The Next Big Thing

A holding pen for works in progress




State of Grace, Chapter 1. Finally, We Have Liftoff.

Coelacanth


"Five years. That's all we got."
—David Bowie


Deep in the Oregon desert, crazy as a prophet, Daniel Brooks 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 #18 had caught a garter snake. A sage grouse pecked nervously at the lens in #13. The video feed from #4 wasn't working, but judging by mass and thermal there was probably a juvenile fence lizard scrambling around in there. Twenty-three had caught a hare.

He sighed and described a semicircle with his index finger; the feeds vanished from the skin of his tent. Another gesture and the fabric lit with soft tactical overlays, skewed to thermal: public-domain realtime 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 hotspots anywhere else in range. Brooks 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, its marshmallow tires soft and flaccid.

He grabbed his 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 Bicameral's industrial 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 five 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. Brooks remembered the feeling: as though he were witnessing some heavenly coup, a capricious god deposed and order restored.

The revolution had only lasted 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, Brooks 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 with a phrase book that spelled take me to your leader in a few hundred languages.

The world had been holding its breath for five years now, waiting for the Second Coming. There'd been no encore, no follow-up, no second act. Five years is a long time to wait for a species raised on instant gratification. Brooks 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 pretty much 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, Brooks 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.

Five years.

He wished the world would just hurry up and end.



*   *   *



He spent that morning as he'd spent every other in the two months since his arrival: 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 lacked even the good grace to leave a blood spatter behind for analysis.

The garter snake was still slithering around in #18, though: a male, one of those brown-on-brown morphs that vanished against the dirt. It writhed in Brooks' grasp, clenched around his forearm like a scaly tentacle; its scent glands smeared stinky fluid across his skin. Brooks drew a few microlitres of blood without much hope, plugged them into the barcoder on his belt. Enzymes and enthalpy worked their magic while he swigged from his canteen.

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 vendetta theocracy from Uganda 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. Brooks 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 twenty 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. Not to mentuon the fact that half the technical data on the planet was being stored genetically these days, and that stuff was always getting loose. 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. He 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— well, you kill the host. You cut it open.

Brooks 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 caught 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. Only soft hearts and woolly minds would wrestle with regret and remorse over the killing of a bunch of animals. 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 Brooks inflicted for the greater good? 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, principle, and sole investigator — this was a struggle 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 subroutine 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 species 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 little voice had become his constant companion over the years. He let it rant. Either way, he told it afterwards, 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 antique dissecting tray. Four seconds with the scissors and it was gutted, throat to anus; twenty more and the GI and respiratory tracts floated in separate watch glasses. Three decades' experience told him the intestine would have the heaviest parasite load; he loaded the GI tract into the 'scope and got to work.

Something exploded in the distance.

That was what it sounded like, anyway: the soft muffled whoompf of distant ordinance. Brooks rose from his work, panned the desert between spindly gnarled trunks.

Nothing. Nothing. Noth—

Oh, wait...

The monastery.

He grabbed his goggles off the ATB and zoomed in. The tornado was the first thing to draw his eye—

—That thing's still going pretty strong for this late in the day—

—but off to the right, directly over the the monastery, 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 facades he could see.

What are they doing over there?

Physics, officially. High-energy stuff. But it was all supposed to be theoretical; as far as Brooks knew the Bicameral Order didn't perform actual experiments.

Speaking in tongues. That was how they did it, supposedly. They called down the Rapture, and they rolled around on the floor and drooled and gibbered while their acolytes took notes, and somehow they ended up rewriting brane theory. It sounded like utter bullshit to Brooks.

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 F-4 industrial vortex engine to run kitchen appliances.

From behind, the metallic tinkle of displaced instruments. Brooks turned.

His scissors lay the dirt. On the bench above them the gutted snake watched him upside-down from its dissecting tray, forked tongue flickering.

Nerves, Brooks told himself.

The discarded carcass shivered on its back, as if the gash in 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 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 had no belly, not any more. The ventral scales that would have pushed it along, the muscles beneath had been slashed down the middle. And so the animal 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 there a moment, dropped into the dust. Brooks'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.

"Shiiiitttt..."

Reptiles were not especially fragile creatures. More than once Brooks had found rattlesnakes on the road hours from the nearest vehicle, spines crushed, venomous fangs shattered, heads reduced to bloody paste— still moving, still crawling blindly for the ditch. But 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. 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.

Still.

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 Brooks wished he could feel half as much for all the thousands of people he'd killed.

Of course, basic biology explained that 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 Brooks 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. Brooks's work had been perverted by others intent on bloodshed; the guilt was theirs, not his. But those perpetrators remained uncaught and unpunished; 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 Brooks had ever imagined. Still, no charges had been pressed. It wasn't even enough to revoke his tenure.

More than enough to wear out his welcome on campus, though.

Nature, though. Nature always welcomed him. She passed no judgments. She 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 bright, egalitarian indifference. You just had to play by her rules, and expect no mercy if things didn't go your way.

And so Dan Brooks had put in for sabbatical and filed his agenda, and headed into the field. A few had watched him go, with relief; others kept their eyes on the sky. He left them all. 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 Brooks 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. #22 beeped plaintively a moment later— proximate heat trace, big, man-sized even— then dropped off the map.

Instantly awake, Brooks 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 Route 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 a sudden warmth, and disappeared.

Cameras lurked here and there along the traplines; Brooks had never found much use for them but they'd come bundled as part of the package. One sat on a booster station that happened to be line-of-sight on #19. He brought it up: StarlAmp painted the nighttime desert in blues and whites, a surrealistic moonscape full of contrast. Brooks panned the view—

—and almost missed it: a slither of motion from stage right, an amplified blur. Something moving faster than anything human had any right to. The camera was dead before #19 even felt the heat.

The booster went down. A dozen feeds died in an instant. Brooks barely noticed. He was staring at that last frame frozen in amber, feeling his gut clench and his bowels turn to ice.

Faster than a man, and so much less than one. 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 see 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 Brooks 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 Brooks, and the odds that at least one of those victims' next-of-kin had had 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. Brooks 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 in the field without rattlesnake receptors in their eyes. But Brooks was an old man, baseline, night-blind. He didn't even dare use the headlight. So he hurtled headlong through the night, smashing through petrified shrubs, bucking over unseen outcroppings of bedrock. He fumbled one-handed through the bike's saddlebags and came up with the gogs. 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 get me now, motherfucker. Not on foot. Not even undead. You can kiss my ass goodbye.

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 and sun-cracked tiles of ancient lakebed, their curled edges 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.

Who, exactly?

He switched from StarlAmp to infrared, zoomed the view.

That.

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.

Brooks 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...

Shit.

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 rabid wolves.

The ATB leapt forward. Brooks pinged 911: Nothing. ConCensus was live enough, but deaf to his pleas; somehow he could surf but he couldn't 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.

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 blindly 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, a corner of Brooks' mind heard something strange in that sound. The monastery resolved in the gogs, huddling in the shadow of the great engine. A myriad 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 any more: 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 squirming pillar of fire, big enough to hold up the sky or to tear it down. Brooks 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 as it caught everything else, trapped that light and shredded it and spun it together with everything else that fell within reach. A small gibbering thing inside Daniel Brooks begged him to turn back, to take his chances with the things that were stalking him because after all 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 Brooks was close enough to hear something else against the roar of the maelstrom, a faint creaking counterpoint of great metal blades, warping

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 Brooks 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 and ominous against the stars. All windows abruptly shuttered, all approaches suddenly dark, it rose from the landscape as though borne of it: a pile of deep rock strata torn free of its roots, breaching the surface of the world. The tornado loomed beyond like a whirling gash in space-time, barely a hundred meters 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.

Brooks blinked. The little red letters persisted, hovering off at the corner of his eye where the chrono readout should be.

COME FORWARD. DOOR OPEN.

He looked past the command line, panned the darkened facades 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.

MOVE YOUR ASS BROOKS U SELF-ABSORBED IDIOT.

SEALING ENTRANCE IN 15S
                                             14S
                                             13S...

Brooks moved his self-absorbed idiot ass.