It was that Wednesday.
The worst Wednesday of my life, the scariest Wednesday of my life until
it happened. Then it was the best Wednesday of my entire life, the god
damned best DAY of my entire life. I was walking home from school, the
mile trek- I lived just far enough away from the school that I was on the
edge of the 'bussable' and 'non bussable' people- the closest bus stopped
a quarter mile away. So anyways, I was walking home, through the shortcut
my buddy Highlighter had shown me, thinking about what the heck my next
move was going to be. They had called me into the school office today to
ask me 'a few questions' about a hack into the Federal Budget database.
Somehow, they had traced it back to the school district, but not to the
exact person. So they just brought everyone they suspected into the office,
one by one, and interrogated them. Literally. They did everything but rip
your toenails out. Luckily, I'm not the type who cracks under pressure-
I just get sarcastic. I don't know if that's better or not. I'm pretty
used to the office- I get called in there at least once a month for some
bogus thing that I did, but this took the cake. I had no clue how much
of it they had put together - the hack into the Fed D-base was made under
the name Flux- and all the garbage I've done with the school grades and
such was with the name Gremlin- My mind was just going as fast as the little
hamster wheels could turn. Had I left anything anywhere linking the names
Flux and Gremlin? If I had, my ass and my goose were so cooked I might
have well been a flambe. Those are the two names I go by- Flux for big
deals, like this and the DMV d-base and the IRS D-base, and Gremlin for
little things that are local- like when I changed half the grades in the
school computer system. Wait...I knew how they had traced it to the district-
I had gone through the district server to try to make it less obvious where
it was coming from. And I bet I know how they chose the people they took
in to question- we were all the people that wear black on a regular basis.
Black with long coats.
Now, I may wear black, but I'm not a goth. I'm pure hacker, and besides, my trademark is to be wearing a little bit of purple and silver somewhere. The last person who called me goth had to go in for testicle retrieval surgery. He had it coming anyway. There's a difference between goth and hacker- goths throw on the first piece of dark black crap they step on after getting out of bed, and usually it's baggy. Goth girls are the ripped fishnets-dominatrix types-the sluts. They'll sleep with any goth guy that looks at them twice. Hackers actually care what they look like- usually our clothes are spandexy or futuristic, and us hacker chix refuse to expose skin just to get attention. Back to the point, the point twice removed, I'm a good little hacker, if not a little panicked, and was dressed like one, (my trademark black velvet Converse All-Stars and all) but the guy that was hanging around halfway through the shortcut could have sucked the colors right off of someone's tie-dye shirt, he was so black. He was just the total perfect hacker. You could just smell it, like it was oozing right through his pores. Black hair, rimless black sunglasses, long black leather coat, huge boots that had buckles all down them. God, he looked awesome. If I had won a million bucks spontaneously, that's what I'd have spent it on. If you could have bottled that look... man, you could have suckered me into anything. I was instantly kind of wary, I mean what was this guy doing hanging around in this out of the way shortcut in a residential area? He wasn't smoking, on a cigarette break from the techno-world, and besides, the hackers I know who smoke do it inside. Hackers are kind of like vampires. They'd rather be plugged into a computer, be inside than outside. It's almost like sun hurts them. Of course, some of us just feel more connected to the cyber-world than the real one. I have a whole herd of people I count as 'friends' or 'allies' online. At school, I can count the number of people like that on one hand. If there were such a thing as an internet I.V. I'd be the first in line for one. The guy was still there, just standing. I kept walking. He was watching me from behind those awesome sunglasses. I'm one of those people that can feel it when someone's watching them. I ignored it, until he spoke.
I whirled around.
"That's your name, isn't it?" he asked.
"I don't know, is it?" I replied, rather snidely. I was freaked. Was he going to report me to the school, to the cops, to the FBI? Was this the last time I was ever going to see the light of day? My heart was in my mouth. I could just hope...hackerkind don't usually rat on their own.... and he was definitely one of us... I could just hope.
"It was your name last night. But don't doubt the Secret Service."
My brain kicked into overdrive- In the chat room last night- the messages I was getting... that was one of them... but where was it .... in the newspaper..... they gave credit to someone else for using..... the same line...
"You... the paper.... last month..... the Secret Service... that...that-line...."
He was nodding. I was on the right track.
"The.... Jesus. You're NEO."
"And you're Flux."
"Yeah... I feel like I should be bowing or something."
Neo reached into the pocket of his coat, suddenly serious. The mood around darkened, and everything seemed to hush.
"For three years, you've been on the verge. You've felt it. The feeling that something's not quite right and the answer is just out of your grasp. The question." he said. "What you've been asking anyone who might give you the slightest clue. It's the question that keeps us going."
"What is the Matrix?" I whispered. He nodded again.
"Are you still curious?"
I nodded, just barely at first, then harder.
"Good. Take this. Things will make more sense later." He pressed something cold and plastic into my palm, face down. I looked down and turned it over. I brushed a button on the side and part of it popped open. It was a brand spanking new model Nokia cell phone. I looked up again, a question on my lips, but he was gone. I turned around. Nothing. Nobody. With almost perfect timing, the Oregon skies opened up and the rain fell. A few drops landed on the phone. Looking at it one more time, I closed the faceplate, dropped it in the pocket of my coat, and ran for home.
Neo opened his eyes as Trinity pulled the connector out of the socket at the back of his head. He grimaced, and sat up. Water pooled in the seat of the chair.
"Didn't believe me when I said Oregon was the rainiest state in the U.S, did you?" Tank asked from his control seat. Neo shook his head, sending a spray of droplets in all directions. Trinity took a step back, as so not to get her own little rainstorm and handed a towel pointedly to Neo, who grinned and good naturedly rubbed at his wet hair.
"Did you make contact with her?" Trinity asked.
"Flux? Yeah. I gave her the connection."
"Will she be...?" Trinity asked, leaving her question unsaid.
Neo paused, the towel over his face.
"That's the only thing I'm worried about. Will she make the right choices? Will she have enough experience? Will she panic at the wrong moments? She'll be the youngest anyone's ever freed..." She let the words hang, running a hand through her hair and tucking it behind her ears. Tank jumped down from his chair and walked over to join them.
"I think she'll be fine. She's the best I've seen, even despite her age. Wizard programmer, awesome graphics. She has a few more tricks to learn, but not many," Neo was saying. Tank nodded.
"She's the best. She's the best anyone's ever found."
"I'm still worried about the age issue." Trinity was saying.
Mouse wandered in, still moving slowly after his near-death not more that a month ago.
"Has anyone see the connector cable I was working on yesterday?" he asked, shoving his hat back up off his forehead. Neo looked over his shoulder and pointed down at the floor.
"Isn't that it back there?"
Mouse hunkered down to look.
"How old was Mouse?" Trinity whispered to Tank.
"I don't know. I don't think he could have been over sixteen though."
"Then she should be fine, shouldn't she. If she's fourteen, almost fifteen... she should be okay..."
"Who?" Mouse asked, standing up behind Trinity with the cable.
"The girl we've found. She's getting too close to the truth and the Agents have her on round-the-clock surveillance. She's a brilliant data manipulator and graphics wizard." Trinity told him. Tank wandered back over and sat down in front of his monitors again.
"Did you think to check the school records? See if she's been in trouble or what," Mouse suggested, looking at both ends of the cable.
Trinity looked over at Tank.
"I'm on it, I'm on it." he said, as he jogged over and tapped furiously at the keyboard. Neo got up and stood behind him. Trinity wiped the puddles of water off the chair and joined them. Tank ran a finger down the screen.
Neo nodded. "Yeah."
Tank tapped a few keys more.
"School records for Beaverton High School, student, Teka Langden."
"Teka Langden?" Mouse asked, looking up from the wires he was unwinding. "That's a weird one."
"It's not any worse than some of the ones I've heard. What's it say?" Neo peered closer at the screen.
"Suspended for a month for making a threatening comment, that she admits to- 'Someday all the 'computer geeks' you're talking about will be running your life. Then who'll be laughing?'" Neo and Trinity grinned at the unintentional irony of the comment.
"That's a load of crap." Mouse said indignantly. "I knew people who did worse things and didn't even get detention."
"That's not all she did. 'Fighting in cafeteria. Says boy in question started it by threatening her for money. Minor injuries on her part, major injuries on his.' Refusal to leave black coat at home. Dressing in threatening manner. Cannibalizing other's CD players for parts. Using school computers to access restricted areas.' Oh, here... 'Suspended for a week under suspicion for changing grades in school database. Never found guilty.' Here's the kicker: grades. English\Science Fiction: A. German: A. European Studies: -A Math: B. Orchestra:A Theater:A Science: B' Tank announced.
"We should get her." Trinity said, looking over Tank's head to Neo. "Before someone else does. I wouldn't trust that school."
Neo nodded, meeting her eyes. "Tonight."
"Dammit!" Tank swore. Three heads snapped in his direction. He hit one key, then again and again. "Dammit!"
"What?" Neo asked, looking over his shoulder.
"There, look." Tank pointed to a scrolling column of green characters.
"Shit. They've got her..." Trinity said. "We have to get her out as soon as possible."
"I'll go tell Morpheus!" Mouse called.
I ran half of the way left to get back home,
then slowed to a walk. It wasn't like I was getting any drier as I ran.
If my mental hamsters had been running their asses off before, now they
were trying out for a Richard Simmons workout video. I had just met Neo.
NEO. King, or at least Prince, of Hackers. He was like a god... him and
the one named Trinity- who I still, contrary to popular belief, thought
was female, and Morpheus, the first one.... they were all the hacker deities.
I was in shellshock. Those were the three names I still associated with
the search I had been on for the past three years- the search for the Matrix.
The truth about the Matrix, not the B.S. that's all over the net. And here
was Neo, God, offering it to me on a silver platter. It was just too good.
I was wondering if I wasn't dreaming as I put my key in the door and let
myself into the house.
It wasn't like I noticed it immediately. It wasn't blatantly obvious once I got in that someone had broken in. The first thing that tipped me off was the fact that my monitor wasn't in sleep mode the way it usually was when I got home. That I could attribute to the dog, knocking the leg of my desk or something. But when I looked at the list of most recently accessed files, it gave me a bunch of gobbledygook about having it erased by an outside access number. Okay. I obviously didn't do that. I told it to give me the number. Nothing. I traced it as far back as I could. They were checking on something I had done a while ago... oh crap. It was Sniper. They were checking on Sniper. For crying out loud, they should have realized that Sniper was a one-shot-off program. I designed it especially to get into the principal's box, bring up his virus scanning screen, and tell him he had a virus. Then, when someone hit the enter key, it brought up this animation -one of my best ones yet-of a little person dressed in all black (which was actually me, if you looked hard enough) who flipped you off and then disappeared. The second time you hit enter, it took you right back into whatever you were doing, no harm done. I loved Sniper. I used it on all of the principals at least four times-all you had to do was change the virus name and it was new panic. I loved it. And they could never trace it back to me. At least not until now... and if they had traced it back to me, my ass was grass.... But they didn't have a warrant to come in- they always stick it on the door, at least on T.V, so I would have seen it... wouldn't I have? . Okay, I was pissed. That violated a whole buttload of my constitutional rights. A big buttload. I found the phone, and dialed 911.
"Yeah, my house at 6514 Ladnhy Ave has been broken into."
"Let me send a dispatch over there right now. Don't touch anything you think may have been tampered with. The police should be there in about ten minutes. Goodbye."
"Yeah, thanks... A whole freaking lot." I muttered as I hung up. I love how people totally snub teenagers and treat us like dirt. Oh well. It was going to be a while before anyone showed up here-all the cops were probably out on donut break. When someone threw a cherry bomb in our mailbox on the last Fourth of July, it took them oh, what... an hour and a half to respond? And I seriously doubted they'd be any faster today. I decided I'd get a snack- I live on Fritos - and then go work on the, uh 'replacement' logo I was making to paste on the school webpage just for a cheap thrill- that's my second love after programming- graphics. Screw calling either of my parents- they'd just panic and want to come home from California where they were both on business, and I'd get no work done here.
I had my head halfway inside the refrigerator when
the doorbell rang. I pulled my elbow out of my mother's lemon yogurt, where
it had landed while I was pawing for the leftover chocolate pudding, whacked
my head on the inside of the fridge, and stood up. Whoever was outside
was leaning on the stupid bell like there was no tomorrow.
"Shut the hell up." I told the doorbell as I wiped the lemon yogurt off of my coat sleeve. "I'm coming." I peeked out the side window and just about froze solid. There were four cop cars in the driveway and one evil-looking black Ford number.
"Holy shit." was all I could come up with. There were at least eight cops milling around, another four clustered around the door, and four guys standing a little apart that were in the ugliest suits I think I've ever seen looking like Rogaine poster boys from the Secret Service, curly-wire earphone and all. I dropped the window blinds and stood there for a moment, just thinking. There was a noise at the door. A megaphone? I looked around the corner. Of course not. They were just trying to beat the door in. Hoping to throw them off, I opened the door. The cop who had been banging his little heart out did an abrupt stop, turn-around and whipped his gun out into my face. I arched an eyebrow. To my surprise, and probably his too, I was totally unafraid about having a gun barrel shoved up my nose.
"Hello?" I asked. The cop did another double take then glanced over his shoulder. Two of the Secret Service guys were walking through the mob of cops who were splitting in front of them like the Red Sea.
"Miss Langden?" the taller man asked me.
"Maybe." I was trying for time, time to figure out how to play this.
"Miss Langden, I'm going to have to ask you to come with us." the second Secret Service wannabe said.
"I don't think so." I leaned against the doorframe, using my foot to hold the screen door open just slightly. The taller guy turned around and made a gesture towards the other two. The cops looked around nervously as they came forward. One of the first two opened the door wide, and the other two grabbed me by the arms.
"Hey!" I yelled. "Get off me!" No effect. I was being dragged bodily down the driveway towards the black car. I had had totally enough of this crap today. I dug my heels in and refused to move. The head secret service guy, the tall one, behind me, prodded me in the back.
"You. Will. Move."
"No. I. Won't." I bit out. Before he could do anything further, I kicked out behind me, as hard as I could. I didn't wait to see where I'd hit him. I heard him whoof and go down, and I went into motion. Swinging my arms, somehow I managed to get free. The only thing in my head was to run. As fast as I could.
I took off as hell-bent fast as I could, down the
driveway, across the street, and into the park. I thought that maybe it
would take them long enough to get sorted out that I could be through to
the opposite end of the park and over Highlighter's fence before they could
follow. No such luck. The whole thing perfectly proved Flux's Law- Anything,
Everything, and All things that can go Wrong or Blow Up in Your Face, Will,
And if it makes you look Stupid or Otherwise Dumb, that's a Plus.
I had only made it halfway through the park before a bullet whizzed past
my ear. I ducked, but kept going. I reached the fence, and started to climb
over. I had everything but my left leg over when the head secret service
guy caught up with me. He grabbed my leg and yanked. I guess I must have
hit the pavement pretty hard, because the next thing I remember is being
in the back of the black car with two of the Secret Service guys in front.
My head was pounding. Abruptly, the car stopped, and both guys got out.
The lead one came around and yanked me out of the car. I hadn't noticed
before, but someone had slapped a pair of handcuffs on me. The building
they were taking me into was almost spooky. The outside was all silvery
with mirrored windows, and the inside was black, shiny and smooth on every
surface. The two guys that had brought me in handed me off to one guy that
looked almost the same as the first two and a woman that looked like she
hadn't smiled in at least a decade.
They marched me up to the elevators- that ran so smoothly it was like they weren't moving at all- and into a small white room with nothing but a table and two chairs in it. The woman and the look-alike guy sat me in the chair facing the door, took off the handcuffs and left, leaving me alone in the room. It looked almost like that room in Mission:Impossible, you know, the one Tom Cruise breaks into, except for the fact that it was a lot smaller and the floor didn't look as cool. I looked around, trying to figure out what was going to happen to me. I swear, everyone in the whole building should have been able to hear my heart, it was thumping so loud. I was working almost purely on adrenaline.
The door opened, and I whirled around to face it. Three more of the Rogaine boys came in. But the one in the lead was different somehow. You could almost sense he was different-he was the one in charge. I don't know how I knew. I just did. He had a folder with something written on the front. It wasn't very full, but it had enough in it to make me wary- it looked like the permanent record folder some principal was always waving at me when I was in trouble at school. Internally, I rolled my eyes. The leader sat down across the table from me and opened the folder. He paged through it, taking his damn good time, and then looked up at me.
"Miss Langden." he said slowly. Somehow I had the feeling that everything he said would be slow. "Do you know why you are here?"
"If I knew, I might have come without giving myself a damn concussion." I rubbed the side of my head for emphasis.
"You are leading a double life." He turned another sheet in the folder over.
"Gee, tell me something I don't know."
"As far as everyone around you knows, you are Teka Langden, 3.75 GPA student, electric violin player and 'synthesizer maven' in the band 'Falling off the Stage', computer genius, and self proclaimed 'drama geek.' Am I correct?"
"I don't know. You know everything. You tell me." I leaned back in the chair and crossed my arms. He steepled his fingers and continued.
"You are also the brilliant hacker Flux, who managed to get into the united states federal budget database, and into the IRS database, even with the tightened security measures after the Trinity hack. Under another name, the name of Gremlin, you changed all of the grades in the Beaverton School District database. "
"Okay, bring it home. What's your freaking point?" I stood up, turned the chair around and sat in it backwards.
"We brought you here to offer you a sort of deal. A trade off, if you will."
"And if I won't?" I told you I get sarcastic when I panic.
"We happen to know that you have been contacted by the man named Neo. This Neo, do you know anything about him?"
"What, you think I'm his illegitimate child or something?" Oh, jeezus, I wish.
"He is connected to the man we have been trying to ruin. The man named Morpheus. Both, together, considered by some to be the most dangerous pair of men in the world. The deal I can offer you is this. You help us bring both Neo and Morpheus to justice, and we can, metaphorically speaking, wipe the slate clean and give you a fresh start on your life. I urge you to consider your choices carefully."
"Yeah, well I urge you to bite me. Piss off, you freaks. I wouldn't help you even if I did know what this was about."
"I find your attitude regrettable, Miss Langden."
"Yeah, well, my attitude can change. You're stuck with that face forever."
The lead agent guy made a gesture to the other two. Before I knew what was going on, they had yanked me out of the chair and pinned me flat on my back on top of the table. I kicked and squirmed wildly, trying to get away. One of the helpers pulled my shirt up, exposing my stomach. The lead agent stood over me. He pulled a small box out of his jacket and plucked something small and metallic out of the box.
"This is your last chance, Miss Langden. You can help us under your own free will, or you can help us the difficult way." The thing in his hand started to quiver and grow.
"Bite me." I spat onto his face, still struggling to get away. He ignored it. The thing in his hand had enlarged, grown in to what looked like a watery chrysalis. With a shake, it shook off the outer covering. Whiplike tendrils flailed in the air.
"Very well, Miss Langden." He dropped the thing, whatever it was, onto my stomach. It was cold, and I gasped as it started to crawl it's way towards my navel.
"Aahh... aahh..." I was gasping. The thing hesitated, then dug it's front end into my navel. I panicked, and just flat out screamed, struggling to get away. With one last gruesome slurp, the thing pulled itself inside my body, leaving not even the smallest evidence it was ever there. I screamed louder.
On the Nebuchandnezzar, things were bustling. Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and Mouse were getting ready for their upcoming journey into the Matrix to retrieve Flux. Tank was keeping a close eye on Flux's run in with the agents.
"Dammit!" he cried, suddenly.
"What..." Trinity put a hand on his shoulder and peered at the screen.
"She's bugged. The bastards bugged her." Tank pounded a fist on the edge of the keyboard.
"Bugged?" Neo came over and joined the others in looking at the screens.
"Remember the thing we pulled out of you?"
Trinity nodded. "Not a pretty picture. They've put one of those in her... are you okay?" Neo had turned a greenish-gray color, and she put her hand on his elbow.
"Yeah... I think I'm okay... just bad memories." he told her. "Thanks."
Tank punched a key, and then watched the screen for a moment.
"She's back. The Agents don't have her anymore. It's clear to go in."
Morpheus had come up behind them, and now he dropped a hand on Tank's shoulder.
"We're ready?" he asked the four. Trinity, Neo, and Mouse all dispersed and started the Matrix boot-up program on the linking apparatus. Morpheus leaned in and looked at the screens surrounding Tank.
"She's bugged." Tank informed him. "but other than that she's okay, I think."
Morpheus nodded. "Good work. Keep us updated."
Trinity was helping Mouse into his chair and getting him situated. She took the connector cable, and ducking under the headrest, slid it smoothly into the port on the back of the boy's head.
"See ya in a few..." His eyes closed and he joined the Matrix.
Neo came up behind Trinity.
"You next?" he asked. She nodded, and climbed into her own chair. Leaning back, she felt Neo slide the connecting needle into the back of her head. Half-smiling, she repeated Mouse's words.
"See ya in a few..."
Neo grinned and sat down in his own chair. Tank broke away from his screens long enough to come over and hook the cable into Neo.
"That never looks comfortable," he commented.
Neo grinned. "You get used to it, trust me."
Tank smiled to himself as Morpheus got himself situated in his chair. His cable went in with a click.
In the abandoned hotel, a phone rang.
The boy appeared first, blinking against the bright
flourescent light. The woman was next, straightening her jacket, followed
by the man, running a hand through his hair, and the second man, straightening
the sunglasses clipped to the bridge of his nose. The first man lifted
*Good luck* came the reply.
Neo smiled as he set the phone back in its cradle.
"Let's get moving."
I woke up with a start. The first thing that ran through my mind was that weird dream. I pulled my shirt up and poked at my stomach. There was no obvious little wormy thing. I shook my head. I have to remember to stop drinking that pure-caffeine tea in the morning. It gives me weird dreams. The clock was staring at me- 11:30 P.M. Oh well. I always was a night person. But where did the hours go? The last thing I remember is getting home from school at 3:30. Then I noticed the weirdest thing of all. I was wearing what I was wearing to school yesterday-what I had been wearing in the dream. I held the hem of the shirt out and looked at it carefully. Something made a loud and unfamiliar noise. I jumped, then realized what it was. The cell phone- THE CELL PHONE IN MY POCKET. It couldn't have been a dream then, at least not that part. I pushed the button on the side of it and held it up to my ear.
"This is an unsecured line, so I must be brief. Are you still asking your question?"
"Huh?... oh, yeah!.."
"Be at the Montgomery Park building in an hour."
I held the phone away from my ear. That was definitely not Neo. This voice was at least one and a half octaves deeper- it sounded African - American, and I had no clue who it was or what to believe. With a shrug, I closed the phone up. Montgomery Park -that was all the way down town. If there was ever a time when I needed public transportation, this was it. Grabbing my all-season bus-pass, I set out on foot for the Beaverton Transit Center. I'd be lucky if I made it on time.
I managed to make it down to Montgomery Park with
five minutes to spare. It's a weird old building- I think at one time it
was a hotel, way down on the south end of town. It was condemned or quarantined
or whatever sometime in the past, because it's right on the verge
of falling down. All of the signs were either ripped off or fell down a
while ago-now it's just common sense to stay out. I stood in the rain and
looked it for a minute, then sat down on the crumbling stoop under the
ripped and dripping awning. It wasn't the first time I was glad to have
the black coat I always wear-it's a vinyl-y pleather thing and keeps the
wet out really well. There was a crack of lighting in the distance. Great.
Oregon's one big annual lighting storm and I'm out in it. Whoever's running
special effects in my life is having way too much fun. I sighed and pulled
my hands into the sleeves of the coat. My once-curly-today hair was now
slicked down to my head from the rain. I checked my watch. 12:27. If nothing
happened in five minutes, I told myself, I was going to pack up and go
home. Once in a while, having both parents out of town was a good thing.
There was a splash in front of me, bringing my thoughts back to reality.
A big black old car had pulled up in front of the crumbling building. The
backseat door swung open.
"Get in." It was a woman's hard-as-steel voice. I got up, pushing my soggy hair out of my eyes. With a shrug-what else could possibly happen, and how much worse could it get- I climbed into the car and closed the door behind me. As my eyes adjusted, I realized Neo was driving and I was in the backseat with a woman dressed similarly to the way he was-black hair, sunglasses, long coat.
"Lean back and pull your shirt up." she said. "Neo, lights." I did as she said-why the heck not. She pulled a nasty-looking contraption of glass tubes and metallic controls up from the floor between the seats.
"Whoa!" I said as she plunked it down over my navel.
"We think you're bugged. Don't tense up."
Okay, yeah. Don't tense up, even though there's this evil-looking thing on my stomach. Little metal clasps shot out from the bottom of the glass tube and stuck into my skin. I jumped.
"Hold still." There was an electronic whir as the woman worked the controls on the thing. A bump rose under my skin, enclosed in the glass tube. It wiggled.
"What the..." I started. The woman pushed something on the side of the machine. Electricity shot out, crisscrossing the tube and being absorbed into the bump. With a nasty sucking sound, it flew out of me, and into another glass tube in the machine.
"Gotcha." the woman said, taking the tube where the thing was and dumping it out the window.
"That thing... was real?" I squeaked. Neo's knuckles tightened almost imperceptibly on the steering wheel, and I got no answer. With a sigh, the car rolled to a stop.
"Trinity, you take her up. I'll be there as soon as I can."
The woman-Trinity, nodded and got out of the car. I climbed out on the other side.
"Trinity?" I squeaked. "Trinity, the Trinity that hacked the IRS- The one whose footsteps I followed in?" She stopped and looked back at me, her eyes cold.
"I knew you were a chick!" I crowed in triumph. "It's a real honor to meet you."
She gave me a nod, and a small smile, and patted me on the back. "There's not many of us girls in the business. And the IRS is no small feat."
I followed her into the building- the sign said 'Joyce Hotel' and up a set of black and white checkered stairs to stand in front of a pair of big elaborately carved oak doors.
"You're about to meet Morpheus. Don't be smart, don't make things up and don't lie. He knows more than anybody could guess."
"Morpheus?" I squeaked. I seemed to be doing an awful lot of squeaking lately. "THE Morpheus?"
"Don't be scared." She opened the door with one hand and held it open as she ushered me through. There was a man standing in front of the window, looking out at the rain. He turned as I came in.
"It is truly an honor to meet you. I have enjoyed watching you at work.'
"The honor is mine, sir..." I shook the offered hand.
"Just Morpheus will do. Please, have a seat." He gestured to the two leather armchairs in the center of the room. I sat in one, tucking my legs around the carved chair legs.
"Do you know why you've been brought here?"
"Because I've been too close to the question? Or too close to the truth..."
"Not too close, just close enough. Do you read science fiction?"
I nodded. "That's all I read."
"Have you ever read a book where the machines have taken over? Have beat their creators? Have held them captive?"
I looked at him quizzically. "That's the first rule of robotics, I thought... a machine may not hurt its creator."
From behind his sunglasses, Morpheus looked slightly taken aback, but he recovered quickly.
"Good. You're a thinker, Flux. We need thinkers. We have brought you here to show you the truth. To answer the question you have been asking for the past three years."
"What is the Matrix?" I whispered. He nodded.
"I have the ability to show you." He opened the silver box and took out two small pills.
"Take the red pill-" he opened his left hand. "and you will see just how deep the fantasy goes. Take the blue pill-" he opened his right hand "and you will wake up in your own bed and believe this nothing but a dream." I heard Neo come in and stand behind me. Trinity stood behind Morpheus.
Everything was still and silent. I hesitantly reached out.
"I urge you to choose wisely."
I stopped for second, weighing the possibilities, the reached out, took the red pill and popped it into my mouth before I could lose the guts to do it. Morpheus' face broke out into a grin. Behind him, one side of Trinity's mouth curved up. She looked behind me at Neo. I could only guess that he was smiling too.
"Welcome, Flux. Neo, go tell Mouse to get the trace program running. Flux, the pill you took is part of a trace program. It's designed to disrupt your input/output carrier signal so we can pinpoint your location."
"My location?" I was confused.
"You'll understand fully later." He had gotten up and was gesturing for me to follow. We went through the door Neo had gone through into a room with what looked to be a somewhat elaborate computer setup. Morpheus joined Neo behind the screen. Trinity took me over to the lone chair in the center of the room. She sat me down and took my coat off, then put a handful of EKG-ish monitor leads on me.
"These will help us monitor your vitals. This may be a little weird." She dropped a pair of headphones- connected to the computer over my ears. "Mouse, have we got a connection yet?"
The boy behind the computer-Mouse-shook his head. "Almost." Neo unplugged one wire and plugged it into a different port. Mouse's eyebrows went up an inch.
"Oh... Okay. We've got a connection. " There was a modem dialing through the headphones, then I got a bunch of quiet computer static.
There was a glass of water sitting on the table the computer was on. I blinked at it. It looked for all the world to me like the glass and the water in it had not only combined, but the whole thing was slumping in on itself slowly. Warily, I put one hand out to pick it up. As I touched it, it felt malleable. Surprised, I pulled back. A thick thread of glass stayed stuck to my palm, like clear, cold Silly Putty. Before I could think fast enough to wipe it off, the thread connecting the glob on my hand to the glass broke, and it congealed in my palm. As I watched, it slowly spread out, becoming thinner like honey or syrup and covering my hand. It looked like I was wearing a glass glove. Then it started to crawl up my arm.
"Oh... cold... cold...." It was freezing. I held my arm out away from my body like it was toxic. The syrupy glass stuff slurped its way up to my shoulder.
"Don't we have a lock yet?" I dimly heard Neo asking someone.
"Not yet... Mouse! It's replicating!" Trinity said. There were sounds of someone looking for something, and then Mouse's voice.
The glassy stuff had crawled up under my hair, along my scalp and up under my chin. As it got to my lip I opened my mouth and screamed.
I opened my eyes. Everything was murky. I couldn't
see. I couldn't breathe. I was floating. Something in my throat. Pull it
out. Throw it away. Hands, searching, no air, pushing. Something giving.
A hole. Rip it wider... I shoved my head through the hole in the membrane
and gasped for air. Gagging and coughing, I wiped at my eyes and looked
around. I was in this pod-dy thing that was sticking out of some kind of
huge machine. The pod was filled with red stuff the consistency of almost
solidified Jell-O. As I looked to the sides, it slowly dawned on me what
I was looking at. More of these pod-things, with something in them-people-in
them. There were thousands, millions, billions of the pods-everywhere the
eye could see-every one with a person inside. I held on to the end of the
pod and peered over the edge. More pods, as far down as the eye could see.
I shivered and backed into my pod further, hunkered over, my knees to my
chest. I was tangled in something-lifting my arm out, I realized what it
was - cables- coming out of... *coming out of ports in my arms. coming
out of ports in my legs coming out of my back, my chest, my head.* I put
my hands up to what seemed to be the major jack- the one into the back
of my head, and realized what had been missing, why my head had seemed
incredibly light. All of my hair was gone. All three years without a haircut,
just to get it to grow. Gone. All of it. That made me just mad enough to
give the head-cable a sharp yank. It was pointless. I was scared and cold
and alone with god-knows how many dead-looking people, I had cables coming
out of my body....
"Dammit! I didn't mean the internet I.V. line literally, you pieces of shit!" I yelled out into the stifling silence, suddenly mad. Without warning, a sliver blob dropped down in front of me. It was a robot of some sort. It shot a silvery apparatus out at me and grabbed a hold of the head-cable. It pulled me up out of the guck, and seemed to look me over. Then, just as abruptly, it dropped me and sped away. There was a noise behind me like a computer powering down, and then it happened. With a high pitched whir, the head-cable unwound itself and yanked the four-inch needle that had been inside my skull out. I screamed bloody murder against the pain. With a long series of clicks, all the other cables disconnected and I slumped over the side of the pod. There was a grinding noise. I looked up and saw some sort of hole at the end of the pod. I tried to hold on, but it was worthless. The liquid swirled away, taking me with it.
I half fell and half slid through a long pipe, washed away with the dirty bath water. The pipe ended abruptly and I fell into a pool of liquid. I went under, fighting back to the top under the waterfall of liquid on top of me. I was in the middle of the pool, whatever it was. Wherever it was. My first instinct was to swim, to find the shore, but all I was able to manage was a weak dog paddle, and soon even that tired me. I gave in to the blackness.
"Easy, easy... Don't whack it against the sides,
it's the only one we've got." Trinity was helping Mouse and Tank lower
a claw-ish thing into the muck below the ship. From far below, it closed
with a series of clicks. Trinity looked down through the hole.
"Okay, you've got her. Bring it up slowly. Don't slam her against anything." Mouse pulled the control back. Above, the spool holding the metallic rope started to turn slowly, winding the cable back into the ship. Behind Mouse, Neo and Morpheus kept an eye on the screen showing the view from the bottom of the claw. Tank went over to stand on the other side of the hole from Trinity. He helped steady the claw as it came through the hole with its precious cargo.
"To the right, and then drop it." Mouse obligingly swung the claw over to the right, then lowered it until it was resting on the deck and unlocked the holding clamps on it. Neo, Trinity and Morpheus gathered around the thing the claw had left on the floor.
Cold, wet, and unconscious, it was Flux.
After quickly getting the claw hooked back
onto the ceiling and out of the way, Tank brought a huge blanket over to
cover the shivering Flux. Neo and Morpheus lifted her onto the table and
covered her in thermal blankets, trying to get her body temperature back
up to normal. Trinity hooked two electrical monitors to her temples and
then into a socket under a small screen. Morpheus wrapped a smaller thermal
over her bald head, as Tank straightened out the I.V. cable and inserted
the needle into a socket near the girl's elbow. She shifted slightly as
it went in. Tank paused, then pushed it the rest of the way.
"Check her eyes." Morpheus said as he looked at the reading on the monitor.
Mouse lifted her eyelid and shone a light in her eyes.
"Looks normal to me." He shrugged.
Tank finished connecting monitoring cables to the girl and stepped back. Trinity and Neo tucked the last blanket in around her. Neo stood back with Tank and Trinity checked the vitals on the monitor over her head.
"I'll take first watch." she said quietly. "We'll have to start on rebuilding tomorrow. I can get some of that set up tonight." Morpheus put a hand on her shoulder and left. Mouse gave her a thumbs-up and followed Tank and Neo out. Trinity sighed and put one hand on Flux's forehead.
"Welcome to the real world."
Neo wandered back in a few hours later to bring Trinity
a bowl of the oatmeal-y protein-food they all lived on. She looked up as
he came in.
"Thought you might be hungry." he offered.
"Hmm?... Oh. Thanks." She took the bowl and set it down on the table next to the chair she had been sitting in.
"How's she doing?"
Trinity went over to the screen showing the girl's vitals.
"She's doing about as well as can be expected. Her core temperature's back up closer to where it should be."
Neo shook his head.
"I went through all this." It was somewhere in between a statement and a question. Trinity looked up at him quizzically.
"It's just... weird to see someone else like this. What I remember of it... geez. I wouldn't wish it on anyone else."
"It's always kind of hard to watch the first one after you and to know... to remember what you went through. I went through the same thing when pulled Cypher out-ten years ago. When we got Switch and Apoc I wasn't in as bad shape as I was the first time. Don't worry, you'll get over it. If there's anything I can do for you, just say it."
Neo sighed. "Thanks... Do you need any help? For some reason I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep."
"If you're up to it, you could help me get all of the stuff together so we could start rebuilding her." Trinity brought a spoonful of the food to her lips.
"We did it to you too, don't worry. It sounds worse than it is. In the pods, you never get a chance to use your muscles. They atrophy. When you come out, you have to have your muscles worked or you'll never be able to move on your own. That's why we're keeping such a close eye on her. If her heart gets weak enough that it stops, we want to be able to catch it in time. That's what one of the wires is. On everybody there's certain port that has a direct connection to the heart. It changes from person to person, but on most it's one of the chest sockets."
"How do you know which one it is... how do you figure it out?" Neo asked.
"Here, hold on." Trinity put the bowl down and took one of the coiled cables off of the wall. "Take your shirt off."
Neo did as he was told. Trinity plugged one end of the cable into an unused monitor and the other into the jack on the left side of Neo's chest. The monitor lit up with a red line showing his heartbeat and an image of his heart, hard at work.
"You see how the line's red? That tells us that it's the main line. If I were to plug it in here," she took the cable out and put it in the port on the other side of his chest. "it's green, and you don't have the image of the heart, telling us it's not the main line." She pulled the cable out of Neo's chest, wound it back up and put it back on its peg. "On Flux, here, her main line is in the front of her shoulder." Trinity peeled back the thermal blankets to show Neo, then tucked them back in around the girl. "Uncommon but not unheard of. Mouse's is the back of his shoulder. I think it's recent thing, so the younger you are the more likely you are to have a shoulder jack."
"So the arrangement of... things... ports... on people... change?" Neo asked, trying to straighten everything out in his mind.
Trinity nodded. "Everyone usually has around the same number, but there's no given arrangement for where they'll be. They put them in when you're still in fetal stage, so there's not really any good way to make sure they don't move all around as you grow."
"But she still has the head socket?"
"There are a few that never move-the head and the ones down the spine. Everyone has those. Here, why don't you help me get things sorted out for tomorrow? There's a blue drawer over there, pull it out and bring it to the table."
As Neo brought the drawer over, Trinity cleared off the high table to the side of the room. He put the drawer on the table and drug a stool over. Trinity took out one of the fleecy rolls of fabric and rolled it out on the table. Inside were at least twenty of the acupuncture-like needles Neo remembered having stuck in his flesh at one time.
"We have to make sure that all of the wires in these are still good. Temperature disagrees with them, and when the heater went out last week half of them probably died." Trinity explained. She dug under the fabric rolls still in the drawer and pulled out a thing that looked almost like a miniature surge protector-powerstrip. It had eight small holes along the top and a plug coming out of the side. Trinity plugged it into a power socket on the table, then took eight of the needles and put them in the holes. Eight little green lights lit up on the side.
"There. All of these are working. Pretty basic."
Neo nodded and unrolled another needle holder. Trinity took the good needles out and put them aside.
Thirty minutes later, they had gotten through
the majority of the needles and there were two piles on the table, one
much smaller than the other. Trinity put the last eight needles in the
tester and plucked that three dead ones in the bunch out.
"I'll have to see if Tank-" she began.
The lights went out. There was the whine of something electrical powering down. Then another noise-a quiet humming that gradually worked up to speed. The battery powered lights on the ceiling and the monitor over Flux's head flickered on. Both Neo and Trinity looked up.
"Damn." Trinity spat through clenched teeth.
"Sentinels?" Neo asked. Trinity nodded.
"They're the only thing that would put us into a complete powerdown." She opened a locker in the wall and took out two flashlights. Tossing one to Neo, she flipped hers on and checked on Flux. There was a crash outside the door. Two flashlight beams swung towards the noise. Neo slowly opened the door. Mouse was outside, tangled in a bundle of loose cable on the floor. Trinity hurried out and helped Neo untangle him, then herded everyone back into the room.
"Sorry..." Mouse whispered. "Morpheus sent me down. We've got eight sentinels on our tail."
"Eight!?" Neo said in disbelief. Mouse nodded.
"If we have to use the EMP, it'll kill the monitoring systems on her..." Mouse gestured to Flux.
"It'll knock the battery powered monitors out?" Trinity asked. Mouse nodded again.
"Morpheus and Tank boosted the amplitude-it'll get anything within a mile now."
"Is there a way we could turn the system off just for the minute the EMP takes to disperse, and then turn it on again? Would that keep it from shorting out, or is there enough residual energy?" Neo offered as a suggestion.
"That would work, but how do we know when-" There was a high pitched shriek and the ship shook. Everything went dark again.
"-the EMP will go off." Trinity finished her sentence. "Damn." She turned the flashlight switch off, then on again and used the weak beam of light to illuminate the now-dead monitor. Opening a panel under it, she flipped a switch off then on again. It came on, then flickered and promptly died.
"Shit! He must have totally drained the battery cells too. How much did he boost that thing?"
Mouse looked at Neo. Neo shrugged.
"I didn't think it was that much. He said he'd taken power from propulsion-maybe the wires got crossed."
"I hope so!" Trinity lifted one of Flux's eyelids. "She's still out cold... You guys stay here. I'm going to see what's going on."
Up on the bridge, Morpheus was watching the
sentinels carefully, and communicating with Tank down on the main deck
running the EMP. The first eight sentinels had been powered down permanently
by the pulse, but unfortunately, three more had been hiding just out of
range and had zipped in as soon as the batteries had been drained. Trinity
"Sshhh!" Tank's voice cut her off. "Quiet!"
Trinity opened her mouth to snap back at him.
"Trinity." Morpheus' voice had a calming effect. "Look." Trinity looked out the window. Her jaw dropped. Floating in front of the Nebuchadnezzar were three of the biggest, most evil looking sentinels that she had ever seen.
"Jee-zus." she breathed. and sat down in one of the conn-seats.
"We're dead in the water until the EMP recharges." Morpheus explained.
"39% recharged." Tank reported.
The lead sentinel sent out a scanning laser, starting at the back of the ship and scanning forwards, looking for life signs.
Trinity shook her head. "If they attack, we're scrap metal."
"Shh," Morpheus shushed them. "Remember, they can hear us."
"47% charged." Tank reported in a whisper. Trinity ducked under the control panel she was sitting in front of and pulled a green wire out of the central spider. Reaching behind the half-open wall panel, she found a triple-braided wire of blue, purple and white, and touched it's bare end to the end of the green wire.
"Jeez!" Tank exclaimed. "95% charged. Whad'd you do?"
"Don't ask. Hand me the tape over there." Morpheus reached across the console and handed the tape to Trinity, who wrapped a strip of it around the connection.
"100% charged. Whenever you're ready." Tank's finger hovered over the button.
"Not yet." Morpheus looked out at the sentinels. Trinity climbed backwards out from under the control panel. She flipped the switch on the sonar reading screen. Two large blips appeared, and three smaller energy signatures hiding farther away.
"Morpheus, there's three more hiding."
"Are they in range?"
"Barely, but yes."
As if on cue, the two larger sentinels moved, one circling around to cover the tail of the ship and the other staying in front. The three smaller ones zipped out of hiding and headed towards the ship.
"They're powering lasers..." Trinity reported.
The high pitched shriek again, and the ship rocked. Down below, Neo and Mouse grabbed onto anything that didn't move to keep from falling over. The blast dissipated and the five deactivated sentinels fell to the ground.
"No more in sonar range. We're safe." Trinity stood up and left by flashlight beam, going back down to rejoin Mouse and Neo.
Mouse looked up from where he was working on
the broken needles as Trinity came in, Tank following. Tank went over to
join Mouse on the needles. Trinity walked over to where Neo was keeping
track of Flux's pulse.
"Any change?" she asked. Neo looked up.
"She seems to be doing okay."
Trinity nodded. "We drained the battery pretty well-it's going to be a while before we can bring the Neb back up to speed." She put a hand on Neo's shoulder and moved behind him, flipping the switch on the monitor. It came on, but flickered periodically. Neo let go of Flux's wrist and tucked her arm back under the thermal blankets. The steady line showing her heartbeat appeared, and everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief.
"She'll be fine." Trinity said, and put a hand on the girl's forehead. Flux stirred, opening one eye and then the other.
"Mmmpph... Where am I?" she asked, hoarse and groggy.
"The real world." Trinity told her. "Don't worry, just sleep now." Flux half-nodded and closed her eyes again. Twenty minutes later, Morpheus came in, checking on the girl's progress. One by one everyone filtered out and into their bed, leaving Trinity alone with the sleeping girl.