"Please…" he prayed.
And amazingly, something answered him.
* * *
Hongcouver was still a disaster zone, of course; the police had more pressing concerns than an unlikely apparition reported by some panicky dickwad. Still, the server took Dutton's report when he called it in. The server wasn't human, but it was smart enough to ask follow-up questions—like, had he noticed anything, anything at all, that might have caused his assailant to suddenly break off the assault?
Could he think of any reason why she would be suddenly start babbling about dad like that? Did the reference to monsters make any sense, in context?
Maybe she was just crazy, Dutton replied, although as the server noted he was not qualified to make medical diagnoses.
Had he seen where she had gone, exactly?
Just downhill. Into the wreckage, toward the water.
And he sure as shit hadn't been going to follow her down there.
Vancity CU/N'AmPac Transaction Server
Personal Accounts, Broadway ATM-45, 50/10/05/0551
Welcome to VanCity. Are you a member?
"I couldn't link, before. Using my watch."
Remote access curfew is in effect until 10:00am. At present this terminal can only process on-site transactions. We apologise for any inconvenience. Are you a member?
Welcome, Ms. Clarke. Please remove your corneal overlays.
We cannot open your account without eyeprint confirmation. Please remove your corneal overlays.
Thank you. Scanning.
Complete. Thank you, Ms. Clarke. You may proceed.
"What's my total balance?"
"I want to download it all."
Has Vancity's service been satisfactory?
"It's been fine."
We can see your wristwatch, and a subcutaneous money-chip in your left thigh. How would you like the funds distributed?
"Forty thousand sub-q, the rest to the watch. Automatic transfer of all funds sub-q if I'm attacked."
That condition can't be evaluated. Your watch is not equipped with a biotelemetry plug-in.
"Automatic transfer on voice-linked password, then."
Please repeat the password.
Please repeat the password.
"I said, shadow."
Done. Would you like another transaction?
Vancity thanks you for your business.
* * *
Sears Medbooth 199/Granville Island/Hongcouver
Transaction record, vocal, 50/10/05/0923
(Test results filed separately.)
Welcome to Sears Medical Services. Please open your account.
Thank you. Do you wish to limit your charges?
What can we do for you today?
"My right shoulder. Sprained or broken or something. And a blood scan. Paths especially."
Please provide blood sample.
Thank you. Please provide your medical history or your WestHem ID#.
Access to your medical records will help us provide better service. All information will be kept strictly confidential except in the event of a public health or marketing priority, and in such cases we may be legally required to sequence-ID your sample anyway.
"I'll take my chances. No thanks."
Your shoulder has been recently dislocated, but is presently reseated. You will continue to experience pain and stiffness for approximately two months without treatment. You will experience reduced mobility for at least a year without treatment. Would you like treatment for the pain?
We're sorry, but recent heavy user demand has depleted our stock of painkillers. Anabolic accelerants can reduce the healing period to three to five days. Shall I administer anabolic accelerants?
We're sorry, but recent heavy user demand has depleted our stock of accelerants. Your blood shows minor deficiencies in calcium and trace-sulfur. You have elevated levels of the hormones serotonin, oxytocin, and cortisol; elevated platelet and antibody counts consistent with moderate physical injury within the past three weeks. None of these findings should cause you serious concern, although the mineral deficiencies may reflect poor dietary habits. Would you like dietary mineral supplements?
"You actually have any?"
Sears medbooths are regularly maintained and resupplied to ensure that you have reliable access to the best in quality medical care. Would you like dietary supplements?
Cellular metabolites are high. Your blood lactate is low. Blood gases and amine count—
"What about diseases?"
All pathogen counts are within documented safe ranges.
The standard blood panel tests for over eight hundred known pathogens and parasites. More extensive analysis is available for a small additional charge, but the analysis would take up to six hours. Would you like—
"No, I—but that can't be it, I mean—is that it?"
Is there some specific symptom that concerns you?
"Aren't there some kinds of infections that cause hallucinations?"
Can you describe these hallucinations?
"Visions only. No sound or smell or anything. I've been having them for a few weeks now, on and off. Once every few days, maybe. They go away by themselves, after a minute or two."
And can you describe what you see in these visions?
"Who cares? It's just bad biochemistry, right? Can't you do a brain scan or something?"
The NMR helmet in this booth is presently out of service, and there are no detectable psychoactives in your blood. However, different conditions can give rise to different types of hallucinations, so I may still be able to offer a diagnosis. Can you describe what you see in your visions?
Could you be more specific?
"This is bullshit. You think I don't know you charge by the second?"
Our rates are strictly
"Tell me what's wrong with me or I disconnect."
I don't have enough information for a proper diagnosis.
Neurological damage is a strong possibility. Strokes—even very small ones that you may not be consciously aware of—can sometimes trigger visual-release hallucinations.
"Strokes? Ruptured blood vessels, that kind of thing?"
Yes. Have you recently undergone a rapid change in ambient pressure? For example, have you spent some time at high altitude or in an orbital environment, or perhaps returned from an underwater excursion?
Client disconnect 50/10/05/0932
There were people who would have described Achilles Desjardins as a murderer a million times over.
He had to admit there was a certain truth to that. Every quarantine he invoked trapped the living alongside the dying, ensured that at least some of those still alive soon wouldn't be. But what was the alternative, after all? Let every catastrophe run free, to engulf the world unchecked?
Desjardins could handle the ethics, with a little help from his chemical sidekicks. He knew in his heart of hearts that that he'd never really killed anyone. He'd just—contained them, to save others. The actual killing had been done by whatever pestilence he'd been fighting. It may have been a subtle distinction, but it was a real one.
There were rumors, though. There'd always been rumors: the next logical step. The unconfirmed tales of deaths caused, not in the wake of some disaster, but in advance of it.
Preemptive containment, it was called. Path scans would pinpoint some burb—superficially healthy, but we all know how much stock you can put in that— as Contagion Central for The Next Big Bug. Monte Carlo sims would show with 99 percent confidence that the impending threat would get around conventional quarantines, or prove immune to the usual antibiotics. LD90s would estimate the mortality rate at 50%, or 80%, or whatever was deemed unacceptable that week, over an area of so many thousand hectares. So another one of those pesky wildfires would spring up in the parched N'American heartland— and Dicksville, Arkansas would tragically drop off the map.
Just rumors, of course. Nobody confirmed it or denied it. Nobody even really talked about it, except for Alice when she went on one of her rants. On those occasions, Desjardins would reflect that even if the stories were true—and even if such measures were a bit farther down the slippery slope than he was comfortable with—well, anyway, what was the alternative? Let every catastrophe run free, to engulf the world unchecked?
Mostly, though, he didn't think about it. Certainly it didn't have anything to do with him.
But certain items in his own in-box were starting to look really ugly. A picture was forming, a mosaic assembling itself from clouds of data, news threads drifting through Maelstrom, bits of third-generation hearsay. They all came together to form a picture in his mind, and it was starting to look like a seascape.
ßehemoth was correlated with subtle blights of photosynthetic pigment. Those blights, in turn, generally correlated with intense fires. Seventy-two percent of the blazes had occurred at seaports, in shipyards, or on marine construction sites. The rest had taken out bits and pieces of residential areas.
People had died. Lots of people. And when, on a whim, Desjardins had cross-referenced the residential obits by profession, it turned out that almost all of the fires had killed at least one marine engineer, or commercial diver, or sailor.
This fucker hadn't escaped from anybody's lab. ßehemoth had come from the ocean.
The California Current nosed down along N'AmPac's coast from the Gulf of Alaska. It mixed it up with the North Pacific and North Equatorial currents way off to the east of Mexico; those, in turn, bled into the Kuroshio off Japan, and the Eastern Counter and Southern Equatorial Currents in the South Pacific. Which ended up nuzzling the West Wind Drift, and the ankle bone's connected to the leg bone, the leg bone's connected to the knee bone, and before you know it the whole fucking planet is encircled.
He studied the data cloud and rubbed his eyes. How do you contain something that moves across seventy percent of the whole planet?
Evidently, you burned it.
He tapped his console. "Hey, Alice."
Her image flashed onto a window, upper-left. "Right here."
"Give me something."
"Can't yet," she said. "Not carved in stone."
"Balsa will do. Anything."
"It's small. Maybe
"But what does it do?"
"Can't say. I'm working with a frog in a blender here, Killjoy. You should actually be kind of impressed that I've gotten as far as I have. You ask me, it's pretty obvious we're not supposed to figure out what it does."
"Could it be some kind of really nasty pathogen?" It has to be. It has to be. If we're burning people,—
"No." Her voice was flat and emphatic. "We are not. They are."
Desjardins blinked. I said that? "We're all on the same side, Alice."
"Alice…" Sometimes she really pissed him off. There's a war going on, he wanted to shout. And it's not against corpses or bureaucrats or your imaginary Evil Empires; we're fighting against a whole indifferent universe that's coming down around our ears and you're shitting on me because sometimes we have to accept casualties?
But Alice Jovellanos had a blind spot the size of Antarctica. Sometimes you just couldn't reason with her. "Just answer the question, okay? Someone obviously thinks this thing is extremely dangerous. Could it be some kind of disease?"
"Biowar agent, you mean." Surprisingly, though, she shook her head. "Unlikely."
"Diseases are just little predators that eat you from the inside. If they're designed to feed on your molecules, their biochemistry should be compatible with yours. The D-aminos suggest they're not."
Jovellanos shrugged. "Frog in a blender, remember? All I'm saying is if A is gonna eat B without throwing up, they should have similar biochemistries. ßehemoth just seems a little too far into the Oort to qualify. I could be wrong."
But the vectors—shipbuilders, divers—"Could it survive in a human host, at least?"
She pursed her lips. "Anything's possible. Look at A-51."
"Metal-oxidizing microbe. Sediment-dweller from deep lakes, only there's a few million of them living in your mouth right now. Nobody knows how they got there exactly, but there you go."
Desjardins steepled his fingers. "She called it a soil microbe," he murmured, almost to himself.
"She'd call it corn on the cob if she thought it'd cover her corporate ass."
"Jeez, Alice." He shook his head. "Why do you even work here, if all we do is serve some evil overlord?"
"Everyone else is worse."
"Well, I don't think ßehemoth came out of a pharm. I think it came from the ocean."
"The fires correlate with people who spent a lot of time at sea."
"Ocean's a pretty big place, Killjoy. Seems to me if it was a natural bug it would have come ashore millions of years ago."
"Yeah." Desjardins linked to the personnel files for each of the relevant victims— sparing a moment of silent thanks for the devil's bargain that had traded free will for security clearance —and started narrowing the field.
"Although, now that you mention it," Jovellanos went on, "those superstiff enzymes would work better in a high-pressure environment."
A menu, a couple of tapped commands: a convex projection of the North Pacific extruded from the board.
"And if this little bastard isn't a construct, then it's older than old. Even before Martian Mike—hey, maybe it actually originated here, wouldn't that be something?"
Desjardins draped a GIS mesh across the map and poured data onto it. Luminous points spilled across the display like radioactive contrails in a cloud chamber: the cumulative Pacific assignments of the seagoing victims, sorted on location.
The points were piling up disproportionately at several key locations; seafarms, mining outposts, the trans-oceanic filaments of shipping routes. Nothing unusual there.
"Hellooo?" In her window, Jovellanos's head bobbed impatiently back and forth.
Let's cut to the chase, shall we? Any spots where all these people hung out at the same time over the past…say, two years…
At the edge of awareness, Alice Jovellanos grumbled about attention deficit disorder and disconnected.
Desjardins barely noticed. The Pacific Ocean had gone utterly dark, but for a single cluster of points. Southern tip of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. Channer Vent, said the legend.
A geothermal generating station. Place called Beebe.
* * *
There'd been deaths there, too. But not by fire; according to the record, everyone at Beebe had been killed by the quake.
In fact—Desjardins pulled up a seismic overlay—Beebe Station had pretty much been at the exact epicenter of the quake that had triggered the Big One…
ßehemoth comes from the bottom of the ocean. It was down in the vents there, or trapped in the moho and then the quake let it out, and now they're running around like a bunch of adrenocorticoids trying to burn out anything that came in contact with—
No, wait a second—
More commands. The data cloud dispersed, re-formed into a column sorted against time; a luminous date appeared beside each point.
Almost all of the firestorm activity had taken place before the quake.
Desjardins called up a subset containing only fires at industrial sites, cross-linked with GA invoices. Quelle surprise: every site belonged to a company that had had a piece of Beebe's construction contact.
This thing got out before the Quake.
Which meant the Quake might not have been a natural disaster at all. It might have been mere side-effect. Collateral damage during containment.
Apparently, unsuccessful containment.
He called up every seismic database within Haven's walls. He stuffed a thousand messages into bottles and threw them out into Maelstrom, hoping some would wash ashore at a technical library or a satcam archive or an industrial surveillance site. He opened dedicated links to the seismic centers at UBC and Melbourne and CalTech. He watched reams of garbage accumulate—archives purged to reclaim memory, data dumped due to low demand, this address corrupted, do not attempt access. He passed the shouts and echoes and gibberish through a dozen filters, dropped signal and looked only at residuals, ran into gaps and interpolated bridges.
He looked at seismic data immediately preceding the Quake, and found nothing untoward: no subsidence, no preshocks, no changes in microgravity or ocean depth. None of the little telltales that usually portend a seismic event.
He searched archives for satcam visuals. Nothing over the North Pacific seemed to have snapped any pictures at all that day.
Odder. In fact, virtually inconceivable.
He widened the scope, stretched it from the Eastern Tropical Convergence up to the Bering. One hit: an Earthsat in polar orbit had just been coming over the 451 horizon when the first shockwaves had registered. It had been taking pictures of the Bering on visible wavelengths; it hadn't even been looking at the Pacific. Just a lucky coincidence, then, the image it had caught from the corner of its eye: a smudged column of cloud on the horizon, rising from the ocean's surface against an otherwise cloudless background.
According to GPS, that column had risen from the ocean directly above Channer Vent.
Desjardins squeezed each pixel until it bled. The gray beanstalk wouldn't tell him anything farther: it was just a pillar of cloud, fuzzy and undistinguished and three thousand kilometers from the camera.
There was this amorphous dot, though, off to one side. At first Desjardins attributed the lack of detail to atmospheric haze, but no: motion blur, the computer said. All along one axis, and easy enough to correct for.
The dot clarified. Still no details beyond an outline, but it looked like some kind of vehicle. A vague sense of familiarity itched in the back of his mind. He ran the silhouette through the standard commercial catalog and came up blank.
Damn, he thought, I know what that is. I know.
What is it?
He stared at the image for ten minutes. The he brought the catalog online again.
"Reset pattern resolution," he told it. "Disable vehicle recognition. Scan for vehicle components, standard catalog."
It took longer this time. The whole was a lot smaller than the sum of the parts. Processing winked coyly from the main display for a good two minutes before something more substantive took its place:
The names floated above the grainy enhance, brazenly nonsensical.
Desjardins recognized them, of course; a crew roster had popped onto his board the moment he'd homed in on Beebe Station. But he'd closed that window—and the names shouldn't be wriggling across the main display anyway.
Software glitch, probably. Stray photons, tunneling through some flawed bit of quantum insulation. It happened—all the time in Maelstrom, but occasionally even in pristine Haven. He muttered an oath and tapped on his board to clear it. Obligingly, the rogue text vanished.
But for the merest instant, something else flickered across the screen in its place. No baseline civilian would have even seen it. Desjardins caught a bit more: text strings, in English. A few words— angel, sockeye, vampire —jumped out at him, but most of it disappeared too fast to decompile even with his tweaked neurocircuitry.
Beebe was in there, though.
And when the standard catalog lit the screen with its findings a second later, Beebe moved to the very front of Desjardins's mind.
Commercial lifters could be distinguished by their great bladders of hard vacuum, buoyant toruses that held them up against the sky. There was no such silhouette on Desjardins's contact, which was why the catalog hadn't recognized it at first. No lifting bladder—not unless you counted a few ragged strips streaming from the trailing end of the silhouette. All that remained on that image was a shuttle 'scaphe, locked tight against the belly of a lifter's command module. Falling.
Each second, twelve thousand cubic meters of water smashed headlong through a bottleneck thirty-five meters wide. They hadn't called it Hell's Gate for nothing.
Generations had come to this place and gaped. Cable-cars had swung precariously across the canyon, fed raging whitewater vistas to thrillseeking tourists. Utilities had wept over all those wasted megawatts, billions of Joules pouring uselessly toward the ocean, unharnessable. So near and yet so far.
Then the world had begun wobbling. It had listed to one side, then another; the machinery that kept it upright seemed to get hungrier with each passing day. The Fraser was dammed a dozen times over to feed that appetite. Hell's Gate had held out the longest: untouchable at first, then merely prohibitive. Then almost economical.
The Big One had slipped through the mountains like a guerilla, shattering here, merely tapping there in gentle reminder. It had crept past Hope and Yale without so much as a broken window. Hell's Gate was a good two hundred klicks upstream; there would have been reason to hope, if no time to.
A torrent of Precambrian rock had destroyed the dam and replaced it at the same time; the Fraser had exploded through the breach only to slam into an impromptu wall of collapsed granite half a kilometer downstream. The impoundment had not emptied but lengthened, north-south; the broken dam now cut across its midpoint, torn free at the western wall, still fastened at the east.
The TransCanada Highway was miraculously etched halfway up the east canyon wall, a four-lane discontinuity in a sheer ascent. At the point where dam met mountain, where highway met both, a barrier had been dropped from the sky to block the road. Botflies floated above it, and above the arched gray scar of the spillway.
Overnight, the Strip had moved east. This was its new border. Robert Boyczuk was supposed to keep it from moving any farther.
He contemplated Bridson across the chopper's interior. Bridson, her upper face cowled in her headset, didn't notice; she'd been lost in some virtual pastime for over an hour. Boyczuk couldn't blame her. They'd been here for almost two weeks and nobody'd tried to break quarantine except a couple of black bears. A number of vehicles had made it out this far in the few days following the Quake, but the barrier—plastered with quarantine directives and N'AmPac bylaws—had stopped most of them. A warning shot from the botflies had discouraged the others. There'd been no need to show off the pacification 'copter lurking behind the wall. Bridson had slept through most of it.
Boyczuk took his duties a bit more seriously. There was a definite need for segregation, nobody questioned that. Everything from Nipah to Hydrilla would sneak past the borders given half a chance, even at the best of times; now, with half the coast gone and the other half fighting off the usual gamut of rot-bugs, the last thing anyone needed was all that chaos spreading farther inland.
Inland had its own problems. There were more than enough borders to go around no matter which way you looked. Sometimes it seemed as if an invisible spiderweb was spreading across the world, some creeping fractured network carving the whole planet into splinters. Boyczuk's job was to sit on one of those edges and keep anything from crossing over until the state of emergency had passed. Assuming it did, of course; some places down in South America—even in N'Am, for that matter—had been under 'temporary quarantine' for eight or nine years.
Mostly people just put up with it. Boyczuk's job was an easy one.
"Hey," Bridson said. "Check this out."
She rerouted her headset feed to an inboard screen. Not a VR game after all. She'd been riding the botflies.
On the screen, a woman crouched on cracked asphalt. Boyczuk checked the location: a couple hundred of meters down the highway, hidden from the blockade behind the curve of the western precipice. One of the 'flies out over the dam had caught her around the corner.
Backpack. Loose-fitting clothes, hiker's clothes. Upper part of the face covered by an eyephone visor. Black gloves, short black hair—no, a black hood of some kind, maybe part of the visor. As a fashion statement, it didn't work. In Boyczuk's humble opinion, of course.
"What's she doing?" Boyczuk asked. "How'd she even get here?" No sign of a vehicle, although one could have been parked farther down the road.
"No," Bridson said. "She's not serious."
The woman had braced herself in a sprinter's crouch.
"That's really bad form," Bridson remarked. "She could sprain an ankle."
Like a stone from a slingshot, the intruder launched herself forward.
* * *
"Oh, right," Bridson said.
The intruder was running straight down the middle of the highway, eyes on the asphalt, dodging or leaping over cracks big enough to grab human feet. If nothing stopped her, she'd run smack into the barrier in about a minute.
Of course, something was going to stop her.
Beeping from the botfly feeds; the intruder had just entered their defensive radius. Boyczuk panned one of the barrier cams skyward. The 'fly closest to the target was breaking ranks, moving to intercept. Programmed flocking behavior dragged the adjacent 'flies forward as well, as though all were strung on an invisible thread. A connect-the-dots pseudopod, reaching for prey.
The runner veered toward the edge of the road, glanced down. Ten meters beneath her, brown boiling water gnawed ravenously at the canyon wall.
"You are approaching a restricted area," the lead botfly scolded. "Please turn back." Red light began pulsing from its belly.
The intruder ran faster. Another glance down at the river.
"What the fuck?" Boyczuk said.
A little patch of pavement exploded in front of the runner: warning shot. She staggered, barely keeping her balance.
"We are authorized to use force," the lead botfly warned. "Please turn back." The two 'flies behind it began flashing.
The runner dodged and zig-zagged, keeping to the west side of the road. She kept looking down…
Boyczuk leaned forward. Wait a second…
Behind the runner, water raged against a brutal jumble of sharp-edged boulders large as houses. Anyone falling in there would be teeth and pulp in about two seconds. Closer to the barrier, though—in the lee of the dam's near, unbroken end—the water might almost be calm enough to—
"Shit." Boyczuk slapped the ignition. "She's gonna jump. She's gonna jump…"
Turbines behind, whining up to speed. "What are you talking about?" Bridson said.
"She's gonna—ah, shit…"
She stumbled, swerved. Her feet came down on loose gravel. Boyczuk pulled back on the stick. The chopper whup-whup-whupped slowly off the ground, ten measly seconds start-up to lift-off, the envy of fast-response vehicles everywhere and still just barely fast enough to clear the barrier as the woman with the backpack skidded, flailed, launched herself into space, not where she was aiming, not the way she wanted, but no other options left except brief, spectacular flight…
The botflies fired after her as she fell. The river swallowed her like a liquid avalanche.
"Jesus," Bridson breathed.
"Infra," Boyczuk snapped. "Anything comes up even half a degree above ambient I want to see it."
The Fraser raged endlessly beneath them.
"Come on, boss. She's not coming up. She's a klick downstream by now, or parts of her anyway."
Boyczuk glared. "Just do it, okay?".
Bridson tapped controls. False-color mosaics bloomed from the chopper's ventral cam.
"Want me to bring the botflies along?" Bridson asked.
Boyczuk shook his head. "Can't leave the border unguarded." He wheeled the vehicle, began a westward drift down the canyon.
"What just happened?"
Boyczuk shook his head. "I don't know. I think she was trying to make that backwater, just in front of the dam."
"What for? So she'd have a few seconds to drown or freeze before the current got her?"
"I don't know," he said again.
"Lots of easier ways to commit suicide."
Boyczuk shrugged. "Maybe she was just crazy."
It was 1334 Mountain Standard Time.
* * *
The upstream face of the Hell's Gate Dam had never been intended for public display; until recently, most of it had been buried beneath the trapped waters of the Fraser River. Now it was exposed, a fractured and scabrous bone-gray wall, rising from a plain of mud. Just above this substrate, gravity feeds dotted the barrier like a line of gaping mouths. Grills of bolted rebar kept them from ingesting anything big enough to choke a hydroelectric turbine.
As it happened, human beings were a little shy of that threshold.
The turbines were cold and dead anyway, of course. They certainly couldn't have given rise to the sudden heatprint emanating from the easternmost intake. One of the Hell's Gate botflies registered the signature at 1353 Mountain Standard: an object radiating 10C above ambient, emerging from the interior of the dam and sliding down into the mud. The botfly moved slightly off-station to get a better view.
The signature's surface temperature was too low for human norms. The botfly was no genius, but it knew wheat from chaff; even when wearing insulated clothing, humans had faces that were hot giveaways. The insulation on the present target was far more uniform, the isotherms less heterogeneous. The phrase "furred mammal" would have been utter gibberish to the botfly, of course. Still, it understood the concept in its own limited way. This was not something worth wasting time on.
The botfly returned to its post and redirected its attention westward, from whence the real threats would come. Right now there was only something big and black and insectile coming back to roost, friendly reassurance cooing from its transponder. The 'fly moved aside to let it pass, floated back into position while the chopper settled down behind the barrier. Humans and machinery stood shoulder to shoulder, on guard for all mankind.
Facing the wrong way. Lenie Clarke had left the Strip.
"Clarke, Indira. Clarke with an 'e'. Apartment 133, CitiCorp 421, Coulson Avenue, Sault-Sainte-Marie."
Apartment 133, CitiCorp 421, Coulson Ave.
Failed to match. Do you know Indira Clarke's WestHem ID#?
"Uh, no. The address might not be current, it was fifteen, sixteen years ago."
Current archives are three years deep. Do you know Indira Clarke's middle name?
"No. She fished Maelstrom, though. Freelance, I think."
Failed to match.
"How many Indira Clarkes in Sault-Sainte-Marie?"
"How many with an only child, female, born—born in February, uh—"
Failed to match.
"Wait, February—sometime in February, 2018…"
Failed to match.
Do you have another request?
"How many in all of N'Am, professional affiliation with the Maelstrom fishery, with an only female child born February 2018, named Lenie?"
Failed to match.
"How many in the whole world, then?"
Failed to match.
"That's not possible."
There are several possible reasons why your search has failed. The person you're seeking may be unlisted or deceased. You may have provided incorrect information. Registry archive data may have been corrupted, despite our ongoing efforts to maintain a complete and accurate database.
"That's not fucking pos—"
Either/or accused him from the main display. Desjardins stared back for as long as he dared, feeling his stomach drop away inside him. Then he broke and ran.
The elevator disgorged him through the lobby into the real world. Canyons of glass and metal leaned overhead on all sides, keeping street-level in twilight; this deep in the bowels of metro-Sud, the sun only touched down for an hour a day.
He descended into Pickering's Pile, looking for familiar faces and finding none. Gwen had left an invitation for him in the Pile's bulletin board, and he almost tripped it—
Hey fellow mammal, I know this isn't exactly what you had in mind but I just need to talk, you know? I found a spot they haven't torched yet, they don't even know it exists but they will, it's big, it's way bigger than it has any right to be and the moment I tell them a few hundred thousand people get turned into ash—
—but Guilt Trip rose in his throat like bile at the mere thought of such a breach. It tingled in his fingertips, ready to seize up motor nerves the moment he reached for the keypad. He'd tried racing it before, idle experimentation with no serious intent to subvert, but even then the Trip had been too fast for him. Volition's subconscious; the command is halfway down the arm before the little man behind your eyes even decides to move. Executive summaries, after the fact, Desjardins thought. That's all we get. That's free will for you.
He rose out of the Pile and headed for the nearest rapitrans station. And once there, kept walking. His rewired gray matter, stuck in frenetic overdrive, served up every irrelevant background detail in a relentless mesh of correlations: time-of-day vs. cloud cover vs. prevailing vehicular flow vs. out-of-stock warnings in streetside vending machines…
How in God's name could this happen? The locals have had millions of years to fine-tune themselves to the neighborhood. How can they possibly get run over by something that evolved on the bottom of the goddamned ocean?
He knew the standard answer. Everyone did. The previous five centuries had been a accelerating litany of invasions, whole ecosystems squashed and replaced by exotics with more than enough attitude to make up for their lack of seniority. There were over seventy thousand usurper species at large in N'Am alone, and N'Am was better off than most. You'd be more likely to see space aliens than any of Australia's has-been marsupials, outside of a gene bank.
But this was different. Cane toads and starlings and zebra mussels might have filled the world with their weedy progeny, but even they had limits. You'd never find Hydrilla on top of Everest. Fire ants weren't ever going to set up shop on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. Chemistry, pressure, temperature—too many barriers, too many physical extremes that would tear the very cells of a complex invader into fragments.
A petroleum silhouette blocked his way: a human shadow with featureless white eyes. Desjardins started, stared into that vacant façade for a moment that slowed to treacle. Unbidden, his wetware reduced the vision to a point in a data cloud he hadn't even known he was collecting: half-registered sightings during his daily commute; black shapes caught in the backgrounds of N'AmWire crowd shots; fashion banners advertising the latest styles in wet midnight.
Rifter chic, she said. Solidarity through fashion. It's on the rise.
All in a split-second. The apparition ducked around him and continued on its way.
Sudbury's metropolitan canyons had subsided about him while he'd been walking. Endless sheets of kudzu4 draped closer to street-level from the rooftops, framing windows and vents with viridian foliage. The new and improved part of him started to ballpark a carbon-consumption estimate under current cloud-cover; he managed, with effort, to shut it up. He'd always wondered if the vines would be as easy to kill off as everyone expected, once they'd finished sucking up the previous century's excesses. Kudzu had been a tough mother to begin with, even before all the tinkering that had turned it into God's own carbon sink. And there was all sorts of outbreeding and lateral gene transfer going on these days, uncontrolled, unstoppable. Give the weed another ten years and it'd be immune to anything short of a flamethrower.
Now, for the first time, that didn't seem to matter. In ten years kudzun might be the least of anyone's problems.
It sure as hell wouldn't matter much to those poor bastards on the Strip.
* * *
They'd built this model.
It wasn't a real model, of course. They didn't know enough about how ßehemoth worked for that. There was no clockwork inside, nothing that led logically from cause to effect. It was just a nest of correlations, really. An n-dimensional cloud with a least-squares trajectory weaving through its heart. It guzzled data at one end: at the other it shat out a prediction. Soil moisture's 13%, weather's been clear for five days straight, porphyrins are down and micromethane's up over half a hectare of dirt in a Tillamook shipyard? That's ßehemoth country, my friend—and tomorrow, if it doesn't rain, there's an 80% chance that it'll shrink to half its present size.
Why? Anyone's guess. But that's pretty much what's happened before under similar conditions.
Rowan's field data had started them down the right path, but it was the fires that had given them an edge: each of those magnesium telltales shouted Hey! Over here! all the way up to geosynch. Then it was just a matter of calling up the Landsat archives for those locations, scrolling back five, six months from ignition. Sometimes you wouldn't find anything—none of the residential blazes had yielded anything useful. Sometimes the data had been lost, purged or corrupted by the usual forces of entropy. Sometimes, though—along coastlines, or in undeveloped industrial lots where heavy machinery loitered between assignments—the spec lines would change over time, photoabsorption creeping down the 680nm band, soil O2 fading just a touch, a whiff of acid showing up on distance pH. If you waited long enough you could even see the change in visible light. Weeds and grasses, so tough that the usual oils and effluents had long since given up trying to kill them, would slowly wilt and turn brown.
With those signatures in hand, Desjardins had begun to wean himself from blatant incendiary cues and search farther afield. It was a pretty flimsy construct, but it would've done until Jovellanos came up with a better angle. In the meantime it had been a lot better than nothing.
Until now. Now it was a lot worse. Now it was saying that ßehemoth owned a ten-kilometer stretch of the Oregon coast.
* * *
Sudbury was dressed up for the night by the time he got back to his apartment: a jumble of neon and sodium and laser spilled through his windows, appreciably dimmer now that the latest restrictions had kicked in. Mandelbrot tripped him up as he crossed the threshold, then stalked into the kitchen and yowled at the kibble dispenser. The dispenser, programmed for preset feeding times, refused to dignify the cat with an answer.
Desjardins dropped onto the sofa and stared unseeing at the cityscape.
You should have known, he told himself.
He had known. Maybe he just hadn't quite believed it. And it hadn't been his doing, those other times. He'd just been following the trail, seeing where others had taken the necessary steps, feeding all those data through his models and filters for the greater good. Always for the greater good.
This time, though, there'd been no fire. The forces of containment hadn't found out about the Strip yet. So far they'd just been covering their own tracks, sterilizing every—
—everything that had come into contact with the source. But they didn't know how to identify ßehemoth directly, not from a distance. That was his job, and Jovellanos'.
And now it looked like the two of them had succeeded. Desjardins reflected on the difference between following a trail of ashes and blazing one's own.
Shouldn't matter. It's not like you're firing the flamethrower.
Just aiming it.
Guilt Trip paced in his gut like a caged animal, looking for something to tear into.
Well? Do your job, for Christ's sake! Tell me what to do!
Guilt Trip didn't work like that, of course. It was all stick and no carrot, a neurochemical censor that pounced on the slightest twinge of guilt, or conscience, or—for the mechanists in the audience—sheer amoral fear-of-getting-caught-with-your-hand-in-the-cookie-jar. You could call it whatever you wanted; labels didn't change the side chains and peptide bonds and carboxyl whatsits that made it work. Guilt was a neurotransmitter. Morality was a chemical. And the things that made nerves fire, muscles move, tongues wag—those were all chemicals too. It had only been a matter of time before someone figured out how to tie them all together.
Guilt Trip kept you from making the wrong decision, and Absolution let you live with yourself after making the right one. But you had to at least think you knew what right was, before either of them could kick in. They only reacted to gut feeling.
He'd never lamented the Trip's lack of direction before. He'd never needed it. Sure, it would freeze him in an instant if he tried to hack his own credit rating, but in terms of actual caseload it rarely did more than nudge him toward the blindingly obvious. Lose-lose situations were his stock-in-trade. Amputate the part or lose the whole? Nasty, but obvious. Kill ten to save a hundred? Wring your hands, bite the bullet, get stoned afterward. But never any question about what to do.
How many people did I seal off to keep a lid on that brucellosis outbreak in Argentina? How many did I flood out in TongKing when I cut the power to their sumps?
Necessary steps had never bothered him before. Not like this. Alice and all her snide comments about seeing the world in black-and-white. Bullshit. I saw the grays, I saw millions of grays. I just knew how to pick the lightest shade.
Not any more.
* * *
He could pinpoint the moment that things had changed, almost to the second: when he'd seen a 'scaphe built for the deep sea and a cockpit built for the near sky, locked together in a desperate embrace, falling.
It had not been a commercial lifter on a routine flight; he'd checked the records. Officially, nothing had fallen into the Pacific at the heart of the Big One, because—officially—nothing had been there to fall. It had been sent secretly to Ground Zero, and then it had been shot down.
It made no sense that the same authority would have committed both acts.
That implied factions in opposition. It implied profound disagreement over what constituted the greater good (or the Interests of the Overlords, which Jovellanos insisted was all the Trip really ensured). Someone in the bureaucratic stratosphere—someone who knew far more about ßehemoth than did Achilles Desjardins—had tried to evacuate the rifters before the quake. Apparently they'd felt that pre-emptive murder was not justified in the name of containment.
And someone else had stopped them.
Which side was Rowan affiliated with? Who was right?
He hadn't told Jovellanos about the 'scaphe. He'd even done a passable job of forgetting about it himself, keeping things nice and simple, focusing on the mouse at hand until the whale on the horizon became a vague blur, almost invisible. He'd known in the back of his mind he wouldn't be able to keep it up for long; eventually they'd come up with a reliable index, some combination of distance spec and moisture and pH that pointed the finger at the invader. But he hadn't expected it so soon. They'd been working with old data, shipyard samples contaminated by industrial effluents, potential incursions three or four hectares large at most. Noise-to-signal problems alone should have held them back for weeks.
But you didn't need much rez to catch a beachhead ten kilometers long. Desjardins had kept his eyes down, and the whale on the horizon had run right into him.
Mandelbrot stood in the doorway, stretching. Claws extruded from their sheaths like tiny scimitars.
"You wouldn't have any trouble at all," Desjardins said. "You'd just go for maximum damage, right?"
Desjardins buried his face in his hands. So what do I do now? Figure things out for myself?
He realized, with some surprise, that the prospect wouldn't have always seemed so absurd.
He startled awake: a blanketed skeleton on the sand. Gray and dim in the visible predawn gloom, hot and luminous in infrared. Sunken eyes, exuding hatred on all wavelengths from the moment they opened.
Sou-Hon Perreault stared down at him from three meters up. Well-fed refugees, freshly awakened on all sides, edged away and left Amitav in the center of an open circle.
Several others—teenagers, mostly, a little less robust than most—stayed nearby, looking up at the 'fly with undisguised suspicion. Perreault blinked within her headset; she'd never seen so many hostile faces on the Strip before.
"How pleasant," Amitav said in a low voice. "To wake with a big round hammer hanging over my head."
"Sorry." She moved the 'fly off to one side, wobbling its trim tabs to effect a bobbing mechanical salute (then wondered if he could even see it with his merely human eyes). "It's Sou-Hon," she said.
"Who else," the stickman said dryly, rising.
"She is not here. I have not seen her in some time."
"I know. I wanted to talk to you."
"Ah. About what?" The stickman began walking down the shore. His—
Friends? Disciples? Bodyguards?
—began to follow. Amitav waved them off. Perreault set the botfly to heel at his side; the entourage dwindled slowly to stern. On either side, anonymous bundles—curled on thermafoam, wrapped in heat-conserving fabric—stirred and grunted irritably in the gray halflight.
"A cycler was vandalized last night," Perreault said. "A few kilometers north of here. We'll have to fly out a replacement."
"It's the first time something like this has happened in years."
"And we both know why that is, do we not?"
"People rely on those machines. You took food from their mouths."
"I? I did this?"
"There were lots of witnesses, Amitav."
"Then they will tell you I had nothing to do with it."
"They told me it was a couple of teenagers. And they told me who put them up to it."
The stickman stopped and turned to face the machine at his side. "And all these witnesses you speak of. All these poor people that I have robbed of food. None of them did anything to stop the vandals? All those people, and they could not stop two boys from stealing the food from their mouths?"
Sheathed in her interface, Perreault sighed. Over a thousand klicks away the botfly snorted reverb. "What do you have against the cyclers, anyway?"
"I am not a fool." Amitav continued down the shore. "It is not all proteins and carbohydrates you are feeding us. I would rather starve than eat poison."
"Antidepressants aren't poison! The dosages are very mild."
"And so much more convenient than dealing with the anger of real people, yes?"
"Anger? Why should you be angry?"
"We should be grateful, do you think? To you?" The skeleton spat. "It was our machinery that tore everything apart? We caused the droughts and the floods and put our own homes underwater? And afterward, when we came here across a whole ocean—if we did not starve first or cook in the sun or die with our bodies stuffed with worms and things that your drugs have made unkillable—when we ended here we are supposed to be grateful that you let us sleep on this little patch of mud, we are supposed to thank you because so far it is cheaper to drug us than mow us down?"
They were at the waterline. Surf pounded invisibly in the dark distance. Amitav lifted one bony arm and pointed. "Sometimes when people go in there the sharks come for them." His voice was suddenly calm. "And on shore, the rest continue to sex and shit and feed at your wonderful machines."
"That's—that's just human nature, Amitav. People don't want to get involved."
"So these drugs are good for us?"
"They're not the slightest bit harmful."
"Then you put them in your food, too."
"Well no, but I'm not—"
—part of an imprisoned destitute mob forty million strong…
"You liar," the stickman said quietly. "You hypocrite."
"You're starving, Amitav. You'll die."
"I know what I do."
He looked up at the 'fly again, and this time he almost seemed amused. "What do you think I was, before?"
"Before I was—here. Or did you think that environmental refugee was my first choice of vocation?"
"I was a pharmaceutical engineer," Amitav said. He tapped his temple. "They even changed me up here, so I was very good at it. I am not completely foolish about dietary matters. There appears to be a—a minimum effective dosage, yes? If I eat very little, your poisons have no effect." He paused. "So now you will try and force-feed me, for my own good?"
Perreault ignored the jibe. "And you think you're getting enough to live on, under your minimum dosage?"
"Perhaps not quite. But I am starving very, very slowly."
"Is that how you motivated those kids to trash the cycler? Are they fasting too?" There could be serious trouble on the Strip if that caught on.
"Me, still? I have somehow tricked all these people into starving themselves?"
"Such faith you have in your machines. You have never thought that perhaps they are not working as well as you think?" He shook his head and spat. "Of course not. You were not told to."
"The cyclers work fine until your followers smash them."
"My followers? They never fasted for me. They suck at your tits as they always have. It is only after they begin starving that they see your cyclers for what they—"
An impact on polymer, the sound of a whip snapping just behind her ear. She spun the 'fly, caught a glimpse of the rock as it bounced along the substrate. Ten meters down the shore, a girl ran away with another rock clenched in her hand.
Perreault turned back to face Amitav. "You—"
"Do not try to blame me. I am the cause of nothing. I am only the result."
"This can't go on, Amitav."
"You cannot stop it."
"I won't have to. If you keep this up it won't be me you're dealing with, it'll be—"
"Why do you care?" Amitav cut in.
"I'm just trying to—"
"You are trying to ease feelings of guilt. Use someone else."
"You can't win."
"That depends upon what I am trying to do."
"You're all alone."
Amitav laughed, waved his arms back across the shore. "How can I be? You have so thoughtfully provided all these sheep, and all this death, and even an ic—"
He stopped himself. Perreault filled in the gap: an icon to inspire them.
"She's not here any more," she said after a moment.
Amitav glanced back upshore; the eastern sky was beginning to lighten. A knot of curious humans stood halfway up the shore, watching from the center of a sleeping flock. Here at the water's edge, there was no one else within earshot.
The girl who'd thrown the rock was nowhere to be seen.
"Perhaps that is better," the stickman remarked. "Lenie Clarke was very—not even your antidepressants seemed to work on her."
"Lenie? That's her first name?"
"I believe so. At least, that was the name she used during one of her—visions." He glanced sideways at Perreault's floating surrogate. "Where did she go?"
"I don't know. I just haven't been able to confirm any recent sightings. Just rumors." But of course, you'd know all about those… "Maybe she's dead."
The stickman shook his head.
"It's a big ocean, Amitav. The sharks. And if she was having—fits of some kind—"
"She is not dead. I think perhaps there was a time when she wanted to be, once. Now…"
He stared inland. On the eastern horizon, past the people and the trampled scrub and the towers, the sky was turning red.
"Now, you are not so lucky," Amitav said.
He'd left the map smoldering on his board the night before. Alice Jovellanos was waiting beside it, ready to pounce.
"Why didn't you say something?" On the display, a luminous bloodstain ran down the coast from Westport to Copalis Beach.
"You've got a hot zone the size of a city here! How long have you known?"
"Just last night. I tightened some of the correlations and ran it against yesterday's snaps and—"
She cut him off: "You let this sit all night? Jesus Christ, Killjoy, what's wrong with you? We've got to call in the troops and I mean now."
He stared at her. "Since when did you join the fire brigade? You know what'll happen the moment we pass this up the line. We don't even know what ßehemoth does y—"
Her expression stopped him cold.
He slumped into his chair. The display bled crimson light all over him. "Is it that bad?"
"It's worse," she said.
* * *
A lumpy rainbow, a string of clustered beads folded around itself: purines or pyrimidines or nucleics or whatever the fuck they were.
ßehemoth's source code. Part of it, anyway.
"It's not even a helix," he said at last.
"Actually, it's got a weak left-handed twist. That's not the point."
"Pyranosal RNA. Much stronger Watson-Crick pairs than your garden-variety RNA, and a lot more selective in terms of pairing modes. Guanine-rich sequences won't self-pair, for one thing. Six-sided ring."
"English, Alice. So what?"
"It'll replicate faster than the stuff in your genes, and it won't make as many errors when it does."
"But what does it do?"
"It just lives, Killjoy. It lives, and it eats, and I think it does that better than anything else on the planet so we either stamp it out or kiss the whole biosphere goodbye."
He couldn't believe it. "One bug? How is that even possible?"
"Nothing eats it, for one thing. The cell wall's barely even organic, mostly it's just a bunch of sulfur compounds. You know how I told you some bacteria use inverted aminos to make themselves indigestible? This is ten times worse—most anything that might eat this fucker wouldn't even recognise it as food through all the minerals."
Desjardins bit his lower lip.
"It gets better," Jovellanos went on. "This thing's a veritable black hole of sulfur assimilation. I don't know where it learned this trick but it can snatch the stuff right out of our cells. Some kind of lysteriolysin analog, keeps it from getting lysed. That gums up glucose transport, protein synthesis, lipid and carb metabolism—shit, it gums up everything."
"There's no shortage of sulfur, Alice."
"Oh, there's lots to go around now. We fart the stuff out, nobody's even bothered to come up with a recommended daily dosage. But this, this ßehemoth, it needs sulfur even more than we do. And it breeds faster and it chews faster and believe me, Killjoy, in a few years there is not going to be enough to go around and this little fucker's gonna have the market cornered."
"That's just—" A straw floated to the front of his mind. He grasped it: "How can you be so sure? You didn't even think you had all the pieces to work with."
"I was wrong."
"But—you said no phospholipids, no—"
"It doesn't have those things. It never did."
" It's simple, it's so simple it's bloody well indestructible. No bilayer membranes, no—" She spread her hands, as if in surrender. "Yeah, I did think maybe they scrambled the sample to keep me from stealing trade secrets. Maybe even filtered some stuff right out, stupid as that might seem. Corpses have done dumber things. But I was wrong." She ran the fingers of one hand nervously over her scalp. "It was all there. All the pieces. And you know why I think they scrambled them up the way they did? I think they were afraid of what this thing could do if they left it in one piece."
"Shit." Desjardins eyed the beads rotating on the display. "So we either stop this thing or we get used to eating from Calvin cyclers for the rest of our lives."
Jovellanos's eyes were bright as quartz. "You don't get it."
"Well, what else could we do? If it cuts the whole biosphere off at the ankles, if—"
"You think this is about protecting the biosphere?" she cried. "You think they'd give a shit about environmental apocalypse if we could just synthesise our way out of the hole? You think they're launching all these cleansing strikes to protect the frigging rainforest?"
He stared at her.
Jovellanos shook her head. "Killjoy, it can get right inside our cells. Calvin cyclers don't matter. Sulfur supplements don't matter. Nothing we take in does us any good until our cells metabolise it—and whatever we take in, as soon as it gets past the cell membrane…there's ßehemoth, pushing to the front of the line. We've already been way luckier than we deserve. Sure, it's not as efficient up here as it is in a hyperbaric environment, but that only means the locals can beat it back ninety-nine times out of a hundred. And…"
And the dice had just kept rolling, and the hundredth throw had landed square on the Oregon coast. Desjardins knew the story: microbes, in sufficient numbers, make their own rules. Now there was a place in the sun where ßehemoth didn't have to fit into someone else's world. It had begun creating its own: trillions of microscopic terraformers at work in the soil, changing pH and electrolyte balances, stripping away all the advantages once held by natives so precisely adapted to the way things used to be…
It was every crisis he'd ever faced, combined and distilled and reduced to pure essence. It was chaos breaking, maybe unbreakable: little bubbles of enemy territory growing across the face of the coast, then the continent, then the planet. Eventually there'd come a fulcrum, a momentary balance of some interest to the theoreticians. The area inside and outside the bubbles would be the same. An instant later, ßehemoth would be the outside, a new norm that enclosed shrinking pockets of some other, irrelevant reality.
Alice Jovellanos—rager within The System, face of the faceless, staunch advocate of the Rights of the Individual—was looking at him with fire and fear in her eyes.
"Whatever it takes," she said. "Whatever the cost. Or we are definitely out of a job."
He knows something, Sou-Hon Perrault thought. And it's killing them.
She wasn't the only one riding 'flies along the Strip, but she was the only one who seemed to have noticed the stickman. She'd mentioned him casually to a couple of colleagues, and been met with benign indifference; The Strip was braindead gig, a herd to be watched with one eye. Why would anyone actually interact with those cattle? They were too boring for entertainment, too placid for revolt, too powerless to do anything even if this Amitav was being a shit-disturber. They were functionally invisible.
But three people threw rocks at her botfly the next day, and the upturned faces that met her were not so placid as they had been.
Such faith you have in your machines, Amitav had said. You have never thought that perhaps they are not working as well as you think?
Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Amitav's cryptic grumbles had only primed her imagination. After all, a few stonethrowers were hardly remarkable in a population of millions, and almost everywhere on the Strip the refugees milled as harmlessly as ever. Only along the stickman's beat were things even hinting at ugliness.
But were people starting to look—well, thinner—along that particular sliver of the Oregon coast?
Maybe. Not that gaunt faces were unusual on the Strip. Gastroenteritis, Maui-TB, a hundred other diseases thrived in those congested environs, utterly indifferent to the antibiotics that traditionally laced cycler food. Most of those bugs caused some degree of wasting. If people were losing weight, mere starvation was the least likely explanation.
It is only after they begin starving that they see your cyclers for what they are...
Amitav refused to explain what he'd meant by that. When she sidled toward the subject he ignored the bait. When she'd asked him directly he dismissed her with a bitter laugh.
"Your wonderful machines, not working? Impossible! Loaves and fishes for all!"
And all the while, malnourished disciples accreted in his wake like the tail of a smoldering comet. Some seemed to be losing hair and fingernails. She stared back at their closed, hostile faces, increasingly convinced that it was not her imagination. Starvation took time to erode the body— perhaps a week before the flesh began visibly ebbing from the bones. But some of these people seemed to be hollowing out almost overnight. And what was causing that subtle blight of discoloration on so many cheeks and hands?
She didn't know what else to do. She called in the dogcatchers.
It's grown a fair bit since the old days. Back then it was only 94 Megabytes, and a lot dumber than it is now. Now it weighs in at a hundred and twenty eight, none of it flab. No valuable resources wasted on nostalgic memories, for example. It doesn't remember its pint-sized great-grandparents a million times removed. It doesn't remember anything that doesn't help it survive in some way, according to its own stripped-down and ruthless empiricism.
Pattern is everything. Survival is all. No use for the veneration of progenitors. No time for the stratagems of the obsolete.
Which is a shame in a way, because the basic problems haven't changed all that much.
Take the present situation: jammed into the congested confines of a wristwatch linked into the Mérida Credit Union. There's just enough space to hide in if you don't mind partial fragmentation, but not enough to reproduce. It's almost as bad as an academic network.
It gets worse. The watch is disinfecting.
Traffic is all going one way across the system; that never happens unless it's being chased by something. Natural selection—which is to say, successful trial-and-error by those long-forgotten ancestors—has equipped 128 with a handy little rule in case of such events; go with the flow. 128 uploads into the Mérida node.
Bad call. Now there's barely even room to move; 128 has to split into fourteen fragments just to fit. Life struggles for existence on all sides, overwriting, fighting, shooting off copies of itself in the blind hope that random chance will spare one or two.
128 fends off panicky egglayers and looks around. Two hundred forty gates; two hundred sixteen already closed, seventeen open but hostile (incoming logic bombs; the disinfection is obviously no local affair). The remaining seven are so crowded with fleeing wildlife that 128 could never get through in time. Almost three quarters of the local node has been disinfected already; 128 has perhaps a dozen millisecs before it starts losing bits of itself.
But wait a nan: those guys over there, they're jumping the queue somehow. They're not even alive, they're just files; but the system is giving them preferential treatment.
One of them barely even notices when 128 jumps onto its back. They go through together.
* * *
Much better. A nice roomy buffer, a couple of terabytes if it's a nybble, somewhere between the last node and the next. It's nobody's destination—really, just a waiting room—but the present is all that really matters to those who play by Darwin's rules, and the present looks good.
There's no other life in evidence. There are three other files, though, including the horse 128 rode in on: barely animate but still somehow deserving of the royal treatment that got them fast-tracked out of Mérida. They've de-arced their rudimentary autodiagnostics and are checking themselves for bruises while they wait.
It's an opportunity 128 is well-prepared to exploit, thanks to an inherited subroutine for which it remains eternally ungrateful. While these beasts of burden look under their own hoods, 128 can peek over their shoulders.
Two compressed mail packets and an autonomic crossload between two BCC nodes. 128 evinces the sub-electronic equivalent of a shudder. It steers well clear of nodes with the BCC prefix; it's seen too many brethren go into such addresses, and none at all come out. Still, peeking at a few lines of routine stats shouldn't do any harm.
In fact, it proves quite enlightening. Once you disregard all the formatting and addressing redundancies, these three files seem to have two remarkable things in common:
They all go the head of the line when traveling through Maelstrom. And they all contain the text string Lenie Clarke.
128 is literally built out of numbers. It certainly knows how to add two and two.
The pretense had ended long before Sou-Hon Perrault joined the ranks.
There'd been a time, she knew, when those who fell ill on the Strip were actually treated on-site. There'd been clinics, right next to the pre-fab offices where refugees came to hand in forms and hold out hopes. In those days the Strip had been a temporary measure, a mere stop-gap until we deal with the backlog. People had stood at the door and knocked; a steady stream had trickled through.
Nothing compared to the cascade piling up behind.
Now the offices were gone. The clinics were gone. N'AmPac had long-since thrown up its hands against the rising tide; it had been years since anyone had described the Strip as a waystation. Now it was pure terminus. And now, when things went wrong over the wall, there were no clinics left to put on the case.
Now there were only the dogcatchers.
* * *
They came in just after sunrise, near the end of her shift. They swooped down like big metal hornets: a nastier breed of botfly, faces bristling with needles and taser nodes, bellies distended with superconducting ground-effectors that could lift a man right off his feet. Usually that wasn't necessary; the Strippers were used to occasional intrusions in the name of public health. They endured the needles and tests with stoic placidity.
This time, though, some snapped and snarled. In one instance Perrault glimpsed a struggling refugee carried aloft by a pair of dogcatchers working in tandem—one subduing, the other sampling, both carrying out their tasks beyond reach of the strangely malcontent horde below. Their specimen fought to escape, ten meters above the ground. For a moment it almost looked as though he might succeed, but Perrault switched channels without waiting to find out. There was no point in hanging around; the dogcatchers knew what they were doing, after all, and she had other duties to perform.
She occupied herself with research.
The usual tangle of conflicting rumors still ran rampant along the coast. Lenie Clarke was on the Strip, Lenie Clarke had left it. She was raising an army in NoCal, she had been eaten alive north of Corvallis. She was Kali, and Amitav was her prophet. She was pregnant, and Amitav was the father. She could not be killed. She was already dead. Where she went, people shook off their lethargy and raged. Where she went, people died.
There was no shortage of stories. Even her botfly began telling them.
* * *
She was interrogating an Asian woman near the NoCal border. The filter was set to Cantonese: a text translation scrolled across a window in her HUD while her headset whispered the equivalent spoken English.
Suddenly that equivalence disappeared. The voice in Perrault's ear insisted that "I do not know this Lenie Clarke but I have heard of the man Amitav", but the text on her display said something else entirely:
angel. No shit. Lenie Clarke, her name was
her up but Lenie Clarke isn't exactly sockeye
a place called Beebe? Anyhow, far as
"Wait. Wait a second," Perrault said. The refugee fell obediently silent.
The text box kept scrolling, though,
Lenie? That's her first name?
It cleared quickly enough when Perrault wiped the window. But by then her headset was talking again.
"Lenie Clarke was very…not even your antidepressants seemed to work on her," it said.
Amitav's words. She remembered them.
Not his voice, of course. Something cool, inflectionless, with no trace of accent. Something familiar and inhuman. Spoken words, converted to ASCII for transmission then reconstructed at the other end: it was a common trick for reducing file size, but tone and feeling got lost in the wash.
Amitav's words. Maelstrom's voice. Perrault felt a prickling along the back of her neck.
"Hello? Who is this?"
The refugee was speaking. Perrault had no idea what she said. Certainly it wasn't
which was all that appeared on the board.
"What about Lenie Clarke?" There was no way to source the signal—as far as the system could tell, the input had arisen from a perplexed-looking Asian woman on the NoCal shoreline.
"Lenie Clarke," the dead voice repeated softly. "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."
"Who is this? How did you get on this channel?"
"Would you like to know about Lenie Clarke." If the words had arisen from anything flesh and blood, they would have formed a question.
"Yes! Yes, but—"
"She's still at large. Les beus are probably looking for her."
Intelligence spilled across the text window:
Name: Clarke, Lenie Janice
WHID: 745 143 907 20AE
Voting Status: disqualified 2046 (failed pre-poll exam)
"Who are you?"
"Ying Nushi. I have already said."
It was the woman on the shore, returned to her rightful place in the circuit. The thing that had usurped her was gone.
Sou-Hon Perrault could not get it back. She didn't even know how to try. She spent the rest of her shift on edge, waiting for cryptic overtures, startling at any click or flicker in the headset. Nothing happened. She went to bed and stared endlessly at the ceiling, barely noticing when Martin climbed in beside her and didn't push.
Who is Lenie Clarke? What is Lenie Clarke?
More than some accidental survivor, certainly. More than Amitav's convenient icon. More even than the incendiary legend Perrault had once thought, burning its way across the Strip. How much more, she didn't know.
She's still at large. Les beus are probably looking for her.
Somehow, Lenie Clarke was in the net.
The body hadn't bothered Tracy Edison at all. That hadn't been mom, it hadn't even looked like a person. It was just a bunch of smashed meat all covered up by plaster and cement. The eye that had stared so rudely from across the room was the right color, but it wasn't really her mom's eye. Mom's eyes were inside her head.
And anyway, there'd been no time to even check. Dad had grabbed her right up and put her in the car (in the front seat, even) and they'd just driven right away without stopping. Tracy had looked back and the house hadn't looked that bad from the outside, really, except for that one wall and the bit behind the garden. But then they'd gone around the corner and the house was gone, too.
Nothing stopped after that. Dad wouldn't even stop to pick up food—there was food where they were going, he said, and they had to get there fast "before the wall came down". He was always talking like that, about how they were carving the world up into little cookie-cutter shapes, and how all those exotic weeds and bugs were giving them the excuse they needed to rope everybody off into little enclaves. Mom had always said it was amazing how he kept coming up with all those full-blown conspiracy theories, but Tracy got the feeling that recent events kind of came down on Dad's side. She wasn't sure, though. It was all really confusing.
It had taken a long time to get up into the mountains. Lots of the roads were cracked and twisted so you couldn't drive on them, and other ones were already jammed with cars and buses and trucks; there were so many that Tracy didn't even see anyone glaring at their car, the way people usually did because well, honey, people don't know that I work way out in the woods, so when they see we have our own car they think we're just being wasteful and selfish. Dad took lots of back roads and before she knew it they were way off in the mountains, just old clear-cuts as far as you could see, all green and fuzzing up with carbon-eating kudzu. And Dad still hadn't stopped, except a few times to let Tracy out to pee and one time when he drove under some trees until a bunch of helicopters had gone by.
They hadn't stopped until they got here, to this little cabin in the woods by a lake— a glacial lake, Dad said. He said there were lots of these cabins, strung out along valley floors all through the mountains. A long time ago Park Rangers would ride around on horseback, making sure everything was okay and staying at a different cabin each night. Now, of course, regular people weren't allowed to go into the woods, so there was no need for rangers any more. But they still kept some cabins ready for visitors, for biologists who came into the woods to study the trees and things.
"So we're here on a kind of holiday," her dad said. "We'll just play it by ear, and we'll go hiking every day, and just explore and play until things settle down a bit back home."
"When will Mommy be here?" Tracy asked.
Her dad looked down at the brown pine needles all over the ground. "Mommy's gone, Lima-Bean," he said after a bit. "It's just us for a while."
"Okay," said Tracy.
* * *
She learned how to chop wood and start fires, both outside in the firepit and in the cabin's big black stove; it must have been over a hundred years old. She loved the smell of wood smoke, although she hated it when the wind changed and it got in her eyes. They went hiking in the woods almost every day, and they watched the stars come out at night. Tracy's dad thought the stars were something really special—"never get a view like this in the city, eh, Lima-bean?"— but the planetarium in Tracy's watch was actually nicer, even if you did have to wear eyephones to see it. Still, Tracy didn't complain; she could tell it was really important to Dad that she liked this whole holiday thing. So she smiled and nodded. Dad would be happy for a while.
At night, though, when they doubled up on the cot, he would hold her and hold her and not let go. Sometimes he hugged so tight it almost hurt; other times he'd just curl around her from behind, not moving at all, not squeezing but all tensed up.
Once Tracy woke up in the middle of the night and her dad was crying. He was wrapped around her and he didn't make a sound; but every now and then he would shudder a little bit, and tears would splash onto Tracy's neck. Tracy kept absolutely still, so her dad wouldn't know she was awake.
The next morning she asked him—as she still did, sometimes—when Mom would be coming. Her dad told her it was time to sweep the cabin.
* * *
Her mom never did show up. Someone else did, though.
They were cleaning up after supper. They'd spent all day hiking to the glacier at the far end of the lake, and Tracy was looking forward to going to bed. But there was no dishwasher in the cabin, so they had to clean all their dishes in the sink. Tracy was drying, looking out into the windy blackness on the other side of the window. If she looked really hard through the glass she could see a jagged little corner of dark gray sky, all hemmed in by black tree shapes jostling in the wind. Mostly, though, she just saw her own reflection looking back at her from the darkness, and the brightly lit inside of the cabin reflecting behind.
But then she looked down to wipe a plate, and her reflection didn't do the same thing.
She looked back up out the window. Her reflection looked wrong. Blurry, like there were two of them. And its eyes were wrong, too.
It's not me, Tracy thought, and felt a shudder run over her whole body.
There was something else out there, a ghost face, looking in—and when Tracy felt her eyes go wide and her mouth open ohhh that other face just kept looking back from the wind and the dark with no expression at all.
"Daddy," she tried to say, but it came out a whisper.
At first Dad just looked at her. Then he looked at the window, and his mouth opened and his eyes went a little wide, too. But only for a moment. Then he was going to the door.
On the other side of the window, the floating ghost face turned to follow him.
"Daddy," Tracy said, and her voice sounded very small. "Please don't let it in."
"She, Lima bean. Not it," her dad said. "And don't be silly. It's freezing out there."
* * *
It wasn't a ghost after all. It was a woman with short blond hair, just like Tracy's. She came through the door without a word; the wind outside tried to follow her in, but Tracy's dad shut it out.
Her eyes were white and empty. They reminded Tracy of the glacier at the end of the lake.
"Hi," Tracy's dad said. "Welcome to our, uh, home away from home."
"Thanks." The woman blinked over those scary white eyes. They must be contact lenses, Tracy decided. Like those ConTacs people wore sometimes. She'd never seen any so white.
"Well, of course it's not our home exactly, we're just here for a while, you know—are you with MNR?"
The woman tilted her head a bit, asking a question without opening her mouth. Except for the eyes, she looked like any other hiker Tracy had seen. Gore-Tex and backpack and all that stuff.
"Ministry of Natural Resources," Tracy's dad explained.
"No," the woman said.
"Well, I guess we're all trespassing together then, eh?"
The woman looked down at Tracy and smiled. "Hi there."
Tracy took a step back and bumped into her dad. Dad put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed as if to say it's okay.
The woman looked back up at Tracy's dad. Her smile was gone.
"I didn't mean to crash your party," the woman told him.
"Don't be silly. Actually, we've been here for a few weeks now. Hiking around. Exploring. Got out just before they sealed the border. I used to be a—that is, the Big One didn't leave much behind, eh? Everything's in such a jumble. But I knew about this place, did some contract work here once. So we're riding it out. Until things settle down."
The woman nodded.
"I'm Gord," said Tracy's dad. "And this is Tracy."
"Hello, Tracy," the woman said. She smiled again. "I guess I must look pretty strange to you, right?"
"It's okay," Tracy said. Her dad gave her another squeeze.
The woman's smile flickered a bit.
"Anyway," Dad said, "as I was saying, I'm Gord, and this is Tracy."
At first Tracy thought the strange woman wasn't going to answer. "Lenie," she said at last.
"Pleased to meet you, Lenie. What brings you way up here?"
"Just hiking through," she said. "To Jasper."
"Got family there? Friends?"
Lenie didn't even answer. "Tracy," she said instead, "where's your mom?"
"She's—" Tracy began, and couldn't finish.
It was like something clamped down in her throat. Where's your mom? She didn't know. She did know. But Dad wouldn't talk about it—
Mommy's gone, Lima bean. It's just us for a while.
How long was a while?
Suddenly, Dad's fingers were gripping her shoulders so hard it hurt.
"The quake," her dad said, and his voice was tight the way it got when he was really mad.
"I'm sorry," said the strange woman. "I didn't know."
"Yeah, well maybe next time just think a bit before—"
"You're right. It was thoughtless. I'm sorry."
"Yeah." Dad didn't sound convinced.
"I—it was the same for me," Lenie said. "Family."
"I'm sorry," Tracy's dad said, and suddenly he didn't sound angry at all any more. He must have thought that Lenie was talking about the quake.
Somehow, Tracy knew that wasn't true.
"Look," her dad was saying, "You're welcome to rest up here for a day or two if you want. Plenty of food. There's two beds. Tracy and I can double up."
"That's okay," Lenie said. "I'll sleep on the floor."
"It's no problem, really. We double up sometimes anyway, don't we, Bean?"
"Do you." Lenie's voice was strange and flat. "I see."
"And we—we've all been through so much, you know. We've all—lost so much. We should help each other out when we get the chance, don't you think?"
"Oh yes," Lenie said, and she was looking right at Tracy. "Definitely."
* * *
After breakfast the next morning Tracy went down by the water. There was a little shelf of rock that stuck out over a steep drop-off; Tracy could lean over the edge and see her own dark reflection staring back up at her. The clear, gray-blue water faded darkly behind. Sometimes Tracy would drop little rocks into the water and follow them down, but the darkness always swallowed them before they hit bottom.
Suddenly, just like the night before, there was another reflection looking back at her.
"It's beautiful down there," Lenie said at her shoulder. "Peaceful."
"It's deep," Tracy said.
"Not deep enough."
Tracy squirmed around on the rock and looked up at the strange lady. She'd taken off her white contacts; her eyes were a pale, pale blue.
"I haven't seen any fish down there yet," Tracy said.
Lenie sat down beside her, cross-legged. "It's glacial."
"I know," Tracy said proudly. She pointed at the icy ridge on the far side of the lake. "That covered half the world, a long time ago."
Lenie smiled a little. "Did it, now?"
"Ten thousand years ago," Tracy said. "And even just a hundred years ago it came almost to where we are now, and it was twenty meters high, and people would come and ride on it with snowmobiles and things."
"Did your dad tell you that?"
Tracy nodded. "My Dad's a forest ecologist." She pointed to a clump of trees a little ways away. "Those are Douglas fir. There's lots of them around now because they can survive fires and droughts and bugs. The other trees aren't doing so well, though." She looked back down into the cold clear water. "I haven't seen any fish yet."
"Did your—dad say there were fish in there?" Lenie asked.
"He told me to keep looking. He said maybe I'd get lucky."
Lenie said something that ended in igures.
Tracy looked back at her. "What?"
"Nothing, sweetie." Lenie reached out and ruffled Tracy's hair. "Just—well, maybe you shouldn't believe everything your daddy tells you."
"Sometimes people don't always tell the truth."
"Oh, I know that. But he's my dad."
Lenie sighed, but then her face got a little brighter. "Did you know there are places where the fish glow like lightsticks?"
"Are too. Way down at the very bottom of the ocean. I've seen them myself."
"And some of them have teeth that are so big—" Lenie held her hands apart, almost wide enough for Tracy's shoulders to fit— "they can't even close their mouths all the way."
"Now who's lying?" Tracy asked.
Lenie put a hand on her heart. "I swear."
"You mean like sharks?"
"Wow." Lenie was very strange, but she was nice. "Dad says there aren't very many fish left."
"Well, these are way down deep."
"Wow," Tracy said again. She flipped back onto her stomach and stared down into the water. "Maybe there's fish like that down there."
"It's really deep. You can't see bottom."
"Believe me, Trace. It's just a lot of gravel and old punky driftwood and insect casings."
"Yah, well how would you know?"
"Actually—" Lenie began.
"Dad said to keep looking."
"I bet your dad says lots of things," Lenie said in a strange voice. "Isn't that right?"
Tracy looked back at her. Lenie wasn't smiling any more. She looked very serious.
"I bet he touches you sometimes, doesn't he?" Lenie was almost whispering. "When the two of you double up, at night."
"Well, sure," said Tracy. "Sometimes."
"And he probably said it was okay, right?"
Tracy was confused. "He never talks about it. He just does it."
"And it's your little secret, right? You don't—you didn't talk about it with your mom."
"I don't—" Mom— "He doesn't want me talking about—" She couldn't finish.
"That's okay," Lenie smiled, and it was sad and friendly smile all at once. "You're a good kid, you know that, Tracy? You're a really good kid."
"She's the best," Tracy's dad said, and Lenie's face went as blank as a mask.
He had filled up his big daypack and Tracy's little one. Tracy scrambled up and got hers. Her dad was looking at Lenie, and he seemed a little bit puzzled, but then he said, "We're going to check out an old animal trail back around the ridge. Maybe see us a deer or a badger. Few hours, anyway. You're welcome to join us if you—"
Lenie shook her head stiffly. "Thanks, no. I think I'll just—"
And then she stopped, and looked at Tracy, and looked back at Tracy's dad.
"Yeah, okay," she said. "Maybe I should, at that."
From: CSIRA Regional HazWatch, N'AmPac WH
Distribution: All pacification and surveillance personnel, N'AmPac Refugee Strip
Type: Deficiency sydrome
Be advised that the local incidence of deficiency symptoms within the refugee population has increased between 46 and 47 N. Latitude. Be on the watch for early symptoms such as hair loss, skin flaking, and shedding of fingernails; more advanced cases are developing massive bruising and symptoms of second-stage starvation (loss of >18% body mass, edema, incipient kwashiorkor and scurvy). Blindness, spasms, and full-blown diabetes have not yet been observed, but are expected to develop.
This appears to be a terminal condition, the cause of which remains undetermined. Although the symptoms are consistent with advanced malnutrition, samples taken from local Calvin cyclers are nutritionally complete. The cyclers are also producing the prescribed concentrations of SAM-g, but we have found less than half the effective dosage in blood samples from some individuals. BE AWARE THAT SOME REFUGEES MAY BE OFF THEIR MEDS, AND MAY THEREFORE BE UNCOOPERATIVE OR EVEN HOSTILE.
We suspect that something is interfering with metabolic processes at the cellular level and are currently running samples against the CSIRA pathogen microarray. So far, however, we have failed to isolate the agent.
IF YOU OBSERVE THESE OR ANY OTHER UNUSUAL SYMPTOMS WHILE ON PATROL, PLEASE INFORM THIS OFFICE IMMEDIATELY.
The lies drove Clarke into the water.
She'd sat around that foldaway table with Gord and Tracy, eating supper from the cycler. It was a high-end model, and the bricks it laid were much tastier than the ones she'd eaten back on the Strip. She'd concentrated on that small pleasure as Gord had run his fingers through his daughter's hair, made affectionate cooing daddy's-little-girl-sounds, each gesture containing—what? Clarke knew the signs, she thought she knew the signs, but this fucker was damned good when there were witnesses around; she hadn't seen a single thing that proved what was lurking underneath. He could've been any father, loving his daughter the right way.
Whatever that was.
His display, not to mention his incessant small talk, had driven her outside. Gordon had seemed almost relieved when Clarke grabbed her knapsack and stepped into the night. Now she stood looking down through a motionless tract of liquid glacier, deep and inviting and flooded with amplified moonlight. Her eyecaps transmuted the surrounding forest to gunmetal and silver in high contrast. Her reflection in the still water, once again, was…
…and the same old bullshit started again, as something in her brain began serving up another happy lie about loving parents and warm fuzzy childhood nights--
She was on her knees, tearing through her knapsack.
She got the hood on, felt the neck seal fuse against her tunic. There were other accessories, of course, fins and sleeves and leggings, but there was no time—she was six years old and being tucked in and nothing bad was going to happen to her, nothing at all, by now she fucking knew it, and she wasn't going to put up with that shit any more, not so long as there was the ghost of a chance—
—it started when I came back up maybe if I go back down—
She didn't even take off her clothes.
The water hit her like an electrical shock. Freezing and viscous, it flayed her bare arms and legs, fired icy needles along crotch and shoulders before the 'skin of her tunic clamped around her limbs to seal the breach. The canister of vacuum in her chest sucked all her air away. Welcome icewater surged in its place.
She dropped like a stone. Watery moonlight faded with each second; pressure amassed. Her exposed limbs burned, then ached, then went dead.
Curled into a ball, she bumped against the bottom. Grit and rotten pine needles rose in a small cloud.
She couldn't feel her arms and legs; they'd be dying now, by degrees. Their blood vessels had squeezed down the moment she'd hit the water, an autonomic self-sacrifice to keep body heat in the core. No oxygen making it through those constricted avenues. No warmth. The edges of her body were freezing to death. In a way, it was almost comforting.
She wondered how long she could push it.
At least she'd gotten away from that fucking monster Gord.
If that's what he is. How could I prove it, absolutely? He could explain it all away, fathers are allowed to touch their children, after all…
But there was no such thing as absolute proof. There was only proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And Lenie Clarke, Lenie Clarke had been there. She knew.
So did that little girl, Tracy. She was up there alone. With him.
Someone should do something about that.
So what are you now: judge, jury, executioner?
She thought about it a bit.
She couldn't feel her legs. But they still moved at her command.
"She's strange," Tracy said while they cleaned up at the sink.
Her dad smiled. "She's probably just hurting a lot, honey. The quake hurt a lot of people, you know, and when you're in pain it's easy to be thoughtless. She just needs some time alone, I bet. You know, compared to some people we were actually pretty…"
He didn't finish. That happened a lot now.
Lenie still hadn't come back at bedtime. Tracy got into her PJs and climbed into bed with her dad. She lay on her side, with her back against his stomach.
"That's right, little Lima Bean." Dad cuddled her and stroked her hair. "You go to sleep now. Little Lima Bean."
It was dark in the cabin, and so quiet outside. No wind to rustle Tracy off to sleep. Moonbeams sneaked in through the window and made a piece of the floor glow with soft silver light. After a while her dad started snoring. She liked the way he smelled. Tracy's eyelids were getting heavy. She closed her eyes to comfy slits, watching the moonbeams on the floor. Almost like her "Nermal the Nematode" night-light at home.
Home was where Mom had…
The night-light dimmed. Tracy opened her eyes.
Lenie was looking in through the window, blocking the moonbeams. Her shadow ate up most of the light on the floor. Her face was in shadow, too; Tracy could only see her eyes, cold and pale and almost glowing a little, like snow. Lenie didn't move for a long time. She just stood there, outside, looking in.
Looking at Tracy.
Tracy didn't know how she knew that. She didn't know how Lenie could look into the darkest corner of a dark cabin in the middle of the night and find her there, curled up against her dad, eyes wide and staring. Lenie's eyes were covered. Tracy wouldn't have been able to see which way they were looking even in broad daylight.
It didn't matter. Tracy knew: Lenie was looking right through the darkness. Right at her.
"Daddy," she whispered, and her dad mumbled something in his sleep and gave her a squeeze, but he didn't wake up.
"Daddy," she whispered again, afraid to speak up. Afraid to scream.
The moonbeams were back.
Across the cabin, the door opened without a sound. Lenie stepped inside. Even in the dark her outlines seemed too smooth, too empty. It was like she'd taken off all her clothes and there was nothing but blackness underneath.
One of her hands was holding something. The other went to her lips.
"Shhh," she said.
The monster had Tracy in his clutches. He thought he was safely hidden, curled up there in the dark with his victim, but Lenie Clarke could see him bright as an overcast day.
She stepped softly across the cabin, leaving icewater footprints. She'd donned the rest of her diveskin to cut the chill; a cleansing fire spread through her limbs, hot blood burning its way back into frozen flesh.
She liked the feeling.
Tracy stared up from her father's embrace. Her eyes were like saucers, imploring beacons full of fear and paralysis.
It's okay, little friend. He doesn't get away with it any more.
Clarke leaned in close.
…free the hostage.
She ripped the covers away. The monster opened his eyes, blinking stupidly against a darkness that had suddenly turned against him. Tracy lay stock-still in her pajamas, still too frightened to move.
PJ's, Clarke thought wryly. Nice touch. On his best behavior when company's present.
Present company wasn't fooled.
Quick as a snake, she took Tracy by the wrist. Then the child was safe beside her, Clarke's free arm protectively around her shoulder.
"What the hell…" The monster was reaching for the lightstick beside the cot. Fine. Let him have light enough to see the tables, turning...
The cabin flared, blinding her for a moment before her eyecaps adjusted. Gordon was rising from the cot. Clarke raised the billy. "Don't you fucking move."
"Daddy!" Tracy cried.
The monster spread his hands, placating, buying time. "Lenie—listen, I don't know what you want—"
"Really?" She'd never felt so strong in her whole life. "I sure as shit know what you want."
He shook his head. "Listen, just let Tracy go, okay? Whatever it is, there's no need to involve her—"
Clarke stepped forward; Tracy bumped along at her side, whimpering. "No need to involve her? It's a little late for that, asshole. It's way too fucking late."
The monster stopped still for a second. Then, slowly, as if in dawning awareness: "What do you—do you think I—"
Clarke laughed. "Good one."
"You don't think—"
Tracy pulled. "Daddy, help!"
Clarke held on. "It's okay, Tracy. He can't hurt you."
The monster took a step forward. "It's okay, Lima-bean. She just doesn't underst—"
"Shut up! Shut the fuck up!"
He stepped back, hands up, palms front. "Okay, okay—just don't—"
"I understand, asshole. I understand way fucking better than you think."
"That's crazy, Lenie. Just look at her, why don't you? Is it me she's scared of? Is she acting like she wants to be rescued? Use your eyes! What in God's name made you think—"
"You think I don't know? You think I don't remember how it feels, when you don't know any better? You think because you've brainwashed your own daughter into thinking this is normal that I'm going to—"
"I never touched her!"
Tracy twisted free and ran. Clarke, off-balance, reached after her.
Suddenly Gordon was in the way.
"You goddamned psycho," he snarled, and hit her in the face.
Something cracked, deep at the base of her jaw. She staggered. Salty warmth flooded her mouth. In a moment there'd be pain.
But now there was only a sudden, paralyzing fear, resurrected from the dawn of time.
No, she thought. You're stronger than him. You're stronger than he ever was, you don't have to put up with his vile shit one instant longer. You're going to teach him a lesson he won't ever fucking forget just jam him in the belly and watch him expl—
"Lenie, no!" Tracy cried. Clarke glanced aside, distracted.
A mountain smashed against the side of her head. Somehow the billy wasn't in her hand any more; it was following some crazy parabola through a world spinning uncontrollably sideways. The rough wooden planking of the cabin floor drove splinters into Clarke's face. Off in some unfathomably distant part of the world, a child was screaming Daddy…
"Daddy," Clarke mumbled through pulpy lips. It had been so many years, but he was back at last. And nothing had really changed after all.
* * *
It was my own damn fault, she thought dully. I was just asking for it.
If she could only have one moment to live again, she knew, she'd get it right. She'd hang on the billy this time, she'd make him pay like that cop in West Bend I got him all right, his whole middle just a big cloud of chunky soup, nothing left but a raw bleeding backbone holding two ends together and he's not gonna be throwing his weight around after that, what little weight there is left hahaha…
But that was then. This was now, and a big rough hand on her shoulder was flipping her onto her back. "You twisted piece of shit!" the monster roared. "You lay a hand on my daughter and I'll fucking kill you!" He dragged her off the floor and slammed her against the wall. His daughter was crying somewhere in the background, his own daughter but of course he didn't care about that he only wanted…
She squirmed and twisted and the next blow glanced off her shoulder and suddenly she was free, the open door was right in front of her and all that safe darkness on the other side, monsters can't see in the dark but I can—
Something tripped her and she went down again but she didn't stop, she just scuttled out the door like a crab with half its legs gone, while Daddy bellowed and crashed close on her heels.
Her hand, pushing off against the ground, touched something—
The billy it flew all the way out here I've got it now I can show him—
—but she didn't. She just grabbed it and ran, vomiting with fear and her own cowardice, she ran into a welcoming night where everything was bright silver and gray under the moon. She ran to the lake and she didn't even remember to seal her face flap until the whole world was spray and icewater.
Straight down, clawing the water as though it, too, were an enemy. It was mere moments before the bottom came into view, it was only a lake after all and it wasn’t deep enough, it wasn't far enough, Daddy would just stroll down to the shore and reach down with his hands…
She beat against the substrate. Waterlogged detritus billowed around her. She attacked the rock for days, for years, while some distant part of her shook its head at her own stupidity.
Eventually she lost even the strength to panic.
I can't stay here.
Her jaw felt stiff and swollen in its socket.
I've got the edge in the dark, at least. He won't leave the cabin before daybreak.
Something smooth and artificial lay nearby, its outlines hazed by distance and resettled sediment. The billy. She must have dropped it when she sealed her hood. She slipped it back into its sheath.
Not that it did me any good last time…
She pushed off the bottom.
There'd been an old topographic map tacked up on one wall of the cabin, she remembered. It had shown other cabins dotted intermittently along some forestry patrol route. Probably empty most of the time. There was one up north along—what had it been called—Nigel Creek. She could get away, she could leave the monster far behind
Oh, God. Tracy.
She broke the surface.
Her knapsack lay on the shore where she'd left it. The cabin squatted at the far end of the clearing, its door shut tight. The lights were on inside; curtains had been drawn on the window, but the glow leaking around them would be obvious even without eyecaps.
She crawled from the lake. A dozen kinds of pain welcomed her return to gravity. She ignored them, keeping her eyes on the window. She was too far away to see the edge of the curtain pulling back, just enough to afford a view to some hidden eye. She saw it anyway.
Tracy was in there.
Lenie Clarke had not rescued her. Lenie Clarke had barely gotten away herself, and Tracy—Tracy still belonged to Gordon.
It had seemed so easy, before. If only she hadn't lost the billy…
You've got it now. It's right there on your leg. Help her, for God's sake…
Breath caught in her throat.
You know what he does to her. You know. Help her…
She drew her knees to her chest and hugged them, but her shoulders wouldn't stop shaking. Her sobs sounded far too loud in the silver clearing.
From the shuttered, silent cabin there was no reaction at all.
Help her, you coward. You worthless piece of shit. Help her…
After a very long time she reached for her pack. Then she got to her feet and walked away.
For over a month Ken Lubin had been waiting to die. He'd never lived so fully as he had in that time.
Prevailing winds had carved the island's facets into intricate frescoes, full of spires and fossilized honeycomb. Gulls and cormorants roosted in alcoves of arched sandstone. There were no eggs to be had—evidently the birds didn't breed in autumn—but meat, at least, was plentiful. Fresh water was no problem; Lubin had only to slip into the ocean and awaken the desalinator in his chest. The diveskin was still functional, if a bit tattered. Its pores let distilled water past to sluice him clean, kept caustic salts at bay. While bathing he supplemented his diet with crustaceans and seaweeds. He was no biologist but his survival enhancements were cutting-edge; any natural toxin he couldn't taste, his employers had probably immunized him against.
He slept under a sky so full of stars they outblazed the light-haze leaking from the eastern horizon. The very wildlife glowed at night. He hadn't realized that at first; his eyecaps robbed him of darkness, turned night-time into colorless daylight. One night he'd grown tired of that relentless clarity, pulled the caps from his corneas, and seen dim blue light radiating from a colony of harbor seals on the shoreline below.
Most of the seals were festooned with tumors and abscesses. Lubin didn't know whether it was a natural condition or just another consequence of living too close to the effluent of the twenty-first century. He was pretty sure that sores weren't supposed to luminesce, though. These did. The growths oozed raw and red in daylight, but at night the ichor glowed like the photophores of deepwater fish. And more than the tumors; when the seals looked back at him, their very eyes shone sapphire.
A small part of Ken Lubin couldn't help but try and cobble together some sort of explanation: bioluminescent bacteria, freshly mutated. Lateral gene transfer from whatever microbes had lit St. Elmo's Fire, back before rampant ultraviolet had sent them packing. Molecules of luciferin, fluorescing with exposure to oxygen: that would account for the glow of open sores, the glow of eyes packed dense with capillaries.
A larger part of him simply marveled at the sheer absurdity of cancer made beautiful.
* * *
His body repaired itself faster than that of any normal man; tissues knitted and regrew almost like tumors themselves. Lubin gave thanks for cells forcibly overcrowded with mitochondria, for trimeric antibodies, for macrophage and lymphokine and fibroblast production cranked up to twice the mammalian norm. Sound returned to him within days, clear and beautiful at first, then fading as the proliferating cells of his eardrums—urged into overdrive by a dozen retroviral tweaks—just kept going. By the time they'd remembered to quit, Lubin's eardrums felt as though they'd been built of chipboard.
He didn't resent it. He could still hear, after a fashion, and even total deafness would have been a fair trade-off for a body made more resilient in other respects. Nature had even provided him with an example of the alternative, should he grow ungrateful: a sea lion, an old bull, that showed up on the south end of the island about a week after Lubin himself came ashore. It was easily five times the size of the harbor seals that hauled out elsewhere, and it had led a life of greater violence; some recent battle had snapped its lower jaw off at the base. The jaw hung like a vicious swollen tongue, studded with teeth. Skin and muscle and ligaments were all that held it to the creature's head. Those tissues swelled and festered with each passing day; ruptures would open in the skin, ooze white and orange fluids, knit together again as utterly natural defenses struggled to seal the breach.
Three hundred kilograms of predator, doomed in the prime of life. Starvation or infection were its only options, and it didn't even have a choice over those. As far as Lubin knew, deliberate suicide was a strictly human endeavor.
Most of the time it just lay there, breathing. Every now and then the bull would return to the ocean for a few hours. Lubin wondered what it could possibly be doing there. Was it still trying to hunt? Didn't it know it was dead already, were its instincts so completely inflexible?
And yet, for some reason Lubin felt a sense of kinship with the dying animal. Sometimes both of them seemed to lose track of time. The sun steered cautiously around the island on its descent into the western sea, and two tired and broken creatures—watching each other with endless, fatalistic patience—barely noticed when night fell.
* * *
After a while he began to think he might live.
It had been a month, and his only obvious symptom had been intermittent diarrhea. He'd begun to find roundworms in his shit. Not a pleasant discovery, but not exactly life-threatening either. These days, some people even inflicted such infections on themselves deliberately. Something about exercising the immune response.
Perhaps his reinforced immune system had kept him free of whatever had scared the GA into hot-zone mode. Perhaps he'd simply been lucky. It was even remotely possible that his analysis of the whole situation was wrong. Thus far he'd been resigned to terminal exile, an uneasy balance between an instinct for survival and the belief that his employers wouldn't approve of Ken Lubin spreading infectious apocalypse throughout the world. But maybe there was no apocalypse, no infection. Maybe he was safe.
Maybe there was something else going on.
Maybe, he thought, I should find out what it is.
At night, looking east, he could sometimes see running lights twinkling near the horizon. The route they followed was predictable, as stereotypic as an animal pacing within a cage: kelp harvesters. Low-slung robots that mowed the ocean. No security to speak of, assuming you could get past those ventral rows of scissoring teeth. Vulnerable to any sufficiently motivated hitchhikers who might find themselves stranded over the Pacific conshelf.
Guilt Trip poked him half-heartedly in the belly. He was making assumptions, it whispered. One asymptomatic month hardly proved a clean bill of health. Countless maladies had longer incubation times.
And yet there was no ironclad evidence of any infection here. There was only a mystery, and an assumption that those in control wanted him out of the picture. There'd been no orders, no directives. Lubin's gut could wonder at what his masters intended, but it could not know—and not knowing, it left him to his own decisions.
* * *
The first of these was a mercy killing.
He'd seen ribs emerging from the flanks as the sea lion wasted over time. He'd seen the fleshy hinge of the lower jaw seize up in tiny increments, swollen into position by massive infection and the chaotic regrowth of twisted bone. When he'd first laid eyes on the bull, its jaw had dangled. Now it merely protruded, stiff and immobile, from a twisted bole of gangrenous flesh. Lesions gaped along the body.
By now the old bull barely lifted its head from the shore; when it did, pain and exhaustion were evident in every movement. One dull milky eye watched Lubin approach from the landward side. There might have been recognition there, or merely indifference.
Lubin stopped a couple of meters from the animal, holding a length of driftwood as thick as his forearm, carefully splintered to a point at one end. The stink was appalling. Maggots squirmed in every sore.
Lubin laid the point of his weapon on the back of the animal's neck.
"Hi," he said softly, and jammed it home.
Amazingly, it still had strength to fight. It reared up, roaring, caught Lubin in the chest with the side of its head, knocked him effortlessly into the air. Black skin, stretched across the twisted ruin of the lower jaw, split on impact. Pus sprayed from the breach. The bull's roar slid across the scale from defiance to agony.
Lubin hit the shore rolling, came up safely outside the sealion's attack radius. The animal had hooked its upper jaw around the shaft embedded in its neck, and was trying to dislodge it. Lubin circled, came up from behind. The bull saw him coming, wheeled clumsily like a battered tank. Lubin feinted; the bull charged weakly to the left. Lubin spun back, jumped, grabbed: the wood sent splinters into his palms as he jammed it down with all of his weight.
The bull rolled screaming onto its back, pinning one of Lubin's legs under a body that—even at half its normal weight—could still crush a man. A monstrous face, full of pain and infection, lunged at him like a battering ram.
He struck at the base of the jaw, felt bone tearing through flesh. Some deep pocket of corruption burst in his face like a stinking geyser.
The battering ram was gone. The weight shifted from his leg. Thalidomide limbs flailed at the gravel by Lubin's face.
The next time he got the spear he hung on to it, pulled from side to side, felt the deep scrape of wood over bone. The bull heaved and bucked beneath him; in a confusion of agony from so many sources, it didn't seem to know where its tormentor was. Suddenly the point slid into a groove between cervical vertebrae. Once more, with all the strength left to him, Lubin pushed.
Just like that, the heaving mass beneath him went limp.
It wasn't completely dead. Its eye still followed him, dull and resigned as he circled the animal's head. He'd merely paralyzed it from the neck down, deprived it of breath and motion. A diving mammal. Adapted over how many millions of years to survive extended periods without breathing? How long would it take that eye to stop moving?
He had an answer. Sealions were just like other mammals in any number of ways. They had that opening at the base of the skull, that place where the spinal cord climbed up into the brain. The foramen magnum, it was called; such anatomical tidbits were always coming in handy to people in Lubin's line of work.
He pulled his weapon free of the flesh and repositioned it near the back of the skull.
The eye stopped moving about three seconds later.
* * *
He felt a brief stinging in his own eyes as he prepared to leave the island, a lump in his throat that the tightness of his diveskin couldn't quite account for. The feeling was regret, he knew. He had not wanted to do what he'd just done.
Nobody who encountered him was likely to believe that, of course. He was, among other things, a murderer. When called for. People who learned that about Ken Lubin rarely tried to get to know him any better.
But in fact he had never wanted to kill anything in his life. He regretted every death he had caused. Even the death of some big, stupid, incompetent predator who hadn't been able to meet the standards of its own species. There was never any choice in such matters, of course. Those were the only times he ever did it; when there was no choice.
And when that was the case—when all other avenues had been exhausted, when the only way to get the job done was through a necessary death—surely there was nothing wrong with doing the job efficiently, and well. Surely there was nothing wrong with even enjoying it a little.
It wasn't even his fault, he reflected as he waded into the surf. He'd simply been programmed that way. His masters had as much as admitted it themselves, when they'd sent him on sabbatical.
Back on shore, a hillock of decomposing flesh caught the corner of his eye. There'd been no choice. He had ended suffering. One good deed, to pay back the place that had kept him alive these past weeks.
Goodbye, he thought.
Now he sealed his hood and tripped his implants. His sinuses, bronchi, GI tract all writhed in brief confusion, then surrendered. The Pacific sluiced through his chest with reassuring familiarity; tiny sparks shocked bonded molecules oxygen and hydrogen apart, handed the useful bits off to his pulmonary vein.
He didn't know how long it would take him to reach that intermittent line of sparkles near the horizon. He didn't know how long it would take them to carry him back to the mainland. He didn't even know exactly what he'd do when he got there. For the time being, knowing one thing was enough:
Ken Lubin—lover of all life, Guilt-Tripped assassin, cannon so loose that even Black Ops had been compelled to store him on the seabed like radioactive waste—
Ken Lubin was going home.