Last year, Ramez Naam thrilled us with his biotech revolution novel Nexus, about a form of nanotechnology that allows people to reprogram their brains — and even communicate with another person's brain remotely. Now Naam is back with the blistering hot sequel, Crux. We've got an excerpt.
Here's the synopsis of Crux:
Six months have passed since the release of Nexus 5. The world is a different, more dangerous place.
In the United States, the terrorists – or freedom fighters – of the Post-Human Liberation Front use Nexus to turn men and women into human time bombs aimed at the President and his allies. In Washington DC, a government scientist, secretly addicted to Nexus, uncovers more than he wants to know about the forces behind the assassinations, and finds himself in a maze with no way out.
In Thailand, Samantha Cataranes has found peace and contentment with a group of children born with Nexus in their brains. But when forces threaten to tear her new family apart, Sam will stop at absolutely nothing to protect the ones she holds dear.
In Vietnam, Kade and Feng are on the run from bounty hunters seeking the price on Kade’s head, from the CIA, and from forces that want to use the back door Kade has built into Nexus 5. Kade knows he must stop the terrorists misusing Nexus before they ignite a global war between human and posthuman. But to do so, he’ll need to stay alive and ahead of his pursuers.
And in Shanghai, a posthuman child named Ling Shu will go to dangerous and explosive lengths to free her uploaded mother from the grip of Chinese authorities.
The first blows in the war between human and posthuman have been struck. The world will never be the same.
And here's our excerpt from chapter one of Crux:
The pianist’s hands glided across the keys, spreading out to left and right, fingers striking keys in unison. The piano responded, music soaring from it. The violinists joined her, sweeping in perfectly. In her mind she could feel them behind her, feel the vibration as the bows moved over strings, feel the pressure of fingertips holding notes, the instruments tucked under chins, the music leaping out. Then she felt the drummers enter, even as she heard them, sounds and minds in counterpoint to her melody.
Kade sucked it in, completely entranced. His body lay on the other side of the planet, but his mind was in the pianist’s, watching, absorbing, using one of the back doors he and Rangan had hidden in Nexus 5 to observe how their technology was being used.
The pianist’s mind in turn was linked to the other musicians’. Seven of them, playing in this empty concert hall, their minds entwined like the music, feeling each other’s actions, unconsciously communing. There was no conductor here, none but the emergent sum of their minds. No audience, but someday, someday they would play with a full orchestra, for a full house, would let the audience feel what it was like to make such music.
The pianist threw herself at the piano now, leaning into it with her body, her hands flying, gliding, then pouncing, fingers moving in a blur, shoulders hunched as she brought her weight down onto the keys with every note. Kade could feel the sweat on her brow, her breath coming fast, the feel of the keys as she made them hers, the impossible intricacy of the piece she flew through. He could hear the music in her mind, feel the music, the towering crescendo of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, the anticipation of the epic climax she was building to. The drums answered her. The French horn sang. The strings joined them in harmony. He could feel the players, feel their minds, feel the exhilaration in them all as the piece built and built and built.
Yes. This. This is what Nexus could do. He could feel the walls between the musicians’ minds dropping; the veil of maya, the illusion of separation, being lifted. He could feel them conjoining, merging, becoming something more, a single mind greater than its individual components. Kade lost himself in the experience, in the music, in the symphonic structure of this higher mind gelling before him.
Then a high priority message flashed across Kade’s mental vision.
What? Kade’s breath caught in his chest. Rangan? Ilya? Had his bots found his friends?
[Alert: Coercion Code Detected. Status: Active]
No. Not Rangan. Not Ilya. Something else. Something monstrous. Something he had to stop.
The pianist pounded out the final commanding notes of Rachmaninoff. The drums and strings came to their climax as she did, and she let her hands drop from the keys, exhausted, exhilarated. Joy leapt from them all, and in their intertwined imaginations an audience was cheering, surging to their feet in standing ovation.
With regret, Kade disconnected from them all, then clicked on the alert, opened the encrypted connection, invoked one of his three back doors, entered the passcode, the code that no one else knew, and tunneled into fear.
Arkady Volodin pumped his fist into the air, jumping up and down on the sand, and screamed his approval as the music came to a pounding climax. Five thousand partygoers screamed with him into the balmy night air above the beach. The DJ gave them two seconds of rest, then brought the beat pounding back. The bassline thrummed through Arkady’s bones, resonated in his chest. The crowd roared even louder. Arkady could feel them in his mind, surging, exulting, fucking high off this epic night in this epic place.
God, I love Croatia, Arkady realized. These people know how to party!
Above him laser lights scanned across the sky, leaving bright blue and red tracers across the clouds of smoke rising from the open air beach party. The sand of this pristine Croatian beach vibrated with the music, sending it up through Arkady’s feet. The surf crashed against the long break, running up the bare legs of the revelers in bikinis and briefs dancing closer to the waves. Palm trees swayed beyond the trusses that held up the lights and lasers and fog machines. Go-go dancers pranced and twirled on pedestals above the beach and the surging crowd.
Can you get me some Nexus? Arkady had asked. It was too risky back in Moscow, but while he was here…
That guy, over there, he’d been told, as they pointed towards a tall, lean man smoking a cigarette, leaning up against a building further uphill. You can get it from Bogdan.
Minutes later, in a darkened spot beyond the lights, he’d handed over a wad of cash for a vial of silvery liquid, then downed it immediately. It had slipped down his throat, oily and metallic, and he’d gone to find a drink to wash away the taste and sensation that lingered in his throat.
By the time he’d finished the drink he’d been coming up. Calibration phase. He’d hallucinated – he was a fucking tsar in an old Russian palace. No, he was the palace. No, he was the whole goddamn city!
Arkady laughed at it. So right. He was a tsar all right. A young tsar to all these punters here. Oil money. That’s where his royalty came from. He was here to suck the marrow out of this country, buying up rights to the offshore gas deposits that remained for Gazprom Bank back home. A conqueror. Oh, he’d conquer this place, with its beaches and drugs and women and gas. He’d make it all his. Better than fucking Moscow.
The music reached a new peak, and Arkady bounced with it, manically shaking his body, feeling the dancers around him revel as he did.
The message scrolled across his vision.
[Rabbit Hole Ready. Wanna Enter?]
Arkady grinned. He’d heard of this. The VR app this club had built. Yeah, he wanted to try it.
Controls appeared at the side of his vision, layers he could toggle on and off. The first layer was enabled already. Arkady spun around, and laughed.
The dancers around him were sheathed in silver and gold, auras glimmering. The ocean was liquid silver, spilling onto a beach of crushed iridescent diamonds. The stars above were suddenly far brighter, shining brightly through the smoke and lasers, wheeling as he watched. A huge full moon loomed in the sky. Arkady turned further, and saw the go-go dancers. Their auras were crackling sheaths of energy, snapping and popping. They held out their hands as they danced, and lightning flew from them, arcing out over the crowd.
Arkady screamed his approval, dancing harder, pounding his feet against the sand. He felt the whole crowd respond, felt the ecstasy of the moment pounding through them all.
Then a burst of wind hit him from behind. Arkady turned in time to see something huge flying at him, winged and fanged. It dove down from the star-filled sky, from out over the liquid silver sea, a predator closing on the crowd, its enormous mouth open. He saw flames inside that cavernous maw, and then the dragon exhaled, and a river of fire surged down at the beach.
Arkady threw himself to the sand. Intense heat beat at his back. The downdraft from the dragon’s wings pummeled him as it flapped over them, and then the thing was past.
Arkady looked up and saw the beast rising towards the brilliant Milky Way, pounding the air with those leathery wings. Around him, partygoers sheathed in their multicolored auras were crouched or cowering. Others were still dancing, smiling and laughing at them, not unkindly.
Holy fuck! Arkady thought.
He reached out with his thoughts to the controls across the side of his vision, flipped off the layer that was on, and looked up. The dragon was gone, nowhere to be seen, the stars were masked by the smoke and lasers. He scanned around him. The auras were gone. The sea was water, crashing onto ordinary sand. The go-go dancers no longer threw electricity.
He flicked the layer back on, and lightning sparkled around the girls on stage again, auras shimmered into appearance around the other dancers, silver waves crashed onto the beach. And up there, he could see the dragon against the unreal galactic backdrop, flapping its wings, turning, coming around for another pass.
Fucking amazing! Arkady thought.
He rose up, lifted his hands into the air, waited for the virtual dragon to rain fire on them all.
Bogdan Radic took another drag on his cigarette, his eyes closed. His thoughts scanned from mind to mind, looking for just the perfect mark. The French girl with the designer shoes? The Italian couple with the flashy jewelry? They’d taken his drugs, his special version of Nexus, and now their minds were open to his.
It wasn’t that hard, really. Nexus 5 was open source now. All he’d had to do was download the code, modify it for his own purposes, to give him a back door into the minds of anyone who took it, then load his modifications up into vials of the drug. If you could code, you could change Nexus in all sorts of ways. And Bogdan could sure as hell code.
He dismissed the French girl. From a rich family, but he couldn’t find any way to access that wealth in her pretty little head. And kidnapping wasn’t for him. Too high a risk. Too much chance of physical violence.
The Italian couple… His mind roamed through theirs during their calibration phase, when the disorientation would hide most of what he did. No. They played rich, but they were overleveraged. Their assets were too illiquid for Bogdan’s needs. And two deaths would be so much harder to get away with than one.
The Russian was coming up now. Bogdan sifted through Arkady’s chaotic thoughts as the calibration phase opened up his mind. Well, well, well. Paydirt.
Bogdan slipped back into the club proper, down into the storage room, and set up his gear. Then he reached out with his thoughts, and pulled Arkady to him.
Arkady held his arms up and out, defiantly, as the giant dragon bore down on them. The beast opened its mouth, and a gout of flame burst from it. The heat struck him full force, bathing his face, his arms, his chest. The force of the beast’s wing flaps pushed at him. He wanted to flinch, but he yelled instead, like a man plunging down a roller coaster.
Then it was gone, and the dragon was past them.
Arkady jumped up and down, hooting in triumph. Beside him, a Croatian girl in little more than a bikini yelled as well, jumping up and down, gravity making her breasts do incredible things. Their eyes met.
Then something took hold of Arkady. His world dimmed. His sight narrowed. And he began to walk.
Arkady tried to resist, but his limbs moved without him. He flicked off the virtual reality layer. The auras disappeared, but his body kept moving. He tried to scream, but nothing came out.
Oh no. Oh, fucking no.
Whatever force controlled him led Arkady away from the water, over sand that gradually turned to rock and then concrete, away from the outdoor party, in to the sprawling club, down a side hallway, down a set of stairs, and in through a closed door.
Inside he found the man who’d sold him this Nexus. Bogdan. A lit cigarette was in his hand. On the table next to Bogdan was a slate. On its screen was Gazprom’s remote access site. Next to it were a retinal scanner and a thumb print pad.
“Mr Volodin,” Bogdan said. “How very nice to meet you.”
Abruptly Arkady found he could speak again.
“Please,” he said. “I’ll give you anything. I have money. Lots of money.”
“Oh, I know you do, Arkady. But your employer has so much more.”
“No,” Arkady said. “You don’t understand. You don’t know how they operate. They’ll kill me.”
Bogdan took a drag on his cigarette, then exhaled, flicking ash to the floor. He grinned at the Russian he held captive. “No, Arkady. You’ll already be dead.”
Arkady screamed then, only to find it abruptly cut off as someone else’s will constricted his throat.
“Now,” Bogdan said. “Kindly swipe your thumb, place your eye to the scanner, and enter your access codes.”
Arkady moved forward to comply.
Kade tunneled into fear. This mind was gripped in terror. He struggled to take in the situation. A dark room. Pounding music came in from beyond the walls. The sense of a vast crowd nearby, thousands of minds. And here, in the room with him.
He flicked this body’s eyes over, took in the slate, the retinal scanner, the man with the cigarette.
Theft. Theft and likely murder.
Kade reached out with his thoughts, opened the mind of the man before him, sent the passcode, and then he was in.
Bogdan smiled as Arkady moved forward. The money would be dumped into offshore accounts which would be cashed out minutes later. Arkady here would have a nasty accident. And by the time the authorities realized that it hadn’t been an accident, Bogdan would be long gone, and much much richer.
Then Arkady stopped, suddenly. Bogdan felt something change about the man’s mind. Then he felt something press against his own mind, something vast.
Oh fuck, Bogdan thought. He turned and ran for the door.
Kade saw the man turn and run, just as the passcode opened his mind. He reached out and yanked on the man’s motor cortex.
The man stumbled and fell to the floor of the store room, cursing.
Bogdan. That was his name. Kade could feel it now.
Kade gripped the man’s mind tighter, then took stock of the rest of the situation.
Bogdan couldn’t breathe. His heart was pounding. There was something in his mind. Something in his mind!
He tried to get up but the stranger had control of his limbs. He tried to break the connection but he was locked out.
Oh God, he thought. Someone else has a back door. A back door into me!
Kade let himself breathe deeper. The man named Arkady was physically unharmed. He’d gotten here in time. He broke the bonds on Arkady’s mind, and the Russian rose to his feet, and ran, screaming.
Kade rifled through Bogdan’s mind. Where was the coercion code? Ahhh, there. Files opened for him. He skimmed through them. More patterns to block in the next version of Nexus. More abuse paths that he could cut off from everyone.
Bogdan had given out hundreds of doses of Nexus loaded with this code. Thousands. Kade would need to send out a virus, hunting for them, rewriting code to fix these exploits when it found them.
Who are you? Bogdan asked.
Kade shook his head mentally. I’m the last mind you’ll ever touch.
Please, Bogdan thought at him. I have money. I have friends.
Kade ignored him. He downloaded the code to add to his libraries, then went to work.
He removed Bogdan’s administrator privileges to the Nexus OS in his own mind, locked him out of any control over the nanobots that infested him, took away Bogdan’s ability to modify, upgrade, or even remove Nexus in the process.
No! Bogdan screamed.
Kade locked Bogdan out of Nexus communication, then. His brain would be hermetically sealed, never to touch another’s. Only Kade would be able to access it, via his own back doors.
Fuck you! Bogdan raged. You can’t do that.
Now the rest.
How many times have you done this? Kade asked Bogdan.
None! Bogdan replied. This was the first time! And I didn’t!
Memories came back, streaming from Bogdan’s mind. Corfu. Ibiza. Mykonos. Three Nexus-aided thefts. One leading to a murder.
And worse. He caught a glimpse of a girl, terrified, senses mentally crippled, her clothes half ripped off, her body held down by Bogdan’s will and his perverted code as he…
Kade grimaced, and yanked himself away from Bogdan’s memory. Thousands of miles away, his stomach rose up. His fists clenched.
You’re disgusting, Bogdan.
Kade started in on the rewiring, tying neural circuits together. Bogdan’s knowledge of programming. His understanding of Nexus. His concept of violence. His capacity for sexual arousal. All of these Kade tied to nausea, to crippling anxiety, to pervasive pain.
The man yelled at him. What are you doing?
I’m neutering you, Kade told him, grim satisfaction rising in his thoughts. You won’t ever steal, or kill, or fuck again.
Bogdan gasped in shock, then resumed his rage. You can’t do this! What gives you the right?
I made this, Kade told the man. That gives me the right.
Crux is out tomorrow in paperback and ebook format from Angry Robot Books. Pick up a copy now!