Maelstromby Peter Watts
An enormous tidal wave on the west coast of North America has just killed thousands. Lenie Clarke, in a black wetsuit, walks out of the ocean onto a Pacific Northwest beach filled with the oppressed and drugged homeless of the Asian world who have gotten only this far in their attempt to reach America. Is she a monster, or a goddess? One thing is for sure: all hell
An enormous tidal wave on the west coast of North America has just killed thousands. Lenie Clarke, in a black wetsuit, walks out of the ocean onto a Pacific Northwest beach filled with the oppressed and drugged homeless of the Asian world who have gotten only this far in their attempt to reach America. Is she a monster, or a goddess? One thing is for sure: all hell is breaking loose.
This dark, fast-paced, hard SF novel returns to the story begun in Starfish: all human life is threatened by a disease (actually a primeval form of life) from the distant prehuman past. It survived only in the deep ocean rift where Clarke and her companions were stationed before the corporation that employed them tried to sterilize the threat with a secret underwater nuclear strike. But Clarke was far enough away that she was able to survive and tough enough to walk home, 300 miles across the ocean floor. She arrives carrying with her the potential death of the human race, and possessed by a desire for revenge. Maelstrom is a terrifying explosion of cyberpunk noir by a writer whose narrative, says Robert Sheckley, "drives like a futuristic locomotive."
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By Peter Watts, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Peter Watts
All rights reserved.
THE Pacific Ocean stood on her back. She ignored it.
It crushed the bodies of her friends. She forgot them.
It drank the light, blinding even her miraculous eyes. It dared her to give in, to use her headlamp like some crippled dryback.
She kept going, in darkness.
Eventually the seafloor tilted into a great escarpment, leading into light. The bottom changed. Mud disappeared under viscous clumps of half-digested petroleum: a century of oil spills, a great global rug to sweep them beneath. Generations of sunken barges and fishing trawlers haunted the bottom, each a corpse and crypt and epitaph unto itself. She explored the first one she found, slid through shattered windowpanes and upended corridors, and remembered, vaguely, that fish were supposed to congregate in such places.
A long time ago. Now there were only worms, and suffocating bivalves, and a woman turned amphibious by some abstract convergence of technology and economics.
She kept going.
It was growing almost bright enough to see without eyecaps. The bottom twitched with sluggish eutrophiles, creatures so black with hemoglobin they could squeeze oxygen from the rocks themselves. She flashed her headlamp at them, briefly: they shone crimson in the unexpected light.
She kept going.
Sometimes, now, the water was so murky she could barely see her own hands in front of her. The slimy rocks passing beneath took on ominous shapes, grasping hands, twisted limbs, hollow death's-heads with things squirming in their eyes. Sometimes the slime assumed an almost fleshy appearance.
By the time she felt the tug of the surf, the bottom was completely covered in bodies. They, too, seemed to span generations. Some were little more than symmetrical patches of algae. Others were fresh enough to bloat, obscenely buoyant, straining against the detritus holding them down.
But it wasn't the bodies that really bothered her. What bothered her was the light. Even filtered through centuries of suspended effluvium, there seemed far too much of it.
The ocean pushed her up, pulled her down, with a rhythm both heard and felt. A dead gull spun past in the current, tangled in monofilament. The universe was roaring.
For one brief moment, the water disappeared in front of her. For the first time in a year she saw the sky. Then a great wet hand slapped the back of her head, put her under again.
She stopped swimming, uncertain what to do next. But the decision wasn't hers anyway. The waves, marching endlessly shoreward in gray, seething rows, pushed her the rest of the way.
She lay gasping on her belly, water draining from the machinery in her chest: gills shutting down, guts and airways inflating, fifty million years of vertebrate evolution jammed into thirty seconds with a little help from the biotech industry. Her stomach clenched against its own chronic emptiness. Starvation had become a friend, so faithful she could scarcely imagine its absence. She pulled the fins from her feet, rose, staggered as gravity reasserted itself A shaky step forward.
The hazy outlines of guard towers leaned against the eastern horizon, a gap-toothed line of broken spires. Fat tick-like shapes hovered above them, enormous by inference: lifters, tending the remains of a border that had always kept refugees and citizens discreetly segregated. There were no refugees here. There were no citizens. There was only a humanoid accretion of mud and oil with machinery at its heart, an ominous mermaid dragging itself back from the abyss. Undiscardable.
And all this endless chaos — the shattered landscape, the bodies smashed and sucked into the ocean, the devastation reaching God knew how far in every direction — it was all just collateral. The hammer, she knew, had been aimed at her.
It made her smile.
Fables of the Reconstruction
Great glittering skyscrapers, shaking themselves like wet dogs. Downpours of shattered glass from fifty floors of windowpanes. Streets turned into killing floors; thousands slickly dismembered in the space of seconds. And then, when the quake was over, the scavenger hunt: a search for jigsaws of flesh and blood with too many missing pieces. Their numbers grew logistically over time.
Somewhere between the wreckage and the flies and the piles of eyeless bodies, the soul of Sou-Hon Perreault woke up and screamed.
It wasn't supposed to happen that way. It wasn't supposed to happen at all; the catalyzers kept all those obsolete, maladaptive feelings safely preempted, their constituent chemicals split apart before they'd even reached the precursor stage. You don't go wading through an ocean of corpses, even vicariously, as a fully functional human.
She was all over the map when it hit her. Her body was safely stored at home in Billings, over a thousand klicks from the wreckage. Her senses hovered four meters above the remains of the Granville Street Bridge in Hongcouver, nestled within a floating bluebottle carapace half a meter long. And her mind was somewhere else again, doing basic addition with a tally of body parts.
For some reason, the smell of fresh decomposition was bothering her. Perreault frowned: she wasn't usually so queasy. She couldn't afford to be — the current body count was nothing compared to what cholera would rack up if all that meat wasn't cleaned out by the weekend. She tuned down the channel, even though enhanced olfac was the method of choice for nailing buried biologicals.
But now visual was bugging her, too. She couldn't exactly put her finger on it. She was seeing in infra, in case any of the bodies were still warm — hell, someone might even be alive down there — but the false color was unsettling her stomach. She dialed through the spectrum, deep infra up to X ray, settled finally on plain old visible EM. It helped a little. Even though she might as well be looking at the world through merely human eyes now, which wouldn't help her tag rate any.
And the fucking gulls. Jesus Christ, you can't hear anything over that racket.
She hated gulls. You couldn't shut them up. They flocked to scenes like this, threw feeding frenzies that would scare sharks away. Over on the other side of False Creek, for instance, the bodies lay so thick that the gulls were for fucksake high- grading. Just pecking out the eyes, leaving everything else for the maggots. Perreault hadn't seen anything like it since the Tongking spill five years before.
Tongking. Its aftermath bubbled irrelevantly in the back of her mind, distracting with memories of carnage half a decade out-of-date.
Concentrate, she told herself.
Now, for some reason, she couldn't stop thinking about Sudan. That had been a mess. They really should have seen it coming, too; you don't dam a river that size without pissing off someone downstream. The real wonder was that Egypt had waited ten years before they'd bombed the bloody thing. The slide had spread a decade's muddy backlog downstream in an instant; by the time the waters fell it was like picking raisin clusters out of sludgy chocolate.
Ah. Another torso.
Except the raisins had arms and legs, of course. And eyes —
A gull flew past. The eyeball in its beak looked at her for an endless, beseeching instant.
And then, for the first time — through a billion logic gates, endless kilometers of fiberop, and a microwave bounce off geosynch — Sou-Hon Perreault looked back.
Brandon. Venesia. Key West.
My God — everybody's dead.
Galveston. Obidos. The Congo Massacre.
Shut up! Concentrate! Shut up shut up ... .
Madras and Lepreau and Gur'yev, place to place to place the names changing and the ecozones changing and the death toll never sitting still for a fucking instant but always the same song, the same endless procession of body parts buried or burned or torn apart —
Everybody's in piecès ...
Lima and Levanzo and Lagos and that's just a few of the L's, folks, lots more where those came from
It's too late it's too late there's nothing I can do ...
Her botfly sent out an alarm as soon as she went off-line. The Router queried the medchip in Perreault's spine, frowned to itself, and sent a message to the other registered occupant of her apartment. Her husband found her trembling and unresponsive in her office, tears bleeding from her eye-phones.
Part of Perreault's soul lived on the long arm of Chromosome 13, in a subtly defective gene that coded for serotonin 2A receptors. The resulting propensity for suicidal thoughts had never been an issue before; catalyzers buffered her in life as well as on the job. Certain pharms were rumored to sabotage each other's products. Maybe that was it: someone had tried to undermine the competition, and Sou-Hon Perreault — a defective derm pasted onto her arm — had walked into the aftermath of the Big One without realizing that her feelings were still on.
She was no good on the front lines after that. Once you went that seriously post-traumatic, the cats it took to keep you stable would short out your midbrain. (There were still people in the business who had seizures every time they heard the unzipping of a fly; body bags made the same sound when you sealed them.) But Perreault had eight months left on her contract, and nobody wanted to waste her talents or her paycheck in the meantime. What she needed was something low-intensity, something she could handle with conventional suppressants.
They gave her the refugee strip on the west coast. In a way it was ironic: the death toll there had been a hundred times greater than in the cities. But the ocean cleaned up after itself, for the most part. The bodies had been swept out to sea with the sand and the cobble and any boulder smaller than a boxcar. All that remained was moonscape, scoured and buckled.
For the moment, anyway.
Now Sou-Hon Perreault sat at her link and watched a line of red dots crawling along a map of the N'AmPac coastline. Zoomed to higher rez the line resolved into two; one marching from southern Washington down to NoCal, another tracking north along the same course. An endless loop of automated surveillance, eyes that could see through flesh, ears that could eavesdrop on bats. Brains smart enough to do their job without Perreault's help, most of the time.
She'd tap into them anyway, and watch their world scroll by. Somehow the botflies' enhanced senses seemed more real than her own. Her world, when she took off the headset, seemed subtly wrapped in cotton these days. She knew it was the catalyzers; what eluded her was why things were so much less muted whenever she rode a machine.
They traveled along a gradient of destruction. To the north, the land was laid waste. Industrial lifters hung over gaps in the shattered Wall, rebuilding. To the south refugees still shuffled along the Strip, living in lean-tos and tents and the eroding shells of dwellings from a time when ocean views had actually increased property value.
In between, the Strip bled back up the coast in ragged stages. Portable cliffs twenty meters high formed its northern perimeter, kept the Strippers safely contained. N'AmPac machinery patched things up for a few kilometers on the other side — replenishing supplies, filling holes, fixing the more permanent barriers to the east. Other cliffs would eventually descend at the northern edge of the reclaimed area, and their southern counterparts would rise unto heaven — or the belly of an industrial lifter, whichever came first — leapfrogging north, ahead of the mammalian tide. Pacification botflies hovered overhead to keep the migration orderly.
Not that they were really necessary, of course. These days there were far more effective ways of keeping people in line.
She would have been content to watch all day, distant and dispassionate, but her duties left waking gaps between work and sleep. She filled them by wandering alone through the apartment, or watching the way her husband watched her. She found herself increasingly drawn to the aquarium glowing softly in their living room. Perreault had always found it a comfort — the fizzy hiss of the aerator, the luminous interaction of light and water, the peaceful choreography of the fish within. She could get lost in it for hours. A sea anemone, twenty centimeters across, stirred in currents at the back of the tank. Symbiotic algae tinted its flesh a dozen shades of green. A pair of damselfish nested safely in its venomous tentacles. Perreault envied them their security: a predator, miraculously turned to the service of its prey.
What she found really amazing was that the whole crazy alliance — algae, anemone, fish — hadn't even been engineered. It had evolved naturally, a gradual symbiosis spanning millions of years. Not one gene had been tweaked in its construction.
It seemed almost too good to be real.
Sometimes the botflies called for help.
This one had seen something it didn't understand in the transition zone. As far as it could tell, one of the Calvin cyclers was splitting in two. Perreault mounted the line and found herself floating above an ephemeral still life. Shiny new cyclers sat along the shore, miracles of industrial photosynthesis, ready to braid raw atmosphere into edible protein. They appeared intact. A bank of latrines and a solar crematorium had been freshly installed. Light stands and blankets and piles of self-assembling tents lay on neat rows of plastic skids. Even the cracked bedrock had been repaired to some extent, autofoam resin injected into the fissures, remnants of sand and cobble replenished and raked half heartedly over the ruined shoreline.
The restoration crews had gone; the refs had not yet come. But there were fresh footprints on the sand, leading into the ocean.
They came from there, too.
She called up the footage that had triggered the alarm. The world reverted to the garish, comforting false color that machines use to communicate their perceptions to the flesh-constrained. To human eyes, a Calvin cycler was a shiny metal coffin built for a minivan: to the botfly it was a muted tangle of EM emissions.
One of which was sprouting a bud — a little cluster of radiating technology separating from the cycler and weaving uncertainly toward the water. There was also a heat signature, inconsistent with pure tech. Perreault narrowed the focus to visible light.
It was a woman, all in black.
She'd been feeding from the cycler. She hadn't noticed the approaching botfly until it was less than a hundred meters away; then she'd startled and turned to face the lens.
Her eyes were completely white. They held no pupils at all.
Jesus, Perreault thought.
The woman had lurched to her feet as the botfly neared, staggered down the rocky incline. She'd seemed unused to the operation of her own body. Twice she'd fallen. Just short of the waterline she'd grabbed something on the beach — swim fins, Perreault saw — and pitched forward into the shallows. A broken wave had rolled uphill and engulfed her. When it receded the shore was empty.
Less than a minute ago, according to the logs.
Perreault flexed her fingers: twelve hundred kilometers away, the botfly panned down. Exhausted water ebbed and flowed in thin foamy sheets, erasing the creature's footprints. Pacific surf pounded a few meters ahead. For a moment Perreault thought she might have glimpsed something in that confusion of spray and swirling green glass — a dark amphibious form, a face almost devoid of topography. But the moment passed, and not even the botfly's enhanced senses could bring it back.
She replayed, and reconstructed:
The botfly had confused flesh and machinery. It had been scanning on wide-spectrum default, where EM signatures shone like diffuse halogen. When the woman in black had been next to the cycler, the botfly had mistaken two intimate signals for one. When she had moved away, it had seen the cycler breaking apart.
This woman veritably gushed EM. There was machinery embedded in her flesh.
Perreault brought up a freeze-frame from the log. All in black, a single-piece form-fitting uniform painted onto the body. Opened around the face, a pale oval containing two paler ovals where eyes should be: tactical contacts, perhaps?
No, she realized. Photocollagen. To see in the dark.
Occasional disfigurements of plastic and metal — a leg sheath, control pads on the forearms, some sort of disk on the chest. And a bright yellow triangle on the shoulder, a logo consisting of two big stylized letters — GA, she saw with a quick enhance — and a smaller line of text beneath, muddied past recognition. A name tag, probably.
GA. That would be the Grid Authority, N'AmPac's power utility. And this woman was a scuba diver, with her breathing apparatus on the inside. Perreault had heard about them; they were in major demand for deep-water work. Didn't need to decompress, or something.
Excerpted from Maelstrom by Peter Watts, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2001 Peter Watts. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Meet the Author
Peter Watts lives in Toronto, Ontario.
Peter Watts is a former marine biologist and the Hugo and Nebula nominated author of novels such as Starfish, Maelstrom and Behemoth, and numerous short stories. He has been called "a hard science fiction writer through and through and one of the very best alive" by The Globe and Mail and whose work the New York Times called "seriously paranoid."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This series is really top notch.
Although the deaths were expected to reach millions, the nuclear strike on the Pacific Ocean floor geothermal power plant Channer Vent was rationalized as the only way to save the surface population from the ancient microbe that threatened the planet (see STARFISH). The surface dwellers destroyed the vent, but as predicted the earthquake led to a tsunami that killed millions on the coasts and left parts of continents like west coast America underwater. Still world leaders insist the collateral damage was worth the cost as the microbe could have made life on the planet extinct and so are the infected crew and any sea life near the drop zone.
However, there is one problem that surfaces beyond the devastation. The Channer Vent supervisor, rifter Lenie Clark, survived the nuke and though her eyes are gone, she seeks vengeance on those who tried to bury her. Part human and part machine Lenie understands collateral damage and like world leaders does not care as her mission starts with killing her abusive father. The cyberspace MAELSTROM notices her advancement as does peacekeepers; both trying to reach her, but she keeps moving forward driven by her quest. However, what neither detects nor does her sudden human following is that she has brought something with her from the sea.
Although much less a cautionary tale than its superb predecessor STARFISH, the second Rifters tale is much faster and filled with more action. The story line grips the audience from the onset with the amount of collateral damage and destruction, but tightens the hold when Lenie walks out from the sea like a monstrous version of Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder from Dr. No. From there the action never slows, as the definition of collateral damage has been globalized.