[Chapter 4] The Lightcap

The rest of the day was a blur. There were mentions of the legal ramifications of tampering with the Lightcap and how they were not to leave the facility. It really seemed to Adam as if they were trying to drive that point home. Never can be too careful, he thought, sure this emphasis was made at the recommendation of the legal team. Instructions on Lightcap use were given. It was compatible with dome profiles to allow for importing personal customizations. They also discussed topics Adam found puzzling, such as wave dynamics and group movement in flocks of birds and schools of fish. After an early lunch, they were dismissed early with an admonishment to go to bed one hour before their usual time.

Before the team left room 4C, Doctor Velim informed them the next day would be their first on the project, which also meant day one with Lightcap. “It will be a long day,” she added, “but at least there won’t be as much paperwork involved.” She smiled enigmatically at Adam.

That night, Adam had time to check the facial recognition search he had run on Velim the day prior. Zero one hundred percent results, some partials that came up to eighty percent probability; none were relevant or helpful. She really was a ghost. Since he couldn’t find any good dirt on her, he decided to see what traces of Lightcap were on the mesh.

The Metamesh, or mesh, was the natural evolution of the Internet and the plethora of devices that had been developed to access it. In the old days they used to talk about the cloud, but this was more like an entire ocean, fluid and dynamic. The massive rows of server farms—still in existence, but much more consolidated and rare—were now mostly replaced by high-speed wireless nodes and flash storage embedded in almost every electronic device sold. Billions of devices, all interconnected. This created redundant nodes providing multiple paths from host to host, which allowed for rapid and robust communication, each packet routed through the circuit with the least number of hops, using any available devices along the way.

Virtually impervious to disaster or sabotage, the mesh quickly became a lawless land, teeming with unsavory characters that could use any number of methods to steal data. Since it was no longer possible to take down a specific server, as almost all data was mirrored in multiple locations, the data itself became king. New security methods and ways of thinking had to be developed to keep systems secure. Encryption experts were in high demand. Entire markets sprung up seemingly overnight. Adam himself had made his mark, along with Jon, by offering a way to run all known exploits against a specific node with the press of a button. It was, like many who had risen with rocket-like velocity, a combination of skill and absolute dumb luck, resulting in modest wealth at a young age. Right place, right time.

During the same period of time, Dej and a group of three others had developed CENTRAL (Central Entrance/Exit Node Traffic Routing Algorithm and Liaison), a new platform for routing mesh packets that required all traffic to be signed by a central authority before being passed to its destination. Combined with the software Adam and Jon had written, the mesh started to become a much better alternative to the wired internet, especially in areas where high-speed links still hadn’t achieved wide penetration. Soon, entire blocks of fiber were going dark, the ease of access and increased speeds of the mesh making the idea of wired anything obsolete. The Internet had ruled for decades; now the mesh was king.

Adam used to joke about the mesh being the closest thing to a god he had ever known, but as he got older and gained a more intimate, first-hand understanding of how it worked, the joke didn’t seem quite so funny. In as many ways as the mesh had at first been a lawless playground, it was now ruled with an iron fist. Originally, the strong encryption and decentralized nature of packet transmission made it difficult to ban any specific types of content or speech. After the CENTRAL routing protocol had been implemented throughout most of the mesh, packets had to be routed through a mesh access node. Many companies began to offer free node access to their employees, the drawback being that all employee mesh traffic was open to snooping, if an employer was so inclined.

To counteract corporate espionage once domes became widespread, lobbyists eventually succeeded in having legislation passed allowing employers to block outside mesh access within their buildings, to require workers to provide their personal passkeys to their employers, and eventually to install monitoring software on every employee dome.

It was also rumored that mesh-enabled devices could be disabled by authorities, either individually or within a geographic area. Adam had not witnessed this, but there were rumors from many different sources, enough to suggest it was at least possible.

With the way things had become, all mesh searches were logged and decrypted on command if one were suspected of something. There were ways around this system, but even those could leave oddities in traffic patterns which could arouse an amount of interest that was less than ideal. Adam knew a few ways to obfuscate his trail but if questioned he could say he was interested in whether or not any information about Lightcap had leaked to the mesh. A plausible story. It wouldn’t win him any fans but it wasn’t against any rules he knew of.

His query left running, Adam tossed the notetab onto his end table, stretched his arms above his head, grabbed his wrist and twisted. Pops and cracks down his spine and arms were among the drawbacks of the constant sitting and staring that came with his profession. There were ergonomic alternatives, all ridiculous looking and quite expensive, that most people did not trouble with. Bad posture was almost a badge of honor in his field, as it implied decades of time spent in front of a screen. This was, of course, taken in turn to suggest wisdom. Adam wondered at the wisdom of doing that to one’s own body.

Wise or foolish, Adam needed a breath of fresh air. It was dark and cold, but his building featured an enclosed section to allow for year-round use. After he found the energy to slide his massive door from right to left along its track, he was out and down the hallway in what felt like seconds. He felt an urgent need to see the outside world, to prove it was there, or at least that his memory of it was accurate.

Feeling as if the elevator would never come, Adam bounded up the nineteen floors from his apartment to the roof. He panted with the effort, and half expected to see a vast nothingness or desolate wasteland as he exploded onto the roof, the door barreling into a swinging arc along its hinges, making an amazing racket. He was relieved to see the city, half below him and half above, its cut out geometric patterns of order against the few stars he could make out beyond the flashing screens of the floating advertisements platforms, called ad zeps, dotting the night sky.

It wasn’t until he stopped gasping for air, finally recovered after his mad ascent, that he saw her. His neighbor, Hana Therdon, had been looking over the city. She turned to face him when he burst through the door, the sound of crashing metal against brick tumbling into darkness. Wearing a look of wry amusement, Hana slowly shook her head back and forth. With a slight laugh, she asked, “Do you always make a magnificent entrance, or am I just lucky to witness such a rare event?”

“Oh, you’re lucky all right. Lucky to witness a moment of my neurosis. I had a panic attack or something in the stairwell. Felt as if the outside world wasn’t here, or would be bombed out or on fire. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“Because we’re neighbors. Friends. We are friends, aren’t we?” She looked at him pleadingly when she asked this.

Adam and Hana had been neighbors for five years, but their conversations were like those about the weather, except with more biting sarcasm. Same amount of depth, though. They dated at one point, several weeks of drinks and conversation that had not progressed beyond a few rounds of casual sex. Adam felt as if he knew her, but he didn’t view her as a confidante. “Yeah, we’re friends,” he said, smiling. “It’s fine. I just had a bit of a freak-out moment. Long day at work.”

“Oh that’s right, I remember you practicing for your big day as the boss. Having a tough time already? Being in charge not quite what you expected?” She seemed to sympathize as she consolingly stroked his arm.

“No, it’s not that. It’s just . . . I . . . I can’t really talk to you about it. Sorry. I’m under seven different non-disclosure agreements. I think I even signed a NDA saying I wouldn’t tell anyone I’d signed a NDA, so I’m sure I’ve already committed an offense worthy of death. Don’t tell on me,” he said with a look of resignation, his eyebrows raised.

She playfully patted his shoulder and said, “Of course not. I understand. I don’t want to get you in trouble. We can just stay here and look at the City.”

They did just that. Adam became lost in thought as he watched the lights from the autocars on the street below. To him, autocars were among the epitomes of the changes that had occurred within his lifetime. When Adam was a child, his father had taken him to the roof of their building at night to watch the traffic below. He remembered traffic lights, tricolored patterns commanding the flow of thousands of tons of steel and composite resin, which caused the entire chain of cars to stop and allow for perpendicular movement across the intersection. Those patterns had been replaced by lanes of dotted points of light, each threaded through the next as in a living thatchwork, passing impossibly close to another, contact never made, with thanks owed to the tech of autocars, domes, and people like Dej who had made them all talk to each other and work cooperatively.

Adam pondered the ever increasing pace and meaning of change when a soft tone emitted in his left ear. The search on Lightcap had completed. He turned to Hana and said, “I’ve got to run. I appreciate you being here to listen, even if I’m not able to talk much. We should get a drink some time.”

“I’d like that,” she replied with a shy smile.

It seemed to Adam as if he teleported back to his apartment. He couldn’t even remember the elevator ride down. He grabbed his notetab and brought up the results: one thousand hits on the public mesh about Lightcap. Adam thought a command to have the results sorted and watched as they snapped into categories.

More than half of the results were classified as conspiracy theory sites, hosted on nodes that forbade security software, unregulated outposts that remained set against the mostly corporate mesh that had sprung up with regulation and software created by people like Adam, Dej, and others at companies like Adaptech. Adam had no doubt he was mentioned on some of these sites. They probably don’t have very nice things to say about me, Adam mused. He’d helped relegate them to the corners of the virtual world, barring them from the chaotic heyday they’d enjoyed. He’d ruined their party, and he knew it.

Roughly three hundred of the sites were news outlets with articles covering various aspects of why the Lightcap wasn’t real or anything to be afraid of. These were mostly nodes in geographic areas marked for having a higher tendency to gossip or engage in conspiracy theories: high income, low responsibility areas. A few were low-income neighborhoods near affluent areas, apparently close enough to reap some of the benefits of prosperity. Adam pulled these up and found mostly fluff pieces with interviews of people who looked as if they were the crazies who created the conspiracy theory posts about the Lightcap. Panicked eyes, wild hair, mad scientists without authority or credentials.

Standard countermeasures, Adam thought. Get out in front of the story, paint your opponent as a mad, raving loon, deny everything for as long as possible. Eventually people will find out, but until then you aren’t going to give them any help. They’ll get distracted anyway, people being as forgetful as they are fickle. The fact the media covered it meant money flowed from someone, somewhere.

Nothing aired on the news that didn’t have a benefactor; no fact or fabrication was reported without prior transaction. Why would they worry about what was true when they could be making money? So went the reasoning of the media conglomerates. They had been sued several decades before by a group of concerned citizens in an attempt to force what little remained of the Fourth Estate to hold to some level of integrity. The media kings lost the first time, but on appeal the citizen group ran out of money. A series of delays kept the case in limbo until the collapse and subsequent purchase of the States by Metra Corp.

Forty years before, several State economies went under, bankrupted and gridlocked to the point of political irrelevancy. The States had been incrementally privatized over time, such that when a group of the five largest corporations pooled resources under the name Metra Corp to buy a six State region, very little changed. Regulations weren’t enforced quite as often, and several of the private police forces merged to form the larger Central Provisional Authority, which provided security services for the entire Metra Region. Overall, daily life for the average citizen remained the same: poked, prodded, bought, sold, and ultimately disregarded as an individual.

After the Metra Corp takeover, the media companies being sued owned the court system set to decide the case. “There will be no conflict of interest,” these companies said in a statement. “The autonomy of the courts will not be infringed. Justice, not loyalty, should be the focus of the judiciary.” Talking heads with handsome jawlines and cheekbones spoke with soothing words in high definition. Who could doubt such pretty faces, such pretty voices, such pretty pictures, on the channels owned by the companies being tried?

Some people knew what was really happening, but speaking out might cost them their livelihoods. Employee protections were at an all-time low. People could be fired for wearing shoes that offended the delicate fashion sensibilities of their boss, after likely signing a contract to that effect. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or have a position high enough in a company to warrant a mesh auto-query, and it might attract some unwanted attention. Losing a job was the best way to end up living on the streets. Most didn’t last on the streets. Adam had highly marketable skills, but others weren’t so fortunate.

All of this had weighed on Adam’s mind since the beginning of the day. His face was lit by the dim glow of his notetab as he thumbed through post after post on the conspiracy sites about the Lightcap. Some were outlandish, claiming with bold capital letters that Lightcap granted strong telekinetic powers, the ability to transmute lead to gold, the energy to rip a skeleton from flesh, a way to talk with the dead, direct communication with alien civilizations, or the energy to sustain a fusion reaction through thought alone. All over the map. The human imagination will always be a dozen steps ahead of reality, Adam thought.

Many of the conspiracy sites seemed to be doing their best not to be taken seriously, with flashing banners proclaiming alien conspiracies, or shadowy, Zionist cabals intent on enslaving the world population; long, ranting paragraphs blaming everyone from liberals to conservatives to lizardmen to poltergeists to businessmen to poor people for every problem imaginable from the abandonment of the gold standard to bunions. A few stories stood out to Adam, feasible but reminiscent of an urban legend with a cousin’s friend or brother’s coworker as the source. Truth twice removed. Reports of soldiers returning home, shell-shocked and crying out in the night, yelling about Lightcap and murders and plots. All unsubstantiated, none with any follow-up. Dead ends.

Adam was caught between thoughts of memories being zapped into nothingness and plots by evil businessmen to turn the world into revenue-producing slaves when he drifted off to sleep.
He found himself on the subway, same seat where he’d been that morning. Struck with a sense of déjà vu, he looked around, wondering why the car was empty. There were always passengers.

His perspective shifted out of his body, and time sped up as he saw himself from outside, watching as he rocked back and forth along with the train then fell asleep, just as he had that morning. Time slowed back down, and Adam watched as the same disheveled man appeared, shuffled toward him, and fell across his lap. This time, the incident slowed almost to single frames, as if he had put a video in slow motion. His disembodied consciousness watched as the disheveled man slipped a note into the pocket of his sleeping form. As the man apologized and shoved off, Adam felt his consciousness being drawn back into his body.

There was a brief snap as Adam’s point of view locked back behind his eyes, where it should be and where it belonged. Disoriented, he looked around but saw no trace of the man, not even when he jumped to his feet and ran to the door, hoping to get a better view of the adjacent car. Completely empty. He tried the handle. Locked. He could hear his racing heart thump in his ears as he sprinted to the other end of his own car. Another locked door with no one beyond. Adam remembered the note, secretly placed in his pocket as he slept. He shoved his hand into the split separating the fabric. He shook as he withdrew a tear of crumpled white paper clutched between forefinger and thumb.

There was one word, written in the bold strokes of a hurried hand.

MNEMOSYNE

His gaze was drawn toward the front of the subway car as it emerged from the dark underground into an impossibly bright burst of light. Then, darkness.

Adam gasped awake. He wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but it felt more real than any dream he could ever remember. He vaguely recalled being on the subway, and the man . . . the man. The note! He bolted out of bed, bare feet striking cold wood floor. The shock didn’t even register in his excitement. He grabbed the jacket he’d worn that morning, matte black and secured close by strips of magnets that ran from the collar to the mid-thigh. One of the things he loved about it was that it had pockets large enough for his notetab to fit comfortably. He dug through each of the pockets, even the hidden one along the inside seam, but there was no note to be found.

After his feet finally protested too much against the unforgiving floor, he lay back down, shivering involuntarily as he got under the covers still slightly damp with the sweat of his nightmare. Mnemosyne, he thought. Why do I know that word? He turned, grabbed his notetab, and thought of the word again, this time directed at his dome. The oldest mention he could find on the mesh was from Greek mythology, Mnemosyne being one of the race of immortal deities known as the Titans. Mnemosyne was, according to the mesh, born of Heaven and Earth, the personification of memory. The most recent mention was from a software project, a venture between several corporate entities and academia aimed at mapping neurons to bits, with the intent of creating an upload of the human brain. He could not find anything linking Mnemosyne to the Lightcap, but he started a deep-scrape search just to make sure.

Most information on the mesh was easily accessible, if it was public. A deep-scrape search ran against encrypted data that was publicly available, trying to guess the passkey with a brute-force attack that included contextual clues based on anything known about the owner of the file. Many people used simple passkeys, such as the names of their pets and their birthdates, sometimes even the word “passkey” followed by “123”. No matter how much technology progressed, any system was only as secure as its most careless user. People put a great deal of material on the mesh that they shouldn’t, whether out of hubris, ignorance, or apathy. Since Adam knew such a search would take hours or even days to obtain any usable results, he put the notetab on the nightstand next to his bed, then fell back into a troubled sleep.

The blaring alarm kicked Adam back into the waking world. It seemed his head touched his pillow mere seconds before. He was exhausted. He blinked and was at the office, the entire morning gone like a skipped scene in a video. He remembered it if he focused, but from the detached view of an observer rather than active participant.

He once again found himself in conference room 4C, as ordered at the end of the previous day. He was seated at the head of the table, opposite Doctor Velim, surrounded by his eighteen-person team. She was speaking. “The boxes in front of you contain your Lightcaps. Transfer whatever information you need from your personal Mind Drives, but please be aware anything you load onto the Lightcap becomes property of Adaptech. Once you have finished, please put your Lightcaps in place. They will automatically turn on and initialize.”

Boxes were opened with sounds of broken seals and crinkled plastic, the bags containing the Lightcaps discarded like wrapping paper at a child’s birthday party. Even if there were reservations, most of these people were geeks, always excited to try out new electronic gadgets. Dej gave voice to the gasps and muttering around the table by saying, “The Lightcap looks the same as the Mind Drive, except there’s a fourth bubble where the arms meet in the back.” He turned the device over in his hand. “Oh, and a big etching that says ‘PROTOTYPE’. That too.”

“Yes,” Doctor Velim responded. “That’s by design. The technology is derivative, and we were able to optimize the device so that its form factor is almost identical to the v5 Mind Drive. The Lightcap provides the same control of electronics as the Mind Drive, along with extra features. Think of the Lightcap as a Mind Drive Plus.”

Satisfied with her answer, a silence settled over his team as they loaded their personalized profiles from their domes to their new Lightcaps. Adam did this as well, seeing no reason to set everything up from scratch. If his employers decided to monitor his information, they’d find standard dome customizations related to thought patterns, words to avoid recognizing, and audio notifications. Nothing outlandish or illicit.

After much tinkering and several last-minute questions everyone finished setting up their Lightcaps. Adam wanted to exude confidence while hiding the pit he felt in his stomach, so he flashed a smile, said, “Alright, here we go,” and slipped on his Lightcap. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with a click, Adam was rushed down a dark tunnel and plummeted toward a bright, warm light. He exited the tunnel with great speed and basked in the comforting blanket of heated air surrounding him, his momentum slowing to a stop. He hung in place, suspended, the world completely devoid of definition, everything washed out and bathed in a soothing, opaque white glow.

Then the light was replaced by darkness.

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