Dr. Moses Alberts thought the lobby of the Tetragenics Global marketing division in downtown Metoronto was soulless. That was hardly the architect's intention; its massive wrap-around windows enclosed the front half of the building to at least the fifth floor. But instead of being airy and spacious, it was oppressive.
Alberts was the chief neuromarketer for Tetragenics.
He grimaced in distaste as he walked by the massive statue sitting in the middle of the lobby. The only adornment in the sterile atrium, it showed a man and woman enjoying Tetragenics products such as the Duodenum Displacer. They looked toward the rising sun beyond the atrium, confident that their Tetra merchandise was making their future brighter. A misguided homage to Donatello, the sculpture instead looked like something out of the Soviet period in Russia, with the Tetra logo chiseled into the podium instead of the hammer and sickle.
Only two people in the enormous building could have told you who the hell Donatello was, Alberts thought as he skirted by the abomination. Him and his hated manager, Lillian Artemesia. Not that it would ever come up in conversation, because they didn't converse, per se. They had more of a master-slave relationship.
He walked to the portal of his servitude; the black plassteel gate and Greeting Machine reflected his distinguished, but downcast visage. Though in his mid-forties, Alberts looked like a man just entering his thirties. Most people who could afford it looked as young. His sad eyes gazed from above a long, almost Roman nose that his Uncle Morty had made fun of when he was a kid, and he had a melancholy look that was incongruous with his youthful appearance.
He slipped his hand in the Greeting Machine, and waited for it to take its sample, test his blood and confirm his existence as a Tetragenics employee. (No doubt also recording the nature of any stimulants remaining in his system from the night before.
Alberts would have told them it was the remains of several double scotches, but the device made such human confessions unnecessary.)
His identity confirmed, Alberts stepped into a tiny people-mover, and was whisked to his laboratory with the usual lurch in his stomach. He was old enough to remember the sedate pace of elevators and their quaint lack of vertigo. He also remembered corridors, cubicles, office kitchens and even water coolers. The door of the coffin-like lift opened silently and his laboratory lay before him like a high-tech mausoleum.
The day's subject was already sitting in the Resonance Chamber, no doubt eager to put her three hours of work in, and leave him to his analysis of the data. The chamber was visible through a virtual window on the far end of his lab, next to the main neural cluster Alberts used to analyze his data. He took off his unfashionable sports jacket, hung it on the hook thoughtfully provided to him by Tetragenics corporation, and walked closer to the window, to have a look at the day's guinea pig.
A young female with the preposterously redundant name of Star Estelle was his subject, no doubt one of the many _jammer_ kids that Lillian was fond of interviewing and recruiting for the project. The _jammers_ didn't have much money -- most of them were one step away from living on the street -- and what they did have they spent on bioenhancements. This made them an important market for Tetra. They especially enjoyed anything that let them communicate directly though the Lattices, the multilayered, near-instantaneous network that had replaced the Internet years before. Star was one of them, and the neurologist could spot the telltale laser arrays hanging beneath her earlobes like flickering earrings. The readout on his datapad told him exactly what bio-tinkering she'd had done, and what to watch out for while he ran the tests. The only concern was the array; sometimes the tiny optic threads reacted badly to the strong magnetic field in the test chamber.
Star read her own personal datapad, and was having some trouble with it. With a comms array planted straight into her cerebrum, no doubt she was unused to manipulating data by hand. The young woman had a pretty face, straight Caucasoid, with perhaps a Slavic background somewhere, Alberts guessed from her high cheekbones and wide-set eyes. Her hair was no indication, colored a bright purple with silver highlights. It was appealing though, in its own way. She chewed on a corner of it while she worked at the datapad, and every once in a while she glanced up, as if waiting for something.
Alberts turned on his microphone: "Good morning, M. Estelle."
The woman looked up, and said, "Is this the building, the doctor, or an employee?" She said the word with barely concealed disdain.
"I'll be running the tests," Alberts answered. "The protocols require that I remain anonymous for the market survey to have validity, so we use the building's voice to talk with you. How is your day going?"
"Great so far. That lady . . . uh, Lil, said that I could get 500 creds for three hours work, depending on the guy running the tests. That right?"
"Yes, you'll get the 500, but she was not supposed to say what the sex of the tester would be."
"Hey, I don't care. I'm just here for the money. Now what's on?"
"We're just going to get your reactions to a few of our new products, and then I'll send you on your way. You have already signed the contract and waiver, but I have to tell you that you will be subject to a high-energy magnetic field for some time while I run the tests. Do you agree?"
"Will it hurt me?"
"No, but it may impede up your implants for a day or so."
"Oh shit," Star grunted, "I can barely work this damn pad, I can't imagine what _virtual_ reality is going to be like." She spat the word like a bug she'd swallowed. "But I need the creds."
"You could go without the Lattice today," Alberts suggested.
Star must have thought that was the funniest thing she'd ever heard; at least, she laughed like she did. "If only," she said.
While the scientist watched her, the door to the people-mover opened, and Lillian stepped out, fuming.
Alberts barely managed to turn off the microphone before she began her morning rant. "You want to hear a bullshit argument from the cretins in the company think tank?" she threw down a sheaf of plass sheets on his desk, knocking over the only personal item in the whole room, a picture of Alberts on vacation in Florence with a raven-haired woman.
Lillian Artemesia was an awesome presence. She was also rising fast in the Marketing Division of Tetra: a mere six months before she had technically been working for Alberts, finding test subjects in the right psychographic. Now, she was Director of NeuroMarketing, and was well on her way to VP of the whole division. But she still liked plucking Alberts's test subjects from the mean streets. Not only was she charismatic, highly intelligent, and a real power politics player, she was massive. At about two meters height, with a build like the meanest linebacker in the International Football League, people were genuinely afraid of her. She had a temper to match the look.
But it was clear she had a soft spot for Alberts, despite the fact that he was nothing but professional in manner with her and that he genuinely loathed her.
"I was just about to start work on our newest subject, M. Artemesia," Alberts interrupted, hoping to forestall her morning polemic.
"Oh that can wait, Moe. Here, let me read this shit to you. It's shit. Shit!" She pulled a single sheet from the sheaf of plass, and read:
The concept that the Lattice has changed the way we think is absurd. The Lattice has changed the way we interact with data. If we were to take the Lattice, the Web before it, and indeed, all of modern technology away, we would think as we always have done.
A real change in thought could only come through a _quantum leap_ in our intellectual lives, akin to the transformation of our understanding of reality in the Renaissance. Gutenberg did not change the way we thought -- he made the transmission of new thoughts possible. The _change_ in thought came later. Corporations do not need to fear the Lattice will alter our consumer-based society.
Alberts found himself nodding, and stopped abruptly when she cast a baleful eye on him. "I want you to rebut this crap," she said. "Quote the latest studies. Use details from your work with young women like our friend in the Chamber. Show these moron that humans are changing. What is Tetragenics about if not supplying humanity with the products that have come about because of a rebirth in the way we think? We think in tandem with technology now, not just through it! I can't imagine why the CEO still supports this shit."
When it was clear that her rant was over, Alberts asked, "Shall I tell our subject to return on another day?"
"Oh, you're a dear," Lillian gushed, "but no. Do the tests. But compile the data later. I want to see your draft by the end of the day; I'm heading to Fiji for a rugger game, so you'll have to digitize it." That was Lillian's term for sending it via the Lattice. For someone who believed so wholeheartedly in the benefits of the Lattice, she didn't use it much, Alberts thought.
With that, Lillian crammed herself into the people-mover, and with the vacant look of someone already somewhere else, she was whisked away.
Alberts dreaded the next few hours, almost as much as his manager's morning visits. He had such trouble communicating with these younger kids. He could (vaguely) remember a time before even the Internet was around, before the Web, well before the multi-layered lattice enabled fully-formed virtual reality to encircle the globe -- or ensorcellled the globe, he thought when he looked at these sad cyber-children. He touched the mic button.
"Sorry for the delay," he said.
"Hey. It's your money. You wanna pay me to sit here and play on my datapad, that's fine with me."
"Actually, you are only paid for actual scanning time. It's in the agreement you signed."
"Yeah. You're just doin' your job. So what's up?"
Alberts dropped into his professional marketer's voice and explained how the tests would work: "we will show you several short hologram videos of some new products. These holograms will be available on the Lattice in full _veridical reality_ -- "
"-- kewlo --"
"-- and we are interested in seeing your reactions, so we can extrapolate those of your peers."
"You mean other _jammers_, right?"
"Well you should know that apart from the losers fully jammed by veridical, everyone is totally into this new, non-linear thing happening."
"And what is it called?"
"Oh, we don't know. But it's. It's. . . Well, you can't define it, know? It's like you're slipping through the Lattice. Becoming more than the Lattice. You know?"
"What corporation produces it?"
"Dunno. I don't think there is a corporation involved. Feels too weird. Maybe some hacker." She was being cagey. She knew more.
Alberts let it go and made a note of the information. He moved on in his rehearsed script, and then started the hologram video; not as realistic as a fully interfaced brain in veridical reality, but the best one could do without bioenhancements. While the video played -- a story about the newest Tetragenics products -- Alberts turned on the high-powered magnets, and started reading his instruments. In particular, he wanted to know how M. Estelle responded on both a conscious and subconscious level to the product and the product story (never ad, always story). The product was similar to the implant she already had, yet its design made it more physically obvious -- the jammers were image conscious to the point that things that made them look less attractive were actually sought after. The real selling point of the product was that it allowed for a more seamless entrance to the multifaceted, data and veridical reality-rich Lattice.
After an hour of testing various versions of the product story, Alberts was sure the damned thing would sell with this pyschographic. Her conscious readings were off the scale, and her subconscious readings were also positive. (He could not actually tell what was going on in her subconscious, but he could tell that its still-mysterious mechanisms were sending positive signals to her pleasure centres.)
Then it happened.
Alberts felt like his head was swimming, and he heard the sound of the ocean -- he'd actually been to the ocean once during a neurologist's conference in Hakido -- the sound turned from a roar to a dull hiss, to the whisper of what could only be a distant hive of bees. _I'm having a heart attack_. It was unlikely -- he'd had a full circular system regeneration done less than a year ago, but still, it happened. Then his vision swam back into focus.
On the screen, he could see a glowing light that surrounded M. Estelle -- Star -- like a full-body halo. It was the only way to describe it. It was beautiful, like the northern lights in miniature, moving like a dance. And the colors!
Alberts drew himself back. He was a scientist first. He checked his instruments to be sure that he wasn't getting magnetic feedback, or some other malfunction, causing the phenomenon. He cross-checked his equipment for fifteen minutes. It was definitely there. He dutifully recorded it in his notes, as he continued with the second (and he believed) unnecessary set of tests. During the whole series of magnetic pulses the halo danced and shimmered, but it never went away. As it was clearly not some kind of glitch, he tried to quantify whatever it was, but his instruments could not actually detect it. But he could see it through the virtual window! Perhaps if he recalibrated his equipment?
"I'm sorry, M. Estelle, but this will take slightly longer than the original three hours agreed upon. You will be paid the same hourly rate for each hour you're here. I hope that's okay?" The corporation trained Alberts not to make it sound like a request, but he could not help himself as he watched the halo flow gracefully about her.
"No problem. I kinda' like the feeling you get when the magnets are on -- it's almost like someone's tickling my brain."
"Of course. I'll try to keep the extra time to a minimum."
"Hey, it's your dime." Alberts spent the next hour recalibrating everything.
Still the instruments did not read the phenomenon. He played the holotape of the session back, and the halo did not show on that either. Was he imagining it? He must be. He hit reset, and proceeded with the test, trying to ignore the idea that he was hallucinating.
In the next section of the tests, Alberts had to put her under, briefly, and during that part of the session, the halo somehow separated from her body, floating above the crown of her head like an angelic cloud. Though he tried to concentrate on his job, Alberts grew increasingly fascinated with the halo. He couldn't be imagining it!
He almost hated to end the session, to lose the vision of that radiant light, but he had put Star under for a full hour, and she had been sitting in one position for nearly five hours. One more hour and he would be guilty of breaking several freelancing treatment laws -- the Convention of Corporations had agreed to certain minimum standards. Mostly they ensured that freelancers didn't get upset enough to get organized.
But mostly, he didn't want to hurt her. He wanted to talk to her, to find out what it was about her that produced such a sight of wonder. He broke the rules and asked her to come up to his lab -- he even told the security staff to escort her up.
When the doors of the people-mover opened, Star Estelle looked very surprised to be there.
"Welcome M. Estelle," Alberts said, rather formally. "I'm Dr. Alb -- Moses . . ." He started again: "Hi. Call me Moe."
"You can call me Star. Kew-lo place. This is all the stuff you use to measure my headspace right?"
"So what was all the funny business about?" Alberts looked at her blankly. "You know, the delay. The brain tickling. What do I have -- a psychic deformity or something?"
"No, no. It's just that when you were there, I saw something. Something that I couldn't really measure or quantify or . . ." Alberts trailed off, thinking that maybe it hadn't been such a great idea to have her up. Star looked at him knowingly.
"Oh, you see them too."
"The auras. Jammers have been seeing them ever since that -- you know -- the whatsit, started showing up in the Lattice and we've had the feeling that everything's just . . . bigger. It's kinda hard to explain."
"You probably don't spend much time in the Lattice, but you know what it's like, right? When you're in full veridical. When you're in there, it's everything. You feel like you're a part of the world and the world is part of you, the way that the information, the images that contain that data, run through you. It's like diving into the public pool, except instead of feeling the sickly warmth flowing over your skin the warmth gushes through you. It's more electric than reality."
She was quiet for a moment, and she stared at a corner of Alberts' desk, noticed the photo of him in Florence. "You really been there, or is that a made-up one?"
"No. No. I've been there."
"Kewlo. I've been there in veridical, but it's not the same, you know. I mean, for most of us, the real world sucks. That's why we prefer the Lattice. You know I've never touched real grass? But that's what the non-linear thing is all about. Grass. Trees. The smell of a forest after it rains. The non-linear thing lets you know that the Lattice, even full veridical, is not the same as reality. It taints the whole thing." She switched modes: "Who's the babe?"
"Uh? Oh. An old girlfriend."
"Thought so. What happened?"
"Oh. She. Uh . . . I wasn't really important to her, but my job was." Alberts wondered why he told her that.
"Drag-o. What'd you think of it?"
"I don't know, M. Est -- Star. I'd say it was the fact that everything was old. The river. It seemed more natural than the city. Not as natural as some other places I've been, but a nice mix of human and natural."
"Yeah. I thought so. But how many people get to experience that, right? Veridical is better -- or it was until we knew that it was a lie. I wish there was a park or something we could go to. Sit in the sun. Listen to the hum of bees in flowers, the smell of pollen in the summer air. I've only ever experienced it in veridical, and I know the real thing must be so much . . . better . . ."
"The auras. Tell me about the auras."
"Oh. That came a little later after the non-linear thing started. At first I thought I was getting feedback, you know, the kind that starts filtering in through the implants? But it wasn't. And then I found out that other jammers were getting the auras too. Do you know what it means?"
"No. I don't; remember that I just experienced it. I can't see it now, either."
"Oh, it comes and goes," Star said.
And as if a conscious entity was controlling his vision, Alberts' perception swam again, and Star's aura swam into focus. It was even more beautiful than the holographic projection of it had been.
What could it possibly be?
"Oh man," Star laughed at the unvoiced question. "It's a soul. Don't you know that?"
"A soul? Don't be ridiculous."
"Okay man. You can't deny your own experience though, can you?"
"I can. I must. Especially if I can't measure it."
"Tell you what. You find a way to measure it, and I'll get you all the subjects you need."
"Why? For what purpose? You can't measure something that isn't there." Alberts didn't know how he could actually say that, looking in awe at the halo dancing around Star.
"I'll head back to your chamber, and we can start, okay?"
"But what do you want from me?"
"I just want you to do it. The non-linear thing wants it."
"How do you know?"
AIt knows.@ Star smiled then and patted Alberts' cheek with her hand. He noticed the softness of her skin, the slight smell of jasmine. Maybe he really was having a stroke. She walked into the people-mover and disappeared. In a few minutes she reappeared in the magnetic chamber and waved at the holo-cameras. Alberts turned back to his instruments, almost in a daze.
He could still see the halo.
It took him the rest of the day, and most of the night to figure out that the halo (he could never quite bring himself to calling it a soul) was working on a different resonance than anything else that had ever been measured using his equipment. He only found it through the brute force of his computer systems and willpower. The damn thing kept flickering away when he wasn't looking.
At regular six hour intervals, the law protocol program had Star sign a new agreement, so that they would not be in contravention of the freelance covenant. She only grumbled about it when she had to be woken up -- within the intense field, it was impossible to run her datapad, so she simply slept.
Alberts knew that what he was doing was a terminable offense, so it was a race against time. Once he had finished recording the halo he sent Star on her way, promising to keep in touch.
"Don't worry. You'll see me again. The non-linear thing wants it," she said, and then left.
He had a stable recording of the soul, so he should be able to prove that others had it too. He sent the data to his own secure computer at home, in addition to downloading the information onto two portable recorders. He also emailed a copy to a friend he had in Switzerland, which had never signed onto the Convention, and so, had maintained its independence.
The thrill of discovery helped him fight his fear. This was world-changing science -- work that most corporations wouldn't like. Proof that humans had souls. He would have to replicate his work, and his thoughts of how he could possibly do that helped him fight a creeping anxiety, when the inevitable happened. Lillian returned.
She came out of the people-mover like a storm surge before a tropical storm. Hurricane Lillian was almost nose-to-nose with Alberts before she topped moving, so she actually washed into him with her massive frame.
“What the FUCK do you think you're doing?”
“You are not paid for basic science. You are an applied scientist. Using very expensive Tetragenics equipment for your own pet basic science contravenes your employment contract in several ways -- you know that, right?”
“Yes. Lillian. But you're not going to fire me, are you?”
"I hear a strange noise coming out of your FUCKING hole. Something about not firing you. Yes. You are so fucking fired!"
"Then I guess I'd better get . . ." Alberts stopped talking as he noticed the dark halo, swirling above her head. It wasn't really black, more like a purple and brown bruise, but its ugliness stunned him into silence; it made him wonder what his own soul looked like after so many years of compromise and futility.
"Nothing. I'll just gather my things and go." He tried not to look at the thing spinning around her head, tried not to imagine what his own halo . . . soul . . . his own soul, had become.
"No, wait." She looked at Alberts, and saw the horror in his face. "What? What's wrong? Is my makeup running?"
"No, it's much worse than that. Leave this place Lil, leave it before it's too late." He grabbed the disks with his data, along with his jacket. The picture of himself in Florence he left behind. For some reason it seemed vain to hold onto it now.
"What? What is it?" Lillian asked.
Before she could realize that he'd taken the data, or call security, he was in the people-mover, and running through the lobby. The artificial space was dark, sepulchral. He couldn't see the faux-Donatello, not that he was looking. Before anyone could interfere, he was outside of the building, moving away from it, slipping into a dark alleyway between other corporate behemoths.
He walked for a while, wondering at what he had done. He'd just thrown away his entire career with Tetragenics. Other corporations might hire him, but never at a comparable level of responsibility. He would be disenfranchised -- he'd just consigned himself to real serfdom. And then, he realized that he didn't care. There was more to it than that. Life was more than working for a few paltry creds to buy stuff that didn't really make you happy. To buy experiences -- veridical or real -- that weren't about connecting with the numinous. If he could replicate his data, perhaps it would be the start of a change in thinking analogous to the Renaissance.
Though he didn't know it, he had been headed east, and the sun was starting to come up. It was the first dawn he'd seen in . . . he couldn't say.
And then he saw the sun's light obscured by the nimbus of a thousand jammers, walking up the alleyway toward them, Star Estelle at their head. Some of them were singing, and some laughed. He'd never seen jammer-kids looking so hopeful. So at peace.
They stopped about five feet from him -- their halos were multiform, chiaroscuros more delightful than any mediaeval stained glass he'd studied.
Star smiled at him and said: "the non-linear thing says that you are going to lead us. Do you know what that means?"
Alberts did, and he smiled, a smile almost as glorious as the halo spinning about him.