She moved through the crowd, jostled by passerby, an observer behind her own eyes. Trapped inside her own body, she tried to slide between the onslaught, a single point of black among the blinding whiteness of brides, sailors, every white "work" outfit imaginable.

And then….out of the crowd of white, gliding through the crowd as though they weren't there, as though she was immune to the crowd's effects, she seemed to drift out, red dress floating around her, blonde curls bouncing with elegant ease.

No, she whispered. Not again.

But she could not control her head in this body, could not control her head as it turned to watch the passing woman, that splash of scarlet across the white. Was she that weak, that she couldn't even control her own head, or was she being taught something? Was she somehow being told something, seeing something of some great importance, or was she being punished with the lack of control over her own limbs?

And as, with some reluctance, her head began to turn, she tried to scream. NO! I will not allow this to happen again!

But there was nothing she could do, as her face turned, her eyes – though not truly her own eyes – widening in shock and terror as they found themselves staring into the barrel of a sleek Desert Eagle.

NO!

The explosion from the gun was the same as it had always been – slow, painfully so, erupting towards her as, for the first time every time, she was released from her parilysis, and she could scream…

With a sharp gasp, Elita Oona Morgan shot up in her bed, drenched in cold sweat, tangled in her blankets.

Her pain fading with the realization that it was only The Dream, Elita leaned forward, curling her knees up to her chest, running a shaking hand through her damp, stringy blonde hair. "Not again," she groaned to the quiet room, trying hard to forget, again, what was happening every time she closed her eyes.

Beyond her, sitting on the rumpled bed, was the shoebox room of a college student. Walls painted stark white, it was decorated with the strangest hodge podge of items – class schedules beside newspaper clippings beside mangled computer printouts beside movie posters beside complicated and highly technical looking printouts of computer coding. Her computers – all three of them – were on, and the harsh light as they scanned through reams of documents and files on the world wide web bathed the room, making it look even more stark and empty.

Rubbing her eyes absently, she pushed herself off the bed, and staggered over to the computers. Sliding into her spinning desk chair, she pulled a pair of chunky head phones on with one hand and slid a pair of think framed, square glasses on with the other.

"Since I'm up anyway…" she groaned, and rubbing at her cheek with one hand, sent her hand scurrying with the mouse to see what the search she'd left running that night – as every night – had found.

The same as every other night, the computers had found nothing of real interest. A few conspiracy groups that she was keeping her eye on anyway had printed up more typical Apoptalyptic rumors, but it was, as usual, all old news to her. Sighing, she changed a few of the search parameters so it'd search deeper for her, then logged onto her regular chat room. Only a select few were allowed into this chat room, it being reserved for only those few who believed that something was seriously amiss in the world.

Granted, anyone who stumbled upon that rather innocent looking chatroom (not that they ever would) wouldn't find anything of any interest. Titled simply "The Elite", Elita had had to laugh the first time she'd been invited to join – how incredibly ironic was that? Her fingers screaming across the keyboard, she logged in as her "alternate ego" as she liked to call herself – Pheonix. She had purposely mis-spelt the word, though she told everyone that the meaning itself was not changed.

Once into the page, she did her routine check to ensure that no "outside forces", as the team had nicknamed them, had infiltrated the board, then checked to see who else was on.

It didn't surprise her in the least that the only other person on was someone named 'Saber'. Saber, oddly enough for a person that she'd never met in real life, had to be her best friend. Despite the fact that they never talked about anything personal – too much risk of leaking who the other person was if you actually knew who they were – they would talk about conspiracies and their likelihoods together until they had exhausted them all – and then they'd invent a few more. She had no idea what Saber was really like in real life – just as Saber had no idea who Pheonix really was. Only one aspect of their own personal lives had ever entered the sanctity and safety of their digital world, and that was The Dream.

Instantly typing out for her friend, Pheonix wrote,

Saber. it happened again.

There was a pause for only a moment, then the other (she assumed) girl wrote,

**were you able to change it?**

nope. again

**lady in red still giving you a headache?**

Elita grinned at the extreme irony of her friend's comment, although she knew that the irony was 100% intentional. oh, of course. it doesn't last past waking though

**well, it proves we're right, anyway**

The comment had popped out of nowhere after a moment's pause, and Elita found herself staring at the screen, slightly slack-jawed. Excuse me? She thought. That…proves we're right? What the-

how the heck does that prove anything?

**proves we're having our brains played with. besides, i think i read something on the net about a lady in red that kept showing up in really odd places. now she shows up in your dreams. i think it proves that there's a system we're stuck in**

a system?

**like VR, only more real. so real that we can't tell the difference between it and reality**

Elita hesitated. This was a theory they had discussed before, and frankly, the two had opposing ideas. Saber believed that reality wasn't really reality, and that was all some huge Virtual Reality illusion. Elita believed that, while there were artificial intelligence running around, AI was the limit of the sci-fi-ness. She had termed the AI "agents" once on the net, since any and all reports of these so-called AI had given a description like that of an FBI or CIA agent. Somehow, her unintentional dubbing of the suspected AI had stuck, and now the word 'agent' was often seen flying around certain chatrooms and newsgroups.

thought we agreed that that was a little farfetched?


**you agreed. i still think it exists**

Elita sighed, and leaned back in her chair. a repeated dream does not prove a VR world

**what does it prove then?**

neurosis

**LOL**

There was no typing for a few moments, as Elita stared at her screen, not really seeing it. Was Saber right? No, of course not. The entire idea of a VR world was completely ridiculous. Grinning, she had to admit to herself the reality that so was AI, but at least she didn't think she was plugged into some system.

Tapping her fingers lightly on the keys, not hard enough to actually type but hard enough that there was a satisfying click rising from the keys, Elita sought for inspiration. Her eyes passed over the still-searching programs, and over the still chatroom. At the bottom, in small font, it read "Page Copyright to And ."

Elita had always wondered who the two blanks had been. She assumed that their names, even though they would have been hacker aliases on a page like this, and not their real names, had been removed because someone had been too close to finding them out. The Elite was, regrettably, a volatile place sometimes, going down at random as people attempted (futiley, so far) to hack into the databases, and every so once in awhile, sending emergency emails to its members to stop all activity for a few hours and drop out of sight. It drove her nuts, since she'd been named a moderator about four months before, and whenever they were told to stop everything, she had to shut down all her computers for about 24 hours while they waited for the Fed sweeps to pass by. She always nearly went stir-crazy without them.

It had become somewhat of a goal, then, to find out who the blanks were. For nearly three months, she had been searching in a seemingly endless sea of information. That was what her program searches were looking for at that moment.

She cocked her head at the screen, harsh punk music screaming in her headphones, and narrowed her eyes. "Hmm. I wonder…" she murmmered, then leaned forward and typed into her search program, " And ." leaving spaces and the blanks.

Not expecting anything to happen with this minor change, she pressed "Enter".

Her computer paused for a moment, as though hitting the top of a roller coaster, then exploded.

Eyes wide, Elita leaned forward, staring at the screen, gaping at the extreme amount of results. Surprisingly, she wasn't finding anything about "blanks", but she was finding lots about a computer hacker named "And". Requests for their arrest, their capture, even, to her surprise, records of some of her exploits.

saber, remember my project?

**to find out who programmed this website?**

and who hacked into oh….about 30 major websites and created the Truth virus?

**how did you find that out?**

saber…it's AND

**like the AND OR and NOR gates?**

right. only their name is And. the page was created by blank And blank? no. created by AND

**that's weird. are you sure?**

check it out for yourself

Elita sat back with a grin, waiting to see what her friend thought. She didn't have to wait long for Saber's response.

**what the heck! that's amazing!**

I know. sweet, ain't it?

Turning away from the conversation again, Elita headed back towards her search programs, and typed in again "And", then added, almost as an afterthought, the word "agent". Unlike other programs, this one would not omit certain terms just because they were common, and was also specially designed to seek out results relating to computers and hacking.

Again, the response was phenomenal, but the first response was the one that caught her eye. "Agents nearly apprehended rebel And this morning, 0817 EST. Eluded capture again, last seen…" and there the preview for the page ended.

She clicked on the page, and, for about 30 seconds, found herself on a page that looked remarkably like some kind of FBI report page before the screen of her computer went black.

"Hey!" she yelled, jumping up in her seat, turning to check her other two computers, both of which ran on different operating systems, and both of which had black screens. "No way they all crashed at once!" she yelled at the unresponsive screens. "No bloody freaking way!"

Slowly, almost as if being typed by someone without much experience on computers and with laptops, words began to appear on Elita's three computer screens. "they are watching you"

Frowning, Elita hit the 'Ctrl+Alt+Del' pattern all knew so well. This had to be some kind of twisted joke – probably something Saber had done, thinking it would be funny. But her computer did not exit the program, nor did the typical blue Microsoft screen show up. 'Alt+F4' did no good, nor did 'X' or "Esc'. Something was seriously wrong with her previously well-working computers, and she couldn't for the life of her figure out what it could be.

"they have you, Pheonix"

The letters appeared unbidden on the screen, typed slowly and carefully.

"What the…" Elita growled, glaring at the screens, and trying to see if she could type any kind of response. The keyboard was unresponsive.

"they want you, Pheonix."

"Who wants me?!" Elita nearly screamed at the computer. "What's going on?!"

"they can't be allowed to have you"

"Well, thanks." She said sarcastically, now slumping back in her seat, arms crossed, jaw set, glaring daggers at the screen. "You want to save me from some screwed up….whatever it is, whoever it is that wants me, but hey! No need to tell little ol' Elita who wants to capture her!"

As though the computers – or, whoever was typing the messages – was responding, the next message made her stop and stare, for while she had heard the terms, and the phrases, never, never before had she heard them in the context – and in the meaning – that they were being used for now. And while they made no sense to her – they chilled to the bone, and they made her catch her breath.

"the matrix has you."