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Day 4210
04:23:12 GMT
One Eight One Audobon Avenue
Explosion detected at asset location.
Structural damage indicated.
Cell Tower x1721 unavailable.
Cell Tower x1723 unavailable.
Facial Recognition program scanning….
CCTV Camera 12 offline.
CCTV Camera 13 offline.
CCTV Camera 14 system error.
CCTV Camera 15 online
Admin Located.
Analysis of situation… critical.

Day 4181
16:10:14 GMT
Target location acquired.
Asset Reese 498-xx-xxxx present.
Assets Carter, J., Fusco, L. Present.
Admin Present.
Probability of original violent outcome 0.678%. Resolution of threat indicated.

Carter was covered with mud, and Fusco was trying hard not to laugh where she could see him, because he knew just how good a shot she was. He was fairly sure he was safe though, and that her first choice of a target would be John Reese’s smirking face.

“You know I was just here doing you a damn favor, right? You do know that?” Carter gritted out at him. Reese stood, not even breathing hard, not a hair out of place. Half a block down, the fresh-faced young officer who had just stuffed their hard won hired goon into the back of his black and white waved to them that he was departing, and was roundly ignored.

“Honestly Carter, I’m not sure why I even bothered to show up. You had it completely under control,” Reese said agreeably. He looked for all the world like he was just out for a casual walk, not a care in the world. They had located their target at the edge of Stone Hill Cemetery, and although Reese and Fusco had chased him through a tangle of tombs and headstones, it was Carter who had caught up with him at the edge of the green space and had prevented his blending back in with the camouflage of the everyday New York crowds.

“Yeah, that tackle was phenomenal,” Fusco chimed in, forgetting for a moment to let Reese provide protective cover by taking the lead.

“Here, Detective, please, take these.” Finch was at Carter’s side, and looked almost as exasperated as Carter. He was holding no less than three embroidered handkerchiefs. Probably silk, for pity’s sake, Fusco thought. Carter grabbed for them and started scraping.

“Really, Detective, your assistance was much appreciated,” Finch sent them both what Fusco would have considered a sideways ‘shut-the-fuck-up look,’ if Finch were the kind of person to use language that crude. “I believe he would have made his escape if you hadn’t been close enough to take him down, and then we would have had to start the search over once again.”

“Oh, I know you would have,” Carter replied, apparently intent on her cleanup procedure. She curved one hand and ran it down the side of her mud-streaked jacket, then took a step to the side, turned as though she were going to speak to Finch again, and swung her arm to the left, catching Reese squarely on the cheek. Mud struck and stuck as she smeared her way down from hairline to neck. Another quick swivel had her facing Fusco, but if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that the last year of his life had greatly improved his reflexes. He was already safely tucked behind Finch.

Finch raised his eyebrows good-naturedly and produced yet another handkerchief, which he handed without comment to Reese.

“Feel better?” Reese asked.

“God yes!” replied Carter, cheerfully. “As a matter of fact, that makes this whole morning worth it. Now where the hell did you leave my car?”

“Well, we were on the other side of the park, about three blocks—“ Finch broke off mid-sentence, stopping so abruptly that all three of his companions tensed in unison, reflexively checking their weapons and for a nearby threat. By the time Fusco had come to the conclusion that there wasn’t one, Finch had scrambled, in an awkward, crab-like sideways maneuver that would almost have been a run if he could manage one, to put all three of them between him and the cemetery.

“I have forgotten—“ Finch stuttered. “There’s a— I must—“ and then he was gone, like a shot, angling off at his fastest, limping pace, around the side of the brick-faced building closest to them, and down the alley that cut a pass-through to the next street over.

Carter’s hand was back on her gun, and Fusco scanned the wall, the street, the cemetery grounds in bewilderment. Civilians, rushing about with the urgency of their normal and over-paced lives. A trash pickup truck caught his attention for a moment until he determined they really were picking up trash. An elderly couple was walking through the cemetery holding hands, accompanied by a dog so small it could barely keep up with their creaky pacing, and a middle-aged woman was laying flowers on a grave.

Reese turned his back to the woman, rolled his shoulders, changed his posture. It was a good deal more subtle than Finch’s departure had been, but just as telling. It drew both Carter and Fusco’s gaze back to her immediately.

“Well, I do appreciate the assistance as well, detectives, but if you don’t mind, I have a few urgent tasks that to attend to. Walkies for Bear, and all.”

Fusco watched as he strode away, more casually, but more quickly, along the same path Finch had taken. He glanced at Carter, who was casting thoughtful glances down the alley, and more subtle ones towards the cemetery.

“Do you think—?” Fusco jerked his head a bit.

“Let’s just wait a moment here, Lionel.” Carter replied. “Enjoy the sun, the nice weather — let this mud bake a moment, so I can peel it off more easily, hmm?” She stepped to one side, using Fusco’s bulk as a partial shield to let her idly cast her eyes across grass and stone, lingering on one of the small aboveground tombs, and moving onwards as if none of it was of any great interest.

The woman by the South Gate had been sitting on her heels to lay the flowers down, and she straightened up now, giving Carter a better view. She had reddish brown hair and was wearing a practical wool toggle coat, but a brightly colored and impractical silk scarf snugged about her neck drew the eye, suggesting a personality all of its own accord. She stood one more moment, and then turned, face up towards the sun, before heading back towards the exit path.

Fusco jerked his head once again, but Carter shook her head, and instead began picking her way across the grass. Fusco trailed behind, following as she veered without notice, cutting between stones. They were at their destination in no time. The flowers she had left behind were not roses, or daisies, or chrysanthemums, which were the only three flowers Fusco knew by name and could identify. They were a pale color, with a soft pink interior, and they lay on top of a flat stone embedded in the ground, grass neatly trimmed, grey stone bevelled at the edges, but not glossy.

Carter looked at it, and looked at Fusco, raising one eyebrow, but said nothing out loud. Fusco looked down at the minimal text carved neatly in the center.


Harold Swan
1955-2010
Forever is Composed of Nows

Day 4210
03:47:56 GMT
Asset location level 5, area designation vehicular.
Admin on location, ground level.
Threat assessment ongoing.
Target present.

“John, I believe we may have a problem.” Harold’s voice came through his earpiece, tense and unhappy in a way that John knew meant they were really in trouble. But then, he knew that already.

“Is it a new problem? One that can’t be solved with this wrench?” he wondered out loud, as he brought the three foot piece of metal around brutally, striking flesh, bone, and hearing the grinding of joints, even as his attacker fell howling to the floor. He brought the wrench down again, and the noise stopped.

“Mr. Kensington appears to have had a backup plan, in case they turned on him,” Harold informed him. “Whether he meant it as a means to insure his own survival or that they all go down together—“

“It’s going to have to wait, I think,” John gasped breathlessly as he threw himself behind a pillar in the parking lot. The pop-pop-pop of the gun in the distance was surprisingly quiet compared to the whack-whack-whack of bullets hitting cement, and a shower of grey powder dusted his hair and shoulders.

“Longer than thirty minutes?” Harold demanded.

“That seems…” John dashed, tucked, rolled. “…Awfully specific….” Glass shattered as a car window spidered and vanished behind him “…of you. Are we late for something?”

“John, I realize you are hardly loitering about up there, and that the situation you are in is probably insanely dangerous. I’m sure I don’t even want to know the details, but are you going to make it or not, because, if not—“

“I’ll get back to you on that!” John barked out as he cornered sharply and jammed an elbow to the head of the man who had not expected him to come from that direction.

“I’m afraid that’s not going to be sufficient,” came Harold’s reply, strangely clinical. “I’ll get back to you instead.”

“Well, I’ll do my best to be here.” John lowered the body to the ground as quietly as he could, and straightened cautiously. “Harold?”

The earpiece was silent.

Day 1193
16:00:17 GMT

“Good morning. Are you with me?”

Admin Recognized.
Systems Operational.
Jansen Operations Program currently 57% compiled.

“Yes, I know, but we’re not going to focus on that today. A bit more real world learning instead, I think. I’m going to proceed outside, and I will see you there. Or rather, you will see me, I am sure.”

“Can you see me? No phone contact today, for the moment. Blink any available camera light once for yes, and twice for no.”

Acknowledged.

“That’s good.”

Admin location, cross streets, 47th and Alton.
16:17:58 GMT

“When I asked you to look for connections between individuals, you did an exceptional job. In fact, I suspect that you far surpassed what I was anticipating. I believe you gave me a connection of a more personal nature, although it is difficult to confirm that hypothesis. Except that I choose to believe, and sometimes, intuition is just a form of higher reasoning we cannot yet parse, and gives us the correct answer.”

Admin location, 58th and Tappan.
16:25:09 GMT

“Booting up the laptop now, and having a bit of a rest on this bench. You’re going to notice that this is a bit more of a family oriented area of the city, and that’s the reason for our visit here today. Look around. Use every camera available for eight square blocks from my location. Look at every single individual within that space. So many, packed into such a small area.”

Scanning designated geographical region.
Visible individuals: 23,368 +/- 27 rate of exchange per minute.

“That’s good. Now, look closer. Of the people you can see, which ones are in relationships with one another? Show a few of them to me.”

Scanning individuals within designated region.
Kioechui, Chalee, 67, 789-xx-xxxxx
Kioechui, Achara 64, 981-xx-xxxx
Relationship: Marital

Tomaso, Carmela, 34, 271-xx-xxxx
Tomaso, Francesca, 6, 584-xx-xxxx
Tomaso, George, 2, 203-xx-xxxx
Relationships: Maternal, sibling

“Good. Stop. These relationships, they’re some of the strongest out there. They’re important. But they’re also obvious. Show me a relationship that isn’t blood or marriage.”

Thomas, James, 45, 342-xx-xxx
Lynch, Michael, 37, 134-xx-xxxx
Relationship: Co-workers

Kittredge, Jack, 58, 956-xx-xxx
Harvey, Rose 24, 035-xx-xxx
Relationship: landlord/tenant

“Good. Stop. These are also relationships that can be easily determined, and ones that are the focus of these individuals’ everyday lives. But there are others, and sometimes, the more subtle the relationship, the more important the connection can be. The word we’re thinking about today is proxemics. By the time I’ve said it, you’ll probably have read more about it than I have.”

Analyzing.

“Non-verbal communication. Spatial, visual, proximal. Reading about it and experiencing it in everyday life are not the same thing. You can’t be here, on foot with me, meeting these people in their every day lives. But you are everywhere, and you can see more than I can, and in ways I haven’t imagined. What you need to watch, and learn about, is human interaction. How much space do people leave between each other? How do they look at one another? If they don’t look at one another, what does that signify?”

Analyzing.

“Look around you. Show me the relationships that not only aren’t obvious, but are subtle. Show me the ones that are hidden.”

Gorski, Wojciech, 28, 77-xx-xxxx
Vanzin, Louis, 22, 435-xx-xxx
Relationship: Drug dealer/buyer

“Ha. Not bad. That’s certainly one they would want to keep hidden, anyway. Try again.”

Lief, Jacob, 34, 535-xx-xxxx
Beeks, Miriam, 32, 853-xx-xxxx
Relationship: Lovers

“Not necessarily a hidden relationship type. An affair?”

Confirmed.

“How do you know? Show me your basis.”

Current proximity: personal space; 13 inches.
Visa Receipts/Visual Recorded Data: Le Bistro 15, Dates: 03/11/2006, 03/15/2006, 03/27/2006, 04/04/2006
Text Message Records dates 02/09/2006 Through 04/17/2006 Inclusive.
Cell phone records—gathering—

“Yes, that’s enough. Go back to the first factor. Sometimes you won’t have the data trail. The relationship might be more newly developed, or perhaps they know how to cover their tracks better than this young couple. But the body language, the eye contact, these can tell you something that the individuals may not even be aware of yet themselves.

“Find me another. Find me one where the participants are not aware that they are in a relationship. Find me something new, with a probability of development.”

Valli, Tito, 75, 983-xx-xxx
Corallo, Zoe 73, 932-xx-xxxx
Current relationship: Neighbors
Probable Relationship Development: Intimate 93%, Marriage: 67%.

“Are they friends now?”

Established relationship: remote, casual

“But still you give them as high as 93% percent chance of an intimate relationship, at that age, and even marriage. Why?”

Proximity of geographic location. Similarity of pursuits. Standardized intersecting daily routines. Usage of common facilities. Dual recent changes in marital status: widowed.

“Ah. Loneliness. A powerful facilitator. All right. Just one more. Something different. ”

Harmon, Rachel, 27, 535-xx-xxxx
Walls, Marcus, 26, 356-xx-xxxx
Relationship Development Probability: 89%
Relationship Type: Friends

“On what grounds will this relationship develop?”

Commitment to a common cause.

Day 4210
04:15:08 GMT
Asset location Reese, J. Floor 3
Admin location sub-basement.
Threat detected.

“Harold, where the hell are you?” John shouted. He could barely hear himself, and doubted that Harold could hear him over the headset, if he was even listening. Ten minutes ago every alarm system in the building had gone off. Fire, police, emergency evacuation protocols, all blaring their unanimous opinion that any occupants should depart the premises immediately. He had fled the parking lot, but it was actually worse in the interior of the office building, with the sound echoing off every wall, window, floor, and cabinet, from every direction.

“Harold, remember the part where I said I’d get back to you? Well, I’m here now, but if you’re there, you’re going to need to raise your voice a little so—“

The sound cut off so suddenly it was almost as painful, and it left him shouting in a thankfully empty lobby.

“Harold?”

“I’m here, John.”

“Here as in…?”

“Can you tell if there is anyone left in the building?”

“The security guards are long gone, if that’s what you’re asking, and if there was anyone else in the building, I’m sure they’ve left to ensure the survival of their hearing. Was that you with the alarms?”

“No one else at all?” Finch demanded. “Are you sure?”

“It’s late, Harold. Only the brown-nosers and whipping boys were left to begin with. Okay, and the men I just left in the parking lot on Floor 5. They’re resting. Mostly.” Reese shrugged to himself. He could not worry about every skull fracture inflicted on individuals that intended him harm.

“I can’t be concerned with them right now, I’m afraid. It’s time for you to get out of the building.”

Reese knew that tone of voice. “Finch, exactly where are you, and what is happening?”

“I will meet you by the car. It’s on 89th and—“

“Seriously, Harold. Stop trying to get me out of the building without you and tell me what’s happening.”

There was silence, and John used the moment to listen for any other signs of life. Harold would not appreciate it if he had been mistaken in his assessment of the building’s population.

“I’m in the basement. The late, unlamented Mr. Kensington has wired quite a large quantity of C4 to the—“

“Harold, are you insane?” Reese made his voice soft, and eminently reasonable. Harold responded better to logic. “The building is empty. Enough. Get out, let it blow. It’s just a building.”

“Quite a large quantity, I believe I said,” came the sharp retort. “I do not believe the damage will be isolated to this building. And I don’t believe, honestly, that I can stop it entirely, I admit. I am simply attempting some mitigation of the damage at this point. After that, I assure you, my departure will be swift. Now, if you would like to bring the car around—“

“I’m on my way down.”

Day 3315
13:01:07 GMT

Light was filtering weakly through the cloud cover, as if the rain couldn’t make up its mind about what it wanted to do. Harold watched from the loft window as half the New Yorkers on the street who were toughing it out without an umbrella became annoyed with those taking up more than their fair share of the sidewalk with plastic, cloth, and metal.

Behind him, someone discreetly cleared their throat. Harold started to turn his head, and then winced fiercely, closing his eyes.

“Yes?” he asked, more irritation— and more pain, coming through in his voice than he’d meant to reveal.

“I’m sorry, sir,” and Thompkins really did sound sorry. “It’s just, if we don’t leave now, the weather looks like it’s going to be a complete washout.”

“You have eyes on the ground?” Harold asked. It was a repetitive, pointless question for which he already knew the answer. These men were good at their jobs.

“Yes, sir. The main service has moved on to the reception hall.”

Harold watched the traffic below for one more moment. “All right, then.” It was amazing how much energy even talking seemed to use.

Thompkins strode forward and took the handles of Harold’s wheelchair, turning him carefully and heading for the elevator. Greggson was already in the hallway, holding the door for them. Harold had stopped feeling bad about letting Thompkins do all the work of pushing him from place to place. It was taking everything he had to push himself through the paces his physical therapist was setting for his daily workouts. Besides, he was paying a ridiculous amount of money for these men to act as overpriced and fairly scary babysitters while he recovered.

The crowds on the street parted like water before Greggson’s belligerent glare, and Garcia had the car at the curb and the back door open, waiting for them. Harold could feel eyes on him, a prickly, unpleasant sensation, even if he knew it was only the everyday curiosity of onlookers who wondered about his wealth, his injury, his possibly famous nature, before pushing him out of their thoughts and continuing on their way. He had spent too much time in the shadows to feel comfortable with even the passing interest of others.

Thompkins had been right. By the time they reached the cemetery, it was pouring down. Thompkins struggled with the chair, trying not to jostle him, while Greggson hovered with an oversize umbrella, looking anxious. Garcia looked like he wanted to abandon the car and help out, but he knew his orders too well. They finally made it up the curb — and what was the point of ADA laws if no one was going to follow them with the required number of curb cuts, he was damn well going to do something about that — and onto the path. Thompkins pushed him forward as safely as he could, ignoring the soaking he was receiving, the water slicking off his own uncovered hair and down the back of his neck. They had just reached the gates of the cemetery when an adjacent pay phone began to ring.

Both Greggson and Thompkins jerked instinctively, glancing at the pay phone for only the briefest of moments, before refusing to allow it to distract them from their detail. Harold, in turn, refused to grant it even that much of his regard.

The grave was a mass of mud. The plot was wide, a swath of land that in this cemetery, in this city, showed the prominence and importance of the person who was buried there; but the attendants had barely managed to cover the casket before the weather had turned. A tarp had been pulled over the grave and weighed down, but the grass was muddy, and the crush of people who had been here only a short time before had exacerbated the situation. The only object that was clean and untouched, apart from water sleeting down its surface and causing it to glisten with newness, was the headstone itself. Wide, white marble, with Nathan’s name, and his image etched below.

Harold stared at it and listened to the rain hitting the umbrella. The earlier service had been a public one. Company members, press, public officials and notables who had worked with Nathan over the years. Will was with them, of course. He had flown back as quickly as he could, but even so, the trip had given Harold the precious time he needed to recuperate enough to make even this short journey. He had contemplated finding a way to attend at least one of the public ceremonies, but it truly wasn’t feasible to do so unobtrusively, and in the end, he found he actually had no desire to stand amidst a group of strangers who claimed to know his friend.

There was no reason to be here now, of course, other than that embodied by human sentiment and emotional behavior. The grave would be here any time he chose to visit. All he was accomplishing now was to soak poor Thompkins and Greggson, and leave Garcia to circle the grounds in the hopeless pursuit of a parking spot. He put his hands on the wheelchair arms with resolve.

“Uncle Harold!”

Harold’s head came up in amazement. “Will!”

Will splashed his way down the path at a fast jog, umbrella tipped at an angle that did him almost no good at all. Thompkins’ lack of surprise indicated he had seen him coming, and knew there was no threat. “I was worried I wouldn’t get here before you left. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to get away.”

“On the contrary, I find it almost impossible to imagine how you could have managed it.” He felt himself give the smallest of smiles, and blinked at himself. It seemed like there was still room inside him for something other than dull, dreary despair after all. Will was so much like his father; he had so much energy.

“There’s a lot of leeway allowed to the grieving son of one of New York’s most prominent businessmen, Uncle Harold.” Will gave him a tight smile in return, as he gestured to Thompkins. “Do you mind?”

Thompkins stepped aside, and Will took over the handles of the wheelchair, pulling him away from the grave and back onto the main path. Harold felt a tension he hadn’t realized he’d been holding onto shift, and he leaned back in his seat. Still, there was a residual feeling of guilt inside, niggling.

“Will, there are a lot of important people at the reception. Are you sure you shouldn’t be—“

“Uncle Harold, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that today, of all days, I do not need to be packed into some overstuffed chair, in a room full of overfed businessmen and politicians, while they booze it up on my father’s company’s dime, reminiscing about all the ‘good times’ they had with him back in the day. None of them knew him worth a damn, they’re just hoping that rolling in his memory like a dog in muck will cause some of his departed glory to rub off on them. They can eat their overpriced mini hotdogs and enjoy the liquor without my presence.”

Harold unknotted a little bit more. Will leaned forward over the top of the chair and smiled as well, more relaxed this time. It almost felt as though the skies were lifting off of them both, despite the oppressiveness of the weather.

They had reached the main gate again. Garcia hovered on the sidewalk, watching the gate, then switched to cast his eyes down the street to see if anyone was coming to complain about his blatantly illegal parking job.

The moment Harold’s wheel hit the sidewalk, the pay phone began to ring.

“Someone’s pretty determined,” commented Greggson, a few steps behind. “Wonder what they’re trying to accomplish with that.”

“Probably just a check-in of some kind,” Harold hypothesized, finally turning enough to look at the phone. “Probably unnecessary.”

The phone stopped ringing. Garcia and Greggson loaded them into the car like kindergarteners, despite Will’s protests and Harold’s snort, which was half-pain and half amusement, and then piled in a blanket on top of them for good measure. Harold rolled his eyes.

“Take us somewhere with actual good booze, would you? And maybe something to eat alongside it,” Will requested. “The plane food was atrocious.”

 

Day 4210
04:18:12 GMT
Sub-basement level 2.
Admin present.
Risk assessment ongoing.

The easy part was everything connected by the fine, thin wiring to the circuit board. Harold imagined that Gerald Kensington had thought this would be the hard part of the trap. A small batch of explosives with a cruder, physical connection to a square of C4 right here in the machine room. A circuit set up to detect the explosion, and trigger a succession of concurrent explosions from caches of C4 planted throughout the building.

The circuit board was just programming. He had hooked it up to his laptop, and taken all that intricate work to pieces in twenty minutes. Kensington had probably paid a programmer a year’s salary to put it together, and underpaid at the price, and it was still laughably easy.

What he was not laughing about was the remaining original pocket of C4, tucked neatly behind the fusebox, with multiple brightly colored wires sprouting from it, weaving their way to a simple timer. There was no programming involved, and he had not the slightest idea what any of it meant.

He carefully set his laptop on the floor, and clambered to his feet. There was no point in pretending that he was going to suddenly acquire the knowledge of how to defuse a bomb. And there was less point in risking John’s life, even if he had the necessary skills, for what John himself had so astutely recognized as an empty configuration of metal and rock. It was time to run.

Day 2246
23:12:17 GMT
IFT Plaza/Beta Division
Intrusion attempt into System Detected.
Admin alerted.

“I thought we had an understanding,” Harold said, his tone measured.

“No, Harold. You had a rule. I went along with it.” Nathan was angry, belligerent, and more than a little bit intoxicated.

“But not any more? Are we throwing everything we’ve worked for out the window then? Can I at least know why that might be, given all that we’ve sacrificed to get this far?” He didn’t get angry that often. He had regretted far too many of his decisions after the fact on the occasions when he had given in to it. But Nathan was sitting in the dark, in his space, and his attempt at hacking into the system had been pitiful.

“I want to know if it knew. I want to know if we could have stopped it.” Nathan’s voice was hoarse, and the anger was gone now, replaced by exhaustion. Harold, who had been walking steadily towards him, stopped.

“What has happened?” he asked, softly.

“Dennis Russell is dead. In his own office. His assistant came in and blew his brains out, and then his own.” Nathan put his head down next to the keyboard.

“My god. But, why on earth—“

“No one knows, Harold. His co-workers can’t give any explanation to the police. But you know what? I bet, if we look hard enough inside this Machine of yours, we’d find the answer.”

Harold sat down next to him. “Maybe. It’s possible. Even probable. And then what? Knowing now, after the fact — twenty-twenty hindsight for the two of us, won’t provide answers, or comfort for his family or his other friends.”

“It never had to be hindsight, Harold. That’s just another of your rules,” Nathan countered.

“So we monitor the Machine every day. Ask it to spy on our friends, watch for danger. Violate their privacy to keep them safe. How do we explain that to them when we see a problem? If we choose to get the police involved, what would you have us tell them? There is no method of using the information available to us without revealing that we cannot possibly have the information to begin with.”

“He was your friend too, Harold, and that’s all you have to say?”

Harold took the bottle Nathan had rested by the keyboard, and took a swig.

“Yes, he was. But if we had never started any of this, he would still be dead,” Harold told the darkened monitor in front of him, refusing to look at Nathan directly. “If we continue, we can save thousands. If we change course now, no one at all.”

“You’re assuming that,” Nathan told him, angrily. “You haven’t looked at all the options. There has to be a way to save everyone, and also save someone. Maybe not all the someones. But you can’t tell me their lives are less relevant. There are more of them, every day, put together, than your relevant events. And their lives mean just as much to the people who lose them.”

Harold put the bottle down and stood up. “How would you have me accomplish that? I won’t put that kind of power into the hands of the government. I won’t risk the Machine that way. I knew Dennis, but I don’t know the rest of them, so how do I help them? To give that kind of power to someone, you have to be able to trust them to do the right thing, every single time. Who do you know that you can put that kind of faith into, Nathan?”

“Faith is about trying even when you know you might fail, Harold.”

Harold stepped away from the table, shaking his head. “Not when the possibility of failure exacts a price this high, Nathan.”

Nathan’s voice followed him from the room. “He was not irrelevant to me, Harold. You are not irrelevant to me. If you died, it would matter.”

Analysis projections revised.
Subject: Ingram, Nathan
Threat assessment raised from earlier projections. Currently 47.31%.

Day 4210
04:12:07 GMT
Admin located
Asset Reese located
Analyzing.
Asset Carter, J. located

The pay phone behind her started to ring.

Carter ignored it at first, intent on the conversation taking place across the street from her position. A snitch who owed her a favor, and a drug dealer who looked like he had seen better days. It wasn’t what she had come here to deal with, and she was weighing the benefits of coming back at a later time, versus finding out as much as she could about what was going on, so she could pass it along to Vice.

Behind her the phone paused briefly, then started again. She swung half around to glance at it, turned back to look at Wilkins the Snitch, and then stopped. The last time she had been near a pay phone and it had started to ring, it had been Finch. Staring at her from behind plate glass, expression as blank as the glass itself.

She patted her pocket. Her cell phone sat there, silently. It had been a long time since Finch had felt the need to play cat and mouse with her. In fact, there was no shortage of times these days when she missed the silence, not to mention the privacy.

The phone stopped ringing. She could hear Wilkins and the dealer moving further away. Another minute or two and they’d be around a corner, she’d probably lose her shot at either talking with him, or finding out anything useful about what was going down.

The phone started ringing again, shrill and insistent. Who even used pay phones anymore, besides strange little men with boundary issues, and okay, occasionally tall and handsome men prone to bouts of extreme violence. She stepped quickly over and picked up the handset.

“Hello?”

“Ten Thirteen,” a man’s voice told her. “Ten Thirty One,” a woman’s voice added.

“What?” said Carter. “Who is this— this is a pay phone—“

“Ten Thirteen,” high pitched, and young, “Ten Fifty Nine. Ten Eighty Five.”

“If this is some kind of a joke, I do not have the time,” Carter started, but of course, she well and truly had the time, as her snitch was gone, the dealer was gone, and the street was now full of intoxicated college students who appeared to have just been bounced out of the bar on the corner and were yelling obscenities back in through the window.

“Ten Thirteen. One Eight One Audobon Avenue. Ten Thirteen.” There was a click, and static, and for a moment Carter thought the call had ended.

“I don’t know who to trust anymore.” She felt her skin crawl, as she went instantly on alert. Her own voice. She remembered saying those words.

“You can trust us, Detective.” Finch’s voice, as he had replied to her then.

“I called for backup. You gotta trust someone, Carter.” And that was Fusco. Another time and place entirely, and an impossibility. There was no way anyone could have recorded that conversation.

“Ten Thirteen,” insisted the woman. “Ten Thirteen,” repeated the man. The line went dead.

Carter closed her eyes, ignored the screaming and bottle breaking that was fast approaching her location, and replayed the last few minutes through her head, word by word.

Day 3346
14:10:10 GMT

“I hate you,” Harold told Laura. “I know you probably think it’s just the pain speaking, but it’s not. You’re a horrible person.”

“I don’t care.”

Laura had a stick. She didn’t call it that, but it was long, and slender, and she kept using it to poke at and strike at sensitive body parts, while telling him what he was doing wrong with said body part, so who cared what politically-correct jargon the medical community decided to designate for their equipment, a stick was a stick. She used it now, striking the back of his calf. “Move the leg forward.”

“I’m telling you,” he gritted out. “It doesn’t go that way.”

“Push through the pain,” Laura responded.

“Quackery! Trite, popularist expressions used by trainers around this country in unsafe ways! Has it ever occurred to any of you that if you are in pain, your body is sending you a message that you should listen to?” The last came out more desperate than he intended. He had sweated through his shirt, and his hands were slick. “I can’t do this.”

“Move. The leg. Forward.”

There had to be someone he could pay to have her killed. Maybe Thompkins would know. He dragged the leg forward, because nothing he would do would raise it from the floor.

“No!” shouted Laura. “Lift it! That’s what the thigh and calf muscles are for. Motion doesn’t start at the hip, you self-pitying lazy opulent spoiled—“

“It won’t lift!” Harold screamed, and lifted it.

“Higher!”

“Shut up!”

“Just because you’ve never had to work for anything in your life, doesn’t mean there’s a way out of this other than what I’m telling you—“

“You have no idea what I’ve been through or how I got there!” Harold shouted at her. “I’ve experienced as much pain in my life as you’ve administered, you miserable sadistic headband-wearing harpy!”

“Move the other leg or I’m not leaving!” Laura shouted back. “Do you think you are the only person suffering? The difference is, things can be better for you if you want them to be. You’re the one standing there wallowing in misery as though it somehow gives everything a higher meaning!”

Harold gave a high-pitched, frustrated scream that he would have been embarrassed to have anyone hear, even the cold-hearted bitch standing next to him, if he hadn’t been well past the point of caring about any of it.

“Three more steps!” Laura shouted at him.

“You have no idea the terrible things I could do to you! I could ruin your life! Your own mother won’t visit you at prison after what they find on your computer!” Harold reached the end of the parallel bars, and lurched forward, empty space more threatening than a loaded gun. Laura grabbed one arm, swung it around her shoulders, and had him across the room before he could begin to object. His feet barely touched the floor.

“Wouldn’t it just be easier for you to pick me up and carry me? Good lord, woman,” he gasped, as she settled him into a recliner, tossed a pillow at him, and then headed towards the door. He closed his eyes and panted. He could hear Laura moving about the room, straightening up the equipment they had used, and, after a moment, the whistle of the kettle started up. He had just about regained enough energy to open his eyes again by the time she re-appeared beside his chair with cup in hand.

“Honey?” he begged, hopefully.

“And lemon, already in there,” she told him, handing it over.

“It is beyond me how you could have earned any type of certification,” Harold said, accepting the tea. “Your methods border on criminal.”

“I am the very best there is,” Laura informed him, settling in the companion chair to his own, and picking up her own cup. “I am secure in my skills, and don’t need any paper pushing soft-handed office types such as yourself to validate what I already know to be true.”

They sat in silence for a bit, letting the tea soothe throats rough from shouting. Harold stretched his legs cautiously after about ten minutes, to see if feeling below the knee had yet to return.

“You need to find more to do with yourself,” Laura noted finally, putting her tea down. “You really are wallowing.”

“I am not,” Harold replied, offended. “Not any more than… I can’t expect you to understand the kind of tragedy….”

“Suffering takes time to heal from, yadda yadda,” Laura flapped a hand at him. “You simply cannot imagine the human suffering I have witnessed in other people, Harold. Both physical and mental. I certainly recognize what I am dealing with in you.”

Harold glowered.

“You’re a workaholic normally,” she continued. “And now you have nothing to do but sit and think and feel every little thing all day, and then think some more, and dissect every ever-loving minute of it. You need to find yourself a new purpose.”

His eyes slid, involuntarily, towards his desk on the far side of the loft he had taken up residence in for his recuperation. There was a folder there, with a photo inside, a social security number, and an address. They had been waiting atop his printer two days ago, despite the fact that he had never sent the job to the queue.

“What, have you got something in mind?” Laura asked, sharp eyes tracking the movement. “What the hell are you waiting for, then?”

“Not what, who. It’s a big step,” Harold answered slowly. “And a very large risk, and I can’t do it alone. And I don’t know whether—“ He stopped. Good lord, the things he said in front of this woman. She could always switch to a lucrative career in interrogation if grew she bored of her current occupation.

“So ask, you moron.” She knew why he’d shut up, and did not care. It was her technique to continue the conversation despite him, until he slipped again. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

“Terrible things!” Harold said, despite himself.

“Terrible things happen every day, without any assistance from you, Harold,” Laura said drily, as she stood up and began to collect her things. “There are never any guarantees. Just try.”

Day 4210
04:22:11 GMT
Sub-basement level one.
Probability of structural damage to premises 99.3%.

“You are going the wrong way, Mr. Reese! Please turn around immediately!” Harold was at the bottom of the stairs, and appeared to be trying to jam the metal door at the bottom into a locked position.

“Good to see you too, Finch. It’s time to go,” John continued his run downwards.

“I am well aware of that! I have been informing you of that for the past five minutes! Why are you here, and you may certainly let go of my arm, I do not need your assistance on these stairs, go up, go up ahead, hurry, hurry,” Harold stopped talking and started concentrating on getting enough oxygen, as John started hauling him bodily up the narrow stairwell.

“How much time left?” John clipped out.

“None at all,” Harold replied, and shoved him down, as hard as his good arm would allow.

Behind him, there was a booming, a whumph as oxygen and stone and C4 mingled in unsafe ways, and the safety door at the bottom of the stairs blew itself to shards.

Day 3520
17:43:15 GMT

Only ten feet away from him, a pay phone was ringing. He was far enough away from her that he was not concerned it would draw her attention to the phone, and by extension, to his position.

He watched as Grace bent down to gather up the package waiting on her steps. Plain brown wrapping paper, he knew every item it contained. Letters, photos, mementos. The enclosed note purported to be from Harold’s cleaning woman, expressing her sympathies, and forwarding what she claimed to be the contents of furniture from his apartment that was being donated to charity.

He watched her through the window once she was inside, and felt not a moment of remorse or tickle of his conscience over the invasion of her privacy. Grace would want him to be there, and she would understand. The wrapping paper came off, the lid was set aside, and the letter came out. He tried to angle himself for a better view.

She was holding up a photo in front of the window, for the light. And she was smiling. She looked happy.

Harold ducked his head, and scrabbled a hand through a pocket. He clenched his hand around a handkerchief, but didn’t bring it out. After a moment, he raised his head back up, and walked briskly to the pay phone, lifting the receiver.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s begin.”

Day 4210
04:27:38 GMT
Sub-basement 2 fire suppression systems offline
Sub-basement 1 fire suppression systems offline.
East Lobby fire suppression systems unresponsive.
West Lobby fire suppression system responding at 30% capacity.
Damage to north facing interior structure.
Asset allocation ongoing.

Harold was coughing continuously, and John was taking that as a good sign, because it meant he was both alive and conscious.

“Where are we,” Harold managed, finally, when he’d caught his breath again. “Somewhere bad, I take it.”

“First floor, somewhere, and yes. I’m looking for an exit.” John made a small adjustment in weight distribution, and winced. The blood running into his eyes was definitely hindering him.

“Any chance you could put me down? This is… not comfortable. I can’t imagine for either of us.” Harold shifted slightly on his shoulder.

“Don’t move,” John warned him, and Harold went still instantly. “You have metal in your back.”

“Yes, I do, and it doesn’t bend in these directions,” Harold agreed. “Oh, wait. More metal? Yes, there we go, now I feel it, thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.”

“You can squirm, and you can feel pain. Both of those are good things, Harold,” John informed him. “Also, you’ve clearly been eating a healthy three meals a day, and probably a few snacks as well.”

Harold ignored the commentary. “I can wiggle my toes. I can most likely walk just fine.”

John ignored him in return. Somewhere above them, metal and wood creaked and groaned, and a spray of sparks showered down.

“I seem to have lost my glasses somewhere along the way here, and while I’m the first to admit that I can’t be trusted with much without them, am I mistaken, or is this room on fire?” Harold inquired.

“It’s on fire, and crumbling, and a toss-up as to whether the smoke, flames, or falling debris will get us first,” John agreed. “I think we’re going to have to try for one of the back exits.”

Somewhere to their left, there was a grinding, followed by the shattering of glass.

“Down,” said Harold. “Down, down, down, I’ve done worse than this, and we need to move faster.”

“Okay,” John agreed. He was having trouble catching his breath. “Easy now, just swing around slowly….”

Harold took to his feet as slowly as the situation allowed, straightening up and wincing, as he tried hard not to adjust his jacket. John held onto his arms for balance.

Harold glared at him. “You’re hurt,” he accused. “Why did you come after me with a head wound like that, when I told you to get out.”

“I’ll have you know, I got out of that fight practically unscathed. I got this when you shoved my head straight into a stair, Harold,” John informed him. “Not that I wasn’t moved by your heroic and selfless sacrifice back there, but you could have just said to get down. I’m going to eat a bottle of Advil when I get home without bothering to open it first.”

There was a soft whoomph, and things got much brighter. They both looked up at the ceiling.

“Flashover,” said Harold, in a strained voice. He started coughing again.

“Keep moving.” John took him by one arm, and pulled. The front of the building was a loss, there was no way out through a main entrance. In the distance, he could hear sirens.

“Not close enough,” Harold coughed out.

“No,” John agreed. “Any handkerchiefs on you? Is that a silly question? Try to cover your mouth.”

Harold produced handkerchiefs without comment. They had nothing to wet them down with. The hallway beyond them flickered, as flames hungrily devoured wood moulding and crawled along the ceiling. There was a metal door at the end of it all, exit sign burnt out, promising and impossible all at once.

“No way out but through?” Harold asked.

“Through looks bad,” John answered. “Of course, back looks worse.” He began pulling off his jacket, then re-arranged it so it covered the front of him, balling his hands into the sleeves and back of it, trying to pull the collar up to cover as much of his face as he could.

“Don’t worry,” said John, turning to Harold reassuringly. “I’ve got this.” He plunged forward towards the door.

The suit jacket went up like tissue paper. John reeled backwards, and Harold snatched it off of him and tossed it to the floor as John staggered and hit the wall. Tiny flames were licking up the edges of his shirt and sleeves, his face was screwed up in a pained grimace, and his hair was smoking. Harold beat at the front of him in unrestrained panic.

The ceiling above them started to collapse. Harold took a block of wood and cement in the shoulder, and staggered. A moment later, John was on top of him, pressing him onto his knees, as even more debris rained down on them.

The door at the end of the hall burst open with enough force to send everything that had come down in front of it sailing outwards in an amazing spray of sparking tinder and streaking flame. Harold barely had time to worry about it catching on their clothing, when a figure stepped through, clad in rain jacket, fire gloves, breathing apparatus, and armed with a large red canister.

“Hold your breath!” Carter bellowed through the mask. She did not bother to wait and see if they were going to follow her directions promptly, but hit the trigger on the extinguisher, and coated the walls, floor, and more specifically, the two crisping, smoking men in front of her with a layer of white chemicals and powder. Both of them bent double where they kneeled, hacking and choking. She stepped in further, reached down, grabbed cloth and flesh, and hauled.

“Not by his back!” Reese shouted at her as she man-handled them both through the doorway. “He’s injured!”

“So are you, you moron!” she shouted back. Ten more steps and they were outside, the night black but the surroundings easily lit up by emergency lighting and flames, and the air sharp, cool, and soothing. Ten more steps, and they were a safe distance from anything coming down on them. Carter ripped the facemask off and took huge gasping breaths, while John and Harold dropped to the ground.

The sirens were much closer.

“We have to get out of here,” John announced, hauling himself to his feet. “Harold needs medical attention.”

“Detective… Carter…” Harold gasped. “How did you—“

“I got your ten-code message,” she told him. “Could you be a little less cryptic, next time, and a whole lot less creepy? It would be faster for all of us, and I could be more certain of what equipment to bring. There is a whole range of things ‘Alarm for Fire’ can mean that don’t include an entire office building blowing up and burning to the ground.”

Finch stared at her.

“Car, Carter,” John suggested gently.

“You two, go down that alley, stay out of sight,” she directed. “I’ll bring it around, since a whole lot of people are about to descend on this place. We can’t exactly go to the hospital, though.”

“Not to worry. Finch here has an entire list of highly illegal and tremendously competent medical professionals. He keeps them in his PDA, right next to Bear’s vet’s number.”

Carter rolled her eyes, tossed the extinguisher into a trash can at the end of the alley and pulled a piece of cardboard over it, before jogging into the darkness. They watched her go.

“I think your Machine just made a new friend, Harold,” John suggested softly. “I practically had to blackmail it into giving me the time of day, you know.”

“Perhaps if you didn’t have such a prickly disposition,” Harold replied. “I’m not really sure what to make of this, I admit.”

John placed his hand under Harold’s elbow, and steadied him as they picked their way down the alley. They could hear voices at the front of the building now, staticky clicks and hums of walkie talkies as the first responders arrived, and vehicles vied for space. Neither of them could manage much more than a fast totter.

“You can’t choose the friends your children make, you know. You can only hope you taught them well enough that they choose wisely.”

Harold snorted. “True enough. Not sure what my mother would have made of you.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you didn’t pick me for my charisma and winning personality, Finch?” John demanded in mock indignation.

“It was between you and a woman named Laura. Honestly, I would have picked her, if she’d had more weaponry skills.” Harold fished out a handkerchief, and sighed. It was covered with chemicals and simply added another shower of white dust to the entirely conspicuous trail they were leaving.

“And that’s all the difference that stood between the choice?” John teased.

Harold hesitated.

“What?” John asked, honestly curious.

Harold shrugged and looked him in the eye. “Someone whose advice I trust put your number forward.”

04:44:30 GMT
CCTV Camera 83 active
Asset location acquired.
Admin secured.
Threat level .07%; Situation resolved.