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Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Chapter Text


The mood of the government in the wake of the attacks reflected the desperation of the country: locked doors were opened for Northern Lights, and Nathan was given unprecedented access to build the machine that would save the world.

The agency didn't question who trawled their databases, as long as they saw results, so, between coding runs, Harold took the opportunity to run his fingers through the secrets of the world.

There was nothing he couldn't access on his own, but the difference between sneaking in and having a key was the luxury of being able to browse. Harold drew inspiration for his Machine from sources as disparate as global epidemiology and quantum tunnelling paths, and the repeated patterns of the universe delighted him over and over.

"What kind of network is that?" Nathan said, one morning. "Seems a bit organic for your tastes." He propped a tray of coffee and pastries on the table – far away from Harold's terminal, a lesson learned early in their friendship – and leant on the back of the chair.

He enlarged the scan, to show Nathan the data flow threads of red and green, branching out from a central source, logic trees far more complex than any he had ever constructed.

"I stumbled across it in the CIA database. I can see that it's the basis for an interactive heuristic, but I have no idea with what it's meant to interact, if anything at all. I'd love to know more but the metadata has been completely stripped." He turned in his seat and affected a come hither gaze.

"Oh, please," said Nathan, flattered and annoyed in equal parts. "Have I ever been able to resist that face?"

"Not yet, luckily for me," said Harold. He knew he was lucky, actually. Nathan's abilities to network far exceeded his own. Nathan would put on a charming face – and it really was charming – and coax details from his contacts at Langley.

Nathan passed him a paper cup and a Danish. "I'll see what I can do."

A few weeks later, Harold found a battered paper folder tucked under his keyboard. A note on the front said, "Told you it was organic. N."

The folder was labelled 'Project Cascade', and it was, indeed, biological. There were brain scans: MRI, PET, EEG, an entire alphabet of magnetic resonance and blood flow and electrical activity in human subjects. Super soldier programs were always being rumoured, but this was more concrete than anything Harold had come across before. There were definite similarities to his own work, at least in terms of the way that information flow was handled.

An older, more cynical Harold facing this information might have asked pertinent questions about consent and the ethics of using soldiers as experimental subjects, not to mention the large number of post-mortem images. Harold in 2001 found the details fascinating and hugely relevant to his own project.

He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, scribbling in the margin of a report when Nathan came across him later that day. A pile of neurology textbooks lay scattered within easy reach, and behind him on the wall shone a slide projection of a dissected brain.

Nathan stood at the periphery of the chaos. "Well, this is awfully gothic," he said. "Tell me, if you're Doctor Frankenstein, does that make me Igor?"

Harold laughed. "No electrodes just yet," he said. "I'm just interested in the information processing data they've captured."

"Why?" Nathan sat down to face him, with a sea of papers between them. "Is it applicable?"

"So very much," said Harold. "They've got these subjects, remarkable subjects with an incredible ability to absorb sensory data. It's like a biological model for what we're building, but the signal pathways are so complex, the human brain can't handle it. Nor can any existing computer network…" He broke off, staring over Nathan's shoulder, into the future. "There's nothing like it, not in programming as we know it."

Nathan leaned back on his hands. "From what Alicia told me, Project Cascade isn't going all that well. Their subjects all end up in straitjackets."

"Oh, I'm not surprised," said Harold, with all the empathy of an unchallenged mind. "I'd be shocked if neurotransmitters could manage what we're hoping to achieve with semiconductors and wires." He felt that calm peace that comes when a concept clicks into place. "Because a single human brain don't have enough processing power," he said, softly. He scrawled it down in his notes. "That's where we'll have an advantage. It's not like you can network brains."

"You sound like you'd enjoy being able to do that," said Nathan. "I don't want to come in one morning to find you've drilled a hole in your skull so you can talk to that thing directly."

Harold cast a fond glance at the blinking wall of servers. "I can't deny I'd love the opportunity to interact with it, watch it learn and grow as we build it. But that's not our brief, is it? If it were, I'd be trying to offload the data from the overloaded memory source. Find a way to clear the databanks, make room for the next data influx." He idly sketched circuitry in the margin of the paper he was reading: two people, one to capture the data, and one to process it.

Nathan smiled at him. "It's been a while since I saw that expression," he said. "You want me to leave you to it? I was going to drag you out into the daylight for some food. Maybe a little civilised conversation."

"No, I feel ready to be lured into the sunshine," said Harold. "I think this concept needs a little brainstorming, anyway." He pushed himself upright, and stepped out of the circle of papers.

Nathan tucked his arm around Harold's shoulder and led him towards the door. "It's very reassuring that you need me for anything, these days."

Harold laughed as he walked beside him. In these grey, desperate days, it was nice to feel a little hopeful again.



Their current mission was a terrorist threat in Berlin: the number was for Ahnaz Bekhti, and while Cole had managed to uncover plenty of online connections to radical groups, they hadn't been able to get eyes on the man. Shaw had resorted to trawling the streets around his last known address with all her senses open wide, hoping to stumble across something suspicious.

It wasn't the way she liked to work. Her abilities were best used focused like a laser, not cast wide like a net, but she was plenty capable of stepping up to a challenge. And as it happened, she'd picked up a familiar scent as she wandered. The trace was bitter and memorable for the little adrenaline burst it triggered in her. She reached for the sense of it, letting her senses drift outwards, and identified the sulphur-laced tang of gunpowder. A sharp left turn took her towards a cluster of apartment buildings where youths slouched about the entrance. She hovered there for a moment, gathering information that only she could detect, then headed back to the main street.

Normally the sensory input of a high-density metropolis would have left her reeling – especially under the heightened adrenaline of a mission – but Cole's voice was in her ear, keeping it together for both of them. He was in the white van on the corner, close enough that Shaw could feel him in her head, too, in that distant, not-quite-bond that was Cascade's preferred mode of operation. When her head was so full of data that her thoughts were squirming, she made her way over to the parking lot. She brushed her fingers along the smooth white paint of the van, and he pulled the door open so she could sit inside.

He shut the door, sat next to her with his long legs bent, and crooked his arm through hers, leaning their bodies together. To anyone watching, it was a companionable hug, but Shaw had never been the hugging type. It did provide cover, though, and the physical contact required for Cole to access what she'd detected out there on the street. Shaw rolled her shoulders and let him inside her mind. They were practiced at this by now, and the move was easy, familiar.

In her head, Cole was a cool and orderly presence as he sorted and filtered the flood of data she had accumulated doing recon.

"What's that chemical trace, there?" he said. He picked one scent thread from the melange of sweat/garbage/old leather/metal/coffee/piss that burned Shaw's throat.

She leaned into him as she focused on it, and narrowed down a sweet smell of burnt vinyl and vinegar. That was one of the first things she'd had locked in her mental glossary of things that went bang.

"That's Semtex," she said, and threw open the door. "Thanks for the lead, Cole; I'll follow it down."

She picked up the ghost of the trail, no more than molecules hanging in the air, and followed it, weaving between pedestrians and past flashing neon and loud music that would normally throw her senses off. She still had that lasting contact with Cole to help her keep a grip on things. She didn't even flinch when a siren went screaming past.

The scent she followed held an extra note, whisper-thin and rare, woven into the oily trace of Semtex. Her mental glossary threw out a mnemonic: old linen, embroidered with purple flowers. She stretched her senses and blocked out sound as best she could, still buoyed by Cole's buffers, but she couldn't immediately pull the name from the images. Things were starting to fuzz out now, and there was white noise at the edge of her attention span.

"That doesn't feel good," said Cole, over the radio. "I think that's enough, Shaw. I'm calling you in."

Shaw knew she was over-extended; she was two blocks away from the van, but she still picked up his voice physically as well as on the earpiece, a weird aural double vision. He had the bottle of suppressants in his hand; Shaw heard the glossy red tablets clatter against each other and the sound brought the sickly flavour of the sugar coating into her mouth. It was too strong for her to hide the swell of nausea from Cole. She hated the suppressants, and had since training.

"I saw that – you shouldn't be able to hear me, not at this distance, not unless you're overloaded. You've given us a lot to work with, Shaw. Come in and let me do my job now."

The Guides were in charge of the suppressants, as if Shaw and the other Sentinels couldn't be trusted to take care of themselves. It was one of the things that irked Shaw about Project Cascade: they spent energy convincing everyone that it was all so scientific, while behind the scenes, they totally bought into the idea that Sentinels were these precious mystical beings that needed constant coddling.

"Get out of my head, Cole." Shaw pushed hard on that mental connection, enough that she heard Cole hiss. This was an unofficial secret among Sentinels: some of them, even through the weak bond, could hurt Guides. Shaw had heard it in training camp, whispered in her ear in the women's barracks one night: if your Guide gives you bad orders, sometimes you can shove back and run. She didn't know the specific situation that had led to this discovery, but she could guess.

"Oh, come on, Shaw," Cole said. "Don't do this." He sounded stuffed up suddenly; she probably gave him a nose-bleed.

Shaw smirked to herself, and stopped at a coffee cart. The sharp and acrid smell of strong black coffee would give her a temporary reprieve, like pressing on an itching mosquito bite. She sipped the coffee, let it burn on the way down, and brushed past a cop. Picking up the scent trail led her towards an apartment lobby, where two men waited for an elevator. They reeked of gunpowder and that faint trace of Semtex, the two of them.

She should have listened to Cole, because the way she walked, the look in her eyes, maybe the weight of her gun in the shopping bag, tipped Bekhti's men off. And that drew the cop, who Shaw had to knock out, which made a mess of everything. Shaw would have been pissed that Cole was right, except that now they had evidence that Ahnaz Bekhti and his men were working with explosives.

Shaw threw open the door to the van, where Cole sat with Kleenex jammed up his nose.

"We're on a clock, Cole. Bekhti's going to know we're coming, very soon."

Cole didn't even bother to suggest a timeout for Shaw to settle her mind; they both understood what would happen if they didn't travel fast enough to secure the bomb Bekhti was building. He handed her a pack full of gear, and they headed for the roof of the apartment tower.

"There's a weird component in the explosive mix," Shaw said as they jogged for the stairs. "I know it's bad but I can't put a name to it."

They were on the fire escape now. "Work the memory," he said, a little breathless. "What sounds go with the sensation, what colours?"

In training, Sentinels work hard to build associations, pack in as much cross-referencing as possible, so that the Guides could use these mnemonic prompts. Cole knew her mental architecture by now: he'd learned her glossary and used it well.

On the roof of Bekhti's building, Shaw paced while Cole searched for the right air vent for his cameras. She should have been calm, up here away from the street and the oppressive presence of too many people, but the absence of a name for the dangerous component made her want to kick the wall until something gave. A toe or a brick, she didn't care.

She felt Cole's concern reach for her, at a respectful distance because he was Cole and Cole was a professional. It still irked her, and she slapped him gently on the head.
"I'm fine," she said. "Find the right apartment." The air was cleaner up here, comforting smells and sounds like clean laundry and bacon, the clatter of kids running off to catch buses. All the normal stuff of living, the sounds and smells of another world.

"Okay, here we go," said Cole, and they both gathered around the tiny screen to see what horror Bekhti was building on his dining table. Shaw watched them lift a glass vial above the clutter of wire and Semtex. The tumble of sand-coloured crystals caught her eye, and the memory replayed like a movie.

She was back at base, under that first training bond they all got with Hersh, and he was building her sense vocabulary. They were working in one of the sensory rooms, just a classroom, really, with sound-proofed walls. Hersh passed her glass vials one by one, from a foam-lined wooden box. They were all weirdly heavy, for the tiny amount of material they held.

"Polonium 210," he said, first up, holding a vial with a clear, yellowish liquid. It sloshed back and forth behind the glass, and Shaw knew that if it got into the water supply, it would kill everyone on base. "Same as they used on Litvinenko."

"Shit," said Shaw. She put her hands under the table. She didn't want to touch that, or any of the other vials, which, to her senses, hummed and buzzed in their wooden box. She was pretty sure she could hear the protons and electrons from the radioactive substances fizzing and flying like tiny angry bees.

Sighing, Hersh tamped down her awareness of the other vials, and swung her focus to the one in his hand. He held it out for her. "You want to be a sniffer dog, you'd better know what you're hunting," he said. "A fully operational Sentinel would have saved us a hell of a lot of time in 2006."

Shaw took it. There was a rubber seal over the top of the vial, and she gingerly peeled it back. She didn't breathe it in. She didn't have to; it was vivid, it lit up her mind. The sense trail of polonium was surprisingly bright, a clatter of breaking glass and citrus.

"Weird," said Shaw. "I can see my mother's antique candy dish when I smashed it. She was so mad."

She felt Hersh roll the memory, like silk between his fingers. "Lead crystal," he said. "Polonium decays to lead. She shouldn't have served food in that, you know."

Shaw snapped the seal back on and took the next vial from the box. "Maybe heavy metals are how I got to be here with you, Hersh?"

The next vial rattled in her hand, yellow-brown crystals. They reminded her of beach sand, so she expected sea-salt or saline, but instead she got something soft and floral. "Lavender," she said. "Smells like an old lady's handkerchief."

She heard someone's fingers snap, close but not so close she had to act.

"Come on home, Shaw," said Cole. Shaw took hold of that sound and pulled hard, until she felt her feet on the rough concrete of the roof. Cole had backed right off, careful not to touch her while she zoned out.

"That was some trip you just took," he said. "Does that mean you found the trace?"

Shaw peered over Cole's shoulder, saw the men pass the vial between them with terrifying calm. She took a breath, calming herself, too. "That's caesium," she said. "Bekhti's making a dirty bomb."

The mission went okay, considering how rattled they both were by the caesium. Cole got a little edgy like he always did when the stakes were high, but he pulled it all together and found Shaw her final shot. Then, when the terrorists were all down and the knockout gas had cleared, Shaw could pull off her mask, breathe air still sweet with fentanyl, and cut her bullets out of the body. She felt stretched thin as she worked, but she got the job done. When she walked out of the building hidden among the evacuating residents, she knew she'd gone way past her limits by the way her own footsteps hurt her ears more than the fire siren, and how the breezes moving down the road carried a thousand traces. This was the part of the mission she hated most: the come-down. She had her own way to deal with it, though it wasn't going to make Cole happy.

"Where's the Semtex?" asked Cole, as he locked away the caesium in the van. He'd be dropping that off to the US embassy before they left Berlin.

Shaw shrugged, thumbed the dial button on her phone, and waited for the explosion. They were distant enough for a normal person so Cole would be fine, and she'd still get what she needed out of it. When the bomb went off, it was like all of her nerves fired at once: she saw the sound in bright rainbows of light behind her eyelids, and felt the detonation against her skin like pillows. The shockwave rendered her beautifully, blissfully deaf, and all the other senses backed down in response. Better than booze, better than a hammer on a toenail, and forever better than those fucking suppressants.

She slumped against Cole. "Won't be needing those pills now, huh?" she said. She could see her face reflected in his lenses, and she giggled, because she looked so goofy.

She watched his lips shape the words, "Jesus, Shaw," but he put an arm around her anyway. She leaned into him; through her numbed senses, he smelled faintly of clean sweat and electronics, utterly reassuring. Shaw forgot sometimes that she didn't hate Cole, not like she hated the rest of the world. She probably shouldn't have given him that bloody nose.

At least Cole was the kind of decent that didn't bear a grudge. Shaw knew that things were okay between them, because on the way back to the hotel, he pulled into a drive-through and got her a cheeseburger. It was warm, and to her muddled senses, tasted of damp paper and nothing else, which was wonderful.

The numbness from the explosion wore off much faster than she anticipated, and by the time Cole pulled into the underground parking garage, Shaw had the shakes really bad. She'd over-extended herself again and again, and now she was a bag of nerves covered with tight, itchy skin. While they walked towards the elevator, tires screeched up the ramp, and she slammed Cole to the ground in response, covering his body with her own, weapon drawn and aimed. Pale faces in a sedan stared at them, shocked, as the car glided past out to the road. When Cole stood, his nose was dripping again. Shaw tipped his head forward and pinched the bridge until she heard it stop dripping.

In his room, Cole had blankets warming on the towel rack to drape over her shoulders, chocolate bars to boost her blood sugar, and her noise-cancelling headphones. All out of arguments, Shaw sat cross-legged on the bed in the dim light and let the heat soak into her bones. Finally, when her ears stopped ringing, she let Cole pass her two of those little red tablets, washed them down with German beer and let the silence wash over her.

All that time, Cole never once said, "I told you so." He just repacked his bloody nose and threw back a couple of Percocet before he got to work stowing their gear in separate bags. Shaw woke once in the night to find him curled around her body on the big bed, and she didn't push him away.

She shouldn't let him do so much for her; if it got back to Control, they'd be split up. It was well known that Control didn't like their Guides and Sentinels to get too close, which was why Cole was the fourth partner Shaw had been assigned since she joined Cascade. It was built into the training: knowing how to break a bond, keeping the bond weak enough that both Sentinel and Guide can survive the breaking. They were the experts, Shaw thought, except that this run with Cole had been great and she wasn't ready to let it go. She and Cole had a rapport; they were one of Control's best teams, but that wouldn't slip under the radar for long.

The other secret, the thing she couldn't tell anyone, not even Cole, was that they were a better team when she didn't take the suppressants. They had a stronger connection, made more intuitive leaps, she dealt with the sensory overload better and their results were stellar. The meds made the overload easier, yeah, but when she took them, it felt like Cole was so far away, even when he was in the same room. Right now, even with Cole pressed to her back, Shaw felt oddly lonely. She recognised that as wrong, because she didn't get lonely or frightened, never had, not until Cascade. The meds were supposed to help her process sensory data, and they did, but they also messed up her emotional state. She'd always had a good handle on that, right up until the doctors had strapped her to a chair and zapped her brain awake.

She couldn't avoid the suppressants forever, though. There were blood tests and EEGs at the end of each mission, they'd show if she had abstained, but as much as she could, she avoided taking those little red pills. She had other means to quiet her mind (booze, pain, sex) and she only let Cole dose her up when things were at their most ragged. Sometimes it seemed like Cascade conspired to keep her on the damn things: insisting that Sentinels and Guides travel separately, for instance. There was no way Shaw could make it through the sensory barrage of a plane alone, not without either Cole or the pillow of chemical sedation.

The thing Shaw could never puzzle out was why Cascade had developed the perfect weapons, then hobbled them this way. It made no sense.