In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. -Genesis 1:1 Think back. What is the first thing you remember? My life begins in an alley-a dark, hidden place in shadows of the city. I awaken there like being born: weak, blind, and helpless, new to the world and all of its strange sounds, smells, and experiences. And alone, but not for very long. The first thing I become aware of is the darkness and the noise. I cannot see, but I can feel and smell and hear. I can feel the ground beneath me. It is hard and cool. The roughness of it is not unpleasant-like someone scratching your back-and I lie there for I don’t know how long, just enjoying the sensation of being supported by the ground, feeling its cool and strong embrace. I can feel the air stir around me, a gentle breeze brushing across the bare skin of my face and hands and ruffling my hair. The breeze brings smells and sounds to me as I lie there. I smell the harsh smell of the city: a smell of burning. Burning fuel, burning trash, burning wood, and people burning with hope, despair, misery, and joy make up the smell, mixed in with the slow decaying scent of the city as metal, mortar, and stone slowly crumble to rust and dust, ground down beneath the force of the elements. I smell my own sweat, cooling on my skin. I hear the distant sounds of the city, the constant rumble of noise that most city-dwellers ignore almost completely in their daily lives. I hear the voices of cars, from the bass rumble of diesel engines to the high whine of electric motors powering small commuter cars. From time to time a horn blares out its distant cry of anger or warning. The voices of the city whisper and speak to me, and I know there is danger. Then I hear another voice, much closer, which is speaking to someone else. “There he is,” the voice says and I know he is talking about me. Then another voice, deep and gravelly. “Just like Crawley said he would be. I’ll give him that, Weizack, that freak may be weird, but his information is right on the money.” Weizack laughs, more like a humorless bark. “You should talk, chummer. You ain’t winning no beauty prizes yourself.” Weizack’s partner growls, a low, throaty sound. “Watch it, chummer. I may look like something outta somebody’s nightmare, but at least I ain’t no fragging ghoul. Let’s just do this job and get the frag out of here. This place gives me the creeps.” A rough hand grabs my jaw, and I feel a jolt of fear and surprise shoot through my nerves. I want to push away the hand touching me and filling my nostrils with the stench of overripe sweat and the smell of decay, but my body refuses to obey me. My muscles remain limp and I lie like a dead fish on the cool, hard ground as the hands turn my head to the side and blunt fingers brash against the side of my neck. “Hey,” I hear Weizack’s comrade say, his hot, rank breath blowing past my face. “He’s still jacked in.” “So unplug him. What’s the big deal?” The fingertips brush my neck again. I hear a faint metallic click and feel an immediate and yawning sense of loss open up within me. He has taken something from me. Something very important, my connection to something larger and greater than I am. I am truly alone now, and helpless against these strangers. I try to move, or even open my eyes, but I can’t. It feels like my brain is detached from the rest of my body. Like I have forgotten how to use it somehow. The part of me that is awake and aware floats somewhere, detached, unable to make the connection to make a move or a sound. “Fragging chipheads,” the deep voice grumbles. “Why they wanna burn out their brains beats the drek outta me. Feedin’ stuff straight into your brain is totally fragged up. All of that techno-trash, just for the sake of gettin’ high.” “You ever try slottin’ sims, Riley?” Weizack asks his partner. “No way. Those things’ll frag you up for good. Not even the beetles, just the soft-core drek. My cousin was a sim-chipper, and all he did was spend the whole day sitting around slotting chips and living in a fraggin’ fantasy world. Couldn’t hold down a job or nothin’. Finally cooked his brain slotting something he shouldn’t of. Cheap Hong Kong trash. You wanna get trashed, I say do it the old fashioned way-with a bottle or something. These brain-burners frag you up but good.” “What about all of this stuff?” Weizack says, his voice coming from close by and above where I lie. He must be standing near my head, looking down at me. “Leave it,” the one called Riley says. “Said you don’t wanna mess with this drek. It’s bad biz.” “Why not? As long as we’re here…” “No.” Riley’s tone flat and cold. “Bad enough we’re comin’ here for him, but I ain’t messin’ with some of the weird-ass mojo that goes down around here. Beetles are bad enough, but this place gets used for some real magic. Once we’re done with him we’re out of it, but if we mess with this place we could end up cursed or worse.” “You really believe in that hoodoo curse drek?” Weizack asked. “Take another look at my face, drekhead, and tell me there’s no truth to curses. Ever since the magic came back, it’s been nothing but trouble for the whole world.” Riley’s voice was heavy with bitterness. “It mighta made some of the elves and their wannabes happy, but it’s just another way to slot over the rest of us. Proof that mother nature is a slitch with a sense of humor. Now shut the frag up and give me a hand here. We need to move this guy before somebody finds us here.” A strong pair of hands grips my ankles and, a moment later, another pair slides under my shoulders and grips me under the armpits. They lift me off the ground like a limp rag, all of my muscles still stubbornly refusing to respond to my mind’s demands to move. Just a little movement, a twitch or a blink, to show these two I’m awake and aware. That’s all it would take. But I can’t seem to figure out how to do it. I feel vaguely sick and dizzy as I’m carried a short distance, swaying gently between my two porters. They set me down again on a surface that is slick and soft over the hardness of the ground. “All set?” Weizack asks, and for a moment I think he’s talking to me. Riley grunts in response and Weizack says, “O.K., let’s get going. Crawley doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” “Frag him,” Riley says. “I don’t take drek from any frag-gin’ ghoul.” I hear the sound of a zipper and feel the slick vinyl-coated cloth close around me like an embrace. The zipper passes up over my head and I’m completely sealed in… oh no. They don’t think I’m unconscious. They think I’m dead! But I’m not! I feel panic grip my heart like a cold hand as my mind frantically screams at my body to obey. I just need to move, to make a sound, something to tell these men I’m really alive, that they’ve got the wrong guy. Dammit, move! I feel my breathing begin to quicken and I hope the sound will penetrate the heavy vinyl, but there is no response from outside it. Two pairs of hands lift me off the ground and swing me like a sack a couple of times before releasing me. There is a moment of cold, stark terror as I fly through the air with no sense of balance and no idea where I will fall. Then I drop onto something firm but yielding, and roll just a bit before coming to rest on my side. There is a clunk of metal on metal and the retreating footsteps of the two men. Then the sound of doors opening and muffled talk from somewhere ahead of me. That’s when I realize I’m lying on top of a stack of bodies, all of them wrapped up for delivery just like me. But delivery to where? And are they dead or like me, trying desperately to gather the strength to cry out, to yell “I’m alive!” in hopes someone will hear them? The thought hits me: is this what death is like? Maybe I really am dead and just don’t know it. Maybe when you die all you really do is become a helpless prisoner in your slowly decaying body, aware of the world around you but unable to move or communicate in any way. Maybe your mind hangs around until your body rots away in the ground or you get the quick and merciful release of cremation. The thought of this paralysis as the afterlife nearly makes me scream and collapse in terror, but another thought bubbles up into my mind from somewhere. I know I’m not dead. I just know it somewhere deep down inside. I know I’ve been dead before and this isn’t what it was like. I’m alive, reborn, and I have to figure out how I’m going to stay that way. Be a shame to start my new life only to end up dead again. An engine rumbles to life and we start to drive. The meat-wagon slowly pulls away from the place of my awakening and heads out into the city.
The initiatory experiences of shamans the world over are remarkably similar, which we can now account for in the universal nature of magic itself. The proto- shaman falls into a trance or profoundly deathlike state, often as a result of an illness. While in this state, the candidate’s spirit leaves the body behind and travels or is taken into the other world. In this spirit world, the candidate’s spirit-self encounters and speaks with the various spirits dwelling there, learning certain secret words, names, and songs. The candidate’s spirit form is then torn apart or devoured by the spirits, reduced to nothing more than a skeleton. The spirits introduce something new to the shaman’s skeletal form, something symbolic of the shaman’s awakened magical talent, like a magic stone or bone. The spirit-body is then reconstructed better than ever before. This death/rebirth experience awakens the shaman’s magical potential and the candidate returns to the physical world with an awareness of the spirits and the power of the spirit world. This traditional form of shamanic initiation continues even into our modern magical age. -from the lecture “Shamanic Traditions in the Twenty-first Century,” by Nobel Prize winning shaman Dr. Akiko Kano, Cal-Tech, 2044 I lie on top of a pile of corpses for I don’t know how long. Time seems to drag without destination or origin. We sway and weave through the traffic like a funeral barge slowly making its way downriver to the sea. I try to let the gentle movements soothe me instead of making me sick to my stomach while I concentrate on trying to find a way out of this situation. The smell inside the meat-wagon is awful. The hot, organic smell of death mixed with the sharp bite of chemical cleansers and overlaid with the strange smell and taste of the rubbery vinyl of the body-bag surrounding me like the cocoon of some kind of strange insect. A thought passes through my head about how body-bags are not exactly designed with comfort in mind, and I have to force down a bout of hysterical laughter at the idea. I know I’ve got to find some way to get out of here. Buried in the hot darkness and the smell of decay and disinfectant, I take stock of the situation. I cannot make my muscles work the way they should, but I can still feel my hands and my feet, the sensation of the vinyl body-bag against my skin, the way I rest on top of the bodies supporting me, the motion of the van as it moves. My mind is a jumble of thoughts and images. I was expecting to see someone else. Someone else was to come and find me, not these body-snatchers looking for corpses. Why can’t I move? I try to figure out what could have happened to cause this. I can still feel everything. Neither my limbs nor my skin are numb. I dismiss the possibility of injury causing my paralysis. The idea makes me ill, and, if it’s true, there’s not much hope of getting out of here. I push the thoughts aside. No point in dwelling on what I can’t change. Drugs? I don’t think so. I don’t feel sedated or drugged. My mind is sharp and awake. It might be a drug I don’t know, but, again, there isn’t much I can do if that’s the case. Best to consider the other possibilities. Magic? It’s possible. There are spells to paralyze and control people. I know something about the theory behind them. Magicians have the ability to do such things, but I can’t recall ever having been under a spell. Thinking about magic makes me feel strange. There’s something I don’t remember about it. Something important, but it doesn’t help me with my present problem.
There’s the possibility of the BTLs Riley talked about. Better Than Life chips-beetles-were things plenty of people plugged into their brains to experience feelings and sensations more pleasurable and intense than anything real life had to offer, supposedly. I dimly recall a feeling like that, feelings deeper and broader than anything I thought a human body and mind could contain. A sense of being so large, so vast, but it slips away from me even as I try to grab hold of it. Was I using chips in the alley? Is my current condition the result of neural damage to my motor centers? I can’t remember. The way I’m lying on top of the stack of bodies is giving me a painful pull at the base of my neck. I long to raise my head or to roll over to a more comfortable position. I focus on the pain, let it fill my thoughts. I pour all of my effort into making my body roll over to the side. Just a little contraction of the muscles. Just a slight change in position. That’s it. Should be easy. Nothing to it. I start to sweat inside the confinement of the body bag, and I can feel the air getting hot and stale. The sound of my own breathing is loud in the confinement, but I focus on it to remind me I’m still alive and I try to quicken its pace. I need more air, more oxygen to my muscles and my brain to try and speed their recovery. If they can recover, that is… No, I can’t let myself think that way. I have to be able to move or there’s no chance at all. The meat-wagon takes a corner hard, and I throw all of my strength into rolling with the movement. There! I manage to roll onto my back on top of the other bodies, and I think I can feel someone’s arm under my lower back, as if it were holding me in an embrace. It isn’t much, but I moved. I start concentrating on my hands and my feet. They are tingling a bit and, with some effort, I can almost move them. The paralysis gripping my body is starting to fade, I can feel it. I concentrate on trying to move, trying to find my voice, to bring my mind back into synch with my body. That’s it. I feel like my mind has lost touch with my body, like I’ve only forgotten how to use it properly. If I could only open my eyes. Of course, all there is to see right now is the inside of a dark body bag. I just need to try a little harder. We slow to a stop, and the driver kills the engine. We’ve arrived somewhere. I start to work feverishly to regain some movement, any kind of movement. I have to tell them I’m not dead, that they’ve made a mistake. I have to get out of here. I hear the doors of the van clunk open, and I can hear the men talking again. Weizack is saying something about the Urban Brawl game he lost some money on last night. His partner Riley just grunts in response to his ramblings. Rough hands lift me out of the back of the van, and I try to squirm or struggle inside the body bag to tell these two they’re not handling a corpse. I manage to flex my hands a bit, curling the fingers in to form fists, but I still can’t move my arms. The thought of Weizack and his chummer dropping me in fright and cracking my skull on whatever is under me if I move flashes briefly through my mind. I could end up needing a body bag for real then, but I have to try and make them aware of me. Then I hear a new voice speaking. “Is this him?” the voice asks, barely audible through the thick vinyl body bag. The sound of it is low and whispery. “Yeah, right where you said he would be,” Weizack says, his voice gone flat and cold. The newcomer is obviously not a friend. “Let me see,” the other whispers. I am lowered to the ground, and someone unzips the body bag. There is a rush of cool night air, and a foul stench assaults my nostrils. It is the smell of death and decay from the meat-wagon, but much worse and without the acidic tang of the disinfectant to cover it. The touch of the cool air and the terrible smell send another surge of adrenaline through my system, and I fight to move or see what is going on. “Good, good,” the new voice whispers, and I shiver a bit at the sound. Did they see that? “He’s still in good shape, his aura is still bright and strong.”
A dry hand gently caresses my cheek and I nearly gag at the touch. It’s like the touch of a corpse. I can feel sharp nails like claws just barely grazing my skin. “Ah, fresh meat,” the same voice whispers again with a sigh of pleasure, sending a whiff of hot, foul breath wafting across my face. Hearing those words, I regain some control over myself. My eyes snap open and I stare up into what looks like the face of death itself. The figure crouched above me is pale and hairless, with skin tinged the gray of the grave and drawn tight over his bones. Thin lips curl back in a cruel smile, exposing sharp teeth that remind me of a small, meat-eating animal. A narrow tongue of a darker shade of gray emerges to lick his lips like a man sitting down to a feast. His hands are bony claws tipped with sharp, rending nails, and his eyes are the worst of all. White and blind, they seem to focus on my face, and yet look past my flesh as if they were peering straight into my soul. “Good evening,” the gray figure whispers to me, and I realize it is night, the dark sky covered with a gray shroud of clouds. I also realize neither my two “handlers” nor the creature crouching above me are surprised or shocked to see me awake. They know I’m not dead, and the implications break over me like a wave. If they knew I was alive the whole time, then I haven’t been taken for disposal like some kind of rubbish off the streets but for some other purpose. The ghoul’s comment about “fresh meat” comes to mind and I shudder again and try to move. My limbs jerk spasmodically this time, causing the creature to stop smiling and back away a bit, even as he waves the two handlers in closer. “No, no,” he whispers in his low voice, “don’t try to move. You’ll be better off if you stay still. We wouldn’t want you to injure yourself.” His words are intended to sound comforting, but they only make my skin crawl. I look up at his pinched, gray face and his sightless eyes and see no pity or sympathy there. “Bring him,” he tells the two handlers. “You can come back for the rest later. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.” Chuckling a wheezing laugh at his own joke, the creature turns and moves off as the handlers each grab one of my arms and lift me up. I notice that Weizack is a man with a bit of a paunch and red-rimmed eyes. He wears a scuffed leather jacket and a faded and stained denim shirt. I also notice the butt of a pistol protruding from the side of his belt underneath the jacket. His partner is a tall, hulking figure with a broad, flat face. Two short tusks protrude up over his upper lip and his ears are longish and pointed, lying back against his skull. He looks like a goblin or ogre out of some fairy tale, but I realize he’s an ork, one of the metatypes who assumed their true forms when magic returned to the world. He is right about one thing; his face is ugly as sin, but it’s nothing like the hideous visage of the creature they work for, the ghoul. I catch the thing’s face out of the corner of my eye as they lift me off the ground, and he almost looks sorry for me. That worries me more than anything I’ve seen so far. The two handlers carry me away from the meat-wagon, my feet dragging on the ground, toward a low brick building. The van is parked in an alley alongside the building, and there’s a side door nearby. The weathered brick walls of the building are smeared with years of accumulated graffiti; the signs, scrawls, and symbols meshing together like the secret writing cities use to communicate with those who know how to read it. The symbols are strangely familiar to me, but then I notice something else scrawled in vivid red near the door of the building: “Beware the Tamanous.” I’m dragged through the door, down a corridor lit by the blue-white light of flickering fluorescent tubes, a glow to make a healthy person look dead, which only emphasizes the ghoul’s pallor. He leads us into a room and turns to Weizack and his partner. “Put him up on the table,” he says, “so I can get him prepared for delivery.” Delivery to whom? I wonder, as the men drag me toward a flat, steel table in the middle of the room. Next to it I see a tray of shining, polished instruments: scalpels, needles, tubes, wires, and gleaming hypodermics. “It seems like such a waste,” the creature sighs softly somewhere behind me. “The parts are always best when they’re fresh.” When I hear those words I feel the adrenaline rush into my body like a dam breaking. Synapses fire and connect, newfound energy shoots through my nervous system and I find the strength to plant my feet on the floor and shove Weizack away. As he stumbles back with a yell into the tray of instruments, I grab for his gun. Time goes strange and everything seems to be moving in slow motion to me. Weizack crashes to the tiled floor along with all of the sharp and shining surgical gear as I flick the safety off on the gun and spin on his partner. I faintly hear the gray creature cry out not to damage me too much as I level the gun at the ork. A look of total and utter surprise on Riley’s face makes him look almost innocent and comical for a moment before I fire and the rounds from Weizack’s gun erase his face in a blur of red. He topples back toward the floor with the top of his head blown off. Before I can turn toward the ghoul, he is upon me, slamming into my side with surprising speed and strength. His skin is like leather and his eyes are hideous, wide and staring. The smell of him is as overpowering as the charnel smell of the meat-wagon, and he sends us both crashing to the cold tile floor near the steel table. The gun flies from my hand and slides across the tile floor just out of reach. I struggle to get to it, but too late. The creature is hideously strong and I am still weak and moving too slow. It grabs me and throws me down onto the floor on my back, pushing the air out of my lungs with a whoosh and sending pain lancing up my spine. A blow to my stomach makes me want to retch, and another upside my head has me seeing stars. I struggle to throw the thing off me as it straddles my legs and strikes at me with its wiry arms, but it is too strong, too heavy. The gun is out of my reach and Weizack is stirring and cursing, bleeding from several cuts and gashes the surgical tools have given him. The hot, metallic smell of blood is everywhere in the room, and it seems to drive the creature pinning me into a rage. It smiles and licks its thin lips, revealing a mouthful of sharp teeth and an animal-like tongue. I shrink back in fear. Something cold and primal uncoils inside me and seems to take over, a basic instinct. There is a metallic click, and I strike out at one of the wiry gray arms pinning me down. The ghoul arcs back, howling in pain, a scream that scratches against my brain like a monofilament edge parts flesh and bone like water. Blood spurts out in dark gouts from the stump of the ghoul’s arm. I kick the screaming thing off of me and scramble onto my hands and knees toward the gun. The dark, carbon-fiber blade slides silently back into my forearm, shedding the blood and gore from its slick surface as it goes, my skin sealing perfectly over the opening with only the slightest mark to reveal its passage. Grabbing the gun from the floor as Weizack begins to get back to his feet, I shoot him in the leg, shattering his thigh bone and leaving a exit wound I could fit my fist through. He goes down yelling “Frag!” over and over again at the top of his lungs as the ghoul also continues to howl and roll on the floor in agony. I have to get out of here before I find out if they’ve got reinforcements nearby. I move over to where Weizack is leaning against the wall and clutching at his leg. “Keys,” I say as I level the gun at him. He looks for a moment like he’s going to tell me to go slot, but then glances again at the gun I’m holding and reaches into the pocket of his jacket. I grab the key-ring in the shape of a little plastic dragon without taking my eyes off him and then back a few steps away. Turning from the carnage in the room, I head out the door, my head still ringing from the ghoul’s strike and my ribs and legs aching. I burst out into the hallway to see a man wearing a pristine white lab coat over his street clothes. He is studying the flat computer pad in his hand. He looks up as I rush out of the room, all bloody and wild-eyed, and there is a long instant where we seem to just stand and stare at each other. I raise the gun and shoot him without a second thought and keep moving down the corridor. He drops the computer pad with a clatter and stumbles back from the impact of the round to his chest. The look of surprise is frozen on his face, and he leaves streaks of blood where he slides down the pale gray wall. I have no idea who he is. I run down the corridor and out the door to the van parked in the alleyway, still loaded with its macabre cargo of corpses. I yank open the door, jump into the driver’s side, and gun the ignition, body-bags scattering from the meat-wagon’s open rear doors as I peel out of there. A horn blares at me as I swerve onto the road and accelerate away, but there is no sign of pursuit from the charnel house. Only when I’m several blocks away do I notice the blood spattered on my clothes and skin. I look down at my arm where the terrible curved blade emerged, seeing the faint, pale line on my skin near my wrist that is its sheath. I didn’t even know it was there.
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the. earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth. -Genesis 11:1-9 It had been a long time since God felled humanity’s last attempt to build a tower to the heavens, but humanity had now toppled heaven from the sky and raised up a new heaven to replace it. A heaven of glittering satellites and low-orbital factories singing their electronic choruses in praise of commerce and free enterprise, looking down on the Earth with their watchful eyes, seeing all. In the highest throne of the new heaven sat the Zurich-Orbital, home of the Corporate Court. The Court arbitrated the disputes and laws of the vast, multinational mega-corporations straddling the globe and holding the power and prestige once reserved for the nations they had eclipsed. Granted extraterritorial status by the weakened governments of the world, the megacorps answer to no law but their own, embodied in the form of the satellite orbiting high above the mundane concerns of Earth’s teeming populace. From their heavenly headquarters, the thirteen justices of the Corporate Court pass their divine judgments on the world below and the megacorporations controlling it. Justice David Hague of the Corporate Court floated in his small office space on board the Zurich-Orbital like an angel sitting on a cloud, but the Justice-a paid employee of Fuchi Industrial Electronics-was anything but serene. Fidgeting in the loose harness keeping him tethered to one wall of the small room, Hague did his best to simulate pacing in a zero-gravity environment. Floating gently back and forth while looking out the room’s small window at the vast blue sphere of the Earth below, he was alone for the moment with his worries and concerns. Despite his unease, Hague was very much the image of an angelic figure. His rosy cheeks and wide blue eyes gave him a boyish air that made him look years younger. He’d cursed the “baby face” in youth, but now that he was past fifty, his youthful looks worked to his advantage. Where most of his colleagues were spending huge sums on cutting-edge treatments to keep them looking young and vital, David Hague could still pass for a man in his thirties. Oh, there was a touch of gray in the golden curls, but his hair was so fair most didn’t notice it anyway. He sighed and thought wistfully of his native Amsterdam again, wishing he were back home, or at least back on Earth. He longed to be standing on solid ground and wished the whole matter he’d come here for was over. The trip up to
the orbital had been exhausting, as usual. The Z-O operated on Greenwich Mean Time, which meant it was something like four a.m. here, whatever meaning that had for a station in low-earth orbit. Hague’s personal body clock wasn’t far off, and he wished for the hundredth time that the whole thing was over and done with so he could at least get some sleep. Although Hague, like all of the Corporate Court justices, was no stranger to confrontation or conflict, he felt a deep uneasiness about the events that had brought him to the Zurich-Orbital station. A serpent had entered the Corporate Court’s economic and legal Eden, and he feared it might topple their tower to the heavens just as God had toppled humanity’s last attempt. The balance of power between the megacorporations was delicate in the extreme, and the Court was entrusted with maintaining it and keeping the peace. An electronic chime drew Hague’s attention away from his brooding. He gently pushed off from the wall to grab a padded handle, which let him turn toward the door of the room. “Enter,” he said, and the hatch slid open with a pneumatic hiss to allow Hague’s visitor to float gently into the room before expertly catching one of the wall handles and hooking her harness to the nearby ring to tether herself. Although the room was small, Hague could normally use all of the space to move and work in, including the walls and the ceiling, rather than being limited to just the floor. But when he had visitors, he preferred to speak to them face to face rather than having people dangling from the ceiling while talking. It made him sick to his stomach. The addition of his guest made the room seem smaller and more cramped, although Hague was not sure if it was her presence or the news she carried. “Hello, David,” Justice Lynn Osborne said with a smile. “How are you enjoying your visit?” Like Hague, Osborne was a member of the Corporate Court in the employ of Fuchi Industrial Electronics. Fuchi was one of the few megacorps with two Justices on the Corporate Court. It had been a considerable coup for the computer-industry giant over the past few years and one that should serve them well as they now brought a serious matter before the Court. So serious that Fuchi had invoked the right to have all the justices present in the flesh instead of merely by virtual reality. “Lynn, you know how much I despise freefall. It’s a good thing the treatments they’re giving out for space-sickness are reasonably effective, or you could never have dragged me up here. Can we just get on with this?” Osborne smiled and nodded. Unlike Hague, Osborne spent considerably more time on board the Zurich-Orbital handling her duties as a justice. Hague preferred to remain on Earth and conduct Court business through the virtual-reality interface of the Matrix via a sophisticated satellite uplink system, but not this time. No matter what he said, he and every other justice would be physically present. When the Court was in session, Z-O would be isolated from the worldwide computer network and inviolate to spying or outside interference of any kind. Osborne’s regular presence on board the station had also acclimated her internal clock to the orbital’s routines. Where Hague was tired and irritable, she was fresh and well-rested, which only grated further on his strained nerves. Taking a computer pad from a clip on her belt, Osborne touched the flat-screen and brought up an organizational display of the Corporate Court. Eight of the thirteen icons representing the Justices were colored in green while the remaining five were colored in red. “We’ve got our chance,” she said triumphantly. “I’ve just come from talking with Doi and Msaki, and they’re willing to lend their support. That’s enough of a majority for the initial hearing to go forward. It’s only a formality for the Court to convene now.” Hague wasn’t overly surprised. The two justices working for Mitsuhama Computer Technologies might have their differences with Fuchi, but they also knew what was at stake in this issue and what could happen if two of the major computer-tech corps didn’t work together on this one. He nodded and gave a low “hmmm” of approval. “What about Napoli? How do you plan to handle him?” he asked, and Osborne gave a small pout that made her look almost girlish despite her fifty-plus years. David Hague knew Osborne was one of those people who spent part of her considerable salary as a member of the Corporate Court on maintaining appearances. Her fine features were the best Fuchi’s exclusive cosmetic clinics could produce, but she still had not gone the route of entirely concealing her real age beneath some plastic glamour-girl facade. The dark chestnut hair was free of gray and the smooth skin free of lines, but Osborne still looked like a mature woman somewhere in that vague range between thirty and fifty. An observer would be hard pressed to guess her real age. She shook her head. “Don’t worry about Napoli. He’s isolated on the Court-and he’s a lame duck. We can handle him. Renraku hasn’t exactly been making friends on the Court lately.” That’s certainly true, Hague thought. “But it doesn’t change the fact that Renraku has a lot of clout,” he said. “Renraku has been handing us a lot of surprises over the past two years, and it’s just possible they might have a card up their collective sleeve that could trump even the Court. Who knows what Lanier might have given them.” “Renraku is out of cards, David. Nobody can stand against the whole Court when we’re unified behind a cause. The Veracruz Incident proved that.” The event Osborne referred to had occurred ten years ago, before either she or Hague had become justices. The so-called incident consisted of the world’s first-tier mega-corps joining forces to punish one of their own for flouting the Corporate Court’s authority. A military strike against some of the target’s holdings had been carried out with surgical precision, and the message sent was clear: defy the Court’s edicts at your own peril. Now loomed the possibility that another megacorp was heading up that same dangerous road. “I wish I shared your certainly,” Hague replied. “Francesco Napoli is a pit bull. He’s not going to let go without a fierce fight, and by now he must know what you’re planning to present before the Court. Renraku’s got to know everything by now, including the fact that our case has holes in it. He seems too confident. If he wasn’t, he’d never have allowed this hearing to happen in the first place. He’d have come up with some kind of delaying tactic or-” Osborne held up a hand to stop him. “Napoli doesn’t know all of the facts, David, and neither do you, just yet. It’s what I’m here to tell you.” Hague choked off a retort at the interruption, but he wasn’t really surprised by her words. He knew that Osborae’s loyalty to the Villiers faction of Fuchi put her more in the loop about the corporation’s plans now that Richard Villiers seemed to be consolidating his hold on the corp. Hague was allied with the Yamana family, which dominated Fuchi Europe. “What are you talking about?” he said finally. “What do you mean I don’t know all of the facts? Has Fuchi been keeping something…” Osborne jumped in again before he could finish. “Not keeping something from you-just protecting our interests. Renraku isn’t the only corp with cards up its sleeve. Security on this was too tight to trust to anything but face-to-face communications. That’s why we’re talking in person. Now, will you listen for a moment?” Hague swallowed his response and only nodded curtly. If Osborne noticed his annoyance at being kept in the dark, she didn’t show it. She just continued talking. “The case against Renraku is more than just smoke and mirrors, David. There is real cause to believe they’ve violated the concords of the Court and that Lanier’s involvement is the key to it. We’ve got a lead on something that could blow the lid off this whole thing and implicate Renraku in serious violations of the balance of power. It’s the only explanation for what’s been happening.” Over the past year and a half, Renraku Computer Systems, one of the world’s three computer giants and a member of the Corporate Court, had gone from being a slumbering giant to become a runaway juggernaut on the global market. Renraku had been a powerful and prosperous company for years-one of the top eight in the world to claim a position on the Court-but its methods had been conservative and, most analysts thought, rather outdated. That was before a twist of fate put Miles Lanier on the Renraku Board of Directors. Lanier was a go-getter and an aggressive executive known for his take-no-prisoners attitude toward business. His skill and cunning were well known to Fuchi Industrial Electronics. Lanier had been Fuchi’s chief of internal security, the head of the company’s most sensitive and important security arrangements and the protector of its most vital information. That is, until he had defected to Renraku two years ago. After Lanier’s defection, Renraku research and development suddenly began producing state-of-the-art computer technology that was blowing their competition away in the market. Their Matrix software and algorithms were outselling Mitsuhama’s by a good margin, and their computer hardware was threatening Fuchi’s dominance of the market, a first for Renraku. The corp’s security had also increased to truly paranoid levels. Industrial espionage by the other corps, including Fuchi, had netted them some scraps of useful R amp;D data on Renraku’s latest developments, but gave them no clue about where the corporation was getting its phenomenal new products: no names of researchers or information on facilities turning out new technological breakthroughs. Fuchi naturally suspected that Renraku was conducting datasteal operations against them. But if they were, it was being done with such skill and finesse that Fuchi could find no evidence of them whatsoever. Renraku was on a roll and there seemed to be no stopping them. The corporation’s annual report showed that they had already surpassed Mitsuhama in power and were quickly gaining on Fuchi’s position as the world’s Number Two megacorp. Only the vast Saeder-Krupp empire was more powerful, and Hague suspected mat even S-K’s dragon CEO Lofwyr had his concerns about Renraku. And that was why the Corporate Court was getting involved.
Not that the megacorporations had any problem with one of their number being successful and making money. The Court existed solely to assure that the various megacorporations might continue to do so. But the Corporate Court also existed to make sure its members followed certain rules in their game of global competition and profit-mongering. The megas had resources and influence that could savage the whole planet unless a delicate balance of power was maintained between them. The economic and military power to dictate terms to entire nations could be devastating if the megacorps turned it on each other in a global war that would benefit no one. That was why the Court had established the Concords, secret agreements between the great megacorporations to carefully maintain the balance of power. Better to be assured of slow and certain growth and control over the world’s markets than to risk the devastation unfettered competition could create. The corps agreed to certain rules by which they would play the game, but now it was suspected that Renraku was breaking those rules. It was highly possible that their acquisition of Miles Lanier was letting them conduct industrial espionage on a massive scale, allowing them to push new product onto the market well in advance of the competition and to know their competitors’ moves even before they made them. “So we’re still accusing Renraku of violating the Concords?” Hague asked. It had happened before. Everyone knew it. Part of the point of having rules was so the megacorporations could find ways around them. Just as ordinary people broke the laws of their governments, so did the megacorporations occasionally break the laws of the Corporate Court. It could be a considerable advantage to claim resources not possessed by a rival. “Yes,” Osborne said. “Renraku is trying to gain clear superiority in areas where Fuchi operates, and everyone knows Lanier has to be giving them something to help them do it. They’ve got to be stopped now, David, before this all gets out of control. I talked to Priault, and I can tell that even Saeder-Krupp is worried about this. Priault is a stone-face, but I could still read him.”
“And if you’re right about Renraku and they refuse to abide by any sanctions the Court makes, you know what it will mean,” Hague said. He was quiet for several long seconds before completing the terrible thought. “Corporate war.” “It won’t come to that,” Osborne replied tartly, obviously unwilling to even consider such a possibility. “Soon we’ll have the information we need to bring Lanier and Renraku down.” A smile crept back over her face as she tapped the data-pad she was holding. “And Fuchi can be right there to pick up the pieces.”
4 In ancient times it was widely believed that knowing the name of something gave you control over that person or thing. People would have secret names known only to themselves and to their closest friends and family, and a “use name” they would tell to the world at large. In this way they protected themselves from enemies who might use magic against them. Now it is the twenty-first century. Magic has returned to the world and there is a new culture of people who guard their names. They hide behind so-called “street names” to conceal their true identities from the law and to keep their real names out of the massive computer systems keeping track of nearly everyone in the world. Even the pirate users of the computer Matrix, the deckers, make use of false names to cover their transactions. In the age of technology, true names have become more important than ever. -Mullins Chadwick, Monkeytribe: A Survival Manual for Erect Bipeds, Putnam-Izumo, New York, 2043 I don’t know how long I keep driving, or where I drive to. I just need to get away from that place and the memories of the ghoul. My mind panics, but my body seems to know where it’s going, so I let it drive for a while. I’m some distance away-at least I think so-before I return to anything resembling rational thought and check out my surroundings. I realize that driving around in an open van loaded with full body bags is probably a very bad idea, so I find an out-of-the-way alley where I park the van and leave it behind. I wonder if the body-snatchers or ghouls will find it again and try and make use of the bodies remaining inside. I’m tempted for a moment to find some way of blowing the whole van sky-high, creating a funeral pyre for those unknown people who fill the black vinyl bags. It’s a useless idea because I don’t have any means to do so and an explosion would be a sure way of attracting unwanted attention. In the end I just leave the van behind with a silent prayer that the spirits of its occupants are at rest. Jamming my hands into my pockets, I walk carefully out of the alley, looking all around me for any signs of trouble. It’s still night and the city is alive all around me. I can see more lights and activity a few blocks ahead, along what looks like the main drag, the streets lit by the glow of neon signs, street lamps, and holograms flickering from badly tuned projectors in store fronts. The night air is cool, and the light on the street is inviting enough for me to head toward it. I pass through the shadows and cut through an alleyway to reach the strip. The alley is filled with the heavy smell of food cooking. My stomach rumbles loud enough to be heard in the narrow alley, and I realize I have no idea how long since I last ate, but it seems like it must have been a long time. Thoughts of noodles and rice and vegetables fill my thoughts and make my mouth water. I turn out of the alley and look into the scratched armor-plas window of a shop displaying some cheap trideo sets among all the other electronic junk for sale. One set is showing a piece of softcore pornography, the naked holographic figures writhing in slow motion through the static while the other set is tuned to a news channel where a plastic talking-head speaks in an evenly pitched, cheerful voice that sounds happy to tell you about the worst atrocities. I stop for a moment to watch. “Locally, the stock market reports another active day of trading in which the Dow is up some seven points. Renraku Computer Systems stock continues to maintain the strongest increase following the company’s release of their latest algorithms for the development of sophisticated Matrix interface experiences. These algorithms form the basis for simsense and the virtual reality of the Matrix. A local Renraku spokesperson is quoted as saying ‘Renraku is redefining the state of the art.’ Other stock-market watchers in the Boston metroplex…” Boston. I’m in Boston. That should mean something to me, but for some reason, it doesn’t. The voice on the trideo drones on about the opinions of men in suits regarding the mystic movements of the stock market and the advancements of Renraku and what the other megacorporations are going to do about it. An exterior shot shows the looming stock exchange building in the financial district of the crowded metroplex at night. That’s when I notice the reflection looking back at me from the darkened window. A young man with shaggy, dark hair. He is thin and pale, and his eyes match the color of the purple bruises on his face and arms, a strange violet color that almost seems to glow from the dark glass. He’s wearing a black T-shirt with a scrawl of silver Japanese characters under a loose denim jacket with the sleeves torn off, a pair of much battered and patched jeans, and black, laced-up combat boots. The clothes are spotted with dark spatters of blood. Silver gleams from behind one ear, and I brush my fingers against the cold metal ring of the dataport implanted there, watching the reflection’s arm move as well. He’s me, and I’m not entirely sure I recognize him. It’s more like looking at a stranger, a phantom on the other side of the glass gazing out at me. That’s when I start to realize I don’t really know who I am, and the realization hits me like an electric shock. How did I end up where the body-snatchers found me? Where am I going to go? Where do I live? What’s my name? I don’t know any of those things, but I know I should know them. There are breaks in my memory, like someone punched holes in my mind, leaving black gaps where remembrances used to be. I reach out to touch the glass with a trembling hand, and the stranger on the other side reaches out to me, his eyes wide and frightened.
Who the frag are you? I ask silently. “Renraku Computer Systems provide you with the security of a solid reputation coupled with the leading edge in computer and Matrix technology available today,” says the trideo. My attention is drawn back to the trid, where an image plays of a dark, endless vista lit by glowing neon shapes and glittering forms of slick chrome and pure color, too smooth and perfect to exist in the real world. The image zooms through the world of lines and shapes that rush by, moving toward a giant black pyramid in the distance. I can almost feel myself fly along through that world, and I suddenly feel a terrible longing for something I can’t find the words to describe. That is my world. The place where I belong and, perhaps, the answer to some of my questions. The view zooms up to the pyramid and focuses on a logo etched along the side in bright blue and red neon, a dot and expanding wavefront symbol beside a name written in both English and Japanese. The announcer’s voice reads the name at the same moment that my lips silently form it: Renraku. “Renraku. Come join the winning team.” Then the screen switches back to a view of the newsroom and another talking head who begins to go on about a speech given in the UCAS capitol by Vice President Nadja Daviar. An image of a beautiful woman with midnight hair and pointed ears fills the screen, but I don’t even pay her any attention, so entranced am I by the image that came just before. Renraku… Renraku. The name means something to me. The taste and feel of it in my mouth is familiar. Why? Do I have something to do with Renraku? What? My head starts to hurt and my fists clench and I want to slam them through the store’s window, smashing the smiling face of the elven woman talking on the trideo about national healing and racial unity between humans and other metatypes. My vision blurs with tears and I pound my fist against the glass, but it resists blows harder than mine every day and my fist only bounces off with a dull thud. I want to just curl up in a ball on the sidewalk and start crying when a swarthy man comes running out the door of the shop. He has rough skin and tusks coming out of his mouth, like Weizack’s dead partner Riley back at the charnel house, except he’s a bit shorter and his skin is darker. I realize that neither his looks nor Riley’s surprise me the way the ghoul’s did. They seem almost normal to me. I stand there staring at him through blurry eyes for what seems like a very long time before I realize he’s yelling at me. “Fraggin’ chiphead! I said what the frag are you doin’ to my fraggin’ window, drekwit! Have you burned out too much of your fraggin’ brain? You deaf?” He hefts a dull silver club with a black rubber handle, and I back away a step from him. “Maybe you’ll listen to this, you worthless piece of drek,” he says as he lifts the club, from whose tip bright blue sparks leap and crackle. I suddenly become very angry at being threatened by this… thing. What the frag does he know? I’m having a very bad day and I’m in no mood to be threatened by some street scum kawaruhito. I pull Weizack’s gun from the waistband of my jeans and level it at the club-wielding shop owner. His jaw drops a bit and I can see in his eyes that he expects to die. I saw the same look from Riley the split-second before I shot him. I stare at the ork over the barrel of the gun for what seems like a very long time, thinking about how Riley’s face disappeared in a spray of red as his body fell to the floor. The ork starts to slowly back away from me and my hands begin to shake a bit. “Buzz,” I hiss out in a low tone, and the ork suddenly bolts back into the store yelling something that I can’t hear. I turn and run away from the shop, bolting across the street. Cars screech on their brakes and honk their horns at me as I run past, still holding the pistol, tears of frustration and anger blurring my vision. One of the drivers yells something at me, an offer of help or a curse or something else I don’t know. I don’t hear him. I just keep running, wanting to get away from there and down through darkened streets and alleys, far from the lights and sounds of the strip.
I don’t know how long I run for or where I’m going, I just need to get away, to run away from the terrible feeling of emptiness inside me. Away from the looming black holes in my mind and all the questions that cluster around them. My name, what the frag is my name? Someone told me, but I just can’t remember. My head feels so full I can’t find anything in it. Too cluttered, too many things going on at once. I just need to sort it all out, make sense of the jumble of thoughts. I stop running in an alley somewhere and huddle against the cold brick wall as a wave of exhaustion sweeps over me. I shiver in the growing chill of the night air and grip the pistol tighter as I wrap my arms around my knees and lay my head back against the wall to look up at the cold, gray sky lit by the distant lights of the city. The tears streaming down my cheeks make the reflections of the city lights into multicolored blurs against the darkness. I can almost imagine for a moment that I’m in that perfect, safe world I saw on the trideo. The world where everything makes sense and I know who I am and what my purpose is. I’m so tired, so very tired. I have to rest, just for a little while, close my eyes for a second and rest…