The elevator slides open on a man in combat fatigues who obviously never pulled a day of combat in his life. Glasses, salt-and-pepper goatee, middle-aged paunch pushing out over his belt. Stupid little ponytail, probably meant as some kind of diversionary tactic to draw attention from his hairline. I’ve never seen him before, of course; but the sight of me lights his face up with such obvious joy I wonder for a second if he’s going to kiss me.
“Dude,” he says. “You made it.”
Nathan Gould is a slob with a paper fetish. The apartment is piled floor-to-ceiling with all manner of shit: filing cabinets, drawers hanging half open like extruded tongues, piles of newspapers (where the hell did he get newspapers in Manhattan?), stacks of old optical ROM. Old paper maps spread out across one of those tilted architect’s tables you see in TwenCen movies, you know, before computers. Topographic, geological, architectural. It’s like Gould’s hardcopied every overlay anyone’s ever dumped into the Manhattan database. I don’t know what he’s using them for, other than to mop up coffee spills and snort the occasional line of grimwire (I can see the crystal residue from across the room; the eyes in this suit don’t miss a thing).
“Man, you wouldn’t believe the shit that’s gone down in the last twenty-four hours. Barclay’s guys are getting creamed uptown. CryNet are falling the fuck apart everywhere else. Chaos, man.”
The walls—those bits of them that peek through between the mountains of dead trees, anyway—are a mix of smart paint, cork-board, and old 2-D monitors. One wall’s three layers deep in pushpins and pictures, everything from false-color satcam shots to coupons for 20 percent off tampons at PharMart. An ancient mini fridge squats in one corner; it doesn’t even have an online connection but someone called Angie has scribbled Nate, When are you going to get your shit out of my place?! I’m back for good on the 28th on the dry-erase board stuck to the door.
Gould leads me through all this chaos like a guide through the jungle, talking nonstop: “That shit you absorbed at the crash site, it’s lit up the suit systems like a pinball, man,” and “Definitely viral, same base structure as the nano-weave,” and “Hargreave must be nuts, playing with that shit like it was Kevlar.” I’m not really paying attention. I’ve just caught sight of an aquarium behind a stack of old hardcovers, a big hundred-gallon job, and something’s squirming in it: something with arms and suckers. For a moment I think Gould’s caught himself a baby Ceph, but no; it’s just an octopus. Looks as alien as anything else I’ve run into these past few hours, but at least it’s from around here.
Somehow that makes all the difference. I almost feel, I don’t know, affection for the spineless crawly thing. We’re all in the same tank now, right?
Gould leads me down the hall—“Right down here, same basic setup as back on the island, just not as many bells and whistles”—into a room that’s at least empty enough to really appreciate how dingy the wallpaper is. Backed up against the far wall is a cross between a recliner and a crucifix. Or maybe a crucifix and a dentist’s chair. Definitely a crucifixion subtext, though: It’s a molded recliner with outstretched arms, a socket for the suit. You sit back and—judging by those circular little receptacles along the arms and legs and spine—it plugs right into you. A loose coil of black umbilicals connects it to a server stack in the corner.
“So come on, let’s get you checked out.”
I lower myself into the cradle, and whump I’m stuck in stone. I don’t know if it’s the damn suit or Gould’s setup but here I am again, paralyzed while this middle-aged geek rolls around on his desk chair and fiddles with controls I can’t understand.
“Some fucked-up shit, right?” He ends up at an old scuffed desk against the wall, playing with the laptop there. “And Hargreave, well, who knows what’s going on in his head . . . So let’s see what we—
“Wait a second, that’s odd—”
And suddenly, whatever welcome I saw in Nathan Gould’s face is nowhere to be seen. What I see instead is shock, and anger, and fear. I see the beginnings of a killing rage; I know what those look like.
I see the gun in Gould’s hand, pointed at my face.
“You’re not Prophet,” he hisses.
I still can’t move.
“Who are you? What did you do to him?” He leans in close. “Hargreave, right? Just another loose end. Hargreave sent you to kill me.”
I wonder how much this suit can take, immobilized. I wonder what kinds of tools Gould has at his disposal. I wonder how long it’ll take him to crack me open like a clam, get at the soft squishy parts inside. Just calm down, Nathan. You have the upper hand. No need to panic, no need to be hasty. Just—
That’s right. Back to your keyboard. Access the black box. There’s gotta be one in here somewhere. Play back the log. Get the facts.
He gets them. Seems to sink into himself a little. After a few moments he remembers me, and frees me with the flip of a switch. He turns without a word and disappears up the hallway.
I find him back in the living room. Somehow, against all odds, he’s found a chair that isn’t half a meter deep in ancient hardcopy. He sits with his head in his hands.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he says to the carpet. “I’m not a fucking stormtrooper, I’m not some spec ops hard case like y—like Prophet . . . was. A conspiracy geek with a grudge. That’s all I fucking am.”
Motion from the corner of my eye: Over by the wall the octopus writhes in its tank. Its arms coil, uncoil, beckon me from across the room.
“Prophet was supposed to get us out. The marines were coming for us. Now . . .”
Suckers attach themselves deliberately to the glass, one after another after another, an endless procession of circular footsteps. The body of the thing inflates as I watch, swells up like a great fleshy balloon, then slowly collapses; I get the sense of a weary, resigned sigh. One gold unblinking eye regards me through a horizontal bar of pupil.
“That’s Houdini,” Gould says, behind me. “Know anything about cephalopods?” He sounds almost hopeful, but it doesn’t last: “No, of course you don’t.”
Houdini and I watch each other through the glass.
“Smartest inver—smartest earthly invertebrate that ever lived,” Gould remarks. “Astonishing problem-solving abilities, deep memory, physical dexterity an order of magnitude greater than anything we vertebrates ever managed. You know, they have individual motor control over every one of those suckers? Pass a pebble from one sucker to the next: down from the tip of one arm, across the beak, back up to the tip of another arm, do it a hundred times and never drop the damn thing once.
“Imagine what they could do with a clitoris.”
I turn, and catch the ghost of a smile fading on his face.
“Half his nervous system’s in the arms, you know? You could say those things literally think with their tentacles.”
Houdini retreats to a pile of fake rocks, pours himself into those cracks and crevices like epoxy. He disappears before my eyes, his boneless body mimicking not just the color but the texture of the rock pile. Gould grunts softly.
He’s wrong, though. I may just be a dumb jarhead but I knew a thing or two about those crawly beasts even before Gould’s little tutorial. When I was a kid there was this public aquarium down by the waterfront, had an octopus in a tank. Big triangular Plexi column backed onto a rock wall full of little caves and crannies. No matter how many times you paid to get in, the fucking octopus was always hiding in that rock wall; you’d see maybe an eye, a little patch of suckers, and a whole lot of empty tank. It was pathetic.
But then one night me and a couple of the guys broke into the place on a dare—it was pretty easy actually, the security guard was a bit of a stoner and kept forgetting to turn the alarm back on after he did his rounds—and my buddies went straight to the shark tank but for some reason I decided to check out the octopus. And the whole gallery was dim and green and deserted, it was great, and wouldn’t you know it the fucking thing was out and about. Right there in the open. Turns out octopuses are nocturnal. It would swell up and then phoomph—jet its way into the deep blue sea, but of course it’s in a fucking tank, right? So it just slammed into the Plexiglas like a limp water balloon. And you could just see it deflating, sinking down to the bottom all depressed, but then it would change its mind and gear up for another run, puff itself up, phoomph out into the deep blue sea—and thump into the glass and it would get all depressed and sink back down again. I watched it for a good ten minutes and it never seemed to learn. So let’s just say I’m a little skeptical of the Gospel According to Gould when it comes to cephalopod intelligence.
But the thing is, it never learned but it never gave up, either. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the little fucker. It had needs and wants, it valued its freedom, you never saw it during the day but at night you’d have to be blind not to see how much it hated being in that tank. And now I’m looking at Houdini, and I’m thinking about the Ceph, and you know, there’s a part of me thinking maybe we just haven’t seen these things at night yet. I mean, if an ignorant asshole like me can drum up sympathy for an overgrown garden slug at the tender age of fourteen, who’s to say we can’t come to terms with these aliens somehow, right?
Nah. Of course not.
Had you going for a moment though, didn’t I?
Gould’s going on about ancient history. Houdini has retired under a rock so I start paying attention: something about smallpox and the Aztecs.
“Ever wonder how they felt when they saw those pustules popping up for the first time, when they saw what it was doing to them? One of the most culturally dynamic civilizations on the planet, wiped out by a bug less than half a micron across. You might be surprised how often that kind of thing happens.
“Ever wonder how history might have turned out if they’d had vaccine technology?”
I can’t say I have. It doesn’t take a gene genie to see where he’s going with this, though.
“Prophet said there might be one. For the spore.” Gould nods in my direction. “I think the data’s in that suit you’re wearing, somehow. It was the only reason he came back in, he sure as fuck doesn’t—didn’t trust Hargreave. I gotta say, even I wondered if he was getting a bit paranoid. Wear that suit long enough, you start to—anyway. If your field trip to the crash site proved anything, it proved that Prophet was right about Hargreave. Your suit, the alien tech—no way independent evolutionary tracks give you that kind of similarity down on the molecular level. Whoever you are, you’re pretty much wearing a Ceph exoskeleton. All we did was file off the serial numbers, change the chrome, and slap a dozen CryNet patents onto a black box.”
He sighs, and shakes his head.
“Let me tell you a story.”
It’s more of a conspiracy theory, actually. I would’ve rolled my eyes if Leavenworth had fed it to me a week ago. After today, though, I’m wondering if it’s paranoid enough.
There’s this company, Hargreave-Rasch. It’s over a hundred years old, even though I’ve never heard of it before. Apparently that’s the way they like it; H-R is the company behind the companies, the dark force pulling the strings behind the smiling beneficent Monsantos and the Halliburtons and the General Technics of the world.
Think about that. Think about a company that makes Halliburton look socially progressive. Think about a company that uses Monsanto as its happy face.
Hargreave-Rasch didn’t have to hide. It was so fucking scary that anyone in the know was afraid to look it in the eye.
They ran a big honking radio-telescope array out of a chunk of Arizona they’d owned since before Hiroshima. Added some outgrouped satellites up in geosync to widen the aperture, just as soon as the tech was available.
All that time they were looking for space aliens.
We’re not talking your average high school SETI project here. This was no shoestring operation put together by the tinfoil-hat crowd, nobody was holding bake sales or begging spare CPU cycles on peoples’ iBalls to crunch space static. This one project had the budget of a good-sized third-world puppet regime.
Also, according to Gould, they had a pretty good idea of where to look. Not that he ever told me how they came by that information.
They went at it for the better part of a century. They strained the whole fucking sky, squeezed every gamma burst and every X-ray and every burp of static through all the filters and algorithms that money could buy, and they came up with bupkis. They must have lost billions over the years, but they kept at it. They didn’t quit. This wasn’t a gamble, you see. Hargreave was no visionary, he wasn’t just playing the odds. He wasn’t hoping there was something out there. He knew.
Six months ago they caught something out past the orbit of Mars. Gould doesn’t know what it was—apparently he used to work for H-R himself but by then he’d left over, well, he called them “creative differences.” But something. And now, all of a sudden, we’ve got aliens invading Manhattan.
“Does that make any fucking sense to you at all?” Gould asks me.
And if I could talk I’d have to say, well, sure. It makes perfect sense. I’m a soldier, for chrissake. There wouldn’t be a need for people like me if life was all flowers and fluffy kittens. But this is Darwin’s universe, Dr. Gould. There’s never enough to go around—and if there is, you gobble it up until there isn’t, and then you fight over what’s left. You’d think a scientist would know this shit.
What did Hargreave think would happen when he went out looking for giants? Did he think they’d invite us into some big shiny galactic federation, cure cancer, and give us the secret of immortality? Of course they’re gonna kick our ass. Any soldier worth his shit will tell you: You think there’s something bigger than you out there, you fucking well keep your head down and hope it doesn’t notice.
I mean, if we’re dealing with actual goddamn space aliens here—things that travel among the stars—then Gould’s wrong: We’re not the Aztecs to their Europeans, we’re the whales to their factory ships. We’re the palm trees to their fucking napalm. What I can’t figure out is why we’re getting in any licks at all.
“We still don’t even know where they’re coming from,” he says. “If they’ve got a ship in orbit, it’s cloaked against anything we’ve got. If they’ve landed already, nobody saw them come down. And God help us if they’re teleporting their troops in from out past Mars.” He snorts softly, a hollow chuckle, a gallows laugh. “However they’re doing it, they’re going by the book. First send the pox to soften us up, then send the conquistadores. At least the Mayans could see the damn galleons coming over the horizon . . .”
Houdini waves a listless tentacle at me from across the room. A glossy hardcopy catches my eye just to the left of his tank, a satcam enhance of a fractal coastline stripped of cloud cover: the eastern Chinese seaboard, stippled with text and contour lines. One of the labels is oddly familiar.
“Of course.” Gould’s noticed my interest. “I keep forgetting. Manhattan wasn’t exactly the first stop on the tour.”
There’ve been rumors. Some kind of covert op that went bad back at the start of the decade, just before the climate jumped the rails and turned the whole fucking planet upside down. You hear things, some of them pretty wild—but I don’t remember anything about space aliens.
“They had a—I suppose you’d call it a skirmish,” Gould tells me. “We’re assuming they encountered the Ceph. We’re hoping they encountered the Ceph; otherwise we’ve run into two hostile alien species within three years, and how do you like those odds? But Prophet—well, you met him. He was top-of-the-line, he wouldn’t have been running that team otherwise, but Ling Shan—changed him.”
He looks away for a moment.
“No,” he says at last. “I’m bullshitting you. The suit changed him. Your suit, now.” His shoulders rise, fall. “Prophet wasn’t—he may not have been entirely sane, there at the end. There’s a degree of integration that not everyone can handle. Probably nothing for you to worry about, not over the short term, but Prophet was hooked into that thing for—I don’t know how long, actually. He dropped right off the map after Ling Shan. Stopped trusting Hargreave entirely, figured out how to disable the tracking chip, and just—”
Gould kisses the tips of his fingers, spreads them as if blowing smoke to the wind.
“They sent a team in afterward, of course. No trace of any aliens, no trace of our guys, no trace of Prophet. The whole playing field had been slagged to glass.” He laughs a sad little laugh. “I was never able to find out which side did that, actually.
“I think Hargreave blamed me, in a way, even then. I mean I wasn’t Prophet’s handler, exactly, but I was there. Doesn’t matter how many lab tests you run, your prototype’s always gonna fuck up in the field, right? First rule of product testing. So there I was, in the same room with all those black ops need-to-know heavyweights, just a geek to keep an eye on the suit feeds and work out the bugs. When the suit goes dark, who else you gonna blame? I was the guy supposed to make sure that didn’t happen.
“It was bad enough we all thought he was dead, but then I started getting these messages. A vcard or a voicemail, totally untraceable, just out of the blue every two or three months: Having a blast, wish you were here, that kind of thing. I have no fucking clue why he reached out to me of all people. Nobody else heard squat from the man as far as I know, not even his handler.
“But now Hargreave’s thinking I was in on it somehow. Prophet was a top-of-the-line field man but there’s no way he had the chops to hack that suit on his own, right? I managed to convince him I hadn’t conspired to steal his secret technology—it wasn’t all that hard, actually, Hargreave-Rasch has machines that can sniff out a little white lie from your blink rate, among other things—but that still pretty much wrapped it up as far as the whole Prism gig was concerned.
“Anyway, at least we knew Prophet wasn’t dead at the bottom of a jungle canyon somewhere. But we never saw him, and he never came in, and I don’t know how much of these past three years he spent in that suit and how much he spent out of it. For all I know he never took the damn thing off, and that would be . . . well.”
Outside, the faint faraway sound of something colossal, falling over.
Gould shakes his head, gets back on message. “The point is, he wanted to come in now. After all this time. And I’m not working at H-R anymore but I guess I’m the only one he trusts. So he reaches out. Going to bring me something, he says, something to save the goddamn world. And here you are. You’re not carrying any gift-wrapped packages. You’re not handing me the key to some safe-deposit box. All you’ve brought me is that fucking suit.”
Find Gould. Nathan Gould. I’m so fucking sorry.
It’s all on you now.
The Geek from Prism hauls himself to his feet. It seems to take all the strength in the world.
“So,” he says. “Shall we get started?”