"No!" screamed Aleph. Fires gushed everywhere, ascending to heaven, and their brightness was like an unexpected dawn after an infinite midnight. Time spun out of control; the bridge buckled like a wild steed beneath her, throwing her down roughly against a patch of twisted girders protruding above the void.
Frantically, she clawed against the fragile concrete, clambering back to some sort of footing. When she was able to see again, the flames had gone out. The heat of the conflagration died with inconceivable swiftness, just the same as it had so suddenly leapt to life only a brief while ago, leaving behind only a chill caustic scent in the air that six centuries of bitter winds could not dissipate. Darkness below, darkness above. The only illumination penetrating the gloom was the lightning that still burned among the clouds, intermittent, unapproachable.
Seraph had vanished, dissolving away as if he had always be no more than a memory. Only Smith remained upon the burnt-out ruins, wasteland behind him, nothingness to every side. He was—for the briefest of heartbeats—still standing. The sword had pierced him straight through, its hilt jutting out of his chest, surrounded by a circle of garish blood against his mangled shirt, no larger than the size of a human fist, hardly expanding. He had not lowered his gaze. The intensity of his unblinking stare upon her face was like a lifeline.
A low, choked cry—her own, she supposed—and Aleph sprang forward. Her arm caught his shoulders just as he began to sink. Carefully, she lowered him to a kneeling position, one hand supporting the back of his head. Somehow she managed to avoid touching the sword, the least disturbance of which must be fatal now.
"Don't say anything. Don't say anything," she whispered, knowing he never could.
His eyes pleaded wordlessly up at her through a haze of pain. Glancing down, Aleph saw the sword buried in his breast, the blade that had but a moment ago flared like the sun already gone cloudy with age, silver tassel on the pommel tattered in the breeze. In a burst of agonizing illumination, the knowledge flashed upon her that he had been down here all along. Stars had wheeled in the world above, and the hollow shell of his form had walked across six cycles of the Matrix, animated by the purpose designed for him by others, driven by contempt and anger and hatred, while Smith—the real Smith—had remained upon this bridge, nailed through to the prison ever since the day of his first fall. But he was not here alone now. Not anymore.
"It's going to be okay. Look at me. Look at me, Smith. It's going to be okay..."
Her hand hovered in terror an inch from the sword. The wind had died, yet the tassel upon the handle was still aflutter, pulsing in barely perceptible rhythm. It was the beating of his heart.
"Smith." Aleph swallowed. This was wrong, all wrong. He was a program; there wasn't supposed to be a heart that could be rent open by anything so simple as steel. Her fingers made a tentative stretch toward the hilt; she jerked them back again in a pang of indecision. The blade must be the only barrier holding back the flood of his arteries now. If he had been human he would surely die the instant it left his body.
"Smith," she said, drawing her sight back to his countenance and fixing it there. If she tried hard enough she could drill past the pain and past his eyes and all the way into his mind. If she tried hard enough she could make the weapon disappear through sheer force of will. "Look at me, Smith. This is not happening. You are not human; you are not bleeding because you cannot bleed. Do you understand me, Smith? This is only code. This is not happening and it cannot kill you—"
In one rapid, fluid movement, she gripped the sword by the handle, yanked it out, flung it aside, and immediately clamped her hands over his wounds, the right palm upon his chest, the left one against the exit wound on his back. Leaning into a low crouch along with him, she laid him onto the ground.
"Look at me, Smith. This is code, only code...Remember what you are, this cannot kill you..."
In less than one second, her hand, pressing desperately upon his torso, was already soaked red. She never imagined there could be so much blood.
"No. No. Listen to me." She bit back her own panic. "You are not dying because you cannot die..."
His heart had sped up with such suddenness, pounding madly close to her touch, as if it was about to rip out of his body and leap right into her palm. How could one bleed so much who should never possess a single drop blood? What could possibly be the purpose?
"You don't need blood. Remember you don't need blood. This is only code. It's not happening. It's—it's not real..."
His eyes were starting to lose focus. And the blood just kept pumping feverishly against her palms, so much more than there ever could be in a real human body, an entire life pouring out of him in a scalding flood. All she could do was watch helplessly.
I remember how this feels, commented a familiar voice next to her ear. One stupid piece of metal straight through, and before I knew it, my soul was already drained out of me, every last drop. All it took was a few seconds.
"Smith, please, just listen, listen to me. This is only code pretending to be blood. This is not real..."
Ah, but all this is real, chére mademoiselle, retorted someone else behind her consciousness. There was a touch of laughter in it, and a touch of amused condescension. Exactly as real and exactly as illusory as your own soul.
"No," muttered Aleph through gritted teeth, though she no longer knew to whom she spoke. "No!"
How can code be anything but real? asked the snide, French-accented demon inside her mind. I do not play with illusions, but seek to change reality. It just takes a bit of magic.
Bring me a miracle, demanded a third voice, one that she barely recognized. It was weary beyond the measures of time, and husky with the scent of a thousand cigarettes.
Aleph closed her eyes. She could still count the pounding of Smith's pulse, but it was beginning to weaken, growing sluggish. The blood seared her skin, until she was holding a handful of flames.
"Stop. Stop hurting him," she said, the words coming from the vanishing point at the end of a tunnel of echoes. She did not know what they meant, nor to whom they were being said; they came from her of their own accord. "Smith, listen to me. You cannot be dying because I am still alive. Because you are me, and I am you. As you die, so shall I. As I live, so shall you. Now live."
The viscous heat against both her hands sublimated to tangible light. Her eyes were still squeezed tightly shut, yet she could sense it, either by vision or touch or neither or both simultaneously, code in all its harrowing and brilliant power, merging between the two of them like a million needle pricks.
"You have died already, Smith. You have died by sword, and by light, and by falling from high places. You have been torn and burnt and taken apart, piece by piece." Fear evaporated, and she enunciated each syllable with absolute clarity. "You have died far too many times. Now live. Live. Live."
The abyss rose, and folded around him along her arms, enveloping both of them in its living embrace. He fell, and she fell with of him...
An eon passed, and Aleph opened her eyes.
She was still kneeling over Smith, one hand pushing against his chest, the other braced around his back. The bridge was still a brittle branch above a bottomless gorge, the world still a rotting corpse. His heart was still a secret drum.
The beat of it was slow, but steady and strong now, and the blood was no longer slick against her palms. There was a dull ache within her own breast, as if she, too, had been injured in an unremembered previous life. Tremulously, frightened of what she would find, Aleph moved her hand, lifting it a very slight distance from his body. It was stuck to his shirt. After a hesitation, she shifted a little more, peeling back the remnants of fabric. The congealed blood had blackened. She gave it a cautious rub, and found the gash at the center of his chest had already healed into a narrow scar, a pale, hard ridge against the dark stain. It appeared very old, like a wound that a human might have sustained in childhood. His skin was cool.
She did not need to examine herself to know that the other scars—the ones on her own body—had vanished without a trace. They had never been there at all.
The breath hitched in her throat. Pulling up a little, she looked into Smith's face. And he looked back up into hers, eyes wide open, something different about them she could not yet identify.
"Aleph," said Smith after a long while, voice hoarse as if it had not been used for ages.
"It's okay. Don't say anything," whispered Aleph in a daze. "Don't say anything. It's okay now..."
"Aleph," repeated Smith softly. That something different about his eyes was a new light that glittered in the blue depths. Tentative fingertips reached up and brushed against her hair, a gentleness in the touch she could hardly have believed possible, yet his stare was no longer directed at her, but past her shoulder, past hope, toward an impossible firmament.
Sunlight. It was reflected sunlight that shimmered in his eyes.
"It looks like...looks like we found the door after all," murmured Smith.
It took several seconds before even a hint of what he could conceivably have meant filtered into her brain. Aleph inhaled deeply. At last, steeling herself against the sudden and irrational wave of fear, she turned around.
Overhead, directly above the bridge, a line sliced across the sky, an edge as flawlessly straight as if it had drawn with a knife. To one side, in the direction from which they had come, clouds roiled like an endless sea of pitch, filling the heavens without break, scarlet-streaked with the same electrical storm that had raged above the earth for years beyond recall. But across the line, in the direction beyond the chasm, a strong wind had risen. Victorious wind, driving the darkness before it in swift rout, shredding apart the clouds as if they were nothing but flurries of ragged and insubstantial cotton, nothing but illusions. Patches of pure, liquid blue punctured down among the shadows, at first only here and there, then growing in numbers, then too many to count. And sunlight came, shouldering past the still-dim places and spilling onto the half-collapsed bridge, from drizzle to rain to glorious downpour. It was warm on her face.
"That was what you said, wasn't it?" Next to her, Smith lay on his back, limbs outstretched, eyes ablaze with mirrored azure, a grin about his lips. "The ingredients. Blood and memories..."
"She was talking about the door, the Oracle." Sitting on the ground, Aleph let out a short shaky laugh. "The door to the prison they made in ancient days, and the key that will only work if you find it on your own..."
She lowered her gaze from the sky, and beheld another great marvel upon the far shore of the canyon. The gleam of green on the horizon was no longer a single firefly, but had expanded to an entire skyline, towers and spires marked out in the luminous splendor of an emerald forest. Beneath the golden code of the sun, it stretched like a fairytale, purer and more beautiful than any dream that human minds could conceive.
And she knew the name of the city.
"All this time. All these years," mused Smith. "I was the lock. It has always been me."
"And the key, the key—your key—is only code that seeks its rightful owner," recited Aleph half to herself, words trembling with reverence and wonder.
Pushing off against scorched concrete, Smith rose to his feet. He lifted his head into the wind.
"I have seen you," he said. "You were here with me from the very beginning, Aleph. When you looked at me, into me, I knew—I knew I would not die, not yet. You..." He turned, peering down at her, and did not finish whatever he was about to say. A pause.
"You have always been with me."
Aleph opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again without managing a single syllable.
"How's your shoulder?" she asked at last in a small voice.
Smith raised his left arm, laying his other hand over the shoulder. For the first time, it occurred to Aleph the dagger, too, had disappeared. This was no time to wonder about that particular matter anyway, she decided.
"It has healed," he replied as if it were the most obvious thing. "Of course. That wound was centuries ago."
What he said might not have made sense according to mere logic, but her soul, filled to over-brimming with his presence, understood instantly. She watched as Smith walked along the frail ledge between two cliffs, between past and future, until he came to the sword she'd pulled out of his body. He bent to pick it up. The shade of steel had deepened to ebony, perhaps with blood, perhaps simply with the centuries—as only to be expected—but the body of the blade seemed sound. Smith held it motionless for a few seconds, then with a flick of the wrist, he hefted the weapon and gave it a swing, just a move or two. A dusky constellation streaked through the air.
"There." He pointed toward the verdant city upon the edge of sight. "I wanted to get across. To get there. I came so close, but he was waiting for me."
In a few long, confident strides, he returned to her and extended his free hand.
The tendril of a smile touched Aleph's lips: it must have been an exact replica of his. With a nod, she took a firm hold of his grip and allowed him to pull her up from the ground. Both their hands were caked with grime and dried gore, but their fingers laced and did not let go. Standing side by side, they contemplated 01 shining against the horizon. For a while, neither spoke.
Finally, Aleph withdrew her attention to the silence nearby. She glanced around, casting about for a weapon, but could not see anything suitable among the debris. Yes, now she remembered: the bit of piping she had wielded against the record of Seraph had flown from her grasp and down into the depths. She would have to find something else later, after they made it to the other side. But before they reached the city, she made a mental note to herself. A weapon would almost certainly be needed before they reached the city.
"Come on, Smith," she said. "Let's get out of here."
Here ends Awakenings, the first part of Smith and Aleph's story. My deepest, sincerest gratitude goes to all you wonderful readers out there: I could never have come this far without you. Thank you. Thank you so much.
The journey will continue.