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  Viper Wire by Richard Kadrey



The Last Great Kings of Earth


Here, at the top of the world, the ice is miles thick. It spills into the sea so white that the frigid water reflects back as emerald blue. This is the water and the ice at the surface of the world. Below, things are very different.

Below the free floating bergs as big as cities, below the algae blooms, below the beds of kelp so ancient and immense, so stuffed with organic matter, so saturated with life that at their core is a knot of saltwater ganglia pulsing with dim intelligence, other creatures move. Below the sea's secret internal currents, where gray, boneless brutes, halfway between long-lost dinosaurs and nightmare devils, slide between mountains and canyons so deep that light has never touched them, beneath this is another world entirely.

Where's there's no light, there's no need for color or pigmentation. Transparent, gargantuan squids rise up, crusted with colonies of sea urchins and anemones, wrapped in miles of razor-sharp coral, dragging whole ecosystems whose inhabitants are nightmares dim, old, and dark enough that they would only touch the very edges of human consciousness. If there were a human consciousness here to touch.

Mankind is gone now, for a million years or more. They climbed into their rockets, or rode in crystal shafts to crafts waiting beyond the sky, and they went away to the stars, leaving the earth to grow old without the hindrance or influence of humanity.

Ten thousand species have sprinted to the top of the food chain and fallen down again since humanity's disappearance. The kings of the Earth don't come from the land, or even much acknowledge it. What rules the world now is in the sea.

Dive straight down the swirling shafts of sinking water that mark the deep ocean trenches. Watch as every hour hundreds of tons of ice get caught in these massive whirlpools and sucked into deep falls, dragging them brutal miles down into bottomless ocean shafts. The pressures here are so great that the ice that hasn't melted on the journey down packs tightly into crystalline structures as hard as diamonds.

Microscopic invertebrates, ravenous colonies of which sometimes surface in the form of massive whale-hunting jellies, are caught in the diamond ice as it falls toward the frigid heart of the world. If it falls long enough, the plunging mountain of ice sometimes accretes a thick layer of noxious invertebrates on its barbed skeleton.

Should this mass pass through or near a hydrothermal vent, warming and reviving the colonies of primitive predators trapped within it, the microscopic creatures may act together as a rudimentary but functional kind of neural system. The ice, black now with a hide of volcanic chemicals and poisonous skin, will begin to move of its own volition. It will swim from the floor of the sea up to the places where the largest whales and fishes thrive, and it will swallow them whole.

Most of these leviathans never complete the journey from the lower depths. The sudden changes in pressure shatter their crystalline cores and they explode in the dark like underwater thunder. Those creatures that make it all the way to the surface rise up out of four and a half billion years of water to see the sun. And they loathe it. They loathe everything that dwells in, loves, or eats the sun's light and heat.

These creatures of poison ice sometimes drift with the currents down from the top and up from the bottom of the world until they reach the equator. There they haul themselves up and attack the lush, green tropical life that covers the land. This war between land and sea has gone on for almost a million years. It has its own heroes and villains, victories and tragedies, myths and traditions. It is the last world war.

Watch as an island of black ice rises to the ocean surface. Writhing, serrated legs touch the land, followed by a bubble head, below which a ragged beak snaps at the air. Like an immense black octopus, the creature rips up date palms, drags itself through overheated swamps, and sucks whole flocks of fluttering emerald-green birds from the skies. Every place the beast touches, it leaves a wound of ice-scorched earth.

And when the thing grows too hot in the tropical sun, it retreats back to the sea, dropping down into the swirling, soothing dark. Despite its scars — the injuries from rocky outcrops, razor-thorned foliage, and animals that have learned to make their skin boil to drive off chilly ocean predators — the ice beast is unafraid.

As long as there is cold and water, it will renew itself. It, and its kind, are immortal — hungry, predatory gods. They feed and dream in the dark bottom of the ocean, until it's time to return to the surface and devour the hideous land-life once and for all.


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Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.

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