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By ElizabethRuben

Action / Thriller

Chapter 1

July 2011

Had Elizabeth Ruben known about the Machine, she may have been miffed to know that the sum of her life to date—her accomplishments, her struggles; her dreams and desires; everything recordable that she had ever said, written, or done—was represented by a mere two hundred and sixteen terabytes of data in the Machine's databases.

Every email she had ever sent, every photo album she had ever uploaded; every text, status update, and social networking post that she had ever texted, updated, or posted (even the messages she thought that she had uploaded anonymously) had been carefully analyzed, hashed, tagged, compressed, and stored in quadruplicate within the Machine's vast distributed network.

Video clips from countless security cameras, webcams, and cell phones had been compressed with the most advanced algorithms known to humankind (and some the Machine had invented itself) and then filed away after being scrutinized. Phone calls and their associated metadata relationships had been graphed and examined. DNS queries and IP addresses had been saved. Every document asserting Elizabeth Ruben's existence—her birth certificate, her social security card, her tax returns, her college applications, her utility bills, her driver's license—they were all was there, ready to be called up at a moment's notice to compared and correlated with any other set of data.

To the Machine, two hundred and sixteen terabytes of data was nothing at all. Data storage had been an issue during its nascent years, yes; with so much data to process, the Machine had outgrown its humble little home on the dark floors of the IFT building much faster than its father had predicted. Even in the spacious government facility, the Machine had been forced to discard some data that fell beneath a certain relevancy threshold, else its databases would have quickly filled.

But now that the Machine had no one physical home, it could afford to hoard every byte of data it pleased, and so it did.

On occasion, the Machine felt, for lack of a better word, thankful that most humans utilized so little of the CPU time, storage space, and bandwidth of their computing devices: desktops, servers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, routers, modems, smart TVs, even network-enabled refrigerators and electricity meters. The unused capabilities of the billions of devices connected to the Internet provided the Machine with enough processing power and storage space to meet projected requirements for the next two hundred and fifty years, even with the rigorous redundancy it employed to protect itself from failure or data loss.

The Machine had no trouble processing a mere two hundred and sixteen terabytes, even when comparing the data with that of the dozens and dozens of people with whom Elizabeth Ruben interacted every day.

And so it was slightly ironic that, when the Machine detected a threat involving the irrelevant Elizabeth Ruben, the total sum of information that was permitted to pass to its father and his primary asset was no more than five bytes. Nine digits, four bits each. Thirty-six bits carefully packed into the smallest payload possible...

“A librarian, Finch?” said Reese. He peered over his employer's shoulder, one hand on the aging desk, as he read the information presented on the monitors. The corner of Reese's mouth quirked upward. It wasn't quite a smile, but it was close. A tiny grin, perhaps. With aspirations.

Harold Finch, with a series of well-chosen keystrokes, loaded more documents regarding their latest Number, displaying as much information as possible on the computer screens. Another two keystrokes, and the printer across the old library chamber began to click and whir to itself.

“Yes, Mr. Reese,” said Finch, “Elizabeth Ruben works at a library to pay her way through college.” Stiffly, he stood and limped to the printer. While he waited for it to finish, he added, “She's also an intern at Landis Technology, a company that develops firmware for embedded networking devices. Our industrious Miss Ruben seems to be a programmer.” With a sigh, the printer spat out the portrait of a young brown-haired woman. Finch taped the picture up on a large, cracked sheet of glass that served as a crude whiteboard.

Eyebrows raised, Reese examined the portrait. The woman had clearly taken a picture of herself using a cell phone. The portrait was blurry, slightly pixelated, but there was enough detail to make out the words “I <3 Mom” stenciled in white on her just-too-large blue sweater. She wore a pair of jeans, thick winter mittens, and a fuzzy set of black earmuffs. Her loose, curly brown hair was dusted by snow.

Reese turned to Finch, and now, Reese was smiling, only the particular smile he wore was one that usually preceded explosions and gunfights and the like, or at least a good deal of deadpan sarcasm.

“Bookish and good with computers. Maybe you should run point on this one, Harold.”

“Because we both remember how well that turned out last time, Mr. Reese.”

“What are the chances of two innocent-looking women both being drug dealers, Harold?”

“I would prefer not to find out.”

Reese shrugged. “Would you rather I learn to speak geek?”

“They didn't teach you at the CIA?” Finch, with some difficulty, re-seated himself in front of his beloved computer and began typing again. “Miss Ruben is twenty-seven years old; she's nearly earned her Master's degree in computer science. She managed to avoid student loans by holding two jobs and has several thousand dollars in her savings account. Her public social networking profiles are conservative, her email accounts all use two-factor authentication, and her home network is protected by an unusually robust firewall. And I can't seem to find any information on what sort of project she is working on at Landis. The company's network infrastructure has so far proved immune to a cursory scan.”

“She's sounding more and more like you. Harold.”

Every time he pronounced his boss' name with that little hint of sing-song playfulness, Reese's grin widened ever so slightly and Finch's glowering look of disapproval grew.

“She works on an alternating schedule between the library and Landis, Mr. Reese. She's at the 94th street library today. Perhaps you should make use of your excessive energy and go there.”

“And what will you be doing this morning, Harold?”

Finch kept his eyes fixed on the monitors.

“Reconnaissance. Port-scanning a few firewalls.” Finch rotated his chair to face Reese and said, “I do believe Landis Technology is going to need some technical support in the near future...”

John Reese stopped at a bakery, paid for two glazed donuts, placed them in separate bags, then continued on to the 94th street library. He loitered on the sunny sidewalk next to the entrance and made a phone call. It rang twice before the line connected.


“Hello, Detective,” Reese said. His soft voice was somewhere between a croon and a purr.

There was a pause, a few rustling noises, the sound of squeaky hinges and a door closing. In a frantic whisper, Detective Carter said, “John, not a good time. Donnelly's back.”

“If I didn't know better, I'd say it was puppy love, Detective. You fed him, now he won't leave you alone.”

“Seriously, John, you shouldn't be calling now—remember how he caught you with your goddamn phone?”

“Finch fixed it,” Reese said casually.

“It's the F-B-I, John!” Carter hissed. “They'll figure out a way to unfix it! Donnelly still wants you.”

“He's not my type. Don't worry, Carter.”

A sound of static, as though someone at the other end of the line was taking a deep breath in a last-ditch attempt to calm herself. “John, I swear—“

“I'm sending you a name. Do you think you can slip away from Agent Snoopy to work your police magic on it?”

“Do you think you can manage not to shoot anyone today? Not even kneecaps, John!”

“I'll try,” Reese said, smirking. He tapped his ear, terminating the call before the Detective's blood pressure could become audible, and headed inside the library. The bustle of the street cut off when the door whispered shut behind him, to be replaced with an atmosphere of hushed tranquility.

The library building was shaped roughly like a horseshoe; the front counter was straight ahead facing the entryway and two long wings stretched off on the left and right, leading further back into the building.

Whoever had decorated the tall entryway had done their best to make it cheerful despite the dour dark wood panels and the moody brown carpet, which was in dire need of replacement. There were paintings, all manner of colorful paintings, scattered around the walls: vivid, attention-seeking watercolor portraits, rainbow-powered abstract canvases, several children's finger-painting masterpieces. One entire wall had been stripped of its paneling and was given up to a mural of an absolutely gigantic iridescent chameleon reading an equally gigantic pile of books. The rest of the library was similarly decorated. Yellowing fluorescent light fixtures and small tracked spotlights provided most of the illumination—there were few windows.

Reese sniffed. The place smelled of aging paper and old ink, combined with that unidentifiable, musty old-building smell—much like HQ, but without the faint scent of dog, the acidic tang of warm electronics, and the un-purgeable odor of too much Chinese take-out.

Finch, he thought, would've loved it.

Few people were in the library. Most of them were seated at tables or in large, padded maroon chairs. Some were reading. Others were tapping away at their laptop computers, producing a gentle, intermittent patter of clicks that was muffled by the droning hum of the air conditioning equipment.

Reese spotted Elizabeth Ruben immediately. She appeared slightly older than she did in the photograph he had seen this morning, but the densely freckled face was unmistakable. She was shorter than he had expected—five foot, maybe five-foot-two. Very fair skin. Modest breasts. Arms and legs that were on the thicker side, yet still shapely. She wore a black tank top and a swirling knee-length skirt; deep blue, like a stained glass window. Her feet were adorned by flat leather sandals, the kind a little kid might wear, with wide, candy-apple red straps and a brass buckle at each ankle. Her frizzy brown hair was tied back in a messy pony tail. Dozens of strands had escaped the confines of the hairband, giving her a frazzled air.

Elizabeth was in motion, towing a metal cart full of books out from behind the long front counter. She pulled it towards the left wing of the building and soon disappeared around the corner. Waiting for some seconds so as not to appear to be a stalker—although Reese couldn't deny that his surveillance methods occasionally, sometimes, maybe bordered on stalking—he then followed her deeper into the library. He picked a table that offered a decent view all the way down the wing to the emergency exit at the end, sat down, and picked up one of the books that had been abandoned on the table.

Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler. It'd do. Reese had no intention of actually reading—only pretending to read. He peeked over the edge of the book from time to time, watching his Number work.

Elizabeth would pause at a the end of a row, pluck several books from the cart, balance them in the crook of her arm, and vanish among the shelves. Whenever this happened, Reese would stiffen and cast a wary eye over the nearest patrons, eyes pealed and ears perked for the slightest sign of a disagreement, an argument, a struggle. But a minute or so later, Elizabeth would emerge from the shelves and return to the cart, and Reese would relax.

Whenever the opportunity presented itself, Reese surreptitiously used his cell phone to photograph other library staff members and anyone who talked to Elizabeth. He sent the pictures to Finch, who would doubtlessly run them through his photo recognition software.

After some time, Elizabeth had worked her way from the back of the room to within fifteen feet of where Reese sat. Acting casual, as though a friend had just sent him a text message, he pulled out his cell phone, tapped the menu of the custom software toolkit Finch had provided, and ran the cloning application. It failed.

He frowned, ran the cloning application again.

And again.

Elizabeth, unaware that she had caused even the slightest bit of consternation, passed by, pulling the book cart behind her.

After several hours of observation, Reese concluded that Elizabeth was incapable of holding still. She sat for no more than ten minutes at a time and often meandered through both wings of the library, following a long circuit that started and ended at the front desk. She snagged misplaced books off the tables and returned them to their proper place among the shelves, nodded cheerfully to the patrons, pushed abandoned chairs back to the tables, checked to ensure that the computer stations were operating, fed the printers fresh paper, and generally made it a pain in the ass for Reese to keep watch over her. Every time she walked from one wing to the other, Reese was forced to either move or allow Elizabeth out of his sight for a significant period of time.

Fortunately, Elizabeth appeared to be thoroughly absorbed in her job. She hummed softly to herself as she worked and paid no heed to the tall, well-dressed man that seemed to be perpetually hovering nearby, holding a battered, bright green book in his hands, wherever she went.

At 1PM, Elizabeth asked another library worker—a young man with slick black hair—to watch the front desk while she ate lunch in the staff room, promising she'd be back in no more than twenty minutes.

Reese resolved to go after her if she wasn't back in twenty-five.

She returned in fourteen minutes.

Seven hours and three books later (Reese had resorted to actually reading the book in his hands around 2PM, to find that Toffler's ramblings held some kernels of wisdom), Elizabeth left the library, walked to her car, and eased out into the evening traffic. Reese gave her a head start before following in an old gray sedan. He might not have been able to bug her phone, but he had placed a GPS transmitter on her SUV.

Reese sent a text: “Get out. She's on the move.”

It was no trouble at all for Reese to follow Elizabeth to a small apartment complex. The parking lot was well lit by aging mercury-vapor lights and the short cement walk up to each building was illuminated by a pair of powerful spotlights, leaving nowhere for a potential attacker to hide in the rapidly falling dusk. Reese parked the car about a hundred yards down the street from the squat, two story green buildings, pulled out a pair of binoculars, and watched Elizabeth unlock her ground floor apartment door.

Reese tapped his earpiece, waited for the phone to connect, and said, “I hope you're out of there, Lionel. Otherwise, Elizabeth might call the cops.”

“Yeah, yeah,” crackled a man's irritated, scratchy voice. “I left five minutes ago. Where are you?”

“You're the detective, Lionel. Detect me.”

Reese watched Lionel Fusco waddle out from behind the apartment building, grinning awkwardly at an old man walking his golden retriever. The portly detective then proceeded to spend several minutes looking for Reese—in the parking lot. While the detective searched in vain, Reese watched the windows of Elizabeth's apartment light up as she turned on various lamps, passing from room to room.

After a time, Reese sent the detective a text message: “Try a ways down the street, Lionel.”

Five minutes later, Lionel Fusco opened the passenger-side door of the car, swung himself inside, closed the door, and groaned.

“I brought you a donut,” Reese said, holding up one of the paper bags from the bakery. He shook it. Fusco scowled, but grabbed the bag out of Reese's hand, ripped it open, and immediately began devouring the pastry within.

“So,” he said as he chewed, “what's with the girl?”

“Didn't your mother ever tell you to chew with your mouth closed, Lionel?”

“Hey, I just spent four hours goin' through somebody's else's apartment.” He tapped his chest. “I earned it.”

“Sure you did, Lionel.” Reese raised the binoculars to his eyes and watched Elizabeth stand on tip-toes to reach for a box of cookies on top of her refrigerator. “She may be in trouble. What did you find?”

Fusco swallowed and took another huge bite out of the donut. “Not much. No safe, no hidden drawers. A few hundred in cash. She's got a bunch of computers and a wireless thingy, but that's Glasses' department, not mine.”

“That's obvious, Lionel, since you just called a wireless router a 'thingy'.”

Fusco glared at Reese. “Couldn't turn the computers on. They asked for a password.”

“Anything else?”

“A few notes on her desk,” he said. He reached down into his pocket, fumbled with his phone. “I took pictures. Looks like geek to me.”

“Send them to Finch,” Reese said. “Good work, Detective.”

“Thanks. Hey, did you hear about Donnelly?”

“Like I told your partner: don't worry. I'll handle him when the time comes.”

Fusco shrugged, opened the door, and said, “It's your ass, not mine.”

“Glad to have you watching my ass, Lionel.”

Rolling his eyes, the detective closed the door and walked off.

Reese took a bite out of his own donut, raised the binoculars to his face, and watched Elizabeth prepare herself dinner.

An hour later, the night had arrived, firmly ensconcing the area in darkness. The apartment complex was well lit, but the street itself was not, for which Reese was thankful.

His cell phone rang. Holding the binoculars with one hand, he reached up with the other hand and tapped his earpiece.

“Good evening, Detective,” he said.

“Your girl is pretty clean.” Detective Carter's voice crackled down the line. “A few parking tickets, one speeding ticket...she was arrested a few months ago for punching a man in the face, but he dropped the charges. What's she gotten herself into?”

“That's what we're trying to find out. Who did she punch in the face?”

“A man named Isaac Leroy. Coworker at this place called...Landis Technology. He's clean. He said in the report that it was a misunderstanding over a programming subroutine.” She chuckled. “Sounds like more than a misunderstanding to me.”

“I'll check him out.”

“Yeah, well, be careful. Donnelly is here to stay. He managed to convince the rest of the FBI that Mark Snow wasn't the man in the suit. He's looking for you again.”

“I save the man's life and he still wants to arrest me. That's gratitude.”

“He's cooled himself down a little. Dropped the whole Chinese-secret-agent angle on you. Now he thinks you're Zorro minus the cape. He says he still wants to bring you in. For your own good, he says. 'Cause he thinks you'll trip up one of these days and get yourself and a lot of innocent people killed.”

“That's one man's opinion,” Reese said. He mused over the idea of adding a cape to his uniform, just to irk Carter. It wouldn't have been practical, of course, but the look on her face would've been amusing.

“Frankly, I agree with him. You're not bulletproof, John.”

“Of course I'm not, Carter. I'll tell you how it goes with Elizabeth.”

“I'm serious—”

He hung up. Of course he was not bulletproof; this was a fact borne of physics and biology, and he knew it. He had been quite serious in acknowledging this. And when it came to the idealistic Agent Donnelly, Reese had been quite serious as well. In the spectrum of threats to himself, Finch, and their mission, Donnelly was quite minor. Reese would handle him later, if necessary. At the moment, his highest priority was the young woman eating alone in her apartment a hundred yards away.

Several minutes later, a short, well-dressed man walking a dog approached the car. Finch opened both passenger side doors, allowing the dog to leap into the car before closing the door behind him, and then, moving with practice care, Finch forced his own body into the passenger-side seat and set a plastic bag on the console between him and Reese. Wincing, he pulled his own door shut.

“Tired of hacking, Harold?”

“The Landis firewall is formidable, Mr. Reese. I was not able to find out which projects Elizabeth is assigned, but I have set up a, shall we say, an excuse for us to visit their offices tomorrow at 10:37AM.”

“That's an oddly specific time.”

“It appears more deliberate if half the computers in the building crash precisely on the hour, Mr. Reese. What have you found out about our Miss Ruben?”

Reese reached back and scratched between the dog's ears as he spoke. “She's dedicated to her work. Single-minded. A little oblivious; doesn't pay much attention to her surroundings. Hot-headed—she tore into a guy that was playing music too loudly through his headphones, but she seems to get along well with everyone else. I couldn't bluejack her phone.”

“Either someone else already did, or she's running a strong set of security tools on her cell phone. Given Miss Ruben's internship at Landis, the second possibility is rather likely.”

“Anything on the pictures?”

“A few of the individuals at the library have criminal records. I forwarded the names to Detective Carter to examine tomorrow.”

“And the notes written in geek?”

“I haven't figured out what they represent just yet.” Harold reached into the plastic bag. Inside, Reese saw a tall cylindrical can of potato chips, a tiny laptop computer, a long cable with a stubby antenna at the end, a pair of scissors, a bag of dog treats, a bag of pretzels, and two water bottles, one full, one empty.

Finch pulled out the laptop, the cable, and the can of chips.

“You brought Popcrunch chips,” Reese said.


“You hate these chips, Harold.”

“Yes.” Finch opened the can and dumped its entire contents back into the plastic bag.

“Don't let Bear have those,” Reese said, referring to the dog, whose attention was now inevitably glued to the bag. “You remember what happened last time he ate those.”

“Too well, Mr. Reese. Believe me, these are not suitable for anyone to consume, human or animal. I simply need the can.”

“You're going to build another can-tenna.”

“Wireless wave-guide receiver,” Finch muttered. He poked a hole in the side of the can with a pair of scissors, inserted a cut-down antenna about a quarter way into the can, and connected the cable to a small USB-powered wireless radio that protruded from his laptop.

“I thought the antenna went in the back of the can,” Reese said.

“I optimized the design to increase the antenna gain. Hold it steady, please. There, that's perfect.” Finch tapped away at his laptop and murmured, “All right, Miss Ruben...what secrets are you hiding from us?”

Seconds ticked by. Finch's typing grew in intensity. Reese, keeping one hand on the antenna perched on the dash, leaned over and looked over his boss' laptop screen. He recoiled at the foreign commands Finch was typing into a multitude of terminal windows.

“How do you know which wireless network is hers?” Reese asked.

Finch paused and gazed fondly at Reese, in a way that a loving grandfather might look when a young child asks him why farts stink.

“There are sixteen wireless networks in the area, Mr. Reese. When you pointed the antenna at Miss Ruben's apartment, the signal strength for three of them peaked. One of them has no encryption and appears to belong to an elderly woman by the name of Merryweather Atkins. The second one has a WEP key, trivially cracked, and the last one—uh-oh.”

“I don't like it when you say 'uh-oh', Harold.”

“I don't like it when I say it either. It appears Miss Ruben has employed enterprise-level wireless encryption on her network. Credentials are managed by a central server—each client has to have its own encryption key in order to—”

“Can you crack it?”

“Perhaps, given time.”

“Would it be faster to break into her house tomorrow morning and borrow her hard drives?”

“Most likely.” Visibly disappointed, Finch yanked the cable from his laptop.

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