Excerpt: Counterstrike

First there is only the sound, in darkness. Drifting on the slope of an undersea mountain, Lenie Clarke resigns herself to the imminent loss of solitude.

She's far enough out for total blindness. Atlantis, with its gantries and beacons and portholes bleeding washed-out light into the abyss, is hundreds of meters behind her. No winking telltales, no conduits or parts caches pollute the darkness this far out. The caps on her eyes can coax light enough to see from the merest sparkle, but they can't create light where none exists. Here, none does. Three thousand meters, three hundred atmospheres, three million kilograms per square meter have squeezed every last photon out of creation. Lenie Clarke is as blind as any dryback.

After five years on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, she still likes it this way.

But now the soft mosquito whine of hydraulics and electricity rises around her. Sonar patters softly against her implants. The whine shifts subtly in pitch, then fades. Faint surge as something coasts to a stop overhead.

"Shit." The machinery in her throat turns the epithet into a soft buzz. "Already?"

"I gave you an extra half-hour." Lubin's voice. His words are fuzzed by the same technology that affects hers; by now the distortion is more familiar than the baseline.

She'd sigh, if breath were possible out here.

Clarke trips her headlamp. Lubin is caught in the ignited beam, a black silhouette studded with subtle implementation. The intake on his chest is a slotted disk, chrome on black. Corneal caps turn his eyes into featureless translucent ovals. He looks like a creature built exclusively from shadow and hardware; Clarke knows of the humanity behind the façade, although she doesn't spread it around.

A pair of squids hover at his side. A nylon bag hangs from one of the meter-long vehicles, lumpy with electronics. Clarke fins over to the other, flips a toggle from slave to manual. The little machine twitches and unfolds its towbar.

On impulse, she kills her headlight. Darkness swallows everything again. Nothing stirs. Nothing twinkles. Nothing attacks.

It's just not the same.

"Something wrong?" Lubin buzzes.

She remembers a whole different ocean, on the other side of the world. Back on Channer Vent you'd turn your lights off and the stars would come out, a thousand bioluminescent constellations: fish lit up like runways at night; glowing arthropods; little grape-sized ctenophores flashing with complex iridescence. Channer sang like a siren, lured all those extravagant midwater exotics down deeper than they swam anywhere else, fed them strange chemicals and turned them monstrously beautiful. Back at Beebe Station, it was only dark when your lights were on.

But Atlantis is no Beebe Station, and this place is no Channer Vent. Here, the only light shines from indelicate, ham-fisted machinery. Headlamps carve arid tunnels through the blackness, stark and ugly as burning sodium. Turn them off, and…nothing.

Which is, of course, the whole point.

"It was so beautiful," she says.

He doesn't have to ask. "It was. Just don't forget why."

She grabs her towbar. "It's just—it's not the same, you know? Sometimes I almost wish one of those big toothy fuckers would charge out of the dark and try to take a bite out of me…"

She hears the sound of Lubin's squid throttling up, invisibly close. She squeezes her own throttle, prepares to follow him.

The signal reaches her LFAM and her skeleton at the same time. Her bones react with a vibration deep in the jaw: the modem just beeps at her.

She trips her receiver. "Clarke."

"Ken find you okay?" It's an airborne voice, unmutilated by the contrivances necessary for underwater speech.

"Yeah." Clarke's own words sound ugly and mechanical in contrast. "We're on our way up now."

"Okay. Just checking." The voice falls silent for a moment. "Lenie?"

"Still here."

"Just…well, be careful, okay?" Patricia Rowan tells her.

*   *   *

The water lightens indiscernibly as they ascend. Somehow their world has changed from black to blue when she wasn't looking; Clarke can never pinpoint the moment when that happens.

Lubin hasn't spoken since Rowan signed off. Now, as navy segues into azure, Clarke says it aloud. "You still don't like her."

"I don't trust her," Lubin buzzes. "I like her fine."

"Because she's a corpse." Nobody has called them corporate executives for years.

"Was a corpse." The machinery in his throat can't mask the grim satisfaction in that emphasis.

"Was a corpse," Clarke repeats.


"Why, then?"

"You know the list."

She does. Lubin doesn't trust Rowan because once upon a time, Rowan called shots. It was at her command that they were all recruited so long ago, damaged goods damaged further: memories rewritten, motives rewired, conscience itself refitted in the service of some indefinable, indefensible greater good.

"Because she was a corpse," Clarke repeats.

Lubin's vocoder emits something that passes for a grunt.

She knows where he's coming from. To this day, she still isn't certain what parts of her own childhood were real and which were mere inserts, installed after the fact. And she's one of the lucky ones; at least she survived the blast that turned Channer Vent into thirty square kilometers of radioactive glass. At least she wasn't smashed to pulp by the resulting tsunami, or incinerated along with the millions on N'AmPac's refugee strip.

Not that she shouldn't have been, of course. If you want to get technical about it, all those other millions were nothing but collateral. Not their fault—not even Rowan's, really—that Lenie Clarke wouldn't sit still enough to present a decent target.

Still. There's fault, and there's fault. Patricia Rowan might have the blood of millions on her hands, but after all hot zones don't contain themselves: it takes resources and resolve, every step of the way. Cordon the infected area; bring in the lifters; reduce to ash. Lather, rinse, repeat. Kill a million to save a billion, kill ten to save a hundred. Maybe even kill ten to save eleven—the principle's the same, even if the profit margin's lower. But none of that machinery runs itself, you can't ever take your hand off the kill switch. Rowan never threw a massacre without having to face the costs, and own them.

It was so much easier for Lenie Clarke. She just sowed her little trail of infection across the world and went to ground without ever looking back. Even now her victims pile up in an ongoing procession, an exponential legacy that must have surpassed Rowan's a dozen times over. And she doesn't have to lift a finger.

No one who calls himself a friend of Lenie Clarke has any rational grounds for passing judgment on Patricia Rowan. Clarke dreads the day when that simple truth dawns on Ken Lubin.

The squids drag them higher. By now there's a definite gradient, light above fading to darkness below. To Clarke this is the scariest part of the ocean, the half-lit midwater depths where real squid roam: boneless tentacled monsters thirty meters long, their brains as cold and quick as superconductors. They're twice as large as they used to be, she's been told. Five times more abundant. Apparently it all comes down to better day care. Architeuthis larvae grow faster in the warming seas, their numbers unconstrained by predators long since fished out of existence.

She's never actually seen one, of course. Hopefully she never will—according to the sims the population is crashing for want of prey, and the ocean's vast enough to keep the chances of a random encounter astronomically remote anyway. But occasionally the drones catch ghostly echoes from massive objects passing overhead: hard shouts of chitin and cartilage, faint landscapes of surrounding flesh that sonar barely sees at all. Fortunately, Archie rarely descends into true darkness.

The ambient hue intensifies as they rise—colors don't survive photoamplification in dim light, but this close to the surface the difference between capped and naked eyes is supposed to be minimal. Sometimes Clarke has an impulse to put that to the test, pop the caps right out of her eyes and see for herself, but it's an impossible dream. The diveskin wraps around her face and bonds directly to the photocollagen. She can't even blink.

Surge, now. Overhead, the skin of the ocean writhes like dim mercury. It tilts and dips and scrolls past in an endless succession of crests and troughs, twisting a cool orb glowing on the other side, tying it into playful dancing knots. A few moments later they break through the surface and look onto a world of sea and moonlit sky.

They are still alive. A three-thousand-meter free ascent in the space of forty minutes, and not so much as a burst capillary. Clarke swallows against the isotonic saline in throat and sinuses, feels the machinery sparking in her chest, and marvels again at the wonder of a breathless existence.

Lubin's all business, of course. He's maxed his squid's buoyancy and is using it as a floating platform for the receiver. Clarke sets her own squid to station-keeping and helps him set up.

They slide up and down silver swells, the moon bright enough to render their eyecaps redundant. The unpacked antennae cluster bobs on its tether, eyes and ears jostling in every direction, tracking satellites, compensating for the motion of the waves. One or two low-tech wireframes scan for ground stations.

Too slowly, signals accumulate.

The broth gets thinner with each survey. Oh, the ether's still full of information—the little histograms are creeping up all the way into the centimeter band, there's chatter along the whole spectrum—but density's way down.

Of course, even the loss of signal carries its own ominous intelligence.

"Not much out there," Clarke remarks, nodding at the readouts.

"Mmm." Lubin's slapped a mask onto his mask, diveskin hood nested within VR headset. "Halifax is still online." He's dipping here and there into the signals, sampling a few of the channels as they download. Clarke grabs another headset and strains to the west.

"Nothing from Sudbury," she reports after a few moments.

He doesn't remind her that Sudbury's been dark since Rio. He doesn't point out the vanishingly small odds of Achilles Desjardins having survived. He doesn't even ask her when she's going to give up and accept the obvious. He only says, "Can't find London either. Odd."

She moves up the band.

They'll never get a comprehensive picture this way, just sticking their fingers into the stream; the real analysis will have to wait until they get back to Atlantis. Clarke can't understand most of the languages she does sample, although moving pictures fill in a lot of the blanks. Much rioting in Europe, amidst fears that ßehemoth has hitched a ride on the Southern Countercurrent; an exclusive enclave of those who'd been able to afford the countertweaks, torn apart by a seething horde of those who hadn't. China and its buffers are still dark—have been for a couple of years now—but that's probably more of a defense against apocalypse than a surrender unto it. Anything flying within five hundred clicks of their coast still gets shot down without warning, so at least their military infrastructure is still functional.

Another M&M coup, this time in Mozambique. That's a total of eight now, and counting. Eight nations seeking to hasten the end of the world in the name of Lenie Clarke. Eight countries fallen under the spell of this vicious, foul thing that she's birthed.

Lubin, diplomatically, makes no mention of that development.

Not much from the Americas. Emergency broadcasts and tactical traffic from CSIRA. Every now and then, some apocalyptic cult preaching a doctrine of Proactive Extinction or the Bayesian Odds of the Second Coming. Mostly chaff, of course; the vital stuff is tightbeamed point-to-point, waves of focused intel that would never stray across the surface of the empty mid-Atlantic.

Lubin knows how to change some of those rules, of course, but even he's been finding it tough going lately.

"Ridley's gone," he says now. This is seriously bad news. The Ridley Relay's a high-security satwork, so high that even Lubin's clearance barely gets him into the club. It's one of the last sources of reliable intel that Atlantis has been able to tap into. Back when the corpses thought they were headed for escape instead of incarceration, they left behind all sorts of untraceable channels to keep them up to speed on topside life. Nobody's really sure why so many of them have gone dark in the past five years.

Then again, nobody's had the balls to keep their heads above water for more than a few moments to find out.

"Maybe we should risk it," Clarke muses. "Just let it float around up here for a few days, you know? Give it a chance to collect some real data. It's a square meter of hardware floating around a whole ocean; really, what are the odds?"

High enough, she knows. There are still plenty of people alive back there. Many of them will have faced facts, had their noses rubbed in the imminence of their own extinction. Some few might have set aside a little time to dwell on thoughts of revenge. Some might even have resources to call on—if not enough to buy salvation, then maybe enough for a little retribution. What happens if the word gets out that those who set ßehemoth free in the world are still alive and well and hiding under three hundred atmospheres?

Atlantis's continued anonymity is a piece of luck that no one wants to push. They'll be moving soon, leaving no forwarding address. In the meantime they go from week to week, poke intermittent eyes and ears above the waterline, lock onto the ether and squeeze it for whatever signal they can.

It was enough, once. Now, ßehemoth has laid so much to waste that even the electromagnetic spectrum is withering into oblivion.

But it's not as though anything's going to attack us in the space of five minutes, she tells herself—

—and in the next instant realizes that something has.

Little telltales are spiking red at the edge of her vision: an overload on Lubin's channel. She ID's his frequency, ready to join him in battle—but before she can act the intruder crashes her own line. Her eyes fill with static: her ears fill with venom.

"Don't you fucking dare try and cut me out, you miserable cocksucking stumpfuck! I'll shred every channel you try and open. I'll sink your whole priestly setup, you maggot-riddled twat!"

"Here we go again." Lubin's voice seems to come from a great distance, some parallel world where long gentle waves slap harmlessly against flesh and machinery. But Clarke is under assault in this world, a vortex of static and swirling motion and—oh God, please not—the beginnings of a face, some hideous simulacrum distorted just enough to be almost unrecognizable.

Clarke dumps a half-dozen buffers. Gigabytes evaporate at her touch. In her eyephones, the monster screams.

"Good," Lubin's tinny voice remarks from the next dimension. "Now if we can just save—"

"You can't save anything!" the apparition screams. "Not a fucking thing! You miserable fetusfuckers, don't you even know who I am?"

Yes, Clarke doesn't say.

"I'm Lenie Clar—"

The headset goes dark.

For a moment she thinks she's still spinning in the vortex. This time, it's only the waves. She pulls the headset from her skull. A moon-pocked sky rotates peacefully overhead.

Lubin's shutting down the receiver. "That's that," he tells her. "We lost eighty percent of the trawl."

"Maybe we could try again." She knows they won't. Surface time follows an unbreakable protocol; paranoia's just good sense these days. And the thing that downloaded into their receiver is still out there somewhere, cruising the airwaves. The last thing they want to do is open that door again.

She reaches out to reel in the antennae cluster. Her hand trembles in the moonlight.

Lubin pretends not to notice. "Funny," he remarks, "it didn't look like you."

After all these years, he still doesn't know her at all.

*   *   *

They should not exist, these demons that have taken her name. Predators that wipe out their prey don't last long. Parasites that kill their hosts go extinct. It doesn't matter whether wildlife is built from flesh or electrons, Clarke's been told; the same rules apply. They've encountered several such monsters over the past months, all of them far too virulent for evolutionary theory.

Maybe they just followed my lead, she reflects. Maybe they keep going on pure hate.

They leave the moon behind. Lubin dives headfirst, pointing his squid directly into the heart of darkness. Clarke lingers a bit, content to drift down while Luna wriggles and writhes and fades above her. After a while the moonlight loses its coherence, smears across the euphotic zone in a diffuse haze, no longer illuminates the sky but rather becomes it. Clarke nudges the throttle and gives herself back to the depths.

By the time she catches up with Lubin the ambient light has failed entirely; she homes in on a greenish pinpoint glow that resolves into the dashboard of her companion's squid. They continue their descent in silent tandem. Pressure masses about them. Eventually they pass the perimeter checkpoint, an arbitrary delimiter of friendly territory. Clarke trips her LFAM to call in.

No one answers.

It's not that no one's online. The channel's jammed with voices, some vocoded, some airborne, overlapping and interrupting. Something's happened. An accident. Atlantis demands details. Mechanical rifter voices call for medics at the eastern airlock.

Lubin sonars the abyss, gets a reading. He switches on his squidlight and peels down to port. Clarke follows.

A dim constellation traverses the darkness ahead, barely visible, fading. Clarke throttles up to keep pace; the increased drag nearly peels her off the squid. She and Lubin close from above and behind.

Two trailing squids, slaved to a third in the lead, race along just above the seabed. One of the slaves moves riderless. The other drags a pair of interlinked bodies through the water. Clarke recognizes Hannuk Yeager, his left arm stretched almost to dislocation as he grips his towbar one-handed. His other hooks around the chest of a black rag doll, life-size, a thin contrail of ink swirling in the wake of its passage.

Lubin crosses to starboard. The contrail flushes crimson in his squidlight.

Erickson, Clarke realizes. Out on the seabed, a dozen familiar cues of posture and motion distinguish one person from another; rifters only look alike when they're dead. It's not a good sign that she's had to fall back on Erickson's shoulder tag for an ID.

Something's ripped his diveskin from crotch to armpit; something's ripped him, underneath it. It looks bad. Mammalian flesh clamps tight in ice-water, peripheral blood-vessels squeeze down to conserve heat. A surface cut wouldn't bleed at 5°C. Whatever got Erickson, got him deep.

Grace Nolan's on the lead squid. Lubin takes up position just behind and to the side, a human breakwater to reduce the drag clawing at Erickson and Yeager. Clarke follows his lead. Erickson's vocoder tic-tic-tics with pain or static.

"What happened?" Lubin buzzes.

"Not sure." Nolan keeps her face forward, intent on navigation. "We were checking out an ancillary seep over by the Lake. Gene wandered around an outcropping and we found him like this a few minutes later. Maybe he got careless under an overhang, something tipped over on him."

Clarke turns her head sideways for a better view; the muscles in her neck tighten against the added drag. Erickson's flesh, exposed through the tear in his diveskin, is fish-belly white. It looks like gashed, bleeding plastic. His capped eyes look even deader than the flesh beneath his 'skin. He gibbers. His vocoder cobbles nonsense syllables together as best it can.

An airborne voice takes the channel. "Okay, we're standing by at Four."

The abyss ahead begins to brighten: smudges of blue-gray light emerge from the darkness, their vertices hinting at some sprawled structure in the haze behind. The squids cross a power conduit snaking along the basalt; its blinking telltales fade to black on either side. The lights ahead intensify, expand to diffuse haloes suffusing jumbled Euclidean silhouettes.

Atlantis resolves before them.

A couple of rifters wait at Airlock Four, chaperoned by a pair of corpses lumbering about in the preshmesh armor that drybacks wear when they venture outside. Nolan cuts power to the squids. Erickson raves weakly in the ensuing silence as the convoy coasts to rest. The corpses take custody, maneuver the casualty towards the open hatch. Nolan starts after them.

One of the corpses blocks her with a gauntleted forearm. "Just Erickson."

"What are you talking about?" Nolan buzzes.

"Medbay's crowded enough as it is. You want him to live, give us room to work."

"Like we're going to trust his life to you lot? Fuck that." Most of the rifters have long since had their fill of revenge by now, grown almost indifferent to their own grudges. Not Grace Nolan. Five years gone and still the hatred sucks at her tit like some angry, insatiable infant.

The corpse shakes his head behind the faceplate. "Look, you have to—"

"No sweat," Clarke cuts in. "We can watch on the monitor."

Nolan, countermanded, looks at Clarke. Clarke ignores her. "Go on," she buzzes at the corpses. "Get him inside."

The airlock swallows them.

The rifters exchange looks. Yeager rolls his shoulders as if just released from the rack. The airlock gurgles behind him.

"That wasn't a collapsed outcropping," Lubin buzzes.

Clarke knows. She's seen the injuries that result from rockslides, the simple collision of rocks and flesh. Bruises. Crushed bones. Blunt force trauma.

Whatever did this, slashed.

"I don't know," she says. "Maybe we shouldn't jump to conclusions."

Lubin's eyes are lifeless blank spots. His face is a featureless mask of reflex copolymer. Yet somehow, Clarke gets the sense that he's smiling.

"Be careful what you wish for," he says.