The balconies overlooking the residential core were quiet and lonely tonight. And they were quiet with more than just silence: the ever present rise and fall of dock traffic was gone, but the machines that powered the city ground on. This quiet came from somewhere else, from the still and somewhat fearful anticipation that had settled into the community while the survivors mourned.
It was the hush of waiting. The hush of nerves worn raw from terror and adrenaline and civilian combat. They were all civilians here, deep in the earth's last remaining human city. And they were all soldiers, on the edge of a war that threatened to wipe them clean off the face of the world. The only question, now, was whether they were on the victorious side of a stalemate no one could have foreseen... or the leading edge of a catastrophe that could still destroy everything they had become.
He heard a door creak open behind him, didn't have to look to know it was his own. He stared down into the abyss, the clang and hiss of metal on metal muted by the great height even as it echoed up the surrounding walls. The glow from the core burned into his eyes, but it was the steady pulse of electric fireflies drenching level after level that he saw more than anything. More than just illumination--there was a light burning for every person lost in what could so easily have been Zion's last stand.
"You can't sleep," a voice observed. He didn't bother turning. She wasn't asking a question, and she already knew the answer. "Staring at those lights won't make them disappear, Morpheus."
She knew him too well. She always had. "Do you know what they plan to do," he said, staring out into the well of dancing shadows. "In the matrix? Have you heard their grand scheme for liberating everyone Smith disrupted?"
"They can't just pull the plug," she said quietly. She had heard. "No matter what Smith did, no matter what the machines say. You know that as well as anyone. We never free a mind once it's reached a certain age."
"What the machines say," he repeated, blinking once as the lights began to swell and distort. "They know that our freedom is meaningless as long as the matrix exists. We can't fight ourselves... they choose to be there, Niobe. Humanity chooses to imprison itself. How do we change something we don't understand?"
"Maybe we do it by making people aware of the choice." Her voice was calm, unaffected by his barely repressed frustration. "Maybe we trust that this 'grand scheme,' as you call it, really will reach humanity. Maybe it will mean something to them."
There was a pause, and then she added, "Your faith in Neo has never wavered before, Morpheus. Why do you doubt him now?"
He clenched his hands around the railing. He had almost forgotten what it meant to be near her--to have his absolute assurance challenged by the one person that could get inside his certainty, hold the flaws in his logic up to the light, and force him to face them. His equal... maybe his superior, in matters of the head. His ability to believe with all of his being came from a passion that sometimes overruled rational thinking. Her head ruled her heart, always. Sometimes her skepticism could be her weakness.
And sometimes it could be his strength.
"It isn't him I doubt," he said softly. "If Neo wants to create a... movie? About the matrix, the machines, our own city and the choices that brought us to this point? I am certain he will succeed. But while he is busy liberating the rest of humanity--a task that will no doubt require generations--what of those who are already free?"
"What of them?" she countered. "We survived without Neo for a long time. We'll do it again."
"With whose leadership?" he demanded of the abyss. "The leadership that brought us this? Death and destruction and a peace so tentative we don't even dare use the word? What kind of existence is this, Niobe?"
"It is existence," she said firmly. "The only life some of us have ever known. We're not sheep. We didn't follow you because we had to. We followed you because we had a choice--and we chose this!"
He didn't answer.
"We don't need Neo," she told him. "And if we do... if we need a savior to give our existence meaning, we're no more free than the people still hooked into the matrix."
Was that why he wanted Neo to return to Zion, he wondered? To give his existence meaning? He had spent his entire life searching for the One. He had found him. And the One had broken a cycle of which he hadn't even been aware, shattering the first lock on humanity's free will and handing them the keys. Only then had they realized how many more ciphers remained ahead of them.
No, their ultimate liberation was not Neo's responsibility. He had given them everything he had, and it had been enough. The rest was up to them.
"Do you suppose," he began quietly. He wasn't certain that Niobe was still there, but the question had to be asked. "That they miss us?"
"Of course they miss us." Her reply was gentle but immediate. "But in the matrix, they can be anything they want to be."
"Neo can be anything he wants to be right here." He was surprised by the harshness of his own response, though he tried not to let it show. Maybe they didn't need Neo after all. Maybe it was he who needed Neo. He had been a long time believing in someone who had proven to be everything Morpheus said he was. Now... now he had to believe in himself again. It took some getting used to.
"No." Her voice was still soft, but no less certain for its reassuring tone. "He can't. Because Trinity will never return to Zion, and without her--"
She didn't finish. She didn't have to.
"Neo is nothing," he concluded quietly.
Soft footsteps, a breath of air, and Niobe's arms joined his on the railing. "He made his choices, Morpheus. So did she." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her turn her unflinching gaze down into the core. "Now it's up to us to make ours."