by Tomas L. Martin
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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."
"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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"That's the last time I trust one of your surprises," I said. "What if they'd caught
"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
"Sure, who doesn't?" she said. "That's not happening anytime soon. I need to save
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
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
"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."
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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.
"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?"
"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."
"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
"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
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
"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
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.