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Bruce Sterling

THE CARYATIDS

To Jasmina

Part One

VERA

The Adriatic

POISONS, PUMPED DOWN HERE at enormous pressure, had oozed deep into the water table. The seamy stone was warped and twisted. All around her, toxin miners scuttled like crabs.

The toxin miners pried the poisoned rock apart, slurped up toxins with busy hoses, then deftly reassembled the stifling walls in a jigsaw mess of glue. In their exoskeletons and filter suits, the miners looked like construction cranes wrapped in trash bags.

The miners were used to their work and superbly good at it. They measured their progress in meters per day. They were subterranean brick­layers. Cracking blocks and stacking blocks: that was their very being.

Vera thought longingly of glorious light and air at the island’s sunny surface, which, from the cramped and filthy depths of this mine, seemed as distant as the surface of Mars. Vera had made it a matter of personal principle to know every kind of labor on the island: forestry, reef restoration, the census of species…

These miners had the foulest, vilest redemption work she’d ever seen. The workers were a gang of grimy, knobby ghosts, recycling sewage in­side a locked stone closet.

Her helmeted head rang with a sudden buzz of seismic sensors, as if her graceless filter suit were filled with bees. Tautly braced within their shrouds and boneware, the miners studied the tortured rock through their helmet faceplates. They muttered helpful advice to one another.

Vera loaded the mine’s graphic server. She tapped into the augment that the miners were sharing.

Instantly, the dark wet rock of the mine burst into planes of brilliant color-coding: cherry red, amber yellow, veins of emerald green… A daz­zling graphic front end for this hellhole.

Using their gauntlets, the miners drilled thumb-sized pits into the dirty rock. They plucked color-coded blasting caps from damp-stained satchels at their waists. They tamped in charges. Within a minute came the blast. Vera, sealed within her suit and padded helmet, felt her teeth clack in her head.

With a groan and squeak of their boneware, the miners wrestled out a cracked slab the size of a coffin.

A stew of effluent gushed forth. The bowels of the Earth oozed false-color gushes of scarlet and maroon.

“You can help me now.” Karen beckoned.

Vera chased the software from her faceplate with a shake of her head. Vera’s sensorweb offered sturdy tech support to anyone who might re­deem the island, but the mediation down this mine was in a terrible state. These miners were plumbing the island’s bowels with bombs and picks, but when it came to running their everyware, they never syn­chronized the applications, they never optimized the servers, they never once emptied the caches of the client engines. Why were people like that?

Badly encumbered by her filter shroud, Vera clambered to Karen’s side through a cobweb of safety supports. The carbon-fiber safety webs looked as useless as dirty gossamer. Strain monitors glowed all over them, a spectral host of underground glowworms.

Vera found her voice. “What do you need me to do?”

“Put both your hands up. Here. And over there. Right. Hold all that up.”

Vera stood obediently. Her exoskeleton locked her body tight against the ceiling.

Karen’s boneware creaked as she hefted her power drill. She studied the rock’s warping grain through the mediation of her faceplate, whistling a little through her teeth. Then she probed at a dripping seam. “This part’s nasty,” she warned.

Her drill spewed a tornado of noise. Vera’s guts, lungs, and muscles shook with the racket. It got much worse as Karen dug, jammed, and twisted. Within her boneware, Vera’s flesh turned to jelly.

Karen handled her massive drill with a dainty attention to detail, as if its long whirring bit were a chopstick.

Gouts of flying rock dust pattered off Vera’s helmet. She twisted her neck and felt the helmet’s cranial sensors dig into her scalp.

Two miners slogged past her as she stood there locked in place, haul­ing their hoses and power cables, as if they were trailing spilled guts. They never seemed to tire.

Stuck in her posture of cramped martyrdom to duty, Vera sourly en­joyed a long, dark spell of self- contemplation.

Like an utter idiot, she had allowed herself to be crammed into this black, evil place… No, in a bold gust of crusading passion, she had grabbed her sensor kit and charged headlong down into this mine to tackle the island’s worst depths. Why? To win some glow of deeper pro­fessional glory, or maybe one word of praise from her boss?

How could she have been that stupid, that naive? Herbert was never coming down here into a toxin mine. Herbert was a professional. Her­bert had big plans to fulfill.

Herbert was a career Acquis environmental engineer, with twenty years of service to his credit. Vera also wore the Acquis uniform, but, as a career Acquis officer, Vera was her own worst enemy. When would she learn to stop poking in her beak like a magpie, trying to weave her sensor­webbing over the whole Earth? Any engineer who ran a sensorweb always thought she was the tech support for everything and everybody. “Ubiqui­tous, pervasive, and ambient” —all those fine words just meant that she would never be able to leave anything alone.

No amount of everyware and mediation could disguise the fact that this mine was a madhouse. The ugly darkness here, the grit, the bang­ing, grinding, and blasting, the sullen heat, the seething damp: and the whole place was literally full of poison! She was breathing through mi­cropored plastic, one filmy layer away from tainted suffocation.

Stuck in her rigid posture of support, Vera gazed angrily through the rounded corners of her helmet faceplate. Nobody else down in this mine seemed at all bothered by the deadly hazards surrounding them.

Was she living an entirely private nightmare, was she insane? Maybe she had been crazy since childhood. Anyone who learned about her childhood always thought as much.

Or maybe her perspectives were higher and broader and finer, maybe she simply understood life better than these dirty morons. Stinging sweat dripped over Vera’s eyebrows. Yes, this ugly mayhem was the stuff oflife for the tunnel rats. They had followed their bliss down here. This hell was their homeland. Fresh air, fresh water, golden sunlight, these were alien concepts for them. These cavemen were going to settle down here permanently, burrowing into the poisonous wet and stink like bony salamanders. They would have children, born without eyes…

“Stay alert,” Karen warned her.

Vera tried, without success, to shrug in her locked exoskeleton.

“Work faster, then.”

“Don’t you hustle me,” said Karen merrily. “I’m an artist.”

“Let’s get this over with.”

“This is not the kind of work you can hurry,” said Karen. “Besides, I love my drill, but they built it kinda girly and underpowered.”

“Then let me do the drilling. You can hold this roof up.”

“Vera, I know what I’m doing.” With a toss of her head, Karen lit up her bodyware. A halo of glory appeared around her, a mediated golden glow.

This won her the debate. Karen was the expert, for she was very glo­rious down here. Karen was glorious

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