[Chapter 1] Day 1

First days were always the worst.  Even as the alarm went off, Adam groaned inside, remembering that this was the day he’d anxiously anticipated for the past three months.  Adaptech, Adam’s employer, had recently merged with Brain Sync, a company that did not market or sell products to the public but subsisted entirely through government projects, private industry contracts, and licensing fees.  Just over twenty years before, Brain Sync pioneered technology known as the Mind Drive, which allowed the user to control electronic devices through thought alone.  In an unexpected move, Brain Sync licensed the Mind Drive to Adaptech for a reasonable fee rather than market it themselves.  Having a sole license for sought-after tech, Adaptech made a killing on the market.

Adam snapped out of his early morning haze to realize that the alarm still blared in his ear.  BLEEP BLEEP BLE—klaxon ended with a thought.  Seated in silence, Adam tried to clear his mind, but he could only focus on the slight hum of the electronics in his apartment.  He took a deep breath and pushed himself up and across his room, grabbed a comb and worked it through his curly hair.  Best to at least attempt a good first impression, Adam thought, brushing his teeth with one hand and his hair with the other.  He failed to maintain a rhythm, just like the game from his youth where he’d tried to rub his head with one hand while patting his stomach with the other.  He gave up on the hair and focused on his teeth.  No time for a shower.  If I can’t have nice hair, I can at least have fresh breath, he thought as he left the bathroom.

He put on a maroon shirt, dark grey pants, and a black vest with matching tie.  This was all new territory.  He hoped his clothing presented a confident front.  Internally he was a wreck, heart racing beneath his chest as he stepped into the hall and began his commute to work.  He summoned the building’s elevator and stood pantomiming his opening lines, lines he’d rehearsed what felt like a hundred times.  “Hi, I’m Adam Redmon, manager of the Programming Division.  I’m looking forward to working with you,” he said, thrusting his hand into open air and shaking a phantom limb attached to an imaginary employee.

“Oh, Adam, I’ve heard so much about you.  I bet you’re the best boss ever.  I’m honored to be working for you,” came a lilting voice behind him.

Caught off guard, Adam turned abruptly to see the face of his neighbor Hana.  She poked at the air, mocking his fake handshake, taunting smile playing against the corners of her mouth.  They enjoyed giving each other hell; it was their way of being neighborly.  Some traded sugar.  They traded sarcasm.

“Oh, not you!” Adam joked, “I’ve heard about you.  The higherups warned me that you’re a troublemaker, rabblerouser, just plain bad news.”  He feigned a look of dismay.  “You’re not going to be able to get away with any of that funny business while I’m the boss.”

“I guess we’ll just have to make sure you’re not the boss for long,”  Hana quipped.

They looked at one another, and Adam wondered why she seemed so oddly serious.  Her eyes were cool and detached, but then the edges of her lips turned up again ever so slightly.  She grinned and said, “Don’t look so pale.  I was kidding.”

The elevator dinged as it reached their floor.  Eye contact broken, they stepped inside.  Adam let Hana go first, since he’d heard recently that chivalry was making a comeback.

“Floor?” Adam asked as he selected the ground level.

“I’m going to the roof to look over some cases.  I like to work with a view. Besides, I pay extra to live in a building with heated roof access, so I may as well use it.”

“I’m going to the street level.  Need to get to the office,” Adam said as he lit the button for the roof.  “You mind?”

“Not at all.  The other elevator is out of order, anyway.”

They stood in silence for another few seconds, trading goodbyes once the elevator opened on the ground floor.

Stepping outside Adam’s apartment building was like stepping into an icy Hell, due to the razor bite of frigid wind and the noises of the city sounding like cries of the damned.  He queued a playlist of tenchō music on his dome, Japanese pop mixed with techno samples, catchy beat struck against cacophonous refrains of scraping metal, and fell into step with the rush of pedestrians as he headed toward the subway stop by his apartment.  There were trade-offs to city life, but being able to get lost in music and thought while stepping in cadence with the crowd, legs on autopilot, was something Adam felt he couldn’t live without.  Even so, the concrete fortress of New Metra City could be brutal.  Each summer felt warmer than the last.  Sunlight blasted off steel and asphalt, life choked from lungs with each breath.  Winters weren’t any better, with frequent blizzards and increasing snowfall each season.  Rising water levels and severe weather changed the landscape of the City in recent years.  Parts of the island lay underwater, subway platforms often flooded, and emergency repairs to bridges and other infrastructure was more common, to the growing frustration of the stockholders.  Several tunnels had closed for more than ninety days due to flooding during the past fiscal year, and there had already been more closures than at this point a year before.

As he reached the stairs to the subway stop, Adam flushed with anger when he saw that it was closed due to maintenance.  Damn it, he thought, between the weather and strikes and broken equipment it’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere in this city.  He mumbled angrily to himself as he tightened his scarf against his neck and started walking briskly toward the Adaptech headquarters.  Sixty blocks in twenty minutes.  He cursed silently as he realized he was going to be late.  On his first day.  When his new team would be waiting.  Fuck.

He fired off a message to the office: It’s Adam.  I’m sorry, but I’ll be late.  Unexpected subway closure.  Coming in on foot.”  His message was translated to zeros and ones, then zapped instantly to the office of the Chief Executive.

The Mind Drive had come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.  Adam was old enough to remember keyboards, mice, and speech recognition, input methods that either caused irreparable damage to the nerves in the wrist, or made you appear mad as you shouted commands at your computer.  Antiquated forms of interaction that were long overdue for replacement.  Adam had read about neural interfaces during his youth, each article promising that the tech would be available within the next five years and that it would revolutionize the way human beings interacted with technology forever.  Marketing hogwash, Adam had thought at the time.  He never imagined that not only would the tech some day come to market, but that he would be working as a lead programmer for the prestigious company that had a monopoly on selling the device in the consumer market.

As he dodged around slower moving groups of pedestrians, Adam thought back to the first Mind Drive he’d used in his early teens while attending a consumer electronics convention.  Clunky, cumbersome, prone to error.  The human mind was not known for its ability to stay on task, and the first generation of the device was panned due to its tendency to output junk data as neurons misfired in the operator’s brain.  To make matters worse, the device looked like a football helmet without the face mask—such a fashion disaster that it would never catch on outside data entry and academia.  Detractors mockingly referred to the device as a “dome” and its users as “domers”.

As with many prototypes, the next generation was vastly improved.  New learning algorithms allowed greater personalization by the domers, enabling them to train the device to ignore idle thoughts and extraneous input, and built-in error correction using context-aware Artificial Intelligence was introduced.  If you were walking down the street while composing a message, there wouldn’t be a line in the middle that read, “Nice ass,” simply because you were distracted by a passerby.  The same could not be said for the first generation.  By the time the current iteration, v5, had been released two years before, complaints about stray thoughts were distant memories.  Now, Adaptech benefited from a nearly eighty-five percent adoption rate of v5 in Metra Region, and over fifty percent in outside areas.

If you had any type of electronic device that accepted input and weren’t desperately poor, you had a dome.  Public acceptance of the technology had improved as it was miniaturized, though the dome label stuck, even as the device shrunk with each release.  V5 was the smallest by far, shrunk to the size of an old pair of behind the ear headphones, with a third arm that ran forward down the middle of the skull, from the back where the occipital and parietal bones fused to an endpoint where the hairline met the forehead.  The three arms each ended in a small circle, about the size of a thumbnail, commonly called a bubble.

The previous version was roughly the same size, but v5 passed audio through the bubbles into the upper jawbone, below the earlobe, allowing your messages or feeds to be read to you.  With v5, domes could be used for both input and output, which solidified it as one of, if not the, most popular consumer electronic device of all time.  At that point, most people rarely ever took them off.

Hailed for revolutionizing the way humanity interacted with technology, domes also changed how they interacted with each another.  Gone were the days of phone calls and the video calls that followed them.  Thanks to the dome, these were replaced with impersonal messages read aloud by a soft computer voice, affable and detached.  On occasion people would send a voice message, but as more people bought domes these became less prevalent, supplanted by the more convenient Thought Transmission Messaging, or TTM.  Adam referred to it as telepathy through technology, since it reminded him of the quote from a twentieth century author who said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  If this was the Age of Magic, Adam Redmon was a modern-day Merlin, but instead of a wand the soft plastic of the dome granted him powers, incantations replaced by reliable computer code.

Adam could see the imposing frame of the Adaptech headquarters.  This was another change to which he had not yet become accustomed.  Eighteen years ago, right as dome tech was gaining wider reach on the market, Adam dropped out of college against the better judgment of his peers, family, and advisers.  He felt suffocated by the mediocrity surrounding him and needed to make an immediate change.  He was only sixteen at the time, but had made a name for himself by developing crAIck, automated penetration testing software that used adaptive Artificial Intelligence to simulate hacking attempts from multiple concurrent vectors.  CrAIck was used at that time by nearly seventy percent of companies with online presences, and helped end years of escalating lawless chaos, theft, and hacks of virtual properties.  At that time, Adam was courted by three companies in the Top Ten, the ten largest firms in Metra Region.  Adaptech had neglected to recruit him, instead offering to bring him on as a consultant.

Despite these and other lucrative offers, Adam chose to work with another friend, Jonathan Bays, who had helped code the crAIck software and was a fellow dropout.  Together they created a small startup, 2CRACK5, and eventually released crAIck 2.0.  Their company was acquired by Adaptech after five years in business, for the crAIck source code and a modest patent portfolio.  This time the compensation package offered by Adaptech was more substantial, and included a position with benefits in their Security Software division.  After more than a dozen years in that department, Adam had applied for and earned a promotion to his first managerial role.

That was how he found himself standing before the ten foot tall door of gleaming metal and glass, about to begin his first day as manager of the Programming Division for the Mind Drive v6 project.  Since they had come in after Adaptech acquired their company, Adam and Jon were viewed with skepticism, even scorn.  They hadn’t worked their way up the ladder at Adaptech, but were brought in at a higher pay grade than many who had spent decades toiling in the cube farms, which caused friction and animosity.  Jon did not deal well with the stress, eventually resigning and moving to the other side of the continent.  Adam felt a pang of sadness at the thought of his old friend.

As Adam reached for the vertical chunk of metal that served as a handle to the entrance of the Adaptech high-rise, he was jolted from his memories by a slap on the shoulder and an unexpected shout: “Adam! You lucky bastard! Ready for your first day as the big boss?”

He looked over his shoulder and saw the ruddy face of Nate Taylor, who’d been his manager until just a few days before.  Adam smiled.  “Learned from the best, Nate.  Of course, I’m late on my first day.  Murphy’s Law and all that.”

“Hell, you’re a manager now,” Nate chuckled.  “You don’t need to worry about being on time, that’s for the lemmings.”  He pulled open the door and held it for Adam, who subtly nodded his head as a way of thanks.

“Maybe so,” Adam smirked, “but I don’t want those peons to get any ideas.”  Nate laughed.  Despite their joking, Adam knew Nate was a good boss, one who was fair and cared about his employees.  Nate wasn’t the smartest person, but he was one of the kinder people in management, at Adaptech or anywhere else.  Adam hoped that his new employees would say the same about his demeanor.  After a few minutes of small talk, they shook hands and parted ways.  Adam wasn’t a fan of idle chit-chat, but he genuinely liked Nate, even if their conversation topics never strayed beyond subjects devoid of meaning, such as sports and weather.

Adam ended up being fifteen minutes late, not bad considering the unexpected walk and the five minutes spent talking with Nate.  The elevator shot to the top floor, its doors parted and opened to a long, nondescript hallway.  Looking up and down the length of it, one would never guess that this was the top floor of the headquarters of one of the most successful companies in history.  Adaptech was an apt name, prescient even, since it had grown in just thirty years from a small company of twenty-some-odd people to a global powerhouse with over a half million employees worldwide.  There had been many challenges as Adaptech grew, including a near closure in its early history, but it had emerged as the clear leader in the field of human interfaces for electronic devices, companies that stood in its way acquired or forced out of the marketplace through backroom deals and the overwhelming popularity of Adaptech’s product portfolio.

As in most company headquarters, there were doors everywhere.  With a thought, Adam brought up the instructions for that day’s orientation.  “Room 4C,” the androgynous computerized voice cooed in his ear.

The door was plain, with a small label at eye level that read “4C”.  The only indication of its purpose being the placard underneath that spelled CONFERENCE in bold white letters, crying out for attention, demanding that the reader attend the important meeting implicitly being held just on the other side.  The handle was cold in Adam’s hand as he pushed down and forward and walked into a bright light, a near death experience merged with a corporate meeting.  He was greeted by expectant faces, and one that was clearly displeased.

“Welcome to work, Mister Redmon,” spoke the lips attached to the displeased face, which belonged to Roman LaMont, Chief Executive Officer of Adaptech.  Adam had not expected him.

“Thanks, Mister LaMont,” Adam said through a smile.  “Sorry about being late, the subway was shut down.  I’ll be sure to allow enough time to account for unforeseen difficulties in the future.”  He tried to force back his rising embarrassment, though he knew his cheeks reddened even as he stretched out his hand in greeting.

LaMont shook his hand, then abruptly whirled to face the group and said, “Redmon here is your boss.  That’s the first thing you need to understand.  I’m his boss.  The only time you don’t listen to something Redmon says is when I tell you differently.  Now, let me tell you about what you’ll be doing on this new project.”

CEO Roman LaMont was something of an enigma.  Of medium height and stocky build, he looked like someone who’d hold his own in a quarrel, but also as if he’d never be the one to throw the first punch.  By all accounts, he was a shrewd decision-maker who had almost single-handedly taken Adaptech from a shop run out of four self-storage units to one that occupied the most high-tech skyscraper ever built during his twenty year tenure at the top.  He was not known for his kindness or approachability, and Adam had heard several stories told in hushed whispers about people who had exited the building in tears, sometimes under security escort, never to return again.  Adam believed it, given what he had seen of the man.  Despite LaMont’s success as a businessman, he still came across to Adam as a smarmy salesman, of the door-to-door or used car variety.

Adam scanned the room.  His eyes went past and then quickly back again to a dark-haired beauty he had not seen before.  Her hair was almost the same color as her dome, so similar that Adam hadn’t noticed it at first glance, until he saw the round outline of the bubble at the top of her forehead.  There were only two women on his team and she was not one of them, this much he knew.  He’d helped select all but two of the people that made up his group, ten culled from the best programmers that Adaptech had to offer, six more poached from academia and private sector positions.  He wasn’t just the leader of this team; he had hand selected them.  All eighteen were there, plus LaMont, and this unknown woman.

Adam used his dome to surreptitiously snap her picture and started a facial recognition search.  Knowing it would take awhile to finish, he focused his attention back to LaMont, who still droned on.

“We’re at the edge of total market dominance.  Now is the time to leverage new technologies and acquisitions to ensure that version six of the Mind Drive is better than ever, and solidify our position as the sole trusted provider of brain interface devices.  This revision will be the most advanced yet, and we don’t want our Chinese friends to copy it.  To that end, we’ve brought in Miss Sera Velim, former head of Brain Sync, as Vice-President of New Products and Development.”  As he mentioned her name, the previously unknown woman briefly looked up from her notetab, as if to give the most subtle of greetings, a slightly annoyed look on her face, then resumed taking dictation, or whatever she’d been doing.

End facial recognition search, Adam thought.  A soft tone rang to confirm his command.  Sera Velim.  What in the hell is she doing here?  He wondered.  A minor tritone indicated that the Mind Drive AI didn’t know how to parse his query.  It had been years since he’d allowed a stray thought to trigger his dome.

The rest of the day passed quickly, stack upon stack of non-disclosure and non-compete agreements signed and handed back until his wrist hurt.  Roman LaMont sat in silent observation for about an hour after his pep talk, though it pained Adam to even think of it as such.  Adam made a half-hearted attempt at repairing morale, but the damage had already been done and his efforts were greeted with blank expressions and glassy eyes from those seated around the table.  Adam had been so overwhelmed with signing page after page of legalese that he hadn’t been able to talk to Doctor Velim.  She hadn’t even spoken to LaMont before she walked out in pace a step behind him, notetab held against her chest.

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