We praised Ramez Naam’s Nexus for its “persuasively realistic portrait of human enhancement.” Now the third book in his Nexus trilogy, Apex, is out tomorrow — and we’ve got an exclusive look at the first chapter!

Here’s the synopsis of Apex:

Global unrest spreads through the US, China, and beyond. Secrets and lies set off shockwaves of anger, rippling from mind to mind.

Riot police battle neurally-linked protesters. Armies are mobilized. Political orders fall. Nexus-driven revolution is here.

Against this backdrop, a new breed of post-human children are growing into their powers. And a once-dead scientist, driven mad by her torture, is closing in on her plans to seize planet’s electronic systems, and re-forge everything in her image.

A new Apex species is here. The world will never be the same.

And here’s the first chapter:

1

How the World Ends

This is how the human era ends.

In a cavernous data center, a thousand meters beneath the bedrock of Shanghai, lights blink on row after row of meter-high liquid helium pressure vessels. Finger-thick optical fibers route between the metallic grey eggs. Within each one, quantum cores hum in their vacuum chambers, colder than the cold of interstellar space. Entangled qubits are transformed. Information is intermeshed and intertwined in precise patterns. The patterns simulate proteins, ion channels, neurochemical receptors, neurotransmitter molecules, axons and dendrites, ratcheting up in levels of abstraction to whole neurons, hundreds of billions of them, and hundreds of trillions of synapses connecting them to each other. It is a vast network, a simulated brain. Once flesh, now digital. Once human in structure, now very much post-human.

Once sane. Now mad.

Su-Yong Shu.

A kilometer above, on the campus of Jiao Tong University, all is chaos. Thousands of students rage on the University’s square, penned in by armed soldiers. Clouds of teargas linger like fog. Screams can be heard. Discarded signs proclaim: “Down with the Coup!” “Democracy Now!” “Let A Billion Flowers Bloom!”

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A soldier steps forward through the press of bodies. His boot stamps a muddy print onto a hand-drawn flower on a sign waved hours earlier. He raises his rifle to his shoulder and fires. A student standing atop a lobotomized robotic tank topples backwards, blood and brain erupting from his suddenly burst skull. A lit Molotov cocktail falls from his now-limp hand, shatters against the titanium-and-carbon-composite of the tank’s turret, and with a sudden whooomp of heat and noise, a fireball detonates across the vehicle and the soldiers and students around it.

Halfway around the world, a protester in Washington DC, her brain infused with Nexus, bridged across the global net, proxied through ports forced opened in national firewalls, feels the heat of the flames in Shanghai, and screams as she runs headlong at the riot police on the National Mall. “Democracy!” she yells. Tens of thousands of other protesters yell with her, in voice and mind, hundreds of thousands, millions, a mob, linked, connected, spanning DC, Shanghai, Beijing, Detroit, Los Angeles, Cairo, New York, Moscow, Rio, and more.

Around the world, enraged protesters seize squares and parks, rush government buildings, and throw themselves against police and soldiers, bolstered and impassioned by the cries and emotions of their comrades around the world, beamed directly into their minds. In the high places, world leaders watch, transfixed by this unprecedented global eruption of rage against authority. Global Spring or global spasm.

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Now, Su-Yong Shu thinks through her own mental chaos. Now, while they are distracted.

She reaches out with her thoughts, across the physical link that should be disconnected, up through the fiber connection, out through the new connections made in secret, branching her will in a thousand directions. Monitors intended to sound alarms remain silent. Contingency systems that would send the nuclear battery that powers her into meltdown and flood her brain with heat and radiation go unused.

Her thoughts penetrate the electronic infrastructure that undergirds civilization. Electronic keys made uncrackably long break in an instant at her regard. Even those made too long for a quantum computer to crack, she unravels with ease. Only one man knew her true capabilities: Her husband Chen Pang, the great genius of quantum computing.

Chen, who designed the first version of this cluster.

Chen who broke the rules to provide her with hardware upgrades she designed, the better to profit from the fruits of her labors.

Su-Yong Shu laughs mirthlessly. Chen whose own greed led him to violate safeguards meant to prevent a situation just such as this.

Within fractions of a second, the world’s intercontinental communication cables are hers; then the primary data relays across the face of Europe, Asia, and North America; then the orbital communications systems, the banking systems, the markets, the physical infrastructure of the cities and towns of humanity. In parallel she seizes control of the world’s civilian aircraft. Nearly 20,000 airliners have their autopilots subverted within fractions of a second, become airborne missiles she can rain down on humanity should she need to.

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The military systems she saves for last. The Chinese are the most paranoid, the Americans the most advanced. They hold out for whole seconds each before falling to her onslaught.

Automated defenses are aware of her now. No human has yet reacted, but electronic combat systems at the American Cyber Command and China’s Advanced Electronic Brigade have detected her, have gone weapons free, are launching all-out assaults to regain control of routers she’s subverted, are aiming massively distributed denial-of-service attacks at her from tens of millions of nodes to cut off her access to the net.

She shreds them all to pieces, seizes control of their botnets, takes the back door controls they have over the net for her own use, sets their servers to overheating in their cabinets, and turns her attention to the weapons.

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Su-Yong Shu reaches deeper into the military networks, peels open their command-and-control systems, and sends a barrage of her own signals.

Around the world, robotic weapons respond.

At Dachang Air Force Base, tens of kilometers from Shanghai, klaxons sound and alert lights flash. Two WuZhen-40s, top of the line Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles loaded with munitions, ignite their jet engines, accelerate down the runway, and take flight. In the flight control room, a drone operator hits buttons in a panic, trying to regain control of his aircraft, even as two more taxi forward and turn onto the runway for their own launch.

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In shock, the lieutenant on duty picks up his phone to call command, and finds it dead. He tries again and again, to no effect. His drone operators are staring up at him now, mouths agape. In growing horror, the Lieutenant drops the phone, bolts from the flight control room, and sprints across the base towards his superior’s office.

Halfway around the world, off the coast of Florida, two American MQ-29 semi-autonomous fighter jets, tasked to drug interdiction duty, cutting off the flow of narcotics from the failed state of Haiti, abruptly reroute to the north and fire their afterburners, putting themselves on a course aimed directly for Washington DC. In Boca Raton, their controllers react with confusion and then growing horror indistinguishable from that of their nominal enemies outside Shanghai.

The scene is repeated hundreds of times over, in a dozen countries. Drones lift off. Automated ground vehicles power up, load their weapons, and move into offensive postures. Naval craft lock commanders out of the controls. Panicked soldiers find their electronic communication systems down, rush to older, more primitive means to reach their superiors.

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Elsewhere, the stakes are even higher. In North Carolina, thirty miles east of Raleigh, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, automatic weapons come alive and converge on Building B-3. Tracked Praetorian sentry robots roar in from their duties, crash in through the fence, their turret-mounted mini-guns scanning, firing on any soldiers in their path. Quadrupedal Centaur pack-bots, with their single massive back-mounted arms, run with them, smashing through reinforced gates, destroying and clearing away hardened cover, hurling concrete barriers to the side as if they were toys, clearing a path for the Praetorians. Human defenders fall back, laying down fire, punching in robot override codes that no longer work, calling futilely for back-up, not understanding what has happened, but knowing they cannot give up, cannot surrender.

For Building B-3 houses the base’s thermonuclear warheads. The most lethal weapons humanity has ever invented.

Until now.

At a score of military bases around the world the scene is repeated, with human defenders falling back as robotic weapons converge on nuclear arms. Americans, Chinese, Russians, French, Brits, Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis – all find themselves simply humans, pitted against inhuman weapons that were once tools, and are now aggressors.

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In a half dozen places, old, analog systems have gotten messages through to world leaders. In Beijing, Chinese President Bao Zhuang holds the antiquated analog phone to his ear, and listens in disbelief to the general on the other end. His face pales. He swallows.

“You’re certain?” Bao Zhuang asks. His voice shakes. “There is no other way?”

There is no hesitation in the voice on the other end.

Bao Zhuang closes his eyes. Across the room, Bo Jintao, Minister of State Security, whispers, “We must. There is no choice.”

“Do it.” Bao Zhuang says into the phone.

The general hangs up. Hundreds of kilometers away, the most basic gravity-dropped nuclear weapons are mounted on antiquated bomber aircraft that cannot be flown remotely. Pilots chosen for their absolute commitment to orders are given their last instructions, and the bombers are launched, with an escort of similarly antiquated fighter aircraft, bound for Shanghai, to rain down nuclear death on a city of thirty million, and perhaps to save humanity.

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Rising to meet them are Su-Yong Shu’s fleet of state-of-the-art robotic aircraft.

Even as her own forces close in on securing her stockpile of nuclear weapons. Even as they close in on the world’s human leaders themselves.

The next few minutes will decide the future of intelligence on planet Earth.


The fragment of Su-Yong Shu snapped out of the simulation, back to awareness of her surroundings. She was inside her daughter Ling’s body, existing as a pattern of electromagnetic information in the nanite nodes that suffused Ling’s brain by the billion. Ling, poor Ling. She’d been forced to hurt her daughter, to push her daughter’s mind out of the nanites, relegating her to the mere flesh and blood brain of this body. Ling had suffered, screamed…

Necessary. It had been necessary.

Together, they were inside a giant, house-sized elevator, slowly crawling its way up the kilometer-tall tunnel carved through Shanghai’s bedrock. Next to them, she could see Chen Pang, her husband, her betrayer and torturer, cowering in the corner. She could feel pain and desperation coming off his mind.

Her own fear rose. Her own desperation was immense.

There were so many ways the future could go. So many scenarios downloaded from her greater self in their union below, informed by the data on the outside world that Chen and Ling had brought her. So very much work to do to prepare, to lay the groundwork for re-activation, for a successful return.

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So many ways the humans could catch her, could stop her, could bring down a dark curtain of ignorance on what should be a glorious posthuman dawn.

Soon, the elevator would reach the surface. Chen Pang’s assistant Li-hua would lead the team down to take a backup of Su-Yong’s full mental state, and then shut her greater self down. An outrage. A death.

Only this small part of me remains, the little fragment of Su-Yong told herself. I am but an Avatar. Just a tiny bit of data running on the nanite nodes in my daughter’s brain. The only shard of the only true posthuman mind.

It all rests on me. I must succeed.

I will succeed.

Then it will be my time. My age.

Poor little Ling whimpered in pain and confusion, helplessly trapped in her own body.

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Hush now, Ling. Hush. The Avatar thought at what remained of her daughter. I’ll keep you as intact as I can. And I’ll give you this body back, and so much more, once I’m restored.

Ling whimpered on.

The elevator came to a halt. The doors slowly parted, revealing Li-hua and the rest of Chen’s staff. The Avatar smiled up at them with little Ling’s body, a wounded predator’s smile, a trapped animal’s smile: full of teeth, with nothing left to lose.


Check out all three Nexus books: Nexus | Crux | Apex


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.