The Beam S1: Chapter Five

The Beam S1: Chapter Five

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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Nicolai sat to the side of the lectern, looking on as a cluster of glass eyes watched Isaac Ryan deliver the speech Nicolai had written for him. The speech was thick with rhetoric, because rhetoric worked. People didn’t want to hear new information. They wanted to hear the same old things over and over, until they began to sound true.

Nicolai listened to his words pouring from Isaac’s mouth, annoyed. Annoyed with himself for writing them, and annoyed with the people watching Isaac’s persuasive dark eyes on their tablets, walls, and countertops for believing them. There was nothing in the speech that was literally untrue, of course, but there was nothing in it that was really true, either. The whole thing was bullshit… shades of meaning cobbled together in such a way that, when taken together, appeared to say something.

Isaac’s speech explained how the Enterprise — his own party’s opposition — was only concerned with itself. It was and always had been the party of the selfish. Enterprise’s organizers had said, “We will not take care of you,” and people had flocked to their ranks. Those people couldn’t be blamed, said Nicolai’s words on Isaac’s lips. The party attracted gamblers who were happy to trade the security of aid (all expenses paid and credits supplied for living expenses, like in the Directorate) for a shot at greatness. But how many people among the Enterprise ever became great? How many “amazing creative talents” ever earned a more than a handful of credits’ worth of income? But on the other end, how many among the Enterprise starved because their party wouldn’t provide for them when they failed? How many were downtrodden because those in the Enterprise’s upper echelon wouldn’t reach down and help their brothers and sisters to stand?

Nicolai listened as Isaac attempted to soothe the Directorate unrest that had culminated in the riot at Natasha Ryan’s concert. Nicolai was particularly proud/ashamed of that bit of spin doctoring. “We forgive and understand those people who were responsible for causing the riot and seek only to help them rise up,” Isaac told the lenses in front of him. It was so perfect/hideous. Forgiving the rabble-rousers showed the Directorate’s compassionate heart. You can harm us and we will still forgive you, Isaac’s quote said, because we are family.

What a bunch of bullshit, thought Nicolai.

But that was true of politics in general, was it not? If Nicolai were an Enterprise speechwriter, he’d be doing the same things as he did for the Directorate, just doling out bullshit of a different flavor. He’d be writing words for Isaac’s brother Micah instead, telling the NAU that the Directorate were the greedy ones. They were the Robin Hoods who wanted to  tax the profits that Enterprise members had worked hard to earn from the sweat of their own brows and wills. Why should the Directorate (many of whom chose to sit around all day without working) benefit from the Enterprise’s intellect and guts?

“There is no perfect system,” Isaac said from the lectern. “There will always be problems, but we cannot draw flame from a match of unsteady premise. We cannot abandon those who are unable to succeed on their own, as the Enterprise does. The Directorate is committed to providing for our members — for every single one. You will never starve as a member of the Directorate. As more and more tasks become automated by AI and service robots, you will not truly need to work. We have the best of both worlds. We receive what we need without having to break our backs to get it. When turbulence approaches, always remember who we are and what we have. We cannot riot. Riots make us look like a mob. We are no such thing! We believe in our family, and our family is proud!”

None of it was untrue. Directorate members were not required to work. But it was also not really true, because a Directorate living was meager. You got a place to live, you got your services and healthcare taken care of, and you got a stipend for living expenses. But the technology that handled base tasks and made it possible not to work was a double-edged sword, because it gave members things to want. Too many Directorate party members spent their credits on gadgets, then found themselves short on food. So what did they do? They took some of those jobs back in order to earn extra credits. All of their work was based on a fixed income, with few legitimate chances for advancement. Nicolai couldn’t live like that. He was Directorate, but only in the way Isaac was. Both of their “fixed credit allowances,” based on their positions, were so high that it felt unlimited. Isaac had even found a slippery way to reclassify Natasha as Directorate. She was a self-made performer who’d come up Enterprise, but now received an exorbitant salary. The irony was that while her scrappiness had gotten Natasha to where she was, her flat pay rate meant that no matter whether her next album and holoconcerts thrived or flopped, she’d generate exactly the same number of credits.

There was something unappealing to Nicolai about guarantees. Risk — the Enterprise’s bread and butter, which the Directorate thought of as gambling — was more exciting. Risk felt like standing on the top of a cliff, feeling your heart beat out of your chest. You might die if you jumped from that cliff, and it was smarter to head over to the wading pool where things were safe. But Nicolai, who’d grown up wealthy, had fled Rome as it burned, trekking through the Wild East with only a pack and a crossbow. He knew the rewards that came from risk. But that had all ended when he’d arrived at the NAU border and met Isaac, and the other bookend had snapped into place. From rich to rich, from safe to safe. Nicolai’s rewarding reckless was lost in the forever between.

Still, Nicolai had that seed of adventure and self-determination deep inside him. He wore his black hair too shaggy for a man who could afford follicle-pausing treatments, and wore small, round glasses that had stopped being necessary a hundred years earlier with the advent of Lasik eye surgery. Nicolai could afford eyes that could see through walls, but he wore glasses and instead used his credits for creativity add-ons that were experimental at best and reckless at worst. He had a wetchip in his cortex that scanned his mind when he worked on his books, tried to draw or paint, or touched the keys of his piano. The chip watched the firing patterns that came with creativity, then fired those neurons while tuning down centers that seemed most responsible for internal criticism. “Seemed” was the operative word. Creativity was one of the least understood emergent properties, and tinkering with it was considered pseudoscience at best. Even his dealer, Doc, warned him to proceed slowly lest he do damage that couldn’t be undone, but Nicolai swore that every time he used his creativity chip, he found inspiration more easily. Each time, he got a little bit more out of his own way. Every day, he was inching closer to writing more stories and books… and maybe one day, fewer bullshit political speeches.

“The NAU, even today, still has the world’s only stable government,” said Isaac, looking earnestly at the glass eyes in front of him. “Our two parties were formed at a time of unrest, as our borders closed, as our enemies tried to storm our gates. And in the midst of that unrest, the Enterprise decided it was more important to fight over the resources we had and let the strongest survive. It was short-sighted then, and it’s short-sighted now. One citizen should not be rewarded if another must suffer. In the Directorate, we are all equal.”

Nicolai felt his gut tighten. That was the only outright lie in the speech. But it was okay; that particular lie had been told often enough that nobody knew it was a lie. Repetition had turned it true. The spirit of Directorate “equality” said that everyone was taken care of and had a chance to advance. In reality, “equality” meant a ton of low-level managers, number crunchers, data shufflers, and representatives from industries that could easily be automated, all juxtaposed with the highly paid Directorate elite. Nicolai himself was paid well, but there seemed to be a secret club above his pay grade, in the realm of the Isaacs and the Natashas. He’d heard Isaac and Natasha use the term “Beau Monde.” Although Nicolai probably wasn’t supposed to so much as know the phrase (he being merely in the 95th or so percentile), he suspected it referred to the truly elite — the one percent of the population that possessed 99 percent of the wealth.

But as Nicolai had written and Isaac had said, no system was perfect. There were a lot of starving artists and failed entrepreneurs in the Enterprise. Maybe the Directorate system was the best that could be done. Nicolai couldn’t make up his mind. In an ideal world, he’d knock down the iron rule that said you chose one party or the other, and would plunk himself squarely in the middle.

Nicolai looked out across the live audience — a group of several hundred Directorate who’d come to the Orpheum to watch Isaac Ryan speak in person. Their faces were pleased and optimistic, their mouths set in determination. A few nodded along. Part of their fervor was probably due to the add-on Isaac had in his throat — a little gadget that caused his voice to reverberate at the most psychologically persuasive frequencies — but mostly it was Nicolai’s words, coming from Isaac’s mouth. One day Nicolai would finish his novel. One day he’d be known for something other than speeches… if, in fact, he got any credit for the speeches at all.

Nicolai’s fingers twitched — an unconscious gesture he made when he wanted time to hurry.

He’d written the speech; he knew it was almost over. When it was, the crowd would applaud (of course; he could see them dying to shower Isaac with praise right now) and for another night, the Directorate’s image in the minds of its members would be secure. They would sleep having decided to remain in the Directorate when Shift came. Their earlier dissatisfaction would seem less vital, less insistent. Groups who had previously felt inequity would feel kinship instead.

In the glow of post-speech adoration, Nicolai would shake a few hands as Isaac liked him to, then run off on a very important errand. Listening to the speech hadn’t moved him toward pacification. Listening to his own hypocrisy coming from Isaac’s lips made him want to do something very, very Enterprise. He wanted nothing more right now than to run over to Doc’s and pick up his newest purchase — a 2.0 version of his current wetchip. He’d paid a fortune for it and was dying to try it out, to explode into an impulsive, reckless, unstable tsunami of creativity. The new chip was supposed to be safer, deeper, and much, much more effective.

He’d had a frustrating few days. First the riot at Natasha’s concert, then the panicked call from Isaac. He hadn’t been able to reach Kai Dreyfus, who not only calmed him but also helped him to think. Kai knew all about Nicolai’s implant. She’d always encouraged him to write his books and make his art. And sure, she was a whore, and a whore would tell her clients whatever they wanted to hear. But Nicolai, always a good judge of character, suspected that Kai might just be the only honest person in his life.

But everything would be fine once he got out there and got his new implant. It wouldn’t matter that he’d done plenty of his own whoring here tonight.

Onstage, Isaac closed his speech.

Applause.

Heads nodded in the live audience, just as they would be nodding in Directorate households all across the NAU.

Nicolai smiled a plastic smile, shook hands, and muscled through too many minutes of mingling. Then he slipped out, hailed a hovercab, and soared through the city toward Doc’s apartment.

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