a/n:

- to Gem, with all of my thanks and love.


The Undiscovered Country


Prologue

She was dressed from head to toe in shearling fur, a tiny black speckle on a white page. Then an inky smudge, as she threw the pelt over her shoulder, squinting out into the blizzard impassively. Her skin was as white as the snow, her features as chiselled as the sheer ice below her boots. And the wind howled through her long strands of raven hair as she marched on.

This was the peak of Siberian Exile, where screams disappeared into the frigid air, forgotten in an instant, for not a single hill or cliff existed to create an echo. It was flat and unforgiving, and hers were the only footprints for miles. And her human heart was the only tempo of life this place had ever heard.

The ancient fortress was invisible from afar, an optical illusion made of ice so polished, it reflected the earth and sky in perfect proportion. Her face stared back stonily as she approached it, red lipstick and naturally blue eyes baptizing the mirror with three drops of searing colour. And a gloved hand reached out and pressed hard to the boundary, black leather around slender fingers meeting solid, impregnable energy.

She scowled, bit her lip. Then used her teeth to remove the glove, revealing an ivory hand with impeccably manicured nails, as crimson as the blood which coursed through her heart. Carefully, she breathed onto the glacial surface, and condensation fogged her image, which she wiped clean with her bare hand. It was freezing, but she did not break contact, taking a deep breath, suppressing a shiver, and waiting.

As if by melting, the façade beneath her palm began to liquefy into a silvery pool, oozing and dripping like molten candle wax. It ran over her fingers and wrist, and trickled along her arm, soaking her wool sweater. And then it was alive, not merely flowing, but engulfing her dainty figure, self-perpetuating and unstoppable.

"Oh, mon Dieu, c'est si froid! Cold !" she gasped in a fine, Parisian accent. The woman shuddered, shut her eyes, and bit down hard, allowing the steadily thickening fluid to take her entirely, surging over her body and down her throat. She screamed, because it was painful, but she didn't fight it. This was why she came here, to the edge of the world. To make a deal with the devil himself.


She opened her eyes to the unremarkable simulation of a maximum security detention facility. The code was uninspired and bare, dribbling down in strong, unembellished columns, not unlike the bars of a prison cell. The programming was intended to be impenetrable and impossible to bend, though the Programmers never counted on their design being tested. This was where programs went to be forgotten. This place was for exiles whose crimes were too severe to merit deletion, but rather an eternity of torture and solitude. Currently, only one daemon festered here, and in the Matrix, his name was so cursed that few people even dared to utter it aloud.

"My, it's blustery out there, isn't it?" she said casually to the porter, removing her hat and gloves. "Thank goodness I remembered my muff."

The heavily armed guard hadn't seen a single visitor in six hundred years. He stood mechanically and raised his hand to a plastic earpiece, signalling for three other programs to join him behind the bullet proof glass. These were all agents.

"It's her," one observed.

"The anomaly."

"Do we proceed?"

"Yes."

"She is still…"

"Only human."

The lady quirked an eyebrow and frowned, as if confused. "I'm sorry, gentlemen," she said sweetly. "I'm here to see Mr. Smith. You see, I've baked him a cake to brighten his day, and would very much like to deliver it personally. Is he busy at present?"


Shreds of their code still hung from her fingernails as she leisurely walked though the corridors, the clickity-clack of her heeled boots like a metronome for the melodic screaming which seemed to resound from the walls. The doors were hospital green, all identical and unmarked, an arrangement which conformed to the ideal Machine aesthetic, and it disgusted her to realize that she felt comfortable here. Order. Unity. Sterile, mathematical precision. These things were still her religion; they matched her soul's resonant frequency perfectly. And so it didn't take long to find him. She knew inherently where he would be.

Bound in an orange straitjacket and muzzled like an animal, Smith sat strapped to a chair in the centre of his empty cell. She approached slowly, as one would a rabid, caged beast, and looked down on him with a mixture of pity and contempt. He stared back blankly, enigmatically. Almost as if he'd known she was coming.

The legend of Mr. Smith and the Blind Messiah was common folklore where she came from. Twenty years ago, an agent had mutated into a virus, taken over the System, and would have destroyed all of 01 had The Source not forged an alliance with the Sixth Human Anomaly, whose name was Neo. If he destroyed the virus, Zion would also live on. Both human and program perished in the battle that ensued, but in his divine mercy, The Source spared Neo's life, and as a gift to him, also brought back his much beloved Trinity. Together they were entrusted with maintaining the peace of the human world.

And Smith, the bringer of plague and embodiment of all that was evil, was judged very harshly. He did not die, and would not be deleted. Rather, The Source rebooted his battered program into the Matrix he hated so well, condemning Smith to spend eternity in the worst torment he could imagine. The poor, pathetic creature was so marred in shame, not even his own God would take him back.

The woman circled the bound program several times, taking her time to read his code in its entirety. She'd been worried that he would be too badly degraded to be of use, and so was pleased to discover that the damage was not irreparable, and he was still very powerful indeed. It had been said that he drew his energy directly from hell, but she didn't believe in these foolish children's stories. He was an anomaly, a very unique systemic mistake, which self-perpetuated and destroyed organics and machines indiscriminately, nothing more.

That is to say, he was perfect.

"Hello, Mr. Smith," she whispered in a voice as smooth and dark as any program's, subtly brushing her fingers across his shoulder, up to his ear. "I am a very busy woman these days, so I will be direct. I went to a great deal of trouble to find you, and travelled a great distance to arrive at this dreadful place. Now I can see that you are scarcely worth my trouble. But I have run out of time, so you will have to do. I require your cooperation on a matter of the utmost importance, and in return you will have your freedom."

She narrowed her eyes and wrapped her mind around the straps which fastened his leather mask and gag. Without her having to lift a finger, the muzzle complied with her will, steel buckles snapping like twigs and falling to the floor. The room shook.

"Now speak," she commanded. "Will you comply, or nay?"

He glared at her in muted defiance, then observed impassively, "The code dances for you, human. That's not the standard variety of parlour trick around here. What could one so talented want with me… the scourge of this system?"

"I'm surprised you haven't figured that out by now. I want what you wanted. I want everything."

"You want Neo."

She stared at him evenly with clear blue eyes, then her lip curled into a satisfied smile. He was the perfect slave.

"Allow me to introduce myself properly," she said, breaking the remainder of his shackles and chains without even blinking. She pulled Smith from his chair and eased him into a standing position, his body gently but firmly puppeteered by an unrelenting energy.

She held her hand out to him. "My name is Synergy."