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Rated: E · Novel · Action/Adventure · #1136993
This is the first (of 4) chapters that will make a sort of prologue to the actual novel.


          The man in the fine gray trench coat never looked up. He stepped skillfully in and out of the crowds while keeping his eyes planted firmly on the ground. He walked the same route every day. The men and women on the streets saw him, but never remembered him. He was an unassuming figure striding along Canal Street. His name was Jack Brown. He was of average height. His salt and pepper hair combed straight back in an attempt to conceal a fist-sized patch of barren scalp on the crown of his head. His face had begun to show the wrinkles of age, yet his eyes held the exuberance of a child upon finding a new plaything. Children had toys and games to incite that sparkle, but Jack had the ultimate plaything. He was a very smart man, and soon his ideas were going to revolutionize the world.

          The man turned a corner and walked into the door emblazoned “Respire: An Oxygen Bar.” The proprietor of the establishment, a gentle looking fellow in his later years, nodded significantly to the man in the gray trench coat. The latter followed the former through a low doorway into a dimly lit room. This room was not so dim so that one could not see clearly. Shaded was more the word for it. As if you had walked indoors with your neuro-tint display made active. It was dark enough only to make you wince a bit at the thought of meeting a bright spring day headlong. Jack thought uninterestedly to himself that some of these patrons would well find themselves in such a situation by the time they left. Of course, the dimness of the room was a ploy without much effect now that auto-tint mode had been released. People no longer squinted at the brightness of the daytime, but passed unhindered as if in a perpetually shady grove.

         The men walked past several glassy eyed patrons. Jack knew that, like most oxygen bars, additives were the real moneymakers. Respire however, was a bit more unique. Jack had no problems with this, of course. If people wanted a bit of Nitrogen with their shots, then let them. They wouldn’t be harming anyone but themselves. Jack had once or twice, though, been taken aback at the choices. While perusing the menu he had seen a lavishly expensive shot spiked with, of all things, nicotine. Why anyone would want to subject their bloodstream to such toxins was beyond him. It must have been the sheer price of it that had made it seem appealing to people, Jack had concluded after several moments of thought. The man leading the way had arrived at Jack’s usual conclave and was now standing, slightly bowed, with arms stretched to one side, motioning Jack to “Have a seat.” Jack choked back a chuckle for the hundredth time and merely said “Thank You.” Upon which the usher, looking very pleased, took his cue to walk all the way back to the front door. “Ridiculous,” Jack thought. He had come here almost every morning for the better part of a year. He knew the way to this chair. Even if he hadn’t, he could have looked it up in his scope within milliseconds, or taken another station. Come to think of it, Jack was the only person in the bar that always sat at the same place. He inferred that this was because the first time he had been paraded to the spot, he had said “Thank you.” He supposed that not many people would have done that, and that the only reason he knew that those words had fit that gesture was because his grandfather had been so tied to the old ways.

         Anyway, if he had known that he was choosing his habitual station, he would have chosen one closer to the entrance, further from the exhaled remnants of some degenerate’s lithium shot. Jack knew that this did not matter since the aeration systems in these places were near infallible. They wanted you to pay for every particle you breathed other than atmospheric, which was after all, the reason why people came to bars. Jack himself had long had the misfortune of a rambling thought process. While many had marked, in his younger years, that this was a sign of genius, Jack found it nothing more than a nuisance. He found that nothing started his day out right like a nice shot of oxygen. It cleared his mind. It allowed him to replace the cluttered ramblings of his thoughts with a steady stream of ideas. This was important in his job, but especially now that the project was so close to completion.

         He removed the gray trench coat that had marked him on the street while making him completely forgettable. Then he settled into the chair. Jack reached into his pocket and fished out a small velvet bag which was monogrammed inconspicuously with a J and B in gold thread. The contents of the pouch were a small nosepiece again adorned unassumably with the same J and B. To either end of this were attached lengths of surgical grade tubing with stainless steel fittings at their reaches. He had made a habit of sterilizing this apparatus at the lab after each use

         A lanky yet tender looking woman sidled up to him from behind a length of glass counter. She was not still young, but not yet unattractive. “What can I get for ya,” she asked in a perky voice. Jack replied that he wanted a double shot of oxygen “straight up.” Unknowingly, she made a cursory glance towards the credit scanner to Jack's right marked “TIPS.” She let out a barely audible sigh and bent down to her side, ensuring that Jack could not see the smooth cleavage which she reserved for good tippers (or those likely to be given the proper inclination.) She reemerged with a dark blue metal vial about the length of Jack’s forearm. Jack paid her using the credit scanner to his left. Jack never noticed the look of scorn in her eyes as she walked away. He took the steel fittings of his nosepiece in hands and screwed them each into a T-fitting atop the vial. He pressed the button on top and started to inhale. Jack relaxed noticeably. Now he could think.

         The project was of the utmost importance, and on the brink of release Beta. This would be the first official release of the product, upon which the CEO’s of all corporations large and small would attempt to barter or buy share into the product before it was released to the general public. He had seen some corporations rise to wealth by accepting all offers, and others become even wealthier by refusing them. “This Beta would be different,” Jack thought. A new experience altogether. Jack knew that Neocene would accept no offers whatsoever on this Beta. News of the product would stream across all networks, but noone would be able to lay hand on it. Of course saboteurs and moles would be a problem but, unlike some people, (Jack glanced instinctively at the glass eyed man to his immediate left) Jack trusted his CEO to take care of such matters with an iron fist (and more than likely a carbon blade.)Yes, this Beta would be unique. There would be no sharing of technology. Jack had had all of his equipment and supplies developed in-house. He had to. These classifications of equipment had not been used in a millennia and those had been, at best, utterly childish in their design. There would be no treaties signed or declarations made. This beta would make Neocene not only wealthy, but thoroughly unrivaled.

         Jack remembered when he had first proposed the project. The grant process had seen his proposal excruciatingly probed by the Corporation’s top scientists, accountants, and directors. In the end, they decided that his theory was sound enough to proceed. Even if his theories had not been sound, this was the kind of project that any corporation would have gambled their fortunes on. The fact that almost all of the branded men in the whole Corporation had not been able to drive a wedge in his proposition had bolstered Jack through many tough times.

         Now, with Beta looming, Jack was to receive his peerage. He mused arrogantly that they had waited too long. That he had proven his worthiness, his greatness, from the moment of proposal. This morning Jack had things other than the project on his now focused mind. He was not concerned with the maneuverability tests that he had ordered yesterday and knew his technicians had spent all night performing. Nor was he meditative over the previous bouts of testing that had actually shown a decrease in total acceleration. These things would either have to work themselves out or manifest themselves in a way in which his hand-picked (by the CEO, not himself) group of newly graduated techs could comprehend. This morning, Jack was unusually and resolutely preoccupied with other matters. In a few short hours, he was going to be branded.

          Being branded by the Corporation was a huge accomplishment. It was a sign of respect. It meant that his work had not gone unnoticed. So many years ago, when he graduated from the Neocene School of Advanced Sciences, he could only dream of a distant day when he might be branded. There had been another boy in Jack’s class at school. Nathan Nguyen had been his name. While it was true that Jack had not always been at the top of his class, Nathan was almost always near the bottom. His poor reasoning skills and unintelligible theories had not done well for his grade. Jack had remarked, on several occasions, that Nathan should have been sent to the regular school, and could not fathom why he had been accepted into the advanced one. Once, when Jack had been sitting at a chair in his regular bar, he heard across the neural network that Nathan had been branded by the Corporation.
This news had so angered Jack that he had gone on a three day bender, taking shots with reckless abandon no matter how they might pollute his bloodstream. After his degradation, which he still blamed on Nathan Nguyen, Jack could not bear to show himself at that bar. It was at that time that he began to frequent Respire, which he had avoided in the past owing to their reputation.

         Jack had had a respectable career. He had worked on the Valkyrie project. Valkyrie was a small biological implant that would, upon the proper trigger thought of its host, become a rather large gun. This gun was capable of firing up to ten EHV (Extremely High Velocity) rounds. Enough to take out a fully armored convoy. Valkyrie’s Beta had made Neocene extravagantly wealthy and had planted them firmly in the top ten rankings of Corporate firepower. Jack’s work on the Valkyrie project, while minor, had received accolades from many of his peers. This had driven Jack to create bigger and better things. Some of his peers had recognized the quality of his work, but he wanted irrefutable evidence that he had changed the world. Today he was to be branded, and that would be a start.

          Branding had traditionally been reserved for only the most brilliant of scientists. It also showed your loyalty to the Corporation, and there was little in this world more important than loyalty to your Corporation. Jack leaned up and took another shot of Oxygen. It was an important day. He eased back into the chair. Oxygen bars always had the most comfortable chairs. This was another ploy to keep people from leaving quickly.

          His left eye flickered, and transparently into his field of vision came a man in a tan business suit. The man began to expound upon a story involving penguins. None of the other patrons at the bar had given a start at a strange man appearing, for Jack was the only one who could see or hear it. This was the neural network. The penguins had been modified genetically, as the man quipped, to run as fast as cheetahs once had. Of course it didn’t amount to much, Jack thought, since cheetahs had been modified to run up to twelve times faster more than fifteen years ago. Had he been told that penguins could run as fast as cheetahs do now, he would have been impressed. He thought for a moment about searching to see if the man behind this farce had been branded, but thought better of it.

         Jack considered the neural network a nuisance, but necessary. He had, more than two weeks ago, subscribed to any network viewing that might say anything in relation to his project. His project had nothing to do with penguins or cheetahs though, and that was the problem. He had to set such broad filters in order to pick up on any possible leaks that he ended up with trite stories about penguins and such.

          He began to think about the project. This project would change everything. It would change the world. It would also secure his legacy.
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