[Chapter 3] Orientation

He slept restlessly that night, mind filled with thoughts of the Lightcap and Velim’s words of warning.  What had she meant when she referred to difficulties with the Mind Drive or the human brain being fragile?  Domes were supposed to be read only; it was theoretically impossible for the device to affect brain chemistry or physiology in any way.  That was one of its selling points.  Velim must have been talking about burns or electrical malfunctions.  Despite the hour he spent wrestling with these questions as he lay awake and stared at the ceiling, Adam couldn’t find any other meaning behind what she’d said.

The next morning passed in a flash.  Adam awoke to a soft light pulsing next to him on the nightstand.  It was the indicator light on his dome, notifying him of a new message twenty minutes before his alarm was set to explode with its early morning blare.  He put on his dome and the smooth, inoffensive voice read the message: “Don’t be late this time.  Best foot forward.”  It was signed “SV”.

At least the pumps were working for the subway that morning.  Adam nodded off in the hard plastic seat as his head bounced in time to the silver bullet that plunged through the criss-crossed patchwork of tunnels underneath the city, an electric labyrinth that played sustained high notes broken only by the screaming music of metal on metal, wheels against rail, a tenchō soundtrack during a robot cagematch.  He would have slept right through his stop if it weren’t for the inebriated, or balance-challenged, old man that ended up in his lap as the subway car lurched to a stop a block from the Adaptech headquarters.  Disheveled and soaked with the smell of stale piss and raw earth, the man pushed off Adam with mumbled apologies and then disappeared into the next car.  No one else on the train lifted their eyes or paid attention.  If it wasn’t happening to them, it wasn’t happening.

He’s lucky that I’m not the kind to call the Blues, Adam thought as he exited the subway car.  Many people those days were quick to call the Blues if someone offended them or seemed suspicious.  Officially known as the Central Provisional Authority, the Blues were a private paramilitary group that had a sole license to police the Region.  They were known for their ruthless and heavy-handed enforcement of all laws, even the most minor, but particularly the ones related to public decency and decorum.  Appearances were important.

Adam reached the Adaptech building, went through the glass slab door without interruption, was shot up a hundred floors in seconds, and once again found himself at the entrance to Room 4C.  The placard emblazoned CONFERENCE seemed less inviting today, less pleading, as if the inanimate object had absorbed the feelings of dread he had about this day.  The unexpected arrival of and conversation with Velim still had him off balance, even this next morning.

He turned the handle and pushed open the door to be greeted by unexpected darkness.  Lights, he thought.  The command was parsed by his dome and sent to the control unit for the room.  The long conference table with ergonomic chairs was immediately bathed in the cool blue flicker of fluorescent light.  He couldn’t help but think about how far technology had come.  Even the god of scripture had to speak the words, “Let there be light.”  Adam merely had to think a single word.

Lost in technotheological reverie in the conference room, Adam didn’t notice as the door swung open and four members of his team entered to join him.  They startled and broke him from his thoughts of self-proclaimed godhood.  He quickly put on his best smile and extended his hand to each of them, typical greetings and pleasantries given by a boss who had just started with a new group.  Small talk about their past achievements, expectations, educational and professional backgrounds, the weather, the usual.

Adam had always been uncomfortable with that type of interaction, because he felt the conversation tended to turn into a game of one-upmanship, dueling egos trying to prove they were the best in the room, even in the world.  Adam had not experienced this dynamic from the perspective of a team leader, however, and quickly noticed that each person on his team seemed to listen with rapt attention as the others spoke rather than wait for their turn so they could prove their own worth.  While they made small talk, the rest of his team filed in, until all eighteen of them were seated around the table.

Each person there was a genius in his or her own right.  Some were well-known, while others had operated in relative obscurity, staying out of the spotlight by focusing on projects that weren’t considered marketable or sexy.  One of them, Rahdej Singh, was the programming equivalent to a rockstar.  He built his first autonomous robot at the age of 12, graduated from Carnegie Mellon at the age of 14, obtained his doctorate from MIT at 17, and had been on the front page of Logic Gate, a popular consumer technology site, a total of three times.

Rahdej was roughly the same age as Adam, and was his first choice when selecting people for the team.  Rahdej had made his mark in Adaptech’s Autonomous Intelligent Car division by slapping together code that augmented the AI in the self-driving cars with input data from the domes of the inhabitants.  The self-driving cars already had a lower collision rate than human drivers, but with the new code allowing dome cooperation they were nearly perfect.  Traveling by car had never been safer.  It was this achievement that earned him a second Logic Gate interview. Rahdej Singh was well-known by many people for preventing tens of thousands of deaths.  Not a bad thing to be known for.

“Rahdej, I’m looking forward to working with you,” Adam said, worried he may sound like a starstruck fan about to ask for an autograph.  Firm handshake, eye contact, impossibly white teeth.  Not just because of his darker skin, it looked as if Rahdej had polished them for hours on end.  Adam could see a reflection of light in them, haloed enamel that flashed and moved as he nodded.

“Call me Dej.  I’ve heard a lot about you, Adam.  Honored to be under your command.  Hope they’re not too rough on us today.”  His smile really was mesmerizing.

Adam felt a bit like a deer in the headlights until he blinked and broke the spell.  “Yes, we should be getting started soon,” he said.  Almost on cue, the door swung open and a confident form strode through.  Doctor Sera Velim, looking much better than Adam felt.  She didn’t have any trouble sleeping last night, Adam thought, with more than a bit of envy.

Behind Velim was Claudia, the rotund head of Human Resources.  Her body took up almost the entire width of the frame as she waddled in and closed the door.  Velim took a place along the wall, near the corner, notetab immediately in lap, the sole focus of her attention.  It seemed as if she’d dug in for another day of silent observation.  Claudia took a seat at the end of the table near the door, opposite Adam, hydraulics in the chair emitting a pleading ssst as she settled in.

“Ladies, gentlemen, thank you so much for coming,” she said through a grotesque smile.  Her lips permanently turned up at the edges, unnatural red lines that suggested an accident during plastic surgery.

Maybe someone smacked her on the back as a child while she was making that face, Adam thought, and he did his best not to laugh.

“I’m here today to discuss the legal implications of the documents you signed yesterday, specifically the medical release.  There are some things that we want to make sure are clearly defined.  Most importantly, you will not be using your own Mind Drives.  Instead, we’ll be providing prototypes for you to use.  These are modified units that will provide some additional utility while you work on the v6 project, but you will be required to leave them in this room when you depart each day.  Before we go any further, I need to remind you that this is all covered by the confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements you signed yesterday.  Even so, I need you to sign one last agreement,” she said, which prompted many rolled eyes in the room.  It wouldn’t be a day at the office without paperwork.

As the papers were passed one by one around the table, Claudia continued: “This agreement specifically covers the prototype.  I am here to make sure that this is all plainly and clearly communicated to you, to indemnify the company against any future claims.  I’ll let you read it yourselves, but to sum up what you’re about to sign, it states that you authorize Adaptech to take any action necessary to retrieve or disable a device should you intentionally or accidentally remove one from the premises.  This is also a terminable offense, which means you will be fired without warning for removal of any prototypes or related technology, or if you attempt to modify or disassemble them.  I want this to be very clear, so that there are no questions or misunderstandings.  Does everyone understand?”  Murmurs and nods of agreement came from those seated around the table.  “Any questions?”  Silence.  “Good.  Please read and sign the agreement.”

They each read over the pages in front of them.  Adam skimmed them, making sure to snap a picture with his dome as he flipped through the pages.  He didn’t see the point in reading it then, since he knew he had no choice but to sign if he wanted to stay on as head of the project.  He scribbled his messy signature on the dark line at the bottom of the last page of papers and slid them all toward Claudia.  The other signed copies shortly followed.

“Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll be leaving you in the capable hands of Miss Velim,” Claudia said in a singsong way through the smile that never moved.  She gathered the papers into stacks, gave them two sharp smacks against the table to make the pages flush, and then left, door closed behind her as if pulled by gravity.

Doctor Velim,” Sera hissed under her breath, quiet but still audible by Adam and no doubt several others.  She flashed a genuine smile and immediately transformed into a saleswoman as she jumped from her chair.  “All right, now that we’re through with the suits, let’s move on to Lightcap.”

Gasps escaped from several people in the room.  This was most likely the response Velim had hoped to elicit from Adam the night before.  He hoped she was satisfied about finally shocking someone with her revelation.  He was sure that’s why she’d presented it so off-the-cuff, as if she’d simply moved the meeting along to another mundane topic.  As the members of his team looked at each other incredulously, Velim continued: “Why did you think we were having you sign NDAs about NDAs?  What did you think we were talking about when we mentioned a prototype?  There’s a lot of secrecy surrounding this project.  Claudia doesn’t even know about it, just that there’s a prototype device and that the company needs to protect its interests.  You’ll be going through a hectic day of training today, getting acclimated with your new Lightcap and learning some of the things you’ll need to know in order to be productive members of the team.”

A hand shot up, belonging to Rosaria Hines, “Aria” for short.  She was thirty years old, her brown skin complemented by a dark shock of hair twisted in tight curls, their natural part just off-center.  Her green eyes caught most people off-guard with their piercing urgency.  Adam had put up a fight to get Aria, one of only two women, on his team.  She and Dej were the only two non-Caucasians in the group.  Rumor had it that LaMont wasn’t fond of minorities, evidence that technological advancement didn’t necessarily go hand in hand with social enlightenment.  Dej was easy to get, since he was already under the Adaptech umbrella.  Roman had not been able to resist hiring a programmer of Dej’s caliber, regardless of his race and ethnicity, since it was another addition to LaMont’s trophy case of famous coders.

Aria was someone Adam had known a long time, having worked with her while in college.  Adam wanted her on his programming team not because she was the best programmer, though she was more than competent and better than others on the team, but because Adam knew she was tenacious beyond what many people would ever consider reasonable.  Aria was a very private person, but Adam had learned she’d cut her teeth as a coder while living on the streets.  Using a stolen notetab and a screwdriver kit she liberated from an oblivious repairman, she taught herself to spoof the secure data connection and send a false verification packet to ATMs and automated grocery kiosks to obtain unauthorized credits and food.  If necessity was the mother of invention, desperation was the father, and since Aria’s parents had died when she was twelve, her substitute parents had taught her well.  Adam definitely wanted someone like her on his team: a person that wouldn’t stop even in the face of overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable odds.

Sera pointed and tipped her head toward Aria, acknowledging her raised hand.  “Thank you, Doctor Velim.  I’m Aria Hines.  Can you please tell us, specifically, what Lightcap is and how it works?”  Murmurs of agreement bounced off the walls.  Several heads nodded up and down, which silently confirmed Aria was only asking what everyone else was eager to know.  Everyone except Adam, though he was impressed Aria had been the one bold enough to ask the question outright.  It did not surprise him that of all the people in the room with combined decades of academic and professional experience she would be the one to speak out.  Her tenacity, her drive to answer questions and solve problems were why he’d wanted her on his team.

“Of course,” Sera replied.  “We will get to that shortly.  I’m actually going to let Adam tell you about Lightcap and how it will be used in your project.  First, I’ll ask you to excuse me while I speak with him briefly in the hall.”  She motioned to Adam, who was trying his best to hide his confusion.  He followed her into the hall, where she spun around and faced him as soon as the door had clicked closed, saying, “Well?  Did you think about it?  I need to know if you’re on board.”

Adam was confused.  This time he didn’t try to hide it and responded, “I’m here, aren’t I?  You could’ve at least told me that you expected me to sell them on the idea.  I thought I’m just supposed to smile and nod.  I still feel you haven’t told me everything.”

“Of course I haven’t told you everything.  That would require condensing decades of resea—”

“Yeah, I know.  ‘Decades of research by one of the most brilliant minds to ever grace humanity.’  Don’t be so patronizing.  I may not be a neuroscientist or have half the electrical knowhow that you have, but I’m no idiot.  I want to know how Lightcap works, or I’m out.”  Adam surprised himself with the force behind his last statement.  His head felt hot.

Velim peered at him intensely, sizing him up.  Adam did his best to appear intimidating, or at least to seem resolved.  He was afraid that he just looked as if he had poor posture.  His efforts must have had some effect on her, however, because she sighed and said, “I’ll be happy to provide details later.  For now, all you need to know is that the Lightcap takes a snapshot of neural patterns when initialized.  During the cooldown period, Lightcap uses low level laser targeting to, for lack of a better term, zap memories away.”  She gave him an expectant look, as if to ask, “Are you satisfied?”

Adam seethed with anger to the point of having trouble blinking.  A vein pulsed slightly on his forehead.  Trying his best to remain calm and measured, he forced himself to speak slowly as he replied.  “You couldn’t have told me last night that I’m supposed to sell them on a cranial bug zapper?  You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“It’s still extremely complicated.  What I’ve explained to you is the most basic way to describe what Lightcap does.  It’s AI guided, much like the Mind Drive or autocars, and emits an extremely short laser burst, measured in femtoseconds.  Those come from the three modules, bubbles as they’re commonly called, at the end of the device’s arms.  The modules on the Lightcap serve the same function as on the Mind Drive, but also add the ability to target in three dimensions to hit precise areas of the brain and emit extremely low energy laser bursts.  The fourth bubble rests under the occipital ridge, and emits the last burst which intersects with the other three to provide the necessary energy to physically affect the brain.  The AI calculates when to emit the bursts and controls the intersection point.  When the four bursts intersect, the memory at that location is gone.  It’s all very safe, very targeted.  Again, decades of research,” she waved her hands in the air while saying this, reminding Adam of his own previous gesture.  “We can discuss it more in the future.  Just trust me.  It’s safe.”

Her blue eyes, solemn and intense, were already locked with his, but when she said this last line they seemed to bore through Adam.  At least he couldn’t doubt her sincerity.  “Fine,” he said, “I’ll play along, at least for now.  I will need more solid ground at some point.”

“Of course,” Sera said, nodding emphatically, then reached to open the door to 4C.  “It’s a date.”  Adam’s face felt hot again, this time due to blushing instead of anger.

Smiles.  Assurances.  A sales pitch, unrehearsed yet oddly cohesive.  Sera and Adam discussed the Lightcap with some of the most brilliant minds in the programming field, answering questions about how the device was used and its basic function.  Adam found that “targeted focus beam” was a much better sell than “cranial bug zapper”.  He saw Sera take a moment to enter something into her notetab, no doubt a note to the marketing team.  We’re not only a focus group, we’re guinea pigs, thought Adam.

Later, he would remember this assessment.

Read chapter 4.


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