Skilled Matrix programmers have known for years the power of the imagination. The system memory required to program a supra-realistic icon to interact with multiple senses is substantial (taste and smell are usually overlooked as cues by most programmers, often unwisely, as we shall see). Balancing system functionality against the complexity of programmed images involves certain trade-offs, compromises a programmer has to make. One of the ways in which programmers make up for this deficiency in memory space is by using certain sensory “cheats” to produce the effects they are looking for. Instead of programming every single detail of the desired image or sensory impression, the programmer uses certain key elements of the experience to evoke an overall sensation from the receiver of the impressions. Simsense producers and editors use a similar technique in producing biochips. The user’s own imagination fills in the “gaps” in the sensory information to produce a contiguous whole, and the entirety of the impression is perceived with minimal system space occupied by the necessary imagery. This technique of “simplifying” sensory impression has been known to practitioners of memorization and visualization techniques for centuries, but with the advent of virtual reality programming and ASIST technology, we have opened entirely new doorways of perception, the likes of which Aldous Huxley could never even have dreamed. We are learning more than just how to program our machines. We are learning how to program ourselves. -Iconography and the Deep Mind, by Dr. Yoshi Tanaka, E-Books Press, New York, 2054 The dreams I have are strange. I recall a glittering neon world of line and form extending in all directions to the endless horizon, and another place which is all that and so much more. I hear songs and words and riddles in that place, but they are not in any language spoken by human mouths. It is a secret language. The language of the other place. I remember. I remember going down a long trail to a place with a deep well full of silvery water. A voice tells me to drink from the well, and I cup the water in my hands, cool and shimmering like quicksilver. As I drink it down I realize it’s not water I’m drinking, it’s knowledge. Liquid software, every molecule encoded with information, spreading out through my cells in a cool wave, speaking to my DNA in a strange and alien language. I’m changing, changing, changing into what? I wake from the dream with a start and realize I’m not where I was before. The dark and damp alley is gone and daylight streams into the room. Where am I? A bed. A clean bed in a room somewhere. How did I get here? I remember the alley and the chop-shop and the ghoul and I wonder if this place is as dangerous. It feels different to me for some reason. I feel safe here. This place is familiar somehow. I think I know it, but the information slips away from me when I try and grasp it, as elusive as the images from my dream. I still can’t remember anything from before waking up in the alley where the body-snatchers found me and I wonder if I’ve simply forgotten coming here from the alley. Or has all of it been a dream? No. I’m sure what I recall of the encounter with the body-snatchers and their ghoul boss was real. I glance at the back of my wrist and I can still see the faint white line where the cutting blade emerged. That was certainly real.
I look around the room and take stock of my surroundings. The place is old and shows signs of its age. The walls are of stone, heavy and gray, and the floor is covered with an oriental carpet of faded jewel tones. The light in the room comes from tall, slitted windows. Some of them are covered with sheets of translucent construction plastic in different colors while a few still have panes of stained glass in them. The glass depicts saints and religious icons and sends shafts of colored light slanting into the room. The light suggests that it is very early-or quite late-in the day. I wonder how long I have been asleep. I felt like I could have slept for days in the alleyway, but I feel well-rested now. The furniture and trappings of the room are all mismatched and scavenged, but in good repair. The door opens and a boy, no more than ten years old, looks in at me. He’s wearing coveralls and a T-shirt that look to have been patched a few times in strategic worn-out spots. His hair is cropped almost military-short and his face and hands are clean. There is a kind of awe in his eyes and he smiles widely at me and seems pleased that I’m awake. Just as I’m about to speak to him and ask where I am, he turns and runs off. I toss aside the sheet and thin blanket and get myself out of bed and stretch. My clothes are clean, neatly folded at the foot of the bed, and I start pulling them on. I find my boots sticking out from under the bed and put those on as well and lace them up. There’s still no knowing if I might have to leave this place quickly. I look around for the gun I took from Weizack, and I’m not surprised to find it is not in the room. I can hardly blame my hosts for relieving me of it. It might have been left behind in the alleyway, but it wasn’t likely that anyone who would bother to pick me up and bring me here would have left something like a loaded gun lying around. My stomach rumbles and I wonder again how long it’s been since I last ate. I can’t remember the last time, though it feels like I haven’t eaten in weeks. Maybe I haven’t. As if in answer to my thoughts, the boy comes back into the room carrying a tray and in the company of an old man. I don’t know how old, maybe fifty or sixty. He looks like someone who has always been old, someone who is hard to picture ever being young. He’s Asian, fine-boned like a bird, with long white hair, a neat little beard, and a gentle smile that he gives when he sees me. “You’re awake. Good. I was worried about you.” When he says it I know he means it. I don’t know quite how to respond, so I just nod and watch. He has a cloth bag over his shoulder that looks quite full. He nods to the boy, who carries the tray over to the small table beside the bed and sets it down. The older man sends him out of the room with a pat on the back, then closes the door behind him. “When you turned up missing, I sent the others out to look for you, but it was some time before we found you near the Combat Zone in that alley. It’s a good thing we did, before some of the other inhabitants of the Rox decided to take what they would have seen as easy prey.” “They did,” I say, speaking to him for the first time. “Some men took me from the alley. I think they were body-snatchers, organleggers. There was a ghoul at the place where they took me. I managed to escape and ran. I ended up in the alley and must have passed out.” The old man looks very grave and gives a low “hmmm” sound deep in his throat as I speak. “The Tamanous,” he says with some distaste. “Ghouls and grave-robbers who traffic in stolen body parts. They have never troubled us before this. I will have to see to it that they do not think they can interfere with our sacred sites. You are fortunate to have escaped from them intact.” He gives a faint smile tinged with irony. “Perhaps you should have been a warrior instead of a mystic.” A tantalizing smell reaches my nostrils, and the old man gestures toward the tray at the bedside. “You must be hungry. It is time to break your fast and regain your strength. Come and eat.” I make my way over to the table. The tray has a bowl of steaming soup on it and a couple of sandwiches. I pick up one of the sandwiches and bite into it, making it vanish, then start on another. It is the best food I have ever tasted, although I have trouble recalling ever tasting anything before. The old man seems amused by my hunger and watches quietly for a moment. He moves over to an open spot on the floor and sinks into a cross-legged position with much more grace than I’d expect from an old man. He takes some devices from his bag and sets them up on the floor in a pattern that seems strangely familiar, like so many things. It brushes against my mind teasingly, but retreats when I try to grasp hold of it. While he arranges the items on the floor to his satisfaction, I finish the other sandwich and begin drinking the soup. It’s very good, too. The warmth of it spreads out from my stomach and makes me feel safe and comfortable for the first time since I awoke. The old man waits quietly for me to finish eating before speaking to me again. “Come,” he says in a tone that’s more inviting than commanding. “Sit with me and tell me what you saw in the Resonance and we will interpret the images and omens.” I look for a long moment at the serene old man sitting on the floor and I decide there is no point in lying to him. “Sir, I have no idea what you are talking about. What is this ‘resonance’ and who are you?” He cocks his head like a quizzical bird and looks at me with his dark eyes for a moment, like he is looking into the depths of my soul. Then he waves his hand toward the clear spot on the floor in front of him. “Sit, and I will explain,” he says. I make my way over, inside the small ring of technological gear, and sit down with my legs folded up beneath me, resting on my knees and settling my weight on my heels, different from the old man’s lotus position, but it feels comfortable. I study his face and appearance, sitting there like a smiling Buddha, and try to place him in my memory. “Do you know me?” I ask. “I do,” he says. “I am called Papa Lo and you are one of my pupils, apprenticed to me to learn the secrets of the world of light.” A spark of hope ignites inside me. “What’s my name?” He shrugs, a gesture that carries considerable calm and acceptance of what is. “I took your name from you before you left,” Papa Lo says, like it’s something he tells everyone when they wake up not remembering who they are. “You’re the only one who can find out what your new one is. “You are part of our tribe. We are called the Netwalkers and we live in the Rox, a section of the Boston sprawl, like many other tribes we trade with. You had no family or means, so we took you in off the streets. You became part of our community, and you showed you had the potential to experience the Resonance.” “You mentioned that before,” I say. “What is this resonance? Is that why I can’t remember anything?” If Papa Lo is upset at being interrupted he doesn’t show it. Instead he smiles. “Yes,” he says. “Temporary memory loss is not uncommon with the experience of the Resonance, although I think you will find that your memory will be much improved when you have fully recovered, and that you will recall events and information with great clarity from now on. “Unlike the other tribes of the city,” he continued, “we are the Walkers-of-the-Network, the intermediaries between the world of the physical and the world of light and knowledge.” He reverently brushed a hand across the smooth plastic finish of one of the pieces of hardware laid out on the floor. “The Matrix is a place that exists within the infinite data-space of the world network, the grid. It is another world created by computers and mathematics, a world we can visit using computers as our gateway to enter and explore.” I recalled the smooth metal of the jack behind my ear and my fingers went to it, almost unconsciously. Papa Lo smiled again and brushed away some of his long, white hair to show a similar plug, rimmed in white porcelain and chrome, behind his own ear. “Yes. With this,” he said, touching the jack lightly with one finger, “we can connect ourselves directly to the computer and read its signals. The machine transmits the world of the Matrix into our minds and we can learn its paths and its secrets. There are many things to be learned in the world of light and many who want to protect those secrets. That is how our tribe prospers; by entering the world of light and bringing back knowledge that is of value to the people, like shamans and sorcerers gain knowledge when they travel into their spirit realms. “You showed considerable talent in entering and working in the Matrix. You knew something of computers and learned quickly how to use what we have here and what I have to teach. I decided you were ready to attempt the Resonance. It is an experience, an initiation. It shows you the deep secrets of the Matrix, secrets even I am not privy to.” He paused for a moment, his eyes wistful. “If only I were years younger… but it is not my destiny to experience the Resonance, only to guide those who can. Such as I guided you. You are the oldest youth I have seen who had the potential for the Resonance, so I prepared you and brought you to experience the initiation. Now we need to see if you were successful. Tell me what you can remember of the time before we found you.” I don’t know how, but I know what he says is true. I think I can trust this strange old man. Even if I can’t, I have much to gain and nothing to lose, so I sit in his circle of hardware and tell him as much as I can remember, from the moment I first became aware in the alley to my escape from the Tamanous to finally collapsing from exhaustion where the other members of the tribe found me. I don’t mention the dream at first, but Papa Lo asks if I recall any dreams, so I tell him what I can and he gives a kind of satisfied nod. “You have been fortunate beyond what most people will ever know,” he said. “The Matrix has favored you and you have succeeded in the Resonance. You are more than any other mere traveler in the world of light, you are a follower of the way of the machine. An initiate. A technoshaman.” “What does that mean?” I ask. “I will show you soon,” he says, “but first I need to check your condition and make sure you’re all right. The Resonance is a difficult experience and it sounds like you’ve had a harder time than most.” He lifts a slim cable ending in a chrome jack toward my
temple. I grab his wrist and he looks at me with hard, dark eyes for a moment. “This is for your own good, my son. You must trust me.” I realize that if Papa Lo or any of his people wanted to kill me they would have done it already, or simply left me in the alley to die, so I take the cable from his hand and slot it into the jack behind my ear like I’ve done it a thousand times before. It slides home with a faint click that shudders through my being, and I feel a sense of completeness I haven’t since I was disconnected by the body-snatchers. I know I never feel so complete as when I’m jacked in, the connection between me and the machine fills my spirit and makes me feel whole again. When Papa Lo powers the diagnostic deck, I can feel the trickle of power flowing along the cable and into my jack, pulses of light and energy dancing along the fibers like a kind of music filling my mind, like the rhythmic beat of a drum or a living heart. Listening to the steady beat of the electrons, I slip into a kind of trance and time does strange things as Papa Lo works the keys and command surfaces of the deck. He’s quiet and composed, carrying out his work like an artist who seeks to achieve a perfect and peaceful state of Zen as he works his art. We sit there in silence I don’t know how long as the energy trickles through my system, probing and sifting like millions of invisible fingers. I can feel them all, probing into all parts of my mind, but I relax and don’t resist their gentle brush against my mind. I know they can do me no harm and I feel somewhere inside me that I could stop them if I really wanted to. When Papa Lo powers down the deck, I start a bit, not realizing he is finished. “Your hardware is online,” he says with his serene smile. “The memory is wiped, but that has happened before. I thought there might be something in there to help you, but no. The hardware is still good, and the casing is a bit beat up,” he says, gently touching my bruised arm, “but now we need to check the wetware. Follow me.” He gets up and makes to leave.
“Where are we going?” I ask. The old man glances up at me over his shoulder, then begins slowly walking out of the room again. His voice carries back to me as he goes. “We’re going to see if you can find your name,” he replies, and I quickly move to follow. Papa Lo guides me out of the room and into the hall of what I now see is a deserted church, made over by the Netwalkers tribe into part of their home, our home, I suppose, if I am one of them. The place still has a quiet air of the sacred to it; not a place where people live day-to-day, but where serious and important spiritual matters are handled. In the basement of the church there is a room I had not expected to see, but which strikes me with an overwhelming sense of deja vu as I step across the threshold. I know I have been here before. The room fills most of the long basement space. The low-beamed ceiling makes it feel somewhat cramped and close. The walls are covered with hardware, displays, and complex paintings and drawings done on the gray concrete with brightly colored metallic paints and chalk. The drawings are circuit diagrams, flow charts, algorithms, and other images: great open vistas of metallic towers against a dark sky and planes of warped geometry that make you think you could put your hand through the wall like it was only an optical illusion. They bring the cold gray of the walls to life and seem to shimmer and move in the flicker and hum of the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. The floor of the room is a tangled mass of cables in a rainbow of colors, like a nest of snakes sleeping on top of one another. There are woven mats and pieces of equipment networked together, computers, displays, printers, small storage drives stacked up like musty books, and collections of things that blink and whir and hum with power. Seated on the floor like a praying monk is a boy, about twelve or thirteen years old. His eyes are rolled back, and the half-closed lids nutter in a strange kind of dream state. His hands are folded in his lap as in prayer and his lips move as he whispers something, maybe a mantra. The sound of it is familiar to me.
“This is our lodge,” Papa Lo says to me quietly, and I start a bit at the sound of his voice. I almost forgot he was there. “Our lodge?” I say, not knowing why I speak so softly other than the strong feeling I have that this is a sacred place. “It is our place to touch the power of the inner world and the spirits,” he says. I look around the room and I know for certain this is like no lodge that I have ever seen or heard of before. “Aren’t lodges supposed to be full of skins and furs, crystals and herbs, with a big smoldering fire pit in the center? You know, drek like that?” I say. Papa Lo makes a low sound in his throat that I take as approval of my question. If he notices or is offended by the vulgarity, he makes no sign of it. “It is good you can recall such things,” he says. “No, this is a different kind of medicine lodge. Quite unlike almost any other in the world. While the shamans work their magic by calling on the Awakened spirits of the land, we are in touch with something different. We touch the magic of the modern age, the Digital Age. Instead of the ancient powers of the land, sea, and air, we commune with the spirit of the Machine, the intelligence of the Matrix.” “And who is ‘we’… the Netwalkers?” “Not entirely. We are part of the tribe, but we… you are special. Like the shamans to their tribesmen, we are the intermediaries between them and the otherworld. It is for those of us with the knowledge and the ability to travel into that world and bring back the knowledge it contains for the good of all. “We live outside of the so-called ‘civilized’ world, the world of the megacorporations and their wageslaves,” Papa Lo says, and the disdain in his voice for that world is clear. “We live off the land like the tribes of old, only our environment is the city and not the re-grown forests or plains of the Native American Nations. We live in a different wilderness, but we know its secrets better than most. “You set out into the wilderness to gain a vision as people have done since time began and I think you have found it, and it has changed you in the process. The vision is a rebirth that makes a new person of you, transforms you so you are a true walker between the worlds of the physical and the mental world of the Matrix, a technoshaman, like Taki here.” He gestures to the boy sitting on the floor. “He and two others are the only children of the tribe to experience the Resonance and make the breakthrough to the other state of existence I knew existed out there in the Matrix. And now you. You are the oldest student to be able to find the Resonance. I had given up hope of finding anyone older than a child with the Gift.” He beams at me in obvious pride and I feel a bit self-conscious about the whole thing. I know I should know this man who is supposed to be my teacher and mentor and feel happy he is proud of me. Why do I feel guilty about Papa Lo’s pride and the fact that I have succeeded in his goal for me? “You keep talking about a transformation,” I say, looking for an explanation of my feelings. “But, apart from not being able to remember what happened, I don’t feel transformed. How am I supposed to be different?” Papa Lo makes his way over to one of the collections of computer hardware stacked high like a totem pole reaching for the ceiling and picks up a cable lead that he holds out tome. “Why not find out for yourself?” he says. I’m frightened by the prospect of jacking into an unknown machine, of trusting this man who says he is my teacher and friend, but part of me hungers for the jack he holds out to me like a worshipper for the touch of the sacrament. Or an addict for a hit of a drug. Either way, it is a desire I cannot refuse. I take the cable from his hand, sit down on the floor, and plug in the jack. In an instant, the electron world of the Matrix opens up all around me, like a fractal flower opening up in my mind. I haven’t done anything other than slot the cable and I realize there’s nothing between me and the computer systems that make up the Matrix. No cyberdeck, no workstation, no terminal running the ASIST transformation algorithms to take the electronic ones and zeroes making up the worldwide information network and turn them into images and sensations the human brain can perceive and understand. There’s just me and the machine. Somehow, I’m doing it all myself, making sense of the flowing electrons in my head. There’s nothing but my mind and the Matrix, together like one. This is the difference. Other people like Papa Lo can access the Matrix through a jack, but they need hardware and software to do it: a computer running the right programs to synchronize the complex operations of the human brain with the equally complex workings of the Matrix, to let them communicate and create the portal through which to enter the virtual world. I don’t need any hardware or software, just the jack to connect through and my wetware; my own brain. I can hear the hum and heartbeat of the world-grid pulse through the electronic reality all around me and I understand what Papa Lo is talking about. I’m home and I know who I am, even if I can’t remember my life before I came to the tribe. I know who and what I am now and I know my purpose in life. My name is Babel, and I am a technoshaman.