Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 25
Stories
Under the Surface
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Nanoparticle Jive
by Tomas Martin
Walks Before Greatness
by Kate Marshall
Counterclockwise
by Alethea Kontis
Whiteface Part II
by Jared Oliver Adams
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
Shadows in Flight - Chapter 2
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Nanoparticle Jive
    by Tomas L. Martin

Nanoparticle Jive
Artwork by Scott Altmann

The bouncer looked at me appraisingly as I reached the front of the club's queue. He scanned me with a handheld PDA, reading my social network information from the RFID in my earlobe. I prayed I'd got my reputation high enough to get in. This was my last chance to get my music heard.

The bouncer shook his head, and my heart sank.

"Sorry mate," he said, "one in one out."

I nodded glumly and retreated to the collection of clubbers who'd also been deemed unworthy of admittance. The club wasn't full. I just didn't have a high enough rep to be worthy.

I was still standing in the queue when Rachel walked straight in. I'd saved weeks of carbon credits to stand a chance of getting in to the best nightclub in town, and she swooped right in, as usual. I'd hate her, if she wasn't so gorgeous. Some people are popular for a reason.

Her reputation hovered around 94, wavering a few points as jealous and admiring members of the queue sent her positive and negative rep. One of only three girls in my university making the national charts, Rachel was the highest ranked person I knew. The bouncer ushered her in. I wondered if she'd remember me.

"Rachel!" I called.

Her hair flicked to one side as she looked at me and the rest of the poor saps waiting to get in. Then she flashed me a smile and disappeared inside. I watched as my social network stats scrolled down the side of my sunglasses. My rep had spiked, gaining 5 points in a matter of moments as people stared at me incredulously. Why was Rachel smiling at me? Whatever the reason, the added respect boosted me past 70 for the first time in my life. The bouncer scanned down the queue and pointed me out.

"You," he said, pulling aside the rope. "Come on."

I sauntered into the club, watching my rep waver on the threshold and just holding as jealous people neg-repped me for getting in. Shrugging my coat off into the hands of the wardrobe girl, I skipped down the steps three at a time and swung onto the dance floor. It felt good to be away from the dreary laboratory where I spent my days, back to the world of music.

I'd made my rep, which even before Rachel's smile wasn't that bad, as a peer-to-peer DJ, in the hopes of getting attention for some of the music I made when I wasn't studying. But getting your songs into even the online charts was a Catch 22 - your rep had to be enough to get people to listen, but if they didn't listen, your rep stayed low. Hence my infiltration of the club scene. I needed to get enough people to like my DJing, so I could start throwing in my own songs. At this point any rep was good rep.

The club was known as "Emission," and for good reason. Whilst most of its competitors had had to tone down their lasers and sub-woofers, Emission relied on carbon credit donations from its party-goers to be as wasteful as things got before the crash. It was decadent and wasteful and borderline illegal, but that was mostly why people loved it so much.

I slipped between the dancers and flicked the DJ software in my clothing onto full. Two lists of songs scrolled down the inside of my glasses, one with the songs available to play, the other with the peer voting results of what to play next. There were different channels people could listen to in their earbuds, but no one did. It was all about what was cool enough to play on the main floor.

The club was in an old skool rock frame of mind, finishing up an old Kinks record as I came in, then slipping into the swirling guitars of "Love Spreads" by the Stone Roses. I scanned the list of upcoming tracks, impressed. This wasn't your usual group of predictable or non-cohesive peer DJs. In this club, people knew what they were talking about.

It still lacked a little ingenuity though. I specialised in setting up unexpected transitions, throwing in songs that work perfectly, but only my weird mind could make the connection. I loved the surprised delight on the faces of the dancers when I pulled it off. I flicked the cursor that was nestled on the ball of my thumb and threw a couple of songs onto the submissions pile. They immediately started leaping up the chart, sending rep my way. I'd need a lot more to risk putting my own tunes out there.

I smoothed the list to one side of my glasses and looked around the dance floor. This scene was pumping. It looked like any other club, bodies gyrating, conversations spilling out from the bar, sweat running down the walls and clusters of ravers throwing out their moves. My rep of 73 was one of the lowest here, despite being higher than pretty much everyone I knew.

The profiles above the heads of the partygoers on my sunglass screens listed a young person's guide to the stars. Football players with Premiership scholarships, makeup models, singers and DJs high on the local mp5 charts, a couple of Banksy-imitation graffiti artists making virtual murals inside the social network. The next track was one of my selections. The stacking crescendos of drums, synths and piano signalled the start of one of the new kickass tracks from ZeroCarbon.

The crowd started going wild. I grinned, and pinged a drinks order towards the bar, flipped another couple of songs onto the stack and wandered over to get my drink.

"You're a bit of a mysterious one, aren't you?" Rachel said, coming up behind me as I dunked the imported Southern Comfort down my throat. The expensive bourbon stuck in my throat as her hand rested on my shoulder. I hadn't spoken to her since fresher's-week three years ago, seven glorious days of partying when all reps had been equal and you could talk to anyone without worrying about whether you were cool enough.

"H-hi. I didn't think you remembered me," I said. In the corner of my vision I watched with excitement as my reputation climb another 2 points as people tried to make up for the huge gap between my and her numbers.

"Cute kid from freshers," she said, "Good taste in music, nice face. To be honest, I was disappointed I hadn't seen you in the scene till now."

I could feel myself reddening.

"Yeah . . ." I said. In front of her advances I felt claustrophobic, like the wall was going to fall in on me. Possibly laughing at me as it did so. "I was busy doing other things."

I didn't think she'd want to know that those things involved quantum physics, so I tried to look mysterious.

"So what's the deal, Brendan?" she asked me. "I mean, your DJ stuff is pretty cool, but your profile is practically empty."

"Well, it worked didn't it?" I said. "No one likes a tell-all."

I didn't tell her the reasons for my omissions - that whilst I wasn't failing uni I was stone broke, that my dad lost everything in the depression and now worked on a local produce farm in rented accommodation. That unless my grades improved massively, if I wanted company sponsorship I'd need to get their attention by reaching a social rep of 80. That I'd be kicked out and have to work on the farms like most of the rest of the country. That if I left uni my music would never get played. I just smiled and let those things go unsaid.

"Well," she said as the Underworld classic I'd lined up came cracking up over the speakers. "I guess you can pick your tunes, so that'll have to do. Hardly anyone around here has any taste. "

The floor was slick with sweat - you could pull off some great moonwalks and slides if you got into the mood and that fitted your profile. She led me into the central space where confident 85s danced with hungry 78s, a nuanced dance of class-based courtship like Cinderella's ball on acid.

The crowd parted for Rachel, and I followed in her wake, eyes flicking with amazement to my rep in the corner of my glasses as it clicked steadily upward. After eighteen months of university, working two part-time jobs and lurking on the outskirts of the social chart like that obscure indie band too esoteric to love, I'd made it. I was in.

Rachel beckoned over a nervous looking girl with a rep barely high enough to avoid being kicked out. Obviously living off people's favours, like me. The girl reached into her patchwork recycled jacket and brought out a pair of tablets and a nervous smile. Rachel grabbed the drugs, gave the girl a fake-enthusiastic kiss and turned away.

Her hands were cool, pressing one of the tablets into my palm. She tossed the other into her mouth and swallowed, eyes glistening with excitement.

"Do you like to get high, Brendan?" she asked me. Her hand brushed dangerously close to my thigh. I made a conscious decision and moved in to kiss her. The rest of the night was lost in a blur.

I awoke to the kind of headache usually reserved for aging rock stars, but it came with a grin on my face that no migraine could dispel. Luckily my fridge had noticed the many RFID-chipped bottles of beer disappearing from it during the course of the evening and chilled a can of Coke-Hangover for me. I stumbled around the kitchen, letting the paracetamol and stomach medicine in the Coke trickle down my throat. A kick of caffeine allowed me to concentrate on my glasses when I pulled them on.

The first surprise when I activated my social networking was the plethora of messages awaiting me. I scrolled through them, most asking to be friended or for me to go to some party or event. A couple asked if they could check out some of my tracks, which gave me a pretty good buzz. I replied with a message forwarding them to my last.fm page and made the link more prominent on my homepage.

The second surprise was a message from Rachel. It had no text, only a link to her phone's GPS and an animated gif of a sundial with the hour numbers removed. A red line was drawn some hours away from where the sun's shadow told the time. I smiled. Not just a pretty face. I grabbed a primer on sundials from the web and overlaid the results onto the picture, working out that she wanted me to meet at 2.30, presumably wherever her GPS said she was at the time.

My social rating gave me a third surprise. Overnight my antics had shot me up into the mid-eighties and there they had stabilised like shares in a company with better than expected earnings. Pageviews on my music portfolio had shot up. Twenty people listened to one of my tracks as I watched. Had I finally made it?

My alarm clanged in my ears, filling the display overlaying my vision with a multitude of mechs from Japanese manga, shooting everything in sight. I dimly recalled hearing it more than once and counted the number of mechs. I was late for the other part of my double life.

I swore and grabbed my bag, pulled on the clothes piled in a corner by the fridge, nearly tripping as I pulled the shoes over my heels. I broke into a run towards campus, promising myself for the thousandth time to stop burning the candle at both ends.

I darted down the sidestreets, trying to avoid the streams of other students heading for class. Being seen rushing was not cool. My earpiece rang as I dashed along analleyway. I groaned.

"Mum," I said. "I can't really talk right now."

"Brendan, you always say that." Her voice was kind but softly reproaching. I knew I'd been neglecting my parents. Their farm just felt so far away.

"I'm sorry," I said, "I've just got a lot on. My final project, you know."

"How's it going?" she said. "Have you made any decisions about what you're going to do when you finish university?"

Not this again. Every conversation, the prospect of my future employment was front and centre.

"Mum, I really can't talk now, I'm late for class. I'll phone you later."

I hung up on her, feeling guilty for my rudeness. By the time I reached the security doors of the lab, thirty mechs were dancing on my glasses and my body was coated in sweat. I punched in the door code - the favourite physical constant of the department head - and darted into the Dynamic Holographic Assembler room before anyone could see me.

Or so I hoped. I flicked the docking button on the room's wallscreen and let it load up my network, tossed my bag under the table, folded into the chair and rubbed my temples, wishing the day away. Maybe if I kept a low profile I could just browse my social improvement for a couple of hours and then sneak out to see Rachel.

"How's it going Brendan?" a familiar voice called cheerfully from the door. My heart sunk.

"Hi, Rick," I straightened up and trying to blink the tired boredom from my eyes. "I'm doing okay, and you?"

Rick was the postdoc working underneath my final-year project supervisor. Whilst my supervisor was away burning up the university's carbon credits in Japan, I was under Rick's smotheringly friendly supervision.

"How's the work going?" He jabbed a finger at the enclosed laser behind me. "Are we going to see some DHA programs in action this week?"

"Sure thing," I said, desperately trying to keep a yawn from escaping. "I just need to get a few more things sorted before it's ready to go."

"Perfect." His expression didn't agree with his comment. "I'll look forward to seeing it, Brendan. If you work hard on this, you could get a really good project grade."

I nodded a frozen smile and then slumped as Rick's face disappeared.

The Dynamic Holographic Assembler sounded like a great project when I signed up for it. It still did, in the objective part of my brain. This piece of equipment could pick up tiny particles using laser beams and bond them into something bigger and more complex. A cool machine in theory, with a lot of slogged programming in front of it in practice. I'd joined university with as much enthusiasm for physics as I had for my music. It had just been steadily eroded by three years of partial differential equations and monotonous practical experiments.

I put my sunglasses aside and brought my code up on the wall, staring blindly at it whilst thinking about the previous night. Much of it was lost in a blur of dancing, both on the dance floor and with Rachel's mouth in one of the booths. We'd made out in patches, increasing in intensity in between frenzied bouts of dancing to fuzzy bass and slapping beats, until we'd parted with one final long kiss and an online handshake of tentative relationship status, so far invisible to anyone but us.

I ran the code, watching on the screen as four laserbeam fragments each trapped a micron-sized sphere. I linked them as one object and drifted them across the screen with the joystick, with the aim of sticking them to a piece of graphene, the first layer of a fabled nanodevice I'd never seen work.

"Come on," I whispered to the screen, pulling the joystick as delicately as I could. "Stick you piece of crap, stick!"

The balls pushed towards the graphene sheet and resisted, ever so slightly. I pushed harder onto the joystick and watched with familiar horror as the light grey graphene sheet began to tear apart.

"Damn it!" I banged my hand onto the table. Pete, one of the postgrads in the lab, stuck his head round the door and smirked.

"Can't get it to stick?" he said.

I shook my head ruefully.

"Keep trying," he said. "When Jim was working on this stuff he used to say he'd had a good week if he got one layer in a thousand to stick."

"Great." My eyes slipped to the clock.

"That's research for you," Pete said. "Months of mindlessly trying stuff over and over until one day you get all the results you wanted by some random chance."

"You're really doing wonders for my enthusiasm," I told him.

""Trust me, the feeling when it works is worth it."

"Somehow I doubt it," I muttered, but Pete had left and didn't hear. I tweaked the code aimlessly. The coding was easy, much like creating a dance track. I just had a lot less idea what it all meant.

"I'm not going back to the farm," I told the DHA, "I need to make you work."

I moved the code around a bit more, added a subroutine and clicked run. The laser beams tracked the nanoparticles and then moved off in a totally random direction. I sighed and opened up the code again. After running the code twenty times or so, observing nothing more than a sample increasingly full of broken graphene fragments, my mind began to wander.

I flicked one of my latest tracks onto my headphones, listening to the new keyboard synths I'd added. The nanoparticles swirled in front of me as I listened to my beats. The sparkle of the laser light and the complex dancing fragments seemed to fit the feel of my dubstep breaks almost perfectly. It was almost as if the particles wanted to dance at that speed . . .

I sat up in my chair, brain fizzing with a new idea. I pulled my glasses on and flicked open my artist webpage to post a tweet to my fans.

#Got a great new idea for a music video for the new track Painless Peace# I wrote. #Can't wait to show you all#

I closed my webpage and opened the nanoassembler's programming tool. Pulling the timing of the beat of my new track off my dropbox, I inserted wait-loops and pauses so that the commands to the laser matched those of my song. Then I turned the video recording option on and started the program.

The spheres and sheets whirled around uncontrollably in the grip of the laser beam, randomly bumping into each other in time to the music. I grinned. A couple of hours of recording and I could cut together a video to raise my profile, perhaps even hit a rep of ninety for a few hours.

"Huh."

I stopped thinking about music as I noticed what the DHA was doing. On the screen, in the centre of the laser spots, a tiny column had begun to form, a stacked pile of balls and sheets, just like the theoretical one in my project plan.

I ran the program in manual mode, slowing the interactions between the particles down in time to the beat. Once I got to the right speed, the balls magically clung to the graphene sheet, bending it but not tearing it.

"It's working," I said in amazement. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. "The nanoparticles like the rhythm . . ."

Just then my organiser pinged, throwing up animated gifs of Rachel pulling a face as she sent a reminder of our meeting.

#I've found something awesome# she tweeted at me. #meet me in Orchard Park#

I looked at the time and swore. I set the program running to my MP5 player on shuffle and the video on record.

"Pete?" I said, pulling my head into the postgraduate office. "I'm heading out for a bit, I'm going to leave the program running in there, okay?"

Pete waved a hand without looking up from the 3D projection screen in front of him, which showed a skeleton of organic molecules. He was eating his lunch through the image, scattering the light across his sandwich.

"Sure thing," he said through mouthfuls. "Aimee's virtually attending a conference on the access grid so no one's using the Assembler except for you this week."

"Cool." I threw my bag onto my shoulder and walked out, wondering what surprise Rachel had in store for me. I turned my social network on to check my rating. Since my message about the video it had gone up a few points, still strong enough to impress her. I looked back at the DHA room, wondering what would be there when I returned.

Rachel looked incredible, perched on a wall in a hemp summer dress as I got off the bus into the tangled architecture of Orchard Park. She smiled up at me, exchanged kisses both physical and virtual and then turned her network onto private. I dialled mine down too, pulling my glasses up onto my forehead.

"I was listening to your latest EP," she said. "It's really good, Brendan."

"Thanks."

"You're going to be huge," she added. "You'll see."

"So what is this great mystery you have for me?" I said, trying to keep my voice steady and nonchalant amongst rising excitement. Making it big with my music had always been what I wanted, but the thought of it suddenly happening felt like a crocodile had got inside my guts.

She took me by the hand and led me towards the rooftop gardens.

"You'll see."

Orchard Park had been an industrial complex before the crash, all blocky warehouses and ungainly walkways and pipes. Since the majority of the companies had long since bankrupted themselves and vacated, local communities had moved in, converting the flat roofspaces and parking lots into urban gardens.

"Up here," Rachel said, tugging my arm towards a staircase, once bare ugly aluminium but now adapted for vertical farming. My arm brushed the grape-laden boughs of vines climbing amongst the metal stair rails.

"Where are you taking me?" I asked, peering through the windows into layers of hydroponic tanks growing bananas and avocados. "Is there some new delicacy here I should taste?"

"In a manner of speaking," Rachel said, her tongue darting out for a microsecond in a fashion I found irresistible. She pulled at me again. "Come on DJ Boy, move it or lose it."

The top of the warehouse bristled with tall climbing beans in thin rows, spaced far enough apart to allow most of the sunlight to pass through the glass roof into the greenhouse below. Sprinklers intermittently sprayed the leaves with much needed summer irrigation. Rachel led me across the rooftop, her eyes focusing on the blurred plants beneath the glass we stood on.

"Those strawberries look nice," I said, "but I think the market would have sold them to us, no stealth required."

"Strawberries?" she snorted. "Come on, Brendan."

"What?" I said. "I like strawberries."

She pulled a face without taking her eyes off the plants below.

"Aha!" she said. "Now we're talking."

I followed her gaze through the glass. Amidst a bed of sprawling banana plants, a familiar seven-frond leaf appeared many times.

"That's what you brought me here for?" I said. Next to my experience in the lab this felt cheap.

"Haven't you heard?" Rachel said. "These places grow some amazing skunk."

"You brought me here just to score some weed?"

"Not just some weed," she said. "This hydroponic stuff is just divine. We'll be guest listed to everything if we get some."

"You do this to maintain your rep?" I asked.

"Sure," she said. "Staying in top ten requires a little effort. If you want anyone to listen to your music, you'll have to get used to the rep grind. Plus this stuff gets me off like nothing else."

And with that Rachel placed her headphones and networker under one of the beanstalks, slipped her shoes off and pulled her dress over her head. Wow, I thought, expecting at any minute she'd laugh and tell me this was all a joke on the geek kid. I stared, a potent concoction of feelings exploding through my brain. I knew this was not a good idea, but she looked incredible, and I didn't want to lose her. I stood, paralysed by indecision. She stood there in her underwear, head to one side, looking at me with an amused smile.

"I'm not sure this is what I signed up for," I said uncertainly.

"I know this music producer." Her gaze was steady and a faint smile crossed her lips. "He'd probably like your stuff, if we had the rep to impress him first."

I didn't say anything, but from the triumphant look in her eyes she knew I'd agree.

"Well come on then," She said, "Electronics, shoes and trousers off. Shirt too, if you don't want to look like an idiot when we get out."

"Rachel," I said slowly, "What the hell are you doing?"

"The floor below has heat sensors," she said, moving towards one of the sprinklers. "If we're going downstairs we need to be wet to hide our body signatures."

I gaped as she ducked into the spray of water, smoothed it over her body. How did I end up here?

"You are the craziest girl I've ever met," I said, placing my electronics carefully under the fronds of a tomato plant, putting my t-shirt on top to protect it from the sprinkler.

She laughed, a full bodied sound, unrepentant.

"Come on," she said. "I'm soaking wet here."

"I noticed," I said. I stripped down to my boxers and stepped into the sprinkler. The water was cold to my sun warmed body and I gasped. Rachel leaned over and kissed me.

"Not just musical talent," she said, running a hand along my shoulder. Then she walked to the door to the floor below, entering a pincode she'd got from who knows where.

"The longer we're out of the water, the more chance we'll be caught," she said. "As soon as you see a plant, grab the flowers and leaves and run back to the ladder."

Despite a rising sense of panic I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. This wasn't like me, like anything resembling the Brendan I'd always been. It was dangerous, reckless and indulgent. But, looking at the drops of water running down Rachel's pale skin, it was exciting.

"Okay," I said. "Let's do it."

She grinned and pulled open the door, dipping her head under the sprinklers one last time. I did the same, and met her eyes.

"Ready?" she said. "Go!"

We darted through the door together, wet feet slipping on the metal walkway. I vaulted down the stairs three at a time. The warehouse was huge, wide swathes of tall hotplants with walkways snaking their way through their branches and roots. The air was wet and sultry. I tried not to look at the thermal cameras scattered about the walkways; maybe I ignored them they wouldn't notice me.

I paused at the base of the stairs. Rachel ran off in a seemingly random direction. I tried to remember where I'd seen the plants from the roof, rotating the view in my mind like it was one of my nanotools.

The nearest of the cannabis was actually quite close to the ladder, in a totally different direction to the one Rachel had run in. I strolled across to it, plucked as many leaves and buds as I could, and walked back to the ladder, where I stayed crouched behind the wall, invisible to the heat-seeking cameras.

After a couple of minutes with no sign of Rachel I clambered up the ladder, deposited the handfuls of weed amongst my possessions, splashed water on myself and climbed back down to see she still hadn't shown.

I thought about calling out but wondered whether there might be some kind of noise alarm. I began to creep in the direction she'd taken. I reflected briefly on how ridiculous I looked, a soaking wet, nearly naked nineteen year old skulking along a hothouse catwalk.

There was a strangled cry from up ahead. Piercing klaxons began to sound out, piercing the hothouse's arboreal calm. I stopped crouching and ran towards the cry. Beyond a row of banana plants Rachel lay tangled amongst a plant bed, head amidst the foliage.

"Are you alright?" I said.

She snapped her head out of the leaves and gave a smile.

"There's a purple haze bush over there," she said. "Do you know how much that stuff's worth?"

"Never mind that," I said, pointing my hand towards the sound of the alarm. Or at least one of the directions, for the siren appeared to be emanating from everywhere. "We need to get out of here!"

"Just hold my legs so I can grab some," she said. "I've come too far not to bring back some of that stuff."

"You know when I said you were crazy?" I said. "I didn't mean it as a compliment. Give me your legs."

She leaned over the handrail further. I grabbed onto her legs, keeping her from falling through the gap between the walkway and the hydroponic bed. The fall to the next level was at least thirty feet. I tried to balance this knowledge with the pleasurable feel of Rachel's water flecked legs, certain that concentrating too much on either would lead to letting go.

"Come on," I said, glancing round at the sound of a door clanging open down below us. "Someone's coming."

"Just a little bit further," she said. I shifted my weight to allow her to stick further out into the plant bed. My muscles burned with the effort.

"You're heavier than you look," I muttered.

"I'll pretend you didn't say that," she replied. "Just another inch!"

I put my arm onto the handrail and supported her on that side too, allowing her to shift her body forward slightly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a thickset man emerge from one of the staircases at the other end of the warehouse. He saw us and shouted.

"Come on, Rach!!"

"Got it!" she cried. I pulled her back onto the walkway, the pair of us collapsing onto the steel. She held up a cannabis bush full of purple flowers.

"Look at this," she said. "This has got to be worth 4 rep points easy."

"Not if you don't get a move on it won't," I said.

I yanked her upwards and pulled her back towards the rooftop staircase, starting into a run. The slap of feet behind me told me Rachel had got the message, too.

"Come back here!" shouted the man. "Bloody kids! If I get my hands on you I'll have you blocked!"

"Sure, that'll make us want to come back," I said between breaths, scrambling up the stairs, reaching down to pull Rachel up with me. Being blocked from the social network was just about the worst punishment a young adult could receive.

We emerged back onto the roof, soaking wet with a bundle of precious contraband in each hand. We snatched our things from beneath the tomato plants and ran down the external steps, wet feet slipping on the aluminium. A shout came up from behind us. We didn't stop to look around, but kept running into the park. After five minutes we stopped amongst a copse of trees. I threw the weed down on top of my clothes.

"That's the last time I trust one of your surprises," I said. "What if they'd caught us?"

"Who said you'd had your surprise?" she said.

"What were you thinking?" I continued. Suddenly the risk we'd took didn't seem exciting, just stupid. "If you'd left it any longer we'd be in the police station by now. Or worse."

"Brendan," she said "Shut up." Her lips encircled mine and her hands moved to remove my wet boxers. I shut up.

Later we took turns skimming stones across the lake from its dried shrunken edges. Then we settled in the shade of the laden apricot trees, drying our clothes in the mid-May sun. The ground beneath us was hard and dry, sucking eagerly from the drips from our flasks as we sipped at the homemade lemonade we'd filled up from the park stall. She leant her arm on my leg as we looked out at the cranes moving about making efficiency renovations on the offices that towered above the park.

"It's nice here," she said.

"I guess," I said. "But I've been here my whole life. Don't you wonder what it's like elsewhere?"

"Sure, who doesn't?" she said. "That's not happening anytime soon. I need to save up."

"I just get sick of it, you know?" I said. "All this carbon-credit allowance crap. Scrimping on food and clothes just so I can spare enough to get to London? When my father was in uni he bought plane tickets and took months just flying from place to place."

"We can travel," Rachel replied. "My father was in Seattle last year. If your rating's high enough, they'll let you go for something important."

I took another gulp of lemonade, wishing I'd washed yesterday's apple juice out of my flask more thoroughly. I wondered just how rich Rachel's parents were. In all my time at the university, my parents' background had remained a topic I'd steered away from.

"But what if we just want to go?" I said. "We've done our bit. My parents' farm generates more power than it consumes. We eat local, buy everything digital. No car, no flights, no beef."

"You live within your means," she said. I tried to ignore the pity in her voice.

"Yeah," I said. "We do. I've seen the news reports, I know how important it is. But everything's so limited. I just look at my life and think - what can I achieve? I haven't even got the ability to get out of Oxfordshire."

"Hey," Rachel said, waving a hand in the vague direction of where her rep would appear if we'd been linked in. "We're highly repped people now. If the credits are what you're worried about, there are ways of getting around that stuff."

She looked lasciviously past me in a way that made me imagine black market carbon traders, handsome brutish men of danger that could provide her with everything in her desire I could not. Or so my insecurities suggested, although I didn't acknowledge them as such at the time.

"Sure, we can cheat," I said, "But is that better? We might as well burn coal."

She shrugged and began flicking through her network for parties for the evening.

"Why do you do it?" I said. "What made you want to be the 'it' girl at the top of the rankings? You hardly ever go to classes, you're always boosting your rep instead. Don't you want a career?"

"Brendan," she said with a sigh that implied I just didn't get it. "You think a career would be any different? They still have their rep chart. Sure, it's more private and corporate, but it's still the same hoop-jumping and rep-chasing. The further up the charts I get now, the easier it'll be to get ahead in my career. Everyone does it."

"I guess," I said, but inwardly I wondered whether everyone really did think that way.

"Marcus is throwing a house party tonight down by the river." She said. "He's promising something really wild. That producer will be there. Wanna go?"

Her dark eyes were seductive, flecked with a playful green. Her shirt hung open as she leaned forward, soft mouth closing on mine for an indulgent kiss. She wouldn't understand what I wanted to say, but she was still the girl I'd always wished I'd been cool enough to have. What could I say?

"Sure," I told her. "I just have to check on my experiment so my supervisor doesn't fail me."

"Seriously?" Her raised eyebrows told me the story. I didn't need to check my glasses to see my rep falling a couple of points.

"It won't take long." I gave her my best "what can you do" expression, although really I was quite excited to find what the nanoassembler had made. "Stick the party on my events list and I'll see you there in a few hours?"

"Okay," she said. She kissed me again, biting her lip as she drew away with a bemused expression. Then she ran back towards the river. I picked my damp boxer shorts from a tree branch and hauled myself up to walk back to the bus stop.

I arrived at the lab to find Professor Gallagher quite comprehensively back from Japan. He sat at the desk of the nanoassembler, staring at the screen. His eyes were ringed with the effects of a long flight. When I cracked open the door he stood and looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

"Brendan," he said. "Hello."

"Uh . . . hi." I gesticulated behind me. "Sorry I wasn't here, I --"

"Never mind that," he snapped and jabbed a finger at the manipulator screen. "What did you do to the program?"

A yawning pit of panic opened up inside me. I had flashes of being hauled in front of department heads, thrown out of university, sent back to the farm to grow biodiesel the rest of my life.

"I . . ." His face remained inscrutable. I floundered. "I made a few changes to the rhythm. I hope I haven't broken anything."

"Broken?" The professor returned his eyes to the screen. "Brendan, if this is what you call broken, can you do it some more?"

I blinked. He zoomed the screen in on one of the nanostructures.

"Take a look," Gallagher said. "Whatever you did, it worked."

My stomach bottomed out with an altogether different form of panic. Amongst all my fear of failure, I'd never imagine what might happen if I succeeded.

I peered closer at the screen. The spots of the nanoassembler's laser beam moved around the assembly area, picking up buckyballs, nanorods, and functionalised spheres with ease, slotting them together into a vast cylindrical construction with a timing that looked familiar.

"The beat . . ." I said softly, watching the timing of each laser spot's movement. "They're dancing!"

"I'm sorry?" Professor Gallagher said with an odd look.

"I write music," I said. "This morning I tried writing the code in time with one of my songs."

Gallagher watched the screen for twenty silent seconds, tapping his finger against his leg. A smile began to creep onto his face as he worked out the rhythm.

"Well, that's certainly an unusual approach," he said. "We'd never really played with the timing before."

"It seems to work," I said, watching a rod pause a second before attaching to a rapidly expanding grid of nano parts.

"There must be a latency time to the biotin we hadn't considered," the professor said.

"So the chemical reaction needs to be done at a certain speed?"

"Exactly." The professor walked to the door, still looking back at the self-assembling nanomaterials. He straightened his back and looked at me for what felt like the first time.

"Well done, Brendan," he said. "The timing still looks a little off. Play around with it and see if you can't find the best . . . rhythm."

"Okay, sir."

He looked amused at the concept. His hand beat a drumbeat on the doorframe.

"This is good work." His voice had a soft warmth I'd not picked up in lectures. "Work hard at this and we could have a place here for you next year."

"A p-place?" I said. "As a researcher?"

Professor Gallagher nodded. I looked back at the nanoparticles joining together, creating structure from the smallest of building blocks. In all the lectures and laboratory classes, I'd never felt this way about science. It was like having another road opened up in front of me. I admired my discovery and grinned.

"A researcher could make his name on this," the professor said. His voice became firm. "If he was to work hard to ensure his success."

"Yes, sir," I said. "Absolutely."

"Call me Steve," he said. "Hey, see if the nanoparticles like the Prodigy will you? It'd give me a real kick to see them dance to something from when I was your age."

"Yes, Si-- Steve." He began whistling snatches of a Chemical Brothers track. My mind reassembled its map of how the world worked. Professors and dance-music weren't things I'd ever thought mutually compatible. I always thought I'd have to make a choice between my creative side and my work. What was it I wanted to do with my life? Professor Gallagher stopped whistling and opened the door.

"Goodnight, Brendan," he called from out in the corridor.

"Goodnight," I said. I took a deep breath and rushed towards the screen, eager to try all my favourite tracks.

I was just watching nanorods forming a scaffold in time to Led Zeppelin's Kashmir when my network pinged at me. I stared dumbly at the time, swore and hurriedly shut the assembler down, grabbed my stuff and headed for the door.

The building was locked up for the night and it took me another fifteen minutes to find a postgrad with a RFID key to let me out. I emerged into the warm nighttime air, running past startled drinkers heading for the bars. It was hard to get back in the mood for pleasing the network when what I'd just achieved was so exciting and yet so utterly unlikely to provide me with rep from the cool kids.

I was two hours late by the time I got to Marcus' house party, sweaty from the run, head still full of nanoscience. I found Rachel deep in conversation in the kitchen with three guys, an 88, an 81 and a 93 sharing a bottle of eighteen-year-old Glenmorangie. By the looks of the demolished bottle, someone had a rich father. In my delay, my rep had fallen back into the seventies.

"Where have you been?" Rachel said. She refrained from kissing me, looking at my ruffled clothes with an exaggerated wrinkle of her nose. I hadn't changed since the park. I realised I still had no boxers on.

"The most amazing thing happened in my experiment," I said.

"Your experiment?" Rachel looked as if I'd thrown rotten meat at her. "You mean work?"

"Well yeah," I said, scratching my head. "I had a real breakthrough."

The taller one, the 93, turned to me. I think I'd seen him in the student newspaper, running for vice president of the union.

"You're not talking about uni are you?" he said. "Once I get out of lectures I can't wait to forget all about it."

"Too right," the 88 said, "Life's too short."

They laughed and poured each other another shot of the whiskey. They didn't offer me any. I was someone who took their classes seriously, which made me uncool. Even the cool kids had to do exams, but they tried to hide the work they did as much as possible.

"This is Phil, Rich, and Xavi," Rachel said. "Phil and Rich were just telling me about their new jobs. They're just about to start working for Esso."

"The green division, of course," Phil said. "Third generation biofuels. Just because it's good for the planet doesn't mean you can't make a shedload of money."

"Plus it's a lot easier to get carbon credits when you make the carbon sinks!" Rich said.

"Uh, sure." I wasn't quite sure if I was supposed to be an active participant in the conversation. Rachel hadn't looked at me once. I was starting to feel like unless I did exactly what she wanted, she would find some new toy to help her move up the social ladder.

"That's nothing," Xavi said in an unfamiliar accent. "You should see some of the solar projects my dad's worked with out in the desert. The scale of what's going on is crazy."

"Xavi's here on placement from Spain." Rich said.

"How'd you manage that?" I asked. "I'd love to go to Spain."

Xavi, the low ranked 81, gave an uncomfortable shrug. Phil, the 93, clapped him on the shoulder.

"It's easier when your dad is the ambassador," he said. "Ain't that right Xavi?"

Xavi didn't reply to him. He turned to me.

"And what is it you do?" Xavi asked.

"I . . . manipulate graphene sheets using a holographic nanoassembler," I said. It wasn't something I would normally have said, but I was proud of the day's success. It felt more real. "Well, actually I write programs that control the computers that do that."

"Oh," Xavi said. There was an awkward pause, then Rich laughed.

"Sounds like a barrel of fun," he said. "Come on Phil, let's go play pool."

"Alright," Phil said. "See you later Rachel."

"Bye!" she said, a little too brightly for my liking. I couldn't help noticing his arm brushing her back as they walked away. I wondered where I stood in all this.

"Well," I said to her, "They were very pleased with themselves."

"So?" she said. "They're interesting guys."

"Sure," I said. "If you like that sort of thing."

"Brendan." She looked down her nose at me. "Don't be a downer. No one wants to hear about your work, it's a party! We're here to get you your big break, remember?"

I did my best to smile. Somehow I'd never thought being with my dream girl would involve feeling like a social outcast.

"Quick, let's see if we can find Gordo."

"Gordo?" I snorted. "Sounds like a stockbroker."

"No," she said reproachfully, "silly. Alex Gordon, the music producer? The whole reason we're here?"

"Oh," I said. "Right. Okay then."

She led me around to the makeshift bar, intercepting a couple of wooden tumblers to dip in the punch bowl. I followed mutely. In all the excitement at the lab, I'd forgotten about Rachel's offer of introducing me to the producer. I became suddenly aware of my appearance, smoothing my hair in the reflection of a picture and checking there weren't any embarrassing messages on my wall.

Gordo was a slightly thickset guy in his late twenties, a bristly goatee hiding rather clammy skin. His local rep was off the charts, and he appeared in the top 10,000 country-wide. Rachel burst into her most seductive smile and positioned us between the producer and the bar.

"Gordo! Hi!"

"Hello."

"Rachel," she said. "We spent some time together at Jack's."

His eyes flickered a light of recognition I wasn't sure I believed.

"Of course," he said with a warm smile. "How are you?"

"Fine," she said. She moved back against the table to let me closer. "Gordo, this is Brendan. He makes some awesome electronica. I was hoping you'd be here so the two of you can chat."

"Is that so?" He turned to me, looking relieved to be talking to anyone rather than Rachel, who hung behind me eagerly. "So what are you called?"

"I'm Brendan."

"No." Gordo frowned. "Your band . . . artist name."

"Oh," I said, scratching my head awkwardly. "I see. It's 'Puppet Lives'."

"Not bad." His eyes defocused as he looked me up on the network. "Ah yes, I remember. Kinda Nintendo Ambient with a little nerdcore?"

I nodded. "That's exactly it."

"Yeah, I listened to your stuff," he said.

"You did?" My ears did a kind of aural double take.

"Sure," he said. "I try to listen to all the local artists."

Rachel leaned into the conversation. She'd redone her lipstick whilst we were talking. It was now a brilliant shade of pink.

"So," she said. "Does Brendan have what it takes?"

"Well, there's no questioning your talent," Gordo told me. I grinned inanely despite my best attempts to look cool. "I'm not sure it's got a huge market though. If you were to remove some of the more extreme high pitched samples and speed the beat up, I think you might have something I'd be interested in. Make it a little more suited for a dancefloor, you know."

He gestured at the writhing bodies in the packed living room behind us. My stomach felt hard with panic at the thought of the suggested changes. I couldn't think of anything worse. He was basically asking me to sell out.

"Uh, that's not really what I had in mind . . ." I said.

"Brendan!" Rachel produced a girly giggle completely out of the character I had for her, and leant her hand on Gordo's arm. "What he means is that it will take some thought to rework the tracks which he has already completed."

"I can speak for myself," I said, glaring at Rachel. "I'm not sure I'd still be happy with my tracks if I made those changes. It's not really me."

Gordo scratched his beard and shrugged.

"Well," he said, "that's up to you as an artist. I can only tell you that I can't sell your work as it currently is."

"I understand."

"If you have a change of heart or make any more dancey tracks, let me know."

He handed me a virtual card, which I slotted into my private contacts. We shook hands.

"Thank you for your time." I said. Gordo nodded and wandered away from the bar, a fresh glass in hand.

"What's wrong with you, Brendan!" Rachel rounded on me when the producer was out of earshot. "You just threw away guaranteed star status!"

"By sacrificing everything about my music that makes it mine?" I placed my drink on the table, suddenly not feeling like alcohol. "Frankly, I've got better things to do than destroy my soul."

"What's your problem?" she said.

"Don't you want more than just rep?" I said. "Something more?"

"Like what?" Rachel said, scanning the room behind me for someone else to pounce on.

I looked at her and fumed inside. I wondered why I'd been so excited in the first place. This had never been about me or my music, just what I could do to get her in with the in crowd.

"Hey," she said, waving a hand over her head. "There's Franco. He's joining Arsenal next month. Franco! Over here!"

I watched as the athletic 95 made his way towards Rachel with a smile. I had a burning desire to be elsewhere. I thought back to my meeting with Professor Gallagher, how I'd felt like an important part of his plan without having to give up my own.

"I'm going to head off," I said. "I've got a lot to do tomorrow."

Her face turned red.

"Brendan, what the hell do you think you're doing?" She pushed me into a corner so that Franco wouldn't see us. I suddenly realised how short she was, as if the popularity had been hiding it. "This is your chance to make it big, and you're blowing it! This won't come around again."

"If I'm going to make it big with my music," I said, "I want it to be because people liked it, not because I pandered to what gets me the most rep."

"Oh grow up," she said. "You really think you can get anywhere without getting your rep up? This is the way the world works."

"Not the whole world," I said, stepping away from her.

"Fine," she said, rolling her eyes and turning back to the party. "See you around, Brendan. When you change your mind, I'll be here."

"I know that you will." At that moment, I couldn't think of a sadder pronouncement.

I turned my back on her exaggerated welcome of Franco and walked towards the door. One look back into the crowd of drunken party goers and the swirl of rep changes and wall posts flying about their heads made me pause. Then I turned my social network off and walked out into the warm summer air. Rachel spent her whole life trying to make those around her dance to her tune, to try and achieve the life she wanted. I thought of the assembler, and how if I could make the nanoparticles dance, I could have a greater influence than all the rep in the world would ever give me.


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