CHAPTER ONE

A Goodbye

“Few people know that when the solar flare burned the middle states, Niko nearly abandoned his dream. Imagine that for a moment. There would have been no NanoClouds, no hero bringing about an era of innovation, no one reminding our broken nation that it could heal. We would have stayed in the shadow of the past, instead of rising and casting our own.” Phoebe took a steadying breath and smiled. The crowd waited patiently.

“I got to know Niko,” she continued, “right after the Flare. He was so passionate about this vision he had. And each and every day he was urged by those in authority to drop it. His life would have been so much easier if he had, but he wouldn’t, he couldn’t. That’s not… wasn’t Niko.” A sorrowful laugh escaped. “Not at all.”

She gripped the sides of the old podium and stared out at the enormous crowd. There sat captains of industry, heads of startup companies, press, politicians, and friends. She still couldn’t believe she’d been asked to give the first speech.

She pushed her long, curly black hair over her ears, revealing more of her beautiful square jaw and the sadness that soaked her from soul to her mocha-brown face.

She looked at the front row. She smiled at Tass, a younger woman with a topknot of dark hair. For so long, the two women had acted like rivals for Niko’s attention. Why had it taken Niko’s death for them to be able to find common ground?

Phoebe glanced at the silent cameras-drones as they floated about, broadcasting the funeral to hundreds of millions of people around the world. She closed her eyes and took in a breath of the warm and welcoming summer air.

“For days, the news had been filled with stories about the raw power of the destruction, about those who had been evacuated from the coasts decades before or who had escaped the Great Quake of California, having once again lost everything. It didn’t matter that the best minds had seen it coming over a year ahead of time and that everyone had been safely removed because it was yet another opportunity to tell tales of destruction and despair. It almost tipped Niko over the edge.”

“But somehow,” she said, glancing at the woman with the topknot, “he held on to his dream. It was a privilege to see it first hand in the early days, as that almost extinguished spark of innovation became a roaring fire. And then, to be there at the end, despite his broken body, to see his passion and fire still burning as brightly. There won’t ever be another Niko Rafaelo.” She shook, tears streaming down. “Thank you.”

CHAPTER TWO

The Thesis

Eighteen Years Earlier

“Geezes, Niko! How many times are you going to keep coming to me with the same flooding idea? No, no, no, no, and today of all days? Did you see the news? Millions of mid-Western Americans are watching the solar flare destroy their homes and towns today. And you think taking another run at me with the nanobot idea’s going to fly somehow?” asked Niko’s thesis professor.

“The flare has nothing to do with me,” countered Niko.

“Doesn’t it? What if instead of wasting your time trying to breathe new life into that horrific nanobot technology, you actually found a way to help people? Let the idea go. Come up with something to help the regions constantly ravaged by storms or tsunamis. Come up with something that even hints at keeping Manhattan dry, and you’d make a mint.” The bald professor bowed his head and took a breath, shuffling the books under his arm. “Please, listen to me this time. You’re running out of time, and your thesis idea has to have real, redeemable, social value.”

“But they do have redeemable value,” said Niko, his fists clenched. “Can you just look at the proposal?”

The professor cursed under his breath. “I’ll say it again: nanobots are dead. I will not be the one standing there with the blood of innocents on my hands. They were banned decades ago because of arrogance like yours, and where did that leave how many thousands? Hear me when I say this Mister Rafaelo, I will never approve this idea or one remotely related to it.” He glared at Niko, who was glaring back at him. “You’re running out of time. You have what, ten weeks left?”

“Eight.”

Shaking his head, the professor said, “Eight weeks, geezes. We both know what happens if you don’t have an approved thesis by that point— you’re out of here, and no other college will pick you up. I know full well that you need this because of your home life, but that’s not my problem. I have a standard to maintain, as well as the college’s reputation to worry about.”

Niko stood there fuming, watching the professor as he walked off towards his office. “What’s with the allergy you have to anything revolutionary? About fixing the errors of the past so that we can make a brighter future? Why can’t we dare to reclaim what we’ve lost?” he yelled, walking up to him.

“There’s plenty that we don’t have today that we had in years gone by and I’m fine with that. The early part of the twenty-first century was fraught with excess and ego. Why would we want to bring that back?”

“Because we believed in things, we dared to imagine,” snapped Niko.

“And if I believed that was your goal, I’d read your proposal. But what I see is you ignoring all the work that hundreds of brilliant minds did that still ended up, because of weekend hackers, killing thousands upon thousands of people. I saw the news reports when they originally aired. Imagine being eight years old and hearing how innocent people were dying because little robots in their bloodstream were releasing weeks’-worth of medications in seconds. I was terrified each night that I’d find one of my parents dead in the morning.”

“My nanobots wouldn’t be in the body though.”

“And that sounds safe, to you, right now, but is it? I’m not willing to take that risk,” replied the professor.

Niko scratched his shaggy beard in frustration. “You’ve granted some of my peers the go-ahead for some absolutely stupid ideas.”

The professor’s face went red. He waved his door open, revealing a hoarder’s dream of an academic office. He stared at the floor shaking his head. Then glancing about the empty hallways, said “How about some blunt truth, Mister Rafaelo? If you were as brilliant as you seem to think you are, you’d have tackled this idea by the time you were twenty, and the world would already be singing your praises. You’re what, twenty-five? Granted, you’re a smart guy, but neither you nor your grades match up to the reputation you had when we accepted you. You need to face reality. You aren’t the guy you think you are.” He took a steadying breath. “The guys who founded TalkItNow, they invented it while in their second year here. And then, they swallowed everything from the new online world and the remnants of the old Internet into their universe, with little exception.”

“Go, watch the news, come up with something good or you’re done.” He stomped into his office and waved briskly at the door sensor, causing it to close abruptly in front of Niko.

Niko stood there, his chin trembling, his hands shaking. He leaned against a wall and slid down. Putting his head on his knees and he focused on keeping his emotional dam from breaking. With a huge sigh, he ran his fingers through his long hair, putting it back into a ponytail. He felt the grime from it and got up. It was time to head home.