Check out CRUX by Ramez Naam, available now from Angry Robot!
Six months have passed since the release of Nexus 5. The world is a different, more dangerous place.
In the United States, the terrorists—or freedom fighters—of the Post-Human Liberation Front use Nexus to turn men and women into human time bombs aimed at the President and his allies. In Washington DC, a government scientist, secretly addicted to Nexus, uncovers more than he wants to know about the forces behind the assassinations, and finds himself in a maze with no way out.
In Vietnam, Kade and Feng are on the run from bounty hunters seeking the price on Kade’s head, from the CIA, and from forces that want to use the back door Kade has built into Nexus 5. Kade knows he must stop the terrorists misusing Nexus before they ignite a global war between human and posthuman. But to do so, he’ll need to stay alive and ahead of his pursuers.
The first blows in the war between human and posthuman have been struck. The world will never be the same.
This Changes Everything
One Week Later
The eye stared at Kade, unblinking, lying in its cooling bath. That black pupil in the green iris. The white egg-shaped sphere of it, with a bundle of freshly grown optic nerve trailing off behind it, looking like so much wet data cable.
My eye, Kade thought, cloned from my cells, to replace the one I lost in Bangkok.
He blinked the one eye in his head, lying back on the clinic bed as the doctors did their final prep. Late afternoon light filtered in through curtains drawn over the windows. His regrowing stump of a hand ached down deep in its fragile bones. He could feel the anesthetic starting to flow through his veins now. If all went well, in a few weeks he’d be seeing out of two eyes again, maybe even using two working hands.
A mind touched his. Ling’s mind. Su-Yong Shu’s daughter. Alien. Young. A whirlwind of swirling thoughts. The data flowing all around him came alive in his mind—the flow of information through the medical monitors in the room, the power cables running through the wall, the wireless data channels permeating even this remote Cambodian clinic. He could see and feel them all, an intricate web of information and electrons all around him, as he could any time she touched his mind.
He could feel her smile in return. Such a strange child, so unlike any other mind he’d ever touched. But he was starting to understand her, to see how her thoughts worked, to see the world the way she saw it.
Feng and I won’t let them hurt you while you’re asleep, Ling sent him.
Kade almost laughed.
It’s OK, Ling, he sent her. I trust them.
They’re humans, Ling sent back.
So am I, Kade replied.
Oh no, Kade, Ling sent him. You’re not human any more. You’re like me now. Me and my mother.
Kade reached for a reply, but all he found was the anesthesia, sucking him down into a warm sleepy place.
They buried my mother today, Kade, Ling sent him.
Visions came to Kade—Su-Yong Shu in that remote Thai monastery, the spot of blood blooming at her throat, the sudden sting in Kade’s hand as a dart struck him, Su-Yong’s skin going gray as the neurotoxin pumped through her, Feng lifting up the cleaver to amputate Kade’s hand…
She’s not dead, Ling was saying. I’m going to find her. I’m going to get my mommy back.
Ling… Kade started. Be careful, he wanted to tell her. But the drugs pulled him under first.
Martin Holtzmann closed his eyes and he was there again. The spray of snow stung at his face. The wind rushed by, roaring in his ears. His borrowed body leaned left, skis cutting in so perfectly to deep powder on this steep slope. Muscles flush with strength and youth pushed poles in and leaned right, carving around the next mogul like he hadn’t since…
An elbow dug into his side, and he snapped his eyes open. Joe Duran, head of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Directorate, and Holtzmann’s boss’s boss, was glaring at him.
“Pay attention,” the man whispered.
Holtzmann mumbled something in reply, shifted in his seat, bringing his eyes back to the podium. President John Stockton was speaking, addressing this assembled crowd outside Department of Homeland Security headquarters.
Holtzmann mopped sweat from his brow, beneath his shock of unruly white hair. Even at 9am, the Washington DC sun was brutal. Already they were on track for the hottest summer in North American history, coming just on the heels of the record-breaking heat wave of 2039. He wanted to just sink back into that memory of snow, that experience of another’s body, of youth, gleaned through the Nexus connection between Holtzmann’s mind and another’s.
“…have to protect our humanity,” the President was saying. “We must understand that some technologies, however exciting, put us on a path to dehumanization…”
Like the technology in my skull, Holtzmann thought.
Nexus 5. How could he resist it? As ERD’s Neuroscience Director, he’d led technical debriefing of Kaden Lane, Rangan Shankari, and Ilyana Alexander. He’d understood what they’d done. Something marvelous—taking Nexus and transforming it from a street drug and into a tool. Dangerous, yes. Full of potential for abuse. But oh, what a temptation!
And when Nexus 5 was released to the world? That horrible night when the mission to recapture Kaden Lane from that monastery in Thailand had gone completely awry? The night that Su-Yong Shu, one of the greatest minds of a generation, had been killed. The night his friend and colleague Warren Becker had died of a heart attack.
A terrible night. And to watch as thousands around the world got access to this tool… How could he resist? He’d taken that vial from storage in his lab, tipped it back and sent the silvery liquid down his throat, then waited as the nanoparticles found their way into his brain, attached themselves to neurons, self-assembled into information processing machines.
The three months since then had been the most exhilarating Holtzmann could remember. He’d seen incredible science done, published carefully on anonymous message boards. With Nexus 5 they were getting glimpses of paths to reversing Alzheimer’s and senile dementia, making incredible progress in connecting autistic children to neurotypical adults. They were suddenly moving forward again in deciphering memory and attention, in seeing ways to boost intelligence. This was a tool that would change everything about the study of the mind, Holtzmann knew. And in so doing, it would transform humanity.
Holtzmann had already found it transformative at a personal level. He’d touched the thoughts of physicists and mathematicians, poets and artists, and other neuroscientists like himself. He’d felt other minds. What neuroscientist, what scientist of any sort, could pass up such an opportunity?
You could experience anything now, touch another’s mind and see the world how they saw it, feel their experiences, their adventures, their…
Another memory bubbled up.
He’d been a young man again, strong, fit, with a beautiful young woman. He remembered the softness of her skin beneath his hands, the smell of her perfume, the taste of her kisses, the way he’d tugged the silken negligee off her shoulders and down her body, the wetness as his fingers found her so ready and so very turned on by him, the erotic thrill as she’d straddled him in stockinged thighs, and then the incredible warmth and tightness as she’d lowered herself down onto…
Enough, Holtzmann thought.
He pushed the memory out of his mind with an effort. Once had been the end of it. No need to go back there now. Truth be told, it had felt too real—not like pornography, but like infidelity. And Martin Holtzmann had sworn to himself that he’d never be unfaithful again.
No matter. There were tawdry ways to use the technology, but sublime ways as well. He felt more alive than he had in years, more excited about the future than he could remember since his youth.
“…that’s why we have to win in November,” Stockton was saying from the podium.
You’re not going to win, Holtzmann thought. You’re ten points down in the polls. Stanley Kim is going to be the next President. Americans aren’t scared any more. All the atrocities are in the past. Americans want to see the future again.
I want to see the future.
Holtzmann smiled. Yes. Things were looking bright indeed.
What? Holtzmann jerked in his seat. A Nexus transmission had just rippled through his mind. He was dimly aware of ERD Director Joe Duran glancing at him in annoyance.
His heart was pounding. What the hell was going on? Had they found him out?
No. Encrypted data. On a Nexus frequency. Holtzmann looked left and right, scanning the crowd, oblivious to Joe Duran’s scowl.
There, it was coming from behind him.
He craned his neck to look backwards, ignoring the frowns of those behind him. There was nothing unusual back there. Senior Homeland Security people from all branches—FBI, TSA, DEA, Coast Guard, ERD—seated on white plastic chairs. A Secret Service agent, cool in mirrored glasses, walking slowly down the center aisle and towards the front of the crowd. In the far back, a semicircle of news cameras and reporters.
The signal came loud and clear from somewhere back there.
And the shorter reply.
They both came from… From…
Oh God. Dear God.
Kade woke from his drugged slumber in the clinic bed. It was dark outside the windows. He blinked in confusion. What had woken him? Ling again?
[Alert] [Alert] [Alert]
Then he saw the blinking in the corner of his eye. High priority notification. Permission to alert him while he was sleeping.
Rangan? Ilya? Had the agents he’d let loose on the net found them?
No. The other alert.
[Alert: Coercion Code Sample Alpha Detected. Status: Active]
More coercion code. Not just any coercion code. A piece he’d seen just once before, days ago. Software that turned a human into a robot, into an assassin. The most sophisticated he’d seen.
And now his agents had spotted that code again, in a different mind. And the code was active.
Sleep vanished from Kade’s mind. Open the alert. Click on the link to the mind. Confirm the encrypted connection. Activate the back door, full immersion. Send the passcode.
And he was in.
Holtzmann’s eyes locked on the source of the Nexus transmissions. The suit. The mirrored glasses. The boosted muscle. It was the Secret Service agent who was communicating via Nexus.
Fear froze him.
Oh no. Please, no.
The Secret Service man reached into his jacket and something let loose its grip on Martin Holtzmann.
“HE’S GOT A GUN!” Holtzmann surged to his feet, shouting at the top of his lungs, pointing at the man.
Time slowed to a crawl. The assassin’s hand came out out out of his jacket, a giant pistol gripped tight. Two other Secret Service agents became human blurs, sprinting at impossible speed towards the man with the gun. Joe Duran was coming to his feet, staring at Holtzmann, mouth open. Holtzmann’s heart skipped a beat, and all his senses narrowed to the man with the gun, and this single awful moment.
There was a gun in his hand, and it was firing. He was shooting at a man at a podium up ahead.
Kade spasmed this body’s hand to drop the gun. And two human missiles collided with him head on.
The assassin’s gun barked twice, muzzle flashes brighter than the morning sunlight, as his peers rammed into him with locomotive force and a vicious thud. The gun was flung from the assassin’s hand as he was knocked off his feet. The three Secret Service agents flew through the air as a single mass for a dozen yards, then touched ground again in a crunching heap, the assassin on bottom.
Holtzmann whirled towards the podium, looking for the President. Was he safe? Had he been hit? But Stockton was out of sight, only a mob of Secret Service agents in view. Duran was yelling something into Holtzmann’s ear. “You! How did you know, Martin? How did you know?”
The human tanks knocked him back, crushed him to the ground, and Kade felt his own body gasp as the pain of it came down the link. He was down! The assassin was down!
Had he shot the man? Had he stopped it in time? Where was he? Who was he?
Then he felt something wrong in the assassin’s body. A pain deep inside. There was something hard and heavy inside his torso, where there shouldn’t be.
Not just a gun. The assassin didn’t have just a gun…
He opened the man’s mouth to speak, to warn them.
White noise bloomed across his senses.
And the link went dead.
“How did you know, Martin?” Joe Duran was yelling at him, spittle flying from his mouth. “How did you know?”
Holtzmann stared aghast, his mind blank. Some excuse. He must have some excuse. It wasn’t Nexus. I don’t have Nexus!
Then the world exploded. The expanding pressure wave of the blast struck Martin Holtzmann. The force of it lifted him off his feet, hurled his body through the air. He flew in shock, limbs akimbo, disconnected from the ground. An instant later he felt the searing heat of it. Then Holtzmann struck something hard and unyielding, and darkness took him.
Kade opened his one good eye, a yell ripping out of him. The door burst open and Feng was there, guns in his hands, scanning for the threat. Two monks rushed in after him, their minds full of grim devotion, and threw their bodies over Kade to shield him from whatever danger had invaded the clinic.
“No, no, no…” Kade repeated.
“What? What?” Feng yelled back, spinning, looking for a target.
Kade flipped his mind to the news feeds, searching, trying to understand what he’d just seen, hoping that it wasn’t what he feared…
Then the first reports hit the net.
Breece swore softly. Two shots. Two misses. He’d dialed up four shots. And every one of them should have been a kill. Something had interfered. Someone had gotten in the way…
And the bomb… His addition to the plan, against orders. A good thing. But not good enough. The President had lived.
When he was clear of the uplink location, and the logfiles had been magnetically wiped and his slate and mission phone wiped, shorted, and dropped into the bay; when the cutout machines had all suffered mysterious data loss, and the members of his virtual team—Ava and Hiroshi and the Nigerian—had all scattered to the wind; when he was on the move, walking through the noisy crowds on Market Street, only then did he pull out the encrypted phone reserved for the next conversation, and dial his superior, the head of the Posthuman Liberation Front, the man code-named Zarathustra.
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
The tone sounded in his ear. One-time cryptographic pads aligned. He had sixty seconds of talk time.
“Mission failed,” Breece said softly. “Interference of some sort. Cause unknown.”
“The bomb was out of plan.” Zara’s voice was distorted, electronically warped to prevent voice print recognition.
“Don’t worry about the bomb,” Breece told him. “Worry how we were stopped. Worry how someone knew we were coming. Worry why the target lived.”
“I tell you what to worry about,” Zara replied. “Not the other way around.”
“They detected our asset. They knew we were there. They were ready for us.”
“You killed dozens against orders.”
“They were the enemy. FBI. ERD. DHS, all of them.”
“I tell you who the enemy is. Stand down until you hear from me again.”
Breece cut the connection in frustration and kept walking.
What have you done to overcome him? Nietzsche had asked.
I’ve killed, Breece thought. That’s what I’ve done.
What about you?
The man called Zarathustra leaned back in his chair and stared out at the bustling city beyond the windows. He was tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, broad-shouldered. A man accustomed to physical action. Yet history would know him—if it ever truly knew him at all—by what he did through others.
Breece would need watching, at a minimum. The man was becoming more and more extreme, turning into a liability. Not now. Not in the immediate wake of this. But soon.
Seventy men and women dead. The President still alive. The collateral damage was high. Messy. Very messy. But in the end, the mission had been accomplished. The American people, and the world, would know fear.
Martin Holtzmann jolted back to consciousness in his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The pain was rising again, pushing its way up his left side, up the shredded mass of the muscles of his leg, up the shards of his shattered femur and pulverized hip, up the broken and bruised ribs of his torso, to lodge in his fractured skull. The pain was epic, growing, building, threatening to burst out of his ravaged body. His heart pounded faster and faster. Sweat beaded on his brow.
Holtzmann scrambled for the pump, found it, pressed the button over and over again. Some sweet opiate flooded into his veins. The pain receded from the apocalyptic levels it had been approaching, and his panic receded with it.
Alive, Holtzmann thought. I’m alive.
Others weren’t so lucky. Seventy had died. Many he’d known. Clayburn. Stevens. Tucker. All dead. Even Joe Duran, standing just next to him, had been killed.
If I’d been one seat over…
Joe Duran had known. In that last instant, he’d understood. There was no way Holtzmann could have spotted the assassin by chance alone…
If Duran had lived… They would have come asking questions. Questions that would have led them to the Nexus in his brain…
But he’s dead, Holtzmann reminded himself. He’s dead, and I’m not.
It was a guilty kind of relief, but relief it was.
What the hell happened? he wondered.
The details were all over the news. Steve Travers, the Secret Service agent who’d fired on the president, had an autistic son. Early evidence showed that he’d installed Nexus to connect to the boy, and somehow the Posthuman Liberation Front had used that to subvert him. The group had already claimed responsibility, releasing a statement.
“Today we’ve struck a blow for liberty against those who would oppress you. Whenever and wherever tyrants seek to dictate what individuals may do with their own minds and bodies,” the distorted shape of a man proclaimed, “we will strike.”
But how? How had they done it?
It took sophisticated software to turn a man into a human puppet like that. Holtzmann knew. He’d commanded a team that had done so. Oh, it could be done. But the so-called Posthuman Liberation Front that had claimed responsibility hadn’t shown such competence in a decade, if ever. For the length of his career the PLF had struck him as jokers, more notable for their bombastic statements and their ability to evade capture than for any harm they’d done. So why now? What had changed?
Martin Holtzmann lay on his hospital bed, troubled, his mind clouded by painkillers.
After a few minutes he issued commands to his Nexus OS. The day’s memories, all he had seen and heard and felt, to the extent he could still recall them, began to spool to long-term storage.
Holtzmann reached for the opiate button again.
Ling Shu woke in space, the hundred billion stars of the Milky Way rising above her. She blinked away the illusion. The projection ceased, and her room appeared. Clean lines, teak wood, Chinese characters covering one wall, another wall given entirely to a massive window that looked out over the heart of Shanghai.
Ling could see the lights of the city out that window, now, the twenty-story-tall female face on the skyscraper across the street, winking and smiling, advertising some product for the humans to consume. The world inside her felt more real. Distant storms sent shockwaves through the ebb and flow of bits she swam through. Digital thunder had woken her, the echoes of vast explosions across the planet. She breathed it in, felt the data permeate her, felt herself pull meaning from the chaos.
The US President, nearly dead.
Stock markets, halted to stop their freefalls.
A new bounty on her friend Kade’s head, announced by the Americans.
She could feel the world reorienting itself. Even with the official markets closed, vast flows of money and data moved from place to place in the dark. Bets were being made and hedged. Insurance was being sought and provided. Contingency plans being activated. Semi-autonomous agents zipped commands, requests, transactions to and fro.
She could not see all the swimmers, but she could see the ripples they left in the sea of information. And she knew what these ripples meant.
War was coming.
And Ling must reach her mother.
CRUX © Ramez Naan, 2013