In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it.
When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he's thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage - for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes.
From the halls of academe to the halls of power; from the headquarters of an elite agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath Shanghai; from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok; from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand - Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.
I first met Mez at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in 2012 where we were on several panels together. Though our backgrounds are quite different, we discovered that we shared an optimistic outlook on the future and a commitment to creating positive change. His novel, Nexus, reflects both of those things. Though we've only met face to face one other time, at the 2014 WorldCon in London, we've stayed in touch through email and social media and Mez has been a stalwart support of Bundoran Press. – Hayden Trenholm
"Good. Scarygood."– Wired
"Provocative... Adouble-edged vision of the post-human."– The Wall Street Journal
"A lightning bolt of a novel, with a sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction."– Ars Technica
"Starred Review. Naamturns in a stellar performance in his debut SF novel... What matters here isthe remarkable scope and narrative power of the story."– Booklist
"A superbly plotted high-tension technothriller ... full of delicious, thoughtful moral ambiguity ... a hell of a read."– Cory Doctorow
"A gripping piece of near future speculation... all the grit and pace of the Bourne films."– Alastair Reynolds, author of RevelationSpace
"A sharp, chilling look at our likely future."– Charles Stross, author of Singularity Sky and Halting State
"The most brilliant hard SF thriller I've read in years. Reminds meof Michael Crichton at his best."– Brenda Cooper, author of The Creative Fire
"A rich cast of characters...the action scenes are crisp, the glimpses offuture tech and culture are mesmerizing."– Publishers Weekly
1 - The Don Juan Protocol
Friday 2040.02.17 : 2255 hours
The woman who called herself Samantha Cataranes climbed out of the cab and walked towards the house on 23rd Street. The door opened, spilling light and the sounds of music and voices out into the night. A pair of young women emerged, arm in arm, wrapped up in conversation. They smiled at her as she passed them, and Sam smiled back. Faceprinting code identified them, used her tactical contacts to superimpose softly glowing names, ages, and threat levels beside their faces in her field of view. All green. Civilians. No known connection to her mission.
Sam ran her eyes over the exterior of the home. Her sight came alive with structural elements, power lines, data lines, possible ingress and egress through doors, windows, weak spots in the walls. She blinked it all away. None of it served her purpose tonight.
Her left knee twinged as she ascended the stairs. A memento of that disastrous firefight outside Sārī. As if she could ever forget that night. Her face felt tight. Her lips were overstuffed, her cheeks taut, her jaw awkwardly cocked. Her nerves strained in protest at the visage she held. It would be a relief to relax into her own face again.
Bits of her briefing for this mission flitted through her mind unbidden. A building blasted apart, bodies strewn everywhere. Religious leaders murdered by trusted old friends. Politicians with sudden, implausible changes of heart. All the suicide bombings, the assassinations, the political subversions, the blank-faced companies of inhumanly loyal, unthinking, unquestioning super-soldiers. And behind them all, the common thread: Beijing's new coercion technology. A technology that this target might just help them get a step closer to understanding and defeating.
Sam opened the door and let herself in to the party, a wide smile on her false face. Overly loud flux music hit her. The smells of dozens of bodies inundated her sharpened senses. Identities swam over the sea of faces. Somewhere in this house, she would find her man.
Friday 2040.02.17 : 2310 hours
"Do you romp?" the girl asked. She leaned in close, close enough to be heard over the din of the party, close enough to kiss.
Kaden Lane watched carefully, clinically, as Don Juan molded his body's responses. A slight smile. Release of oxytocin. Dilation of capillaries in his cheeks. A mix of confidence and anticipation. Candidate replies flitted through his mind, half-formed on his lips, as the software's conversational package sifted through possibilities:
[Yeah, I love to dance.]
[Sure, what kind of music do you like?]
[If I'm with a pretty girl like you.]
Signals propagated through the highly modified web of Nexus nodes in his brain. The drug's nanostructures evaluated data, processed it, transformed it. Don Juan made a choice in milliseconds. Input spiked at Nexus nodes attached to neurons in the speech centers of his frontal and temporal lobes. Nerve impulses raced outward from speech centers to motor cortex, and from there to the muscles of his tongue and jaw, his lips and diaphragm. A fraction of a second after he'd heard the girl speak, those muscles contracted to produce his response.
"Yeah, I love to dance," Kade heard himself say.
Who writes these lame lines? he wondered.
"Want to see if there's something good tonight?" she asked.
Frances. Her name was Frances. They'd met twenty minutes ago in this hallway. She was twenty-six years old, a Virgo, a graphic designer by trade. Frances smelled nice, liked to touch him when she talked, and did look rather fetching in her tight pants and low-cut top. She loved acro-yoga, loud dance music, travel in Central America, and her two cats.
Kade had never asked anyone their sign before. He supposed in a way he still hadn't. The software had done that with his mouth and lungs. Did that count?
All the test was supposed to show was that software could use their Nexus-based interface to control speech and hearing in a real environment. It was Rangan who'd insisted on using this dating app to test their platform, and that Kade be the one to run it. "You gotta get out and have some fun, dude," he'd said. "All you do is mope around. Flirting with some girls is exactly what you need."
Next time, he thought to himself, Rangan can do the field test.
"Sure, let's see what's happening," Don Juan answered.
Kade pulled out his phone and stuck it to the wall beside them. Don Juan spoke to it. "Bay Area dance parties tonight. Full immersion for two."
Frances turned to face the camera. A partygoer jostled her as he scooted by down the hall. She squeezed up against Kade, nestling into his side. Her body did feel rather warm and enticing, he had to admit. He put an arm around her waist as the phone responded to his request. Maybe Rangan did have a point...
Retinal projectors sought out their eyes. Targeted acoustics zeroed in on their ears. Local events scrolled across shared vision.
SEROTONIN OVERLOAD IV
A brief advertisement for the event washed over their senses: pulsing music, syncopated lights, warm smiles, dancers embracing and moving in time.
Frances made a face. "A little too earnest for me."
CYGNUS EXPRESS – A PROJECT ODYSSEUS FUNDRAISER
Vastness of space, planets orbiting distant suns, partygoers in gleaming imitations of vacuum suits, bleeping sound of contact through the static of cosmic background radiation, overlaid with driving trance rhythm.
Frances shrugged. Damn, she felt good pressed against him.
"In space," she said, "no one can hear you dance."
Kade shrugged. "Next."
CARE BARE by UNITED SKEINS OF SEXY
New sights and sounds: Writhing, almost-naked bodies, skin moving against skin, moaning pulsing sounds, fast flashes of mouths and hips and breasts.
Frances moved her hip against him just a bit. "Now that looks pretty hot. Yeah?"
Kade laughed out loud. Any other night, he wouldn't have the balls to venture into a scene like that. But what the hell. His task tonight was to push the platform they'd built on top of Nexus's nanoscale elements to its limits.
It'll be a great test case, he told himself. I'm doing this for science.
Don Juan responded for him. "Maybe. You planning on getting fresh with me?"
Kade let it drive, let it wink with his eye.
Frances smirked and raised an eyebrow, turning towards him, her body still pressed against his. "Oh, you'd like that, would you?"
She batted her pretty green eyes up at him.
"Oh, I think the pleasure would be all yours," Don Juan replied. Kade put his other arm around her waist, holding her to him now, looking down into her eyes.
Frances bit her lower lip.
Kade might have stuttered, might have blushed, but a more calculating logic was in control. "Your place or mine?"
They kissed standing up, Kade's back against the wall of the room they'd snuck into. Frances was a giggler. She made out with a fun enthusiasm that Kade found infectious. They kissed and kissed, giggled and whispered. Kade's clinical detachment crumbled. Someone opened the door to the room, saw them, and backed out apologetically. More giggles ensued. More kissing followed. Giggling gave way to sighing. Sighing gave way to grinding, to hands roaming. Heat rose between their bodies. Her breath was coming short and heavy. So was his.
The dialog sucks, but I can't complain about the results, Kade thought to himself. There was one more test he'd promised Rangan he'd run. Now for the kinesthetic interfaces…
He kept his eyes closed as he kissed her, immersed himself in the Nexus OS that he and Rangan had built atop the hundreds of millions of nano-structures of the drug that suffused their brains.
Softly glowing numbers scrolled across the bottom of his field of view. A column of icons hung at the right. A research log window with his field test notes lay compressed down to its title bar. The muted roar of the party still rushed in his ears. Kade flicked his inner eye over pulse, respiration, neuro-electrical activity, interface status, neurotransmitter and neuron-hormone levels. All green. He could see the copy of Don Juan that Rangan had pirated and modified running through its models, behaving nicely and only using the resources he'd assigned. He flicked past it, sought out another program, one Rangan had lifted from VR porn and hacked to send its output to their body-control software. Peter North.
[activate: peter_north mode: full_interactive priority: 1 smut_level: 2]
Frances pressed herself more insistently against him. The giggles were gone. Her lips brushed his jaw, tugged wetly at his mouth. Her body was hot beneath his hands. Her snug pants were smooth and slick and hugged her ass perfectly. She spread her thighs slightly, leaned her hips against his, ground her crotch against his leg as they kissed. Her soft little moans of pleasure went straight to some primal part of his brain. Numbers and icons still floated in his vision.
Kade ignored one set of stimuli, let himself be absorbed by the other.
Peter North was in charge now, a VR porn bot Rangan had lifted from the net and adapted to their Nexus OS as a way to test their kinesthetic interfaces. It spat out limb position changes and muscle and joint vectors. Nexus nodes in Kade's brain flared, signals raced from his motor cortex to his limbs, and Kade's body responded.
Frances moaned softly, shifted her ass against his hand, ground herself against his hip. Peter North slid Kade's hand down her back, past the fabric of her low-cut top, and down onto the smooth and snug backside of her pants. His hand squeezed one perfect cheek, rose up into the room, and came down with a resounding smack.
"Ooooh," Frances murmured. She bit his lower lip then, not quite too hard, and tugged. Her finger rubbed his chest, teasing one nipple. Forefinger and thumb came together, pinching, enough to hurt this time.
Damn, thought Kade. Why did I ever think this was a bad idea?
Peter North grabbed hold of Frances by her hips, steered them both to the couch, pushed her down into it. The software brought his body down atop her, kneeling on the edge of the cushion, one knee between her thighs. Kade's hands came up, entangled themselves in her hair and made fists. Peter North tugged, tilting her head back, making her look at him, paused until she opened her eyes to stare into his, waited just a moment longer, then brought his mouth down on hers.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Rangan, he thought, for forcing me to get out here and have some fun.
Frances responded with nails on his back, sharp and even painful through his shirt. She shifted her hips forward on the seat, pressing herself more firmly against his knee, squeezing her thighs around his leg, purring into his mouth as her hands found his belt and eased their way under his shirt. Searching for skin, ready to draw blood.
Kade forced himself to concentrate. Forced himself to make more notes in the research log. He was still a scientist, damn it.
[Smooth muscular control. Feedback systems excellent. Possibly insufficient pain response.]
Outside, Peter North had him cupping one breast, one hand tangled in her hair. His shirt was gone. Frances was biting her way down his chest, his stomach.
[Definitely insufficient pain response.]
Her hand was on his crotch now. Kade was hard, as hard as the safety limits he and Rangan had coded into the interface would allow. Frances seemed to approve. She smiled seductively as her hand squeezed him through the front of his pants, started to move in time to her own grinding against his lower leg…
Kade made no note of this. He'd tested the erection module extensively already.
Frances smiled coyly up at him and gave him a long squeeze. "Is this for me?"
She licked her lips lasciviously.
Kade's mind filled with an image of what was about to happen. His heart skipped a beat in anticipation. He opened his mouth to reply.
[interface warning – max spikes per second > parameters]
[interface warning – packet loss in connection 0XE439A4B]
[interface ERROR – socket not found OXA27881E]
[interface ERROR – socket not found OXA27881E]
Oh fuck, he thought.
Errors and warnings flooded Kade's vision. Parameter displays were spiking into yellow and red. Intracortical bandwidth was saturated. Packets were being dropped. CPU cycles were being consumed in massive ways by error-catching and error-correcting packages, stepping all over each other in their haste to fix whatever was wrong.
Outside, neither Peter North nor Kade were in control of his body. His hips jerked forward spastically, again and again. His hands gripped hard on Frances's shocked head. His still-clothed crotch was banging into her face on every pelvic thrust. His mouth was wide open, his eyes unfocused. An incoherent sound was escaping his throat.
"Ug. Ug. Ug."
[interface warning – max spikes per second > parameters]
[interface warning – max spikes per second > parameters]
Fuck fuck fuck.
[system halt], he commanded.
[system halt], he repeated.
[system halt] [system halt] [system fucking halt!]
Neuro-muscular stimulation ceased. Kade's inner displays went blank. His muscles relaxed. Hips stopped moving. Hands eased on Frances's head. Success!
Kade drew breath.
And then another hard spasm rolled across every muscle in his body, and another, and another...
What? Oh shit.
Kade was ejaculating.
He threw himself back from Frances, collapsing on the bed behind him, back arching and toes curling as some side effect of the stimulation threw him into a whole-body ecstasy. Laughter burst forth. Tears rolled down his face. He rolled onto his side in bliss and confusion and hilarity and some deep warm sleepy sense of peace. Ahhhh.
"What the fuck was that?" Frances was on her feet, yelling at him. One hand was to her face. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Kade rolled over in a haze, opened his mouth to apologize, to explain, tried to pull himself up onto his feet. "Frances…"
"You stay there, jerk!" She leveled an accusing finger at him. "I'm walking out of this room, and if you so much as twitch, I'm gonna scream for help!"
She was backing towards the door.
"Hey, wait, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to… umm…"
"Shut up! Stupid ass one-minute wonder. Next time you wanna play rough, you ask first, asshole."
She opened the door, slammed it behind her. Through the door he heard, "Hey, there's some sicko freak in there…"
Well, he thought, that didn't work so well.
Friday 2040.02.17 : 2347 hours
They were coming for him. The Corps. His brothers. He could hear the choppers, hear the small arms fire. They'd found the place he'd been taken to, the place he'd been held, the place where he'd gotten a long clear look into the pits of hell. You never leave a man behind. They were coming for him, and God help anyone who stood in their way.
Watson Cole woke with a start, drenched in sweat, his heart pounding in his chest, a lump in his throat. He was half upright in the bed, one massive dark-skinned arm raised as if to ward off a blow. He was shaking.
Fuck. Just a dream. Just another nightmare.
"Lights," he said aloud.
The small room lit up around him. The light pushed the terror back. This wasn't the KZ. This wasn't that war. This was his apartment in San Francisco.
He let his weight sink back into the mattress. The sheets were soaked in his night sweats.
Breathe. Relax. Breathe.
It had been the rescue, this time. The rescue and the girl. Lunara. He dreamt of all of them. Arman, Nurzhan, Temir. Most of all, Lunara. The ones who'd imprisoned him. The ones who'd used the drug called Nexus to pry open his mind, force themselves and so many others into him. The ones who'd jammed his head full of the hellish memories of the victims of that war. It had been two years, but still he dreamt of them. Still he dreamt their lives.
Why me? Why'd it have to be me?
He'd been at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was as simple as that. If he hadn't been…
I'd still be out there now. Killing for my country. Murdering. Ignorant. Blind. Happy.
And someone else would have this hell inside them.
Breathe. Relax the body. Breathe.
His heart was slowing now. The tremors were nearly gone. He glanced at the clock beside the bed. Not even midnight. He'd been asleep for just an hour. He looked at the nightstand, considered the bottle of pills in the top drawer. He could medicate himself into dreamless unconsciousness. But it was getting harder every time. The doses were increasing.
He hadn't asked for this hell, but it had come to him. He hadn't asked to have his eyes opened, but they had been. He hadn't asked for a chance at redemption, but it had been offered. Offered in the form of these young, idealistic kids that had made him a part of their family. Offered in the form of their modifications and improvements to Nexus, improvements that made it an even more powerful tool for touching the minds and hearts of others.
Nexus had changed him. It had shown him his actions through others' eyes. It has shown him the evil that he and all the other men like him had done. It had given him the urge to find a better way, to make a better world. And if it had done that to him, the hardest of men, what could it do for others?
Watson Cole rose and dressed for a run. He would push his superhumanly fit body to exhaustion. He wouldn't succumb to dependence on the meds. He would keep himself fit and hard. He had things to do before he paid for his crimes.
The drug that had transformed him could transform the world. He would make it happen.