MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Ultimately, all science is correlation. No matter how effectively it may use one variable to describe another, its equations will always ultimately rest upon the surface of a black box. (Saint Herbert might have put it most succinctly when he observed that all proofs inevitably reduce to propositions that have no proof.) The difference between Science and Faith, therefore, is no more and no less than predictive power. Scientific insights have proven to be better predictors than Spiritual ones, at least in worldly matters; they prevail not because they are true, but simply because they work.
The Bicameral Order represents a stark anomaly in this otherwise consistent landscape. Their explicitly faith-based methodologies venture unapologetically into metaphysical realms that defy empirical analysis—yet they yield results with consistently more predictive power than conventional science. (How they do this is not known; our best evidence suggests some kind of rewiring of the temporal lobe in a way that amplifies their connection to the Divine.)
It would be dangerously naïve to regard this as a victory for traditional religion. It is not. It is a victory for a radical sect barely half a century old, and the cost of that victory has been to demolish the wall between Science and Faith. The Church's concession of the physical realm informed the historic armistice that has allowed faith and reason to coexist to this day. One may find it heartening to see faith ascendant once again across the Human spectrum; but it is not our faith. Its hand still guides lost sheep away from the soulless empiricism of secular science, but the days in which it guided them into the loving arms of Our Savior are waning.
—An Enemy Within: The Bicameral Threat to Institutional Religion in the Twenty-First Century (An Internal Report to the Holy See by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2093)
ALL ANIMALS ARE UNDER STRINGENT SELECTION PRESSURE TO BE AS STUPID AS THEY CAN GET AWAY WITH.
—PETE RICHERSON AND ROBERT BOYD
DEEP IN THE Oregon desert, crazy as a prophet, Daniel Brüks opened his eyes to the usual litany of death warrants.
It had been a slow night. A half-dozen traps on the east side were offline—damn booster station must have gone down again—and most of the others were empty. But number eighteen had caught a garter snake. A sage grouse pecked nervously at the lens in number thirteen. The video feed from number four wasn't working, but judging by mass and thermal there was probably a juvenile Scleroperus scrambling around in there. Twenty-three had caught a hare.
Brüks hated doing the hares. They smelled awful when you cut them open—and these days, you almost always had to cut them open.
He sighed and described a semicircle with his index finger; the feeds vanished from the skin of his tent. Headlines resolved in their wake, defaulting to past interests: Pakistan's ongoing zombie problem; first anniversary of the Redeemer blowout; a sad brief obituary for the last wild coral reef.
Nothing from Rho.
Another gesture and the fabric lit with soft tactical overlays, skewed to thermal: public-domain real-time satellite imagery of the Prineville Reserve. His tent squatted in the center of the display, a diffuse yellow smudge: cold crunchy outer shell, warm chewy center. No comparable hot spots anywhere else in range. Brüks nodded to himself, satisfied. The world continued to leave him alone.
Outside, invisible in the colorless predawn, some small creature skittered away across loose rattling rock as he emerged. His breath condensed in front of him; frost crunched beneath his boots, bestowed a faint transient sparkle to the dusty desert floor. His ATB leaned against one of the scraggly larches guarding the camp, marshmallow tires soft and flaccid.
He grabbed mug and filter from their makeshift hook and stepped into the open, down a loose jumble of scree. The vestiges of some half-assed desert stream quenched his thirst at the foot of the slope, slimy and sluggish and doomed to extinction within the month. Enough to keep one large mammal watered in the meantime. Out across the valley the Bicamerals' pet tornado squirmed feebly against a gray eastern sky but stars were still visible overhead, icy, unwinking, and utterly meaningless. Nothing up there tonight but entropy, and the same imaginary shapes that people had been imposing on nature since they'd first thought to wonder at the heavens.
It had been a different desert fourteen years ago. A different night. But it had felt the same, until the moment he'd glanced up—and for a few shattering moments it had even been a different sky, robbed of all randomness. A sky where every star blazed in brilliant precise formation, where every constellation was a perfect square no matter how desperately human imaginations might strain. February 13, 2082. The night of First Contact: sixty-two thousand objects of unknown origin, clenching around the world in a great grid, screaming across the radio spectrum as they burned. Brüks remembered the feeling: as though he were witnessing some heavenly coup, a capricious god deposed and order restored.
The revolution had lasted only a few seconds. The upstaged constellations had reasserted themselves as soon as those precise friction trails had faded from the upper atmosphere. But the damage had been done, Brüks knew. The sky would never look the same again.
That's what he'd thought at the time, anyway. That's what everyone had thought. The whole damn species had come together in the wake of that common threat, even if they didn't know what it was exactly, even if it hadn't actually threatened anything but Humanity's own self-importance. The world had put its petty differences aside, spared no expense, thrown together the best damn ship the twenty-first century could muster. They'd crewed it with expendable bleeding-edgers and sent them off along some best-guess bearing, carrying a phrase book that spelled take me to your leader in a thousand languages.
The world had been holding its breath for over a decade now, waiting for the Second Coming. There'd been no encore, no second act. Fourteen years is a long time for a species raised on instant gratification. Brüks had never considered himself a great believer in the nobility of the Human spirit but even he had been surprised at how little time it took for the sky to start looking the same as it always had, at the speed with which the world's petty differences returned to the front page. People, he reflected, were like frogs: take something out of their visual field, and they'd just—forget it.
The Theseus mission would be well past Pluto by now. If it had found anything, Brüks hadn't heard about it. For his part, he was sick of waiting. He was sick of life on hold, waiting for monsters or saviors to make an appearance. He was sick of killing things, sick of dying inside.
He wished the world would just hurry up and end.
* * *
He spent the morning as he'd spent every other for the past two months: running his traplines and poking the things inside, in the faint hope of finding some piece of nature left untwisted.
The clouds were already closing in by sunrise, before his bike had soaked up a decent charge; he left it behind and ran the transects on foot. It was almost noon by the time he got to the hare, only to find that something had beaten him to the punch. The trap had been torn open and its contents emptied by some other predator who'd lacked even the good grace to leave a blood spatter behind for analysis.
The garter snake was still slithering around in number eighteen, though: a male, one of those brown-on-brown morphs that vanished against the dirt. It writhed in Brüks's grasp, clenched around his forearm like a scaly tentacle; its scent glands smeared stink across his skin. Brüks drew a few microliters of blood without much hope, plugged them into the barcoder on his belt. He swigged from his canteen while the device worked its magic.
Far across the desert the monastery's tornado had swollen to three times its predawn size, pumped by the midday heat. Distance reduced it to a brown thread, an insignificant smoky smudge; but get too close to that funnel and you'd end up scattered over half the valley. Just the year before, some Ugandan vendetta theocracy had hacked a transAt shuttle out of Dartmouth, sent it through a vortex engine on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Not much but rivets and teeth had come out the other side.
The barcoder meeped in plaintive surrender: too many genetic artifacts for a clean read. Brüks sighed, unsurprised. The little machine could tag any gut parasite from the merest speck of shit, ID any host species from the smallest shred of pure tissue—but pure tissue was so hard to come by, these days. There was always something that didn't belong. Viral DNA, engineered for the greater good but too indiscriminate to stay on target. Special marker genes, designed to make animals glow in the dark when exposed to some toxin the EPA had lost interest in fifty years before. Even DNA computers, custom-built for a specific task and then tramped carelessly into wild genotypes like muddy footprints on a pristine floor. Nowadays it seemed like half the technical data on the planet were being stored genetically. Try sequencing a lung fluke and it was even money whether the base pairs you read would code for protein or the technical specs on the Denver sewer system.
It was okay, though. Brüks was an old man, a field man from a day when people could tell what they were looking at by—well, by looking at it. Check the chin shields. Count the fin rays, the hooks on the scolex. Use your eyes, dammit. At least if you screw up you've only got yourself to blame, not some dumb-ass machine that can't tell the difference between cytochrome oxidase and a Shakespearean sonnet. And if the things you're trying to ID happen to live inside other things, you kill the host. You cut it open.
Brüks was good at that, too. He'd never got around to liking it much, though.
Now he whispered to his latest victim—"Shhh … sorry … it won't hurt, I promise…"—and dropped it into the kill sack. He'd found himself doing that a lot lately, murmuring meaningless comforting lies to victims who couldn't possibly understand what he was saying. He kept telling himself to grow up. In all the billions of years that life had been iterating on this planet, had any predator ever tried to comfort its prey? Had "natural" death ever been so quick and painless as the killings Dan Brüks inflicted for the greater good? And yet it still bothered him to see those small diffuse shadows flopping and squirming behind the translucent white plastic, to hear the soft thumps and hisses as simple minds tried to drive bodies, suddenly and terrifyingly unresponsive, toward some kind of imaginary escape.
At least these deaths served a purpose, some constructive end transcending the disease or predation that nature would have inflicted. Life was a struggle to exist at the expense of other life. Biology was a struggle to understand life. And this particular bit of biology, this study of which he was author, principal, and sole investigator—this was a struggle to use biology to help the very populations he was sampling. These deaths were the closest that Darwin's universe would ever come to altruism.
And that, said the little voice that always seemed to boot up at times like this, is so much shit. The only thing you're struggling to do is wring a few more publications out of your grant before the funding dries up. Even if you nailed down every change inflicted on every clade over the past hundred years, even if you quantified species loss down to the molecules, it wouldn't matter.
Nobody cares. The only thing you're struggling against is reality.
That voice had become his constant companion over the years. He let it rant. Either way, he told it after it had run down, we're a shitty biologist. And while his own guilty plea came easily enough, he could not bring himself to feel shame on that account.
* * *
It had stopped being a snake by the time he got back to camp. He stretched the limp and lifeless remains along the dissecting tray. Four seconds with the scasers and it was gutted, throat to cloaca; twenty more and the GI and respiratory tracts floated in separate watch glasses. The intestine would have the heaviest parasite load; Brüks loaded the GI tract into the 'scope and got to work.
Twenty minutes later, a retinue of flukes and cestodes only half-cataloged, something exploded in the distance.
That's what it sounded like, anyway: the soft muffled whoompf of far-off ordinance. Brüks rose from his work, panned the desert between spindly gnarled trunks.
Nothing. Nothing. Noth—
Oh, wait …
He grabbed his goggles off the ATB and zoomed in. The tornado was the first thing to draw his eye—
—That thing's going pretty strong for so late in the day—
—but off to the right, directly over the monastery itself, a puff of dark brown smoke roiled and drifted and dissipated in the lowering light.
The building didn't seem to be damaged, though. At least, none of the façades he could see.
What are they doing over there?
Physics, officially. Cosmology. High-energy stuff. But it was all supposed to be theoretical; as far as Brüks knew the Bicameral Order didn't perform actual experiments. Of course, hardly anyone did, these days. It was machines that scanned the heavens, machines that probed the space between atoms, machines that asked the questions and designed the experiments to answer them. All that was left for mere meat, apparently, was navel-gazing: to sit in the desert and contemplate whatever answers those machines served up. Although most still preferred to call it analysis.
A hive mind that spoke in tongues: that was how the Bicamerals did it, supposedly. Some kind of bioradio in their heads, a communal corpus callosum: electrons jiggling around in microtubules, some kind of quantum-entanglement thing. Completely organic to get around the ban on B2B interfaces. A spigot that poured many minds into one on command. They flowed together and called down the Rapture, rolled around the floor and drooled and ululated while their acolytes took notes, and somehow they ended up rewriting the Amplituhedron.
There was supposed to be some rational explanation to justify the mumbo jumbo. Left-hemisphere pattern-matching subroutines amped beyond recognition; the buggy wetware that made you see faces in clouds or God's wrath in thunderstorms, tweaked to walk some fine line between insight and pareidolia. Apparently there were fundamental insights to be harvested along that razor's edge, patterns that only the Bicamerals could distinguish from hallucination. That was the story, anyway. It sounded like utter bullshit to Brüks.
Still, you couldn't argue with the Nobels.
Maybe they had some kind of particle accelerator over there after all. They had to be doing something that sucked a lot of energy; nobody used an industrial vortex engine to run kitchen appliances.
From behind, the metallic tinkle of displaced instruments. Brüks turned.
His scasers lay in the dirt. On the bench above them the gutted snake watched him upside down from its dissecting tray, forked tongue flickering.
Nerves, Brüks told himself.
The discarded carcass shivered on its back, as if the gash down its belly had let in the cold. Flaps of tissue rippled along either edge of that wound, a slow peristaltic wave undulating along the length of the body.
Galvanic skin response. That's all it is.
The snake's head lurched up over the edge of the tray. Glassy, unblinking eyes looked this way and that. The tongue, red-black, black-red, tasted the air.
The animal crawled from the pan.
It wasn't having an easy time of it. It kept trying to roll and crawl on its belly but it didn't have a belly, not anymore. The ventral scales that would have pushed it along, the muscles beneath had been sliced apart, every one. And so the creature would manage a half twist every now and then, and fail, and resort to crawling on its back: eyes wide, tongue flicking, insides emptied.
The snake reached the edge of the bench, feebly wavered a moment, dropped into the dust. Brüks's boot came down on its head. He ground it deep against the rocky soil until there was nothing left but a moist sticky clot in the dirt. The rest of the creature writhed, its muscles jumping to the beat of nerves jammed with noise and no signal. But at least there was nothing left that could possibly please-God feel.
Reptiles were not especially fragile creatures. More than once Brüks had found rattlesnakes on the road hours from the nearest vehicle, spines crushed, fangs shattered, heads reduced to bloody paste—still moving, still crawling for the ditch. The kill sack was supposed to prevent that kind of protracted agony. You turned the animal's own metabolism against it, let lungs and capillaries carry the poison to every cell of every tissue, bringing a quick and painless and—most of all—a complete death, so that it would not wake up and fucking look at you, and try to escape, an hour after you'd scraped its insides away.
Of course, there were zombies in the world now. Vampires, too, for that matter. But the twenty-first century's undead were strictly Human. There was no reason anyone would want to build a zombie snake. This had to be another contamination artifact; some accidental genetic hack that shut down the MS receptor sites, maybe triggered a rogue suite of motor commands. Had to be.
He'd really hoped the ghosts would be easier to handle out here.
* * *
There weren't nearly as many ghosts in the desert, for one thing. For another, none of them were human. Sometimes he wished he could feel half as much for the thousands of people he'd killed.
Of course, basic biology explained that particular double standard as well. He hadn't had to face any of his human victims, hadn't looked into their eyes, hadn't been there when they'd died. The gut was not a long-range organ. Its grasp of culpability degraded exponentially with distance; there'd been so many arcane degrees separating the actions of Daniel Brüks from their consequences that conscience itself entered the realm of pure theory. Besides, he'd hardly acted alone; the guilt diffused across the whole team. And their intentions, at least, had been beyond reproach.
Nobody had blamed them, not out loud, not really. Not at first. You don't pass judgment on the unwitting hammer used to bash in someone's skull. Brüks's work had been perverted by others intent on bloodshed; the guilt was theirs, not his. But those perpetrators remained uncaught and unpunished, and so many had needed closure in the meantime. And the distance between How could they and How could you let them was so much smaller than Brüks had ever imagined.
No charges had been pressed. It wasn't even enough to revoke his tenure. As it turned out, it was only enough to wear out his welcome on campus.
Nature, though. Nature always welcomed him. She passed no judgments, didn't care about right or wrong, guilt or innocence. She only cared about what worked and what didn't. She welcomed everyone with the same egalitarian indifference. You just had to play by her rules, and expect no mercy if things didn't go your way.
And so Dan Brüks had put in for sabbatical and filed his agenda, and headed into the field. He'd left behind his sampling drones and artificial insects, packed no autonomous tech to rub his nose in the obsolescence of human labor. A few had watched him go, with relief; others kept their eyes on the sky. He left them, too. His colleagues would forgive him, or they wouldn't. The aliens would return, or they wouldn't. But Nature would never turn him away. And even in a world where every last sliver of natural habitat was under siege, there was no shortage of deserts. They'd been growing like slow cancer for a hundred years or more.
Daniel Brüks would go into the welcoming desert, and kill whatever he found there.
* * *
He opened his eyes to the soft red glow of panicking machinery. A third of the network had just died in his sleep. Five more traps went down as he watched: a booster station, suddenly offlined. Twenty-two beeped plaintively a moment later—proximate heat trace, big, man-size even—and dropped off the map.
Instantly awake, Brüks played the logs. The network was going down from west to east, each dead node another footfall in a growing trail of dark ragged footprints stomping across the valley.
Heading directly for him.
He pulled up the satcam thermals. The remains of the old 380 ran like a thin vein along the northern perimeter, yesterday's stale sunshine seeping from cracked asphalt. Diaphanous thermals and microclimatic hot spots, dying since nightfall, flickered at the threshold of visibility. Nothing else but the yellow nimbus of his own tent at center stage.
Twenty-one reported sudden warmth, and disappeared.
Cameras lurked here and there along the traplines. Brüks had never found much use for them but they'd come bundled as part of the package. One sat on a booster that happened to be line of sight to number nineteen. He brought it up: StarlAmp painted the nighttime desert in blues and whites, a surrealistic moonscape full of contrast. Brüks panned the view—
—and almost missed it: a slither of motion from stage right, an amplified blur. Something that moved faster than anything Human had any right to. The camera was dead before Nineteen even felt the heat.
The booster went down. Another dozen feeds died in an instant. Brüks barely noticed. He was staring at that last frozen frame, feeling his gut clench and his bowels turn to ice.
Faster than a man, and so much less. And just a little bit colder inside.
The field sensors weren't sensitive enough to register that difference, of course. To see the truth from heat signatures alone you'd need to look inside the very head of your target, to squint until you could see deltas of maybe a tenth of a degree. You'd look at the hippocampus, and see that it was dark. You'd listen to the prefrontal cortex, and hear that it was silent. And then maybe you'd notice all that extra wiring, the force-grown neural lattices connecting midbrain to motor strip, the high-speed expressways bypassing the anterior cingulate gyrus—and those extra ganglia clinging like tumors to the visual pathways, fishing endlessly for the telltale neural signatures of seek and destroy.
It would be a lot easier to spot those differences in visible light: Just look into the eyes, and see nothing at all looking back. Of course, if it ever got that close you'd be dead already. It wouldn't leave you time to beg. It wouldn't even understand your pleas. It would simply kill you, if that's what it had been told to do, more efficiently than any conscious being because there was nothing left to get in the way: no second thoughts, no pulled punches, not even the basic glucose-sucking awareness of its own existence. It was stripped down to pure reptile, and it was dedicated.
Less than a kilometer away now.
Something inside Daniel Brüks split down the middle. One half clamped its hands over its ears and denied everything—what the fuck why would anyone must be some kind of mistake—but the other remembered the universal human fondness for scapegoats, the thousands who'd died thanks to dumb ol' Backdoor Brüks, the odds that at least one of those victims might have been survived by next of kin with the resources to set a military-grade zombie on his trail.
How could they.
How could you let them …
The ATB hissed beneath him as its tires inhaled. The charge cord pulled him briefly off balance before tearing free. He plunged through a gap in the trees and down the scree, skidding sideways: hit the base of the slope and the desert spun around him, slimy and frictionless. The stream nearly took him out right there. Brüks fought for control as the bike one-eightied, but those marvelous marshmallow tires kept him miraculously upright. Then he was racing east across the fractured valley floor.
Sagebrush tore at him as he passed. He cursed his own blindness; these days, no self-respecting grad student would be caught dead in the field without rattlesnake receptors in their eyes. But Brüks was an old man, baseline, night-blind. He didn't even dare use the headlamp. So he hurtled through the night, smashing through petrified shrubs, bucking over unseen outcroppings of bedrock. He fumbled one-handed through the bike's saddlebags, came up with the gogs, slapped them over his eyes. The desert sprang into view, green and grainy.
0247, the goggles told him from the corner of his eye. Three hours to sunrise. He tried pinging his network but if any part of it remained alive, it was out of range. He wondered if the zombie had made it to camp yet. He wondered how close it had come to catching him.
Doesn't matter. Can't catch me now, motherfucker. Not on foot. Not even undead. You can kiss my ass good-bye.
Then he checked the charge gauge and his stomach dropped away all over again.
Cloudy skies. An old battery, a year past its best-before. A charging blanket that hadn't been cleaned in a month.
The ATB had ten kilometers in it. Fifteen, tops.
He braked and brought it around in a spray of dirt. His own trail extended behind him, an unmistakable line of intermittent carnage wrought upon the desert floor: broken plants, sun-cracked tiles of ancient lakebed crushed in passing. He was running but he wasn't hiding. As long as he stayed on the valley floor, they'd be able to track him.
He switched from StarlAmp to infrared, zoomed the view.
A hot tiny spark leapt against a distant slope, right about where his camp would be.
Closer, though. And closing fast. That thing could run.
Brüks swung the bike around and kicked it back into gear. He almost didn't notice the second spark sweeping across his field of vision, it was so faint.
He saw the third clearly enough, though. And the fourth. Too distant to make out shapes on thermal, but all hot as humans. All closing.
Five, six, seven …
They were fanned out along the valley as far as he could see.
What did I do, what did I do, don't they know it was an accident? It wasn't even me, for chrissakes, I didn't kill anyone, I just—left the door open …
Ten kilometers. Then they'd be on him like ravenous wolves.
The ATB leapt forward. Brüks pinged 911: nothing. ConSensus was live enough but deaf to his pleas; somehow he could surf but not send. And his pursuers still weren't showing up on satellite thermal; as far as the skeyes could see he was alone down here with the microweather and the monastery.
They'd be online. They'd be able to help. At the very least the Bicamerals lived behind walls. Anything was better than fleeing naked through the desert.
He aimed for the tornado. It writhed in his enhanced sight, a distant green monster nailed to the earth. Its roar carried across the desert as it always did, faint but omnipresent. For a moment, Brüks heard something strange in that sound. The monastery resolved in the gogs, huddling in the shadow of the great engine. A myriad of pinpoint stars burned there against a low jumble of stepped terraces, almost painfully bright.
Three in the morning, and every window was ablaze.
Not so faint anymore: the vortex roared like an ocean now, its volume rising imperceptibly with each turn of the wheels. It was no longer stuck to the horizon. StarlAmp turned it into a pillar of fire, big enough to hold up the sky or to tear it down. Brüks craned his neck: over a kilometer away and still the funnel seemed to lean over him. Any second now it would break free. Any second it would leap from the ground and slam back down, there or there or right fucking here like the finger of some angry god, and it would rip the world apart wherever it touched.
He stayed on course even though the monster ahead couldn't possibly be made of air and moisture, couldn't possibly be anything so—so soft. It was something else entirely, some insane Old Testament event horizon that chewed up the very laws of physics. It caught the glow from the monastery, trapped that light and shredded it and spun it together with everything else that fell within reach. A small gibbering thing inside Daniel Brüks begged him to turn back, knew that the creatures stalking him couldn't be worse than this, because whatever they were, they were only the size of men but this, this was the very wrath of God.
But that hesitant little voice spoke again, and this time the question lingered: Why is this thing running so hard?
It shouldn't have been. Vortex engines never really stopped, but at night they weakened in the cooling air, diffused and idled until the rising sun brought them back to full strength. To keep a funnel this size running so hot, so late at night—that would almost draw more energy than it yielded. The vapor from the cooling cells would have to be verging on live steam—and now Brüks was close enough to hear something else against the jet-engine roar, a faint creaking counterpoint of great metal blades, twisting past their normative specs …
The monastery lights went out.
It took a moment for his goggles to amp back up; but in that moment of pure, illuminating darkness Daniel Brüks finally saw himself for the fool he was. For the first time he saw the pinpoint heatprints ahead of him, closing from the east as well as from behind. He saw forces powerful enough to hack surveillance satellites in geostationary orbit, but somehow unable to blind his antique Telonics network to the same heatprints. He saw a military automaton, ruthless as a shark, fast as a superconductor, betraying its own approach from kilometers away when it could have avoided his traplines entirely and killed him in his sleep.
He saw himself from high overhead, stumbling across someone else's game board: caught in a net that closed around but not on him.
They didn't even know I was here. They're after the Bicamerals.
He pulled to a stop. The monastery loomed fifty meters ahead, low and black against the stars. All windows abruptly shuttered, all approaches suddenly dark, it rose from the landscape as though born of it: a pile of deep rock strata breaching the surface of the world. The tornado loomed beyond like a whirling gash in space-time, barely a hundred meters on the other side. The sound of its rage filled the world.
On all sides, candles closed in the darkness.
0313, his goggles reminded him. Less than an hour ago he'd been asleep. It wasn't nearly long enough to come to terms with your own imminent death.
YOU ARE IN DANGER, the gogs told him helpfully.
Brüks blinked. The little red letters persisted, hovering off at the corner of his eye where the chrono readout should be.
COME ON, THEN. DOOR'S OPEN.
He looked past the command line, panned across the darkened façades of the monastery. There, ground level: just to the left of a broad staircase that underscored the main entrance. An opening, barely big enough for a man. Something burned there at body temperature. It had arms and legs. It waved.
Brüks moved his self-absorbed idiot ass.
FOR THEY HAVE SOWN THE WIND, AND THEY SHALL REAP THE WHIRLWIND.
INSIDE, THE DARKNESS was bright chaos.
Human heat signatures flickered across Brüks's goggles at point-blank range, coruscations of false color in frantic motion. The heat of their passing painted the surroundings with fainter washes of red and yellow: rough-hewn walls, a flat dead light panel for a ceiling, a floor that yielded unexpectedly beneath his feet like some ungodly hybrid of rubber and flesh. Off in an indeterminate distance, something stuttered and wailed; here in the hallway the human rainbows moved with silent urgency. The woman who'd invited him in—a petite writhing heatprint no more than 160 centimeters tall—grabbed his hand and pulled him forward: "I'm Lianna. Stay close."
He followed, switching the gogs to StarlAmp. The heatprints vanished; bright greenish stars moved in the void left behind, always in pairs, binary constellations jostling and blinking in the dark. A word popped into his head: luciferin. Photophores in the retinas.
These people had eyes that doubled as flashlights. Brüks had once known a grad student with similar augments. Sex had been—disquieting, in the dark.
His guide threaded him through the starfield. That distant wailing rose and fell, rose and fell; not words exactly, but syllables, at least. Clicks and cries and diphthongs in the dark. Bright eyes rose before him, seething with cold blue light. Amplified photons limned a gray face full of lines and angles. Brüks tried to steer his way around but that face blocked his way, eyes glowing with such furious intensity that his goggles had to dial back the amplification to almost nothing.
"Gelan," the face croaked. "Thofe tessrodia."
Brüks tried to take a step back; bumped into traffic, rebounded.
"Eptroph!" cried the face, as the body beneath gave way.
Lianna pushed him sideways into the wall—"Stay right there"—and dropped to the floor. Brüks switched back to thermal. The rainbows returned. Brüks's assailant was on his back, heat sig bright as a solar flare, muttering nonsense. His fingers fluttered as if stabbing an invisible keyboard; his left foot tapped an agitated tattoo against the elastic flooring. Lianna cradled his head in her lap and spoke to him in the same incomprehensible tongue.
The chronic background roar of the vortex engine rose subtly in pitch. Stone trembled at Brüks's back.
A hot bright figure appeared down the corridor, swimming against the stream. Within moments it had reached them; Brüks's guide passed her charge to the newcomer and was on her feet in an instant. "Let's go."
A side door. A flight of stairs, sheathed in the same rubbery skin that turned their footsteps into soft squeaks. It corkscrewed down through cooling bedrock that dimmed with each step in the goggles' sights, but that compact body glowed like a beacon ahead of him. Suddenly the world was silent again but for their own footsteps and the distant, almost subsonic thrumming of the vortex engine.
"What's going on?" Brüks asked.
"Oh. Mahmood." Lianna glanced back, her eyes bright garish blobs, her mouth a crimson slash of heat. "Can't always control when the rapture hits, much less which node. Not the most convenient thing in the world but you don't want to miss the insights, you know? Could be time travel, for all we know. Could be a cure for golem."
"You understood what he was saying."
"Kinda. It's what I do, when I'm not bringing lost sheep in from the desert."
"You're a synthesist?" Jargonaut was the street name. Glorified translators, charged with bringing esoteric transhuman tablets down from the mountain, carved in runes simple enough for pitiful baseline Humans to half understand.
Rhona had called them Moses mammals, back when she'd been in the world.
But Lianna was shaking her head. "Not exactly. More of a—you're a biologist, right? Synthesists would be rats. I'm more of a koala bear."
"Specialist." Brüks nodded. "Narrower niche."
A faint orange stain appeared on the thermoptics: warmth from below.
"And you know who I am because…"
"We're on the bleeding edge of theistic virology here. You think we don't know how to access a public database?"
"I just thought you'd have better things to look up when you were being attacked by zombies."
"We keep an eye on the neighborhood, Dr. Brüks."
"Yeah, but what—"
She stopped. Brüks nearly ran into her, then realized they'd reached the bottom of the stairs. Bright heat spilled around a corner dead ahead; Lianna turned and tapped his goggles. "You won't be needing those."
He pushed them onto his forehead. The world reverted to a dim wash of blues and grays. The rough stone to his left broke the feeble ambient light into jagged fragments; to his right the wall was smooth gray metal.
Lianna was already past him, heading back up the stairs. "I gotta go. You can watch from down here."
"Don't touch anything!" she called back, and was gone.
He stepped around the corner. The ceiling panels here were as dead and dark as every other he'd seen in this place. The room—really, more of a cul-de-sac—was lit solely by a band of smart paint covering the far wall from waist-height to ceiling. It glowed with a haphazard collage of tactical displays ranging from hand-size to two meters across. Some of the feeds were coarse green mosaics; others rendered images high rez and razor-sharp.
A man in a loose tan coverall paced back and forth before the displays, at least two meters from his fuzzy slippers (slippers?) to the cropped salt-and-pepper thicket on his head. He spared a glance as Brüks approached, muttered "Glas-not," and turned back to the welter of intel.
Lianna the koala had told him he could watch, though. He stepped forward and tried to make sense of the chaos.
Upper left: a satellite view so crisp it nearly hurt his eyes. The monastery sat dead center, a bull's-eye on the board, aglow with telltale thermal emissions. But it was the only hot spot in the whole window; whatever orbital eye he was looking through had been precisely blinded to all those other heatprints closing in the darkness. Brüks reached for the display, his fingers set to zoom the mag; a grunt and a glare from the slippered monk and he desisted.
So much for orbital surveillance. The monastery had its own cameras, though, judging by the mix of StarlAmp and thermal windows looking out across the desert. They painted the nightscape in palettes from every band of the visible spectrum, cool blues and rubies intense as lasers, color schemes so chaotic Brüks wondered whether they were really functional or just a reflection of some deviant Bicameral aesthetic. Candles glowed in each of those windows, and they all looked the same.
Four klicks out, and closing fast.
Something sparkled on one of the displays, a tiny bright sundog in the dead of night. The image flared a moment; bright electronic snow fuzzed the display. A brief, bright nova. Then a dark dead hole in the wall, NO SIGNAL flashing from its center.
The monk's fingers flew across the paint, calling up keyboards, zooming displays. Windows sprouted, panned brief landscapes, evaporated in turn. Three of those views sparked and died before the Bicameral had the chance to retire them gracefully.
They're taking out our cameras, Brüks realized, and wondered distantly when he had started to think of these rapture-stricken deviants as part of we.
Less than three and a half kilometers now.
A new set of windows bloomed across the wall. The pictures flickering in these frames were grainier than the others, desaturated, almost monochrome. And while they, too, panned the desert, there was something about those views, something different yet familiar—
There. Third window over: a tiny monastery hunkered on the horizon, a tiny vortex engine. This camera was looking back from way the hell across the desert.
That's my network, Brüks realized. My cameras. I guess the zombies left some alive after all …
Brother Slippers had tapped into a half dozen of them, zoomed and cycled through each in turn. Brüks wasn't sure how useful they'd be: cheap off-the-shelf things, party favors to lure impoverished researchers into springing for a package deal. They had the usual enhancements but the range was nothing special.
They seemed to be sufficient for Slippers's purposes, though. Second window from the left, a heat source moved left to right about a hundred meters out. The camera panned automatically, tracking the target while he amped the zoom. The image resolved in slow degrees.
Another one of the monastery's eyes flared and died, its overlaid range finder fading a moment later: 3.2 kilometers.
That's almost nine meters per second. On foot …
"What happens when they get here?" he asked.
Slippers seemed more interested in a distant heatprint caught on number three: a small vehicle, an ATB, same basic design as—
Wait a minute—
"That's my bike," Brüks murmured, frowning. "That's—me…"
Slippers spared him a glance and a head shake. "Assub."
"No, listen—" It was far from a perfect mug shot, and Telonics's steadicam tracking algorithms were the envy of no one in the field. But whoever sat astride that bike had Brüks's mustache, the square lines of his face, the same multipocketed field vest that had been years out of style even when he'd inherited the damn thing two decades before. "You're being hacked," Brüks insisted. "That's some kind of recording, someone must've—" Someone was recording me? "I mean, look at it!"
Two more cameras down. Seven so far. Slippers wasn't even bothering to clear the real estate by closing the channels. Something else had caught his eye. He tapped the edge of a window that looked onto a naked-eye view of the desert sky. The stars strewn across that display glittered like sugar on velvet. Brüks wanted to fall into that sky, get lost in the stark peaceful beauty of a night without tactical overlays or polarized enhancements.
But even here, the monk had found something to ruin the view: a brief flicker, a dim red nimbus framing an oval patch of starscape for the blink of an eye. The display clicked softly, an infinitesimal sharpening of focus—and in the next instant the stars returned, unsullied and pristine.
Except for a great hole in the night hanging over the western ridge, a vast dark oval where no stars shone.
Something was crawling toward them across the sky, eating the stars as it went. It was as cold as the stratosphere—at least, it didn't show up on any of the adjacent thermal views. And it was huge; it covered a good twenty degrees of arc even though it was still—
No range finder. No heatprint. If not for whatever microlensing magic Slippers had just performed, not even this eclipse of ancient starlight would have given it away.
I, Brüks realized, have definitely picked the wrong side.
Twenty-three hundred meters. In five minutes the zombies would be knocking at the door.
"Carousel," Slippers murmured, and something in his voice made Brüks look twice.
The monk was smiling. But he wasn't looking at the cloaked behemoth marching across Orion's Belt. His eyes were on a ground's-eye view of the vortex engine. There was no audio feed; the tornado whirled silently in the StarlAmped window, a shackled green monster tearing up airspace. Brüks could hear it anyway—roaring in his memory, bending the ducts and the blades of the substructure that birthed it, vibrating through the very bedrock. He could feel it in the soles of his feet. And now Brother Slippers brought up a whole new window, a panel not of camera views or tactical overlays but of engineering readouts, laminar feed and humidity injection rates, measures of torque and velocity and compressible flow arrayed along five hundred meters of altitude. Offset to one side a luminous wire-frame disk labeled VEC/PRIME sprouted a thousand icons around its perimeter; a hundred more described spokes and spirals toward its heart. Heating elements. Countercurrent exchangers. The devil's own mixing board. Slippers nodded, as if to himself: "Watch."
Icons and outputs began to move. There was nothing dramatic in the readouts, no sudden acceleration into red zones, no alarms. Just the slightest tweak of injection rates on one side of the circle; the gentlest nuzzle of convection and condensation on the other.
Over in its window, the green monster raised one toe.
Holy shit. They're going to set it free …
A wash of readouts turned yellow; in the heart of that sudden sunny bloom, a dozen others turned orange. A couple turned red.
With ponderous, implacable majesty, the tornado lifted from the earth and stepped out across the desert.
Copyright © 2014 by Peter Watts