I Took the Red Pill
This has been the most twisted day of my life.
Until now, I was Eric S. Piotrowski: a high school English teacher, writer, HTML programmer, electronic musician. But then I got a piece of email that changed my life forever.
I'm not a hacker -- I've never been a hacker. The closest I've ever come to committing a computer crime is when my college roommate, Ernest, was investigated for using a crack program on student passwords. (He was later expelled and arrested when his wife ratted him out for stealing one of the university's mainframes.)
So you can imagine my surprise when I received this email from someone named "Ramb":
I know what you're looking for. You're seeking him out, just as I did.
The answers are waiting for you -- all you have to do is follow the white iguana.
You can imagine the amount of head-scratching that went on when I got this email. The only time I've ever seen the word "psychle" was when I called my second album Data Psychle nine years ago. I've never used it as an online alias, never pretended it was my "handle", never signed anything as "Psychle".
Anyway, my dog got sick over the weekend, so I took her to the vet. As I approached the door, however, I spotted a woman -- beautiful face, short dark brown hair, kickass tattoos -- walking out of the veterinarian's office carrying a white iguana. I froze.
Her eye contact lasted only a few seconds, but it surged gigawatts of voltage through my brain. My dog began wagging her tail and jumping around, like she does when I come home. I patted her head and whispered, "I know."
The woman walked around the corner, into a small park next to the building. I followed slowly, glancing around to be sure there was no one else tracking us. She was on a bench, reading War and Peace. Her iguana -- on a small leash -- had climbed a tree and kept its eyes locked on my dog. The woman looked up, dropped her bookmark into place, and nodded toward another bench beside her.
I glanced around nervously once more, then sat. "Don't worry," she said. "No one comes to this park. To most people, these open natural spaces don't really exist."
I scowled. "Are you Ramb?" I asked. She nodded. "Is that short for Rambo or something?"
"No," she said. "We don't have much time, so I can't tell you everything. But they're after you."
"Just listen. You've been looking for him."
I blinked. "Hakuin." He was a writer; someone who inspired and drove my work.
"Yes," she said. "And he's ready to meet you. We'll be in touch." She rose and retrieved her lizard.
"Wait," I said. "How do you know me? Who are you?" She walked away. I looked at my dog, every bit as confused as I was.
This morning, my phone rang; I picked it up.
"Hello?" I said.
It was Ramb. "Do you still want to meet Hakuin?" she asked.
"Meet us at the Yahara Bridge."
"Which one? There are like ten bridges over the Yahara." But the phone was dead.
I spent the next two hours walking up and down the Yahara river as it cut through the Madison isthmus -- eventually Ramb appeared on her bike. She wore a shiny silver helmet. "Get on," she said.
I glanced at her bike. "What do you mean, 'get on'?"
She pointed to the handlebars. "It's either our way, or the highway. And you know where that road ends. Get on." I awkwardly climbed onto her handlebars and she pedaled away. "Oof," she said softly. "Why couldn't we unplug someone who exercises once in a while?"
"What?" I asked.
"Nothing," she said.
Ten minutes later we pulled up to a huge abandoned building. She guided me inside and up the stairs, where we paused outside a huge pair of doors. "This is it," she said. "Let me give you a bit of advice: Be honest."
I nodded and opened the doors. There, facing an enormous window, was a man in a black trenchcoat.
He turned to face me. "Hello."
"Hakuin," I said. "It's an honor to meet you."
He extended his hand, and we shook. "The honor is mine, Psychle."
"Why do you people keep calling me that?"
He smiled and gestured to one chair facing another. Between them, on a small table, sat a glass of water. "Sit. We have much to discuss."
He launched into a long, rambling monologue about the nature of reality and how we're all slaves and he was prepared to show me the door. (I thought: Show me the door? I just got here. How rude!) He explained what The Matrix was, and how it had its boot on my neck. Then he held out two pills.
Unsure of what to expect, but eager to know all truth, I took the red pill. I can't really explain what happened next, other than to say that I finally understood what it must feel like for people who don't have internet access.
The Real World
When I woke up, I was in a tiny steel room. I gingerly touched the metal jacks that dotted my arms and neck, wondering where I was and what had happened. Hakuin entered and brought me to my feet. He guided me into a hallway which emptied into a huge chamber -- all of it constructed crudely of various metals. "Welcome to my ship," he said. "The Nabopolassar. It's a hovercraft." He introduced me to the members of his crew -- Ramb, whom I'd met; a tall, lanky fellow named Kelvin; a thick diesel-looking woman named Tera; and the ship's operator, a guy named Drive.
They put me in a chair and plugged me into their simulation program. There, Hakuin broke down The Matrix for me -- how the machines had taken over, how we were at war with them, how he had sought out each member of the crew and "disconnected" them from the Matrix, that they might join his -- humanity's -- struggle for liberation. He explained how the rules of the Matrix can be bent and broken.
I was shocked by the horror of it all, repulsed by what I had learned -- and yet I knew in my heart it was the truth. I could feel the panic rising, rushing over my brain. "Jane," I mumbled, "stop this crazy thing." Hakuin signaled in the air and the simulation ended. Ramb unplugged the jack from my neck and I stumbled away from the chair.
"He's gonna pop," Kelvin said.
Hakuin stepped forward. "Breathe," he said. "And align your spine, if you can."
I looked up at him, puzzled. I took a deep breath and nearly puked all over the crew.
Several hours later, we all ate dinner -- a pasty gruel which Tera assured me was healthy and nutritious -- around a steel table in the tiny room euphemistically called "The Mess Hall". I turned to Hakuin.
"So why me?" I asked.
Everyone stopped eating for a moment. They exchanged glances. "The big question," Drive said.
Hakuin sighed. "We hope to unplug everyone," he said. "Eventually. Some people are more ready than others. You seemed ready."
I narrowed my eyes. "I don't buy it," I said. "There has to be more to it." Hakuin smiled, and I could see others hiding the same.
He turned to me. "Psychle," he said. "You are The One."
He nodded. "Yes. The One person who can redesign our website." He produced a small laptop computer and turned it on. Seconds later he thrust it toward me, and I beheld a hideous glob of text, all run together without headings or white space or pictures.
Tera gestured to the computer. "It's the laughing stock of The Resistance," she said. "We need a website that will get us some respect."
I looked up at Hakuin. He nodded. "I've seen your work," he said. "It's good. And The Oracle told of one who could come and clean up this mess and design something people would want to look at. Easy to navigate, uncluttered."
"How do you know I'm The One?" I asked.
He shrugged. "The Oracle said his name would be 'Psychle'. So we did a Google search for the word and your website came up."
"But that album was horrible. I've removed every trace of it from the world."
He smiled. "But you still have a copy of the original tape." I narrowed my eyes and studied him for a minute.
Kelvin leaned over. "The Matrix keeps a cached webpage for every object that exists," he said. I glanced at him, then back to Hakuin. After a few seconds, I resumed eating.
So here I am -- HTML programmer for the ship, charged with the task of making the website more readable and maybe (suggested Hakuin, trying to make it sound like an afterthought) "throw in some multimedia, like one of those Flash movies or something". Along the way, they've promised to show me some tricks to survive and thrive inside The Matrix, as well as how to "ditch the five-o" (as Drive puts it).
Once I have something worth publishing for the ship's website, I'll add a link to it here. Meantime, I'll be keeping notes about what it's like on the outside. Please feel free to add comments, but keep in mind that I cannot help anyone unplug from The Matrix -- you'll need to find your own red pill.