Isaac swiped his connection closed by raking his hand in front of his kitchen wall. In its place, his projection of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon reappeared. This was bullshit. Nicolai earned an incredible living, placing him just below Isaac and Natasha in the Directorate. A few more notches up and Nicolai would be in the Beau Monde, the top 1% of the wealthiest NAU citizens, where life truly got interesting… not that anyone in the lower 99 had any idea about that, of course.
And what was Nicolai paid so well for? Not just for being Isaac’s speechwriter, but his right fucking hand. The person Isaac bitched at. The person who, when he was fired up about something, made it all better — just like he’d done when that riot erupted at Natasha’s concert. Isaac was supposed to be able to reach Nicolai 24/7, and right now he needed a sounding board: someone to make the bullshit disappear.
He should have left a message.
Isaac sighed, swiped the connection open again, and waited while his canvas tried to locate Nicolai’s ID on The Beam. If he was anywhere remotely civilized (and alive, Isaac mentally added), The Beam should know where he was and should light up any Beam-enabled surface around him — the wall of a building, a counter in his apartment, the tabletop in a coffee shop. Failing that, Nicolai wore a communicator in his ear. He seldom answered with video, but wouldn’t flat-out ignore the call even if he was with a woman. Isaac had tried to call half a dozen times, so Nicolai was sure to see the missed calls and know it was urgent. But still. Isaac should leave a message, even if only to put it in bold type.
The connection trilled. Then, instead of hearing Nicolai’s voice, Isaac watched as a young man with a sober, professional haircut appeared in the connection window.
“My name is Simon. How can I help you, for Nicolai Costa?” said the young man, giving no indication that Isaac had slammed a window in his face thirty seconds ago. Virtual assistants reset if no business was transacted, so the program was oblivious to Isaac’s earlier brash manners.
“Where is Nicolai?” Isaac demanded. But this was already stupid. If the assistant had picked up, Nicolai was unreachable. He was only asking out of frustration, as if the man in the window were a real person who would respond to anger.
“Nicolai is unavailable,” Simon said. “How may I help you?”
“Tell Nicolai to call me,” he grumbled at the composed young man. The assistant was infuriating. He was grinning at Isaac like an idiot.
“Of course, Mr. Ryan,” said Simon, reading Isaac’s Beam ID.
“Tell him it’s urgent.”
Isaac stared at Simon’s perfectly combed virtual hair and wanted to yank it in frustration. But of course, Simon’s hair was fake, just like his wide public relations smile.
“Where the fuck is he?” Isaac demanded again.
“Nicolai is unavailable,” said Simon.
“He’s paid a ton of money to stay available! He can’t just go off the grid! Not without okaying it with me first!”
“Of course, Mr. Ryan.”
“If he doesn’t return this call soon, he’s going to lose his fucking job!”
“Certainly, Mr. Ryan.”
Isaac was moments from slamming the connection closed in Simon’s face (Simon would remember it this time because Isaac had left a message), but he couldn’t quite let the whole thing go. If Nicolai was gone for a while, then he was gone for a while. But Isaac needed an estimate of how long he’d have to wait, at the very least. The open-ended nature of Nicolai’s desertion was intolerable.
“Simon,” said Isaac, calming himself — again, as if Simon might respond to emotion, which he wouldn’t.
“Could you please tell me where and when you last tracked Nicolai?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Ryan,” he said, “but I cannot reveal private information.”
Well, that wasn’t a surprise, but it caused ire to bubble into Isaac’s throat anyway. He was in a crisis. Who was he supposed to vent to if not Nicolai?
“Simon,” said Isaac again.
“Yes, Mr. Ryan?”
“Go fuck yourself!”
Simon started to reply, but Isaac raked the connection shut and once again found himself staring at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the naked figures that weren’t quite naked. They were ideas articulated in broad strokes, like so many manifestations birthed from The Beam.
Isaac paced his apartment. He knotted his hands behind his back and lowered his head, treading heavily as if showing the universe his agitation, hoping to encourage its sympathy. But the world, the universe, and the room remained impassive, and all Isaac heard were his own footfalls echoing off the Plasteel walls. Maybe Natasha knew he was out here pacing and maybe she didn’t. The last time Isaac had seen her, she was slamming the door to her “office.” Not that it was an office of any sort. Isaac wasn’t sure what she did on the Beam while she was “indisposed” in there, but Natasha allowed no interruption and the walls were soundproofed. She wouldn’t hear him or likely care if she could (Natasha could be a real self-absorbed bitch sometimes, if not most times) yet still Isaac paced, as if to show someone how intolerable this situation was. Anyone.
This should be a moment of celebration. His speech had gone beautifully. For the appropriate number of hours, the entire Directorate had praised their Czar of Internal Satisfaction and told him in various sycophantic ways that he’d managed yet again to turn lemons into lemonade. Isaac’s peers had promised him great swings in pro-Directorate sentiment. Underlings had kissed Isaac’s ass. Natasha had stood beside him, looking beautiful, even with her stupid dog peeking out from the open mouth of her purse. For a few hours, things had looked rosy. He’d seen Nicolai sneak out, and even his right hand man had seemed pleased.
Then this morning, the bullshit with Micah had started. Typical. Lemonade turned back into lemons, then into piss. The entire Directorate found itself waist-deep in their own bullshit, and all of a sudden Isaac’s brilliant reframe was crumbling. The riots again started to feel like riots. Unrest among the Directorate citizenry regained its previous feeling of unrest, rather than rosy camaraderie. The public anti-Directorate sentiment that had fallen to quiet over the past twelve hours again blistered like a festering sore.
Isaac tried telling himself that he was especially sensitive because he was getting hurled through the storm’s middle. He tried telling himself that the average citizen wasn’t feeling the swings like he was. He tried telling himself that Micah’s posturing only seemed so damaging to him because his brother had owned the ability to get under Isaac’s skin since birth, when Isaac had found himself no longer an only child, suddenly having to fight for maternal attention.
He closed his eyes and tried calming himself. Behind drawn lids, Isaac saw Micah’s calm and trustworthy face telling the world a version of the story that made so much more sense than Isaac’s.
Isaac snapped his eyes open.
A chirp answered him.
“Get me Dominic Long.”
A soothing female voice came from all around Isaac and answered, “Captain Dominic Long is in a meeting.”
“At the DZ station?”
“It’s a virtual meeting,” said the voice.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ryan,” said the voice Isaac had programmed into his apartment’s canvas — a voice Natasha didn’t know was mimicked from a synthporn star Isaac had been fascinated with once upon a time. “I don’t have that information.”
Isaac went to the nearest horizontal surface and tapped a series of commands.
“Now: with who?” he repeated.
“It’s his weekly cooperative meeting with the other district captains,” said the woman’s sexy voice.
The woman started to protest, but Isaac kept tapping the countertop and she stopped mid-sentence. Being a founding member of the Directorate had its privileges. There was a chirp of acknowledgement and the room fell silent.
A moment later, a trilling of notes announced an incoming holo call. But holo was for douchebags and lower-downs who couldn’t afford nerve immersion, so Isaac declined and answered with video. The counter beneath his fingers opened a window to show a three-dimensional rendering of a man in blue who looked much younger and much more attractive than Dominic — who in reality was old and tired, and less interested in the cosmetic augments and addons enjoyed by most other citizens of his pay-grade. The rendering had the same almost-real-but-not-real look of all avatars. Computer graphics had improved immeasurably since the first days of simulated reality, but for some reason avatars never stopped being creepy. It was like talking to a doll.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” blurted the man in blue on Isaac’s countertop.
“Jesus, Dominic. Get that rig off and look at me proper. You know how I hate those things.”
Dominic’s Beam-generated avatar ignored him and kept ranting. The avatar’s angry expression was overdone, making its eyebrows rise into furious points. Its skin bloomed red like a sunburn. “I don’t care what your title says! You can’t just break into a meeting like that. You pompous little…”
“Watch it,” said Isaac. “Just in case you’ve forgotten how rude it is to condescend to your elders — no matter how young and impetuous they may look — you might want to keep in mind who controls rank advancement within public service. PD and FD aren’t exactly Enterprise jobs, Captain.”
The avatar’s eyebrows didn’t fall, but it stopped huffing and puffing. On Isaac’s countertop, he could only see Dominic’s electronic visage from the chest up, but it seemed to have its hands on its virtual hips.
“Now slip off your rig and look at me. Your avatar is creeping me out.”
“I have to get back to the meeting. This isn’t just about me. There are six other captains in there. This is their time.”
“They’ll get by without you. I’ve sent your regrets to the nexus. Now get out of that rig.”
The man on Isaac’s counter sighed. Then the screen went blank, and Isaac could imagine the police captain pulling off the clumsy A/V rig that provided what most people thought was fairly good artificial reality — at least as far as two of the five senses were concerned. He pulled a stool from behind him and sat, then dragged the black window to a wall behind the counter so that when Dominic returned, he wouldn’t be staring up Isaac’s nose.
A moment later, Dominic’s barely-shaven face was staring at Isaac, his hair tousled from the rig he’d been wearing when Isaac had burst in.
“What?” said Dominic. He looked angry, and days without sleep.
“I need to find Nicolai. He’s gone off-grid.”
“So? People go off-grid.”
“Not Nicolai. Not without telling me.”
“Maybe he’s getting laid,” said Dominic.
“He’s always reachable. Sometimes he’ll answer with audio only, and every once in a while he’ll click me over to an autoreply to buy a few minutes, but this is different. If he were in Manhattan, he’d be within the core network. He’d have to have left to get off-grid — and by ‘left,’ I mean like left, way off into…”
“I get it. So he ran out. Met some girl. Got wasted and went on a bender.”
Dominic shook his head slowly. “What do you want me to do, Isaac?”
“I can’t track anyone.”
“Via city surveillance. Just tell me where he was last registered.”
“I don’t have access to…”
Isaac tapped his countertop. In the communication window, Dominic’s eyes popped at something to his right.
“You’ve been temporarily promoted,” said Isaac.
“Is this the entire city?” said Dominic, now reaching off-frame to grab and grasp at something.
“I don’t know. I’m not a cop.”
“I don’t even know what to do with…”
“Look,” Isaac snapped, “just find him, okay?”
Dominic nodded, still wide-eyed at whatever data had just become available to Dominic the Commissioner that had been unavailable to Dominic the Captain. He killed the call with a promise to call back once he knew more.
The apartment was again too quiet. Isaac considered turning on some music or a vidstream, but knew it would only make his mind rebel and fight even harder than it already was to dampen his decaying spirits. So Isaac turned into the line of fire, opting to face whatever the world had waiting for him head-on.
He walked over and sat on his couch.
“Visit Beam headlines.”
A holographic ball appeared above the coffee table. The page at the cluster’s front was The Beam’s main news feed. Isaac reached toward the ball and gestured with his fingers to bring the feed closer to enlarge it. Unsurprisingly, Micah’s speech had been voted to the top. Eight of the other remaining top ten stories on the front page were all reactions to the speech. The final item was a story about one of Natasha’s pretentious singer friends, Gregory Whitman, who’d punched a waiter in a drunken fit a few nights before. In spite of his dour mood, Isaac chuckled, then pulled the story from the page and tossed it to the side like a ball of trash. He scanned the reactions to Micah’s speech. Four were from Directorate outlets and hence meant nothing. In the public eye, Micah’s speech would be an open wound until brother Isaac replied. Isaac wasn’t even really the right person to reply, but the public was obsessed with the Ryan brothers and had been since the beginning. Micah and Isaac would always be yin and yang to the citizenry, no matter their job titles.
But of course, there would be no reply from Isaac without Nicolai.
Isaac grabbed the four Directorate responses and tossed them, then scanned the remainders. One was from an Enterprise toady, and the other three were meaningless us-too responses. Isaac didn’t bother to toss them. He grabbed the top headline (“Micah Ryan Claims Riots Were Inevitable”) and pulled it forward, then dragged it open like parting curtains. The page contained some meaningless text and video. Isaac had seen the speech already, when he was still angry and panicky from news that the video existed. He was calmer now. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he remembered.
There was a POV feed where you could slot in your avatar if you wanted to use an A/V immersion rig and pretend you had a front-row seat, but like all lower-end feeds, the only thing it provided over simple viewing was peripheral vision. Isaac touched the video’s top-favorited bookmark to set the vidstream playing, driving the knifelike feeling in his stomach deeper into his gut.
The bookmark started the video at three minutes and seven seconds in. Micah’s perfectly groomed head smiled from atop his perfectly beautiful suit. His smile collapsed, and he resumed speaking after what, in the full speech, had been a brief pause for effect.
“The recent unrest is the exclusive doings of Directorate raff,” said Micah, addressing his Enterprise audience. “Maybe these idle minds would be better served with work, where they might mine more from their days through concrete uses of their time.”
Isaac gritted his teeth. He wished Nicolai were here. Nicolai would be able to couch the insult in a way that bleached its sting. The debate over work was hotly contested between the parties, but whenever Nicolai broached it, the fact that a person didn’t have to work in the Directorate seemed like an obviously, self-evidently good thing. Still, Micah had turned that little Directorate benefit on its head, same as he always did. Micah made work sound noble. But when the Directorate provided everything a person needed, why not rest? Why not spend your time learning more and exploring, rather than slaving away through your life’s every minute?
Micah gave a carefree, charming toss of his head and turned his palms up, feigning something between realization and resignation. “Maybe it’s the nature of the Directorate to act as a mob,” he said, sounding almost defeated. “Maybe the rioters are angry. Maybe they feel that there has been an injustice. That’s how an idle mind thinks — it sees only the thing it wants rather than the effort required to achieve it. The rioters are targeting symbols of aspiration: music halls, restaurants, sports stadiums, places where dreams have been forged from the steel of human spirit. So maybe they feel that the people they look up to have been given everything whereas they’ve been given nothing. But it’s not true! No member of the Enterprise believes they have been given anything. We have built what we have; they are prevented by their party from building what they want. Is it any surprise that they’re angry? The Directorate preaches equality. And that much is true. The party doles out mediocrity in equal measure.” Micah leaned into the audience. “When everyone is equal, no one has value. These riots are a clear sign of the Directorate’s faltering moral compass and its eventual, inevitable collapse.”
Isaac, watching and feeling a mixture of anger and panic — panic because, to his horror, he found himself agreeing with Micah (a persuasive ability that was one of the younger Ryan’s many significant talents) — didn’t have to have already seen the video to know what was coming. He knew his brother well enough to anticipate his denouement.
“Shift is coming,” Micah said. “So to all in the Directorate who are rightfully, justifiably angry about those things you want but cannot have, I ask this: stop destroying what you wish could be yours. Stop blaming others for achieving their dreams. Stop believing that the only way to stand tall is to eradicate the things that make others stand above you. The things that anger you were achieved through hard work… and if you work hard, you can make them for yourself. Do you understand? You can have the things you want! In 28 days, you will face a choice: you may choose to remain in mediocrity, or you may choose to stop settling for what is given to you, and instead become what you were meant to be.”
Isaac stood from the couch and, in a single motion, threw his fist in a giant roundhouse toward his brother’s head. His canvas took the punch as a swipe and closed the projection, but Isaac’s momentum caused him to tumble onto the floor and bang his head on the coffee table. Then, insultingly, the canvas’s sexy voice asked him if he was all right and indicated that he was bleeding. Isaac touched his scalp, felt blood, and snapped that he was fine.
He was getting to his feet to head into the bathroom and treat his wound (Natasha still hadn’t emerged from her office despite Isaac’s crash) when a trilling noise indicated a new call.
It was Dominic Long, who told Isaac that Nicolai was last traced entering the apartment of one Thomas “Doc” Stahl, but that Doc had also gone missing or off-grid.
Isaac swore and said the police and city surveillance were beyond incompetent. Dominic said that the riot and then Isaac’s speech had set city tempers flaring, and that Micah’s speech today had made things ten times worse. Isaac cut Dominic off with an announcement that he was officially a captain again and snapped that he wanted some answers.
Dominic, unintimidated, stared at Isaac and told him that he wasn’t the only one, and to get in line.