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Otaku n. Originally derived from the Japanese term otaku-zoku, a highly formal way of saying “you.” Something like, “Oh, honored sir,” only more so. First used to describe an identifiable group of people in the late twentieth century, ironically applied to Japanese computer “nerds”-technologically brilliant but socially inept individuals who spent most of their lives shut in their darkened apartments, communicating with others only through the primitive computer networks in use at the time. Asocial and actively antisocial, the original otaku represented a considerable sociological problem for Japanese society before the turn of the century. Presently the term otaku is used to refer to young Matrix users indoctrinated into life in virtual reality from a very young age. These users display amazing facility with computer systems, along with the same stunted social development as the original otaku. A popular urban legend describes otaku who achieve a kind of mystical “union” with computer systems, allowing them to access the Matrix without the use of a computer, using only a datajack and their own brains. -World Wide WordWatch, 2057 edition Miles Lanier adjusted his silk tie as the pneumatic door hissed open to admit him to the interrogation room. The chamber was largely bare of furniture or ornamentation of any kind, save for the chair and its attendant tables and rolling cabinets in the middle of the room. The walls were plain and unrelieved gray-ferrocrete blocks and metal plates. One wall had a dark glass insert to the observation room, its opacity controlled from the booth. Lanier knew that the technicians in the booth had been carefully monitoring and recording everything that happened in this room. No piece of information could be overlooked. He had already reviewed the recordings himself and decided it was time for him to take a hand in matters personally. Time was of the essence. A quiet voice droned from inside the booth, repeating words familiar to Lanier. “My life begins in an alley-a dark, hidden place in the shadows of the city. I awaken there like being born…” Lanier himself had already reviewed the information from the subject. He doubted the technicians would find anything else useful, but had ordered the recordings reviewed again, just in case. As the door closed behind him with a hiss and a metallic click, he turned his attention toward the room’s two other occupants. The first was Dr. Ferrera, busy checking her instruments and the monitors arrayed around the other figure, who was seated in a chair. Her glossy black hair was bound back from her face in an efficient braid fixed with a clip of silver and turquoise. Her smooth, dark brow furrowed as she examined readouts and displays, her long fingers expertly manipulating the controls to bring up other windows and information. Lanier recalled when he had personally overseen Ferrera’s extraction from an Aztechnology facility down in Aztlan. That had been a difficult operation, but Lanier believed that gaining the services of a neurophysiologist of Ferrera’s caliber was worth every nuyen spent and every drop of blood shed. The Renraku board and Aneki-sama had personally congratulated Lanier’s coup in acquiring Ferrera’s services. Little did they guess that Lanier had his own plans for the brilliant expert in brain-computer interfaces. She looked up from her work as he approached. “Well?” he asked. The look on Ferrera’s face was not promising. She anticipated his question and stepped to one side so Lanier could see the displays on the computer terminals. “He responded as expected to the drug treatment,” she said. “The compound caused a holographic memory replay, a kind of fugue state, in which he related all of the events of his involvement with the Netwalkers that he could consciously recall, like he was reliving those memories. We recorded all of it and analysis is underway, but…” “But what?” “It still gives us very little information to go on. There’s no clear data about his experience of gaining his… unique abilities. We collected some interesting data about the use of the otaku abilities from the memory-playbacks, however.” Ferrera touched a control pad, and one of the display screens was filled with a three-dimensional image of a human brain, its various areas highlighted in various bright colors. “The MRI scan shows some amazing neurological activity, even in the flashback sequences. He clearly utilizes areas of the brain not currently charted or much understood. It’s not unlike brain activity recorded in magicians working their spells.” “Are you saying his abilities are magical?” Ferrera shook her head and blanked the display. “Not at all. Only that there are certain similarities. All of the known magical abilities interact poorly, if at all, with technology. Magicians and adepts have reported psychosomatic pain and discomfort from immersion in virtual reality, most likely because of the lack of subconscious mental input from their magical senses…” “So, is he otaku or isn’t he?” Lanier interrupted with a touch of impatience. The doctor had a tendency to lecture when she was given the opportunity, and Lanier didn’t have the time. Ferrera didn’t seemed ruffled by his curtness. “I would say so. Without a standard of comparison, it’s impossible to know for sure. He is the first so-called ‘otaku’ to ever be examined in this way, so far as we know. His neuro-chemistry and neurophysiology have definitely been altered from the norm.” “Altered how, doctor? By whom? Those are the questions we need answered.” “It’s going to take more time, Mr. Lanier. We’ve only really begun-” Again Lanier cut her off, this time with an abrupt wave of his hand. “Time is the one resource we don’t have, doctor. I need answers, and I need them immediately.” He glanced back at the unconscious figure. “Do you think he knows what we’re looking for?” Ferrera gave another one of her infuriating shrugs. “It’s possible. The drugs didn’t reveal any conscious awareness of any explanation of what happened. As far as he related, he recalls nothing before waking up in that alley. I would hypothesize that whatever changed him happened before then, as part of the ‘initiation’ ritual he mentioned a few times.” “Could he be resisting the drug in some way? Concealing part of what he knows?” Another shrug. “It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely. With his unusual neurochemistry it’s difficult to predict for certain how his reaction to some drugs might differ from the baseline. If he does know anything about the experience, it may simply be that he’s not able to articulate it properly. Otaku are known for having retarded or unusual verbal skills, although his seem fairly normal.” Lanier walked slowly around the outer perimeter defined by the instruments and monitors, face hard and eyes as cold as stone in the pale fluorescent light of the room. “We have little choice then,” he said, almost to himself. “Here, Doctor, is what I want you to do…” “Time to wake up, Babel,” the voice said, the same voice that had asked him what he remembered. Babel first became aware of a quick, piercing pain in his arm, followed by the light. A bright light stabbed into his brain, and he gasped and shut his eyes tightly against the glare. When he tried to raise his hands to rub his tired and gritty eyes, he found he couldn’t move them from his side. A momentary wave of fear swept over him that the paralysis he’d experienced in an alleyway far away had returned, but he realized he could still move his hands and feet. His arms and legs were held down, strapped to the padded chair in which he sat, reclined at a slight angle, so Babel faced the ceiling of the room and the light blazing down from it. He became aware of shadows moving at the edge of his vision in the room, silhouetted in the light. One took a step closer and spoke to him in a strong, masculine voice. “Hello, Babel, how are you feeling?” He tried weakly to lift his head to get a better look at the dark shape in front of him. “Where am I? Who are you?” The shadow-man spread his arms in what was probably intended to be a gesture of reassurance. “You’re safe,” the voice said. “And you can remain that way, so long as you cooperate.” “What are you talking about? Who are you?” As he spoke, Babel felt a wave of searing pain from his right hand, so sudden and unexpected that he cried out. He felt heat rush to his hand and a wet stickiness spread across it. He thrashed against the bonds that held him, but the restraints didn’t budge. “You do not ask the questions here,” the shadow man’s voice said. “I will ask the questions and you will answer them. If I don’t like your answers, you will suffer. Is that clear?” Babel nodded stiffly, biting his lip against the throbbing in his hand. “Good. I suggest you cooperate. I have discovered that the human body is capable of withstanding a great deal of pain without dying. But then you already know some of that, don’t you?” The silhouetted figured stepped closer, brushing his fingers over the jack behind Babel’s ear. “Cyberware itself is a kind of torture inflicted on the body, pieces of metal and plastic embedded in the flesh.” The cool fingers ran down Babel’s neck and brushed across his shoulder before withdrawing. “Why should I tell you anything?” Babel tried to keep his voice steady and calm. He focused on the pain in his hand to help him concentrate and shake off the fuzzy feelings clouding his thoughts. “You have already provided us with a great deal of information. Do you remember?” Babel thought back. He recalled a woman’s voice asking him to remember, the press of an injection spray against his neck and the words tumbling out of him like a rushing river. He’d been helpless to hold them back. “You drugged me,” he said. “I remember the Netwalkers, the ghouls, and the fight. They captured me, brought me to Mama…” “And she delivered you to us. That’s right, Babel.” “If you’ve drugged me, then you already know everything I know. Why are you doing this?” Another stab of pain shot through Babel’s hand, making him wince and almost cry out. “I told you, you don’t ask the questions, I do. What is your name?” “You already know my name. It’s Babel. You called me by it.” “What was your name before?” Michael, Babel thought, Mama called me Michael. “I don’t know,” he said, and a cold, razor edge pressed against his hand. “I don’t know!” he screamed as the edge bit down and Babel gritted his teeth to avoid crying out this time. It’s only meat, he told himself, only flesh. They can’t touch the real me. The pain seared up his arm, and tears rolled down his cheeks. The voice continued, relentless. “Why were you sent to infiltrate the Netwalkers tribe?” Babel felt cold metal gently close around the little finger of his right hand. The burning in his hand seemed to turn to ice, and he could feel the throbbing of his pulse against the blades poised to cut off his finger. His fear became a pure, animal thing, and a dark blossom of knowledge seemed to open up in the depths of his mind. He spoke without thinking, as if another voice was using his lips. “To learn the secrets of the otaku,” he gasped out, and he knew it was true. The press of the blades relaxed a bit. “Very good,” the shadow’s voice purred. “Now, did you succeed in your assignment?” Babel’s head jerked in a spasmodic nod. “Yes. I have learned the Channels and the Forms, the ways of the Matrix.” “Who do you work for?” Babel closed his eyes and felt the knowledge bubbling up from deep inside him, a well of information that had lain untapped. The answer came from him unbidden. The red and blue neon logo, the trideo image zooming in on the dot-and-waveform symbol. “Renraku Computer Technologies,” he said. The images and information seemed to pour into Babel’s head and threatened to drown him. He wished the tide of it would carry him away, away from the pain and confusion he felt to someplace safe. “How were you to communicate your findings to Renraku?” the voice continued, and the blades came close to caressing his finger again. “A signal,” Babel gasped. “Send a Matrix signal… and they would arrange… retrieval.” “Good. Tell me about the Deep Resonance. Tell me how you became an otaku.” “Return me to Renraku. You can’t get what you want from me.” Smack! The backhand strike left Babel’s head ringing, and he tasted blood in his mouth. “This is Renraku, my friend,” the man’s voice said. “You are to give me the information we sent you for.” The blade pressed closer. Babel’s mind raced like a massive computer system, struggling to integrate the new data welling up from the depths of his mind with what he was being told. Renraku had expected their agent to signal them and return willingly, not become involved with the tribe he was sent to infiltrate. They must have assumed he’d gone rogue, and in a way he had. Babel had lived with the Net-walkers, talked with them, became one of them. He saw the secrets of the Matrix and the spirits dwelling there, felt their words and their music inside his mind. He knew Renraku had no idea what they had truly sent him for, what they were asking for. Now they wanted to make sure they got the information they wanted about Babel’s initiation, his sacred experience as a technoshaman. It all made sense, but somehow the shadowed man’s words rang false in Babel’s ears. He knew in the depths of his being that there was more to this interrogation. He recalled Mama’s words: “Your corporate masters want you back, but they don’t yet know what I know. It is knowledge they will pay handsomely for, but not yet.” Babel shook his head. “That’s a lie. This is not Renraku. I know that. Mama sold me to someone else. If you’re part of Renraku, then you’re a traitor. It won’t be long before they find me, and you.” The blades bit down with a snap and Babel screamed, arcing his back and throwing all of the strength of his muscles against the restraints like his body wanted to leap from the chair at his tormentor. Blood dripped from his mutilated hand, and pain shot up his arm like lightning. Like electricity. Only flesh, only flesh, only flesh, Babel repeated to himself over and over like a mantra. The words began to calm his mind until the pain seemed to make everything in the world come into incredibly sharp focus. That’s when he realized that the shadowed man had no face. He had features, and appearance, but they were only partially there, like an unfinished sketch or an impressionist painting. There was no clear definition, no presence to the figure. Babel’s own perceptions filled in the shadow man’s presence. Because he could see so little of him, he’d just assumed there was more, but now he saw there was no more. Babel’s mind pressed out against the glassy, slick surface of the world around him and felt it yield. His lips moved shakily as he intoned. “My will is sovereign, the master here. Spirits of illness

and pain, I command you to be gone. I speak your names and command you. Trouble me no more. Leave me and return to trouble your source. I command this illusion be done. One one zero zero one be done zero zero be done zero one one be done!” The surface of space seemed to shimmer like the heat of a summer road and then break into endless threads and strings in a massive tangle that began to break up itself. Babel heard someone speak as if from very far away. “The datastream’s been disrupted!” the woman’s voice said. “The system is crashing.” A cool shower of static poured over Babel’s sensorium, washing away the pain and the blood, leaving only a slight aching and fatigue behind. His vision cleared and he was still strapped into the same chair, but the bright light was gone and he could see the plain gray walls of the room. An Hispanic woman gently pulled the plug from the jack behind Babel’s ear while looking askance from him to the snowy display screens as if she didn’t believe her own eyes. A gentle beat filled the air, and Babel turned his head to see a man slowly clapping, like mocking applause, and he knew it was the shadow man from his vision. “Bravo,” the man said, “well done.” He was not so frightening in the light as he had been in the vision. Babel estimated he was a bit above average height, but he had an imposing presence his simulacrum lacked. He wore a corporate suit in a popular style, the dark motif broken only by touches of color in his tie and the handkerchief folded in his breast pocket as dictated by corporate fashion. His dark hair was short and touched with a bit of silver. His features were smooth, refined, and chiseled, accented by his neatly trimmed mustache. Babel didn’t think he could be called a handsome man-the nose was a bit too hawkish and the chin a touch too pronounced-but the intensity of his gaze and his bearing made it clear that this was a powerful man who was used to being listened to and obeyed. “You have provided an excellent demonstration of the legendary abilities you-were sent to discover,” the man said. “Too bad our instruments may not have lived to tell about it. Doctor?” The woman near Babel’s head looked up from where she was wrestling with one of the display consoles. “The system is totally trashed,” she said with a note of disbelief in her voice. “Not just the simsense routines, but all of the diagnostics as well. Some kind of progressive virus.” “Very impressive,” the man said, never taking his eyes off Babel. “So the stories are true. The otaku have the ability to deck without a deck, controlling computers with nothing more than the power of their minds. I can see why you are considered a valuable prize, Babel. Your gifts could make some of the hottest ice-cutting technology available look like an antiquated tortoise system in comparison.” Babel raised his head from the chair as best he could to look the man in the face. The man looked familiar to him somehow, but Babel couldn’t retrieve the memory from the whirling flood of images in his mind. Mama was right, his name was Michael, and he knew this man. “Who are you? What do you want from me?” “You’ve already figured out most of it for yourself. I want the information Renraku sent you to find, the secret of your amazing abilities. I also want details on who you took your orders from in Renraku and anything else you know about the company and its operations. In short, I want everything.” “And if I refuse, what? You’ll drug me again? Try to torture me again?” The man’s face darkened and he suddenly sprang forward, like a stalking cat on a cornered mouse. The Hispanic woman gasped and stepped back as the man grabbed the front of Babel’s thin shirt and held his face so close Babel could feel the heat of his breath. “I will, if you force me to,” he said in a low voice. “Make no mistake, boy, you have something I need and I will get it from you however I can. You’ve proven that simulated interrogation scenarios won’t work on you, but there are other means, real and very painful means, I can use to extract information. By the time I’m done with you,

you’ll be begging to tell me anything I want to know. I’ve already proven that pain can be an excellent stimulus to the memory, haven’t I… Michael?” The sound of his other name made Babel jump a bit. “Oh yes, Mama sold me your name. A pity she didn’t share the rest of it. There are a lot of Michaels working for Renraku, but we’re working on a comparison.” The man slowly released Babel’s shirt and rose up to his full height, adjusting the sleeves and front of his suit jacket. “Believe it or not, I have no reason to hurt you unless you force me to. Just tell me what I want to know, and I’ll let you go. You don’t have to make this any harder on yourself.” He held his gaze on Babel for a long moment, dark eyes on pale violet, before Babel finally spoke. “Lanier,” he said slowly. “Miles Lanier. I know you. You’re on the Renraku board. I saw your image many times on the corporate news channel. You’re playing a very dangerous game, Mr. Lanier.” Lanier’s jaw dropped for only an instant before composure covered his face like a cold mask. Knowing someone’s name gives you power over them, Babel thought. Let’s see if that’s true. He only hoped he could find some way to get back to Renraku. He had to complete his mission. If Lanier was working for somebody else, as Babel suspected, then he had to make sure what he had for Renraku didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Lanier looked down at Babel for a few moments, then turned to the doctor hovering nearby. Babel never found out what Lanier was planning to do next because the lights in the room suddenly shifted to red. Then an alarm sounded and all hell broke loose.

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