Epilogue: The Matrix Re-Entered
“Do we have to call him Mr. Ambassador?” Xander said.
“You, yes. The rest of us, no. We can simply refer to him by name,” Giles said. He, Xander, and Faith were waiting for the Eurekans' “diplomat.” He had opposed this; while he saw the virtue in remaining friendly with the town of geniuses, he hadn't seen the necessity of formal relations. But he had been overruled; of the members of the academy board, only Faith had agreed with him, and Giles suspected it was more for her distrust of extra rules and regulations than anything else.
In any event, the decision had been made, and he would abide by it. Buffy had gone to New York to take charge in Kennedy's temporary absence; Willow had extended her stay in Eureka an extra few weeks and Kennedy did not want to be separated from her for that long. Dawn had gone with Buffy, ostensibly to help with research while Willow was away. Giles suspected, though, that the recent troubles had thrown her, and she was looking to stay with her sister as long as possible.
As for Robin Wood, he’d planned to be here, but administrative necessities had kept him away.
Ah. Here came a man driving what appeared to be a modified pickup truck. He was bald, or nearly so, maybe slightly taller than Giles himself, wearing camouflage gear and hiking boots. Seeing the three of them standing by the front entrance, he strode over to them with a grin on his face and said, “Rupert Giles?” in an Australian accent that he would have sworn was faked if he hadn’t seen the man’s resume. As he shook Giles’ hand he said, “Jim Taggart. Ambassador Jim Taggart, I guess, though that seems so formal and stuffy. You can call me Taggart. Nice to meet you all; Willow and Vi’ve told me a lot about you. Faith, right?” he said, and shook her hand also. “You’re one of the Slayers, right? Did you know about a dozen of your sisters were watching me as I came in. Sneaky little buggers, you Slayers are.”
“You couldn’t have seen them,” Faith said. Giles noticed she didn’t deny that they were looking, though he understood that the arrival of Mr. Taggart was something of a curiosity.
“Didn’t have to see them. Saw their traces. Bent grass here, a twisted branch there, and a bush moving with no wind.”
“How did you know they weren’t bad guys coming to attack us?” Xander Harris.
If anything, Mr. Taggart’s grin grew wider and tapped his head. “Logic, my friend. The lovely Ms. Rosenberg mentioned alarm spells and I figured people as smart and secretive as you had to have something like that setup. You must be Xander Harris.” He shook Xander’s hand.
“The eyepatch gave it away, huh?”
“That it did,” Mr. Taggart said. “I have to say I’m really looking forward to the experience of hanging out with you folks and learning about vampires and such. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even be able to help you track some of the buggers down.”
“Do you think yourself capable of fighting a vampire?”
“Mr. Giles, I’ve fought off pumas, black bears, and crocs with my bare hands, so the answer to that is yes. However, despite my well-known love of adventure I didn’t exactly seek those combats out and I’m not so arrogant as to want to trace a vampire just to test my mettle. But if I had, I’d give it my all. And I didn’t say anything about fighting one, anyway. I said track. I am a wilderness expert, after all.” He grinned. “So, where am I staying? I’ve got a lot of stuff to unpack.”
As Xander and Faith pointed out the cottage that had been reserved for Mr. Taggart – the Academy had several empty on its grounds at all times – Giles mentally reminded himself that it could have been worse; they could have sent the sheriff back, instead . . .
X X X X X
Kennedy had come and spent a fun few days there in Eureka, but had gotten restless in about a week; when Willow noticed, she invited her to go on a wide patrol and just come back in a couple of days.
“You sure?” Kennedy had said anxiously.
“Sweetie,” Willow’d said. “I’m glad you joined me, I missed you, I love you, but you need to be killing monsters a bit more than you need to be staying with me 24/7. Go hit some of the nearby towns. I’ll be okay and you’ll feel a lot better when you come back.”
“Okay,” she’d said, “If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. Now skedaddle, missy.”
This was why she couldn’t stay. Well, one of the reasons; being out of touch when it came time for the next apocalypse was well up the list, too, but if she stayed here, she’d either have to break up with Kennedy – and she didn’t want to do that, have a long-distance relationship (which neither one of them wanted) or make Kennedy miserable by asking her to stay with her, and that would torment her.
So, she'd already blocked the route by which she'd accessed the GD servers from the outside. She couldn't a hundred percent guarantee no one could ever break in, but it would take someone as good as she was at hacking, and better at magic, and no arrogance intended, but that, going to be pretty rare.
So, that taken care of, she turned her attention to helping Zane with the Matrix – and if there was something that showed the difference between the scientists of Eureka and the scientists who for ethical reasons weren’t good enough to be at Eureka, Senator Wen’s team’s use of the Matrix was it. A completely immersive virtual reality environment could have a lot of legitimate uses – therapeutic, entertainment, even as a kind of prison or interrogation technique for the right kind of criminal – convincing a captured terrorist that they’d escaped, for instance, to see what their plans were.
But to make money by enslaving people and co-opting their genius for themselves? Wrong. Beyond wrong. And that’s why she didn’t have much sympathy for Beverly Barlowe, who balked at cold-blooded murder but seemed to have no problem with extended enslavement.
And now there was this. The machine was here in Eureka; the programmers/designers weren’t, and weren’t talking. Beverly Barlowe’s involvement had been limited to making sure the neurological part of things was accurate, so the amount of help she could give was strictly limited. Not that she was feeling cooperative anyway.
Zane was more of a hardware person than Willow was, so his task was to make sure the machine was working. It was Willow’s job to find out what the programming oddity he’d found was. It was an exceptionally complex array of data; far more complex than anything else present in the environment.
“Zane?” she said.
“What do you need, Wanda?” Zane’s little joke.
“How far are we away from being able to actually turn this thing on and go inside?”
“I’d have to put a few things back and make sure the power source was absolutely uninterruptible, but we could probably do that in a couple of hours. Why?”
“I think I’ve done as much as I can here without being able to go inside and take a look. Whatever this is, it’s active.”
“It could be the dragon,” Zane said.
“Oh, I’ve dealt with those before,” Willow said.
“Never mind. Inside joke and I forgot you weren’t inside. If it’s the dragon, I’m sure we can arrange some way of pulling me out.”
Nodding, Zane said, “Sure. I’ll hook myself up to an electrocardiography machine – and an electroencephalography one as well, just to be safe. Any significant fluctuations and either and you can pull me out.”
“Whoa, hold on, and back up a minute, mister,” Willow said. “What makes you think you get to go inside?”
Smirking, Zane said, “Seniority.”
Willow nodded. “Okay. So that’ll leave me in charge of the machine. Fair enough. Hardware’s not my specialty, but I can get by.”
Zane gave her a sour smile. “You think you’re so clever.”
“Sometimes I do, yeah,” Willow said.
“Okay,” he said. “But I get seconds. And you have to explain to Dr. Blake why we need her stuff without actually explaining to her why we need her stuff.” That the Matrix had survived was not a secret; that Willow and Zane were trying to ferret out its secrets, was. Only she, Zane, Fargo and Jo knew the full extent of what was going on.
Still, persuading Dr. Blake, not really a problem. And it turned out to technically not have been necessary; Willow could have simply requisitioned the medical devices. She suspected Zane had been playing a practical joke on her.
She was lying down on a makeshift hospital bed, sensors attached (heart and brain machines in Eureka hardly needed wired-up electrodes, and Zane brought down one of the Matrix’s helmet thingies.
Abruptly, she found herself on Main Street in what seemed to be a deserted Eureka. This was the environment the kidnapped Astraeus astronauts had found themselves in, and the first thing Willow had checked was that the anomaly was not the environment itself, though the program was still going: she could see and feel the effects of the wind, for instance, and the clouds overhead were moving. Presumably there were animals in the surrounding wilderness, too.
So that was all more or less expected. She needed to find something not expected.
Or it needed to find her. A couple of subjective minutes later, she felt a tap on her shoulder and years of being a member of the Slayers’ auxiliary had her instinctively spin around and set herself in a fighting stance.
What she saw, however, wasn’t a vampire, demon, or anything else that went bump in the night.
The startled tapper jumped back herself and said, “Sorry. Excuse me. Who are you?”
“Holy crap,” Willow managed to mutter after a few seconds.
“Really? I didn’t think holy crap would look like you. Learn something new every day I guess. Hi. I'm Holly Marten. Who are you?”
“I know. I work with your niece, and boy do the two of you look alike.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It's almost like the Patty Duke Show except we're identical aunt and niece, not identical cousins. So, I have a question: Where is everyone? I mean, I know this isn't the real world but I would have thought someone would have come looking for me by now.”
Willow raised her hand. “Say hi to someone.”
And that was all she said before Willow found herself back on the bed, with Zane lifting the helmet. “Why did you do that?” she asked.
“Your heart rate spiked. What did you find?”
“Not what, who.”
“I found Holly Marten. She's alive in there.”
“How would you know? You never met her.” A second later, “That was one of the dumbest things I've ever said. We have to get her out of there.”
X X X X X
And yes, that's it. Think of it as a hook. Or, technically, a hook and a half; the adventures of Taggart in the land of vampires would be entertaining but probably wouldn't sustain a full story. Maybe some stand-alones.