MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
WHEN the lights go out in Beebe Station, you can hear the metal groan.
Lenie Clarke lies on her bunk, listening. Overhead, past pipes and wires and eggshell plating, three kilometers of black ocean try to crush her. She feels the rift underneath, tearing open the seabed with strength enough to move a continent. She lies there in that fragile refuge and she hears Beebe's armor shifting by microns, hears its seams creak not quite below the threshold of human hearing. God is a sadist on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, and His name is Physics.
How did they talk me into this? she wonders. Why did I come down here? But she already knows the answer.
She hears Ballard moving out in the corridor. Clarke envies Ballard. Ballard never screws up, always seems to have her life under control. She almost seems happy down here.
Clarke rolls off her bunk and fumbles for a switch. The cubby floods with dismal light. Pipes and access panels crowd the wall beside her; aesthetics run a distant second to functionality when you're three thousand meters down. She turns and catches sight of a slick black amphibian in the bulkhead mirror.
It still happens, occasionally. She can sometimes forget what they've done to her.
It takes a conscious effort to feel the machines lurking where her left lung used to be. She's so acclimated to the chronic ache in her chest, to that subtle inertia of plastic and metal as she moves, that she's scarcely aware of them anymore. She can still feel the memory of what it was to be fully human, and mistake that ghost for honest sensation.
Such respites never last. There are mirrors everywhere in Beebe; they're supposed to increase the apparent size of one's personal space. Sometimes Clarke shuts her eyes to hide from the reflections forever being thrown back at her. It doesn't help. She clenches her lids and feels the corneal caps beneath them, covering her eyes like smooth white cataracts.
She climbs out of her cubby and moves along the corridor to the lounge. Ballard is waiting there, dressed in a diveskin and the usual air of confidence.
Ballard stands up. "Ready to go?"
"You're in charge," Clarke says.
"Only on paper." Ballard smiles. "No pecking order down here, Lenie. As far as I'm concerned, we're equals." After two days on the rift, Clarke is still surprised by the frequency with which Ballard smiles. Ballard smiles at the slightest provocation. It doesn't always seem real.
Something hits Beebe from the outside.
Ballard's smile falters. They hear it again; a wet, muffled thud through the station's titanium skin.
"It takes awhile to get used to," Ballard says, "doesn't it?"
"I mean, that sounds big.…"
"Maybe we should turn the lights off," Clarke suggests. She knows they won't. Beebe's exterior floodlights burn around the clock, an electric campfire pushing back the darkness. They can't see it from inside—Beebe has no windows—but somehow they draw comfort from the knowledge of that unseen fire—
Thud!—Most of the time.
"Remember back in training?" Ballard says over the sound. "When they told us that the fish were usually so—small.…"
Her voice trails off. Beebe creaks slightly. They listen for a while. There's no other sound.
"It must've gotten tired," Ballard says. "You'd think they'd figure it out." She moves to the ladder and climbs downstairs.
Clarke follows her, a bit impatiently. There are sounds in Beebe that worry her far more than the futile attack of some misguided fish. Clarke can hear tired alloys negotiating surrender. She can feel the ocean looking for a way in. What if it finds one? The whole weight of the Pacific could drop down and turn her into jelly. Any time.
Better to face it outside, where she knows what's coming. All she can do in here is wait for it to happen.
* * *
Going outside is like drowning, once a day.
Clarke stands facing Ballard, diveskin sealed, in an airlock that barely holds both of them. She has learned to tolerate the forced proximity; the glassy armor on her eyes helps a bit. Fuse seals, check headlamp, test injector…The ritual takes her, step by reflexive step, to that horrible moment when she awakens the machines sleeping within her, and changes.
When she catches her breath, and loses it.
When a vacuum opens, somewhere in her chest, that swallows the air she holds. When her remaining lung shrivels in its cage, and her guts collapse; when myoelectric demons flood her sinuses and middle ears with isotonic saline. When every pocket of internal gas disappears in the time it takes to draw a breath.
It always feels the same. The sudden, overwhelming nausea; the narrow confines of the airlock holding her erect when she tries to fall; seawater churning on all sides. Her face goes under; vision blurs, then clears as her corneal caps adjust.
She collapses against the walls and wishes she could scream. The floor of the airlock drops away like a gallows. Lenie Clarke falls writhing into the abyss.
* * *
They come out of the freezing darkness, headlights blazing, into an oasis of sodium luminosity. Machines grow everywhere at the Throat, like metal weeds. Cables and conduits spiderweb across the seabed in a dozen directions. The main pumps stand over twenty meters high, a regiment of submarine monoliths fading from sight on either side. Overhead floodlights bathe the jumbled structures in perpetual twilight.
They stop for a moment, hands resting on the line that guided them here.
"I'll never get used to it," Ballard grates in a caricature of her usual voice.
Clarke glances at her wrist thermistor. "Thirty-four Centigrade." The words buzz, metallic, from her larynx. It feels so wrong to talk without breathing.
Ballard lets go of the rope and launches herself into the light. After a moment, breathless, Clarke follows.
There's so much power here, so much wasted strength. Here the continents themselves do ponderous battle. Magma freezes; sea-water boils; the very floor of the ocean is born by painful centimeters each year. Human machinery does not make energy, here at the Throat—it merely hangs on and steals some insignificant fraction of it back to the mainland.
Clarke flies through canyons of metal and rock, and knows what it is to be a parasite. She looks down. Shellfish the size of boulders, crimson worms three meters long crowd the seabed between the machines. Legions of bacteria, hungry for sulfur, lace the water with milky veils.
The water fills with a sudden terrible cry.
It doesn't sound like a scream. It sounds as though a great harpstring is vibrating in slow motion. But Ballard is screaming, through some reluctant interface of flesh and metal:
Clarke turns in time to see her own arm disappear into a mouth that seems impossibly huge.
Teeth like scimitars clamp down on her shoulder. Clarke stares into a scaly black face half a meter across. Some tiny, dispassionate part of her searches for eyes in that monstrous fusion of spines and teeth and gnarled flesh, and fails. How can it see me? she wonders.
Then the pain reaches her.
She feels her arm being wrenched from its socket. The creature thrashes, shaking its head back and forth, trying to tear her into chunks. Every tug sets her nerves screaming.
She goes limp. Please get it over with if you're going to kill me just please God make it quick—She feels the urge to vomit, but the 'skin over her mouth and her own collapsed insides won't let her.
She shuts out the pain. She's had plenty of practice. She pulls inside, abandoning her body to ravenous vivisection; and from far away she feels the twisting of her attacker grow suddenly erratic. There's another creature at her side, with arms and legs and a knife—you know, a knife, like the one you've got strapped to your leg and completely forgot about—and suddenly the monster is gone, its grip broken.
Clarke tells her neck muscles to work. It's like operating a marionette. Her head turns. She sees Ballard locked in combat with something as big as she is. Only—Ballard is tearing it to pieces, with her bare hands. Its icicle teeth splinter and snap. Dark icewater courses from its wounds, tracing mortal convulsions with smoketrails of suspended gore.
The creature spasms weakly. Ballard pushes it away. A dozen smaller fish dart into the light and begin tearing at the carcass. Photophores along their sides flash like frantic rainbows.
Clarke watches from the other side of the world. The pain in her side keeps its distance, a steady, pulsing ache. She looks; her arm is still there. She can even move her fingers without any trouble. I've had worse, she thinks.
Then: Why am I still alive?
Ballard appears at her side; her lens-covered eyes shine like photophores themselves.
"Jesus Christ," Ballard says in a distorted whisper. "Lenie? You okay?"
Clarke dwells on the inanity of the question for a moment. But surprisingly, she feels intact. "Yeah."
And if not, she knows, it's her own damn fault. She just lay there. She just waited to die. She was asking for it.
She's always asking for it.
* * *
Back in the airlock, the water recedes around them. And within them: Clarke's stolen breath, released at last, races back along visceral channels, reinflating lung and gut and spirit.
Ballard splits the face seal on her 'skin and her words tumble into the wetroom. "Jesus. Jesus! I don't believe it! My God, did you see that thing? They get so huge around here!" She passes her hands across her face; her corneal caps come off, milky hemispheres dropping from enormous hazel eyes. "And to think they're usually just a few centimeters long…"
She starts to strip down, splitting her 'skin along the forearms, talking the whole time. "And yet it was almost fragile, you know? Hit it hard enough, and it just came apart! Jesus!" Ballard always removes her uniform indoors. Clarke suspects she'd rip the recycler out of her own thorax if she could, throw it in a corner with the 'skin and the eyecaps until the next time it was needed.
Maybe she's got her other hung in her cabin, Clarke muses. Maybe she keeps it in a jar, and she stuffs it back into her chest at night…
She feels a bit dopey; probably just an aftereffect of the neuroinhibitors her implants put out whenever she's outside. Small price to pay to keep my brain from shorting out—I really shouldn't mind.…
Ballard peels her 'skin down to the waist. Just under her left breast, the electrolyzer intake pokes out through her rib cage.
Clarke stares vaguely at that perforated disk in Ballard's flesh. The ocean goes into us there, she thinks. The old knowledge seems newly significant, somehow. We suck it into us and steal its oxygen and spit it out again.
Prickly numbness is spreading, leaking through her shoulder into her chest and neck. Clarke shakes her head, once, to clear it.
She sags suddenly, against the hatchway.
Am I in shock? Am I fainting?
"I mean—" Ballard stops, looks at Clarke with an expression of sudden concern. "Jesus, Lenie. You look terrible. You shouldn't have told me you were okay if you weren't."
The tingling reaches the base of Clarke's skull. "I'm…fine," she says. "Nothing broke. I'm just bruised."
"Garbage. Take off your 'skin."
Clarke straightens, with effort. The numbness recedes a bit. "It's nothing I can't take care of myself."
Don't touch me. Please don't touch me.
Ballard steps forward without a word and unseals the 'skin around Clarke's forearm. She peels back the material and exposes an ugly purple bruise. She looks at Clarke with one raised eyebrow.
"Just a bruise," Clarke says. "I'll take care of it, really. Thanks anyway." She pulls her hand away from Ballard's ministrations.
Ballard looks at her for a moment. She smiles ever so slightly.
"Lenie," she says, "there's no need to feel embarrassed."
"You know. Me having to rescue you. You going to pieces when that thing attacked. It was perfectly understandable. Most people have a rough time adjusting. I'm just one of the lucky ones."
Right. You've always been one of the lucky ones, haven't you? I know your kind, Ballard, you've never failed at anything
"You don't have to feel ashamed about it," Ballard reassures her.
"I don't," Clarke says honestly. She doesn't feel much of anything anymore. Just the tingling. And the tension. And a vague sort of wonder that she's even alive.
* * *
The bulkhead is sweating.
The deep sea lays icy hands on the metal and, inside, Clarke watches the humid atmosphere bead and run down the wall. She sits rigid on her bunk under dim fluorescent light, every wall of the cubby within easy reach. The ceiling is too low. The room is too narrow. She feels the ocean compressing the station around her.
And all I can do is wait.…
The anabolic salve on her injuries is warm and soothing. Clarke probes the purple flesh of her arm with practiced fingers. The diagnostic tools in the Med cubby have vindicated her. She's lucky, this time: bones intact, epidermis unbroken. She seals up her 'skin, hiding the damage.
She shifts on the pallet, turns to face the inside wall. Her reflection stares back at her through eyes like frosted glass. She watches the image, admires its perfect mimicry of each movement. Flesh and phantom move together, bodies masked, faces neutral.
That's me, she thinks. That's what I look like now. She tries to read what lies behind that glacial facade. Am I bored, horny, upset? How to tell, with her eyes hidden behind those corneal opacities? She sees no trace of the tension she always feels. I could be terrified. I could be pissing in my 'skin, and no one would know.
She leans forward. The reflection comes to meet her. They stare at each other, white to white, ice to ice. For a moment, they almost forget Beebe's ongoing war against pressure. For a moment, they don't mind the claustrophobic solitude that grips them.
How many times, Clarke wonders, have I wanted eyes as dead as these?
* * *
Beebe's metal viscera crowd the corridor beyond Clarke's cubby. She can barely stand erect. A few steps bring her into the lounge.
Ballard, back in shirtsleeves, is at one of the library terminals. "Rickets," she says.
"Fish down here don't get enough trace elements. They're rotten with deficiency diseases. Doesn't matter how fierce they are. They bite too hard, they break their teeth on us."
Clarke stabs buttons on the food processor; the machine grumbles at her touch. "I thought there was all sorts of food at the rift. That's why things got so big."
"There's a lot of food. Just not very good quality."
A vaguely edible lozenge of sludge oozes from the processor onto Clarke's plate. She eyes it for a moment. I can relate.
"You're going to eat in your gear?" Ballard asks, as Clarke sits down at the lounge table.
Clarke blinks at her. "Yeah. Why?"
"Oh, nothing. It would just be nice to talk to someone with pupils in their eyes, you know?"
"Sorry. I can take them off if you—"
"No, it's no big thing. I can live with it." Ballard turns off the library and sits down across from Clarke. "So, how do you like the place so far?"
Clarke shrugs and keeps eating.
"I'm glad we're only down here for a year," Ballard says. "This place could get to you after a while."
"It could be worse."
"Oh, I'm not complaining. I was looking for a challenge, after all. What about you?"
"What brings you down here? What are you looking for?"
Clarke doesn't answer for a moment. "I don't know, really," she says at last. "Privacy, I guess."
Ballard looks up. Clarke stares back, her face neutral.
"Well, I'll leave you to it, then," Ballard says pleasantly.
Clarke watches her disappear down the corridor. She hears the sound of a cubby hatch hissing shut.
Give it up, Ballard, she thinks. I'm not the sort of person you really want to know.
* * *
Almost start of the morning shift. The food processor disgorges Clarke's breakfast with its usual reluctance. Ballard, in Communications, is just getting off the phone. A moment later she appears in the hatchway.
"Management says—" She stops. "You've got blue eyes."
Clarke smiles faintly. "You've seen them before."
"I know. It's just kind of surprising, it's been awhile since I've seen you without your caps in."
Clarke sits down with her breakfast. "So, what does Management say?"
"We're on schedule. Rest of the crew comes down in three weeks, we go online in four." Ballard sits down across from Clarke. "I wonder sometimes why we're not online right now."
"I guess they just want to be sure everything works."
"Still, it seems like a long time for a dry run. And you'd think that…well, that they'd want to get the geothermal program up and running as fast as possible, after all that's happened."
After Lepreau and Winshire melted down, you mean.
"And there's something else," Ballard says. "I can't get through to Piccard."
Clarke looks up. Piccard Station is anchored on the Galápagos Rift; it is not a particularly stable mooring.
"You ever meet the couple there?" Ballard asks. "Ken Lubin, Lana Cheung?"
Clarke shakes her head. "They went through before me. I never met any of the other rifters except you."
"Nice people. I thought I'd call them up, see how things were going at Piccard, but nobody can get through."
"They say it's probably something like that. Nothing serious. They're sending a 'scaphe down to check it out."
Maybe the seabed opened up and swallowed them whole, Clarke thinks. Maybe the hull had a weak plate; one's all it would take—
Something creaks, deep in Beebe's superstructure. Clarke looks around. The walls seem to have moved closer while she wasn't looking.
"Sometimes," she says, "I wish we didn't keep Beebe at surface pressure. Sometimes I wish we were pumped up to ambient. To take the strain off the hull." She knows it's an impossible dream; most gases kill outright when breathed at three hundred atmospheres. Even oxygen would do you in if it got above a fraction of a percent.
Ballard shivers dramatically. "If you want to risk breathing ninety-nine-percent hydrogen, you're welcome to it. I'm happy the way things are." She smiles. "Besides, you have any idea how long it would take to decompress afterward?"
In the Systems cubby, something bleats for attention.
"Seismic. Wonderful." Ballard disappears into Comm. Clarke follows.
An amber line is writhing across one of the displays. It looks like the EEG of someone caught in a nightmare.
"Get your eyes back in," Ballard says. "The Throat's acting up."
* * *
They can hear it all the way to Beebe; a malign, almost electrical hiss from the direction of the Throat. Clarke follows Ballard toward it, one hand running lightly along the guide rope. The distant smudge of light that marks their destination seems wrong somehow. The color is off. It ripples.
They swim into its glowing nimbus and see why. The Throat is on fire.
Sapphire auroras slide flickering across the generators. At the far end of the array, almost invisible with distance, a pillar of smoke swirls up into the darkness like a great tornado.
The sound it makes fills the abyss. Clarke closes her eyes for a moment, and hears rattlesnakes.
"Jesus!" Ballard shouts over the noise. "It's not supposed to do that!"
Clarke checks her thermistor. It won't settle; water temperature goes from four degrees to thirty-eight and back again, within seconds. Myriad ephemeral currents tug at them as they watch.
"Why the light show?" Clarke calls back.
"I don't know!" Ballard answers. "Bioluminescence, I guess! Heat-sensitive bacteria!"
Without warning, the tumult dies.
The ocean empties of sound. Phosphorescent spiderwebs wriggle dimly on the metal, and vanish. In the distance, the tornado sighs and fragments into a few transient dust devils.
A gentle rain of black soot begins to fall in the copper light.
"Smoker," Ballard says into the sudden stillness. "A big one."
They swim to the place where the geyser erupted. There's a fresh wound in the seabed, a gash several meters long, between two of the generators.
"This wasn't supposed to happen," Ballard says. "That's why they built here, for crying out loud! It was supposed to be stable!"
"The rift's never stable," Clarke replies. Not much point in being here if it was.
Ballard swims up through the fallout and pops an access plate on one of the generators. "Well, according to this, there's no damage," she calls down, after looking inside. "Hang on, let me switch channels here—"
Clarke touches one of the cylindrical sensors strapped to her waist, and stares into the fissure. I should be able to fit through there, she decides.
"We were lucky," Ballard is saying above her. "The other generators are okay, too. Oh, wait a second; number two has a clogged cooling duct, but it's not serious. Backups can handle it until—Get out of there!"
Clarke looks up, one hand on the sensor she's planting. Ballard stares down at her through a chimney of fresh rock.
"Are you crazy?" Ballard shouts. "That's an active smoker!"
Clarke looks down again, deeper into the shaft. It twists out of sight in the mineral haze. "We need temperature readings," she says, "from inside the mouth."
"Get out of there! It could go off again and fry you!"
I suppose it could, at that, Clarke thinks. "It already blew," she calls back. "It'll take awhile to build up a fresh head." She twists a knob on the sensor; tiny explosive bolts blast into the rock, anchoring the device.
"Get out of there, now!"
"Just a second." Clarke turns the sensor on and kicks up out of the seabed. Ballard grabs Clarke's arm as she emerges, starts to drag her away from the smoker.
Clarke stiffens and pulls free. "Don't—" touch me! She catches herself. "I'm, out, okay? You don't have to—"
"Farther." Ballard keeps swimming. "Over here."
They're near the edge of the light now, the floodlit Throat on one side, blackness on the other. Ballard faces Clarke. "Are you out of your mind? We could have gone back to Beebe for a drone! We could have planted it on remote!"
Clarke doesn't answer. She sees something moving in the distance behind Ballard. "Watch your back," she says.
Ballard turns. The gulper undulates through the water like brown smoke, silent and endless; Clarke can't see the creature's tail, although several meters of serpentine flesh have come out of the darkness.
Ballard goes for her knife. After a moment, Clarke does too.
The gulper's jaw drops open like a great jagged scoop.
Ballard begins to launch herself at the thing, knife upraised.
Clarke puts her hand out. "Wait a minute. It's not coming at us."
The front end of the gulper is about ten meters distant now. Its tail pulls free of the murk.
"Are you crazy?" Ballard moves clear of Clarke's hand, still watching the monster.
"Maybe it isn't hungry," Clarke says. She can see its eyes, two tiny unwinking spots glaring at them from the tip of the snout.
"They're always hungry. Did you sleep through the briefings?"
The gulper closes its mouth and passes. It extends around them now, in a wide meandering arc. The head turns back to look at them. It opens its mouth.
"Fuck this," Ballard says, and charges.
Her first stroke opens a meter-long gash in the creature's side. The gulper stares at Ballard for a moment, as if astonished. Then, ponderously, it thrashes.
Clarke watches without moving. Why can't she just let it go? Why does she always have to prove she's better than everything?
Ballard strikes again; this time she slashes into a big tumorous swelling that has to be the stomach.
She frees the things inside.
They spill out through the wound: two giganturids and some misshapen creature Clarke doesn't recognize. One of the giganturids is still alive, and in a foul mood. It locks its teeth around the first thing it encounters.
Ballard. From behind.
"Lenie!" Ballard's knife hand is swinging in staccato arcs. The giganturid begins to come apart. Its jaws remain locked. The convulsing gulper crashes into Ballard and sends her spinning to the bottom.
Finally, Clarke begins to move.
The gulper collides with Ballard again. Clarke moves in low, hugging the bottom, and pulls the other woman clear.
Ballard's knife continues to dip and twist. The giganturid is a mutilated wreck behind the gills, but its grip remains unbroken. Ballard can't twist around far enough to reach the skull. Clarke comes in from behind and takes the creature's head in her hands.
It stares at her, malevolent and unthinking.
"Kill it!" Ballard shouts. "Jesus, what are you waiting for?"
Clarke closes her eyes, and clenches. The skull in her hand splinters like cheap plastic.
There is a silence.
After a while, she opens her eyes. The gulper is gone, fled back into darkness to heal or die. But Ballard's still there, and Ballard is angry.
"What's wrong with you?" she says.
Clarke unclenches her fists. Bits of bone and jellied flesh float about her fingers.
"You're supposed to back me up! Why are you so damned—passive all the time?"
"Sorry." Sometimes it works.
Ballard reaches behind her back. "I'm cold. I think it punctured my diveskin—"
Clarke swims behind her and looks. "A couple of holes. How are you otherwise? Anything feel broken?"
"It broke through the diveskin," Ballard says, as if to herself. "And when that gulper hit me, it could have—" She turns to Clarke and her voice, even distorted, carries a shocked uncertainty. "I could have been killed. I could have been killed!"
For an instant, it's as though Ballard's 'skin and eyes and selfassurance have all been stripped away. For the first time Clarke can see through to the weakness beneath, growing like a delicate tracery of hairline cracks.
You can screw up, too, Ballard. It isn't all fun and games. You know that now.
It hurts, doesn't it?
Somewhere inside, the slightest touch of sympathy. "It's okay," Clarke says. "Jeanette, it's—"
"You idiot!" Ballard hisses. She stares at Clarke like some malign and sightless old woman. "You just floated there! You just let it happen to me!"
Clarke feels her guard snap up again, just in time. This isn't just anger, she realizes. This isn't just the heat of the moment. She doesn't like me. She doesn't like me at all.
And then, dully surprised that she hasn't seen it before:
She never did.
Beebe Station floats tethered above the seabed, a gunmetal-gray planet ringed by a belt of equatorial floodlights. There's an airlock for divers at the south pole and a docking hatch for 'scaphes at the north. In between there are girders and anchor lines, conduits and cables, metal armor and Lenie Clarke.
She's doing a routine visual check on the hull: standard procedure, once a week. Ballard is inside, testing some equipment in the Communications cubby. This is not entirely within the spirit of the buddy system. Clarke prefers it this way. Relations have been civil over the past couple of days—Ballard even resurrects her patented chumminess on occasion—but the more time they spend together, the more forced things get. Eventually, Clarke knows, something is going to break.
Besides, out here it seems only natural to be alone.
She's examining a cable clamp when a razormouth charges into the light. It's about two meters long, and hungry. It rams directly into the nearest of Beebe's floodlamps, mouth agape. Several teeth shatter against the crystal lens. The razormouth twists to one side, knocking the hull with its tail, and swims off until barely visible against the dark.
Clarke watches, fascinated. The razormouth swims back and forth, back and forth, then charges again.
The flood weathers the impact easily, doing more damage to its attacker. Over and over again the fish batters itself against the light. Finally, exhausted, it sinks twitching down to the muddy bottom.
"Lenie? Are you okay?"
Clarke feels the words buzzing in her lower jaw. She trips the sender in her diveskin: "I'm okay."
"I heard something out there," Ballard says. "I just wanted to make sure you were—"
"I'm fine," Clarke says. "Just a fish."
"They never learn, do they?"
"No. I guess not. See you later."
Clarke switches off her receiver.
Poor stupid fish. How many millennia did it take for them to learn that bioluminescence equals food? How long will Beebe have to sit here before they learn that electric light doesn't?
We could keep our headlights off. Maybe they'd leave us alone—
She stares out past Beebe's electric halo. There is so much blackness there. It almost hurts to look at it. Without lights, without sonar, how far could she go into that viscous shroud and still return?
Clarke kills her headlight. Night edges a bit closer, but Beebe's lights keep it at bay. Clarke turns until she's face-to-face with the darkness. She crouches like a spider against Beebe's hull.
She pushes off.
The darkness embraces her. She swims, not looking back, until her legs grow tired. She doesn't know how far she's come.
But it must be light-years. The ocean is full of stars.
Behind her, the station shines brightest, with coarse yellow rays. In the opposite direction, she can barely make out the Throat, an insignificant sunrise on the horizon.
Everywhere else, living constellations punctuate the dark. Here, a string of pearls blink sexual advertisements at two-second intervals. Here, a sudden flash leaves diversionary afterimages swarming across Clarke's field of view; something flees under cover of her momentary blindness. There, a counterfeit worm twists lazily in the current, invisibly tied to the roof of some predatory mouth.
There are so many of them.
She feels a sudden surge in the water, as if something big has just passed very close. A delicious thrill dances through her body.
It nearly touched me, she thinks. I wonder what it was. The rift is full of monsters who don't know when to quit. It doesn't matter how much they eat. Their voracity is as much a part of them as their elastic bellies, their unhingeable jaws. Ravenous dwarves attack giants twice their own size, and sometimes win. The abyss is a desert; no one can afford the luxury of waiting for better odds.
But even a desert has oases, and sometimes the deep hunters find them. They come upon the malnourishing abundance of the rift and gorge themselves; their descendants grow huge and bloated over such delicate bones—
My light was off, and it left me alone. I wonder—
She turns it back on. Her vision clouds in the sudden glare, then clears. The ocean reverts to unrelieved black. No nightmares accost her. The beam lights empty water wherever she points it.
She switches it off. There's a moment of absolute darkness while her eyecaps adjust to the reduced light. Then the stars come out again.
They are so beautiful. Lenie Clarke rests on the bottom of the ocean and watches the abyss sparkle around her. And she almost laughs as she realizes, three thousand meters from the nearest sunlight, that it's only dark when the lights are on.
* * *
"What the hell is wrong with you? You've been gone for over three hours, did you know that? Why didn't you answer me?"
Clarke bends over and removes her fins. "I guess I turned my receiver off," she says. "I was—Wait a second, did you say—"
"You ‘guess'? Have you forgotten every safety reg they drilled into us? You're supposed to have your receiver on from the moment you leave Beebe until you get back!"
"Did you say three hours?"
"I couldn't even come out after you, I couldn't find you on sonar! I just had to sit here and hope you'd show up!"
It only seems a few minutes since she pushed off into the darkness. Clarke climbs up into the lounge, suddenly chilled.
"Where were you, Lenie?" Ballard demands, coming up behind her. Clarke hears the slightest plaintive tone in her voice.
"I—I must've been on the bottom," Clarke says. "That's why sonar didn't get me. I didn't go far."
Was I asleep? What was I doing for three hours?
"I was just—wandering around. I lost track of the time. I'm sorry."
"Not good enough. Don't do it again."
There's a brief silence. It's ended by the sudden, familiar impact of flesh on metal.
"Christ!" Ballard snaps. "I'm turning the externals off right now!"
Whatever it is gets in two more hits by the time Ballard reaches Comm. Clarke hears her punch a couple of buttons.
Ballard comes back into the lounge. "There. Now we're invisible."
Something hits them again. And again.
"Or maybe not," Clarke says.
Ballard stands in the lounge, listening to the rhythm of the assault. "They don't show up on sonar," she says, almost whispering. "Sometimes, when I hear them coming at us, I tune it down to extreme close range. But it looks right through them."
"No gas bladders. Nothing to bounce an echo off of."
"We show up just fine out there, most of the time. But not those things. You can't find them, no matter how high you turn the gain. They're like ghosts."
"They're not ghosts." Almost unconsciously, Clarke has been counting the beats: eight—nine—
Ballard turns to face her. "They've shut down Piccard," she says, and her voice is small and tight.
"The Grid Authority says it's just some technical problem. But I've got a friend in Personnel. I phoned him when you were outside. He says Lana's in the hospital. And I get the feeling…" Ballard shakes her head. "It sounded like Ken Lubin did something down there. I think maybe he attacked her."
Three thumps from outside, in rapid succession. Clarke can feel Ballard's eyes on her. The silence stretches.
"Or maybe not," Ballard says. "We got all those personality tests. If he was violent, they would've picked it up before they sent him down."
Clarke watches her, listens to the pounding of an intermittent fist.
"Or maybe—maybe the rift changed him somehow. Maybe they misjudged the pressure we'd all be under. So to speak." Ballard musters a feeble smile. "Not the physical danger so much as the emotional stress, you know? Everyday things. Just being outside could get to you after a while. Seawater sluicing through your chest. Not breathing for hours at a time. It's like—living without a heartbeat."
She looks up at the ceiling; the sounds from outside are a bit more erratic now.
"Outside's not so bad," Clarke says. At least you're incompressible. At least you don't have to worry about the plates giving in.
"I don't think you'd change suddenly. It would just sort of sneak up on you, little by little. And then one day you'd just wake up changed, you'd be different somehow, only you'd never have noticed the transition. Like Ken Lubin."
She looks at Clarke, and her voice drops a bit.
"Me." Clarke turns Ballard's words over in her mind, waits for the onset of some reaction. She feels nothing but her own indifference. "I don't think you have much to worry about. I'm not the violent type."
"I know. I'm not worried about my own safety, Lenie. I'm worried about yours."
Clarke looks at her from behind the impervious safety of her lenses, and doesn't answer.
"You've changed since you came down here," Ballard says. "You're withdrawing from me, you're exposing yourself to unnecessary risks. I don't know exactly what's happening to you. It's almost like you're trying to kill yourself."
"I'm not," Clarke says. She tries to change the subject. "Is Lana Cheung all right?"
Ballard studies her for a moment. She takes the hint. "I don't know. I couldn't get any details."
Clarke feels something knotting up inside her. "I wonder what she did to set him off?" she murmurs.
Ballard stares at her, openmouthed. "What she did? I can't believe you said that!"
"I only meant—"
"I know what you meant."
The outside pounding has stopped. Ballard does not relax. She stands hunched over in those strange, loose-fitting clothes that drybacks wear, and stares at the ceiling as though she doesn't believe in the silence. She looks back at Clarke.
"Lenie, you know I don't like to pull rank, but your attitude is putting both of us at risk. I think this place is really getting to you. I hope you can get back online here, I really do. Otherwise I may have to recommend you for a transfer."
Clarke watches Ballard leave the lounge. You're lying, she realizes. You're scared to death, and it's not just because I'm changing.
It's because you are.
* * *
Clarke finds out five hours after the fact: Something has changed on the ocean floor.
We sleep and the earth moves, she thinks, studying the topographic display. And next time, or the time after, maybe it'll move right out from under us.
I wonder if I'll have time to feel anything.
She turns at a sound behind her. Ballard is standing in the lounge, swaying slightly. Her face seems somehow disfigured by the concentric rings in her eyes, by the dark hollows around them. Naked eyes are beginning to look alien to Clarke.
"The seabed shifted," Clarke says. "There's a new outcropping about two hundred meters west of us."
"That's odd. I didn't feel anything."
"It happened about five hours ago. You were asleep."
Ballard glances up sharply. Clarke studies the haggard lines of her face. On second thought…
"I would've woken up," Ballard says. She squeezes past Clarke into the cubby and checks the topographic display.
"Two meters high, twelve long," Clarke recites.
Ballard doesn't answer. She punches commands into a keyboard; the topographic image dissolves, reforms into a column of numbers.
"Just as I thought," she says. "No heavy seismic activity for over forty-two hours."
"Sonar doesn't lie," Clarke says calmly.
"Neither does seismo," Ballard answers.
There's a brief silence. There's a standard procedure for such things, and they both know what it is.
"We have to check it out," Clarke says.
But Ballard only nods. "Give me a moment to change."
* * *
They call it a squid: a jet-propelled cylinder about a meter long, with a headlight at the front end and a towbar at the back. Clarke, floating between Beebe and the seabed, checks it over with one hand. Her other hand grips a sonar pistol. She points the pistol into blackness; ultrasonic clicks sweep the night, give her a bearing.
"That way," she says, pointing.
Ballard squeezes down on her own squid's towbar. The machine pulls her away. After a moment Clarke follows. Bringing up the rear, a third squid carries an assortment of sensors in a nylon bag.
Ballard's traveling at nearly full throttle. The lamps on her helmet and squid stab the water like twin lighthouse beacons. Clarke, her own lights doused, catches up about halfway to their destination. They cruise along a couple of meters over the muddy substrate.
"Your lights," Ballard says.
"We don't need them. Sonar works in the dark."
"Are you breaking regs for the sheer thrill of it now?"
"The fish down here, they key on things that glow—"
"Turn your lights on. That's an order."
Clarke doesn't answer. She watches the beams beside her, Ballard's squid shining steady and unwavering, Ballard's headlamp slicing the water in erratic arcs as she moves her head—
"I told you," Ballard says, "turn your—Christ!"
It was just a glimpse, caught for a moment in the sweep of Ballard's headlight. She jerks her head around and it slides back out of sight. Then it looms up in the squid's beam, huge and terrible.
The abyss is grinning at them, teeth bared.
A mouth stretches across the width of the beam, extends into darkness on either side. It is crammed with conical teeth the size of human hands, and they do not look the least bit fragile.
Ballard makes a strangled sound and dives into the mud. The benthic ooze boils up around her in a seething cloud; she disappears in a torrent of planktonic corpses.
Lenie Clarke stops and waits, unmoving. She stares transfixed at that threatening smile. Her whole body feels electrified, she's never been so explicitly aware of herself. Every nerve fires and freezes at the same time. She is terrified.
But she's also, somehow, completely in control of herself. She reflects on this paradox as Ballard's abandoned squid slows and stops itself, scant meters from that endless row of teeth. She wonders at her own analytical clarity as the third squid, with its burden of sensors, decelerates past and takes up position beside Ballard's.
There in the light, the grin does not change.
Clarke raises her sonar pistol and fires. We're here, she realizes, checking the readout. That's the outcropping.
She swims closer. The smile hangs there, enigmatic and enticing. Now she can see bits of bone at the roots of the teeth, and tatters of decomposed flesh trailing from the gums.
She turns and backtracks. The cloud on the seabed is starting to settle.
"Ballard," she says in her synthetic voice.
Clarke reaches down through the mud, feeling blind, until she touches something warm and trembling.
The seabed explodes in her face.
Ballard erupts from the substrate, trailing a muddy comet's tail. Her hand rises from that sudden cloud, clasped around something glinting in the transient light. Clarke sees the knife, twists almost too late; the blade glances off her 'skin, igniting nerves along her rib cage. Ballard lashes out again. This time Clarke catches the knifehand as it shoots past, twists it, pushes. Ballard tumbles away.
"It's me!" Clarke shouts; the vocoder turns her voice into a tinny vibrato.
Ballard rises up again, white eyes unseeing, knife still in hand.
Clarke holds up her hands. "It's okay! There's nothing here! It's dead!"
Ballard stops. She stares at Clarke. She looks over to the squids, to the smile they illuminate. She stiffens.
"It's some kind of whale," Clarke says. "It's been dead a long time."
"A—a whale?" Ballard rasps. She begins to shake.
There's no need to feel embarrassed, Clarke almost says, but doesn't. Instead, she reaches out and touches Ballard lightly on the arm. Is this how you do it? she wonders.
Ballard jerks back as if scalded.
I guess not—
"Um, Jeanette—" Clarke begins.
Ballard raises a trembling hand, cutting Clarke off. "I'm okay. I want to g—I think we should get back now, don't you?"
"Okay," Clarke says. But she doesn't really mean it.
She could stay out here all day.
* * *
Ballard is at the library again. She turns, passing a casual hand over the brightness control as Clarke comes up behind her; the display darkens before Clarke can see what it is. Clarke glances at the eye-phones hanging from the terminal, puzzled. If Ballard doesn't want her to see what she's reading, she could just use those.
But then she wouldn't see me coming…
"I think maybe it was a Ziphiid," Ballard's saying. "A beaked whale. Except it had too many teeth. Very rare. They don't dive this deep."
Clarke listens, not really interested.
"It must have died and rotted farther up, and then sank." Ballard's voice is slightly raised. She looks almost furtively at something on the other side of the lounge. "I wonder what the chances are of that happening."
"I mean, in all the ocean, something that big just happening to drop out of the sky a few hundred meters away. The odds of that must be pretty low."
"Yeah. I guess so." Clarke reaches over and brightens the display. One half of the screen glows softly with luminous text. The other holds the rotating image of a complex molecule.
"What's this?" Clarke asks.
Ballard steals another glance across the lounge. "Just an old biopsych text the library had on file. I was browsing through it. Used to be an interest of mine."
Clarke looks at her. "Uh-huh." She bends over and studies the display. Some sort of technical chemistry. The only thing she really understands is the caption beneath the graphic.
She reads it aloud: "True Happiness."
"Yeah. A tricyclic with four side chains." Ballard points at the screen. "Whenever you're happy, really happy, that's what does it to you."
"When did they find that out?"
"I don't know. It's an old book."
Clarke stares at the revolving simulacrum. It disturbs her somehow. It floats there over that smug stupid caption, and it says something she doesn't want to hear.
You've been solved, it says. You're mechanical. Chemicals and electricity. Everything you are, every dream, every action, it all comes down to a change of voltage somewhere, or a—what did she say?—a tricyclic with four side chains—
"It's wrong," Clarke murmurs. Or they'd be able to fix us, when we broke down—
"Sorry?" Ballard says.
"It's saying we're just these—soft computers. With faces."
Ballard shuts off the terminal.
"That's right," she says. "And some of us may even be losing those."
The gibe registers, but it doesn't hurt. Clarke straightens and moves toward the ladder.
"Where you going? You going outside again?" Ballard asks.
"The shift isn't over. I thought I'd clean out the duct on number two."
"It's a bit late to start on that, Lenie. The shift will be over before we're even half done." Ballard's eyes dart away again. This time Clarke follows the glance to the full-length mirror on the far wall.
She sees nothing of particular interest there.
"I'll work late." Clarke grabs the railing, swings her foot onto the top rung.
"Lenie," Ballard says, and Clarke swears she hears a tremor in that voice. She looks back, but the other woman is moving to Comm. "Well, I'm afraid I can't go with you," she's saying. "I'm in the middle of debugging one of the telemetry routines."
"Fine," Clarke says. She feels the tension starting to rise. Beebe's shrinking again. She starts down the ladder.
"Are you sure you're okay going out alone? Maybe you should wait until tomorrow."
"No. I'm okay."
"Well, remember to keep your receiver open. I don't want you getting lost on me again—"
Clarke is in the wetroom. She climbs into the airlock and runs through the ritual. It no longer feels like drowning. It feels like being born again.
* * *
She awakens into darkness, and the sound of weeping.
She lies there for a few minutes, confused and uncertain. The sobs come from all sides, soft but omnipresent in Beebe's resonant shell. She hears nothing else except her own heartbeat.
She's afraid. She's not sure why. She wishes the sounds would go away.
Clarke rolls off her bunk and fumbles at the hatch. It opens into a semi-darkened corridor; meager light escapes from the lounge at one end. The sounds come from the other direction, from deepening darkness. She follows them through an infestation of pipes and conduits.
Ballard's quarters. The hatch is open. An emerald readout sparkles in the darkness, bestowing no detail upon the hunched figure on the pallet.
"Ballard," Clarke says softly. She doesn't want to go in.
The shadow moves, seems to look up at her. "Why won't you show it?" it says, its voice pleading.
Clarke frowns in the darkness. "Show what?"
"You know what! How—afraid you are!"
"Of being here, of being stuck at the bottom of this horrible dark ocean—"
"I don't understand," Clarke whispers. Claustrophobia begins to stir in her, restless again.
Ballard snorts, but the derision seems forced. "Oh, you understand all right. You think this is some sort of competition, you think if you can just keep it all inside you'll win somehow—but it isn't like that at all, Lenie, it isn't helping to keep it hidden like this, we've got to be able to trust each other down here or we're lost—"
She shifts slightly on the bunk. Clarke's eyes, enhanced by the caps, can pick out some details now; rough edges embroider Ballard's silhouette, the folds and creases of normal clothing, unbuttoned to the waist. She thinks of a cadaver, half-dissected, rising on the table to mourn its own mutilation.
"I don't know what you mean," Clarke says.
"I've tried to be friendly," Ballard says. "I've tried to get along with you, but you're so cold, you won't even admit—I mean, you couldn't like it down here, nobody could, why can't you just admit—"
"But I don't. I—I hate it in here. It's like Beebe's going to—to clench around me. And all I can do is wait for it to happen."
Ballard nods in the darkness. "Yes, yes, I know what you mean." She seems somehow encouraged by Clarke's admission. "And no matter how much you tell yourself—" She stops. "You hate it in here?"
Did I say something wrong? Clarke wonders.
"Outside is hardly any better, you know," Ballard says. "Outside is even worse! There's mudslides and smokers and giant fish trying to eat you all the time, you can't possibly—But—you don't mind all that, do you?"
Somehow, her tone has turned accusing. Clarke shrugs.
"No, you don't." Ballard is speaking slowly now. Her voice drops to a whisper: "You actually like it out there. Don't you?"
Reluctantly Clarke nods. "Yeah. I guess so."
"But it's so—The rift can kill you, Lenie. It can kill us. A hundred different ways. Doesn't that scare you?"
"I don't know. I don't think about it much. I guess it does, sort of."
"Then why are you so happy out there?" Ballard cries. "It doesn't make any sense.…"
I'm not exactly "happy," Clarke thinks. "I don't know. It's not that weird, lots of people do dangerous things. What about free-fallers? What about mountain-climbers?"
But Ballard doesn't answer. Her silhouette has grown rigid on the bed. Suddenly she reaches over and turns on the cubby light.
Lenie Clarke blinks against the sudden brightness. Then the room dims as her eyecaps darken.
"Jesus Christ!" Ballard shouts at her. "You sleep in that fucking costume now?"
It's something else Clarke hasn't thought about. It just seems easier.
"All this time I've been pouring my heart out to you and you've been wearing that machine's face! You don't even have the decency to show me your goddamned eyes!"
Clarke steps back, startled. Ballard rises from the bed and takes a single step forward. "To think you could actually pass for human before they gave you that suit! Why don't you go find something to play with out in your fucking ocean!"
And slams the hatch in Clarke's face.
Lenie Clarke stares at the sealed bulkhead for a few moments. Her face, she knows, is calm. Her face is usually calm. But she stands there, unmoving, until the cringing thing inside of her unfolds a little.
"Okay," she says at last, very softly. "I guess I will."
* * *
Ballard is waiting for her as she emerges from the airlock. "Lenie," she says quietly, "we have to talk. It's important."
Clarke bends over and removes her fins. "Go ahead."
"Not here. In my cubby."
Clarke looks at her.
Clarke starts up the ladder.
"Aren't you going to take—" Ballard stops as Clarke looks down. "Never mind. It's okay."
They ascend into the lounge. Ballard takes the lead. Clarke follows her down the corridor and into her cabin. Ballard dogs the hatch and sits on her bunk, leaving room for Clarke.
Clarke looks around the cramped space. Ballard has curtained over the mirrored bulkhead with a spare sheet.
Ballard pats the bed beside her. "Come on, Lenie. Sit down."
Reluctantly, Clarke sits. Ballard's sudden kindness confuses her. Ballard hasn't acted this way since…
Since she had the upper hand.
"—might not be easy for you to hear," Ballard is saying, "but we have to get you off the rift. They shouldn't have put you down here in the first place."
Clarke doesn't reply.
"Remember the tests they gave us?" Ballard continues. "They measured our tolerance to stress: confinement, prolonged isolation, chronic physical danger, that sort of thing."
Clarke nods slightly. "So?"
"So," says Ballard, "did you think for a moment they'd test for those qualities without knowing what sort of person would have them? Or how they got to be that way?"
Inside, Clarke goes very still. Outside, nothing changes.
Ballard leans forward a bit. "Remember what you said? About mountain-climbers, and free-fallers, and why people deliberately do dangerous things? I've been reading up, Lenie. Ever since I got to know you I've been reading up—"
Got to know me?
"—and do you know what thrill-seekers have in common? They all say that you haven't lived until you've nearly died. They need the danger. It gives them a rush."
You don't know me at all—
"Some of them are combat veterans, some were hostages for long periods, some just spent a lot of time in dead zones for one reason or another. And a lot of the really compulsive ones—"
Nobody knows me.
"—the ones who can't be happy unless they're on the edge, all the time—a lot of them got started early, Lenie. When they were just children. And you, I bet…you don't even like being touched—"
Go away. Go away.
Ballard puts her hand on Clarke's shoulder. "How long were you abused, Lenie?" she asks gently. "How many years?"
Clarke shrugs off the hand and does not answer. He didn't mean any harm. She shifts on the bunk, turning away slightly.
"That's it, isn't it? You don't just have a tolerance to trauma, Lenie. You've got an addiction to it. Don't you?"
It only takes Clarke a moment to recover. The 'skin, the eyecaps make it easier. She turns calmly back to Ballard. She even smiles a little.
"‘Abused,'" she says. "Now there's a quaint term. Thought it died out after the Florida witch-hunts. You some sort of history buff, Jeanette?"
"There's a mechanism," Ballard tells her. "I've been reading about it. Do you know how the brain handles stress, Lenie? It dumps all sorts of addictive stimulants into the bloodstream. Beta-endorphins, opioids. If it happens often enough, for long enough, you get hooked. You can't help it."
Clarke feels a sound in her throat, a jagged coughing noise a bit like tearing metal. After a moment, she recognizes it as laughter.
"I'm not making it up!" Ballard insists. "You can look it up yourself if you don't believe me! Don't you know how many abused children spend their whole lives hooked on wife-beaters or self-mutilation or free-fall—"
"And it makes them happy, is that it?" Clarke says, still smiling. "They enjoy getting raped, or punched out, or—"
"No, of course you're not happy! But what you feel, that's probably the closest you've ever come. So you confuse the two, you look for stress anywhere you can find it. It's physiological addiction, Lenie. You ask for it. You always asked for it."
I ask for it. Ballard's been reading, and Ballard knows: Life is pure electrochemistry. No use explaining how it feels. No use explaining that there are far worse things than being beaten up. There are even worse things than being held down and raped by your own father. There are the times between, when nothing happens at all. When he leaves you alone, and you don't know for how long. You sit across the table from him, forcing yourself to eat while your bruised insides try to knit themselves back together; and he pats you on the head and smiles at you, and you know the reprieve's already lasted too long, he's going to come for you tonight, or tomorrow, or maybe the next day.
Of course I asked for it. How else could I get it over with?
"Listen." Clarke shakes her head. "I—" But it's hard to talk, suddenly. She knows what she wants to say; Ballard's not the only one who reads. Ballard can't see it through a lifetime of fulfilled expectations, but there's nothing special about what happened to Lenie Clarke. Baboons and lions kill their own young. Male sticklebacks beat up their mates. Even insects rape. It's not abuse, really, it's just—biology.
But she can't say it aloud, for some reason. She tries, and she tries, but in the end all that comes out is a challenge that sounds almost childish:
"Don't you know anything?"
"Sure I do, Lenie. I know you're hooked on your own pain, and so you go out there and keep daring the rift to kill you, and eventually it will, don't you see? That's why you shouldn't be here. That's why we have to get you back."
Clarke stands up. "I'm not going back." She turns to the hatch.
Ballard reaches out toward her. "Listen, you've got to stay and hear me out. There's more."
Clarke looks down at her with complete indifference. "Thanks for your concern. But I don't have to stay. I can leave anytime I want to."
"You go out there now and you'll give everything away—they"re watching us! Haven't you figured it out yet?" Ballard's voice is rising. "Listen, they knew about you! They were looking for someone like you! They've been testing us, they don't know yet what kind of person works out better down here, so they're watching and waiting to see who cracks first! This whole program is still experimental, can't you see that? Everyone they've sent down—you, me, Ken Lubin, and Lana Cheung, it's all part of some cold-blooded test—"
"And you're failing it," Clarke says softly. "I see."
"They're using us, Lenie—don't go out there!"
Ballard's fingers grasp at Clarke like the suckers of an octopus. Clarke pushes them away. She undogs the hatch and pushes it open. She hears Ballard rising behind her.
"You're sick!" Ballard screams. Something smashes into the back of Clarke's head. She goes sprawling out into the corridor. One arm smacks painfully against a cluster of pipes as she falls.
She rolls to one side and raises her arms to protect herself. But Ballard just steps over her and stalks into the lounge.
I'm not afraid, Clarke notes, getting to her feet. She hit me, and I'm not afraid. Isn't that odd—
From somewhere nearby, the sound of shattering glass.
Ballard's shouting in the lounge. "The experiment's over! Come on out, you fucking ghouls!"
Clarke follows the corridor, steps out of it. Pieces of the lounge mirror hang like great jagged stalactites in their frame. Splashes of glass litter the floor.
On the wall, behind the broken mirror, a fisheye lens takes in every corner of the room.
Ballard is staring into it. "Did you hear me? I'm not playing your stupid games anymore! I'm through performing!"
The quartzite lens stares back impassively.
So you were right, Clarke muses. She remembers the sheet in Ballard's cubby. You figured it out, you found the pickups in your own cubby, and Ballard, my dear friend, you didn't tell me.
How long have you known?
Ballard looks around, sees Clarke. "You've got her fooled, all right," she snarls at the fisheye, "but she's a goddamned basket case! She's not even sane! Your little tests don't impress me one fucking bit!"
Clarke steps toward her.
"Don't call me a basket case," she says, her voice absolutely level.
"That's what you are!" Ballard shouts. "You're sick! That's why you're down here! They need you sick, they depend on it, and you're so far gone you can't see it! You hide everything behind that—that mask of yours, and you sit there like some masochistic jellyfish and just take anything anyone dishes out—you ask for it—"
That used to be true, Clarke realizes as her hands ball into fists. That's the strange thing. Ballard begins to back away; Clarke advances, step by step. It wasn't until I came down here that I learned that I could fight back. That I could win. The rift taught me that, and now Ballard has, too—
"Thank you," Clarke whispers, and hits Ballard hard in the face.
Ballard goes over backward, collides with a table. Clarke calmly steps forward. She catches a glimpse of herself in a glass icicle; her capped eyes seem almost luminous.
"Oh Jesus," Ballard whimpers. "Lenie, I'm sorry."
Clarke stands over her. "Don't be," she says. She sees herself as some sort of exploding schematic, each piece neatly labeled. So much anger in here, she thinks. So much hate. So much to take out on someone.
She looks at Ballard, cowering on the floor.
"I think," Clarke says, "I'll start with you."
But her therapy ends before she can even get properly warmed up. A sudden noise fills the lounge—shrill, periodic, vaguely familiar. It takes a moment for Clarke to remember what it is. She lowers her foot.
Over in the Communications cubby, the telephone is ringing.
* * *
Jeanette Ballard is going home today.
For half an hour the 'scaphe has been dropping deeper into midnight. Now the Comm monitor shows it settling like a great bloated tadpole onto Beebe's docking assembly. Sounds of mechanical copulation reverberate and die. The overhead hatch drops open.
Ballard's replacement climbs down, already mostly 'skinned, staring impenetrably from eyes without pupils. His gloves are off; his 'skin is open up to the forearms. Clarke sees the faint scars running along his wrists, and smiles a bit inside.
Was there another Ballard up there, waiting, she wonders, in case I had been the one who didn't work out?
Out of sight down the corridor, a hatch hisses open. Ballard appears in shirtsleeves, one eye swollen shut, carrying a single suitcase. She seems about to say something, but stops when she sees the newcomer. She looks at him for a moment. She nods briefly. She climbs into the belly of the 'scaphe without a word.
Nobody calls down to them. There are no salutations, no morale-boosting small talk. Perhaps the crew has been briefed. Perhaps they've figured it out on their own. The docking hatch swings shut. With a final clank, the 'scaphe disengages.
Clarke walks across the lounge and looks into the camera. She reaches between mirror fragments and rips its power line from the wall.
We don't need this anymore, she thinks, and she knows that somewhere far away, someone agrees.
She and the newcomer appraise each other with dead white eyes.
"I'm Lubin," he says at last.
So. They say you're a beater.
Lubin stands in front of her, his duffel bag at his feet. Slavic; dark hair, pale skin, a face planed out by an underskilled woodworker. One thick eyebrow shading both eyes. Not tall—a hundred and eighty centimeters, maybe—but solid.
You look like a beater.
Scars. Not just on the wrists, on the face, too. Very faint, a webwork echo of old injuries. Too subtle for deliberate decoration, even if Lubin's tastes run to that, but too obvious for reconstructive work; medical technology learned how to erase such telltales decades ago. Unless—Unless the injuries were really bad.
Is that it? Did something chew your face down to the bone, a long time ago?
Lubin reaches down, picks up his bag. His covered eyes betray nothing.
I've known beaters in my day. You fit. Sort of.
"Any preference which cubby I take?" he asks. It's strange, hearing that voice coming out of a face like his. It sounds almost pleasant.
Clarke shakes her head. "I'm second on the right. Take any of the others."
He steps past her. Daggers of reflective glass protrude from the edges of the far wall; within them, Lubin's fractured image disappears into the corridor at Clarke's back. She moves across the lounge to that jagged wall. I should really clean this up one of these days.…
She used to like the way the mirrors worked since Ballard's adjustments. The jigsaw reflections seem more creative, somehow. More impressionistic. Now, though, they're beginning to wear on her. Maybe it's time for another change.
A piece of Ken Lubin stares at her from the wall. Without thinking, she drives her fist into the glass. A shower of fragments tinkles to the floor.
You could be a beater. Just try it. Just fucking try it.
"Oh," Lubin says, behind her. "I—"
There's still enough mirror left to check; her face is free of any expression. She turns to face him.
"I'm sorry if I startled you," Lubin says quietly, and withdraws.
He does seem sorry, at that.
So. You're not a beater. Clarke leans against the bulkhead. At least, not my kind of beater. She's not exactly sure how she knows. There's some vital chemistry missing between them. Lubin, she thinks, is a very dangerous man. Just not to her.
She smiles to herself. Beating means never having to say you're sorry.
Until it's too late, of course.
* * *
She's tired enough of sharing the cubby with herself. Sharing it with someone else is something she likes even less.
Lenie Clarke lies on her bunk and scans the length of her own body. Past her toes, another Lenie Clarke stares coolly back. The jumbled topography of the forward bulkhead frames her reflected face like a tabletop junkyard turned on edge.
The camera behind that mirror must see the same thing she does, but distorted around the edges. Clarke figures on a wide-angle lens; the GA wouldn't want to leave the corners out of range. What's the point of running an experiment if you can't keep tabs on your subject animals?
She wonders if anyone's watching her now. Probably not; at least, nobody human. They'll have some machine, tireless and dispassionate, something that watches with relentless attention as she works or shits or gets herself off. It will be programmed to call flesh and blood if she does anything interesting.
Interesting. Who defines that parameter? Is it strictly in keeping with the nature of the experiment, or has someone programmed more personal tastes on the side? Does anyone else get off when Lenie Clarke does?
She twists on the bed and faces the headboard bulkhead. A spaghetti bundle of optical filaments erupts from the floor beside her pallet and crawls up the middle of the wall, disappearing into the ceiling; the seismic feeds, on their way to the Communications cubby. The air-conditioning inlet sighs across her cheek, just to one side. Behind it, a metal iris catches strips of light sectioned by the grating, ready to sphincter shut the moment delta-p exceeds some critical number of millibars per second. Beebe is a mansion with many rooms, each potentially self-isolating in case of emergency.
Clarke lies back on the bunk and lets her fingers drop to the deck. The telemetry cartridge on the floor is almost dry now, fine runnels of salt crusting its surface as the seawater evaporates. It's a basic broad-spectrum model, studded with half a dozen senses: seismic, temperature, flow, the usual sulfates and organics. Sensor heads disfigure its housing like the spikes on a mace.
Which is why it's here, now.
She closes her fingers around the carrying handle, lifts the cartridge off the deck. Heavy. Neutrally buoyant in seawater, of course, but 9.5 kilos in atmosphere, according to the specs. Mostly pressure casing, very tough. An active smoker at five hundred atmospheres wouldn't touch it.
Maybe it's a bit of overkill, sending it up against one lousy mirror. Ballard started the job with her bare hands, after all.
Odd that they didn't make them shatterproof.
Clarke sits up, hefting the cartridge. Her reflection looks back at her; its eyes, blank but not empty, seem somehow amused.
* * *
"Ms. Clarke? You okay?" It's Lubin. "I heard—"
"I'm fine," she says to the sealed hatch. There's glass all over the cubby. One stubborn shard, half a meter long, hangs in its frame like a loose tooth. She reaches out (mirror fragments tumble off her thighs) and taps it with one hand. It crashes to the deck and shatters.
"Just housecleaning," she calls.
Lubin says nothing. She hears him move away up the corridor.
He's going to work out fine. It's been a few days now and he's been scrupulous about keeping his distance. There's no sexual chemistry at all, nothing to set them at each other's throats. Whatever Ken Lubin did to Lana Cheung—whatever those two did to each other—won't be an issue here. Lubin's tastes are too specific.
For that matter, so are Clarke's.
She stands up, head bent to avoid the metal encrustations on the ceiling. Glass crunches under her feet. The bulkhead behind the mirror, freshly exposed, looks oily in the fluorescent light; a ribbed gray face with only two distinguishing features. The first is a spherical lens, smaller than a fingernail, tucked up in one corner. Clarke pulls it from its socket, holds it between thumb and forefinger for a second. A tiny glass eyeball. She drops it to the glittering deck.
There's also a name, stamped into one of the alloy ribs: HANSEN FABRICATION.
It's the first time she's seen see a brand name since she arrived here, except for the GA logos pressed into the shoulders of their diveskins. That seems odd somehow. She checks the lightstrip running the length of the ceiling: white and featureless. An emergency hydrox tank next to the hatch: DOT test date, pressure specs, but no manufacturer.
She doesn't know if she should attach any significance to this.
Alone, now. Hatch sealed, surveillance ended—even her own reflection shattered beyond repair. For the first time, Lenie Clarke feels a sense of real safety here in the station's belly. She doesn't quite know what to do with it.
Maybe I could let my guard down a bit. Her hands go to her face.
At first she thinks she's gone blind; the cubby seems so dark to her uncapped eyes, walls and furniture receding into mere suggestions of shadow. She remembers turning the lights down in increments in the days since Ballard's departure, darkening this room, darkening every other corner of Beebe Station. Lubin's been doing it too, although they never talk about it.
For the first time she wonders at their actions. It doesn't make sense; eyecaps compensate automatically for changes in ambient light, always serve up the same optimum intensity to the retina. Why choose to live in a darkness you don't even perceive?
She nudges the lights up a bit; the cubby brightens. Bright colors jar the eye against a background of gray on gray. The hydrox tank reflects fluorescent orange; readouts wink red and blue and green; the handle on the bulkhead locker is a small exclamation of yellow. She can't remember the last time she noticed color; eyecaps draw the faintest images from darkness, but most of the spectrum gets lost in the process. Only now, when the lights are up, can color reassert itself.
She doesn't like it. It seems raw and out of place down here. Clarke puts her eyecaps back in, dims the lights to their usual minimal glow. The bulkhead fades to a comforting wash of blue pastels.
Just as well. Shouldn't get too careless anyway.
In a couple of days Beebe will be crawling with a full staff. She doesn't want to get used to exposing herself.
Copyright © 1999 by Peter Watts