Life in Death, Part 6
disclaimer: the Matrix owns me.
Set between The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded.
A/N: Thanks to those of you who have waited so patiently for me to get my act together; I promise to be quicker about posting chapters in the near future, as the semester winds down. This one was especially tough to write.
The aftermath of the EMP blast was soundless, still as death. For a few heart-stopping seconds, Neo was certain he'd gone deaf. It was always that way; no matter how many times he experienced this empty hole in time, the edge of the panic never wore off, and he rode the wave of it now with teeth gritted.
Then the familiar dull grey-and-blue world of the Nebuchadnezzar came back into unsteady focus, and his breathing, low and heavy, filled his ears, sharp against the silence. He stared ahead at the dead screen in front of him, his reflection gazing back out of the black ether. Tired, worn. Years etched there instead of mere months.
He turned away, unable to meet his own eyes.
With painful care, he pried his fingers from the rusted gun-triggers, slick with his sweat. Morpheus stood out of the corner of his eye, and he forced himself to do the same, untangling his legs and arms from the now-powerless jungle of wires and electronics that trapped them. Shakily, he found his balance.
Then a chill swept through him as he realized how close it'd been: too close. There had been no rhyme nor reason to their flight - it'd been mayhem, a mad struggle to stay in one piece while falling as far off the map as fate would allow. The Neb's sickening shudders as the Sentinels had again torn apart the outer hull still rang in a dead, ghostly buzz through his body. His gunfighting had been completely without technique, the sheer number of red eyes that filled the viewport throwing his senses into disarray. Without Morpheus covering him, without Trinity's deft piloting, without Tank keeping them on the alert, yelling his faithful warnings, knowing exactly where those random, hidden forks in the tunnels opened up... with no concern for his own shortening life...
Neo briefly entertained a moment of dark cynicism. All for what? The chance to shoot both themselves and their enemy in the foot? To start a new race: who can recover the fastest, who can gather enough primitive strength to strike the next blow.
That the only real, threatening weapon they had against the machines required such a crippling act struck him as bitterly ironic. Here they were, stranded, powerless, one of them dying, too many already dead. He thought he had been through with feeling that utter lack of control when he left the Matrix.
But all too often lately, the real world was reminding him that it had no loopholes.
They'd made it, yes. They were far away from whatever homing device Tank had been out there so desperately getting rid of.
But at what cost?
Neo turned to face his captain, and with no more than a glance exchanged between them, they both hurried for the Core.
Trinity was already with Tank. One hand clasped his tightly, the other rested a ragged cloth firmly against his neck to staunch the bleeding. His side was temporarily bandaged with the salvaged ruins of his sweater, but it could do nothing for the blood that had already been lost. As if attempting to escape that simple fact, Trinity absorbed herself in her task, hardly looking up when she heard Neo and Morpheus approach. Tank turned his head minutely at their footsteps.
He looked like hell. But he still managed to crack a weak smile as they entered.
They could not find it in themselves to smile back.
Their denial seemed to drain from the air like sand slipping through will-less fingers. It was known, somehow - to all of them - that those uneven, labored breaths Tank was taking were numbered. Wordlessly, Neo and Morpheus helped Trinity brace him and carry him the few torturous steps towards the medbay. The enormity of what was happening enveloped them in silence.
It was amazing how aware you became of someone's life - every quirk, every blink, every sigh - when faced with their death. Time was slow, but inevitably moving, and they let it pass with anxious, oppressive dread, waiting in a kind of reverence for him to speak.
Trinity's mask of calm control as she fussed with the details - hooking Tank up to support, programming the comps to analyze his vitals - was more transparent than ever before, dangerously close to a breaking point that none saw more clearly than Neo. He touched her arm gently, and it went through her like a shock. She looked up at him for the first time since he and Morpheus had rejoined her, and though the anger in her icy eyes was not directed at him, he felt it should be. I'm sorry, Trinity. It seemed that ever since he'd come here, nothing had followed him but death, tragedy, pain - in all its forms. Some savior. Was this what the One was destined to bring?
Then Tank stirred again, and they collectively held their breath. His eyes won a temporary struggle to keep focus, and when he saw their stricken faces, he brightened: balancing out the miniature universe of the Nebuchadnezzar, as always.
"Don't look so damn depressed." He coughed, and no one smiled. Sobering, his lids drifted closed. "Was only doing my duty."
"Tank, you didn't tell anyone." Morpheus's voice was inflected with remorse, his brow creased in what looked like the beginnings of despair. Neo couldn't tell who between them hurt more to watch.
Tank shook his head strongly, and Trinity placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"And get you all killed with me?"
Several unspoken responses hovered in the air.
"Any of you would've done the same, and don't deny it." He tried to add a lighter edge to the last few words, but it fell flat. He leaned back and sighed: a long, shuddering sigh that they all felt.
As captain, Morpheus realized with reluctance that he would have to be the one to withdraw the confirmation they needed - something that would be irretrievable soon, even if it seemed so ridiculously trivial in the face of what was happening. He let the empty words fall from him.
"The homing device," he started, quietly. "Was it..."
Tank cut him off.
"They rigged it after..." he swallowed with effort, but could not finish the thought. Would not. He repeated the word under his breath, nothing else needed. "After." That one admittance seemed to sap all remaining energy from him, and he fell back into a haze.
After slaughtering the entire crew of the Transient, with the flawless efficiency that could only be attributed to a machine.
Neo tried to relish the hatred that came with such a thought, but found it harder to hold onto... tampered by that inexplicable vision, the unsettling memory of four Sentinels mere feet away from him, his outstretched hand acting as an impossible shield... an image of power that repulsed him, frightened him... he had felt them.
He shuddered and pushed it away, as he did with so many other things, to fester in his subconscious.
Tank shifted towards Neo, then, startling him out of the infamous cage of his thoughts.
He was caught by Tank's firm but fading gaze, and the cramped metal room seemed to tilt as Neo took a step forward and leaned down, wondering why he was the one being wasted words on - he who had known Tank the least, who was the cause of all this, their curse, their bane, the reason, in some convulted way, that he was lying there in front of them all. It wasn't right.
But, he also realized, it wasn't his choice to make.
And so he gripped the side of the medtable, trancelike, with quiet determination, not wanting to miss a syllable.
The words were gritted and weak, but Tank through and through.
"You kick their sorry asses for me."
Trinity was curled up on the far corner of their bed, and did not move when Neo entered. The loud creak of the hatchdoor opening mocked the silence. Neo stood in the doorway, watching. She could feel his stare, even with her back to him. Her knees were clasped tightly to her chest, black hair that she had only just begun to let grow out falling around her face, hiding it from him.
It wasn't that she was trying to avoid him; God knew what a futile attempt that was. Like slicing out her own heart and expecting to live more than a handful of seconds without it. It was simple fear that kept her this way: the fear that she might break if she looked upon him.
But she needed to break, she understood that now - it was the lesson he had taught her when he'd first turned her world upside down four months ago. The haphazard way she had tried arranging herself all her life needed to be shattered, so that she might be put back together stronger, wholer than she'd been before. That was what he did for her, without fail.
And she knew it was what he needed her to do for him, now.
It was what they both needed.
She could feel his guilt filling the short space between them... along with a paralyzing fear of touching her, trapped like some twisted form of Midas. Why he always took every burden, every blame, so naturally upon himself, she would never understand.
The sound of her name finally caused her to turn, the wretched desperation in his voice - to a degree she'd never heard before - convicting her with force.
They clung to each other like life, drowning mutual weakness in mutual strength, their grief washing out through hot tears, each trying to still the other's trembling.
Morpheus stopped at the open doorway, hesitating, and was moved as he witnessed the last two members of his once-proud crew silently reaffirming what they had left. Two solitary souls, finding some measure of shared will in the other. The sight brought an unfathomable glimmer of hope into the bleak sorrow of that hour.
He continued watching them for a steady moment, humbled.
Then he bowed his head and walked away.