Three fourths of the way through her bowl,
Morpheus came in, pouting his own breakfast and joining the rest of the
crew at the table.
"Tank. Trinity. Neo. We're going to be running 'Agent' today, as soon as we're done. I'd like you in with us." Trinity and Neo nodded. Tank stood up and went over to the sink, rinsing his bowl and then disappearing in the direction of the main deck to get things set up. Flux slurped the last bit of the goop off her spoon, then rinsed her bowl out at the sink too. Trinity was waiting for her as she finished. Neo and Morpheus had left, presumably to the same place Tank had gone.
"Come on." Trinity took her out the door and up to the main deck. Mouse, not wanting to be left alone in the mess hall, followed them.
When they got to the main deck, Trinity left
Mouse to get Flux hooked up. Flux had absolutely no clue what was going
on, but followed Mouse gamely. She hopped up into the chair and watched
as Mouse typed something into the screen above her head.
here we go." he said when it beeped back at him. He paused, and looked up at Flux. "How're ya doing?"
She shrugged. "Tired. Didn't get much sleep last night."
Mouse self-consciously looked back down at the screen. "Yeah," he muttered to himself. "Me neither."
Trinity came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Ready?" she asked, looking at both Flux and Mouse. They both nodded. "Okay. Mouse.. if you want to hook us up..." She went over to start the boot up program over another chair. Flux leaned back and waited for Mouse to put the connecting spike into the back of her head. She barely felt it slip in before her eyes closed.
There was a flash of white, then she was standing
outside in a park. Turning around, she recognized it as one of Portland's
park blocks.... there was the historical society, and the art museum...
Morpheus, Neo and Trinity were standing behind her, and she jumped a little
as she saw them.
"I thought you might enjoy a little fresh air. When you find one of us, we'll go home again." The three started to disperse, all walking in different directions. "Count to thirty, then feel free to do whatever you like. Oh... and watch out for the agents."
"Agents?" Flux asked.
"I believe you've met them before. Look behind you."
She turned around. Walking down the sidewalk were people, no more or less then on a normal day... there were three Asian ladies talking in a different language, a businessman on a cell phone, a man with a child sitting on the park bench. The most out of the ordinary person she could see was a tall busty blonde in a short, skintight red dress and four inch heels to match. Flux looked back to Morpheus for advice.
He was gone.
She looked back.
The woman in red had turned into one of the Secret-Service Rogaine men-what they called an Agent, she realized in a split second- and was holding a gun to Flux's head. Instinctively, the girl ducked. Hearing the gunshot over her head, she dropped to the ground and rolled behind one of the abstract stone sculptures lining the sidewalk. Taking a second, and only a second to catch her breath, she gathered her legs up under her and took off across the park towards the street and the alley in between the historical society and the Lutheran church on the corner.
Heart pounding, she dodged the parked cars on the street and flew into the narrow alley. Ducking behind a garbage can, she looked around for her options. There was the opposite end of the alley, up the fire escape on the side of the buildings, through the back door or out the way she had come. There were footsteps at the end of the alley, making her decision for her. Staying as low as she could, she ran out the opposite end of the alley, across the street, narrowly missing being hit by a car and into the parking garage across the street. Flux made almost one full loop of the first floor, seeing the back of the agent she was running from before darting out the exit and looping around the back of the building.
*Find Trinity* she chanted silently to herself *Find Neo* *Find Morpheus* Glancing both ways, she took off towards the center of town... the shopping district, where she hoped she could lose her agent tail in the crowds of people.
She reached the outskirts of the open-air market
in record time, panting for breath. Pausing for a moment, she dropped her
head and braced her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath again,
Flux raised her head to assess her situation and looked right into the
barrel of a second agent's gun.
"Shit!" she cried, and threw herself to one side and towards the ground. Rolling for a few feet, she scrambled to her hands and knees and started crawling her way through the market underneath the tarps of the stands, virtually unseen. Reaching the end of the row and the last stand tarp she peeked out from underneath, looking for the agent's distinctive shoes. Nothing. She exhaled and crawled out, directly behind a third agent. *What the HELL? Where did he come from?* As she got to her feet to run he turned, raising his gun. Gritting her teeth, she ducked her head and ran towards the light-rail station under the bridge. There was a familiar figure leaning on the ticket dispenser machine.
"Trinity!" Flux screamed. "TRINITY!"
Almost nonchalantly, Trinity looked up and pulled a cellular phone out of her pocket, sliding it opening and saying something into it. Flux ran up to her. Trinity gave the girl the phone. Sighing in relief, Flux took it, putting it to her ear, and turned to glance behind her. All three agents were standing there, guns leveled at her head. She screamed and disappeared. The agents froze in place. Trinity leaned down, picked the cellular up and held it to her ear. She disappeared, and with a fizz, the agents dematerialized. The white of the Construct was everywhere once more.
Flux rocketed back into the real world
screaming. As soon as her eyes opened, she had jerked forward into an almost
fetal position, gasping, regardless of the plug still in the back of her
head. Tank was standing behind her as she came out, and put a hand
on her shoulder, twisting the plug out and putting it away quickly. Mouse
knelt in front of Flux.
"oh gods.. oh my god.. oh gods... oh my god..." she was gasping. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she had her arms around herself, rocking back and forth.
"Hey..." Mouse reached out and touched her arm. There was no response. "Hey!" he said, louder, holding on to her shoulders. Her eyes snapped open, wide and scared. She was breathing hard.
"I thought I was dead..." the girl whispered, staring at Mouse.
"You're not... You're safe..." He shook her gently to emphasize his point. Tank moved behind them to unplug Neo and Trinity. Morpheus stood, watching. Flux wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. Her shoulders shook as she fought against tears, angry and scared at the same time.
"So what was scaring the shit out of me supposed to make me learn?" She glared at Morpheus.
"The Matrix is a system. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around. What do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."
"What the hell does that have to do with..." Flux began, then paused. "That wasn't really the Matrix. That was another training program."
"Very good. A training program to teach you one thing. If you are not one of us, you are one of the enemies, the agents."
"And all they do is try to wipe us out, one by one? What are they?"
"Sentient programs. They can move in and out of any software still hard wired to their system. That means that anyone we haven't unplugged is potentially an agent. Inside the Matrix, they are everyone and they are no one. We are survived by hiding from them, by running from them. But they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors. The only person to ever successfully kill an Agent was Neo."
As if on cue, Neo came to stand by her side opposite Trinity.
"Part of the package deal that comes with being the One," he whispered to her. She nodded.
"The agent's programming is constantly being updated and adapted. Techniques that worked against them three months ago will only get you killed now. We constantly have to be thinking faster than they can."
"So this all goes back to the 'don't think, just act', huh?"
"Exactly." Morpheus offered a hand to help her out of the chair. She took it, and got to her feet. Her knees buckled, and she grabbed Mouse's arm to stay upright.
"You okay?" Mouse asked.
"Just a little unnerved still. It's not every day you have three damn guns leveled at your head." She glared at the back of Morpheus' head as he departed.
"You want to sit down again?"
"That sounds good, yeah." She plopped back down into the seat and rubbed her eyes again. "Sheesh."
"Thinking too hard, huh?" Neo asked. With a grin, Flux nodded.
"Gotten better on the apologizing though, haven't I?"
Neo returned her grin, and thumped her good naturedly on the back.
Tank poked Mouse in the arm.
"Hey man, aren't you going to give her your usual routine?"
Mouse looked at Tank blankly for a moment, the realized what he was talking about. Under his hat, his ears turned red.
"Yeah, Mouse... you pulled it on Neo..." Trinity ribbed him.
Without a word, Mouse stood up and left.
"What was that about?" Flux asked. Neo looked at Trinity, who in turn looked at Tank.
"Mouse programmed most of that training sim." Tank started to explain. "You saw the chick in red?"
"She was his pet project... okay, more like his obsession. He's tried to pimp her off on every male member of the crew at least once."
"Honestly?" Flux asked, amused. Tank, Trinity and Neo all nodded. "That's hilarious! I know guys who'd kill to meet.... her...." An evil glint appeared in her eyes. "Oh, I just got the BEST idea. Tank, can you teach me how to use the keyboard?"
When Mouse finally ventured back up to the
main deck again, being just a little less embarrassed the first person
he ran into was Flux, alone at the control panel and furiously tapping
something out. He started a little as he looked at the screens... on one
was his rotating view of the woman in red... on the next was a logo, a
ripoff of the AOL symbol.... on the one directly in front of the girl there
were several blocks of code that she was changing around to do something....
"What are you doing?" he asked. She looked up.
"Being the bitch most people know me as." An evil grin spread over her face. "No, actually... I'm making a video clip of the chick in red to send to this group of jerk-off guys I know inside the Matrix... It's her saying she saw them somewhere and wants to meet them... and they'll fall for it, hook, line and sinker, I'm sure. I'm gonna hack into one of the e-mail systems from out here and send it that way, so they have no clue who it came from. I hope you don't mind me using her... after you spent all that time on her program yourself."
Mouse shrugged. "I don't care what you do to her. I just threw her in the training program to piss Morpheus off a little."
"That's not what Tank said."
There was a long pause before Mouse responded.
"Okay, fine. She was... I don't know." He sat down on the nearest chair .
"You cyber-ho?" Flux asked.
"No, more like the only girl who'd ever look at me twice. And only because I programmed her to. Pathetic, huh?"
"No more pathetic than the time I had everyone convinced I was dating someone in Seattle. Taylor Unsichtbar. His family was from Germany, four generations back. Unsichtbar... you know what it means?"
Mouse shook his head, interested.
"Taylor Invisible. I was dating Taylor Invisible. When people started getting suspicious I 'broke up' with him... and acted sufficiently depressed for the next two weeks. If nothing else, I learned how to act depressed really well."
"At least I'm not the only one."
"At least I'm not the only one either. Here's to the losers." She held out her hand and Mouse shook it. "Welcome to the club. What should I write in the message part of this? You're a guy, what would get your attention?"
Mouse slid off the chair and stood beside her, leaning on the control chair and looking at the screens.
"That's what I've got so far." Flux pointed to the monitor in front of her. "and these are the four losers I'm sending it to." she pointed at another monitor, showing pictures and short bios on the four boys. Mouse scanned them quickly.
"Put in something to feed their egos... something about how manly they are... flatter them."
Flux typed in another sentence.
"Oh yeah, that's good... and how about where to meet her?"
"Somewhere cold, wet, and impossible to get to... umm...." She typed in another sentence.
"That's just mean!" Mouse protested, reading it.
"These are the guys that threatened daily to tie me down and rape me... nothing's too good for them."
"Rape you?" Mouse sounded surprised.
"Yeah." Flux continued, talking as she typed. "I don't see why they'd want to choose me, I'd be a lot of work... there are plenty of bimbos who'd give them what they wanted without the struggle I'd put up."
Mouse was silent. Flux hit one last key, then leaned back in the chair and smiled.
"Revenge is sweet. I wish I could see the look on their faces as they realized it was all a joke. I know they'll be there at the meeting place tonight.. they check their e-mail like, 18 times a day... they're all wannabe hackers... it's entertaining."
"Actually... I might be able to talk Tank into letting us go in, if we promise our asses off to stay out of trouble. Hold on." He scrambled down the ladder, in search of Tank.
Five minutes later, Mouse reappeared, Tank in tow, explaining the situation. They stopped just out of Flux's earshot. She couldn't tell what Tank was thinking.
"C'mon, please, Tank." Mouse was begging. "She really wants to see what they do... it'll be funny."
"She hasn't been into the Matrix once yet.. it's suicide for both of you if anyone makes a wrong step."
"We'll be right next door to the line out. Nothing could go wrong."
"Did you think anything was going to go wrong when we took Neo to see the Oracle?"
Mouse flinched, one arm sub-consciously going across his stomach.
"That was low," he hissed.
"Neither of you are going in without permission from Morpheus or Neo or Trinity going with you."
"Damn." There was no doubt in Mouse's mind that Morpheus, Neo and Trinity would not look on this kindly.
"Sorry." Tank offered. "But it's for your own good."
"Yeah, man, I know. Thanks anyway." He went back over and sat down in the chair nearest Flux. Tank followed him, shooing the girl out of his seat. She pouted, then climbed out, leaning on the arm and facing Mouse.
"Tank ixnayed going in to watch." Mouse told her
"Awwww." She turned and pouted at Tank.
"Hey, I don't want you two dead any more than anyone else...plus, Morpheus would have my head."
"Shoot! That would have been good cheap entertainment too. Oh well." She sighed. "I'll have fun just imagining what they'll do."
"If you were there, they'd scalp you." Tank said, running a hand backwards up her almost-bald head. "Of course, there's not much scalp to take."
"Shut UP! I didn't ask to look like Sinead O'Connor." Flux smacked him on the arm.
"No.. Sinead O'Connor pulled it off better." Tank taunted.
"Okay.. I'm not talking to you anymore." She turned back around and folded her arms. "So Mouse... what now?"
"Hey... it was a joke!" Tank protested.
"Gee, do you hear something?"
"No... I don't hear a thing." Mouse decided to play along.
"Oh, come on... not both of you!'
Flux turned around. "Oh, my!" she pretended to be making a wonderful discovery. "Look at this! I wonder what it is?" She looked behind Tank's ear.
"Okay.. cut it out." he protested.
"I think it's trying to communicate!"
"Yeah, trying... it's not doing too well." Mouse commented.
"All right...!" Tank grabbed Flux around the waist, dragging her into his lap where he tickled her. She shrieked and squirmed away, laughing. Mouse was in stitches, sitting on his chair.
"What are you laughing at?" Flux sat down next to him and gave him a good smack on the arm.
"Hey.... you got yourself into that one."
"So?" She smacked him again.
"Quit it!" He grabbed her wrists and held her down until Morpheus' head appeared from the ladder-well.
"Is everything all right here?" the leader asked. Tank looked at Mouse and Flux. All three nodded in unison.
"Tank... Mouse, can I have a word with you?"
Mouse shrugged, looking at Tank.
"Yeah.. sure." Mouse let go of Flux's wrists and the two followed Morpheus.
Alone, Flux sighed and climbed back into Tank's chair... looking for something fun to do.
Morpheus led Tank and Mouse into the mess hall.
Trinity and Neo were already there, talking quietly. They looked up as
the three came in. Morpheus gestured for Mouse and Tank to sit, then sat
in between Neo and Trinity.
"It's time to take Flux in to see the Oracle. I want everyone to go."
Mouse flinched. Trinity put a hand on his shoulder.
"This time, " Morpheus continued, nodding to Mouse. "we take everybody. I don't care how crowded we get, the safety of all crew members is more important than comfort."
There was a unanimous nodding of heads from the gathered crew. Mouse let out a quiet sigh of relief. He tried not to show it, but the memory of the Agents bursting in... his rather futile attempts to hold them off... still made his skin crawl. He remembered the feeling of the metal shells puncturing his skin, shooting through flesh to lodge somewhere deep inside. Puddles of blood, congealing on the floor around him where he lay. He shuddered. Trinity looked over at him, concerned.
"Mouse.. you okay?"
Mouse shook his head, barely. "Uh..uh." He was shivering. Trinity got up and came around to his side of the table, turning him around and kneeling in front of him.
"Mouse, why don't you come with me." She helped him off the bench and led him out of the room.
Flux looked up as they came in.
"Hi... what's wrong?" She jumped down from the chair she had been sitting in, sketching something on a scrap of paper.
"Things kind of.. took a turn for the worse." Trinity sat Mouse down on the chair Flux had just vacated and knelt in front of him. "Hey Mouse, I'm going to go join the rest of the gang, but Flux is here, okay?" There was a weak nod from Mouse. Trinity took Flux by the arm and pulled her aside quickly.
"It's a sort of flashback to when he was shot by the Agents... just keep an eye on him-he should be fine."
Flux nodded, glancing back at the boy. Trinity left to go back and join the others again. Flux sat down next to Mouse and put an arm around his shoulders. He was still shivering.
"It's just the day for nervous breakdowns, isn't it?" Flux muttered half to herself, remembering her own panic attack after coming out of the simulation earlier.
"I'm sorry." Mouse croaked out.
"It's okay." She squeezed his shoulder gently. "It's not your fault. Just don't get into the habit of apologizing too much... I do that enough for both of us."
Mouse managed a small smile, still looking at the floor. His knuckles were becoming gradually less white and his hands weren't clenched quite as tightly anymore. "Neo told you that."
"Yeah. He's not exactly the king of subtlety."
Mouse's smile grew a little bit more. He consciously unclenched his hands the rest of the way and rubbed them on his thighs. He didn't really want to move away from the girl. She was...comforting... in some way.
"Doing better?" she asked.
Trinity came back in in the middle of Morpheus'
"...amply armed and aware. Everybody watching everyone else's back at all times." He paused as Trinity took her seat again. "How's he doing?"
"Getting better, I think. I left him with Flux... she's keeping an eye on him," she answered. Tank and Neo exchanged a look.
"How is the girl doing?" Morpheus asked, looking around the table.
"She's doing pretty well... she couldn't sleep last night, but after she came out and talked to me for a little, she was fine." Neo offered.
"I taught her how to use the keyboards-she figured out how to code in no time flat." Tank reported. "I like her. She's kind of like the younger sister I never had."
Trinity smiled. "It's nice to have another teenager around. I think she adds a certain amount of life to the ship."
"Then we have no danger of having another.... informant?" Morpheus glanced around the table again. Tank, Trinity and Neo were all shaking their heads. "Good. We'll go in at sixteen hundred hours." Morpheus stood up, adjourning the impromptu meeting. Tank was out the door first, followed by Trinity and Neo conversing between themselves quietly. Abruptly, Tank stopped.
"Neo...look." he pointed at Flux and Mouse, heads together, laughing queitly about something, her arm around his shouders. From Neo's grin Trinity put three and one together.
"You guys... I don't believe you two." She shook her head. "From the digital pimp to the matchmakers. I swear you two are as bad as a couple of old ladies."
One of the monitors in the control panel switched the Matrix viewer off. An icon blinked in the corner. Trintiy headed for it, but Tank brushed by her and got there first. Flux and Mouse looked up. Trinity stood behind Tank.
"It's a data shift. The Sentinels captured another ship." Tank reported.
"Which one?" Trinity reached over Tank's shoulder and typed in the search command.
Neo, Mouse and Flux gathered in front of the screens.
"It's the Babylon... they captured the Babylon." Tank whispered. "The first one of us out." The crew list came up. "Protosym, Atlantis, Lilith, Chip, Thistle, Atom, Eon and Imp," he whispered.
"What happened?" Flux whispered to Trinity.
"Another ship was captured. The first one out from Zion. The Sentinels... the machines' equivilent to the Agents, are integrating the computer banks into their system. They're shifting data around, which we picked up." she explained.
"So there are things that come after us out here too?"
"Everywhere. Nowhere is really safe anymore." She saw the concered look on the girl's face. "Don't worry. We have a weapon against them the Babylon didn't. This is one of the safest ships."
Flux sighed and nodded, feeling only a little bit better. One by one, the crew left, scattering around the ship and leaving Tank alone to gather the grim news.