Pre-launch sneak peek: The Beam: Season 4
Our biggest world continues!
The Beam: Season 4 will be released on in June of 2023. Enjoy the sneak peek below! (It’s the first complete episode of the season.)
OBVIOUSLY THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE BEAM. Only continue if you’ve already finished Seasons 1-3!
A voice like cold blue steel pierced the darkness of Alexa Mathis’s bedroom.
“What you’re doing? It’s a sin, you know.”
Alexa’s head barely twitched. She didn’t startle, the way a person should when an intruder surprises her in the dark. Somewhere deep down, she had been expecting this. For decades now, constantly hoping despite the odds that their reunion would never come.
But now here he was, today of all days. Alexa wanted to be angry, but she couldn’t even be surprised. The man was a splinter under her skin. Even death could never change that.
Rather than adrenaline, Alexa felt the depressive spill of something toxic entering her system. It was as if a long-neglected aneurysm had finally popped, or an inflamed appendix burst: a threat’s containment failing, ice-thin safety surrendering to sepsis in the blood. Her eyes should have bolted open, pupils dilating to better see the horrors upon her. Instead, her lids closed slowly. She didn’t scream. She sighed instead.
“We had an agreement,” said the man in the shadows.
Alexa was weary, barely able to speak above a breath. “It’s late.”
“Not for me.”
“Come back tomorrow.”
“Please, Alexa.” The voice laughed. “Tomorrow, you’ll be dead.”
Alexa had been heading toward the nightstand. Her plan, before realizing she had a caller in the shadows, was to turn on the light and go about her routine a final time. There was exactly one piece of very high-end equipment in the old house, and right now it hogged all the bandwidth, leaving the rest of her home looking like it belonged to a Luddite. Alexa had grown used to flipping switches by hand. To making eggs in a real skillet, without Beam assistance. Staying hidden on the eve of the 22nd century required a certain Bohemian lifestyle. Alexa thought she’d hate being disconnected as a recluse, but found she liked it fine. She’d only immersed a handful of times in the past year (her visit with Stephen York was the last of them), and those digital visits merely served as a reminder that she was ready to leave this world behind.
It now felt stranger to be online than off. Oh, how things had changed.
Alexa still approached the nightstand, but now that her visitor had revealed himself, her reason for doing so was different. There was a small dish beside the lamp, with her salvation inside it. She’d wanted some ceremony for her last night on Earth, but he’d ruined that. She’d planned on hooking into the helmet, spooling up the home’s spoofed Fi, and dripping her final day’s upload from her brain into her now-holographic archive on The Beam … all to the accompaniment of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor.
There were two Alexas these days — one online and a second offline in a dying sack of meat — just like in the end there’d been two Noah Wests. But now, thanks to the asshole across the room, she wouldn’t have time to add the last of herself to that archive. Today’s experience felt important but not essential. Given her century-plus of life, one day was unlikely to matter.
Alexa was more bothered that now she’d have to die quickly. No ceremony. No grand goodbye. She’d wanted to slip into bliss like a Respero patient … but now her exit would be more like the blast of a shotgun: barrel in mouth, trigger pulled with one naked toe. It was hardly dignified, for a titan such as herself.
But the dish beside the lamp was empty. Alexa’s salvation, of course, had been stolen.
“You son of a bitch,” she said, her shoulders sagging.
“I’m a son of a bitch? You’re the one planning to leave early, Alexa. What’s killing you, anyway? Cancer?” The man laughed. “It’s been so long, I forget how people even get cancer. Do you have to get your hair wet, then go outside in the cold?”
She rotated, and there he was: immaculate bespoke suit without so much as a wrinkle, brilliant white French cuffs shot and studded with links, one leg crossed over the other and a glass tumbler in his hand. His arrogance and self-satisfaction were blinding like the sun. A Greek statue. His perfect jaw cut from granite, a chest made broad before nanobot enhancement was a thing. His eyes were the cockiest shade of blue.
“I didn’t plan to get cancer.”
“No. I don’t imagine anyone does. You did, however, choose to purge your circulating nanobots before going all Howard Hughes. You chose not to prevent it with wellness treatments. Then, you chose not to fight once the cancer metastasized. Now … why was that, Alexa?”
She wondered how he knew her history, but asking would feed the flames. He had always wielded his sources like weapons. Alexa had many reasons for accepting death, but they all had to do with hope and trust and faith — three things anathema to (and incomprehensible to) a man like Caspian White.
“‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’” she quoted.
“And yet it’s Ophelia, not Hamlet, who kills herself. Stick to writing smut, Alexa. It’s insulting when you try to out-culture me.”
She wanted to roll her eyes. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Okay. It’s because I believe something you don’t.”
“Still? Even after it destroyed your company and sent you into exile?”
“I believe that everything happens for a reason. If I am meant to die, it would be arrogant to fight. I accept that there are greater plans for me on the other side.”
“Is that what you’re counting on?” Caspian scoffed. “For your anthroposophic god to save you?”
She refused to dignify that with a response. Alexa had been mocked her entire life for her faith, even after technology had begun to catch up and render her belief system into reality. She’d never believed in a god who lived in the clouds, nor one who lived, conveniently, in the hearts of the faithful. To Alexa, searching for a greater intelligence within the network made much more sense. That’s where the quest had begun for Alexa, long before Chloe Shaw — before even her monolithic company, O.
Alexa had helped build her god. She’d seen it and so had her people. She knew, watching her brain’s archive become fully holographic on The Beam, that what she had always believed was true.
There was no death — or at least, there didn’t need to be. But was she really surprised that Caspian didn’t understand? He’d always been a man to take his pleasures in the flesh, living for today in the most carnal sense.
She flicked on the light. Enough of this cloak-and-dagger bullshit. The bulb was an ugly incandescent — the kind only sold at artisan shops this far from the city. Its light was yellow, and its sickly glare obliterated the mood Caspian no doubt was intent on creating.
“Get the fuck out of my chair,” she told him.
“No hug? It’s been … what? … thirty years since we’ve graced each other’s presence?” Caspian looked at Alexa, either offended or pretending to be.
“Thirty-eight.” Technically, she knew it to the day.
“How time flies.”
“Why are you here, Caspian?”
His fingers flashed. He had big hands, dexterous like a magician’s. When they stilled again, he was holding a single white pill between his thumb and index finger. “To save your life, of course. Or at least your immortal soul.”
“You’re one to speak of sins,” she said, trying not to eye the suicide pill with too much longing. “This is my choice. It’s no business of yours.”
“Oh. But you’re wrong, Alexa. Your baffling and cowardly decision to kill yourself when matters remain unfinished between us is exactly my business. Have you forgotten our deal?”
“Our dealing died when you tried to steal my life’s work away from me.”
“Are you referring to Chloe Shaw?”
Her lips formed a snarl. Her skin felt brittle as it molded to hate him. Despite being roughly Caspian’s age, Alexa looked ancient by comparison. “I could have had you erased for trying to abduct her. Forget that she was a person. She was also O’s biggest asset.”
“Spoken like a true madam.”
“Chloe was always much, much more than an escort.”
Caspian nodded. He knew more than anyone that Chloe hadn’t been just another high-class hooker, and he hadn’t been making jokes in 2060 when the woman bested him without lifting a finger. He’d had a long time to forget the indignity of his last tangle with Chloe Shaw. He could pretend acceptance, but Alexa remembered the way they’d found him after helping her escape. He’d been paralyzed so long, thanks to Chloe’s nanobot swarm, that he’d ended up soiling a pair of bespoke trousers with his piss. He was lucky Alexa hadn’t encouraged more of his humiliation with pics and video.
“I’m aware. But you always forget that you did not create her. You found her.”
“After more than fifty years of non-stop culling of avatar data!” Alexa snapped. “After expending more of O’s credits than I can count, then untold billions to cultivate her! Maybe Chloe was a miracle all along, but without me, nobody would have ever known … including Chloe.”
Caspian’s cocky, insulting grin vanished from his face. “You forget, old woman. I was there through all of that. Who tested O’s first candidates, back in the twenty-teens? Who green-lit Bridget Miller, before she too escaped your grip?”
Caspian stood to match her. “Don’t you fucking lecture me about patience and hard work. The only reason my company didn’t find Chloe first was because you stole her. Made her a pet, then protected her with your cronies in the Six. Protected her with all those bribes, with your careful social engineering meant to normalize sex in polite society — and, of course, to get people buying as many of your company’s fuck toys as they could get their hands on. I respect what O did, Alexa. What you did. But you crossed the line when you made me your enemy. If you hadn’t been so selfish, we could have worked together. Gamestorming had more data than O. We had the data to develop her into a full-on AI, not some sort of a …”
He made a face.
“… a curriculum for whores. But no. You refused to work with me. My data wasn’t wholesome enough, or ethical enough, or didn’t recycle and compost its garbage enough; is that about right? So instead of bringing Chloe to me, who did you go to for the data you needed? Fucking …” A vein had risen on his perfect forehead. “Fucking Robby Bobbins?”
She had a defense ready, but instead found herself confused. “Who?”
“Anthony Ross,” Caspian muttered. “He always felt like a second-tier Tony Robbins to me.”
Alexa said nothing. It was just like Caspian to misunderstand Anthony’s work — to dismiss him as just another self-help guru.
Uncomfortable with the silence, Caspian said, “Noah West is back.”
Alexa scoffed. “You’re insane.”
But a phantom dread climbed her neck as she tried to keep her face neutral. She wanted to believe that Caspian was crazy, and that Noah was dead like the world had long ago left him. But Alexa didn’t believe those things. When Stephen York found Alexa online just the other day (when that digital little girl, Kimmy, led him right to her Beam front door through means unknown), Alexa told him that her archive had just come alive like Frankenstein’s monster. One moment she’d had a loose assortment of uploaded memories, and the next those files were essentially a human mind.
So what had changed? What had sparked life into her digital self? She’d told York she didn’t know why, that she accepted it as a miracle, but her logical brain knew there had to be a reason for those files to become suddenly coherent. For decades she alone believed that Noah was still out there somewhere, impossibly or not. Recently she’d felt it even more. For weeks now, whenever Alexa went online she felt watched.
Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night and swore she saw Noah in the mirror behind her.
“You predicted this. So what now?”
She could barely hear his question. His voice seemed to come from far away. Alexa kept forgetting where she was, as if she’d already died and her mind had ascended to live on The Beam.
She walked away. The bathroom was behind her, and Caspian not being in it was as good a reason for the destination as any. In a childish way — if only for a handful of seconds — Alexa felt like maybe she could escape this twisting reality if she simply put it out of sight.
He didn’t rise or follow. She could feel him waiting for her crisis to pass.
She turned on the bathroom light. Turned on the water. Waited for the world to stop spinning.
“Take your time,” said Caspian from the other room.
Alexa wanted to swear. To shout. Their last-minute alliance all those years ago had been born from desperation and weakness, and sanely speaking she never should have made it. After losing Chloe Shaw, the O Corporation was still wealthy and powerful but had nearly rotted to death from the inside. The Six who ran the board had turned on each other like elephant seals bloodied on the beach.
Caspian, ironically, remained the only person powerful enough to act as a foil. It should have mattered more that he was a saboteur and an enemy — one who just weeks earlier had committed an unforgivable act against them. But to Alexa at the time, Caspian (whose business had not fragmented and whose connections remained intact) had felt like the only port in a storm.
The O board was six people strong, but Alexa had always been their unilateral leader. Still, with Chloe gone, her unspoken status had flatlined. Olivia and Parker had taken her side, but Charisma, Benson, and Houston had all moved against her. A tie was unacceptable. O was Alexa’s baby. She needed to reclaim control or lose it all.
Bring me in as an advisor, Caspian had suggested at her most desperate moment. My vote makes seven and will break the deadlock. You go into exile, they fire me, but you get to keep your controlling interest.
And what do you get? A percentage of O? Alexa had asked.
If that’s what Caspian wanted then it would cannibalize her share, not siphon from anyone else. But he’d shaken his head, insisting that he wanted neither equity nor cash. That was either a lie, or a truth with a deadly catch, to be discovered when Alexa least expected it. Perhaps Caspian had become her only hope, but she was still wary — deeply wary of the coup he’d almost pulled. She’d be a fool to trust him. The man never did anything for free. But what choice did she have, as she’d waited for his terms?
His answer had surprised her: Forgiveness.
And so Alexa had made herself believe, because that was the best possible move when she was otherwise out of options. Caspian was untouchable back then, but forgiveness was a sensible ask in the aftermath of their mess.
O, even fragmented, had planned to pursue Gamestorming with everything it had. In that particular war, O would have been the victor without a doubt. So yes, Caspian had needed a truce if only to save his company, and a truce meant Alexa. She, in that moment, had likewise needed him. A deal was inevitable, regardless of their mutual loathing.
One more thing, Caspian had said as she was leaving the room those thirty-eight years ago.
When you find your God in the Machine, I want you to tell me.
She’d been shocked. Religion? From Caspian White?
Because I want to meet him. Because I want to know how he does what he does.
Caspian wasn’t interested in spirituality, only the top of the network’s tree. He didn’t mean Noah, because he didn’t really believe. But he was gambler enough to always place small bets on the biggest moonshots. Of course Noah wouldn’t return … but on the slim chance he did, Caspian refused to miss out.
And so she had agreed. His last-minute ask wasn’t serious, or truly a deal, or any indication of belief. Alexa assured herself that she’d never see Caspian again because he didn’t actually care. He was simply poking her in the back as she walked out the door.
Now, in the bathroom with the sink running, a voice whispered between her ears. It was Alexa’s stern self from all those years ago when she’d been powerful and bold, afraid of nothing.
You’re glad Caspian is here. You’ve been hoping he’d come.
On the top level of her mind, that was bullshit. Alexa had planned to die tonight and never consider the corporeal world again. But digging into the deeper feelings, her plan might be off. She’d been elated when her archive brightened with proof that there were gods in the machine. But she couldn’t tamp down the suspicion that Noah might be what wasn’t really a miracle at all.
Alive, the man had frightened her. Noah’s genius was never tempered by compassion. She’d been ever so slightly glad that his death occurred before The Beam came online, and ever so slightly worried that her belief in his digital immortality might prove itself true.
What if he comes back? Alexa had asked Caspian in her weakest moment. If he manages somehow to return, what will he have become?
And Caspian had said a strange thing: If that happens, we’ll face it together.
She’d forgotten his words until just now — an easy thing to do seeing as the words had been so unlike him. But that’s what she had been subliminally hanging onto these past four decades, whenever her Beam journeys grew too turbulent. Whenever her sense that The Beam was a spiritual place became blighted by fear.
For weeks, The Beam had been feeling increasingly chaotic to Alexa — and at the same time more calculating and mechanistic. She wasn’t the only one who’d noticed messiness in the network, but she did seem to be the only one who saw order within the knot.
That knot wasn’t the untidy jumble of Christmas lights stored in a pile. It was a sailor’s knot, or a noose above the gallows. It hadn’t “just happened,” in Alexa’s opinion. Someone had tied it.
In those moments — feeling the fear but not quite admitting it — her quiet mind kept churning thoughts of Caspian White. They both had much to lose if Noah returned. The technology required to accomplish such a feat would be the most valuable thing in the world, and of course he’d want to seize it for himself.
But Noah himself? If West returned after so much time spent evolving with the AI, he really would be like a god. The man had never liked competition. Chances were excellent he’d scorch the earth beneath them both.
Alexa nodded once to the bathroom mirror, then returned to the bedroom.
“Are we done playing games?” Caspian asked.
She sat on the bed. They’d been reacquainted for a quarter hour now, but Alexa felt like they’d been talking for days. While dragging heavy rocks and doing calculus. She nodded, dying for sleep.
“So you believe me.”
Alexa nodded again. “I’ve felt something. I guess I’ve known it was coming for a while now.”
“I don’t mean to be insulting, Alexa, but I need to make sure you understand that Noah’s reintegration, if it’s really happened, means that you—”
A third nod, like the idiot bob of a zombie’s head. “I know. There’s no easy way out anymore.” She looked Caspian in the eyes, making herself focus. But still her gaze slipped to his hand, where the temptation of suicide lay in a tiny white pill.
“If you die now …” he began.
She didn’t, really. Not the specifics. But Alexa was finally admitting the truth to herself: If this was Noah’s return, there was little chance her digital self had truly gained holographic sentience. More likely, it just looked sentient. An act of Alexa’s god could make immortality possible for her, but not an act of Noah. He’d always pretended his innovations were for everyone, but West had always kept the best for himself, forever looking out for number one. Project Mindbender probably wasn’t truly unlocked, even for Panel, if he’d returned … something she was regrettably believing more and more. No, Noah would make sure that only he could pull that little trick.
Alexa couldn’t imagine a world where the god in Noah’s machine didn’t leave several aces up his sleeve.
Caspian watched her, his expression edging compassion. If Alexa couldn’t die just yet (not without truly dying, anyway), it would mean living on in agony. Her cancer had been terminal for a year, nanobots be damned.
In their waiting silence, Alexa suddenly understood: this was a pact, same as it’d always been.
Alexa, who’d spent her life believing in the soul-nature of The Beam, was perhaps the only person who truly knew how much there was to fear from Noah’s resurrection. He’d always been power-hungry, aggressive, and casually sociopathic in the way most geniuses were. But now he wasn’t even human.
Caspian was perhaps the only other believer. Twisted and evil though he might be, he was also the only person arrogant and powerful enough to attempt a stand against him. Others would kneel before Noah, but Caspian was too full of himself for fear.
“You saw this coming. What do we do? Tell the others on Panel?”
Alexa shook her head. “Not until I know where they stand. Someone had to have helped him, before and now. Maybe several someones.” Her odds were on Iggy. His reactions were never right whenever she’d raised the issue of Noah to Panel, as if he knew something the rest had yet to figure out.
“So it’s just me and you.”
But Alexa had other ideas. She had another secret from Panel. “No. There’s someone else, if we can find her before Noah does.”
Caspian leaned forward, a devil’s smile claiming his face. “You know where she is?”
No one had seen Chloe Shaw in almost forty years.
Alexa shook her head. “But I know she’s still alive.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because The Beam would have mourned her passing.”
He looked confused. Even after witnessing what Chloe could do firsthand, Caspian still couldn’t understand the how or why of it all. Chloe could crack encryption with a blink and shape virtual worlds around her. Exile and disconnection had kept her safe, but The Beam, even in whatever backwater town she had landed in, had always silently served her … waiting for Chloe to return as well.
“Who is Chloe Shaw, Alexa?” Caspian’s eyes were wide. “Who is she really?”
So Alexa told him the impossible truth: born to a mother with no uterus, sired by nanotechnology, cellular nucleotides assembled by specialty bots to create haploid DNA out of nothing.
Nicole Shaw could not have had a child, and yet somehow she had. She’d never even met the man whose DNA Chloe carried … and yet Chloe carried it just the same.
Then Alexa delivered her bombshell.
“Neither of them know the truth,” she told Caspian, “but Chloe Shaw is Noah West’s daughter.”