Author's Note: Sorry for the long wait. Hopefully I can get better about that now that it's summer. No promises though.

If you're enjoying this, go check out my stuff for Constantine. You know you want to. Go be good Matrix fans and support Keanu. And me. But mostly Keanu. Right.

Michelle


Chapter 12: A Choice

"Back aboard the floating tin can again," muttered Sparks, flipping a card and grimacing. He'd been attempting to play solitaire for the past two hours, but hadn't yet managed to win a hand. "The odds are against me today."

"Statistically, the odds are always against you," said Ghost, looking up from his book.

"Why does that sound like a personal insult coming from you?" asked Sparks, flipping again, then giving up and shuffling the cards back into a pile in the center of the table.

Niobe glanced at them out of the corner of her eye, but resisted the urge to speak. She'd come down here for some peace and quiet in which to study some technical maps of the sewers—really just to get out of the confines of her room—but she was finding it impossible to concentrate. Still, the sound of voices, even theirs, beat the groaning of the engines.

"Take it as you will," said Ghost, his attention back on his reading.

Sparks shuffled the cards an extra time, letting the little bit of wind from them hit his face. They'd been in the tunnels for three weeks now without seeing any action, or any real activity at all for that matter, and the stuffiness was beginning to get to everyone. It seemed less and less likely that whatever was afflicting the Zionites was being caused by anything down here—there didn't appear to be anything more sentient than some bacteria which fed on rust. But still the calls came from the core, more and more taken ill by the disease. People were more than beginning to panic. It was surreal for the crew of the Athena, being trapped amidst dark, silent, floating waste and scrap piles from the war, hoping for some kind of action to keep them from going stir crazy. Hard to believe that only a few hundred miles away, thousands were dying.

Sparks spread his cards on the table, flipped one over, picked one up. Groaned again.

"Go fish," he said to himself, and Ghost looked up again, shaking his head.

"You know talking to yourself is never a good sign," said Niobe. They both turned and looked at her. She shrugged.

"Only person down here who hasn't told me to shut up yet," countered Sparks.

Niobe rolled her eyes.

"Getting acquainted with one's inner self can be a rewarding experience," said Ghost. "However talking may not be the best way of going about the task." With that he shut his book, got up, and left the mess hall.

Sparks blinked.

"Was he just mocking me?"

Niobe shook her head.

"We may never know."

"So what's the plan, Cap—"

"Sparks…"

"Niobe. Sorry. What's the plan? How long are we going to be rotting down here before we can conclude that nothing's going on?"

She sighed.

"You know as much as I do, Sparks. Until the council comes up with a better plan of action."

Kid walked in then, holding the Rubik's cube, his entire attention focused on it. It was still as scrambled as it had been before, if not more so.

"Luck?" asked Sparks, smirking.

"No," snorted Kid. "I think I'm just making it worse."

"You seem to be good at that," said Sparks. "I mean, in general."

"Hey!"

"Boys…"

"Aw, come on, Niobe. You said it yourself. You're not the captain anymore."

"I'm still your senior officer. And the last thing we need is to start needling one another."

They'd been passing the Rubik's cube around the ship for the past several weeks, but no one had had any amount of success with it. It seemed as though the fates were teasing them, using the cube as a metaphor for their entire fruitless mission.

"Niobe?" said Link, sticking his head in the door. His usual warm voice sounded oddly strained.

"Yes?" She folded the maps and looked up, his tone making her heart speed up. Much as she'd hoped for action of some kind to alleviate the boredom, a crisis right now was anything but an inviting prospect.

"I think you'd better come to the Core. We've got…a bit of a…just come."

Niobe got to her feet and followed Link through the twisting hallways of the ship, leaving her maps folded on the table. There were only two possibilities here: either they'd gotten word from the Council, or they'd come upon something that could possibly explain the crisis in Zion.

Neo and Trinity were seated around one of the monitors as Link and Niobe entered, locked intently in what appeared to be a discussion hinging on argument. Neither one looked at all happy.

"The Council must have approved it. He couldn't have just acted without them," said Neo quietly.

"Doesn't matter," answered Trinity. "The Council is in Lock's pocket. Has been for months now. Everyone has forgotten how terribly he performed in the war already. That's the entire reason we're out here wasting time instead of back there where we could actually be doing some good."

"Then we have to stop wasting time," said Neo.

Link started to speak, but Niobe held up a hand for him to be quiet. The others hadn't noticed their presence yet, and suddenly she wasn't eager to interrupt.

"What are you saying?" asked Trinity sharply.

"That we get to the bottom of this."

"By jacking in."

"If that's what it takes."

"You know we can't do that. It would be a violation of the Peace."

"So is what we're doing now. People are dying. We have to risk it."

"You wanted to see me, captain?" said Niobe, breaking in at last.

Trinity jumped, looked up sharply, then shook herself and nodded.

"Yes. We've received some disturbing news from the Council, and we need to decide what plan of action—"

"What kind of news?" asked Niobe, suddenly very afraid of the answer.

"Things have gotten so bad that…Commander Lock…felt it was necessary to carry out his plan of defense—"

"Morpheus is dead," said Neo bluntly.

Niobe felt as though she had just been punched in the stomach. The walls had just collapsed on their mission—there would be no more waiting around. There would be a simple choice now—obey a commander who had just for all intents and purposes committed cold blooded murder, or take their chances in violation of the law.


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