Jerenice Seger wants to make an announcement.
She won't make it to Clarke or Lubin. She won't even tell them what it's about. "I don't want there to be any misunderstanding," she says. "I want to address your whole community." Her pixelated likeness stares out from the board, grimly defiant. Patricia Rowan stands in the background; she doesn't look pleased either.
"Fine," Lubin says at last, and kills the connection.
Seger, Clarke reflects. Seger's making the announcement. Not Rowan. "Medical news," she says aloud.
"Bad news." Lubin replies, sealing up his gauntlets.
Clarke sets the board for LFAM broadband. "Better summon the troops, I guess."
Lubin's heading down the ladder. "Ring the chimes for me, will you?"
"Why? Where you going?" The chimes serve to heads-up those rifters who leave their vocoders offline, but Lubin usually boots them up himself.
"I want to check something out," he says.
The airlock hisses shut behind him.
Of course, even at their present numbers they can't all fit into the nerve hab at once.
It might have been easier if rifter modules followed the rules. They've been designed to interconnect, each self-contained sphere puckered by six round mouths two meters across. Each can lock lips with any other, or with pieces of interposing corridor—and so the whole structure grows, lumpy and opportunistic, like a great skeleton of long bones and empty skulls assembling itself across the seabed. That's the idea, anyway. A few basic shapes, infinitely flexible in combination.
But no. Here the hab modules sprout like solitary mushrooms across the substrate. Rifters live alone, or in pairs, or whatever social assemblage fits the moment. A crowd of rifters is almost an oxymoron. The nerve habs are among the largest structures in the whole trailer park, and they only hold a dozen or so on their main decks. Given the territorial perimeters that most rifters develop in the abyss, it doesn't hold them comfortably.
It's already getting congested by the time Clarke returns from priming the windchimes. Chen and Cramer converge on her tail as she glides up into the airlock. On the wet deck, Abra Cheung ascends the ladder ahead of her. Clarke follows her up—the airlock cycling again at her back—into a knot of eight or nine people who have arrived during her absence.
Grace Nolan's at the center of the action, bellied up to the Comm panel. Sonar shows a dozen others still en route. Clarke wonders idly if the hab's scrubbers are up to this kind of load. Maybe there is no announcement. Maybe Seger's just trying to get them to overdose on their own CO2.
"Hi." Kevin Walsh appears at her side, hovering hopefully at the edge of her public-comfort perimeter. He seems back to his old self. In front of them, Gomez turns and notices Clarke. "Hey, Len. News from the corpses, I hear."
"You're tight with those assholes. Know what it's about?"
She shakes her head. "Seger's the mouthpiece, though. I figure something medical."
"Yeah. Probably." Gomez sucks air softly through stained teeth. "Anybody seen Julia? She should be here for this."
Cheung purses her lips. "What, after spending the last week and a half with Gene? You can breathe that air if you want."
"I saw her out by one of the woodpiles not too long ago," Hopkinson volunteers.
"How'd she seem?"
"You know Julia. A black hole with tits."
"I mean physically. She seem sick at all?"
"How would I know? You think she was out there in a bra and panties?" Hopkinson shrugs. "Didn't say anything, anyway."
Faintly, through bulkheads and conversation, the cries of tortured rock.
"Okay then," Nolan says from the board. "Enough dicking around. Let's rack 'em up and shoot 'em down." She taps an icon on the panel. "You're on, Seger. Make it good."
"Is everyone there?" Seger's voice.
"Of course not. We can't all fit into a hab."
"You're hooked into all the LFAM channels. Anyone within five hundred meters can hear you just fine."
"Well." A pause, the silence of someone deciding how best to proceed across a minefield. "As you know, Atlantis has been quarantined for several days now. Ever since we learned about ssehemoth. Now we've all had the retrofits, so there was every reason to expect that this wasn't a serious problem. The quarantine was merely a precaution."
"Was," Nolan notes. Downstairs the airlock is cycling again.
Seger forges on. "We analyzed the—the samples that Ken and Lenie brought back from Impossible Lake, and everything we found was consistent with ssehemoth. Same peculiar RNA, same stereoisomerization of—"
"Get to the point," Nolan snaps.
"Grace?" Clarke says. Nolan looks at her.
"Shut up and let the woman finish," Clarke suggests. Nolan snorts and turns away.
"Anyway," Seger continues after a moment, "the results were perfectly straightforward, so we incinerated the infected remains as a containment measure. After digitizing them, of course."
"Digitizing?" That's Chen.
"A high-res destructive scan, enough to let us simulate the sample right down to the molecular level," Seger explains. "Model tissues give us much of the same behavior as a wet sample, but without the attendant risks."
Charley Garcia climbs into view. The bulkheads seem to sneak a little closer with each new arrival. Clarke swallows, the air thickening around her.
Seger coughs. "I was working with one of those models and, well, I noticed an anomaly. I believe that the fish you brought back from Impossible Lake was infected with ssehemoth."
Exchanged glances amongst a roomful of blank eyes. Off in the distance, Lubin's windchimes manage a final reedy moan and fall silent, the reservoir exhausted.
"Well, of course," Nolan says after a moment. "So what?"
"I'm, um, I'm using infected in the pathological sense, not the symbiotic one." Seger clears her throat. "What I mean to say is—"
"It was sick," Clarke says. "It was sick with ssehemoth."
Dead air for a moment. Then: "I'm afraid that's right. If Ken hadn't killed it first, I think ssehemoth might have."
"Oh, fuck," someone says softly. The epithet hangs there in a room gone totally silent. Downstairs, the airlock gurgles.
"So it was sick," Dale Creasy says after a moment. "So what?"
Garcia shakes his head. "Dale, don't you remember how this fucker works?"
"Sure. Breaks your enzymes apart to get at the sulfur or something. But we're immune."
"We're immune," Garcia says patiently, "because we've got special genes that make enzymes too stiff for ssehemoth to break. And we got those genes from deepwater fish, Dale."
Creasy's still working it through. Someone else whispers "Shit shit shit," in a shaky voice. Downstairs, some latecomer's climbing the ladder; whoever it is stumbles on the first rung.
"I'm afraid Mr. Garcia's right," Seger says. "If the fish down here are vulnerable to this bug, then we probably are too."
Clarke shakes her head. "But—are you saying this thing isn't ssehemoth after all? It's something else?"
A sudden commotion around the ladder; the assembled rifters are pulling back as though it were electrified. Julia Friedman staggers up into view, her face the color of basalt. She stands on the deck, clinging to the railing around the hatch, not daring to let go. She looks around, blinking rapidly over undead eyes. Her skin glistens.
"It's still ssehemoth, more or less," Seger drones in the distance. From Atlantis. From the bolted-down, welded-tight, hermetically-sealed quarantined goddamned safety of fucking Atlantis. "That's why we couldn't pinpoint the nature of Mr. Erickson's infection: he came back positive for ssehemoth but of course we disregarded those findings because we didn't think it could be the problem. But this is a new variant, apparently. Speciation events of this sort are quite common when an organism spreads into new environments. This is basically—"
ssehemoth's evil twin brother, Clarke remembers.
"—ssehemoth Mark 2," Seger finishes.
Julia Friedman drops to her knees and vomits onto the deck
Babel Broadband. An overlapping collage of distorted voices:
"Of course I don't believe them. You saying you do?"
"That's bullshit. If you—"
"They admitted it up front. They didn't have to."
"Yeah, they suddenly come clean at the exact moment Julia goes symptomatic. What a coincidence."
"How'd they know that she—"
"They knew the incubation time. They must have. How else do you explain the timing here, dramatic irony?"
"Yeah, but what are we gonna do?"
They've abandoned the hab. It emptied like a blown ballast tank, rifters spilling onto a seabed already crowded even by dryback standards. Now it hangs above them like a gunmetal planet. Three lamps set around the ventral airlock lay bright overlapping circles onto the substrate. Black bodies swim at the periphery of that light, hints of restless motion behind shark-tooth rows of white, unblinking eyespots. Clarke thinks of hungry animals, kept barely at bay by the light of a campfire.
By rights, she should feel like one of them.
Grace Nolan's no longer in evidence. She disappeared into the darkness a few minutes ago, one supportive arm around Julia Friedman, helping her back home. That act of apparent altruism seems to have netted her extra cred: Chen and Hopkinson are standing in for her on the point-counterpoint. Garcia's raising token questions, but the prevailing mood does not suggest any great willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt.
"Hey, Dimi," Chen buzzes. "How's it going in there?"
"Stinks like a hospital." Alexander's airborne voice makes a conspicuous contrast against the background of waterlogged ones. "Almost done, though. Somebody better be growing me a new skin." He's still inside, sterilizing anything that Friedman or her bodily fluids might have come into contact with. Grace Nolan asked for volunteers.
She's started giving orders. People have started taking them.
"I say we just drill the fuckers." Creasy buzzes from somewhere nearby.
Clarke remembers holes burned through biosteel. "Let's hold off on the whole counterstrike thing at for a bit. It might be tougher for them to find a cure if we smear them into the deck."
"As if they're looking for a fucking cure."
She ignores the remark. "They want blood samples from everyone. Some of the rest of us might be infected. It obviously doesn't show up right away."
"It showed up fast enough with Gene," someone points out.
"Being gutted alive probably increases your level of exposure a bit. But Julia didn't show anything for, what—two weeks?"
"I'm not giving them any blood," Creasy growls with a voice like scrap metal. "They'll be fucking giving blood if they try and make me."
Clarke shakes her head, exasperated. "Dale, they can't make anyone do anything and they know it. They're asking. If you want them to beg, I'm sure it can be arranged. What's your problem? You've been collecting bloods on your own anyway."
"If we could take our tongues off Patricia Rowan's clit for a moment, I have a message from Gene."
Grace Nolan swims into the circle of light like a pitch-black pack animal, asserting dominance. Campfires don't bother her.
"Grace," Chen buzzes. "How's Julia?"
"How do you think? She's sick. But I got her tucked in at least, and the diagnostics are running for all the good they'll do."
"And Gene?" Clarke asks.
"He was awake for a little while. He said, and I quote,I told them those baby-boners did something to me. Maybe they'll believe me when my wife dies."
"Hey," Walsh pipes up. "He's obviously feeling bet—"
"The corpses would never risk spreading something like this without already having a cure," Nolan cuts in. "It could get back to them too easily."
"Right." Creasy again. "So I say we drill the fuckers one bulkhead at a time until they hand it over."
Uncertainty and acquiescence mix in the darkness.
"You know, just to play devil's advocate here, I gotta say there's a slim chance they're telling the truth."
That's Charley Garcia, floating off to the side.
"I mean, bugs mutate, right?" he continues. "Especially when people throw shitloads of drugs at them, and you can bet they bought out the whole pharm when this thing first got out. So who's to say it couldn't have gone from Mark I to sseta-max all on its own?"
"Fucking big coincidence if you ask me," Creasy buzzes.
Garcia's vocoder ticks, a verbal shrug. "I'm just saying."
"And if they were going to pull some kind of biowar shit, why wait until now?" Clarke adds, grasping the straw. "Why not four years ago?"
"They didn't have ssehemoth four years ago," Nolan says.
Walsh: "They could've brought down a culture."
"What, for old times' sake? fucking nostalgia? They didn't have shit until Gene served it up to 'em warm and steaming."
"You oughtta get out more, Grace," Garcia buzzes. "We've been building bugs from mail-order parts for fifty years. Once they had the genes sequenced, the corpses could've built ssehemoth from scratch any time they felt like it."
"Or anything else, for that matter," Hopkinson adds. "Why use something that takes all this time just to make a few of us sick? Supercol would've dropped us in a day."
"It would've dropped Gene in a day," Nolan buzzes. "Before he had any chance to infect the rest of us. A fast bug wouldn't have a chance out here—we're spread out, we're isolated, we don't even breathe most of the time. Even when we go inside we keep our skins on. This thing has to be slow if it's gonna spread. These stumpfucks know exactly what they're doing."
"Besides," Baker adds, "a Supercol epidemic starts on the bottom of the goddamn ocean and we're not gonna connect the dots? They'd be sockeye the moment they tried."
"They know it, too."
"ssehemoth gives them an alibi, though," Chen says. "Doesn't it?"
Fuck, Jelaine. Clarke's been thinking exactly the same thing. Why'd you have to bring that up?
Nolan grabs the baton in an instant. "That's right. That's right. ssehemoth comes all the way over from Impossible Lake, no way anybodycan accuse them of planting it there—they just tweak it a bit on its way through Atlantis, pass it on to us, and how are we supposed to know the difference?"
"Especially since they conveniently destroyed the samples," Creasy adds.
Clarke shakes her head. "You're a plumber with gills, Dale. You wouldn't have a clue what to do with those samples if Seger handed them to you in a ziplock bag. Same goes for Grace's little science-fair project with the blood."
"So that's your contribution." Nolan twists through the water until she's a couple of meters off Clarke's bow. "None of us poor dumb fishheads got tenure or augments, so we've just gotta trust everything to the wise old gel-jocks who fucked us over in the first place."
"There's someone else," Clarke buzzes back. "Rama Bhanderi."
Sudden, complete silence. Clarke can barely believe she said it herself.
Chen's vocoder stutters in awkward preamble. "Uh, Len. Rama went native."
"Not yet. Not completely. Borderline at most."
"Bhanderi?" The water vibrates with Nolan's mechanical derision. "He's a fish by now!"
"He's still coherent," Clarke insisted. "I talked to him just the other day. We can bring him back."
"Lenie," Walsh says, "nobody's ever—"
"Bhanderi does know his shit," Garcia cuts in. "Used to, anyway."
"Literally," Creasy adds. "I heard he tweaked E. coli to secrete psychoactives. You walk around with that shit in your gut, you're in permanent self-sustaining neverland." Grace Nolan turns and stares at him; Creasy doesn't take the hint. "He had some of his customers eating out of their own ends, just for the feedback high."
"Great," Nolan buzzes. "A drooling idiot and a fecal chemist. Our problems are over."
"All I'm saying is, we don't want to cut our own throats," Clarke argues. "If the corpses aren't lying to us, they're our best chance at beating this thing."
Cheung: "You're saying we should trust them?"
"I'm saying maybe we don't have to. I'm saying, give me a chance to talk to Rama and see if he can help. If not, we can always blow up Atlantis next week."
Nolan cuts the water with her hand. "His fucking mind is gone!"
"He had enough of it left to tell me what happened at the woodpile," Clarke buzzes quietly.
Nolan stares at Clarke, a sudden, indefinable tension in the body behind the mask.
"Actually," Garcia remarks from offside, "I think I might have to side with Lenie on this one."
"I don't," Creasy responds instantly.
"Probably couldn't hurt to check it out." Hopkinson's voice vibrates out from somewhere in the cheap seats. "Like Lenie says, we can always kill them later."
It's not exactly momentum. Clarke runs with it anyway. "What are they going to do, hold their breath and make a mad dash for the surface? We can afford to wait."
"Can Gene afford to wait? Can Julia?" Nolan looks around the circle. "How long do any of us have?"
"And if you're wrong, you'll kill every last one of those fuckers and then find out they were trying to help us after all." Clarke shakes her head. "No. I won't let you."
"You won't l—"
Clarke cranks the volume a notch and cuts her off. "This is the plan, people. Everybody gives blood if they haven't already. I'll track down Rama and see if I can talk him into helping. Nobody fucks with the corpses in the meantime."
This is it, she thinks. Raise or call. The moment stretches.
Nolan looks around at the assembly. Evidently she doesn't like what she sees. "Fine," she buzzes at last. "All you happy little r's and K's can do what you like. I know what I'm gonna do."
"You," Clarke tells her, "are going to back off, and shut up, and not do a single fucking thing until we get some information we can count on. And until then, Grace, if I find you within fifty meters of Atlantis or Rama Bhanderi, I will personally rip the tubes out of your chest."
Suddenly they're eyecap to eyecap. "You're talking pretty big for someone who doesn't have her pet psycho backing her up." Nolan's vocoder is very low; her words are mechanical whispers, meant for Clarke alone. "Where's your bodyguard, corpsefucker?"
"Don't need one," Clarke buzzes evenly. "If you don't believe me, stop talking out your ass and make a fucking move."
Nolan hangs in the water, unmoving. Her vocoder tick-tick-ticks like a Geiger counter.
"Hey, Grace," Chen buzzes hesitantly from the sidelines. "Really, you know? Can't hurt to try."
Nolan doesn't appear to have heard her. She doesn't answer for the longest time. Then, finally, she shakes her head.
"Fuck it. Try, then."
Clarke lets the silence resume for a few more seconds. Then she turns and slowly, deliberately, fins out of the light. She doesn't look back; hopefully, the rest of the pack will read it as an act of supreme confidence. But inside she's pissing herself. Inside, she only wants to run— from this new-and-improved reminder of her own virulent past, from the tide and the tables turning against her. She wants to just dive off the Ridge and go native, keep going until hunger and isolation leave her brain as smooth and flat and reptilian as Bhanderi's might be by now. She wants nothing more than to just give in.
She swims into the darkness, and hopes the others do likewise. Before Grace Nolan can change their minds.
She chooses an outlying double-decker a little further downslope from the others. It doesn't have a name—some of the habs have been christened, Cory's Reach or BeachBall or Abandon All Hope, but there weren't any labels pasted across this hull the last time she was in the neighborhood and there aren't any now.
Nobody's left no-trespassing signs at the airlock, either, but two pairs of fins glisten on the drying rack inside and soft moist sounds drift down from the dry deck.
She climbs the ladder. Ng and someone's back are fucking on a pallet in the lounge. Evidently, even Lubin's windchimes weren't enough to divert their interest. Clarke briefly considers breaking it up and filling them in on recent events.
Fuck it. They'll find out soon enough.
She steps around them and checks out the hab's comm board. It's a pretty sparse setup, just a few off-the-shelf components to keep it in the loop. Clarke plays with the sonar display, pans across the topography of the Ridge and the rash of Platonic icons laid upon it. Here are the main generators, wireframe skyscrapers looming over the ridge to the south. Here's Atlantis, a great lumpy ferris wheel laid on its side—fuzzy and unfocussed now, the echo smeared by a half-dozen white-noise generators started up to keep prying ears from listening in on the recent deliberations. Nobody's used those generators since the Revolt. Clarke was surprised that they were even still in place, much less in working order.
She wonders if someone's taken an active hand in extending the warranty.
A sprinkling of silver bubbles dusts the display: all the semi-abandoned homes of those who hardly know the meaning of the word. She can actually see those people if she cranks up the rez: the display loses range but gains detail, and the local sea-space fills with shimmering sapphire icons as translucent as cave fish. Their implants bounce hard reflective echoes from within the flesh, little opaque organ-clusters of machinery.
It's simple enough to label the creatures on the screen—each contains an ID-transponder next to the heart, for easy identification. There's a whole layer of intelligence that Clarke can access with a single touch. She doesn't, as a rule. Nobody does. Rifter society has its own odd etiquette. Besides, it usually isn't necessary. Over the years you learn to read the raw echoes. Creasy's implants put out a bit of fuzz on the dorsal aspect; Yeager's bum leg lists him slightly to port when he moves. Gomez's massive bulk would be a giveaway even to a dryback. The transponders are an intrusive redundancy, a cheat sheet for novices. Rifters generally have no use for such telemetry; corpses, these days, have no access to it.
Occasionally, though—when distance bleeds any useful telltales from an echo, or when the target itself has changed—cheat sheets are the only option.
Clarke slides the range to maximum: the hard bright shapes fall together, shrinking into the center of the display like cosmic flotsam sucked towards a black hole. Other topography creeps into range around the outer edges of the screen, vast and dim and fractal. Great dark fissures race into view, splitting and criss-crossing the substrate. A dozen rough mounds of vomited zinc-and-silver precipitate litter the bottom, some barely a meter high, one fifty times that size. The very seafloor bends up to the east. The shoulders of great mountains loom just out of range.
Occasional smudges of blue light drift in the middle distance, and further. Some pixellate slow meandering courses across a muddy plain; others merely drift. There's no chance of a usable profile at such distances, but neither is there any need. The transponder overlay is definitive.
Bhanderhi's southwest, halfway to the edge of the scope. Clarke notes the bearing and disables the overlay, sliding the range back to its default setting. Atlantis and its environs swell back out across the display and—
Wait a second—
A single echo, almost hidden in the white noise of the generators. A blur without detail, an unexpected wart on one of the tubular passageways that connect Atlantis's modules one to another. The nearest camera hangs off a docking gantry twenty-five meters east and up. Clarke taps into the line: a new window opens, spills grainy green light across the display.
Atlantis is in the grip of a patchwork blight. Parts of its colossal structure continue to shine as they always have; apical beacons, vents, conduit markers glaring into the darkness. But there are other places where the lights have dimmed, dark holes and gaps where lamps that once shone yellow-green have all shifted down to a faint, spectral blue so deep it borders on black. Out of order, that blue-shift says. Or more precisely, No Fish-heads.
The airlocks. The hanger bay doors. Nobody's playing just a precaution these days…
She pans and tilts, aiming the camera. She zooms: distant murk magnifies, turns fuzzy distance into fuzzy foreground. Viz is low today; either smokers are blowing nearby or Atlantis is flushing particulates. All she can see is a fuzzy black outline against a green background, a silhouette so familiar she can't even remember how she recognizes it.
He's floating just centimeters off the hull, sculling one way, sculling back. Station-keeping against a tricky interplay of currents, perhaps—except there's nothing for him to station-keep over. There's no viewport in his vicinity, no way to look inside, no obvious reason to hold his position along that particular stretch of corridor.
After a few moments he begins to move away along the hull, far too slowly for comfort. His fins usually scissor the water in smooth, easy strokes, but he's barely flicking them now. He's moving no faster than a dryback might walk.
Someone climaxes behind her. Ng grumbles about my turn. Lenie Clarke barely hears them.
You bastard, she thinks as Lubin fades in the distance. You bastard.
You went ahead and did it.