Somewhere in Starfish, Lenie Clarke pays a price for navel-gazing...
In a few places, the rift is almost gentle.
Usually the heat stabs up in boiling muddy pillars or jagged bolts of superheated liquid. Steam never gets a chance to form at three hundred atmospheres, but thermal distortion turns the water into a column of writhing liquid prisms, hotter than molten glass. Not here, though. In this one spot, nestled between lava pillows and safe from Beebe's prying ears, the heat wafts up through the mud like a soft breeze. The underlying bedrock must be porous.
She comes here when she can, keeping to the bottom to foil station sonar. The others don't know about this place yet; she'd just as soon keep it that way. Sometimes she comes here to watch convection stir the mud into lazy curlicues. Sometimes she splits the seals on her 'skin, basks face and arms in the thirty-degree seep.
Sometimes she just comes here to sleep.
She lies with the shifting mud at her back, staring up into blackness. This is how you fall asleep when you can't close your eyes; you stare into the dark, and when you start seeing things you know you're dreaming.
Now she sees herself, the high priestess of a new troglodyte society. She was the first one here, deep at peace while the others were still being cut open and reshaped by grubby Dryback hands. She's the founding mother, the template against which other, rawer recruits trace themselves. They come down and they see that her eyes are always capped, and they go and do likewise.
But she knows it isn't true. The rift is the real creative force here, a blunt hydraulic press forcing them all into shapes of its own choosing. If the others are anything like her it's because they're all being squeezed in the same mold.
And let's not forget the GA. If Ballard was right, they made sure we weren't too different to start with.
There are all the superficial differences, of course. A bit of racial diversity. Token beaters, token victims, males and females equally represented...
Clarke has to smile at that. Count on Management to jam a bunch of sexual dysfunctionals together and then make sure the gender ratio is balanced. Nice of them to try and see that nobody gets left out.
Except for Ballard, of course.
But at least they learn from their mistakes. Dozing at three thousand meters, Lenie Clarke wonders what their next one will be.
Sudden, stabbing pain in the eyes. She tries to scream; smart implants feel tongue and lips in motion, mistranslate:
She knows the feeling. She's had it once or twice before. She dives blindly on a random heading. The pain in her head leaps from intense to unbearable.
She twists back in the opposite direction. A bit better. She trips her headlamp, kicking as hard as she can. The world turns from black to solid brown. Zero viz. Mud seething on all sides. Somewhere close by she hears rocks splitting open.
Her headlamp catches the outcropping looming up a split second before she hits it. The shock rocks her skull, runs down her spine like a small earthquake. There's a different flavor of pain up there now, mingling with the searing in her eyes. She gropes blindly around the obstacle, keeps going. Her body feels-- warm--
It takes a lot of heat to get through a diveskin, especially a class four. Those things are built for thermal stress.
Eyecaps, on the other hand...
Black. The world is black again, and clear. Clarke's headlamp stabs out across open space, lays a jiggling footprint on the mud a good ten meters away.
The view's still rippling, though.
The pain seems to be fading. She can't be sure. So many nerves have been screaming for so long that even the echoes are torture. She clutches her head, still kicking; the movement twists her around to face the way she came.
Her secret hideaway has exploded into a wall of mud and sulfur compounds, boiling up from the seabed. Clarke checks her thermister; 45°C, and she's a good ten meters away. Boiled fish skeletons spin in the thermals. Geysers hiss further in, unseen.
The seep must have burst through the crust in an instant; any flesh caught in that eruption would have boiled off the bone before anything as elaborate as a flight reflex could cut in. A shudder shakes Clarke's body. Another one.
Just luck. Just stupid luck I was far enough away. I could be dead now. I could be dead I could be dead I could be dead--
Nerves fire in her thorax; she doubles over. But you can't sob without breathing. You can't cry with your eyes pinned open. The routines are all there, stuttering into action after years of dormancy, but the pieces they work on have all been changed. The whole body wakes up in a straitjacket.
--dead dead dead--
That small, remote part of her kicks in, the part she saves for these occasions. It wonders, off in the distance, at the intensity of her reaction. This was hardly the first time that Lenie Clarke thought she was going to die.
But this was the first time in years that it seemed to matter.
Somewhere else, Gerry Fischer discusses the time-honored occupation of Human Punching Bag.
It's none of Aeon's business but...
It stings at first. Then he feels clotted blood break around his eyelid, sees a fuzzy line of red light. He tries to bring his hand to his face. It hurts.
Something cold and wet, soothing. More clots come away.
Someone's poking at his eyes. He tries to struggle, but all he can do is move his head feebly from side to side. That hurts even more.
"Your right eyecap's damaged. It could be gouging your cornea."
He relents. Lenie's fingers push between lids that feel as puffy as pillows. There's a sudden pressure on his eyeball, a tug of suction. A slurping sound, and the feel of ragged edges dragged across his pupil.
The world goes dark. "Hang on," Lenie says. "I'll turn up the lights."
There's still a reddish tinge to everything, but at least he can see.
He's in his cubby. Lenie Clarke leans over him, a bit of glistening wet membrane in one hand. "You were lucky. He'd have ripped your costochondrals if your implants hadn't been packed in behind them." She drops the ruined cap out of sight, picks up a cartridge of liquid skin. "As it is, he only broke a couple of ribs. Lots of bruises. Mild concussion, maybe, but you'll have to go to Medical to be sure. Oh, and I'm pretty sure he broke your cheekbone too."
She sounds as if she's reading a grocery list.
"Why not--" Warm salt floods his mouth. His tongue does some careful exploring; his teeth are still intact, at least. "--in Medical, now?"
"It would have been a bitch getting you down the ladder. Brander wasn't going to help. Everyone else is outside." She sprays foam across his bicep. It pulls his skin as it dries.
"Not that they'd be any help either," she adds.
"I didn't do anything. Just dragged you in here, basically."
He wants desperately to touch her.
"What is it with you, Fischer?" she asks after a while. "Why don't you ever fight back?"
"Are you kidding? You know how big you are? You could take Brander apart if you just stood up to him."
Shadow says it only makes things worse. You fight back, it only gets them madder.
"Shadow?" Lenie says.
"Didn't say anything..."
She watches him for a few moments.
"Okay," she says at last. She stands up. "I'll call up and send for a replacement."
"No. That's okay."
"You're injured, Fischer."
Medical tutorials whisper inside his head. "We've got stuff downstairs."
"You still wouldn't be able to work for a week. More than twice that before you'd be fully healed."
"They planned for accidents. When they set up the schedules."
"And how are you going to keep clear of Brander until then?"
"I'll stay outside more," he says. "Please, Lenie."
She shakes her head. "You're crazy, Fischer." She turns to the hatch, undogs it. "None of my business, of course. I just don't think--"
"Do you like it down here?" she asks.
"Do you get off, being down here?"
It should be a stupid question. Especially now. Somehow it isn't.
"Sort of," he says at last, realizing it for the first time.
She nods, blinking over white space. "Dopamine rush."
"They say we get hooked on it. Being down here. Being-- scared, I guess." She smiles faintly. "That's the rumor, anyway."
Fischer thinks about that. "Not so much I get off on it. More like, just used to it. You know?"
"Yeah." She turns and pushes the hatch open. "For sure."