The world was spinning.
He was sprawled on his back, limbs heavy, on what felt like... . Grass, maybe. Damp and warm at the same time. Soft, but unyielding. And definitely, absolutely, not metallic. Not anything machine-made. Not anything in the machine city, or the Logos... (No. He couldn't think about that. He couldn't think about anything. All thought would lead to remembering, which would lead to... No.) ...what that made this place, he didn't pretend to know, but it didn't matter very much. It could wait, that particular revelation. Meanwhile, he could just lie here. The thought - blankness, oblivion, a lack of any responsibility, even to himself - was comforting, and he emptied his mind completely into a sheer, vacant space. A void so hollow, it echoed. (Yes. That's it. Stay there. It's safe there.) Nullity was tolerable. All else was not.
Then a familiar voice spoke. "Hello, Neo."
He lay there for a moment. It wasn't possible.
"Oracle?"he said, slowly, trying to fathom what the hell this meant.
"Bingo," she said, lazily amused, if also sympathetic. "How're you doing?"
He suddenly realized that his whole body ached. He doubted the afterlife dealt in aches. His childhood pastor had talked of agonizing torments or exquisite bliss, and he'd already experienced limbo when stuck in that train station. Come to think of it, he'd experienced the bliss and the torments, too, in those final days of war. But this wasn't like any afterlife he'd ever heard of. In fact, it felt a lot more familiar than he wanted it to.
"This is the Matrix," he said.
"Which means I'm not dead."
The world slowly came back into focus: both expected forms, encoded and visual, perfectly before him. He supposed that, had things been different, he might have been grateful that he could see in here, blinded as he was in the real world. If he'd been able to see her no other way, he'd have welcomed virtual sight as a gift. But now, what did it matter? He'd never catch his breath as she moved across a room; see her eyes light up - her whole face glow - when she caught sight of him. They'd never exchange a glance when surrounded by other people, a entire conversation held in that one look. He'd never again watch her, lost to all else, when they made love. She was gone. Sight was wasted. Pointless. He'd not miss it, if he ever got out of here.
He was in a park. You could call it a beautiful park, he thought grudgingly, if you were in a frame of mind to care. Lush green grass, stretching out to a distant horizon, surrounded by glittering skyscrapers. Some kind of harbor or river just at the edge of his vision. A dazzling, high-summer sunrise painting the sky. And the Oracle, sitting on a bench, regarding him. Not unkindly - affectionately, even - but, Jesus. Didn't she know? She was meant to know everything, after all. And she'd seemed fond of Trinity. She'd been saddened by his dreams. Sensitive to his distress. And Trinity had told him she'd been kind to her, when dropping the original bombshell. Sympathetic, when Trinity had railed against being cast as some kind of apocalyptic Sleeping Beauty, awaiting her hero's kiss. Yet now the worst had finally happened - now he had nothing left - she seemed indifferent. No, worse... cheerful.
"Why aren't I dead?" he said, as he pulled himself up to a sitting position. His jaw set to muscle as he looked at her, then away, back up in disbelief at the orange-streaked sky. It looked like a child's idea of a sunrise, the colours so intense.
The Oracle followed his gaze. "Sati made that for you, you know. As a thank you. She thought it might cheer you up."
He stared at her for a moment, speechless. I've lost everything, and you offer me a fucking fake sunrise? "You've not answered my question," he said eventually, at a loss for anything else to say.
"No, I guess not. Well now. What makes you so shocked to be alive?"
"Everything that has a beginning has an end. You told me that yourself."
"So I did," she agreed. "Also told you you should've been dead already, but you weren't ready for it."
"You know why I wasn't ready. Hell, Sati's father knew it in seconds."
"Death doesn't come just because you want it to, Neo. Takes a little more than that."
"But they deleted us both at the source." He exhaled, frustrated, angry. "I felt it. It hurt like hell. So why am I still here?"
"He took over everyone in the system, human or program, you know that. You ever stop to think about how deleting him affected the others? Why'd you be any different? They deleted him, not you. Then they ran the Matrix reboot on you, as per requirements. And now here you are."
He was silent for a moment as he took this in. Then he grimaced, as if something especially bitter sat on his tongue. "So. I'm alive."
"And don't you just sound thrilled about it?" She sighed. "You're being treated in the fields as we speak. You'll be right as rain. They're saving your eyes."
"There's nothing to save. They were burned out. But it doesn't matter."
"They can grow human beings from scratch. They can build hardware and software and insert it seamlessly into the brain of a fetus. They can create ports to all your major organs and arteries and seal them from infection. What in the world makes you think they can't fix something as simple as a human eye? What, never heard of stem cells? C'mon, Neo. You're smarter than that."
He was silent. Then he said dully, "I have to get back to Zion."
"Zion's okay. You can stop worrying about that. You did it, Neo. The war's over."
"I have to tell Morpheus. He has a right to know."
"He knows. They all do. On account," her lip twitched, "of them being alive."
He felt a sudden rush of shame. He'd been so devastated by his own loss, he'd not even stopped to think of the others.
"Were there many casualties?"
"On both sides. A thousand of yours, couple thousand ours. But you prevented the worst of it. We've been in communication, and Morpheus survived. Everyone on that ship did."
"Right," he said. He closed his eyes. "Then I have to get back. Have to tell Morpheus."
"Tell him what?" she said mildly. She was looking at him once again, still with that irritatingly dilute sympathy.
"That I failed."
"Pretty strange definition of failure. You know, most people think you're a hero. Human and machine. Savior of both worlds, Neo. You did good."
"I lost her." He turned, his eyes hostile. "You bet this whole damn mess on her mattering more, didn't you? On my choosing a different door. To save her. And then I took her there, to die."
"How d'you know?" The Oracle was looking at him with that same strained patience. "How d'you know she's dead, Neo?"
Blood. The smell of it. The sticky warmth of it, seeping through her clothes as he lay next to her, on that metal floor, amidst the glass and the shrapnel and the dust. The cold sweat on her face, so clammy against his fingers, as she gasped out her last words. All of them of love. All of them for him. The metallic, blood-tinged taste of her mouth in that kiss, her tongue moving sweetly against his own - even in death, she did everything properly. No chaste lip-press for Trinity: even her final moments were perfectionist.
"I felt her die," he said, every syllable painfully articulated.
He hadn't cried for her. Not since that one minute in the Logos, when he'd sobbed over her body before forcing himself up, forcing himself to keep going, forcing himself to vindicate her, to ensure that she hadn't died in vain. He'd never been one to show his emotions. Not to anyone but her. And now, he just wanted to grieve in dignified isolation, at home in Zion. He needed to go home now, to where he could feel her presence. The Matrix would never be that place - she'd hated every second. Their home in Zion had been hers for years before he'd ever been freed; she permeated it. Their tiny apartment held only good memories for him. She'd never been in danger or hurt or afraid there since he'd known her; only ever been in love, by his side, happy. He needed to crawl into their bed, into sheets that still smelled of her; her clothes still in the drawers, her shoes by the door. Surrounded by all he had left, saturated by memory. He might fall apart completely if he didn't.
Then the Oracle spoke.
"Well, technically a lot of people die. Even with human care, hearts can be restarted, life support begun. We can do rather better. And you left the Logos inside a minute, didn't you?"
He stared at her. He couldn't speak. He couldn't think. He couldn't believe it. He could hardly breathe. "They can save her?"
"She's been very sick. Life support on all systems - even her blood's been pumped artificially. She's been in an induced coma, to give her brain a better chance." She paused. "You need to understand. She was down for a good couple of minutes, and machine medicine's mostly been used for creation, not repair. It's been a challenge, so I'm told." Her face relaxed into a smile. "But she is alive. And the brain patterns read normally when they decreased sedation to check."
She looked as she did when sleeping in the real world; black hair falling loosely across the pillow, face softened, skin ghostly pale. Vulnerable, peaceful. As he'd seen her so many times before. But here, she had a tube down her throat, others up her nose, pads all over her body, wires everywhere. Machines beeped steadily, lights twinkling, graphs showing vertiginous mountain peaks and troughs, mapping out the pulse of her life. Jacked into machines, even now.
So much for freedom.
Machines need us, and we need them.
He bent and kissed her, then sat down and took her hand.
"Can she hear me?" he asked. The Oracle shook her head.
"She's sedated. Can't hear anything. But they'll be taking her off it tomorrow."
"Really? She'll be conscious?"
"That's the hope. She's done well, healing much faster than expected." She smiled. "Always the high achiever, that one."
"So what's the cover story?" he said, watching the rise and fall of Trinity's chest, trying not to remember that a ventilator was responsible - in both worlds, presumably. "What do people here think happened to her?"
"Car crash. Collision with a DUI. She's the victim, so plenty of sympathy. Means people give her that little bit extra care."
He raised his eyebrows at that. "They're pretty damn determined to save her."
"You have no idea," she said, with evident satisfaction. "It's been a key project, in fact."
"Why? To this extent?"
She shrugged. "There's a desire to make this peace last."
"But I don't understand. This amount of machine effort, just for one human? So many others have died."
"You talk to programs. You treat them with respect. You want peace. Willing to die for it, no less. Machines may think differently to humans, but doesn't mean they don't appreciate what you did. And they do understand reciprocity." She smiled. "And there's also a hope that you'll be an ambassador. A bridge, if you like."
"In what sense?" he said cautiously, wary of some trap. Some deal he'd never be strong enough to refuse.
"When you go back to Zion. To keep communication going, so the peace holds, that's all. Thinking is, saving Trinity might encourage you to be better disposed to the machine world, which might carry some weight with humans, given who you are. But they also just wanted to give you something. A gift. To say thank you." She nodded at Trinity. "She's it."
"You said something to them. About what she means to me. You have to have."
"Oh, I'm not the only one here who knew that."
"No. But it sure as hell wasn't the Architect. So you did, didn't you?"
She inclined her head. "Yes."
"Thank you," he said.
"You're more than welcome. I've a soft spot for her. And you." She smiled. "Told you you'd turned out all right, didn't I?"
"When can I take her home?" A sudden thought struck him. "And how'll we get back?"
The Oracle was shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Neo. She's not going to be well enough for freeing for a good few months yet. And thinking is, even when she's stable enough to be conscious, need distracting with a life here, she'll still need calm. Until she's a damn sight better they want her very steady, no dramas. No bad memories, either. That means she needs to believe in a nice dull past and a nice dull job, just while she recovers. When she's well enough, she'll get the truth back. Then - and not till then - you can take her home."
"Fine. That's fine." He didn't care what it took. Just as long as she was well. Just as long as she was alive. "So... are we married, living together, dating, what? What memory will she be given?"
But the Oracle was shaking her head once more. "If she spends too much time with you, she'll remember. She started rejecting the code when she was a toddler, she's not going to take more than a couple months to work out something's not right, and you two have too strong a connection. Always did have. Put you together, and she'll force past the programming in a week."
He froze. "What? No. I can't see her?"
"Oh, nothing that drastic. But you need to just be someone she sees around, at least to begin with. Take things gently. So. You're working at Metacortex." She nodded over at Trinity. "Both of you. They'll adjust their memories there so you'll never have left at all, and she'll be a new starter just as soon as she's well enough to leave here." She grinned, a trifle mischievously. "You've been promoted, by the way. Congratulations. Seems you were a model employee this past year."