Title: Where You Gonna Run To?
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.
Summary: The machine didn't make judgments, just predictions. And it was never wrong. Very, very shortly, a lot of people were going to die. 4200 words.
Fandom: Person of Interest, through 1.7 - "Witness"
Notes: Clichefic. Not part of my episode tag sequence. Title, and inspiration, from the last scene with Finch and Reese in last Thursday's episode and the lyrics playing over it- as well as a certain book that showed up mid-episode. Walks the line of pre-slash, though YMMV. First person, shifting POVs.
I don't know what I was thinking when I walked away from Finch at the ferry. I probably wasn't. I was angry; angry that for the second time since I'd started working with him, his machine had sent me to the wrong person at the wrong time. But I never had any intention of leaving him to carry on alone.
He'd been right, after all; he'd warned me from the beginning that the machine didn't distinguish victims from perpetrators or the innocent from the guilty. It simply identified the linchpin of a building violent conflict: and Charlie Burton, aka Carl Elias, certainly fit that bill. If he'd died that day, there would still have been a mob war. It wasn't Finch's fault that the war would be even uglier with Elias alive to spearhead it- or that Elias had initially reminded me of him. He was intelligent, cultured, and determined beyond all reason; all qualities I admired in Finch. It was the causes they devoted themselves to that made one my partner and the other my enemy.
Machines can't make moral judgments, but people do. They make choices every day, and some men's choices are weightier than others'. They assign values to men's lives, and the atrocities they commit. I'd hunted evil all over the world, until quite recently at the government's behest, and I couldn't say that under different circumstances I might not have become another Edmond Dantès myself. But it was Finch who found me and put a sword back in my hand, and asked me to help him make a difference. Not in the name of vengeance or power, but justice.
I stayed away all that day and well into the night, letting my temper cool, intending to avoid him until he called with the next number. I didn't have a cell phone to replace the one I'd broken while shielding the man we'd initially believed to be an innocent schoolteacher, but I knew Finch would be well aware of where I was staying. He knew more about me, past and present, than anyone else alive; probably even more than I did myself. I stared a long time at the mini-bar in my room, thoughts chasing themselves in frustrated, guilty circles in my mind, then left again. Too exhausted and irritable to sleep, I let my feet lead me back to the library.
I wasn't actually thinking then, either. I wasn't ready to talk to him yet. I didn't want to acknowledge that he was probably just as frustrated as I was by the outcome of the day's events; and I had no intention of discussing the added degrees of risk we'd assumed now that Elias knew my face and Finch had been forced to expose his to Fusco. I suppose I was in search of comfort; a little ironic, I suppose, since my life had held little of that since he'd dragged me back into it. But what there was, I usually found in wry asides across a wireless connection, in the slight curve of a suppressed smile, and in the snapping intensity of a conviction that carried me along with it.
Aside from two brief, stolen phone calls and that exchange at the ferry, I hadn't really spoken to Finch in more than twenty-four hours. I hadn't realized a man could go into withdrawal from lack of conversation until I stood at the doors of Finch's makeshift office and found it quiet and dark, echoingly empty.
I was the only living thing in the building. He wasn't dozing at one of the tables, doing terrible things to his damaged back while he waited for a response to a query. He wasn't poring over his board full of yellowing articles, or reprogramming a new phone for me to use. I didn't know why I'd assumed he would be; it was late, and he had to sleep sometime, but I still felt disappointed. All the computers were powered down, except for a single dormant light on the one connected to the Internet. I touched the mouse, and the monitor sprang to life- displaying an old article about the death of Marlene Elias.
A bloody fingerprint stood out against the black-and-white image of her face, backlit by the light of the screen. I stared at it uncomprehending for a moment, then looked down. There was a smear of red on the corner of the table, and another, a fat drop broken by a shoe-print, below. The chair had been shoved back at angle, a scrap of paper on the floor in front of it.
I picked it up. Only one thing was written on it: the nine digits of a social security number I'd seen only once before, on the employment records of a cover job for a man calling himself Harold. A cover name- but no less real according to the system, just like Charlie's. I crumpled the paper tightly in my hand, then smoothed it back out and tucked it into a pocket.
There was no telling how long it had lain there while I'd stewed in my own frustration. Someone skilled must have been keeping an eye on us that day, and chosen a time when we weren't on high alert to track Finch back here. It was a good thing I didn't keep anything important at the hotel; I'd have to burn another cover ID and leave everything there behind. And send a message to Fusco, just in case. But Finch... ah, Finch. Elias couldn't have been behind it; the window of time was too short for the machine to have picked up his plotting, but he was hardly the only powerful person we'd stymied in recent days. Keller, for one, surely still had enough money to do something stupid.
At least the odds were Finch was still alive. There wasn't enough blood for him to have died or killed in that room, to explain the number... but the system didn't have an ID for me. I had yet to use any of my false social security numbers in a way that would link them to my image. What it did have- the means of identification Finch programmed in to flag otherwise unlinked individuals, he'd explained after the Gates incident- was proximity to another identifiable number. For me, the only possibility was his.
I'd loved a woman I wouldn't let myself have for more than a decade, and her death had broken me. I didn't know how to quantify Finch. But what I did know was that I couldn't- wouldn't- survive another loss. So much for justice.
The machine didn't make judgments, just predictions. And it was never wrong. Very, very shortly, a lot of people were going to die.
I'd tagged both pairs of his glasses with trackers; I was better at sleight-of-hand than he realized. I hadn't used them yet; I hadn't wanted to risk him finding and disabling them, simply for the pleasure of surprising him at home. Now, I would have the pleasure of hunting down his kidnappers instead.
My mouth curved in a cold knife of a grin. Then I drew my gun and headed out to find him.
As contradictory as it may sound, I had grown used to being surprised by the suddenness of Mr. Reese's arrivals. That is the only explanation I can give for the ease of my abduction. I had been anticipating the moment when his fit of temper would fade enough for him to touch base again; I knew it was naïve to dwell on it, but the warmth of his greeting when he'd managed a call from the Double B Housing Projects had given me the impression he liked being out of contact for so long as little as I did.
But anger is unpredictable, and I've observed that Mr. Reese's reactions to experiencing helplessness are also similar to mine. Much of his nature remained hidden beneath a smothering weight of caution and grief, but some things, he was all too willing to reveal. He was stronger in that than I. And I could not help but wonder what Elias had said to him, Elias before whom he had relaxed some of his guard, during the last stage of his supposed rescue aboard the East River Ferry. The exchange could not have been pleasant.
I disliked being unable to know for certain. Mr. Reese knew I was able to listen in on his earbud even when his phone was not active; yet he usually removed it only during what I assumed to be private moments in his current residence. I had heard much that way that I think he would prefer me to remain unaware of, if he spared any thought for it: I had chosen better than I'd known when I'd plucked him out of police custody. It was slightly alarming, having first-hand evidence of how very, very good a killer he was... and less so, knowing that he utilized those skills at my request, and sought less fatal options where expedient.
I would not quibble over Andrew Benton's fate. There were too many faces like Gabrielle Tillman's on my number board.
Sometime late in the afternoon, the machine finally sent out another number. The danger either to or from Elias had finally passed- or sank down the list again, eclipsed by another individual's violent fate. I had shut down all but the one computer while I waited in order to reduce the electronic noise and blunt my developing headache, but that one connection I would always leave active.
I reached for a scrap of paper, copied the digits down, and shut the software window to return to the regular Web connection. The last article I'd researched was still visible, an archived copy of the reported death of Marlene Elias, which I had been scouring for any additional clues. Then I glanced down at the number again, intending to begin my research anew.
That's when it hit me. Literally, not figuratively, though there was something familiar about the number as well. Someone had snuck into the closed library while I was otherwise focused, someone my wary subconscious must have dismissed as Reese returning, someone who wanted me unconscious rather than dead.
The force of the blow drove me forward into the table at an angle; the corner made oblique contact with my forehead as I rebounded from it, blurring my vision with sudden spikes of pain both from the dual impacts and my stiff, unbending neck. I gasped; and I'm afraid I took no more coherent action than to let the paper fall and bring my hand up to my forehead, then twist in my seat to catch a glimpse of my attacker. I reached out to press against the table to steady myself, but my balance was off; all I accomplished was to graze the monitor screen with a finger.
The chair was jerked back away from me. I briefly saw the face of a man I didn't recognize, distorted by a sneer; then he struck me again. Consciousness fled.
When I woke again, some indeterminate amount of time later, tied to a chair in such a way as to make my neck ache even worse than before, my first thought was actually not for the plight I found myself in. Or- I suppose it was, in a sense, for I had abruptly recalled the significance of the number. I had written it before, though not often, when it had temporarily belonged to one of my cover identities: it was the social security number of one Harold Finch, former low-ranking employee at the software company my previous partner and I had founded. I had let him have the public adulation- and it had gotten him killed. I had felt it the least I could do to maintain an eye on its progress.
I supposed I ought to tell Reese that his appearance there had actually given me a welcome excuse to leave a place haunted by difficult memories. But the degree of separation there was too small; I did not want him researching the company history with an eye to discovering why I had chosen it. He was quite capable of putting two and two together, and I was not yet ready to face that much exposure. At the moment, I was still a source of mystery to him, and a theoretical equal. I was not so sure the situation would remain the same if he knew the full truth; if he reacted poorly, I did not want to bear that pain. I carried quite enough of it already.
But why would Harold Finch's number rise to the top of the irrelevant list? I must have missed some identification records somewhere when I cleaned up after myself the day I left the company again. The machine must still associate that number with my image. But why me? Very few of the people we'd helped- or punished- had ever seen my face. I suppose I could have been tagged with tangential involvement in the Elias case, given all the running around I'd done peripheral to his business, but that should hardly have made me enough of a focal point to supplant him in the rankings so quickly. Could I have so misjudged Keller or his son-in-law?
I did not have much longer to think about it, however, for at that point I was forced to shift in the chair to reduce the ache in tendons and muscles stretched out of tolerable alignment. My movement was noticed, of course; I blinked my eyes open in response to sounds elsewhere in the room, and found myself facing the looming presence of the same unfamiliar face from the library.
He was clearly a soldier, or perhaps a mercenary. He was clad all in dark, utilitarian clothing, with close-cropped hair, thick knuckles, and a weapon in his hand large enough to be compensating for something.
"Wakey, wakey," he said, smiling unpleasantly down at me. "You're a hard man to track down, Mister ... Partridge? Or should I say Finch? Or Burdett? Clever naming scheme. But not clever enough."
I stared back as best as I could from my limited perspective; I could not tilt my head or lift my chin enough to look him squarely in the eye. "Who do you work for? What is this about?" I asked.
Information; that was the only way I was getting out of this. I did not have my smart phone, and unless Reese had miraculously observed my kidnapping... well. I could not count on a rescue any time soon.
Rather than answer directly, my abductor strode over to a desk, positioned centrally in the blank white-walled room, where a laptop stood open. He nudged it to deactivate the screensaver, then turned the screen toward me, its subject a little blurry at that distance even with my glasses but still recognizable. "You know, you weren't the only person to leave the project under somewhat... murky circumstances," he said.
I turned my gaze away from the article describing my own demise- posted without a picture, I had made certain of that months ago- and contrived to look even more harmless than usual. "I'm not sure what you mean," I said, mildly. "What is this about? I'm just an investor."
"Nice try," he snorted. "Look, everyone knew it wasn't your partner who really came up with the goods. And no one could find your notes after you bought the farm. But that didn't mean they forgot about all those alternate plans for the machine. And when you were spotted last week, sitting down for lunch with the head of Virtanen Pharmaceuticals..." He whistled through his teeth.
I cringed. It was worse than I'd thought; whoever had hired this man was after me, not because of what Reese and I had done, but because of my involvement in creating the machine in the first place. Something I had feared for quite some time. Yet there was one saving grace about the situation: it did not seem likely my survival had yet been reported to the government. I was in private hands. Matters were still potentially resolvable in my favor.
Of course, I'd have to escape from wherever they were holding me first, and find away to ensure the loss of any data they might have. That... could prove difficult. "Assuming I am who you say I am, what makes you think I'll be any more cooperative now than when I was a dead man?" I said, quellingly.
He snorted. "He'll see about that," he said, then went to the door and opened it. The noise of busy machinery and a background chatter of voices filtered in; it sounded as though I was imprisoned in some sort of factory or warehouse building, in use as an operational center. He stepped out- and another man stepped through, one I did recognize from a previous lifetime. He'd been one of the government advisors on the project, with some type of security specialty, and had gone by the name Michael. He'd disappeared not long before my own precipitous exit.
Many things about those last days suddenly made a great deal more sense.
The disposition of the number suddenly began to make sense as well. This could not be a small operation, nor a new one. And I was the key to something this man meant to do with it. "I won't rebuild the machine for you," I said without preamble. "Purely on a logistical level- the first one took years, and I don't have the kind of access I used to."
He smiled derisively. "Oh, don't worry about that. Though you're right; the requirements are a little outside our current time constraints. What I want from you right now is something a little simpler. I want you to make my men and I invisible to the current machine. It seems you're the only one who knows exactly how the algorithms work."
He knew as well as I that the current settings caught only events calculated for mass casualties. Acts of terror, not mere felony crimes like the one he was currently committing. Which could only mean...
I swallowed. If whatever was going on here had progressed beyond vague plotting, the government would already know to stop it. They'd been waiting for me to reach for the next stage. But if the machine had triggered for that reason, I would have appeared on the relevant list, or not at all. I could not fathom the machine's warning.
"I won't do that either," I told him, firmly. "You know what our goals were for the project; and I'm sure you can guess why I left."
His expression grew uglier at that, and he strode over to crouch in front of me, leaning in close to stare me directly in the eyes. "Little bleeding heart," he said contemptuously. "Surveillance said it looked like you'd hooked up with someone again; so much for your great tragedy. Clean cut guy, suit, didn't carry a briefcase; two streaks of grey at his temples. Yeah, him." His eyes brightened at whatever he was reading from me in return, and he smiled again, thin and menacing. "Maybe we should pick him up for a little... added persuasion. Or... you could just cooperate. Make it easier on all of us."
The loud noise that punctuated his last sentence made me flinch; I thought, for a split second, that he'd deliberately slammed some object against the concrete floor to be certain he had my full attention. But then my sensitized hearing picked up the telltale brush of something heavy sliding down the other side of the door.
It opened immediately afterward, and Reese stepped through. A fine spray of blood stood out against the white of his shirt, and he was wearing the wolf's smile I more often saw in surveillance footage than in person. "You don't know Finch very well, do you?" he said contemptuously, eyes fixed on Michael as the man stood to face him.
I could not help but draw in a sharp breath upon seeing him; I may also have experienced a moment of cardiac arrhythmia, though that could easily have been the fault of the pain and stress already affecting me. "John," I said, struggling to retain control of my emotional state. "How did you find me?"
He shot me a sidelong glance at that, and for a brief second the stern, cold certitude of his expression shifted, allowing a curl at the corner of his mouth: a ray of warmth escaping from beneath the surface. "Never leave home without them," he said obliquely, raising his off hand to tap at his temple. Then he fired the gun, eyes still fixed on me.
Michael cried out and sank to his knees, clutching at his wrist. A handgun very similar to Reese's clattered to the floor at his feet.
My hands were tied behind me; my automatic attempt to touch my glasses produced only a grunt of pain. But I knew instantly what Reese had meant. He'd tricked me. He'd tracked me; and- of course.
He was the reason my number had come up.
Something was interfering with my breathing; I convinced myself that was why I remained silent when he crossed the room to stand in front of Michael and raise the muzzle of his gun to the man's forehead. And why I continued to watch without interruption when Michael drew another weapon from under his coat with his uninjured hand and surged back to his feet to make a fight of it.
It was messy. It was brutal. And I expect I should have insisted Reese secure him alive for transport by the authorities. But I could not bring myself to do so.
Nor did Reese apologize for what he'd done when the final gunshot died, muffled, in the air. He simply crossed the room to stand in front of me, much where Michael had, and look down at me with that same indecipherable expression he'd worn when I'd explained about Dana Miller and the other, unanswered numbers.
"Finch," he said, reaching out to gently brush two fingers over the swelling knot on my forehead.
I closed my eyes. "John," I said again, helplessly.
The warm hand shifted, first tracing the path of drying blood down the side of my face, then gently cupping the back of my head to check for the matching knot where I'd been struck. A sudden shiver crept over me at the touch, all my nerves prickling at once, dimming the constant pain with its contradictory input: I had not been touched so intimately, if one could call it intimate, in a very long time. Up that close, he smelled of gunpowder, sweat, and blood; the rasp of his breathing sounded like freedom.
"Hurt anywhere else?" he asked, his voice a low rumble.
"Just the usual," I replied, a little uncertainly. Today was... not a good day. But it was improving rapidly as the hand behind me smoothed down over the back of my neck.
Then it withdrew briefly, and I heard the metallic scrape of a knife leaving its sheath. There was a tug at my wrists; then the sense of Reese's presence withdrew, and I opened my eyes again, bringing my hands in front of me to rub at my wrists.
"Any more of them?" he asked next, still staring openly at me, not a shred of self-consciousness or anger marring the intensity of his gaze.
"I don't think so," I said, struggling to think past that look. "Unless he was working for someone." It could go either way when terrorism was involved.
"I suppose we'll find out," he shrugged. Then he holstered his weapon and held out his hand.
I took it, allowing myself to lean on him as I regained my balance, and again as we left the room, stepping carefully over the corpse of the man who'd taunted me when I woke. I never had learned his name. He was not the only body we passed on our way out of the building, either.
I wondered what Detective Carter would make of the scene. I would have to canvass the area electronically for surveillance footage before I rested. Which reminded me... "Their data?" I said.
"Taken care of," Reese replied, in a sharp, satisfied tone of voice.
His hand was warm on my back. The air outside was chill, though not enough to explain my second shiver of the evening.
It was difficult to realize that the machine had known this about us before I did.
"Thank you," I told him, recalling a certain encounter in a diner, "for the rescue."
He reached into a pocket and came up with a wrinkled scrap of paper, which he pressed into my palm. "Don't worry about it," he said, the casual words belied by his expression. "It's my job."
I nodded in acknowledgement as he looked away again.
He seemed willing to let matters revert to status quo. But I was not certain I could.
This... was going to require some thought.