It was only 8am, and already the streets were filled with assholes.
Thomas “Doc” Stahl sat in a cab, looking down at his wrist. As he straightened his arm and rolled it back, the tattoo faded away. It was an unpopular upgrade, and people who didn’t know Doc sometimes commented that looking at his wrist to see the time was something that made him look stupid, not retro. The local time was on every canvas, every surface in any public building, in the corner of every heads-up display (retinal, projected, or even the poorest VR glasses in the ghetto), and available for the asking at just about any place in the NAU. Most people in the better parts of the city had cochlear implants for audio calls, and even some of the bums had ancient phones. The time was on every digital billboard, every screen.
But Doc hadn’t gotten the watch upgrade because he wanted to see the time on his wrist. He’d gotten it because he liked the affect of looking down. The gesture conveyed class when he wanted it to, and it conversely conveyed “fuck you, hurry up” about a thousand times better than anything else a man could do. People hadn’t worn functioning watches for over fifty years, but tapping one’s wrist still meant “let’s hurry up” in the same way people still referred to “getting something on tape” when they meant making a recording. And looking down at a cocked wrist was still singularly insulting in a way that checking a display could never be. It told the person he was talking to that he gave less than a shit about whatever they were telling him, and that they were just wasting his precious time.
“Run them down,” Doc told the driver.
“Hey, they’ve got a right to protest,” the balding man in the driver’s seat said without turning back.
Doc drew a deep breath, then exhaled, watching the line of protesters through the cab’s window. He touched the glass, brought up a tint panel, and dragged a screen across the glass to block his view. The cabbie would, of course, be sympathetic. Here he was, carting some uppity Enterprise man around in his cab while a bunch of his fellow low-end Directorate protested the same uppity Enterprise bastards. Doc wanted to argue — to point out to the cabbie that every single one of those protesters could have chosen to make their own way in the Enterprise instead of accepting a fixed government dole that was barely adequate — but his words would fall on deaf ears and possibly result in an “accidentally” higher cab fare. Directorate members didn’t want to hear that they’d made the wrong choice. And you know what? Doc thought. They wouldn’t move over to Enterprise when Shift came, either. It was easier to bitch about how the system was unfair and suggest taxing the wealthy members of the Enterprise so that Directorate stipends could be increased. All while half of the fucking Directorate sat on their asses and didn’t work at all, because so much could be automated.
“Look, fella,” said Doc. “I’m not trying to be uppity. But I’ve got an eight-thirty sixteen blocks down, and that parade ain’t getting any thinner. Can we go around?”
The cabbie looked at the meter and they both watched the fare click up. “Not really.”
“Can I ask you a question?” said Doc.
“Hell, you can do anything,” said the cabbie.
“You don’t have to work. This cab could drive itself. So why do it?” Doc wasn’t trying to be rude. He wanted to know. Besides, Doc — always an entrepreneur and a fierce determiner of his own future — believed there was a little Enterprise logic in everyone.
The cabbie opened the window and stuck out his arm. “Scintillating conversation,” he said.
“But it could have an AI driver, and you could sit in your house and…”
“Sometimes the dole ain’t enough,” said the cabbie. He hooked his arm over the headrest and looked Doc over from top to bottom. Doc was wearing jeans, boots, and a simple suitcoat, but it was all expensive. Doc’s shoulder-length blonde hair had a sheen that could only be maintained by nanos. “Not that you’d know that.”
Doc wanted to debate, but it was pointless. The cabbie had already judged him, just like Directorate protesters always leapt to judge the well-off Enterprise every six years, in the weeks preceding Shift. He wanted to argue that he’d scraped his way up from the bottom, but he stopped when he remembered that he was talking to a man who’d taken a job that existed solely so that he could take it. If the cabbie died, AI would drive the cab the next day and the city would save money. It was a loop that existed only within itself.
Doc fished a twenty-credit note from his pocket and pushed it toward the driver. The fare stood at eight-seventy. Doc told him to keep the change and announced his plans to walk the rest of the way. As he exited the cab, the driver gave him an angry look. Doc had meant the tip as a make-peace gesture, but of course the driver had taken it as condescension.
Doc skirted the protesters, stuffing his annoyance low, figuring they were doing him a favor. Yes, the streets would be thick with assholes for a while, but Doc felt that there was no objective “good” or “bad” about anything. A self-made person understood that it wasn’t what happened to you in life that mattered, but what you did with those happenings. So yes, this all meant opportunity. The protestors wanted an end to decadence and inequality between the rich (who could afford the best upgrades) and the poor (who had no upgrades and accessed The Beam via old consoles and handhelds). Doc didn’t usually sell upgrades to the truly rich or truly poor; he sold mainly to the upper-middle, middle, and lower classes. This hullabaloo meant he had an opportunity to show the poorer of his customers that they could, indeed, afford upgrades on his easy payment plans. And for the upper tier of customers? Well, they’d buy fancier upgrades than ever if they thought their rights were being threatened. They’d consume out of fear. They’d consume to justify their previous consumption. And they’d consume to raise their middle fingers — to show the protestors that they intended to do whatever the fuck they wanted.
Doc cocked his arm and the nanobot-generated tattoo reappeared on his wrist, seconds ticking off near where his forearm began to thicken. He had fifteen minutes. And there wasn’t a cab — hover, wheeled, or pedi; human- or AI-driven — to be seen. The rails would take him too far out of his way. He’d have to run, and he was going to be late.
Doc hoofed it toward Xenia Labs, referring to his wrist every few minutes like a compulsion. Twelve blocks left. Eight blocks. By the time he had five blocks remaining, his time was up and he was sweaty as hell. He sold an upgrade that short-circuited perspiration and cooled the user via a rather toxic coolant circulated and (hopefully) contained by nanos, but Doc didn’t have it. Now, approaching Xenia, he wished he did, despite the occasional disastrous side-effect. He was going to look and smell disgusting. Then, because he decided he might as well embarrass himself fully, Doc tapped his ear and rattled off the voice message to Nicolai that he kept forgetting to send. Nicolai had been bugging him for days. Doc let him know that his new upgrade was in and that he could stop harassing Doc about it and come pick it up. With Doc running, Nicolai would get the message and hear his dealer panting. Not exactly the professional image Doc hoped to convey, but what the hell.
He kept running, his boots smacking pavement. He arrived at Xenia ten minutes late, rushed into a bathroom, and splashed cold water on his hot face. The bathroom didn’t have a groomer, so he ran his fingers through his blonde mane. His suitcoat was dark. Hopefully it would hide his sweat-stained pits. He took a final look in the mirror, trying to feather his hair away from the sides of his face where he refused to stop sweating. He failed. Doc’s hair stayed plastered to his skin like a dark blond halo.
That done, he crossed the hall to Xenia’s suite and trotted up to the receptionist. The girl behind the desk had three different clips on her ears. Doc wondered if she ever hit the wrong one and ended up rattling off her hilarious drunken stories to her boss instead of her girlfriend by mistake.
“Hey, sweetheart,” said Doc. “My name is Thomas — although people call me Doc — and I’m here to see…”
“Oh, yes!” the girl said brightly. “You’re the salesman. You’re early. Mr. Killian is in with a distributor. I apologize that he’s a little behind. He’s been tied up with a bunch of loose ends. The other day, some protestors beat in the door of our warehouse and disturbed a swarm of nanos that had been developed for police use. It was almost a disaster. You wouldn’t believe the mess, but luckily nobody was hurt, and now…”
Doc held up a hand. “Hang on a second, darlin’. I’m here to see Mr. Nero.” Every other Friday, Doc stopped by to see Nero for more stock and to see what was new, if anything. Nero was a prick of immeasurable proportions and despised even the slightest delay, but he also cut Doc a tremendous wholesale deal since Doc moved so many upgrades. When Nero wasn’t being pricky (which was rare), he sometimes told Doc that none of the other independent salesmen could sell to the wide spectrum that Doc did. Most of the reps who sold Beam-enabled personal upgrades catered to the low or high end of the market, but Doc could sell to both and everyone in between. Doc sold rudimentary tablets and handhelds to people below the line, but also sold memory and creativity enhancers to those near the top of the food chain. He didn’t discriminate where profit was concerned
The usual desk jockey — an uppity little cocksucker named Templeton — knew Doc and would have rebuked him for his lateness. But Templeton wasn’t here, and his replacement had no clue.
“Oh, Mr. Nero isn’t here,” said the girl. “He’s dealing with the police. The swarm, like I said. You’ll be meeting with Mr. Killian. Have a seat over there.” She pointed to a chair in the waiting area, near a plant.
Doc’s heartbeat was still coming down from his run, so he forced himself to breathe slowly and sit. While he waited, he tried to fan his armpits and cool off. He wasn’t late after all. This Mr. Killian wasn’t even ready for him. Doc wondered if Nero had told Killian to give him his usual discount. He’d be pissed if he had to pay full price and would grill Nero about it in two weeks if he did. Nero had a big bark, but ultimately spoke credits. If Doc threatened to move and start buying from Yeardley, he’d immediately cough up a rebate to cover the discount.
Ten minutes later, a tall man in a white lab coat with dark black hair appeared at the end of a hallway and greeted Doc. Doc rose and shook the man’s bony, clammy hand.
“I’m sorry we’re so chaotic today,” said Killian. “We had a bit of an incident with the protestors, see, and…”
“I heard,” said Doc. He thought of adding something about how obnoxious the protestors were to grease the conversational skids, but he’d yet to gauge the man’s political temperature.
“Well, it’s led to a bit of a kerfuffle. Anyway, I apologize. Don’t let your first impression get to you! We’re ordinarily very composed and professional around here, and if you’re going to…”
Doc laughed good-naturedly. “It’s hardly my first time here.”
Killian stopped and looked at Doc, confused. “Really? I understood I was introducing you to our product line.”
Doc shrugged. “Have you gotten new products in lately?”
“Oh yes.” Killian’s confused look vanished, something delighted replaced it. “We get new shipments constantly. The pace at which we’re cracking the neural nut, so to speak, is staggering. Once the Series Six nano software patch was developed and we learned that we could up-or-down-regulate CNS neurons, the cortex became our playground. What Einstein said about how we only use ten percent of our brains? Well, that leaves a lot to uncover. I can’t discuss it all yet because it’s preliminary, but let’s just say that what’s becoming possible by the week has us all quite excited.” Killian’s eyes had grown wide. He seemed positively giddy with discovery.
“I haven’t seen the Series Six nanos,” said Doc.
“Really? How long have you been in this game?”
Doc gave his disarming smile. “Long enough.”
“Well, they’re hardly new,” said Killian. “But of course, you wouldn’t call them Series Six, would you?” Doc had a moment in which he thought Killian was going to slap his own forehead. “You’d call them Paradigm.”
“Oh, of course,” said Doc. But he’d never heard of Paradigm nanos, either.
“Anyway, I don’t mean to imply that it’s all about nanos. The neural mapping field is also very promising, of course,” Killian added, making for a doorway at the end of the hall that Doc had never been through before. He’d thought it was a utility room.
“Of course,” said Doc.
They reached the door. Killian bared his arm and allowed a concealed scanner to read his Beam ID, then used his fingers to draw a complicated pattern on a swipe screen near the door. Doc was looking directly at Killian’s hands, but he’d never be able to replicate the pattern. It seemed almost random.
The door beeped and hissed open. “Well, come on in,” said Killian, leading the way.
Once inside the room, Doc’s breath evaporated. The lab was stark white, and every surface chattered with Beam activity. Even the floor under Doc’s boots hummed in response. The room was filled with devices Doc had never seen before, arranged on what almost looked like display racks. There were long work benches circling the room’s perimeter. Some of these seemed to be staffed by electronics workers who were peering at tiny devices through magnifiers, but other areas looked like biological wet benches. Doc saw vials of reagents, manual and auto pipettes, and what looked like jars filled with gel.
“Most of the actual production is automated,” said Killian, “but for research — at the macro and not nano level, of course — it’s all done by human hands unless it’s too precise or dangerous. Our technicians all have the latest ocular implants. You’ve seen these?” Killian snatched something from a rolling cart and then extended his hand. Two eyeballs stared up at Doc.
At first he was repulsed, but Doc couldn’t resist reaching out and taking one of the things between his fingers. It was soft and squishy and slimy, exactly like it looked.
“Interior is carbon nanotubes,” said Killian, dropping the remaining eye to the floor and then stomping on it with his shoe. He reached down and retrieved the eye, which was completely unharmed. “Just let Moe try to poke you in the eyes with these suckers,” he said, miming a Three Stooges eye-jab. Hardware is all NextGen biologic, grown with synthetic neurons and innately dependent on resident Series Six nanos.”
He tossed the other eyeball to Doc, who caught it. Doc looked down, shocked. The best ocular upgrades Nero had shown him were either small sensors implanted at the back of the cornea or full robotic orbs made of glass.
“The software is uploaded via BioFi, of course, same as your skills downloads.”
“Skills downloads?” He ignored “BioFi,” which seemed to be the less important of the two totally foreign things Killian had said.
Killian waved his hand. “Like learning ballet or whatever.”
“Oh,” said Doc, mystified.
“And that’s the other thing. This is BioFi version 7.6, which enables zottabytes of data to be transmitted in minutes. We could operate at much lower speeds and fidelities for skills transfers, of course,” Killian continued, “but we do still get better fidelity with a hard connection. And I don’t have to tell you what the arrival of 7.6 means for the transfer of meta-neural data.”
“You can say that again,” said Doc, feigning a laugh.
“It’s just all so exciting to us,” said Killian, still giddy. “And for you too, if you’re to educate your customers. You know about the dislocation paradigm?”
Killian was so excited, Doc didn’t even have to pull a response from his ass. The scientist rushed to explain: “With an upload, I mean. Where people worry about emergent properties like consciousness, identity, and all of that, because who wants to become just bits in an archive, without being who they were before?”
“Not me,” said Doc.
“Exactly. But what we’ve done, thanks to the arrival of 7.6 and the speeds it allows (especially when tethered; you don’t have to go wireless), is to create a buffer during the transfer process, allowing neural data to exist not just within the body and not just within The Beam, but effectively in both, with sixteen separate redundancies to ensure that…”
A bell-like noise cut Killian off. He and Doc turned to look at a rectangular screen that had appeared on the wall to Doc’s right. The screen showed the girl Doc had met at the front desk, still seated. Something had changed in her manner. Before, she had been bubbly and exuberant, but now she seemed somehow bothered.
“Um… Mr. Killian?” she said.
Killian smiled. “Yes, Vanessa!”
“Um… there’s someone here to see you.”
“Well, I’m in with a client now,” he said, then swiped the screen closed. A moment later, it opened again.
“You really should talk to him.”
“Well, then, Vanessa,” said Killian, annoyed, gesturing toward Doc. “Maybe you’d like to explain to Mr. Greenley why…”
But of course, Doc wasn’t Mr. Greenley. He suddenly understood why Killian thought it was his first time here, why the girl thought he’d arrived early rather than late, and why none of what Killian was taking for granted made a molecule of sense to him.
“That’s the issue,” said Vanessa, looking side to side nervously. “The person out here to see you is Mr. Greenley.”
Behind Doc, a magnetic door lock clicked into place, and an armored guard began walking toward him.