.

Mostly just solid, unrelieved blackness.

Sometimes Rowan would stare into that sightless void and lose track of time. Once or twice, she even thought she'd glimpsed something looking back. Her imagination, perhaps. Her own reflection, thrown back from some unexpected curve in the teardrop perspex.

Maybe even her conscience. She could always hope.

A nexus ahead, a dim space where several corridors converged like the arms of a starfish. A choice to be made. Turning left would keep her on the perimeter. All other roads led inward—to control centers, to lounges, to hollow ganglia where people accumulated even when the lights were down. Patricia Rowan had no wish for company. She stepped left.

And stopped.

An apparition stood before her in the corridor, a dark wraith with empty eyes. Seawater trickled down its skin, left small puddled footprints on the floor behind. The figure was female; she was as black as an ocean.

The wraith reached up and split her face open. "Hi, Mom," she said.

"Lenie Clarke." Rowan breathed the words.

"You left the door unlocked," Clarke said. "I let myself in. Hope you don't mind."

* * *

 

Call for help, Rowan thought. She didn't move.

Clarke glanced around the corridor. "Nice place. Very spacious." A cold, empty look at Rowan. "You got a great deal on this. You should've seen the dump we were in."

Call for help, she's alone, she's—

Don't be an idiot. She didn't get into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean by herself.

"How did you find us?" Rowan said, and was relieved to hear dispassion in her voice.

"Are you kidding? You have any idea how many resources you people had to allocate to set this place up? And on such a tight schedule, too. Did you really think you'd be able to cover your tracks?"

"Most of them," Rowan admitted. "You'd have to be a 'lawbreaker to—"

Desjardins. But we canceled his access…

"Yeah, those crazy 'lawbreakers." Clarke shook her head. "You know, they're not quite so on-board as they used to be. We should talk about that some time."

Rowan kept her voice level. "What do you want?"

Clarke slapped her forehead in feigned epiphany. "Of course! I bet you're worried about  ßehemoth, aren't you? What a waste, spending all those billions on this cozy little quarantine and all of a sudden here's Patient Zero taking a shit on the upholstery—"

"What do you want?"

Clarke stepped forward. Rowan didn't budge.

"I want to talk to my mother," the rifter said softly.

"Your mother's dead."

"Well, that depends on your definition." Clarke steepled her fingers, considering. "Genetically, yes. My mother's dead. But someone made me, I think. Remade me. Someone took what I had and replaced it with something else." Her voice hardened. "Somebody twisted me around and built me to their own specs, and fucked up pretty much every step of the way, and after all that's what parents do. Isn't it?"

Yes. Yes it is.

"So anyway," Clarke continued, "I've been on this, well, sort of a pilgrimage I guess you'd call it. I've been looking for some answers from the person that really abused me all those years. I figured she'd have to be some kind of monster to do that. Big and mean and scary. But you're not. You're hiding, Mom. The world's going to hell and here you are, cringing and cowering and pissing your pants while the rest of us try and deal with the mess you made."

"Don't you dare," Rowan snapped. "You arrogant pipsqueak, don't you fucking dare."

Clarke looked back with the faintest trace of a smile on her lip.

"You want to know who made the mess?" Rowan asked. "We tried to contain ßehemoth. We did everything possible, we tried to wipe it off the face of the earth before it ever got out, and who was fighting us every step of the way? Who let it out, Clarke? Who was spreading apocalypse every time she turned around, who was so hell-bent on her self-righteous crusade she didn't care who suffered? I'm not the angel of death. You are. I tried to save the world."

"By killing me. By killing my friends."

"Your friends? Your friends?" Rowan fought a giddy urge to laugh. "You blind, stupid little bitch! We took millions in collateral damage, do you understand? The refugees, the firestorms—I can't begin to count the people we killed to save the world from you. Did you even stop to think about the people who helped you? Do you know how many innocent fools got caught up in the myth, were falling over themselves to take a bullet for the great Lenie Clarke, and you know, some of them got their wish. And the rest—well, they're just as royally fucked by your grand crusade as anyone else." She sucked in breath through clenched teeth. "And you won, Clarke, are you happy? You won. We did everything we could do to stop you, and somehow it still wasn't enough, and now we've got our families to think of. We can't save the world, but at least we can save our own flesh and blood. And if you try to stop me from even doing that, I swear I'll kill you with my bare hands."

Her eyes were stinging. Her face was wet. She didn't care.

The rifter watched expressionlessly for a while. "You're welcome to it," she said at last.

"Welcome—"

"To your kids. Your life, this little hideyhole you've burrowed out for yourselves. Keep it. You're safe. I'm not even a vector any more."

"What, don't you want your revenge? Isn't that what all this is about? Don't you want to drag us back to the surface kicking and screaming to face the music?"

Clarke actually smiled a bit at that. "No need. You've already got a full orchestra down here." She shrugged. "You know, I owe you, in a way. If it hadn't been for you, I'd be just another drone in nine billion. Then you and your cronies came along and turned me into something that changed the world." She smiled again, a faint cold whisper of amusement. "Proud of me?"

Rowan ignored the jibe. "So why are you here?"

"Just a messenger," Clarke said, "telling you not to worry. You wanna stay here, that's just fine."

"And?"

"And don't ever try to come back."

Rowan shook her head. "Going back was never part of the plan. You could've saved yourself the trip."

"Your plans'll change the moment the situation does," the rifter said. "We're fighting for our lives up there, Rowan. We'd've stood a better chance if you c&c types hadn't got in and subverted the algorithm; you may have killed us already. But we could win. They say Anemone's a hellaciously powerful computing system, if we could only tame it."

"Right. Anemone." Rowan wiped her face. "You know, I'm still not convinced it even exists. Sounds too much like pseudomystical wish-fulfillment to me. Like Gaia. Or The Force."

Clarke shrugged. "If you say so."

She's never even heard of them, Rowan thought. Her past is irrelevant, her future's nonexistent, her present is hell on earth.

"And how do you expect a gang of electronic wildlife to get your biosphere back?" she said.

"Not my department." That shrug again. "But they say we're its—natural environment, somehow. It depends on us for survival. Maybe, if we can make it realize that, it'll protect us."

Only if it's smarter than we were. Rowan managed a grim smile. "Praise be to Anemone. Will you be erecting shrines?"

"You'll never know," Clarke said. "Because there's no room for you up there if we win."

"You won't win," Rowan said.

"Then there won't be room for us either. Doesn't change your situation any."

Sure it does. She knows where we are. Others must know. Even if she leaves us alone, how many others might want their piece of retribution?

I know I would.

Rowan stared at the woman in front of her. On the outside, Lenie Clarke was small. A skinny little girl. Nowhere near as big and mean and scary as she was inside.

"Who are you speaking for, Ms. Clarke? Are you just signing off on us personally, or are you presuming to speak for the whole world?"

"I'm speaking for the union," said the mermaid.

"The union."

"The ones watching you. Me, and Ken, and everyone else walking around with tubes in their chests after your great experiment went south. The union. It's an old TwenCen word. Thought you might recognize it."

Rowan shook her head. Even now, I underestimate her.

"So you're just going to—stand guard out there?"

Clarke nodded.

"To make sure the old dangerous infection doesn't get out into the world again?"

A smile. A tilt of the head, saluting the metaphor.

"How long? Six months? Ten years?"

"As long as it takes. Don't worry, we can manage. We'll do it in shifts."

"Shifts."

"You made a lot of us, Pat. Maybe you lost count. And we've got a pretty narrow-band skill set, there aren't a whole lot of other things for us to do anyway."

"I'm—sorry," Rowan blurted out.

"Don't be." Lenie Clarke turned to the viewport and leaned forward. Her eyes shone, blank but not empty. One hand reached up and touched the darkness.

"We were born to this place," she said.