Disclaimer: the characters and concepts of The Matrix are the creation of the Warner Bros, the scarily talented Brothers W, and appear here without permission. This work is written purely for the entertainment of other fans. No profit has been made or sought. No challenge to copyright is intended.
Switch folded the coarse gray blanket and set it at the foot of her pallet. Her own personal ritual: straightening up before taking a shift. Not that she had much, a change of clothes, an extra blanket and a knit cap. She never took her return from the Matrix for granted, and she didn't want to put an added burden on her shipmates by leaving a mess as well as a body. Satisfied her personal space was in order, she stepped out, hauling the metal hatch shut behind her.
Her heavy boots rang on the deck plates as she made her way to one of the access ladders and climbed up to the Neb's main deck. Morpheus sat in the operator's chair, watching the screens. Of course he'd be watching. This particular spark plug had caught his personal attention, might prove to be the ever-elusive One, or another stray for the Oracle. Morpheus didn't look away from the screens as she drew up behind him. Switch repressed a shudder, a marrow-deep revulsion at the sight of the cascading green lines of code filling the screens. It seemed malevolent, alien, crawling down the screens, spilling out onto the boards, spreading through the ship, contaminating-- Gritting her teeth, Switch throttled down on her reaction.
"Anything special you want for this one?" Morpheus asked.
Switch gave a disparaging snort and folded her arms. "I'm going to watch him look for you. Babysitting doesn't call for heavy artillery."
She couldn't see Morpheus' faint smile, but she heard it in his voice. "He might surprise you."
"I doubt it." Hope got you nowhere and nothing, doubt was safer. Just switch it off and get the job done.
Morpheus gestured to the circle of suspension chairs. "Dozer will set you up."
She nodded and started toward the chair opposite Cipher, then stopped in surprise when she saw Trinity. The Neb's first officer, cool and controlled as ever, lay a hand on the headrest of an empty chair.
"I'll go in," Trinity said.
"But--" Switch groped for a way to articulate her confusion. Even Morpheus looked away from the screens.
"Aren't you supposed to be asleep?" she finally asked. Oh, that was brilliant, Switch.
Trinity shrugged. "I couldn't sleep. I thought I might as well take a shift. He won't be doing much, anyway."
Still, Switch hesitated. Trinity remained expressionless, but something in her eyes urged Switch to step aside.
"All right," she heard herself say. "I'll take your early shift."
Switch didn't miss the flicker of gratitude in Trinity's eyes, but it did nothing to ease her confusion. Why, in the name of the One, would she give up a chance to relax in the warmer crew quarters to lie slack and cold in a suspension chair on the main deck? Nobody had insomnia that bad. Trinity settled into the suspension chair, with Dozer adjusting the clamps. If the ship's medic had any opinion about the last-minute subsitution, he kept the opinion to himself. That was one of the things she liked about Dozer: unless he had something to say, he kept quiet. Unlike Cipher who insisted on clouding the air with noise pollution.
Dozer checked the screens one last time, then smoothly slid the head-plug into Trinity's head-jack. The woman's body stiffened in reflex, meat fighting mind, until the load program kicked in. Dozer settled himself for another shift of watching the vital screens. When nothing flashed or bleated on Trinity's vital screens, Switch turned her attention back to the operator's station.
Cipher didn't exit right way. Probably trying to chat up Trinity in load space, Switch thought sourly. At his best, Cipher was pathetic. Back in the Dreamtime (her private name for the Matrix), she'd seen countless men like him: petty, greasy little slugs with more ambition than brains, doomed to being somebody's errand boy until his early, ugly death. How he'd ever tracked down Morpheus remained a mystery to her. But it took all kinds to make a real world, she reminded herself. Getting unplugged didn't give you social skills, wits, or intelligence. It just got you the truth, and the truth, as Morpheus had told all of them, wasn't easy.
She crossed her arms and leaned against the side of the operator's console--after checking to make sure she wouldn't be jostling any cables. Dozer watched Cipher's screen intently. When the readings showed he'd passed through the exit, Dozer reached under Cipher's head and pulled the plug. Cipher lay in the chair, gaping up at the catwalks above him. He looked, Switch thought dispassionately, like a landed fish. Or at least what the Matrix had told her a landed fish looked like. Were there even fish anymore? She had no idea.
Cipher rolled out of the suspension chair, his movements stiff and slow from inactivity. He steadied himself by holding on to the armrest, waving aside Dozer's offer of assistance. He kept his eyes on Trinity. Switch frowned. This wasn't Cipher's usual lust-puppy slobbering look. In fact, she'd never seen that expression on Cipher's face. She started to step away from the console, froze when she heard Morpheus swear under his breath.
Switch whirled around to look at the screens herself. It took her a moment to translate the slithering code into something she could understand, but even before that, she knew something was wrong. An exit line should never look like that...
"Get Tank," Morpheus snapped over his shoulder.
Switch was scrambling for an access ladder before the words had faded on the air. She skipped as many rungs as she could and still be reasonably safe. The last four she skipped entirely, jumping down to the deck. Her boots clanged against the open grill work as she ducked down one of the crew passages. Her heart hammered in her chest, jolted into overtime by a squirt of adrenaline. She'd heard that tone in Morpheus' voice before, and it usually preceded a crewmate getting killed in the Matrix.
She skidded to a halt just outside of Tank's quarters and yanked hard on the hatchway. It stuck just a moment, then the latch clanked open. Tank was already sitting up, rubbing at sleep-clouded eyes.
"Switch, the hell--?"
"Morpheus needs you."
That got him up without another word.
He brushed past her, not bothering to grab his boots. She followed
hard on his heels. When they made it back up to the main deck,
Cypher and Dozer had joined
Morpheus at the operator's station. Tank took one look at the screens and swore, diving for an auxillary board. Switch tried to read the code herself, but it was shifting too fast.
"Hard line's been cut," Tank reported.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
"At least one Agent, then." Morpheus' voice remained calm and steady, betraying no hint of worry. No sign that his second-in-command was likely to become a flatlined smear on his screens. "Find her another exit, Tank."
The tense silence stretched on, distorting her time sense. Only seconds passed, but it felt--
"Scratch one doughnut squad," Cipher said, watching the screens.
Well, that'd buy Trinity a little time. The Agents couldn't morph in if the only other person there wasn't wired into their system. And a little time might be all Trinity needed.
"Got one," Tank said, and passed the address to Morpheus.
The incoming comm line chirped. Morpheus picked it up. They heard Trinity's tense voice reporting her situation.
"I know. They cut the hardline. You'll have to get to another exit."
"God damn it."
"Focus, Trinity. There's a phone at Wells and Lake. You can make it."
"All right." Determination. No trace of panic.
Switch moved up to the screens, edging past Cipher. He didn't fight her for the space, not willing to watch what might be Trinity's final exit.
"How did they know?" Switch asked.
"Working on it," Tank said, fingers dancing across the keys and touch-screens. Dozer got up and went to Trinity's suspension chair, keeping an eye on her vitals.
"Might have been too much traffic at that exit," Tank theorized.
No one answered him, their attention on the screens, following Trinity's escape route by the disruptions in the code. One sequence skipped around, an Agent leaping from host to host, trying to box her in between them. Two, no three Agents. She wasn't going to make it. The string of code that made up Trinity's signal shimmered and jumped from screen to screen.
"Good, Trinity, keep moving," Morpheus whispered.
That should be me, Switch thought. And it would have been, if not for Trinity's unspoken fascination with Morpheus' latest find.
"Exit line's secure."
An Agent sequence over-wrote some
Sleeper's code, far too near Trinity and the exit. Switch clenched
her fists, reminded herself
that the Dreamtime moved a bit slower than total machine time, that distance worked differently. Trinity might still make it out, if she could just get to the--
The Agent code wrote over the exit cluster.
Switch heard a ragged gasp behind her, the *clank* of a plug being disconnected, followed by the low murmur of Dozer's voice, asking Trinity if she was all right.
The Neb's Captain gestured for Switch to take the operator's seat, and went to join his second. Tank hovered over her shoulder, watching the screens. This once, she didn't snarl at him for it. Three Agents clustered around the inert exit...searching... Behind her, Morpheus and Trinity were arguing.
"Morpheus, I have to go back in. If they can trace us, Neo has to be warned."
"He isn't ready, Trinity."
"Let me talk to him. Point him in the right direction. He's been looking for you, he's come so close...if he is what you think he is, that will be enough."
Silence. On the screen, the Agents were dispersing. Like poison gas, deadly at any concentration.
"You can't answer the Question. You can't give him details."
"I know that, Morpheus." Trinity's voice turned gentle. "And you know me better than to suggest I would."
Switch tensed. The two had been going over and over this ground for wweks, now. But the near-miss with the Agents seemed to have put things in perspective.
"All right. Tank, load her up."
Without being asked, Switch moved out of the Operator's seat, surrendering the station to Tank. It was only when she turned around she realized that Cipher had vanished from sight.