Stephen Kenson

Technobabel


Prologue

The year is 2059… Magic has returned to the world after an absence of thousands of years. What the Mayan calendar called the Fifth World has given way to the Sixth, a new cycle of magic, marked by the waking of the great dragon Ryumyo in the year 2011. The Sixth World is an age of magic and high technology. The age of Shadowrun. The rising magic has caused the Earth to Awaken. The ancient races have re-emerged, throwing off their human guises. First came the elves and dwarfs, born to human parents. Then came the orks and the trolls, some born different like the elves and dwarfs, others transformed, twisted from human form into their true selves as the rising magic activated their DNA. Dragons and other creatures out of fantasy appeared in the skies and in the wilderness. Unknown to the people of the twenty-first century, some of these folk and creatures out of fantasy recall an earlier world where magic reigned supreme, long before the earliest of recorded history. They know secrets that make them powerful in this new Age of Magic. The Sixth World is a strange blend of the arcane and the technological. The march of technology has become a race. The distinction between man and machine is blurred by the power of cybertechnology. Machine and computer implants are commonplace, a mating of flesh and machine. People of the Sixth World are a new breed; stronger, smarter, faster. Less human. The Matrix has emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of the old global computer network. A virtual world of computer-generated reality, a universe of electrons controlled and manipulated by those with the fastest cyberdecks and the hottest new code. In this world is stored all of the information hidden behind powerful data fortresses just waiting to be liberated by pirate computer users, deckers, who glide like shadows through the corporate and governmental databases. It is an era where information is power, where data and money are one and the same. Multinational megacorporations have replaced governments as the true superpowers. In a world where cities have grown together in sprawling maga-plexes of concrete and steel, walled-off corporate enclaves and arcologies are the modern castles from which corporate executives control masses of wageslaves for the profit of a lucky and ruthless few. But in the shadows of the corporate giants there are the SINless. Those without System Identification Numbers are not recognized by the machinery of society, by the bureaucracy so massive and complex that nobody understands it completely. Among the SINless are the shadowrunners, traffickers in stolen data and hot information, mercenaries of the street-discreet, effective, and untraceable. They are the agents of the corporations that battle for power and control in the concrete jungles. In the depths of the Matrix, strange new forces stir, beyond the knowing of any of the millions of people who access the vast network each day. The dealings of a powerful inventor from a forgotten age of magic and a multinational corporation with dreams of domination over the world market draw the attention of powers unknown to either. A new faction has entered the struggle of the Sixth World that is neither magic nor machine, but something else entirely…

The Matrix is a computer-generated, symbolic representation of the grid, the world information network. Instead of dealing with messy manual commands and procedures, the cyberdeck lets the user perform apparently real actions in cyberspace and then translates them into system operations. A person in the Matrix reaches out and touches the symbol representing a file. The deck's software knows the user wants to open that file. The machine performs all of the operations, freeing the user from the tedious task of having to enter those commands manually. Matrix imagery is imposed on the user by the grid in a "consensual hallucination," to use Dr. Hikita 's term. It's no more an ultimate reality than an animated vid-chip. These are computer-generated, graphic images. The systems and the functions those images represent are real, but the images are just that. They have no reality. -Dr. William Spheris, noted expert on Matrix design, from a tridcast interview on People to People, June 12, 2049. Not real? Not real!? Looks to me like the doc's never done a run. I'm tellin'you, when you're dartin' through the peaks of Mitsuhama's L.A. mainframe shaggin' combat systems that are doin' their bangest to roast you alive, plus you 're prayin' to Ghost your deck doesn't melt in your lap cause you got stupid, and you looks up and there in front a you is Death himself jacked in by the corp to rip your soul… babes, that's reality. -Decker "Sandman" commenting on Spheris' statement in the People to People interview


1

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.