The Beam S1: Chapter Six

The Beam S1: Chapter Six

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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Doc sat in an overstuffed chair in his apartment on the 47th floor of Tuco Towers, a conjoined pair of skyscrapers connected to one another by bridges. The bridges were a novelty and branding angle for Tuco and nothing more. Even if there was any point in going from one building filled with apartments of people you didn’t know to another, the people at the top of the towers were rich enough to afford hoverskippers. Even Doc could afford a hoverskipper. He didn’t have one because hoverskippers were (like the city’s ancient, horse-drawn hansom cabs) for tourists. He had his car, though, and while it would be clunky to climb into it through the magnetic port at the end of his hallway and cross to the other tower, he could do it. He’d do that before walking across those stupid bridges, which were mainly used by the Towers’ teenagers to hook up and fuck.

Right now, Doc was supposed to be watching a holo to unwind from a long day of scrambling, as a hustler like himself always did.

Instead, he was trying to watch the holo, but couldn’t move his mind from what he’d seen in the lab.

The upgrades he’d seen were troubling enough. Revolutionary new nanobots? Eyes that looked real but could do… well, whatever they could do? BioFi? What did it all mean? And how had that lab been there the whole time he’d been visiting Xenia… and yet they’d kept it from him? He was one of their best salesmen. Doc hadn’t just been plunked into Tuco Towers, where the rents were exorbitant because the security was top-notch. He’d earned his way into wealth. Xenia couldn’t possibly think he wouldn’t be able to sell those upgrades.

And that led to the most troublesome thing about Doc’s afternoon — a crawling certainty that the only reason Doc wasn’t supposed to see the upgrades in that lab was because his customers would never be allowed to buy them.

When Greenley (the salesman Doc had been mistaken for — a man whose elite clients were allowed buy those elite upgrades) had made his unfortunately timed appearance, Doc had realized the depth of the shit he’d landed in. He had learned, quite accidentally, just how far the field of human advancement had come. If what Killian had told him was even half true, people who used those upgrades would be almost like superheroes. How much of a person’s mind could be backed up on The Beam these days? How far had virtual meetings advanced? If the level of immersion that seemed possible was indeed possible, users of the new technology would be able to sit in a chair beside a canvas and feel themselves fully somewhere else. With a snicker, Doc’s mind immediately drifted to the applications in immersive porn. Just imagine the filthy knots into which fetishists could twist themselves when those new tricks came on board.

And that was just the stuff he’d seen. His new, unauthorized knowledge didn’t include the other devices Doc had seen around the lab — items Killian hadn’t had time to tell him about before they’d been interrupted. Some of those things had looked like weapons. Others had looked like spare body parts. The human arm hanging on the wall… what could it do? Could it shoot deadly rays like in old movies about the future? Could it punch a hole in Plasteel? Could it disrupt the life energy of anyone it touched, thus making it a hand of death? There was no way to know.

In the lab, Killian’s eyes had been panicked when he’d realized his mistake. The guard had advanced. A few minutes later, another two guards had entered and Doc had found himself surrounded. He hadn’t been able to help himself. He’d raised his hands. Killian, regaining his composure, had then laughed and told Doc that there had been a mistake, but that he wasn’t in Nazi Germany. Killian had smiled wide and waved the guards away, chastising them for giving their guest the wrong impression. But Killian, Doc noticed, still hadn’t unlocked the door, or told the armed men to leave.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Stahl,” Killian had told him. “We seem to have made an unfortunate mistake.”

“Hmm,” Doc replied, noncommittal.

“Fortunately, our gaffe is reversible.”

Doc had looked at the guards, his eyes wary. He was usually cool and in control, always smooth and often sarcastic — a sometimes-cocky asshole. But as he’d eyed the guards and their weapons (a sort he hadn’t seen before), Doc felt his usual persona melt away. He stood in the middle of the room unable to move.

“Oh, please,” said Killian, laughing. “What is this, a standoff?”

“I don’t know,” said Doc. “Is it?”

“Of course not,” said Killian. “You’re one of our best salesmen.” But he was merely mouthing the words. Killian hadn’t even known who he was, and still didn’t.

“Hmm,” Doc repeated. His arms had raised slightly from his sides when the guards had approached, even after he’d lowered them from over his head. He looked like a man about to sprint, once he determined the correct direction in which to run.

“But I hope you understand,” said Killian, “these upgrades are for a client who demands high levels of discretion.” But that, too, was bullshit. Doc, who was well-steeped in the art of bullshit, knew bullshit when he heard it. What he was seeing wasn’t a custom order. It was a product line. This wasn’t all for one company or person; it was for a whole class of people — a class that Doc, while well-off, wasn’t elite enough to represent. What he was seeing represented a widening of the gap. Doc thought, The rich get richer.

“Uh-huh,” he said.

“So… and this is awkward, I know… we can’t allow you to remember these items. For the client’s privacy, you understand.”

“I see,” said Doc. And now, he did see. They were going to wipe his memory. They wouldn’t have a Gauss Chamber, because this was a lab, not a hospital. Wholesale erasure wouldn’t be necessary, anyway. They’d use a hand unit. Doc would lose the last fifteen minutes, and would later find himself unsure whether he’d seen any new wares this week or not. He’d probably call Nero on Monday and ask for a new appointment. Nero, duly briefed, would play along.

And so he’d told Killian that he understood, and he’d allowed Killian to wave him clean. Afterward, he’d affected the vacant, vaguely optimistic expression appropriate to a fresh wipe while a tech ran a small sensor above his long blond hair. The tech had declared him current as of approximately the time he’d been in the bathroom washing his face. Then Killian had led him out without hurry, knowing that Doc’s ability to form new memories would be impaired for several more minutes. He’d told him that there was nothing new this week, and had suggested Doc call Mr. Nero on Monday. Doc had thanked him, gone back down to the street, and had hailed a cab. He’d gotten the same cabbie as before. The cabbie had jerked the cab at every stoplight, nearly causing Doc to plow his face into the divider.

Sitting in his apartment, mulling his troubling (and unforgotten, unwiped) time at Xenia, Doc swiped the air to make the holo he’d been pretending to watch vanish. It was a stupid show anyway. Whiny people with their whiny problems. It wasn’t even distracting him. He could still see everything that had happened today, thanks to the wipe firewall he’d had implanted and the accompanying spoof under his hair. As a man who’d had to scrap and connive his way to success as a salesman, it wasn’t the first time someone had wanted Doc to forget what he’d seen.

“Canvas,” Doc said.

His wall chirped.

“Search biological enhancements.”

A large globe of Beam pages appeared in the air in front of him. Doc preferred his results visually clustered in an intuitive web, like a Beam-generated mind-map. Closest to Doc was a window showing a common distributor of artificial limbs, and beside it was Hammacher Schlemmer. Neither were helpful. He wasn’t looking for replacement parts, and Hammacher Schlemmer hadn’t changed in the fifty years it had been selling upgrades instead of shoe buffers from in-flight magazines. All of H-S’s add-ons were useless novelties for rich people who had literally nothing else to spend their credits on: bioluminescent toes to show users see where they were walking at night; tongue modifiers that made everything taste like ice cream. He frowned.

Doc held the index finger and thumb of each hand up in front of him, then peeled the web open between the limb distributor and Hammacher Schlemmer. Deeper pages rolled forward and the outer layer curled back like a banana peel. Nothing. He turned the globe, peeled the other way, following the H-S path, toward upgrades and away from medical limb replacement. But it wasn’t right.

“Search biological upgrades.”

This time, the front page was Omnipedia. Of course. But he didn’t want to know the theories behind biological enhancement, particularly the vanilla’d version. He twisted the web, spun it to find its edges, and saw that the scope was still wrong. He was already feeling discouraged. If Xenia had tried to wipe his mind to make him forget what he’d seen, what were the chances that it would be available, publicly, on The Beam?

Doc sighed, then looked down at his router, which he kept visible so that he could look at it and make himself less paranoid. The SECURE light was still lit. The router had been ridiculously expensive, and used AI/key encryption, a hybrid model ensuring that all but the most advanced systems would never know where his queries originated.

Duly secure, Doc said, “Search Series Six nanobots.”

This time, even the front page wasn’t close. He found a line of Series Six radial grass cutters and plenty on nanobots, but nothing related to both. He peeled the web and looked inside for the hell of it, but knew there was no point.

“Search BioFi 7.6.”

This time, the results were even less relevant. There was nothing at all on BioFi (except for one weblog in which the teen author had written that she’d scored poorly on a test in bio and then had run-on with the next sentence, about a friend named Fi) and a few useless hits that included the number 7.6. Doc exploded the BioFi weblog just to be sure, but the creator was a nondescript kid whose network pages held nothing. Even her parents seemed unremarkable.

“Visit Utopior Enhancements.”

Utopior’s virtual storefront appeared before him in a window, complete with a ping asking if he’d care for immersion. Doc touched the ping and his apartment became ghosts of furniture buried in a life-sized holo. Doc stood and wandered the exclusive shop’s aisles, paddling at his sides to scroll the store underfoot. He picked up holo objects and tapped a few for detail. Each time, an enhanced holo of the upgrade appeared in his hands, each time disappointing. Utopior was the most borderline-illegal shop he knew, and the kind of place he could get tossed in jail for visiting. This was supposed to be what the law was keeping from Doc, but even the fanciest upgrades here were nothing compared to what he’d seen at Xenia.

Doc sighed, swiped to close the store, and visited the other shops he’d hacked into over the years: Gillead, Philharmonic, even Fremd Geshenk, which trafficked with Eurasia and was home to any number of biological perversions. If you wanted an ear that could listen to seventy simultaneous pieces of music, you visited Philharmonic, but if you wanted a double cock or an asshole that could shrink to carry a pin or expand to swallow a bookcase, you went to FG. But in all of the stores, what he found paled in comparison to the equipment at Xenia by a factor of ten.

Doc shook his head, annoyed. Then he swiped the search away, rose, and circled the room snuffing lights by pinching his fingers at them. A tune rose as his canvas recognized his movements, and after that, Doc let the computers do the rest. The light in his bedroom came on low. The music was mellow, almost hypnotic, filled with subaural reverberations that would tune his CNS neurons while he slept. The bathroom light came on, beckoning him. Doc washed his face, changed, and tapped the mirror to bring up the next day’s weather. Much of the weather was artificial inside the NAU’s protective lattice, so predictions were usually accurate and conditions fairly good. Doc called up the report and swore. They were letting it rain tomorrow. He’d probably end up hiking through the city and getting soaked on his usual rounds, thanks to the fucking protestors.

Doc shook his head, left the bathroom without swiping the lights off, then watched as they went off anyway. He climbed into his bed, feeling it adjust to his body and warm beneath him. The music and lights dimmed. In ten minutes, they’d both be off, and so would Doc. After the same routine night after night, sleep came easy no matter the preoccupation of his mind.

But after just a few minutes, when the lights and music were only down to half volume, Doc heard a noise in the living room. He stopped and listened, then heard the noise again.

“Canvas,” he said.

He heard no answering chirp.

“Canvas.”

Nothing.

Doc turned, keyed at the headboard of his bed. When nothing happened, he felt his heart pound. Like almost every non-Organa citizen of the NAU (and, let’s be honest, plenty of Organa citizens, too), Doc wasn’t comfortable when severed from The Beam. The Beam comprised Doc’s extra senses. Since it was always there, he’d gotten used to knowing anything he wanted to know, being able to see wherever he wanted to see, and being able to tell with certainty that it was going to fucking rain tomorrow.

He checked his wrist. His nano tattoo was still working fine, and he saw that it was nearly midnight. But the enhancements in Doc’s body that required a Beam connection to function were quiet. He felt like he’d lost a limb, or several.

He jumped out of bed and called for lights, already forgetting his link was down. Then he tapped the wall to turn them on seconds later, forgetting again. He slammed his toe into the door jamb and winced, suddenly thinking that the glowing toe enhancement maybe wasn’t so stupid after all.

His heart pumped harder. Something was wrong.

He heard the sound again, but this time recognized it as the clatter of his doorknob. Someone was trying to break in. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. Tuco was tied down tight, inaccessible at the outer door and elevator to anyone without an embedded Beam ID that matched the supposedly unhackable resident roster. There were two guards at the door and a lobby attendant. And how could anyone pick his lock? There was a manual piece to the lock, of course — a plain old ordinary thing that fell on a deadbolt, to provide a tangible feeling of security — but of course, if his link was down, that deadbolt would be the only game in town. The Beam-enabled locks and security wouldn’t be functioning. There was supposed to be a triple-redundancy in the system — a box inside the door that wasn’t wired into The Beam, plus a failsafe in the lock itself. The power supply was supposed to be self-contained. But despite all of that, Doc could hear someone picking with regular tools, as if the lock were nothing more than a stick shoved through a hole.

“Who’s there?” Doc called out, feeling stupid. It was the kind of thing people used to do in old movies, back before identifiers and Beam tracking. Before locks that you could command to repel a specific person from your door if you wanted… and if your link was up.

Instead of getting an answer, Doc watched as his front door burst open and a silhouette sprinted toward him. He saw lights on in the hallway.

The intruder was halfway toward him, running. Had he been discovered? The guy wasn’t fucking around. Was he here to wipe Doc’s memory for good? Or was he here to wipe Doc — as in “wiped from existence”?

The intruder’s thundering feet told Doc that the intruder hadn’t come for tea.

Doc turned, grabbed a lamp, and swung. He was swinging mostly blind in the dark apartment, but his swing hit paydirt. He felt his arms shudder as the lamp found something hard. The attacker grunted, staggered back, and slammed into the wall. A picture (a real one in a frame; his mother had given it to him and he’d laughed) fell at the attacker’s side. Doc heard glass shatter. He tried to see the intruder’s face by the wan city light through his windows, but it was too dark.

The attacker leapt up. The blow had only disoriented him.

Before his pursuer could gain his feet, Doc sprinted to the end of the hall at the back of his apartment in his boxers, yanked open the door at its end, and jumped into his car. Then he disengaged the magnetic docking lock, fired the engine, and whirred away, leaving his attacker’s silhouette in the door behind him.

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