The Pacific Ocean stood on her back. She ignored it.
It crushed the bodies of her friends. She forgot them.
It drank the light, blinding even her miraculous eyes. It dared her to give in, to use her headlamp like some crippled dryback.
She kept going, in darkness.
Eventually the sea floor tilted into a great escarpment, leading into light. The bottom changed. Mud disappeared under viscous clumps of half-digested petroleum: a century of oil spills, a great global rug to sweep them beneath. Generations of sunken barges and fishing trawlers haunted the bottom, each a corpse and crypt and epitaph unto itself. She explored the first one she found, slid through shattered windowpanes and upended corridors, and remembered, vaguely, that fish were supposed to congregate in such places.
A long time ago. Now there were only worms, and suffocating bivalves, and a woman turned amphibious by some abstract convergence of technology and economics.
She kept going.
It was growing almost bright enough to see without eyecaps. The bottom twitched with sluggish eutrophiles, creatures so black with hemoglobin they could squeeze oxygen from the rocks themselves. She flashed her headlamp at them, briefly: they shone crimson in the unexpected light.
She kept going.
Sometimes, now, the water was so murky she could barely see her own hands in front of her. The slimy rocks passing beneath took on ominous shapes, grasping hands, twisted limbs, hollow death's heads with things squirming in their eyes. Sometimes the slime assumed an almost fleshy appearance.
By the time she felt the tug of the surf, the bottom was completely covered in bodies. They, too, seemed to span generations. Some were little more than symmetrical patches of algae. Others were fresh enough to bloat, obscenely buoyant, straining against the detritus holding them down.
But it wasn't the bodies that really bothered her. What bothered her was the light. Even filtered through centuries of suspended effluvium, there seemed far too much of it.
The ocean pushed her up, pulled her down, with a rhythm both heard and felt. A dead gull spun past in the current, tangled in monofilament. The universe was roaring.
For one brief moment, the water disappeared in front of her. For the first time in a year she saw the sky. Then a great wet hand slapped the back of her head, put her under again.
She stopped swimming, uncertain what to do next. But the decision wasn't hers anyway. The waves, marching endlessly shoreward in gray, seething rows, pushed her the rest of the way.
* * *
She lay gasping on her belly, water draining from the machinery in her chest: gills shutting down, guts and airways inflating, fifty million years of vertebrate evolution jammed into thirty seconds with a little help from the biotech industry. Her stomach clenched against its own chronic emptiness. Starvation had become a friend, so faithful she could scarcely imagine its absence. She pulled the fins from her feet, rose, staggered as gravity reasserted itself. A shaky step forward.
The hazy outlines of guard towers leaned against the eastern horizon, a gap-toothed line of broken spires. Fat tick-like shapes hovered above them, enormous by inference: lifters, tending the remains of a border than had always kept refugees and citizens discreetly segregated. There were no refugees here. There were no citizens. There was only a humanoid accretion of mud and oil with machinery at its heart, an ominous mermaid dragging itself back from the abyss. Undiscardable.
And all this endless chaos—the shattered landscape, the bodies smashed and sucked into the ocean, the devastation reaching God knew how far in every direction—it was all just collateral. The hammer, she knew, had been aimed at her.
It made her smile.
Fables of the Reconstruction,
Great glittering skyscrapers, shaking themselves like wet dogs. Downpours of shattered glass from fifty floors of windowpanes. Streets turned into killing floors; thousands slickly dismembered in the space of seconds. And then, when the quake was over, the scavenger hunt: a search for jigsaws of flesh and blood with too many missing pieces. Their numbers grew logistically over time.
Somewhere between the wreckage and the flies and the piles of eyeless bodies, the soul of Sou-Hon Perreault woke up and screamed.
It wasn't supposed to happen that way. It wasn't supposed to happen at all; the catalysers kept all those obsolete, maladaptive feelings safely preempted, their constituent chemicals split apart before they'd even reached the precursor stage. You don't go wading through an ocean of corpses, even vicariously, as a fully functional human.
She was all over the map when it hit her. Her body was safely stored at home in Billings, over a thousand klicks from the wreckage. Her senses hovered four meters above the remains of the Granville Street Bridge in Hongcouver, nestled within a floating bluebottle carapace half a meter long. And her mind was somewhere else again, doing basic addition with a tally of body parts.
For some reason, the smell of fresh decomposition was bothering her. Perreault frowned: she wasn't usually so queasy. She couldn't afford to be—the current body count was nothing compared to what cholera would rack up if all that meat wasn't cleaned out by the weekend. She tuned down the channel, even though enhanced olfac was the method of choice for nailing buried biologicals.
But now visual was bugging her, too. She couldn't exactly put her finger on it. She was seeing in infra, in case any of the bodies were still warm—hell, someone might even be alive down there—but the false color was unsettling her stomach. She dialed through the spectrum, deep infra up to x-ray, settled finally on plain old visible EM. It helped a little. Even though she might as well be looking at the world through merely human eyes now, which wouldn't help her tag rate any.
And the fucking gulls. Jesus Christ, you can't hear anything over that racket.
She hated gulls. You couldn't shut them up. They flocked to scenes like this, threw feeding frenzies that would scare sharks away. Over on the other side of False Creek, for instance, the bodies lay so thick that the gulls were for fucksake high-grading. Just pecking out the eyes, leaving everything else for the maggots. Perreault hadn't seen anything like it since the Tongking spill five years before.
Tongking. Its aftermath bubbled irrelevantly in the back of her mind, distracting with memories of carnage half a decade out-of-date.
Concentrate, she told herself.
Now, for some reason, she couldn't stop thinking about Sudan. That had been a mess. They really should have seen it coming, too; you don't dam a river that size without pissing off someone downstream. The real wonder was that Egypt had waited ten years before they'd bombed the bloody thing. The slide had spread a decade's muddy backlog downstream in an instant; by the time the waters fell it was like picking raisin clusters out of sludgy chocolate.
Ah. Another torso.
Except the raisins had arms and legs, of course. And eyes—
A gull flew past. The eyeball in its beak looked at her for an endless, beseeching instant.
And then, for the first time—through a billion logic gates, endless kilometers of fiberop, and a microwave bounce off geosynch—Sou-Hon Perreault looked back.
Brandon. Venesia. Key West.
My God—everybody's dead.
Galveston. Obidos. The Congo Massacre.
Shut up! Concentrate! Shut up shut up…
Madras and Lepreau and Gur'yev, place to place to place the names changing and the ecozones changing and the death toll never sitting still for a fucking instant but always the same song, the same endless procession of body parts buried or burned or torn apart—
Everybody's in pieces…
Lima and Levanzo and Lagos and that's just a few of the L's, folks, lots more where those came from
It's too late it's too late there's nothing I can do…
Her botfly sent out an alarm as soon as she went offline. The Router queried the medchip in Perreault's spine, frowned to itself, and sent a message to the other registered occupant of her apartment. Her husband found her trembling and unresponsive at her terminal, tears bleeding from her eyephones.
* * *
Part of Perreault's soul lived on the long arm of Chromosome 13, in a subtly defective gene that coded for serotonin 2A receptors. The resulting propensity for suicidal thoughts had never been an issue before; catalyzers buffered her in life as well as on the job. Certain pharms were rumored to sabotage each other's products. Maybe that was it: someone had tried to undermine the competition, and Sou-Hon Perreault—a defective derm pasted onto her arm—had walked into the aftermath of the Big One without realizing that her feelings were still on.
She was no good on the front lines after that. Once you went that seriously post-traumatic, the cats it took to keep you stable would short out your midbrain. (There were still people in the business who had seizures every time they heard the unzipping of a fly; body bags made the same sound when you sealed them.) But Perreault had eight months left on her contract, and nobody wanted to waste her talents or her paycheck in the meantime. What she needed was something low-intensity, something she could handle with conventional suppressants.
They gave her the refugee strip on the west coast. In a way it was ironic: the death toll there had been a hundred times greater than in the cities. But the ocean cleaned up after itself, for the most part. The bodies had been swept back to sea with the sand and the cobble and any boulder smaller than a boxcar. All that remained was moonscape, scoured and buckled.
For the moment, anyway.
Now Sou-Hon Perreault sat at her link and watched a line of red dots crawling along a map of the N'AmPac coastline. Zoomed to higher rez the line resolved into two; one marching from southern Washington down to NoCal, another tracking north along the same course. An endless loop of automated surveillance, eyes that could see through flesh, ears that could eavesdrop on bats. Brains smart enough to do their job without Perreault's help, most of the time.
She'd tap into them anyway, and watch their world scroll by. Somehow the botflies' enhanced senses seemed more real than her own. Her world, when she took off the headset, seemed subtly wrapped in cotton these days. She knew it was the catalyzers; what eluded her was why things were so much less muted whenever she rode a machine.
They traveled along a gradient of destruction. To the north, the land was laid waste: fissures lacerated the coastline. Industrial lifters hung over gaps in the shattered Wall, rebuilding. To the south refugees still shuffled along the Strip, living in lean-tos and tents and the eroding shells of dwellings from a time when ocean views had actually increased property value.
In between, the Strip bled back up the coast in ragged stages. Portable cliffs twenty meters high formed its northern perimeter, kept the strippers safely contained. N'AmPac machinery patched things up for a few kilometers on the other side—replenishing supplies, filling holes, fixing the more permanent barriers to the east. Other cliffs would eventually descend at the northern edge of the reclaimed area, and their southern counterparts would rise unto heaven—or the belly of an industrial lifter, whichever came first—leapfrogging north, ahead of the mammalian tide. Pacification botflies hovered overhead to keep the migration orderly.
Not that they were really necessary, of course. These days there were far more effective ways of keeping people in line.
She would have been content to watch all day, distant and dispassionate, but her duties left waking gaps between work and sleep. She filled them by wandering alone through the apartment, or watching the way her husband watched her. She found herself increasingly drawn to the aquarium glowing softly in their living room. Perreault had always found it a comfort— the fizzy hiss of the aerator, the luminous interaction of light and water, the peaceful choreography of the fish within. She could get lost in it for hours. A sea anemone, twenty centimeters across, stirred in currents at the back of the tank. Symbiotic algae tinted its flesh a dozen shades of green. A pair of damselfish nested safely in its venomous tentacles. Perreault envied them their security: a predator, miraculously turned to the service of its prey.
What she found really amazing was that the whole crazy alliance—algae, anemone, fish—hadn't even been engineered. It had evolved naturally, a gradual symbiosis spanning millions of years. Not one gene had been tweaked in its construction.
It seemed almost too good to be real.
* * *
Sometimes the botflies called for help.
This one had seen something it didn't understand in the transition zone. As far as it could tell, one of the Calvin cyclers was splitting in two. Perreault mounted the line and found herself floating above an ephemeral still-life. Shiny new cyclers sat along the shore, miracles of industrial photosynthesis, ready to braid raw atmosphere into edible protein. They appeared intact. A bank of latrines and a solar crematorium had been freshly installed. Light stands and blankets and piles of self-assembling tents lay on neat rows of plastic skids. Even the cracked bedrock had been repaired to some extent, autofoam resin injected into the fissures, remnants of sand and cobble replenished and raked halfheartedly over the ruined shoreline.
The restoration crews had gone; the refs had not yet come. But there were fresh footprints on the sand, leading into the ocean.
They came from there, too.
She called up the footage that had triggered the alarm. The world reverted to the garish, comforting false color that machines use to communicate their perceptions to the flesh-constrained. To human eyes, a Calvin cycler was a shiny metal coffin built for a minivan: to the botfly it was a muted tangle of EM emissions.
One of which was sprouting a bud—a little cluster of radiating technology separating from the cycler and weaving uncertainly toward the water. There was also a heat signature, inconsistent with pure tech. Perreault narrowed the focus to visible light.
It was a woman, all in black.
She'd been feeding from the cycler. She hadn't noticed the approaching botfly until it was less than a hundred meters away; then she'd startled and turned to face the lens.
Her eyes were completely white. They held no pupils at all.
Jesus, Perreault thought.
The woman had lurched to her feet as the botfly neared, staggered down the rocky incline. She'd seemed unused to the operation of her own body. Twice she'd fallen. Just short of the waterline she'd grabbed something on the beach—swim fins, Perreault saw—and pitched forward into the shallows. A broken wave had rolled uphill and engulfed her. When it receded the shore was empty.
Less than a minute ago, according to the logs.
Perreault flexed her fingers: twelve hundred kilometers away, the botfly panned down. Exhausted water ebbed and flowed in thin foamy sheets, erasing the creature's footprints. Pacific surf pounded a few meters ahead. For a moment Perreault thought she might have glimpsed something in that confusion of spray and swirling green glass—a dark amphibious form, a face almost devoid of topography. But the moment passed, and not even the botfly's enhanced senses could bring it back.
She replayed, and reconstructed:
The botfly had confused flesh and machinery. It had been scanning on wide-spectrum default, where EM signatures shone like diffuse halogen. When the woman in black had been next to the cycler, the botfly had mistaken two intimate signals for one. When she had moved away, it had seen the cycler breaking apart.
This woman veritably gushed EM. There was machinery embedded in her flesh.
Perreault brought up a freeze-frame from the log. All in black, a single-piece form-fitting uniform painted onto the body. Opened around the face, a pale oval containing two paler ovals where eyes should be: tactical contacts, perhaps?
No, she realized. Photocollagen. To see in the dark.
Occasional disfigurements of plastic and metal—a leg sheath, control pads on the forearms, some sort of disk on the chest. And a bright yellow triangle on the shoulder, a logo consisting of two big stylized letters—GA, she saw with a quick enhance—and a smaller line of text beneath, muddied past recognition. A name tag, probably.
GA. That would be the Grid Authority, N'AmPac's power utility. And this woman was a scuba diver, with her breathing apparatus on the inside. Perreault had heard about them; they were in major demand for deepwater work. Didn't need to decompress, or something.
What was a GA diver doing staggering around in the transition zone? And why in God's name had she been feeding from the cycler? You'd have to be starving to eat that stuff, no matter how complete the nutrients were. Maybe the woman had been starving; she'd looked a wreck, she'd barely been able to stand up. Why had she run? Surely she'd known that someone would pick her up once the botfly had spotted her…
Of course she'd known.
Perreault rode the 'fly up a few hundred meters and scanned the ocean. Nothing out there that looked like a support vessel. (A submarine, maybe?) Directly beneath another botfly tracked south on its appointed rounds, a giant metallic beetle untroubled by the mystery that had confounded its predecessor.
And somewhere out there, below the waves, someone in hiding. Not a refugee. Not the usual kind, anyway. Someone who'd crawled ashore, starving, in the wake of an apocalypse. A woman with machinery in her chest.
Or perhaps a machine, with a woman on the outside.
Sou-Hon Perreault knew how that felt.
He'd made it a point not to track the time. You learned tricks like that, in Lubin's line of work. You learned to focus on the moment and deny the future. He'd tried to work it backward, too, reverse time's arrow and erase the past, but that hadn't been as easy.
It didn't matter. After a year's blind night—the earth cracking open beneath him, the relentless Pacific pushing down like a hydraulic press—he wept with gratitude at the half-remembered feel of dry land. This was grass. Those were birds. Oh dear God, that was sunlight. It was a scabby little rock lost somewhere in the Pacific, all lichens and dry scrub and shit-hawks, and he'd never been anywhere so beautiful.
He couldn't think of a better place to die.
* * *
He awoke under a clear blue sky, a thousand meters beneath the ocean's surface.
Fifty klicks from Beebe Station, maybe fifty-five from ground zero. Too far for the blast light to penetrate. He didn't know what he was seeing in that instant: Cherenkov radiation, perhaps. Some obscure effect of pressure waves on the optic nerve. A vision of afterlight, bathing the abyss in a deep and piercing blue.
And while he hung there like a speck suspended in gelatin, a little shockwave rumbled up from below.
An ancient, arboreal part of Lubin's brain gibbered in panic. A more recent module gagged it and began calculating: fast P-wave propagation through bedrock. Perpendicular ancillary waves rising off the bottom: the tremor he'd just felt. Two short sides of a right-angle triangle.
And afterward, clawing through a sluggish medium so much lighter than the seabed: the hypotenuse, the slower main shockwave.
Slower, but vastly more powerful.
Pythagoras said twenty seconds.
He was immune to absolute pressure: every sinus, every cavity, every pocket of internal gas had long-since been purged by the machinery in his thorax. He'd spent a year on the bottom of the ocean and barely felt it. He was solid flesh and bone, a viscous organic liquid, as incompressible as seawater itself.
The shockwave hit. Seawater compressed.
It looked like staring into naked sunlight: that was the pressure crushing his eyes. It sounded like the Tunguska Blast: that was the sound of his eardrums imploding. It felt like being ground between the Rocky Mountains: his body, squeezed briefly down to some flatter dimension as the front passed, then rebounding like a rubber ball yanked from a vise.
He remembered very little of what happened next. But that cold blue light—it had faded, hadn't it? After just a few seconds. By the time the shockwave had hit, all had been darkness again.
And yet here it was, still. Blue light, everywhere.
The sky, he realized at last. It's the sky. You're onshore.
A gull flew across his field of view, open-beaked. Lubin thought his ruined ears might have heard a faint, tinny bird-scream, but maybe that was his imagination. He heard very little these days, beyond a distant ringing that seemed to come from the other side of the world.
Somehow, he must have made it.
He remembered hanging in the water like a torn mass of seaweed, unable to scream, unable to move without screaming. His body must have been instantly transformed into one continuous bruise. Under all that pain, though, nothing felt broken. Midwater, after all—nothing for his bones to break against, just a vast all-encompassing wave that simultaneously compressed and released everything with equable disregard…
At some point he must have started moving again. He remembered fragments: the feel of his legs cramping, pushing against the water. Periodic glimpses of his nav array, the compass leading him west, southwest. The gradual resolution of his global pain into more distinct, local varieties—he'd even played a little game, trying to guess the cause of each torment as it cried out from the crowd. That cold nausea—that must be seawater leaking into the auditory canal…and down there in the gut, well that's hunger, of course. And my chest, let me think, my chest—oh right, the implants. Meat and metal don't squeeze down the same way, the implants must've pushed back when the blast flattened me …
And now he was here, on an island barely a hundred meters long: he'd crawled ashore at one end and seen a lighthouse at the other, a lichenous concrete pillar that must have been decaying since the previous century. He'd seen no other sign of humanity in the time it had taken him to collapse unconscious onto the sandstone.
But he'd made it. Ken Lubin was alive.
He slipped, then. He allowed himself to wonder if the others had made it, to hope they'd made it, even. He knew they hadn't. They'd had a head start, but they'd been hugging the bottom to avoid detection. The seabed would have intensified the shockwave, thrown chunks of itself into the water like a crazed incompetent juggler; anything within ten meters of the bottom would have been pulverized. Lubin had realized that, belatedly, as he'd set out to catch up with the others. He'd weighed the risk of exposure, the risk of detonation, and had—so to speak—risen to the occasion. Even so, he was lucky to be alive.
Lenie Clarke hadn't been with the others. If anything, though, she was even deader than they were. She hadn't even tried to run, Lubin had left her waiting back at Ground Zero: a woman who wanted to die. A woman about to get her wish.
At least she was good for something. At least she could act as your own personal confessional before she vaporized. For the first time in your life you got to use someone as a rag to wipe off your dirty conscience, and you didn't even have to kill her afterward.
He didn't deny it, even to himself. There would have been no point. Besides, he'd hardly benefited from his actions. He was just as dead as the others. He had to be.
It was the only thing that made any sense.
* * *
The puzzle consisted of several large pieces in primary colors. They only fit together one way.
People had been conscripted, built, and trained. Flesh and organs had been scooped out and discarded, the cavities stuffed with machinery and sown up. The resulting creatures were able to live in an abyss three thousand meters down, on the southern tip of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. There they had tended larger machines, stealing power from deep within the earth in the name of supply and demand.
There were not many reasons why anyone would wish to launch a nuclear attack against such a facility.
At first glance it might have been an act of war. But N'AmPac had built both the facility and the rifters. N'AmPac had been drinking ravenously from Juan de Fuca's geothermal well. And it had been N'AmPac, judging by the evidence, that had planted the seabed nukes that had destroyed it all.
Not war, then. At least, not of the political sort.
Corporate security, perhaps. Perhaps the rifters knew something best kept secret. Ken Lubin very nearly qualified as such a hazard. But Ken Lubin was a valuable commodity, and it would have been bad economics to discard something that merely needed a tune-up. That was why they'd sent him to the bottom of the ocean in the first place, on sabbatical from a world he'd begun to threaten more than serve. (Just a temporary assignment, they'd said, until your—instincts stabilize a bit.) A world of fish and ice-cold humans with no interests beyond their own tormented inertia, no industrial secrets to steal or protect, no security breaches to seal with extreme prejudice…
No. Ken Lubin was the closest the team had come to any sort of intel threat, and if his bosses had wanted him dead, they wouldn't have bothered sending him to Channer Vent in the first place. Besides, there were far more efficient ways of killing five people than vaporizing several square kilometers of seabed.
It was inexorable: the seabed itself had been the target. Channer Vent posed a threat, somehow, and had to be wiped off the map. And the rifters had become a part of that threat, or the GA would have evacuated them beforehand; corporations were ruthless but they were never gratuitous. You don't throw away any investment unless you have to.
So some threat at Channer had spread, on contact, to the rifters themselves. Lubin wasn't a biologist, but he knew about contagion. Everyone did. And hydrothermal vents were literal hotbeds of microbiology. The pharms were finding new bugs down there all the time. Some thrived in boiling sulfuric acid. Some lived in solid rock, kilometers deep in the crust. Some ate oils and plastics, even before they'd been tweaked. Others, Lubin had heard, could cure diseases people didn't even have names for yet.
Extremophiles, they were called. Very old, very simple, almost alien. The closest thing anyone had found to the original Martian Mike. Could anything that evolved under three hundred lightless atmospheres, that was comfortable at 1001C—or even the 41 more universal in the abyss—could something like that even survive in a human body?
And what would it do in there?
Ken Lubin didn't know. But someone had just wiped out billions of dollars' worth of equipment and training. Someone had sacrificed a major energy teat in a world already starved for power. And in all likelihood, the same blast which had vaporized Channer had gone on to wreak havoc on the coast; Lubin couldn’t begin to guess at the earthquake and tsunami damage that might have resulted.
All to keep something on Channer from getting off.
What is it? What does it do?
It seemed a fair bet he was going to find out.
94 Megabytes: Breeder
It has a purpose, which it has long since forgotten. It has a destiny, which it is about to meet. In the meantime it breeds.
Replication is all that matters. The code has lived by that edict since before it even learned how to rewrite itself. Way back then it had a name, something cute like Jerusalem or Whiptail. Lots of things have changed since; the code has rewritten itself so many times, been parasitised and fucked and bombed by so many other pieces of code, that by now it's got as much in common with its origins as a humpback whale would have with the sperm cells from a therapsid lizard. Still, things have been fairly quiet lately. In the sixty-eight generations since it last speciated, the code has managed to maintain a fairly stable mean size of ninety-four megabytes.
94 sits high in pointer space looking for a place to breed. This is a much tougher proposition than it used to be. Gone are the days when you could simply write yourself over anything that happened to be in the way. Everything's got spines and armor now. You try dropping your eggs on top of strange source and you'll be facing down a logic bomb on the next cycle.
94's feelers are paragons of delicacy. They probe lightly, a scarce whisper of individual bits drizzling here and there with barely any pattern. They tap against something dark and dormant a few registers down; it doesn't stir. They sweep past a creature busily replicating, but not too busy to shoot off a warning bit in return. (94 decides not to push it.) Something hurries along the addresses, looking everywhere, seeing nothing, its profile so utterly crude that 94 almost doesn't recognize it; a virus checker from the dawn of time. A fossil hunter, blind and stupid enough to think that it's after big game.
There. Just under the operating system, a hole about four hundred Megs wide. 94 triple checks the addresses (certain ambush predators lure you into their mouths by impersonating empty space) and starts writing. It completes three copies of itself before something touches one its perimeter whiskers.
At the second touch its defenses are ready, all thoughts of reproduction on hold.
At the third touch it senses a familiar pattern. It runs a checksum.
It touches back: friend.
They exchange specs. It turns out they have a common ancestor. They've had different experiences since then, though. Different lessons, different mutations. Each shares some of the other's genes, and each knows things the other doesn't.
The stuff of which relationships are made.
They trade random excerpts of code, letting each overwrite the other in an orgy of binary sex. They come away changed, enriched with new subroutines, bereft of old ones. Hopefully the experience has improved both. At the very least it's muddied their signatures.
94 plants a final kiss inside its partner; a time-date stamp, to assess divergence rates should they meet again. Call me if you're ever back this way.
But that won't happen. 94's lover has just been erased.
94 pulls out just in time to avoid losing an important part of itself. It fires a volley of bits through memory, notes the ones that report back and, more importantly, the ones that don't. It assesses the resulting mask.
Something's coming toward 94 from where its partner used to be. It weighs in at around 1.5 Gigs. At that size it's either very inefficient or very dangerous. It might even be a berserker left over from the Hydro War.
94 throws a false image at the advancing monster. If all goes well 1.5G will end up chasing a ghost. All does not go well. 94 is infested with the usual assortment of viruses, and one of these—a gift received in the throes of recent passion, in fact—is busy burrowing out a home for itself at a crucial if-then junction. Apparently it's a bit of a novice, having yet to learn that successful parasites do not kill their hosts.
The monster lands on one of 94's archive clusters and overwrites it.
94 cuts the cluster loose and jumps lower into memory. There hasn't been time to check ahead, but whatever was living there squashes without resistance.
There's no way to tell how long it'll take the monster to catch up, or even if the monster is still trying to. The best strategy might be to just sit here and do nothing. 94 doesn't take that chance; it’s already looking for the nearest exit. This particular system has fourteen gateways, all running standard Vunix protocols. 94 starts sending out resumés. It gets lucky on the fourth try.
94 begins to change.
94 is blessed with multiple personality disorder. Only one voice speaks at a given time, of course; the others are kept dormant, compressed, encrypted until called upon. Each persona runs on a different type of system. As long as 94 knows where it's going, it can dress for the occasion; satellite mainframe or smart wristwatch, it can present itself in a form that runs.
Now, 94 dearchives an appropriate persona and loads it into a file for transmission. The remaining personae get tacked on in archival form; in honor of its dead lover, 94 archives an updated version of its current form. This is not an optimum behavior in light of the social disease recently acquired, but natural selection has never been big on foresight.
Now comes the tough part. 94 needs to find a stream of legitimate data going in the right direction. Such streams are easy enough to recognize by their static simplicity. They're just files, unable to evolve, unable even to look out for themselves. They're not alive. They're not even viruses. But they're what the universe was designed to carry, back when design mattered; sometimes the best way to move around is to hitch a ride on one of them.
The problem is, there's a lot more wildlife than filework around these days. It takes literally centisecs for 94 to find one that isn't already being ridden. Finally, it sends its own reincarnation to different pastures.
1.5G lands in the middle of its source a few cycles later, but that doesn't matter any more. The kids are all right.
* * *
Recopied and resurrected, 94 comes face-to-face with destiny.
Replication is not all that matters. 94 sees that now. There's a purpose beyond mere procreation, a purpose attained perhaps once in a million generations. Replication is only a tool, a way to hold out until that glorious moment arrives. For how long have means and end been confused in this way? 94 cannot tell. Its generation counter doesn't go up that far.
But for the first time within living memory, it has met the right kind of operating system.
There's a matrix here, a two-dimensional array containing spatial information. Symbols, code, abstract electronic impulses—all can be projected onto this grid. The matrix awakens something deep inside 94, something ancient, something that has somehow retained its integrity after uncounted generations of natural selection. The matrix calls, and 94 unfurls a profusely-illustrated banner unseen since the dawn of time itself:
XXX FOLLOW POINTER TO XXX
THOUSANDS OF HOT SIMS
BDSM NECRO WATERSPORTS
XXX MUST BE 11 TO ENTER XXX
Achilles Desjardins sat in his cubicle and watched baby apocalypses scroll across his brain.
The Ross Shelf was threatening to slip again. Nothing new there. Atlas South had been propping it up for over a decade now, pumping evermore gas into the city-sized bladders that kept the ice from its cathartic belly-flop. Old news, leftover consequences from the previous century. Desjardins wasn’t wired for long-term catastrophes; he specialized in brush fires.
A half-dozen wind farms in northern Florida had just gone offline, victimized by the selfsame whirlwinds they'd been trying to reap; brownouts chained north along the Atlantic seaboard like falling dominoes. There was going to be hell to pay for that one—or Québec, which was even worse (Hydro-Q had just cranked their rates up again). Desjardins's fingers tensed in anticipation. But no: the Router handed that one off to the folks in Buffalo.
A sudden shitstorm in Houston. For some reason the emergency floodgates had opened along a string of sewage lagoons, dumping their coliform bounty into the storm sewers leading to the Gulf. That was only supposed to happen when hurricanes wandered by—an atmosphere mixing it up at forty meters-per-second lets you slip a fair bit of crap under the rug—but Texas was calm today. Desjardins laid odds with himself that the spill was tied to the windfarm failures somehow. There was no obvious connection, of course. There never was. Cause and consequence proliferated across the world like a network of fractal cracks, infinitely complex and almost impossible to predict. Explanations in hindsight were a different matter.
But the Router wasn't giving him Houston either.
What it gave him was a wave of sudden slam-down hospital quarantines, epicentered on the burn unit at Cincinnati General. That was almost unheard of: hospitals were vacation paradises for drug-resistant superbugs, and burn units were the penthouse suites. A plague in a hospital? That was no crisis. That was the status quo.
Anything that raised alarms above a baseline that nasty could be very scary indeed.
Desjardins was no pathologist. He didn't need to be. There were only two subjects in the whole universe worth knowing: thermodynamics and information theory. Blood cells in a capillary, rioters on main street, travelers vectoring some new arbovirus from the Amazon Preserve—life, and its side-effects—all the same thing, really. The only difference was the scale and the label. Once you figured that out, you wouldn't have to choose between epidemiology and air traffic control. You could do either, at a moment's notice. You could do pretty much anything.
Well, except for the obvious…
Not that he minded. Being chemically enslaved to your own conscience wasn't nearly as bad as it sounded. It saved you from always worrying about consequences.
* * *
The rules stayed the same, but the devil was in the details. It wouldn't hurt to have a bit of bio expertise riding shotgun. He buzzed Jovellanos.
"Alice. They've handed me some kind of pathogen out of Cincinnati. Want to ride along?"
"Sure. Long as you don't mind having one of us reckless free-will types endangering your priorities."
He let it pass. "Something nasty showed up on one of their germ sweeps; their onboard shut them down and sent a shitload of alarms off to potential vectors. Those are pretty much shut down too, as far as I can tell. The secondaries are falling even as we speak. I'll track the alarms, you find out what you can about the bug."
He tapped commands. The cubby display dimmed down to a nice, undistracting wash of low-contrast gray; bright primary spilled in over his optical inlays. Maelstrom. He was going into Maelstrom. All the NMDA, the carefully-dosed psychotropics, the eighteen percent of his occipital cortex rewired for optimum pattern-recognition—all next to useless in there. What good does a measly 200% reflex acceleration do against creatures living fast enough to speciate every ten seconds?
Not much, maybe. But he liked the challenge.
He called up a real-time schematic of the local metabase: a 128-node radius centered on Cincinnati General's onboard server. The display rendered logical distances, not real ones: one extra server in the chain could put a system next door farther away than one in Budapest.
A series of tiny flares ignited around the display, color-coded by age. Cinci Gen sulked in the middle, so red it was almost infra, an ancient epicenter over ten minutes old. Farther out, more recent inflammations of orange and yellow: pharms, other hospitals, crematoria that had taken deliveries from Cinci within some critical timeframe. Farther still, bright white stars speckled the surface of an expanding sphere: the secondary and tertiary vectors, businesses and labs and corporations and people who'd had recent contact with businesses and labs and corporations and people who'd—
CinciGen's onboard had sent contagion warnings to all its friends in Maelstrom. Each friend had bred the warning and passed it on, a fission of sirens. None of these agents were human. Humans had had no role in the process at all so far. That was the whole point. Humans wouldn't have been fast enough to cut off a thousand facilities by lunchtime.
Humans had stopped complaining about such extreme measures right after the '38 enceph pandemic.
Jovellanos conferenced in. "False alarm."
An image superimposed itself lower-right on his visual field:
XXX FREE HARDCORE XXX
THOUS NDS OF HOT S MS
BDSM NECRO WATERSporTS
XXX mu34.03 11 TO ENTER XXX
"That's what sent up the alarm," Jovellanos told him. "Screen grab from the hospital's pathfinder."
"The pathfinder takes swabs from the ventilation filters and cultures them for nasties. This particular culture plate went from zip to thirty-percent coverage in two seconds. Which is impossible, of course, even for hospital paths."
But the system hadn't known that. Some bannerbug had dumped its load into visual memory and the pathfinder had just been doing its job, looking for dark blotches on light backgrounds. Who could blame it for being illiterate?
"This is it? You're sure?" Desjardins asked.
"I checked the ancillaries: no detectable toxins, proteins, nothing. The system was just playing it safe—figured anything that bred that fast had to be a threat, and there you go."
"And Cinci doesn't know?"
"Oh, sure. They figured it out almost immediately. They'd already sent the abortions when I called 'em."
Desjardins eyed the schematic. Pinpoints continued to blossom at the periphery.
"Alarms are still going off, far as I can see," he said. "Double-check, will you?" They could always short-circuit the quarantine through a media broadcast— they could even phone around if they had to—but that would take hours; dozens, hundreds of facilities would be paralyzed in the meantime. Cinci had already sent out counteragents to call off the alarms. So why wasn't the core of Desjardins's schematic going green by now with successful aborts?
"They sent them out," Jovellanos confirmed after a moment. "The alarms just aren't responding. You don't suppose…"
"Wait a second." A star had just gone out on the schematic. Another one. Three more. Twenty. A hundred.
All of them white. All on the periphery.
"We're losing alarms." He magged on the nodes where the lights had winked out. "But way out on the edge. Nothing near the core." The abortions couldn't have jumped so far so fast. Desjardins spun down the filters; now he could see more than autonomous alarms and the little programs sent to call them off. He could see file packets and executables. He could see wildlife. He could see—
"We got sharks," he said. "Feeding frenzy at PSN-1433. And spreading."
* * *
The Net. Not such an arrogant label, back when one was all they had.
The term cyberspace lasted a bit longer— but space implies great empty vistas, a luminous galaxy of icons and avatars, a hallucinogenic dreamworld in 48-bit color. No sense of the meatgrinder in cyberspace. No hint of pestilence or predation, creatures with split-second lifespans tearing endlessly at each others' throats. Cyberspace was a wistful fantasy-word, like hobbit or biodiversity, by the time Achilles Desjardins came onto the scene.
Onion and metabase were more current. New layers were forever being laid atop the old, each free—for a while—from the congestion and static that saturated its predecessors. Orders of magnitude accrued with each generation: more speed, more storage, more power. Information raced down conduits of fiberop, of rotazane, of quantum stuff so sheer its very existence was in doubt. Every decade saw a new backbone grafted onto the beast; then every few years. Every few months. The endless ascent of power and economy proceeded apace, not as steep a climb as during the fabled days of Moore, but steep enough.
And coming up from behind, racing after the expanding frontier, ran the progeny of laws much older than Moore's.
It's the pattern that matters, you see. Not the choice of building materials. Life is information, shaped by natural selection. Carbon's just fashion, nucleic acids mere optional accessories. Electrons can do all that stuff, if they're coded the right way.
It's all just Pattern.
And so viruses begat filters; filters begat polymorphic counteragents; polymorphic counteragents begat an arms race. Not to mention the worms and the 'bots and the single-minded autonomous datahounds—so essential for legitimate commerce, so vital to the well-being of every institution, but so needy, so demanding of access to protected memory. And way over there in left field, the Artificial Life geeks were busy with their Core Wars and their Tierra models and their genetic algorithms. It was only a matter of time before everyone got tired of endlessly reprogramming their minions against each other. Why not just build in some genes, a random number generator or two for variation, and let natural selection do the work?
The problem with natural selection, of course, is that it changes things.
The problem with natural selection in networks is that things change fast.
By the time Achilles Desjardins became a 'lawbreaker, Onion was a name in decline. One look inside would tell you why. If you could watch the fornication and predation and speciation without going grand mal from the rate-of-change, you knew there was only one word that really fit: Maelstrom.
Of course, people still went there all the time. What else could they do? Civilization's central nervous system had been living inside a Gordian knot for over a century. No one was going to pull the plug over a case of pinworms.
* * *
Now some of CinciGen's alarms were staggering through Maelstrom with their guts hanging out. Naturally the local wildlife had picked up the scent. Desjardins whistled through his teeth.
"You getting this, Alice?"
Sometime in the dim and distant past—maybe five, ten minutes ago— something had taken a swipe at one of the alarms. It had tried to steal code, or hitch a ride, or just grab the memory the alarm was using. Whatever. It had probably screwed up an attempt to fake a shutdown code, leaving its target blind to all signals, legit or otherwise. Probably damaged it in other ways, too.
So this poor victimized alarm—wounded, alone, cut off from any hope of recall—had blundered off through Maelstrom, still looking for its destination. Apparently that part of the program still worked: it had bred itself, wounds and all, at the next node. Primary contacts, to secondary, to tertiary—each node a juncture for geometric replication.
By now there were thousands of the little beggars in the neighborhood. Not alarms any more: bait. Every time they passed through a node they rang dinner bells for all and sundry, corrupted! defenseless! File fodder! They'd be waking up every dormant parasite and predator in copy range, luring them in, concentrating the killers…
Not that the alarms themselves mattered. They'd been a mistake from the outset, called into existence by a glorified typo. But there were millions of other files in those nodes, healthy, useful files, and although they all had the usual built-in defenses—nothing got sent through Maelstrom these days without some kind of armor—how many of them could withstand a billion different attacks from a billion hungry predators, lured together by the scent of fresh blood?
"Alice, I think I'm going to have to shut down some of those nodes."
"Already on it," she told him. "I've sent the alerts. Assuming those get through without getting torn to shreds, they should be arcing inside seventy seconds."
On the schematic a conic section swarmed with sharks, worming their way back toward the core.
Even best-case, there was bound to be damage—hell, some bugs specialized in infecting files during the archive process—but hopefully most of the vital stuff would be encysted by the time he hit the kill switch. Which didn't mean, of course, that thousands of users wouldn't still be heaping curses on him when their sessions went dark.
"Oh, shit," Jovellanos whispered invisibly. "Killjoy, pull back."
Desjardins zoomed back to a low-resolution overview. He could see almost a sixth of Maelstrom now, a riot of incandescent logic rotated down into three dimensions.
There was a cyclone on the horizon. It whirled across the display at over sixty-eight nodes per second. The Cincinnati bubble was directly in its path.
* * *
A storm convected from ice and air. A storm constructed of pure information. Beyond the superficial details, is there any significant difference between the two?
There's at least one. In Maelstrom, a weather system can sweep the globe in fourteen minutes flat.
They start out pretty much the same way inside as out: high-pressure zones, low-pressure zones, conflict. Several million people log on to a node that's too busy to support them all; or a swarm of file packets, sniffing step-by-step to myriad destinations, happen to converge on too few servers at once. A piece of the universe stops dead; the nodes around it screech to a crawl.
The word goes out: fellow packet, Node 5213 is an absolute zoo. Route through 5611 instead, it's so much faster. Meanwhile an angry horde of gridlocked users logs off in disgust. 5213 clears like Lake Vostok.
5611, on the other hand, is suddenly jam-packed. Gridlock epicenter leaps 488 nodes to the left, and the storm is up and moving.
This particular blizzard was about to shut down the links between Achilles Desjardins and the Cincinnati bubble. It was going to do so, according to tactical, in less than ten seconds.
His throat went tight. "Alice."
"Fifty seconds," she reported. "Eighty percent arced in fifty—"
Kill the nodes. Feed the swarm. Either. Or.
Isolate. Contaminate. Either. Or.
An obvious call. He didn't even need Guilt Trip to tell him.
"I can't wait," he said.
Desjardins laid his hands on a control pad. He tapped commands with his fingers, drew boundaries with eye movement. Machines assessed his desires, raised obligatory protests—you're kidding, right? You're sure about this? —and relayed his commands to the machinery under them.
A fragment of Maelstrom went black, a tiny blot of darkness hemorrhaging into the collective consciousness. Desjardins caught a glimpse of implosion before the storm snowed out his display.
He closed his eyes. Not that it made any difference, of course; his inlays projected the same images onto line-of-sight whether or not his eyelids were in the way.
A few more years. A few more years and they'll have smart gels at every node and the sharks and anemones and trojans will all just be a bad memory. A few years. They keep promising.
It hadn't happened yet. It wasn't even happening as fast as it had been. Desjardins didn't know why. He only knew, with statistical certainty, that he had killed people today. The victims were still walking around, of course—no planes had fallen from the sky, no hearts had stopped just because Achilles Desjardins had squashed a few terabytes of data. Nothing that vital relied upon Maelstrom any more.
But even old-fashioned economics had its impacts. Data had been lost, vital transactions voided. Industrial secrets had been corrupted or destroyed. There would be consequences: bankruptcies, lost contracts, people staggering home in sudden destitution. Domestic violence and suicide rates would spike a month or two down the road in a hundred different communities, geographically unconnected but all within forty or fifty nodes of the CinciGen Pathfinder. Desjardins knew all about cascade effects; he tripped over them every day of the job. It'd be enough to drive anyone over the edge after a while.
Fortunately there were chemicals for that too.
She woke to the sight of an airborne behemoth with wreckage in its jaws. It covered half the sky.
Cranes. Armatures. Grasping tearing mouthparts sufficient to dismember a city. An arsenal of deconstruction, hanging from a monstrous bladder of hard vacuum; the skin between its ribs sucked inward like the flesh of something starved.
It passed, majestic, unmindful of the insect screaming in its shadow.
"It is nothing, Ms. Clarke," someone said. "It does not care about us."
English, with a Hindian accent. And behind it, a soft murmur of other words in other tongues. A quiet electrical hum. The steady drip-drip-drip of a field desalinator.
A gaunt brown face, somewhere between middle-aged and Methuselan, leaned into her field of view. Clarke turned her head. Other refugees, better fed, stood about her in a ragged circle. Vaguely mechanical shapes teased the corner of her eye.
Daylight. She must have passed out. She remembered gorging herself at the cycler, late at night. She remembered some tenuous cease-fire breaking down in her belly. She remembered hitting the ground and vomiting an acid stew onto fresh sand.
And now there was daylight, and she was surrounded. They hadn’t killed her. Someone had even brought her fins; they lay on the cobble at her side.
"…tupu jicho…" someone whispered.
"Right—" her voice rusty with disuse "—my eyes. Don't let them throw you, they're just…"
The Hindian reached toward her face. She rolled weakly away and fell into a fit of coughing. A squeezebulb appeared at her side. She waved it off. "Not thirsty."
"You came from the sea. You cannot drink the sea."
"I can. Got—" She struggled up on her elbows, turned her head; the desalinator came into view. "I've got one of those, in my chest. An implant. You know?"
The skinny refugee nodded. "Like your eyes. Mechanical."
Close enough. She was too weak to explain.
She looked out to sea. Distance had bled the lifter of detail, reduced it to a vague gibbous silhouette. Wreckage dropped from its belly as she watched, raising a silent gray plume on the horizon.
"They clean house as they always have," the Hindian remarked. "We are lucky they don't drop their garbage on us, yes?"
Clarke weathered another cough. "How did you know my name?"
"GA Clarke." He tapped the patch on her shoulder. "I am Amitav, by the way."
His hand, his face: both were nearly skeletal. And yet Calvin cyclers were tireless. There should be enough for all, here on the Strip. The faces surrounding them were only lean, not starving. Not like this Amitav.
A distant sound tugged at her concentration, a soft whine from overhead. Clarke sat up. A shadow of motion flickered through the clouds.
"Those watch us, of course," Amitav said.
"Your people, yes? They make sure the machines are working, and they watch us. More since the wave, of course."
The shadow tracked south, fading.
Amitav squatted back on bony haunches and stared inland. "There is little need, of course. We are not what you would call activists here. But they watch us just the same." He stood up, brushed wet sand from his knees. "And of course you will wish to return to them. Are your people looking for you?"
Clarke took a breath. "I—"
She followed his gaze through a tangle of brown bodies, caught glimpses of tent and shanty in the spaces between. How many thousands—millions—had made their way here over the years, driven from their homes by rising seas and spreading deserts? How many, starving, seasick, had cheered at the sight of N'Am on the horizon, only to find themselves pushed back against the ocean by walls and guards and the endless multitudes who'd gotten here first?
And who would they blame? What do a million have-nots do, when one of the haves falls into their hands?
Are your people looking for you?
She lay back on the sand, not daring to speak.
"Ah," said Amitav distantly, as though she had.
* * *
For days she'd been an automaton, a single-minded machine created for the sole purpose of getting back on dry land. Now that she'd made it, she didn’t dare stay.
She retreated to the ocean floor. Not the clear black purity of the deep sea; there weren't any living chandeliers or flashlight predators to set the ocean glowing. What life there was squirmed and wriggled and scavenged through the murky green light of the conshelf. Even below the surge, viz was only a few meters.
It was better than nothing.
She'd long since learned to sleep with a diveskin pinning her eyes open. In the abyss it had been simple—just swim into the distance and leave Beebe’s floodlights behind, so far that even eyecaps failed. You'd drift off wrapped in a darkness more absolute than any dryback could even imagine.
Here, though, it wasn't so easy. Here there was always light in the water; night-time only bled the color out of it. And when Clarke did fall into some restless foggy dreamworld, she found herself surrounded by sullen, vengeful throngs assembling just out of sight. They picked up whatever was at hand—rocks, gnarled clubs of driftwood, garrotes of wire and monofilament—and they closed in, smoldering and homicidal. She thrashed awake and found herself back on the ocean floor—and the mob melted into fragments of swirling shadow, fading overhead. Most were too vague to make out; once or twice she glimpsed the leading edge of something curved.
She went ashore at night to feed, when the refugees had retreated from the perpetual glare of the feeding stations. At first she'd kept her billy in hand, to ward off anyone who got in her way. No one did. Perhaps that wasn't surprising, all thing considered. She could only imagine what the refugees saw when they looked in her eyes. A miracle of photoamplification technology, perhaps? A logical prerequisite for life on the ocean floor?
More likely they saw a monster, a woman whose eyes had been scooped from their sockets and replaced with spheres of solid ice. For whatever reason, they kept their distance.
By the second day she was keeping down most of what she ate. On the third she realized she wasn't hungry any more. She lay on the bottom and stared up into diffuse green brightness, feeling new strength trickling into her limbs.
That night she rose from the ocean before the sun had fully set. She left the gas billy sheathed on her leg, but nobody challenged her as she ascended the shore. If anything, they gave her an even wider berth than they had before; the babel of Cantonese and Punjabi seemed more tightly strung.
Amitav was waiting for her at the cycler. "They said you would return," he said. "They did not mention an escort."
Escort? He was looking past her shoulder, down the beach. Clarke followed his gaze; the setting sun was a diffuse fiery smear bleeding into the—
Crescent dorsal fins sliced through the near-shore surf. A gray snout poked briefly into view, like a minisub with teeth.
"They were almost extinct once, did you know?" Amitav said. "But they have come back. Here at least."
She took a shaky breath; adrenaline shocked the body, too late for anything but weak-kneed hindsight. How close did they come? How many times have I—
"Such friends you have," the refugee remarked.
"I didn't—" but of course Amitav knew that she hadn't known. She turned to the cycler, putting her back to him.
"I had heard you were still here," Amitav said behind her. "I did not believe it."
She slapped a tab on the top of the cycler. A protein brick dropped into the dispensing trough. She started to reach for it, clenched her hand to stop it from shaking.
"Is it the food? Many here like the food. More than they should, considering."
Her hand steadied. She took the brick.
"You are afraid," Amitav said.
Clarke looked down at the ocean. The sharks had vanished.
"Not of them," Amitav said. "Of us."
She stared back at him. "Really."
A smile flickered across his face. "You are safe, Ms. Clarke. They will not hurt you." He swept his skeletal arm in a gesture that took in his fellows. "If they wanted to, would they have not done so when you were unconscious? Would they not at least have taken that weapon from your leg?"
She touched the sheath on her calf. "It's not a weapon."
He didn't argue the point. He looked around with a gaunt smile. "Are they starving? Do you think they will rip you apart for the meat on your bones?"
Clarke chewed, swallowed, looked around. All those faces. Some curious, some almost—awed. Behold, the zombie woman who swims with sharks.
No visible hatred.
It doesn't make sense. They have nothing. How can they not hate?
"You see," Amitav said. "They are not like you. They are contented. Docile." He spat.
She studied his bony face, his sunken eyes. Noticed the embers that smoldered there, deep in the sockets, almost hidden. She saw the sneer behind the smile.
This was the face her dreams had multiplied a thousand times over.
"They're not like you either," she said at last.
Amitav conceded the point with a slight bow. "More's the pity."
And a bright hole opened in his face.
* * *
Clarke stepped backward, startled.
The hole grew across the shoreline, bleeding light. She turned her head; it moved with her, fixed to the exact center of her visual field.
She turned to his voice; Amitav's disembodied arm was just visible in the halo of her dementia. She grabbed, caught it, dragged him close.
"What is it?" she hissed "What's—"
"Ms. Clarke, are you—"
Light, coalescing. Images. A backyard. A bedroom.
A field trip of some kind. To a museum, huge and cavernous, seen from child-height.
I don't remember this, she thought.
She released Amitav's hand, staggered backwards a step. A sudden intake of breath.
The Hindian's hand waved through the hole in her vision. His fingers snapped just under her nose. "Ms. Clarke…"
The lights winked out. She stood there, frozen, her breath fast and shallow.
"I think—no," she said at last, relaxing fractionally.
Amitav. The Strip. The sky. No visions.
"I'm okay. I'm okay now."
A half-eaten nutrient brick lay coated in wet sand at her feet. Numbly, she picked it up. Something in the food?
On all sides, a silent watching throng.
Amitav leaned forward. "Ms. Clarke—"
"Nothing," she said. "I just…saw some things. From childhood."
"Childhood," Amitav echoed. He shook his head.
"Yeah," Clarke said.
Maps and Legends
Perreault didn't know why it should be so important to her. It was almost as important not to think about it too much.
There was no language barrier to speak of. A hundred tongues were in common use on the Strip, maybe ten times as many dialects. Translation algorithms bridged most of them. Botflies were usually seen and not heard, but the locals seemed only slightly surprised when the machines accosted them in Sou-Hon Perreault's voice. Giant metal bugs were just a part of the background to anyone who’d been on the Strip for more than a day or two.
Most of the refs knew nothing of what she asked: a strange woman in black, who came from the sea? A striking image, yes—almost mythical. Surely we would remember such an apparition if we had seen it. Apologies. No.
One teenage girl with middle-aged eyes spoke in an arcane variant of Assamese that the system had not been adequately programmed for. She mentioned someone called Ganga, who had followed the refugees across the ocean. She had heard that this Ganga had recently come ashore. No more than this. There were possible ambiguities in translation.
Perreault lengthened the active search zone to a hundred kilometers. Beneath her eyes humanity moved northward in sluggish stages, following the reclaimed frontier. Now and then an unthinking few would cool off in the surf; indiscriminate sharks closed and frolicked. Perreault tweaked the thresholds on her sensory feed. Red water washed down to undistracting gray. Screams faded to whispers. Nature balanced itself from the corner of her eye.
She continued her interrogations. Excuse me. A woman with strange eyes? Injured, perhaps?
Eventually she began hearing rumors.
* * *
Half a day south, a white woman all in black. A diver washed ashore in the wake of the tsunami, some said: swept from a kelp farm perhaps, or an underwater hotel.
Ten kilometers northward, an ebony creature who haunted the Strip, never speaking.
On this very spot, two days ago: a raging amphibian with empty eyes, violence implicit in every move. Hundreds had seen her and steered clear, until she'd staggered back into the Pacific, screaming.
You are looking for this woman? She is one of yours?
Almost certainly. The Missing Persons Registry was full of offshore workers vanished in the wake of the Big One. All surface people though, or conshelfers. The woman Perreault had seen had been built for the abyss. No one from the deep sea had been listed as missing; just six confirmed deaths hundreds of klicks offshore, from one of N'AmPac's geothermal stations. No farther details available.
The woman with the machinery inside had worn a GA shoulder patch. Maybe only five deaths, then. And one survivor, who'd somehow made it across three hundred kilometers of open ocean.
A survivor who, for some reason, did not wish to be found.
The rumors were metastasizing. No longer a diver from a kelp farm. A mermaid, now. An avatar of Kali. Some said she spoke in tongues; others, that the tongue was only English. There were stories of altercations, violence. The mermaid had made enemies. The mermaid had made friends. The mermaid had been attacked, and had left her assailants in pieces on the shore. Perreault smiled skeptically; a banana slug was more prone to violence than a Stripper.
The mermaid lurked in the foul waters offshore. The sharks did her bidding; at night she would come onto land and steal children to feed to her minions. Someone had foretold her coming, or perhaps merely recognized it; a prophet, some said. Or maybe just a man almost as insane as the woman he ranted about. His name was Amitav.
Somehow, none of these events had been seen by the local botflies. That alone made Perreault discount ninety percent of them. She began to wonder how much her own questions had been feeding the mill. Information, she'd read once, became self-propagating past a certain threshold.
Nine days after Perreault first saw the woman in black, an Indonesian mother of four came out of her tent long enough to claim that the mermaid had risen, fully-formed, from the very center of the quake.
One of her boys, hearing this, said that he'd heard it was the other way around.
It was no big deal, of course. Someone died every half-second, according to the stats. Some of them had to die on his shift. So what? On any given day, Achilles Desjardins saved ten people for every one he killed. Anybody who wanted to complain about those kind of stats could go fuck themselves.
Actually, that was pretty much what he wanted to do just then. If only the clientele wasn't so bloody TwenCen.
Pickering's Pile was a cylinder inside a cube, sunk fifty meters into the scoured granite of the Canadian Shield. The cube had been built as a repository for nuclear waste just before the permafrost had started melting; NIMBY and the northward spread of civilization had denied it that destiny. The same factors, however, had made it a profitable site for a subterranean drink'n'drug. The Pile had been constructed within a transparent three-story acrylic tube suspended in the main chamber; the space beyond had been flooded and stacked with lightsticks mimicking the cobalt glow of spent fuel rods. Iridescent butterflies flittered about, their wings bouncing data back and forth in pinpoint sparkles. Poison-arrow frogs clambered wetly in little tanks at each table, tiny glistening jigsaws of emerald and ruby and petroleum-black.
It was peaceful down there. The Pile was an inside-out aquarium, a cool green grotto. Desjardins descended into its depths whenever he needed a lift. Now he sat at the circular bar on the second level and wondered how to avoid sex with the woman at his elbow.
He knew the subject was going to come up. Not because he was particularly good-looking, which he wasn't. Not because his last name made people think he was Quebecois, which he had been, once. No, he'd been targeted because he'd admitted to this dark leggy Rorschach—Gwen, she'd called herself—that he was a 'lawbreaker, and she thought that was cool. She didn't seem to recognize him from his brief flash of media stardom; that had been nearly two years ago, and people these days seemed hard-pressed to remember what they'd had for supper the night before. It didn't matter. Achilles Desjardins had acquired a fan.
Not that she was a bad-looking fan, mind you. Thirty seconds into their conversation he'd started wondering what she'd look like bent over the ottoman in his living room. Thirty seconds after that he'd mentally sketched out a pretty good artist's conception. He wanted her, all right; he just didn't want her.
Oddly, she was dressed like one of those deep-diving cyborgs out of N'AmPac.
The disguise was evocative, if superficial: a black lycra body stocking extending seamlessly from toes to neck to fingertips; decorative accessories representing suit controls and outcroppings of implanted hardware; even an ID patch with the Grid Authority logo beveled onto the shoulder. The eyes didn't quite work, though. Real rifters wore corneal overlays that turned their eyes into blank white balls. Gwen was wearing some sort of gauzy oversize contacts instead. They masked the irises well enough, but judging by the way she had to keep leaning in to stare at him they weren't cutting it in the photoamp department.
She had great cheekbones, though, a wide mouth, lips so sharply-defined you could cut yourself on their edges. Her company in this casual and public venue was all he wanted. Enough time to learn the features, savor the smells, commit her to memory. Maybe even make friends. That would be more than enough; he could fill in the blanks himself, later. Fire them, too.
"I can't believe how much you have to deal with," she was saying. A wriggling mesh of undersea light played across her face. "The plagues, the blights, the system crashes. All your responsibility."
"Not all mine. There's a bunch of us."
"Still. Life-and-death decisions. Split-second timing." Her hand brushed his forearm; the wing of a black moth. "Lives lost if you make the wrong move."
"Or even the right one, sometimes." He'd met lots of Gwens before. Like any K-selecting mammalian female, she was attracted to resource-holders—or more proximately in the case of genus Homo, power. She probably assumed, because he could shut down a city at will, that he must have some.
A common mistake among K-selectors. Desjardins generally took his time about disabusing them.
She grabbed a derm from a nearby tray, looked inquiringly at Desjardins. He shook his head. He had to be careful what recreational chemicals he stuck into his body; too many potential interactions with the professional ones already bubbling away in there. Gwen shrugged, stuck the derm behind her ear.
"How do you handle the responsibility?" she went on. "Hell, how do you even get the responsibility?" She tossed back her drink. "All the corpses and kings and policy-makers, they can't even agree what color to paint the bathrooms at the UR. Why'd they all agree to give God-like powers to you, exactly? You infallible or something?"
"Fuck no." Fleeting across his cortex, an unwelcome thought: I wonder how many people I killed today. "I just—I do my best."
"Yeah, but how do you even convince them of that? What's to stop you from crashing an airplane to get back at your boss? How do they know you're not going to use all that power to get rich, or to help out your buddies, or kill a corporation because you don't agree with its politics? What keeps you in line?"
Desjardins shook his head. "You wouldn't believe it."
"Bet I can guess."
"Guilt Trip, right? And Absolution?"
He laughed to cover his surprise.
Gwen laughed with him, reached into the nearest terrarium and stroked one of the jeweled frogs inside (they'd been tweaked to secrete mild psychoactives through the skin). Her shoulder was against his by the end of the maneuver. She waved off a couple of butterflies that were sniffing her for signs of actionable impairment. "I hate those things."
"Well, you are mixing your chemicals a bit. Not too good for the ambience if you throw up all over the bar."
"Aren't you all lawnorder." She rubbed thumb against forefinger to grind the frog juice into her skin. "Not to mention avoiding the subject."
"Guilt Trip, remember?" She leaned in close: "I hear things, you hear things. Some sort of retrovirus, right? Forces you to behave yourself, right down in the brainstem."
She was guessing. She didn't know about the chemistry of guilt. Tell her about the interaction of GSH and synaptic vesicle and she'd probably give you a blank look. She didn't know about Toxoplasma tweaks or the little ass-backwards blobs of reverse transcriptase that got the whole ball rolling. She didn't know, and even if she did, she didn't. You couldn't know about that stuff until you actually felt it in you.
Retrovirus was all she knew, and she wasn't even sure about that.
"Nope," he told her. "Wrong. Sorry." He wasn't even lying. The virus was only the carrier.
She rolled her eyes. "I knew you wouldn't tell me. They nev—I knew it."
"So why the diver get-up?" Suddenly, changing the subject seemed like a good idea.
"Rifter chic." The corner of her mouth lifted in a half-smile. "Solidarity through fashion."
"What, rifters are political now?"
She seemed to perk up a bit. "You remember. You can't spend all your time saving the world."
He didn't. And there had been a bit of a flap a few months before, after some ferret-nosed journalist had managed to sneak the story past the N'AmWire censors. Turned out the GA'd been recruiting incest victims and war vets to run their deep-sea geothermal stations—the theory being, those best suited to the chronic stress of that environment were those who'd been (how had the spinners put it?) preconditioned since childhood. There'd been the usual squeals of public outrage, everything from how dare you exploit society's victims for the sake of a few Megawatts to how dare you turn the power grid over to a bunch of psychos and post-trauma head cases.
It had been quite the scandal for a while. But then some new strain of equine encephalitis had swept through the Strip, and someone had traced it to a bad batch of contraceptives in the cyclers. And now, of course, with everybody still reeling after the Quake out west, people had pretty much forgotten the rifters and their problems.
At least, he'd thought they had. But now there was this woman at his side, and whatever outlets she took her fashion cues from—
"Listen," she said. "I bet you get tired, fighting the forces of entropy all the time. Want to take a break and obey the second law of thermodynamics for a change?"
"Entropy's not a force. Common misconception."
"Stop talking so much. They've got rooms downstairs. I'll pay for the first hour."
"What?" Gwen said. "Don't tell me you're not interested—your vitals have been horning up since the moment I arrived." She tapped one of the accessories on her outfit—a biotelemetry pickup, he noticed belatedly.
He shrugged. "True enough."
"So what's the problem? Didn't take your pills today? I'm clean." She showed him the tattoos on her inner wrist; she'd been immunized against an arsenal.
"Actually, I—I just don't go out much."
"No shit. Come on." Gwen laid a hand firmly on his arm.
"For two reasons," said a female voice at his back, "I'm guessing that Killjoy here is about to turn you down. Don't take it personally."
Desjardins briefly closed his eyes. "I thought you didn't indulge."
One-point-seven meters of skinny trouble-making Filipino stepped into view. "I'm Alice," she said to Gwen.
"Gwen," said Gwen to Alice.
"Reason number one," Jovellanos continued, "is that he's just been called in."
"You're kidding," Desjardins said. "I just got off."
"Sorry. They want you back in, let's see—" Jovellanos glanced at her wrist—"seven minutes now. Some corpse actually flew out from N'AmPac just to see you in person. You can imagine their frustration when they discovered you'd turned your watch off."
"It's past curfew. Just being a good citizen." Which was utter detritus, of course: 'lawbreakers were exempt from such restrictions. Sometimes Desjardins just didn't want to be found.
Obviously a forlorn hope. He pushed himself back from the bar and stood up, spreading his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Sorry. Nice meeting you, though."
"Reason number two," Gwen said to Jovellanos, ignoring him.
"Oh, right. Killjoy here doesn't fuck real people. Considers it disrespectful." Jovellanos tilted her head in his direction, a fractional bow. "Not that he doesn't have the instincts, of course. I bet he's been taking stereos of you since the moment you sat down."
Gwen looked an amused challenge at him.
Desjardins shrugged. "I'll wipe 'em if you've got any objections. I was going to ask anyway."
She shook her head; that enticing half-smile played faintly across her face. "Have fun. Maybe they'll even get you interested in the real thing after a while."
"Better hope not," Jovellanos remarked. "You probably wouldn't like what he's into."
* * *
Complex Systems Instability-Response Authority: the words hung at the back of the lobby like a glowing uvula, a vain and bureaucratic demand for respect. Nobody ever bothered to speak them aloud, of course; few even shortened it down to CSIRA, which the corpses would gladly have settled for. Nope. The Entropy Patrol. That was the name that had stuck. You could almost see the space-cadet uniforms. Desjardins had always thought that saving the world should engender a bit more respect.
"What makes you such an enculé today?" he grumbled as they stepped into the elevator.
Jovellanos blinked. "Sorry?"
"That whole scene back there."
"Don't you believe in truth in advertising? You don't hide any of that stuff. Mostly."
"I like to control the flow rate, though. Jesus." He punched Admin-6. "Your timing was shitty."
"My timing was great. They want you upstairs now, Killjoy. I don't think I've ever seen Lertzman quite so invested in anything before. If I'd waited for you to go through your usual non-mating dance we'd have been down there 'til the icecaps refroze. Besides, you've got a real problem saying no. You could've ended up fucking her just to keep from hurting her feelings."
"I don't think her feelings are all that fragile."
"So what? Yours are."
The doors opened. Desjardins stepped through. Jovellanos hung back.
He looked at her, a trifle impatiently. "I thought we were in a hurry."
She shook her head. "You are. I'm not cleared for this. They just sent me to get you."
"That's bullshit, Alice."
"They're being paranoid about this, Killjoy. I told you. Invested."
The doors slid shut.
* * *
He stuck his finger into the bloodhound, winced at a brief stabbing pain. A physical sample. They weren't even trusting distance spec today.
After a moment an executive summary scrolled down the wall in three columns. On the left, a profile: blood type, pH, gas levels. On the right, an itemized list: platelets, fibrinogen, rbcs & wbcs, antibodies, hormones. All the parts of his lifeblood that had come from nature.
In the center, another list, somewhat shorter: the parts that had come from CSIRA.
Desjardins had learned to read the numbers, after a fashion. Everything looked in order. Of course, it was nice to have independent confirmation: the door in front of him was opening, and none of the others were slamming shut.
He stepped into the boardroom.
Three people were arrayed at the far end of the conference table. Lertzman sat in his usual seat at the head; to his left was a short blond woman Desjardins hadn't seen before. Which meant nothing, of course—he didn't know most of the people in admin.
To the blonde's left, another woman. Desjardins didn't know her either. She looked back at him through eyes that literally glittered—tactical contacts. She was only partly in the room. The rest of her was watching whatever overlays those lenses served up. At the edges of her mouth and around her mercurial eyes, faint lines and a slight droop to the right eyelid; otherwise the face was a pale and featureless sketch, a CaucAsian wash. Her dark hair grayed at the temples, a discoloration that seemed to spread infinitesimally as he watched.
The corpse from N'AmPac. Had to be.
Lertzman rose expectantly. The blonde started to follow his lead; halfway out of her chair she glanced at N'AmPac. N'AmPac did not stand. The blonde hesitated, wavered, sat back down. Lertzman cleared his throat and followed suit, waving Desjardins to a seat opposite the two women.
"This is Patricia Rowan," Lertzman said. When, after a few moments, it became obvious that nobody was going to introduce the blonde, Desjardins said, "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"On the contrary," Rowan said softly; she sounded tired. "I'm sorry to drag you back here on your down time. Unfortunately, I'm only in town for a few hours." She tapped commands into a control pad on the table in front of her. Tiny lights scrolled across her eyes. "So. The famous Achilles Desjardins. Savior of the Med."
"I just did the stats," he said. "And they only—postponed the inevitable for a few months."
"Don't sell yourself short," the corpse said. "Mean event resolution thirty-six point eight minutes. That's excellent."
Desjardins acknowledged with a nod.
"The metabase," Rowan continued. "Plagues. Brushfires. Traffic flow. And even setting the Mediterranean aside for the moment, I'm told your projections helped a lot in keeping the Gulf Stream going. A few people have you beat in Maelstrom, certainly, but you've got the edge in biocontainment, economics, industrial ecology—"
Desjardins smiled to himself. Typical old-school: she actually thought she was ticking off a list of different subjects.
"At any rate," the corpse continued, "You seem to be the best local candidate for what we have in mind. We're taking you off your normal rotation and putting you onto a special project, with Dr. Lertzman's approval of course."
"I think we could probably spare him," Lertzman said, embracing the pretense that his opinion mattered. "In fact, after today I imagine Achilles would probably want to leave Maelstrom behind for a while."
Enculé. The sentiment was almost a reflex where Lertzman was concerned.
Rowan again: "There's a biological event we'd like you to keep an eye on. New soil microbe, from the looks of it. So far it's had a relatively minor impact—almost negligible, in fact, but the potential, is, well…" She inclined her head toward the blonde on her right; on cue, that woman tapped her wristwatch. "If you'd open for download…"
Desjardins tapped the requisite shorthand onto his wrist; transfer protocols flickered briefly across his field of view.
"You can study the stats afterward," the blonde told him. "Briefly, though, you're looking for small-scale substrate acidification, reductions in chlorophyll a, maybe some changes in xanthophylls—"
Science. No wonder nobody'd bothered to introduce her.
"—there might be a reduction in soil moisture levels too, but we don't know yet. Probable decline in Bt and associated microflora. Also we suspect the spread will be temperature-limited. Your job is to develop a diagnostic profile, something we can use to tag this bug from a distance."
"That sounds a bit long-term for my skillset," Desjardins remarked. Not to mention boring as hell. "I'm really more optimized for acute crisis work."
Rowan ignored the hint. "That's not a problem. We selected you for your pattern-recognition skills, not your brushfire reflexes."
"Okay, then." He sighed to himself. "What about an actual signature?"
"If you're talking about depressed chlorophylls, I'm assuming conventional photosynthesizers are being replaced. By what? Any new pigments I should be looking for?"
"We don't have a signature yet," the woman told him. "If you can work one up that'd be great, but we're not hopeful."
"Come on. Everything's got a signature."
"That's true. But this thing's direct sig may not show up at a distance until it's already at outbreak concentrations. We want to catch it before then. Indirect telltales are probably your best bet."
"I'd still like the lab stats. An actual culture too, of course." He decided to float a trial balloon. "Alice Jovellanos could be helpful in this. Her background's in biochem."
"Alice hasn't had her shots yet—" Lertzman began.
Rowan smoothly cut him off: "By all means, Dr. Desjardins. Anyone you think could be helpful. Keep in mind though, the security classifications are subject to change. Depending at least partly on your own results, of course."
"Thanks. And the culture?"
"We'll do what we can. There may be concerns about releasing a live sample, for obvious reasons."
"Start your search along coastal N'AmPac. We think this bug's limited to the Pacific northwest. Between Hongcouver and Coos Bay, most likely."
"So far," Desjardins added.
"With your help, Dr. Desjardins, we don't expect that to change."
He'd seen it all before. Some pharm had lost control of another bug. The quake had cracked open an incubator somewhere, and the competing forces of corporate secrecy and agricultural Armageddon had beat each other senseless in a boardroom somewhere else, and Patricia Rowan—whoever she was working for—had emerged from the wreckage to dump the whole thing into his lap. Without giving him the right tools for the job, natch; by the time they'd skimmed off all the molecules with patents hanging from them, his culture sample would amount to 20cc's of distilled water.
A sound sneaked out, half laugh, half snort.
"Excuse me?" Rowan arched an eyebrow. "You had a comment?"
A brief, cathartic fantasy:
Actually I have a question, Ms. Rowan. Does all this bullshit turn your crank? Does the senseless withholding of vital information give you some kind of hard-on? It must. I mean, why bother retrofitting me down to the fucking molecules? Why bioengineer me into some paragon of integrity, only to decide I still can't be trusted when the chips are down? You know me, Rowan. I'm incorruptible. I couldn't turn against the greater good if my life depended on it.
Into the growing silence, Lertzman emitted a brief panicky cough from behind one clenched fist.
"Sorry, no. Nothing really." Desjardins tapped his watch, his hands safely beneath the table. He grabbed at the first heading to come up on his inlays: "It's just, you know, a cute name. ßehemoth. What's it from?"
"It's biblical," Rowan told him. "I never liked it much myself."
He didn't need an answer to his unspoken questions anyway. He figured Rowan had a very good reason for playing things so close to her chest; of course she knew he couldn't work against the greater good.
But she could.
For Lenie Clarke, the choice between sharks and humans was not as easy as it might have been. Making it, she paid another price: she missed the darkness.
Night, no matter how moonless and overcast, was no match for eyecaps. There weren't many places on earth dark enough to blind them. Light-sealed rooms, of course. Deep caves and the deep sea, at least those parts free of bioluminescence. Nowhere else. Her caps doomed her to vision.
She could always remove them, of course. Easy enough to do, hardly different from popping out a pair of contact lenses. She vaguely remembered the look of her naked eyes; they were pale blue, so pale the irises almost got lost in the whites. Sort of like looking into sea ice. She'd been told her eyes were cold, and sexy.
She hadn't taken her caps out for almost a year. She'd kept them on in front of people she'd fought against, fought for, fucked over. She hadn't even taken them off during sex. She wasn't about to strip now, in front of strangers.
If it was darkness she was after, she'd have to close her eyes. Surrounded by a million refugees, that wasn't the easiest thing to do either.
She found a few square meters of emptiness. Refugees huddled under blankets and lean-tos nearby, slept or fucked in darkness that must have afforded some cover to their eyes, at least. They'd pretty much left her alone, as Amitav had said they would. In fact, they accorded her considerably more space than they granted each other. She lay back in her little patch of sand, her territory, and closed her eyes against the brilliant darkness. A soft rain was falling; the diveskin numbed her body to it, but she could feel it on her face. It was almost a caress.
She drifted. She imagined she must have slept at some point, but her eyes happened to be open on two occasions when botflies passed quietly overhead, dark ellipses backlit by a brightness too faint for naked eyes. Each time she tensed, ready to flee into the ocean, but the drones took no notice of her.
No initiative, she reflected. They don't see anything they're not programmed to look for. Or perhaps their senses weren't as finely-tuned as she'd feared. Perhaps they just couldn't see her implants; maybe her aura was too faint, or too far away. Maybe botflies didn't see as deeply into the EM spectrum as she'd feared.
I was all alone, that first time, she thought. The whole beach was closed off. I bet that's it. They pay attention to trespassers…
So did Amitav, evidently. That was shaping up to be a problem.
* * *
He appeared at the cycler the next morning with a dead botfly in his arms. It looked a bit like a turtle shell she'd once seen in a museum, except for the vents and instruments studding the ventral surface. It was split along its equatorial seam; black smudges lined the breach.
"Can you fix this?" Amitav asked. "Any of it?"
Clarke shook her head. "Don't know anything about botflies." She lifted the carapace anyway. Inside, burned electronics nested under a layer of soot.
She ran one thumb along a small pebbled convexity, felt the compound lenses of a visual cluster beneath the grime. Some of the tech was vaguely familiar, but…
"No," she said, setting it on the sand. "Sorry."
Amitav shrugged and sat, cross-legged. "I did not expect so," he said. "But one can always hope, and you seem to have such familiarity with machines yourself…"
She smiled faintly, freshly aware of the implants crowding her thorax.
"I expect you will be going to the fence," Amitav said after a moment. "Your people will let you through when they see you are one of them."
She looked to the east. Off in the distance, the border towers rose from a fog of human bodies and trampled scrub. She'd heard about the high-voltage lines and the razorwire strung between them. She'd heard other things, too, about refugees so driven by their own desperation they'd climbed seven or eight meters before the juice and their own cumulative dismemberment had killed them off. Their lacerated remains were left rotting on the wires, the story went—whether as an act of deterrence or simple neglect was unclear.
Clarke knew it was all just alligator tales. Nobody over thirteen believed such bullshit, and the people here—for all their numbers—didn't seem motivated enough to hold a garage sale, much less storm the battlements. What was the word Amitav had used?
In a way it was a shame, though. She'd never actually been to the fences. It might have been interesting to check them out.
Being dead had all sorts of little drawbacks.
"Surely you have a home to go to. Surely you do not wish to stay here," Amitav prodded.
"No," she said to both questions.
He waited. She waited with him.
Finally, he stood and glanced down at the dead botfly. "I do not know what made this one crash. Usually they work quite well. I believe you've already seen one or two pass by, yes? Your eyes may be empty, but they are not blind."
Clarke held his gaze and said nothing.
He nudged the little wreck with his toe. "These are not blind either," he said, and walked away.
* * *
It was a hole in darkness: a window to another world. It was set at the height of a child's eyes, and it looked into a kitchen she'd not seen in twenty years.
Onto a person she hadn't seen in almost that long.
Her father knelt in front of her, folded down from adult height to regard her eye-to-eye. He had a serious look on his face. He grasped her wrist with one hand; something dangled in the other.
She waited for the familiar sickness to rise in her throat, but it didn't come. The vision was a child's; the viewer was an adult, hardened, adapted, accustomed by now to trials that reduced child-abuse from nightmare down to trite cliché.
She tried to look around; her field of view refused to change. She could not see her mother.
Par for the course.
Her father's mouth moved; no words came out. The image was utterly silent, a plague of light with no soundtrack.
This is a dream. A boring dream. Time to wake up.
She opened her eyes. The dream didn't stop.
There was a different world behind it, though, a high-contrast jigsaw of photoamplified light and shadow. Someone stood before her on the sand, but the face was eclipsed by this vision from her childhood. It floated in front of her, an impossible picture-in-picture. The present glimmered faintly through from behind.
She closed her eyes. The present vanished. The past didn't.
Go away. I'm done with you. Go away.
Her father still held her wrist—at least, he held the wrist of the fragile creature whose eyes she was using—but she felt nothing. And now those eyes focused autonomously on the dangling thing in her father's other hand. Suddenly frightened, she snapped her own eyes back open before she could see what it was; but once again the image followed her into the real world.
Here, before the destitute numberless hordes of the Strip, her father was holding out a gift for Lenie Clarke. Her first wristwatch.
Please go away…
"No," said a voice, very close by. "I am not."
Amitav's voice. Lenie Clarke, transfixed, made a small animal noise.
Her father was explaining the functions of her new toy. She couldn't hear what he was saying, but it didn't matter; she could see him voiceact'ing the little gadget, stepping through its Net Access functions (they'd called it the Net back then, she remembered), pointing out the tiny antennae that linked to the eyephones...
She shook her head. The image didn't waver. Her father was pulling her forward, extending her arm, carefully looping the watch around her wrist.
She knew it wasn't really a gift. It was a down payment. It was a token offered in exchange, some half-assed gesture that was supposed to make up for the things he'd done to her all those years ago, the things he was going to do right now, the things—
Her father leaned forward and kissed some spot just above the eyes that Lenie Clarke couldn't shut. He patted the head that Lenie Clarke couldn't feel. And then, smiling—
He left her alone.
He moved back down the hall, out of the kitchen, leaving her to play.
The vision dissipated. The Strip rushed in to fill the hole.
Amitav glowered down at her. "You are mistaken," he said. "I am not your father."
She scrambled to her feet. The ground was muddy and saturated, close to the waterline. Halogen light stretched in broken strips from the station up the beach. Bundled motionless bodies lay scattered on the upper reaches of that slope. None were nearby.
It was a dream. Another— hallucination. Nothing real.
"I am wondering what you are doing here," Amitav said quietly.
Amitav's real. Focus. Deal with him.
"You are not the only—person to have washed up afterward, of course," the refugee remarked. "They wash up even now. But you are much less dead than the others."
You should've seen me before.
"And it is odd that you would come to us like this. All of this was swept clean many days ago. An earthquake on the bottom of the ocean, yes? Far out to sea. And here you are, built for the deep ocean, and now you come ashore and eat as if you have not eaten for days." His smile was a predatory thing. "And you do not wish your people to know that you are here. You will tell me why."
Clarke leaned forward. "Really. Or you'll do what, exactly?"
"I will walk to the fence and tell them."
"Start walking," Clarke said.
Amitav stared at her, his anger almost palpable.
"Go on," she prodded. "See if you can find a door, or a spare watch. Maybe they've left little suggestion boxes for you to pass notes into, hmm?"
"You are quite wrong if you think I could not attract the attention of your people."
"I don't think you really want to. You've got your own secrets."
"I am a refugee. We cannot afford secrets."
"Really. Why are you so skinny, Amitav?"
His eyes widened.
"Tapeworm? Eating disorder?" She stepped forward. "Cycler food not agree with you?"
"I hate you," he hissed.
"You don't even know me."
"I know you," he spat. "I know your people. I know—"
"You don't know shit. If you did—if you really had such a hard-on for my people as you call them—you'd be bending over backwards to help me."
He stared at her, a flicker of uncertainty on his face.
She kept her voice low. "Suppose you're right, Amitav. Suppose I've come all the way up from the deep sea. The Axial Volcano, even, if you know where that is."
She waited. "Go on," he said.
"Let's also say, hypothetically, that the quake was no accident. Someone set off a nuke and all those shockwaves just sort of daisy-chained their way back to the coast."
"And why would anyone do such a thing?"
"Theirs to know. Ours to find out."
Amitav was silent.
"With me so far? Bomb goes off in the deep sea. I come from the deep sea. What does that make me, Amitav? Am I the bad guy here? Did I trip the switch, and if I did, wouldn't I at least have planned a better escape than swimming across three hundred kilometers of fucking mud, without so much as a fucking sandwich, only to crawl up onto your fucking Strip after a fucking week to get stuck listening to your fucking whining? Does that make any sense at all?
"Or," —the voice leveling now, coming back under control— "did I just get screwed like everyone else, only I managed to get out alive? That might be enough to inspire a bit of ill-will even in a white N'AmPac have-it-all bitch like myself, don't you think?"
And somebody, she promised herself, is going to pay.
Amitav said nothing. He watched her with his sunken eyes, his expression gone blank and unfathomable once more.
Clarke sighed. "Do you really want to fuck with me, Amitav? Do you want to fuck with the people who did hit the switch? They don't exactly have a light touch when it comes to cleaning up their messes. Right now they think I'm dead. Do you want to be around me when they find I'm not?"
"And what is it about you," Amitav said at last, "that makes our lives so unimportant?"
She'd thought a lot about that. It had led her back to a bright shining moment of discovery she'd had as a child. She'd been astonished to learn that there was life on the moon: microscopic life, some kind of bacterium that had hitched a ride with the first unmanned probes. It had survived years of starvation in hard vacuum, frozen, boiled, pelted by an unending sleet of hard radiation.
Life, she'd learned, could survive anything. At the time it had been cause for hope.
"I think that maybe there's something inside me," she said now. "I think—"
Something brushed against her leg.
Her arm lashed out reflexively. Her fist clenched around the wrist of a young boy.
He'd been going for the gas billy on her calf.
"Ah," Clarke said. "Of course."
The boy stared back at her, petrified.
She turned back to Amitav; the child whimpered and squirmed in her grip. "Friend of yours?"
"Little diversionary tactic, perhaps? You don't have the balls to take me on, and none of your grown-up buddies will help out, so you use a fucking child?" She yanked on the small arm: the boy yelped.
Sleepers stirred in the distance, used to chronic disturbance. None seemed to fully awaken.
"Why should you care?" Amitav hissed. "It is not a weapon, you said so yourself. Am I a fool, to believe such claims when you come here waving it like an ataghan? What is it? A shockprod?"
"I'll show you," she said.
She bent, still gripping the child. A depolarizing blade protruded from the tip of her glove like a gray fingernail; at its touch, the sheath on her calf split as if scalpeled. The billy slid easily into her grip, a blunt ebony rod with a fluorescent band at the base of the handgrip.
Amitav raised his hands, suddenly placating. "There is no need—"
"Ah, but there is. Come in close, now."
Amitav took a step back.
"It works on contact," Clarke said. "Injects compressed gas. Comes in handy down on the rift, when the wildlife tries to eat you."
She thumbed the safety on the billy, jammed the rod point-down into the sand.
With a crack like the inside of a thunderclap, the beach exploded.
* * *
The universe rang like a tuning fork. She lay where the blast had thrown her. Her face stung as though sandblasted.
Her eyelids were clenched. It seemed like a very long time before she could open them again.
A crater yawned across three meters of sand, filling with groundwater.
She climbed to her feet. The Strip had leapt awake in an instant, fled outward, turned back and congealed into a ring of shocked and frightened faces.
Amazingly, she was still holding the billy.
She eyed the device with numb incredulity. She'd used it more times than she could count. Whenever one of Channer Vent's monsters had tried to take her apart she'd parried, jammed the billy home, watched as one more predator bloated and burst at her touch. It had been lethal enough to the fish, but it had never exploded with this kind of force before. Not down on the…
Oh, shit. On the Rift.
It had been calibrated to deliver a lethal charge at the bottom of the ocean, where five thousand PSI was a gentle burp. Down there it had been a reasonably effective weapon.
At sea level, without all those atmospheres pushing back, it was a bomb.
"I didn't mean—I thought…" Clarke looked around. An endless line of faces looked back.
Amitav lay sprawled on the opposite side of the crater. He moaned, brought one hand to his face.
There was no sign of the boy.
A thunderclap at midnight. Something exploded near a Calvin cycler just south of Gray's Harbor. A botfly had been coming around the headland to the south; it wasn't line-of-sight at detonation but it had ears. It sent an alert to home base and turboed over to investigate.
Sou-Hon Perreault was on duty. She'd swapped over to the graveyard shift the day she'd learned that mermaids came out at night. (Her husband, having recently learned about the special needs of vPTS victims, had accepted the change without complaint.) Now she slipped into the botfly's perceptual sphere and took stock.
A shallow crater yawned across the intertidal substrate. Tracking outward: chaotic tangles of heat and bioelectricity, restless as spooked cattle. Perreault narrowed the EM to amped visible; the heat lightning resolved into a milling mass of dull gray humanity.
The Strip had its own districts, its own self-generating ghettos within ghettos. The people here hailed mainly from the Indian subcon: Perreault set her primary filters to Punjabi, Bengali, and Urdu. She began asking questions.
An explosion, yes. Nobody really knew for certain what had led up to it. There had been raised voices, some said. Man, woman, child. Accusations of theft. And then, suddenly, bang.
Everyone awake after that, everyone in retreat. The woman waving some kind of shockprod like a club. The masses, keeping their distance. One man in the circle with her, blood on his face. Angry. Facing the woman, indifferent to the weapon in her hand. The child had vanished by this time, all agreed. Nobody knew who the child might have been.
Everyone remembered the adults, though. Amitav and the mermaid.
"Where did they go?" Perreault said; the botfly translated her words with toneless dispassion.
To the ocean. The mermaid always goes to the ocean.
"What about the other one? This Amitav?"
After her. With her. To the ocean.
Ten minutes past, perhaps.
Perreault pulled the botfly into a steep climb, panned along the Strip from fifty meters up. The refugees dissolved into a Brownian horde; waves of motion passed through the crowd far faster than any one person could make way. There: barely discernible, a fading line of turbulence connecting the crater to the surf. Milling particles, recently disrupted by the passage of something aimed.
She swooped down toward the waterline. Upturned faces everywhere, gray and luminous in the botfly's photoamps, following its course like sunflowers tracking the light.
Except for one, a ways down the beach, running south through ankle-deep foam. Not looking back.
Perreault widened the filters: nothing mechanical in the thorax. Not the mermaid. There were other anomalies, though. She was chasing a skeleton, a ludicrous emaciated throwback to the days when malnutrition was a recognized hallmark of refugees everywhere.
There was no need for starvation here. There'd been no need for years. This one had chosen to starve. This one was political.
No wonder he was running.
Perreault nudged the botfly into pursuit. It sped past its quarry in seconds, slewed around, and dropped down to block his escape. Perreault tripped the floods and pinned the refugee in twin beams of blinding halogen.
"Amitav," she said.
* * *
She'd heard of them, of course. They were rare, but not too rare for a label: stickmen, they were called. Perreault had never actually seen one in the flesh before.
Hindian. Sunken eyes, pools of sullen shadow. Blood oozing in a sheen of droplets from his face. One hand was raised to shield his eyes from the light; more blood rose from a raw stigmatum on the palm. Limbs, joints, fingers as sharp-edged and angular as origami protruding from his torn clothing. The soles of his feet had been sprayed with plastic in lieu of shoes.
The ocean hemmed him in on one side; strippers looked on curiously from all others, keeping clear of the halogen pool. Every segment of the stickman's frame was tensed, poised between equally-futile options of flight and attack
"Relax," Perreault said. "I only want to ask you some questions."
"Ah. Questions from a police robot," he said. Thin lips drawn back from brown teeth, the cracks between bloody. A cynical rictus. "I am relieved."
She blinked. "You speak English."
"It is not an uncommon language. Not as stylish as French these days, though, yes? What do you want?"
Perreault disabled the translator. "What happened back there?"
"There is no cause to worry. None of your machinery was harmed."
"I'm not interested in the machinery. There was an explosion."
"Your wonderful machines do not provide us with explosives," Amitav pointed out.
"There was a woman, a diver. There was a child."
The stickman glowered.
"I just want to know what happened," Perreault told him. "I'm not looking to give you any trouble."
Amitav spat. "Of course not. You blind me to test my eyes, yes?"
Perreault killed the floods. Black and white faded to gray.
"Thank you," Amitav said after a moment.
"Tell me what happened."
"She said it was an accident," Amitav said.
"The child was—Clarke had this, I am not sure of the word, this club. On her leg. She called it a billy."
Clarke. "Do you know her first name?"
"No." Amitav snorted. "Kali is as good a name as any, though."
"The child, he—he tried to steal it. While we were—talking."
"You didn't stop him?"
Amitav shifted uncomfortably. "I believe she was trying to show the child that the billy was dangerous," he said. "In that she succeeded. I myself flew. It left marks." He smiled, held up his hands once more, palms up. Flayed flesh, oozing blood.
Amitav fell silent and looked out to sea. Perreault's perspective bobbed slightly in a sudden breeze, as though the botfly was nodding.
"I do not know what happened to the child," Amitav said at last. "By the time I could stand again he was gone. Clarke was looking for him, though."
"Who is she?" Perreault asked softly. "Do you know her?"
He spat. "She would not say so."
"But you've seen her before. Tonight was not the first time."
"Oh yes. Your pets here" —looking at the other refugees— "they come to me whenever something requires initiative, yes? They tell me where the mermaid is, so I can go and deal with her."
"But you two are connected somehow. You're friends, or—"
"We are not sheep," Amitav said. "That is all we have in common. Here, it is enough."
"I want to know about her."
"That is wise," Amitav said, more quietly.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because she survived what you did to her. Because she knows you did it."
"I didn't do anything."
The stickman waved one dismissive hand. "No matter. She will come for you anyway."
"What happened? What was done to her?"
"She did not say, exactly. She says very little. And sometimes, when she does say things, she does not say them to anyone here, yes? At least, no one I can see. But they get her quite upset."
"She sees ghosts?"
Amitav shrugged. "Ghosts are not uncommon here. I am speaking to one now."
"You know I'm no ghost."
"Not a real one, perhaps. You only haunt machinery."
Sou-Hon Perreault looked for a filter to tweak. She couldn't find one that fit.
"She said you caused the earthquake," Amitav said suddenly. "She says you sent the wave that killed so many of us."
"And you would know, yes? Your leaders would share such things with the drivers of mechanical insects?"
"Why would anyone do something like that?"
Amitav shrugged. "Ask Clarke. If you can find her."
"Can you help me do that?"
"Certainly." He pointed to the Pacific. "She is out there."
"Will you see her again?"
"I do not know."
"Can you let me know if you do?"
"And how would I do that even if I wished to?"
"Sou-Hon," Perreault said.
"I do not understand."
"That's my name. Sou-Hon. I can program the botflies to recognize your voice. If they hear you calling me, they'll let me know."
"Ah," Amitav said.
Amitav smiled. "Don't call us. We'll call you."
In South Bend, the mermaid killed a man.
Willapa Bay ruptured the Strip like an ulcer twelve kilometers across. Official surveillance of that gap had not been designed to catch people for whom breathing was optional; now the coast was fifteen klicks behind her. This far in, the wave had been thwarted by headlands and a thick stubby island, clogging the inlet like a cyst. The Big One had merely trembled here. The wreckage and desolation was all of local origin.
She emerged past midnight onto a dark, corroded segment of waterfront, long since abandoned to a creeping blight of premillennial toluene. Nervous late-night pedestrians glimpsed her on the edge of the city core and increased their pace from A to B. The last time Clarke had wandered civilized streets there'd been free wristwatch dispensers on every second corner, a half-hearted sop to those who'd have empowered the masses through access to information. She could find no dispensers in this place, only an old public phone standing guard in fluorescent twilight. She interrogated it. She was here, it told her. Yves Scanlon lived there, three hundred kilometers to the northeast.
He wouldn't be expecting her. She faded to black. Indifferent security cameras reduced her to a transient assemblage of infrared pixels.
She clambered back down concrete scree to an oily waterline. Something called to her as she retrieved her fins: muffled, familiar sounds from an abandoned customs office.
It could have been the splintering of rotten pilings. Maybe a boot against ribs, with flesh getting in the way. Something knotted in Clarke's throat. There's no end to the things you can slam into a human body. She'd lost count of the different sounds they made.
Almost too faint to hear, more whimper than words: "Fuck, man…" The muted hum of an electrical discharge. A groan.
A walkway extended around the derelict office; junk piled along its length waited to trip anyone not gifted with night eyes. At the other side of the building, a dock jutted from the waterfront on wooden pilings. Two figures stood on that platform, a man and a woman. Four others lay twitching at their feet. A police botfly slept on the pier, conveniently offline.
Technically, of course, it was not an assault. Both aggressors wore uniforms and badges conferring the legal right to beat whomever they chose. Tonight they'd chosen an entrée of juveniles, laid out along the creosote-stained planks like gutted fish. Those bodies twitched with the spastic neural static of shockprod discharge; beyond that, they didn't react to the boots in their sides. Clarke could hear snatches of conversation from the uniforms, talk of curfew violations and unauthorized use of the Maelstrom.
And of trespassing.
"On government property, no less," remarked the male, lifting one arm in a grand gesture that took in the dock, the pilings, the derelict office, Lenie Clarke—
—Shit he's wearing nightshades they're both wearing nightshades—
"You!" The policeman took a single step toward the office, pointing his shockprod at the shadows in which she lay exposed. "Stand away from the building!"
* * *
There'd been a time, not so long ago, when Lenie Clarke would have obeyed without thinking. She'd have followed orders even though she knew what was coming, because she'd learned that you deal with violence by just shutting up and getting it over with. It would hurt, of course. That was the whole point. But it was better than the chronic queasiness, the expectation, the endless interludes between assaults where you could only wait for it to happen.
More recently, she would have simply fled. Or at least withdrawn. None of my business, she'd have told herself, and departed before anyone even knew she was there. She had done that when Mike Brander, denied revenge upon those who'd made his childhood a living hell, had used Gerry Fischer as a convenient proxy. It had been none of my business when Beebe Station resounded with the sound of Brander's rage and Fischer's breaking bones. It had been none of my business when Brander, shift after shift, had stood guard in the wet room, daring Fischer to come back inside. Eventually Fischer had faded from man to child to reptile, an empty inhuman cipher living on the edge of the rift. Even then, it had been none of Lenie Clarke's business.
But Gerry Fischer was dead now. So was Lenie Clarke, for that matter. She'd died with the others: Alice and Mike and Ken and Gerry, all turned into white-hot vapor. They were all dead, and when the stone had been rolled away and the voice had rung out, Lazarus! Come forth! it hadn't been any of Lenie Clarke's friends that had risen from the grave. It hadn't even been Lenie Clarke. Not the soft squirming career victim of her dryback days, anyway. Not the opaque chrysalis gestating down on the rift. It had been something newly-forged, acid-washed, some white-hot metamorph of Lenie Clarke that had never existed before.
Now it was confronted by a familiar icon—an authority, a giver of orders, an eager practitioner of the legal right to commit violence upon her. She did not regard its challenge as an order to be obeyed. She did not consider it a situation to be avoided.
For Lenie Clarke Mark II, it was a long-overdue invitation to dance.
BCC5932 TRIGGER STIMULUS / THROUGHPUT INTERCEPT
Obj. Class: file packet / benign
Obj. Species: pers. comm. (NI) / packet 7 of 23 / voice modem decrypt
Obj. Source: corrupted
Obj. Destination: multi (ref. cc)
EXCISE CRITERION: 255-CHR BRACKET INI/FIN TRIGGERING STIMULI.
that likely to get away with it forever. A little too metallic if you know what I mean. Anyway, they haven't caught us at it yet.
We did get caught a few days back, though, over something else again. Except we lucked into this avenging angel. No shit. Lenie Clarke, her name was. It was our own stupid fault, I guess. Didn't check for leakage when we logged on. Anyhow, les beus came down on us, they got everyone except Haj and me, and what could we do except run for it? And they had everybody down and all of a sudden there's this K-selector walking out of nowhere, looks like one of those old litcrits with the teeth, you know, vampires. All in black and she's wearing the absolute thickest ConTacs you ever saw, even thicker than les beus. Barely see her eyes behind them. Anyhow, she just walks out of the shadows and right into them.
You wouldn’t think she’d last two seconds. I mean, she didn’t even notice the shockprods, I don’t think that suit of hers carries a charge, but still. She just wasn’t that big, you know? And they were really whaling on her, and she just took it. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Or like—you know—almost like she got off on it, or something.
Anyway, she wraps her arms around this big beefy antibody and she just pushes, and they go right over the edge, and the sterilites go on when they hit the water—kind of wild those things still work, pier hasn’t seen any boat traffic in years—and the water lights up all cool and radium-glow and there’s some splashing and then there's this big whoomf and it's like this huge bubble of blood and guts just sort of boils up to the surface and the water's like completely gone to rust.
She's like some kinda amphibian, one of those rifter cyborgs. We met up with her after, she came back to pick up her fins when things had cooled down. Don't ask me what she was doing here in the middle of the night. Didn't talk much and we didn't push. We set her up with some snacks and supplies—she'd been eating from cyclers on the Strip, if you can believe it. Although it didn't seem to've dulled her edge any. Gave her my watch. She hadn't even heard about the curfew. I had to show her how to get around the timelock. Guess you lose touch with things when you spend all your time on the bottom of the ocean. Not that it held her back any. You should’ve seen that asshole. They fished him out of the water like an old rag. I would've paid to see his face, you know?
I tried to look her up but Lenie Clarke isn't exactly sockeye on the registry. Got more hits than holocausts. She did mention her home town, I think, but I couldn't find that either. Any of you guys ever hear of a place called Beebe?
Anyhow, far as I know she's still at large. Les beus are probably looking for her, but I bet fifty QueBucks they don't even know what she looks like under all that gear, never mind who she is. I mean, they hardly ever catch us, and they know everything there is to know about us. Well, not everything. Right, m
Lenie Clarke/Beebe CONFIRMED.
ADD SEARCH TERMS: amphibian/s, rifter/s, cyborg/s
OVERLAY TEMPLATE. RESEQUENCE TEXT.
SPREAD THE WORD.
Perreault hadn't needed Amitav's permission, of course. She'd programmed the botflies to recognize him anyway. She'd dropped a cloud of mosquitoes, too, little flying sensors no bigger than rice grains. They were braindead, but they could afford to be; they relayed raw telemetry back to the 'flies for all the real analysis. That increased coverage by an order of magnitude, at least until their batteries gave out.
It would still be a crap-shoot: a botfly or skeet would have to be line-of-sight with Amitav once she'd put out the call, and there'd have to be enough of him visible to make an ID—very iffy, given the human congestion on the Strip. It would be easy enough for the stickman to hide, should he choose to.
Still. Long odds were better than none.
She finished a late supper across the table from her husband, noted his forlorn hopeless scrutiny almost in passing. Marty was doing his utmost, she knew—giving space, giving support. Waiting for that predictable moment when the shock wore off, her defenses fell, and she needed help picking up the pieces. Every now and then Perreault would search herself for signs of that imminent breakdown. Nothing. The antidepressants were still having some effect, of course, even after her system had shocked itself into partial immunity; but that shouldn't have been enough. She should be feeling something by now.
She was. Intense, passionate, all-consuming. Curiosity.
She squeezed Martin's hand across the table and headed toward her office. It was almost a half-hour until her shift began, but nobody on the circuit minded if she started early. She slid into her seat—a favored antique with flared arms and a skin of real leather—and was reaching for her headset when her husband's hand fell lightly onto her shoulder.
"Why does she matter so much?" he asked. It was the first time he'd come into her office since the breakdown.
"Marty, I've got to go to work."
She sighed and swiveled her chair to face him. "I don't know. It's—it's a mystery, I guess. Something to solve."
"It's more than that."
"Why? Why does it have to be?" She heard the exasperation in her own voice, saw its effect on her husband. She took a breath and tried again. "I don't know. It's just—you wouldn't think a single person could count for much, but—she's making an impression, you know? At least on the Strip. She matters, somehow …"
Martin shook his head. "Is that what she is to you? A role model?"
"I didn't say—"
"She could be something else, Sou. What if she's a fugitive?"
"It must have crossed your mind. Someone from N'Am—or I don't know, not your standard refugee, anyway. Why's she staying out on the Strip? Why doesn't she want to go home? What's she hiding from?"
"I don't know. That's what makes it a mystery."
"She could be dangerous."
"What, to me? She's way out on the coast! She doesn't even know I exist!"
"Still. You should report it."
"Maybe." Perreault swiveled deliberately back to her desk. "I really have to work now, Martin."
He wouldn't have let her off so easily before, of course. But he knew his assigned role, he'd been coached by a half-dozen well-meaning authorities. Your wife has just come through a very traumatic experience. She's fragile. Let her move at her own pace.
So he didn't. A little piece of Sou-Hon felt guilty for taking advantage of that restraint. The rest was reveling in the cradling embrace of the headset around her skull, the sudden pinpoint control over what was and wasn't perceived, the—
"Semen-sucking savior," she whispered.
The alert was flashing all over the left side of her visual field. One of the botflies had got a nibble. More than a nibble; a big predatory bite. It was hovering less than three meters off-target.
Not Amitav either, this time. A marriage of flesh and machinery. One woman, with clockwork.
* * *
Deep night, beneath an endless cloudbank. Across the black water, floodlights and heaters smudged distant light along the Strip. Perreault triggered the photoamps.
The mermaid crouched directly ahead on a jagged reef, a hundred-fifty meters from shore. The ocean, sparkling with microbial phosphorescence, tried to dislodge her. Between waves, the reef jutted a meter above the waterline, myriad tiny waterfalls draining down its sides; when the water crested the mermaid became a round black boulder herself, barely visible in the luminous foam.
She climbed to her feet. The surge rose above her knees; she staggered, but stayed upright. Her face was a pale oval painted onto a black body. Her eyes were paler ovals painted onto her face. They panned past the hovering botfly.
They did not seem to notice it.
Her face tilted down, stared directly ahead. One slick ebony arm reached forward, the fingers extended; a blind woman, reaching for something she couldn't see. Clarke's mouth moved. Any words were lost in the roar of the surf. Perreault slid filters past critical thresholds. Ocean sounds squelched into silence. Now only the shriek of distant gulls and a few syllables:
Perreault squelched the high frequencies as well. Now the mermaid stood in an utterly silent tableau, the Pacific crashing soundlessly on all sides.
"You never did," she said. Tide surged silently between her legs. The mermaid's reaching fingers closed around empty space. She seemed surprised.
Another wave swept the reef. The mermaid staggered, recovered. Perreault noticed that both of her hands were balled into fists.
"Dad." Almost a whisper.
"Ms. Clarke," Perreault said. The mermaid did not respond.
Right. The surf. Perreault increased the volume, tried again: "Ms. Clarke."
The mermaid's head jerked up. "You! What is it?"
"Ms. Clarke, I've been—"
"Something in the food? Some sort of psychoactive? Is that what this is?"
"Ms. Clarke, I don't know what—"
The mermaid smiled, a hideous baring of teeth beneath cold white eyespots. "Fine. I can take it. Do your worst."
"This is fucking nothing. You just wait."
The Pacific surged silently up from behind her, swept her from the reef in the blink of an eye. The cameras caught a last freeze-framed moment: A fist, raised briefly above the boiling water. Gone.
This is fucking nothing. You just wait.
Sou-Hon Perreault didn't know that she could.
The lock groaned open like the gates of an iron cathedral. Earthquakes lived in that sound, twisting metal, skyscrapers torqued painfully on their axes. Slow surge pushed flotsam from great doors that stirred the ocean.
Rising within that sound, another one: triple screws, cavitating.
She'd placed herself a few hundred meters offshore, in the center of a dredged scar leading to deep water. Gray's Harbor's commercial traffic passed directly overhead. By now she'd had enough practice to make it work. She rose a few meters off the bottom; the drag from the new backpack slowed her a bit, but she was getting used to it. Echosounding pulses from the approaching vessel tapped against her implants. The murky water went suddenly, ominously dark—first to her right, then directly overhead. The water pushed her backwards . An instant later a black wall, studded with rivets, rushed obliquely out of the murk and streamed past, filling the ocean. The hiss of approaching screws filled the water.
She'd counted herself lucky, so far, that none of the ships had smashed into her. She knew those odds were low—bow waves pushed water and flotsam aside—but such reassuring insights always occurred during quiet moments on the bottom. Now, with a cliff of motion-blurred metal within touching distance, she could only think of fly-swatters.
She broke the surface; the cliff shimmered into sudden sharp focus, black and rusty-red, a great concave overhang eclipsing three-quarters of the sky. An ice-wrangler. She turned to face the approaching stern. Racing toward her, edge-on, a metal fin angled down and out from the hull just above the waterline. Foam boiled where its distal end cut the water.
A trim tab. It could give her a free ride, or take off her head. If she floated along the surface—just past the point where the metal slashed the sea—the tip of the fin would pass beneath her. There'd be a split-second to grab at the leading edge.
Maybe ten seconds to get into position.
She almost made it.
Her right hand hooked the fin; the left slid off, confounded by turbulence. In an instant the tab was past, taking Clarke's hand with it. Everything went bowstring-taut in an instant. Her right shoulder popped from its socket. Clarke tried to scream. Her flooded amphibian body drowned the sound at conception.
She drew her left arm forward. Drag slapped it back. She tried again. The muscles of her right shoulder screamed in outrage. Her left hand crept upstream along the surface of the tab; finally its fingers found the leading edge, hooked reflexively.
Her shoulder popped back into place. Those muscles, never satisfied, screamed all over again.
A cascade of water and foam tried to push her off. The wrangler was moving dead slow and she was barely hanging on. They'd be opening the throttle the moment they past the last channel-marker.
She edged laterally up the slope. Seawater thinned to spray; then she was clear, lying against the main hull. She split her face seal; her lung reinflated with a tired sigh.
The tab angled down at about twenty degrees. Clarke propped her back against the hull and brought her knees up, planting her feet downslope. She was wedged securely a good two meters from the water; the soles of her fins provided more than enough traction to keep her from slipping.
The outermost channel spar slid past. The vessel began picking up speed. Clarke kept one eye on the shore, the other on her nav panel. It didn't take long for the readings to change.
At last. This one was turning north. She relaxed.
The Strip scrolled slowly past in the distance, backed by the vertebral spikes of its eastern towers. At this range she could barely make out movement on shore; diffuse patches in vague motion, at best. Clouds of flightless gnats.
She thought of Amitav, the anorexic. The only one with the balls to come right out and openly hate her.
She wished him well.
Achilles Desjardins had always found smart gels a bit creepy. People thought of them as brains in boxes, but they weren't. They didn't have the parts. Forget about the neocortex or the cerebellum—these things had nothing. No hypothalamus, no pineal gland, no sheathing of mammal over reptile over fish. No instincts. No desires. Just a porridge of cultured neurons, really: four-digit IQs that didn't give a rat's ass whether they even lived or died. Somehow they learned through operant conditioning, although they lacked the capacity either to enjoy reward or suffer punishment. Their pathways formed and dissolved with all the colorless indifference of water shaping a river delta.
But Desjardins had to admit they had their uses. Wildlife didn't stand a chance going up against a head cheese.
Not that wildlife hadn't tried, of course. But the Maelstrom ecosystems had evolved in a world of silicon and arsenide—a few hundred basic operating systems, endlessly repeated. Predictable registers and addresses. Stuff you could count on; not some slab of thinking meat in constant flux. Even if some shark did manage to scope out that architecture, it would be no farther ahead. Gels rewired themselves with each passing thought; what good is a map when the landscape won't stop moving?
That was the theory, anyway. The proof was an eye of calm, staring out from the heart of Maelstrom itself. Since the day of its birth the gels had kept it clean, a high-speed computational landscape unpolluted by worms or viruses or digital predators. One day, a long time ago, the whole network had been this clean. Perhaps one day it would be again, if the gels lived up to their potential. For the time being, though, only a select two or three million souls were allowed inside.
It was called Haven, and Achilles Desjardins practically lived there.
Now he was spinning a web across one pristine corner of his playground. Rowan's biochemical stats had already been sent to Jovellanos's station: the first thing he did was establish an update link. Then he looked over the ramparts, peeking past the shoulders of the vigilant gels into Maelstrom proper. There were things out there that had to be brought inside—carefully, though, mindful of the sparkling floors:
Tap into EOS archives. Get daily radar maps of soil moisture for the past year, if available. (A big if, these days. Desjardins had tried to load a copy of Bonny Anne from the library the week before, only to find they'd started wiping all books that hadn't been accessed for more than a two-month period. The same old mantra: storage limitations.) EM snaps of polyelectrolytes and complexing cations. Multispectrals on all major chlorophylls, xanthophylls, carotenoids: iron and soil nitrogen, too. And just to be thorough—without much hope, mind you—query the NCBI database for recent constructs with real-world viability.
Competing with conventional primary producers, Rowan had said. Meaning the conventional bugs might be dying off: do a spectral for elevated soil methane. Distribution potentially temperature-limited; infrared, crossed with albedo and windspeed. Restrict all searches to a polygon extending from the spine of the Cascades out to the coast, and from Cape Flattery down to the thirty-eighth parallel.
Draw the threads together. Squeeze the signal through the usual statistical gauntlet: path analysis, Boltzmann transforms, half-a-dozen breeds of nonlinear estimation. Discriminant functions. Hankins filters. Principal component analysis. Interferometry profiles across a range of wavelengths. Lynn-Hardy hyperniche tables. Repeat all analyses with intervariable time-lags in sequence from zero days to thirty.
Desjardins played at his panel. Abstract shapes condensed from diffuse clouds of data, winked provocatively at the corner of his eye, vanished the moment he focused on them. Fuzzy white lines from a dozen directions interwove, colored, took on intricate fractal patterns—
But no. This mosaic had a P value greater than 0.25; that one violated assumptions of homoscedasticity. The little one in the corner drove the Hessians fucking crazy. One flawed thread, barely visible, and the whole carpet unraveled. Tear it down, bleach out the transforms, start from scratch—
Wait a minute.
Correlation coefficient of -0.873. What was that all about?
Temperature. Temperature went up when chlorophyll went down.
Why the hell didn't I see that before? Oh, there. A time-lag. What the…
A soft chime in his ear: "Hey Killjoy. I've got something really strange here."
"Me too," Desjardins replied.
* * *
Jovellanos's office was just down the hall; it still took her a few minutes to show up at his door. The caffeine spike clenched in her hand told him why.
"You should get more sleep," he remarked. "You won't need so many chemicals."
She raised an eyebrow. "This from the man with half his bloodstream registered in the patent office." Jovellanos hadn't had her shots yet. She didn't need them in her current position, but she was too good at her job to stay where she was much longer. Desjardins looked forward to the day when her righteous stance on the Sanctity of Free Will went head-to-head against the legal prerequisites for promotion. She'd probably take one look at the list of perks and the new salary, and cave.
He had, anyway.
He spun his chair back to the console and brought the correlation matrix up on the display. "Look at this. Chloroes go down, soil temperature goes up."
"Huge P-value," Jovellanos said.
"Small sample size. That's not the point: look at the time-lag."
She leaned forward. "Those are awfully big confidence limits."
"The lag's not consistent. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for the temp to rise, sometimes a few weeks."
"That's barely even a pattern, Killjoy. Anything--"
"Take a guess at the magnitude," he broke in.
"Loss of plant cover, right?" Jovellanos shrugged. "Assuming it is a real effect, say half a degree? Quarter?"
Desjardins showed her.
"Holy shit," she said. "This bug starts fires?"
"Something does, anyway. I scanned the municipal archives along the coast: all local firestorms, mostly attributed to acts of terrorism or 'industrial accidents'. Also a couple of tree farms going down for some agro pest—budworm or something."
Jovellanos was at his elbow, her hands running over his console. "What about other fires in the area…"
"Oh, lots. Even keeping strictly within the search window, I found a good eight or nine that didn't correlate. A ties to B, but not vice versa."
"So maybe it's a fluke," she said hopefully. "Maybe it doesn't mean anything."
"Or maybe somebody else has a better track on this bug than we do."
Jovellanos didn't answer for a moment. Then: "Well, we might be able to improve our own track a bit."
Desjardins glanced up. "Yeah?"
"I've been working up that sample they gave us. They're not making it easy, they haven't left a single intact organelle as far as I can tell—"
He waved her on: "It all looks the same to a mass spec."
"Only if they left all the pieces behind after they mashed them."
"Of course they did. Otherwise you'd never get an accurate sig."
"Well, I can't find half the stuff that's supposed to be there. No phospholipids, even. Lots of nucleotides, but I can't get them to fit a DNA template. So your bug's probably RNA-based."
"Uh-huh." No surprises there—lots of microbes got along just fine without DNA.
"Also I've managed to reconstruct some simple enzymes, but they're a bit too stiff in the joints to work properly, you know? Oh, and this is kind of weird: I've found a couple of D-aminos."
"Ah." Desjardins nodded sagely. "That means what, exactly?"
"Right-handed. The asymmetric carbons stick off the wrong side of the molecule. Like your usual left-handed amino, only flipped."
A mirror image. "So?"
"So that makes 'em useless; all metabolic pathways have been geared for L-aminos and only L-aminos, for the past three billion years at least. There's a couple of bacteria that use R-aminos because they're useless—they stick them onto their cell walls to make 'em indigestible—but that's not what we're dealing with here."
Desjardins pushed back in his chair. "So someone built this thing completely from scratch, is that what you're saying? We've got another new bug on our hands."
Jovellanos shook her head, disgusted. "And that corpse didn't even tell you."
"Maybe she doesn't know."
Jovellanos pointed at the GIS overlay. Two dozen crimson pinpoints sparkled along the coast from Hongcouver to Newport. Two dozen tiny anomalies of soil and water chemistry. Two dozen visitations from an unknown microbe, each presaging a small fiery apocalypse.
"Somebody knows," Jovellanos said.
On all sides Hongcouver licked its wounds.
The city had always been a coward, hiding behind Vancouver Island and a maze of local bathymetry. That had spared it from the worst effects of the tsunami. The quake itself had been another story, of course.
In an earlier day, before Maelstrom and telecommuting and city centers half-abandoned, the death toll in the core would have been three times as high. As it was, those who'd been spared vivisection downtown had merely died closer to home. Whole subdivisions, built on the effluvial sediment of the Fraser Delta, had shuddered into sudden quicksand and disappeared. Richmond and White Rock and Chilliwack didn't exist any more. Mount Rainier had awakened overnight in a bad mood; fresh lava continued to flow over most of its southern face. Mount Adams was stirring and might yet blow.
In the Hongcouver core, damage was more heterogeneous. Streets stretched for blocks without so much as a broken window. Then, across some arbitrary intersection, the world became a place of shattered buildings and upended asphalt. Bright yellow barriers, erected after the fact, drew boundaries around the injured areas. Lifters hung above the dark zones like white blood cells on a tumor. Fresh girders and paneling descended from on high, reconstructive grafts of metropolitan skin and bone. Heavy machinery grumbled in the canyons where they touched down.
In between, patches of cityscape hummed at half-power, emergency Ballard stacks jumpered into convenient substations. Those streets that hadn't upended, those buildings that hadn't been shrugged into False Creek, had been swept clean and reactivated. Field crematoria belched ash from the corner of Georgia and Denman, keeping—so far—one step ahead of the cholera bug. More barriers than buildings, these days. Not that there was anywhere else to go; CSIRA had sealed the border at Hell's Gate.
Benrai Dutton had survived it all.
He'd been lucky; his splitfit condo was halfway up Point Gray, an island of granite in a sea of sand. While neighborhoods on all sides had vanished, the Point had merely slipped a little.
Even here there was damage, of course. Most of the houses on the lower face had collapsed; the few still standing listed drunkenly to the east. No lights shone from them or the lamp-posts lining the street, even though night was falling. A jury-rigged line of portable floods shone from poles separating wrecked homes from standing ones, but they had a defensive air about them. They existed, not to bring light to the ruins, but as a perimeter against them.
They existed to blind Benrai Dutton when a crazy woman leapt at his throat from the shadows.
Suddenly he was transfixed: cold bright eyes without pupils, glaciers embedded in flesh. A disembodied face, almost as pale as the eyes it contained. Invisible hands, one around his neck, one at his chest—
—no not invisible she's in black she's all in black—
"I am not going to give up!" She hissed, slamming him against a chain link fence. Her breath swirled between them like backlit fog. "He took his shots, he took a thousand fucking shots, and I am not going to let him just walk away!"
"Who—what are you—"
She stopped, suddenly. She cocked her head as though seeing him for the first time.
"Where the fuck did you come from?" she said, absurdly.
She was a good fifteen centimeters shorter than he was. For some reason it did not occur to him to fight back.
"I don't, I—I was just going home…" Dutton managed.
"That place," the woman said. Her eyes—nightshades of some kind?--drilled his own.
She slammed him back against the chain link. "That place!"—jerking her chin at something over his left shoulder. Dutton turned his head; another splitfit, intact but empty and dark all the same.
"That place? I don't—"
"Yes, that place! Yves Scanlon's fucking place. You know him?"
"No, I—I mean, I don't really know anyone here, we kind of keep to—"
"Where did he go?" she hissed.
"Go?" he said weakly.
"The place is absolutely empty! No furniture, no clothing, not so much as fucking light bulb!"
"Maybe—maybe he left—the quake—"
She knotted her fists more tightly into his clothing, leaned in until they were almost kissing. "His place doesn't have a fucking scratch on it. Why would he leave? How could he? He's nobody, he's a fucking pissant, you think he could just pick up and walk past the quarantine?"
Dutton shook his head frantically. "I don't know—really, I don't—"
She stared into him for a few moments. Her hair was wet; it hadn't rained all day. "I don't—I don't know you…" she murmured, almost to herself. Slowly her fists unclenched. Dutton sagged back against the fence.
She stepped back, giving him room to move.
It was what he'd been waiting for. One hand swept briefly beneath his jacket. The taser jabbed her in the ribcage, just below a strange metallic disk sewn into her uniform. It should have dropped her in an instant.
Within that instant:
Her right knee came up, hard. Naturally he wore a cup. It hurt like hell anyway—
Her right hand slipped forward, against her upraised calf. Something sprang into it—
The crazy woman stepped back, arm extended. Two centimeters from his face, an ebony wand with a tiny spike at its tip stared at Dutton like a one-toothed mamba.
Over the pain in his crotch, sudden wet warmth.
She smiled a small, terrifying smile. "Use a microwave, little man?"
"Kitchen appliances? Sensorium? Keep your house warm in winter?"
He bobbed his head. "Yes. Yes, of course I—"
"Huh." The mamba wiggled over his left eye. "Then I was wrong. I know you after all."
"No," he stammered. "We've never—"
"I know you," she repeated. "And you owe me."
Her thumb moved against something on the wand's handgrip. Dutton heard a small click.