"My name is Neo. I have the answers you've been searching for."
Sitting not a dozen feet away from The One, the girl stared back, digesting this information slowly. She really was quite pretty, with fair brown hair flowing down her shoulders and wide blue eyes, opened wider still by what she had seen and experienced thus far.
Hiding his true emotions behind black mirror shades, the older man shivered and cursed his own nervousness. This was his first time doing this, his first time offering the choice to a person. Just one month ago, he had been sitting in the other chair, probably pondering many of the same things this young girl was now.
Her name was Allison. Alice for short, it was her own perceptions that had brought her to this point. Like many others Neo had seen freed lately, she possessed the ability to peer beyond the boundaries of the world- the reality- she had grown up with. For the full ten years of her life, the feelings had been too strong to ignore. They- along with Trinity- had brought her here to speak to the man who could tell her the truth.
Neo wasn't sure if he wanted to completely copy the way Morpheus had spoken to him that night, sitting here tonight, arms folded, in an identical seat with an identical case and identical glass of water on the table beside them.
Alice was too stunned to speak, so he decided to continue. "I understand that you're frightened. I was too. But I know that you can't ignore the signs. The flashes of green?"
Fearfully, she nodded. "There's something. I don't know what it is, just that there's something wrong. My mom and dad can't see it, they tell me everything's alright. But it's not."
For a moment, he dared to peek over at his 'bodyguard', Trinity in her usual black leather trench coat and tank top, checking to see her reaction. Trinity, being Trinity, hadn't shown an iota of emotion since bringing Alice in to meet him.
"Please, Mr. Neo", Allison said to him, stifling tears. "If you can, tell me what's wrong."
He sighed, still reordering Morpheus' own words for a much younger audience. "Alice. I can't tell you what it is you've sensed. I can only show you. Would you like that?"
Her repeated nod was immediate, filling him with guilt. "Not so fast. Before I do, I have to warn you that you might not be able to see your home or your mom or dad again… for a while. Is that alright?"
Before she answered, he caught himself and interrupted, opening the familiar case. "No, don't tell me. Show me. This isn't a choice to take lightly, Alice. Take the red pill if you really want to know. If you don't feel you're ready, take the blue, and you can go home to your bed and sleep."
Morpheus had explained to him why he had to wear the mirror-shades at this crucial point; they blocked the greatest visible measure of a man's emotions- his eyes. Some people could take one look into them and learn more about you than you knew about yourself. Allison, while young, could still interpret the slightest tone or movement as a hint of which decision Neo favored, even if he didn't really know.
He had practiced in the simulator, of course, keeping emotion and bias out of his voice or manner, making it flat and businesslike. In this case, that may have frightened her more than the flashes of code she had seen.
Allison took her time, and Neo didn't mind. In his mind, it was perhaps more important to convey the absolute seriousness, and irreversibility, of the symbolic decision held in his hand. The last thing he wanted to happen was for her to choose a pill based on her own favorite color or something.
He was idly wondering exactly how to phrase it when he heard the wooden door to his left creak open. A hand of brown flesh, making a swirl motion was all the signal he and Trinity needed- their time was growing short.
He wouldn't curse- she was only ten. Hurrying her decision would manifestly unfair. So Neo sat and waited, watching her tiny hand inch out to take one of the pills.
Too late, he saw the onrush of coding before anyone else in the building could. A wave of change was cascading over the building. Trinity's panicked gasp told him that the thin glass window that had been there moments before had disappeared. "Neo…"
"I see them Trin, just a little while longer."
Allison stopped. Either his words had changed her mind, or she too had felt what was closing on their little room. No time left.
"Allison, I'm sorry but we're out of time. You can make the choice another day, we'll contact you-"
Another door, this time the big double-panel one to his right, interrupted. And this one was not welcome or subtle, bursting off the hinges and showering both of them with sawdust.
Allison screamed, and Trinity moved to pull her back from the two new arrivals. Two well-dressed men of equal stature stepped across the wreckage of the door, both sporting shades, handguns, and eerily similar brown haircuts.
Neo tightened his gaze and stepped forward. Agents. Agents Brown and Jones if he wasn't mistaken. It had been a while since he'd seen them last, during an entirely different mission to the-
"Give us the girl", Agent Jonesinterjected curtly. His voice was the same as ever, radiating more menace and anger than Neo's controlled voice did. Yet those who knew the truth could not doubt that this was the voice of a machine.
When he wasn't trying, however, Neo was not. "You could have at least knocked. Trin, get her to safety, I'll handle them."
Brown snorted, equally unimpressed as his partner. "Humour." By the time he finished saying that, his gun was already aimed at Trinity and Allison as they sped through the other door.
More splinters erupted around them. Neo heard Allison scream again, and moved into the path.
His next action explained why he wasn't worried about blocking gunshots aimed at people he cared about with his own body. Jones and Brown's shots were too close up to stop- they pierced the flesh of The One with their complete velocity.
And then, as his operator and friend had lovingly put it, 'the code got all weird'. Those few who could view the Matrix for what it truly was would see shifts in the streams designating Neo, the bullets, and the laws of physics that governed the way they interacted. The foremost was bending, reordering the last of those as he saw fit.
That was what they saw. To the eyes of the two sentient programs standing before him, along with 95 of all humans on this earth, Neo's black-garbed flesh seemed to cave inwards like rubber at both impact spots, creating two small craters holding the bullets at their epicenters.
After that, they caved back outward, propelling the bullets in exactly the opposite direction. Neo did not have a hair out of place.
Both bullets failed to find their new targets, instead impacting into the wall. Still, that display alone was enough to convince Jones and Brown to quit using handguns. Instead, they attacked with their fists and feet.
Dedicated martial arts masters 30 years Neo's senior could not have stood up to that. From the moment they were inserted, Agents were made by the governing rules of the Matrix to be physically stronger and faster than anyone they might have to subdue. Up until about a month ago, those rules, just like the rules behind the operation of bullets, had remained unbroken.
Neo had broken that rule, as he had broken so many others since then. Even two against one, he moved faster and hit harder. None of Brown or Jones' attacks ever came close.
Being a programmer first, fighter second, he would never sentimentalize about programs, even sentient ones. In the end, they were nothing but data and thus had no real feelings to hurt. With the amount of time he had spent fighting Agents, he had long ago come to understand that they were only doing what they were created to do.
So he allowed himself to have a little fun. He would tease them, waiting until the last second to move out of the way. Once in a while, he would try seeing if he could get the two to hit each other. A difference in their outlooks revealed itself to him right there- Jones managed to stop himself from hitting his partner several times, the frenzied Agent Brown hit Jones repeatedly by accident… and didn't seem to care.
Finally, he decided enough was enough, dropped to the floor, and slugged both of them in the gut, dropping them both to the dusty floor in a split-second. Slowly pacing out of the room and into Link's little nest of equipment, he looked back at the two of them, still unable to stand even as their faces contorted with frustration and rage.
"Better luck next time, boys."
As had become routine, Neo woke up to the tingly feeling of a thin silver needle withdrawing from the port on his true body's skull. The thing never ceased to give him the creeps until the moment his eyes reopened to the reality of the Matrix. Oddly enough, it was only there that he felt safe.
The rumbling beneath his feet as they hit the metal deck was not routine. The Nebuchenezzar was moving, and it was in a big hurry.
"Link", he spoke with urgency. "What's going on? I thought we were at a safe distance."
Another voice came back to him, older and deeper but not by much: "We were. Thought you'd know by now- Sentinel city is not where we want to hang around."
Now his eyes were clear, and saw their brown-skinned operator sprinting for the bridge of the ship. Link- the young man with the goatee who had always met Neo's feats in the Matrix with a mix of awe and disbelief. It had only been two weeks since they picked up from Zion in order to replace their former, posthumous, Operator. Neo didn't get along with him as well as he had with Tank, which he felt was probably due to the whole 'messiah' aura all the folks from Zion seemed to shroud him in.
But what Link was saying now didn't make any sense. Ignoring the dizziness, Neo followed him up a ladder, finding him along with Morpheus at the helm controls.
The Nebuchenezzar was short on windows, but they didn't them to tell what was on their tail- the same machine that had chased them out of the machine city the last dozen times. The first real machine that Neo ever had laid his eyes upon: a 'squiddy' Sentinel.
Not wanting to dash their pilot's concentration, he suppressed a whistle. Eight Sentinels, and they were getting close. Whatever else happened, they were certainly moving up in the machines' estimation of them. Or maybe…
"Link", he prodded with a whisper. "There's no way that many would just happen upon us where we were. What do you mean, we're in Sentinel city?"
Still watching the monitors while Morpheus piloted them back into the sewers, Link gave a sigh. "We were in Sentinel city like two minutes ago. Had to, can't just let the little girl drown."
"The little girl!", the words erupted from him, anger concealing his initial shock. "But… we ran out of time! She never had time to make the choice!"
Neither said anything, and Neo felt his eyes burning. "Link, tell me. Tell me we didn't just unplug that girl without her permission."
Link looked startled, now the target of a hostility he'd never seen Neo show before. "Well, um… sorry man. Trin's in the hold taking care of her now."
"Did she take the pill? Did she make the choice?"
Link cast his gaze back to the screens for a second, tracking the ship's descent into the bowels of what was once a huge factory. Despite being far more muscular than Neo, he couldn't meet his accusing eyes. "She must have. Couldn't have tracked her position otherwise, right?"
Neo still wasn't satisfied, but waited for the ship to settle into a pile of debris near a large abandoned generator. Even if the Sentinels tracked them in here, the EMP was already beneath Morpheus' fingertips.
He couldn't wait to speak to Morpheus about this. The burning sensation persisted, and he found himself stalking off the bridge instead of daring to interrupt him.
It was then, halfway down the ladder that he heard the cries from below. Allison's cries. Cries that longed for the warmth of home and family, and kept coming up to him in spite of Trinity's best efforts to calm her down.
He stared back up the rungs, back out into the darkness the bridge was now blanketed in with it's power off.
What have we done?
They met first back in the white space. After the Sentinel scare had passed them by, Neo had jacked back into the Nebuchenezzar's 'loading program' and told Link not to bother with him for a while. While the rest of the ship's greatly reduced crew consumed sloppy liquid vitamins and minerals to keep up their strength, Neo resided in the endless white space where he had first learned of the new reality.
Just like the true Matrix, the white space's few rules could be bent or broken. As Morpheus entered, he saw that Neo had done just that- he had caused the 'floor' of the space to bulge upwards and form a hill. After that, he had swapped one color for another in everywhere but that hill, turning a white space into a black one that he stared out at from his hill of white.
"Allison is stable, thankfully", Morpheus called to his exposed back from the bottom of the hill. "And her muscles have not completely atrophied. She should be healthy enough in a few days."
The only response he got back was the white hill's shift to darkness. Black on black. Morpheus could no longer make out the hill, but still climbed it easily.
Before he reached the top, Neo blinked out of his trance. He had finally found the anger and the will to raise his voice against the man who had become the closest thing he now had to a father.
"She didn't choose the red pill, did she?"
Responding to his very thoughts, the floor beneath them flashed into that very same austere red on both the floor and ceiling. Fully grasping the problem, Morpheus completed the last steps and sat down beside The One on the hill.
"What was done… cannot be undone.", the older man said. "I never said it would be easy, Neo. Whatever decision she might have made is pure conjecture. You know, better than anyone, what she would have chosen had she known the full truth."
Neo hated himself for saying this, but it was the first thing that sprang to mind: "What about Cypher, Morpheus?"
A long pause. "Cypher… was disillusioned, so to speak. He behaved exactly as the machines expect us to behave, acting on instinct, purely out of his own interests with no regard to the larger picture. At least, that is what I believe."
Finally, he couldn't hold it in anymore. Given that his life up until this past month had all been one big deception, honesty was undoubtedly the best policy when speaking to someone he still considered a friend and mentor. Distancing himself from Morpheus, Neo stood.
"Let me tell you what I believe. I believe we have just destroyed the life of a girl against her wishes, and the wishes of her parents… how do you cope with this, Morpheus? How do we go on freeing minds, knowing how many people we're hurting… and killing?"
Surprising him, Morpheus vaulted up from his seated position, moving and speaking with no small measure of his own anger. "By reminding myself that they act out of ignorance to the truth. The most painful part of a butterfly's existence is the final separation from it's cocoon. Yes, Cypher chose what he thought to be the least painful path. If we all chose that path, Neo… where would we be?"
That made him think back. Generally around less than half of the potentials Neo had encountered had indeed chosen the blue pill. Obliging them, it was normally Neo and Trinity who had returned them to their homes safe and sound, blissfully unaware of the true reality.
Relaxing a notch, Morpheus paced around to the other side of the hill, still looking his protégé right in the face. "The fact that the real world is painful and disturbing does not make it any less real. Just the knowledge that the reality you live in is predestined, is false, is… programmed is enough for any man to want to depart from it."
Partially spent, Neo lowered his gaze to the floor first, turning it white again. "And that's the thing, isn't it? Once you know that you can't trust one reality, the one you grew up in, you can't trust anything. How do I know that the ship, Link, and you, and… how do I know they're real?"
This time, Morpheus offered him a knowing smile. "By understanding their experiences and their feelings."
He couldn't help but reflect the smile, albeit distorted by a weary sadness. "I don't think I want to offer the choice anymore. If you don't mind…"
"What about Alice?"
Once again, he was surprised at Morpheus, at his being the one to raise the subject. "It's partially my fault she was unplugged. I'll do the best I can to make up for that until we get back to Zion, help her take the first steps."
As the white space finally returned to it's nominal state, Morpheus donned his mirrored shades once again, smiling. "Of course. Even the butterfly has gusts of wind to help it achieve destiny."
They called it the Metacortex.
It would hardly be a surprise to the people of Zion that the feared and despised programs called Agents devote nearly all of their active time online to seeking out the sources of pirate signals broadcasted into the Matrix, along with the unwanted humans they brought. All the same, especially given the recent arrival of anomaly hailed by the Zionites as 'The One', these incursions were sometimes few and far between.
Programs 31B and 57J- Agents Brown and Jones- did not share their late counterpart's irrational hatred of humanity, but neither did they prefer the presence of tens of thousands of hairy, smelly coppertops over the lack of them when they had a choice. Hence the Metacortex- a construct of close proximity to the Source that appeared like any other multipaned glass skyscraper on the outside, but held inside of it a programmed space, free of any trace of humanity. It was here that they had often returned to exchange thoughts, ideas, and- ever more recently for the past month- simply blow off steam.
As Neo had demonstrated only a few hours previous, the two Agent programs in question were different enough in personality and temperament that their thoughts, while harmonius, could differ. It was something that had developed over time as they spent more of it in the Matrix- individual personalities and ego; the very thing that had led their late counterpart into his demise.
"We are defeated", Jones opened bluntly, emotionlessly. "The anomaly has come again. No record exists of his defeat in the archives. Not in any incarnation of the Matrix."
"We must persist", Brown differed. "The anomaly cannot always protect the humans. We must find a way to divide them from another."
The unspoken question was 'how?'. Instead, Jones moved on to another factor. "But the anomaly has become their primary speaker."
"Morpheus is no longer vulnerable."
"Agreed. But the Reloading will commence within several months, and Morpheus will no longer be needed."
"Our purpose should not be stagnate. We would be deleted first."
"We must try to fulfill the primary purpose for the sake of our own existence."
Brown stopped, chilling at his own hesitation, covering old data tracks, old imagery of the program that had called itself Agent Smith, and the taste of fear his fate engendered. We will not end up like Program 66S, not if we can help it. We must act to preserve ourselves. Which means fulfilling the purpose by any means.
"There has been no sign of Program 66S in the mainframe and no record of such an event happening in a past version."
"We should submit a request to the Source for program upgrades to deal with the threat."
"It is done. It will require time."
Which left them back where they had started- the puzzle of defeating the anomaly. Even before his arrival and the subsequent demise of program 66S, Agent Brown had always been the most unconventional of the trio assigned to this thankless task of policing the Matrix. His ideas and numeric formulae in regards to their objectives had ever been the most radical. Now, tense with the frustration that the square-jawed Agent Jones shared, it was he who was expected to find a new plan.
Brown thought about it with every bit of his processing power for several more precious seconds, and then his head and shades tilted up. "The humans were able to contact the girl Allison Richolds through unconventional means. She did not resist. Why?"
Instantly, both were silently poring over the data stored in Allison Richolds' medical records. One sprain, regular checkups… six instances of hallucinations.
Brown quickly triangulated. "She has suspected the truth. The minds that they have freed possess similar medical history", he deduced from the records, making the connection clear to his partner. "Supernatural abilities, potential anomalies. By scanning for those with similar symptoms, we may be able to predict their next target."
He was not surprised to see that Jones had also been working on his own solution to the problem, taking a different approach. "Allison Richolds likely did not know of Morpheus and the others, of what they do", he stated flatly. "Perhaps it is time that we changed that, spread awareness."
Only a few seconds of deliberation later, Brown came to the conclusion that both of their plans could prove valid. They would attempt both. If one failed to produce results, they would have the other to fall back on.
If both failed, deletion would likely be an inevitable consequence. Once again, sentient program 31B felt the clutch of fear in his core. It was a very human sensation.