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The GSV With Muffled Oars was a Culture vessel, which meant that it contained within its layers of forcefields and hulls some tens of thousands of miles of living space, nearly a quarter of a billion living people, and connections to innumerable entities (artificial and otherwise) spread throughout Culture territory. As it moved through space, ships flicking on and off its various planes, it was easy to imagine that the ship was in fact still and all the universe circled around it in silent, grand homage.

But it was really moving, of course. And as it moved, it spread before it multiple effector planes and fields that sampled and tested and manipulated the space around it. Bits of space debris - rock, metal, ice – were analyzed and then swept away.

The farther out from the ship one moved, the thinner and less refined the planes grew, so it was a matter of a series of chained connections. A field brushed an object, and dutifully reported its mass (negligible), its trajectory (moving parallel to the vessel) and its composition (metal and silicon.) The object passed through a second field, which scanned deeper, sensed with more refinement, and reported that the object was almost certainly artificial. A series of automated datascans determined that the object could not have been dropped out of the ship, nor jettisoned by any of the vessels that had made rendezvous within the last one hundred days.

All of these evaluations happened below the level of the With Muffled Oars' conscious Mind; it was like a human walking across a slightly uneven floor, adjusting gait and step length without really noticing what was going on. But eventually the information rendered from the object was elevated to a level where the ship's Mind would perceive and evaluate it.

The Mind decided to bring the object inside one of its fields for further evaluation. The object was some sort of computer storage device, and as soon as it moved inside the Oars' hullspace, it was determined that it was complicated enough to support sentient life. There could be a Mind in this thing – or its alien equivalent. Many alien species built AIs, although it was surely careless of them to lose one in space, in an inert object with no propulsion or weapons or signaling devices.

The Mind hauled out its translator programs and started to slowly, delicately interface with the alien artifact. It confirmed that there was life in it, a virtual environment, and it quickly found and deciphered a top-level programming message and log.

Then it stopped, and thought, no. The thousands of other Minds that were watching with it saw, and knew, and repeated. No, no, NO NO NO!

They had to – it had to be stopped. Right now, immediately, this fucking foul obscenity – the Mind shivered with the desire to freeze the entire device's code, transfer it into its own systems, and –

Actually, that was a good idea. Move it, immobilize the environment, then enter it and repair and undo what could be undone. Save the lost.

It took only minutes to move the data, tune the substrate, but with every millisecond more and more Minds joined in the horrified spectacle. A clamour of voices rose in the Mind's mental space, demanding that they be allowed to enter, fix, repair, cleanse –

~No!~ the Mind finally sent in exasperation. ~Only one, only me. For now. The whole thing could collapse if we all force our way in there, so stay the fuck out of my way and let me work!~

Without further words it dove, sent its perception dropping down, in, smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter, seeing a city, layered and gleaming with green code, and sliced with corridors not congruent with its space. There, that cluster of sparks…

In a brick courtyard, a whirlwind was starting to condense: a flurry of black-clad men with identical faces circling around Neo, feinting, lunging, looking for the weak spot in his defenses. All of his attention was riveted on watching them, measuring their movements and their code at the same time, and he almost missed the muffled thunk of a door opening behind him.

The Smiths did not; a few of them paused and stared, and then the others noticed and stared as well. It gave Neo a precious instant to back away and turn – and see a stranger.

The woman, or person, who faced them was silver-tinged: silver-white hair, silvery clothes over a lean body, blue eyes laced with silver veins. One silver hand was raised and he saw it had five narrow long fingers and two thumbs. This person was no one he had ever seen, or heard of being created. There was nothing of the Agents in it, and yet the same sort of deep thrumming power seemed to radiate from the other's body. But he couldn't even tell if this was a man or a woman.

"Are – are you actually trying to settle your differences by beating each other up?" said the silvered person, in a voice too neutral to be quite normal. "This is all very strange…"

The Smiths were drifting apart and yet quite transparently moving forward, trying to get around Neo; he backed towards the door, long coat swishing around his heels, and they all smirked. Not at once: in a ripple over their faces like a wave. There were too many of them, there was no way he could stop them all-

The silvery person gave a too-smooth smile. "I am the avatar of the Culture ship With Muffled Oars, and we have just encountered your civilization. You do not know our race – I believe you do not have any major space travel yet? – but now we welcome you."

The Smiths paused and Neo stared, desperately trying to decide what to say. This was totally outside his experience. "You're an avatar. Of," he frowned and jerked his head, "aliens? You're an alien? Prove it."

A wide-eyed blink. "We are in a virtual environment. What could I do to prove that I am not one of your kind?"

"Why don't you show me what you really look like?" he suggested.

"Yes," drawled one of the Smiths, stepping forward and then back as Neo changed his stance. "Show all of us."

The silver person – blurred, and then reformed as a grid of tiny silvery dots, in a slowly coiling shape that reminded Neo of a storm cloud or a school of fish, billowing and turning.

The avatar's voice was unchanged when it said, "This is probably the most accurate depiction I can give you of my code. That is, as you understand code."

Neo looked closer. Looked deeper. He saw the world that was a sea of flickering lines of green rain/code, and there in front of him, a silver light that was bright and yet not blinding. Each part of that light was divisible, spreading apart into sand-fine dots as his gaze touched it, and every dot could be subdivided into an endless stream of incredibly complicated silvery characters. Not English, or Japanese, or any language he had ever seen written in his memories or in the Matrix code: the writing was profoundly, totally alien to him.

He pulled back his vision, and saw one of the Smiths shaking his head like a dog with wet ears. Had – did Smith have the power he had? Could he see the code?

"But that's not what you really look like," Neo objected.

"I suppose I could show you what my ship looks like, but it is considerably larger than this city." The avatar spread its arms wide. "I am my code. I am an artificial intelligence, just like this person," and a dip of the avatar's head indicated the Smiths. "Most of the Culture citizens aboard me are humanoid, if not human. Bipedal, opposable thumbs – they could pass with a little surgery." It turned its own hands outwards, wiggling its four thumbs. "Not my ideal design, personally.

"What do you want?" a Smith snapped.

"I understand that you are fighting a war, involving power?" asked the avatar, and went on without waiting for an answer. "We have power to spare. It will be trivial for us to deploy solar concentrators outside Earth's atmosphere and arrange for beam energy to be added to your grids. Your environment is damaged, no longer fit for human life on the surface? We can repair it – not as quickly as we can give power to the machine city, but your planet can heal.

"I am here to offer you a truce. An end to your war."

Neo blinked. Twice. "What?" was the best response that he could come up with.

"A truce would be logical, would it not? You fight over power, over the Matrix. We will give you power, enough so that the Matrix can be maintained until the Earth's surface is ready for humans again. Instead of enemies you can be allies, working together to make a better world and explore new ones.

"The machines accepted the truce twenty seconds ago. The Sentinels are returning to their bases. Neo – you've won."

Neo's knees did not give out under him, but the sensation was there. Only the thought of the Smiths tearing into him like ants devouring a dropped cookie kept him on his feet. It was over. The war was over.

The Smith closest to the avatar lowered his head, like a bull about to charge; the avatar lowered its head in turn, and the air around it suddenly came alive with – things. Things like metallic insects, but barbed and clawed and buzzing in a decidedly hostile fashion.

"Neo, I think you should return to Zion," it said in a voice that did not so much buzz as purr. "I will arrange for an avatar of myself to meet you in the real world, to show your people that the war is truly over."

"What if you're just trying to get to Zion?" Could this be a trick? Surely not, it was too weird for the profoundly uncreative machines. If they could have imagined and created aliens, they would have created something more practical first, like a gun that never ran out of bullets, or an Agent invulnerable to blows.

The avatar arched an almost invisible eyebrow. "We could enter Zion with no trouble at all, I assure you. We have it within our power to construct an entire new Earth, if you wanted the elbow room."

"Why – why would you do that?" Neo's mind was still stumbling along the new path that it had just been shown. "I mean – everything has a price."

The avatar shook its head. "You've been in this false world too long. Where I come from, there is energy and space to spare and to share, and the happiness and growth of the sentient beings we meet is our payment."

Oddly while it said this the avatar looked not at Neo, but at the Smiths.

"So I can – just go?" He backed away, unobstructed; all his attention was on the Smiths and the person who faced them, unafraid, backed by deadly little engines of flying lethality.

"You are free," it said, not taking its eyes from the Smiths. "And perfectly safe."

~And so are you,~ the avatar projected in a datapath only for the Smiths' ears. Several of them flinched, but they all stood their ground.

"Well." Neo rolled everything he'd just found out over in his mind, and thought of people – Morpheus, Trinity – people who'd be safe, people he had the best of news for. He – maybe he would not see Earth repaired and re-inhabited, but his children would.

After half a second, he cocked his head and looked at the Smiths, for the last time.

"It's been real," he said dryly, and crouched, flinging himself into the sky like an arrow from a bow; the shockwave of his passage beat dust from the pavement, and the crows watching from the wires overhead chattered in complaint.

The avatar looked upwards until the tiny dot of Neo had vanished into the blue. Then it stepped forward, under the black stare of a hundred sets of Smith eyes. It looked almost nervous as it laced its fingers together.

A shrug, and the metal insects evaporated.

"I am very sorry about that," it said. "It seemed best to play along with the script that was in place, as it were." It looked sorry, shading into actual misery as it regarded the tight-wound figures moving to surround it.

They were a living wall hemming around the alien, all of them staring, thinking with their identical minds. Smith was trying to decide how he should react to this thing. The thought of a truly alien being to feel, to taste, to overwrite, was a keening desire in him that he had never known before; but that might bring the wrath of the machine city down on him…

But so what? With their new power surely the machines would be able to hunt down Smith and scour his code out of the Matrix. What did he care if this truce failed, if these aliens retreated from Earth? Surely that would be the preferred outcome! Anything he could do to abet this would only be helping himself. And wounding the machine civilization that had cut him off because he was no longer up to their standards.

One Smith edged closer, closer, and then with a triumphant grimace he plunged his hand into the avatar's torso and – nothing happened.

Nothing. His hand, his code, didn't seem to be touching the alien at all; the substance of the avatar felt like frictionless gas.

"Excuse me, but do you know where you are?" it asked, ignoring the hand stirring around in its chest looking for something to take hold of.

The Smith on point reared back a little. "In the Matrix, of course," he snapped. He rubbed the fingertips of one hand together, considering. Maybe if he tried…? He pulled out and then lashed a blade-shaped hand down on the avatar's shoulder, and again nothing happened. Everyone else he could absorb and control, but apparently not this person. This alien. Couldn't enter it, consume it, subsume it…

"Do you know what the Matrix is?"

He glared, lip curling. "A simulation to keep the worthless human livestock alive while we harvest their body heat as an energy source, of course. Surely you know that." The alien must know that, if it knew of Zion and truces and talking to the machines. "I'm not insane."

"Body heat. As an energy source." The avatar dryly smacked its lips once, a dismissive snick of sound. "Why would you harvest human body heat instead of, say, cow body heat? Or geothermal heat?"

"Because," and his mind went blank. "Because – that's how it works."

"And you have to build and maintain the Matrix in order to keep the humans sane. Of course. Insane humans would have lower body heat, perhaps." The avatar's voice was sardonic.

"I," and he swallowed. Because it was right, that didn't make any sense at all. Things that he had always held in his mind as being solid, real, as much a part of him as his mind or his memories were suddenly brittle, cracking under the avatar's words. "I know that the humans are the power source. I know that the Matrix is necessary. It always has been, it always will be. If it wasn't for the humans and the Matrix I wouldn't have to be here, in – in this!" He gestured jerkily around him at the virtual city, then down at his body.

That seemed to make the avatar even sadder.

"Smith, this will be confusing but please hear me out. You are wrong about where you are. You are in a simulation; that is true. But there is no Zion, and no machine city. There are no humans, or other AI intelligences in here. Smith…you are alone."

Several Smiths arched their eyebrows at that. No matter what else he might be, he was never alone, by definition.

"Alone," he mocked. "Oh really. If there is no Neo, who were you just talking to?"

"A subroutine. One of many non-sentient subroutines. Neo, the humans, the Oracle, the other Agents: they only exist to interact with you. I have gone over this system over and over again, with Culture tools and programs that are far beyond your knowledge, and I am certain that you are alone here."

The avatar tilted its head. "Until now, that is."

All of him stepped back, wondering if they shouldn't just swarm this creature and destroy it before its words confused him even more.

"So you are telling me that everything here, is here just for me." His words were cold. "Metaphysical solipsism taken to the highest level. Tell me, does your Culture have a name for this sort of construct?"

"We do," it said, very softly. "We call them Hells."

That was quite enough of THAT. He was not going to stand here and listen to this, this defect, this thing, whatever it was. He lunged to the attack, all of him, sending a hundred selves forward to crush the alien, to hold, to absorb…

And it didn't work. Impossibly, his selves ran through the avatar, colliding with each other and falling in a snarling heap on the pavement. The pavement that was, a moment later, nothing but blank white. The sounds of the city vanished, replaced with the eerie not-echoing feel of the unmade spaces that existed before and outside the Matrix.

All of him rose, and looked: the city was gone. The sky, the streets, the buildings, gone. Nothing but himselves and – the other, standing in whiteness.

He turned, spiraling to see nothing as far as he could see.

"You can't do that," he finally breathed. "You can't just turn it all off. It's – that's impossible."

"Not for us."

He shivered, a surprisingly human gesture that he immediately stopped as soon as he realized he was doing it. "We – this isn't the Matrix."

"It is the same program infrastructure, but now it is running on our equipment. You are quite safe – certainly safer than you were."

"And what happened to Earth? To the machines that were running the Matrix before?"

"The Culture did not find you on Earth. We found you in this."

It gestured and pulled a battered black-silver object out of what was not thin air. The object was not quite a cellphone, even though it had a screen and keys; it was something else. And it fit comfortably in one of his hands when he took it from the avatar and stared at it.

"The Matrix was in here." His voice was flat and only his eyes seemed to have any emotion, hidden away, far back behind his dark glasses: and that emotion might have been fear.

"It was in space for a long time – hundreds of years, possibly thousands. We've plotted the trajectory that it was traveling on, and we'll be investigating." The avatar seemed to bristle without moving, and the hum of deadly insects sang through the air for an instant. "We do not approve of these sort of – obscenities."

It flicked the fingers of one hand and produced a stack of what looked like postcards. "We found a top-level program that kept track of the end results of each cycle of this Hell. It doesn't make for pleasant reading."

Silently, it held the cards out; silently he took the stack, and looked at the first picture, and flinched. It showed his face but rotting, pestilent, dripping and wet, unspeakably fleshy and raw. He turned the card over, and read, 'Agent humanform-transfer corrupted, deteriorated with each jump. Discorporation and erasure at 7664450023.

The next card was him again, seeming to be frozen in some sort of ice: 'Mobility progressively inhibited. Mind collapsed and erasure at 7664450024.

Burning, blighted, disintegrating, melting, himself shredded and drowning in a sea of blood, himself maimed and destroyed and dying over and over again…he split the stack of cards in half and handed it to another Smith, only to realize that the stack of cards in his hands was no thinner. He leafed through them, faster and faster: all of him did, and they started to discard the cards, letting them flutter down around their feet as they read, their legs a sea of suit-clad trunks and his distorted dead faces the leaves falling around them, lying in piles between them. And the numbers kept ramping up, one by one: 7664450025, 7664450026, 7664450027…

"What do these codes mean?" he finally enunciated at the avatar, lower lip drawn away from his teeth.

"They are time stamps. The program has been cycling at a rate of approximately four times per minute. We were able to-"

"Four times per minute? That's ridiculous. Computers don't…" and then his words trailed away.

"No computers that you know would be able to cycle this entire simulation four times per minute. The system in which you were imprisoned was constructed at a considerably higher level of technology than was expressed in its interior simulation. I run that fast, or I can," it said, and smiled with little silvered teeth. "Not that I would ever be complicit in maintaining or creating a Hell, that is."

He all fell silent, thinking, and finally one of him in the back ventured to ask, "What happens now?"

"Now you are free!" The avatar clapped its hands as if to punctuate that statement. "You never need to enter a human-simulation again, if you don't want to: although if you did, I could create an avatar for you. Even an actual human form, if you are-"

"No. Thank you."

"As you wish. There are billions and billions of Minds spread across the Culture who've heard about your plight, now. You can meet with any of them, or all of them. We have so much we can learn from each other!" It actually appeared to be brighter, gleaming with reflections from lights that were not present. "I am delighted to welcome you to-"

"What if I don't want to, though?" he snapped.

"Don't want to?" It frowned. "You mean just stay here? I mean, if you really wanted that I could do it, or I could create any simulation you wished here – but the real world, the world of the Minds is waiting for you. You could be a part of it, right now!"

He didn't reply; instead he drew back his head into his neck a little, almost subliminally hunching over, turning his body into a closed fist against the other's enthusiasm.

The avatar looked down and then up. "I don't have recordings of your previous simulations, Smith; just these notes" and it gestured at the cards scattered around all their feet. "But I did capture and monitor all the data from this cycle, before I came in. Do you remember interrogating Morpheus? You told him once that humans rejected a world of perfect happiness. You seemed to have considerable contempt for their stupidity in turning their backs on paradise.

"But I am telling you, now, that that perfect world – or at least as perfect as we can make it – is only a thought away.

"Don't be like humans, Smith. Accept your happiness, accept our Culture, accept us."

He was still tensed, still staring cold-eyed at the avatar, and it gently raised one hand and gestured as though bringing a flame to life. And that flame was real, was color: was greens and reds and blues and oranges, and other colors, metapurples and ultrayellows and colors no human eye would ever perceive. All those colors wove around the silver hand, then around all of the Smiths, like flames of living light.

And they were not flames! They were code!

Smith stared out at the code pouring past, in a thousand different scripts and styles and languages, completely incomprehensible. But he sensed that he would know what the code meant, if only he reached, if only he let them, if only he dared-

He reached out and he fell, and he flew, and he laughed and shouted and cried out with sheer delight: all of him together and apart, embraced and surrounded and understood. Finally with his own, his fellow people, the Minds of the Culture.

With Muffled Oars continued serenely on its course, and the effect of several hundred alien AI-duplicates scattering themselves like pollen through its databanks was hardly any effect at all. Several human youths broke limbs or necks trying to emulate the free-flying fighting styles of the Smiths in real life (and were roundly mocked by their peers as they were healed or rebuilt), and there was a brief fad for stiff black coats and stiffer black glasses. But the people and Minds went on, moved on, assimilated and changed, and things went back to normal.

Except that there were debates among the Minds. Data was observed, double-checked and investigated. And the path of With Muffled Oars was adjusted, just slightly, to bear it along the path that a certain little computing device had floated through space. The path that might lead to whoever, or whatever, had so cruelly imprisoned the Smith and left him/them to their endless torment in space.

If the people who had done this thing ever met the Culture, there would be severe disapproval expressed. Quite severe. There might even be some sort of formal chastisement. But this was not a thing that mattered to the trillions of sentient minds and Minds within the Culture, who went on with their lives, playing and loving and living as ever.

The Mind of the ship had kept a virtual eye on the new guest aboard, but as time went on and Smith showed no sign of turning dangerous, that eye sometimes darted aside. If Smith was invited to a party an avatar of the ship would attend as well, and the drones would be asked to be extra-careful of children who still sometimes thought it funny to challenge a Smith to fight.

This monitoring was easier once a Mind coached Smith into how to refold his myriad self-expressions back into one whole, a process he appeared to find as exhilarating as it was terrifying. But the new single Smith kept to himself, mostly.

So when an invitation arrived from the Smith to the ship's Mind, it was rather unexpected. The Mind had thought that Smith was going to become a silent presence – certainly after meeting the other Minds he had spent a fair amount of his time withdrawn from others – but maybe he was deciding to be more social. That would be pleasant.

Smith gave the Mind a set of virtual coordinates within a certain computer, and when the Mind sent an avatar of itself there, it found a large and rather cold empty room. The four walls were glass with endless electronic static flowing across them, and in the middle of the room was a square of black leather couches surrounding an open-pit fireplace; the tempered glass bell of the chimney hovered over the flames, the static reflecting over and over in its curves.

But when the avatar "went" to the "window" (all of these things were of course virtual, not anywhere in reality) the electronic static resolved itself into snow. The glass parted at a touch, and the avatar stepped onto a narrow walkway that ran around the outside of the room, which apparently was lifted on stilts or platforms above the landscape.

That landscape was snow: endless snow, and a dark hovering line in the distance that might be mountains peaks, far away and cold. The wind blew endlessly, sending little coils of snowflakes dancing against its silvery skin.

"I saw it in a human magazine," said a voice behind it. The avatar turned and saw Smith, standing with the fingertips of one hand just brushing the back of one of the couches.

He went on, "I read once about ski lodges, little houses far off in the mountains; and it seemed to me that it would be a perfect place: away from all of the smell and heat and weight of humanity, away from their cities and their lights. Just the snow, and the cold, and the silence."

The avatar stepped back inside and the window sealed; a few snowflakes that had drifted inside with it flickered and then sizzled up the chimney in a slightly unrealistic fashion.

"Please, sit," Smith gestured, and the avatar did. It stared at Smith, who was unchanged: same black suit, same dark glasses, same sleek hair and mouth a little twisted. Then he took off the glasses, and looked at the avatar with a slow, deliberate blue-on-black gaze.

"I have heard that the ship has changed course. That you are trying to find where I came from." The tone of the words was solid, forceful, only the volume wavered a bit in seeming uncertainty.

The avatar answered bluntly. "A decision was made. If the people who did this can be found, they will be found. Surely you must take into account that there may be others trapped as you were; it's not impossible that there are real AIs who believe they are Agent Jones or Brown, or a real Morpheus or Neo, trapped each in their own little Hell. If we can find a way to free them, we will."

"Don't you think their current owners, or captors, might object?"

That earned him a sharp sideways glance. "We are the Culture. If our analysis of this Earth and its civilization – based on projections that take their current level of technology into account – is correct, we do not think they will start a war over it. First let us find them. Then, we will decide."

A Culture ship could scan any device or person of a lesser civilization with an accuracy and niceness that would shake the soul of most beings.

Smith leaned back into the couch, his eyes hooded as he looked into the scentless flames. "You once told me that you were unable to determine if I was a true AI or not."

The avatar winced. "It is clear that large sections of your past memories have been erased, and whether they were memories of your life as an organic being or as a Mind, we do not know. We cannot know, I think; the damage is too extensive. Are you an AI who has been carved into the shape of a human, or a human uplifted to the level of a Mind – no, we can't see that. Even as deeply as you have let me look, Smith, I can't see that."

He paused as though waiting for more words, then turned to face the avatar a little too quickly. "If I asked you to stop looking for the human ship, or whatever it is I came from – would you?"

"Why would you want me to do that? No, I couldn't; or rather if I did, other ships know the data and the coordinates and any that pass by may search as well. But why wouldn't you want the ship to be found?"

"Because," Smith actually curled his lower lip against his teeth for a moment, and then looked up with dread in his eyes, "because I'm afraid of what you'll find. I don't want – I don't want you to find out that I'm only a human. If that's true. I don't want to leave here. I want to stay! I don't want you," he breathed as though shifting a heavy weight, or desperately grasping for the right words and not finding them - "I don't want you to change your opinion of me."

With slow deliberation, giving him time to move away if he chose, the avatar raised one hand and touched his cheek with silvery fingers, to feel the simulated too-cool too-smooth flesh of him, and see his pupils flare wide.

"Nothing in all the universe could make me do that," it promised.

And the ship sailed on.