Actions

Work Header

A Really Private Person

Work Text:

The end of the world started on a Wednesday in March.

John came into the library bearing tea and coffee and pastries; Finch was already there, leaning back and silent, his fingers splayed over the arms of his chair. There were four books stacked up on the table in front of him, Graphologica, LT, 137. After Cursing The Library, MA, 108. Rules For A Printed Dictionary Catalog, CC, 019. The fourth one, on top, was a palm-sized glossy hardback labeled 099.

"What's with the fourth book?" John said, putting down the donuts. He lifted the small book. "Hot & Steamy: Erotic Baths for Two? Let me guess, you picked this one out yourself, Harold."

"Dewey category 099 is for books notable for form," Finch said, not batting the joke back to him. He was staring at the computer screen, fingers on his right hand tapping back and forth. "The Machine made do."

John put it down, catching Harold's urgency. "Shouldn't there be two more books, then?"

"This is what we received," Finch said.

"Twelve digits," John said. "So it's not a social? Some other country's ID code? I think India uses a twelve-digit one — "

"Oh, I see," Finch said abruptly. "That's why."

John paused and looked at him; his face was strange and bleak. "Harold. What is it?"

Harold didn't answer right away. "I wasn't certain," he said. "I couldn't see a reason we would get this number, if it's — if my interpretation were correct. But that explains it, of course." He lifted a few fingers, let them drop again. "The Machine did give this number to — the relevant authorities, but they've interpreted it just as you did, quite naturally. The Machine must give them foreign national identification numbers frequently. I'm sure they're energetically pursuing all the possible matches, and completely missing the real one."

"If it's not a foreign id, then what is it?" John said.

Harold shrugged very slightly. "137108 1999 is the designation for a near-earth asteroid more than a kilometer across," he said. "It's projected to pass within roughly 200,000 miles of Earth in the year 2027."

John stood holding the coffee and said, "Why would the Machine send you the number for an asteroid that's going to sail past the Earth fourteen years from now?"

"I think we'd better find out," Harold said.

They spent the rest of the day staring at publicly available telescope data, online feeds from a dozen observatories and universities, every shot of the asteroid from the last two months. John found it a lot like a stakeout: forcing himself to stay awake, ignoring cars going by and the sun overhead and watching instead for tiny changes, a twitched curtain, the movement of a shadow, the sound of a door closing. His eyes were gritty and tired when he finally spotted something in a shot from an observatory in the mountains of Italy, five weeks ago, a few speckles that looked like dust on the monitor more than anything.

Harold hacked into the observatory's database and got the high-resolution data. Even there it was almost nothing, just a spray of glitter along one edge of the asteroid. In the next shot, taken fifteen minutes later, it was gone. He wrote a script and plotted out the asteroid's movements on a chart, mapped against its projected orbit according to NASA's database; it veered off visibly by the end of a week — towards the orbit of Mars.

"I'm not an expert or anything, but that doesn't look too bad," John said, watching the points appear one after another on Harold's screen, a dotted line through the solar system that came nowhere near Earth.

"It doesn't, does it," Harold said. "But why..." He paused, and then he loaded the second shot back up, the one where the spray had vanished, and did something that altered the brightness; a faint outline appeared, a bulky shadow behind the first asteroid, even bigger: the spray became a cloud of bright sparks, the two scraping against each other. "I don't think 137108 is our perpetrator. It seems to have been — the first victim."

It took Harold the rest of the day to put together the projected path of the second asteroid, hunting data points through hundreds of high-res images. It was a lot harder to find, darker and moving fast. Towards Earth.

"Not to distract you," John said, throwing another image into the shared folder for Harold to work from, with the new asteroid circled, "but any ideas for what we're going to do about this? Does the budget stretch to a rocket and a few tactical nukes?"

"I've yielded in many respects to what can only be called your mania for weaponry, Mr. Reese," Harold said, "but I draw the line at nuclear weapons." He threw John a hard look; John blinked back at him innocently: who, me? Want a personal nuclear bomb? No, never. He grinned as Harold's eyes narrowed.

"In any case," Harold added, "although I do own a stake in a prospective asteroid mining venture — "

"Of course you do," John murmured, earning another glare.

" — I don't really think we're qualified to resolve this particular threat ourselves," Harold finished. "Our role in this situation will end when we arrange to get this information to the relevant authorities. Fortunately, this isn't an entirely unexpected threat: NASA has been developing space defense contingencies against a Near-Earth Object collision for some time now. I've only done a little cursory reading on the subject so far, but the mechanics seem straightforward. Even seven minutes' delay will be sufficient to turn a certain collision into a near-miss."

"Think we can get them to listen to an anonymous tip?" John said.

"I have some thoughts about that," Harold said.

He put together a package of data, all the low-res image files with the asteroid circled, the data points, the chart he'd plotted, and sent it off in email to a Dr. Roth at the University of Arizona. "He has a track record of being first author on more of his graduate students' papers than he could possibly have done any real work on, some of them in disparate sub-specializations," Harold said, giving John an arched eyebrow. "I suspect he's not excessively devoted to giving credit where it's due."

He called Dr. Roth and left an anxious, meek voicemail message from a Michael Smith, amateur astronomer, fumbling and hesitant. "I'm sure I've just made a mistake, but I thought — I saw your paper in A&A last month — at any rate, I thought I would ask you to have a look — and — and just in case, I should mention I — I wouldn't — I wouldn't at all like to — talk to anyone about it — I'd prefer not to have any acknowledgement."

John sat back in his chair and watched Harold, smiling at the performance: pitch perfect. Of course, it helped that Harold meant the last part without reservation. Harold signed off without leaving a phone number, and turned back to John. "We'll see if Dr. Roth opens the files," he said. "But I suspect our work is done."

Roth opened the files two hours later and started making a lot of phone calls to other astrophysicists. The next morning, the Machine gave them a new number. John figured that was as much as saying thanks, someone else will take it from here, and didn't think about it for another five days and two numbers.

He was walking back to the library, shaking out a sore wrist — the last number really hadn't wanted to let him have the gun — when he started noticing a lot of people standing on the sidewalk, looking down at their phones; the pub on the corner with the open-air sidewalk cafe was strangely quiet, people with beer bottles in their hands standing around the tables watching the TVs over the bar, broadcasting a press conference with a tall, white-haired man standing at a podium, the caption reading Dr. Roth, University of Arizona.

"Harold," he said.

"Yes, I'm watching the video feed at CNN," Harold said in his ear. "Come up."

It wasn't an asteroid: it was a comet — Roth's Comet, officially — and after a lot of fancy dressing up, as far as John could tell there were three main points: it was roughly two miles across, traveling at 60 miles per hour, and it was six months away from hitting the planet.

#

The numbers started drying up even as the city started falling apart. There were endless news conferences on television, politicians making promises flanked by senior officers in uniform, scientists from NASA drawing elaborate charts to explain why everything was going to be fine, how they were going to save the day, but it turned out a lot of people didn't believe it, or had only needed a good shove to walk out on their lives.

"Are you all right?" Harold said, getting up as John came back in with a scrap of his shirt folded up and pressed to his forehead: he'd gotten hit by a broken bottle. "Sit down. What happened? I couldn't make out anything over the general noise."

"Riot broke out at St. Patrick's," John said, tipping his head back against the back of the chair so Harold could get at the cut more easily. "Head wounds are always a mess: it's not as bad as it looks."

"You'll forgive me for saying that leaves a great deal of room," Harold said with a sharp edge to his voice, cleaning away the crusted blood with an alcohol wipe. "What about Ms. Jameson?"

"She got caught up in the excitement," John said dryly. "She went into a jewelers after the crowd broke the plate glass windows, and she got picked up for grabbing three diamond necklaces. Sorry, Harold; this isn't a great time to be in the premeditation business."

Harold finished swabbing him down and putting on butterfly bandages. John straightened up and sighed. Jameson had been the first number all week. Harold sat down heavily in his desk chair, across from him.

"There were four other riots in the city today," he said. "Power cut out in Lower Manhattan for half an hour, and the AT&T cellular network went down briefly."

"How are we set here if there's a major outage?" John said.

"Oh, I have a dedicated satellite connection, and we have enough propane to outlast the time to impact, if it came to that," Harold said. "Water and food would be more of an issue, I suppose."

"We should stock up," John said. "Preserved food, other emergency supplies." He levered himself up from the couch. "Come on. The D'Agostino's on 40th was getting a delivery truck in."

Harold walked with him in silence towards the supermarket. There were two cops outside, looking uneasy; John nodded to them and got hard wary looks back: the mayor had stationed them at every supermarket in the city after fights had broken out over supplies. John loaded up a cart with bottles of Gatorade, packets of drink mix, boxes of industrial strength garbage bags, some chlorine bleach, dried fruit and nuts, cans and cans and more cans, big bags of dry dog food, and the last box of chocolate-covered Entenmann's donuts. Everything was marked up at least five times the usual price.

There was a tense, big-shouldered man at the checkout counter with a pile of baby food and milk, having an increasingly strident argument with the cashier over the prices, snapping about gouging; the manager had come out of her office and the cops outside were turning around. "Excuse me," Harold said, stepping forward. "If I may." He handed the cashier a couple of hundreds. He smiled up at the man, blinking, owlish and unthreatening. "I have a niece," he said. "I'm sure your child needs you at home; it's not worth a fight."

The big man flushed and muttered thanks and took his bags; everyone relaxed. The manager even let Harold buy the shopping cart, by way of thanks, so they had a pretty easy time getting everything back to the library.

John took the cart out to the nearest hardware store afterwards and came back with more supplies. He nailed up the first-floor windows with shelves stripped out of the empty bookcases. Harold came to the landing and watched John work; he said, "I'll make something to eat," and went back upstairs. While Harold cooked, John rigged some simple tripcords on the stairs, almost invisible if you didn't know they were there. He filled all the empty buckets he'd bought with fresh tapwater and put them in a dark shaded corner behind some bookcases.

They ate over one of the tables in the Research section, and then they went to the back room with the big air mattress and lay down together, Bear on Harold's other side and John's favorite handgun under his pillow. It didn't require discussion. They both knew they weren't going anywhere.

No new number came in the next morning. Harold shook his head. "I doubt we'll receive many while this remains unresolved," he said.

John nodded and gave Carter a call instead. "Can you use me somewhere?" he asked her; he could hear the cacophony of phones and voices in the precinct over the phone.

"Hell, we can use you anywhere," she said. "We're pretty sure there's going to be some more rioting after the launch tonight: most of the bars are going to be showing it. Whether something goes wrong or doesn't. Put on some body armor and meet us at Lex and 30th."

The launch went fine; drunk rejoicing crowds spilled into the street not long afterwards, banging on cars, throwing bottles. John worked side by side with cops who didn't ask his name, getting the worst of the drunks into police vans, diving into knots of fighting that broke out along the street, opening up the roads for cars and ambulances and fire trucks to get through.

He got back to the library tired and banged up around the edges, at five in the morning: the sun coming up had quieted the streets at last. He halted at the door, with a sharp shock of fear: the lock was splintered, and there was blood on the threshold. There was something propped against the door from the inside — he had to throw all his weight against it to get it open. "Harold!" he shouted, shoving the chair out of the way, and heard Bear bark upstairs; he was already up the stairs when Harold appeared in the back room doorway, disheveled and with rolled-up shirtsleeves.

"We're all right," Harold said, dragging a hand down his face. "A couple of belligerent drunks forced the lock, but Bear persuaded them to retreat. Have you been out all this time?"

"Yeah," John said, breathing again.

He didn't go out for that long again. He replaced the door with one made of steel, with three heavy-duty locks and a bar that Harold could put down when he was out. He went on short patrols around the neighborhood in a ten block radius, broke up fights and stopped looters when he saw them, but he didn't go further away.

Harold cracked the traffic cam system and started being able to tell John where to go, where there were small knots of violence building. But for the most part they were in a holding pattern like everyone else. The deflection mission was a week away from coming into range.

The political sales pitch for the mission had been simple: get out there fast, have more than one shot at deflecting the comet. The spacecraft — Artemis 1, carrying nearly 100 megatons' worth of nuclear weapons — was going to shadow the comet all the way; there were three solid windows of opportunity.

The first attempt failed.

#

The news of the failure leaked at 5am New York time from someone in the huge international operation being carried out at Cape Canaveral; by the time John woke up, Harold stirring next to him, martial law was being declared by the President.

They ate breakfast at the desk, watching the news shows together. CNN had scored Dr. Roth and the determinedly confident General Wernecke, but they'd also brought on a tall, angular-faced man, a Dr. Gervaise from Cal Tech, who stayed silent until after General Wernecke said for the fourth time that an initial failure was to be expected, that they were gathering data, that this proved the rationale of the fast mission — and then Gervaise exploded.

"For fuck's sake," he yelled, bleeped out a moment too late, "it's nonsense! It's just — nonsense!" and jerked an arm wide, a flailing movement. Wernecke was straightening, frowning, and Anderson Cooper was leaning over saying, "Dr. Gervaise," but it was too late; Gervaise was going.

"This isn't a bleeping movie!" Gervaise yelled. He slammed a hand on the table. "Do you people even understand the immensity of this problem? We can't just throw bombs at the thing, it'll come apart and then we're all dead for sure because then it's seventeen comets all flying at us and at least a few of them will hit us. We can't just set off one charge, because it won't be enough: this thing is the size of Manhattan, and it's traveling sixty miles an hour.

"There were three windows of opportunity, you want to know why only three windows? Because it's turning end over end, too, and those are the only times that there's a long enough section oriented towards Artemis for the ship to launch enough drones to have a prayer of stopping it. And the drones have to be spaced at precisely the right times, their detonation has to be controlled exactly relative to one another and the changing momentum of the entire system — look, if we had five years, we could figure it out, we'd run the simulations, we'd build a system to do it, but we don't have five years. The first try didn't work, the second try isn't going to work, the third try they're going to just set off the bombs and pray. Everyone on this planet has four months to live, and people deserve to hear the truth!" He got up and walked out of the studio.

Carter called an hour later.

"I'm sorry to ask — " she said, her voice sharp and brittle.

"What happened?" John said. He heard her swallow.

"Taylor just called," she said. "There's almost no one at his school, and a couple different street gangs came down there in force at the same time to get at the electronics stores. They took the fighting into the school. He's in a classroom with a bunch of other kids; there's nobody with them." She paused and said, low, "There's nobody in the precinct."

"I'll meet you there," John said. He loaded up on tear gas and took one of the submachine guns. Harold watched him, his face bleak. "Don't open the door until I get back," John said. Harold nodded.

The gangs both had too many guys with too many guns, all of them a mixed up mess of terrified and pretending they were living in a movie. There were already half a dozen bodies in the hallways. John took the lead, Carter at his back, and took out eight more. He tried for kneecaps, but one leaned out from behind a wall of heavy metal lockers, aiming at them, and John had to shoot him in the head. He kicked open the classroom door and found Taylor with six other teenagers barricaded behind a wall of overturned desks, clutching scissors and staplers.

They went out the same route they'd already cleared, but the street outside wasn't a whole lot better than the disaster inside: smashed glass all over the sidewalk, bodies and smeared blood. The kids were crying quietly. They crammed them in the back seat of Carter's cruiser and dropped them off at their homes, until it was just Taylor and one girl, Lin, who lived in a foster home in the Bronx and didn't want to go back. Carter looked back at them in the rear view mirror, her face grim. John knew what she was thinking: the city needed every good cop it had left who'd show up for work; but her son needed her, and a second kid to look out for —

John touched the earpiece. "Harold? We could use a safehouse near here. Someplace secure."

There was a pause; John wondered if the cell signal had gone down again. "Bring them here," Harold said.

John was silent. Then he said, "On our way," and turned to give Carter the address.

By the time they got there, slogging back through the creeping logjam traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, Fusco was at the library too, with his kid and his ex-wife setting up camp in the Periodicals section. "So this is the Batcave?" Carter said dryly to John, as they came inside, but when Taylor and Lin had gone to move bookshelves around on the third floor, she stopped by Harold's desk before heading back to the precinct and said, to both of them, "Thanks."

After she'd gone, John looked at Harold. "Do you want me to go get Grace?"

Harold's hands paused on his keyboard. He didn't look around. "She went to her mother's house in Virginia last week. There was an — electrical failure at the house, and at the same time her mother's car had some — technical issues — "

John nodded.

Leon showed up later that evening, and Shaw the next morning, narrow-eyed and belligerent and carrying a six-month supply of iodine tablets. She and John went out together foraging and brought back more food, supplies, and a small family: a woman named Elisa Vasquez had stumbled over them in the camping goods store, had seen how much they were carrying, and had grabbed onto John's arm with grim, desperate determination. "I've got three kids and nowhere to go. We're almost out of food. Please. Please. Please."

Shaw had glared at him and shaken her head. John knew he was supposed to say no, to pry her hand away; then Harold said in his ear, soft benediction, "Go with her and bring her and the children here, along with whatever supplies they have." When he got them back, Harold sent him out again, to find Monica Jacobs and bring her in. IFT had given all its employees the week off, told them to stay home and out of the chaos of the city, but Harold had found out she was holed up in her apartment twenty blocks away with her elderly aunt.

The library was big enough to hold them all, with even some privacy, although the bathrooms hadn't been meant for the daily needs of almost twenty people. But they rationed showers and toilet flushes, and they had enough food and water now to last — however long things needed to last.

After the first few days things calmed down; the rioters and looters ran out of energy, and a lot more of the cops and firefighters came back. Manhattan hadn't ever gotten that bad. A lot of people still weren't showing up for work, but there wasn't open warfare in the streets. The National Guard had been called out in Newark and Buffalo.

John kept doing his patrols: there were patches down in the traffic cam system, but Harold still had eyes on most of the nearby area, and John managed to repair a lot of the broken ones. Leon and Monica were working with Harold, helping him; John put back up a camera on Madison and 40th that had just had its power cord yanked out and asked, "How is that?"

"Looks good," Monica's voice came in his ear, and John paused for a moment, some instinct stirring.

That night he said he was going to bed early, then went down the back stairs and waited by the back entrance. Half an hour later, a car pulled up, with bulletproof glass in the windows and a gun resting on the passenger seat; the driver parked and opened his window to smoke: he was a grizzled Russian man who looked like he'd spent a lot of time boxing. John looked at him but didn't move from his spot in the shadows. A few minutes later, Harold came limping out the door, carrying a small laptop bag.

"Leaving without a goodbye? I think I'm hurt, Harold," John said from behind him, stepping out.

Harold didn't startle very much; his shoulders only slumped. He turned around to face John. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'd asked Monica to tell you — " He stopped.

"The Machine," John said, watching his face. "You think the Machine can help with the deflection."

"Yes," Harold said. "The Machine can be modified to help. But — " He lifted a hand and let it drop. "I can only do it if I'm there, you see. At the physical location of the core servers."

"Okay," John said. "So let's go."

"You don't understand, John," Harold said. "I don't know where the servers are, and even if I did, I can't imagine they aren't thoroughly secured. This isn't — there's no hope of breaking in. Certainly not long enough to make the necessary changes. I'm — " He swallowed. "I'm going to have to turn myself in. To Control."

"Yeah," John said. "I got it, Harold. Let's go."

Harold stared at him. "You can't imagine they're going to let us leave, afterwards."

John said patiently, "No, Harold, I don't imagine that."

Harold's whole face wobbled, helpless. "John," he said. "John, there's no point in your coming with me. You can't — all you can do is die with me."

Except the Machine's controllers weren't going to kill Harold: they were going to put him in a dark room and hurt him, and if they couldn't hurt him enough to make him open the Machine up for them, they'd still keep trying as long as they could think of things to do to him. John looked at Harold, saw that Harold knew that, too; even if he wasn't going to say it out loud.

But there would be a chance. The government wouldn't take chances until Harold had done it, had made the Machine work for them, set it up to save the world. They'd wait, and pretend they were grateful, and until then they'd let Harold have anything he wanted — including his pet ex-CIA agent. And there'd be a moment, when Harold was done, when Harold knew that it was working, before they did. There'd be an opportunity — to die with him.

"Not my first choice," John said. "But it'll do."

Harold stood still. "John," he said.

John reached out and took the laptop bag from his hand and walked across the sidewalk to the car. He got the door and stood waiting. "Come on, Harold. Time to save the world."

#

Director Foley was a nice guy, big and friendly and smiling. You would never have pegged him for someone who ordered people killed on a regular basis. He had a good handshake, clear eyes, a warm grip on John's shoulder, a rich deep voice that made you want to lean in when he dropped it low and confidential. "I don't expect this to matter to you, but I'm sorry about how things turned out in Ordos," he said. "I'll admit, John, it's a relief to finally understand this operation you've been running in New York. We've been getting increasingly concerned, although obviously, the immediate situation has — occupied us all, to some extent." He gave a wry smile. "I didn't expect our division to be actively involved in the solution to this one, to tell you the truth."

John resisted the urge to compliment him on his technique. "Didn't much expect it myself," he said.

The Director had zeroed in on him after five minutes working on Finch in the car had made it clear he was getting absolutely nothing more out of Harold but code, and that only when Harold was in a room with the Machine. He'd even tried asking Harold a direct question about the weather and had gotten nothing but a brief stare back; Harold had turned to look out the limo window again immediately.

It was a smart move on Harold's part, but John knew it wasn't deliberate. Harold was just — letting go.

Harold had stopped moving only once, at the foot of the steps of the Office of Special Counsel building. The Washington Monument and the Mall were behind them, the door up ahead leading inside the dark building, the metal detector and the security guards just visible. Harold had paused, arms hanging by his side, just for a moment, looking up. "John, are you quite certain you won't go back?"

"Yes," John had said, and that had been it. Harold had walked inside, gone up to the guards, and had said, "I'm here to see Director Foley. I don't have an appointment."

It had taken about an hour to get up to him, Harold doling out just enough information to hop each human barrier, until finally he'd said, to Foley's deputy, "I beg your pardon, time is of the essence here. Please tell the director that Nathan didn't build it, I did. I'm confident he'll want to see me."

The director had wanted to see Harold. He'd looked at John, listened to Harold's curt explanation, then he'd made a couple of phone calls and they were on their way. He hadn't said where they were going and John hadn't bothered asking. It didn't matter.

Agent Hersh, sitting across the aisle, hadn't taken his eyes off him since they'd all gotten into the limo. John had said, "How's the side?" blandly, when he'd met them in the garage. Hersh hadn't smiled back. Some people were so touchy about being stabbed.

It was just as well. John was counting on Hersh to kill him, afterwards, and he didn't need him to have any reasons for hesitating.

"I imagine not," Foley was saying, still intimately low, even over the sound of the plane engines. "I'm sure these last few weeks have been something of a strain — "

"Director," John said, tired of having the conversation in subtext, "let me save you some time. Most people knew Nathan Ingram's name. Nobody knows Harold's. Do you think he came out of hiding to you for any reason less than saving the world?"

Foley paused, and then he huffed a soft, amused sound. "Point taken," he said. He looked at John, steady, and John had to admit, the guy was really good; John knew what he was, what he was going to do to Harold if he had a chance, and his gaze still had power. "Can he do it?"

John said flatly, "Yes."

Foley left him alone after that. John went back to take the aisle seat next to Harold, who had a book out in his lap, unopened. It was old and in bad shape, dog-eared corners and broken spine: Foundation. He'd seen Harold read it once before, about a year ago. Harold was blank-eyed, narrow-shouldered and small and curled in on himself; his mouth in a still, severe line. John didn't try to talk to him, but he leaned back in his seat and rested his elbow on the armrest so their arms brushed. Harold relaxed a little; then he closed his eyes and slept. John didn't close his eyes.

The flight lasted almost six hours. They came out in an airport at night, somewhere warm, which didn't narrow the possibilities very much: it was early June. There was another limo waiting on the tarmac, with a military escort. They were politely and thoroughly frisked; they got John's gun, his two knives, pretended to have missed the razor blade in the lining of his suit jacket — a standard CIA move — and actually missed the razor wire tucked into the seam of his belt, a trick John had gotten from a South Korean secret service agent in a bar one time. All according to plan.

The car ride was three hours on long highways through flat featureless country: Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, any of them or more than one, blowing by occasional tractor-trailers and cars. There were dark shadows against the sky on the right, sharp-edged mountains. John watched them slide by for a while and turned back to face forward. Harold, by his side, was still.

The electrical towers were the first sign they were coming close: dozens of them closing in from all sides, making concentric rings that got smaller and smaller until they crossed a barbed-wire fence, massive red-lettered signs and floodlights, patrol towers, and past them a cluster of low sprawling buildings. The parking lot was tiny.

A nervous administrator met them, checked all their IDs repeatedly, and fumbled what had obviously been his orders to try and insist that John stay behind, stumbling lamely over the excuse that John wasn't authorized — Harold didn't engage him; he just turned to Foley, and said, as cold and impatient as John had ever heard him, "Stop wasting my time."

Foley looked at him, then flicked a hand in brief dismissal; the administrator shut up, still flushed, and led them inside past the small beige reception area.

John had expected it to be quiet, nothing but servers ticking away; he hadn't thought about the air conditioners, a low steady roar that drowned out their footsteps. The servers rose in dark columns, lights in cold blue blinking and blinking as they walked single-file through narrow aisles between the cabinets. Agent Hersh was right behind him, four soldiers behind him; another two were up ahead, in front of Harold. The site administrator was in the lead, trying occasionally to say something to Foley, his voice high and wobbly, muffled against the background noise.

It didn't feel like anyplace John had ever been. It didn't feel like a place that people belonged in. There weren't many; he only caught a glimpse of a person once, down a side aisle, working on an opened cabinet. He touched Harold's elbow once; he glanced over. "Replacing some defective component, I imagine," he said.

It took five minutes to get to an interior space, a room that would have qualified as a server room all on its own in any other place. There were some fifty cabinets standing inside it, and in the center a small workstation with a single chair, three monitors, a keyboard, a webcam, a single small wireless speaker, all the cords going into the nearest server cabinet.

"Sir, I set it up like you said, but you should know, there's no way to get a prompt," the administrator said to Foley, as he unlocked the door. "We've tried — " He paused at Foley's hard, irritated look and darted eyes around at them, then tried again. "The system doesn't take input — "

He'd opened the door. "Excuse me, please," Harold said. He went straight to the chair and sat down. He turned on the monitor. "Can you see me?" he said.

"Yes," a voice said, computer-generated, tinny from the cheap speaker. Foley stiffened; the administrator was gawking at Harold's back.

"Good," Harold said. "Who am I?"

"Admin," the Machine said.

"Do you see an authorized handler present?" Harold said.

"Director James Roger Foley, Office of Special Counsel," the Machine said.

"Good," Harold said. "Director Foley, do you authorize modification of the system?"

Foley said after a moment, "I do."

"System modification authorized," the Machine said. Harold hit a couple of keys and a set of windows opened up, blank, cursor blinking. He started typing.

After a couple of minutes, the site administrator started to edge closer, leaning over Harold's shoulder like he was being pulled in by a tether, almost involuntarily. John had to admit he was pretty impressed himself. He'd seen Harold coding before, but the work they did, that was usually finding exploits, hacking into things, writing a small app or tool. This was something else: skyscrapers of code going up across seven windows, tests running in a loop in another one, red lines turning green one after another. The windows jumped rapidly around, Harold cycling through them, building the walls one block at a time.

"Mr. Finch," Director Foley said, when he finally realized that Harold had just dived straight in. "Could you explain what you're doing?"

"Not really," Harold said.

"He's building a neural network," the site administrator said.

"Not really," Harold said.

They both looked intensely frustrated; Foley looked over, and John could see him weighing up that frustration against the fact that Harold was quite possibly saving the planet. John gave him back a completely blank expression, I'm just the muscle, sorry, and privately smirked.

After a moment, Foley stepped out of the server room, taking the administrator with him; John drifted closer to Harold. "How's it going, Finch?" he murmured.

"Reasonably quickly," Harold said. "More so without interruption."

"Chances are there might be some pretty soon," John said, even softer, and drifted back a few steps away again. He was conscious of Hersh, whose eyes hadn't left him, and of the six soldiers, nervous and glancing around the facility. They were right to be nervous; John doubted any of them were getting home from this mission, either. Whether he was the one who killed them, or Hersh was. They all looked impossibly young. John didn't look at their faces. This wasn't the way he'd ever wanted to go out, killing good soldiers, guys just doing their jobs, an honorable job. But he wasn't going to let that stop him from saving Harold.

He was right about the interruption. Roughly two hours later, Foley came back in, this time with two more members of the geek brigade, both of them men with thick glasses and expressions mingling skepticism and resentment. John was sure that an entire team of the best programmers money could buy had at one point been working on breaking into the Machine; he was betting these two had been part of the washout.

They were both carrying wireless keyboards and flat panel screens. "Mr. Finch," Foley said, "given that time and accuracy are of the essence here, I thought we'd better put some additional hands to work." He turned and gestured to the men. "Please connect up."

Harold sighed and pushed his chair back. "I need a brief rest in any case. And something to eat and coffee. Which way is the restroom?"

"Uh," the administrator said, throwing a startled look at Foley, like they hadn't expected it to be that easy. "I can — take you there?"

Foley hesitated, frowning, then nodded. John followed Harold; Hersh followed him. It was a ten minute walk through the facility to the bathroom and the break room; there were packets of ramen and pop tarts and leftover Chinese food in the fridge, which Harold commandeered without hesitation; he also brewed a double-strength pot of coffee: full pot, poured the coffee back in again as the water, a second set of grounds.

"Coffee?" John asked Harold, bemused: Harold had inhaled one cup already and now was holding his second and breathing it in like he was having a religious experience.

"Avoiding caffeine on normal occasions means that it's far more effective when I actually require the stimulation," Harold said. "I do miss it."

He took a third cup back to the room, where the coders and Foley all looked even more frustrated. One of them was in Harold's chair, trying his keyboard, but the screens had gone blank. "Excuse me," Harold said, polite and implacable, and the guy reluctantly got up. Harold sat down and put down his coffee. The screens lit back up again before he'd even touched the keyboard.

Foley glanced at the camera. Harold sighed. "I assure you that if the Machine couldn't verify my identity, it wouldn't be permitting me to work, either. I have at least another thirty hours of work left here and I'll have to sleep at least twice, so if you wouldn't mind, please save your next attempt at infiltration for those breaks."

"What are you even doing?" one of the programmers burst out. "The routines you're building are just — half of them look like basic device driver management, and the other half are pseudocode, and it's not even consistent pseudocode — there's no language that could compile in, just the lines you have on the screen are inconsistent — "

Harold paused and looked around at him. "Are you saying you couldn't follow my intentions?"

"Sure I could follow them!" the programmer said.

"Then clearly they're not incomprehensible," Harold said. He turned back and said over his shoulder, "Director, I'll require a private room, a reasonable mattress, and a thin pillow when I do have to sleep. It would save time if you could arrange those now."

Foley didn't really change expression, but a muscle in his jaw twitched. "All right," he said mildly.

Harold kept going for another twelve hours with just bathroom and food breaks; then he sighed and pushed his chair back. "All right," he said. "I need to sleep for eight hours now."

Pretty much everyone else looked involuntarily relieved; a couple of the soldiers had been blinking hard for the last few hours and even Foley was looking pretty worn. John glanced at Hersh, but that was asking too much: Hersh was still looking straight at him, unbowed, eyes clear.

They got escorted to a small room in a separate building on the premises, simply furnished: queen-size bed, dresser, desk with a phone, television. "Sleep well," Foley said, and shut them in. John threw the deadbolts and went looking for bugs until Harold came out of the bathroom, drying his face with a hand towel, and said, "Oh, that won't be necessary. Privacy, please," he added, to the air.

"Just like that?" John said.

"Yes," Harold said tiredly, sitting down on the side of the bed. He'd already left his tie and his suit jacket on the back of a chair. "A side effect of the day's work, actually."

"What are you doing, exactly?" John said. "Foley's been waiting for you to ask him for secure data from the NASA team, but you haven't acted like you needed a thing."

"Well, I don't," Harold said. "If there were any data I required, I could just ask the Machine for it. It can get into anything at NASA we need. No; I'm — " He paused, frowning, and then waved a hand. "To simplify to an extreme: I'm teaching the Machine how to control a broader range of robotic systems."

John frowned. "That's it?"

"Possibly I've made it sound too easy," Harold said dryly. "The Machine knows how to gather an almost limitless amount of input — phone calls, video feeds, email messages, sensory data — and how to process that input in order to turn it into valuable predictions. The Machine has only the bare minimum of control or output functionality. Changing a camera angle slightly, that sort of thing." His mouth quirked slightly. "Calling a pay phone."

"So you're teaching it how to control things like — the engines and the drones, on the Artemis?" John said. "But then wouldn't you need information from the mission?"

"Oh, no," Harold said. "There are some thousand of the world's finest software engineers and systems administrators trying to build a system to do that. If it could be done in time, they'd do it. No; what I'm teaching the Machine is how to learn to control a robotic system — in other words, how I would go about learning how to program such a system, how I would discover its command set. Once the Machine understands that, it can teach itself the Artemis systems, far more quickly than any human being. And then — " He shrugged slightly. "It will be able to run the deflection mission."

"How sure are you this is going to work?" John said.

"Sure enough to wish you weren't here," Harold said. "It's not too late, John. I suspect that you could evade the guards and get off the grounds — "

"Harold, if you keep trying to get rid of me, you really are going to hurt my feelings," John said. "Get some sleep."

After a moment, Harold nodded. He heeled off his shoes and lay down on the covers on his back and closed his eyes; he was breathing deep almost instantly. John turned off the lights, covered him with a blanket, and lay down next to him without taking his own shoes or jacket off. He closed his eyes. The room was quiet, and Harold's body was warm, radiating heat against his side. John allowed himself this much: he curled around Harold and slid a hand onto his chest and spread it over the steady thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat.

#

The next day Harold worked for only seven hours before knocking off. Foley said, "Mr. Finch — "

"I've done all that I can for the moment," Harold said, interrupting brusquely. "The core routines are complete. Now the Machine needs a ten hour cycle to integrate the new code into its systems and propagate it to all servers. Then I'll need to evaluate how well it's working, and repeat the process at least once more, although it will be faster. After that, we'll see; we may need a third round or not."

"You still haven't written any freaking code!" one of the coders said. "Not any relevant code, anyway, you're writing device drivers for some kind of toy system that doesn't actually exist — "

"All right," Harold said. He turned to Foley. "Get me three of the same tactical drones that were loaded on the Artemis. Without the nuclear bombs, please; I don't think those will really be necessary for testing. We'll try the first one tomorrow."

They stared at him; Harold said, "For now, I'd like to stretch my legs and get some fresh air before sleeping. Is there somewhere on the grounds where I can walk?"

The sun was going down behind blue mountains, to the west; John idly narrowed the location to Utah or Nevada in his head. Harold stopped, watching the sunset; John stopped with him. Hersh was down by the fence; there were twenty men supposedly patrolling and mostly watching Harold, with hungry, covert looks.

This wasn't the kind of secret that could keep even here, even among the kind of men who did this work. A mysterious hacker showing up out of nowhere, escorted by a senior government official right into the system that they'd all put their lives on the line to protect against intrusion? It didn't take a genius to figure out this was about the comet, and these men were good, and loyal, but they had families and friends and lives they wanted to keep living.

Harold hunched his shoulders like a turtle, protectively. "Perhaps we'd better go inside again after all," he said. John kept his body between Harold and the watchers all the way to the building, as much as he could.

Harold stood inside the room with his back to the window until John had closed the door and the blinds, shutting out the blaze of color spreading across the sky. "Privacy, please?" John said, turning back to him.

"The Machine has taken it as read by now," Harold said. "John, are they going to kill all those men?"

"Probably not the ones just watching the fence," John said. "They're low risk, and they don't know much for sure, just thirdhand whispers. The guys watching us in the server room — " He shrugged. "Yeah. I'd bet on it."

Harold shut his eyes, his face drawn in tight, unhappy.

"If it makes you feel better, those guys are here to put a bullet in your head if Foley tells them to," John said.

"It doesn't," Harold snapped back. "John, will you please — "

"No," John said. "No. I'm not going."

Harold shut his mouth and turned away to take off his tie and his shirt, his shoes and socks. He lay down on the bed, flat on his back again. John turned off the lights. When the last one went out, Harold said, low voice floating out of the dark, "Are you coming to bed?"

"Yes," John said, equally soft, grateful. They hadn't talked about it otherwise: waking that morning curled into each other's arms, hands on bare skin and breath mingling.

John unbuttoned his shirt far enough to pull it over his head. He left it on the floor. He climbed into the bed. Harold drew one short desperate breath and turned to him.

#

In the morning, the drone sat in front of them without doing anything for three hours, Foley growing increasingly impatient; Harold didn't even twitch an eye. Then it abruptly activated and took off in a wobbly circle around the facility. Within another hour, the flight had smoothed out and the drone was flying perfect loops and making sharp turns almost back on its own tracks.

"All right," Harold said. "I need to get back to work."

He coded for another seven hours and left the Machine to integrate it. This time he led John straight back to the room, and as soon as they were inside they were kissing, frantic, Harold shaking under his hands, tears sliding down his face.

It wasn't a surprise afterwards when he said, "It's done. I'll confirm in the morning, but I won't need another round."

"Yeah," John said. He had his head pillowed on Harold's chest; Harold was stroking his hair. Harold's heartbeat was thumping steadily under his cheek. For now. John closed his eyes and tried not to be sick.

"Promise me you won't let them take you," Harold said. "Not if I'm still alive. You must be sure, John; can you swear to me, no matter what else — "

"Yes," John said.

"You're certain?" Harold said. "John, what I've done — if they gained full control of the Machine now, you can't imagine — "

"I can imagine," John said. "Yes."

Harold fell silent. His hands didn't stop stroking for a long time, going slower and slower as he started to fall asleep. John tried to think about New York, streets full of people, millions of them, wanting to live. But that was too big. He tried to think about Carter grim in a patrol car on the streets; about her son at the library playing with the Vasquez kids, telling them not to be scared. Fusco and Leon, Monica and her aunt, all the faces he could pull up.

It still wasn't helping. Harold's hands were stilling; one of them slid out of John's hair, limp with deep sleep. John slid out of the bed and took a pillow into the bathroom and crouched with his face shoved against it, animal pain coming out of him in sobs, so he could keep his word in the morning.

#

When he woke up in the early morning, the first faintness of light showing around the thick blackout curtains, Harold was already awake: lying still, looking at the ceiling; he drew a deep breath and let it sigh out softly, and when he looked at John his eyes were gentle, unafraid. He leaned over and kissed him. John kissed him back and they lay in each other's arms, silently.

Outside, all three drones lifted, circled, landed, interwove in a complicated dance. Harold nodded and went back inside. John didn't look back to see Hersh getting a look from Foley; he didn't have to. They went back inside, down the long dark inhuman aisles, and John tried to stop thinking, to let himself become nothing but a weapon, a tool. They came into the server room and Harold sat down and put his hands on the keyboard. "Run full system diagnostic and confirm new command set."

"New command set active," the Machine said. John took a deep breath, let it out. He could see Hersh's reflection in the server cabinets, four steps behind him. Close enough to stop him using the razor. Not enough to stop him using the wire.

Then the Machine said, "X-Ray two zero one three Echo two," and Harold froze and said, "What?"

"What is that?" Foley said sharply.

"The official designation for Comet Roth," Harold said. His hands were already flying over the keys. "The Machine is trying to say that the threat hasn't been averted. But the systems are working, so what is the difficulty — "

"Data analysis framework inadequate," the Machine said.

"All right, so update it," Harold said, frowning. "You have control over the instrumentation — "

"User interference," the Machine said, and put up a dozen windows full of code that was changing even as they looked at it. "Admin intervention required on site."

"What's that code?" Foley said. "Who is writing that?"

"The team at the Kennedy Space Center," Harold said half-absently, his eyes fixed on the screen.

"Their work is interfering with the Machine's ability to control the Artemis?" Foley said.

Harold didn't answer. He was looking at the screen, but John realized abruptly he wasn't looking at the code; he was looking at the black terminal window in the corner, the glossy screen where John's own face was reflected. Their eyes met. Harold looked away. He said, "That's a simplification, but yes."

"Can you fix it?" Foley said.

"Not from here," Harold said.

#

They headed straight to the airport. John didn't have a chance to get Harold alone.

Foley spent the entire flight arguing over the phone with other high-ranking members of the administration. Hersh spent it watching both of them with eyes that barely blinked. John didn't touch Harold's hand, didn't let his knee brush up against Harold's leg, just sat next to him and tried not to hope, not to believe in a way out. Harold didn't speak. He worked on a laptop most of the way, on a huge elaborate 3-D diagram full of shapes floating in space, interconnected; at the top it was labeled Artemis Simulator.

It was muggy and hot when they got off the plane in Orlando, all twenty steps to the waiting limo blasting air conditioning. But the airport highway was crammed with cars, taxis, busloads of tourists: John watched the billboards creeping by: Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World. Harold roused enough to stare out at the traffic in bewilderment.

"What the hell is going on?" Foley demanded, with an edge.

"Sorry, sir," the driver said over the intercom. "The parks have all opened up for free to any family with kids."

The limo inched a little further up the road. Three small children peered out of the SUV next to them, trying to see inside the limo, hands and faces mashed up against the glass of their window.

"Your phone, please," Harold said.

Foley looked at him. "I'm not sure — "

"I'm not prepared to spend seven of our remaining hours sitting in traffic," Harold said. "Give me the phone or I'll get out of the car and go find one."

John didn't glance at him, but his gut tightened, inwardly. Harold sounded sharp, peremptory, like he'd re-engaged. After a moment, Foley handed him the phone. Harold held it up to his face and said, "Can you hear me?"

The phone crackled. "Yes I can hear you," a voice said over the speakerphone, computer-generated; Foley stiffened.

"We need a helicopter," Harold said. "Use my funds."

"In 300 meters, exit vehicle and walk right," the phone said.

It took the limo another fifteen minutes to crawl that far; then the phone beeped and Harold opened the door and climbed out into the middle of the highway, the rest of them trailing after him. The traffic was moving so slowly they could just walk across all four lanes and off onto the shoulder, through a narrow band of trees: there was a two lane service road for the airport ahead, mostly empty, and the juddering of helicopter blades was coming. Foley wore a half-annoyed, half-wary look, eyeing Harold.

The flight to Cape Canaveral was less than an hour. They landed on the long empty expanse of the shuttle landing runway with the sun going down, and police cars met them; Foley commandeered them, put one of the soldiers at the wheel and Hersh in the back seat with Harold and John, and sat up front himself. Their escort was down to two other soldiers, who followed with the cops. John liked the odds a lot better; he wondered if that was the idea. It probably wasn't going to be enough with Hersh there — not to get them both out; but there was at least some chance he could get Harold an opening. Well. Some chance he could force Harold through an opening.

They drove to the main building. Foley's phone calls got them past the security cordon and the outer ring of press, huge television lights everywhere and cameras flashing through the police car windows, white fireworks reflecting off Harold's glasses as he glanced towards them. Then they were crossing the parking lot into the massive space center complex, secret service agents popping up, as suspicious of Foley as of them, and they came into the massive command center and a short, narrow-shouldered black man, with military posture and a three days unshaven beard, in shirtsleeves and a loosened tie, stood and squared off against Foley. "Is this some kind of joke?"

"General Bolden," Foley began.

"You're a lawyer!" Bolden nearly spat at him. "What's the idea, are you planning to file charges against the comet? Do you realize I've already had six hours of my time eaten by this idiotic power play you're running — "

Foley managed to get Bolden into the glass-walled office at the back of the room, which muffled the sound, but judging from their increasingly clenched faces and the tendons standing out on their necks, the conversation wasn't becoming more productive.

The room was descending away from them in huge tiers, like a classroom, and packed with nearly three hundred people all sitting at computers, in clusters, all of them coding frantically or discussing frantically. John was pretty sure from what he could hear that there was a Chinese team in the corner, a Russian team closer to the front. John traded a look with Hersh and glanced at the security: two guys on each of the four doors. Take them out, probably the coders wouldn't rush them —

"Excuse me, I need to sit down," Harold said, and limped — a lot more noticeably than he usually did — to an empty chair in the back tier, with a workstation in front of it and three monitors, all locked down to black.

John drifted after him and stood close, used his body to block Harold's hands from view on the side; Hersh did the same on the other side. Harold put the cell phone he'd taken from Foley on the desk and murmured, "Password?"

A long string showed up in a text message; Harold punched it in. The screens unlocked, the leftmost one showing a map of the room, colored boxes for each seat, labeled with names. Harold looked them over with a considering expression; then he said to the phone, "Add all developers as valid recipients to the IFT assignment pool."

He opened up a terminal window on the central screen and put in a dozen long strings that were mostly consonants and special characters; abruptly an old IFT splash logo opened on the screen, then faded out to a full-screen app, a list of names on the left; on the right the huge 3-D diagram he'd been building on the plane, full of circles and rectangles and other big polygons.

Harold started drawing lines from each shape to one or two of the developer names on the left. It took him twenty minutes — Foley and Bolden were still arguing in the room behind them, along with one or more people on the other end of a conference phone — and then he picked up the cell phone and stood up.

He limped down all the tiers to the bottom of the room. Several of the coders glanced up to look at him as he passed, the soldiers on security detail traded confused looks, but no one moved to stop him. He climbed up onto the low dais at the bottom. Harold tapped the microphone at the podium and said, "Excuse me, all of you. I apologize for the interruption, but please stop whatever you're working on."

Most of the coders paused long enough to stare at him. "In a moment, you'll be receiving new assignments," Harold said. "Your current code will be stored and cleared. The Artemis systems are being frozen as of — " He glanced down at the phone. " — now."

"Who the fuck are you?" someone yelled out from the middle of the room as protests went up: all the screens were going blank and resetting, flickering across the room.

"Are you kidding?" another man in the front row shouted up at him. "I'm in the middle of — "

"— adjustments to the rotator belt controls to increase the range of drone launch angles," Harold said. "Yes, Mr. Eckerson, I'm aware. However, adjusting the drone launch angles can at best produce an improvement of less than three thousandths of a percent to the overall likelihood of mission success, and in any case, you won't be able to complete and harden them adequately before the second window, after which we'll have completed the deflection successfully."

He sounded utterly confident, matter-of-fact; everyone in the room was staring at him now, their hands frozen, mouths open. He glanced down at the phone again. "Deliver assignments."

Some people were standing up, starting to talk over each other; others were looking at their screens, frowning; then someone in the third row, a bleached blond guy, called out, "Hey, what the hell, this looks like oldschool IFT or something."

Bolden was pushing out of the back room with Foley on his heels, looking furious; someone else in the fifth row, a woman with long dark hair, said suddenly, "This is IFT. This is a senior-level IFT assignment, it's signed with Nathan Ingram's PGP key."

A man stood up in the ninth row, near the aisle. "Holy shit, you're Ingram's genie," he blurted, loud; there was a pause, voices dropping to murmuring, and then the noise swelled and swelled, suddenly half the room were shouting questions up at Harold; Bolden stopped short at the top of the stairs, looking startled.

"That's enough," Harold said, his voice, amplified, cutting through. "You should all have your assignments now. I'll be supervising the coding and assembly process from my desk. If you run into difficulties, consult me via IRC: I'll be in channel #451 on EFnet."

He climbed down from the dais and limped back up the tiers. Bolden confronted him at the top of the stairs. "I don't know who the hell you are — "

"Don't you?" Harold said, looking up at him from the step below.

Bolden paused and looked at him. He didn't say anything for a moment. "I've never bought into conspiracy theories," he said.

"Most people don't," Harold said. "Which is exceptionally useful for the rare actual conspirator. I have always disliked publicity a great deal, Mr. Bolden."

Bolden looked unwillingly halted, like he half wanted to believe. Harold said, "General, I'm sorry for the way we've barged in here. But I assure you that I wouldn't have done this for a lesser cause than necessity. Please let's get to work."

Foley was looking as confused as John felt; he fell back, talking in a low voice to Hersh. John leaned over as Harold slid back into his borrowed chair and murmured, "Ingram's genie?"

"Google it," Harold said, with a hard, unamused twist at the corner of his mouth. Fourteen windows were already open on his desktop. "Oh, and here." He handed him the cellphone. "Go around the room and make friends. Tell them if any of their senior political officials want to speak with me about the situation, they can contact you to make arrangements."

John nodded and drifted around the room, glancing at screens, acting like he was just making sure everyone was working. He dropped a few quiet words to nearly every national team: there were cohorts from Russia, China, Japan, the UK, Sweden, and Finland. "Is he really Ingram's genie?" one man from the Finnish team demanded, low, looking at Harold with an almost hungry, desperate look: the same look John had seen on the guys at the perimeter at the server plant.

"Ask him," John said, but when he'd finished and circled back to Harold, he did google it on the cellphone. The top hit was a subheading on Ingram's Wikipedia page: Controversy: Ingram's Genie.

On April 1, 1998, as an April Fool's joke, a group of programmers at IFT rival Microsoft published a white paper charting Ingram's extremely crowded schedule of business and social events (and his recorded alcohol intake at those events where known) against the lines of code he had produced in the same timeframe [42], claiming to demonstrate that it was physically impossible for Ingram to have typed the code in the remaining hours available to him, even assuming only five hours of sleep a night.

The paper also made a dig at Ingram's mediocre performance at MIT, with a detailed comparison between a sample of his college-age code and a sample of his IFT code, suggesting that the same person could not have authored both. The white paper further posited as a solution that Ingram had, in his final year at MIT, discovered a magical lamp housing a genie who gave him enormous quantities of brilliant code, none of which he wrote himself.

The white paper was widely passed around and enjoyed within the technical community across the Internet at the time. Although the vast majority of the community treated it merely as a joke, many people resented Ingram's success and brilliance [citation needed], and several prominent software engineers and systems administrators[43] professed the white paper extremely plausible. Some did so jokingly, but others explicitly suggested that Ingram did have one or more coders doing the work he claimed as his own. [44]

The controversy became sufficiently widespread to receive a small writeup in Newsweek magazine. When asked for his comment, Ingram only laughed and said, "Yep, I keep him in a bottle and only let him out on special occasions," and waved away any serious discussion. [45]

Further fuel was added to the controversy beginning in 2001, when IFT suddenly and radically decreased its output. The company never again reached the heights of its success in the eighties and nineties [citation needed], although Ingram remained at the helm until his death in 2010, and many suggested that Ingram had "lost his genie," meaning more seriously that Ingram's postulated partner had left him. Some [who?] speculated, given the timing, that the partner might even have been killed in the 9/11 attacks.

When John scrolled to the next page of the Wikipedia entry, though, he hit a box saying This section documents a current event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses. Underneath was a blurry picture of Harold stepping down from the podium, labeled as Unknown individual, and a new paragraph:

During the Roth Comet Crisis, an individual appeared unexpectedly at the Kennedy Space Center to join the international effort to deflect the comet. Several of the developers with IFT experience recognized his coding style and proposed that he was Ingram's genie. The person did not either confirm or deny the suggestion. [50]

When he refreshed the page, the photo had been replaced with a formal smiling portrait of Harold taken from the United Heritage Insurance website, the caption read Harold Wren, and the section had ballooned into three paragraphs:

During the Roth Comet Crisis, an individual tentatively identified as Harold Wren was proposed as the genie. [46] Wren, a classmate of Nathan Ingram's from MIT [47], appeared unexpectedly at the Kennedy Space Center to join the international effort to deflect the asteroid.[48]

He took charge of the coding effort and made use of the IFT Assignment Manager tool described above, used during the heydey of IFT, to distribute programming assignments to the rest of the team. [49] Several of the developers with IFT experience recognized the style of the assignments and proposed that Mr. Wren was Ingram's genie. Mr. Wren did not either confirm or deny the suggestion. [50]

Mr. Wren is employed as an underwriter for a company, United Heritage Insurance [51], which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Altair Technology Group, the private venture capital company which also owns half of IFT.[52] The ownership of Altair Technology Group is unknown, although some have proposed that it is a shell company owned by Mr. Wren personally. [45][dubious - discuss]

Ingram's Genie and Harold Wren were trending topics on Twitter, and Harold's face was on the front page of the CNN website. John looked around the room: three hundred coders, all of them online; any of them could be telling other people right now, and probably at least a dozen of them were.

John's phone started ringing. It was the New York Times.

John spent the next half hour telling a lot of reporters, "Mr. Wren has no comment," until one of them said, "Hi there, this is Annemarie Lotts from the Des Moines Register. I don't really know how to say this, but I went to school with Harold back in Iowa Falls, so I know his name's really Harold Gale — " John felt a jolt of mixed glee and disgruntlement: I didn't get to dig it up. She went on, "And I guess someone's going to tell pretty soon, but I don't want to be the one making trouble for him or his folks — "

"Hang on a second," John said. Harold glanced up and around at him, raising an eyebrow. "Remember an Annemarie Lotts from high school?" John said to him.

Harold blinked. "Good Lord."

"She wants to know if you mind her printing your real name," John said.

"Well, the sedition charges aren't much of a concern under the circumstances, I suppose," Harold said. "Tell her it's fine, and I'll call her back later tonight."

"You will?" John said, dubiously.

Harold was staring at the screen again, his mouth tight. He made an abortive gesture, a twitch of his hand. "She shared her lunch with me in fifth grade when I forgot mine. I may as well talk to her as anyone."

"I didn't know you were planning to talk to anyone," John said. "Harold, why are we really here?"

Harold didn't look up. "I imagine the government officials are going to start calling shortly," he said. He opened a new window on the computer and ran a handful of commands; the phone in John's hand buzzed with a text message: 917-555-2527. "Give that line only to people representing senior officials, and tell them that I'll be available in a few hours. When we're ready, we'll reroute the original number to my answering service, and call them back."

By the time John couldn't answer the phone fast enough and they made the switch, he'd collected the senior aides of four senators, two generals, seven prime ministers, and the White House chief of staff.

Harold had spent the time mostly fielding questions from the other coders. There had been a lot of those, some of them belligerent. The angry guy from the front row had stomped up and pointed to the framework Harold had given him, complaining about it, until Harold had brought up the diagram and pulled up six chunks of the project to show him how his piece fit in with the others. He'd stared, and then he'd shut up and gone back to his seat without another word.

There were a few others like that, and after that a steady running stream of questions; Harold knocked all of them off almost instantly, except for a couple that made him pause, say, "Hm, let's think about that," and message two or three other people in the room to come up to his station and discuss it; each of those conversations lasted fifteen minutes, and then Harold made a call, adjusted the diagram, and sent everyone back to work.

A couple of hours ago, the screen down at the bottom of the room had flickered on and started to display a rough video simulation of the moving comet and the Artemis. There were two percentages showing on the screen in boxes: one read 32% and the second read 58%. Everyone had looked up; Harold said into his computer's microphone, voice coming out across the room, "The percentages are displaying the current odds of success of the two remaining deflection windows, across ten thousand simulations. You'll all notice the final window has a higher probability; the discrepancy is because of the information we could expect to obtain by adding instrumentation to the second attempt."

Before he'd finished talking, the first number had ticked up to 33%.

They'd kept climbing slowly since then. They were at 39% and 68% by now, the video quality of the simulation was a lot more refined, and the whole room was his. The grey, heavy feeling of desperation that had hung over the place was gone, and everyone was working urgently but not grimly. Harold had started sending some of them away to sleep and shower and shave. Some of them had tried to put up protests, but he'd just stared at them until they'd gone. Even Bolden had gone into his office to lie down on the couch for a couple of hours, apparently the first time he'd left the room in days.

He'd called the White House first to throw in behind Harold; that had kept everyone off their backs for a while. But outside the room, the world was a lot more divided; news sites were howling for more information, and castigating governments for allowing Harold to barge in. Annemarie Lotts had published his real name, and a retired FBI agent was on CNN saying that Harold had hacked ARPANET as a teenager and was wanted on multiple federal charges. His family's house was surrounded by news helicopters and law enforcement; Harold had glanced at the New York Times website once and then looked resolutely away.

The new phone line rang only a couple of minutes after Harold had shunted the first one away. It was the White House, the secretary for the chief of staff. "John," she said, "this is Eleanor. We're going to need Mr. Gale on the line immediately."

"Hang on," John said, and looked at Harold. "Whatever you're working up to, I hope it's ready."

Harold looked over. John held out the phone. "It's the White House. I'm pretty sure they're going to put the chief of staff on."

"He can discuss it with you," Harold said.

John stared at him. Harold blinked back. John mentally shrugged and brought the phone back to his ear. "Eleanor, your boss can talk to me if he wants to. Mr. Gale can't interrupt right now."

She hesitated. "I don't — "

"Do you really want to break into the work he's doing right now for questions I can answer?" John said, and that got him McDonough on the line, irritated and half unwilling to believe.

"Possibly I should make this clear: the only reason you and your boss aren't in a maximum security prison right now for hacking NASA systems is — "

"That he's saving the world?" John said, dryly. He could almost see McDonough's teeth grinding. "Sir, why don't you just tell me what you need, and I'll do my best to get it for you."

"What I need are answers," McDonough snapped. "Who the hell is your boss, for one thing."

John covered the mouthpiece and looked at Harold. "Am I saving anything?"

"Only the Machine," Harold said.

John turned back to the phone. "Harold Gale, aka Harold Wren," he said. "He owns half of IFT, he wrote all the code — "

"So you're saying this Ingram's Genie story — "

"Yes," John said. "He's worth roughly sixty-five billion dollars, and he's not crazy. I think that about covers it."

"And who the hell are you?" McDonough said.

"John Harrison Stracey, aka John Reese. Formerly Master Sergeant First Class, 1st SFG, then Delta, then the CIA." John's mouth twitched. "I retired in 2010."

McDonough paused; John could hear a murmur, probably him telling people to check out the details. He came back on the line. "All right, Mr. Stracey — "

"Reese, if you don't mind," John said. "I'm used to it."

"Fine, Reese," McDonough said. "We need to understand what the hell he's doing."

"Suggest a conference call," Harold said from his seat, still typing.

"What?" John said, muting the phone.

"The President, any other world leaders they want to invite, an hour from now," Harold said. "Tell them I can explain once, not twenty times."

McDonough didn't like it, but he took it. An hour later, Harold went into the big meeting room at the back and told the Machine to set up the call: there were a dozen screens around the room, and they all lit up with the drawn, anxious faces of presidents and prime ministers, surrounded by their staff. They all startled when the screens came up, looking confused.

Harold didn't give them a chance to think about it. "You'll have to forgive my being brief," he said. "We still have considerable work to do. You should all be able to see the statistical display." The percentages on the screen were up to 44% for the second window, 73% for the third. "We'll be done when we hit 99.6% for the second window. That should be slightly more than two days from now. At that point, we'll be a day out from the second window, so there should be plenty of time."

He held up a hand as several people started trying to talk, even though none of their voices came over the line. "Excuse me," he said. "I realize that you all have legitimate concerns. You don't know me. But quite bluntly, you have nothing to lose. The first attempt demonstrated that the best you could do wasn't working. If my work here doesn't succeed in the next window, you can throw me out and you'll still have a third window to attempt. But I assure you, if I wasn't confident of my work, I would be spending my final days in a far more enjoyable way.

"I know that you all also have a duty to reassure your citizens and keep the peace." He turned and gestured to John. "Mr. Reese has complete access to me at any time. Please don't hesitate to contact him with any questions which you want answered for the public. When we reach 80% for the second window, which will be tomorrow, I'll be able to take another break of one hour. Mr. President, I will defer to your wishes on how I should spend that time."

He took questions from all of them for the rest of the hour. They all boiled down to, what the hell are you doing?

"To simplify to an extreme: I built a master controller for the disparate systems that were cobbled together to equip the Artemis," Harold said. "We're now building a simulation of the asteroid system from the available data that will tell us how to use the systems."

It went on for a while after that, but since none of them knew enough about computers to remotely understand what Harold was doing, the answers that John could tell were all neatly skirting any mention of the Machine were mostly over their heads. But it served the purpose anyway, which was to make them believe Harold knew what he was doing, and to make them feel like they were on top of things.

Afterwards, McDonough called John right back. "Next break, we're going to put him on CNN with Anderson Cooper," he said. "We need the public to hear from him, get a sense of who he is."

John looked at Harold, who stood a moment, his mouth downturned hard; then he nodded and walked out of the conference room, back to the coding.

"That's fine," John said to McDonough.

"If there's anything else you need, you tell me."

"Actually," John said, "there is. I'm not thrilled with the security here. No offense, sir, and it's all working out for the best, but we shouldn't have been able to just walk in here and get started until the call had been made up the chain of command."

"No goddamn kidding," McDonough said. "I thought Foley was on top of this."

"I'm sure Director Foley has been doing his best," John said. "I might just have different standards." He let that sink in a moment. "I realize there are some questions of jurisdiction," he added, "but in the interests of time, I figured we could just do an end run around them. There's no reason Mr. Wren shouldn't have a personal security team here, is there?"

"A personal security team?" McDonough sounded wary.

"And if that personal security team happened to be made up entirely of honorably discharged Green Berets," John said, "well, a lot of soldiers go into private security work after they retire."

"You have someone in mind?" McDonough said.

"Captain Mick Ryan from the 1st SFG retired here to Florida to start a company that does private security for senior executives traveling to high-kidnap regions," John said. "He only hires retired soldiers with clean service records."

"I can't just authorize hiring a private contractor —" McDonough began.

"Harold can pick up the tab," John said. "I just need you to let them through the door."

Ryan picked up his phone on the seventh ring. It sounded like there was some kind of a party going on: splashing and kids yelling in the background. "Yeah, who is this?" he said.

"Captain Ryan?" John said, and there was sudden silence on the other end.

"Stracey?" Ryan said slowly. "Jesus. Stracey, you son of a bitch. I figured for sure you'd gotten put in the ground on something so secret they wouldn't even admit you were dead. They cutting you Delta boys loose for the end days?"

"I've been loose for a while," John said. "I have a favor to ask."

Ryan snorted. "For whatever it's worth anymore, sure. I'd be glad to balance up my sheet a little more, if I can swing it."

"Have you been watching the news?" John said. "About what's going on at Canaveral?"

"Yeah, this bullshit about our four-eyed genius savior who's supposedly so magic he can do what a hundred other guys couldn't?" Ryan said.

"I work for the four-eyed genius," John said. Ryan paused. "He's going to get it done."

Ryan didn't say anything for a long moment: John heard a voice in the background saying, Daddy, daddy, who is it? "Hush, sweetheart," he said finally. "Stracey, you give me your word of honor as a Green Beret on that?"

"Word of honor," John said. "It's going to be okay. And that's why I need you to pull in every man you can trust and get up here, because I'm going to need you for what comes next."

"Jesus, you don't ask for a lot or anything," Ryan said. After a moment he asked, "They going to let us in?"

"I've cleared it at the top," John said. "There will be choppers waiting at Morris Airfield to bring you in. How many guys can you get?"

Ryan blew out a breath. "I've got ten of them in the house right now, if you don't mind them working off a few beers," he said. "I can get another ten probably in an hour, fifteen if you give me two."

"Take the first hour," John said. "We'll bring the rest in later. Call me when you're on the ground."

"How quiet do you need this to stay?" Ryan said.

"Tell anyone you want," John said. "Get yourselves on CNN if you can."

Ryan called back three hours later when they landed. John was dozing on a cot shoved up next to Harold's, in a commandeered office down the hallway. He knew Hersh and two of Foley's men were standing watch outside the door. He rolled up off the cot and answered the phone and gave Ryan directions. "The guy in the beige suit is an NSA operator," he said. "Consider him worth four guys."

He stepped out into the hallway after he hung up. Hersh looked at him, unsmiling, still. His suit was looking a little rumpled, but his eyes were clear: he'd caught a few hours earlier, right around when John had been making phone calls. John smiled at him, and at the two uneasy soldiers. "You guys must be getting run down, tagging along with us all this time, all the way from DC," he said. The men's eyes darted at Hersh and back to him, without saying anything. "I've been feeling concerned about the situation."

"Everything's under control," Hersh said softly.

"Oh, it is," John said. "I just didn't want your feelings to get hurt."

Hersh frowned and then jerked his head around as the hallway door opened and Ryan came inside at the head of a double column of his men, all of them in black body armor, handguns ready. The soldiers stiffened, looked to Hersh for direction, their hands dropping to their own guns. "Agent Hersh," John said cheerfully, "Captain Mick Ryan. He'll be handling security for Mr. Wren from now on."

Hersh stood motionless a moment, but he wasn't an idiot. He looked at John, looked at Ryan, then turned and jerked his head silently to the two soldiers; they fell in behind him as he disappeared down the hall in the opposite direction.

"Stracey," Ryan said, holding out a hand. "You don't call, you don't write — you pick fights with the NSA — "

"Good to see you, too," John said, shaking his hand. He looked around as the door opened; Harold was standing there. He looked at Ryan and the soldiers, gave John raised eyebrows. "Harold, this is Mick Ryan," John said. "He and these men are here to keep an eye on you. I want six men on at all times," he said to Ryan, who nodded.

Harold said politely, "Thank you, Mr. Ryan," and gave John a sidelong look as they headed down the hall back to the coding theater.

"I got a little help from some of those friends you've been asking me to make," John said. "Hope you don't mind."

Harold glanced back at the six men shadowing him: Ryan had taken the rest to scope out the building and secure an exit route and sleeping quarters. He made a slight grimace. "They're preferable to their predecessors, I suppose," he said.

"They're very expensive," John added cheerfully.

"I'd expect no less," Harold said dryly.

#

Harold was doing integration work exclusively now, pulling together the parts the other coders sent him and fitting them into a whole. The percentages kept ticking up the rest of the night. The second-window estimate hit 80% at 8am the next morning. The timing made Anderson Cooper's people very happy: they had the cameras set up before the cheering had even finished. "All right," Harold said, grimly, and let a production assistant lead him to a chair.

John stood by the main camera and watched. Harold's face stayed utterly blank, and his answers stayed stiff and barely more than monosyllabic, despite everything Cooper tried to do to draw him out. Questions about the sedition charges got an, "I don't think any juvenile indiscretions I might have committed are particularly relevant at the moment, and I'm certain a lawyer would advise me against saying anything," and nothing else, even when Cooper left a full three seconds of uncomfortable silence, which John could have told him was a game of chicken he was going to lose spectacularly.

But Cooper got revenge. He said, "Mr. Wren, obviously I'm not a computer scientist myself, so I hope you'll forgive us, but we felt it would be best to bring on an expert to ask you some questions for the benefit of our audience," and he turned to a large monitor his people wheeled up between them, and it went live with the grim, unshaven face of Dr. Gervaise. "Dr. Gervaise, if you could perhaps — "

"No, excuse me, let's just cut the crap here," Gervaise interrupted. He leaned forward. "So. Mr. Wren — it's not Dr. Wren, is it?"

"Oh, hardly," Harold said. "Although Nathan collected various honorary doctorates over the years; I suppose you could consider them awarded jointly. But Mr. Wren will do."

"Right," Gervaise said. "So please tell me, how did the government talk you into lending yourself to this complete pile of steaming bullshit, and how did you talk everyone over there into buying in? Have you been offered shelter in some massive underground bunker, or what?"

Harold sighed. "Dr. Gervaise, I respect your credentials, and I can't condemn you for objecting to the initial attempts to misrepresent the Artemis mission's likelihood of success. But I assure you there is no possible inducement I could be offered to participate in any kind of a charade. Quite bluntly, the only inducement I could be offered to be here at all is avoiding the destruction of human civilization."

Gervaise smiled, humorlessly. "So you're seriously claiming that in the span of two weeks, you've built a complete working integrated control system for a cobbled-together pile of mismatched components and nuclear weaponry, capable of managing it at such precision — "

"No, no, of course not," Harold said, interrupting. Gervaise stopped open-mouthed. "That would be entirely ludicrous. A year wouldn't be enough time."

"Wait," Anderson Cooper began, and Gervaise was saying, "So what the hell — "

"I've spent the past ten years working on a — " Harold paused, waved a hand in the air. "I don't have a name for it yet. Call it a butler system. To describe it in layman's terms, I wanted to build a system that would allow you to take any set of electronics — any microprocessor-controlled objects, from cellphones to refrigerators — and plug them in to a system that would then generate a virtual machine that would interface between the devices, to let you run programs across all their capabilities."

Cooper looked confused, despite Harold using what he apparently thought passed for layman's terms, but Gervaise was gawking at him. "It's not working yet, of course," Harold added. "But it was far enough advanced that I was able to generate a working prototype for the Artemis systems which only needed minimal refinement."

Gervaise looked almost sick. "What you're talking about," he said, "something that could do what you're talking about, it's virtually — it's impossible. If you could do it — "

"It would change the world," Harold said. "That was the idea, Dr. Gervaise. After 9/11, it was borne in on Nathan and myself that we had already made more money than we could possibly hope to spend in our lifetimes, and we'd failed to deliver any truly monumental advancement to the world. So we agreed on a project we felt was worth sacrificing any other short-term goals to achieve."

Gervaise just stared at him. Harold stared back, and then turned to Cooper and said, "If you'd like a demonstration, please give me a laptop and a large usb hub, and several random cellphones with their cables. Or any other relatively small electronic device you can find."

There was a brief furious scrambling that landed Harold with seven cellphones in different colors, a Kindle, and a portable camcorder. "All right," Harold said, and plugged them all into the hub and the hub into the laptop. He booted up a terminal window. "This is obviously a trivial example," he said even as he typed, "but as a proof of concept I hope you'll find it — "

The devices all started chiming out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in perfect harmony, except for the Kindle, which flashed the notes on its screen in time.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Gervaise said, and his voice broke and he put his face in his hands.

#

After that, the CNN team got permission to set up a live feed going out to every news organization in the world. The huddled production assistants had a bank of monitors showing all of CNN's worldwide coverage, video coming in from dozens of places around the world: Times Square, Tiananmen Plaza, Red Square around the Kremlin, Trafalgar Square, all of them filling up slowly with people staring up at giant screens. A ticker ran along the base showing the percentages, still going up steadily.

The plazas were all crammed full by the time the second window hit 99.6% two days later. At the base of the coding theater, techs had set up a giant screen the full height of the room for the video coming in from the Artemis itself, moving into position, rotating: the comet loomed suddenly huge. John was next to Harold, Bolden on his other side, and the wall of Ryan's twenty men stood against the wall behind them.

Foley and his people weren't anywhere to be seen: they'd packed it in right after the interview. John had seen Foley watching it from the sidelines, his arms crossed over his chest and his mouth pursed; when Twinkle Twinkle Little Star started playing, he'd glanced at John from the far side of the room. Hersh had been standing next to him. John had given them both a thin, cold smile. Foley had inclined his head slightly: your round, and then he'd turned to Hersh and said a few words, then gone out of the room.

Hersh had rounded up all his people — all the men who'd seen the Machine — and taken them away, too. John was grimly sure they hadn't made it home: Foley still didn't want the Machine exposed any more than Harold did. John had no illusions that they would give up trying to get to Harold, now that they knew he existed, what he could do. But they'd never again be able to make Harold just disappear.

Even here in the control room, everyone kept glancing back at him throughout the utter silence that fell while the first drone launched. There was a complex schedule running above the display: the next ten mission checkpoints each one with two separate timers counting down: one in real-time, and the second delayed by seven minutes and fourteen seconds, the latency for video data between the Artemis and Ground Control. The first drone launch real-time count hit 0:00:00 and lit up green to indicate they'd gotten the confirmation signal.

They all held their breath; precisely as the second timer went to 0:00:00, the Artemis camera wobbled briefly, a brief burst of light on its edge, and then they all watched the brilliant white of the drone engines blazing as it shot away, heading across the void towards the craggy ice-hissing surface of the comet some five hundred miles away. The impact was supernova-bright: they all winced away as the screen whited out. Even as it cleared up, the second and third drones were launching together on screen, seconds apart.

They were six drones down, two to go, when the error message hit: the timer for the seventh drone hit zero and went red. The numbers disappeared and changed to ABORTED. The gasp was collective. "It's all right," Harold said: everyone was already turning towards him. "Up to three drone failures are solidly within the tolerances of this mission design. It should reconfigure automatically."

On the screen, the timers were already changing: the seventh drone had been dumped, and two new drone launches had been added to the slate. "Jesus Christ," someone muttered a few rows down: it sounded like a prayer more than a curse.

The last three drones went successfully, launch to detonation. Before people could set up anything like a cheer, the screen abruptly blanked and a whole new set of countdowns marched on, times in minutes and hours: engine firings. "Does that mean it didn't work?" someone called, uncertainly.

"No," Harold said. "The Artemis will continue to pace the comet until its fuel runs out." He sounded flat. John shook his head, smiling a little to himself, ruefully; he should have told Harold to program in fireworks, or some kind of victory message.

People just didn't get that it was over. A handful of people applauded uncertainly; most of them just started talking, calling questions up to Harold and to each other, conversations going in seven languages.

"It definitely hasn't broken up, at least," someone said, and then someone else yelled something in Russian, and another member of the Russian team translated: "Trajectory altered! Pulkovo Observatory confirms comet trajectory altered — " Another shout came from the other side of the room from a group of people watching the Hubble transmission on CNN: they were using CGI to draw a curve showing the new trajectory, taking the comet well clear of Earth.

Understanding started spreading throughout the room like ripples intersecting, wherever people got confirmation and shared it with each other. People were crying and hugging each other, and bottles of liquor were coming out from under the desks where people had hidden them, not wanting to jinx the mission.

Bolden turned with tears running down his face. He clearly wanted to hug Harold, but Harold was standing holding on to the railing, his head bent forward, his face unsmiling. Bolden settled for putting his hand on Harold's shoulder. "You did this," he said. "You did this."

"Please get me out of here," Harold said to John, almost inaudible, as the noise in the room started climbing to hysterical levels, champagne corks popping, people turning and yelling toasts up to them.

A helicopter was waiting for them outside in fifteen minutes. Getting Harold to it was the most physically brutal mission John had been on in a long time. With any less than twenty men, it would have been impossible. The media didn't care that they had guns and could kill without them; every last reporter was hysterically desperate for a word, even a bad camera angle, and the ordinary people who had come to watch were worse: they just wanted to touch Harold, like he was a relic in a church. It was an outright fistfight towards the end, shoving people out of the way against the pressure of hundreds more. Harold kept his head down, his shoulders hunched.

"Get into the air!" John yelled to the pilot over the headset, when they were about twenty yards out. He and Ryan bodily lifted Harold up to the guys leaning out of the chopper, everyone else in the team a two-deep human wall around them surrounded by the screaming mob, and then the two of them and the six guys on Harold's detail jumped for the skids and pulled themselves up as the helicopter kept rising.

Harold sat rigidly, his hands gripping his knees. John stayed close to him, their sides pressed together, the only comfort he could give. Ryan and his men were all on their cellphones talking softly to their families, but even they kept glancing at Harold sideways. The pilot kept looking into his side view mirror.

News helicopters showed up on their tails within ten minutes, carrying lighter loads and gaining, cameramen leaning out with enormous zoom lenses. Harold shrank into the back of the copter and reached for his cellphone, and they got instant clearance at a regional airport a few miles away: a fast private jet was fueled and waiting for them, with a very confused flight crew whose eyes bugged out when they came racing across the tarmac and up the stairs, the news copters a hovering flock just out of range, being denied clearance to land.

"So, uh, so where are we going?" the pilot said, stammering, while the flight crew got the plane ready to take off. Some of the helicopters were landing outside the airport, and people were starting to gather. John went down the aisle and leaned in to Harold, who had already dropped himself into a window seat four rows back and closed the blind. He was staring straight ahead. "I'd say someplace in the Caribbean, but I think we might get some pushback if we try to get clearance to leave U.S. airspace," John said quietly.

"Take us to New York," Harold said.

John hesitated. "I can't get you back to the library," he said, hating to say it out loud.

"I know," Harold said. "I own the top floor of 834 Fifth Avenue, and the roof is large enough to accommodate a helicopter landing."

John nodded and went to tell the pilot. By the time he got back, Harold had stretched out the lie-flat chair and was huddled on his side, asleep, face turned towards the side of the plane. John covered him with a blanket and figured out how to raise up the privacy screens around his head.

With the Machine running interference for them — and messing with the air traffic controllers all along the eastern seaboard, who sounded increasingly frustrated and annoyed every time John heard the pilot talk to them — they managed to lose the pursuit before they came into the Westchester airport. John took the names and emails of the entire flight crew and promised them some serious cash if he got Harold into the city without being tagged.

It was after dark by the time they came in, on a flight plan supposedly heading for the helipad on the east side. The pilot killed the lights flying over Central Park, and they managed to do the drop-off in under three minutes and get the helicopter back up and away before anyone even noticed them, barring a few passers-by on the street pointing up, too far below to see their faces. John shook his head. It was still only a matter of time.

Harold didn't have his keys with him, and the roof door had an alarm system on the inside that he'd built himself. It wasn't networked. They had to rappel a couple guys down and through a window into his apartment. Harold leaned against the wall of the stairway entrance while they worked, slumped and exhausted. He hadn't said a word since the plane. Once they finally got inside the apartment, he limped heavily away from all of them into the kitchen, his shoulders bent.

"We'll secure the apartment, and we'll take a look at the stairs and the elevator situation," Ryan told John, after they did a quick pass over the place. "But I've got to tell you, my gut says we can't secure the building unless we get some serious leeway to mess with the other tenants, and I don't think we're getting him in or out without a helicopter."

"I know," John said. He let Ryan get to it and crossed the living room to join Harold in the kitchen: Harold was making a cup of tea, staring down at the steeping bag. "We'll probably need to buy out the tenants on the floor below us if we can," John said.

"Whatever you think best, of course," Harold said, distantly. "The board will also require some placating, I imagine: I purchased this apartment under a false name — my Crane alias — which violates the co-op agreement."

"I'll take care of it," John said.

"I need to — I can't see Grace," Harold said abruptly. "Can I?"

"Not for a while," John said. Losing a tail wasn't an option when the tail was every person on the street and every news organization in the world.

Harold nodded his head in one sharp jerk. "I need to — I owe her an —" He stopped. "I need to get something to her."

"We'll have to bring Carter in," John said. His face had been on a few too many broadcasts, too, and anyway he wasn't leaving Harold for a second right now.

"All right," Harold said.

"Get some rest," John said. "I'll get Carter here."

The news trucks were already circling the building two deep, held back only a little bit by one stressed out police officer, by the time Carter made it over. John had been spending a lot of Harold's money: the staff had all been given bonuses and a promise of more contingent on maintaining Harold's privacy, and just to be safe, Harold now owned the managing agency.

John had hunted down the president of the board personally: a tall, silver-haired grande dame who had given him the astonished, affronted expression of his first-grade teacher when her housekeeper shakily called her to the door after he'd gone downstairs and knocked. The apartment was full of voices and the sound of a television going in the living room: —current whereabouts remain unknown, although we have some unconfirmed reports that his jet landed twenty-five minutes ago in the New York metropolitan—

"I beg your pardon, the doorman didn't ring up to announce you?" she said, coldly. Then she frowned at him, trying to place his face.

A voice yelled from the kitchen, "Oh my god — mom, gramma, look, he lives here."

She looked over her shoulder. "What's that, Allison?"

"Harold Gale!" A teenager popped out of the doorway waving a cellphone. "That helicopter we heard, it was him! It's on twitter!" She stopped, gaping, when she caught sight of John, and the board president turned back around to stare at him.

Apparently her entire clan had gathered at her place to watch the Artemis operation and had stayed on to celebrate. John ended up shaking a lot of hands while the teenagers texted all their friends gleefully. The board president herself looked irresolute, clearly caught between an automatic massive disapproval of anything this exciting involving her building, and instinctive recognition that the value of that building had just shot through the helicopter-padded roof. Not to mention that her entire family were all going to get to keep on living.

John got the sense that in a few weeks, the disapproval was going to start tipping the balance anyway, but for the moment, she a little grudgingly let him post guards in the courtyard and set up a covered tent passageway to the service entrance from the back door.

Carter came to the service door on a bicycle, wearing a nondescript blue uniform jumpsuit with a nametag reading Elisa, hair in a ponytail under a blue baseball cap pulled low. John had already arranged to have another dozen random delivery people come in and out, bringing food and groceries and books, so the press didn't bother to get a shot of her face. Ryan's people let her through, and John met her just inside the back door. She reached up and took his face in her hands and said quietly, "Good work."

"It was Harold," he said, but his throat was tight and glad. It felt real, suddenly: they'd saved her, and Taylor, and Fusco and his kid; they'd saved Shaw and Leon and Bear and Monica. They'd saved Vasquez and her kids. They'd saved everyone.

Harold stood up when John brought her into the apartment, his arms at his sides; he'd slept and showered and put on a fresh crisp suit, like armor. She crossed the room to him. "I figure if you wanted thanks, you'd be out there talking to people," she said, "but this once, you're going to have to put up with it." She pressed her cheek against his and whispered something John couldn't hear, and then she kissed his cheek; when she drew back, Harold's face looked stricken and pale, and he was staring at the floor, his eyes wet.

Harold gave her the letter he'd spent the last hour writing by hand on thick vellum-like stationery, crumpled pages scattered over the floor. He'd sealed the envelope with red wax. She tucked it into a pocket, and looked at the slip with the address for Grace's mother until she memorized it; she handed it back to him.

"All right, but before I go, I want some answers," she said. "Because I know you haven't spent the last ten years building some kind of cellphone butler. What really happened out there?"

"I will tell you, Joss, I promise, very soon," Harold said quietly. "There's much more that we'll have to discuss."

After she left, Harold went and stood close to the tall windows framed in their long formal curtains. John joined him there. The apartment was quiet: the guards were out in the hallway. "I intend to ask her to continue our work with the irrelevant numbers," Harold said. "We can't — we aren't in a position to — "

"Yeah," John said. They weren't in a position to do a lot of things. He looked out, at Central Park and the skyline surrounding it outside, full of city lights and street lamps. Harold had loved the city, its vastness and anonymity, the way it had let him wear a hundred different faces, drift unnoticed from a cheap diner to the Grand, from a newsstand outside Washington Square Park to a used bookstore in Park Slope.

There was a searchlight waving up from the street panning across the building facade — probably illegal, but no one had stopped them yet. Across the street, a big video camera lens reflecting light made a pale white circle in one of the windows of the Central Park Zoo's headquarters building. A few speckled dots of green and red were splashed against the windows, probably long-range sniper cameras — John suspected some photographers had climbed into the Fifth Avenue trees. The whole world looking in.

Different news organizations kept turning up different aliases: seventeen of them had shown up on Harold's own Wikipedia page by now and half had spawned their own separate articles, all of them growing faster than John could refresh. Every television news show was fighting savagely to get to anyone who'd ever spoken to Harold, anyone who'd ever met him under any name. John had watched Adam Saunders get chased by three news crews going from his own apartment to a car, saying, "No comment," with his face hidden by a hand: someone had gotten the bright idea to search SEC records with the name Harold Crane and turned it up as the investor who'd rescued Tritek — with Saunders as the broker.

One of the searchlights hit part of the window frame and the reflection played over Harold's face for a moment. He twitched convulsively away from the light, almost stumbling, and stood in place shivering a little. He looked — exposed, like a raw nerve, his eyes too wide and his mouth slack; a turtle pulled out of his shell.

"Harold," John said. Fear was a hard lump in his throat; he remembered Harold saying, Promise me you won't let them take you. He took a hard breath and made himself ask. "Did the Machine really need you to be at NASA?"

"No," Harold said after a moment. "The IFT assignment system was designed precisely so I didn't have to have face-to-face interactions with any of our developers. I could have run the operation from the server plant."

John swallowed. He'd been pretty sure, but it was different, hearing it out loud. "Why did you go?" he said. He'd wanted to save Harold, not put him in a prison cell of a different kind. "Did you — do it for me?"

Harold stood very still. "No, John — no," he said, turning towards him. John stared back, half afraid, half wanting to believe him. "Or at least — " Harold stopped, and then he cleared his throat and said, desperately, "It seemed worth living."

John breathed out, a shudder of relief, and then he was closing the distance, pulling Harold in. Harold came to him: a shaky lurching step and he was in John's arms, held close, his forehead coming to rest against John's, his hands gripping tight on John's hips.

John reached up and cupped Harold's face gently, made his hands into blinders to block out the light and his peripheral vision. He bent down and kissed him. Harold leaned into him and shut his eyes. John folded himself around Harold even more closely, moved his whole body between him and the windows.

John didn't know what they were going to do — wait out the wave of hysteria, run away to the island Harold almost certainly owned, buy a yacht to live on. He didn't know what happened after that. But Harold was in his arms, his body relaxing minutely, and his hand was creeping around the back of John's neck, holding on. John kissed him and kissed him back, and stretched his hand out for the blinds.

# End