The Beam S1: Chapter Nine

The Beam S1: Chapter Nine

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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Dominic Long walked through the District Zero police station to the Quark annex, his footfalls echoing in the same creepy way they always did down here, too light and too sharp.

Walking through the main part of the station was like walking anywhere else — industrial flooring made of rubberized Formica in an ugly green pattern, dark enough to disguise the blood, urine, and dirt that somehow always ended up plastering a police station’s floor. Out there, his shiny black shoes sounded muted, not echoing because the sound was absorbed by the detectives and blue-uniformed patrolmen as they came and went. Out there, his footfalls flew out the windows. He heard street noise. And of course, he could feel the air coming in through the windows and from the temperamental vent system that, these days, was used more for distributing pacifying pheromones than temperature-controlled air.

But once he crossed from the old part of the station to the new section Quark had added after the company had started to take over the whole fucking world, all of the noises changed.

When Quark had initiated its partnership with the police to handle Beam-related crimes, they’d built this tomb-like monstrosity. You had to submit to a Beam ID scan to enter, and once inside, every surface was wired. Dominic watched a digital shadow of himself walk along the wall to his right. Beneath his feet, as he made those odd, clacking footsteps, he watched red footprints appear below his shoes. Walking in the annex, Dominic always felt judged. Because he was.

“Good afternoon, Captain Long,” said a deep, soothing voice that seemed to come from everywhere.

“Fuck off,” said Dominic, annoyed. This entire wing represented an invasion of his body’s privacy, and he resented it.

“I can recommend a masseuse for that pain in your shoulder,” said the voice, unperturbed.

“No offense, Noah,” said Dominic, “but get your sensors off my body.”

“You’re carrying a lot of tension,” said the voice.

Dominic shook his head. In order to enter the secure Quark wing, you had to walk through this bullshit gauntlet of holier-than-thou. The old police station was on the north side of the building. The Quark wing was on the south side, and you could only enter it through the old station, via this long white hallway. Quark PD’s offices and cells were in the wing’s center, and the hallway wrapped around it in a 360-degree spiral. If Dominic were nervous or uptight in a way that might suggest aggression, his posture and gait would betray it and the hallway would stop him. If too many people (or too much weight) tried to leave the wing’s core through the hallway, the hallway would stop them. And that was only on the surface. There were a billion other things the hallway gauged, assessed, and calculated. It was watching his eyes, scanning his body for weapons, talking to any nanobots he had in his system regardless of their encryption (Dominic had none) and measuring his breath’s temperature. Dominic didn’t understand most of it and didn’t want to. To him, the hallway was a perfect example of how The Beam had gone too far.

“This job makes me tense,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” the voice replied, its deep timber adjusting in a way Dominic knew was intended to soothe him, setting up subaural resonance to shift his brainwaves. You could resist it if you knew what was happening, so Dominic did. “Would you like me to set up an appointment with a counselor?”

Dominic rolled his eyes. “Decades of development in artificial intelligence and still stupidity abounds,” said Dominic.

“What do you mean, Captain Long?”

“You don’t know what stress is,” said Dominic.

“I did when I was alive,” said the voice.

Dominic reached the hallway’s end. Synthetic response surfaces gave way to plain beige floor tiles, and once again Dominic found himself inside what was more or less just a police station — albeit a squeaky clean, technologically enabled, and window-free one. But this station — Quark’s station — wasn’t the anomaly. The station on the other side of the building was the anomaly. The old station hadn’t changed much since the unrest in the 30s, when it was built amidst supposition that the entire country could fall at any time. That was before America had joined the NAU, back when leftover optimism and the unbridled air of discovery from the 20s still hung in the air like the scent of soured wine. The old station still accessed The Beam through terminals and wasn’t gesture-enabled. Part of that was sensible (opening the Fi to general access could lead to security problems with all of the nutjobs coming and going), but most of it was due to apathy and short-sightedness. Police funding, even now, still got fucked right up the butt.

Dominic stopped at a flat silver panel in the foyer that looked almost like a full-length mirror. An Asian woman appeared in its surface and seemed to walk toward him, holding a clipboard.

“How are you, Dominic?” she said.

“Fine, Akari,” he replied. The woman in the panel was as artificial as Noah, the voice in the hallway, but the programmers had soothed out Akari’s idiot edges. There were iterations of Noah on The Beam that were nearly as sharp as the real Noah had once been, but the station’s copy was — in Dominic’s mind, anyway — beyond obnoxious. Akari was also cute, and Dominic was a sucker for cute girls, no matter his level of annoyance.

“How can I help you?” she said.

“I got a call about the breach at QuarkTechnic.”

Akari looked down at her clipboard — an affect the programmers had added to make her seem more real. “Of course. Holding room fifteen.”

“Thank you.”

Dominic walked through the Quark station, peering around at the officers working their full gesture canvases. One was rotating a relational web, peeling it back to search through the Beam’s pages. Another sat with her eyes closed, probably downloading images into an implant behind her retinas. Dominic wanted to swear. You had to be half cyborg to work here. It was one of the many things Dominic hated about the annex, aside from the sheer presumptuousness of it all. Quark thought it was important enough to impress itself into the fabric of the police themselves. What a load of bullshit.

Dominic arrived at holding room fifteen. Beside the door was another silver panel, this one smaller than the one at the entrance. Akari appeared, visible from the chest up, still holding her clipboard.

“I can read,” said Dominic, his testiness returning in a wave. The fucking Beam was always checking on him, as if he was as burned as the nutjobs they picked up on the street. There was a large black “15” printed beside the door. He didn’t need Akari to confirm that he was in the right place.

“It’s not that, Dominic,” she said. “This suspect is classified security beta. I’m going to need a palm scan.” She held up her hand. It looked like she was on the other side of a window and had planted her palm against it from the inside.

“You scan-raped me on the walk in. What did I have for breakfast, Akari? What, exactly, is in my colon right now?”

“I apologize, Captain,” she said, subtly shifting in formality. “But I still require the scan.”

Dominic grunted and set his large, beaten-up policeman’s hand against Akari’s small, delicate one.

“Thank you,” she said. In front of Dominic, the door swung open.

The room was small and white. Inside, two Quark cops were interrogating their subject at a rather cliched wooden table. One stood. The other sat at the table’s edge. Dominic assumed the standing one was supposed to be the bad cop, and the seated one was the friendly good cop.

Across the table was a woman who appeared to be in her twenties (though who could say these days?) who gave Dominic a tiny smile when he entered. Her hair was matted in giant dreadlocks that were dyed a bright, almost luminescent pink. She had a small silver ring through the right side of her lower lip and another in her eyebrow. The ear on her other side had two piercings connected by a short silver chain. Her index fingers were both tattooed with swirls of black ink.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Dominic.

The bad cop wasted no pleasantries and handed him a small tablet with a look of resentment. Quark cops didn’t like the regular cops any more than the regular cops liked the Quarks. Dominic was only here because he was the captain, and because this was a high-level inquiry.

“Leah,” said Dominic, reading from the tablet. “That’s it. No last name. No Beam ID.”

“It’s not a crime to not have a Beam ID,” said the young woman. “Nor to not have a last name.”

The standing cop gave her a look, then addressed Dominic. “She’s been arrested before. We have her code on file. She really does seem to have no last name. Registered simply as ‘Leah’, a student at QuarkTechnic. She was flagged trying to access a classified section of The Beam nowhere near her access level.”

Dominic handed the tablet back to the Quark cop, looked at the girl and waited for her response.

“It was an accident,” she said. “I was trying to order lunch.” She looked at the Quark cops. “Donuts.”

The standing cop moved toward her, but Dominic held up a hand.

“She was in Quark’s server. Got through the Blanket, which in itself requires a 128-bit encryption key.”

“You can’t hold that against me,” Leah said. “Who still uses 128-bit encryption? I was composing a nursery rhyme and accidentally accessed the server. Luckily some citizen scouts stopped me before I accidentally went any further. I hear the next level of security was a velvet rope.”

Dominic stared at her.

“A thick one,” she added, then circled her fingers to show the rope’s girth.

Dominic shifted his gaze to the seated cop. He was the only one who hadn’t spoken, and was thereby Dominic’s final hope of learning something useful.

“What’s she talking about?”

“All you need to know is that she was where she wasn’t supposed to be, getting at stuff she wasn’t supposed to get.”

“Cake recipes,” said Leah. “Quark’s are the best.”

“128 bit is old technology, but the Blanket still blunts brute force hacks enough to give us time to cut off people who try to get in,” said the seated cop. “There’s data there not suitable for public consumption, but it’s fairly innocuous. She burned through it so fast we couldn’t stop her. Naturally she was traced, and Quark on-site at Technic brought her in. She was transferring terras of data from one lane to another. Not even to a slip drive for the road. She won’t tell us why.”

“It was an accident,” said Leah. Her hands were cuffed in front of her, but she still managed to tip her chair back on its rear legs. She hadn’t yet nursed the gall to put her legs up on the table.

“So she didn’t remove anything from the server?” asked Dominic.

“No.”

“And she didn’t breach your inner security?”

“No…”

“So what’s the crime?”

“Digital trespassing,” said the standing cop.

“You brought her in here for that?” said Dominic. “Aren’t there jaywalkers you should be hunting?”

Dominic was annoyed. Hacking was a multi-tiered thing, and the lines between modification and true hacking were gray at best. Most kids could break the security on their canvases to access porn, and the ability required to do it, back in the early computing age, would have sent them to jail for life. But in a world where encryption could be enhanced with conscious choices made by Beam-resident AI codemakers, using a brute-force algorithm was a lot more like hopping a fence and entering a neighbor’s yard than breaking into a house. Sometimes people out on The Beam couldn’t resist taking shortcuts. It was technically illegal, but only barely.

“Digital trespassing at Quark,” said the cop sitting on the desk.

Dominic actually laughed. These pompous assholes.

“We want to hold her and check out her known associates,” said the other cop.

“The associates from my file?” said Leah. “Oh sure, call Binky. Tell him I said hi. I haven’t seen him since we burned the preschool firewall so our naptimes could coincide.”

“Shut it,” the cop snapped, turning.

Dominic met the cop’s eyes and shook his head.

“You’re just going to let her go? This is Organa shit. Just look at her.”

“That’s not fair,” said Leah. “I haven’t judged you based on the way you look.” Dominic watched the woman’s eyes, willing her not to continue. But then her will broke and she added, “So, which enhancement did you order to make your jagger bigger and longer?”

The cop moved toward her again, but Dominic held up his hands.

“Ms…” Dominic began, then remembered that she didn’t have a last name. “Leah,” he said instead. “What were you trying to do at QuarkTechnic?”

The girl brought her chair down to four legs and leaned forward, elbows to knees. Her green eyes settled on Dominic’s with a smile. “Okay, I’ll tell you the truth. I was trying to change my grades. Satisfied?”

“You were at Quark,” said the standing cop.

“A mistake.” She gave the cop a look. “Your encryption looks the same, and you’d know that if you’d look for yourself. And frankly, you share a lot of the same backdoors.”

“There are no backdoors at Quark.”

Leah laughed.

The cops turned to Dominic. The standing one said, “Look. I don’t want to pull rank because you’ll bluster and pretend you outrank me, but we both know that what Quark says goes in the end. If you let her go…”

The Quark cop was right; you didn’t step into a state-run institution like the police and build yourself a new wing staffed by superior forces if you didn’t have a lot of power. So to counter, Dominic went on the offensive.

“I’m not going to let her go, you idiot,” he snapped. “I’m going to interrogate her. Properly. She needs to be in the public police system, not your proprietary one. If the Organas found out that Quark booked someone without going through proper channels and released that information to the world, it’d look like a conspiracy. And believe me, those hippies have the hackers to release whatever they want.”

The standing cop looked at Leah and said, “That’s what I’ve heard.”

After a small bluster, the cops relented. Dominic used the Quark station’s canvas to transfer Leah’s records to the DZPD Beam sector and cleared her for access through the outer corridor. During the walk, Noah’s deep, soothing voice expressed a concern for Dominic’s blood pressure and urged him to see a physician for an injection of diagnostic and scavenger nanos. Then it complimented Leah on her hair color and admonished her to stay out of trouble. He added that her shoes, which were little more than canvas with individual toes, were better for her back than Dominic’s synthetic leather clodhoppers. Dominic swore.

Once they’d exited the Quark hallway, Dominic marched Leah straight-faced through the DZPD station, past the desk clerk, and through the front door. Officers and detectives watched him pass with the pink-haired girl. He said nothing to answer their stares. It was amazing what you could get away with if you acted like you were allowed to do it, and if you were the captain.

They walked outside, then skirted the corner and stopped in front of an Amino stand. The stand was unoccupied, the vendor apparently off at the bathroom or stoned somewhere on moondust. The second seemed likely. Dominic walked by the stand every day after parking his hover in the subterranean garage, and the guy who ran it was as Organa-looking as Leah.

Dominic unlocked her cuffs. Leah looked up at him, rubbing her wrists.

“Stupid, Leah,” he said.

“I had a man on the inside who I knew could spring me,” she answered, giving Dominic a satirical salute.

“Sloppy, too. I thought you were better than that.”

“I’m not sloppy. I’m free-wheeling.” When Dominic continued to stare at her, her serious glare finally broke and she groaned — a gesture that said, Fine! 

She held her tattooed fingers in front of Dominic’s face.

“You’re not seeing the whole picture, Dom. Those cops were both Beam clerics. Did I not tell you about my new enhancements?”

“You’ve had those since I met you.”

“Not the tattoos, shitter.”

“What? Did you add some nano reservoirs?”

“Nano fabricators,” she clarified. “Under my nails. Problem with Quark security is that the encryption can only be bypassed from the inside. Once these —” She wiggled her index fingers again. “— saw what kind of nanos the clerics had filled those meat sack bodies of theirs with, they fabricated cloned soldiers to match. So I spoofed them, and left a few dozen on that table. Now my nanos are inside the clerics, and they’ll never know.”

“Behind the firewall?”

“Right.”

“You wanted to get caught.”

Leah shrugged. “I needed something to handshake with. Not that this makes things any easier. Hax0r encryption has evolved to ridiculous levels. One of the advantages of having computers doing all of the computer development in The Beam.”

Dominic closed his eyes and shook his head. “Dangerous. They could find out.”

“They won’t.”

“They’ll trace you. And then they’ll wonder why you weren’t questioned further. They’ll look into the records and notice that all trace of your visit today was purged. Then maybe a few people will remember who took you in for that supposed further questioning.” He made a fist and planted his thumb in his chest.

Leah extended her hand and slapped Dominic lightly a few times on the cheek. She had to strain to reach him. She was probably five-five and Dominic was over six feet tall, at least fifty pounds too heavy. Being a captain, he could afford fat scavenger treatment, but he didn’t give a big enough shit about his potbelly to put machines in his body.

“I’ll see you around, Dom,” she said.

“Fuck you, Leah,” he said. But of course he didn’t mean it.

“I’ll say hi to Crumb for you,” she said, and was gone.

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