Her tenth birthday marked the moment she gazed upon the world and found it lacking. Her friends shrieked with joy at the clown turning ugly balloons into uglier animals and her parents looked on with satisfied indulgence.
All was good and nothing was.
The perfect facsimile of reality left her empty and yearning for something to touch, something to taste. She could see, now, the holes in the world, the tiny seams at which it could unravel. Curiosity bid her to prod until they bled.
She heard whispers of the Matrix in dark corners of her virtual escape. The machines she used were old behemoths, sluggish and unwilling to give up their secrets easily. As they unfolded a hidden world for her, she learned to remake herself as one of the chosen. The system knew them as hackers but they knew each other as kin.
Awake now, and aware, her name was Loki.
“What is your name?” asked the leather-clad man as she backed away, hand raised as flimsy protection. There were three of them, wearing black like the uniform of the damned. They were slick and cold as ice.
“Loki,” she said and knew that it would be true forever.
The difference was in every surface. Something in the Matrix rounded all the edges of the world. Everything in Zion was sharp and edged and would catch her skin, ripping off pieces.
Her skin felt different. She hadn't even considered that this could be part of it. Old friends had called her tomboy, sure, but she'd never been anything other than a girl, never wanted to be anything else. Here though, here her body had all the wrong parts.
She missed all the things that weren't there, more than she begrudged the extra bits and pieces. Sacrifice. Everyone had to pay a price for freedom and perhaps if her price was this twisted version of herself then she would persevere as all of them did.
“Man, you have to talk to that kid. He's got some problems is what I'm saying. It ain't natural.”
She listened behind the door, too afraid to face them. Her captain was a withered old dog, too tired to make hard choices. Fenrir would play it safe, always. He was the kind of man who did not deal well with shades of gray.
“Loki is a great agent, a real asset. What am I supposed to tell him? That he has to stop pretending to be a pretty little princess?”
Fenrir barked a laugh. “It bothers the crew, that's what. They're uncomfortable and I don't blame them. That kid is unstable.”
She shivered, feeling their words like oil and fire on her skin. If only she could simply burn the false persona away. If only.
Zion did not have a concept of who she was.
Neither did the Matrix.
There had always been a little bit of bleed-through. The Matrix would render her as the woman she knew she was, but there was a strange kind of after-image, something that did not quite fit. On the inside they had scientific names that didn't really describe anything at all. On the outside all they had was confusion.
All of their worlds were binary.
There were so few of them now, they said.
Each of them had to do their part, they said.
We know you're not that interested in girls, they said. But there are so few of us now.
They didn't understand that the girls were not the problem.
Sometimes she wanted to go back so badly it felt like dying every time someone pulled the plug on her. The port was too sensitive and would burn after a long mission, an itch she couldn't scratch.
If she'd stayed under, would the machines have given her children?
One day, she saved the captain's life and he clapped her on the shoulder, saying: “Thanks, princess, that was good work you did down there,” and his voice held hardly any contempt at all. Gritting her teeth and biting her tongue, she did not call him a spineless bitch whose misplaced caution put them all in danger.
Instead, she said, “thank you.”
“There are others,” the oracle told her once. “You are not alone.”
Loki was not a believer, but she wanted to be. Every day was a struggle between what she knew of herself and what others saw of her. Sharing that burden, while a curse to wish upon any one individual, would have been a great relief.
Agents nearly killed her on an extended retrieval mission. They shot her three times, two to the chest. She flat-lined in her chair. After, the intangible wounds were numb for weeks. It seemed odd that the mind could carve such chunks out of her flesh.
“If I can die because of what happens to me in the Matrix,” she later said to Anansi, her operator, “then why do people insist on calling me a guy? I am what I think I am.”
Anansi hated philosophy and had never set a virtual foot inside even so much as a training program ever since his rescue. He shrugged and took another bite of his sludge. “You look like a linebacker. They get confused.”
She sighed and buried her head in her hands. “And what about you?”
“I know you.”
Falling in love was easy, though she had never expected the miracle of mutual interest. Before, she would have had no trouble imagining a normal life, a family. Out here, it wasn't quite a crime to love to wrong person, but the pressure to continue the species and create more freeborn was near unbearable.
Anansi didn't care. He was whipcord thin and solid, a man who took no shit from anyone and somewhat unexpectedly Loki was quite, quite in love.
And that's why she said, one stolen night: “I want to show you who I really am.”
In the Matrix, Anansi kissed her on the lips and laughed, quietly. “It's different,” he said.
Loki shied away. Too many people had seen her differences and judged her for them. Anansi only rolled his eyes. “You're still you, that will never change.”
Wrapping them both into a fierce embrace, Loki gasped with unshed tears.
“You were the only one who ever saw me.”
“Then I promise,” Anansi said between whisper-small kisses, “I will never stop looking at you.”