The Beam: S1 Chapter One

The Beam: S1 Chapter One

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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Hey there Outlaw,

We’re going to be running chapters of The Beam, first Season One E1, then the same for S2E1. These are going to come fast and furious, with a recap in between them, then we’ll be at Season 2. You’re going to be very, very happy!

Enjoy:

The Beam: S1 Chapter One
Of all the truths and lies perpetrated about Natasha Ryan in The Beam news feeds and so-called independent media, the only story that truly bothered Natasha was the one claiming her voice was enhanced by an add-on called an Audibox.

Rumor said that once, when Natasha had gone in for a resurfacing of the skin on her long neck and aristocratic chin (a job nanobots were notoriously bad at, given that it involved so many dying surface cells), she’d discreetly called a high-end enhancement dealer and ordered an implant that would subtly tune the reverberations of her larynx and make her perfect pitch that much more perfect. Beam reporters didn’t have details on exactly how the Audibox worked (seeing as its existence was a damnable lie), but they claimed it worked via biofeedback and that Natasha had needed to train herself to use it — to hold discreet notes in her mind so the Audibox could help her produce them. But that was utter and total bullshit. If she’d have to train herself to use a device, why wouldn’t she use that same time to train herself to sing properly instead?

None of the other lies bothered Natasha nearly as much. The gossip sheets claimed she’d cheated on Isaac with his brother. They claimed she’d been so early to try nanobot injections (nearly predating The Beam’s 1.5 iteration, back when it was known as the Crossbrace project) that she’d been over forty when her first album had dropped — a fact that would make her almost a hundred today. Both were bullshit. She’d cheated, but never any of the times the press had accused her of it and never with Micah. And when she’d released Via Persephone in ’36, she’d been twenty, as claimed. And as to the rest? Well, Natasha denied most of what came up about her on sheets inside The Beam, but the truth was that most of those stories were true. It was hard to argue too much without losing the ability to look yourself in the eye, so Natasha usually allowed her winning smile to speak for her, neither denying nor accepting.

As she stood in the spotlight on the Aphora Theater’s stage, the footlights nearly blinded her to the crowd. Still, she could see them well enough to know what her unenhanced voice (still raw and naked, as had been her signature since her debut) was doing to them. A girl with Natasha’s credits and social circle couldn’t be blamed for having a filter lens installed while she was getting a surgical eye lift, or for directing her circulating nanobots to spend extra time on her rod cells so as to see better in the dark. Because oh… what she could see! The dress circle in the front, decked in the very best finery, hung from her every note, their eyes wet and dreamy. The main floor (decked in still-decent finery) leaned forward, their lips slightly parted, occasionally holding hands. Even the lottery and contest winners at the back (in mismatched suits that shone at the elbows; God bless their hearts for trying) were rapt with attention.

Natasha didn’t need any goddamn Audibox in her throat to sound amazing. She was Natasha Fucking Ryan. Some singers could shatter glass with their voices, but Natasha Fucking Ryan could shatter hearts. She hadn’t risen to fame. She’d taken fame by the balls and demanded her due. Back then, in 2036, she’d been a fat girl with a dream, standing on stage as nature had made her. Today she was thin, supple, beautiful, and would live longer — and yes, she had had some help, but her voice hadn’t changed. Her pitch hadn’t been enhanced, nor the power of her songs altered. No one wrote Natasha’s lyrics other than herself, and while the source of the soul-tearing torment beneath her songs had changed, the torment itself remained. The people watching her performance would never know the elite nature of her daily hardships, but they all knew what it was like to be human. And in the end, human was human.

Natasha held up her arms, raising her voice an octave, increasing her volume precisely without artificial help. She held it, cascaded down, and ended in an elasticized note that trembled to a whisper. The crowd followed her movements, their eyes and chins lowering subconsciously. She could almost see pieces of their souls wisp from their chests and float away. Right now, Natasha could make them do anything. Right now, every person watching — live or via the Beam feed — was totally in love with her, as they always had been.

Natasha brought her hands down as her voice shimmered away. She lowered her head, looking toward the foot of the stage. Her posture caved, curling her shoulders down and forward, defeated. The note collapsed, then died. The lighting director dimmed the lights on cue. The last thing the crowd saw in the faltering light were Natasha’s eyes — her deep green irises, soulful enough to penetrate all the way to the cheap seats — as they wet, as they fell, as the crowd hushed.

The spotlight winked out. The stage fell dark. For a moment, there was nothing, not even a whisper. The world had vanished.

Then, all at once, the hall erupted in applause. The house lights came up, and Natasha watched as the crowd stood, beating their hands together, most of their faces plastered with tears. In the back, where inhibitions were lower, the questionably dressed attendees jumped and clapped overhead, cheering, whistling, crying out. The stage light went bright. Natasha bowed. A rose landed at her feet, followed by another. A full bouquet.

Natasha bowed again, her heart full.

The few people who hadn’t already stood came to their feet. Their faces didn’t look reluctant or goaded; they looked overwhelmed. It had taken them a while to rise because they hadn’t felt emotionally capable of standing. These last applauded slowly and quietly, because it was all they could muster. Yes, Natasha had done her job well.

She bowed again and again, letting her face portray more exultation and overwhelm than she actually felt. The room’s emotional swell was impressive, but adoration had long ago stopped giving Natasha a high. These days, it merely saved her from depression, and got her back to normal.

She could hear a few people in the crowd calling her name.

Natasha, we love you!

Natasha, you’re beautiful! 

Get off the stage, bitch!

Her head jerked up. Something else landed on the stage amidst the roses. It was a tomato. An honest-to-God tomato.

Natasha wasn’t the only person who’d heard the anonymous heckler. All across the crowd, heads searched the room, looking to see who dared to ruin the mood and the moment. The voice had seemed to have come from Natasha’s right. But then from the other side, a chorus of boos burst out, becoming a taunting chant.

Natasha was turning to find the source of the discord when some sort of heavy rubber ball struck the stage at her side and skittered away, making her jump. Boos bounced through the crowd from every direction. Natasha spied a few of the people making the boos, hands clapped to mouths and faces angry. The offenders were among the most shabbily dressed, their appearances unenhanced, the grit of below-the-line living embedded in their skin. There were only a few of them, but they were so loud … and they looked so angry. It was a species of anger Natasha vaguely remembered but had mostly forgotten: the anger she’d once had for those who had plenty when she’d had so little. It was the anger of a young girl whose family had barely gotten by — who’d seen the way the rich got richer during the disaster years, while the rest of the world crumbled.

Now, that same anger was booing her. Hating her. Throwing things at her.

A shoe struck the stage. Who would throw a shoe? How would they ever get home? The shoe was heavy — someone’s idea of a dress shoe simply because it was black. The shoe nearly hit Natasha’s foot. She jumped back, shocked.

The man who’d thrown it yelled, “Thieving cunt!”

And Natasha thought, This is Directorate. 

Natasha stepped back, away from the tomato, the shoe, and the rolling rubber ball as if they were bombs. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. She’d poured her heart out. They were supposed to love her. She wasn’t supposed to be booed. She wasn’t supposed to be the whipping girl for the world’s social woes. She’d gotten her fame and fortune through hard work, clawing her way through the same system that was in front of everyone. The difference was, she had taken a chance. She had gambled. They — the bastards who were booing her — had just accepted their government dole and complained. Who were they to boo her? But that was what the venue got for selling cheap seats, for giving away tickets as promotions. Elegant affairs were supposed to be accessible only to elegant people — especially this close to Shift, when things always went to crap and when mixing classes was always a recipe for disaster.

The boos grew louder. It was so unfair. Natasha’s well-deserved applause had been shocked into silence, and a handful of loudmouths were getting all the attention. And this was going out on the Beam feed, too, so everyone was watching her moment crumble thanks to a handful of assholes. Soon, boos were the only sounds in the seats, oddly harmonizing with the thunking of objects landing onstage.

A well-dressed man, his eyes offended on Natasha’s behalf, jumped onto one of the jeering miscreants. The booing man fought back, throwing them both over a chair. Those around them stepped away. One of the malcontents closer to the stage turned to stare at Natasha as if she’d caused the fight and threw something at her. Natasha flinched away. Whatever the man had thrown struck and shattered a light, and with the explosion of glass and sparks, the paralysis remaining in the seats started to crumble. A few of the rabble in back began changing sides, apparently swayed by well-reasoned arguments from the troublemakers — sage truisms such as Get the diamonds out of your ass! And Fuck you!

“Natasha!” hissed a voice. She turned to see Jane, her tour manager, beckoning her.

Natasha looked out at the brawl unfolding in the theater — the same theater that, moments earlier, had harbored a sea of adoring fans. What had gone wrong? She looked back at Jane. In the second it took to look away, Jane had easily grown twice as impatient. She had doubled the size of her gestures, and the number of arms used to make them. Her eyes looked angry, baffled by Natasha’s stupidity.

“Natasha!” Jane repeated. “Get the hell over here, will you?”

“They threw a tomato,” was all Natasha could say.

Jane rushed forward and grabbed her star by the wrist, then began to pull on Natasha’s arm nearly hard enough to yank the limb from its socket. Natasha’s high heels threatened to spill her, but she’d had years and years of practice at remaining stylish and beautiful even under duress, and managed to keep her footing. She shambled along behind Jane like a dog on a leash. They stepped through a black curtain as something broke on stage. It sounded like glass or porcelain.

“Your hover,” said Jane. “Go with James. Now. Get the fuck out of here.”

“But I’m supposed to sign autographs,” Natasha said, dazed.

Jane jabbed at the curtain with a pointed finger. The gesture made the black drape swing, and Natasha saw through it that security and police had come to the front of the stage. The crowd was trying to climb up. Were they trying to escape the melee, or had they all turned on her?

“You want to sign for this crew?” said Jane. “You’ll need a riot mask. They’re falling apart out there!”

“Why?”

James’s hand was already replacing Jane’s on her wrist, and a moment later, the bodyguard’s strong arm was around her shoulder as well. Jane was supposed to manage tour dates, James was supposed to protect her. Only Jane would yank her along. James, on the other hand, knew better ways to move her.

“Come on, Ms. Ryan,” he said. James shaved his head, but wore a brown porkpie hat like a hipster. It was a strange look to counterpoint his broad, muscular body.

“I need Kiki.”

“I have your dog, Ms. Ryan. Come with me. It’s not safe here.”

“But they love me. They’re supposed to love me,” she said. Beyond the curtain, there was a yell, the scampering of feet, and the thump of a police slumbergun, followed by the sound of a body hitting the polished wood floor.

“Come with me. Come on. Let’s get you home.”

Natasha allowed herself to be led toward her hovercar. She was so catatonic that James had to buckle her in before taking his spot up front behind the steering fork. There was a small pink bag beside her on the seat. As the hover climbed, she reached inside it, pulled out the small white dog, and set him on her lap. She proceeded to tell Kiki that it was all fine, that Shift always caused a little unrest, and that other than the actions of a few rabblerousers, the performance had gone quite well. They loved her. They really did.

As James steered the craft into the thin traffic above District Zero and banked it toward Natasha’s penthouse, the star looked down and saw a dozen or more police cars arrive at the foot of the Aphora, their presence incongruous amongst the limousines and high-end hovers. She watched police swarm from their vehicles like ants rushing the theater, face-shields donned and slumbers held across their chests.

“It’s fine, Kiki,” said Natasha, petting her dog in short, quick strokes.

Kiki accepted his owner’s reassurances without protest or disagreement.

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