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Thurs., February 27, 2014 14:38 CST (GMT-6)

"Don't get attached."

That was pretty much the beginning and end of Sophie's advice, though she'd just been Miranda Zero, then, and he hadn't even been Aleph, yet. She'd told him that for times like this.

Agent 731- Dr. Jacobson, who Alec had never met- was dying.

If asked, he'd never really met any of the agents. He just made the calls, fed them the information they needed to get the job done. He got them their exits, which were only successfully reached fifty three percent of the time. The other forty seven percent ended more or less like this. Sometimes there was a blast, and the unmistakable sound of surveillance equipment shorting out as Alec's subterranean hub plunged into near total darkness. Sometimes there was just just radio silence where an agent should've been, their absence amplified brightly through every monitor.

Both sucked, but this was so much worse, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, keeping 731 talking as the toxin progressed slowly and still too quickly throughout her body.

It had reached the language center of her brain at least five minutes ago; up until that point, she'd been reporting her findings, uploading spread and fatality data to the server while describing how it was killing her over the phone.

She'd postulated, no more than eight minutes ago, that it would spread out from the cerebral cortex and into Broca's area. Horribly enough, it seemed that she'd been right, and Alec was getting to witness the play-by-play firsthand. 731's words weren't even words, anymore, just sounds. He didn't even know if they made sense to her anymore, just knew that soon, they too would stop.

If 731's other suspicions proved correct, her nervous system was going to shut down completely. Any minute now. It was the only blessing left in this entire shitstorm.

But she'd done what she'd needed to do, when it all came down to it. She'd managed to not only decrypt the data, but to explain it. She'd parsed it out and gotten it to the only people in the world who had half a chance in hell of fixing this mess.

The fact that they were coming up short wasn't her fault.

Alec continued talking to her anyway, though he kept watch on the screens filling nearly every available surface of the hub. It was a skill that he wasn't particularly proud of; it was just his job, sometimes, on the bad days. He told her how she'd done good, about how she was saving the world. It sounded so ridiculous and grandiose- melodramatic maybe- using terms that big when she was locked alone in a mundane corner laboratory in an otherwise insignificant suburb of Ohio.

Odds were, she couldn't understand him anymore, anyhow, and a small, guilty part of himself hated the relief that came when her disjointed muttering finally began to taper off, but he didn't stop talking. "We've got people all over the world going over what you sent us," he promised her. "We've got this."

It was a complete lie. So far, none of the experts had come up with a solution that was any better than the one Miranda Zero was working out with the National Guard in the lab's parking lot. They were circling a solution, would eventually have it, but-

"Aleph, this is Miranda," Sophie identified herself on the comms, half shouting over the noise in the complex's south parking lot. "We're just about set to go, unless you've got a very good reason to tell us not to."

-there wasn't enough time.

"Loud and clear, Miranda," he said. "Tokyo will be back on the line in three minutes-"

"I've got nearly two hundred civilians wandering around the parking lot. Half are panicked to the point of shutting down completely, the other half think we're bluffing. We've got people trying to bust through the lines to go back inside for their purses and coats, because apparently you can lead office workers to a decontamination shower, but you can't make them think. Tell me you've got something better."

Alec was already dialed back into the conference call. "How close are we?"

All chatter on the line stopped. It was 624, in Jakarta, who eventually spoke, her voice weary and raw.

"I am sorry. There is nothing yet even resembling a cure."

"Right," Alec sighed, though he'd suspected as much. "Everyone? Keep on it, but be advised, I'm giving the call for plan B." Switching comms again, he glanced at the video feed from the 731's lab, switching to thermal. Hotspots in her brain and down her spine, her extremities already beginning to slide down to room temperature. She'd died, and he'd missed it.

There was no reason not to go ahead, not anymore.

"Miranda Zero, you've got operational control," he said, as if she were incapable of ordering an air strike on nearly any target, from any nation she could imagine, with nothing more than her cell phone. "We've got everything we need off their servers. Do your thing."

He wasn't surprised that a terse "ten-four" was all the reply he got. They'd already converted the building's fire suppression system into its exact opposite, cutting off the line to the external water supply and replacing it with napalm. Crude, but effective, and the fast burn was the best chance they had.

Sophie was shouting orders to the engineers and demolitions experts she'd brought out, and though Alec still could've followed the conversation, he'd known where it was going from the start.

Controlled burn. The laboratory complex's environmental sensors had initiated emergency protocols the moment the toxin's chemical fingerprint had registered, but they were programmed to keep exit doors open long enough for an evacuation. Sound enough programming from a preservation of life perspective, except for the fact that the movement of air as people fled into the parking lots, all those doors whooshing open and closed, had also served to spread the toxin deeper into the building. Most of the infection, so to speak, was confined to the second and first floors, but by the time Alec had finished the workaround to get Agent 731 into the building, it was showing up on all seven.

Alec had missed her death. But he watched her burn, until smoke was obscuring everything from view. Until the building's security cameras shorted out and there was nothing left to see, anyhow.

---

"You're probably going to want to reset the sensors on the southern approach." Agent 587, also known as Parker, eased down from the rafters, her sneaker-clad foot swinging precariously close to the edge of his computer monitor array. Landing on the floor, she peered into his face and frowned. He only had the vaguest idea what it was she saw there.

"What's wrong with you?"

Three years, now, with literally every database at his fingertips, and Alec still had no idea if Parker was her first name or last. Sometimes he suspected it was more of a description; some bastardization of parkour, maybe, which would've explained a lot, given everything that existed in the small file they did have on her.

One thing he had figured out, though, was that she rarely tended to ask personal questions.

"Shit went down. Lost another agent." You know. The usual. Ducking her gaze, he checked the weather on his personal laptop. It was the smallest screen in here, and the only one not filled with transmission monitoring and the faces of web-conferencing generals and doctors. It was unlikely that he was about to encounter any weather, down here in the steam tunnels beneath Chicago, but if it was going to freeze up top tonight, Parker might want to grab the gloves she'd left here last time.

"Was it him?" Parker's hands couldn't decide whether to ball into fists or dive into her pockets; beyond that, she seemed frozen to the spot.

Alec didn't need to ask for clarification. People, outside of her assigned targets, rarely caught Parker's interest, but she'd worked with Agent 324 on a few ops, now, and while the two of them weren't friends- agents were never friends- 324 had earned her respect, which was as close as any of them were likely to get.

"He's good," she'd said the first time she'd gotten back from an op with him; it had either been the Big Wheel compound last year, or that extra-dimensional espionage case down in Dallas. "Not nearly as robotic as I'd thought he'd be, though."

She'd almost seemed disappointed.

So maybe he asked her about him, whenever the two of them paired up on an op. Just to have something to talk about, every once in a while, on nights like this.

324- Eliot Spencer- had come up in conversation far more often than he probably should have, given the thousand or so other agents Aleph was responsible for wrangling. And given Alec's whole...deal... the fact that it did anyway was bordering on troubling.

Alec shook his head, not letting himself get sidetracked. "No, it... It was someone else," he halfheartedly tried, not really certain how to best explain what it had been like to stay on the line while 731 died slowly, to watch her lose all understanding of the process that was killing them. "Her name was Marla Jacobson," he quoted 731's updated file- died in the line already selected from the drop down menu- as he took it off the screen.

Parker nodded. "Did she win?"

"We did," Alec corrected her. Doctor Jacobson definitely hadn't.

"Oh." Parker sat down cross-legged in her usual spot on the couch behind him, so that she was out of sight of the computer's camera if Miranda dialed in. It was nervous habit that had Alec glancing at Zero's beacon to check that she was still in Ohio, and not standing outside ready to barge in to bust the both of them- Parker for her habitual breaching of base security, Alec for allowing it.

Parker had been breaking those rules since long before Zero had brought Alec on board, though, and it wasn't really Sophie who Parker was hiding from anyhow, merely the act of ever being filmed in the first place.

The picture in Parker's file- the only picture ever taken of her, if Alec's facial recognition software was to be trusted- was shot in this very room, against the concrete brick of the far wall. That same night, Aleph F, Alec's predecessor, had given Parker a phone, started a file on her, listing lock picking, infiltration, exfiltration, evasion, smuggling, basic hacking, and climbing as her skills. She'd been assigned the number 587, and scowled suspiciously into the camera.

Some time later, Zero had added displays low empathy to adult civilians and agents, though very good with children to her file. It hadn't been entered as a warning, though. Not a statement of warning or censure, just a tool to help in the allocation of resources. What made her a liability at terrorist-overrun state dinners made her a genius at retrieving tech from enemy hands, or extracting half a dozen orphans from an underground research facility.

Knowing her file, Alec again found himself wanting to ask her what she was doing here, visiting him at all. It wasn't often he swallowed his curiosity, though, and he'd been doing it for years when it came to her.

He checked the monitors- the facility was burning nicely, and the interior heat in the rooms that were still standing was registering well above the toxin's burning point. Alec interrupted Zero's argument with the Joint Chiefs and half of the UN to let her know. Sophie could handle the rest of it.

Afterwards, a few more files had to be updated, information coming in from today's crisis and several more that might yet become tonight's crisis, when Parker spoke again.

"Have you seen him lately?"

"No."

"Really?"

"Yes." As Aleph, it would've posed no challenge, and though Parker knew it, she never mentioned it. One day you're misusing GF resources to peek in on a hot guy on a walk in the park, then you're tapping into his calls, and suddenly, you're Big Brother. And never mind the fact that that was exactly what Alec was.

It was the principle of the thing.