I do not own, nor do I claim to own any characters from the Matrix trilogy. I do own the character Etna, but she is based upon a concept from the "Neuromancer" series by William Gibson. I do not own the concept.

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The guy had seen better days, that was certain. He was lying half-propped against the gray bricks of the Gertis building, effectively blocking the alley to my apartment building. I didn't live in the best part of town, so I wasn't just terribly startled by his presence. I silently wished I had a dime for every drunk I'd seen blocking my alley. If he was dead, though, I'd better call someone to come pick him up. Balancing my Chinese takeout in one hand, I leaned over to check for a pulse with the other. I stepped back, very startled. I hadn't needed to touch him to realize what I was looking at.

Agent.

Old instincts kicked in hard, and I nearly dropped my takeout as my body tried to do several very conflicting things, including vault over the agent, yell, reach for the gun I didn't have, and run backward out of the alley, all at the same time. I have to admit it was a very ungraceful maneuver for someone who's been at it as many years as I have, and illogically, I was grateful the agent was passed out. It meant he hadn't seen me acting like a newbie out for her first jaunt in the Matrix. I laughed darkly at myself; I had better reasons to be happy this agent was unconscious.

It hit me then, suddenly, feeling a little like a two by four. This agent was unconscious. What in the hell? Agents don't pass out and they don't get knocked out. Few have been able to actually "kill" one (the legend of Trinity reached mythical proportions when she reportedly took one out at point blank range), but any time it happened, the agent disappeared, only to be replaced by the body of the coppertop they'd taken over during the pursuit. I never got close enough to an agent to witness this phenomenon, but I can only imagine it could be pretty traumatic for the "successful" rebel.

But this was definitely an agent. After this long in the Matrix, I could tell these things. Slightly between worlds, I can see both construct and code. I saw both a bruised, very battered man and the malicious code most rebels spend their lives dodging & escaping. And as it had so many times in my longer-than-usual life, my curiosity got the better of my sound judgment. With some creative jostling, I got my Chinese take-out into my messenger bag, took the agent by the arms, and hauled him down the street into my apartment lobby.

By the time I'd dragged the limp form into my apartment, I was thanking my luck at having a ground-level room. I was fully aware that, in the Matrix, I had no muscles to become fatigued nor lungs for my labored breath, but that doesn't make it feel less real. I managed to get him up on the couch, mess that he was, and pulled up a chair to study him while I ate my beef & broccoli, feet propped on the coffee table.

I was a scientist in a "former life", owing to that infernal curiosity that was always getting the better of me. A vulcanologist, to be specific, but I'd been fascinated by any and all branches of science, from botany to physics. As a result of all those years of patient, dedicated study of just about everything, I must say I was (and still am) a remarkable observer. He was filthy, and his suit was torn near to shreds. He had the marks of having been in one serious throw-down, as evidenced by footprints all over the fabric and bruises showing through what was left. Several things about this agent, though, were immediately noticeable as "not right": his suit was black instead of the indeterminate green they usually are, his glasses were the wrong shape (at least, judging from the bit of them still in evidence, swinging from his lapel), and he had no earpiece.

The last point caused me to choke on a piece of broccoli and nearly sent me flying over backward. I kept my ear to the ground, and like everyone else, I'd lived through this war. I knew about The One and I knew about the machines and I knew what had gone down. Like most programs and unlike most people, however, I remembered being copied over and assimilated into what must be the first real virus the Matrix had known. Smith.

The man lying on my couch.