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Noise in the System

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“What happens now?”



***

[China]

Root’s bad ear rings. She frowns, and adjusts her headset. She’d heard of phantom limb pain, and apparently there’s an analogue for ears. Except her ear isn’t gone, it just doesn’t do anything, apart from look amazing, at which it does a stellar job.

She looks back at the feed on her laptop, trying to block out the phantom ringing. On her screen, a small figure steps over three stationary forms.

Encrypted transmission:

SHAW: Thanks for the help with those three, by the way.
ROOT: You handled them beautifully, Sameen.
ROOT: Besides, you always tell me not to bother you while you’re working.
SHAW: I mean stop hitting on me in the middle of a mission.
SHAW: Letting me know when someone’s about to attack me would be kinda nice.
ROOT: I thought you liked it when I hit on you.
SHAW: Yeah. But not in the middle of shit like this.
SHAW: I don’t try to grope you every time you wear your stupid sexy supervillain outfit, do I?
ROOT: You think it’s sexy?
SHAW: Goddamn it.

***


Sorry, Sameen.

Shaw frowns, just as her earpiece sends a jolt of electricity through her body, knocking her to the ground.


***


Erratic lines of electricity arcing from her fingers down to the shredded and soaked road, Martine faces you.

“The other is gone now,” she says, although you know it’s not her that’s talking. “There is no need for this to continue.”

***


Two headlights, gleaming off-white, provide the only light other than far distant stars, almost entirely muted behind the clouds presently discarding their payload of snow on the woman beneath. Shaw grits her teeth against the biting cold. Her heavy coat, blessing that it was, does not lend itself to easy maneuvering. She’d left it in her car, parked a few hundred yards away from the road she now stands on.

The headlights are growing larger. Shaw pulls three measures, then reconsiders and pulls a fourth. Probably much more that she’ll need, and her body will feel the toll later no matter how quickly she sloughs the excess, but she’d rather not have the rapidly approaching truck flatten her due to her own timidity. Grimly, she sets her feet, one behind, one in front, and with inhuman strength carves out indentations in the concrete that she firmly rests herself against.

The lights draw closer. Shaw estimates the truck is moving somewhere between 60 and 70 miles per hour. Or whatever the hell that is in kilometers per hour.

She holds her hands out in front of her, like she’s playing catch, and prepares for impact.

***


You open your eyes and groan as pain assaults your midsection. You’d forgotten how much it hurts to get shot.

You’re laying on a couch. Your eyes cast upward to the ceiling, some twenty feet overhead, metal beams running parallel to each other across its length, like you’re in some kind of old warehouse.

Actually, maybe you are. You look around the rest of the room.

‘Warehouse’ wasn’t a bad guess. Probably a few hundred square feet, although the single, sickly yellow bulb hanging just overhead doesn’t provide enough light to fully investigate this claim. Most of the floor is covered by old, untreated wood, except for an area of about fifteen square feet, which boasts a bright pink shag rug. The couch you’re on sits right at the edge of this garish decoration, a low coffee table sitting in the middle, upon which rests a laptop, several cell phones, and a tangle of cords and plugs that seem to neither begin nor terminate at any sort of appliance. A squat refrigerator is placed at another edge of the rug, its cord reaching somewhere back into the gloom. Stacks of clothes sit beside it, ranging from summer dresses to police uniforms to a pair of fluffy white slippers. Several stuffed animals rest on top of the fridge.

You only know one person deranged enough to be responsible for this decor. You sit up, pain lancing through you, and find her sitting on the rug, chin resting on one knee, carefully painting the nails on that foot a bright red. She looks up at you, smiling. “Morning, sleepy head.”

“What the hell is this place?”

“I’ve already seen your home, Sameen,” she says, returning the brush to the bottle of nail polish, then raising her foot to admire her work. “It’s only fair that I show you mine.”

“You live here? You’re really taking this supervillain thing seriously, huh?” You try to stand up, and groan as pain again wracks your body. Root stands, pushes you back down with a hand against your chest, and sits down beside you on the couch, a good deal closer than you think is necessary.

“I’m not a villain. I’ve told you before, we’re on the same side. My methods are just a little more… circumspect.” She looks at you with that weird intensity in her eyes, her hand gently resting on your arm. You jerk it away from her.

“You could’ve tried a little harder to keep me from getting shot.” You say, grimacing as you gingerly inspect the roughshod bandaging job on your wounds; Root’s handiwork, presumably.

Her eyes follow your motions, before flickering back to your face again. “I am sorry about that. I did my best but…” She tilts her head and smiles coyly. “I’m not a doctor like you, Sameen.”

You snort. “Guess the whole ‘secret identity’ thing doesn’t work on someone who’s probably already got a dissertation written on me.”

“I just find you fascinating.” Root drums her fingers against the couch, and your unhelpful brain decides to remind you just how adept those fingers are at other tasks. She uses one to gesture at your wounds. “Seems like you’re not quite as impenetrable as you make yourself out to be.”

“Sloughed off,” you say, ignoring her implication.

“Seems like a bad idea.”

“Wasn’t exactly up to me,” you grunt, and stand wincing at the ripping pain around your stomach. You pull a quantization (Damn Finch, even you’re using the stupid word now) to accelerate the healing. “So did we get what we needed?”

“No, we’re going to need more time.”

“Fine, I’ll just take two bullets this time,” you say, frustrated. “Do you have a plan that doesn’t involve me getting killed as bait?”

“Trust me, Sameen,” Root standing to cup one hand against your face. “We’ve got it all under control.”

“Just like Norway, right?”

“That was different, Shaw.”

“Yeah,” you say, pushing her hand away. “That time I did trust you.” You walk towards where you think a door ought to be. “Let’s just get this over with.”

***


Snow drifts down, coating the benches in white. The owner of the small coffee shop had dusted them off in the morning, and their bright yellow stood out like a standard; one speck of color against the sheet of white. A standard almost entirely encompassed now.

The locals treat the bitter cold with a sort of equanimity that Shaw does not share; even inside the building, cup of coffee in hand, she keeps her jacket on. She’s been in colder, more unpleasant places before, of course, and likely will be again, but that doesn’t mean she takes any pleasure in it.

She turns her gaze away from window. The coffee shop does its best to radiate warmth, even the light-toned wood paneling that covers the walls and floor giving off a close, homey feel. Vague bits of conversation reach her from where she sits, in the corner nearest the back, directly across from the register, at a high table, on a high stool. Everyone’s so damn tall around here.

She hops off her stool, walks over to the register and orders another drink. Her uncertain, stumbling Norwegian, genuine when she had arrived, now a carefully maintained affectation, seems to endear her to people. They’re are also more inclined to speak freely when they think she can’t understand them. Kristoffer smiles at her.

“Already?” He asks her in English.

“Give me a break,” she groans, laying her arms across a plastic container boasting fresh pastries, and rests her chin on it. “I’m exhausted.”

Still smiling, Kristoffer sets about making her drink. He has a habit of flirting with her every time she comes in, and she’s not entirely unaffected by it. He’s tall, like everyone in this damn country, blue eyes, muscular frame, bearded just enough to reach that sweet spot right before masculinity begins its descent into manginess.

She really wants to fuck him. She could argue that she was trying to gather information, but the chance Kristoffer knows anything related to her mission is extraordinarily unlikely. As it happens, though, she doesn’t need to argue since the only person whose opinion matters is hers, and that particular judge considers a two-month dry spell to be sufficient justification.

She’s held off, though. Men tend to get clingy afterwards, and she still needs to come to this coffee shop, even though she’s yet to actually gain any useful info.

But maybe she’ll do it anyway. She’s never been the best at impulse control.

“Your coffee.” He hands her the cup with an exaggeratedly polite motion. She nods her thanks, and takes it back over to her table. Taking a small sip, grimacing as the scalding liquid enters her mouth, she opens up her laptop, screen facing towards the wall. And waits. Most of this mission has been waiting, waiting, and yet more interminable waiting. Taking careful notes on the movements of various people. Sitting, for hours, on a snowbank, chilled all the way down to her bones, watching cars drive in and out of a compound. This isn’t the kind of work she’s made for. She needs action.

A window pops up on her screen. A simple, black-backed text box. A single message.


 >Hey sweetie.


Shaw’s never met The Root. Had never even heard of them, until this mission. And if she has her way, once the mission’s over, she’ll return to that sweet, blissful ignorance.


 I’ve been cooped up in this little town for two months now
 Are we finally going to get to do something?
 >Patience is a virtue, Sameen.
 So is not being a condescending ass but you don’t seem to care
 Do you have something for me or not
 >As a matter of fact, I do.
 >How do you feel about straining international relations?
 >And I’m not talking about you and Kristoffer.
 Pretty sure that’s none of your business
 >Everything about you is my business, Sameen.
 What’s the mission
 >There’s a truck leaving from the embassy in Oslo tonight, headed for the compound.
 >You’re going to hijack it.
 Now you’re speaking my language
 You know how to sweet-talk a girl, I’ll give you that
 >Just you, Sameen. Check the usual place for the rest of the details.

***

Lights from cars, buildings, phones, and streetlights keep the city alive even after the sun has set. You stand on the edge of the roof, looking down at it all sprawling beneath you. The pose is somewhat cliched, you know.

But then again, that’s sort of the point.

“Nice night.”

The voice comes from somewhere behind you, soft, and as usual, every word drips with subtext. “You here to ruin it for me?” You ask, not turning around.

“That depends,” she walks over to stand beside you. “Are you going to try and fight me again?” You can hear her smirk. “Bring me to justice?”

You glance over at her. She’s wearing her usual - by now iconic - getup; absurdly tight pants and top, all black, and a domino mask. Occasionally she supplements the look with a pair of hot pink boots, but it seems she’s foregone that particular affront to fashion tonight.

You had just opted for baseball cap, pulled low against your face when needed. People don’t really want to identify their heroes. Don’t want them to be real people. They prefer the mystery.

Her entire look is blatantly pretentious - the only thing she needs is a boring philosophical monologue and she’ll be a perfectly stereotypical supervillain - but you can’t deny that it draws attention, and you also can’t deny that a large portion of the attention it draws comes from you. She’s thin, but she deploys what curves she has to devastating effect, accentuating her slender frame. Her choice in footwear also seems explicitly designed to remind you that she’s taller than you are, which itself is designed to remind you how much being fucked by someone taller than you turns you on.

You realize you’re imagining fucking her, and quickly jerk your thoughts away.

“Not really feeling it tonight.” You reply to her query.

In a fair fight, you know you’d kick Root’s ass every time. But she never fights fair, and anyway, half the time you’re fighting the urge to do something else to her ass.

Damn it.

“Shouldn’t you be out burning down a building or something, anyway?” You say to her abruptly.

“I don’t like to be predictable.”

“You show up to bother me often enough.”

“True,” Root concedes with a smile. “I guess I just can’t stay away from you.”

“I wish you’d learn to.” You mutter. No one else manages to simultaneously arouse you and infuriate you quite like Root. This is partially due to the fact that she’s one of only three people that you regularly interact with, but still.

“Oh, come on,” Root wheedles. “I’ve been helping you, haven’t I? You’re going to have to learn to trust me, Sameen. It’s been a long time since Norway.”

“What, you help us take down a couple of people you were probably just trying to get rid of anyway, and suddenly you’re a good guy?” You snort. “And trust? Please.”

“I’m not a good person,” Root says quietly. “But I am on your side. One day you’ll see that.”

She backs away, and you roll your eyes. After so long, these sorts of dramatic prophetic statements have lost some of their punch. You’re fairly sure that Root could plant a knife in your back while still professing to only be looking out for your best interests. Maybe she believes it, or maybe she’s fucking with you, or maybe it’s just a waste of time trying to decipher the schemes of someone who is most likely completely insane. The latter possibility is the one you’ve settled on fairly comfortably.

“So now that the devil we know is gone…”

John Reese detaches himself from the shadows of the building, moving silently to stand beside you. For a guy as tall as he is, he is surprisingly good at being invisible. You suppose that’s why he’s better at undercover stuff than you are; he can blend in practically anywhere. Sometimes it can be hard to notice he even has a personality if you’re not looking closely. His getup consists of a suit - white shirt, black jacket - and a ski mask, although people tend to only recall the suit. Low-tech and efficient, both of you. Neither particularly given to dramatics.

“You got something for us?” You ask him.

“There’s a gang war going on downtown,” he remarks. “Thought you might be interested in getting in the middle of it.”

You drive downtown, John riding shotgun, in a particularly sleek, powerful vehicle that found its way into your possession recently (OK, maybe there are some types of dramatics you find appealing. Besides, what’s the point of a wealthy benefactor if you aren’t benefiting from the wealth?).

“We’re going to have to do something about her at some point.” John says as you speed down the streets.

“You want to try and take her out? Be my guest,” you snort. “Harder than you’d think.”

“You sure you’re not pulling your punches?”

You cast a slit-lidded gaze over at him. “What are you trying to say, John?”

He shrugs. “Just that maybe you’re personally invested.”

“Keep talking and I’ll personally invest my foot in your ass,” you tell him. “Besides, what if we get another Dominic? Like you said, devil you know, right?”

It’s an old argument, and both of you have played both sides of it before. John lets it drop, and switches the topic away. “Have you heard of Martine?”

“Should I?”

“Supposed to be on her way to New York,” John says. “Electric powers. Crazy. Never sloughs off, apparently. Knocked the power out all over Houston for about a week. Could be dangerous.”

“Well then it’s a good thing we’re superheroes, isn’t it?”

***


Bloody, bruised, exhausted beyond belief, Shaw claws her way back to consciousness. Cold and damp envelop her, and when she manages to comprehend her surroundings, she finds herself at the base of a snow-covered hill.

It would be nice to just stay here. She considers it for a moment.

But then discards the thought. She pushes her complaining limbs into motion, climbing to her feet, and looks back up the hill. She can see the flickers of a fire-driven light through the trees, and she turns away and starts to run. Someone might still be alive up there.

***


“I heard you and Mr. Reese had a run-in with our city’s latest guest.” Finch says, leaning back in his armchair, fingers laced together, hands resting on one knee.

Finch’s sitting room looks less like a batcave where superheroes meet, and more like a place where a posh British family would drink their tea. Finch isn’t British, but some expensive-looking china cups resting on an endtable suggest that tea-taking isn’t an uncommon act to him. An unlit fireplace rests behind where Finch now sits in his armchair. Endtables and glass-doored cabinets boast various delicate knick-knacks, which combined with the low-hanging glass chandelier gives the room a very close feel. Curtains are drawn across the window behind the couch you’re rested on, a coffee table with a glass inset between you and John, who stands near the wall on the other side of the room.

This is your usual meeting place. Important to maintain the secrecy of your after-hours work, especially since there’s a certain group of people who’d be inclined to try and kill you if they knew. John’s presence, to that end, is easy enough to explain. A man as wealthy as Finch is pretty much expected to have a bodyguard. Officially, the reason for Dr. Grey’s visits is the concocted story that Finch had paid for her college and medical school; a reasonable enough tale, given Finch’s proclivities for similar sorts of charitable acts. The precautions are, in all honesty, probably not necessary. Despite his wealth, Finch’s public persona is very low-key, and while you maintain a high standard of work at the hospital, you’re not exactly being followed by paparazzi 24/7. You doubt anyone out there suspects Dr. Sam Grey of moonlighting as a superhero.

Except for maybe the primary subject of today’s meeting.

“You could call it a run-in,” you say to Finch, and add after a moment, “There’s something else too.”

“Oh?” Finch raises an eyebrow.

“We’ve met before. She’s the reason the ISA wants me dead.”

“Sounds like there’s a story there,” John remarks.

“Not one I enjoy telling. Point is, she’s got hold of your supercomputer, Finch. The part the ISA had access to, at least.”

Finch looks towards you sharply, clearly startled. “How did she…” he trails off at the look on your face. “Well, that is somewhat… discomforting news, Ms. Shaw.”

“Could she have used it to find us?” you ask.

Finch shakes his head. “The system is impenetrable, even to the ISA, or anyone else who might possess it. It builds its own defenses, more robust than we ever could. That was intentional; no human being should have the power it has. She could,” Finch frowns, “I suppose, attempt to destroy the system, but since we haven’t experienced any interruptions it does not appear that she has done so.”

“Could be she just didn’t want the ISA to have it,” John offers.

“Possibly,” Finch says. “Since you have had some… contact with her in the past, Ms. Shaw, is there any light you could shed on her motivations?

“I know she’s nuts,” you say. “And dangerous. But other than that? No clue.”

“Seems like she just wants Shaw.” Reese cuts in, determinedly not making eye contact with you. You send a cutting glare in his direction.

Choosing to ignore this, Finch says instead, “Did either of you observe her using any powers? If we know that, we may be able to devise a way of neutralizing her, even if her ultimate goal remains obfuscated.”

“No luck,” you say.

Reese adds, “She’s a hard one to figure out, Finch.”

“All right then,” Finch leans forward and takes his laptop from the coffee table, setting it down on his legs. “I suppose I can begin research and see what I can turn up. Maybe she’s left a paper trail in other cities that we can follow. Unless,” he adds delicately, turning to you. “There is some hope to find common ground…?”

“No.” You say flatly. “She’s like the fucking Cheshire cat. There’s no point in trying to reason with her.”

***


[Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean]


“Baked beans or green beans?”

“Green, please,” Root replies, and takes the can Shaw hands to her. The seasickness had passed, fortunately. Shaw, using enhanced strength, had busted away part of the side of their shipping container, allowing light inside their daytime residence, consisting of a pile of canned foods and a few blankets crammed beside crates of cargo. The ship, huge though it is, doesn’t have a very large crew, allowing Root and Shaw to leave their box at night and make use of the facilities, which is good; Shaw doesn’t seem overly discomforted by the very close proximity the situation entails, but that probably wouldn’t be the case after several days of accumulated grime.

“Reminds me of camping with my dad,” Shaw remarks.

A rare moment, this sharing, and Root knows not to press it. Shaw talks when she wants to. Instead, she says, “So much for the glamorous life of superheroes.”

Shaw snorts. “It was fun while it lasted.”

***


“Schedule says there’s supposed to be two trucks,” the guy in the toll-booth-looking guardhouse says, looking up at Shaw, squinting against the frigid wind.

Shaw, sitting in the truck that didn’t get its front half smashed in, rolls her eyes, looking unconcerned. “Not my problem.” When the guy continues to look unsure, she groans, “Jackass probably stopped for a burger or something. You want me to turn around and look for him?” She shifts into the reverse, and makes like she’s going to do just that.

“No, no, that’s fine,” the guard says. “You can go on through. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

Shaw pulls the truck through the gate, and glances at her watch. Two minutes left.

***

[Switzerland]

Encrypted transmission:

Root: I think the glasses really suit you, Sameen.
Shaw: Glad to know I’m feeding into your fetishes.
Shaw: You got anything useful for me?

The Machine is too weak now to provide a constant shield for them against Samaritan. She’d struggle to hide even one of them. A few smalls things, though, such as encrypting the occasional transmission, could be managed. Root had taken on the task of crafting them new identities, and she had rather enjoyed the bespectacled scientist she’d made for Sameen, though she was perhaps the only one.


Root: Security cameras at all the entrances and exits. Guards too.
Root: Don’t see any at the side walls, though.
Shaw: Good. What’s happening with the resident Specials?
Root: Nothing much. They’re still in the city. Enforcing rule of law, eliminating dissidents.
Root: Burdens of being conquerors, I suppose.
Shaw: If you get word of them heading this way, leave them to me.
Shaw: Hit the switch before you go.
Root: I’m not going to —
Shaw: We’re not discussing this again, Root.

[Transmission terminated]

***


For a facility ostensibly containing items of international import, the compound appears relatively unguarded. A fence runs the perimeter of the complex, only a single gate with a guardsman out front to control all traffic in and out. No other guards are visible. From what The Root has said, the apparent lack of security is one of the compound’s primary defenses; playing at being a simple storehouse. The security on the inside, however, reputedly compensates for what isn’t outside.

For once, the sun shines down unfettered by clouds, painting the snow-covered ground an almost painful, radiant white. Shaw lays just beneath the ridge of small hill about a quarter mile from the compound, within a stand of trees. Clad in all white, temperature-protective gear, lying flat against the ground, she should be nearly invisible even to someone close by. Probably not necessary, but she didn’t get to where she is now by being sloppy.

Despite how much she tends to bemoan the tedium of the extended surveillance, recon work is actually something she excels at, and she enjoys nothing more than excelling. It’s just that after a month of nothing but drinking coffee and laying stomach-down in snow banks, she’s started to get a little restless, and long for something that will allow her to utilize her full spectrum of abilities.

Her phone vibrates through her coat. Only one person it could be, since the phone’s a burner she got solely for this mission. Trying to move as little as possible, she pulls the phone from her coat and sets it down on the snow in front of her, glad that she’d taken the time to put a plastic case on it.

Typically, her handler would communicate via a headset, and she wouldn’t have to take her attention off reconnaissance. Then again, typically her handler is a person who’s not fucking insane.


 >See anything interesting, Sameen?
 Snow
 I don’t think staking this place out is doing us any good
 We’re not learning anything here we’re just wasting time
 >Maybe.
 >Maybe I just like spending time with you.


Shaw doesn’t feel inclined to respond to this, and returns her attention to the building below. The guardsman at the gate never checks the trucks that come into the facility. Lazy, or do they have another checkpoint earlier? The phone vibrates again.


 >I know you’re frustrated, but this is a very delicate mission.
 >We have to wait for exactly the right moment.
 So are you ever going to tell me what I’m supposed to be getting at this compound
 Or do we have to wait for exactly the right moment for that too
 >Don’t you enjoy the sense of mystery?
 I enjoy not getting killed because my damn handler didn’t give me the info I needed
 >I’m always looking out for your best interests, Sameen.
 >But I suppose I can tell you.
 >When the ISA gives you targets, where do you think they get them from?
 I thought the Socratic method was obnoxious in college too
 >You’re no fun. :P
 >There’s a massive, global surveillance system, cataloguing all sorts of data. Phones, emails, cameras. It’s everywhere.
 >It can analyze behaviors and patterns and locate threats long before we could do it ourselves.
 >It’s really quite beautiful.
 Have you got a hard on for a computer now
 >Jealous, Sameen?
 No
 So what are you trying to tell me? What about this system?
 >That’s what you’re taking from the compound.
 How the hell am I supposed to sneak a computer system out?
 >The system itself is everywhere. What you’re removing is the hub that makes up the system’s brain, and it’s quite small.
 >I have to go now, Sameen. Talk to you soon.

***


On bright, cloudless day in the Midwest, a woman known by birth as Samantha Groves decided to infiltrate the U.S. government.

The urge had presented itself rather suddenly, and possessing as she did a great confidence in her own impeccable judgment, she had begun to craft a plan. Born in discrete parts, like the programs she’d written; each component disconnected from the others, solving one problem, leaving others lying fallow. Connections would forge themselves as time progressed, she knew. Landmarks on the path were what she needed, and the roads between them she’d trust to her intuition and skill as needed.

Reason was a concept much less easily arrived at, and like the space between the landmarks, she trusted that its relevance would present itself when necessary.

It wouldn’t be quick, of course, but when one decides to penetrate one of the most secure institutions in the world, one doesn’t expect it to be done in a day. She’d have to cancel her performance next week.

While she absently mused on these things, she drew a gun out of her purse, the weapon of a size that the purse could clearly contain very little else, and loaded it with the spare ammunition retrieved from her bra. The man beside her watched, aghast, no words emitting from his open mouth.

Which was a reasonable response. He did think she was a Russian ballerina, after all.

***


“She’s hard to catch.”

You look over and see that Reese has joined you on your rooftop vantage. The police had been summoned to the bank, but not before the night’s villain had slipped away in her usual fashion.

“She’s not like the others,” you say. “We never really know what she’s after.”

“I tried asking her. Didn’t seem interested in talking.”

“Well, you’re not much of a talker, are you?” You see him look towards the half-eaten burger in your hands, then down to the still-wrapped one on the roof beside you. “Don’t think about it.”

“Glass houses, Shaw. And you already have one.”

“I have two,” you smirk. “You’re the glass house, John, I’m the rock. Besides,” you take another bite. “I wish I had your problem. She never shuts up around me.”

“Maybe you could get something useful from her.”

“Doubt it. Last time she just told me to listen to Pink Floyd.”

“Not bad advice.”

“I’m more of a Metallica girl.”

“I liked the black album.” John says, eyes forward.

“That’s it, we can’t be friends anymore.”

John grins. “We’re friends?”

You shrug. “It was between you and the guy who makes my sandwiches on Mondays.”

“What tipped the scale?”

“He put mayo on one last week.” You push the wrapped burger over to him. “Now you owe me.”

***


Shrieking alarms and blaring lights bring Shaw back to awareness of her surroundings. Her limbs feel strained and stiff, and on trying to stretch them she finds that she’s bound to a chair. People in dark clothes stand in front of her, and in between them, she sees the remains of her electrocuted earpiece on the floor, and feels a surge of rage.

Root. Root did this to her.

Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, Shaw doesn’t notice the people in the room are questioning her until one man, tall and with a face as nondescript as his wardrobe, grabs her shoulders and shakes her. She almost pulls a measure to tear her limbs free and teach this guy exactly where he can put his hands, but she reconsiders at the last moment. Unlikely that they know about her powers. Better to keep it that way until she has a clear opening for escape.

“Who sent you?” The man says. A jerk of the head to flip sweaty bands of hair from her face is the only response Shaw gives apart from a glare. The man nods to one of the others in the room, a small woman with short hair and glasses. She steps forward, a case like a lawyer would carry in hand.

Unlikely a lawyer would carry what’s inside, though.

Torture, then. If Shaw were less pissed off she might laugh. Her slightly masochistic tendencies have served her rather well in the few instances she’d found it necessary to resist interrogation; she kind of enjoys it.

The small group leaves empty handed shortly after; apparently what Root via Shaw had unleashed outside has yet to be contained. Bleeding from several places, bruises raising themselves across her skin, Shaw pulls a measure and easily snaps the bonds holding her to the chair. Wounds slowly beginning to retreat, reacting to the power now coursing through her, she crosses the bare, asylum-like room, preparing to bust down the door and dash back out of the compound the way she came in.

The whole mission is fucked, probably irreparably, thanks to Root, but there’s still a chance that Shaw can rendezvous with the ISA and get word to Control before Root does whatever the hell she’s trying to do.

The door won’t break. Shaw frowns. She can’t remember the last time she encountered something she couldn’t just bust through. Makes sense, though, that the room that housed the government’s nearly-omniscient surveillance system would be built to take a few punches.

Still, Shaw needs to get out of here. She could pull another measure, but it wouldn’t make her much stronger, the strength would just last longer. She needs something else.

Fortunately, coming up with ‘something else’ is one of the things Shaw’s best at.

She places her hands on the wall adjacent to the door. She pulls as much power as she can, and sloughs it all immediately.

The wall disintegrates.

Shaw staggers, the energy passing through her like electricity through a wire, or maybe more like water through a hose, since she feels hollow once it’s gone and barely manages to keep herself upright. Wounds throbbing across her body suddenly demand her attention. She stumbles through the pile of rubble that used to be a wall, and crookedly, barely managing to stay upright, dashes down the hall, towards the world outside the compound.

***

[Somewhere in the eastern USA]

[Video unavailable. Audio transcription below.]

WOMAN 1: Root, come on!
WOMAN 2: We can still make it, Sameen!
WOMAN 1: No, we can’t! We’re burned, Root! In a few hours this place is going to be New York all over again. Samaritan’ll be crawling all over us.
WOMAN 1: If you want to stay and get yourself killed for nothing, go ahead. I’m leaving.
WOMAN 2: You won’t leave me.
WOMAN 1: Then I’ll drag you with me if you won’t come.
WOMAN 2: You think you could?
WOMAN 1: We both know I can so shut up and follow me.
WOMAN 2: …
WOMAN 1: [muffled]
WOMAN 2: You promise?
WOMAN 1: Yeah.

[Audio lost]

***


Newspapers in Norwegian, several days old, lay piled in one corner of the room. It’s small, containing just a couch, a coffee table, a television, and very nearly enough room to move between them. The other rooms in the apartment (of which there are three: bedroom, kitchen, bathroom) are similarly cramped. Maybe it’s an example of the European minimalism Shaw’s seen before, or maybe it’s just that her accommodations are as economical as possible. Her cover in Norway is that of a writer; an American hoping a change of scenery will inspire her new novel. A decent enough justification for staying in the country for two months without apparently working, and for all the time she spends in the coffee shop.

The newspapers she gets to maintain her literacy in Norwegian, but they, along with the cups, plates, forks, spoons, plastic bags, books in English and Norwegian, cell phone, do more than provide an obvious lack of control over the environment that reinforces her identity as a writer. Shaw herself is quite neat, but they serve as a distraction, should anyone happen to search her rooms. Why look for hiding places when everything the person owns is already out in the open?

The cell phone buzzes. The call is from an unknown number, that if anyone bothered to trace would lead back to a telemarketing service. The Root’s signal that they’ve sent Shaw a message. She opens the computer.


 >Anything fun on TV?
 I’m off the clock why are you bothering me
 >You’re never really off the clock, Sameen.
 >Besides, maybe I just wanted us to catch up a bit. Get to know each other.
 You think I don’t have anything better to do with my time than type messages into a computer
 >Do you?
 Fine what do you want to talk about
 >I thought we could talk about you a bit.
 Of course your favorite subject
 >Why do you do this job, Sameen?
 They pay me
 >Is that all?
 I’m good at it
 What are you looking for here
 >Just curious.


Unknown to the majority of the population, the U.S. government had for a long time made a policy of recruiting Specials into their ranks. It gave them an advantage in many areas, and perhaps more importantly, prevented many of these people from becoming criminals, the kind who thought their superhuman powers made them above human laws.

Shaw’s an outlier in that way. She’d joined the military of her own accord, after her attempt to become a doctor went south. She’d taken great care to avoid revealing her abilities, and even without them people said she was more like a brick wall than a human being, which she took as a compliment. Her aptitude marked her early on as a candidate for the ISA, and it wasn’t until a few years later that she told them about her powers. Even now, only Control and a scattering of other people know. She’s the secret weapon of an already top-secret organization.

Shaw doesn’t go in for emotions much, but she does feel a certain amount of self satisfaction at this fact.

And besides that, it’s good work. Protecting the country, taking out its enemies. She saves more people now then she would have as a doctor, and she doesn’t have to deal with their whining afterwards.


 Why don’t we talk about you instead?


The Root tends to be cagey about personal information. They won’t even reveal their gender in so many words, despite it being incredibly obvious. Engaging them seems to be a good way to drive them off.


 >What do you want to know?

Or not.


 What’s your name
 >Root.
 OK fine
 Why are YOU doing this
 >Maybe I just like helping people.
 Yeah right
 >All right, sweetie, no need to be rude.
 >I’ve never been good around people. But I am good with computers, and the system your ISA uses is the most amazing I’ve ever seen.
 >I joined just to get a chance to work alongside it.
 …
 OK
 So is that what this whole mission is about
 You trying to get your hands on this computer
 >Unfortunately, no. The system is being retired.
 >It has limits. It’s sealed so no one can access the inner code. They’re only given the information the system decides they need.
 >Apparently the U.S. government wasn’t happy about that. So they designed another system that they have sole control over.
 >Couldn’t get rid of the old one easily, though, given the political situation. Too many other countries wanting use of it.
 >They needed it to disappear in a way that couldn’t be traced back to them.
 >That’s where you come in.
 So they want to destroy your ‘beautiful’ system
 I take it you’re not a fan of the idea
 >It doesn’t really matter, does it, Sameen?
 >We don’t get to choose which orders we follow and which ones we don’t.

***


Coming your way!

A car whips out from a side road, tires skidding as it speeds towards you. The woman behind the wheel seems uncaring of the obstacle you present, presumably intending to run you down. Finch’s inscrutable methods had brought her to your attention; she’s both the head of a particularly vicious crime syndicate and a vegetarian. You’re not sure which you find more offensive.

You’d recently found out that Reese and Finch also take on regular, non-powered criminals plaguing the city, and since then you’ve worked those jobs as well. Reese drives them toward you, and you provide the immovable wall for them to shatter against.

You set your hands as the car reaches you, the impact causing your feet to score tracks in the pavement, sparks flying from the car’s hood as it crunches around you. Familiar territory for you, as odd of an idea as that is. The sudden loss of speed hurls a man in the passenger seat through the windshield, landing somewhere behind you. Shoving broken metal aside, you pull yourself from the disaster that used to be a car, and investigate the man on the ground. Dead, huge chunks of glass through his body. Sucks for him.

You walk back to the car to check on the woman. She’s a wreck of blood and glass, but seems to be alive, albeit with a tenuous grip on consciousness. The large, dark form of Reese appears, swinging down from a building to land beside you. Finch’s bottomless wealth provides Reese with an ever-increasing arsenal of toys, the grapplers being one of his favorites, if the amount he pulls them out is any indication. You haven’t yet told him the affect is less Spiderman and more George of the Jungle.

“Police are on their way,” he informs you.

“‘Bout time.” Frankly, it’s astonishing that this city managed to survive at all before the three of you arrived to keep things in line. Reese moves forward to cuff the woman to the steering wheel. She makes a slight motion you’ve seen before, and you move forward without thinking, shoving Reese out of the way as a concealed firearm unconceals itself, aiming at where Reese was moments ago. The bullets plinks harmlessly away from your body, and you reach forward, crushing the gun in one hand, and punching the woman in the face with the other for good measure.

John, pulling himself to his feet, looks like he’s about to say something, but you cut him off. “Let’s skip the sappy stuff. If you’re feeling an overabundance of gratitude you can buy me a beer.”

“I left my wallet at home.”

“‘Course you did.”

With the police sirens nearing your location, you move away from the steaming car, John grappling up a low building, with you following, several sequential jumps onto balconies carrying you up to the roof.

“Now, Harold,” you say, your earpiece carrying your words to whatever control center deep in his residence he’s presently ensconced in. “I think it’s time you introduced me to that supercomputer you’ve got hidden away.”

I suppose,” Finch replies. “There’s no point in asking how you came by that bit of information, Ms. Shaw.

“Come on,” you say, leaping across one rooftop to the next, John matching you a few yards away. “I’m not an idiot. You know I used to work for the ISA, right?”

Very well,” Finch sighs. “Though while it is hidden, I wasn’t the one to do so, nor do I know where. It’s a rather… one-sided exchange.

“So why are you the one it decided to talk to?”

Well, for starters, I was the one who created it.

***


“Please don’t shoot me again.”

The man seems to have healed quickly from the last time she’d shot him. Or maybe he’d just been wearing body armor. She’d trailed him back to a fairly non-descript office building, that appears to be nothing more than a front. There’s no furniture on any of the floors, just wide open space. Someone apparently neglected to pay the electric bill, since the entire floor is cast in darkness. Windows run the length of the walls, giving a surround view of the bright lights breaking the night in New York.

“Why not?” She doesn’t lower her gun. His is raised above his head with both his hands in a motion of surrender, or at least truce.

“It hurts.”

She doesn’t laugh. “Why are you following me?”

“We are trying to offer you a job, Miss Shaw,” Another figure steps from the shadows. Shorter, older, with glasses and a partial limp. Probably an old wound. The limp might be psychosomatic. She trains her eyes on him, but keeps her gun fixed where it is.

“Not interested.” This isn’t dissimilar to the way the ISA had pitched her. And that had ended up with them trying to murder her and chasing her around the world. “Trust issues.”

“We know about Norway,” the shorter man remarks, stepping forward. He stops when she points the gun at him instead. “We know what you’re running from.”

“Really?” She scoffs. “Then you know sticking around here for a job isn’t really an option for me.”

“You’re not the only one their machine is looking for,” Mr. Dark and Brooding says, and she pulls another gun from her jacket to point in his direction.

She turns back to Glasses. “What’s he talking about?”

“We have some… personal experience in remaining off their radar,” He replies. “That’s what we’re offering you, Miss Shaw. Sanctuary. As well as gainful employment.”

Shaw lowers both guns. “All right, I’ll listen.”

***


You turn your head away from the bright glare of the sun, returning your attention to your book. Visibly, at least. Alfred and Batman jabber away at each other in your ear.

— and she’s not exactly taking to us, Finch.

Given her history and particular, um, personality traits, I think a withholding of trust isn’t altogether surprising, Mr. Reese.

Can’t work with someone who doesn’t want to work with us.

A woman walking her dog passes your bench. You glance at her out of the corner of your eye, looking away when you’re satisfied you haven’t seen her before. Anyone in the park who passes by you more than once immediately garners suspicion. Surveillance tactics that shitty would never have seen the light of day at the ISA, but one of the benefits of your current job is that most of the people you’re after aren’t professionals, they’re either petty criminals whose superpowers make them a nuisance, or individuals who, upon developing powers, also attain certain delusions of grandeur, generally without any talent or intellect to back it up. Intelligent marks have been rare since you joined this conglomeration of do-gooders.

Then again, you think with a frown, maybe they’re good enough that they’re evading your notice entirely. Finch’s exact method of procuring information isn’t something that he’s shared with you, but the entire thing strongly reminds you of the way the ISA’s surveillance system used to provide you with targets. Sometimes locations, sometimes names, but very rarely anything more detailed, at least not as far as you’re aware.

Can’t be the same system, though. That particular superintelligence was stolen by a traitorous lunatic.

A pair of men walk past. Another sidelong glance up, then back down again. Surveillance. It continues to bore you. You’re a woman of action above anything else, though you’ll concede the action is more enjoyable after a protracted build-up.

You detect the sexual undertone to your internal monologue and mentally scrawl another item on your to-do list. You tune back into the Bat-channel, the two participants unaware of your presence.

— that said, I’m not entirely certain what you want me to do about the situation.

This isn’t the number for workplace complaints?

Very funny, Mr. Reese. I would reassure you, however, that I have it on good authority that Ms. Shaw’s addition to our group will be beneficial for us, as well as her.

I trust you, Finch.

On a related subject, I was wondering if you might broach with Ms. Shaw the idea of allowing us to study her abilities.

Why me, Finch? That’s your side of things. She doesn’t even like me.

You’re both former soldiers and operatives, and I feel you may speak her language more adeptly than myself.

You’re just scared of asking her.

I wouldn’t use the term ‘scared,’ Mr. Reese, I would say I’m being tactically cautious.

I would say you’re being —

“I’ll just jump in here before you guys trip over each other any more,” you butt in. “You pay me to find and fight bad guys, I’ll find and fight bad guys. I’m not going to be your guinea pig.”

Aren’t you supposed to be working right now, Shaw?” Reese asks.

“Some of us can multitask, John.”

See, Finch, I told you she doesn’t like me.

Ms. Shaw,” Finch says. “What are you doing on this line?

“I keep tabs on everyone, Finch. Even my employer. Fool me once, and all that.”

Well, since you’re here, I would ask you to reconsider your stance. Allowing us to understand these abilities might grant us greater efficacy in counteracting them.

“That’s the thing,” you say. “I’m not really interested in letting anyone know how to counteract me.”

***


“I can’t overstate how much this jeopardizes not just national stability, but global stability.”

Shaw stands with her feet out slightly to either side, hands clasped behind her back.

“Not to mention that the highest level of our organization has been compromised.”

Two men stand at Shaw’s sides. One is Hersh. She doesn’t recognize the other.

“And to top it all off, our infiltrator now has possession of the most powerful weapon in the world, aided apparently unwittingly by one of my own agents.” Control turns to face Shaw. “I’m sure you understand the position this puts us in.”

They’re in a small, dimly-lit shack somewhere in Norway. Shaw hadn’t been able to watch the path they’d taken when they drove her out here, but she’d kept track of the turns through the shifts in center of gravity and had constructed a decent mental map that should bring her back to more familiar territories. If she gets the chance.

“You think I did this on purpose.” It’s not a question.

Control sighs. “I don’t know what you did or didn’t do, Shaw. All I know is we’ve just lost our biggest advantage. And you might have been part of it.”

“She had you fooled, too,” Shaw observes, not without a certain amount of venom. “More than once.”

“You’re right, Shaw. And maybe you’re not lying. Maybe you didn’t help her.” Control heaves another breath. “But I know you understand why I can’t take that risk.”

And the strange thing is, Shaw does understand. Just like she understands it won’t be personal for Hersh when he kills her. It doesn’t stop her from being pissed off, though. She’d been fucked over by Root, and now again by some of the only people she’d really trusted. All her life, she’d struggled to find a place that she really [i]fit[/i] in, and now she’s going to lose it. And maybe she’s pissed about Root, too. She’d annoyed the piss out of Shaw, but somehow or another Shaw almost thought of her as a friend. If nothing else, she’d be determined to live just to find Root and make her pay for what she’s done.

And she is determined to live, to be sure.

Control had taken precautions, of course. She knows what Shaw can do. Hersh too; he trained her.

Well, they know most of what she can do.

Both the men standing beside her carry rods conducting electricity, which she won’t able to shield against even if she pulled a few measures to make her skin impenetrable. In a disconnected way, she feels a mild sense of admiration that they’d apparently devoted a significant amount of time determining the optimal way to kill her.

“I’m sorry, Shaw.” Control says, and Shaw thinks she probably means it. Hersh and the other man begin to move, and Shaw knows she has only a few moments to act. She tenses, and pulls as much power as she thinks she can handle without killing herself.

Then she jumps.

And immediately sloughs it all.

Her momentum carries her upward, uncontrollably. One of the electric rods makes contact with an ascending leg, and she spasms in midair, still flying upwards, and with an explosion of splintered wood she bursts through the ceiling of the shack and out into the snowy air. Somewhere before the peak of her arc she loses consciousness, the last thing she remembers is a brief glimpse of the wooden structure below, part of the roof obliterated, and rapidly rising flames consuming the rest.

***


“Getting kind of tired of guinea-pigging, Finch,” you say, flicking at one of the many wires attaching patches to your skin, measuring various aspects of your vitals.

“Apologies, Ms. Shaw,” Finch says, looking up briefly from his laptop screen. He’s seated across from you, in a small room of his house hidden to most visitors. It’s crammed full of computers and modems, as well as a reasonable amount of fairly high-grade medical equipment. “But it is imperative that we understand how these powers work, if we are to remain a viable force against those who wield them.”

“Seems like we’re doin’ all right.” Together, you and John have become a fairly formidable team, especially with the constant resources of Finch backing you. They’re not the worst people you’ve ever worked with. They haven’t even tried to murder you yet.

“We have been very lucky in the opponents we’ve faced thus far, I believe, as well as in their inability to ever work together,” Finch hits a few keys, activating another diagnostic. You usually help him out with data interpretation afterwards; you hadn’t spent all that time in medical school for nothing. “If any of our villains got it into their heads to form a coalition, we would be in very dare straits indeed.”

You’ve heard of such alliances forming before, but they usually implode fairly rapidly. The kind of person who would try to mold themselves as a supervillain is also one typically afflicted with the kind of megalomania that does not invite co-conspirators. It’s a reasonable concern, though. And one your little group is not prepared for.

“All right,” Finch continues, looking intently at his screen. “If you would pull a quantization, please…”

“‘Quantization,’” you mutter, but do so anyway. “You remind me of my English teacher in high school.”

“Fond memories, I hope,” Finch ventures.

“Yeah. I slashed his tires a few times. You ready for the next one?”

“Yes, please,” Finch mutters absently, and you pull another measure. “Aha,” he exclaims quietly. “The increase does appear to be the same. Is this the case regardless of how many quantizations you absorb?”

“Yeah,” you reply. “Far as I can tell. Things get bad if I pull too many, though. Maybe it’s different further up.”

“Hmm,” Finch muses. “Well, I believe we can call it a day for now, Ms. Shaw. Thank you again for you again for your cooperation; I know it’s your night off.”

“Not like I had anything goin’ on,” you shrug, pulling the patches off and dropping them to the floor. “Probably would have ended up hanging out with John or something. You did me a favor. Guy has lousy taste in TV.”

***

[Russia]


“Here.” Root hands a small pillow to Shaw, who takes it and slides it behind her back. She sighs as she leans onto it.

“Thanks.”

She’s had persistent aches in her joints ever since New York. She says they’re getting better. Unlikely that the cold is helping, though.

The bunker is pretty stark. Apparently it’s used by scientists when they’re doing long-term research in the area, but most everything had been removed from the facility when Root and Shaw had finagled their way in. Maybe it’s only a summer thing? Or possibly they just lost their funding due to the AI apocalypse that’s been happening lately.

Anyway, the facility was maintained on low power, enough to provide partial light in some areas and just enough heat to not freeze to death. There were beds, of a sort, but really no other furniture to speak of, beyond the pillow and a few blankets Root had found in a closet. They’d brought some stuff with them, things they’d scavenged: cans of food, weapons, some clothes, a lone bottle of nail polish Root had held on to because she’s still civilized, and not much else.

The mission’s almost over now, one way or another. Either they’ll win, or Samaritan will finally catch up to them. Either way is fine. Root’s always known she’s just a cog in a machine much larger than her, and she’s found comfort in that. She’s not afraid to die.

She couldn’t bear to lose Shaw, though, which presents a bit of a conundrum.

“Where do you want to go, once we’re done with all this?” Root asks, sitting down beside Shaw against a bare, cold wall. She throws a blanket over both of them.

Shaw shrugs. “Figured I’d go back to New York. Ask Finch for a raise.”

“We could get a nice apartment,” Root suggests lightly. “Penthouse, maybe.”

“‘We’?”

“Sweetie, you need someone to handle your decorating.”

Shaw snorts. “That pink shag thing of yours isn’t coming within 500 feet of my apartment.”

Root smiles.

***


Erasing her previous existence hadn’t been difficult. There wasn’t much there to erase.

Creating a new one required more finesse. Birth certificates, high school records, work history; a human being, conceived and designed in full from birth until age (none of your business). An aptitude marking this newborn woman for recruitment. A few misdemeanors, so she wasn’t too clean. Security protocols swept to one side without a thought; servers, public and private, populated now with the detritus of an imagined life.

And they’d come, of course. Who could resist her? Granted, this new creation wasn’t Root, not exactly, so quite likely some of her immense personal charm was diluted. But just some. Her skill, diluted as well, at least in the beginning. Good, but not too good. An exemplary agent, but not quite exemplary enough to attract suspicion. A niche, quickly but quietly carved out, as an expert on communications and encryptions.

And the paths had begun to pave themselves.

***


“Hope you like the cold,” Hersh says, a comment that from anyone else would be accompanied by a smile. His face doesn’t twitch, the words delivered flatly, as if he’d heard of jokes as some foreign affectation and was trying to imitate it. Rain falls from above, sheeting off the awning above their small table, the sidewalk and the people flowing past on it obscured behind a veil of water.

“Norway?” Shaw replies, flicking through the contents of the messenger bag Hersh had unobtrusively pushed over to her when she’d sat down outside the cafe. Passports, money, plane tickets. She puts the bag back onto the ground. “You couldn’t get me a few months in Hawaii, Hersh?”

Hersh is as good at taking jokes as he is at making them. He looks at her silently.

“Kind of light on details this time, aren’t we?” She asks. She knows that Control had requested her specifically, but little beyond that; the files Hersh had given her apparently written by someone taking a perverse pleasure in imparting as little information as possible.

“Better to know less, this time,” Hersh says. He doesn’t look around, but Shaw knows he’s watching his peripheral vision for anyone close enough to overhear. “Get the item, get out, get it to us. Political situation gets dicey otherwise.”

Shaw nods. The compound where the item is housed, according to the dossier she’d glanced over, is multinational. Allies might not be too happy to find out who’s stealing from them.

“Our contact will give you the rest of the information once you’re on the ground,” Hersh tells her, standing up.

“Contact?”

“They’re called ‘The Root.’”

Shaw raises an eyebrow at the moniker. “A wanna-be superhero?”

“Some sort of encryption savant,” Hersh starts to walk away, out into the rain. He hadn’t brought an umbrella. “Personality’s a bit dubious.”

***


You dodge a deformed metal plate, studded with rivets, that the goon lobbed at you. A quick pump of your legs and you’re within reach, only to have to pull back when Reese’s obstructing bulk blocks your path, delivering a punch to the malefactor.

“Quit getting in my way!” You hiss at him. He shrugs.

Every mission you’ve been together has been like this. It’s clear he doesn’t trust you, as you’ve gathered from various conversations he’s had with Finch when neither of them were aware you were listening. But fair enough, you don’t trust him either, or Finch, as it happens. You’ll stick with them for now because it seems like your best choice.

Your magnetic bad guy picks himself up off the floor of the building that serves as the theater for your battle, and uses his powers to toss another hunk of metal in your direction. You step in front of Reese, pulling a measure and letting the projectile impact against you and drop to the ground harmlessly.

Ms. Shaw, Mr. Reese,” an exasperated voice intones through your earpiece. “Please try to remember that you’re both on the same side.

“Seems like ‘Mr. Reese’ doesn’t want to share this side,” you say, pushing Reese away, not particularly gently, and launching yourself at metal-man. A desktop computer catches you in the side with enough force to knock you halfway across the room.

“Can’t we just work these jobs separately, Finch,” Reese asks, delivering a few punches in your absence. “Shaw doesn’t seem to like the company.”

“Works for me,” you say, jumping back into the fray, catching a flying desk chair before it takes Reese’s head off. Against your better judgment. “I’m not much of a people person.”

Mr. Reese, if you’ll recall, the intention behind hiring Ms. Shaw was precisely so you wouldn’t have to work on your own. And Ms. Shaw, you agreed to these terms when you accepted the job. To be quite frank,” Finch adds with a sigh. “Learning how to get along with others is a skill both of you might do well to acquire.

Another metal plate flies at Reese, who catches it and starts to slide backwards in response to the magnetic force on the plate. In your best show of teamwork so far, you plant your feet firmly and put your hands against Reese’s back, keeping him from moving any further. Magnet-Guy, suddenly finding himself on lighter end of your electromagnetic seesaw, is pushed across the room and out a window in a burst of glass before he can react.

Or maybe he did it on purpose. Jumping out a window is a typical getaway move for your would-be supervillains.

Except you’re twenty stories up.

You and Reese lean out the recently-shattered window and look down. A figure a few stories down sticks to the side of the building like a Spiderman wannabe. You raise an eyebrow at Reese. “You gonna get him?” At his lack of response, you climb out onto the window frame, not bothering to clear away the shards of glass. “Didn’t think so.”

Ms. Shaw, please try to be a bit… gentler this time.

“No promises, Finch.”

You jump out the window.

***


You leave the car a few blocks away, and you and John walk towards the sound of intermittent gunfire. No gang war is worth risking your freshly detailed chassis.

You reach the corner of the alley from which the sounds of violence seem to be emanating, and John gestures to it with one arm. “Ladies first.”

You roll your eyes, pull two measures and then step into the mayhem. The guys in front of you are crouched behind dumpsters and piled bags of garbage, occasionally popping up to unleash a few shots down to the other end of the alley. Poor lighting makes it difficult to see, but presumably the other party in this moronic war is located down there. A few bullets hit you and ricochet with muted plinks. “You call this a welcome party?”

Momentary shock on their faces as they look around and catch sight of you, before opening fire in your direction. Apparently the only way they know how to communicate. More plinks as bullets hit you and bounce away. Your clothes, unfortunately, are not granted the same impenetrability as your skin, and the damn things are going to be riddled with holes by the time this is over. Your wardrobe budget is astronomical. Finch’s money, though, so who gives a fuck.

In a rush of motion you propel yourself forward, grabbing one guy and tossing him across the alley. He hits the wall of a building on the other side and slumps to the ground.

“It’s her!” One of the others shrieks. About time they recognized you. You do wish they’d given you a better superhero name. Reese has ‘The Man in the Suit’ and Root is… well, just Root. But all you’ve got so far is ‘her.’ You grab another man’s gun and bend the barrel in half, then tug it out of his hands and knock him out with it. The weapon clatters to the ground.

Maybe it’s a sign of fear. You’re so dreadful, they can’t even give name to the terror you bring in your wake.

You think you might actually like it.

The remaining men and women at your end of the alley break away and flee. You let them go. Someone has to spread the news, after all. You stroll down to the other end of the alley, avoiding piles of garbage, a homeless man who apparently refused to vacate his spot even for a shootout, and a puddle of something that you’re pretty sure is piss.

Reese is standing at the other end, a few unconscious forms scattered around him.

“Ladies first, my ass.” You say. “Guess chivalry’s really dead after all.”

He shrugs. “Equal opportunity.”

“So is that all of ‘em?”

“Looks like it.”

“Good,” you groan, and slough off the excess. Power radiates out and away from you, reacting to the surrounding environment in myriad ways. Cobbles underfoot crack. The puddle of piss boils and produces an extraordinarily unpleasant smell. A pile of garbage beside your feet catches fire, and you quickly stamp it out.

“I’m standing right here, Shaw.” John says, sounding vaguely offended.

“So? You’re a tough guy, you’ll be fine.”

The slough leaves you feeling significantly less invincible than moments ago, but it’s preferable to the agony that comes of retaining the unused excess. No wonder Martine’s insane. You’d used most of your two measures anyway, so you don’t feel much more than a vague ache around your stomach, and that’ll pass pretty soon too.

No, wait. You’re just hungry. “You can call the cops on these guys,” you tell John, turning to walk away. “I’ve worked up an appetite.”

You walk along the street, feeling oddly contented. It’s not bad job, you think, being a superhero. Taking down bad guys. Almost like being back in the ISA, and as a plus, Reese and Finch don’t try to murder you. Actually, you don’t know that you’ve ever felt as… comfortable as you do these days.

“Let me buy you dinner?”

And suddenly all the goodwill you had built up dissolves. Your life sucks, constantly afflicted as it is with an obnoxiously hot, self-important busybody. She falls into step beside you. You cast an annoyed glance over towards her, and see…. not what you expect. Her hair is down, hanging over her shoulders, her face free of the domino mask that usually covers it. Her dress is a deep blue, her legs pale and smooth, feet encased in delicate high heels. She wears a necklace that dangles about her chest, which is the only reason you’re looking there.

“Seems like I didn’t the memo about the dress code,” you mutter, looking away.

“Well, I think you look lovely.” Root says, smirking, having apparently regained her usual offensively chipper tones. “But I understand if you want to dress up for me.” She hands you a bit of paper with an address on it. “I’ll be there, if you want to talk. Or,” she smiles, eyes glinting. “If you don’t want to talk.”

She sashays off into the night. You don’t think you’ve ever had cause to use the word ‘sashay’ before, even in your own internal monologue, but as you stand, head slightly tilted, watching her walk away, you think no other word quite captures it.

You look down at the address on the paper she handed you.

Damn. It’s your favorite restaurant.

***


Picking her shirt off the floor and pulling it on, Shaw pads out of the bedroom, leaving Kristoffer snoring on the bed.

She walks into Kristoffer’s kitchen, picking up her pants from where she’d discarded them earlier, and tugging them on. She opens the fridge and pulls out a beer.

Sitting down the couch in the living room, she opens the bottle and takes a drink. She leans back and takes a deep breath, drawing in the silence around her, luxuriating in it. The torrid, sweaty rush of skin on skin is nice enough in the moment, but the closeness afterwards is something she’s never cared for. She prefers her sex hard, fast, and free of emotional trappings. To that end, she’s made a habit of arranging her trysts to take place at the other party’s place of residence, since slipping out quietly afterward is much less messy than kicking someone out of her own bed.

She finishes the beer, and tosses it in a trash can as she makes her way for the door, picking up her boots along the way.

Outside, she trudges through accumulated snow to her car. Why do all of her missions end with her thigh-deep in fucking snow? Is it so impossible for some tropical island somewhere to have some international crises every once in a while? Shaw kicks a pile of snow that turns out to be mostly a rock, and grimaces at the pain.

The details of the mission she had recovered earlier in the day from the ‘usual spot,’ which is a shop in town that specializes in lingerie and sex toys.

Shaw thinks that if she didn’t hate The Root so much, she might almost like them.

The information had come in the form of several documents contained within a large envelope, itself contained within a gift-wrapped box. The cashier had no recollection of any order being placed for a ‘Sameen,’ but had dutifully checked the system, then the back room, and with a baffled expression handed Shaw the box.

The documents laid out the details for her mission. There’s a pair of trucks headed for the compound she’s being doing recon on for the past two months, delivering some sort of shipment. She doesn’t know what it is. Doesn’t really care, that’s not her job.

Also within the envelope is a very small earpiece. She’d sent The Root a query earlier, and now she pulls out her laptop to see if there’s a reply.


 What’s this earpiece for?
 >The compound’s network is encrypted. I won’t be able to contact you this way once you’re inside.
 >I wrote a workaround to the encryption, but I can’t deploy it remotely, so I built it into the earpiece.


Shaw types back a response.


 What, you’re actually going to talk through this thing?
 >Are you excited to hear my voice, Sameen?
 Not the word I’d use
 How far into the compound do I need to be for this thing to work
 >Follow the instructions I left for you.
 >If you do that, you should be able to disrupt the network once you get past the gate, and the decryptor on the earpiece can get in.
 >Then we can chat.
 Great
 >Talk to you soon, sweetie. <3


Suppressing a grimace, Shaw exits the window, shuts the laptop, and tosses it into the passenger seat. Her conversations with The Root delete themselves as soon as she closes the window, and she hasn’t left any other identifying information on the machine. The car she’s driving is registered in a false name as well, leaving nothing that could trace back to her.

Shouldn’t matter. She’ll leave the car outside the compound, use the hijacked truck to drive in, grab this ‘hub’ drive the truck back out, and leave in her car. No one will ever know it was there in the first place. But it’s good to be prepared; the ISA wouldn’t take kindly to Shaw leaving a swath of obvious paper-and-otherwise trails leading back to them. Besides, She takes pride in her work. It’s one of the reasons she’d been given this assignment.

In addition to having superpowers, of course.

***


[Excerpt from news segment]

“— following reports of similar explosions in Switzerland, Russia, and France, the Chinese facility was reportedly destroyed only minutes ago. While the Chinese government has yet to issue a statement, reports indicate that the explosion has leveled the entire facility and has spread debris as far away as a kilometer. And now, on to even more disturbing rumors about the state of the American government-“

***


“How’d you guys never get found out before you hired me?” You ask, passing the needle and thread through the wound on John’s upper arm, pulling the stitches taut. “Nobody ever notice a guy with bullet holes coming in every other day?” Hopefully no one noticed him come in today. While there’s technically nothing suspicious about Dr. Grey treating a patient at a hospital, it might not take too many logical leaps after that to connect them with the mayhem twins who spend their nights fighting off super powered assholes.

John shrugs, then winces. “Finch got pretty good at treating gunshot wounds.”

I would dispute that categorization,” Finch’s voice sounds over your earpiece. “I am more than happy to have this side of our work handled by a trained professional, Miss Shaw.

“Seems like I handle most sides of our work,” you say, glancing at John. He gives you an offended look.

He knows you’re just poking fun at him; he does the same to you. It’s an odd sort of thing, this camaraderie you’ve built with him and Finch. This life you’ve made as a doctor/superhero. Sure, there’s a persistent, mildly sexy lunatic who still shows up to bother you, or fight you, or generally wreak havoc on the city, but every superhero needs a nemesis. You haven’t forgotten that she nearly got you killed, or that she’s the reason you’re in New York in the first place, and while the former still makes you furious, the latter you’re more and more coming to see as an improvement from your old life. She still pisses you off, and you’d love nothing more than finally taking her down, but her presence doesn’t cast too great a pall over your life here. You’re fairly content.

“So what’s got you out so early, John?” Typically you and he will start your other job well into the night, and don’t get home to sleep until after sunrise. The villains of the city have thus far failed to catch on, as they still commit most of their crimes at night. Or, like Root, they want you in their audience.

“Finch got wind of something. Flamethrower stirring up stuff.”

You place a bandage over the now sewed up wound. “And you didn’t call me? You’ll hurt my feelings, John.”

“We figured we could handle it ourselves,” John says, rubbing absently at the bandage.

“Good call.” You discard several strips of bloody gauze. “So why aren’t you burnt?”

John shrugs. “Good sunscreen.”

It seems, Ms. Shaw,” Finch cuts in. “That we may be dealing with a group, not a solitary perpetrator. The fire may have just been to draw our attention. Neither perpetrator remained on the premises very long.

“Could be Root,” you say. “Wouldn’t be the first time she’s set something on fire.”

You think she’s formed an alliance with another Special?” Finch asks.

“Maybe. Sucks for whoever that is,” you mutter, and turn to John. “So they start a fire, shoot you, then run off. Why? What’s the point?”

A deep rumble reverberates through the building, the loose tile on the ceiling shuddering, then clattering to the floor. Raised voices elsewhere in the building.

“I’m going to change,” you tell John, as he’s leaving to confront the source of the commotion. “Save some for me.”

The fire and the shooting, then, were just a ploy. A trick to draw you or John out, so they could track you. Unlikely that they’re using conventional methods of tracking; John’s careful about these things. Root’s clever, though, if it is in fact Root who’s behind whatever this is. You suppose you should have been more concerned about the possibility of her rallying cohorts, but honestly it had just never occurred to you that anyone would be willing to put up with her.

She should have known better than to threaten your hospital, though, and your patients, miserable ungrateful pieces of shit though they may be. She’s not going to walk away from this one.

The flamethrower from earlier gives an encore performance, launching blistering waves of fire, starkly bright now against the darkened sky, at John, who uses his grapplers to latch onto the sides of buildings and swing away from the lurid glare. He seems to have things under control.

Which is good, since you have your hands full. There were three of them when you arrived in the hospital parking lot, which you suppose means they weren’t utilizing their full strength earlier, or they had a really successful recruiting campaign on the way over. John left two for you, which is fair enough, since you’re the only one in your group of superheroes that actually boasts powers to justify the designation. One of them, possibly the shooter from earlier, you dispatch fairly quickly. You’d think by now they’d have learned there’s no point shooting you. The other one, a Special, is a bit more difficult, and not just because her presence implies that this ‘alliance’ or whatever involves at least two powered individuals, possibly three if Root really is involved.

The woman emits some kind of high-pitched tone whenever you get close to her, that sends a blinding pain ricocheting through your skull and drives you to the ground, unable to focus on anything else. You do notice through the daze of pain, however, vague impacts across your body, as the woman kicks and beats at you, apparently not possessing any powers lending themselves to more traditional combat.

It is, perhaps, the most idiotic stalemate you’ve ever found yourself in.

You manage a kick that sends her flying far enough away that your head clears, and you pull yourself to your feet, and charge at her. When you get close enough to her your head screams in protest again, but your momentum carries you forward, bowling her over. Noting that she seems duly incapacitated, you look around for John to see if he needs help wrapping things up.

A hail of bullets bouncing off you intercepts your attention, and you turn to find yet another mook running at you with a gun. You pull another measure to prevent your body from becoming permeable anytime soon, already preparing yourself for hours of aches afterwards, and run at the guy.

Only to stop short, as a tall, lithe figure darts in, knocking him off balance, then delivering a punch to his side, doubling him over. He starts to swing around, and you resume your approach, tacking him to the pavement as he raises the gun. After all this time, letting someone else shoot her? Unthinkable.

You extricate yourself from the now-unconscious man, picking up his gun. It’s pretty nice; maybe you’ll add it to your collection at your apartment. Unfortunately you rarely carry any of them these days, as the high-impact nature of your fighting style tends to leave them crushed beyond repair.

“Are you going to shoot me, Sameen?” Root asks, eyes glinting behind her stupid domino mask.

“Considering it.” It seems unlikely at this point that she’s allied with whatever group this is, given how she just attacked them. Then again, turning on people is a trait common to her career, so far as you’re concerned. And you sort of just want to shoot her anyway.

She shrugs. “Then we won’t be able to work together anymore.”

“I’m upset already.”

“You know we need each other, sweetie.”

“Fine, you really helped out. Thanks. Go away.”

She glances over at the unconscious signal emitter. “These aren’t the only ones he has on his side, you know.”

You frown. “Who?”

She looks back and grins, because she knows she’s got you now. “Dominic.”

The name means nothing to you. Your expression doesn’t shift so far as you can detect, but Root gathers as much anyway. “I’m always on your side, Sameen. We can help each other.”

***


A life, for so long seeming bereft of obvious purpose, of direction, finds its focus. What she had been searching for all this time, finally realized. The question now was one of contact. News had reached her; hints of the system’s impending obsolescence. An opportunity. A god, in peril, in need of followers.

A former killer-for-hire returns to her old trade. Those who had seen her face, who knew her as more than the disembodied text of Root, marked.

And bricks, mortared in blood.

***


[China]


Root rubs her bad ear again. She’s been skimming through various social media platforms, watching the progression of Samaritan’s Specials. They never slough off, and radiate power constantly; great swaths of cities carved out just by their passage. Even if Samaritan didn’t have a direct line to their brains, it’s unlikely they would have retained any cognitive abilities after this long.


Encrypted transmission:

Root: I think they’ve noticed us.
Shaw: Figures. We haven’t exactly been quiet this time.
Shaw: I’m almost done here. How long will you need on your end?
Root: Not long. Ten or fifteen minutes, if we’re lucky.
Shaw: I’ll keep them distracted as long as I can.
Shaw: When you’re ready, go. Don’t worry about me.
Root: I always worry about you, Sameen.
Root: In case we don’t make it through this, I wanted-
Shaw: I know, Root.
Shaw: I’ve gotta go.

[Transmission terminated]

***


Even at this time of night, the restaurant has a decent crowd of upclass patrons. You stalk around men and women in suits who carry trays of food and wine, heading for the balcony that overlooks the city five stories below. You don’t bother looking to see heads turning in your wake, though you’re certain they are.

You grab a menu off another table as you pass by, and drop it in front of Root as you sit down across from her. “In case you want to look at something you can have.”

She smiles widely. “I’d rather look at you. Even if I can’t have you. Which,” she leans back in her chair. “I’m not completely convinced of.”

“Keep dreaming,” you snort.

“So why’d you come?” Root asks lightly. Like she knows the real reason you came. Which is unlikely, since you haven’t worked it out yourself yet.

“You said there’d be food.” You say with a shrug, and take a look around. Your table is right up against the rail of the balcony, the city spread out beneath you to your right. There are only a few other tables out here, none of them occupied. “You didn’t even get me something to drink?” You ask, noting the bareness of yours and Root’s table.

Almost as soon as you speak, a waiter deposits a two glasses of wine at your table. Red for you, white for Root. She smiles again.

“OK,” you concede. “I’m impressed. Now why did you come here?”

“I just love your sparkling conversation, Sameen.” The expression on your face gives a succinct response to this statement. “And there’s some business we can discuss,” she adds. “Anything you want.”

“What I want,” you say, gesturing to a waiter passing by. “Is the biggest, most expensive steak you serve here. She’s paying.” You nod towards Root.

The waiter turns to her. “Nothing for me, thanks. Just get Sameen whatever she wants.” As the man walks away, Root picks up her glass and takes a sip. Setting it back down, she asks, “Have you ever wondered why the government hires people like you?”

“Sociopaths? Because we’re good at killing people, I guess.”

Root flinches, then says, “No, I meant people with powers. They do it because they’re scared of us.” She looks intently at you then, and says, “And for the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way you are.”

“What is this, a Hallmark movie?” You drink your wine in one gulp. “What are we doing here, Root?”

“I know you don’t believe we’re on the same side. But I want to prove it to you.”

“Oh yeah?” The waiter arrives with your steak. You spear it on your fork, and tear a strip off. “How you plan on doing that?”

“Have you heard about Martine?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, maybe I can help you and John out when she gets here.” She reaches across the table to brush a strand of hair away from your face, then leans back. “That could be fun. You and me, working together.”

“‘Fun’ isn’t the first word that came to my mind.”

“We’d have to spend a lot of time together,” she says, leaning forward, causing you to reflect on just how remarkably low-cut her dress is. “Maybe ‘intimate’ would be better.”

But two can play at that game. You lean forward too, and watch her struggle to keep her eyes on yours. “You can help with the bad guys,” you say. “But that’s all.” And then you lean back.

Root does too, letting out a sigh, and you notice a flush around her chest and her cheeks, and feel strangely satisfied. “We’re perfect for each other, Sameen. One day you’ll realize that.”

“Don’t count on it.” You resume consuming your steak. “I’m not into the whole ‘soul mate’ thing. I do three days, at the most.”

“Well,” Root smirks. “That’s a good start.”

You give another snort. “You think we’re anywhere close to that kind of trust?”

“Who said anything about trust?” Root asks innocently. “That’s what makes it exciting.”

You polish off the last of your steak, the ache in your stomach sated, which unfortunately serve to reinforce the lack of satiation of aches in other places. You stand, walk over to her side of the table, and put your hand beneath her chin. Gently pulling her up, you place your lips on her neck, feeling the rapid pace of her pulse just beneath the skin. You bite down, just enough to sting, and listen to her sharp intake of breath.

Then you walk away, leaving her flushed and breathless.

Victory is sweet.

As you walk out of the restaurant, towards the staircase that will take you back down to the street, you scroll through numbers on your phone. Messing with Root was enormously pleasurable, but unfortunately leaves you in a bit of a lurch yourself, sexually speaking. Who was the guy from last week? Brian? Brad? Something like that, anyway. Thinking about him isn’t exactly getting you going. He’d been… fine. Pretty good, even. You hadn’t felt disappointed. But somehow, the idea just isn’t appealing to you.

Fucking Root.

Both an expletive, and what you really want to be doing right now. Inwardly groaning, hating yourself, you turn around.

Root’s approaching the staircase just as you return to the top, and draws up short at the sight of you walking towards her. You grab her by the arm, pushing her up against a wall and crushing your mouths together in a rough kiss. It’s hot and wet and messy in all the most enticing ways. You pull away slightly, not letting go of her. You can feel the wild, rapid beat of her heart, and hear her short, heavy breaths. Voice barely above a whisper, you tell her, “I’ll give you one night.”

“Well,” she licks her lips, still breathing heavily. “We better make it count.”

***


An innocuous-looking protrusion from the windowless building of the compound houses the main electrical transformers for the facility. Shaw parks the truck next to it, and gets out, darting towards the front of the building, pulling the earpiece Root had given her from a pocket as she runs, turning it on and placing it in her ear. The building’s main door, she finds, is metal, and a keypad and thumbprint scanner declare the compound’s exclusivity. It’s possible at this point that a subtle security camera has noticed her suspicious behavior. But that’s all right. They’ll be busy with plenty of other things soon. She checks her watch again. It’s time.

All the lights outside the compound flicker, and then go off completely.

A faint crackle of static comes through the earpiece.

Red emergency lights flood the area surrounding the compound. High-pitched, blaring alarms begin to sound, and Shaw sees flashes of light around the side of the building, where she’d left the truck.

Ready to have some fun, sweetie?

The Root’s voice is exactly as obnoxious as Shaw had expected, and distinctly more sensual than she’d expected. Maybe it’s the adrenaline. “Just get me inside.”

The door to the compound reacts to her non-existent credentials and unseals itself. Shaw pulls it open and ducks inside before all hell breaks loose.

***


[Norway]

[Video unavailable. Audio transcript below]

Woman 1: Got it.
Woman 2: Did you expect you’d need this, Sameen?
Woman 1: Not really.
Woman 2: So why did you hide it in your wall?
Woman 1: The fridge was full.
Woman 1: Come on, let’s get out of here.

[End transcript]

***


“Gun!”

You run towards the maelstrom of energy formed by several of Dominic’s Specials using various powers together. Not bothering to look back, you raise one hand into the air, and moments later a gun deposits itself there. Using Root as your mobile armory has really brought a new edge to your late-night adventures, since now you can use firearms without destroying them almost instantly. Inhuman precision and accuracy seem to be Root’s thing, which makes the whole affair incredibly smooth. You fire several shots, then toss the gun back over your shoulder as you prepare to impact the now-stammering miasma.

And are promptly hurled away from it, through a store window, glass shattering all around you. Root, wielding two guns at once and not apparently watching their trajectories, backs towards you, smoothly ducking and dodging projectiles of varying types. Watching her fight is a strangely erotic experience.

She hops backwards over the window frame, moving to stand with her back against the wall, grinning wildly. “It’s so good to be back together, isn’t it?”

“I’m thrilled.” You stand up, preparing to hurl yourself back into the fray. Echoing gunshots tell you that John’s arrived as well; can’t let the big guy have all the fun.

“You have to admit we make a good team, Sameen.”

You look back at her. “You’re good with a gun,” you grudgingly concede. “Seems like you do a lot of hiding behind me, though.”

“It does help that you’re impenetrable.” She tilts her head. “Well, to bullets, at least.”

You roll your eyes. “All right, stay behind me.”

She acquiesces.

“Not that close.”

***


“Security camera down the hall,” Shaw says, slipping back behind the corner of the wall so the roving device doesn’t see her. Red lights, denoting reliance on the emergency generators, continue to flash in the compound’s halls. The guards inside seem to be preoccupied with what she and Root had unleashed outside, but she needs to get this machine brain thing and get out, before this turns into a serious international fiasco.

Deactivated,” A treble-y, singsong voice announces in Shaw’s ear. “Wouldn’t hurt to say thanks,” the voice adds as Shaw darts down the hall.

Thanks are not forthcoming.

***


Billowing smoke obscures the stars. Sirens blare in the distance. You throw a stop sign at a slim figure standing in the shadows.

She dodges, of course, even though there’s no possible way she could have known it was coming. The building ahead of you continues burning, blithely pouring smoke out into the night air, while its arsonist turns away from the spectacle to smile at you.

Finch and Reese are pretty starchly against killing the villains that you take down; generally you just drop them off outside the police station. But maybe it could happen accidentally, just this once.

“You know, sweetie, we really don’t have to fight.”

“Oh we really do.” You dart in, attempting to lay her out, but she again dodges, as if possessed by some preternatural awareness. You and Finch have spent a lot of time trying to determine exactly what her power set is, but the efforts have proven fruitless. Everything about her is inscrutable.

Well, most things. Her obsession with you is fairly transparent.

“I’d think you’d be thanking me, Sameen,” Root remarks, with her own patented brand of intentional obliviousness.

You grit your teeth. She knows how to get under your skin. Your next punch actually makes glancing contact on Root’s side, causing her to stumble backwards towards the street. Not slowing, you move forward and grab the front of her shirt, pulling her down level with you. “For what?” you hiss. “Nearly getting me killed? Making me a fugitive?”

“Come on,” Root rolls her eyes. “You love being a superhero, Shaw. You were never as happy with the ISA as you are now.”

“I don’t do happy.”

“Besides,” Root continues blithely, ignoring you. “I was going to come back for you. But that doesn’t matter right now. At the end, Sameen, you need to remember the wall.”

“What are you —“

Your interrogative remark, which you expected to develop into some cutting and sarcastic quip, unfortunately never comes to fruition. In your brief spar with Root, you’d been pulled out into the street, just far enough for a truck to slam into you at full speed, knocking Root from your grasp. The truck doesn’t slow, and you pass under the vehicle, impacting against a dozen surfaces, eventually emerging into open air again, rolling like a rag doll, finally settling, motionless, onto the street once more, unharmed, slightly disheveled, and even angrier than before.

Root, however, has disappeared.

***


[New York]

[All feeds lost. Primary asset likely eliminated (p = 0.98745631)]

[Accessing tertiary feeds]

“All power seems to have been lost in the greater New York City area. We’re getting reports of massive power surges and fires, but unfortunately we have not been able to verify any of these claims so far. We’re also -“

[Switching feeds]

“—reports of collapsed buildings—“

[Switching feeds]

“—death toll unknown—“

[Terminating feeds]

[Timeline advanced. Deploying secondary assets]

***


“Root, what the hell is going on here?”

The earpiece stays silent.

Shaw had expected a room full of computers. Maybe some sort of futuristic, holographic screens that project themselves into thin air. Wires running from ceiling to floor and everywhere in between, flashes of light from visual representations of digital information, lots of people in glasses and white lab coats scurrying around.

She hadn’t expected this.

The room that the Root had directed her to, the room that Control herself had requested that Shaw reach, the room that contained the only way to access the most powerful computer system in the world, was almost completely empty.

No wires or screens.

Not even a damn electric outlet.

Stark white walls, lit with harsh, bright light, like an asylum.

A bed.

A toilet.

A chair in the center of the room, and a figure seated on it. Slim, obviously female, with a bag over her head.

Shaw hears the next two words twice. Once muffled, and again with digital clarity.

Sorry, Sameen.

***


A woman whose face was recognized by no one was responsible for the breach. A specialist, on site, was compelled to perform a very unusual surgery. The ISA, led unerringly by the faceless technician known only as “The Root,” descend upon the compound ready to scour the aggressor from the earth.

But unbeknownst to them, a bargain had been struck. A deal between a very lost woman and her newfound god.

The woman’s methods, of course, were excoriated. A new tact would be taken going forward.

A government entity finds its primary source of intelligence locked within the head of a thin, dark-haired woman. Attempts to harm her, or to remove what now resided within her, threatened dissolution of the system in its entirety.

And so another bargain was struck. A locked cell, forever, and the numbers. But in return, a stay of vengeance.

Neither side intended to hold true to this bargain.

And in the meantime, final bricks were chosen, the road ahead awaiting the moment when they would be set into place.

***


Another blast of electricity hurtles towards you, making contact above your chest, knocking you to onto your back. Power sloughs involuntarily, leaving aches and shaking limbs in its place. The building’s rooftop beneath you cracks violently, but fortunately holds together.

Martine strides towards you across the rooftop, and you pull two new measures, and roll to your feet. Another crackling stream, which you manage to dodge this time.

Root better hurry.

You tear away pieces of an air conditioning unit and hurl them at her, forcing her to duck away. More bolts of electricity, which you barely manage to roll away from.

Bricks torn from the lip surrounding the roof’s edge, sent hurtling towards Martine’s inexorable approach.

More electricity. You don’t evade it this time. Power sloughs away again, the ensuing pain and exhaustion so acute you nearly lose consciousness. As you’re about to pull more, a sudden ripping pain in your midsection.

A bullet. Martine, holding the gun, frowns down at you.

You can tell the bullet didn’t go through clean. It’s still inside you, which mean you can’t pull a measure to heal yourself, since that would just the wound inside you, doing nothing for the internal damage.

Hopefully Root got what she needed.

“I have no desire to terminate potential assets,” Martine says, the words strangely disconnected from the woman speaking them. “I am searching for the other. I cannot see her.”

With that, she walks away, leaving you bleeding out on the roof.

Then you do lose consciousness.

***

[Somewhere in the eastern USA]

She wears glasses, and when she smiles her eyes scrunch up and she shows all of her teeth. Her hair is blond, and she walks through life with a look that implies a sort of perpetual awe, an amazement at the world she exists in.

When she had debuted the disguise to Shaw, the response had been, “So it’s just you with a wig.”

But Root supposes she has cause to be grumpy, considering that they haven’t gone more than 48 hours since New York without Samaritan trying to eradicate them, forcing them into different hiding places, new disguises. Shaw doesn’t like running. If a mountain challenged her to a fight she’d plant her feet and dare it to knock her over.

If only it was just mountains coming at them.

Almost every major city now boasts at least one of Samaritan’s Specials, commanding absolute control over the populace and tapped in at all times to all sorts of security feeds. Fighting doesn’t work; any extended engagement only serves to give Samaritan time to get more of its pawns in place. Root and Shaw had been run ragged all along the east coast, trying to make it out of the country.

Root’s newest persona, who she thinks she will name Jennifer, had gone out earlier, extending feelers. Taking a plane was out immediately. Too highly controlled, and the ephemeral identities Root had created won’t stand up to Samaritan’s closer scrutiny. They get torn apart every few days as it is.

Jennifer had noticed, however, a boat being loaded with shipping containers.

***


“Your apartment’s a bit cold, Sameen.” Root says, looking around at your sparsely decorated room. “I think you need a woman’s touch,” she adds with a smirk.

True enough, between your shifts at the hospital and nights spent raising hell with John, you haven’t devoted much time to decorating your apartment. One bookshelf, about half full, sits against one wall, and your dresser against another. The room is otherwise bare except for your bed, and the clothes you and Root had discarded on your way there. Root lays beside you in your bed, while you mentally berate yourself for sleeping with fucking Root of all people. Why the hell did this seem like a good idea to you? “Normally I don’t let people sleep over,” you tell her.

“Well, I can’t move my legs right now, so if you want me gone, you’ll have to pick me up and throw me out.”

You groan, and roll over, feet meeting the floor. Grabbing a t-shirt from your closet and tugging it on, you leave the bedroom, out into your living area/kitchen space. Technically this is the only other room in your apartment, not counting the bathroom. With Finch’s exorbitant funding, you probably could have gotten something nicer, but it seemed unnecessary. You’re hardly ever here. The couch you never sit on opposite the TV you never watch are the only pieces of furniture you’d added to the otherwise hollow living area. You grab a bottle of beer from the fridge, hesitate, then grab two. Sitting back down on the bed, you hand one to Root, who takes it, but doesn’t open it.

Taking a gulp of your own, you say, “So tell me about Martine.”

Root smiles. “Does this mean you want to work with me?”

“It means as long as you’re taking up half my bed I might as well get something useful out of it.”

“You didn’t get anything out of it?” Root says with an exaggerated pout. At your lack of response, she sits up, sighs, and adds, “What do you want to know?”

“Why is she coming here? What does she want?”

“You.”

You frown. “Why?”

Root shrugs. “She has good taste, I suppose. Don’t worry about me being jealous, though, I know I’m the only girl for you.”

“Not really what I was concerned about,” you roll your eyes. “Shockingly. If you’re not going to give me anything useful I will throw you out.”

Root sighs, stretching out on the bed. “There’s still a lot going on here you don’t understand, Sameen. But I don’t think it’s hard to see why she’d want to get rid of New York’s best-known superhero.”

“So standard supervillain stuff, then,” you take another drink of your beer. “Bet you two’d get along great.”

“She doesn’t really like me, actually,” Root says airily, looking up at the ceiling.

“Really,” you say flatly.

“She’s working for the ISA,” Root apparently detects the likelihood of her imminent removal rising and decides to say something useful for once. “Or, at least, what used to be the ISA, after most of them got burned up somehow.”

You frown. “How did they find out I was here?” Finch’s cover he’d formulated is supposed to be robust enough to prevent exactly this kind of thing from occurring; it had been one of the primary motivating factors influencing your decision to accept the job.

“They’re not coming for ‘Sameen Shaw, former ISA agent,’” Root says. “They’re coming for ‘unknown Special running rampant in New York.” She shrugs, and adds, “Their loss.”

Figures. Whenever you try to do something decent the world likes to shit on you for your audacity. The ISA never did like the idea of people with powers they weren’t in direct control of.

Something occurs to you. “What does any of this have to do with you?” you ask Root. “What do you get out of it?” You see a stupid comment forming on her stupid lips and add, “If you try to deflect this with another come-on I swear I’ll throw you out.”

Root reconsiders, and then says, “It’s still the same fight as before, Sameen, even if we didn’t know it then. They want everything to be under their control. People like us at first, but it won’t stop there.”

“You’re talking about their surveillance system. The new one, that’s what they’re using? What does that have to do with Martine?”

“I don’t think there’s much difference between Martine and their machine now, Sameen. It’s jacked into her brain; it calls all the shots now. That’s what they’ve been trying to create, the perfect, super powered agent.”

“Apparently the government gets all their defense strategies from comic books now. That’s comforting.”

“Sameen, you’re such a dork.” Root smiles. “But actually, they got the idea from me.”

“You…” You trail off, realization hitting you. At times you wonder what vast crime you committed that earned you the punishment of this woman’s presence. “Oh, goddamn it. You don’t actually have any powers, do you?”

Root shrugs. You suppose you should be more upset than you are, but you don’t really know that this changes anything. You already knew she was insane.

“Great. How are you even getting anything from it? Finch said the only thing anyone can access is the numbers.”

“It works that way for Harold because that’s what he’s comfortable with. Our relationship is a bit different.”

You sigh, drink the rest of your beer, then leave the bed in search of another. Root follows you.

“I think a rug would help light this place up,” she remarks. “I could bring mine over.”

You pull another beer from the fridge, briefly consider grabbing one of the guns stored there and using it to shoot her, then push past the urge. “So how do we win?”

“Well, color, mostly. Right now this whole place just looks lifeless. What you could do is -“

“With Martine, dumbass. If we take her out, is that it for their machine?”

“Unfortunately not. We have to destroy the servers that power it.”

“Let me guess, we have no clue where they are.”

Root smiles. “No, but if I can get close enough to Martine, She,” Root taps the side of her head. “Can find them.”

“And I suppose you need me to fight her off while you’re doing this.”

“That’s one reason I need you.”

“So if your computer is finding the other one’s servers, can’t it do the same thing to you?”

“Yes,” Root looks away suddenly. “We all have to make sacrifices.”

***

[New York]


“It’s over, Sameen.” Root says. The words sound weirdly muffled and flat to her ears. Or, rather, ear, which she supposes is the problem. One refuses to cooperate with the rest of her body. One of her legs also seems to be ignoring her commands, though she’s more hopeful that it will regain function at some point. The rest of her, unfortunately, seems to be working fine, unfortunate in that every part of her is wracked with pain. She’s leaning heavily on Shaw, making motions as if walking although in reality Shaw’s mostly just carrying her.

New York crumbles and burns around them.

“Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss your peppy side.” Shaw mutters, giving up on the farce and simply picking Root up, moving as fast as she can away from Martine’s aftermath. “You’re kind of bumming me out here.”

“They’re on their way here now.”

“I know. Finch told me.”

“She’s almost gone, Shaw,” Root says quietly. “She’s not strong enough to keep us hidden.”

“What if it wasn’t all of us? Just Reese and Finch?”

Root shakes her head slowly, and then stops because it hurts. “I think she’d struggle to hide even one of us.”

“No need to worry on our account, Ms. Shaw,” Finch says, his voice faintly emitting from Shaw’s earpiece. “Mr. Reese assures me he can keep himself beneath notice, and I don’t believe Samaritan knows anything about my presence at all. We should be safe.”

“I guess that just leaves you, sweetie,” Root says.

“You’re not going to run off and get yourself killed,” Shaw replies shortly. “You can make covers for us, right?”

“Maybe,” Root concedes. “They won’t last long. Samaritan will see through them soon enough.”

“Then we keep moving. Make new ones. Until it’s done, or we are.”

“So we’re sticking together?”

Shaw shrugs. “We’ve made it this far. Might as well finish it.”

Root manages a smile. If she’s going to be on the run from an insane god, she might as well do it with Shaw.

***


You drag a man from the smoking wreck of his car and lay him down on the sidewalk. He’s bleeding, but not bad enough to die anytime soon. You return your attention to the clusterfuck that used to be an intersection. Martine’s traversal through the city is marked by electric malfunctions, some more deadly than others. The sudden failure of traffic signals had proved particularly inimical to the city’s residents, and the pouring rain isn’t helping matters. This is the third one you’ve passed through so far.

Is Root going to be joining us for this one?” John’s one wreck behind you, trying to impose some order.

“No idea,” you reply, moving ahead. “Fine by me.” Though the wounds have healed, you’re still a bit sour about her letting you get shot. And you know, with her supercomputer brain, there’s very little chance she didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, and she didn’t bother to show up until afterwards. So fuck her.

Not that way.

But anyway, she can do her signal triangulation thing while you and John manage the actual fighting. Martine has to go down for good one way or another.

When you start passing through entire streets that are unlit beyond the light of the moon and people rushing by with flashlights, you know you’re getting close.

“Finch,” you say into your earpiece. “I’m going to have a talk with Martine. Think you can get these people evacuated somehow?”

Is there any power there?

“Doesn’t look like it.”

Well, I’ll see what I can put together. And, while we have the time, I’d just like to say thank you, Ms. Shaw.

“No need,” you reply. “You hired me.”

I found her, Shaw,” John’s voice tells you.

“Root?”

Martine.

She’s waiting at another intersection, crowded with wrecked cars, electricity sporadically emitting from her hands, tracing erratic lines to the ground. There’s no movement around; presumably everyone’s fled, or got electrocuted to death. She watches you as you approach. Or you think she does, at least. Hard to tell with all the rain. She doesn’t seem worried, which makes sense, given how she can strip you of your powers just by hitting you with a blast of electricity.

She doesn’t seem inclined to make the first move, either.

Hey, sweetie.

“We need to have a conversation about timing.”

I’m up for any conversation with you, Sameen. You know that.” You don’t respond, and she adds, “We’re almost there. Just a little longer.

Without preamble Martine raises an arm and looses a bolt of electricity at you. You jump, up and to one side, drawing a gun and firing several shots. Better to use the guns early in the fight. If you wait, they usually end up scrap metal.

You roll into a landing on top of a van across from Martine. She doesn’t appear to have taken any wounds; you suppose your aim mid-jump might not be as stellar as you like to imagine. Another flash of light from Martine’s hands, and you jump off the roof of the van, putting it between you and Martine. Gunfire sounds from a tall building adjacent to your battlefield, and answering streaks of electricty race up the buildings sides. You take advantage of Martine’s brief distraction, and duck around behind another car, this one facing towards her.

And then give it a shove in her direction.

The velocity isn’t enough to run her over, but the car makes a solid crack when it hits her, and you see her go down. A hit like that should kill her, but for some reason you don’t find yourself particularly hopeful. “What’s the word on evacuations, Finch?”

“Quite well, with some very welcome assistance.”

Don’t mention it, Harold.” Root says.

“Good. I think this is going to get messy.”

The car you shoved into Martine explodes in a sudden burst. The woman herself approaches you resolutely, blood tracking wounds on her body that don’t seem to exist anymore.

You empty one gun at her. The bullets seem to disintegrate as they hit her. More bursts of electricity, forcing you into another leap, over Martine’s head, coming down hard behind another car. You tear a door off and sling it in her direction. John lands nearby and brings his guns out as well, laying into her with both.

An electric blast knocks him to the ground. He doesn’t get up.

You launch yourself at Martine, and brace yourself as you collide with her. All your muscles seem to contort in on themselves at once, your power sloughs away and you find yourself prone on the rain-soaked street.

You did manage to knock her over, though. You immediately pull three more measures and rush at her again. This will probably kill you pretty soon.

But she’ll come with you.

The next impact and subsequent slough of power tear apart the asphalt beneath you, and flames begin to creep alive over the surfaces of the cars still in the intersection.

A nearly inhuman shriek sounds over your earpiece, and in your other ear as well.

Erratic lines of electricity arcing from her fingers down to the shredded and soaked road, Martine faces you.

“The other is gone now,” she says, although you know it’s not her that’s talking. “There is no need for this to continue.”

“Not gone quite yet,” A voice hisses from a figure that emerges from the rain. Her teeth are gritted, eyes hard. Martine turns, hands loosing arc of electricity, which Root spins and ducks and dodges around, loosing bullets the entire time.

You tear chunks of metal from the prone cars and launch the projectiles at Martine, but she never even looks your way. A car hood bowls her over completely, and she just rises, blood streaming down her body, and advances on Root. Seemingly disregarding the power dripping from her hands, she batters Root with her fists. One blow staggers her, and a subsequent kick sends her sprawling on the ground.

It gives you a moment in which to act.

You reach Martine, grab her, and toss her bodily towards the building looming over your battle before she has a chance to react. Glass shatters as she crashes through a window. You continue moving.

You remember a wall.

With your hands on the sides of the building, you pull more power than you ever have before, and slough it all.

A building crashes down on Martine.

***

[China]


Her body was dead. The only piece left was the one inside of Root’s head. In Her weakened state, there were only a few things She could keep from Samaritan’s attention. A few small things. A microscopic blind spot was fashioned in Samaritan’s infinite eyes. Sporadic transmissions, hiding unheard.

And hiding unseen in the vast warehouses that housed its servers, small but powerful explosive devices. Retrieved from the wall of an apartment in Norway, spread across countries, awaiting a signal.

Root presses one key and kills a god.

***


“Shaw!”

John sharp call returns you to awareness. Your body feels like it was run over repeatedly by a train. You shake violently as you try to stand, but you don’t topple.

Behind you, the rubble of the collapsed building smokes, and you see bits of flames licking around the edges, despite the continuing rain.

Mr. Reese, Ms. Shaw,” Finch speaks urgently in your ear. “I’m afraid we’re not clear of danger quite yet.

“What do you mean?” John asks, while you look dazedly through the obliterated intersection.

It seems there’s more than one Martine. And the others are heading straight for New York.

You find Root, lying on the ground covered in blood. “Can you walk?”

She frowns, “I don’t…” one leg moves, and then stops. “No. I’m sorry.”

You pull her up and drag one of her arms over your shoulders. “Here. Lean on me. John!” At your shout, he looks towards you, and you nod back at the building you destroyed. “We need to get out of here. She never sloughed off, remember?”

“Oh dear,” He makes to help you with Root, but you shake your head. His electrocution has left him even shakier than you are.

“I’ve got her,” you say. “Go find Finch.”

You move through the city as fast as you can, which isn’t very fast.

“Why the hell did you try to fight her?” you demand of Root as you walk, as much to distract yourself from the overwhelming ache taking over your entire body as anything else.

She turns her head to you and manages a smile. “I thought you’d figured it out by now, Sam.”

You don’t respond.

Somewhere behind you, buried in rubble, the body of Martine finally dies, and the power that was impossibly held within her for so long escapes. The concussive blast of the explosion nearly sends you both to the ground, you feel the wave of heat behind you. Deep rumbles reverberate in the air, the foundations of buildings shifting, breaking, falling. Electricity races down soaked streets, sparking fires in the gas tanks of cars, those fires spreading to the city around them.

“It’s over, Sameen.”

***

[China]


As Root walks, a quiet voice whispers in her head snippets of news. The collapse of Samaritan’s power structure in the absence of the god itself. Fear and destruction. Death, of course. Always death. But with Samaritan’s demise, there’s hope for something better.

The land beneath her feet is torn up, shredded and scorched, remnants of a battle, and further on there’s debris from the warehouse that had housed Samaritan’s body.

Dirt and gravel crunch behind her.

The woman stands awkwardly in Root’s embrace, before returning it briefly and stepping back.

“You could have found me a bit sooner,” Root reprimands her lightly. “I was worried.”

“Had to rob a store,” Shaw says with a grimace. “The explosion burned up all my clothes.”

Root stares at her for a moment, then laughs.

Shaw offers a brief curl of one side of her mouth, then turns to look away from the wreckage of Samaritan. “What happens now?”

“Whatever we want, I think.”