Chapter Two
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You’re Trying to *Feed* Me?

 

Gemini was inexplicably happy the next morning. Usually she blamed her unexplained moods on the idea that something hormonal or chemical was happening to her real world body. But she never really knew if her theory was true. Although Gemini knew about the Matrix, she was still a coppertop. Having encountered the truth, she had chosen to stay plugged in. Not many people were in her situation. Only her group, the Watchers, had others in her same circumstances.

It was a philosophical choice, the best of both worlds as far as some were concerned. There was a sort of unwritten truce between the Watchers and the machines. The group didn’t support the Resistance. Oh, a few folks occasionally got cocky and thought they could play with both sides, but in the end the Agents always got them. The sentient programs made a big show of announcing that one of the Watchers had strayed and had to be “taken care of.” Arrogance never paid off, for the humans at least. The machines were arrogant enough for both sides. Occasionally one came down from its high horse (or was ordered down like Smith) and learned something from one of the Watchers. The group was filled with teachers, philosophers, and renegades. Sometimes Gemini wondered just how they all managed to stay together. She supposed the Resistance had similar problems within its ranks.

On the bright side, the Watchers had a lot of fun playing within the Matrix. Sure, there was the lofty ideal that the Watchers could help bring the humans and the machines closer, to an understanding that would end the war; everyone worked hard toward that end, but humans had an irrepressible need to play. And play they did. Gemini personally liked to go swimming. Not too exciting? It was when you could breathe underwater and your fingers didn’t get all wrinkly. When you could swim naked with sharks and play water polo with jellyfish. Gemini smiled. Being a Watcher was almost like having diplomatic immunity. In some ways it was freer than the real world.

She had the little song, “Anything you can do I can do better” stuck in her head. The only way to get a song out of her head was to sing it to death. That technique had the added benefit of annoying everyone within earshot. Humming her way into the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator and pondered its contents. What would be good for breakfast?

“That is slightly better than your snoring.”

Gemini jumped and whirled around at the sound of Agent Smith’s voice. How could she have forgotten he was here? The sour-faced Agent sat in her dark living room. His sunglasses were back on, and he was glaring at her. He looked like a strange monarch, sitting there in her recliner. Yes, he was Slightly Creepy. Briefly, Gemini debated sending him from her home, but she couldn’t because the Watchers expected her to keep him here. Living with an Agent had seemed much easier when it existed only as an idea. Now, to have the reality glaring at her from across the room, she didn’t feel quite so safe anymore.

She was still in her underwear. Gemini Rule #4: Never get dressed before breakfast. Now was the only time in her life she debated breaking that rule. Folding her arms to cover more than her fright, Gemini said, “I told you to take those glasses off.”

She could almost feel his sub vocal growl from this distance. But Smith obeyed. Slowly and carefully, he removed his sunglasses and pocketed them. Then he stood, moving with controlled grace toward the kitchen. To keep herself from physically retreating, Gemini focused on the sheer beauty and precision of Smith’s movements. Nothing wasted, nothing rushed. A human walking like that would look fussy, but the Agent walking looked like a dancer.

“I’m sorry if my snoring kept you up,” she murmured.

“I don’t require sleep,” he said. “Not like you do.”

She’d need to investigate that. “Okay...well, if anything I do does bother you, let me know. Politely, of course. That’s part of human social interaction.”

He was standing very close to her now. They should have a talk about personal space, too. “Everything you do bothers me,” he said, sighing. “Somehow, you’re worse than the resistants.”

That was uncalled for. “We need to work on those people skills,” she said, feeling more in balance again. Deliberately turning her back on the Agent, she rummaged in the drawer beneath the stove for her iron skillet. This morning she wanted eggs and mushrooms. With bacon. Yum. Another benefit to staying in the Matrix: since it wasn’t real, she didn’t have to worry about cholesterol. “What’s your poison, Smith? Eggs and bacon, or wheat germ?” No answer. Straightening, she glanced back at Smith. “Well?”

He appeared perplexed. “You’re trying to *feed* me?”

The program didn’t eat. What else didn’t he do? Instead of hurting her head by pondering that so early in the morning, she shrugged. “More for me, then.” She busied herself with the preparing of a perfect bacon and mushroom omelet.

Smith watched her. If she hadn’t been a veteran cat owner, she would feel self-conscious. Cats were undisputed Champion Starers. Actually, the Agent’s eyes reminded her of the late, great Belle’s beautiful Siamese baby blues. Not that Smith would appreciate the comparison. She ate her eggs in silence, impervious to Smith’s staring as he stood in the doorway of her kitchen. She didn’t invite him to sit. He probably would have refused just to be difficult.

Difficult men, she understood. Difficult Agents...that was something else.

As she munched, Gemini considered what she would report to the Watchers. They would want a preliminary assessment of the Agent. She moaned quietly to herself around a mouthful of spongy egg. How the hell did one sum up Agent Smith? He seemed relatively harmless over there in the doorway, and since she could manipulate the Matrix she foresaw little chance of him actually harming her. Dumping a less-than-healthy measure of salt onto her omelet, she began mentally choosing her wardrobe for the day. Speaking of clothes, she’d have to ask her friend Tommy if he had anything civilian that might suit Smith...

Smith watched her eat. Why was she in her underwear? He wondered how she could be so unaffected by his presence in her tiny apartment. Most humans in his proximity were terrified of him, a fact that he enjoyed. A lot. Even large, tough humans who were taller than Agent Jones were frightened of Smith. This average-sized woman didn’t even have the courtesy to pretend she was afraid of him. Smith’s private indignation swelled. Not that he would admit to that feeling, or any feeling. He was a machine.

He accessed relevant statistics files on assault and rape. Gemini shouldn’t have allowed him into her house. There was no telling what he might be planning to do to her. Smith was dangerous. Yet she showed no signs of caring about her own personal safety.

He looked down his nose at her. “Do all humans snore?” There. That was a sufficient opening for small talk. It should be human enough.

He’d caught her with a mouthful. It was amusing to watch her chew and swallow before answering, “The ones with character do.”

Smith raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see how sleep apnea is a sign of character.”

She grinned. “You will, Smith. You will.” She finished her glass of milk, then asked, “Don’t your feet get tired, standing all the time?”

“No.”

She gestured with her fork, “Well, sit down anyway. Please. I feel like a bad hostess with you standing there.” When he didn’t move, she rolled her eyes and said, “Do I have to remind you of your orders?”

Smith sat down, scraping his chair on the linoleum but not scooting up to the table like a regular person. Duh, she told herself. Smith wasn’t a regular person.

“Why are you only in your underwear?” he asked suddenly.

She nearly choked on a bite of bacon. Hearing Smith’s resonant voice say “underwear” made her feel worse than naked. Already, tiny beads of nervous sweat were forming between her breasts. Smith could probably see them, too. Her tank top was low-cut. She’d chosen it for its comfort while she slept, but that former comfort had become vulnerability. She blushed. “Um,” she mumbled around her mouthful, “I don’t usually get dressed before breakfast.”

The answer seemed to satisfy him. Hearing no further words from Smith, she didn’t volunteer any more of her own. Self-conscious, Gemini got up from the table and put her dishes in the sink. She felt Smith’s eyes following her. It was foolish to pretend she didn’t know he was sitting there, but the old child’s superstition held strong. ‘If I can’t see him, maybe he can’t see me. Don’t look at him, don’t look at him...’

“What will you tell the Watchers about me?”

Hell. Now she had to acknowledge him. “I’ll tell them...” Her voice was shaking. Dammit.

“What?”

He wasn’t going to make this easy, was he? Still facing the kitchen sink, Gemini focused on the pattern of holes in the drain strainer. She counted twenty holes silently to herself before she heard Smith get up from the table. The sound of sensible shoes on the linoleum approached behind her. Gemini leaned against the counter. Her feet were cold, and her palms were clammy. Breathing became some sort of sudden challenge.

She felt the warmth of him against her poorly covered back. In another situation, she might have been able to philosophize about why a sentient program generated body heat, but now all she could think was, how could she have let Smith into her house? Her head so filled with lofty ideas from the Watchers, she’d forgotten the Cardinal Rule of single women living alone: never allow a strange man into your home. And Smith was the strangest of all.

“I won’t hurt you,” he said, “as long as you don’t provoke me.” Pitched low, his voice traveled along her skin, causing a wave of goose bumps along her arms. “You have my word.”

“How good is your word?” Her voice shook less. Good.

Smith’s growl filled the small space of air between them. “That could be considered provocation,” he said. “You should be nice to me,” he continued. “A woman living alone...is a dangerous thing. My database informs me of many...incidents involving this very situation.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Smith tilt his head closer. She felt his breath on her bare shoulder. “For a time, there were several warrants out for your apprehension.”

“Don’t threaten me!” Whirling away from Smith, Gemini conjured her Desert Eagle again from the ether of the Matrix. Holding it steady in both hands, she leveled it at the Agent’s chest.

They stared at each other over the black barrel of the gun. Smith looked like a statue. She would have too, except she had to breathe. Her arms began to shake. Holding the Desert Eagle was like holding a brick, but she didn’t dare lower the weapon. Why did she always think of the potential danger in a situation when she was right in the middle of it? Stupid, stupid...

Smith sighed. “This is ridiculous, Ms. Shriver.” Slowly he unbuttoned his jacket to reveal his own sidearm. He made no move to draw it.

The lining of his jacket was yellow. Silk. Very expensive. Strange what the mind chose to focus on in times of stress. Gemini was beginning to feel the strain of holding her gun. The ache moved from her wrists to her elbows and was gradually spreading to her shoulders. She glanced up from Smith’s holster to meet his eyes. Icy blue, devoid of all concern. Smith arched an eyebrow at her.

Damn him.

She wouldn’t win and he knew it.

With a growl of her own, Gemini lowered her gun. She emptied it and laid the magazine on the counter separate from the weapon. Smith would always win this kind of confrontation. He’d been doing it a lot longer than her. Resignation etched into her posture, she looked up at the Agent. He wasn’t gloating. If she didn’t know better, she would have thought that was a look of sadness on his face. Gemini was beginning to think that she really didn’t know better after all, at least when it came to Agent Smith. Nothing was predictable with Smith.

“Go get dressed,” he said.

She blinked. Was he serious? Scampering for her bedroom, Gemini scolded herself for trying to challenge the Agent. She’d escaped with her skin intact this time, but that was no guarantee for next time. All the agreements between the Watchers and the machines were worth nothing if she made stupid choices.

Shit. Challenging Smith was worse than dancing with a cobra. And she was not a mongoose.

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