Epilog: Sleeping by firelight

 

The soft, muffled sounds filtering from the office are not English. They're barely even human. Martin Perreault follows them across the threshold to whatever remains of his wife.

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She hasn't allowed him in here for months. At first she was merely impatient at his presence, accusing him of all manner of trivial distraction; later she would shout at every intrusion, push him away with hands and words and even—occasionally—thrown objects. "Can't you see it all coming apart?" she raged then. "Can't you see past your own lousy spectrum? Can't you see she needs help?"

Finally—after the people had arrived at the door with their glittering ConTacs and their quiet relentless words and that small, softy-humming pacification 'fly hovering at their shoulders, just in case—finally Sou Hon lost even the pretence of official sanction. She never saw them coming; the dart was in her neck before she'd even turned in her chair. When she woke again her office was half-gutted: every motor nerve torn out, every voice-channel squelched at source. Every breath of influence she'd ever had, lost.

It was like being paralyzed from the neck down, she said. She blamed him. He'd let them in. He hadn't protected her. He had collaborated.

Martin didn't argue. It was all true.

What scared him most at that point was not the accusations and the recriminations, but the flat and affectless voice in which Sou-Hon made them. The woman who had screamed at him had somehow been submerged; the thing that spoke in her place might have been made of liquid nitrogen. It withdrew to what remained of its office, and it said in matter-of-fact tones that it would kill Martin Perreault if he ever went in there again, and it calmly closed the door in his face.

No charges have been pressed. The people with the glittering eyes spoke understandingly of Sou-Hon's recent trauma, of her current distraught and muddled state. She had been used by others, they said. Many had been. She was as much victim as offender. No need to punish the poor woman—better that she should get help, now that she was no longer a danger to others.

Martin Perreault doesn't know if he believes that. Mercy is not something he's come to expect from such people. He thinks it more likely that the rumors are true, that the resources simply don't exist to prosecute Sou-Hon and her fellow criminals. She is legion.

Perhaps that is also why the people with the glittering eyes settled for mere paralysis; they could have blinded and deafened Martin's wife as well, but cutting those nerves would have taken fifteen minutes instead of five. Perhaps they can't spare even that much time; perhaps there are so many subversives that the system has to run as fast as it can to keep them merely hamstrung.

Besides, Sou-Hon Perreault can no longer affect events in the real world. What harm can she do by watching?

Now she's not even doing that. She's curled up the floor, making soft mewing noises. Her displaced headset lies halfway across the room. She doesn't seem aware that she's lost it. She doesn't seem aware of Martin's presence.

He strokes her face, murmurs her name, flinches in anticipation of violence or sudden disdain. None comes. She doesn't react at all. He kneels, slips his arms beneath her legs and around her shoulders; she barely seems to weigh anything. She shifts in his arms as he lifts, buries her face in his chest. Still she doesn't speak.

After he tucks her into bed he returns to her office. Sou-Hon's discarded headset spills a diffuse tangle of shifting light across the carpet. Sliding the hardware onto his own skull, he comes face to face with a satcam view of western N'Am. It seems strangely opaque; the hemisphere's in darkness, none of the usual enhancements brightening the view. City clusters sparkle up from SoCal and the Queen Charlottes like galactic cores; the Midwest is a diffuse glow of underlit clouds. The Dust Belt intrudes from the east like a dark tumor. All features crude and raw, a naked-eye view unbolstered by radar or infrared; not like Sou-Hon at all, to restrict her sensory window this way. The only tactical enhancements are some sort of timer running off to one side and a bright overlay a few hundred kilometers east of the Pacific, a sparkling orange line paralleling the coast from SoCal up to BC. Even that lacks the precise delineation of most computer graphics—the line seems fuzzy, even broken in places. Martin zooms on the view, zooms again. Resolution and brightness increase: the orange line swells and sparkles and writhes—

It is not an overlay.

+56h14m23s the timer says, incrementing before his eyes.

It doesn't make any sense; how could any fire could burn so brightly, for so long? Surely the flames have consumed everything by now, reduced all combustibles to ash and everything else to slag. Yet somehow it keeps going, as if in defiance of physics itself.

There: along the eastern boundary, a patch of relative darkness where the flames seem to be burning out. Martin watches it spread with a kind of dumb relief, until the swollen black torus of a heavy lifter passes between earth and sky. To the satcam it looks like the shadow of Mercury crossing a sunspot, but even at this range there's no mistaking the bright trail it spreads behind it. The dying flames leap high in its wake, forcibly resurrected.

They're not letting it die, he realizes. The fire burns on endless life-support, from Oakland to Kitimat, and Martin Perreault knows with sudden dull certainty that a course has been set for it to follow.

East.

He leaves the office for a few moments, returning with a toolbox from his hobby room. He unlatches every access panel he can, smashes open the rest. He calmly dismembers each and every piece of equipment remaining in the room, cutting fiberop, pouring acid into computational organics, smashing crystals with a pneumatic hammer. Then he pads down the hall to the bedroom. Sou Hon is asleep at last, curled into a fetal ball. He cocoons her from behind, wrapping her flesh in his, and stares off into darkness while the real world falls asleep around him.