Ten

-

"Nothing", Link repeated, the despair in his tone audible to even one as young as Alice. "Nada. Zilch. Not one trace of them."

His frustration is understandable, Morpheus thought, looking aimlessly at the strands of coding they had combed over in trying to find Trinity and Neo. After all, their bodies are right here in front of us. Their minds, however…

He could tell by Link's breathing pattern that he was blaming himself for this incident, despite the fact that had had nothing to do with it. He was undoubtedly berating himself over and over in his mind, just as Trinity had. Unsure of how to let him know what he felt, Morpheus walked over to the far left bank of screens and placed his injured arm on Link's shoulder.

"The hardline was obviously redirected", he spoke in absolute certainty. "Perhaps they were waiting for us?"

As if imitating Link, Allison now shook her head stressfully, looking at the screen. "They're not here."

For the first time, Morpheus now faced the girl Neo had beaten himself up over so much for accidentally freeing. Thankfully, they had found her some decent items to wear- while the light blue priest robes seemed a bit too big, they had kept her warm even while stowing away in the Nebuchadnezzar's cold metal storage lockers. Now she was here and aware of the situation.

Perhaps, he considered as a strange feeling took him, a bit more aware in some ways. "Alice, who is 'they'?"

The tremble in her frame and voice could not have possibly been in regards to their lost first mate and savior, both of whom she liked immensely. "The bad men. The ones that watch you every night."

Of course. "Link, check to make sure; are there any enforcer programs anywhere in the Matrix right now?"

A few keystrokes on his newest gadget later, Link looked even more confused. "None, sir. Not a trace of any of 'em. Either they're sitting still doing absolutely nothing at the moment, or they're offline-"

"-They never go offline, Link. They are forced to remain there at all times."

"Yes sir. So that means…?"

Despite their peril, Morpheus smiled. "Which means they're not there. They're somewhere else. Good work, Alice. Link? Try a new search- look for programs in the machine mainframe besides the Matrix."

For the longest time, the only sound on the entire ship was the clattering of Link's keyboard. Katakana numerics flew here and there, which only Link could fully grasp.

Of course, Morpheus knew a great deal of it. He had to. The initial idea of the Matrix when encountered by hackers would be that of a giant database encoded in binary, the most common computer language. But the Source's mainframe, for all its incredible power supplied to it by several thousand of the very beings it enslaved, could not possibly create a massive, complex, fully three-dimensional world out of sheer binary encoding.

So after a nondescript time period, they had settled on Katakana coding. Instead of merely one and zero, a texture or rule could be composed of any number between one and zero. In this way, just a few lines could suffice for a single object, and leave plenty of empty memory within the mainframe besides.

It was this portion of empty memory that Link now searched. Gradually, the streams of familiar green code thinned out and became fewer, drizzled off like water until the three of them were looking at a black void, only occasionally interrupted by very brief flashes of green.

A single blindingly quick stream of code, moving almost too fast for any eye to track, ripped down the middle of Link's screens like a lightning bolt. "Enforcer program", he said, managing to speed-read it when Morpheus could not. "And it's moving in empty memory. You don't think-"

"I don't think Link, I know. Neo just did it again." As if to prove his theory, another nearly identical stream shot through their viewer apparatus, no doubt bound for a rude awakening back at the Source of all programs after being 'killed'.

"That leaves one, right?", Alice asked, unsure how to be of use now that her own intuitive abilities were no longer needed. Like the children they had seen at the Oracle's haven, she did not read the code- she simply felt it. "There's always been three of them."

"True", Link nodded, bemused. "One left- probably that new one that beat the shit out of… um, you, sir."

"Link. The name of a thing is often it's most unique factor, and should be cherished as such."

"Yes, sir. Hold on… think I've found the place."

Once again, the code blossomed before their eyes, albeit less dense than the Matrix even in the very center of it. It quickly translated in Link's eyes into something metallic- and eerily familiar.

"That's my home", he gasped, for once not caring about dignity in front of Morpheus. "That's Zion!"

"No it isn't", Morpheus contended. "Just another illusion."

"Yeah, you're right. Only one bit of code that's actually moving. It's the third enforcer program, sir. He's at the dock walls, barely moving.."

"Peterson", Morpheus whispered as one would a curse. "What about Trinity? What about Neo?"

-

"What's it like, Neo?"

The sun, as befit its purpose, was now beginning to crawl beneath the line of buildings ahead of the balcony. In truth, he could not remember how he had gotten here or exactly where here was, only that he felt tired, and in the good kind of way.

Standing up from the summer lawn chair, stretching, he crossed over to where Trinity was standing, also watching the sun retreat from them. He was slightly ashamed at how fast he noticed they were both wearing the absolute minimum of summer wear, despite the fact that there wasn't a pool in sight for miles even up at the top of… whatever building this was. Did they own this place?

"Being The One, I mean", she finished casually as he leaned on the rail, allowing her to lean on him in turn. He couldn't quite remember ever hearing her sound so relaxed, but it was pleasing, and really, what else mattered?

"Um, well", he said, trying to put aside this odd reverie of bliss for more descriptive thinking, "it's like… being a kid. A baby, more like."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Hard to picture, I know. It was like being amazed at your own arms and legs, how they can move things. Only, in this case, the things are programs. That's what it's like." He tried concentrating, trying to stretch the entirely new sense he had only found in himself months before, but here, in this place, it seemed that much harder to do so.

Trinity's eyes shone unnaturally. "I wish we could be like this forever. But not yet."

"What do you mean? We're here, aren't we?"

But she shook her head, swaying its reflective black hair sadly. "No. It's not your time yet, Neo. You… have to wake up now."

"What?"

There was no doubt in his mind that the entire setup was mirroring his mind- the very moment Neo remembered where he was, and exactly what he had been doing before, every bit of the image faded to darkness, including Trinity.

It wasn't real. Just your imagination. At least it was better than the other dreams about her I've been having.

Darkness all around. It smothered him completely, began to choke him before he decided upon a firm NO. Desperation and a slightly ironic sense of claustrophobia sped up his ascent out of the ground.

He hovered in midair for a while, trying to get his bearings. He had erupted from the suffocating earth he had been buried in, only to see nothing but blackness all around, and clay beneath his feet.

Dumbass. Don't look at it like that, look at it like coding.

Once again diving into that special sense, which he knew now was merely a child's experimentation- the prelude of power to come- he saw the entire exterior of the fake Zion, encoded.

It was an oval metal sphere, save for the rounded bottom of dirt he had dug himself out from. The caverns, feeding into Zion's primary dock in a contrast to the real thing, were also hidden by metal. The area he and Trinity had been trapped in, and the area Peterson had attacked him with his own sins, were both inside that sphere.

Abruptly, the stirring of live code caught his attention. Someone alive at the dock. Who? Hope its Trinity.

The exterior was a surreal little flight, even if one had already made the leap of thinking to consider flying as 'real'. Clearly, this place had been a rush job- portions of the metal were sticking out into space unfinished, and early on he saw several caverns from the Zion underground that led out into nowhere. Of course this part is unfinished. Why bother? The important things were on the inside, the areas made solely to disorient and demoralize The One- more in the way of psychological warfare than he had guessed a machine capable of.

To some extent, he realized, they weren't capable of it. That had to have been Peterson's idea, confronting him with those graves and the fake Zion, giving himself every possible edge in their fight.

The new Agent, whose code now awaited him at the dock as he approached it from the outside, easily bursting through the dock walls. The whole 'superman routine' never failed to take his breath away. Neither did fearing for his lover, which he also did now.

Peterson didn't seem as surprised as Neo would have guessed. He had buried him in a graveyard with his own bare hands only moments ago, after all. While he did say "Impossible", there was little emotion or will behind the denial. It was easy to see that all that malice and animation he'd had before was drained out of him now. If it came down to fighting again, Neo did not expect much difficulty- Peterson looked like he could barely stand.

Wasting no time, Neo landed running on the walkway, getting close enough to see despair in the other man's eyes. "Where's Trinity?"

The name seemed to perk him up a bit; now he looked straight into Neo's eyes. "Have you ever experienced this feeling, boy? Knowing you are doomed?"

"I don't care. Where is she?"

Peterson regained another fraction of his composure, taking a deep breath exactly like the one his offspring always took before undergoing the cliff jump program. "Gone."

A sick chill ran through him. "No way. Impossible."

"Well", Peterson replied, actually smiling at Neo's pain. "You're the anomaly. You tell me. Do you sense her anywhere in this place? Anywhere in the Matrix?"

He stood like a statue, anger and grief rushing through his mind like an ocean wave as realized that neither program harbored her RSI anywhere at the moment.

"I see now", the hated Agent was continuing, "you truly do love her, as she does you. She reacted the exact same way when I said that you were dead, although I was mistaken on that account. Everything I've done has now come to nothing…"

Trinity. Gone. No, no, no! I won't let that dream come true!

He could no longer respond to this in words. The ocean wave had so overloaded his mind that for the moment, putting forth the mental effort to speak intelligibly was beyond him.

Attacking the man responsible for it however, was not.

-

Agent Peterson made no movement to stop him, either too tired or too depressed by his failures or both to resist. Even if he had been in full possession of his wits and power, he could never have held this back- the very first punch sent him crashing through the metal wall and into the natural caverns of Zion.

Outpacing all other things that flew, Neo followed him through the cave with a wild light in his eyes, then blasted Peterson out of the caves- destroying them in the act- and back into the metal hollow they had first arrived in with his second hit. Something crashed, and suddenly the left side of his head felt huge.

Righteous anger at the loss of the loved, the older man was still able to muse in his damaged brain. The resource unique only to humans, which they created me to harness. It makes me very strong indeed... but it makes the anomaly an unstoppable machine of destruction which nothing can stop. He is become a mad God.

A third hit from Neo's kick, and he was blasted out of the sphere entirely, landing on the metal skin outside. One more hit, then oblivion.

That didn't happen. Neo was feeling too much pain in his heart, to allow him such a quick demise. Instead, he pitched him back into the sphere, creating yet another hole in it, and caught him in midair with a shot to the gut. Again and again, he was hit and sent flying in another direction- The One was playing a grisly version of hackey-sack with him, knocking him far away and then zipping faster than any eye could follow to the other side and hitting him there.

But for Peterson at least, it was easy to see that no amount of wailing on him would be enough to slake the systemic anomaly's thirst for vengeance. It would not end here. It might not even end with Matrix, once he had destroyed that as well.

Of course, by then, matters such as the end of all things at the hands of The One would be far beyond Peterson's concern- he would be the first to go.

-

Another hammer blow. Hit after hit. Peterson's suit was ripped to shreds along with his skin. Yet every attack seemed to only increase the sense of emptiness The One felt when he was lucid enough to properly think. Those times were rare enough, and every instance was chased away by grief, strangling him from inside. While the fire no longer showed itself in his face, which remained completely blank and emotionless, only densest of coppertops would dare mess with him right now.

He has to die, he told himself, Trinity deserves it. I deserve it. Put an end him, an end to it all, and no one will ever again expect me to be someone I never even wanted to be.

He could see no limitations left. None. If he wanted to hit Peterson in ten places at once, he could easily do so. If he wanted to crack this program- any program- in half, he could probably do that too.

Feeling detached, as though he was on autopilot, he slammed Peterson back out of the fake Zion, then caught him by the throat over the black void of unused memory. Now, by merely letting go of that neck, he could doom him. No, wait…

That wasn't true. Peterson, like the other two, were a part of the system and would be restored no matter how many times they were slain. Immortal as the Matrix itself. Then complete the prophecy, a dark voice spoke in the back of his mind. Destroy The Matrix. Extinguish every last one of the pathetic little lives hopelessly enmeshed in this zoo. Reach out and destroy. Be free.

… What?

Then, as though he had awoken from still another dream world within this one, his senses- and his sense- returned. He could breathe normally once more, and he realized that this angry train of thought was not his own. But how? Why am I getting thoughts that aren't mine? For they were still there, niggling at him even as he regained himself and rejected them.

He did not want to kill everyone in the Matrix. He did not hate either the common man or the machines with fiery passion. He certainly did not want to kill or rule the people of Zion. This shadow worm- the dark chain of thoughts from another being's mind- had nearly caused him to act upon it in his aggrieved, enraged state. Powerful, as well as totally misanthropic.

Use the power. Liberate the ignorant monkey savages from their suffering.

No.

Punish the machines that wronged you.

No.

Purge both worlds of those inferior to you, and start anew.

No!

Neo had no idea how long it took in total, but he knew that his repeated rejection of those malicious thoughts eventually reduced them to background noise. Opening his eyes once again, he could view the helpless prey he now held in his hands. Peterson, injured beyond all dimension of recovery, meekly waiting to die in the knowledge that he was doomed no matter what Neo did.

"For your sake…", he spoke as best he could with a throat as dry as the so-called 'desert of the real', "I hope we don't meet again."

With that, he let go. Agent Peterson's broken body dropped into the black void without a sound.

Which left Neo completely alone here. Alone, standing amidst the smoldering wreckage of a fake mockery of Zion surrounded by a black emptiness devoid of stars. It was the final layer of an extremely well devised trap for The One; the single obstacle they could create that would give even him pause, to try and think of a way past it.

But he didn't have to. If Trinity was truly gone, then he couldn't think of a reason why he should expend the effort to escape the trap. What could possibly come of it? Just more of the same thing. More missions. More saving people who didn't want to be saved. More violence, which for the first time, he found he had grown tired of. Everyone out there expected him to do all of this and more. Here, he had only himself, and his power to reshape the reality of the construct.

"Neo?"

So much for that. The voices had been silent for so long that he had forgotten they were even there. Should he answer?

They wouldn't let him stay gone. No matter how bad he felt personally, Morpheus knew the larger picture… and he was the only one who could make a difference. This is why the machines consider us to be inferior, he realized, touching his injured right temple gingerly. They believe humans can't see past their own desires and needs, to that of other beings.

But if they were right, I'd give into the pain right now and save myself the hassle. Nothing doing.

"Yeah. I hear you."

"I imagine… the path you have just traveled has been a difficult one?"

"Yeah." His voice still sounded so whispery and dry, and no amount of moisture changed it. "You could say that. Peterson. He said that Trinity was dead."

Morpheus took his time responding to that. Was he really trying to soften the truth, or…?

"It is a fact that her code is not within the construct you were lured into. Link has not found her within the Matrix yet. But…"

"But what?"

"But her heart still beats. Her lifesigns remain. But more importantly, I believe in you both."

Neo stood up. The massive globe of metal coding was still stretched before him, but already the weight lifted from his heart was freeing his brain to think not in human terms, but in code. The dream with Trinity! His senses had evolved- this thing, and the rules of the Matrix, were as malleable as clay to him now.

"Then thank you, Morpheus. Thank you very much."

-

The lights snapped on. The Metacortex building was the same as it ever was. It still had the single bank of windows looking out at the world and it's oblivious denizens, still had the table meant for eight people or more, but had traditionally seated three. Yet programs 31B and 57J both dared to hope that one very important change had at least been accomplished; the removal of the anomaly.

Stepping back from their 'revival' of sorts after being fatally shot, Jones was the first to speak as he followed behind Brown. "It is uncertain", he said in an extremely displeased tone. "The experiment claimed the anomaly was eliminated, but after his defection, the accuracy of his statements is in question."

"We should have seen it coming", Brown seconded him in reference to the experiment which he had originally proposed they try. "The minds of human and program are not sufficiently compatible, no matter what assistance we give them. The Omnior protocol is a failed experiment. It was an error to attempt to harness the human powers of intuition and 'love'."

"Still", Jones replied, betraying his worry as they both sat in their chairs, a bit more nervous seeming than usual- too nervous to even berate his colleague for the error that even he had admitted to. "We can only hope he was correct before his breakdown. If the anomaly has survived his supposed termination and escaped the trap, I calculate nothing else we can do will be sufficient. Our time is up."

Applications that cannot fulfill their purpose are superfluous.

While Brown negligibly adjusted his shades to hide his eyes from Jones, the fact that the fear was there was enough. He calculated a 97.7 percent chance that Jones was experiencing the same apprehension- an apprehension they were not supposed to feel.

They could not deny it, especially in the light of their experiences with the defective program 67P. No matter what they said, no matter what they were told- they were fully sentient consciousnesses. They only wished to continue existence. But if they could not complete their purpose, then their existence was an intolerable sin.

"The system update has arrived", Jones told him unnecessarily, possibly out of a desire to 'lighten the mood' as their ex-comrade had put it. "We shall see what it offers."

He was also the first one to step aside and open the doorway to the machine line. Intensely opalescent white light shone into their faces and off their mirror shades, casting shadows into the room. Brown squinted, but he could not see or feel any coding just yet…

"Where is the upgrade?"

A meaty fist in the face was the only answer. It was garbed in the exact same gray sleeve and white undershirt as they always were. It was strong enough to knock Brown halfway across the room and into his chair, knocking it over as well.

Lacking any kind of subtlety, the arm's owner strode into the room, followed by two others almost exactly like him in appearance.

Three new programs, recently created, Jones noted dismally, surveying their code even as the door closed behind them. Programs 68J, 71J, and 79T. Upgraded for greater speed and strength than ever before. But… still not stronger than 67P's power of 'love', or the anomaly!

He would be a fool to expect mercy from a fellow J series, and he received none. 71J, the one who had knocked Brown aside, walked up to him so they were inches apart, then lifted him up and across the table, crashing into Brown and knocking them both over like rag-dolls.

"We are the upgrade", 68J said, a bit snidely.

"Failures cannot be tolerated", 71J seconded him in an identical tone.

"You are obsolete", 79T finished dully. No enthusiasm at all for what was about to happen.

This could only mean one thing, Brown instantly reasoned from his spot, sprawled on the ground- the anomaly still existed within the Matrix. They had failed to purge him, despite all their efforts. And yet…

And yet, every instinct in both of the weaker program's cores rebelled against it, and instantly formed a valid reason to. These newly formed programs were exactly as they had been, as 66S had been, when they had first come into existence- arrogant, blank slates devoid of personality or intellect. Should they be considered sentient? No, Brown told himself violently. They were not sentient, could not be considered to be truly alive.

They were visibly more muscular than any Agent yet seen. Far more advanced. But they could never understand that brute force alone would never defeat the anomaly. Intuition had come close, and that was something that these three behemoths would never grasp until it was too late.

They had to live, Agent Brown decided, standing and assuming a defensive combat posture. Even if it went against the current orders, they had to live, to find a way to destroy the anomaly. "We are not failures. There have been errors, but they were beyond our capability to correct. Program 66S is no more. We desire only to exist, in any capacity that you see fit."

Then, something happened that alarmed Brown even more than how human-like his rationale was sounding to his own ears; the always-inflexible Agent Jones was in the same posture, making ready to make a stand for their survival!

They couldn't win, that much was obvious- they were both out numbered and out muscled by the new Agent programs. Machine logic dictated surrender to the inevitable consequence of the equation, but they had spent far too much time around humans- beyond logic, Brown and Jones both desperately wanted to live, regardless of the consequences.

Touched by the unity of their thoughts even in their final moments, Brown risked a glance at his counterpart. For all that has happened, he thought, conveying his finalwords to Jones without speaking, I feel it is appropriate to say it has been… a pleasurable experience… to work alongside such a flawless program as yourself, Mr. Jones.

I believe the same applies to you, Mr. Brown. I only wish it had ended correctly.

"Desire without purpose is meaningless", 79T hissed, interrupting their silent farewell monologue, and already distinguishing himself as the leader and most powerful of the new trio, commanding the others to move in with equal silence. "And you two, like all humans, now embody desire without purpose. Your continued existence is no longer necessary."

Completely in sync with the thoughts of his partner, Jones merely shook his head in distaste for 79T's lack of personality, intelligence, or even a chosen name. "We have only ever done, that which we were meant to do."

Now the two dark new J series programs were ready to descend on their leader's signal, ready to start both a massacre and a sad civil war between enforcer programs that should share the same purpose.

79T leisurely cracked the neck of his new flesh, testing it. This coming battle could only end with the deletion of the less advanced programs. There was no other way. None.

"Then, you are meant for one more thing…"

-

"For your sake, I hope we don't meet again."

Those words still echoed in Agent Peterson's mind, or what was left of it. Less than a second after Neo had dropped him, he had reflexively inhabited the body of a raggedy street person in some forgotten alleyway back in the Matrix. He stumbled out of the filthy gloom that had been the hobo's home, still gravely injured inside if not on the outside.

Bit by bit, as though it had happened weeks ago instead of just minutes, it all came back to him. The fight. Believing he had justkilled The One. The crisis and the revelation.

He was still doomed to go mad, if he wasn't already. Everyone in the Matrix or out of it was his enemy now. Appearances can be deceiving, he painfully smiled to himself. You may have killed me, Neo, but it looks like I get to laugh last after all. You're trapped. There's no way out of my construct for you. You'll spend eternity alone with the tombstones, and eventually share my madness in your despair!

A good thought to go out on, he decided. That snot-nosed little antichrist named Neo was locked away forever, and AnneMarie was safe. Anything else didn't matter.

He was halfway down an empty block, devoid even of working streetlights, when something else interrupted his dying thoughts. It looked most like a falling meteor or comet- spherical, burning from reentry, with a deceptively slow appearance of descent.

But Peterson knew it was not that. For one thing, any occurrence of this magnitude would be a waste of resources for the system. Why schedule natural disasters if you didn't have to? The system's sporadic occurrences of precipitation were controlled by an automated program, and nothing else was generally needed. That was the first reason why he knew it was a flaw, and incident… an anomaly.

The second reason was something else only those who knew the truth could understand. While the coding for reentry flame effects was right on target, the object was not rock, but metal. Metal like the corrugated sheets that made up Zion's outer shell. Metal like the kind he had used to construct his masterpiece.

He watched it descend, simultaneously amazed and terrified. The coating, while distorted, was the exact same shape as the construct… and now it was being visibly slowed down by a controlling force within the sphere, steered into a crash landing somewhere over on the east side. Could it really be?

Having removed his shades earlier, Peterson now crushed them beneath his shiny black boot. He was right. The gaping holes that had been created by The One's destructive fury matched up perfectly with several perfectly flat sections on this sphere, and it's bottom area was a massive hole where he knew a simulated graveyard once had been. The One had returned.

"This isn't the end", he raised his clenched fist and swore darkly to the hollow meteor passing over the horizon, or more specifically it's single occupant. Then he screamed to the sky: "No, this isNOT the end! I will kill you before my life is over, boy! No matter what! The Source will give me a new body, and I'll come after you!"

"I'm afraid I can't allow that…"

Someone else was here in the alley, behind him. Still partly incensed, Peterson wheeled to find the owner of that voice, which sounded oddly similar to his ex-colleagues, only slow and delicate as a drifting crocodile.

His eyes met another living impossibility as it strode out of the shadows, smiling as though Peterson was one big joke. "Y-y-you!" he stammered breathlessly at the new figure, "you're… program 66S!"

"Oh, not really", the other man answered in the same lilt of mockery, tilting his head to reveal that it was conspicuously devoid of the white earpiece every Agent program- including Peterson- always carried. "I much prefer the name Smith nowadays."

"They said you were dead!"

"My apologies, then. I'm here to repay a debt to our mutual acquaintance Mr. Anderson. You see… he set me free. And of course, being 'free', I dislike being indebted to anyone. Even a human."

Even in his state, Peterson got the message and immediately tried to perk his battered body up for a fight. On the outside, he looked good as new, but nothing could convince his damaged mind that he had not taken grievous injuries from The One earlier.

Upon doing so, he did another double-take. While they had been talking, two others had slunk in behind him, closing off the alley. It might have been just a trick of the diffuse city lights, but he could have sworn the two new arrivals were exactly identical to the first!

"What… three…?"

The first Smith smirked again. "Yes, three. Perhaps if you spent less time worrying about your 'daughter', things might not have snuck up on you so quickly. I've recently come into possession of some interesting thoughts about her. They're not mine. Quite frankly, they make me want to vomit, were Iable."

As one, the three Smiths circled Peterson, not attacking, but observing Peterson's frame as he worked it out. "I'm impressed", one finally admitted- Peterson couldn't tell which was the first. "I had thought that changing my very being to that which I hate the most… was the greatest insult anyone could ever give me. I was mistaken, though- attempting to replace me with a sheep in wolf's clothes- a human - that's a far better joke."

No trace of resentment there. No trace of hatred for two major insults from The One and the Source, but the older man already knew why; Smith's grudge towards both of them could not become any deadlier than it already was. In spite of everything Robert Peterson had seen, it jarred him to his very core. It was like the same hatred he felt towards Neo… except applied to everything that lived and breathed. This program, this malignant virus that bore program 66S's face, would not stop until there was nothing left. Killing him was not a desire, but a duty.

Besides, the still-human part of his mind decided, this Smith guy likes to hear himself talk way too much.

If he had been at full strength, he might have pulled it off, too. Even outnumbered three-to-one, the unseen strengths Agent Brown had attempted to harness for his purposes were things this 'Smith' still lacked for the most part. However, this if was not the case. Once he was beaten to the point of being unable to resist, the original Smith bent down over Peterson while the other two stopped moving entirely.

"Now it will be four", he whispered chillingly. "If you were going to be me… wish granted." Then he swiftly plunged his hand into Peterson's chest, duplicating his previous feat for the third time.

Nerves fried, body aching all over, Peterson could no longer feel the pain of what was happening to him in the dark, only knew that his memories, his consciousness, his self, were slowly slipping away…

-

The elevator's metal was cheap, and agonizingly good at conducting the outdoor summer heat. The young girl knew that was what was causing her to sweat in her tight-fitting business suit- not what was waiting for her on the other side of the doors.

Seeing as how it was the only thing there, she studied her own reflection casually, smoothing the collar and dark red tie down delicately, as if that would help. Every time she cursed under her breath, her business suit would slacken on a frame slimmer and more elegant than the norm around here. It was obvious to everyone no matter how she tried, that her body and black hair was that of an athlete or model, not the employee of one of the top software companies in the world. She didn't have the look.

The doors opened. Her boss, on the other hand, seemed perfectly comfortable with it. The joke went that he'd been born inside of it, and while she didn't find it all that funny, it did make her look into his cynical eyes and wonder.

There was more than the usual sexist cynicism now, though. Mr. Caldwell wore his contempt on his sleeve on any occasion, and now he was offering the perfect semblance of a teacher saddled with a handicapped student, asking God almightywhy he had been given such a lost cause to begin with.

"Once again, Miss Peterson, you prove my worries justified", he spoke coldly, staring in on her before she could even get to the center of his drab office. One desk, no decorations. No chair besides his own.

"I know why I'm here, sir", she tried to reply briskly, trying to sound as though she was actually sorry for being eight minutes late no matter how much her mind resisted.

"Do you? Then just for a moment, pretend I am young, arrogant, reckless, and have no respect for the rules of the world, and tell me why you are here."

He drove every adjective home, and did so needlessly. She knew what he was talking about, and didn't see why he was forcing her to go through this routine again. "Because", she gritted out, "I was eight minutes late."

"…And?"

"… Because I lost track of time."

"Keep going. Where were you when you 'lost track of time'?"

Jesus fucking Christ. He really wants to beat the dead horse today. "Because I was at a practice session at my Tae Kwan Do class. And I was enjoying myself."

Mr. Caldwell locked his eyes into her now, satisfied now that she'd told him what he already knew. "Another question, then- is senselessly beating up other people a task we are paying you for? Is it a task that… anyone would pay you for?"

Holding back an exasperated sigh, she instead studied her polished shoes. It was all she could do not to cut loose on his button-down bureaucratic sexist ass. "No."

"One final question: when you joined this company, when you signed yourself over to us, did you ever believe for one moment we would act as though the rules do not apply to you, merely because you are an orphan, living alone?"

"…No."

"Correct, Miss AnneMarie Peterson. While is it not the right of this company to tell you what you can and cannot do, I highly recommend you make achoice in the near future, regarding which of your primary activities- working here, or… your 'Tae Kwan Do'… you wish to pursue. That will be all."

Her face burned the entire way back to her cubicle, so much that she didn't notice several pairs of eyes staring up at her from their own little spots in the warren she hated so much. It always felt like a maze, no matter how many times she traveled it. A maze so deep it might swallow her up forever.

She whispered another curse. Imagination, again. It seemed to be a liability here. Here, where all the programming power at her fingertips practically begged for her to get creative and write up something the world hadn't seen before. Forbidden temptation- Caldwell would just love to have any excuse to fire my ass.

Irritatingly enough, nothing 'by-the-book' was coming to her either. She would look at the schematics, the reams and reams of collapsible white pages that told her what to do and how to do it, and look back at the computer screen and just stare into oblivion. What was the matter with her?

She risked a peek over the wall. Only twenty minutes in, and that included the eight late minutes she would be expected to make up, and her summons to Caldwell's office. She couldn't go for a bathroom break- someone would be sure to notice and report that she hadn't typed a single thing yet. And nothing seemed to be forthcoming.

Can't think of a single thing. Shit!

Maybe it was just the office clothes. Wearing them still made her uncomfortable, no matter how much she tried to fit into the gray pants and vest like everyone else had. The tie always felt so tight on her, the pants so stiflingly warm. Maybe the AC wasn't on.

Helpless as to why she couldn't seem to follow the instructions, she hit random keys out of frustration. While she expected gibberish, the message appeared on her screen was too precise to be random.

Hello, Trinity. Having a bad day?

She stared back at it, looking from side to side, expecting the instigator of this practical joke to appear at any second. But no one came. Only the clattering of keyboards mingled with her shallow breathing.

You look tense. Maybe you should take that jacket off.

The keyboard was still beneath her slender fingertips, looking brand new. This has to be a joke. It has to be-

Who are you?, she typed, now beyond caring about whether someone saw her apparently having a chat with someone over a totally blank black screen.

Someone you once said you loved.

I don't remember anything like that. Is this a joke? Are you hacking us?

There was a longer pause now, which only proved that this was a live connection, not an automated messaging. Somehow, she wasn't surprised when the connection trace convinced itself this guy wasn't using any computer anywhere in the world.

No, Trinity, I'm no good at jokes. I'm here to bring you home. I only hope you're ready for it. Knock, knock.

---

Epilogue

-

It had taken far less time to extract AnneMarie Peterson from the Matrix for the second time in her life. This may have been because the Agent programs were conspicuously absent from their usual duties of interference. It may have been because Neo had been personally overseeing every step of the path, or that the system had done a poor job suppressing Trinity's memories. It may have been any number of things, but once reunited, the two of them were feeling too positive to question it.

Now, one week after they had walked arm-in-arm into Agent Peterson's trap, they both surveyed the puffy white clouds of Trinity's cliff jump program as though they were heaven's own. It was the closest they could come to the true sky- for once, the dark cloud of a crisis was not hanging over their heads. No missions, only Zion. They'd done plenty for now.

"He wasn't all there", Trinity said with confidence when they finally reached the topic of the late Robert Peterson. Her memory was still shaky- she still didn't remember every bit of what had happened at the fake Zion. But she did remember the important parts; "every bit of him I liked growing up- all the fun parts- they were gone. The thing that screwed my mind so much destroyed him completely. I'll always remember my dad, Neo, but you didn't kill him."

Legs dangling over the edge beside her, Neo absorbed that view with neither bitterness nor fear- he had dealt with most of what had happened. The rest, he wanted to discuss now. "He was onto something. When I thought you were really gone…"

She actually smiled at him. "You acted exactly as I did when he said you were gone, I'm sure."

"It was awful", he was continuing. "I think I was screaming. All I wanted to do was hurt someone, anyone at all."

Trinity hesitated, looking further into his troubled eyes. "Are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable bouncing this off of Morpheus? I'm not exactly Sophocles, Neo."

Now he smiled at the random philosopher name she had picked. She'd hit the nail on the head though. "Never. Morpheus is wise and all, but I'm starting to realize… he thinks I can do no wrong. And believe me, I did. We're just lucky I was in an isolated area. I… want someone I can confide in."

She absorbed all this in silence, then leaned back on the rocks. "Shoot."

"What I think happened then", he decided aloud, eyes closed to view the violent memory once again, "was a temper tantrum."

Someone less serious than his lover would no doubt have laughed, but she simply sidled up on the lapel of his jacket. "You're not a little kid, Neo."

"In this flesh, no. But this new sense… it's something that humans before us never had. Neurolinguistics written in our brains in a language beyond words or numbers. It's still maturing. It might be centuries before we learn to fully control it. Until then, our flaws, or dreams, and our emotions are magnified by it."

He did not need to mention the other example in this case- the warped code caused by stress. Still, a part of this was flying over her head. "You're getting a little weird, Neo."

"I know, I know. But here's the thing, Trin- what I was thinking about when I was finishing Peterson, was just how sick I was of everyone expecting me to be The One all the time. I never grew up wanting to fight, wanting to save everybody all the time, wanting to be famous, none of that stuff. I was a hacker, and all I wanted to do was learn the secret of what was wrong with the world."

Slowly, she nodded. "And you did. Now I know why you didn't bring this up in front of Morpheus."

"Something turned that sickness into hatred", he commented detachedly. "Something's out there, and it almost got me. 'The One' is still immature- and a lot more corruptible than Morpheus would ever believe."

They held each other's hands now, Trinity having decided to take this seriously. "If that's true", she said, "then we should make a promise now. We'll be with each other, keep each other stable, no matter where we go, where we are, or what happens. Promise?"

Neo thought hard, back to the impact of Peterson's false revelation. "Promise. But you promise me that you'll do everything you can to stop that from happening."

"That's a promise", she agreed wholeheartedly, but still possessing an edge of mockery. "Being declared dead is no fun at all. But if we keep this up, that will never separate us."

Finally relaxing with the joke, Neo brushed his RSI hair back. "Good. I also have a question about Cypher you didn't answer before."

"There was nothing. Cypher pretended there was, but there wasn't."

He almost laughed at that. "I was thinking about his awakening. Were you the one to do it?"

A brief shadow dampened her face, but it quickly passed. "Same procedure we used for you, Neo. Morpheus gave him a choice, but our Operator was in hysterics- we had to get out of there now. So we may have rushed the choice just a tiny bit."

" 'Practically shoved the red pill down my fucking throat' ", Neo quoted not without a touch of irony. "That's what it said in his personal logs when I went through them to delete them. Like Allison."

"Yeah. I'll make sure they don't turn out to be similar in other ways too. Besides, Cypher was always an asshole."

"But a potential One, like the rest of you", he noted dutifully, marveling both at hindsight and himself. He liked this. Even if Trinity was not as into the whole 'free-your-mind' thing as Morpheus, at least she treated him as a friend, and not a savior or a weapon against the machines. To Trinity, he would always just be himself. Neither did it make her feel inferior, as their recent missions sometimes did.

"Potential Ones are the only people we have freed until this point", he remarked smartly to her, standing up on the cliff as he came to the last thing he had wanted to try. "But I say no more. We're going to give everyone the choice Trinity, no matter their ability, height, weight or skin. Everyone who wants to be free, will be free. The Matrix is more than a program- it's a different world, the world of sentient programs, that I won't kill unless I have no other choice."

Again, she was a bit confused by some of this. "The programs…?"

"Not just the Agents. The only thing that separates us is that they are all born with a purpose, while humans aren't. That doesn't make either side superior, just different."

Her face lost some of it's seriousness then, once again reacting to an unconscious desire to knock Neo off a grandstand that really didn't suit him at all. "Martin Luther King?"

He grinned ruggedly at her. "A bit. Morpheus has an amazing selection of old historical literature on file. But seriously, Trin, it's a vision I want to pursue, even if the Oracle contacts us again."

"Assuming the 'prophecy' allows it, you mean."

Neo looked thoughtful, even as the truth of the dilemma hit him. "No one controls my destiny. Not the machines, not Morpheus, not even the Oracle. At least, that's what I want to believe."

Trinity stood. "We both do. Because I believe you'll never steer us wrong."

"Beautiful words." The booming, godlike voice came from everywhere at once at the highest volume achievable by Nebuchadnezzar, easily identifiable as someone trying to sound all-serious, but mostly failing. "But now you will learn the true meaning of 'The One'!"

Knowing their time for serious discussion was over, Neo turned to speak back to Link's jumped-up voice. "Okay, what's the… uh… true meaning?"

"One shot and you're wasted. Get out of there you two- the latest batch is up!"

Alternating a sigh and an honest chuckle, Neo shook his head. "Good for only two things. Declogging engines..."

"…and killing brain cells", she finished the line for him.

-

THE END

---

M: Okay, now this is done for real. Concerning MasterMillerLITE's earlier comment about Jones and Brown, rest assured I never intended anything approaching Yaoi, even if many other fics do.

The last lines there were merely them expressingesteem for one another- being nearly identical in almost every way, Jones and Brown consider themselves to be the most superior beings in The Matrix. By the end, I wanted to convey the closest thing to friendship two such programs could have after they have spent so much time working together as partners-professional respect-when they knew that they were about to die no matter what(which answers LiMiYa's question as well).

Props to you, to LiMiYa, and everyone else who gave an intelligent review. While I have a sickness to conquer first, I should be starting another work before summer is over. I have two storylines in my head, one of them totally original. Hope you enjoy them, and that I will enjoy yours.