The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(11)

by Katharine McGee

“I told you, this place makes girls go crazy,” Derrick said. His voice filtered through Watt’s eartennas, which were playing a drowsy jazz beat, blocking out all the other noise of the club. “Some of us need all the help we can get,” he added, without resentment.

Watt didn’t argue. In the past hour alone he’d received seven flick-link requests, while Derrick was yet to get a single one. “Fine,” he conceded. “I’m getting a drink.”

“Grab me a beer while you’re there?” Derrick asked, unable to look away from a brunette who was swaying near them, her eyes closed, arms moving in no apparent rhythm.

“I would, except I’m not buying.” Watt laughed. At the bar, he switched off his music and turned to stare out over the club, listening as the shuffling feet and chorus of whispers echoed eerily in the quiet.

They’d come to Pulse, the midTower silent disco, where music was blasted directly into each person’s eartennas instead of coming from external speakers. But the strange thing about Pulse was that each eartenna feed differed: no two guests were hearing the same song at the same time. Watt supposed it was fun for most people, trying to guess what others were listening to, laughing at the fact that they were streaming a slow song while their date had EDM. But to him it just meant everyone awkwardly stumbled over one another on the dance floor.

He leaned back carelessly on his elbows and met the gaze of a girl across the bar. She was gorgeous, tall and willowy with wide-set eyes, definitely out of Watt’s league. But he had a secret weapon, and knew exactly how long to make eye contact before looking away. According to Nadia’s estimates the girl would come over in three, two—

His eartennas sounded with the double beep that indicated a ping request. He nodded his acceptance and the girl’s voice sounded in his ear, the wireless link allowing them to speak directly to each other over their individual music, though of course Watt’s was already off. “Buy me a drink,” she said, sidling up next to him at the bar. It was a command, not a question. This girl knew how much hotter she was than him.

“What are you drinking?” Watt tapped the bar’s surface, and it lit up into a touch screen menu.

The girl shrugged and began drawing circles on the menu pad, scrolling through brightly colored bubbles representing the drink categories. There was a small inktat on the inside of her wrist, a rosebud that kept opening into a blossom and then furling back. “Guess.”

Watt put his hand over hers to still it. She glanced up at him, an eyebrow raised. “If I guess right, you’re buying,” he challenged.

“Sure. But you’ll never guess.”

“I think …” He flipped through the categories for a moment as if weighing the various options. But he already knew what she really wanted, and it wasn’t on the menu. “Something special,” he concluded, pushing OTHER, and pulling up a keypad to type squid ink martini.

The girl tossed her head back in laughter. “You cheated somehow,” she accused, her eyes roving over Watt with new interest. She leaned forward to order their drinks from the bot-tender.

Watt grinned. He felt attention shifting toward them, everyone clearly wondering what he’d said to attract a girl like that. Watt couldn’t help it; he loved this part, loved feeling like he’d won some unspoken contest.

“Thanks,” he said as the girl slid him a dark beer.

“How did you know what I wanted?” she asked.

“I figured, an unusual drink for an unusually beautiful girl.” Thank you, Nadia, he added silently.

I wouldn’t waste your time with this one. Girls 2 and 6 were more interesting, Nadia—Watt’s quantum computer—answered, flashing the words across his contacts. When they were alone Nadia spoke directly into his ears, but she defaulted to text whenever Watt was with someone else. He found it too disorienting, trying to carry on two conversations at once.

Well, this one is prettier, Watt replied, smiling in amusement as he sent the sentence directly to Nadia. She couldn’t read his every thought, only the ones he intended for her.

Re-rank selection criteria for potential romantic partners appeared in his to-do list, alongside buying a present for his brother and sister’s birthday, and his summer reading.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t programmed you to be so snarky. Watt had constructed Nadia’s mental architecture to favor oblique and associative thinking over strictly logical if-then. In other words, to be an interesting conversationalist, instead of just a powerful calculator. But these days her speech pattern bordered on what could only be called sarcasm.

Nadia had been with Watt for almost five years now, ever since he had created her as a thirteen-year-old scholarship student at an MIT summer program. He’d known, of course, that it was technically illegal: the creation of any quantum computer with a Robbens quotient of over 3.0 had been banned worldwide since the AI incident of 2093. But he’d been so lonely on that college campus, surrounded by older students who pointedly ignored him, and it hadn’t seemed like it would do any harm … He’d started tinkering with a few spare parts, and soon, bit by qubit, he was building a quantum supercomp.

Until the professor in charge of their program caught him working on Nadia, late one night in the engineering lab.

“You need to destroy that—that thing,” she’d said, a note of hysteria in her tone. She took several steps back in fear. They both knew that if Watt was caught with a quant, he’d go to prison for life—and she would probably be arrested too, simply for failing to stop him. “I swear, if you don’t, I’ll report you!”

Watt nodded and promised to do as she said, cursing his own stupidity; he should have known better than to work in a nonsecure space. The moment the professor left, he frantically transferred Nadia onto a smaller piece of hardware, then smashed the box he’d first housed her in and delivered it silently to his professor. He had no desire to go to prison. And he needed a nice recommendation from her so that he could get into MIT in a few years.

By the time Watt’s summer program was over, Nadia consisted of a qubic core the size of his fist. He wedged her in his suitcase, in the toe of a shoe, and snuck her back to the Tower.

Thus began Watt’s—and Nadia’s—hacking career.

They started small, mainly messing around with Watt’s friends and classmates, reading their private flickers or hacking their feeds to post funny, incriminating inside jokes. But as time went on and Watt discovered what a truly powerful computer he had on his hands, he got bolder. Nadia could do so much more than crack teenagers’ passwords; she could scan thousands of lines of code in less than a millisecond and find the single weak sequence, the break in a security system, that might let them inside. Armed with Nadia, he could access all kinds of restricted data. He could make money off it too, if he was careful enough. For years Watt kept Nadia safe in his bedroom, periodically upgrading her into smaller, easier-to-hide pieces of hardware.