By Nightingale

(Author's note: The original characters Carla/Aeon and Chloe are my own creations, made originally for a Matrix RPG. This story is kind of a little bit of background on them, but if there is any interest I'll write more. Meanwhile, to check up on what kind of trouble they're getting into these days, check out the RPG list at The_Matrix_Has_You )


Aeon sat in the empty room, so similar to the one she had been brought to 3 years ago, when she had been offered a choice that would change her life forever. It really hadn't been much of choice - she was 18 then, she hadn't seen even half of the truth at that point - and they had given her only one option, really, when they dragged her sister into this. Any minute now one an Agent should be barging in through the door, as always, prefacing his orders with "Miss Madison" a name that she swore she would never answer to again if she ever got free. "They talk to me as if I were a damn secretary", she muttered under her breath.

She briefly wondered why she was being summoned here today. They had already given her the day off that morning - was there anything really so urgent that they couldn't just call her in later? Oh, no, that would be 'nice' and Agents were anything but nice - evidence of that was the room where she was still summoned to, every single time, even though she'd been working for them for what seemed like an eternity now. They still felt the need to intimidate her, even now.

She sighed to herself and wondered if this would be the day they finally caught on to what she'd been up to in her spare time, and found herself not really caring, much. At least she hadn't sold herself out to them, as some others of her kind had, all for the promise that one day they'd be put back into the Matrix. She wouldn't do that, but neither could she turn on them entirely. If only she could find a way for Chloe to be safe, without removing her from the Matrix and exposing her to this hellish world that was reality. If only...

Chapter 1:

It was the dream again - the same one she had had a million times before, or so it seemed. The one about the strange alien planet where the sky was dark, and strange insect -like machines roamed about freely. And the aliens slept the whole time, in strange glowing-red pods. She'd had this dream so many times that it no longer frightened her as it once had - but this one was different. She was on a ship, a ship with the man that sometimes appeared in her dreams, the one that called himself Morpheus. She couldn't see him, as always, but she knew his voice. "Look closely" he told her. Chloe obeyed, and stared out one of the ship's windows as they drew nearer to one of the alien pods. It began to open, and Chloe stared, wide eyed, down into it. Slowly, slowly the pod opened, revealing its sleeping inhabitant, until finally it was completely open and she could see its face. Chloe tried to shut her eyes to what she saw, but she could not - the image burned itself into her eyes, and all she could do was scream.

"CARLA!" her sister's scream woke Carla out of a sound sleep. She rolled out of bed and sleepily walked across the hall into Chloe's room, where her sister was sitting up in bed, sobbing. She sat down next to Chloe and put a comforting arm around her.

"The dream again?" she asked. Chloe nodded, still in tears. Carla had been through this before with her sister, but lately things had seemed to be improving. She'd been getting close to finding the answer, the one that Chloe insisted was out there. She gently asked Chloe "Did they tell you anything?" Chloe shook her head no, and finally spoke through her tears.

"You have to stop,forget about all of it"

Carla was worried Her sister had always had these premonitions, dreams, and such, and many of them came true. If she had seen something bad, Carla needed to know it. She gently said "Chloe, what was it? What did you see?" But Chloe just shook her head. She couldn't tell Carla about the dream, not this time. She merely repeated "Promise me you'll stop".

Carla knew it was too late for that, she was so close to finding what she'd been looking for, what they'd both been looking for, but she didn't want to scare Chloe any more, so she simply said "Okay, I promise" . She hugged Chloe and stayed with her until she fell asleep, then she crept quietly back to her room and turned on her computer.

Chapter 2

Carla had always been interested in computers, even before Chloe told her that they were the key to the dreams that had been haunting her. But after the night that Chloe had comerunning into her room at 3 am, excited and wild-eyed, saying "It's the computers! They told me, the people in my dream - the computers have the answer." At first, Carla had thought Chloe was just letting her overactive imagination get the better of her, but when her 12 year old sister started talking about hackers and programs that she herself knew absolutely zip about, she had to stop and listen. So, from that point on, Carla used her curiousity and her computer knowledge to get into the world of hacking.

It hadn't been easy. Sure, there were books out there that would teach you how to be an amateur, but after the first 3 months she realized that she wasn't going to find anything useful cracking her friends' email passwords and getting into her high school database. Although, she had learned some interesting tidbits that way - one of which was that Dexter Howell, school hacker and possible sociopath, thought she was hot. She decided it was time to put this knowledge to good use, and she started talking to Dexter, or 'Dex' as he prefered to be called, after school. It hadn't been easy - he wasn't really much of a talker. And he really was a bit sleazier than the guys she would have preferred to hang out with, but eventually she got him talking about his passion, which was basically getting away with as much illegal stuff as he couldusing his computer as the tool. The problem arose when she realized that Dex was unwilling to give her anything for free. Information was going to have its price, she realized, and one night she ended up having sex with Dex, losing her virginity to someone she felt absolutely nothing for. She stayed with him, posing as his girlfriend for the next 3 months, until finally his parents sent him off to some juvenile detention center. It had always made her slightly sick to think of what she had done with him, but the payoff was that she finally found what she was looking for - a way in.

She began visiting secret chats under the alias Aeon, and eventually, she started hearing talk of this Morpheus person that Chloe had mentioned in her dreams, and she knew she was on the right path. She just didn't know to what, yet.

Ch 3

Chloe stood in the dream world, listening. She was in total darkness, but she could see two faintly lit figures up ahead, and more importantly, she could hear their voices. A man - the voice sounded like Morpheus - and a woman, in what was apparently the middle of a heated argument. Chloe strained to hear.

"She's of no use to us!" the woman said. "She's not the one we want"

"How can you be so sure?" the man replied.

"I just know, okay?" she sounded exasperated.

"Okay, so she's not. But she's a fast learner, she's got potential"

The woman sighed. "She's no good without that kid sister of hers - she has no insight, no vision of her own. Besides that, she was involved with a known informant to the Agents"

"A supposed informant" the man corrected. "Somehow I doubt they're using high school hackers to do their dirty work."

"So why should we?" the woman countered.

"You weren't any older than her when we freed you"

" But I was different. I wanted to be freed."

"How do you know she doesn't" the man asked, his tone gentler.

"I don't." the woman replied, her voice still stony. "I just know that I don't want her here"

The voices faded out, and Chloe woke up, trying to make some sense of what she had heard. She was sure they had been talking about Carla, that she was the one that the woman didn't want... didn't want for what? Where was the "here" they mentioned? She thought back to the earlier dream, remembering that dark world, and also what she had seen - the alien pod, with the being inside - the being with a face just like her sister's. Chloe jumped out of bed and ran to Carla's room.

Ch 4.

Carla shook herself back to reality for a moment, trying to figure out when exactly things went bad. She should have known once her sister started talking about Morpheus again... from what she had managed to learn in the last few months, Morpheus was a notorious hacker, one of the best ever, and was revered by some, hated by others, but apparently feared by all. But curiously, Chloe had never seemed afraid of him in her dreams. She had always come to Carla with tales of "Morpheus says..." And unfailingly, whatever Morpheus had said to her sister in the dreams turned out to be true. Still, it disturbed her that Chloe was dreaming of a known criminal.

The particular night in question had occurred about a week ago, when Chloe had run into her room, scared again. She had dragged Carla away from the computer, saying "They don't want you, Carla, they don't want you! They won't help you, they don't want to take you with them!" Once she had calmed her down, she got the whole story out of Chloe, and was puzzled by it. If this Morpheus knew of her, why hadn't he contacted her before now? She thought she didn't want to find out, because she had noticed an odd trend in the chat rooms - whenever someone started talking about Morpheus too much, that person wasn't seen online again. She had previously attributed it to the fact that they were hackers, and didn't want to get caught, so they changed names or quit coming to the chat rooms, or whatever, as soon as they thought they might be in any danger of being discovered. But now, she wondered ... something about this was beginning to disturb her, and she couldn't quite put it together. She tried one last time to get Chloe to tell her the one thing that she knew she was holding back...

"Take me where" she said, grasping Chloe firmly by the shoulders and forcing her to meet her own gaze.

Chloe looked down. She didn't want to tell her sister what she knew, for fear that it might actually happen. But she knew she had to. She slowly looked up again. "To their world" she said.

"I... don't understand" Carla said, frowning. "Their world? You mean that place you dream about, that planet? They live there?" Carla was beginning to wonder if Chloe was making connections where there were none, and maybe that she was too. Maybe Chloe's Morpheus was entirely different from the one she heard about online, and she was chasing after nothing at all.

Chloe slowly shook her head. "It's not another planet - it's a place on earth. I'm sure it is."

"How do you know that?" Carla asked. She didn't know of any place on earth that would have anything remotely resembling the "alien pods" that Chloe had always described to her.

Chloe spoke again. "I think it's called The Matrix... I've heard them use that word in my dreams, but I never knew what they were talking about."

Carla gasped. She, too, had heard references to The Matrix come up once or twice, but again, the people who spoke of it, she hadn't seen again, and besides that, she didn't think it was what she was looking for... unless... It slowly began to dawn on her. Another world. Computer programs. "That's it!" she exclaimed happily, taking Chloe by the shoulders again and speaking excitedly. "Chloe, I think I know what it is. It's a game, it's all a big game! It's got to be!" Chloe frowned, but Carla continued. "I've studied some things, some articles and some secret files, and heard some things - they were talking about advanced virtual reality systems, things like that... don't you understand? Chloe, virtual reality - they use it to make games that seem lifelike, but they're not. They can make up anything, even this Alien planet you keep seeing."

Carla felt relieved - she thought she had solved the mystery. She knew that a lot of these hackers got fairly deeply involved in RPGs and other such fantasy games, and sometimes the really hardcore ones took it too seriously, and people got into real trouble, even killed. It wasn't the greatest thing for her sister to be dreaming about, but if this thing that she kept hearing little snippets about, The Matrix, was just one big huge VR game, then they had nothing to worry about. She would stop snooping around, and hopefully Chloe would stop having these dreams. It seemed so simple...

Until that last night. She went online, and the chat rooms were deserted. She tried getting into some old files that she had accessed before, and nothing worked. She was getting frustrated, she wanted to know if her suspicions were true so that she could finally give all this up and go back to leading a semi-normal life. Her parents had been on her case constantly about her grades, the people she hung around with, and how she'd never get into a good college if she didn't shape up. She laughed, thinking how her parents always believed her when she said she was doing homework on the computer. But now that summer was approaching she just wanted it all to end, so she could go back to her normal life, and have some fun for a change. She searched all night for something, anything, but she kept hitting dead ends. It was like someone was out to stop her, specifically. She finally gave up and went to sleep, getting up early the next morning to go to her part-time job at the library. She worked with computers there, too, although she'd learned not to mess around too much with their computers - she couldn't go getting herself fired if she was caught. She had the sneaking suspicion that she was being followed, but she laughed it off, thinking that it was no wonder she was edgy, with all the late hours she'd been keeping on the computer.

Yes, getting out of this hacking thing would be a good idea, definitely. How ironic that that was her last thought before she found herself in it for good. The next thing she knew, a man in a suit was telling her to get in the car, and not to try anything. Then she felt a sharp pinch of a needle in one arm, and the world went black.

When she awoke again, she was lying on the floor in this same room, with the man in black standing over her. He said nothing in the way of introduction at first, only "Well, well, well, Miss Madison. Is this what you were looking for?" he snapped his fingers, and suddenly there was a tv set in the otherwise empty room. He left her alone to watch it. She saw the destruction of the world she knew, and she saw a new, darker world of machines grow up in its place. She saw the black sky and the barren "alien" planet that her sister had spoken of. She saw the sinister "alien pods" and also the people inside - yes, people, real human beings. She saw it all, but she still did not know what she was seeing. Even then, she thought it was all part of a game, a game called The Matrix, perhaps. The first words out of her mouth when the man came back were "It's not real"

He only smirked. "What is real?" he asked her, his voice full of a contempt that she did not yet understand. He continued. "The reason you are here, Miss Madison, is because your snooping has led you here. You damn brats can't leave well enough alone, and there are too many of you getting into the system purely by accident. And frankly, it's really causing me a hell of a lot more trouble than I need right now. So, Miss Madison, you are going to help me do something about that.

"Why should I?" Carla spat back, unafraid of this guy. "Who are you, anyway, the FBI?" He didn't find this amusing, but merely stared back at her and said "I'm Agent Smith, and you'll be answering to me from now on."

Ch 5.

Carla stared at this guy, her eyes wide, but she tried not to show him any fear. She sensed that he was trying to scare her, and she didn't want him to know that it was beginning to work. She sensed that this 'Agent Smith' was somehow above the authorities that she knew - and that he wasn't going to let her leave this room alive unless she agreed to whatever he was asking.

Agent Smith laughed. "No, Miss Madison, we're not going to kill you. If we'd wanted you dead, you'd have been dead before you even knew what happened." He snapped his fingers, and a table and chair appeared in the room. He motioned for Carla to get off the floor and sit in the chair. She did, silently, frightened for real, now, and wondering if she was having on of Chloe's dreams.

"How did you...?" she began, but the Agent cut her off before she was allowed to finish.

"What you saw on that tv was no game, Miss Madison. That," he punctuated the word by pointing his remote control at the tv, "Is what you humans would call the real world." He allowed a moment for this to sink in before continuing. "If you're lucky, you'll never have to see it. Cooperate with us, and you can live in your world as long as you please."

Carla hardly dared to ask the next question, but her rebellious nature forced it out of her. "And if I don't?"

Agent Smith changed the channel on the tv. On it appeared a picture of Carla's sister, Chloe, sitting in a classroom, looking as though she were daydreaming rather than listening to her teacher. Carla's eyes filled with realization and then hatred as she looked back to Agent Smith's cold gaze. "You wouldn't... you can't hurt her. She's just a child."

Agent Smith snapped the tv off again, and said "My dear, we can, and we will put an end to your sister's life, as well as your own, with no more effort than it took to push this button." He held up the remote and snapped his fingers, and in a moment, both the remote and the tv were gone, leaving only the table, chair, and four white walls. Carla's voice was barely above a whisper as she asked her next question.

"What do you want from me?"

"You will learn, as soon as you give me your final answer." Agent Smith smiled coldly, knowing that he had won, the girl was in his power now, and it had been easier than he'd even anticipated. "Why don't I leave you alone for a few minutes, just to think it over. We wouldn't want you making any hasty decisions, now would we?"

"Wait." Carla spoke, finding her voice again. "You say I won't have to go to that..." she gestured with her hand to where the tv had been. "That, that place?" she said the word with extreme distaste.

"That's right, you will experience as little of it as necessary - you probably won't remember what you do see, anyway."

"And my sister, she'll never have to go there, either?"

"If you play the game our way, Miss Madison, we will provide your sister and the rest of your family with everything they could ever need. Think of it as a sort of compensation, for losing one of their daughters." The Agent replied.

Carla was confused. "Losing? I thought you said...?"

"You don't want to put them in any danger, now, do you?" Agent Smith said. "What you'll be doing is going to be dangerous - I won't lie to you about that. But you'll survive, with our training. And your family will know nothing of it. They'll be safe, as long as you stay away from them."

Carla was stricken by this new development. She had been assuming that life would go on as normal, only she would be 'helping' these people, whoever they were. She hadn't realized it would mean a drastic change. But what choice did she have? This man was never going to let her out of this room alive if she didn't cooperate - she wasn't sure about the rest of it - this place he said was the 'real' world, and all of that - she still thought it was some sort of a trick. Still, she couldn't risk the life of her family - especially not the sister that she would have fought heaven and hell to protect. Carla took a deep breath, staring down at the table for a few moments, and praying for strength. When she was ready, she looked back up at Agent Smith, and said, her voice as strong as she could force it to be, "I'll do it."

Ch 6

And so the nightmare began. Carla had scarcely gotten the words out of her mouth before she felt everything start to go dim and blurry. The walls seemed to be closing in on her, and she found herself gasping for breath. She tried to speak, to ask what the hell they were doing to her, but she found that she couldn't form the words. The next thing she knew, she was drowning in a sea of some red gelatinous fluid. She kicked and fought for air, trying to claw her way out of whatever it was, but all she could see was red. She was surrounded by wires and tubes that seemed to be somehow connected to her body - yet she couldn't feel them. She tried to scream but there was a tube down her throat choking her. She thought she was dying, and she reached toward what she thought was the surface of this red sea with her arms - and finally broke free. In the next instant the tubes in her arms snapped away, and she quickly yanked the tube that was in her mouth out - gasping for the first breath of real air she had ever taken. She was jolted backward as a large wire that had apparently been connected to the back of her head was pulled loose. She screamed as an insect-like machine reached for her, and opened it 'jaws' to let her in. And then all was dark as she finally lost consciousness.

For a while Carla knew nothing of what was happening - every time she would open her eyes she would find herself alone, in some laboratory, connected to machines and surrounded by what appeared to be supercomputers - but no humans, anywhere. She barely had time to think before the drugs that she was being given to sedate her took over again and kept her unaware of what was happening.

Later, Carla awoke in what appeared at first glance to be a hospital room. She sat up, trying to remember just exactly what the hell had happened to her. She had no idea how long she'd been here - all she could remember was making a deal with some guy who called himself Agent Smith - and then having what was probably the worst nightmare of her life. Her head hurt like crazy and her eyes felt like she'd been staring into the sun for about an hour or so.

"What in the hell happened to me?" she wondered aloud. She examined her surroundings again, and realized that this was no ordinary hospital room. For one thing, there were no windows, and the door was solid metal, and didn't appear to open from the inside. "Maybe I've lost it and I'm in the psych ward" she thought, and buried her face in her hands in frustration. Then she gasped as she realized that something was wrong - her long auburn hair that should have been falling her face right then was gone. She pulled her hands back away from her face and looked and her arms - in each one was a sort of electrical socketlike device that had been implanted. It all came back to her - her entire conversation with Smith,the television he had made her watch, and then her own horrifying experience in what she was beginning to believe was truly the real world. Her first thoughts, after horror and shock, were those of anger at the Agent who had promised her she'd never have to see that place. He had lied to her - and he'd probably killed her whole family anyway. She jumped off the bed and headed for the door, determined to break it down if she had to to get to that asshole.

As it turned out, she didn't have to. The door swung open, and there stood a man dressed in nondescript grey clothes, a uniform of some sort, she thought. She flung herself at him, attempting to scratch and claw her way through him, all the time shouting "Liars! You bunch of fucking liars...!"

The man said nothing, but caught her by the wrists and held them roughly. He shoved her out the door, where another man stood, waiting to take her. She kicked and screamed and tried to fight them, but they held her tightly and half-dragged her to a room with high-tech looking chairs and more computers. They shoved her into a chair and tied her arms down, but still she resisted. Finally one of the men slapped her hard across the face, drawing blood. "Calm down" he said, and pushed her back into the chair. He was too strong for her to resist, and she felt a cold metal pin slide into the back of her head - she screamed in pain as the shock of it nearly made her pass out again...

And stopped screaming when she found herself standing in front of Agent Smith, in the same room he had threatened her in earlier.

"Allow me to explain..." he began.

Ch 7.

"Explain?!" Carla shrieked. "What can there possibly be for you to explain?! You lied to me, you bastard - you told me I wouldn't have to go to that horrible place! Look at me! Look at what you've done to me!" Carla held up her hands to show him the places where she had been 'plugged in', and realized that her arms were normal again. She realized that her hair was exactly the same as it always had been, and that she was wearing her own clothes again, and not the ones she had woken up in. She calmed down a bit, and looked back at Agent Smith with questioning eyes. "What in the hell is going on here? She pleaded, tears of frustration and confusion threatening to fill her eyes.

Agent Smith scarcely paid attention to the girl as he spoke. "It's quite simple, really. It was determined that you would not believe what we told you unless you experienced it for yourself. The reasons why it is essential that you believe us will become clearer as your training progresses. We truly didn't expect you to struggle as much as you did - you'd have remembered less if you hadn't kept trying to wake up while we were conditioning you."

"Conditioning?" Aeon interrupted.

"Yes - you were, essentially, in a coma for your entire life until we woke you. Of course that has physical repercussions - we had to fix that, otherwise you'd have had to learn to do everything all over again, like an infant. And you, my dear Miss Madison, wanted to fight us every step of the way. That's why we had to keep you sedated for so long."

Carla didn't really care to know any more details. She just wanted to know one thing. "So why did you lie to me? Why not prepare me in some way for what you were going to do to me?" Agent Smith shrugged and replied. "I told you what you needed to hear to agree to my offer. If you hadn't agreed, you'd be dead now. It's quite simple, actually."

Carla was beginning to lose her temper again. "Oh, is it, now? Well let me tell you something, Mr Agent Whatever the hell your name is. If you ever lie to me again, all deals are off. You can pull the plug on me, shoot me, poison me, whatever you want, because I won't work for people that I can't trust."

Agent Smith was unimpressed by this. "Let me tell you something, Miss Madison. Several things, actually. Number One - we had to wake you up and remove you from your pod for your own safety. Left there, you could have been quite easily captured or killed by the other side. They already had their eye on you - and they wouldn't have hesitated to try to turn you over to their side, in which case you would become our enemy. I don't believe I need to remind you what would happen then." He stared at Carla, loading the words with just enough deadly implication. Before she could open her mouth to reply, he continued. "Number Two - you will do as you are told from now on because life will be much easier for you if you do, and a living hell if you don't. We would never do something so simple as 'pull the plug', oh no. We have uses for disobedient humans - and if all goes well you will never find out what they are.

Carla stood with her hands on her hips, still defiant, but weakening. Still, she had to get in one last shot. "Is there anything else?" she asked, in a mocking voice.

"Yes." Agent Smith replied. "Agents are not people. You'd do well to keep that in mind." And with that, he was gone from the room before she had a chance to respond.

Ch 8

The dreams were gone - and so was her sister. It had been a month since Carla's disappearance, and since then Chloe hadn't had a single one of her disturbing dreams. But she would have taken all the nightmares in the word in exchange for her sister's return. However, something told her that this was not to happen. Her parents went crazy at first , assuming that their older daughter had run off with that sleazy ex-boyfriend of hers, the one that they hadn't even known about until one of Carla's friends had informed them. Their fears were confirmed when they found a brief note in Carla's handwriting slipped under their front door one morning. It read :

Mom, Dad, Chloe:

I'm safe. Don't worry about me.


Her parents were deeply saddened, but they called off the police search. Not that the police had done much searching, anyway. Runaways were all too common, and the police had more serious things to deal with.

Chloe never believed for a minute that Carla had simply 'taken off', and so the note gave her no comfort. She tried searching her sister's computer for clues, but her natural intuition did not replace technical knowledge, and she found nothing. Not that there was anything to find, anyway. The Agents had taken care of that - they had been the ones to leave the note, too. They had also made sure that the police would not search for the girl, long before her parents officially called it off. And they weren't too worried about that meddlesome younger sister. Any trouble out of her, and they'd pull the plug, regardless of any promises to the contrary.

As for Carla, she had learned all too well just how inhuman the Agents were, literally and otherwise. The minute she was forced to return to the real world again, she tried to fight back with the same hostility as before. "You told me I wouldn't have to stay here! You lied to me!" she screamed at the men who escorted her to a new room, one that was less threatening but still just as cold and sterile. These men were humans, like herself, who had been freed and were working for the Agents. By the way they behaved - almost like the machines that surrounded them - she thought they must have been brainwashed. She tried to reason with them, almost begging them not to make her stay here, but when that had no effect she began to struggle against them again, at which point one of them turned and yanked her back out of the room that they had begun to lead her into.

"You want to see what your alternative is, little girl?" the man sneered at her, finally breaking his stony silence with a voice that sent shivers down Carla's spine. Before she could respond, he dragged her down the hall and pushed her into the elevator that opened for them. A minute later, the doors opened again into an octagonal shaped room that had walls that seemed, at first glance, to be made entirely of glass. Closer inspection would reveal that they were in fact an unbreakable blend of several plastics, much stronger than any bulletproof glass. Carla stared in horror at the scene outside. It was just like the one that Agent Smith had shown her, on that tv of his, only it was terrifyingly real. Just outside, no more than 5 or 6 feet away, was a row of the 'pods' that Chloe had so often described to her. . She remembered how Chloe had always called them 'alien pods', but these were no aliens - inside each one was a human being -used as nothing more than to feed the wretched machines. The memory of being inside one of those things came back to her and caused her to shiver and stare once again at the places where her arms had been connected. If she stared hard enough, Carla thought she could make out the faces of the 'sleeping' people, and wondered if she knew any of them.

She couldn't take it any more - she turned away, walked toward the far wall, and looked out again, this time over the bleak landscape. She thought she could see, far in the distance, the remains of the city. And above it, a sky where dark clouds obscured nearly every trace of light, drowning the earth in perpetual darkness, if not for the artificial lights of the machines that moved over the ground like insects.

She understood now - she had no other alternative to this place. She wouldn't be put back into one of those life-sucking pods, and if she were to somehow escape, there was no place for her to go. Resignedly, she walked back to the set of doors that she had entered by, and amazingly enough, they opened, and there was nobody waiting for her on the other side. She found her way back down to the room that she had been taken to earlier. The door was unlocked - she opened it, and entered what she supposed were her new living quarters. For a room designed by machines, it was not so bad. There was a bed - "These guys are pretty big on the whole sleep deal, aren't they" she thought, sarcastically. Also in the room was a computer terminal, and next to it another one of those chair contraption. Carla wasn't entirely sure yet how all this stuff worked, but she honestly didn't care. She'd be finding out soon enough, anyway. She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, this time without the hope that she would wake up from this nightmare.

Ch 9.

Little did she know that the nightmare was not nearly over yet - it would be a long time before Carla Madison ever returned to her own her world as she knew it, and by the time she did, she was no longer the same person. The Agents began training her immediately - first in computers.

She had great potential, but her present abilities were no better than any other amateur hacker. She was required to spend hours in training simulations, cracking every code possible, writing viruses, and getting 'caught' by made-up authorities dozens of times, and being told to "Do it again!" by an Agent each time she failed. When she thought she could take no more, that she would like to pick up the computer and throw it out the window, if there had been a window, she began to succeed, and by the time her computer training was over she knew as much as any of the infamous hackers that she'd read about on various newsgroups.

Shortly after this, she was called into the Matrix by Agent Smith. She found that the 'white room' that she had been brought to before was actually one of many rooms in a building supposedly owned by the government, but controlled by the Agents. She walked up the stairs and found the room on her own, this time. Agent Smith was waiting for her, but he didn't seem to have the intention of scaring the life out of her this time, so she stayed fairly relaxed.

"Well, Miss Madison, you've done well for someone who was initially so resistant. I believe it is time to begin the next phase." Agent Smith said.

"Next phase?"

"Yes, you still have a ways to go before you are ready to deal with people in 'your' world again. Which reminds me - when you go back, you won't be answering to your old name, under any circumstances. You are Miss Madison to us and us alone - you can't take the chance that anyone from your old life might track you down. Besides which, you'll need to deal with these hacker-types - they'll need to know you by your alias - so I suggest you go back to calling yourself - what was the name you used? Ion?" Agent Smith shook his head - he'd be damned if he could remember half of the things these kids renamed themselves. "Stupid humans - can't leave well enough alone with the names they're assigned" he muttered under his breath.

"Aeon" she interrupted, secretly smiling to herself at the fact that these guys didn't know everything, after all.

"Right" replied Agent Smith, thinking that she could call herself whatever she damn well pleased, he would always see her as just another one of those brats who had made his 'life', as it were, more complicated. "Well, I suggest you get back in there and move on to the next disk, then" he said. Aeon started for the door, when he stopped her with a last comment. "Oh, and don't be getting to sure of yourself just because you're good with computers. I guarantee a little girl like you is not prepared for what comes next".

He was right - she wasn't in any way prepared for what came next. Fighting simulation programs - first they flooded her brain with all the knowledge that she would need to go up against various computer-simulated opponents - but even then, she got hurt more than once, losing to a computer program that seemed to anticipate her next move before she even knew what it would be.

Finally, when she began to learn to play around with the rules that she had always been accustomed to, was she able to beat the programs. But, when she first went up against a real Agent in the Matrix, she was beaten so thoroughly that she had to spend a few days in the complex's infirmary. She had no doubt that next time, they'd go all the way and kill her - and she was determined not to let that happen. "No computer program is going to kill me" she thought to herself - and she was right. Within in a month she was consistently able to come out of a round with an Agent with barely a scratch. She couldn't beat them - no human could - but she could survive, and that was enough. Besides, after training, she wouldn't be fighting against the Agents any more - she'd only be dealing with humans, hopefully.

After all the hand to hand fighting, weapons training seemed like a piece of cake. "Just point the gun, shoot the target, and if you miss, get out of the way before they shoot back." She told herself. Of course, it wasn't easy, since the targets looked like real humans - but she forced herself to do it, making a vow that she would never kill a human in Matrix unless she had no other choice.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of training, she was called back into the Matrix unexpectedly. She had gone through all the simulation programs, and she was hoping this meant she'd be able to take a break for a few days. No such luck. This time, she found herself on top of the building that she was normally summoned to. "What the hell?" she thought, as she looked around for Agent Smith.

"Miss Madison - I see you're ready for your final test." He spoke from behind her.

She didn't flinch - she was used to these guys working the element of surprise. Instead she just turned around, and replied "Final? Meaning, after this, I'm done?"

Agent Smith raised an eyebrow at her and smiled that unnerving smile of his. "Yes, you'll be done - one way or another."

"Okay, what do I have to do? Kill somebody?" Aeon was being sarcastic, but inside she hoped that this was not, in fact, what he wanted from her. She was fairly sure that she couldn't kill anyone, unless it was an Agent, and she knew that she'd have better luck trying to kill a piece of stone than one of those bastards.

"Not yet" Agent Smith chuckled to himself, and without further explanation took off running, and leapt off the edge of the room, landing on another one about 10 feet away. Aeon rolled her eyes. "Showoff" she muttered to herself. She knew that in theory, she should be able to do this kind of stuff, too - but there was no way in hell she was going to go testing it by jumping off a building. Not unless -

"Your turn, Miss Madison!" Agent Smith called across the building.

"So that's it - that's my final test. Let me just put on my Wonderwoman costume..." Aeon said to herself, still maintaining her sense of sarcastic humor throughout all that she had been through.

"I'm waiting..." called Agent Smith.

Aeon took a deep breath - thinking that maybe killing someone didn't look so bad, afterall. It had to be better than killing herself, anyway, which she was pretty sure was exactly what would happen. Still, she hesitated, until she felt the cold metal of a gun pressed to the back of her head. It was another Agent.

"He said, JUMP" the cold, menacing voice was right behind her. "All right, all right, I suppose I'm going to die one way or another, here" she said, and closed her eyes for a second, gathering the inner strength to do this. When she thought she was ready, she backed up a few steps, ran as fast as she could, and launched herself gracefully into the air -

Only to find herself falling toward her death. She barely had time to scream before she hit the ground, hearing a sickening crunch before darkness surrounded her. When she awoke, all she could feel was the intense pain that told her only that she was not dead. She forced her eyes open and looked around. She was back in the infirmary. She cautiously sat up, wincing a little at the pain, but found that she didn't appear to have any broken bones - just a lot of bruises that were painful enough to make up for it. She wondered if this meant she'd have to do the whole thing over again.

As it turned out, she did, and too soon for her liking. Just a few days after she'd been allowed to return to her old room, she found herself back on top of that same building. This time, Agent Smith was frowning at her.

"Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. With all that you know about this place, you still can't get it through your head that it's not real. THIS is exactly why I don't approve of using humans to do our work for us - you're better used as a source of energy than anything else." He spat the words at her, and gave her a look that should have made her want to crawl under a rock and die. Instead it just made her angry.

"Look, Mr 'I-hate-humans', first off, let me remind you that without us you wouldn't even have been created in the first place. Second of all, I never asked for any of this. None of it. If you'd just told me to keep my nose out of your business from now on, I would have listened. I was perfectly happy living a semi-normal life until you came along with your threats and your damned real world crap. If you'd said to me 'either quit snooping around or we'll make you one of us' right from the start, I would have thrown my computer out the damn window. So spare me the lecture - I don't know why you thought I'd be of any use to you, anyway." She finished, crossing her arms in defiance.

Instead of shooting her, as he would have liked to, Agent Smith controlled himself and smiled inwardly. "You'll find out why soon enough, if you make it" he thought. But instead of telling her this, he maintained his angry glare and spoke coldly to Aeon. "I don't know why either - you really are rather worthless to us. Maybe you need to see the consequences of your actions, for once, and lose the attitude." He whipped out a cell phone and spoke into it.

"Is the target nearby?" he paused, receiving an apparently satisfactory answer, and said "Good" and snapped the phone shut. He turned back to Aeon. "Watch carefully, Miss Madison."

Aeon stared down at the street. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, just people, going about their business. She frowned, looking back at Agent Smith, not understanding what she was meant to be watching. He anticipated her question and answered it. "Do you remember your old boyfriend, Mr. Howell?"

Aeon thought for a minute. "Howell?" she asked, then it hit her. "You mean Dex?" She rolled her eyes. "Dex was never my boyfriend, I just -"

Agent Smith cut her off. "Yes, we're quite aware of the fact that you used Mr. Howell for your own purposes. However, he was sincere in his feelings for you. He's been searching for you, and we think he's been getting a bit too close. Unlike you, he doesn't have the kind of abilities that we're looking for - so, we don't really have many options."

Aeon looked back to the street below, and thought she could make out the figure of another Agent, standing on the street below, going unnoticed by all. And when she looked closer, she saw a young man, scruffily dressed, and about her age, approaching the Agent. She couldn't be sure, of course, but it sure looked like Dex, assuming he hadn't changed much since she last saw him. She saw the Agent reach into his back pocket, still unbeknownst to the people who walked past him. She couldn't see the gun, yet, but she knew it must be there. And Dexter Howell had reached the Agent, and was talking to him. They backed into the nearby alley, bringing them more clearly into Aeon's view, yet out of everyone elses. Aeon saw what was coming before Dex did, and tried to warn him with her screamed "NO!", but it was too late. The Agent shot him, and he slumped to the ground, dead before he knew what hit him.

Tears clouded Aeon's eyes. She hadn't been in love with Dex, and honestly she found him rather repulsive, but he was a fellow human, and he was dead because of her, and because of these Agents. She turned on Agent Smith, the tears gone and replaced by rage. She would kill him for that, Agent or not.

But before she could make a move, he was already running, and was halfway to the edge of the building before Aeon could even force herself into motion. She ran after him, paying no attention to the fact that the building was about to run out, and when he jumped across the alley, landing on the other building, she followed, unheeding of the impossibility of what she had done. She landed practically on top of him, knocking him back a few feet, and before he could recover, she had pulled her own gun, that she hadn't even realized she had until then, on him. She would have shot him point blank in the head, if his laughter hadn't caused her to pause momentarily.

"Very good, Miss Madison" he said, taking a step back. He would have applauded her accomplishment if he had been human.

Aeon slowly lowered her gun, and stared at the Agent, realizing what she had done. She looked back at the other roof, that seemed miles away again, and realized that she had done just what they'd wanted her to do. It did not cause her any happiness, however, because they had still killed someone, presumably for the purpose of angering her. This made her feel sick, disgusted with both herself and with them. But she wouldn't let them see it. Without a word, she turned from the Agent, and walked toward the exit that would lead her back down to the street.

Ch 10

Chloe's dreams had returned, nearly a year from the day that her sister disappeared. They were not the same dreams of the alien planet and the people in their ships. The strange man named Morpheus no longer spoke to her. Instead, she heard the gentle voice of an older woman, who, like Morpheus, never showed herself in these dreams. Just her voice, saying "I know where your sister is... I've seen her..." just this, for a few nights, and then Chloe started seeing Carla, or a girl that she thought was Carla, in various situations. Just brief flashes - not enough to get even a good glimpse at the girl. In one of these dreams Carla had short dark hair and brown eyes, and in another she had blonde hair and was wearing sunglasses that mostly obscured her features. In both instances she was seen with shady-looking men, mostly a few years older than she was. Chloe didn't know what her sister was doing with these characters, or with the other men, the ones who always showed up in black suits and sunglasses, and spoke in voices that lacked human emotion. Oddly enough, it was they who scared Chloe when they appeared in her dreams, even though Carla always seemed to be just talking with them, calmly, almost in the way that an employee would speak to her boss. But none of it made sense. If she had a real job with these men in the suits, what was she doing running around in disguises with criminal-types?

Aeon often asked herself the same question. After her training had ended, she expected things to get easier. And they did, for a while. She was given an apartment in the Matrix, in a building where the Agents told her nobody would question her or expect her to pay rent. She assumed they had control of this building, but she didn't care. It was a nice enough place, and was about a million times better than her room back in the real world. She still had to go back there now and then, for routine tasks that the Agents required her to do to keep herself up to speed, but most of her free time was solely her own. That wasn't the problem.

The difficult part started when Agent Smith showed up at her apartment one day, to "Explain a few things." Aeon was only slightly annoyed that he hadn't bothered to knock, but she was absolutely sickened at what he told her next.

"You'll be going out on your first assignment soon - we've located one of their next targets". By "they" he meant Morpheus and his allies - Aeon knew all about Morpheus, and she had been taught to regard him as the number one enemy, which she did, mainly because she knew that HE could have gotten to her before the Agents did, and he could have saved her from the hell she had been put through.

Agent Smith continued. "You will be required to get close to the target, and I mean 'get close to' in every sense of the word." He put as much dirty connotation into the words as a computer program could.

Aeon stared at him, not getting his meaning at first. "Get close to? In the sense of...?" she trailed off, hoping for clarification.

"What I mean, Miss Madison, is that you are what human males consider 'attractive', and you've already proven that you are capable of performing in these types of situations."

"Performing?" Aeon frowned - she was beginning to get where where this was going, and she wasn't liking it one bit.

"Yes. Why do you think we need the help of a human like you, anyway?"

"I've wondered that myself, countless times" Aeon retorted.

Agent Smith ignored her remark and continued. "They're starting to be able to recognize us - all Agent programs look fairly similar in human form. The people you'll be associating with have already learned to be suspicious. We need people who can break down that suspicion - hit them where they least expect it. And that is where you, my dear Miss Madison, come in. Some will be harder to reach than others - they tend to be loner types - but it shouldn't take much persuasion. Our friend Mr. Howell says that you had him completely fooled right up until the end."

"Dex was an idiot" Aeon muttered, and then instantly felt bad,. Regardless of the statement's truth, she had been responsible for his death. Or so she thought, until Agent Smith replied.

"He still is an idiot. But a useful one. We didn't kill him, you know - he was quite helpful in helping us acquire you, and he hasn't shown any signs of betraying us to the other side. We'll let him live, for now."

Aeon wasn't exactly surprised. It was just like them to pull a stunt like that. She was used to it by now. What she didn't like was that Agent Smith was essentially telling her that she was going to have to play call-girl to whoever they chose.

"Let me get this straight. You want me to sleep with these guys and get information out of them? Will you have me kill them, too?" Aeon narrowed her eyes at the Agent.

"You'll do whatever you have to to get the target in question to let his guard down. For some assignments, this may involve having intimate relations with the subject. In others, it may just be a matter of getting him alone in a room and putting a bullet in his head. We chose to give you the former for now, because we don't think you're ready to kill your own kind yet, and we can't take that risk." Agent Smith gave the closest equivalent to a shrug that he could muster, and tossed a disk to Aeon as he walked out. "Read it, and be ready"

Aeon threw the disk at the door as it closed behind Agent Smith. They were asking too much of her. She was being forced to compromise every value she had ever had - for what? Why in the hell didn't she just let them kill her, and be done with it? She asked herself this question over and over again, not finding a satisfactory answer. The only thing that kept her going was the thought of her family, and her precious sister Chloe, who the Agents had promised to keep safe as long as she cooperated with them. But even this was doubtful - she had learned exactly what the Agent's promises were worth.

Regardless, she calmed down, and did what was asked of her, each time selling another little piece of her soul to the computers that controlled her life now. Each target that she led to his death was more blood on her hands. It made her sick to think that a man that she had been instructed to "accompany" for the evening would most likely meet his death later at the hands of an Agent. Those were the lucky ones. Others would be taken, as she had been, and put to work in the complex, like those men that had pushed her around so many times. A few would cooperate, and would become informants. And then there were those who knew what they were up against, who were close enough to the 'inside' to realize the truth of the Matrix. One of these nearly killed Aeon when he realized what she was up to - she was only saved when an Agent burst into the room and shot the man while he still held her with a gun pressed to her head.

Covered in the mans blood, she somehow walked in a daze back to her apartment, where she spent an hour in the shower trying to scrub it off, all the while trying to tell herself that it wasn't real blood. It didn't ease her mind any. After that incident, she made a vow that she would take no more of these assignments. She didn't know how, but she was not going to play the game this way anymore. She simply couldn't.

As it turned out, she wouldn't have to. For as the Agents were reviewing her files, and agreeing that she had proven her reliability, and it was time she moved on to more complex types of assignments, someone else was also watching...

Ch 11

It was another 3 or 4 months before she got the phone call. She picked up the phone with a sigh, assuming that it was Agent Smith, calling her in for some new job. "Yes?" she answered.

"Hello, Aeon."

Aeon was taken aback at the use of her alias. The Agents never called her that, and nobody else would know how to find her... would they? She spoke cautiously, wondering if this was a test of some sort, made up by the Agents to make sure she was still fully under their control.

"Who is this?"

"Don't you know?" The voice was definitely human, not simulated by a program. She could tell that much.

"No, and if you don't tell me in the next 5 seconds I'm hanging up." She replied. She had learned quickly to trust nobody, and this phone call was a little more than suspicious.

The voice on the other end laughed. "Not so fast, Aeon, I can help you."

Now she knew it was a test. Nobody could help her, and she said as much to this unknown man on the other end of the line.

"I don't think so"

"Oh, but I can. Not in the way you may think, but if you're interested, meet me at this address in an hour."

She listened as he read off the address of an old hotel on the other side of the city. She'd never been there, but a quick check on her computer showed that it was no longer being used as a hotel, or anything else, as far as she could see. This didn't look good.

"Who are you?" she asked again.

"A friend" the man replied, and the line went dead.

Aeon never did figure out what exactly made her go to the hotel that day. Probably curiousity - that was always getting her into more trouble than she cared to think about. And there was something about the man's voice... she had learned to read people based on a number of characteristics that someone without her training might not have been able to, and he sounded as if he was telling the truth. She decided to risk it, and showed up at the hotel exactly an hour later.

It was abandoned, as she had suspected. The doors were unlocked - she pushed one open, and stepped back quickly as a cloud of dust settled around her.

"Nice place" she thought, sarcastically. A quick look around the lobby showed no signs of danger. She stepped inside, wondering where the man on the phone was intending to meet her. Her question was answered in the next instant as a tall man in a long black coat stepped out of the shadows, as if he were a part of them himself. He was wearing sunglasses even in the darkness, and she knew immediately who he was. _Morpheus?_ her breathless whisper seeming louder in the near-empty lobby.

"Glad you could make it" he replied, not answering her question directly, but not really needing to. With a nod of his head he indicated for her to follow him, as he said "Come with me"

"Wait." She stopped, remembering something that bothered her. "You say you can help me. Why do you want to help me now?" She remembered Chloe's words..."They don't want you, they won't help you...

Morpheus somehow seemed to read her thoughts. "I'm sorry, Aeon. We didn't know the Agents would find you so quickly. We didn't even know they knew about you until you were taken."Aeon let this sink in for a moment, still suspicious. "I thought you knew everyhing."

Morpheus laughed at this. "Not quite, but it's nice to know that some people think so" He grew serious again. "We don't have much time. Come with me, we need to talk." She followed him to a room upstairs, one with easy access to several exits, and leading to a back room filled with equipment that she recognized as similar to her chair and computer setup back in the real world. He spoke with a sense of calm and urgency at once. "My colleagues and I have been watching you. You're good at what you do, there's no doubt about that."

"Gee, thanks for the compliment", she replied, sarcastically.

Morpheus continued as if he had not heard. "But you don't enjoy it, do you?"

Aeon stood defensively, her hands on her hips. "It has its ups and downs, just like any job."

"But you'd like to be free of the Agents, wouldn't you?" Morpheus insisted. Aeon sighed. "Yeah, I suppose I'd like a lot of things. But you know what? It doesn't matter anymore. What I want now is to be left alone as much as possible. You people have caused enough damn trouble in my life, and I'm sick of it."

Morpheus removed his sunglasses, looking the girl right in the eyes. "You don't really mean that. What if I told you that I could help you, and you wouldn't even have to do anything much differently than you already are."

This statement caught her attention. She was curious as to how that was possible. "I'm listening." She said.

"All I'm really asking for is for is the occasional favor. Nothing big, you understand, nothing that would put you in danger or make the Agents suspicious. But you have access to the kind of information that could help us end this war, and with just a little help now and then, you'd be helping to free yourself, actually."

Aeon had stopped listening when she heard the word "Favor". She'd had enough negative connotations associated with that word in the last month or so to last a lifetime. "You know what?" she interrupted him. "I really don't feel like being used by anyone else in this lifetime. Not by the Agents, and not by you. So you can just take your favor and stick it right up your all-knowing ass." She turned to leave.

"Aeon!" Morpheus called after her. "You have every right not to trust me. But think about it. Do you really want to be fighting a war against yourself?" She heard this last statement, but did not turn around. She left the building, hearing his last comment echo in the room as she exited. "Think about it, Aeon"

Ch 12

Aeon couldn't help but think about Morpheus's words. He was offering her a chance to do some good - something that the Agents couldn't give her. It would be a risk, but wasn't her whole life a risk now? Besides, it wasn't as if she'd be doing this entirely out of the kindness of her heart - she wasn't even sure she had any of that left, after the last year with the Agents. She'd begun to see everyone in a new, more sinister light, trusting nobody but herself.

In the end she decided to give it a shot. What was there to lose? If things worked out, maybe this Morpheus person could help get her out of this mess that he had essentially helped lead her into. She wondered how to contact him, to let him know her decision, but as it turned out, that wasn't so hard after all. The Agents unknowingly helped set up her first meeting with one of Morpheus's crew members - a woman named Trinity.

"Go in and keep your eyes open" Agent Smith had told her. "Our computers show that one of our targets is meeting someone here today" he handed her the address of a local club - a rather trashy hangout, and one of the few places she hadn't yet visited on one of these missions. For some reason, she decided not to go in disguise - she figured that nobody really paid her any attention, anyway - she'd learned the art of 'blending in'. And it was this decision that led Trinity right to her.

"You must be Aeon" the voice came from directly behind her, and Aeon turned to face the woman who had spoken.

"I'm Trinity" she said, "And you're lucky it's me, because anyone else who wanted to find you here could have in a heartbeat." She looked over Aeon's relatively unassuming clothes and said "You look too innocent - it attracts attention".

Aeon raised an eyebrow at this and smirked, looking over Trinity's dominatrix-inspired leather attire. "Yeah, I suppose you'd know a bit about attracting attention, wouldn't you. Besides, if I look innocent, nobody's going to suspect that I'm here to kill them." She added, figuring that Trinity didn't need to know about her aversion to killing people.

Trinity just rolled her eyes. "Look, I'll say this once. If it were up to me, I'd have killed you. But Morpheus seems to think you'll be useful to us, and I trust his decision. So the next time you hear from me, be prepared to prove your usefulness." Trinity got up and started to walk away, but then turned and added, "And you can tell the Agents I was here if you like - I'll be gone before they even have a chance to look for me."

With that, Trinity was gone, and Aeon was already dialing the Agents. When Agent Smith got her call, he smiled to the other Agents that were standing with him, and said "Just like I thought..." he considered a moment, then put the phone down, and continued. "We'll let her play their game as long as it benefits us. She'll lead them to us... all in good time."


Aeon sat at the bar, sipping her drink and trying to ignore the guy who had been eyeing her from across the room for the last half hour. It had been two years since that first meeting with Trinity, and since then the two had been arranging these kinds of meetings whenever Morpheus needed a favor, and had some good program or information to offer Aeon in return.

It was a decent arrangement - she'd learned how to play one side off of the other, letting whichever one was most beneficial to her at the time win. So far, neither side suspected that she had been the cause of several wins and losses on both sides. It all balanced out, she thought. And thanks to all the practice she'd been getting, she could now talk her way out of almost any sticky situation... if only she were as good with killing as she was with deception, the Agents would have had their perfect weapon. But Aeon was glad she wasn't that, yet. If things continued to go her way, she'd be close to getting out from under their control - and then, who knew what she'd do. She looked forward to seeing her sister again, safe and under no threat of death by the Agents... now if only she could find a way to do that, without being in debt to Morpheus and the others... she could be free, from all of this, and she'd never touch another computer again.

But, for now, she had a meeting with Trinity, and some guy named Neo. She'd read a thing or two about this Neo, and she was impressed - but she was even more impressed when he walked through the door. "Wow" she thought, "Not too bad looking, is he?" She smiled at this stray thought, and briefly wondered why he was accompanying Trinity, who usually worked alone. But this day had felt strange from the start, and Aeon wondered if this was, in fact, the beginning of the end for one of the two sides... and she wondered which side she'd be on when it all went down.

Meanwhile, Agent Smith and two others watched from outside the bar. "It's time..." he said, and pulled out his gun...

At the same time, Chloe was at The Oracle's apartment, where she spent most Friday afternoons these days. Her visions had returned, just recently, and she wanted to know why.

"My sister is in danger, I know it" she said, but the Oracle only nodded calmly and said "She'll be fine - she'll have a decision to make, soon, but I think she'll make the right one."

If Chloe had known the decision, she might not have been so sure...

THE END (for now)