The biggest Sentinel extended a cage-like clawed hand and plucked the unconscious girl off of the stony ground.
Agent Johnson smiled, touching his earpiece. They had one. Not the way they had planned to capture either of the targets, but one of them had quite literally fallen into their hands. His mind was already running with new ways to get the girl to speak.
Sentinels were not designed for transport.
Flux dangled out of the leader's claw like a bad King-Kong reenactment.
She had to squint as she regained consciousness, against the wind that
was blowing and the speed. She figured they were going at least a good
forty miles per hour, if not over that. The Sentinels had going around
corners down to an art, whipping around with arms flailing to within a
foot of any debris but never quite close enough to hit. She yelped more
than once as she thought her head was going to be dashed against an obstacle.
She did her best to watch for anything that would stick out as a landmark,
years of watching bad cop shows stuck in her head. If she could get to
something and broadcast to the Neb, or just broadcast wideband where the
hell she was or what she was near there was a hope of rescue. Or at very
least some kind of help. There was the ruin of a pointed building that
reminded her of Portland's Koin tower.... a blast that had left debris
in an almost perfect flat circle.... She was whipped around another fast
corner and lost her bearings again, closing her eyes against the stinging
wind. They were slowing down now.. the wind wasn't coming quite as fast.....
A low silver dome winked on the horizon. Millennium? Flux wondered. It
looked the same but smoother somehow. They were moving towards it. Flux
did a double take. The silver paint seemed to be moving... alive! They
dropped closer to it. IT wasn't silver paint at all, but thousands of tiny,
almost microscopic multi-legged robots. They were seething over the top
of the dome even as it opened under the Sentinels. There was a grinding
noise as it stopped, crushing a few of the spider-'bots to death, Flux
assumed. The Sentinel carrying her was starting to crush her ribcage, making
it heard to breathe. She pushed at the claw. The Sentinel ignored her,
and dropped through the opening in the dome, the other following. The dome
slid shut again. Flux squinted. It was surprisingly bright the bottom of
the dome ringed with fluorescent tubing-light.
There was a hole, like the opening at the front of a hangar but in the floor that the four extra Sentinels dropped into, leaving the one carrying Flux out. A group of people, at least they looked like people, came running forward. the Sentinel extended the claw carrying Flux and dropped her in front of them, then turned and dropped into the hangar-space after its' associates. Flux had hardly hit the ground when there was a needle jabbed into the back of her neck and something injected. She yelped and jerked away sluggishly. Her vision swam. The people were leaning over her, looking at her. They looked human but not human at the same time..... something was wrong. Something was very wrong. She tried to turn to run and fell, her legs like jello. The last thing she remembered was her face pressed into the fine loose dirt and her arms being twisted behind her.
Trinity was going up the ladder from her post
at the breaker as she heard what sounded like a muffled sob from down the
hall. She stopped and waited for a moment, trying to decide if it
was just the wind outside or if it merited looking in to. There it was
again. She backed down the ladder and peered down the hall. The only door
that was open was Neo's, and there was nobody there.
"Hello?" she asked. Another muffled noise... it was coming from the next room over. Flux's room. Trinity nudged the door open and looked in. There was someone on the bed....
The figure on the bed shook its head. Trinity opened the door further. The light from the hall illuminated the dark room enough for her to pick out the shape of Mouse's ratty hat.
"Mouse?" She was confused. Still face down, he nodded and tried to stifle another sob. Trinity sat down on the bed next to him and put a hand on his back. "What's wrong?"
He shook his head again.
"Come on Mouse.... what's wrong?"
Mouse looked up at her. His eyes were red and wet and there were tear-marks down his face. He scrubbed at his eyes with the hem of his sleeve.
"Flux fell and it's all my fault." he croaked.
"What?" Trinity was taken aback.
"Flux fell.... over the side..... when the Sentinels.... attacked." he choked out and buried his face in the pillow again.
"And she's hurt? Is she in the sickbay?" Trinity stood up.
"No!" Mouse wailed. "She's back there somewhere!"
"WHAT? Did you tell Morpheus?"
"Yes! I told Tank and then I ran up there to the cockpit and told Morpheus and he said that there were too many Sentinels and we couldn't go back."
"Oh my god... Mouse."
He let her hug him, impassively staring at the opposite wall and biting his lip, trying not to burst into a fresh flood of tears. She pulled back and looked at him for a minute. A single tear leaked out of the corner of his eye and she used the corner of his blanket-poncho to wipe it away. His lower lip trembled and he closed his eyes, bowing his head. Trinity put her arms around him and he put his head on her shoulder and cried.
The upper left screen blinked off, then came
up blank except for a spiky icon in the center of the screen.
"What the hell?" Neo peered at it, then opened the program it belonged to.
>THIS IS FOR ALL SHIPS.
"What the HELL?" Neo turned and shouted towards the mess hall. "TANK! Get up here!"
Seconds later, Tank came scrambling up the ladder.
"Look." Neo gestured towards the cryptic green message.
>ESPECIALLY THE NEBUCHADNEZZAR.
"Get up." Tank took over his chair and typed something in. Three of the other screens stopped running the Matrix code and started scanning the frequency.
>ARE YOU LISTENING, ZION?
"Go get Morpheus and Trinity." Tank ordered.
"I'm going, I'm going!"
Morpheus was there in record time, and Trinity appeared a half-minute later, one arm around Mouse's shoulders. His eyes were puffy and red and he looked miserable.
"Where is it from?" Morpheus asked.
Tank shook his head. "I don't know. Nobody seems to know. All the ships are getting it and nobody has a clue about the origin."
"Are you recording it?" Trinity suggested.
"Yeah, it's all going down."
>PREPARE FOR TRANSMISSION.......
The dots slowly filled the screen, then disappeared.
flashed briefly on the screen and then there
was a man standing there, in front of a non-descript dirty grayish wall.
A fluorescent tube hung to the side of his head and cast peculiar shadows
across his face. He grinned, showing a mouthful of silver tooth implants.
"I just want you to know, Morpheus, that we received the little... gift... from your ship. I hope you're hearing this." He drug out his f's and s's, giving him a snake-like accent. He stepped in closer to the camera. "We..." he paused to look for the right word. "...appreciate it." He stepped back again and the camera panned down to show a backlit human-shaped lump at his feet.
"No...." Mouse breathed.
"Can we get some light on her?" The man was
directing people out of sight of the camera. Another fluorescent light
strip was lit and handed to the man.
"I assume you'll recognize her." He shoved the person over on their back and yanked her head up, holding the light next to her face.
Her eyes were only half open and she looked drugged and drunk and out of it, but it was unmistakably Flux, her forearms bound together in front of her. She was still in the harness from the Neb, but the propane torch had either been lost or taken.
"You can see she's a little out of it right now.... just side effects of the sedative, but I'm sure she'll be willing to talk to you later. It's too bad she may not be able to." He dropped her head and gave her a sharp kick in the side.
"Bastard!" Mouse hissed. Trinity held onto his shoulder tighter.
"You see," the man continued. "she's going to get to meet Snow Queen. Neo.... I believe you've seen her." Another sharp silver grin. "And Snow Queen is going to expect her to talk. And if.... what do you call her.... Flux?.... doesn't talk, Snow Queen is going to make sure she never does again. Snow Queen will make sure she never wants to *live* again."
"Snow Queen..." Neo muttered. "Snow Queen.....
oh jesus christ. Jesus freaking christ..... the white lady.... they'll
cut her tongue out. They'll torture her.... " Agitated, he ran a hand through
his hair. "We can't let them do that... Morpheus. We can't let them do
that to her."
Tank put a hand on his arm. "We won't."
"Neo. I assume you've figured it out? Good boy. For the One, you sure do take your time sometimes." Silvertooth examined one of his fingers, then bent it at the top joint. From the fingernail came a sharp thin blade. "Don't worry. We won't hurt her too badly at first." He drug the blade down the outside of her arm, cutting through the two layers of fabric to draw a thin line of blood. There was no response from Flux but a slow drugged blink. "It's only when she won't tell us what we want to know we have to resort to pain. Have a nice day... oh, and if you want to leave one of your screens free you'll be able to see her every once in a while... of course, after a while I'm not sure you'll want to. Anyway, enjoy."
The screen went black and then started scanning
the Matrix code once more. Mouse let out a choked-off sob and covered his
face with his hands. They were all frozen there. Tank was the first one
"What can we do?" He looked from Neo to Trinity to Morpheus.
Morpheus shook his head.
"I don't know. We have to find her. Somehow."
Flux blinked as Silvertooth bent down again
and shoved the light in her eyes. His forehead furrowed and his eyebrows
"Her dilation's off. How much did you give her?" He looked up to someone standing out of Flux's limited visual range.
"Only 200 cc's"
"*Only* 200 cc's? That's seventy five too many, you idiot. Snow Queen wants to see her as soon as possible. Lucid. Able to speak."
"I... uh..." The other person stammered, trying to recover.
"Get her into the room." Silvertooth hissed, throwing the light strip at the person and stalking off. "And get her awake!"
Flux tried to tell him she was fine, but it came out as a gargle. Things around her got dark... squinting, she could make out the shapes of four people standing above her. As they lifted her onto what felt like a stretcher she closed her eyes and was instantly tired..... a result of whatever drug they'd given her, no doubt. With a sigh, she gave up and slept.
A heavy silence hung over the Nebuchadnezzar.
Everybody had split up and was silently trying to stay out of the way of
everyone else. Tank was working on an idea of Mouse's, a way to capture
the coded radio signals from inside the Matrix, uncode them and play them
back as music on the Neb. Mouse was writing the program, rather listlessly,
and Tank was trying to put together an MP3 player-like device to receive
the decoded signals. He finally succeeded in hooking up he battery pack
to the outside of the thing and getting all the power to the correct places
inside. He picked it up and plunked it down next to Mouse.
"You done with the program yet?"
"Almost." Mouse put his elbow down on the arm of the chair and plunked his chin down in his hand. He looked up at the screens, typing with three fingers, then hit the enter key. "There."
"Got it?" Tank asked.
"I think so."
Tank lifted a wire down from a hook on the side of one of the consoles. He plugged one end into the player and the other end into the main port of the monitor setup.
"Let 'er rip."
Mouse hit the download key and waited. A dialogue box popped up on the screen showing them how much time was left to download the program from the main buffer to the chip inside the player. Tank watched it for a moment, then turned to Mouse.
Mouse looked warily back at him. "What do you mean, 'what happened'?"
"You know what I mean. How did she fall?"
Mouse looked away and seemed to shrink in on himself. "I had unhooked her so we could go in... I was trying to wind up the cable and then she screamed... she was slipping, and I tried to grab her.... but she fell anyway. I tried, okay? I tried to hold on to her, but she fell. She fell and it's all my fault." He got up and scrambled down the ladder, leaving Tank standing there in disbelief.
"Mouse! Hey, man I didn't mean it was your fault! Mouse! Hey!" He walked over to the top of the ladder. Mouse was already gone. "Jeez." Tank muttered to himself. "He's got it worse than I thought."
Flux opened her eyes on yet another unfamiliar
place. She uncurled herself gingerly, feeling all of her joints pop, and
looked around. She was in a room, presumably a cell, that was somewhere
in between Princess Leia's cell on the Death Star and Chewie's cell in
Jabba's palace. She grinned at herself for being able to think of Star
Wars in a situation like this. The walls were a smooth grayish metal,
and there was no door apparent. The ceiling was a metal mesh interlaced
with metal bars every foot or so making a large grid. The floor was
really strange. It was covered in straw, like an old castle or barn floor.
As Flux moved, it rustled. Shaking her head, she brushed the few hay bits
stuck to her centimeter long hair away. Unbuckling the harness, she slid
out of it and dropped it onto the sheet that she had been lying on top
"Wonderful bedding we've got here." she said to nobody in particular.
There was a low humming noise behind her. She turned in time to see the wall rippling and a figure stepping out of the center of the ripple.
"Whoa!" she murmured.
The figure stepped forward into the light.
It was a female Agent.
"What the hell?!" Flux took a step backwards. "You're.... how can.... you're not...." she sputtered. The Agent raised her clipboard.
"I have been sent to ask you a few questions." She spoke the same way the men did, slowly and with pauses in strange places. The only way Flux could come up with to describe her was 'evil Scully'... She was wearing a perfectly matched gray suit/skirt set and had straight, shoulder length straight hair in a non-descript brown color. As she did the once-over of the Agent, Flux had composed herself somewhat.
"Ask away, Ms. Census. Do you want me to play Rumplestiltskin and spin this all into gold or what?" Her flippant attitude was back with a vengance.
"First, I must ask that you not be smart with me and that you give me the best answers you can. Anything you can do to stay on our *good* side will make this much easier. *And* less painful for you." The Agent was circling Flux like a hawk.
"Okay.... whatever you say, Ms...." Flux waited for her to supply her name.
The Agent's eyes narrowed.
"Clark. *Agent* Clark. Now then. What is your name?"
"Last place of residence."
"Um... onboard... a ship."
"Which ship?" Clark took a step forward.
"One of them... I'm not sure of the name." She looked down.
"You're lying. Was it the Lilith?"
Flux shook her head.
Another shake of the head.
Another shake of the head, this time a little more hesitant. Agent Clark grabbed the girl's head with one perfectly manicured hand and wrenched it back so she was looking her eye to-eye.
"Were you on the Nebuchadnezzar?" Each word was short and clipped. "I am losing patience."
Flux clamped her lips together and stared into the Agent's eyes, refusing to answer.
"Very well. Since I know for a fact you were on the Nebuchadnezzar, I will continue. Very impressive loyalty to your ship, by the way. But this little refusal will go on the record. And it will be dealt with. Any siblings?"
"I can see you are going to be less than cooperative. This will go on your record as well." Agent Clark turned to leave. The wall started it's ripple.
"Oh, record, my ass. You think you can scare me with this school principal-army-mafia-Gestapo-secret service crap?" Flux said to her back.
Agent Clark turned again, to face her.
"Does that... *thing* around your neck have any meaning to you?"
One hand went to her neck, and Flux closed her fist loosely around the black crystal. Mouse's crystal.
"Then you won't mind if I take it to become part of your record, will you?" Clark stepped forward and with one motion extracted a fingernail blade like Silvertooth's, cut the necklace in half and caught it in the same hand as it slipped through Flux's fingers. The Agent turned to go again.
It took Flux a second to realize what had just happened, and then she was livid.
"Give it back!"
Clark kept walking. She was almost to the wall, still rippling. In a sudden burst of anger, Flux ran up behind her and grabbed her around the neck, yanking her away from the 'door'. Clark pulled away from the girl.
"Give me my necklace."
"It's not yours anymore. It's for your record."
"Screw the record!" Flux launched herself at the Agent, grabbing the wrist of the hand holding the necklace and the end of the necklace dangling from her hand. Clark gave her a backhanded whack across the face, tightened her grip on the necklace and started calmly trying to pry Flux's fingers off of her wrist. Flux winced and almost let go again, but at the last moment grabbed the necklace and let go of the Agent's wrist to give her a terrific hard blow to the face. Clark let go of the necklace and went reeling backwards, losing her balance and tumbling to the floor. Flux snatched the necklace back and retreated to the farthest corner of the room, kneeling in the corner. Clark calmly and infuriatingly stood up, brushed herself off, straightened her jacket, retrieved her clipboard and walked out, through the rippling wall. Flux suddenly realized how loudly her hear was beating. But she still had the necklace. If it came down to it, she decided, they'd have to kill her to get it away again. It was her last real link to home, the Nebuchadnezzar, and to Mouse.
The icon was back on the screen. the one that had shown up right before the first video of Flux. Tank looked up as it appeared. This time it didn't wait for someone to open it, but opened itself.
>THIS PROGRAM WILL REMAIN ACTIVE AT ALL TIMES<
The words disappeared and a video viewing screen came up. There was no sound, but the image was unmistakable. Tank watched, his jaw hanging open. When the video looped back to the beginning, he snapped out of it.
"TRINITY!" he hollered. "MORPHEUS!"
Running footsteps clanged towards him from two different directions. Morpheus and Trinity appeared at almost exactly the same time, Trinity being followed closely by Neo.
"What is it?" she gasped.
"Tank... what's wrong?" Morpheus asked.
"Look." Tank pointed to the video.
They watched as the Agent grilled Flux. Neo grinned slightly when Flux managed to deck the woman, but Trinity shook her head.
"They'll hold that against her." she whispered.
"For self defense?" Neo said. Trinity nodded.
Morpheus tapped one knuckle against his upper lip. "She can't be left in there too long."
"Do you recognize it?" Trinity asked.
Morpheus shook his head. "Regretfully, no. I've never seen anything like it."
"What about Mouse?" Tank whispered. "Do we tell him?"
"Tell me what?" Mouse was standing next to the ladder, hair disheveled and eyes red.
Trinity and Neo glanced at each other, and then Trinity glanced from Morpheus to Tank to Mouse.
"You should see this Mouse." Trinity made the decision. "The whole crew's in this together."
Mouse came slowly forward to stand in between Trinity and Neo. He watched the video clip, then turned away, going over to the closest chair and sitting down, his head in his hands. Trinity followed him and put a hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off.
"Mouse... " she began.
The screen beeped and the video clip turned into a live feed. Silvertooth was standing behind a huge desk with wires running from every corner of it. There were small screens behind him, each looking in on a different cell. The walls looked like they were made out of something organic... white, and lit from behind. He leaned over the desk towards the camera, grinning.
"So, Morpheus. Quite a little bitch you've got there. It's too bad I couldn't authorize Agent Clark to kill her right there, but Snow Queen insisted that she not be harmed... *too* badly. Oh.. and you can talk to her if you want."
Mouse was on his feet in an instant.
"The frequency should be encoded in the body of this message. You'll be able to find it." He paused and ran his tongue over the silver canines. "The only catch is that if you do contact her, we instantly know where you are. And we can deploy Sentinels to join you." He grinned once more, and the screen went black.
>CHANNEL STILL OPEN<
"Bastard!" Mouse hissed. "Son of a bitch!"
The topmost monitor dinged.
>TRANSMISSION FROM 6598735 TO 7783420<
>BELSHAZZAR TO NEBUCHADNEZZAR<
The Belshazzar was one of the newer ships,
commanded by Scan. It was her face that appeared over the video-transmission.
She was a native of India, making her one of the few freed who didn't look
constantly pale and sick.
"Morpheus. Are you getting the transmissions too?" She still had an accent from her childhood. Scan was one of the younger commanders, and sometimes called on Morpheus to help. Her ship, the Belshazzar, was a newer model from the same blueprints as the Nebuchandnezzar.
Morpheus nodded. "We've gotten both of them so far."
"And she's one of yours?"
Another nod from Morpheus.
"Man!." Scan muttered. "What happened? How did they get her?"
Morpheus glanced back at Mouse.
"There was.... an accident. She was outside working on the hover coils...."
Mouse looked up from where he was standing in the back.
"I unhooked her so we could come back in and she fell, okay Scan? It's my fault."
"Mouse." Neo said sharply. "It's not your fault. It was an accident."
"You tried to catch her," Tank added. "You told me that. You did all you could have."
"But she still fell!" Mouse wailed. "I was the only one who could have kept her from falling and I didn't!"
"Mouse, calm down." Scan was saying. "Just calm down." Mouse had spent a week on the Belshazzar coding an agent training program for them, and Scan had realized how hard it must be to be a teenager freed from the Matrix. As if you weren't already having classic teen problems, you now had to deal with having your whole world yanked out from under you and being forced to live in close quarters with at least three adults that could be as or more demanding than your parents. And all seven of the teenagers freed had come from not-so wonderful households. Because of this, Scan had a special place in her heart for Mouse. "It wasn't your fault, Mouse. Mouse!"
Trinity had one hand on his shoulder, which he was trying to get off.
"Mouse," Trinity said. "Come with me. No, just come with me." She steered him over to the ladder despite his protests and followed him down.
"Was he friends with the girl? Flux?" Scan asked.
Neo nodded. "Mmm hm. Good friends. They kind of look out for one another. Even though she's only been out for a couple of weeks."
"A couple of weeks!? And she's been kidnapped or whatever by the Agents?!"
"Scan," Morpheus broke in. "How secure is this line?"
Scan hesitated, then got his point.
"Anyway, Morpheus, is Tank there? Echo wants to talk to him."
Tank got up from his chair and joined Morpheus and Neo in front of the video feed.
"Hey, Echo. How're you doing?" Echo had been one of his friends from the Academy back in Zion. Morpheus and Neo moved away to let them talk.
Trinity herded Mouse into the mess hall and
sat him down on the closer bench.
"Talk to me, Mouse." She leaned against the wall and looked at him. He refused to meet her eyes and watched his hands as he cracked each of his knuckles separately.
"If you don't talk, Mouse, it's not gonna get any better." She paused. Mouse didn't react. "You're just gonna keep kicking yourself in the ass and it's gonna get worse."
"It already *is* worse. I was scared shitless when Flux woke up in the middle of the night screaming, but I did what I could to help her. I knew I could help her.... I knew she was okay.... Now she's god-knows-where, being tortured by some cyborg bastard with absolutely no feelings whatsoever, it's my fault she's there, and I can't do a damn thing about it."
Trinity knelt in front of him and put her hands on his knees. "Mouse, Scan was right. It's not your fault she fell. It could have been Tank up there, it could have been you who fell, it could have been Neo trying to keep me from falling. It was chance. It could have happened to anyone."
"Tank would have caught her. He would have been able to pull her up." Mouse muttered. "God, I bet she hates me now."
"You tried to catch her. She knows you tried, and she knows that it wasn't your fault you couldn't hold on to her. She knows you didn't purposefully let go of her, and I bet she feels awful too. Honestly, Mouse. She understands."
"How do you know?"
"I'm a chick. We know these things." She smiled, and put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure, given a choice, Flux would much rather be back here on this scrap heap of a ship with you and the rest of us. You really care about her, don't you"
"Yeah... I just... don't want to... lose her, I guess. She's the only person I've really... connected with since I was freed. I watched her, before she came out... sometimes, and... I don't know. I just don't want her to get hurt."
"We're going to get her back Mouse. Morpheus will make sure of that."