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Mini-Short Story
Created 01-12-2004 by Jayman & Fall (September)
Based on concepts by Larry & Andy Wachowski

Year 097 A.Z. - Three Years Ago

Promotion to First Officer - Fall

The next day following the "Accident"...

    An empty backpack slung over his shoulder, JAYMAN slowly swings open the door and stands somberly in the doorway. He takes in the heart-breaking view of the quarters... the over-worn chair at the personal workstation... the neat gray blankets on the bunk beside the wall... the old books and folded clothing in the wall netting... the little boxes and tool trays on the pipe shelves... the stacked metal dishes on the battered cabinets...
    It is the familiar quarters of his former captain, KAN-CHIANG... his liberator, his trainer, his teacher...
    Quietly, JAYMAN lays down his pack, pulls out the empty rolled-up netting from his pocket, and spreads it out on the bunk. Curiously, his eye is drawn to the torn and tattered books. He leans over the bunk, reaches into the wall netting, and pulls them out.
    "Hmmm," JAYMAN murmurs thoughtfully, "I Ching... The Art of War... The Return of the King..." He smiles.
    JAYMAN distantly recalls these titles from his plugged adolescence as Jacob Mandara... and briefly wonders how the captain got a hold of these wondrous relics from the human past.
    JAYMAN sits on the edge of the bunk, and sighs. He has some time before FALL arrives to hear his decision... a decision nobody else yet knows... but a decision that had to be made.
    Placing the books on his lap, JAYMAN turns to the first page of the story...
    "Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf's cloak. He wondered if he was awake or still sleeping, still in the swift-moving dream..."

    FALL glides along the corridor as if in a daze, knuckles brushing the cold metal with a dull clang at each bump in the wall. No matter how hard she tries, she can't get the the Accident out of her head. So much blood, twisted steel and broken flesh. She feels bile rise to the back of her throat, and tries to force it back with her memories.
    FALL wonders, instead, what JAYMAN wants with her. She knows his sudden promotion to Captain has hit him hard; none of them knew or respected KAN-CHIANG as much as he. And now he had to fill those empty shoes.
    Stopping in the corridor, FALL listens to the familiar sounds of the ship. But it is eerily quiet, with the rest of the crew in Zion subdued at their sudden loss. If KAN-CHIANG had died in a blaze of guns and glory in the Matrix, they would know how to react. Those kind of events happened all the time, but a freak accident in the Real World? Frightening to think that, though they were free, they were not protected any more than when they were jacked in.
    The other crewmembers were having a harder time accepting this than she, which allowed her to take control of things in her own subtle way while JAYMAN recovered. As an unplugged Operator, she knew what it was like both in and outside the Matrix. She could cover her grief in order to be the rock while everyone else floundered in their floods of tears.
    But JAYMAN calling her to his new cabin meant he had already dammed the sorrow, and was adjusting to the new mantle of responsibility.
    FALL braces herself as she approaches his door. Knocking quietly, she opens it with no apparent trepidation on her face. JAYMAN is sitting with a book in his hand, seemingly deeply engrossed in its contents. She clears her throat slightly.
    "You wanted to see me, Captain?"

    JAYMAN feels himself drift into the words reaching out to him from the page...
    "The dark world was rushing by and the wind sang loudly in his ears. He could see nothing but the wheeling stars, and away to his right vast shadows against the sky... Sleepily, he tried to reckon the times and stages of their journey, but his memory was drowsy and uncertain..."
    The words describing Pippin resonates true within JAYMAN... within his weeping heart... within his broken soul...
    The dark world rushing by... the vast shadows... the uncertainty... always the uncertainty...
    JAYMAN feels the waves of grief... of tears... beginning to build... beginning to return... until...
    The faint sound of a throat being cleared.
    "You wanted to see me, Captain?"
    Blinking away the onset of any tears, JAYMAN turns to the sudden appearance of FALL, the hard-nosed yet occasionally soft-centered Operator of the Nosferatu.
    Only 18 years old, FALL's one-year performance was exemplary for an Operator of any age. While others may have thought of her as an overcompensating punk, both KAN-CHIANG and JAYMAN looked upon her as a prodigy... Just like Mozart, reading the Matrix code like complex musical notes and tapping the keyboards like long-lost musical instruments... with just as much brilliance and just as much fire...
    "Uh, yeah," JAYMAN collects himself and nods. "Yeah, just give me a moment..."
    JAYMAN leaves the books on the bunk, gets up, and steps over to the captain's personal workstation, a simpler scaled-down version of the Operator station. Dropping into the chair, he stares blankly at the single main screen of falling viridescent code and the half-a-dozen smaller monitors surrounding it...
    JAYMAN looks down and chuckles. "You know, it's funny... Three years ago, I was in just about the same position you are now... I was 22 and served one year on the Nos... After we rescued you, Kan-chiang was kind enough to promote me to lieutenant... 'Lieutenant Jayman'..." (then he adds softly) "It had a nice ring to it..."
    JAYMAN turns to FALL. "And now, three deaths later, I'm captain..." (he looks back down) "Yeah... 'Captain Jayman'... But I can't hear the ring in it..." (he shakes his head) "I never wanted it like this, never like this."
    JAYMAN pauses, then raising his uncertain eyes to meet hers, asks FALL with a profound gentleness in his voice.
    "When we rescued you... did you ever meet Flicker?"

    FALL arches her eyebrow at the odd question. With such a recent tragedy as the Accident, she doesn't think it wise to be remembering the crewmembers that have come before. And judging from JAYMAN's actions, it seems it isn't much good for him to be lost in nostalgia. The break in his voice makes her heart ache for him. Contrary to popular belief, she does have feelings -- they're just well hidden so that they don't get hurt too often.
    "I met him, briefly," FALL answers at last. FLICKER was a good man, and an amazing Operator. FALL doesn't remember much of him. The crew had freed her from the Matrix, and she had spent much of the journey to Zion unconscious in the Med Bay. FLICKER, being the Operator, hadn't been near her much. She remembers seeing him when they retrieved her from the water, and again as she was led off the ship when they docked.
    "I took his place," FALL adds quietly, with a great deal of sympathy in her voice. She, too, knows what it's like to be promoted due to someone's death.

    Gazing through FALL as if searching for FLICKER's presence, JAYMAN doesn't seem to hear her quiet words.
    JAYMAN reminisces, "Yeah... He always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye... an itch in his beard... a joke on the end of his tongue..."
    Then softly, he repeats her words, "...Took his place... You took Flicker's place... Just as I took Kan-chiang's place... Just as Kan-chiang took Helios' place..."
    JAYMAN pauses, then adds with an odd tone, "...Just as Helios took the place of the captain before him..."
    And somehow, the image of the ancient Nosferatu and its long and honorable command lineage reminds him of his role... reminds him of the grand mission before him... a mission greater than any individual crewmember... greater than any individual captain... greater than any individual ship...
    The mission to free human minds.
    This is now my mission, JAYMAN reminds himself with rekindled wonder and purpose. Guarding the access codes to Zion's mainframe computer... Understanding the crew's strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and dreams... Finding and freeing ready and able minds... These are now my responsibilities.
    JAYMAN gently chuckles.
    "I'm sorry," he sniffles. "I must seem like a wreck... I just needed to remind myself of some things..."
    JAYMAN stands up and steps closer to FALL.
    "...including why I called you here."

    Normally, FALL would not restrain herself from questioning her new captain's sanity, but for once she keeps herself in check, purely to satisfy her curiosity.
    "What do you want, sir?" FALL asks formally.

    JAYMAN pauses slightly, then begins.
    "Both you and Crystal are lieutenants..." (JAYMAN steps over to his bunk) "In fact, Kan-chiang promoted you to lieutenant before this last mission... just as he promoted Crystal to lieutenant two years ago..." (he steps back to his workstation) "Both of you are perfectly qualified and able... But with everything that's happened, everything that's going on, you've kept the clearest head among the crew..." (he faces FALL) "We trust you... I trust you... and I need you to be the anchor when everyone else is drowning in their anger or fear or joy... or grief..."
    JAYMAN straightens and looks directly into FALL's eyes.
    "...which is why, as new captain, I'm asking you to be my first officer."

    FALL's breath catches in her throat. She can feel it, uncomfortably stuck but unable to go in or out. It feels like someone has decided to give her a bone-crushing hug and not let go. The cabin begins to go grainy in her vision as her breath refuses to swing into motion. She can sense her fingers trembling, but her mind drifts off, away from this last of a series of unexpected, and unpleasant, surprises.

    His caretaking instincts on full alert, JAYMAN senses the strange stillness in FALL's eyes, and rushes up to her.
    "Fall? Fall? Are you okay?" he urges, his hands clutching her upper arms, steadying her should she stumble... or fall.

    FALL starts at his rough touch, flinching back and simultaneously wrenching herself free. Eyes wide, she stares at JAYMAN incomprehendingly. But her breath is with her again, sounding loud and harsh in the small cabin. She can feel her blood pounding in her ears, the room seems to close in on her, so much noise, not enough air. She sucks in great gasps to take more before it all disappears.
    Abruptly, her legs give out from under her as the building events finally breach her strong barriers. From the death of her best friend in the Matrix, to the death of her only captain on the NOS, she feels the pain that she had carefully fought off for so long come crashing down on her. FALL draws her knees under her chin, squeezes her eyes shut and battles with every last shred of her being to stave off the flow of tears.
    Breath still rasps in her throat ...

    As FALL curls herself into a trembling ball, JAYMAN can only stare, his shattered and barely-pieced-together heart bleeding a little more... Now more than ever, she reminds him of the 15-year-old girl they rescued three years ago, cold, alone, and innocent in the starkness of the Real World, before she grew her impenetrable uncrackable shell...
    Yet JAYMAN manages to steady himself, and bends down to squat beside her on the cold metal floor...
    "You know," he recalls in the gentlest of voices, "I remember a joke when I was still plugged into the Matrix... Well, not a joke, but something funny my best friend told me a few months before he died... We were in a cafeteria, like any other high-school cafeteria, having lunch, and I don't know how it started, maybe it was an argument, but I asked him, 'If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?'..."
    JAYMAN turns to glance at FALL.
    "Then Sean, that was his name," JAYMAN smiles, "Sean asked me, 'Is there a big bucket of buffalo wings at the bottom?'... and I told him, 'Not anymore! Not if you're the last one to jump!'..."
    JAYMAN chuckles softly.
    "I just loved that guy," JAYMAN sighs, "I'm sorry, I don't know why I told you that..." Then searching for something to lift FALL's spirits, JAYMAN adds with another smile, "I guess I'm trying to say... that you shouldn't jump off a cliff unless there's a big bucket of buffalo wings at the bottom."

    Blinking, FALL lifts her head, frowning in confusion. She doesn't look at JAYMAN, utterly ashamed as she is of the tears brimming in her eyes. She can't seem to stop shaking either. Staring at the opposite wall, she contemplates JAYMAN's rather bizarre anecdote. Once her breathing is back under control, moving in calmly for every two of her heartbeats and out again, she looks up him.
    FALL [wry]: "I was vegetarian."

    JAYMAN smiles past FALL's comment and looks at her, her eyes tearing, her body still trembling, as lost as a little child... defiant but nonetheless lost... Then moving from something more light-hearted to something more serious, hoping to connect, hoping to reach her, one way or the other, he decides to tell her a heartbreaking secret about their former captain...
    "You've studied the Nosferatu logs... Have you ever wondered why Kan-chiang seemed to focus mainly on rescuing young women, and even recruiting young women for his crew?..."
    JAYMAN stares at his scuffed and scarred boots.
    "I'll give you one clue... His daughter... The daughter who never knew him..."

To be continued...

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