The device in front of Chloe was, Parker Barnes had said, called a “canvas.” A strange name, considering it looked exactly like a portable Crossbrace terminal. It looked, in fact, not unlike the ancient “laptop computer” from before the fall that her grandfather kept in the storage area below his basement steps, deluded that he might someday need the ancient data inside.
But it wasn’t just another terminal, Chloe felt sure. Barnes had stressed the importance that she keep it guarded and never let anyone else see. He’d not only extended her hotel reservation in District Zero, but had moved her to a different hotel — then called to verify her room’s security. Barnes had told Chloe about the canvas’s tracker, and that it could be destroyed from a distance if required — not just erased, but actually destroyed. So yes … whatever this “canvas” was, it was certainly more than a terminal.
Barnes had told Chloe that she was only receiving the canvas because she’d done so well in her interview and two auditions. He’d told her that O was considering her for a very special position — something that included the spa position she had originally wanted, but something more, as well — and needed her to understand.
I understand, Chloe had said.
No, you don’t, he’d replied with a straight face. You can’t. Nobody can.
That had been one of the stranger conversations of Chloe’s life, right up there with her break-up discussion with Brad, but for decidedly different reasons. He’d asked if the sex was good for her. She had lied and said it was. Then she’d moved into the breakup, yet wasn’t been able to tell him why. She couldn’t; it was all too personal to share with the person who she had so recently lost her virginity to. Chloe’s conversation with Barnes might have trumped it.
She looked at the simple black device, wondering if her life was in danger simply for having it. Barnes said it was newer than new, that even O hadn’t yet converted its private conference room to the fresh technology in front of her.
It speaks to The Beam, he’d told her.
When Chloe asked what that meant, Barnes smiled his inscrutable smile and said that he was sure she’d figure it out.
Chloe sat on the floor in the middle of her now-lavish hotel room, legs crossed Indian-style, ankles pressing into the surprisingly soft carpeting. She looked up, taking in her much-improved view of the District Zero spires. The room’s entire south wall was nothing but windows. They could be blacked out if you wanted dark, or made one-way if you preferred privacy and a view. The bellboy had explained it; there was a panel to one side. It was all beyond Chloe, who’d grown up in a series of small houses, drinking Kool-Aid from chipped glasses and fearing an invasion of Wild East warships that never came.
She opened the canvas. It was featureless: no keys, no apparent screen, no touchpad, no power switch. Nothing. She wondered what it did. Barnes had implied that it was a kind of terminal even if it wasn’t strictly a terminal, so Chloe assumed she’d use it to access the Crossbrace network. But then what? Surf vidstreams? Go shopping? Watch holos? He hadn’t given her a visor or a headset or gloves. O was, of course, the dominant sex channel on Crossbrace, and this thing would probably let her immerse in the most elite of O’s online simulations, but how could she do it without some sort of rig? And, in the end, why would she want to? She was drained after today’s fuckfest and certainly needed no satisfaction, and they couldn’t be looking for her to prove herself from a distance after proving herself so thoroughly in person.
Chloe touched the thing where the keyboard would normally be. Nothing.
She touched the screen area. Nothing.
She picked it up and turned it over in her hands, suddenly realizing she didn’t even know if it was on. There was no indicator light, no switch. Barnes hadn’t given her a power cord. But that didn’t matter, seeing as there was no place on the thing to plug anything in.
Chloe closed it. Opened it. Shook it.
She could fire up the hotel room’s terminal and search for the device on Crossbrace, but if it was as secret as Barnes had suggested — provided to O under the strictest of confidentiality, not even used yet at O itself other than for experimentation — she’d come up dry anyway.
Maybe it was supposed to be spoken to.
“Power on,” she said.
“Search Crossbrace,” she said.
“Show me that holo of the monkeys throwing their shit at the president.”
Chloe picked it up again. “Canvas,” she said, rolling her eyes at the block of inert material.
The thing made a chirping. Chloe almost dropped it.
“Canvas,” she repeated.
It chirped again.
Chloe set the thing on the ground, then stood, wanting for some reason to be a few feet away. She looked down. It was still featureless, and entirely uninteresting. A terminal with no screen, keyboard, or touchpad.
“Search Crossbrace,” she repeated.
“Canvas, search Crossbrace.”
This time, a soft and vaguely familiar male voice answered. “Of course, Miss Shaw. Would you prefer a terminal interface or a gesture web?”
Chloe stared at the canvas. Apparently it had to be woken before you could issue commands. But it’s not like figuring that out had solved anything for Chloe. Questions still abounded. The machine’s voice didn’t sound like normal AI. It sounded like a person. And what the hell was a gesture web?
“Gesture web,” she said.
“Where would you like to begin?”
Chloe didn’t know what that could mean, but then remembered she’d asked it to search Crossbrace. She assumed it wanted to know what she wanted to search for. But now that she’d managed to wake the canvas, Chloe no longer wanted to search Crossbrace. Barnes had said the canvas spoke to The Beam, whatever that meant. So now that it was talking …
“Access to Beam beta is restricted.”
“I will require a thumbprint.”
Chloe looked down at the canvas. Apparently she looked too long, so the featureless box repeated its request.
It only chirped, so Chloe pressed her thumb onto the space where the keyboard would be on a normal terminal, wondering if she was even authorized. It knew who she was, so maybe.
“Thank you, Miss Shaw.”
“Call me Chloe.” As soon as she’d said it, Chloe remembered she was talking to a block of metal (at least, she assumed it was metal) and felt stupid.
“Of course, Chloe.”
She stared at the box, waiting for more. Where was her gesture web of The Beam? And what the hell was a gesture web, or The Beam?
“Canvas,” she said. “Um… where should I start?” She realized it was the exact question the box had asked her, and wondered why she was asking back. But Chloe didn’t know what else to say. Either she’d need to repeat her search query now that she was (apparently?) on The Beam (whatever that was) or…
“O has had a tutorial compiled for you,” said the voice. “Would you like to start there?”
“Um … sure.”
“Would you like the holo immersive version?”
Why not? The gesture web was so compelling.
Something around the canvas’s edges lit and everything within 10 feet or so of the canvas was suddenly covered in shimmering holograms. Their clarity was shockingly good — well beyond any resolutions Chloe had seen before. The holos were laid over the hotel room like a double-exposure, as if one reality had fallen into place on top of another. Chloe was still in the middle of her hotel room floor, but somehow she was also in a 10-foot section of a room that, like the voice coming from the box, seemed somehow familiar. She couldn’t quite figure it out, laid over the hotel room like it was, but felt sure she’d been here before.
Then, as Chloe watched, a new hologram shimmered into existence and sat in a holographic chair before her. It was a man, about her age. He didn’t just seem familiar. He was so familiar, she nearly fell over as he looked up at her.
“Welcome to The Beam, Chloe,” said Brad’s hologram. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
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