Psychle's Matrix Blog
Cruel and Unusual Punishment

I ran with the others back into the Nabopolassar. When we reached the deck, I took one look at the command center and spewed chunky bits of my lunch all over the floor. Drive's mangled corpse lay sprawled on the computer panels; his head was nowhere in sight.

Tera cursed -- half at the carnage, half at my expression of disgust -- and ran into the storeroom. Kelvin's hands were shaking; Hakuin and Ramb eased the body onto the floor as I knelt down and tried to breathe. Tera returned seconds later with a mop and bucket.

After several minutes of cursing and chaos, Drive's body had been removed and Tera was finishing the dirty work. Kelvin was frantically downloading some of the basic operator programs into his brain. (Normally we're not supposed to do this without a trained operator present, but I guess he figured this was a special circumstance.) Outside, we could hear the Antef start up and take off.

Something near Tera clinked. "Here we go," she said, grabbing an object from the floor. Hakuin raced back onto the deck; Ramb was close behind.

"What is it?" he asked. She handed him the object; a tiny sphere with an empty claw on one end and a drill bit on the other. He inspected it against the light.

"I'm guessing it held an explosive," Tera said. "Locates brain waves or something, zeroes in, drills through whatever's in the way, burrows, and detonates."

Hakuin chewed his lip and nodded slowly. "Works for now," he said, and moved to the control deck. "We've got to get out of here. There could be others." Kelvin had finished the downloads and was piloting the ship toward an electrical pipe. As we reached a cruising speed, something on the control panel began to beep. Hakuin flipped a switch and the sensors began their holoscan. He cursed; twice in one day was more than I'd heard from him in two months. "Sentinels," he said. "The brain digger must be a calling card."

"If there were other brain diggers, could we see them?" Ramb asked.

"I don't know," Hakuin said. "It certainly caught Drive off guard."

We sped away for a while; Kelvin was slowly getting the hang of the controls, but we could tell he felt uneasy about flying. I suspected he was still unnerved by his blunder with Ridley. After a long time, we pulled off to the side of the passage, powered down, and waited.

The sentinels came.

We held our breath.

They left.

Circles and Cycles

Ramb pounded her fist on the metal surface. "No," she said loudly.

We were seated around the dining table (our colorful name for the decidedly colorless common eating area). Tera gnashed her teeth and looked around the room. "We have to," she said. "There is no other way."

"Violence is never--"

"Here we go again," Tera said, cutting her off.

"Because you won't try to understand what I'm saying," Ramb said. "Once we go over that cliff, we lose the very essence of what we're trying to maintain."

"We're trying to maintain our existence," Tera said, getting louder. "As you can see, that doesn't mean a whole lot to these machines. So why must we pretend like we have something to gain by respecting the life that's fighting on their side?"

"I will not go along with it," Ramb said. "I refuse to accept that murder is our only choice."

Tera rose to her feet. "Maybe that's because you weren't the one cleaning up Drive's brain matter from the control deck."

Ramb rose to face her. "I was carrying his corpse--" She broke off as Hakuin motioned for them to sit down.

"We're not going to get anywhere with accusations," he said. They exchanged a hostile silence and reseated themselves. "Now then," he said. "I'm afraid I agree with Ramb. If we had more time, we might find some alternative. If we had more resources, perhaps." He spread his hands. "You said it yourself -- the data from Ridley's files can't help us, right?"

"No, but--"

"Then we have no choice. We have to take one of them out." He waved a hand to cut off another of Ramb's protests. "I'm sorry, Ramb, I really am. You know I'd like to find an alternative. But this is the way it's got to be." He turned to Tera. "Will you do the hit?"

Tera smiled and nodded. "Fine," Hakuin said. "Then Psychle, you and Ramb need to do the perliminary recon. Report back first thing tomorrow."

Ramb refused to look at him. I glanced at her, then at him. "We will," I said. She stormed out, and I followed.

On the Prowl

Ramb slid around the edge of the vent and adjusted the lens over her eye. She wore a slender headpiece combination zoom scope/digital camera which fed into a hard drive on her belt. As she scanned the building across the street, she scribbled furiously on a pad of paper. Meanwhile, I kept watch overhead and in the windows around us. We were on the roof of an office building, seventy-three stories up. I was trying hard not to look at the vestiges of life on the ground that I could see out of various corners of my eye.

"It's just frustrating," she said. "He gets so rigid sometimes."

"He's being a captain," I said. "He can't run the ship by consensus."

She shot me an icy glare. "I'm not saying he should. But for crying out loud, there's got to be a middle ground. It's not like this is my first mission inside."

I fingered the safety latch on my sniper rifle. Ironic words, those. I hefted it into position and scanned the windows of the west-side office building again. People were finishing up and heading home.

"The council is the same way," she said.

"The council at Zion?" I asked.

"Six, nineteen, thirty-eight," she said suddenly. "Remember those."

"Write 'em down," I said.

"I did," she said. "But paper isn't permanent."

"Neither is my memory."

"Just remember them." I tried to come up with mnemonics for each; I couldn't get anything for nineteen, so I shuffled it away as prime. "We think of the council as being benevolent and always working for our best interests."

"It's not?"

She sighed. "It's an organization," she said. "It controls vast resources and makes decisions about things that affect all of us. The councilors are human, given to the same weaknesses as any of us. Problem is they've enshrined obstacles to the kind of democracy we really need."


"Because we're at war. So long as we have the machines to contend with, we can't have any discussions about equality in our own ranks."

"Well, don't you think the machine war is a little more urgent?"

She looked down quickly, then at me, then back at her target. "It's not an either/or situation," she said. "If we can't develop democracy as we proceed, then what kind of world will we have once we beat the machines? We'll be back in the dark ages." She creeped across the roof and hid behind another vent. She motioned for me to stay where I was. After a few seconds, she crawled back. "I'll be right back," she said, and with a sudden lurch, she raced across the surface of the roof and launched herself over to the opposite building. She took a device off her belt, fiddled with it several different ways, and replaced it. Seconds later, she was back.

"What was that about?" I asked.

She smiled. "Measurements," she said.

I gave her a look. "We've got blueprints," I said.

"Not dimensions," she said, and headed toward the door. "We're done. Let's go."

"Good," I said, glancing over my shoulder. "There's a weird--" Before I could finish, a bullet whipped past my head and struck her in the leg. She collapsed and screamed. I called to her and spun around to see a hooded figure drop behind a window ledge to the east. I ran behind a vent and brought up the scope. A head appeared, found me, and disappeared. I could hear Ramb moving to my left. The door leading back into the building opened. I looked away to see her go inside, then returned my gaze to the scope.

Several minutes passed; the head was gone. I was ready to let it go, when I saw it one floor up from its previous location. A bullet hit the ground in front of me and I fired off three rounds. The window he was in shattered, but he dove to the side. He ducked out again and I fired again. Then everything fell silent.

"C'mon," Ramb called from the doorway.

"Hang on," i said. "I want to see if I got him."

"We don't have time," she said urgently. "We have to go."

I dropped the gun and ran for the doorway. Another shot glanced my footprint and I tried to go more quickly. I made it to the doorway and we started down the stairs. "Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'll make it," she said. The wound didn't appear to impede her movement. She chuckled.

"What's so funny?" I asked. I couldn't believe she was laughing. We had thirty flights to go; for all I knew, squads of cops were on their way up to meet us.

"I'm still thinking about Hakuin," she said. "How stupid is it for me to be dwelling on that when I've just been shot?"

"Yeah, I'd say we've got bigger fish to fry right now."

"I can't help it," she said. "It eats me up. I feel like he doesn't listen to--" and then she stopped; speaking as well as moving.

"What?" I asked in a hoarse panic.

She glanced around, then looked up at me. She smiled.

"I've got it," she said.

Ridley on the Diginome

With a rush of sound -- loud enough to make me cringe -- our ship pulled up alongside the Antef. Drive's headpiece buzzed with chatter; the screens rolled with code. "Roger that," he said finally.

We made our way to the exit. Drive stayed behind to monitor the screens. We clambered out of the door and right along into that of the Antef. The captain, a short grizzled man with a wicked scowl, approached Hakuin. Two other crew members -- one male, one female, stood behind him.

"Captain," the man said, extending his hand. Hakuin took it with both of his.

"Ushakov," Hakuin said. "Good to see you again."

"It's a dark day in the world," the other captain said, glancing at us. "Your crew looks tired."

"You see with tired eyes," Hakuin said with a slight grin. Our captain was always composed and relaxed; standing beside this withered old man, Hakuin looked positively regal.

"Come in," Ushakov said to us, waving us inside with a gruff swing of his arm. We walked hesitantly into the Antef. The other male crew member eyed me suspiciously; the woman didn't make eye contact.

We were far enough behind to whisper without being heard. "Is that Ridley?" I asked Kelvin. He shook his head.

On the bridge, we found a pair of women lounging near the control panels. As we entered, they rose to their feet. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Nabopolassar, meet the Antef." He jerked a thumb toward each of the crew in turn, starting with the other male. "Bertrand. Ayala. Hooks. Ridley."

The crew of the Antef nodded slightly in greeting. Hakuin introduced us to them, then turned to Ushakov.

"So what's this all about that you couldn't tell us over the voiceline?" the old man asked.

"A mission we've been sent to," Hakuin said. "There's a child that we need to . . . prevent."

Eyebrows rose.

Ushakov scowled afresh. "And you won't kill the parents because . . . ?"

Tera grinned. "Thank you," she said. She turned to us and beamed.

"We can't do that," Hakuin said plainly. "It's not an option."

Ushakov rolled his eyes. Ramb turned toward Ridley. "What's this we hear about you working on a diginome?"

Ridley -- who had looked rather bored to this point -- blinked quickly and glanced at each of us in turn. "Me?" she asked. "What have you heard?"

"Some rather unseemly stuff," Ramb said. "Rumors fly that you're trying to tinker with the code."

Ridley began to nod slightly, then tilted her head. "Wait a minute," she said slowly. "Do you mean you think you can use the diginome to kill this kid before it's born?"

"Not kill," Ramb said. "Alter."

Ridley's eyes became slits. "Alter how?"

"The child poses some serious threats," Ramb said. "If we can find some code that inflicts this danger, we're hoping we can hack it."

"Who fed you that load of horsecrap?" Ridley shot back.

As one, the crew turned to face Kelvin.

He blushed. "Well, I said it was a theory," he said. "I've read some of your posts on the possibilities for the diginome, and I thought --"

"You thought wrong," Ridley said quickly. She scratched her forehead and let out a deep breath. "Look," she said. "Let me make this clear once and for all, since you obviously missed it in my writing." Her eyebrows clung to the bridge of her nose. "The diginome influences some parts of the subject's development -- like the genome does in real people. But no more than that. Parts of it control parts of us -- but not personality. Hair color, yes. Predisposition to alcoholism, maybe. But good and evil? Give me a break!"

Kelvin was staring past her. A tense silence came and went.

"Sorry," he said finally. "I guess I just wanted to believe it."

Ridley sighed and glanced around -- clearly uncomfortable with being the center of attention. "Look," she said. "It's tempting to make those kinds of wild connections -- it would be great if we could tinker with people like we tinker with actionscripts. But it just doesn't happen. Inside the Matrix, these programs are just as context-dependent as their real-life equivalents. Maybe more so."

"More so?" Ramb asked.

Ridley waved a hand. "Let's not go into it. Point is, that's not going to be the way."

"That certainly dashes our most promising hope," Hakuin said.

"Well, there may be something else I can offer," Ridley said, moving toward the console. She donned the headset, sat down, and punched a series of buttons. "Drive," she said. We could hear the echoes of his response. "I'm sending you a series of abstracts for something called the MentaHack. It's a gnu-style collaborative project, still in its infancy. Maybe you can figure out some way to use it." The file went through and she slipped off the headset, then turned to us. "I don't know if it will be any help," she said. "But it's worth a try."

"Hacking minds?" I asked.

"Sort of," Ridley said, stretching her legs out before her. "Someone called it a Matrix hallucinogen."

"This can't just be a short-term interference," Hakuin said. "We need to neutralize this threat."

"Well, that all depends on the dosage and the nature of the hack," Ridley said, shrugging.

Ramb looked at Hakuin. "It's worth a try," she said.

"Okay," he said. "We'll look into it." He looked at Ridley. "In your opinion, does this have the power to alter minds? Actually change them?"

"Everything has the power to change minds," she said. "The question is how changed? And with what result? The software can do what hardware can do -- it can be nurturing, or it can be deadly."

Hakuin nodded slowly. "That may be true," he said. "I guess it's all we've got for now."

The signal went off for an incoming call. Ridley slapped on the headset. "Operator," she said. She slipped it off and passed it to Hakuin. "For you," she said.

Hakuin put it on. "Yes?" he asked. Ramb stepped beside Ridley.

"I get the software part," she said. "But how can the hardware be nurturing? Isn't it just a means? Neutral, I would think."

"There are ways," Ridley said, watching Hakuin's face grow more serious. "Why do you think they call it the motherboard?"

"Sentinels?" Hakuin asked, and everything else fell silent. Hooks leaped to the controls and started up the engines of the ship. Ushakov started spitting orders to the others. We tightened around Hakuin, who stood off to the side out of Hooks' way. "Well, if they're not sentinels, what are they?" He paused. "How far away are they?" Another pause. "Okay, we'll be -- Drive!" We could hear a scream from the headset. Hakuin ripped it off and we all raced for the exit.

Mapping the AntiGenome

It's late, but as I've mentioned, we have no real conception of time here. The tunnels are forever dark, and our clocks might as well be Dali's. I read somewhere about a sensory-deprivation study done by some scientists once upon a time; they said that when we're removed from external clues, our internal clocks go haywire. A day can seem like a week, and vice versa.

I'm beginning to understand.

We're exploring the possibility of an anti-genome. Tera wanted to assassinate the mother, but the rest of us refuse to go along with it. Drive offered the notion of induced trauma to the fetus, but then Kelvin stepped in.

"There are some interesting things coming from some people working on virtual-genetic subroutines," he said. "A tech on the Antef has been developing some interesting realignment structures that might be useful for us." (The Antef is a sister ship in our fleet.) "It may be possible for us to . . . " He paused.

We waited. For a while.

"Yes?" Tera asked.

He tapped his chin and darted his eyes. "Reverse him," he said finally.

We blinked. "Reverse him? I asked.

"In a manner of speaking," he said. "One of the subroutines has to do with the Matrix equivalent of the genome -- basically, each person's code."

I glanced at Ramb, who was either biting her tongue, or preparing to do so. She had spent a great deal of time with the biochemistry training programs, and she was always ready to stomp out someone trying to bamboozle their way through anything scientific.

"Hear me out," Kelvin said, extending a hand of patience to us. A cloud of skepticism hung in the room. "The Matrix has to transpose each person's identity into the Matrix, right? Well, how does it do that? By digitally representing our DNA -- transplanting our genetic map. Each person's genetic information is ported into the Matrix OS. This is how we look the same inside the Matrix and out." He moved his hands nimbly as he spoke, in the same lanky manner of his walk.

"Okay," he continued, "so for those of us born outside of the Matrix, it takes what's there and just copies it, yeah? Well, this tech has a theory that for people born inside, the genome and its Matrix equivalent -- they're calling it the diginome -- work . . . together, I guess."

Tera squinted. "How do you mean?"

"The theory says that the genome and the diginome form a symbiotic relationship, where they influence each other by turns. Now, most people will spend their entire lives inside the Matrix, so the real genome doesn't have much to offer, aside from the basics -- number of legs, height, and so on."

He paused. "But some people are saying that it's possible for the diginome to take the lead."

We all exchanged glances. "What does that mean, exactly?" Drive asked. In our crew of engineers, Drive was definitely mechanical. He'd never gotten into the nuts and bolts (so to speak) of the ones and zeroes. In this respect, I felt pretty close to him -- after all, I'd been recruited for purposes of graphic design.

Kelvin tapped his chin. "According to the theory," he said after a few seconds, "it's possible that the diginome may be capable of directing the development of the human genetic map."

Tera slowly shook her head. "The software changes the hardware," she said.

Kelvin nodded slightly. "Yeah, pretty much."

"So," I said, wanting to feel as though I were contributing something, "if this theory is true, then does that mean we can somehow tinker with the diginome and un-create this guy?"

"Not really," he said. "Deleting the code entirely would be too risky. There's no telling what would happen, really. Think of it like just making something disappear. You're familiar with the conservation of energy, I trust?" I nodded. "But there is talk of an anti-diginome," he said. "There may be a way to supplant the code with its opposite. So if he's really as evil as we've been told, this has the potential to make him pure goodness."

"Another coming of The One, perhaps?" Drive asked.

Hakuin shot him a hostile glare. We've had some interesting conversations about the nature of The One; suffice to say Hakuin doesn't buy it. Story for another time.

"But," Tera said, "wouldn't an anti-diginome be the opposite of more than just his personality? I mean, what's the opposite of human skin type? Scales? Suppose we implant the opposite of lungs?"

"Or," I suggested, "what if the anti-diginome and the human genome code react like matter and anti-matter? Wouldn't that raise some eyebrows?"

Kelvin shrugged a little. "I don't really know," he said. "Like I said, this is all more or less in the theoretical stage right now."

Hakuin held a hand over his mouth and rubbed his cheek. "This tech is on the Antef, you say? What's his name?"

"Uh," Kelvin said, glancing at Tera and Ramb. "Her name is Ridley."

Hakuin nodded and turned to Drive. "Where is the Antef?" he asked. Drive sank into his seat and punched a series of buttons. The screens flickered and scrolled.

"About two hours away," he said. "They're charting a series of tunnels to the north."

"How about we pay them a visit?" Hakuin asked.

We broke north.

Meeting Baudrillard

We're being watched; this site is under surveillance. Of course, we must assume that the Matrix is keeping track of our comings and goings anyway, so Hakuin has assured me that it's not really anything to worry about. This communique has been posted three times, and removed each time. This time around we've enabled a new encryption scheme; hopefully it will stick.

Hakuin says the surveillance systems have identified this site as a potential threat as recruiting grounds for the resistance, and it is therefore to be neutralized. Naturally, that just makes me more inclined to protect it.

When we all made it out, Hakuin told me we were going right back in.

I groaned. "Why?" I asked. My joints still ached from the running and bumping.

"Our assignment is being held by a program named Baudrillard. He's a nasty piece of work, and I had hoped we'd seen the last of him. But for whatever reason, he's the man we need to see."

"What's so bad about him?" I asked.

"He peddles in snake oil," Tera said roughly. I scrunched my face toward her.

Hakuin waved a hand. "He's basically a self-replication system," he said. "But not in a malignant way."

"I don't understand," I said.

"Join the club," Kelvin said.

Hakuin took a deep breath. "A while back, certain programs realized that they had become obsolete. They didn't matter. There was no reason for them to exist. Many of these programs restructured their prime directives and aligned themselves with newly useful purposes. Unfortunately, some programs couldn't find anything useful and what they aligned themselves with was actually just self-replication masquerading as utility."

"Now I'm more confused," I said.

Ramb stepped forward. "This guy Baudrillard thinks he's doing something useful," she said. "But he's just spinning his wheels and doing nothing. He just generates meaningless code. The worst part is that other programs recognize the code as legitimate and they produce the same garbage."

"Like a virus," I said.

"Sort of," Hakuin said. "But again, it's delusional -- not malicious in nature."

"And we're going to see this guy because . . . ?"

"He has what we need."

"Ah." I sat down to jack in; only Tera joined me. "You're sitting this one out?" I asked Hakuin.

He nodded. "Do you remember the instructions?" he asked.

"I think so," I said.

"Good. Tera will take you to him. When you find him, follow the instructions and defeat his game. When you do, he'll provide you with our next assignment." He leaned forward and spoke more quietly. "It's vitally important that you don't let anyone get hold of that assignment. I don't suppose I need to tell you what can happen if you do."

I shook my head slowly. We went inside and found ourselves in a dank basement. There was no light source; only a thin, grimy sliver from upstairs.

Tera led the way. We emerged into the same unreality I remembered from the last time; my eyes hurt from the neon glow of the world outside. We walked down several city blocks, then into an abandoned building.

It was dark. Tera motioned for me to enter another doorway. "When you go in, knock three times. He'll come out from the back room."

I went into the room. It was pitch black. I felt around until I found a wall, then knocked three times. Slowly, a tall man in a purple shirt and dark cape emerged.

"Ah," he said. "You again."

I scowled. "Have we met?"

He grinned. "Back for some more, huh? Excellent." He held a hand out and revealed four rows of gleaming pearls. A flash of recognition hit me and I tried to recall the instructions from Delphi's envelope. I took three pearls from the first row. He laughed and took one from the last. I cursed and racked my brain. I took four from the second, and he wiped out the entire third row.

"3-2-1," I said. "Dammit."

Baudrillard just grinned at me. I asked for a new game and he smiled. "Certainly," he said, and with a wave of his hand produced four new rows of pearls.

Six games later, I fed him the last pearl. He blinked, then scowled and walked back into the darkness. "Hey!" I called out after him. "You're supposed to give me something." I blinked into the darkness for several minutes.

Eventually, he returned with a thin envelope. "Well done," he said, and handed it to me. "Here it is." I nodded and took it. Turning, I found the door and rejoined Tera.

"I don't get it," I said as we left the building. "How did he become a part of this?"

"Once in a while he lapses into the world of actual usefulness," she said. "And he serves as courier for relevant information. He defeats security, because the Agents don't believe he's capable of communicating anything worthwhile -- so they just ignore him."

I opened the envelope as we walked. It was a printed email, reproduced in tiny 9-point monaco type.


In two days, a man and a woman will conceive a child. The man is a dangerous soul; one determined to facilitate evil of a most gruesome kind against Zion. His son (it will be a son) will be worse.

You must stop this child from entering the world. Prevent the conception. Coordinates will be sent presently.

I looked at Tera, who was reading it with me. "Is she kidding?" I asked. "We have to stop this couple from having a kid?"

"I guess," Tera said. We made our way back into the dingy basement, where a phone was ringing. In the grimy light, I could see her gesture for me to answer it.

I did, and the real became unreal.

The Answer

We made it into the car and onto the road before the agents showed up. Seconds later, they were beside us, tearing steel against our ride.

Panicked, shaking, I opened the envelope. It said:

Go first.

Take four pearls from the row of six. When he responds, you'll be able to create a board of 5-4-1. When he responds the next time, you'll be able to make a board of 3-2-1. After the takes his pearl(s), you can make a board of 2-2.

You should be able to take it from there.
"Well?" Hakuin asked. Tera tore around a corner and swerved between three cars. Gunshots rang out all around us.

"I don't understand what it means," I said. Tera told us to hold on as we rocketed through a parking lot. Sparks flew as we careened over cement bumpers and banged into cars.

"Forget it," Hakuin said. "See that phone?" We were barrelling toward a pay phone booth.

"Yeah," I said.

"It's ringing," he said. "Use it to get out."

"What about this message?" I waved the paper.

"Remember as much as you can. I'll explain when we get out. Go."

With seconds to decide, I handed the paper to Ramb and opened the car door. Rolling, I grunted and tried to stop myself. As I glanced around, I saw three agents appear from nowhere and speed toward me. I leaped up and grabbed the phone.

Everything went black.

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