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This, our illusion of free will

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The worst part of leaving the Matrix as a child was returning to it as an adult. It was designed to feel real, to satisfy the interests and expectations and senses of most human beings, to suspend disbelief. The real world was cold, strange, machinistic. Even though he had been saved as a child, spent the better part of his life in Zion, Morpheus could not convince his mind that his body in the Matrix was a pure projection. He sat on a summer-soft painted wood bench at a bus stop, watching the playground across the road. Behind a chain-link fence, two children got into a petty fight over a swing-set. Their mother shrugged and took another drag on her cigarette.

Disorder. Imperfection. Vulnerabilities. It was the humans and their minds that really made the Matrix so dangerous. Enough other people, and suddenly Morpheus was a crazy, young, bald black man in an expensive suit. Part of the system, because the system was the people in it, as much as it was the rules that governed them. He could feel their ideas and expectations of him sinking into his skin, and his own shoulders tensing; everything he learned about the world as a child becoming real again. It made sitting at a bus stop on a summer afternoon feel more normal than Zion ever had.

He looked down at his hands. They were clean. His skin looked healthier in the sunlight. In the gaps between his fingers, he could see the long sharp stretch of sunset shadows cast by the bench, his own legs, and the people walking by. He could see the petrol-dark stain in the concrete overlapping them all. The City Council had obviously responded to the accident before the Agents, which meant that the car had been towed and the sidewalk had been high-pressure-hosed clean just in time for the morning commuters. Thus the petrol stain remained. One month. He didn't even know why he was sitting there. Closure? To grieve? Like a noble leader. Yeah, right.

“Imugi.”

Having a vision. Leading a crew. Losing them, one by one, to Agents. He'd been through training, just like everyone who served on a ship. But most captains protected safe exit lines, secured new ones, contacted informants, and targeted people with the potential to escape. Morpheus had faith in the Oracle's words, and he had dedicated his life to finding the One.

But he hadn't dedicated Imugi's. She had liked him. Trusted him. He'd been the one to extract her, and she had worked hard to get onto his crew. She had-

“Funny one, isn't it?” A young woman leaned over the back of the bench beside him, bracing her crossed arms against the sun-warmed paint. “And fancy meeting you in a place like this, Morpheus.”

Morpheus turned to regard her. She wore a black tank top, and had three messy plaits in her hair. As she quirked an eyebrow at him, one slowly began to slip forwards over her right shoulder.

“I beg your pardon?” He could not say that he recognised her.

She stretched her left hand out, blocking his view with her arm. Pointing. He let his gaze follow out past her finger, at the building next to the playground. “The window.”

He opened his mouth to ask, which one, but then he saw it. All the windows were reflecting the bright setting sun, except for one. One window was as dark as night, full of glittering specks. Then, it turned clear and dark. A light pink flash of hair, an elbow. Then the darkness flashed, as if the glass was shaking and reflecting another source of light. Finally, it was dark with a shower of small glittering specks.

“I see it,” he said, when his throat opened enough to let him. Imugi had wanted to help, she had made eye contact as they realised they could not reach a safe line and deliver the package, and she had shoved it into his hands and run back the way they first came. He'd been running before he heard the crash. He hadn't let himself turn back. At the time, getting that information out so he could analyse it had seemed to be the highest priority.

“Well, isn't it strange? Usually it's just cats.”

The scene in the window looped. A glitch. “Cats?”

“Cats sitting in windows, but they're not really there. They get boring, but they're a real challenge to spot. This one, even normal people look at it sometimes. It's been here a month.”

He shifted on the bench to turn around towards her more. If she saw glitches, she probably had an affinity for reality. Something deep in her heart or soul that knew it was dreaming. Young enough to extract safely, younger than he'd first thought. She was maybe fifteen years old. Three plaits, three piercings in her ears. Three rings on her right hand. Three threes. Wait. He began to have an inkling, perhaps, of how she knew his name.

“Trinity,” he said, before he thought better of it. He was not going to extract anyone, anymore. Let Niobe or some other good person wear that hero-worship and loyalty. It did not suit Morpheus. He had a right to risk his own life, and nobody else's. If it was destined, he would walk the path that led him to the One. He trusted the Oracle. He had faith. He did not need to lead an army, or even a small crew of five, to their deaths.

Trinity inclined her head, and smiled.

He knew he should stand up and leave. Walk away. No more children. He cocked his chin down in a question. But she stayed quietly beside him.

“I did you a favour, letting you nose around in that database. It's my turf. You owe me.”

He closed his eyes briefly. If only she knew what had really been going on. “I think that it is hardly the place of a teenage hacker to threaten a...”

Trinity sighed, interrupting him with her young pathos. She came around to sit next to him on the bench. “Yeah, a what, exactly? I'm pretty curious about that.”

Bravado, irony, and a hint of insecurity. She was so young. “I don't intend to tell you. Trinity, you deserve a mentor who can guide you properly. I am afraid that I cannot be that mentor.”

She straightened, looked at him sharply with a seriousness that seemed reserved for young adults. “I wasn't asking for one.”

They sat there in silence for some time. Morpheus counted all of the windows in the building, before he allowed himself to look for that flash of Imugi's hair in the window. He would have liked to give her something more than this, even if he doesn't trust himself. He was shy of it, the way that this twentieth-century fabricated world had shaped its girls. How vulnerable Trinity might be to a very basic level of respect. She was upset with him, but she stayed with him.

Morpheus had been the same, a young black boy from a suburb. Had he wanted to leave the Matrix, or had he simply wanted to follow an adult who recognised his skills? Morpheus used to go to playgrounds in this area. It hadn't changed all that much. He really would have liked to have done something for Imugi.

“I cannot teach you, but if you like, I have some time. Until the sun has set. Will you walk with me?”

She scoffed. “You say it like it's an honour. Please.”

Morpheus stood, and turned his back on the window, the street. “It would be an honour to walk with you. Come.”

Trinity frowned, but she shrugged off her thoughts and pushed herself away from the bench. “Sure. Let's go up there, it's got a better view.”

He nodded, and they began following the footpath on a gentle incline. The hill grew steeper further on and it blocked out the horizon, so there was only concrete, asphalt, and cloudy pink sky.

“What's Ee-moogey anyway?” She drew the word out, pronouncing it wrong deliberately, and with a grin.

“Imugi,” he corrected her. He paused and looked at the people and cars crossing the intersection. “A mythological being who has the potential to become a dragon, if they live long enough.” His heart felt hollow in his chest. His eyes burned and his arms felt too heavy to lift.

“Oh,” she said. “That's pretty awesome. But, also, boring.”

They walked for a bit in silence. But Trinity was full of nervous energy. An idea bubbling up that animted her arms. She walked sideways, facing him, her brow furrowed. “Why spend your entire life hoping you'll turn into something great, when you could just be great right now? If you die young, like that girl with the pink hair, all people talk about is how tragic it is. If I die in an accident, right now...”

She stoped walking, looking out at the traffic on the road. Morpheus stumbled to a stop beside her.

“... then it's like everything I've done, all my choices up to now, are what? A waste of time? As if a longer life is necessarily a better life.”

“It's an interesting attitude to have.” He had read once, in a virtual library. People under the age of twenty are bigger risk-takers. They can't necessarily imagine living past the age of twenty-five. Of course death wouldn't bother Trinity. Of course it hadn't bothered Imugi. As an adult, as Captain, it was Morpheus's responsibility to-

“Hey, do you want an ice-cream?” Trinity had a hand on his arm. She turned her gaze to a corner store. “It's stinking hot out here.”

“No.” Morpheus stood there, immovable. Trinity blinked up at him. She would be unable to see much, his sunglasses simply reflecting her own face back at her.

“But,” he said, feeling the heat sweating down inside his socks, tickling the back of his neck, “I am more than happy to buy you one.”

“Cool,” she said nonchalantly. “I mean, I'm not a child. I don't need one.”

“It's hot. Choose an ice cream.”

She frowned. “Well, you can have a drink, then.”

“No, thank you.” Morpheus never ate or drank in the Matrix if he could avoid it. It always spoiled his dinner.

But Trinity rolled her eyes. “Like you're Persephone and you'll be stuck in the seedy underbelly of the streets if you have anything.”

It was Morpheus's turn to grab her arm. “What do you mean by that?” He meant, how much do you already know.

She laughed and said, “I'll tell you, if you have something with me. Come on. If you just buy me something, people will think you're my pimp or my estranged father or something creepy.”

“Fine.” It was hot. Morpheus waved for Trinity to go first, and he followed her through the curtain of thick plastic strips that tried to keep the flies out and the cooler air in the store.

It was like all inner-city corner stores. Cramped, a little overpriced, with salt, newspaper grease and tobacco dust that had slowly moved from the shelves and the counter and the hands of the customers, to cover the floor and the windows. Fridges and freezers lining the walls, and humming electric in such a low-maintenance, low-tech way that it seemed obscene. That was the sound of Zion, not the high-tech Matrix.

Trinity browsed the popsicles, and Morpheus stared blankly at the brands of cans and bottles. It had been years since he had paid much attention, and Coca-Cola was the only recognisable logo. He reached for a quiet blue-labelled bottle of water, but Trinity had already begun unwrapping her popsicle, and was making a face at him.

Sighing, Morpheus picked an iced tea instead. Trinity just looked at him evenly and patiently, so he headed to the counter and unfolded some of the bills he'd been wise enough to bring with him. Change. The coins were too-heavy in his pocket, but fishing them back out would be awkward and telling. He focused on unscrewing the cap of his bottle, the sound of the plastic safety-ring snapping one tooth at a time.

“So,” Trinity took her popsicle out to prompt him. “What I mean is, you always travel between incidents in the paper – sightings, attacks – really quickly. Too fast.”

She paused to take another bite.

“You're always dressed wrong for the weather. You're always wearing sunglasses, even at night. I have a theory.”

The road was inclining up now, and they were stopping regularly at corners to check for traffic. The sky was turning a dusky grey-pink, and the light was becoming cooler. There was still no breeze.

“I am sure you have a lot of theories. You're sharp.”

Trinity looked pleased.

“For your age,” Morpheus said.

Trinity mimed a punch at him, that never connected. Cute. She steadied her popsicle, and licked up the drips. “I think that at some point in time, something went wrong in this world. You know the idea of forked realities? That for all our choices, there could be a parallel world that is exactly the same as this one, but slightly different as a result of one decision? A fork.”

“I have heard of it, yes.” The iced tea was too sweet, and too bitter. But it was cool, and the condensation on the bottle felt good when he pressed it against his forehead, the back of his neck. He felt slight dysphoria, when his fingertips brushed his own skin, and there was no plug at the base of his skull.

“Well,” Trinity carried on, oblivious. “I think that the cats, the windows, all of the loops, are places where this reality gets stuck at a fork.”

Morpheus nearly stumbled again. It was completely wrong, but he'd never thought of that, himself. “Do you really think that? In that case, why didn't the window today show what happened here, instead of what happened in another reality?”

Trinity shrugged. “How do you know it didn't? Maybe it's one millimetre off.”

They reached the top of the incline, and could see apartment buildings, shops, and multi-level car parks spread out across the city. Small townhouses, and the occasional original house, still occupying its block, buffered from the city by its green garden.

“Trinity, why were you in the database, that night? What were you doing there?”

She sighed, and fiddled with her popstick, the popsicle all gone. “I suppose I wanted to see how far down things went. If it was really there. Sometimes, I feel like I'm never really awake. Like now. Am I here with you, or am I just dreaming?”

Morpheus nodded. “What would you want to do, if it turned out that this was a dream?”

She pushed her braids back over her shoulders, and stared out across the city, thinking. “Hmm.”

His iced tea wasn't very iced, any more. He was still itchy and sweaty, and his lips felt too-sticky from the syrupy drink. He'd never done anything like this with Imugi, and he truly regretted it. But as the sun set slowly and the streetlights came on, for the first time, he did not feel the burden of guilt on his shoulders.

“I don't know what I'd do,” Trinity said honestly. “Do you escape the dream, and everything you've ever known? What if there's nothing after death, nothing after you wake up? What if you can never go back?”

She turned around, stretching her arms out, letting them fall back down. She looked back the way they had come. “I think it would come down to the moment. A split-second decision. Or maybe it wouldn't be a choice at all, just a result of me being me, and my personality would predispose me to a particular choice regardless of what it meant.”

“You're considering what free will actually means? A deep thought, for someone your age.”

“Hey!” She frowned at him. Crossed her arms. “Does it matter? I mean, whether I'm influenced by anything or not. It's still my decision. If it's a good one, if it's a bad one. I'll just live with it. Or not, if I die. I'll die with it. But I get to own it.”

Morpheus didn't have any answer for that. He refused to look back. He couldn't. His throat felt too tight, raw from the syrup in the tea.

“This is about the girl, right? Imugi. You think it's your fault.”

“I know it isn't.” His hands clenched into fists in his pockets. “It's dark. I have to go, now.”

Trinity grabbed his arm before he could turn away from her. “You're down one person. I'm even the right height.”

“No,” he said, shaking her hand off. He began to stride away.

She kept pace him, got in front of him, got in his face. “Right. Like it's your choice to make. Like I don't get any say in it. Like my choices don't matter, because you're big and important and powerful, and I am nothing and-”

“Come, then!” He flung his hands up, surprising himself. The answer had come out of him from nowhere, against all of his better judgement.

But she was right, and it hit him like a bucket full of ice water. He had been reducing Imugi's achievements, the power of her decisions, by choosing to see them as dependant on his own. More than that. He had been protecting himself from the true pain of grief for a friend, and his fear of his own death, by framing Imugi's death – and Trinity's mortality – as a choice. Something that could be avoided. Some day, they would all die, inside the Matrix and out.

As a leader, shouldn't he trust the judgement of his own team? The cool of early evening and the relief of just letting go, knowing himself better, put Morpheus in the strange position of being completely at ease. It was an unfamiliar feeling, when he had resisted it for so long in the Matrix. Perhaps that had been another fear? Of losing Zion, or wanting to lose Zion. If that had been a test of his will, a step on his path to finding the One, it had been Trinity who had brought him to the moment of revelation.

“I can join you?” she said. “You mean it?!”

Morpheus smiled, and she clasped her hands together, lacing her fingers. She seemed full of nervous energy.

“When? I mean, now? Or do you still have to go now it's sunset?”

“I have to go,” he was running late, really. “But if you trust me, then meet me here at precisely this time tomorrow night.”

She nodded, earnest and impatient. “Okay! Wait, will you tell me what the Matrix is?”

“I will tell you everything I can,” he said.

“So...” she fidgeted. “Aren't you going, now, then?”

“I am not so foolish as to let you tail me,” he raised an eyebrow.

Trinity smirked, she'd been caught, and she shook her head. Morpheus watched her turn and walk back down the hill that they had climbed together. She didn't look back once, and as soon as she was out of sight Morpheus turned to head to the rendezvous point. He had preparations to make.