Disclaimer: The Matrix and its characters are the property of WB and the Wachowski brothers. I own nothing. I am not profiting from the publication of this story in any way.
Special thanks to Centaur who read this story first.
Rated R for language, violence, and some gore.
[Editor's note: A few months ago I received an email with an interview. I have been assured by Morpheus that it contains the actual statements of our subject. Below, I have tried to preserve the integrity of interview while editing for clarity. While none of us can be completely certain that any of these events really occurred, the transcript excerpted below contains many interesting anecdotes that may be of interest to some. Unfortunately, I received no further audio files, so there will be no sequel. Thank you for reading. Kirstma. May 2001]
Form, a fiery Forge,
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd,
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.
As I was saying, I can't promise you anything. I can't promise you any grand insights into the human condition or some main reason behind this whole war thing, or why agents are always white men in suits who talk like they just had a vasectomy. I mean, I was nobody important in the resistance, I spent my life behind a gun, but I suppose I have more authority to tell stories than you do. You writers, so comfortable behind your computers, you think you have all the control with your goddamn God complex and ability to make us do anything you want -- but you don't have the control, and you don't know what it's like. I've read your cockamamie stories about agents turning human and little kids being released from the Matrix, and let me be the one to tell you -- you don't have a clue. You've never seen a sentinel or shot at an agent and seen all of your bullets disappear like they never existed.
So I'm not going to tell the kind of story that you pin up on your precious internet site. I'm not here to win any prizes or make your heart flutter and beat faster. I'm here to tell it like I see it -- which is, or course, the way it is. I won't tell you exciting things, but I'll tell you a few things that went down on the ship while I was there -- maybe not the most important things in the world, but interesting enough. I'm telling this story my way, and if you don't like it you can go read something else.
I guess I'll tell you about Hostage. I'd been free for almost two years by the time Morpheus brought on this hellish new commanding officer -- that was Hostage. He'd get us up early on our day off and make us do push-ups on our toes and fingertips and pull-ups from the rafters. He said we needed to get in shape. He'd yell at us if we started "fraternizing" in the bunks during work hours and told us that our knowledge of the true logistics of the Matrix was horrifyingly inaccurate. He was like some nightmare drill sergeant you'd see in the movies.
We didn't have a clue about what Zion might look like before we went to the city to pick up Hostage. I mean, this was really a long time ago -- the three of us were not yet twenty -- and I'd say this was circa 2190, or 1990 in Matrix years. The three of us liked to sit around the mess and talk about Zion, basically because no one would tell us anything about it.
"I bet they wear those angular suits," Trinity said on one such occasion in the mess hall.
Apoc and I looked at her, befuddled.
"You know," she said, "in Zion. I bet they wear those suits that are shiny and have big, pointy collars and cuffs and things. Just like they show in Star Trek and 'The Jetsons' and all the movies."
"Oh," I said. I shook my head. "No. I doubt it."
"Why not, Switch?" Apoc said, leaning closer and touching my elbow. "This is the future, remember?"
"Why would they wear clothes like that," I said, "and leave us with these rags?"
Apoc laughed. "So you want a shiny suit?"
"No. No way." I adjusted my fingerless gloves. "I just want a new pair of gloves. And a pair of boots that aren't two sizes too small."
"Maybe they have hovercars. And skyscrapers," Trinity suggested.
"And big rats," Apoc said. "Big enough to eat! Or big enough to eat you, girly-girl." He laughed again. "Remember when we were kids and they used to tell us that we'd be living on the moon by the year 2000? Now I'm not even sure that the moon exists."
Tank walked into the mess hall at that point. Tank was still quite young and anal-retentive at this point. His big fat Zionian complex alienated him from the rest of us, and he was always quick to point out that he knew things that eluded us Matrix-borns. He could program an entire training simulation in a day, if he so desired, and he knew the Matrix code like it was his first language.
"Hi Tank," Trinity said. "We were just talking about Zion."
"Oh yeah? What about it?"
Apoc launched in and I could hear the mock-seriousness in his tone. "What do they wear? Shiny suits like in all the science fiction movies? Do they eat rats? Do they drive hovercars around sky-scrapers and blow snot onto the pedestrians below? Do they save human waste in silos and use it to grow mushrooms?"
Trinity and I tried to suppress our laughter.
Tank took a few deep breaths. "You people," he said. "You stupid coppertops."
"Hey, that's uncalled for," Apoc said. "And unfair, too. We were just asking."
He slammed his bowl onto the table. Now, I thought to myself, this should be interesting. "You're so sheltered. You know, I have to know everything about your world -- did it ever occur to you that maybe you should take the time to learn about mine?"
"We ask and nobody tells us!" Trinity was quick to point out.
"Grow up," Tank said. "And then maybe someone will care to enlighten you." He stalked out of the room.
"I can't believe he called us coppertops," Trinity said quietly. Even then, I think she had a soft spot in her heart for Tank. She wanted him to like her.
"Believe it," Apoc said. "If you shoved an acorn up that guy's ass, it would come out looking like an oak dining room set."
Maybe so -- but I wasn't in a position to try. Unlike Trinity and Apoc, I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to do my work and kill some cops and help Morpheus bring down the Matrix. I didn't go in for all that bonding crap. I'd already watched two shipmates die and I knew how that went down. I didn't want to get all mushy and cozy with Trinity and Apoc, because for all I knew, they might be next.
Well low and behold, we ended up going to Zion a few weeks after that little incident. We got there and had to be inspected by all these officials and screened to see if we were a potential threat to security. We weren't.
Zion was okay at first. It was warm enough to make me fall asleep at lunch the first day, nearly dropping my face into a bowl of raw potatoes. Apoc liked to introduce me to the passers-by on the street: "This is Switch. She can put her whole fist into her mouth. Impressive, isn't it?" These civilians went out of their way to avoid us; I imagined that we must have smelled like a cemetery after an earthquake.
Trinity didn't get that second-class citizen treatment though. In Zion, people stopped and stared at her. Either they couldn't believe the fact that a woman like that existed on the same plane of reality as them, or they couldn't tolerate the fact that a woman like that was a soldier who had to spend her life cooped up on a ship. One time, a Spanish restaurant owner presented her with a bunch of flowers while the three of us waited in line for a piece of bread. "For the seņorita, because she is so lovely," he said. And the other soldier guys? Oh man, they'd be lined up in the doorways and windows of the military headquarters every time she went in or out. People were accusing Morpheus of keeping a personal concubine on the ship or something. Geez, that was so fitting. They could have cared less about me, but with Trinity in the area they couldn't get their rocks off fast enough. Not that I really gave a shit or anything, but it was just a little disconcerting to know that two hundred years of enslavement hadn't done much to improve the males of our species.
After I'd been there a few days, I realized that Zion was the pits. God, give me Cleveland any old day over Zion. It's small and smelly, with people piled into these projects and sticking out every which way. I almost couldn't wait to get back to the ship.
But before we went, Morpheus pulled Hostage from a waiting list. Hostage had been trying to get a transfer and we needed a new officer of recruitment since our former second-in-command had left the ship, and our other leading officer had killed himself rather than live in the goddamn cold and eat that godawful food. Trinity, Apoc and I were still too young and inexperienced to take on a position that required that much work.
The day we left Zion, Hostage stood and stared at his new crew. We were waiting for Dozer and Tank to bring the ship to the docking area. Despite the fact that I looked away in an attempt to become invisible, Hostage approached me and grabbed my right arm. He held it and studied it carefully, like he was trying to figure out my life expectancy just by looking at it.
I yanked my arm away and stood behind Apoc.
"That one," Hostage said as he retreated to Morpheus. "The little blond. What's wrong with her? She looks sick."
"She's fine," Morpheus said dismissively. He missed the whole scene because he was busy reading the ship's latest stat report.
"I can tell they need a lot of work," Hostage said confidently.
Morpheus put down his report and surveyed the three of us with our ratty clothes and grim expressions. "Yes. You're probably right."
That night as the ship sped out to the other side of the earth, I sat in my room and tried to keep the motion sickness at bay. I was convinced that Hostage had put a hex on me. After all, I'd never experienced motion sickness before he passed his little remark about my sickly appearance.
There was a knock at the door and Trinity tentatively stepped in. "How are you feeling?" she whispered.
"Okay," I grunted. I looked up at her face. "What's with you? You look worse than I feel."
"Nothing." She started to leave but stopped halfway through the doorway and turned around again. "He touched me."
She sighed. "The new guy."
"He touched you? Like -- in a nasty way?"
She continued to stare at some fixed point above my head.
"Well -- where did he touch you?"
She turned around. "Forget I said anything."
I jumped to my feet. "Oh no," I said. "I can't do that. I'm going to tell Morpheus."
Trinity turned to meet me, holding my wrists to block my passage through the doorway. She was surprisingly strong. "Forget it. It was no big deal."
"It's nastiness! Of course it's a big deal."
"Maybe it was an accident," she said. "Forget I said anything about it."
I stepped back and she let go of my wrists. "Don't tell Apoc," she said. "He'll just be pissed." She left my room.
Don't tell Apoc. What was that about? Oh, I got it. She and Apoc. Okay, yeah. I could have seen that coming. Geez, they could have told me about it though.
I flounced back down on my bed and tried to ignore the vomit rising at the back of my throat. Trinity and Apoc. The new guy mauling Trinity. And me, about ready to puke. Back in the old days, like Medieval times, they used to say when the hand aspired to be the head or the heart aspired to be the foot, everything was out of order and messed up. Birds would fall out of sky. Fish might grow wings. You couldn't count on anything anymore, and clutching the edges of my mattress with white knuckles, I felt like that: nothing was right, nothing was stable. Everything was out of order and only grief could come of it.
* * *
Hostage was intensely good looking with sandy hair, a muscled form, and a firmly set jaw. In his bare feet he towered over Morpheus, his arms bulging from his shirt. Right away I hated him. He had hard, gray eyes and a cold smile, so cool and confident. I wondered if anyone had ever slapped that face the way he sometimes slapped mine.
He came with the highest recommendations. His former ship, The Carolina, had experienced a power failure during a sentinel attack. Most of the crew died. Hostage, while still a rookie, tapped into a hidden power supply and managed to manually drive the ship, with its remaining injured crew, to Zion. It was an unprecedented feat, and he got some press over it. Shit, he even got some kind of medal.
One day I was bringing a bucket of rags down to be washed and I caught Hostage stepping out of the shower. He didn't have anything on. I quickly looked away, though I'd caught enough of a glance to form a full mental picture. Hostage was like nothing I'd ever seen. I'd seen other guys naked, sure, but Hostage was like a living sculpture of a Greek god.
He caught me looking and smiled. "That's right, honey," he said. "Take a good look. Ain't that the best you ever seen?"
I sneered in disgust. "Put your clothes on," I muttered while filling the sink with water. "This isn't eighth grade gym."
He walked over and stood behind me. I could feel the moisture evaporating from his wet skin. I tried to ignore him and go about my work. What could he do to me? I held my breath.
"You oughta enjoy it while you can. No one like me will ever look at you this way," he said. "Ugly girl. Too ugly to fuck." He snickered and walked away.
I turned off the faucet and heard him grab his towel and leave the room. I began breathing again, but my hands were shaking. I set my mind to scrubbing the rags. "Fuck you," I whispered to the sink.
Upstairs Trinity and Apoc were welding a piece of metal to repair a broken door. When I approached they took their masks off. "Isn't this Dozer's job?" I said.
"Hostage said we were to do it," Trinity replied, her face smudged and sweaty.
"I don't mind," Apoc said.
Trinity looked at Apoc. "I'm not complaining."
"Didn't say you were."
I noticed a purple mark on her arm. "How did you do that?"
"Slammed my arm in the door," she said without looking at me. She wiped her fingers on a rag and walked over to the center counsel.
I followed her. "Quit bullshitting me," I said under my breath. "You've never been clumsy."
"Switch, I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"Apoc can't hear us. You can let down your little chick-with-balls facade, or whatever it is you do to impress him."
Trinity spun around and looked me in the face. "Is that what you think this about? Impressing him? Look, if Apoc learns anything, he'll go to Morpheus. Apoc's the type of person who always sticks up for other people, and I don't want to look like the one who can't handle it. Do you?"
She had a point. Why did any of us do what we did, bite our tongues, pretend to be thoroughly immersed our work? Some sick sense of pride, that was why. We hadn't been chosen for The Nebuchadnezzar for our weaknesses.
"He still doesn't have any right," I said haltingly. "It isn't right."
"And who are they going to believe? A couple of chicks who want to grow balls, or a ranking officer?"
Apoc put his mask back on. "Trinity. You gonna help?"
"I hate him," I whispered.
Trinity threw down the rag. "Does it matter?" She joined Apoc.
* * *
What we did next was a big mistake, and I don't know how they talked me into it. Sometimes when you get beat up all day you find the need to strike back at night. But we didn't strike back at Hostage. We decided to go after Tank. It seemed easier. It seemed like fun. It was just a big joke, really.
"You got the marker?" Trinity asked Apoc.
"How could I forget?"
We were standing in the corridor. In the middle of the night. I'd pulled a bulky parka over my sweater and I was still freezing my ass off. Morpheus tended to turn everything off in the middle of the night so as not to waste any energy. Apparently he didn't count on the fact that three rogue soldiers would be wandering around and getting into trouble.
"I don't want to do it," I said.
"Switch, you're so lame," Apoc said. "Don't be lame."
"We're going to get killed."
"No we won't."
"We can deny everything. They won't know who did it," Trinity said. "Maybe they'll figure it was Dozer, picking on his brother."
"Yeah right. That's the prime denial of the century," I said. "And what if he wakes up?"
"He won't," Apoc said. "He could sleep through a sentinel feeding frenzy." He took the cap off the marker and held it to his nose, inhaling. He'd stolen the marker from one of the army generals when we were in Zion a few weeks before. "Ah," he said. "You can get so high off this toxic shit."
"Really?" Trinity said. "Let me try." She took the marker and held it to her nose. In one swift move, Apoc tried to shove it into her face but she maneuvered away in time. He caught her neck. "Nice one, asswipe," she said. "You almost impaled my jugular."
"I'm cold," I said. "I'm going back to bed." I turned around but both Apoc and Trinity grabbed me by the arms.
"You're coming with us," Trinity said. "You want this, don't you? It's all or none."
"We're gonna get caught," I objected.
"You're probably right," Trinity said. "But who cares? This'll be funny. I need to laugh. I haven't laughed in a long time."
Very quietly we skulked along the lower deck until we found the room we were looking for. "This is it," Trinity said. "He deserves it for being such a dickhead."
"'Ooh, I'm from Zion,'" Apoc mimicked. "He's a tight-ass."
Apoc turned and opened the hatch to Tank's quarters. I thought for sure that the squeal and clank of the door would wake Tank, but it didn't. We went inside, Trinity carrying a small flashlight, and knelt by the bed.
Apoc took out the marker again and pointed it at Tank's forehead. "Circumcised or no?"
"No," Trinity said. "And make it totally erect."
Apoc was right; Tank could have slept through his own spontaneous combustion. Apoc did his job and looked up and smiled when he was done. "Let's get out of here," I said.
No sooner had we left Tank's room than the alarm went off. Sentinels. "Shit!" Apoc cried and we scrambled in different directions and knocked into each other.
"The core," I said.
Morpheus was already upstairs. "Did you get Tank?" he asked us.
"I woke him," Hostage said, appearing in the stairwell and then heading to the upper deck. Morpheus followed him. Dozer was already there.
When Tank appeared Trinity covered her mouth. Apoc quickly looked down. I turned away, trying really hard not to laugh. I mean, it's not every day that you see your operator running around with a penis on his forehead.
"What's happening?" Tank said, jumping into the operator's chair.
"Sentinels," Apoc replied with a low laugh.
"What the hell's so funny?"
"Nothing," Apoc said. Trinity bit her lower lip.
The radio crackled. "Tank, shut the power down immediately. Charge the EMP." It was Morpheus.
A few clicks of the keyboard and we were plunged into darkness. "EMP charging," Tank said into the radio. "Ready to go."
Now we were dying. With the red light of the EMP glowing softly on his forehead, the penis looked more obvious than before. Apoc buried his face in Trinity's shoulder with short, breathy gasps and my fingernails were digging into my palms. Trinity covered her mouth.
Tank turned to stare at us angrily. "Shut up!" he hissed. "You'll get us killed."
That did it. Tank trying to act all tough with a penis on his forehead. The three of us had to stop breathing in order not to laugh out loud. Tears rolled down Apoc's cheeks.
After several long minutes the all-clear finally came and the lights were turned back on. We laughed. We roared. We high-fived each other. "What's your problem?" Tank said.
"What's so funny?" Morpheus climbed into the core.
Tank, fuming, turned toward Morpheus. "They couldn't keep it together during the attack! They almost got all of us killed!"
The expression dropped off Morpheus's face. He stared at all of us and looked long and hard at Tank. Stupid us -- we couldn't stop laughing.
Dozer climbed down the ladder. He got one look at Tank and roared. "Whoa-ho-ho-ho!" he said. He had the greatest laugh. "We used to do that after a rough night of drinking in the academy!"
Tank gasped. "Wha -- what?"
Hostage dropped into the core. "What's all this about?" He got a look at Tank's face. He got a look at us. Dumb Apoc -- he still had the marker in his hand. "Tank, could you excuse us for a moment?"
Tank huffed and puffed and got up. He left the core with his brother.
Hostage leveled an angry gaze at the three of us. Morpheus revealed no emotion, but he seemed to look long and hard at all of us. When I caught his stare, I felt he could look right through me.
"I suppose you were up wandering around together when the alarm went off," Morpheus said. None of us said anything. "And I suppose you've been up every night this week wandering around. Which is why you've been so tired and unproductive during the day."
We actually hadn't been wandering around in the middle of the night -- well, not every night, at least. Sometimes we got together and played poker in Apoc's room, but that was about it. Our being tired had to do with the ungodly hour Hostage made us rise, as well as the push-ups and pull-ups and menial chores that awaited us each day.
"I think they ought to be given more work," Hostage said.
"I agree," Morpheus replied as though we weren't in the room. He approached us. "Tank is a fine operator," he said quietly. "A fine young man. I knew his parents; they gave their lives for the resistance, and rather than stay in Zion and work there, he chose to give up his life and work on this ship. He deserves more than your respect, he deserves your friendship. He's been trying for a while now to be a part of things and you've been shutting him out. Your actions only serve to make life more unbearable here. Do you understand me?"
We all nodded numbly. And I agreed, but I couldn't help thinking, but what about the things that we've given up? We had freedom, true, but that was all. We had no families. We had nothing to call our own, no status, no rewards, no thanks for our hard work. I looked at Trinity and could tell she was thinking the same thing.
"I'll leave you with Hostage," Morpheus said. That was our death sentence. "As he's your commanding officer, he'll decide on what you ought to do next."
Hostage looked evil. Morpheus left the core and I thought Hostage might start wailing on us, but instead he made us get the buckets and the mops and the sponges and start scrubbing the bathrooms in the lower deck. In the meantime, Hostage and everyone else went back to bed.
I think we might have scrubbed the entire ship. It was really dirty -- I doubt anyone had bothered to clean it for half a century. We worked for days on top of all our usual surveillance shifts and chores, growing sweaty and grimy and more tired and irritable than ever before.
"I still think it was worth it," Apoc said on the second day. "He really deserved it. I would have loved to see the look on his face when he found out what we had done."
Tank refused to speak to us -- even to taunt or bait us. You could still sort of see the remaining outline of the penis on his forehead. When we entered the mess hall that morning he'd gotten up and left.
"I don't know," Trinity said. "Maybe Morpheus is right. If he's had an awful life, we shouldn't make it worse."
"An awful life is no excuse," Apoc said. "I ate spam every day for dinner when I was growing up. We were poor, I mean really poor. And you don't see me going around and being a real pissant."
"Hmm," I murmured. I bit an offending hangnail from my thumb and it started to bleed.
Trinity had a bandanna tied around her head and she was dirty and sweaty from trying to reach behind the toilet, but she still looked okay -- unlike me. I looked like I had syphilis or something, not that I cared. Hostage said we had better be able to lick our goop off of every inch of the ship when we were done. He meant it.
"It was hilarious," Apoc said. "And so Atilla the Hun came down hard on us. So what? It's not like we were trying to organize a mutiny."
"That's true," Trinity said. "Drawing a penis on a guy's face isn't going to hurt anyone."
"Right. It just makes him look like a dickhead. And feel like a dickhead. Which was our goal in the first place."
"You said we wouldn't get caught," I said. "Apoc . . ."
"What?" Apoc paused in mid swipe and looked up at me.
I shook my head. "Nothing."
This went on for a few days. We worked together and talked about how much life sucked. Apoc tried whistling Air Supply songs to fill the long gaps of silence that inevitably arose. This annoyed me and Trinity so we told him to shut up.
But when there was silence, there was nothing. I was forced to think about my life on the ship and how empty it was. What did I have to look forward to? Getting killed? Retiring? Zion was surely no picnic. This was in the days before Morpheus came to discover that he was going to find the One, so most of our missions centered around blowing up government buildings or destroying large surveillance databases. Sabotage. I felt close to death -- but I was only eighteen. When you've seen nothing but grotesque destruction before age twenty, you tend to lose your sense of self.
On the fourth day Apoc was smiling and no longer whistling. He came into the mess hall where we were cleaning and said he found something. "Look at it," he said. "Must be a relic salvaged from the Old World." An old cassette recorder.
"Where did you find it?" Trinity asked.
"On the lower deck. Hidden in with all those old sweaters and mattresses and things."
"Do you think it works?" Trinity said.
"I doubt it," I replied.
"Always the pessimist," Apoc noted. He emptied his full pockets, which held batteries. He popped the batteries into the cassette player. "There's a tape inside of it."
"Of what?" This was Trinity, of course.
"Probably blank," I said.
"Maybe it's 'Layla'," Apoc said. "Layla" was his favorite song, and he'd been upset at Zion to learn that the Eric Clapton files had perished in the Zion fire of 2149.
"Probably Super Tramp or Queen or something really abominable. Well, let's find out," Trinity said. She pushed the play button and the tape crackled. Then, very faintly, we could hear some kind of music. Trinity turned up the volume. The words were in Spanish. It was some kind of merengue music.
At least it killed the silence. "I don't know any Spanish," I mumbled.
"I do," Apoc said. "Right now it's saying . . . that I'm supposed to dance with you. And you're supposed to dance with me!" He grabbed me and pulled my body against his. "C'mon Switch! Time to let loose!"
Except that I didn't know how to dance. I fumbled around and stepped on his feet. "Whoa," he said. "Stay with the tempo." I tried harder and seemed to make it worse. Trinity started laughing. "Left two three, back two three . . . no Switch, your other left foot."
I pulled away. "Forget it. Dance with Trinity instead." I turned away and started scrubbing the counter top. I didn't want to see the two of them having so much fun with each other -- whenever I saw them laughing privately I felt like there was a pit in my stomach growing larger and larger. I wouldn't admit that to anyone, though.
The door burst open and Hostage stepped in. "What the fuck is this?"
Trinity and Apoc unwound themselves and stopped. I dropped the rag.
"You think this is your personal dance club? You think you can disregard my orders and trample on the authority of this ship?" He stepped toward us and we slowly backed away. "You want to make a fucking mockery of the whole resistance?"
Apoc inhaled. "Whoa, calm down. We were just -- "
"You keep your mouth shut!" yelled Hostage. He stepped toward Apoc menacingly, as if he might hit him.
Dancing, I thought. We were just dancing.
"You're already in trouble. You want to add to that?"
"Can't we listen to a little music?" Apoc said.
Without warning, Hostage picked up the cassette player and hurled in into the wall. It shattered into several pieces. Someone made a small noise -- maybe it was me. I'd never seen anyone go apeshit like that before -- not over music. Morpheus would have just told us to get back to work.
"Morpheus -- " I began.
Hostage cut me off. "Morpheus what? Morpheus isn't in charge of you, I am. Get used to it. You'll have no supper tonight."
"You can't do that!" Trinity said. "We're hard workers! We won't be able to work without food."
"You'll be able to work just as well, if not better," he said. "And perhaps you won't protest so fucking much."
"It's against the rules to starve us!" Apoc said.
"Wanna push your luck? Fine, no breakfast tomorrow then, either!"
"You're crazy!" Trinity cried. "You won't get away with treating us this way! I'll tell -- " In one swift motion, Hostage slapped Trinity across the face so hard she spun away from him.
Apoc and I simply stood there, our mouths hanging open. Time seemed to slide into hot sustained moments of impossibility. Hostage grabbed Trinity violently by the arm and dragged her from the mess hall, the door closing behind them with a resolute click.
* * *
If his goal was to break our spirits, he might have succeeded that day.
"Nobody hits me," Trinity said later when we'd gathered together in one of our rooms. She held a hand to the left side of her face where there was a palm print. "Nobody. Nobody hits me." She kept saying it over and over again as if she could make it come true.
"What did he do to you?" I asked her.
She looked down and shook her head.
"He's a sick fuck," Apoc said, dark and shaken. "I threatened to go to Morpheus," he said, sitting in the corner. "He told me that if we tell anyone, he'll have us transferred to different ships. Split up."
"He can't do that," I said. "He doesn't have that kind of authority."
"He'll tell Morpheus that we did something awful. That we're a threat to security," Apoc explained. "They're serious about security. He'll tell him we've been tooling around with the computers, contacting old friends or family members. He'll fabricate it if he has to -- we don't have any authority whatsoever."
"Maybe it's for the best," I said. "If we're on different ships we'll be away from him."
Apoc and Trinity looked like I'd just suggested a suicide pact. "No," Trinity said. "I don't care about what he does to me. It's okay, I can handle it. The hitting and -- touching -- that's okay. Not great, but I can put up with it. But you guys . . . you guys are the only thing . . ." She closed her eyes. I saw a quick tear fall onto her hand.
"No way," Apoc said. His reasons were more practical. "You never know what could be waiting on another ship. I've heard stories. Rookies -- they make them sit with their feet in a bucket of ice during their surveillance shift. Or worse."
"We can't let them split us up," Trinity said. Her eyes were sort of red and her voice was quivering.
"Don't cry," I said angrily. "Don't cry. Ugh, I can't stand it when people cry."
Disgusted by all the sniveling, I got up and left. Later that night we sneaked into the mess and had our dinner anyway, but the shadows seemed a little longer than usual, the sounds of our footfalls in the hallway more hollow.
Fortunately, the deal with Hostage tapered off after that. Maybe he figured we would go to Morpheus. Or maybe things just got too busy once we got ready to free a new potential. We went back into the training programs and brushed up on our skills. Hostage was busy with surveillance. Morpheus was busy with whatever he was usually busy with, and Tank was helping him. The dynamo you know as Morpheus actually wasn't too dynamic when we first knew him. In the dark days before the One became our central goal, Morpheus was like any other captain in the resistance with two weeks of vacation out of the year and a bonus if he did well.
"Name five desserts you eat with a spoon," Apoc said. We were in the mess playing our favorite "bored shitless" game.
"Ding!" Trinity said. "Ice cream, jello, um, mousse, uh . . . spumoni . . . uh . . .
"Single celled protein slop," I said, watching my dinner ooze from the spoon and back into its bowl.
"You didn't ding in," Trinity said.
"And it's hardly a dessert."
"You know I don't care about your stupid game," I said. "You guys are both idiots."
"Now the truth comes out," Apoc said. "Fine Switch, you think of a topic."
I stirred my dinner. "Name the martial arts star whose ass you'd most like to kick in a training program."
"Ding," Apoc said. "That's easy. Chuck Norris."
"Yeah right," Trinity said. "That guy's so slow -- where's the challenge?"
"Oh, he's slow now, but wait until he finishes his training," I intoned.
"I've got one," Apoc said. "Worst possible death scenario."
"Ding!" Trinity hit the table. "You lose control of all bodily functions in both the Matrix and the real world just before an agent puts you through a trash compactor."
"Ding," I said. "Sentinels."
"Boring," Apoc said. "Sentinels are so ordinary, Switch."
"I don't think so. Have you heard the stories? Some people are so messed up they have to get out the dental records just to figure out who they are."
The door opened and Tank waltzed
in. "Tank," Apoc said, "worst possible death scenario."
"Hostage wants to see you."
"You didn't ding in," Trinity said.
"Now," Tank said. "In the core."
"Fuck!" Apoc said, rising from the bench and going to toss his bowl in the sink. "What now?"
In the core Hostage was standing in front of the monitors. "Tonight," he said to the three of us, "you better listen up and take your orders seriously."
"Is that an order?" Apoc asked.
Hostage pushed Apoc and pointed to the ground. "Fifty. Now."
Apoc dropped and began doing push-ups. Hostage looked at me and Trinity. "Well what are you waiting for? A personal invitation? Get down there with him!"
"Yes sir," Trinity said.
I dropped down next to Apoc. "Good job, asshole," I whispered.
"What was that?" Hostage snapped. "What did you say, little lady? Are you on your toes like you're supposed to be? Remember, no girly push-ups."
I'd been on my toes from the start, so I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about. Then he came over and kicked my hand out from under me. My face hit the rough grate below me.
"One arm, little lady, let's see how strong you are!"
When we were done and on our feet at attention, Hostage began going over the rules, but I didn't hear them. Now my fingernails were digging into my palms making crescent moon marks. When he dismissed us, I ran up to the bridge to find Morpheus.
"Morpheus," I said. He was in the pilot's chair next to Dozer. Driving us to broadcast depth. "Morpheus, I want a transfer. Now."
Dozer looked up and Morpheus turned to face me. "Switch, what is this?" He came forward and stepped out of the cockpit.
"A transfer," I said, "as soon as possible. I don't want anyone to ask me any questions. I just can't work here any longer."
"What's going on?" Morpheus said.
"It's personal. Extremely personal."
"Morpheus, we've reached broadcast depth," Dozer announced from the cockpit. "I'm gonna dock her over here."
Morpheus turned to watch. "I'm afraid we'll have to continue this conversation later, Switch. We have much to discuss."
"I just want my transfer. Just tell me you'll let me transfer."
"All right, Switch. If that's what you want."
Satisfied, I returned to the core. For a second I almost felt bad for Apoc and Trinity, but I shoved the feelings aside. Screw them, they could make it on their own. You have to think of yourself first, you know. When it comes down to it, your own survival's all that matters.
* * *
Going back into the Matrix always felt weird. I don't know, I can't explain it. I mean, it's sort of like going home, but going home to a place where there's nothing left for you. Like a deserted coal mining town or a neighborhood that's changed so much you can't recognize it anymore. Where's the old church, your old school? Who knows. I felt like that then -- standing with the others and trying to feel comfortable in my leather clothes. I felt unnatural. Weird. Maybe just out of place.
"I must warn you, this could be dangerous," Morpheus said to the three of us in particular. "We think he's been bugged."
"Bugged?" Trinity said. "What's that?"
"The three of you were fortunate; you were never 'bugged.' It happens when the AI get word of a potential and get to him before we do. They usually question the individual, then plant an electronic devise in an orifice of some kind -- usually the naval. They use it to track him, leading them straight to us. We must try to remove it, and Hostage will take care of this."
"Holy shit," Apoc muttered. He then coughed and tried to resume his collected posture.
Morpheus continued. "Trinity, I want you to stay with me and help set up the equipment. Hostage, you take Switch and Apoc to pick up Eel from his apartment complex."
As we were leaving, Morpheus grabbed my arm. "Whatever it is that is troubling you," he whispered, "try to put it aside tonight. You know what to do. Trust yourself." I nodded. Morpheus didn't know about Hostage -- the officer was clever enough to hide his abusive nature from the captain's view.
On the way to the car Apoc smiled at me. "Eel," he said. "What a name."
"Quiet," Hostage said. "Learn how to shut up."
Apoc drove and I sat up front. It was winter in the Matrix, the trees bare and a slight crust of snow on the sidewalks. The car moved like a slow missile in the dark, loaded and ready. I had two guns on me and a knife in a leather holster under my left sleeve.
Finally we pulled up to the apartment complex -- a housing project in the inner-city. I took out my gun and held it in my lap. Apoc stopped the car.
The potential approached us and I gasped. A skinny kid. A turd. He couldn't have been more than fourteen. Oh the poor, drippy boy. Apoc and I exchanged glances. Hostage opened the back door. "Get in," he commanded.
Eel hesitated for a minute, then accepted the offer. His tee-shirt was baggy on his shallow frame and his face was red from a colony of angry zits. Apoc put his foot on the accelerator. I turned around and pointed my gun at the kid. "Do exactly what we say," I said.
"Take off your shirt," Hostage commanded.
"Ahhhhh -- oh God -- " He panicked and began clawing at the door. Gasping for breath. "What are you doing to me?!"
"Nothing!" shouted Hostage. "Do what we say and you won't get hurt!"
The kid was screaming by now. Weeping. "Let him go," I said.
"Shut up Switch!" Hostage lifted up a piece of wretched mechanical equipment and told Apoc to plug it in.
Eel was still clawing at the door, trying to get away. "He's not ready!" I said. "Let him go!"
Hostage positioned himself over the boy and tried to pin him down with the machine. Now the kid was crazy -- thrashing to get away from Hostage and beating his fist against the leather seats. "Stop the goddamn car!" I cried.
Apoc clamped down on the brake.
"What the fuck do you think -- " Hostage began.
And Eel's hand wasn't Eel's hand any longer. An agent's. It closed its strong hand over Hostage's throat. I pulled the trigger and shot the bastard. A flash. I didn't even have time to think, the whole thing happened so goddamn fast. But the aftermath seemed to linger there, eternity imprinted on my mind. The kid. I'd fired the shot at such close range that I'd blown his face off and half his head as well. Blood running down the leather seats, the rear window, Hostage's face. Everything was covered in the blood and brains of that kid, including myself.
"Oh fuck," Hostage whispered, wiping the blood out of his eyes. "Oh, fuck."
My shaking hand still held the gun. Slowly I turned around and put it back into my lap.
"Drive," Hostage whispered. Apoc lifted his right hand away from his shirt collar, where it had been clenched and white, and put it back on the steering wheel. "Did you hear me? Drive!"
Apoc floored it and soon we were speeding through red lights that dangled above intersections. I didn't want to turn around and see the kid's body again.
"I think we're being followed," Hostage said.
"What do we do?" Apoc said.
"Get back to the hard-line as soon as possible."
"But Trinity and Morpheus -- " I gasped.
"Shut the fuck up! This is your fault!"
We arrived back at the warehouse and Apoc threw the car into park. We scrambled from the car to the building. Morpheus looked up, his face creased with worry. "Where is he?"
"Dead," Hostage said. "We're being followed, by agents I think. We have to get out of here."
Morpheus picked up the receiver to our hard-line. "It's dead," he said, and his cell phone chirped. He answered it listened intently, then slammed it closed. "The cops are outside, but there's a door they don't know about. We have to get to another exit."
"Agents?" Trinity asked. Morpheus nodded.
The five of us hurried to the door. Morpheus opened it slowly and stepped out. My weapon poised, I followed him and the others followed me. We were in a dark alley and trash nestled at my boots.
A shout went up. Lights. Cops. To my right, I began to shoot each of the lights until they were all gone. Someone else took care of the left flank -- Trinity I think. Morpheus and Hostage pulled a fire escape ladder down from a surrounding building and began to climb. I was last to take the ladder, dodging bullets and turning to fire every so often.
On the roof of the building, I tried to ignore the fact that my hands were shaking, and I furiously loaded another set of bullets into my gun. Sirens rose into a chorus around us. Beating of helicopter wings. Lights flashing and a spot light darting quickly toward the roof. "We have to split up!" Morpheus shouted. "I'll take Trinity; Hostage, you take the other two."
"Agent!" Apoc choked.
The dark figure had followed us up the fire escape.
We darted for the edge of the roof. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Trinity and Morpheus go flying onto another roof top. Hostage disappeared over the edge of the roof and I followed him. We landed in a pile of trash and spun outward. I pulled Apoc to his feet and told him to run. With my hand I urged him to run. I couldn't explain it -- but suddenly his survival became very important to me, maybe more important than my own.
We followed Hostage down a dark street. Running, our boots hitting the concrete with a cold slap slap. Who was I to say this wasn't real? I felt something warm and wet trickling down the inside of my jacket. I figured it was my own blood because I couldn't imagine how the kid's blood had gotten inside my sleeve.
"An exit!" Hostage said. "Hurry!"
"I think someone's following us!" Apoc gasped as we turned the corner and ran toward a subway station. We hit the steps and I heard ringing. Yes, I thought, figuring I'd be so frickin' happy to be on that ship again.
Hostage shot toward the phone. I was trailing behind him. Suddenly there was a great rush of sound -- a train had just arrived in the tunnel. I couldn't tell if the phone had stopped ringing or something, but Hostage looked up, pissed. And something shot past me -- the receiver shattered, still on the hook. I turned to look behind me -- an agent on the steps above us, his gun poised and leveled straight at me. I changed directions and headed for the train. Hostage and Apoc followed on my heels, getting stuck in the doors which promptly popped back open and then shut again. The agent shot at us again and the bullet blew right through the train's window, leaving a neat little hole. The train lurched and went forward.
"Is there anyone else on this train?" Hostage asked. Our car was empty. "If there isn't, we're safe."
"Well, someone must be driving it," I said.
Apoc doubled over and threw up behind a bright orange seat. I looked down at myself to find blood soaking through my beige cloth sleeve -- the only part of my outfit that wasn't leather.
"How did you do that?" Hostage said, pointing at my arm.
"I -- I don't know."
"Must have taken a bullet without realizing it," he said and grinned at me for the first time. For a second I didn't hate him so much. Then he said: "Knowing our luck you'll probably bleed to death before we get out of here."
Apoc stopped retching and stood up. "Can't you get us out of here?"
Hostage flipped open his cell and held it to his ear. "Goddamn battery's run out. We'll have to find another hard-line on our own." He tossed the phone away.
I felt faint all of a sudden, my knees sort of buckled under me. The train lurched as it went around a curve and Apoc went back to puking.
Then the lights went out.
"Shit," Hostage hissed. "All right you two. Quit pissing yourselves and help me." Apoc stood up; I saw the fear in his face with the passing flash of the subway lights. Hostage went forward to the end of the train and opened the door. "We can get to the roof of the train and hide," he said quickly.
Apoc coughed. "How do we -- "
"Shut up," he replied over the screeching of the wheels and the click clack of the track below us. I looked down to see those wheels turning, the other train car rattling in front of us, the narrow link before me, the lights shooting past my face. I felt my brain blink with the momentum of everything.
"Agent!" Apoc yelled.
An agent was coming through the door at the other end of the car. He took out his gun and shot twice. Hostage pulled me forward and shoved me to a ladder on the side of the train car. I sucked in my breath and started climbing. I could feel tingling in my arm and the wind whipping my hair around. I struggled to reach the top of the train car.
Hostage and Apoc were behind me, Hostage pushing me from behind. "Keep moving!"
I shuddered as I gripped the metal roof of the train and tried to keep my balance. On my hands and knees I went forward. I heard a gun go off -- Apoc made a noise. He'd been hit. The agent was with us on the roof of the train car. I took my gun out and fired two or three times.
"You hit 'im!" Hostage cried over the sound of the train. "Holy shit!"
The train rolled out of the tunnel and into the dark night. "That embankment!" Hostage shouted. He jumped off the train and rolled down the grassy hill.
When I hit the ground I realized that the hill was not as grassy or soft as I imagined. I tumbled and finally came to a stop beside a parking lot. I stayed there for a while until Hostage was hovering over me. "That's it," he said. "You're one hell of a shot."
"I got shot in the ass," Apoc groaned from a few yards away.
"Get up kids," Hostage said. "We're still not out."
The blood had completely soaked through my sleeve and was running down the front of my jacket. "Where are we?" I asked. I felt light-headed.
"Outside Rockville," Hostage said. "C'mon, let's get moving."
* * *
"I've never seen anyone nail an agent at that distance before," Hostage said when we got to a long strip that ran through the town. It was late; few cars were on the road and stoplights blinked red an yellow above us. "You're a crack shot."
"It was just luck," I admitted.
"Most agents are able to dodge bullets. Impossible to hit. Maybe this guy's got a flaw."
I nodded, cradling my arm and walking quickly beside Hostage. Apoc was bringing up the rear. His gun dangled from his right hand and he was dragging his left side behind him. "Damn, shot in the ass," he muttered.
Hostage stopped to put quarters in a pay phone. "Get us outta here," he said into the phone. "Yeah, they're okay. Just pissin' themselves from the suspense of it all." I became dizzy and leaned against a concrete wall to steady myself. I was already tired of watching my own blood soak through my sleeve.
"You okay?" Apoc whispered to me.
Hostage hung up the phone. "Three blocks down and one block over," he said. "A pay phone. That's our exit."
We quickly set off in the direction Tank had prescribed for us. "Do you hear that?" Apoc said after a few minutes. "Shh! Is that us?"
"Don't fuck around," Hostage said.
But I heard it too. Some faint, muffled sound -- a pitch thrown into the darkness. "I hear it."
"You'll make yourself insane with all the sounds you think you hear," Hostage replied. "Stupid sounds. Fucked up. Our senses are keener than they used to be."
"No," I whispered. "It's like a whistling sound."
"Yeah," Apoc agreed. "Like wind passing through a gun."
"Give me your gun," I said, pausing to allow Apoc to catch up. The gun passed from his hand to mine and I caught sight of the shadowy figure on an adjacent fire escape. It jumped to a low balcony. "Agent," I whispered.
We probably could have tricked the agent if Hostage hadn't taken off running. Apoc and I stumbled after him, our breathing ragged. Hostage rounded the next corner and I heard a phone start to ring. I saw him dash ahead of us and to the mouth of the dim alley. He picked up the receiver and was gone. Hostage had broken one of the most sacred rules of the resistance -- the unspoken tenet that urged one to let the injured or less experienced exit first.
"Apoc!" I shouted. I reached the phone, picked up the receiver and slammed it back on the hook. "Go!" The agent was nearing the mouth of the alley. I picked up my gun and shot -- watched all those bullets disappear as the agent wavered in the darkness. This, I knew, was enough to keep the agent from taking Apoc.
Seconds later Apoc was gone and the gun was empty. I continued pulling the trigger, the quiet clicking accompanying the hushed drone of the dial tone. I slowly backed into the dark alley, watching as the receiver dangled in mid-air.
"Well, Miss Polanski," the agent said. "You going to give up that gun?"
My hands were still tensed around the gun, my finger compulsively pulling the trigger. He was just feet away from me. I stopped.
"That's better," he said. He stepped forward and sneered at the phone, then gently removed the gun from my hands. His smile was white and empty and he wore no sunglasses. His eyes were two black stones, stark and unblinking. No center to those pupils. His shoes were black and polished, his suit dark gray.
He tossed the gun to the ground. "I almost feel sorry for you, Miss Polanski."
I looked away from him and back at the phone. The receiver was still dangling there. So easy. All I had to do was hang it back up and wait for them to call. I'd be out quickly. But no -- not with the agent there. He'd break my neck.
"Aren't you going to ask why?"
I stood perfectly still, trying not to breathe, trying not to call attention to myself. You speak and they kill you. You fight and they smash your skull.
"They aren't coming for you," he said. "See, I know them, and I know all about you. You're not important enough for them to risk it."
I let my breath out slowly.
"But why am I telling you this? You know already. You always knew that." With one swift, graceful motion, he picked me up and pinned me against the brick wall of the alley. I cried out and his hand groped to cover my mouth. My feet dangled. He held me there effortlessly, as if I had the weight of a small child or a cat. I envied his strength and kicked my feet.
"Don't fight me," he said. "All across America, there are kids just like you. Homely kids. Unhappy kids. Sitting in school yards or bagging groceries for two-fifty an hour. And who misses them when they're gone?" He leaned on me, pressing me into the wall with all of his strength. "Who?"
The air came out of my mouth in a loud gasp. With both arms, he hurled me into a nearby dumpster. The sharp metal siding hit my face and left a sharp pain. In moments, I felt the warm stickiness of blood on my cheek. Before I had a chance to prepare myself, he was back.
He picked me up again and held me against the brick wall. "Where are they, Miss Polanski? Where are your partners, your colleagues, your -- friends? Let me tell you a secret. This is how the world ends. This is why your race will not survive. You humans count hope among your virtues. Let me tell you -- hope is worse than folly. It is a waste of time and energy -- ultimately, a vice. If you had given up your hope long ago and resigned yourself to the life we picked for you, you wouldn't be about to die."
I made a small noise.
"They're worse than we are, Miss Polanski," he began again. He grinned. "We simply wanted you to live in this world we've created for you. But they -- Morpheus and his crew -- picked you for death. You honestly don't believe you'd come out of this now, did you? You always knew that when things got tough, you knew you'd be the first to go. You're expendable."
I tried to shake my head.
"Oh, come now, Miss Polanski." He smiled again. "You honestly don't believe that they had big plans for you, do you? No, that's the other one. The one you call Trinity. That's why Morpheus took Trinity with him. She was out hours ago. She's different, isn't she? But you -- you're the sacrificial lamb."
His hand slipped down from mouth and covered my throat. I let out a slight gasp then gagged as his hand curled around my neck. With my limp hands I tried to push him away. My loose fists were beating on his arms.
He smiled at my small effort. "Where are they?" he asked me. "You sacrificed yourself so they could get out. And what have they done for you?" His voice got quieter, darker: "Miss Polanski, I'm not going to kill you. They are."
I blinked my eyes. Darkness was closing in, a loud whirring of blood in my ears.
"You see, we deployed sentinels quite a while ago. They should be closing in on the ship right about now. Your friends aren't going to save you -- they can't. And I know how it works." His hands slipped for a second to let a little air in. I knew then that my death would be slow -- I would not die like others, not by a bullet or a swift break of the neck. If the crew didn't unplug me first, he would suffocate me slowly, reviving me every so often to draw out my execution.
His hand tightened around my throat again. "They're going to unplug you," he said, "so they can save themselves. I want to watch you die. I want to see you go limp, your eyes rolling to the back of your head. I want to watch them kill their own."
I could only see darkness, my heart pounding in my face, pulsing behind my eyes. A small gasp escaped my lips. My lips felt full and bloated, my entire face felt like it would explode.
"You're going to die. The resistance will fail. You're losing, you know. We have the upper hand. So for these last few moments, I want you to forget your hope. Forget your pathetic existence." His hand slipped again, then immediately tightened. "You won't be missed by other humans -- not here, not there."
And my mind was screaming something that I hadn't bothered to hear. My sleeve, God, my blood soaked sleeve. His hand loosened on my throat again and the light came back in. I concentrated on my good arm and tried to clench my fist. I raised my arm as he tightened his grip around my neck again. But before the light faded, I gathered my strength and reached into my blood soaked sleeve to retrieve my knife. As I thought, it was still in its holster.
Eyes open but unable to see my target clearly, I quickly slashed the knife through the air, aiming where I thought his throat should be. I heard a rip and felt a small, wet impact, and I kept going.
Then I was on the ground. My legs had folded under me. A small black woman lay on top of me, her warm blood on my hands. My hand still curled around the knife, I passed out.
* * *
I don't know, I thought I'd been unplugged. I figured I was dead. But then someone was hovering over me, shaking me into consciousness.
"Switch. Open your eyes. Switch, it's me, Morpheus."
I dragged my eyes open. "I'm not dead?"
"No. But we have to get out of here. I'm here to get you out."
"Sentinels?" I gasped as Morpheus pulled me to my feet.
"They're on their way. Closing in on us. We have a little time. Do you need me to carry you?"
I shook my head but started to fall forward as if someone kicked my knees from behind. Morpheus caught me and wrapped his arm around my waist, then picked me up and held me. I looked down and spotted the woman, the pool of blood spreading outward from her head. "How did you get here?"
"Another hard-line a few blocks away. Here we are." He carried me to the pay phone at the mouth of the alley and put the receiver back on the hook. It rang immediately and Morpheus held my ear to the phone.
I woke up on the ship to an alarm going off. Someone jerked the axial line out of my head. Someone else came over and covered me with a blanket, and I was vaguely aware that someone was holding my hand. I heard them unplug Morpheus. Then the lights were turned off. Minutes later, I felt a shudder pass through the ship and I let my eyes close.
* * *
When I awoke I was in the infirmary. I sighed and pulled my blanket tightly around me. Someone was moving in the corner. I turned my head. Dozer, whistling to himself and washing his hands in the sink. "Feel better?" he said, cocking his head to one side.
I tried to sit up.
"Better not rush things. You took quite a beating."
My chest was sore. And my arm -- I pulled the blanket aside to look at a fat, dark bruise. My neck hurt like hell.
"Is everyone -- okay?" I asked.
Dozer chuckled to himself. "Everyone's fine, but some are better than others. Some have Morpheus to deal with."
He brought me a cup of something. "Drink this," he said. "It heals you from the inside out."
It was bitter. Dozer left, saying he had something else to attend to. I laid back down.
Minutes later I heard the hatch pop open again. I rolled over to find Apoc standing in front of my cot. "Hey," he whispered.
"Hey," I said. I sat up.
He lowered himself to the cot beside me, grimacing slightly as he did so. "You feel okay?"
He took a breath and looked at the ceiling. "Switch, what you did . . ."
I looked down at my hands. "Anyone would have done the same."
He shook his head. "No. Hostage didn't. He left us there, in that alley. He left us. You made sure I got out. Jesus Switch, you saved my life." He ran his hand through his hair. He caught my eyes and I looked away. "Why did you do that?"
I shrugged. "I don't know," I whispered. I felt my throat tighten -- but this time no agent was holding me by the neck. "I just wanted to."
"You just wanted to?"
"I felt like it, okay?" I snapped. It was easier to get angry than it was to get weepy and stupid.
"Okay," Apoc said. We were quiet, and then he said: "Morpheus is going to send him packing."
"Did you tell Morpheus anything about what he's done to us?"
Apoc shrugged. "Sort of. You don't hate me, do you?"
"Well, what did Morpheus say?"
"He talked about some kind of hubris junk. Like, he said Hostage had let his pride run away with him after that deal with his old ship, The Carolina. That he thought he could no wrong, that his own decisions were infallible, that his life was worth more than ours. But you know what I think?" he said, leaning closer to me. "I think he did the same thing on his old ship. I think most of his crew died because he wanted to save his own ass."
I relaxed and sat back on the cot. "I guess we'll never know."
"You and Trinity," he said, shaking his head. "You were both so afraid of what Morpheus would think of you."
It occurred to me that I hadn't seen Trinity since I'd been in the Matrix. "Where is she?"
"Last time I saw her she was headed for the boiler room."
That was weird. People only went to boiler room when they wanted to be alone. It was noisy; I wondered how many young soldiers had taken refuge there throughout the war, closing the door so they could howl out their sorrow without anyone knowing. "The boiler room?" I said.
Apoc nodded. "When you were with that agent . . . God, we all thought you were going to die. Trinity ran off. She couldn't bear to watch it."
Briefly my mind settled on the things the agent had said to me. "What about you?"
"I stayed," he said, his voice nearly inaudible. He brushed my hand with his. I sucked in my breath and looked away.
The hatch opened again. I looked up and let myself exhale. Trinity was standing in the doorway, invulnerable in her expression and posture. I couldn't tell if she'd been crying -- she looked serious and strong.
"I'm glad you're alright," she confessed softly. "I was awfully worried." She stood apart from us and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"I'm okay," I said. "What about you?"
"Morpheus and I got out without any problems. The agents lost us and we had no trouble finding an exit."
"Not us," Apoc said, almost cheerfully. He stood from my cot. "It still hurts when I sit down!"
Trinity smirked at me. "He's been complaining about his ass. His ass this, his ass that. As if he's really proud about getting nailed in the bum."
"Yeah yeah, I'm going to get some ice," he said. "Anyone care to help me?"
"Why don't you get Hostage?" Trinity asked. "I'm sure it's fitting his job description about now." She smiled again.
"Yeah yeah," Apoc said again. He turned to look at me one more time, then left.
Trinity lingered there for a second. "Switch, I -- " The words fell from her lips. Then she rushed over and wrapped her arms around me. After a few brief moments, she unwrapped herself and quietly left the room.
I laid back down. For a long time, I wondered why Morpheus chose Trinity over me -- why he helped Trinity get out and left me with Hostage. And I wondered what Trinity would have done if she'd been in my position. But because it was exhausting, I stopped thinking about it and tried to forget everything.
* * *
When I felt better I had a long talk with Morpheus. Actually, he was the one who did most of the talking. We were in the mess hall and I was quietly running a spoon through my food. My near-death experience didn't make single celled protein slop taste any better. Everything was back to normal.
"The agent you fought was a flawed sentient program," he explained. "We know this now."
I nodded. No one had ever squirmed away from an agent as I had. But I liked how Morpheus put it -- as if I had actually fought the agent. In reality, the agent had been beating on me, and I'd been stupid not to remember my knife earlier.
"Tank downloaded his profile. It seems that the agent was a sort of rogue fighter, a program that had deviated from its original plan. Most agents are programmed to kill us on sight, not torture us for kicks. To torture is to submit to human weakness. We're trying to figure out more about him, to see if his development was simply an isolated phenomenon or something more common. If this happens often, it could make an impact on the resistance. It would mean that some agents acquire human characteristics. In a sense, they become more human than human."
I dropped my spoon and looked down. I had only briefly told Morpheus about the things the agent had said.
"The loss of our potential Eel was a tragic outcome, but you did what you had to do. In fact, you did very well. I'm pleased. Your bravery will be noted on your record."
I looked up and nodded quickly. I tried not to blush. "Thanks."
"I hope you'll reconsider your petition for transfer."
That morning we had gathered in the cockpit to see Hostage off. Another ship, The Manitoba, had met us in one of those dark underground tunnels. And Hostage quietly gathered his things and left The Neb. I didn't know anything about it, but Tank later told me that Hostage was getting demoted from second-in-command on The Neb to a much lower position on The Manitoba. Tank knew these things. One more offense, he said, and Hostage would be out of the resistance altogether and loading databases in Zion.
"I'll reconsider," I said wryly.
Morpheus got up from the table. "You do realize that Apoc spoke of some severe allegations regarding Hostage. I took these allegations seriously, but I wondered why you and Trinity hadn't come forward in the first place. I hope you realize that as your captain, I need you to be honest with me."
My eyes darted to the floor.
"No more breakdowns in communication, okay?" he said.
"With all due respect, sir, communication never breaks down. It just takes a different form."
I cleared my throat. "Are we getting a new officer?"
"Not now," Morpheus said. "Maybe later. The six of us need to learn how to trust each other first. It seems that we're lacking that here, and in the Resistance in general. Without trust, nothing is accomplished. For now, I'll train you and Apoc and Trinity to handle more complex duties." He started to leave the room.
"Morpheus -- there's something else," I said.
He arched his eyebrows.
"In the Matrix, I could actually hear the agent coming."
He nodded. "Apoc told me he heard it too. This is rare, but it does happen. You two will make wonderful sentries. The Matrix operates on a series of mechanical frequencies; the gifted can tune in to some of the more elusive strains." He smiled, filled with something that looked like hope, and left me to finish my dinner.
* * *
Later that week I spotted Trinity in the core, puffed up with self-importance and seriousness. Funny how she could just put on that face in front of the others. All big and bad, all business. Morpheus was standing next to her and instructing her in some special task. I felt a prickling of envy, but then Trinity looked up at me and gave me a half smile. She winked.
I turned around to find Apoc standing a few yards behind me. "Hey girly-girl," he said.
"Hey," I said flatly. That was a term of endearment reserved for Trinity. I was no girly-girl.
"Want to see the new reading material I secured for us?"
When two ships met, it was common for the lower ranks to get together and barter. Apoc had gotten me a deck of cards for the old merengue tape that Hostage had tried to destroy when he wrecked our recorder. Books and magazines were definitely worth an entire blanket or pillow.
I shrugged. "I'm tired right now."
"What, the painkillers haven't worn off yet?"
I looked away.
"Switch, what is it?" Apoc approached me and touched my elbow.
I looked up at him. This was the guy I almost died to save. And what was that? Days ago I'd been concerned only for myself, trying to secure a way off the ship for my own peace of mind. And in the Matrix, I'd forgotten that. Why? Why hadn't I leapt to the phone to save myself? It was weakness -- a flaw. He was my weakness.
But without even noticing it, I had let Apoc take me by the hand and lead me down the hallway.
In his quarters, he had stashed a few comics and a ragged copy of Private Correspondences. I sifted through the comics and he paced around me. "Why don't you sit down?" I asked.
"My ass still hurts."
I became painfully aware that he was staring at me. "You know," I began, "I guess it's pretty cool to be able to hear agents and stuff. We're sort of special."
Apoc rolled his eyes and leaned against the door. "Not that special. Today Trinity found out that she can slow down time when she's in the training simulations. That's pretty big. Morpheus thinks she'll be able to do the same thing in the Matrix."
I nodded. Upstaged again.
"But that noise was weird," he continued. "Like a low whistling sound."
"More like a whisper," I said.
"Say, did you play an instrument?"
"Yeah," I replied. "At home -- I mean, in the Matrix, I was good at music."
"Me too," Apoc said. "That must have something to do with it."
I went back to looking at the comics. He kept staring at me and I just wanted to get up and leave. "What?" I said.
He smirked. "You have the oddest expression on your face."
"Like what?" I said.
"Like this." He opened his mouth and crossed his eyes.
"Shut up. Why don't you rag on Trinity?"
"Trinity is far too secure in herself. You, on the other hand -- " He paced over to where I sat. "Want to get drunk?"
"It's not even noon."
"You're too practical. And you don't want to know anyone. You don't want anyone to know you."
I blushed and looked at my hands. "So, you think that getting me liquored up would help?"
"It would be a start."
I shook my head and frowned. "What's your problem with me? Why don't you leave me alone?"
He looked a little shocked. "I don't know. Is that what you want? To be left alone?"
"No," I said. My voice seemed to gather some momentum. "I mean -- yes. I mean -- why didn't you just pull my plug? When I was in there? I was suffering, you know. I just wanted to die. And the sentinels. My God, the sentinels! You guys could have lost the ship, your lives, everything. Why didn't you pull my plug?"
Apoc stared at me. Then he went over and stood by the door, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Morpheus wouldn't allow it," he said quietly. "He said we had some time before the sentinels arrived. He said we had to wait to unplug you, to make sure it was our only option."
"What about everyone else?"
Apoc looked at the wall.
"What about everyone else, dammit?!"
Apoc looked up again, his eyes wet. "Hostage wanted to. But Morpheus wouldn't let him. He wanted us to wait."
"And Trinity -- ?"
"They argued about it, and that's when Trinity left the core," he said quietly, his voice struggling for control. He turned away and wiped his eyes.
I exhaled quietly. "It doesn't matter to me. I would have pulled my plug if I'd been in your position," I said with resolution. "I'm just one person. I wouldn't have been missed." Without meeting his gaze, I stood from his cot.
I was caught by surprise when he grabbed both of my arms. "That's bullshit," he said. "That's bullshit and you know it."
"Let me go!"
"No, not until you take that back."
I pushed against him. Damn, in the real world he was a guy and I was still a skinny girl without the physical strength to push him out of the way. "What's it to you?"
He flung my arms away from him. "It's a goddamn lot to me!" he shouted. Then he seemed to fold into himself. He leaned back against the wall and slowly slid down until he was sitting on the floor. He covered his face with his hands. I could hear the quickening of his breath, his quiet sobbing. "Get the hell out of here," he gasped.
But I couldn't. I was frozen in the middle of his quarters. Those small, dingy quarters that smelled like him. All this fuss. Over me. "I don't understand."
"You wouldn't," he said.
I took a deep breath and searched for the words. "In this world," I said slowly, "you only have yourself, you know. That's all there is. You have to save yourself."
"But you saved me," he said, weeping harshly.
I could feel myself collapsing, disappearing into myself. And here it was -- everything we had -- and I could only think about holding onto myself, gripping myself with firm, cold hands and white knuckles. That was all I had, all that was certain. Myself. I thought that if I kept my ears open and didn't step on the cracks, and kept a knife in my pocket and a gun on my hip, it might just be enough to keep me alive for one more day, one more week --
He looked up at me, tears on his face. "I have you," he whispered.
I sank to the cold floor in the middle of his quarters. I started to shake my head. "No. No, Apoc . . ."
"It's too late, Switch. I'm already sick in love with you."
He crawled toward me until he could touch me. "I want to know you," he whispered. "I wish things were different. I wish things were normal. I wish we weren't here. I want to be far from this ship, far from this war."
My throat was closing, my eyes watering. He grabbed my hand and held tightly. "Apoc -- " I gasped. His grip hurt. "Please. We're going to die. We won't last a year. We can't do this."
He buried his wet face in my neck. "I know," he said, a low note muffled against my skin. He pulled back and cupped my face with one hand. He reached up with his other hand and brushed my cheek. Was I crying? I hadn't noticed.
"If things were different," I wept. "You know?" I pulled him toward me. And it had already begun. Our collision was furious, unstoppable. Like a subway train without a driver, skidding along its underground tracks. Going so fast we didn't notice that it had derailed.
"Why can't things be different?" he whispered into my ear, grasping my sides, pushing against me when I pushed against him. When I slipped, he found me and pulled me back. My heart. Beating like crazy, ringing in my ears like mad. I wondered if he could hear it. We could hear so much already. And when the agent was choking me, I heard that blood song pulsing in my ears. I heard the same thing then with Apoc. That old blood song.
When he rose to meet me, I held his hands and squeezed them tightly. I could feel myself choking again, the air being sucked out of me. This time I didn't fight it. Darkness was closing in, swirls of black. My heart was beating so fast. It was craziness, madness. When I closed my eyes and held onto him, I felt frantic motion, something close to death. In my mind's eye, I remembered flinging myself from a runaway train.
[Editor's note: end of audio files.]