Atlantis, with its gantries and beacons and portholes bleeding washed-out light into the abyss, is hundreds of meters behind her. No winking telltales, no conduits or parts caches pollute the darkness this far out. The caps on her eyes can coax light enough to see from the merest sparkle, but they can't create light where none exists. Here, none does. Three thousand meters, three hundred atmospheres, three million kilograms per square meter have squeezed every last photon out of creation.
Lenie Clarke is as blind as any dryback. After five years on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, she still likes it this way.
But now the soft mosquito whine of hydraulics and electricity rises around her. Sonar patters softly against her implants. The whine shifts subtly in pitch, then fades.
Faint surge as something coasts to a stop overhead. His words are fuzzed by the same technology that affects hers; by now the distortion is more familiar than the baseline. She'd sigh, if breath were possible out here.
Clarke trips her headlamp. Lubin is caught in the ignited beam, a black silhouette studded with subtle implementation. The intake on his chest is a slotted disk, chrome on black. Corneal caps turn his eyes into featureless translucent ovals.
A pair of squids hover at his side. A nylon bag hangs from one of the meter-long vehicles, lumpy with electronics. Clarke fins over to the other, flips a toggle from slave to manual. The little machine twitches and unfolds its towbar.
Stephen Biesty's cross-sections man-of-war Biesty, Stephen, illustrator. Shepherd's Castle, The. Just Beyone the Clouds. In comparison, modern phototypesetting printed by offset lithography tends to look anemic and lacks the tactile quality of type impressed into the page. Shimerda's reproaches. Wrapped in Rain. Formerly Fuchs attended to such things after working hours.
On impulse, she kills her headlight. Darkness swallows everything again. Nothing stirs. Nothing twinkles. Nothing attacks. She remembers a whole different ocean, on the other side of the world. Back on Channer Vent you'd turn your lights off and the stars would come out, a thousand bioluminescent constellations: fish lit up like runways at night; glowing arthropods; little grape-sized ctenophores flashing with complex iridescence.
Channer sang like a siren, lured all those extravagant midwater exotics down deeper than they swam anywhere else, fed them strange chemicals and turned them monstrously beautiful. Back at Beebe Station, it was only dark when your lights were on. Here, the only light shines from indelicate, ham-fisted machinery. Headlamps carve arid tunnels through the blackness, stark and ugly as burning sodium. Just don't forget why. She grabs her towbar.
She hears the sound of Lubin's squid throttling up, invisibly close. She squeezes her own throttle, prepares to follow him. The signal reaches her LFAM and her skeleton at the same time. Her bones react with a vibration deep in the jaw: the modem just beeps at her. She trips her receiver. Just checking.
The water lightens indiscernibly as they ascend. Somehow their world has changed from black to blue when she wasn't looking; Clarke can never pinpoint the moment when that happens. Lubin hasn't spoken since Rowan signed off. Now, as navy segues into azure, Clarke says it aloud. She does. Lubin doesn't trust Rowan because once upon a time, Rowan called shots. It was at her command that they were all recruited so long ago, damaged goods damaged further: memories rewritten, motives rewired, conscience itself refitted in the service of some indefinable, indefensible greater good.
Lubin's vocoder emits something that passes for a grunt. She knows where he's coming from. To this day, she still isn't certain what parts of her own childhood were real and which were mere inserts, installed after the fact. And she's one of the lucky ones; at least she survived the blast that turned Channer Vent into thirty square kilometers of radioactive glass.
At least she wasn't smashed to pulp by the resulting tsunami, or incinerated along with the millions on N'AmPac's refugee strip. Not that she shouldn't have been, of course. If you want to get technical about it, all those other millions were nothing but collateral.
There's fault, and there's fault. Patricia Rowan might have the blood of millions on her hands, but after all hot zones don't contain themselves : it takes resources and resolve, every step of the way. Cordon the infected area; bring in the lifters; reduce to ash. Lather, rinse, repeat. Kill a million to save a billion, kill ten to save a hundred.
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But none of that machinery runs itself, you can't ever take your hand off the kill switch. Rowan never threw a massacre without having to face the costs, and own them. It was so much easier for Lenie Clarke. She just sowed her little trail of infection across the world and went to ground without ever looking back. Even now her victims pile up in an ongoing procession, an exponential legacy that must have surpassed Rowan's a dozen times over. And she doesn't have to lift a finger.
No one who calls himself a friend of Lenie Clarke has any rational grounds for passing judgment on Patricia Rowan. Clarke dreads the day when that simple truth dawns on Ken Lubin. The squids drag them higher. By now there's a definite gradient, light above fading to darkness below. To Clarke this is the scariest part of the ocean, the half-lit midwater depths where real squid roam: boneless tentacled monsters thirty meters long, their brains as cold and quick as superconductors.
They're twice as large as they used to be, she's been told. Five times more abundant. Apparently it all comes down to better day care. Architeuthis larvae grow faster in the warming seas, their numbers unconstrained by predators long since fished out of existence. She's never actually seen one, of course.
But occasionally the drones catch ghostly echoes from massive objects passing overhead: hard shouts of chitin and cartilage, faint landscapes of surrounding flesh that sonar barely sees at all. Fortunately, Archie rarely descends into true darkness. Sometimes Clarke has an impulse to put that to the test, pop the caps right out of her eyes and see for herself, but it's an impossible dream. The diveskin wraps around her face and bonds directly to the photocollagen. She can't even blink.