The Good Soldier
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
This is a sad story. Just imagine it: a young scholarship boy kicked out of college after his first semester, not because of his grades, but because of his ability to manipulate his grades via the internet. Unable to tell his parents about his misfortune, because they are blind and poor and have no other desire than to see their only son get a degree, he takes a job at a bar in a lousy DC neighborhood and calls them often enough to lie about his present situation.
That was me in 1989. One sullen, cold evening when I had just begun work at this bar (which did not care, by the way, that I was underage), I looked up to see a different sort of man walk into the place. Misplaced only because of his white-blond hair—which made him look like a saint, or a psychopath—he took a seat at my end of the bar and demanded, with ease, my immediate attention.
"Apoc, when you get a chance, get me a gin and tonic."
I gasped and turned to face him. "What did you just say?"
"Actually, better make that a Long Island ice tea. I feel like something tasty."
I stared at the man with my mouth hanging open for a good twenty seconds. He pretended not to notice, taking out a cigarette and placing it carefully between his lips. "Cold night, eh?"
"Levy! What the hell do you think you’re doin’?" The other bartender, a swaggering idiot named Andrew, called out to me. "This guy down here’s been waiting forever and you’re starin’ at nothing like Dan Quayle on a glue high!"
I scampered down to the end of the bar and apologized to a large man in a dark suit.
"All I want is a frickin’ Budweiser. Is that too much to ask?"
I ran over and got him one. "It’s on me, pal," I said. "This Bud’s for you."
The man looked up at me, then took out a pen and scribbled something onto a napkin. "Yeah. Thanks."
I went back to the other man at the end of the bar, the man with white hair. I bent over the side and lowered my voice as much as possible. "How did you know my name?"
"Oh, I know a lot," he said, blowing a thin stream of smoke into the air. "I know, for instance, that you got kicked out of UDC for hacking into the system and changing that one particular grade so you wouldn’t have to take philosophy again. I also know that you’ve been looking for an efficient way to commit suicide, and that you spend most of your nights on your computer."
"This is crazy," I gasped, and meant it.
"But of course, what got my attention was that virus you sent around the world last week. What you were presuming would be your last tour de force in the realm of computers. Sure screwed up the government’s system of mindless efficiency. Four Horsemen. Brilliant. Even I couldn’t have thought of a name like that."
My tongue was frozen to the back of my throat. Not that I could have said anything anyway. I made some kind of involuntary noise—a loud, petrified moan.
"But anyway," he said, continuing as though my reaction meant nothing, "I’ve come to show you something special, yada yada yada, something that’ll make your pretty boy head spin around and come right off. Sound like fun? Yep, I thought so. Let’s go." He put out his cigarette and stood up.
I finally found my voice. "Go?"
"C’mon kiddo. I don’t have a lifetime here." He bent forward and dissolved into a fit of coughing.
"I don’t even know you," I whispered hoarsely.
"Call me Ezra. C’mon, let’s go."
* * *
Ezra looked like he was in his thirties. He was a thin, eccentric looking man who wore dark clothes and tended to limp a little when he walked. He looked bored. "You’ll have to excuse my blandness," he said, "but this is the third time I’ve done this this year. And you kids all seem the same to me. You’re all sweet and sad and self-destructive. So we have to come in and save you."
"Oh, there are a bunch of us. It doesn’t make much sense now, but it will later. See, there are groups of us and we live beneath the earth’s surface. The leader of my particular cell is a man named Morpheus. I see you’ve heard of him," he said, noting that my face had snapped to attention. "That’s good. You’ll be meeting him soon, but not tonight."
"Under the ground?"
"Yeah, that sounds ridiculous, I know. But it’ll make sense later. That and the Matrix."
"Don’t play dumb, Apoc. Surely you must know what the Matrix is by now." We stopped and stood near a dark alley next to a cheap movie theater. "Holy shit, Apoc. Forget it. You’re wasting my time." He started to walk away. "Hacker who’s never heard of the Matrix . . ."
"Wait!" I called out. I had a vague notion that this man was crazy and might very well lure me back to a dirty apartment somewhere and pull a John Wayne Gacy on me—but at that moment I didn’t really care. He was right—I’d been looking for a way out of my life, but without access to the right kinds of pills, a trustworthy gun, or a tall enough building, it hadn’t been worth it. And I certainly didn’t want to go back to my own apartment, where rats scampered over my feet and cockroaches made homes in my mattress. "The Matrix—I’ve heard of it. I want to know more."
"Good boy!" he said loudly, as though I were a trained poodle. "Come here," he said quietly, "because no one can be told what the Matrix is. Well, actually one can be told, but it usually makes no sense unless one is particularly adept at higher math and existential philosophy."
He was making no sense. He went over to the dumpster behind the movie theater and came back with a large Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure poster. He tore it in half. "Now watch this." He laid it on the ground and stepped back. Waving his hands in the air once, he brought the pieces into a flutter and sealed the poster back together.
"That—that’s impossible!" I croaked.
"Yeah, in the real world. This isn’t the real world, it’s the Matrix. What I did is not impossible, but very rare. I have a gift. For a while, Morpheus thought I was really special, but then we all found out that strange things like that are the extent of my powers."
My head was swimming. "What’s the difference between the Matrix and the real world?"
"We’re in the Matrix right now. It’s a computer program disguised to look like reality."
"Whoa—reality? This isn’t real?"
"Bingo! This is not reality, it is a simulation of reality. But what is reality, really? Is it whatever feels really real? No, not really. It can be anything that’s good enough to fool your poor young ass."
Again my head was swimming. These were like the things we talked about in philosophy 101, the class I’d flunked and tried to change by hacking into the school’s mainframe. Philosophy had been my death.
"Ow!" he said suddenly, grabbing his left arm.
"I’m about to get stabbed, and it hurts like hell. In a minute, some thug’s going to come around the corner and try to mug me. You don’t have any money, do you?"
I shook my head.
"I thought not. Well, I’m going to fight him and win, but he’ll get me right here. I’m screaming now because I do everything backwards. It’s another one of my little quirks." He looked straight into my eyes, his light gray ones glowing with a fierce, yet gentle humanity. "You better get out of here. Take this as a souvenir." He thrust the Bill and Ted’s poster into my arms. "Don’t look so sad, sweet face. We’ll be in touch."
I fled down the alleyway, but turned just in time to see Ezra become a flurry of arms and legs.
The next morning I woke up, safe in my bed—at least as safe as I could be in that lousy slum. I rolled over and came face to face with the poster, finding a thin, barely perceptible line straight down the middle of it.
* * *
"My my, another punk kid for the play-pen in the real world. How charming." This, I later learned, was Viper. He and Ezra escorted me from my apartment and to a car waiting in front of the building. "You’re lucky," he said. "We’re doing this in broad daylight, when it really should be done in the middle of the night. But no one’s after you, so I’ve been told. But we still gotta take precautions!" He held up a gun, then prodded me with it in my side.
"Are those dred locks for real?" he asked.
"Just eat your cake and get in the car, Viper," Ezra said.
A beautiful black woman sat behind the wheel. "So you’re Apoc," she said in a light, British accent. "Nice to meet you." She put the car in drive, stepped on the gas, and swerved around the curve so hard I nearly threw up. When I became the driver in the years to come, I was always sure to drive reasonably.
The woman turned on the radio and some loud, Christian rock came blaring over the speakers. "He is Lord! He is Lord!" a chorus of voices sang crazily.
"Fuck that! Turn it off!" Viper said.
"Don’t touch it!" Ezra said. He was sitting in the back with me.
"My good man, you’re forgetting that I have the guns." Viper grinned a stupid, toothless smile. He had a hat on backwards and wore chains around his neck.
"And you are forgetting that I can read your mind and know that you have no intention of harming me whatsoever. If you value your manhood, you’ll keep my station on."
The woman turned the radio off. "And if you value my sanity," she said clearly, "you’ll all learn to live without it." She accelerated, weaving in and out of the thick DC traffic. "Let’s get this over with."
"He’s going to ask you if you want to take a red pill or a blue pill," Ezra said to me.
"Morpheus, of course. Say red."
"Yeah, say red!" Viper intoned. "Red is much more fun!"
"What is this about?"
"Just trust us. Take the red pill. You’ll be a good soldier, I know it," Ezra said.
"You guys," the woman complained loudly. "You know you’re not allowed to influence him like that. It’s his own decision. Apoc, you can do whatever you want." She turned around to wink at me. "But I sincerely hope you take the red pill."
"The road! The road!" I screamed. We’d crossed over the line and were heading straight into heavy traffic.
"Oh yes." The woman steered the car back onto our side of the road.
A few minutes later we reached our destination—a comely little house in Bethesda, Maryland.
"This is our house," the woman said. "Like it?"
"It’s—nice," I said. It wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t think that reality came in a quaint suburban package. I almost expected for the ground to open up and for us to go plummeting to the center of the earth.
"This is where we do the unplugging," Ezra told me, leading me into the house. "Oh, and don’t expect a lot of answers to your questions. Morpheus likes to be enigmatic. It’s all part of his design."
He let me up a shallow set of stairs. Morpheus was standing at the top, black and formidable, a wide grin spreading across his face. "Now we begin," he said.
So that was how I, Jonathan Levy, now known simply as Apoc, was released from the Matrix. For the first few days after my unplugging, I remained unconscious and saw nothing of Ezra, the man who persuaded me to leave my old life behind and take up a new one.
In fact, I didn’t see anyone for a while. I lay in a white room, drifting in and out of consciousness until one day I had a visitor.
Later she told me that she only wanted to get a good look at me—something that was not allowed of her. So she crept into the room, circled around the bed, and knelt at the foot of it, staring at me.
During all this, I was faintly aware that someone was there. I picked my head up and opened my eyes, painfully, then took in the small image of half a face, blue eyes and dark hair. I realized that I was practically naked, and began screaming.
She screamed back. Our screams filled the small room and eventually echoed throughout the corridor. Struggling to cover myself, I fell from the cot and landed in a sprawling heap on the floor.
A herd of crewmembers burst into the room. "What are you doing?!"
The girl continued to scream. "Oh my God, oh my God!" she said a few times.
"Shit for shame, Trinity!" It was Ezra. "Someone slap that girl!"
"I will—but please don’t specify where!" That was Viper.
"Linden, help me get Apoc back onto the cot."
I felt strong arms lifting me back into place. "Get me some clothes!" I wailed. I was covered with something. Then I could hear voices swirling around me until I faded out again.
"What were you thinking? You nearly scared him to death."
"I just wanted to see who he was . . ."
"Get away from here! Scram, now!"
* * *
"Well, he took it pretty well, don’t you think?"
"I knew he would."
"Breathe, Apoc." I felt a large hand stroking my bare head.
"I think they’ve all taken it pretty well."
"You know these MTV babies. Nothing scares them anymore—they’re not like us. They could see a guy get decapitated and it would mean nothing to them." That last voice was Ezra’s—his shadow flickering over my closed eyes.
"These kids—they’ll be able to kill people like it’s as easy as drinking a beer. They’re crazy, really."
"Alright Ezra, that’s enough." Morpheus’s deep voice came in and usurped everyone else’s. I could feel someone lifting me, then carrying me. And then I was pulled into unconsciousness.
When I awoke hours later, it was dark and my mind was still spinning. Even when things fell into place they seemed disjointed and unreal, like a bad Fellini movie. I remembered this place—cold and metallic and animated with people. Linden—the tall black woman who had been driving the car. Morpheus, still the same despite his odd, tattered attire. My head was bare and my body covered with a series of metallic holes. It was all very, very strange, needless to say.
Morpheus, I recalled, had taken me on a brief tour of the ship that morning, which really meant nothing to me at the time. It was like staring at an abstract painting and seeing nothing but your own reflection. Then he introduced me to a series of people who seemed like short sketches of other people I’d known in the past. To tell you the truth, it was all very meaningless. It slipped through my mind and splashed to the floor like water.
I kept waiting to see this underground place of which Ezra had spoken. And the Matrix? Well, maybe I’m dense, but I didn’t really catch on at all.
"Where am I?" I whispered, sitting up and staring into the darkness. A small light emanated from somewhere—probably the crack beneath the door.
I could hear faint voices coming from the hallway, though I could only make out a few words.
"You go in."
"I want you to go in first."
"It was your idea. You go in."
Then their voices blurred and ran together and I couldn’t understand a thing. I put my head back down.
The voices drew closer and became louder. I could tell that they belonged to two women.
"He’s slow, that’s what they’re saying. Morpheus practically had to spoon feed him the truth, and he still doesn’t get it. He still doesn’t know where we are."
That was for sure.
"He won’t last long."
Now I felt a little scared. Were they planning to ship me off to Camden, New Jersey?
"Don’t be a bitch. You’re so mean."
"I’m not mean, just realistic."
"You don’t know anything."
"Neither do you."
"Girls, get back to your work." A third voice had cut in. "You’re not supposed to be here. Those are the rules."
"Rules shmules," one of them said. "You’re such a nazi."
"Can’t we talk to him?"
"No, get back to your posts."
The door opened and light flooded in. I picked up my head again. Ezra stepped inside and closed the door. "Apoc. Are you okay?"
"Hmm," I said. I couldn’t really think of anything appropriate to say.
"Good. It may take a few days to fully understand the truth, but Morpheus will help with that. In the meantime, you’ll be starting your training tomorrow, so be ready."
"Training for what?"
Ezra stepped closer to me. "Training for combat. For the war."
Right. This war thing again. Something popped into my mind, something that had been troubling me from the beginning. "Ezra, my parents. I haven’t talked to them in a while, and they’re probably getting worried."
Ezra exhaled deeply. "You’re going to have to let that go now."
"But—but they’re poor and not sighted. Life dealt them a pretty bad blow. I feel like I owe them some kind of explanation."
He bent over and touched my head, gently forcing my head back onto the pillow. It was one of the few moments of compassion that passed between us. "We’ll think of something. But for now, you must know that they really weren’t your parents. You didn’t exist until now—nothing of your old life is true. Forget it. From now on, you’re Apoc—not Jon Levy who got kicked out of UDC and worked in a bar. All of that’s over. It was a dream, a lie. That is something you’ll have to come to terms with on your own—and that’s the hardest thing you’ll have to deal with."
Things began to fall into place then. Somehow I began to see some shard of truth through this confusion, through this . . . this time. Ezra stood and walked from the room.
* * *
I had the terrible privilege of being Tank’s first trainee.
Morpheus brought me to the core the next morning and introduced me to the fledgling operator. "This is Tank," he said. Jesus, the kid couldn’t have been more than seventeen. He was fresh from some training academy in Zion, and had a real anal retentive air about him. Yeah, he was a real "yes sir, no sir" type, and it took us a good few years to get him to loosen up.
Tank bent forward and shook my hand intensely, these big serious eyes staring directly into mine. I looked away, suddenly shy.
"You two have a lot of work to do," Morpheus said. "I expect a full report at the end of the day."
Tank did everything wrong. He managed to load every training program out of order, forcing me to attempt the most difficult tasks on my first day. "Aahh," I said, grimacing at a particularly arduous training simulation. I managed to collect a few darts in my ass. "Pull me out of this!" I whimpered.
Tank said, "No, not until you get it right!"
"Fuck you!" I groaned. "Get me out of here!"
Tank did as he was told. "I don’t understand why you’re being difficult to work with."
"Because this is killing me! It hurts like hell, fuckhead."
"I’ll thank you kindly not to use that language in the core."
"Alright, that’s it," I said, starting to sit up. Much to my dismay, I found that I was tethered to a big metal rod, one that shot directly into my skull. "I’m being mind fucked! Mind fucked!"
Tank shook his head. He came around and unplugged me. I got up and ran from the core, just as I heard Morpheus enter the room. "How did that go?" he asked.
"About as well as expected," Tank said.
* * *
After my first experience, they managed to lure me back in to try the jump program. I fell flat on my face, but didn’t die. Ironically, the prospect of jumping off a tall building without dying had been one of my principle fears of suicide while in the Matrix.
Afterwards, I sat in the mess hall alone, spooning up a terrible protein drink. I was by myself in the gloomy, sterile atmosphere and feeling a bit . . . sad.
Then I heard voices in the corridor. "You go in first."
"No you go in first."
"What are you afraid of?"
There was a slight pause. "Oh, forget it. I’m going back to my room."
"Don’t you dare! You said you’d come with me to see him."
"Oh fine. Then let’s get it over with."
The door opened slowly and two girls walked in. The brunette smiled shyly and the blond just glared. "Hi," the first one said. "I’m Trinity." She pointed to her friend. "This is Switch."
"Hi," I said. Trinity grinned more widely but Switch’s statement didn’t change.
We all stared at each other for a good ten seconds. It was one of those horribly awkward moments that seems worse than death.
Trinity cleared her throat. "We’re here to . . . to um . . ."
"Eat," Switch finished for her.
"Hmm," I said, and returned to my bowl of slop. Like the new operator, they couldn’t have been more than seventeen. Later I learned that Trinity had been unplugged for almost a year, and Switch just six months. They were both being trained for security detail, as was I without really knowing it.
Trinity seemed rueful and sweet, and Switch looked like she was struggling to remain stoical.
Something struck me. "Trinity," I mumbled to myself, eyeing the girl skeptically. "Hey, you don’t happen to be that person who hacked the IRS, do you?"
She smiled. "Yeah, that was me."
"Whoa," I said, hardly believing it. I wondered how someone so young and so . . . pretty . . . could be so capable. "That was a good one."
"Thanks. Morpheus pulled me out right after that. I mean, the authorities were coming for me, so he had no choice."
"Sure," I said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be wanted by the feds.
I looked up again to find Trinity elbowing Switch. "Ask him," she whispered.
"No, you ask him," Switch said.
"You thought of it."
"Ask me anything," I said, trying to smile despite the pain I was in.
They both looked up at me, wide eyed for a second, then dissolved into laughter. Switch looked at me and grinned wickedly. "We heard that you worked in a gay bar."
"Are you gay?" Trinity blurted out. "I’ve never known a gay person before. I mean—not real closely."
"Wha—I didn’t work in a gay bar!" I shoved my food away.
"That’s what Ezra told us. He said you were a stripper." Their laughter swelled and grew louder.
"He’s lying," I said, though I knew my protests meant nothing to them.
"What’s the difference between a table dance and a lap dance?" Switch asked as they laughed harder.
"Show us!" Trinity said.
"Oh Trinity, you’re awful," Switch said, grabbing her friend’s wrist. "C’mon, let’s get out of here before he takes us up on it." They scrambled from the room, their laughter echoing all the way down the hall.
They left me alone again, more sore and confused than I’d ever been in my life.
* * *
Misery loves company, so they say, and I loved Trinity and Switch—or "the girls" as they were called by everyone else. After our initial (and horrifying) meeting, we soon settled into a steady companionship and they taught me how to deal with the training programs.
"They’re hell!" Trinity said with a huge smile. She was always smiling and exuded a girlish sort of happiness.
Switch, on the other hand, maintained her well-reasoned stoicism. "They are rather rough," she ventured. She was good though—leaping from building to building and fighting these little ninjas like she was the star of her own video game.
I fought Trinity everyday and she always sent me sprawling on the ground. Then she would come over, smile, help me up and give me a few pointers. "Your technique is good, but you seem to lack balance. Remember—you can do anything you want in this world."
"And with that attitude you’ll get nowhere." So we fought again and she sent me into a brick wall. "Not bad, not bad at all," she commented, smiling as usual and helping me to my feet.
Trinity fascinated me in spite of myself. Everyone knew—though the reasoning was simply implied—that she was not to be disturbed. In those days we had a cat aboard the Nebucadnezzar and it stayed with Trinity most of the time. It slept in her bed at night and sat perched atop her shoulders during the day. She had nightmares, I was told, so she needed the cat to help her sleep. "Nightmares . . . ?" I asked Switch when Trinity wasn’t around.
"Trinity had . . . a bad life in the Matrix," Switch whispered haltingly to me. I understood not to press further.
Still, Trinity seemed fine so I never treated her any differently than I did anyone else. Actually, I did—I loved her company. We would get together and laugh our asses off about something completely stupid and boring, like Tank’s fumbling inability to get anything right. One day, Trinity snatched my hat from my head (the one that hid the fact that my hair was growing in all wrong) and ran off with it.
"Give that back!" I screamed, chasing her from the mess hall to the corridor and upstairs to the core. "Drop it!"
She laughed out loud, then began shrieking when I got too close.
"Give it back!"
"Stop that!" someone shouted. I turned around to discover that Morpheus was there. Stupid me, I hadn’t noticed him when we clamored into the room. I jerked to a stop where I stood. Linden looked up from a set of controls and shook her head. Tank looked up from the screens and seemed to smile a little—probably reveling in the fact that we were about to get in trouble.
"How old are you?" Morpheus yelled out.
"Sorry, sir," Trinity said, dropping her eyes and handing my hat back to me.
"Yeah, sorry," I said quickly. "It won’t happen again."
"You two have a problem with authority," he said. "I advise you to change your attitude." He walked from the room.
"Jeez," I said quietly. Tank snickered.
"Don’t worry about it," Linden said. "He’ll forget about it by tomorrow."
"But that doesn’t solve your problems," Viper said. He was swinging from a metal pipe, doing the occasional chin-up. Viper was ugly—toothless both in and out of the Matrix—and had the eloquence of an Appalachian moonshiner. "You guys suck. Actually, the only one of you who might stand a chance in real combat is Switch. But you two—" he let himself fall from the bar— "will never amount to nothin.’"
Ezra stood up. He’d been sitting in the corner reading a book so I hadn’t noticed him. He had the presence of a small shadow. He seemed slightly amused by everything that had gone on. "Linden’s right," he said. "There’s no real need to worry. Do what you’re supposed to do and all will be well." He started to walk out, then turned around again and looked at all of us. "You know, Shelley was immortal by the time he was eighteen. How are you doing?" He smiled, then strolled away.
* * *
Ezra was another one. He was an odd character, slinking around the ship and counseling Morpheus when the time was right. Linden was second in command——when it seemed like it should have been Ezra’s job. As far as I knew, Ezra didn’t have a rank.
"What does Ezra do?" I asked Switch and Trinity one day when we were sitting inside of the mess hall.
Trinity ignored me. "Oh Lawrence," she said to the cat, "I don’t feel like my single celled protein today. You can have it." She shoved her bowl at the cat, which was sitting on the table.
"Lawrence can have mine too," Switch said. "It’s disgusting."
The cat sniffed at both bowls, then jumped down from the table and ran off. "See?" Trinity said. "You shouldn’t have told him that. Cats understand what you say."
"What does that cat eat anyway?" Switch asked.
"Cockroaches," I said. "I saw six legs hanging out of his mouth the other day in the laundry room."
"Ugh!" Trinity said. She got up and dumped her food down the drain. "Oh well. I didn’t want it anyway."
I repeated my question. "Ezra is sick," Switch said quietly to me. "Haven’t you noticed?"
Now I remembered his coughing, coupled with his pallid complexion. He had dark circles under his eyes. "With what?" I asked. She shrugged. "Is it serious?" She shrugged again.
"I heard that Morpheus used to think he was the One," Switch said. I nodded. I’d heard about the One. "But I guess Morpheus was wrong."
It sounded somewhat grim. "How did they find out?"
Switch’s eyes locked with mine. "I don’t know. I guess he could do a lot in the Matrix, but not anything really amazing. He can read minds, you know——but only in the Matrix."
I turned around to see Trinity. She was still facing the sink, just staring. "What do you think, Trinity?" I asked.
Switch tugged at my arm. I turned around in time to see Switch shake her head at me.
"What?" Trinity said, her eyes wide. "I’m sorry, Apoc. I haven’t heard anything you’ve said."
* * *
Our first trips to the Matrix after our unplugging were pleasant ones. Of course, we were naive enough to think that this was normal, that the Matrix was simply the pretty world of our previous lives. Trinity was especially young and charming, commenting on the color of a flower or the light of the moon. "Oh, look Apoc," she said. "They even managed to get the man in the moon right."
"Maybe they invented him," Switch said dryly.
"I doubt it," Trinity said. "Machines aren’t that creative."
One warm, sunny day we sat outside a small cafe, smoking cigarettes and waiting for Morpheus and Ezra to return from some mission. We were on security detail with Viper, so our jobs were mainly probationary and not very difficult.
I felt so lucky. I was with two women—two beautiful, interesting, real women who liked being with me. Things had never gone so well in my old life.
Trinity sat with her knees pulled to her chest, spooning up the last of an ice cream sundae. She was laughing idly about something.
"Let’s make her laugh harder," I said to Switch. "I want to see that ice cream come out of her nose!"
Trinity did laugh harder, but not before leaning over to hit me. "You’re crazy!" she said. "You come into the Matrix and the only things you want are a cup off black coffee and cigarettes. What’s wrong with you?"
"Food isn’t very important to me," I said.
"It is to me," Switch said. "And I’m getting another piece of cake. Want anything?"
We shook our heads. What a way to pass the time—like idle rich people who had no worries. Money? Shit, we could load it. School? Forget it. Work? Yeah right.
Viper approached us. "They’re on their way. We best be getting back to the exit."
The exit was a pay-phone on the corner. Trinity stood up before I did when a bullet came out of nowhere, whizzing past my head and hitting her on the side of the abdomen. She looked down, horrified, to find blood oozing from her stomach and onto her hand. A slow, wheezing breath came out of her mouth.
"Shit!" Viper screamed. "Get down!"
I hit the ground, vaguely aware that Viper had leapt over to cover Trinity and force her to the ground. A shower of gunfire sprayed us. Others in the outdoor cafe screamed and dove for cover. Then—it stopped.
"C’mon, let’s go," Viper whispered tensely.
Ezra leapt down from the top of a building, scooped up Trinity, and sailed off again. I stared at him in awe. I’d never seen a man fly before.
The firing began again. "Scatter!" Viper said. I took off running, all of the thoughts pouring from my head. We were in the middle of a war, and I couldn’t even remember how to load my gun properly without shooting myself. Because I thought I was being chased, I ran through an alley, down another street, and into an alley. Growing tired, I dove into an old dumpster.
The smell of trash offending my nostrils, I pulled my shirt over my nose. And waited. And waited some more. My mind raced to Trinity, to Switch. Were they going to be all right? Especially Trinity, God, that bullet hit her right in the stomach, and then Ezra came down and swept her away. Where had he come from? And where was Morpheus? Where was everyone? Was it okay to come out now?
My thoughts raced on threefold when I heard some talking outside of the dumpster. "This dumpster? Yeah, okay." Light poured into the small jungle of trash as someone propped the lid open. I gasped, afraid of what the immediate future held for me.
"Jesus God, you’re pathetic." Viper reached down pulled me up my the collar of my shirt. I noticed that he’d been talking on a cell phone. "You like swimming in this shit?"
"You thought what? That you were going to die? God, you’re a shitty excuse for a soldier, let me tell you. You won’t last a year."
I climbed out of the dumpster and brushed myself off, shamefully. "What about . . . Trinity?"
Viper shrugged. "We got her out of here in good time. She’ll be okay. But man, you. Hiding in the trash. You’re a disgrace."
I could feel the shame thickening in the air when I awoke on the ship. Crew members averted their gaze from me, busying themselves with obeying Morpheus’s orders. They seemed embarrassed for me, or maybe just embarrassed to know me, I’m not sure.
"Hidin’ in the trash," Viper was muttering. "Fuckin’ coward. Worthless."
Trinity was okay, I learned, and recovering nicely in the infirmary. Still, I didn’t feel like talking to her. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, especially Switch who had done quite well in the battle, making escape possible for everyone else. But I felt like the ultimate failure—I could still smell the trash in my pores.
I turned around to find Ezra staring at me. Linden looked up from the center console, her gaze flickering over us.
"Let’s go upstairs and talk."
* * *
Upstairs, as it turned out, was the roof of the hovercraft. And Ezra hadn’t really wanted to talk, but to smoke pot. The outside air was dark and freezing and I pulled my arms close to my body, teeth chattering, and waited for Ezra to light the joint he’d taken a long, careful time to prepare. We sat on the hull of the ship and he took a drag, then handed it to me.
"Ah, fine weed," he said. "You can’t get much better than this."
"Hmm," I said, thinking I’d smoked better, but remembered that it had been in the Matrix.
"I knew you were the type," he said with a short laugh. "I just knew."
I took another drag and handed it back to him. "Where’d you get this?"
He smiled. "Zion. Some guy there grows it though it’s quite against the law. A capital offense as some might say. Ah, smoke up."
"Does Morpheus know?"
"I don’t know. You think?"
The pot was making him stupid. "Why did you bring me up here?" I asked.
Ezra parted his lips to let a glorious stream seep through. "Your time in the Matrix today was not . . . how shall we say it? Satisfactory."
"It was my first fight, I know, but I’ll do better next time—"
Ezra held his hand up. "Don’t make excuses. You were ill-prepared. And not because you didn’t work hard enough at the training programs, but because you were not ready in your mind. You were not mentally prepared."
I let my stare sink to the depressing milieu around me.
"You’re better than you think you are. You’re better than a lot of people think you are."
My eyes snapped up. "People don’t think I’m good, do they."
He handed me the joint. "Morpheus has his doubts."
I nodded, taking a drag. I’d known that much.
"But you’re good," Ezra asserted. "You’ll be a good soldier. Just give yourself some time. And some real belief."
But Ezra was the good soldier, not me, and I loved him. He was a good friend, a wonderful mentor. I never thought badly about him—I always wanted to think the best when it came to Ezra.
The next time we went into the Matrix I made sure my thoughts were solid and prepared. I could feel danger lurking around the corner now, and saw treachery rather than specious beauty. And I came prepared with paper and stamps, and an envelope. I took out a pen and composed a letter: "Dear Mother and Dad," I wrote, "I hope my letter finds you in good health. I am quite well, though I know I have been absent for some time now. I am living with some really nice people in a very different place." I doubted they were going to buy this bullshit, but I continued on anyway. "I have a steady job and that provides me with everything I need." This much was true. "If you hear anything bad about me, like on the news or in the papers, just know that it isn’t true. I’ve enclosed some money for you. Love, A—" I stopped, and scratched out the first letter of my name, and scrawled "Jon" instead. I shoved several hundred dollars inside of the envelope, money that Ezra had loaded from the construct program, and dropped the letter in the mailbox. Because they were blind, someone would have to read the letter to them—hopefully some trustworthy neighbor who wouldn’t make off with the cash.
* * *
One morning I awoke at the usual time, got up, and sauntered out of my room. It was laundry day—I knew that much. Time to wash a whole regiment’s dirty clothes—yea. I yawned and opened the door to the laundry room.
Much to my surprise, Trinity was already there. She looked up, frightened, and I noticed that her face was blotchy with tears. Then I noticed that she stooped over the large sink, scrubbing vigorously.
"Hey," I said softly, "what’s wrong, buddy?"
She sniffled. "Go away." She turned back to her wash.
I noticed that she seemed to be struggling with washing a set of old flannel sheets. "Don’t worry about that," I said, drawing closer. "I’ll take care of it, it’s my turn."
She continued to scrub the sheets under the water. "I told you to go away. I don’t want you here."
I noticed that her hands shook as she wiped away her tears. "What is it?" I whispered, beginning to panic a little. I’d never seen her so wrecked about something, and it was starting to tear me apart. I reached out and tried to touch her shoulder.
She hit me so quickly I couldn’t even brace myself. "Get the fuck away from me!" she screamed. "Go away. Go away!" She began to sob frantically, so I backed up a little, scared that I had set her off, then turned around to leave the room.
Switch met me at the door. "What happened? What did you do to her?"
"I don’t—I don’t know—"
"Ah, shit," Switch said and went forward, taking the other woman in her arms. "Trinity, what’s wrong?" I heard her whisper. Trinity grabbed Switch tightly, sobbing harder.
Then the others were all there, Morpheus pushing past me into the laundry room. "What did you do?" Tank asked, his eyes dancing mischievously.
I backed out of the room, starting down the hall. For the life of me, I could not guess what I had done—but I felt responsible in some way, like someone’s lost innocence dangled above me in the air, and the guilt was mine for the taking.
* * *
After that, things went on as they had before, but with a slight mood of restraint. Switch and I, I think, were just waiting for things to blow up again. Trinity’s past life, I suspected, was invading her present existence and making it hard for her to concentrate on matters of the resistance. "Poor Trinity," I said to Switch once, when we were alone in my room, discussing the whole thing.
"Yes," Switch said carefully, "poor Trinity." Looking back on it now, I think she spoke with some degree of sarcasm or bitterness. She knew more than I did; I think she thought that Trinity brought it on herself.
I looked at Switch then, sensing her dissent. I didn’t know it then, but there would come a time when I would fall deeply in love with her, bury my face in her neck and kiss the soft whiteness of her skin. Some day, I would know her body as well as I knew my own, and we would make love incessantly, finding some sort of solace in each other that nothing else could offer.
But then, she was just my friend, my best friend, and we both hated the fact that Trinity was growing apart from us. Trinity was spending more time on other parts of the ship. I remembered a time when the three of us had curled up on my bed and fallen asleep together, the slow rhythm of breath coaxing our dreams along. There had been jokes about it—that we’d had a threesome and I was "one lucky guy"—but now I simply wondered if there’d ever be a time like that again.
We tried to forget about everything, put it behind us—but I think we all knew instinctively that things would only get worse.
* * *
Our first successful mission went something like this: Morpheus ordered a terrorist raid on the CIA, which not so coincidentally contained a large database controlled by the agents and machines—a database that continually catalogued all of the human "disappearances"—or unpluggings. He wanted us to destroy this database so that years of systematic surveillance might be erased.
The details of the mission are unimportant—just know that we succeeded. Due to a virus that I composed and the database that Trinity and Linden managed to hack, we were in business. Morpheus and Linden organized the logistics of the mission, Switch carried out most of the physical stuff. During all this time, Ezra lingered in the background, growing more ill as time went on. Now he regularly spent hours holed in dark corners, reading eighteenth century British poetry and offering few ripe comments. He was out of place, that Ezra, like an old relic or an archaic statement.
His complexion grew paler, his posture seemed to deteriorate. He folded up like an old man—watching us from the shadows. Trinity seemed to share whatever malady he had but it manifested itself in her mood.
I proposed the usual sophisticated diversion: "After this mission is over, let’s all get smashed."
We were sitting together in my room, waiting for the mission to begin. I’d finished the virus and was simply biding my time. Trinity and Switch were playing a card game. "Where do we get the alcohol?" Switch asked.
"Ezra’s got a secret stash. I’ll check with him if it’s okay."
Trinity shifted in her small space. There was a pale circle around her mouth. "When we win the war," she said, "I want a glass of the finest wine in existence."
As we left the room, I saw Switch grab Trinity’s hand and squeeze it.
In the core, we kept trying to hack into the Matrix but nothing seemed to work. "Damn! It’s those lousy cockroaches," Viper said. "They’re downstairs gumming up the whole system."
"Alright," Morpheus said. "Ezra, take Apoc down the lower deck and show him how the extermination process works."
Viper grinned horribly. Tank uneasily edged away, fearing that he might be called upon next.
On the lower deck, Ezra and I rounded up buckets of nasty cockroaches. "This one’s half the size of my hand," I said, pointing to a large one sitting in the trap. In a really perverse, fetishistic way—it was cool. Creepy and gothic. Ezra and I threw the contents of the buckets into the incinerator. "It’s isn’t a quick death," Ezra said, "despite Belacqua’s beliefs." I saved one bucket to gross out Trinity, taking it up to the main deck.
Trinity squirmed away, squealing. "Eeeee, oh gross!"
I shoved it towards her.
"Apoc, that’s disgusting," Switch said. She was trying to appear cool but was inching away nonetheless.
"I think it’s cool. Look Trinity, the one on top thinks you’re hot."
"You’re so gay," Viper said in his homophobic vernacular, swinging on a large pipe.
"What will you do with them?" Trinity asked.
"Throw them down the incinerator," I explained. "Snap crackle pop!"
Viper laughed as the girls turned away in repugnance. I’d been making real strides with Viper lately, despite my apparent "gayness."
Morpheus appeared on deck. "Apoc, get rid of that," he said sternly. "We’re ready to hack into the Matrix."
* * *
With the main part of my role fulfilled, I was the backup for the security contingent. In other words, I waited around while Trinity hacked the system and Linden implanted my virus. But the plan had to go a step further. By the time the day was over, I’d seen three buildings implode and felt their heat thrust against my back.
We ran through the streets looking for our escape, Linden talking frantically into her cell phone and Morpheus leading the way. "Thank God Ezra’s not with us," I whispered to Switch, shivering in the dark Washington night. "The moisture in the air would kill him."
Switch kept her gun securely gripped between her hands. I held mine against my body, and Trinity ran with hers at her side. We cut through the waves of the dark night, wondering what program darkness called for, what computer could possibly imitate the sound of rapid breath.
Back on the Neb, we all congratulated each other on a successful mission. "Well done, Apoc," Morpheus said to me.
"Am I turning out okay after all?"
"Except for being gay," Viper said, sneering.
"And to you too, Trinity——nice work, good application of skill." Trinity blushed faintly and smiled. None of us was used to high praise.
Ezra had stayed behind due to his declining health. He’d be put in a Zion hospital in a few weeks. I wanted to tell him about the excitement of the mission, so I slipped away from all of the back slapping and went downstairs where Ezra usually sat with his Norton Anthology or whatever, sipping something and wrapped in a blanket. But I wanted a drink—or a buzz from his stash.
I knew there was something odd when I hit the stairs. It was dark and quiet but for the occasional creak of the ship. I flipped on the light.
His weight——tethered, hanging from the ceiling. Hanging from some sort of metal beam. Ezra, hanging from the ceiling, the heals of his boots staring at me, the mellow creak of the beam punctuating the emptiness of the room.
I slowly walked around to glimpse his pale face, see the blueness trickling forward to line his thin lips, the blood sinking to lower limbs, pulled by the weight of mere gravity. I choked a strange sob, my horror merging with some hideous form of guilt.
Then I wasn’t alone in the room anymore. Trinity and Switch, chatting happily, were making their way downstairs. And I, pausing in the congealed air, did nothing to stop them. In slow motion, Trinity dropped Lawrence from her fingers and screamed. Switch’s wide eyes absorbed the scene. And then we all just stayed like that for what seemed like an hour—Tinity screaming and sinking to the ground in her profound grief, Switch gaping——and me. I don’t know what I did, if I cried or spoke or threw up.
And then everyone was there, the vigil of remorseful eyes and the breath of regret. Holding hands like a seance, we were small then, we shrank to fit the room, to fit the size of his shadow. We knew that war is a thing that’s never really won.
* * *
I helped Morpheus cut him down. After that, we all sort of folded up and collapsed as he had, growing quieter, more serious—all of us older then. It was like watching the death of a small child.
Linden left the next year to be the captain of the Andromeda, and Tank’s older brother, Dozer, joined us from Zion. Viper was killed during a raid on the Department of Defense. After that we brought Cypher on—almost instinctively he filled that delightful void that Viper had left behind. And there were others, always others whose voices rose like a chorus to fill the silence on the ship—but they were gone too soon and missed too frequently. I guess we all stopped thinking about each other as friends and comrades—we all became soldiers, we all expected too little and saw too much.
After the suicide, Switch and I talked. We talked a lot. "Trinity’s not taking it well," Switch said. I nodded, figuring that Trinity was not long for our world, that she’d be sentenced to some menial work in Zion before the month’s end.
Switch’s small hand stayed tethered to mine. "They both should have known better—especially him," she said. "Carrying on like that—having an affair when neither was really well . . . one sick in the body, the other in the head, it was bound to end in a disaster."
My face, I’m sure, was a question mark. I never really knew anything. I was slow.
"He shouldn’t have taken her like that," she continued. "I hated him. I still hate him. I told him to drop it. He was taking advantage of her . . . she had a bad life with things like that in the Matrix, I said, I warned him to leave it, to leave her, but he was stupid, selfish. He wanted her for himself, and she was dumb enough to think it was love. Love, God."
I think I made a small noise. Switch looked at me questioningly. "What? You never knew?"
"Oh, I figured," I said, lying. I think after that I managed a to create a small mask, something to hide behind, a molded exterior to conceal my ignorance about things. I had loved Ezra, though I couldn’t convey that, because I loved Trinity as well. I loved them both despite the fact that those feelings stood in direct contradiction to one another.
"I guess he’d been having problems ever since it came out that he wasn’t the One," I said. "Imagine it. It must have been a bad time."
"Bad for everyone," she said. "A real disappointment."
"The One." It was almost comical. "I wouldn’t want to be that guy."
"Me neither. I think it would be a sentence worse than death."
"To save the world. Yikes," I said. "Wow, just imagine it. But I still wouldn’t mind meeting him." I chanced a look at her face. "Or her."
"That would be alright."
After the suicide we all retreated to a world that we structured carefully, to regain some sense of normalcy. Still, the smallest things brought me back: the drip of water in the sink, the mellow creak of support beam; the filter of light in the hallway, the presence of darkness behind my eyes.
Trinity didn’t cave in as we expected. Rather, I think the opposite happened—she grew strong, callous, entirely humorless. We watched her change then, draw away from us, leaving our space empty while busying herself with serious projects. She became indispensable to Morpheus—smart and poised and in command. Her rank changed; she surpassed us and continued climbing.
But I wondered if anyone still remembered the funny girl, the girl who laughed at mere existence. If anyone did, he or she didn’t admit it. Switch and I were side by side in fate, trying to forget about it—but when I stared into Trinity’s eyes I remembered; I remembered the girl who’d been so curious when I first opened my eyes in this world—I saw her trapped behind stiff posture and uncompromising blueness. I understood then, and understand now, how the eyes can become glass cages.