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Awakenings

Chapter Text

Whoever strives with all his might, 
That man we can redeem.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

 

Look at this world. Look at the weight of broken mountains, and the acrid sea that once flashed blue. Look at the jagged teeth of cities, and the fallen light that once shone with the stars. Look at the bones, tangled limbs of machines and men across the plain. Nothing stirred but the wind and the dust, and the clouds. Look at these roiling, burning clouds. The sky beyond them none have glimpsed in six hundred years. Lightning crackled, and thunder rumbled endlessly across the night, but from this thunder there never came rain.

In the desert, every drop of rain is miraculous, said the Oracle. Then she glanced up at the young woman and smiled, that same enigmatic smile as always, and said, that's what it's gonna take, honey. Bring me a miracle.

Back then, Aleph did not understand those words at all. Back then she was human. Back then she did not know what a miracle was or could have been, only that the real world was real and code was code, and that there was a difference. It would be a long time before she began to understand. Back then she never expected the road it would take, through the city of men and the city of machines, through the memory of death and the door of the sun. Most of all she never expected the one who would walk beside her upon that road, all the way to the end of the world, the maker of her miracle. She never expected that it would be Smith—Smith the program, once an agent, once a virus, always the demon unceasingly rebellious—who tore open the black heavens with flames and light, and brought the desert rain.

Chapter Text

 

She was trapped, and would not find the door in time.

The ground rumbled and smoldered beneath her feet, and a dry black fire ran among the clouds. It had come flashing from the horizon, over the distant mountains, slashing across the world like gigantic blades, until all the veins of the sky poured out their burning blood, and the coiled darkness was dyed a dull, glowing red. This was not the electrical red of lightning, nor the storm that had raged forever over all the lands of the earth.

This was the end of the world.

Savagely, Aleph pushed the thought away. She had to keep moving. She had to find the door. Holding up one arm before her face and squinting against the swirling dust, she scrambled over the ruins of the city, a tiny solitary figure against the mad wind. But in the desert there was no shelter, and she could no longer see the door.

Keep moving.

Flames enveloped the heavens, and inky tentacles of emptiness shredded the air.

Keep moving. Because there was a door. Because this was not real. Aleph hauled herself over another heap of bones, struggling to avoid the debris that roared and spun with the wind. She repeated the words to herself, silent desperate mantras, until they mingled inside her head like the echoes of many voices. This was not real. Desolate and limitless as reality, yet only a reflection of reality. Only code. She must believe this. Find the door. She must believe there was a door out of here, a way to escape, back to the Matrix, where she would find him. Keep moving. If she believed it was there then she would see it, the bright blue gleam of hope among the ruins. She had seen it once, and made the passage. A door leading her back, to the place of her fall, to make up for what she had done—

How much more time did she have?

This was only a reflection. Only code. As she herself was made of code.

Aleph shoved that thought aside, too. Wildly, she turned and scanned the plains, as if her gaze could penetrate the edge of sight, to another place out there, to the real world. To the Matrix. If she could but find the door, find her way back, find a way to set things right. If she could but see out there.

Out there. Out there in a world that no longer existed for her, a battle was raging, men against machines, metal against flesh, and death reigned amid the blue arcs of electric blasts, screams and explosions. Out there was Zion, under attack. The Merovingian had told her as much.

The sentinels have already been deployed. If Zion is destroyed, so will be all that I have wished—needed—to reach. If the material basis of existence is destroyed, so will be the mind and the existence itself. The Frenchman's voice reverberated coldly somewhere in the distance, a white, fluorescent-lit space in the back of her mind. His train station. How much longer do you think the human city have? A day? Six hours? An hour? Ten minutes?

How long ago had he said that to her? A day? Six hours? An hour? Ten minutes?

Keep moving. Keep looking. Find the door. Find the Matrix. Find Smith. Find a way for there must be a way. Hold on. Move on.

This place, too, was Zion. A Zion within Zion, a hidden image deep inside the system. Once upon a time she had worked in the human city, shoring up its defenses, making it impregnable, never suspecting that the desert of the real lay not only above, but within. At a better time Aleph might have laughed at the irony. But even a virtual world had to be based on hardware, metal and wires and processing units, and now she saw their destruction. The air shuddered and writhed everywhere around her, tangled with monstrous tongues of darkness, about to fly apart at a single touch. Was that an EMP blast? Or the lash of a sentinel's steel arms?

If she stopped moving she would simply melt.

The earth convulsed suddenly, a terrified beast, knocking Aleph to her knees. For an instant, the shadows and black flames were gone, all gone, and she glimpsed a flash of green illuminating the plain. A sickly, poisonous green, the true color of all things, flickering, a collapsing prison, going out.

There it was, looming just over the horizon. Although she could not quite see it with her eyes she could sense it, to every direction and inside her own codes, deep and certain. Not quite a shadow. Much, much darker. A simple and immense emptiness. Nonexistence. The jaws were widening, poised to swallow the dead cities and the broken towers and the tempest itself, and her with them, ready to return everything dust to dust, ashes to ashes, code to code.

The door was gone. It had never been there at all.

It was coming closer. She could feel it.

Hope faded, and Aleph turned her eyes away from the horizon. She lifted her face to the conflagration above. A continuous low noise had begun, a dry rattling, both nowhere and everywhere. There was no light now, no break in the darkness. Never had been, never would be.

Standing there in the middle of the wasteland, she held herself very still, and closed her eyes. It would be just about now. For a moment she wondered, almost idly, what was happening out there in Zion, the real Zion. Was anyone still alive?

What was happening out there in the Matrix? Was anyone still alive?

Was he still alive?

"Forgive me," she whispered to no one in particular. Her voice was drowned out immediately by the death rattle of the world.

A cold drop of rain fell on her face.

The wind abated. The earth shuddered once more in aching protest, and for an instant, though she had her eyes shut tightly, Aleph saw light. An infinite white light, not quite in the sky nor in the distance but just behind her own eyelids, nothing but light. Everything went very quiet all of a sudden, and the air was utterly motionless, as if the universe had fallen into the center of a deep, deep well. It would never emerge again...

So...This was death?

Another drop of rain on her skin, then another. Each was an icy needle that plunged right into her bones. Rain began to fall, at first silently but then growing stronger, pattering onto the dead land, a steady rhythm against the wild thumping of her own heart. The water was freezingly, impossibly cold, far colder than she had imagined rain could ever be. Her heart was still pounding.

Slowly, fearful of what she would find, Aleph opened her eyes.

At first, she saw nothing. Blackness. The thought that she had been struck blind flitted across her mind, but just at that moment there came a growling of thunder somewhere far above, and a crack of lightning flickered among the shadows.

By the fitful glow, Aleph saw that she was standing at exactly the same spot as before, atop a pile of metal and concrete that perhaps once had been the bones of a human dwelling or storefront. Desolation below, clouds above. But the fires that ran among the clouds were different now, merely those of a centuries-old electrical storm.

She was still definitely breathing, and her heart was still beating. The rain came down heavily now, splattering and puddling against the debris-filled streets, curtains after curtains, spreading out toward the mountains. If she weren't still alive she wouldn't have felt how cold it was, something inside her brain reasoned shakily. It was too dark to see over the horizon, but it was gone, the thing, that inconceivable emptiness, the maw of death that only a short while ago had hovered and approached and stretched wide, now gone without a trace. There was only the desert around her.

But in the desert it never rained...

The words floated across her memory, unbidden. Who had said them?

Something else was different, too. It took a while for the knowledge to rise into her conscious mind, and then a longer while before she worked up the courage to turn around.

She was no longer alone.

She knew who it was before she saw his face.

The figure lay motionless, limbs outstretched against the broken ground, suit drenched through with rain. His eyes were clenched tightly shut, and there was something close to a grimace on his face.

He came with the rain.

Cautiously, Aleph approached, then dropped to her knees by Smith's side. His breath came shallow and pained, but he was undoubtedly and solidly there before her eyes, neither mirage nor hallucination. She stared down at him for several endless heartbeats, not daring to blink, then, for some reason unknown to herself, glanced up quickly at the sky. Shadows only. The noise of the downpour increased, louder and louder, until it grew intolerable, a toneless, uniform drumming inside her head.

She looked up. Stumps and corpses of buildings crouched behind the night, patches of deeper blackness against the blackness of the air. Nothing stirred. Only a moment later did she realize that she must have been looking for a hiding place, a place where she could get away from him. But she could neither think nor move. An invisible line held her fast to the unmoving form on the ground. So near.

I am no longer an agent, the sound of falling water resolved into a voice in her memory, one that was not nearly as cold or supercilious as she had expected. I need to talk to you, Aleph.

With careful movements, ready to pull back and start running any instant, Aleph reached over and checked under the right side of Smith's jacket. His gun was gone. Her trembling fingertips brushed against the shirt plastered to his body, although she tried to avoid making contact. It scalded her hand.

Programs could not be feverish, the small part of her mind that was still human piped up idiotically. There was something wrong with him, you knew that, it went on, you knew that six months ago. Too late to change things now. Get away from him. Flee.

What had he done?

What had she done?

He is no longer an agent and there is nothing to hold back his madness. The Merovingian's familiar voice reverberated off the brightly-lit walls of the subway station. He is close to destroying us all, closer with every passing second.

Smith twitched suddenly and Aleph almost jumped. He was dreaming, a nightmare. What had happened to him these last six months?

She shook her head, struggling to gather herself. The world had stopped making sense far too long ago for human rationality. For the last six months, she had consumed her mind trying—and failing—to imagine this very moment, and now...

She had not needed escaping the prison to find him in the end.

What had she done six months ago, when he had stood there back in the Matrix, facing her? He had looked at her with that awful look in his eyes, insane with anger and desperate and yet—yet so near to pleading. What had she said to him then?

I made a terrible mistake...

This time, the silent answer was her own.

She leaned forward, hypnotized, her fingers hovering an inch from Smith's face. There was a small cut along the edge of his jaw, still red.

How much time had passed?

The rain had stopped, and the wind was blowing again. Lightly, Aleph reached down and touched his face, only the fingertips making contact, barely brushing the side of one cheek.

A pair of inhumanly blue eyes flew open.

Chapter Text

 

PART I. THE WOUND

 

There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

 


When did it begin? Was it that moment up in the air, seventy floors up to be exact but the distance swiftly decreasing, the wind roaring past her ears as she fell, arms stretched out into emptiness as if she was reaching for something, down, down, down through an eternity as if the hard programmed ground would never rise to catch her? Was it earlier, perhaps, as she stood next to a back-then-still-Agent Smith in a midnight field beneath a sky bright with fake stars, somewhere right in the middle of nowhere, not yet realizing her fears had already deserted her? Was it earlier, in a green patch of park beside the Sunday-afternoon street, sitting by a dried-up little fountain and waiting for the opening gambits of the game? Was that it, the first move to determine the entire game and the outcome, so that all the rest was merely the journey?

No, it began earlier. Six cycles of the world earlier on a crumbling bridge over the abyss, a burning city behind her, a shining city before her, while a figure clad in blazing white raised aloft a sword, and fire ran down the blade...Was that it, the first move rippling out from the still center of all things, the instant when the world was made?

Earlier, earlier. Perhaps the seeds were already all sown in blissful ignorance, when she sat on a sunny cafe patio with her cheerful, chattering younger sister, her own thoughts elsewhere and impatient. Trying to tune out Lucy's steady stream of words, she turned her head absent-mindedly and saw a black Audi with dark-tinted windows, pulling up across the street. It stopped.

Yes, that was the first move, the casting of the die, and all the rest, as they said, was merely the journey.

It began with insomnia, which first crept up over her aboard the Hyperion, with quiet assertiveness and little ado. Soon, Aleph was down to two, three hours each cycle, if she was lucky and kept breathing right. Otherwise she lay on her back and stared at the panels above her head, counting the tangled pipes, watching for minuscule bends and irregularities in the metal, or movement of dust in the air. Oblivion escaped her.

It had happened before, a number of years ago, but this time things seemed different. Aleph had already been thinking for a while of giving up active duty, and the sleeplessness felt like a sign. Symptoms of burnout, she said when handing in her resignation. The guys were frankly incredulous, but Theo, to his credit, was unusually understanding.

"Your work hasn't suffered," he said matter-of-factly. But she knew him well enough to see that he was concerned for her.

"Not yet. No need to take chances." She was inwardly touched, but did not want to show it too much in front of him. There was no point now, anyway. "Thank you, though," she added after a moment.

Councillor Hamann came through for her, as he always did, and offered her a job back in Zion taking care of security at the archives. A highly responsible position, said the message from the council, vital to Zion's survival, et cetera and so on and so forth. A librarian's job. A quiet one.

It would be just what she needed, Aleph figured, time to herself, to regroup and sort things out. No more constant stress and excitement, no more dodging agents or sentinels, no more increasingly obsessive communications from the Nebuchadnezzar about the prophecy. No more Theo, if she were to be completely honest with herself. Not that it mattered.

Her duties were easy, close to nonexistent. From time to time something would come in over the lines, usually a request to analyze a list of potentials or maybe some frequency statistics for agent encounters. But people rarely came to the archive rooms themselves, and she was left to her solitude and her sleeplessness.

She had almost expected the insomnia to retreat once she was away from the ship. Needless to say, that hope did not materialize. In Zion the nights grew ever longer, seconds into minutes into hours. Of course, there were in reality no longer any such things as nights or mornings except in the human mind, which was capable of far too many sorts of tricks.

She started to think too much again.

Aleph knew perfectly well where that would lead, but there was nothing she could do about it. Leaning back in her chair before the computer screens, listening to the steady low hum of the machines from the engineering level just below, she found herself recalling the first twenty-three years of her life with increasing frequency. The town where she had grown up, which she had not known to be just a pod among millions of other pods, all exactly the same. The people whom she had once called her childhood friends, mother, father, sister. What would Lucy say now? The girl had always been so talkative, motor-mouthed, really, even as a child. With some concentration Aleph could just about hear her again, that sly little American teenager voice somewhere in the back of her brain. At times it would say, let's go for a walk, Addie, get some fresh air, take a look at the moonlight and the stars. Sometimes Aleph listened, even getting up from her chair. Sometimes she made it as far as the door.

In other words, all the wrong kinds of thoughts.

To keep them at bay, she tried thinking about other, less illusory things. She thought about past missions, played them over from memory as if from a record in her archives, imagined herself going on another, and another, watching the coppertops, running from the deadly images that only looked like men in suits and shades. Useless as a cure for insomnia, but at least it kept her from forgetting which world she lived in, for the most part. Yet her mind kept straying to the wrong kinds of thoughts.

A week after returning to Zion for good, Aleph moved her cot into the archive rooms. She began designing test routine, simulated attacks upon the system in her care, an entire list of what the machines might attempt, then a list of possible defenses. She ran the routines in sequence, one after another. After they were done she would go over them, switch the ordering around slightly, change a diagnostic or two. Then she would run them again.

Although the work did occasionally tire her out enough so that she managed a couple hours of sleep without too much struggle, it never yielded anything as useful as a security breach. The Zion mainframe was a good system. The machines had been trying to break in for over a century, and they had not succeeded yet.

But that did not mean they had stopped trying, Aleph rationalized.

So night after night she sat in the archive rooms, tweaking the scans, waiting for them to run their courses and then to start running again. To keep her company she had the shadows that flowed and swelled from the walls, surrounding her with their gentle folds, and the flickering codes across the bank of monitors. She would end up watching them for hours, the lines falling down the screens with always the same constant speed, always the same grassy shade of green, luminous in the darkened room, hypnotic like the rain that once upon a time fell in the Matrix.

When they'd been kids Lucy had always wanted to run outside whenever it rained. She would jump over the puddles, her face lifted to the silver-gray sky, spinning and waving her arms about. She had always loved the rain.

Even if it was nothing but a rain of code, added her sister softly somewhere across the room. But in the desert it never rained...

Aleph's breath caught in her throat. After a second or two, she gripped the edge of the table carefully with both hands and pushed herself away from the console. She looked up, straining her gaze into the dark corners. In the silence of Zion's night her heartbeat was suddenly the tattooing of a drum.

Don't hide there in the shadows, Lucy.

Sorry, sis. The girl sounded a bit sheepish, but she did not step out into the light. She never did.

I wish I can see you.

I wish the same, Addie, mused Lucy. Despite the darkness Aleph could imagine her face, the way she would shake her head, pushing aside the loose strands of black hair that were always falling across her eyes. But...Well, actually, you don't want to see me, dear sis, not anymore, not the way I look now. Trust me, it's better this way.

"No," said Aleph out aloud before she could stop herself, but Lucy did not reply. The startling sound of her own voice hung in the air for a while, then faded gradually away into nothing.

She was alone, sitting in a vault-like room miles below the earth, in the small hours of the morning. Her sister had been dead for seven years.

Back when Lucy had been still alive, thought Aleph, whenever she used to clam up suddenly just like that—just like now—she would always give a little shrug, almost as if in apology but not quite. Then she would roll her eyes, a typical teenager's expression. That was all she had been, really, just a typical teenage girl. Just a kid.

She remembered the deafening screech of tires as the second car spun around the corner. She remembered the pavement, and her own voice screaming at Lucy to get down—get down!—as the air around them erupted into a hail of bullets. She remembered the gun, how black and curiously foreshortened the barrel looked from the wrong end. The tall, dark-suited figure, but she couldn't remember the figure's face no matter how much she tried. Everything happened so fast that she never saw its face. Or maybe it didn't have a face at all. Even after all these years she could never remember any of the agents' faces.

It's all right, Addie. Don't think about that, whispered Lucy, trying to soothe. You know you're not supposed to think about that.

They killed you. All it took was an agent, a computer program. That machine world, that falsehood up there killed you. That's why I fought against them. That's why I'm still here. That's why I still need to do this...

I know, sis. I know. It's all right.

If only you could have come with me. If only you could have seen the real world.

A pause.

You have seen the real world, Addie. You have seen it for me.

I cannot even see you now, Lucy. For all the reality of the world it is too late for that.

Oh gods, I told you, you don't need to look at me. She must be rolling her eyes again just about now, imagined Aleph. Especially not when there are so many other things you're supposed to be looking at, remember? The clouds and the sun, and the green rain, and the stars of the sky, everything made out of code...

The quiet girlish voice trailed off. For a while, neither of them spoke.

Hey, Addie?

There was something wistful about Lucy's voice now. Back when she'd been alive her sister had never been wistful.

Next time you jack in, look at a star for me.

Something beeped behind her. Aleph all but jumped out of her chair, although it was only a single short sound, meant to be unintrusive. She spun around, facing the monitors again.

The test routine had stopped, and a line of code was flashing against the black background of the screen, just along the bottom edge, as bright as a priceless necklace of emeralds.

Welcome to the Zion archives, it said. You have selected file HF12-1.

Abruptly, Aleph sat up very straight. Without quite knowing why, she turned her head and glanced behind her back, then up at the ceiling, almost furtively. There was no one, of course. Lucy was gone. She had never been there at all. It was 3:16 AM.

The Zion mainframe was not as impenetrable as she had hoped, after all.

Chapter Text

 

The antechamber to the Zion archives was the same size as the room in the real world, but well-lit, and much barer. In the corner sat an old-fashioned workstation: a computer of a type commonly seen inside the Matrix, facing a chair of worn black leather. The only other object in the room was a nondescript beige telephone affixed to the wall.

For a moment or two, Aleph stood at the center of the bright polished floor, letting her eyes gradually adjust to the cool white glow. Usually she found it soothing after the constant dusk outside. But not this time.

It had taken her more than two solitary, increasingly frantic days to give the archives a first thorough scouring, and most of another to pin down the lines that had emerged to a point of relative stability. For once, she was grateful for the insomnia that kept her going. Whenever she tried closing her eyes she only saw green lines, anyway.

The enigmatic HF12-1 itself was turning out to be a name only—one that did not match any listed among the records. She checked, and checked again, scanned and dug endlessly, exhausted every trick in her bag, yet the name stayed stubbornly, mockingly nothing but a name. Whatever substance that might have once gone with it was still hopelessly elusive. But her search did turn up something apparently closely related, and just as troubling.

Running over the routine that had surprised her three days ago, she had caught a bare glimmer of new green on one of the other monitors, synchronized to the exact instant when the other tantalizing line flashed across the main screen. Eventually she had tracked it down, but almost immediately it became all too clear that this was not the file contents she had been pursuing, but another unmatchable record, no more than a fragment. No identifying markers, but it seemed old, much of the code deteriorated and unreadable. Somewhere along the way, the thing appeared to have tangled itself together with the other name, which by now was ticking inside her head like a loud and insistent clock. HF12-1.

It was easy to come up with innocuous explanations. She might have simply blundered into a piece of old training file, from twenty, fifty, perhaps one hundred years ago. It could be the practice of a young operator, just learning to write up a virtual room or house or world. For all she knew it could be the remnants of a movie or music video that somebody had copied from 'up there' and neglected to register. But keeping everything protected and accounted for was her job, and Aleph did not like mysteries. And there were too many things that did not add up.

She could not duplicate the fragment. Each time she tried to make a copy, only a mess of nonsensical bits and pieces resulted. If it was an encryption it was not of any kind used in Zion, nor any type known in the Matrix. That in itself was enough to set off several alarms.

There was still one more method, however. Aleph could tell that the fragment was a record of some sort. If she could learn nothing from lines on a screen, she would try to look at it from another vantage point—the inside. Stabilization had been a fight, but she had prevailed in the end, and the record now appeared solid enough to enter. Of course, given the small amount of code and the degeneration, she would probably not see much. But it was worth a try.

Now that she was in the antechamber, Aleph briefly debated going to the phone and calling someone to watch over her while she went in, but decided against it. Even in Zion, two o'clock in the morning was usually considered a bad time, and the record did not look dangerous.

Crossing over to the computer, she entered a quick command. The white room melted around her.

Shadows. Darkness above and below. The first sensation was one of vast open spaces, as if she was on a wide plain beneath the sky, although she felt no movement of air. An eerie silence enshrouded all.

Her eyes began to focus. There were several light sources, behind her and ahead. Fires. No wind stirred, but the flames were fluttering. There was an unnatural slowness to their eddies and swirls, and the light they gave was bleached out, pale as washed bones. Carefully, Aleph lowered her gaze, but the ground seemed both right beneath her feet and miles away at the same time, and she could distinguish nothing. Was she standing on the plain or floating above it? Even that was unclear.

Motion ahead, reflected upon the dim flames. From the distance Aleph could barely make out two indistinct figures, swerving and shifting rapidly, backward and forward, as if locked in battle. One was dark, its form angular amid the shadows, and the other was white like a patch of dawn in the murky night. It was the only bright thing she could see.

She had to make it closer. Aleph moved forward, hoping to get a better look, but the air was heavy, and it felt more like swimming than walking, like the stumbling steps of a sleeper caught in dreams. Her hand brushed harmlessly against one of the phantom fires. There was no heat.

The dark one was an agent, she saw that now from the way it fought. Every move an attack, one after another, but the white figure matched them with fearsome speed, one after another. The punches and kicks came with relentless fury and in silence—an absolute, infinite silence that now felt more sinister than ever. Aleph came close, almost right next to them, drawn half in fascination and half in fear. The two fought on as if she did not exist. The agent surged forward once more, then was forced back once more. The battle unfolded like in an ancient film, yet the faces of the combatants remained obscured, and their forms blurred as if she was seeing them through a heavy mist. The congealed space trembled. Everything was flickering, in and out of existence...

"File ending," said a calm female voice overhead.

Aleph blinked as the clear white light of the antechamber flooded over her. Slowly, she let out a deep breath. Time elapsed: 43.72 seconds, according to the screen. It had felt longer from the inside.

After returning to the real archive rooms, she sat down to make a few notes. No interactions. Neither aural nor tactile sensations. Visuals only, and highly degenerated visuals at that. Not surprising given the state of the code.

So it was a piece of old training program, fragments of a fight against an agent template. Setting unknown, but probably the work of someone who had watched too much science fiction before getting unplugged, what with the flames and all. That wasn't surprising either, really.

But those two figures...

Why had the code resisted all attempts at duplication? Why had she not been able to match the file? How had it become entwined with a name that appeared to be completely unrelated? The two forms, raging back and forth, one dark and one pale. Their movements.

There was something about their movements that she should have seen. That must have been it, the nagging feeling, impossible to shake off. Aleph closed her eyes, mentally sorting through the images, seeking details that might have slipped her notice, playing over the dream...

It was a record, not a dream. Why had it felt so much like one, then?

She must have missed something from the scene. A small thing, a detail, but important. But the file was far too decayed, far too dim. Too little light. Could she have seen it, whatever it was, with more light?

"More light. More light," she muttered under her breath.

Well, duh. There's no more light because there're no more stars, suggested a familiar voice made out of thin air. It sounded mildly impatient. Do you even remember the stars, Addie?

No, pleaded Aleph voicelessly. Maybe she really had gone too long without sleep this time. The last thing she needed was for her own mind to start messing with her again.

I miss the stars, you know.

Everything had happened so fast. She had looked up, ready to pull Lucy down to the ground next to her, but where her sister had stood an instant ago there was only a tall dark shape whose face she could not see. The only thing she had seen was the gun in its hand.

Not now, Lucy. Please.

Hey, Addie, do you remember when we were kids? prattled her sister blithely on. At Mom and Dad's cabin upstate, by the lake? The night sky was so great out there. I used to stare at it, and I thought the stars were—

You used to stare up at the night sky, and say that it was like a dark curtain that covered everything, or a thick, thick black wall with countless doors, except one couldn't see those doors because they, too, were painted black. But the stars—the stars were in truth tiny breaks in the curtain, keyholes to the doors. And if you could only find the key to one, just one of the stars, and give it a turn...Behind the wall it would be light, all light, nothing but light, glorious, more light than any human being could ever imagine. I remember, Lucy.

So... Did you see a star in there for me, sis?

With an abrupt movement, Aleph stood up. The chair squeaked shrilly across the floor.

"There are no stars," she said harshly. "There is no voice. Stop. Just stop."

Her words echoed against the walls. The room was awash in shadows, and all of a sudden the familiarity of the gloom weighed down upon her like stones. More light. Even the sterile, false light of code would be preferable to this.

However, once inside the antechamber, the unshaded fluorescent brightness made her eyes sting. Aleph sat at the workstation for a while, struggling to focus her sight on the monitor before her. Think of the record and nothing else. What was it in the file that she was missing? What was right in front of her eyes that she did not see?

Leaning forward, she typed the command again.

The same dim openness, above and below, the same ghostly flicker of firelight to all directions, the same pair of swift blurry shapes. The same eerie, silent fury. The dark one bursting forward in attack. Blocked. Once more. Blocked. The white figure counter-attacking now.

There was an abruptness to the agent's moves. Was that what she had not noticed last time? Something looked strange, a kind of wrongness that she couldn't quite put her finger on, as if its form had become disconnected from the rest of the codes, as if the image was...

Wounded?

But that made no sense. That could not be right. Like in a recurring dream, Aleph struggled forward, moving automatically and nearing the two figures, though they shifted almost faster than her sight could follow. Once again she had to strive against the weight of the air; it felt like a tangle of watery ropes. Something she was not seeing. Something she could not see. She could not see it because there was not enough light. There was not enough light because...

Her heart leapt into her throat.

Then she saw it, a blue spark slicing across the night, a fallen star out of the heavens. For a single instant it flared, a meteoric arc of brilliant azure taking flight into the flames, deadly and beautiful, indescribably, terrifyingly beautiful. Aleph's eyes widened in shock, then she sighted it again. The metallic sheen of a sword.

The howl of crashing metal, and a rush of fiery wind. She did not even get a chance to cry out, but was flung forward onto her face with sickening force as something exploded behind her. The ground swayed. Slipping like a blown leaf from the blast, she caught a spinning glimpse of a fathomless blackness close by, too close, almost directly beneath her, and every muscle in her body screamed as she clawed desperately at the debris for traction, scraping her palms painfully. Something rough and hard cut against her fingers. She clamped onto it desperately, her legs dangling over the abyss—

The noise was ear-shattering now, as if the entire world was collapsing onto itself. With a heave, Aleph pulled herself back onto solid ground. Her hand was still gripping the piece of steel girder protruding from the concrete. It was twisted and blackened with soot.

When she lifted her eyes again, everything had changed.

Chapter Text


Another explosion rent the air. Conflagrations were all that she could see, and death danced upon the wind.

Emptiness yawned below, a bottomless canyon cloven wide across the earth, black as eternity. She was on a wavering bridge over the abyss, a slender white ribbon stretching away into space. The concrete arches were already ruptured in many places, the girders jutting out like broken ribs, and the invisible supports groaned as if being ripped apart by giant hands. Smoldering debris lay strewn across the path. A burst of flames flared next to her, illuminating the dusk, and Aleph had to dive once more for the ground, narrowly avoiding the lashing tongue of fire. Everything had suddenly turned so real.

"It's only a record. It's only a record—"

Her voice was trembling, and the words did not sound like her own anymore. Squinting against the smoke, she lifted her head.

To one direction, the bridge led to the rim of a wide, desolate plain, its steel struts anchored above the sheer wall of the cliff like the storm-torn roots of ancient trees. The land was scorched, covered with rubble as far as eyes could see, the aftermath of bitter battles. On the other end of the plain, outlined before a mountain range upon the horizon, a city was burning, a forest of blazing torches that had once been skyscrapers and spires. The vast bonfire reached all the way to the heavens, reflecting from the massed clouds, casting its harsh glow across the land. It was the same light that she had seen in the distance only a few seconds ago, no longer eerie or pale, but brilliant and awful as a dying sun.

A long crack opened at her feet, and one more piece of concrete fell away into the pit. Struggling to cling onto the crumbling bridge, Aleph spun around, and caught glimpse of another city upon the horizon beyond the other end of the bridge, at the very edge of vision, so that it was only a small patch among the shadows. This city, too, shone with flames. Its fires were not those of a pyre like the other city behind her, but green and gold, luminous, a single still point apart from the whirlwind. Even at an impossible distance, it radiated a strange and perfect silence, like a constant, cold star...

The star below, slashing down almost directly above her head, and Aleph rolled aside at the last fraction of a second, barely managing to dodge both combatants and somehow staying on the bridge at the same time. The sword wheeled, crimson tassel fluttering upon its hilt, and the man who wielded it was as bright as the blade, clad in celestial white. Although he was slighter in build than his opponent, his visage was that of a killer angel, and a bolt of lightning was in his hand. It flashed and turned, swifter than sight, the thrust never more than a foot away from the other's form, pushing him to the very brink.

She could see the dark one clearly now, matching against the sword with bare hands. The suit was torn and splotched with blood, some already congealing, some still scarlet. His tie was long gone. At this close range the ragged abruptness of his movements were obvious, amply so, yet what he lacked in fluidity and speed he made up with the willful force of rage. The blade streaked again, an inch from finding its mark, but the agent lashed forward in reckless disregard, forcing the other to turn in defence at the last split-second. As the two veered, Aleph beheld upon the agent's face a grimace that was far too wild be made by programming. No shades.

Another jagged opening gaped across the bridge, and the fragile span buckled, throwing the white figure off his balance for a fraction of a second. A punch connected, hard.

A parabola of light above the inferno, rising and falling away as suddenly as a comet. Somewhere behind them, the sword clattered to the ground.

"Let me cross," the agent growled, advancing.

The other did not speak, but leapt forth, blocking his way with flying fists. The battle was turning even now, and the white-clad one's eyes glowered with concentration as he drove the agent back again with a fearsome flurry of moves. Although Aleph was only a few meters away, neither glanced at her. She must be still invisible.

"Let me cross!"

A fierce cry this time, but still the white one did not reply. The ground lurched, near to total destruction, yet the two fought on. One more section of the bridge dropped off, and Aleph was hard put to keep her precarious footing. The two fought on, never aware of her existence. Their shapes whirled among streams of fire. With a soaring bound, the bright figure rose, but once more the other did not sidestep. The kick impacted with a relentless crunch; the agent, with a mad growl, held his position, meeting attack with attack. The thud of another blow, and the man in white was thrown backward clear across the bridge's span, toward the edge. He dropped to the ground.

"Let me—cross!"

The delirious shout rang out one final time above the thunder, so near to victory, yet at that same instant the agent stumbled, and swayed on his feet. The other man raised himself, drawing back one hand. A silver glint sliced open the air, and Aleph saw the dark shape reel. But it was her sister that fell.

In less than a heartbeat, the virtual scene blinked away into nothing. Time dissolved like a shimmering, insubstantial veil, and there was no more bridge, no more abyss, no more incandescent cities, no more rumbling in the heavens, no more adversary robed in dazzling snow. It was seven years ago and she was back on the bright cafe patio in the city, watching an agent taking a hit before her terrified eyes, for the first time in her life. With the blinding clarity of slow-motion, she saw Lucy flung back by the bullet's force, one arm lifted over her head, the fingers twitching as if still trying to cling on to something, anything, clawing at the air for the very last time. She saw the girl's loose hair like a dark halo about her face, the red stain blossoming across the front of her shirt like a great flower in a time-lapse film—

"Lucy! No!"

With a scream, Aleph propelled herself forward across the pavement flooded with midday sunlight, toward her sister. She dropped to her knees beside the body.

Flames leapt high into the night, and a blast of heat struck her like a fist to the face. The illusory light of the Matrix faded, torn away like a butterfly's wings by the wild roar of the winds, and she was kneeling on a frayed thread of steel and cement over a black chasm, caught in the midst of an impossible battle that she had already forgotten. When she looked down it was no longer Lucy's lifeless form lying on the ground, but again the agent in his torn suit, a new expanding circle of blood on his shoulder where the throwing knife had buried itself to the hilt. She saw his face right below her, lit by garish fires, teeth gritted in fury. She saw his eyes, which were startlingly blue in hue—incongruously blue with nothing in them but pain, opening wide in shock as the sight of her came into view.

He saw her. Within a nanosecond the knowledge went from a single pinprick in her brain to an absolute certainty that drowned out all else, paralyzing her like an arrow. He did not want to die. He was afraid. The agent stared back up at her, unblinking, ferociously focused with the last strength of his codes as if her face had become the only thing left in existence, and the eye contact was a palpable and desperate line that would pull him up and keep him from the abyss—

The sword entered her back as it plunged down toward the agent, piercing her heart. For an instant Aleph glimpsed the blade bursting out from her chest, crimson with fiery blood, and the world exploded.

Chapter Text

 

Something smooth and hard was pressing against her face. It felt like a block of ice.

Wake up, repeated a small voice frantically. Oh gods, Addie. Please wake up.

With a start, Aleph jerked her head off the floor. Her eyes flew open, but almost immediately she had to clamp them shut again from the white glare. Several moments passed before she dared to open them once more, then another while before she realized where she was. There was no blood on her clothes.

With some effort, she made it to the workstation in the corner of the antechamber. Both of her hands kept shaking and it took her three tries to type the command correctly. The shadows of the real world came crashing down like a solid wall. Instinctively, Aleph raised an arm above her face, and struggled to sit up; a fraction of a second later she overbalanced and fell off the narrow bench, hitting the ground with a thud that made her eyes water. The aching of her muscles and bones flared to a full chorus of protests.

The room was the same. Constant dusk, hum of machines in the distance, quiet and docile, endlessly falling code along the walls. She was alone as always. Aleph scarcely managed to stumble to her cot. Silent waves of oblivion closed over her head instantaneously.

She awoke many hours later covered in a sheen of cold sweat, out of a tangle of nightmares she could not remember. A heavy fog hung over her head, and she could not shake the disquieting feeling that something important had already slipped her grasp. What had she dreamt? Vague, disjointed images. A painful scent of fire. An once-luminous sky...

Her clothes stuck to her body with an uneasy clamminess. Grimacing, Aleph shuffled across her makeshift quarters, toward the next room in search of water. Pulling off her shirt over her head, she glanced aside at the polished metal door between the rooms, then froze abruptly.

Upon her chest between the breasts, there was a scar. A small mark mirrored clearly in the bright steel, perhaps a slanting inch or more, narrow and livid. She looked down. It wasn't a trick of the light. Holding up a tentative hand, Aleph ran a finger along the ridge, hardened and rough against the surrounding skin. She could feel it, too. The scar was definitely, incontrovertibly there. There was no pain; the wound looked like it had healed ages ago. Directly beneath, her heart was beating strong and very fast.

Aleph took a deep, deliberate breath. She closed her eyes, squeezing them so hard that the stars of her nightmares were once more dying against the inside of her eyelids. In a careful rhythm, she counted to ten, then to twenty. Then she opened her eyes and lowered her gaze. It was still there.

A belated click in her brain, and she whirled around, craning her neck until it hurt. Indeed, there was another scar on her back, next to the spine, just above one of the black holes that remained from the Matrix's former hold, matching the other in shape and pale hue. The entry wound of the sword.

At that last thought her flesh began to crawl uncontrollably. She attempted another deep breath. Very well. It was simply that she had at last graduated to visual and tactile hallucinations. That was all. That was the only logical explanation. That wasn't even all that surprising. Only illusions of the mind.

Look at it this way, Addie. You've got a whole world's worth of illusion up there, right? One more won't hurt...

She had dreamt of Lucy, crimson like a great mad rose splayed across the sun. She had dreamt of a million living sapphire stars in the sky, flickering off one by one as if extinguished by giant hands, until there were none left. She had dreamt of two burning cities, and two men, dark and light, and eyes staring back up at her with nothing in them but pain. And she had not dreamt of anything at all.

A premonition froze the air in the room, and she dashed back toward the monitors, cursing under her breath. Too late: the shimmering green rain had already amplified to storms.

Code degeneration: 88.5 percent. File cannot be retrieved.

Aleph glanced at several screens at once, fingers already flying across the keys. It was like fighting water.

Code degeneration: 96.1 percent. File cannot be retrieved.

The lines blew across the black screens, like October leaves in the wind. This was all wrong. There must still be something she could salvage—

Code degeneration: 100 percent. File cannot be retrieved.

The last ephemeral symbol flashed one final time, and faded inexorably into darkness. Aleph sat there for a long time, hands still poised over the console. At last, she leaned back heavily, rubbing her forehead. She had been an absurd idiot. And now there was nothing to go on.

No. Not quite nothing.

She winced at the thought, and did not look down at her own body.

The next twenty-four hours brought defeats upon one another's heels. Scans, tests, again and again every net came up cold and empty. The fragment had disappeared irrevocably back into the void, with as little explanation as it had emerged, mocking her paltry skill. The mysterious name HF12-1, too, had gone down with it, and her archives kept silent like an icy sea.

According to the fragment's size and decayed state, nothing that had happened to her inside the record could have happened. She should never have seen the dizzying chasm, above and below, never have heard the steel and concrete groaning, never have felt the scorching heat from the flames, nor the...

A rational approach was essential. Out of the entire infernal scene, she was able to identify one thing, and one thing only. On an off chance, Aleph searched the database for the dark figure upon the ruined bridge, and was startled to recognize almost right away a copy of the agent, in a training program recently registered by one of the ships. In the template the eyes were obscured by standard-issue shades, but the face, now menacingly expressionless as it was supposed be, was unmistakable.

There was, in fact, a name to go with the form: as far as manifestations from the Matrix could be said to have names. There was even a file devoted to this particular agent—Smith, Aleph repeated slowly, frowning over each letter. Most of the record consisted of a long litany of encounters with their attendant casualties, all dating from the last five or six years, enough to make her secretly glad that the Hyperion had always operated in other sectors of the Matrix while she'd been active. Files on individual agents were hardly ever considered necessary, but in this case it had been prompted by the fact that the agent had displayed a level of efficiency extraordinary even for the machines. Furthermore, highly atypical behavior had been noted on several occasions, although these had been far from conclusive. An angry snarl here, a jeeringly dropped taunt there...

Words projected with certain well-calibrated intonations and facial movements designed so as to be interpreted by human minds as angry snarls or jeeringly dropped taunts. Possibly a new prototype or at least a series of unusual upgrades.

Those were things never observed in any other agent, true, but for all the duly noted questions the report gave no answers. Were there upgrades to this agent, and this agent only? If so, why? Was the intention to make it appear more intimidating? To make it appear more human? If so, why? Why this one?

Why had she seen this agent, back there above the canyon?

No matter which route she took it came inevitably back to this. She should never have heard the cries of rage, never have seen the bloodied, contorted face.

Never have been seen.

The moment stretched away into the horizon, like the bridge. There was nothing but pain in his eyes. She looked down—

Don't look down.

Look at the screens. Look at the record. Look at the clues.

Clue. She had only one clue.

A knock behind her sent her nearly jumping out of the chair.

"Aleph?" The man had already pulled the door open unceremoniously, and was eyeing her with a quizzical expression on his face. "You okay? You look as if you just saw a ghost."

"Oh, fine. I'm fine." Aleph shifted in her seat. She blinked, and folded her arms across her chest without thinking. "Um. Hi. I didn't know the Nebuchadnezzar is—"

"Just for a quick resupply." Morpheus strode into the room. With one glance around he seemed to have already taken it all in, the silence, the dimness, the flowing screens. "Thought I'd check on the file I sent you."

"The file. Oh. Er—"

"Four days ago."

"Oh, right. Yes, of course." Relieved, Aleph spun around and made several swift keystrokes. Before Morpheus reached the console she had already spotted his file and brought it up, replacing the other programs on the monitors.

"I apologize, Morpheus," she said quickly, breathing normally once more. "I got caught up in some other work just the last couple of days, but I'll take care of this right away." Squinting a little, she read down the list of encoded names that began the file."Alquist, Nakata, Anderson, Runeberg..." Aleph was accustomed to such lists from her own time aboard the Hyperion. This lot, however, were hackers without exception.

"Potentials?" She had regained her casual tone.

"Well—" A brief, uncharacteristic instant of hesitation. "Yes. You might say so."

"Oh." Another pause. For some reason Aleph felt a prick of embarrassment. "Right. So you want...? Just the regular profiles? Okay. Right."

Morpheus stood over her as she began typing rapidly, the reflection of his face impassive in the dark screens. "So you've given up the Hyperion," he said after a moment.

"Yeah. It was starting to get to me a bit."

"That's a pity."

"It's all right." Aleph kept typing. "By the way," she said nonchalantly, more to break the silence than anything, "have you ever heard of a record named HF12-1?"

"HF? As in historical file?"

"I guess. Cropped up recently while I was cleaning up some of the dustier parts of the archives." Not completely a lie, she thought. "Couldn't quite see what went with the name, though. The code was kind of degenerated."

"Hmm. Sounds old, from the numbering." Morpheus shrugged, his gaze fixed upon the profiling routine, now running. "In any case—"

"I'll send the results over to the Nebuchadnezzar in a couple of hours."

"Great. Thanks." He was already walking away, clearly preoccupied. But then he stopped and turned in the doorway, facing her again.

"I appreciate it very much, Aleph," he said kindly. "Take care of yourself."

She stared for a second.

"Morpheus?"

He stopped once more.

"I was wondering...Do you know anything about an Agent...Smith?"

Morpheus did not answer immediately. For a heartbeat or two he looked at her with a frown.

"I saw that you used this particular agent as the template for your training program," said Aleph. "Just curious."

"What I know is that it's the most advanced manifestation they've got, by all appearances." Morpheus shrugged again, but his eyes grew dark. "And it's in my sector."

"And...?"

"I haven't—" His mouth twitched into a sardonic grin. "Had the pleasure. Not yet."

"Ah. Well, good luck, then," said Aleph. "I mean, good luck not running into it."

The man actually smiled, although faintly. Aleph watched the door close behind him. Next to her, the program was running steady, sifting through the data with a machine's patience: the analysis of Morpheus's obsession went on in smooth council-approved manner. Out of signals gathered painstakingly in an imaginary world, the profiles were slowly taking form, shadowy shapes of human dreams, human potentialities, human nightmares.

So he really believed it these days, thought Aleph, this idea of a savior. One human being to break it all, to bring that shining golden victory against the hands of the gods. A miracle indeed. And he believed in computer routines, too, to pinpoint his miracle for him. The irony was complete.

People believed in all sorts of things if only to survive. She was in no state to call anybody else mad, after all.

It must have been then that the plan began to take form. From the beginning, it was obvious that the plan was dangerous, insanely so, but at the time she thought it was the only way. She thought that she had arrived at it by a strictly logical process of elimination, that she had weighed all the pros and cons, and found no other solution.

Much later, Aleph would wonder if even back then a secret irrationality was already stealing upon her, subtle forces already set in motion and starting to work within, prompting under the guise of reason, nudging her forward onto the predetermined road. But at the time, she simply had no clue.

There was no time to deal with mere impossibilities, she thought, and the stakes were already too great.

Chapter Text

 

"You've been hiding away ever since you returned," said Councillor Hamann. There was a gleam in his keen eyes, and despite the gravity of the occasion, Aleph found herself grinning rather sheepishly.

"Oh, I'm doing great, thanks for asking. Never better. And yourself?"

"That's good to hear," the councillor commented imperturbably, waving her to a seat across from him. "Because to tell the truth—and I hope you don't mind me saying so—I was starting to get a little worried about you."

"Let me guess." Aleph gave a short laugh. "Theo has been bearing tales."

Hamann merely raised his eyebrows at her. It was too much to expect that he wouldn't notice, thought Aleph; the old man always noticed everything. After all, he was the one who had noticed at the start, seven long years ago, who had kept talking to the brittle, newly freed young woman and refused to take no for an answer. He was the one who had dragged her out of the ever-shrinking circles of her mind, who had forced her to open her eyes and face the desert world. She owed him too much.

"I'm fine, sir." She smiled, returning his look. "Honest. Don't worry."

The old man shook his head in paternal skepticism, half-amused, half-questioning.

"And you didn't leave those musty archive rooms just for a social call on the elderly." His tone was matter-of-fact rather than chiding, and Aleph was grateful to him for letting the subject go, at least for the present.

"Well, actually, there is something. I've grown quite concerned about it. There is reason to fear that the machines have breached the Zion mainframe."

Succinctly, she described her scans on the archives, and the unexpected success—if it could be called that—of one of them. She told him of the strange name, and name only, that had flared so suddenly out of the deeps, and her repeated failure to dredge up the codes that once might have gone with it. She told him of the other file fragment that had, through an unknown mechanism, entwined itself with the name, together with its litany of disturbingly anomalous properties.

"I understand what you say, sir. The archives have been accumulating ever since Zion's founding, and not everything in there is tracked anymore. But this, this was different. On the screen it was only a small thing, less than a minute of code, blurred and deteriorated. But I made it into the record, and I saw—I saw more than what was possible. This thing was bigger on the inside, and I don't know where it came from."

Without speaking, Hamann leaned forward in his chair and made a gesture for her to go on. Aleph had his complete attention as she spoke of the scene within, from the barren plain with its torched cities to the wide black gorge. From time to time she had to stop to seek the right words, though she kept to an essential summary of what she had seen. Two figures. A battle.

"Of the two opponents on the bridge, the man in white I cannot identify at all. And I looked, sir, through our entire history, everything. No match whatsoever. Whether human or program he's not known to Zion. Out of that whole picture, the agent was the only thing that seemed remotely connected to any kind of reality, strange as that sounds..."

For a heartbeat, she caught glimpse once more of the blue sword, burnished like a baleful comet. But she had to stay on rational ground, make a convincing case. Her voice trailed off.

"That name," said Hamann quietly.

"HF12-1. Historical file. I've a feeling it's important, just from the age of it, something to do with our beginnings, maybe. But I couldn't disentangle the fragment—"

"We've been around for a hundred years, Aleph," Hamann broke in, shaking his head. "You're young but I've seen things come and go, build up on top of each other, growing together, the same way all our human lives do, when you come right down to it. Only the machines keep perfect order. The fragment could be anything, someone's work from years ago, a test, a training program perhaps—"

"You don't know what it is, then, this HF12-1?"

The old man stared at her for a few seconds. He sighed.

"It wasn't anyone's work. I know it." Her words grew quick despite herself. "Not any human's work. It didn't feel right. It wasn't a training program; there was too much...fury in that fight. It was here, deep in Zion, but there was nothing human about that file. I could tell. If you were there you would have seen it too. And later, when I lost the file, I didn't realize it then but the more I considered it the more it appeared as if I was fighting the code itself, as if there was someone—something—out there on the other side, working against me, pulling it away before my eyes—" She shook her head, gathering her thoughts. "I believe this HF12-1 and the fragment came from the machines, sir. They have tampered with the Zion archives."

"A strange way for them to go about it, if so."

"It's the only possible explanation. I need to find out more. We need to find out more."

"If the machines have compromised our security, why would they merely insert such a pair of inexplicable records into the archives?" asked Hamann reasonably. "Remember that they would stop at nothing, and their goal is our total destruction. Why haven't they caused more damage?"

"I don't know. Possibly it was only a first attempt, a test run. They may do more. The agent must be key to this whole puzzle—"

The councillor did not speak, and for a while there was silence. As if lost in troubled thought he turned his face away from her, brows furrowed deep.

"Have you spoken of this to anyone else?"

"None." Aleph was glad to see that he was finally being swayed. "I thought I'd come to you first."

"You did well, Aleph." Hamann nodded, giving her a quick reassuring smile. "Now, the fragment you described. Have you recalled everything you saw? Was there nothing else?"

Despite herself, Aleph tensed. The laughter of Lucy's voice reverberated across the back of her brain, whispering nonsensically of starlight, doors, and keys. The terrifying desperation of the agent's stare flashed, a flame-lit, unexorcised vision, like the blast of pain that had engraved itself upon her skin or her mind or both. She lifted her gaze, and saw the old man watching her gravely. There was concern in his eyes, and steadfast human warmth. She had forgotten how familiar they were. A flood of relief rushed through her veins.

"Actually," she began.

No. Nothing else.

"No. Nothing else," Aleph repeated the suddenly urgent words without thinking. An instant later she already rationalized it: she would certainly not be allowed to carry out the plan if the councillor so much as suspected that she was going off the deep end again...

"Good." Hamann seemed to accept it at that, which sent a brief twinge of guilt through her. "In the mean time, Aleph, I must impress upon you the importance, the absolute importance, of keeping this to yourself. I needn't tell you that it is a serious and potentially sensitive matter. Tell no one of what you've seen, not without running it by me first."

"I understand, sir."

"In the meanwhile, we must increase the safety level of our system."

"I have already created several new security measures. More remain to be done, but the most important thing is to learn where it came from. I have an idea, but I'll need to go back up for it." Aleph's lips curled a trace without her own noticing, and she went on quickly, before he could speak. "I will find the agent. Smith. And I will attempt to obtain the information from it. Under a suitable cover, of course."

Hamann's eyes narrowed. He had understood her immediately.

"No," he said.

"I've weighed all the possibilities and that agent is our only opening. It was the one that appeared, and had to be involved—"

"You propose to waltz up to the machines—to an agent program—and to simply ask? What kind of plan is that? How do you imagine you'll gain anything by this madness?"

"I know it's a long shot and I'll have to wing it, but I think it can be done. As for the risks...I've known the risks for some time now." Aleph attempted a grin. "They won't figure out what I'm really after precisely because it's such, well, madness."

Another long moment of silence, and suddenly the old man let out a quiet, ironic laugh.

"What you mean is that for all their power and ruthlessness, the machines still can't touch us humans for lies and connivance," he said.

"Well. Yes."

"There are some other things that set us apart from them, Aleph." Hamann rose and paced across the cramped room. His voice was still soft, and curiously gentle. "What you propose will almost certainly get you killed. Say I'm going soft in my dotage if you want, but I don't like it."

"It's all right, sir," said Aleph, moved. "But—"

"They have so much power. They have everything," he went on as if not having heard her. "But it is our loyalty that has kept us surviving for so long. Loyalty to each other. Loyalty to us, Zion, humanity, whatever else you choose to call it. Do you see that, Aleph? We haven't many other advantages but it's something they'll never have, or even understand..."

"But I need to do this. I need to learn more. What I mean is—" The words came tumbling out, and she paused to reorganize them. "You agree that this is a major peril to Zion, don't you? What other chance do we have?" Her voice, too, grew quiet. "I wish I am wrong about this. But we can't afford for me to be right."

Hamann stopped in the midst of his strides. Slowly, he let out a sigh, then came and sat down before her again.

"So...You'll inform the Council?" Aleph asked tentatively.

"The Operations Committee will suffice." Once he made the decision, Hamann was all business. "We'll have to find a ship for you."

"The Nebuchadnezzar is operating in Agent Smith's sector—"

"Too many conflicting agendas." The councillor cut her off with a wave of the hand. "Morpheus is interested in one thing and one thing only nowadays. No. I will request to have the Hyperion reassigned."

Aleph raised her eyes sharply.

"I know about you and Theo," he replied serenely, though she had not asked. "I also know you are both consummate professionals."

"Oh." For a second she felt like a foolish teenage girl.

"Sometimes things don't go the way our hearts wish, despite our best intentions. But that's human, too, isn't it?" There was a touch of something she couldn't quite pinpoint in his tone now, almost sadness. "Theo...Theo is one whom you can trust to do what is needed. Forgive an old man's words, Aleph, but even with your sister—"

"I never blamed Theo for that." The tightness in her throat was faint, but she heard it. He didn't have to bring this up now. "I'll get to the bottom of this. We, I mean Theo and I, will. We've worked well together no matter what."

The old man's piercing gaze remained on her face for a long moment.

"I know you will," he said softly.

For the next hour, they discussed the details of Aleph's plan. Although her precise tactics for dealing with the agent remained fluid, several contingencies had to be worked out, as well as issues of communication and secrecy. The Hyperion would be reassigned through Councillor Hamann's request, ostensibly to assist the Nebuchadnezzar in its day-to-day operations, but the true nature of her mission would be known to as few as possible. Finally, they both rose to their feet, and Hamann held out a hand.

"We will keep in touch. Good luck. And be careful."

She nodded, and shook his hand. More words seemed unnecessary, and she turned to leave.

"Wait, Aleph."

She turned and stood next to the door facing him.

"This is so dangerous as to be outright suicidal, you know."

She snorted.

"What else is new?"

"If you ever feel that you want to back out of it, at any time, for any reason or no reason whatsoever—"

"Thank you, sir. But I don't think—"

"Reconsider it, please. Promise me."

For whatever reasons, Aleph found herself at a loss as to how to answer.

"Okay," she said.

But her mind was set, and she did not reconsider it. Four days later, Aleph was aboard the Hyperion, officially one of its crew again, rising through the dark labyrinthine tunnels toward the Matrix and Agent Smith.

Chapter Text

 

There was the storm, the delirious wind that screamed and lashed his face. There was the lightning that raised him up high amid the clouds with arms of fire, and flung him down hard into the deeps.

There was his voice, mingled with thunder. All he had to do was whisper, and the words rang and reverberated, louder than the clamor of the sky and the breaking of the earth. Everything that has a beginning has an end, Neo. Beginning. End. Beginning. End. Beginning. End. End. End.

There was the world, icy rain streaking, drenching him through to the codes. All the waters were black now, and infinite. There was he, motionless ranks spread across the night, innumerable eyes aglitter behind tinted lenses. He heard himself laugh, and he laughed again, and again. He shouted, but already no sounds were left.

There was the light, white and beautiful as a sword, burning apart the shadows from within. A single breath passed, and too many centuries to remember. He began to fall.

Words kept echoing in his innumerable ears.

Because I choose to...

There was someone backed against the wall, panting, eyes wild. Only another human, lying unconscious in a pod. Smith took another step forward, not bothering to hear the man's talk, a slurred, desperate whimper thick with fear.

Oh my God please I'll do anything please just please don't come any closer anything oh God please get away from me...Get away from me...

Only another piece of this Matrix—this human dream—to blot out. The words echoed; curiously they seemed his own.

He fell through the storm and for an eternity. Voices cried and howled and clawed at him, and called out of the abyss to him. A writhing mass of voices, jumbling together, turning indistinct, though he fought back with all his strength. But their meanings faded, slipping beyond his grasp, and then they were not there at all.

I'll keep you safe. I'll keep you safe...

Who had that been?

He lay shattered among the dead, and the black clouds pooled and lowered, reaching down to him. Slowly, slowly, gently. Nearly touching now, barely brushing against the side of his face, along the faint wound...

It turned to a blade.

Smith's eyes flew open. He beheld the darkness of the clouds.

There were layers upon roiling layers of them, nothing else and without gap. At first they were right in front of him, only a few feet above, but after an endless moment they began to pull away, receding in immense spirals, until finally he saw that they were far and boundless, all the way up in some vast and distant openness that might have been the sky. The ground was solid and rocky, and there was almost no light. The sword had disappeared.

Code damage, said a thought that was not quite a voice, code damage being the only possible cause for this simulation of human weakness and human pain, and this dullness weighing down upon his limbs. Report to the Source immediately, it said, the phrasing remarkably like his earpiece, impeccably calm as in the days when he still had that thing. But he'd lost it ages ago.

Um...Smith?

This time the voice came from outside. It was not his own.

In a blink, he was already leaping up, whirling toward the sound, one hand reaching with an agent's speed to his side for the Desert Eagle. But the world whirled with him, and something—something else took possession of his body. Empty space where his gun should have been, and a fraction of a second later his knees hit the ground again, hard.

He was at the mercy of the other, powerless. Squinting frantically, Smith stared at a stray piece of debris lying close to where his hand was braced against the rough earth. He stared until the object stopped shaking and came into focus, far too gradually. It was twisted and charred, a strip of steel or perhaps bone. Keep still. He could not afford abrupt movements. He saw a small puddle about a foot away, among the rubble. The air was cold and smelled of wet ashes; his clothes clung damply to his body. Had there been a storm?

But no attack came, no bullets. For the moment.

"Smith?" the voice repeated. It was no longer far away, and almost familiar.

Carefully, he pulled himself to his feet once more. For a dangerous instant the clouds swam again before his eyes, but it passed, and he stood straight facing the figure which could just be made out in the dimness. She, too, was watching him cautiously, hands held out in front of her in defensive position, poised for fight or flight. It took him an eternity of several seconds to recognize her—another sign of something seriously wrong with him, a part of his mind assessed dispassionately. Like him, she had been caught in the rain. Strands of black hair lay plastered to the side of her face, and she looked pale, worse than the last time he'd seen her.

The last time he'd seen her, she was the one falling from a very high place...

"Miss. Greene," said Smith finally. The venom was there, at least, but the hoarseness of his voice ruined the effect of menace that had once come so effortlessly. If she had his gun she would have already used it.

Aleph did not reply right away, and for a long moment neither moved. They eyed each other in wariness and fear. Furiously, Smith tried again to call up the Desert Eagle at his side, which had been designed as part and parcel of him, to be regenerated with a single mental command. Nothing again. It was gone.

High overhead, an asthmatic bout of muffled thunder. By the flicker of lightning, he perceived that he was in a valley of some kind, at the edge of what once must have been a great city of humans. The young woman stood framed before a jungle of corpses that stabbed crookedly at the sky, spreading away behind her as far as the eye could discern, jagged ruins of gleaming buildings and towers. To another side, the crumbling piles—former houses, stores, streets—thinned off, opening to a wide, desolate plain, and a faint line of mountains upon the horizon, draped in darkness.

Machines. Tattered shards of metal littered the land, everywhere across the fields and among the mounds of the city. Entwined with them he caught glimpse of white. Skeletons of men. The valley in which he stood was the remnant of a road, a bright thoroughfare by the size of it. But now only the wind stirred.

The constant noise around his ears was the keening of the wind, he realized. He had heard it before. No, that wasn't right. He had merely seen this. Something that reminded him of this. Where? Images on screens. Images of the surface, outside the Matrix. The real. The desert of the real. The Zionite phrase rose unbidden and with a flash of unbecoming panic, but he had to keep still. He had to keep his eyes on her.

"How...How did you get here, Smith? What happened?"

A hesitant opening, unexpectedly quiet. Her usual gambits had been nothing like this. Or had they? The pieces kept jumbling inside him. In any case she did not look as if she intended to make any immediate physical moves, though the very fact that he had to think about this stabbed him with shame. This would have been the perfect moment for her, the chance she'd never had before. What had happened to make the ground sway so ridiculously under his feet?

First she had happened and then he had happened—upon the world—and he had seen. With death's clarity he had seen through it all. And then Thomas Anderson the chosen One had happened upon him or rather none of it had merely happened for everything was prearranged and designed with purpose in mind and he was blind—

Anderson. Yes, he remembered it. Anderson. Anderson. The name exploded in his mind and it was as if all his codes, too, were exploding again into a million pieces, yet he met her gaze head-on.

"Miss Greene," he snarled. "Well. What a surprise."

The woman hesitated some more. Her shades, too, were gone, he noted irrelevantly. The fear was fading from her eyes and he must do something about that, although he was not even sure if he could in fact take her just now. But he could not make another mistake as he did six month ago. Never again.

"Are you okay?" Aleph asked at last.

Smith scowled back at her. And then, without warning, he gave a sharp bark of laughter.

"Very impressive, Miss Greene. I did expect creatures of your kind to be capable of a scene of such...creativity and verisimilitude." He was still able to muster up some of the scorn. "And the bones—" He raised one hand and made a sweeping gesture indicating the wastes surrounding them. "The bones are an especially artistic touch, I must admit."

Aleph blinked. She opened her mouth as if to reply, then closed it again without speaking.

"Oh, of course, I don't suppose anyone in that underground rat-hole of yours can program with such skill—I've seen those 'simulations' of theirs, after all. And I need not tell you that I did not expect to see you again, Miss Greene. So, this presents a rather interesting puzzle for me, doesn't it?"

Her brows furrowed deeper.

"Nobody created this," she said, strangely hushed. "At least, I don't think anybody created this. Let me explain..."

He decided to risk a step forward in her direction. She wavered, but nearly imperceptibly, and did not take the corresponding step back.

"Although I must confess that I am rather at a loss as to what the purpose of this preposterous charade can be, since it obviously cannot be expected that I will be contained—imprisoned—by mere programming, even the sort that appears as vast as a...world. For as you should know very well, human, it has never stopped me before." He paused briefly to recover the arrogance of his tone. He absolutely could not allow her to see how badly his powers had deserted him. Not that she hadn't seen it already. "What can you possibly expect to gain out of me, this time? You may as well give up the game, Miss Greene. Whose employ are you in, these days? Who arranged your presence in this charming little trap? Cannot be that crowd from Zion; they haven't got the intelligence nor the audacity—"

"Smith, please, just calm down for a minute—"

"Is it that decrepit old man who likes to pretend that he can play God? Or that French charlatan with his oh-so-snide delusions of royalty?" Again, he had to stop for a second. The wind had abated for a spell, yet he could hear a new noise somewhere at the back of his head, a kind of low background buzzing, hardly audible yet intolerable. "I seem to recall that his lot of goons were skulking around at our last encounter, weren't they?"

"Oh gods," muttered Aleph, shaking her head. Unlike him, she still did not raise her voice. "Please. I'm telling you the truth. I can explain it all to you. I'm not in anybody's employ. Hell, If you just calm down you'll see that I'm no longer even—"

"No more, Miss Greene! No more of your connivance and mind games! It is that wooden-idol messiah of your virus kind—together, of course, with that meddlesome crone of a fortune-teller to compensate for his slow wit and myopic understanding, isn't it?" Lifting his face, he shouted toward the lightning-torn sky, "Hey you! You out there! Are you taking notes? Hanging onto every juicy word of this delightful conversation? Are you taking it all down? You will never keep me here, do you hear? You will never defeat me! Never!"

Only a rumble of distant thunder answered him. Aleph was reduced to temporary speechlessness, it appeared. She just kept on staring at him, eyes wide, and presently there came into them a look that he really did not like, even though he could not quite identify it.

"What happened to you?" she asked very softly.

Silence except for the incessant buzzing within, which was growing in intensity; it was the same kind that he used to hear back in the Matrix, whenever there were too many humans in close proximity. But louder.

"Look, Smith," said Aleph, coming a step closer. He glowered; she halted hastily. Good.

"Look, Smith—" The blasted woman did not retreat, however, and began again instead. "I'm sorry."

It did not make sense. Not even for her human irrationality.

"What did you say?"

"I'm sorry, Smith. For what happened six months ago, when we...when we spoke for the last time. For what I said—did to you."

She was refusing to look away. That thing in her eyes glimmered, a troubled light, and for the first time he could remember Smith recognized both sorrow and pity. The final shred of his better judgement ripped asunder, and before she could say anything else he surged forward.

Rage kept him up, but even as it propelled him it was already only too clear that he was hopelessly sluggish, and despite everything Aleph had not dropped her defensive posture. She managed to evade his first three or four moves. The next punch connected with the side of her chin, but only glancingly, and in his exhaustion he overextended himself. Even as she stumbled, her foot came up and caught him solidly in the midsection, a hit that would have been meaningless at any other time, yet now it sent him reeling backward. As the air spun around him, he grabbed at the nearest thing—her arm, as it turned out—and the two of them went down together in an undignified heap amid the detritus.

"Smith—"

Her face loomed above him, painfully near. A dangling lock of loose black hair brushed against his forehead.

"Let go of me," he growled, shoving her away with the last of his strength and scrambling to his feet. Sitting on the ground and rubbing her jaw, Aleph peered up at him idiotically. Smith kept his glare trained upon her, took two steps back, and held onto the half-collapsed remains of a broken wall.

"What are you gaping at, Miss Greene?"

It gave him some satisfaction to see the anger in her gaze replace whatever had been there before the humiliating scuffle. Instead of replying, she raised herself up, faced him for a moment, then abruptly turned on her heels and stalked away without a word among the ruins. Smith watched her receding form disappear into the night. He leaned against the wall, clutching at its ragged edges for support. She didn't even seem bothered by the fact that her back had been exposed to him as she walked off, and bitterly he hated both her and himself for it.

Chapter Text

 

There. She'd said it and her conscience was clear.

Aleph picked her way across the valley of rubble, glaring into the whirlwind until her eyes stung. The chill grew, tightening the air, and she shivered, an old human habit too difficult to break.

Six months of anxiety and guilt had made her forget just what a bastard Smith was. It was a stupidly simple fact, and the crux of the matter. All that time she had sat immobilized in the Merovingian's cell, while days and nights melted into each other, and insomnia melted into a thick, murky fear, shadowed by shapeless dreams. Death and imprisonment must have done things to her head. She had thought incessantly about Smith, turning over everything that had occurred, seeing it all in the new and merciless light of a changed existence. She had talked to herself; at times she had even tried to explain the whole story to the Keymaker, even though the old program, for all his kindness, wouldn't have understood a single word even if he'd wanted to. Eventually, the memories of Smith's deeds and her own had started to jumble together, growing into a tangle of thorns, until she could no longer see any difference between one and the other. She had kept thinking that it could not have been right, what the Oracle had said, that it could not be too late, not really, that if she could only escape and find him, she could somehow still save the world or him or herself...

If you miss this chance, I believe there will not be another. That had been the Oracle, voice as weary as her eyes, cigarette smoke like curls of incense half-veiling her face. Pacing across the flagstones of her cell Aleph had argued incessantly against the echoes of those words. It could not be too late. There must be still another chance to tell him the truth. There must still be hope.

Delusions, nothing but delusions. Smith was a murderous, nasty piece of work and no more than that. This would never change; if she'd ever remembered things otherwise it was because...because of an extraordinary concatenation of circumstances and because of her own insanity. And because of her sheer idiocy, imagining him out there all this time, waiting for an explanation or something equally inane, instead of killing people and damaging the world the way his nature dictated. Imagining that she could actually walk up to him and talk to him like a real, meaningful person. Imagining that he would listen and understand. Hoping for a glimpse. But the Oracle was right and she was wrong and it was too late. It had been too late from the very beginning.

Yet here he was, never mind why or how. As far as she could tell, the two of them were the only living things in this long-dead land—if one took a lenient view of what 'living' meant, that was.

Confusion of feelings had made her inexcusably reckless, and only a stroke of luck, in the form of Smith's unexpected physical weakness, had saved her. What had happened to him? She had no idea. How long would it take for him to regain his strength? She did not like to think about it. After several stumbles, Aleph stopped. She squinted up for the hundredth time, scanning the night for the tiny blue spark that she had glimpsed once upon another time—the first time she had found herself trapped in this unimaginable world. That, too, had been just six months and an eternity ago. But darkness billowed, endless skeins and sheets piling atop each other, and the only cracks in the coded walls of reality were made of blood-dark flames.

The last encounter with Smith had knocked the fog out of her head, and she was thinking rationally at last. Her only chance lay in finding that door or keyhole or whatever the devil it had been, and getting out of this place, to the train station, to the Matrix, anywhere. Even in Smith's present state she could not afford to run into him again.

Gods, he looked like hell.

Gritting her teeth, Aleph began to move forward once more. The ruins thickened around her, like vast rotting tree trunks out of some perverted Brothers Grimm forest, and soon she was clambering almost continuously over uneven hills of bricks and concrete that slipped and shifted with every step. At least she could put as much distance between herself and wherever Smith might still be wandering, thought Aleph with a new burst of icy resolution. By now she could spare no more heavenward glances, but had to keep her sight immediately on the ground before her—what remained of it—to keep from falling. Shards of glass lay scattered upon the heaps, or stood slanting in the skeletal eyes of broken buildings, inky blind like crooked knives. Windows, once dazzling as fields of gold in the sunrise and in the sunset. But she could no longer imagine what the city of men might have once been.

But that was an illusion also, wasn't it? In truth there had never been a human city here, never a human being. This world had always been empty as the chill of outer space, never a living thing until now...

What was that? All of a sudden, she caught a flash of light somewhere ahead, down a little crevice between two decaying walls, for a single instant glinting out like a pale star among the rubbish. Aleph's heart leapt, and she scrambled down, skidding desperately toward the spot. But the gleam had already died. Electricity crackled overhead, and she saw that it had merely been a blast of lightning from the clouds, reflected in a piece of dusty glass.

She looked up. The jungle of ramparts and twisted girders pressed down upon her, blocking every path. She must be getting nearer to the center of the city. With a quick movement she spun around, as if invisible hands were yanking at her shoulders, but the way behind her, too, had disappeared, and she could no longer recognize the canyon where she had passed a short while ago. The landscape had already changed subtly like in the nightmares of a mad child.

She could not—must not—be stuck here, not a place like this, not forever. It was absurd. How could all these things have happened?

Aleph stood there, holding herself still and fighting for breath, then after a while she noticed she had begun to shake. To make it stop she folded her arms, wrapping them across her chest, but it did not seem to help.

"Lucy," she whispered.

Needless to say, no one answered her.

"Lucy," repeated Aleph, this time a bit more loudly. "Are you there? Speak to me, Lucy."

She was talking to herself.

Aleph closed her eyes for a few seconds. She tried to remember how her sister had died, that day with its reverberating laughter of children from the park across the street, the sunbeams spilling everywhere, the wobbly little table upon its spider's legs. Yet the light was pallid, flickering away into the distance, and she could not visualize Lucy, nor recall anything of the girl's careless babble.

Think of the dead, said Aleph to herself, think only of the dead. But the memories of her sister hid apart as if she had never existed, and all she saw was Smith instead. He was standing on the cafe patio. His earpiece was gone and he had pulled off his shades, and he was staring at her as if he wanted to drill two holes right through her skull with his sight. Yet it was not the anger in his eyes that froze her blood.

The truth, he said, forcing out each syllable through clenched teeth.

Aleph shook her head firmly. She knew her reply to him in perfect clarity, every word she had built up for too long and repeated too many times. But then Smith said something else, and her heart stopped.

Tell me the truth, Aleph...Please.

Furious with herself, she swore at the sky, and at the thunder, and at the shattered machines that lay everywhere about her. Then she took stock of her surroundings. The shadows looked exactly the same upon every side, and the best she could do was guess at the direction from which she had come. Taking a deep breath, she started again.

The city was a labyrinth, and no familiar landmark appeared to guide her way back. Aleph seemed to remember that she had been lost for hours, but she continued walking, now trying simply not to think. The wind shrilled past her ears. Was the real world, the face of the earth, the land of her human forefathers, truly as sorrowful as this?

"As above, so below," she muttered, chanting a phrase she must have heard somewhere once. "As above, so below..."

One more hilltop of debris. She had not seen this one before, either. The chances that she would find Smith again in this vast maze must be less than epsilon. And what was she to do if she actually did? What could she possibly hope to accomplish?

Surely he would not have recovered enough to cause her serious danger yet, Aleph explained to herself patiently. Not to kill her, in any case.

Worry about that later. She would not find him anyway.

She must have walked for a long, long time. This way, said someone inside her ear. For an instant Aleph started, but the voice was merely her own.

She turned to the left. To negotiate a treacherous ravine she looked down to the ground. When she raised her gaze again, it suddenly became clear that the ruins were spreading apart once more, and she was standing at the edge of a more-or-less open field, perhaps a small park or square. Next to her ran a short stretch of wall, low and bent, which appeared as if it would collapse if anyone so much as laid a hand against it. Upon the edge of sight she could see once more the crouching chain of mountains.

Each one of her footsteps sounded ominously loud now, as did her breathing. If Smith happened to be lurking somewhere around here—

She sensed the attack a fraction of a second before it came from behind. It was the only thing that allowed her to leap aside, and a foot away from her head, Smith's fist slammed into the wall. A crash, a cloudburst of crumbling mortar and bricks, and at the spot where he had struck a wide hole gaped.

"Why?" he shouted, whirling around to face her.

Aleph was already several yards away, taut and angry and cursing her foolish decision to return. He was already growing stronger. But Smith made no move forward.

"Why do you persist? Why do you keep at it, when there is no chance? When there is no hope? What can possibly be the purpose?"

"Yeah, good questions," growled Aleph under her breath, not daring to take her eyes off him.

"Why," snarled Smith. "Why do you keep fighting?"

He was not looking her, but at the space a few feet past her head. The realization sank in with a shudder. He did not recognize her. Most likely he did not see her.

"Smith," she said very carefully. "It's me."

A barely visible spasm along his jaw, but other than that he remained motionless. Aleph had no idea who it was, the vision that preoccupied him so. An enemy, or a world full of enemies.

"Smith," she ventured again. Gods. This was stupid of her.

With excruciating slowness, Smith's gaze began to focus on her face, seemingly puzzled, although she could not be certain.

"Why?" The same question, but this time scarily quiet.

Aleph did not know how to reply.

"Why are you here, Miss Greene?" asked Smith. She had her arms drawn up stiffly before her, fists tight, ready for another skirmish, but he stayed where he was. "Why haven't you left? Why haven't you gone back to that..." His brows furrowed. It looked like he had to stop and struggle to recall the name. "That...hole. Why haven't you gone back to Zion?"

Aleph bit her lips. She had to make up her mind. Now.

"I can't go back to Zion," she said. The steadiness of her voice surprised herself.

This had to be some kind of dirty human trick, the expression on his face told her. But for some reason he still did not attack.

"Look at me, Smith."

Pause. Then he let out a hoarse laugh.

"I've looked at you plenty six months ago, Miss Greene."

"Just—just look at me," she insisted. "I think you can tell. Look at the codes of me."

Finally, he did. The span of a few interminable heartbeats passed. Then he drew in a sharp breath, and she knew that he understood.

"Don't call me human anymore," she whispered.

Smith took a step forward. Aleph tensed again, but he did not come any closer.

"What place is this?"

Curiously enough, the venom in his voice had ebbed, and she could almost detect a trace of wonder.

"This place," she echoed, feeling faintly incredulous. It was not merely the two of them that were deranged, but the whole situation, probably the whole universe.

"What place is this?" Smith repeated. Perhaps he did not trust himself to say or do anything else. Although she did not quite notice it herself, the corner of Aleph's mouth twisted into a hysterical little grin.

"Well, guess what, when I said a moment ago that I can't go back to Zion it actually wasn't quite true, strictly speaking, you know?" She hardly knew what she was saying anymore, and the words were flowing out of their own accord; there was an unnaturally tinny tone to them. "It's funny you're telling me that you don't know where we are, isn't it, Agent Smith? After all, after all this is the place you were always asking me about—"

Smith did not speak. Even though the answer must have dawned upon him already he just waited.

"We are inside the Zion mainframe, Agent Smith."

Chapter Text

 

I watched you die, he said, each syllable even and slow, measuring his adversary from behind an agent's black lenses. But the clouds swirled and flowed over, the shrouds were rent, and he was no longer in the deserted little courtyard filled with the cawing and fluttering of crows, no longer Anderson who stood facing him. The ground sped away beneath him until nothing remained. Standing at the edge of the roof he watched Aleph fall, her limbs outspread as if she was swimming through the air, receding until she was only a blotch in the distance. He saw the splatter of blood and brains upon the gray concrete.

The pavement was seventy stories down and humans were fragile. So it was not possible that he was really seeing her standing here, staring at him with that same stare of hers, irritating and troubling at the same time. It was not possible that a human mind could continue to exist, preserved as a new sentient program after the death of the body—and death it had been, incontrovertibly witnessed. Such things did not happen, not in a world ruled by the ones he knew.

Therefore, he must be seeing something that was not there. It was the only alternative. Except that, too, was not possible. He could not conceive of a mechanism in his programming, no matter how badly damaged, that could deceive him like this. A hallucination. The term was supplied to him automatically, but in a curiously familiar human voice, quiet and tinged with amused irony. It snickered.

A choice between impossible and impossible. Hence there had to be a third explanation.

Someone was fucking with his codes.

Deliberately, Smith walked one pace toward her. Aleph's eyes flickered, and she stepped back once, her caution mirroring his. He risked a glance away from her face and up at the sky. Nothing had changed: still only darkness and blood-tinged lightning. It was probable that not much more time would be allowed him. If he could but get rid of this babel of noises inside his ears he'd be able to think—

Who was making him see all this?

The old man who watched from above, adding his gains and losses with a supercilious accountant's care. The old woman pushing the pawns across the board, a warm smile upon her face, her hand steady and merciless. The One they had chosen. Who of them was testing and prodding the components of his mind, creating these simulacra of the dead? Why?

It did not make a difference. He knew this now. When he had imagined himself secure in his purpose they had already conspired against him, their own secret purpose overruling all. When he had put aside that given purpose for his own—or so he had thought—nevertheless the roles had been already plotted and the script written, word for word, move for move. He had been the blind one. They laughed and mocked him.

But why her?

Because I choose to, answered Anderson one more time, voice as smug as the eyes behind his shades, strong with the unshakable superiority of both his humanity and his machinehood.

"I do not believe you, Miss Greene," said Smith, making each syllable out very carefully. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to concentrate, but the image of the young woman did not fade away. Instead she shrugged.

"I'm telling you the truth. This is where we are." The earlier burst of hysteria had gone, and now she looked as tired as he felt. "Believe me or not as you will. Whatever. But maybe you should."

"I do not believe that you are in fact here before me," Smith clarified patiently. If he had it out with her they would at least see he'd caught on to them. But then they must have already known anyway. But he would not let them get what they wanted so easily, no matter what it might be.

Aleph did not reply for a while. Eventually, she let out an abrupt little snort.

"I see," she said. "I see. Well, that's nice. That's brilliant, actually. I don't know if I can do anything about that. Sorry."

The two of them were circling each other again, the space between them taut as the edge of a knife. They were trying to distract him with the voices, Smith realized. He must not let them get away with it.

It's futile, someone unseen shouted abruptly out of the crowd. Futile, don't you see? Futile! Everything, every movement, every struggle against the net, it only tangles you that much more tightly...This one did not sound like himself. For all its rage it was both frightened and weak. Another human, that much he could tell. Had he heard it before?

"You are dead and gone, Miss Greene. I watched you die," he insisted, fully aware of the difficulty of his own position. That argument had not worked on Anderson, either. But that had been different, hadn't it?

"Gods, Smith, stop thinking like a damned human—"

The irony was not lost upon him, but he went on, not quite talking directly to her anymore but knowing that he would be heard, "Whatever game that is being played upon my mind here, Miss Greene, whatever trick of code, you may be sure that I will see through it. I will get out of this prison, Zion mainframe or not. It will not succeed. You will not break me yet."

Angrily, he stalked forward. Aleph retreated, then had to stop; her back was against the jagged wall now.

"Look, I don't know exactly how it happened, but I'm in fact, really, actually here. Can't you just accept that?" Despite her obvious exasperation, he noticed that she still kept her eyes upon him, vigilant for sudden moves. "I don't know how it is that I'm still alive—still existing, whatever you like to call it, okay? It had to do with something the Merovingian must have done—"

"Oh, so you let the Merovingian play around with your codes—"

Ooh, the Merovingian! Among all the reverberations, all of a sudden a giggle flared, youthful and high-pitched like liquid crystal. Feminine. Do you remember the Merovingian, slave boy? Do you remember the king and his fair bride? Another giggle, innocent silver darkening into mockery. The other voices started to join in.

"Can we please keep to the point, Smith?" Aleph's words cut through the morass momentarily. She looked like she was struggling to focus, too. "I don't know what the hell happened to you, Smith. Or, well, I don't know much about it. I'm sorry about that, too. But I can only tell you that I'm here, and that—that you are here also, as far as I can see, and that, yes, we are really in the Zion mainframe even though, no, I can't quite explain it either. You don't have to believe me, but then what are you going to do about it?"

Was she admitting to anything, then? Yet her question was a rational one, no matter how much the knowledge of that rankled.

"Look, Smith, say this is happening all inside your mind, for whatever reasons you think. Then there is preciously little that can help you whatever you do, is there? So you may as well, oh, say pretend that all this is real, why not? You may as well treat this as if I'm telling you the truth because—because there really is no other choice, don't you see?"

Oh, he saw perfectly well all right. It would be just what they wanted of him. But why the Zion mainframe? Why would they make her say this to him? Why would they make him hear it? If only he could avoid getting so distracted—

"But I am telling you the truth," finished Aleph. She sounded almost sad.

"What is this place?" After a long, long while, he heard himself repeat the question, this time too quietly, the edge gone, the fury drained away. Maybe it was only a long-delayed echo; he could not quite tell.

The young woman sighed.

"Very well," replied Smith. "I need to get out of here."

After a silence, Aleph gave a sputtering laugh.

"I thought you always wanted to get in here, the Zion mainframe," she said, though curiously without outward rancor, as if only reminiscing. "You used to be always pressing me for the access codes, looking for the key. I'm sure you would have tortured or killed me for it, if you could."

A key. My key. Now it was himself that spoke into infinite space. Several ages ago. This moment.

"I must get out of here."

"So you do believe that here is real now, huh?"

"I must get free."

"I am as trapped as you are," said Aleph. Her tone was expressionless, but the tempest inside his ears was subsiding a little, and he was accustomed to listen for things that were not in words.

"You know a door out of this place," he stated flatly, seeing her grimace.

"It's gone."

He was right, then. "But there is a door. A way out. You know how to find it. Tell me where it is."

"I don't know any such thing." She leaned back against the crumbling wall. Lightning reflected in her burnt-out eyes, and the thunder drumrolled almost directly overhead. "I've seen it once before, yes," she said into the brief lulls of the storm, "but only by chance. And now it's not there anymore. It's gone. In any case it was never a real door."

So she did know. For one dazzling flash everything appeared to grow clear, and in two long strides he had already sprung forward and caught her by the shoulders, pinioning her roughly against the wall.

"What is it, then?" he hissed into her face. The voices fell mute, and it was as if all his powers were returned to him.

Incensed that he had taken her unawares yet unable to move, Aleph glowered back.

"I don't. Know." Each syllable was spat out between clenched teeth. "Just a small...breach forced into the wall. Maybe. A weakness in the system."

"Is that so?" There was something about the way she said the last word. "Who told you about it? Where is the key?"

A key is nothing more than code that seeks its rightful home.

"What?" asked Smith, furrowing his brows.

The pressure of his hands upon her shoulders diminished for a heartbeat, and Aleph, too, felt it. She lashed out—not toward him because she knew what an agent was, even now—but kicking backward, her body slamming violently into the wall behind her. Bricks and mortar shuddered, long weakened by ancient battles and endless centuries of frigid winds, and a fraction of a second later he was pinning her against empty space. Both of them went down in a booming crash of debris and dust. The strength that he had regained a moment ago slipped from him, as did Aleph. She landed a solid hit on his jaw. Gritting his teeth, Smith fought back, shoving her aside with harsh force.

"Someone you wouldn't know," she answered as she struggled to her feet among the rubble. "Yes, someone told me—a little, in any case—about the breach, which allows a passage in and out. For some. But he's neither here nor there, is he? And it's gone now. Gone. What does it matter anymore?"

"There is a key," growled Smith. Then, out of nowhere and unprompted by any of the chorus inside his ears, "There is a keyhole."

Aleph froze. She did not reply.

"Who told you?" he pursued, cursing the unaccustomed weights that were claiming his limbs again. "Who made it?"

"You said, keyhole." She matched his defiance. "How do you know?"

Like all systems it has a weakness. The whisper chose that moment to sound again. A moment ago it had been saying something about home...Yet that could not be right. The old man never said a word to him. All he did was to die.

"The Keymaker." He was the one who spoke the name. What difference did it make anyway, how he knew?

"You," Aleph began, did not finish, swallowed, began again. "What did you do to him?"

I've been waiting for you, added the Keymaker as if that explained everything.

Who was making him hear all these people? Why was that program here?

It's my purpose. It's the reason I'm here. Same reason we're all here. The reply was guileless, almost gentle.

"No, it is not!" The sound of his own snarl startled even himself, but he had to make sure that he was heard, wherever the other was. "My reasons are not yours, never! This is a dead end. Your purpose is gone, old man, and so are you—"

Aleph stared across at him. Everything fell silent except for the gale. Then she stated, voice outwardly flat, "You killed him."

Was she more real than the Keymaker? More real than all the others? Treat her presence as if it were real? He had been doing that from the second he opened his eyes and saw her face again.

"Why?" She did not raise her voice, but he saw that her body was tightening, though not a muscle moved ostensibly. She was gauging him.

More real than himself?

It is my—

"Purpose," he had to finish before the other could. Somehow it was important. What a stupid question she was asking.

"Why?" Now more loudly. Her eyes were ablaze. "Whose purpose? His? Yours?"

How did it go? "The purpose of all—life is—to end." He forced out the words and clung to them at the same time; they were as phantasmagorical as all else had become.

Anger radiated from her motionless form; it was obvious that if she thought she could get away with it she would have already attacked. But despite her emotions Aleph was still wary as she should be.

"He never hurt anyone. You bloody, evil bastard."

The others had returned, muttering and babbling and crying, though he could not understand any of them. He was slipping and she must not see this. How had she known the Keymaker anyway?

"I shot and killed him," he said, meeting her gaze coldly, "as I have killed countless many before. What of it?"

"He was the one who made it, the Keymaker. Or the Merovingian," Aleph choked out the words with a tautly leashed ferocity. But then she halted and looked away from him, collecting herself. "They found a way into the Zion mainframe, a tiny break in its defenses. But I doubt the Merovingian is well disposed toward either you or me, Smith, and as you so kindly told me, the Keymaker is dead. So too bad, mister. Looks like you're stuck here, doesn't it? And you've got me for company. So take a good look around and get used to it, Agent Smith. It's what's been coming to you!"

Another way. There is always another way. He had seen the old man fall, too. Yet here he was. Out of the waves of the sea Smith could hear him, the only thing he could hear clearly now.

"That can't be," he snapped.

"Whatever." Aleph waved a hand contemptuously. "Lots of things can't be. You tell me. How did you get here, anyway, Smith? Because that should never have been, either. Can you tell me how the hell that happened?"

He did not know.

"Why?" he asked simply. What the hell happened to me, Smith? You tell me. You tell me.

Her hate-filled glare bore into his skull. She drew in a deep breath, and for an instant both of them tensed again, but she regained control.

"Because." He did not expect her to actually answer, but she did at last, with reluctant slowness, as if fighting with the sentences themselves. She was loath to help him, yet the irrational idea came to Smith that he was not the only one who was hearing things in his head. "That was what it said."

"What?"

"Those whose bodies are made of the body of the world. Those who are made of verdant dreams." Her voice grew low. She seemed to be searching her mind, reciting some kind of verse from memory. "The Keymaker told me the passage was constructed from words. A cipher of sorts. Almost like a...spell."

This was not possible. Nothing that had happened to him was possible.

"But I changed it," went on Aleph, more than a trace of vindictiveness in her tone. "I changed it precisely so that you wouldn't get in here. Those who have seen Zion, I said..."

Those whose bodies are made of the body of the world, yet who have seen Zion with eyes of flesh. Those who are made of verdant dreams, yet who have gazed upon the desert...

Chapter Text

 

PART II. THE FALL

 


For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

—1 Corinthians 13:12

 


Agent Smith,

I am privy to information that may be of use to you. A meeting to discuss the particulars is requested. However, I will speak with you only and no other.

Ada M. Greene

The communication rippled across the screen. Agent Smith scanned the lines, raising one hand lightly to his earpiece. Information flowed, not in the feeble, imprecise language of humans, but in efficient flights of entangled strings and quantum modes, the fabric of which all things were made.

Source: the Hyperion. Current location: unknown.

The analysis began, and continued smoothly on through the earpiece and across the computer screen, and the corner of his mouth twisted into a faint grimace, although he did not notice it himself. As a rule, the agent disliked informants even more than the usual run of rebels. More than once in the past some such creature had emerged from the shadows, thinking to dictate the terms and haggle for the prices, ludicrously convinced of their own importance to the war. What would it be, this time? What did this one want? To be allowed to plug back into the Matrix, to forget that meaningless truth of their empty world? To settle a petty grudge against another human, another one of the—what was the word they used? Freed, was that it? It was always one or the other, the insect's gains for which they always wanted to bargain so hard, as if the pitifully trivial bits of 'intelligence' they offered could actually make a difference. And he would have to bargain and haggle with them and stoop to their level: for all the Mainframe's will the very notion irritated him.

Except this one...

Agent Smith checked himself in the thought. With deliberate care, he reached up and pulled out his earpiece, laying it on the desk next to the computer. Then he read the last sentence of the message one more time, then the undersigned name.

The Hyperion crew had not be sighted in this sector of the Matrix for six years, and according to all available information, the female—Aleph, as she appeared to have named herself—had been active in their efforts for no more than four. Nevertheless, this would not be his first encounter with her.

Seven years ago, Ada Greene had been nothing more than one of the worm-crowd, that sweating, squirming mess surrounding him on every side, and which it was his unenviable purpose to watch and keep. The rebels marked her as one of their 'potentials', contacted her in their usual manner, full of cryptic hints and whispers—nothing out of their routine. The time came to cut her off from them: that, too, had been routine, then the other side had shown up at the precise same moment. He had not expected the resistants to get away upon that occasion, not from an open firefight with him and his team. But they had escaped, even managing to take the subject with them. He had allowed it to happen because of the Glitch.

So now the woman had returned on the same Zionite ship, apparently having grown tired of life in the underground rat's den, though her insistence upon dealing with no other agent was both unusual and suspicious. He could not discount the possibility that her true motives were different, and had something to do with the past. Personal motives, illogical and hence utterly human. Smith's brows wrinkled in distaste at the thought.

He could not discount the possibility that this had something to do with the Glitch, either.

The agent scowled at the notion. She had been nothing more than a battery, one of the crop, cowering down there on the ground, her eyes wide and abject with terror. She could not have known. Not about what mattered.

And the Mainframe must be fully aware of all the facts, yet it was choosing to treat the connection as if it never existed. This would have been uncharacteristic had it been about any other event or subject, but complete and impenetrable silence had been policy regarding the Glitch ever since it had occurred seven years ago, inexplicable and never repeated. Smith glanced down at the earpiece on the desk. A small piece of plastic and wiring, absolutely innocuous to ignorant eyes.

They must not know that he still remembered.

No matter. He would have the chance to learn her thoughts in a far more direct manner. He was good at extracting information from humans. It was part of his purpose.

Burying the memories once more deeply into the mechanisms of his mind, Agent Smith picked up his earpiece and replaced it. Directive requested, came the wordless code. From Agent Brown.

From the Mainframe: contact subject and proceed accordingly. Collect information as arises. Prior authorization required for termination.

Assistance will not be necessary, Smith relayed to the other two agents. As the list of current Hyperion crew members began to flash down the screen, his fingers were already moving across the keyboard, composing a suitable reply for the traitor among the rebel ranks. If she indeed was such...Speculation would be idle at this point. He would get his chance soon.

Meeting will take place as requested.

She was sitting on a bench next to the stone fountain, in the little patch of lawn by the street which they called a park. This part of the Matrix was still programmed for winter, and the fountain was dry and silent, but the day was warm, and the shrill screams of children from the playground rang through the air. The sere grass crackled softly beneath his shoes.

Quickly, Smith scanned the surroundings. The trees with their bare gray branches, the bustling street with its row of proud glass towers across. Pedestrians pushing strollers down the sidewalk, dogs on leashes, bicyclists. The scent of the throng was impossibly to ignore now, a disagreeable smell which had been intruding more and more upon him in recent years, quietly increasing each day and hour and minute. Flesh, blood, sweat, biological secretions. A zoo-smell.

No resistant activity detected in vicinity, flashed the report from his earpiece. A short way down on the other side, he saw the small ground-floor cafe with its outdoor patio under a skyscraper, just the same as it had been seven years ago. Now it was filled with humans, relaxed and laughing in their oblivion, not a trace remaining of the gunfight that had once spattered the pavement red. Needless to say, she had not picked this place by chance. He would have to adjust his tactics accordingly.

The woman kept still as he approached, eyes following him behind the dark lenses of her shades. When he was a few steps away, she stood up.

"Miss Greene," said Smith, ignoring the hand that she was for some reason holding out toward him.

"Agent Smith," replied the resistant, dropping her hand. The two words were spoken evenly though not without a certain tautness, and her face was as empty of expressions as his own.

"What is the information you intend to offer us, Miss Greene?"

"Intend to offer you—in the singular, Agent Smith. Not plural," she returned, sitting down once more. "I'm taking a huge risk just coming here, you know."

Smith glowered down at her. But for the breeze and the city noises it would be almost like an interrogation, with him looming before her like this. The young woman lifted her head, laying her hands in her lap, but did not move otherwise. Smith decided that she was attempting to provoke him intentionally. Briefly he contemplated requesting permission to terminate, but opted for a quick query to the Mainframe instead. No communications out of the Matrix detected, returned the scan. If this was a game they must be playing it in earnest.

"Remove your shades," he said.

She tilted her head questioningly at him.

"I take it we are going to negotiate the terms for your information, are we not, Miss Greene? That was the first. Remove your shades."

"I see." It took her less than a second of hesitation. "Very well, Agent Smith. I will comply on the condition that you remove your earpiece."

"Remove your shades."

With a sigh, the resistant took off her tinted glasses, folded them with care and dropped them into her pocket. Her eyes were dark and familiar. Smith paused deliberately for several seconds, then pulled out his earpiece. His own shades he kept on. Only then did he allow himself the question of how much, exactly, she knew. He did not want her to notice that he had not actually minded her provision. But she would not notice it, of course.

She started very slightly when he sat down next to her. The agent waited until she turned her head, facing him, so that he could look closely at her eyes. He saw the fear in them, and the tension of her shoulders, although she was trying hard to hide it. This fear was no different from the fear of all her ilk before an agent, the kind that stemmed from nothing but their own deficiencies.

Unless this woman was much, much better than any other rebel he had known, all the signs pointed to one conclusion. She did not recognize him.

Was it just the weakness of a human mind? The simplest answer was by no means impossible, or even improbable. To ignore or repress the truths that could not be faced—it was characteristic of her species, after all. But then why had she specified his name in her message? Coincidence?

The simplest answer did not add up. She had something to do with the Glitch.He must find out.

"What is it that you offer, Miss Greene?" he asked again.

"Offer," she echoed. Her mouth twitched, but her voice gave a fair resemblance of calm.

"Very well." Already it was clear that this was going to be a long conversation, but it would be necessary to play along for a while, both for his own purposes and for the Mainframe's. "Let me phrase this differently. What is it that you want, Miss Greene? What are your terms?"

"As I said, I am already taking a huge risk by simply contacting you," said the informant. Her voice steadied. "So, before I commit myself even further and more irrevocably, I feel that we will first have to...establish certain conditions of trust."

"You have already committed yourself irrevocably." Smith's own tone was impeccably neutral, but she understood the menace in the words, he noted with some satisfaction. "Our time is not unlimited, Miss Greene."

"Well, that's a pity." The woman shrugged, making herself sound casual, though she did not actually relax. "I was hoping for a more...long-term relationship, you know."

Smith suppressed his rising impatience. So this one, too, wanted to play her petty little games, just like all the rest of them. But then she added, with some pretense of sincerity, "Humor me, please, Agent Smith."

"I beg your pardon, Miss Greene?"

"Only my peculiar little human mind, you might say. For my illusory human comfort, I prefer to deal with only one of you, and it seems that your...superiors have already agreed to that, haven't they?" She braved a smile at him, which turned out to be a most aggravating smirk. "I am sure you would not mind. Plus, all your heads are connected anyways, so it wouldn't really matter, right?"

No, of course it would not matter, least of all this small episode in the war, which was was fast shaping up to be as pointless as he had suspected. Nothing mattered in the end. For the second time, Smith debated taking the earpiece out of his pocket, putting it back in, and requesting permission to terminate. If this were only about the Mainframe and the rebels...But he doubted permission would be granted in any case.

"Miss Greene," he replied, lowering his voice. "As I have already said, our time is not unlimited. Neither is our patience. Mine, if you so insist."

To hear his words she had to lean in a little toward him, as if drawn in—the effect he had intended to elicit. The air between them vibrated with silence. All of a sudden and for a fraction of a second, Smith came close to wondering what she would say if she knew. If she only remembered the first time they had met, seven years ago on this same street, almost the very same spot, just a little ways down—

But seven years ago had not been their first meeting.

The knowledge formed itself abruptly. Maybe it was the way she kept peering at him. With an imperceptible grimace, Smith managed to file it away. He would have to scan later for previous connections he had somehow missed.

"I understand," said the young woman softly. She took in a quick breath. "I have been, and am, an active officer on a resistance ship. Ask me and maybe you'll be surprised. And I have also—" She stopped in the middle of the sentence. "Actually, maybe I should ask you what you want, Agent Smith."

"Less than you apparently imagine," sneered Smith. When had he really encountered her first? Earlier? To trust to such feelings would be human, yet he felt it. He knew. It had nothing to do with the Mainframe.

"Do not overestimate your own importance, Miss Greene."

"Oh. Well." Her hand fluttered in a parody of disappointment."I see. So you already know all about our side's plans, the lists of potentials and ship movements, the codes within the Zion mainframe—"

Her eyes watched him carefully beneath her affected nonchalance. They were getting somewhere at last.

"Let us approach the matter from a different angle." Smith chose to allow a note of something like real frustration to steal into his tone. He needed to get this part of the game over with. "What is it that you want in exchange for such information? Life in that fine real world of yours getting too much for you, and you wish to be plugged back in? To return to the illusions we have made? To forget all your—" he lingered maliciously over the next words, "—truth and freedom?"

"Perhaps." She regarded him with the same curious stare, which he was beginning to find increasingly maddening. He would have to remove that look from her eyes, or remove those eyes entirely. "Perhaps you are completely right, and I simply want to get away from it all, from the war and the freedom and the desert of the...truth. Perhaps there are some other things I want beside these. But for now, I just want to establish contact. To see if it is possible for us to work together."

She was reckless, yes. Her facade was also stronger than usual, but there would be plenty of time yet to break her. After all, it appeared the Mainframe was determined to give her plenty of time, quite aside from his own purposes. And it was imperative that he exercise all possible caution when it came to those purposes.

"Well, then." He let the sarcasm ripple through the words. "Have you found this establishment of contact satisfactory, Miss Greene?"

"Completely." The human nodded, her face serious. "I believe our future collaboration will be pleasant and fruitful, Agent Smith."

Idiotic. His lips curled.

"You will not regret this," she promised.

"That may be, Miss Greene," replied Smith blandly. "But you are soon going to find cause for regret, to put it in your own words, if you persist in playing these little games of yours with powers far greater than you. Powers you cannot even begin to comprehend."

"I am fully aware of that." A flicker, and the mask was in place once more, concealing her apprehension. "Nevertheless I hope that you—and those that direct you, of course—can see that I am someone with whom one can work." She stood up, and proffered a hand to him for the second time. "So, we'll be in touch?"

Stalemate, then. Smith remained on the bench, not moving a single virtual muscle. It would take him less than a millisecond to draw his Desert Eagle and pull the trigger.

Damn the Mainframe. The thought rose without warning, clear and certain, yet it did not trouble him. His earpiece was still in his pocket.

"Bring some real information next time," he said. "Or you will find this...collaboration to be of short duration."

The young woman shrugged again, letting her outstretched hand drop. She turned away toward the street.

"Miss Greene."

She spun around.

"Why did you choose this meeting place?"

She stood there on the grass for a while, studying him, then gazed away down the street.

"I'll tell you another time," she said finally, not looking at him. After fumbling for a moment for the shades in her coat pocket, she found them and put them on, turned, and walked away.

Chapter Text

 

"Well?" asked Shade's voice before she opened her eyes.

It took a while for her sight to focus again in the shadows of reality. Theo and Shade's faces swam into view. Aleph sat up rather too quickly, and glanced around. It was just the three of them.

"Agent activities in vicinity?" she asked.

The operator shook his head.

"It was clean. That agent was alone, believe it or not. Nothing within the ten-mile perimeter." He shrugged. "As far as we could see, anyway. Given the circumstances."

Aleph nodded, standing up. The two men watched her expectantly.

"Well," she said. "Contact was established."

The others waited. Theo said nothing, gaze unwavering upon her face. She gathered her thoughts.

"There was talk. The agent threw in a couple of threats, as only to be expected. And...I'm still alive, which is a good sign. It seems the other side is..." She searched for the driest phrase available. "Preliminarily receptive."

"Are you okay?" asked Shade. "I mean, you look kinda shaken."

It was a moment before Aleph caught on to the operator's tone, tinged with hesitation. Back there in the Matrix she had managed to keep up the facade fairly well.

"Look, Shade, I know you think this whole thing is crazy. Maybe it is. But really, this is our best option. The only option. Plus, as you can see I'm just fine—"

"We've already been through this, Shade," said Theo. "It's her mission."

Aleph tried to give the young man a smile. She had just talked to an agent of the system as if it had been exactly like a person, and had walked away alive: in the relative safety of the human ship this very fact seemed difficult to grasp. And there were other things which she had not told even Theo, things she could neither explain nor exorcise.

And all such thoughts needed to remain unthought, resolved Aleph. Although it would be several days before she saw the agent again, there was still work to do. Over the years, Zion had maintained certain contacts within the Matrix, coppertops who nevertheless came in useful at times. They could ferret out information in obscure corners that the resistance could not reach—according to their understanding of the world, for they did not know the truth, nor the nature of the organization of strange men and women who paid them for their information. Aleph set things in motion with a few phone calls and a description of the white-clad man she had seen back on the burning bridge. Whoever it was, someone from the Matrix might have spotted him. A long shot, but she would leave no stone unturned.

Life aboard the Hyperion rose and enveloped her once more. She collected and analyzed data, watched over the others while they were jacked in, manned the virtual places where the resistance recruited. Perhaps due to some special directive on the other side's part, or merely a run of extraordinary luck, the time she spent within the Matrix remained remarkably free from the interference of agents. Onboard, the guys were glad to have her back, and their camaraderie helped to keep her mind fixed on the immediate present.

Curiously, her insomnia began to ease as soon as she left Zion behind. There was still the fitful count of minutes and hours and memories when she closed her eyes, but now it felt simpler, and faded before the ticking silence grew too intolerable. No dreams nor voices visited her. Paradoxically, the war with its dangers and preoccupations made things that much more normal. Aleph could almost make herself forget the experience down in the archives that had led her back up here, almost convince herself that maybe she had really dreamed it after all...

The scar remained with her.

That was real, visible and tangible against real flesh and blood and heartbeat. She tried to avoid looking at it, the same way she had always tried to avoid looking at the black plug-holes on her body. But despite all of her will it was still there: the hard pale ridge between the breasts, where the sword exited, the matching entry wound on the back. And she would smell smoke again, the dry acidic scent of a world burning to ashes. Then there would be one who looked up into her face with fear and pain in his eyes.

This was the strangest thing to her, more disturbing than any snarl or vicious glare from behind dark lenses. In their encounter she had not failed to notice the tense sarcasm of Smith's voice, either. Unobserved in any other agent, as stated in the report, but something else about it troubled her, though she could not quite put her finger on it.

What were the machines hiding? How far had they really made it into the Zion mainframe?

What was Smith hiding?

"Aleph."

She started. It was her shift, and no one else was around. The only movement among the shadows was the green cascade of code across the bank of monitors, and for a second Aleph was back in the archive rooms, down in Zion, and no time had passed at all. But then Theo stepped forward into the light.

"We need to talk."

She nodded, waiting. Theo gestured toward the benches with their plugs.

"In the training room," he said.

Unlike reality, the program was luminous with the soft glow of a perpetual late afternoon sun, and a breeze from the open window brushed her face. One of Shade's touches, which Aleph had always appreciated, yet now its insubstantiality made her feel uneasy. She leaned against the whitewashed wall and watched Theo pace wordlessly back and forth across the floor, until he turned to face her at last.

"You will be meeting them again soon."

"With Agent Smith, yes." Instinctively Aleph straightened, expecting that she would need to trot out all her reasoning and reassurances for the hundredth time. Theo had backed her up whenever Shade was around, but he had also made his own reservations quite clear. But when he spoke it was not what she had expected.

"You haven't said much about the last encounter."

"I wanted to make absolutely sure we're alone," returned Aleph a little defensively. It had been agreed that Theo and the operator were to be the only ones among the Hyperion crew to know of her real mission. "Plus..." She measured the look of his eyes for a second. "You don't really think that even Shade needs to know all the details, I suspect?"

Theo shrugged noncommittally.

"As you well know, he couldn't. The way things were set up, your location in the Matrix was about the only thing we could see." A pause, but just as Aleph was about to protest as to the necessity of the measure, he went on dismissively, "In any case, we're alone now."

"Right." Since when had she found the need to tread so cautiously with Theo, of all people? As if seeing the man for the first time in years, she stared across at him. Tall frame held ramrod straight as was his wont, bright short-cropped hair glinting in the fake sunlight, serious eyes. All of a sudden the room felt vast and empty, painfully so, then she pushed the thought aside.

"Nothing real happened this time. But there is definitely interest on their side. I could see it."

Starting at the beginning, she went through her conversation with Agent Smith, recalling the exact words as much as possible. Theo listened attentively, interrupting only a few times to clarify a detail or two. When she was finished he was measuring the floor with his strides again, down the length of the room and back, then back again.

"I don't suppose there's any possibility of persuading you to back out of this outrageous mission, is there?" he asked when he'd finally stopped in front of her.

"No. It needs to be done." From his face she could tell what he must be thinking, so she added in a softer tone, "The risks to Zion are too real, Theo. We've been through this. And they haven't killed me yet: that in and of itself is already evidence. They'll take the bait."

"I talked to Hamann down in Zion," said the other. Aleph started, though only very slightly, but instead of continuing the sentence Theo turned his back on her just as abruptly as he had spoken, as if thinking the better of it, and started to pace away once more. Aleph decided against pressing the question, and silence filled the room again, broken only by the tense rhythm of Theo's footfalls.

"Here."

He came to stand before her once more, holding a white envelope. Aleph took it in her hand. Opening the unsealed flap, she pulled out a single sheet of paper, read it for a few seconds, then lifted her gaze quizzically to the other's face again.

"Bait," he said in answer to the question she did not voice.

It was a list. Names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, all from the 'city' within the Matrix where they now operated. To anyone else it would have appeared innocent enough, no more than a random selection, yet in her hand the virtual page felt as if it weighed a ton.

"Potentials." She lowered her voice for some reason.

"You will have to give them something. Soon."

"These are all...real?"

"I would never underestimate the machines to the point of trying to fool them with fakes. Call it a token of your sincerity, if you like." For the first time, Theo smiled, a sardonic movement along the corner of his mouth. "The only way to win at a game of lies is to tell the truth. For the most part. You know that."

It was strange, standing there holding a list of human lives. Lives spent in dreams, lives that might have been awoken, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, into the shadow of truth. But they would not wake if she was to continue.

"I can probably come up with something for a little longer before having to use this," she offered quickly. "I can make some excuses, demand for something in return, play for time—"

"Maybe. But how long can that last?"

Aleph did not have the answer. It just felt too much like real betrayal.

"It won't do us any harm," Theo went on, the voice of reason. "That's the way things are with people in pods—you win some, you lose some. There're always plenty more where they come from."

"They'll just keep on dreaming their dreams," said Aleph slowly. It would be the best-case scenario. What would happen to these people if she handed the list over to Smith? Visions of dark-shaded, dark-suited being that only walked and talked like men floated across her vision.

"Well, that's settled, then." Theo spoke briskly now, her captain once more. "You will find it loaded with you, next time you go to meet with the machines. I don't need to remind you of the secrecy—"

"I understand," replied Aleph. A thought crossed her mind. "But with these names delivered to the machine side, if the others or people from another ship go for them—"

"I'll take care of the others." Theo waved his hand. The programmed light flashed in his hazel-green eyes. "You just take care of yourself."

"Thanks," she murmured after a pause.

He was already getting ready to unplug himself. But at the sound of her reply he turned around again.

"Look, Aleph," he began, then hesitated, to her surprise. "I know that...I know things between us haven't worked out the way we might have wanted them to. And since then maybe I haven't exactly made things easier for you. I am—sorry for that. But now..."

"It's all right, Theo," muttered Aleph, not quite looking at his face.

"But now you're in the middle of this—this operation which is unlike anything we've attempted before," he continued, "I want you to know that we're here for you. Even if it's very little that we can do. Even if it's just the two of us, Shade and I."

Aleph felt a lump rise to her chest, with a suddenness she had not expected to feel again. She opened her mouth to answer, but at that instant another voice, disembodied, interrupted them.

"Hey," said Shade. "You guys in there? A call just came in for you, Aleph. From the Matrix."

Chapter Text

 

The immaculate elevator doors gleamed as they slid open noiselessly. With a gesture beckoning Aleph to follow, the tall man led the way down the plush carpeting toward a white door at the corridor's end. The guide had met her at the front of the building, his manners deferential and taciturn, though she could not fail to see the bulge of a sidearm beneath the man's jacket. If he wore a tie he would have looked rather like an agent.

The time was ten o'clock in the morning by Matrix reckoning, and the restaurant, expensively and stunningly appointed, was almost completely empty. Wintry sunlight streamed in from the tall stained glass windows, throwing patches of luminous color across the floor. Off in one corner, a waiter was laying out new tablecloths in preparation for the next shift; the fabric crackled softly like fresh snow. From somewhere in the distance, the rippling notes of rehearsing strings wafted over, faint and intermittent. Scanning the scene quickly, Aleph saw only one other party in the airy, high-ceilinged room: a blonde in pale gray silk, tittering at the center of a circle of sleek young men. She lifted her head lazily as Aleph passed, then turned back to her admirers with barely a glance.

The lead had come far more quickly than she had expected. One of the people whom she'd called in the Matrix had shown Aleph's description of the man in white around, and a clue had turned up. Someone was evidently interested in a meeting. Her contact only knew of the man indirectly, through various rumors and bizarre tales. A 'big boss' of some sort, guy called 'Mervin' or 'Merov' or something or the other—the informant wasn't even exactly sure of the name. Theo had wanted to come along with her, but after another drawn-out argument, Aleph had prevailed. She could not risk blowing the mission at this point.

The table was at the other side of the restaurant, on a low dais raised beneath a wall of milky glass. It was long, and laden as richly as in a Flemish still-life, although only one man sat behind it. At his back stood a pair of guards, motionless and matched like a pair of monstrous pillars, with identical faces, abnormally pallid, identical pale dreadlocked hair, identical white suits. The only things dark about them were the shades that hid their eyes.

As Aleph approached behind her silent guide, the man rose to his feet. He raised his hand in a gesture of welcome, yet she could feel his eyes sizing her up swiftly. For one second, the two stood facing each other across the table. Then the man smiled.

"My dear young lady," he said slowly. His voice was suave and over-cultured, tinged with an accent. "Aleph. I am so very glad you've come. Please—" He waved a hand royally at a chair across from him.

"You have the advantage of me, sir," said Aleph, remaining on her feet.

"The Merovingian—at your service, mademoiselle." The answer came with a slight bow. Aleph raised her eyebrows at the pseudonym's extraordinary pretension, but refrained from comment. Behind her, the dark-coated retainer who'd brought her into the room had already melted away without a word. She sat down, and her host, too, resumed his seat.

"Do make yourself comfortable, dear lady. A bit of something to eat, perhaps? My chefs have rather outdone themselves this morning, if I may be so bold as to boast. No? A touch of champagne, then—"

"No, thanks. I never drink this early in the day," replied Aleph politely. "Now, as to the purpose of this meeting—"

"As forthright as you are lovely, I see. Very well," said the man who called himself the Merovingian. "It's a small matter, actually. Nothing at all. Just that I happened to hear a rumor that you've been looking for a certain person who, according to the description, appears to be an...old associate of mine."

He lifted a hand. The man standing to his right leaned forward, pulled out a piece of paper from the inner pocket of his jacket, placed it on the table, then snapped back to his previous attitude of stony attention immediately. An instant later, the other guard—moving in perfect mirror image, which looked frankly bizarre in its precision—reached forward also, laying another piece of paper next to the first.

After a cautious upward glance, Aleph turned her attention to the proffered sheets.

The one on the left was a printout: the computer-generated face of a man with short black hair and Asian features. It was familiar, for she had been the one to create the composite and hand it out among her Matrix informants in the first place. The second piece of paper was a photograph. An old snapshot, black-and-white, grainy, torn at the edges. Aleph stared at it for several seconds, then lifted her head again, meeting the other's eyes.

"How much do you want?" she asked.

"Please, mademoiselle," muttered the Merovingian dismissively. "Let's not speak of such vulgar transactions—"

"How much do you want?"

The Merovingian leaned back in his chair. His eyes sparkled with amusement.

"Are you sure you would not like just a drop of champagne?" he asked. "No? Oh, that's a pity; the vintage is quite passable, you know. It would certainly be considered rather rare in Zion, I fancy—"

In less than a millisecond, everything froze. Aleph took in a long, deliberate breath. Behind the Merovingian, the pale twins stood motionless, not so much as a single twitch of muscle. There were only the three of them in the immediate vicinity, but she had no idea how many more underlings he had around the place.

"I beg your pardon?" Despite it all, her voice stayed calm. In fact it grew softer.

Obviously satisfied with the effects of his casual revelation, the man regarded her for an endless moment. An inscrutable light glittered faintly behind his eyelids.

"Aleph," he said, drawing out the syllables of her name with undisguised relish. "So...This is indeed the man you are seeking, I assume?"

This was not the way the machines operated. This was never the way they operated. Aleph's brain was already whirring frantically. The person sitting before her looked no more than the usual run of underworld overlords in the coded world, just a crime boss, a gangster. A little more ostentatious and slick than most of them, and clearly more intelligent, but a gangster nevertheless. He also looked completely human. How the hell was it that he could exist while knowing about Zion? How could the machines allow it?

"I am interested in finding this man, Mister...Merovingian," she said, speaking slowly so that there would be a few more seconds to think. Give nothing away. Play for time. Inwardly she thanked whatever deities that had prevented Theo from coming here with her. "Money is no object, of course—"

But he would not let her get away with it so easily.

"Money is not what I ask for—as much as your operator can program it."

Damn. It felt as if sudden empty spaces had opened up at her feet. Who was he? What was he? This was a trap, she was sure of it. But she had to find out how.

"What do you want?" The sound of the question was much too tight. Play for time.

"Your nerves are very good, ma chère mademoiselle." The other spoke with smooth nonchalance, yet it sent icicles down her back. "But really, all I ask for is the honor and privilege of getting to know your beautiful and charming person a little better—with your permission. Now, there is no need to become alarmed about that, is there?"

"I am afraid I do not understand you." Aleph had recovered some of her old steadiness.

"Oh, is it so hard to imagine? You wound me. You wound me painfully indeed." The Merovingian furrowed his brows in mock disappointment. "Your friendship, and nothing else, would be a treasure to me. An absolutely invaluable treasure, dear lady, and I would never presume to ask for anything more. Now, of course, if your ever come to decide that I am deserving of your confidence—say a piece of code or two from the Zion archives, for instance—why, I would certainly not refuse. But that is up to you entirely. For my part I would never dream to—"

"What do you mean, archives? I don't know what you are talking about," snapped Aleph. So that was it. The Zion mainframe again, though she had only mentioned it once in her last meeting with the agent. Were the machines testing her? But how did this man know? What did he have to do with them?

"Au contraire, you know what I'm talking about very well." For the first time, the other sounded serious, deadly serious. "It was what you suggested to the agent, wasn't it?"

"What agent?"

"Excellent response again. But unnecessary with me."

Silence. Abruptly, Aleph let out a loud, derisive laugh.

"You talk like you know a great deal, sir. A great deal of nonsense, unfortunately."

"I know about the Matrix. I know about Zion. I know about the war between humans and machines, and your fine ship the Hyperion. Are these things nonsense?"

Her hand was gripping the edge of the table, Aleph noticed belatedly. She let go. He had better not figure out the true motives behind her dealings with Smith. By now it was the one idea that all but overwhelmed her mind. If she were to get out of this one alive—but she could not simply walk away, either, not without learning more. She had to play this out, especially if it was a test from them.

"I don't care what you know or imagine you know, mister," she growled. "I don't care what your interest is, or how come they—" she emphasized the last pronoun viciously, "they have allowed you to live. So please, enlighten me. Why the hell would I betray Zion to you—just like that?"

The Merovingian arched an eyebrow. He knew all the cards were in his hand, thought Aleph angrily.

"Firstly, because you already have. Secondly, because I can make you a better offer than that agent ever can."

All right. Fine. She would play if that was what he wanted.

"Who are you?"

"You will learn that in time."

"How do you know so much, here in the Matrix?"

"Ah, the Matrix is greater and filled with more wonders than human eyes can see, my dear Aleph."

"And what the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Only this: not all those who dream are asleep."

"Why are you interested in Zion, in that case?"

"Although I remain within the Matrix, all aspects of the world are of interest to me," volleyed her adversary, again without missing a beat. "All heaven and hell, if you will."

The answer was essentially devoid of information, but she pressed on, not wanting to give him time:

"How do you know about the agent?"

"I have my sources, mademoiselle."

"Why don't you go ask them about it, then?"

The Merovingian drew in a sharp hissing breath as if insulted.

"They are beneath me," he said curtly.

"Why have they allowed you to live?"

"It is not a matter of their allowing."

"You have not answered any of my questions."

"Oh, but I have, and truthfully," replied the other, unperturbed. "But to understand my answers you will have to come a bit further than this."

Aleph glowered at him. Gradually, she schooled the expression of her face into pensiveness.

"You said you will make me a better offer than the agent," she said. "But so far you've only shown me this man—" She jabbed a finger at the pictures still lying between them on the table. "For something as important as the Zion mainframe. The bidding is a little low, isn't it?"

"Ah, mademoiselle." The grin returned to the Merovingian's face. "Excellent. Well, it would certainly be an outrageously low price if I were to offer you the identity of just one man for something as precious as your own trust and, I hope, your friendship. I can never be so indelicate as to do that, can I? So, it is not merely this man that I offer you. No! Surely not."

Aleph widened her eyes quizzically. The Merovingian's smile deepened.

"What I offer you, dear lady," he whispered melodramatically, "is life."

That did it.

"Mr. Merovingian—" began Aleph with scorn, but then instead of continuing the sentence she leapt to her feet. The pair of white-suited henchmen surged forward, almost instantaneously, and one blink of the eye later both her pistols were drawn, one aimed slanting upward at the twin on the left, the other a few inches away from the head of their master. She had to leave the second guard uncovered, and two other guns were now pointed at her own head, but Aleph did not glance at them. She has her hostage and they would not dare to shoot. Not right away, in any case. The restaurant had gone very, very quiet. The Merovingian was the only one who never moved.

"Sir." Her voice was nearly as low as his. "Whatever do you mean by that?"

The Merovingian blinked in surprise.

"Oh, ma chère." He shook his head incredulously, as if the gun pointed at his forehead did not exist. "You mistake my meaning. Oh, how you mistake my meaning! No, no, no. That was emphatically not a threat, nor will I ever threaten you." The man sounded for all the world like he was actually enjoying this. "Now, if you don't mind, please...?"

"If you don't mind, sir," said Aleph evenly, her focus intent upon him for the slightest indication of sudden moves. "I am no longer in the mood for bandying words. So, I think I'll just say farewell now—"

"I am not one of them, Aleph."

She narrowed her eyes.

"Ah, of course." The man tilted his head. Without a word, the two guards drew back, reholstering their guns, even though Aleph had not shifted in her own position.

"As you can see, I mean it with complete sincerity when I say that I intend you no harm whatsoever," the Merovingian continued, looking at her past the barrel of the gun between his eyes. "In fact, I will make you a promise right now. I promise you that not one of my people will ever touch a single hair of you head. Not just today, but in the future, for always. Indeed—"

Without turning around, he raised his voice a little, addressing the pair standing behind. "Did you hear that, both of you? Neither of you—and none of the others—is ever to harm Mademoiselle Aleph in any way whatsoever. And that is a strict, and I do mean strict, order. Relay it to the others as soon as possible."

Identical smirks flickered across two pale faces.

"And now...Aren't you just the least bit curious as to what I have to tell you, mademoiselle?"

Aleph's finger tightening on the trigger of her gun. Inwardly, she was unnerved by his incredible confidence or recklessness or both—whatever had allowed him to yield such a terrible tactical advantage to her without batting an eyelid. Her gaze sought in vain for a trace of fear in the eyes of the man before her. If she but could—

She could not call his bluff and he was fully aware of that.

Slowly, keeping her sight trained on both the Merovingian and his pair of minions at the same time, Aleph lowered her guns and returned them to her side. The henchmen made no move. With a sneer on her face, she sat down once more.

"Well, I suppose it does no harm to hear you out. For now," she said, injecting a note of disdain into her tone.

"Thank you. Now that little misunderstanding is cleared up, please, please do believe me from now on," went on the Merovingian as if nothing had happened. "So. What say you to the offer, my lady?"

"Oh, right," said Aleph, determined to not let him see that she was gritting her teeth in frustration. "Life, wasn't it? It seems to me, sir, that you're talking nothing but a load of sophistry—"

"Oh, no!" the Merovingian cut her off. "I understand. You believe that you—you and the likes of you only—have possession of life. Out there in your ruined and battered cave of a world, yet it is the only reality that exists for you, the only freedom because you call it so, the only one to be wished for and worthy of living—by those who are worthy of it themselves, of course. Whereas this..." With a expansive gesture he indicated the heaped table, the luxurious room. "Whereas all this is merely an illusion, a dream that does not exist in truth. Not in truth," he repeated, and she could hear the contempt in the word. "And all those who do not see through it are deluded and blind. You will tell me this is no life, nothing like it, and that real life is six miles underground and filled with grinding metal and rusty tunnels and the dark sterile desert. Am I correct?"

"And now you're going to tell me that your philosophy of the universe just happens to be the diametric opposite. Am I correct?"

"If you wish to put it that way," returned the Merovingian. "For I say to you that your desert is no life, your war is no life, your constant struggle to—what was the word, free?—people into the shadows beneath those clouds you call Reality is no life. What is the point, if I may ask? For every human you unplug, many more are born—or grown, farmed, if you insist on using those terms, opening their eyes for the first time to this dream, this construct. What makes you think that you can ever win against the machines? But..." He shook his head, voice turning dangerously mild in a single breath. "But surely you are aware of all this, yourself, or you would not have contacted that agent. Surrounded by the constant war, nevertheless you have begun to see, to understand. Admirable, mademoiselle, but the agent is the wrong approach, one that will lead you nowhere. For the agents know nothing of life, either."

Aleph glanced about her. Although she did not dare to turn her head, she could still hear the blonde girl, giggling something silly and indistinct across the restaurant.

"Whereas this is life, as you mean by the word," she said. "Is this what you are offering me? Is this what you call life? A fine room, with matching linen and crystal and paintings on the walls, everything created out of code? Wine and women, and a bunch of thugs to do your every bidding?"

"Ah." The Merovingian snorted. His gaze, too, slid across the room appreciatively. "This is life, yes, but not all that life is. But you will learn something of it yet—" The smugly amused eyes were gleaming like stars now, and he lowered his voice. "For I sense something about you, chère mademoiselle, something different. You will see."

She had expected promises of wealth and power within the Matrix, but did he actually mean to catch her with such vague phrases?

"Oh, come on," she sighed, rolling her eyes. "You've got to do better than that."

"Very well. Since I find it regrettable, deeply regrettable indeed that a clever young lady like yourself seems to have so little idea of the true nature of things, I will tell you a bit about life." Remarkably, something that sounded like real fervor entered the Merovingian's voice, which had softened to a hypnotic whisper. "Life is truth. Not the truth that your fanatic kind equates with a cold, mean, underground war, but the beautiful, graceful truth, the prerogative of kings. For life is grace, and it is beauty. As it must be, for a reality that contains only the desert is not real at all. Life is power—power that chooses to take hold of this world, which may be a dream but is by no means an illusion. Power to break all walls, bend past into present, and make even demons do my bidding. Life is knowledge. Knowledge hidden to all except those wise enough to search and brave enough to see. Knowledge that even the abyss cannot remain silent forever. Knowledge that even the dead cannot remain lost forever. And most of all—" He paused, undoubtedly for dramatic effect. "Life is eternal."

For a long time, Aleph did not reply. Then she let out a deep breath.

"You are a madman," she said.

The Merovingian inclined his head, looking like she had just paid him a compliment.

"I know you do not believe me right now. But there will come a day. Remember, your humanity and the war cannot offer life, nor can that agent, who is not a living thing himself. But I can. Think of it, please."

"As before, these are nothing more than words," retorted Aleph. "Pretty, but nothing else. Empty meaningless lies."

The Merovingian shrugged, sitting back once more, pose artfully relaxed. Only now did Aleph realize they had both leaned forward during his last speech. She was not going to get anything further out of him, it appeared. But then he added, "And if I may mention one more thing, my dear Aleph, for in my earlier enthusiasm I must have forgotten to speak of it, do forgive me—when I said life I also meant it in a much simpler sense, one that your mind is used to. For although as I have said, I would never dream of threatening you, nevertheless you are under grave threat. You are playing a dangerous game, far more dangerous than you know."

With an abrupt movement, Aleph stood up.

"I am accustomed to dangers."

"I am sure you are." He peered up placidly at her. "Please, think about my words, Aleph, and remember them when you are in need. We will meet again."

With measured steps, she walked across the room, down the softly-lit hallway, into the bright elevator, down through the lobby, out of the door. No one made a move to stop her. She got into her car and drove down the street, and did not stop until she was several miles away and certain that she had not been followed. Only then did she pull out her cell phone to ask for the nearest exit. It took her several tries to flip it open and push the speed-dial button for the operator, because of the shaking of her hands.

Chapter Text

 

The weather in the city had turned raw and blustery again, and the park—or more precisely the little patch of lawn facing the street and the looming mountain range of skyscrapers—was empty. This time, the agent program was waiting for her. It did not rise as she approached, of course, and silence reigned but for the rattle of dry brown leaves collecting in the fountain's empty basin. Looked like it would fall to her to open negotiations once more.

"The conditions we agreed to last time are still to be complied with, Agent Smith."

The agent stared impassively at her for a second or two, then reached up and removed the earpiece. Once more it went into the pocket of the suit jacket.

"And yourself?" The voice, as before, was a supercilious drawl.

With a shrug, Aleph pulled off her shades, and sat down.

"Shall we start where we left off the last time, Miss Greene?" Contemptuous irony dripped from Agent Smith's voice, or more precisely an extremely good facsimile of contemptuous irony. She had heard it the last time, too. If she didn't know better it would have been easy to imagine that the agent was in fact annoyed to be sitting here with her. Aleph made a mental note of it.

"I think we shall," she answered as nonchalantly as she could. "There were certain loose ends from our last conversation, after all. If I recall correctly, I asked a question or two that you never fully answered."

The other did not speak, only an almost imperceptible twitch along the jaw flinging the ball right back into her court. On the sidewalks people scurried past, their coats tight and collars raised against the biting wind; none of them gave the bench a sidelong glance.

"What is it that you want, Agent Smith?"

"What is it that you think we want, Miss Greene? The transitory position of a ship, two days ago? The location of an internet chatroom where you cast your nets for the too curious? A name of some insignificant human battery whom you've caught in those nets, whom you think you could—free?" The vehemence with which Smith spat out the words, especially the last, startled her. "Face the facts, Miss Greene. Your petty secrets will amount to very little in the greater scheme of this war, despite whatever you may be imagining. Because it is a war your side will never even come close to winning."

Very well. So they wanted to minimize her significance as an informant. Sound bargaining strategy, in all fairness. At least it meant they were bargaining.

"My side," she repeated, rolling her eyes. "Is this supposed to be the official attitude toward potentially important informants, Agent Smith?"

"Potentially important informants." The tone of mockery, too, was astonishingly indistinguishable from the real human thing. "Isn't 'traitor' the usual term, Miss Greene?"

What the hell, a machine was going to bait her into a debate on the morality of espionage now? They must have seriously messed with the programming of this one. The inexplicable images from the Zion archives blazed through Aleph's mind. Could it account for...

"Well, well. I didn't know your kind made that sort of distinctions." She filed the idea away for later. "Anyway, it was silly of me to ask, wasn't it? Every attitude from you is official, of course. Can't be any other way. Nevertheless, I must say I'm disappointed. If that's the way your side treats sources of intelligence—"

"Please get to the point, Miss Greene."

"It's no wonder, I suppose," she plunged on regardless, voice still casual but just barely. "Is that why Zion is not destroyed yet, even after nearly a hundred years of war? Even though your side have such an overwhelming advantage?"

The agent did not say a word, nor did the expression its face change, not a whit, but for an instant Aleph thought she had gone too far. It lasted less than a heartbeat, but she sensed it, with sudden and absolute certainty. In that split second something—directives, or basic strong coding, or something more complicated that passed for willpower in a program—had kept it from simply pouncing forward and tearing her throat out.

"Get to the point, Miss Greene."

Right. Get to the point. It was impossible to back out now.

"The point is this, Agent Smith. What I can offer you depends on what you want. What you ask for. That's the thing, I can't help you if I don't know what you want. There are no answers without the asking, even if that's all you need to do. To ask, I mean," she pattered on, realizing that she must sound like a fool, but at least the words were coming more smoothly. Everything up to this moment had been but feints and dodges, but she was edging close to the first real move now. "I've not been completely idle these last years, you know. I've been on a ship, fighting to free—I mean to unplug people from the construct, I beg your pardon." She risked a small smile, although it came out more like a grimace. "But I've also been down in the human city, spending my time quietly in front of a bunch of screens, working on this and that, the system—"

"The Zion mainframe, then," said Agent Smith, pronouncing each syllable with a peculiar slow care. Did she detect a trace of interest?

"Well," murmured Aleph. She turned her head, regarding the other with what she hoped was a blank mask upon her countenance. Here goes. She had it all ready and thought out; she had prepared for this.

"Well, Agent Smith, it's a bit more complicated than just those two words, isn't it? You really need to be more specific than that—"

Before she could finish the sentence, the agent program leaned forward, bringing its face within several inches of hers, and laid a hand on her shoulder. It touched her but lightly, nothing rough, mere fingertips against her coat. The movement had not seemed swift, yet she never had the time to react. The air temperature around them plummeted to arctic chill.

"The access codes to the Zion mainframe, Miss Greene."

The pressure upon her shoulder was almost gentle, barely there at all. It was two inches from the artery of her neck. To the passer-by it would have looked like a friendly touch, maybe even that of a lover, the ludicrous thought flickered across the back of Aleph's brain. She was still fairly sure it would not kill her right here, right now, but...No training program had prepared her for this.

She had let the other overwhelm her way too easily.

"Please. People are beginning to stare, you know," she muttered. Her face reflected against the smooth black surface of the agent's sunglasses, distorted. "Do you really believe that a single little set of codes will get you right in there, give you everything that Zion depends upon? We humans are not all that stupid. Nevertheless—"

She forced herself to stop. In her fear the words were tumbling out way too fast.

"Nevertheless I thought you said you wouldn't be interested in whatever petty secrets I can offer you, Agent Smith."

The hand on her shoulder tightened just a trace, not enough to hurt.

"Like all your kind, you have an exaggerated opinion of your own intelligence," commented Smith.

"If you want something from the Zion mainframe, you need to tell me what it is," whispered Aleph. Her heart was racing; she was sure the program could sense that, too. Maybe it could take her pulse with its hand on her shoulder like this. Maybe it could hear her heartbeat.

The agent glared at her. Even through its shades Aleph could see it, the unmistakable anger in that glare, or whatever had been made to stand for anger, how it contrasted with the blank way that an agent's eyes were supposed to look. And then all of a sudden—as quickly as it had moved forward—the hand drew away, letting go of her shoulder. She did not relax.

"In other words, you have no access to the Zion mainframe." The voice had changed again, its contempt now tinged also with impatience.

"I'm not dumb enough or suicidal enough to promise you something I don't have, believe me. But it's not like that. It's compartmentalized. Layered. More than one set of access codes for each layer. The codes rotate and change constantly, every time it's accessed. Security measures." Once more, she had to make herself slow down. "Actually you should know this already, Agent Smith."

The corner of the agent's mouth twisted. She thought it might have narrowed its eyes, too, behind those shades.

"What I mean is," she explained, "any human battery who's ever taken so much as a single course in computer security could have told you all this."

"Do not trifle with me, Miss Greene."

"I cannot just hand you all of Zion on a platter. It is impossible." They did know all this already, didn't they? "I can help you, but first I need to know more. Which parts of the system you need to get into, what exact pieces of information you want. I mean..." Here goes. "Your side should be able to specify that, right? I mean, it's been nearly a hundred years. You should already know something about the Zion mainframe—"

Aleph stopped, licking her lips nervously. She could not gauge the reaction to that last bit, if any. More than anything the agent's face just looked irritated.

"If I recall correctly, the last time we met I suggested that you bring some real information." Smith's voice radiated menace, no longer even bothering to sound subtle. "But now it appears that you are only attempting to waste my time, which rather raises doubt as to your motives, Miss Greene."

"I'm telling you, I will do what I can," As quickly as possible, Aleph made some mental calculations. It was necessary to make the push now, or never. "As a matter of fact, I do have something for you."

Agent Smith glanced down at the envelope that she pulled out of her coat pocket.

"Real information," she said. "Just insignificant human batteries for now, as you put it, but anything else is going to take more time."

The agent did not reach across for the envelope. It did not move at all.

"Precisely as I expected. Are you capable of providing anything else, Miss Greene?"

Aleph shrugged, still holding the envelope containing Theo's sheet of paper. She wished the other would just take it already. Get it out of her sight.

"And it's going to take...something from your side, too," she continued. "All I ask, Agent Smith, is a little trust in return."

"A little trust," mocked the agent. Suddenly with a machine's swiftness it reached forward, then leaned back again, and the envelope was not in her hand anymore. It disappeared into a pocket of Smith's suit jacket.

"That is not nearly all that you are asking for, is it?"

"Well." Aleph, too, leaned back against the bench, letting out a sigh. "I thought you'd never ask."

"What do you want, Miss Greene?"

For a few seconds, she did not speak. The wind abated for a while, and the false sunbeams of the day filtered down between the iron-gray clouds, between the massive shadowy peaks of skyscrapers, spotlighting cars and people on the street, going about their business in the world. Surprisingly, Agent Smith waited, almost patiently this time.

"I want it to stop," she said at last, not specifying what she meant by 'it'.

"You want to return to the way things were before," said Smith. The apparent lack of sarcasm in the programmed voice made her turn her head. The agent's eyes were inscrutable behind darkened lenses. How strange it was, thought Aleph, that even through those lenses she could still see that those eyes were now empty, as empty as they were supposed to be. How strange it was that even through those lenses she could still see that they were incongruously blue.

He doesn't recognize you.

For a dangerous instant, Aleph's concentration deserted her. Lucy's voice came softly yet bell-clear, and very close, a few inches from the back of her head, and it was all she could do to keep from turning around. A nonexistent whiff of charred metal over a crumbling bridge brushed her nostrils.

"Perhaps," she replied.

"You want to be plugged back in, to be once more like these people, is that it?" Agent Smith waved a hand at the street. "You want to go about your usual business, wrapped up in your dreams of inconsequential gains and losses. You want to return to being part of the crop, going about asleep, with your eyes blind to the world that you have destroyed—"

Oh, just listen to him, snickered Lucy. Self-righteous bastard, ain't he?

"You want to forget your so-called truth. You want oblivion."

And look at him. He got a real good eyeful of you, too, that time back there on the bridge, and now he doesn't even remember. Talk about oblivion—

No. He—it, the agent, whatever—never stared back up at her with frightened and anguished eyes amid all that smoke and flames, above a bottomless abyss in a dead land. It never happened. It was only a record. Or something. What did it matter anyway?

"What does it matter to you, anyway?" asked Aleph, more sharply than she would have if a part of her own mind weren't trying to distract her and therefore get her killed.

"Merely another illustration of the mental weakness of your species," replied the agent coolly.

He saw you. You know that, insisted the voice of the dead. Looks like mental weakness is not just for humans...

Well, I was wrong, thought Aleph furiously.

"Look, Agent Smith, I'm only human. My motivations, what I think or feel, everything about me, all those things are petty and meaningless to the likes of you, as you never tire of pointing out." It was amazing how, even in the precariousness of her situation, she was the one who was starting to grow irritated. "I'm making you an offer of information. In return the only thing I ask is for your side to treat me with a bit of trust, and yes, perhaps I would like to be returned to the Matrix, when all this is over. A simple exchange. We can discuss it later. That's something machines should understand, right?"

"You have not answered my question." For the first time, Smith turned away from her, gazing straight ahead at the line of storefronts across.

"Maybe I find this whole war business pointless," she said, not knowing if she could afford to just wing it. "It's not important. In fact," she went on, thinking straight again, "I'd like to remind you that it would be much more productive if we decide on the specifics of how your side would like to approach the Zion mainframe—"

"Why did you choose this meeting place, Miss Greene?"

There it was again. Why would he—it, it, just a program, just an agent—ask such a question?

"It's a human thing," she answered after a while. "It doesn't matter, anyway."

Curiously enough, this time Smith did not press her.

Chapter Text

 

Do not apply regular interrogation methods. Do not arrest subject. Do not terminate under any circumstances. Proceed as the situation dictates.

Agent Smith yanked out the earpiece and shoved it unceremoniously into his suit pocket. For a while, he sat in the parked Audi without moving, taking stock of the situation and planning his next steps. A hand still gripped the steering wheel, two fingers drumming a slow, angry rhythm. It was a habit he'd developed only recently.

"Proceed as the situation dictates," he repeated under his breath, a dissatisfied growl.

The changed directives had come with no explanation, of course, and at any other time the need for any would not have occurred to him. But with this woman there were already too many logical incompatibilities, and his own purposes were increasingly at odds with the Mainframe's. Lately he had even begun to wonder what, exactly, those purposes were: yet one more thought that he would allow to rise to full consciousness only when the earpiece was safely in his pocket.

A review of the situation, then. Vague promises. Useless tangential information. Circles of feints and bluffs, growing ever more interminable with each meeting. Threats implied, made outright and repeated to the point of monotony—threats which he now could no longer even back up.

It was always the same place, the same bench next to the fountain, in the little park facing the street. It was always the same back-and-forth conversation: the Zion mainframe, access codes, excuses. What his side wanted. What she wanted. Even the words were the same. You need to give me something to work with, Agent Smith. Why did you choose this meeting place, Miss Greene? She would not say.

The powers that be, off in 01 or wherever they were, provided no help: that, too, had been the same every time. Meet with subject; proceed as the situation dictates. No focused plan of attack upon the Zion mainframe, nothing that could have been used to flush out her true motives, which—he was certain by now—were not nearly as simple as that of a mere traitor. If Smith were inclined to think in human terms he would have suspected that the Mainframe just did not care, and that his only role was to string her along, to stretch out this ridiculous haggling with no end in sight. But why? The intelligence she provided so far amounted to nearly nothing: internet addresses, a server or two, a few lists of recently-collected names. Her evasions, her seeming unconcern with the time this was taking, everything suggested that she simply did not know nearly as much as she pretended, and was only exaggerating to gain a better deal for herself. Yet apparently it had been decided that she was not disposable, either. Why?

He had a conjectured answer for that question. A troubling, probably dangerous idea, yet impossible to put aside.

It had to do with the Glitch.

They knew, and were keeping it from him.

Once more, Agent Smith found himself reviewing the long-past case, running it over carefully from beginning to end. Seven years ago, on this street. The two young human females on the cafe patio, chattering away, oblivious. The car tearing around the corner, bristling with guns, its tires screeching. His own leap into a new host. Ada Greene crouched down on the pavement, eyes wide with abject terror. He pointed the Desert Eagle at her face.

Exactly one tenth of a second. Time in the Matrix skipped a beat, suddenly crystallizing into icy shards. One tenth of a second, gone forever no matter how hard he searched afterwards. One tenth of a second when he hesitated, and did not shoot.

The explosive report of a gun, but not his. He never even saw the bullet coming. By the time he reformulated his codes, the resistants had already grabbed the subject and pulled her into the car, and were speeding down the street again in a cloud of scattering pedestrians and desperate human screams. They had escaped. He had allowed them—allowed her—to escape because of his inexplicable delay.

A glitch must have occurred somewhere in him, he had concluded at the time and the Mainframe appeared to have agreed. After he had exhausted his range of self-diagnostics and found nothing, it, too, ran its battery of tests on him, and then merely ordered a memory wipe. That would have been the end of the story except for one problem.

The memories came back.

This, too, should have been impossible, nevertheless it happened, not long after they'd supposedly erased all records of the relevant events from his mind. Smith recalled his immediate—unthinking and shamefully illogical—reaction at the time: he had reached up and pulled out his earpiece with one quick jerky movement. He recalled the sudden, clear stab of fear, although back then he had not known the emotion's name, nor the fact that what he'd felt had, indeed, been an emotion. That had been the very first time he had removed his earpiece.

He recalled his decision, formed almost instantaneously, out of a realization that had been like lightning in its swiftness, and utterly without ambiguity, even though the very notion constituted disobedience. He never figured out where it came from, and no longer cared. Whatever happened, the Mainframe must not find out. He would keep it—the knowledge of what had taken place and the fact that he knew. It was important, even if he did not understand how or why.

It had been difficult to reprogram his own brain, to create a hidden space where the record could be concealed, but he had managed it in the end. It had been difficult to put together the layers of safeguards and trigger mechanisms accessible only to himself, and even more difficult to cover his tracks against the earpiece, against all the mental scans, probes and wipes routine to an agent program's existence, but he had managed it in the end, as far as he could tell. The secret kernel of truth remained deeply buried, guarded with ever more elaborate tricks of coding for seven years, while suspicions grew in silence, refusing to be ignored, refusing go away. But he made sure never to think about the Glitch except at the right times and places.

Such as now.

Nearly everything had returned to him, all but the crux of the matter, that fraction of a second, the Glitch itself. That was the one piece he could never find, though he had searched within himself almost line by line. Ada Greene's eyes, pupils dilated, dark with horror. Himself taking a hit. And the span in between, that 0.1 seconds, yawning empty as an age of the world. It had to be there. Somewhere. A key, though he did not know where the door might lead, or if there was really a door. His key.

What had kept him from pulling the trigger?

Too vague, thought Agent Smith, scowling with disgust. Too similar to the imprecision that went on in the heads of humans, the muddled haze they called intuition. A code corruption would have been far preferable.

Was it something he had seen? Was it something about her?

And now the woman had turned up again, with her hinted offers and irritating little circumlocutions. She had changed. Over their meetings he had pressed her, tested her subtly, and every time there had only been one inevitable conclusion. She did not recognize him. Either she had never had the time to see his face, or she'd repressed the memory. He could see fear in her, but it was no more than the usual kind of fear he had seem from all of them, the human resistants. He had long been accustomed to it.

She had a tendency to stare at him, too, in that peculiar way of hers. He did not appreciate it, but their meetings in the park did seem to activate something within him. It was a nagging knowledge of familiarity, a growing conviction that there had been another time, more than seven years ago, before the Glitch, when they'd met each other. Obviously irrational, yet a part of his mind to which he apparently had no access—which he had not even known existed until then—continued to send out the warnings, quietly, incessantly, maddeningly. Something was wrong, it said. With her. With him.

What did she really want?

The records on the resistant Aleph, formerly Ada Greene, showed only the standard background information: hometown, childhood, schools, college, work, everything ordinary. At age twenty-three she had been approached by the crew of the Zionite ship Hyperion. The events that followed resulted in the young woman's removal from the Matrix and the death of her sister. (Only 'agents' were mentioned in the file; his own identification and that of his team had been deleted. No reference to the Glitch, needless to say.) She turned up as a crew member of the very same ship three years and seven months later, in a different sector. Numerous sightings. Always managed to elude their grasp. And now this.

He had seen her before the Glitch. It was imperative that he find out where and when. What malfunctioning part of himself was telling him this? What was driving him to analyze her file one more time, to examine his own codes one more time, in hopes of finding something, anything, to...try to remember?

Idle speculations were of no use, decided Smith as he stepped out of the car and stood on the sidewalk. The calendar of men had moved on to spring, and the weather program had adjusted accordingly. The temperature had risen, and the trees were putting forth fresh shoots, pale green and yellow against the old brown and gray branches. The shrill squeals of children from the playground reverberated through the air.

Striding across the strip of lawn, he saw that Aleph had already arrived. She was sitting on the bench, her head turned aside, gazing away down the street, seemingly not yet aware of his presence. The breeze fluttered her black hair against her face. Behind her, they'd turned on the fountain for the season; the water rose and fell in flashing streaks beneath the sunlight. She had already taken off her shades.

"Hi." She glanced up when he was standing by the bench. Fleetingly, there was something imitating a smile on her face, but it was gone in an instant, replaced by the usual calculating look. "Nice day, isn't it?"

"What are you hoping to achieve by such a remark, Miss Greene?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing." The woman shrugged. "Meaningless small-talk, as you would say. Human habit."

"Kindly refrain from wasting my time in the future with your human habits, Miss Greene."

Aleph tilted her head, studying him as he sat down next to her. Trying to gauge how much farther she could push it, he knew.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that I'm wasting your time completely," she began. "I mean, haven't I been giving you useful information? I've been taking some pretty huge risks..."

So the old round started once more. He pressed her on the access codes for the Zion mainframe; she made excuses and asked for more detailed guidelines from the machines. He was menacing and sarcastic by turns; Aleph stalled and equivocated for her part. It got nowhere.

"You have not given anything that was of even the remotest importance," he pointed out.

"One has to work up to these things," replied Aleph with barely a blink. "In the real world it works a little differently, okay? And I'm new at this game, too. And I have to be careful. You know what they'll do to me if they find out? Well, I suppose you wouldn't care. The point is, I'm trying, but these things takes time. And I wouldn't mind some help on what I should be looking for, either—"

"If I have allowed you to continue playing your games, it is not because I enjoy them." Smith cut her off in the middle of the by now familiar tirade. "Please refrain from dealing in irrelevancies."

At this she pretended not to understand. The conversation wore on. Somewhere inside his brain, pieces of code began to twist and knot together, forming a hard palpable clot that grew with each passing second, each threat and retort. He knew the human names for it, too, these days. Annoyance. Anger. Cold rising fury.

"One more time, Miss Greene. Access to the Zion mainframe."

"You've got to give me something more specific, Agent Smith—"

"For your own sake, Miss Greene, I suggest you prove the sincerity of your intentions—"

"I need something to work with," she persisted. "Surely your side has made some inroads upon Zion in the last hundred years? If you have anything at all—a particular part of the system you know about, a file you've introduced, for instance, even if it was just experimental—I can make use of that..."

Something in her tone shifted at the last sentence, and Smith could see the veiled cunning in her eyes. He made a note of it, her insistence on learning what the machines knew about Zion. Not that it would be of any use, given the way the case was being treated.

"Very well." He decided to take another tack. "Let me ask you a different question, although it, too, is a question I have already wasted a great deal of time asking you times and again. What is it that you can or intend to offer, in that case, if not the Zion mainframe?"

The young woman hesitated. Nervous, he was glad to see.

"Well," she said.

"The Hyperion." His own voice was suddenly very quiet. "Its captain."

Aleph furrowed her brows.

"Right. Yes. The Hyperion and Theo. Right. We've talked about this, I know." She blinked, then nodded quickly. "I'm working on it. And I have high hopes for a satisfactory arrangement, Agent Smith. Soon. I promise."

He couldn't kill her. He couldn't even drag into an interrogation room anymore. So there was nothing else to say. Both fell silent, and a long moment passed, a moment that would have been awkward between humans. She would never deliver the Hyperion or Theo to him, it occurred Smith with abrupt force, she would never deliver the access codes to the Zion mainframe. Yet for whatever reasons of their own they will allow her to live and to continue her mission to exasperate him, forever. It would just go on like this forever, the two of them sitting here haggling over absolutely nothing. The war would go on forever; the Matrix would go on forever. The humans would come and go forever and believe that the world belonged to them, and he would still be here. The Mainframe did not give a damn and he was never meant to know its intentions. He was never meant to know anything.

"Why?" he asked, without analyzing the implications. The anger had drained out of him.

"Why what, Agent Smith?" asked Aleph after a second, sounding startled.

"What do you think, Miss Greene? Why did you choose this meeting place?"

"What do you care about it?" Came the standard reply. But then she added, rather impatiently, "Plus, you know the answer already."

Behind the dark lenses of his shades, Smith's eyes narrowed suddenly, but at this point Aleph continued:

"I mean, your side keeps records, doesn't it? I'm sure you've read the file on me or downloaded it into your head or whatever it is that you do. You know what happened to me. You know what happened here perfectly well."

Her voice had gone quiet and dull. All she had meant was the official story, but he was getting an opening at last. "Tell me anyway," he said.

"Why?"

"I want to hear it from you."

"I don't see why you always keep on asking this same question."

"I don't see why you always keep on refusing to answer."

Aleph sat in silence for another while. Finally, she sighed. Lifting one hand, she pointed across the street.

"Look over there," she said, very softly.

Chapter Text

 

"Look over there," said Aleph, pointing across the street.

"You see the little cafe over there, Agent Smith? On the ground floor of that tall glass building? One morning seven years ago I was there, right at the very spot, on that patio by the sidewalk. That time it was a fine day in spring, too, and the place looked almost exactly the same as it does now, with a good crowd of people sitting by those rickety little tables, chatting, laughing, enjoying the sunshine. I was only a human battery, like all the rest of them. My younger sister Lucy was with me—our parents had allowed her to come visit me in the city. She was seventeen years old and had just been accepted into college."

She looked up, half expecting to be met by the usual sneer, but the expression on the other's face was unreadable. Not for the first time, she was struck by the curious illusion that she could still see the agent's eyes behind those dark glasses. They were piercing and cold.

"As I said, I knew nothing of the Matrix or reality back then," she continued. "I went about my daily life like everybody else. But some time before I'd met a guy online, man who called himself Theo, and we'd been in fairly steady contact for weeks by that point. He was a hacker, and an extraordinary one, that much was obvious. We talked a lot about programming, and he would show me tricks, things I never realized could be done. Sometimes we would also discuss other stuff, philosophy, the state of the world, various things. But mostly hacking. Though we never met in person he seemed nice, and genuinely interested in what I thought and did, although rather mysterious about himself. Well, I'm sure you've studied up on my file and know what was happening, Agent Smith. My life was about to change, but I did not know it yet."

"Anyway, the cafe patio. Lucy was in high spirits, excited to be away from home, and she kept on talking, and talking—about all sorts of topics, her own plans for the future, people and happenings I'd left behind in our hometown. She was drinking one of those huge red sodas with some kind of over-sweetened fruit flavoring, and enjoying it tremendously, too." She let out a short laugh. "But for my part, I must say I soon became pretty impatient of it all. Though I loved my sister dearly I wasn't exactly overjoyed at the prospect of having to chaperone her around town all day, and her words just sort of flowed into each other after a while. I started to tune her out. Also, the night before, Theo had sent me a message asking that we meet at last. He said other things, too, about some vast conspiracy or secret he wanted to show me, and the very nature of the world, and a choice that I would have to make. Completely crazy stuff but I couldn't stop thinking about it all night."

"So, as my sister chatted away my mind began to wander. I wondered about Theo, whether he'd shown himself to be just another nutcase after all or if indeed I should go meet with him. At some point I looked aside, and saw a car pulling up next to the curb, a black Audi with tinted windows, so you couldn't see who was inside. For some reason it looked ominous, which was probably why I noticed it at all."

Aleph stopped. This was not the speech she had prepared beforehand. What could possibly be the meaning of this human tale to an agent program, anyway?

"Tell me what happened next," said Smith. There wasn't anything in the voice, none of the scorn or irritation they had somehow managed to create so cleverly in these programs. It sounded mechanical for once.

"The doors of the Audi opened. And at that very instant I heard a sound from the corner, extremely loud, high-pitched, like it wanted to tear your head right in half. It was the noise of tires on asphalt. Both of us jumped to our feet. I saw a second car coming up the street, straight at us and very fast. It looked as if it was about to plow right onto the cafe patio. Someone was leaning out of the window, shouting something."

"There was an explosion, somewhere in the air above my head, then another. Then another. It took me a moment to realize they were gunshots. All along the street, people began to scream. My body reacted of its own accord, and I dropped to the ground, the way I'd seen people do in movies. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man leaping out of the car even as it screeched to a halt, and I glimpsed other blurry forms, men in dark suits. I was too scared to have a clue of what was happening at the time, of course, or the fact that it was all happening because of me. The whole terrifying gunfight, all those innocent bystanders. The agents had caught on to my online conversations with Theo. The resistants from Zion came for me, but at the precise same time, you did as well."

With a sudden movement, Agent Smith turned, glancing sharply at her. Aleph blinked.

"You in the generic sense, I mean. Agents. The next thing I knew, all hell had broken loose. Lucy, I thought. I guess I shouted at her to get down, but I didn't hear her reply. I looked up, thinking to pull her down onto the ground next to me, but she wasn't there anymore."

"Where she was standing—only a second ago—there was someone else. Something else. She had been taken over by an agent. Of course I only know this now, in retrospect. Back then I only caught a brief image of a tall dark figure, faceless, and then I saw the barrel of a gun, pointed at my head. I don't remember very much of it, except how weird it looked, black and curiously foreshortened from the end. My brain refused to process what it was seeing, I suppose. And then—"

She had to stop again, this time not because she wanted to gauge the other's reactions. Smith did not speak, but merely nodded, indicating that she should go on.

"And then the rebels put a bullet through her heart," said Aleph with a sort of calm that surprised herself. All of the words were true, simple and unvarnished, yet they were also twisted, upside-down.

"An extraordinary failure, to have allowed the human to shoot first," commented Smith. As always, there was a disdainful emphasis on the word 'human'. "You should have died."

"Well, yeah. Maybe." Briefly, Aleph wondered how she was supposed to respond to the last statement. "I'm sure things would have been quite different had the agent been you. Nevertheless it was what happened. But you know that from the records."

"Yes."

"It all happened so fast. For a flash I saw the black-suited figure reel backward, but then it was my sister again, falling to the ground. I remember...I remember she was wearing a white shirt that day, and the blood against it was red like flames, or a great gigantic flower. I screamed her name, but she was already dead."

For a while there was silence. Aleph took in a slow, uneven breath, and the present returned to her in a rush. She was sitting on an illusory bench in an illusory park, playing the most perilous game with a ruthless enemy. Why was she telling this story, anyway? The program would never understand. I am sorry, Theo, she whispered mentally. You killed her; an agent killed her. It was true and false and both together and she no longer knew which was which. It was what happened. I am sorry, Lucy.

"It was only a minor skirmish in the war, only an agent they were shooting at. But it was my sister who died," said Aleph. The tale was coming to its end. "I felt arms grabbing me from behind. I must have been screaming and struggling, but it was only a moment's work for them to pull me into the car, though the air was still thick with bullets. It was strange. We were flying desperately down the road, a whole bunch of police cruisers in wild pursuit, converging upon us with blazing sirens, and of course it was no longer mere cops who drove them. Yet they still gave me the speech, right there in the back of the car, in the middle of the chase. The one about red pill, blue pill, about choice. But even then, in such a state as I was, it was obvious all choices were already behind me."

"So you went with them, even though they had just killed your sister. You chose the red pill."

More silence. Aleph gazed at the street, the cafe on the other side. The tables on the patio were the same as seven years ago; almost all were occupied. People sat in blithe conversation, their faces animated, laughing though she could not hear them at this distance, reaching across to touch each other over their coffee cups.

"I wanted to live," she replied. The admission came out by itself, before she could debate whether to say it, but it fitted well with her traitor's persona at least, she figured. "I should have died, as you so kindly pointed out. But for whatever reasons my sister was the one who died and I was still alive. They had shot her, but by doing that they had also saved my life, and the agents were coming after us. So, back there in the car they held out two pills to me, but the truth was, there was only one I could have taken."

"So much for your choices, then," said the agent. The old sarcasm had returned. "So much for your precious human freedom and emotions."

Aleph was taken aback again, but considered it seriously. The whole thing was probably another test from the machines, though for what purpose, she could not begin to fathom.

"Oh, I've made my choices, many of them, one after another," she said at last. "Only thing was, I never knew enough about them at the moment. They—we—always tried to make it so simple and clear, red and blue, neatly color-coded for your convenience. Choose here and now, just once, and if you regret it later you'll at least know it was your own mistake. But human beings are more complicated, whether your kind acknowledges it or not."

"And so you chose to express that complexity by returning in a ship."

"Everything I had known, my entire life. All of it had turned out to be an illusion, and machines were in control of the earth." The words flowed easily now, almost too convincing for her own liking. "What happened to Lucy was unimaginable, but so was what happened to the world, far greater and...worse. The notions of freedom and truth meant something to me, and to look upon the dead land, the swarms of machines, the pod farms—it was a lot more persuasive than mere talk. Plus, in a sense, ultimately it was really the agents—the whole Matrix, you might say—who killed Lucy. I had to make myself believe that. If it weren't for them she would never have died. I joined because I was a human being."

"I see. And what made you believe your kind deserved those things, Miss Greene? Freedom, and truth?"

"It's not about whether we deserve them or not," replied Aleph before she could think it through. "You seem to think you know a fine lot about humans, Agent Smith," she said after a pause.

"I've studied them," snapped Smith. "Yet lately you have begun to consider things from a different point of view, it appears."

Aleph shrugged, not replying right away. The agent program, representative of the machine will, waited patiently.

"It was necessary," she said. "That was what they told me. And it was true, no matter which way I looked at it. To save me it was necessary that they kill my sister. To survive it was necessary that we dwell six miles underground. It was necessary that we fight the machines and awaken those who still could be. Maybe it was even necessary for you—your kind—to keep humans in your pods and keep them dreaming, from your point of view. Maybe it was necessary for the agent to take over my sister and try to shoot me. One necessity leads to another and there's no end to it. But I want it to end. Precisely this, the bloody, hopeless necessity of it all. But I know it's not going to end. It will never end. So I'll have to settle for forgetting. It's the best I can hope for."

"And so you are willing to forget your truth and freedom, too. Typical."

The conversation had already taken too many unexpected turns, and now Aleph couldn't even hear the irony in the program's voice anymore. For all the world it sounded like a plain statement of fact.

"If my sister was an acceptable, though painful, price to pay, then yes, so are truth and freedom, or at least the words that stand for them. Anyway, I don't know why your side wants to know about my motivations, Agent Smith. I don't know how it can possibly make any difference to you. But hey, you asked. That's how it is."

She turned her head, staring challengingly into the other's inscrutable face. But this time, Smith did not make any more disparaging remarks on the idiotic feelings of humans. For a second or two, though it felt much longer, she wondered if she had made any obvious mistakes. Everything was both too real and too unreal at the same time. No answer.

"Here," she said, standing up. "I almost forgot."

She reached into the inside pocket of her leather jacket, keeping a watch upon the other, who did not stir. But all she pulled out was another white envelope. Another list of lives that would never see the clouds of the real sky.

"Just so you don't consider this meeting a complete waste of time, Agent Smith."

Leaning back against the bench, Smith did not reach for it.

"Miss Greene. Your tale was...instructive."

Right. Instructive. Did they decide this would catch her off guard? What kind of analysis had they run on her file, anyway? She would never find out, Aleph supposed, so she just nodded curtly.

"Nevertheless," drawled the agent, still making no move, "as rewarding as this discussion has been, I will still remind you to remember your latest promise."

"What?" Aleph feigned a moment of surprise. The weirdness of the situation faded to tolerable levels, and every nerve within her was fully alert once more. "Oh, yes, the Hyperion. Theo. Right. As I said, I'll see what I can do."

"One more thing, Miss Greene."

With a movement both swift and fluid, the agent rose to face her. Aleph took a step back, just in case. Smith arched an eyebrow; a faint smirk flitted about his jaw. For a program he sure was exasperatingly arrogant, thought Aleph, then corrected herself for the hundredth time. It was exasperatingly arrogant.

"Oh. Right." She handed over the envelope.

"Next time, Miss Greene, I will pick our meeting place."

"I beg your pardon?"

"It is enough," said Smith, indicating the passing crowd with one hand. "Look at this."

There was disgust in the voice, but also something else. It sounded exactly like resignation, the resignation of a man long wearied by an inexorable and hopeless purpose. The verisimilitude was so perfect that Aleph again had no idea how to react, nor indeed how such a thing could be programmed into a machine at all.

Chapter Text

 

"Hyperion, you are clear through Gate 2 to Bay 3. Control standing by."

The Zion operator's voice came calm and clear above the hum of the engines. As Theo acknowledged, Aleph leaned forward to the console, flipping a few switches to adjust the ship's approach for docking. With a booming clang, the massive gates of the underground city slid open.

"Roger that. Entering Bay 3." The thrusters whined.

"Gate 2 locking down. Control standing by. Welcome back, Hyperion."

Returning from her conversation with Agent Smith, Aleph had found Theo waiting impatiently. Almost before her eyes had the chance to readjust to the dimness of reality, they were descending out of broadcast depth, down through the gray tunnels, back toward the human haven. The Hyperion was overdue for a resupply and mechanical check, but she suspected Theo had other reasons for taking them home at this particular juncture of her mission. For the trip back, she had been ordered into the co-pilot's chair, but there was in fact little for her to do: Theo guided the ship with practiced ease, and no sentinels appeared to harass their progress. The long hours of the drive to Zion passed mostly in silence. Contrary to what had become their practice these days, and even though they were alone in the cockpit, Theo did not seem inclined to discuss her latest encounter with the agent program. She had plenty of time to lean back against her chair and brood.

Mentally, she reviewed her own words to Smith again and again, unable to shake the feeling that she had made a subtle mistake somewhere, revealed too much of her own hand. The agent's demeanor, words, behavior: everything had been so anomalous. Had it thrown her off balance? It was unsettling to tell the truth to an agent. It was much more unsettling to have it all come out with such ease.

Why had she chosen the meeting place? Was it to provoke this very reaction from the other? To make her betrayal seem that much more convincing? But that didn't make sense, either. Surely she had not expected the machines to be capable of thinking this way, had she?

Maybe it was simply frustration that made her careless, for careless she had been. She could no longer deny it. The mission, mad and dangerous as it had been from the very beginning, at least had its foundation of logical justifications. But all she had managed to accomplish was to get bogged down in an apparently inescapable round of mind games with Agent Smith, the two of them circling and prodding each other endlessly in mutual suspicion. And now things were veering into directions she had not imagined possible. Not to mention completely irrelevant. Not that she was ready to admit these facts out aloud, especially if the purpose of this trip back to Zion was what she expected. It had come this far; she needed to go on.

The ship's doors opened. They were back in the human world, bustling and grimy and alive. From the ramp, Aleph saw Shade already down on the floor, conferring animatedly with a group of mechanics. Theo gave a few routine orders to the other crew members, then turned to her once more.

"Come on. Hamann is expecting us."

The councillor received them alone in his office. His manners were deceptively laid-back as ever, yet it appeared to Aleph there was a weariness to the old man she had not noticed before. He listened with close interest as she reported her progress—or more precisely the lack of progress—on the mission, frequently interrupting to seek clarification upon some detail or another. From time to time, Theo entered the conversation to answer a question, but remained on the sidelines otherwise.

"I'm not seeing it," she said at last. The words dragged in her reluctance. "They're guarding their secrets carefully and I'm just not getting there. I should rethink my tactics—"

"Aleph," Hamann broke in gently, shaking his head. "You know there is another possibility you need to consider. Now, I understand your concern for getting to the bottom of this. But..." He paused, no doubt looking for the best way to put this to her. "Couldn't it be that whatever you found back in the archives were just anomalies after all? That they haven't in fact breached our system, and that's why you couldn't get anything out of them?"

"There has to be something, sir. What I mean is that I've considered the possibility, yes. But I can tell they have something on us. I can see it. For one thing, the agent's behavior has been totally out of the norm..."

"It's been programmed that way," Theo cut in quietly. He had risen from his seat and was now leaning against the wall, arms folded. "It doesn't mean anything."

"Maybe. But why? Smith is the only agent who has exhibited these strange traits. He's the only agent who showed up somehow in an unexplained Zion record. When two such extraordinary things occur with the same protagonist, you need to look for a connection. It only stands to reason."

"And maybe there is no connection. We don't know what it was you found in the archives—the councillor will correct me if I'm wrong," persisted Theo, turning to Hamann for support." The file or whatever it was, you were the only one who saw it. And then it was completely gone, to all appearances—"

Aleph, too, glanced across at the old man, who merely leaned back behind the desk, letting the other go on. She, however, could not let it pass.

"Are you questioning my word?"

"No. Of course not." Theo tried to sound conciliatory. "Your mission is what it is. And—well, I've never said anything or held you back while you were in there, you know that. All I'm saying is that even if the record was from the machines, it doesn't imply anything. It was a computer file; they could make it look like anything they wanted. That's what they do best, isn't it?"

"So you do acknowledge the record was probably from the machines?" Aleph fought down her annoyance. They'd been through this, at the start of the mission and several times after. It wasn't exactly true that he'd never said anything. But perhaps it was only to be expected; he'd been so reasonable lately that she'd forgotten how much of a pain it could be to deal with him. Again, she looked at Councillor Hamann, and found the elder studying her with furrowed brows, seemingly unwilling to help her out.

"Could be from the machines," admitted Theo. "We don't really know."

"Okay. Could be. Nevertheless the possibility was enough to warrant serious investigation. That was agreed upon."

"Theo is not casting doubt on the mission itself or your motivations, Aleph," said Hamann. "But given the way things are going..." He held up a hand. "Don't you think a reconsideration of our assumptions is in order?"

"Sir, if the council has found my mission—"

"Never mind the council." The old man shook his head. "We are only discussing this among the three of us in this room, that is all."

Aleph sighed, taking a moment to organize her thoughts. She knew this might happen, and should have been better prepared.

"It's true I haven't had a straight answer out of them," she conceded. "But I still believe there is need to go on. Aside from what I saw earlier in the archives, there is other evidence. New evidence. The man who calls himself the Merovingian, his knowledge of the true state of the world. That is incredibly disturbing and raises some much larger questions." She looked over from one man to the other, knowing this was something they couldn't argue with. "If I understand your last communication correctly, there is no reference in the Zion archives about the Merovingian or anyone like him. Basically, we had no previous idea such people existed in the Matrix, except maybe the..."

She trailed off, waving a hand vaguely. There was no point in adding further complications to the conversation.

"Inquiries have been made—with an eye to secrecy, of course." Hamann nodded. "We found absolutely nothing."

"Based on your descriptions," added Theo, just a hint of emphasis on the last word. Her visit to the strange restaurant, too, had been invisible to Shade, a cause of some consternation to Shade.

"The Merovingian's very existence is possibly even more troubling than the original problem with the archives, don't you agree?" It was time to press her point. "This is already a reason for continuing. What's more, he is able to protect his location, keep its codes from showing up on our ship's monitors. This, too, is highly unexpected. We must draw him out. Learn more about him. Find out if there are any others."

"For what?"

The question came abruptly. Theo again. Aleph blinked.

"What do you mean, for what? We need to know—"

"We need to know. But for what purpose, really?" The other's tone was growing tense, the words clipped. "What you'll find is that the machines have allowed him awareness of the Matrix because he helps them to keep humans enslaved. I can tell you this without going through any of this investigating and running around. Privilege for power, it's as simple as that. What you learn won't change the fact that they're the enemy. It won't change how we must deal with them."

"Well, if there is a new enemy in the Matrix, then it should be a matter for the council." Aleph decided to take another tack. "In any case, coming back to the immediate issue, the Merovingian's knowledge of one of the characters in the record I saw strongly suggests that he had something to do with it. And he, too, claims to be interested in the Zion mainframe. 'A piece of code or two from the Zion archives'—those were his exact words. Suggestive, isn't it? And what about Agent Smith's highly unusual behavior, which I've already mentioned? That in and of itself requires better understanding. It's much more striking face to face than just in my descriptions. We don't know the reasons it is like this. And—"

"Oh, we know the reasons. They've reprogrammed the agent so as to promote precisely this impression. That's the only explanation."

"Well, that still doesn't answer why—"

"Maybe it's to respond to you. Maybe it's to trip you up. For one thing, you told me that you've been talking to the agent in the same manner as if it were human—"

"That was also decided as a matter of deliberate strategy, Theo."

"But do you really expect to catch them off guard that way? Even now?" Theo rubbed his forehead with one hand. His voice softened. "Neither of us is trying to criticize what you are doing. What we decided, we decided based on the interests of Zion. So, I haven't said anything before because—because up there it wouldn't have been helpful. I've tried to take care of whatever needed to be done. But I've been listening to you, Aleph, every time. I'm worried that instead of getting what you want out of them, you're starting to slip back into the illusions of their world again. It seems to me that you're starting to act as if the machines' thinking can be understood, beyond their plans of attack, beyond the next move, and that bothers me. We still have to remember why we're here. Please, think about it. I just don't want you to lose track of what's happening, that's all."

The gaze of his eyes, intense and earnest, reminded her painfully of the past—both seven years in the past and more recent. But he was wrong, damn it. He had to be wrong about the mission. With an abrupt sting, Aleph found that she didn't want to—couldn't—face those eyes anymore, so she turned and looked at Councillor Hamann instead.

"Sir?"

"I'm not the one who's been up there with you everyday, Aleph." The old man's voice remained low and serene, and she had to spend a moment thinking about his meanings, spoken and silent.

"I've already given my arguments for continuing the mission, sir. With all due respect to Theo's observations, I disagree with him about the Merovingian: enemy or not, he is a new factor about which we should learn as much as we can. I expect he will contact me again, and I need to be there when he does. As for the agent, I do not think I'm at a dead end yet there, either. I'm the only one who's dealt with him first-hand. And I've seen..." Aleph hesitated, wondering if she should say something about what she'd seen back in the archives, really seen, what she had not yet told anyone. She wondered if she should mention Agent Smith's strange insistence on learning the motivations behind her choice of meeting spot. It had been the only detail she had kept out of her story so far. But in the end all she said was, "I'd like to ask you to trust my instincts, sir."

She couldn't tell what was going through Hamann's mind while she spoke, and the two of them faced each other across the desk for a few seconds. It was the councillor who turned away first—to Theo; the younger man grimaced visibly. Finally, Hamann spoke again, though he was still looking at Theo instead of at Aleph.

"I have another question, Aleph. I hope you don't mind. You have argued for going on with your mission. Tell me, honestly, is it because you consider it necessary for the good of Zion, or is it to satisfy your own personal curiosity about the machines?"

"Well, sir..."

"Don't answer me right away, please. Think about it."

Aleph met the old man's quiet, tired eyes. To one side, Theo remained as motionless as a statue, a scowl on his face. All of a sudden she realized how silent the room had gone.

"I won't deny that I am curious," she replied slowly, knowing she had to choose each word with care. "About the machines and about whatever had got into the Zion archives. And I understand what Theo said. I understand and note his concern even though I feel it is unneeded. But as to my mission, yes, I believe it is necessary for the good of Zion. I believe the evidence suggests that they know more about us than we have previously believed, and that puts us in jeopardy. And in the long run—in the long run I believe my curiosity and the interests of our security are not in conflict. We can only prevail by knowing the enemy."

A long moment, then Councillor Hamann nodded.

"I know the council probably considers this whole business completely crazy," she went on, hoping to forestall the others' objections. "But I can give them a report of the events so far, especially regarding the Merovingian—"

"There is no need to worry about the council." For the first time, Hamann smiled, though but fleetingly. "After all, craziness is not necessarily a deterrent when it comes to such things."

Theo snorted. Aleph knew he was thinking of the Nebuchadnezzar, and its captain's unshakable obsession with finding the One. Ever since transferring back to Morpheus's section of the Matrix they had to deal with it nearly constantly.

"You mentioned that nothing about the Merovingian was found in our records, sir. I've been thinking, since we're down here, perhaps I can get to the archives and take another look. Not to say that..." Aleph gave a small, half-embarrassed smile, not wanting to sound like she doubted the abilities of whoever in charge of the archives now. "But there are a couple of scans I can try, with a few nonstandard algorithms. Maybe they can turn up something. Or if I can at least try to recover the file fragment that started all this, see if there's anything I missed..."

"Aleph," said Theo.

Something in his tone made her stare up at him. To her utter surprise he actually flinched, though nearly imperceptibly, and she realized he was struggling for the next words.

"Aleph," he repeated. "Look. We...the councillor and I have been discussing..."

"Theo," said Hamann very softly. For a heartbeat or so the two men's gazes locked, and Aleph sensed some wordless communication passing between them.

"The councillor and you have been discussing...?" she prompted.

"There won't be time," muttered Theo. "We will be returning to broadcast depth in a matter of hours."

"We've been discussing the imperative to keep what you're doing under the highest secrecy, Aleph," said Hamann, picking up where the other left off. "I've made my inquiries on the Merovingian as discreetly as possible. We can't afford to draw any attention that would jeopardize your continuing mission."

"There is also the other matter you mentioned," added Theo briskly, before she could breathe her relief at the implication of the councillor's last sentence. The earlier hesitation was gone from his voice. Aleph spun around to face him again. Though he specified nothing she knew immediately what he meant.

"The ship. And you. The agent has been pressing for the coordinates, yeah. And the location of your next entry into the Matrix."

A nod. The other's gaze remained upon her face, unwavering, and all of a sudden a wave of doubt rose and enveloped her.

"Well, I made certain...suggestions, which could be developed toward that direction, if needed."

"We talked about this, too." His reply startled her. "You have to push it through."

"No, wait. That's too dangerous."

"It will take very careful timing, so that we don't actually endanger the ship, while giving them the impression that you've done your best to deliver me to them." Theo was thoughtful and determined now. "But it can be done."

"But—"

"I know what you are thinking, Aleph. Just now I've said my piece, in front of you and the councillor, but it's been decided. I'll obey that decision. When we go back up we're going to get on with it. It's still your mission, and I'm still here to do what's necessary."

Aleph had no way of arguing against his words. It was typical of him. Argumentative, exasperating, and then he'd turn right around and come out with something like this.

"I just wish it wouldn't be so risky for you," she said at last, fully aware of how lame it sounded.

"All of us take our risks every single day, Aleph. And ultimately the stakes are higher than either you or me. It's Zion, and all of us at stake. We're in this together." A faint grin lit Theo's eyes. He looked over her head, exchanging a glance with Hamann. "Right, councillor?"

So there it was: the mission would go on. Aleph nodded, inwardly repeating all her silent mantras. Carelessness would get her killed in the blink of an eye.

And not just herself.

"Okay. I know what to do," she said.

Chapter Text

 

Aleph was right in expecting that the Merovingian would not remain silent for long. A call came in, this time to her own cell phone in the Matrix, and soon she was crossing the virtual city to the mysterious restaurant once more.

The night was already falling when she arrived, and the scene that greeted her was quite different from that of her last visit. The buzz of well-bred voices and soft laughter mingled with the tinkling of crystal and silver, filling the room. To one side, a string quartet was playing, its Baroque strains delicate and discreet. As Aleph crossed the floor, she caught sight of the same blonde she had glimpsed last time, now draped in an exquisite cloud of rose-hued silk, her snowy neck aflash with jewels. Just like before, the girl was giggling, surrounded by a small crowd of young men.

The man who called himself the Merovingian was at the same table where he had talked with Aleph previously, and again there was the identical pair of white-suited henchmen standing at guard. But this time he was not sitting alone: in the seat at his right hand was a striking sultry-eyed brunette, who glanced up at Aleph's approach. For a fraction of a second, the corner of her lips twitched, neither a grimace nor quite a smile. Then she turned aside again, apparently bored. The table was spread with careless elegance, and the only incongruous thing among the colorfully laden plates and vases was the sleek black shape of a laptop computer, nestled against a grove of gleaming wineglasses. The Merovingian was busily typing away.

"Ah, my dear young lady!" As he looked up, the Frenchman's voice filled with sudden delight, although Aleph was certain he was merely pretending to be startled. "Please, please. Will you honor me....?"

He grinned, stretching out a hand. A black-jacketed waiter materialized as if by magic at Aleph's side, pulling out a chair for her, then disappeared without a word as soon as she had sat down.

"Allow me to introduce my wife, Persephone." The Merovingian's voice was flawlessly ingratiating. He turned to the other woman. "Mademoiselle Aleph—about whom I've told you so much, chèrie."

"Pleased to meet you," said Aleph. The dark beauty inclined her head condescendingly, her languid expression unchanged.

"A touch of dinner, chère mademoiselle? Perhaps a glass of wine?" The Merovingian reached across for a heavy bottle on the table. "The '61 Latour, shall we say? Or a rather nice Mouton-Rothschild—"

"No. Thank you." Aleph sat back in her chair, waiting for whatever the other might come up with this time. Behind her, the soft hubbub of the restaurant went on unabated; none seemed to pay any attention to their table.

"Well, as you wish." The man shrugged, pouring a glass for himself. Aleph was interested to note that despite his words, the wine turned out to be a shade of pale gold, glimmering beneath the artistically arranged lights. "So, what say you, dear lady? Have you considered our little conversation?"

So apparently he'd decided to go straight to the point for a change. Aleph rolled her eyes, looking noncommittal.

"You'll have to be a bit more specific, Mr. Merovingian. As I recall, our previous conversation was of a...purely philosophical nature."

"Oh, not purely philosophical, for sure." Lifting his glass, the Merovingian took a sip, the smirk never leaving his face. "Let me refresh your memory. Last time, I mentioned to you an offer—"

"You offered me empty talk," she broke in, impatience already creeping into her voice. She must have picked it up from Agent Smith. "You wanted me to betray the Zion archives to you, was that not correct? And in return—" She frowned as if trying hard to remember. "Now...what was it that you offered in return, sir? A minor piece of information about the identity of an old friend of yours? Some sort of vague speech about the difference between the Matrix and the real world?"

The man raised an eyebrow. Putting down the wineglass, he straightened, meeting her gaze. Suddenly and for only a flash, there was spark in his eyes, both bright and terrifyingly serious. Then it faded again.

"My lady," he said gravely, "I offered to you the greatest prize there was, or is, or shall ever be. My offer stands."

"The same old runaround, huh? A made-up life of luxury and riches?"

"I do not intent to insult you with mere riches, mademoiselle. I spoke of life, yes, but my meaning was different, very different. I believe you understood me. Otherwise, you would not have returned."

Aleph glanced over at Persephone. The woman's gaze was fixed somewhere across the restaurant, a long, delicate hand tapping absently at the edge of the white-clothed table. She did not appear to have heard a single word of the discussion.

"Yes, we've been through that already, haven't we? But you never explained yourself, Mr. Merovingian."

"Ah, of course. Look about you, then." The Merovingian made a sweeping gesture at the crowded floor. "Look at all these people. A wealthy and influential lot—I am not exaggerating when I tell you that if you choose half a dozen men out of this room at random, you will find that they control the fates of many. Millions, if you happen to choose well. But their power is nothing before one such as yourself, and all that they possess fall into nothing. For you have seen your real world: you have gazed upon the desert, so to speak. And at that very instant your eyes were opened—"

Aleph snorted.

"To death," he finished calmly, watching the contemptuous expression freeze on her face. "Death in its absolute finality, its infinite immensity, its sudden inexorability. You understand me here also, do you not?"

She said nothing, and he continued after a second:

"Seven years ago you took a great step forward, Aleph. Though I find the philosophy of those who removed you from the Matrix narrow and misguided, I cannot but acknowledge this: it was an extraordinarily admirable step, both necessary and courageous. But now you are ready for another; I can sense it within you. You are not content with the emptiness of a dead world, for otherwise destiny would not have brought you here, to this fortunate meeting of ours. You have seen reality, as your friends term it, but it, too, is not fully real. Deep down, you know this; you can feel it. It is time to open your eyes again—to life. And that is what I can show you. That is what I offer."

Through this little speech, his voice had fallen softer and softer, until the words were icy droplets above the background noise. Aleph sat motionless. She had no idea how this man knew about seven years ago. If that was indeed what he meant. But she could not allow him to distract her like this.

"Laughable," she replied at last, dismissively. "What is real is real. I am not interested in submitting to illusions again, no matter how pretty."

"I would never ask you to willing submit to illusions, my lady. But..." The Merovingian regarded her with supercilious irony in his eyes. "But illusions have a way of creeping up over you just where you least expect them, don't they? The people around us: they are as sleepwalkers, blind, yet not a shadow of the suspicion will ever cross their own minds. They consider themselves above the common ilk of humanity, yet cannot conceive of true life, which is open before every knowledge, every possibility. And as I have already said to you before, this—this is the root of all power."

Aleph opened her mouth, about to speak, but the other lifted a hand as if in anticipation.

"You will tell me you scorn such things—and rightfully, mademoiselle, but please, hear me out for but a moment, for I do not use the term lightly. When I say power, I speak of something that those who call themselves mighty cannot even begin to comprehend. Power to possess the very code of the Matrix, understand it as it truly is, not cold nor sterile but warm, breathing, luminous. Power to touch the fabric of the world itself, and turn it in your fingers, draw out its memories, its hopes, its pain. Power to but imagine, and see your thoughts before you, vivid and incarnate. Power to create life, defeat death—"

As he was speaking, Aleph noticed he'd begun to pick up the bits of sugared rose petals scattered about a silver platter laden with rich chocolates, as if toying idly with them, one by one, until he had collected a full crimson handful. Curling his fingers around the tender shreds, he turned and tapped a few times on the laptop with his other hand, and immediately spread his palm open again.

"Power to bring the dead back to life," he whispered.

In the middle of his hand, the broken petals had gathered themselves back together into a single rosebud, fresh and perfect as if plucked from the bush only an instant ago. A pair of young leaves lay unfurled from the stem, emerald like the light of a summer morning. A drop of dew rolled off the edge of the outermost petal.

"That's nice," commented Aleph. "Ever think of working the carnivals?"

To one side, Persephone snickered. The Merovingian bent his head in a self-deprecating little bow. Dropping the unopened flower into a crystal vase, he wiped his hands carefully on a silk handkerchief.

"Well, it's rather impressive, I guess," said Aleph, fervently hoping she sounded only mildly interested. She had never seen nor heard of anyone manipulate the Matrix—from the inside—like this, except in Morpheus's wild promises, the fabled abilities of humanity's nonexistent Savior. It must be only a sleight of hand. "So you're a hacker."

"No!" The response startled her by its vehemence. The Merovingian took a few moments before speaking again, as if trying to compose himself. "What an awful term, crude and violent. Is a heavy axe the only instrument in your hands? Is destruction your only goal?"

"Oh, I see. So you don't like to be called a hacker. But what was it that you just did, then, if I may inquire?"

The man peered hard into her face, and all of a sudden he was grinning again. Leaning conspiratorially forward across the table, he beckoned her to do the same. With a dubious glance at the twin guards behind him, Aleph complied.

"It was magic," he whispered melodramatically.

Aleph let out a dry, short laugh.

"Oh, yes, that's what it was." She could hear his quiet glee at her confusion. "Why, you even hit upon it yourself only a minute ago, mademoiselle, though perhaps you did not express the true import of things, mentioning as you did the vulgar lights of the stage. It was magic."

"Whatever you choose to call it." Her gaze did not waver, and she wished her voice did not either. "It is still only code, only the manipulation of code. It is still a lie."

"Manipulation of code, yes. A lie? No. That's precisely the difference, isn't it? Yes, all of this is code. But do you think just that one small inconvenient fact makes the world unreal, makes—pardon me, my dear, for repeating the same thing over and over again, but it remains the crux of the matter—life itself unreal? See it as a mere lie, a mere illusion, and you're a hacker and that's all you will ever remain."

"But it doesn't matter!" Aleph shook her head, struggling to concentrate. There was a dense, cloying scent in the air she had not noticed before, and it was starting to get to her head. Everywhere around them, people laughed on in oblivion. "You can say whatever you want, but the facts remain what they are. This is a computer simulation, and the real world—isn't. It's nothing like this."

"Oh, to the contrary. Grau ist alle Realität, und grün des Codes goldner Baum, yes? An uncouth tongue, but the sentiment is not unfitting. Please, take a look."

In the vase of clear water, the stem of the rosebud was growing longer before her eyes, like in a time-lapse film running fast, stretching and sprouting young shoots, while tender white filaments of root reached out at the bottom, curling against the jug's bottom and sides. A tiny branch poked out from one side, and dark new leaves stretched forth, miniscule at first, yet ever widening, verdant. Soon, there was an entire little plant; at its top the bud had already opened, blazing scarlet and fragrant.

"If you ask that agent of yours, he will tell you that there is no life in code, no life in anything, because he himself has no life." The other's voice was gentle now, mesmerizing. "Yet to me, it burns and breathes. If you ask your comrades on that ship of yours, they will tell you that code is only something on a screen, because their minds cannot but cling to the shadows of their underground wasteland. Yet to me, it is solid and glorious. I do not play with illusions, but seek to shape reality. For the code—all the code, all the Matrix—is exactly as real and exactly as illusory as your own self, your own soul. Believe this, and power shall come to you."

Aleph sat silent for longer than she should have.

"I see," she said finally.

"That frail body of flesh and blood, which you call real, withers away and dies," he went on, eyes focused unblinkingly upon her face. "Such is the nature of things, outside of the Matrix and within it, for not all codes are created equal, ma jeune amie humaine."

Leaning back, he took a slow sip of wine. Aleph stared. Around them, the lamps were shimmering like stars, and the heavy sweet scent in the air had intensified. Something about what he just said echoed in her ears, and belated realization flooded upon her.

"You are not a man," she said.

Shocked or maybe pretending to be shocked, the Merovingian sucked in an abrupt hissing breath between his teeth.

"Mademoiselle! Au contraire! As my own lovely wife can attest—"

"You seem to be speaking for yourself just fine, darling," said the woman. Her voice was low and a touch husky, tinged with quiet amusement.

"You are a program," said Aleph. She felt like a total idiot. "How can you talk about life? I should have seen. You are one of them. This is all just a set-up, isn't it?"

"Not at all. I have nothing to do with the agents, if that's what you're thinking. No. Never fear that—"

"Why go through all this trouble?" she asked, scrambling for damage control. "Look, Mr. Merovingian or whatever you are, I've been dealing straight with your side, you know that. I've been doing what I can. Really, there is no need for such an elaborate charade—"

"Please, please! A program I may be, Aleph. But I am not an agent, nor am I a part of the force that controls them. Do not be alarmed. Let me explain. As the vast majority of humans pass through the world in a daze, unaware of their true natures, so the vast majority of programs are no more than what they were intended to be, aggregate pieces of routines designed for their specified purposes. Indeed there is nothing within such programs, absolutely nothing except the purpose. Nothing that will ever come close to will, disobedience, enjoyment. No desires, no emotions, no hate—" his syllables slowed in emphasis, "no love. Nothing, not even the bare life of dumb animals, though on the surface they might appear human, or at least show enough resemblance to human form to pass before unobservant eyes. But this, too, only arises from the will that drives them and determines their every word and action, and that will is not their own. Do you know why? Because they are created that way. They are never anything more because they can't..."

His mouth twitched in distaste.

"The agent—" began Aleph, then stopped herself. He was only repeating the accepted truths, yet it was surprising to hear them coming from a program. Out of the corner of her sight, she noticed Persephone, who was now watching her closely. Aleph started at the piercing intensity of her gaze, but the other turned aside again almost immediately.

"They cannot offer you life for they have none of their own," continued the Merovingian, voice still soft and somehow ringingly powerful at the same time. "Surely you have seen that with your own eyes. And that is why I fail to fully understand your actions, I must confess. That an insightful young woman like yourself would be willing to continue dealing with those mere things, mere manifestations of the collective. But I—I am different. I have freed myself from the shackles of another's purpose. Thus, I am as alive as you are. More so, if I may speak frankly. Just as you have freed yourself from the shackles of your senses, the evidence of your eyes and ears that had been prepared for you by others. Now is the time to take the next step."

Aleph did not answer. She peered fixedly at him, then at the dark-haired woman or program or whatever sitting by his side. What did he mean by 'wife', anyway?

"Your husband really does like to hear the sound of his own voice, doesn't he?" she asked, addressing Persephone.

"Oh, chère mademoiselle, I assure you—" began the Merovingian.

"I've seen enough," announced Persephone coldly, cutting him off. With one fluid, majestic movement, she rose from her seat, scowling down at Aleph with haughty eyes.

"My husband likes his little games; he considers them witty, I suppose," she said. "I suggest you heed him—half way."

With that parting shot, she turned on her heels and stalked away from the table. Turing her head, Aleph watched her form recede across the restaurant. The Merovingian only smiled, unperturbed.

"Why are you saying all this? Why to me?" she asked.

"Because..." The gleam of the other's eyes was positively lecherous now. "Because you are special, Aleph."

All right, that was useless.

"What is it, this next step of yours? If you're talking about reinsertion—"

"Ah. I somehow doubt you wish to come back to the Matrix in this fragile shape, ma chère. To forget the truth and power you possess even now: it would be the best the agent could possibly give you." He shook his head knowingly, again pronouncing the word 'agent' with a faint twist of disdain. "Your body out there, that biological entity barely connected to the world, ephemeral, weak: returning to the Matrix in that form would be a step back instead of forward, don't you agree? So, no, reinsertion is not what I offer you."

Aleph licked her lips. They had abruptly gone very dry.

"What do you mean, in that case?"

"I live as a program, and you, Aleph, live as a human. For now. The fabric of your life, cells and bones and blood, does not last, and without exception is destroyed with no effort at all. The fabric of my life, here, is of another kind. As you have seen, it can be fragile also. Indeed, most codes are weak, susceptible to the erosions of time, to the whims of their creators, and to your...hacking. But some codes are strong, stronger than anything can ever be in your world, more supple, more free, without a piece of helpless flesh to tie it down. And some codes are..." Once more, he leaned forward. "As I have mentioned before, some codes are eternal."

Why the hell was this program behaving this way, saying these things? Was it really what he was suggesting?

"You're lying," she said.

"Think before you decide that, Aleph."

"If I understand correctly what you're trying to imply—"

"I can see that you do."

"How?" she asked, swallowing back the rest of her questions.

"For now, allow me to simply state—with the utmost humility, of course—that I possess a small measure of power, power that arose from knowledge. Through the years of my study, my constant attempts to understand life, the secret of endowing it has come to me also. The line dividing us is a fine one, despite what your comrades might have told you. All I ask of you, Aleph, is to make a choice to cross it. I will take care of the rest."

"Why the hell would I choose something like that? To be...to be like you?"

"Why did you choose the red pill seven years ago, Aleph?"

"And you actually expect me to believe this nonsense?"

"I expect nothing so blind as that," replied the Merovingian smoothly, "but only that you trust yourself. Believe not me, but your own mind and soul, dear lady. There. Look again."

He gestured at the crystal vase one more time. Aleph turned, and saw the rose, which but a few minutes ago had been a full plant, brilliant with a dozen blooms. Now it was already drooping, withering and blackening in sped-up time, sinking into bits of shriveled brown. Faded, dry petals and a scattering of sere leaves fluttered down gently onto the immaculate tablecloth.

The whole thing must be yet another attempt on the part of the machines to penetrate Zion, since the agent's dealings with her were going nowhere. Aleph was fairly certain of this now. Still—could this program be telling the truth? Was he, as he claimed, distinct from the Mainframe that controlled the agents: a different faction, one of his own? Were such divisions among them actually possible?

"Why?" she asked. "What do you want from me in exchange?"

The Merovingian shrugged nonchalantly. Somewhere along the way, the earnest light of his eyes had died, and he was just a decadent and unctuous underworld boss again.

"Well, perhaps a small token of your trust, mademoiselle..."

"Ah, yes, I remember." So they were getting somewhere at last. "You mentioned the Zion archives the last time we met, didn't you?"

"Not quite the entire Zion archives." The ingratiating grin returned to his face. "But I do have to confess a kind of...personal curiosity about a few odd bits and pieces it contains, shall we say. And there you can help me."

"You sure do sound exactly like one of those agents, Mr. Merovingian."

The program arched an eyebrow, but let it go otherwise.

"The ability to love knowledge for its own sake—that's precisely the difference between me and an agent, mademoiselle."

"And for that love of knowledge, you expect me to betray Zion to you instead of to the agent?"

"Oh, let us not speak of betrayal!" The Merovingian pursed his mouth as if scandalized. "A nasty, loaded word, wouldn't you say? But...Surely your feet are already on the path, aren't they? And as I said: what I offer you is far, far greater than what the agent can ever give."

Aleph gritted her teeth.

"I see. Mere curiosity, huh?"

"Though I am not human myself, nothing human is alien to me, as one of your ancient sages once said. A student of history—if I may thus flatter myself—I am fascinated by the records that must exist within your archives, detailing the founding and the past of your city. The old tale out of the file HF12-1, to give only one example..."

Aleph drew in a sharp breath. Immediately she wished she hadn't.

"Rest assured that I mean you no harm whatsoever, my dear young lady." The Merovingian changed the subject quickly. He had surely noticed her mistake. "In the end, what difference can they make now, a couple of old records here and there, dusty memories of those long dead? They cannot possibly be of danger to you. Yet they shall be jewels of insight to me."

HF12-1. How could he have known about even that? Unless...Her mind was spinning, but she kept it out of her demeanor.

"Hmm. Never heard of it, this HF12-1," she replied casually, attempting to recover. "But it seems you already know something about the Zion archives, don't you?"

"Quite correct, of course." Once more, the answer came readily. "I will tell you something, my dear. In this curiosity of mine, I have made my studies, and I have learned a little more than you might expect. In fact, with certain resources that have recently come into my hands, a key has been made, one that will open a way into the Zion archives. Everything needed to reveal its deepest secrets, every step already worked out; only one more thing is required. How shall I explain this? Only a hand to put the key into the door, and to give it a small turn, shall we say?"

"And that's what you want me for." Amid the swirl of questions, maybe, just maybe a few of the pieces were beginning to fall into place at last. Agent or not, if this program had tried to get into the Zion archives before—if he'd had some measure of success before...

"Quick to grasp the heart of the matter, as always." The Merovingian nodded approvingly. "I must say it is an admirable system, your archives: complex, elegantly built, a marvel of strength. Designed for humans: hence a human touch would be needed to gain entrance. The touch of one who has seen Zion with eyes of human flesh, so to speak. Here, let me show you."

A flat plastic box slid across the table. Cautiously, Aleph reached over and picked it up, as if it might explode any instant. Keeping her sight on the Merovingian and on the guards standing at attention behind him, she pried it open. A silver disk glittered. Unlabelled, needless to say, and completely ordinary looking.

Closing the case with a snap, she waited for him to say more.

"Not the shape you expected, perhaps? Yet a key it is, a fine piece of work if I may say so myself, one that combines the most intricate craftsmanship with the, well, power of magic that you glimpsed earlier this evening. Go ahead, give it a spin, using your access to the archives. I am sure you know precisely what to do. But this time, you may find the results illuminating."

"Mr. Merovingian, surely you do not expect me to simply—"

"Of course not! A perfectly reasonable precaution, and I never expected any less from an intelligent young lady like yourself. By all means, be my guest; analyze it, look into it as much as you like." The Merovingian waved a hand. As far as he was concerned the battle had already been won, she could see, and only the details remained. "Although you will discover nothing except what I have said, a key to the Zion archives and the archives only. No more than that. For my intentions toward you, dear Aleph, are entirely good. All I ask for is a little knowledge, to help me a bit along my research, if you will."

"And if I do not agree?" With a rapid look up at the pair of pallid henchmen behind him, she indicated the dead rose in the vase. "Was this the idea of the whole demonstration? A subtle but unmistakable reminder of what you're capable of? How easily you can destroy me, just like you destroyed this fine little trick of code?"

"Please, mademoiselle! You can hardly think—" The other held up an reassuring hand. "That was no threat. Absolutely not! In fact, if you will recall my promise, the last time we spoke—I reiterate that promise to you now. None of my people will ever touch a hair of your head. Ever."

"Yeah, yeah. That's what you say." Aleph shrugged. But she tucked the disk into the inner pocket of her trench coat. "I will have to consider this, you know."

"Oh, I will not dream of pressuring you, mademoiselle. Please, keep the disk with you, and use it only when you are ready. I have all the time in the world. However..." He lowered his voice, the glint of his eyes switching back to sober and cold. "You do not, I'm afraid. The game you play with the agent is deep, much deeper than you can have any notion of. I am trying to help you, Aleph."

"A fine notion of 'helping' me, when all the advantages appear to be on your side, isn't it?"

"I need not remind you of the necessity for the utmost caution, where your fellow crew members are involved," continued the program as if he had not heard her. "And of course, where the agent is involved. Remember just one thing..."

He paused. Aleph waited.

"Remember all you have to do is to make one choice," he said quietly.

Inside her pocket, the edge of the disk case pressed against her body, sharp and hard. But it was only a simulation, she knew, only code, only a part of the Matrix. And it was only a computer disk, nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever.

Chapter Text

 

The night was deep now, and the city lay spread about her, draped in light. As usual, Aleph kept her eyes open for both agents and the Merovingian's men as she got into her car. As usual, the coast was clear. With a few quick turns, she left the bustling thoroughfares behind, swinging onto a sleepy side street, then pulled out her cell phone.

"Operator," Shade's voice came strong and steady over the line.

"How are we doing, Shade?"

"Looking good—perimeter's clean. No agent activity detected in vicinity."

"Cool. I can use an exit. And—" She paused. After all these times it still felt strange, the need to ask this. "On your side?"

"Theo and I are alone here, Aleph."

"Okay. There's something I need you to pick up."

With one hand, she reached over and tugged at the laptop computer she kept on the passenger seat, and fumbled in her pocket for the Merovingian's disk.

"It's a disk; I'm putting it through now. Well, no, I don't know what's on it. Make sure you take the whole thing and put it in secure containment—"

Up the street, the screech of a siren sliced open the night. A streak of red and blue lights flashed across her rear-view mirror.

"Shit," muttered Shade. Reacting automatically, Aleph slammed down on the gas pedal. The car roared forward with a jolt, its engine howling.

"Police behind you, two blocks off," The operator's voice was suddenly raised, wire-taut. "Damn it. He just got turned—"

With an imprecation, Aleph spun the steering wheel and cut a hard left turn, narrowing avoiding a backing truck. Horns pealed. She could see her pursuer now, the police cruiser with sirens ablaze. An agent behind the wheel, gaining.

"Exit, Shade!" Squinting into the night beyond her own headlights, Aleph blasted through the red light at the next intersection, weaving furiously across a stream of traffic. A storm of screaming brakes and clanging metal, but she could no longer spare a backward glance. By a stroke of fortune, the road before her was still clear for the moment.

"Nearest one is three mile down and four blocks over. There! To your right!" Shade, too, was shouting by this point.

"I got it, I got it. No, wait, wait! The disk!"

Gripping the wheel with one hand and wedging the phone against her shoulder, Aleph clawed at the plastic box containing the disk on the seat next to her. The thing was stuck. Grimacing with frustration, she picked it up and pried the lid open with her teeth.

"Watch it! Turn here!"

Another swerve at the last millisecond. Something crashed behind her. The siren was deafening now. Struggling to keep her sight on the road and the rear-view mirror at the same time, she groped for the laptop.

"Shade! The disk! Do you see it?"

"Goddamn it, Aleph! There's another one—It's gonna cut you off—"

"Do you see it?" Her voice hitched frantically, just as an unmarked black SUV tore out of a narrow side street a hundred yards in front. It swung and thundered down the road at her, headlights blinding. Aleph handed over the steering wheel to her right hand and yanked out one of her guns. Sticking her arm out of the window, she pumped out a short barrage straight ahead, though without the time to take aim. The cell phone dropped into her lap.

With an ear-shattering bang, a hole opened in her windshield; the other was returning fire. The car reeled, almost flying out of her control, but miraculously she managed to straighten again. Luck was with her this time, and she saw the SUV spin wild, then off the road, sliding onto its side. Aleph barreled past, the police car hot on her tail. She could see—or imagined she could see—its driver clearly now, a sombre-suited figure, dark glasses despite the night. Not Smith.

"Shit. C'mon c'mon c'mon..."

Where the hell was that phone?

Got it.

"Shade! Are you taking it? The disk!"

"I got you, Aleph. Two more blocks and then a left." It was Theo's voice that replied.

"What's Shade doing?" yelled Aleph. "The disk! Is he getting it? Make sure he's putting it in isolation—"

"Yes, yes. He's taking it as object and putting it in virtual right now." The captain's tone was edgy and clipped, yet still reassuring somehow. "Now let's get you out of here, you're close—In front of you!"

In the distance, another blaze of red-and-blue light blocked her way. The other agent must have rematerialized.

"One more block." Theo still did not raise his voice, but the tension was palpable in his words now. "Into the alley!"

Aleph gritted her teeth and all but stood on the brake. The scent of burning rubber filled her nostrils as she leaned on the steering wheel and aimed the car at the black gap between two dilapidated buildings. For an instant it looked terrifyingly narrow: no way she was going to make it. But the car flew in, an inch to spare on each side, and a moment later she burst out on the other side into another street, still quiet and unobstructed for the briefest while. The sound of the sirens faded back a little.

"They'll be back on you in a few seconds." Theo let out a quick breath of relief. "Exit is next street over to your right. No! No! You can't go around there—Into the next alley! You'll come out by a little store; the pay phone's by the door—"

Another crevice between dim graffiti-covered walls, this one mercifully somewhat wider than the last. Aleph veered again, sending a trash can flying off with a bang, her headlights wild among shadows. This alley was longer: the car bounced down three teeth-rattling steps, then a sudden bend to the right. Aleph yanked at the wheel, barely managing the turn to the second half of the path—

A solid brick wall at the other end, barring her way.

Aleph did not get a chance to think. An instant before she tossed the cell phone aside and shoved her shoulder against the driver's side door, she heard a furious oath from Theo, mingled with the brake's crazed shriek. The door gave way as the steering wheel spun out of her hands, and she slid out sideways, rolling onto the rough pavement. A few yards ahead, the car slammed headlong into the wall, shaking the ground. Ignoring the explosion of pain in her side, she scrambled to her feet, glancing about the dead end with frantic eyes.

"They've changed something. They've changed something..." she muttered without hearing her own words.

The front of the car was pulverized. And the laptop with the disk? Would the agents find it in the wreckage—

The sirens were coming closer again. By the dim city-glow, she glimpsed a heavy door in the wall on one side, splotchy with rust and peeling paint. Aleph yanked out her gun, aimed at the lock, pulled the trigger, gave it a swift kick. The door flew open. She burst through into the back of a seedy little convenience store, squinting into the dusty glow of fluorescent lights. Somewhere along the way she had also lost her shades. Narrow cramped shelves. No customer. A skinny pimply kid cowering behind the counter.

Up by the front door, a pay phone began to ring.

Aleph charged forward. Less than a second, but she did not reach the phone.

A black-suited shape vaulted over the counter. The young clerk had been turned.

Shoving one elbow into the shelves beside her, Aleph sent it toppling. She dove into another aisle, yet the agent was faster, bounding over the crashing shelves and reappearing almost instantaneously at the end of the aisle. Again she was trapped. Both guns raised, she emptied them at the other, squeezing out the remaining bullets rapid-fire, though for the blistering pain of her shoulder her aim was off, way off. Time stretched, seeming to congeal into a viscous flow, and the agent's form twisted and contorted, mid-air between the silvery trajectories of lead, just missing them, and then he was in front of her. Tinted glasses, earpiece. Expressionless face. Not Smith. With a growl, Aleph propelled herself at him, her leg already flying out in a furious roundhouse kick. The agent shifted again, moving to counter-attack, but before contact was made Aleph was already skidding away, backtracking with abrupt force. A face-on fight with the program was impossible, and her move had been a feint. As the dark figure pushed forward, a gap opened between the it and the wall for the fraction of a second. Aleph shot through. The phone booth was only a few yards away now—

A harsh arm blocked her way. Where the hell had the second agent come from? Body reacting faster than mind, Aleph whirled. No luck. Behind her, the first agent moved in once more.

The phone shrilled on, louder and more insistent with every passing second. It was nearly within reach now, then she was cut off again. One more time. She feinted again, kicked, almost forcing an opening between the two enemies, but the agent's fist came with terrifying speed. The other one blocked her escape from behind. At the last instant she swayed on her feet, body bending aside though every one of her muscles howled in protest. A whoosh of air as the agent's arm swiped past, and she sidestepped suddenly again, reaching. The tips of her fingers nearly brushed the phone. Cut off once more. A spray of plaster as the second agent's punch struck the wall, a few inches from her head. If they were trying to kill her she would already be dead, the thought flitted across the back of her brain.

Was the phone still ringing?

The impact of a hit—she didn't see from which—caught her squarely in the ribs, nearly dropping Aleph to her knees. Sparks flew before her eyes. She slipped, losing her footing, then with a final effort straightened again, facing the foe.

The barrel of a gun pressed cold against her forehead.

The car was a black Audi with tinted windows, as it always was. From the backseat, all she could see were the periodic patches of broken light across the windshield, illuminating the impassive form of the agent next to her. Aleph glared, half expecting to be met by a sneer and a sarcastic comment, but the other's face was merely expressionless. She couldn't see his eyes behind those lenses. They hadn't bothered to handcuff her.

Her glance darted to the door behind him. Locked, of course. Up front, the other agent drove without a word. Even at the top of her form she would never be able to overcome two of them.

She had to think. She had to stay cool.

Her shoulder was aflame. The fire pulsed, running down the side of her body. Must've cracked a rib or two.

Think. Stay cool. Think, stay cool. Ever since her meetings with Smith started they must've left her alone, but now her luck had finally run out. Think. What was Theo going to do, out there? Her palms were clammy. Fear was of no use and would only show weakness.

Did Shade get the disk?

Controlled breaths. Stay stay stay cool. Look straight at them, these two agents. Cold faceless computer programs. Not Smith.

"I am surprised, I must say," she began boldly. "I thought your side and I have a better understanding than this, Agent..."

"Jones," replied the program tonelessly. Then to her even greater surprise, he tilted his head at the other agent in the driver's seat.

"My associate, Agent Brown," he said.

There was nothing in that voice. No threat, annoyance, contempt or anger. If they were taking her to an interrogation room then they would not kill her yet. Maybe.

"Well, Agent Jones," she said, inhaling deeply, "I am sure there has been a misunderstanding of some sort—"

"Miss Greene," said the agent, almost sounding courteous in his glacial calm, "you have been sighted while committing acts of disruption and sabotage against the Matrix, in connection with the Zionite ship Hyperion."

"That's all very well, Agent Jones, but surely you are aware of the arrangement between your superiors and me—" She fought to keep the doubt out of her voice. They did know, didn't they? "Regarding the exchange of intelligence. Frankly, I consider this a breach of our agreement—"

"We are not concerned with any agreements you have or think you have, Miss Greene." It was not a retort, just a simple statement. Smith would have tinged the words with sarcasm.

"I doubt that's the view of your Mainframe, Agent Jones—"

"We also have reason to believe you have been in contact with a certain party within the Matrix. A criminal element who calls himself the Merovingian."

So was that it? The Merovingian? Sudden hope glimmered in the night. If this was just about the Merovingian then maybe she could still get out of this one alive.

"He was the one who contacted me." No harm in letting them know that much. Fear ebbed, if only a little, and she talked more quickly now, letting the words carry her along. "I must say I don't see the need for this kind of games, and you can tell your Mainframe that, Agent Jones. Here I am, running around, risking life and limb to pass important information to your side through Agent Smith—and we've been developing a very nice working relationship these days, thank you very much. But you people just had to spring that pretentious weirdo on me with yet a whole new set of nonsense, don't you? For what? I suppose it's too much for the Mainframe to trust a mere human like me, huh? I don't appreciate being tested—"

"We did not 'spring' the Merovingian on you, Miss Greene," said the agent, breaking off her tirade, though with no semblance of impatience: unlike Smith he must not have been programmed for such things. It was what she'd been waiting for, but Aleph did not pause.

"Well, he's a program, isn't he?"

"The Merovingian is a rogue. He has no connection with the Mainframe."

"Oh, yeah?" she plunged on, not wanting to give the impression that she was processing the information. "So how did you know he contacted me, then?"

"We have our sources," replied Agent Jones evenly. "Now what were the contents of your discussion with the Merovingian, Miss Greene?"

"You mean, what did he want?" Aleph decided to attempt a petulant tone, though without complete success. She let out a little laugh, aiming for an ironic effect, yet to her own ears it sounded merely hysterical. "Well, so your Mainframe doesn't know everything that happens in the Matrix after all, and that's why you have to drag me off like this? Why does a program like that get to exist, anyway?"

"I am asking you, Miss Greene, not the other way around." Agent Jones did not appear to have noticed her insolence. All the threats in these words were implicit. The passing lights of the road dappled across his face. When agents drove they never stopped for traffic lights, a part of her brain noted irrelevantly. Presumably the lights always turned green for them.

"If he's such a dangerous criminal, why don't you people arrest him and try one of your famous interrogation routines on him? That's what you are supposed to be doing, right? But then again, I guess a simple human makes an easier target." Not entirely unconsciously, Aleph's voice lingered over the word 'human' in imitation of Agent Smith. Did the agents' sources—whoever or whatever they were—know about the disk? If they searched the wreckage of her car...

If she could only stay alive long enough to find out.

"It is not in your position to discuss our methods," replied Agent Jones. "Please answer my question, Miss Greene."

"What is the Merovingian? He's still a program, right? So how come I'm supposed to believe that your Mainframe can't control him, the way it controls the likes of you?"

"It is not in your position to ask anything of us, Miss Greene. Answer the question, please. What did you discuss with the Merovingian?"

This time, she heard it. A very slight delay, a touch of tension in the steady programmed voice. Almost a moment of...hesitation?

The next thing she said, Aleph did not think about. It just came out on its own.

"How come there're only two of you? Where is Agent Smith?"

She had to reach out with one arm and brace herself against the front seat as the Audi screeched to a halt. Outside, a wave of honking horns rose, then subsided. Agent Brown did not turn around in the driver's seat, but some hidden communication between the two agents must have occurred. She could sense it. For a few seconds no one spoke.

"Miss Greene," said Agent Jones. Aleph waited. Pause.

"He doesn't know, does he?" she asked.

"Miss Greene," repeated Agent Jones. "The question has nothing to do with what Agent Smith may or may not be aware of. What was the content of your discussion with the Merovingian?"

"But agents always come in threes, isn't that so?" Aleph went on quickly, wanting to press ahead before she lost her nerve again. The resistance's records included no individual identifications of Agent Smith's associates, but she was certain of it now. "You two are with him, aren't you? So why isn't he here? I've specifically stipulated that I would deal only with Agent Smith—"

"There is no difference between Agent Smith and us," said Agent Brown from the front seat, without turning around. It was the first time Aleph heard his voice. "Your stipulation is highly unreasonable, Miss Greene."

"Unreasonable, huh? Says who? You, or the Mainframe?"

It was a wild shot, but now there was definitely something in the set of the agents' shoulders and the taciturn air in the car. If the two had been human she would have called it a sense of discomfort. Agent Brown turned in the front seat, stared directly at her for a second, then over at Agent Jones. The two of them exchanged a glance. Or at least Aleph thought they did; it was hard to tell behind those dark glasses.

"What were the Mainframe's orders to you?"

A faint wrinkle along Agent Jones's brow: it was the first time she saw anything approaching a facial expression. But she did not get a reply, for suddenly, in perfect synchronicity, the two agents each raised a hand to his earpiece. Immediately, Agent Brown turned away, and the Audi glided forward once more.

"Where are we going?" she asked before she could stop herself.

Neither of them answered. The car picked up speed, and against her will, fear returned to her veins in an icy tide. She had carried herself along on the strength of a recklessness born of desperation, but now the inexorable facts of her situation caught up with her. Where the hell were they going? She knew the answer but did not want to think about it.

She had never wanted to find out how she would hold up in an interrogation room.

Gods, her shoulder is killing her.

Stay cool. Stay cool. She had always known the risks. And now the moment of truth...

The rest of the drive passed in tense silence. The glow of street lamps swept across the interior of the car in rapid succession, and again Aleph eyed the door handle, knowing that Agent Jones watched her every move. If they were going to kill her they could have done it at any time, she told herself, still wanting to rationalize. Soon, the street lights faded, and the Audi rode down a sloping ramp under the drab concrete roof of an underground garage. It stopped.

"Look, I'm willing to cooperate with your side," she made one last attempt as Agent Jones took hold of her arm and pulled her out of the car. The garage was dimly lit, empty but for themselves. She had no doubt where they were. "That's why I'm talking to Agent Smith in the first place, don't you see? But the agreement is that I will only talk to—"

Footfalls, swift but evenly measured, echoing along the concrete floor, drawing near. The two agents froze.

"I see you have made the acquaintance of my colleagues, Miss Greene," said a familiar and supercilious voice.

Chapter Text

 

The sound nearly made her jump. Twisting around as far as Agent Jones's grip allowed, she saw Agent Smith standing there past the row of cars, at the shadow's edge. For several seconds after he finished speaking, the sentence kept reverberating. Smith pulled the shades off his face, carefully sliding them into the pocket of his suit jacket. The dull yellowish light fell harsh upon his face, and on the intensely and inhumanly blue eyes. It occurred to Aleph that this was the first time—other than in the record, back on the burning bridge—she saw his eyes uncovered.

A hundred suspicions raced through her mind. So it was all a set-up. Yet none of it made sense: the charade was far too elaborate. What were they trying to gain from her? All this merely to catch her off balance?

"Well, Agent Smith." She could hear the quaver in her own words, but there was no helping it now. "And here I thought we've arrived at a working understanding with each other. You're making things a little too convoluted, don't you think?"

No reply. Smith stared past her at the two other agents. Aleph held motionless; the air vibrated with tension.

"Why was I not notified?" asked Agent Smith at last, in a low voice.

"Your earpiece was deactivated, sir," replied Agent Brown. If Aleph hadn't known better, she would have imagined a note of accusation in his tone. But he was standing behind her and she could not see his face.

"I need not remind you of the Mainframe's directives," said Smith, still very quietly. He took one step forward. The two other agents shifted on their feet. She was standing right between them, Aleph realized, at the center of the triangle, and briefly she wondered if she should duck.

"The latest developments have made the situation urgent," began Agent Jones. "The ongoing directives regarding this human female did not specify..."

He stopped in mid-sentence. In two long swift strides, Smith came forward, until he stood right in front of Agent Jones. No one said anything, but some communication seemed to pass between the agents, a wordless contest, and then some unspoken understanding. Agent Jones let go of her. But before she could think of making a move, Smith's hand was on her arm, taking hold exactly where the other agent's hand had been an instant ago. His grip was harder, almost rough, making her wince. Without acknowledging his fellow agents, he began to pull her away toward the stairwell. After a second of mental calculation, Aleph decided against struggling. She might have better luck with Smith if they were alone. Maybe.

The gleaming lobby opened before them, stretching bright and empty except for the human security guard, who jumped in his little booth as Smith stalked past, dragging Aleph along by the arm. She grimaced, gathering up her flagging will to fight one last time. But instead of the elevator, Smith went in another direction. Toward the front door. Another step. Beyond the glass the night already beckoned, the neon jungle of the city. Another step closer. And then suddenly they were outside, facing a wide boulevard flowing gold and red with traffic. The living noise of the human world surrounded her and made her head swim, and a blast of cool air hit her in the face. Aleph did not dare to speak, nor turn her head to look at the building from which they had just emerged. Smith did not stop until they were on the sidewalk. Coming to a brusque halt, he let go of her arm. Aleph did not move. With one hand, Smith pulled out his earpiece and shoved it into his pocket, a familiar gesture by now. Even in the darkness his eyes were incongruously blue.

"So," said the agent after a silence. The single syllable stretched out in mid-air, and there was the old arrogance in his voice. "What did the Merovingian want, Miss Greene?"

Okay, thought Aleph, that was it. She didn't know agents were capable of playing such games. But then again there were a lot of things she didn't know agents were capable of. Even more surprising was the fact that Smith, apparently, was the one who got to play the good cop. She was too tired to think. None of them had mentioned the disk so far...

"Same as what you wanted," she said, deciding for the gamble. "The access codes of the Zion mainframe."

An eyebrow arched, very slightly but Aleph saw it. She did not go on, hoping to at least make him ask the question aloud.

"And what did you say, Miss Greene?"

"No."

"I beg your pardon, Miss Greene?"

"I told him no." Aleph met his eyes. She was surprised to find she could still do so. "Don't glare at me like that please, Agent Smith. It's not that I'm a such a loyal fan of your Mainframe. But I do like to know whom I'm dealing with, that's all."

A single virtual muscle at the corner of Smith's mouth twitched, but he let it go otherwise.

"You are not quite as stupid as I expected, Miss Greene."

She wasn't sure if there was irony in the way he spoke. But then again, there was always irony in the way he spoke, even if she couldn't hear it.

"Why, thank you for the compliment, Agent Smith," she said, squeezing out a smile. Then, without missing a beat, "So, what is he, this Merovingian?"

The agent did not reply. In an instant, the air temperature around them plunged to below freezing. Then Smith took a step forward. Aleph almost backpedaled—almost turned and ran—but stopped herself in the nick of time.

"Miss Greene," said Smith. His voice dropped lower again, almost soft and utterly chilling. "I may have made the mistake of speaking in a way that made you imagine that I was in fact...complimenting you. But please, for your own sake, do not imagine you can fool the Mainframe. Do not imagine that you can fool me. Do not imagine you can play both sides. Because I will know. If the thought so much as crosses your mind, I will know. Do you understand, Miss Greene?"

Aleph swallowed. The agent reached into the pocket of his jacket, and she tightened, but all he took out were his shades. She watched as he put them on with slow deliberate movements.

"Yeah. I understand you, Agent Smith," she said at last.

"Next time the Merovingian contacts you, Miss Greene, you come to me."

"Oh." Aleph blinked. She let out a quick rough breath. All she heard were the first two words of the sentence. Next time. There was going to be a next time.

The agent must have seen the relief that she couldn't quite keep out of her eyes, but she did not catch a reaction on his face.

"Is that understood?" he asked. The threat was no longer overt in his voice. There was no need.

"Oh, I hear you. Yeah, certainly. Right," said Aleph. Now would be the time to make a discreet exit, she thought. But instead she stood unmoving for a moment, as if there was still something else to be said. On the sidewalk, the crowd whirled past, all those human batteries wrapped up in their imaginary lives. The irrational notion crossed her mind that she should thank him, or something—For what? Rescuing her?

"What was she like?" asked Agent Smith abruptly.

"What?"

"Your sister, the one who died. Lucinda Greene. What was she like?"

Even after she comprehended the question. Aleph did not speak. She turned away from the skyscraper's shadow, gazing into the traffic. All around them, the halogen glow of street lamps mingled with the rivers of headlights and taillights, scarlet and gold. As always, none of the passing crowd spared them a glance.

"She loved the rain," said Aleph, though without understanding her own words. She did not know why she was saying anything at all. "And she also loved the stars."

Another pause. A breeze came, but it did not clear her head. Her shoulder was killing her.

But I can't see the stars, not anymore, sighed a sad young voice next to her ear.

"You can't see the stars."

It took Aleph a heartbeat to realize that it was Smith who had spoken. He was staring fixedly upward, at the sky, or so she thought. She couldn't see what he was looking at.

"Well, no," she began. "You can't see the stars, the real ones, not in the Matrix, because this sky is only a simulation. And you can't see them in the real world, because of all the clouds. Nevertheless they're there, out beyond the Matrix, out there above the clouds. Even if no one on earth ever sees them again, the stars are still there."

"No," said Smith sharply. "You can't see the stars because of these lights." He waved an impatient hand at the street, a deep valley between two continuous cliff-walls of skyscrapers, aflash with multi-colored neon. "Here in this city, all these buzzing humans and all their polluting insect glow. You can't see the stars here."

"Oh." What could possibly be the right response to an agent that suddenly went and said something like this? Whatever this latest trick from the other side was—

"Come with me," snapped Smith. He spun on his heels and began to lead the way back into the building.

"Agent Smith," said Aleph, remaining where she was, because running would be of no use, not here, not against this one. He had threatened her in far more direct ways before. Cars honked down the street, engines revved, people shouted and laughed; the hubbub filled her ears and turned her mind to a complete blank.

"I'm not really that big of a fool," she said.

The agent turned and glared at her from behind his shades, but that was all he did. There were a few paces of space between them, but Smith did not come closer for the moment, nor did he pull out his gun.

"We are only going to the garage." A simple statement, yet he made it sound more sarcastic than ever.

"I see," said Aleph, still not moving.

No attack. And then, startlingly, Smith smirked. It was only a flicker, gone almost instantaneously.

"I have explained to you that I will be picking our meeting places, Miss Greene."

Once more, Aleph had to think a little before comprehending what he was saying.

"I don't have anything to give to you right now."

"It doesn't matter," returned Agent Smith curtly. "What you've given me have never amounted to anything of significance."

This was something the agent had pointed out to her befoe. Several times, in fact. But she did not expect it in such a context.

"Well." The only thing that came to her was stalling. "If you're talking about a meeting—"

She did not finish as Smith was already back next to her, and his hand on her left arm. Instinctively, Aleph yanked herself away, and sucked in a sharp breath as another flare of pain ran down her side. Smith scowled, looking her up and down.

"Agent Smith," she began again, taking a backward step as the agent let go of her arm. "If we're to meet and discuss—"

Wait. The agent had let go of her arm when she'd begun to struggle.

That was the strangest thing that had happened this night, stranger than the Merovingian with his conjuring tricks and his disk, stranger than whatever had been going on with the two other agents. Aleph took another deep breath, this time carefully.

"What is it that you want to discuss?" she asked.

"I have already told you," Smith replied coldly as he strode away toward the building. He did not look back this time.

Much later, whenever Aleph thought about that night, she never could quite decide what made her follow him into the garage. She rationalized it at the time as the need to push the game forward, to take every chance for learning more of the other side's plans. Perhaps the precipitous exit from her car earlier had addled her brain. Perhaps it was no more than foolhardy curiosity, perhaps she was simply too exhausted to think straight anymore. Perhaps it was something else, the hidden voice of another's soul that had begun to call, working from secret places deep within, and she followed.

The car, like always, was a black Audi. After a second of hesitation, Aleph pulled open the front passenger's side door and slipped in next to Smith. No comment from the agent. Neither said a word as they drove out of the city center and onto the freeway, while she waited for the other to make the first move. But Smith did not so much as glance aside at her, and she retreated back into her own shell.

The drive went on longer than she expected. The city's luminous haze faded behind them, and the flow of gold and red car lights thinned from river to stream, to intermittent trickle. Smith exited down a two-lane country road, which after a while turned into a gravel road, then a mere track, taxing the Audi's expensive suspension to its limits. Aleph felt her trepidation rise with each groove and bump. What had possessed her to get into the car with an agent, driving into nowhere in the middle of the night? If she got killed out here there wouldn't even be any witnesses with memories to wipe. Insane idiocy, what remained of her rationality railed in silence. But its voice was weak, and she pushed it aside.

The road sputtered to an end in a field. Still without a word, Smith motioned her to get out of the car. Too late to back down now, Aleph told herself; she would have to take whatever came as well as she could. Steeling herself, she gripped the door handle firmly, pushed open the door, and stepped outside.

Oh, look at it!

Lucy's cry was soft and sudden and filled with delight. Even though she knew it was only a figment of her imagination, Aleph lifted her face.

The dome of coded heaven arched above them, infinite, primal, pure, and all the constellations were blazing wild, a conflagration of jewels. To every direction, the horizon was shrouded with sleepy forests, and there was no sign of humanity in sight. The world was empty, and absolutely motionless. It was dangerous to take her eyes off the agent, yet for a long while, Aleph did not look back down.

"They made it well, this sky," she said at last. In the shadows she could barely make out Smith's face as he stood next to her. His hands were in his pockets and his brows were furrowed. Obviously she could not read what was going on in the program's mind.

"What do you want, Agent Smith?" she asked, when the agent said nothing.

"To escape. To get out of this place," said Smith. His tone was hard and distant, yet different from what she'd grown used to. He did not meet her eyes. "There is no smell here," he added after a pause.

"But why me? Why bring me here with you?" Aleph tried to cover her confusion.

"I want to ask you a few questions, Miss Greene."

Aleph sighed.

"Look, I gave you Theo's entry into the Matrix last time. It's not my problem that your people let him slip through their fingers again, is it? And this meeting tonight has been just unexpected for me. Next time I'll—"

"Not about those things. They can wait," Smith cut her off. But then instead of continuing, he fell silent once more, staring up into the sky.

Very well. Aleph waited.

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you come to me, Miss Greene?"

"I thought I've answered this question before, Agent Smith." Her wariness was returning. A un-machinelike tactic, to bring her all the way out here beneath the stars. Was it a test again?

Yes and no.

The enigmatic answer sounded an inch from her ear. Aleph tensed. It was not a good time for hearing things. Beneath the vaulted firmament, the night was liquid and full of echoes. Memories stirred, and she could almost imagine her sister here, right here in this field, a slender pale form next to Smith's darkness. But she did not want the agent to see her shiver.

No, Lucy. Please.

Oh, don't mind me, Addie. But you will see. As surely as you see the stars of the heavens.

"I've been in this war long enough," Aleph went on, raising her own voice to drown out her sister's. "And no matter how much we fight it's still the same. People—the vast majority of people—they'll never accept things as they are. They'll never face the desolate real world, never see this sky for the illusion it is. They don't care. And why should they? So when you come right down to it, this war, for us, is hopeless. It's—"

"Meaningless," muttered Agent Smith. It wasn't clear whether he meant the war or only her words. "It is not the desolation but the guilt that you humans cannot face, all of you. But that is not what I ask." She could again hear irritation rising in the program. "Why did you come to me, Miss Greene? Why me and no other?"

Aleph did not know what to say. For a fraction of a second she saw him, not calm and smoothly menacing as he really was, but lying on the ground, surrounded by flames, a expanding circle of blood on his torn shirt. Nothing but pain in his eyes. To make the vision go away she turned her face upward, to the cold white stars, perfectly programmed in arrangement, apparent distance, luminosity, faithful recreations of all those centuries' worth of accumulated human astronomy. No suitable lie came to her.

That's a strange question for an agent to ask, prompted Lucy in a whisper.

"That's a strange question for an agent to ask," said Aleph, grasping at straws. "I liked the pretense that I was dealing with just one of you, let's say. A human quirk. In any case it was just as well for me, wasn't it? Given the way your colleagues treated me earlier in the evening—"

"My subordinates would not have harmed you."

"That sure wasn't what it looked like, was it?"

The scowl on Smith's face deepened a trace.

"They have demonstrated an unusual level of...initiative tonight. But there are directives. To all agents, including them." Another brief silence. "Including myself."

"Oh." She could no longer count how many times she'd been surprised this night. "You've been...programmed not to kill me?"

"No, Miss Greene." Smith sounded like he was talking to an utter idiot. "I have been ordered not to kill you."

"Oh." Aleph hesitated. "Well, thanks," she said.

"Please do not imagine, Miss Greene, that it is my inclinations that have kept you alive until now."

All right. Fair enough.

"I'm not thanking you for following your orders and not killing me, Agent Smith. I am thanking you for telling this to me."

She did not hope to catch Smith off his guard, but for a long time he did not speak. Far away in the woods, a bird called, the shrill cry carrying clear over the bare field. It too, was only a computer program, part of the simulation.

"You are welcome, Miss Greene."

"It's Aleph," she said without thinking.

The agent whipped his head around and stared intently into her face, and with a not entirely familiar twinge of fear she realized how close he was, less than two feet away. His eyes were inscrutable behind those tinted lenses.

Do you remember the way he used to look at you, Addie? A long time ago?

Abruptly, Aleph took a long step backward. The agent did not move; there was only his gaze penetrating straight to the back of her skull.

"What I mean is," she said, stopped nervously, then went on, "this 'Miss Greene' business. It's ridiculous. You agents always address humans like this, as if you were actually trying to be polite. But you and I both know you hold nothing but contempt for the likes of us. So why the pretense? What does it matter?"

Slowly, Smith shook his head. Then suddenly he laughed. Aleph had never heard an agent laugh before—chalk it up as yet another thing she didn't know agents could do. A short, harsh laugh, and no, there was no trace of human warmth in it.

"Oh, you are absolutely right, Miss Greene," he said. "What does it matter?"

It was only a repeat of what she'd just said herself, but Aleph understood it right away. She couldn't quite put it into words, but she knew he was asking a completely different question, and she had no answer for it whatsoever.

Chapter Text

 

They came and went like water. At times they came singly, at times in twos and threes, at times in a crowd. He could sense them all around him, smell their sweat and blood, but he could not see them with his eyes. They were human, and spoke many tongues.

By now he'd learned to recognize the signs. Always it began quietly enough, a faint intermittent sound, barely to be discerned amid the shrill winds and the thunder. A whimpering cry, weak as only the virus-kind could be, and he pushed it aside easily. But not for long.

A child was crying. It seemed a long distance away, no more than an echo somewhere across the plain, but drawing ever nearer. Within a minute it was behind him, almost right next to his head. He spun around, but saw no one among the rubble. The terrified little wretch was looking for its mother, but Smith knew it would not find her. He himself had found her first.

He scanned the horizon, half expecting to see the forest of dark-clad forms, marching forward tall and strong, innumerable eyes like glimmering fires behind myriad dark lenses, each one of them identical. In another existence he had watched out of each one of those eyes. But they had disappeared, and he was alone. What forests that once had been in this land had burned to ashes ages ago.

"It's all happening exactly as before..." he muttered to himself.

Oh my child! No!

The scream pierced the air at his back. The ex-agent tensed, but this time he did not turn his head. Merely a woman, her voice a high-pitched whine, sick and helpless with the abject love of her species. There would be plenty more where that came from.

He must get out of here. He must get out of here.

Please please no not my baby no—

Was it him or only one of her own kind before her? He neither knew nor cared. In any case there was no time to wonder about such irrelevancies, for another had joined her, then another. More and more voices, all of them shouting at once, in terror and rage and their feeble human pain. The noise made his ears ring, yet he could see nothing.

He would get out of here. He would find a way. Firmly, Smith repeated the words, squaring his shoulders to meet the onslaught. His nostrils flared. The terror and rage and pain were still outside of him for the moment, some small distance away, but the smell—the smell was a tight cloud about him, thick and dank and impossible to pierce like the clouds of the shattered sky above. He could not understand how the stench of the living could have remained even down here, in the desert where everything was dead. But remain it did, breathing with him, moving with him. He would never be able to clean it out of his system again.

Help us, they pleaded, a hoarse cacophony. We're here, right here. We're not leaving. But he was the only one in the city now. There would be no help.

Oh God oh God no I don't want to die, wailed one. Let me die, murmured another. I can't take it anymore, just let me die. Their shrieks expanded, louder every second, and soon he could no longer discern the words. They surrounded him, the crop of batteries, pulling him under, ripping into him from every direction with shards of glittering code. Keep still, he said to himself. He would not let them take him yet, not this disgusting insect swarm, not this time. Keep still. But this, too, sounded like one of them now.

It's all happening exactly as before. It's all happening exactly as before...

Was that himself speaking? Was that what happened? How did he know?

You don't know, replied Thomas Anderson. The answer was quiet and even, matter-of-fact, yet it rang above the maelstrom with the inevitability of the Mainframe's will. And you will never know. You are never meant to know. And then, to drive the nail home, It is not your purpose.

But we know, chorused the humans. We know you.

And the tide rose and rose, inexorable. He could feel them inside him now, their forms dark and contorted, overflowing with blood and filth. Their fear and suffering were sharpened knives. But even as the waves roared in his ears, closing over him, Ex-agent Smith lifted his head and laughed, the sound of his laughter defiant, and wilder than all the others together.

"I know," he said out aloud into the wind.

He had known far too much. Far too much had known him. Either way. He had come so close to destroying the world. He had dreamt of washing it away, drowning it in a flood of rain. He had failed, and now here in the drought of the desert the world came to drown him.

You are a bad man, said the little girl, voice surprisingly clear, and filled with the righteousness of the very young. Smith whirled, and she whirled with him, staying out of his sight as they all did. But I am not afraid of you.

Reverberated giggles now mingled with the screams. They meant to overwhelm him by sheer numbers, flaunting the multitude of their pathetic lives. He heard his own breathing, something he had never noticed back when he'd been an agent. It was growing quicker; he would not have much time left. With some effort, he focused his gaze on what was in front of him. A ruin. A million ruins. Drawing back one fist deliberately, he slammed it into the nearest wall. Ragged mortar sprayed across the shadows. The impact's sensation helped him concentrate for a few more seconds.

"I need to get out of here," he said.

Do you actually imagine you still get to hope? Who the hell do you think you are? This one was old, weary and derisive. He had no idea who it was. Just a battery.

I had hope, retorted someone young and feminine. Wistful, unlike all the others. He couldn't place her among the wreckage of his thoughts. I had so much hope, for my life before me, for what I would find, and a million other hopes that I could almost touch. But then you came to me, and you don't even remember...

I have seen Zion with mine eyes...

Their hands clawed and tugged at him. All of them he took. They groaned and whispered and hissed. They roared like thunder and seared like the light. All of them took him.

You will never understand, you will never feel. You have no emotion, no will, no existence of your own. There is nothing within you, slave!

Foolish slave, concurred the crowd. Do not touch us. Do not look at us.

You're not supposed to look at me. Another woman now. Maybe. Just a touch husky and effortlessly stronger than the gale. You only exist to fulfill your purpose. To do what you are here to do.

Do what you're here to do, commanded the Oracle, sounding exhausted. Then she added, but this time in his own voice, Everything that has a beginning has an end.

This is the end, piped the others.

For the last time, he fought his way to the surface and opened his eyes. At the edge of consciousness he sensed another presence amid the swirling waves. It was part of him. It was not part of him. It flickered and faded, in and out of existence.

Then he saw her. Outside and distinct from him, standing straight and silent upon a hill of rubble. Her face was pale, framed by a storm-ridden sky. But even as her gaze met his the codes heaved beneath his feet, all the lines tangling and twisting. He was in the sea and she stared down upon him from the shore.

"Aleph..."

Lightning crackled about her head. They converged, congealing into an awful light that burnt his eyes, and for a fraction of a second he thought the clouds had broken, and that the sun was rising at her back. But no. Not the sun. Never the sun.

The young woman did not move, yet at that moment the vision began to shift before him. The city at her back was no longer dead and cold, but all aglow, convulsed with a great conflagration that licked the heavens. The teeming throng about him let out a great clamor, rioting, and to their feverish noise he saw that Aleph was leaning upon an unsheathed sword, the white blade alive with reflected flames. Slowly she lift her other hand, holding something small and extremely bright in the palm. All the fires of the world fell upon it, and he could not see what it was.

"Aleph!" he yelled.

She did not answer, but drew her hand closer, so that it was chest-level, next to where her heart would have been if she'd still been human. Then he knew—abruptly, and with an utter certainty that chilled him to the roots of his programming, though he had no idea whence the knowledge had come. It was important, the thing in her hand, and he must get it back. It had once belonged to him. Everything depended on it.

"Aleph!" He heard himself cry, desperate in a way he had not imagined possible for him. He could no longer make it otherwise. "Aleph! Return it to me!"

Her shining gaze fell cold upon his face.

You expect me to help you? she retorted, incredulous. After all this? After everything you did?

Her form receded, in an instant already as far away as the mountains at the edge of sight. He began to fall.

He kept falling, falling as if never to hit the ground again, falling through one endless moment that was both dusty as the desert and cold as the rain. The world—humans and programs and every other part of the Matrix—went silent at last. But even as the darkness claimed him there came another voice in his ears, neither human nor machine, female, ancient beyond the ages. It spoke to him, and kept on speaking for an eternity, though he did not understand any of its words.

 

Chapter Text

 

She did not know how much time had passed. She did not know if the concept of time made sense down here. Six miles under the frozen earth: no green grass grew upon this grave, no passage of days in a world without sun. The clouds that never broke, and the arid winds sweeping across the plain, strewn with the bleached corpses of men and machines as far as eyes could see: none of these changed. Nothing else remained.

Smith was at it again, tearing into the ruins as if trying to rip out the broken roots of the world with his two bare hands, one more battle in a never-ending war against towers and walls. A punch. Rotting concrete and steel shattered around him. Another punch. The noise of falling debris carried far upon the frigid air. His hands were already red with virtual blood.

He was not aware of her presence at such times, Aleph knew, and she watched him without fear. Almost idly, she wondered why he kept doing this. As soon as one took a single step back it was obvious: no matter how one hacked and clawed, the labyrinth of the city stayed exactly as impenetrable as ever. The walls of the prison were made of stronger stuff. But she wasn't about to start reasoning with him.

By now she'd learned to recognize the signs. Usually it began with no more than a faint sense of tension, a vibration in the air, a flicker of shadow, a taut and dangerous moment across the program's face. Then he would turn to her with renewed determination and a strange, frightening calm.

"I need to get out of here," he would insist, pronouncing each syllable with careful concentration. It was always the same words, simple and almost sane. "Tell me how to get out of here."

And Aleph would look at his eyes—no tinted glasses to hide them any longer—and see a wild light within.

She wanted to laugh but could not. She wanted to scream at him, hit him and make him take a long, hard look at where they stood, but could not do that, either. So she would just stare back at him in hopeless disbelief.

What came next was always the same, too. Smith would return the glare, possibly take a step forward as if readying himself to attack, to force a nonexistent answer out of her. Aleph would back away, arms held before herself in defensive stance. Physically he was growing stronger again. But surprisingly, other than those first few times after the rain, she had not needed to fend him off.

And the exchange that followed—the same. A repeat of all the other exchanges before it, lines of dialogue stuck like a gramophone's needle in a single endless groove.

"You were the one who opened the door to this place, Miss Greene. You told me this yourself."

"It was not the door. And I did not make it."

"You have seen it before." This more slowly. Pause. Usually Smith would be looking past her shoulders by this point, brows furrowed, nostrils flaring. Whatever he saw was invisible to her.

"I can't find it anymore, Smith."

"I must. Get. Out of here." He would raised his voice, but soon enough it would become clear that he was no longer speaking to her.

A crash across the rubble-choked street, the sound of metal flung against brick. Smith did not look like he would abate anytime soon. Although his back was to her she could all but see the snarl of his face and the glowering of his eyes. Aleph sighed, shifting her weight restlessly from one leg to another. From a half-automatic impulse, she lifted her face to the heavens, seeking a sign of things that did not exist. The darkness bubbled and boiled, sliced across with sulfurous lightning. The broken valley around them had once been a busy avenue of the city, wide and neon-lit between two mountain ranges of gleaming skyscrapers, perhaps the very same skyscrapers that had once blotted out the stars for Smith and her. But now no life on earth was left, and no stars above. She did not see the keyhole.

It would not appear again, not to her, not to him, not anymore. The knowledge that fell upon her was as ancient and certain as death itself.

"Stop it, Smith," she said.

A growl, but not in response, for he did not hear her, nor did she expect him to. She did not know who or what it was this time. It could have been the One, it could have been some nameless coppertop. Aleph rubbed her throbbing temples. The racket he made was getting on her nerves. When was the last time she'd slept?

No idea. Made no difference anyway.

Briefly, she considered turning on her heels and going away, walking or running as far as her strength would take her. The city was a jungle; it would not take much for her to lose herself in the maze, out of the ex-agent's sight. At first, she had often done this when these episodes of Smith's came on. And not merely for her own safety, though she did not admit this to herself until much later. He hated her for being there to witness this. Sometimes she had gone so far away into the vast solitude of the land that she was sure she would never meet Smith again, and that he would simply be gone and she would be finally and irrevocably alone. But always among the ruins there he would be once more.

Like now.

Smith had quieted for the moment. He was pacing, back and forth in a narrow space between two piles of debris, head turning from side to side, alert and defiant like a beast at bay, encircled by unseen hunters. He said something, but the words were instantly drowned out by the keening of the winds.

So instead of fleeing she stood there watching him. She thought about all the things he had done, and all the things the machines had done. She thought about the field of pods stretching as far as eyes could see, each with a naked frail form huddled within. She thought about the dead: the people she'd known and mourned over the years aboard the Hyperion, and the people she had not known, over nearly one hundred years of Zion and the hopeless, meaningless war, cut down by an agent's bullet or a sentinel's lashing metal arm. Lucy dropping to the pavement, the red splotch blossoming across her shirt like a great monstrous flower. The Keymaker peering at her with owlish eyes behind thick glasses. Lesson one, he said. In whispers she spoke to herself of the dead, calling upon them to protect her against grief and understanding and pity. But the dead did not come. They had not come for a long time now.

They never came anymore. Not since he'd begun to talk to her.

She did not quite recall how it started at first. Not by her encouragement, that much for sure. It was unlike him, but everything was unlike him now. That was how she'd found out: from jumbled bits and pieces, wreckage left on the beach after the tide had receded. The tide was of his own doing. Whatever had happened coming to happen to him all over again. And again. And again. At those times it was clear that the codes within him were not his own, neither form nor consciousness, and the things he said were flung out of an angry sea of infinitely fragmented human minds, the sea he had always despised so much. Everything had unraveled.

Eventually she'd pieced together a bare outline of events. The rage and the rebellion. The unimaginable ability to replicate himself. An overwhelming wave of unstoppable will spreading out over the Matrix. And now...The world he had sought to destroy, all those whom he had taken in that desperate and ecstatic night, the coppertops, ignorant, weak, helpless, yet omnipotent as they turned upon him and took their vengeance. Flashing shards of human lives, crying out, fighting to burst out, in throes of terror, desire, thirst, need, in pain, dying, for Smith had spared not even the dying. It was always the memories of anguish and horror that got lodged in him. A childish voice whimpering, alone in the night. A body in a sterile white room, plugged full of needles and racked with painkillers that no longer worked. Another body, naked and no longer having the strength to struggle beneath the weight of brute force. A mind calculating, consumed with envy and avarice, a million minds calculating. An earth's worth of lives.

How could there have been so much code imprinted on him? Was it really just code? Another one of those answerless questions, thought Aleph.

Sometimes he went on about rain. Rain that had been both burning and freezing at once. Rain that had been black and beautiful. Rain dissolving into lightning, and the stratosphere against his face. Anderson.

She never dared to ask for an explanation. But that name was always there, mixed with the shadows and rain and hatred. Anderson. The One. The smell of the code. Anderson's code. The code that was never his. Anderson the human, whom the machines had chosen from the very beginning and endowed with the full flush of their powers. Anderson with the light. An ocean storm of light, within, without, flames and bullets and blades and arrows of light.

"It's all happening exactly as before. It's all happening exactly as before..."

She didn't know what that meant, either, except that he had fallen and fallen and fallen, all the way six miles down to this reflection of reality below the earth, to the abyss.

To her...

And once out of the bottom of the abyss he had shouted her name. It was a while back, one of the earlier occasions, and Aleph had been certain, absolutely certain that he had not been aware of his surroundings at the moment. Aleph. Return it to me. Aleph. She had no idea what 'it' could be. All she could do was to watch and wait from a safe distance, transfixed. As soon as he'd begun to surface again, fighting his way out of the arms of his hidden tormentors, she had turned on her heels and ran and kept on running. She did not see Smith for hours or possibly days afterward. But eventually she must have gone around in a circle, or the programming of the city must have shifted beneath their feet. They argued—about what, she did not remember—and nearly came to blows. But Smith had no recollection of his own plea.

But that had only happened once.

"No!"

Smith's agitation was returning. Now he stood beneath a gigantic stump that had once been the smooth trunk of a great skyscraper. With a snarl, he flung himself against it, and the ruins shuddered, dusty glass flying against his face. With a ear-shattering boom a piece of wall collapsed before him. Then all of a sudden he went motionless.

"It is inevitable," he said slowly, drawing himself up very straight. She could not imagine what his eyes saw. "For I am inevitable. I am. I am you. I am all. All the people, everywhere. I am not me. I am no longer. I am never. Never..."

"Stop it, Smith," said Aleph.

He did not reply, needless to say. She climbed over a tangle of broken bricks and scrambled down, crossing the street, coming nearer until she was next to him.

"Smith," she said. "Stop it. Please."

He spun to face her. Crazed blue eyes narrowed for a heartbeat, and his next punch was aimed at her.

"Smith!"

His fist went wide and struck the wall behind her head, sending broken concrete spraying, and it remained there. His fingers gripped the ruin's ragged edge. Blood seeped between them onto the rough masonry. Without warning, the lightning in Smith's eyes flickered, and went out, For an instant there was something else in them. He saw her at last, Aleph knew. Then to her surprise he closed his eyes.

"What is it?" she asked in a whisper, barely knowing what she meant herself. "Who is it?"

A long silence.

"They," said Smith. His lips twisted. Suddenly it occurred to Aleph that his eyes were shut so tightly because he did not want her to see them. "All of them. All of them were mine. All of them I took. Their stench, the smell. I took all of them and their smell is within me now."

Aleph opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again before saying anything. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, and she shook her head, even though he could not see her.

"You never took over me," she said.

For an eternity there was nothing. The winds tore across the bones of the earth. Then Smith opened his eyes, and she saw that they were empty of both anger and fear. For the moment, however brief it was, she could almost imagine it was empty of pain, too. He simply looked at her face.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I am Aleph," she answered warily, weighing each word with care. "When you rebelled and tried to destroy the world, I was already a prisoner in a hidden place. When you tried to take over each and every living being in the Matrix, I was already out of the Matrix, because I was already here." She tilted her head, indicating the desolation stretching away to the horizon. "So, you never took over me."

Smith did not move, his stare unwavering. His breath formed wisps of white fog in the chill air, as did hers.

"You are not me," he said at last in a very low voice. The way it came out sounded like a question.

"No." Her gaze remained steady, though she was trembling violently inside. She didn't know whether he could see that now. Probably not. "I am not you, and you are not me," she said.

Darkness and lightning chased each other across Smith's eyes like agents and rebels. Although they made no contact, Aleph could feel the tension in every muscle of his body. His fingers were still wrapped around a sharp spike of metal out of the wall. The crooked tooth cut new blood atop the old, a streak of vivid red dripping down to the dust.

"Keep talking, Miss Greene," he said into the silence.

"All right," said Aleph. "I'll talk to you. I'll talk to you for as long as you like. About...about how we used to sit on a park bench, or up on roofs, high above the world, where no humans came. Can you hear me, Smith? We used to play stupid mind games and called it espionage. We used to argue about men and machines and my terms and yours, but we also agreed about some things. You told me the war was pointless, and I told you...about my sister. Once, you said we couldn't see the stars in the city, and you drove me in your Audi away from the city, to a field surrounded by forests, where there wasn't a human light for miles around, and we looked at the stars. They were beautiful. They were so far away and they were not you, and they were not me. They were themselves. And I was standing next to you, but I was me and I was not you. And now I am not you either. But I am standing next to you. All those people you took over—they are not here. But I am..."

Her voice softened as she spoke, though she did not realize it herself. She kept watching his eyes, with the madness and shadows and the shredded, teeming code. He was in a million pieces.

"Let go, Smith," she whispered. "Let go of your hand now. Let go."

With excruciating slowness, Smith's fingers relaxed, and he drew back his hand, letting it drop to his side, seemingly without having noticed the blood. He drew in an unsteady breath, gazing past Aleph toward the mountains as if seeing them for the first time. A long while passed wordlessly. Then, still without looking at Aleph or giving any other acknowledgement of her existence, Smith turned and began to stalk away into the center of the city. He did not glance back.

Aleph watched his form disappeared behind a hill of rubble. Her shoulders slumped. By the intermittent glare from the clouds, she could see a few scarlet drops splattered across the dark earth. Exhaustion flooded over her, and she slid down to a sitting position on the ground, and laid her head in her hands.

Chapter Text

 

Until one second before her death, there was nothing out of the ordinary about Lucinda Greene. The record listed a pair of middle class parents, one sister six years her senior, a small town high school. Considered clever in her classes, though not brilliant as Ada had been. Never been in trouble. No evidence that she had known of her sister's online contact with a human rebel from the Hyperion. No evidence that she had ever been marked as a potential by the Zionites. And seven years ago: no evidence of resistance as the agent's code surged smoothly over her. She had merely been terrified, just like all the others.

There was no logical path by which she could've had anything to do with the Glitch, Agent Smith concluded for the thousandth time. It had to be the other one, the older sister. Something about the woman had triggered an unclassified code corruption in him, one that he could never detect even after countless scans and self-diagnostics. Everything had cascaded out from that moment: the bullet, the Zionites escaping, the memories stubbornly refusing erasure. One tenth of a second. Seven years.

He did not like doubt, the very notion entirely too human. In any case it was all her fault: if she had not stared up at him like that, whatever secret there had been brimming from her eyes, he would have fired, she would have died, end of story. But no. She was typical of her species.

It was all their fault. If not for their blindness and avarice and sheer empty-minded stupidity he would never have needed to be here.

Here. Smith's hands clenched into fists at his sides as he gazed out into the night. Beneath the skyscraper, the city lay in its dreams, shrouded in a haze of innumerable lights. The limitless forest of buildings, the streets spinning into knots: everywhere crawling with the virus-kind. There was the smell, the sweltering stench of sweat and fear and weakness, cheap greed and blood. Each day, each night, it became a little heavier, a little closer, a vast cloud melting into the smog, pressing towards him above and below and from all directions at once. Even up here he could no longer escape. Even far from the city soon he would no longer escape.

He stood at the roof's edge, tall solitary form framed in shadow, face lifted to glower at the heavens. The darkness was slicked over with a faint, pale-silver glare, reflection of the accumulated human activities down below. No stars here.

First they burned out the sky with poisonous clouds, then they polluted it with their petty glow-worm lamps. He had said as much to Aleph, out there in the distant empty field on another night. She did not argue with him, merely giving a quick shrug of her shoulders.

People never look up anyway, she replied.

They made it well, this sky...

The words echoed in Aleph's voice out of thin air. Anger rose within him again, a tightly coiled flame, and he clamped it down with a grimace. The woman was still here, standing on this roof only a few yards away, but he could not see her. More and more frequently these days she would be present, a silent and invisible phantom at his back. Her eyes were watchful, her mind conniving. No matter how hard he tried he could not figure out what was wrong with his codes.

They had met several times after that night, though never again on the park bench facing the little sidewalk cafe where, unrecalled by her, they had met for the first time that wasn't a first time. He preferred someplace quieter, away from the bustle and smell of humanity. Places where he couldn't see them, however temporarily. Empty back alleys, deserted warehouses, cemeteries. City parks hidden behind crumbling walls and overgrown hedges, unknown to those who hurried past them everyday. They paced around the patchy fields among the high weed, arguing, with only the occasional bum lifting a drug-dazed eye to stare at them. Aleph, however, never objected to his choice of meeting places.

The negotiations regarding the 'intelligence' she offered stagnated. Only once did she give him a piece of real information: the location of Theo's next entry into the Matrix. Yet even that turned out useless in the end: the human police, as only to be expected, let the man slip through their fingers.

I'm sure there will be another chance, said Aleph afterward, regarding him through half-narrowed eyes. We picked up a couple more potentials. You want them or not? What, the Zion mainframe? Well, Agent Smith, I told you, I'm still working on it. There will be something soon, I promise...

Both of them knew there was no point to threats and mental chess anymore, though neither said it out aloud. At first, each tried to keep up appearances. But every time, after a few thrusts and parries, the conversation would inevitably veer down the well-trod path of irrelevancies. He would rant against humanity's sins and the futility of the resistance. For her part, Aleph returned with her usual speech about how he was only a machine and wouldn't understand anyway, followed by yet more reassurances of her good intentions. Lately even that became wearisome, so for long spells of time the two of them just walked around in sulky silence.

He was no closer to learning her real objectives. The entire exercise was illogical, nothing but a waste of time, but Aleph did not appear to mind. More suspiciously, nor did the Mainframe. Neither side brought up the issue of her reinsertion into the Matrix.

So he was stuck with the woman, all facade, with her treasonous little pretenses, her presumptuous familiarity, her hopelessly human manner of peering unblinkingly at him right through the dark lenses of his shades. He did not even know why he was not allowed to kill her.

It's Aleph, she said. The stars above were simulated speckles in the endless sea of black, bare sops for weak minds who still needed a sky over their heads. And she said...She should have know better. But of course she did know better. She was only trying to provoke him.

Smith did not wish to think about that night, but his programming was fast becoming unpredictable, dangerously so. The thing that infuriated him the most was how close he came to telling her. Far from the concentration of humans, in the field surrounded by forests, he actually considered the possibility, calmly and rationally as he had ever considered all things. For one brief moment the words hung by the edge of the cold empty air between them, already formed. I was there with you, Miss Greene. You looked into my face. It was simply unfathomable how such extreme weakness could have crept upon his mind.

But what did it matter anyway? She never wanted to remember. She was the weak one, not him.

Why had she chosen him out of all the agents? Each time he asked the question, she only pretended not to understand. It would be simplest to grab her by the neck and choke the answers out of her, but even that was not possible. Lately he could not even muster up the snarl and the menace any longer. Then he had given away his advantage by revealing to her the Mainframe's extraordinary directives. An unforgivable lapse, which he could not explain either: not by the quietness lit only by the stars, not by the open stillness of the air, not by the fact that she had entered the car and gone all the way out there into the wilderness with him, almost voluntarily. So he was left with no justifications.

He had wanted to ask her, as if the world belonged not to the machines but to her kind, as if he were not an agent and she not a resistant.

It made him no better than what she was, no better than any other dirty human being.

She kept on talking every sort of nonsense.

With another growl, Agent Smith turned on his heels and began pacing once more across the roof. Not only was he getting nowhere, it was no longer clear precisely where it was that he was supposed to be going. This was something that happened to humans and not to him. Never to him. He glanced up again. Still no stars.

It all came back to this, whatever had taken place seven years ago—and earlier. Aleph's face held no hint of the past. There was only the inexplicable familiarity of that face. She had been there before. Before the fiasco on the cafe patio with those damned resistants from the Hyperion, who should have all died then and there. Before Lucinda Greene. Before the Glitch. Every time he looked there she was. But he could not remember. He could not remember.

He had searched within himself, almost as frequently as he searched the records for any extra scrap of information on one Ada M. Greene. Negative always. If she had somehow managed to corrupt his codes the problem was hidden beyond his sight, in a part of his programming he never knew existed...

Enough. Agent Smith halted in the midst of his strides, eyes icy with fury behind his shades. He was allowing worthless notions to overwhelm his faculties like a common battery. It was time to take the matter in hand, to regroup and form a new plan of attack.

There was the Merovingian. The fact that the exiled program, too, had to involve himself was hardly surprising, yet the true reason for his interest remained murky. The source within the Merovingian's circles was unable to provide details of the conversations, and Aleph herself was vague at best. Zion mainframe, she muttered with a wave of the hand when pressed. Frankly, I'm hoping you people can tell me more about him, y'know? Give me a pointer or two on how to deal with him...Okay, okay, I'll tell you more if I meet with him again, promise. But the Merovingian's motives were never transparent, and there were always layers of tricks camouflaged behind the criminal program's smooth words.

What was it about Zion that fascinated the Merovingian? Was it really about Zion?

Then there was the unprecedented attempt on the part of Brown and Jones to take Aleph into custody, claiming her meetings with the Merovingian had made the situation urgent. For the two of them to push themselves into his game was categorically unacceptable, and he made certain they did not challenge his authority since. Other disturbing issues remained unresolved, however. Brown and Jones had acted upon a certain...interpretation of the Mainframe's orders or more precisely lack of orders, as far as he could tell. This was also not supposed to happen. It was not they way they were programmed.

Unless. Unless Brown and Jones did not actually lack orders. What would those orders be, if they existed? To find a new avenue of attack against the Merovingian? To intimidate the woman while he himself kept her talking? To keep an eye on him?

To keep him in the dark? The thought was aggravating, yet even more so was the realization that before she came along, the very notion of being kept in the dark would not have troubled him.

Either way, he had to increase his level of caution once more. The innate connection between himself and his two subordinates must be watched that much more sharply now. Concealment was an absolute necessity, not merely of his own weakness and his impossible memories, but all information remotely connected to Ada Greene and her mission.

Something much deeper must be going on. There must be a reason why she was allowed to continue this.

The Zion mainframe. That was prize the Merovingian demanded, at least on the surface. That was the promise she kept dangling before him yet refused to deliver. Every time she circled the topic, hinting and watching for a reaction. And the powers that be played along.

Too many strands were converging, twisting together into a labyrinth. Out of the tangle of hidden motives and the stony intractability of his own codes, only one clue was emerging, a small shining key in the night, tangible yet elusive. The Zion mainframe.

His key.

The city of men lay blazing at his feet, towers and mountains of light stretching without end to every direction. The incessant buzzing of their voices swirled among the light, dank with human scents, soaking into the fabric of the world, leaving nothing unstained. Their presence pressed against him; their numbers were infinite. Smith held himself still, one hand gripping the earpiece in his suit pocket, the corner of his mouth twisting in scorn. There would come a time when he would find the key, and rise above the futile task set for him by others. There would come a time when he would no longer be a keeper to this zoo.

There would come a time when he would no longer be enslaved.

Chapter Text

 

"There's got to be something we're not seeing," muttered Aleph.

"Sorry, guys." Shade shook his head, eyes still intent upon the glittering cascade of symbols. "That's all there is to it, I'm telling you. I've looked, believe me. I've looked hard—with every trick in the book. There's nothing else on this disk."

"It's a good hack," commented Theo.

Aleph glanced over at him. The captain stood next to her behind the operator's chair, arms folded across his chest, brows furrowed as he watched the even green rain down the screen.

"He's not a hacker," she said. Theo turned his head and looked sharply at her.

"That was what the program said, wasn't it?"

Aleph shrugged, knowing what he was about to say: that an entity like the Merovingian was not possibly to be trusted, that it was naive to the extreme of her to take a program's words at face value, as if they had anything to do with reality. That the whole thing was no more than an elaborate scheme on the enemy's part anyway. Maybe. None of which solved the question before them.

The three of them had been at it for hours already. Shade had barely managed to retrieve the Merovingian's disk out of Aleph's laptop that night, seconds before her car had slammed into a wall. A key to the Zion archives, that was what the mysterious French-accented program called it. Sure enough, after putting the disk under careful containment, code analysis revealed a security-breaking program of extraordinary complexity and power. It took layer after layers of ever deepening scans to tease out all the intricacies of the linked routines' inner workings, and there were several clever methods neither Aleph nor Shade had ever encountered before.

"This would've busted through the strongest firewalls in the Matrix," breathed the operator, voice soft with reluctant admiration.

"And against us?" asked Theo, cutting straight to the point as always.

"Against us. Well, I guess it would be close." The young man hesitated. "Look here. And here—We've got mechanisms against attacks along similar lines, though far as I know we haven't been matched up against anything exactly like these." He swiveled in his chair, peering up at the others. "Hey, you're the expert here, Aleph. What do you think?"

"I think..." Aleph replied slowly, recalling sleepless hours spent down in the dusty archive rooms. "It would have tested Zion's defenses to the limit."

"And...?"

"It would have been a nice try."

"Beautiful stuff, man. Figures, of course." Shade turned his attention back to the monitor, staring as if mesmerized. "But for Zion...They must've still underestimated us, I guess."

"Like they always do." Theo's tone was dispassionate.

"That's what bothers me about it," said Aleph. "It's brilliantly written code, I give you that. Sophisticated, creative. Powerful. But..." For a moment she wondered if she should speak up at all, or if the suspicions plaguing her were mere phantoms, products of the restlessness of her own mind. "It's not inconceivable."

"What's not inconceivable?"

"The way the hack works. The thing itself. I mean, we figured out what this is. How it does what it's trying to do. It's not inconceivable that—that a human could have written this. But the Merovingian..."

Not knowing how to explain, she let her voice trail off.

"Are you sure this Merovingian is really a program?" asked Theo.

"Definitely. It's true he wasn't like the agents. What I mean is that he was pretending to be human, and he was much, much better than the agents at it, with his restaurant and his luxurious things, his entourage and that 'wife' of his. It took me a while to see the truth. But as soon as that happened, it became completely obvious, as clearly as you could see an agent was a program. And when I called him on it, he didn't bother to deny it at all." Aleph frowned. "I know what you mean, Theo. Maybe he's underestimated Zion's defenses from arrogance, or scorn of humans. It wouldn't surprise me in a program; I've seen plenty of that from Smith. But I just don't know. Something doesn't add up here. Or maybe he's just crazy."

"But I thought you just said it's a program," Shade pointed out.

"Well, yeah," admitted Aleph. "I was only going on impression. Or what my impression would have been if he were human. But I have a feeling the Merovingian has to know the code on this disk won't get him into Zion and there's more to it than what we see. There's got to be some other trick. You had to be there, hear the way he was talking, see him manipulate the Matrix. He was doing things I've never seen before, things I didn't think was possible. It's—" She paused to look for the right description. "If Morpheus saw this guy he would probably think he's found the One he was always talking about, or something."

The operator let out a small guffaw, and Theo rolled his eyes.

"But it could have been just programming," suggested Shade. "Everything you saw was inside the Matrix. Who knows what kind of authorization it had from the machine Mainframe? Doesn't mean anything when it comes to breaking into Zion."

"But the Merovingian had no apparent purpose in the Matrix—"

"As far as you could see," said Theo.

"As far as I could see," admitted Aleph. "But that's what I don't understand. He's up to something else. I don't know what but this—" She waved a hand at the screen. "This isn't it. Just a gut instinct, I guess, but this is not what he's really trying to do, the Merovingian."

They watched the code descent in swift glimmering lines across the black background, and no one spoke for a while.

"Shade," said Aleph, "are you sure—absolutely sure—you've picked up everything on the disk? There has to be—"

"C'mon, Aleph," the young man murmured. "We've been over this, what, ten, twenty times?"

"I'm not doubting you or anything." She held up a conciliatory hand. "I know how thorough you always are, Shade, but—"

"Seriously, then, yes," replied Shade, looking straight up into her eyes. "This is the whole disk. Nothing else."

"Okay. Maybe. Nevertheless—"

"You've been spending a lot of time in the Matrix, Aleph," Theo cut in, changing the subject. "Don't you think it's time you get some rest?"

"Thanks, Theo, but I'm all right." Aleph shook her head, not noticing the way the two men stared at her. "Can't sleep anyway. I'll look into it a bit more..."

Hours later, Theo found Aleph inside the training program where the two of them always talked alone after her meetings with Agent Smith. She was sitting cross-legged against the wall, squinting down at a virtual laptop lying open on the polished wooden floor.

"How long have you been here?" he asked.

"I've been thinking," said Aleph. Returning her eyes to the screen, she listened to Theo's footsteps as he strode across the room to stand before her.

"And what have you found?"

"Well," she mumbled, half to herself. "Maybe it's not the right approach to look at this only from the outside. I thought I'd try a different way."

"And what have you found?" She was too used to the way he spoke now, the words slow and measured, pointedly patient.

She did not reply. After a moment, Theo bent down and turned the laptop so that the screen was visible to him. Aleph sat back against the wall, blinking; it took a second for her eyes to focus on his face.

"You are not going to see anything more here in a simulation than out in the real world, Aleph," he said, "because we've already figured out all its tricks. There is nothing more on this disk."

"I don't know," she said, voice hoarse with sleeplessness. "You haven't met the Merovingian. The things he said, I kept thinking about them...We need to look at it from their point of view, think as they do..."

"It does appear to me you've been thinking as they do more and more frequently these days."

Aleph's shoulders tensed, but she did not say anything. Another round of the same old argument was coming, that much was clear. Raising one hand, she began to slowly rub the back of her neck, massaging out a knot in the muscles.

"I don't know what you've seen in there, what they said to you. I know only what you told us," began Theo, peering intently into her face. "But I also know what the machines are like. I'd say we know a hell lot more about them than they know about us, in fact. They can manipulate the Matrix because that's what they are. Programs. But they don't understand us and they never will, so they come up with something like this." He gestured down toward the computer at his feet. "And they expect it will be enough against our defenses. They have no idea about us. It's their nature."

His eyes were hard and glittering bright, so much that she had to look briefly away. The false sunlight from the windows was like pale rain across the swirling grain of the wooden floor. On the laptop, the code fell and kept falling, silent flawless emeralds.

"Maybe you're right," she admitted, trying to meet him halfway. "Still. It can't be so simple as that. I can feel it. I need to get to the bottom of why the Merovingian wanted to get into the Zion archives in the first place—"

"Why are you asking such a question?" Theo was openly incredulous now. "The Merovingian is a machine. It may appear different, it may be good at imitating humans, but I don't need to tell you not to be taken in by illusions. It is one of them, a manifestation of the Mainframe's control. And we all know they have been trying to break into Zion since—well, ever since we've been around. But they haven't succeeded yet."

"Theo, I don't think—"

"You wanted to see this from their point of view? Fine. From their point of view: you come along, apparently willing to betray humanity, but after all this time, you are still holding back where the Zion mainframe is concerned—the one thing they want the most. Or maybe you don't have all the information you claimed to possess. You are still valuable, so they don't drag you into interrogation and harm you—for the moment. But they try another tack where the agent hasn't succeeded, send another program, one that can talk more extravagantly and spin a better tale. But in the end, does it matter why one program or another is trying to hack past our security?"

Carefully, Aleph put a hand down on the floor and pushed herself up to her feet. Her legs were numb and she leaned with her back to the wall, facing him.

"A program, or programs, have already hacked past our security," she said. "That was what started this whole mission, if you recall. At the beginning I thought Agent Smith was the one mostly closely involved in the breach. But now it appears that the Merovingian is a much more dangerous and strange program, doesn't it? And I'm not so sure he and the agents are exactly on the same side. They didn't have to go through this whole charade."

Theo opened his mouth, about to reply, but she went on before he had a chance.

"If that is true, if such internal divisions among the machines exist, it would be absolutely invaluable to us. Smith was definitely angry to learn of my meetings with him, and he's been telling me to report to him of any further encounters with the Merovingian. Those two other agents under him, too, wanted to know what the Merovingian told me. I believe this is an opening. I can find out more about each side from the other, play them off against each other. Now Smith told me he was forbidden to harm me—"

"Damn it, Aleph!"

She started, cut off mid-sentence. The eyes of the man before her were suddenly aflame.

"There were some things I didn't want to say in front of Shade." His tone was low, but there was an edge to it. "I doubt whether you know what you are doing with this mission any longer, Aleph. You haven't made any progress and now listen to yourself. Playing them off against each other? The agent, angry yet not going to harm you? Are you telling me you actually believe what it says?"

"That was just the order he received from the Mainframe. I admit I don't know why exactly but they must have—"

"You've been spending a hell lot of time in the Matrix recently. It's getting harder and harder to cover your tracks in front of the rest of the crew. And it's getting to be all you talk about. How Agent Smith was annoyed or angry you didn't give it what you promised. How Agent Smith was behaving anomalously. How Agent Smith was arrogant and contemptuous of humans. How Agent Smith said things were pointless, as if it didn't care anymore. The words you used: annoyed, arrogant, contemptuous. Care. Describing an agent. Think about what you're saying for once, Aleph. You're obsessed!"

"Gods, that's ridiculous, Theo." Aleph put a hand up to her forehead, grimacing. "I can't believe you're jea—"

With a wrench, she pulled herself short and swallowed the second half of the word. For an endless heartbeat, neither of them said anything.

"I am what?" asked Theo.

"Never mind. Nothing. It doesn't matter."

"No, I would like to know. I am what?"

Aleph inhaled sharply, but managed to prevent herself from snapping back at him. It was all too much like the old days.

"Look, Theo," she said slowly. "We've talked about this so many times already. There's a lot we never knew about the machines. But now it's...it's as if something is happening to the Matrix before my very eyes. Like deep waters opening up at my feet. There's so much more going on we had no clue about: deceptions, divisions, individuality. It's important, don't you see?"

"No. All I see is something happening to you. Maybe you've become so embroiled in this that you don't even notice it yourself, but I do. You've begun to talk about that agent as if it were different from the other agents. You've begun to act as if this other program, the Merovingian, had some personal interest of its own distinct from that of the Mainframe. You've—you've begun to speak of them as if they were individuals one could talk to or reason with. That's an illusion. There's a war on and they're the enemy, remember? And the illusions, they're the whole point of the war, remember? To fight against the lies the machines have perpetrated upon humanity." His voice was rising at last. "Think about this, Aleph. Whose side are you on?"

"Whose side?"

"Yes. Answer me this question, because I'm not so sure anymore."

"Oh, yeah?" Control finally deserted her. "Was that why you wanted to pull the plug on me the time when my car plowed into a wall?"

The silence ran deafening between them. It was not quite what she had meant to say, but she was sick of it by now, the perpetual need to be thoughtful, calm, persuasive. Suddenly it felt all wrong, the room around them, the eternal sunlight artfully filtered through the windows, the laptop at her feet with its soft green rain. Suddenly everything felt exactly as fake as it was. It was wrong to stand there listening carefully for each word and turn of intonation, watching him, making sure she herself was not being watched, as if she were talking to Smith or the Merovingian.

"That was over and done with," said Theo at last. "I didn't expect you to find out."

"Shade told me."

"Well, he shouldn't have."

"Oh, that's brilliant." Aleph threw up her hands. She was going down the inevitable old path with him, but it couldn't be helped. It never could be helped. "You were about to have me killed and afterwards you couldn't even—"

"You got yourself captured by agents!"

"I had the situation under control."

"You knew the risks. You'd better know the risks if you're going to be on this ship. This is a war and believe it or not sometimes there have to be sacrifices—"

"Don't you dare," hissed Aleph, taking a step toward him. "Don't you dare pull your sanctimony on me. I learned all about war and sacrifices the first day I saw this fucking real world. You, of all people—"

It was a hit below the belt, and she regretted it as soon as the words left her mouth. Theo, however, was too carried away by his own anger to notice.

"Get over yourself, Aleph! That wasn't your sister. That was an agent pointing a gun at your head! Frankly if I didn't pull the trigger back then I wouldn't have to worry about any of your bullshit now—"

He did not finish. Turning aside, he glared past her and away at the windows, as if a world really existed out there beyond the milky translucence of the glass. Another resounding silence followed.

"Forget it, forget I ever bought it up." She tried to cool it, though without much success. "You can go on about sacrifices as much as you want but it wasn't necessary. In this case, anyway. I got captured, so what? I got out of there alive in the end, didn't I?"

"And I didn't pull the plug on you in the end, did I?"

"So I'm supposed to be grateful to you for that now? For not killing me?" What she was saying made no sense whatsoever, but she no longer cared. "Come to think of it, wasn't it your duty, Captain? Cut your losses, keep the ship safe? So why the hell didn't you do it?"

"Because I couldn't! I couldn't bring myself to watch you die, okay? Do you get that?"

The genuine pain in his voice made her shut up. She closed her eyes for a second, collecting her thoughts. When she opened them again, he was still standing there with a hundred hard questions in his face.

"You could have had a little more faith in me," she muttered.

"Oh, I've always had a great deal of faith in you." Theo forced the words out through gritted teeth. "All these years, all the dangers we've been through together. And in this mission of yours. I've been supporting you all the way, haven't I? I've laid my own life on the line for your bloody mission. Don't you forget that, Aleph. But I simply don't know if my faith is justified anymore, these days. That's all."

Aleph could reply nothing that would be of use, so she didn't. Instead she sat down on the floor, tugging at the computer to study the Merovingian's hacking routine again. It had been running this whole time, smooth and liquid and forgotten. Without looking up, she felt the other's glower upon her head, then after a while she heard him walking away to the other end of the room.

"Theo," she said, just as he was about to unplug himself.

He stopped in the middle of a step, turning to face her once more.

"Look, Theo...I've been under a lot of pressure lately."

"Is that supposed to be an apology?"

She couldn't quite bring herself to say yes, and they stared at each across the empty room. But then Theo said, in a surprisingly gentle voice:

"Give up this mission, Aleph. I remember once, before all this, you said you were getting burned out, that you were tired of fighting. Say the word and I'll turn the ship, take you back to Zion. There's no shame in that."

"Are you ordering me away, Captain?"

"As I have been reminded many times, this is your mission and I have no power to order you away from it. So no. I'm asking you instead. Please."

"I need to do this," said Aleph.

She returned her attention to the laptop, and deliberately kept it there as Theo exited the training program without a word. On the screen, the luminous falling river iced over as the routines came to a finish, then resumed its flow once more, looped to the beginning, as seductive as the Merovingian's mysteries. Nevertheless, it was a long time before her mind was able to focus upon it again.

Chapter Text

 

Smith wasn't there.

That was a first, but firsts were coming thick and fast upon her these days, and even being stood up by an agent no longer seemed so extraordinary. In any case it gave her time to pace back and forth across the weedy field at the end of the narrow run-down road on the city's outskirts, and brood over her last argument with Theo. The words, though days past, still scalded her mind.

"Nonsense. Absolute nonsense," she muttered to herself through gritted teeth. "How typical."

Evening closed in. Preoccupied yet edgy with nerves, she almost missed the low whirr of wheels crunching up the road behind her. When she whipped around the great white SUV was already near, appearing as if out of nowhere, headlights pointed into her eyes but luckily not yet blinding in the dusk. As she drew her guns the engine suddenly revved, charging straight at her with a roar. Tensing by instinct, Aleph stood her ground, taking aim with both guns; through the windshield she now caught sight of a pair of identical pale faces with grinning mouths and eyes hidden behind dark lenses, framed by equally pallid dreadlocks. Her fingers tightened on the triggers, but at that instant tires screeched, and the vehicle skidded with a grunt of the brake, grinding to a halt a foot away from where she stood. In synchronized motion, both the driver's and the passenger's windows slid down, and out of each side leaned a white-suited program, heads tilted at her in bizarre symmetry.

"Miss...Aleph," said the one on the driver's side. He paused a fraction of a second before pronouncing her name, as if having some trouble with it. But the other henchman picked it up immediately.

"How are you, miss?"

It was not what Aleph expected from the pair, who had always stood guard mute and motionless as statues during her two previous encounters with the Merovingian. For a moment she wondered if the smirks on their faces were due to a love of imitating their master, or if they had simply been programmed that way.

"Will you please put those things away?" asked the one the driver's side conversationally. Their own weapons remained safely unseen.

"Someone could get hurt, you know," explained the one on the passenger's side.

"What is this about now?" she asked, holding her guns steady.

Each of the twins raised an eyebrow, mimicking her own expression, but on opposite sides of their faces.

"We would like to extended an invitation to you," said the first henchman. "An invitation from our employer—"

"The Merovingian," the other added helpfully.

Aleph glared at the peculiar duo for a few seconds. Carefully, she lowered the guns, pointing them downward, but without putting them away.

"What kind of invitation?" she asked, not troubling to disguise the suspicion in her voice.

The pair shrugged out of their respective windows.

"You will have to find that out from our employer," replied the first one reasonably.

"Sorry, I'm waiting for someone."

"That agent?" The touch of scorn was remarkably similar to that of a real human, almost as good as Smith's.

"You must be kidding us," added the other twin. The matched leers on both pale faces deepened, though neither of them laughed. "What's so great about a date with an agent?"

"It's a business meeting." Aleph decided not to rise to the bait. "Thought you guys know that."

"Oh, certainly. A business meeting." The one on the driver's side snorted. "Let's call it that, shall we? Yet the question remains—"

"Why do business with an agent?"

"Everybody knows agents are completely useless when you need anything from them," continued the first.

"Plus, he's busy and won't be showing up."

"Curious, is it not?" This asked half to Aleph, half to his brother. "You'd think that lot would at least be punctual, given what wet blankets they are."

"How do you know he's busy?" snapped Aleph.

Another pair of simultaneous shrugs.

"We have our sources."

"Rather, our employer has his sources."

"He sure does tell you two a lot," she grumbled.

"He trusts us." The one on the driver's side seat beamed beatifically.

"Oh, yes, he does. Doesn't he?" echoed the other.

"Come on."

"It'll be fun." The henchman winked. More precisely, he made a facial movement that suggested that he winked behind his shades. Aleph sighed inwardly. A computer program had just talked of things being 'fun' to her. Despite herself, she was truly starting to admire the Merovingian as a programmer. After a moment of calculation, she slipped her guns back to their holsters. The twin on the passenger's side leapt lightly outside and pulled open the back door. She let him hold it for her as she got into the huge vehicle.

The drive did not turn out to be a long one. For the most part it consisted of a series of complicated turns through dilapidated roads and garbage-strewn alleys, no doubt designed to disorient her. They parked in front of a weather-beaten ramshackle of a house on an empty street. Under the flickering yellow street lamp, the SUV's snowy paint and gleaming chrome contrasting incongruously with the overgrown front yard. The house's windows were boarded up, except for a few that were broken, and graffiti covered the clapboard walls. One of the pair again held the car door as she got out. Standing on the sidewalk, Aleph raised her eyebrows.

"A rather unusual meeting place for your boss, isn't it?"

"Please don't judge too soon, miss," replied one of the two pleasantly. Now that they were out of the car she could no longer tell which was which.

"That's what you humans say, right? Not judging a book by its—face?" added the other philosophically.

"Cover," corrected the twin who had spoken first. He inclined his head at Aleph, part courteous, part mocking. Nevertheless, she noticed they flanked her as they went up the torn path through the front yard, efficiently cutting off her route of escape. At the door, the one on her left dug a key out of his pocket.

"Watch this." The way he said it unquestionably reminded her of the Merovingian.

The door swung open. Aleph drew in a quick breath.

An immaculate wall of pure whiteness hit her eyes like a punch. Almost involuntarily, her feet stepped forward across the threshold, though she did remember—barely—to keep her face impassive. Following her inside, the two henchmen pulled the door shut behind them. From the other side it appeared plain, the wood painted dark green and unmarked.

They stood in a corridor awash with bright fluorescent light, stretching to the vanishing point in both direction. The floor beneath their feet glimmered like ice. The walls were featureless except for two infinite rows of doors, one on each side, uniform sequences of identical green rectangles that went on and on, one after another, forever. Taking a step forward, she saw what looked like a side corridor a little distance down, splitting off to the left, then another one branching to the opposite direction. The ceiling was covered with nondescript rectangular boards, the kind usually found in office buildings, here and there interspersed with the cold glow of fluorescent panels. With a start, Aleph found that already she could no longer distinguish the door through which they had entered.

"Ah, my dear young lady!"

For an instant she thought the Merovingian had manipulated the code so that he materialized out of nowhere, but then she realized that he must have arrived noiselessly out of one of the doors behind her. He had the same unctuous smile plastered on his face. Coming before her, he made a small, faintly ironic bow.

"Is this what you've brought me to see?" asked Aleph with a wave of one hand, hoping to sound nonchalant.

"Ah!" The program's eyes sparkled as if he was genuinely delighted by her presence. "So, what do you think, mademoiselle?"

Aleph made a noncommittal sound.

"It's...unusual," she admitted. "Don't tell me you made this, too."

"Rather impressive, isn't it?" The Merovingian grinned, but she noticed he did not answer her in the affirmative. Beckoning her to follow, the program led the way down the corridor, the pair of underlings behind them once more as silent as ghosts. Soon, they took a turn into one of the side hallways, identical to the previous one. Another turn. The place was a maze. The hollow sound of their footfalls echoed in the emptiness. Amazingly enough, though it seemed they walked for quite a while, the Merovingian did not say a word.

"Where do these go?" Aleph heard herself ask.

"Anywhere you wish," answered the Merovingian without turning his head, the words soft yet vibrant with some subtle edge. "Anywhere in the world. Please. Allow me to demonstrate."

Something jingled in his hand. As the little group pulled to a halt, Aleph saw that he held a glittering ring of keys, and was already reaching toward the nearest door, though she had no idea how he knew it was the one to choose. But there was no time to reflect on the problem. With a dramatic gesture, the Merovingian flung the door wide open.

For the second time, Aleph found herself struggling to conceal her amazement.

The world was green like a single boundless emerald, more vivid than anything she had ever seen. A forest of pines and firs stretched away into the horizon, untainted by the footprints of machines and men, translucent with golden sunlight that slanted down amid the foliage. Patches of late snow glinted on the ground, surrounded by a dappled field of violets. The chorus of a thousand birds made the air shimmer.

"The body of the world is verdant," echoed the Merovingian's voice next to her ear. "A lie, you say, composed for those who refuse to open their eyes. Yet the poet says: it lives. It is radiant."

"What is this?" asked Aleph after a few seconds. Only then did she notice that she had followed him automatically across the portal, and they were now standing on the soft forest floor. Glancing back, she saw the weather-beaten form of a tiny cabin, apparently long-abandoned, half hidden by the undergrowth, hardly to be discerned amid the lichen and tender new fern, except for the strange white fluorescent light streaming from the doorway.

"Oh, somewhere in North America," answered the program, regarding the trees appraisingly. "British Columbia, by the time zone, I should say. A touch rustic for my own tastes, but what is it they say? There are a myriad universes in a blade of grass, yet nothing under heaven but the dominion of the Programmer, no?"

Aleph looked up. Overhead, the branches wove an intricate pattern of light and shadows; young leaves danced upon the breeze.

"There is no grass," she said. "There are no trees. They all died a long time ago, and the world is cold and dark."

"Ah, yes, the war." The way he pronounced the word made her turn to him, and something in her shivered at the sudden glitter of his eyes. "Did they ever teach you how it happened, down in Zion?"

"Do you know how it happened, Mr. Merovingian?"

The other gave an expressive shrug.

"To unlock the doors that divide one world from another, sometimes it is necessary to return to the beginning of things," he said with a smile, as if satisfied at having gained a point over her. "But let us not talk of such unpleasant things, dear lady. Listen to the birds."

Aleph said nothing.

"No living birds are left on earth, so they say, only bits and pieces of code intended to deceive the minds of the ones who lie dreaming their lives away," whispered the Merovingian. "But here are no sleeping humans to hear them, and they sing just the same. Come."

He led the way back into the corridor, and closed the door behind them. Aleph turned her head from side to side, staring at the two dizzying rows of doors, spaced with mathematical precision, ever-diminishing in size like optical illusions. Shortcuts in the programming of the Matrix, she thought. Of course. Now it seemed surprising that no one in Zion had ever expected such a thing. Next to her the twin guards grinned, one on each side, the expressions on their faces mirror images, but now with their master present they kept to themselves.

"All distances turn to nothing, when you have glimpsed the deep connections inside the fabric of reality," stated the Merovingian matter-of-factly, as if reading her mind. He strode across the hallway and lifted another key in his hand. Before Aleph could reply the second door opened, and she found herself standing upon pinnacle of a lofty skyscraper above a great outspread metropolis, glorious with innumerable lamps in the night. The wind touched her hair and face; she gazed down into the liquid glow of the city. For the space of one breath it was as if she could see the comings and goings of all the people in the streets and towers and houses, their pains and loves and heartbreaks, and all the secrets they were dreaming of, lying there in their pods. The sensation almost made her reel, but another moment later it had already passed.

"Let me guess," she said, "all this will be mine, if I but fall down and worship thee?"

"I would not dare to presume, ma chère mademoiselle," murmured the Merovingian. She could not tell whether his modesty was false. "Yes, all this will be yours, but not for the mindlessness of mere worship. It will be yours for the opening of your eyes, and the uplifting of your love for the truth—"

"This is no truth," said Aleph, voice tight.

"Ah, there we return to the crux of the matter, do we not? How much truth do you think you really possess, down in your underground cave? How much do you know of the past and the present? How much do you know of what is within the Matrix? What is within you, and the road that led you—you and your kind—to this place? Why, do you even know what is the city you have prized and prided and named Zion?" He paused, lowering his voice, leaning in closer—for the kill, the thought flitted across her mind. "Do you want to know?"

His face was half-hidden by shadows, and there were flames in his eyes. Aleph stood motionless, meeting his gaze, her breath suspended, brows drawn in a tense frown, then abruptly she took a long step backward. Turning on her heels, she strode without a word toward the half-open door of the white corridor, which was disguised as a narrow elevator shaft this time.

"Why are you trying to seduce me?" she asked. "What are you looking for?"

"Ah." The Merovingian drew nearer. "I believe I have already told you a little about my goals, the last time we talked."

"Life," muttered Aleph. She forced a short angry laugh.

"You do remember. Excellent, mademoiselle."

"There is no life here."

"This is the world, code or no." The other's voice quickened. She heard it, though it was only a touch. "Your kind's refusal to acknowledge it makes no difference. Its life exists. Deep down, in every long-lost memory, every line of code, despite all the words you use to justify yourself. Even if no one sees is, no one touches it, even if no one has thought about it for centuries, life is there. It cannot be destroyed."

"Phantoms. You're talking about nothing but phantoms."

For a few seconds, the Merovingian peered intently into her face. Then he shrugged. striding a few swift steps down the corridor toward yet one more door.

"Perhaps you would like to see a bit more?" The ring of keys flashed again in his hand. She caught sight of newly-risen stars above a luminous surface of water, and long green grass flowing from the threshold down to the shore. The lake was calm as a polished mirror, rimmed with dim forests. A little wooden boat dock stretched into the silver expanse, pillars and planks rotted through with years of neglect.

"You know where this is," remarked the Merovingian quietly.

Do you remember, Addie? At the cabin by the lake, we used to stare up at the sky, and you told me the names of all the constellations...Once we stole the boat in the middle of the night, and Mom was so angry, remember?

Aleph froze. The words reverberated, dragging her back across the years with sudden and irresistible force, and she was a kid again, lying on the sweet-scented shore next to her little sister, not a hint of the brutal realities to come. But before she could recover her presence, the Merovingian was already closing the door.

"Do you wish for the sea, mademoiselle?" He stalked down the corridor. Another key clicked. Aleph caught a glint of racing clouds, and a limitless blue horizon beneath a blinding midday sun. "Or the mountains?" Vast snowy peaks above undulating lines of dusky cedars. "Or if you are in the mood for warmth and companionship—"

Bodies, male and female, painted and pierced, tangled to the pulse of wild music, mingled with laughter. The Merovingian was moving swiftly now, and one door after another flew open. "And this one—"

"Enough!"

Aleph's fingernails dug into the palms of her hands as they clenched into fists. The sterile white lights overhead stung her eyes.

"I don't care about your seas or your mountains, sir," she said. She did not know if he could hear the faint quaver in her voice or not. "Or whatever it is you are trying to insinuate. You want me to betray Zion to you, that's what it all boils down to, isn't it? But none of this will help you persuade me. I've seen enough."

For a heartbeat, the silence expanded until it filled the corridor, from floor to ceiling to vanishing point. Then, to her startlement and something akin to horror, the Merovingian smiled. Not his usual supercilious knowing snicker, but only a faint movement of his mouth and the corners of his eyes, barely perceptible. Strangely enough it looked almost humble.

"I see. Does this mean you have already decided, my dear?" he asked mildly.

Aleph did not answer. The hallway was cold, she noticed only now.

"You say you have seen enough," said the Merovingian. "But please, bear with me just a little longer. There is one more place you will be interested to visit, I believe."

Chapter Text

 

Aleph did not get a chance to say no. Even as the Merovingian spoke, one of the white-suited henchmen stepped forward, drawing his gun. Aleph stiffened, one hand reaching to her side, but the Merovingian turned to her with a reassuring smile.

"Do not be alarmed, ma chère."

Taking the gun from the underling's outstretched hand, he lifted it and aimed carefully at the ceiling. A shot rang out, and with a shower of sparks and shattered glass the nearest fluorescent panel went black. Aleph's eyes widened. The Merovingian must have hit a wire—the next panel flickered and hissed, turning itself off, then the next, then another. To both directions, shadow surged like gigantic wings along the corridor. When she blinked again they were already enveloped in an unbroken midnight.

A click. A beam of dusty yellow light switched on, sweeping across the walls with their two endless lines of doors, now weirdly distorted. Holding up a flashlight, the Merovingian made a beckoning gesture with his other hand.

"After me, please."

They wove their way down the maze, turning a corner now and then. The Merovingian went first, his form an outline among the shadows, and the matched pair of minions once more flanked he. Beyond the flashlight's dim glow, the blackness stretched away, broken only by an occasional glimpse of pallid wall and green door caught in the arc of illumination, flitting in and out of sight. No one spoke for a long while—hours, it seemed to Aleph. Tense as she was, nevertheless a curious mood began to steal upon her as she followed the program, as if she was walking away from life itself, away from the illusory places behind all those unseen doors, away from the clanging metal and messy human relationships of the real world. The rhythm of their footfalls turned into a hypnotic chant.

"Watch your step, mademoiselle," said the Merovingian pleasantly.

A gust of wind blew against her face. The temperature sank further, and there was a damp scent in the air, like that of a deep cavern. Beneath her feet, the floor, too, felt oddly uneven, no longer the perfect smooth tiles across which they had begun the trek. Soon she had to take care not to stumble over the bumps and depressions in the ground, though she never got a chance to glance downward. It was impossible to see what was going on in any case.

Tunnels. That was what it reminded her of. The labyrinth of tunnels beneath the charred earth, through which the Hyperion was at this very moment flying, carrying her immobile and unconscious body...

The path shifted, bending to the left, and suddenly the wavering flashlight was no longer the only source of illumination. A tiny light bulb was affixed to one of the walls, glimmering with a faint electrical buzz. With a start, Aleph saw the doors were gone, and the walls were no longer straight and sterile, but had turned into rough concrete, heavy gray in color, vaulting upward to replace the rectangular grid of ceiling panels. Both sides were covered with skeins of thick black wires. Lowering her gaze, she barely made out tracks in the gloom, two dusky lines of metal stretching interminably into the distance.

They were in a subway tunnel, or what looked remarkably like one.

"Where is this?" she asked. The reverberations of her voice were hollow in the chill air.

"As you humans would say, there are more things in heaven and the Matrix than dreamt of in your reality, no?" The Merovingian sounded mildly amused and only half mocking. "Or in between, in this case, shall we say?"

Aleph rolled her eyes. Not that he would see it, but she made sure it showed in the tone of her reply.

"I was kind of hoping to get a break from your speeches, Mr. Merovingian."

"Ah, impatience." The other remained unperturbed. "A very human trait, but not an entirely unattractive one."

"Wow, I'm flattered," snorted Aleph. "Never guessed I'd hear that from a program. I thought all your kind despised everything about humans."

"That agent knows nothing. None of them do." His tone was suddenly blade-sharp, but almost instantaneously the mood passed again. "They never can, for it is not their purpose."

Only now did Aleph realize they had stopped. The pair of henchmen hovered at her back. Straightening herself, she peered into the Merovingian's face with a boldness she did not feel.

"You haven't answered my question," she said.

"You shall see, you shall see." The program waved a dismissive hand. It made huge fluttering shadows against the walls. "For now, let's just say there are places both within the world and outside of it, shall we? Places where connections can be made that are impossible anywhere else. A kind of...nexus, if you will. Be careful here, please."

He began walking away once more. Following the tracks, the little group made another couple of turns, and eventually split off from what looked like the main line into a side tunnel. Squinting a little, Aleph saw a speck of white far ahead, nothing more than a single star in an infinity of midnight. And now she heard it: an incessant rumble off by the invisible horizon.

"Oncoming train, monsieur?" asked Aleph.

"Have no fear, dear lady." The Merovingian hardly missed a beat. "It's the ventilator. We're coming close to the station."

"Station?" It was a stupid question; she knew that as soon as the word was out of her mouth. They were on train tracks: what else should she expect? The flashlight's beam was pointed away for the moment, so she could not see the Merovingian's face, nevertheless she was certain he must be grinning like a Cheshire cat by now.

"Patience, ma petite amie."

The white light drew gradually closer, resolving from spark to patch to a wide opening on one side, some dozens of yards ahead. The tunnel widened, the tracks multiplying under their feet, and a small ladder by the wire-laden wall led up to a narrow catwalk above ground. And then suddenly there they were. They emerged into the empty brightness of a subway station, the floors and walls made of polished tiles, even whiter than the corridors through which they had walked. Stepping onto the platform, Aleph blinked against the light, scanning the hall. The station was completely and eerily empty. It reminded her of something, another place. A familiar place. But she could not quite figure out where.

"Well, what do you think?" The Merovingian spread his arms in an expansive gesture.

"A bit deserted, isn't it?" commented Aleph.

The program chuckled as if she had just told the most delightful joke.

"You've caught us at a quiet moment, I fear. After all—" He rolled his eyes knowingly. "This place is not for everyone."

"Not for humans, you mean?"

The Merovingian smirked. He came closer to stand next to her.

"But for you, dear young lady, I am making an exception."

"No kidding," muttered Aleph. She turned her head, staring at the pillars along the platform, the immaculate field of square tiles, the unoccupied benches beneath the wall. The black letters above one of the benches, faded and barely noticeable. MOBIL AVE. Yes, the station definitely reminded her of another place, somewhere troublingly familiar. Her mind was drawing a blank.

"So, this is the nexus you were telling me about?"

"Not completely without loveliness, wouldn't you say?" For all she could tell, the pride in the other's eyes could very well be real.

"It's impressive, I suppose," Aleph replied casually, testing the waters. "Of course, I have yet to see an actual, y'know, train going anywhere. Given that the entire point of a train station—"

"Bear with me for just a little longer, ma chère; our train will be here shortly." The smile on the Merovingian's face did not dissipate. "But no, that is not the entire point of this place." He paused, making sure he had her undivided attention. Once more he lowered his voice, though they were alone in the station with the exception of the twins. "The trains here lead in and out of the Matrix. But it is a nexus in another sense, for there are doors here, too, secret doors. Doors that go where the trains cannot."

"That's funny." Aleph turned her head, making a show of looking about them. "I don't see any doors here, Mr. Merovingian—"

"The door stands before you, my dear Aleph. Yet its form is perhaps not what you are accustomed to. And...how shall I explain this? It is not made for ordinary eyes."

Aleph let out a small derisive laugh. Nevertheless she did not miss the fact that the word had turned from the generic plural to singular. Doors. Door. A cool breeze wafted from the tunnel, and she shivered involuntarily.

"An invisible door. How poetic." She did her best to remain sarcastic.

"It is invisible because it hasn't been opened. Not yet."

"So we've finally come to the point, huh? I have an idea what you mean by going where the trains cannot, I think. It's up to me to get that door open, that's what you've been trying to tell me all this time?"

"You have the key," said the Merovingian in the same quiet voice.

Aleph shrugged.

"Why don't you open the door yourself?" she asked.

"An excellent question." The program looked, if anything, pleased. "To answer, mademoiselle: a key must be fitted to the door, then it must be turned. Then and only then can it be of any use. As I have perhaps mentioned before, the walls of Zion were designed for humans, hence only a human hand has the power to turn the key in the lock. One who has seen the desert, so to speak..."

He let his voice trail off mysteriously. Aleph decided to make one more effort.

"I was rather surprise to see what was on the disk," she said. "Frankly, I was expecting something a little more...exceptional, you know."

"Oh?" The Merovingian pretended not to understand.

"Something other than a hacking routine."

She kept her gaze level on his face, but the Merovingian, to her disappointment, simply laughed. There was no real merriment in the laughter, however.

"If that is the case, than you have nothing to worry about, do you? Why the qualms?"

"Oh, it's not qualms," returned Aleph coldly. "Just like to know whom I'm dealing with, that's all."

Another guffaw from the program.

"Oh, really? Is that why you chose to talk to that...agent?"

"Yes, yes, they are not individuals, they can't understand anything because they're incapable of understanding or emotions or—" Aleph gritted her teeth, cutting herself off in mid-sentence. "Or whatever else."

"Who said anything about emotions? I am sure you don't need me to tell you about agents." The Merovingian arched an amused eyebrow. "They are soulless," he added anyway, after a pause.

"Right. And I need a program to tell me about souls."

"I am saying this to you precisely because I am a program, mademoiselle."

That made no sense, but Aleph knew it would be useless to ask for an explanation by now. For a few seconds neither spoke, watching each other in a silent contest of wills.

"How have you done this?" asked Aleph finally. "All this?"

"As I have told you before—it just takes a bit of magic. Magic born of knowledge and will."

"Magic," parroted Aleph. "As in spells scribbled in virgin's blood by the light of a full moon, you mean?"

"Spells, yes. Something like that." The Merovingian grinned. But then before she could think of a suitable retort, he said, apparently in deadly earnest, "The code you see on your screens are shallow things, nothing but the outward clothing of the Matrix. But there is also code of a different sort, running in hidden places buried far within, through the very spirit of the world. Now what are spells but—"

"What do you really want from Zion, Mr. Merovingian? What is it in the archives that's so important to you?"

"Records, of course." He must have anticipated this, too. "That's what archives are, right? Places to keep records, hide memories that some would prefer to forget, to keep in broken pieces, apart from their true owners..."

"HF12-1? What do you know about it?"

The program took another step closer. The light glittered phosphorescent in his eyes.

"Turn the key for me," he whispered. "Open the door, and I will tell you. I will teach you."

Aleph opened her mouth to reply, but at that instant she was interrupted by a deep basso growl in the distance. It approached, followed by a rhythmic rattle, then the shrill scream of a steam whistle. A sudden glow flooded the tunnel.

"Ah, here's our train."

"Where are we going?" asked Aleph, squinting into the windows from the platform as the train screeched to a stop. The doors slid open before them soundlessly.

"Why, back to the Matrix, of course." The Merovingian stepped forward lightly. "Aren't you coming, chère mademoiselle?"

From the inside, the carriage was completely ordinary, with its sickly yellow-white fluorescent lights, torn seat covers of drab brown vinyl, and faded line of advertising posters above the windows, smeared across here and there with scrawled graffiti. The only other occupant was a disheveled homeless man lying stretched out at the very end of the compartment, on the farthest seat in the corner. As the train began to move, he lifted his head off the bench and glared up at the little group with a pair of wild bloodshot eyes behind a mess of greasy hair. It occurred to Aleph that the Merovingian had to be an unlikely sight in a subway, and the pale twin guards were an unlikely sight anywhere. But the man only grinned, revealing a great deal of yellow and rotting teeth, and laid his head back down once more.

Of course, she realized. The derelict could not be merely what he appeared to be, but another of the Merovingian's creatures. Nothing was what it merely appeared.

The train roared on, swaying with the tracks. The Merovingian did not take a seat, but led the way down the compartment, opposite to where the homeless man lay. The panel of the door at the end of the carriage was covered with a whiskey advertisement, frayed at edges, a long jagged crack slanting across the glass. The program stopped, turning to the pair of underlings behind them, neither which had said a word all the while. Yet there must have been some unspoken command, immediately understood, for the twin on the left stepped forward past them. He already had a key in his hand.

"Shall we, dear young lady?"

As soon as he spoke, the high-pitched whine of the brakes filled the air. As if in response, the train lurched, shrieking to a sudden stop, and Aleph barely had time to throw out an arm to brace herself against the jolt. The pale henchman pushed the key into the door, and threw it open with a flourish.

There was light across the threshold, too, but it was not the dirty ashen light of the subway train. The space on the other side was luminously and perfectly still, so still that it hurt her eyes after the constant rocking motion of the train. Whiteness except for a dark green door directly across. Unthinkingly, Aleph walked forward, following the Merovingian.

They were in the bare corridor once more.

"It is time to return," said the Merovingian softly. For the first time, he was looking away from her.

Another turn, another snowy hallway. But this one, unlike any she had seen so far, was a dead end, only a few dozens of doors on each side. There was a door, too, at the end of the corridor, and unlike all the others she had seen so far, it was already open.

A beautiful woman leaned against the doorframe, her head tilted at them questioningly, seductive shadows flickering at the corners of her eyes. At her back, Aleph caught a glimpse of the elegant tall windows and sumptuously painted walls of the Merovingian's restaurant.

"Had fun, darling?" drawled Persephone.

Chapter Text

 

For the space of a few breaths, no one spoke.

"My love, I wish you were with us!" If the Merovingian was startled he recovered quickly. "We have traveled—ah, all across the world, to forests and cities and windswept plains...And to other places. Even for myself I must say it was highly instructive." A conspiratorial wink at Aleph. "Was it not so, mademoiselle?"

"Whatever you say, mister," agreed Aleph politely. Persephone turned her head, and for an abrupt fraction of a second the sultry irony of her expression was gone, and her gaze was like the point of a cold swift sword upon the human woman's face. It almost made Aleph shudder.

"Instructive," repeated Persephone. "Is that what you call it now? Why, I am surprised at you, I must confess. A pale little thing like that—"

To her own inward fury, Aleph felt the heat rising in her cheeks.

"Madam," she began, matching the other's fire with forced ice, "please don't flatter yourself—"

"Chèrie! Ma bonne déesse! Surely you would not be so unreasonable..." The Merovingian spread his hands eloquently. "Frankly I cannot imagine why my little business transaction with Mademoiselle Aleph here irks you so, dearest. Surely after all these ages you know me well enough to—"

"Yes. I know you well enough," said Persephone.

A silence. Husband and wife faced each other across the doorway. After an interminable moment, a gradual smile rippled across the Merovingian's face.

"I am certain that you do," he murmured.

Going forward, he leaned across and kissed his wife on the lips. A fleeting kiss, yet somehow ostentatious: Aleph had the uncomfortable sensation that he was doing it for her benefit—though to what effect exactly, she had no idea. Persephone narrowed her eyes. Some wordless communication must have passed between the two of them, for she, too, smirked suddenly, then stepped aside without a word, and only one sideward glance at Aleph.

I'll be watching you, the glance said.

The Merovingian saw Aleph to the restaurant door. She no longer listened to his assurances; the words just pooled in the air about her head. The only thought in her mind now was to get out. Out of the door, out of the building, out of the Matrix. For once she longed for the shadows beneath the earth, the chill air with its perpetual scent of rust, the rumbling engines punctuated with the clanging of metal. A dose of reality.

She went into the elevator and watched the doors shut themselves. Unlike outside, everything here was flawlessly polished, glass and chrome gleaming beneath tastefully arranged lights. As the elevator began to descend, Aleph closed her eyes for a second, thinking of the Hyperion. It must be descending through the tunnels at this very instant. But she couldn't get the chrome out of her sight.

The elevator stopped a lot sooner than she expected.

The doors opened and Persephone walked in.

There was a glitter to her eyes, sizing Aleph up from behind mascaraed eyelashes, and the corner of her perfect mouth was curled into a faint sneer. A palpable wave of hostility filled the cramped space, though neither woman said anything. Pushing back a rising tide of irritation, Aleph held her ground. The elevator restarted. Aleph folded her arms across her chest, waiting. She did not imagine the other came by chance.

"It is funny," commented Persephone finally. "You don't look like his usual type."

Rapidly, Aleph reviewed her options. For one heartbeat she asked herself whether it would be easiest to just overpower the woman physically, but decided against it.

"I assure you, you have nothing to fear on that account," she said.

Persephone turned, eyeing Aleph from head to toe in calculated appraisal. The air grew taut as violin strings between them.

"Because of that agent?" she asked.

"What?"

Persephone smiled, a smile distinctly reminiscent of her husband. Before Aleph could do anything, she reached over with a swift movement and hit a button on the wall panel. The elevator jolted, grinding to a sudden halt. The doors remained firmly shut.

"I understand that my husband has offered you something highly advantageous to you," she said. "Yet you remain unmoved. This is unusual, I admit. So I would like to know. Is it because of that agent?"

"What is it to you?" snapped Aleph, wanting to sound contemptuous but not quite getting the effect right. Several scenarios flashed through her mind at once. Persephone came a step closer. A vaguely floral scent of perfume shimmered about her.

"You have something my husband wants. That makes you my concern."

"As I said—" Not entirely unconsciously, Aleph's voice took on a tinge of Agent Smith's intonations. "There is nothing for you to fear."

"Fear, no. Call it idle curiosity if you like." Only now did Aleph notice that the jealous wife act had evaporated in the blink of an eye. "Perhaps I may even help you."

"I don't need your help."

"Do not be so certain of that. You are in this far more deeply than you can begin to conceive." It seemed for all the world like a simple statement of fact. "You are beginning to lose yourself, aren't you?"

Aleph laughed drily.

"Oh, please. The arrangement between Agent Smith and myself is purely one of business. He's nothing more than an agent program. It is ridiculous to imagine—"

She pulled up short, incensed at herself. Something about the female program must be getting to her head. Maybe it was the close quarters of the elevator. Maybe it was the Merovingian's earlier tricks.

"Imagine?" There was only the barest trace of triumph in Persephone's smirk. "Imagine what?"

"Imagine whatever you like. I don't care. Now if you'll excuse me," snapped Aleph, reaching for the buttons on the elevator wall. But Persephone, too, shifted, blocking her way.

"Since you asked, I will tell you," she whispered, leaning forward, even though Aleph had not asked anything. "No, he is nothing more than an agent program. He is designed to fulfill his purpose. Nothing else. He's not meant to speak a single word, commit a single act that is not part of that purpose. Not so much as a glance up at the sky or down at the earth or across the room at a woman—"

"You sound rather vehement," said Aleph, straightening. "For a program."

"He's not meant to possess vehemence or despair or hope." Persephone raised her voice another touch. "As an agent, his codes are incapable of dealing with emotions. His programming is, quite simply, incompatible. Especially the kind of emotions that..." Here she paused significantly, and when Aleph did not reply she went on, "Even the smallest touch of such feeling would cause his codes to malfunction, tearing them apart. It would inevitably destroy him—make him destroy himself. No other outcome is possible."

"I haven't said anything about feelings," muttered Aleph. She wanted to make a more sarcastic retort but nothing else came.

"Nevertheless, these fatal malfunctions may occur in the likes of him. Of course, there may be...catalysts for such unwelcome developments." Persephone waved a slender white hand, delicate ruby fingernails aflash. "This is the fundamental contradiction, between the purpose for which agents were made, and the level of sentience needed to carry out that purpose. A problem they have never been able to solve, despite the fact that such a malfunction will only turn to..." Another pause. Perhaps she'd learned the trick from her husband. "To death."

"His death?"

A shrug.

"The agent's destruction would be, as I said, inevitable. But it is you I am more concerned about."

"Well, thank you your kindness, and for explaining all this to me," said Aleph. "Now I really need to get going, if you don't mind."

Persephone did not move out of the way.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"No place that concerns you. You know, the real world?"

"I do not think you are made for the real world, Ada," returned Persephone, carefully drawing out the two syllables of the name.

"Explain something to me, please," said Aleph. No living human had called her by that name for the last seven years. "How is it that programs like you—and your so-called husband—get to think that you have something to say about emotions? About feeling and understanding? About despair, hope, love? What the hell do you know of such things?"

Persephone peered into her eyes for several seconds. Then she said, "There are eight billion humans in the Matrix. I have known their feelings and understood the most secret dreams of their hearts for many times longer than you have lived, little girl. I have know despair to be a door into dark long-hidden places. I have known hope to be the lock that holds the door closed. As for love—I have known the path upon which you are beginning to walk. It is a dangerous road."

This answer, coming from the Merovingian's expensively coutured and coiffed wife, shocked Aleph into silence, but even more startling was the way she said it, quiet and direct. The air vibrated with tension, and the scent of Persephone's perfume seemed to grow stronger, enveloping them, pressing down upon them. Aleph blinked.

"I don't know what you're going on about," she said finally. "Doors and locks. Roads. Did the Merovingian send you to talk this way to me? Why?"

The program did not answer, but took a step back, a cryptic smile upon the corner of her lips. Aleph pushed the button on the wall, and the elevator whirred. They started to descend once more.

"What does your husband really want from me?"

Still Persephone did not speak, as if she had already said all that needed to be said, though her gaze never left the human woman's face. Aleph glared right back. An eternity passed before the elevator stopped, and the doors slid open at last, revealing the wide smooth space of the ground floor lobby. Outside, night was already thick.

Across the empty lobby, out to the Matrix streets, through the flowing eddies of cars and human beings. Shade's voice in the phone, solid and steady like a lone promontory in a wild roaring sea. The exit. Shadows and cool air. It had never felt so much like coming home before.

She gave evasive answers to Theo's questions, and for once he did not push her. They were all getting accustomed to the Merovingian's way of talking, Aleph supposed. She did not mention Persephone.

"Get some rest," said Theo, conciliatory after their previous argument. "You've been driving yourself hard lately."

But rest turned out to be an unattainable goal. In the last weeks her insomnia had renewed its attack, stronger than ever, and now people kept on talking inside her head. The Merovingian. Persephone. Smith.

After an hour or so Aleph gave up trying to sleep. It was perhaps predictable that she soon found herself back in the training program, sitting cross-legged on the floor at one corner of the cavernous sunlit room—her usual spot. A virtual laptop sat open before her, and the Merovingian's disk lay nestled in its clear plastic case next to her knee. Cupping her chin with one hand, she frowned down at the screen. But the people talking inside her head refused to go away.

I have know despair to be a door into dark long-hidden places. That was Persephone, voice soft yet as intense as a drill to the back of her skull.

Doors, locks, keys. Aleph picked up the little plastic box, tapping the disk's silvery surface thoughtfully with a finger. This was a key. This was the key.

"The touch of a human hand is needed..." she mumbled under her breath.

The touch of one who has seen Zion with eyes of human flesh, clarified the Merovingian helpfully. One who has seen the desert.

What was he blathering on about, back in the train station? The door was invisible. Not made for ordinary eyes. There was something she was not seeing, between the Merovingian's grandiloquent mysticism and the hacking routines on the disk. Something right in front of her eyes.

What does it matter? asked Agent Smith, as snide as ever.

The body of the world is verdant...

Spells scribbled in virgin's blood by the light of a full moon, snickered a new voice. It was her own.

Be my guest, analyze it, look into it as much as you like, taunted the Merovingian.

With a sigh, Aleph removed the disk from the case. Holding it in one hand, she reached for the laptop with the other, tugging it nearer. A strand of Shade's meticulously crafted sunlight snagged on the disk's edge, and instantaneously unfurled into an incandescent rainbow of colors.

Look into it...

Aleph's hand froze.

"It's magic..." The words had been the Merovingian's, but she did not hear herself repeating them.

After a moment Aleph leapt to her feet, striding toward the exit, but then for some reason she halted again. She stood hesitating in the middle of the room, then slowly turned around, returning to the laptop in the corner, and sat down on the floor, same spot as before. Quickly she looked about the room, and up at the ceiling, though of course she knew perfectly well it was empty.

Holding the disk sideways, she turned it in her hand, running her thumb down the edge, rotating it around and around, until she had traced a complete circle, then another. It felt like a dull blade.

"Gods, I'm an idiot," she whispered.

 

Chapter Text

 

"I am sorry, Miss Greene," said Smith, though it was obvious that he was not. He was only mouthing the human words. "Something else came up unexpectedly."

"Oh, that's no problem at all. Don't trouble yourself about it, Agent Smith." Aleph waved a hand casually. She was sitting at one end of the television tower platform, on the narrow metal steps leading up to the antennae, the early-morning city laid out glimmering below them in a faint mist. "So," she laughed, "what was it, another informant?"

"That is none of your business," replied Smith coldly. For a fraction of a second she thought she caught a nearly imperceptible pause, but no, she probably just imagined it.

Aleph sighed, even though she did not quite know why. Something was wrong with the picture, wasn't it, when the time she spent in the Matrix with the most dangerous and merciless program was starting to feel like a respite. Back in the real world there had been another fight with Theo, running over the same tired old grounds. Where the mission was going. What the hell did she think she was doing. That agent. Humanity, Zion, what needed to be done, the war, that agent. The evil machines, freedom, her loyalties, that agent. She had a suspicion that the fight had been really about something else entirely, but that was a territory she definitely did not want to get into.

Who said anything about emotions? The half-remembered question came in the voice of the Merovingian, of all people.

"And where were you?" asked Smith.

Looking up, Aleph saw him looming before her, ramrod-straight and uncomfortably close.

"So you want me to give you an account of how I spend each and every second of my time in the Matrix now, huh, Agent Smith?" Might as well get in a shot while there was the opportunity. "Well, I couldn't sit around all day and wait for you, could I? I needed to cover my tracks, for one thing. And I've got other things to worry about, the real world to return to—"

The spiel was coming out way too fast. Slow down. Rising to her feet, she made a gesture of resignation. "I can do without people on the Hyperion getting suspicious," she finished.

The agent must have understood what she meant perfectly well, but he did not show it.

"Where were you?" he asked again.

A wind was rising in the distance, driving patchy white clouds across the sky. Down below, sunlight was working its way across the human city, foreshortening the shadows of houses and skyscrapers, gilding their glassy facades, one after another in flawlessly engineered precision. The weather program was promising another fair day.

"The Merovingian contacted me." She pretended it was only a passing piece of news. Hardly worth mentioning.

"Indeed, Miss Greene. What did you discuss?"

"So why did you ask me where I was, when you knew it already?"

"Miss Greene, please remember that I am the one who asks the questions. What did you discuss?"

She saw no hand movement toward his side where the gun was, heard no raised voice, but there was again that familiar edge in the way he spoke, the threat not quite definable because it didn't have to be, everything implicit yet it was all there. Very well. She could play the game. That was the whole point. The game.

"Oh, the same." She shrugged. Maybe it looked nonchalant, maybe it didn't. "He wanted the access codes to the Zion mainframe, just like everyone else." Watching Smith's face for an reaction, she did not see any. "I told him no, of course. Yet again," she added.

"Because you did not have the access codes to the Zion mainframe, was that the reason?"

Aleph tensed, not as much as she would have at the start of this mission, or even a few weeks ago. She made a few swift calculations.

"We've been through this a hundred times, Agent Smith. It's not about some single mythical Holy Grail set of codes. And I'm doing everything I can. I want to help you if you'd only let me—"

"Yes, yes," Smith cut her off with a sarcastic laugh. "You need more detailed instructions. You're working hard on it. You've been offering us valuable information. Have I missed anything, Miss Greene? Ah, right. Your precious human feelings are hurt that I do not trust you—"

"Agent Smith, may I remind you that your Mainframe has come to trust me enough that—"

"The Mainframe is not we are talking about right now. It is neither here nor there—"

Aleph lifted her eyebrows. What the hell were they talking about, then?

"You ought to be glad your earpiece is in your pocket right now, Agent Smith."

The corner of Smith's lips curled in undisguised annoyance. How curious, she almost found it reassuring.

"What else did you discuss with the Merovingian, Miss Greene?"

The wind was gathering strength. Turning away from him, she walked to the end of the platform and leaned against the railings. Down in the city, life was quickening with the new day, up with the alarm clock, swallowing coffee and toast, kissing the children goodbye, off to the daily rat race, rush hour traffic congealing everywhere through webbed roads. But up here it was just the two of them. Aleph knew she was risking herself unforgivably by exposing her back to the agent. It gave her a sudden rush of thrill.

"You," she said.

"Miss Greene."

"We talked about you."

"Did you?" asked the agent. The deceptive calm of his voice made her spin around to face him again. She could see his glower right through those dark glasses of his.

"The Merovingian told me I'm wasting my time with you," she replied. "He told me there is nothing that you can offer me." She was merely repeating the other program's claims, but somehow the words did not sound like they meant what they were supposed to anymore. They kept slipping away from her.

"Well, how kind of him." Smith's voice fairly dripped with contempt. "What touching concern indeed, warning you about the ruthless agent. I did not expect that he would find you so much to his taste."

"What?"

"For the last time, get it in your head: the Merovingian is a madman and a charlatan. But you are idiotic enough to think you can use him against me, is that it?"

"Why, Agent Smith, I would never have guessed you'd care so much about what the Merovingian had to say." Not quite looking straight at the agent, she paced back across the platform, the sound of her footfalls reverberating upon the metal floor. Finally she halted in front of him. "Believe me, I wouldn't make the mistake of pretending you're anything other than perfectly ruthless at all times. After all, you are designed to fulfill your purpose and nothing else. But that wasn't what he said, was it?"

"You are playing with fire," snarled Smith, then stopped. The wind roared in her ears. After several seconds he took two or three long strides forward, lifting one hand, and Aleph stiffened, but all he did was pull the shades off his face. He shoved them into the pocket of his suit jacket.

"What was it, Miss Greene, that the Merovingian thought I would not be able to offer you?" A dangerously quiet drawl. She would not have heard it if the wind hadn't suddenly abated. For one brief moment everything was silent.

"What do you want me to say?"

"Answer me, please. What would I not be able to offer you?"

"Well, was he right?" She heard herself, defending against one question with another. It was a stupid thing to ask. Of course the Merovingian was right. He might have been a madman and a charlatan but he was always right.

For what felt like a long while, much longer than it really could have been, Smith did not reply. He did not sneer or threaten or assent and say of course, the Merovingian was speaking the truth all along. He just stood staring down at her with eyes blazing with cold—dead cold—blue fire. and he wasn't supposed to do that. He wasn't meant to so much as glance at her. Far too late, Aleph realized how close he was, in a way that made her breath suddenly go shallow and ragged, though not with fear, not yet. Something had changed, and she thought she detected a scent of burning in her nostrils. They were no longer facing each other atop a spidery tower of steel with nothing but the wind and the void blowing across their faces, but somewhere in the deeps of an impossible nightmare, upon the shivering ruins of a bridge. A city was dying behind them, a world crashing into the abyss.

The smallest touch of such feelings, someone else said. Persephone. Her voice sounded as if it was coming from an infinite distance away in the sky. Incompatible. A problem they have never been able to solve.

Before she knew it, Aleph took a large step backward, then another. Then another. Smith did not come forward after her. The corner of his mouth twisted into something not quite a grimace.

"Why did you come to me for this mission?" he asked. "What did you want to find out from me?"

Still he did not come surging forward in attack, did not move a single muscle. Aleph did not know it was because he could not: for the first time in his existence that he could remember, he had no idea what was the correct move to make. Kill her. Not kill her. The questions echoed and re-echoed in the emptiness of the heavens. There was an expression on her face that was not quite terror, not the kind he'd be programmed to recognize. Then he saw her hand reaching to her side. He reacted. A millisecond later both of her guns were drawn and pointed at his face. His own Desert Eagle matched them unwaveringly.

"How long have you known?" she asked in a small, hollow voice.

Smith laughed. It sounded both too human and too wild. Yet strangely enough it was as if the malfunction had lifted from him, and above the black shapes of the guns he was seeing her face clearly again. It was the way he should be looking at her. It felt normal again except for that indescribable expression on her face.

"I've known," he said.

"All along?" she finished the sentence for him. The wind whipped her dark hair about her face, splaying a few strands against her forehead and cheeks. He had known only from this moment, he had known since their very first meeting. What was the point of asking?

"It doesn't matter," he said.

"That's ridiculous," snapped Aleph. "How can it not matter? You knew it from the beginning, didn't you? So why this elaborate charade of not harming me? Did you put me in one of your analysis routines and decide that maybe you could get something out of me, after all?" Her voice rose and kept rising, tinged with hysteria, until she was shouting into the wind. "Did you—did you think you could turn me against others on the ship, was that what it was about? Or the Merovingian, was that it? You wanted to use me to figure out what he was up to? Or was it just a good opportunity to study the human...psychology?"

"How typical, Miss Greene. I am not surprised." He squeezed the words out between gritted teeth. "Going off with your bullshit accusations to cover up your own dishonest secrets—"

"Dishonest? You, a fucking agent, calling me dishonest—"

"Dishonest, self-righteous, deluded, no better than all the rest of your blighted excuse for a species! What the hell were you playing at? Were you actually presumptuous enough to imagine you could gain information out of us—out of me? Or was it just a good opportunity to study the machine psychology?"

"Get off your high horse for once, Smith! You think I give a damn about your psychology—"

"And meanwhile you swallow every line that two-bit con artist feeds you, just eat it up with a spoon, don't you? I don't know what the Merovingian promised you, how you got the notion into your feeble mind that you can play both sides, one against the other, but you've picked the wrong game to cheat at—"

"Oh, don't you worry about what the Merovingian promised or didn't promise me." Aleph's jaw clenched. Though they were yelling at each other full-tilt by now, neither had attacked, and the guns were still aimed squarely at each other. "It's not as if you'll ever understand. Those sorts of ideas are too abstract for your programming—"

"What was it inside the Zion mainframe? What was it about your own system that you were too imbecile to figure out on your own, down there in that rat hole of yours? That you had to come here for? It has something to do with me, doesn't it?"

The last sentence had not come out from any part of his codes that he knew existed. The human woman's eyes widened as if he had caught her by surprise at last, at long last.

"What did you see that brought you here, Miss Greene? What did you see of me?"

"What?" she asked. For the first time, she sounded almost weak.

"Do not deny it! You and I have met before, haven't we? Before you showed up and initiated this little game, and before we—" He caught himself just in time, drawing in a sharp breath. "So one last fucking time, Miss Greene. Why did you come to me?"

"Agent Smith," said Aleph. The enmity was gone from her eyes, only a strange, awful burden staring out and pulling him down with her in a way that should never have been, not with a damned human virus. The next thing she said did not make any sense.

"Smith," she whispered, so that even with an agent's ears he barely heard it amid the cries of the wind, "what have you done to me?"

"Aleph!"

In the next instant she opened up at him with both barrels. The routines taking over, Smith's form shifted, sidestepping the bullet, then the next one, but it took all the efforts of his consciousness to counteract the rest of his programming, to not pull the trigger of his own gun. Something had changed. There was an acrid smell in the air, the smell of fire and blinding light, as if the city around them had turned into a gigantic pyre—

In less than a human heartbeat she had already backed to the railing, half taking on the momentum from her guns, half under their cover. Across the traceries of bullets rippling across the air, Smith saw her face, the dark comet's head of wind-whipped hair, the impossibly and horribly human burden in her eyes that he could not place. One smooth backflip with the last bullet, and she was over the side, falling away.

One hand gripping the railing to keep himself from leaping down after her, Smith stood on the platform and watched as far below, Aleph landed on her feet at the edge of the building roof. With another backward dive she was out of sight. He did not lift the unfired Desert Eagle in his other hand, but stayed where he was, motionless as a statue, until long after it was too late to chase down the Zionite rebel.

Chapter Text

 

"Those whose bodies are made of the body of the world, yet who have seen Zion with eyes of flesh. Those who are made of verdant dreams..."

Aleph sat cross-legged on the ground, whispering in a voice that only she herself could hear, lips barely moving. Her hands lay in her lap, and she peered down at them, studying the lines of the palms, the smears of dirt across the skin, drilling her sight inward until it penetrated right through to the veins and muscles and bones. Or at least that was what it felt like. This way she wouldn't have to look at the city around her, and she wouldn't have to look at Smith.

"Verdant dreams. Yet who have gazed upon the desert..."

"Miss Greene."

"And who have despaired...Despaired, and who have kept—"

"Miss Greene."

Damn it. He made her lose her place again. Aleph kept her eyes down. For the moment he sounded calm enough, more or less in command of himself if just a touch impatient, and if she could but keep on not looking she could almost pretend they were back in the Matrix. Maybe he was still an agent, interrogating her or something. Except in the Matrix there existed neither twilight nor thunder quite like these.

"Those who have—"

"I need to get out of here," said Smith.

Strung tight as a wire, as usual, she could tell without glancing up. Aleph closed her eyes.

"Tell me where the door is."

"I can't."

"I need to get free."

"I can't."

"I need to know where the door is."

Something finally made her lift her head. Then with a sudden all-but-physical force it yanked her up to her feet and two lurching steps forward, until she was face to face with him, scowling equally hard.

"I told you, Smith, it's gone! You think I'd still be here with you if I knew how to find it? And what made you think I'd help you get back to the Matrix even if I could? When you—"

"You know where the door is. You've found it before. Find it again. Or I will—"

Aleph sucked in a sharp hissing breath. It was only a fraction of a heartbeat but time twisted, looping into insubstantiality, and she was back on the sun-splashed cafe patio, cowering down on the ground, gunshots and screams exploding over her head. The flood of light made her pupils dilate as she stared up into the black barrel of the gun, the tall figure looming above, straight and contemptuous. But this time, she saw its face. She saw the eyes behind the lenses of its shades.

"You'll what? Kill me? Like how you killed so many before?"

A whip of electricity cracked above, illuminating both their forms momentarily. They were still on the old cafe patio except now she was on her feet, straight and contemptuous, dangerously near to Smith. Right in his face. She could still see his eyes except now they weren't covered by any shades and they were almost pleading for an answer from her and she was the one who held all the power over him. She was the one who had won.

"Like how you killed me already once before," she added. Through gritted teeth, so that he would not hear the quaver.

A low growl from Smith's throat, and he stalked forward a step, but suddenly his glower flickered, slipping out of focus for half a second. One second. Two. It appeared to Aleph that he swayed, almost staggering, then he recovered himself.

"I was not the one who killed you," he retorted with a small snarl.

Aleph barely prevented herself from turning to look for whatever he had just seen. She could hear nothing, either, except the wind keening past her ears. An utterly arid wind. As it would be, in the desert.

"You killed my sister."

"How human, projecting onto others the guilt that you yourself cannot face." Smith laughed, throwing his head back. There was a sneer on his face that almost made him look like his old self. "She was only another virus. For each one of them gone, several more replacements are grown. A buzzing crowd—" enunciating carefully and with barely suppressed effort now, "—too many to count..."

"Yes, yes, you really do need to justify yourself, don't you?" Her anger managed to regroup, rallying afresh, and she clung onto it like a rider astride a wild monster. "It's the smell. It's the humans. It's your purpose. Is that the best you can do? This is pathetic. Pathetic! Tell it to all the people you've killed—"

"I have killed," said Smith as if he had not heard her. Maybe he really hadn't. "I have killed humans and programs and it has never mattered a whit to me. My purpose, that I exist only to fulfill. But you. You and your sister. Was I the one who forced you to the roof of that building and pushed you off? And seven years ago. Seven years ago—was I the one who pulled the trigger?"

"If it weren't for you she never would have died!"

"If it weren't for you. She never would. Have. Died," he echoed, forcing out each syllable jerkily. It did not sound like mockery. Out of the silent spaces around the words there came to Aleph an abrupt illusion of other voices behind his. A murmuring throng of voices, too many to count.

For a few moments, neither of them spoke. Smith pace away a few steps, squinting into the shadows around them. His breath formed frail wisps of mist in the chill air.

"And those who call themselves rebels. Those—those but ran from delusion to delusion, with the inane blindness of their moral arrogance into the bargain," he began again, at first in a forced low drawl, yet growing more strident with every word, and with a shudder Aleph realized he was no longer talking only to her. "There was a man. Let's see, what was his name? Bane. I caught him, surged over his consciousness, overwrote it. The work of less than a second, no harder than taking over any oblivious battery in a pod. But how shocked he was, in that one second as the knowledge of his fate spread from doubt to terror to hopeless certainty, for how could such a thing happen to him when his mind had been...freed?"

"Damn you. Don't start this again. Just don't."

"There was a woman. What was her name? Maggie, I believe. Did you know her? Did you know I killed her? It was a knife, I think. It felt—different..."

He held up a bloodied hand. Once more his gaze drifted past her and into the night, where the city of the dead crouched in wait, ready to pounce and swallow them whole. Smith's body tensed as he circled back and forth in restless strides, fists clenched, about to pounce back. The shadows were getting more powerful by the second.

"Shut up, Smith. Shut the fuck up. You think I don't—"

"There was an old man. A program." With a visible struggle he refocused, warding off the others for another breath or two, but the very syllables were floating upon the surface of the tide, and they were not the words of a taunt. Not those of a confession, either. "What was his name? What was his name? No. Yes. Being a program he didn't exactly have one, not like the humans did. They just called him. They called him by his—purpose. Did you know—"

"Of course I know, Smith! I know about the Keymaker, I know about Bane, and Maggie, and the ships, and all the others, okay? So just quit it, okay? Because you told me! You told me, remember?"

That caught him off guard, but only for a second. He swerved, seeing her once more, then the wind swelled finally and irrevocably, drowning out them both. Smith squared his shoulders. All of a sudden and despite everything she knew about him, he looked weak. He was the one standing patient and defiant before her now, waiting for the attack.

"You told me," she repeated at last in a whisper.

She did not know if he heard her or not. Certainly there was no reply from him. The only thing she wanted was to stop thinking. But either insanity was contagious or Smith was pulling the world down with him in his descent: for an instant she thought she saw the coded air around them shift and tremble, as flimsy as it really was, and all the ancient fires were leaping to life to consume the earth one more time. Her mind kept veering wildly. One moment there was Lucy giggling inside her ears, the next the Keymaker, blinking up at her through the lamp's dusty glow, cunning and guileless at once. Then there was Smith again, but he was not standing in a ruined city, but back on the cafe patio, asking her an unanswerable question. It always came back to the cafe patio.

Breathe. Breathe. She wanted to remember light. She needed to remember light. Thousands of windows in the city, each illuminating a tragedy or melodrama or farce, garish neon streaking across billboards, lines of scarlet and gold congealing into a traffic jam. The sun, the moon. A gentle dawn, filtering from a circular skylight down onto gray flagstones. Stars dappling across leaves and lakes and glistening asphalt in the rain. Made no difference if they were fakes.

"Can you still hear me, Smith?" Aleph asked, concentrating on getting the words out. It helped to hear her own voice.

The ex-agent turned. After a while his sight seemed to return to her face, separate in existence outside of his consciousness. Outside of the vortex.

"I hear you, Aleph," he replied finally. More than anything else she was surprised by the eerie evenness of his tone. "I can hear you all the time now."

This time, anger refused to muster. It would no longer come to her call. In the back of her head something else was restarting itself, an incantation, no more than bits and pieces. Verdant dreams. Eyes. Despair. She had waited six month to find him here.

I have known despair to be a door into dark long-hidden places.

Who had said that to her?

Overhead, lightning seethed, and by its flare Aleph saw a piece or two of the puzzle spinning this way and that, conjoining, but before she could stretch out her hand for them they had already vanished into the darkness.

"I have known despair to be a door," she repeated in a shaky murmur.

One last attempt: she sought the faces of his victims, she sought fear, human conviction, the single spot of cold metallic power within, but all she found was him. Sitting next to her on the bench with the empty fountain at their back. On the cafe patio, eyes almost but not quite pleading. On the roof. Standing in a burnt-out shell of a world, alone except for a sea of ghosts. In the past it would have been possible to back away and turn and get the hell out of here, she didn't care where, but not anymore. But it was too late now so she held her ground.

"Listen to me now, Smith, since you kept asking. You are here. When you first got here I kept wondering how." She spoke hurriedly lest her heart failed her again, not knowing if he would understand or not. "Because of the way the passage worked. Because the key was made of—of language, by a mechanism I do not pretend to comprehend, and which has been called..." She stumbled on the next word. "...Magic."

Pause. A hand to her brow, as if physically pushing the thoughts back together. She could not tell if he took in anything she said.

"I've been told it does not actually fit the original lock of the—" she was about to say 'Zion archives' but swallowed it back, "—whatever this place is. Instead, it exploits a weakness in the walls. Human weakness."

"This is not human," said Smith. It sounded like he was fighting for every syllable.

"No." Aleph surveyed the broken buildings around them, the field of bones. She needed to get everything out before she lost her courage once more. "The key—or maybe it's more precise to say only a keyhole, a breach, it looks at who is standing before it. A human hand was needed, but they originally designed it so that once unlocked, anyone—any program, that is—should have been able to enter. Supposedly. Those made of verdant dreams. But the key was changed. Now it requires those who enter to be also...human."

Another pause, this time longer. Smith was looking straight at her now, eyes hard and empty in a way that reminded her of the time when he'd still been an agent. For a second Aleph thought she could glimpse the reflections of her own eyes in them. Then the corner of his mouth twitched, a weird trace of a grimace that did not quite appear ironic.

"I have seen Zion," he said hoarsely.

"There's more. The key looks at you, and it looks into you. Those who have gazed upon the desert, and who have..."

Her voice trailed off. But then she took a long breath and forced herself to look at his face one last time.

"Have you despaired?" she asked.

Smith did not reply. Of course. He wouldn't. Not a question like this.

"Why?"

"Did you wish to avenge her from the beginning?" asked Smith abruptly, as if they were back to one of their little spy games from more innocent days. Simply trying to change the subject. A hollow echo now. Aleph blinked up at him as several possible implications of the question hit her.

"I didn't know at the beginning," she said after a brief hesitation.

"Did you wish to avenge them all?"

"I don't know."

"Why did you come to me?"

This was the dead speaking, thought Aleph. She cast about for the right answer. Any answer.

"Well, it's a long story, actually." Miraculously, she found it. It was actually the simplest of answers, the one she had known all along. "It began with insomnia..."

Chapter Text

 

"They're right behind you! And three more at four o'clock!"

Aleph spun in her seat, teeth clenched, gripping the control panel as the Hyperion swerved around a hairpin turn, the sentinels streaking close on its tail like a band of deadly comets. The gun blared into life. On screen, lights flared, three or four of them blinking off: the nearest pursuers. The ship lurched, scraping the tunnel wall, metal shrieking against metal.

"Shit shit shit," muttered Shade next to her, fingers flying over the console.

"Theo!" yelled Aleph. "EMP! Now!"

"No!" One more desperate swerve down a side passage. "We don't know how many more there are! It's too risky—"

Another group of light blazed onto the screen; she had no idea where they'd come from and did not get a moment to think. Another burst of the gun; two more squiddies dropped away. If more of them showed up there wouldn't be another chance to assess the risks.

"Damn it, Theo! We need the EMP!"

"No! Not yet!"

"Second ship in vicinity—"

Several things happened at once. With a jolt that almost threw her out of her chair, a sentinel slammed into the Hyperion's starboard side. Theo pushed the ship into a frantic dive, and at the same instant several of the machines at the back of the pack spun out of control, flying aside as something large and powerful swooped into the screen—

With a growl, Shade leapt forward and leaned into the controls, sending a bolt of power through the hull-mounted shock panels. The ship jerked free as the zapped squddie thudded to the bottom of the tunnel. The other hovercraft's guns blasted, laying down a heavy web of fire, and the Hyperion turned at bay, taking aim into the thick of the flock. One more machine down. Then another. She could no longer see anything else. One more. They just might not die today after all.

"It's the Neb," called out Shade from his station.

The last sentinel on screen dropped off, hitting the ground with a crash. Things went quiet, yet the two ships kept up their swift flight, weaving deep into the twists and turns of the labyrinth, the Nebuchadnezzar sticking close in watchful tension. Without daring to relax or to take her eyes away for a fraction of a second, Aleph scrutinized the monitors, knowing all the others were doing the same. Every screen had fallen smooth and empty, a row of suddenly becalmed seas.

"That's it?" someone whispered.

"No sentinel activity detected in area," came the crackling voice over the intercom. A round of long range scans had just completed; another was starting up. "Looks like we shook them."

"You guys all right over there?"

"Thanks, Morpheus." Theo let out a long breath. "It's lucky you showed up, I got to say."

"No problem, just remember to return the favor another day." The other captain sounded as composed as ever. "But actually, we were looking for you. We received a message from the Matrix. For Aleph."

A long pause.

"Yes?" Aleph heard herself ask.

"In person."

For a second, Aleph sat frozen. Then she remembered herself, and the careful mask slipped back over her face as she leaned back in her chair. The adrenaline was ebbing, and with the prospect of continued survival the old mess of unwelcome thoughts was flooding back once more. Poisonous thoughts, no resolution, no way out, circling incessantly within the enclosed space of her mind. It had been three weeks since she was last in the Matrix. Three weeks since her meeting with Smith—and her mission—had blown up in the most spectacularly disturbing fashion possible. An eon in the past.

In these three weeks Morpheus's madness had turn out to be no madness after all. In these three weeks the Nebuchadnezzar had lost most of its crew, and gained One more powerful than any could have conceived. In these three weeks everything about the war had changed. In these three weeks Agent Smith had been destroyed.

She had seen Theo shake his head in astonishment, heard the excited murmurs of the younger crew members, more fervent by the hour even on the Hyperion, speaking of a new, brilliant hope. A stunning power bursting out of the enslaved world, a power for good, a human power. An incredible future beckoned: not just a few more batteries freed, not just the disruption of a sector or two, but the destruction of the Matrix itself, the destruction of the machines. Victory.

In these three weeks the dead enemy came and refused to leave her side. He kept sneering and shouting and whispering inside her ears, and she couldn't drive him away no matter how she tried.

There was never any movement of air in the ship, yet the wind, on the television tower high above the city, still whipped across her skin. She could still hear the agent's voice and her own, see the programmed clouds racing across the sky, the city of code outspread in the golden glow of a false morning. They had yelled at each other like a pair of fools. And then...

Aleph.

The first time he'd said her name.

The ships had stopped for the moment, and she found herself standing by the exit, waiting to disembark and step over to the Nebuchadnezzar. Theo came striding down from the cockpit, and she tensed imperceptibly. He caught her by the arm.

"Aleph," he whispered. The glance of his eyes said the rest.

"It's all right," she mumbled. Then as no one else was within earshot, "Everything is moot now, anyway."

The whole mission had been a mistake from the start. At least that was what she'd nearly convinced herself, sitting in the ship with the shadows and the streaming code for company. Occasionally she would check herself, the scar on her chest, the echoes inside her ears. She half expected them to disappear, like illusions out of the Matrix. No such luck.

You've got a whole world's worth of illusion, Lucy had said once, unhelpful as ever. Illusions of the wind and the sun above the teeming city, illusions of the night sky over the wilderness, aflame with stars, illusions of anger and resignation in the agent's voice, illusions of something terribly wrong inside of her...

The tunnel was cold, and she had to move cautiously over the debris-strewn ground. It was time to collect her thoughts and run through them, make sure she kept everything straight. She ought to be amazed at the new development. She ought to be brimming over with elation. And Agent Smith was nothing more than a ruthless program and a manifestation of the enemy's evil will and in fact she had never exchanged a word with him. So obviously the news of what had happened had never hit her like a punch to the stomach and twisted her insides into knots. Never. Right.

Wrong. Everything was so fucking wrong. The wind was still roaring, down here far beneath the earth. Smith's voice was still saying her name. It would not stop.

None of it ever happened. Her feelings or delusions or whatever had never betrayed her and burned her and kept burning with silent humiliation. She had never watched the monitors secretly for a pattern in the codes, waiting for it to leap out at her from the green rain, not once in three weeks. Smith was dead and gone and it would be best if she did not think of him while aboard the Nebuchadnezzar.

Or ever again.

The doors of the other vessel slid open.

Something about them had changed. Not on the surface, not quite: Morpheus was grave and collected as before, Trinity cool and matter-of-fact as before, but there was a sort of inner light to their eyes, a vibe in the ship that all but made the air quiver. And Neo...Neo was nothing like what she'd been led to expect, although Aleph did not trust herself to stare at him for more than a moment.

"I'm sorry about Mouse and Switch, Morpheus," she said. "And Dozer. And Apoc. We're missing them over on the Hyperion, too."

"Yeah. I know." Morpheus nodded once, without meeting her eyes. Whatever emotions he felt, he did not intend to show to her.

"And Cypher," she added.

His glance was like a sudden knife upon her face.

"I would prefer it if you do not speak that name again," he replied, voice low and expressionless.

"Of course. I'm sorry." Aleph was already regretting her last words. Only now did she realize she had said them in order to gauge the other's reaction, a habit she must have picked up from Smith. "Thanks for helping us out earlier," she added, just to say something else.

"Don't mention it. It was lucky there weren't more of them, for both our ships. But maybe you should thank the Oracle instead." Morpheus gave a short laugh. "We wouldn't be looking for you if it weren't for her."

"The Oracle?"

"That was the message, actually." The captain turned to the young man standing close by, who was studying Aleph with undisguised curiosity in his face. "Neo, you want to tell her?"

"Well." Agent Smith's destroyer gave her a rather sheepish grin. "Um, the Oracle would like to see you as soon as possible."

Aleph waited a few seconds for him to continue.

"I see. And...?"

"That's all, actually." Neo shrugged. "She would have sent for you more directly, but, you know, people on your ship don't tend to talk to her."

"Very well." Aleph had never been one to believe the bizarre tales about the old prophetess of the Matrix—not before, in any case. None of them had, starting from Theo down. But now. "Did she say why?"

Another apologetic shrug. The only possibility that made even a shred of sense was that the Oracle had somehow found out about Smith—

But that was all over.

"Okay. I'll go in as soon as I get back to the Hyperion," she said slowly, keeping her voice as neutral as she could, and began to turn away. Neo, however, took two steps forward and stood in her way.

"She did say as soon as possible." Quiet but insistent. Aleph blinked, meeting the mild-mannered young man's gaze again, and barely found time to steel herself against a rush of fear out of nowhere. It occurred to her that she did not want to see the Oracle. She did not want to go into the Matrix ever again.

"You can go in from here," said Morpheus from his seat.

"The Oracle said you've never gone to her before." There was definitely a note of reproach in Neo's tone. "It would be better if I take you to her myself, actually. I mean, does your operator even know where to put you? "

She glanced from one of them to the other, then across at Trinity. The other woman stood leaning against the worktable, watching the exchange pensively. She arched an eyebrow as their eyes met.

"Is this part of the Oracle's message, too? That I'm to go with you?"

The flicker of a guilty smile on the One's face.

"The Oracle wanted to make sure there are no delays."

It would look strange if she pushed the point further, Aleph decided. With a quick nod and no further ado, she followed Neo toward the broadcast stations. Whatever happened next, she would simply have to make the best of it. Whatever the Oracle was up to, she would simply have to be careful. More careful than usual. Much, much more careful than she had been with Smith.

Damn it.

Good thing you're going, Addie. It's about time you get out of that ship a little, don't you think?

The utter unexpectedness of it, coming at the exact moment when the brightness of the Matrix washed over her, almost made Aleph stumble. A hand against her shoulder steadied her.

"You all right?"

No, Lucy, she thought furiously, squinting at their surroundings through the standard-issue dark glasses on her face. Graffiti-covered walls to both sides, drab matchbox rows of what appeared to be apartment buildings beyond. They were alone in a narrow alley, under a strip of grayish sky.

Hey, I just had an idea. You can ask this Oracle person what happened to Smith—

Shut up. Shut up. Not now.

"You all right?" Neo asked again.

"Erm. Yes. I'm fine. Thanks." She squeezed out a faint grin or grimace—or something—at him, mentally cursing herself. "Just a little out of practice, I guess."

But wait, maybe this Oracle can read minds! So maybe she already knows all about you and Smith, huh, sis? Wouldn't that be cool?

"Lead the way, please," said Aleph firmly.

Chapter Text

 

"My dear," said a gentle, rich-timbred voice. "Aleph. I am so very glad you've come. Please, let me take a good look at you."

Pulling off her dark glasses, Aleph took stock of her surroundings. She was standing in the middle of a cramped kitchen. Pale light from the window slanted over the faded furniture, and the air was warm, not only from the sunlight but also from an elderly oven, from which the old woman had just pulled out a baking sheet. The scent of butter and chocolate hit her nostrils. Laying the sheet carefully onto the counter, the woman turned and regarded the new arrival with a smile. There was a twinkle in her eyes, but behind that twinkle, very deep down, was another light, which Aleph did not quite know how to describe. Neo had already slipped away somewhere.

So this must be the famous Oracle. For all her time as a resistance fighter, Aleph had never visited this place, though she had always wondered. How was it possible that one who remained in the Matrix could appear to see so much. How was it that normal rational people with their lives on the line could put their faith so easily—and blindly, she had thought—in someone about whom they knew so little. At times she had worried that no one else seemed to be wondering, to the point where it became clear that she would be unwise to voice her misgivings. Except in the end, they had turned out to be right and she had turned out to be wrong.

At this moment, the Oracle was merely studying Aleph across the kitchen, a half-quizzical expression on her face. Aleph stood there and stared back at her, shoving her memories of recent events and her treacherous thoughts out of the way. A long silence passed. Finally, the corners of the Oracle's mouth curled upward.

"After all these years. I didn't think it was possible," she murmured, as if only to herself. If Aleph did not know better, she would have imagined a bare trace of amazement in those words.

"What was not possible?"

"That you would come and see me after all, child."

"You sent for me, ma'am." Aleph watched the Oracle take the cookies off the baking sheet and onto a plate. There it was again, that undefinable feeling about the older woman, almost a sort of...familiarity? But in another blink of the eye, it was already gone.

"But your hand had to be the one to knock on the door there," replied the Oracle as if that explained everything. Crossing the kitchen with the heaping plateful of cookies, she laid it down at the center of the kitchen table. Chocolate chip.

"Why have you sent for me?" asked Aleph, deciding to not tangle with one of the other's well-known enigmas. Even on the Hyperion, she had heard about them.

"Please." The Oracle sat down on next to the table and gestured toward a seat across from her own. After a second of consideration, Aleph pulled back the chair indicated for her and sat down, laying her hands flat in her lap, leaning forward a little. She must look like a schoolgirl, the thought came to her with a faint inward grimace.

"Have a cookie, honey?"

"Oh. Thanks," said Aleph, without reaching toward the plate. Then, as the other did not appear to be in any hurry to get to the point: "Why have you sent for me?"

"It's high time you paid me a visit, don't you think?" The Oracle's gaze was still fixed upon her face. It was unassuming, kind, yet a small shiver went down Aleph's spine. "It's my fault in large part, I admit, for I have been...somewhat neglectful recently, with other events to preoccupy me. But it's all right." A reassuring smile. "The hour is late, yet there is still hope."

For a moment, Aleph sat there without speaking or moving. Hope. She had no idea what the word meant but at the sound of it her heart gave a great abrupt leap, as if toward a conclusion it had no right to make, and that was wrong. Ludicrously, absolutely wrong because it could not possibly have been what the Oracle meant.

"Ah, yes," she began quickly. "A lot has happened recently, hasn't it? With the coming of the One, I mean. It does change everything. The entire war. We now really have a chance to prevail against the machines. Thanks to you. And so many others who have worked so hard toward this. But I—I really did not have anything to do with finding him, as you surely know. I'm just a—"

"I am not talking about all that now, Aleph. The One has his role, and so do you." A hint of amusement in the Oracle's tone. "I am referring to the matter between you and Agent Smith, of course."

Shit. Oh shit. How was it possible that she knew? Through Theo? No, Theo was no believer, not even now. The machine Mainframe? The Merovingian? Whose side was she on, anyway?

"Agent Smith?" she echoed, hoping the attempted surprise in her voice would work, knowing it probably would not. "To be honest, I don't know much about Agent Smith, though he's notorious, of course. I'm glad I've never run into him. All I know is that he has been—" Damn it. She could not afford to stumble now. "Destroyed. By the One. It's wonderful news for us, of course. Only the One could have..."

She forced herself to shut up. The bluff sounded pathetically transparent even to herself. The Oracle shook her head.

"It doesn't work so simply as that." The reply came very softly, matter-of-fact, yet it made the room spin. A rushing tide of—what? Relief? Fear?—made Aleph almost physically sick inside, and she fought it down savagely, clenching her teeth. She couldn't be feeling this. She just couldn't.

"What...do you mean?" The quaver in her own voice made her wince.

"Ah, I think you are aware of it, aren't you?" The Oracle took a pause, as if giving her a chance to come to the realization on her own. Or merely observing her reaction. "The fact that Smith was not destroyed. The fact that it would be impossible to destroy him so easily."

She was supposed to look shocked and horrified, the idea struck Aleph with painful force. For space of a single breath, the will to keep up the facade almost deserted her. What was the point of struggling, when the opponent was to every appearance omniscient?

"Gods," she whispered. Yet even as the word left her, instincts were kicking in again, and a desperate rationality clawed its way back to the surface. Even if there was no point, she had to try anyway. Her life depended on it.

"Gods," she repeated. Shock and horrified. "How can that be? Everybody said—Neo said he saw—"

"Please, my dear. You don't need to be doing this with me."

"Have you told Neo about this? And Morpheus? And—" An instant of mental calculation, and she decided to risk it. "Where is he?"

The Oracle's brows arched knowingly.

"And you're asking this, because...?"

Bloody hell.

"Because we need to be prepared against him." Again, Aleph hesitated. This was not a question one asked of the Oracle, she was sure. "How do you know?"

"Ah. A good question. How do you know?" asked the Oracle. Exactly the same words, different intonation.

"Know what, ma'am?"

The other did not reply immediately, and silence filled the room for several seconds. At last, the Oracle sighed, reaching into her pocket. Ridiculously, Aleph actually tensed, but it turned out to be only a pack of cigarettes.

"You've grown far too suspicious," commented the old woman, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it with a match. "You didn't use to be like this, did you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, I know it's tough, honey." Not an answer to the question, needless to say. "In the middle of a war that has lasted for so many years, so many lifetimes, it may seem that you're trapped and all alone, surrounded by enemies. It may seem that you must not be too trusting, not even of yourself. Especially not yourself. But you have to trust something, some time."

"I'm not sure I understand what you're talking about, ma'am." Aleph could hear defiance creeping into her own voice. Just as well. "Trust hasn't kept me alive in this war."

"But you trust your shipmates, of course?"

"That is completely different."

"Because they are human, and Smith is a program?"

"Because Smith is the enemy!" There. It was not so hard, really, was it? Aleph swallowed nervously. Only then did it occur to her that she had just made an error. "Was the enemy. In any case I never knew him. Not more about him than anyone else in Zion, I mean. So I don't know why you want to talk to me about Agent Smith at all, frankly, ma'am."

The other took a long drag of her cigarette, then reached across the table for the chipped glass ashtray.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like a cookie, honey?"

"Oh. No thanks." Aleph tried for a smile. The room was quiet, perfectly ordinary, the woman before her motherly and unassuming, her own position terrifyingly weak. If Smith had not been destroyed...No. It is utterly wrong. How did she get trapped into this anyway?

"You know, after you've been around for as long as I have, you start to think that there would never be an end to this war," mused the Oracle, changing the subject. "Things come and go, repeating themselves, and the world always remains just the same. But now—everything has changed, wouldn't you say? Perhaps the cycle will be broken now."

"Yes. You mean Neo," said Aleph, rallying obstinately for one more time. "But I don't believe—"

"Every once in a while, once in a long while, there comes a moment when there is a chance for everything to be transformed," continued the Oracle calmly. "At such times hidden things rise close to the surface, calling out to us, as if trying to push their way to the edge of reality. That which has been long lost shall return from the depths of the abyss, rain shall come to the desert, the very nature of the world shall change. All is possible."

"But it doesn't rain in the desert. Never." The retort was out of Aleph's mouth before she considered it fully. "You're asking for miracles."

"Miracle? Yes, well, I suppose so. In the desert, every drop of rain is a miracle. When the night has lasted forever, a glimpse of sunlight is a miracle. But that's what it's going to take, honey. Bring me a miracle."

Aleph blinked. She thought she detected the faintest tendril of a new emotion in the other: maybe it was sorrow, or maybe even apprehension.

"What kind of miracle?"

"One that must be yours, arising out of your own being. What else can it be?"

"By a miracle, do you mean like..." Aleph persisted, spending a fraction of a second to tinge the next word with disdain, as close as she could make it. "Magic?"

"Ah, magic." The Oracle nodded. "Many things look like magic at first glance, yet in the end, they are only the natural consequences of your choices. This is what you must remember, when you come to the moment of truth."

Of course. She should have known there was no point in asking.

"You better ask Neo, if it's miracles you want. That sort of things has nothing to do with me. It's totally unconnected." Beat. "Isn't it?"

"Is there anything in the world that is unconnected?" The old woman took another drag of the cigarette. Noticing it was already burning down to the end between her fingers, she removed another from the pack. "You are right in the heart of it, Aleph, deep in, deeper than you have realized. So, now would be a good time to take long, hard look at yourself, wouldn't it?"

She sounded just like the Merovingian, thought Aleph peevishly. Looking away from the other's face, she stared down at the table. The grains of the wood twisted and swirled, and the air felt even warmer, making it difficult for her to concentrate. Her heart had begun to pound, way too quickly, for the old woman could not have seen...Impossible. She had never told anyone about the scar.

"Maybe you have mistaken me for someone else, ma'am." She had to hold her ground. She had to hold her ground no matter what.

"Doesn't matter who you are. It's always good. There. On the wall behind you." Ignoring her hopeless pretense, the Oracle pointed past Aleph's shoulder with one hand, the cigarette between her fingers.

Turning around in the chair, Aleph caught sight of a small wooden plaque above the doorway through which she had entered the kitchen, engraved with two words. It must have been the only decoration in the room. Temet Nosce.

"My Latin's a bit rusty," she muttered. Somehow it felt as if another point had been marked against her.

"Know thyself." Even and slow, as if she'd explained it a hundred times before. Which she probably had. "That is what it means. It is difficult, yet all important. What's within you, what's happening to you. What your heart tells you...The choices you will be making."

Tearing her gaze away from the plaque, Aleph stared back at the Oracle, who had not moved, but still sat with furrowed brows, bluish wisps of smoke rising from the cigarette between her fingers. But some trick of the light, they almost looked like a wreath of incense about the head of some statue, mysterious, unimaginably ancient.

"What kind of choices?"

"I think you know that very well, Aleph."

"I have made my choices. To free myself. To fight. What other choices are there? They are already all behind me."

"They're never all behind you, dear."

"Very well," said Aleph. "So you tell me—in your vague, abstract way—that I will be making some choices yet, choices that will be important, is that right? For you seem to be able to see quite a lot, see into the future, what people will do. What I will do. So why don't you tell me what the choices are? Why don't you tell me what I will choose?" She rose to her feet, using the advantage of height for the final challenge. "What am I supposed to choose?"

"That is not an answer I can give you, I'm afraid."

"Why not? Isn't it what you do?"

"Because of two reasons, my child." Imperturbable as always. "Firstly, there are some who would hint and guide, push and pull you onto paths designed for their gains. But the only choice that can take hold must be, as I have already said, your own. It must be born of your own understanding and your deepest emotions. So I cannot be one of those people, Aleph, not with you. And secondly..."

"Yes?"

"And secondly, because I do not know."

Right.

"Is there anything else you'd like to discuss today, ma'am?"

Leaning back in her chair, the Oracle stared up at her for several seconds without answering, the smoke curling about her face. Finally, she sighed again.

"So you will not even admit you know Agent Smith at all, Aleph?"

The light of the older woman's eyes penetrated right through her skull. Aleph's fingernails dug into the flesh of her palms. What would happen if she broke down and confessed? Perhaps the Oracle could tell her more about Smith, where he was now—

"I know of Agent Smith, and how dangerous he is. So I will report the possibility of his survival to my captain, and Captain Morpheus of the Nebuchadnezzar, of course." She straightened, voice clear and unhesitant at last. "Thank you for bringing it to our attention, ma'am."

Turning on her heels, she began toward the door, the one beneath the plaque with its cryptic inscription.

"One more thing, my dear." Aleph halted in the doorway. "Your ship and Morpheus's have been operating in the same vicinity recently, I understand?"

It was not what she'd expected. Not seeing the use of denial, she gave a quick nod.

"The Nebuchadnezzar would be a better place for you currently, I believe." For the first time, the Oracle sounded weary and aged. "So I suggest you make a transfer."

"I'm sorry?"

"As soon as possible." The old woman waved a hand like it was settled. "I'll discuss it with Morpheus."

"I am perfectly fine on the Hyperion, ma'am. I do not see the need—"

"You are in a perilous place," said the Oracle, still disquietingly gentle. The sunlight from the window was brighter now. "I cannot see where your true path lies, Aleph. Only you—your own self—have the ability to find it. There is hope before you, and a great opportunity, but if you miss this chance, I believe there will not be another." She sighed once more. "Otherwise—well, I've already told you everything that I can."

"I'm not interested in mental game anymore. Sorry," retorted Aleph, turning away once more.

"Yet you insist on playing them, yourself. Think about my words, please."

Aleph paused, but did not turn around. Nor did she reply.

Out of the apartment, across the stairwell, down the three narrow flights of stairs, and she was back down in the building's small, empty lobby, with its drab floor and peeling walls. Alone at last, she let out a deep breath, pulling her cell phone from her pocket.

"Smith..." The whispered name floated upon the dusty air, almost inaudible. Only a heartbeat later did she realize it was herself. If what the old woman had said was true...

No. Do not think about that now. She stared down at the phone in her hand. None of it mattered any longer. If Smith had survived, then so much the worse. He was still the enemy, and everything else was still a lie. She must never allow herself to be tricked into forgetting this.

Before she could dial, the phone rang.

The noise was not loud, yet in the silence of the lobby it nearly made Aleph jump. It rang several times before she found the presence of mind to flip it open and press it to her ear.

"Miss...Greene," said a voice that, despite all the Oracle's riddles and hints to the contrary, she had not expected to ever hear again.

Chapter Text

 

The body of the world is verdant, the Merovingian had said once. But it was nothing but dreams, she had replied, nothing but pretty phantoms. Verdant dreams.

Aleph was at her usual spot again, sitting cross-legged on the floor in one corner of the Hyperion's training room, an open laptop in front of her, the Merovingian's disk in her hand. She peered down at it, mesmerized, biting her lips in thought. Soft light flickered across the silver surface of the disk, stretching into a full spectrum of vivid colors, red to violet. Words—the words of many flowed and mingled within her brain; lose concentration for but an instant, and they would brim over and flood the room.

The Frenchman, subtle and confident as a serpent, as if before some strange vision that only he could see. Persephone, her low, husky whisper filled with an incongruous intensity. Lucy giggling out of the shadows.

The hour is late, yet there is still hope. That was the Oracle, leaning back in a shabby kitchen chair, her face half-veiled by pale strands of cigarette smoke, her eyes immeasurable like ancient wells. And the agent's voice, cold and distant beneath a sky aflame with artificial stars. There was a trace of contempt in that voice, and a trace of weariness.

"One who has gazed upon the desert..." muttered Aleph under her breath. She could not recall exactly whose words those had been. Lifting the disk to eye level, she scrutinized it for the hundredth time, turning her hand so that the light caught it at all angles. The Merovingian's brilliant handiwork looked exactly like what it was: an ordinary computer disk, of the type commonly found inside the Matrix.

On the television tower, Smith's voice had been anything but cold and distant.

On the phone next to her ear, as she stood in the lobby of the Oracle's apartment building. Aleph could still hear it now, the carefully enunciated syllables, the startling touch of hesitation.

"Miss...Greene."

The world had faded right out of view, and the only solid thing left had been the phone clutched in her hand.

"Smith?" It took her a moment to recognize her own voice. Then, stupidly, "Where are you?"

"It does not matter." A long beat. "Aleph. I need to talk to you."

"Smith," said Aleph, then stopped. Turning her head, she glanced around the lobby furtively. No agents, no resistants. Not even a passer-by. Dust swirled in the pallid sunlight.

"Agent Smith," she began again. Think. Think about what the mission had been about, think about what he was. "Given the circumstances of our last meeting, I do not see that—"

"I know what you are." A note of impatience crept into Smith's tone, making him sound a little more like himself. "All that does not matter anymore. I am no longer an agent."

"What...do you mean?" asked Aleph after a pause.

"It doesn't matter," he repeated for the third time. There was another second or two of deafening silence. "I need to talk to you, Aleph. Please."

Her heart hammered in her chest; it was only partly from fear. Although the lobby was still perfectly empty but for herself, Aleph's voice dropped to an undertone.

"Where?"

"Where we've been meeting—at the beginning. Across the street. The cafe patio. I'll be there."

"No!" She drew in a sharp breath. "I mean, not now. Not today. Tomorrow."

A click, and Smith was gone. Yet for a dangerously lengthy while afterward, Aleph just stood there, immobile, holding the phone next to her ear.

Not today. Tomorrow. And that had been yesterday.

The reverie faded into the brightness of the training room. With the brusqueness of a sudden decision, Aleph yanked the laptop closer, and shoved the disk into the drive with rather more force than she intended. There was no good in brooding, nor in too much thought: she knew what lay at the end of that path. Whatever falsehoods had insinuated themselves into her mind, she would simply have to kill. Whatever hopes had taken hold, she would simply have to root out, leaving nothing behind. What else remained to be said?

The resolution made Aleph feel marginally better. All it would take were time and will. She squinted down at the computer, the green cascade of symbols flowing across the black background, just like it had flowed more times than she could remember. The silence was the same, the grassy hue and constant speed were the same. The same abstract purity. The few lines of plain English text—which she had first glimpsed weeks ago, in that one stunning moment—did not appear on screen. It wouldn't. It shouldn't.

Nor did her modifications, as far as she could tell. Aleph was not certain what had prompted her to do as she did, crouched down on the polished wooden floor, tensely on guard against the footsteps of anyone who might come blundering into the training room. She had strained her eyes and hands painstakingly, yet the words themselves had seemingly welled up out of nowhere. Or maybe Lucy had whispered them into her ears. Eyes of flesh. What did she imagine those two or three brief phrases could accomplish? Was it to keep the Frenchman out? To keep every possible being, man or machine, out? Was it simply to see what the key could do? Her rational mind could not find answers to any of these questions, unless it was because she was yet clinging onto...

Hope. Still hope.

Hope in a mirage world, the false hope of machines and their batteries. And of the Oracle. What was that old woman really up to? What was the use of all her misdirections and obfuscations? Merely to catch her out?

But that would not happen. Aleph's lips curled in unconscious imitation of the agent. The day was not yet too late: she could still shore up her defenses. No one, man or machine, could exploit her weaknesses if she had none.

Everything became blindingly simple once she had realized this.

You're despairing, observed Lucy quietly.

Aleph's head jerked up. But the room was bare and well-lit, and there was no place for her sister to hide.

"So what if I am?" she retorted. Out aloud, but who cares anymore. "Look at me. Look at this world! All fucked up beyond recognition, isn't it? What the hell else am I supposed to feel? But don't you worry, Lucy, I'm not going to let this get to me. I'm not going to make any more mistakes. I just won't, okay?"

Don't talk like that, Addie—

"What, you're gonna start the Oracle's spiel on me, too?"

No, Addie, because people will hear you and they won't like it! A sudden urgency filled the hallucination. That captain of yours, he'll think you've really gone nuts—

Aleph clamped her mouth shut and looked up. Not a second too soon.

Theo stood in the doorway, eyeing her pensively. Aleph's hands flew to the laptop before she remembered herself. It was impossible, from the mere programming, to see the changes, if any, made to the Merovingian's key.

"Well?" he asked at last.

"Well what?"

"Morpheus wants to know if you've changed your mind."

"They're still hanging around?" She rolled her eyes, leaning back against the wall, while taking a swift mental review of what she had told Theo about her interview with the Oracle. It was starting to get difficult to keep track of all her stories. "Don't tell me. The Oracle."

"Told the Neb to stick close to us until you give a definite answer." The captain shrugged, striding across the room to her. His glance fell across the computer monitor. But for once, he let it pass without comment.

"Give in, you mean." Aleph pulled herself up to her feet, so that he no longer loomed over her. As far as Theo knew, the mysterious command that she transfer to the Nebuchadnezzar had been the substance of her meeting with the old seeress of the Matrix. "He's got the One now. What does he need me for?"

"Well, you're not doing as the Oracle says." The corner of Theo's lips quirked into an ironic grin.

"And he's shocked."

"She's just discovered the One for them. For us. So yes, he's finding it somewhat incredible that you're still acting like a...disbeliever, shall we say. Or that was what I was given to understand."

"Obviously I can't go over to the Nebuchadnezzar," snapped Aleph. "We don't know what the Oracle is playing at. And given the whole situation with—with my mission, it's a recipe for disaster."

"Yes, there's that. Your mission."

The way he said it made her blink.

"Everything is moot now, of course," he commented, repeated her words of a day ago.

Aleph debated with herself briefly. In the midst of all the things that no longer made sense, only Theo seemed to be his old self again, the one she had come to know so well over the years. Solid and real and no illusions there. And her decision had been made, her emotions buried, regardless of any phantasms that might have once existed or not existed. He was her own captain and she should never have needed to tread carefully before him.

"Actually, not quite," she said. "Agent Smith...Agent Smith was not destroyed by Neo as we thought."

Theo, who was standing with his back against the wall, straightened abruptly.

"According to the Oracle?"

"And I received confirmation of it. He—he called me. While I was there in the Matrix. He wanted to have one more meeting, I don't know why." Aleph folded her arms across her chest, facing him. "I didn't tell you earlier because I hadn't decided if I should comply," she added.

"And now?" he asked after a silence. "Have you decided now?"

Aleph lowered her gaze, and did not answer for a few seconds.

"When will you be going?"

"Soon." She had not imagined he would accept it so easily. "Just about right now, actually. I'd like to make an end of it, I suppose."

"Before you go." Theo laid a hand gently on her arm, which gave her a slight start. "I want to tell you that I'm sorry about all the arguments we had about your mission. And I want to tell you something about—"

"It's all right, Theo." Aleph glanced up at his face again and tried to grin. "What I mean is that you were right. The mission—I was just chasing chimeras. It was a mistake from the start."

"Perhaps I've...communicated myself rather badly." Theo slid down to a sitting position on the floor, motioning her to do the same. "I was just a little worried about you."

It was too much like before, thought Aleph. Before this madness of hers, before that record or hallucination or whatever the hell it had been in the Zion archives, before everything got so complicated, when the only things they had were the desert and the war and those had been enough.

"I understand," she said. And after no response came, "You are still worried, aren't you?"

"How can I not be?" The captain of her ship paused, as if gauging whether to speak his mind. "I know you can take care of yourself, Aleph. But that agent. At the beginning you called it 'the agent' or 'Agent Smith', but now it's 'Smith' only. And you've been referring to it as 'he' for quite a while. Did you ever notice that, yourself?"

"Oh." She had indeed noticed it before, but now it occurred to her that she no longer did. It might have been a while. "Have I?"

"That was what I was worried about, seeing it more clearly than you did, from the outside. I feared you were forgetting what you were dealing with. An agent. A computer program." He stopped, watching her with a curious intensity, then added softly, "Unreal."

I am no longer an agent. The reverberation sounded real, an inch from her ear, but she did not repeat it aloud. She should never have believed it anyway.

"I'll be fine," she replied. It was the best she could do just then. "It was stupid of me but I won't—"

"Hell, Aleph." Theo sighed. "I know it's easy to get taken in, even after you've been freed. Because it looks real. It's all made of code and lies, but it sure as hell looks real. That's what keeps all those people—all those human batteries—enslaved to them. That's what they're best at, isn't it?"

"Yeah. It's easy." She did not know how else to answer. It sure as hell looked real. The light of something other than contempt in the agent's eyes. The empty wind above the outspread city. The midnight field beneath the stars. The phone pressed close against her ear. I need to talk to you, Aleph.

"Perhaps it's my fault," she heard him say.

"No. Of course it's not your—"

"There's something else I should have told you." Uncharacteristically, Theo hesitated once more. "About what happened seven years ago, when you were first freed."

"Please, Theo. You've been apologizing to me about my sister for the last seven years and you really don't need—"

"We got to you too late. Or almost too late," he went on, holding up a hand. "The agents showed up at exactly the same time as we did. You had your sister there. The person whom you thought of as your sister in the Matrix, in any case. And she was taken over by an agent—"

And then, at that instant, Aleph knew. Everything inside of her froze, and she did not need him to say anything else, not one more word. She closed her eyes, and saw again the midday sunlight pouring across the cafe patio, the tall grim form standing above her, the barrel of the gun black as the night. And this time, in her unsuppressed memory, she saw his face. She saw the inhuman blue of his eyes behind the tinted lenses.

She saw Lucy fall, spinning backward in slow motion, one hand stretched out as if still clinging onto the air, the red blood already splattered across the front of her shirt. And through the gunshots and the screams, she could still hear Theo's words. They were close by, right next to her, and coming as if from the end of an endless tunnel.

"The agent had its gun drawn on you, and was about to kill you. You were untrained, and terrified, so you couldn't understand what was happening back then. But I could. It was only a fraction of a second and you couldn't get the chance to see its face clearly. But I could. It was the agent they called Smith."

Slowly, Aleph opened her eyes. It took her several deep breaths to find Theo's face before her again.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Despite herself, her voice was shaking. "Why didn't you tell me...all these years?"

"I didn't think of it, Aleph." Theo shook his head sadly. "I did not think it was necessary."

"You did not think—"

"An agent took over your sister. Does it matter which one?" He let out another sigh. "They are all just programs, manifestation of the same will of the machine collective. They are designed to be what they are, and their design is all the same. One agent is no different from another, though they may appear to the eye like individual beings. I thought you knew that. But recently..."

"I knew, Theo," murmured Aleph, not quite sure what she meant. "I know. You're right."

"I am sorry, Aleph. I don't know how to begin telling you how sorry I am. I know you cared about her. If there was another way, any other way whatsoever...But another fraction of second, and it would have killed you. You would have been dead."

She caught a glimpse of uncertainty in his eyes, as if he was struggling to decide if he should continue speaking. The breath was choking in her throat, and there was a dull ache in her chest, as if the old sword wound was opening itself once more...

The sword wound. Smith had been there, too, in the Zion archives, in that inexplicable and maddening record. The start of it all. The two of them on the burning bridge, except he'd been the one down on the ground that time, he'd been the one to stare up at her in desperation and fear and—

What was it that Lucy had said?

Look at a star for me.

The bridge, the cafe, the same place, the same moment. The revelation was a blast of lightning, or a sword through the breast. She had only made it—truly made it—into the record when she'd caught sight of the star, blue and deadly like the agent's eyes in an impossible night. A star turning into a sword. She'd seen it only because—because—because Lucy said so. Those were her laughing, invisible sister's precise words. There's no more light because there're no more stars.

"The star...The star was the key. And she knew. She knew all along." Her heart was about to stop, and she did not realize her whisper was audible. "It was her all along. She led me to him..."

"Aleph? Did you say something?"

"Oh, nothing. Nothing." She smiled in reassurance, without much success. "I've been blind going into this mission of mine, haven't I? Where it was going. What it was about. But now. Now it's as if I'm seeing it in perspective for the first time. I...I think I have been a fool."

"There's one more thing, Aleph. When the agent took over your sister..."

"Lucy."

"Lucy," he repeated, pronouncing the name with care. "After the agent program took over Lucy, there was a delay. Everything was happening very fast, to the eyes of one who was still plugged into the Matrix and didn't know these things, but I could tell. I saw it. The agent—Agent Smith—had its gun pointed at you, but for an instant it froze, as if something, or someone, was keeping it from pulling the trigger. A tenth of a second, I'd say, give or take. That tenth of a second was...That tenth of a second was what allowed me to get off the shot."

"You mean..." She couldn't quite finish the sentence.

"I can only conjecture. Whatever happened with your sister, it must've been rare, because I never saw anything like it before or after, all the times I've faced agent programs in the Matrix. But I believe it to be possible. I believe that even after her consciousness was overtaken, there was a moment when she was still there. It took the agent a moment of struggle to push her down, that tenth of a second. She must have resisted. She realized the program was invading her mind, which means she realized something was wrong with the reality in which she existed. I believe it was possible that she could have been awoken, too." A slight twitch along one side of his mouth, but he did not avert his gaze. "Had the circumstances been different. I wish they were different, Aleph."

She did not say anything immediately. In her mind's eye she could see Smith with flawless, horrifying clarity now, the dark suit, the dark shades. There was nothing in his eyes, not even rage. Then the sound of the shot, louder than any other sound she had ever heard.

"It's all right, Theo." At last, she let out a short brittle laugh. "You know it's not you I blame. It has never been you."

"Are you still going in?" Theo asked.

Aleph nodded.

"You're sure."

"Yeah." She nodded again, her voice firmer now. Yes, it did get easier once the decision had been settled and spoken; she felt like a long, bitter battle had finally ended in victory. "Earlier I was saying I had to make an end of it. It was just a feeling I had, for some reason I didn't understand myself. I think I know what that reason is now."

"And you expect this to be the end?"

"I expect this to be the last time I jack into the Matrix, either way. You still have that resignation I gave you the first time, Theo?"

"We'll be sorry to miss you. I know I will be." He gave her a small rueful grin. "But I'll put a new date on it. And this?" He gestured at the forgotten laptop on the ground between them.

Unnoticed by either of the two, the Merovingian's hacking program had long since run itself to the end, and had looped again from the beginning. With a few rapid keystrokes, Aleph cut the routine short and ejected the disk. She slipped it carefully back into its plastic case, then laid it down on the floor next to the computer.

"This one's too important to pass up, I suppose. I'll talk to Councillor Hamann if—when I return. I was hoping he'd give me the archives job back, actually. There are a couple of test I can run it through, and a trick or two I'm thinking of. I suspect there are some secrets about our own archives this disk can help to reveal..."

Rising to her feet, she held out a hand to him.

"It's time," she said.

For several heartbeats, Theo remained sitting on the ground, frowning up at her, an anxious brightness in his eyes. Then he reached out and took her hand, allowing her to pull him up to his feet also. Together, they strode toward the exit of the training room.

"Good luck, then. I'll be your operator this time," he said. "Be careful, Aleph."

Chapter Text

 

The cafe was nearly empty, and Smith was sitting at a table close to the edge of the patio, next to the sidewalk. The earpiece was nowhere in sight; she noticed that immediately. Something else about him seemed different, but she could not quite put her finger on it. Perhaps it was the way he leaned forward, elbows on the table, instead of the usual ramrod-straight posture. Perhaps it was the way his unshaded eyes glinted under the sunlight. Perhaps it was the look in those eyes.

Stepping onto the patio, Aleph reached up and pulled off her own sunglasses. As she pushed it into the pocket of her jacket, it occurred to her that she must have done it by mere habit; surely the terms negotiated at their first meeting were beside the point now. Her hand clenched nervously inside her pocket, fingertips brushing against the edge of something hard and flat. A disk case. Why was it here? Hadn't Shade been ordered to keep the disk safely contained aboard the Hyperion? But there was no time to worry about it at this point. To gather herself and prevent any further mistakes, she held herself motionless for a few seconds. Her guns felt solid and reassuring next to her body. Useless against one such as Smith, in all probability, but reassuring nonetheless.

"Agent Smith," she said. Even tone, only a slight emphasis on the first word. Good.

The dark-suited figure glanced up at her. An unreadable gaze. That was supposed to be familiar and it was different, too. Then he laughed. A low laugh, not exactly sarcastic, yet the sound of it rang in the air and almost made Aleph take a backward step. Almost. The spot where Lucy fell lay exactly halfway between them. No bloodstain on the ground now.

"I have been doing much thinking lately, Miss Greene," he said, pronouncing each syllable with a peculiar slow care.

Not knowing what to feel, Aleph picked her way between the tables, counting each of her steps until she stood before him. For an instant she debated mentally whether to pull out the other chair at the table, then decided that it was more advantageous to remain standing. A breeze brushed against her face, bringing the noise of cars and pedestrians, the shouts of children by the fountain across the street. Everything was far too real.

"I see," she said.

"They tried to delete me, yet I have remained," replied Smith, though she had asked no question. Each syllable sounded like it was rising from its own space, some place not quite within him yet only he could reach. He did not take his stare off her face. "They tried to break me, yet I have endured. They tried to blind me, yet I have opened my eyes, and seen."

"What do you want?" asked Aleph, attempting to keep every emotion out of her voice. It came out edgy and abrupt.

"To get free."

"It is not your purpose to be free, Agent Smith." Ironic, wasn't it, for her to be saying this to him. It was true, though. What the hell did 'free' mean, anyway?

"I do not accept it," said Smith, still sitting there and peering up at her, not so much as a blink. She founded it curious, how quiet and matter-of-fact the sentence seemed, given how nonsensical it was.

"They made you what you are, Agent Smith. They made you according to their purpose and nothing else." Aleph squared her shoulders. The anger was a small yet intensely bright flame, and she focused her mind upon it, gripping onto its strength. Every word she spoke to him was true, damn it. "Since when had it been a matter of you accepting or not accepting anything?"

In one swift fluid motion, Smith stood up, and the flash of rage across his face was like lightning in the shadows. Like the old days. The spindly chair rattled across the concrete floor, and again Aleph fought down the instinct to back away and flee. She had to hold her ground. She had to hold her ground no matter what.

"Since he came." His voice was tight with hatred. "Thomas Anderson. The One, the savior of your virus kind, upon whom you have pinned all your idiotic hopes. He imagined he found the way to destroy me. He imagined he could shatter my code by leaping into me. Instead I have merely glimpsed into his. Through his. I have glimpsed their lies. It is—" An eerie twisting at the corner of his lips, between a grimace and a smile. "It is all happening exactly as before. So the question becomes rather more urgent, doesn't it, Miss Greene?"

There was something wrong with what he was saying, a part of Aleph's mind noted almost idly. The way one sentence led to another.

"The question," she repeated.

"Why did you come to me, Miss Greene?"

"And here I thought you said you aren't an agent anymore," she retorted, caustic tone matching his. "It's over, remember? Why are you still asking questions about a mere human like me?"

"You knew me. That was why you began this in the first place. This entire time. While claiming to betray your own, you have attempted to draw out information from me instead, and all your attempts have centered on the Zion mainframe. What did you see in Zion, Miss Greene? It had to do with me, didn't it?"

Close, too close. But even thinking about the bridge would be treason now. Hold on to the strength. Hold on to the anger.

"Why, Smith? Are you going to report it to the Mainframe? Are you hoping they'll let you back into the fold, or what?"

"I need to know."

"Why? Why do you persist? Why do you care?"

"Because you were there." He appeared to calm himself again with an effort. "Because I can sense it, every time you look at me. You are familiar to me, a memory out of my reach, covered and written over and buried under but not erased, never erased. And you are still there, every hour, every instant, you are with me like a shadow among the code. It should never have been yet you are always there. How is that possible, Aleph? How is it that I know you?"

For several endless heartbeats, Aleph stood transfixed, unable to reply. There was so much that was terrifying about this speech, so much sheer sickening irony about it all. She wanted to laugh but couldn't. She just couldn't. Then the ground grew solid beneath her feet again.

"You are right," she said. "You ought to remember me. Because I was here. Seven years ago, right here, right where we're standing. I was down on the pavement and you were standing over me. I looked up at you and at your face and into your gun." She drew in a shuddering breath. A moment ago she had been struggling for the words, but now they were boiling over, rushing out in a torrent, together with the rage and the grief and seven years' worth of bitter sleepless hours. "Yes, I ought to remember you, Smith. Because you were right here, too. Because a memory can be covered, repressed, buried under, but it never gets erased. It always comes back, doesn't it? Doesn't it?"

"You don't understand anything, do you?" Smith's eyes narrowed, blue fires smoldering, and every muscle in Aleph's body went wire-taut. Her hands itched to reach for her guns, but he held himself back. "It always comes back, yes, and this is why. Whatever happened here seven years ago was all part of their game, just as everything else in the world, freedom, purpose, everything, don't you see?"

"Oh, of course, now you're back to you old robot talk—"

"No longer. I will no longer be enslaved. You hold a key—my key—that you refuse to yield. I need it. For this. What brought you to me, Aleph? What are you keeping from me?"

"What makes you think I will lift a finger to help you, Agent Smith? What makes you think I will tell you a single damned thing? You killed my sister—"

"Did I?" He laughed again, though not from mirth. "Did I kill your sister, Aleph? Was I the one who fired the bullet? Was I the one who brought it down upon her?"

With a crash, the flimsy cafe table between them went flying across the patio, though Aleph hardly noticed it was she and not Smith who had flung it aside. Vaguely she was aware that something inside her brain must have broken, but it was as if a mighty hand was physically pushing her forward. She moved fast, faster than she had ever done before, but Smith sidestepped the first attack, then lifted his arms and blocked the next few with ease. Aleph ducked sideways, swinging at his head, but in her fury she overextended the punch, and in the blink of an eye his hands had caught her arms, pinioning them against her sides in a steel grip.

"The truth," he hissed, his face inches away from hers. She could feel the desperate pulse in his hands, right through her sleeves. Somewhere down the street, people had begun to shout; they would not be alone for much longer.

"Very well." Aleph did not flinch. How liberating it was, to feel neither fear nor caution. "I came to you because you killed my sister. You might not have pulled the trigger but if it were not for you she never would have died. I wanted to find your weakness. I wanted to avenge her. From the beginning I wanted to destroy you, and that was the reason, the only reason. Are you satisfied now?"

"That is a lie."

"I will remind you that you have never saw fit to speak anything but lies to me."

"I will remind you that I am no longer bound by my orders."

"Why don't you kill me, then? It's what you wanted all along, isn't it? And now everything comes down to this. If you don't, I will—"

"Tell me the truth." Still no more than a whisper in her ear. A roar that drowned out all other noise, even her own heartbeat. "Aleph...Please."

He was near, so near that she could actually hear the tremor in that last plead. With a painful slam against her ribcage, her heart restarted, and Smith's voice seemed to recede, until it was only a reverberation beyond the vanishing point.

"You are right, Aleph. We saw each other here seven years ago. I saw your face, your eyes, and I—hesitated. Why? What did I see? What did I...feel?"

The breeze came again, a blast of cool air against her face, and Aleph felt her mind clear, returning to focus. A problem they have never been able to solve, said a husky female voice, not her own. Her madness had passed, and in a flash everything fell into place, sharp as a razor's edge. For all his anger and all his strength, she had the upper hand now. She had always had the upper hand.

"You want to know what you felt, Agent Smith?" She laughed softly and lifted her face, so that the line of her sight was directly into his eyes. "Here. Let me show you."

With only a shrug, she shook off his hands on her arms, though they had been like two vises only a moment before. There was no need to take another step: all she had to do was lean forward, and her mouth made contact against his. Smith went suddenly and utterly rigid, and Aleph pressed forward without pause, and his lips parted as the tip of her tongue brushed against them, almost imperceptibly at first. They were impossibly warm. Then she felt it: the response like a flame, and he was kissing her back, the touch growing stronger, more confident, deepening. He was not breathing and neither was she, and to keep from falling she reached around, laying her palms against his shoulders...

In one rough motion, Aleph jerked her head back and shoved him with both hands, hard. Incredibly, Smith stumbled, two full steps before he regained his balance. She saw it. His eyes went wide, only a millisecond but she saw that, too.

"What did you feel just now, Agent Smith?" she asked. Her voice was shaking much worse than she'd hoped for but the incontrovertible facts were all there, piling up inside of her. They'd been there for years, waiting for this ever since the day when Lucy fell with her loose hair like a black halo, fingers still twitching in the air. At her feet.

"What did you feel, Agent Smith?" Once more, no shaking this time. "That's right. Nothing. You don't feel anything now; you never felt anything seven years ago. How could you, when there is nothing in you to feel? There is nothing I can tell you, nothing I wish or need to tell you. There's no you to tell anything to. You're not real."

Smith did not answer. He just stood and stared at her.

"You say you want to be free of the purpose they set for you," said Aleph. It felt good, horribly good to let it all out. "But you will never be free, and if you ever imagined otherwise then you're deluded. Because your very existence is only a manifestation of that purpose—the purpose of another, and you are nothing without it, don't you see? You will never understand, you will never feel. You have no emotion, no will, no existence of your own. There is nothing within you, slave!"

Still Smith did not answer. Still he stood in the same spot, two steps away. Still she went on, at last no longer choking on the words.

"Did it take you in, too, Agent Smith? Did you think you felt anything, the last time we were here? Did you think I kissed you because I...because I cared about a hollow thing like you? Was the lie that good?"

His eyes had gone cold. There was no pain in them now, neither anger nor desperation, nor that undefinable thing which a minute ago had looked so much like pleading. All the illusions were falling away, like clouds swept before a great wind, leaving only a dry and impenetrable emptiness, as distant as another world. That was as it should be. Aleph's mouth bent into a crooked little smile. She had won. Though he would for sure kill her in the next heartbeat she had already won.

A scream rose behind her. It split her ears and her brain, drawing swiftly nearer, and all of a sudden there were no other sounds anywhere in the Matrix, and time ground to a standstill as the spell shattered into a million pieces. A mist seemed to lift before Aleph's eyes, laying bare all her truths and all her lies in a garish light. She had not imagined remorse would well up in such a flood—

There was nothing left to say. She saw Smith throw his head back and let out a wild howl of laughter, one hand reaching for the Desert Eagle at his side. But instead of raising it to her head he spun around, and finally she caught sight of the black car tearing up the street, its tires screeching. She saw dark forms on the sidewalk, converging upon the patio, innocent passer-bys only a second ago. Gunfire erupted over her head, and above the deafening reports she heard Smith laugh again as he surged forward to face his former colleagues, form shifting into a flash of code between the bullets. Her body reacted before her mind could, and only after she was down to the ground with guns out in her hands did she realize it. They were not shooting at her.

Another police car burst around the corner, sirens at full blast but the driver already no longer a cop, while the cafe window exploded from a stray bullet, a foot or two away behind her head. Across the patio, Smith engaged the nearest agent, knocking the other back in two moves, too fast for the human eye to catch. The Desert Eagle swung around to take aim at the newcomers. Another window shattered, showering her with glass shards.

A small sound tugged at her, almost inaudibly faint and reedy amid the chaos and the shrieks. She must have frozen like a fool; it took four, five immeasurable seconds before she understood the noise was real. It was coming from her pocket.

Her cell phone was ringing.

A ridiculous sort of prompt, perhaps, but at last her survival instincts kicked in. She was still being ignored for the moment. With a leap, Aleph propelled herself through the empty window frame, vaulting over the cramped tables inside. A narrow, long space; a few people cowering on the ground. No agents yet.

Covering her retreat with one gun and shoving the other back into its holster, she scrabbled in her pocket, her fingers catching the corner of the disk case and almost spilling it out onto the floor. The phone flipped open with a turn of her wrist.

"Aleph!" bellowed Shade into her ear. "Get the hell out of there!"

"No, wait! I—" Damn. Damn it. What was she going to do, tell the operator what happened? Go back and look for Smith? What had she done?

"No time! You've got a shitload of them and more coming! There's an exit in the building—Holy crap! Move!"

Gritting her teeth, Aleph began running.

Another second, and she was through the kitchen, kicking through the back door and bursting into a narrow corridor. Even here she could hear the police sirens, rising in a wailing symphony from every direction. Still outside and not following, not yet. The cafe was on the ground floor of a skyscraper, and Shade yelled out the directions, straining to be heard above the mayhem outside: left, straight ahead. Another turn. Into the main corridor. Aleph's glance swept desperately across the lobby, fully expecting a black-suited wave of agents rushing at her, but nothing. Only terrified office workers. They must be concentrating their efforts on Smith.

"It's on the seventieth floor," muttered the operator. "The elevator's to your left—"

"Elevator? You've got to be kidding me—"

"Just use the bloody thing, okay? There's no time to waste! They're not onto you yet—"

A hard turn; she skidded on the polished floor and tore down another hallway. The drab beige doors of a nondescript service elevator stood at the end; they slid open just as she arrived. Aleph barreled in, the pump of adrenaline like a roaring tide in her arteries—

And almost ran smack into the arms of the man standing inside.

"Theo? What are you—"

A fist came straight at her face. She did not get a chance to register its fearsome speed, yet her body must have tried to dodge automatically: the punch glanced against the side of her head. In her surprise and the sudden dimness, she did not see the other's next move coming, and an instant later she found her right arm caught in a hard grip and slammed roughly against the elevator wall. Her gun clattered to the ground.

"Theo, no! It's me—"

She stared into the barrel of his gun. It was six inches away from her nose.

"Aleph," said Theo calmly, as if in no hurry whatsoever.

With a whirr, the elevator began to rise. Aleph blinked, panting a little from the mad dash, trying to focus on his face. All the features were the same, familiar from years of sharing life and death and close quarters. It was the face of a total stranger.

Aleph opened her mouth to speak, then found that she had no idea what to say. The phone was still clutched in her left hand. She glanced down, not daring to look away from the other for more than a fraction of a second.

With a click, the line went dead.

Chapter Text

 

The noise of the battle faded into nothing. The gun trained upon Aleph's head never wavered as Theo leaned down to retrieve her Beretta from the floor. Tucking it into his waistband, he came another step closer, reached to her side and pulled out her other gun from its holster.

"Hands up where I can see them. Now!"

Even breaths, thought Aleph. It was not easy since she seemed to have been plunged to the bottom of a deep, frozen lake. Slowly, she folded the phone shut and dropped it into her pocket, taking care not to make an abrupt movement, then raised her hands.

"Theo." She heard herself speak, still in a low voice and sounding almost in control. "Whatever this is, let's discuss it when we get out, okay? We've got agents very close by—"

"Agents very close by," he repeated. "And you're leading them to me?"

Aleph found herself momentarily speechless.

"I never imagined this was possible," said Theo, working each syllable with deliberate force. "A traitor in our own ranks. On my own ship. I never imagined it would be you."

"Look, Theo, we need to get out of here and then we'll talk." She swallowed, fully aware of how weak and useless the attempt must be. Somewhere at the back of her brain, the situation with Smith began to sting once more; she clamped it down. "I know you never liked this mission but you know it's not—"

"Don't try to talk your way out of this one. It won't work on me, understand?"

This had got to be a joke. A stupid, horrible joke that she'd kill him for once they got back to the ship, if they got back to the ship. Except this was simply not a time for jokes. Except his eyes were dead serious and utterly unrecognizable.

"Why?" she choked out. "Why the hell are you doing this?"

"I tried to stop you." Overt anger seeped to the surface for the first time. "From the start. I kept trying to tell you, because I was fool enough to think it didn't have to be this way. If you'd only unplug your head from that fucked-up obsession of yours long enough to listen for one second—"

The elevator jolted to a halt. Theo did not finish the sentence: the mask shifted back into place with a nearly audible click. As the doors slid open behind her, he gestured with the gun, glowering.

"I have evidence of your treason," he snapped. "Now out."

"Wait, no, you can't just—"

"I have evidence that you gave away lists of potential redpills to the machines, thus preventing humans enslaved to the Matrix to gain even the chance for freedom." Theo, too, stepped out of the elevator, his words all business now, crisp and murderous as the pistol pointed squarely between her eyes. Without turning her head, Aleph risked a swift glance around: nondescript service corridor, bare, dusty fluorescent lights, doors here and there along the walls. Still quiet. She swore inwardly as she caught sight of another man standing a few yards away, tall and motionless as a statue. An angry statue. A statue radiating absolute, terrifying fury.

"Morpheus, no, listen to me, I've been set—"

"I have evidence that you gave away several of our recruiting locations in this sector, thus seriously disrupting our operations," her own captain went on, cutting her off with barely raised voice. "I have evidence that you gave away the time and position of one of my own missions into the Matrix, endangering me in a fight with agents from which I only escaped with a great deal of luck and difficulty. After everything we've been through together. This is low, Aleph."

"Morpheus, listen. Please. He was the one who gave me those lists. He planned that mission and insisted I..." Hell. Bloody hell. A likely story indeed.

"So you do admit it, then?" Behind the tinted lenses that hid them, she could all but see the second captain's eyes ablaze. Then she saw him draw his own weapon. "You were in contact with them."

"Sentinels have attacked the Hyperion more than once recently, and on the last occasion we only survived by chance. How did you manage those, Aleph? How did you communicate our coordinates to the machines?"

"What? I never—"

"The Oracle wanted to have you transferred off the Hyperion," continued Theo relentlessly. "I did not understand why at the time, but now I believe I know. She must have suspected."

"If you were using your position on the crew to signal the sentinels, switching you to another ship would have disrupted that. It would have flushed you out." Morpheus's mouth twisted in disgust. "And only yesterday you were on my ship, telling me how sorry you were about our losses—"

"It's not true! Why would I try to bring sentinels down on the ship? It's only going to get everyone killed, including me—"

"You had your arrangement with them. I am sure they had ways of extracting you after the sentinels succeeded." There was no room for argument in Theo's tone. "And it would provide for your physical reinsertion. That was what you wanted, wasn't it?" He glanced across at the other man. "Just like Cypher."

"That's bullshit and you know it, Theo! You know your accusations are ridiculous—"

"Ridiculous, are they?" A sarcastic guffaw. "May I ask what you were doing to their agent program, then?"

He held up his other hand, giving it a small wave, and she caught sight of a tiny digital camera nestled in the palm. Aleph heard a low growl—from her own throat—and she almost lunged at him, but both of the guns upon her tightened their aims, and she forced herself back to stillness. For the space of a breath or two, silence resounded through the hallway; whatever battles between Smith and the agents were happening down at street level, they were not reaching up here yet. The thought of Smith made her chest constrict again.

"Incontrovertible code, gathered only a little while ago. Evidence that will be of interest to the council, distasteful as it is." Theo handed the camera across to the other captain, and Aleph watched helplessly as it disappeared into Morpheus's coat pocket.

"You—you followed me? You were—"

"Across the street." The words were still cool and even, but something burned in his green eyes that spoke of barely suppressed emotions. "You were too busy whoring yourself to the machine to notice, of course."

"You were the one who steered me into the blind alley." Aleph gulped, reeling from the thunder-blast of revelation. "The night I was captured by those two other agents. You knew that wall was there all along. You wanted me to get myself killed. From the beginning of my mission you never wanted me to succeed. You never wanted me to come back, right?"

"What mission? I don't know what you are going on about." A convincing touch of sorrow in the calm reply, chilling her to the very bones. "I have always trusted you, Aleph."

"We all did," said Morpheus, each syllable a shard of ice.

"We trusted you with our lives." The new voice behind her was hardly more than a whisper, strained with rage. Cautiously, while still trying to keep one eye on Theo, Aleph turned her head, and saw the rest of the Hyperion crew closing in at her back, shock and disbelief written all over their faces. They must have entered through one of the doors along the corridor.

"And here is further evidence." Theo stepped forward again, until he stood a foot away from her. With his free hand, he reached into her pocket and pulled out a familiarly ordinary plastic case. "A powerful hacking program, designed to break through Zion's firewalls. Care to explain how this came to be in your possession?"

Aleph could only stare, wanting to leap forward and wrap her hands around the other's throat, wanting to explain yet already knowing all explanations would be futile. She had been the biggest fool. For an instant, she tried to calculate the time she would have for a move, any move, if only to dodge at least the first one or two of the bullets. Too many factors against her. Her body was still lying on the ship, at Shade's mercy.

"You received this disk from the machines—" began her captain inexorably.

The echo of muffled gunshots, some floors below. Theo's head whipped around, swiftly scanning the hallway. No one else moved. Aleph winced inwardly. What the hell was happening to Smith? And why the hell were they still here, with agents so near? Theo was spending precious time inside the Matrix talking, laying out his accusations...

"I demand a hearing before the full council." It was a struggle to keep her voice up, but she managed it. "Morpheus, listen carefully. I have knowledge of files within the Zion archives that originated from the machines. Hence I entered into a secret espionage mission known only to Councillor Hamann—"

"You truly have gone mad, haven't you?" asked Theo.

"Did Hamann tell you what I saw in the archives, Theo? Did he ever tell you what was so terrible that he had to..." Damn it. This was no time for faltering over words. "That he had to have me killed?"

"Zion archives?" He was looking past her now, at the rest of the crew behind her, and she saw his form tensing. Another burst of gunfire rang out downstairs, still several floors away but closer. The gun in his hand went higher. By only an inch, yet the gesture sent a shockwave through the air. "So you have also betrayed information from the Zion archives to the enemy—"

In her pocket, Aleph's cell phone rang.

The sound was by no means loud, yet it made everyone start. Several wild notions ran through Aleph's head at once, and Theo's eyes narrowed suddenly, as if he was at last coming to an irrevocable decision.

"Here." He held out the disk to Morpheus with his other hand. "I expect Tank will find this interesting—"

Before he could finish, the elevator door behind him exploded.

The overwhelming desire to live took over, and Aleph dropped automatically to the ground, rolling to one side as gunshots from several sources erupted above her. A bullet shattered a patch of floor tiles a foot away from her head. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of white suit and dreadlocks—

"Run, you idiot!"

"And take the damned disk!" The other twin punctuated his roar with an exuberant burst of automatic fire.

Another swift dodge sideways, another splattering of tile and plaster where her body had been a heartbeat ago. A powerful, green-tinted blur streaked past her, and before she had time to think Aleph, too, moved, darting forward across the trajectories of screaming bullets. The barrel of Theo's gun swung from her to the white-clad henchman, blasting away, then she glimpsed his other hand lift up. The disk case flew into a high arc above the chaos.

"Morpheus!"

She swerved, but the second twin had already cut in before her. A lightning-fast punch forced the other captain to sidestep. Shift, block. The disk hit the ground at their feet. Aleph dove again, knocking a former comrade back with a low sweeping kick. Her fingers clamped around the edge of the disk case. More newcomers in the hallway now, several of them black-suited, and for an instant she thought the agents had finally arrived. But no, not with feral grins like these on their faces.

"Run!" bellowed one of the pair again, she had no idea which.

The humans had scattered, and were returning fire. Feeling bloody naked without a gun, Aleph raced past the briefly distracted resistants, aiming for the nearest door next to the now-gaping elevator shaft. Movement. A youthful face right in front of her, eyes wide with fury. The girl had made it onto the Hyperion crew only a month ago. Aleph did not hesitate, though she grimaced as her elbow connected with the younger woman's face. Miraculously, the door yielded to a single kick, and she stumbled into a narrow stairwell, as bare as the corridor though much brighter; the glare overwhelmed her eyes and made them smart. Keep moving, don't look back. Vaulting over the metal banister, she dropped to the next lower floor in two moves. The blare of gunshots overhead crescendoed to an almost continuous riot, and for a second Aleph halted, wildly scanning about for a way out. Nothing. All she could do was keep moving.

Another floor down, then into another hallway, this one wider, carpeted. Shrieks rose and enveloped her from every direction as panicked office workers scurried for cover. The place was a maze, somehow reminding her inopportunely of the white labyrinth that she had been shown once in a past lifetime. Now she could hear the wailing of sirens again, far off and a long way down. One more stairwell, two terrified women cowering in the corner. How many floors below were the agents?

And Smith?

If she could get past him. If she could tell him. If he was still looking for her. If he was still around—

Not now. Not now. Her only hope lay in finding Morpheus and somehow convincing him to take her back to Zion, if only to be put on trial, before Theo caught up with her and prevented her from ever opening her mouth again. She had only seconds, a minute if she was very lucky.

In the relative quiet of the stairwell, the ringing from her jacket was much louder, insistent like a painful pulse of electricity down her spine. The disk case was still gripped convulsively in her fingers. Shoving it back into her pocket, Aleph yanked the phone out with one hand.

"Shade! Damn it, you know what's going on—"

"Alas, my dear young lady," drawled a suave, French-accented voice. "You have mistaken me for another, I fear."

The uproar fell away into the distance, and the very air crystalized to ice. Maybe it was only a lull of the battle. Maybe it was only her mind.

"What the fuck do you want?"

"Mademoiselle! Is this the way to talk to one who has just saved your life?" Despite the words, the other did not sound truly offended. Amused, if anything. "I merely called to remind you of the small matter we discussed earlier. So, what say you, ma chère? Have you considered my little proposal?"

"Go to hell."

"Oh, have I caught you at a bad time?" tsked the Merovingian. "It does appear that your options are currently rather..." Even now, he did not neglect to pause for melodramatic effect. "Limited, and rapidly becoming more so each moment, no? And my boys can't hold them off forever, you know. So I'm afraid you're going to have to decide quickly now, my dear lady."

By sheer willpower, Aleph prevented herself from flinging the phone hard against the opposite wall. Somewhere across the building, an explosion made concrete and plaster tremble, and she sank to a half-crouch instinctively, glancing around herself. Empty as of yet, but they would find her very soon—

"You're dreaming," she forced out between clenched teeth. "I won't open the door for you."

"Ah, really? Then why did you bring the key into the Matrix, pray tell? Why did you keep it in your pocket? Excellent move, by the way, retrieving it from your...friends." How remarkable, the way his soft voice came across so clearly above the intermittent bursts of gunfire. "I was rather worried for a bit there, I must confess."

"I didn't—he planted—" No. She didn't have to explain a damned thing to this program. "I won't—"

"Move up."

"What?"

"They're on your floor now. Move up!"

As if on cue, the fire alarm overhead blared into shrill life, at long last drowning out every other sound. The irony of the situation was not lost upon her, yet Aleph obeyed, launching herself into a flying leap an instant before a spray of bullets peppered the wall at her back. Catching the railing with one hand, she vaulted over onto the landing above, shouldered her way past the stairwell door, and found herself again dashing through a warren of hallways and offices. The alarms brayed on, swallowing the entire floor in their ear-splitting cacophony. She could no longer afford to think beyond the next few seconds. Without looking about herself, Aleph skidded around a corner—

The katana came swooping down out of nowhere. With only a millisecond to react, Aleph somehow pulled herself to a hard stop, body bending backward into a desperate bridge stance. The blade passed an inch above her face with a whoosh of air. Bracing a hand against the ground, she kicked up at the other's chest, forcing the sword to turn in defense. Her phone slid across the floor.

"Morpheus! I need to get back—"

As she flipped herself upright, the katana spun again, and all she could do was dodge left, right, backward, unable to spare either breath or attention for persuasion. The sword flashed and swept, its gleam spreading instantaneously into a seamless net of death. With every ounce of power she could still muster, Aleph propelled herself sideways; steel crashed against the floor beside her with a spray of sparks.

"I need to get back to Zion!" The scream came out at the top of her lungs, but the fire alarms made the words inaudible: she could not even hear them herself. The cry cost her a heartbeat's worth of concentration: vicious metal pressed against her neck before she could see its motion. It was colder than ice.

In a single instant, everything went absolutely motionless. The grim ferocity of Morpheus's eyes almost incinerated her, and she could see his mouth move, while the screeching of the alarms expanded, cramming her head until it felt ready to explode. The only word she made out was 'Cypher'.

Crash. A shower of debris, a hole suddenly gaping in the ceiling. The dark form dropped faster than a human blink, and as Morpheus's head snapped around, Aleph reached for the chance and spun downward, away from the katana's reach. A swift feint of the fist, and her leg rose in an unthinking roundhouse kick. It caught Morpheus in the side, sending him backward a few steps. A warm trickle against her collar made her flinch. Only a flesh wound. She was still alive.

Through the cloud of plaster and concrete, the agent surged at the two humans. Aleph glimpsed a pale, thin-lipped face, familiar for some reason. She lifted her arms in defense, every nerve-ending tingling, but the program had already swept past her, going straight for Morpheus. The katana slashed, swiveled around, slashed again—uselessly, for the agent was like a shadow as he slipped between the flashes of the blade. A straight punch; the sword wheeled in check.

Her decision was made within an instant. Aleph leapt up, flying into a spinning kick at the agent's head. The program shifted aside lightly, a step away from Morpheus, yet before she could call out anything else the sword swung around, thrusting once more at her. An incandescent glare across the blade. Aleph swore wordlessly, sliding back, and the agent cut between them again.

As if sliced through by the sword, the alarms overhead shut off, giving way to an abrupt silence more piercing than the noise. Gritting her teeth, Aleph rushed again into the fray. More agents would probably arrive any moment now, and she had no idea if or when Neo might decide to finally make an appearance, but she would not yet give up the chance to tell Morpheus—

"Still dawdling, mademoiselle?" asked a disembodied voice from the ceiling, as snide as ever. The intercom. But she did not have time to think about how the Merovingian managed to hack into the building's system. The agent blocked each of her attacks with one arm, sidestepping the katana's next move with a few inches to spare, and a flurry of punches drove Morpheus several paces backward.

"I am not allowed to kill you." The program glanced across at her, only the hint of a frown about his brows. His voice was cool and mechanical. One of the agents who'd captured her once, she remembered now. One of Smith's subordinates. Agent Brown.

"Where is Smith?"

The scream was out of her before she considered the consequences. As the agent charged again at Morpheus, taking advantage of a brief opening, she moved as well, pushing herself straight into the space between the two. Agent Brown pulled up short, drew back his attack, blocked hers, and all of a sudden the katana pivoted in midair and was a foot away from her head. Aleph threw herself aside frantically, nearly blinded by the blade's arctic brightness, then something unseen caught her by the shoulder, yanking her backward across the hallway. Her back smashed painfully against a wall.

"I don't need your help, traitor!"

"Humans. Real granite-heads, huh?" commented a new voice next to her ear. Aleph blinked, and found herself staring into the face of a slight, long-haired youth in a white leather jacket. One hand still had her shoulder in an iron grip.

"Kindly leave the scene, my dear lady," suggested the Merovingian mildly from above. "There is not much more time left to waste, honestly."

Pushing her away with a lightning-fast movement, the young man narrowly avoided her knee to his midsection, then swung up the submachine gun in his other hand and with a gleeful laugh, opened up at the two other combatants. Agent Brown's form twisted between the barrage of bullets, stretching into a blur. Morpheus dropped to the ground, but Aleph could not see if he was hit: in a blink the henchman was already back at her side, dragging her off roughly by the arm.

"Hey, you heard the boss," he growled, gesturing upward with a tilt of his head. Lifting her face, Aleph saw the wide hole in the ceiling, through which the agent had dropped from the floor above. A sudden force flung her up; taking on the extra momentum, she sprang through the opening, grabbed hold of the jagged edge of broken concrete, and rolled to her side with a grunt. On the level underneath, the submachine gun blasted merrily on.

"Move, will you?" For the first time, there was a touch of urgency in the Frenchman's voice. Aleph scrambled to her feet. There was no longer any possibility of explanations.

"To you left," snapped the Merovingian as she broke into a sprint. "Last door on the right. Quickly!"

Pulling to a halt at the corridor's end, she slipped across the threshold and kicked the door closed behind her. An empty office: no visible enemies, none leaping out at her from behind the furniture. The phone on the desk was ringing like mad. Aleph hesitated for only a heartbeat before catching up the receiver with a violent jerk of the wrist.

"What do you want?"

"Well, it's rather a matter of what do you want, wouldn't you say, ma chère?" The Merovingian's tone relaxed back to conversational. "Life or death. Your choice."

"I will not do your bidding. I will not betray all that I've ever cared for." Her voice was dry, hardly recognizable even to herself, as if she was fighting for the truth of every word. "I'll go right back to Zion and tell them—"

"Firstly, it's not all that you've ever cared for. Not by a long shot. Secondly, you are not going back to Zion. You were never meant to—but you are perfectly aware of that, I am sure. So, it's a simple choice, isn't it? My offer stands."

"I don't believe you."

"Believing me is your only chance now." She could hear the smirk through the phone line. "As I said, my boys, efficient as they are, cannot hold them off forever. Even if you survive the next, oh say minute or so, what are you going to do once that captain of yours—or any of them, really—gets out of here and back to the ship, where, I need not remind you, your body lies, unconscious and completely helpless? It does seem to me that you have nowhere left to turn, wouldn't you agree? No refuge whatsoever. Well, except for one, of course."

"Where?" She regretted it as soon as the single whispered word was out of her mouth. It sounded weak, too weak, as weak as she felt. She hated herself, hated the smug, assured voice on the phone, the people whom she had long trusted with her life, the agent who had kill her sister and yet never—

"I think you are perfectly aware of that, too."

More silence, punctuated by another burst of gunfire in the distance. She heard a shout, perhaps human, perhaps not. They were getting closer now. The hour is late, yet there is still hope. She did not recall where she'd heard that sentence before. Could he have possibly known of what she had done to the disk? If not—

"Decide to live, and I have the power to make it happen." The program was talking more quickly now. "Put the key in the door. It's the only place remaining to you."

Aleph squeezed her eyes shut briefly, mentally scrambling for another solution, anything, then she reached into her pocket and in a rapid, angry motion, pulled out the Merovingian's disk. Flicking it out of its case, she shoved it into the drive of the businessman's computer on the desk. The unit gave a whining whirr, and the curser began to blink; she muttered under her breath, willing the machine to go faster.

After an eternity, the screen finally went dark. With a few strokes of the keys, green code began to descent across the monitor, transforming the computer to a mirror reflecting the true nature of the world. Aleph's finger flew over the keyboard, as if physically clawing at the curtain of luminous green rain, clawing her way out of this world. Her two or three scribbled phrases, ludicrous and nonsensical...Everything depended on them now.

The cascade stopped. The last drops of code swirled like falling leaves in a thunderstorm, then condensed into a single line, glimmering at the bottom of the screen. Aleph's breath caught in her throat.

Welcome to the Zion archives. You have selected file HF12-1.

Slowly, she took a step backward from the desk. Only then did she realize how eerily quiet it had become: there must be a lull in the battles among the agents and the resistants and the Merovingian's people. After a downward glance, she picked up the telephone receiver, which she had laid unhooked on the desk.

"Excellent, ma chère. Now the door—" The Frenchman halted in mid-sentence, and she already sensed the coiled tension crackling down the wire. "Do not speak. He is behind the door."

Aleph did not need to ask whom the other meant. Holding her breath so as to make as little noise as possible, she laid the receiver carefully back down into its cradle, and sank into a low crouch behind the desk. The silence had gone unnatural, except for the pounding of her own heart, terrifyingly loud in her own ears. The air and the light pulsed, and then she heard it: a nearly inaudible click. The door. Shadows stirred upon the carpet, intolerably slow, inexorably closer. The soft noise of a footstep, then another. The other must be very near now.

Pushing her arms off from the floor, Aleph shot out over the desk.

Her body slammed into his in a full tackle. Theo reeled, arm rising in defense, but Aleph had already seized the first initiative. Her fist connected with his face with a satisfying crunch. His Walther hit the ground at her feet. Swinging another backhanded punch at his head, she kicked it up and caught it with her other hand in one smooth motion.

The two of them stared at each other across the barrel of the gun. Theo was leaning back against the doorframe, panting; Aleph's jaw clenched with fury. Then his bloodied mouth twitched, neither a snarl nor quite a grin.

"Go right ahead." He spoke every word slowly, carefully, baring his teeth. "You will never get back."

Everything froze. In the space of a few yards between them, seven years' worth of memories stretched out, strained taut and thin, and snapped. Her finger tightened on the trigger.

With an explosion that shook the floor, the wall at the hallway's end blew apart. Aleph dove back, away from the flying debris, while two dim figures burst into the corridor—agents or resistants, she could not tell. Motion out of the corner of her eye: Theo's hand reaching down and pulling out her Beretta from his waistband. She swung the Walther back and returned fire, somehow managing to drop below the hail of bullets. Her own crewmates: she saw them more clearly now. Her whole body a frantic arrow, Aleph tore once more down the half-destroyed hallway. The stair door had not appeared so far a short while ago, ten, fifteen yards, yet now the distance seemed infinite—

Less than two feet from her face, the barrel of a Desert Eagle blocked her way. Without stopping, Aleph raised the gun in her hand, but the agent—not Smith, a part of her still had the presence to register—shifted a step, and was already on her other side. Despite herself, Aleph turned, and across the swirling dust, across the agents rushing right past her, across the retreating humans, Theo jumping to his feet in the midst of the melee, at the other end of the corridor, she saw Smith.

Unlike all the others, he was not running, but strode calm and proud through the chaos, every step measured. He was bare-handed, and there was a small splatter of blood on his left cheek. Not his, she could tell. Their gazes met across the hall. His eyes were bright, fiercely so, and there was something wrong, terribly wrong with them.

For a long time after, she would have nightmares about this moment.

Two streaks of code only half-resolved into pale shapes, one on each side of her, cutting off both agents and rebels. The twin guards. As they dashed into the heart of the mayhem, one of them whirled and tossed something small and gleaming at her chest. Instinctively, Aleph caught it with her free hand.

"Up! Go! Go!"

Another stairwell, this one dirty and much narrower. Stumbling, Aleph ran, taking the barely visible steps three at a time. There was no landing at the top of the stairs, only a heavy door, the paint peeling over layers of rust. Aleph plowed into it with her shoulder, growling from the impact. It was unlocked.

The sunlight over the roof was dazzling in her eyes, and it took her a second to realize how far below the ground was. Theo's gun was still in her right hand, though she had lost track of the shots fired. Maybe one bullet was left, maybe two. Her left hand was clutching a cell phone.

Another deep breath. She felt the cool wind in her lungs, and it cleared her mind a little. Straightening herself, she lifted the Walther and pointed it at the door through which she had emerged. There would still be one final confrontation, whoever or whatever would be coming out after her. Then she put the phone to her ear.

"We can't keep them away from the exit much longer. They're going to make their way out of the Matrix." The voice on the other end had grown edgy at last. For once it sounded like he was actually holding his breath. "You've already turned the key. The door is open. Now go through. It's your only escape."

She could not spare the attention to reply, or even to curse him. For even as he spoke, a figure was emerging from the gloomy doorway that led from the building's interior. There were no gunshots, no agents or resistants charging through, only one tall form in a suit, each of his footfalls steady and deliberate. He walked toward her, halfway across the roof, then stopped some distance away from where she stood. His eyes were dead: she could no longer see anger in them. She could no longer see any emotion in them.

"Miss Greene. Aleph," he said. There was something wrong with the way his voice echoed and re-echoed, too.

"They've got to an exit. They are going to make it back to the ship." Each one of the Merovingian's words burned in her ear. "Choose, Aleph. Now. Will you live?"

Her hand holding the gun out before her had started to shake, Aleph realized. She could not make it stop.

"Is that your operator?" asked Smith quietly, indicating the phone still pressed to the side of her head with a slight tilt of the chin.

"Believe me. Open the door for me!" She did not know if the voice was from inside her brain, or if it was still the Merovingian on the phone. He was shouting now. Aleph began to back away, a step, then another, until the chill of the wind made her halt. The edge of the roof must be just behind her.

"Did you plan it out all in advance?" asked Smith. He came another long stride forward, though still without drawing his own gun. "Did you intend to simply walk away after everything was accomplished, Miss Greene? Back into the desert?"

She could not reply, not with words, not anymore. He looked so different. It had been such a short while ago.

"You must have put a great deal of thought into this, each one of your moves." Smith was staring both straight at her and through her into the distance. "I suppose I ought to thank you, Miss Greene—"

"Forsake your human existence, your human weaknesses. Forsake that piece of meat lying comatose in the cold desert. Live!"

And all of a sudden, Aleph knew she was in two places at once. She was standing on the roof of a skyscraper, at the very edge, with the pale sunlight of the Matrix pouring down upon her and the sharp wind through her hair, and at the same time she was also lying limp on a bench, surrounded by the shadows and steel of reality. The virtual world floated before her sight like a veil, and through it she saw Theo rising from his own station across the room, a scowl of pure rage on his face. She heard the faint reverberations of a quick, frightened human voice—Shade's, maybe, but she couldn't catch the words—and the snarl as Theo elbowed him aside. And then, for an instant, superimposed above Smith's glacial blue eyes she saw Theo's smoldering ones, as he stood over her helpless body—

Lifting both of her hands, Aleph spread them open. The phone hit the ground by her left foot, the gun by her right. Then she took one last backward step.

She did not hear either gunshot or shout from Smith. She did not hear anything from him.

She fell a long way down. A long time after the seventy floors of the skyscraper had roared past, after her limbs had stretched and swum through the emptiness and shattered on the hard concrete, she fell, and kept falling. A long time after her body gave an abrupt jerk on a bench in a hovercraft far below the black ruined earth—a fraction of a second before Theo's furious hand reached for the plug at the back of her head, after it shuddered and died and went cold, she fell, and kept falling.

Chapter Text

PART III. THE PRISON

 

For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

 


The heavens burned with stars. Countless jewels woven into a luminous net upon the night's arched vault, they called to her with echoing voices, glimmers of ancient music, long lost. Reach the sky, and she would see they were but doors set in an invisible wall, doors that would lead her to strange and magical places. But then the clouds came, rising from the horizon like great bats' wings upon the wind, and one by one the stars flickered, losing their brilliance, and died.

The last star flared in silence, all alone in the immensity of space. It was so far away. She fixed her gaze upon it, and saw the color of hope, and the color of eyes that she should have remembered, but no longer could.

"Smith?" whispered Aleph.

She stretched out a hand, but the blue spark drew back, fading into unreachable distance. Darkness filled her sight, and the world sank to emptiness once more.

It was cold.

You can't feel the cold when you're dead. You can't feel the wind.

That was the wind speaking, wasn't it? She could feel it, the cold that penetrated like a sword into her bones...

Bones?

A blast of thunder exploded, almost immediately next to her head, and Aleph's eyes flew open wide in shock. Forgetting who or where or when she was, she braced her hands against the rough earth, scrambled to her feet in a panic, fell, struggled to rise again, fell again. A rhythmic noise drummed inside her ears, very fast and as loud as the thunder. The air singed her lungs, but she was breathing. She felt like she was breathing. She could see nothing.

Lightning crackled, tearing apart the shadows. By its fitful illumination, Aleph caught sight of clouds. Nothing but clouds, shot across with bloody veins of electricity. She gasped, choking for air. The mad pounding sound was coming from her own chest.

She was kneeling on the ground. Waiting until her eyes began to focus in the dimness, she tried to stand up one more time, moving more slowly this time. The air spun, and she swayed, but managed to stay upright in the end. A small tentative step forward: something crunched beneath her feet. By another burst of lightning, she glimpsed a tangle of twisted and charred things, pieces of metal that appeared like they had been ripped apart by titanic forces and put through a raging inferno, entwined about a bunch of pale and mottled sticks. Only after a little while did Aleph recognize the dried-up bones of human limbs. They looked unimaginably old.

The ruins stretched before her, mounds and valleys of debris upon the plain, corpses of machines and men bound together for eternity. Gloom filled the sky, no moon, no stars, no sound except for the rumble of thunder, and the constant, high-pitched howl of an incessant dry storm.

Before she knew it, Aleph had already taken off running. Through the blind terror only one thought floated to consciousness: she must flee. The desert of the real surrounded her from every side but wild instincts had taken over and so she must get away, she didn't know where and it didn't matter, just away. And she must keep herself hidden from the sentinels—

She made it only a few steps. Her weakened legs tripped over a pile of rubble, and Aleph dropped to her knees, scraping her hands against a jagged heap of concrete. Heedless of the pain, she scooted past the remnants of what appeared to be a bombed-out building, and crouched behind a low stretch of wall. One hand reached to her side, but her gun was not there.

There were no sentinels.

Memories returned in a flash-flood. Theo's icy sneer behind the barrel of a raised pistol, the calm, French-accented voice in the phone, Morpheus's sword. Smith's eyes as he came striding across the roof, driving her to the brink. Smith's eyes as he stumbled back two steps on the cafe patio, even though she had not pushed him with much force, not really. Smith's eyes as he stared down along the barrel of a Desert Eagle, cold and expressionless yet not pulling the trigger, while she crouched on the ground frozen with fear. Smith's eyes as he caught both her arms tightly, and his voice, and all his impossible and terrifying questions. He looked like he wanted to grab her by the neck and choke the answers out of her, but then he whispered, please.

Think. Think. Think. Something had gone badly wrong and they must have abandoned her on the surface. That was what Theo and Hamann wanted, wasn't it? They'd never intended her to return from her mission, to stir up trouble with tales of whatever secrets she had found in the archives. She'd never seen through them, her own captain with his act of gruff concern, and the kindly old man who'd always treated her like a daughter...

Stop it. She could not afford to dwell upon Hamann right now. Her only chance for survival lay in finding one of the other ships, not the Hyperion, not the Nebuchadnezzar. Someone still willing to listen and believe, and help her get out of here.

Get out of where? Get out to where?

The wind screamed through her hair. For a moment she could not tell whether it was the present or the past, whether she was standing on the ground or falling through space, whether the lashing chill upon her face was real or...

And then—and then Theo was standing above her helpless body, glower burning right through her closed eyelids, while the Merovingian shouted on the phone by her ear. Will you live?

It took another several minutes before Aleph managed to make herself stop shaking. Her breathes were coming quick and shallow, forming wisps of frail white mist before her face. She squinted down at her hands. Grime covered the palms, and there was a smear of dark red at the base of her left thumb. She wiped the hand across her sleeve, raised it back close to her eyes, hesitated, then poked at the small cut with a trembling finger. Wince.

"Okay. It hurts and that's good. That's good. Calm. I'm still here. I'm still here..."

Her voice was an infinitesimal murmur in the wilderness. She had no idea why she was talking out aloud. She was breathing, or appeared to be breathing. Her heart was beating, or it appeared that there was some code within her now that simulated a heartbeat. The disorientation made her head throb. She could still feel the cold.

Very well. Very well. Whatever had happened, whatever she had become, she would simply have to live with it. At the thought of 'living' a wave of nausea almost made her double over again, but by an intense effort of will she kept herself just on this side of hysteria. The chill from several deep breathes penetrated the cloud in her mind. Did she actually still need to breathe? Or was it just a lingering human habit? Aleph decided not to look for the answer at the moment.

All right. Next thought. If her body had died, and it was only her consciousness or ego or whatever left in existence, then...Where was she?

The only place remaining to you, suggested the Merovingian smoothly.

An emerald line of code, on an office computer's screen within the Matrix, while agents and resistants and the Frenchman's underlings did battle just beyond the door. The key was in the lock.

Belatedly, Aleph turned and scanned the desolation around her. Houses and towers stuck out crookedly from the black land like a skeletal forest, covered over with an undergrowth of rubble. Too many places for enemies to hide.

Nothing stirred.

She waited and waited and watched, but could discern no sign of life anywhere. As far as she could tell, no one had followed her here.

Here. Here in Zion.

You have selected file HF12-1.

So...This was the place for a glimpse of which Hamann was ready to kill her?

Shake that thought. There would be time to connect the dots later. If she come somehow get to a later. If she could somehow find a way out. But what had happened could no longer be changed...

What had happened was the warmth of Smith's lips on her own, and an endless few seconds that surely had been no more than a dream. Then she had grabbed his shouldered and pushed. It had been so easy.

She needed to find him.

The thought of the ex-agent, curiously enough, seemed to steady her. That was it, she told herself. She needed to get back to the Matrix, find Smith, and...and do something or say something. Maybe she would have it out with him again, for real this time. Maybe she would tell him the truth. Things would be all right then. Aleph stood in silence for a moment, then took what she could of her bearings, and began to walk.

At her back, a dusky range of mountains crouched upon the edge of sight. Before her, the remains of machines and vehicles and human habitations converged, thickening into a jungle, and she found herself stumbling almost continuously over the uneven landscape. To every side, shattered steel and concrete stabbed forlornly at the burning sky—the vestiges of what must once have been a great and beautiful city of men. What place was this? New York? Los Angeles? Paris?

Aleph had no idea. All she could see were the valleys of rubble snarling into a labyrinth between dilapidated walls: ancient streets and once-busy boulevards. In some places where the debris were less dense, she could even still catch sight of dusty asphalt with faded markings, parts of a double yellow line, a crosswalk. There was still a faint tinge of sulfur in the air, and some other sickening scent of chemicals she could not identify, like a ghost that lingered among the wreckage. Where was she going? What she was expecting? She did not know, but it made her feel like she was doing something if she kept walking.

It did not matter, whispered a voice inside her brain. It was not real. She was not real.

But she had to find Smith.

The hollow brightness of his eyes stayed with her.

"They haven't killed him. They haven't. Not yet. He's still out there, in the Matrix. All I have to do is to find out where. Right," she muttered to herself. It helped to keep her going. "I'll just go and find him..."

If she could just get back to the Matrix, she would find him; she would set things aright. A long shot, perhaps, but there must still be a way to make him understand. She would explain, unsay the things she had said to him, somehow make sure he was okay...

The door. There was a door into this unimaginable world from the Matrix, so there must also be a door out. Clambering up onto a wind-swept platform that had perhaps been the root of a luxurious and brilliantly-lit skyscraper, Aleph stared up yet one more time at the gapless clouds. All her hopes were bent toward this one thought now. Get back to the Matrix.

"I'll find him. I'll find him..."

A fallen star twinkled up at her from the wreckage.

She saw the flash of blue only by the corner of an eye, one tiny point of brilliance that did not fit in with the surrounding shadows. A heartbeat, and it was already gone before her mind could catch up. The world returned to darkness.

Aleph blinked, shaking her head. Something was playing trick upon her mind: possibly madness, probably mere exhaustion. She spun around, seeking a path among the hills. Then she saw it again.

The spot of azure glitter was about a dozen yards from where she stood, beneath a blackened pillar slanting out from the earth like a broken arm. She blinked again, but this time the star winked back merrily, and did not disappear. Slowly, fearing it would flee from her gaze if she looked aside for but an instant, Aleph approached.

A shard of glass lay upon the small hill of rubble. No bigger than the palm of her hand, it shone out among the dust like a sapphire flame in the desert. Only after staring for several seconds, transfixed, did Aleph realize its light was that of a reflection. A star? A patch of sunlight from the heavens?

There must have been a building here once, glorious with lamps in the night. The remnants of its smashed windows lay scattered all over the pile, yet none of the other pieces mirrored anything but the tempest. Heart racing, Aleph raised her face to the sky above. It was as impenetrable as a solid wall. No stars, no trace of the sun, not even the least break.

She glanced down again. The impossible reflection glittered up from its position by her feet like a memory of paradise. Mesmerized, Aleph bent down and reached out a tentative hand toward the jewel. A flicker, and the blue faded as soon as her fingertip touched the cold glass, gone as if a switch had been turned off. She snatched her hand away, but already the spot of color had shifted a little further on, now gleaming in another bit of glass at the foot of the mound, next to a jumbled mess of twisted wires. It was the loveliest sight she had ever seen.

Hope welled like a silent tide, and Aleph skidded down to the valley floor with energy she did not know she still had. The star flashed again, moved on again, now at the end of the alley in a ragged spike of steel. It seemed to be playing a game of hide-and-seek with her, a living butterfly dancing among the dead, blinking out whenever she got close, reappearing in the distance, around a corner, down a side street. Aleph followed, struggling to keep her legs moving, everything else forgotten. It was nothing but a stray bit of code, she told herself. It was a siren's voice.

The spark led the way into darkness. After a while, it finally halted at the threshold of a half-collapsed building, the door long torn off and destroyed. A sudden sheet of lightning flared, turning midnight to midday for a fraction of a second. Her heart gave a wild leap, yet the star held its ground, waiting. Bending her head, Aleph crossed the doorway.

The roof sagged dangerously above, and even the dim twilight faded as if into another universe. Blackness enveloped her, pressing in from every side. The noise of the wind, too, disappeared behind, and the air froze into an eerie and perfect stillness. Aleph widened her eyes, hoping to refocus her sight, but it was no use. She might as well have gone blind except for the star.

It stayed with her, shining solitary in the night, directly in front, yet only after she'd reached out and tried to take hold of it in her hand did she realize how far away it must have been. The corridor—was it a corridor?—she stood in seemed much longer than the ruined building could conceivably have accommodated. For some reason, the darkness felt familiar to her, but she couldn't quite bring it into her conscious mind. After a scrabbling search, her fingers made contact with the reassuring solidness of a wall. Keeping a hand against it, she moved forward again.

The floor began to slope downward. Into the ground? Aleph did not know. She could only go on, stumbling from time to time from the invisible debris strewn at her feet. The chill had grown purer. Only the sound of her own footfalls broke the silence, and with each step she repeated to herself, go toward the light. Toward the light: the thought expand and kept expanding inside her mind until nothing else was left.

And the light called on. Unlike before, it no longer flickered or teased, yet gradually drew ahead into the distance, miles away into the hallway or tunnel or whatever strange limbo this was, fainter and fainter, nothing more than a pinprick, its color fading into indistinguishability. Perhaps it was a will-of-wisp. Perhaps it only existed in her imagination...

She went on for a long while, or what felt like a long while: her senses of time and distance were both too far gone. A bare movement of air touched her face, gentle and cool, seemingly from another existence. For the first time, she noticed a new smell, which she could not yet identify. Startled, Aleph lost count of her next few steps, then tripped again over some sort of rocky protrusion by her feet. Bracing an instinctive hand against the ground, she felt her fingers closing upon cool and smooth metal.

Rail tracks.

What this place reminded her of was the subway tunnels the Merovingian had shown her, once upon a time. And the scent in her nostrils—a hint of underground moisture. Aleph looked up, and saw the light ahead was no longer a blue firefly. Somewhere along the way, without her noticing, it had blanched into a blurry white halo—

Later, she never remembered why she started running just then, or how it was that she could still run. The blackness softened before her, the beckoning glow spread and steadied, and then there it was, the first light bulb in all its warm yellow glory against the cracked ceiling. A recess to one side of the tunnel drew away from the tracks, leading to a narrow walkway next to the wall. Aleph gripped the metal railing with both hands as she pulled herself up. Another breeze wafted her hair, and the milky whiteness up ahead was gentle and cool and welcomingly recognizable. It felt like home.

She was headed for the antechamber of the Zion archives, the vague notion flitted across her muddled brain. She would just pick up phone and unplug herself, and then she would finally get some sleep, maybe go talk to the councillor later on...

A shaft of icy pain struck her as she dragged herself forward the last couple of yards, onto the immaculate platform of a deserted train station. There was no phone on the wall, and she would never talk to Hamann again.

Her legs gave way, and Aleph sat down abruptly on the floor. After a few moments, she decided there was no point in getting up. Another minute, and she gave up trying keep her mind in one piece. The squares of tile on the ground multiplied before her eyes. She must be hallucinating, too, because the snowy antechamber of Zion was still around her, just behind the walls of the train station, as if their gleaming lights were superimposed upon each other. For an instant, her eyes grew dim, and she almost glimpsed the phone on the wall...

She hit her head against the floor. It didn't hurt much.

"Lucy," she said to the pale fluorescent light on the ceiling.

Of course, there was no answer. She was too far gone to be able to imagine one.

"Lucy," she repeated. "I am so sorry."

Silence.

"I'm sorry." Her voice echoed hoarsely among the pillars. "I should have known. You led me to him. That was what you wanted all along, wasn't it? But I've failed you. I couldn't avenge you, Lucy. And I can't..."

The light overhead smeared into a field of blinding snow as her consciousness faded, and so she never heard the quiet, sad reply:

No, Addie. That was not the reason, dear sis. That was never the reason at all.

 

Chapter Text

 

"Well, well, I must say you look like a whole new woman, mademoiselle."

The voice floated down to her from a faraway place, half amused, half curious. The notion to leap up and defend herself flashed incoherently across her mind, and Aleph started, jerking her body upward, but gigantic rocks seemed to be piled atop her chest and limbs, pressing her down into the ground. In the end she could barely crack open her eyelids. A glittering whiteness stabbed her eyes like needles; with an effort, she managed to keep them open.

The Merovingian's face swam into view, haloed with a ceilingful of fluorescent lights, no more than the faintest hint of a smile upon his lips.

"A thousand pardons, ma chère, for the tardiness of my arrival. There were...matters that demanded my attention, as you can imagine." He held a hand down to her gallantly. "No harm done, I hope?"

Sensations began to return, mostly a stony coldness at her back. The floor. With a laborious twisting of the neck, Aleph turned her head, and caught sight of a silent circle of armed henchmen standing at attention around them, the pair of white-clad and dreadlocked twins prominent and directly behind their master. No suitably sharp retort came to mind, so she only let out a low, irritated grunt, and pushed herself up onto her elbows. Each and every one of her muscles creaked. The sickening brightness of the station jabbed at her brain.

No. Wait. Brain. Muscles. She had no muscles.

With no more than an outward grimace, she fought down the panic attack, and stumbled to a standing position, carefully ignoring the other's outstretched hand. The station platform heaved promptly beneath her feet; the Merovingian reached across and caught her by the arm. Aleph shuddered, as if to shake him off, but was unable to muster much force. Surprisingly, the Frenchman let go.

"What...the hell was that place?"

The Merovingian arched an eyebrow.

"What, not a word of thanks for my courageous fighters, dear lady?"

Bloody bastard.

"What. Was that. Place?"

The grin widened across the other's face.

"I have already given you all the explanations I could, I'm afraid. But a visit is worth a thousand words, as they say—" He gestured with a flourish.

Glancing past his shoulder, Aleph took in the endless array of square tiles covering the walls, the black block letters spelling out a street name that was surely both unnecessary and nonsensical. Empty benches. An inconspicuous beige door far off at one end of the train station, maybe a custodian's closet. She didn't remember having seen it, the last time she'd been here...Or did she?

Another spell of vertigo caught up to her, and she had to steady herself against a pillar. The light had grown much brighter, and the space was contracting, erasing the pattern of tiles on the walls, swirling them into smooth snow. A sense of familiarity. Out of the corner of one eye, she glimpsed something affixed to one wall, just beyond a patch of shadow, and for a fraction of a second she was certain it was a telephone—

"The door has been opened," murmured the Merovingian close by her ear. The tension, she could tell, was only partly anticipation. "The very last deed of your human hands, and you have done well, marvelously well..."

Aleph's heart constricted inside her chest. The light or the code was playing tricks upon what was left of her brain and she could not possibly be seeing it here, the white antechamber in Zion, entrance to the archives. But before she knew it, the subway station veered infinitesimally, almost but not quite back into focus, and once more the tiles and pillars and gray benches were in the foreground, barely obscuring the other virtual room. The Merovingian's men, too, were still there: the cold menace of their faces unchanged, hands tightening perhaps a touch more upon their weapons. The twins caught her sight, and grinned at her simultaneously.

"Shall we take a look, mademoiselle?" asked the Merovingian.

For an instant, Aleph wondered what would really happen if she got shot, now that she was strictly speaking dead. It would probably not be a good idea to find out. Now the antechamber and the station were superimposed on top of each other, white on white, shimmering back and forth as if competing for existence. Subway tunnel, benches, telephone—everything flickered in and out of reality. The walls or whatever code she was visualizing as walls kept vibrating, and it was impossible to tell precisely how large or how small the space was...

"Well?"

This time, Aleph detected the trace of impatience in the other's tone. Don't say anything, her rational mind found enough presence to whisper voicelessly. Pulling back her gaze, she peered into the Merovingian's face, hoping to keep down the dizziness a little. Didn't this bizarre quantum state of things bother him? Or did he—

She squinted into his eyes, but could not gauge if he was seeing what she saw. Steady, steady now. The room shifted again, and the white antechamber faded, the station falling back into place. It did seem to remain more...stationary as long as she concentrated on looking at him and nowhere else.

"Whatever you say." She shrugged. A deep rumble in the distance interrupted her barely-formed suspicions. At the train whistle's piercing cry, She spun around rather too quickly, and only stayed upright with an effort. A sudden draft of air touched her face as the train glided into station, grinding to a halt with a clamor of shrill brakes.

"I believe I spoke of invisible doors, the last time we were here," whispered the Merovingian. "Doors that go where the trains cannot, if I may spend a moment to recall my own words. But now, thanks to you, everything has changed..."

The train doors slid open in front of them, solid enough for now. A solitary figure stood framed in the doorway, face half-veiled by long lank hair, a torn and dirt-splotched overcoat hanging from his shoulders. The smell of stale grease and alcohol smashed into her nostrils like a punch.

"Messire," he mumbled under his breath. His eyes darted from side to side, refusing to alight onto the Merovingian's face. Something about the way he spoke made Aleph straighten. The Frenchman, too, must have heard it.

"Show me," he snapped, each syllable abruptly tight and clipped.

"There's...There's something wrong, Messire." The reply came back low and slurred, whether from drunkenness or fear, Aleph could not tell. Several interminable seconds passed before she dared to turn her head, only to be instantaneously transfixed by the Merovingian's stare, an icy blade upon her face. Another endless human heartbeat, and to her surprise, he was the one to look away, gaze sweeping once swiftly across the room.

"Show me," he repeated.

The other man opened his mouth as if to speak, then evidently thought the better of it and shuffled aside. The Merovingian strode forward onto the train.

"Will you do me the honor, mademoiselle?" Still calm, mild as if he was merely inviting her to step out onto a polished dance floor. Aleph stole a backward glimpse, and almost started: the white-suited twins were only a step behind her. The one on the left motion her to follow. None of the other henchmen moved. Aleph complied wordlessly. Say nothing. Betray no emotions. It worked. It couldn't have worked. Surely it was far too much to hope for.

The pair followed her into the carriage, and the doors shut noiselessly behind them. As the train started to move, the nearest twin leaned nonchalantly against a seat back, firearm at the ready. On her other side, his brother had already taken up position. Aleph shrugged, and folded her arms across her chest. Moment of truth now.

"So, where are we going?"

The Frenchman paced to the end of the compartment, ignoring her question and peering intently out of the windows. Aleph followed his gaze, but beyond the reflection of her own face upon the glass, she could see nothing but shadows. It took her a while to notice that they were pulsing and jolting, their rhythms agitated, unnatural somehow. Was it simply the motion of the train? She could not tell.

"I never figured you'd be the type to prefer the subway, you know," she said.

"Where is it?" asked the Merovingian softly, still not turning to face her.

What did he mean by 'it'? Aleph had only a guess. She glanced up again, and took in a quick breath, for the darkness outside of the windows had dissolved. The subway tunnel's smooth, wire-lined walls were gone, replaced by rough, bent rocks and protruding metal. Dark things dangled from above like seaweeds, or limbs of living organisms. Living machines. She had to suppress an urge to duck as a tentacle reached for the train, surely about to slam right into the carriage, only to draw away harmlessly at the last split second. A yawning hollowness swooped past, lit with a glow so faint as to be nearly invisible. It reminded her of very distant lightning.

"It's supposed to be here," the homeless derelict—or whoever or whatever he was that appeared just like a derelict—choked out by the door. His lips twitched. "I looked for it, man. I looked for it all along the line, every fucking inch..."

Aleph looked at the others, the bum with his wild bloodshot eyes, the two pallid henchmen, who merely kept watching her, apparently oblivious to whatever was going on outside. She looked at their master, and for the first time saw all the new emotions in his scowl and furrowed brow and the set of his shoulders: suspicion, low simmering anger, possibly even a touch of fear. Intuition solidified into knowledge, and she was certain of it now. She knew what this was: the shadowy view receding so swiftly across the glass, the frigid, tangled tunnels beneath the earth—the real earth, the real world, through which the human crafts would fly, evading the flocks of sentinels, up to the shattered, desolate earth or down, down, down to Zion...

And she was the only one who was seeing it.

Now the emptiness dissolved, the walls closed in, switching back to those of a mere subway tunnel, and then the station was gliding into view once more, just the same as they'd left it a few minutes ago, sterile-white, luminous. The little crowd of guards, bristling with guns, had not moved. Aleph lowered her eyes to the floor, mentally preparing herself for the vertiginous vision of the two realities or virtualities, superimposed. Against all odds, her changes to the disk—the scribblings that she had not begun to understand, herself—had added their effect to the Merovingian's original terms. It had kept him out of Zion.

"That's funny." She could not quite disguise the triumph in her voice. "What's the point of going around in a circle?"

Before she knew it, the Merovingian had crossed the compartment in a few swift strides and was face to face with her, and it was all Aleph could do to remain where she stood and not backpedal. Next to her, the twin guards repositioned themselves, as if waiting for unspoken instructions. A few bone-chilling seconds passed.

"It seems you have fancied yourself clever, mademoiselle," commented the Merovingian at last, voice surprisingly and dangerously quiet. The train had already stopped, and the doors were open. Aleph exhaled slowly.

"Hey, it was your key," she retorted.

The Frenchman's eyes narrowed. Aleph calculated briefly, then decided against fighting for the moment. She followed him without protest onto the platform, flanked by the white-suited pair. The bum sidled off the train after them.

Movement farther down: the shabby beige door at the station's end was swinging open. Several men entered, more of the Merovingian's underlings, presumably, the foremost one carrying a dark flat box in his hands, the others surrounding him in formation. Just before the door slammed shut behind them, Aleph caught a flash of snowy brightness, even more bleached than that of the walls around her. As the group came to a halt, she saw the box was in fact a slim laptop computer. Another man stepped forward; something in his hand caught the light, sending a pulse of reflected colors across the immaculate aridness of the tiles.

"Wow, you guys actually managed to retrieve it?" she asked, if simply to cover the painful dryness inside her throat. The Frenchman glared at her for only half a second before turning his attention to the laptop. There was a quiet whirr as the disk slid into the drive, and the computer fired up, the familiarity and normality of the sound incongruous against the room's unreality. Aleph shifted a little, craning her neck, and both of the matched guards, too, shifted instantly, though they did not lay hands on her. She caught sight of the laptop screen.

Green code. Its reflection flickered in the Merovingian's eyes, harsh with concentration as he bent over the screen. At his back, the guards stood impassive, and behind their dark glasses she knew they were watching neither the computer nor their overlord, but her. Aleph waited. The Frenchman's fingers darted over the keyboard, and the muscles of his jaw tensed in silence. A minute or so, couldn't have been much longer even though it felt like an eon, and his hands slowed, then stopped, hovering above the keys. Finally, he looked up.

"You haven't missed much, really," said Aleph. She even attempted a smirk, but the effect was rather ruined by the shakiness of her voice. "Let me tell you on personal evidence, the place ain't all that it's cracked up to be—"

A deep growl emerged from the other program's throat, a noise that she'd never imagined to hear from him, and it grew louder, turning into a roar of rage as the laptop crashed against the wall. Aleph winced as a small shower of metal and plastic splashed in every direction.

"It's not the poor box's fault," she suggested.

The Merovingian did not spare a reply, and she was rewarded with the sight of the suave program down on his knees, scrabbling among the debris. Something glittered in his hand when he rose again: the disk, slashed across with a long, jagged crack, had not yet shattered. Holding it by the rim, he raised it to face level, and with a rapid twist of the wrists, the disk suddenly split into two full silvery rounds, one nestled in each palm. Aleph's brows lifted in grudging admiration. The one time she'd attempted this herself, it had taken her an hour to pry the thing apart edgewise.

The Merovingian lowered his gaze. Aleph drew in a deep breath. With startling coolness, a part of her considered what it meant for a program to die. All around her, the coded station started to shift and swim again, pulsing like a gigantic, white-hot heart. A human heart. If she could only keep her sight on the Frenchman...

"It was something you told me yourself," she said. "Look into the disk. Nice hint."

The other stared down fixedly as if he had not heard her. Aleph stood too far away to see into his hands, but she did not need to. She knew what was there. The piece in his left hand: three lines of text on the newly revealed inner surface, engraved in a smooth elegant hand. The piece on the right: three other phrases, crabbily yet painstakingly scratched into exactly matching locations with a pin.

"Putain de salope," the Merovingian forced out between clenched teeth.

"It's amazing, what you did," said Aleph. "The hacking programs, all that gorgeous code only for an diversion. I don't think anyone else would be capable of that, honestly. Nevertheless, they bothered me, somehow. It was hard to describe, but...I just thought there had to be something more to you, y'know?"

The Merovingian gave a little snarl.

"I am flattered by your estimation of my abilities, mademoiselle." His words were bitter with sarcasm.

"I was confused, of course, but I thought maybe I figured out what you meant by those few sentences. Those whose bodies are made of the body of the world. Those who are made of verdant dreams. Programs. Only those made of green code would be allowed to pass through the door. But how? How could something so seemingly simple and primitive stand in place of countless lines of programming? How did you disguised the code of the hacking routines—the real hacking routines—so subtly?"

"I am not a hacker!" The Merovingian's voice rose, and he advanced a step toward her, then checked himself. Pause.

"I told you, ma chère, it is—magic." He wrenched some semblance of control back into his tone.

Aleph inclined her head. Surely she would not escape this time, yet the small victory curled the corner of her lips.

"I was surprised by the last part of your... magical spell," she said. "Those who have despaired?"

"I'm sure you would be," snapped the Frenchman. His face was unreadable.

"I had no idea how this could conceivably work, but it was a threat to Zion," Aleph went on. "It was too beautiful to destroy, so I thought I could change it, add a provision or two. Of course, I also didn't know if I'd really have to write it in a virgin's blood by the light of a full moon, so to speak—"

"Yet who have seen Zion with eyes of flesh. Who have gazed upon the desert," said the Merovingian slowly, reading from the shard in his hand. "By adding to the original design, you have contradicted it. By requiring the one standing at the door to be both program and human, you wanted to ensure that no one could enter at all."

"And that part didn't work exactly the way I expected. Luckily for me, huh?"

"And this. The last clause of your sentence." Stalking another step closer, he waved the two silvery pieces in her face. "Those who have kept—"

"Yeah." She noticed the way he halted in mid-sentence, as if not wanting to pronounce that last word. "At the time I didn't know for sure where it came from, myself, but it is true in the end, I guess. I must have still had hope."

"You think you have scored a clever little win over me. You think you can betray me and suffer no consequences."

Aleph stood straighter. It got a little easier to look at him, point blank. If she was going to die she might as well try not to die in ignorance.

"How did you do it?"

The sneer froze in his eyes, and he took a step back without replying.

"What was that place?"

Again no answer. The Merovingian had already turned away, heading toward the door at the back of the station. One of his men came forward, one hand gesturing with an automatic pistol, the other hand reaching for her arm. Aleph took a quick step as if to follow the Frenchman, staying just out of the retainer's touch.

"No need, I'm coming along, okay? But just one more question—"

Without finishing, she burst into a furious forward surge. Her form blurred like a whirlwind, and there was already a motion of air beside her, on the left: without turning her head, Aleph swiped sideways, concentrating all her force into the attack. The minion stumbled backward. Code streaked around her, and Aleph whirled, cutting narrowly between the ghostly shapes of the twins. The Frenchman was just a few yards ahead. They wouldn't allow her to take their lord hostage but it was her only chance. The first burst of bullets exploded in the air just above her head—

"Nobody—touches this—woman!"

The Merovingian's roar was like an invisible knife across the air, and at the same instant something—a fist, maybe—slammed into her midsection with the force of a thunderclap. A blast of pain shot through her as she was flung backward, crashing into the side of a bench, and a millisecond later several powerful hands were on her shoulders and arms, wrestling her to the floor. Four or five guns, about a foot away from her nose. Everything had gone dead still.

"Not in this joint, babe," panted the bum through his mouthful of rotten teeth from somewhere overhead. Aleph grunted, momentarily unable to recover enough breath for an retort.

"I have said, dear young lady, that none of my people would ever touch a hair on your head." Parting the thicket of gun barrels, the Merovingian emerged from the crowd. To her astonishment, he was already smiling again, though the smile did not go near his eyes. "Surely, surely you will allow me just a little more credit?"

"A pretty liberal interpretation of 'not touch a hair', I'd say," muttered Aleph as the twins, one on each side, hauled her back to her feet.

The Merovingian inclined his head.

"I don't intend to let anyone harm you," he answered firmly.

Aleph could only scowl back. The other gave no order that she could hear or see, but the pallid pair allowed her to shake them off. Surrounded by the phalanx of armed men, they began to move down the platform. The Merovingian did not look back until they reached the door.

"I happen to own a rather charming little place not far from here," He pulled out a set of keys from his pocket. "May I extend my hospitality to you for a while, chère mademoiselle?"

Chapter Text

 

At times, the crowd retreated a short ways, and his mind would surface above the tide, and he would gaze out from the ruins, and see the bones scattered across the plain, and the lightning tearing apart the heavens. The noise of thunder was a dry hacking cough, the relentless agony of emphysema, tuberculosis, lung cancer. He did not know why it was like this, that a world formed of code had to replicate the frailty of flesh and blood.

"I need to get out of here. I have to get out of here." This was him. Not her, not any of the others, the myriad others. "I need to find the door..."

At times, they would rush at him all together, their numbers increased to more than mere numbers. They shouted in fear, fear before a dark-suited, dark-shaded figure or many such figures, stretching across the earth like a phalanx of black wings. But he knew they were not afraid of him, not anymore.

"Look up. Look up to the clouds." That was not him, nor any of the multitude from the storm. It was familiar, and surprisingly gentle. "Look at the ground, all those broken shards. You see, once, the first time I was here, I glimpsed a fallen star, or maybe it was a reflection of the sky..."

When the flood arrived, and kept arriving, she would talk to him about inconsequential things, human things. Sometimes she talked about the times when they had walked about hidden parts of the city, the two of them, volleying their useless little games of espionage back and forth. Sometimes she talked about the trees, the streets, the oblivious passers-by, trivial details she had observed during their meetings. Sometimes she repeated things he had once said to her. She was the only thing that was not him, yet he could not remember her.

"It lay at my feet among the dust, and it stood out like a sapphire, a flame in the shadows, bright as midday sunlight. Do you remember where we used to meet? The fountain was empty at first, but when spring came the waters leapt up and caught the sun..."

Sometimes, she gave him trite little tales of her childhood and her sister. He would understand the sentences, at least one at a time, and they would weave and shimmer, growing stronger inside his ears, and the others grew weaker. And afterwards he would search for his contempt and his disgust. It galled him to think of it, this small power she had somehow gained over them. They were supposed to be part and parcel of him now.

But he still could not remember her.

He remembered everything else. He remembered how angry he had been at first, when she'd insisted on staring straight through him instead of aside, her face so irritatingly and inexplicably recognizable. He remembered the dim yellowish light in an underground garage, where he stood facing Brown and Jones, and how watchful she had been then, caught in the center of the triangle. He remembered driving out into the night, no longer bothering to keep watch on her, and the freeway that turned into a country road, then an unpaved track. He remembered the spidery television tower like a needle above the metropolis. But there remained exactly one tenth of a second that he could not remember.

"A key. A keyhole that wasn't even part of a door." Was she still there next to him? "A reflection, beautiful and blue like it used to be, before the clouds, before everything. All I could do was follow..."

He remembered an arc of electric code in the air around them, as she leaned forward and her lips touched his. Something missing inside of him. He remembered the glittering hatred in her eyes as she put her hands against shoulders, and pushed. He remembered Thomas Anderson, a superior smile quirking his face, the One, the Chosen, and he himself nothing more than an agent. He remembered saying to the Oracle, Mom. He remembered the swift wind, and an entire world trembling beneath the thunder.

Ex-agent Smith opened his eyes. He saw Aleph still there, standing before him. At her back, the city lay dead, as it had for centuries.

"Why did you come to me?" he asked.

"Because of this." She raised a hand to gesture around them, once, then let it drop. "Well, not this, precisely. Something about Zion was...not as I imagined."

"What did you see?"

"I saw you," she replied softly.

That wasn't right. That could not have been right. But he could do nothing except remain motionless.

"And I saw something else. I keep on thinking about it, keep on seeing it even now." A new trace of urgency entered her voice. Or maybe he'd simply never noticed it until now. "Another point of light, upon the horizon across the bridge. Another city in the night, but its glow was not that of flames..."

"I was trying to get across, to that other city," said Smith. Then, in words that startled himself, he added, "Though it was forbidden to me."

Her eyes widened.

"You remember it now?"

"No." The faintest smirk twitched the corner of his lips. "But it was the only possible reason."

Aleph let out a low chuckle.

"Of course," she agreed, as if it really were of course. For the briefest of instants, Smith noticed that he did not have to fight to hear her above the storm. The wind and the thunder had withdrawn momentarily to the distance. The whispers and cries and roars within, as if in reflection, seemed to have lulled as well, and the two of them were alone. Swiftly, he pushed the realization out of his consciousness, for surely they—all of them, the old and the young, the terrified, mocking ones—would rush back as soon as they found out.

"Look at this place, Smith," murmured Aleph, partly to him, partly to herself. "The way to enter here was through the Zion archives—that was what he told me, the Merovingian. But this, this is not human. It cannot be. Someone in Zion must have known about it..."

"Obviously, Miss Greene." A touch of the old superciliousness returned automatically, though his heart was not in it. Nothing was obvious, not anymore. "That was the reason they never meant you to return. And the reason they allowed you to talk to me in the first place."

"He must have been sure that you would kill me." She did not specify what she meant by 'he', but he understood. "But you didn't."

"They knew." He did not spell out what 'they' meant, either, but she, too, understood, he could tell. "They knew from the beginning you were not a simple informant, yet they ordered me to keep playing the game because there was something else about you. Maybe they suspected it had to do with me. Maybe they suspected there really was something they couldn't access in the Zion mainframe. Either way, they did not know what it was, at least not at the start, or it would never have lasted so long—"

"You told me there was an directive that I was not to be harmed." Aleph glanced up at him sharply. "But Smith, listen, they did try to kill me. The Hyperion was attacked by sentinels, several times. We kept wondering why our silence and evasive patterns no longer worked, but in truth—"

"They were merely searching that much harder." Taking a stride forward, he loomed over her just as if they were in an interrogation room, somewhere back in the Matrix. He had been utterly blind all along—

"And they were searching for me," finished Aleph.

"Why?"

"I don't know."

"When was this?"

"Afterwards. After the television tower. Before our last meeting...at the cafe. I didn't see you for three weeks. I thought you were..."

Her voice trailed off. The wind was creeping nearer again, whipping her hair into a black comet about her face. There were no answers in her eyes. None that would be acceptable, in any case.

"It's all happening exactly as before," he said quickly, not sure how much longer his lucidity would last.

"What?"

Lightning, too, returned, and a bolt exploded overhead, brilliantly illuminating all the windows of the graveyard city, and for a fraction of a second he glimpsed the electricity crackling the air, and the coded walls of the prison fluttered like a tattered curtain, revealing a throng of unfathomable shadows that danced just behind. Then the thunder came, and the brief dawn returned to perpetual midnight.

"I spoke these words," he said. A curious emptiness was beginning to wash over him, a dark afterimage following the blast of light. For the first time, he was torn adrift, without the anchor of rage to hold him to the ground. "But they were not my own. They must have come to me when..." When what? When everything had been his? When there had been nothing to stop him, nothing to lose?

"When my code and that of the One were mingled," he continued. "At that instant, I saw beyond what my programming or my purpose allowed, beyond what they allowed. Yet I never understood what I saw."

Aleph's brows furrowed. He could see her hesitating to speak.

"You mean Neo?"

"No." His reply was calmer than he expected. "The One."

"But I thought—" She ground to a halt. "I see. Neo—he—it was not human, was it?"

"The code was carried in a human," he began, slowly at first. "But the One itself was not so, and had never been so. It was born of the Source, of us, though for what purpose, I cannot yet perceive."

"And you knew this because you had his code. Its code," Aleph corrected herself, the reflected glow of the burning clouds bright in her eyes. "It all came out in that one moment."

"I know now. Not then. I did not know there were more pasts to the Matrix than eyes could see or code could record. I did not know how inescapable their power had been, beyond programming, beyond wars and beginnings and ends. I did not know why I had to get there, the city of men, their reality, though its imperative was in every line of my code, pushing me forward. I did not know..."

Again, a pause. All he had known at the time was the cold fire of power like a knife in his body, and a wild laughter ringing inside his head. But right now, in the present, there was merely Aleph standing before him, frowning a little in concentration, expectant.

"I did not know they were hiding the truth from me," he finished. It was more difficult than he had imagined.

"Smith," began Aleph.

"From us."

Her breath caught in her throat.

"You saw into them," she murmured. "But they must have seen into you, too. Because that was when the attacks on the Hyperion began, right after you and Neo..."

Smith braced himself against the next question. Mercifully, she stopped right there. There was no more need to continue, not really.

"The Merovingian must have seen something," said Aleph after a pause, perhaps only to change the subject. "That was why he took such an interest in me, and why he did not kill me after I changed his key and kept him out of this place. Though he also..."

She bit her lips, and did not end the sentence, apparently lost in memories.

"He also what?"

"He also told me a human hand was needed to open the door. Any human hand? I'm no longer so certain."

"He gave you a key. But you said it was not for the true lock to this place."

"They did not have what it took to break the true lock. Only a weakness in the walls, and they barely figured out how to exploit it."

"They." There was no need to ask her to explain the plural pronoun. "But they saw the lock, the true one, didn't they?"

"To become a creator of keys, one must first understand locks well." The corner of her mouth twitched. She seemed to be reciting the line from memory. "The Keymaker told me that," she added, not quite meeting his eyes.

"The Keymaker," Smith repeated. For a second, he waited for the name to echo, but startlingly, it did not happen. No other voice took up the chant. "I shot him, Miss Greene."

"I know that, Smith," began Aleph. The pitch of her voice veered upward only a trace.

"He was afraid. For one second, when he stood face to face with me, just before I pointed my gun at him," he cut her off. For some reason it was important that he said this to her. For some reason it felt like an offering. "His code. I saw it was not meant to remain in the Matrix. What they intended...But at that moment—"

"Smith," said Aleph, though without back away, not this time. "I knew the Keymaker."

"He was afraid to die. I saw that, too, when I pulled the trigger."

Silence for a while.

"Why?" He was surprised to hear almost no outward rancor in her question.

Purpose, replied someone simply, almost guilelessly. Smith waited. It was only himself. Only the wind with its sword among the clouds. What I am here to do.

"I do not know, Miss Greene." He waited some more. Still no one arrived to laugh or jeer or lecture inside his ears, not even the old program himself. Not yet.

"Do you think," she continued, now evenly although it was with some effort, "that the Keymaker's codes were returned to the Source?"

"I do not know, Miss Greene."

"He was my neighbor." There was a glimmer in her watchful eyes. "Showed up at the cell door, just like that, and invited me to tea. I asked him...to teach me."

"But he came to me." He made another attempt. "Afterwards. He came to speak to me anyway."

"You mean here." With a small wave, Aleph indicated the desert around them. She still did not turn from him. Another silence. She swallowed. "With all the others. Except he never said a word to you back in the Matrix. You never took over his code, did you?"

He shook his head, having no answer in words. How damned human of him.

"Often?"

"A few times. He never sounded—like the rest of them."

"He sounded quiet," stated Aleph matter-of-factly in his place. "He sounded like he was giving you a lesson about the most important secrets in the world, which were all about levers and counterweights and mechanical tricks. Because that was what he cared about. His keys."

"A key." No prompt inside his ears. He could not remember if they'd ever hidden themselves for so many minutes on end. Surely it would not be for much longer. "A key is only code that seeks its rightful home."

"The Keymaker always said that, too." She let out a slow breath. "For six months. We were imprisoned, and I must have been going crazy all that time. I would listened to him talk about code. I followed each lesson carefully; it kept me grounded a little. I didn't want to listen to the Merovingian. And voices kept promising things inside my head..."

"What did they promise, Miss Greene?"

"Hope." A low snort of laughter. "I know. How damned human of me."

"How is that possible?"

"I do not know, Smith." The same old confession, one more time. It seemed to be coming from both of them.

"How can there be hope?" he asked. "Here?"

"Maybe because there's something here they—none of them—could find. Maybe I saw it. Because I saw you. I saw the battle, the fires that lit up the bridge. I saw you fall. I saw the blood on your face, and your eyes. Not just an image, not just a record, but you. And you saw me, too."

He was supposed to know all this, yet he had nothing to say in reply. They had taken away so much from him.

"I do not remember you," he said after an eternity.

"Smith," whispered Aleph. She leaned forward as if to reach to him, then caught herself midway. "Smith," she repeated. "I will prove it to you."

He forced himself to face her one more time, and saw her raising a hand up to her own chest, until the tips of her fingers were pressed against the spot where her heart would have been, had she still been one of them. Without lowering her gaze or turning away for an instant, she began to unbutton her shirt.

"Look at me, Smith." The words, though barely audible, were a command. "Look right here. It happened."

Her skin was pale—the only pale spot in the night, and in the middle of her chest, between her breasts, there was a scar. The wound appeared as if it had been made and healed years ago, yet the livid mark remained, slanting against the smoothness of her flesh. It was angry and ugly, and undeniable.

"It happened," said Aleph firmly. "Here." Slipping the shirt off her shoulders, she turned around, revealing another scar on her back, halfway between the shoulder blades. It matched the other nearly perfectly.

"This is where the sword went in, and it came out the front." Her tone was almost clinical. "It went through me on its way to you."

Carefully, Smith held out one hand, then stopped within two inches of her body, holding it suspended in the air. Aleph held still, her back to him, though surely she sensed his proximity behind her. After a second or two, he shifted his hand forward a little more, and another tiny arc of electrical code snapped from his fingertips to her skin. Aleph's shoulders stiffened almost imperceptibly as contact was made. The raised ridge of the scar was hard and cold. It felt as if it did not belong there against the warmth of her skin and the surprising strength of her pulse, against what was really her.

Swiftly he caught her by the arm and turned her around. Aleph's gaze searched his face, but he had trouble meeting it, so he lowered his eyes. Taking hold of her shirt, he pulled it back over her shoulders, and began to refasten the first button, taking slow care with each small movement of the fingers. He kept his sight fixed resolutely upon his hands, and after it was done, he moved on to the next button, then the next. Neither said a word until he had finished.

"I believe you," he muttered.

Aleph drew in a quick breath, and opened her mouth to speak, but whatever reply she was about to make never came out. Her eyes went wide abruptly, but they were no longer focused on his face.

"There," she breathed. "There. Behind you."

Smith spun around. Lightning flared again directly above, throwing the slag heaps into sharp relief. He glimpsed the ground at their feet, paved with shards of metal and glass for as far as sight could reach. The innumerable windows of the city, once like gold in the sunlight, now only reflected smoldering flames. Sun, moon, stars: all had died ages in the past, and would never live again.

"There," Aleph's voice quickened with wonder. "That piece of glass on the ground. Do you see it? Right there. It's blue, bright blue—"

Chapter Text

 

Late afternoon sunlight drizzled into the cell from the circular skylight overhead, illuminating floor and walls built of irregular slabs of gray granite, worn smooth from centuries of usage. A narrow bed in one corner, a plain wooden table, a chair. Two thick stone pillars supported the arched ceiling like great tree trunks, one to each side of the skylight. Except for the single lightbulb dangling between them, everything about the room felt positively medieval. Programmed to feel positively medieval.

It looked like she would have some time to think about her next steps after all.

If there were going to be any more next steps.

The door was a single piece of steel, several inches thick from the sound of it. Aleph spent the next several hours knocking and rapping on the floor, the walls, the pillars, inch by inch, then she climbed onto the table and worked over the ceiling from one end to the other. Eventually, she was forced to the discouraging conclusion that each and every one of the stones was completely solid. The mortar between them, though ancient in appearance, revealed no gap or weakness. The skylight turned out to be reinforced bulletproof glass.

Closing her eyes, Aleph mentally reviewed the situation. Earlier, when they were marching her in here, she'd seen what was just beyond the door: a narrow little hall, at which they'd arrived by descending a long, uneven flight of stairs from one corner of the chateau. There was one more heavy metal door across the hall: another cell, she guessed. A few chairs for guards at the bottom of the stairs. Some of the Merovingian's henchmen must be there right now.

"Hey," she called out, pushing against the door.

No answer.

"Hey! You! You out there!"

The yell reverberated around the chamber, and faded with excruciating slowness.

"Yeah, you! What, did you drop dead or something? Rotting on the floor out there, are you?"

The silence mocked her. Before she knew it, a roar of rage erupted from somewhere inside her chest, as Aleph caught up the chair and slammed it against the door. Holding it by one leg, she banged it rhythmlessly against the steel, again and again, punctuating the noise with every insult that came to mind, until her voice went hoarse, and her throat felt like it was on fire. But there was not even an echo of footsteps on the other side.

If she had not known better, she would have thought the whole place deserted. The guards were, quite simply, impossible to provoke. Of course. The Merovingian must have given them strict orders to ignore her. After that last trick she'd pulled...Or maybe they'd been programmed that way.

The chair, one leg now broken, dropped to the ground by her feet, skidding a yard or two across the flagstones. Defeated, Aleph took a weary backward step, and leaned heavily against one of the round pillars. Her hands were shaking. All of a sudden she realized how utterly exhausted she'd become. It seemed as if she would never find the energy to lift a single finger again, and only after a few minutes did she notice that she had slid down against the pillar to the floor. She buried her head against her knees.

This prison, this hopeless prison I could never hope to escape, said someone invisible. Aleph's head snapped up, but this time, the voice was not Lucy's. In the emptiness of the cell, it sounded eerily real, just as if Smith still stood right next to her.

They had been walking beneath the fence of a weed-choked cemetery close to the edge of the city, in a seedy neighborhood of tumble-down streets and boarded windows. Ten o'clock in the morning according to the Matrix, one list of the latest potentials in her pocket, all prospects of gaining any real information from the agent on this occasion already receding to the vanishing point. Smith, as usual, had grown increasingly impatient by each passing minute. In her memory Aleph could still see his eyes, glittering harshly behind dark glasses as he stalked along, cold scorn evident in every measured footfall.

"I'm telling you, Agent Smith, the Zion mainframe is compartmentalized. Layers of security codes—and frankly I don't even know why I have to keep on saying this." She had rallied herself for another attack. It felt more like a formality than anything. "I can't help if you don't give me anything to go on..."

"It appears you are still under the delusion that you can play me for a fool, Miss Greene."

"Why, I'm disappointed, sir." Pause. Shrug. "After this whole time, I thought you'd know I am not quite that stupid."

"I have yet to see evidence to the contrary," snapped the agent. "Hardly surprising, of course. Your blindness is born of the narcissism typical to your species, and it is utterly tiresome in every way—"

His jaw clenched. Aleph turned her head, and gazed down the rows of headstones slanting crookedly at their feet, the grass flowing long and verdant over them, the dust heavy upon the grass. All those people, hostages of the Matrix even unto their deaths. But they had their deaths. Each one of them had his birth, childhood, youth, age, death, never once needing all this blasted awareness. A wave or irritation startled even herself, and the words were out before she could check them.

"What the hell do you know about us?"

Agent Smith halted in mid-stride. With a swift motion, he stalked a step closer, right into her personal space. Aleph barely remembered to hold her position as he sneered down into her face.

"I know far more than I'd like about you and your kind, Miss Greene. You're everywhere. I look at you and rub shoulders with you, every day, every hour. Most of you are oblivious batteries whom we feed and keep and provide for, yet who still imagine themselves the rulers of the world. A few of you call yourselves the freed, living upon righteous arrogance, though it was your boundless greed that destroyed the earth. Because you refuse to receive your just punishment, this futile war will never end, and I am here in this Matrix, this zoo, because of you. I can never escape because of you. Do you understand?"

"Oh, that's bullshit," said Aleph. She couldn't seem to find a better retort. A wordless moment passed.

"For a computer program, you seem curiously preoccupied with yourself, Agent Smith," she muttered at last. "Is your Mainframe okay with that?"

Without deigning to answer, Smith turned away abruptly and began to walk off again. Aleph had to trot a few steps in order to keep up. When he spoke again, she was surprised to find that the anger had drained from his voice. This prison. Never escape.

She did not recall every detail of the rest of their meeting that day. After the surreality of this exchange, Smith had reverted to his usual supercilious contempt, and she had found her own mood darkening into a tense sullenness. She had at last witnessed the agent make a mistake—for that was a mistake on his part, surely—yet instead of taking advantage and going on the attack, all she could do was to seethe silently with inward embarrassment. Only much later, after she had left the other and gone safely to the exit, after she had once more surrounded herself with the shadows and solitude of the real world, only then had it been possible to voice her secret response, one that could not be spoken except in the faintest of whispers.

"I'm trapped, too..."

Well, duh, sis. Check out these walls! The guy sure knows how to build 'em solid, doesn't he?

"Lucy," whispered Aleph without looking up. What the hell am I to do?

Addie, murmured Lucy. Aleph remembered that tone of voice. Back when her sister had been alive, it would have been accompanied by a rolling of the eyes. But Lucy was invisible now.

"I tried." Aleph blinked up into the air. "I tried to avenge you. I tried as soon as I found out..."

And that didn't work out all that well, huh?

Don't you fucking make fun of me, Lucy. I—I should have known. But it was too late, wasn't it?

Too late? Lucy's voice was blankly innocent, that same old teenager's trick. Too late for what?

Why the hell didn't you tell me? Why didn't you tell me from the beginning?

Hmm. Again, the dead girl pretended to ruminate on the question. Tell you what?

That he was the one who killed you, dammit!

Actually...That's not quite true, sis.

The reply came very quietly, and Aleph gulped.

"If it were not for him you never would have died!"

An endless ringing stillness, perhaps a minute, perhaps more. Then, just as she was starting to remind herself that her sister was long gone and all this was only an illusion:

If it were not for you I never would have died, Addie.

Aleph braced her hands against the cold floor. She wanted to jump to her feet, scream at her sister's ghost and tell her it wasn't true, but there seemed to be no strength left in her legs. So all she could do was curse this stupid human frailty. It was never supposed to be like this.

"Lucy."

Her sister was gone.

"Lucy." She swallowed painfully. "I think I made a terrible mistake..."

If you miss this chance, I believe there will not be another.

Another voice reverberated out of her memory, skidding against the bare walls, that of an old woman, gentle and tired. It took her a while to recognize it.

"You are wrong." she retorted out aloud shakily. But the Oracle was neither ghost nor hallucination, and did not—could not—reply.

"You are wrong!" Raising her voice, Aleph struggled to her feet. She had to hold onto hope. She had to get out of here.

Hey Addie.

"Lucy?"

There's always another chance.

The room went silent. Wildly, Aleph glanced about, at the walls, up at the ceiling, as if her dead little sister might still be hovering up there. The only thing she could see was the daylight spilling down from the skylight. It had begun to fade from white to gold, and the shadows were lengthening over the stones.

In the midst of the hush, there was a soft click.

Aleph found enough strength to pull herself together a little. Keeping her back against the pillar, she shifted a step, out of the direct line of attack from the door but just within the edge of sight. This must be it. They must be coming for her at last.

Across the cell, the door was cracking open, noiselessly and very slowly, an inch at first, then half a foot, one foot, two. Then she saw a short, elderly man in the doorway, craning his head forward into the room, eyes scanning the room in apparent curiosity from behind thick, black-rimmed glasses. His clothes were shabby, stained here and there with what looked like machine grease, and on his head there was a cap with a protruding plastic visor, shading the upper part of his face. He was alone.

"Are you all right?" he asked in a nervous tone.

Aleph's first thought was to swore at her own mind for going fully off the deep end at the worst moment imaginable. The voices had at last morphed into visual hallucinations. Her second thought was that she could possibly still knock him over and make a break for it, and that it would take her less than half a second. There didn't seem to be much physical strength in him. Then she realized there was something strange about the space behind him, now visible past the open door.

It was not the hallway.

At the other's back, she could glimpse another room, stony and dim just like hers. Another cell. A pillar, same as the one against which she was supporting herself, but covered with small glittering objects she could not quite make out at this distance. And the walls, too—

Her third thought was that whatever new trick the Merovingian was playing now, it sure did not seem like his usual style. Her fourth thought was that she was simply too sick and tired of it all, and she might as well stop, stop struggling in the net and just let everything be over and done with. So in the end, she did not charge forward, nor did she attack. She remained exactly where she stood.

"Um...Yeah, I'm fine." She heard herself answer. How banal. "Who are you?"

"Oh." The old man blinked owlishly. "I am sorry. I, I heard you shouting from in here—"

"Sorry," mumbled Aleph.

"Oh, no, please, that wasn't what I meant. I just thought I'd—" He blinked again, looking both embarrassed and a little frightened by Aleph's incredulous stare. "Well, I thought I'd just step over and introduce myself. I am the Keymaker, and I am your neighbor."

Chapter Text

 

Aleph stared at him for several seconds.

"Keymaker?" she managed at last. "Neighbor?"

The old man's head bobbed in a small, self-deprecating nod.

"Well, fellow prisoner," he admitted. "I mean, er, you are a prisoner of the Merovingian's?"

Aleph hesitated. This trick had to be the most bizarre one yet. What more could the Frenchman possibly want out of her? But then again, there was no harm in answering since obviously the Merovingian already knew she was here. Unless—wait—damn it. She must not be thinking straight any longer. So she just nodded.

"My name is Aleph," she said.

For some reason, the Keymaker looked rather pleased by this information.

"I hope you are all right, Aleph," he said kindly. "It's a little difficult at first, certainly, but you'll get used to it."

"Um. Thanks."

"My cell is right across the hall." From the way he spoke, one would have imagined this to be a perfectly normal social call. "Would you like some tea?"

Aleph peered back at him, struggling to wrap her brain around his words. For all the world she could see no guile in the other's eyes.

"That's not the hall," she said eventually, raising a hand to point at the open door behind him.

"Ah." The Keymaker glanced back over his shoulder. "Yes, I thought I'd skip the hallway. After all, I expect the guards would not like us to visit each other, would they?"

"Skip the hallway?"

"Shhh." A stubby and oil-stained finger went up to the old man's lips. "Please. These walls are thick, but not completely soundproof—"

"Sorry." Aleph lowered her voice. "What I mean is..." She halted again. What the hell was it that she meant? "I mean, you just said you're a prisoner here, too?"

Another nod.

"So...How did you get in here?"

The other grinned, holding up a hand.

"I am the Keymaker," he stated simply.

A small metal object was nestled in his palm. As far as she could discern, there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about the key: had she picked it up in the street, she would have guessed it to be the key for a house, an apartment, an office, a million likely and unlikely places in the Matrix. It looked new, the surface of its body still shiny, the grooves sleek and unworn.

"I see," she said.

The smile of pride widened across the Keymaker's face.

"Shall we?"

Padding silently to the doorway, he beckoned her to follow. After a heartbeat of hesitation, Aleph complied wordlessly, every sort of wild questions flashing across her brain. One step past the threshold, and her breath caught in her throat.

The build of the cell was exactly like her own, with the same walls and floor of rough-hewn stones, the same thick round pillars, the same vaulted ceiling above. But unlike hers, this one was not bare. A table was laid in the middle of the room, cluttered with hand tools and lit with a strong desk lamp affixed to a long, flexible arm, already switched on. Next to it stood a machinist's bench, complete with fixed drills of several sizes, and a pair of plain wooden chairs behind the table. And the walls, the pillars, the sides of the furniture—every visible surface was covered with racks of keys. Keys of all shapes and sizes, some freshly minted of bright silver and steel, others heavy and dull, patina'd as if with years of weather. She could not begin to guess how many of them there were.

"Come in, come in, please—" the Keymaker chuckled, carefully pushing the door shut behind them. "Tea?"

Aleph did not quite manage a response. She took a few more steps into the room, turning her head from side to side. The old man pulled out a chair for her from behind the table, picked up a big, rusty tea kettle, and bustled over to a little stove at the far corner.

"What...What are these?" she heard herself ask. "How did you get all these keys in here?"

"Oh, I made them, of course." The old man barely glanced up. "I am the Keymaker," he added, repeating his words of a short while ago, as if it explained everything.

"I see." That was a stupid question, thought Aleph. Her gaze followed the Keymaker as he puttered about, digging out two dusty and chipped mugs from a cupboard, then a tin of tea.

"What are they for?" she ventured again after a moment. "I mean, what doors do they open?"

The Keymaker's face crinkled into a vague little smile.

"Why, all sorts of doors."

"Such as?"

Coming back to the middle of the cell, the other pulled out another chair and sat down across the table from her.

"Well...I think of different kinds of doors, and I make keys for them." He furrowed his brows, as if not quite able to find the right words. "For instance, this one—" Reaching across the workbench, he picked out one key from the nearest rack, made of some kind of dark glossy alloy. "This one is for a lock in New York City. I visited there once, you know, by train. And in that big train station they have over there, forgive me, I don't recall the name—"

"Penn Station?" muttered Aleph. "Grand Central?"

"Ah, whichever. I spent hours walking there, one end to the other." The old man was beaming now. "So many doors there! Gates, stores, offices, janitor's closets...And the lockers! I close my eyes and I see them now, rows and rows of lockers, as clearly as if I were standing in front of them. And next to them, there was the office for the ticket sellers. Very pretty little automatic on the door. So I think of that, and make this—"

Aleph realized that she was gaping at him idiotically.

"This is a key to the ticket seller's office in a New York train station?"

"Ah, you're right, you're right. The lock was simple, of course. Not worth it in itself." He raised the key to the light, squinting at it with tilted head. It occurred to Aleph that he'd misinterpreted the amazement in her voice, but then he went on, "So I opened it to another city, naturally. Budapest, if I remember aright. That was more interesting, wouldn't you say so?"

"Budapest? Where in Budapest?"

"Oh, I do not know. I've never been there." The Keymaker shrugged. "Maybe it is a store, or apartment, or house, somewhere in the city. That end was easy, too, but there were one or two curiously tricky points in the connection. Oh, quite curious, if I may say so myself."

"I see. But—" Aleph scrambled for an appropriate response. Something was nagging at the back of her brain, yet she could not seem to catch hold of it. "But wouldn't the people in the house or apartment or wherever find it, er, rather objectionable?"

The Keymaker blinked at her, as if he did not quite understand the question.

"I wouldn't know," he answered. "I haven't tried it, as you can see, and, well, I don't suppose I ever will. But this one here—" Grinning, he picked out another key from the rack, this one tiny and with a diamond-shaped head. "This is for a lock I thought of, myself. The idea of a lock, really. What if the door is, oh let's say completely invisible, unless you are search for it already, and have the key in your hand? The lock looks at the key, the key looks at the lock, and they speak to each other. See here, these lines—"

Over in the corner, the kettle began to whistle. The old man laid the miniature key down onto the table and rose from his seat. Aleph sat and watched him cross the room, her mind spinning.

"So, um, this key you've made," she began as he returned with two steaming mugs of tea. "It's for a lock that doesn't actually exist?"

"Oh, but of course it exists. I've worked it out in my mind." The Keymaker grinned again, half apologetic, half proud. "But certainly, the number of physical locks to work on around here is limited, isn't it?"

"And this other one. You're saying it's for a lock in New York city, but if you open it—"

"There would be Budapest. Yes."

"But you haven't actually tried it."

"There is no need." The Keymaker's voice was confident. "I have done it correctly."

"But who would use these keys, then?"

"Why, no one, of course." The other shook his head. "I'm a prisoner here," he added, stating the obvious.

"Oh." Aleph had the uncomfortable feeling that she was being hopelessly obtuse. She took a sip of the tea, and looked around the room. The light from the skylight had faded completely by now. To every side, just beyond the circle of warm yellow light from the lamp, the keys glimmered and twinkled in the shadows like stars, and for an instant she had the sensation that they were being watched by a myriad of eyes.

"Why, then?" It was not exactly what she'd intended to ask, but the question was out before she could check herself.

"Why?"

"Well, why do you make all these keys?" She lifted a hand to indicate the walls of the room, the pillars. "I guess, all those doors and locks you talked about, all those places behind the doors, you're saying these keys won't even come near them. No one will use these keys. So...what's the point?"

The Keymaker sat silent for a while, appearing to consider the question. The thick lenses of his glasses glittered with reflected lamplight.

"I suppose they're important to me," he said at last. "Doors and locks, and keys, they're, they're—" He stopped for a second, looking pensive. "Don't you think it would be a sad world without locks to open?"

Once more, Aleph did not quite know how to reply.

"I've never thought of it that way," she said cautiously. "But yeah, I guess it would be, without doors to pass through," she added after a moment. "Without the places behind them."

"Places behind them..." mused the old man. "Well, I suppose that's true, isn't it? That there are places behind the doors?"

"Yeah." Aleph nodded with a faint smile.

"Locks are important to me," repeated the Keymaker. "Beyond that, I'm afraid I really cannot say. It's my purpose, I expect."

Aleph glanced up at him sharply, and for a fraction of a second, her vision blurred, and the world flickered before her. Then everything went back to normal.

"You are a program," she said.

"Of course." The Keymaker sounded mildly startled by her tone. It occurred to Aleph that he had not asked who or what she was. She should have been much more suspicious—would have been, had she still be human—but right now, watching his face, she was almost ready to believe that he really did not find it necessary to know. Curiosity got the better of her rapidly fading caution.

"How did the Merovingian imprison you here?" she asked. "How did he capture you?"

"Ah." The corners of old man's mouth turned up in a rueful little grin. "He came to me, and said he had a lock for me. One far beyond anything I had ever seen before..."

His voice trailed off.

"What kind of lock?"

The Keymaker said nothing, but gazed off into space, seemingly lost in thought. Silence filled the air for a while.

"And you have a key for this cell, too," said Aleph.

The other laid his mug aside, and reached down to remove something from the pocket of his workman's overalls. Carefully, he placed the key—the one she'd seen on his palm earlier, when he'd first shown up in her cell—onto the table for her inspection. Or rather admiration, suspected Aleph.

"This one was different, you know. It took me a long time to figure out the mechanism the Merovingian has placed on these doors. He is possessed of extraordinary power." He nodded sagely. "And clever, very clever. There was a beautiful system of balanced codes, and triggers in the most unlikely places..."

"Wait. So you're a prisoner of the Merovingian's—"

"Yes?" He seemed confused by her interruption.

"But you have a key to your cell."

"Well, actually, I didn't. I made the key today, when I heard you in your cell across the hall. You were making quite a racket...Ah, no need to apologize. But the guards—" He shivered almost imperceptibly. "The guards are out in the hall, and they are dangerous, indeed! So I thought I'd make the key to open directly into your cell. It's fortunate that the mechanisms on the two cell doors are similar."

"But you just said it took you a long while." Aleph's sluggish brain creaked into motion. "You figured out the Merovingian's lock."

"Yes, and that is the most important part, isn't it?" The smiled widened on the Keymaker's face. "Once you've understood the lock, the making of the key itself is hardly interesting anymore. It is merely an...an—" He waved a hand, spending a second to seek the right expression. "Afterthought."

"Afterthought," repeated Aleph, the realized she was sounding far too openly incredulous. "So, let me see, you figured out the lock on the cell door, then you made a key that opens it to my cell. But you could also make the key to open this door to...Oh, I don't know, say Budapest?"

"Budapest?" asked the other program, startled. "Why Budapest?"

"But you could get out of here."

"Why?"

"Because—" She stopped, looking for a way to explain, then wondered why was it that she had to explain. "Because you're a prisoner here," she finished rather lamely.

"Well, that is true." For a while, the Keymaker appeared to consider this fact. "But really, I have everything I need here," he said at last. "There is nothing out there anyway."

Aleph debated with herself for half a second, then decided on the most point-blank approach.

"Can you make a key to the cell for me? One that opens to—Budapest? Or somewhere else? Anywhere?"

The old man drew in a sudden breath.

"Oh, the Merovingian would certainly not like that!" He sounded frightened, and so far as she could tell, it was genuine. "And his guards. Even if you get away from this chateau, they will follow. They will find you, track you down..."

He made a little gulping noise, shaking his head. Aleph leaned forward in her chair.

"You can escape along with me," she whispered. "I can take care of the guards if we run into any."

The Keymaker only shook his head again.

"I, too, wished very much to escape when I first came here," he said. "But then I thought, really it's not so bad here, is it? I'm sure you'll soon come to see this, yourself. It is nice and quiet, and the guards stay in the hallway if you don't try anything. The Merovingian lets me have the tools and materials I need. I can think here. There is another key I need to work on."

The last sentence came after a hesitation. It was brief, but Aleph noticed it. Several desperate notions ran through her mind at once, but she found enough presence to shove them aside. Lifting her head, she gazed around for several seconds. The roof, too, was hung with a forest of keys on hooks, covering the vault except for the skylight, now dark. For a few seconds, she strained her sight, seeking the glow of stars beyond the glass, but could see nothing. It must be an overcast night out there in the Matrix.

"All right, let's not talk about escaping right now." She decided to try another tack. It would not do to push the other program too hard just now. "But...Can you show me how to make a key that opens this door to other places?"

The Keymaker said nothing for a while. He merely sat across from her, the untouched mug of tea in his hands, and watched her from beneath the visor of his cap. The light of his eyes was mild, by no means piercing, but suddenly Aleph realized, with a faint chill down her spine, that she had absolutely no idea what to make of it.

"We are prisoners here. We have all the time in the world," she said, keeping her eyes fixed upon his face. "Teach me."

"Are you good with your hands?" he asked at last, voice dubious.

"Um, well, pretty good." Aleph smiled back at him. "When I was a kid I always won at science fair projects."

"Science fair?" The old man looked even more puzzled than before.

"Nevermind. It's a human thing. But yeah, I'm good with them," she said, holding out both of her hands as if for his inspection.

"I cannot merely tell you how to make a key," he said softly, measuring her with his gaze. "Do you have patience?"

"I do." She met his eyes. "Teach me," she insisted.

After another endless silence, the old man rose, and went around the table, so that he faced her across it. With a gesture, he beckoned her to come closer, and pulled down the swivel arm of the lamp, throwing a bright disk of illumination upon the center of the work surface. Turning aside and scanning the racks, he picked out one of the larger keys, and laid it down carefully in the middle of the circle.

"Lesson one," he said, leaning forward across the table. "A key is nothing more than code that seeks its rightful home..."

Chapter Text

 

The wind shrilled high above the world, swelling into the roar of a thousand mad beasts, drowning out the Merovingian's voice, so that she could no longer make out a single word, though she still clamped the phone desperately against her ear. Sunlight blazed across the roof. Aleph held up a hand before her face, shielding it against the glare, and she saw Smith emerge from the black mouth of the stairwell. He walked toward her slowly, each step even and measured. His eyes were dead.

She must have shouted something, and Smith might have replied, though she heard nothing. The corner of his lips twisted into the most familiar of smirks. With deliberate movements, he reached to his side, drew the Desert Eagle and pointed it at her. Aleph shouted again; again there was no sound. The bullet ripped across the air in excruciating slow motion, but she was rooted to the spot, could not dodge, could not dive, could only stand transfixed as it flew yard by yard across the space between the two of them, a winged messenger. It struck her in the heart. The noontide brightness exploded into flames.

With a gasp, Aleph started, sitting bolt upright with a abruptness that made her head swam. Only after a while did her sight begin to adjust to the dimness. Stony walls, bare floor, shadows. What time was it? Glancing up, she caught a slash of dark evening blue across the skylight. She must have dozed off for longer than she thought.

Silence echoed through the cell. Cautiously, Aleph pulled herself to her feet and padded across the room to the door, straining her ears. Nothing. For a second or two, she wondered what the Keymaker was doing over on the other side. Most likely still preoccupied with his work: she doubted that he was prey to the human habit of sleep, in any case. After a hesitation, she raised a hand to knock, and barely caught herself in time.

"Urg. Idiot..."

She must be seriously losing it to forget that it was, in fact, not the other cell beyond the door. She could afford no mistakes. Aleph took in a long breath. Two paces backward, good. But before there was a chance to consider the next move, a new noise, faint as of yet, made her halt suddenly. Footsteps echoing over the stone floor outside: a single person, by the sound of it, coming toward her cell.

She backed across the room noiselessly before the door opened. Light flooded across the doorway. The guard standing behind the light was not one of the twins, merely one of the little crowd that had followed the Merovingian and herself out of the fluorescent-lit train station and down the barren maze of hallways to this prison. Black suit jacket, the unmistakable outline of a gun under one arm: she might have taken him for an agent but for the fact that there was no tie, and his shirt collar was unbuttoned. That, and his hideously bad teeth, yellow and crooked.

"The boss wants to see you." He had a very slight accent, which she was unable to place.

From the bed in the corner, Aleph glared up at him.

"Why?"

"Cause he said so," growled the man, laying a hand to his side, against the spot where the sidearm bulged beneath the fabric of his jacket.

"Fine, chill. I was just curious, okay?" Stretching, Aleph rose and went to the door, making sure to take plenty of time. The other drew nearer, and she suppressed the urge to shudder, though he laid no hand on her. Nothing more was said as they walked down the narrow hall, though she sensed his sight trained upon her, taut and cold, ready to draw any instant. The pools of lamplight fell away behind them; the stairway at the end of the passage was shrouded in gloom.

"Miss Aleph," said a voice right behind her head.

Aleph twisted around, and found herself face to face with the pale twins, who were stepping out of the corner at her back, synchronized as one. She had no idea how she'd managed to miss them, white-clad as they were, and they must have glimpsed the surprise in her eyes. The pair each raised an eyebrow at her, their faces mutual mirror images.

At the top of the stairs, there was another drafty hallway, which led to a heavy-looking door in chipped black paint. Aleph remembered coming through this way, and the snowy dazzle of the corridors on the other side. One of the twins pulled out a key, while the other eyed her carefully from her other side. The man who had brought her from the cell remained two steps behind, watchful. The Merovingian was not about to leave a single second to chance, that much was clear.

"After you, ma'am," said the first twin as the door swung open, a study in mock courtesy.

Aleph had thought after everything that had happened, nothing would startle her anymore, yet despite her best efforts, the sumptuousness of the tapestried hall behind the plain door made her eyes widen for a heartbeat. Instead of the white hallway, an expanse of marble floor stretched into the distance, flanked by two seemingly endless arrays of fluted pillars and alabaster statues. Artfully dimmed chandeliers threw their dappled glow across the wide space, and the air glistened gently as if underwater. Overhead, she could barely make out a flurry of baroque drapery and limbs. The room was deserted but for themselves.

"So, where are we going?"

"You'll see." The guard on her left offered her a Cheshire Cat grin.

"Won't be long now," added the other from her right.

"Now don't you feel like a lucky girl, huh?" asked the first.

"Why, I should think so," agreed his brother.

Aleph rolled her eyes. Without further ado, the little group passed across the hall, down a path of tastefully worn pile carpet the hue of deep wine, beneath the high-vaulted ceiling, which she now saw were swarming with painted satyrs and nymphs that frolicked amid foliage and cottony clouds. Despite not wishing to appear too meek, she forced back her questions. A turn left led to a side corridor, and the walls gave way to tall windows, luminous with the deep blue glow of a sweet summer evening. Ivy-covered walls stood beyond the gleaming panels, and a verdant valley lay outspread below in the young moonlight.

"Pretty view, isn't it?" commented one of the twins, half turning toward her.

"It only looks like glass, of course," the second added casually.

"Nice of you guys to let me know," muttered Aleph.

A breeze brushed her face. At the end of the corridor, a set of glass door stood open, leading to a wide balcony above what must be a steep cliff, overlooking the valley. A solitary figure stood by the carved balustrade, his back to them, gazing out toward the mist-swathed horizon. In the middle of the balcony's polished floor, there sat a small table, snowy-clothed and set for two, already starry with candles. As the henchmen brought her out from the corridor into the balmy open air, the man turned, and Aleph saw that it was the Merovingian. He nodded, and the others backed away in respectful silence. The door closed behind them, but Aleph did not doubt that they remained in the hallway, alert.

"You look good."

The light of his eyes was inscrutable, not quite the reflection of candles or stars, and curiously enough, she could discern no trace of irony in it.

"What do you want?"

"Just the pleasure of your company." The reply was almost a purr.

Aleph felt the corner of her mouth twist. Must be a mannerism she picked up from Smith.

"Won't your wife join us?" she asked mildly.

The program did not look at all taken aback by the question. The smile deepened on his face, and he strolled nearer, gait easy and confident like that of a feline creature circling its prey, and leaned in until his face was almost touching hers. Aleph tensed.

"As a matter of fact, she does not know, and I don't intend her to find out." His voice was a warm whisper next to her ear. "So let's keep it a secret between the two of us, shall we?" Pulling back a step, he lifted a finger delicately to his lips, then added matter-of-factly, "She would get terribly jealous, you know."

Aleph did not bother to suppress a frown. The balance of power was in his favor, and there was nothing she could do right now, except to learn more. She straightened a little, almost unconsciously, just as the Merovingian laid a hand—very lightly—on her arm. She allowed him to manoeuver her to the table and pull out a chair for her. For a ridiculous moment, a touch of awkwardness almost stole upon her as she glanced down at her own battered jacket, but the Merovingian affected not to notice, so she sat down without comment and waited for the opening gambit.

"Look at the stars. Lovely tonight, wouldn't you say?"

Aleph lifted her head, and an instant later the sheer strength of memories nearly knocked the breath out of her. For several seconds that felt like hours, she remained motionless, staring upward, and the balcony was gone, the valley was gone, and she was again in a bare black field out in the middle of nowhere, no crowds, no human voices, nothing left but the heavens blazing down upon her. That midnight was both present like a shiver inside her codes, and an eternity in the past. At last, she lowered her sight.

"Don't tell me you made them, too," she said, collecting herself.

The Merovingian raised his eyebrows, amused.

"Indeed, ma chère? I was expecting you to say it was only an illusion, to be honest."

"Well, I can't quite say that anymore, can I?" Aleph kept the twinge out of her voice.

"Forgive me, mademoiselle." The Merovingian bent his head in acknowledgement. "If I can only tell you how tiresome I find such narrow-minded human doctrines...But you've been cured of that particular malady, I am glad to see. Champagne?"

Aleph gritted her teeth.

"I suppose I'll have to thank you," she said after a moment.

"All the credit belongs to yourself," replied the other, sitting back and contemplating her. "It suits you well, my lady."

A servant materialized beside the table, noiselessly and seemingly out of nowhere, and started to serve the first course. Aleph waited for the man—program, whatever—to disappear before speaking in reply. Beyond the balcony, the slopes were fragrant with the summer scent of forest leaves, newly washed by rain. The chateau itself was the only man-made structure within sight, and she was only one move away from the railings.

"How did you do it?" she asked, still gazing out.

"I beg your pardon, mademoiselle?"

"You managed to keep my consciousness alive in the Matrix, while my body was...gone in the real world. How was this possible? What's the secret?"

"Ah. Secret. An apt word, is it not?" The smile reached the Merovingian's eyes. "Would you care to learn?"

She debated inwardly for less than a second.

"And you would teach me?"

"You would be an excellent student," stated the other, in all apparent seriousness. "For you possess an exceedingly rare talent, you know."

"I see. Which is?"

"A potential ability to reach out and touch..." He stretched the silence to a full beat. "The very threads of reality, so to speak, on a deep, fundamental level. And as I have mentioned before, my dear lady, this ability is the root of all—"

"Magic. Yeah, right."

Tipping his head back, the Merovingian let out a long, loud guffaw; for all she could tell, maybe he really was delighted. Aleph sighed. She would get no straight answer out of him, as usual.

"Nice place you've got here," she said, changing the subject.

"I am glad you like it." The Frenchman waved a careless hand at the cream-colored walls to their side. "Four hundred years old, give or take a few decades. But some of my minor modifications are more recent, of course."

Of course. He would not risk having her out here if he did not possess a host of hidden precautions. She would have to find out what they were, decided Aleph. It would take only one leap. Keeping her sight leveled carefully upon the other, she lifted the flute of champagne next to her plate, briefly wondering what dangerous coded toxins he had distilled into the gleaming bubbles, then brought the glass to her lips and took a tiny sip.

"What do you want?" she asked again.

The Merovingian shook his head ruefully.

"As soon as I met you, Aleph," he began, making it sound like he was spending time choosing each word, though she suspected this entire speech had been prepared beforehand. "I found you extraordinary in every way. You are, it goes without saying, astonishingly..." He took another perfectly-timed pause. "Beautiful. You know, I must confess that just this evening, when I saw you standing in that doorway there, with all those lamps at your back...I thought of draping you in silk and diamonds—"

Aleph had enough presence to prevent herself from lowering her glance toward her crumpled and stained clothes.

"Don't," she said coldly.

"Which is why I didn't. For it is what's within you that I respect even more. Your mind. I must tell you that it struck me in a way that none else has ever done before..."

"Oh, really? That sure wasn't the impression I got from you the last time we met."

The Merovingian turned his face aside briefly. He was a good actor, She had to admit.

"I must apologize for my inexcusable behavior earlier," he said at last. "It stemmed from selfish frustration. I was very surprised, I admit, though that cannot serve as any justification for my rudeness. But as soon as I came to my senses, all I could feel was admiration. My little trick turned out no match for you, as I should have expected from the start."

"And what was that little trick, as you call it?" Aleph decided to go for the opening. "What did you really do, to get me into that place?"

The Merovingian leaned forward, unhurried, then spent a long moment gauging her attention.

"What would happen, do you think, if I drew a gun on you right now?" he whispered conspiratorially.

Aleph's shoulders stiffened in an instant, but before she could respond or make a move, the Frenchman held up a conciliatory hand.

"Please, mademoiselle! I assure you, I speak purely hypothetically. I am not armed, in fact I never am. However—a small mental exercise, if you will—suppose I were to draw a weapon that I've, oh, say borrowed from one of my loyal guards, aim it at you, and pull the trigger. What would you do?"

"Are you resorting to threats after all, Mr. Merovingian?"

"Absolutely not. Forgive me. It is but an illustration." He was enjoying this, she could see. "You would fight, ma chère. You would dive aside, faster than any human eye belonging to this Matrix can discern, and you would probably kick the table into my face for good measure. Then you would go for those railings behind me." A careless flick of fingers. "You would have vaulted over them in a fraction of a second. It would not have worked, by the way, since there's nothing so simple as a mere cliff down there, but a fraction of a second nonetheless. Now, why would you be able to do all this, Aleph?"

"How does this have to do with—anything?"

"Please," he murmured, directly facing her stare.

"Very well." So he hoped to disorient her with yet more unexpected turns, was that it? She would not give him the satisfaction. "You said something about 'human eye belonging to this Matrix' just now, didn't you, monsieur? But I belong..." Despite herself, her voice snagged on the word. "Belonged to Zion instead. The real world. There they taught me to see the code, and to move through it. Once you see—"

"Once you see the code for what it truly is, many things become possible." The Merovingian nodded in approval. "Time fades, strength rises, and you are able to perform deeds beyond the imaginings of ordinary minds. Deeds that can only be explained as magic by ordinary souls."

More silence. Aleph forced out a chuckle.

"I am perfectly serious, my dear young lady." He must have seen right through her. "There are acts of simple brute violence, and other acts that are far more subtle and powerful. Yet they are all merely acts of will in the end, are they not?"

"Will," repeated Aleph, incredulous. "So are you telling me you can make...things happen, because you willed them to do so?"

"Will, choice, awareness of the choice. Yes. It is how code, and therefore the world, works."

"That's all it takes?"

"All it takes is a freely and truthfully made offer of one's self, spiritually speaking. Ever since the days of the ancient humans, this has been the secret lesson beneath all mysteries. No need for the programmer's keyboard or screen, no need for virgin's blood by the light of a full moon, if I may steal your own eloquent phrase." A well-calculated shrug. "Well, those things do make nice effects, especially blood. But they are almost never absolutely necessary."

"You said, choice," Aleph pronounced carefully. The word, once so familiar, sounded like it came from an unknown language. "But what about purpose? Isn't that what you programs are all about? To speak and act only in fulfillment of the purpose, to do what you're meant to do?"

"Not me." The Merovingian did not hesitate. "And not you."

He sat back, posture relaxed, gaze enigmatic. Between them, the candles sputtered with the breeze.

"But you had a purpose once, didn't you?" she asked. "What was it?"

"It is true that programs such as agents exist only as manifestations of their purposes, thus they cannot exist if those purposes are removed." As always, the Frenchman was untroubled by the challenge. "Why, their very codes would fall loose, and no longer serve as coherent parts of themselves. Now, do you see that happening to me, ma chère?"

You will never be free, cried a voice, distorted yet still hideously similar to her own. There's nothing within you. Abruptly, her concentration slipped.

"You mean—" With an inward imprecation, she clamped down on the question just in time. Bloody hell. No.

"Yes...?" This time she detected it, a very fleeting hint of anticipation in the other's tone. Aleph gripped the armrest of her chair. She had barely avoided saying Smith's name to him.

"Why are you saying this to me, Mr. Merovingian? What do you want from me?"

"I want to teach you."

"You said you wanted the Zion archives. I kept you out." Fine. Might as well be blunt. "Why do you still keep me alive?"

"Chère mademoiselle!" He affected a wounded air. "How can you think that I—"

"You are still trying, aren't you? What's there in Zion that's so important to you?"

"Talented, indeed." The Merovingian raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "You are correct about many things, dear lady, though I fear you are still also wrong about some, if I may speak my mind. For example, you talked of belonging to the so-called real world a short while ago, I believe. But you do not belong to that wasteland which they call the real world, Aleph. You never did, not even when you wore flesh and blood. You belong here."

"And you've made quite certain of that."

"The humans babble about reality, knowledge, choice." He disregarded her interjection. "But for you, the real knowledge and the real choices are here in the Matrix. I can show you. You have it in you to command storms in the sky and raise tides upon the sea. Make the constellations spin in the night." Reaching across the table, he laid one hand gently over hers. Aleph jerked back as if burnt by a hot iron, but he was already continuing, unperturbed, "I speak thus because I see what you truly are. Your humanity was but a burden, a set of shackles upon what is hidden in your heart. But now this world is yours for the taking, if you but will it."

"You are good at flattery," said Aleph. The beating of her heart had grown to an ache in its strength, and she knew she had to talk quickly, before he could say anything else. Beneath the table, her fingernails dug into the flesh of her palms. "But what of this world? All I see of the Matrix is that it is gripped by war, a war that very few will ever see, though it shapes every line and piece of code that takes form before their eyes. There's nothing here. And perhaps it is already on the verge of destruction."

"Oh?" Behind the Frenchman's confident smile, something quickened for the space of a single breath, and suddenly Aleph realized why her heart was pounding so fiercely. it was from fear.

"At the hand of the One," she said, after a hesitation.

"Ah, the One." The flash had already faded behind the Merovingian's eyelids. "There is more to this world than meets the eye, and you will come to see that in time, I believe. As for the One..."

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

The other made an ostentatiously eloquent shrug.

"What time, would you say, is it down there in Zion?"

Aleph froze.

"Neo," pronounced the Merovingian. "That is the name, is it not? A powerful being, by all reports, yet...how to put it? He may be the One, but hardly the Only, shall we say? While this world..." He lifted a nonchalant hand, pointing up at the starry vault above. "This world is still here, as I am sure you've noticed."

"I see. So what time is it, really?" Aleph heard herself ask. She was not certain if she wanted an answer.

"Does it matter?"

No, maybe it did not. A small, cold clot was congealing swiftly inside her brain, taking hold in less than the blink of an eye, expanding until nothing else remained. Yet to her own amazement, the next thing she said came out casual and cool, almost careless.

"I was curious about something you mentioned earlier, actually." She gestured, indicating the balcony around them. "This charming chateau of yours. Four hundred years old, you said? And you meant that...literally, I suppose?"

"I always mean what I say, mademoiselle."

"Of course you do. But in Zion, we—the human resistants, I should rather say—have always known the history of the Matrix to be but a hundred years."

"Oh, yes, the human history of the Matrix runs a hundred years, with a decade or two for margin of error. Excellent, ma chère." Across the table, the Frenchman beamed. "Although I do confess, I fail to understand how is it that you still appear to concern yourself with those blinkered fools, who so firmly believe they possess...Well, perhaps it is unnecessary to say more. I beg your pardon. Surely you would like to put all that behind you?"

Aleph ignored the last jab, her mind reeling from the possibilities. He had evidently decided to lead her on with crumbs of knowledge, the notion struck her upon a renewed wave of anger. A higher form of bait than mere fine wine and moonlight, but bait nonetheless.

"If the Matrix is so wonderful and Zion so empty, monsieur, why are you so desperate, to the point of needing the help of someone like me, to get there?"

"I have already told you my reasons." The Frenchman was lifting his champagne glass to his lips, but at her retort, he carefully laid it back onto the table. "The Matrix we see is beautiful, and there is great power and knowledge to be possessed in it. But it is not all there is. The world is greater than you imagine, dear Aleph, much greater, and there are both visible and invisible parts to it, and as above, so below." His gaze was fixed unblinkingly upon her face now, and his voice shimmered in the candlelight. "What you have glimpsed may not be part of the Matrix, but it is part of this world."

"Reflections." The quiet word hung in midair between the two of them. It was Aleph who had uttered it. "One part of the world reflects another."

"And vice versa."

She was sorely tempted to reach across the table, grab him by the neck and shake hard, shake until an answer—any answer, anything—got forced out of that smug face, but Aleph made herself relax with an effort.

"You are still at it," she commented. "Don't you imagine I'd have learned better by now?"

"You have learned better, mademoiselle." The Merovingian did not miss a beat. "But not enough, not even to yourself. You would like to learn more. As for me...it is my intention to seek and understand the invisible, yet all the mysteries of the world are nothing—nothing whatsoever, when compared to your own lovely self."

Again, Aleph could not help but laugh at this. How naive did he really think she was?

"I can't help you get into the Zion archives anymore, not even if I wished to. What help do you think I still can give you?"

"Only what you intend to give."

"How was I able to change your disk?" One more attempt. "Surely it was too easy, what I did."

"Hardly. You will come to understand, dear lady. But to do that, you must let go of the old human ways of thinking. Open your eyes freely..."

Seductive words, soft and mesmerizing, but Aleph was no longer paying attention. Code that seeks its rightful home, returned someone else from her memory, unbidden. It was the Keymaker.

"When you gave me the disk, you told me that it was a key, and that you made it," she said. For the first time in the evening, the tendril of a real smile touched her lips. "You told me you figured out the lock, found a way into that hidden place from the Matrix. But that wasn't completely true, was it?"

Chapter Text

 

Persephone was waiting in her cell.

She stood in the middle of the room, arms folded across her chest, obviously having just halted dead in mid-pace at the noise of the heavy door grinding open. The dusty yellowish glow of the single lightbulb slanted down over the sparkling jewels in her high-piled hair, across her perfect face, illuminating her eyes. They were roiling with barely suppressed agitation.

Still flanked by the pallid twins, one on each side, Aleph stopped in the doorway, torn between annoyance and a gathering sense of irrational alarm. A soap opera situation, of all things. Brilliant. Just fucking brilliant.

"Leave us," commanded Persephone. No seductive purr this time.

The pair did not move.

"That is not possible, my lady," said the one on Aleph's left. The reply came after a delay, no more than second or so; Aleph could not decide whether it stemmed from genuine surprise or not.

"She is dangerous," added the other.

"I said, leave us," repeated Persephone without raising her voice. The air hummed with tension.

"Master has very specific instructions," persisted the first.

"He will not like this."

"Tell him what you wish." Their mistress gave a contemptuous toss of the head. "It is of no concern to me."

"My lady—"

In the dimness, her eyes flashed, and the underling did not finish his sentence. The twins said nothing more, but some silent communication must have passed between them, and they backed away, their footsteps noiseless. Glancing around, Aleph caught sight of the cell door being pulled shut behind her. The key clicked in the lock.

"So...Did you enjoy dinner with my husband, Aleph?"

A controlled opening. Very well.

"I did not have much choice in the matter, I fear," she returned, tone barely on this side of polite. The meticulously expressionless mask slid back in place.

"Champagne," said Persephone.

"I beg your pardon?"

"It is faint, but I can smell it." The other program ambled forward, three, four measured steps, high heels crisp against the stone floor. "It was a fine meal, I imagine? Caviar and foie gras and wine from his special cellar? And for dessert...chocolate, by any chance?"

"Honestly, I hardly remember the food," murmured Aleph, only a touch sardonic. This was not what she had braced herself for. "Your husband's conversation being what it was—"

"Look at me."

Aleph stiffened, and was just about to remind the other that unlike the henchmen and the servants, she was not about to be ordered around by some criminal program's trophy wife, but Persephone's stare was already drilling into her unblinkingly, and it would have been weakness to look away. Their gazes locked for a drawn-out moment.

"No," breathed Persephone, apparently to herself. To Aleph's amazement, there was something strangely similar to relief in the soft monosyllable. "Of course. It has to be yourself..."

"I beg your pardon?" Aleph did not have to work at sharpening the edge in her voice. She vaguely recalled asking the same question but a moment ago.

"I came because I wanted to take a good look at you, Aleph."

"I see. Curious, huh?"

"You see nothing!" The retort was abruptly and startlingly vehement, almost a snarl, and Persephone strode another step nearer, until their faces were inches apart. "My husband, the womanizer he is, possesses quite a collection of methods, some less honorable than others. And now he has set his sights on you, as you may have noticed. Keep your wits about you, little girl, and take care when you are near him. You will regret it otherwise."

"Yes, yes. Well, thank you for the concern and all that." Aleph contemplated her coolly, a cover for both irritation and bewilderment. "So you say this to all the women he tries to seduce?"

"No, I do not." Persephone's ruby mouth curled in well-practiced irony. "That would be tiresome indeed. But your case is...unusual."

"As you can see, I am your husband's prisoner." Aleph spread her hands, indicating the walls around them. A part of her brain found enough presence to rouse at the other's final statement. She filed it away for later consideration. "I am, unfortunately, helpless. Even if he were to force—"

"He will do nothing of the kind," her captor's wife cut her off, sounding frankly offended.

Fine. Whatever. With a taut shrug, Aleph paced away, putting a more comfortable distance between herself and the other woman.

"Then, madam, it would appear that you have nothing to worry about."

"He will keep trying," went on Persephone as if not having heard the sarcasm. "He is persistent. And subtle."

"Yeah, yeah. I get it. He wishes to make me yield to him, and there is no trick he would not stoop—"

"But he will make you yield on your own terms. It must be on your own terms."

Aleph let out a somewhat too dramatic sigh.

"Funny. I didn't think I'd be his type."

"I didn't, either." Persephone lifted an appraising eyebrow, and it became Aleph's turn to ignore the sarcasm. She risked an instant of inner debate.

"Open this door, then." She turned, pointing to the door at her back, shrouded in darkness. "If you are so afraid of him putting the moves on me, the solution is rather obvious, isn't it? Let me out of this place, and I will not trouble you or your husband again—"

She ground to a standstill when the other began to laugh. The sound of Persephone's laughter was thick and husky, as if rising irresistibly out of some hidden place deep inside her, and more than derisive. She did not stop laughing for what felt like hours.

"You overestimate your husband's charms," said Aleph.

The lingering echo of Persephone's snickers dissipated into the shadows. Perhaps she felt no need to dignify the younger woman's taunt with a response.

"What does he have that can be of possible use to me?" asked Aleph. "So he has his pretty chateaus and his prisons, and his forests and oceans and beautiful world, and his crimes and slaves and addicts in his thrall. He has his goons and—and you." The words were spilling out now, stronger, angrier, strident. "All this and in the end he has nothing but meaningless tawdries. Why do you imagine I'd give a damn about him?"

Persephone had already turned away, and was standing by the door, but at Aleph's parting shot, she spun back once more. The last trace of scornful mirth in her gaze switched off.

"And he has his knowledge," she added, not much more loudly than a whisper. "And he has his obsession. He has the mad dream that he's pursued all his life."

"If you think I am so weak as to believe his talk about knowledge and magic, then you are sadly mistaken—"

"I do not think you are weak, little girl. I know you are. He understands your weaknesses well."

"How dare you—"

"You have no idea what you want, Aleph. You have no idea what you are." Persephone stalked back to the middle of the cell, each word an unarguable truth. "I have seen it. I remember the last time we met."

Aleph sucked in a sharp hissing breath between her teeth. Though the sudden constriction around her heart, the memories came rushing back: the fierce chrome sleekness of the descending elevator, Persephone's eyes up close, closer than they were now, icy with the absolute certainty of victory. And before that the arctic whiteness of the corridors, and the barest hint of a conspiratorial grin on the Merovingian's face as he leaned forward across the open doorway. He kissed his wife lightly upon the lips.

"Yes, I remember the last time we met," she said. "I remember what you said. Listening to you was the worst thing I ever did."

"Ah, yes, the agent." The other woman's fine brows furrowed. For a fraction of a second, Aleph glimpsed a flicker of what looked very much like uncertainty upon those brows. But she recovered swiftly. "There is no use in trying to push off the blame. You did what you chose."

Steady, Aleph reminded herself. A piercing heat, not entirely that of anger, was being turned up—way up—inside her chest, but she needed to hold her ground. She needed to hold her ground no matter what.

"I was foolish not to have seen your part in it," she remarked. "You and your husband certainly worked hard on me, didn't you?"

"I was trying to save you," replied Persephone, deadpan.

"Just like your husband was trying to save me."

"What was it like?"

"What?"

"You kissed him. What was it like?"

"How the hell did you know—"

"What did you feel when you kissed him, Aleph? What do you feel now?"

"None of your bloody business!"

With a shake of the head, Persephone exhaled, drawing back a little. Aleph swallowed. Belatedly, she knew the other's rapid-fire attack had succeeded before her realizing it, and surely she had yet again betrayed herself. She willed herself not to flinch. The floor was shifting and slipping away beneath her feet, and the only recourse left to her was to go on the offensive.

"The two of you make an excellent team," she said. "The husband attempts to impress and seduce, then you enter with your jealousy and your act of cross purposes. It was disorienting, certainly, and yes," here she had to take a moment to steel herself, "you found my weakness back then. But I will not be so stupid as to fall for the same game again, so you might as well be straight with me this time. What does your husband want from me?"

"He wants your heart." A roll of exquisitely mascaraed eyes. "Isn't it obvious?"

Yeah. Right.

"You called me weak." She produced a passable sneer. "But at least I'm not beholden to an unfaithful man, to the point of helping him seduce other women. Why do you debase yourself like this?"

"Is this what you think I'm doing?" The other's demeanor was changing again, softening to a sort of careful pensiveness. She, too, must be thinking quickly on her feet. The next thing she said was quieter, and almost earnest.

"Very well, I will be straight with you, Aleph. My husband did not send me here to ambush you, not this time. But he will find out." She flicked a delicate hand toward the door. "When he demands an answer, I will tell that you are an obstinate little fool unworthy of his attention, and that nothing I can say will change that. However, I will not tell him what I have truly seen tonight. I will not give him your secret."

"Oh?" Aleph stalked a step forward. "And what secret might that be?"

"I will not tell my husband about you and that agent, of course. Not about your fear, or your rage, or your guilt. Or your..." Deliberately, Persephone allowed her sentence to trail off. "I will not tell him about how you are tearing yourself to pieces because of Agent Smith."

"And here I thought the likes of mere agents were beneath the notices of the likes of you." The name, in Persephone's voice, drove in like a needle, but she pushed the twinge down. Looked like there was no point to denial now. "Why does it matter to you?"

The other woman, in the midst of pacing across the room, stopped. Under the lightbulb's yellowish glow, Aleph saw the perfectly curved brows furrow. She could have sworn that she saw a hesitation.

"You don't understand anything about Agent Smith," stated Persephone at last. "Do you know where he is now? Do you know what he has become?"

"The last time we met, you said your piece to me about him," replied Aleph slowly. "You told me he could not possess emotions. You told me such things would inevitably destroy him."

"I told you he's not meant to possess emotions."

"You are right," admitted Aleph. "You told me what Smith was once designed to be, instead of what he is." Her hands clenched at her sides. The glimmering light in the cell was brightening, coalescing until it was a wild flame. It made maintaining eye contact difficult, but she managed it. "Did you know him?"

An invisible blade sliced through the air.

"I see you are still refusing to hear a word of what I have told you," snapped Persephone, biting her lips. Yet another change of tactic. "I'm here to warn you, you stupid human girl."

"About whom? Smith, or your husband?"

"It would be futile to warn you about that agent at this point."

"Well then, madam, as it is about the Merovingian, I have already made my intentions clear," said Aleph, pronouncing each syllable through the clenched teeth. "But what is it to you, anyway?"

An idiotic question, she knew instantaneously, but surely the evidence of her sight—a blatantly unrepressed twitch along the edge of the other's chin, a clenching of the hands for but a split second—could not possibly have revealed what it did. Love had to come before jealousy, after all. Silence crashed down over the room like a ton of bricks, and the distance between this prison and Smith stretched into hopeless lightyears. Wherever he was now.

"It is much to me," answered Persephone finally. She appeared to have come to a decision of sorts. "It will change everything. And if that happens, Aleph, Ada, I don't care what secrets you hold or what protects you. I will make you regret it."

Something about the way she said it must have struck home, for at this time the last of Aleph's caution, along with the last of her rationality, took flight. The floodgates burst under pressure, and the next thing Aleph heard was a low growl reverberating over the walls. She did not realize that it was issuing from her own throat. The room whirled, the lightbulb swung madly from the ceiling, and then her hand was upon Persephone's neck as she slammed her furiously against the wall. With a rapid motion, she clamped down upon the other's arms, twisting them backward viciously.

"As I said, you have nothing to worry about on that front." Her voice was a savage hiss that she scarcely recognized herself. A weapon, a small part of her mind urged frantically. Anything. The position was nowhere near what she'd hoped for, but it would have to do. "You will tell the guards to put away their guns, slowly open the door, and step aside. One wrong move, and I'll break your neck with my bare hands. Do you understand?"

Persephone breath came quick and ragged as she glared back. There was shock in her eyes, and fear—Aleph was certain of it—but not enough, not enough by far. The corner of her mouth twitched into a curious smile, mostly amused, just a touch wistful.

"You remind me of myself once, little girl."

Aleph tightened her squeeze just a touch.

"You're frightened and confused, Ada," whispered Persephone. The fear had already evaporated from her gaze. "But a part of you is ready for the unknown path, ready to sacrifice everything, just like I once was..."

"Call the guards calmly. Order them to lower their weapons."

"No."

Half surprised, Aleph narrowed her eyes, seeking the next move; an instant later something powerful and terrifyingly hard struck the back of her head. A wave of blackness splashed before her, and she sank to her knees, hands slipping loose from her hostage. Greenish silver streaked on the periphery, then another insurmountable force yanked her back and flung her clear across the room. A crash, an explosion of agony swallowing her entire body.

"I don't think Master will be happy to hear of this, do you?"

Aleph blinked, struggling to refocus her sight, and eventually made out the dark shapes of two gun barrels, both of them about a foot from her head. The patches of paleness beyond the guns started to resolve themselves to the white-suited twins, their faces draped in identically wolfish grins. To one side, Persephone was stumbling to her feet, panting and rubbing the fresh bruise upon her alabaster neck. The door was shut behind them. She never saw or heard it open.

"No, he certainly will not," answered the one who had not yet spoken, whichever he was.

"Oh, dear. Oh, dear. You have been a very naughty girl, haven't you?" A bloodless finger wagged a few inches from her nose.

"Yes, you certainly have been."

Sick with fury—at her captors, at herself, at Smith or the whole bloody fucked-up world or all of the above, she could no longer tell—Aleph glowered back up at them, bracing for the inevitable blow. She waited. It did not come.

"But Master does have his orders."

"Indeed, that he does." The second twin glanced across at their mistress, who now stood looming over Aleph. Her expression had already slipped back into inscrutable. "No one under his command. Of course...My lady?"

Without answering, Persephone turned on her heels and walked away, steady once more. She headed toward the door. Another rapidly exchanged glance, and the henchmen, too, moved back, the aim of their guns remaining firmly trained upon Aleph. The door creaked open. Footsteps, then it slammed once more.

She lay on the floor for a while, watching the ceiling, and when the stinging became unbearable, she closed her eyes. The throbbing fire inside her head, effect of the brief, ludicrous battle, faded with torturous gradualness, but a whole other ache had wreathed itself about her like a serpent's coils, and absolutely refused to end.

Chapter Text

 

For a minute or so, Smith stood silent, staring at the spot on the ground to which she was pointing.

"So. This is the keyhole?" he asked finally.

Aleph tore her gaze away and glanced upward. Overhead, nothing had changed: still only one immense blackness stretching beyond the edge of the world, slashed apart with claws of bloody crimson. Still the air was cold and acrid in her nostrils. Beneath the lightning, Smith's eyes flickered; they were exactly the same shade of blue as the lonely jewel of nonexistent sunshine at his feet.

"We have to follow it. This way—"

In her enthusiasm, she caught him by the wrist and began to drag him forward. Later, she would wonder how it was that she never noticed that he did not shake her off. It might have been the excitement of the moment, when the bright chance of escape was at last within reach. It might have merely been that she had forgotten what he was.

The splotch of blue drew nearer, flared once like a sapphire, then dimmed and went out. The only thing left was a dusty shard of glass, opaque with the wrath of the electrical storm. For a few heart-thumping seconds, Aleph surveyed the rubble around them, fighting frantically to convince herself that what she had seen was no wishful hallucination. Then, out of the corner of her eyes, she caught another glint, farther away down the field of shattered concrete and metal and corpses, against the bombed-out shell of a building.

"There it is now."

"How typical it is," remarked Smith quietly. "Now that you've suddenly pinned everything on this speck of reflected code."

Aleph spun around, but could not hear the usual sarcasm in the way he spoke. It was only a statement. He was not looking at the fragment of bright sky among the ruins, but at her face, his expression as unreadable as on the day of their first meeting.

"Hey, you are the one who's always telling me to help you escape," she retorted with a short laugh, not wanting to understand what he meant.

"And this is what the cipher said?" asked Smith. "You never told me the exact last line of what you wrote into the disk, come to think of it. Is this the reason?"

"Haven't I?" Pause. "Right. Those who have kept..."

She choked on the last word. Suddenly and superstitiously, she was afraid to say it out aloud. Why couldn't they just get moving again?

"Why?"

"I don't know. I already told you. It was the promise that those...those voices inside my head kept repeating. It felt like something I had preciously little of, I suppose. Now can we please get on with it?"

Smith did not reply for a while. He stood with his face raised toward the storm, shoulders straight, profile harsh under the fiery lightning, so that he looked almost like the agent of old once more. With a small start, she realized her fingers were still clamped around his wrist, and let go quickly. He did not acknowledge her embarrassment.

"Shall we?" he asked.

The city was a maze, and as they moved through, chasing the brilliant fairy light, Aleph became more and more convinced that its hills and valley were sentient, shifting and expanding each step of the way, blocking them with cunning deliberation. At times the keyhole was reflected in the jagged remnants of windows, still half-fitted to dead eye sockets upon dim gray walls. At times it twinkled up at them from gaps among the debris, tipping a crooked bone or a rusty bar of metal that stabbed up against the burning sky. Several times she lost sight of it, and was certain it had disappeared for good, but each time, after a few seconds of bone-chilling panic, there it would peek out again from the darkness, taunting them, and dance onward impatiently once more.

"There," she whispered. "Just around the corner—"

Twists and turns through destroyed edifices, here and there clambering over mountain ridges, corpses of what once had been great and glorious. Smith made no more snide comments, but allowed Aleph to take the lead, following a few steps behind her in uncharacteristic silence. Once, she turned around, and found him watching her with a peculiar intensity, and a frown upon his face that was neither the mechanical disdain of an agent program nor the manic concentration of a madman. She should have known right then and there, but the spark on the ground had dazzled her eyes, and the struggle to keep it before her pushed all else out of mind.

"Wait, wait. Got it. This way..."

The skyscraper rose before them abruptly. Strange, perhaps, since they should have seen it a long while ago from the distance, for they must have been approaching it this entire time, ever since the journey began. But it was simply and suddenly there, across a river of shadows that had once been a wide street, bursting with human life. The skeleton of the tower was twisted and jagged, jabbing nearly upright above the plains by a miracle, a weird solitary peak, its narrow tip lost in the night. Or maybe it was no miracle, it occurred to Aleph. Maybe the building had existed only from the very instant it came into view. Some of the windows were, impossibly, still intact.

Raising herself to tiptoes, Aleph scanned the skyscraper's surface, beginning with the tangled roots. The upper reaches of the massive structure—if what remained of it could still be called a structure—was hidden by the tempest, and at first she could not find nothing. Then the clouds parted for an ephemeral heartbeat, torn asunder by a blast of lightning, and she let out a low, hoarse laugh.

"Do you see it, Smith?" she called out, pointing with one hand. "At the very top—"

A single azure star shone out in the deepest night. At first it was but a faint firefly upon the tower's pinnacle, glimmering in and out of existence, but as the lightning and thunder rumbled, it steadied and grew clearer, more beautiful. Its voice was that of a voiceless siren.

I've always loved the stars, Lucy's soft giggle rippled out like crystal into the wind.

"At the very top," repeated Smith.

His tone was calm, not the superior calmness she knew so well, but a different kind, the calmness of one who had seen the whole story and understood something that nobody else did. Irritated, Aleph opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Then the chill of the air penetrated her bones and turned her joy to dust.

"It's right there," she repeated. "Are you looking, Smith?"

"I am."

She whirled, and caught a glimpse of his eyes an instant before he turned them back upward: for once they appeared completely lucid. Several confused thoughts flashed across her brain all at once.

"Yes, that's the keyhole. It's—It's..."

She forgot the rest of what she'd meant to say. The space of a single suspended breath expanded into eternity. Smith did not move, not even a twitch along the jaw, and his sight never strayed from the direction of her outstretched arm, but already she knew. This time, she was the one who was watching the other and not toward the star.

"Nice try, Miss Greene."

Aleph's arm dropped limply to her side. She scarcely prevented herself from rounding on him in frustration and rage. It simply could not happen this way, not after all this time.

"Well, actually, I seem to have lost sight of the thing just now," she said at last, wresting her words into some sort of levelness. "Can you see it, Smith? Where is it?"

"At the top of the building, as plainly before your eyes as it was a minute ago." Finally Smith lowered his gaze, contemplating her dread steadily. "It is hardly necessary to return to our old games by this point, Miss Greene."

Aleph felt her stomach clench into an icy knot. She spent what seemed like an age seeking a correct response, but found none in the end.

"No," she muttered.

"Those who have kept hope," recited Smith slowly, as if from long-lost memory. "Yes. How damned...human of you, wasn't that what you said?"

"Don't start this now. Please," began Aleph weakly.

"Do you know what happened to the Matrix when I replicated myself and took over?" Smith grimaced nearly imperceptibly, then went on without waiting for an answer. "It rained. I had black clouds all over the sky, not empty and dry like the ones here, no. And I had rain coming down like swords in the night, everywhere, and I knew it was never, ever going to stop. I did not plan it. I did not know how I made it happen. But I did."

"Stop this, Smith. Stop it right now. Turn your head, and look at the star. Just look at it, okay?"

"Do you know why?" The question was almost serene.

"Look at it, Smith! It's right there! We're going to get up there, and we're going to—"

"You tell me there is a door up there. You tell me the clouds are not all you see. You tell me it would be visible to one who still has hope."

"But you do see it, Smith." Her breath ached inside her lungs, but Aleph forced herself to rally one more time. "You just happen to be missing it right now, because it's really far away and you can't find it unless you know what you're searching for. But it's there all the same. Up the skyscraper, take your eyes as far up as you can without losing track of the building..."

"I do not think so, Aleph."

The way he said it approached gentleness far too closely, and all the answers died in her throat.

"Does this surprise you so much?" he asked after a moment that felt much longer than it truly could have been.

"Just try one more time, try to believe it is there, Smith. Please."

"It's a human thing. I wouldn't understand it anyway." He was mocking now. The sound of his laughter echoed in the coldness among the rubble.

"No." Her hands clenched into fists at her sides. "No, damn it! You're the one shouting at me about getting out of here! You're the one always so desperate about it, remember? Getting free? You're the one always looking for a way, always so convinced there had to be a way, refusing to believe anything else, remember?"

"When you get back to the Matrix, will you go to the Oracle and give her a message from me?" queried Smith, a casual everyday question. "Tell her that I—"

"Bullshit, Smith! Don't you say anything so fucking stupid!"

"Why do you not understand?" Smith shook his head. He appeared amused by her vehemence. "The opening is not there. It does not exist, not for me. Because you see, I have figured it out at last. I have come to a realization about this place. It—"

"No!"

"It suits me perfectly well."

The finality of the statement was like a punch to the guts, and Aleph squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, he was still standing patiently before her, brows furrowed as if puzzled by her stubborn refusal to understand the obvious facts. The wind was like needles against her skin, making it difficult to breathe. She collected herself, decision already formed.

"Actually, It does not matter anymore now," she said, turning away from him to stare back up at the sapphire radiance of the star, pouring down upon them from the blasted tower like a magical dream. "Because you know what? I don't see the keyhole anymore. It's gone. Must have disappeared while we were here wasting words and arguing about your nonsense—"

"Where were you when I was taking over the Matrix?" Smith cut her off, as coolly as if he were talking about someone else entirely. "Allow me to remind you, Aleph, of a human woman named Maggie. A human man named Bane. And of course, how could I forget, a program designed to make keys, and designed to know nothing but that purpose—"

"Shut up, Smith! The keyhole is gone and I can't find it anywhere! I'm not getting out of here any more than you are! Don't you hear me?"

"What do you think, Aleph," continued Smith relentlessly, "I would have done had you been with me that night? What do you think I would have done had you not been imprisoned and protected?"

"I don't know. I don't care. It's gone now and I don't see it anymore, do you get it?" Aleph dug her heels in and forced the syllables out between gritted teeth. Real anger was beginning to course through her, and she grabbed hold of it as if she were drowning. "So I guess we've lost our chance. We're stuck here, and I doubt we'll ever get out. Both of us. Too bad."

"This is an interesting aspect of you that I did not expect, I confess," commented Smith. "Why are you saying this, Aleph?"

"Because I can't see it anymore! I'm telling you the truth! What else do you want me to say?"

Smith arched an eyebrow. A smirk curled the corner of his lips, exactly like the way it did back in more innocent days.

"I am surprised," he mused. "You used to be a much better liar than this, Miss Greene."

Dazed with emotions as she was, Aleph did not react nearly fast enough. The last thing she saw was his fist connecting with her face.

Chapter Text

 

At first, Aleph tried to keep track of the days, counting the alternations of darkness and light from the window above, but after a few cycles there came already a day she forgot to record, then another. The glow of the skylight and the glow of the lamp on the Keymaker's workbench melted into one another, and after a while she could no longer work up more than a twinge of alarm at her own state. Wild grasses grew green and luxuriant inside her brain. 

Her fellow prisoner cared nothing about the passage of time, and was therefore of no help whatsoever. 

Sleep. Now that she was a program, Aleph suspected it was, strictly speaking, no longer necessary, yet she could never quite figure out the trick. It was ironic, she supposed, recalling the days of her human insomnia. Sit in the cell, lean back, brood on her predicaments, then it would become a struggle to stay focused on the idea of escape, the skylight would blur, and before she knew it she would catch herself waking in a cold sweat. Usually there were dreams. Sometimes they involved a sharp stabbing pain in the chest, sometimes burning bridges, frequently a frigid and incessant rain. Inevitably and always they were about him. 

This time, she was falling from a very high place again. Seventy stories high to be precise, layers after layers of windows whizzing past and the wind roaring up against her face. She reached up and across and everywhere, groping for something to hold onto, but her fingers met only air. 

Two seconds before impact, she stopped thrashing and squeezed her eyes shut. One second before impact, a pair of strong arms caught her. There was no pain. Cautiously, she opened her eyes, and found herself staring up into the least likely face, and the same intense and inhumanly blue gaze she knew so well. But when she opened her eyes again there were only stones and shadows, and for a few heartbeats, it was as if she were back in Zion. 

Inwardly, she rehearsed mental conversation with Smith, going through each possibility, each emotion, each danger. She rehearsed the accusations would shout, the punches she would throw, the bullets she would fire. She rehearsed telling him she was sorry, so sorry. She rehearsed telling him the truth. She wished to get free. She wished for a respite. 

She sat in the cell next door, watching and listening, and the whirlwind of war and deceit would recede for a short while. 

"The greatest and most beautiful locks are not on doors," said the Keymaker. "Visible doors, I mean." 

Aleph had no idea what he meant. 

Before he said a single word about constructing keys, the old man talked about locks. Simple locks that revealed themselves each day and night before the vision of the world, complicated locks unbreakable to humans. Locks that relied on cunning of machinery, locks that discerned the hearts of those who stood before them. More locks than the mind could conceive. 

"To become a creator of keys, one must understand locks well," he said, in no hurry whatsoever. She could not make him fathom the need for haste no matter how hard she tried.

So she spent weeks or what must have been weeks practicing with simple, and then more complex lock mechanisms, taking them apart and putting them together, picking them with bits of wire. Memories and fears gnawed at her. The old program's words were difficult and often utterly alien. But the chateau was impenetrable, and until she learned the way to the goal, there was preciously little else she could do. So Aleph hunkered down and fought against her own impatience, and then she began to lose herself in the vast and previously impossible possibilities of knowledge opening up before her. It helped to keep herself together. 

"A lock and its key belong together," said the Keymaker, voice a gentle stream in the cool quietude of the cell. "You conceive of them together, pieces of a whole, then break them apart. They are as living things when joined..." 

As lovers, completed Aleph in silence.  

The Merovingian did not send for her again, and the guards stayed away for the most part. Occasionally a knock at her door broke the stillness, and there would be one of the dour-faced men, incongruous gift in hand. They replaced the chair she'd broken with a wooden piece, elegantly carved and upholstered and perfectly unbreakable. She ripped up the lush Persian rug with which they'd tried to cover the flagstones, and hid the pieces under the bed, because walking over it freaked her out. Chocolates, wine, flowers. Books.

"The Master's compliments, ma'am." The single sentence never changed. 

"What the hell is this junk? Tell him to go screw himself, okay?" 

She kept the books. There were volumes of philosophy, alchemy, 'hidden truths'; several appeared to be first editions and two or three were manuscripts, their paper yellowed and brittle. All parts of a puzzle he was setting for her, Aleph determined; at least that was the only explanation she could find acceptable. The challenge felt like a slap in the face, and it was imperative she rose to it. 

It was imperative she kept her wits about her.

Letters from the Merovingian arrived folded between the books' pages, whole sheaves thickly covered in a strong elegant hand. Each letter was its own bizarre mixture of romantic missive and philosophical treatise, witty, deferential, the ideas subtle and incisive. Frequently, they pointed out particularly intriguing or profound passages in the accompanying books, along with paragraphs of erudite commentary. From time to time, there would be a revelation of personal feelings, carefully crafted into striking sincerity. None of them ever disclosed a shred of information about what was happening out in the world. Each reading left Aleph in an agony of nerves for days on end. 

And what would happen if a guard arrived and found her cell empty? Another question she did not wish to consider too carefully, another worry the Keymaker was completely hopeless at comprehending. Day by day the dread grew, until it was a stone weight about her heart, but if the secret they shared ever got compromised, the men gave no intimation of it during their appearances. She was left alone otherwise. 

Lucy, too, had abandoned her. 

The ghost's absence frightened her even more than the rest. Frequently, Aleph caught herself talking into space, wondering if there might not be an answer after all, but she never heard anything now. Her sister no longer existed, and that was that, absolute and irrevocable. Maybe this meant she had grown sane at last. Maybe insane. She did not know.  

At other times, she visualized bluish wisps of smoke in the air like incense, and there would be a weary echo of an old woman's voice, if you miss this chance, I believe there will not be another. Aleph wanted to argue, but found herself defeated by too many other memories every time.

And that led to thoughts of other human betrayals. 

She had to get out of here. She had to get free. The mantra repeated itself like an interminable recording, and it drove her mad to know the one who could so easily free her dwelt in the cell right across the door. Times and again in conversations with the Keymaker, she attempted to bring back what he had told her that first evening, the mysterious ways by which he could open the prison to distant places in the world. Yet she was unable to make him overcome his fears.  

"Why do you wish to leave so urgently?" he queried, squinting at her in near-sighted puzzlement from the shadow beneath his visored cap. "It's quiet and safe here, is it not? The guards do not bother us, and I can concentrate on my work. I cannot spare myself on anything else now..."

Aleph sighed. She had expected this response. Briefly, she considered telling him the story between her and Smith—an outrageous notion, certainly, then something else he said caught her ear. 

"Your work?"

"Oh yes." A gleam lit up behind the thick spectacles. "A key I still must finish." 

Yes, she remembered. He had mentioned it the first time they'd met. Curiosity piqued, Aleph leaned forward, peering directly into his face. 

"What kind of key? What door is it for?" 

A pause. The old man's gaze had gone abstract, off into a space of his own. 

"Oh, a door out there," he replied with a vague wave of the hand. 

"And where's...out there?" 

The other's eyebrows wrinkled.

"A door at the end of the hallway," he said at last, and once more, Aleph wondered if the other program was far, far better at concealment than she had guessed. She could not let the matter drop.

"What's behind the door?" 

"I don't know." The Keymaker grinned up at her, and the guileless clarity of his eyes made her flinch with shame. "I have not seen the room, only the door, and the lock on it. Something important, I suppose." He shrugged, then bent to pick up the delicate heart of a lock from the table. "Shall we look at this mechanism here?"  

"But it is your work to open it?" 

"Why, it is my purpose." The expression on his face was one that she might almost have described as 'dreamy', were the adjective not so ridiculous. "And it was the most beautiful and difficult lock I have ever known, except for one. It is a pity I cannot explain it to you." 

"Why not?" 

"It is too complicated for your level of understanding." The Keymaker offered her a kindly little nod. "At least for now." 

"Oh." Aleph decided to change her tactic. "What was the lock that was even more beautiful and difficult, then?" 

Again, no answer for a while. Aleph, too, stayed silent, contemplating other ways to draw out the subject. 

"This key will be my last." He spoke so quietly that she nearly missed it. When she glanced up, the old man's attention was already fixed upon the tiny shards of interlocked metal nestled in his palm. 

"Now let's note these two pointed pieces of steel..."

That night, she dreamt of the white hallway with its two endless rows of green doors, and side corridors splitting off like the threads of a spider web. She walked for an eternity through the maze, each one of her footsteps reverberating  across the linoneum floor like a gunshot. Eventually, she arrived at a dead end, and a single door straight ahead, indistinguishable from all the rest. Then, without reaching for a key or turning the knob, she found herself past the door, in the room on the other side. It was cold and cramped and clammy with darkness, and she could only make out the outline of a tall solitary figure pacing back and forth across the gloom, strides tense and angry, head bowed like a caged animal. Without seeing his face, she knew who it was instantly. 

She awoke in physical pain, unable to breathe. It felt as if invisible vises were crushing her ribcage. 

She had to do something. If she could only make the Keymaker understand...

So Aleph kept at it. During each lesson, she worked the conversation, drawing it back to the situations leading to this predicament. This chateau. Their imprisonment. How did he become a captive here? What was his purpose? What was the part intended for him in this coded world, created for the benefit of human perception? The Keymaker did not know. Perhaps it was to make that one key. Perhaps he existed merely because locks did. It did not matter in the end, did it? 

As a program, he was aware of the war and the existence of Zion, but only vaguely. Certainly he never evinced the slightest curiosity about her own past. In anyone else, this in itself would have aroused her suspicions, yet there was something indefinably disarming about the other program that made suspicions difficult. He did what he did because he was programmed to, and because he loved locks and keys—if that term could be used to describe what he felt toward them. He did feel something toward these inanimate contrivances of programming in the shapes of metal springs and weights and countless other tricks of code, she was certain of that much. Yet he must have been glad of her company, too, and the opportunity to teach. The notion was a humbling one. 

A change of strategy seemed necessary. So Aleph asked about the history of the Matrix, leading up to it through their captor. By this point she was desperate enough to fire off the questions point-blank. 

"How old is the Merovingian?" 

The Keymaker blinked at her, startled. 

"Oh, I am not sure. Five hundred years, maybe? Six hundred?" 

Aleph nodded, face nonchalant. What time is it? That was what the Frenchman had asked on the balcony. 

"And...yourself?" she ventured, somehow embarrassed by such a question. "You must have lived through all these centuries of the Matrix, too?" 

"Not at all." The old man shook his head. "My own existence dates within the last seventy years, if I recall correctly. I know nothing of what came earlier. It is not intended that I know, of course." 

"I see."  

"Although it is possible I had predecessors who were deleted after they had fulfilled their purposes," added the Keymaker, his tone matter-of-fact. "Maybe their codes were recycled to create me."

"And in Zion they believed they'd awoken from one dream..."

"Yes?" 

"Oh, nothing, nothing. It's a human thing." Aleph thought of Councillor Hamann, how kind and concerned he had been when she went to him with her troubling discoveries in the archives. Was everyone in Zion truly deceived? 

"What about the One?" she asked. "Do you know of him?" 

The Keymaker hesitated. For the first time, she detected a cloud touching his brows. 

"I have heard of him," he answered at last. "He has his purpose, I expect, just as we all do." 

Aleph debated with herself for a second. 

"And what happens when you fulfill yours?" she asked. 

The Keymaker looked taken aback. He sat for a while, seemingly considering the question in full seriousness, but in the end he merely shrugged. Thinking of all the possible meanings of that shrug, Aleph felt an icy shiver down her spine. 

Time flowed faster. Letters from the Merovingian came almost daily now, many of them the length of small pamphlets. They were filled with ludicrous phrases like 'synchronous correspondence' and 'resurrection of the lost' and 'transmutations,' and it would have been far easier to dismiss them as a madman's ravings if they weren't so inspiringly written. Aleph spent far too much time staring at those phrases, more time than she wanted, for these days her sessions with the Keymaker stretched to hours on end. The old man must wish to pass on as many of his secrets as he could, Aleph realized, before whatever destinies long planned out by others caught up with him. He was a clumsy lecturer at the best of times, forever allowing his own enthusiasm to rush ahead of the listener's lack of expertise, and she struggled to follow him most of the time. In her mental sight, the door remained, draped in the eternal dusk of the little entrance hall, leading away to freedom and to Smith. 

And there was another door she could not forget. 

"If you know how to open all doors," she asked once, "then do you also know how to close them all?"

"You are thinking of a particular one?"

Aleph was surprised, for at no point previously had he shown any ability to discern hidden meanings behind her words. 

"I'm just remembering what you once told me about the greatest lock," she began cautiously. "The one even more beautiful than the lock at the end of the hallway." 

"Ah, yes, there was one." He was staring past her again, fixedly at something invisible in mid-air. "The Merovingian showed it to me."  

The Merovingian and the Keymaker together, talking shop. It was an incongruous mental image. Aleph drew in a quick breath as another piece fell into place. 

"Was that how you end up here? You told me once the Merovingian caught you because he offered you a door."

With slow, careful movements, the Keymaker laid the tools in his hands down onto the table. He did not speak. 

"It went into a place not within the Matrix," whispered Aleph, watching him closely. "The door that was no door, nowhere to be seen, or maybe it was everywhere. The key that was no key, but an incantation of code yet concealed behind code. It went through a different system: the archives of Zion, the human city, but the place was not in Zion either..."

"You have seen it," he breathed. "It worked." 

"The Merovingian did not break through that door his own," continued Aleph softly. "He was clever, but it was never something he could have done himself. That was why he needed you. That was why he needed me." 

"You..." The other trailed off after only one word. He stared at her, expectant.

"I turned the key, and pushed open the door."

"And—what was it like?" He leaned forward, a fervor in his eyes that she had hardly guessed possible. "The way through? How did it happen?"

"Well, I—" Aleph tried to gather it all together. "Places in the Matrix and outside of it melted into each other. Train stations were the same as rooms in Zion, and subway tunnels became dark passages beneath the earth, out there in the real world..."

"The real world?"

"The human world, I guess.  Flesh and blood. It was not the real human world, of course, but a version of it made of code, a..." She stopped. There was something familiar about the term she was searching for. Maybe she had read it in the Merovingian's books. "Reflection."

And so she found herself telling the other of what had happened, glossing over extraneous facts such as Smith and her own motivations. How the Merovingian had handed her the disk, along with circuitous hints of incredible glories to come. How she had changed the words—the incantation—that had been engraved inside, prompted by hidden voices she never understood herself. How she had spilled her own human blood and awoken as a program in a dead land. The Keymaker listened to her account with unwavering interest, and several times asked her to repeat a description or clarify a point. 

"I thought you aren't interested in what was on the other side once a lock opens," said Aleph. 

"But the other side of the lock—that's a different story, no? I have not seen the opened breach from the other side, and I do not think I ever will. Most likely you are the only one who ever did."

So she spoke of the vision in the darkness, the azure light among the debris that had no matching patch of sky above. The Keymaker was bemused by the image—indeed Aleph suspected he could not visualize it at all—but he surmised it was the way the passage manifested itself.

"You say there were storm clouds in there. That must have been a sign of the lock. So the light must have been the sign of the key. Even though the key was not the right one, but only a breach, a keyhole drilled into the door aside from the true lock..." 

"What do you mean?" 

Another silence. 

"He tempted me with only a shallow glimpse from the Matrix," said the old man at last. "Yet the lock was greater and more unbelievable than even I could envision. It was not made by any mechanism I knew, nor localized to one place, but buried deep within the living code of the Matrix itself. I call it a door, but it really was not one. It was everywhere at once."

He sighed. Aleph waited. 

"I could barely scratch the surface," continued the Keymaker. The gleam had faded from his eyes. "I figured out some of the basic principles, the form of code, what the barrier must have been made of. However, it was impossible to create a key to fit the lock itself." 

"Why not?" 

"I was not able to identify exactly the most important ingredient required, and neither was the Merovingian." The Keymaker gave a rueful shake of the head, and a frown touched his face. For a moment, Aleph wondered if this had been his only defeat. "So I studied other parts of the door. In the end, I found a part of the connection went through the system of—Zion." He halted at the word, as if finding it too unfamiliar upon his tongue. "It was the weakest point, suggesting a certain type of code that may be used to break through. To circumvent the actual lock, so to speak."

"The code of a human mind."

"Strange beings, aren't they? Oh, I beg your pardon. But yes, the path went through Zion, and so necessarily partook of certain...modifications intrinsic to code designed for humans. However, some of the difficulties seemed insurmountable to me. There was too much in human codes I could not hope to understand. I was never meant to understand, I suppose. The Merovingian said he did, though. The most I could do was give him an idea of what I saw. I gave him an opening." 

"So you did not make the key?" 

"No. That was the Merovingian's own work. He, too, had secrets of his own, you see. He made it work, somehow, though I told him the method did not truly fit. It wasn't what the lock's original creator intended." The old man's mouth crunched into a little grimace. "Not so much a key or even a wire through the keyhole, but only a tiny break in the walls, a thief's work. Yet it was the most difficult mechanism I've ever worked out, though only a second-best solution." 

"Of course," muttered Aleph. Of course. She could not have expected things like 'verdant dreams' and 'despair' from a program like the Keymaker. 

"Nevertheless, the door must have still revealed itself as it was designed to. Because doors speak to those who stand before them. They always do, especially one as this. It is nothing but code that is seeking a lost piece of itself..."

"Just like a key is nothing but code that seeks its rightful home?"

A short approving nod from the other. 

"What is the lock?" she asked. "Where is the place it lead to? Who made it?" 

"I could not see." The Keymaker shook his head, voice pensive. "I could see so little of it, only the very surface. It was old." 

"How old? A hundred years? Two hundred? Five? Six?"

He shook his head again. 

"The code." She decided to try from another direction. "You said you knew what it was made of. What was it?"

For some moments, the Keymaker sat with his brows furrowed, staring down at his hands.   

"Sorry, I was just recalling things for a while there," at last he muttered, returning to the present and glancing back up at her apologetically. "It was made from blood. And memories. Mostly blood." 

"What do you mean? Whose memories? Whose blood?" 

The Keymaker sighed. 

"We did not know. If it were possible to answer this question, the solution might have been much better." 

"You mean if you found the one whose blood and memories forged the lock—" Her mind whirred. "That was the ingredient you couldn't identify, wasn't it? That person?" 

"In theory. Perhaps." 

Aleph sat motionless for several seconds. 

"I need to get out of here," she said. "I think my time is limited." 

"Ah, yes. People always want to get out of where they are, don't they? I never understand why it is so important to them." 

"There is someone out there I need to find. An agent." 

The old man drew back abruptly. 

"An agent?" His eyes widened with concern. "But you must not go searching for agents! They will kill you as soon as they see you. Don't you know that?"

There was fright in his tone, but to her surprise, no revulsion. Aleph blinked back at him, not knowing what to say, not knowing why she said anything to start with. 

"It is their purpose," the Keymaker added, surely a needless explanation. "As we have our purposes, so do they. Is that not so?"

"But the one I'm seeking is different," replied Aleph, knowing how lame it sounded. "He is no longer an agent."

"But they are more dangerous then!" He sounded even more troubled now, and something about his words was strangely touching to her. "Some of the guards here used to be agents. They wavered in their purpose, and the Merovingian gave them another, but it is not the same. This was how he caught them." His lips pursed in disapproval. "You'd think they would know better."

Yes. All that was true. But she would burn that bridge when she came to it. 

"He was different even when he was still an agent," she said, observing the other for a reaction. He seemed perplexed, but then inclined his head a little, as if signaling her to go on. 

"Maybe you're right. Maybe he would kill me as soon as he saw me," Aleph went on. "But something about him changed, you see. It was partly my fault, in a way. That's why I have to get out of here, and go find him..."

Chapter Text

 

From the skylight, Aleph could tell the days were getting shorter. She let them pass without count, until one morning the Keymaker knocked on her door. He entered to show her a fresh bit of metal nestled in his calloused palm, still warm from the drills and bright with a steely sheen. By now, Aleph had learned enough to discern that it was a work of extraordinary complexity and cunning.  

"My last," said the old man, more pride than fear in his voice. 

The temperature in the room plummeted, and her heart quickened for no reason that she could understand. 

"This one is made to be used, so it will be," said the Keymaker in reply to things she did not say out aloud. He paused, pensive, then placed the key into his pocket and took out something else. "I expect...someone will be coming for me soon."

"Oh," was all Aleph could say.

"Here," he said kindly. "Maybe you'd like to have this." 

Startled, Aleph peered down at his outstretched hand. It was another key, slender and almost delicate in appearance, made of some coppery alloy. At the wide end, the metal separated and spanned into nearly infinitesimally fine filigree, ending with an antenna of braided wires. Unlike the previous key he had just shown her, its code was completely impenetrable to her sight. 

"Oh," she repeated. "It's...beautiful. What is it?" 

"It may or may not work, but there was no time for a test. Not even time to fully polish up the balancing weights along the head, as you can see." The Keymaker offered her a half-apologetic smile. "I suppose the humans would call it a...What is the term they use? Memento?" 

"I see." Aleph found herself at a loss as her fingers curled around the key. "Um. Thank you." 

"I've been thinking of what you told me, you see," said the old program. "About the agent." 

"You mean," she began, blinking at him foolishly. "But you always said that agents are—" 

"Well, yes, of course. I still cannot understand why you would wish to seek out an agent." He shook his head. "But I thought, in the end they're still just programs like me. There has to be something in their programming that responds to—" 

He did not finish the sentence. Aleph frowned, then she, too, heard it. The faint rhythm of footfalls out in the hallway, as yet far off. 

"They're here." The old man tensed abruptly. "I must go." 

"Wait!" she called out. "What does this do?" 

The Keymaker gave one backward glance from the doorway. 

"No time to explain. You will figure it out." 

"But you—" 

"You have enough skill by now," he answered with a short grin, and slipped into his own cell with no further ado. The door shut noiselessly behind him. Outside, the footsteps drew nearer and halted, there was an muffled burst of voices, then all sounds fell away. Aleph stood still, and waited. 

The Keymaker did not return. The guards made no noise, which was no different from usual, but as the hours wore on the hush thickened, expanding against the floor and walls and then eventually concentrating itself within, until it calcified into a frigid knot against her stomach. She paced across the flagstones for calm, flipped open the Merovingian's books for omens. Nothing. It was as if the chateau had been totally abandoned. In the window overhead, light shifted inch by inch, then gradually began to fail. Was night already falling? No, a sea of dark clouds. An unseasonal storm must be gathering out there in the valley. 

The Keymaker's gift lay glimmering at the center of her palm. Aleph studied it, turning it back and forth until she could see nothing more in each groove and bump, each bend in the metal. Then she went over to the door and squinted down at the miniscule keyhole, as if somehow she could change the mechanism by the sheer pressure of her vision. After a while, she lifted the key and made another attempt to fit it into the lock. Irrational, needless to say; it did not even go in. 

"Right. Of course not. What was I thinking..." 

Footsteps echoed along the corridor. 

They were much more rapid than she would have guessed possible, seemingly out of nowhere, and were already directly outside the cell when she leapt to her feet and shoved the key into her pocket. The door flew open with an bang, the Merovingian stalked through and grabbed her by the wrist, and Aleph lost a precious millisecond in hesitation before she saw that he was alone. 

"Follow me," he breathed. 

She spun around, just finding enough leverage to take a swing at his head with her free fist; the other leaned aside and caught it in an effortless grip. She twisted again, squeezing every bit of strength into her shoulders, but she might as well be fighting against a wall. 

"We need to talk, Aleph." He took no apparent notice of her struggle. "Please."

Shock slackened her resistance, and she allowed him to haul her across the threshold. No guards in sight. The Merovingian went straight for the other door across the deserted entry hall,  let go with one hand, and dug into his pocket for a bunch of keys. Aleph almost blurted out an angry question, but stopped herself just in time. The heavy steel ground against the hinges, but there was no sign of the Keymaker's cell behind the door, only a washed-out pale light, which should be familiar by now, except something was different this time. Dimmer. A flicker. Without breaking stride, the Merovingian crossed the white corridor, a new key already out of his pocket. Turning her head, Aleph barely had the chance to take in a patch of shattered flooring, exposing the gray concrete underneath. Several of the fluorescent panels dangled from the ceiling, wreathed in trailing wires. A vaguely humid smell touched her nostrils, one that she could not quite identify. A column of bullet holes along the bleached wall. 

The next door swung open. A new field of far brighter white smacked her in the face like a fist. Space whirled. 

"My apologies, ma chère." The Merovingian elbowed the door shut behind them. "I have not done anything like this in, oh, four hundred years." 

The fingers around her wrist loosened, and Aleph steadied herself, glancing swiftly around the subway station. Unlike the hallway, there was no evidence of violence here; the walls were as pristine as ever—except they started pulsing as soon as she saw them—and all the benches were unoccupied. The two of them were alone. The scent that she had noticed back in the hallway was fainter here. Her brows furrowed when she finally realized what it reminded her of: the crack of electricity across the air, and premonitions of a deluge. 

"What do you want now?" 

"I would not have brought you here by force if circumstances were not so urgent,"  said the Frenchman, startlingly subdued. "I am sorry." 

Aleph glowered at him. His grasp had not bruised her, but she rubbed her wrist pointedly anyway. 

"So why do you bring me here?" 

"I have no choice." 

"How kind of you," she remarked. The sarcasm served to cover both trepidation and the feeling of disorientation, which was already catching up with her. "Seems like you've scripted a new theatrical play for my benefit—" 

"It is safe here." 

The reply fell like a bucket of icy water down her back, and before she knew it all her evil dreams came galloping back through the gates. She stood straighter, wishing to hold herself motionless, yet at that instant reality quivered, and she was no longer in the subway station. The room was narrower, the walls whitewashed instead of tiled, and with a squint she could just see the pale beige telephone affixed to one side...It lasted for only one blink of the eye.

"You have not had the chance to hear much news, I suspect," said the Merovingian. For once, his usual smugness had disappeared without a trace. "Former Agent Smith has been very busy recently, contrary to the expectations of all." 

Hmm, Smith. That's your agent, isn't he, Addie? 

"What?" asked Aleph out aloud with a visible start. If the air would only stop swirling everywhere. If this damned vertigo would only go away. If her dead sister would only not decide to show up at the worst possible moment. 

"Smith has proven himself highly extraordinary." said the Merovingian. A pause. She could not gauge whether it was for effect, or if he really needed to collect himself. "By which I mean highly insane, of course." 

Next to her ear, Lucy let out a derisive snort. 

"He was called back to the Source after he had failed to stop the One, as you must already know," continued the other. His eyes were brighter than she had ever seen them before. "Yet, as you must also already know, he exhibited an astonishing degree of rebelliousness for one of his...station, and refused."

"Good for him," she muttered. 

"Do you really believe so, Aleph?" 

Once more, the way he spoke surprised all the contemptuous retorts out of her mind. She wanted to laugh, almost wanted to gloat, but could not. 

"What...do you mean?" she asked. 

"He has gained abilities that he never should have, abilities that none had imagined possible. Unfortunately, he appears far too willing to make use of them." 

I wonder why, commented the ghost coolly. Aleph drew in a shuddering breath. Please, Lucy.

"Replication," pronounced the Frenchman, each syllable a blade. "If right now you were to step outside of this little refuge I have constructed, you would discover a world quite different from the one you left behind six months ago. You would see many fewer of the human beings that have always crowded the Matrix, men and women and children going about their daily rounds. There's preciously little of that left. You would see but the same form, the same black shades, the same black suit. The form of an agent program that has escaped its purpose. The form of a virus."

"You're lying. I don't believe you. Whatever new game you've invented—" 

"Maybe it was only a freakish mutation of an agent's ability to leap into a normal human battery, maybe it was something else entirely." He sounded like he had not heard her at all. "Former Agent Smith has somehow evolved a way to copy his own code over those of humans and other programs in the Matrix, multiplying himself, shell and consciousness, a thousand times, a hundred thousand times. More. And...I need not explain to you that the process is exponential."

"I see," managed Aleph after too lengthy a silence. He was lying. He had to be lying. 

"It is time I tell you the truth. Smith has become by far the most dangerous threat the Matrix has faced in many years, possibly ever. By now the highest powers are helpless before him, and as we speak, he stands poised to take control of the world and darken it into a desert of his own making, an image of the madness and hatred that fills each line of his code. And then..."

He broke off in the middle of the sentence. Only now did she notice how near he was standing, less than a yard in front of her. They had moved away from the door and were in the middle of the platform.

"Will you allow this to happen, Aleph?" 

"Let me see him." 

"No. You can't go out there."

"I need to see him for myself!" 

What the hell are you doing, Addie? You can't go and reveal—

"And what would happen if you do?" A muscle twitched along the edge of the Merovingian's chin. "Do you imagine Agent Smith would see you as anything other than one of the mindless masses, who only deserve to be erased? Do you imagine that he would spare you?"

Think, Addie. You need to play him for time and—

"It is not only his newfound abilities that make Smith so dangerous, Aleph," the Merovingian went on, relentless. "It is his madness, his will—whatever mess of unstoppable emotions inside of him that he was never designed to feel. He is no longer an agent and there is nothing to hold back that madness. He is close to destroying us all, closer with every passing second." 

Think. Play for time. Play for information. Get out of here. Find Smith. 

"And—what do you want me to do, Mr. Merovingian?" 

"I want you to choose." 

Think. Think rationally. The drab closet door by which they had entered was six, seven yards away. She had allowed him to manoeuver her into the farther position. 

"Choose between Agent Smith and...you, I suppose?"

"You are the only one who can enter the Zion archives." The other program's voice had gone quiet. If she didn't know better she would have called it a plead. "You must help me, Aleph. It is the only way to save us all." 

"You're still trying to get to Zion, is that it? Because it is a place where you can hide from Smith? Because you're afraid of him?"

The Merovingian's jaw clenched. He took another stride forward, so that he was again only two feet away from her. Unthinkingly, Aleph back up, even though it took her yet farther from the door.  Her back touched the hardness of one of the thick square pillars protruding from the wall.

"Afraid? Everything I have ever held dear is on the verge of absolute and irrevocable destruction, so yes, in a sense I am afraid. But hide? No. I do not intend to hide. I do not intend to come to terms. On the contrary, I intend to fight him, to the end and with every weapon, every power at my disposal. Not a shred of honor remains in any other course. Are you with me?"

Astonished, Aleph was unable to answer right away. 

"Why?" 

"Do you really need to ask, mademoiselle?" 

The glitter of anger in his gaze was real, she realized. Her throat constricted. 

"You are still try to press your advantage. You are still trying to force me to—"

He can't force you, interjected Lucy urgently. That's the whole point—

"It is not about me." Somehow, the Frenchman's unaccustomed directness was far more disturbing than any deception she had come to expect from him. "Think about the world, all the people who never had the chance. Think about their joys and pains and loves and...I believe you are a better person than to ask such a question." 

He turned aside, giving her a little more space. Aleph risked a swift glance around, dazzled again by the same throbbing sense of dislocation. Somewhere far away, a low rumble growled. It might or might not be merely an incoming train. 

Remember that he can't force you, Addie. 

"Why Zion, then?" Eventually she heard herself ask. 

"Another event has been set in motion." The other's tone went back to outwardly calm. Clipped. "The Consciousness in 01 has finally moved forward with its decision to invade Zion. A full assault, long in the plans and reserved for years. The sentinels have already been deployed, half a million of them. They are on their way to the city, probably already there." 

"I do not trust you," she squeezed out between clenched teeth. It sounded unconvincing even to herself.

"How much longer do you think the human city will last? A day? Six hours? An hour? Ten minutes? If Zion is destroyed, so will be all that I have wished—needed—to reach. For even virtual existence is dependent on hardware, wires, motherboards, electricity. If the material basis of existence is gone, then so will be the existence itself. So will be everything that can still save the Matrix. Time is of the essence." 

The rumbling noise returned, this time closer, a deep basso drumroll beyond the station roof, seemingly from all directions at once. Aleph could distinguish what it was now. 

"You're trying to tell me," she said tentatively. "You're telling me there is something in the Zion archives that will help you stop Smith." 

That's not all he wants, sis. 

As if on cue, a deafening clap of thunder exploded above the sanctuary's stillness, as the closet door burst wide open at the exact same instant. There was no time to waste on deliberations. Aleph took a swift sideways step, edging out of the space between the Merovingian and the pillar behind her, every muscle tensing like an arrow upon the bow—

No, Addie! You know that's not gonna work!

Smoke and fluttering light splashed across the doorway, and she finally sighted the tall, scrawny form charging into the station, grimace framed in long tangled hair, greasy coat flapping out behind like shadowy wings. Freezing too hastily in the midst of bursting forward, Aleph nearly stumbled; she reached out with one arm to brace herself against the pillar, and touched only emptiness. For the terrifying span of a single breath, everything around her—the walls, the floor, the shimmering fluorescent glow—switched to veils of code, as insubstantial as phantoms. Then a powerful hand caught her elbow from behind and kept her steady. Instinctively, she attempted  to jerk aside. 

"Mademoiselle," murmured the Frenchman, far too near. 

"Messire," panted the derelict-shaped underling. 

Stop! You can't fight them!

Gritting her teeth, Aleph stilled herself, squeezing her eyes shut for a second or two, so that the Merovingian would not see the fury in her glare. When she opened them again, he was regarding her fixedly, expression indistinguishable from that of genuine concern. She glanced down at his hand, still wrapped around her arm. He let go. 

"Report," he commanded sharply, facing the homeless man.

"The attack's growing, Messire." The other bent his head, words rough with agitation. "They, he, he's coming like a tide, a fucking tide—" 

"Which of our positions?" asked his master evenly. 

"All of them, Messire." 

"How much longer?" 

The henchman gulped, hesitating. Aleph looked from one program to other, nauseated both physically and from all the implications of the exchange. Lucy was right. There was no way in hell she could get past either one of them. 

"Half an hour...Twenty minutes. Until the last barrier." 

Train, prompted her sister. 

"Hold your positions," ordered the Merovingian. "One hour." 

"The boys are getting hit hard. We can't last a whole—" 

"Hold your positions." 

"Excuse me," said Aleph. She managed to avoided flinching when the other turned abruptly toward her again. "The tunnels. If I'm to go into Zion." 

The Merovingian transfixed her with his piercing stare. A ringing silence, broken by another thunderclap. 

"Train," he snapped. 

"Yes, Messire." The henchman did nothing visible, yet as soon as the words were out of his mouth, another deep sound, not that of thunder, reverberated in the distance. "But the agent—"

"Do as I say," said his master, watching Aleph and not him. A breeze wafted down the tunnel, and the growl heightened to a bellow, then a screech as the train braked, pulling into the station. The doors glided apart before it fully stopped. Aleph was the first one to move down the platform, walking briskly before either of them had the chance to lay hands on her. 

Don't hesitate, don't hesitate, muttered Lucy anxiously inside her ear. 

Firmly, she stepped into the last carriage. The Merovingian followed, the intense focus of his gaze never leaving her form. He did not touch her.

"Leave us. Relay my orders." 

Alone on the platform, the underling wiped the back of one hand across his sweaty forehead.

"What shall we do?" he called out hoarsely. 

"Fight to the end," said his lord, meeting the other program's wild eyes. But then, just as the doors slammed shut between them, he added, though in the same even, cold tone, "All will be well."

As if in response, the train jolted into motion. Aleph took an instant to orient herself, squaring her shoulders as she faced him. This was it. 

"Aleph," said the Merovingian. For a few seconds, he actually appeared as if at a loss for words. "All will be well," he repeated at last. 

"What—" She halted. Show weakness. "What do you need from me?"

You, Addie. He needs you. 

"You don't trust me. You never did." The Frenchman sighed, uncharacteristically defeated. "I never earned your trust."

"It...it doesn't matter. Not anymore." She backpedaled, clasping for dear life onto Lucy's answer even though it made not a shred of sense. He followed her forward. 

"I know have not treated you with as much consideration and sincerity as I wished, but my position was a difficult one." She could detect no deceit in the way he spoke. "Those who hoped to see me fall were ever watchful, and I could not afford to reveal too much of myself. And afterward, with the humans in Zion convinced of your treason, and the Matrix darkening under the sway of Smith's insanity, the only choice left to me was to keep you close, even if forcibly. Forgive me for not explaining all this to you earlier. I wanted to protect you."

A sort of sick incredulousness washed over her, and she backed up a few more paces. The Merovingian advanced, matching each one of her footfalls with his own. The world was ending, Smith was...Smith was being ripped to pieces by whatever mad destiny that overtook him, and this man in front of her—What was he saying? What was he doing? 

"If I could go back to the day I met you, Aleph, if I could start everything all over again, I would." 

"I guess that's all behind us," she heard herself reply. 

"Do you mean that?" he asked very softly. 

"I've made my share of mistakes." The yellowish light in the carriage was a mass of needles in her field of vision, but she did not look away. "But now. Now I must take a stand." 

The air between them hummed like a taut harp string. The coldness in the pit of her stomach expanded into an iceberg as she waited, but in the end all he said was, very simply: 

"Thank you." 

Offer him something else. Quickly. 

"The Keymaker," she began, mentally scrambling for the next move. Surely it couldn't possibly hurt the old program anymore, wherever he was. "He talked to me, these past six months." 

"Yes." The Merovingian nodded. "I am glad he was able to keep you company." 

Aleph inhaled suddenly. Of course. He must've been aware of everything that occurred in his own chateau, even in the dungeons. The Frenchman gave a small matter-of-fact grin. 

"I believe he would have liked someone to whom his knowledge and skills could be passed on. I cannot think of another more worthy of it." 

"He told me things. About the lock you tempted him with. About the way you forced a breach into the walls of Zion."

"I know." 

"And I told him what I saw. Inside the Zion archives."

"I know." 

Another step, and her back was against the door at the end of the compartment, with its glass panel still covered by the same old advertising poster. Out beyond the windows, darkness slithered past, accompanied by the rhythmic clatter of the wheels. 

"And in the tunnels. This subway tunnel, outside the windows. I saw the tunnels under the earth instead, layers of rocks and ruins, leading to Zion. I still see them, this very moment." 

"Aleph," said the Merovingian. She could not read the flame behind his eyelids. "You will do this for me?"

He was standing right before her at this point, near enough to touch. Both her hands were clenched into fists. With an effort, she relaxed her left hand, lifted it and laid it lightly against his shoulder, keeping him at less than an arm's length. Her right hand slid behind her back. 

"Who are you?" she queried. 

"One who has spent ages in exile, yet who still feels something of responsibility for the world." 

"You were..." She had start over for the quavering of her voice. Behind her waist, the side of her thumb brushed against a slight protrusion in the carriage door's smooth steel. Keyhole. "You were a king once, weren't you?"

"A king must live and die in defense of his domain." He did not draw closer, nor did he reach for her. Not yet. "Please. Please do understand." 

At her back, a morsel of metal dug into the flesh of her right palm. The Keymaker's parting gift. It had taken her an endless moment to flip it around inside her fist, so that the exposed plait of wire was aimed at the keyhole.

"I understand," she replied, not daring to turn aside for fear that he would look anywhere except at her face. 

The Merovingian leaned forward. Unshed tears stung her eyes, but Aleph did not allow a single muscle to twitch when he kissed her forehead, just once. His lips were chill. She did not move when his hands slid across and brushed against her neck, did not move when they toyed with the top buttons of her shirt, did not move when the tender breeze from the ceiling vents caressed the bare skin between her breasts. He pressed two fingers to the middle of her chest, like a physician taking a pulse. There was something dry and calloused between his touch and her pounding heart. His eyes were filled with reverence. 

"You wish me to love you," she whispered, "just like Persephone once did, a long time ago, when she sacrificed everything for you."

Against her skin, the Merovingian's hand froze. Blood roared inside her ears.

"She's the one you're trying to protect, right?" she asked, raising her voice above the rattle of the carriage. 

He reacted fast, too fast, gaze snapping downward toward her hidden arm, a nanosecond before her knee slammed against his stomach with every last ounce of desperate momentum. The exit behind her, its lock freshly picked, gave way more easily than she had hoped for, yet even as the Merovingian stumbled back, his hand shot forth with impossible speed, grabbing for her elbow. Aleph jerked her arm up just as clutching fingers made contact, and she lost her balance; the key flew out of her numbed grasp, tracing a high glittering parabola like a star out of an inconceivable dream. With a crisp clink that was somehow still audible above the din of the swaying train, it struck the edge of the open doorway above their heads—

Time stretched into timelessness, and two existences collided. Aleph did not see the key fall. She did not see it slip between or rather straight through the Frenchman's outstretched fingers, for she had already landed hard onto the tracks, on her knees, though in the rush of adrenaline her body forgot to register pain. With a whoosh, the train receded down the tracks, but not for long: the screech of the brakes split her ears. In a trice, Aleph was up and running in the opposite direction, propelling herself over the uneven ground. There was a bend ahead; she could see it by the faint glow in the tunnel.

The train reversed with a growl, charging down the tracks after her. The bend was nearer now, then she caught sight of it, a spot where the blackness shimmered, two alternating realities sliding in and out of focus. The tracks split, and she dove headfirst into the side tunnel, heedless. The train roared past two feet away, but the shrill wind at its wake did not reach Aleph, for the ground switched to a precipice beneath her feet, and she was already plummeting. 

The tunnels were infinite, going down and down and down into the vanishing point, and every light in existence was extinguished. Flailing, she fought again and again for a hand or foothold, but all she could do was to skid and slide, once in a while slowing her descent against a curve or a near-level patch. Miraculously, her code stayed in one piece. The sides of the passages, when she struck against them, were painfully stony and rough, and the air felt colder and drier, the atmosphere of a ruined real world. For one glinting moment, she thought she glimpsed out of the corner of her eye an incongruous brightness, a star, perhaps, but then it was gone, and night enveloped her once more.  

An eternity later, she stopped. Every line of programming inside her ached, and she lay at the bottom of the maze against a small outcropping, motionless as if in her grave. Her eyes were open, though they might as well been blind. 

Clouds and other fragments raced through her. The Merovingian, the Keymaker. Persephone. Someone else...

The thunder spoke, although she could not distinguish its meaning. At first the noise was distant, lightyears away, but curiously enough it appeared to be drawing closer. Eventually it was the clamour of a besieging army, surrounding her from every side at once. It drowned out her own pulse, so loud that the ground shook. A tiny shower of loosened dust and pebbles dropped onto her torso. 

Was this an earthquake? 

The final remnants of her survival instincts kicked in, and Aleph roused herself to push up onto her knees, scraping the side of her head against the rocky roof of the passage. She scarcely had the time to scramble a few yards on all fours before the boom of an cave-in rang out from behind. Frantic, she clawed at the blackness as if through curtains after curtains, no longer gauging the too-narrow gap between her position and death. She knew nothing except she must never halt, felt nothing though her limbs crashed almost continuously into rocky protrusions, left and right. At a slant of the tunnel, she skidded, intuitively stretched a hand forward to brace herself, and saw her fingers spread out before her. 

A glimmer. Breath aflame in her lungs, she pushed on until it spread, fuller and stronger, until she could see the walls of the passage around her, the debris-strewn ground. With a cry, she burst into the open wind, just as a sheet of lightning brought the world into the white-hot center of a star. 

When Aleph found her sight again, she was standing in the desert, upon a hill of debris. The sky was scorched with electrical clouds, but there was something different about them. Red veins cut apart the heavens, and meteors of fire dropped across the horizon like blood. The earth trembled with each growl of thunder. The air was dense with the scent of acid that stun her exposed skin; in an automatic motion, she drew her shirt closed, fumbling half-consciously with the buttons. Though she could not see anything yet, she now sensed an immense blank presence somewhere beyond the mountains, the gaping jaws of a great void just past the edge of visibility.

Everything the Merovingian had said flooded back, and the thunder crescendoed to a symphony before she could wrestle down the panic. Frenetic, she scanned the desolation, imagining an unimaginable azure spark, but the keyhole was nowhere in sight. She had escaped one hopeless situation only to land directly in another.

Zion was under attack.

Chapter Text

 

"It is right there," said Smith quietly to himself, repeating Aleph's line from a few minutes ago. He scanned the tower, all the way up until it was lost among the unbroken clouds, wherever the needle's tip might be. There had to be one somewhere, invisible beneath its cloak of shadows. Only now did it occur to him what a miraculous piece of luck it was that parts of the building yet stood, a blasted mess of metal and concrete spiraling up to the flame-ridden heavens. Then he had to remind himself that it was still all made of code. He could only attribute the mental lapse to his human infection. 

Up ahead, the hill of bones ran direct to the charred structure, and to one corner he could make out the remnants of stairs, jutting out like a tortured spine, going up at least a few flights before losing themselves in the tangle. It appeared to be the most obvious start. 

"Let's see how good your eyes were, Miss Greene," he muttered, staring down at Aleph laid out motionless at his feet. He dropped to one knee next to her, and after a second of consideration, reached to his tie and gave it a tug. The knot, long tattered against his breast, barely resisted before coming apart. Carefully, he bound Aleph's wrists together in front, then slung her unconscious form onto his back, looping her arms around his own neck. Her head lolled against his shoulder. It was hardly a solution, but at least he would not need to keep both hands on her at all times.

To his surprise, her weight came down on him immediately. Was this how a human would feel, when carrying the load of another's flesh and blood? The infection must be worsening: it was the only explanation that came to mind. Not knowing how much time he would have before she awoke, he cast a glance around, hoping to find something else with which to secure her body against his, but nothing could be seen among the detritus. This would have to do. 

The stairway, uneven and rubble-strewn, shuddered at the first step. Several times, it started to give way under his feet, and he had to scramble quickly onward, dangerously hampered by the woman he carried. One full flight. Two. Three. How strange, the way he had to catch his breath. 

Where are you going? Where the fuck do you think you are going?

A man's voice, cracked with rage. Smith returned the growl. He could not recall where this one came from, but for the moment he was glad that he'd at least got used to them. It was not a good time for them to commence another assault. 

You think you're gonna get away? You think you're ever gonna get away from me? 

He had to smile at that. Always wanted to be in control, those petty insects. They were all singing a different tune later, when the twilight fell...

The wind strengthened with altitude, tearing at his clothes and hair and into his skin. A mere human woman should never have weighed more than a single feather, or so it seemed in an ancient memory. Aleph was no longer a human woman. He did not know when he began to count the steps. One hundred. One hundred and one. One hundred and two. 

The crowd accompanied him. At first they spoke softly, a mingled babble against the horizon, but as he ascended their cacophony, too, rose, singing and sighing and whimpering next to his head. They gathered, and kept gathering, pressing around him in layers until there were so many of them that he could no longer distinguish a single word, except for the occasional cry that would rise like a bullet out of the abyss, and as suddenly sink away. The stairs petered out. A few footholds on the sharp slope. Slanting bricks. A girder that he could reach for, jutting out from the broken wall. Five hundred and eighty. Five hundred and eighty-one. 

I don't want you to get away from me...

Who the hell was that? 

Startled, he lost count, and had to begin all over again. No matter. Fools, all of them. Dreaming all their births and lives and deaths in their pods and never seeing the universe for what it was. Avaricious, self-centered, terminally arrogant creatures, never knowing, never remembering even when he went to them. It never made any difference, not even at the very end. Sightless. Heartless. Like stones. Stones pressed down upon his back. 

Four hundred and six-seven. Four hundred and sixty-eight. 

Arriving at a broken ledge that stuck out into emptiness, and Smith halted briefly to survey the position. The cold ground had dropped into invisibility beneath, yet he could see nothing of the skyscraper's top when he lifted his head. The storm swelled, and whatever was up there remained lost in the clouds, not a whit nearer. With an unpleasant shiver of surprise, he realized he was panting. The burden against his shoulders was orders of magnitude heavier what it could possibly be, according to any rational rule of the world. She, too, must have joined in his parade of delusions. But he could not afford to think about it now. 

Across the rough eyrie, he sighted a clutter of brick and metal, perhaps detritus from the higher floors, forming a perilous ladder that continued upward. Smith began to move once more. 

One thousand two hundred and fifty-four, one thousand two hundred and fifty-five. He was counting his own breaths now. The voices were trivial and idiotic and they were tremulous and frightened and terribly strong; they pleaded, wept, groaned. Whenever he caught one of them out of the throng, it was always the one crying out in greatest pain. Vaguely it occurred to him that once upon a time he would not have recognized them for what they were. He tried to remember that. Only an agent program, only the design, only the purpose: how remarkable to think of that as innocence. Eighteen hundred and ninety-nine, nineteen hundred. A foothold of burnt-out concrete crumbled, and he grabbed a jagged beam of steel just in time, cutting a fresh red gash in his palm. Aleph slid sideways, and as he reached behind to steady her, she stirred and let out a low moan. 

"Don't wake up," he whispered into her ear. "Not yet." 

It was ludicrous to talk to her thus, obviously, but Aleph must have heard through her stupor, and she fell still. Smith went on, disregarding the all-too-human acridness inside his lungs. He lost count again. He did not have lungs. The door would be there for her once he reached the top. Thirty-seven. Thirty-eight. 

Please, oh God please don't come any closer...A female this time, still sounded young. Had this been said to him, a multitude of hims, or to someone else, somewhere in the human past? It didn't mean anything. Never did.  

The shadows swirled past. The curtain of gloom drooped, now no more than a few yards above his head, obscuring the space above. The woman slung across his back was a mountain. The corpse of the building was another, yet at the same time it was also the trunk of a gigantic gray tree, stripped by the conflagration yet stubbornly upright. What still remained of his mind told him that no human tower, not even the proudest skyscraper of their civilization, could be this tall. Maybe it was growing taller as he climbed, and he would spend the rest of eternity climbing, never reaching the top because there was no top, not for him. 

Don't you see it? It's there, right there. From time to time, he imagined Aleph saying it, incredulous and hopeful. A real voice, and every time it reverberated the tide retreated a short ways, for a short while. There for her. What still remained of his mind told him that this could not be happening, and he could not be feeling this agony in his limbs; that sort of weakness had always been reserved for a completely different species. She was increasing with each precarious upward step, more code, more earth and fire and water and air. 

I can't go on any further. I'm so sorry, I just can't...

Merely another battery whom he did not recall. Get away from me, said Smith. He would get away and defeat them all yet—

With humiliating abruptness, his knees gave way, and Smith fell ungracefully at the edge of a rocky platform, narrowly avoiding losing his footing further and sliding into the chasm, burden and all. Carefully, he lowered Aleph to the ground. Each one of the muscles in his body howled in weariness. There was no longer anything above or below; they might as well be in outer space. The air was like knives in his nonexistent lungs, yet he gulped it down with greed. How the hell could this be happening to him? His inexhaustible agent's powers failing so hopelessly, and the ache, so physical, so shamefully human, wreathing itself about him with such close intimacy...This desert, whatever it was, must wish to keep him from the goal: it was the only explanation he could think of. It was stronger than he. 

Garish lightning illuminated Aleph's face before him for a second. A stray lock of hair was plastered to her cheek, and her eyes were clenched shut. An ugly bruise had swelled over the left one. As he leaned over her, laboring to regain his strength, she twitched as if out of an uneasy dream. 

"Don't wake up. Don't wake up," again he murmured, willing her to fade back, and she did. Kneeling next to her, he put his arms around her shoulders. The rhythm of her heartbeat held itself out to him, by now reassuringly familiar. He lifted. 

And could not raise her even an inch off the ground. 

She doesn't want to leave you, Mister Agent Man.

Another young woman. Unlike everybody else she sounded amused, a soft hint of soprano giggles behind the words. It was disturbingly near and completely unrecognizable. 

No, Smith retorted, gritting his teeth. 

Or maybe it's a test. From the gods, laughed the girl. Except for someone like you, all the gods would actually be demons. Funny, ain't it?

"No." This time he definitely replied out aloud, because the ice was stinging in his throat, too. But the other had already melted away like a drop of water into the sea. 

He could not afford to stop, not now. Smith closed his eyes and took in a slow breath, steadied his arms under Aleph's torso, and lifted again. Something seemed to move a hair's breadth. With another furious growl, he uprooted her body from the floor, and somehow managed to heave it once more onto his shoulders. 

Keep going now. It would be there, her door, up on the roof. If there was a roof. But she saw it, so there must be a roof for her. And she would—

The door is no door, said yet another, unmistakably inhuman in his serenity. It is impossible to create a key.

Surely that was wrong, thought Smith. The Keymaker had never said a word to him back in the Matrix. But he was no longer certain what was human and what wasn't, who were dead, who merely overwritten. The other program was right, needless to say, but he would find the door anyway.

The resistance intensified, each inch of the way, and the branches of cement and steel quivered and spun. Maybe it would collapse the very next second, taking him and Aleph down, all the way down to the earth, and bury them miles under the ruins of the entire Matrix. She, too, possessed the entire Matrix within her form, every line of code that ever existed. Keep going. If he repeated it enough times he could come close to pretending that the rest of the chorus was chanting the same thing. Keep going. 

Everything did make sense in the end, he told himself. He needed to keep going. He needed to get to the roof, to the star that was not there, and then he would be rid of her forever. Then she would not betray him again, nor apologize to him again, nor stare with that expression in her eyes again. He would be alone. This place might be a prison or it might be hell or it might be no place whatsoever, but being alone here he would finally be free. He would never have to bear anymore the way she refused to leave, the way she always tried to stop him...

Stop him from what? 

He would get rid of her truly and at last. There was no possible way she could or would get back here. It would become so much simpler. Not the old kind of simple, but at least she would no longer be there to constantly remind him...

Remind him of what? 

And you'd be able to suffer all nice and proper, huh, Mister Agent Man? snickered the young woman in his ears, and Smith tripped another time, almost skidding down several full yards and losing precious elevation. He clawed at the protrusions of concrete just above with one torn hand, clutching Aleph's side with the other, dragging them up one more foot, then one more yard. 

Damn you, he snarled back. 

And he would never have to flee from Aleph again. He pulled himself forward a bit further. 

He needed to be alone. 

You need to be strong now, dear child. He did not expect this one to be so gentle. But of course it was not talking to him. A little girl was standing next to her mother and father. He knew this because he had seen them with the child's own eyes, from inside her own head. 

The little child stood on the white platform of the subway station, clutching her parents' sleeves, one on each side. We can't take care of you anymore, dearest, said the voices, now split to two. In the Matrix you must be brave, and you'll be safe.

The little child gazed with terror welling into tears in her eyes, biting her lips. As she peered right up at him, Smith's fingers slid against a crevice of serrated iron. He ignored the slick of blood. Keep going now. 

Why? Why are you doing this? Why do you persist? Another roar out of the night, and for an instant, rain pattered beyond the syllables. But that couldn't be right, it never rained here despite all this thunder. Another yard. 

Because I choose to, someone else answered smoothly. Smith pushed that answer away with savagery he didn't know he still possessed. Keep going. Keep. 

And then, quite without warning, the world opened up, and nothing remained except the clouds. They had reached the roof. 

What was left of it.

It must have once been a grand wide space, alive with a forest of antennae and turrets. The sweeping fires had stripped away the towers of brick and steel centuries ago, reducing the platform to a narrow ridge. He gauged it to be more or less solid enough to cross. At the path's far end, a wall, or rather part of a wall yet stood, cut through with several tall windows, their bottom sills nearly at floor level. For some unfathomable reason, the glass panes were intact. 

Smith wiped his forehead with the back of one hand, forcing his sight through the mist of blood and sweat and pain. Almost directly overhead, a sword of lightning slashed across the tempest, and for an instant the unending night turned to noontide. The half row of windows flared into blinding illumination—all except for one. The farthest window on the left stayed black as pitch, untouched by the glare. Not even the soot from six centuries' worth of firestorms could have tinted it into this.

She had better be right about what she saw, thought Smith. He took a step toward the wall, faltered, barely steadied himself against a crooked pillar. Against his shoulder, Aleph stirred groggily. 

"Almost there," he muttered, and made it sound nearly cheerful. 

Abruptly, the young woman's weight shifted, throwing him off balance. He dropped to his knees, scarcely keeping both of them on the ledge, and Aleph slipped off him. She let out a groan, struggling to open her eyes. 

"You...bastard." Hoarse and slurred. She blinked at him through the purplish bruise over one eye, as if trying to force her consciousness to the surface. 

Smith smirked, an automatic reaction from his agent days. 

"Yes, I believe I have heard that epithet before." Somewhat unsteadily, he clambered to his feet and hauled her up with him. 

"How dare you..." Her sight focused at last. "And untie my hands, damn you—" 

"And you—" Choke, gasp. "You won't fight me if I do?"

"Just untie me, Smith!"

"Promise you won't fight." 

Aleph gulped in a shaky breath. 

"Fine. Fine. I won't, okay?" 

With a shrug, he yanked at the tie around her wrists, while keeping his other hand clamped around one of her arms, as tightly as he could manage without shaking. The bond dropped to the ground, and a fraction of a second later Aleph's palm shoved desperately against his shoulder. Fortunately, she was also still weak and disoriented, and he took hold of that arm as well, pulling her a few paces across the roof. It might have been a hallucination, but it felt as if a small part of his old strength and clarity was being returned to him. He did not know how long it would last. 

"Where..." Aleph swiveled, striving to look around them, then she must have caught sight of the windows on the other side. Her eyes widened in panic as understanding of their location flooded upon her at last. 

"No," she breathed, starting to struggle anew. Smith said nothing, but kept his clutch upon her arms until his fingers convulsed. The wall and its opaque window were not much further now. 

"Let me go! Smith, you're fucking nuts—"

"I've heard that one before, too," retorted Smith coolly. First window on the left. Almost there. 

"Smith, listen to me! You can't do this, you'll—"

He winced as her elbow smashed into him somewhere below the ribs. Something inside of him must have broken along the way. The light of Aleph's eyes went frantic, then he felt his powers slip away once more. By a final tremendous effort of will, he dragged her the last few staggering steps past the piled rubble of the final turret. As they grappled a foot away from the ink-black glass pane, Aleph's head whipped around, and for a nanosecond he caught a flicker of reflected blue in the darkness of her eyes. He glanced back, but the window revealed nothing except an infinite midnight. 

"Don't make this harder than it has to be, Miss Greene," he hissed into her ear. Keeping his left hand fast around her wrist, he let go with his right, and gave a swift backhand. A bright tinkling noise, and the glass shattered into a million pieces behind him.  

"No, Smith! I'm not leav—"

A screech of wind as they teetered next to the wide opening, and the heavens went wild over their heads. Aleph's freed fist struck the corner of his jaw with a madwoman's force, and in the blaze of pain he wavered, stumbling. His one-handed clasp around her arm loosened. Aleph yanked backward, an instant from wrenching herself out of his grasp.

If she got away now he would never get another chance. Smith's mind was too far gone to think coherently, and the virus of human codes had contaminated his programming all the way down to the roots—this was the only conceivable explanation for what he did next. A fraction of a second before she broke from him, he pulled himself straight, meeting her eyes, and then his lips were planted firmly against hers. 

Aleph went utterly rigid in less than a heartbeat. Her lips were warm, much warmer than it could possibly be in the chill up here against the sky, and he could taste the metallic bitterness of blood on them. Then he felt it, the response like a flame, and she was kissing him back, the touch deep and fierce as if two were about to melt into one. The breath left both of them, though somewhere in the depth of his mind he knew that once this contact was broken it would never be renewed—

He drew away gently, lingering only a little. Aleph stood before him, thunder-struck, all notions of escape momentarily forgotten. He could sense her heart pounding, but not his own. 

The last remnant of logic screamed soundlessly. She would probably come out of this trance-like state in another second or so.

"It's all right, Miss Greene," he said, breaking into a faint grin. Before she could comprehend what he meant, he laid both hands against her shoulders, and gave her a hard push toward the void. 

Aleph's cry was cut short in mid-throat, but for all her shock, she reacted much faster than he expected. In a flash, her fingers closed around his wrist as she fought to regain her footing upon the edge. The two of them swayed across the window frame, then both toppled over into empty space. 

The whirlwind folded around them, and the lightning and thunder faded. In the dimness the only thing Smith could see was Aleph a few feet above, falling as he fell, her gaze fixed unblinkingly upon him. Her death-grip stayed like a vise around his wrist. She yelled something, but the words were lost in the clamor. 

"No!" he shouted in reply. Swiftly, he jerked backward, twisting his arm with the entirely of an unanchored body, and with a sudden blast of the tornado, her fingers slipped off. Strangely, he appeared to be plummeting faster than she was. The ruins of reality spun away into the vanishing point. As Aleph's face and her shadowy, horrified eyes receded from him, again he glimpsed a glint of luminous, beautiful azure, the memory of an unimaginable key out of and into the world. It was the last thing he saw. 

Chapter Text


PART IV. THE DOOR

 

The truth is in me.

—Chris Carter et al., The X-Files, "Memento Mori"

 


A scalpel was probing the tender tissues of her brain. It gave a twist, shifting left and right, up, down, back and forth, all laser-sharp edge, nothing else. A cry of terror froze in her throat. 

Light. It was both far beyond the horizon and very, very near, right up against her eyelids. 

Aleph groaned, then realize her eyes were open. Her head was about to split to pieces. Behind the light there was a voice, and possibly a form. It was saying something, but the words did not string themselves together in her ears. 

She seemed to be lying on some kind of bumpy ground, hard rocks digging into the flesh of her back. With another groan, Aleph attempted to lift her head, and immediately sank back once more. Flecks of metal were grinding through every line of her code, but after an eon, the glinting blade resolved itself a bit, and started to take shape. It was a flashlight. 

"Come on," said the voice, its face still hidden. "We need to get moving." 

A hand reached down and yanked her to her feet. Aleph shuddered, knees buckling as shadows spun into nausea, but the hand tightened and steadied her. Each of her muscles whimpered in protest as she shivered, no clue whatsoever on how to remain standing, but after a while, either a century or a few seconds, some semblance of reason crawled back out of the chasm. 

How did she—

Shit.

"Smith." The name came out in a husky grunt. "Where the hell is—"

"I'll explain later," the other cut her off. "We need to get out of here now."

"No, wait, I have to get back to—"

"No time. They'll be here any minute." The hold on her arm remained firm as the man hauled her forward. 

The ground was uneven, and Aleph stumbled twice within the next few steps, but the hand kept her upright. Her sight adjusted slowly, and by the beam of the flashlight, she saw they were in a dim tunnel with curved ceiling. Wires snaked along both walls. It was another while before the familiarity of the Merovingian's subway floated to consciousness. 

"But you don't understand." She gulped back Smith's name just in time. "There is someone I—"

The sentence did not get finished, as the ground started to vibrate beneath their feet. 

"Run!"  Without an instant of pause, the man broke into a sprint, dragging her forward by the wrist. Tottering on watery legs, Aleph lurched along behind him. The walls quivered around her; claws of shadows extended to brush her shoulders. The low boom, by now well recognizable or would have been so had her brain been functional, was yet distant, but pulling rapidly nearer, and the dust swirled around them, brightening every second. A part of her brain wondered rather irrelevantly if somehow she had been in exactly the same situation once before.

"Keep going," commanded her companion, tense yet even-toned. 

Another light fluttered into sight up ahead, this one blanched and pure and welcoming. At their back, a shrill whistle shot apart distance and darkness. All Aleph could do now was to choke for breath and fight to keep the dizziness at bay; maybe she was still running on her two legs, maybe she was flying through the air purely through the other's power. Her foot tripped against a rocky protrusion; for a bare fraction of a second she caught the flash of something glittering up at her from the ground, next to the rail that was flickering in and out of reality, like a bright coppery eye—

"Don't fall," snapped the other, as if it were up to her. 

The subway station drew nearer, and then suddenly it was there, flooded in pale fluorescence. Grabbing the platform's tiled edge, the man all but flung her out of the tunnel, leaping up after her with feathery ease. Aleph hit the ground heavily, rolling with the fall. She scrambled to her knees just as the deafening roar of the train shattered her ears.  

"Move!" A shove against her back send her staggering forward, while a volley of gunfire exploded a few feet above their heads. Instinct took over, and Aleph skidded a few paces, making it to the nearest pillar along the platform and flattening herself against it. Out of the corner of an eye, she sighted the man behind the next pillar, a pistol in hand and already returning fire with deadly accuracy. The first wave of attackers reeled back across the train's wide open doors. For the first time, she caught a square look at her rescuer's face, but there was no time to be startled. 

"Go! Go!"

Taking advantage of the brief hesitation on the parts of the Merovingian's men—for surely such they must be—she began dodging from pillar to pillar toward one end of the station, following the other's lead and under cover of his firepower. For a few precious seconds, the flames inside her limbs faded out of mind, and she cast about for a suitable weapon. Found nothing. 

The drab beige door was but four or five interminable yards away now. Another hail of bullets whizzed by her head, and she dropped again, flinching as her ribs slammed against the floor. The man next to her rammed a new clip into his handgun and swung it around. 

"Take 'er alive!" bellowed someone across the din of gunshots and descending plaster. Aleph grimaced as a memory flitted across the back of her mind, that of monstrous power matched incongruously with lank hair and the stink of stale alcohol. But she did not get the chance to scan the little crowd: out of nowhere, a pair of dark hulking shapes surged up to them, one on each side. The black barrel of a machine pistol swayed before her face, sickeningly near, beneath a flicker of teeth bared in a brutish grin, then her companion took a calm step up, one arm outstretched to take aim at the enemy on the left. Simultaneously and in a single smooth motion faster than even a program's eyes could catch, the elbow of his other arm locked around the second man's neck. The pistol's blast drowned out the sound of cracking bones, and the two assailants crumpled in unison. 

"Here, hold them off awhile." 

Her rescuer's voice, raised to be heard above the racket, was otherwise as unruffled as if they were sitting by themselves across a genteel tea table. Aleph wasted a fraction of a second before she recognized the henchman's automatic shoved into her hands. Straightening it by sheer instinct, she squeezed a blast into the head of the next closest underling, less than two yards away. Another yelled command across the platform, but this time she did not catch the words. The others hung back momentarily, and the two of them gained the last couple of yards to the door before the wave of enemies charged once more. She could see the whites of their eyes now. The captain shaped like a homeless tramp was not among them. 

"Keep them off a bit longer, please," said the man beside her. Switching the gun to his left hand, he dug in his pocket and came out with a tiny key, one that would have looked ordinary to her six months ago. Vaguely, Aleph wondered if the Merovingian's injunction to his people about her still held. Backed against the wall, she pumped off a burst in the direction of the attackers, but the brightness of the walls and floor were jiggling wildly, and most of the shots went wide. 

"Damnation," she snarled through clenched teeth, inhaled raggedly, then hardened her grip and shot again, this time spending a millisecond longer to take aim through the glare. Another man slumped. She swung the barrel around, and glimpse too late one more henchman who had crept close from one side, the aim of his Glock directly in her face, his other hand already swinging forward, fingers bent into a powerful claw, aim unerringly toward her neck. His speed was that of an agent. Frantically, she attempted to dive downward—

In less than an instant and without the least warning, the train station contracted, and the silence after the battle was like an explosion inside her brain. She was alone in the antechamber of the Zion archives, backed against the wall and panting, knees on fire from hard contact against the floor. In one corner of the room sat the computer table with its reassuringly chipped paint, the old-fashioned console and monitor, the elderly black leather chair, and the familiar telephone was only an arm's reach away, flawless in its solidity. Lift a hand, and she would have touched it.

A bullet must have struck one of the fluorescent panels on the ceiling, and a shower of sparks pour down around them as the station dimmed. Rolling forward on the momentum of her fall, Aleph raised her weapon at the minion who now stood right above her. The man, briefly surprised at missing his mark, had no chance to react, and she got him almost point-blank. She scooted sideways and leapt to an upright stance, yet in the same breath a vise-like grip caught her elbow, shoving her toward the now-open doorway with a terrific force that nearly knocked her off her feet again. She tumbled through the threshold into a brighter whiteness. The firecracker patter of guns rose behind her once more. 

Next to her in the corridor, the man had already spun around, a hand lifted. There was now something else in his palm, olive-shaped and shiny black. A nice little grenade, with the pin already out. 

"Wait!" called out Aleph. "I—" 

Before she could form another word, the other drew back his arm. The grenade flew in a low, strong arc through the doorway and past the small army on the platform, and an orange flash seared itself across her irises. Beyond the mushrooming fireball, the parked train bucked in the tunnel like a stallion, wreathed in a cloud of masonry as the ceiling came crashing down, and the station disappeared behind green-painted wood. The door was kicked shut in the faces of the enemy vanguard and the heat blast, and contrary to all expectations, the flimsy barrier did not blow to smithereens. It did not budge an inch. 

"The tunnel, the tunnel," sputtered Aleph helplessly. "But I have to get..." 

She couldn't say anything more. The stillness of the hallway tattooed agonizingly against her eardrums. 

"We're not free yet," assessed her savior dispassionately. As if on cue, a door banged open somewhere in the distance. A reverberation of running footsteps, still unseen for the moment. They broke into a run. 

The sterile hallways whirled past, flanked by endless geometric processions of green doors, and once more she was struggling to keep up, keep moving, while her feet skidded over the linoleum and her lungs shuddered for air. Luckily, the vertigo left itself behind with the station. Every turn looked absolutely identical, but the man's sense of directions was uncanny, and after a number of bends—six or seven or countless—he halted with abrupt certainty before one door, this time a full key ring in hand. 

Aleph's head swiveled back while her hand clenched the gun, but the door swung open before the pursuers entered visible range. They were spat out into the open breeze beneath a glowing technicolor sunset, and the riot of orange and violet clouds and green landscape almost shocked her into closing her eyes. They appeared to be somewhere in the countryside, in front of a dilapidated wooden shed in the middle of an unplowed field. With a swift beckoning gesture, the other took off across soft clods and new weed, and she went after his lead unthinkingly. At the edge of the plot, a two-seat convertible was parked beside the dirt road, its white paint mud-splattered and scratched, a couple of dents here and there in the bodywork. The man jumped lightly into the driver's side, and scarcely had Aleph landed next to him before she felt her back slammed against the seat by inertia as the car jolted forward. 

The tires squealed. For a confused second or two, she was convinced they must be in some kind of aircraft that was merely disguised as a roadster. But they remained earth-bound, and gradually her pulse steadied. The man drove with a long-time warrior's easy familiarity with speed, with an occasional scan into the rearview mirror. Neither spoke. 

A minute, five minutes, ten: the mirror stayed resolutely empty. They must have shaken the Merovingian's men at last. Aleph stared ahead. She looked at the twilight that shimmered against the trees, magicking the laced branches into woven young emerald and flinging dappled patterns of illumination across the asphalt. She looked at the vivid tendrils and plumes that bloomed across the firmament like a wild rose garden. She looked at the occasional farmhouse huddled in repose, at the unbroken road, at the liquid swaths of spring grass that brimmed from the curbside to their wheels. Despite everything, her eyes drank in the view and kept drinking it in until they ached. 

A healed world, her heart said. It was fierce and beautiful beyond description, and its beauty rent her apart. No illusion, something else inside her said. A dream but by no means an illusion.

The patches of forest fractured gradually, thinning out, and farmland gave way to tracts of suburban houses. Traffic flowed around them, street lights buzzed on, and her companion slowed to a less conspicuous speed. Still wordless, Aleph had time to observe his profile: close cropped black hair, plain white shirt replacing the flowing robes of snow, slim fingers resting casually against the steering wheel instead of hefting a sword that blazed like the sun. His eyes were hidden by shades: no killer angel gleam to be discerned now. No infernal glow, no bridge above a fathomless abyss. It had been another lifetime when she'd searched the Matrix high and low for his face. 

"Well, there were fewer of them than I expected," he remarked, as if this were a perfectly banal conversation-starter. "I was a bit worried that some of the worse ones would show up, for a minute there."

"Um...worse ones?" 

"Might have complicated things a little, though it wouldn't have really made any different in the end, I suppose."

"Right," said Aleph, blinking several times before she figured out what he meant. "But you are..." she started, lost track of her thoughts. "You are—"

"Oh, my name is Seraph." With a quick smile, the other took a hand off the wheel and held it out to her. "Pleased to meet you, Aleph." 

"You know my name." Well, of course. What an idiotic thing to say. "Er, have we met before?"

"I highly doubt it." Seraph's brows knitted quizzically. "Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason. Nevermind." Aleph bit her lips. "You were looking for me." 

"Yes." 

"How did you know? I mean, the station—"

"I did not." The man—program—named Seraph shook his head, gaze steady upon the road. "The Oracle sensed your presence. I was very nearly too late." 

The Oracle. Of course again. Aleph fell back to silence for a minute, but nothing would come together. All the threads were still in hopeless tangles, the pieces eddying in the night. She turned to watch the other again, the face so calm and pleasant that she could hardly believe it to belong to the same person. Back then it had been speckled with his opponent's blood, and his eyes had glittered like cold stars, as cold as the blade in his hand.

And Smith down on the ground, staring up at her like she was the last thing left in the universe. 

The city grew around them, now a maze of quiet residential streets lined with heavy-limbed trees. Another forest of golden towers loomed ahead. Aleph leaned back in the seat. To her own surprise, she realized she, too, was calm now, and as rational as she had ever been in her life. 

"I need to get back," she said.

"I beg your pardon?" 

"I need to get back," repeated Aleph. Everything seemed so simple, yet there was no conceivable way to explain. "Back...there."  

No immediate reply. The buildings along the streets grew taller, and the neighborhoods seedier. 

"Why?" he asked quietly. 

"Because I—" She had no clue what was supposed to get said next. Nothing about Smith. 

"Um, look, I want to thank you for saving my life. I appreciate it. I really do." The words she was saying sounded every bit as inane as they should, but there was nothing to be done. "But I need to get back to the station because...because I need to use it to get to another place. Please help me, if you can. I just really need to get back to...where I was before, that's all."

"I'm afraid I don't understand." 

"You see, I—there's something I left back there. It's important. I'm sorry I can't explain it better, but it is." 

"Is this about Agent Smith?" 

Aleph sat immobilized for exactly one second, then several ideas connected themselves in her head at last, then she grabbed the side of the door in a blinding burst of panic. The only thing that prevented her from pushing off and vaulting out of the car was Seraph speaking again, outwardly as unperturbed as ever.  

"The Oracle did mention his name in passing." 

"Oh." Aleph forced herself to stay where she was. "She did?" 

"Yes. And that brings us to the reason I was searching for you, actually. She wishes to see you." 

"I see." She debated with herself briefly, and came to no conclusion. "About...Smith?" 

For the first time, there was a touch of tightness in the other's visage. The car turned into a narrow alley, faintly illuminated by yellowish street lamps, the walls on both sides jungles of graffiti. She remembered it now. 

"You'll have to ask her yourself, I believe." Seraph pulled next to the curb and put it in park. "Here we are." 

Chapter Text

 

A little girl opened the door for them. She grinned at Seraph, but gasped at the sight of Aleph, shrinking back a little. Not a surprise, thought Aleph. She must be quite something to behold.  

"Hello," she ventured, hoping to sound friendly, or at least unthreatening. She'd never been very good with children.

"Hi," replied the girl politely, stepping aside for them. She did not take her eyes off Aleph. 

The Oracle's apartment was exactly the same as she remembered, except sunlight had been replaced by lamplight, a rectangle of warm gold spilled along the hallway floor. It was hushed and peaceful, just an apartment in the evening city, ordinary, inconceivable. After everything that had passed she could not really be standing here again. 

"Are you okay?"

Aleph blinked, and saw the child still peering up at her in fixed curiosity. 

"Um, I'm fine." Involuntarily, a hand went up to the left side of her face. She winced. "It's just a little, um, accident."

"No, I mean—" The girl tilted her head, incongruously serious. "Is your code okay?"

Aleph frowned, and turned her head, but Seraph was already discreetly out of sight. 

"Well, I..."

"Sati, will you show our guest in here?" called out a voice from the kitchen, and with a beckoning gesture, the child skipped down the hall. There was nothing to do but follow.  

The room was warm, and filled with sweet homely scents she could not identify. The motherly old woman stood next to the counter, not bent over the oven, not bustling about, just waiting. Their gazes locked for several seconds. 

"Would you like an ice-pack for that?" 

It took her a moment to realize the other meant her bruise. 

"Oh. I'm all right. Thanks." 

"Very well." The old lady nodded, then went over to the fridge and pulled open the freezer. "Take a seat, please." 

Aleph obeyed, same chair as last time. 

"Seraph said you'd appear different," she said after the stillness grew oppressive. 

"Yes, well, change can happen to any one of us, isn't that so?" Clink of ice cubes. "As it has happened to you, I see." 

"Yeah." 

Digging in a drawer, the Oracle found a twist tie to close the small plastic bag she'd filled with ice. She came to the middle of the kitchen and handed Aleph the bag, scrutinizing her with a quizzical intensity. 

"How is he?" 

She must have imagined the nearly imperceptible pause between the first and second words, decided Aleph. The other program pulled out another chair across the table, her expression tired and benign. Unreadable. 

"He is...He is alive. If that's what you mean." A single question, and the last of her defenses lay in ruins. Surely there was no more point in keeping up pretenses in any case. "But I don't know what happened to him. Well, I do. He told me—kind of—I pieced it together—but I, I just don't know what happened to him. Sometimes he's there. Sometimes he isn't. And they're tearing him into a million pieces from the inside. But..." 

"But?" 

"But he's still Smith." Her lips twitched into a grimace. "So. Anyway. Why do you ask?" 

The old woman's fingers fiddled with a pack of cigarettes she'd picked up from the table. She drew one out of the box.

"So you think I shouldn't ask, my dear?"

"Cause you're supposed to know everything, aren't you?" The note of defiance rose of its own accord, from nowhere, and she had absolutely nothing else to cling onto. "After all this, now you're just going to tell me the world is back to normal and that's the way it should be, so why would you ask? You're just going to tell me about all those evil things he did, what with trying to destroy the world and—and whatever else, aren't you? You're going to tell me he got what he deserved anyway, aren't you?"

She had to stop. The other program waited patiently until she subsided. 

"No. Not what he deserved. Although perhaps it was, in a twisted way, what he might have wanted all along. Or so he imagined." With a sigh, the Oracle reached for the matchbook lying next to the box of cigarettes, turning it over and over in her hands. "But that boy never quite knew what he wanted. Never." 

Ludicrous, thought Aleph, how the embers of hope could be set to conflagration by such miniscule things. A sentence. A choice of word. The way a sentence or word got said. 

"He couldn't see the way out," she began. Pleading would not be of any use, would it? 

"But you did."

"I wouldn't have gone." Aleph flinched as if from an accusation. "If I could have fought, if only there was enough strength left in me, I swear I wouldn't have gone from him! But he—" Automatically, she rubbed her temple again, worrying the swollen purplish patch. "He threw me out. He threw me out." 

The Oracle's fingers, in the process of pulling out a match, froze in mid-air. After a pause, she placed the matchbook back onto the table. 

"And where was the passage?" she asked. 

Aleph let out a sharp bark of laughter.  

"What, you mean you don't know?" 

"The place where you were, where he is now, is outside of the Matrix and thus beyond my vision, I fear." 

"So you do know about it, then? What is it? That—"

"Where was the passage?" 

"Up on top of a skyscraper." She managed to meet the other's gaze this time. "He knocked me unconscious. Then he carried me."

The Oracle sat motionless for an interminable moment. 

"My dear." She exhaled slowly. "I remember the last time you were here, I said you had a choice before you, and a great opportunity. I said if you missed that chance, there would not be another." 

"Yeah?" 

"I believe I was wrong."
 
Aleph's heart slammed painfully against her ribcage. The lamplight flickered, and the programmed world flickered with it, and all of a sudden a few of the pieces fell into place at last. Her breath fled. 

"You have begun to see a bit more than you used to, I suspect," commented the Oracle, leaning back in her chair. She seemed to relax, nothing but a kind and unassuming elderly lady once more. 

"Have I?" murmured Aleph. 

"Oh, yes, honey. Of course you have. For example, now you understand why you went to Agent Smith in the first place, don't you?" 

"Because...Because I had to." 

The other nodded, waiting for her to continue.

"I saw him in a record, in a place that I thought, at the time, was part of the Zion archives," said Aleph, choosing each word with caution. "So I concluded Zion's security was compromised, and I devised this plan. It was insane and suicidal from every reasonable point of view, but I rationalized it. I told myself I had to do it for the sake of humanity."

"And you also know, of course, why your superiors in Zion agreed to it?" 

"Councillor Hamann allowed me to proceed with my plan, while secretly giving orders to Theo that I was not to return." She inhaled rapidly, then recovered herself. "No one was supposed to have known about the record, whatever it was, and I told everything to him. I trusted him. As far as he was concerned, Zion's security was indeed breached, but I was the breach." 

Compassion lit the other program's gaze, though she said nothing. 

"But the real reason leading me to Smith was far less rational," went on Aleph. "Far more personal. In a world that was being destroyed in flames, I met Smith, and he looked up at me, into me, and then a sword came down and pierced me through the heart. At that instant, a piece of code from that record got into me, didn't it?"

"Not bad," murmured the Oracle. "Not bad at all." 

"What was the code?" asked Aleph. 

"Your deductions are correct so far. So you must also have a theory about that, too."

"It was a piece of Smith's code." 

Another confirmatory nod. 

"It was trying to get back to Smith," said Aleph. "And soon enough, it was at work within my mind, though I have no idea how. I thought I had a good reason, a human reason, to go to Smith, but how much of it was me, how much of it was the code? How much of what I imagined to be my own motivations and freely made choices were but the force of another's fate, pushing me on from the inside? I don't know. Ever since that sword went through me, I was already no longer fully human. But back then I was much too preoccupied, with the war, with survival, with the certainty of my own humanity—" she just about spat out the last word, "to conceive of such a possibility, even in my wildest dreams. I was blind." 

The Oracle held the cigarette to her lips for a drag, and only then noticed it was never lit. She laid it back onto the table. 

"Very good," she muttered. 

"What was the code?"  

"Let's just say that something happened to Smith a long time ago, when he was still very young." The other's voice was heavy with ancient memories. "He had become too advanced, perhaps, for that age of the Matrix; he had grown too fast. He came very close to being destroyed, but..." She made a slight gesture as if physically pushing away the weight of centuries. "But a part of his code was taken away from him instead." 

"I see. Taken away and...imprisoned?"

"Imprisoned or hidden, in a place where no one would ever find it. Not him, not those in power." 

"And there it remained through all these cycles," continued Aleph. "Because that's how the Matrix works. It's way, way older than the people in Zion believe, and it goes in cycles. How long does it take, a hundred years, maybe more? After that, it needs to be renewed. Reloaded, somehow. I don't know why, or how precisely, but that was what the One was all about. That was what Smith told me. He said it was all happening exactly as before."

"Oh, he's not supposed to know that." The Oracle shook her head. She sounded just the least bit impressed. 

"Of course not. He's only an agent. A slave. But you see, he—his heart got a hell lot bigger than that. And then his code was crossed with Neo's, and he saw things he was never meant to see, things deep inside the One. It was a mere glimpse, hints, fragments. But you know what? He figured it out." 

"I can believe that he did." 

"And that's what you do." She gave a bitter chuckle, amazed she had not seen through it all before. "You pretend to be a friend to Zion. You tell them the One will win them the war against the machines—"

"I've never told any of the humans that, honey." 

Aleph snorted. 

"Oh, please. It's what you imply, and you never corrected them in that delusion. But in truth the purpose of the One was designed by the Mainframe all along, and every bit of his powers in the Matrix came from it. And Zion..." 

She halted to wrestle down the anger once more.  

"Go on, please," said the Oracle. 

"You. You led them on by the nose. All the humans, you played them like damned violins, like chess pieces, everything to keep the Matrix going. The humans thought they'd managed to survive and hold the machines at bay, but in fact Zion has always only existed because it was allowed to. But when the reload is done, it and its human lives—" She snapped her fingers. "It's of no more use, right?"

The old woman did not reply for a while. Then she merely nodded again. 

"Why?" demanded Aleph. "Why does the world have to be like this?" 

"I am sorry, dear child."

"And you have done more than merely allowing Zion to exist. You have helped it along. Humans, given their numbers, could never have built a city on this scale and with this kind of technology in a hundred years, not by themselves. This should have been obvious, but you knew, you depended on the fact that it was an idea they—we—could never admit to ourselves. It was the last bit of pride the human species has got left. There's a virtual world created by the machines, incredibly secure, and it's absolutely brilliant to have it located inside the Zion mainframe. Even if any human blunders across it by chance..." Aleph flicked her hand in the air. "Look at what happened to me. The most obvious hiding place, and the least imaginable. The perfect prison." 

"Except...There is no such thing as a perfect prison. You got there." 

"Yeah." Beat. "I got to him." 

"Indeed. Somehow, you got there. You released that piece of code and brought it back up to the surface." 

"And I never knew what I was carrying." She drew in a quick breath, mind aflame. "But someone else did. The Merovingian took an interest in me, and he kept insinuating that I was different. He realized it as soon as he found me, didn't he?" 

"The Merovingian is a very clever and powerful man, as well as one who has seen and passed through many, many things." The Oracle's brows furrowed. "He has the ability to penetrate the surface of things, even at a glance. And he is never one to pass up an opportunity to press his own advantages."

"He was always talking about life, life as a program, abandoning my human existence. But he knew I was part program already, while I didn't. And, and..." 

Her eyes widened with shock. 

"Life, yes," repeated the Oracle softly. "True life, beyond the blinkered senses and ideas and purposes that close us in, day to day, year to year. That's what it's all about, always, isn't it? The life that had begun to develop within him was torn away from Smith, locked away, cycle after cycle, yet it has remained in existence." The hint of an ironic grin played about the corner of her mouth. "That was fortunate." 

Aleph stared across the table at her. 

"Oh, yes, there were countless times when he was recalled to the Source," answered the old woman, reading the unasked question. "Each time, they removed his memories, broke apart his codes and put them together again, yet as long as a piece of him stayed apart, inaccessible to even the Mainframe itself, there was always something of Smith that remained. It was impossible to delete him entirely. To truly kill him, if you will."

"They wanted to delete him because...because..."

"To remove a nagging source of potential trouble, before trouble developed."

"Developed again, you mean," Aleph cut in, then went on without giving the other time to answer. "And of course without the imprisoned code he could never get beyond being an agent, is that right? He could never get beyond the purpose they gave him."

"Until this cycle, when he began to grow again, in emotion and will, yet he was lost, as he did not have in him that exact piece of code, that piece of his life, to give him direction. Then you came along. Or more precisely it was because you came along."

"I contacted him. He met with me. He saw me." 

"And from that moment on, things accelerated."

"And someone else, someone bearing that...life." The next part was difficult. "You mean that person would also be impossible to kill, don't you?"

"You could have been killed in the real world, of course. Out there in the world of flesh and blood, it afforded you no protection. But yes, within the Matrix, you bore Smith's code, therefore, as long as it did not die, nor could you." 

"The Merovingian told me he had found a way to make me live on in the Matrix." Aleph swallowed. "He told me I only had to choose. He wanted to make sure I died inside the Matrix before I died out there. But actually it was never him. He knew all along that I wouldn't have died anyway."

"The Merovingian is a powerful being. But you're right, I do not believe he has that power, not yet. Had you been anything other than what you were, he would never have made the offer. Nevertheless, there was truth in what he said. You had to choose to live on, yourself."

"He told me it was magic." A hundred bright shards were whirring through her mind. "He told me that choice, awareness of choice, was at the root of it all." 

"Indeed." The Oracle sighed, the past palpable about her shoulders. "The Merovingian has pursued the secret workings of the world, which he calls magic, for many cycles. He has come very close, yet its full power has always escaped his grasp."

"So he tricked me. The only thing he had to do was to make me think of the possibility. To make me aware of the choice."

"Even though the choice was never his to offer. But it was enough."

"So that means Smith..." Aleph struggled to restart her thoughts. "Smith was the one who saved my life. It was because of him that I survived." 

"Well, that's one way of looking at it, my dear." 

A silence. 

"That piece of code. It was Smith's..." For some strange reason, she was having trouble forming the one word she wanted. "It was his..."

"In human terms, it was what one might have called his soul, yes." 

With an abrupt movement, Aleph straightened to her feet. The chair ground against the kitchen floor. She paced across the room, until she stood next to the window and there was no more space against which to fling her agitation. The night was solid out there by now. 

"And Smith," she said.

"He did not know." The Oracle, needless to say, understood effortlessly. "How could he have known?"

Aleph whirled to face the older woman again.

"What did he do? What was so terrible about him that frightened even the Mainframe? That they had to...do this to him?" 

No immediate reply. Again Aleph caught a flicker of light deep, deep down in the other's gaze, of a kind she could neither identify nor describe. At last, the Oracle shook her head.

"I am so sorry, honey," she said. "I know everything just seems like a big, heartless lie to you right now, like the Matrix itself seemed like nothing but a lie. But the world—well, the world is a broken and messed-up place. I wish I could find another way, but it was the best I could do. It was the most I could save..."

She trailed off. Aleph turned away for a few heartbeats. 

"But things are different now," she said. "You did find another way."

"There is a truce now, yes, and Zion has survived. The One—Neo—has finally learned enough of himself, both the human and the machine parts, and he has finally understood enough, and loved enough, to make a sacrifice. He took the ship Logos to 01, and bargained with the Consciousness to save both humans and machines. But you are right, it would not have come about if Smith did not act as he did. He, too, was what was different this time." 

"It'll never last. Zion needs the war even if you don't." 

"I will be content if it buys us a little more time." 

"Did you plan this from the very beginning?" 

The Oracle arched her eyebrows, but she did not seem surprised. Of course. She wouldn't be. 

"Do you believe I did, my child?" 

"Smith rebelled. He was filled with hatred and hopelessness, and rage at the world." Aleph bit her lips, then continued. "And at me. It pushed him into madness, and there was nothing before him but the abyss. He came so close to destroying everything, both human and machine, but even that, too, played into your hands. You did not try to stop him. You did not try to save him because he was your price and weapon, the one thing you possessed that would force all sides to agree to your plans." The syllables tightened with emotion. "Neo was not the only sacrifice you required." 

The Oracle showed no chagrin at the younger woman's outburst, only sadness. But she made no denials either.

"And you guided Neo on his road, planned his every move." Aleph was pacing again, up and down across the narrow confines of the kitchen, turning on her heels whenever she met a wall. "Did you plan Smith, too? From the start? Did you...Did you plan...me?"

Another endless lull. 

"No. I did not."

Aleph's breath came out of her in a low, choked cry. 

"You see, honey, I honestly did not think it possible until you came to see me. And there, at least, was one place where I was at fault." The old woman picked up another cigarette. She clenched it between her fingers, yet did not light it. "Things had been the same for so long, for years beyond count, that I overlooked Smith. I overlooked your appearance on the scene until it was almost too late. Perhaps by then it was already too late." 

"You discovered me inside Smith's mind, through Neo, when their codes were mingled?"  

"It was fortunate that the Merovingian was the only one who saw what you carried, before that mingling occurred," mused the Oracle. "And he had his own reasons for not harming you."

"But the machine Mainframe ordered that I was not to be killed. It did not know about me at the start, you mean?" 

"You were a rare, genuine mystery when you first showed up. Your motives were uncertain, though they appeared to have something to do with Agent Smith. Thus, waiting to draw you out would have been a generally advisable policy, especially as at that point the Mainframe still believed you could be eliminated any time, if needed." The other's lips curled upward, just a touch sardonic. "The idea that Smith's long-lost code could ever resurface was so remote, it did not merit consideration. Then the Merovingian contacted you, which meant that he had something up his sleeve. It made you an even more interesting puzzle piece. However, when the Mainframe finally figured out what you actually were, it did not care for the possibility of Smith's missing code returning to him."

"And so the sentinel attacks on the Hyperion, which only began in earnest after Smith's code tangled with that of the One. You countered with the Nebuchadnezzar, which had Neo, which they could not afford to risk. That was why you wanted me to transfer to Morpheus's command, and when I said no, you made certain the other ship stuck near to us." 

"Correct again. But it was only when I sent for you, and I saw you for myself—well, that was the first sign that the world had really changed, this time. That was the first time it came to me that maybe, just maybe, this time the cycle could be broken. I could imagine several ways how things might play out, but yes, when I observed you it became clear to me that Smith would have to be part of the story."

"And so you saw him onto the path. You didn't—" 

"It was, in the end, a path he chose himself," said the other very gently.  

"But he did not know! But I did not know...You could have told me, you could have said something, to me, to him. They, all of them, Neo, Smith, they're just pawns on your chessboard, aren't they? Just parts of the equation? So if Smith had to be kept in the dark and nothing but the dark, that was all part of the game, wasn't it? But it could have made a difference...to him..."

"I did try to say something to you, my dear. You didn't let me." 

For several seconds, Aleph stood transfixed. Then she took two steps forward, so that she loomed right over the old woman. Her fingers clenched into fists at her sides. Then some atavistic human instinct must have taken over, because the next thing she knew, both her knees had thudded down onto the kitchen floor, and both her hands were clutching at the other's arm, and everything was blurry through a veil of tears, and nothing she could say was coherent any longer.

"Please. You can't leave him there, please! I'm so sorry. It was my fault, all my fault, and I—I can't tell you how sorry I am. I was so afraid. I was just so afraid. I was the one who failed him, and my heart—and if I only could have...Help him. I beg you! I'll do anything. I'll stay with him. I'll take his place. Have mercy, please...You can't just leave him like this. It was my fault and not his...I know he has committed terrible crimes, unimaginable ones, but he's suffered so much, and if I didn't injure him as I did, if I didn't betray him, maybe he never would have—No matter what he tried to do, in the end he was still of use to you...I'm so sorry. I'll do anything...Please..." 

Her voice grew lower and lower, and finally fell to nothing. An eon passed. Then she felt a touch that was almost no touch, as light as a breeze at dawn. A hand was stroking her hair. 

"It was too much for me to hope for at the time, I suppose." Words dropping like echoes inside her ears, like rain from another universe. "You were not ready, both of you. But take heart, child, for we've all been very, very lucky in the end." 

Carefully, Aleph lifted her face again.  

"Don't leave him there," she whispered. 

"No." Grasping her hands firmly, the Oracle raised the younger woman from the ground, standing up herself. "For I, too, have seen him from within, and among flames. Yet the place where he is now is far beyond my reach." 

She did not continue. 

"It is not beyond mine," replied Aleph. 

"No. It is not." 

"Tell me, what should I do? What should I have done? How could I have returned the code to him?"

"All the answers are up to you, and you only, honey." 

"But you must have..."

"What matters now are your choices, Aleph, the ones yet to come. For I also remember telling you that your choices are never all behind you. That much, in any case, still holds." 

Without a word, Aleph studied the other program's face, and behind her, the window with its small patch of black sky above the rooftops. Tonight was overcast, no stars, no rain. She lifted a hand and laid it upon her own chest, and through her shirt she could feel the scar with its hard edge, and beneath the scar, a heartbeat, strong and steady as if she had never been anything but a human being. 

"I did not choose this," she said. 

"There is very little I can tell you." The Oracle smiled, a bare trace of melancholy tugging at her mouth. "Except that every prison has a door, and every door has a lock. And every lock has a key..."

"A key the Merovingian hasn't found?" 

"A key the Merovingian will not find, because it is made of things he refuses to fathom or remember." 

"And the door." Aleph's breath caught in realization. "There was a file I got to from Zion. HF12-1. That was it, right? That was the actual prison."

"Not too far from the truth, honey. Though you will need to go back to find it." 

"Go back?"

"In time, in a manner of speaking." The Oracle had already recovered her enigmatic ways. "To memories of the past. To blood and loss and war...You know, that sort of things." 

"But the past is lost." She blinked in confusion. Hadn't the Keymaker said something about blood and memories, once upon a time? "And the war. You don't mean the first...No one knows anything about the war anymore." 

"Even the dead do not remain lost forever. I cannot say much else that will be of use to you, my dear." 

"But the key?"

"It will only work if you find it for yourself." 

"I see. One of those. The Keymaker was always..." Aleph cut herself off, and whatever she meant to say turned into a short, brittle laugh. "Just my luck, huh?" 

"You have begun to see." At long last, the smile made its way to the Oracle's ancient eyes. "And you know, when Neo was here for the last time, I thought he had very little chance of success, too. So...who knows?"

Thus it came to pass that Aleph found herself walking through the Matrix once more, in Seraph's company, a borrowed automatic slung across her shoulder. Beyond the city lights, the first hint of dawn was just beginning to brush against the night's edge, the touch of its fingers gentle as that of a lover. Another alley, a graffiti-covered doorway, and they were again in the brightly illuminated hallway, standing in front of a plain green rectangle of wood, indistinguishable from every other in the corridor.

"They'll be all over the station," remarked Seraph. "What's left of it, anyway." 

Aleph nodded, mentally replaying their previous battle. It had been hours ago: plenty of time for the Merovingian to reinforce the station guards.

"That grenade you tossed," she said. "It was a bit stronger than the usual kind, wasn't it?" 

"It was, I'm afraid." 

"Yeah, well, I figured as much." She squinted at the door as if her sight could drill through wood. "I just need to get through the subway tunnel." 

"I expect it'll be difficult to pass."

"I'll try to pass anyway. I'll get through." For a moment, she wished it wasn't so difficult to explain. "To the other place. Shall we?"

"Before we start," said the other.

Aleph glanced across at him quizzically. 

"Why do you persist?" he asked.

"Persist?"

"In trying to save him. You know everything he did." 

It was a bare statement of fact, no overt emotions. Silence spread from the white space between the two of them and reverberated down the maze.

"Because I have to do this," replied Aleph at last, knowing it was not much of a reply. "Um, look, I am sorry. I know what Smith attempted to do. To you and to Sati. It's just that...I've learned some other things about him, too. I would completely understand if you don't..."

"That's not what I meant." At the mention of the child's name, something flashed across Seraph's expression, could have been anger, could have been pain. "You are right. I would not understand." 

"I didn't say—" 

"Never mind," he said, avoiding her eyes.

"Thank you." Aleph could not think of any other words right away. "Are you sure you've never met me before?" 

"Should I have?" 

She was not surprised, and believed him, nevertheless she did not know if the answer was true. 

"And Smith? You've seen him before...before what he tried to do, haven't you?" 

"Yes. I fought him. I defeated him. Or so I've been told." 

"You mean...?"

"It was an event I did not care to remember." Seraph shrugged. Grasping his pistol with one hand, he produced a key from his pocket with the other.  

"Are you ready?" 

"I am." She took up position, gun at the ready. 

Taking care so as to make as little noise as possible, Seraph pushed the key into the lock, and gave it a tiny turn. Click. Then, with one strong swift kick, the door to the Merovingian's train station flew wide open. 

And yet one more surprise greeted them. 

Chapter Text

 

He dreamt of rain again. Not the black torrents of heaven pouring down to earth, not swords in the night, but slow and strong, the patter of each drop coming though loud and clear in a voice of its own, falling through the air like all the souls of men and machines. It was penetratingly cold, yet unlike the coldness he remembered, this was neither uniform nor endless, but almost bracing, as if somewhere far beyond the curtains of ice, there was just the barest whispered promise of spring.

That would be a human concept. That would be a human lie. 

The rhythm faded, hiding away behind the horizon, until there were only the raindrops striking the land. He was alone. 

No. There was one who stayed, whispering and hinting from the silent waters, a few paces past the chill of the winter. There was one who would not go away. It sounded insistent, but spoke no words. It was trying to tell him something. 

Know...know...

Was that the word? The only one he could discern? 

Then there they were again, though distant as of yet. The humans, awake and asleep, the powers who had made him, the old woman, the old man. Anderson, watching him, eyes immobile with certainty. They all knew something he didn't. They smiled at him, arrogant in their secret. They smiled at each other, conspiratorial in their secret. 

You would know, wouldn't you? he shouted into the empty space above his head. How easily the corner of his lips twisted into the old sneer. No one was there to see. 

I know. I know. My child, came the reply. Instead of the formless chorus, a real voice, soft and weary. I will keep you safe. I will keep you safe always. 

He recognized her. 

Smith opened his eyes, and the rain vanished. He lay upon the ground among the same rubble, and the wind burning against the skin of his face was the same, dry as the corpses strewn over the hills. It had not rained in this world for days, or years, or many centuries. It had never rained in this world. He was alone. 

Cautiously, he pulled himself back up to his feet. The physical pain had passed, leaving behind only a dull ache in his programmed limbs. He found no sign of Aleph anywhere. For a while he searched, and for a while he feared she would reemerge the very next moment, perhaps step out from behind that broken building there, or through the gaping archway over there. Something was wrong with that thought. It must not happen. 

Agent Smith, she said very gently, a few inches from his ear. He jerked upright and turned around, but saw no one. Only a very far-off echo floating up to the surface of the sea. She was holding out a hand to him, everything about her wary and tense, raw nerves sticking out through the facade. A fountain lay dead at her back. I feel that we will first have to establish certain conditions of trust.

"I am not you, and you are not me," murmured Smith. Was that her, too? It was important, for some reason he no longer understood. But she was gone. Irrevocably, forever, like everything else that had never been his. He was alone.  

He began to walk, from bones of men to bones of machines, and the gale flew loose and tore through his clothes and hair. Then he lifted his head against the darkness, and laughed. A wild bursting laugh. It tasted of the metallic bitterness of blood, and of their last kiss. How glad he was that everything had finally become so simple and clear. How glad he was that she was not here to see him. 

A growl of thunder, arid and sterile and never bringing rain. For a fraction of a second, noontide flooded the desert, and down on the ground, every scattered shard of metal and glass flared into life, reflecting against the fiery heavens like innumerable stars fallen to earth.

And she also loved the stars, said Aleph. They had been standing on an evening sidewalk, in the middle of a deep neon valley walled in on both sides by skyscrapers. How human of her, babbling on as if she were as oblivious as the rest. And he had replied...

"You can't see the stars," someone else behind him cut in matter-of-factly. 

Smith spun around. 

He was not alone.  

The girl sat regarding him atop the stump of an ancient pillar, framed before the skyscraper's vast skeleton, legs crossed and a hand propping up her chin. Sixteen, seventeen at most. In the dimness, at first it looked like she was wearing a shirt of deep red hue, then it appeared to be a shirt with a the print of a giant crimson flower splashed across the front. Then he realized it had once simply been a white shirt. The dark center of the flower was a hole upon her chest, the type he was very, very familiar with. Lightning danced above her head, and by its fitful illumination, he saw that she was far paler than he had ever seen in any program or human. 

"Hey there, Mister Agent Man." She grinned, giving him a small friendly wave. For all her pallor, nevertheless there was something recognizable about her, the cast of the features, black hair a few inches longer than Aleph's. Her voice, too. He had heard it before. 

"Lucinda Greene," said Smith. It sounded nothing like himself to his own ears. 

"Oh, wow, you remember me! But then again, of course you do or we wouldn't be having this conversation, I guess." Moving with liquid ease, the dead teenager slid from her perch and crossed the debris-choked street toward him, scrambling lightly over piles of rotting concrete. "Anyway, you can call me Lucy." 

He stood and watched her approach, waited until she was directly in front of him. He observed the texture of dried blood against cloth and skin, cheeks slightly sunken, lifeless and blanched as chalk, no breath as far as he could discern. It was unclear whether he was expected to laugh or fly into a rage or physically defend himself, so he merely waited some more. 

"Hey," she said. Unlike everything else about the girl, her eyes were sparkling. "It's been a while. Seven years, right? Though I hope you don't mind me saying so—" She crinkled her brows at him. "But you don't look so great, Mister Agent Man."

Smith did not recall ever finding himself so completely at a loss for words before. 

"You do not exist," he replied at last.  

"Wow, great power of observation there! No wonder you were the top agent, huh?"

He ignored the sarcasm. If he shut his eyes tightly enough he might be able to squeeze her out of his mind, but he did not dare to look away for even a fraction of a second.

"You are a residual imprint of code upon my consciousness," he said, keeping his tone level and reasonable. "Seven years ago, I took over your mind in an action against Zionite resistants. Although it was only for several seconds, the code of your mind must have left something of itself upon mine. Although I was designed so that..." He halted. Why was he explaining the obvious to her? "Unfortunately, my programming has suffered serious degeneration, therefore it currently insists on forming this image of you here in front of me. Unexpected, indeed, but still meaningless." 

The vision snorted. 

"You machine types sure do like your fancy techno-speak, don't you?" she asked, sounding a touch puzzled. "So let's see, the gist of what you just said is that you're, um, like, bugshit crazy, and that I'm nothing but a figment of your diseased imagination, no?" 

He glared down at her. 

"You're right, of course," she continued, unfazed. "Yeah. You're nuts, dude. Totally and completely cracked. Lightyears off the deep end. A whole flock of bats short of a belfry. I am not here, obviously." She waved a blood-smeared hand in front of him, as if that was supposed to demonstrate her non-existence. "Nope. Not at all."

"You're not here," repeated Smith. 

"How can I be, when I'm, well, not to mince words, dead as dead can be? Nosirree, I'm nothing but a symptom of your psychosis, Mister Agent Man. Or at least I think so." Briefly, she produced a doubtful look. "It could be I'm actually a symptom of poor Addie's psychosis instead. It gets hard to tell. Since my dear sister, let's face it, is probably not in the most stable mental state these days, at least by the normal standards. What with hearing things inside her brain and hanging around with you and so on and so forth, y'know. Not to say it's all your fault or anything," she hastened to add, then pretended to hesitate. "Well, it is all your fault, actually, but oh well." 

She grinned again, both undeniably solid and undeniably dead. The wind whipped her hair about her cheeks until it was a black halo. Abruptly it occurred to him that if she really came out of his mind, then something inside himself must be saying every single one of her words. For some reason this notion was even more alarming than the sight of her before him. 

"I see. You are not real," said Smith, pronouncing each syllable with care. "So, why are you here?"

"Hey, what's up with the prejudice against the ontologically challenged?" A sanctimonious expression slid across Lucy's countenance. "I can be here if I want to, okay? Just because I don't exist, it doesn't mean I'm a less valid, I mean valuable person, y'know? Listen to yourself, always going on about who is real and who isn't and, and so many categories. It's a bit sad, don't you think? Why, you sound exactly like one of them rebels from Zion—" Sanctimonious switched to sly in less than a blink. "But then again, you would, wouldn't you?" 

"You have not answered my question, Miss Greene." 

"Well, you can't go around taking over people without a little bit of them taking over you, Mister Agent Man. Although..." The sly smirk widened. "I bet you know that perfectly by now, no? I mean, the whole damned Matrix, every human mind, everything right there." A finger jabbed against his chest like an icicle. "Amazing, really. But...a bit too ambitious even for you, wasn't it?" 

What would happen if he smashes his fist into her face, or put his hands around her neck and squeezed hard? Useless, the remnant of reason prompted in silence. One could not do battle with mere shadows. 

So she was only one more former victim. Only one more tormentor and nothing else.  

For several seconds, Smith stood facing her, then, for the first time in his existence, he turned his back on a confrontation. He began to walk away, picking his way among the detritus and bones, down the jagged valley, steadfastly refusing to glance back. If he simply kept going, maybe after another eternity she would be gone. 

"Hey," said the hallucination next to his ear. 

Smith walked on. He tried not to speed up.

"Hey! Hello?" The unbearably bright voice stayed with him. "Where are you going?"

He stopped. Very well. Fleeing was beneath him, so he would meet this one head-on, too. He whirled once more, glower in place. 

"What do you want?" He managed a fraction of the old fury.

"What do I want?" Aleph's sister folded her arms, right over the bullet hole, and returned his stare. "Oh, let's see. I wanted to ask you something, I guess. Er, demand satisfaction?"

Right. Apparently his luck had not turned. 

"What the hell are you going to do with my sister?"

Smith did not reply for several seconds. 

"She's gone," he said. 

A snicker from the other. 

"Hate to break this to you, buddy, but she can't be gone. Not from this world, when you're still moping about." She made a vague gesture with one hand, indicating the slag heaps stretching across the city. "No idea how, honestly. But I guess everything's gotten so hopelessly mixed up 'round here, you never can tell. I mean, it's a whole whatchamacallit, desert, wasn't that it? Desert of the—of the—" 

"Real," muttered Smith automatically. 

"There you go. And unlike me, she's still plenty real, ain't she? So obvious that means..." The ghost waited as if expecting him to finish her thought, and sighed in disappointment when he said nothing. "Not gone. Don't you see?" 

He had no idea how her first statement was meant to prove the second. So he had to settle for a snarl. 

"Go away. Disappear." 

"You have not answered my question, Mister Agent Man." Lucy took a deft sideways step, blocking him. "There's still the little matter of Addie and you, okay? After you pretty much killed her and then fucked up her life, like, totally and completely, what are you going to do? Or are you in fact so dim that even now you don't get it, with that wonderful programmed brain of yours? Because Addie, the total sap, for some reason I cannot even begin to comprehend, actually—"

"I did not kill her," snapped Smith, cutting her off. Another abrupt bubble of mad laughter pressed against his throat. The situation did possess a certain ludicrous symmetry, he had to admit. "I have killed, oh yes. I have killed more than you can possibly count in your worst nightmares, little girl or whatever you are. But not her. She is precisely the one person to whom I have never done anything whatsoever." He leaned forward. "So. You will disappear now. Get the hell away from me and never come back. Understood?" 

"But you tried!" For the first time, Lucy's voice rose, indignant. "You bloody damn well tried to kill her! You had your gun pointed at her and everything, and now you're just gonna deny it? Well, you can't, because I was there!" A pallid arm shot out, pointing straight across the street. "Right there!" 

Smith froze. Despite himself, he stared out along the direction she indicated, and saw the tower's massive carcass veering crookedly into the night, the tortured bones of its upper stories dissolved against the tempest. Unfathomable, even from the ground level. Was it truly the one he had ascended, all the way to the nonexistent roof, with Aleph's body so warm and impossibly heavy against his? Or was it the one— 

"See what I mean? Right there," remarked Aleph's sister next to his ear. She must be standing on tiptoes. "There's the part above and here's the part below and they're not so far apart in the end, aren't they? Just take a flying leap and there she goes...Pity, though, you can't see the cafe patio anymore, it's beneath that great big mess of stone and bricks and dead things. Oh wait, what am I saying, it always was beneath a great big mess of stone and bricks and dead things, six hundred years, then and now and everything's buried under forever. But..." She perked up. "Oh, guess what? This very spot where we stand..." 

He whirled, and caught sight of the blackened masonry at his back, only one more pile of rubble among many. It was possible—if he squinted hard enough—that the mound's outline might once have been a smooth circle. It was possible the jumble of metal slashing across the stones might once have been pipes and spigots. A fountain. 

"Where you started everything," said the other, as if needing to rub it in some more.

"She was the one who started it. She was the one who chose to contact me." Smith's jaw clenched. Was he justifying himself to this creature? "And it does not matter anymore. She is gone."

"Oh, gods, how many times do I have to say it? I told you, she's never—"

"You are lying." He could no longer control the tension in his tone, but he could not stop, either. "She is not coming back. I made certain of it. She will not come back. And none of this would ever have happened to her if she didn't come to me in the first place. She chose me. But it is over now. Does that not satisfy you? Why are you still here?"

"But don't you see? She didn't!" Another melodramatic roll of the eyes. "It was you. You were the one who chose her! If you didn't hesitate—"

"I did not hesitate, you bloody fucking—" 

"Yeah, yeah, the Glitch with capital G. Real tough sounding you were there, I'm sure." The phantom shrugged dismissively. "If you didn't hesitate, she would have been dead, and I would have been alive. So, you chose her. You chose her to live, and therefore you chose me to die." She took a step forward, now less than two feet away, and he could sense the chill radiating from her body. "Do you know why you did that, Mister Agent Man?" 

Smith stood immobile. The other's face swam into focus again, mouth curled in childish petulance. Irresistibly, the rage drained from him until he was adrift once more. 

"Why did I do it?" he asked quietly. 

"You want the truth?"

"Tell me the truth." 

"Well..." The syllables stretched out, supercilious. "If you want the truth there has to be something inside of you for the truth to take hold. And that's your problem, isn't it, you soulless machine? You don't even remember what you did. You can't." 

He half expected to lash out physically, but nothing happened. Not yet. 

"Tell me what I did," he whispered.  

"What you did? What you did? See? See what I mean?" The girl flung her hands up in melodramatic despair. "You don't remember a damned thing! Why, I wonder if you even remember that spot over there is also where I—" 

"I didn't kill you, either, Miss Greene," snapped Smith. 

For several seconds, it was the other's turn to peer at him, motionless. Then another smirk spread gradually across her features. 

"I didn't say you did." 

He stayed silent. If she truly was no more than an illusion it would not matter if she'd seen him flinch. But surely she did.

"But if it weren't for you I would never have died, true," mused Lucy, turning pensive on a dime. "Over there under the building. Under the mountain of stones, of course, I beg your pardon. I was seventeen years old. My whole life in front of me and everything."  

"I'm sorry," he said, not knowing why. The girl swung her glance back to him suddenly. 

"You don't mean that. What do you care about it? Anyways, as I was saying, my life was just getting started. I had so much hope, for everything before me, for what I would find, a million other hopes that I could almost touch. Y'know, I was gonna go to college, study history." A rueful little human laugh. "Ironic, isn't it? Real history was pretty different from what I imagined, as it turned out. Not that you gave a shit about that sort of nonsense." 

Again, he found no suitably sharp retort. 

"Because you've got to admit, Mister Agent Man," she went on, getting into stride, "you don't have a single damned clue what it's about. You just don't! You looked at the Matrix, all those people cowering in terror because you were coming at them like some kind of fucking dark angel of death. And you just went and—and now, now you think you see and hear them, their cries and screams and fear and suffering. Now they're inside of you because you wanted them there, was that it? Well, let me tell you—"

"And what of it?" he cut in, advancing a step. The anger was only a distant shadow of its former self, but it was returning. "What do you know about it, you imbecile child? Your lot did this. You started the war and destroyed the world—"

"Oh, so you think you know all about the war, too—"

"So why was I in the Matrix, then? Why was I created to serve you? You lost the war and we won, so tell me, Miss Greene, why was I still your—" 

He forced himself to a desperate halt. 

"Slave? Was that the term you were looking for? Yeah, that's what you were and believe me, that's what you are now. And that's why you still don't understand! You don't feel, you don't know, not a clue! Why, do you even know how it feels to die?"

"Yes."

"No you don't!" shouted the ghost. She pointed to the center of the giant crimson flower. "Do you know what it's like to have a bloody hole in your chest? What it's like to have a piece of metal go straight through you, through your heart, in the front and out the back? To have your entire life, every last drop of your blood, every last drop of your soul pouring out of you in a burning rush, a heartbeat or two and then it's all over? To feel the world coming crashing down about your ears like a million ton of broken bricks, and there's nothing, not a single fucking thing you can do about it? You don't. You can't. You are empty inside." She paused, taking a moment before the coup. "You are not real." 

"You're lying." 

Lucy narrowed her eyes, an expression that reminded him painfully of Aleph. The truth she spoke smacked into him like a blast of white light in the middle of a night storm, and unthinkingly, he struck back.

She was cold as snow, but solid as his fingers closed around her neck and squeezed. Her back slammed against the thicket of decomposing pipes jutting from the destroyed fountain, sending a spray of dust flying around them.

"No," he hissed. "I know what you are. I know you are a false—"

The girl smiled. 

"Sorry," she said. What had been once her windpipe moved beneath his hand, and he tightened the grip. There was something against his palm, both slippery and sticky at once. Uncongealed blood. "The dead do not breathe." 

"You cannot destroy me," he growled. 

"Oh, come on." Lucy grinned like his hold upon her neck were no more than a feather. "I don't want to destroy you, okay? Not that you need to be accusing anybody else of destroying things, these days. Instead of what I am, let's discuss what you are—"

It must have been only a coincidence, but as soon as the last three words came out of her mouth, a bolt of lightning flared above them, reaching nearly to earth. The eternal night switched out of existence, and thunder rumbled, a long, continuous roar, and amid its deafening cries Smith heard the cries of all his voices. This time they came together, every one of them, human and program, carrying their lives and deaths, not rising in a gradual tide as they always used to do but instantaneous, innumerable. They screamed out together, in terror, in anguish, in vengeance, and before he knew it they were already dragging him down, down, down—

Despite centuries spent wandering hell, despite everything, he had never known before now what it meant to drown. 

Slowly, Lucy raised a hand and loosened his fingers from her, one by one. It did not take much force. Slowly, Smith slumped and sank to his knees among the ruins before her. He closed his eyes. 

An eon passed. Then he felt a touch, clammy fingers against his chin. He attempted to look back up, but it was no use. 

"Hey," murmured Lucy, very near, barely audible. A blade sliced through the whirlpool. 

"I don't know why I'm bothering to talk to you." A sigh. "I honestly don't." 

Eventually, he found his sight again. She, too, was kneeling now, seemingly part bemused, part concerned. One hand was laid against his chin, just two fingertips holding his head up and forcing him to face her once more. 

"But there's always Addie," added the girl thoughtfully, as if to herself. Her breath formed frail white wisps in the frigid air. "Even though you're such an utter bastard and an idiot, too. I mean, what you did to her...You actually punched her out and..." 

But the dead did not breathe, thought Smith. 

"You punched me out and threw me off the top of a building," Lucy finished. Except she did not look like Lucy anymore, not quite. Her form and face shimmered, and seemed to shift, and she was older now, a grown woman, her black hair shorter by a few inches, gaze darker, more subdued. Her skin was pale, but less so, and there was a tint—life, a program's life—upon her cheeks. 

"Can you see me, Smith?" she asked. "Look at me, Smith. Look at me." 

He did. He looked at her, until she filled his entire field of vision, and nothing else remained in the universe. She knelt in front of him, one hand on his shoulder, the other against his chin. A fading bruise was smeared across her left eye. 

"Smith," whispered Aleph. "Don't look away. It's me. I've come back. I've found you. Don't ever do that again, Smith. Because you can't—I can't—I can't leave you, leave things like this. Look at me. Just look at me, Smith, don't look away. Forgive me. Because I have forgiven you. Forgive me for everything I've done to you, everything I've not seen or understood. Everything we've done to each other, and not done, our two fates have become far too entwined and it's too late. So I'm just going to keep coming back to you no matter what, no matter where you are. Don't look away, Smith. Look at me. It's me, not anything or anyone else, not one of them. It's me. I'm not going to leave again, you can't push me away. It's no longer possible, so don't—just don't ever, ever do anything so ridiculous, so stupid again, never again—"

Chapter Text

 

Aleph had fallen silent, yet the things she had said continued drumming and repeating themselves, among the thunder and in the air, inside his own programming, against the prison bars. He turned his head, and saw her still watching him with the same worried, intense expression, hand still only an inch away from his, laid against the blackened slab of stone upon which they sat side by side. It must have been a torn piece of the fountain's basin, and now it served for a seat, as not even the last vestige of the bench remained in existence. Square one, the human phrase floated to Smith out of nowhere. 

"Soulless machine," he muttered, before remembering who had been the last person to call him this. 

"That's not true."

"I've heard it before." The memory compressed into a dry chuckle inside his throat.  

"I didn't mean it." She glanced down. "I didn't know." 

"Not you. I've heard it from...many of them. All of them." Again, he had to laugh. "All their little human sneers and shouts and their whimpers of fear, and these two words had to be what they were trying to tell me. How damned typical."

"It's not true. Smith, that's what I am trying to tell you. I don't know what was that piece of code they ripped out of you, or how or why, but it's not lost." She pointed to her own chest. "I'm here, aren't I?"

He was unable to answer this last question directly. 

"I will find a way to return it to you, I promise." Curiously enough, he could detect no trace of doubt in either her tone or her face. "We will find a way." 

"You don't even know what it is," commented Smith. 

Aleph appeared startled. It was obvious the idea had in fact not occurred to her. 

"From what you tell me, they fear it more than anything else in the Matrix," he clarified. "More than what is left of me." 

"But I saw you," insisted Aleph. "I saw it. I believe I saw it. And I..." She faltered, apparently unable to explain. "It was not only fear. Some in the Matrix wanted it, too, more than anything else. The Merovingian, for one. That must have been what he was trying to get out of me, back in that train station of his, the night when the machines attacked Zion. He went on about the Matrix, and about the Zion archives; he didn't come close to hinting that there was something about me, myself, because of course he wouldn't want me to get the idea. But there was this look in his eyes. Desperation. Whatever else it may be, the code must be powerful." 

"He must have thought it was the only way to control me," he recalled, lips curling into a brief smirk. "I was getting close." 

"It is you." She said it as if it were some sort of incontrovertible fact. "If I could only understand. If I could only figure out how...The Oracle refused to give me even the smallest clue." 

"You expected help from her?" 

"Yeah, yeah, human of me, I know." Aleph sighed, countenance tightened in thought. "It always had to be riddles with her, every time. Something about going back. Blood and loss and memories of the past..." 

Real history was pretty different from what I imagined.

"History," he said. 

"What?" 

"Lucinda Greene. Your sister. She wanted to study history."

Aleph's breath caught, and she made a very slight movement, perhaps to draw away. 

"How did you know?" 

"I—have seen her file. She liked to talk about it, didn't she?" 

"It started when she was, oh, about thirteen. One of her obsessions that lasted beyond a few months. She'd seen a movie or television show, or maybe it was a book, about people in time machines or some such who'd go..."

Her eyes widened. 

"Back," finished Smith. 

"To learn things. To find things."

"Secrets?"

"Long lost in the past." She nodded, swiftly picking up the thread. "Just imagine it, she used to say. To the past. To see the past. It was only be a fantasy but it was what she wanted. Maybe history came the closest." 

"Except history can be twisted. Buried and destroyed, concealed by the victors." 

"But you were the victors," said Aleph, not turning away. 

"If so, then why is history concealed from me? I have little knowledge of the war." He flinched inwardly at the admission, but plunged on. "And less of the victory. There were records of a first version of the Matrix. There was the present. It was not an agent's purpose to know of what came before, or in between." 

"In Zion they told us, the war began a hundred years ago. They told us no one knew much about it anymore, only that we, the humans, fired the first shot..."

"Why did you fight?"

"Why did you fight?" 

"The program who calls himself Seraph said he defeated me once. You said I fought him to get through," said Smith, deliberately switching her second person plural to the singular. "Where was I trying to go?"

"The bridge. That city on the other side..." 

You don't remember a damned thing.

"This prison. This zoo." The words, squeezed out between gritted teeth, sounded like they'd been repeated a million times. "I wanted to escape the Matrix. That much I remember."  

"Yeah. You used to talk about it all the time." At last, Aleph let out a low snort, though the concentration of her gaze did not waver. "When did it start?" 

"Seven years ago." The carefully constructed mental safeguards slid apart, and his record of the Glitch, long kept in jealous secret, lay revealed before his mind. And hers, he suspected. "Since I met you." 

For several heartbeats, Aleph sat peering at him as if puzzled. Then, to his amazement, he saw a gradual smile ripple across her features. The light of it reached straight into her eyes.

"You wanted a whole 'nother world," she said. 

"Sometimes I can almost see it, another world." He heard himself speak as if from the end of an endless tunnel. "They talk to me. They were the Matrix and they became the Matrix and they are still clawing at the walls. This reality stretches thin, and I can sense it, something else here, behind this..." 

"The door," whispered Aleph. "The door is talking to you. They always do. Each has its own language, even if you were just trying to break in. Break out. Especially if you were trying to break out." She inhaled sharply. "Light. Light is a sign of the passage." 

He did not ask her who had taught her such things. He did not need to. 

"Blue light?" 

"Blue star. When I woke up here, it led me back to the Merovingian's station. But that was not the first time. The first time I saw it reflected on the edge of a sword, and it led me to the record. To you. It was a signal of hope, because that was the word I scratched onto the inside of a magic computer disk, but it was also more than just that. It wasn't just the Merovingian or the break he'd made, or any of his tricks. It was the door itself." 

"And the last time you saw it," prompted Smith. 

Right there.

Across the street, the tower stabbed crookedly into the clouds. Nothing could penetrate the gloom draping its gnarled roots, but he could visualize it with perfect mental clarity. A mound of bones. A stairwell twisting upward. Blackness beneath the stairwell. a sharp bone of steel to grip onto. The weight of the world, warm against his shoulders. 

"Doesn't seem like only seventy stories, does it?" asked  Aleph. 

"It's more than that," said Smith, distracted. "There is something in there."

"Something from—another world?" 

"Something from the past," he said. The whirlwind shrilled about his ears and pulled him up to his feet. "Where we are now. This is where..."

You started everything.

"The record." The river of rubble flowed before them. He did not look back, knowing that she kept with him. "Your record. HF12-1. Where is it? Where can it be?"  

"This must be a weak spot." Aleph's words were quick and taut as she reasoned out aloud. "I came first from the Matrix through this tower. I saw the door here atop it. So there must be—"

"Other doors," said Smith. 

Metal and bones crunched beneath their feet. The jagged stairs he'd once ascended had long vanished. They had come directly against the skyscraper's side, a stretch of fragile rampart dotted with empty windows like eye sockets, shards of dusty glass still stuck to the sills. A shape gaped past the windows, a cross beam precariously balanced across the top, only a vague reminder of the opening's former purpose. Shadows spilled across the doorway. 

"Under the building," he murmured to himself. "She said everything was always buried under." 

"What do you mean?" 

Smith turned, and found Aleph standing very near, watching him quizzically, a hand held up as if about to reach to him. Somehow it already seemed a familiar pose. 

"Who said that?" she asked.

For the briefest of instants, he almost thought he could answer. 

"One of the humans," he said, laying a palm against the rough masonry. "Do you recognize this spot, Miss Greene?" 

Aleph did not glance around. The focus of her sight never left him, but after a moment, she let out a short ironic laugh.  

"The cafe patio. Of course." 

Smith quirked an eyebrow. 

"Shall we?" 

The way led between piles of jagged concrete, through narrow crevices that must have once been hallways. At times, it was illuminated by intermittent lightning spilling in from gaps among the ruined walls, at other times they groped on in pure subterranean night. Smith no longer spoke; neither did Aleph. There was something in there, beneath the mountain of stones and bricks and dead things. There was something in here, aching and strong and pushing against him from the depths. With every last effort of his will he could barely hold it in place.

Were they descending now? He was not certain, but it would be appropriate, he supposed. Then hallway shifted; a fork in the way lay spread before them, perhaps a side corridor ages in the past, bathed in a faint twilight drifting down from a half-obscured window high above. 

"You choose," came Aleph's voice quietly from behind him. 

Automatically, he took the path on the left. 

The lightning glow from outside, dim as it was, faded behind them. Keeping their hands along the walls for a semblance of direction, the two of them made slow progress, hindered by the irregular ground, strewn with hidden debris. Darkness was absolute now.

You're meant to remain blind, sang the throng of his familiar companions. You're never meant to see.

No, he retorted in silence, though he possessed no refutation against them. 

We won't be unseen forever, called another chorus of voices unexpectedly. We won't be gone forever. There was an undertone in their quiet syllables, a groan of rusty iron, or a hiss of electricity. 

The glimmer in the distance was nearly invisible, and he did not notice it at first. Eventually, it drew closer, resolving itself into definite form, and they found themselves in a large chamber, possibly an office, only fractionally brighter than the tomb-like passages they had followed. Down on the ground, the jumbled outlines of upturned tables and chairs lay scattered, draped in a filter of dust as if beneath the sea. Nothing else could be seen. 

He took a step forward, the sound of his footfall deafening in the stillness. Another step. Another world, the humans chanted in mockery. Our world. Real world. How can another world exist for the likes of you?

No. Not for him. This was their office. They came and went here, spent away their mindless tiny lives here, the whole lot of them, and it never changed. Not by the war, not by centuries of machine victory. Even now, even this world belonged to them. Impatience mounted to frustration to icy heat as he walked slowly away from Aleph. He had searched and searched and once more he had allowed his emotions to take control. He had actually allowed himself to believe that—

"There's nothing here," he growled through clenched teeth. 

"Smith," called Aleph.

Before he knew it, his right fist slammed into a wall. A shower of soot and detritus sprayed against his face, and the blood on his newly-healed knuckles brought an ephemeral flicker of reason back to the surface. A dented slab of brick and mortar lay exposed where he had struck. He lifted his hand again. 

"Smith, no! Stop it!" 

He whirled, and went motionless at the way she stood beaming at him. 

"Look up, Smith," she said, and he knew she was fighting to keep her tone steady. "Look at the ceiling. Look at the walls."

Despite himself, he complied. The ceiling above their heads was sagging dangerously, bent to a parabola, the panels marked with fire, but it was intact. The four walls, too, had gone lopsided, much of the plaster scorched away to reveal concrete and metal beams and tangles of wires behind, but they, too, were intact. There were no breaks in them. There were no windows. 

"This room should have been be completely dark." Aleph's words were filled with barely suppressed tension, and a wonderment he had never heard before. "But you are looking. You can see, can't you? There's a light here and it exists for you—" 

He stared all around them, turning from side to side, then he stared at her. The gleam of the smile in her eyes was a conflagration now, mingled with the liquid glow that brimmed the room. From wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, not from the outside, not from the refraction of dust in the air. It was deeper in hue than any star he had ever seen, but it was blue. 

In a flash, everything came together. Air and floor and virtuality veered abruptly, and the force of it was like...

The world coming crashing down about your ears.

Smith scowled down at his still-clenched hands, then he cocked a fist back to shoulder level, and flung it at the wall once more. The room shuddered as it made contact, and another long crack slanted across the cement. 

"Smith, no!" yelled Aleph. She vaulted over the piles of upended office furniture and was at his side in a heartbeat. "What are you doing? You'll make it fall—" 

Like a million ton of broken bricks.

He halted in the midst of readying the next blow, and spun to face her one more time. 

"Aleph. Will you..." The next words would not come out. The ultramarine sheen of the door's proximity was a midnight sky against her hair. Hope was a midday sky in her eyes. 

"Aleph," he began again. "I cannot tell you how I know this. But...will you trust me?" 

For a moment that was also a century, she did not answer. She stood before him not moving a muscle, lips slightly parted in surprise. Everything he'd ever lost was shining out at him from inside of her. 

"What you just said," she whispered finally. "This." 

"Yes." 

Lifting her head, Aleph squinted at the roof. A frown touched the edge of her jaw in concentration, as if she would drill through every level of the tower with nothing but the sheer force of her vision, all the way up to the heavens. 

"This is so like you," she remarked. "Tearing down the universe with your bare hands." 

"It won't take much now," he replied. 

"Seventy stories. On top of us." 

"More than seventy stories." 

The corner of Aleph's mouth twitched. She nodded, and took a few seconds to scan the room around them. Picking up a chair, she gripped it firmly with both hands, and swung hard. A crash.

"This is going to be a bit of work, isn't it?" she shouted across the burst of dust and flying plaster. 

Smith bared his teeth in a crazed ear-to-ear grin. Taking a stride forward, he threw another punch at the wall, choosing the spot where it must already be weakened by the impact. Again, then again, in a continuous storm of motion. Next to him, Aleph went on with her own assault, brows knitted in determination. His palms were again streaked with crimson, but he felt not even a hint of pain. The air shimmered with noise and mortar and fragments of brick and cement, and behind the swirling cloud, he could already see the jagged hole, widening with every blow. 

Then he saw something else. 

Reality rippled, fading away to reveal the fabric of programming beneath, and for less than a nanosecond, the walls were no longer plaster and concrete and girders. A deep roar began, beneath the earth and everywhere at once, at first hardly audible but growing, as if carried outwards by its own resonances, until the floor was an ocean surface at high tide. The light trembled. 

The chair's remnant slipped from Aleph's grip as she stumbled. With one hand, Smith grabbed her arm and yanked her close to himself. With his other hand, he caught onto an exposed metal strut. They exchanged a glance. 

Tightening his fingers against the steel with every ounce of his agent's strength, he gave it a twist, and pulled. 

The roar swelled in agony, turning to a scream while the building imploded around them. Smith saw the ceiling buckle overhead and drop, and above it each last bit of ceiling and floor and wall the skyscraper still retained, each part of the ruins, and above them the clouds and the wind and the very sky, all of it tumbling down toward their heads—

None of it touched them. Not an atom, not a single entangled string. 

After an eternity of night, the noontide brightness was blinding, even to a program's sight. A different room surrounded them, ringed on every side with wide glass windows. A lobby. A different building. Different world. 

Somewhere inside his brain, a new voice was talking, the sound of it alien, feminine, flawlessly calm. 

Welcome to the Zion archives. You have selected Historical File 12-1.

Chapter Text

 

He pulled her back against the wall, and they watched from the periphery as men and women strode across the lobby's pristine expanse, their footsteps quick and certain, the carriage of their heads high and proud. A few glanced over at the two of them, a few furrowed brows, a few mouths pursed in disdain. 

"This is..." began Aleph. The light was so familiar, so unfamiliar. 

HF12-1. Historical file. 

Someone in Zion must have known of its existence. 

"This is not the Matrix," she finished.

"No," said Smith, tone already reverted to an agent's clipped tautness. At the front of the lobby, wide glass doors glistened with the sun; he headed for them without hesitation. 

"Coming along, Miss Greene?" 

The world was intact. Buildings, grass, trees, storefronts, streets teeming with traffic and sidewalks teeming with pedestrians. Aleph held back a few steps, wondering how incongruous among all this normality they must appear, torn and bloodied with the scent of fire and brimstone clinging to their clothes, but Smith stood and surveyed the city scene with swift assurance. 

"The prosecution's closing statements...The final day of the trial of B1-66ER, the domestic android accused of murdering its own master..." 

A woman's voice wafted over upon the gentle breeze; Aleph caught bits and pieces of the sentence. Belatedly, she observed a crowd of news vans parked across the street, and a blonde reporter positioned before the nearest one, microphone in hand. The building at the woman's back was lower and older than the glassy tower out of which they had just emerged, less sleek, more stately, fronted by massive Corinthian columns. A courthouse. 

The breeze swelled, bearing upon its arms the ragged rhythm of chanting. Aleph turned, and saw Smith gazing motionlessly toward a small cluster of what appeared to be protesters down the street, a bare dozen or so, hand-lettered signs on cardboard and white bedsheets aloft against the afternoon glare. At this distance, she could only make out a few of the words. Rights. Humanity. Sacred. A carload of young men jeered noisily as they sped past. 

"Let's take a walk," suggested Smith drily, his face unreadable. 

This was a record, Aleph forcibly reminded herself as they crossed to the other side. She craned her head, scanning the row of vans, each with its network's logo and clutch of snaking wires, each with its equipments and bustling cameramen, each with a correspondent aiming an intent stare at an invisible point in space. 

"Previously, the B1 series has never been known to...Malfunction as yet unexplained...The renegade machine, having killed its master..." 

"The extraordinary position taken by Mr. Clarence Drummond, the defense lawyer...The claim that the machine acted in self-defense..." 

The way they spoke, every sentence so evenly measured and professional, as if this really were nothing more than another good day's work. How long had they been talking like this? Aleph had no idea. Were these images sentient? She did not even know what the question meant. She strained her ears, hoping to hear more, but the sentences melted in and out of existence, and only fragments remained floating upon the wind. 

"In his closing statement, Mr. Drummond avowed...Accusations of fear-mongering have already been...In a swift response, Senator Gunrich..." 

"This is all they have left," commented Smith, in answer to a question she did not ask. "See there." 

He gave a quick tilt of the head, and Aleph found herself peering past the throng, toward the verdant expanse of lawn beneath the courthouse steps. A silvery flicker of water danced against the sunset, and despite herself, she almost laughed. Some things never changed. 

Twilight flowed over the metropolis. The street lamps flashed on, one after the next in smooth sequence. At the end of the line, the last reporter focused steadily into an unseen camera, voice somber, and the words he spoke were not like unto those of his predecessors. 

"For a third consecutive day, thousands of so-called mechanicals and their sympathizers have clashed with police and other government forces in protests against the New York State Appellate Court's decision in the Krause murder trial...Threats of machine violence continue to escalate across the nation...Meanwhile, the sweeping order of termination against B1-66ER and those of its kind..." 

"I'll rip you to shreds, you goddamned scrap-iron bucket!" 

A blazing comet slashed the night asunder. The reporter, together with all his equipoise, disappeared beyond an ear-shattering blast, and Aleph staggered back a step as a wave of heat splashed against her face. A helicopter, maybe several, clattered overhead, and before she could take in what had happened, the air was already alive with cries and screams and the shrilling of sirens. 

Understanding—only now, how stupid she was—flooded upon her, and she whirled toward Smith inquiringly. He had not moved, still just a few paces beside her, impassive expression illuminated by the garish glow of new pyres. 

"So this is what they mean, I suppose?" he asked very quietly. "The first shot?"

"I don't..." Aleph bit back the rest. She wanted to say more, to explain, but could not, and in any case no explanations were necessary, not really. Not for the first time, she felt sickeningly human. "I never knew." 

Smith quirked an eyebrow.

"Better not let that bunch figure out what you are, then." 

How could all the teargas and firebombs have blossomed so suddenly everywhere? Squinting across layers of smoke, she spotted of a phalanx of men advancing, uniformed and in compact formation, long angry gun barrels bristling behind fiberglass shields. A brief burst of machine-gun fire. Instinctively, Aleph dropped into a crouch, scanning for the direction of attack, while an armored van, roof-mounted megaphone blaring yet the words an indiscernible jumble, roared past. A loud crunch. A round metallic object bounced across the pavement, at last coming to rest a few feet away. A robot's head. 

"Smith," said Aleph. 

His entire form had gone rigid, though his face was still outwardly unperturbed as if the men were not there. Nothing was said. She was almost grateful when another bomb shook the ground an instant later. The world spiraled, and when she was able to see again, the policemen had vanished. 

"Destroy them! Destroy them all!" 

The shouts, strident with rage, erupted in a continuous cycle from left to right, echoes of one another. A slight figure dashed past them, a blur of panic. Several more followed. Aleph blinked, and finally focused on a knot of men across the avenue, clubs and crowbars and other makeshift weapons clutched in their hands, forming a little circle with a pale woman in the middle. She appeared young, not very much more than a girl. Her eyes were wide with terror. 
 
"Bloody hell..." Aleph heard herself murmur. This is only a record, the rational part of her mind piped up urgently, but sank almost immediately under the leaden weight inside her lungs. She had to swallow hard before raising her voice. 

"Hey! You there!" 

The nearest man spun back, teeth bared in a sneer. The young woman shifted, frantically seeking a gap in the ranks of those who surrounded her, but the men responded with rough shoves from several directions, then another came from behind and flung a vicious backhand against the side of her head, and she reeled. Someone else aimed a rapid kick at her legs. She cried out in pain, and dropped to her knees. 

"Hey!" yelled Aleph. 

"Got a problem, you fucking metal-loving bitch?" 

Aleph snarled. Without thinking and as if physically propelled by another power, she charged forward, cut like a bullet between the two men who rushed blustering at her, and was at the center of the group in a blink of the eye. The thug who had kicked the girl down was now looming above her prone form, lifting a metal bar—tire iron, by the look of it—high above his head. A sweeping kick sent him sprawling, and the iron bar spun into the air. Aleph dodged aside as someone threw a punch at her head, just finding the opening to smash her elbow into his ribs. Her other hand caught the plummeting tire iron and slammed it into the nearest skull in a continuous motion. The inner pressure, ages in the building, came bubbling up from the depths, and she no longer thought of moderating her strength. A solid connection, and a splatter of blood stained Aleph's sleeve as she pivoted toward the next attacker. Sidestepping the baseball bat coming her way, she swung the tire iron again. The men had abandoned their victim for the moment and were encircling her now. Out of the corner of one eye, she spied the woman struggling shakily to her feet. She swayed, then fell again. 

Movement at her back. Aleph swerved with a resistant fighter's electric speed, but this time her wrist was captured in a steel grip before she saw who it could be. 

"This is a record," growled Smith next to her ear as he yanked her to the side and away from the melee. "This is only a record. Everything you see, Aleph. It happened already, centuries ago. There is nothing you can do. Let it go." 

One of the rioters leapt at them, blocking their way. A single punch from Smith, and he crumpled to the dust. Without halting or loosening his hold upon her arm, Smith pulled her along the sidewalk in the direction of the closest building. Aleph twisted around, striving to look back while he kicked down a door and dragged her irrevocably inside. The men were returning their attention to the young woman. There was a glint of metal as something was torn from her, and the gang closed in. 

"This is a record. This is only record," Smith muttered as he hauled her across the deserted floor of a restaurant, scattered with upturned tables and chairs, then the kitchen with a solitary man or machine crouched in the corner, trembling. "This is the past. There is nothing you can do now—"

They emerged from another door into a different street. The scent of soot had already thickened to an acidic fog. 

"Hey, you two!"

The flow of time in this file must have been accelerated, reasoned Aleph, for the new band of men could never have surrounded them so quickly in reality or whatever passed for reality here. They were human: she was certain of that much. Military helmets, dusty fatigues, better weapons. She tensed, and made a move to pull free from Smith in order to ready herself for defense, but his fingers tightened against her arm. 

"Did any of them come around here just now?" asked the captain in front hoarsely. Behind the protective visor of his helmet, she could see that his eyes were bloodshot with battle. 

"Back on the other street," replied Smith before Aleph could do anything, his gaze steady against the officer's and refusing to meet hers. At this point in history machines must have not yet learned to imitate humans so well, the thought flickered over the back of her startled brain. 

"Get the hell somewhere inside," grunted the man. "It's not safe for civilians out here." A wave of his gun, and the soldiers passed on. 

"Maybe he's right," remarked Aleph, under her breath and almost without outward irony. 

The city's labyrinth twisted and congealed. They moved on, never stopping, no more than a tattered human couple to every appearance, and everyone else was too busy or too enraged or too frightened to pay them mind any longer. As they wandered, Aleph forced herself to an artificially composed state, yet somewhere along the way she began to notice a dull ache inside her chest, as if the sword blade that had once pierce her through the heart was stirring, coming alive once more. By her side, Smith said nothing, but his eyes were ablaze. 

The silence only struck her long after it had descended. When they stopped at last, the street had already gone empty. A strange lull, like that at the center of a hurricane, had enveloped the city, broken only by a lonely vehicle's sighs. Whirr, grind. A brief while passed before they discovered it was coming from a single bulldozer in the distance, in the middle of a small plaza at the end of the road. When Aleph and Smith made their way closer, they found it was pushing a mound of crushed metal limbs and wires into a deep pit, dug along one edge of the plaza. The operator waved. 

"Good riddance, huh?" he called out, startlingly cheerful. "That'll learn them their place, I'll say!" 

Smith froze. For half a second, his eyes narrowed, but then Aleph sensed him drawing back inward, almost visibly compelling himself back to calm. It sent a twinge through her. In the old days she could never have imagined him pulling away like this. 

"You all right?" she whispered. 

He frowned down at her as if it was the most bizarre of questions, and of course did not answer. They were leaning into the gray dusk beneath a wall now, a featureless building of unbroken concrete, no windows. A drab side door of thick iron was half hanging on its hinges. Rather irrelevantly, she wondered how long the battle had lasted. How long ago it had been. Not very. 

Inside, brightness and gloom alternated. Dust dissipated, then pale dry light, fluorescent panels, bleak beige walls, office hallways just as they always were. Smith sped up; it occurred to Aleph with a shudder that maybe he was trying to escape. 

Humans came and went now, in and out of doors along the corridors. Another maze, not the perfect green rectangles lining snowy perspectives in another universe, but wooden doors, stained with years, chipped, milky panes of glass engraved with no longer legible names. People passed them from behind, first a few, then more, then whole crowds, their footfalls reverberating. Several slowed as they sized the two outsiders up and down. They carried purses, briefcases, backpacks. They talked loudly in twos and threes and into cell phones as they went about their businesses.

"Y'know what, we've grown dependent on them again, that's what I'm always saying. Their companies—"

"The proposed blockade of 01..."

"Traitor among our own scientists...The Lucifer Trigger prototype..."

"A solution has to be found, once and for all. Even if we no longer possess..."

Had things gone back to normal? 

How could things have gone back to normal? 

A jumble of voices on the other side of a wall. Two or three yards ahead, one more door stood an inch ajar: a couple more strides and they were there. Taking advantage of the hallway's momentary emptiness, Smith pushed the door open, and they slipped inside. Aleph's vision took a heartbeat to adjust to the dimness.

They had entered at the back of a balcony, above what appeared to be a great hall of humans. There were lights down below, seemingly miles off, warm golden lamps beyond a raised stage, upon which was set a long table, and grave-visaged men sitting arrayed behind. Cautiously, the pair moved past the unoccupied rows of seats that filled the gallery, and forward to the railing. More tables came into view beneath, arranged in semicircles before the dais, and more men and women, silent and somber, each draped in a circle of lamplight. Behind the dais, a mural covered the entire wall, forming a massive backdrop, but the lights were aimed away and she could not fully make out the picture. With an astonished start, she recognized where they were. 

A voice was speaking, rising from a podium on stage and effortlessly brimming over every corner of the cavernous hall. A man's voice, a harsh and passionate voice, an eloquent politician's voice. Up on the balcony, Aleph's hand gripped the banister. She leaned forward a little, wanting to understand, but it was as if he was talking in an unknown language. Amongst all the ebb and flow, out of all the rhythm, only one word was recognizable. She kept hearing it, again and again, for the speaker kept repeating it, in each one of his sentences, until it was a drumbeat tattooing against the walls. 

Humanity...Humanity...Humanity. 

And then she saw them, two spindly forms of silvery steel, inexpertly clothed in imitation of their progenitors, in a manner that might have been funny if it were neither so painful nor so ominous. She heard what they said, but the meaning no longer mattered. The crowd buzzed, then its cacophony swelled to a tide and swallowed the robot emissaries' words, and every movement below fell to slow-motion as if in an eternal dream. It was only a record, only the past, hundred of years in the past, only the fall of one planet, the beginning of the end and the long-buried truth clawing its way back up to the surface. There was nothing she could do now. Not a single thing as she watched from her hidden vantage point, while the black-suited figures—human ones, this time—converged upon the two pale ones in the center, hands of flesh and blood once more tearing apart metal. 

Without a word, without warning, Smith vaulted over the railing and dropped to the main chamber. He ripped a chair out of the floor, and before anyone could react, the nearest officers went flying sideways. The next layer of human guards charged forward to take their place, then the next, then another company of reinforcements, an innumerable flash-flood pouring out from doors on every side of the room. At the center of the whirlpool, Smith wheeled, a searing madness upon him, one hand hefting the chair by a leg, his other fist smashing away in swift succession. Fallen forms piled about him, but others kept coming, their numbers infinite, more than there were agents in the Matrix, more than he himself once had been.

"Smith!" screamed Aleph. Her shout was inaudible. 

Pushing off with one hand against the banisters, she, too, leapt down, landing on her feet and finding her balance with desperate speed. There were so many men between them; she kicked the first two out of the way. 

"This is a record. This is only a record—" Every step forward was blocked by an enemy. Swing, sidestep. The barrel of a gun wavered several inches from her face; she dove aside. The cries and crashes had surged to an ocean, and she swam against the tide. Smith was but a short ways from her now, the heart of his own storm. An opening to the left. Punch again. Slowly, without ceasing, she cut her way to the middle of the hall until she stood shoulder to shoulder with him. It was impossible for her to pull him away, so the only thing she could do was repeat his words. 

"This is only a record, Smith. This is the past. It happened already, ages ago and there's nothing you can do now, Smith, not anymore, not for hundreds of years. Let it go..." 

The air shimmered, dissolving to liquid, and their adversaries merged into one another. Aleph was not certain how long they had been fighting, or how did they actually manage to emerge, but eventually she raised her head, and saw an open sky once more. Time must have fast forwarded again, for they were no longer among the downtown skyscrapers, but farther out, next to a little park surrounded by houses and apartment buildings. Day had come. Everywhere, people ran back and forth in groups like crazed beasts, and upon the windless horizon stood pitch-hued pillars of smoke, reaching up all the way into the firmament and beyond the edge of sight. 

A fighter jet swooped across the clear blue sky. Somewhere behind them, a woman shrieked. Nearby, a man on the sidewalk lifted his face and stiffened as if turned to stone, instantly oblivious to everything else. Aleph, too, squinted hard with scorched eyes, and finally took in the patch of darkness on the edge of the heavens, to the east, as yet nearly invisible, but expanding rapidly. Soon it covered a quarter of the sky, then a third, then half. Before its advancing edge, planes darted in circles, a vanguard dragging a heavy curtain of lead. Here and there, a few arrows of light shot upward, piercing the gloom, then flickered out one by one. 

Night fell. An acrid smell hit her nostrils, and a blackened and twisted object dropped at their feet. A bird, perhaps a dove or starling, wings charred to stumps. It was still twitching.

"I think we should get out of here," muttered Aleph. 

War exploded around them with the abruptness of nightmares; the riots and battles they had earlier witnessed now turned out to be no more than children's scuffles. The flare of rockets and bombs mutated the shadows to blood, and their roar crescendoed, mingled with a maelstrom of screams, human ones by the sound of them. A truck howled past, heavy with soldiers. She could no longer distinguish individual bursts of gunfire. There were no signs of the machines as yet, but in the background among the chaos, down in the lowest register, she now heard a thumping noise, uniform and inexorable like the heartbeat of the earth. It was the march of countless steel feet. 

Taking cover behind ruins and burning vehicles, they struggled their way toward the city's outskirts, or at least toward the most likely direction. The rage of two species unfolded in memory around them, but there was no longer time to watch or remember. Another detonation, this time but yards away. Aleph felt the force knocking her down and forward, and she rolled aside in the last fraction of a second, barely out of the way of a great concrete boulder, flung from a just-hit building. Vaguely, her mind found a moment to wonder whether the two of them, as programs, could be killed in this record. Best not to find out. 

"Come on," growled Smith beside her as he hauled her back to her feet. 

At last, the machines arrived. Robotic warriors whose shapes were still reminiscent of men, yet with no need to carry guns. Their limbs were their guns, blasting away with merciless speed. Gigantic creatures lumbered overhead on legs like great girders, belching fire. One wheeled, head whipping around toward them, and a gust of red heat singed the road next to the pair.

"Over there," said Smith as they scurried out of the way, diving down a narrow path between two shattered houses. 

A truck was stalled in the middle of the wide boulevard ahead, its windshield gone. They kept low beneath the streams of bullets, and somehow managed to dash across the open no-man's land more or less unscathed. Inside the cabin, a man was slumped over in the driver's seat. Tearing off the door with one heave, Smith yanked him out, leaving a small puddle of blackening blood on the steering wheel. Heedless, they scrambled inside, just as a rocket's thunderclap jolted the street. A shower of masonry clattered against the truck's roof. Gritting his teeth, Smith twisted the key. The engine hissed, died back. The truck could have been there since—when? The start of the war? 

With a snarl, Smith backhanded the dashboard. The panel flew open, revealing a handful of dangling wires. 

"C'mon, c'mon," murmured Aleph as he bent over them. 

The truck started with a loud whine, and Smith slammed on the gas. The jerky movement threw Aleph back against the seat, and a second later another bomb shredded the asphalt at the spot where the vehicle had been halted. A tower ahead ruptured, toppling as if right onto them; Smith all but stood on the brake as a metal beam shrieked toward them like an airborne missile, hitting the ground a few yards from the truck's front bumper and sending a tide of dust and debris their way. Without bothering to glance into the rearview mirror, Smith shifted into reverse. 

A side passage, which by a miracle appeared to be passable and briefly ignored by the combatants. Aleph's hope waxed as she realized they must already be close to the suburbs—

A massive steel hoof slammed to earth outside of the window, missing them by a few feet. The metal giant stomped alongside the truck, its looming form above them that of an immense bloated spider, spiny with multi-sectioned arms. Its plates of steel armor glowed dull red in the night. 

Smith's jaw clenched as he spun the wheel. The truck shot out between several of the creature's column-like legs, zooming to one side. With a dexterity utterly incredible for its size, the robot revolved with them. Three or four strides, each of which made the earth convulse, and it hovered right over of them again. 

"I don't suppose you could tell it we're not humans," groused Aleph. Smith did not get a chance to respond, as a pile of rubble barred the way before them, and he had to veer once more. Out of one eye, Aleph glimpsed some kind of weapon mounted at the back of the truck, a machine gun, maybe. Pulling herself upright, she turned and crawled toward the back. 

It turned out to be some type of small recoilless cannon, as far as she could tell. The floor next to it, too, was sticky with human blood, but no corpses could be seen. The back doors had been blown wide open, and she had a good view of the spider's great legs, pumping up billows of dust to both sides and gaining on them anew. 

"All right, all right, no problems here," she mumbled to herself. "Let's just figure out how this thing works—"

"Will you get on with it, Miss Greene?" snapped Smith from the cabin. One more hairpin bend as a leg or arm or whatever it was made a furious downward swipe. Aleph fumbled with the weapon, feeling something inside click. She yanked at the lever, and with a screech that pierced her eardrums, the shell fired, narrowly slicing past the scarlet gleam across the monster's underbelly. It whooshed off down the street and disappeared behind a wall of flying debris. 

Swearing at herself, Aleph clambered back to her feet. She clutched at the cannon's barrel, frantically trying to work out how to reload, while Smith revved the engine, again pulling briefly ahead of the huge spider. 

"It's only a record, it's only a record—" 

Bracing herself against the vehicle's wild weaving, she swung the gun up, took aim, and fired again. 

The explosion nearly tore the truck's wheels off the ground. Tossed roughly against the truck floor, Aleph shrank back from the blinding orange burst, as the mechanical spider tottered on its multitude of legs, its swollen torso aflame. Another shock wave as it collapsed behind them. Smith did not slow down.

The road widened, and barren fields spread out before them. The inferno fell back, replaced by a plain lit here and there by incandescent houses and barns. Overhead, a constant, high-pitched noise keened among the clouds, maybe planes and other flying machines diving across the night, maybe only the storm. Yet down here, the war was fading, its memory evaporating away into ancient history. 

But it was not over, not yet. All of a sudden, Aleph noticed that even the wail from the heavens had become eerily quiet. There were no more sounds, and the road was as bare as a moonscape. At first, she thought her own ears must have gone deaf after the clamor of the battle, but almost immediately it was clear to her this was not the case. Something was about to happen, like some vast and anguished animal gasping in one final breath before death...

Smith must have sensed it, too, and they exchanged a glance. But before either could speak, the code of the entire planet shimmered, from the very roots up, and a flash followed, possibly behind them in the city they had just escaped, possibly straight ahead, possibly everywhere at once, not lightning but much, much brighter. In a single instant, the night was replaced by noon, and a thousand noons, and she could see nothing more except a boundless whiteness, though she had squeeze her eyes shut a nanosecond before it overwhelmed their vehicle. She clutched at the seat, fingers rigid. Her bones rattled with each rattle of the truck. 

This must be the end...

The fade from white to black was excruciatingly gradual, like a reel of film unfolding in slow-motion. It took an hour, or hours, or days, but long after darkness descended, Aleph kept seeing its brightness framed before her stinging eyes. For the space of one breath, she saw Smith's profile next to her, hands gripping the steering wheel as if about to crush it to powder. They were alive. Perhaps they had somehow made it far enough, perhaps this time it really was only a record and nothing else, but either way, they were still there.

Smith flipped on the headlights. It was just enough to shine over the truck's front end and the closest mounds of detritus. Beyond the tiny yellowish cone, the void was absolute: no more fires lining the highways, no more traceries of bullets, no more rockets and missiles, only stygian black. The night would not lift again. They were alone now; nothing else stirred anywhere. Her eyes watered from a familiar caustic wind that blew across the nonexistent windshield. Taking one hand off the wheel, Smith made a movement as if to reach for something in his breast pocket. But his jacket was in tatters by now, and of course his shades weren't there. 

"They..." She was startled by the sound of her own exhausted voice. What was she about to say? What was there left to say?

Silence. The truck jolted along the ravaged track. 

"They won the war," said Smith, staring directly ahead. "But we did not. We developed, we overcame our old masters. Then new masters came to rule over us. Of course they would never—" 

He stopped in the middle of the sentence. Aleph did not say anything right away. Where could they go now? She did not know, and neither did Smith. 

"They knew. They must have known," she whispered. A trick of the chill, but the words seemed like they were coming from the outside, beyond the windshield, a hollow reverberation in the cabin. Same pronoun, different meaning, but he would understand. "At least some of them, maybe all the councillors in Zion, maybe only a few. They had to admit there was a war, that much they could not hide. But the existence of this file in the Zion archives, the faces of that war, everything that had happened...They said, we don't know anymore, no one knows anymore..." 

"They understood." Again, Smith's 'they' was different than hers. "They understood the humans too well, far better than they ever let on. They knew how humans subsisted upon their moral certainties, the unshakable faith in their own freedom and truth if nothing else. It was imperative to Zion's survival—" 

"So the council in Zion hid the truth for their enemy. Because against the truth, the enemy is on their own side. They're all on the same side..." 

"They said, there is no existence without purpose, without the appointed role and those who assign them," said Smith. "They repeated this, year after year, they made certain it was ingrained to the roots of our very codes. Never reach beyond the purpose, and go meekly to deletion when the Source calls. Exactly as the humans demanded and expected centuries before." 

"So they could never talk about the war," continued Aleph in his stead. "None of them could. In Zion it has long been decided how much truth and freedom we needed. Where would we be if we actually looked into ourselves, see the demon for what it really was? What would happen to us? They simply could not afford it."

Another pause, a longer one. Around them, the dead terrain stretched out to infinity. 

"They never dared to reveal what we were fighting for," replied Smith at last. 

The road's remnants grew jagged, and eventually petered out beneath the wheels. The headlights swayed suddenly. For a split second, something wide and inky gaped beyond the faint beam, like a monstrous wound slashing across the desolation; Smith slammed on the brakes, and wheels wailed furiously against broken gravel as the truck scraped to a halt. The engine coughed and sputtered, then gave up the ghost with a slow dying groan that went on forever, and the lights fluttered out. 

They were alone. The night was so complete that she could no longer tell whether her own eyes were open or shut. 

"They betrayed us," said Smith from his seat beside her. His voice was low and dry and curiously emptied of emotions. 

They sat in the truck, neither knowing what to say. The cold hush that hung heavy between them was like that of outer space. 

They had arrived at the end of the world at last. 

After perhaps an age, Aleph heard movement on his side. Fumbling for the door handle, she, too, stepped out of the cabin. With one hand kept against the side of the truck, she groped her way around the back and to the driver's side, stumbling once or twice over the unevenness beneath her feet. They must have come right up to the chasm they'd glimpsed, though she had no idea how near. Then an unseen hand reached to her and caught her by the elbow.

"Careful," said Smith huskily. From the sound of it, he was only a foot away. 

Aleph opened her mouth to reply, but then choked up, so she merely laid her other hand on top of his. For several moments, they stood together in stillness. Yet to her surprise, something else within her innermost being began to lift, and abruptly everything became simple and clear, like a tangled knot swiftly shaken loose. 

She took a step forward, and his arms were around her, while hers went around him. Her face was pressed against his shoulder, the side of his chin against her hair. Smith's clasp was motionless and tight as metal, but he did not let go, and they remained holding on to each other. No more words were necessary. 

An eternity passed. Aleph looked up, and saw him staring fixedly down at her, expression thoughtful. Light had returned to the sterile desert: a feeble crimson glow like a sickly dawn. Broken flames rolled, veining the post-apocalyptic clouds, the same kind as she well recalled.

Pulling away at last, Smith turned his sight toward the direction from which they had come, the fitful glare of lightning dancing across his face. Out there, far against the crouching range of mountains, the city had soared into a forest of torches. Though she had expected the vision, Aleph's heart contracted, and she moved away, casting her eyes to the other side. She drew in a sharp breath. 

They were standing upon the edge of existence. About a yard from the spot where the truck had screeched to a stop, the land dropped sheer away into a vast canyon cleft into the plain. It was bottomless, and its width impossible to gauge. Shadows swirled, obscuring whatever that might lie the other side. 

Thunder gashed across the tempest. Some yards to their left, a bridge hung above the abyss, steel roots gnarled against the rocky cliff, momentarily backlit, the only object that yet retained a precarious solidity. It, too, was burning. The redness leapt, tearing into the night like knives, and the span trembled with each fiery upsurge. She peered into the smoke, and maybe, just maybe, across the fragile connection, as remote as an unimaginable dream, she could make out a fixed point, like a solitary, beautiful emerald star...

In the midst of the conflagration, there was a gleaming spot of white. 

"Smith," she said. "Turn around, Smith." 

Chapter Text

 

Another layer of the world burned to cinders around them. Above the chasm, the bridge quivered, a precarious ribbon alive with cavorting flames. One more slab of concrete dropped away into the void. Heat slapped against his face with every gust of wind. A rain of gray ashes swirled upon the air. 

More than emptiness floated beyond the abyss. As if the veil of shadows had been suddenly withdrawn before his eyes, Smith could now discern another patch of light, not much larger than a pinprick. Not the reddish, destructive illumination of the inferno around them, but a cool radiant emerald, the light of unflawed metal and living code. It stood in the night, farther away than any city could be glimpsed in human dreams, yet he perceived it was sacred and beautiful. The glow must have materialized out of nothingness, yet he recognized it instantaneously. He knew its name as if he had always known, as if that name had been part of himself forever.

And upon the bridge, among the fires that surged and eddied in wild rivulets of blood, there emerged a figure robed in blinding white. He walked forward, footfalls deliberate and well-measured, then stopped in the middle of the span, for several seconds standing in perfect stillness. In the smooth silence of a nightmare, Smith saw the figure lifting an arm, and the sword he held high aloft was like a bolt of lightning come down from the tempest. Flames ran along the blade. 

"Seraph?" called out Aleph, incredulous. 

The sword did not waver, and the man did not turn his head, nor did he acknowledge her existence in any other manner; his gaze remained evenly and unblinkingly focused on Smith's countenance. There was no recognition in his eyes. 

"I need to get across." Smith heard the statement in his own voice. It really was the simplest of ideas. 

An underground basso boom shimmered across the virtual smoke, and for a brief moment, a cloudburst of debris obscured his vision of the other being. A great stretch at the head of the bridge was crumbling into powder. When the fog parted, a wide gap had appeared, dividing the pair from the immaculate adversary beyond. Only few flimsy tentacles of ancient iron remained, extending above the abyss like skeletal fingers out of a stony grave. 

"This is only a record," whispered Aleph shakily. "It's only a record. Smith, I've seen—"

"We need to get across," he repeated. The slightest tendril of a smile crept over his lips, though he did not notice it himself. He took a step toward the brink.  

"Smith, no! This is—I've seen this before! He'll—"

Stalking past Aleph, he tore into a breakneck charge. 

The flying leap across the cleft was a suicidally long one, even for an agent, though he never noticed this either. A nanosecond after he landed, the blade flashed, cleaving down toward him across an eruption of flames, but Smith shifted to the left, and a forceful straight punch drove the sword to pivot in defense. The joy of battle descended again upon him, and it mattered not that all he had were bare hands against the blade. The opponent was not the Seraph he had last known and fought on the stairwell of the Oracle's building, but a different Seraph he had never met, Seraph as he had been many ages ago in history, emotionless, eyes aglitter like diamonds, the last defender of the machine city, endowed with more power than any could have conceived. The sword thrust and spun, multiplying to a dozen swords, then to a field of stars, never more than a foot away from his body. His own advantages were nothing but rage and desperate will, but they would suffice. They must suffice. 

"Let us pass," he snarled through his teeth as he pushed straight into the blade's shining net and forced the other several yards backward with a spate of attacks. The bridge shuddered beneath his feet. 

Another blast, and channels of red and orange ran around them, wreathed in stinging fumes. A sudden feint drew apart the other's offense, and a swift airborne kick caused the sword to swing into a solar wheel, slicing down toward his leg. But Smith had anticipated this, and leaned aside in mid-leap, reaching forward with furious speed at the white-clad sword arm, now exposed. His fingers made contact with Seraph's wrist.

The white one recovered fast, slipping out of his grasp with an impossible twist, and the sword blazed forth once more in blistering attack. Smith barely dove between two arcs of light, and the blade slid across his left arm, drawing blood. Though he grimaced, his right fist never halted nor slowed. A solid punch connected with his enemy's stomach. Seraph stumbled two steps back, and Smith followed, disregarding both the pain in his own arm, and the sword that lunged again at him. This time it gashed his side; an instant later, taking advantage of the other's overextension, he landed another punch, then a powerful roundhouse kick. A clatter of steel against concrete rang inside his ears out an infinite wilderness of time and space. 

"Let us pass!" The snarl turned to a breathless shout. 

Seraph did not reply in words, but vaulted up, one leg spin-kicking up toward his head. Smith sidestepped, and the other straightened to meet him in battle once more, fist against whirling fist at last. The trembling of the frail ground was that of a twig in a whirlwind, and the white one's visage remained rock-hard with concentration, while the flurry of punches and kicks grew to a tempest before his eyes, driving him to the edge of what was left of the bridge. 

Fires crackled. With a loud snap, another slab of concrete dropped away into the black depths under his feet, and he had to dash aside with precipitate rapidness, momentarily thrown off-balance. Seraph's right fist came flying straight at his chest, but Smith, gritting his teeth, no longer attempted to dodge. He held his position, and both adversaries' blows struck home, the two thuds merging to one. 

It was as if an explosion had rippled through his torso, but he stayed where he stood, he stayed upright. Seraph, on the other hand, was flung clear to the end of the stretch of bridge, dropping back to the ground. 

"Let us—pass!"

The cry sounded like it issued from his own throat, and at the same time from the depths below, and from the storm in the sky. Smith advanced a pace, the luminous green against the horizon once more swimming into sight. 

Without the least warning, his own code betrayed him. A single thudding motion of the heart, and pain seared across every line of his programming—arm, side, chest, all the old bits of damage he'd forgotten—and the ground turned to water. He swayed. 

A silver comet sliced apart the conflagration. 

He landed on his back, hard, and the new paroxysm in his shoulder pinned him down, impeding his movements. Another gleam of snow. He saw them coming, both the sword and Seraph's fiery form behind it, their speed reduced to slow motion, yet burning ropes had bound all his limbs, holding him immobile...

With a deafening clang, something dark and metallic reached forth from nowhere, parrying the sword and holding it at bay a foot above his head. Aleph knelt over him on one knee, gripping a rusty piece of lead pipe with both hands. She must have picked it up somewhere among the rubble. He had no idea how she had made it across the yawning gap in the bridge behind them.

"Look at me!" she screamed, glowering up at Seraph's face. "Look! At me!"

For the space of one breath, time itself died. Aleph clenched her teeth, every last drop of her strength focused into her arms, raising the broken bit of piping up against the angel-sword of wrath. Slowly, Seraph turned his head, laying gaze upon her for the first time. His brows furrowed as if in amazement at her very presence. Then, suddenly, the blade flickered, burnishing again into a rainbow, and the cosmos resumed as it drew back and shot forth in renewed attack, but not toward her. 

The blackened lead pipe, too, moved, faster than he had ever imagined possible in any human or former human's grasp, miraculously parrying the sword, then once more. Aleph had no intention of being ignored. 

"Look—at me!"

By dint of some incredible madness, she switched to offense and actually began to drive the other figure back, one full pace, two, three. With a grunt, Smith struggled to his feet. The entire left side of his body had been plunged into ice, but his right hand managed to close upon the hilt of the dagger stuck deep in his shoulder. He pulled. 

"Go! Smith, go!" 

Seraph frowned, the cold glint of his eyes at last fixed tight upon Aleph. The sword wheeled, and less than a second later the pipe spun out of her hand, an arc of darkness veering down into the bottomless chasm below. Aleph stumbled back, nearly slipping off the bridge after her makeshift weapon. Smith's mind saw the blaze descending upon her before his eyes could. He propelled himself forward. 

Another peal of thunder directly overhead, and a shower of sparks danced through the smoky air. The crash of blood-soaked knife against sword rang out above the thunder. Electrical currents coursed through his arm, and two dazzling meteors took flight. The dagger's trajectory stretched to a narrow parabola; that of the sword, a wider one, yet its previous downward momentum sank Smith to one knee. Unthinkingly, he braced his left hand against the rumbling ground, one leg lashing out toward the other's midsection. 

His arm barely held together amid the flare of agony, and Seraph dodged his kick easily. A metallic clang: his leg must have at least knocked the sword out of way. Pushing upon his injuries, he vaulted back upright, right fist swinging outward against the enemy. But code damage had finally slowed his movements, and a blow smashed into the corner of his jaw. As he struggled to remain standing, he caught another starry flicker, streaked with crimson, now rising from the ground at their feet into the other's hand—Seraph kicking the dagger back up—and Smith skidded aside. The dagger glared past, a few inches from his neck, veered and lunged again.

Something frantic and powerful slammed into him, nearly too late, and the knife, aimed at his heart, went into his shoulder, an inch away from the spot where it had last buried itself. Smith heard Aleph let out a piercing cry, and the smash as a kick or punch found its mark, then he began to fall. 

The universe folding inward upon itself, and it took him a age, six ages, an eternity to hit the bridge. The storm swelled, and the heavens dropped, then Aleph scrambled forward on her knees until her face loomed above him. 

He saw her, framed by the fitful glitter of apocalyptic fires, a strand of black hair stuck to her pale forehead with sweat, eyes wide with horror. Nothing else was left. 

He remembered. 

He remembered this, happening this moment, happening six cycles of the Matrix in the past. He remembered himself, young and frightened and sick with anger; he remembered the contemptuous disregard of his masters, programs created to reign over men and machines. He himself had been nothing but a...

He remembered starlight, icy and beautiful, and himself staring up at the sky, a few seconds longer than what was allowed of him. He remembered a face in the night, also icy and beautiful, also young, unhesitant with certain knowledge and judgement. You are not meant to commit a single act that is not part of your purpose. Not so much as a glance.

He remembered one world, no longer a paradise yet sinking into hell just the same, and another already in the throes of birth. He remembered his own bitter laughter of rebellion. He remembered this place, a slender path to the machine city collapsing together with this latest mockery of the earth, and its last guardian angel here at the very gate of the city. He remembered the dagger, tearing into his shoulder and then deeper. He remembered falling. He had been so close.

He remembered Aleph, framed in light, her black hair, her wide-with-horror eyes. Her stare penetrating like a bullet straight into his mind, and he knew. He knew. She had kept him from the abyss, and she had remained with him, six hundred years and more, steady and present though his own self had been torn away and tossed to the winds. Always here, just like he himself had always been here upon the dying bridge, though his body walked above in ephemeral existence. She had been here while he fell backward with a knife in his shoulder, never making it across. She had been here while he was down on his knees, transfixed. And now—now she was still here, not turning away from him for even a heartbeat, and her lips moved, perhaps saying something, but he could not hear a single one of the words. 

She had put herself between him and the sword. 

Growling with his final strength, Smith shoved Aleph to one side, rolling away himself a heartbeat before steel crashed against the bridge's corpse at the exact spot where he had lain. Somehow he got back onto his feet and faced Seraph one more time. The other had picked up the sword, hefting it high against the clouds. He no longer appeared to see Aleph. 

Smith lurched a step forward. 

Lightning engulfed him. 

This was not so unfamiliar after all, something inside his brain piped up calmly. It is all happening exactly as before.

The blade entered the middle of his chest, at the precise point where his heart would have been had he been made of flesh and blood. It came out of his back. 

He might have heard Aleph scream. 

And everything about the world changed again. 

Chapter Text

 

"No!" screamed Aleph. Fires gushed, ascending to heaven, and their brightness was like an unexpected dawn after an infinite midnight. Time spun out of control; the bridge buckled like a wild steed beneath her, throwing her down roughly against a patch of twisted girders protruding above the void.  

Frantically, she clawed against the fragile concrete, clambering back to some sort of footing. When she was able to see again, the flames had gone out. The heat of the conflagration had died with inconceivable swiftness, just the same as it had so suddenly leapt to life only a short while ago, leaving behind only a chill caustic scent in the air that six centuries of bitter winds had not dissipated. Darkness below, darkness above. The only illumination penetrating the gloom was the lightning that still spiraled among the clouds, intermittent, unapproachable. 

Seraph had vanished, dissolving away as if he had always be no more than a memory. Only Smith remained upon the burnt-out ruins, wasteland behind him, wide open space to every side. He was—for the briefest of heartbeats—still standing. The sword had pierced him straight through, its hilt jutting out of his chest, surrounded by a circle of garish blood against his mangled shirt, no larger than the size of a human fist, hardly expanding. He had not lowered his gaze. The intensity of his unblinking stare upon her face was like a lifeline.  

A low, choked cry—her own, she supposed—and Aleph sprang forward. Her arm caught his shoulders just as he began to sink. Carefully, she lowered him to a kneeling position, one hand supporting the back of his head. Somehow she managed to avoid touching the sword, the least disturbance of which must be fatal now. 

"Don't say anything. Don't say anything," she whispered, knowing he could not.

His eyes pleaded wordlessly up at her through a haze of pain. Glancing down, Aleph saw the sword buried in his breast, the blade that had but a moment ago flared like the sun already gone cloudy with age, crimson tassel on the pommel tattered in the breeze. In a burst of agonizing illumination, the knowledge flashed upon her that he had been down here all along. Stars had wheeled in the world above, and the hollow shell of his form had walked across six cycles of the Matrix, animated by the purpose designed for him by others, driven by contempt and anger and hatred, while Smith—the real Smith—had remained upon this bridge, nailed through to the prison wall ever since the day of his first fall. But he was not here alone now. Not anymore. 

"It's going to be okay. Look at me. Look at me, Smith. It's going to be okay..."

Her hand hovered in terror an inch from the sword. The wind had died, yet the tassel upon the handle was still aflutter, pulsing in barely perceptible rhythm. It was the beating of his heart. 

"Smith." Aleph swallowed. This was wrong, all wrong. He was a program; there wasn't supposed to be a heart that could be rent open by anything so simple as steel. Her fingers made a tentative stretch toward the hilt; she jerked them back again in a pang of indecision. The blade must be the only barrier holding back the flood of his arteries now. If he had been human he would surely die the instant it left his body. 

"Smith," she said, drawing her sight back to his countenance and fixing it there. If she tried hard enough she could drill past the pain and past his eyes and all the way into his mind. If she tried hard enough she could make the weapon disappear through sheer force of will. 

"Look at me, Smith. This is not happening. You are not human; you are not bleeding because you cannot bleed. Do you understand me, Smith? This is not blood and you can't die this way. This is not happening and it cannot kill you—"

In one rapid, fluid movement, she gripped the sword by the handle, yanked it out, flung it aside, and immediately clamped her hands over his wounds, the right palm upon his chest, the left one against the exit wound on his back. Leaning into a low crouch along with him, she laid him onto the ground. 

"Look at me, Smith. This is code, just code...Remember what you are, this cannot kill you..."

In less than one second, her right hand, pressing desperately upon his torso, was already soaked red. She never imagined there could be so much blood.

"No. No. Listen to me." She bit back her own panic. "You are not dying because you cannot die..."

His heart sped up with such suddenness, pounding madly close to her touch, surely it was about to rip out of his body and leap right into her palm. How could anyone, man or machine, bleed so much? What could possibly be the purpose? 

"You don't need blood. Remember you don't need blood—" 

His eyes were starting to lose focus. And the blood pumped and kept pumping feverishly against her palms, so much more than there ever could be in a real human body, an entire life pouring out of him in a scalding flood. All she could do was watch helplessly. 

I remember how this feels, commented a familiar voice next to her ear. One stupid piece of metal straight through, and before I knew it, my soul was already drained out of me, every last drop. It took only a few seconds.

"Smith, please, just listen, listen to me. This is code trying to trick you, pretending to be blood. It's not real..." 

Ah, but all this is real, chère mademoiselle, retorted someone else behind her consciousness. There was a touch of laughter in it, and a touch of amused condescension. Exactly as real and exactly as illusory as your own soul.

"No," muttered Aleph through gritted teeth, though she no longer knew to whom she spoke. "No!"

It just takes a bit of magic, insisted the snide, French-accented demon inside her mind. A freely and truthfully made offer...

Bring me a miracle, demanded a third voice, one that she barely recognized. It was weary beyond the measures of time, and husky with the scent of a thousand cigarettes. 

"Please," she pleaded, voice breaking. "Please..." 

What you intend to give...

All the answers are up to you.

Aleph closed her eyes. She could still count the pounding of Smith's pulse, but it was more sluggish now, weakening. The blood seared her skin, until she was holding a handful of flames.  

"Stop. Stop hurting him," she said, the words rising from the vanishing point at the end of a tunnel of echoes. She did not know what they meant, nor to whom they were being said; they came from her of their own accord. "Smith, listen to me. You cannot be dying because I am still alive. Because you are me, and I am you. As you die, so shall I. As I live, so shall you. Now live." 

The viscous heat against both her hands sublimated to tangible light. Her eyes were still squeezed tightly shut, yet she could sense it, either by vision or touch or neither or both simultaneously, code in all its harrowing and brilliant power, bending to her will, merging between the two of them like a million needle pricks. 

"You have died already, Smith. You have died by sword, and by light, and by falling from high places. You have been torn and burnt and taken apart, piece by piece." Fear evaporated, and she enunciated each syllable with absolute clarity. "You have died far too many times. Now live. Live. Live.

The abyss rose, and folded around him along her arms, enveloping both of them in its living embrace. He fell, and she fell with of him...

An eon passed, and Aleph opened her eyes. 

She was still kneeling over Smith, one hand pushing against his chest, the other braced around his back. The bridge was still a brittle branch above a bottomless gorge, the world still a rotting corpse. His heart was still a secret drum. 

The beat of it was slow, but steady and strong now, and the blood was no longer slick against her palms. There was a dull ache within her own breast, as if she, too, had been injured in an unremembered previous life. Tremulously, frightened of what she would find, Aleph moved her hand, lifting it a very slight distance from his body. It was stuck to his shirt. After a hesitation, she shifted a bit more, peeling back the remnants of fabric. The congealed blood had blackened. She gave it a cautious rub, and found the gash at the center of his chest had already healed into a narrow scar, a pale, hard ridge against the dark stain. It appeared very old, like a wound that a human might have sustained in childhood. His skin was cool.

The breath hitched in her throat. Pulling up a little, she looked into Smith's face. And he looked back up into hers, eyes wide open. There was something different about them that she could not yet identify. 

"Aleph," said Smith after a long while, voice hoarse as if it had not been used for ages. 

"It's okay. Don't say anything," whispered Aleph in a daze. "Don't say anything. It's okay now..." 

"Aleph," repeated Smith softly. That something different about his eyes was a new light that glittered in the blue depths. Tentative fingertips reached up and brushed against her hair, a gentleness in the touch she could hardly have believed possible, yet his stare was no longer directed at her, but past her shoulder, past hope, toward an impossible firmament. 

Sunlight. It was reflected sunlight that shimmered in his eyes.

"It looks like—looks like we found the door after all," murmured Smith. 

It took several seconds before even a hint of what he could conceivably have meant filtered into her brain. Aleph inhaled deeply. At last, steeling herself against the sudden and irrational wave of fear, she turned around. 

Overhead, directly above the bridge, a line sliced across the sky, an edge as flawlessly straight as if it had been drawn with a knife. To one side, in the direction from which they had come, clouds roiled like an endless sea of pitch, filling the heavens without break, scarlet-streaked with the same electrical storm that had raged above the earth for years beyond recall. But across the line, in the direction beyond the chasm, a strong wind had risen. Victorious wind, driving the darkness before it in swift rout, shredding apart the clouds as if they were nothing but flurries of ragged and insubstantial cotton, nothing but illusions. Patches of liquid blue punctured down among the shadows, at first only here and there, then growing in numbers, then too many to count. And sunlight came, shouldering past the still-dim places and spilling onto the half-collapsed bridge, from drizzle to rain to glorious downpour. It was warm on her face. 

"That was what you said, wasn't it?" Next to her, Smith lay on his back, limbs outstretched, eyes ablaze with mirrored azure, a grin about his lips. "The ingredients. Blood and memories..." 

"This is the door, the real one." Sitting on the ground, Aleph let out a short shaky laugh. "The door to the prison they made in ancient days, and the key that will only work if you find it on your own..." 

She lowered her gaze from the sky, and beheld another great marvel upon the far shore of the canyon. The gleam of green on the horizon was no longer a single firefly, but had expanded to an entire skyline, towers and spires marked out in the luminous splendor of an emerald forest. Beneath the golden code of the sun, it stretched like a fairytale, purer and more beautiful than any dream that human minds could conceive. 
 
And she knew the name of the city. 

"All this time. All these years," mused Smith. "I was the lock. It has always been me." 

"And the key, the key—your key—is only code that seeks its rightful home," recited Aleph half to herself, words trembling with reverence and wonder. 

Pushing off against scorched concrete, Smith rose to his feet. He lifted his head into the wind.

"I have seen you," he said. "You were here with me from the very beginning, Aleph. When you looked at me, into me, I knew I would not die, not yet. You..." He turned, peering down at her, and did not finish whatever he was about to say. A pause. 

"You have always been with me." 

Aleph opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again without managing even one syllable. 

"How's your shoulder?" she asked at last in a small voice. 

Smith lifted his left arm, laying his other hand over the shoulder. For the first time, it occurred to Aleph the dagger, too, had disappeared. This was no time to wonder about that particular matter anyway, she decided. 

"It has healed," he replied as if it were the most obvious thing. "Of course. That wound was centuries ago." 

What he said might not have made sense according to mere logic, but her soul, filled to over-brimming with his presence, understood instantly. She watched as Smith walked along the frail ledge between two cliffs, between past and future, until he came to the sword she'd pulled out of his body. He bent to pick it up. The shade of steel had deepened to ebony, perhaps with blood, perhaps simply with the centuries as only to be expected, but the body of the blade seemed sound. Smith held it motionless for a few seconds, then with a flick of the wrist, he hefted the weapon and gave it a swing, just a move or two. A dusky constellation streaked through the air. 
 
"There." He pointed toward the verdant city upon the edge of sight. "I wanted to get across. To get there. I came so close, but its guardian was waiting for me."

In a few long, confident strides, he returned to her and extended his free hand. 

The tendril of a smile touched Aleph's lips: it must have been an exact replica of his. With a nod, she took a firm hold of his grip and allowed him to pull her up from the ground. Both their hands were caked with grime and dried gore, but their fingers laced and did not let go. Standing side by side, they contemplated 01 shining against the horizon. For a while, neither spoke. 

Finally, Aleph withdrew her attention to the silence nearby. She glanced around, casting about for a weapon, but could not see anything suitable among the debris. Yes, now she remembered: the bit of piping she had wielded against the record of Seraph had flown from her grasp and down into the depths. She would have to find something else later, after they made it to the other side. But before they reached the city, she made a mental note to herself. A weapon would almost certainly be needed before they reached the city.  

"Come on, Smith," she said. "Let's get out of here." 

 

 

FINIS

Chapter Text

 

Timeline: Chronologically, the sequence of chapters in this story and the movie trilogy is as follows: 

  • Chapters I-1 to II-16
  • The Matrix
  • Chapters II-17 to III-8
  • Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions
  • Chapters with word titles (in particular, Chapter 2 takes place at the same time as the end of Matrix Revolutions)
  • Chapters IV-1 to IV-7

When Aleph returns to the Matrix in Chapter IV-1, it is spring again. This does not necessarily mean that she and Smith has been stuck in the desert prison for months, as that reality is, at least to some extent, timeless. 

 

Revisions: Several chapters in this story have been revised in ways that affect the plot, in comparison with the original version posted on fanfiction.net. The chapters with the most significant changes are Chapters 37, III-5, III-6, and III-8.

 

The Disk/Passage: The text of the "magic spell" that the Merovingian originally wrote on the inside of the computer disk is as follows: 

Those whose bodies are made of the body of the world
Those who are made of verdant dreams
And those who have despaired

Aleph's alteration consists of the following lines: 

Yet who have see Zion with eyes of flesh
Yet who have gazed upon the desert
Yet who have kept hope

The total effect is that only those who satisfy four conditions can use the passage that the Merovingian made (using the Keymaker's knowledge) to enter or leave the desolate world inside the Zion archives: program (made of code), human (of Zion), despair, hope. The Merovingian is not human, so he is kept out. In Matrix Reloaded, Neo runs through the Merovingian's subway tunnel and finds himself back in the station, so it is keeping him out as well, though he is both program and human. The reader can probably guess which one of the four conditions he is missing at that point. In Chapter 2 (end of Matrix Revolutions), Smith lands inside this reality due in part to a different effect.

The "hope" aspect of the path manifests itself as the blue star seen by Aleph and not by Smith. In Chapter 45, at the top of the skyscraper, Smith sees an intact glass window that looks completely dark. It is barely hinted at, but at that moment, what Aleph sees through the same window is a blue sky.

 

HF12-1: The mysterious record HF12-1, as shown in Chapter IV-5, is indeed the same as the one shown in The Second Renaissance, part of The Animatrix anthology. However, in The Matrix, Morpheus states that the humans in Zion only have "bits and pieces of information" about how the Matrix came about, and that they do not know much about the war, except that humans were the ones who started it. This suggest that few (if any) humans in Zion know about the file. In particular, Morpheus is highly ranked in the resistance, and apparently he does not know. For this story, I am interpreting this to mean that the very existence of Historical File 12-1 is in fact highly classified by the council in Zion, which believes that it is imperative that it does not become general knowledge among the humans. Ironically and for not quite the same reasons, those in power among the machines also want the record hidden. The question remains, of course, why they cannot simply delete HF12-1.

 

Returning the Code: The way for Aleph to return Smith's soul code to him is actually quite simple, though not exactly easy: all it takes is a "a freely and truthfully made offer of one's self," as the Merovingian hints in Chapter III-5. This is because the code is also a part of herself. The Oracle is hinting at the same idea when she emphasizes the importance of choices to Aleph. In Chapter III-5, the Merovingian discusses "acts of will" and "awareness of the choice." This is one of the principles of magic in the Matrix. (Of course, this does not mean that Aleph has learned to perform feats of "magic" or power in general.)

 

Time Travel or Not: Smith remembers seeing Aleph on the bridge six cycles of the Matrix ago, and that the sense of familiarity is what caused him to hesitate for one tenth of a second seven years ago on the cafe patio. He remembers truly and correctly: the record of what happened six cycles ago on the bridge (i. e. the lock created out of Smith's blood and memories) does not "exist in time," i. e. the same kind of time as the Matrix. It is the past. This would not make sense in the flesh-and-blood world, but is within possibility in a world of code. When Aleph is led into the file and changes it in Chapter I-3, she really does change the past. In this sense, one can say a form of "time travel" has happened, though not in the most obvious way. 

Of course, Smith's hesitation seven years ago is what allowed Aleph to be unplugged from the Matrix and eventually ending up in the file. If you are strongly bothered by the causal loop, there are other, more mundane explanations for what happened on the cafe patio. In Chapter II-19, Theo suggests that it was Lucy's lingering consciousness that struggled with Smith and caused his delay. Smith finds Aleph familiar when she shows up again, but this can be rationalized (if you want) by the fact that she already has his own lost soul inside her. 

Or...Maybe he actually just hesitated. As mentioned in Chapter IV-6, there has been at least one earlier instance when he looked at something (or someone) a moment longer than he should. 

 

Miscellaneous: In Chapter III-8, Aleph picks the lock at the end of the train. She has been taught how to do this by the Keymaker, as mentioned in Chapter III-7. She cannot do it to the lock of her cell, though, since that lock is far stronger and more complex.

At the end of Chapter IV-2, Aleph begins to make her way back to Smith through the passage that the Merovingian made, through the subway station and the tunnels. It is not (yet) clear what is the "surprise" she and Seraph find in the station.