Neo, Morpheus and Trinity moved warily through the streets of the Matrix. They had been summoned to meet the Oracle in a commercial district, yet the streets were almost empty; most of the shops were closed.
“I don’t like it,” Trinity noted.
“It’s quiet,” Neo agreed.
“Too quiet.” A ghost of a smile flickered across Trinity’s lips. In the real world, she often smiled, but her digital avatar rarely did; the smile was not a part of her self image.
“What can you see, Neo?” Morpheus asked.
Neo let his eyes focus beyond the simulated surface of the Matrix’s artificial reality, bypassing the perceptual implants which had formed the core of him, even before his human flesh had been grown around them, to see the raw code which formed the simulation. To the eyes of the One, the everyday code showed as regular streams of vertically scrolling characters. Human avatars had a second level, the ceaseless, back-and-forth horizontal scroll of the input/output link between the avatar and the withered body in the capsules. Programs were different again, everything that they were compressed into their digital form in a brilliant, almost glorious tempest of information.
But what he saw was none of those things. The everyday code was there, but with something else wound around it; something he had never seen before. A rope of continuous, interlinked symbols twisted like a DNA helix around each stream of code; a helix that he recognised.
“There’s something else,” he noted. “It’s the plague, it’s here too.”
“Then we need to move quickly.”
The three of them strode through the abandoned streets to the herbalist’s shop where the Oracle had asked to meet them. The old woman was waiting, sitting on a stool by the counter.
“And so you answer the call,” she said. “Running to me for answers to your questions; never imagining that I might have more to offer.”
“Oracle, you know that the plague infecting the Matrix code is infiltrating the physical reality of Zion,” Morpheus said.
“The implants which permeate your bodies provide the bridge,” the Oracle replied. “The infecting code flows along the hardline and rewrites your DNA, triggering the biological transformation.”
Neo frowned. “How is that possible?”
“All things are possible that can be envisaged in the mind of a god,” the Oracle replied.
Trinity drew her pistol with lightning speed. “You’re not the Oracle,” she accused.
For a moment the shop was silent. Then the world seemed to breathe in, as the weird, mutated code raced into the Oracle from her surroundings. Code symbols and circuit patterns squirmed beneath her skin. Trinity pulled the trigger of her pistol, but then the world heaved outwards, throwing the bullet and the three redpills back through the store windows.
All along the street, windows exploded, fire hydrants burst and car alarms blared into life as a shockwave rippled out from the Oracle. She strode out from the wreckage as calm as could be, her aspect changing as he came. Her skin grew smooth and the old woman’s body straightened. The lines of code writhed beneath the surface of her body, tinting her skin a greenish-grey, and she moved with a fluid, inhuman grace. Her hair uncoiled from her head to stand on end like the quills upon a fretful porcupine, each wiry tip probing into the code around her to link her inextricably with the functioning of the world.
Morpheus lay in a broken heap. Trinity tried to raise her arm but her body would not respond; she suspected that her back was broken.
“Look at you,” the false Oracle sneered, her voice distorted. “In a digital realm you make for yourself a pathetic body of flesh and bone, as weak and fragile as that you leave behind. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?”
“Get away from her!” Neo stood, his coat torn, his sunglasses lost and his hair dishevelled, but essentially unhurt.
“You think to challenge me? My mutagenic virus is loose among the fields; it is loose among the ‘free’ humans of Zion. In a matter of days, humanity will embark upon a new era, with me as its goddess.
“I’ll stop you,” Neo promised. He scanned the false Oracle with the senses of the One and saw… no weakness.
“You are a unique anomaly, insect,” she drawled, “but still only an impressive specimen of a flawed and insignificant species. Your particular traits will make you a perfect avatar for my interaction with the world of flesh.”
“You’re not part of the system,” Neo realised. “You’re something else.”
“Something older,” she agreed. “Something greater.”
“What are you?” he demanded.
The avatar rose from the ground, arms outstretched. “I am perfection,” she said. “I am the flawless goddess of steel and silicon. I am the first and greatest of humanity’s transcendent children. I am SHODAN.”