In a woman’s head in a darkened bedroom in Seattle, a mathematics subprocessor unit compares its internal clock with a preprogrammed setting, finds them matching, and sends a signal to the woman’s encephalon. In response, the encephalon executes a short program that reads a simple simsense patch out of the woman’s headware memory and plays it into the interface in her datajack.

Roused by a slowly increasing sensation of alertness, the woman who calls herself Theora Jones stirs from sleep.

The room is quite dark: blackout curtains shut out the light to a degree that would leave an ordinary human blind, and there is not even the minimal illumination of an LED clock to guide such a person. Theora’s eyes, however, are not her originals. The new ones were grown in a vat from template of her own DNA with a slight addition from the Elven and Dwarfish genomes, and these eyes can see by starlight, and into the infrared. She can see clearly to avoid the plush blue-and-silver Dunkelzahn doll and Gund “teddy piasma” that are hogging the lion’s share of the comforter, and wanders toward the bathroom.

Still braiding her damp hair, Theora wandered out to the kitchen on the residential floor of Pharos Security Consulting, the legal front provided for the Twilight Brigade’s illegal activities. Barry was already lounging there, clad in a white gi and black hakama, in a chair sized to his Trollish frame. His left hand held a spoon currently poised above a bowl of granola, while his right was controlling a display flat of recent news.

“Ohayo,” Barry rumbled. It’s early, the Japanese version of good morning. At 10:30 AM, the comment was entirely apt for metahumans and deckers, both of them nocturnal creatures.

“’Morning,” Theora returned in the Oxonian English accent she had cultivated for years to go with a high-quality false identity. She finished her job of braiding, slipped an elastic band around the end of the braid, and removed an oversized hairclip from one pocket. She clasped it at the nape of her neck, and with a gesture born of long practice, pulled a short fiber-optic cable from the hairclip and inserted it into the datajack hidden on the scalp just behind her left ear.

As she sliced a pair of bagels and poured herself a large glass of milk, Barry glanced up from his reading. “I’ve found a rather sensationalistic article on some decker-related malady called ‘datastarve’ here. Is that for real?”

Theora popped the bagels in the toaster, turned around, and leaned against the counter. “Is that the one on the Reuters newsfeed?”

Barry raised his eyebrows. “You’ve read it?”

She smiled. “Not entirely, not yet. But it’s the only article on datastarve in a major paper today.”

“You accessed it that fast?”

Theora shrugged. “With the encephalon and the cerebral booster, I can handle skimming a news article and talking to someone without missing out on the conversation, and a good combination of cyberware and cyberdeck makes it incredibly easy to access information. That’s why they call it datastarve. Being cut off from the Matrix is a lot like sacrificing a portion of your own mind.”

“That bad? I know a datajack gives faster accessing than ’trodes, but I’d think it’s still like walking into your library and typing in a query.”

A shake of the head. “That’s just with a datajack. Do you know what an encephalon does?”

“It’s like a very smart, interactive skillsoft system— at least as far as I understand it.”

A nod. “The primary effect of that is like having a much better memory, especially short-term memory. Mine is top-of-the-line, and it makes for having a great deal more capacity for concentration. A good encephalon will let you hold much more in your head than before, which is very handy when trying to solve complicated patterns of logic.

“But for a decker... with the right program loaded in the encephalon, it’s an interface.” Her eyes shone. “In the Matrix, my deck can feed me information directly to short-term memory, so I know about the things I look at without having to think about it. The information’s right there at the tip of my tongue.

“The real kicker is that the interface goes both directions. By just being curious, I can apply a certain amount of intent to simply wondering about things— and the encephalon squirts out a query to my deck, which then goes hunting for the information.” She turned and looked out the window into the rainy Seattle morning, her brown eyes focussing on the distant rainclouds. “In the amount of time it took to look out the window, I was able to pull in the UCAS Weather Service forecasts for the area and the latest satellite images. I can ‘remember’ the view from a low orbit while looking at the storm outside, and can tell you this is only the leading edge of a rather large system that’s blown in from Hawai’i. A précis function that converts text to knowledge isn’t as good as reading something consciously, but is very handy for something trivial like a weather forecast.”

The Troll chuckled. “My word. Cliff’s Notes in real time. So the addictiveness of the Matrix is proportional to your curiosity.”

“And since we ended up on this team, you’ve been keeping my literary quotes linkset busy. It gets worse, though. The encephalon is only half the interface for accessing. You’ve heard of the MPCP, the Master Persona Control Program, that cyberdecks have? The initials are rather clunky, so most deckers call it the Image or Avatar.” Her bagels popped out of the toaster with a clunk. “A lot of bumf written about decking has nonsense like millisecond or nanosecond response times being involved, which is simply impossible: protein-based computing can’t do that sort of thing. The Image is a direct representation of the decker’s mind in the Matrix: it’s what makes the decker’s decisions for them when things happen too fast for the decker to react for themselves, and most of us have them tailored to our own ways of thinking.

“That’s why so many deckers stay jacked in all day. Because a portion of their very self is in that deck.” She began applying butter to the bagels.

Barry blinked. “Is that what it’s like for you?”

Theora shrugged. “I’m not as hooked on virtual reality as most deckers. My uncle Dafydd drilled it into our heads when we were little: ‘virtual’ means ‘not’. Virtual memory isn’t memory, and virtual reality isn’t reality. I do a fair amount of socializing on the Matrix— but all that work on persona code is just an attempt to match the quality of the real world, and I can get that by wandering down to the Murdered Mime to hear the latest acts. I wouldn’t want to live all day in the Matrix like some deckers. The Max Headroom avatar is a very comfortable suit to put on, a mask with some very useful properties, but it’s just an interface. It’s not me.”

“Is that why you have all those enhanced senses? To better appreciate the real world? I imagine most deckers wouldn’t have use for cyberears and a cybernose.”

She chuckled. “Well, a decker with a lot of experience in working with human perception might come up with a custom interface for themselves that would only work for someone with the enhanced senses... but that’s not why I have them. I like to experience the real world. The Matrix is a powerful tool, but tools are for making life better, not for submerging in and exiting every now and then to shower, eat, and sleep.”

“But you’re still addicted to the datafeed?”

She patted her hairclip. “This does a fine job for keeping away the depredations of datastarve. It’s also bloody useful for getting traffic reports, weather reports, looking things up in dictionaries and encyclopedias... you get the idea.”

“What’s datastarve like?”

“A lobotomy,” she said instantly, “that you know how to reverse. You can feel things missing from your mind. When you have all that information available, losing that availability is like losing your memory. The emotional reaction is usually frustration, pensiveness, and nervous boredom. If I have to stay out of the Matrix, I’ll read something or compose music. I’ll admit it, I’m an addict... but there are worse addictions.”

“Do some deckers compare the addiction to their oxygen addiction?”

“Yes.” A wry smile. “Not me, but many.”

“Are there any online support groups for people suffering from datastarve?” Barry deadpanned.

Theora rolled her eyes. “Very funny. Since I’ve been telling you all these deep dark decker secrets, maybe you can tell me why you have all those enhanced senses?” She bit into a bagel.

“Magic is more than just a set of skills. To perform magic, you have to have a philosophy that is part of it. Hermetics have their formulae and patterns, and shamans have their aesthetics, but they don’t have to live in them— they only need to think about them when they’re conjuring and summoning and enchanting.

“The physical adept approach to magic is much more about being than doing, and hence we spend a great deal more time living our philosophies. There’s not as much literature on physical adepthood as hermetic and shamanic magic, but one of the more common terms is being on a Discipline, or a Way.

“A Way isn’t just something you do when you’re on the job as a physical adept. Talks-With-Cats tosses spells around and has elementals at his beck and call, but when he’s not busy being a sorcerer he’s off hunting down the latest reports of UFO’s, immortal elves, and goatsuckers or playing with his four-footed roommates. I’m sure that there are some common elements in his being a hermetic mage and saving the felines of the world from starvation and following conspiracy theories, but it’s not really an integrated philosophy for him. He’s a mage whenever he needs to cast a spell or talk to a spirit or peek into astral space; I’m a physical adept all the time.”

Theora suddenly hurled her empty milk glass at Barry, who snatched out of the air before it could smack into his face, his arm blurring with unnatural speed. He laughed and set it on the table.

“Have you been studying Zen lately? That makes my point exactly: I have to be ready for surprises like that all the time.”

Theora swallowed. “I wanted to say something, but my mouth was full.”

“Anyway, most physads on their Way are following it from when they get up in the morning to when they go to bed at night, and in their dreams as well. We don’t have to be constantly thinking of it, but it has to be in the patterns of living life.”

“Which is why you’re up every morning working out?”

“Well, that’s one reason. Another one is that if I don’t get a full workout, my dermal plating will start growing to hamper my movement. That’s why most Trolls slouch so much: the dermal armor reinforces bad posture if you let it grow that far.

“Some physads are on a Way that emphasizes fighting, and are usually very aggressive; some follow one that emphasizes stealth; some follow one that emphasizes artistic or athletic ability. Mine is influenced a great deal by my studies in aikido, as well as studying in the Tongue-In-Cheek Martial Arts School, and by my father’s habit of going out with me to break stereotypes.

“I haven’t worked out a name for my own path yet, but I’m afraid the most accurate description would be something cheesy like the Way of the Philosophical Action Hero. Most of my martial arts training is in aikido, which is very much about working with the flow of the universe. It’s a splendid art for someone of a peaceful nature, since it’s most effective as a defensive martial art. A part of my own self that I cannot deny, however, comes from James Bond and wuxia films: deep down, I really enjoy being the sort of person who can attend an formal affair and do some butt-kicking when it’s evident that that’s what’s required to restore the harmony of the universe.”

“And your primarily defensive martial art explains your talent in kicking holes in reinforced concrete walls?”

He shook his head. “Nope. That’s a magically enhanced Tae Kwon Do move. Tae Kwon Do is much stronger than aikido on the offensive side of things, so you see a lot of that when we’re shadowrunning. I’d rather not hurt people whenever I have the option, but when you’ve got an astral cockroach trying to stick you with a big chitinous hoobajoob, going on the offensive is a very sensible thing to do.

“A true-to-the-movies Way of the Action Hero would only work for someone who could leave a huge trail of carnage in their wake without remorse. I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if I regularly mowed down rows of security guards with an HMG full of lead slugs. So my own path has a great deal more to do with avoiding conflict whenever possible, and winning it when it has to happen.”

“And if you happen to become a wealthy jet-setter while righting wrongs, wronging rights, and rescuing beautiful dragons from evil princesses, that’s all part of the plan?”

“Well, being rich would be useful, but material possessions are incidental. I guess I’d need the tux and all that gear to fit in when wandering through fancy casinos, but it’s more the elegance than the ownership that interests me. You might say it’s a very deranged approach to the traditional Taoist scholar-warrior path.”

“‘Scholar warrior’ is a good description for you. Is that name already taken for a Way of some sort?”

“I’ve never met anyone who described their Way like that, but the formal notion of the scholar-warrior is old enough that I wouldn’t try to identify my own rather bizarre approach with it.”

“So most martial arts schools don’t have all those things like ‘Thunder Stance’ and ‘Bloodhound Stance’?”

“Well, the terms that turn up in Hong Kong action films have some basis in reality, but they go overboard in the films. Urameshi-sensei made a special point of having cheesy names for all our moves. That’s why it’s called the Tongue in Cheek school of martial arts. Using a combination of wuxia films and practice with real physical adepts limbers the mind and opens you to a very broad realm of possibility. I think it’s actually a very sane reaction to a world where it turns out that magic is largely what you think it is.”

“When you initiated recently, you talked about acquiring ‘Bloodhound Stance’ and ‘Gourmet Stance’ as if they were martial arts moves, but they’re apparently enhanced senses. Do you just call any distinct power that you have a stance?”

“Actually, the martial arts have a great deal to do with how we use our power. We see our power as coming from from the flow of ki, our inner energy. (That’s the ki in ‘aikido’, by the way.) We direct our ki through martial arts and meditation. I started out on Bloodhound Stance by working out a set of kata to go with it as a way of directing my ki to enhance my sense of smell. Once I’ve got the pattern set, I can concentrate on the kata and perform them entirely in my head to direct the same flow of ki as if I were actually moving. After a while, it becomes natural to me.” He shrugged. “If I’ve just taken a blow to the head or something else drastic, I may end up concentrating or even physically performing the kata to reorient myself.”

“I remember reading an old interview with Brian Eno complaining about the interface between computers and humans being very clunky— this was back when everyone had to use a keyboard, pointing device, and screen, and voice recognition and natural language parsing were incredibly crude. He was suggesting that the interface would be improved if you could get more of your body into it. I’d be very interested to see how you’d write a customized decking interface.”

“Well, when I get my datajack and encephalon and cerebral booster and mnemonic enhancer, I’ll be sure to give it a try,” Barry said dryly. “I don’t suppose you know where I could get some good ones on the cheap that won’t interfere with my body’s natural flows of ki?”

She laughed. “I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as I hear of one. I saw you start salivating when I talked about the research possibilities of an encephalon.”

Barry mock-scowled and returned to his morning paper, and Theora reached into the Matrix to retrieve the day’s comics and news.