The Beam S1: Chapter Twelve

The Beam S1: Chapter Twelve

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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The bullet train dropped Leah at the end of its line, in Pillman, a tiny city situated just where the hills started but well before the mountains. Pillman was well-trafficked and circled by an expressway and had excellent Beam coverage, but it was one of the last towns that did. Past Pillman were a series of increasingly rustic burgs that could access The Beam through a fiber line, but the line had been laid thirty years earlier, back before The Beam had the seemingly bottomless capacity it did now. Access was spotty, and few people in the area had fully Beam-enabled houses. Many had only small personal canvases or even just handhelds, living as people had a hundred years earlier, spending large portions of their days totally disconnected. Beyond these lagging areas were a series of even smaller, more rustic towns that were served only with high-bandwidth air signals and satellite, where some people didn’t even have Beam coverage beyond voice communication. And beyond those areas, The Beam grew truly dark. City dwellers looked on Appalachia with a sort of superstitious dread, unable to imagine a life so disconnected and so ignorant of the world around them.

At Pillman, Leah transferred to a conventional non-mag train and rode it up through a series of small stops until she reached the end of the line again, where she disembarked and walked up a series of quiet, dangerously vertical streets past ramshackle homes cut into the steep hillside. Chained dogs barked at her. She saw a few people she recognized and waved, calling out hellos.

She came to a large red barn and walked through the open front door. Halfway down on the right side was a brown and white paint horse named Missy.  Leah reached in to scratch her, and the horse pressed her nose against the bars on the stall’s door. Leah, being duly prepared and knowing what the horse expected, pulled a few nugget-like horse treats from her pocket and held them in her hand, palm flat. Missy’s big lips flapped the nuggets from Leah’s open hand.

She brought Missy out of the stall and tied her, grabbed her saddle, and secured all of her tack. The Milsons hadn’t poked their heads into the barn, but Jen and Paulie were fine with Leah coming and going. So she untied the horse and rode through the barn door, then turned up a small dirt path leading further into the mountains. The path was rough, winding, and sometimes steep. Missy, usually a dutiful trail horse, had grown to hate the path quickly. Leah, however, had found a way to surmount Missy’s reluctance. From the second time she’d taken this trail, Leah had started to reward the horse with an apple after reaching their destination. Missy never saw apples other than when she arrived at the Organa compound, so the horse learned to love the path, and now traveled it with enthusiasm.

After a half hour of riding, they emerged into a wide plateau in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. There was a split-rail fence circling two pastures where several horses grazed. Between the pastures was a path leading into the Organa village. At the gate, as usual, was Crumb.

“Afternoon, Crumb,” said Leah.

Crumb looked about seventy-five and had a long, bushy gray beard. The beard was large enough to require grooming, but Crumb had never groomed it once, so far as Leah knew. It was always packed with crumbs from whatever the old man had eaten last. His lips were dark and cracked, and he was always filthy. He wore dark green pants with pockets lining the length of both legs. Most of the pockets were ripped and hanging in flaps. Crumb did appear to change his pants because there was a pattern to how different pockets were ripped on different days, but all of the pants were the same style. Crumb always smelled sour and had dirt smeared on his face — not because he tussled in the dirt, but almost as an affect, because any town’s “crazy old fucker” had to have dirt on his face. Crumb’s black boots were never tied and he was always stepping on his laces. His shirts were all plain, singular colors, but the hues of each were highly questionable because all were stained and all were disgusting.

Crumb had been at the village for as long as Leah had been alive. He’d become a fixture… a kind of mascot for the Organas. Nobody ever knew what Crumb was saying, but it didn’t matter. He seemed to enjoy talking, and the little village loved him like a pet. Crumb sometimes stalked the Organa settlement. But usually he was out front, standing guard where no guard was required.

“Leah. Leah. Noah Fucking West, Leah. How are ya. How are ya.” The last were questions, but Crumb said them like a nervous tic, watching her with darting eyes.

Leah reined her horse, looking down on the gray-bearded man. Today’s crumbs looked like breakfast cereal. Leah could make out whole, unchewed nuggets, as if Crumb had simply thrown the cereal at his mouth in the hope that some would make it into his maw.

“How’s the border, Crumb?” Leah asked, looking around at the pastoral mountain setting and the grazing horses.

“Threatened,” Crumb mumbled. “End times. End times, Leah. Noah Fucking West, end times. You know what I saw today? Saw a squirrel. Three of them. The big one said, ‘You ain’t foolin’ nobody’ and then ran off up a tree where he had nuts. I tried to follow but I’m not wearing shoes.”

“That’s really something,” said Leah, looking down at Crumb’s ancient boots.

“You don’t know what it was like before The Beam. We made the first. Me and the squirrels. They ran off. I couldn’t follow. You don’t understand. Neither does Leo. But there was a day. I remember it. We talked in our brains. You lived and you died. Then I got old, back when I was young. But then I was not who I am. And neither were you. None of us were. You call this a village? But it was all like this. Back when I was young. Back before The Beam. Noah Fucking West!”

Leah looked at Crumb, saying nothing and waiting for him to finish.

“Oh, they’re gone now, those fuckers!” said Crumb. “The squirrels, I mean. Leo knows. Did you know that I knew him, back in the day? Noah Fucking West!”

Leah nodded along. This was simply how Crumb was,. When Crumb came up and started babbling (sometimes he talked about the stars; he kept saying that Betelgeuse was overdue to supernova and had many theories about it), a lot of people simply walked away. Crumb didn’t see this as rude, because he didn’t seem truly capable of thinking anything beyond the basics of keeping himself fed, clothed, and alive. But Leah still felt that he was human and deserved respect. Once upon a time, Dominic Long had been ordered to send Crumb to Respero and had decided the man was worth saving. Walking away without listening to Crumb for a few minutes felt to Leah like spitting in the face not only of the filthy man himself, but also into the eye of Dominic’s mercy.

Leah smiled, said that she totally agreed, then nudged Missy forward with a “See you later.” Crumb saw that Leah was leaving and turned to wave, like an overly enthusiastic child.

“Noah Fucking West, Leah!” Crumb yelled.

She turned and saw cereal snowing from his beard. He trotted forward a few feet. Three crows swooped to the ground behind him and pecked at the cereal. Leah was reminded of a dog she’d had growing up who knew to lay beneath her chair at dinnertime because she’d always dropped food as she ate.

“Noah Fucking West and end times!” He seemed to think, then lowered his voice to a mere holler. “Well, not end times. But I saw that squirrel, and he told me. Brains aren’t what they used to be, I’ll tell you. The squirrel, he said it was The Beam. Holy shit! Think like The Beam!” He laughed maniacally. “Noah Fucking West on The Beam, Leah!” 

Leah waved once more at Crumb and continued riding between the split-rail fences that defined the pastures. Beneath her were two shallow wheel ruts in the dirt with a strip of grass growing between them. Missy was walking fast, just shy of a trot. She always did this at the ride’s end. With the long trail behind her, the horse was eager for her apple. The faster she got to the village’s barn, the sooner she’d be sinking her giant teeth into it.

They reached the barn. Leah led Missy into her stall and gave her an apple, scratching the mare behind her ears. Then she left the barn and crossed the village.

The air was cool and crisp in the mountains. Leah took off her pack, slipped out a rainbow sarong, and tied it over her shorts. The sarong was loose and billowy, but kept the chill from her legs. Then she slung the pack over her back again, tugged her dreadlocks out from between it and her shoulders, and crossed an open square with a gazebo in the middle. Around the gazebo were purple and red flowers. Leah paused to bend and sniff them. Then she stopped, down on one knee, and drew in the surrounding activity.

The Organa settlement was a bizarre mix of old and new. There were no motorized cars or bikes in the village, but most of the villagers carried handhelds because Organa or not, they felt they needed to know the weather forecast, had to check train schedules from Pillman, or might need to send mail. There were villagers who lived here permanently, but most were transient, coming and going with hybrid lives. Their main houses typically had at least one point of neutered Beam access via a simple terminal canvas. For most Organas, this was what “unplugged” meant. There were purists who lived without any access at all, but even the electrical grid these days was controlled by The Beam. To live totally unconnected meant not just unplugging from The Beam’s omniscient data stream… but also from electricity, phone, mail (except hand-couriered OldMail written on paper), vidstreams, most music, and even the simplest conveniences like central cleaning, mechanized washing and mending, banks, and so on. Finding power tools without a Beam chip was nearly impossible except in specialty antique stores at exorbitant prices, so the purists had to build with hand saws and hammers. Orthodox Organas lived much like the pioneers who had settled the NAU, back even before it was called America. Most Organas weren’t that dedicated, which was why so few were truly orthodox.

Leah, kneeling amongst the flowers, thought it was bullshit.

In a few minutes, Leo would be chewing her out about getting arrested in the city and about her new nanobot fabricators, which Dominic would likely have told him about. But again: bullshit. Didn’t Leo have his own add-ons, even if they weren’t in his body? Didn’t everyone? Sure, most of the Organas didn’t have nanos in their blood. Sure, they didn’t have chips in their heads. Sure, many of them didn’t even have Beam IDs, thanks to Leah. Sure, they had to access Beam terminals like vagrants, without any of the cookies that caused systems to remember who they were. But did they not ride mag trains? Did they not communicate via mail when they were on the grid? Did they not use rolling sidewalks and stairs? Did they not have bank accounts and pay their electric bills in the only way The Beam allowed — by fingerprint?

Despite their fashions and their posturing and their horses and their ritualistic use of moondust, the people in the village were still all connected. They could unplug, but they never would. Organa was fashionable as an ideal, but like most ideals, it fell apart the minute someone realized they’d need to light a candle if they wanted to piss in the middle of the night. Leah, at least, was honest about who she was.

She found Leo in the meeting hall, reading a book. A paper book, which was its own kind of irony. Organa life was supposed to be spartan and full of self-denial, but Leo’s books were a symbol of wealth among the poor. Old pulp paperbacks were everywhere in the poorer neighborhoods, but good, sturdy hardbacks like Leo’s were impossible to find. Each would bring a fortune at auction.

Leo looked up, closed the book, and set it on the table beside him. He was sitting alone in a circle of chairs that were often used for moondust parties. His legs were crossed and his old, wrinkled face looked at Leah from under a head of gray hair. Two braids with feathers hung at the sides of his head, and a blue headband with a sun stitched on it wrapped his forehead.

“Well,” he said.

“Hey Leo.”

“You got caught.”

She’d known this was coming. Leo had told her to lay low, no exceptions. He wanted her to hack the Quark server, scout for holes in the inner security layers, and transfer everything out that she could possibly get safely onto a slip drive. But Leo was a data hoarder. Brick by brick, he was recreating the most innocuous, most useless parts of Quark’s dataset. It was pointless. Everything Leah brought back was obsolete by the time she returned, and Quark was always gathering new data faster than she could bring it back for Leo to stick somewhere and never get around to cataloguing.

“Check.”

“You did it on purpose. So you could try out some new hole in your head.”

That was how Leo thought of enhancements and add-ons — as “holes in the head.” To an old guy like Leo, biological enhancement was about drilling holes and shoving chips into brains. No wonder he didn’t get it.

“I wanted to see what was on the other side,” said Leah.

Leo looked at her for a long moment, narrowing his gray steel eyes. He reached toward a dish beside his book where he’d set a carved wooden pipe. The concoction he smoked was laced with moondust, and Leah could smell the drug blended in with the burning tobacco. It had an acrid, almost chemical scent. To Leah, it was the smell of space.

Leo puffed the pipe, looked at Leah again, then set the pipe aside.

“Sit down,” he said.

“I’d rather stand.”

“Sit down, Leah.”

She watched the old man with the braids and headband, trying to decide if this was an argument worth having. She decided it wasn’t. Yet. So Leah sat in the chair farthest from Leo, opposite him in the circle, and crossed her arms across her chest.

“You think we move too slow,” said Leo.

“Yes.”

“You think that we’re fighting a losing battle.”

Leah tried to decide how she wanted to answer. It was a trick question. She believed in Organa, but she argued for it on shaky ground — she with her new nano fabricating implants.

“I think that we need to keep up,” she said. “Quark is taking chances, and they get smarter every time. I got caught because I wanted to, because…”

Leo shook his head side to side. Leah watched him and trailed off. Then, reservedly, he picked up the pipe and puffed it again.

“I know why you got caught. I know about your new implants. I seem to recall telling you not to get them.”

“We need a presence on the inside. And now thanks to me, we have one. We have…”

“We have a traceable path right back to our front doors!” Leo snapped, his voice rising. “We have a girl who thinks she’s so goddamn smart that she doesn’t need to listen! We have someone who forgets that she’s not the only Organa in this game!”

“Dominic will erase my record,” she said.

Leo laughed a humorless laugh. “Oh, I see. And you were talking to the average person on the street, right? Beat cops who will just forget about you. The Beam doesn’t forget, Leah. They have you coming and going. They know every feature on your face, and they have a voice record of everything you said. You’re blind if you think that data stayed in the station, or that Dominic has access to a tenth of it. Who really controls the cops? Who polices the police? Do you really think The Beam will forget you? You were where you shouldn’t have been, and now your footprints are in there forever.”

“The station is a black box, Leo,” Leah protested. “They don’t have lines out. I tried telling you that. They cut it totally off and batch hand-selected datasets semi-weekly. You’d know that if you listened.”

You need to listen!”

“Oh, I do? Tell me, Leo… why do you have me? Is it because you understand systems better than I do? Is it because this is all just on the tip of your tongue but you’d rather have someone else handle it to make your life easier? The Beam knows too much, does it? But you still think of it like a monster. It’s not a monster. It’s a system. The system will always do what’s best for the system. It responds to stimulus-response, same as you. When you go home and search The Beam to find one of these expensive books of yours, the system is on your side because you’re spending credits. It doesn’t care about your other face, where you pretend to hate it.”

Leah felt her heart racing, felt blood pulsing up her neck in a furious blush of mounting rage. She waited for Leo’s angry response, but instead of becoming cross, the old man just dropped his head.

“Fine,” he said. “We’re all hypocrites. But you are still part of a team. You’re important to us, but if you endanger the team by being reckless, then you’re useless. You are the only one here who I’d give this much latitude, but I can only take so much, Leah. You talk back. You question every plan. You’re given direction to do one thing and you do something else, almost automatically. You throw your knowledge and what you can do in everyone’s faces. The idea of getting deliberately caught! Do you know what Laura said when she heard? She wants you kicked out. If you’d gotten caught on accident, that’d be one thing, but there are already rumors about you hotdogging with new enhancements, and people already suspect that you have others…”

“Fuck them!” said Leah.

“Really.”

“Yes! Do you want to get into Quark, or do you want to bang tambourines and do moondust and dance in circles? I’ve done more to advance this group’s mission with my add-ons than a thousand Lauras with her braided necklaces and soul dance bullshit!”

“All right. You want to know the truth? I’ll tell you the truth. But if you say I told you this, I’ll deny it, and people will believe me, not you.” Leo sighed again, leaned forward, and set aside his pipe. “In order for the Organa movement to have a prayer of success, a small percentage of us must sell out. That’s why you got your training, and why we don’t discuss it here. It’s why I looked the other way when you got your first enhancement, and then your second. It’s why I’ll deny you got this new one. But you have to listen to me, Leah. You have to follow my orders and lay low. If people found out just how ‘non-Organa’ you really are…”

Leah bolted to her feet. “Fuck them!” she yelled again. “You want me to play down? I know the people up here don’t have enhancements, but I’ve done more for this movement than everyone else here put together. What’s more Organa — to stick to the doctrine, or to try and actually advance the cause? How dare anyone look down on me! And how dare you hide it! You know what best serves the cause, so embrace it, Leo. That’s what you could do — what you would do — if you really cared. There’s more I need! A mimic set, for one, and there’s something I’ve heard a lot about on the black market called…”

Leo shook his head. Leah felt like she was going to either scream or cry, and couldn’t decide which. She was angry at the others for their bullshit posturing, angry at Leo for taking their side while acknowledging that she was more important, and angry at herself for getting so caught up in it all. She’d been born in an Organa commune because her mother had wanted her to live without a Beam ID and to have the freedom that came with it. Then she’d moved to the city, under the radar, and explored the other side of the coin. She’d led that dual life, half city girl and half mountain-dwelling Organa, for most of her time on the planet. She’d learned enough about the growing NAU computer network to wonder if it had become too powerful. She’d watched the rolling service blackouts of 2089 and had seen just how despondent — sometimes suicidal — District citizens became when the walls didn’t respond, when their presences weren’t acknowledged by everything they encountered, when they couldn’t find out what was going on in the world and couldn’t talk to their friends with a gesture. That was when Leah realized things had to change, that there was more to Organa than simply eschewing technology. The Beam was too big to challenge, too big to fail. Humanity, never good at asking if it should do a thing once it learned it could, was on a slippery slope. So she’d suited up to fight, and now her side of the battle resented her for her preparedness? To Leah, living stark lives as a means of facing a complicated, technological enemy was beyond stupid. How could you fight an enemy you didn’t understand? Most Organas shunned technology without so much as a thought. Leah thought it was smarter to embrace The Beam enough to find the system’s holes, and a way out.

“No more add-ons,” said Leo.

“So I have to pretend. To be a good hippie, rather than an effective one.”

“You have to be part of a movement. And a community.”

Leah rolled her eyes.

“Something else that concerns me,” Leo said, studying her expression.

“Something else for your pariah?”

“It’s Crumb,” said Leo.

That snapped her mood. Crumb was a wacko. The town oddity. There was nothing about Crumb that wasn’t a little troubling, and there was, at the same time, nothing about Crumb that was troubling at all. The old man was his own thing, neither good nor bad. He’d been around for as long as Leah had known about the Organas without meriting more than a mention as an oddity.

“What about Crumb?”

“He’s getting strange.”

Leah laughed. Leo’s glance made her stop.

“He’s been talking about West,” said Leo.

“Yeah,” said Leah. “Noah Fucking West.”

“I don’t think it’s just an expression with him. He keeps blabbing about West this and West that. West is here and West is there. West is everywhere. It’s like he’s trying to warn us. Remember how he used to talk about the Indians?”

Leah did. Crumb had found a bunch of stories in a series of worthless tattered paper books that Leo had given him about old-time cowboys and so-called “Indians” native to the NAU hundreds of years ago. In the books, the Indians were always the bad guys, always coming to attack and rape and pillage. After reading the stories, Crumb had begun to spout off about Indians coming to raid their wagon train. At first it was cute, but then it got annoying. Two weeks later, when Crumb’s paranoia over the Indians reached a head, Leo sent a few men out with Crumb to scout the trails. They’d spotted no men with red skin and feathers, but they had seen six police hovers approaching. They’d rushed back to the village and had destroyed or hidden piles and piles of hard storage — slip drives, stolen paper records, plans, and boxes upon boxes filled with Organa propaganda — just in time, just in advance of the raid. Most in the village wrote it off as coincidence, but Crumb had returned to normal after the police had left, no longer yammering on about an impending Indian attack.

“I remember,” said Leah.

“That’s how he’s been with West, as if something’s jarred him loose. He used to be all over the place, but now everything is Noah West this and Noah West that.”

“He’s crazy, Leo.”

“It’s like he’s trying to warn us. We tried to crack his head when he first arrived, back in the sixties, but we’ve never gotten anything from him. We wrote it off because like you said, we just figured he was crazy. But it’s always bugged me. Why was Dominic called to take him in when a sweeper could have done the job? Why was he ordered to federal Respero? He should have gone into the state system, and then either been contained or dispatched without ceremony. But they were all over Dominic, remember? And that’s what got him thinking that maybe his gut feeling to save Crumb meant something.”

Leah shrugged, her gesture asking what came next.

Leo tapped his chin with his thumb. “I want you to ride with Crumb to Bontauk. They have the closest hardwired connection to The Beam. Don’t say I told you so, but I don’t think I have to explain why I’m asking you to do it?”

“My port. And my ID spoof.”

“Yes. But not for you. For him. I don’t want him scanned, even by something simple like a handheld. Not until we know more.”

Leah was shaking her head. “It’s just Crumb,” she said.

“Yes,” said Leo. “But my instincts have never failed me, and they’re all ringing that there’s something to this.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. But until we know more, I’ll be getting the same brand of wretched sleep I’ve been getting for too long.”

Leah stood, brushed at her sarong, and picked up her backpack. “What do your instincts say about my getting caught breaking into Quark?” she said.

Leo stood and pulled something from a satchel at his side, then handed it to Leah. It was a small, collapsible slumbergun.

“That either way, it’s a good idea for you to keep that with you.”

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