Excerpt: An Invitation to Dance

In South Bend, the mermaid killed a man.

Willapa Bay ruptured the Strip like an ulcer twelve kilometers across. Official surveillance of that gap had not been designed to catch people for whom breathing was optional; now the coast was fifteen klicks behind her. This far in, the wave had been thwarted by headlands and a thick stubby island, clogging the inlet like a cyst. The Big One had merely trembled here. The wreckage and desolation was all of local origin.

She emerged past midnight onto a dark, corroded segment of waterfront, long since abandoned to a creeping blight of premillennial toluene. Nervous late-night pedestrians glimpsed her on the edge of the city core and increased their pace from A to B. The last time Clarke had wandered civilized streets there'd been free wristwatch dispensers on every second corner, a half-hearted sop to those who'd have empowered the masses through access to information. She could find no dispensers in this place, only an old public phone standing guard in fluorescent twilight. She interrogated it. She was here, it told her. Yves Scanlon lived there, three hundred kilometers to the northeast.

He wouldn't be expecting her. She faded to black. Indifferent security cameras reduced her to a transient assemblage of infrared pixels.

She clambered back down concrete scree to an oily waterline. Something called to her as she retrieved her fins: muffled, familiar sounds from an abandoned customs office.

It could have been the splintering of rotten pilings. Maybe a boot against ribs, with flesh getting in the way. Something knotted in Clarke's throat. There's no end to the things you can slam into a human body. She'd lost count of the different sounds they made.

Almost too faint to hear, more whimper than words: "Fuck, man…" The muted hum of an electrical discharge. A groan.

A walkway extended around the derelict office; piled junk along its length waited to trip anyone not gifted with night eyes. At the other side of the building, a dock jutted from the waterfront on wooden pilings. Two figures stood on that platform, a man and a woman. Four others lay twitching at their feet. A police botfly slept on the pier, conveniently offline.

Technically, of course, it was not an assault. Both aggressors wore uniforms and badges conferring the legal right to beat whomever they chose. Tonight they'd chosen an entrée of juveniles, laid out along the creosote-stained planks like gutted fish. Those bodies twitched with the spastic neural static of shockprod discharge; beyond that, they didn't react to the boots in their sides. Clarke could hear snatches of conversation from the uniforms, talk of curfew violations and unauthorized use of the Maelstrom.

And of trespassing.

"On government property, no less," remarked the male, lifting one arm in a grand gesture that took in the dock, the pilings, the derelict office, Lenie Clarke—

Shit he's wearing nightshades they're both wearing nightshades

"You!" The policeman took a single step toward the office, pointing his shockprod at the shadows in which she lay exposed. "Stand away from the building!"


There'd been a time, not so long ago, when Lenie Clarke would have obeyed without thinking. She'd have followed orders even though she knew what was coming, because she'd learned that you deal with violence by just shutting up and getting it over with. It would hurt, of course. That was the whole point. But it was better than the chronic queasiness, the expectation, the endless interludes between assaults where you could only wait for it to happen.

More recently, she would have simply fled. Or at least withdrawn. None of my business, she'd have told herself, and departed before anyone even knew she was there. She had done that when Mike Brander, denied revenge upon those who'd made his childhood a living hell, had used Gerry Fischer as a convenient proxy. It had been none of my business when Beebe Station resounded with the sound of Brander's rage and Fischer's breaking bones. It had been none of my business when Brander, shift after shift, had stood guard in the wet room, daring Fischer to come back inside. Eventually Fischer had faded from man to child to reptile, an empty inhuman cipher living on the edge of the rift. Even then, it had been none of Lenie Clarke's business.

But Gerry Fischer was dead now. So was Lenie Clarke, for that matter. She'd died with the others: Alice and Mike and Ken and Gerry, all turned into white-hot vapor. They were all dead, and when the stone had been rolled away and the voice had rung out, Lazarus! Come forth!, it hadn't been any of Lenie Clarke's friends that had risen from the grave. It hadn't even been Lenie Clarke. Not the soft squirming career victim of her dryback days, anyway. Not the opaque chrysalis gestating down on the rift. It had been something newly-forged, acid-washed, some white-hot metamorph of Lenie Clarke that had never existed before.

Now it was confronted by a familiar icon—an authority, a giver of orders, an eager practitioner of the legal right to commit violence upon her. She did not regard its challenge as an order to be obeyed. She did not consider it a situation to be avoided.

For Lenie Clarke Mark II, it was a long-overdue invitation to dance.




He'd made it a point not to track the time. You learned tricks like that, in Lubin's line of work. You learned to focus on the moment and deny the future. He'd tried to work it backward, too, reverse time's arrow and erase the past, but that hadn't been as easy.

It didn't matter. After a year's blind night—the earth cracking open beneath him, the relentless Pacific pushing down like a hydraulic press—he wept with gratitude at the half-remembered feel of dry land. This was grass. Those were birds. Oh dear God, that was sunlight. It was a scabby little rock lost somewhere in the Pacific, all lichens and dry scrub and shit-hawks, and he'd never been anywhere so beautiful.

He couldn't think of a better place to die.


He awoke under a clear blue sky, a thousand meters beneath the ocean's surface.

Fifty klicks from Beebe Station, maybe fifty-five from ground zero. Too far for the blast light to penetrate. He didn't know what he was seeing in that instant: Cherenkov radiation, perhaps. Some obscure effect of pressure waves on the optic nerve. A vision of afterlight, bathing the abyss in a deep and piercing blue.

And while he hung there like a speck suspended in gelatin, a little shockwave rumbled up from below.

An ancient, arboreal part of Lubin's brain gibbered in panic. A more recent module gagged it and began calculating: fast P-wave propagation through bedrock. Perpendicular ancillary waves rising off the bottom: the tremor he'd just felt. Two short sides of a right-angle triangle.

And afterward, clawing through a sluggish medium so much lighter than the seabed: the hypotenuse, the slower main shockwave.

Slower, but vastly more powerful.

Pythagoras said twenty seconds.

He was immune to absolute pressure: every sinus, every cavity, every pocket of internal gas had long-since been purged by the machinery in his thorax. He'd spent a year on the bottom of the ocean and barely felt it. He was solid flesh and bone, a viscous organic liquid, as incompressible as seawater itself.

The shockwave hit. Seawater compressed.

It looked like staring into naked sunlight: that was the pressure crushing his eyes. It sounded like the Tunguska Blast: that was the sound of his eardrums imploding. It felt like being ground between the Rocky Mountains: his body, squeezed briefly down to some flatter dimension as the front passed, then rebounding like a rubber ball yanked from a vise.

He remembered very little of what happened next. But that cold blue light—it had faded, hadn't it? After just a few seconds. By the time the shockwave had hit, all had been darkness again.

And yet here it was, still. Blue light, everywhere.

The sky, he realized at last. It's the sky. You're onshore.

A gull flew across his field of view, open-beaked. Lubin thought his ruined ears might have heard a faint, tinny bird-scream, but maybe that was his imagination. He heard very little these days, beyond a distant ringing that seemed to come from the other side of the world.

The sky.

Somehow, he must have made it.

He remembered hanging in the water like a torn mass of seaweed, unable to scream, unable to move without screaming. His body must have been instantly transformed into one continuous bruise. Under all that pain, though, nothing felt broken. Midwater, after all—nothing for his bones to break against, just a vast all-encompassing wave that simultaneously compressed and released everything with equable disregard...

At some point he must have started moving again. He remembered fragments: the feel of his legs cramping, pushing against the water. Periodic glimpses of his nav array, the compass leading him west, southwest. The gradual resolution of his global pain into more distinct, local varieties—he'd even played a little game, trying to guess the cause of each torment as it cried out from the crowd. That cold nausea—that must be seawater leaking into the auditory canal...and down there in the gut, well that's hunger, of course. And my chest, let me think, my chest—oh right, the implants. Meat and metal don't squeeze down the same way, the implants must've pushed back when the blast flattened me...

And now he was here, on an island barely a hundred meters long: he'd crawled ashore at one end and seen a lighthouse at the other, a lichenous concrete pillar that must have been decaying since the previous century. He'd seen no other sign of humanity in the time it had taken him to collapse unconscious onto the sandstone.

But he'd made it. Ken Lubin was alive.

He slipped, then. He allowed himself to wonder if the others had made it, to hope they'd made it, even. He knew they hadn't. They'd had a head start, but they'd been hugging the bottom to avoid detection. The seabed would have intensified the shockwave, thrown chunks of itself into the water like a crazed incompetent juggler; anything within ten meters of the bottom would have been pulverized. Lubin had realized that, belatedly, as he'd set out to catch up with the others. He'd weighed the risk of exposure, the risk of detonation, and had—so to speak—risen to the occasion. Even so, he was lucky to be alive.

Lenie Clarke hadn't been with the others. If anything, though, she was even deader than they were. She hadn't even tried to run. Lubin had left her waiting back at Ground Zero, a woman who wanted to die. A woman about to get her wish.

At least she was good for something. At least she could act as your own personal confessional before she vaporized. For the first time in your life you got to use someone as a rag to wipe off your dirty conscience, and you didn't even have to kill her afterward.

He didn't deny it, even to himself. There would have been no point. Besides, he'd hardly benefited from his actions. He was just as dead as the others. He had to be.

It was the only thing that made any sense.


The puzzle consisted of several large pieces in primary colors. They only fit together one way.

People had been conscripted, built, and trained. Flesh and organs had been scooped out and discarded, the cavities stuffed with machinery and sewn up. The resulting creatures were able to live in an abyss three thousand meters down, on the southern tip of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. There they had tended larger machines, stealing power from deep within the earth in the name of supply and demand.

There were not many reasons why anyone would wish to launch a nuclear attack against such a facility.

At first glance it might have been an act of war. But N'AmPac had built both the facility and the rifters. N'AmPac had been drinking most ravenously from Juan de Fuca's geothermal well. And it had been N'AmPac, judging by the evidence, that had planted the seabed nukes that had destroyed it all.

Not war, then. At least, not of the political sort.

Corporate security, perhaps. Perhaps the rifters knew something best kept secret. Ken Lubin very nearly qualified as such a hazard. But Ken Lubin was a valuable commodity, and it would have been bad economics to discard something that merely needed a tune-up. That was why they'd sent him to the bottom of the ocean in the first place, on sabbatical from a world he'd begun to threaten more than serve. (Just a temporary assignment, they'd said, until your—instincts stabilize a bit.) A world of fish and ice-cold humans with no interests beyond their own tormented inertia, no industrial secrets to steal or protect, no security breaches to seal with extreme prejudice...

No. Ken Lubin was the closest the team had come to any sort of intel threat, and if his bosses had wanted him dead they wouldn't have bothered sending him to Channer Vent in the first place. Besides, there were far more efficient ways of killing five people than vaporizing several square kilometers of seabed.

It was inexorable: the seabed itself had been the target. Channer Vent posed a threat, somehow, and had to be wiped off the map. And the rifters had become a part of that threat, or the GA would have evacuated them beforehand; corporations were ruthless but they were never gratuitous. You don't throw away any investment unless you have to.

So some threat at Channer had spread, on contact, to the rifters themselves. Lubin wasn't a biologist, but he knew what contagion was. And hydrothermal vents were literal hotbeds of microbiology. The pharms were finding new bugs down there all the time. Some thrived in boiling sulfuric acid. Some lived in solid rock, kilometers deep in the crust. Some ate oils and plastics, even before they'd been tweaked. Others, Lubin had heard, could cure diseases people didn't even have names for yet.

Extremophiles, they were called. Very old, very simple, almost alien. The closest thing anyone had found to the original Martian Mike. Could anything that evolved under three hundred lightless atmospheres, that was comfortable at 100°C—or even the 4° more universal in the abyss—could something like that even survive in a human body?

And what would it do in there?

Ken Lubin didn't know. But someone had just sacrificed a multi-billion dollar investment. Someone had given up a major energy teat in a world already starved for power. And in all likelihood, the same blast which had vaporized Channer had gone on to wreak havoc on the coast; Lubin couldn't begin to guess at the earthquake and tsunami damage that might have resulted.

All to keep something on Channer from getting off.

What is it? What does it do?

It seemed a fair bet he was going to find out.