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Symbolic Constant

Chapter Text

During the day the rain was warm and heavy, falling from immense gray clouds that crowded the sky until there wasn't a trace of blue. At night it was worse: rain turned to shards of hail, sharp enough to slice skin. The city was protected – some even said it was the reason – but beyond that, you were on your own.

Irrelevant, the old man had said, and laughed until he’d choked.

Rory was bundled three layers deep in leather and denim, a thick canvas hood pulled low over her face, a scarf pulled high, and with uncomfortable goggles protecting her eyes. Her mothers worried. Otherwise, she gave the hail no mind. It was just another thing to tune out, like crying babies, like hunger, like the rumble of old generators and the hiss of static.

She crouched in the alley across the street from the darkened warehouse and tried to see any signs of movement. Nothing, at first, and then a weak, bobbing light that appeared in window after window. Her breath caught: this was real. This was happening.

The electronic signature of the flashlight was well below the alert parameters of the drones, but they were up there. Somewhere. She couldn’t see them and definitely wasn’t going to risk looking, but she could hear the whine as they swept back and forth along their routes.

Terror and excitement fluttered in her chest, with pride wedged awkwardly between the two. Her breath came in short pants, but her hands were barely shaking. Evie and Ry couldn’t tease her now. They’d be so –

“Move.” The instruction was distorted with static, but still audible. “Now.”

She hesitated before she scurried out into the open, but only for a moment.

Only ever for a moment.

- o - o - o -

The perimeter search had taken Shaw some fifty feet to the north, Harold estimated. He could just, just make out the faint glow of her flashlight, and very little else. It was practically pitch-black where he and Reese waited, with their backs to the wall and the dubious cover of a few broken up crates in front of them.

Well, with Harold’s back to the wall, at least. Reese’s back was to Harold as he stood guard with their only gun. He held it braced with both hands, the barrel level and almost completely still.

Harold studied the cell phone he’d found in his pocket after they’d - awoken, he supposed, although the flood of sudden awareness had seemed more artificial. It was their single source of illumination without the flashlight, and his single source of immense irritation. “I still can’t connect to a network.” His voice sounded scratchy and unused, even at a whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Or, more accurately, I can’t find one. We must be in a dead zone.”

Reese gave a soft hum of acknowledgement, but didn’t reply. Without sight, he had to rely on sound. Of course. Harold resolved not to speak again until Shaw gave the all clear.

His attention returned to the phone’s display. It was an older model HTC and not one of his own, although his applications – even the more specialized ones - had been duplicated in their entirety.

The battery was almost full, but the hours and minutes of the clock held at zeros. Only the seconds ticked over, counted their way to the new day, again and again. The RTC circuit was obviously broken, which shouldn’t have disturbed him in the least, except that he couldn’t help the utterly irrational feeling that, if the clock would just tick past midnight, everything would begin to make sense.

Shaw’s exclamation was almost inaudible over the rain hammering against the metal roof; she sounded more bemused than concerned. Harold stayed where he was, but didn’t miss the way that Reese’s shoulders relaxed and the barrel of the gun dipped.

The all clear, then – or close enough to make no difference. Harold cleared his throat again and pitched his voice to carry this time. “Have you found the door, Ms. Shaw?”

No reply.

He fidgeted for the count of five and then tried again. “Ms. Shaw?

“Give her a moment,” Reese murmured, without any particular concern.

Shaw had been equally as composed when she’d walked away, even though the tiny beam of her pocket flashlight had barely given any kind of shape to the darkness. She’d been very nearly silent then, but her footsteps were carelessly loud as she returned, with the thin light sweeping here and there.

Abruptly, Reese stood down and moved to the side. Finch let out a breath and stepped away from the wall, tucking the useless cell into his pocket as Shaw joined them.

“I found the door,” she said, angling the flashlight up to give the most illumination and casting them in planes of light and dark.

“And then went through it?” Reese raised an eyebrow in polite enquiry, nothing more – probably because he would have done exactly the same.

“Couldn’t see a damn thing. There’s no light out there and we got a hailstorm.” She turned her cheek to the light. A tiny scratch under her eye glinted black where a bead of blood had welled and gone no further. “We’re going to need cover. And there’s this … whining sound.” Her gaze slid away, the only hint of unease. “You boys remember anything yet? ‘Cause I got nothing.”

Reese shook his head. “Nothing since this morning. If it was this morning,” he added, which Harold felt he could have done without.

“I’m afraid not,” he said for his own part, and then frowned. “I do hope Bear is all right.” He was still watching Shaw. There was something in her expression; he tried to gain some measure of – ah. “What else did you find?”

“Single story warehouse, like we figured - maybe five thousand square feet. No internal division. One external door on the north wall; the lock looks like it was broken recently.

“The crates are empty - most of them have been smashed, but it was a long time ago. I don’t think anyone’s been in here for years. Decades, maybe.” Her mouth twisted, as if the words tasted unpleasant. “Except for the … containers.”

Intrigued, Harold tilted his head. “What sort of containers?”

“Pods.” Shaw looked back almost defiantly. “And I know how this sounds, okay? But it was like in the movie. The one where the computer went crazy and killed everyone, providing important moral and societal warnings for us all?”

While Reese indulged (and, Harold hoped, had quietly come to enjoy) the occasional forays into the world of classic cinema, Shaw had accompanied them exactly once. In hindsight, his film choice had probably been ill considered.

“Two-thousand One?” he asked, with some trepidation.

“Uh huh. There are four pods, right in the middle of the warehouse. They’re open and there’s no dust inside.”

Reese reached for the flashlight and Shaw allowed him to take it without comment; that should have been Harold’s first warning. As it was, when the beam held on the patch of floor that led to the center of the warehouse, it took him a long moment to parse what he was seeing.

The light flickered, leaving the imprint of the floor across his vision. Of the drag marks in the dust.

“Oh.” He brushed at his sleeve.

“So it’s time to go, right?” Shaw said.

Reese didn’t move, except to hand the flashlight back. “Go where? This is the only defensible position we know about, and we have no idea who’s out there. We need more information.”

“Which we’ll get on the way.” Shaw’s tone was eminently reasonable, which often meant she was about to do something at least marginally horrifying, but on this occasion Harold had to admit he couldn’t see an alternative. That didn’t mean that Reese didn’t have an excellent point.

“Please see what you can find outside, Mr. Reese,” he temporized. “Ms. Shaw and I will investigate the containers.”

Reese gave Shaw a long look – a moment of silent communication that Harold was not invited to join. Nonetheless, he believed he caught the gist. “We’ll be fine,” he interjected. “If we were in the pods – and that’s certainly not a forgone conclusion – whoever removed us is unlikely to go to the trouble just to kill us now. I hope.”

“You keep thinking that, Finch.” Reese turned, heading for the exit. “The groundless optimism’s why we work here.”

- o - o - o -


“I can see the door,” Rory pressed. “I can make it.”

She was well hidden by the husk of an old car, abandoned so long ago the rust had eaten away almost all of the paint, but that didn’t stop the itch between her shoulder blades every time a drone passed overhead.


Fine.” She ducked her head, scowling.

“You know your face will freeze that way,” the voice in her ear teased. “Move. Now. Quickly.”

Almost doubled over, she ran as fast as she could for the warehouse door, eyes trained on ground that was treacherous with rusted metal and chunks of brick and concrete. She jumped and swerved without losing much speed - it wasn’t so different to running along the beams at home, or diving away from the occasional falling brick.

She didn’t stop until she hit the metal siding; the breath rushed from her with as much relief as the force of impact. Sure, the metal groaned, but she didn't think anyone would hear it above the sound of the hail. One hand extended along the siding, she felt her way step by step towards the door.

Her gloved fingers fumbled against the frame, reached for the handle and found empty space.

A man’s voice came from somewhere inside the spilling shadows of the warehouse. “You’re good,” it said. “I almost didn’t hear you coming. Finish wasn’t great, though.”

She clamped her hands over her mouth; the drones were on a passive patrol, but a shriek would definitely bring them down.

“Give him an ear bud,” said the voice. “You’ll be just fine, Rory. I promise.”

Rory swallowed. “Please don’t shoot me,” she squeaked, despite her best efforts to sound like anything except a scared kid. “She wants me to give you something. It’s in my pocket.“

“He’s not going to shoot you,” said the voice, half a beat ahead of the man promising the same. He took half a step forward and the outline of a shape resolved into a tall figure in a rumpled suit and long coat.

Reese. This was Reese. Her mothers, depending which she asked, had described him as kind, but dangerous. Dull, but obedient. The old man called him a pain in the ass, but he said that about everyone.

She added ‘wary’ as his gaze darted behind her, then up above.

Tentatively, she held an ear bud out to him; his fingers brushed hesitantly against hers when he reached for it, as if he was searching by touch, not sight.

He couldn’t see as well as she could in the dark, she realized. Just like the ones who escaped the cities. “H-here,” she stuttered and caught his fingers with hers, dropped the bud in his palm. His smile of thanks was wry, barely more than a tick at the corner of his mouth, but it seemed … real.

She added ‘human’ and smiled in return, even if he couldn’t see it.

“It’s me, John,” the voice said over the shared channel.

Reese drew a sharp breath and straightened into sharp lines of rage; his eyes glinted with it and they were looking straight at her.

She added ‘terrifying’ and stumbled back, out from under the overhang of the warehouse roof and fully exposed to the drones above.

“Rory!” the voice cried. “Johnplease!

Fingers dug into her shoulders yanked her back under cover. Reese hissed as the hail tore into his bare skin.

“I’m sorry.” She stared at his bloodied hands and then jerked her head up. It should have been Evie, Evie would have done everything right and she was doing everything wrong. “I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay – Rory? It’s okay.” Reese relaxed his grip, but didn’t let go as he crouched to bring their heights closer in line. She guessed his eyes were adjusting, because he caught her gaze when he looked up at her, then tried an encouraging smile. “Can you tell me what’s out there, Rory?”

The voice interrupted before she could scrabble together any kind of answer. “Samaritan. It knows you’re there. Find Harold and Shaw and get out. Rory knows where to go.”

“Even Decima isn’t this sick. Who are you?” Rory could still hear the snap of anger his voice as he stood, but he was gentle when he tugged on her arm and steered her into the warehouse. She half ran to keep up with the pace of his stride, skidding here and there on the dust.

“Remember how we met? I asked you for your name and you said ‘the only time you needed a name now is when you’re in trouble.’ But I know what you’re thinking: that’s on a server somewhere, right? You think that kiss is? I hope not. I’m an old-fashioned girl – I like a little privacy.”

Reese was silent for so long that Rory glanced up, afraid of what she would see. Pain and hope battled over his expression, but both were losing ground to an empty, unforgiving coldness.

“It’s me, John,” the voice whispered. “It’s me.”

It was ignored.

- o - o - o -

While Finch bent over the chrome pods, Sam stood back and kept watch. Her ribs ached. They ached like her knee still ached sometimes: in a way that pushed right on into pain. Gunshot wounds would do that to you, but she’d never been shot in the chest – not that she remembered anyway.

Yesterday she would have been sure. Today…

Had to be something to do with the containers. Pods. Whatever.

Finch was holding himself stiffly as he poked cautiously at the dusty buttons. There was no power; it was all just so much metal and plastic, waiting for scrap. He pushed hard against the front panel, then tugged. The cover fell away, exposing a thick nest of twisting wires and circuit boards.

She peered over his shoulder. “Look familiar?”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.” He reached into the guts and pulled out a handful of cables. Squinting at the connectors, he shook his head. “I need my tools. We should get back to the library.”

She took the board he handed her and stuffed it inside her jacket. “How long you think we were in them?”

“We still don’t know we were.” Finch looked up and then climbed awkwardly to his feet. “But it’s probable,” he admitted, and then bent again to carefully pull something from the cushioned interior with the tips of his fingers. A hair. Too long to be one of hers.

“At least a day, if this stiffness is indicative of anything.”

Sam nodded, that sounded about right. “No more than thirty-six hours, or we’d be a lot more dehy-” Two pairs of feet, coming in fast. Running. She spun, reaching for a gun she didn’t have and cursing under her breath.

“It’s me,” Reese said as he appeared around the side of the crates. “And … an interested third party. Or two. This is Rory.”

She narrowed her eyes and made out the shape of the second figure, so small it was almost hidden behind Reese. She, or he, was bundled in layers of clothing, only the eyes were visible: wide and darting from side to side. Familiar eyes. Sam glanced at Finch.

“She sent me to get you,” said Rory, voice young and high, though there was a rasp at the edges. From illness or maybe because she – Sam was sure it was a girl now – was trying to breathe through half her wardrobe.

Finch cocked his head. “She sent you?”

“Someone who wants us to think they’re Carter,” Reese supplied, when Rory didn’t reply.

“Why on Earth would someone try and make us believe they were Detective Carter?” Finch blinked in incomprehension, looking from Reese to Rory and then back again.

“I’m guessing Rory knows.” Sam stepped forward, a smile playing at the edges of her mouth. Finch wanted her to make more of an effort to appear friendly. She could do that. Rory took a step back anyway; kids were always so much more observant.

Reese’s hand dropped on her shoulder, she shook it off as Finch stepped in front of them both. “My name is Harold. Harold-“

“Finch,” Rory said. “I know who you are. Everyone … we know. But we have to…” Rory waved in the direction of the door. “It’s coming.

Finch glanced back, apparently looking for opinions. Shaw shrugged; Reese said nothing. He nodded and turned back. “Then we should leave."

“Wait.” Sam nodded at the pods. “There are four.”

“She says there always are.” Rory whispered, not meeting her eyes.

- o - o - o -

The old man had told her – told all the kids – stories about them. Every night he’d sit in the rickety old chair next to the main generator as the children gathered around, then pretend he was too busy. Too tired. That he didn’t remember. He’d tease until they were giggling and red in the face before he’d relent and agree to tell just one story. Then usually told three.

The stories weren’t true, Ry said when they turned ten. The old man was making it all up and, anyway, Rory and Evie were babies for believing any of it. And, anyway, there was no way the old man really knew about them, because he wasn’t that old. Not like Rory’s mothers.

Evie had agreed with Ry, because she usually did unless she was bored and wanted to pick a fight. Rory hadn’t said a word. The next day Evie had gone to train with the hunters and Ry with the technicians, and she had been left behind. No matter how much she’d pleaded or sulked or reasoned, her mothers wouldn't let her go. She’d stopped listening to the old man’s stories for months after that.

Then, a week ago, her mothers had told her she had a special task and there had been no need for stories at all.

The whine of the drones was much louder as they came lower, even over the sound of hail on the protective piece of siding that Reese and Shaw had stripped from inside the warehouse. Worse, she was the only one her mother was talking to. The buds weren’t safe to use when the drones switched to an active scan, but her implant would never be detected. Her mothers had promised.


She stopped instantly and felt a bump against her back as Shaw, behind her, wasn’t quite so quick. There was another, even lighter push as, behind Shaw, Finch stumbled. She heard his muttered thanks and guessed that Reese, at the back, had righted him.

It was a very different thing, Rory thought, to hear the old man’s accounts of thrilling rescues and escapes, than to have the characters come to life as they made their way in long pauses and short bursts across the ground of the parking lot. Not disappointing, exactly, but not at all like she'd imagined either.

“So. Rory.” Shaw was silent for long enough that Rory wondered if that was it, then. “The name Root mean anything to you?”

Rory gnawed at the inside of her cheek; her mothers had been very clear about this. “No,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could. “Is she your friend?”

Shaw knew she was lying. Even without looking she just knew Shaw knew she was lying. And Shaw said nothing at all for so long that the cold shiver running up Rory's spine had nothing to do with the drones.

“Just curious.” Shaw said at last, tone just as indifferent as before.

“Uhm. Okay. I think we –”

The hiss in her ear changed its timbre from the background whisper of her mother to a low, jagged squeal. “M-Ssss-ta-a-ay.”

Her chest tightened and her breath stuttered; she’d only heard that sound once before. When she was very young and her mothers were teaching her … something. She’d screamed and screamed and screamed until her throat was raw. The old man had lifted her in his arms, she dimly remembered, cursing her mothers and rocking her until ... she didn’t remember any more.

Now there was no one to hold her, no one who would make it stop. She wanted to claw it out of her skull, but it went on and on and –

“Rory!” There were hands each side of her head; she blinked away tears and saw Finch’s anxious expression. The drones were so low she could hear the beeping as communications came to life.

“It found us,” she whispered. “It’s listening. The drones are active.”

"I see. Well, I think we can do something about that." Finch patted the sides of his coat and then pulled a thin, palm-sized piece of plastic from his pocket. Rory stared, terror briefly overcome by curiosity. A cell phone. The old man had described them, but she’d never actually seen one.

His head bent over the cell as his fingers danced over the screen. “As the Central Intelligence Agency has discovered, to its chagrin, drones require frequent, minute adjustments in navigation. Navigation, of course, requires communication. Communication requires a network and networks…”

“Can be hacked,” Reese finished for him. “Can you bring them down?”

“A burner isn’t the ideal platform from which to hack military-grade encryption, Mr. Reese. However, I believe I can give the drones’ GPS a bit of a... nudge. And, more importantly, jam the signal Rory’s receiving. At least temporarily.” He frowned in concentration, tapped again and Rory gasped as the intermittently roaring static stopped, leaving only the comforting background hiss.

Above them, she could hear the whine of the drones fading away as well, returning to their positions high up in the sky.

“Move,” her mother said.


The last push across the lot took them to a tall, rusted chain-link fence surrounding what seemed to be wasteland. The cracked paths beyond the fence cut through in patterns that suggested it might once have been a park. Any trees that might have grown there were long gone, but here and there were patches of moss that could almost be mistaken for grass.

Life, still somehow clinging on.

There was probably, Harold decided, no longer a great deal of point in fantasizing they’d somehow been transported far from New York. Not when he could see the corroded remains of a sign with some letters still legible. B-R--TT- PA-K. Barretto Park. They were in Hunts Point.

Which meant that the main bulk of the Bronx, which they certainly should have been able to see, was dark. That New York was dark. And, he suspected, had been dark for a long, long time. He raised his head to see both Reese and Shaw staring that the same sign, expressions unreadable.

Rory found a hole in the fence and, with some contortions and a few bruises, they managed to make it through with minimal exposure to the hail. It softened to heavy rain when they were only a few feet into the park. Abandoning the metal sheet was certainly a relief, but Harold found that short-lived as the mud underfoot deepened, sucking at every step.

There was barely a moment to catch his breath before they were running again. Staggering, more-like. Rather than the stiffness easing as they moved, the activity seemed to be exacerbating it. At his side, Shaw stumbled and then stopped. She bent over, holding her knee. “This is familiar,” she muttered, sounding more angry than pained.

“Try not to get shot this time,” Reese said, and held out an arm. A few feet later, with white-hot lines of pain shooting from first vertebrae to last, Harold found himself forced to accept the support of Reese’s other shoulder.

“I wasn’t trying to get shot the first time,” Shaw huffed as they started moving again. “Besides. Now I have a shield. It’s a little difficult to keep a hold of, and it lies a lot, but I think it should be good to catch a bullet or two.”

Rory glanced back at them fearfully and Harold frowned. “Ms. Shaw.”

“She knows what’s happening. And I know she knows who Root is. She was speaking to a dead woman. Exactly how much further were you planning to follow her before asking some questions?”

It was true that, if he weren’t concentrating quite so hard on putting one foot in front of the other, or so cold and soaked through that both states had ceased to have meaning, he probably would have taken more time to gather some information. Only Reese seemed to be taking their circumstances mostly in stride. But, then, extreme levels of compartmentalization were something of a specialty for the man.

While Harold was still trying to find the breath to answer, Reese replied instead. “Rory says she’s here to help us,” he said mildly. “We’re not dead yet, so maybe we hear her out?”

Shaw raised her voice. “Or maybe we throw her to the drones and see what happens.”

Rory lowered her head and redoubled her speed, probably hoping to lead them wherever they were bound before Shaw’s restraint reached an end. Unfortunately, even with Reese’s support – which had to be at its limit – Harold was at the very depths of his reserves.

He raised his voice and hoped it would carry. “Rory! We aren’t going to hurt you. We’re simply finding the situation somewhat confusing. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

The girl slowed and then stopped, allowing them to catch up. “Sameen means precious,” she blurted out when they were within hearing distance. “Invaluable,” she added, when Shaw flinched. “She says she knows you prefer ‘costly.’ She says-”

“The best things are,” Shaw finished for her. “That’s not Carter. That’s Root. Root is with you?”

Rory said nothing.

Shaw’s mouth tightened, her jaw flexed and she shook her head. “Fine. Go. Wait. No. Come here.”

She beckoned Rory towards her; the girl edged closer.

“I’m … sorry. Or whatever. I wouldn’t really throw you to the drones." She looked away, then back. "So we good?”

Rory nodded inside her hood.

“Then you want to help me out here?”

Somehow – and Harold had absolutely no idea how – that seemed to be enough. Rory relaxed and, when she had braced herself, Shaw transferred her weight from Reese.

Rory walked so solicitously at Shaw’s side that Harold suspected she’d played the part of crutch before.

As the two drew ahead, Shaw said something and Harold would have sworn he heard Rory giggle in return.

Reese huffed under his breath. Only familiarity led Harold to interpret the sound as amusement. He tilted his head askance.

“Ever been to Kansas, Finch?”

As non-sequiturs went, it wasn’t hard to follow. “Not in quite some time, and we don’t appear to be there now.”


It took them some time to cross the park, long enough that, by the time they made it to the pier, the clouds above were a grayish purple.

Rory led them to the very end of the pier, where dark water lapped against an old wooden boat, which creaked alarmingly as it rose and fell.

“Here,” Rory pointed, dashing Harold’s thin hope that it wasn’t their transport. “Get in.”

Shaw eyed Reese. “I’m rowing.”