The Thousandth Floor (The Thousandth Floor #1)(12)

by Katharine McGee

And then, two summers ago, Watt took what had seemed like a normal hacking job, a request for removal of a criminal record. When it came time for payment, though, the messages got strangely threatening—in a way that made Watt suspect the client somehow knew about Nadia.

Watt was suddenly and powerfully afraid. He usually tried not to think about what would happen if he got caught, but he realized now how foolish that had been. He was in possession of an illegal quant, and he needed to hide her somewhere she could never be found.

He’d tucked Nadia in his pocket and taken the next monorail downtown.

He got off at South Station and stepped into another world, a cluttered maze of alleys and unmarked doorways and pushcarts selling hot, greasy cones of fried wheatchips. The steel form of the Tower loomed overhead, casting most of the Sprawl—the neighborhood south of Houston Street—in shadow.

Watt turned toward the water, blinking at the sudden onslaught of the wind. Green and yellow buoys bobbed in the aquaculture pens over the long-submerged Battery Park. They were supposed to be farming kelp and krill, but Watt knew many of them also grew ocea-pharms, the highly addictive drugs cultured in jellyfish. Keeping his head down, he found the doorway he was looking for and stepped inside.

“What can I do for you?” A burly man stepped forward. His hair was clipped close to his scalp, and he was wearing a gray plastic jacket and surgical gloves.

Dr. Smith, as he called himself, had a reputation for performing illegal surgeries like drug wipes, fingerprint replacements, even retina transfers. They said there was nothing he couldn’t do. But when Watt explained what he wanted, the doctor shook his head. “Impossible,” he muttered.

“Are you sure?” Watt challenged, reaching into his pocket to hold Nadia out for inspection. Her hardware burned hot on his palm.

Smith took an involuntary step closer and gasped. “You’re telling me that’s a quant?”

“Yeah.” Watt felt a surge of satisfaction. Nadia was pretty damn impressive.

“All right,” Smith said reluctantly. “I can try.” He peeled off one of his surgical gloves and held out his hand. It had six fingers. “Dexterity boost,” he boasted, noticing Watt’s gaze. “Helps in surgery. Did it myself, with the left one.”

Watt shook the doctor’s six-fingered hand and gave Nadia to him, praying this crazy idea would work.

* * *

Leaning against the bar at Pulse, Watt brushed his fingers over the slight bump above his right ear, the only evidence left from that day. Sometimes he still couldn’t believe the surgery had succeeded. Now Nadia was always with him—at the edge of his temporal lobe, where Smith had embedded her, drawing her power from the piezoelectric pulse of Watt’s own blood flow. The authorities hadn’t ended up tracking them down, but still, Watt felt safer this way. If anything bad ever did happen, no one would think to look for a computer in Watt’s own brain.

“Do you come here a lot?” Squid Ink Martini Girl asked. She took a small sip of her martini, its purplish liquid swirling in the glass like a gathering storm.

Several lines of text instantly flashed across Watt’s contacts. She was a year older, a student at the local college majoring in art studies.

“I like coming here to observe,” Watt said. “It helps me with my art.”

“You’re an artist? What kind of art?”

He sighed. “Well, I used to work primarily in 3-D sculpture installations, but lately I worry they’re a little overdone. I’m thinking of incorporating more audio into my work. That’s part of why I’m here, to read everyone’s responses to the music.” He turned to look the girl in the eye; she blinked under the force of his gaze. “What do you think?” he asked.

“I totally agree,” she whispered, though he hadn’t really stated an opinion at all. “It’s like you read my mind.”

This was the side effect of having Nadia in his brain that Watt hadn’t anticipated—that she’d become his secret weapon for getting girls. Before the procedure, Watt’s batting average had been exactly that: average. He wasn’t unattractive, with his olive-gold skin and dark eyes, but he wasn’t particularly tall, or confident. Having Nadia changed all that.

Of course, up here in midTower—almost a mile higher than where he and Derrick actually lived—everyone could afford pretty decent contacts. You could look things up on your contacts while talking to someone, if you wanted, but you’d have to speak the question aloud. Aside from a few preprogrammed commands like nodding to accept an incoming call or blinking repeatedly to take a snap, contacts were still voice-operated. And while it was normal to mumble while you were on the Ifty or at home, it was definitely uncool to give contact commands mid-conversation.

Nadia was different. Because she was in Watt’s head, they could communicate through what Watt had dubbed “transcranial telepathy mode,” meaning that he could think questions and Nadia would answer him. And when he talked to girls, she could follow the conversation, instantly feeding him any relevant information.

In the case of Squid Ink Martini Girl, for instance, Nadia had made a complete study of the girl in under ten milliseconds. She’d hacked the girl’s flickers, found every place she’d checked into and who her friends were; she even read all twelve thousand pages of the girl’s feeds history, and calculated what Watt should do in order to keep the conversation going. Now Watt was self-assured, even smooth, because he always knew the exact right thing to say.

Martini Girl studied him as she idly twirled the stem of her glass. Watt stayed silent, knowing that she didn’t like overly aggressive guys, that she wanted to feel like she was making the first move. Sure enough—

“Wanna get out of here?”

She was gorgeous. Yet Watt didn’t even feel excited as he automatically said, “Sure. Let’s go.”

He slid a hand low around the girl’s waist, walking with her toward the entrance, noticing the envious stares of all the other guys. He usually felt a thrill of victory at times like this, his stubbornly competitive streak coming out. Now he couldn’t bring himself to care. It all felt too easy, and predictable. He’d already forgotten this girl’s name and she’d told him twice.

“Winner’s curse,” Nadia whispered into his eartennas, and he could swear he heard amusement in her tone. “Where the victor gets exactly what he wants, only to find that it isn’t quite as he expected.”