[Chapter 2] SV

Adam had some time that evening, once he got home, to look up Sera Velim.  She had been the head of Brain Sync, being thrust into the role after the sudden disappearance of Doctor Pavel Troyka over ten years before.  If Adaptech was secretive, then Brain Sync was a shadow.  No one knew exactly what Brain Sync did, but it had established a name for itself as the pioneer of the Mind Drive, even though it shocked the world and allowed another company to market and sell the finished product.

Brain Sync employees worked under several layers of NDAs and legal agreements.  As far as anyone could tell, many employees weren’t allowed to even acknowledge that they worked for Brain Sync, and were given cover stories that included employment through unrelated front organizations.  Despite the fact that it had never put a device on shelves, Brain Sync employed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people and had lucrative contracts throughout the government and private industry.  To what end, no one knew.

Sera Velim was almost as much of an enigma as her company.  For instance, Adam knew of her but had never seen her picture.  He was curious if there were even any out there, or if she’d somehow managed to avert leaving a mesh presence, a real challenge in that day and age.  Adam’s first picture on the mesh was from his early teens, taken by a cam that recorded people walking down a public street.  The way things were then, leaving the house was a reliable way to end up as a series of zeros and ones on the mesh, unless you took precautions.  There were counter-surveillance necklaces, called ramble-jamblers, that consisted of a ring of high-output LEDs that cycled through the infrared spectrum, washing out any characteristics that could be used to identify or track the wearer.  They were technically illegal, but were small and hard to detect so many used them.

Velim had been a doctoral student of Troyka.  Some rumors claimed that she started her doctorate work at fifteen, but this seemed unlikely, and Adam had seen other sources that placed her at an age beyond his own.  Data from the mesh could be unreliable, even on a good day.  When Doctor Troyka disappeared, the authorities suspected foul play or corporate or international espionage, given that Brain Sync had numerous lucrative government contracts.  Foul play was officially ruled out.  No evidence was found to suggest Troyka had been killed, but he was a high profile person, and it was difficult for anyone to vanish, especially someone of his stature as an innovator and inventor.

Regardless of Troyka’s fate, Doctor Velim had been his heir apparent for years, and, by unanimous vote by the Brain Sync Board of Directors, took what was widely considered to be her rightful place at the helm of the company.  As a privately held organization, there wasn’t much public data available on its earnings, but by every indication Brain Sync’s profitability had grown considerably under Velim’s leadership.  Though she was rumored to be caring in her personal life, she’d earned a reputation for ruthlessness in business dealings.  Adam wasn’t quite sure what to believe.  As with most rumors, there was sure to be some level of validity, but any attempt to suss out the ratio of truth to falsehood was nothing but conjecture.

Adam had watched Velim in the conference room as she diligently focused on her notetab while LaMont had spouted fiscal year sales figures, projections, and about the importance of brutally dominating the marketplace.  It was almost identical, except some changes in numbers, to the growled speech LaMont had given during Adam’s orientation thirteen years before.  Standard corporate bullshit.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, he thought.

He struggled to figure out exactly why Sera Velim had been at the meeting.  Last he’d heard there were no plans to bring any of the Brain Sync people on board, but he also wasn’t high enough up the corporate ladder to be privy to many of those conversations.  She had hardly seemed to pay attention at the meeting, the entire time spent riveted to her notetab.  It wasn’t likely she’d been transcribing LaMont’s remarks, since all meeting rooms were wired with microphones for automatic transcription.  That only left two possibilities in Adam’s mind: either she’d been observing Adam or his team, or she was detached and doing something completely unrelated.

Adam called up the clandestine picture from earlier and restarted the facial recognition search, hoping to find out more about the mysterious Doctor Velim.  He grabbed his notetab and looked at her picture for several seconds.  He found her very striking, with dark hair that framed a pale face, and soft, full lips that were inviting in shape but coldly pressed together in a look of mild distaste, bordering on frustration.  Her brow was furrowed, as if she were deep in thought or struggled to solve a complex problem.

Adam was also interested in Doctor Troyka, Velim’s mentor.  Pavel Troyka was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant electrical engineers that had ever lived.  He built the first Mind Drive prototype by himself in his basement laboratory with off the shelf parts.  Troyka was one of Adam’s heroes, a mix of the engineering genius of Wozniak, the madness of Tesla, and the imagination of Turing.  A force of nature, regarded as the Father of the Modern Computing Age, Troyka was considered a failure from a business standpoint since he hadn’t possessed the business sense to see the vast fortune that would come from his invention, instead choosing to license the product to Adaptech.

Hundreds of theses had been written by business students on the multitude of ways Troyka had failed to gain a fortune from dome tech.  Even so, the licensing fees from Adaptech provided enough revenue to allow Brain Sync to operate in the black for years, developing its next big product.  Chatter started on the fringes of the mesh, speculating about the next step beyond Mind Drive.  Many people claimed to have inside knowledge, but none of their stories checked out.  Since Brain Sync marketed products to the military, the first guesses were along the lines of “increased sensory perception for soldiers war zones” and “elevated intellect to allow for higher cognitive function on the battlefield”.  Nothing ever amounted to more than wild speculation.

The device was evidently intended to provide a tactical advantage, but when Brain Sync started making inroads among the intelligence and legal communities, which could benefit from increased brain function, some claimed that this new tech significantly increased the wearer’s brainpower.  Tales of normal people who had become geniuses and geniuses who had become gods were traded by office water coolers around the world, along with promises of a bright new age of human innovation driven by technology.  Whispers of the name “Lightcap” began to echo across the mesh, but nothing had been confirmed by Brain Sync.  In fact, the company publicly denied having any tech called Lightcap, but shortly after there were rumors that Brain Sync had laid off several members of its research and development group.  Given what Adam knew about the company, it seemed as if its leaders were upset that their shroud of secrecy had been breached by the mere mention of one of their secret projects.  The company’s behavior only raised more questions.

Adam, lost in recollection, did not hear the footsteps in the hall or notice that they stopped right outside his apartment.  The abrupt sound of knuckles rapping against his steel door ricocheted like gunfire off the wall behind his head and rudely pulled his attention back to the present.  He tossed the notetab on the couch next to him and shot up, at the same time shouting, “Who’s there?”  It seemed awfully late for a visitor.

“Sera Velim.”

He scrambled, piles of clothes thrown into any available hiding spot, empty carryout containers treated like cardboard basketballs and tossed along suspended arcs into the compacter.  “Just a minute!” came his reply, as he put on a shirt and walked the five steps from his living room to the door.

There was a rush of air as he opened the heavy steel barricade that sectioned the rest of the world from his haven.  It really was Velim.  For the briefest moment he’d wondered if it might be some kind of joke, or even his mind playing tricks.  Auditory hallucinations weren’t without precedent, but there she stood, seemingly in the flesh and very, very wet.  His eyes widened as he realized she must be freezing.  “Please come in! The InfraDry is over in the corner if you want to dry off.  Would you like some coffee?”

“Sure.  Thanks,” Velim said, stepping through the door as she took off her jacket.  She laid her jacket on the arm of the couch and moved underneath a red ring, embedded and glowing in the ceiling in the corner of the room.  A gentle, repeating beep increased in speed as the InfraDry’s red ring detached and slid downward along invisible guides, slowly rotating as it descended around the circumference of her body.  Adam watched as her hair dried, spots of water vanished from her dome, her torso, and her pants lightened from the color of damp fabric back to their normal hue, until the ring came to rest at her feet.  Adam watched with amusement as the puddle of water under her shoes evaporated.  It wasn’t often that he got to watch the infrared dryer from the outside, since he usually stood in her place.  The red ring quickly lifted back to its idle position, the entire process done in fewer than thirty seconds.

“Are you going to get me some coffee, or were you only asking to be nice?”

Adam nodded as a silent answer, then made his way to the kitchen.  He issued a command through his dome for two cups of coffee, rather than using the archaic buttons on his coffeemaker.  It seemed strange to him, anachronistic even, that so many things still had buttons, but he guessed this allowed the products to be marketed to the small percentage of the population that weren’t domers.  “Cream?  Sugar?” he asked.

“Black is fine.  I don’t have much time anyway,” Sera said.  She took the cup from his hand and placed it on the table next to his couch.  “I need to talk to you about tomorrow’s orientation.  We need to make sure that you’re on board for the project.  Roman wanted to come himself, but given the way you looked after today’s orientation I thought it might be best if I came by to try and smooth things over.”

“Of course I’m on board for the project.  I hand-picked most of the team, and had to go through five rounds of interviews before I was even offered the position.  Also, I don’t know what you mean about how I looked earlier.  I have no problem with Roman and as far as I know he has no problem with me.”

“Whatever you say, Redmon.  I just—”

“Please call me Adam.  Only one person refers to me by my last name, and he’s not around anymore.”

Sera stared at Adam for several uncomfortable seconds.  Is she trying to make this awkward, or does she not know how to respond? he wondered.  Adam imagined that people didn’t correct her often, and when they did it probably wasn’t with the confidence and directness he’d offered.

“Feisty.  I like that,” Sera said, her dimples flashing, a hinted grin she quickly stifled.  “As I was saying, Adam,” his name offered with deference but also the slightest hint of sarcasm, “we need to make sure that you understand the importance of this project.  There’s a lot at stake.”

“Sure, I heard what LaMont said.  We need to ensure that we continue to dominate the market and all that.”  Adam waved his hand dismissively as he said it.  He wished he hadn’t, because she immediately frowned.

“Look, don’t parrot LaMont’s corporate talking points,” Velim said forcefully.  “I don’t need to hear about how we’re going to leverage our synergy to capitalize on market forces.  I’m talking about real danger from unlicensed devices.  Part of the Brain Sync licensing terms stipulated that we are allowed to do random quality control checks, both at the production level and further down the supply chain.  QC pulls on the production lines always checked out, but at the retail level we found a distressing trend.  The number of counterfeit devices has been steadily rising, and our last check revealed an eleven percent counterfeit rate spread across ninety percent of retail locations.  That’s a real problem.”

“How so?  I mean, I understand from an intellectual property perspective, but Adaptech is making boatloads of money, and that doesn’t seem to be in any danger even if the number of counterfeits quadruple.”

Sera sighed.  “It’s more complicated than that.  There are potential, um, difficulties introduced if the circuitry is compromised.  You’re dealing with a complex piece of electronic wizardry.  To make matters worse, the brain is fragile.  Damages easily.  When a device malfunctions, that reflects poorly on Adaptech, and by extension Brain Sync.  That perception isn’t entirely mitigated by publicizing that the device in question was a forgery.  In fact, we’ve been successful in keeping that out of the news entirely.  Can’t have people doubting the reliability of the brand, you know.”

“Wait, what difficulties?  Are you talking about a dome overloading and exploding or something?”  Adam wracked his brain, trying to find any memories of mesh reports of malfunctions along those lines.  He couldn’t recall any.  Sera looked at him as if she struggled with how to respond, or how much to tell him.

“As I said, it’s complicated, and I don’t have much time tonight.  This is a discussion that should be had at a later time.  I came to talk about Lightcap.”

At the mention of Lightcap, Adam’s eyes shot up.  Never had a lump in his throat materialized with such speed.  “Lightcap?” he asked with feigned ignorance, trying to sound as if he’d never heard the word.

“Yes.  Don’t play dumb.”

“Okay, I have heard of it, but I’m not lying when I say that the most I know about it is the name.  I’ve heard so many rumors about what it actually does that at this point I’d believe you if you said it granted the power of flight and had a built-in espresso machine.”

“Don’t be flippant, Adam.  The Lightcap is the pinnacle of Doctor Troyka’s career.  It’s the real-world manifestation of decades of work and tens of thousands of man hours.  His greatest achievement.  The Lightcap doesn’t give you superpowers; it makes you forget.”  She waited, as if expecting some gasp or evidence of shock.  Adam was well-practiced at remaining stoic, a trait he’d picked up while suffering through countless lectures from his parents and advisers about how his future would be ruined without the benefit of a college degree.  She continued, watching him carefully, “Of course, everything I’m telling you is covered under the NDA you signed earlier today.  As far as the outside world is concerned, this conversation never happened.  At the risk of oversimplification, you put the Lightcap on when you come to work.  You work hard.  You take it off, and then go home stress-free, because you don’t remember a single thing about your day.  Our early tests showed that the Lightcap functioned exactly as expected.  Wearers reported feeling refreshed when they went home, that they were arguing less with their spouses, weren’t as easily annoyed by their children, and just generally felt happier and more worry-free.  More importantly, because the workers were not saddled with problems from the previous day, punctuality improved, along with productivity.”

Adam sat for a moment, taking in what she had said.  “Well, that’s great and all, but what does that have to do with me or my team?  We’re just programmers.  It’s not the easiest job, but it’s also far from approaching stressful.  We have deadlines, but it’s not like programmers are jumping out of windows due to anxiety.”

She nodded once, a brief agreement with his observation.  “True, but you do seem to struggle with punctuality.  So far, all tests of Lightcap have been in high-stress environments that don’t require much in the way of thought on the part of the wearer.  War zones, that sort of thing.  We want your group to be the first to give it a test run in a setting that requires higher cognitive function.  All of our tests indicate that there should be no decrease in ability or perception.  In fact, we believe there will be an increase in efficiency, since your workers won’t be bothered by outside stress stimuli, such as personal issues from home.”

“So wait, it makes them forget what they’ve done while they’re wearing it, or what they’ve done before?  What the hell is this thing?”

“You sure like asking questions, Adam.  I don’t have time to explain decades of research by one of the most brilliant minds ever to live—or even my own dissertation—to you.  Suffice it to say, Lightcap does what it’s intended to do and does it well.  It was designed with the purpose of making you forget.  Forget your worries from home while you’re at work, forget your worries from work when you go home.  Most importantly, you can’t sell what you can’t remember.  We’re pretty certain that there are moles, not just in the supply chain but at the design level.  The counterfeit devices that we’re seeing are incredibly detailed, and we believe that the short amount of time between when v5 first hit market and the first confirmed forge is too short to be attributed to reverse engineering alone.  This holds true for both the hardware and software ends.”

Velim looked at him, giving him time to let the intricacies of corporate espionage fully sink in.  She continued: “The hardware design for v6 was handled in teams, no one group having full access to design schematics for the finished product.  We would’ve used Lightcap for them, but it wasn’t quite ready for wide-scale testing.  Now that the acquisition has gone through, LaMont approved expansion of the tests.  Yours will be the biggest test group to date.  Anyway, I have to go.  Just be ready tomorrow.  When we discuss Lightcap you need to come across as being on board.  The people on your team look up to you, even those who’ve never worked with you before.  You have a reputation of being solid and reliable, and we need that same sense of assurance to be associated with Lightcap in the minds of your team.”

Before Adam processed everything she’d said, she picked up her jacket and was gone.  The firm click of the bolt echoed with finality off the brick wall of his living room.  Her cup of coffee remained untouched on the table next to his couch.  He felt as though she’d created a vacuum, the air carried out with her as she left.

Lightcap, Adam thought.  I’m going to be testing Lightcap.  The geek side of Adam was excited, the pragmatist terrified.

Read chapter 3.

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