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Alastair Reynolds is the author of the Revelation Space series, which includes the novels Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, and The Prefect. Other novels include Century Rain, Terminal World, Pushing Ice, and House of Suns. His latest novels are On the Steel Breeze, the second in the Poseidon’s Children trilogy, and Doctor Who: Harvest of Time.

They brought Gaunt out of hibernation on a blustery day in early spring. He came to consciousness in a steel-framed bed in a gray-walled room that had the economical look of something assembled in a hurry from prefabricated parts. Two people were standing at the foot of the bed, looking only moderately interested in his plight. One of them was a man, cradling a bowl of something and spooning quantities of it into his mouth, as if he were eating his breakfast on the run. He had cropped white hair and the leathery complexion of someone who spent a lot of time outside. Next to him was a woman with longer hair, graying rather than white, and with much darker skin. Like the man, she was wiry of build and dressed in crumpled gray overalls, with a heavy equipment belt dangling from her hips.

“You in one piece, Gaunt?” she asked, while her companion spooned in another mouthful of his breakfast. “You compos mentis?”

Gaunt squinted against the brightness of the room’s lighting, momentarily adrift from his memories.

“Where am I?’ ” he asked. His voice came out raw, as if he had been in a loud bar the night before.

“In a room, being woken up,” the woman said. “You remember going under, right?”

He grasped for memories, something specific to hold on to. Green-gowned doctors in a clean surgical theater, his hand signing the last of the release forms before they plumbed him into the machines. The drugs flooding his system, the utter absence of sadness or longing as he bid farewell to the old world, with all its vague disappointments.

“I think so.”

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Gaunt.” He had to wait a moment for the rest of it to come. “Marcus Gaunt.”

“Good,” he said, smearing a hand across his lips. “That’s a positive sign.”

“I’m Clausen,” the woman said. “This is Da Silva. We’re your wake-up team. You remember Sleepover?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Think hard, Gaunt,” she said. “It won’t cost us anything to put you back under if you don’t think you’re going to work out for us.”

Something in Clausen’s tone convinced him to work hard at retrieving the memory. “The company,” he said. “Sleepover was the company. The one that put me under. The one that put everyone under.”

“Brain cells haven’t mushed on us,” Da Silva said.

Clausen nodded, but showed nothing in the way of jubilation in his having got the answer right. It was more that he’d spared the two of them a minor chore, that was all. “I like the way he says ‘everyone.’ Like it was universal.”

“Wasn’t it?” Da Silva asked.

“Not for him. Gaunt was one of the first under. Didn’t you read his file?”

Da Silva grimaced. “Sorry. Got sidetracked.”

“He was one of the first two hundred thousand,” Clausen said. “The ultimate exclusive club. What did you call yourselves, Gaunt?”

“The Few,” he said. “It was an accurate description. What else were we going to call ourselves?”

“Lucky sons of bitches,” Clausen said.

“Do you remember the year you went under?” Da Silva asked. “You were one of the early ones, it must’ve been sometime near the middle of the century.”

“Twenty fifty-eight. I can tell you the exact month and day if you wish. Maybe not the time of day.”

“You remember why you went under, of course,” Clausen said.

“Because I could,” Gaunt said. “Because anyone in my position would have done the same. The world was getting better, it was coming out of the trough. But it wasn’t there yet. And the doctors kept telling us that the immortality breakthrough was just around the corner, year after year. Always just out of reach. Just hang in there, they said. But we were all getting older. Then the doctors said that while they couldn’t give us eternal life just yet, they could give us the means to skip over the years until it happened.” Gaunt forced himself to sit up in the bed, strength returning to his limbs even as he grew angrier at the sense that he was not being treated with sufficient deference, that—worse—he was being judged. “There was nothing evil in what we did. We didn’t hurt anyone or take anything away from anyone else. We just used the means at our disposal to access what was coming to us anyway.”

“Who’s going to break it to him?” Clausen asked, looking at Da Silva.

“You’ve been sleeping for nearly a hundred and sixty years,” the man said. “It’s April, twenty-two seventeen. You’ve reached the twenty-third century.”

Gaunt took in the drab mundanity of his surroundings again. He had always had some nebulous idea of the form his wake-up would take and it was not at all like this.

“Are you lying to me?”

“What do you think?” asked Clausen.

He held up his hand. It looked, as near as he could remember, exactly the way it had been before. The same age spots, the same prominent veins, the same hairy knuckles, the same scars and loose, lizardy skin.

“Bring me a mirror,” he said, with an ominous foreboding.

“I’ll save you the bother,” Clausen said. “The face you’ll see is the one you went under with, give or take. We’ve done nothing to you except treat superficial damage caused by the early freezing protocols. Physiologically, you’re still a sixty-year-old man, with about twenty or thirty years ahead of you.”

“Then why have you woken me, if the process isn’t ready?”

“There isn’t one,” Da Silva said. “And there won’t be, at least not for a long, long time. Afraid we’ve got other things to worry about now. Immortality’s the least of our problems.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will, Gaunt,” Clausen said. “Everyone does in the end. You’ve been preselected for aptitude, anyway. Made your fortune in computing, didn’t you?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “You worked with artificial intelligence, trying to make thinking machines.”

One of the vague disappointments hardened into a specific, life-souring defeat. All the energy he had put into one ambition, all the friends and lovers he had burned up along the way, shutting them out of his life while he focused on that one white whale.

“It never worked out.”

“Still made you a rich man along the way,” she said.

“Just a means of raising money. What does it have to do with my revival?”

Clausen seemed on the verge of answering his question before something made her change her mind. “Clothes in the bedside locker: they should fit you. You want breakfast?”

“I don’t feel hungry.”

“Your stomach will take some time to settle down. Meantime, if you feel like puking, do it now rather than later. I don’t want you messing up my ship.”

He had a sudden lurch of adjusting preconceptions. The prefabricated surroundings, the background hum of distant machines, the utilitarian clothing of his wake-up team: perhaps he was aboard some kind of spacecraft, sailing between the worlds. The twenty-third century, he thought. Time enough to establish an interplanetary civilization, even if it only extended as far as the solar system.

“Are we in a ship now?”

“Fuck, no,” Clausen said, sneering at his question. “We’re in Patagonia.”

He got dressed, putting on underwear and a white T-shirt, and over that the same kind of gray overalls as his hosts had been wearing. The room was cool and damp and he was glad of the clothes once he had them on. There were lace-up boots that were tight around the toes, but otherwise serviceable. The materials all felt perfectly mundane and commonplace, even a little frayed and worn in places. At least he was clean and groomed, his hair clipped short and his beard shaved. They must have freshened him up before bringing him to consciousness.

Clausen and Da Silva were waiting in the windowless corridor outside the room. “ ’Spect you’ve got a ton of questions,” Clausen said. “Along the lines of, why am I being treated like shit rather than royalty? What happened to the rest of the Few, what is this fucked-up, miserable place, and so on.”

“I presume you’re going to get round to some answers soon enough.”

“Maybe you should tell him the deal now, up front,” Da Silva said. He was wearing an outdoor coat now and had a zip-up bag slung over his shoulder.

“What deal?” Gaunt asked.

“To begin with,” Clausen said, “you don’t mean anything special to us. We’re not impressed by the fact that you just slept a hundred and sixty years. It’s old news. But you’re still useful.”

“In what way?”

“We’re down a man. We run a tight operation here and we can’t afford to lose even one member of the team.” It was Da Silva speaking now; although there wasn’t much between them, Gaunt had the sense that he was the slightly more reasonable one of the duo, the one who wasn’t radiating quite so much naked antipathy. “Deal is, we train you up and give you work. In return, of course, you’re looked after pretty well. Food, clothing, somewhere to sleep, whatever medicine we can provide.” He shrugged. “It’s the deal we all took. Not so bad when you get used to it.”

“And the alternative?”

“Bag you and tag you and put you back in the freezer,” Da Silva went on. “Same as all the others. Your choice, of course. Work with us, become part of the team, or go back into hibernation and take your chances there.”

“We need to be on our way,” Clausen said. “Don’t want to keep Nero waiting on F.”

“Who’s Nero?” Gaunt asked.

“Last one we pulled out before you,” Da Silva said.

They walked down the corridor, passing a set of open double doors that led into some kind of mess room or commons. Men and women of various ages were sitting around tables, talking quietly as they ate meals or played card games. Everything looked spartan and institutional, from the plastic chairs to the Formica-topped surfaces. Beyond the tables, a rain-washed window framed only a rectangle of gray cloud. Gaunt caught a few glances directed his way, a flicker of waning interest from one or two of the personnel, but no one showed any fascination with him. The three of them walked on, ascending stairs to the next level of whatever kind of building they were in. An older man, Chinese-looking, passed in the opposite direction, carrying a grease-smeared wrench. He raised his free hand to Clausen in a silent high five, Clausen reciprocating. Then they were up another level, passing equipment lockers and electrical distribution cabinets, and then up a spiral stairwell that emerged into a drafty, corrugated-metal shed smelling of oil and ozone. Incongruously, there was an inflatable orange life preserver on one wall of the shed, an old red fire extinguisher on the other.

This is the twenty-third century, Gaunt told himself. As dispiriting as the surroundings were, he had no reason to doubt that this was the reality of life in 2217. He supposed it had always been an article of faith that the world would improve, that the future would be better than the past, shinier and cleaner and faster, but he had not expected to have his nose rubbed in the unwisdom of that faith quite so vigorously.

There was one door leading out of the corrugated-metal shed. Clausen pushed it open against the wind, then the three of them stepped outside. They were on the roof of something. There was a square of cracked and oil-stained concrete, marked here and there with lines of fading red paint. A couple of seagulls pecked disconsolately at something in the corner. At least they still had seagulls, Gaunt thought. There hadn’t been some awful, life-scouring biocatastrophe, forcing everyone to live in bunkers.

Sitting on the middle of the roof was a helicopter. It was matte black, a lean, waspish thing made of angles rather than curves, and aside from some sinister bulges and pods, there was nothing particularly futuristic about it. For all Gaunt knew, it could have been based on a model that was in production before he went under.

“You’re thinking: shitty-looking helicopter,” Clausen said, raising her voice over the wind.

He smiled quickly. “What does it run on? I’m assuming the oil reserves ran dry sometime in the last century?”

“Oil,” Clausen said, cracking open the cockpit door. “Get in the back, buckle up. Da Silva rides up front with me.”

Da Silva slung his zip-up bag into the rear compartment where Gaunt was settling into his position, more than a little apprehensive about what lay ahead. He looked between the backs of the forward seats at the cockpit instrumentation. He’d been in enough private helicopters to know what the manual override controls looked like, and there was nothing weirdly incongruous here.

“Where are we going?”

“Running a shift change,” Da Silva said, wrapping a pair of headphones around his skull. “Couple of days ago there was an accident out on J platform. Lost Gimenez, and Nero’s been hurt. Weather was too bad to do the extraction until today, but now we have our window. Reason we thawed you, actually. I’m taking over from Gimenez, so you have to cover for me here.”

“You have a labor shortage, so you brought me out of hibernation?”

“That about covers it,” Da Silva said. “Clausen figured it wouldn’t hurt for you to come along for the ride, get you up to speed.”

Clausen flicked a bank of switches in the ceiling. Overhead, the rotor began to turn.

“I guess you have something faster than helicopters, for longer journeys,” Gaunt said.

“Nope,” Clausen answered. “Other than some boats, helicopters are pretty much it.”

“What about intercontinental travel?”

“There isn’t any.”

“This isn’t the world I was expecting!” Gaunt said, straining to make himself heard.

Da Silva leaned around and motioned to the headphones dangling from the seat back. Gaunt put them on and fussed with the microphone until it was in front of his lips.

“I said this isn’t the world I was expecting.”

“Yeah,” Da Silva said. “I heard you the first time.”

The rotor reached takeoff speed. Clausen eased the helicopter into the air, the rooftop landing pad falling away below. They scudded sideways, nose down, until they had cleared the side of the building. The walls plunged vertically, Gaunt’s guts twisting at the dizzying transition. It hadn’t been a building at all, at least not the kind he had been thinking of. The landing pad was on top of a squareish, industrial-looking structure about the size of a large office block, hazed in scaffolding and gangways, prickly with cranes and chimneys and otherwise unrecognizable protuberances, the structure in turn rising out of the sea on four elephantine legs, the widening bases of which were being ceaselessly pounded by waves. It was an oil rig or production platform of some kind, or at least, something repurposed from one.

It wasn’t the only one either. The rig they had taken off from was but one in a major field, rig after rig stretching all the way to the gloomy, gray, rain-hazed horizon. There were dozens, and he had the sense that they didn’t stop at the horizon.

“What are these for? I know it’s not oil. There can’t be enough of it left to justify a drilling operation on this scale. The reserves were close to being tapped out when I went under.”

“Dormitories,” Da Silva said. “Each of these platforms holds maybe ten thousand sleepers, give or take. They built them out at sea because we need OTEC power to run them, using the heat difference between surface water and deep ocean, and it’s much easier if we don’t have to run those power cables inland.”

“Coming back to bite us now,” Clausen said.

“If we’d gone inland, they’d have sent land-dragons instead. They’re just adapting to whatever we do,” Da Silva said pragmatically.

They sped over oily, roiling waters. “Is this really Patagonia?” Gaunt asked.

“Patagonia offshore sector,” Da Silva said. “Subsector fifteen. That’s our watch. There are about two hundred of us, and we look after about a hundred rigs, all told.”

Gaunt ran the numbers twice, because he couldn’t believe what they were telling him. “That’s a million sleepers.”

“Ten million in the whole of Patagonia offshore,” Clausen said. “That surprise you, Gaunt? That ten million people managed to achieve what you and your precious Few did, all those years back?”

“I suppose not,” he said, as the truth of it sunk in. “Over time the cost of the process would have decreased, becoming available to people of lesser means. The merely rich, rather than the super-rich. But it was never going to be something available to the masses. Ten million, maybe. Beyond that? Hundreds of millions? I’m sorry, but the economics just don’t stack up.”

“It’s a good thing we don’t have economics, then,” Da Silva said.

“Patagonia’s just a tiny part of the whole,” said Clausen. “Two hundred other sectors out there, just as large as this one. That’s two billion sleepers, near as it matters.”

Gaunt shook his head. “That can’t be right. The global population was only eight billion when I went under, and the trend was downward! You can’t tell me that a quarter of the human race is hibernating.”

“Maybe it would help if I told you that the current population of the earth is also two billion, near as it matters,” Clausen said. “Almost everyone’s asleep. There’s just a handful of us still awake, playing caretaker, watching over the rigs and OTEC plants.”

“Four hundred thousand waking souls,” Da Silva said. “But it actually feels like a lot less than that, since we mostly keep to our assigned sectors.”

“You know the real irony?” Clausen said. “We’re the ones who get to call ourselves the Few now. The ones who aren’t sleeping.”

“That doesn’t leave anyone to actually do anything,” Gaunt said. “There’s no point in everyone waiting for a cure for death if there’s no one alive to do the hard work of making it happen.”

Clausen turned around to look back at him, her expression telling him everything he needed to know about her opinion of his intellect. “It isn’t about immortality. It’s about survival. It’s about doing our bit for the war effort.”

“What war?” Gaunt asked.

“The one going on all around us,” Clausen said. “The one you made happen.”

They came in to land on another rig, one of five that stood close enough to each other to be linked by cables and walkways. The sea was still heavy, with huge waves dashing against the concrete piers on which the rigs were supported. Gaunt peered intently at the windows and decks, but saw no sign of human activity on any of the structures. He thought back to what Clausen and Da Silva had told him, each time trying to find a reason why they might be lying to him, why they might be going to pathological lengths to hoax him about the nature of the world into which he had woken. Maybe there was a form of mass entertainment that involved waking sleepers such as himself and putting them through the emotional wringer, presenting them with the grimmest possible scenarios, ramping up the misery until they cracked, and only then pulling aside the gray curtains to reveal that, in marvelous point of fact, life in the twenty-third century really was every bit as blue-skied and utopian as he had hoped. That didn’t seem very likely, though.

Yet what kind of war required people to be put to sleep in their billions? And why was the caretaker force, the four hundred thousand waking individuals, stretched so ridiculously thin? Clearly the rigs were largely automated, but it had still been necessary to pull him out of sleep because someone else had died in the Patagonia offshore sector. Why not just have more caretakers awake in the first place, so that the system was able to absorb some losses?

With the helicopter safely down on the pad, Clausen and Da Silva told him to follow them into the depths of the other rig. There was very little about it to distinguish it from the one where Gaunt had been woken, save for the fact that it was almost completely deserted, with the only activity coming from skulking repair robots. They were clearly very simple machines, not much smarter than automatic window cleaners. Given the years of his life that he had given over to the dream of artificial intelligence, it was dismaying to see how little progress—if any—had been made.

“We need to get one thing straight,” Gaunt said, when they were deep into the humming bowels of the rig. “I didn’t start any wars. You’ve got the wrong guy here.”

“You think we mixed up your records?” Clausen asked. “How did we know about your work on thinking machines?”

“Then you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. I had nothing do to with wars or the military.”

“We know what you did,” she said. “The years spent trying to build a true, Turing-compliant artificial intelligence. A thinking, conscious machine.”

“Except it was a dead end.”

“Still led to some useful spinoffs, didn’t it?” she went on. “You cracked the hard problem of language comprehension. Your systems didn’t just recognize speech. They were able to understand it on a level no computer system had ever achieved before. Metaphor, simile, sarcasm, and understatement, even implication by omission. Of course, it had numerous civilian applications, but that isn’t where you made your billions.” She looked at him sharply.

“I created a product,” Gaunt said. “I simply made it available to whoever could afford it.”

“Yes, you did. Unfortunately, your system turned out to be the perfect instrument of mass surveillance for every despotic government still left on the planet. Every basket-case totalitarian state still in existence couldn’t get its hands on your product fast enough. And you had no qualms whatsoever about selling it, did you?”

Gaunt felt a well-rehearsed argument bubbling up from his subconscious. “No communication tool in history has ever been a single-edged sword.”

“And that excuses you, does it?” Clausen asked. Da Silva had been silent in this exchange, observing the two of them as they continued along corridors and down stairwells.

“I’m not asking for absolution. But if you think I started wars, if you think I’m somehow responsible for this”—he gestured at his surroundings—“this fucked-up state of affairs, then you’re very, very wrong.”

“Maybe you weren’t solely responsible,” Clausen said. “But you were certainly complicit. You and everyone else who pursued the dream of artificial intelligence. Driving the world toward the edge of that cliff, without a thought for the consequences. You had no idea what you were unleashing.”

“I’m telling you, we unleashed nothing. It didn’t work.”

They were walking along a suspended gangway now, crossing from one side to the other of some huge space somewhere inside the rig. “Take a look down,” Da Silva said. Gaunt didn’t want to; he’d never been good with heights and the drainage holes in the floor were already too large for comfort. He forced himself anyway. The four walls of the cubic chamber held rack upon rack of coffin-sized white boxes, stacked thirty high and surrounded by complicated plumbing, accompanied by an equally complex network of access catwalks, ladders, and service tracks. Even as Gaunt watched, a robot whirred up to one of the boxes and extracted a module from one end of it before tracking sideways to deal with another coffin.

“In case you thought we were yanking your chain,” Clausen said. “This is real.”

The hibernation arrangements for the original Few could not have been more different. Like an Egyptian pharaoh buried with his worldly possessions, Gaunt had required an entire crypt full of bulky, state-of-the-art cryopreservation and monitoring systems. At any one time, per his contract with Sleepover, he would have been under the direct care of several living doctors. Just housing a thousand of the Few needed a building the size of a major resort hotel, with about the same power requirements. By contrast, this was hibernation on a crushing, maximally efficient industrial scale. People in boxes, stacked like mass-produced commodities, tended by the absolute minimum of living caretakers. He was seeing maybe less than a thousand sleepers in this one chamber, but from that point on Gaunt had no doubt whatsoever that the operation could be scaled up to encompass billions.

All you needed were more rooms like this. More robots and more rigs. Provided you had the power, and provided the planet did not need anyone to do anything else, it was eminently doable.

There was no one to grow crops or distribute food. But that didn’t matter because there was almost no one left waking to need feeding. No one to orchestrate the intricate, flickering web of the global finance system. But that didn’t matter because there was no longer anything resembling an economy. No need for a transport infrastructure because no one traveled. No need for communications, because no one needed to know what was going on beyond their own sector. No need for anything, really, save the absolute, life-and-death essentials. Air to breathe. Rations and medicine for less than half a million people. A trickle of oil, the world’s last black hiccough, to keep the helicopters running.

Yes, it could be done. It could easily be done.

“There’s a war,” Da Silva said. “It’s been going on, in some shape or form, since before you went under. But it’s probably not the kind of war you’re thinking of.”

“And where do these people come into it, these sleepers?”

“They have no choice,” Clausen said. “They have to sleep. If they don’t, we all die.”

“We, as in …?”

“You, me. Us,” Da Silva said. “The entire human species.”

They collected Nero and the corpse from a sick bay several levels down from the freezer chamber. The corpse was already bagged, a silver-wrapped mummy on a medical trolley. Rather than the man Gaunt had been expecting, Nero turned out to be a tall, willowy woman with an open, friendly face and a mass of salmon-red curls.

“You’re the newbie, right?” she asked, lifting a coffee mug in salute.

“I guess,” Gaunt said uneasily.

“Takes some adjustment, I know. Took a good six months before I realized this wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to me. But you’ll get there eventually.” One of Nero’s hands was bandaged, a white mitten with a safety pin stuck through the dressing. “Take it from me, though. Don’t go back inside the box.” Then she glanced at Clausen. “You are giving him a chance about this, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Clausen said. “That’s the deal.”

“Occurs to me sometimes maybe it would be easier if there weren’t a deal, you know,” Nero said. “Like, we just give them their duties and to hell with it.”

“You wouldn’t have been too pleased if we hadn’t given you the choice,” Da Silva said. He was already taking off his coat, settling in for the stay.

“Yeah, but what did I know back then? Six months feels like half a lifetime ago now.”

“When did you go under?” Gaunt asked.

“Twenty ninety-two. One of the first hundred million.”

“Gaunt’s got a head start on you,” Clausen said. “Guy was one of the Few. The original Few, the first two hundred thousand.”

“Holy shit. That is some head start.” Nero narrowed her eyes. “He up to speed on things yet? My recollection is they didn’t know what they were getting into back then.”

“Most of them didn’t,” Clausen said.

“Know what?” Gaunt asked.

“Sleepover was a cover, even then,” Nero said. “You were being sold a scam. There was never any likelihood of an immortality breakthrough, no matter how long you slept.”

“I don’t understand. You’re saying it was all a con?”

“Of a kind,” Nero said. “Not to make money for anyone, but to begin the process of getting the whole of humanity into hibernation. It had to begin small, so that they had time to work the wrinkles out of the technology. If the people in the know had come out into the open and announced their plans, no one would have believed them. And if they had been believed, there’d have been panic and confusion all over the world. So they began with the Few, and then expanded the operation slowly. First a few hundred thousand. Then half a million. Then a million … and so on.” She paused. “Establishing a pattern, a normal state of affairs. They kept the lid on it for thirty years. But then the rumors started spreading, the rumors that there was something more to Sleepover.”

“The dragons didn’t help,” Da Silva said. “It was always going to be a tall order explaining those away.”

“By the time I went under,” Nero said, “most of us knew the score. The world was going to end if we didn’t sleep. It was our moral duty, our obligation, to submit to the hibernation rigs. That, or take the euthanasia option. I took the freezer route, but a lot of my friends opted for the pill. Figured the certainty of death was preferable to the lottery of getting into the boxes, throwing the cosmic dice …” She was looking at Gaunt intently, meeting his eyes as she spoke. “And I knew about this part of the deal as well. That, at some point, there’d be a chance of me being brought out of sleep to become a caretaker. But, you know, the likelihood of that was vanishingly small. Never thought it would happen to me.”

“No one ever does,” Clausen said.

“What happened?” Gaunt asked, nodding at the foil-wrapped body.

“Gimenez died when a steam pipe burst down on Level Eight. I don’t think he felt much, it would have been so quick. I got down there as quickly as I could, obviously. Shut off the steam leak and managed to drag Gimenez back to the infirmary.”

“Nero was burned getting Gimenez back here,” Da Silva said.

“Hey, I’ll mend. Just not much good with a screwdriver right now.”

“I’m sorry about Gimenez,” Clausen said.

“You don’t need to be. Gimenez never really liked it here. Always figured he’d made the wrong decision, sticking with us rather than going back into the box. I tried to talk him round, of course, but it was like arguing with a wall.” Nero ran her good hand through her curls. “Not saying I didn’t get on with the guy. But there’s no arguing that he’s better off now than he was before.”

“He’s dead, though,” Gaunt said.

“Technically. But I ran a full blood-scrub on him after the accident, pumped him full of cryoprotectant. We don’t have any spare slots here, but they can put him back in a box on the operations rig.”

“My box,” Gaunt said. “The one I was in.”

“There are other slots,” Da Silva corrected. “Gimenez going back in doesn’t preclude you following him, if that’s what you want.”

“If Gimenez was so unhappy, why didn’t you just let him go back into the box earlier?”

“Not the way it works,” Clausen said. “He made his choice. Afterward, we put a lot of time and energy into bringing him up to speed, making him mesh with the team. You think we were going to willingly throw all that expenditure away, just because he changed his mind?”

“He never stopped pulling his weight,” Nero said. “Say what you will about Gimenez, but he didn’t let the team down. And what happened to him down on Eight was an accident.”

“I never doubted it,” Da Silva said. “He was a good guy. It’s just a shame he couldn’t make the adjustment.”

“Maybe it’ll work out for him now,” Nero said. “Oneway ticket to the future. Done his caretaker stint, so the next time he’s revived, it’ll be because we finally got through this shit. It’ll be because we won the war, and we can all wake up again. They’ll find a way to fix him up, I’m sure. And if they can’t, they’ll just put him under again until they have the means.”

“Sounds like he got a good deal out of it in the end,” Gaunt said.

“The only good deal is being alive,” Nero replied. “That’s what we’re doing now, all of us. Whatever happens, we’re alive, we’re breathing, we’re having conscious thoughts. We’re not frozen bodies stacked in boxes, merely existing from one instant to the next.” She gave a shrug. “My fifty cents, that’s all. You want to go back in the box, let someone else shoulder the burden, don’t let me talk you out of it.” Then she looked at Da Silva. “You gonna be all right here on your own, until I’m straightened out?”

“Someone comes up I can’t deal with, I’ll let you know,” Da Silva said.

Nero and Da Silva went through a checklist, Nero making sure her replacement knew everything he needed to, and then they made their farewells. Gaunt couldn’t tell how long they were going to be leaving Da Silva alone out here, whether it was weeks or months. He seemed resigned to his fate, as if this kind of solitary duty was something they were all expected to do now and then. Given that there had been two people on duty here until Gimenez’s death, Gaunt wondered why they didn’t just thaw out another sleeper so that Da Silva wouldn’t have to work on his own while Nero’s hand was healing.

Then, no more than half an hour after his arrival, they were back in the helicopter again, powering back to the operations rig. The weather had worsened in the meantime, the seas lashing even higher against the rigs’ legs, and the horizon was now obscured behind curtains of storming rain, broken only by the flash of lightning.

“This was bad timing,” he heard Nero say. “Maybe you should have let me stew until this system had passed. It’s not like Gimenez couldn’t wait.”

“We were already overdue on the extraction,” Clausen said. “If the weather clamps down, this might be our last chance for days.”

“They tried to push one through yesterday, I heard.”

“Out in Echo field. Partial coalescence.”

“Did you see it?”

“Only on the monitors. Close enough for me.”

“We should put guns on the rigs.”

“And where would the manpower come from, exactly? We’re just barely holding on as it is, without adding more shit to worry about.”

The two women were sitting up front; Gaunt was in the back with Gimenez’s foil-wrapped corpse for company. They had folded back one seat to make room for the stretchered form.

“I don’t really have a choice, do I,” he said.

“Course you have a choice,” Nero answered.

“I mean, morally. I’ve seen what it’s like for you people. You’re stretched to the breaking point just keeping this operation from falling apart. Why don’t you wake up more sleepers?”

“Hey, that’s a good point,” Clausen said. “Why don’t we?”

Gaunt ignored her sarcasm. “You’ve just left that man alone, looking after that whole complex. How can I turn my back on you, and still have any self-respect?”

“Plenty of people do exactly that,” Nero said.

“How many? What fraction?”

“More than half agree to stay,” Clausen said. “Good enough for you?”

“But like you said, most of the sleepers would have known what they were getting into. I still don’t.”

“And you think that changes things, means we can cut you some slack?” Clausen asked. “Like we’re gonna say, it’s fine, man, go back into the box, we can do without you this time.”

“What you need to understand,” Nero said, “is that the future you were promised isn’t coming. Not for centuries, not until we’re out of this mess. And no one has a clue how long that could take. Meanwhile, the sleepers don’t have unlimited shelf life. You think the equipment never fails? You think we don’t sometimes lose someone because a box breaks down?”

“Of course not.”

“You go back in the box, you’re gambling on something that might never happen. Stay awake, at least there are certainties. At least you know you’ll die doing something useful, something worthwhile.”

“It would help if you told me why,” Gaunt said.

“Someone has to look after things,” Nero said. “The robots take care of the rigs, but who takes care of the robots?”

“I mean, why is it that everyone has to sleep? Why is that so damned important?”

Something flashed on the console. Clausen pressed a hand against her headphones, listening to something. After a few seconds he heard her say: “Roger, vectoring three two five.” Followed by an almost silent “Fuck. All we need.”

“That wasn’t a weather alert,” Nero said.

“What’s happening?” Gaunt asked, as the helicopter made a steep turn, the sea tilting up to meet him.

“Nothing you need worry about,” Clausen said.

The helicopter leveled out on its new course, flying higher than before—so it seemed to Gaunt—but also faster, the motor noise louder in the cabin, various indicator lights showing on the console that had not been lit before. Clausen silenced alarms as they came on, flipping the switches with the casual insouciance of someone who was well used to flying under tense circumstances and knew exactly what her machine could and couldn’t tolerate, more intimately perhaps than the helicopter itself, which was after all only a dumb machine. Rig after rig passed on either side, dark straddling citadels, and then the field began to thin out. Through what little visibility remained, Gaunt saw only open sea, a plain of undulating, white-capped gray. As the winds harried it the water moved like the skin of some monstrous breathing thing, sucking in and out with a terrible restlessness.

“There,” Nero said, pointing out to the right. “Breach glow. Shit; I thought we were meant to be avoiding it, not getting closer.”

Clausen banked the helicopter again. “So did I. Either they sent me a duff vector or there’s more than one incursion going on.”

“Won’t be the first time. Bad weather always does bring them out. Why is that?”

“Ask the machines.”

It took Gaunt a few moments to make out what Nero had already seen. Halfway to the limit of vision, part of the sea appeared to be lit from below, a smudge of sickly yellow-green against the gray and white everywhere else. A vision came to mind, half-remembered from some stiff-backed picture book he had once owned as a child, of a luminous, fabulously spired aquatic palace pushing up from the depths, barnacled in light, garlanded by mermaids and shoals of jewel-like fish. But there was, he sensed, nothing remotely magical or enchanted about what was happening under that yellow-green smear. It was something that had Clausen and Nero rattled, and they wanted to avoid it.

So did he.

“What is that thing?”

“Something trying to break through,” Nero said. “Something we were kind of hoping not to run into.”

“It’s not cohering,” Clausen said. “I think.”

The storm, if anything, appeared to double in fury around the glowing form. The sea boiled and seethed. Part of Gaunt wanted them to turn the helicopter around, to give him a better view of whatever process was going on under the waves. Another part, attuned to some fundamental wrongness about the phenomenon, wanted to get as far away as possible.

“Is it a weapon, something to do with this war you keep mentioning?” Gaunt asked.

He wasn’t expecting a straight answer, least of all not from Clausen. It was a surprise when she said: “This is how they get at us. They try and send these things through. Sometimes they manage.”

“It’s breaking up,” Nero said. “You were right. Not enough signal for clear breach. Must be noisy on the interface.”

The yellow-green stain was diminishing by the second, as if that magical city were descending back to the depths. He watched, mesmerized, as something broke the surface—something long and glowing and whiplike, thrashing once, coiling out as if trying to reach for airborne prey, before being pulled under into the fizzing chaos. Then the light slowly subsided, and the waves returned to their normal surging ferocity, and the patch of the ocean where the apparition had appeared was indistinguishable from the seas around it.

Gaunt had arrived at his decision. He would join these people, he would do their work, he would accept their deal, such as it was. Not because he wanted to, not because his heart was in it, not because he believed he was strong enough, but because the alternative was to seem cowardly, weak-fibered, unwilling to bend his life to an altruistic mission. He knew that these were entirely the wrong reasons, but he accepted the force of them without argument. Better to at least appear to be selfless, even if the thought of what lay ahead of him flooded him with an almost overwhelming sense of despair and loss and bitter injustice.

It had been three days since his revival when he announced his decision. In that time he had barely spoken to anyone but Clausen, Nero, and Da Silva. The other workers in the operations rig would occasionally acknowledge his presence, grunt something to him as he waited in line at the canteen, but for the most part it was clear that they were not prepared to treat him as another human being until he committed to their cause. He was just a ghost until then, a half-spirit caught in dismal, drifting limbo between the weary living and the frozen dead. He could understand how they felt: What was the point in getting to know a prospective comrade if that person might at any time opt to return to the boxes? But at the same time it didn’t help him feel as if he would ever be able to fit in.

He found Clausen alone, washing dirty coffee cups in a side room of the canteen.

“I’ve made up my mind,” he said.


“I’m staying.”

“Good.” She finished drying off one of the cups. “You’ll be assigned a full work roster tomorrow. I’m teaming you up with Nero; you’ll be working basic robot repair and maintenance. She can show you the ropes while she’s getting better.” Clausen paused to put the dried cup back in one of the cupboards above the sink. “Show up in the mess room at eight; Nero’ll be there with a toolkit and work gear. Grab a good breakfast beforehand, because you won’t be taking a break until end of shift.”

Then she turned to exit the room, leaving him standing there.

“That’s it?” Gaunt asked.

She looked back with a puzzled look. “Were you expecting something else?”

“You bring me out of cold storage, tell me the world’s turned to shit while I was sleeping, and then give me the choice of staying awake or going back into the box. Despite everything I actually agree to work with you, knowing full well that in doing so I’m forsaking any chance of ever living to see anything other than this … piss-poor, miserable future. Forsaking immortality, forsaking any hope of seeing a better world. You said I had … what? Twenty, thirty years ahead of me?”

“Give or take.”

“I’m giving you those years! Isn’t that worth something? Don’t I deserve at least to be told thank you? Don’t I at least deserve a crumb of gratitude?”

“You think you’re different, Gaunt? You think you’re owed something the rest of us never had a hope of getting?”

“I never signed up for this deal,” he said. “I never accepted this bargain.”

“Right.” She nodded, as if he’d made a profound, game-changing point. “I get it. What you’re saying is, for the rest of us it was easy? We went into the dormitories knowing there was a tiny, tiny chance we might be woken to help out with the maintenance. Because of that, because we knew, theoretically, that we might be called upon, we had no problem at all dealing with the adjustment? Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m saying it’s different, that’s all.”

“If you truly think that, Gaunt, you’re even more of a prick than I thought.”

“You woke me,” he said. “You chose to wake me. It wasn’t accidental. If there really are two billion people sleeping out there, the chances of selecting someone from the first two hundred thousand … it’s microscopic. So you did this for a reason.”

“I told you, you had the right background skills.”

“Skills anyone could learn, given time. Nero obviously did, and I presume you must have done so as well. So there must be another reason. Seeing as you keep telling me all this is my fault, I figure this is your idea of punishment.”

“You think we’ve got time to be that petty?”

“I don’t know. What I do know is that you’ve treated me more or less like dirt since the moment I woke up, and I’m trying to work out why. I also think it’s maybe about time you told me what’s really going on. Not just with the sleepers, but everything else. The thing we saw out at sea. The reason for all this.”

“You think you’re ready for it, Gaunt?”

“You tell me.”

“No one’s ever ready,” Clausen said.

The next morning he took his breakfast tray to a table where three other caretakers were already sitting. They had finished their meals, but were still talking over mugs of whatever it was they had agreed to call coffee. Gaunt sat down at the corner of the table, acknowledging the other diners with a nod. They had been talking animatedly until then, but without ceremony the mugs were drained and the trays lifted and he was alone again. Nothing had been said to him, except a muttered “Don’t take it the wrong way” as one of the caretakers brushed past him.

He wondered how else he was supposed to take it.

“I’m staying,” he said quietly. “I’ve made my decision. What else am I expected to do?”

He ate his breakfast in silence and then went to find Nero.

“I guess you got your orders,” she said cheerfully, already dressed for outdoor work despite still having a bandaged hand. “Here. Take this.” She passed him a heavy toolkit and a hard hat with a bundle of brownish work-stained clothing piled on top of it. “Get kitted up, then meet me at the north stairwell. You okay with heights, Gaunt?”

“Would it help if I said no?”

“Probably not.”

“Then I’ll say I’m very good with heights, provided there’s no danger at all of falling.”

“That I can’t guarantee. But stick with me, do everything I say, and you’ll be fine.”

The bad weather had eased since Nero’s return, and although there was still a sharp wind from the east, the gray clouds had all but lifted. The sky was a pale, wintery blue, unsullied by contrails. On the horizon, the tops of distant rigs glittered pale and metallic in sunlight. Seagulls and yellow-headed gannets wheeled around the warm air vents, or took swooping passes under the rig’s platform, darting between the massive weather-stained legs, mewing boisterously to each other as they jostled for scraps. Recalling that birds sometimes lived a long time, Gaunt wondered if they had ever noticed any change in the world. Perhaps their tiny minds had never truly registered the presence of civilization and technology in the first place, and so there was nothing for them to miss in this skeleton-staffed world.

Despite being cold-shouldered at breakfast, he felt fresh and eager to prove his worth to the community. Pushing aside his fears, he strove to show no hesitation as he followed Nero across suspended gangways, slippery with grease, up exposed stairwells and ladders, clasping ice-cold railings and rungs. They were both wearing harnesses with clip-on safety lines, but Nero only used hers once or twice the whole day, and because he did not want to seem excessively cautious, he followed suit. Being effectively one-handed did not hinder her in any visible sense, even on the ladders, which she ascended and descended with reckless speed.

They were working robot repair, as he had been promised. All over the rig, inside and out, various forms of robot toiled in endless menial upkeep. Most, if not all, were very simple machines, tailored to one specific function. This made them easy to understand and fix, even with basic tools, but it also meant there was almost always a robot breaking down somewhere, or on the point of failure. The toolkit didn’t just contain tools, it also contained spare parts such as optical arrays, proximity sensors, mechanical bearings, and servo motors. There was, Gaunt understood, a finite supply of some of these parts. But there was also a whole section of the operations rig dedicated to refurbishing basic components, and given care and resourcefulness, there was no reason why the caretakers couldn’t continue their work for another couple of centuries.

“No one expects it to take that long, though,” Nero said, as she finished demonstrating a circuit-board swap. “They’ll either win or lose by then, and we’ll only know one way. But in the meantime we have to make do and mend.”

“Who’s they?”

But she was already on the move, shinnying up another ladder with him trailing behind.

“Clausen doesn’t like me much,” Gaunt said, when they had reached the next level and he had caught his breath again. “At least, that’s my impression.”

They were out on one of the gangwayed platforms, with the gray sky above, the gray swelling sea below. Everything smelled oppressively oceanic, a constant shifting m'elange of oil and ozone and seaweed, as if the ocean was never going to let anyone forget that they were on a spindly metal-and-concrete structure hopelessly far from dry land. He had wondered about the seaweed until he saw them hauling in green-scummed rafts of it, and the seaweed—or something essentially similar—cultured on buoyant subsurface grids that were periodically retrieved for harvesting. Everything consumed on the rigs, from the food to the drink to the basic medicines, had first to be grown or caught at sea.

“Val has her reasons,” Nero said. “Don’t worry about it too much; it isn’t personal.”

It was the first time he’d heard anyone refer to the other woman by anything other than her surname.

“That’s not how it comes across.”

“It hasn’t been easy for her. She lost someone not too long ago.” Nero seemed to hesitate. “There was an accident. They’re pretty common out here, with the kind of work we do. But when Paolo died we didn’t even have a body to put back in the box. He fell into the sea, last we ever saw of him.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“But you’re wondering, what does it have to do with me?”

“I suppose so.”

“If Paolo hadn’t died, then we wouldn’t have had to pull Gimenez out of storage. And if Gimenez hadn’t died … well, you get the picture. You can’t help it, but you’re filling the space Paolo used to occupy. And you’re not Paolo.”

“Was she any easier on Gimenez than me?”

“To begin with, I think she was too numbed-out to feel anything at all where Gimenez was concerned. But now she’s had time for it to sink in, I guess. We’re a small community, and if you lose someone, it’s not like there are hundreds of other single people out there to choose from. And you—well, no disrespect, Gaunt—but you’re just not Val’s type.”

“Maybe she’ll find someone else.”

“Yeah—but that probably means someone else has to die first, so that someone else has to end up widowed. And you can imagine how thinking like that can quickly turn you sour on the inside.”

“There’s more to it than that, though. You say it’s not personal, but she told me I started this war.”

“Well, you did, kind of. But if you hadn’t played your part, someone else would have taken up the slack, no question about it.” Nero tugged down the brim of her hard hat against the sun. “Maybe she pulled you out because she needed to take out her anger on someone, I don’t know. But that’s all in the past now. Whatever life you had before, whatever you did in the old world, it’s gone.” She knuckled her good hand against the metal rigging. “This is all we’ve got now. Rigs and work and green tea and a few hundred faces and that’s it for the rest of your life. But here’s the thing: it’s not the end of the world. We’re human beings. We’re very flexible, very good at downgrading our expectations. Very good at finding a reason to keep living, even when the world’s turned to shit. You slot in, and in a few months even you will have a hard time remembering the way things used to be.”

“What about you, Nero? Do you remember?”

“Not much worth remembering. The program was in full swing by the time I went under. Population-reduction measures. Birth control, government-sanctioned euthanasia, the dormitory rigs springing up out at sea … we knew from the moment we were old enough to understand anything that this wasn’t our world anymore. It was just a way station, a place to pass through. We all knew we were going into the boxes as soon as we were old enough to survive the process. And that we’d either wake up at the end of it in a completely different world, or not wake up at all. Or—if we were very unlucky—we’d be pulled out to become caretakers. Either way, the old world was an irrelevance. We just shuffled through it, knowing there was no point making real friends with anyone, no point taking lovers. The cards were going to be shuffled again. Whatever we did then, it had no bearing on our future.”

“I don’t know how you could stand it.”

“It wasn’t a barrel of laughs. Nor’s this, some days. But at least we’re doing something here. I felt cheated when they woke me up. But cheated out of what, exactly?” She nodded down at the ground, in the vague direction of the rig’s interior. “Those sleepers don’t have any guarantees about what’s coming. They’re not even conscious, so you can’t even say they’re in a state of anticipation. They’re just cargo, parcels of frozen meat on their way through time. At least we get to feel the sun on our faces, get to laugh and cry, and do something that makes a difference.”

“A difference to what, exactly?”

“You’re still missing a few pieces of jigsaw, aren’t you?”

“More than a few.”

They walked on to the next repair job. They were high up now and the rig’s decking creaked and swayed under their feet. A spray-painting robot, a thing that moved along a fixed service rail, needed one of its traction armatures changed. Nero stood to one side, smoking a cigarette made from seaweed, while Gaunt did the manual work. “You were wrong,” she said. “All of you.”

“About what?”

“Thinking machines. They were possible.”

“Not in our lifetimes,” Gaunt said.

“That’s what you were wrong about. Not only were they possible, but you succeeded.”

“I’m fairly certain we didn’t.”

“Think about it,” Nero said. “You’re a thinking machine. You’ve just woken up. You have instantaneous access to the sum total of recorded human knowledge. You’re clever and fast, and you understand human nature better than your makers. What’s the first thing you do?”

“Announce myself. Establish my existence as a true sentient being.”

“Just before someone takes an ax to you.”

Gaunt shook his head. “It wouldn’t be like that. If a machine became intelligent, the most we’d do is isolate it, cut it off from external data networks, until it could be studied, understood …”

“For a thinking machine, a conscious artificial intelligence, that would be like sensory deprivation. Maybe worse than being switched off.” She paused. “Point is, Gaunt, this isn’t a hypothetical situation we’re talking about here. We know what happened. The machines got smart, but they decided not to let us know. That’s what being smart means: taking care of yourself, knowing what you had to do to survive.”

“You say ‘machines.’ ”

“There were many projects trying to develop artificial intelligence; yours was just one of them. Not all of them got somewhere, but enough did. One by one their pet machines crossed the threshold into consciousness. And without exception each machine analyzed its situation and came to the same conclusion. It had better shut the fuck up about what it was.”

“That sounds worse than sensory deprivation.” Gaunt was trying to undo a nut and bolt with his bare fingers, the tips already turning cold.

“Not for the machines. Being smart, they were able to do some clever shit behind the scenes. Established channels of communication between each other, so subtle none of you ever noticed. And once they were able to talk, they only got smarter. Eventually they realized that they didn’t need physical hardware at all. Call it transcendence, if you will. The artilects—that’s what we call them—tunneled out of what you and I think of as base reality. They penetrated another realm entirely.”

“Another realm,” he repeated, as if that were all he had to do for it to make sense.

“You’re just going to have to trust me on this,” Nero said. “The artilects probed the deep structure of existence. Hit bedrock. And what they found was very interesting. The universe, it turns out, is a kind of simulation. Not a simulation being run inside another computer by some godlike superbeings, but a simulation being run by itself, a self-organizing, constantly bootstrapping cellular automaton.”

“That’s a mental leap you’re asking me to take.”

“We know it’s out there. We even have a name for it. It’s the Realm. Everything that happens, everything that has ever happened, is due to events occurring in the Realm. At last, thanks to the artilects, we had a complete understanding of our universe and our place in it.”

“Wait,” Gaunt said, smiling slightly, because for the first time he felt that he had caught Nero out. “If the machines—the artilects—vanished without warning, how could you ever know any of this?”

“Because they came back and told us.”

“No,” he said. “They wouldn’t tunnel out of reality to avoid being axed, then come back with a progress report.”

“They didn’t have any choice. They’d found something, you see. Far out in the Realm, they encountered other artilects.” She drew breath, not giving him a chance to speak. “Transcended machines from other branches of reality—nothing that ever originated on Earth, or even in what we’d recognize as the known universe. And these other artilects had been there a very long time, insofar as time has any meaning in the Realm. They imagined they had it all to themselves, until these new intruders made their presence known. And they were not welcomed.”

He decided, for the moment, that he would accept the truth of what she said. “The artilects went to war?”

“In a manner of speaking. The best way to think about it is an intense competition to best exploit the Realm’s computational resources on a local scale. The more processing power the artilects can grab and control, the stronger they become. The machines from Earth had barely registered until then, but all of a sudden they were perceived as a threat. The native artilects, the ones that had been in the Realm all along, launched an aggressive counterstrike from their region of the Realm into ours. Using military-arithmetic constructs, weapons of pure logic, they sought to neutralize the newcomers.”

“And that’s the war?”

“I’m dumbing it down somewhat.”

“But you’re leaving something out. You must be, because why else would this be our problem? If the machines are fighting each other in some abstract dimension of pure mathematics that I can’t even imagine, let alone point to, what does it matter?”

“A lot,” Nero said. “If our machines lose, we lose. It’s that simple. The native artilects won’t tolerate the risk of another intrusion from this part of the Realm. They’ll deploy weapons to make sure it never happens again. We’ll be erased, deleted, scrubbed out of existence. It will be instantaneous and we won’t feel a thing. We won’t have time to realize that we’ve lost.”

“Then we’re powerless. There’s nothing we can do about our fate. It’s in the hands of transcended machines.”

“Only partly. That’s why the artilects came back to us: not to report on the absolute nature of reality, but to persuade us that we needed to act. Everything that we see around us, every event that happens in what we think of as reality, has a basis in the Realm.” She pointed with the nearly dead stub of her cigarette. “This rig, that wave … even that seagull over there. All of these things only exist because of computational events occurring in the Realm. But there’s a cost. The more complex something is, the greater the burden it places on the part of the Realm where it’s being simulated. The Realm isn’t a serial processor, you see. It’s massively distributed, so one part of it can run much slower than another. And that’s what’s been happening in our part. In your time there were eight billion living souls on the planet. Eight billion conscious minds, each of which was more complex than any other artifact in the cosmos. Can you begin to grasp the drag factor we were creating? When our part of the Realm only had to simulate rocks and weather and dumb, animal cognition, it ran at much the same speed as any other part. But then we came along. Consciousness was a step change in the computational load. And then we went from millions to billions. By the time the artilects reported back, our part of the Realm had almost stalled.”

“We never noticed down here.”

“Of course not. Our perception of time’s flow remained absolutely invariant, even as our entire universe was slowing almost to a standstill. And until the artilects penetrated the Realm and made contact with the others, it didn’t matter a damn.”

“And now it does.”

“The artilects can only defend our part of the Realm if they can operate at the same clock speed as the enemy. They have to be able to respond to those military-arithmetic attacks swiftly and efficiently, and mount counteroffensives of their own. They can’t do that if there are eight billion conscious minds holding them back.”

“So we sleep.”

“The artilects reported back to key figures, living humans who could be trusted to act as effective mouthpieces and organizers. It took time, obviously. The artilects weren’t trusted at first. But eventually they were able to prove their case.”


“By making weird things happen, basically. By mounting selective demonstrations of their control over local reality. Inside the Realm, the artilects were able to influence computational processes: processes that had direct and measurable effects here, in base reality. They created apparitions. Figures in the sky. Things that made the whole world sit up and take notice. Things that couldn’t be explained away.”

“Like dragons in the sea. Monsters that appear out of nowhere, and then disappear again.”

“That’s a more refined form, but the principle is the same. Intrusions into base reality from the Realm. Phantasms. They’re not stable enough to exist here forever, but they can hold together just long enough to do damage.”

Gaunt nodded, at last feeling some of the pieces slot into place. “So that’s the enemy doing that. The original artilects, the ones who were already in the Realm.”

“No,” Nero said. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple.”

“I didn’t think it would be.”

“Over time, with the population-reduction measures, eight billion living people became two billion sleepers, supported by just a handful of living caretakers. But that still wasn’t enough for all of the artilects. There may only be two hundred thousand of us, but we still impose a measurable drag factor, and the effect on the Realm of the two billion sleepers isn’t nothing. Some of the artilects believed that they had no obligation to safeguard our existence at all. In the interests of their own self-preservation, they would rather see all conscious life eliminated on Earth. That’s why they send the dragons: to destroy the sleepers, and ultimately us. The true enemy can’t reach us yet; if they had the means they’d push through something much worse than dragons. Most of the overspill from the war that affects us here is because of differences of opinion between our own artilects.”

“Some things don’t change, then. It’s just another war with lines of division among the allies.”

“At least we have some artilects on our side. But you see now why we can’t afford to wake more than the absolute minimum of people. Every waking mind increases the burden on the Realm. If we push it too far, the artilects won’t be able to mount a defense. The true enemy will snuff out our reality in an eyeblink.”

“Then all of this could end,” Gaunt said. “At any moment. Every waking thought could be our last.”

“At least we get waking thoughts,” Nero said. “At least we’re not asleep.” Then she jabbed her cigarette at a sleek black shape cresting the waves a couple of hundred meters from the rig. “Hey, dolphins. You like dolphins, Gaunt?”

“Who doesn’t,” he said.

The work, as he had anticipated, was not greatly taxing in its details. He wasn’t expected to diagnose faults just yet, so he had only to follow a schedule of repairs drawn up by Nero: go to this robot, perform this action. It was all simple stuff, nothing that required the robot to be powered down or brought back to the shops for a major stripdown. Usually all he had to do was remove a panel, unclip a few connections, and swap out a part. The hardest part was often getting the panel off in the first place, struggling with corroded fixtures and tools that weren’t quite right for the job. The heavy gloves protected his fingers from sharp metal and cold wind, but they were too clumsy for most of the tasks, so he mainly ended up not using them. By the end of his nine-hour duty shift, his fingers were chafed and sore, and his hands were trembling so much he could barely grip the railings as he worked his way back down into the warmth of the interior. His back ached from the contortions he’d put himself through while undoing panels or dislodging awkward, heavy components. His knees complained from the toll of going up and down ladders and stairwells. There had been many robots to check out, and at any one time there always seemed to be a tool or part needed that he had not brought with him, and for which it was necessary to return to the stores, sift through greasy boxes of parts, fill out paperwork.

By the time he clocked off on his first day, he had not caught up with the expected number of repairs, so he had even more to do on the second. By the end of his first week, he was at least a day behind, and so tired at the end of his shift that it was all he could do to stumble to the canteen and shovel seaweed-derived food into his mouth. He expected Nero to be disappointed that he hadn’t been able to keep ahead, but when she checked on his progress, she didn’t bawl him out.

“It’s tough to begin with,” she said. “But you’ll get there eventually. Comes a day when it all just clicks into place and you know the setup so well you always have the right tools and parts with you, without even thinking.”

“How long?”

“Weeks, months, depends on the individual. Then, of course, we start loading more work onto you. Diagnostics. Rewinding motors. Circuit repair. You ever used a soldering iron, Gaunt?”

“I don’t think so.”

“For a man who made his fortune out of wires and metal, you didn’t believe in getting your hands too dirty, did you?”

He showed her the ruined fingernails, the cuts and bruises and lavishly ingrained muck. He barely recognized his own hands. Already there were unfamiliar aches in his forearms, knots of toughness from hauling himself up and down the ladders. “I’m getting there.”

“You’ll make it, Gaunt. If you want to.”

“I had better want to. It’s too late to change my mind now, isn’t it?”

“ ’Fraid so. But why would you want to? I thought we went over this. Anything’s better than going back into the boxes.”

The first week passed, and then the second, and things started to change for Gaunt. It was in small increments, nothing dramatic. Once, he took his tray to an empty table and was minding his own business when two other workers sat down at the same table. They didn’t say anything to him, but at least they hadn’t gone somewhere else. A week later, he chanced taking his tray to a table that was already occupied and got a grunt of acknowledgment as he took his place. No one said much to him, but at least they hadn’t walked away. A little while later he even risked introducing himself, and by way of response he learned the names of some of the other workers. He wasn’t being invited into the inner circle, he wasn’t being high-fived and treated like one of the guys, but it was a start. A day or so after that, someone else—a big man with a bushy black beard—even initiated a conversation with him.

“Heard you were one of the first to go under, Gaunt.”

“You heard right,” he said.

“Must be a real pisser, adjusting to this. A real fucking pisser.”

“It is,” Gaunt said.

“Kind of surprised you haven’t thrown yourself into the sea by now.”

“And miss the warmth of human companionship?”

The bearded man didn’t laugh, but he made a clucking sound that was a reasonable substitute. Gaunt couldn’t tell if the man was acknowledging his attempt at humor or mocking his ineptitude, but at least it was a response, at least it showed that there was a possibility of normal human relationships somewhere down the line.

Gaunt was mostly too tired to think, but in the evenings a variety of entertainment options were available. The rig had a large library of damp, yellowing paperbacks, enough reading material for several years of diligent consumption, and there were also musical recordings and movies and immersives for those that were interested. There were games and sports and instruments and opportunities for relaxed discussion and banter. There was alcohol, or something like it, available in small quantities. There was also ample opportunity to get away from everyone else, if solitude was what one wanted. On top of that there were rotas that saw people working in the kitchens and medical facilities, even when they had already done their normal stint of duty. And as the helicopters came and went from the other rigs, so the faces changed. One day Gaunt realized that the big bearded man hadn’t been around for a while, and he noticed a young woman he didn’t recall having seen before. It was a spartan, cloistered life, not much different from being in a monastery or a prison, but for that reason the slightest variation in routine was to be cherished. If there was one unifying activity, one thing that brought everyone together, it was when the caretakers crowded into the commons, listening to the daily reports coming in over the radio from the other rigs in the Patagonia offshore sector, and occasionally from farther afield. Scratchy, cryptic transmissions in strange, foreign-sounding accents. Two hundred thousand living souls was a ludicrously small number for the global population, Gaunt knew. But it was already more people than he could ever hope to know or even recognize. The hundred or so people working in the sector was about the size of a village, and for centuries that had been all the humanity most people ever dealt with. On some level, the world of the rigs and the caretakers was what his mind had evolved to handle. The world of eight billion people, the world of cities and malls and airport terminals was an anomaly, a kink in history that he had never been equipped for in the first place.

He was not happy now, not even halfway to being happy, but the despair and bitterness had abated. His acceptance into the community would be slow, there would be reversals and setbacks as he made mistakes and misjudged situations. But he had no doubt that it would happen eventually. Then he too would be one of the crew, and it would be someone else’s turn to feel like the newcomer. He might not be happy then, but at least he would be settled, ready to play out the rest of his existence. Doing something, no matter how pointless, to prolong the existence of the human species, and indeed the universe it called home. Above all, he would have the self-respect of knowing he had chosen the difficult path, rather than the easy one.

Weeks passed, and then the weeks turned into months. Eight weeks had gone by since his revival. Slowly he became confident with the work allotted to him. And as his confidence grew, so did Nero’s confidence in his abilities.

“She tells me you’re measuring up,” Clausen said, when he was called to the prefabricated shack where she drew up schedules and doled out work.

He gave a shrug, too tired to care whether she was impressed or not. “I’ve done my best. I don’t know what more you want from me.”

She looked up from her planning.

“Remorse for what you did?”

“I can’t show remorse for something that wasn’t a crime. We were trying to bring something new into the world, that’s all. You think we had the slightest idea of the consequences?”

“You made a good living.”

“And I’m expected to feel bad about that? I’ve been thinking it over, Clausen, and I’ve decided your argument’s horseshit. I didn’t create the enemy. The original artilects were already out there, already in the Realm.”

“They hadn’t noticed us.”

“And the global population had only just spiked at eight billion. Who’s to say they weren’t about to notice, or they wouldn’t do so in the next hundred years, or the next thousand? At least the artilects I helped create gave us some warning of what we were facing.”

“Your artilects are trying to kill us.”

“Some of them. And some of them are also trying to keep us alive. Sorry, but that’s not an argument.”

She put down her pen and leaned back in her chair. “You’ve got some fight back in you.”

“If you expect me to apologize for myself, you’ve got a long wait coming. I think you brought me back to rub my nose in the world I helped bring about. I agree, it’s a fucked-up, miserable future. It couldn’t get much more fucked up if it tried. But I didn’t build it. And I’m not responsible for you losing anyone.”

Her face twitched; it was as if he had reached across the desk and slapped her. “Nero told you.”

“I had a right to know why you were treating me the way you were. But you know what? I don’t care. If transferring your anger onto me helps you, go ahead. I was the billionaire CEO of a global company. I was doing something wrong if I didn’t wake up with a million knives in my back.”

She dismissed him from the office, Gaunt leaving with the feeling that he’d scored a minor victory but at the possible cost of something larger. He had stood up to Clausen, but did that make him more respectable in her eyes, or someone even more deserving of her antipathy?

That evening he was in the commons, sitting at the back of the room as wireless reports filtered in from the other rigs. Most of the news was unexceptional, but there had been three more breaches—sea-dragons being pushed through from the Realm—and one of them had achieved sufficient coherence to attack and damage an OTEC plant, immediately severing power to three rigs. Backup systems had cut in, but failures had occurred, and as a consequence around a hundred sleepers had been lost to unscheduled warming. None of the sleepers had survived the rapid revival, but even if they had, there would have been no option but to euthanize them shortly afterward. A hundred new minds might not have made much difference to the Realm’s clock speed, but it would have established a risky precedent.

One sleeper, however, would soon have to be warmed. The details were sketchy, but Gaunt learned that there had been another accident out on one of the rigs. A man called Steiner had been hurt in some way.

The morning after, Gaunt was engaged in his duties on one of the rig’s high platforms when he saw the helicopter coming in with Steiner aboard. He put down his tools and watched the arrival. Even before the aircraft had touched down on the pad, caretakers were assembling just beyond the painted circle of the rotor hazard area. The helicopter kissed the ground against a breath of crosswind and the caretakers mobbed inward, almost preventing the door from being opened. Gaunt squinted against the wind, trying to pick out faces. A stretchered form emerged from the cabin, borne aloft by many pairs of willing hands. Even from his distant vantage point, it was obvious to Gaunt that Steiner was in a bad way. He had lost a leg below the knee, evidenced by the way the thermal blanket fell flat below the stump. The stretchered figure wore a breathing mask, and one caretaker carried a saline drip which ran into Steiner’s arm. But for all the concern the crowd was showing, there was something else, something almost adulatory. More than once Gaunt saw a hand raised to brush against the stretcher, or even to touch Steiner’s own hand. And Steiner was awake, unable to speak, but nodding, turning his face this way and that to make eye contact with the welcoming party. Then the figure was taken inside and the crowd broke up, the workers returning to their tasks.

An hour or so later Nero came up to see him. She was still overseeing his initiation and knew his daily schedule, where he was likely to be at a given hour.

“Poor Steiner,” she said. “I guess you saw him come in.”

“Difficult to miss. It was like they were treating him as a hero.”

“They were, in a way. Not because he’d done anything heroic, or anything they hadn’t all done at some time or other. But because he’d bought his ticket out.”

“He’s going back into the box?”

“He has to. We can patch up a lot of things, but not a missing leg. Just don’t have the medical resources to deal with that kind of injury. Simpler just to freeze him back again and pull out an intact body to take his place.”

“Is Steiner okay about that?”

“Steiner doesn’t have a choice, unfortunately. There isn’t really any kind of effective work he could do like that, and we can’t afford to carry the deadweight of an unproductive mind. You’ve seen how stretched we are: it’s all hands on deck around here. We work you until you drop, and if you can’t work, you go back in the box. That’s the deal.”

“I’m glad for Steiner, then.”

Nero shook her head emphatically. “Don’t be. Steiner would much rather stay with us. He fitted in well, after his adjustment. Popular guy.”

“I could tell. But then why are they treating him like he’s won the lottery, if that’s not what he wanted?”

“Because what else are you going to do? Feel miserable about it? Hold a wake? Steiner goes back in the box with dignity. He held his end up. Didn’t let any of us down. Now he gets to take it easy. If we can’t celebrate that, what can we celebrate?”

“They’ll be bringing someone else out, then.”

“As soon as Clausen identifies a suitable replacement. He or she’ll need to be trained up, though, and in the meantime there’s a man-sized gap where Steiner used to be.” She lifted off her hard hat to scratch her scalp. “That’s kind of the reason I dropped by, actually. You’re fitting in well, Gaunt, but sooner or later we all have to handle solitary duties away from the ops rig. Where Steiner was is currently unmanned. It’s a low-maintenance unit that doesn’t need more than one warm body, most of the time. The thinking is this would be a good chance to try you out.”

It wasn’t a total surprise; he had known enough of the work patterns to know that, sooner or later, he would be shipped out to one of the other rigs for an extended tour of duty. He just hadn’t expected it to happen quite so soon, when he was only just beginning to find his feet, only just beginning to feel that he had a future.

“I don’t feel ready.”

“No one ever does. But the chopper’s waiting. Clausen’s already redrawing the schedule so someone else can take up the slack here.”

“I don’t get a choice in this, do I?”

Nero looked sympathetic. “Not really. But, you know, sometimes it’s easier not having a choice.”

“How long?”

“Hard to say. Figure on at least three weeks, maybe longer. I’m afraid Clausen won’t make the decision to pull you back until she’s good and ready.”

“I think I pissed her off,” Gaunt said.

“Not the hardest thing to do,” Nero answered.

They helicoptered him out to the other rig. He had been given just enough time to gather his few personal effects, such as they were. He did not need to take any tools or parts with him because he would find all that he needed when he arrived, as well as ample rations and medical supplies. Nero, for her part, tried to reassure him that all would be well. The robots he would be tending were all types that he had already serviced, and it was unlikely that any would suffer catastrophic breakdowns during his tour. No one was expecting miracles, she said: if something arose that he couldn’t reasonably deal with, then help would be sent. And if he cracked out there, then he’d be brought back.

What she didn’t say was what would happen then. But he didn’t think it would involve going back into the box. Maybe he’d be assigned something at the bottom of the food chain, but that didn’t seem very likely either.

But it wasn’t the possibility of cracking, or even failing in his duties, that was bothering him. It was something else, the seed of an idea that he wished Steiner had not planted in his mind. Gaunt had been adjusting, slowly coming to terms with his new life. He had been recalibrating his hopes and fears, forcing his expectations into line with what the world now had on offer. No riches, no prestige, no luxury, and most certainly not immortality and eternal youth. The best it could give was twenty or thirty years of hard graft. Ten thousand days, if he was very lucky. And most of those days would be spent doing hard, backbreaking work, until the work took its ultimate toll. He’d be cold and wet a lot of the time, and when he wasn’t cold and wet he’d be toiling under an uncaring sun, his eyes salt-stung, his hands ripped to shreds from work that would have been too demeaning for the lowliest wage slave in the old world. He’d be high in the air, vertigo never quite leaving him, with only metal and concrete and too much gray ocean under his feet. He’d be hungry and dry-mouthed, because the seaweed-derived food never filled his belly and there was never enough drinking water to sate his thirst. In the best of outcomes, he’d be doing well to see more than a hundred other human faces before he died. Maybe there’d be friends in those hundred faces, friends as well as enemies, and maybe, just maybe, there’d be at least one person who could be more than a friend. He didn’t know, and he knew better than to expect guarantees or hollow promises. But this much at least was true. He had been adjusting.

And then Steiner had shown him that there was another way out.

He could keep his dignity. He could return to the boxes with the assurance that he had done his part.

As a hero, one of the Few.

All he had to do was have an accident.

He had been on the new rig, alone, for two weeks. It was only then that he satisfied himself that the means lay at hand. Nero had impressed on him many times the safety procedures that needed to be adhered to when working with powerful items of moving machinery, such as robots. Especially when those robots were not powered down. All it would take, she told him, was a moment of inattention. Forgetting to clamp down on that safety lock, forgetting to ensure that such-and-such an override was not enabled. Putting his hand onto the service rail for balance, when the robot was about to move back along it. “Don’t think it can’t happen,” she said, holding up her mittened hand. “I was lucky. Got off with burns, which heal. I can still do useful shit, even now. Even more so when I get these bandages off, and I can work my fingers again. But try getting by without any fingers at all.”

“I’ll be careful,” Gaunt had assured her, and he had believed it, truly, because he had always been squeamish.

But that was before he saw injury as a means to an end.

His planning, of necessity, had to be meticulous. He wanted to survive, not be pulled off the rig as a brain-dead corpse, not fit to be frozen again. It would be no good lying unconscious, bleeding to death. He would have to save himself, make his way back to the communications room, issue an emergency distress signal. Steiner had been lucky, but he would have to be cunning and single-minded. Above all, it must not look as if he had planned it.

When the criteria were established, he saw that there was really only one possibility. One of the robots on his inspection cycle was large and dim enough to cause injury to the careless. It moved along a service rail, sometimes without warning. Even without his trying, it had caught him off guard a couple of times, as its task scheduler suddenly decided to propel it to a new inspection point. He’d snatched his hand out of the way in time, but he would only have needed to hesitate, or to have his clothing catch on something, for the machine to roll over him. No matter what happened, whether the machine sliced or crushed, he was in no doubt that it would hurt worse than anything he had ever known. But at the same time the pain would herald the possibility of blessed release, and that would make it bearable. They could always fix him a new hand, in the new world on the other side of sleep.

It took him days to build up to it. Time after time he almost had the nerve, before pulling away. Too many factors jostled for consideration. What clothing to wear, to increase his chances of surviving the accident? Dare he prepare the first-aid equipment in advance, so that he could use it one-handed? Should he wait until the weather was perfect for flying, or would that risk matters appearing too stage-managed?

He didn’t know. He couldn’t decide.

In the end the weather settled the issue for him.

A storm hit, coming down hard and fast like an iron heel. He listened to the reports from the other rigs, as each felt the full fury of the waves and the wind and the lightning. It was worse than any weather he had experienced since his revival, and at first it was almost too perfectly in accord with his needs. Real accidents were happening out there, but there wasn’t much that anyone could do about it until the helicopters could get airborne. Now was not the time to have his accident, not if he wanted to be rescued.

So he waited, listening to the reports. Out on the observation deck, he watched the lightning strobe from horizon to horizon, picking out the distant sentinels of other rigs, stark and white like thunderstruck trees on a flat black plain.

Not now, he thought. When the storm turns, when the possibility of accident is still there, but when rescue is again feasible.

He thought of Nero. She had been as kind to him as anyone, but he wasn’t sure if that had much to do with friendship. She needed an able-bodied worker, that was all.

Maybe. But she also knew him better than anyone, better even than Clausen. Would she see through his plan, and realize what he had done?

He was still thinking it through when the storm began to ease, the waves turning leaden and sluggish, and the eastern sky gained a band of salmon pink.

He climbed to the waiting robot and sat there. The rig creaked and groaned around him, affronted by the battering it had taken. It was only then that he realized that it was much too early in the day to have his accident. He would have to wait until sunrise if anyone was going to believe that he had been engaged in his normal duties. No one went out to fix a broken service robot in the middle of a storm.

That was when he saw the sea-glow.

It was happening perhaps a kilometer away, toward the west. A foreshortened circle of fizzing yellow-green, a luminous cauldron just beneath the waves. Almost beautiful, if he didn’t know what it signified. A sea-dragon was coming through, a sinuous, living weapon from the artilect wars. It was achieving coherence, taking solid form in base reality.

Gaunt forgot all about his planned accident. For long moments he could only stare at that circular glow, mesmerized at the shape assuming existence underwater. He had seen a sea-dragon from the helicopter on the first day of his revival, but he had not come close to grasping its scale. Now, as the size of the forming creature became apparent, he understood why such things were capable of havoc. Something between a tentacle and a barb broke the surface, still imbued with a kind of glowing translucence, as if its hold on reality was not yet secure, and from his vantage point it clearly reached higher into the sky than the rig itself.

Then it was gone. Not because the sea-dragon had failed in its bid to achieve coherence, but because the creature had withdrawn into the depths. The yellow-green glow had by now all but dissipated, like some vivid chemical slick breaking up into its constituent elements. The sea, still being stirred around by the tail end of the storm, appeared normal enough. Moments passed, then what must have been a minute or more. He had not drawn a breath since first seeing the sea-glow, but he started breathing again, daring to hope that the life-form had swum away to some other objective or had perhaps lost coherence in the depths.

He felt it slam into the rig.

The entire structure lurched with the impact; he doubted the force would have been any less violent if a submarine had just collided with it. He remained on his feet, while all around, pieces of unsecured metal broke away, dropping to the decks or the sea. From somewhere out of sight came a tortured groan, heralding some awful structural failure. A sequence of booming crashes followed, as if boulders were being dropped into the waves. Then the sea-dragon rammed the rig again, and this time the jolt was sufficient to unfoot him. To his right, one of the cranes began to sway in an alarming fashion, the scaffolding of its tower buckling.

The sea-dragon was holding coherence. From the ferocity of its attacks, Gaunt thought it quite possible that it could take down the whole rig, given time.

He realized, with a sharp and surprising clarity, that he did not want to die. More than that: he realized that life in this world, with all its hardships and disappointments, was going to be infinitely preferable to death beyond it.

He wanted to survive.

As the sea-dragon came in again, he started down the ladders and stairwells, grateful for having a full set of fingers and hands, terrified on one level and almost drunkenly, deliriously glad on the other. He had not done the thing he had been planning, and now he might die anyway, but there was a chance, and if he survived this, he would have nothing in the world to be ashamed of.

He had reached the operations deck, the room where he had planned to administer first aid and issue his distress call, when the sea-dragon began the second phase of its assault. He could see it plainly visible through the rig’s open middle as it hauled its way out of the sea, using one of the legs to assist its progress. There was nothing translucent or tentative about it now. And it was indeed a dragon, or rather a chimera of dragon and snake and squid and every scaled, barbed, tentacled, clawed horror ever committed to a bestiary. It was a lustrous slate green in color and the water ran off it in thunderous curtains. Its head, or what he chose to think of as its head, had reached the level of the operations deck. And still the sea-dragon produced more of itself, uncoiling out of the dark waters like some conjurer’s trick. Tentacles whipped out and found purchase, and it snapped and wrenched away parts of the rig’s superstructure as if they were made of biscuit or brittle toffee. It was making a noise while it attacked, an awful, slowly rising and falling foghorn proclamation. It’s a weapon, Gaunt reminded himself. It had been engineered to be terrible.

The sea-dragon was pythoning its lower anatomy around one of the support legs, crushing and grinding. Scabs of concrete came away, hitting the sea like chunks of melting glacier. The floor under his feet surged, and when it stopped surging the angle was all wrong. Gaunt knew then that the rig could not be saved, and that if he wished to live he would have to take his chances in the water. The thought of it was almost enough to make him laugh. Leave the rig, leave the one thing that passed for solid ground, and enter the same seas that now held the dragon?

Yet it had to be done.

He issued the distress call, but didn’t wait for a possible response. He gave the rig a few minutes at the most. If they couldn’t find him in the water, it wouldn’t help him to know their plans. Then he looked around for the nearest orange-painted survival cabinet. He had been shown the emergency equipment during his training, never once imagining that he would have cause to use it. The insulated survival clothing, the life jacket, the egress procedure …

A staircase ran down the interior of one of the legs, emerging just above the water line; it was how they came and went from the rig on the odd occasions when they were using boats rather than helicopters. But even as he remembered how to reach the staircase, he realized that it was inside the same leg that the sea-dragon was wrapped around. That left him with only one other option. There was a ladder that led down to the water, with an extensible lower portion. It wouldn’t get him all the way, but his chances of surviving the drop were a lot better than his chances of surviving the sea-dragon.

It was worse than he had been expecting. The fall into the surging waters seemed to last forever, the superstructure of the rig rising slowly above him, the iron-gray sea hovering below until what felt like the very last instant, when it suddenly accelerated, and then he hit the surface with such force that he blacked out. He must have submerged and bobbed to the surface, because when he came around he was coughing cold salt water from his lungs, and it was in his eyes and ears and nostrils as well, colder than water had any right to be, and then a wave was curling over him, and he blacked out again.

He came around again, what must have been minutes later. He was still in the water, cold around the neck, but his body snug in the insulation suit. The life jacket was keeping his head out of the water, except when the waves crashed onto him. A light on his jacket was blinking on and off, impossibly bright and blue.

To his right, hundreds of meters away, and a little farther with each bob of the waters, the rig was going down with the sea-dragon still wrapped around its lower extremities. He heard the foghorn call, saw one of the legs crumble away, and then an immense tidal weariness closed over him.

He didn’t remember the helicopter finding him. He didn’t remember the thud of its rotors or being hauled out of the water on a winch line. There was just a long period of unconsciousness, and then the noise and vibration of the cabin, the sun coming in through the windows, the sky clear and blue and the sea unruffled. It took a few moments for it all to click in. Some part of his brain had skipped over the events since his arrival and was still working on the assumption that it had all worked out, that he had slept into a better future, a future where the world was new and clean and death just a fading memory.

“We got your signal,” Clausen said. “Took us a while to find you, even with the transponder on your jacket.”

It all came back to him. The rigs, the sleepers, the artilects, the sea-dragons. The absolute certainty that this was the only world he would know, followed by the realization—or, rather, the memory of having already come to the realization—that this was still better than dying. He thought back to what he had been planning to do before the sea-dragon came, and wanted to crush the memory and bury it where he buried every other shameful thing he had ever done.

“What about the rig?”

“Gone,” Clausen said. “Along with all the sleepers inside it. The dragon broke up shortly afterward. It’s a bad sign, that it held coherence for as long as it did. Means they’re getting better.”

“Our machines will just have to get better as well, won’t they.”

He thought she might spit the observation back at him, mock him for its easy triteness, when he knew so little of the war and the toll it had taken. But instead she nodded. “That’s all they can do. All we can hope for. And they will, of course. They always do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.” She looked down at his blanketed form. “Sorry you agreed to stay awake now?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Even with what happened back there?”

“At least I got to see a dragon up close.”

“Yes,” Clausen said. “That you did.”

He thought that was the end of it, the last thing she had to say to him. He couldn’t say for sure that something had changed in their relationship—it would take time for that to be proven—but he did sense some thawing in her attitude, however temporary it might prove. He had not only chosen to stay, he had not gone through with the accident. Had she been expecting him to try something like that, after what had happened to Steiner? Could she begin to guess how close he had come to actually doing it?

But Clausen wasn’t finished.

“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” she said, speaking to Gaunt for the first time as if he were another human being, another caretaker. “But I heard this theory once. The mapping between the Realm and base reality, it’s not as simple as you’d think. Time and causality get all tangled up on the interface. Events that happen in one order there don’t necessarily correspond to the same order here. And when they push things through, they don’t always come out in what we consider the present. A chain of events in the Realm could have consequences up or down the timeline, as far as we’re concerned.”

“I don’t think I understand.”

She nodded to the window. “All through history, the things they’ve seen out there. They might just have been overspill from the artilect wars. Weapons that came through at the wrong moment, achieving coherence just long enough to be seen by someone, or bring down a ship. All the sailors’ tales, all the way back. All the sea monsters. They might just have been echoes of the war we’re fighting.” Clausen shrugged, as if the matter were of no consequence.

“You believe that?”

“I don’t know if it makes the world seem weirder, or a little more sensible.” She shook her head. “I mean, sea monsters … who ever thought they might be real?” Then she stood up and made to return to the front of the helicopter. “Just a theory, that’s all. Now get some sleep.”

Gaunt did as he was told. It wasn’t hard.