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       Firefall, p.1

           Peter Watts
 
Firefall


  Blindsight

  Echopraxia

  Start Reading

  About this Book

  About the Author

  Reviews

  Also by this Author

  Table of Contents

  www.headofzeus.com

  Actually, this could be a warning or an apology. It really depends on you.

  If you’re just browsing—flipping through pages, scrolling down screens prior to purchase—I’ve caught you in time. Be warned that there isn’t one book between these covers, but two: Blindsight and Echopraxia, bundled into an omnibus Collector’s Edition to commemorate their first appearance from a UK publisher.

  It’s actually a nice change to be able to deliver this kind of message. The last time I found myself in this position I was telling people not that their purchase contained two novels, but half of one—and that they’d have to pay the price of a second hardcover if they wanted to see how the story ended. (My US publisher has an unfortunate habit of splitting novels into multiple volumes, dropping each bleeding body part onto an unsuspecting public without telling them it’s not a complete product.) This is definitely the better option. Still, Blindsight has been out for a while now—it was first released in 2006—so if you’ve already read it, half this ticket price will be for words you’ve already seen. You might reasonably bristle at the prospect of having to pay for something you’ve already read, just to get your hands on something you haven’t.

  If that’s the case, never fear; a standalone edition of Echopraxia will be hitting the stands in a few months. Of course, waiting that long means you won’t be the first on your block to read it (unless this omnibus tanks, in which case maybe you will), but at least you’ll have that much more opportunity to read the reviews and decide if you even want to. The upside of delayed gratification is reduced risk.

  So that’s the deal, and that’s the choice. But only if you haven’t bought this yet. If you have—if you’re sitting in your favorite reading chair, having just torn open your freshly-bought copy of this new Firefall novel that you’d somehow never heard of until you spied it in the local bookstore, only to realize Wait a second, I’ve fucking read this already—all I can say is, sorry. I tried to warn you. But you do have both novels now, in a spiffy omnibus format for the ages, adorned with cool new art that I myself had a hand in constructing. Those spaceships? I made them myself.

  Hopefully that might count for something.

  —Peter Watts, July 2014

  CONTENTS

  COVER

  WELCOME PAGE

  A WELCOME AND A WARNING

  BLINDSIGHT

  DEDICATION

  EPIGRAPH

  PROLOGUE

  THESEUS

  RORSCHACH

  CHARYBDIS

  ECHOPRAXIA

  DEDICATION

  EPIGRAPH 1

  EPIGRAPH 2

  THE CROWN OF THORNS

  PRELUDE

  PRIMITIVE

  PARASITE

  PREY

  PREDATOR

  PROPHET

  POSTSCRIPT

  BLINDSIGHT ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  NOTES AND REFERENCES

  ECHOPRAXIA ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  NOTES AND REFERENCES

  ABOUT THIS BOOK

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  ALSO BY THIS AUTHOR

  REVIEWS

  AN INVITATION FROM THE PUBLISHER

  COPYRIGHT

  For Lisa

  If we're not in pain, we're not alive.

  IT DIDN'T START out here. Not with the scramblers or Rorschach, not with Big Ben or Theseus or the vampires. Most people would say it started with the Fireflies, but they'd be wrong. It ended with all those things.

  For me, it began with Robert Paglino.

  At the age of eight, he was my best and only friend. We were fellow outcasts, bound by complementary misfortune. Mine was developmental. His was genetic: an uncontrolled genotype that left him predisposed to nearsightedness, acne, and (as it later turned out) a susceptibility to narcotics. His parents had never had him optimized. Those few TwenCen relics who still believed in God also held that one shouldn't try to improve upon His handiwork. So although both of us could have been repaired, only one of us had been.

  I arrived at the playground to find Pag the center of attention for some half-dozen kids, those lucky few in front punching him in the head, the others making do with taunts of mongrel and polly while waiting their turn. I watched him raise his arms, almost hesitantly, to ward off the worst of the blows. I could see into his head better than I could see into my own; he was scared that his attackers might think those hands were coming up to hit back, that they'd read it as an act of defiance and hurt him even more. Even then, at the tender age of eight and with half my mind gone, I was becoming a superlative observer.

  But I didn't know what to do.

  I hadn't seen much of Pag lately. I was pretty sure he'd been avoiding me. Still, when your best friend's in trouble you help out, right? Even if the odds are impossible—and how many eight-year-olds would go up against six bigger kids for a sandbox buddy?—at least you call for backup. Flag a sentry. Something.

  I just stood there. I didn't even especially want to help him.

  That didn't make sense. Even if he hadn't been my best friend, I should at least have empathized. I'd suffered less than Pag in the way of overt violence; my seizures tended to keep the other kids at a distance, scared them even as they incapacitated me. Still. I was no stranger to the taunts and insults, or the foot that appears from nowhere to trip you up en route from A to B. I knew how that felt.

  Or I had, once.

  But that part of me had been cut out along with the bad wiring. I was still working up the algorithms to get it back, still learning by observation. Pack animals always tear apart the weaklings in their midst. Every child knows that much instinctively. Maybe I should just let that process unfold, maybe I shouldn't try to mess with nature. Then again, Pag's parents hadn't messed with nature, and look what it got them: a son curled up in the dirt while a bunch of engineered superboys kicked in his ribs.

  In the end, propaganda worked where empathy failed. Back then I didn't so much think as observe, didn't deduce so much as remember—and what I remembered was a thousand inspirational stories lauding anyone who ever stuck up for the underdog.

  So I picked up a rock the size of my fist and hit two of Pag's assailants across the backs of their heads before anyone even knew I was in the game.

  A third, turning to face the new threat, took a blow to the face that audibly crunched the bones of his cheek. I remember wondering why I didn't take any satisfaction from that sound, why it meant nothing beyond the fact I had one less opponent to worry about.

  The rest of them ran at the sight of blood. One of the braver promised me I was dead, shouted "Fucking zombie!" over his shoulder as he disappeared around the corner.

  Three decades it took, to see the irony in that remark.

  Two of the enemy twitched at my feet. I kicked one in the head until it stopped moving, turned to the other. Something grabbed my arm and I swung without thinking, without looking until Pag yelped and ducked out of reach.

  "Oh," I said. "Sorry."

  One thing lay motionless. The other moaned and held its head and curled up in a ball.

  "Oh shit," Pag panted. Blood coursed unheeded from his nose and splattered down his shirt. His cheek was turning blue and yellow. "Oh shit oh shit oh shit..."

  I thought of something to say. "You all right?"

  "Oh shit, you—I mean, you never..." He wiped his mouth. Blood smeared the back of his hand. "Oh man are we in trouble."

  "They started it."

  "Yeah, but you—I mean, look at them!"

  The moaning thing was crawling away o
n all fours. I wondered how long it would be before it found reinforcements. I wondered if I should kill it before then.

  "You'da never done that before," Pag said.

  Before the operation, he meant.

  I actually did feel something then—faint, distant, but unmistakable. I felt angry. "They started—"

  Pag backed away, eyes wide. "What are you doing? Put that down!"

  I'd raised my fists. I didn't remember doing that. I unclenched them. It took a while. I had to look at my hands very hard for a long, long time.

  The rock dropped to the ground, blood-slick and glistening.

  "I was trying to help." I didn't understand why he couldn't see that.

  "You're, you're not the same," Pag said from a safe distance. "You're not even Siri any more."

  "I am too. Don't be a fuckwad."

  "They cut out your brain!"

  "Only half. For the ep—"

  "I know for the epilepsy! You think I don't know? But you were in that half—or, like, part of you was..." He struggled with the words, with the concept behind them. "And now you're different. It's like, your mom and dad murdered you—"

  "My mom and dad," I said, suddenly quiet, "saved my life. I would have died."

  "I think you did die," said my best and only friend. "I think Siri died, they scooped him out and threw him away and you're some whole other kid that just, just grew back out of what was left. You're not the same. Ever since. You're not the same."

  I still don't know if Pag really knew what he was saying. Maybe his mother had just pulled the plug on whatever game he'd been wired into for the previous eighteen hours, forced him outside for some fresh air. Maybe, after fighting pod people in gamespace, he couldn't help but see them everywhere. Maybe.

  But you could make a case for what he said. I do remember Helen telling me (and telling me) how difficult it was to adjust. Like you had a whole new personality, she said, and why not? There's a reason they call it radical hemispherectomy: half the brain thrown out with yesterday's krill, the remaining half press-ganged into double duty. Think of all the rewiring that one lonely hemisphere must have struggled with as it tried to take up the slack. It turned out okay, obviously. The brain's a very flexible piece of meat; it took some doing, but it adapted. I adapted. Still. Think of all that must have been squeezed out, deformed, reshaped by the time the renovations were through. You could argue that I'm a different person than the one who used to occupy this body.

  The grownups showed up eventually, of course. Medicine was bestowed, ambulances called. Parents were outraged, diplomatic volleys exchanged, but it's tough to drum up neighborhood outrage on behalf of your injured baby when playground surveillance from three angles shows the little darling—and five of his buddies— kicking in the ribs of a disabled boy. My mother, for her part, recycled the usual complaints about problem children and absentee fathers—Dad was off again in some other hemisphere—but the dust settled pretty quickly. Pag and I even stayed friends, after a short hiatus that reminded us both of the limited social prospects open to schoolyard rejects who don't stick together.

  So I survived that and a million other childhood experiences. I grew up and I got along. I learned to fit in. I observed, recorded, derived the algorithms and mimicked appropriate behaviors. Not much of it was—heartfelt, I guess the word is. I had friends and enemies, like everyone else. I chose them by running through checklists of behaviors and circumstances compiled from years of observation.

  I may have grown up distant but I grew up objective, and I have Robert Paglino to thank for that. His seminal observation set everything in motion. It led me into Synthesis, fated me to our disastrous encounter with the Scramblers, spared me the worse fate befalling Earth. Or the better one, I suppose, depending on your point of view. Point of view matters: I see that now, blind, talking to myself, trapped in a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system. I see it for the first time since some beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield convinced me to throw my own point of view away.

  He may have been wrong. I may have been. But that, that distance—that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind—it's not entirely a bad thing.

  It came in especially handy when the real aliens came calling.

  IMAGINE YOU ARE Siri Keeton:

  You wake in an agony of resurrection, gasping after a record-shattering bout of sleep apnea spanning one hundred forty days. You can feel your blood, syrupy with dobutamine and leuenkephalin, forcing its way through arteries shriveled by months on standby. The body inflates in painful increments: blood vessels dilate; flesh peels apart from flesh; ribs crack in your ears with sudden unaccustomed flexion. Your joints have seized up through disuse. You're a stick-man, frozen in some perverse rigor vitae.

  You'd scream if you had the breath.

  Vampires did this all the time, you remember. It was normal for them, it was their own unique take on resource conservation. They could have taught your kind a few things about restraint, if that absurd aversion to right-angles hadn't done them in at the dawn of civilization. Maybe they still can. They're back now, after all— raised from the grave with the voodoo of paleogenetics, stitched together from junk genes and fossil marrow steeped in the blood of sociopaths and high-functioning autistics. One of them commands this very mission. A handful of his genes live on in your own body so it too can rise from the dead, here at the edge of interstellar space. Nobody gets past Jupiter without becoming part vampire.

  The pain begins, just slightly, to recede. You fire up your inlays and access your own vitals: it'll be long minutes before your body responds fully to motor commands, hours before it stops hurting. The pain's an unavoidable side effect. That's just what happens when you splice vampire subroutines into Human code. You asked about painkillers once, but nerve blocks of any kind compromise metabolic reactivation. Suck it up, soldier.

  You wonder if this was how it felt for Chelsea, before the end. But that evokes a whole other kind of pain, so you block it out and concentrate on the life pushing its way back into your extremities. Suffering in silence, you check the logs for fresh telemetry.

  You think: That can't be right.

  Because if it is, you're in the wrong part of the universe. You're not in the Kuiper Belt where you belong: you're high above the ecliptic and deep into the Oort, the realm of long-period comets that only grace the sun every million years or so. You've gone interstellar, which means (you bring up the system clock) you've been undead for eighteen hundred days.

  You've overslept by almost five years.

  The lid of your coffin slides away. Your own cadaverous body reflects from the mirrored bulkhead opposite, a desiccated lungfish waiting for the rains. Bladders of isotonic saline cling to its limbs like engorged antiparasites, like the opposite of leeches. You remember the needles going in just before you shut down, way back when your veins were more than dry twisted filaments of beef jerky.

  Szpindel's reflection stares back from his own pod to your immediate right. His face is as bloodless and skeletal as yours. His wide sunken eyes jiggle in their sockets as he reacquires his own links, sensory interfaces so massive that your own off-the-shelf inlays amount to shadow-puppetry in comparison.

  You hear coughing and the rustling of limbs just past line-of-sight, catch glimpses of reflected motion where the others stir at the edge of vision.

  "Wha—" Your voice is barely more than a hoarse whisper. "…happ…?"

  Szpindel works his jaw. Bone cracks audibly.

  "…Sssuckered," he hisses.

  You haven't even met the aliens yet, and already they're running rings around you.

  ***

  So we dragged ourselves back from the dead: five part-time cadavers, naked, emaciated, barely able to move even in zero gee. We emerged from our coffins like premature moths ripped from their cocoons, still half-grub. We were alone and off course and utterly helpless, and it took a conscious effort to remember: they would never have risked our lives if we h
adn't been essential.

  "Morning, commissar." Isaac Szpindel reached one trembling, insensate hand for the feedback gloves at the base of his pod. Just past him, Susan James was curled into a loose fetal ball, murmuring to herselves. Only Amanda Bates, already dressed and cycling through a sequence of bone-cracking isometrics, possessed anything approaching mobility. Every now and then she tried bouncing a rubber ball off the bulkhead; but not even she was up to catching it on the rebound yet.

  The journey had melted us down to a common archetype. James' round cheeks and hips, Szpindel's high forehead and lumpy, lanky chassis—even the enhanced carboplatinum brick shit-house that Bates used for a body— all had shriveled to the same desiccated collection of sticks and bones. Even our hair seemed to have become strangely discolored during the voyage, although I knew that was impossible. More likely it was just filtering the pallor of the skin beneath. Still. The pre-dead James had been dirty blond, Szpindel's hair had been almost dark enough to call black— but the stuff floating from their scalps looked the same dull kelpy brown to me now. Bates kept her head shaved, but even her eyebrows weren't as rusty as I remembered them.

  We'd revert to our old selves soon enough. Just add water. For now, though, the old slur was freshly relevant: the Undead really did all look the same, if you didn't know how to look.

  If you did, of course—if you forgot appearance and watched for motion, ignored meat and studied topology—you'd never mistake one for another. Every facial tic was a data point, every conversational pause spoke volumes more than the words to either side. I could see James' personae shatter and coalesce in the flutter of an eyelash. Szpindel's unspoken distrust of Amanda Bates shouted from the corner of his smile. Every twitch of the phenotype cried aloud to anyone who knew the language.

  "Where's—" James croaked, coughed, waved one spindly arm at Sarasti's empty coffin gaping at the end of the row.

  Szpindel's lips cracked in a small rictus. "Gone back to Fab, eh? Getting the ship to build some dirt to lie on."

  "Probably communing with the Captain." Bates breathed louder than she spoke, a dry rustle from pipes still getting reacquainted with the idea of respiration.

 
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