Nexus

Free early sample of Nexus by Ramez Naam in ePub, Kindle, PDF and plain text.

BONUS: If you pre-order a copy of the eBook or paperback, or buy one between December 18th and December 31st, you can get a free copy of Ramez’s award-winning non-fiction book More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement in the eBook format of your choice.

Head on over to Ramez’s website for further details.

And here are the first three chapters from the brilliant Nexus.

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NEXUS

Chapter 1

The Don Juan Protocol

 

Friday 2040.02.17 : 2255 hours

The woman who called herself Samantha Cataranes climbed out of the cab and walked towards the house on 23rd Street. The door opened, spilling light and the sounds of music and voices out into the night. A pair of young women emerged, arm in arm, wrapped up in conversation. They smiled at her as she passed them, and Sam smiled back. Faceprinting code identified them, used her tactical contacts to superimpose softly glowing names, ages, and threat levels beside their faces in her field of view. All green. Civilians. No known connection to her mission.

Sam ran her eyes over the exterior of the home. Her sight came alive with structural elements, power lines, data lines, possible ingress and egress through doors, windows, weak spots in the walls. She blinked it all away. None of it served her purpose tonight.

Her left knee twinged as she ascended the stairs. A memento of that disastrous firefight outside Sārī. As if she could ever forget that night. Her face felt tight. Her lips were overstuffed, her cheeks taut, her jaw awkwardly cocked. Her nerves strained in protest at the visage she held. It would be a relief to relax into her own face again.

Bits of her briefing for this mission flitted through her mind unbidden. A building blasted apart, bodies strewn everywhere. Religious leaders murdered by trusted old friends. Politicians with sudden, implausible changes of heart. All the suicide bombings, the assassinations, the political subversions, the blank-faced companies of inhumanly loyal, unthinking, unquestioning super-soldiers. And behind them all, the common thread: Beijing’s new coercion technology. A technology that this target might just help them get a step closer to understanding and defeating.

Sam opened the door and let herself in to the party, a wide smile on her false face. Overly loud flux music hit her. The smells of dozens of bodies inundated her sharpened senses. Identities swam over the sea of faces. Somewhere in this house, she would find her man.

###

 

 

Friday 2040.02.17 : 2310 hours

“Do you romp?” the girl asked. She leaned in close, close enough to be heard over the din of the party, close enough to kiss.

Kaden Lane watched carefully, clinically, as Don Juan molded his body’s responses. A slight smile. Release of oxytocin. Dilation of capillaries in his cheeks. A mix of confidence and anticipation. Candidate replies flitted through his mind, half-formed on his lips, as the software’s conversational package sifted through possibilities:

[Yeah, I love to dance.]

[Sure, what kind of music do you like?]

[If I’m with a pretty girl like you.]

Signals propagated through the highly modified web of Nexus nodes in his brain. The drug’s nanostructures evaluated data, processed it, transformed it. Don Juan made a choice in milliseconds. Input spiked at Nexus nodes attached to neurons in the speech centers of his frontal and temporal lobes. Nerve impulses raced outward from speech centers to motor cortex, and from there to the muscles of his tongue and jaw, his lips and diaphragm. A fraction of a second after he’d heard the girl speak, those muscles contracted to produce his response.

“Yeah, I love to dance,” Kade heard himself say.

Who writes these lame lines? he wondered.

“Want to see if there’s something good tonight?” she asked.

Frances. Her name was Frances. They’d met twenty minutes ago in this hallway. She was twenty-six years old, a Virgo, a graphic designer by trade. Frances smelled nice, liked to touch him when she talked, and did look rather fetching in her tight pants and low-cut top. She loved acro-yoga, loud dance music, travel in Central America, and her two cats.

Kade had never asked anyone their sign before. He supposed in a way he still hadn’t. The software had done that with his mouth and lungs. Did that count?

All the test was supposed to show was that software could use their Nexus-based interface to control speech and hearing in a real environment. It was Rangan who’d insisted on using this dating app to test their platform, and that Kade be the one to run it. “You gotta get out and have some fun, dude,” he’d said. “All you do is mope around. Flirting with some girls is exactly what you need.”

Next time, he thought to himself, Rangan can do the field test.

“Sure, let’s see what’s happening,” Don Juan answered.

Kade pulled out his phone and stuck it to the wall beside them. Don Juan spoke to it. “Bay Area dance parties tonight. Full immersion for two.”

Frances turned to face the camera. A partygoer jostled her as he scooted by down the hall. She squeezed up against Kade, nestling into his side. Her body did feel rather warm and enticing, he had to admit. He put an arm around her waist as the phone responded to his request. Maybe Rangan did have a point…

Retinal projectors sought out their eyes. Targeted acoustics zeroed in on their ears. Local events scrolled across shared vision.

SEROTONIN OVERLOAD IV

A brief advertisement for the event washed over their senses: pulsing music, syncopated lights, warm smiles, dancers embracing and moving in time.

Frances made a face. “A little too earnest for me.”

Kade chuckled.“Next.”

CYGNUS EXPRESS – A PROJECT ODYSSEUS FUNDRAISER

Vastness of space, planets orbiting distant suns, partygoers in gleaming imitations of vacuum suits, bleeping sound of contact through the static of cosmic background radiation, overlaid with driving trance rhythm.

Frances shrugged. Damn, she felt good pressed against him.

“In space,” she said, “no one can hear you dance.”

Kade shrugged. “Next.”

CARE BARE by UNITED SKEINS OF SEXY

New sights and sounds: Writhing, almost-naked bodies, skin moving against skin, moaning pulsing sounds, fast flashes of mouths and hips and breasts.

Frances moved her hip against him just a bit. “Now that looks pretty hot. Yeah?”

Kade laughed out loud. Any other night, he wouldn’t have the balls to venture into a scene like that. But what the hell. His task tonight was to push the platform they’d built on top of Nexus’s nanoscale elements to its limits.

It’ll be a great test case, he told himself. I’m doing this for science.

Don Juan responded for him. “Maybe. You planning on getting fresh with me?”

Kade let it drive, let it wink with his eye.

Frances smirked and raised an eyebrow, turning towards him, her body still pressed against his. “Oh, you’d like that, would you?”

She batted her pretty green eyes up at him.

“Oh, I think the pleasure would be all yours,” Don Juan replied. Kade put his other arm around her waist, holding her to him now, looking down into her eyes.

Frances bit her lower lip.

“Prove it.”

Kade might have stuttered, might have blushed, but a more calculating logic was in control. “Your place or mine?”

###

 

They kissed standing up, Kade’s back against the wall of the room they’d snuck into. Frances was a giggler. She made out with a fun enthusiasm that Kade found infectious. They kissed and kissed, giggled and whispered. Kade’s clinical detachment crumbled. Someone opened the door to the room, saw them, and backed out apologetically. More giggles ensued. More kissing followed. Giggling gave way to sighing. Sighing gave way to grinding, to hands roaming. Heat rose between their bodies. Her breath was coming short and heavy. So was his.

The dialog sucks, but I can’t complain about the results, Kade thought to himself. There was one more test he’d promised Rangan he’d run. Now for the kinesthetic interfaces…

He kept his eyes closed as he kissed her, immersed himself in the Nexus OS that he and Rangan had built atop the hundreds of millions of nano-structures of the drug that suffused their brains.

Softly glowing numbers scrolled across the bottom of his field of view. A column of icons hung at the right. A research log window with his field test notes lay compressed down to its title bar. The muted roar of the party still rushed in his ears. Kade flicked his inner eye over pulse, respiration, neuro-electrical activity, interface status, neurotransmitter and neuron-hormone levels. All green. He could see the copy of Don Juan that Rangan had pirated and modified running through its models, behaving nicely and only using the resources he’d assigned. He flicked past it, sought out another program, one Rangan had lifted from VR porn and hacked to send its output to their body-control software. Peter North.

[activate: peter_north mode: full_interactive priority: 1 smut_level: 2]

Frances pressed herself more insistently against him. The giggles were gone. Her lips brushed his jaw, tugged wetly at his mouth. Her body was hot beneath his hands. Her snug pants were smooth and slick and hugged her ass perfectly. She spread her thighs slightly, leaned her hips against his, ground her crotch against his leg as they kissed. Her soft little moans of pleasure went straight to some primal part of his brain. Numbers and icons still floated in his vision.

Kade ignored one set of stimuli, let himself be absorbed by the other.

Peter North was in charge now, a VR porn bot Rangan had lifted from the net and adapted to their Nexus OS as a way to test their kinesthetic interfaces. It spat out limb position changes and muscle and joint vectors. Nexus nodes in Kade’s brain flared, signals raced from his motor cortex to his limbs, and Kade’s body responded.

Frances moaned softly, shifted her ass against his hand, ground herself against his hip. Peter North slid Kade’s hand down her back, past the fabric of her low-cut top, and down onto the smooth and snug backside of her pants. His hand squeezed one perfect cheek, rose up into the room, and came down with a resounding smack.

“Ooooh,” Frances murmured. She bit his lower lip then, not quite too hard, and tugged. Her finger rubbed his chest, teasing one nipple. Forefinger and thumb came together, pinching, enough to hurt this time.

Damn, thought Kade. Why did I ever think this was a bad idea?

Peter North grabbed hold of Frances by her hips, steered them both to the couch, pushed her down into it. The software brought his body down atop her, kneeling on the edge of the cushion, one knee between her thighs. Kade’s hands came up, entangled themselves in her hair and made fists. Peter North tugged, tilting her head back, making her look at him, paused until she opened her eyes to stare into his, waited just a moment longer, then brought his mouth down on hers.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rangan, he thought, for forcing me to get out here and have some fun.

Frances responded with nails on his back, sharp and even painful through his shirt. She shifted her hips forward on the seat, pressing herself more firmly against his knee, squeezing her thighs around his leg, purring into his mouth as her hands found his belt and eased their way under his shirt. Searching for skin, ready to draw blood.

Kade forced himself to concentrate. Forced himself to make more notes in the research log. He was still a scientist, damn it.

[Smooth muscular control. Feedback systems excellent. Possibly insufficient pain response.]

Outside, Peter North had him cupping one breast, one hand tangled in her hair. His shirt was gone. Frances was biting her way down his chest, his stomach.

[Definitely insufficient pain response.]

Her hand was on his crotch now. Kade was hard, as hard as the safety limits he and Rangan had coded into the interface would allow. Frances seemed to approve. She smiled seductively as her hand squeezed him through the front of his pants, started to move in time to her own grinding against his lower leg…

Kade made no note of this. He’d tested the erection module extensively already.

Frances smiled coyly up at him and gave him a long squeeze. “Is this for me?”

She licked her lips lasciviously.

Kade’s mind filled with an image of what was about to happen. His heart skipped a beat in anticipation. He opened his mouth to reply.

[interface warning – max spikes per second > parameters]

[interface warning – packet loss in connection 0XE439A4B]

[interface ERROR – socket not found OXA27881E]

[interface ERROR – socket not found OXA27881E]

[interface warning…]

Oh fuck, he thought.

Errors and warnings flooded Kade’s vision. Parameter displays were spiking into yellow and red. Intracortical bandwidth was saturated. Packets were being dropped. CPU cycles were being consumed in massive ways by error-catching and error-correcting packages, stepping all over each other in their haste to fix whatever was wrong.

Outside, neither Peter North nor Kade were in control of his body. His hips jerked forward spastically, again and again. His hands gripped hard on Frances’s shocked head. His still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust. His mouth was wide open, his eyes unfocused. An incoherent sound was escaping his throat.

“Ug. Ug. Ug.”

[interface warning – max spikes per second > parameters]

[interface warning – max spikes per second > parameters]

[interface ERROR…]

Fuck fuck fuck.

[system halt], he commanded.

Nothing.

[system halt], he repeated.

Nothing.

[system halt] [system halt] [system fucking halt!]

Neuro-muscular stimulation ceased. Kade’s inner displays went blank. His muscles relaxed. Hips stopped moving. Hands eased on Frances’s head. Success!

Kade drew breath.

And then another hard spasm rolled across every muscle in his body, and another, and another…

What? Oh shit.

Kade was ejaculating.

He threw himself back from Frances, collapsing on the bed behind him, back arching and toes curling as some side effect of the stimulation threw him into a whole-body ecstasy. Laughter burst forth. Tears rolled down his face. He rolled onto his side in bliss and confusion and hilarity and some deep warm sleepy sense of peace. Ahhhh.

“What the fuck was that?” Frances was on her feet, yelling at him. One hand was to her face. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Kade rolled over in a haze, opened his mouth to apologize, to explain, tried to pull himself up onto his feet. “Frances…”

“You stay there, jerk!” She leveled an accusing finger at him. “I’m walking out of this room, and if you so much as twitch, I’m gonna scream for help!”

She was backing towards the door.

“Hey, wait, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… umm…”

“Shut up! Stupid ass one-minute wonder. Next time you wanna play rough, you ask first, asshole.”

She opened the door, slammed it behind her. Through the door he heard, “Hey, there’s some sicko freak in there…”

Well, he thought, that didn’t work so well.

###

 

Friday 2040.02.17 : 2347 hours

They were coming for him. The Corps. His brothers. He could hear the choppers, hear the small arms fire. They’d found the place he’d been taken to, the place he’d been held, the place where he’d gotten a long clear look into the pits of hell. You never leave a man behind. They were coming for him, and God help anyone who stood in their way.

Watson Cole woke with a start, drenched in sweat, his heart pounding in his chest, a lump in his throat. He was half upright in the bed, one massive dark-skinned arm raised as if to ward off a blow. He was shaking.

Fuck. Just a dream. Just another nightmare.

“Lights,” he said aloud.

The small room lit up around him. The light pushed the terror back. This wasn’t the KZ. This wasn’t that war. This was his apartment in San Francisco.

He let his weight sink back into the mattress. The sheets were soaked in his night sweats.

Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

It had been the rescue, this time. The rescue and the girl. Lunara. He dreamt of all of them. Arman, Nurzhan, Temir. Most of all, Lunara. The ones who’d imprisoned him. The ones who’d used the drug called Nexus to pry open his mind, force themselves and so many others into him. The ones who’d jammed his head full of the hellish memories of the victims of that war. It had been two years, but still he dreamt of them. Still he dreamt their lives.

Why me? Why’d it have to be me?

He’d been at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was as simple as that. If he hadn’t been…

I’d still be out there now. Killing for my country. Murdering. Ignorant. Blind. Happy.

And someone else would have this hell inside them.

Breathe. Relax the body. Breathe.

His heart was slowing now. The tremors were nearly gone. He glanced at the clock beside the bed. Not even midnight. He’d been asleep for just an hour. He looked at the nightstand, considered the bottle of pills in the top drawer. He could medicate himself into dreamless unconsciousness. But it was getting harder every time. The doses were increasing.

He hadn’t asked for this hell, but it had come to him. He hadn’t asked to have his eyes opened, but they had been. He hadn’t asked for a chance at redemption, but it had been offered. Offered in the form of these young, idealistic kids that had made him a part of their family. Offered in the form of their modifications and improvements to Nexus, improvements that made it an even more powerful tool for touching the minds and hearts of others.

Nexus had changed him. It had shown him his actions through others’ eyes. It has shown him the evil that he and all the other men like him had done. It had given him the urge to find a better way, to make a better world. And if it had done that to him, the hardest of men, what could it do for others?

Watson Cole rose and dressed for a run. He would push his superhumanly fit body to exhaustion. He wouldn’t succumb to dependence on the meds. He would keep himself fit and hard. He had things to do before he paid for his crimes.

The drug that had transformed him could transform the world. He would make it happen.

###

 

Friday 2040.02.17 : 2355 hours

Damn, Kade thought. Bad time for a bug. He splashed water on his face in the bathroom, tried to collect himself. Time to sneak out of here, see if he could debug the crash he’d run into.

He opened the door from the washroom and into the crowded party. The back door would be the safest way out. He was halfway there, studiously avoiding eye contact, when he heard his name and felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, Kade!” It was Dominique, the hostess. Shit.

“Kade, I want you to meet someone,” Dominique went on. “This is Samara. Sam, meet Kaden Lane. Kade, meet Samara Chavez. Sam was telling me about an article she’d read that reminded me of your work.”

Sam was in her mid to late twenties, with olive skin and straight black hair that fell to her shoulders. She was dressed in stylish black slacks and a clinging grey sweater. There were muscles under that sweater. She had the build of a swimmer.

“Nice to meet you, Kade. Dominique says you’re getting your doctorate in brain-computer communication?”

Kade looked towards the back door. So close… “Yeah. Sanchez Lab at UCSF. What article was this?”

“Two monkeys, with parts of their brains wirelessly linked. One could see out of the other’s eyes.”

Warwick and Michelson. That one got some press.

“Yeah, that was a good paper,” he said. “I work with those guys occasionally. They’re over at Berkeley.”

“Cool,” Sam responded. “Is that what you work on too?”

Dominique made her exit.

Kade shuffled his feet a bit, keenly aware of the stain on the front of his trousers.

“A lot of our grants are for interfaces to control body functions – muscle control and so on.”

Kade had a flash of his hips thrusting out of control at Frances’s face. He hurried on.

“You know, to help paralyzed people move again. My thesis is on higher-level brain functions. Memory, attention, knowledge representation.”

Kade paused, unsure how much she wanted to hear.

Sam picked up the thread. “Interesting. Did you see the one where they taught a mouse the layout of a maze, and other mice could learn it too, just by being wired up to its brain?”

Kade chuckled. “That was my paper. First one I wrote as a grad student. No one thought we could do it.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “No shit. That was impressive. Where are you going from there? Do you think that…”

Sam turned out to be surprisingly interested in neuroscience. She peppered him with questions on the brain, on his work, on what they planned next. Kade found himself forgetting the fiasco he’d just had and his plans of escape. And along the way he learned a few things about her. She worked in data archeology, helping companies mine old and disorganized systems for missing information. She lived in New York, and she was here in SF on a contract assignment for the next few months. She’d just arrived and was looking to make friends. She was funny, smart, and good looking. She laughed at his jokes. And it turned out that she shared one of his interests.

“So you’re a brain guy. Have you heard of this drug Nexus?” she asked.

Kade nodded cautiously. “I’ve heard of it.”

“They say it’s some sort of nano-structure, not really just a drug. And that it links brains. Is that possible?”

Kade shrugged. “We can do it with wires and with radios. Why not with something you swallow? As long as it gets into the brain…”

“Yeah, but does it actually work?”

“I’ve heard it does,” Kade replied.

“You’ve never tried it?”

He grinned. “That would be illegal.”

Sam grinned back.

“Have you tried it?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “I had a chance in New York last year, but I missed it. It’s all dried up on the East Coast.”

A first-timer, Kade thought to himself. We could use more first-time females for the study…

He hesitated. “It’s dried up out here too. A lot of busts lately.”

Sam nodded.

Kade missed whatever she said next. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of something. Someone. Frances.

Oh, fuck.

“…total asshole. He was so rude.”

Her back was to him. She hadn’t seen him yet.

“…seizure or something. He needs help. Professional help.”

The back door. He started to edge towards it.

“Kade? Everything OK?”

Sam. He looked at her. “I’ve got to go. Sorry. Hope I see you again.”

He left her there as he hustled out the door.

###

 

Samantha Cataranes watched as Kaden Lane fled the party.

Did I spook him? she wondered. Must have.

Her eyes flicked to a readout at the corner of her tactical contact display. It was red. Off the charts red. The sensor on the necklace she wore had picked up clear Nexus transmissions. Whatever Kaden Lane might say, he had not only tried Nexus before, he’d been using it this very night, in quantities beyond any they’d seen in a human before.

How very odd to be using that drug here, when no one else was. What good was Nexus without another Nexus user for it to bridge a connection to?

Time would tell. She would find another way into their little circle. Rangan Shankari, perhaps.

Sam turned and looked for someone else to chat up. Her cover required it.

###

 

Kade soared through a three-dimensional maze of neurons and nano-devices. Nano-filament antennae crackled with life as Nexus nodes sent and received data. Vast energies accumulated in neuronal cell bodies, reached critical thresholds, surged down long axons to pulse into thousands more neurons. Code readouts advanced in open windows around him. Parameter values moved as he watched.

After the debacle of the party, debugging the code running in his own brain was bliss. His body lay safely in his bed. His mind exulted inside the Nexus development environment, tracing the events that had led to the fault. Here he was in his element.

He traced the events of the night through the logs, through the pulses of Nexus nodes and neurons in his brain, until he found the place where Nexus OS had faulted. He traced system parameters backwards in time until he understood what had happened. Nexus nodes had fired in response to excited neurons and triggered an uncontrolled cascade. They needed more bounds checking. It was a simple fix. The code opened itself to him, changed in response to his thoughts. He compiled it, tested it, fixed a new bug he’d introduced, repeated until he was done.

Reluctantly, he left the world inside his mind, and came back to the senses of his body. It was then that he remembered the other girl. Samara.

They could still use another first-time female subject for the study tomorrow to test out the changes they’d made to calibration. They had their minimum sample size, but another wouldn’t hurt. Would she fit? Yes. Was that foolish? Perhaps. But they really could use another first-time female…

And she did happen to be smart, funny, and good looking…

He pulled out his slate, projected it onto the wall, and paid a reputation bot to look up everything there was to know about Samara Chavez of New York City.

There she was. Samara A. Chavez. Reputation green.

He drilled into the details. Two degrees of separation from Kade. A Brooklyn address. Thousands of pictures of her online. Mentions of her at various data archeology conferences and online forums. A business license for a private consultancy. No mention on narc sites. No face match against suspected narc photos. The bot summarized her as legit and reputable.

Always use a second source, Wats had said.

He paid for a credit verification service to check her out as well. She came back with an address that matched, a phone number that matched the one she listed online, a decent credit record, no convictions, no gaps in employment and education. Everything was consistent.

Kade yawned and checked the time. It was almost two in the morning. Was there anything else to check? He couldn’t think of anything.

He fired off an invitation to Sam’s public address. Would she like to attend a party Saturday night? A party where she might be able to find a certain something she’d asked about? He couldn’t tell her where, but he’d be happy to pick her up.

Reread. Send.

Then he stripped off his clothes and collapsed into bed.

###

 

Sam kicked, blocked, punched, dodged, kicked again. Imaginary enemies fell.

Across the room, a new message chime sounded. The tone was keyed to Kaden Lane.

Sam ignored the sound and continued her blurringly fast path through the hundred and eight steps of the kata she was practicing, her limbs moving with superhuman grace and precision through a four hundred year-old sequence of strikes, parries, and evasions.

Focus, Nakamura had taught her. Absorb yourself in your task. Leave all the rest aside.

She let the message wait as she completed the kata. Only when she was done and had bowed to the empty room did she turn, limbs trembling slightly, brow beaded with sweat, and ask her slate to show her the message.

It appeared in the air before her. A message to Samara Chavez. An invitation to a party. A party where, he hinted, she could try Nexus.

Guess I didn’t spook him so badly after all, Sam thought to herself.

She waved away the slate’s projection and the image evaporated. She’d respond tomorrow at a reasonable hour.

Samantha Cataranes turned back towards the center of the room, bowed to the air, and began the next kata.

 

 

 

BRIEFING

 

Transhuman – noun

  1. A human being whose capabilities have been enhanced such that they now exceed normal human maxima in one or more important dimensions.
  2. An incremental step in human evolution.

 

Posthumannoun –

  1. A being which has been so radically transformed by technology that it has gone beyond transhuman status and can no longer be considered human at all.
  2. Any member of a species which succeeds humans, whether having originated from humanity or not.
  3. The next major leap in human evolution.

 

–   Oxford English Dictionary, 2036 Edition

 

 

 

Chapter 2

Close Door, Open Mind

 

Saturday 2040.02.18 : 0612 hours

The lump on his forearm was red, agitated. It stood out against his dark skin. Wats rubbed at it. It felt hard, hot to the touch. Skin peeled away under his fingers. He was bloody underneath. He peered at the uncovered tumor. Deep within it he could almost see the broken strands of DNA, his chromosomes fraying like split ends, giving birth to the cancers that would eat him. Another lump caught his attention. Another. His wrist was covered with them. His hands. His arm. In horror he ripped open his shirt. Red, angry lumps were growing on his chest, on his belly. They were rising, expanding, spreading as he watched, covering him…

Wats jerked awake.

Breathe. Breathe. Early morning light was filtering in through the windows.

Not the cancers. Not yet.

He scanned his arms. They were bare, unblemished.

“Lights!”

He threw himself out of bed, scanned the rest of himself.

Nothing.

Breathe. Close your eyes. Breathe. Pull yourself together, Sergeant Cole.

He hadn’t been Sergeant Cole for a long time now.

Wats crossed to the sink and splashed cold water on his face. Wash away the rest of the nightmare. He pulled down a disposable tester, slid his finger into it. A short, sharp prick. A drop of his blood was sucked into its microfluidic channels. The box hummed softly as it worked. Flow cytometers examined every cell by laser, looking for telltale swelling of the cell nuclei, elevated hormone levels, abnormal chromosomes. DNA and protein assays took burst cells, evaluated them for cancerous genetic and proteomic fragments.

Wats stared at the device as it did its work. He willed it green. He willed it to finish. He willed it to give him time to do what must be done.

The device beeped. Its display turned green. No sign of the cancers. Not yet.

Wats breathed a sigh of relief and tossed the tester into the garbage. Someday he’d pay for his crimes. But not today.

###

 

Saturday 2040.02.18 : 2108 hours

Kade picked Sam up just past nine in a Siemens autocab. The little plastic and carbon fiber car drove them south and east along the 101, past SFO, past San Mateo, past Menlo Park and Palo Alto and Stanford, and the venture capital hub of the world. She kept Kade engaged in conversation. She asked about his work, his friends, the party, the music he listened to, when he’d first tried Nexus. He answered everything except the questions on Nexus, and asked his own about her, her life, New York, her work in data archeology. She stepped into her role and answered the way the fictional Samara Chavez would answer. The lies came easy after so many years. She had him in stitches with Samara’s misadventures in data archeology.

The cab drove them to Simonyi Field, formerly the site of NASA’s Ames Research Center, and dropped them in front of the giant Hangar 3. It loomed above them, longer than a football field, taller than a seven story building.

“Welcome to our party space.” Kade grinned.

Sam nodded her approval. “Impressive. How’d you score this?”

“Our lab leases it for experiment space. And, well, this is kind of an experiment.”

Sam raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll see.”

Kade led them to a back door into the hangar. He knocked quickly three times, and the door opened.

Inside an entryway, a large sign read “Welcome! Please turn off data connections on all phones, slates, pens, watches, specs, shades, rings, etc… No active transmitters, please!”

Below that, another sign: “Close Door and Open Mind As You Enter.”

To her right, the man who’d opened the door for them. Six feet tall, black, muscular, and lean, with a shaved head and a relaxed posture. Watson Cole. Data spooled across her tactical contacts in pulsing red. Threat level: high.

 

Watson “Wats” Cole (2009 – )

Sergeant 1st Class, US Marines (ret 2038)

Deployed: Iran (2035), Burma (2036-37), Kazakhstan (2037-38) (…)

Specialist: Counter-intel, Hand-to-Hand Combat

Augments: Marine Combat & Recovery Boosters (2036, 2037, 2038)

Approach with Extreme Caution

 

Cole clasped hands with Kade. “Kade.”

Kade responded. “Good to see you, Wats. This is my friend Sam. She should be on the list now.”

Wats raised an eyebrow, eyes still on Kade. Then, slowly, he nodded. Calm, dark eyes turned towards her. “Samara Chavez. You’re on the list. I’m Wats.” He extended his large brown-skinned hand.

Sam had read Cole’s bio already. A refugee from war-torn Haiti, brought to the US by a Marine who’d met and married his mother. Cole had enlisted in the Corps at age eighteen, distinguished himself in missions across the globe, been handpicked for augmentation and promotion. Then he’d been captured by rebels in Kazakhstan. The man who emerged from that months-long ordeal was different. A peace activist. A Buddhist. A pacifist. Had captivity changed him? Or something more?

Sam took his hand. “Nice to meet you, Wats.”

His grip was firm but not forceful. Those hands could crush steel. They’d killed men across two continents. Even with her newer, top-secret fourth-generation enhancements, Sam wasn’t sure she wanted to mess with Watson Cole.

“Please turn off any radios,” he said.

Why?

“Sure,” she answered.

She pulled her show phone from jacket pocket, flipped it to standby, used the motion as cover to blink the surveillance gear on her body into passive mode.

Kade was returning his own phone to a pocket. He turned and smiled. “Wanna go see the space? We’re still a little early.”

“Absolutely,” she answered. “Lead on.”

Lane led her through a large heavy door, the kind Sam suspected might be EM shielded, and closed it behind them. On the other side was a hallway. Kade opened the door at the far end and they stepped through into a large open space, the true interior of the original hangar. It was at least two hundred feet across, with a vaulted ceiling seventy or eighty feet tall – a space you could fit an old 747 into. A circle of couches occupied one end of the hangar. Along one wall was a bar. A dozen people were milling about, apparently setting up for the party. At the other end she saw a DJ platform with four large screens. Behind them was the DJ, dark-skinned, bleached blonde hair, in multi-colored Sufi robes.

Data scrolled across her vision in yellow. A person of interest.

 

Rangan Shankari (2012 – ) aka “Axon” (stage name)

PhD candidate, Neural Engineering, Sanchez Lab, UCSF

Technology R&D Risk Level: Medium [human intelligence enhancement]

 

Rangan waved at them across the room. “Hey, Kade, can you give me a hand?” he yelled out. “Got a weird glitch in the repeaters here.”

Kade nodded. “Sure, give me a minute.”

He led Sam in another direction, towards a cluster of people at one end of the space.

“Hey, Ilya,” he called out.

An earnest-looking woman of Russian descent looked up at her name. Dark hair, large thoughtful eyes, a simple green dress accented by a gauzy purple scarf around her neck. She smiled charmingly at Kade as they approached her.

 

Ilyana “Ilya” Alexander (2014 – )

Post-doctoral Fellow, Janus Lab, Systems Neuroscience, UCSF (2039-)

Published works on meta- and group intelligences

Technology R&D Risk Level: Medium [post-/non-human intelligence]

 

Ilyana Alexander. Another of their little group. A refugee of the 2027 Pudovkin purges in her native Russia. A theoretical neuroscientist whose work focused on cognition in groups and networks.

Alexander hugged Kade in greeting. “Hello, Kade.”

Kade smiled. “Sam, this is Ilyana Alexander, aka Ilya. Ilya, could you get Sam started?” Kade asked. “I need to help Rangan with something.”

Kade touched Sam’s arm. “We have a dose for you. Ilya will set you up. I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“Thanks,” Sam replied. “See you soon.”

Kade turned and headed off towards the DJ table.

Ilya led her out of the main hangar, through a door labeled “Crew,” and then beyond that to a cozy chill space.

They sat together on a couch. From out of her bag Ilya produced a small glass vial. Inside was a dark, silvery fluid.

Sam felt her pulse quicken.

“You’ve never used Nexus before?” Ilya asked.

“Never,” Sam lied.

Only in training, she thought.

“This is Nexus 5.”

Nexus 5?

Nexus 3 was the most common Nexus formulation on the street. Nexus 4 had been a flash in the pan out of a lab in Santa Fe, put down quickly in a joint mission between the ERD and the DEA. Something called Nexus 5 was rumored to exist, but until this point had never been confirmed.

“Where do you guys get it?” she asked Ilya.

Ilya hesitated just a moment too long. “We have a friend on the East Coast who gets it for us.”

She’s lying, Sam thought.

“You have experience with psychedelics?” Ilya asked.

“The usual. Experimentation in college. Not a regular thing.”

“How’d you tolerate them?”

“Fine. I had fun. Just nothing I needed to do too often.”

Ilya nodded. “Good. Experience with psychedelics always makes this easier. The first time people try Nexus can be a little disorienting, especially the first hour or so. Your brain is learning how to interface with the drug and other brains. With a whole party full of people pressing up against your mind, it’s going to be even more intense.”

Sam frowned. “I thought Nexus only worked at short range, like arm’s length maybe.”

“Usually.” Ilya’s gaze flickered away for a moment. “But there are ways to increase the range.”

Pieces clicked together for Sam. The “no transmitters” rule. The “repeaters” Rangan had mentioned. These kids had found a way to extend Nexus transmissions.

Dear god.

“Sounds great,” she replied. “I’ll take your lead.”

Her pulse was quick now. Her stomach was a knot.

Ilya popped the top of the vial. Sam caught a glimpse of a metallic liquid swirling through the glass. Brownian motion mixed tendrils of grey and silver. For an instant she had the impression of the drug as a living thing, aware, alert, purposeful.

The moment passed. Ilya handed her the vial, followed closely by a glass of juice from the table.

Sam downed the drug. The liquid tasted strongly metallic, slightly bitter. It felt heavy on her tongue, oily as it flowed down her throat. She sipped the juice. It was orange-guava. It cut through the taste and feel of Nexus instantly, leaving her mouth just slightly sweet, tart, and tropical.

Now for the other part I hate.

Samantha Cataranes closed her eyes, recited the mantra that would rearrange parts of her memory, make her believe she was someone else.

Elephant. Skyscraper. Maple.

She saw them as she thought the words, superimposed them on each other. Mental tumblers clicked, knowledge that should not leak out of her mind was suppressed. Fictions became reality.

Samara Chavez opened her eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

Calibration

 

Saturday 2040.02.18 : 2314 hours

Samara Chavez was flying. Eyes closed, reclined on the couch, she soared above a landscape of shapes and emotions, senses and experiences. Below her a pulsing red sea of arousal lapped against a sharp and glistening black shore of mathematics, which gave way to green and brown hills of Spanish, Mandarin, and English. She dove into those hills, let the ground accept her and pass through her, burrowed into the earth, tasting tones and verbs and conjugates, feeling the shape of letters, words, characters, feeling their meanings and sounds coalesce. It felt gorgeous.

Sam was aware that she was high. She was tripping more intensely than any time since… since… And at the same time she felt clear-headed. Every sensation was sharp. Everything fit together just so. She understood where she was and what was going on.

Nexus is learning me, she thought. This is the calibration phase.

She penetrated through the dense earth of languages into a cavern of abstraction, filled with a soaring, brilliant city of concepts. Broad lanes of Time and Space cut the city into quarters. A bell tolled from within the soaring towers of the delicate crystal and steel Temple of Self in the center of the city. The sound of the bell was the sound of everything she’d ever tried to communicate. It pulsed in the air, almost physical, spreading outwards in concentric waves she could see, pulsing and resonating through city blocks where ideas crashed together. Open public squares of contemplation, serene parks and elegant symphony halls of harmony and synthesis, wrecked bombed-out shells of discord, confusion, misunderstanding. Her thoughts spread out into suburbs full of memories and beyond them into the dark forest of Other which wrapped the city, isolated it.

With delight she dove down into a public pool of Laughter, pulled herself out and walked a street of Beauty, turned down the lane and entered the vast museum of Animate Things, exited from its rear door onto a street of Actions, and soon came to the great open plaza around the Temple of Self. Everywhere she looked in the plaza she saw the faithful come, called to prayer. The faithful were her. A hundred of her, a thousand, ten thousand, all kneeling, praying, paying homage and sending prayers to herself.

She spun around then, taking in this city, her city, her mind. She whirled once, twice, three times, until the spin had a perpetual motion of its own, and then she found herself rotating faster and faster, the city blurring by too fast to see, but her mind spreading out to encompass it, the centrifugal force of her dervish-whirl sending the edges of her thoughts and senses outward from her, spread out and held taut to her by the line of her will.

She was this city. She was the million hers within it. She tasted a hundred thousand memories. Memories of places and times and things and words. Her sixth birthday, falling off her bike, blood running down her knee, she’d dipped her finger in it, brought it as close to her face as she could, wanting to see those tiny cells inside. Her college graduation, unexpectedly meaningful to her, a flush of excitement, visible pride on the face of her aunt and uncle, wishing her parents could be there if not for… for… Her first taste of sushi, incredible texture of raw albacore, followed by intense wasabi flavor overwhelming her sense of smell. A rainbow in the desert, seen alone. A lover’s kiss on her neck. The sharp joy of sparring. Childhood games. And data archeology – the 3am discovery of the key that cracked the Watzer archive, the way the pieces of the puzzle fit together perfectly to decode the message Venter had encoded with his genome.

All of this is you – the words came unbidden to her. The memories came not one at a time, but in parallel, overlaid with one another, interleaving in ways she’d never seen, the timeline of her life becoming three-dimensional.

She felt she would explode with joy, with the sheer intensity of being, with the incredible largeness she felt. She wanted to grow ever larger, to spread beyond this city and cavern, to encompass this entire psychedelic planet of self, to experience every instant and morsel and potential of her being at once. To spread beyond this one planet, to experience everything of everyone!

“Sam?”

Her eyes opened. She was flush with excitement. Her chest was heaving. Her heart was pounding. She was damp between her thighs. She had never felt so turned on or so alive in her life. Except… except…

“Sam?”

It was Kade. Kaden Lane. The boy who’d brought her here, given her this chance to try Nexus for the first time. (first?) That beautiful, tall, confusing, shy, naïve young man, with a mind like fire and a boyish disregard of the consequences of his curiosity. He was standing at the foot of the couch she reclined on, looking at her tentatively.

“Kade.” It came out husky. She tried again, more casually. “Hi.”

“Hey, how’re you feeling? Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, I was trying to help Rangan track down that glitch.”

Rangan. Right. The DJ. She was at a party. OK.

Get it together, Sam.

“Kade.” She held his gaze with her own, took a deep breath. “This is amazing. I was just lost, swimming, deep inside… I can’t even explain.”

Even as she spoke she felt the whirlwind, felt the assimilation and calibration continuing inside her. Her skin was sensitized. Every word and every breath felt electric with potential.

Kade smiled. “Tell me. What are you feeling?”

Sam closed her eyes, spoke with them closed. “I’m inside myself. Inside my mind. I see how the pieces of me fit together. The different concepts. The different kinds of concepts I can hold. And I can see all these scenes from my life. Patterns between them, connections I never noticed. I feel incredible. If I was like this when I was working… I could just suck up anything.“ She paused. “And I’m really, really aroused.”

She opened her eyes. Kade was blushing, looking away now, down at his shoes, over at the wall. And Sam had the apprehension that he had been looking directly at her until her final words. And that he was aroused. By her. She got a flash of how she must seem to him, skin flushed and radiating heat, nipples hard, chest rising and falling, breath audible – and knew that flash was more than intuition, that it came from Kade himself.

Really? Had he dosed?

“Kade. Have you taken the Nexus already?”

And then his eyes snapped to hers again, directly, not shyly at all. He came around the couch without speaking, sat next to her, close, and put one hand on her brow. And she felt something. His mind brushing against hers. An invitation, followed by an opening, and then Kade unfolded before her.

She caught another glimpse of his arousal. Of his interest in her. Of his shyness. His insecurity with women.

But those were peripheral. In the center she caught full on a view of his intellect, diamond sharp and clear, the restlessness of his mind, his ever churning set of questions, his lust for answers… and what he’d done. He and Rangan and Ilya.

She took a sharp breath as she understood. “You’re like this all the time? You’ve done this permanently? To yourself?”

Of course. Last night. So, so dangerous.

Last night? Dangerous?

Kade spoke. “The potential is there. The Nexus core is permanently integrated. But it’s not active all the time. Not broadcasting. And we’re definitely not experiencing the rush of the first mapping that you’re going through now.”

Sam understood it as he spoke. She caught the sense of the linked thoughts behind his words. Semantic mapping. Sensory mapping. Emotive mapping. Calibration and assimilation. All the things they needed to enable mass Nexus connectivity.

Because they’d made it, Kade and Rangan and a few others. They’d taken Nexus 3 and they’d cracked some of its code. They’d learned to program Nexus cores, to tell them what to do. They’d added on layers of logic and functionality. They’d turned it into a platform for running software inside the brain. They’d brought this thing in her mind to fruition.

It took her breath away. She felt Kade’s pride. She felt her own awe at his brilliance, at their accomplishment, at their audacity. She wanted him then. Wanted to swallow his mind up like the city inside her, experience all of him at once, know what he knew, feel what he felt, really understand what was happening inside her.

And she felt fear. A chill up the back of her spine. A strong sense of foreboding.

Sam brushed it off. She fought for words.

“Kade. Kade. Show me the party. Take me out there to meet everyone else.”

Kade laughed. “You’re just coming up. Want to practice this a little more with one person before you’re out there with a hundred?”

In his thoughts she read amusement, caution.

“I’m ready,” Sam replied. “I want more. I can handle it.”

I want it all, she thought.

Kade chuckled. “Alright, let’s do it. Party time.”

He stood up, smiled, and backed a step away.

Sam took a deep breath, steadied herself, and rose to a seated position. So far so good. She could feel Kade watching, evaluating, taking mental notes on her responses, her equilibrium, her affect.

She looked up at him, met his eyes, and held out her hand. Kade took it to help her rise to her feet.

Their touch was electric, frank, revealing. She sought out his attraction to her, wanted it, found it buried beneath his scientific curiosity, his commitment to the experiment of which she was now a part, his cool observation of her. Sam blazed at Kade, showed him her hunger, her craving for more, her will to assimilate everything around her, starting with him.

He was at once amused and impressed. And his mind was awesome, full of knowledge and experience she craved.

Sam rose smoothly to her feet, Kade’s hand still held but unneeded. She stood inches from him, face at his level in her tall boots.

“Show me,” she asked him. He knew what she wanted.

He flushed crimson, let go of her hand, broke eye contact, laughed to hide a bashfulness that he could not possibly contain, and backed away again.

“You’re something else,” he said. “A natural for this. It’s not as easy as you think, though. Internal mapping is one thing. That level of depth with another mind just isn’t doable right now. Not enough bandwidth. Not a rich enough protocol.”

Sam saw the truth of it in his mind, saw also that he was holding back from her. There was more. Disappointment. She’d be patient.

“OK.” She smiled, despite herself. “Out into the party?”

Kade took her hand again, grinning, broadcasting excitement. “Sam, you’re gonna love this.”

And she saw that she would.

He led her out of the chill space and into the crew room, up to the heavy, shielded door that led to the main hangar.

“I’m going to let you feel a little at first, then more and more over time.”

Kade opened the door. Music hit her. Electronic and tribal, rhythmic and trancedelic. The genre they called flux. Compelling enough to dance to, relaxed enough to not.

At the same time a different kind of humming filled Sam’s head. The sound of many voices, muted, distant, but all speaking at once. More than sound. Information. Meaning. Emotion. Excitement. Giddiness. Apprehension. Awe. Impatience. Heartbreak. Desire. Contentment. All there. All at some remove from her. Nothing like the experience she’d had within herself. But these were other minds!

Kade led her through the doorway.

The hangar had been transformed. The lighting was saturated with slowly changing colors now, shifting through the spectrum. The corner they were in was rich blue shifting to indigo and violet. Across the hangar from her it was red turning orange. To the left it was yellow turning green.

Scattered across the hangar were people, scores of them. Enough to add life to what had been a large and empty space. They were dressed for a San Francisco party night: short skirts and tight pants; velvet and vinyl and faux leather; tattoos, piercings, and marginally legal biomorph body art that shifted and flowed as they moved. She felt them in her mind. Gay, straight, and bi; singles, couples, triads, more complex networks still.

This boy-scientist had brought her into the heart of the counterculture. And the counterculture was dosed with Nexus.

Above and around them, the smartfabric-covered walls undulated in time to the music now. Liquid silvers, reds, and blues flowed across the curving inner surface of the hangar, like ripples emanating from each tribal, elemental beat of the music Rangan was playing. It was transfixing, organic. She stared at it and knew that the track was “Buddha Fugue” by the group Apoptosis, the rhythms inspired by the sounds of Thai drumming meeting crashing surf as heard through the hashish-addled ears of band member Sven Utler, one hot summer night on the beaches of Koh Phangan.

It came to her in a flash. She simply knew it as if she’d always known it. As if she’d heard this track a dozen times, heard the story behind it from Sven or Rangan or Kade already.

Sam caught her breath. It was a great track, the kind her hips wanted to move to, but she didn’t care. They just beamed that into my head! What she could do with that technology! What data archeology could be like! Education! Anything!

She turned to Kade, mouth agape, eyes full of wonder. He grinned at her. He knew her thoughts and she knew his: infectious enthusiasm, excitement at her excitement, pride in his accomplishments.

Like a boy showing off his toys, she thought, and he blushed and looked away and giggled.

Kade took her by the hand then and led her into the crowd. They passed a pair of people, standing facing each other, arms moving oddly, clumsily, giggling and laughing out loud at each other.

“What are they doing?” she asked Kade.

He grinned at her. “We call it push/pull. They’re using Nexus to move each others’ bodies. Sending impulses to each others’ motor cortices. Or trying to. It’s not easy for most people.”

She stared at them.

“Can we try that?” she asked.

Kade grinned again. “Later.”

He led her further into the hangar, towards the circle of reclined couches. Something was going to happen there, she read from him. An experiment. And she could be part of it.

“This is the closest we’ve come to people mapping each other. To the calibration experience across more than one mind. Want to try it?”

Yes. God yes. She wanted to swallow them all whole.

No, a small voice protested within her.

She ignored it, nodded mutely to Kade.

A half-dozen men and women were already reclining on the couches. There was room for a half-dozen more. As she and Kade approached the rest of the minds in the space faded. She could feel these six now, and clearly. She could feel Kade. The rest of the party was blanketed in mental silence.

Kade was behind her. His hands touched lightly on her shoulders. He led her to one of the couches, helped her to sit. He crouched at her side.

Others arrived, took their seats. A dozen of them on the couches and a few watchers nearby.

“Ready?” Kade spoke aloud, pitched for her alone.

Sam nodded.

Something happened. Eleven more minds grew larger in her perception. They brightened, swam more fully into focus. They were so full. So alive with thoughts and memories, emotions and desires. Her breathing synchronized with theirs. She closed her eyes and she could see and feel their individual lines of thought.

Eleven minds touched her at once in eleven parts of her psyche. Here was Brian’s sheer joy at the crazy, meditative, ebullient madness of playing mind to mind with his friends. Here was Sandra’s deep reservoir of calm and poise, her years of yoga, her pool of peace, anchoring those around her. This was samadhi to her. Here was Ivan’s physicist’s appreciation of the math and music in the interplay and dance and harmony and discord of the thoughts around him. Here was a vision in Leandra’s mind, of protein shapes, folds and receptors and binding sites, of a dozen men and women connected in mind to decode them… Here were tears on Josephine’s face, tears of a joyous memory of childhood, fireworks with her beloved Dad, lost to her. Lost like… like…

There were tears on Sam’s face now. She didn’t know why. She could feel Kade watching her, concerned. She had no answer for him.

Each person had not one thread, but many. They intertwined in parallel, each connected to the others. Thoughts and memories shifting and flowing. Sandra’s first fumblings with other girls in her preteen years. Antonio’s comprehension of quantum programming, the edges of understanding any of it just beyond what Sam could capture. Jessica’s rapture in freefall dives from twelve thousand feet, the adrenaline of jumping, the calm of popping the chute, her bliss every time she hung below that fabric wing and steered herself to the ground, singing and breathing and soaring untethered.

She knew Sandra’s love of the stillness, the meditative, I-am-in-my-body glory of her daily practice. It spiraled within Sam, found her memories of sparring bouts, the absolute beauty of a perfect strike or block or dodge. The serenity of perfect form, the adrenaline of a hard and close fight, the endorphic come-down bliss that followed. And… and…

She felt Kade, still. He was with them, with her. And his mind… his mind… She knew the beauty of the Nexus core. The sublimity of its design that awed him, staggered him. She tasted the pure abstract space within him where he did his best work, apprehended a tiny bit of the protocol he’d built with Rangan, the semantic layer between individual neural connections and whole thoughts. It was a glorious thing, a map of all the kinds of pieces of thoughts, an ontology of consciousness. It existed in him in part of his mind beyond doubt or fear or even consideration of others. Part of him so beautiful and yet so distant and so alien and so very, very much hers for this brief time.

Sam saw through his eyes. Saw the flows of thoughts and emotions and experiences as bits and packets and traffic patterns, not cold and dry, but gorgeous in a symphonic way, an orchestral way. They were individual instruments coming together to create a richly textured whole, greater than the sum of its parts. She saw his aspirations, to transcend the boundaries of individual minds, saw how Ilya had shaped his thoughts, saw a glimpse of the path he thought might just be feasible, his wonder at a future nothing like the past.

She was crying then. Crying because Kade’s mind was so crystal clear and his vision so pure and so awe-inspiring in its way and yet so terrifying to her. Crying with Josephine at shared loss, of parents ripped away in youth, of childhood lost. Crying at the loss of Kade’s parents so recently. Crying at a memory of pain and fear that Sandra had uncovered, Sam wounded in the night, left arm hanging useless, blood dripping into her eyes, terrified, not sure if she would see the dawn, not sure she could get past the one last guard…

She was confused, disoriented. Memories that made no sense were arising. Josephine experienced Sam’s memories of her parents’ last Christmas in San Antonio. Yet she also knew Sam’s sorrow at the death of them, years in the past. At the horror of something not clean, not fast, not accidental…

Leandra’s experiences in proteomics touched Sam’s identity as a data archeologist. Sam worked for corporations to unlock value from their legacy intellectual assets. Not Third World government databases… Not records of human and transhuman experiments…

She felt their collective concern. Kade most of all. Felt them reaching out more tendrils to her, to soothe her, buttress her. Each contact triggered a memory. An all-nighter in college cramming for her differential equations mid-term. Her first triathlon, that place beyond exhaustion, beyond bliss, beyond anything but moving her body again and again and again… Pushing herself that hard in the Iranian Caspian, north-east of Sārī, terrified out of her mind, trying to make that rocky beach in Turkmenistan, not knowing if backup would truly be there…

Sam was losing her mind.

She liked to bike. She swam. She’d graduated with a master’s in DA with honors. She had two loving parents. She had a memory of a gun, huge in her young hands, the man she’d shot lying in a puddle of his own blood, slowly bleeding to death, deserving this and more for the horrors he’d inflicted…

Yet Sam remembered her training for this mission. Another dose of Nexus, Nexus 3, the palest shadow of her current experience. A briefing. An assignment. A mantra that veiled who she was…

Sam understood then. It overwhelmed her. She understood who she was, understood the betrayal of herself that this experience constituted. It came out in a jumble through the upper layers of her mind. Sam felt the bewilderment of the minds she was connected to, each of them seeing just a part of it. Felt their growing alarm. She had seconds to act.

NOOOOOOOOO!

It came out as a scream from her mind and throat, unforced, perfect for her needs. Sam wrenched her mind away from them, as brutally as she could, felt things tear inside her, saw and knew them stunned and disoriented.

She remembered her name. Samantha. Samantha Cataranes. She remembered who she was.

Tactical contacts came online, had always been online, dropped layers of threats and recommendations and escape vectors and supplemental information on her.

[EXTRACT EXTRACT EXTRACT], her display read.

Arrows pointed towards escape vectors. Alternate exits. Ceiling hatch seventy feet above her. Likely weak points in the wall. Back out the door she’d come in through. She chose the latter.

Samantha Cataranes stood up. Force of will pulled her out of the chaos of the drug high. Years of training took over. She swept her vision across the scene around her. A score of names lit up, faces recognized, bios scrolling. All green or yellow. No gross threats.

Her fingers found her slimline in her boot, tripped the emergency uplink sequence. Buffered data pulsed out instantly at emergency power. Everything she’d seen and heard going out to her watchers.

The phone pulsed once, twice, three times, violating FCC power regs by a cool order of magnitude, expending a quarter of its fuel cell to get the message out.

White noise shot through mind space, tearing up mental cohesion. Sam saw one or two go down with their hands to heads. Her own head ached. The music stopped.

She turned towards the door then. The voices and minds around her were starting to burble, coming out of their stunned and pained silence. Few of them had caught what had really happened, but they had caught on that something bad had occurred indeed.

That was sick. That was wrong. I can’t believe I took part in that.

Images of the mind meld she’d just experienced bounced through her mind, nauseating her, reminding her too much of… of… of what she’d killed to escape.

Time for reminiscing later. She caught a glimpse of Kade on his knees, vomiting onto the floor. She felt a pang of pity, of regret. Time for that later, too.

She strode towards the entrance, locked her mind down. Crowds parted. Then she felt a mind against hers, saw him move to block her path. Watson Cole.

He felt hard, poised, resigned. Pacifist or no, he was not going to let her pass.

[Combat Threat. Extreme Caution.]

Alternate routes flashed on her display. Arrows towards other escape vectors. She could turn and run, beat him to an exit.

But Sam was not in the mood to let some burned-out jarhead stand in her way.

She blanked her mind, weaved towards him unsteadily on the floor, brought her left hand to her stomach, her right to her face, feigned a disoriented stumble to the left as she reached him, came out of it in a vicious right-hand backfist to his temple.

Wats was unfooled. The big black Marine had anticipated the move or something like it. He brought his hand up to block, fell back, barely twisted the blow aside as he gave ground.

Good. She was faster than he was. Her fourth-generation enhancements outclassed the Marine Corps’ third-generation techniques. The ERD saved the best for its own.

Sam’s next two blows were already in the air in the close space between them. Hard jab to his solar plexus, low kick to his knee. Wats parried the first, still falling back, lifted his leg and let his raised calf absorb the damage of her kick.

Cole was good. Experienced. Deadly. The Marine Corp’s third-generation viral upgrades had made him stronger, faster, less sensitive to pain than any normal man.

Sam was smaller, shorter of reach, lighter of muscle, but she’d been taught by the best, and she had the better technology. Fourth-generation posthuman genetics gave her nerves like quicksilver, muscles like corded titanium, and bones of organic carbon fiber.

She’d become something like the thing she hated. She’d stared into the abyss, and it had transformed her. To destroy evil, she’d become it.

Wats countered her superior speed by giving ground, step by step. Sam stayed in close as he did, neutralizing his advantage in reach. They moved in a blur of strikes, dodges, and blows, almost too fast for any onlooker to follow.

She could see him coming up now, see the adrenaline hitting him, making him a more dangerous foe. Behind her she felt flashes of courage and anger. Partygoers thinking of joining the fray. Before long, they would mob her.

End this now, then. A gambit. A sacrifice. She let him create a foot of space to get his comfort, parried three more blows, threw feints at groin and eyes and plexus, then came in wide and sloppy, hole in her guard at mid-section.

Wats saw the opening and threw a brutal fist at it, low and under her nearly unbreakable ribs. She accepted the fist, twisting to mute it, felt pain blossom inside her as he connected. As she twisted, she brought one hand down like a vice on his wrist, yanked him off balance as she planted a leg behind his knees and slammed her other hand into his shoulder to bring him down.

Wats saw it coming, but it was too late. The gambit had worked. He went down fast and hard.

Sam’s booted foot flashed out, connected with his head, twice, three times.

She stopped herself. Don’t kill. Incapacitate.

Her breath was fast, pulse elevated. She’d taken serious but not immediately life-threatening damage. Time to leave. She stepped over Wats’ unmoving form towards the door.

And then she felt it. Felt him. Kade. He was behind her. He was inside her mind. She could feel his anger and hurt, his confusion, his sense of betrayal, his self-loathing at having been so easily fooled… having risked so much on behalf of so many people, and let them down. Despite herself, she felt a pang of guilt at how she’d deceived him, at the hell he was going to pay.

“No,” he said.

He was about to do something to her mind, Sam knew. She saw it in his thoughts. He was a threat.

She turned. Crossed the space between them in three long steps. Don’t kill. Incapacitate. She lunged forward, hard backfist snapping out at his temple.

No.

She heard him in her mind. Felt his will slam against something inside her.

Hard fist connected with civilian body. All went black.

 

 [ end of sample ]

 

 

Published by Angry Robot
USA/Canada

Paperback: 18 Dec 2012

eBook: 18 Dec 2012

 

UK/RoW

Paperback: 3 Jan 2013

eBook: 18 Dec 2012