The Beam S1: Chapter Eight

The Beam S1: Chapter Eight

Sean

Sean is co-founder of the Collective Inkwell and Realm & Sands imprints, speaker, and author, with breakout indie hits such as Yesterday’s Gone, WhiteSpace, Unicorn Western and The Beam, as well as traditionally published titles Z 2134 and Monstrous. Follow him on Twitter @seanplatt

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Micah Ryan stood at the head of a small group in his office at District Zero’s Enterprise building. His shoulders were straight, his hands clenched behind his back. He had a sculpted, handsome jaw and steely eyes that were technically brown but that sometimes seemed closer to silver. He had a carefree, unassuming haircut with nary a hair out of place, and wore his trim blue suit and silk band tie as if he’d been poured into them.

The group was as elite as its tiny size suggested. There was nothing especially difficult about its current mission, but this mission above all others required trust and clearance. It was the kind of mission that nobody could know about, because it would make the Enterprise seem two-faced and unsettled. And of course, that was exactly the impression they wanted people to have about the Directorate.

“We were stationed around the Aphora’s crowd,” said a thin black man named Eams. “Bernie started with the boos, like you saw on the Beam feed. The tomatoes — the first ones, anyway — came from Gloria. Her idea, by the way.”

“High five, Gloria,” said Micah, showing a few teeth in a friendly smile. He held out a hand. Gloria was nowhere near him, but she raised her own, and air-clapped toward him.

“I still think we shouldn’t throw shit that isn’t natural to carry. Why would anyone would bring tomatoes to a concert?” said an agent with a surfer’s swept-back blonde hair. He was dressed immaculately now, but Micah had seen the feed from his sister-in-law’s concert and had managed to pick out Craig, with his surfer’s hair. He’d worn a shabby 2060’s vintage tux and had looked as absurd as the rest of the attending Directorates.

Gloria started to answer, but Micah, pacing, beat her to it. “It doesn’t matter. You’d bring tomatoes if you knew in advance that you wanted to throw them, same as you’d bring a bouquet of flowers. Throwing things at Natasha Ryan’s feet is an NAU pastime. So if they aren’t running a search at the door, we’re allowed to bring whatever. It’s fine. Upset Directorate would bring tomatoes to throw.”

“But why would they attend at all?”

Micah locked his eyes (charming, not threatening) on the agent with the surfer’s hair. “To cause unrest, Craig. To unsettle the populace. To riot. What is it you don’t understand?”

“It just seems like it’d be a waste for them. Most of the people have to buy their way into places like the Aphora. Do you know how many credits it costs?”

“Yes, of course I do. I authorized the tickets. It would have been nice to win tickets like the rest of the raff in the back, but it seemed a smarter use of our resources to order them rather than trying to win them one at a time.”

Several agents snickered. A few looked toward Micah as they did, hungry for their leader’s approval, dying for him to know they got his joke and thought it funny.

“Look,” said Micah, still pacing, his voice taking on a lecturing tone, “you’ve seen the feed. The boos start at the edges and then bleed through the room. The things you threw came from everywhere. But the rear and middle were open seating, and the tickets there are priced so that lower-ranking Directorate can still theoretically afford them if they don’t mind blowing a ton of credits for a special occasion. But you can win tickets for all of those areas, so nobody would assume that rioters paid through the nose in order to come in and make trouble. Have you seen the reactions from people who don’t know we planted you there? It comes off as a genuine riot caused by Directorate malcontents. At an affair like a Ryan concert, party lines are sharply drawn. It’s almost all rich Enterprise, then a few high-ranking Directorate who actually allow themselves to enjoy art, then a small group of raff who won their tickets somewhere. So just put yourself in the shoes of a Directorate contest winner: you’re barely scraping by, living on a credit dole that hasn’t risen in years, despite inflation. Maybe you’ve picked up an extra job — one that’s held off automation specifically so you can do it, like a pity job. Either way you’re edging it, barely feeding your family and never going on vacation. You’ve had almost six years in your current situation, and it’s terrible, but you can’t blame the party because you know that deep down, when Shift comes, you’ll stay Directorate. You’re not equipped for Enterprise. I mean, what would you do if the government didn’t pay for your everything? You’ve developed no skills, and have no faith in your ability to make your own living. You know that as much as you’re in the raff now, you’d be trampled in Enterprise. So what can you do? You can’t improve your financial or living situation no matter which party you’re in, so the best thing to do is to argue that it’s not your fault. So you raise your Directorate flag and start telling the world that the Enterprise is greedy and evil. You bitch, and you riot. Maybe you throw a few tomatoes.”

“But why would they riot there?” said Craig. “Natasha is Directorate, not Enterprise.”

Micah gave a sideways smile. “Really? I had no idea.”

The agents snickered again.

Of course Natasha was Directorate. Her husband, Micah’s brother Isaac, was Directorate too. The same question had been raised early on, when Micah had first instructed the agents to go undercover and riot at the concert.

“This isn’t really about parties, Craig. Think about it. This is about haves and have-nots. But rioting and protesting ‘rich people’ is shooting at a moving target. It’s hard to define the enemy — the group that’s ‘them’ as opposed to ‘us’ — if the differentiator is their credit balances. But if we can make this whole thing — this feeling of pre-Shift unrest — about Enterprise and Directorate? Then we give people a them that’s clear and well-defined. Having a clear them solidifies people, which is why we’re here to begin with. We’re trying to create a them in the eyes of the Enterprise. We stage riots as if the Directorate were causing them. The Enterprise starts to hate and distrust the Directorate more than ever. Us versus them. Solidarity. Strength. Generally making the other side look like shit. You see?”

Craig said nothing, either mollified or pretending to be. But what Craig felt or thought was immaterial. Micah, as always, knew what he was doing.

With Shift approaching, the senate’s balance of power was up for grabs. More citizens in Enterprise meant more Enterprise seats in the senate. Shift seldom resulted in much movement between the parties, seeing as people seldom changed their natures. The choice, for most people, was a crapshoot. Would you rather have a living provided for you and not really need to work, but know you’d be stuck with a barely sufficient lifestyle for the next six years? Or would you rather roll the dice at building a bigger future by making your own living… knowing that if you failed, there was no safety net? The lushest spires and the lowliest gutters were disproportionately filled with people who’d chosen Enterprise, whereas the low end of the middle were mostly Directorate. Those Directorate weren’t excited about life, but their situations weren’t dire enough to motivate change. The way Micah saw it, Shift really was a “pick-your-poison”  scenario for most people, with both options equally toxic. The Directorate was mostly downtrodden but complacent. The best way to shake that complacency — and gain a few new members — was to show that life in the Directorate wasn’t a bed of mediocre-smelling roses.

Micah looked around the group of seven agents. He had managed to spot them all in the feed, but he’d had to enter a 3-D projection, augment, and rotate for quite a while to find some of them. That was good. They were supposed to be invisible.

Now, in Micah’s office, all of the agents were nodding, ready to do whatever their fearless leader said. All except for Jason Whitlock. Whitlock’s bearing bothered Micah. He’d given his report just like all of the others, but he seemed somehow off. He wasn’t articulating well. He seemed distracted, and kept turning his gaze to the window. He also seemed to be forgetting large parts of the evening. Whitlock had commented earlier that he’d been shocked by how short the concert was. When another agent told him that it had lasted over three hours, he’d seemed surprised. So Micah had quizzed him, and he hadn’t remembered a single title out of Natasha’s 27 song performance. He’d made guesses, but it seemed as if he were pulling them from the Beam Top 50 list rather than memory.

“It’s late,” said Micah. “Go home, everyone. Good job. We’ll talk tomorrow, same time.”

The gathering began to disperse. Micah approached Whitlock and set hand to shoulder.

“Jason.”

Whitlock looked up.

“You seem distracted.”

“Just tired, Micah.”

Micah rubbed the man’s back, then gently turned him so they were facing each other. “You’re not just tired. There’s something wrong. You don’t remember the concert.”

“I remember it fine, just feeling a bit swimmy. That’s all. I’m okay. I guess I’ve got some stuff on my mind.”

“What do you have on your mind?” Micah’s voice came out as concern. The second question layered under the first said, How can I help? 

“It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“Family troubles?”

“No, really, I’m fine. Thank you, though.”

Micah’s hand was still on Whitlock’s shoulder. “It’s important to me that your head is clear. You know if you need anything, you can let me know, right?”

“Of course.”

“Who was the woman with you at the concert?”

Whitlock looked up, disarmed.

“I saw her in the feed. I wanted to understand how everything went down, so I subscribed to a holo immersive. Almost as expensive as attending.” Micah flashed a smile. “Walked around a bit. Paused and exploded. Found all of our people. You were the only one with a date. Or perhaps you got lucky, and just ended up sitting beside a beautiful woman who was also alone.”

Micah knew from the holo that Jason had left with the petite woman with dark brown, almost black hair. The holo’s resolution and camera positioning  weren’t high enough to see her well, and her face had been mostly extrapolated. He wouldn’t be able to pick her out of a lineup, but he’d seen her well enough to know she wasn’t Whitlock’s wife, who was taller than Jason and blonder than Craig.

Micah watched Jason’s eyes, waiting for the agent’s denial.

“Look…” said Whitlock.

“It’s okay, Jason. I’m not judging. I just need to know who she was.”

He blinked twice, looked up and then around the room.

“It’s okay, Jason,” Micah repeated.

“I know. It’s just that… I don’t know who she was.” He looked into Micah’s steely gaze, then rushed on. “I mean, I know I was there with her, obviously. But she’s… it’s like there’s a fog in my head.”

“You’ve been wiped.”

“Maybe.”

“You should have reported it. Immediately.” Micah tried not to sound angry, but this was beyond idiotic. Whitlock stammered to defend himself.

“It’s more than that! I’ve been wiped before, and this is different. The timespan is longer, like you’d get from a Gauss Chamber. But also not. I mean, I don’t know that I’ve lost anything, but I’m foggy on the whole fucking night. I guess she was an escort, okay? And I guess I hired her. But I don’t remember how or when. I might have met her at the show. I don’t remember her name or what she looked like. I didn’t even remember her at all until you started asking me for details, which is why I didn’t say anything earlier.”

“A modified wipe?”

“Maybe.”

Micah drew a deep breath, assessing, then clapped Whitlock twice on the shoulder and said, “Okay, Jason. Go get your head checked. It’s probably nothing. You probably had too much moondust.”

“I don’t do that shit,” said Whitlock.

“It was a joke. Too much wine, then.” Micah smiled.

After a beat, Whitlock smiled back. “I did have a lot of wine.”

“That’s probably all it is.”

“Sure! I was drunk.” But his face was uncertain. You couldn’t drink inside the Aphora, and it would take a lot of consumption beforehand to fog an entire three-hour concert and what had surely come after.

“Get your head checked anyway.”

“Sure, Micah.”

Whitlock picked up his coat and walked through the door, leaving Micah alone in his empty office to contemplate the small woman with the missing face.

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