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A loaded gun won't set you free (so you say)

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She views the rotating landscape through shuttered eyes and casts her mind back, flicking through images racked up like snapsnots of a rewinding dream.

Flick.

Sprinting, lungs burning with acrid air, to find a car, to follow Finch and Root.

Flick.

Pops and black-suited figures falling, clutching at blown-out knees.

Flick.

A wreck-strewn street pictured over the barrel of a semi-automatic.

Flick.

Finch limping away in retreat while Root stared one second longer than she should have, then spun to join him.

Flick.

Root crouched behind a car that shuddered with gunfire, grinning.

She emerges and the shutters snap open again. The roundabout stands still. She can smell somebody burning breakfast in the grey-brick building next door. The simulations were never that detailed; Samaritan is not designed to produce imperfections.

A child approaches from the corner of her vision, hesitantly. She never moves, not even to shake her hands out from the tight fists they hold inside her hoodie.

"Go on, kid," she rasps.

The roundabout shudders back to life, and Shaw's eyes stare at memories again.

Flick. Flick. Flick.


 

"This is a really shitty simulation, you know that?" Shaw murmured into oily, buzzing air. Lights moaned from the lamps dotting the street, and the beams slipped and fell from her leather jacket onto the road behind her. She planted her feet firmly, one after the other, on the grungy white lines marking the center of the street. The corner of a well-placed pothole caught the toe of her boot, but she caught herself and kept moving.

The rain had stopped falling, but the wisps of fog were just seeping in to take its place when Shaw reached the end of the road. Her eyes flickered in both directions; neither seemed any more dangerous or more likely to lead to a quick end to the simulation than the other, but as she recalled, there was a park this way. Or there had been, the last time she visited this part of Brooklyn. She shook her head and set off down the road at a steady pace.

She reached the park, a little more than three blocks down. No trees, and what little light there was dyed the sparse grass a sickly mustard-green. She stood, hands in pockets, holding up a mental picture to compare with the one in front of her. They had done such a good job, before, of fitting the wide expanses of a Texas playground to a tiny green space somewhere in the metro area. Such a nice job of rubbing the edges out, nudging her into thinking herself there, safe. This looked entirely different, even if there was still a roundabout.

There are no safe places.

Not anymore.

The zip of wheels on wet pavement alerted her, and she stepped back just before a car passed over the spot on which she had previously stood. A belated honk tore a shocking hole in the thick air before the fog rushed in to fill it and Shaw was alone again.

Not quite alone, no, not by her standards; there was still a gun tucked into her waistband. She moved through the air stiffly, as if swimming, and pulled the gun out before she settled on the iron bars of the roundabout. It sat heavy in her palm; she gripped tighter, until it felt as though the metal had a pulse of its own, beating, alive and wild. Rain dripped off the trees, down her arm, and ran across the back of her hand, making her grip cold and clammy.

There was one sure way to end a simulation.

There are no safe places.


 

"Sameen?"

Root entered slowly, balancing two plates and two full glasses on a tray. She eased down onto the bed where Shaw sat, hunched, and nestled the tray carefully between them.

Shaw glanced them over. Dinner for two: steak, asparagus, baby potatoes, and milk.

"I'm not hungry."

Root furrowed her brow in concern. "You're always hungry."

"Yeah, well," Shaw lay back and turned her face to the wall, "it's all in my head, isn't it?"

She could see nothing of Root besides her shadow on the wall, but she could have sworn she heard a smile in her voice. How crazy had she become, that she could hear smiles?

"In the sense that hunger is a neurochemical response created in the brain in reaction to signals sent by the gastrointestinal system and fine-tuned by the needs of the human body on a cellular level, yes, it is all in your head," Root mused. Her hand brushed Shaw's bare foot as she shifted weight back on her palms. "I prefer the systems approach to the biochemical, though. The dining philosophers' problem comes to mind, though we'd need spaghetti for that."

Shaw turned her head.

How much insane rambling can a machine imitate before it messes up?

"Why would we need spaghetti?"

She could feel the light shakes of the bed from Root swinging her feet.

"Sameen," Root replied with a one-sided grin, "I'm glad you asked."

 

Later. Later, with Root curled loosely around her like a question mark, not touching her, but so solidly there, she could ask.

"Is this real? Or a simulation?"

Root shifted beside her.

"I don't know."

The hair just behind her ear stood on end; she resisted the urge to check for the hard edge of a surgical incision, there where Root's voice wandered across her skin.

"I guess that depends on your definition of reality," Root continued. "According to Hawking, we'd need a set of equations to make up a theory of everything. That would potentially make reality a mathematical absolute, so..."

The prickling behind Shaw's ear subsided. Though she had been decidedly awake just the moment before, she faded quickly into sleep to the comforting susurration of Root's murmurs.


Round and round and round. Round and round and round.

It's been hours. No; if it's a simulation, it just feels like it's been hours. And before that, it felt like it had been a week. A week with Root badgering her every five minutes to eat more, covering her with blankets, and babbling on about metaphysics. A week of which Shaw remembers every waking moment.

This simulation gave her so many stretches of time concerned only with mundane things like food and playing with Bear; that was new. Was the plan to bore her into leading them to the Machine? It had been so glaringly different in its quiet moments that she had finally concluded it had to be real. There was no other explanation for the suddenly three-dimensional characterization of her team, especially of Root, and the reality that moved at the proper pace. And Fusco; did they know about him now?

Maybe they're all dead, really dead. Maybe they're only alive in the simulation. Except for Root.

Root has never died in a simulation before. Shaw has always been the danger, and she has always had the chance to save her. They didn't even given her a chance this time around.

All the memories, nothing skimmed or blurry; the safe-houses, the subway; Fusco. Root. And all the details: potholes, rain, air clogged with pollution and fog. Not a simulation.

But then...

No. It can't be real.

Not a simulation and not real.

Round and round and round and round and round and round. 


 

She almost wishes the spinning would make her sick, but she curbed that impulse a long time ago.

Round and round and round again.

What kind of parents let their kids play on a playground with someone like her there? They may not know that she has a gun, but still. She does.

Bile clings to her throat with sticky steel fingers, blocking breath, forcing nausea into her conscienceness. She forces the breath in and out, in and out, long, rasping breaths that make the kid on the other end of the roundabout regard her fearfully.

The handgun pulses under her fingers, and her hand twitches in her pocket.

One way to end a simulation.

She raises heavy eyes to the kid, now joined by a friend and tugging the iron bars in an endless round. Her gaze drifts back down.

A week alone. A week with Root and the team. Gunfights. Escape. A phone call. A long walk that ended in a park in Brooklyn. Hour upon dizzying hour of the same circular view, growing lighter and clearer as the sun filtered through the fog. She remembered every waking, mundane moment. Every detail. Including how she had come to the park with a gun in her hand.

Simulation or...

The sun is higher now, behind the fog. The phone in her pocket buzzes again. She fishes it out with fingers stiff from being frozen into fists all night.

A number, a time, and a name.

A cemetery.

Simulation or reality, it's not Root going into the ground. She lifts her face to grey skies.

"Nice try."

The children, already seasoned New Yorkers, do not make eye contact. They jump and zigzag to the jungle gym, where she can safely forget about them.

She speaks again. "What are you even getting out of this, anyway? I can end this whenever I want. One shot, and I'm done."

A thought reverberates as if coming from the bottom of a well.

Then why don't you?

Because...

No. It's a simulation. It has to be.

The roundabout lets out a grinding screech before it shudders to a halt.


 

It's another hour, maybe, before John shows up. Other children have shown up, starting the roundabout again, and she has not moved.

She will not play this game, but she can't sit still forever. And though she knows, she knows it's a simulation (it has to be; it is), the gun still sits like a stone in her pocket, nearly a part of her hand by now.

It's only a simulation. She might as well play it to the end.

She drags herself off the roundabout and approaches John with a face like stone but for the anger. Anger at this stupid simulation, anger that she feels whisps of other emotions roiling underneath. Anger at everything.

Anger so there is no room for anything else.

She reaches John.

"What do you want?"

He searches her face for a moment. "Just checking in."

Get to the point. "Want to ask how I'm feeling?"

He shrugs. "Okay. How are you feeling?"

She is going to destroy Samaritan if it's the last thing she does. It probably will be.

"I'm not feeling anything."

It all depends on your definition of reality.