Decision Matrix, Chapter 1: Book Move

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Chapter One: Book Move

San Francisco, California
February 18, 1998

“You should be more cooperative, Mister Ferguson.” The compact man in the dark suit sat across the conference room table from me, radiating controlled menace. “Given the evidence we have compiled from your online . . . ‘activities’ . . . you could spend a long, long time in prison if you aren’t.”

I decided on defiance. I was good – very good – at covering my cyber tracks, and I had my doubts that his evidence was anywhere near as good as he thought it was. But somehow, I found that my mouth was as dry as the southern Sahara in a sirocco (something I’d experienced personally, so I knew). I swallowed several times, trying to generate enough internal moisture to permit normal speech. I expect the resulting visual was less than heroic.

“What’s the matter, Mister Ferguson?” the man asked tauntingly, so strongly emphasizing the first syllable of the honorific that it felt like an insult instead. “Cat got your tongue?” He watched me struggle a bit longer, a sardonic smile playing on his lips. “You don’t need to say much. ‘Yes, sir,’ will do fine for starters.”

I finally managed to grind out, “I want to talk to a lawyer.” My voice sounded unnatural, but at least it was audible and the words could be understood.

It didn’t help; the man just laughed at me. “A comedian, I see. Well, guess what? No lawyer for you, Mister Ferguson. Not when the charges include aiding and abetting terrorists. Just who did you think ‘Hermes’ was, anyway?”

He couldn’t know about that! It wasn’t possible. I’d used three separate back doors and multiple cut-outs before making that contact! He was absolutely fishing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied forcefully. Maybe too forcefully.

“Still not feeling cooperative?” He shook his head and “tsked” at me, mock sadness in his voice. “Well, no matter. You’ll lead us to him. Best part is, you won’t even know it.” He got up and came around the table toward me.

I tried to jump up, but my limbs suddenly refused to obey.

The door behind me opened, and two other men in identical suits entered to assist my interrogator. One of them was holding a clear plastic container that seemed to contain – only just – a nightmarish insect which was frantically leaping around.

My eyes bulged and I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out.

The interrogator and the man who had both arms free effortlessly hauled me out of my chair and tossed me on the conference room table like a rag doll. I was desperately trying to tell them that I would cooperate, but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even whisper. In my terror, I couldn’t even control my bladder.

My interrogator made a noise of disgust. “Ehhch! Viruses, I tell you!” He pulled up my shirt to bare my chest, and – to my horror – the third man put the insect-filled container right over my exposed belly button and pulled a lever.

As the insect leaped, I passed out.

* * * * *

San Francisco, California
February 27, 1998

It was just another day toiling for my corporate masters – a job I kept mostly as cover. I made far more in my off-hours. With my hacking skills, I had no trouble making just as much money as I wanted. I took those payments in cash, which was occasionally hard to get rid of, but had the advantage of being effectively untraceable.

It was a Friday afternoon, and I looked forward to spending a little of my cash over the weekend. A little road trip to Vegas was just the thing, I thought. San Francisco was a fine place, but you could find anything in Vegas. Literally anything.

My pleasant daydreams were interrupted. “Mister Ferguson?” The secretary, pert and perfect in her crisp white shirt and black skirt, was holding a FedEx package. “This just came for you.”

“Thanks, Jacqui,” I said, taking the parcel from her. “Got anything fun planned for the weekend?”

Her smile showed a deep dimple on both cheeks. “Me and my boyfriend are going down to Yosemite! Can’t wait!”

I shook my head. I’d had to go to some strange places in the country and in the world for some of my ‘business’ dealings, but the idea of sleeping in a tent in a snow-filled valley for fun was quite beyond me. “Well, enjoy, both of you . . . and keep away from the bears and the b-b-b-bugs . . . .” For some reason, I stammered over the last word. I recovered quickly. “See ya Monday!”

She kindly did not comment on my verbal slip and walked off with a cheery wave. I gave her parting form a quick, appreciative look. The girl really knew how to make a skirt look good. But I quickly turned my attention to the package, lest I be taken for some kind of lech.

It was late in the day – and in the week – for anything important to be hitting my desk. Especially something that wasn’t just paperwork, and the shape of the package indicated it wasn’t. Curious, I opened it up and found that it contained a phone. No sooner had I pulled it from the package then it began to ring.

I was unfamiliar with the model, but I hit a likely button and a mouthpiece dropped down like a switchblade, almost causing me to drop the phone. Instead, I held it to my face and said, “Hello?”

A man’s voice answered, a pleasant, melodious tenor with the hint of an accent from the far East. “Hello, Noel,” it said. “This is Hermes. I understand you’ve been looking for me.”

I hopped out of my chair and looked around my section of Cube City. It was 4:30 on a Friday, and no one was close. Sitting back down, I said, in a low voice, “How did you find me . . . here, that is?”

He chuckled. “You have your ways, Noel. We have ours. Do you really want to meet?”

“Yes!” I am very, very good – but everything I’ve heard indicates that Hermes plays in a whole different league – a league that includes legends like Hamilcar, Artemis and Shaka. And as much as I enjoy my life as it is, somehow, it’s never enough. I wanted something else. Something more. Hermes might be the one who could bring me there.

“That’s good,” he responded. “Very good, actually, because you’ve already been tagged by the kind of security you don’t want to mess with on your own.”

My blood ran cold. “What are you talking about?” I asked.

“I’ll explain, but not here, and not now. Listen to me, Noel. I want you to take BART over to Walnut Creek tonight. Sit in the last row of the last car. We’ll be in touch.”

“Which train?” I asked. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system runs multiple trains under the Bay every hour.

He chuckled again. “Any of them. Don’t worry about that. See you soon!”

The line went dead.

I had butterflies in my stomach just contemplating the meeting. I was going to see Hermes? The master of the World Wide Web? A wanted man in more countries than even I had visited? I felt an involuntary shiver.

But I stilled my fears. The deeper I went into the online world, the more I became convinced that the world around me was . . . strange. Not right. I’d never felt right, as far back as I could remember, but this was bigger. More intense. Like I was only seeing the surface, and that, under all that seemed pleasant lurked secrets both dark and deep. A sane man, I thought, would content himself with the pleasant exterior.

Me, though . . . ? I wanted to know. Needed to know.

I logged off the company’s intranet, made sure my station was clear and shut down my computer. Briskly, decisively, I walked to the elevator and headed to the lobby.

Fifteen minutes later, I was going down the escalator at Embarcadero, headed for the first train across the Bay. It was Friday, the weekend beckoned, and the platform was crowded. Suits, mostly – the detritus of numerous downtown office towers, highrises resting on ball bearings, the better to withstand the powerful forces of California’s frequent earthquakes. Lawyers and doctors, the mavens of finance and their accountant minions, more lawyers . . . .

But it was still San Francisco, so the platform had a fair number of other types as well. Some “loud and proud” guys, a couple Deadheads, a street person headed back to Berkeley in search of greener pastures, tourists from all over, a school group . . . the colors and flavors of what made the Bay the place to be. Funny how BART brought them all together.

The eastbound train rattled up to the platform, and I worked my way to the back of the last car, snagging a seat across from a couple who had clearly come from SFO, their suitcases stacked around them like a fortress. They were engaged with each other. The suits who took the seat in front of me were both studiously reading the paper – naturally, the Wall Street Journal. The Deadheads were standing by the doors, having an animated conversation that verged on an argument without quite going over the edge.

I tuned them all out.

The train took off and very shortly we could feel the compression of air that indicated our descent and entry into the tunnel that crosses San Francisco Bay.

Truth to tell, I always hated this part of the trip. I have an irrational fear of drowning, and could only imagine what the tunnel would be like in an earthquake. Even though I knew, intellectually, that the tunnel had been built to withstand earthquakes. It had survived the massive Loma Prieta quake ten years before without damage, while portions of the conventionally-designed Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed, dropping cars and passengers to their deaths. So there was that.

None of that mattered; my fears were my fears. Which is why I started to hyperventilate when the train slowed, slowed further, then stopped, just minutes into our run under the Bay.

No one noticed my distress, at first. There was a great deal of talking, of startled exclamations – the hubbub of scores of people asking questions that none of their neighbors could answer. But I was struggling for breath, my heart was pounding, and it felt like sweat was springing from every gland. Eventually, someone picked up on it.

“Dude . . . you okay?” It was one of the Deadheads, now kneeling by my seat. The other hovered behind him.

I shook my head, but concentrated on getting my breathing under control rather than answer.

“It’s cool, man,” he assured me. “They got plans for shit like this. Just, you know, relax.”

It was kind of him, I suppose, but I fought a strong urge to shake him. I managed to get enough air to say, “We’re in a little tube on the bottom of the bay, with over 130 feet of water on top of us, and you think we should all just chill out?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” he replied. “Beats the alternative.”

He . . . kind of had a point about that. Really nothing about the situation would be improved by my having a breakdown, and it would be a complete disaster if everyone did. But my limbic system didn’t care, and it was well on its way to convincing my frontal lobe not to care either. So his logic was less convincing than it should have been.

His fellow traveler pulled her backpack forward, unzipped the main compartment, and offered me a brownie. “Try this. It’ll help.”

I looked at her incredulously. Short-cropped spiky blonde hair, twiggy build, glasses, earnest expression. We were stuck in a fricking death trap, and she thought my understandable panic would be helped by a little snack?

Her companion winked at me. “She’s right, dude. Awesome brownies. Great for, you know . . . anxiety.”

Oh. Deadheads and brownies. Duh! But . . . they were right. One of those brownies actually might be helpful. I took the piece the girl was offering, nodded my thanks, and took a healthy bite.

Not bad.

I finished it in four bites. And, mercifully, it didn’t take long before I started to feel an effect. My heart rate was slowing back down and I didn’t sound so much like the little train that couldn’t quite.

The Deadhead girl somehow got me to move over, and she sat next to me. “Want another?”

I shook my head. “N-n-no, thanks,” I stammered, a bit tongue tied. “That seems to have taken the edge off. Damn, what’d you put in them?”

She grinned. “Secret recipe. Just sit back. You’ll feel fine real soon.” She patted my knee.

A voice over the intercom cut through the conversation going on around us. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties. Please remain calm. There is nothing to worry about. We’re going to guide you all to the pedestrian walkway and bring you back to Embarcadero station. When the doors open, please follow the uniformed BART employees, who will guide you back. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

More hubbub. Loud protests and sounds of incomprehension. But I was feeling increasingly detached, floating on a warm cloud of calm. I should be panicking, I thought. Followed by, I have GOT to get that recipe.

The sounds were starting to diminish and I batted my eyes, fuzzily surprised to discover that I had momentarily closed them. Open the doors, and where’s all the people? I remembered that I was supposed to be evacuating, but somehow the thought carried no sense of urgency.

My Deadhead friends were speaking to each other, but I was having a hard time following what they were saying. The guy got down between the rows of seats opposite me. Hide and seek? I like hide and seek . . . .

The girl was getting handsy. Very handsy. Feels good! She tugged and pulled me down between the seats, and I felt clever fingers at work on the buttons of my shirt. I should be worried, shouldn’t I? But I felt a goofy grin coming on. Seriously goofy.

She was saying something else. Sounding urgent. Her warm hand on my chest was replaced by something cold, metallic . . . I shivered and began to twitch as strange sensations hit my lower torso. I felt like something was trapped inside me, and it was moving. I really should be worried about this, my inner voice strongly suggested.

My goofy smile just got bigger. “Hi! Aren’t you the fresh one!” At least, I think that’s what I said. I meant to say it.

With incredible suddenness, my body jackknifed in pain, throwing my young companion back and away from me. A closed metal container skittered across the floor and rolled toward the doors.

The guy jumped up from his hiding place and sent the container out into the dark void outside the car with a well-placed soccer kick. He rummaged through his companions backpack with quiet urgency. Another brownie? Really, I couldn’t possibly . . . .

Instead, he brought out something that looked a bit like a perfume atomizer. Moving quickly, he came over to me, looming above me as I lay helpless, pointed the container straight at me, and pumped an aerosol spray right into my face.

I was momentarily blinded and seized with a fit of coughing. My panic began to surge back. Who are these people?!!! I scooted back, as far away from where I had last seen the man as I could get, bringing up my knees and covering my head with my hands. “Go away!!! Get off me!!!” My voice sounded shaky, but it was my voice.

“Noel.” The voice was coming from over my head. The girl. How does she know my name?

“Noel,” she repeated. “You need to wake up. Now. You were bugged. We took care of it.”

Her words penetrated. Nonsense words . . . Except, sickeningly, I knew that they weren’t nonsense at all. That dream . . . it was REAL!!! Holy shit!

I forced myself to uncurl from my protective ball and look up. The girl – the woman; I realized that there really wasn’t anything girlish about her – was seated in the row in front of me, looking down. Her expression was wholly at odds with her deadhead appearance: focused, intent, fierce as a bird of prey at the beginning of its lethal dive.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“We’ll get to that,” she replied crisply. “But we’ve got to get out of here first. Listen carefully. The train’s going to start up again in just a minute. When it stops, we all need to be ready to move. Got it?”

I wasn’t going to follow her just because she looked scary and sounded decisive. “Or what?”

“Or you get reacquainted with the asswipes in dark suits who planted that bug in your gut.”

I shivered and pulled myself up, rapidly working to rebutton my shirt and get it tucked back in. “Yeah, you’ve convinced me.”

The doors closed with a “whoosh” and the train lurched back into motion, the squeal of metal on metal shockingly loud in the almost empty passenger compartment. The man stood and waved me up as well. “We’ll be stopping again as soon as we clear the bay, before we hit the West Oakland station. There’s a service tunnel we’re going to use. Tell me you aren’t claustrophobic.”

“Well, actually . . . .” I started.

“Good.” He cut me off, clearly uninterested in my idiosyncratic phobias. “You follow Zephyr, and stay close, understand? I’ll bring up the rear. The important thing is to move fast, got it?”

I nodded. Now that I’d had a chance to collect myself, I was doing better. This whole situation was weird as shit and just getting weirder . . . but I’d been ass-deep in croc-infested waters plenty of times before. Yeah, my day job was being a dweeb, but this wasn’t my first rodeo. These people knew who I was and where to find me; they’d known about that . . . thing . . . in my abdomen and apparently neutralized it. And somehow they were with people who had the ability to hack into the BART system.

Hermes. They’re taking me to Hermes!

The train began to slow, and my colleagues visibly tensed. We moved to stand by the doors and waited. When it came, the stop was abrupt. The car’s brakes shrieked in protest and we were pitched forward. Fortunately, we’d all been holding grab-bars and no-one tumbled. We were out just as soon as the doors opened. They closed immediately and the train began moving again.

“Come on!” Zephyr hissed. There was enough light for me to see her slender form rapidly moving down a narrow catwalk from the point where we had left the train.

I sped behind her, very aware of her colleague’s presence at my back. I’m fast, but I struggled to catch up – or even gain ground.

She skidded to a halt by a door set into the tunnel, pulled another device from her backpack and clamped it on the door by the lock. An LED display in eerie red flashed on the device.

I caught up just as she got the door to open. She pulled the device off the door, put it back in her bag, and slipped through.

I followed. Behind me, I heard the man close the door, followed by a loud metallic “clang!” that echoed in the dimness of the tunnel. But Zephyr was speeding away and I had no time to look behind me.

I really was not wild about enclosed spaces. It wasn’t debilitating; I could function in them and had, when the need arose. Always, though, they brought back unhappy memories of childhood . . . of thoughtlessly cruel neighborhood kids . . . pranks involving a dark cellar . . . the smell of mold . . . the chittering of rats . . .

I ran harder.

Ahead of me, I saw Zephyr reach a place where another tunnel crossed the one we were in. She stopped, silent, and held up a fist.

I stopped as well, attempting to mimic the silence of her movements. I felt, rather than heard, her colleague stop right behind me. After a moment, I could hear a faint sound, a metronomically precise tap-tap-tapping, just on the edge of my hearing.

Zephyr turned to look at the man behind me, her expression asking a question. She raised her index finger. One?

Apparently, she got a silent answer of some sort from the man. Once again decisive, she pointed at me and indicated that I was to follow her, taking the tunnel that went to the left. She indicated that the man should continue to go straight.

I nodded.

We ran. Down the tunnel. Up some stairs. Left. Into a crawl space, where I could see nothing and we shuffled forward as fast as we could on hands and knees. Rats . . . roaches . . . darkness. Out to another tunnel. We reached a compartment that was several stories tall. A metal ladder, bolted to the wall, disappeared into the gloom above. We climbed to a landing.

Zephyr had me wait while she spent a moment listening intently. She pulled a spray can out of her backpack and went back down the ladder ten yards or so. I could, just barely, see her spray something on the ladder’s handhold and rungs.

By the time she rejoined me, I could hear what she had clearly heard already: the tap-tap-tap of hard-soled shoes, running hard. Growing louder.

We ran. Tunnels. Stairs. Ladders. Another tunnel. At some point, in the distance, I heard a crash behind us, and dared to hope that whatever Zephyr sprayed on the ladder had succeeded in thwarting our pursuit.

But it wasn’t all that long before I heard the sound of pursuing feet again. And, fast as we were going, the pursuer was faster.

We reached the base of another long ladder. This time, Zephyr had me take the lead, and I hustled just as fast as I could. I was bathed in sweat, whether from exertion or fear, or maybe both. But the steps were loud behind us and I pushed harder, forcing myself to an inhuman pace. I heard Zephyr’s spray can at work behind me and hoped that it would at least delay the pursuit.

I reached the top of the ladder, but it was a dead-end. As I opened my mouth to warn Zephyr, a ringing sound caused me to look up. Over my head, a manhole cover began to rise. Understanding, I pushed myself the last few feet and rolled out from under the cover onto a city street, a truck with a winch parked right in front of me.

Zephyr was an instant behind. “Drop it!” she shouted, springing clear. She raced toward a sedan parked across the street.

The winch released the cover, which fell with a ringing clang, then the truck backed up over the cover.

“Move!” Zephyr shouted. She had the back door of the sedan open, and as I ran toward her, she jumped in and scooted over, giving me room.

I threw myself into the car and barely had the door closed when the driver peeled out. I looked back and saw the truck lurch as the manhole cover lifted up before crashing back down again. What the hell could DO that? Then the car turned a corner and the truck was left behind us.

We sped down deserted streets surrounded by old tenements, through parts of town where streetlights were not functioning. The driver was clearly taking a circuitous route; I didn’t know this part of Oakland well, but I have good spatial awareness.

It began to rain. Lightly at first, then all at once, in great, ripping sheets. In the middle of a block that looked no different from any other one we’d been down, the driver stopped abruptly. Zephyr opened her door and hopped out; I followed.

We went into a tired apartment building and got into a slow-moving elevator, getting off on the fourth floor. Zephyr still moved at a brisk clip, speeding down a hallway, her footsteps making no sound as she glided over the dirty, worn-out linoleum. She stopped at an unmarked door – none had numbers – and knocked. An odd, almost diffident knock.

From inside, I heard the voice I was hoping to hear, sounding both warm and slightly amused. “Come in!”

Zephyr opened the door, but surprisingly she held it for me, and didn’t enter until I had gone in first. I was surprised to see a nicely-maintained room . . . an area rug in medium green over hardwood parquet, arts-and-crafts style standing lamps, two arm chairs, set at angles, an occasional table between them . . . .

A man rose from one of the chairs, looking at me intently through dark eyes under neatly-trimmed hair as dark as midnight. Medium height, lean, but powerful. At a guess, Korean ancestry.

His eyes held me. “Noel Ferguson,” he said in greeting. “Please come in.” He gestured to have me take a seat.

I heard the door close behind me. “That was one hell of an initiation exam,” I said as I sat down.

He looked amused. “Do you think so? But things are often not what they seem. . . . Are they?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that, so I just cocked my head, inquisitive.

He smiled briefly, then leaned forward. “I assure you, the pursuit today was real, and it was potentially quite deadly. Nor has the danger passed, so we’ll have to be brief. This isn’t like any other job you’ve ever taken, Noel. You’re either all in, or you’re out.”

I leaned back in my chair, studying him. “Very cryptic. But I don’t buy a pig in a poke, ever. ‘All in’ what, exactly? I know about some of your jobs – Cairo in ’95; Sao Paulo in ’97; Moscow earlier this year. Your reputation in the hacking world is up there with legends. But what am I signing up for?”

He chuckled. “Good, Noel – but your normal caution will hurt you here. The Agents won’t stop looking for you, now that your bug’s been removed. What they seek, they find.”

“I won’t be frightened into anything,” I replied, my voice even.

“Nor should you be,” he agreed, surprising me. “Let me tell you why you should come with us.”

“Good call.”

He smiled again, showing a row of strikingly perfect teeth. “You should come, because the world as you experience it is out of kilter. You know it is. You feel it. Sense it. But you don’t know why.” His dark eyes bored into me.

“Yes,” I agreed, my voice low. “How do you know . . . ”

“. . . that you know?” he asked, finishing my question. “The answer to that question is part and parcel of the answer to all your questions. But I can’t give you that answer, unless you’re in.” He leaned back, watching me carefully. A flash of lightning briefly caused the whole room to flare into light.

“Pig in a poke, then,” I said sourly.

“I’m afraid so,” he said. He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and brought out a small wooden box. He popped the lid and set the box on the table facing me.

The box contained two pills on a gauze pad. I eyed them warily.

“Take the blue pill,” Hermes said, “and you will wake up in your own apartment. It will be morning, and the events of this evening . . . well. Your mind will tell you whatever it will tell you. You will think this all a dream, maybe. Or a hallucination. No matter.”

“And if I take the red pill?”

“Take the red pill, and you will get your answers. You will learn the truth, though I warn you now: many who have, wished that they had retained their blissful ignorance.”

I looked at the box, thinking. “Suppose I don’t take either? Suppose we just shake hands, I walk out the door, and we forget the whole thing?”

“Not while I’m on guard, you won’t.” Zephyr, by the door, folded her arms and gave me a lazy, challenging smile.

I looked back at Hermes.

He shook his head. “We can’t allow you to leave that way, knowing what you know. You need to choose a pill. And you need to choose now.”

Crazy MoFos already almost killed me tonight . . . but . . . the bug was real. That nightmare was real. Besides, Hermes is right. I HAVE to know!

I reached out, my hand shakier than I would like, and picked the red pill out of the box. I looked at Hermes again, but his face was guarded. Impassive. With a sigh, I placed the pill on my tongue. Swallowed hard.

“Alright, come with me,” Hermes said, rising quickly. He led me into an adjacent room where several other people were fussing over various types of electronics with readouts that meant nothing to me.

Zephyr followed me in and brought me to a station where they strapped probe-tipped wires to me. I was trying to follow the conversations swirling around me, but my heart was pounding and I could think past the furious sound of my own gasping breaths. What is happening to me?!!

And the world collapsed like a dying star, with me trapped at its pulsing heart, screaming in agony as the pressure mounted and pain overwhelmed me. Monstrous, faceless beings, horrors of metal and glass, tore at me. I tried to scream, but felt myself drowning, my lungs filled with fluid.

I fell, spinning.

* * * * *

I wandered in dreams and nightmares, blind, deaf, mute. I felt intense cold, oppressive heat, a million pricks on tender skin. Every nerve ending flayed, every muscle, every ligament and tendon, shrieking in hot agony. Even my lungs were on fire.

It seemed like the pain would never end, except in the sweet moments when true oblivion took me. I craved sleep. Even more, I craved the release of death. But I would always return to pain, and still more pain.

In my dreams I began to hear voices, like ghostly echoes. Their words were clear, but my pain-shrouded mind could not comprehend them. It was all gibberish. Sound and fury, signifying . . . .

Signifying. No; there were words. The words had meaning. Significance. It was there, right there, if only I could reach it. I brought myself to try, to corral my mind into the simple task of processing spoken language.

I failed, and oblivion reclaimed me.

I don’t know how long I slept. How long I endured the pain. But after an eternity, one day, the pain eased, ever so slightly. Then it eased some more. I slept again, and again, and each time, when I woke, the pain was less.

With an effort that felt worthy of the Olympic games, I opened an eye to a blur of light and shadow. Pain lanced, fresh and new, through my optic nerve and straight into my brain. Instinctively, I opened my mouth to cry out.

I made a noise. A noise that I could hear.

But the pain was too intense. I passed out again. Another eternity passed before I could bring myself to try again. When I did, both light and shadow were dimmed, and the pain, while real, was not debilitating.

A shadow moved within the shadow, and a form, vaguely human, loomed over me. And the form spoke and my brain was, at last, able to process the sounds. Not that the words made any sense.

“Welcome, Noelle. To the real world.”

To be continued . . . .

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Great beginning...

RachelMnM's picture

To one of my fav movies. The possibilities - well, this fanfic will certainly be a treat to follow. Love the flow and the action! Nice start! Thanks for posting!


Rachel M. Moore...

Thanks, Rachel!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I’ve always loved the original Matrix. Hopefully this twist will work!


nice start !

look forward to more!


Thanks, Dot

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Don’t know how far I’ll take it at this time, but we’ll see!


>"[...]You were bugged.[...]"

>"[...]You were bugged.[...]"
This is a whole new meaning of that phrase. Eewwww.
Taking the red pill here is going to be an eye opener in more than one way, fer sure.

Thx for another nice chapter^^

Missed opportunity?

It could've been a facehugger :)

Now that . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . is just gross! ;-)


Although maybe . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . Noelle may have more reasons than most to be glad she chose the red pill!


Looks promising

I don't know what's coming up but, hey, maybe it can be like a Matrix movie'ish thing you can sell. I heard the original creators are extremely trans-friendly ^_^

The only problem in this kind of story is how is the protagonist is going to differentiate reality from a simulation. Given his (her?) last memory was being probed and such, how does Noelle know this is now reality and not a simulation that supposedly she has just escaped from with only the word of that shadow thingy to go by.

Modern physics has wrestled with whether our reality is a simulation or not and the current conclusion is that it is probably not. I am a bit sad faced by that considering how totally crappy our present reality is with the fundamentalists trying to fuck us trans folks over.

Anyway, it was an interesting The Lady or The Tiger choice he had to make to get this far.


Emma Anne Tate's picture

How do we know what we know? It’s quite the quandary. Physicists think we probably aren’t living in a simulation; to some extent, fundies have come to the opposite conclusion. The evidence of the physical world that demonstrates it is millions of years old was just created by God a couple thousand years ago to fool us — or tempt us — into believing the world is older. As one of my favorite fictional characters would say, “Sure, it’s an argument.”

As always, you raise interesting ideas for me to grapple with. Thanks, Kimmie!


Looks good but I’m on the wrong track

The bug got me thinking of MiB and Vincent D’Onofrio’s great physical comedy, which made me think of Chevy Chase knocking down Christmas trees in vintage SNL. Then the spray on the ladder reminded me of Dan Ackroyd gluing the accelerator of the Winnebago, and now I can’t help but expect the Bluesmobile barreling under the El with Carrie Fisher’s RPG and cops in pursuit. Wrong city, wrong franchise, wrong genre. Help!

California dreamin' is more

California dreamin' is more fitting, I think. With a visit to 10 Forward somewhere along the line. And several shots of hooch to settle the nerves.

The Edgar suit!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

A classic! But now you’ve got me going down weird rabbit holes too.

Bugs, Mr. Rico! Zillions of them!


This place crawls!

D. Eden's picture

Nothing like a little Heinlein to end the day.

D. Eden

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus

Yeah . . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I remember reading that one in High School. Almost as good as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Doorway Into Summer! Good times. Well — not High School. High School sucked. But, damn, discovering Science Fiction? That was fantastic!


Noel / Noelle

Dee Sylvan's picture

It's a brave new world, young lady. What you thought were male appendages were in fact, something quite different... You have entered - the transgender zone. Where sight and sound cut through the noise of the known world to find what you have always felt was real. Yes, something has felt 'off' for sometime Noelle, now you will experience the emotional responses that your body has been suppressing. Grab hold, Noelle! :DD


As CS Lewis’ Professor Kirke would say . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . “It’s all in Plato.” Somewhere there exists a Platonic perfection of our form, and the one we experience with our senses is but a shadow. What does that form look like? How can we know?

Time for Noelle to give all that a little thinking!


This is a fun start!

The Matrix was a good film series, I can't wait to see where you are going to take our protagonist Neo-Noel-Noelle, but I'm sure it will be up to the high standard of your other stories.

I'm sure it's going to be a wild ride!


Just a half-step ahead . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . I’m only a little ahead of the postings on this one, so I haven’t decided how far to take it. But I’ll try not to disappoint!


Noel vs Noelle as a name

Well, Noel is also very much a womans' name actually though Noelle is supposedly female only I think, etymology meaning 'birth'.

Borrowing Christopher Leeson's scheme of using Leon as the male name of the protagonist in his story 'Noel' (a Great story btw) could work too.

Name usage evolves and is an old topic. Classic English examples are Ashley and Vivian, both being technically mens' names though are considered female ones for the most part today though in my opinion should be considered gender neutral.


Well, theWikipedia has references to men and women referred to as Noel.

The Wiki implies it is more a difference between using the French vs English pronunciation. The English of course is No-el but the Wiki says the French is only a single syllable. Noel Coward the playwright is probably using the French pronunciation then as when I was young I heard his name pronounced like knoll, as in a grassy knoll.


Emma Anne Tate's picture

I guess I’d only heard the French pronunciation. I haven’t known too many “Noel’s;” one was Australian and one was an American; both pronounced it like the playwright. For the record, then, my MC pronounces it as one syllable, since otherwise the last line of this chapter wouldn’t have made any sense!


Feed "Noel" and "Noelle" into

Feed "Noel" and "Noelle" into Google translate with English as source language and hit the speaker button.

Google translate

I do not think Google Translate is up on all the subtleties of a language as pronunciation can be context driven.

Well, shit!

Way strange. And this is just the first chapter. I bet the next one will be a doozie.

Way strange!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Oh, yes indeed! As Cypher said in the original, “Buckle your seatbelt, ’cuz Kansas is going bye-bye!”

Thanks, Dreamweaver — I hope you enjoy the ride.


When it comes to Fanfiction..

Sunflowerchan's picture

When it comes to Fanfiction I'm very selective, I mostly stick to Legend of Zelda fanfiction. And a few chosen authors at that. But since your quickly becoming one of my favorite authors here. I decided to roll the dice on you and luck be a lady tonight! I think I hit triple sevens. While a lot of things were lost on me, having neitther seen the movie or read the book tie ends. Some things stood up, one was your prose, your prose here was sharp, clean, down to earth. Your world building was top knotch and you wrote in a way, that me, somebody who's never even seen the movie or read the books could gain a understanding about this world and follow along and maybe even be inticed to finally check it out. In short, you keep rocking girl!

The first movie is absolutely classic!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

The Matrix is really a blow-your-mind original work that revolutionized SciFi movies for a generation. If you haven’t seen it, you should definitely treat yourself. Brilliant story, outstanding acting, and amazingly choreographed fight scenes. . . . I could go on, but I’d start babbling. The remaining movies are worth watching, but like most sequels lack the sheer explosive creativity of the original.

I’m glad you could enjoy the story without having seen the movie, though. I’ll try to make sure that remains the case with subsequent installments. :D


Thank-you, Alan

Emma Anne Tate's picture

For your very thoughtful and heartfelt comment.



Engine on a BART (subway) train??

A minor nit, perhaps:

... we are experiencing technical difficulties with the engine ...

The reference to an "engine" was jarring. As far as I know, BART trains, like most subway trains, consist of MU cars (passenger cars with their own motors) and don't have an engine. At least, the trains that carry passengers. (In NYC, at least, mainenance trains have engines.)

The usual reason for a subway train to be stopped in the tunnel but later able to continue is that there's a train in front (either due to congestion or a train ahead being broken down) or else signal problems. In this case, I would expect that whoever is collecting Noel is able to hack the signal system, so that it looks like a signal failure, which would explain the evacuation. Of course, if the signals suddenly start working again, the motorman (=engineer) would bring the train to the next station.

The little things . . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

Damn. I always check the stuff I don’t know, but it’s the stuff I don’t know I don’t know that gets me! Sorry that pulled you out of the story.


Good beginning

I haven’t seen matrix 4 so hopefully there are no spoilers here. This is a good read so far.

hugs :)
Michelle SidheElf Amaianna

True confessions

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I haven’t seen Matrix 4 yet either— so, any spoilers would be coincidental. If, that is, coincidence is even possible where the Matrix is concerned!

Thanks, Michelle!


Matrix 4

Erisian's picture

Skipping that one isn't missing much, imo. It tried too hard to be meta on meta, and the script needed a couple more passes of editing with a thought to the supporting cast of characters. Trinity and Neo were fine due to established history, but the new kids? They stood around with silly grins going 'OMG! I'm in a Matrix movie! And oh yeah! We're -totally- hardcore matrix runners, yarly! And Oooh! I get to be Morpheus!' like amateur LARPers suddenly blessed with a sizeable costume budget.

Cranky opinions from an old fart like me aside, this was a quick romp chapter for the setup - be interesting to see where you take it! The question to be answered will be whether Noel/Noelle's digital self has always been more 'true' than the physical packaging...or whether the Matrix itself screwed up the gender. :) At this point it could go either on to Chapter 2!

As usual, Seraph . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . you have indeed honed in on a key question. Now, I’ll just sit on my typing fingers! :D



I'm not sure about this one. I am too antique to seek to get involved with "Matrx". BUT, it is your writing, which I truly love, so, for now, I'll stick with it!
Best wishes

Thanks, Dave!

Emma Anne Tate's picture

I’ll try to keep it readable for people who haven’t seen the movies — all the while urging those poor deprived souls to at least watch the original, because it is SO good!


Good Writing

I haven't seen the commercial version of The Matrix, but your story looks like a winner. I'm also going to look at your other offerings.

I'm not at all unfamiliar with the simulation hypothesis, so hopefully I can keep up.


Emma Anne Tate's picture

Thanks for the vote of confidence! I’ve tried to write this in a way that people who haven’t seen a Matrix movie will still find it a good read. You’ll have to let me know if I succeeded. . . .