Tuesday, June 07, 2005

In Search

Heyward waits as the last washes of green code stream away from the sides of his vision and the Matrix solidifies around him.

"Alright, princess, you're good to go," Salamander chimes in as the code fades and disappears.

Heyward ignores the familiar jibe and begins walking towards the nearest alleyway as Salamander continues.

"So, what's it going to be today -- running errands for Daddy Gray like a good little Machine, or deleting Exiles to work out those repressed anger issues?"

Heyward enters the alleyway, and his face settles into lines of satisfaction -- not a smile, but as close to one as he will allow himself. He draws his weapon, carefully lines up a shot, and fires at the Exile gang members running towards him, overeager to defend their turf.

"Exiles," Heyward answers Salamander as close combat is joined.

Heyward finds a kind of peace in the methodical, self-directed deletion of the Exiles wandering the City's streets; and he has gone on such killing sweeps often enough before that he knows Salamander will see nothing unusual in his doing so today.

He hopes to make his actions today seem routine enough -- and boring enough, from what Heyward knows of Salamander's programmed personality -- that the operator will lose interest and not watch as closely as he might.

Because Heyward has more in mind today than the simple deletion of rogue programs. There is something he needs -- and, as any being with any experience of the Matrix knows, if you need something within the system -- anything -- there is an Exile willing to provide it to you, for a price.

But first you have to find that Exile.

Heyward kills gang members for hours, ranging up and down Richland, in and out of the alleys and parks, circling back to places he has already visited to delete the new waves of programs that spring up so quickly to replace the destroyed.

After the first two hours, Salamander begins to make sarcastic remarks; Heyward ignores all of them -- even the ones that involve fairy queens, tutus, and ballet slippers. The remarks become more and more sporadic over the the next hour and a half; and as the fourth hour draws to a close, there has been silence for some time.

Salamander has finally lost interest and turned his attention elsewhere. Now the real business of the day can begin.

Heyward continues to delete Exiles -- but, now, before each final killing blow, he asks them a question.

Where can a redpill find the things his captain does not want him to have? Things, perhaps, that give you . . . privacy, within the Matrix?

He asks quietly, never spelling out precisely what he wants, in case he is mistaken and Salamander is still watching -- but he doubts this is the case.

The deletion of many Exiles later, he has an answer.

Stand outside a particular abandoned building on a particular street of the many streets in the City -- building and street both unremarkable, indistinguishable, unless you are told, from any of the others. Stand there facing the street, as if you are waiting for someone -- which you are. Wait long enough, and that someone will come. Follow their lead.

Straightforward enough.

Heyward finds the building and the street without difficulty. He stands and waits, as he has been told he should.

He waits for over an hour. He begins to doubt the veracity of the information he has obtained -- but it was repeated to him, in pieces and in whole, by more than one of the Exiles he deleted. This seems to indicate that it contains some truth -- or, at the least, is a very organized fiction for the in-fighting gangs to have agreed upon. Perhaps, Heyward reasons, this is a test of some sort, to make certain the . . . customer is truly interested in obtaining the Exile's wares.

Heyward is interested; and, in a situation like this, alone and with little emotion involved, he can be almost as patient as he was within the system.

Finally, a middle-aged woman -- apparently just another passerby on the street -- stops as she passes Heyward, turns toward him, and extends a hand.

Taken aback, Heyward hesitates a moment and then reaches out and accepts the handshake. The woman withdraws her hand first, and the two stand looking at each other, still silent.

"So," the woman says, "Matrix not as free as you thought it would be, redpill? Looking for help?"

"Ah . . . yes," Heyward responds. Others' assumptions concerning his identity -- his apparent Humanity -- always leave him disconcerted and uncomfortable; but they serve his purposes here, as elsewhere. He will do nothing to dissuade her.

She nods. "We have jamming programs running -- don't concern yourself about your operator." She turns away and begins walking. "He -- or she -- won't be seeing any of this. Come on."

Heyward follows her down the street a short distance, until she stops at one of the vehicles parked along its side, takes a set of keys from a pocket of her jeans, unlocks the driver's seat door, and gets in.

"You," she says as she leans back to flip the lock on the passenger door behind her, "ride back here." She sits back up, slams her own door closed, and waits, quirking an eyebrow at Heyward expectantly.

Heyward opens the back door and slides in to the back seat, thrown slightly off-balance by the woman's casual attitude. As he closes the car door and digs in the worn seat for the ends of the seatbelt, he catches the woman looking at him in the rearview mirror and pauses, oddly self-conscious.

"That's right, sweety," she says. "Buckle up. Never know what you're in for in this part of town . . ." She shoots him a smile in the mirror, very slightly mocking; and the expression is mirrored in her eyes.

As the car pulls off, Heyward wonders if all Exile programs are distantly related to Salamander.


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