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Authors: Ramez Naam

Nexus 02 - Crux

BOOK: Nexus 02 - Crux
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Ramez Naam

CRUX

PROLOGUE: JULY 2040

THREE MONTHS AFTER THE RELEASE OF NEXUS 5

SYMPHONIC

The pianist’s hands glided across the keys, spreading out to left and right, fingers striking keys in unison. The piano responded, music soaring from it. The violinists joined her, sweeping in perfectly. In her mind she could feel them behind her, feel the vibration as the bows moved over strings, feel the pressure of fingertips holding notes, the instruments tucked under chins, the music leaping out. Then she felt the drummers enter, even as she heard them, sounds and minds in counterpoint to her melody.

Kade sucked it in, completely entranced. His body lay on the other side of the planet, but his mind was in the pianist’s, watching, absorbing, using one of the back doors he and Rangan had hidden in Nexus 5 to observe how their technology was being used.

The pianist’s mind in turn was linked to the other musicians’. Seven of them, playing in this empty concert hall, their minds entwined like the music, feeling each other’s actions, unconsciously communing. There was no conductor here, none but the emergent sum of their minds. No audience, but someday, someday they would play with a full orchestra, for a full house, would let the audience
feel
what it was like to make such music.

The pianist threw herself at the piano now, leaning into it with her body, her hands flying, gliding, then pouncing, fingers moving in a blur, shoulders hunched as she brought her weight down onto the keys with every note. Kade could feel the sweat on her brow, her breath coming fast, the feel of the keys as she made them hers, the impossible intricacy of the piece she flew through. He could hear the music in her mind,
feel
the music, the towering crescendo of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, the anticipation of the epic climax she was building to. The drums answered her. The French horn sang. The strings joined them in harmony. He could feel the players, feel their minds, feel the exhilaration in them all as the piece built and built and built.

Yes. This. This is what Nexus could do. He could feel the walls between the musicians’ minds dropping; the veil of
maya
, the illusion of separation, being lifted. He could feel them conjoining, merging, becoming something more, a single mind greater than its individual components. Kade lost himself in the experience, in the music, in the symphonic structure of this higher mind gelling before him.

Then a high priority message flashed across Kade’s mental vision.

[Alert]

What? Kade’s breath caught in his chest. Rangan? Ilya? Had his bots found his friends?

[Alert: Coercion Code Detected. Status: Active]

No. Not Rangan. Not Ilya. Something else. Something monstrous. Something he had to stop.

The pianist pounded out the final commanding notes of Rachmaninoff. The drums and strings came to their climax as she did, and she let her hands drop from the keys, exhausted, exhilarated. Joy leapt from them all, and in their intertwined imaginations an audience was cheering, surging to their feet in standing ovation.

With regret, Kade disconnected from them all, then clicked on the alert, opened the encrypted connection, invoked one of his three back doors, entered the passcode, the code that no one else knew, and tunneled into fear.

Arkady Volodin pumped his fist into the air, jumping up and down on the sand, and screamed his approval as the music came to a pounding climax. Five thousand partygoers screamed with him into the balmy night air above the beach. The DJ gave them two seconds of rest, then brought the beat pounding back. The bassline thrummed through Arkady’s bones, resonated in his chest. The crowd roared even louder. Arkady could feel them in his mind, surging, exulting, fucking high off this epic night in this epic place.

God, I love Croatia, Arkady realized. These people know how to party!

Above him laser lights scanned across the sky, leaving bright blue and red tracers across the clouds of smoke rising from the open air beach party. The sand of this pristine Croatian beach vibrated with the music, sending it up through Arkady’s feet. The surf crashed against the long break, running up the bare legs of the revelers in bikinis and briefs dancing closer to the waves. Palm trees swayed beyond the trusses that held up the lights and lasers and fog machines. Go-go dancers pranced and twirled on pedestals above the beach and the surging crowd.

Can you get me some Nexus?
Arkady had asked. It was too risky back in Moscow, but while he was here…

That guy, over there
, he’d been told, as they pointed towards a tall, lean man smoking a cigarette, leaning up against a building further uphill.
You can get it from Bogdan.

Minutes later, in a darkened spot beyond the lights, he’d handed over a wad of cash for a vial of silvery liquid, then downed it immediately. It had slipped down his throat, oily and metallic, and he’d gone to find a drink to wash away the taste and sensation that lingered in his throat.

By the time he’d finished the drink he’d been coming up.
Calibration phase
. He’d hallucinated – he was a fucking tsar in an old Russian palace. No, he
was
the palace. No, he was the whole goddamn
city!

Arkady laughed at it. So right. He was a tsar all right. A young tsar to all these punters here. Oil money. That’s where his royalty came from. He was here to suck the marrow out of this country, buying up rights to the offshore gas deposits that remained for Gazprom Bank back home. A conqueror. Oh, he’d conquer this place, with its beaches and drugs and women and gas. He’d make it all his. Better than fucking Moscow.

The music reached a new peak, and Arkady bounced with it, manically shaking his body, feeling the dancers around him revel as he did.

[Calibration Complete]

The message scrolled across his vision.

[Rabbit Hole Ready. Wanna Enter?]

Arkady grinned. He’d heard of this. The VR app this club had built. Yeah, he wanted to try it.

[Y]

Controls appeared at the side of his vision, layers he could toggle on and off. The first layer was enabled already. Arkady spun around, and laughed.

The dancers around him were sheathed in silver and gold, auras glimmering. The ocean was liquid silver, spilling onto a beach of crushed iridescent diamonds. The stars above were suddenly far brighter, shining brightly through the smoke and lasers, wheeling as he watched. A huge full moon loomed in the sky. Arkady turned further, and saw the go-go dancers. Their auras were crackling sheaths of energy, snapping and popping. They held out their hands as they danced, and lightning flew from them, arcing out over the crowd.

Arkady screamed his approval, dancing harder, pounding his feet against the sand. He felt the whole crowd respond, felt the ecstasy of the moment pounding through them all.

Fucking outstanding!

Then a burst of wind hit him from behind. Arkady turned in time to see something huge flying at him, winged and fanged. It dove down from the star-filled sky, from out over the liquid silver sea, a predator closing on the crowd, its enormous mouth open. He saw flames inside that cavernous maw, and then the dragon exhaled, and a river of fire surged down at the beach.

Arkady threw himself to the sand. Intense heat beat at his back. The downdraft from the dragon’s wings pummeled him as it flapped over them, and then the thing was past.

Arkady looked up and saw the beast rising towards the brilliant Milky Way, pounding the air with those leathery wings. Around him, partygoers sheathed in their multicolored auras were crouched or cowering. Others were still dancing, smiling and laughing at them, not unkindly.

Holy fuck! Arkady thought.

He reached out with his thoughts to the controls across the side of his vision, flipped off the layer that was on, and looked up. The dragon was gone, nowhere to be seen, the stars were masked by the smoke and lasers. He scanned around him. The auras were gone. The sea was water, crashing onto ordinary sand. The go-go dancers no longer threw electricity.

He flicked the layer back on, and lightning sparkled around the girls on stage again, auras shimmered into appearance around the other dancers, silver waves crashed onto the beach. And up there, he could see the dragon against the unreal galactic backdrop, flapping its wings, turning, coming around for another pass.

Fucking amazing! Arkady thought.

He rose up, lifted his hands into the air, waited for the virtual dragon to rain fire on them all.

Bogdan Radic took another drag on his cigarette, his eyes closed. His thoughts scanned from mind to mind, looking for just the perfect mark. The French girl with the designer shoes? The Italian couple with the flashy jewelry? They’d taken his drugs, his special version of Nexus, and now their minds were open to his.

It wasn’t that hard, really. Nexus 5 was open source now. All he’d had to do was download the code, modify it for his own purposes, to give him a back door into the minds of anyone who took it, then load his modifications up into vials of the drug. If you could code, you could change Nexus in all sorts of ways. And Bogdan could sure as hell code.

He dismissed the French girl. From a rich family, but he couldn’t find any way to access that wealth in her pretty little head. And kidnapping wasn’t for him. Too high a risk. Too much chance of physical violence.

The Italian couple… His mind roamed through theirs during their calibration phase, when the disorientation would hide most of what he did. No. They played rich, but they were overleveraged. Their assets were too illiquid for Bogdan’s needs. And two deaths would be so much harder to get away with than one.

The Russian was coming up now. Bogdan sifted through Arkady’s chaotic thoughts as the calibration phase opened up his mind. Well, well, well. Paydirt.

Bogdan slipped back into the club proper, down into the storage room, and set up his gear. Then he reached out with his thoughts, and pulled Arkady to him.

Arkady held his arms up and out, defiantly, as the giant dragon bore down on them. The beast opened its mouth, and a gout of flame burst from it. The heat struck him full force, bathing his face, his arms, his chest. The force of the beast’s wing flaps pushed at him. He wanted to flinch, but he yelled instead, like a man plunging down a roller coaster.

Then it was gone, and the dragon was past them.

Arkady jumped up and down, hooting in triumph. Beside him, a Croatian girl in little more than a bikini yelled as well, jumping up and down, gravity making her breasts do incredible things. Their eyes met.

Then something took hold of Arkady. His world dimmed. His sight narrowed. And he began to walk.

Arkady tried to resist, but his limbs moved without him. He flicked off the virtual reality layer. The auras disappeared, but his body kept moving. He tried to scream, but nothing came out.

Oh no. Oh, fucking no.

Whatever force controlled him led Arkady away from the water, over sand that gradually turned to rock and then concrete, away from the outdoor party, into the sprawling club, down a side hallway, down a set of stairs, and in through a closed door.

Inside he found the man who’d sold him this Nexus. Bogdan. A lit cigarette was in his hand. On the table next to Bogdan was a slate. On its screen was Gazprom’s remote access site. Next to it were a retinal scanner and a thumb print pad.

No.

“Mr Volodin,” Bogdan said. “How very nice to meet you.”

Abruptly Arkady found he could speak again.

“Please,” he said. “I’ll give you anything. I have money. Lots of money.”

Bogdan grinned.

“Oh, I know you do, Arkady. But your employer has so much more.”

“No,” Arkady said. “You don’t understand. You don’t know how they operate. They’ll
kill
me.”

Bogdan took a drag on his cigarette, then exhaled, flicking ash to the floor. He grinned at the Russian he held captive. “No, Arkady. You’ll already be dead.”

Arkady screamed then, only to find it abruptly cut off as someone else’s will constricted his throat.

BOOK: Nexus 02 - Crux
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