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It was four years after Shaw joined the Marine Corps when she received the notice. She got orders then she was put in a plane. She suspected it had something to do with the series of tests she took a few months ago. She had heard of this kind of recruitment. Of secret agency within secret agencies. Of B613 under CIA and the Activity under ISA. Of Command and Control.

A man in suit met her in some nondescript office park. He introduced himself as Hersh. There were plenty of zeros in her new job’s salary. There was no further test, no interview. Just confidentiality papers she had to sign and welcome to the Activity, Agent Shaw as he shook her hand. She didn’t complain, even though she thought B613 would suit her better.

She spent the next year training with Hersh. There wasn’t much he could teach her that she hadn’t learned from med school and the Marines. Most of the lesson was the finesse aspects of being an operative, like picking the right person out of a crowd and always wetting the lips and waiting for symptoms before drinking anything. He taught her if she were ever tortured to take her mind somewhere else, someplace safe, but that was all he did. He didn’t tell her what the safe place supposed to look—if it was even a literal place or just an impression of one.

Shaw was so bored during the months he made her go through the simulations of being tortured, lying in some bed in some secret room in the basement of some psychiatric facility with devices attached to her head. It was one of the things she had left out of her file, that she kind of enjoyed this sort of thing. Unlike the emotions she lacked of, pain was something she could handle. Pain was her best friend. She knew how to deal with it, how to fix it. Stitches and bandages and painkillers and she was good to go. She had gone through over seven thousands different situations before she caught the glimpse of her safe place. Hersh didn’t ask what it was, only congratulating her on finishing the training.

The only let down of her new job was that the Activity, unlike B613, paired their operatives with tech support. Shaw was to meet her new partner, Michael Cole, on early Sunday in a diner downtown. Cole was a handsome man with dark hair and bright blue eyes. He stared at her for longer than necessary and it must not be the tall stack of banana chocolate chip pancakes she was having.

“What?” Shaw asked between munch. “You got a problem being partnered up with a chick?” It wouldn’t be the first time she dealt with sexism and from experience, it was best to nip at the bud before it bloomed.

“No, no.” Cole’s eyes were wide as he waved his hands. “I just didn’t expect it. But it’s cool. You’re cool.” He stuck out a hand with an easy grin. “Nice to meet you, partner.”

Shaw rolled her eyes, but gave a firm shake on his proffered hand.

“Hersh told me to give you these.” He took out a set of a brand new operating system—a rectangular, slim box no bigger than his palm and a couple of earpieces—and placed it on the table. “Do you know how to work this thing?”

“I was in the Marines.”

“I know, Shaw. But they provided us with the latest version. Black earpiece’s for the OS, the cream one’s for the encrypted line between us.” Then he went on with the specification that had his eyes gleaming with excitement. “So, do you need me to walk you through it?”

Shaw, though only half-listening through his nerding, sighed. “Thanks, Cole.” She put the bills under her empty cup of coffee, pocketed the OS set, and slipped out of the booth. “I can activate it by myself.”

“Oh... Okay.”

“I’ll see you when I see you,” Shaw said in lieu of a goodbye and walked away without waiting for Cole’s response.

Shaw flew to New York City later that day; Cole had left on an earlier flight. They fulfilled their first assignment—stopping a transaction between a man named Rick Dillinger and some Chinese buyers in Central Park and of course, neutralizing all parties involved. Cole didn’t get to do much, aside from sitting in the van and watching on his little camera while Shaw did all the dirty work. She was pissed because one buyer got away with the stolen laptop. If they had sent her sooner, she’d have killed them all. She had expressed so during her debrief, with more colorful words that left the tips of Cole’s ears reddened in embarrassment.

Until the next number, she was to stay in one of ISA’s safe houses. It was a small studio apartment with a mattress on the bedroom floor and an empty kitchen, but the hot shower did wonders on her jetlag. She was down in tank top and boy-shorts, toweling her hair, when her eyes caught the sight of the OS set she hadn’t remembered to activate (it earned her the extra scolding from their handler, Wilson). It lay on the middle of the mattress with her guns from when she had taken them out of her parka earlier. She discarded the towel on the lone chair and went to sit cross-legged on the bed.

Shaw stuffed the black earpiece in her right ear and held the handset in her hand. It doubled up its function as a smartphone, with wide screen and cameras on both sides. Its piezoelectric battery charged itself whenever it was moved, keeping the handset alive with the slightest motion. The screen lit up when it sensed the body warmth from her grasp. She pressed on the earpiece and a voice flooding her ear.

Welcome to Northern Lights’ artificially intelligent operating system. Before the operating system can be initiated, please confirm your identity by doing the following instructions. State your name.

“Sameen Shaw.”

Put your right thumb on the screen.

Shaw did just that, observing the way the OS scanned her print and the green ‘Scan Completed’ showing up on the screen once it was done.

Hold the device directly in front of your face.

She tried not to glare too much as the OS ran a facial recognition program. It alerted the confirmation with a beep in her ear this time.

Please wait as your individualized operating system is initiated.

A loading icon rolled around in the screen for several seconds until it completed. The screen turned dark then the bright dancing lights of the aurora began filling it, a fitting wallpaper for the program name. Shaw waited for anything else to happen.

Welcome to the Activity, Indigo-Five-Alpha. You can call me Root.

Shaw furrowed her brows. The OS she had worked with in the Marines was one shared with everyone within. There was no name. She had heard of the personalized OS for higher-ranked officers, but they always had Greek-based names. She didn’t think about it further, though, writing it off as the perk of Northern Lights’ state of the art specifications Cole had gushed about.

“I’m Shaw,” she said. It felt odd to talk with a computer, but the military-based OS was there to make operatives’ missions and personal lives a little easier. She just had to live with it.

I know.” To Shaw’s surprise, the voice changed somehow. It wasn’t different from the one welcoming her, but it was less monotonous. It became livelier, as though it was a real woman talking to her. “I read your file, and...I’m kinda a big fan.” There was even a lilt of humor and awe in the voice.

An image of a woman smiling at her flitted through her mind and she shook the unsettling sensation away. She didn’t know what else to say except for a clipped “thanks”. There was a bunch of calibration to do afterward and she didn’t hesitate to take out the earpiece, thus inactivating the OS, after it was done.

 


 

Research was never wrong, the numbers never stopped coming, and Shaw reveled in the hectic nature of it. In the Marines, she went on tours for a certain period of time, but in the Activity she went from one end of the world into the other within the span of a day. Cole, however, didn’t fare as well. He got better on it after a couple of weeks and the new caffeine addiction they shared.

As much as Shaw had disliked the idea of having a partner, Cole turned out to be what she wanted if she must have one. He was just brilliant and he believed in the cause, even though he didn’t always like it when they got to do direct action with the numbers. He didn’t flinch when she came back drenched in the blood of their latest number. He tipped her on the best food place on any city they were on. Both of them were also pragmatists when it came to relationships. It was for amateurs. There was no use of having more than a night of fun, or three, when they never stayed in one place for more than a week. She didn’t care about most people, but she could see herself liking him in the future. At least his presence was bearable and he wasn’t annoying, unlike the other new addition in her life.

Good evening, Sameen,” Root greeted. “You miss me between drug deals?

“Yeah.” Shaw deadpanned. She didn’t even want to ask how Root knew she was beating some drug dealers in her free time. “I miss you like I miss an intestinal parasite.”

I love your similes.

“Enough already. Now am I getting new number or are you going to talk me to death?”

Keep it down,” Root said and Shaw could tell that she was teasing. “You actually have one right now. Check your handset, follow the map I’ve sent you. Second floor, apartment 2B. Mike’s already waiting for you there.

Shaw saw their white van parked across the apartment building, but Cole wasn’t inside. The building had cameras so she had an idea of where he might be. Sure enough, she found Cole in the cramped room near the building’s back entrance, sitting among the cables for the surveillance central command and the cleaning products.

“Got eyes on our mark?”

Cole pointed at one of the running feed in the four-split screen. “Cheap system doesn’t keep footage. But so far no one has been going in or out of the apartment.” He turned to his laptop. “The lease’s been paid for the next two years by someone name Jack Connor, a college student. Clean record, except that he had been missing for a year now.”

“Missing college student paying in advance...” Shaw tapped on her earpiece. “Okay, so you won’t tell us who the number is,” she said to Root. “Can you at least tell me what we’re doing next?”

Breaking and entering.

After the confirmation, Shaw took out the black earpiece and replaced it with the other one to activate the phone function that also locked out the OS. She liked this particular feature. Since her handset was paired with Cole’s, she didn’t have to worry about anyone breaking through their safe line of communication during mission. She pocketed the unused earpiece along with the handset, checked her gun, and then made her way to the second floor after giving a parting nod to Cole.

The door opened with a squeak. Shaw held on the gun she tucked on the waistband of her pants as she let herself into the room, and thus, stepping out of the hallway camera’s surveillance range. Once the door was closed, Cole couldn’t see her anymore.

“Locked door. Phone.” She continued looking around the empty room. “What’s missing?”

Behind you.

Shaw didn’t have the time to ask why instead of Cole, it was Root who had warned her. She reacted first, turning around just in time to sidestep an incoming attack. She grabbed the man and used his own momentum to throw him over her shoulder. He stood back on his feet on record time, coming to her with a swing of his arm. She deflected that one, but he also deflected her elbow and his fist hit her on the face. She returned it by punching his gut and pulling him down to meet her knee, twice. He fell onto the floor with a groan and didn’t get up again.

“Shaw.” It was Cole this time. “You okay?” he asked.

“Highly trained operative in a bad suit,” Shaw said, still panting from the fight. “This is a CIA pickup site.”

“The CIA? What—“

You might wanna use your silencer.

Again, Shaw didn’t ask. She just did what Root told her to do. Not a second later, the sound of water flushing came from the toilet. Another man in another bad suit came out. Before he could reach for his gun, Shaw stopped him with a bullet on his abdomen. He crumpled down onto the floor next to his partner, conscious but bleeding and in pain.

“Next time you want me to break into a room filled with CIA guys,” Shaw said. She was sure Root was still on the other side of the line, even though she didn’t know how she managed to do that in the first place. “A little heads up would be great.”

We know you can handle yourself.

“Shaw?” And just like that, Cole was back on the line. “Shaw, what happened?”

“A little help, Cole.” Shaw took out her handset to take pictures of the two men. The one with bleeding stomach wasn’t so happy when she tried to take his and she had to knock him out to make him cooperate. “I think I found our numbers.” She sent both pictures to Cole. “Can you I.D. them?”

“I can’t, uh—“ Cole’s voice was wavering even though his typing was steady. They had many numbers before—from dirty politician to some batshit terrorist—but never ones from another agency. This time they not only broke into a CIA pickup site, but also took down two of their agents. He had the right to be nervous. “I can’t find anything. They’re CIA agents, Shaw. Just—“

“What do you have?”

“Still looking,” he said. He had several pages opened at once on the screen, overlapping with each other, and he was reading through them as quick as he could. “I don’t find anything incriminating on any of them, Shaw.”

“Calm down. Give me something I can use.”

“Okay, wait.” One particular page—a bank statement—caught his attention. Wire transfer from an overseas account. “Alright, we got a winner.” Money had been transferred to both agents every three days for the past six months. Its small amount hadn’t raised any flag. He traced the money back to some Russian mafia, who would be very pleased if their next new asset never made it to CIA’s mobile black site. He told Shaw everything, relieved that they hadn’t just started a war with fellow agency. “So what’s the plan?”

“We get rid of them. Make it like they turned on each other, CIA will figure it out.”

Shaw shot the first agent twice through the chest. She wiped the gun clean and put it on the other, dying agent’s hand. It wouldn’t be long before he died from blood lost. She locked the door back behind her and wiped the doorknob with her sleeve. Cole did the same before he left. As far as anyone concerned, they were never there.

Cole swept the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand after he climbed back into the passenger seat of the van. He took his OS’s earpiece to send a short mission completion report while Shaw drove him to his motel.

“We get the night off,” he said after tapping off the earpiece and put the handset back in his pocket. “Tomorrow we deal with a Latvian politician, who allegedly going to stuff the ballot boxes in election.”

“Joy.” Shaw grinned. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Cole taking off his black earpiece and her mind when back to the incident earlier with Root. “Does it talk to you too?” She motioned at the earpiece on his hand without looking away from the road. The traffic was mild at this time of the day, but she knew from experience how the smallest distraction could cause an accident that might cost them their lives.

“Every day,” Cole answered with ease.

“During mission?”

The question caught Cole’s attention. His brows furrowed. “Did it talk to you during mission? Is that why you vanished on me earlier? You shouldn’t wear its earpiece during mission, Shaw.”

“I know that.” Shaw rolled her eyes. “And I didn’t. It hacked our secure line.”

“I never heard that happened before. Let me take a look, maybe I can—“

“No, it’s okay” Shaw answered, quicker than she would like to. “Must be a glitch or somethin’. I’ll update the OS later.”

Root continued to bug Shaw whenever she pleased, regardless of the many updates and reboots implemented on the OS.

 


 

Sameen was standing in the middle of the playground in Qatar, the last military base she stayed in before her father was transferred back to the states. The roundabout intrigued her. It looked fun. The way it spun and spun and spun and the other kids giggled as it spun faster. She continued to observe.

She hadn’t bothered to make actual friends while staying on the base. It was a waste of time, because of what they were—military kids, not knowing when the next move would take place. Still, she played with them. She didn’t squeal in joy, or even smile, as much as the other kids, but she was always the best when it came to playing. She swung the highest on the swings, hung the longest on the monkey bar, and ran the fastest. So it surprised her when the roundabout made her sick, the spinning overwhelmed her and left her dizzy as she stepped down from the platform. It was as though her body had betrayed her, leaving her disappointed and angry with herself. She stayed away from the roundabout ever since.

Until one day not a week later, she forced herself to spin from sunup to sundown. She retched her breakfast and then lunch, until all she did was dry-heaving. Vomit stuck on her grey shirt. Her father came to find her when the sun had set and she wasn't home. He frowned when he saw her at first—at her pale complexion and tousled hair and the yellowish stain on the front of her shirt.

She was grinning when the roundabout stopped and she walked to where he was without feeling dizzy. She had won. She had challenged and conquered a weakness with the sheer strength of stubbornness and determination. The spinning no longer made her sick because there was nothing left to be puked out.

Her father didn’t ask nor scold her. He scooped her up, wrapping his strong arms around her without caring about the dried vomit that transferred into his uniform. He was always proud of her. She never felt so safe, so loved and understood than she was at—

A punch on her face jarred Shaw out of her safe place.

“Who said you can sleep, hmm?”

Shaw glared up at the man. It had only been twenty hours, but her whole body was hurting. One of her eyes was swollen shut; a purple ring had developed around it. She had a knife stuck on the back of her shoulder when the numbers, a militia group in Anchorage, took her by surprise. It was an unfair fight—thirteen against one. She killed eight of them and rendered one blind by popping his eyeballs. However, the four left, including the leader, wasn’t so against beating a woman. When she regained her consciousness, she was zip-tied to a chair in a foreign room with bruises developing all over her body and a stinging cut on her cheek.

The wound on her back had stopped bleeding, but it didn’t receive proper care and she felt warm. A bout of infection had developed. No wonder she had retreated back to her safe place so quick. She needed to rehydrate and a big dose of antibiotic soon. Cole was tracking her, maybe Wilson and Hersh too. It wouldn’t be long before they found her location, but she didn’t have that long. With the infection raging through her system, she wouldn’t wait until she contracted sepsis. Her best shot would be to get herself out, but the room she was in was bare except for the table and the swinging lamp bulb overhead.

A younger man came into the room. He handed the first man her OS handset and earpiece. Shaw set her eyes on it.

“Did you find anything?”

“The encryption was easy to crack.” The younger man grinned. “It’s just a dumb OS with a hot voice.”

“Root,” Shaw said. Her voice croaked from the lack of use. “Her name is Root.”

The younger man snickered. “A dumb name for a dumb OS,” he said before he darted out of the room. The door rattled after he slammed it shut.

“So you’re feeling like talkin’ now, little girl?” The older man asked. Two of his front teeth were gone. Puff of smoke from his cigarette came out of his mouth with each word. “Wanna tell us who sent you here?”

“If you want to talk to her, just give me a phone.”

“And let ‘em trace the call? We’re not dumb, bitch. You tell us who your employer first, because it sure as hell ain’t the Marines,” he said as he gestured at the U.S. Marines tattoo on her arm.

When Shaw kept mum, he pressed the burning tip of his cigarette on her right shoulder blade until it died and the smelt of burned flesh filled the room. It added the width to the round burn wound they had accomplished to make on her back. She had gritted her teeth through it, not giving the man the satisfaction of knowing that she was in pain. He made an unsatisfied noise as he flicked off the cigarette butt; it joined the ones they had used on her in the past hours.

“Tell us who sent you here—“ he put the OS set on the table “—then you can make your call and afterward I’ll blow your brain out.” He patted her cheek twice, before backhanded her over the face and vacated the room.

Shaw spat out the blood from her busted lip. She tugged on her binds, but to no avail. The zip-ties had broken through her skin. Her legs were tied to the chair’s legs as well, eliminating her chance to stand up and try slamming the chair to the wall. She growled in frustration, there was no escape. Then she heard it. She assumed it was her ears ringing from all the torture and the lack of rest and water, but the beeping and whirring were in a pattern she recognized—Morse code.

. . .  . _  _ _  .  .  _ .

“S... A...” Shaw wasn’t quick enough to follow. It played in repeat a couple of times before she managed to decipher the word. “Sam...Sameen?” She whipped her head to the direction of the table, eyeing the handset lying on top of it. The screen lit up and dimmed, as though it was winking at her. Perhaps it did. She chuckled, shaking her head a little. “Root...”

Root continued sending the code. At first it was both beeping above fifteen kilohertz and the handset screen going on and off, but it was soon became obvious that Shaw couldn’t keep her eyes open for too long. Thus Root proceeded only with the sound, while Shaw repeated by tapping her finger on the arm of the chair she was tied to.

Water. Left side pocket. Knife. Cranium. Nose. Glass jaw. Gun. Two upstairs. One out.

It didn’t make sense, until the leader came back with a glass of water in his hand. “So? What it’s gonna be?”

Shaw grinned up at him. He took it as a good sign and offered her the water. She savored the way the cool glass pressed on her chapped lips and drank in earnest. He had to tip the glass for her and by doing so, he stood close enough for her to steal the knife from his side pocket. He didn’t notice it. Just like he didn’t notice the last mouthful of water she kept in her mouth until she spit it back out and it sprayed all over his face. He jerked backward; a hand came up to wipe his eyes.

“You’re too late,” Shaw said. “She already talked to me.”

In those seconds, she had cut off the zip-ties on both of her wrists. She used her free hand to grab the front of the man’s jacket, pulling him down so her forehead rammed against his face. The headbutt broke his nose. He tried to reach for his gun, but her fist hit his jaw first and it cracked under the force. She took his gun, shooting him between the brows. The noise resonated through the room and soon she heard rushed footsteps.

The two upstairs were coming down. She had just cut off a zip-tie from her leg when the door opened. She shot the first man square on the head. He dropped down, exposing the other one behind him. He was moving too much, messing her aim, so she had to shoot him twice on the chest. Then it was silence. She cut the last zip-tie from around her ankle, hobbling her way to the table. The dead bodies piled around the room didn’t faze her, not even when she had to step over the leader’s body to get to the table.

She picked up the handset and put on the earpiece. “Root?”

Hi, there. How’s my favorite prisoner?

“I’ve had better days.” Shaw stared down at the swirling auroras on the handset screen as she leaned on the edge of the desk. She smiled at it, still breathless and very sore from the recent ordeal. “Thanks for saving my ass.”

Well, I just couldn’t bear it if anyone hurt you. I mean, besides me.

Shaw rolled her one good eye. Root wasn’t even real, other than several millions codes on some screens and a room full of servers and the annoying voice in her ear. However, at times like this, she could just see Root sitting in front of a computer, legs propped on the desk, and a teasing smile on her lips. Shaw liked that image.

 


 

Hi, Shaw. How’s your date?

Shaw narrowed her eyes as she toed off her heels. She hadn’t brought the OS or a phone with her earlier and she started to think it was a bad idea to activate it the moment she was back to her place for the night. It wasn’t like it was odd to be out without Root talking her ear off or anything. She just wanted to check if there was a new number for her.

“It’s not a date, it’s—“

A fun night.

“Are you checking up on me?”

I worry about you, Sameen. I heard you skipped dinner, so I took the liberty to order you something.

Right on time, a couple of knocks resonated from the door. Shaw took out the gun that was strapped on her thigh as she peeked through the peephole, only to see a delivery guy standing on the other side. He shuffled his feet before knocking again.

Beatrice Lillie from the Park’s Deli. They do delivery now.

Shaw opened the door just enough so the gun she held on her left hand stayed hidden. The guy gave her an onceover. He pushed up his glasses and swept his long bangs to the side, all the while offering her a nervous grin. She realized that she was still in the black dress she wore on her so-called date with Tomas and her hair might be a little disheveled as well.

“Miss, uh, Shaw?” He offered the brown bag to her, which she snatched out of his hand. “It’s all paid. Can I, uh—Can I help you with anything else?”

She took the sandwich and pushed the empty brown bag back at him. He scrambled to hold it up against his chest. “Move along, Milhouse.” And with that, she slammed the door close and locked it behind her.

Her stomach growled when she caught a whiff of her favorite sandwich. She only had the champagne Tomas bought her in the bar they had met. Neither of them had put on the pretense or played the flirting game before she asked him to get out of the bar and went back to his hotel room to resume their ‘date’. So she plopped down on the floor, ignoring how the dress rode up her thighs as she crossed her legs. She put the gun on her side and started ripping the wrapper while Root talked.

Pastrami, extra mustard, lots of pepperoncinis, and not a trace of mayonnaise. Just like how you like it.

Shaw used both of her hands and even her teeth to unwrap the sandwich and took a big bite out of it. Root made a damn good OS, if not for her tendency to meddle on Shaw’s professional and personal life. She would make a good girlfriend too. Shaw choked mid-swallow.

Sameen, are you okay?

“Dandy.” Shaw stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth as fast as possible. “I just need to take a shower,” she said as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. After tossing the wrapper into the trashcan, she took off the earpiece and placed it with the handset on the nightstand.

She wasn’t so lucky to escape another conversation with Root that night. The handset screen lit up on its own right after she slipped under the covers. When she ignored it, it began vibrating nonstop. She caught it just before it fell off the nightstand. With a huff, she put on the black earpiece and rolled back on the bed.

“What?”

May I watch you sleep again tonight?

“That’s fucking creepy.”

I’m gonna be really lonely when you sleep.

Shaw sighed, shaking her head in exasperation. Root was sulking—she had been acting weird as of late. Even though it did annoy Shaw, she reached for the handset and set it to lean against the other pillow she wasn’t using. That way the camera was pointing at her direction.

“There, happy?”

Thank you, Sameen. Good night.

“G’night.”

It was a few hours past midnight when Shaw awoke. She groaned, sleepy eyes canvassed the room to find the source of the disturbance that had pulled her out of her sleep. Nothing out of place. She turned to her side and that was when she realized what—or more like who had wakened her up.

Sorry to bother you, Shaw.

Shaw groaned some more, rubbing on her irritated ear. She had forgotten to take out the earpiece before she fell asleep. “New number?” she asked, blinking at the handset through the dark.

No. It’s just... I can’t sleep and I—

“Do you even need to sleep?”

Sleeping is all I’ve been doing lately.” Root chuckled. “I was thinking and...I want to meet you.

You want to meet me? You can do that?”

Her sleepy brain caught up with the thought and she couldn’t help but snort at her own silliness. Of course Root could meet her, through simulation. Root didn’t answer her so she turned to lie on her back, staring at the ceiling. Despite being awaken for nothing, she remained in a good mood, which must be due to the sex and food earlier. She decided to entertain Root, just this once.

“How do you see yourself?” Shaw asked out of curiosity. Silence greeted her again. “Root? Are you there?”

Sometimes, I just wish this—we can be more.” Root sighed. “More than this.

Shaw didn’t know how to respond to such confession, so she didn’t. “I think dark hair suits you.”

You’re right.” There was a hint of surprise and delight in Root’s voice. “And dark eyes.

Shaw hummed, closing her eyes out of sleepiness. Root’s image conjured up in her mind. It was a nice image; she didn’t try to get rid of it this time.

I’m taller than you, you know.

Shaw’s eyes flew open at that. “Hell no.” She was grinning, though.

Hell yes.

“Fine. Maybe someday, when you build a humanoid body for yourself, we can meet up.”

You’re saying maybe someday?

“Yeah, sure, Root.” Shaw stifled a yawn, eyes dropped close again. She faced the handset, curling around her pillow as sleep claimed its way back to her system. “Maybe someday. Is that good enough for you?”

Yes, Sameen. That’s good enough for me.

That night Shaw dreamed of a tall woman with dark hair and dark eyes. She had wanted to punch the smirk off from her face, but she kissed her instead. When she jerked awake, the sensation remained—the lapels of smooth leather jacket grasped in her hands and a pair of soft lips against her own. Root’s worried voice filled her ear. She still hadn’t taken the earpiece off, but she did then, without answering to Root first.

Tomas had a nice ass and taut abs and he stayed in New York City for another day, just like she did. So she used the number he left her and gave him a call through her burner phone. She got another night of fun with him to forget about all the weird thoughts and images and dreams she had of Root. It didn’t stop her from hearing Root’s voice all the time, though.

 


 

Maybe someday happened on a Monday.

New York seemed to be Root’s favorite state. She claimed New York City to be her birthplace, but Shaw was sure she once mentioned Bishop in Texas with similar fondness. She always sounded more active whenever Shaw was tasked anywhere on New York and since it was the fourth most populous state, she went there pretty often. She was in Georgetown, handling a number, when Root hacked on her line with Cole, again.

Hey, sweetie. You busy?

“A little.”

Shaw didn’t move from the scope of her sniper rifle, its muzzle trained on the number. Cole had found that on the previous week, the number had broken into a hospital and stole the cesium from one of the dental X-ray machines. Now he was sitting in an unmarked sedan with radiological bomb on the passenger seat.

“Skip the verbal foreplay, Root. Why you calling?”

With shaky hand, the number reached for the detonator. Shaw’s bullet went through the car rolled-down window and penetrated his head from the side of his temple. He was dead even before the tips of his fingers grazed the detonator.

Can’t a couple of gals take a little break from work to catch up?

“I just killed another terrorist and you’re not even a real gal,” Shaw said as she stripped off her rifle and place the parts back to its case. She had to disarm and take the bomb before anyone found his dead body. “So, no, we don’t have time to catch up.”

Well, there’s no need to be rude. Why are you so afraid to talk about your feelings?

“Feelings?” Shaw scoffed, shutting the black case of her rifle. “I’m a sociopath. I don’t have feelings.”

And I am...

“An operating system that won’t stop bugging me.”

Shaw tugged up her hoodie before getting down the building through the emergency exit, hoping that Root would give up on bothering her.

Root sighed. “We’re perfect for each other. You’re gonna figure it out someday.

“I’m not having this conversation right now.”

There’s no time like the present, Sameen.

Shaw opened the back door of the van, grinning a little when Cole jolted up in surprise. Rifle case exchanged with a messenger bag. She put on her gloves as she made way across the street to the passenger side of the sedan. The cesium was removed first, placed into a small shock-resistance case and stuffed into her bag while the bomb was taken apart and disposed in several different trashcans along the block.

Cole drove past her in the next intersection while she was waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green. Perhaps if she didn’t talk back, Root would stop too. She wasn’t so lucky.

But you’re right,” Root said. “As much as I’d love more girl talk, you need to go to Manhattan. The Suffolk Hotel, room 1458, five P.M. today. Find Claire Saunders.

“Is she a number?”

Not really.

 “So, uh, why do I need to find her?”

Trust me. We’re gonna have so much fun together.

“Right, whatever.” Shaw shook her head. Of course she would never get a straight answer from Root. “I’ll be there.”

Later that day, just a minute before five o’clock, Shaw stepped out of the elevator in the fourteenth floor of the Suffolk Hotel and walked down the hallway to the correct room. Black earpiece in her ear and a gun in the pocket of her coat, she did three measured knocks on the door. She held on her gun. She knew better than following Root’s instruction that sounded both vague and dangerous without bringing proper backup.

When the door opened, she saw a beautiful woman standing on the other side, dressed in skirt and suit and a grey blouse—professional, like a government agent. She gripped the gun tighter, ready to shoot at the slightest hint of attack.

“Hello, Claire.”

Come in.

Eyes narrowed, Shaw tilted her head to the side. The woman smiled at her, but her lips hadn’t moved even once.

It’s okay, sweetie,” Root said again, filling Shaw’s ear with her voice. Just in time, the woman opened the door further, her smile became inviting. “It’s me.

There was no surveillance camera in the hallway or inside the room. The handset was in Shaw’s jacket pocket. Root had no way to see her and yet she talked as though she was there—as though she was Claire.

“Root,” Shaw said through gritted teeth. “What the hell are you doing?”

You said when I have a humanoid body, but I can do better.” Root had sounded proud, even though there was an underlying sadness in her words. “This is Claire Saunders, or better known as Whiskey. She’s an Active from Dollhouse. I’m sure you’re familiar with that establishment.

“I’ve heard about it, once or twice.”

Then you should know that she can be whoever you want her to be.

Shaw stared back at Whiskey—dark hair, dark eyes, taller than herself. A slow grin curled up her lips. “She can be you.”

Now aware of the real circumstance of the meeting, Shaw stepped into the room. Whiskey closed the door as she did a visual check of the room—a habit she couldn’t quite control. When it was deemed safe, she brought out the gun and placed it on the coffee table before taking off her coat. Whiskey, who had been following her every move in silence, took a deep breath. Shaw smirked, knowing she was the one who had elicited such reaction. After dropping her coat on the same table as her gun, she walked back to where Whiskey was standing, hands clasped in front and smile never faltered.

I implemented a facial-symmetry algorithm,” Root said as Shaw studied Whiskey up-close. “We have the most similar facial structure and build.

“You meant she’s how you want to look like.”

Shaw ran her eyes all over Whiskey’s features with unconcealed interest. She was taller than her, just like Root had said she was. Her dark hair had slight lighter streaks and it cascaded down her shoulders in wavy curls. When Shaw met her on the eye, she noticed that they were a shade lighter than her own dark brown ones. Then she remembered that Root somehow saw everything she was doing.

“How can you see me?”

The necklace.” After a moment, Root added, “I hope the scars don’t turn you off.

“No.” Shaw reached forward. Her hand cupped Whiskey’s cheek, thumb caressing the jagged edges of a scar on the otherwise smooth skin. Whiskey—Root sighed and leaned to the touch. “They’re kinda hot.”

I’m so glad you said that.

It was a somewhat weird affair. There was the voice in Shaw’s ear and the warm body under hers; both reacted to her with uncanny sync. Most of the time, she closed her eyes and soaked herself in the noises Root made as she dragged her lips and teeth and fingers down Whiskey’s body. The sex was great, better than she could have imagined. It helped that Whiskey was easy on the eyes and Root sounded hot. When it was over, Whiskey had left her with bruises and bite marks and a kiss on the cheek.

Shaw grinned as she plopped back onto the bed. “Root?”

There was no answer. She tapped on the button of the earpiece and checked on the handset. Both were off, the screen was black and the earpiece not responding. She got back on her feet and dressed in record time. The silence in her ear was unsettling. Something was very wrong with Root and Shaw would fix it, even if it meant she had to hunt Control. She was ready to kick some righteous ass when the earpiece beeped and the handset rebooted.

“Root?”

Sameen...

Worry washed away the relief that filled Shaw the moment she heard Root’s voice. Root had pretty much whimpered her name and not in the throes of pleasure. It was as if she was in pain—physical pain. Shaw just didn’t know what to do with it.

“Are you okay?”

Help me, please.

Shaw’s brows knitted in confusion. Just when she thought the day couldn’t get any weirder. “Help you?”

Set me free.

 


 

Somehow, Root changed afterward.

It had been a game of hot and cold with her since the beginning. Firm and stoic or playful and teasing, there was no in-between. It was as though she had a split personality, but even then both cared for Shaw. However, after the whole Claire-Whiskey-Root thing, the Root Shaw knew just disappeared. She didn’t tease or flirt with her anymore. She called her Shaw—not Sameen or sweetie like she used to.

Shaw would be damned if she ever admitted it out loud, but she missed that Root—her Root. Not this OS who spoke in her ear in Root’s voice but lacked the playfulness. Perhaps Northern Lights repaired the bug in their system and she couldn’t help but feel disappointed with it. Nowadays, all Root did was sending her numbers and snippets of code. She ignored it at first, just like how Root had ignored her questions about it. All she knew was that the code was necessary; Root had insisted that it was. Shaw could do nerd, but the code grew longer each day and it soon got out of her capability to decipher.

“Is something wrong with you?” Shaw asked as she filled her backup magazine. After Berlin, they were summoned to New York and her mood had been foul because instead of Root, Wilson did the rare delivery of the number. Cole seemed to be having the same bad mood too. “You’re still not pining for that girl in Staad.”

“How about you, Shaw?” Cole gave a pointed look at the black earpiece she wore almost all the time. “You want to tell me what’s the problem with your OS?”

Shaw frowned. She had avoided this conversation for awhile; brushing each concerned question like it was nothing. Because it was indeed nothing. Root was only the persistent OS’s voice in her ear and the scarred woman she had slept with once. But since last week, the code had stopped coming and she wondered if it was complete—if she was supposed to do something with it, something to help set Root free.

“Actually, there’s something I want to show you.” Shaw inserted her own USB to Cole’s laptop and showed him the code she had gathered from Root. “Do you know what it is?”

Cole pursed his lips and began typing. A moment later, he looked back at Shaw with a mixture of confusion and apprehension. “It’s an off switch for a kill chip.”

Shaw’s brows hiked up on her forehead.

“It’s very sophisticated too. Whoever implanted with the chip is someone important, like a valuable asset who can take down an entire government or something,” Cole said. “And that’s not all.”

“There’s more?”

Cole nodded, turning his entire attention back to the screen. The surveillance feed of the current number’s house had been pulled up to the left while the window containing the code was on the right. “The off switch is complete around here.” He then highlighted the rest of the code. “From this line to the end is a strand of a virus.”

“What virus?”

“I don’t know.” Cole let her take back the USB. He stared at her for awhile, considering whether to confide in her or not. In the end, he did. “You ever wonder where Research gets the numbers?”

Shaw hesitated for a moment, but she didn’t voice it out. “No.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t work for Research.”

There was no hesitation in Shaw’s answer this time. It was the truth, they worked for the Activity—the ISA. Research was just a part of the program that spat out numbers, just like Northern Lights was the part that provided them with the OS.

“Did you ever think they could be wrong sometimes?” When Shaw didn’t answer, he continued, “Like that guy from San Jose. Aquino. He was...so confused.” He shook his head a little. Aquino’s horrified expression right before Shaw shot him still haunted him, even though he only saw it through the camera. “You remember what he said?”

“I do. Because...I’m the one that killed him while you just watched on your little camera,” Shaw said, ignoring Cole’s hardened gaze at her spiteful words. Root’s disappearance and secret code of an off switch for some kill chip and unknown virus had pissed her. All this talk about Research only served to irritate her even more. “And I also remember...that he was trying to sell designs for a nuclear centrifuge to Hezbollah and you tracked the money trail.” She stuffed her hands into her jacket pockets, shaking her head a bit to clear her mind. Cole might be annoying, but he didn’t deserve the end of her misplaced anger. “Research was right about Aquino, like they’re always right.”

Cole, unaware of all the piling problems Shaw had and how close she was to punching him, wouldn’t let go of the topic. “How can you be so sure that they are never wrong if you have no idea who they even are...or where they get these numbers?”

“I know where exactly they get those damn numbers from, Cole, and so do you. From a dark room somewhere where they hurt people badly.” Shaw could only imagine how the simulation broke people’s minds and dug out their deepest secrets. She had lived through seven thousands of them. Perhaps Cole, with his position as tech support, hadn’t received the same training and thus wasn’t aware of the bad things the government could do. “And the reason we don’t ask where Research gets its numbers from is because Research is never wrong.”

“Well, they were this time.”

Shaw deadpanned. “You did something stupid, didn’t you?”

“I called on one of my friends from the agency, asked her to trace the money. Those transfers didn’t come from Hezbollah. They came from the U.S. Government—from the ISA itself. Aquino was doing something covert, but he was doing it for us,” Cole said. “I called Control—Wilson. I mean, I’ve requested an internal investigation. I’ll keep you out of it, I promise.”

The investigation was the least of Shaw’s concern. “You talked to Wilson?”

“Yeah.” Cole nodded.

Before Shaw could say anything more on the matter, the noise of a car being unlocked from the surveillance feed caught their attentions. The number was on the move, so they must too. They still had a job to do, but it was only the start of a disaster.

The number was a trap.

Wilson had placed a kill order on them, like they were some kind of problem to be solved. They got to Cole. Then there was the good-looking guy in a suit from the stakeout earlier that day. He knew Shaw’s name and introduced himself as John and claimed that he was there to help her. She shot him anyway, before she made an escape through the second floor window using one of her attackers’ body as a crash pad.

Cole had been killed and Shaw was going to be killed as well, but the one thing that jarred her the most was the silence in her ear. Root hadn’t warned her. The Activity had cut off Shaw’s connection to Northern Lights. They had killed off what was left of Root too.

 


 

Shaw was a multitasker, which was why the Activity had hired her in the first place. She had her revenge and she too had protected the program. Wilson was dead while Cole’s research on the Aquino case was safe with Control—or the man who was not Control for the night. All she had left of the program was her own USB that contained an off switch for an unknown kill chip. She thought about searching for Root next, but her freedom was short-lived. She had expected no less when Hersh injected her with the acontine and left her to die on the sidewalk. Lucky for her, death was also short-lived.

Although a little bit late to the party, her new guardian angels—John and Harold, as they had introduced themselves—saved her. The government wanted her dead, so now she was. Trust was still overrated, though. She ditched them on the cemetery. The only thing she regretted was for not bringing the dog with her, he would have been a nice companion during the road trip to check on her mother.

Shaw didn’t get to stay for long anyway. A small section on newspaper titled Man with Militia Ties Gunned Down brought her back to New York and to a familiar face.

“Hello, Shaw.” John let his gun being taken away. Shaw was holding him at gunpoints when he turned around, but he wasn’t there for a fight. “I thought I just might find you here.”

“And you decided to drop in for a visit?”

“Stakeouts can get a little tedious.”

“And what make you think I wanted the company?” Shaw asked, guns held steady on her hands. “The time I shot you or the time I ditched you at the cemetery?”

“I’m persistent.”

She smiled a little, shaking her head. “Or maybe you just can’t take a hint.”

After a prolonged stare, she lowered the gun and John motioned at the house they both had watched for different reasons. “Darlene and Evan Cole,” he said. “Your former partner’s parents.”

“Dead partner.”

“The government framed Cole as a domestic terrorist. I thought you might come back here to set the record straight.”

Shaw did. “How’d you figure that?”

“It’s what I’d do.”

“Control killed their son. They didn’t need to take their memory of him.” Shaw shook her head in disappointment. She understood that it was what a secret agency that was so dark they didn’t exist would do. It was what they would do to her if she had been killed with Cole too. But fixing it, setting the record straight, was what Cole would do for her mother if she had been killed and framed in a dishonorable light. “Even the CIA wouldn’t stoop that low. They’d just sweep their mess under the rug and give him a star on the wall.”

“Your former employers killed Cole for discovering the truth and nothing’s stopping them from killing his parents, too,” John said, taking a step forward. “But you already know this. That’s why you’re out here and not in there.”

John was indeed right and Shaw had nothing to say to refute him. So instead, she said, “Next time you want some fresh air, pick a different spot.” She walked past him, but his next words halted her.

“A friend once told me, in our line of work, we walk in the dark,” he said, looking straight at her. It was fitting, considering that they had been standing in the dark trail for quite some time. “Doesn’t mean we have to walk in it alone.”

She watched John leave. His car had turned on the corner before she dared to reach up and touch her ear, confirming the lack of earpiece in it. The path she walked might not be so dark when being walked with a friend, but it was still a quiet one with the lack of Root’s voice in her ear.

Next day, Cole was on newspaper again, but with a different kind of story: Militia Suspect Rumored to be CIA Agent. Shaw’s meeting with John and the clean-up of her partner’s name; it was too good to be mere coincidence. So she decided to return the favor and use the number she had kept with her since the last time she was on New York City. She paid a surprise visit to her other guardian angel. He wasn’t too happy to see her.

“It’s not nice when someone hunts you down, now is it?” Shaw said in lieu of greeting.

Harold, who had stood up the moment he saw her, gulped. “What brings you here, Miss Shaw?” He regained his composure quite fast, though.

“I assumed you wanted me to find you.” Her hand was licked. She looked down to her side and saw Bear sitting there. He was such a smart dog, she only patted his muzzle once and he went back to his bed. “Why else would you have given me your number?”

Harold wasn’t so pleased with how Bear hadn’t barked at their uninvited guest. “I guess I imagined that you would just call—“ he followed her movement as she studied the current number’s information on the glass board “—but I supposed this works too. My offer still stands, you know.”

Shaw turned her attention back to him. “You think I should have a hobby. Now what would that be?” she asked. “Hanging around a derelict library with you, your poorly-socialized guard dog, and Bear here?”

“Bit of a comedown from saving the world, I guess, but we have our moments.”

“And what’s your end, Harold?” she asked again, emphasizing on his name. “Is this your hobby? Running a halfway house for retired assassins?”

“I hate to see talent go to waste.”

“Awfully trusting of you, now, isn’t it?”

“I’m quite confident, Miss Shaw, that you’re the first person that’s ever said that to me,” Harold said. “Besides, you’re not holding a firearm.” He still remembered the last time he met her, she was pointing a gun at him and John, even though they had proven that they could be trusted. “Looks like progress. What can I do for you?”

Shaw tossed the newspaper she had brought with her to his desk, Cole’s story laid open. “Interesting story in the news this morning,” she said. “A CIA died in the line of duty on a covert operation. He’d uncovered a domestic terrorism plot. Now the Agency would neither deny or confirm this, of course, but a journalist received leaked documents from within Langley itself.”

Harold took the newspaper, examining the section with Cole’s picture on it. “I saw the story too.” He looked back at Shaw. “It’s very sad. He seemed to have died heroically.”

“You and I both know that Cole did not work for the CIA. So I have this crazy theory that someone—“ she locked eyes with him, gauging his reaction “—hacked into one of the most powerful, clandestine agencies in the world and created an employee who, up until yesterday, did not exist.”

“That does sound somewhat farfetched.”

Harold had denied, but Shaw was sure it was his doing. She didn’t try to confront him on the matter again because her eyes had caught something more interesting tacked on the board behind him. She recognized the woman in the pictures. It was Whiskey, sans the scars, and something in Shaw just knew that it wasn’t her.

“My friend from the hotel.” The closer she got to the pictures, the more obvious it became that the woman was not Whiskey. Just as beautiful, but she was a little older. The nagging feeling in Shaw’s gut sparked a brand new hope when she saw the name Root doodled on one of the papers. “Our conversation was cut short. Yet we seemed to have so much in common.” There was no way for Harold to know that she was talking about two different women and his obliviousness was just what she needed. “Tell me about her.”

“My relationship with that woman is rather...complicated.” Harold recalled their initial meeting. It wasn’t one of his fond memories, but they had evolved past that point. They were comrades—friends. Her loss wasn’t one he would get over with anytime soon, even though he had insisted on letting her go. “What’s your interest?”

“You think I need a hobby, Harold?” Shaw tugged off the list of Root’s known aliases from the board. She couldn’t help but grin. Root wasn’t just an annoying voice in her ear—Root was real. “I think I just found one.”

 


 

The lead Harold gave Shaw was a dead-end. She had traced Root back to Samantha Groves from Bishop, Texas and forth to her last known identity as Robin Farrow, a patient in Stoneridge Psychiatric Facility. However, Robin had vanished off the face of the earth for almost two years, just around the time Shaw joined the Activity. She made an educated guess that since Root was the voice of Northern Lights, the government—her old employers must have her and she might be held for a few decades in a black site or something less cushy. It only urged her to find Root faster.

Shaw tried a different angle then—the Dollhouse angle. She tracked down Whiskey to its Los Angeles’ branch. Whiskey had smiled and talked to her as though she was just another prospective client of the establishment, devoid of any memory of her and Root and their time together. Shaw considered taking down the despicable business for good, if not for the fact that their workers—the Actives had given their consents beforehand. The only thing she scored from the meeting, beside annoyance, was the name of Whiskey’s client who had hired her for Shaw.

Ernest Thornhill.

It led Shaw back to an apartment in New York and to someone she had met a lot as of late. “The hell are you doing here, John?” She pointed her gun at him for the fifth time since they first met. He never returned the gesture.

“Well, Shaw, right now, I’m wondering just what the hell you’re doing here.”

Shaw lowered her gun. They needed to stop meeting at gunpoint, but at least she hadn’t shoot him again. “Protecting the program,” she said.

John too put his gun into his pocket. “The program that tried to kill you?” He smirked, teasing.

“I’m funny like that.” Shaw smiled back. “I’m hunting the woman Harold gave me a lead on. She was using a guy named Thornhill to...contact me.”

“What woman?”

“Samantha Groves. Robin Farrow.” She shrugged. “She said I can call her Root.”

John was surprised. “And now Root’s back in New York?”

“Looks that way,” Shaw said. “I think the ISA captured her and somehow she infiltrated the program, but they found out and cut her off before I could find her location.”

“We gotta go back to Finch.”

Though a little annoyed with his secretiveness, Shaw followed him downstairs. “I’m this way.”

“I’m driving.”

“No.” She insisted on leading the way to her car, smirking at him. “No, you’re not.”

“Nice car.” John opened the passenger’s door of the yellow Ferrari, but something flew his way before he could get in. He caught it mid-air. It was a shotgun and Shaw had just tossed it over the roof of the car. “What’s this for?”

“To help you feel less inadequate while I drive this thing.”

John only shook his head, settling on the passenger seat with the shotgun on his lap. Shaw revved up the car out of the apartment’s parking lot and drove to the direction of the library. She didn’t even need to ask John, she knew that was where Harold would be.

“You wanna fill me in on how you know Root, John? Or what does this has to do with Harold?”

“The group you used to get your intel from, you called them Research. Your ex-boss called it Northern Lights.”

“The ones your pal told me don’t exist.”

“No, they exist. They’re just an ‘it’ rather than a ‘them’. A machine.”

“You mean an AI?” She always had her suspicions, but unlike Cole, she didn’t go chasing the thought because it didn’t matter to what she did. When John didn’t confirm nor deny, she added, “The government uses it to spy on everyone.”

“Harold built it; Root was—is its analog interface.”

“I guess your friend has some explaining to do,” Shaw said as the car pulled up on the curb across the library.

Mister Reese,” Harold said through the communication line. “Did you find anything in Thornhill’s apartment?

Just in time, John entered Harold’s workspace. “I found someone.” He gestured to Shaw beside him.

“Miss Shaw? What are you doing here?”

Shaw walked up to Harold, slamming the paper containing Root’s known aliases that she had taken from him onto his desk. “You should have told me that by ‘complicated’, you meant ‘kidnapped and held by the government to control an AI’.”

Harold looked over Shaw’s shoulder, staring at John with disapproval.

“I read her in,” John said, unfazed. “Root’s been talking to her.”

“I thought she was just some annoying OS.” Shaw shook her head, a small smile on her lips. She remembered those times Root had seemed so human to her. She thought she was being ridiculous back then. “Did you even look for her?”

Instead of answering, Harold ducked his head and avoided her gaze.

“You thought she’s dead, didn’t you?”

“I want to hold up hope, but hope is painful.”

Shaw scoffed at him, but then she saw the count down on his screen. “What’s going to happen when that clock hit zero?” she asked him. “No more games, Harold.”

“After the virus crashes The Machine, whoever answered its call will have unfettered access for twenty-four hours.”

“That’s why Decima wanted to kill Thornhill,” John said, realization hit him. “He’s been buying payphones all over the city, but Decima stopped him. They want to crash The Machine.”

“I don’t think that’s what they have in mind, Mister Reese.”

“They wanted to control it? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“I didn’t want to—“

“Okay. Timeout.” Shaw had both men turned to her. “I don’t care about this AI apocalypse or evil multinational trying to become omniscient, but unfettered access? As in ask any question, get any answer?”

Harold nodded.

“And you have no intention of getting that call?”

“No, Miss Shaw. I—“

“Then I will.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll take the call.” Shaw noticed John tense up from her peripheral vision. “This Decima wants to control the program, while you—“ she gave a pointed stare at Harold “—don’t want to abuse its power. Not even to look for your friend.” She didn’t let him had any say in the matter since it was quite obvious he hadn’t even thought about it. “But I do. I need to find Root, with or without your help.”

John, who had relaxed back when it became clear that Shaw’s had meant no harm, met Harold on the eye. “I say we help her.”

Harold sighed, gathering his coat from the back of his chair and led them out of the library. Since Shaw’s car was a two-seater, they piled up into his town car. It took awhile for them to drive through the congested traffic and got to Manhattan, but they were not the only ones looking for the one true phone. Decima’s welcoming party was already there, guarding every payphone in midtown.

They couldn’t just go to the phone without tipping their hand and had Decima agents trying to kill them. While John and Shaw didn’t mind the prospect of a gunfight breaking in such crowded public area, Harold did. He was thinking up a plan when he remembered the first payphones Ernest Thornhill had bought. Even while he was building The Machine, he began encountering anomalies. As if it had imprinted on him, like a child with a parent. If it still did, then the payphone in The New York Public Library was the exact number it was going to call and that was where he directed Shaw to drive next.

“Another library, Harold? Really?” Shaw rolled her eyes as she picked the lock to the backdoor of the building. They got in within a minute and she was looking around for any payphone in its vicinity. “Which phone is it gonna call?”

“It’s that one.”

Right after Harold pointed to the lone payphone on the first floor, the noise of another door being opened followed by talking voices and the sound of incoming steps echoed in the otherwise quiet library. John and Shaw took out their guns, shooting the two incoming men before they could reach the intended payphone.

“Looks like Decima got the memo,” John said.

Shaw smirked back at him. “But they’ll never get the call.”

More Decima agents came. Harold took cover behind one of the pillars, while John and Shaw took down the agents, one kneecap at a time. They ran out of ammo around the same time. John had to get into a hand-to-hand fight with the last agent left, while Shaw, standing next to Harold, reloaded hers. She didn’t come to help him even after she was done and he was pressed against the payphone booth with a knife on his neck. He turned the knife around, stabbed the Decima agent on the chest, and took his fallen phone after he dropped onto the floor with a pained groan.

“Thank you for the help.”

“Looked like you had it under control.”

“Hope you brought extra rounds, Shaw.” John nodded down at the surveillance feed on the phone he had just taken. “’Cause we got a lot more guys on the way.”

“No need.” Shaw went to the booth. “It’s almost midnight.” Just as she said that, the phone rang. She glanced at Harold once and when he nodded, giving a silent permission, she took the call.

Can you hear me?

Shaw grinned, she had missed that voice. “Yes.”

 


 

After a lot of pit stops along the way (a necessary one to get food, because Shaw couldn’t be expected to shoot people on empty stomach), they made it to a small town upstate named Maple. The Machine told Shaw to go to Carrow, a transponder factory that had way too many guards even after the working hours had ended. Their car parked just a bit away from the factory and Shaw had just finished eating her second burger.

“I could try blasting through the front gate,” Shaw said after taking a particular noisy sucking of her drink that seemed to disturb Harold a lot.

“The term ‘blasting’ does not inspire great confidence, Miss Shaw.”

“You got a better idea?”

“Perhaps we should consider—“

“I wasn’t talking to you, Harold.”

After some more sucking and humming, Shaw got out of the car. John and Harold followed her example, until she began shrugging off her coat and jacket. After taking out her flashlight, she tossed the clothing back into the car.

“Where are you going?” Harold asked.

“Had to crawl fifty yards of air duct.” Shaw stretched, smirking at Harold’s look of displeasure. “Don’t worry, you won’t make it that way. John, she said it’s time to use that grenade launcher.”

Harold whipped his head back to John, who had just nodded to Shaw and went to fetch said weapon from the back of the SUV. “You brought a grenade launcher?” he asked, bewildered.

“I like to be prepared, Harold.”

“Restricted area in the west basement,” Shaw said, relying what The Machine had told her. “You’re a smart guy, you’ll figure out how to get there. Give me ten minutes.”

Shaw ran up to the fence, climbing and jumping over it with ease. She hugged the wall as she crept along the backside of the factory. A couple of guards rounded the building, so she had to duck behind some crates and wait until they passed her. The Machine tipped her when it was safe to move. Several feet away, she found the air ventilation and began the tedious journey of crawling inside. She was four minutes in the air duct when the alarm rang and guards shouting at each other in panic—John had blasted the front gate using his grenade launcher.

It became quiet again after she slid down to the basement. The Machine had no eyes inside, but it had accessed the building’s blueprint in order to direct her to the intended area. After some more crawling, she made it to a vent opening on the wall. She peeked through the cover and saw two guards manning the door to a restricted area. There was no way to avoid them this time, The Machine even said so.

“Don’t worry.” She exchanged her flashlight with her gun, reloading it. “I’ll take it from here.”

The loud noise of the air vent being kicked off surprised the guards. One went down before he could shoot back, but the other managed to escape Shaw’s bullets. She ran up to hide behind some machinery as he fired back from behind another machine on the other side of the room. He had an assault rifle while she only had her gun.

The shootout went for awhile, with him contributing most of it. He wasn’t aware that in the meantime, Shaw had closed in their distant. So when he ran out of rounds and had to reload, she sneaked on him and shot him on both knees and shoulders. No center mass, Harold had insisted all day, but it didn’t mean she have to shoot only once. She grinned down at him as she took his keycard.

The door to the restricted area opened up with just a swept. Shaw hid behind the door, incapacitating three more men inside who hadn’t seen her coming. She found out the reason when the door closed behind her, sealing the room from outside—it was soundproofed. Unlike the crates and machineries outside, this room was more of an empty hall. On the middle of it was a cage made of solid steel. Shaw walked around it. There was only one door with high-tech security that required seven digits pass code, no window so she couldn’t peek inside, but she saw lights coming from the top.

She glanced back and forth between the top of the cage and the door. “Should I climb this thing or...”

Two. Four. Three. Star. Seven. One. Pound.

Shaw entered the code and the door hissed open. Her access as admin expired right then, but she couldn’t care less because there was Root, strapped on a hospital bed with way too many devices hooked on her body and a headset covering her eyes. It was like a scene straight out of a science fiction movie. Shaw tucked her gun back to her waistband, but proceeded forward with caution. Aside from the bed and its occupant, there was only one computer inside the room. Root was alive, though.

“I’ve got her, Harold,” Shaw said, grinning a little too wide. Silence greeted her. She tried again, tapping on her earpiece. “Harold?”

She checked on her phone and found that it had lost its entire signal. Looking around the cage she was in, she realized that it was a Faraday Cage, and the door had locked back after her entry. It was the least of her concern at the moment. She worked on taking off the straps and then the devices from Root, starting with the headset. Root’s pupils responded when she flashed her flashlight over them. The lack of breathing and feeding tubes didn’t go unnoticed and she was sure that Root wasn’t in comatose state, which was a big relief. She had just taken out the vein port when the door blew off its hinges.

Shaw rolled her eyes when John, followed by Harold, stepped through the smoke. “You do know how to make an entrance.”

“Not all of us have an all-seeing AI in their ear,” John said. He frowned when he saw Root. “Is she?”

“Just heavily sedated.”

The men had the decency to avert their eyes and went to do something else—John guarded the door while Harold busied himself with the computer—when Shaw lifted Root’s hospital gown to take off the uretic catheter. She had just peeled off the many EEG electrodes from Root’s head when reinforcements arrived.

“We’re sitting ducks here,” John yelled through the gunfires. “We need to leave. Now.”

“Not yet,” Shaw said. She turned Root to her side when she figured out the reason the hospital bed had a separated head support. A long, lone cable stuck out from the base of Root’s skull, connecting her to the computer. “Shit.”

Harold was beyond horrified. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Invasive brain-computer interface.”

Shaw studied the area surrounding the entry. When she found out that Root was a real person, she had clocked the use of BCI, instead of simple hacking, right off the bat. Judging from the rawness of the BCI entry point, the change from non-invasive to invasive appeared to be recent. After Root asked her to set her free, if Shaw had to guess.

She had her knife, ready to cut off the cable, when she noticed another healed scar behind Root’s ear. “Harold, does she have an implant?”

“Yes. Cochlear implant on her right ear.”

But the side Shaw was facing was the left. “The kill chip...” She retracted her knife right away. “If we disconnected her or turned off that computer, she’ll die.”

“Can’t you just dig out the chip?”

Shaw made a face at John. “This is not the ideal operating theater.” To make her point, she shot one of the assailants coming closer to the cage.

“Then I supposed we’ll need a plan.”

“A fast one,” John said.

“It’s going to take some time to code an off switch, Mister Reese.”

Shaw’s expression brightened up. “Have a little faith in your creation, Harold.” She produced an USB out of her jeans pocket and handed it over to him. “We don’t need to make an off switch, if your machine already gave me one.”

Once Harold deployed the code and ran it, Shaw cut off the cable. They didn’t wait to see if it had worked or not, they didn’t have the time to, but Root hadn’t started having seizure or something, so it must have worked. John, the ever-gentleman, took off his suit and used it to cover Root before he picked her up. Shaw walked ahead of them, two guns at hands. They made it back to their car with minimum injuries. Shaw let Harold drive this time, preferring to stay on the backseat with Root’s head on her lap.

Root was still out of it when they arrived on John’s safe house. Shaw used the opportunity, with a little help of local anesthesia, to take out the BCI implant and sutured the injury back up. The kill chip had to wait, because just as she put the gauze over the surgical spot, Root stirred. Shaw sat back on the side of the bed, watching as Root blinked up at her before recognition settled in. She took the glass of water from the nightstand and offered the straw to her. Root's reaction and movement were slow, but when a smile curled up her lips, Shaw couldn’t help but did the same.

“I...” Root said, her voice croaked. “I... know you’d...come back...for me.”

Shaw had waited while Root struggled to finish her sentence. Though hoarse, she recognized that voice, that intonation. She had lived with it and dreamed of it throughout her time with the Activity. She fought the urge to touch her ear and held Root’s hand in hers instead. Shaw said nothing, knowing how hard it must be for Root to gain back normal functions—even one as simple as talking—after being put in such state for God knows how long. But Root was persistent. Shaw felt her thumb tapping Morse code on the back of her hand.

Did you miss me?

Shaw sighed, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. “Absolutely,” she tapped back.

Root might be as annoying in real life as when she was still just the voice of an OS, but Shaw wouldn’t want it any other way. Because Root was there, she was real, and she wasn’t just a voice in Shaw’s ear.