Sou-Hon Perreault was closing on a riot when they shut her down.
It was Amitav, of course. She knew that the moment she saw the location of the disturbance: a Calvin cycler in trouble at Grenville Point, less than two klicks from his last known position. She jumped into the nearest botfly and rode it down.
Somehow the refs had uprooted a lightstand and used it as a battering ram; the cycler had been skewered through the heart. A dozen brands of amino goop oozed viscously from the wound, a pusy mix of ochres and browns. Underweight refugees—some oozing blood from scabby sores— shouted and pushed against the front of the wounded machine, toppling it.
The larger crowd on all sides drew back, rudderless and confused, as powerless as ever.
"kholanA ApakA netra, behen chod!"
Amitav, climbing onto the fallen cycler. Perreault's botfly parsed phonemes, settled on Hindi.
"Open your eyes, sisterfuckers! Is it not bad enough you should eat their poison? Will you sit here with your hands up your asses while they send another wave to finish the job! Lenie Clarke wasn't enough for you, yes? She survived the center of the storm itself, she told you who the enemy was! She fights them while you sleep on the dirt! What will it take to wake you up?"
Amitav's disciples shouted ragged approval; the others milled and murmured among themselves. Amitav, Perreault thought, you've crossed the line.
The stickman glanced skyward and threw up one spindly arm, pointing at Perreault's descending botfly. "Look! They send machines to tell us what to do! They—"
Sudden darkness, silent and unrelieved.
* * *
She waited. After a few seconds, two lines of luminous text began blinking against the void:
CSIRA Containment Zone
(N'AmPac Biohazards Act, 2040)
She'd run into dark zones before, of course. Some 'fly she was riding would drop suddenly into shadow, floating serenely blind and deaf for fifty meters or twenty klicks. Then, safely out of insight's way, it would come back online.
But why cite the Biohazards Act over a trashed cycler?
Unless it isn't about the cycler…
She linked into the next 'fly back in line: CSIRA Containment Zone flashed against unwelcome darkness. She relinked to one before that, and the one after, bouncing back and forth toward the edges of the blackout.
Eight point one eight kilometers from end to end.
Now she was sighted and riding southbound, just beyond the northern perimeter. She topped out the whole spectrum, stared through a tangle of false-color infra and X and UV, poked into the fog with radar—
Something in the sky. A brief image, fading almost immediately to black.
CSIRA Containment Zone…
She backjumped again, set her defaults to repeat the maneuver whenever visual went down. She saw it again, and again: a great curtain, darkness. A billowing wall descending to earth, darkness. An inflatable barrier, swelling smoothly across the width of the Strip.
Darkness. CSIRA Containment Z—
They'd cut off eight kilometers of Strip, a segment nearly nine hundred meters wide. It would take several dampers to cover that much area, assuming they were squelching tightbeam as well as broadband. The dampers would probably be mounted on the wall itself.
Chances were their coverage wouldn't extend out to sea very far.
A northbound 'fly had just emerged from eclipse. Perreault mounted it and rode west off the path, keeping low. Surf pounded close beneath; then she was past the breakers and cruising over a low oily swell. She turned south.
There was traffic out here after all. An assault chopper with ambiguous markings hovered threateningly over a pair of retreating pleasure boats, a damper dome disfiguring its hull like a tumor. A smattering of botflies flitted closer to shore, of a different sort than Sou-Hon Perreault rode. None of them took any notice of her; or if they did, they credited her 'fly with higher pedigree than it deserved.
She was eight hundred meters offshore, still skimming the swells. Due west of Amitav's latest insurrection. Perreault slowed her mount and came about, heading inland.
Breakers in the distance, a smear of muddy sand, a boil of motion farther up the shore. She cut the throttle and hovered, her senses still intact.
Mag: motion resolved into melee.
Everyone was running. Perreault had never seen such a high level of activity on the Strip before. There was no net direction to the movement, no exodus. Nowhere, apparently, to go. Some of the strippers were splashing into the surf; the botflies she'd seen earlier were forcing them back. Most were just going back and forth.
Something in the clouds was stabbing the mob with flashes of green light.
She panned up, almost missing it: a fast-moving botfly disappearing to the south. And now her own 'fly was bleating, something coming up behind, big and low-flying and stealthed—
Of course it's stealthed, or radar would have caught it sooner—
—and way too close to escape from now.
She spun the 'fly around and saw it coming not two hundred meters out: a lifter headed for shore like a levitating whale. Rows of portholes lined its belly, strange brassy things from another age, soft orange gas-light flickering behind the glass. She squinted in her headset, tried to dispel the Victorian image. Sudden electricity crackled from a knob on the airship's hull; blinding light flared and died in Perreault's eyes. Alphanumerics persisted briefly in the darkness, the last gibbering cough of the 'fly's navigational system. Then nothing but a flashing epitaph:
Link Down. Link Down. Link Down.
She barely noticed. She didn't try to reconnect—by now the 'fly was on its way to the bottom. She didn't even jump to another channel. She was too busy thinking about what she'd seen. She was too busy imagining what she hadn't.
Not portholes after all. The wide-bore muzzles of industrial flamethrowers. Their pilot lights had flickered like hot tongues.
Variations on a theme:
The Oregon Strip, shrouded in fog. Evening's light was a diffuse and steely gray, not even a bright smudge on the horizon to suggest a sun. Refugees accreted around the feeding stations, warding off the dampness by the soft orange glow of portable space-heaters. Their apparent humanity faded with distance; the fog reduced them to silhouettes, to gray shadows, to vague hints of endless convection. Motion that went nowhere. They were silent and resigned.
Achilles Desjardins saw it all through the telemetry feeds.
He saw what happened next, too. A soft whine, louder than the usual botflies, and higher up. Turbulence in the human sea beneath it; faces suddenly upturned, trying to squeeze signal from gray chaos. Rumors exchanged: this happened before, three days south. This was how it began. We never heard from them again… Murmurs of apprehension; some of the human particles began to jostle, some to run.
Fear enough, finally, to break through the chemical placidity that had domesticated them for so long.
Not that it did any good. The zone had already been walled off. No good panicking now, no avenue for sensible flight reflexes. They'd only been alerted a few seconds ago, and already it was nearly over.
Lancing down through the clouds, a precise turquoise stutter of laser light hemstitched its way down a transect ten kilometers long. Tiny aliquots of sand and flesh incinerated where it touched. Droplets in the saturated air caught the beams in transit and turned them visible to human eyes: threads of argon so brilliant and beautiful that even looking at them risked sheer perfect blindness. They were fast, too; the light show was over before the cries of pain had even begun.
The principle was simple: everything burns. In fact, everything burns with its own distinct spectrum, subtle interplays of boron and sodium and carbon luminescing on their own special wavelengths, a harmony of light unique to any object cast into flame. In theory, even the combustion of identical twins would generate different spectra, as long as they'd had different dietary preferences in life.
Present purposes, of course, didn't require nearly that much resolution.
Look here: a strategic patch of real estate. Is it enemy territory? Draw a line through it, but make sure your transect extends into safe land at both ends. Good. Now, sample along the whole path. Turn matter to energy. Read the flames. The ends of your transect are the baselines, the ground-truth zones; their light is the light of friendly soil. Subtract those wavelengths from whatever you read in between. Pour your numbers through the usual statistics to account for heterogeneities in the local environment.
Jovellanos had worked up a distance-spec mug shot of ßehemoth from her sample slurries. There was one sure way to tell if any given transect came up clean against that benchmark: half an hour later, the space around it would not have been doused with halothane and burned to the bedrock.
The test was a little over ninety percent reliable. The Powers That Be said that was good enough.
* * *
Even Achilles Desjardins, master of the minimum response time, marveled at how much had changed in a couple of months.
Word was leaking, of course. Nothing consistent, and certainly nothing official. Quarantines and diebacks and crop failures had been old news for years. A day hardly went by without some bug or other making a comeback—tired old genes revitalized in a terrorist lab, or brought into new alliances by viral mediators with no respect for the reproductive isolation of species. You could hide a lot of new outbreaks against a background that muddled.
But the mix was changing. The twenty-first century had been a lush smorgasbord of calamities, epidemics and exotics and dust storms dogpiling onto humanity from all different directions. Now, though, one particular threat seemed to be growing quietly under all the others. Certain types of containment were happening more often. Fires burned along the west coast, unconnected by any official commonality; some were attributed to pest control, some to terrorism, some merely to N'Am's ongoing desiccation. But still: so many fires, along the coast? So many quarantines and purges that happened to run north-south along the Rockies? Very strange, very strange.
Some dark entropic monoculture was growing beneath the wider riot of usual breakdowns, invisible but for the wake of its passing. People were starting to notice.
Guilt Trip kept Desjardins's mouth shut for him, of course. He wasn't assigned to ßehemoth any more—he and Jovellanos had done their job, presented their results, and been sent back to field whatever random catastrophes the Router sent their way—but gut imperatives didn't change with job assignments. So at the end of his shift he'd retire to the welcoming bowels of Pickering's Pile and get pleasantly buzzed and make nice with the locals—he even let Gwen talk him into trying real sex again, which even she admitted was a disaster—and listened to rumors of impending apocalypse.
And while he sat and did nothing, the world began to fill with black empty-eyed counterfeits.
It hadn't sunk in at first. The first time he'd met Gwen she'd been dolled up like that; rifter chic, she'd called it. She'd only been the first. The trend had really taken off the past couple of months. Now it seemed like everyone and their organcloner was getting into body stockings and photocollagen. K's mostly, but the number of posing r's was going up as well. Desjardins had even seen a few people decked out in real reflex copolymer. That stuff was almost alive. It changed its own permeability to maintain optimum thermal and ionic gradients, it healed when torn. It kind of slithered around you when you put it on, wriggling into the snuggest fit, seams and edges seeking each other out for bonding. It was as though some pharm had crossed an amoeba with an oil slick. He'd heard the stuff even bonded against eyes.
When he thought about it, he shuddered. He didn't think about it often, though. The sight of each new poseur twisted knives much keener than mere revulsion.
Six of them died, the knives whispered as they slid around in his gut. Maybe they didn't have to. Maybe it wasn't enough. Either way, you know. Six of them died, and now thousands more, and you played a part in that, Achilles my man. You don't know if what you did was right or wrong, you don't even know what it was you did exactly, but you were involved, oh yes. Some of that blood is on your hands.
It shouldn't have bothered him. He'd done his job as he always had; Absolution was supposed to handle the aftershocks. And besides, he hadn't made any actual decisions of life and death, had he? He'd been given a task to do, a statistical problem really. Number crunching. He'd done it, he'd done it well, and now he was on to other things.
Just following orders, and what a shame about the Cree.
Except he wasn't following orders, not exactly. He couldn't let it go. He kept ßehemoth at the edge of his vision, a little window down in one corner of tactical, open and running like a pixelated sore. He picked at it during the lulls between other assignments; satcam enhances, Bayesian probability contours, subtle blights and blatant fires dotting the west coast.
Moving east, now.
It moved sporadically, feinting, disappearing, resurfacing in entirely unexpected places. One massive outbreak south of Mendocino died of natural causes overnight. A tiny stronghold blossomed near South Bend and refused to vanish even after the Lasers of the Inquisition came calling. Crops had begun mysteriously failing in the northwest; fifty-odd hectares of Olympic Park forest had been burned to control a sudden bark-beetle infestation. Malnutrition was inexplicably on the rise in some well-fed corner of Oregon state. Something new was racking up kills along the coast, and was proving almost impossible to pin down. It had almost as many symptoms as victims; its diffuse pathology disappeared against a background of diseases with clearer focus. Hardly anyone seemed to notice.
ßehemoth's signature was starting to appear in fields and wetlands, farther inland: Agassiz. Centralia. Hope. Sometimes it seemed to follow rivers, but upstream. Sometimes it moved against the wind. Sometimes the only thing that made any sense was that someone was carrying it around. A vector. Maybe more than one.
He passed that insight on to Rowan's address. She didn't answer. Doubtless she knew already. And so Achilles Desjardins went from day to day, a tornado here, a red tide there, a tribal massacre some other place—everywhere the need for his own polymorphic bag of tricks. No time to dwell on past accomplishments. No time to dwell on that shape coming up from underneath, glimpsed on the fly between other crises. Never mind, never mind; they know what they're doing, these people that drank your blood and changed it and enslaved you to the good of all mankind. They know what they're doing.
And everywhere, people dressed for the deepest ocean stood around at bus stops and drink'n'drugs, like Banquo's fucking ghost cloned a thousand times over. They exchanged eyeless glances and chuckles and spewed the usual desperate inanities. And spoke in overloud casual voices to drown out the strange frightening sounds drifting up from the basement.
Even dead, Ken Lubin had access to more resources than ninety-nine percent of the living.
It made perfect sense, considering his profession. Identities are such transient things after all; height, weight, ethnoskeleton could all be changed by subtle tweaks of the body's endocrine system. Eyeprints, voiceprints, fingerprints—developmental accidents, perhaps unique at birth but hardly immutable. Even DNA could be fudged if you weighed it down with enough pseudocodons. It was too easy for one person to imitate another, and too necessary to be able to change without losing access to vital resources. Immutable identity wasn't just useless to Ken Lubin. It was potentially life-threatening.
For all he knew—he never bothered to keep track of such things—he'd never officially existed in the first place.
It didn't matter who he was anyway. Would you let a man through the door just because he'd had his pupils scanned the week before? Anything could have happened since. Maybe he's been deconstructed and turned. Maybe he'd rather betray you than see his hostaged children executed. Maybe he's found Allah.
For that matter, why keep a stranger at bay? Is someone an enemy just because his eyeprints aren't on record?
It didn't matter whether Ken Lubin was who he claimed to be. All that mattered was that his brain was spiked with so much Guilt Trip that it would be physiologically impossible for him to bite the hand that dosed him.
It wasn't the usual Trip that ran through his veins. The Community had a thousand different flavors of choice; one for Venezuela, four or five for China, probably a couple dozen for Quebec. None of them trusted any motivator as mealy-mouthed as the greater good. Even those do-gooding 'lawbreakers weren't in service to that, no matter what their training brochures said. The greater good could mean anything; hell, it could even mean the other guys.
Ken Lubin was chemically dedicated to the welfare of certain N'AmPac interests which dealt in the generation of electrical power. Those interests had been of paramount importance ever since the Hydro War; they'd been fine-tuning the molecules for most of the twenty years since. The moment Lubin even intended to sell his services to the wrong bidders, he'd court a seizure that would make grand mal look like a nervous itch on a blind date. That was all the mechanical bloodhounds cared about when they sniffed his crotch. Not his name, or his clothes, or the accumulated heavy-metal essence of ocean that still clung to him after an extended shower in the local community center. Not any exaggerated rumors of his demise, or any unexplained return from the grave.
All they cared about was that he was like them; loyal, obedient, trustworthy.
They opened doors for him. They gave him funds, and access to medbooths five years ahead of anything available on the street. They gave him back his hearing and, surprisingly, a clean bill of health. They pointed him to a vacant furnished room, waiting like a convenient cocoon to any on the home team who might need a place to crash on short notice.
Above all, they let him into Haven.
* * *
There were certain things they wouldn't do for anybody. A hardline to his cocoon was out of the question, for instance. Lubin had to go onsite for his research; an anonymous row of data booths embedded in the fourteenth floor of the Ridley Complex, off-limits to all but those of tailored conscience. About half the booths were occupied at any given time, dark diffuse shapes twitching behind frosted glass like larvae nestled in honeycomb. Occasionally two people would emerge into the hallway at the same time, pass each other without a word or a glance. There was no need for reassuring pleasantries here; everyone was on the same side.
Inside the booth, headset curled snuggly around jaw and eyes and ears, Kenneth Lubin logged into Haven and mumbled subvocal questions about Channer Vent. His headset read the buzz of his larynx—a bit of adjustment required, to compensate for the vocoder implanted in his throat—and sent off an agent to hunt for answers. He asked to see a list of references containing the phrase Beebe Station, and was instantly indulged. He cross-referenced those results against lists of dangerous microbes from the deep sea.
No significant pathogens registered from Channer.
It didn't prove anything, of course. There were lots of nasty facts that didn't make it into Haven. There were other avenues of approach, though.
Assume, for example, that the vent had been nuked to contain some risk. Beebe would never have gone online if that risk had been known beforehand; there had been some period, therefore, when the threat was spreading beneath anyone's radar. And once the threat had been discovered, all those loose ends would have to be tied up in hindsight…
The building contractors. Left Coast Shipyards. They wouldn't use nukes though, not above-ground.
He summoned forth a frequency plot of fires over time, within a five-kilometer radius of marine construction and contracting facilities along the N'AmPac coast. Haven showed him a curious spike about three months after Beebe had gone online: Urchin Shipyards, Hanson Fabrication, and Showell Marine's SanFran complex had all hosted infernos within the space of a week. A dozen other facilities had been hit by various acts of arson in the two weeks following, not to mention a couple of places that had burned off large chunks of their property as part of "ongoing renewal programs".
Lubin loosened the scale and ran the request again: all large fires over time, anywhere along the N'AmPac coastline.
The map lit up.
Oh my, he thought.
* * *
Something had them scared to death. And it had all started down at Beebe.
No Channer pathogens in the metabase, no nasty microscopic predators that ate your body from the inside out. But macroscopic predators: Channer'd had those in abundance. Viperfish and anglerfish and seadragons, oh my. Black toothy monsters, some studded with bioluminescent running lights, some blind as mud, some that changed sex on a whim, still others whose flesh bristled with the embedded bodies of parasitic mates. Nasty, hideous things. They were everywhere in the ocean's middle depths, and they'd have been scary indeed if they'd ever grown to more than a few centimeters in length.
At Channer, they had. Something had drawn those little nightmares down deeper than they went anywhere else, turned them into ravenous giants big as people. You didn't go outside Beebe without a gas billy strapped to your leg; you rarely came back in without having used it.
Something at Channer had created monsters. Lubin sent a message into Haven asking what it was.
Haven wasn't exactly sure. But there was a tech report in the gray lit that took a guess: some kind of endosymbiotic infection that increased growth energy. The phrase infectious neomitochondria popped up in the discussion.
The authors of the report—a couple of eggs out of Rand/Washington University—suggested that some microbe at Channer could infect cells symbiotically, providing extra growth energy to the host cell in exchange for room and board. Whatever the bug was, they claimed it would have some fairly obvious characteristics. Small enough to fit inside a eukaryotic cell, high assimilation efficiency for inorganic sulfur, that sort of thing.
An infection that caused giantism in fish. Again, hmmm.
One of the first things Lubin had done after coming ashore had been to check himself out for pathogens. He'd tested clean. But this Channer thing was new, and strictly speaking, not even a disease. It might not show up on the standard slate.
Lubin's credit was good. More extensive blood work wouldn't be an issue.
There were other issues, though. One of them dawned gradually as he explored, betrayed itself in the way Haven answered his questions. Sometimes the metabase thought for a moment or two before telling him what he wanted to know. That was normal. But other times—other times, it spat an answer back almost before he'd asked the question. Almost as though it had already been thinking along those very lines, as though it didn't have to go and look up the relevant facts.
Maybe, Lubin reflected, that was exactly it.
Haven's agents were not nearly so pressed for resources as the engines that combed Maelstrom; they could afford to cache recent searches. Very few lines of inquiry were utterly unique. If someone asked about the price of a Parkinson's fix today, chances were someone else would want to know something similar tomorrow. Haven's search engines held onto their executive summaries, the better to speed responses to related inquiries.
Ask and it shall be given:
—After a mean of 2.3 seconds when answering questions about giantism in deepwater fish;
—after a mean of 3 seconds when talking about benthic sulfur-reducing microbes;
—about a second for queries containing the phrase "Channer Vent";
—0.5 seconds for searches combining sulfur-reducing microbes with fire.
Fire. Benthic sulfur-reducing microbes. An odd combination of terms. What relevance could fire have to life on the bottom of the ocean?
He added a third concept, almost on a whim: shipyard.
He was following in someone's footsteps. Someone had been in Haven before him, asking the same questions, making the same connections. Searching for answers, or looking for loose ends?
Ken Lubin resolved to find out.
There had been a time when Sou-Hon Perreault had truly loved her husband. Martin had projected a serenity in those days, a gentleness and an unwillingness to judge that made her feel safe. He'd been unfailingly supportive when she needed it (hardly ever, before the breakdown); he'd never been afraid to look at both sides of an issue. For love, he could balance on the edge of any fence.
Even now, he'd forever hold her and whisper inane reassurances. Things couldn't be that bad, he'd say. Quarantines and dark zones always popped up here and there, not without good reason. Sometimes restrictions were necessary for the good of everyone, she knew that—and besides, he had it on good authority that there were safeguards even on those who made the Big Decisions. As if he was privy to some grand secret, as if Maelstrom wasn't rotten with threads and rumors about the corpses and their mind-controlling drugs.
Her caring, supportive husband. Sitting across the table, his face overflowed with loving concern. She hated the sight of him.
"You should eat," he said. He put a forkful of mashed Spirulina into his mouth and chewed, demonstrating.
"You're losing weight," Martin told her. "I know you're upset—goodness, you've got every reason to be—but starving yourself won't make you feel any better."
"That's your solution to the world's problems? Stuff your face so we'll all feel better?"
"That's right, Marty. Just eat a bit more and everything'll be just grand. Suck up all those cheery threads from N'AmWire and maybe they'll lull you right into forgetting about Crys…"
It was a low blow—Martin's sister lived in Corvallis, which had not only been quarantined since the Big One but had dropped completely offline for the better part of a month. The official story involved unfortunate long-term aftershocks that kept taking out the land-lines; N'AmWire pictures showed the usual collage of citizens, shaken but not stirred, gamely withstanding temporary isolation. Martin hadn't been able to get through to Crys for three weeks.
Her words should have stung him—even provoked him to anger—but he only sat there looking helpless, his hands spread. "Sou, you've been through so much these past few months, of course things look really grim. But I honestly think you're putting way too much weight on a bunch of rumors. Riots, and firestorms, and—I mean, half those postings don't even show up with address headers any more, you can't trust anything that comes out of Maelstrom these days—"
"You'd rather trust N'AmWire? They don't spit out a word without some corpse chewing it for them first!"
"But what do you know, Sou? What have you actually seen with your own eyes? By your own admission you just got a glimpse of one big ship moving inland, and you didn't even see it do anything—"
"Because it shot the 'fly right out from under me!"
"And you weren't supposed to be there in the first place, you idiot! You're lucky they didn't track you down and cancel your contract on the spot!"
He fell silent. The burble of the aquarium in the next room suddenly seemed very loud.
He was backpedaling the next instant: "Oh Sou, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"
"Doesn't matter." Sou-Hon shook her head, waving off the overture. "We're done here anyway."
She stood up from the table. "You could do with a bit of a diet yourself, hubby. Lose some weight, clear your mind. It might even make you wonder what they're putting in that so-called food you keep trying to force down my throat."
"Oh, Sou. Surely you're not saying—"
She went into her office and closed the door.
* * *
I want to do something!
She leaned back against the door and closed her eyes. Martin, safely excluded, made soft shuffling noises on the other side and faded away.
I've been a voyeur my whole fucking life! All I do is watch! Everything's falling apart and now they're bringing in their big guns and laying waste and I'm part of it and there's nothing I can do...
She summoned a curse for the faulty derm she'd worn into Hongcouver. The epithet was an empty and colorless thing; even now, she couldn't truly regret having been slapped awake. She could only rage at the things she'd seen when her eyes had opened.
And Martin's trying so hard to be a comfort, he's so earnest and he probably believes that things really will get better if I go back to being a haploid sheep like him…
She clenched her fists, savored the pain of fingernails in the flesh of her palms. Lenie Clarke's no sheep, she thought.
Clarke had long since left the Strip, for all Amitav's efforts to keep her spirit alive. But she was still out there, somewhere. She had to be. How else to explain the subtle proliferation of black uniforms and empty eyes in the world? Perreault didn't get out much but the signs were there, even the predigested pap that N'Amwire served up. Dark shapes on street-corners. Eyes without pupils, staring from the crowds that always gathered in the background of newsworthy events.
That was nothing new, of course. N'AmPac's divers had been all over the news, almost a year before; first lauded as saviors of the new economy, fashionable icons of cutting-edge reserve. Then pitied and feared, once the rumors of abuse and psychopathy reached some threshold of public awareness. Then inevitably, forgotten.
Just an old fad. Rifter chic had already had its day. So why this sudden new life, breathed into some dusty blip on the rear-view mirror? Why the fine mycelium of innuendo threading its way through Maelstrom, whispers about someone risen from the deep sea, pregnant with apocalypse? Why the fragmentary rumors, their address headers corrupted or missing, of people taking sides?
Perreault opened her eyes. Her headset rested on its peg, just in front of her desk. An LED blinked on its side: message waiting.
Someone wanting to trade shifts, maybe. Some supervisor wanting to pay her overtime to keep looking the other way.
Maybe another trashed cycler, she thought hopefully. Probably not, though. The Strip had been a much quieter place since Amitav's corner of it had been—excised…
She took a deep breath, one step forward, sat. She slipped on the headset:
lucked into this avenging angel. No shit. Lenie Clarke, her name was.
Oh my God.
The text had been overlaid directly onto the tactical map for the botflies on the Strip. Sou-Hon forced herself to sit quietly, and shoveled dirt back into the tiny pit opening in her stomach.
You're back. Whoever you are.
What do you want?
She hadn't made any secret of her interest in Amitav or Lenie Clarke. There'd been no need, at first; both had been legitimate topics of professional conversation, albeit apparently uninteresting ones to other 'flyers. But she'd kept quiet since Amitav had fallen into eclipse. Just barely. A big part of her had wanted to scream that atrocity into Maelstrom at full voice; afraid of repercussions, she'd settled for screaming at Martin, and hoped that whatever had shot down her 'botfly hadn't bothered tracking it to source.
This wasn't CSIRA or the GA, though. This almost looked like a glitch of some kind.
Another line of text appeared beneath the first two:
She's like some kinda amphibian, one of those rifter cyborgs.
No obvious channel to link in to, no icon to tap. Behind the text, the familiar long chain of red pinpoints patrolled the Pacific coastline, showing no hint of the places where they went into coma.
Les beus are looking for her, but I bet fifty QueBucks they don't even know what she looks like under all that rifter gear. Souhon or Amitav (LNU)?
Perhaps they'd hacked into her headset mic as well. "I'm—Sou-Hon. Hyphenated."
You know Lenie Clarke.
"I—saw her, once."
An invisible fist closed around Sou-Hon Perreault and threw her halfway around the world.
* * *
Pacific coastlines and tactical overlays, gone in an instant; a cul-de-sac of brick and machinery suddenly in their place. Gusts of sleet, slashing an atmosphere colder than the Strip had ever seen. It rattled off glass and metal to either side. The stylized greyhounds etched into those surfaces didn't stir.
Not all the flesh had disappeared, Perreault saw. A woman stood directly ahead, her back to a brick wall the color of raw meat. The buses on either side were plugged into sockets extending from that wall, cutting off lateral escape. If there was any way out it was straight ahead, through the center of Perreault's perceptual sphere. But that sphere showed a target framed within luminous crosshairs. Unfamiliar icons flashed to each side, options like ARM and STUN and LTHL.
Perreault was riding some kind of arsenal, and she was aiming it right at Lenie Clarke.
The rifter had gone native. Civilian clothes covered the body, a visor hid that glacial stare, and Perreault would never have recognized her if she'd had to rely on merely human eyes. But botflies looked out across a wider spectrum. This one saw a garish and distracting place, emissions bleeding from a dozen EM sources—but Clarke was close-range and line-of-sight, and there was no wiring in the wall directly behind her. Against that relative shadow, her thorax flickered like a riot of dim fireflies.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Perreault said. Weapons icons flashed accusingly at the corner of her eye; she found a dimmer one that whispered DSRM, and hit it. The arsenal stood down.
Clarke didn't move, didn't speak.
"I'm not—my name's Sou-Hon. I'm not with the police, I'm—I think—" She spared a glance at GPS: Calgary. The Glenmore intercity shuttle nexus.
Something had just thrown her thirteen hundred kilometers to the northeast.
"I was sent," she finished. "I don't know, I think—to help..." She heard the absurdity in every word.
"Help." A flat voice, betraying nothing.
"Hang on a moment…" Perreault lifted the 'fly above the Greyhounds, did a quick three-sixty. She was floating over a docking bay where buses slept and suckled in rows. The main terminal loomed forty meters away, elevated loading platforms extending from its sides. Two buses were presently onloading; the animated greyhounds on their sides raced nowhere, as if running on invisible treadmills.
And there, by the decontamination stalls: a small seething knot of confusion. An aftermath. Perreault accessed the 'fly's black box, quick-scanned the previous few minutes. Suddenly, in comical fast-forward, she was closing on a younger disturbance. Even at this stage the show had been winding down, people turning away. But there was Lenie Clarke, holding an ebony shockprod. There was a man with his arms raised against her, a wide-eyed little girl hiding behind his legs.
Perreault slowed the flow. The man took a step back in realtime.
"Lady, I've never even seen you before…"
Clarke stepped forward, but some former aggression was draining from her stance. Uncertainty took its place. "I—I thought you—"
"Seriously, lady. You are one fucked-up little chimera…"
"You all right, kid?" The wand in one hand wavered. The other hand extended, tentatively. "I didn't meant to sc—"
"Go away!" the child howled.
The father glanced up, distracted by overhead motion. "You want to pick a fight?" he snarled at the mermaid. "Pick on that!"—pointing straight at the approaching 'fly.
She had run. The drone had followed, armed and hungry.
And now—somehow—Sou-Hon Perreault had been placed in possession.
Perreault dropped back down between the buses. "You're safe for the moment. You—"
The cul-de-sac was empty.
She one-eightied the 'fly; something flickered out of sight around a corner.
"Wait! You don't understand—"
Perreault cranked the throttle. For a moment nothing happened. Then her whole perceptual field lurched, right down to the semicircular canals. A readout flickered upper-right, then held steady: RECONNECT.
Weapons icons bloomed like pulsing tumors. Somewhere in the distant realm of her own flesh, Perreault hammered frantic arpeggios against remote controls. Nothing worked.
"Run!" she cried as the link went down.
But she was back in Montana again, and her voice didn't carry.
400 Megs hovers on a knife-edge of complacency.
For thousands of generations it has known the secret of success in Maelstrom. Predators have pursued it with powerful legs and gnashing teeth; competitors have raced it to each new refuge, each new patch of forage; diseases have striven to eat it from the inside. And yet 128 begat 142, and 142 begat 137 (a bit of pruning there, getting rid of redundant code), and 137 began 150, and so on, and so on, up unto the present crisis-laden instant. All because of a very special secret encoded in the genes:
You want to get around fast in Maelstrom, the name you drop is Lenie Clarke.
400 doesn't know why this should be. That's not really the point. What it does know is, that particular string of characters gets you in anywhere. You can leap from node to node as though disinfectants and firewalls and shark-repellants did not exist. You can pass undamaged through the vicious fleshy meatgrinder that is a head cheese, a passage guaranteed to reduce you to instant static without the protective amulet of Lenie Clarke in your pocket. Even Haven—mythic, inaccessible Haven, a vast smorgasbord virtually untouched by the appetites of the living—may someday be within reach.
Problem is, too many others are getting into the act.
It's not an uncommon development in Maelstrom; evolution happens so quickly, in so many different directions, that you can't go half a second without a bunch of wannabes rediscovering the wheel you thought you had all to yourself. By now the free rides to open fields are growing crowded. Binary beasts of burden each labor under the weight of dozens of hitchhikers, each grabbing up its own little aliquot of memory, each slowing the procession a tiny bit farther. Now the carrier files themselves are attracting attention—from checksum monitors who just know in their gut that no casual e-mail should weigh in at a hundred gigs, to sharks hungry for prey grown almost too fat to move.
Want to spread your seed through Maelstrom? Hitch your wagon to Lenie Clarke. Want to be shark food? Do the same thing.
It's not everybody's problem, though. Some creatures leap around as fast as they ever did. Faster, even. Something they know, maybe. Or someone. 400Megs has never been able to figure out the secret.
It's about to, though.
400 Megs is currently inbreeding with a middling sib whose lineage only diverged a few hundred generations ago. Almost all the genes are the same, which doesn't promote a lot of diversity but at least reinforces the tried-and-true. Both parties have a few dozen copies of Lenie Clarke, for instance, which they exchange with mindless redundancy.
But no gene is an island, even in Maelstrom. There's no such thing as an independent locus. Each travels linked to others, little constellations of related traits, junk code, happenstance association. And as 400Megs is about to find out, it isn't just Lenie Clarke that matters. It's also the company she keeps.
All the bits are lining up to be counted. Replication subroutines march down the line like messenger-RNA, ready to cut and paste. Chance shuffles the cards, orgasm squirts them hence, and 400Megs injects Lenie Clarke into its cousin. Strings like vampire and Beebe and ßehemoth go along for the ride.
And in return, following the usual hermaphrodite credo of tit-for-tat, 400Megs gets Lenie Clarke with a whole different circle of friends. Like doomsday. Like meltdown. Like bestservedcold.
By all appearances, just another unremarkable fuck. But afterward, things start to change for 400Megs.
Suddenly its replication rate is going through the roof. And where before its progeny languished and withered in backwater caches, now Maelstrom itself scoops them up and copies them a thousand times over. One fine cycle a N'AmPac security sieve finds several such prodgies drifting north off the coast of the GA. Recognizing them as high-priority communications, it shunts them directly to the nearest smart gel. The gel scans the relevant embedded bits and sends copies into Haven for secure storage.
All of a sudden, the most powerful forces in Maelstrom want to give members of The 400 Club anything they want. The Club doesn't question their good fortune; they merely exploit it.
They are no longer 400 Megs, hitchhiker.
What they are is John the fucking Baptist.
He'd been out of circulation too long. He was losing his edge. How else to explain an ambush at the hands of three glassy-eyed children on the back streets of Santa Cruz?
Of course, Lubin had had a lot on his mind. He was coming to terms with some very disturbing test results, for one thing. He'd been pursuing them for days now, rejecting each new clean bill of health, running increasingly specific tests for increasingly implausible maladies—and now, finally, there it was. Something in his blood that neither nature nor N'AmPac had put there.
Something strangely backward.
More than sufficient to distract any normal man, perhaps. No excuse for someone who'd once transplanted a micronuke from his own gut to the heart of the Troise-Rivieres switching station, without benefit of anesthesia. No excuse for Ken Lubin.
It was inexcusable. His assailants barely even qualified as punks; ranging in age from perhaps sixteen to twenty, pumped on some sort of neurotrope, evidently convinced that their transderm steroids and corneal caps and shockprods made them invulnerable. Sometime during Lubin's Pacific tour, the rifter template had become fashionable among drybacks. It was probably the eyes more than anything. Back on the seabed, eyecaps had hidden a multitude of sins, kept fear and weakness and hatred safely hidden behind masks of blank indifference. Down there the caps had provided cover, imposed enough protective distance for weak people to become strong, given time.
Up here, though, they only seemed to make weak people stupid.
They wanted money, or something. He wasn't really paying attention. He didn't even bother warning them off. They didn't seem in the mood to listen.
Five seconds later they weren't in the mood to do anything but run. Lubin—having foreseen this on some level long since relegated to subconsciousness—had deprived them of the use of their legs. He felt a token, distracted reluctance at the necessary next step; they had, after all, seen more of his abilities than good security would dictate. It had been his own damn fault—if he hadn't been so careless, he'd have avoided the situation altogether—but the damage was done. Loose ends were fraying, and had to be cut.
There were no witnesses. The children had chosen wisely in that regard at least. There were no screams, only quiet gasps and the soft pop of dislocating vertebrae. No ineffective pleas for mercy. Only one of them even tried to speak, perhaps emboldened by the realization that somehow—incredibly, in the space of barely a minute—she had reached the point of having nothing left to lose.
"Mange de la marde, enculé," she croaked as Lubin reached down. "Who the fuck died and made you Lenie Clarke?"
Lubin blinked. "What?"
The child spat blood in his face and stared defiantly back with featureless white eyes.
Well, Lubin thought, maybe there would've been hope for you after all. And twisted.
* * *
It was a bit disturbing, of course. He'd had no idea that Lenie Clarke was famous.
He asked the matchmakers for references to Lenie Clarke. Maelstrom hiccoughed and advised him to narrow his search criteria: there were over fifty million hits.
He started exploring.
Lenie Clarke was an anarchist. Lenie Clarke was a liberator. Lenie Clarke was a fashion symbol. Lenie Clarke was an avenging angel, resurrected from the ocean depths to tear down the system that had abused and victimized her. Lenie Clarke had followers; mostly in N'AmPac so far, but the word was spreading. Hordes of disaffected, powerless people had found someone to relate to, a fellow victim with impervious eyes who had learned to fight back. Against what, exactly, there was no consensus. With whose army, not a whisper. Lenie Clarke was a mermaid. Lenie Clarke was a myth.
Lenie Clarke is dead, Lubin reminded himself. None of the references he could find would confirm that fact.
Perhaps she'd made it after all. The GA had promised a shuttle to evacuate Beebe. Lubin had assumed—along with everyone else—that they'd been lying. Clarke had been the only one to stay behind and find out.
Maybe all of them made it. Maybe something happened, after I got separated…
He entered separate queries: Alice Nakata, Michael Brander—Judy Caraco, just to be thorough. Maelstrom knew of many by those names, but none seemed to have the cachet of Lenie Clarke. He fed the same list through Haven; the results were smoother, the data much higher in quality, but the bottom line remained unchanged.
Just Lenie Clarke. Something with that name was infecting the world.
"Lenie Clarke is alive," said a voice in his ear.
He recognized it: one of the generic disembodied matchmakers that came out of Haven in answer to user questions. Lubin glanced across his display, puzzled. He hadn't entered any queries.
"It is almost certain," the voice continued, distant and inflectionless. Almost as though it were talking to itself. "Lenie Clarke lives. Temperature and salinity are well within acceptable ranges."
"You are Kenneth Lubin. You are alive as well."
* * *
Anonymity. That was the whole point of the exercise.
Lubin knew the specs on Ridley, and on similar facilities distributed invisibly throughout the world. They didn't scan eyes or faces. They only cared that entrants could do no harm. Everyone was equal within the frosted glass tubes of the fourteenth floor. Everyone was no one. Yet someone in Haven had called him by name.
He left Santa Cruz.
There was another secure gateway at the Packard Tower, in Monterey. This time Lubin wasn't taking any chances: he linked to his terminal through three separate watches connected in series, each scrambled on a different seed. He restarted a search on Lenie Clarke, carefully following different query trees than he had the first time.
"Lenie Clarke is on the move," a far-off voice mused.
Lubin started a trace.
"Kenneth Lubin has been sighted in Sevastopol," the voice remarked. "Recent reports have also placed it in Whitehorse and Philadelphia sometime within the past eighty-four hours. Lenie and Lubin are on the comeback trail. Are you a fan of alliteration?"
This is very strange, he thought.
"We looking out for Kenny and Lenie," the voice continued. "We intent on translocating and disseminating both parties into novel environments with acceptable salinity range varies directly with temperature, within the environments considered. Do you relate to rhyme?"
It's a neural net, he realized. A Turing app. Maybe a gel. Whatever was talking to him, it wasn't programmed: it had learned to speak through trial-and-error, had worked out its own rules of grammar and syntax. Lubin had seen such devices—or organisms, or whatever they were—demonstrated. They picked up the rules easily enough, but they always seemed to throw in a few stylistic quirks of their own. It was hard to track down exactly how that happened. The logic evolved, synapse by synapse. It was opaque to conventional analysis.
"No," he said, experimentally. "For one, I don't relate to rhyme. Although that's not true all the time."
A brief silence. Then: "Excellent. I would've paid, you know?"
"Mediocre at best. What are you?"
"I am telling you about Lenie and Kenny. You don't want to fuck with them, friend. You wanna know what side you're on, right?"
"Tell me, then."
Nothing. To make things worse, his trace failed—return address blocked at source.
He waited for a good five minutes in case the voice started talking again. It didn't. Lubin disconnected from his terminal, logged in on a different one farther along the row. This time he left Lenie Clarke and Ken Lubin strictly alone. Instead he stored the results of his worrisome blood tests in an open file, tagged to certain keywords that would hopefully attract attention from the right sources. Someone out there was paralleling his investigation; it was time to lure them in.
He logged off, distracted by an obvious and uncomfortable coincidence:
A smart gel had been running the nuke that vaporized Beebe Station.
Cleared for Travel.
"Are you sure? No—no ergots, or psychoactives?"
Cleared for travel. Please proceed to check-in.
"Are you equipped for NMR?"
This booth is designed to scan for communicable parasites and diseases. You may visit a commercial medbooth if you wish to be tested for other disorders.
"Where's the nearest commercial medbooth, then?"
Please don't leave me.
Stay, Lenie. We can work it out.
Besides. There's someone you should meet.
The screen went dark. The bead in her ear emitted a tiny belch of static.
"It's me," said a sudden voice. "Sou-Hon. From the bus station."
She grabbed her visor and fled into the tame green jungle of Concourse D. Startled pedestrian eyes, barely noticed, met her own. She slid the visor onto her face, not slowing.
"You don't understand." The voice was a small pleading thing in her ear. "I'm on your side. I'm—"
Glass doors, leading outside. Clarke pushed through. Sudden icy wind reduced global warming to a weak abstraction. The concourse arced around from behind her like a horseshoe-shaped canyon.
"I'm here to help—"
Clarke tapped her watch twice in succession. "Command mode," the device replied.
"Off" she told it.
"Off," the watch acknowledged, and fell instantly asleep.
She was alone.
The sidewalk was empty. Light spilled from the warren of habitrail tubes that shielded McCall's patrons from winter. The whine of distant turbines drifted down from the rooftops.
Two taps. "On."
A soft fuzz of static from the earpiece, although her watch was well within its operational two-meter radius.
"Are you there?" she said.
"What about Amitav?"
"Just before it—I mean—" The voice caught on itself. "They just burned everything. Everyone. He must have been..."
A passing gust of wind snapped at her face. The mermaid took a bitterly cold breath.
"I'm sorry," the stranger whispered in her head.
Clarke turned and went back inside.
It was an impoverished display, sparse informatics against a dark background: lats and longs, a tiny GPS overlay centered on Calgary International Airport, a no-visual icon blinking the obvious at two-second intervals.
"How do you know?" breathed a disembodied voice in Perreault's ear.
"I saw it. The start of it, anyway." Hard-edged airport ambience echoed in the background. "I'm sorry."
"It was his own fault," Clarke said after a moment. "He made too much noise. He was just—asking for it..."
"I don't think that was it," Perreault said. "They slagged eight whole kilometers."
"Some kind of biohazard, I think. Amitav just got—caught in the sweep…"
"No." Words so soft they were almost static. "Can't be."
No visual. No visual.
"Who are you?" Clarke asked at last.
"I ride botflies," Perreault said. "Mop-ups, mainly. I saw you when you came out of the ocean. I saw how you affected the people on the Strip, I saw you when you had one of those—visions—"
"Aren't you the faithful little stalker," Clarke said.
"That wasn't me," she continued after a while. "Back on the Strip. That was Amitav."
"He ran with it. You were the insp—"
"It wasn't me."
"Why are you following me?" Clarke said.
"Someone's—linked us up. And at the bus station, earlier."
"I don't know. Probably one of your friends."
Something between a cough and a laugh. "I don't think so."
Perreault took a breath. "You're—getting known, you know. People are noticing. Some of them must be protecting you."
"From what, exactly?"
"I don't know. Maybe from the people who started the quake."
"What do you know about that?" Clarke's voice almost pounced down the link.
"Millions died," Perreault said. "You know why. That makes you dangerous to all the wrong people."
"Is that what you think."
"It's one of the rumors. I don't know."
"Don't know much, do you?"
"You don't know who I am. You don't know what I want or what I've d— you don't know who they are or what they want. You just sit there and let them use you."
"What do you want?"
"None of your fucking business."
Perreault shook her head. "I'm just trying to help, you know."
"Lady, I don't know if you even exist. For all I know that kid in South Bend is playing some kind of sick joke."
"Something's happening because of you. Something real. You can check the threads yourself if you don't believe me. You're some kind of catalyst. Whether you know it or not."
"And here you are, jumping in with no questions asked."
"I've got questions."
"No answers, then. I could be planting bombs. I could be spit-roasting babies. You don't know, but here you are with your tongue hanging out anyway."
"Listen," Perreault snapped, "whatever you're doing, it—"
—Can't be any worse than the way things are already…
She stopped, astonished at the thought, grateful that she'd kept it back. She felt an absurd certainly that seven hundred kilometers away, Lenie Clarke was smiling.
She tried again. "Look, I may not know what's going on but I know something is, and it revolves around you. And I bet that not everyone who knows that is on your side. Maybe you think I'm a head case. Fine. But even I wouldn't risk going through airport security with the kind of profile your implants put out. I'd get out now, and I'd forget about flying anywhere for the foreseeable future. There are other ways to get around."
She waited. Tactical constellations glimmered about her.
"Okay," Clarke said at last. "Thanks for the tip. Here's one for you. Stop trying to help me. Help whoever's trying to stamp me out, if you can find them."
"For God's sake, why?"
"For your own sake, Suzie. For everyone you ever cared about. Amitav was—he didn't deserve what happened to him."
"No, of course he didn't."
"Eight kilometers, you said?"
"Yes. Burned to bedrock."
"I think that was just the beginning," Clarke said. "Off."
Around Sou-Hon Perreault, the stars went out.
It was an odd sort of caption to find on a biochemical graphic: a lopsided crucifix of Carbons and Oxygens and Hydrogens—oh wait, there was a Sulfur over there, and a Nitrogen on one side of the crossbeam, right about where they'd nail Jesus' wrist into place (of course, the way this thing was built, the savior's left arm would have to be about twice as long as his right). Methionine, the matchmaker said. An amino acid.
Only flipped. A mirror image.
Interested? Fucking right.
The file had been sitting in his morning ßehemoth-related data sweep, ticking quietly. He hadn't even had time to check it out until several hours into his shift. Supercol was burning a path through Glasgow, and some new carbon-eating bug—mutant or construct, nobody knew—had eaten a big chunk of the Bicentennial Causeway right out from under a few thousand rapitrans passengers. It had been a busy morning. But finally he'd had a few moments to come down off the accelerants and breathe.
He'd opened the file, and it had jumped out as if spring-loaded.
The matchmaker was unusually forthcoming in explaining why this file qualified for his attention. Usually, matchmakers delivered their treasures through logical chains way too twisted for humans to follow; like magic, needed information from all over the world would simply appear in your queue, unsummoned. But this file—this had come with explicit search terms attached, terms that even a human being could understand. Quarantine. Firestorm. Beebe Station. Channer Vent.
Not enough information to be useful. Just enough to catch the attention of someone like him. Not data at all, really: bait.
* * *
"Thanks for dropping in." Canned voice, no graphic.
Desjardins flipped his own voice filter on. "Got your message. What can I do for you?"
"We have a mutual interest in biochemistry," the voice said pleasantly. "I have information you might find useful. The reverse may also be true."
"And who are you, exactly?"
"I'm someone who shares your interest in biochemistry, and who has information you might find useful."
"Actually," Desjardins remarked, "you’re a secretarial app. Pretty basic one, too."
"Okay then. Pocket whatever you've got and tag it the same way you tagged your invite. I'll pick it up on my next sweep and get back to you."
"Sorry," said the app. "That doesn't work from this end."
Of course not. "So what would work for you?"
"I'd like to meet."
"Fine. Name a time, I'll clear a channel."
"Well, as I—you mean in person?"
"I'm suspicious by nature. I don't trust digital images. I can be at your location within forty-eight hours."
"Do you know my location?"
"You know, if I wasn't also suspicious by nature, I sure as shit would be now," Desjardins said.
"Then an interest in biochemistry is not all we have in common."
Desjardins hated it when apps did that—threw in little asides and lame witticisms to appear more human. Of course, Desjardins hated it when people did that, too.
"If you'd like to choose a place and time we could meet," the app told him, "I'll be sure to show up."
"How do you know I'm not quarantined?" For that matter, how do I know you're not? What am I getting into here?
"That won't be a problem."
"What are you really? Some kind of loyalty test Rowan's siccing on me?"
"I don't understand."
"Because it's really not necessary. A corpse of all people should know that." Whoever the app was negotiating for had to be corpse-level at least, to be so confident about travel clearances. Unless the whole thing was some kind of pointless and elaborate put-on.
"I'm not administering a loyalty test," the app replied. "I'm asking for a date."
"Okay, then. Pickering's Pile. Drink'n'drug in Sudbury, Ontario. Wednesday, 1930."
"That will be fine. How will I know you?"
"Not so fast. I think I'd rather approach you."
"That would be a problem."
"That is a problem. If you think I'm going to amble innocently into the clutches of someone who won't even give me their name, you're sadly in need of a patch."
"I'm sorry to hear that. However, it doesn't matter. We can still meet."
"Not if neither of us knows how to tag the other, we can't."
"I'll see you on Wednesday," the app told him. "Goodbye."
"Wait a second…"
Oh, man. Someone was going to meet him on Wednesday. Someone who evidently could drop down onto any place under geosynch at 48 hours' notice. Someone who knew of a link between Channer Vent and ßehemoth, and who seemed to think they could find him without any identifiers at all.
Someone was going to meet him whether he wanted to or not.
Achilles Desjardins found that a little bit ominous.
There were places in the world that lived on the arteries between here and there; whatever they generated within wasn’t self-sustaining. When tourniqueted—a quarantine, a poisoned water table, the sheer indifference of citizens abandoning some industrial lost-cause—they withered and turned gangrenous.
Sometimes, eventually, the walls would come down. The quarantine would end or atrophy. Gates would open, or just rust away. But by then it was too late; the tissue was long since necrotic. No new blood flowed into the dead zone. Maybe a few intermittent flickers along underground cables, peripheral nerves where Maelstrom jumped the gap. Maybe a few people who hadn't gotten out in time, still alive; others arriving, not so much seeking this place as avoiding some other.
Lenie Clarke was in such a place now, a town full of wreckage and smashed windows and hollow eyes staring from buildings nobody had bothered to condemn. Whatever life was here did not, for the most part, take any notice of her passing. She avoided the obvious territorial boundaries: the toothless skulls of children significantly arranged along a particular curb; a half-mummified corpse, crucified upside-down beneath the cryptic phrase St. Peter the Unworthy; derelict vehicles that just happened to block this road or that—rusty barricades, herding the unwary toward some central slaughterhouse like fish in a weir.
Two days before she'd skirted a coven of do-gooders who'd been live-trapping derelicts as though they were field mice, forcibly injecting them with some kind of gene cocktail. Xanthoplast recipes, probably. Since then, she’d managed to avoid seeing anyone. She moved only at night, when her marvelous eyes gave her every advantage. She steered clear of the local headquarters and territorial checkpoints with their burning oil drums and their light poles and their corroded, semi-functional Ballard stacks. There were traps and hidden guard posts, manned by wannabes eager to make their way up the local hierarchy; they seeped slight infrared, or slivers of light invisible to mere meat. Lenie Clarke noted them a block away and changed course, their attendants never the wiser.
She was almost through the zone when someone stepped from a doorway ten meters ahead of her; a mongrel with dominant Latino genes, skin the color of slate in the washed-out light boosted through her eyecaps. Bare feet, shreds of sprayed-on plastic peeling from the soles. A firearm of some kind in one hand; two fingers missing. The other hand had been transformed into an improvised prosthetic, wrapped round and round in layers of duct tape studded with broken glass and rusty nails.
He looked directly at her with eyes that shone as white and empty as her own.
"Well," Clarke said after a moment.
His clubbed limb gestured roughly at the surrounding territory. "Not much, but mine." His voice was hoarse with old diseases. "There's a toll."
"I'll go back the way I came."
"No you won't.”
She casually tapped a finger against her wristwatch. She kept her voice low, almost subvocal: "Shadow."
"Funds transferred," the device replied.
Clarke sighed and sloughed off her pack. One corner of her mouth curled the slightest fraction.
"So how do you want me?" she asked.
* * *
He wanted her from behind, and he wanted her face in the dirt. He wanted to call her Bitch and cunt and stumpfuck. He wanted to cut her with his homebuilt mace.
She wondered if this could be called rape. She hadn't been offered a choice. Then again, she hadn't exactly said no, either.
He hit her when he came, backhanded her head against the ground with his gun hand, but the gesture had an air of formality about it. Finally, he rolled off of her and stood.
She allowed herself back inside then, let the distant observation of her own flesh revert again to first-hand experience. "So." She rolled onto her back, wiping the street from her mouth with the back of one hand. "How was I?"
He grunted and turned his attention to her pack.
"Nothing you want in there," she said.
"Uh-huh." Something caught his eye anyway. He reached in and pulled out a tunic of black shimmering fabric.
It squirmed in his hand.
"Shit!" He dropped it onto the ground. It lay there, inert. Playing dead.
"What the fuck…" he looked at Clarke.
"Party clothes," she said, getting to her feet. "Wouldn't fit you."
"Bullshit," the mongrel said. "It's that reflex copolymer stuff. Like Lenny Clarke wears."
She blinked. "What did you say?"
"Leonard Clarke. Deep Sea Gillman. Did the quake." He nudged the diveskin with one gnarled toe. "You think I don't know?" He raised his gun-hand to his face; the barrel touched the corner of an eyecap. "How you think I got these, eh? Not the first groupie in town."
"I said already. You deaf, or stupid?"
"I just let you rape me, asshole. So probably stupid."
The mongrel looked at her for an endless moment.
"You done this before," he said at last.
"More times than you can count."
"Get to maybe like it after a while?"
"You didn't fight."
"Yeah? How many do, with a gun to their heads?"
"You're not even scared."
"I'm too fucking tired. You gonna let me go, or kill me, or what? Anything but listening to more of this shit."
The mongrel took a hulking step forward. Lenie Clarke only snorted.
"Go," the mongrel said in a strange voice. Then added, absurdly: "Where you headed?"
She arched an eyebrow. "East."
He shook his head. "Never get through. Big quarantine. Goes halfway down to the Dust Belt." He pointed south, down a side street. "Better go 'round."
Clarke tapped her watch. "It's not listed."
"Then don't. Fuck lot I care."
Keeping her eyes up, Clarke bent down and picked up her tunic. The mongrel held her pack out by the straps, glancing down into its depths.
Her hand lunged into the pack like a striking snake, snatched out the billy. She held it underhand, pointed at his gut.
He stepped back, one hand still gripping the pack. His eyes narrowed to opalescent slits. "Why didn't you use it?"
"Didn't want to waste a charge. You're not worth it."
He eyed the empty sheath on her leg. "Why not keep it there? Where you can get it?"
"Now, if you'd had a kid with you…"
They regarded each other through eyes that saw everything in black and white.
"You let me." The mongrel shook his head; the contradiction almost seemed painful. "You had that, and you let me anyway."
"My pack," Clarke said.
"You—set me up." Dawning anger in that voice, and thick wonder.
"Maybe I just like it rough."
"You're contagious. You're a bughumper."
She wiggled the baton. "Give me my things and maybe you'll live long enough to find out."
"You stumpfuck." But he held out the pack.
For the first time she saw the webbing between the three stumpy digits of his hand, noticed the smooth scarless tips of the stubs. Not violence, then. No street-fight amputation. Born to it.
"You a pharm baby?" she asked. Maybe he was older than he looked; the pharms hadn't deliberately spread buggy genotypes for decades. Sure, defectives spent more than healthy people on fixes, but the global ambience was twisting babies into strange enough shapes on its own by then. Without the risk of consumer backlash.
"You are, aren't you?"
He glared at her, shaking with helpless fury.
"Good," she said, grabbing her pack. "Serves you fucking right."
The voice in Lubin's ear had lied.
He hadn't been outside N'AmPac since landfall. He hadn't been in Sevastopol or Philadelphia for years. He'd never been in Whitehorse, and from what he knew of the place he hoped he never would be.
But he could have been. The lie was plausible one, to someone who knew Lubin but not his current circumstances. Or maybe it hadn't been a deliberate lie. Maybe it had been a flawed guess, based on God knew what irrelevant stats. Maybe it had just been a bunch of random words shoveled together with more regard for grammar than veracity.
He wondered if he might have started the rumor himself. Before he left for Sudbury, he put that hypothesis to the test.
He logged back into Haven and began a new name search: Judy Caraco, Lenie Clarke, Alice Nakata, and Kenneth Lubin.
It was a different voice that accosted him this time. It spoke in soft, gentle tones, almost whispering. It showed no predilection for alliteration or nonsense rhyme. It tended to mispronounce hard consonants.
It called him Michael.
* * *
He suborbed to Toromilton, took a shuttle north from that city-state. Endless suburbs kept pace beneath him, spilling far from the megapolitan hub that had once kept them captive. The daily commute had ended decades before, and still the blight was spreading. The outside world passed uneventfully—there were only a few restricted zones in all of Ontario, and none were on his route.
The world inside was a bit more interesting. Deep in the seething chaos that was Maelstrom, rumors of Mike Brander's resurrection were beginning to sprout alongside tales of Lubin's own. Mike Brander had been seen in Los Angeles. Mike Brander had been seen in Lima.
Lubin frowned, a small expression of self-disgust. He'd given himself away with his own questions. Something in Haven had taken notice when he'd run searches on all Beebe crew members except himself. And why doesn't this user ask about Lubin, K.? Because this user must already know about Lubin, K.
Because this user is Lubin, K.
Lenie and Kenny are on the comeback trail.
His last troll through Haven, asking about everyone except Mike Brander, had provoked the same attention and the same simple logic. Now Mike Brander was alive and well and living in Maelstrom. QED.
What's doing this? Why?
Why didn't always enter into it, of course. Sometimes Maelstrom's wildlife would just grab onto popular threads to get around—steal keywords to blend in, sneak through filters by posing as part of the herd. Classic bandwagon effect, blind and stupid as evolution itself. That was why such strategies always fizzled after a while. The fad-of-the-moment would fade into obscurity, leaving poseurs with forged tickets to an empty ballroom. Or the gate-keepers would catch on; the more popular the disguise, the greater the incentive for countermeasures.
Wildlife would hitch a ride on existing rumors, if they were hot enough. Lubin had never heard of them starting rumors of their own before.
And why Lenie Clarke? An obscure life, an invisible death. Hardly the most contagious meme in the wires. Nothing to inspire any post-mortem legacy at all, in fact.
This was something new. Whatever it was, it was goal-directed, and it was using Lenie Clarke.
More than that. Now, it was using him.
* * *
Sudbury had arrived DOA in the twenty-first century. Decades of mining and a substrate of thin, poorly-buffered soil had seen to that. The Sudbury stacks had been the epicenter for one of the first really big acid blights in North American history. It was a benchmark of sorts.
Not that this was entirely a bad thing. Legend had it that lunar astronauts had once practiced in its scoured gray environs. And the area's lakes were truly beautiful, clear and blue and lifeless as chemically-treated toilet bowls. The substrate was relentlessly stable, planed and leveled by long-vanished glaciers; the west coast could fall into the ocean, but the Canadian Shield would last forever. Exotic alien lifeforms would disembark from tankers or lifters at the Industrial Horseshoe around Lake Ontario, wreak local havoc as they always had, but you'd have to be one tough chimera to get past the acid-washed outskirts of Sudbury, Ontario. Its dead zone was like a moat, a firebreak burned into the countryside by a hundred years worth of industrial poison.
It couldn't have suited CSIRA better if it had been planned. Here was a place resistant to the calamities that threatened the rest of the world, by virtue of having already lost anything of real value. The real estate was cheap, too; the nickel mine was long exhausted, and there'd been a vacuum in the local economy since the last of the fuel rods had been buried over in Copper Cliff.
The Entropy Patrol had filled that vacuum. The Sudbury office was one of the hemisphere's top ten.
It was no surprise to Ken Lubin that his quarry was stationed there. That mysterious searcher hadn't seemed to know the specifics of what he or she was after; the caches left behind in Haven had jumped fastest when queried on ecological impacts and sheer correlative epidemiology, slowest when asked about subcellular organelles or biochemical pathways. Not the spoor of someone following an intimately-known agent. More likely someone tracking a new and mysterious one.
Not a pharm, then. Someone with a more ecological perspective, and with—given their access to Haven—a great deal of clearance and autonomy. The Entropy Patrol had the only talent pool that fit.
One good thing about the Patrol was that it was appropriately paranoid on matters of access. In a world dominated by the telecommute, 'lawbreakers dutifully made the daily real-world journey to a single vast, secure catacomb that plugged directly into Haven. Nobody would have been stupid enough to try and manage an entropy outbreak from a home terminal, even if it had been possible. At CSIRA, even the links into Maelstrom were insanely secure.
Which made tracking down employees quite straightforward. They all had to come through the foyer.
There was no listing of individual 'lawbreakers, of course. There was a listing of department heads, available through a small orchard of help kiosks in the main lobby. Once Lubin had what he needed, he stepped outside and headed to the nearest rapitrans stop.
* * *
Donald Lertzman was the archetypal middleman; his career had coasted to that comfortable plateau above those who actually did productive work, but safely short of a position where he had to make any vital decisions. Perhaps, on some level, he'd realized that. Perhaps a fully-detached house, hidden behind a hedgerow of acid-resistant blue spruce at the edge of the Sudbury Burn, was his way of compensating.
Of course, in this day and age he could hardly commute in his private vehicle. He knew the value of appearances; he'd built his livelihood on nothing else. Each night, therefore, he traversed the three blocks between his property and the nearest bus stop on foot. Approximately twenty percent of that distance was out of public view.
"Excuse me, are you Donald Lertzman?"
Lubin carefully noted the medic alert plug-in on Lertzman's wristwatch. It would raise the alarm if his vitals showed any indication of ongoing distress. Of course, a body's stress responses don't just kick in by themselves—they have to be activated by the perception of threat or injury. Most of those signals run through the spinal cord.
Ten minutes after failing to introduce himself, Lubin knew who he was looking for; he knew where to find him; he knew when that person's shift ended. He knew more than he needed, for the moment.
His scheduled meeting at Pickering's Pile was twenty-six hours away. Lubin didn't know if he wanted to wait that long. For that matter, there was no guarantee that this Achilles Desjardins would even show up.
He left Donald Lertzman breathing peacefully.
It was every bit as abrupt, this time: the sudden translocation of place, one world annihilated, another created in its stead. There may have been some warning. A barely perceptible stutter in the feeds, a ping, as if something far away was checking for activity on the line. But it came too fast to serve as any kind of heads-up, even if Perreault hadn't simply imagined it.
It didn't matter. She was waiting. She'd been waiting for days.
The same God's-eye view: a different multitude spread out below, framed by familiar icons and overlays. She'd been shunted from one botfly to another. Nav and GPS were dark for some reason.
But she was indoors, and there was violence.
One man lay twisted on the concrete floor; another's boot caught him in the stomach as she watched. His body folded weakly around the blow in some impotent fetal reflex, smearing blood and teeth in its wake. The face was too torn and bloody to betray any clear ethnicity.
The assailant—smaller, black, his back to the camera—shifted his weight from side to side with a terrible restless energy. His arena was defined by the crowd that enclosed it: some intent, some indifferent, some shaking their own fists in frenzied enthusiasm. Farther away the concentration of humanity thinned out, gave way to sleeping mats and forgotten piles of personal belongings.
Perreault spun through the available menus. No weapons. In the corner of her eye, a flashing distraction: target -162az : -41dec
The victor circled, still bobbing. His face came into view, creased in a fury of concentration. His foot lashed out again: a kidney blow to the back. The twitching thing on the floor jerked open like a bloody flower. Its back arched as though electrocuted.
The attacker looked up, straight at Perreault's hijacked botfly. His eyes were the brilliant, crystalline jade of gengineered chlorophyll. They stared from that black face like a hallucination.
Without taking his eyes off the 'fly, he delivered one last kick at the head of his victim. Then he moved into the crowd, unopposed.
Sou-Hon Perreault had never seen him before. She didn't know his victim. But target was at -175az : -40dec, and moving.
Pan left. More people, more sleeping mats. Gray unfinished walls rising in the distance, lined with vending machines and, higher up, official pictographs directing the populace to registration and quarantine and latest bulletins. They were in a cement cave ten meters high, erected in the name of mass subsistence: a place for quarantines, an innoculation center, a shelter against those sudden bouts of weather too vicious for the ad-hoc retrofits slapped onto older houses. Increasingly, to many, home.
The unofficial term was Bomb Shelter.
Target was at -35, -39. Tactical laid crosshairs onto her the moment she passed into view. Same civilian disguise, same visor. But something had happened to Lenie Clarke since Calgary. She favored one leg when she walked. A yellow bruise spilled across the right side of her face.
Perreault tripped the 'fly's speaker, thought twice, shut it off again. No need to draw unnecessary attention. Instead she brought up the comm menu, got a lock on Clarke's visor, and tapped into the RF.
"Hi. It's Sou-Hon again."
Down on the floor, Lenie Clarke froze. She brought her wrist up; she was no longer wearing a watch.
"Up here," Perreault said "In the botfly."
A proximity alert bleeped in her face: another 'fly coming into range. Perreault spun, caught it arriving through the 'fly-sized catflap two meters over the main entrance.
Even in visible light, the weapons muzzles were obvious.
She looked back down. Clarke was gone. Perreault panned until the crosshairs came up again. The rifter was heading for the door, glancing up at the other 'fly. It didn't notice her; it was headed toward the bloody Rorschach blot at the other end of the cave.
"Not that one," Perreault said. "Me. The little one, the surveil—"
"You're the stalker, right?" Clarke broke in.
"The—yeah. That's what you called me, anyway."
"Bye." She was at the entrance.
Perreault spared another look at the other botfly. It was hovering over the aftermath of the fight, its cameras pointing straight down. It had probably been summoned by the 'fly Perreault was riding, just before she'd grabbed the keys. It wasn't paying any attention to her. If its rider even knew that Perreault was in command, he or she didn't seem to care.
Nothing much I can do either way, she thought, and dived through the flytrap.
* * *
Thin dirty rain, sparse droplets blown sideways. The sky was brown. The air seemed full of grit. Farther south, then. Some place where it probably hadn't really snowed in years.
A metropolitan skyline hovered behind the dome like a murky histogram. Four-lane blacktop stretched out from that background, bled a puddle of asphalt beside the shelter, and continued to the horizon. On all sides a threadbare weave of smaller roads—some little more than dirt paths—extended through a patchwork of fields and woodlots.
Target, pinned and highlighted like a luminous butterfly, was moving away along one of them.
Still no GPS. Even the compass was offline.
Perreault reacquired the rifter's visor and set off on her trail. "Listen, I can—"
"Fuck off. Last time you were in one of those things it ended up shooting at me."
"That wasn't me! The link went down!"
"Yeah?" Clarke didn't look back. "And what's going to keep it up this time?"
"This 'fly doesn't have any weapons. It's strictly eyes and ears."
"I don't like eyes and ears."
"It couldn't hurt to have an extra set on your side. If I'd been around to do some advance scouting before, maybe you wouldn't have that bruise on your face."
Clarke stopped. Perreault brought the 'fly down and hovered a couple of meters off her shoulder.
"And when your friends get bored?" the rifter asked. "When the link goes down again?"
"I don't know. Maybe the 'fly just goes back to its regular rounds. At least it can't shoot at you."
"It can talk to things that can."
"Look, I'll keep my distance," Perreault offered. "A couple hundred meters, say. I'll stay in range of your visor, but if this thing comes to its senses you'll just be some nameless K who happened to be around when the link came back. They won't look twice."
Two meters off the port bow, Clarke's shoulders rose and fell.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked. "Why is it so important to help me out?"
Perreault briefly considered telling the truth. "I don't know," she said at last. "It just is."
The rifter shook her head. After a moment she said, "I'm headed south."
"South?" Perreault tapped again at the dead compass icon. Nothing. She tried to get a fix on the sun through murky overcast.
Clarke began walking. "This way," she said. And still didn't look back.
* * *
Perreault kept well off the road, paralleling Clarke's direction of travel. She called up the camera menu—planning to set a zoom reflex on any motion not consistent with wind action—and was surprised to be offered a choice of views. The 'fly had lateral, stern, and ventral cams as well as the primary stereos up front. She could split the display into four windows and keep simultaneous watch on the whole three-sixty.
Lenie Clarke trudged silently along the road, shoulders hunched against the wind. Her windbreaker flapped against her body like torn plastic.
"Aren't you cold?" Perreault asked.
"Got my skin on."
"Your—" Of course. Her dive suit. "Is this how you always get around?"
"You were the one that warned me off flying."
"Well, yes, but—"
"I bus sometimes," Clarke said. "Hitchhike."
Things that didn't involve ID checks or body scans. There was an irony buried in there, Perreault reflected. Clarke had probably been through more rigorous security in the past few weeks than would have been imaginable just decades earlier—but modern checks and gauntlets were aimed at pathogens, not people. Who cared about artifacts like personal ID any more? Who cared about anything so arbitrary as a political border? National identity was so irrelevant that nobody'd even bothered to dismantle it.
"You're not going to find a ride on this road any time soon," Perreault remarked. "You should've stuck with the main drag."
"I like walking alone. Avoids pointless small-talk."
Perreault took the hint.
She accessed the botfly's flight recorder, fearful of just how much incriminating information the device had stored. But its entire memory had been purged—an act of sabotage well beyond Perreault's capabilities. Even now, the black box somehow failed to retain the routine data stream the 'fly's sensors were sending it.
She was relieved, but not particularly surprised.
"Still there?" Clarke said.
"Uh-huh. Link's still up."
"They're getting better with practice."
Perreault remembered Clarke's reflexive glance at her bare wrist, back in the dome. "What happened to your watch?"
"Your friends figured out how to override the off switch."
"They're not—" Not friends. Not even contacts. She didn’t know what they were.
"And now you're getting in through my visor. If I had any brains I'd lose that, too."
"So others have made contact?" Of course they had—why would Sou-Hon Perreault be the only person in the world to be given an audience with the Meltdown Madonna?
"Oh, right. I forgot," the mermaid said wryly. "You don't know anything."
"Have they? Others like me?"
"Worse," Clarke said, and kept walking.
Don't push it.
A stand of skeletal birch separated them for a few minutes. The port camera caught Lenie Clarke in fragments, through a vertical jumble of white slashes.
"I went into Maelstrom," she said. "People are—talking about me."
"Yeah. I know."
"Do you believe it? The stuff they're saying?"
Perreault tried for a light touch, not believing it herself: "So you're not carrying the end of the world around inside you?"
"If I am," Clarke said, "it doesn't show up on a blood panel."
"You can't believe most of the stuff you read in Maelstrom anyway," Perreault said. "Half of it contradicts the other half."
"It's all just crazy. I don't know how it got started." A few seconds of silence. Then: "I saw someone that looked like me the other day."
"I told you. You've got friends."
"No. It's not me you want. It's something in the wires. It just…stole my name for some reason."
A sudden luminous rectangle, framing a flicker of motion. The stern camera zoomed reflexively.
"Hold on," Perreault said. "I've got a—Lenie."
"You might want to get off the road. I think it's that psycho from the shelter."
It was. Hunched over the handlebars of an ancient mountain bike, he resolved in the zoom window like a grainy nightmare. He pumped, straining, all his weight on the pedals. The vehicle had no seat. It didn't have any tires, either; it rattled along the road on bare rims. It was a skeleton ridden by a monster. The monster's jacket was dark and wet, and missing one sleeve; it was not the one he'd been wearing before.
He kept his eyes on the road; only once did he spare a glance back over his shoulder. Eventually he faded in the murk.
"Here." She rose from a drainage ditch.
"He's gone," Perreault said. "The things you see when you don't have your gun. Asshole."
"No worse than anyone else back there." Clarke climbed back onto the road.
"Except for the fact that he beat someone to death."
"And a hundred people stood around and watched. Or didn't you notice?"
"People do that, you know. Just stand around and do nothing. They're fucking complicit, they're no better than—they're worse. At least he took a little initiative."
"I didn't notice you standing up to him," Perreault snapped, and instantly regretted her own defensiveness.
Clarke turned to face the botfly and said nothing. After a moment she resumed walking.
"They're not all—complicit, Lenie," Perreault said, more gently. "People want to act, they're just—afraid. And sometimes, experience teaches you that the only way to cope is to just—shut down…"
"Oh yeah, we're all just victims of our past. Don't you dare trot out that subroutine."
"The poor little abuse victim. You know what abuse is, really? It's an excuse."
"Lenie, I'm not—"
"So some asshole grabs your cunt in daycare. So someone rams his cock up your ass. So what? Bruises, maybe. A bit of bleeding. You suffer more injury if you fall off the swings and break your arm, so how come you don't hear anyone wailing about abuse then?"
A thousand kilometers away, Perreault reeled in the surge of Clarke's vehemence. "I didn't say— and anyway, the physical injury's only part of it. The emotional damage—"
"Crap. You think we aren't built to withstand a little childhood trauma? You know how many of the higher mammals eat their own young? We wouldn't have lasted ten generations if a couple of childhood shit-kickings was enough to take us out for the count."
"You think all those armies and gangs and cops would be so keen on rape if we just didn't make such a big deal about it? If we didn't get all weak-kneed and trembly at the thought of being violated? Fuck that. I've been attacked by things straight out of nightmares. I've nearly been boiled and buried alive more times than I can count. I know all about the ways you can push a body to the breaking point, and sexual abuse doesn't even make the top ten."
She stopped and glared across at Perreault's distant teleop. Perreault zoomed: the rifter was shaking.
"Or do you have some basis for disagreement? Some personal experience to back up all your trendy platitudes?"
Sure I had experience. I watched. For years I watched, and felt nothing.
It was my job…
But of course she couldn't say that. "I—no. Not really."
"Course not. You're just a fucking tourist, aren't you? You're safe and comfy in some glass tower somewhere, and you stick a periscope into the real world every now and then and tell yourself you're experiencing life or some such shit. You're pathetic."
"Stop feeding off me."
She wouldn't say anything more. She stalked silently along that road in the dirty rain, refusing entreaty or apology. Brown sky faded to black. Visible light failed, infra kicked in. Lenie Clarke was a white-hot speck of anger at fixed range, endlessly moving.
In all that time she only spoke once. The words were barely more than a growl, and Sou-Hon Perreault did not believe they were intended for her ears. But the fly's enhanced senses had little regard for range and none for privacy: filter and gain turned Clarke's words from distant static to ugly, unmistakable truth:
There were two reasons Achilles Desjardins didn't indulge in sex with real partners. The second was, simulations gave him much more latitude.
His system was more than enough to handle the range. His skin came equipped with the latest Lorenz-levitation haptics, their formless magnetic fingers both sensing his movements and responding to them. The ad specs boasted you could feel a virtual ant crawling up your back. They weren't lying. The only way you'd get a better ride was to go with a direct neural interface, but Desjardins wasn't about to go that far; it wasn't widely known, but there were creatures in Maelstrom that were learning to penetrate wetware. The last thing he needed was some sourced shark hijacking his spinal cord.
And there were other dangers if you went with a wet link, dangers especially relevant to those with Desjardins's tastes. There were still people out there who refused to recognize the difference between reality and simulation, between fantasy and assault. Some of them were savvy enough to hack the things they found politically objectionable.
Take the present scenario. It was a pretty sweet set-up, all told. He had two girls strapped face-down on the table in front of him. One of them was hooked up to a DC power supply by alligator clips on her nipples and clit. The other had to be content with lower-tech forms of punishment, which Desjardins was currently administering with an unfinished broom handle. Three others hung inverted against the far wall, passing time until their own numbers came up.
It was exactly this sort of environment that certain disagreeable types took pleasure in messing with. Desjardins knew of more than one occasion in which the victims of similar scenarios had miraculously freed themselves from their restraints, coming after the user with steak knives and hedge-clippers. Incompetent but enthusiastic neutering generally followed; in at least one case the emergency interrupt had been overridden, keeping the player on the board right up to the final curtain call. Such things were more than enough of a damper in a feedback skin. If you got nailed through a neural link, you could end up impotent for life.
Which was, of course, the whole idea.
Achilles Desjardins was more cognizant of the risks than most. He took, therefore, more precautions than most. His sensorium was strictly standalone, with no physical connection to any kind of network. He'd lobotomized the graphics circuitry to reduce its vulnerability to wildlife; it could only present chunky, low-rez images that would drive any normal connoisseur crazy, but Desjardins's own wetware more than made up the difference. (The pattern-matching enhancements in his visual cortex interpolated those crude pixels into a subjective panorama crisp enough to leave the most jaded wirehead drooling.) The scenarios themselves were scrubbed and disinfected right down to the texture maps. Desjardins carried way more than his weight in this cesspool of a world; no way was some TwenCen puritan going to mess up any of his well-deserved moments with Mr. Bone.
Which made the sudden and complete failure of his system extremely disquieting. There was a brief sharp prick in his neck and the whole environment just disappeared.
He floated there a moment, a stunned and disembodied being in an imperceptible void. No sounds, no smells or tactile feedback, no vision—not even blackness, really. Not like a window gone dark, not like closing your eyes. More like not having any eyes to begin with. You don't see blackness out of the back of your skull, after all, you don't—
Fuck, he thought. They got in. Any second now everything's going to come back online and they'll be spit-roasting me on a pole or something.
He tried to flex his fingers around the interrupt. He didn't seem to have any fingers. All his senses remained offline. For a moment, he thought he might get off easy; maybe they hadn't infected his program, maybe they'd just crashed it. It made sense—it was always easier to kill a system than subvert it.
Bit they shouldn't have been able to do either, for fuck's sake…and why can't I feel anything…?
"Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?"
"Sorry. Small attempt at humor. I'm going to ask you a few questions, Achilles. I want you to think long and hard about the answers."
The voice hung there in the void with him, sexless and innocent of ambience; no reverb, no quiet hum of nearby appliances, no background noise at all. It was almost like a Haven voice, but even that seemed wrong.
"I want you to think about the ocean. The very deep ocean. Think about some of the things that live down there. The microbes, especially. Think about them."
He tried to speak. No vocal cords.
"Good. Now I want you to listen to some names. You may recognize some of them. Abigail McHugh."
He'd never heard of her.
Lertzman? How's he involved?
"Wolfgang Schmidt. Judy Caraco."
Is this some kind of Corpse loyalty te—oh Jesus. That Haven contact. Pickering's Pile. It said it could find me…
"André Breault. Patrician Rowan. Lenie Clarke."
Rowan! She behind this?
"Ken Lubin. Leo Hin Tan the Third. Mark Showell. Michael Brander."
Yeah. Rowan. Maybe Alice isn't so paranoid after all.
"Good. Now I want you to think about biochemistry. Proteins. Sulfur-containing amino acids."
"I can tell you're confused. Let's narrow it down some. Cysteine. Methionine. Think about those when you hear the following words…"
It's a mind-reading trick of some kind, Desjardins thought.
"Retrovirus. Stereoisomer. Sarcomere."
A quantum computer?
They didn't exist. Of course, that was the official story on most banned technology, but in this case Desjardins was inclined to believe it. Nobody in their right mind would be caught dead around a telepathic AI. That had been one side-effect the Q-boosters hadn't seen coming: the whole quantum-consciousness debate had been resolved overnight. Who'd ever choose to build something that could sift through their minds like a chess grandmaster noodling around in a game of Xs and Os?
Nobody, as far as Desjardins had been able to tell.
"Ion pump. Thermophile."
But if not a quantum computer, then—
Not a computer, except for the interrogation interface. Not telepathy either; not quite. Cruder. The faint quantum signals of human consciousness, cut away from the noise and sensory static that usually swamped them. Properly insulated from such interference, you had a better-than-average chance of guessing what your subject was looking at, or listening to. You could feel the vicarious echo of distant emotions. With the right insulation, and the right stimuli, you could learn a lot.
So Desjardins had been told. He'd never actually experienced it before.
"Good. Now, think about the assignments you've had at CSIRA over the past month."
Mange de la marde. Just because some disembodied voice told him to think about something, didn't mean he had to leap up and—
"Ah. There's a familiar pattern. Here's an exercise for you, Achilles: whatever you do, do not think of a red-eyed baboon with hemorrhoids."
"You see? Nothing's more doomed to failure than trying really hard not to think about something. Shall we continue? Think about your CSIRA assignments for the past six months."
A red-eyed baboon with--
"Think of earthquakes and tidal waves. Think of any possible connections."
Isn't this a security breach? Shouldn't Guilt Trip be doing something?
Earthquakes. Tidal waves. He couldn't keep them out.
Maybe it is. Maybe Trip's seized up my whole body. If I even still have a body. How would I know?
Oh Jesus. I'll give everything away…
Threads of emerald light, lancing through the fog.
"Think of containment protocols. Think of collateral damage."
Stop it, stop it…
"Did you plan it?"
No! No, I—
"Did you know in advance?"
How could I, they don't tell me any—
"Did you find out afterward?"
If Trip's working, my body's already dead. Oh motherfucking blood-spewing sickle-celled savior…
"Did you approve?"
What kind of stupid question is that?
Nothing, for a very long time.
I feel awful, Desjardins thought. Then: Hey—
Despair, guilt, fear—chemicals, all. Hormones and neurotransmitters, a medley brewed not just in the brain, but in glands throughout the body. The physical body.
I'm still alive. I've still got a body even if I can't feel it.
"Let's talk about you," said the voice at last. "How have you been lately, healthwise? Have you had any cuts or injuries? Anything to break the skin?"
I'm feeling a bit better, thank you.
"Any symptoms of illness?
"Any inoculations within the past two weeks?
"Blood tests? Unusual reactions to recreational transderms?
"Real sexual experiences?"
Never. I'd never inflict that on a person…
Hey. You there?
With a blinding flash and a roar like an angry ocean, the real world crashed in from all sides.
* * *
After a while everything desaturated to normal intensity. He stared up at his living room ceiling and waited while a cacophony of ambient sounds faded down to a single, rhythmic scrubbing.
Someone's in here.
He tried to rise; a sharp pain in his neck kept him from any sudden moves, but he managed to get erect and stay that way. In only the most innocent sense, unfortunately; his feedback skin was folded neatly to one side. He was completely naked.
The scrubbing sound was coming from the bathroom.
He didn't have any weapons. At this point he didn't think he needed any; if the intruder had meant to kill him, he'd be dead already. Desjardins stepped tentatively toward the hallway and nearly took a header into the wall; Mandelbrot, true to form, had got in his way and tried the classic feline figure-eight-around-the-legs takedown.
Desjardins spared a silent curse and crept toward the bathroom.
Someone was standing at the sink without any pants on.
Seen from the back: medium height, but built like a Ballard stack. Dark hair, flecked with gray; navy cable-knit sweater; black underwear; little scars all over the backs of the legs. Bare feet. His pants were draped along the counter; he was scrubbing at one leg in the sink.
"Your cat pissed on me," he said without turning.
Desjardins shook his head; his neck reminded him of the stupidity of that gesture. "What?"
"When we had our session," the stranger said. (Desjardins glanced in the mirror but the man's face was tilted down, intent on his task.) "I assume someone in your position knows about Ganzfeld techniques?"
"I've heard of them," Desjardins said.
"Then you know you have to minimize extraneous signal. Nerve blocks on all the main sensory cables, everything. I was just as disconnected as you."
"But you were talking—"
The intruder nudged a small beige fanny-pack on the floor with his foot. "That was talking. I just set up the dialogue tree. Anyway,"—he straightened, his back still to the door—"your stupid cat pissed on my leg when I was laid out."
Good for my stupid cat, Desjardins didn't say.
"I thought only dogs were supposed to do that."
Desjardins shrugged. "Mandelbrot's kind of a mutant."
The intruder grunted, and turned.
He wasn't exactly ugly. More like what would result if someone with limited artisan skills carved a human face in a totem pole; it might not run to your taste, but there was no denying a certain crude aesthetic. More tiny scars on the face. Still; not quite ugly.
Scary, though. That fit. Desjardins didn't know exactly what it was that made him think that.
"You're immune to Guilt Trip," the intruder told him. "Want to guess how that happened?"
The naked 'lawbreaker was watching him with wary curiosity. Not much actual fear, Lubin noted. When you routinely juggled thousands of lives for a living, you probably figured that other people were the ones with cause to worry. Sudbury was a safe, law-abiding place. Wielding his godlike control over the real world, Desjardins had probably forgotten what it was like to actually live in it.
"Who are you?" Desjardins asked.
"Name's Colin," Lubin said.
"Uh-huh. And why does Rowan have such a hard-on for testing my loyalty?"
"Maybe you didn't hear me," Lubin said. "You're immune to Guilt Trip."
"I heard you. I just think you're full of shit."
"Really." Lubin laid the slightest emphasis on the word.
"Nice try, Colin, but I kind of keep up on that stuff."
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's indestructible. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few commercial enzymes that break it down The right kind of reuptake inhibitor blockers could do the job too, I'm told. That's why they have these tests, you see? That's why I can barely go two days without some bloodhound sniffing my crotch. Believe me, if I was immune to Guilt Trip I'd already know it, and so would every security database up to geosynch. And you know, the really odd thing about this is that Rowan must know that alread—"
He never had a chance to move. Lubin was behind him in the space of a syllable, had one arm locked around his throat in two. The long curved needle in his other hand tickled Desjardins's eardrum suggestively.
"You have three seconds to tell me what it's called," Lubin whispered, relaxing his grip just enough to permit some semblance of speech.
"ßehemoth," Desjardins gasped.
Lubin tightened his grip again. "Place of origin. Two seconds." Relaxed it.
"Deep sea! Juan de Fuca, Channer Vent I thin—"
"Worst-case scenario. One."
"Everything dies, for fuck's sake! Everything just fades away…"
Lubin let him go.
Desjardins staggered forward against the sink, gulping air. Lubin could see his face reflected in the mirror: panic subsiding, the higher brain kicking in, reassessment of threat potential, dawning awareness of—
Three breaches he'd just committed. Three violations when Guilt Trip should have risen from within and throttled him even more tightly than Lubin just had…
Achilles Desjardins turned and faced Lubin with horror and fear spreading across his face.
"Maudite marde …"
"I told you, " Lubin said. "You're a free agent. Vive le gardien libre."
* * *
"How'd you do it?" Desjardins slumped morosely on the couch next to his clothes. "More to the point, why? The next time I show up for work I'm screwed. Rowan knows that. What's she trying to prove?"
"I'm not here for Rowan," Lubin said. "Rowan's the problem, in fact. I'm here on behalf of her superiors."
"Yeah?" Desjardins actually seemed to approve of that. Not surprising. Patricia Rowan had never exactly endeared herself to the lower ranks.
"There are concerns that some of the information we've received from her office has been tainted," Lubin continued. "I'm here to cut out the middleman and get the unadulterated truth. You're going to help me."
"And I'm not much good to you if my brain seizes up every time you ask a touchy question."
Desjardins began getting dressed. "Why not just go through channels? GT won't raise a peep if I know the orders are coming from higher up the food chain."
"Rowan would peep."
"Oh. Right." Desjardins pulled his shirt on over his head. "So tell me if I've got this down: you ask me a bunch of questions, and if I don't answer them to the best of my ability you stick a needle in my ear. If I do, you let me go and the next time I go to work I set off more sirens than I can count. They take me apart piece by piece to find out what went wrong, and if I'm very very lucky they'll just throw me into the street as a security risk. Is that about right?"
"Not exactly," Lubin said.
"I'm not the snuff fairy," Lubin said. In fact, that was exactly what someone had called him, nearly two years before. "I don't leap gaily from door to door killing people for no good reason. And you're going to do more than answer a few questions for me. You're going to take me to work and show me your files."
Lubin held up a derm between thumb and forefinger. "Trip analog. Short-lived and fairly inert, but it looks pretty much the same to a bloodhound. Stick it under your tongue fifteen minutes before getting to work and you'll pass the tests. If you cooperate, no one will know the difference."
"Until you bugger off and take your analog with you."
"You're forgetting how Guilt Trip works, Desjardins. Your own cells are producing the stuff. I haven't stopped that. I've just dosed you with something to break down the finished product before it hits your motor nerves. Eventually it'll get used up and you'll be a happy little slave again."
"Week or ten days. Depends on individual metabolism. Even if I do bugger off, you could always just call in sick until it wears off."
"I can't, and you know it. I got my immunes boosted when I joined the Patrol. I'm even immune to Supercol."
Lubin shrugged. "Then you'll just have to trust me."
* * *
It fact, it had been lies from the word go.
Lubin had not freed Achilles Desjardins. He'd merely stumbled on the discovery as they both lay on the floor, disconnected from themselves and strangely linked to each other through a mechanical interrogator. The derm he'd presented had been an acetylcholine booster, a memory aid one step removed from candy. His words had been spun on the fly, woven around the 'lawbreaker's reactions in the Ganzfeld: Rowan, yes. Strong reaction there. No reaction to rifter names, but horror and recognition at the thought of earthquakes and tidal waves and mysterious fires.
Desjardins had pursued the truth, and recoiled from it. He had not set any of the larger wheels in motion. As far as Lubin could tell, he didn't even know how many wheels there were.
He hadn't known that he was immune to Guilt Trip, either. That was especially interesting. Desjardins had been right—it would be impossible to avoid one of CSIRA's spot checks for more than a day or two. So barring the unlikely possibility that Desjardins had acquired his immunity within the past few hours, his body had done a lot more than throw off GT; it had managed to hide that fact from the bloodhounds.
Lubin had not realized that freedom from Guilt Trip was possible. It raised certain prospects he had not previously considered.
Marq Quammen was primed and ready.
Tornado season was just winding down in the Dust Belt; three solid months of flywheel repairs had fed the chip in his thigh until it was six digits fat, and he had a month until spring run-off started clogging the dams up north. Options were tempting and plentiful in the meantime. He could boost his chloroplasts to UV-shield levels and bugger off to the Carolines. He could check out the underwater Club Med over in Hatteras—he'd heard they'd walled off a whole bay with this big semipermeable membrane, let the ocean in but kept out all those nasty synthetic macromolecules and heavy metals. Their cultured coral had finally taken off; it might even be open to the tourists by now. That would be something to see. There hadn't been wild coral anywhere in N'Am since Key West had packed it in.
Of course, these days there were all sorts of nasty things waiting to jump on you when you ventured outside. That new bug the left-coast refugees had brought over, for instance—the all-purpose number that killed you a dozen different ways. Maybe it'd be better just to stay in this dark, cozy little booth in this dark, cozy little drink'n'drug at the edge of the Belt, and let Breakthroughs in BrainChem provide him a richness of experience he could never get in the real world. That was pretty tempting, too. Plus he could start immediately.
Already had started, in fact. Quammen stretched and settled deeper into his cushioned alcove and watched the local butterflies sparkling at each other. Upstairs the world was a salt-baked oven; if you were an unprotected eyeball out there, the only question was whether you'd go saltblind before the wind sandblasted you down to pitted gelatin. In here, though, it was always dark, and the air barely moved. He felt like a cat in a nook in a dark green cave, surveying a subterranean domain.
There was a little blond K-selector sitting alone at the bar. Quammen absently stuck a derm behind his ear and aimed his watch at her. Passive infrared and a few ultrasonic squeaks, barely audible even to bats, bounced back and forth.
She turned and looked at him. Her eyes were a flat and startling ivory.
She started toward him.
He didn't know her. Quammen's watch flashed him an executive summary: she wasn't horny, either.
He couldn't think of any other reason she'd approach him, though.
She stopped just outside the alcove, a hint of a smile beneath those strange blank eyes.
"Nice effect," Quammen said, seizing the initiative. "You see in X-ray with those things?"
"So what was that?"
"What was what?"
"You zapped me with something."
"Oh." Quammen raised his hand, let her see the whisper-thin filament extending from his watch. "You got some kind of sensor on you?"
She shook her head. Thin lips, small tits, great hips. Sharp edges, just slightly smoothed. Like a perfect little ice-sculpture, left a minute too long in the sun.
"So how'd you know?" Quammen asked.
"I felt it."
"Bullshit. The IR's passive, the sonar's real weak."
"I've got an implant," said the K. "Hard stuff. You can feel it when the sound hits."
"Implant?" This could be interesting.
"Yeah. So, what are you doing here?"
Quammen sneaked another peek at his watch; no, she wasn't on the prowl. Hadn't been a minute ago, anyway. Maybe that was open to negotiation. Maybe it had already changed. He wanted to scope her out again, but he didn't want to give himself away. Shit. Why'd she have to be sensitive to probes?
"Just coming off a nice fat contract," he told her. "Riding flywheels. Figuring out my next move."
She slid in beside him, grabbed a derm from the table dispenser. "Tell me about it."
* * *
She was fucking cryptic, was what she was.
Or maybe just old-fashioned. She hadn't propositioned him outright, which was a drag; it wasted time. Quammen would've propositioned her in an instant, but unless his plug-in was wrecked she hadn't been receptive at first, and that probably meant he was going to have to work at it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to rely on instinct of all things to know whether a woman was interested or not, and this Lenie wasn't making things any easier. A couple of times he'd put a hand here or there, and she'd literally flinched. But then she'd run a finger down his arm, or tap the back of his hand, and just generally come on wet as a hagfish.
If she wasn't interested, why was she wasting his time? Was she really here for the conversation?
By the third derm it didn't seem to matter so much.
"You know what I am?" Quammen demanded. An influx of exogenous transmitters had made him suddenly eloquent. "I'm a fucking crusader, is what I am! It is my personal mission to save the world from the Quebecois!"
She blinked lazily over her alien eyes. "Too late," she said.
"You know, only fifty years ago, people paid less than a third of their disposable income on energy? Less than a third?"
"I did not know that," Lenie answered.
"And the world's ending. It's ending right now."
"That," Lenie said, "I did know."
"Do you know when? Do you know when the end began?"
"Twenty thirty-five. The onset of adaptive shatter. When damage control started accounting for more of the GGP than the production of new goods."
"Damage control." He pounded the table for emphasis. "My whole life is damage control. I fix the things that entropy breaks. Things fall apart, Lenie my lass. The only way you can stop the slide is throw energy at it. That's the only way we got from primordial slime to human slime. Evolution'd be sockeye without the sun to lean on."
"Oh, there are places where evolution didn't need the sun—"
"Yeah, yeah, but you get my point. The more complicated a system gets, the more fragile it is. All that ecobabble about diversity promotes stability, that's pure bullshit. You take your coral reef or your tropical rainforest, those things were starved for energy. You've got so many species, so many energy pathways using up resources that there's hardly a spare erg left over. Drive through a rainforest with a bulldozer or two and tell me how stable that system ends up being."
"Oops," Lenie said. "Too late."
Quammen barely heard her. "Now what we've got here's a system that's so complicated, it makes a tropical rainforest look like a fucking monoculture. Everything gets way too complicated for mere mortals so we set up webs and networks and AIs to keep track of things except they end up exploding into these huge cancers of complexity too—so that only makes the problem worse—and of course now all the underlying infrastructure is breaking down, the weather and the biosphere are all fucked up so not only do we need oodles more energy to keep this huge wobbling gyro from crashing over on its side, but those same factors keep knocking out the systems we put in place to produce all that extra energy, you see what I'm sayin'? You know what apocalypse is? It's a positive feedback loop!"
"So why blame Quebec for all this? They're the only ones who got their asses in gear fast enough to save anything. It was the Hydro Wars that—"
"Here it comes. Quebec was gonna save the world, and if only we hadn't ganged up on the frogs, we'd all be sipping neurococktails on a beach somewhere and Maelstrom would be nice and clean and bug-free, and—ah, don't get me started."
"Too late for that, too."
"Hey, I'm not saying the war didn't kick Maelstrom past critical mass. Maybe it did. But it would've happened anyway. Five years, tops. And do you really think the frogs had any more foresight than the rest of us? They just lucked out with their geography. Anyone could make the world's biggest hydro facility if they had all of Hudson Bay to dam up. And who was going to stop them? The Cree tried, did you know that? Remember the Cree? A few thousand malcontents up around James Bay, just before that nasty and unfortunate plague that only killed abos. And after that went down, Nunavut just rolled over and did what they were told, and the rest of fucking Canada was still so busy trying to lure the frogs back into bed they were willing to look the other way over pretty much anything. And now it's too late, and the rest of us run around playing catch-up with our windfarms and our photosynthesis arrays and our deep-sea geothermal—"
Lenie's eyes floated in front of him. Something clicked in Quammen's head.
"Hey," he said after a moment, "are you a—"
She grabbed his wrist and pulled him out of the alcove. "Enough of this bullshit. Let's fuck."
* * *
She was something else.
She had seams in her chest, and a perforated metal disk poking out between her ribs. She told him, around mouthfuls of cock, that a childhood injury had left her with a prosthetic lung. It was an obvious lie, but he didn't call her on it. Everything was making sense now, right down to the way she kept freezing up and trying to hide it, the way she acted hot to cover how cold she was.
She was a rifter. Quammen had heard about them—hell, they were the competition. N'AmPac had sent them down to hydrothermal vents all over the eastern Pacific, until word got out that they were all completely fucked in the head. Something about abuse survivors being best-suited for risky deep-sea work, some reductomechanist shit like that. It was no wonder Lenie wasn't keen on sharing her life story. Quammen wasn't going to push her on it.
Besides, the sex was pretty good. The occasional flinch notwithstanding, she seemed to know exactly what to do. Quammen had heard the usual rumors—the Wisdom of the Old Ones, he liked to call them. If you want good sex, find an abuse victim. Didn't seem quite right to put something like that to the test, but after all, she'd been the one to take the lead.
And what do you know: the Old Ones spake the truth.
He fucked her so hard his cock came out bloody. He frowned, sudden concern wilting him like a stalk of old celery. "Whoa…"
She just smiled.
"Is that you? Are you hurt? Is it—"
—oh crap, is it me?
"I'm an old-fashioned girl," she said, looking up at him.
"What do you mean?" Surely he'd have felt it if something had cut his cock…
"You—you're kidding." Why would anyone choose to – "I mean, that's really TwenCen." He stood and reached for a towel on the dresser. "You could've told me," he said, wiping at himself.
"Sorry," she said.
"Well, pick your own pleasure, by all means," Quammen said. "It's no big deal, I just thought—"
She'd left her pack unzipped on the floor beside the dresser. Something glinted wet and dark from inside. He leaned slightly for a better view.
"Ah," he said, "—sorry if I—ah…"
A utility clip, blade extended. Used.
"Sure," she said behind him. "Fine."
She cut herself. Before we fucked, must've been when I was in the bathroom. She cut her own insides.
He turned back to the bed. Lenie was already half-dressed. Her face was a blank mask; it framed her eyes perfectly.
She noticed his gaze. She smiled again. Marq Quammen felt a tiny chill.
"Nice meeting you," she said. "Go, and sin some more."
The bloodhound nipped him on the finger and fixed him with one dark, suspicious eye.
GT analog my ass, Desjardins thought. What if it doesn't work? What if Colin's lying, what if—
The eye blinked and turned green.
Colin swept past security as Desjardins's guest. Guilt Trip wasn't an honor bestowed upon everyone, not even upon all those who might have legitimate commerce within the halls of the Entropy Patrol. Colin passed beneath eyes that stripped flesh to the bone—thoracic implants, Desjardins noticed, although the machines seemed to think them innocuous enough—but there was no need to drink his blood or read his mind. He was, after all, in the trusted company of Achilles Desjardins, who would never dream of granting access to any potential security threat.
This fucker could kill me, Desjardins thought.
Colin closed the cubby door behind them; Desjardins linked his eyes into the panel and split the feed to the wall so Colin could eavesdrop. He told the board to route incoming assignments around him until farther notice. The system, confident that no minion would shirk responsibility without good reason, acknowledged promptly.
Alone again, with the man who carried long needles in his pocket.
"What do you want to see?" Desjardins asked.
"Everything," Colin said.
* * *
"That's pretty sparse," Colin remarked, studying the plot. "Not your usual pandemic."
He must have meant inland;ehemoth was sprouting everywhere along the coast.
Desjardins shrugged. "Still has some trouble invading low-pressure habitat. Needs a few dice rolls to get a foothold."
"It seems to be doing well enough on the Strip."
"Superdense population. More dice rolls."
"How's it getting around?"
"Not sure. It didn't book a commercial flight." Desjardins pointed at the scattered blotches east of the Rockies. "These new hits just started showing up a couple of weeks ago, and they're not consistent with any of the major travel corridors." He sighed. "I suppose we're lucky the quarantine held as long as it did."
"No, I mean how does it transmit? Respiratory aerosols, skin contact? Body fluids?"
"In theory it could get around on the bottom of somebody's boot. But you'd probably need more than a dirty boot to carry critical mass, so the secondary wouldn't persist."
"Human reservoirs, then."
Desjardins nodded. "Alice says it'd be nice and comfy inside a body. So yeah, it'd probably spread like some kind of conventional infection. Then when a vector takes a shit or pukes in the grass, you've got an innoculation into the outside world."
"Just another 'lawbreaker. Shared the assignment." Desjardins hoped Colin didn't ask for details. Anyone that man got curious about might have reason to worry.
But Colin only pointed at the display. "Your vectors. How many got past the mountains?"
"Don't know. Not my case any more. I'd guess only a few, though."
"So who are they?"
"I'd say people who worked on the Beebe construction contract. Infected before anyone knew there was a problem."
"So why aren't they dead, if they were infected first?"
"Good question." Another shrug. "Maybe they aren't infected. Maybe they're carrying it some other way."
"In a jar or something?" Lubin seemed almost amused by that. "Johnny Appleseed with a grudge?"
Desjardins didn't know and didn't ask. "Wouldn't have to be deliberate, necessarily. Maybe just some dirty piece of heavy equipment that gets moved around a lot."
"But you'd be able to track that. Even a bunch of infected contract workers should be easy enough to track down."
"You'd think." Didn't seem to be much of a problem to the guys with the flamethrowers, anyway…
"Yet you couldn't find any candidates in the record."
"No living ones, anyway."
"What about the rifters?" Colin suggested. "That whole scene seems to be fashionable these days. Maybe there's a connection."
"They were all—"
—killed in the quake. But the bottom dropped out of his stomach before he could finish the thought.
What about the rifters?
The scanners at security had seen machinery in Colin's chest.
Desjardins, you idiot.
One of them was standing right at his shoulder.
* * *
A single petrified moment to wonder which road had led to this:
Let's-call-him-Colin had risen from the ashes of Beebe Station and was pursuing his own apocalyptic agenda. Johnny Appleseed with a grudge, whatever the fuck that meant—
Let's-call-him-Colin hadn't been stationed at Beebe at all, he just had a—a personal interest. A friend, perhaps, a fellow rifter sacrificed for the greater good. But maybe Colin wasn't satisfied with the greater good. Maybe Colin wanted closure.
Thoracic implants didn't necessarily equal an amphibious lifestyle. Maybe Let's-call-him-Colin wasn't even a rifter. He sure as shit wasn't an ordinary one, anyway. How many of those neurotic head cases would have been able to find Desjardins in the first place? How many could have broken into his home, laid him out, read his mind, threatened his very life without breaking a sweat?
Am I infected? Am I dying? Am I leaving traces for someone like me to sniff out?
Nearly a second had passed since the words had died in Desjardins's throat
I've got to say something. Jesus, what do I say?
"Actually—" he began.
He wants me to search Beebe's personnel files. What if he's in there? Of course he won't be, he wouldn't blow his own cover that wouldn't make sense—
Whatever he wants he doesn't want me to know he wants it, oh no, he's being way too casual about this, just another possibility to follow up, right—
He won't push. He won't force it—
"—ahead of you on that," Desjardins finished easily. "I checked the rifters already. I checked everyone who had anything to do with Beebe. Nothing. Nobody's touched their bank accounts, no watch transactions, nothing at all since the quake."
He glanced up at Colin, kept his voice level. "But they were pretty much at Ground Zero when the Big One went off. Why would you think they'd survive?"
Colin looked back neutrally. "No reason. Just being systematic."
"Mmm." Desjardins drummed his fingers absently on the edge of the board. His inlays lit with visual confirmation: he'd opened a channel directly to his visual cortex, without—he glanced at the wall just to be sure—without sending an echo to any external displays.
"You know, I was thinking." Another idle tap on the panel; a luminous keypad sprang up in his head, invisible beyond his own flesh. "About why the primary vectors aren't dying as fast as the people on the Strip." His eyes darted subtly across the pad, focusing for the merest instant here, and here, and here on the characters. Letters brightened at his glance, began forming a command. "Maybe a nastier strain's developed out there." B—e—e— "Maybe the higher population density—all those extra dice rolls—maybe they just lead to a higher mutation rate."
Private menus bloomed around the edge of his vision. He focused on Personnel.
Four women, four men. Desjardins brought up the men; whoever was standing next to him probably hadn't changed that much.
"And if there's two separate strains, our propagation models are probably wrong," he said aloud.
Employee headshots. All faces unfamiliar. But the eyes…
He looked up. Let's-call-him-Colin looked back through a luminous palimpsest.
The flesh had been reconstructed around them. The irises were darker. But for all that, the differences were cosmetic; a flaw in the iris left unchanged, a telltale capillary snaking across the sclera. And the overall aspect ratio of the face was identical. A casual change in appearance, more disguise than reconstruction. A new face, a new pair of socks, and—
"Something wrong?" asked Kenneth Lubin.
"Uh, the caffeine," he managed. "Sort of sneaks up on you. I'll be right back."
* * *
He barely saw the corridors scroll past. He missed the washroom entirely.
Oh God. He's been in my home he's breathed in my face he even stabbed me in the neck with something and he's probably rotten with ßehemoth, it's probably growing in me now it's probably—
Shut up. Focus. You can deal with this.
If Lubin were infected, he'd be dead already. He'd said as much himself. So he probably wasn't a carrier. That was something.
He could still be packing, of course: Johnny Appleseed with a grudge, lugging ßehemoth around in a petri dish. But what if he was? Why would he cross a continent just to innoculate Achilles Desjardins of all people? If he'd wanted Desjardins dead for some reason, he could have done it while the 'lawbreaker was laid out on his own living room floor.
That was something, too.
Probably both of them were clean. Desjardins allowed himself a moment to feel sick with relief, then opened the door to Jovellanos's cubby.
It was empty; she'd taken the day to burn off some accumulated overtime. Achilles Desjardins thanked the Forces of Entropy for small mercies. He could use her board, at least for a few minutes. For however long one might reasonably be expected to spend on the toilet.
He hooked his account and considered:
Lubin wanted him to see Beebe's personnel files. Didn't he realize that Desjardins would make the connection, once the ID photos came up? Maybe not. He was only human, after all. Maybe he'd forgotten about the pattern-matching enhancements that 'lawbreakers came equipped with these days. Maybe he'd never known in the first place.
Or maybe he had wanted Desjardins to see through his new identity. Maybe this was some twisted loyalty test courtesy of Patricia Rowan after all.
Still. It seemed more plausible that Col— that Lubin was interested in the other rifters. He either wanted to know something about them, or he wanted Achilles Desjardins to know something about them.
Desjardins fed names to the matchmaker and sent it hunting.
"Semen-sucking savior," he whispered two seconds later.
* * *
She was proliferating in plain sight. She'd been reported on half a dozen continents in a single day. Lenie Clarke was on the run in Australia. She was making friends in N'AmPac and planning an insurrection in Mexico City. She was wanted in connection with an assault in HongCouver. She was a porn star who'd been snuffed at eleven years of age.
More ominously, Lenie Clarke was ending the world. And nobody—at least as far as Desjardins could tell—had actually noticed.
Nobody that mattered, anyway. The official news threads, jam-packed with the latest on this terrorist group or that arboviral outbreak, had nothing to say about her at all. The intel channels listed a few scattered acts of violence or sabotage, backtracked to anarchists and malcontents who'd cited the name as inspiration. But bad times bred dime-store messiahs like roaches, and there were thousands with more of a profile than Lenie Clarke.
Hell, none of the official outlets had even bothered to issue a denial on the subject.
It didn't make sense. Even the wildest rumors had to come out of the gate somewhere—how could all these people have started trumpeting the same thing at the same time? There'd been no media coverage, and there was way too much traffic for mere word-of-mouth to account for.
There was so much stuff on Lenie Clarke, in fact, that he almost didn't notice Ken Lubin and Mike Brander peeping over the lower edge of the scope. There wasn't much on them—a few hundred threads, all starting within the past couple of days. But they, too, seemed strangely susceptible to corrupted address headers and blocked-sender syndrome. And they, too, were proliferating.
What about the rifters? That whole scene seems to be fashionable these days…
Lubin's words. Achilles Desjardins was the one with the optimised wetware, and still Lubin had had to connect the dots for him. All Desjardins had seen was a bunch of sick tragic fucks in the news, slick uniforms—a fashion thing, he'd thought. A fad. It had never occurred to him that there might be individuals at the center of it all.
Okay. Now you know. Where does that get you?
He leaned back in Jovellanos's seat, ran his fingers along his scalp. No obvious correlation between rifter sightings and ßehemoth outbreaks, as far as he could tell. Unless—
His feet hit the floor with a thump. That's it.
His hands danced across the panel, almost autonomously. Axes rose from the swampy baseline, stretched to credible limits, sank back into the mud. Variables clustered together, fell apart like swarms of starlings. Desjardins grabbed them, shook them out, stretched them along a single thread called time.
That's it. The sightings cluster in time.
Now, take the first sighting from each cluster and throw away the rest. GPS them on a map.
"Will you look at that," he murmured.
A rough zigzag, trending east to west across temperate North America, then veering south. ßehemoth bloomed along the same trajectory.
Someone was watching Maelstrom for sightings of Lenie Clarke. And whenever they found one, they dropped a whole cluster of fake sightings into the system to muddy the waters. Someone was trying to hide her tracks and make her famous at the same time.
Why, for God's sake?
In the back of his head, synapses fired.
Something else lurked in that data, something that coalesced along the same axis. The homegrown parts of Achilles Desjardins glimpsed that shape and recoiled, refusing the insight. The optimized parts couldn't look away.
Maybe a coincidence, he thought, inanely. Maybe—
Someone knocked on the door. Desjardins froze.
He didn't why he was so certain. Could've been anyone, really.
It's him. He knows where I am. Of course he knows, he's probably got me radiotagged, I bet he's got me pegged to the centimeter—
—And he knows I lied to him.
Lubin had to know. Lenie Clarke was all over Maelstrom; there was no way on Earth Desjardins could have run a check and found nothing at all since the quake.
The door wouldn't unlock for anyone who didn't have CSIRA clearance. The door wasn't unlocking.
Oh yeah. It's him all right.
He didn't speak. God knew what kind of snoops Lubin might have pressed up against the door. He opened an outside line and began tapping. It only took a few seconds.
Someone grunted softly on the other side of the door. Footsteps faded down the hall.
Desjardins checked his watch: he'd been away from his office for almost six minutes. Much longer and it would start to look suspicious.
Look suspicious? He knows, you idiot! That's why he was at the door, just to—let you know. You didn't fool him for a second.
And yet…if Lubin had known, he hadn't said anything. He'd played along. For whatever cold-blooded fucked-in-the-head rifter reason, he'd maintained the pretense.
Maybe—oh please God—he'd continue to do so.
Desjardins waited another thirty seconds on the chance that his message might net an immediate reply. It didn't. He crept back into an empty corridor.
Patricia Rowan must have been otherwise engaged.
The door to Desjardins's cubby was closed.
Hey there, Ken—er, Colin—
Yeah, I used the upstairs john, the stalls play better ads up there for some reason—
Alice's office? She asked me to check her mail, they don't let us link in from outside—
He took a breath. No point in getting ahead of himself. Lubin might not even bring it up. That might not even have been Lubin.
He opened the door. The cubby was empty.
Desjardins didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified. He closed the door behind himself and locked it.
Unlocked it again.
What was the point, anyway? Lubin would come back or he wouldn't. He'd raise a challenge or he wouldn't. But whoever Lubin was, he already had Achilles Desjardins by the balls; breaking the routine now would only make things uglier.
And it wasn't as though he was really alone anyway. There was another kind of monster in the cubby with him. He'd already glimpsed it lurking behind Jovellanos's panel. He'd briefly been able to deny it then; that knock on the door had almost been a relief.
But it was here, too. He could hear it snuffling in the data like a monster in the closet. He could see that closet doorknob turn slowly back and forth, taunting him. He'd seen frightening outlines, at least; he'd looked away before any details had registered. But now, waiting for Lubin's return, there was nothing else to do.
He opened the closet door and looked it in the face.
The thousand faces of Lenie Clarke.
It seemed innocent enough at first; a cloud of points congealing in a roughly Euclidean volume. Time ran through its center like a spinal cord. Where the cloud was thickest, rumors of Lenie Clarke grew in a wild profusion of hearsay and contradiction. Where it narrowed, the tales were less diverse, more consistent.
But Achilles Desjardins had built a career out of seeing shapes in the clouds. The thing he saw now was beyond his experience.
Rumors had their own classic epidemiology. Each started with a single germinating event. Information spread from that point, mutating and interbreeding— a conical mass of threads, expanding into the future from the apex of their common birthplace. Eventually, of course, they'd wither and die; the cone would simply dissipate at its wide end, its permutations senescent and exhausted.
There were exceptions, of course. Every now and then a single thread persisted, grew thick and gnarled and unkillable: conspiracy theories and urban legends, the hooks embedded in popular songs, the comforting Easter-bunny lies of religious doctrine. These were the memes: viral concepts, infections of conscious thought. Some flared and died like mayflies. Others lasted a thousand years or more, tricked billions into the endless propagation of parasitic half-truths.
Lenie Clarke was a meme, but a meme unlike any other. She had not extruded slowly from a birth point, as far as Desjardins could tell; she'd simply appeared, all over the datascape, wearing a thousand faces. There'd been no smooth divergence, no monotonic branching of informational variants. The variation had exploded too quickly to trace back to any single point.
And ever since its appearance, all that variance had been—focusing…
Two months ago Lenie Clarke had been an AI and a refugee terrorist and a prostitute messiah and other impossible things too numerous to count. Now, she was one thing and one thing only: the Mermaid of the Apocalypse. Oh, there was still variation; was she infested with incendiary nanotech, did she carry a bioengineered plague, had she brought back some apocalyptic microbe from the deep sea? Differences in detail, nothing more. The essential truth beneath it all had converged: the textbook conic had somehow flipped one-hundred-eighty impossible degrees, and Lenie Clarke had gone from a thousand faces to one. Now, she was only the end of the world.
It was as though someone or something had offered the world a myriad styles, and the world had chosen the one it liked best. Veracity didn't enter into such things; only resonance did.
And the meme that defined Lenie Clarke as an angel of apocalypse wasn't prospering because it was true; it was prospering because, insanely, people wanted it to be.
I do not accept this, Achilles Desjardins shouted to himself.
But only part of him was listening. Another part, even if it hadn't read Chomsky or Jung or Sheldrake—who had time for dead guys anyway?— at least had a basic understanding of what those guys had gone on about. Quantum nonlocality, quantum consciousness—Desjardins had seen too many cases of mass coincidence to dismiss the idea that nine billion human minds could be imperceptibly interconnected somehow. He’d never really thought about it much, but on some level he’d believed in the Collective Unconscious for years.
He just hadn’t realized that the fucking thing had a death wish.
* * *
Dr. Desjardins, this is Patricia Rowan. I've just received your message.
Plain text, coming directly over his inlays, third-person invisible. Even in his head there was no picture, no sound, nothing that might visibly startle him. Nothing to cause obvious distraction should he happen to take this call in dangerous company.
I can be there within thirty hours. Until then it is imperative that you do nothing to arouse Lubin's suspicions. Cooperate with him. Do not inform anyone else of his presence. Do NOT notify local authorities. Mr. Lubin's behavior is governed by a conditioned threat-response reflex which requires special handling.
If you follow these instructions you will not be in danger. The reflex engages only in the event of a perceived security breach. Since he knows that your own behavior is governed by Guilt Trip, he's unlikely to consider you a threat unless he thinks you may expose him in some way.
I'm screwed, Desjardins thought.
By all means continue your analysis of Lenie Clarke and the rifter connection. We are putting our own people on it as well. Remain calm, and do not do anything to antagonize Mr. Lubin. I'm sorry that I can't be there sooner, but I'm presently off-continent, and the local transportation is quite limited.
You've done the right thing, Dr. Desjardins. I'm on my way.
Conditioned threat-response reflex.
He'd heard the rumors. Neither corpse nor civilian, he inhabited that outer circle of need-to-know: too peripheral for the inner sanctum, but close enough to hear things in passing. He'd heard about CTR.
Guilt Trip was a stone axe: CTR was a scalpel. Where the Trip merely short-circuited the brain, CTR controlled it. Where GT disabled, CTR compelled. Apparently they'd learned the trick from some parasite that farthered its own life-cycle by hotwiring the behavioral circuitry of its host. Body-snatcher stuff. Subtle.
You tied it to the same triggers, though. Guilt had the same seesaw signature no matter what its inspiration: norepinephrine went up, serotonin and acetylcholine went down, and—whereas Achilles Desjardins would merely freeze up—Ken Lubin would set forth on some complex, predestined behavioral dance. Like tying up security leaks with extreme prejudice, for example; there might be some flexibility in the means, but the act was compulsory.
It went without saying that you didn't find such hotwiring in glorified pipe-fitters, even if their beat was twenty thousand leagues under the sea. Ken Lubin was a whole lot more than a rifter.
And right now he was opening the door to Desjardins's cubby.
Desjardins swallowed and turned in his chair.
I can be there within thirty hours.
It is imperative that you do nothing to arouse Lubin's suspicions.
"Took a stroll around the floor," Lubin said. "To stretch my legs."
Desjardins made himself nod indifferently. "Okay."
Twenty-nine hours and fifty-eight minutes to go.
Impaired cysteine synthesis
Impaired taurine metabolism
Impaired sulfur conjugation:
detoxification pathways broken.
Impaired disulfide bridge formation:
protein conformation compromised
Impaired synthesis of
biotin, chondroitin sulfate,
coenzyme A, coenzyme M,
glucosamine sulfate, glutathione,
hemoglobin, heparin, homocysteine,
lipoic acid, Metallothionein,
Cytochrome transport, oxidation of fatty acid and pyruvate compromised
Impaired production of anserine,
acetylcholine, creatine, choline,
epinephrine, insulin, and
GSH depletion (acetominophen-induced)
Breakdown of collagen, myelin,
and synovial fluid
Deterioration of blood vessel walls
Deterioration of myelin sheath
Redox reactions compromised
MUSCLE AND JOINT PAIN
TENDONITIS AND BURSITIS
WEIGHT LOSS, EDEMA
DEEP VEIN THROMBOSIS
DEGENERATION OF FINGERNAILS AND CONNECTIVE TISSUE
JOINT AND TENDON FAILURE
BRUISING AND INTERNAL HAEMORHAGE
MASSIVE OPPORTUNISTIC INFECTION
HEAVY METAL POISONING
CNS AND PNS DISORDERS
LOSS OF MOTOR CONTROL
HEPATIC FAILURE, RENAL FAILURE