Inside the Matrix the new lead Agent, Agent Johnson smiled. The Sentinel-the new searcher breed-had transmitted enough information before its death to give them a new target-The Nebuchadnezzar. Two distinct heartbeat signatures had been recognized, that of one Thomas Anderson, known as Neo, and that of one Teka Langden, known as Flux. One of them was sure to crack and give them the location of Zion - the girl most likely, because of her age. Once they had secured the city, they could begin the cleansing. Agent Johnson smiled grimly. This would be a good hunt.
The thing on the side of the ship disconnected
with a thunk. The lights flickered back on. Flux didn't move, her eyes
squeezed shut. She was shivering. There were footsteps down the hall, and
Tank came in the door.
"You guys okay?"
Flux shook her head.
"What was it?" Mouse asked him.
"I don't know... they were squiddies of some sort, but they didn't have as many arms."
"They? There was more than one of them?" Flux looked at him.
"Yeah.. there was one here and one up over Neo and Trinity in the cockpit."
"Neo.... they were after me and Neo."
"What?" Mouse was confused.
"How do you know that?" Tank asked.
Flux shook her head. "I don't know.... I just do."
Tank glanced at Mouse, then back at Flux.
"Okay." he sighed. "We got the power grid up again, but I think it's only temporarily. I guess since everyone's up we're gonna start working on that now." He stood. "Better get up there before they come down here looking."
Flux untangled herself from Mouse and they followed Tank up to the main deck. Trinity had her head inside a panel on the wall and was pulling fried wires out and handing them to Neo.
"Neo, what do we need done?" Tank asked.
"We're gonna have to find replacements for these," he held up the handful of charred wires.
"There's a whole mess of loose wires down in the mess hall." Mouse said. Neo and Tank both looked at him.
"Go get 'em." Tank told him. Mouse headed back down the ladder, and five minutes later, came back triumphant with a bundle of loose wires in all different lengths.
"Those are awfully short." Tank look skeptically at the bundle.
"These are also awfully the only ones I know of." Mouse replied. Tank thought it over.
"Take Flux and you two go look for more. If you can't find 'em, come back and you can both start soldering the really short ones together."
"I honestly don't think there are any more." Mouse protested
"Just go look. There were a whole bunch of long wires in the storage hold for a while."
"In the storage hold?" Mouse considered that for a moment. "Okay... fine." Flux followed him back down the ladder. Instead of going down the hall back towards the mess hall and the rest of the rooms, he ducked through the small hatch behind the ladder.
"Just a question... but do you know where you're going?" Flux called after him.
"Yeah... the storage hold's almost underneath the mess hall. This is the only way to get there." He paused and waited for her.
"So this is just random stuff in storage?" she asked.
"It's all the stuff we knew we ought to keep that there wasn't any room for anywhere else. Watch your head, the ceiling gets low in here."
Flux ducked, looking around. They must be going into the absolute bottom of the ship. Wires snaked around down here even worse than they did up above. She voiced this opinion and Mouse laughed.
"I know... if you thought it was bad up there you haven't seen anything until you get down here. We're gonna have to get down and crawl the rest of the way."
"Oh goody." She followed him into the tube-like hallway. "It's like Star Trek... a Jeffrey's Tube."
"Not quite as high-tech though." He went around a curve.
"Not quite as climate controlled either. It's freezing down here." The tube ended in a half-circle up ahead. Mouse paused and reached up, pulling a chain hanging there. The end of the tube lit up.
"To shed a little light on the subject." He jumped down into the storage hold, then helped Flux down. The storage hold turned out to be a long low room piled with random pieces of technology occasionally interspersed with a totally random piece of something else. Flux picked up a brown leather bomber helmet and tried it on.
"What do you think... is it me?"
"Oh yeah... it's you."
She laughed and waded into the junk.
"So we're just looking for any wires we can find?"
"I guess so. Tank didn't specify at all."
"Okay." She pulled at what looked like the middle of a wire. The junk on top of each end shifted and she pulled out a red rubber ball attached to a wooden paddle by an elastic cord. "Oh hey! You know how impossible these things are?" She started trying to hit the rubber ball with the paddle. A minute later she had hit it only once.
"Darn it to heck. I give up." She tossed it into a half empty box. "How deep are these wires supposed to be buried?"
Mouse shrugged. "I have no clue. I don't think they even exist and Tank's sent us on a search for nothing."
"Then we find a whole bunch of nothing and go back and tell Tank that." Flux waded further into the stuff. "How about that corner? It looks hopeful." She started towards it, pushing stuff out of her way as she went.
Five minutes went by, then ten, then fifteen, and they didn't find a thing.
"I give up." Mouse sighed.
"Yeah, me too." Flux turned around. Mouse had disappeared. "Mouse?"
"Where the heck are you?"
A hand waved over a stack of stuff.
"What are you doing back there?"
Flux cleared a path to the pile of stuff and looked over it. Mouse was sitting on an old beanbag chair, holding a pair of pliers.
"Come down here often?" she asked.
He chuckled. "Only when Morpheus wants something done." He scooted over, making more room on the beanbag chair. Flux sat down beside him.
"It's actually kind of nice down here... or it would be if it weren't so damn cold."
Mouse reached behind her and pulled the blanket that had been wadded up behind the beanbag over her shoulders.
"Morpheus must want a lot done." she observed wryly. "You have everything but your own food supply down here."
"Yeah, but how much of that glop could you stand to eat in a day?" Mouse asked.
"Good point.... You know what food I miss?" She leaned back into the beanbag.
"Chocolate. I want a big 'ol Three Musketeers bar." She sighed. "Guess that's not gonna happen again though."
Mouse slid down into the beanbag so their heads were together.
"You know what I miss? Stringy cheesy pizza that's so hot all of the toppings slide off when you bite into it."
"Or Ring Pops. I was addicted to raspberry Ring Pops. I always had blue lips."
"Cheeseburgers with greasy French fries."
"Even school cafeteria food sounds good now." Flux moaned. "It's not until you can't have it you realize how good it really was."
"You haven't even been out that long." Mouse reminded her. She sighed.
"Long enough. Everything from my life before seems like a weird dream."
"Either that or this life is just a weird dream."
"Yeah. Do you ever wonder what the people you knew did when you just disappeared off the face of the earth?"
"Off the face of the Matrix, you mean? I don't think I was close enough to anybody for anyone to really notice."
"I know what you mean, man. I know what you mean. I think there's only one person at school that would have noticed I wasn't there for more than one day in a row."
"My 'parents' probably just figured I ran away or something. I threatened it enough." Mouse shrugged. "I hated them so much. My mom divorced my dad when I was three and then remarried this guy who hated my guts but loved my little sister and brother because they were actually his kids. Every time I came out of my room he'd yell at me for some totally bogus reason. That was why I started hacking to begin with... so I'd have an excuse to stay in my room for infinite amounts of time. "
"I got started when I figured out how to get on the internet at school without a password. One of the guys in my class who saw me do it said he'd give me twenty bucks if I could get into the school computer system and change his grades. I didn't want the money, but I did it just to see if I could. From there, I started trying to get into bigger and bigger things, just for the heck of it, and changing little things just so they'd know someone had gotten in there."
"Can I have part of the blanket?" Mouse asked.
"Yeah... here." Flux untucked it from around her shoulders and handed a corner to him. She sighed again. "It's so hard to realize that the Matrix is just a really good VR program."
"But you always have to remember that even when you're in the Matrix, you can get hurt or killed out here. It's kind of a big game of seeing how many rules of the Matrix you can bend. Or a big mind game-seeing how much you can believe is actually physically there or if your brain's just making you believe it's real."
Flux looked at him. "So was that kiss real or was my mind making it up?"
Mouse looked back at her. "Do you want to find out?"
She nodded. He leaned towards her and their lips touched briefly. Flux put her arms around his neck and kissed him back.
"So what do you think?" he asked.
"It was real." She grinned. "You're awesome, Mouse."
He smiled back at her. "I still want that cheese pizza."
"I still want my blue-raspberry Ring-Pop and my Three Musketeers bar." She put one hand under her head and looked up at the ceiling.
The lights flicked off and then after a moment, on again.
"Hey, you find those wires yet?" Tank called.
Flux and Mouse looked at each other. Mouse shook his head.
"We're not here." he whispered, and pulled the blanket over their heads so they were covered. "Don't move."
There was a clang as Tank jumped down from the opening in the wall to the ground.
"I know you're down here somewhere.... Come on..... Flux.... Mouse....." He was getting closer.
Flux had one hand over her mouth, trying not to laugh. Mouse grabbed her wrist.
"Don't you dare," he whispered. She shook her head, and put her face into the beanbag.
"Come on...." Tank called. "It's cold down here." Mouse lifted a corner of the blanket and peeked out. The beanbag creaked.
Shit!" he hissed, and dropped the blanket. Tank turned in the direction of the noise. Flux smacked Mouse gently. She could see Tank's boots from under the blanket as he stood in front of them.
"Ah HA!" Tank lifted a corner and peered under. Flux cat-hissed, frightening him, and he dropped the blanket, reeling back a few steps.
Flux stuck her head out, grinning.
"Scare ya?" she asked.
"Jesus Che-rist!" Tank panted. "Give me a heart attack!"
Mouse's head appeared from behind Flux.
"That's what she was trying to do."
Tank gave him a nasty look. "Did you guys find anything down here?"
Mouse looked at Flux. She looked back at him.
"We found... ab-so-lutely nothing." She leaned back into Mouse, who put his arms around her waist. Tank raised an eyebrow.
"How hard did you look?"
Flux looked up at Mouse.
"Well..." she started.
"I guess..." Mouse interrupted her. "well... okay, not very."
They both grinned sheepishly at Tank, who rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Get back to looking, will you? We're running low."
"You could help us, y'know." Flux cocked her head to the side. Tank considered it for a moment then sighed again.
Flux climbed to her feet. Mouse braced himself to stand up, then yelped in pain.
"What is it?" Flux asked.
"I don't know." Mouse lifted his hand. Stuck into the heel of his hand was a small black crystal. He tried to take it out. "Ouch.... Christ, that hurts. Can you get it out?"
Flux held his hand still and took the crystal in between thumb and forefinger.
"Hang on." she warned him, and quickly pulled it out.
"Shit!" he hissed, putting his hand to his mouth. Flux wiped the crystal off on the hem of her shirt and then held it up. It was in surprisingly good condition for being kicked around in the hold for who knew how long. The end had been broken off, leaving the sharp edge that had lanced Mouse, but all of the rest of the corners were still intact.
"That's worth holding on to." Tank had been looking over her shoulder at it. She nodded.
"It would make an awesome choker." She grinned. Mouse looked at the hole in his palm. It was bleeding, making a small red pool in his hand.
"God-damn it." He put his other thumb over it, trying to stop the blood. Flux tore off a side of the blanket and wound it around his wrist and up over his thumb in a crude sort of bandage. Tucking the end of the strip into itself, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and dropped the crystal into his hand.
"There's the bugger."
"Hey, that's a really nice crystal. If you could recut the end it would look pretty good." He held it up to the light and looked at it. "Neat."
Tank had been going through the junk around them, and now yanked something out with a triumphant shout. He was holding a bundle of wires as thick as Flux's wrist of all different colors, lengths and thicknesses.
"I knew they were down here." He gloated to Flux and Mouse.
"Oh, shut up." Flux stuck her tongue out at him. Tank pretended to use her tongue for target practice, then turned and waded back to the tube upwards.
"You guys might consider coming back up. I'm sure Morpheus'll find something else that needs to be done." He waved the wire bundle at them once, then crawled away. Mouse shrugged and followed him, leaving Flux to bring up the rear.
Neo met them at the top of the ladder.
"I though you guys had gotten lost. You find anything?"
Tank handed him the wires, grinning. "These look good?"
"Hell, yeah." Neo responded, grinning and took them from him. "What'd you do to your hand, Mouse?"
"Stabbed myself with this." He held up the crystal. Neo made a face.
"Ouch." He set the wires down, undoing the twist-tie around them. "Trinity, what do we need?" he called into the access panel in the wall of the ship.
"One of the point eight blues, to begin with." she called back, and stuck a hand out to take it.
The re-wiring didn't take long. Flux and Mouse
helped hold things out of Trinity's way and sort wires. After a while,
Mouse started trying to bring the crystal's end to a point again. Absentmindedly,
Flux started knotting four of the soft fine wires together as if they were
hemp strands. Mouse managed to get the crystal into a pretty good point
and twisted a silver wire around it, making a kind of holder for it with
a loop on the top. Flux finished the wire necklace-thing and put it down
in front of her. Seeing it, Mouse took it and threaded one end of it through
the loop on the crystal, then handed it to Flux.
"You keep it.. it was your hand." She gave it back to him.
"Yeah, but it'll look better on you, and besides, it was your idea."
She laughed. "Okay, okay." Taking it, she put it around her neck and twisted the wires together in the back. "How's it look?"
Flux shook her head, grinning, and hugged him.
The lights flickered.
The ship jerked.
"Trinity?" Neo called down the service hatch. "We've got trouble." Her hand came back up, and Neo took it, helping her climb out.
"What is it?" she asked. Tank was over at his monitors.
"I don't know!" He was tapping furiously at the keyboard. "Nothing's showing up as being out there! There's nothing out there!" The ship jolted again, and this time there were scratching sounds directly overhead. Trinity hurried forwards to the cockpit.
"There can't be nothing there." Neo protested.
"It's not picking anything up! Are you sure you didn't disconnect the sensors?"
"We didn't touch them!" Neo was indignant. The intercom crackled to life.
"Tank, what's your reading?" Trinity's voice asked.
"Still nothing. There's nothing out there."
Another jolt, and the scratching sounds turned into the screech of strained metal.
"Tank," It was Morpheus this time, "ready the EMP."
Tank flipped the Plexiglas shield on the EMP switch up.
Tank turned the switch. There was the familiar scream, and the ship shook. The scratching noises continued.
"Oh gods." Flux whispered, looking up.
"What the hell?" Tank looked at the readout above the switch and then back to the screens. "It didn't do anything." There was a scrambled conversation in the cockpit.
"Tank, again." Morpheus commanded.
"I can't, sir.... it's still recharging!"
There was a shower of sparks at the aft end of the ship.
Where's that thing Cypher had.... the gun?" Trinity asked, over the intercom.
Tank looked at Neo.
"I think it's down here somewhere... why?" Tank told her.
"Find it." Her voice was hard. "Fast." The chair in the cockpit squeaked as she got up.
Neo scrambled to find the gun. It had been hidden under one of the numerous cable coils last time he had seen it, collecting dust. He pulled it out and dusted it off. Trinity came in.
"Does it still work?" she asked.
Neo flipped the switch and it hummed to life.
"Good." She flipped it off and took it from him, heading towards a ladder on the wall.
"What are you doing.." Tank asked at the same time Neo spoke.
"You can't be.."
Trinity was holding onto the gun with one hand and climbing up the ladder with the other. She knocked a trapdoor open and kept climbing, out of view.
"Dammit." Neo hissed and scrambled after her. "Trinity... Trinity!"
There was a clang and the muffled sound of wind. The main deck got three degrees colder. The sparks flying from the end of the ship stopped, and they could hear the crackle of electricity. There was a thud on the hull, then something fell over the side of the ship, bouncing on its way down, then shattered. Flux jumped. There was another clang and the wind noise stopped. Trinity came back down the ladder, with Neo right behind her. The gun was nowhere to be seen.
"Trinity, that was stupid." Tank blurted out. She glanced at him as her feet hit the deck.
"It got rid of it." was all she said. Neo jumped down behind her and crushed her in a huge hug.
"You could have been killed."
"I wasn't," she protested, but hugged him back. Morpheus came in from behind Tank.
"Trinity, what was it?" he asked. Neo let go of her enough so she could turn and face Morpheus. She shook her head.
"I'm not sure. It was a standard squiddy arrangement, but the whole thing looked like it was made out of ceramics. It shattered when it hit bottom, so I'm guessing that's what it was.""That would explain why the EMP didn't really work." Mouse piped in.
"The ceramic wouldn't have shielded it enough that the pulse didn't get through..." Tank was thinking out loud.
"It might have had some internal shield or something...." Neo added. Tank shook his head.
"I doubt it."
"What if they've come up with a way for the sentinels to adapt themselves?" Trinity offered. Tank and Neo looked at her.
"That's not good news." Tank said.
"Whatever these are, we must come up with a better defense." Morpheus closed the Plexiglas shield of the EMP switch.
Agent Johnson grimaced. The ceramic Sentinel
hadn't lasted half as long as it had been planned to. If they were going
to take the Nebuchadnezzar and the two aboard, they were going to have
to find an even better weapon. He ordered two of the new ceramic Sentinels
to keep a tail in the ship, but never to get any closer than seventy feet.
He slowly allowed a smile to take over his face. Intelligent prey, but
not intelligent enough. He would crack them if it took forever.