Then came the Clawback.
Now we thrive.
Rubi Whiting is a member of the Bounceback Generation. The first to be raised free of the troubles of the late twenty-first century. Now she works as a public defender to help troubled individuals with anti-social behavior. That’s how she met Luciano Pox.
Luce is a firebrand and has made a name for himself as a naysayer. But there’s more to him than being a lightning rod for controversy. Rubi has to find out why the governments of the world want to bring Luce into custody, and why Luce is hell bent on stopping the recovery of the planet.
Gamechanger by L. X. Beckett is on sale on September 17. Please enjoy the following excerpt.
Cherub Whiting’s first realworld police raid was nothing like the sims.
She was in a chic Parisian neighborhood with a view of the Eiffel Tower, waiting on a meeting. When @Interpol showed up in her pop-in conference room, she’d been sending pings to a no-show client for the better part of an hour.
Luce, you’re late. Luce, it’s time for our face-to-face. Where are you?
He’d be afraid to skip, wouldn’t he? By the time someone’s social capital got so bad they merited a face-to-face meeting—one in- volving the horrifying carbon cost of flying a lawyer from Toronto to WestEuro, no less—they were desperate to get life back on track. Failure to appear was unheard of.
The drag of jetlag had left Rubi mentally fogged. It dawned only slowly that she was obsessing.
“Can I get a volunteer gig while I wait, Crane?”
Her electronic sidekick had obviously been expecting the request. “A radish pallet across the hall has requested weeding and watering.” Crane’s crisp voice, transmitted via tiny implanted earbuds, had a British accent; he sounded like he was at her shoulder. “Its usual gardener had an emergency.”
Rubi’s visual implants superimposed the mirage of a yellow arrow onto the floor, mapping the way to a conference room big enough for twelve. The pallet of seedlings in question had been abandoned mid-job. Thumb-sized plants with leaves like propellers ruffled in a breeze from the open window. Beyond them, the streets of Paris beckoned.
Rubi felt a pang for whoever had been tending the radishes. “Run tutorial?”
“I remember how to weed radishes, Crane.” Nudging aside a delicate stem with her thumbnail, she isolated one of the undesirables, tugging it from the soil. “See?”
“Very good, miss.”
Where was Luce? If they couldn’t convince Cloudsight he could behave prosocially, he’d be remanded to managed care: relocation to the outskirts, mandatory labor on an ecosphere rehab project—topsoil generation, probably—and censored comms. It was a prison sentence in all but name.
You can’t make him appear, Rubi told herself. Breathe. Pull weeds. Enjoy the solitude.
Heavy boots, pounding up the stairwell double-time, filled her with relief.
Crane spoke, momentarily drowning out the elephant stampede. “Miss Cherub? Call for you.”
“Is it Dad?”
“Your father’s fine. The call is from your archnemesis.”
“No? I’ll make a note.”
“Gimlet Barnes is not my arch—”
Clomp clomp clomp bang! An armored man charged through the door.
Rubi pivoted, squaring off to face the threat . . . and brandishing a fist full of weeds. The move was reflexive, triggered by hours logged in-game.
. . . plus, maybe, the mention of Gimlet . . .
If this had been a game, her implants would have augmented the white-walled meeting room until it was unrecognizable, frosting visuals and sound over mundane reality, porting her into playspace: a dungeon, maybe, a space station, or a canyon in the mythical American Wild West. Instead, the walls lit up with official warnings. Posters scrolled on the plaster, red-and-black placards: POLICE LINE. DO NOT CROSS!
A cop? Luce couldn’t be a cop, could he? With his social deficits?
Official directives crawled the posters: REMAIN IN PLACE! WAIT FOR INSTRUCTIONS!
Rubi had risen to her toes, prep for rolling left if he attacked. Heart slamming, she scanned for weapons.
Like what—a crossbow? Holy water?
Two cameras and a pacification bot drifted over her radishes. “Stand down, mademoiselle! Stand down now!”
Rubi lowered her fists. Of course this policeman wasn’t Luce. He was a stranger.
Handsome stranger, noted an inner voice.
Dammit, stay on task! “Complying as ordered.”
He was tall and olive-skinned, with flyaway hair the color of charcoal and forbidding features: sharp nose, steely eyes. A protective vest, over the base layer of nanosilk he wore as a primer garment, left her to imagine the details of his physique. His bot was armed with a joy buzzer, third-gen Taser tech. Dad claimed that a good jolt would make you wish you’d died.
He would know, wouldn’t he?
@Interpol must have a warrant, because the building hadn’t warned Crane he was coming.
As this thought gelled, a badge resolved on the wall.
@Interpol Special Ops, Agent Anselmo Javier
Cloudsight Respectability Rating: 59/100%
Agent Javier checked under the old hardwood table, then peered inside a closet filled with folding chairs. “I’m going to search the rest of the floor,” he said. “Wait here, s’il vous plaît.”
He left Rubi alone with the drones.
Feigning calm, she peered beyond the radishes to the street. Zoom views from other cameras let her clock a half-dozen meandering residents and tourists.
So, civilians weren’t being diverted away from the scene. Still, there were at least a dozen drones lurking in the shadows. And . . . . . . her mouth went dry.
An autonomous sniper, bristling with tranq darts, was tucked into a balcony across the street. It had its sights on her. As she clocked it, the nanotech primer on its exterior changed color. It blended in with a building pediment covered in anti-pigeon spikes.
As it all but vanished, Rubi felt goose bumps coming up on her arms. A gun. An actual gun.
Crane murmured, “Isn’t this how that 1942 simulation started out?”
“That was a game,” Rubi said. Still, she let the memory raise a smile. Wild with exhaustion, she had torn through a VR sim of Occupied Paris, meeting contacts, passing messages, and setting garlic traps for Vichy vampires.
It was the only time she had let life in Sensorium swamp her studies, had ignored school and all her surface obligations. She should have been memorizing social infraction case precedents before her next law exam unlocked. Instead, she’d stayed online for eighteen hours, sabotaging trains and stealing bomb plans.
The dealbreaker had been her so-called archnemesis. Gimlet Barnes had been brought in by Risto Games in a last-minute twist, to lead a team of German necromancers hunting her resistance cell.
Rubi had lost big in their previous battle, a superhero thing. She’d apparently lost perspective, too. Once Gimlet was in, there was no chance she’d stop, not even for a better shot at leveling her mash-up of careers into a single permajob as a public defender.
Thrill of adrenaline, rat-a-tat of machine guns, crossbow-driven stakes. Sim blood spraying as buildings collapsed. Players and audience tooning in by the tens of thousands.
Stone tumbling to drive a pall of dust skyward, thick enough to curtain the moonlight. Howling werewolf choruses. Bone-shaking blasts of shellfire, stripping the air to gunpowder-laced sandpaper.
But . . . “Never again, Crane.”
“If you say so, miss.”
“I mean it.” She couldn’t fail any more exams without falling off the law school leaderboard.
Materialists would insist it had never happened, anyway.
Manufactured gamer dreams had no meaning in surface reality. But Rubi remembered it—remembered the bombed-out terrain of mid– twentieth century Paris—as if it was her own nursery.
Meanwhile, that camouflaged sniper lurking in the crannies, here and now, prickled at her consciousness.
The @Interpol agent returned. “You are Cherub Barbara Whiting?”
“Where’s Luciano Pox?”
“Answer the question, please.”
Rubi replied, “He’s sixty-six minutes late.”
“Is that normal?”
“I can’t say.” A camera drone hovered in her peripheral. Trying to unsettle her? “If Luce wasn’t profoundly antisocial, he wouldn’t need in-the-flesh legal support.”
“So, clients often skip?”
Never. Rather than admit this, she said, “He has an emergent seizure disorder. Which means, by the way, you can’t zap him at will.”
“Zap. At will.” The agent raised his eyebrows.
She waited, arms crossed.
Finally, Agent Javier nodded, and the joy buzzer took the window exit, whirring away. “Surely your client has been tested for this alleged disorder.”
“I only just got him into peer counseling.” Rubi had referred Luce to her father, who like her was good with exceptionally difficult people . . . when he wasn’t being difficult himself. “We’ll coax him into getting scanned.”
“Ah! Then you tell Cloudsight that he needs medical allowances made for disability, and so he avoids managed care,” Javier said. “Convenient, non?”
Had he just suggested that disability was something to be exploited? A social hack? “Shorting out at random when you’re trying to make it through the day is, for your information, extremely inconvenient. Play a few neurodisorder sims. Judge for yourself.”
The agent blinked.
Rubi turned back to the radishes, simmering with anger. It wouldn’t help Luce if the Sensorium went viral with footage of her chewing out a cop.
Had they planned to tranq Luce and rush him into managed care without a hearing?
No. He’d have to be a terrorist or #troll . . . and if they suspected either of those things, the block would be teeming with security.
Moving in what—in games, anyway—was a nonthreatening manner, Rubi swept the discarded weeds into a compost bin. She refused to allow herself to search out the sniperbot again—though the space between her shoulder blades itched. She brushed topsoil off her palms, accessed the building helix, and activated the watering app.
Recycled graywater drizzled over the young radishes. Rubi tipped the garden pallet outdoors to face the ever-broiling sun and latched the windowpane. “Task complete.”
“The Pompidou neighborhood farm co-op has boosted your social capital, Miss Cherub,” replied the sidekick app. “Agent Javier, too.”
The two strokes were, very nearly, worth as much as an hour’s lawyering. After the collapse of the global finance networks, rationing had established minimal guaranteed solvency for every citizen—live, artificial, or corporate.
Global Oversight guaranteed calories, housing, meds. It equalized access to work and education. Virtual reality made it all bearable.
Everyone needed a few in-the-flesh luxuries, though, and real-world perks were priced on a sliding scale. That was where Cloud-sight came in: what you paid depended on your reputation. Pricing for privileges, premiums, and in-app purchases went up exponentially, tier by tier.
“Crane, tell the gardener that I hope their emergency resolves happily,” Rubi said.
“She wants you to know her daughter’s a fan.”
“Nice! License the kid a hair clip?”
“Already done. Message from Gimlet Barnes?”
“Crane, stop! I’m in the middle of something.”
“Are you? Agent Javier is elsewhere.” Crane was right: the flinty-eyed @Interpol agent had glazed, presumably diving into Sensorium to commiserate with his drone pilots about the fizzling of their raid.
Rubi pushed aside the thought of Gimlet, of the gamer grudge match she hadn’t quite managed to call off yet. She pinged the @Interpol agent: “I’m due to update Luce’s support ticket. You gonna tell me why you’re after him?”
“Oui, d’accord.” If he was affronted by her bossiness, it didn’t show. “This meeting room’s free.”
“No. Somewhere less isolated.” When he frowned, Rubi added, “Come on, Agent Javier. It’s a beautiful day.”
“You can call me Anselmo.”
His smile changed the whole landscape of his face; the severity vanished, replaced with sparks of good humor. Despite the guns and his hint of arrogance, she found herself liking him.
“Hold everything but a crisis, Crane.”
“Thanks.” With that, she whisked up her satchel and walked out past the cop, daring him to object.
Instead, Anselmo fell in beside her.
Nothing like the sims, Rubi thought again, walking fast, getting some distance from that gun platform as she made for the stairs.
Copyright © 2019 by L. X. Beckett
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