A/N: Hey, I'm back from the dead (again). I've been neglecting my stories a lot lately, but hopefully summer vacation will fix that. And a big thank you to everyone who's still reading. To make up for the delay, this chapter is at least three times as long as some of the others : ). Hope you like it. Review if you get the chance.
It's only Trinity who accompanies him inside. The others left them at the entrance—he doesn't wonder where they went. He's past wondering about details and logic. The checkerboard floor and the spiral staircase make him feel like he's stepped into a Kafka novel and he stays behind his guide. The building is abandoned. It's a massive, crumbling shell on the fringes of the city and he can only imagine why it's necessary to hold this meeting here.
Trinity seems to know where she's going. She walks with her eyes straight ahead and rarely glances back his way—keeps their pace quick. Neo's beginning to get the sense she's deliberately not looking at him, and much as he dismisses it as paranoia, it's making him progressively more nervous. The world seems surreal and hazy. A glance from another person would at least feel concrete. He runs his hand along the railing of the stairwell and wonders that it's even solid—that it doesn't just dissolve under the pressure of his touch. Were the walls to begin melting, he could not honestly claim to feel any shock. It would be fitting. He's almost relieved when they stop by a door and he sees her turn to look him in the eyes.
"This is it."
Neo says nothing. He's too unsure of himself and his surroundings to speak, but he catches her expression. She's almost smiling. It's ironical but not uncomforting, saying you're scared, don't be—it lasts half a second and it's gone. She glances at the door and Neo follows suit, takes a deep breath. The idea of Morpheus standing just behind it is unnerving at best, and it takes some effort to picture—in a way he's worried the door will simply swing open on an empty room.
"Let me give you one piece of advice."
Trinity is already facing him again. Neo had not been expecting her to say more, and he turns towards her—this bizarre woman in black from the nightclub who's now offering him guidance.
"Be honest," she goes on, "He knows more than you can imagine."
And with that she turns and pushes her way through the double doors, leaving Neo alone with the effect of that last statement. He follows her in. He does not need to be asked to identify the figure by the window. Lightning flashes and the figure is lit. He can make out his face in his mind—ten thousand web articles, newspaper clippings, shoddy photos, and chatroom descriptions—it's still pouring outside and he can hear the rain pounding as the man turns to greet them and smiles.
Neo's heart skips a beat—he stays silent. Morpheus strides into the middle of the room, still smiling, clasping his hands behind his back. The trademark sunglasses and trench coat are there. This is a moment straight out of his imagination.
This can only be in his mind.
"Welcome, Neo. As you no doubt have guessed, I am Morpheus."
In the midst of everything Neo can't help the instinctive flinch at hearing the name, 'Neo,' spoken aloud. It takes a moment to remind himself he's past worrying about the law now. He extends his hand numbly, "It's an honor to meet you."
"No," they shake, "The honor is mine."
The tone calls to mind Morpheus's statement an hour before. You may have spent the past few years looking for me, but I've spent my entire life looking for you. Neo looks down, much more uncertain than a moment before. Morpheus gestures to a chair.
"Please. Come. Sit."
Neo obeys awkwardly, perching on the edge of the seat lest he need to jump up again. The tension only worsens as Morpheus walks over and pulls the door shut. He is considered by many authorities to be the most dangerous man alive. Neo wonders for a moment why he's trusting him.
Morpheus turns back to the room, "I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole."
Neo hesitates, unnerved by the metaphor and its accuracy, "You could say that..."
"I can see it in your eyes."
Neo says nothing.
"You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically this is not far from the truth."
Morpheus makes his way around a second chair and Neo looks up, having difficulty meeting his gaze.
"Do you believe in fate, Neo?"
He answers quietly, "No." It's the first question in some time he's had an answer to—and it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Neo allows his voice to raise a shade or two in volume, "Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my life."
He notes the irony as he says it—his life has never felt so far out of his control.
Morpheus simply smiles that omniscient smile and takes a seat, "I know exactly what you mean."
He's fingering a small silver case now, procured from somewhere—some side-pocket of his coat—turning it over repeatedly in his hands. Neo watches it. He can see it reflecting the little light in the room like the lenses of those ever-present sunglasses. A wave of perspective hits him then—he's caught the attention of a circle of powerful people, dangerous people—he's in a building filled with a set of them and what they could possibly want with him still has yet to be explained. They shut the door. The door is shut.
"Let me tell you why you're here."
Neo looks up again, surprised. That was not the first time Morpheus had seemed to read his thoughts. He keeps his mouth shut lest the explanation vanish before it comes.
"You're here because you know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it."
"You've felt it your entire life—that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there...like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."
Neo stares—that sense again, just as with Trinity in the club, of the innermost workings of his subconscious being laid out on the table, spoken from the outside. Relieving. Bizarre. Terrifying. The private sphere inside his skull feels violated.
'It is this feeling that has brought you to me."
You know the question...
"Do you know what I'm talking about?"
And then he says it out loud—tentatively—he could not withstand being wrong now, "The Matrix?"
The confirmation goes unspoken, "Do you want to know what it is?"
Neo nods, faintly, fighting back a wave of desperation and disbelief. This is the question that's defined his lifetime—the idea that an answer could be so easily passed his way is as disturbing as it is unreal, and he can't think how to respond except by simply giving a nod.
Morpheus goes on, "The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us—even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."
Neo hesitates, noting the gaping hole in the explanation that's been given, "What truth?"
"That you are a slave, Neo."
Morpheus leans forward in his chair, directing the black orbs of his sunglasses straight at Neo's eyes.
"Like everyone else, you were born into bondage—born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind."
He leans back again, slowly, allowing Neo time to process the weight of that assertion. Neo is silent. The gaps of information are still present—he's unsure if he's even quite following what's already been said—but the sense of how they will be filled is unnerving. He's thrown himself so far out of his depth. This proximity is maddening. All the unknowns—all the question marks—they're with him in this room.
"Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is," a pause, "You have to see it for yourself."
Relief, disappointment, and confusion—in order—as Morpheus undoes the latch on his silver case.
"This is your last chance."
The case is set aside. Morpheus moves to the edge of his seat to look Neo in the eyes—that bizarre breed of one-sided eye contact he's perfected—displaying both hands in front of him, each closed. His tone softens for a moment. It's earnest.
"After this there is no going back."
He opens his left hand—
"You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed, and believe whatever you want to believe."
—and his right.
"You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
The speech is finished, then, and Morpheus falls silent. The space is filled by the rain still hammering on the windows. Neo stares down at the pills—two perfectly shaped, oblong capsules—thinking of the insanity of this all. Wonderland—two armchairs and a table set in the wreckage of a room, this circle of hackers in black leather and this keyword they all seem to know, this surreal speech, surreal guns, surreal pills from strangers—in the end, none of it matters. His choice was made so long ago. None of it stands up to the horror of the curtain snapping closed, the flow of rainy Mondays and the smell of plaster in the office hall. He reaches forward.
"Remember," Morpheus stops him and he halts, "All I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."
Neo can briefly catch the other smiling as he takes the red pill and swallows it.
Morpheus stands, "Follow me."
The room he brings them to is cluttered—filled with people and machines and cables. Things start happening in rapid succession.
"Apoc, are we online?"
Neo is unsure what the short dialog means, but the man Morpheus addressed as "Apoc" was the man driving their getaway car not twenty minutes before. He's now perched behind a set of monitors. Neo glances at him and gets a look of recognition in return.
"Time is always against us. Please, take a seat there."
Morpheus guides Neo in the direction of a chair as he speaks. The blonde-haired woman who'd been riding shotgun takes Neo's jacket and allows him to sit down. He can see Trinity standing in the corner. Immediately she begins attaching wires to his arms and neck. He wants to ask her what's happening, sensing she at least won't ignore him if he tries, but he can think of no good way to phrase it. In the end he asks lamely, "You did all this?"
Morpheus turns back towards him, "The pill you took was part of a trace program. It's designed to disrupt your input/output carrier signal so we can pinpoint your location."
Neo hesitates, feeling his lack of context painfully well, "What does that mean?"
"It means buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye-bye."
The comment came from a smaller man by the door. Neo hadn't seen him coming in and he can't think whether to be annoyed or disturbed by his joke. Everyone else seems to simply ignore it. Neo looks down at the floor and takes a breath, trying to calm himself down. He would be terrified had he not already crossed that point—as it is he's having difficulty sitting still. He's just beginning to focus on the floorboards when something else catches his eye.
He freezes—keeping his gaze fixed on the ground lest he be losing his mind. What he's seeing cannot be real. It's only once he's established it as a trick of the light that he'll let himself turn his head to look—and for a moment nothing happens. There is a spider web of cracks running through the mirror at his side, and that's all it is. The mirror is cracked.
Then one by one the cracks begin to disappear.
He watches as they melt out of existence, trying to bring his mind back to the well-established rules of physics as this happens right in front of his face. Logic does not protest so much as simply stare. The mirror is smooth again—completely smooth. As if it had never been broken.
He throws a glance back over his shoulder, "Did you...?"
No one answers. No one's reacted at all—they're just watching him. Tentatively. Is this even happening? Neo reaches his hand towards the mirror, waiting to feel it hit something solid—something that will reestablish the parameters of reality around him. It gives against his skin. It feels like gelatin. He can feel his hand sinking into it, and when he draws it back it sticks, coating his fingers with the all-color silver of oil in a puddle of water.
Morpheus steps forward, "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?"
Neo stares down at the substance—spreading now, taking over his hand. In one sickening moment he can feel his all ties with the space around him starting to pop out of place. It's the feeling he'd get as a kid at the end of a nightmare, waking up to find the solidity of the world pulling away from him—the stage set collapsing—the blurring of the lines.
"What if you were unable to wake from that dream?"
It's moving up his arm. He can no longer see the skin underneath it—only that translucent liquid, that mirror that's overtaking his flesh.
"How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"
"This can't be..."
"Be what?" Morpheus observes, a few paces away, "Be real?"
It's up to his shoulder now, making its way under the fabric of his shirt and sinking in. His arm is dissolving—it's melting—he can no longer be sure it's even there. He holds it away from him as if to prevent this non-matter from coming any closer—to keep himself from falling any farther into the vacuum. The others are shouting to each other across the room. He can't register the words. The substance closes around his chest with the feeling of clamping ice against his lungs and he begins to hyperventilate, unaware he's even speaking, "It's cold...it's cold..."
It hits his neck and suddenly it's difficult to breathe. He starts to scream. He's no longer in a room, but in a mess of colored shapes and lines and something else behind the seven or eight layers of reality that just fell away. It all begins to liquefy. There's nothing to grab hold of.
And just as he's left all point of reference, he can see the something behind the stage—the components, the structure, the framework—all for a fraction of a second before they melt back into the disarray and cease to matter. The jamming input and the tangle of walls—they peak and then are lost to empty space.