DISCLAIMER: The characters herein are used without permission. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Rating is PG-13 for everything but one scene in chapter 5, which is marked off for those who want to avoid explicit sex.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To marvinarthur42[at]gmail.com

The Signal's Just a Roar
By winged_mammal

 

1

Corn.

More corn.

What's that over there? Is that wheat? Oh, no, wait, it's just more corn.

Endless fucking fields of corn.

Shaw is beginning to regret the life choices that have led her here, surrounded by stalks that seem to taunt her with their height greater than hers, the fields stretching far past the horizon. They'd started at least four horizons ago, for fuck's sake, who could possibly use this much corn? It hadn't been so noticeable during the winter when the fields had been empty, but now the year's crops have been planted and have had time to grow into a looming menace that surrounds her everywhere she goes.

The fact that night had fallen long ago only feeds her growing contempt. Brightly sunlit fields of corn that had seemingly stretched on for eternity have instead turned into a sickeningly green-tinged waking nightmare illuminated only by her headlights, and the lack of any other distinguishing features in the landscape or other cars on the road make it impossible to tell whether she's actually moving at all or is instead stuck in a time loop, doomed to travel the same five yards of a backwater Iowa road for the rest of her life.

Being a trucker stuck in the Midwest beats getting assassinated by the covert government operation she'd spent the past five years working for, at least.

Maybe.

Shaw eyes a suspicious looking stalk at the edge of the reach of her headlights. She's definitely seen that one before.


The corn has given way to soybeans and Shaw pulls off into the first truck station she comes across, never more grateful for sodium lights and a creeping hint of urine in the air. She stretches her arms as she hops out of the cab of her truck and refuels both tanks before heading inside the small convenience store.

There's only a handful of other people hanging around the station, which is just as well. It's not like she took this job to meet new people - the fewer people who ever see her face, the better. The wafting smell of coffee entices her to the kiosk in the back of the store. There are few pleasures to be had on the road like this, but fresh hot coffee definitely tops the list. Convenience store coffee has shot up in quality in the past few years, she's noticed, and while she likes being able to enjoy food too much to risk burning her tongue by drinking it while it's still scalding, she does like the excuse to let the smell permeate through the cab as it cools for a while.

She pours herself a large travel mug of black coffee and assesses the snack situation before a man's voice breaks through her steadfast desire to ignore the others around her.

"Yeah, sure, I can get you to Cedar Rapids. You meeting up with your boyfriend there?"

Ugh, not this shit again.

Shaw inches toward the end of the aisle, an older clean-shaven trucker coming into view. A teenage girl, clearly a runaway, stands before him, her backpack at her feet.

"He's the reason I'm in this mess."

"Ah, he doesn't know what he's throwing away, does he honey?"

Shaw rolls her eyes and steps out from the aisle, already done with this guy's sliminess. Fortunately she knows just how to deal with him. "Hey, either of you got any pot?"

The girl startles at the interruption, her eyes widening as she takes in Shaw standing in the middle of the sticky tiled floor, coffee in hand and gesturing at them with a beef Slim Jim. The trucker half turns toward Shaw, dismissing her as soon as he glances at her.

"I'm just about ready to go, if you want to get your stuff put away in the cab."

Shaw steps closer. "So is that a no on the pot?"

The trucker fully turns to face her now. "I don't smoke, and does it look like this girl can afford that shit?" He gestures toward the girl, who winces a little at Shaw as she hefts her backpack onto her shoulder.

"Huh." Shaw looks past them toward the truck parked next to hers at the pump. "That yours?" she asks, jerking her chin toward the window. He follows her gaze.

"Yeah. Why?"

"Grass, gas, or ass, nobody rides for free, right? No grass, you've already got your gas… You don't strike me as the type of guy to let someone ride for free, so what's it gonna be?" The girl's grip on the shoulder strap of her bag tightens and she takes a step back when she realizes what Shaw means.

The man takes a half step toward her, and Shaw sets her coffee on the counter, winking at the disinterested clerk behind it. "Look, lady, I don't know what - "

He's on his knees with his arm twisted behind his back before he can finish his sentence, Shaw's hand wrapped around his wrist and her other hand at the back of his neck. She leans down to his ear as he struggles against her grip, face going red.

"Girl asked for a ride, not a creep demanding creep favors." Shaw pulls his arm further back when he tries to hit her with his other arm, and he cries out from the pain.

"You bitch, who the fuck do you - "

Shaw's knee connects with his chin and he falls to the floor, unconscious. The girl makes a distressed noise and Shaw looks over to the clerk, who merely shrugs at her and goes back to his phone, before making a show of dusting off her hands. She nudges the man's arm with her foot as she steps over him and walks toward the door. "Dudes around here are creeps," she says, nodding her head at the girl and indicating her truck. "Dudes are creeps everywhere, but a shitty truck stop in the middle of a bunch of corn fields tends to be worse. Come on."

The girl follows her across the lot, out of shock more than anything else, and Shaw reaches for the handset of the CB radio inside her cab, clicking it on. "Yeah, uh… This is Don't Talk to Me Unless My Truck is Literally On Fire." It had been her standard response anytime someone had tried to chat with her on the CB. She wasn't going to be one of those assholes who gave themselves a handle, so when she overheard other truckers warning potential chatterboxes away by calling her that, she'd run with it. "I've got another runaway who needs a ride. Anyone near the Sparky's One Stop at mile marker 109 on Lincoln highway, heading toward Cedar Rapids?"

"Can't I just - " the girl starts, and Shaw shakes her head.

"I took this job to get away from people, not have them share my space for three hours."

"Firecracker, this is Peanuts, I'm headed in that direction and can be there in about 15 minutes."

Shaw glances over to the girl. "What's your name?"

"Jennifer?"

"Is that a question?" Shaw squints at her, but raises the mic again. "Copy that, Peanuts. Her name is Jennifer, she'll be inside waiting with the clerk."

Shaw starts back off toward the store, and after a moment of stunned silence the girl, Jennifer apparently, catches up to her. "Do you even know who that was?"

"Not really, but I know he hates predator creeps as much as I do. Gives us a bad name, and all that." Just because she doesn't participate in CB radio chatter doesn't mean she doesn't listen in from time to time. Recon is recon, after all, even if it is just gathering intel on her fellow long haul truckers.

She pulls up next to the counter and leans over it on an elbow. The clerk glances up from his phone, but only for just a moment.

"I don't know how to thank you," the girl starts, and Shaw lets out a long suffering sigh and cuts her off.

"Thank me by having a better plan than running away with your boyfriend and hoping for the best next time. Now stay here until Peanuts arrives, and," she pointedly stretches to make out the name tag on the clerk's chest, "Charlie here will keep an eye on you. Isn't that right, Charlie?"

He finally looks up, aware that he's got Shaw's attention, and Shaw is pleased at the dawning realization in his eyes that that's a bad state to be in. Shaw beckons him closer and grabs him by the collar when he steps within her reach like an idiot.

"Because if he doesn't, and I find out something happened to you before Peanuts got here, he knows I'm going to find him, doesn't he?"

Charlie vigorously nods his head and squeaks out, "got it," before Shaw releases him.

Her coffee is still sitting on the counter. She takes a test sip as she drops a few bills onto the counter.

Cooled down to perfection.


Another flyover state, another ten thousand rows of corn, and Shaw had run out of new audiobooks fifty miles ago.

The selection of FM radio stations with good reception in rural Kansas was wanting, and there's only so much country or gospel music she can handle in one sitting. Her own music collection has long since been overplayed, and don't even get her started on the state of top 40 pop stations in more populated areas.

Who'd have thought that going on the run would be so fucking boring. Ordinarily she'd be fine to drive in silence, but night has fallen again and if she has to look at acre after acre of indistinguishable farmland without any other distraction or the thrill of impending violence she's pretty sure she'll end up hypnotizing herself.

A dull, quiet static rings out through the cab when she switches her radio to the AM tuner. Great. That doesn't bode well. She jabs the tuning button, and this time at least there are voices.

"... saying that the Cornhuskers can do better at QB than - "

The sports talk gets cut off with another press of the button. Static at varying volumes occupies the next four stations, until she lands on a frequency with overlapping stations.

"...ple don't know about the great deal - we'll be back in just a - city mileage and twenty on the highway - on KOSJ 1320 AM - "

In theory it's nice that AM stations can travel so far at night, but in reality it just fucks with everything and makes most of it unlistenable. In this flat region of the country it doesn't matter how many stations power down after sunset, everyone else in the Midwest is competing for the same airwaves and it all ends up overlapping with each other. She sighs and keeps her finger hovered over the button, glancing over at the stereo every so often as she watches the road.

"... Purple Haze was actually inspired by a book Hendrix had read - "

Had some potential, but the signal strength kept going in and out. Must be a storm brewing between here and there.

"... our lord and savior and his light will - "

No.

"...she thinks my tractor's sexyyy..."

What's with the place and their tractor fetish anyway?

Static, static, some sort of news radio but the discussion was buried under a layer of static, three more gospel stations. Finally she lands upon a woman's voice, coming through crisp and clear.

"... actually a common misconception. The observer effect says that to measure something is to change it. You have to have some kind of electromagnetic power source in order to use any kind of scientific instrument, visible light or gamma rays or infrared or whatever the case may be. You can't measure something unless that light hits it, and when you get to the quantum level even a single photon will irrevocably alter what you're looking at."

Shaw relaxes in her seat. The woman isn't selling her something, she's not in love with her farm equipment, her station is free from interference and static - she's the total package. The fact that she's got a pleasant voice and seems to be one of the few late night talk show hosts Shaw's ever heard who has half a brain is a nice bonus, but unnecessary at this point in her desperation for a distraction.

"The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is along those same lines. It describes how you can either precisely know your location, or you can precisely know your momentum, but you can't know both at the same time. The closer you get to one, the further you get from the other. So the observer effect says there's always going to be some uncertainty in the results in whatever you're measuring, while Heisenberg is more about the math on why that is, and it applies to the quantum realm regardless of any human input."

Shaw finds herself listening more intently than she'd anticipated. It's nothing she didn't already know, but a radio program that talks about particle physics at two thirty in the morning is more promising than anything else she's heard, for sure. Her eyes flick over to the radio and she makes note of the frequency; she'll probably be coming back to this station in the future.

"All of which gets into why atomic structures actually have a probabilistic cloud instead of discrete orbitals for the electrons like we were taught in high school chemistry, and all sorts of fun about wavefunctions and Hamiltonians and just absolutely excruciating math that has no place on radio. But I think my favorite thing is how Heisenberg was once pulled over by a cop, who asked him 'Do you know how fast you were going?' and he replied, 'No, but I know exactly where I was.'"

The host laughs to herself, pleased with her terrible joke.

Goddammit. Can't she have anything nice? The one late night radio show with decent reception and acceptable content and the host is the worst kind of nerd.

The woman clears her throat. "Okay, so thanks for indulging me there, Gary, what was it you were saying?"

A second person comes on, a caller to the show judging by the slight hollowness to his voice as he speaks. "Yeah, uh…" He sounds confused by what he's just heard, and Shaw is pretty sure she hears the host stifle another laugh. "I don't know anymore."

"That's okay Gary, I'm sure it wasn't that interesting anyway. Let's go to one of our other callers. Hello to Steve in Stillwater, you're on Northern Lights, what's on your mind tonight?"

Northern Lights. Hmm. That doesn't give much of a hint as to what this show is supposed to be about, but it does kind of fit with the physics lecture, Shaw supposes. The new caller is clearly agitated, and comes on the air with no preamble to his rant.

"What I want to know is why there's a server in Trump tower that's communicating with a Russian bank every day. They're exchanging packets of information during New York and Moscow office hours and there's no other web traffic to that server, and any other IP address is blocked from even pinging it? How are you gonna tell me that's not some clandestine Russian intelligence communicating with its American asset thing? I looked into the DNS on this - "

"I'm gonna stop you right there, Steve," the host interrupts. Thank fuck. Shaw's been pretty disconnected from the world lately, and every time she hears anything about the pending election she's almost glad she's in this situation. "I've made it clear that we're not discussing that man on this show, it's all just too depressing. All right, let's move on, shall we? Caller from Higginsville, you're on the air. Death is inevitable and none of us have a purpose in life. Thoughts?"

Shaw snorts and adds the station to her radio presets. As long as this host keeps tormenting her callers, she can forgive one bad joke.


It's been seven months since the ISA tried to kill her, and since changing her name, becoming a truck driver, and spending long solitary hours on the road mostly in the Midwest, this is what Shaw's learned:

It's better to take the hit on the timely delivery and pull over at a rest stop for a few hours when a snow storm blows up in Iowa, rather than end up stuck on the road after some idiot drivers crash. At least there are indoor toilets at the rest stop.

Soybeans are a tool of the devil. Worse than corn, somehow.

It takes ten seconds for her rig to overtake a farm tractor ambling along at five miles an hour down a two lane road, eight if the guy pissed her off by driving a John Deere and she wants to cut him off.

There are a lot of John Deere tractors in the Midwest.

KGGF 690 AM in Coffeyville Kansas airs a late night talk radio show at two in the morning called Northern Lights that supposedly covers conspiracy and paranormal topics, but really it's whatever weird shit the host, who calls herself Redacted, wants to talk about.

She's pretty sure that KGGF doesn't actually intend to air a late night talk radio show at two in the morning that covers conspiracy and paranormal topics, given the burst of static that interrupts the syndicated sports show every night as Northern Lights comes on the air. Shaw doesn't have much access to the internet since she tossed her phone and replaced it with a series of burners only capable of calls and texts, but if she did, she's certain she wouldn't find any reference to the show on KGGF's website.

Redacted may come across as a smug little shit with bad jokes sometimes, but she's brazen, Shaw will give her that.

"... get sick or injured after getting vaccines all the time, it's just being covered up by these companies who do zero research and just want to scare people into giving them money."

The caller currently on her show, on the other hand, is just a fucking moron. Shaw has to question Redacted's taste, letting him blather on for so long. Crackpot conspiracy theories about UFOs or Bigfoot are one thing, but letting more of this anti-vaxxer crap into the world is just irresponsible.

Unbidden, the call-in number for the show pops into her mind. She's heard it enough over the past couple weeks - radio shows with good reception that don't make her want to bang her head against the steering wheel are hard to come by, and this one at least is always unpredictable. She considers her need to stay under the radar and her desire to not interact with the dumbass population of the country for a moment, but it's not like there would be that many government spooks listening to a pirate radio broadcast in the Midwest at two thirty in the morning on a Thursday. Or at least, no government spooks that would know her voice.

She dials the number.

Only a single ring passes before Redacted's voice comes on the line. "Northern Lights. If you're a cop you have to tell me."

Shaw blinks. Redacted's voice is… different, piped directly into her ear like that. Her tone is playful and she isn't using her careful radio cadence, and the lack of the ever-present hint of static makes it seem like Shaw is hearing her clearly for the first time. She wonders, suddenly, what her actual name is.

The moment passes, and Shaw realizes something. "Why are you answering the phone yourself? Don't you people normally have producers to screen your calls or whatever?"

There's a laugh and a sultry hum, and Shaw thinks it's a good thing she hasn't been hearing Redacted like this the whole time she's been driving. It's dangerously distracting. "You must be new. It's just me."

"That have anything to do with the fact that you're hijacking this radio station?"

"I'm shocked that you think I'd do such a thing. I'm just borrowing it for a little while."

"Real nice legal defense you've got there." The caller on the show launches into another diatribe against measles vaccines in particular. "Wait, are you even paying attention to the idiotic rambling going on on your show right now?"

"Who, Chris?" Redacted scoffs. "No, not really. I was just going to let him wear himself down then tear him a new one, but I get the impression you might enjoy that more than I would."

"Well I sure as hell didn't call to agree with him."

"Excellent." There's a rustle as Redacted moves around on her end. "And who should I say is calling?"

Shaw hesitates. "Tell me yours and I'll tell you mine," she tries, getting the impression that Redacted's interest isn't purely professional.

"Hmm, afraid that's a non-starter, sweetie," Redacted says, and the hint of flirting Shaw had detected has definitely made itself known. "I'll just call you Bertha."

"My name's Sameen," Shaw interrupts before she can even contemplate the horror of being called Bertha. "But you say that on air, I'll find you and kill you."

"Sounds like fun." There's a beep on the line and more rustling. "I'm gonna put you on hold for a second, you might want to turn your radio down when you hear me again. Oh, and no cursing."

"Wait, what?"

Redacted laughs again. "Just kidding. If the FCC can find me to give me a fine, we've got bigger problems."

The line goes silent for a moment, quickly replaced by what Shaw recognizes as a major key rendition of the X-Files theme.

"... wants me to think that injecting a virus into my body is somehow healthy -"

"Okay, thank you for that enlightening conversation, Chris, but you're completely wrong about everything you just said. To tell you more about how you're single-handedly destroying America, we have Sam on the line."

She hears a click in her phone, and Redacted comes back. "Sam, you're on the air."

"Yeah, hi," Shaw starts, adjusting herself in her seat and glaring at an abandoned John Deere tractor on the side of the road. "Chris is the worst sort of dumbass and anyone who takes him or the shit he's been saying seriously is the second worst sort of dumbass. Or maybe the other way around, but either way you're all dumbasses."

"Interesting perspective, Sam, tell us more." Redacted sounds amused, and Shaw smiles a little to herself, glad to have an entertaining way to pass at least some of the long boring night.

"Maybe if the people spouting this anti-vax bullshit were the kind of people who have historically been experimented on by racist government scientists then I could understand it. But no, it's a bunch of white soccer moms and their cookie cutter husbands with kids named Raylen or McKayleighloo or whatever, and the worst sort of libertarian white dudes who can only get hard when they think they've owned someone on the internet and don't even know enough about biology to find the clit, let alone know better than the entire field of medicine on how to prevent disease."

"I'm sure you can teach me a lot about biology, Sameen." Shaw pauses her rant in a brief flash of outrage at Redacted saying her name on the air before she realizes her voice had only come through Shaw's phone and not the radio. She must have muted herself again.

"And what the fuck is so bad about autism that these people would rather risk their kids dying of some easily preventable disease than have it? The worst disadvantage that any kid of yours would be born with is having you as parents, at least let them be healthy for god's sake. And if your miserable brat doesn't end up getting some shitty disease, it's because every-fucking-one else in your neighborhood got vaccinated and we're all just talking cows with cars and cell phones and herd immunity saved your precious little McKayloo."

"McKayleighloo?"

"Whatever. Point is, you idiots aren't just risking your own kids' lives, you're risking the lives of all the other kids in your area, including the ones who can't get vaccinated because they've got actual medical problems besides having shit for brains parents. And I don't particularly care about the well being of people in rich gated communities but we fucking eradicated polio in like a decade, it was a triumph of science and social policy, and you're just gonna throw that away because Jenny goddamn McCarthy told you to?"

Fuck, Shaw really hates anti-vaxxers.

Redacted pipes up again. "Who even is Jenny McCarthy?"

"Hell if I know."

"One of the four horsemen, probably. Pestilence, coming for us in strappy sandals and fresh highlights."

"Exactly. Probably doesn't even believe her own bullshit, she's just trying to sell her crappy line of lifestyle products to a bunch of asshole idiots."

"Capitalism at its finest." Redacted hums in her ear. "Well, Sam, I certainly admire your passion. I don't think Chris will be calling back in anytime soon and there's no one else on the lines, so what else are you passionate about?"

Shaw contemplates hanging up. She doesn't want to encourage the obvious flirting - they've had maybe five minutes of interaction on the phone, what even is there worth flirting over? She is bored, though, and Redacted is nothing if not a good diversion from the mindnumbingly repetitive fields of corn. Which isn't a bad place to start, she supposes.

"Yeah, let's talk about what a scam corn subsidies are. What are they really doing with all this shit?"

"Agribusiness is slowly consuming us all," Redacted agrees.

A discussion of the evils of Big Corn and the spineless congressmen who don't dare to cut the pointless subsidies makes the next twenty minutes pass by in a blur, until Northern Lights has to go off the air. Shaw ends her call and shoves her phone under her thigh, wishing she had a cold drink at hand. Her throat isn't used to her talking that much at once.

Her phone vibrates with an incoming text. She fishes it out and sees a short message from an unknown number.

You can call me Root.

 

2

Regulations on how long truckers are allowed to drive in a day are bullshit.

Sure, most corporations are made up of soul sucking demons who couldn't give less of a shit about the well being of their employees and most people are too stupid to know their own limits or too poor to have the luxury of staying within those limits, but that doesn't mean Shaw should have to abide by the same rules as everyone else.

Although, granted, maybe the fact that she didn't realize it was already past two in the morning before her data recorder started beeping at her does seem to indicate otherwise. And it would be an expensive pain in the ass to get a new cover job, so no getting herself fired for now, at least.

So now she's in the middle of Nebraska, pulled over on a gravel side road leading nowhere, and has to sit here doing nothing for the next ten hours. Her eyes alight upon her radio and she considers the geography of the area. Root's show should be within range here - or rather, it definitely shouldn't since Shaw caught the tail end of KGGF's daytime broadcast once and they had made it clear they power down at night and broadcast to a much smaller area. Root seems to power it back up somehow for her show every night, though, and based on the places Shaw has been able to catch it, her audience is almost the entire Midwest.

Shaw clicks her radio on, tuning it back to 690 AM, and shakes her head when she hears Root's voice come through her speakers. Brazen, indeed.

"... wasn't just loud, it lasted a long time. Seventy seconds, right?"

Another woman's voice comes on the line. "Seventy-two, yeah. That's the giveaway, to me, that the Wow! signal was terrestrial in origin. For something in space to have been as loud as it was, it had to either have had unimaginable power, or been really close. The detector those guys were using looked at a narrow slice of the sky, so if it was something in orbit then it would have moved out of range much more quickly than that."

Shaw grabs hold of the pull-up bar mounted in the back of her cab. That's one benefit to her height, at least. She has space to work out in her own damn truck and not have to find gyms or be bothered by people. She pulls herself up and holds for five seconds as Root's voice comes back.

"Right. So you don't agree with the research that came out last year suggesting a comet was responsible?"

Shaw scoffs at the idea, and hates herself a little when she hears Root's caller do the same. "Comets don't emit radio signals like that."

"Well, that was what the paper was about, wasn't it? They found a previously unknown comet whose orbit would have put it in that region of space when the signal was detected, so they tried to figure out if comets could even emit radio signals. Turns out they might, in the right circumstances."

"Maybe so, but then why didn't both antennas detect the signal?"

Shaw's brow furrows as she powers through another set of reps. What two antennas? She's heard of the Wow! signal before, but nothing about two antennas.

"The so-called feed horns for the telescope," Root says. "Right, they were pointed in slightly different directions, so if it was a comet passing by then in effect there should have been two signals, recorded with a slight time delay. Just one signal, couldn't have been a comet. Or anything else in orbit, really."

Fuck. She learned something from a conspiracy radio show.

"Exactly. If only one side detected the signal, it had to have been a stationary object, or at least so incredibly far away it may as well have been stationary. It was too loud to be that far away, so it had to have originated on Earth."

"So what do you think it was?"

"Well, three days before that, NASA tested the Enterprise shuttle, on one of those glide tests you know? I think the government saw an opportunity there to hide another launch, of some kind of weapon that could keep itself in the air for days at a time until it reached its target. But it exploded before it reached Russia, and that was the signal they caught."

Shaw pauses halfway through a pull-up, staring at the radio. Well that certainly was a new one. And not at all how explosions worked. Shaw shakes it off and bends her elbows at a right angle before raising her knees to her chest, twisting at the waist.

"That's… creative," Root says, more diplomatically than Shaw's heard her bother trying to be before. "Okay, hold that thought Mary, we're going to take it over to Lewis in Rosedale. You're on the air, Lewis."

"Look, the signal was loud, but it wasn't like, ten-thousand-black-holes-exploding-at-once loud like that lady was making it out to be." Lewis has a strong Boston accent, what the hell brought him to some no-name town in the midwest? "It was thirty times stronger than background noise, which, yeah, is incredibly loud, but that's just, like, someone talking in a quiet room kind of loud. There's no reason it had to have come from Earth."

Shaw works out her abs for a few more reps, interested despite herself.

"That's a good point, loud when we're talking about astronomical signals is always relative," Root says. "In fact most people think it's impossible that it came from Earth, given the spot in the sky it was found and that it was a frequency that pretty much nothing human-made operates at."

"And the reason it was seventy-two seconds is because that's the amount of time the telescope was pointed at anything in the first place."

"Right, yes, everyone always forgets about that part, myself included." Root lets her excitement slip into her voice, and Shaw lets herself slip from the bar. She grabs a bottle of water from her cooler and sprawls out on her bunk, catching her breath. "Big Ear wasn't capable of locking onto one patch of the sky, since it couldn't move itself. It looked at whatever the Earth's rotation let it look at. So if there's a radio source somewhere out in space, constantly emitting a signal, what we'd see if a telescope like that happened to catch it is a slight detection as the antennas moved into range, steadily getting bigger until it was locked dead on, and decreasing again as it moved away. Which is exactly what the Wow! signal is."

"Yeah, so there's no way that it wasn't some signal coming from out there. But we've tried over and over to find it again, and it's just gone. It was a one-time thing, from somewhere out in space. Someone was trying to communicate with us, but we lost our chance."

Really? This guy goes straight from "originated in space" to "aliens did it" just like that? Guess that explains why he left Boston to come out to small town conspiracy land.

"So you think something like that had to have come from intelligent life, then." Root responds as though his explanation makes perfect sense, of course.

Shaw eyes her phone, just within reach.

"Yeah, obviously."

Fine.

The guy continues on his spiel but Shaw tunes him out as she dials the number for the show, wiping sweat from the back of her neck with her other hand.

"Northern Lights. If you're with the FBI you have to tell me," Root answers.

"Gotta say, at least Root is a better name than Redacted."

Root hesitates for half a second, then comes back with obvious delight in her voice. "Well hello there, Sameen. I was starting to think I'd never hear from you again."

"It's been maybe two weeks, tops. And yeah, well, I was bored. What else am I gonna do at almost three in the morning?"

"You sound a little out of breath, sweetie. Feeling all right?"

"Been working out," Shaw says, ignoring the term of endearment for now. "Taking a break."

"Bored while you were working out? Must not have been doing it right. I can help with that, if you like," Root says with unmistakable innuendo.

Shaw squints up at the ceiling of her cab. "Do you flirt with all your callers?"

"Just the cute ones named Sameen."

"You don't even - no, forget it. You wanna talk on the air or not?"

"I can do whatever you want me to on the air," Root says, and puts Shaw on hold. Shaw turns her radio down to a whisper, Lewis somehow still going on about aliens in the constellation Sagittarius.

"... the last dying gasp of their civilization - "

"Okay, Lewis, time to let someone else have a turn," Root says as though she were an exhausted preschool teacher. Shaw's phone clicks and Root's voice comes back into her ear. "We've got Sam back on the show with us tonight. Sam, you're on the air."

Shaw immediately launches into her thoughts. "Yeah, what I want to know is why people always jump right to aliens whenever something weird happens in space. Gamma ray bursts are a thing, and they've got nothing to do with aliens, it's just physics. There's no reason to think that signal wasn't just something that happens naturally, but it's rare so we haven't seen it again."

Root hums. "Very true. It was the exact emission frequency of hydrogen, it's entirely possible there was just a cloud of it somewhere that got energized and yelled about it, and it was back to normal by the time we went back to look for it." Shaw nods to herself. "But that just seems like such a boring answer, don't you think?"

"Look," Shaw sighs, "of course aliens exist. The universe is too huge for this stupid little planet to have been the only one to manage to support life. But," she emphasizes, hearing Root about to interrupt, "it's also too huge for any of them to get here, or for us to get there. The closest star is what, ten light years away? Ten years for light to get here, and I hate to break it to you, but we can't travel that fast."

"So you're saying that because humans don't have a way to travel faster than a space slug, no one does?" Root actually fucking tsks at her. "Awfully arrogant of you, Sam."

"I'm saying that rocket science doesn't change just because you're on different planets. There's a limit to how fast you can go without breaking your ship apart, so it's going to take thousands of years to travel between stars and by the time you get there the locals you were going to meet have probably blown themselves up."

"Not a fan of faster than light travel, then? Wormholes, maybe?"

"Can't happen, and they're too unpredictable to be of any use to anyone."

"You must not have been a Star Trek fan growing up, I take it."

Shaw shrugs against her mattress. "I liked DS9 just fine, doesn't mean I think was real."

There's a pause. "Tell me, Sam," Root almost purrs, and Shaw's fingers twitch involuntarily against her thigh at the sound. "Have you ever heard of quantum entanglement?"

The phrase rings a bell, but not much beyond that. "Heard of it, yeah. That's… an entirely separate branch of physics though. Small shit. We're talking big shit."

"True," Root laughs. "They're working on unifying them though. But that's beside the point."

"Which is…"

"Einstein called it 'spooky action at a distance.' Which is just great for this show, really, I should consider a name change. Essentially, in the right circumstances you can have two particles that are tangled together in such a way that whatever happens to one of them, instantaneously happens to the other."

"Sounds like bullshit."

"Einstein thought so too, when he realized his equations implied it was possible. But we've got much better instruments than he did, and we've proven it happens over and over. That's not the cool part, though."

Root pauses, and Shaw just knows she's waiting for her to express an interest and ask what the cool part is. Ugh, she is kind of curious, though. "So what is, then?"

"The cool part," Root sounds excited again, like she's just talking to Shaw and has forgotten she's on the radio, "is that this can happen regardless of how far away from each other those particles are. The group doing this experiment had separate labs that were several miles apart, and when they changed a particle in one, they observed a change in its entangled counterpart in the other lab at the exact same time. Not even a fraction of a second later - it was completely simultaneously. That information essentially traveled faster than light."

"Huh." Shaw frowns. "That just work on single particles, though?"

"They've managed to do it with entire molecules. They got almost as big as the width of a human hair, recently."

That's… well past the size of proteins. She's so glad she didn't have to deal with quantum physics bullshit in med school. "Okay, fine, I can see how that could maybe possibly scale up to be useful for space travel. You'd still have to get one of your entangled things to the other planet first, though."

"Right. And admittedly, the way this works is less sending information as it is… confirming it?" That makes no sense whatsoever, but Root continues on with an explanation. "So you know things on the quantum level are just weird in general, right? Wave-particle duality and superpositions and all that. Particles basically exist in multiple states simultaneously until you observe them and collapse the wavefunction and learn definitively that this one was up, that one was down, that sort of thing."

"Uh-huh." Shaw only had a single course on physical chemistry in college, organic was more her thing, and fucking hated wavefunctions. She'd shoved most of it out of her brain ages ago, but listening to Root nerd out was… well, it wasn't terrible.

"So really when you observe one of the entangled particles, what happens is the wavefunction on the other one collapses too, since you know what state it's going to be in by virtue of knowing everything about the first one. The information travels faster than light, in a sense, but in another, more practical sense, it's just the observer effect run amok."

Shaw sits up, appalled. "You telling me that none of that bullshit you were just going on about has any relevance to anything?"

"If you've only got two systems, then yeah, it's basically useless for your space travel needs. But, here's the really cool part."

"That's what you said last time."

"I promise you'll like this one. Yes, quantum entanglement with only two particles or molecules or whatever is useless, maybe unless you're encrypting something. But if you introduce a third, then you've really got a party going." Shaw's glad that Root isn't around to see her smile a little at her terrible jokes. She'd just take it as encouragement to keep flirting. "There's this thing, I don't know if they've got a special name for it yet, where under special conditions you can transfer information from one particle to another if they come into contact with each other."

"Like electron spin states, that kind of information?"

"Exactly like that kind of information. All the stuff that you have to have wavefunctions to describe because there's so much of it and it's all in this probabilistic cloud of quantum uncertainty. If you touch the particles, they'll transfer information. The second one will have all the same spin states as the first. So, if that second particle was one of a set of entangled particles…"

Shaw finished the thought out loud. "The other entangled one will get the information of the original particle."

"And since we've already established that entanglement can occur at great distances… You said you liked Star Trek, Sam? You just invented a transporter."

Well, damn.

"Of course," Root continues, "there is one slight issue in that the information in the original particle is destroyed in the process."

"So you could transport yourself, but you'd be killing yourself and making a clone to take your place."

"Yep," Root says happily.

"Some people might have a problem with that."

"Small price to pay for living in the future, I think."

"I'll pass." Shaw glances at her clock and sees it's already 3:07. "Shouldn't you be off the air by now?"

"What? Oh." There's a slight clatter on Root's end of the line, and Shaw's radio, which had been quietly echoing their conversation, cuts off into a brief dull static before returning to the regularly scheduled prerecorded sports radio show. A second later even that fades away as Root presumably powers the station back down and Shaw is too far out of its normal broadcast range.

"Not even gonna sign off, huh?"

"They'll figure it out. But feel free to stick around if you want to entangle your atoms with mine some more, Sameen."

Ugh.

Shaw wishes she still had a flip phone. Hanging up on someone with one of those was so much more satisfying than jabbing a button.



It's a sad state of affairs when the sight of a Flying J travel station is the highlight of Shaw's day, but that's apparently what her life has come to.

There is something to be said for the value of decent lighting, clean showers, floors that aren't sticky, and a spacious mini supermarket open 24/7, though. Especially after some of the sorry excuses for truck stops she's come across lately. Someone at their corporate headquarters must keep a tight leash on their franchisees; even at this late hour the place is bustling and clean.

Shaw idly rolls her shoulders as she flips through the audiobook selection. John Grisham, Chicken Soup for the Trucker's Soul, beginner's Spanish because concentrating on learning a new language while driving is apparently a great idea, more Grisham, the same Harry Potter set she's gone through three times now…

Well, even this place can't be perfect, it seems.

She flicks a CD back into place and continues down the aisle, stretching her legs after several hours on the road more than doing any actual shopping. There's a display of cell phone accessories at the end of the aisle that she almost walks past, but the sight of a handful of bluetooth headsets makes her stop short.

Calling up Root's show has somehow turned into a habit lately. From the beginning of her trucker days she had always asked to be assigned only overnight shipping jobs - it helps minimize contact, and nobody is awake enough when she shows up for pickups or deliveries to bother with any small talk or remember what she looks like. But there's only so much soul sucking boredom even she can take, and Root is always good for a distraction for an hour whether she calls in or not. Speakerphone does suck though, especially when she's put on the air, and holding her phone to her ear for half an hour while she's driving is less than ideal.

She picks up the cheapest one. Cheapest aside from the dorky telemarketer-looking analog headset, anyway. Two hour battery life: seems almost pointless, but then Root's show is only an hour and it's not like Shaw ever calls anyone else. Precharged to fifty percent: all right, that's convenient. USB charging cable included: seems pretty stan… Fuck.

Right, burner phone. Cheapest kind she could get, since she tosses them and gets a new one every other week and wants as little wireless connectivity and traceability as possible. No bluetooth.

She glares the dorky telemarketer-looking analog headset. It would fit the headphone jack on her shitty phone just fine.

A pause, followed by a long-suffering sigh. She grabs the headset and heads to the counter.

Root would probably be pleased to know that Shaw's regretting her phone choices right about now. Last time they spoke, she had commented on the fact that the incoming number is rarely the same when Shaw calls in. Probably angling to find out whether she could call Shaw herself sometime. Root had then somehow segued that into an on-air discussion of numbers stations and how she thought those mysterious radio messages calling out seemingly random numbers to nobody were actually part of a secret government agency's method of communicating to its assassins out in the field.

Shaw had been the operative on the receiving end of those transmissions for years, and it was a good thing she couldn't tell Root anything about how right she was. She'd probably have been insufferable for days.

To be fair, secret government communication was generally the prevailing explanation among conspiracy theorists for the numbers stations, but Root's understanding of the facts was only slightly off from what Shaw knew to be true thanks to her training. Even radio kooks have to be right from time to time, she supposes.

The guy in front of her in line at the counter is debating with the clerk which scratch off lottery tickets he should get. Shaw's eyes flick up to the clock over the register and she taps the headset's packaging against her leg.

"You're gonna lose anyway, just pick one already," she says after several minutes of this, and the clerk gives her a grateful look.

The guy turns to glance back at her. "You in some kind of hurry? Ain't like you've got a date to catch out here this time of night."

"Just anywhere but here with you."

His eyes narrow, but he must catch the clench of her jaw and the promise in her eyes that anything more would turn out badly for him, and he quickly picks out a ticket and leaves. Shaw grabs a candy bar from the display at the register as a reward for having to deal with him.

"Want me to go ahead and open that for you?" The clerk waves a pair of clippers in the air after ringing her up, indicating the unnecessarily hard plastic shell of a case the headset is in.

That would be kind of hard to open while driving. "Yeah, thanks," she says, and fishes change out of her pocket.

She flips off the lottery guy when she crosses the lot back to her truck, noticing some silent lightning streaking through the sky in the distance, and clicks her radio on as she pulls back onto the road.

"... how Bortles will handle the pressure in the upcoming season after last year's performance, after the break. You're listening to - "

There's a brief, loud burst of static and overlapping voices and Shaw smiles to herself. Right on time.

"You're listening to KGGF 690 AM, but you'll have to go to one of the other many sports radio affiliates in the area if you're just dying to hear what Blake Bortles will get up to this year, I'm afraid." Root sounds decidedly unapologetic, as always. "Welcome to Northern Lights, the nightly radio show where what we're going to end up talking about is a mystery as vast as the universe itself. I'm your host, Redacted, coming to you live from a place they'll never find me."

Root deepens and flattens her voice every time she mentions her alias, like she's a censor audibly redacting an actual name. Shaw's glad she doesn't have to think of her as Redacted anymore; that's just ridiculous. Root suits her, somehow.

"We had a caller at the end of the show last night who claimed to have some interesting information about a longstanding internet mystery, but unfortunately we were out of time and she agreed to call us back tonight. Hopefully they haven't gotten to her since then, so I'm going to give Marceline just a minute to get on the line before I get on another topic. In the meantime, please enjoy this ragtime version of theme from the hit nineties reality show, The X-Files."

An auditory assault barrages Shaw's ears, and she hastily turns the volume down. Root does interviews sometimes, but they're always set up like this where the other person has to call in after the show's started. She doesn't make outgoing calls for her show, presumably out of paranoia, and the number for her show is disconnected when she's not on the air. Probably routes it through several different fake numbers, too.

The music abruptly cuts off.

"Okay, so we have Marceline from Branson with us tonight. Marceline, welcome to Northern Lights, nice to have you with us."

"Thanks for having me."

Marceline sounds like she belongs on NPR, and Shaw can't help but be amused at how perfectly ordinary a start to a radio interview this is. She gives them thirty more seconds max before the ridiculous shit comes up and gives them away.

"Marceline, you say you were involved with both Cicada 3301 and the lesser-known Markovian Parallax Denigrate internet puzzle mysteries, is that correct?"

Okay, maybe more like three seconds. She's pretty sure that second one wasn't even actual English. A few raindrops splatter against her windshield in a threatening manner and Shaw cycles her wipers once to show them who's boss.

"I wasn't involved, per se, but I did participate in the Cicada puzzles and that led me to evidence connecting the group behind them to the Markovian posts, yes."

"Participated, okay, gotcha. For those of our listeners who might not be familiar, Cicada 3301 is the name given to a series of elaborate puzzles posted on the internet by a mysterious group that called themselves '3301.' Cicadas were a recurring motif in the puzzles, which involved complicated cryptography, hidden images in files, Mayan numerals, et cetera et cetera. Solving the puzzles took players all around the world, and the ultimate goal of the group behind them was never really made clear. The few people who got to the end of the journey have differing reports on what they found. What light can you shed on that, Marceline?"

"Myself and a small group of other players made it to the end of the game in 2014, and we were led to a house in the Virginia suburbs of DC, totally normal to look at it from the outside, but after confiscating all of our electronics they led us to the basement."

Heading into the basement of a house in DC after going on a wild goose chase on the internet at the behest of a mystery group that got off on their own cleverness? Sounds like a great idea, sure, why not.

"They invited us to join them," Marceline continues as a few more raindrops hit the windshield, accompanied by another distant bolt of lightning. "They said Anonymous is a collective, sure, but someone needs to make the decisions at the top. Recruiting through the Cicada puzzles was the best way to make sure that they got people who had the skills they needed."

"You're saying Anonymous was looking for secret leadership."

"Obviously they can't let their legion of anarchist hackers know there's someone controlling their actions, they couldn't just post a general call for help. Someone's always in the background directing the next attack, and the Cicada puzzles were their way of finding people who were dedicated to knowing the truth and could find it no matter how hard someone tried to hide it."

"So, did you take the job?"

"No, it was pretty much all dudes down there, it always reeked of BO and Axe."

Shaw snorts. First sensible thing Marceline has said all night.

"And what's the connection to the Markovian posts from 1996?"

"Well as it turns out, Anonymous actually tried to form back in the nineties. They saw a need for a collective of hackers to right the wrongs in society, and the internet was a growing phenomenon. So they tried much the same thing on Usenet, but it was mostly riddles. Everyone was still on dial-up, and the capability for your average user to even be able to download some of the files that Cicada eventually used just wasn't there. Neither was the population, for that matter. They just couldn't get it going, so they waited about ten years for technology to catch up to what they wanted to do."

Pretty convenient that the super secret hacker collective just up and told her this without her even taking the job.

"I've always thought the Markovian Parallax Denigrate posts had a certain… charm to them, I guess," Root says. "There's something nice about complicated riddles posted to a text-based forum that's just missing from a flashy multimedia global scavenger hunt that depends as much on how much money you have as it does on how clever you are. Half the puzzles were solved just by running an image through a filter and reading the hidden data, it was completely automated by software, no thinking necessary at all."

Root sounds personally affronted. What a nerd.

"Well, I wouldn't go quite that far," Marceline says. "A lot of the puzzles were based on seeing patterns and prime numbers and - "

"But that's almost worse, though," Root interrupts. "Prime numbers are important for cryptography, sure, but there was one puzzle that was just a list of all the prime numbers up through 3301, and the information you needed was hidden in the file that generated them. They were acting like they made some grand metaphysical statement by showing you all these prime numbers, but they had absolutely nothing to do with the puzzle itself, they were just trying to show off to the kind of people that think memorizing a bunch of prime numbers is some kind of feat. Oh isn't it just so mind blowing and mysterious that these numbers aren't divisible by anything and just in case you didn't notice how clever we are, we're going to make the program pause when it lists out 1033 and 3301 so you can be sure to see that we named ourselves after a prime number that's also prime when you write it backwards, excuse us while we go jack off to our own cleverness."

Shaw stares at her radio for a moment. Don't mention prime numbers to Root, got it.

On the other hand, maybe definitely do mention prime numbers to Root. That'd get her back for all the times she's mentioned government conspiracies that Shaw has all sorts of first hand knowledge of but can't talk about.

The lightning is getting more frequent, and the rolling rumbles of thunder have gotten close enough to start drowning out the voices on the radio. Shaw wrestles with her new phone headset and its cord as she listens to Root continue to talk over Marceline.

"You want some math that's actually cool? Simple algebra equations that anyone who finished high school can do, that will blow your mind. Marceline, do you have any paper handy?"

There's a slight crackle of static, but otherwise, silence. Rain starts to pelt her truck in earnest and Shaw turns up both the volume on the radio and the speed of her windshield wipers. At least in rain this strong she can't see the corn fields on the side of the road.

"I guess Marceline couldn't handle the truth. That's fine. The rest of you, write this down. Nine x equals ten x minus x. Very simple identity, right? Self-evident, day one algebra stuff."

Shaw's not about to start writing out math problems while she's driving, especially not during a torrential summer rainstorm, but she's always been pretty good at visualizing things. Where Root is going with this isn't one of those things, though.

9x = 10x - x

"Now, I imagine you're all familiar with the idea of an infinitely repeating decimal. Like point five five five five five repeating, on and on forever. It's represented by a bar over the part that repeats, but for now we'll just stick to using however many digits we want to represent it. So, consider zero point nine nine nine nine nine repeating. Just keeps going and going, infinite nines, some tiny bit less than one. Let that equal x, and substitute it in on just the right side of your equation there, so you've got nine x equals ten times zero point nine nine nine, minus point nine nine nine."

9x = 10x - x
x = 0.99999…
9x = 10(0.99999…) - 0.99999…

"So when you multiply that out, you've got nine x equals nine point nine nine nine minus zero point nine nine nine, right? But if you subtract zero point nine nine nine from nine point nine nine nine, then you just get nine."

The word 'nine' has just about lost all meaning at this point, but okay.

9x = 10x - x
x = 0.99999…
9x = 10(0.99999…) - 0.99999…
9x = 9.99999… - 0.99999…
9x = 9

Shaw's starting to see a problem here.

"Which means x equals one. But we started out with x equals point nine nine nine nine nine. Which means that point nine nine nine nine nine, infinitely repeating, actually equals one. It's just another way of writing it."

What the fuck.

What the actual fuck.

Shaw dials Root's number, narrowing her eyes at the rain pooling on the road as Root continues talking while her phone rings endlessly.

"So what does that tell us? Is infinity a flawed concept? Is it just our understanding of infinity that's flawed? Maybe it's just a limitation of our base ten system; after all, when you divide one or two or three by nine, you get point one one one one one, or point two two two two two, or point three three three three three repeating, and so on. So it follows that when you divide nine by nine you'd get point nine repeating, but nine divided by nine is obviously also just one. What does it say about our perception of reality if the way we write numbers can be so easily manipulated to give us results that destroy it entirely?"

Finally her phone clicks. She turns down her radio as Root's voice comes through her headset. "To answer these vital questions, let's turn to the phones. Go ahead, caller, you're on the air."

"I thought this was a conspiracy or paranormal or whatever show, what's with all this nerd math shit?"

"It got you to call in, though," Shaw can hear Root's grin through the phone. "Welcome back, Sam, it's always nice to hear your voice."

"Don't give me that. Answer the question: what the fuck?"

"Oh, you're not a fan of algebra? That's okay. How about set theory? I can show you how there are infinitely many different sizes of infinity, if you like."

Shaw pinches the bridge of her nose. She really wishes she could use Root's name on air right about now. It's so much easier to grit out from between her teeth in annoyance than 'Redacted' is. "You think you're the first person to try to impress me with that fact? You're about a decade late."

"I bet none of them could ever back it up with a formal proof that anyone can understand, though."

She's got a point on that one. Still. "I don't listen to your show to get a math lecture. What does any of this have to do with anything?"

"Well, Sam, it's got everything to do with everything. What better way to explore the mysteries of the universe than by exploring the mysteries of math? Everything comes down to math in the end, after all."

"Psychology is just biology is just chemistry is just physics is just math, whatever, I've heard all that before too."

"Well, that raises an important existential question then, doesn't it? If we're all just math, how do we have free will?"

Shaw blinks. "That's a hell of a leap, but okay, I'll bite." At least it's something more interesting to talk about than algebra getting fucked up by the decimal system.

"Imagine a supercomputer complicated enough to become self aware. A true artificial intelligence, indistinguishable from a human in its behavior. It makes choices for itself, but it's all just code. Ones and zeroes. Math. Even if the way it expresses its code is unpredictable, it's still governed by that code. Does that still count as free will?"

"You're saying that because biological processes can ultimately be described by math, that math controls those biological processes."

"Doesn't it?"

Shaw shrugs. "Sure, we're all basically walking math problems. But that doesn't implicate the idea of free will."

"Why not? If we're all controlled by math, doesn't that mean that math controls our choices? Maybe it's at a level we could never comprehend, but ultimately the control is still there."

"I think…" Shaw pauses, putting her thoughts in order. She absently ticks the wipers down a notch as the rain seems to let up a bit. "I think that free will and consciousness are intertwined, and we don't understand enough about consciousness to even begin to say how it works. Why are we self aware? The answer isn't just math. Maybe math comes into it, but maybe, when you get down to the base level of whatever consciousness is, it's consciousness that controls the math, rather than math controlling the consciousness. Your free will determines the math that makes you tick."

"Look who's getting metaphysical now," Root teases. "I see your point, Sam, but for a second let's pretend I don't, and that I'm right and you're wrong."

Shaw rolls her eyes. "Hard to believe, but okay."

"So if we all are just math, and at the base level of our consciousness we don't have free will, then can we really say that the concept of the self is anything other than a lie?"

"Hiveminds? Really? That's where you're going with this?" If Root was making her listen to all this bullshit just so she could pull some we're-all-connected pick up line, she's gonna be pissed.

"I knew you were more of a Star Trek fan than you let on," Root says, obviously delighted. "Not necessarily like the Borg, but yeah, how can we say that you and I and everyone out there listening to us are actually individuals? The universe and all its components and every single living thing out there are all just part of the most complicated math problem ever to exist. From the moment we met, the system of equations that describe me became dependent, at least in some small part, on the equations that describe you, and vice versa, and it just goes on and on for everyone you've ever met. You can't take a variable out of those equations without changing them, so how can I say that I am myself and you are yourself and those two selves are entirely independent of each other?"

Christ, she should have left Root alone when she was on her basic algebra problems. Philosophy is… not Shaw's thing. Getting caught up in these kinds of questions is what gets you killed, and Shaw is nothing if not good at not getting herself killed.

"Look, I don't know how to answer that because I don't accept the premise of your question. If the concept of the 'self' is a lie, that means we don't have free will. I don't accept that. I don't know how to reconcile that with the fact that essentially we're all just math, but it is what it is."

"Admirably honest of you."

"What I do know is that no amount of arguing that consciousness is a lie or whatever is going to help you when the guy who's got a gun to your head decides to pull the trigger. We've all got choices to make, and we all have to live with them."

There's a pause as Root considers that. "Well, I'm certainly glad you've chosen to spend so much time with me, Sam." Shaw's eyes narrow. "Okay, we've got a couple callers on the line wanting to weigh in. Callers with the 479 and 531 area codes, you're both on the air, go ahead and make friends with each other while I talk to the Scully to my Mulder off the air for a second."

Well, this is new. Shaw's phone clicks and she hears two new voices murmuring with each other on her radio over the dying rain, Root's voice notably absent.

"It's just us girls now, sweetie."

"You realize Mulder was insufferable, right?"

"I always had a thing for Scully, though," Root says. "But can I tell you a secret, Sameen?"

"If I say yes, will I regret it?"

Root's voice turns into a false whisper. "I know Marceline was making it all up."

"Yeah, no shit, Root. Your listeners are whack jobs, that's not a secret."

"I know because I was the one behind the Markovian Parallax Denigrate posts on Usenet in the nineties."

Okay, that's a better secret. "What, were you a teenage rebel trying to fuck with people or something?"

"More or less," Root says, sounding very satisfied with herself. "Cicada wasn't me though. Definitely wasn't Anonymous, they were too obviously well funded to be anything but some government spooks recruiting people."

Another thing that Root's right about, but which Shaw can't say a word on. She'd met several recruits who were found through that program. Hell, her last handler had been one of them. "Did you play any of the Cicada games?"

Root scoffs. "Of course not, they were posted on 4chan. I have standards."

The two strangers on the air on Root's show have somehow changed the topic to lizard people in the government. "Do those standards allow those two to talk about that nonsense on your show?"

"It'll be fine," Root says dismissively. "I've got more important things to talk about with you. For instance, did you really think I wouldn't notice the difference in the sound when you got a headset for your phone? Committing to our relationship, I see."

Shaw flicks the mouthpiece in retaliation for Root's insinuation. "Holding a phone got old. Don't make it a thing."

"What could you possibly need your hands free for, Sameen? Should I tell you what I'm wearing?"

She'd be lying if she said she wasn't curious. Not once has Root let slip anything about her appearance - neither has Shaw, for that matter - but it's hard to have someone's voice being all smug and smart and a little bit of an asshole right in your ear every other night and not end up having some intense, if vaguely shaped, dreams. Especially with a voice like Root's.

"Wasn't aware I'd called a phone sex line."

"Well you are being routed through at least four different 900 numbers."

"Classy."

"Only the best for my girl," Root says with a dreamy sigh.

Shaw had made sure her latest burner was a flip phone exactly for occasions such as this. She hangs up on Root, realizing even as she does that it's more for the principle of the thing than any actual irritation.

Okay, so it wouldn't exactly be hate sex. But she's sure that "you're annoying but in a fun way and I kind of hate that I don't hate it" sex would be just as hot.

Hypothetically, of course.

 

3

Of all the places for her truck to finally break down and need repair, it had to be North fucking Dakota.

Bear has held up pretty well for ten months, for a truck she bought secondhand, sight unseen, with half of her stockpile of emergency cash when things went south and she needed an exit. Trucking had always been part of her escape plan - she never had to stay in the same place, few people asked any questions, hell she could basically live in the cab since she got one with a sleeper berth - she just never knew when she'd need it and it was easier to keep cash stockpiled in various major cities than to buy a truck in advance and trust it to not get stolen. Especially since her job involved taking down terrorists who tended to keep large unknown quantities of cash around their hideouts.

So, Bear had been something of a gamble, and he's paid off for the better part of ten months. But breaking down in a small town near the border with Canada where the repair shop didn't even keep the necessary parts in inventory is by far the worst betrayal she's ever experienced in her life.

Root's show, with all her hacking of a powerful radio station, can't even reach this far north. Shaw could call during the hour she knows it's on, technically, but without knowing what Root's been talking about that would just be inviting Root to make some comment about Shaw wanting to hear her voice. Which is slander, obviously. She's just been bored out of her mind.

The bison burgers at the little diner in town are good, at least.

It's two days of jogging along cow pastures and sleeping in her truck in the locked up parking lot of the repair shop - the owner had given her the side eye, but it's not like they had a bed and breakfast in town - before Bear is all patched up and ready to get back on the road. At least she doesn't have to finish her trip into Montana. The company had sent another guy up to finish her delivery, and while she was glad to not have to take another hundred mile trip west before heading back south to Oklahoma, she did still flip off the guy's retreating truck when he drove through town on his way back.

Shaw flips off the 'Thanks for Visiting Grenora North Dakota' sign as she leaves for good measure. She's got a twenty hour drive ahead of her, and that's not even counting the breaks that the stupid rules mandate she takes. At least the couple days broken down reset her work week and she won't end up stuck in South Dakota for thirty four hours on a forced weekend. One Dakota was quite enough.

So naturally her mandated half hour break after eight hours comes at 2:05 in the morning while she's only halfway through South Dakota, and for at least the thirty-second time since starting this job, Shaw curses the guy who decided to stick GPS transponders in commercial trucks to monitor their adherence to the rules. It's bad enough having to live with a location tracking device monitoring her every move, somehow it's even worse when the government operative it's reporting to is just a bureaucratic paper pusher at the fucking department of transportation.

Of course, since it's South Dakota, there's no place for her to actually pull off the road and park, so she has to pull over onto the shoulder and just sit on the side of the road for half an hour. Last time she was forced to do this, it was the middle of winter and some idiot managed to slide off the road and wedge his car under her trailer. At least it's approaching autumn and the sky, as dark as it is at this time of night, is clear.

Shaw sighs as she shuts off the engine, briefly letting her head slump against the steering wheel before stepping outside to stretch her legs. Just two more months. Two more months, and her self-imposed exile to the fucking Midwest will be over and she can stop laying low and start doing recon. Maybe get some revenge, maybe take out some traitorous assholes, maybe both. She'll probably still have to drive, she'd still need easy access to a continuous cash flow after all, but at least she'd have a project to work on in her down time. Maybe she'd put up a bunch of photos with strings tied to pushpins on the back wall of her cab. Root would probably get a kick out of that.

The thought gives her pause. The gravel and dirt on the side of the road crunches as Shaw's pacing around the truck pulls up short next to the passenger side of her cab.

Root's hacked radio station has a remarkably wide broadcast range, but it's still confined to the Midwest, and it can't even reach this far north. Shaw will have to head back east eventually. And it's not like she could even talk with Root about what she was up to.

Almost before she's realized what she's doing, Shaw has wrenched open the passenger's side door and half climbed in, switching her radio on and tuning it to Root's station. The crackle of static greets her, and underneath it is the droning of a voice that's clearly not Root's.

"... prix de l'essence sont inexplicables par le cours normal du marché. Comment ça se fait que..."

Ugh. That stupid French-Canadian clear channel station that was the bane of her existence back in Grenora. Shaw slides back out of the truck and glares up at the sky.

"You couldn't have a storm or something between here and there?"

The stars twinkle at her in reply.

Shaw sighs through her nose, the voice on the radio still babbling on in static-muffled French. Reaching back into the cab for a power bar, she eyes the electronic logging device stuck to the dashboard and realizes she'll probably still be in South Dakota by the time her eleven hours of daily allotted driving time are up.

Just fucking great. This day keeps getting better and better. Maybe she can find a way to connect the department of transportation to whatever conspiracy resulted in her being stuck out in this hell hole. Take down both of the the government conspiracies ruining her life.

The static on the radio fluctuates, getting louder for a moment as a rare vehicle passes her by, and Shaw frowns as she chews. She thought she heard another voice under the static.

She clambers back into the passenger's seat and turns the volume up. The Canadian station is most predominant over the droning static, but if she can ignore it and focus on what's beneath…

"… obvious, I thi… …what really happened." A man's voice cuts in and out.

"And that's what… …cinating about this debate." Root's voice comes through, and Shaw adjusts the volume up again. "It took decades for… …unity to form a consensus on plate tectonics, but somehow after just… …impact theory of dinosaur extinction is a done deal?"

Shaw shakes her head, smiling to herself. What a fucking nerd.

The light on the logging device turns green. Shaw stuffs the rest of the power bar into her mouth, balls up the wrapper, and tosses it in the back as she shuts the passenger door and slides into the driver's seat. The radio briefly cuts off when she starts the engine back up, but it only takes a moment for Shaw's brain to tune out the French again when it returns and focus on Root and her caller discussing dinosaur-murdering volcanoes.

She pulls back onto the road heading south toward her usual stomping grounds, and by the time Root's show is over Shaw had driven far enough that she'd almost achieved parity of reception with the other station. Granted, both of them are subsumed by a layer of static, but still. Progress.

Tomorrow, things will be back to normal. Shaw may be stuck out here for another two months, but at least she's heading in the right direction.



"Northern Lights. If you're a member of the Illuminati you have to tell me."

Shaw shakes her head a little at Root's greeting. In all the times Shaw's called, it's never been the same group twice. "You know that's not how entrapment works, right?"

"Sameen! Long time no insult my listeners, I was starting to think you'd abandoned us." Root's falsely put upon tone is belied by the undercurrent of relief that Shaw can hear in her voice.

"It's barely been a week, Root. Your little pirate radio station couldn't reach where I was going, you've only got yourself to blame."

"Oh dear, we can't have that. Wanna tell me what direction you're heading next? I could hack some minor local stations on your way, expand my broadcast area."

Somehow Root makes even that sound like an innuendo. "No, I'm back…" Back where? Home? She lives in her truck, home is wherever she parks. "Back here, for a while."

"Glad to hear it," Root says. "You know, Sameen, if your mysterious adventure ever brings you to my neck of the woods, and if you can figure out where exactly my neck of the woods is, you should swing by. You have become something of a fan favorite. Not to mention a host favorite."

Shaw suppresses a smile. "Not on your life, Root. This relationship works just fine in the abstract."

"So you admit we do have a relationship."

Shaw regretted it the moment it slipped out of her mouth. "Ugh, shut up, are you gonna put me on the air to insult your latest idiot or not?"

Said latest idiot has been on the air explaining her history with ghostly activity in her house while she and Root have been speaking. Shaw's ready to lay down the law about human sensitivity to electromagnetic fields and infrasound and their effect on the fear center of the brain. Something to distract from all the corn closing in on her again now that she's back in Nebraska after loading up in Oklahoma.

"Of course, Sameen. One second."

Shaw hears the familiar click of Root putting her on hold just before she hears Root's voice back on the radio.

"That does all sound truly awful, Cynthia, that poor spirit, stuck in that house with you. Best of luck to you both, but I'm afraid we're going to have to change the topic entirely and go to our next caller."

"But I didn't even get to the - " Cynthia sputters before getting cut off.

Shaw's phone clicks again. "Sam, you're on the air."

"So… That's a no on insulting your listeners?" What is Root up to this time?

"Yep," Root says. "I've got a different topic in mind."

There's a pause, and Shaw sighs at Root trying to get her to play her game even as she gives in. "Which is…?"

"Let's talk about us, Sam. Our relationship."

Shaw nearly stomps on the brake before she remembers Root isn't actually in the truck with her and wouldn't properly appreciate the gesture. "I'm not doing that," she says flatly.

"Oh, no sweetie, I don't mean like that, don't worry." Don't worry, she says, like she didn't phrase it exactly like that for exactly that reaction. Sure. "I mean more in terms of radio host and listener slash frequent caller, and the ephemeral nature of that relationship."

"This is gonna turn into more nerdy philosophy again, isn't it."

"You know me so well," Root coos.

Well, it's not like Shaw is actually here for the paranormal conspiracy part of Root's show, so… "Fine, hit me."

"I know we both like our secrets," Root says, and Shaw snorts at that. "But when you called in tonight you said you hadn't been able to listen to the show for the past week. If you don't mind, in as vague a way as you like, could you tell us where you were?"

Shaw ponders for a moment. "Canada adjacent."

"Excellent. And the signal tower that's broadcasting this show to you, as we all know, is in a small town in Kansas, in the corner of the state near both Oklahoma and Missouri. As for where I myself am broadcasting from… well, Kansas adjacent, let's say."

Shaw had figured Root would have to be within a reasonable distance of the actual radio station to be able to do what she does. Good to have that confirmed, though.

Root continues on. "I'm guessing, Sam, that normally you're less Canada adjacent and more… Midwest adjacent?"

"Corn country, gotta love it."

"But probably rarely anywhere near Coffeyville."

"Nope." Shaw looks out the window toward the moonlit fields of crops stretching out far beyond what she can see. She'd say she's definitely not in Kansas anymore, but really all these states look the same, and she only knows that because she drove past the border a couple hours ago.

"And how many times have you left your radio on this station after my show was over and found you couldn't receive it at all during the day?"

"None, because I don't listen to anything else on the radio anymore." She winces at herself and cuts Root off before she can make a comment about that. "Look, if you're trying to get me to ask why I can get this station on the radio all over the Midwest, but only at night, save your breath. I already know."

In fairness, she only knows because she looked it up in an actual library one day, during her mandated off time. She'd known it was a thing, just had never bothered getting into the mechanics of why until Root's show had started following her wherever she went.

"Ooh, is that so?" Root's voice gets all low and sultry. "Go ahead, talk nerdy to me, Sam."

"Pass."

"Oh, come now, not all of our listeners are as well versed in physics as you, sweetie. Don't want to leave the rest of the class behind."

There was a very good reason why Shaw was never a tutor in college. But it's better than being lectured at by Root about something she already knows, so fine. Whatever.

"Well the obvious answer is just that you want to stalk me wherever I go," Shaw says, and Root make a conceding noise at that. "But… You couldn't do it on FM radio, for one thing, since the frequency is too high to bounce around the atmosphere…" Shaw frowns, thinking. "Yeah, FM radio is high frequency so it's high energy, which means it can penetrate the atmosphere without bouncing around, but lower energy AM radio is better for that, since it's got longer wavelengths and smaller frequencies."

"Can't have too long a wavelength though, or it'd be longer than the atmosphere is tall and really wouldn't be able to bounce around," Root chimes in.

"You want me to do the explaining or not?"

"Sorry, sweetie."

She doesn't sound apologetic at all. Shaw grumbles low in her throat before continuing. "Anyway, the upper level of the atmosphere where any bouncing around might happen is the ionosphere, which is where all the solar radiation hits and ionizes all the particles."

"Hence the name."

Shaw ignores her interruption. "So, stuff gets ionized which means there are free electrons just hanging around, which normally would recombine with other particles pretty quickly but the air is really fucking thin up there and there's not as much stuff for the electrons to interact with. So when a radio wave gets up there, it'll hit the electrons and they will absorb some of that energy, which means they'll take on that frequency, and emit radio waves of their own. It's basically bouncing the signal off itself and back down to Earth, but since it'll be at a different angle than the first wave, it's like the radio wave is skipping along the atmosphere to travel further than it could by line of sight."

"But that happens during the day too, right?"

"Sure, but at night the sun isn't hitting the atmosphere directly anymore, so there's less ionization happening." Shaw takes a moment to try to remember what that means. "So… the lower layers of the ionosphere aren't charged, while the upper layers of it are. Which means radio signals can travel a lot further up before they start bouncing around, which means the reflected signal can travel a lot further than it would during the day."

"It's also why this station and other small ones like it normally go into low power mode at night, so all the other radio stations at 690 AM don't just all bounce around and get in each other's way," Root says gleefully, "but apparently nobody who's in a position to care is awake at two in the morning to notice someone mysteriously putting their station back to full power for a while every night."

"Lucky for you they apparently don't check their power bill too closely either." Trust Root to discuss her casual nightly crime spree on the very station she's committing those crimes against.

"What makes you think I don't steal the power too?"

Fair point. "You sure the FCC can't find you? Or, I dunno, the power company?"

"Nope," Root says in that stupid smug tone of hers. "Which actually brings us back to my point: sunspots."

Shaw has long since learned that Root's non sequiturs usually do end up having a logical connection to the topic at hand. She's also learned how pouty Root gets if she doesn't take the bait. "Sunspots?"

"Sunspots," Root confirms. "The ability of the ionosphere to help reflect radio waves is affected by a lot of things, Sam. If there's a storm somewhere along the way, for instance, the air will be more ionized so that'll change the propagation. The northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun to different degrees at different parts of the year, which affects the amount of solar radiation, so my broadcast area changes with the seasons. If there's a solar flare, that'll affect all global communications, not just AM radio."

"And the sun has a sunspot cycle," Shaw says, grasping Root's immediate point if not the connection to the FCC.

"An eleven year activity cycle, yes. The most easily noticeable change is the number of sunspots, but also increasing or decreasing amounts of flares, mass ejections, and radiation in general. We just so happen to be near the end of the current cycle, and solar activity is pretty low, possibly at a new solar minimum. Who's to say what my broadcast area will be next year, or would have been last year? Maybe you never would have heard my show at all."

It's weird to think that Root's show hasn't always been on the air. "How long have you been doing this show, anyway?"

"About forty minutes," Root says after a brief pause, apparently to check her clock.

Shaw squints at the road ahead of her. "You know what I meant, asshole."

"Well, Sam, that's the thing. Nobody knows. Maybe I've been doing it forever, maybe I started doing it the day you first heard me. I don't have a website or an archive or a livestream for anyone to listen to. Northern Lights doesn't exist anywhere other than in the airwaves for this single hour every night, and then it's gone. And you never know if it'll be forever until you tune in the following night."

Shaw frowns at that. It's not like she couldn't live without Root's ridiculous show every night, but she's gotten used to it. Her nights suck a little less with Root around.

"And for you and I specifically," Root continues, oblivious to Shaw's displeasure, "it's even more fleeting. I hope you don't mind my saying, but the number you call in with is always different. I can maybe send you a text the day you call, but after that I never know how to reach you. My number is disconnected when the show isn't on the air, and I don't think anyone would be shocked to find out it gets routed through several other numbers before ultimately getting to me. So we couldn't contact each other outside of this show even if we wanted to."

"Don't act like you wouldn't."

"Maybe so, but the point is we both lead transitory lives, Sam. I'm… a ghost." There's something different to Root's voice now. Regret, almost. Shaw's jaw involuntarily clenches at the sound. "I think it's clear that we're both hiding something, or hiding from something, and I'm sure you're very good at it, but me? As far as the world is concerned, I don't exist outside of this show." Root pauses, then comes back with more of her usual pep in her voice. "Which is great for keeping the FCC off my back."

Shaw is silent for a moment, taking Root's threads and weaving them together and arriving at what Root had been talking about all along. "Our… relationship depends on this show, but this show itself is dependent on things beyond our control."

"Exactly. I never know where you are, I never know whether you're even listening or not until you call in. My ability to communicate with you in the one way I have is entirely up to shifting currents in the atmosphere and the whims of the sun. I think that's beautiful, in a way."

"I don't think beautiful is the word most people would use." Shaw isn't sure what word she would use, but it certainly wasn't that.

"But we're not most people, now are we, Sam?" Awe fills Root's voice, and Shaw wonders how she became so attuned to the moods of another person, let alone one she's never even met in the flesh. "Think about it. This show exists only in the dead of night, when most people who can hear it are about to go to bed, or maybe have insomnia, or maybe have a shitty job they have to get up ridiculously early for. It's like I'm hosting my own liminal space. A way station, passing in and out of people's lives just when reality is most altered for them. But you and I, we live in that transitional space. We're both living transient lives, on a transient show, dependent on transient atmospheric conditions, but against all odds we've managed to cross into each other's lives anyway."

Root takes a breath and continues. "We are… exactly what we are to each other. No expectations, no disappointments. I don't want you to be anything other than yourself, and I'm guessing that since you technically hold all the cards here and keep this going every time you call in, you don't want me to be anything but myself either. So this, right here, is what we have. Complete and total acceptance of each other. And no matter how ultimately fleeting this might end up being, yeah, I think it's beautiful."

Silence takes over as Shaw turns her words over in her mind, and for once Root lets it linger. Root isn't wrong, Shaw can admit that. Seems fitting that the most honest relationship she's ever had would be one where neither of them knows the slightest bit of history about the other. But after spending nearly an hour every other day talking to someone about theoretical physics and brain breaking math and existentialist philosophy and alien invasions and, in one particularly heated conversation, the correct pronunciation of "Reese's Pieces," it's hard not to feel like she knows Root, and that Root knows her.

Funny how even with all that, they still can't say each other's actual names out loud. "Take me off the air," she says finally.

"Of course, Sam," Root says, and hearing the name makes Shaw twitch. She gets put on hold for a moment while Root puts another ridiculous rendition of the X-Files theme on to fill the dead air. Her phone clicks and Root comes back. "Something you didn't want to say in front of the class, Sameen?" Root sounds a little off despite her flirtation, like she's worried about something.

"Root."

"Yes?"

"No, I mean…" Shaw sighs. "It just would've sounded weird to call you 'Redacted' after all that, okay?"

"Oh."

There's a pregnant pause. "It's a fucking stupid name," Shaw says, a little defensively.

"I know." Root sounds pleased at herself. "So, what were you going to say?"

"What?"

"I assume you were going to say something like, 'Look Root, I'm gonna say something evasive in a gruff tone right now and most people would find that off-putting but I know that you know that's just my way of reacting to you which ultimately proves your point,' but then you realized you couldn't say my name and got stuck."

Shaw blinks. That… wasn't entirely inaccurate, but like hell she's gonna tell Root that. "Uh…"

"Let me guess, I was right but you don't want to admit it."

Goddammit.

"And now you're mentally cursing me."

"Root."

"It's okay, you don't have to say anything," Root says, laughing fondly. Her voice goes quiet and sincere. "Have a good night, Sameen."

Shaw feels a smile tug at her cheek despite herself. "Night, Root."

The line goes dead, and Shaw tosses her headset to the side. She takes a moment to let the unfamiliar jumble of thoughts rattling around inside her to settle down as she stares out at the painted yellow lines on the road blurring by. The fact that it's the low murmur of Root's voice returning to the radio that lets her relax doesn't escape her.

She turns the volume back up.

"Okay, now that we're back, we've got time for one more caller. We've got Richard from Sterling on the line. Richard, you're on the air, your choice of topic."

"Yeah, I just wanted to say this is a show for believers and experiencers, maybe you should stop flirting with a skeptic all the t-"

Root cuts him off. "Oh, sorry Richard, no can do." Shaw snorts. "Guess we've got time for two more callers. Mabel in Greensburg, you're on the air."

"Hi, Redacted." Mabel sounds like somebody's sweet frail old grandmother. "Don't listen to that man, honey, I hope you and Sam can work it out one day."

"That is so sweet, Mabel, thank you. I know she's a skeptic, but we can't all be perfect, right? She's just so… neat."

"I was listening the first time she called in, about those vaccines, you know. I think she's a doctor, every young lady should hope to marry a doctor."

Shaw hears Root stifle a laugh. "Well that would explain the hours she keeps. Thank you, Mabel, but I think we'd better change the subject. Sam, if you're still listening, please don't hold that against me."

Mabel goes on to ask Root what she thinks about the mysterious lights recently seen over San Francisco. Shaw's phone buzzes and she's unsurprised to see it's a rare text from Root. It's an unlisted number, but it's still painfully obvious who it's from, and not just because she's the only one who could possibly have the number for Shaw's latest burner phone.

Feel free to hold yourself against me, though.

Shaw shakes her head at herself. She can't believe she actually likes this loser.

 

4

For someone who was so adamant that his trailer full of neon green paint and replacement tires absolutely positively had to get to his farm before three in the morning, this guy sure is taking his time in doing the paperwork.

Shaw taps her fingers against the counter in the little shack he calls an office, eyeing the clock as it steadily ticks past two thirty. She'd made great time, naturally, and pulled in just before two, but despite her having the invoice and bill of lading and certificate of conformance all lined up and ready to be signed so she could get out of here, he still found a way to trap her in the middle of nowhere Nebraska.

The guy, Bill or Bob or something, probably, adjusts his hat and looks up at her. "I'll need to… uhm… check out the pallets before I accept them."

Clearly he's never done this before. Shaw resists the urge to just drive off - she'd already dropped the trailer where he told her to, but he'd probably just call the shipping company to complain and they'd have her drive back herself. "Got a flashlight?"

"What?"

Shaw gestures toward the lone lightbulb illuminating the ground outside the door, the area past it lit only by faint moonlight. "Might help."

"Oh."

The guy fumbles around the counter and Shaw leaves him behind, heading toward the trailer. She breaks the seal on the doors when she hears him approach and hands him the metal cord. "Five seventy-eight."

"What?" the guy says again, and Shaw grits her teeth and only imagines punching him for wasting her time.

"The seal number," she says, pointing to the numbers embossed on the side of the seal. "Matches what's on the bill of lading. Means if something's missing it's not because I stole it." Not that she'd want a couple hundred gallons of what she's assuming is John Deere tractor paint and dozens of oversized tires. Fuck, she can't believe she's complicit in letting those tractors roam around every goddamned where.

She swings the doors open and takes no small amount of satisfaction in watching the guy struggle to lift himself into the trailer. Finally he succeeds, and takes a moment to catch his breath before clicking on his flashlight and poking around all the pallets he can reach.

"Looks good," he says after several long minutes, without a single measure of certainty in his voice, but it's not Shaw's business to care. "You can just leave this here."

"You wanna sign that now?"

"Sign what?"

"The paper in your hand that says you're taking it and I can leave."

"Oh, right." He jumps back down and Shaw hands him a pen, snatching the flashlight out of his hands when he starts to juggle between holding it and the paper and making a mess of everything. Finally he hands her the receipt, but he pauses before taking the flashlight back. "How do I…" He looks back into the trailer, and back at her. "Get it all out?"

Shaw stares at him. "Got a forklift?"

"No…"

"Pallet jack?"

"What's that?"

She really hopes this is the farmer's idiot nephew and not an actual small business owner. "Not my problem," she says, turns away, and heads back to her truck.

He's still staring into the trailer, scratching his head, when she catches sight of him in her mirror as she pulls back onto the road. The clock on her dashboard reads 2:50 as she clicks her radio on; Root's show is almost over. Asshole.

"...eason why I don't have a website for this show." Root sounds more serious than usual. What has she been talking about?

"Exactly. A lot of people think that surveillance begins and ends with their phones, or it's just major corporations doing it to make a profit off your data." Root's caller seems to share her concern. "But it's everyone, and it's everywhere. If it's possible for them to keep track of you with something, they're going to do it."

"And the government will collect it all and use it against you." Shaw can't help but laugh. Oh the things she could tell Root about that. "Snowden didn't expose half as much as what people think he did. PRISM was a joke compared to the kind of surveillance our government is capable of now."

Shaw absently nods along as she makes a turn. Root doesn't know how right she is.

"I don't even want to contemplate the kinds of atrocities they could commit if they put all the world's electronic data to use."

"Well," Root says, "I know it's hard for some people out there to accept, but they already do. All that data already is in the hands of the government, being funneled to a program so secret that not even members of congress know what they're funding when they vote. There are maybe… five people in the government who know the entire extent of it, and the president is never one of them."

Well that sounded plausibly disconcerting. Root's on a roll with her bullshit spinning tonight.

"Right. It's really hard to overstate how - "

Root cuts off her caller. "Sorry, Cynthia, you can't possibly understand. The government gets information on all of us, from everywhere. Our calls, emails, texts, security cameras, our Netflix queue, spending habits, social media... Hell, even our cheese of the month club subscriptions. It's all collected, from all over the world, and it's all sent to this program for analysis, and they operate beyond any single legal jurisdiction to take out anyone they see as a threat to national security."

Shaw goes still, eyeing her radio.

"I haven't been able to confirm the name of the program, but I do know that the branch that conducts its covert ops is known as the ISA."

Fuck.

Shaw dives for her phone and has dialed Root's number by muscle memory before Root can take a breath and continue.

"I'm not sure what the initials stand for. Intelligence something or other, presumably. They came into existence in 2009, which I imagine is when the surveillance program itself also started." Shaw's phone continues to ring with no answer. Fuck fuck fucking fuck. What the hell does Root think she's doing? She's going to get herself killed, talking about this shit. "In 2014 when PRISM became known to the public, the program was shut down to avoid any potential for exposure, but does anyone really think they just stopped using all that data?"

"Answer the fucking phone, Root," Shaw calls out toward her radio. Somehow that doesn't work.

"We're about out of time, so I'll just leave you with this thought. All that data is still being collected. Spending on secret government contracts has gone through the roof. The world has been… off kilter, for the past few years. What do you think would happen if a private corporation were given unlimited access to an unimaginably complex surveillance system, and free rein to kill or take whatever actions they deem necessary, in the name of national security? Do you really think they'd have the best interests of the country at heart?"

Of course fucking not, that's why Shaw is in this truck listening to this show in the first place.

"You've been listening to Northern Lights, on KGGF 690 AM. Feel free to keep listening to your regularly scheduled sports show if you want something to fall asleep to. Join us tomorrow night at two AM central, when we'll be talking about something more interesting than basketball."

The broadcast cuts out and returns to sports radio just as Shaw's phone finally stops ringing and Root answers.

"You'll have to call back tomor- "

"Root, what the fuck did you do?"

"Oh, hello Sameen," Root greets her brightly, as though she hasn't just been spilling the worst kind of deadly government secrets.

"You need to get out of there. Right now."

"I can handle myself against some annoyed callers. I'm touched that you care, though."

"Dammit, Root, I'm serious. You don't know who you're dealing with here."

"Sameen," Root says, and she sounds so utterly sure of herself in a way that Shaw's never heard. "I know what I'm doing. Trust me."

"You're gonna get yourself killed." The thought fills Shaw with an anger she hasn't felt in years, and in her head she maps out the quickest way to get to a highway heading south, toward Root's hijacked radio station.

"I'll be fine. 'Til tomorrow, Sameen," Root says, and hangs up on her.

Fuck.



It's pushing noon by the time Shaw makes it to Coffeyville. For all the time she's had to plan her next move, the best idea she's got is to scout around a thirty mile radius from the KGGF station for isolated places that look like they could hide a pirate broadcast antenna. She never did learn where Root broadcasts from, but she knows she sends her signal to the tower via radio rather than anything digital, so she has to be close enough to the station to be able to reach it with an antenna small enough to not stick out like a sore, illegal thumb.

Still, that leaves Shaw with an almost three thousand square mile area to search. It's a shit idea, but it's not like she's going to randomly run into Root in a grocery store somewhere. Who would she even be looking for? 'Stupid smart little shit with an infuriatingly distracting voice' isn't enough of a description to go on.

Shaw takes note of some abandoned looking silos in the distance as she drives down the main road heading into town. Her data recorder has long since been smashed and tossed out the window after it started beeping at her to take her mandatory ten hour break; she's probably going to get fired for going AWOL regardless, but at least if they can't track her then she can try to argue about it by saying she broke down again. Although if the ISA does end up showing up, this life is burned anyway.

But she'll be damned if she's gonna let them take away the one thing that's kept this life from being a complete shithole lately. Especially since it's their fault she's here to begin with.

At least she doesn't have a trailer hitched to the back of her truck. Turning around and going down unkempt side roads and pulling into abandoned lots to mark spots on her map would be a lot more of a pain in the ass, not to mention so much more conspicuous than she'd like to be. One small redeeming factor to the idiot in Nebraska.

When night finally falls, Shaw has marked several dozen potential sites on her map - abandoned buildings, mostly, but also a few houses with suspiciously tall chimneys, some water towers, and a sixteen story tall piece of excavation equipment that's been turned into a tourist trap called Big Brutus. Seems like the kind of ridiculous nonsense that'd be right up Root's alley. Shaw kind of wants to climb onto it herself, in all honesty.

She drops by a gas station to fill up her truck before heading out to the eastern edge of her search area and parking a hundred or so feet down a gravel road. The road in front of her is in only slightly better shape; as far as she can tell it used to be a fairly well traveled route between farming communities even smaller than Coffeyville, but it's long since gone quiet. There are several potential broadcast sites around here, so it's as good a place to start as any.

She got the sense that wherever Root actually lives, it's far from where she does her show. No sense in Shaw breaking into a bunch of places without having something more to go on than the fact that it looks like a pirate hideout. Even if it wouldn't be risking the ISA spotting her if they're doing the same thing, she's still a brown-skinned stranger in rural Kansas. Best not to invite trouble from a sheriff looking to abuse his authority. She'll wait for Root's show to start, then scan through the frequencies on her radio as she drives around, trying to pick up the original low power signal that Root sends to the main station. Wherever it's strongest, that's where she'll look. It's a shitty second part to an already shitty plan, but it's what she's got.

So now, she waits.

While driving around town earlier she'd discovered that KGGF was the sort of station that plays Sean Hannity's radio show during the day, so she knows better than to turn it on early and assault her ears with whatever other shitty opinion programming they might have. They deserve Root's piracy, as far as she's concerned.

Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel gets old after about five seconds, so she sets herself to making something edible out of the various bits of fresh food left in her mini fridge. She glances at the time and makes a disgusted noise around her bite of food.

Still only eleven o'clock.

The slam of her door carries across the flat landscape around her when she steps outside to jog off some energy after cleaning up, keeping an eye out for other vehicles but seeing absolutely none. She leans against the still-warm grill at the front of her truck and glares out at the Midwest in general for a while.

The clock betrays her when she climbs back into the cab. Just shy of midnight. Ugh.

She dials Root's number for at least the twelfth time since Root had hung up on her last night. A disembodied voice apologizes that the number is disconnected, same as the previous eleven times. Goddammit.

12:01.

She pulls her guns and various other weapons out of their hiding spots and cleans them.

12:36.

She cleans her guns again.

1:05.

Shaw sits on the edge of her bed looking out the windshield to the empty plains ahead, a gun held loosely in her hand, and sighs. The boredom and the silence and the waiting before a mission never bothered her before. It certainly wasn't her favorite part, but it was tolerable, at least. She doesn't know what's going to happen, but that's not anything new. Sure, she's only got an hour to work with before she has to try again tomorrow night, unless she can call up Root and convince her to be more forthcoming about her location, which seems unlikely - but she's worked with rushed timetables before. Nothing about this is new, except the tension that's somehow seeped its way into Shaw's bones and made her feel like she needs to clean her guns every half hour.

Fuck, she's going to kill Root for making her track her down like this. At least that's one way to make sure the ISA doesn't do it.

She determinedly sets her gun to the side and glares at a stray stalk of wheat glowing in the moonlight outside the window.

Finally, at 1:55, she moves to the driver's seat and turns the radio on.

Fox Sports is on, as usual, and she grits her teeth through the next few minutes of inane chatter about batting averages and free agents, until the clock reads 1:59.

"... real series contender, but I guess we'll see. All right, as we come to the top of the hour, we're gonna kick it over to the Ben Maller show. Ben, what have you got for us tonight?"

"Thanks, Jason, tonight we're gonna start with the big story, obviously, with Kevin Durant's burner twitter account controversy…"

The clock ticks over to 2:01 without the familiar static and X-Files theme that accompanies Root's broadcast intrusion. Shaw's jaw clenches as she watches the time continue to pass. At 2:05 the sports show goes into a commercial break, and Root still hasn't broken in.

Well, shit.

Now what?

Root's been taken, she's sure of that. She's never missed a show before, and besides that, last night she'd specifically said "til tomorrow" like she knew Shaw was going to call her up and yell at her some more. She tries not to think about Root lying dead in her secret little broadcast booth - if whoever came after her had been given kill orders, there's nothing she can do anymore so there's no sense in even considering it.

So, Shaw has to find where she's been hiding and somehow track where they've taken her. Fast. Root's too much of a little shit not to end up getting herself killed, regardless of their orders. But without an originating broadcast to try to triangulate, all she's left with is a bunch of circles on a map and the potential of being twenty-three hours behind.

"Dammit, Root," she mutters, moving to the back to retrieve her guns and hide several of them on her person. It's not going to be impossible, she's a badass highly trained operative, after all, but she doesn't have the advantage of a worldwide secret surveillance system feeding her intel anymore. Although, there's probably nobody left in the ISA from before everything changed; they're all dependent on that intel now. Shaw, at least, knows how to work alone.

Shaw pulls the map towards her and lets out a quiet 'fuck' when she sees the mess of circles covering the area. Not impossible, but Root sure as hell didn't make this easy.

Light filters in through the windshield and it's a moment before Shaw realizes it's headlights moving towards her. More thankful than ever for the curtains blocking the windows in the sleeper berth, she hastily turns off the lamp and ducks behind the driver's seat, leaning around it to watch.

Two vehicles are coming down the paved road ahead of her, approaching from the left and heading south. They don't slow down as they close in on her gravel side road, and as they pass by, Shaw can see that they're the sort of conspicuously nondescript black SUVs favored by government spooks of all stripes.

Shaw stares at their shrinking tail lights as they continue down the road.

No fucking way.

Shaw seizes her map and confirms that there are no communities or larger roads in that direction for at least another ten miles, so unless the universe is just full of jokes today and they coincidentally have a black site in the same area as Root's station, Shaw has time to let them get out of sight before pulling out onto the road and arousing their suspicion before she has to. A semi truck seemingly abandoned on the side of the road near where they pick up a target is one thing; an abandoned truck coming to life and following them as soon as they pass by is quite another.

She lets two minutes pass, the itchy restlessness of earlier nowhere to be found. In its place is the more familiar calm surety that she's about to get the job done. That, and a healthy anticipation of impending violence. It's been too long. That's one thing to thank Root for, she thinks, and realizes that she's about to actually meet Root in the flesh. Huh. This is going to be… weird.

She shoves the thought away, turning over the engine and pulling her truck back onto the road. It's all flat plains and occasional trees out here, so she can still dimly see the tail lights of the SUVs in the distance. She turns off her headlights and drives by moonlight, a bit more slowly than she'd prefer but she hadn't scoped out this stretch of road earlier. For all she knows the road is covered in noisy, location-announcing potholes.

The tail lights seem to grow, and Shaw realizes it's because they've stopped in the middle of the road, aside one another. There's movement in their headlights but she can't make out what's going on. This better not be an impromptu roadside execution.

She pulls over about a half mile behind them - her lights are off, but a semi truck engine isn't exactly subtle. Hopefully whatever made them stop has them sufficiently distracted to let her approach on foot without being noticed. She slips out of the cab, enjoying the thrill of adrenaline coursing through her for the first time in months, until she sneaks up to within a few yards of the vehicles and sees what's in the headlights.

Cows.

There are cows in the road.

Three agents are trying to physically shove one cow out of their way, but the cow isn't having it. Another agent is lying on the ground behind the cow, apparently having slipped on cow shit. There's a fifth guy in the driver's seat of the vehicle on the left, honking at the two cows in front of him, and the other SUV is empty except… There. A slender figure in the back seat, with a hood over their head.

Root.

Shaw circles around to the side of the SUV that's in shadow, all the highly trained government operatives too occupied with their attempted cow tipping to pay attention to their captive. She knew the ISA had gone to shit, but this is just sad. The driver's door is hanging ajar so the dome lights are already on when Shaw quietly pulls the rear passenger side door open, and Root either doesn't notice or doesn't react. She seems remarkably calm about having a hood over her head and zip ties restraining her wrists and ankles, just sitting there making no attempt to flee.

"Root?" Shaw whispers.

That gets a reaction. Root's head whips around to face the sound of her voice. "Sameen?"

Hearing her voice in person rather than on the phone or a radio is… definitely going to take some getting used to. Shaw draws a knife out of her boot and cuts Root's bonds before taking her wrist and pulling her toward the door. "Stay low and keep quiet."

Root follows, pulling the hood off as she steps out of the SUV, and Shaw absently glances at her as she shakes her hair free, looks past her to the agents and the cows, then back at Root.

Well, shit.

She's hot.

Shaw stares at her for a long moment and Root can't seem to stop grinning as she does the same. "I'm so glad you could make it, Sameen."

That snaps her out of it. Glad she could make it? "What?"

"Hey, guys," one of the agents calls out, and Shaw tenses, pulling one of her guns out from her waistband and clicking off the safety. "Why don't we just… drive around them?"

About fucking time one of these idiots realized the ground next to the road is just as flat and boring as the road itself. "Stay here," she tells Root, and Root's eyes flash with something like excitement as she nods and watches Shaw creep toward the front of the car.

The shit-covered agent has picked himself up and is glaring at the cow they'd been trying to shove, his back to Shaw. "I will not be stymied by a cow," he says, and apparently the ISA is importing their assholes from England now. He pulls out his gun and waves it at the cow as though it would understand the threat.

Christ. Shaw likes a plate full of dead cow as much as the next gal, but this is just ridiculous. Time to put an end to this.

She steps out in front of the SUV, and two of the three guys on the other side of the cow are down with shots to center mass before they realize she's there. The cows all startle and thunder away from her, knocking into the third guy and making his shot miss. The guy with the accent whips around just in time for Shaw to enjoy the look on his face when she tackles him while firing at the other guy, slamming him back onto the ground and the pile of shit he'd slipped on earlier. She gets some of it on her hands and arms when she knocks him unconscious, but it's worth it.

Four guys down in about as many seconds. Not bad for the first job in almost a year.

That just leaves the guy who had still been in the other SUV.

Shaw hears a door slam followed by scuffling on the asphalt, and she pulls on the unconscious goon's tie to haul him up as she rises to her knees, ducking behind his torso as much as she can. The last guy comes around the car and hesitates for just a fraction of a second when he sees his partner being used as a shield, but it's long enough. Shaw takes aim and -

A shot rings out, decidedly not from either of their guns.

The goon goes down, red already welling up on his chest. Shaw's grip on her human shield slackens and she whips around to face the new threat, only to find it's Root standing behind her, holding a gun and looking very pleased with herself.

It's not a bad sight, she'll admit. Although… "Is that my gun?" She stands, patting herself down and confirms one is missing.

Root looks unrepentant. "I just borrowed it for a minute."

"I had it handled."

"I know you did, sweetie," Root says, fondly running her fingers over the gun despite Shaw's outstretched hand demanding it back. "Couldn't let you have all the fun, though."

Shaw can appreciate that - and the sight of Root's fingers stroking her gun - even if she is annoyed at the blatant thievery. She eyes Root up and down. "You're… not what I pictured."

"Oh, you pictured me, huh?" Root steps closer, just enough for Shaw to have to tilt her head a bit to meet her eyes. "What did you see when you thought of me, then?"

"More… tinfoil hatty," Shaw says. Less walking talking hair commercial, she thinks, keeping that to herself. No need to encourage her.

Root smiles, then her eyes flick to something past Shaw's shoulder, and she has taken aim and shot the accented agent who had apparently regained consciousness before Shaw can whirl around and do it herself.

Shaw raises an eyebrow at her. "Definitely fewer combat skills," she adds.

"Funny, Sameen," Root says, and finally hands back her gun. "You're exactly what I pictured. Dashing, strong, and hot… Though, I did look you up."

She says that last bit with an air of utter nonchalance, stepping forward to rifle through the pockets of the nearest dead goon.

"Bullshit," Shaw says. She's pretty sure that's bullshit, but if Root had somehow managed to do it and had known who she was this whole time, she's going to be beyond pissed.

Root looks up at her and smiles, somehow both condescending and adoring. "It's so cute that you think I can't and don't track down every one of my callers in case they're government spooks."

Shaw's eyes narrow. "I've gone through at least fifteen burner phones just since I started talking to you. There's nothing to look up."

Root pockets the goon's wallet and gun before straightening up to meet Shaw's eyes. They stare at each other for a long moment, until finally Root shrugs, conceding the point, and moves on to the next goon. "Okay, fine, I couldn't find you. I can find everyone else who calls me, but not you. Annoying, I'll admit, but I did like the mystery." Shaw smirks in satisfaction and joins her in looting the corpses. She supposes she should feel something about killing these guys without knowing for sure whether they deserved it, but they're willing agents of the new and improved ISA and that's just cause enough in her book.

Judging by her absent smiles in Shaw's direction, Root certainly doesn't seem choked up about it like she'd have expected a civilian to be, even one strange enough to host a pirate radio show.

Root finishes up with the last body, and nods when Shaw jerks her head toward the closest SUV. Shaw grabs a guy by his arms and Root takes the legs, and they toss him into the cargo compartment.

They toss two more bodies into that space before it gets too full, and toss the fourth into the other SUV. "This is nice," Root says, grunting a little as they pick the last guy up. "Just us gals, committing homicide and getting rid of the evidence, getting to know each other a little better."

Shaw snorts. "You do this with all your callers?"

"I came across some highly classified files from the ISA two days ago," Root says by way of answer, a little breathlessly. They swing the guy up and into the cargo area and Root slams the door closed, leaning on it a little as she considers Shaw. "Mission reports, financial documents, personnel files… Found a report about a former agent who had gotten too concerned with their changed directives and had to be eliminated. It said she'd been killed almost a year ago, in New York."

Root raises her eyebrow at her and Shaw stands still, expression carefully blank.

"The file said her name was Sameen Shaw. Anyone you know?"

Shaw had given herself a year to be on the run before even trying to do any recon on the ISA, and Root apparently just up and does it on a whim. "Who the fuck are you?"

Root straightens up, looking serious. "Would you believe I'm a hacker slash former killer for hire who stumbled upon an artificial intelligence acting as a government surveillance system right before it had to go into hiding, and who now wants to save the world from the evil AI that replaced it and recruit you to help me do it?"

Shaw takes her in for a long moment, rapidly considering everything she knows about the ISA, Root, and her own situation. "Actually, yeah."

Root beams at her.

"We're gonna have so much fun together."

 

5

They park the agents' SUVs down the same side road Shaw had staked out earlier, where few people would notice them and even fewer people would care enough to check them out and discover the bodies. Buys them a day before the local cops get alerted, at least. Root had heard one of the agents mention their destination being in Texas, so even if the dead goons missed a check-in with their handlers and the ISA had already sent someone out to find out what happened, it'd still take at least five hours for anyone to show up. All in all, plenty of time to head back to Root's place, gather her shit, and get far, far away from here.

Yeah, Shaw's definitely getting fired.

"Cozy," Root says when she climbs into Shaw's truck. "I'd always figured you were a trucker, but honestly I never thought about them being so… homey."

Shaw watches, a little defensive, as Root picks around the back of the truck, taking in the compact closet and fridge and sleeping area. Somehow Root immediately finds her stash of weapons and her smile just grows wider as Shaw brushes past her to grab the thing of wet wipes and clean some of the blood and literal shit off her hands.

"You ever broken that in?" Root waggles her eyebrows, tilting her head toward the bed.

Shaw closes her eyes for a moment, then shakes her head and tosses the container at Root's chest. "We're not having sex in my giant conspicuous truck a few hundred feet from a bunch of corpses."

"I like how you didn't just stop at 'we're not having sex.'"

Shaw grumbles under her breath and drops herself into the driver's seat, starting the ignition. "You gonna tell me where your secret illegal radio station is, or what?"

"Head north for a few miles," Root says, and Shaw rolls her eyes but heads out onto the road anyway.

The cab is otherwise silent as Root apparently makes herself at home, if the clattering of cabinet doors and shuffling around of clothes is any indication. After a few minutes Root ducks back into the main part of the cab and takes over the passenger seat, indicating a left turn which Shaw can barely see before they're on top of it.

She feels Root's eyes on her. "Someone's quiet," Root says, and Shaw glances over at her briefly.

"Just… not used to anyone else being here."

It's not exactly a lie; even sound travels differently in the cab with someone else here. Richer somehow. Full of depth. Like the echoing emptiness of the space for the past year has been chased away. Having Root here doesn't quite feel new, though, or even unpleasant like she'd have expected having someone else in her space would be. Root's more or less been occupying that passenger's seat for months already, so her presence isn't something Shaw has to adjust to. Having her physically here, her voice not tinged with radio static or the hollowness of a cell phone, is just… different.

Root is here now, and Shaw isn't sure how to deal with the fact that it feels like this is how it should be.

"I know what you mean," Root says after a long moment. She avoids Shaw's gaze and points out the windshield. "Take that right."

Shaw gladly accepts the change in subject. "How does a hacker slash former killer for hire end up doing a weirdo pirate radio show in bumfuck nowhere Kansas, anyway?"

"Well, it's almost impossible to get information on Samaritan if it doesn't want you to, as I'm sure you can guess," Root starts.

Shaw interrupts. "Samaritan?"

Root lets out a dark laugh. "See? You worked for it and didn't even know its name. Samaritan is the AI that told the ISA to kill you for questioning its directives."

"Oh. Yeah, fuck that thing."

"Anyway, I needed a cover that would let me keep hidden from Samaritan while I tried to find it, and I've always been drawn to the sort of things I talk about on the show, so doing Northern Lights was perfect. An interesting day job, and a good way to poke the bear."

"Wait a second," Shaw says, narrowing her eyes at Root. "Northern Lights was the name of the program that got shut down before everything changed." When Samaritan took over, it seems.

"Yep." Root looks pleased with herself for a moment, then purses her lips. "Can't believe they never took the bait."

"You wanted them to come after you?"

"Getting their attention was the only good way of getting a lead. I've been blabbing government secrets for months, the stuff that I have been able to get access to, just changing some of the details a bit so they wouldn't get too overzealous. Just enough to get them to try to break into my system, or send someone out to do recon and try to find me, see if I was just a lucky radio kook or not. Samaritan sees and hears everything, it had to have known I was doing it. But conspiracy radio is a booming business now, guess I didn't stand out enough."

Their conversations have been broadcast across the entire Midwest for months now, but Shaw still bristles at the idea that some evil robot had been listening in on them too. "So what was that shit the other day?"

"She helped me get access to some information, and I leaked it," Root shrugs.

"She?"

"The Machine. The good AI that Samaritan is trying to find and kill. She's been hiding until we can figure out how to take them on. Samaritan can see almost everything She does, it's been too risky for her to act, so I've mostly been on my own."

Shaw makes another left at Root's gesture. She gets the distinct impression that Root's driving them in circles, but that's fair. She'd probably do the same thing to throw pursuers off her trail. "So… why did she help you get the files?"

"She figured out that it was you who had been calling me so much."

Root says this like it explains everything. No it fucking does not. "Not possible. Even if it were, what does that have to do with anything?"

"She's a god, Sameen, She can see everything just as much as Samaritan can. A half a second shot of you talking with me on the phone on surveillance camera at a truck stop a week ago was all She needed."

Shaw's grip tightens on the steering wheel. "So Samaritan knows I'm out here, then."

"No, She only put it together because She monitors me so closely. Samaritan doesn't care about me, so it doesn't care about my callers. You're very good at staying off camera, that half second was all She had. It was grainy and circumstantial as hell, but since you'd told me your name was Sameen, She felt confident it was you."

"Well, good." If this year surrounded by corn had been for nothing she'd have shot someone. More someones. "But why did that matter?"

"She knew you'd come for me if I was in danger."

"There's no way it could have known that."

Root hums and turns slightly in her seat to face Shaw more directly. "You're here, aren't you? When you heard me on the show the other night, talking about ISA secrets you knew would get me killed, did you even stop and question whether you should come and find me? Or did you just do it?"

Shaw opens her mouth to protest, but grits her teeth at Root's pointed expression. Goddammit. "Don't read anything into it."

"Of course not," Root says indulgently. "You're good code, Sameen. It was a gamble whether you'd tune in to the show, but I had faith. And, well, even if you didn't, Samaritan was sure to send people to get me after that. At least I'd have some kind of lead then."

"And your plan after getting kidnapped was…?"

Root shrugs again. "I'm good at thinking on my feet. I'd have figured something out."

"We're going to have to talk about your methodology," Shaw mutters.

"That's what She said." Root laughs at her own joke and Shaw kind of wants to smack her but finds herself biting back a smile instead. "Plenty of time for that later though. We're here."

Shaw looks past the reach of her headlights and can almost make out some sort of amorphous structure a bit further down the road, barely illuminated in the moonlight. She slows down as she approaches, and as the glow of her headlights falls upon it, she sees…

"Root."

"Yes, sweetie?"

"Is your secret hideout shaped like a giant chicken?"

Root grins. "Isn't it great?"

Shaw has to admit it does seem like something Root would do, taking over an apparently abandoned roadside tourist trap in the form of a small round cottage whose roof has been replaced with the top half of a chicken. There's a head with giant eyes staring back at her, its dangling red chin thing hanging like a welcome sign over the door, and a tail sprouts up from the back.

"Why this place?" Shaw kills the engine but doesn't move, glaring back at the chicken.

"I needed somewhere within about twenty miles of KGGF's station, but even a small broadcast antenna is hard to hide. No one comes down this road anymore, and even if they did a sad and abandoned roadside attraction on an old chicken farm doesn't exactly stick out around here. The tail on this guy was almost perfectly suited for an antenna."

Shaw gets the sudden image of Root shoving an antenna up the giant chicken's ass. "Okay, but why KGGF in particular?"

"690 AM?" Root looks at her like that should explain it. At Shaw's blank look, she elaborates. "Six nine zero? Take away the zero, Sameen."

"You have got to be fucking kidding me." How had Shaw not realized that before? "You built your life for the past year on a sex joke?"

"Does that really surprise you?"

Shaw looks from the derelict chicken house, back to Root and her brightly amused eyes. "No," Shaw says, "that seems about right."

Root's smile gets softer, for some reason, and Shaw shifts uncomfortably in her seat. "Come on," Root says, breaking the tension and opening her door. "You've shown me yours, let me show you mine."

With the headlights off, the cottage is lit only by moonlight, and it casts the chicken head in sinister looking shadows. That's more like it. Root uncovers a hidden panel near the front door and types in an unnecessarily long passcode, the door popping open and Root beckoning her inside with a flourish.

She'd been wrong about Root not living in the same place she did her show, it seems. There's the expected mess of cables and wires strewn about the main living space, connecting a laptop, headphones, microphone, and transmitter and leading up into the ceiling, but there's also books and blankets and a lava lamp, and she can see a bed peeking out from behind a half closed door across the room. Shaw recognizes the signs of a struggle in the way everything is strewn about. Her jaw clenches at the thought of men barging in here and taking Root away.

"So, what do you think?" Root's voice stymies Shaw's encroaching anger.

Shaw gives an approving nod. "Not bad, for poultry." Bigger than a truck, that's for sure. Speaking of… "You got a sink around here?"

Root points her toward the bathroom, and Shaw takes great relish in washing the blood and dirt and cow shit from her hands and arms in an actual sink. She can do a lot of things in her truck, but running water is not one of them. And holy fuck it's nice being able to pee in a toilet that hasn't been absolutely wrecked by several dozen truckers since the last time it was cleaned. Root hasn't got the best cleaning habits, she can tell, but it's a damn sight better than a truck stop.

Feeling more human than she has in a long time, Shaw steps back into the living room to find Root standing on a ladder and messing with the cables in the ceiling. Her back is to Shaw, giving her a choice view of her legs, and Shaw lets her eyes linger along their length up to her ass before Root turns and catches her.

Shit.

"See something you like, sweetie?" Root's eyes dance, then a cable falls on her head.

Shaw snorts at Root's look of consternation, watching as she turns back to her work in the ceiling. "Just making sure you don't fall off that thing."

"My hero," Root says, grunting a bit as she tugs at something. The ladder wobbles and Shaw steps forward to brace it without thinking. It puts Root's ass almost at eye level; Shaw tries to focus on the tacky chicken art in the kitchen, but to no avail. Root's stupid long legs in her stupid tight jeans and her stupid leather jacket and her stupid wavy hair and her stupid loose button down exposing the dip of her stupid hips above the waistband of her stupid tight jeans clinging to her stupid long legs -

"Catch," Root calls out, interrupting her spiraling thoughts, and Shaw barely has time to react before some contraption is falling into her hands.

She turns it around and squints at it. "The fuck is this?"

Root climbs back down, smoothing a hand along Shaw's shoulder for balance before plucking the thing out of her hands. "Router for my satellite internet connection. We'll have to go through the chicken tail outside to get the receiver itself. And my radio antenna."

"You think they could track you down if you left that shit behind?"

"Well, no," Root pouts, "but the antenna at least has sentimental value." Shaw can feel herself reflexively rolling her eyes at that, and Root pats her shoulder again before waltzing off to her desk. "And it was a pain in the ass to get in the first place, I don't want to get rid of it in case I need it again."

A packrat nerd, exactly what Shaw needs taking up space in her truck for the foreseeable future. Just great.

Realization that she's thinking of Root's continued presence in her life as a given despite the obvious permanent cancellation of her radio show strikes Shaw then. She's used to working in close quarters with other operatives, and she had agreed to help Root save the world, whatever the hell that means, but it doesn't feel like just another mission, and she's not stupid enough to try to delude herself into thinking it is. She hadn't spent months talking with other field agents about nerdy existentialist philosophy for no real reason, for one thing.

This is going to be an adjustment, Shaw knows. The prospect just doesn't seem as unpleasant as it once might have been.

Shaw's quiet gaze follows Root as she picks papers up off the floor and tries to put them in some kind of order. She sees something that looks suspiciously like a personnel file in Root's hands. "Is that what you've got on the ISA?"

"Those brutes got it all out of order. I hope you've got more sense than your former colleagues, they didn't even take any of my research with them."

Shaw bristles a bit. "I found you, didn't I?" Those new recruits don't know what to do when they're not getting orders piped straight into their head. She'd be offended if it hadn't worked so well to their advantage.

"Hmm, that you did, Sameen," Root flirts almost absently, shuffling papers around. Finally she smacks the stack against the surface of the desk to straighten them out, and offers the pile to Shaw.

Reading her own personnel file is… odd, to say the least. Apparently they'd been impressed with her resourcefulness, but around 2015 it had become an increasing liability that they'd had someone keep an eye on. Seems she'd been targeted for elimination after her last mission in Brisbane hadn't resulted in as much unquestioning homicide as they'd wanted, and Root had seen fit to doodle little hearts and daggers on the margins of that section. What a dweeb.

"Got anything I don't already - "

Shaw pauses. Root has sat down in front of her computer and is poking around some command line nonsense, but Shaw isn't paying attention to whatever might be going on there. There are glasses perched on Root's nose, ridiculous black framed nerd glasses that shouldn't make Root's whole hacker assassin radio nerd thing even more attractive, but apparently they really work for her.

"Here, Shaw," Root says, pointing at something on her screen. Hearing the name snaps Shaw out of it, at least until she comes up behind Root and notices how long and nimble and fun looking Root's fingers are.

She remembers seeing those fingers wrapped around a gun.

Fuck it. Intel sharing can wait.

"Root."

Root looks up at her and Shaw gets an even better view of her glasses. "What's wrong?"

"Go wash your hands."

Shaw takes a certain amount of satisfaction in Root being the one with the puzzled look on her face for a change. Root glances down at her hands. "A little blood never bothered me."

"Root," Shaw says again, and Root shuts herself up at the significant look on her face. "Blood and cow shit don't belong where your hands are going."

"Oh," Root says quietly. Then, "Oh!"

She rushes past Shaw into the bathroom.

After all of Root's incessant flirting on the radio, Shaw's the one to make the first move. Un-fucking-believable. Although Root had made it glaringly obvious where she stood on the matter, so Shaw supposes it really was always up to her whether anything happened and that's… annoyingly considerate of Root. Especially since she's apparently some kind of criminal mastermind who doesn't give a shit what other people think.

A criminal mastermind who looks way too fucking hot in those clothes, for someone who had ostensibly been hanging around the house alone and should have been in some pajamas at best when she was abducted. Knowing Root she probably got all dolled up for her planned kidnapping so she would look her best if Shaw came to find her. Shaw's not sure which is worse: that Root hypothetically - almost certainly - did that, or that it fucking worked.

The toilet flushes - more forward thinking on Root's part, good job - and Shaw's mind races while she hears the sink running. She needs to regain the upper hand here. What's the best way to turn Root into even more of a gay disaster than she already is?

The water in the bathroom cuts off and Shaw smirks to herself as an idea strikes her. She lifts the bottom of her shirt to her forehead, as though she were dabbing a bit of sweat away, exposing her stomach to the cool air of the room. Her abs just so happen to flex right as the bathroom door opens and she's pleased to note the distressed whimper she hears Root let out.

"Please tell me I get to touch those and you're not just torturing me."

Shaw drops her shirt and sees Root has moved almost close enough to touch and is still staring at her stomach in sheer wonder. Nailed it.



She circles around Root, putting her between Shaw and the desk. "I should," Shaw says, poking Root in the chest as she steps closer, and Root takes the hint and moves back against the desk. She tugs at Root's belt and briefly considers wrapping it around Root's wrists but the sight of her fingers wrapped around the edge of the desk remind her that she's got a much better use in mind for them.

"Do you have any idea how annoying it is," she continues, dropping the belt to the floor and untucking Root's shirt, "to actually know all the facts about government conspiracies," Root's breath hitches as Shaw starts undoing the buttons from the bottom up, "and not be able to say anything about any of it?"

Root's jacket and shirt get shoved off her shoulders as one, and Shaw bunches them up at her wrists to keep Root in place for a moment. The position throws Root's shoulders and clavicles into sharp relief, her pale skin marred by the occasional scar. Shaw's definitely going to enjoy marking that up. Root's breath is shallow and Shaw can almost feel her heart racing with how close she is as she holds her wrists in place. "That's… basically what I've been - "

Shaw cuts her off with another tug at her wrists and Root gasps out in pleasure at the flash of pain. "Especially," she says, stepping back a little and moving her fingers to the button of Root's jeans, "when one of the people in question is you and nothing would be more satisfying than knowing more about that shit than you for once." Well, Shaw thinks as she roams her eyes over Root's exposed skin and the curve of flesh hidden under her bra, maybe not nothing.

"So that's a no on torturing me, then," Root says, having freed her wrists, and she reaches her fingers out to the hem of Shaw's shirt. Shaw slaps them away and tugs Root's zipper down, pleased at the sound that draws from Root.

Shaw finally looks up and meets Root's stare, smirking a little as her thumbs press in at the curve of her hips. "Depends on your definition of torture."

Root's eyes brighten and she moves a hand to the back of Shaw's neck. Shaw lets herself get pulled closer but she forestalls Root's movement when she sees Root's other hand come up to her glasses to take them off.

"Don't."

Root pauses, then grins and Shaw feels herself losing the upper hand again. "I knew it," Root says, utterly delighted, and Shaw shuts her up by leaning in and biting her lip.

Her grip on Root's hips tightens when Root lets out an involuntary moan at the sensation, and that's officially enough messing around, Shaw needs to get inside Root and draw out more of those sounds right fucking now. Root gasps into her mouth when she releases her bite and surges forward in a searing kiss, tugging at the hair at the back of Root's head with one hand while the other fumbles for the clasp of her bra.

Root seems to recognize the changed mood and takes advantage, slipping her hands under Shaw's shirt and roaming her fingers along the solid curves of muscle even as her legs wrap around Shaw's thighs to draw her closer. Her nails scratch along Shaw's skin for a moment before trailing up her back to her shoulders and digging in. Shaw feels her blood burn at her touch and the sliding of Root's lips against hers mixed in with the occasional sharp nip of her teeth - it's been far too long since she'd fucked anybody at all, let alone someone who instinctively knows how to mix in pain to the greatest effect.

"Fuck." Shaw breathes it against Root's lips, hearing Root humming in agreement before pressing her mouth back against hers. She gets lost in the sensation for long moments - Root is apparently a fucking expert at making out, this is going to make the long boring days on the road so much better - before remembering the goal here. The clasp of Root's bra falls away and she pulls back, tugging at Root's hands. "Get that off," she says, too desperately for it to be the order she was intending, but Root sees her move to shrug out of her own clothes and gets the idea.

Shaw tosses her shirt off to the side and pauses with her fingers on the clasp of her own bra when she sees Root's bare chest in front of her. Root preens, making a show of arching her back and watching Shaw follow her movements to keep her eyes on her breasts. Shaw's gaze flicks up and at Root's overly smug grin, Shaw narrows her eyes and tosses her bra away. In one fluid motion she seizes Root by the waistband of her jeans, pulls her to her feet, shucks the rest of her clothing past her hips, and shoves her back against the table.

Electronics go scattering under Root's hands as she steadies herself when Shaw tugs her jeans and underwear away, leaving her naked and wanting before her. That's more like it.

"This is a little uneven, don't you think, Sameen?" Root tries to reach for Shaw's pants again and Shaw knocks her hands away as she steps between Root's splayed legs. Root's hands come up to palm Shaw's breasts as a consolation prize that she quickly becomes highly enamored with, and she twitches a little when Shaw lets her hands roam across the smooth pale skin of her inner thighs. Root's legs are as long and lithe and limber as the rest of her, and Shaw's all too happy to let herself be wrapped in them.

"Tough shit," Shaw says, pulling Root forward a little by the hips and letting her thumbs dig in harder than strictly necessary. She's absolutely going to get naked and fuck herself on Root's long hacker fingers, but that can wait.

She captures Root's mouth in another bruising kiss and slides her hands down along Root's ass, pulling her close enough to press against her and feel the smooth warmth of Root's skin on hers. Root's hands are trapped between them and she pinches at a nipple while sliding her other hand around to the back of Shaw's neck and holding her in place while she trails her mouth down Shaw's throat, leaving bruising bite marks that draw out more breathless moans from Shaw than she'd like.

Shit, she means it this time, enough messing around.

She leaves one hand at the small of Root's back and manages to wedge the other between them, her fingertips quickly finding her goal and fuck, Root is already soaking wet. Her teeth stutter against Shaw's skin when she plays along her slick flesh for a moment, and Root's whole body quakes at the touch of a single fingertip against her clit.

"Fuck." This time it's Root who shudders it out, and Shaw licks her lips in anticipation. Her gaze flicks up to watch Root's eyes fall closed before fixing on the play of her fingers between Root's legs. Shaw watches, transfixed, as she runs the length of her fingers through Root's wetness, marveling at the wet heat against her skin, and slips two of them inside in a slow, deep thrust.

Root moans in earnest, right in her ear, and Shaw's pretty sure it's the single hottest sound she's ever heard. She appreciated Root's voice from the start, but hearing her make such wanton sex noises is so much better. To say nothing of how fucking good she feels around her fingers, so slick and smooth and warm, and the way her muscles clamp down around her as she pushes deeper inside just makes every sensation all the more intense.

Her breath is hot against Root's skin where she fixes her mouth to one of her clavicles and runs her tongue along the curved bone, relishing the hums of pleasure she can feel vibrating in Root's throat when she traces over to the hollow at its base. One of Root's hands is still at Shaw's breast, pinching in unconscious violence nearly in time with Shaw's thrusts - that nipple is going to be sore as hell tomorrow, but fuck if it isn't worth it. Shaw's tongue runs up the length of Root's prominent neck muscle and as soon as she reaches the juncture behind her ear, Root's free hand seizes a fistful of hair at the back of Shaw's head and guides her into another needy kiss.

It quickly becomes less of a kiss and more Root moaning into Shaw's mouth, but Shaw is just fine with that. She curls her fingers inside her and Root abandons all pretext of doing anything constructive, her head falling back and a stuttering gasp of air passing by her lips as her entire body trembles at the motion. Shaw presses harder against the spot, admiring the ecstasy written on Root's face behind her nerd glasses and the cascade of hair tumbling down her back that sways along with Root's body as she fucks her. The sight burns itself into Shaw's brain, the sounds of Root's pleasured moans and the slick heat around her fingers and the taste of her sweat and the smell of sex in the air all coalescing into something so much better than anything Shaw's dreaming mind ever came up with during those long nights on the road.

Shaw manages to angle her hand to get her thumb against Root's clit while still fucking her the way Root seems to enjoy most. It takes only a few circling motions before something seems to snap in Root, and both of her hands drop to Shaw's pants and fumble desperately at the closure.

"Sameen," Root almost whines when she can't immediately get the button undone, her fine motor skills evidently long gone under Shaw's touch. Shaw brings her free hand around to help, suddenly as eager for Root to get inside her as Root seems to be, now that she's watching those fingers dance along her waistband. Together they manage to shove Shaw's clothing down past her hips, Root somehow tugging Shaw closer in the motion, and they both gasp at the sensation when Root wastes no time in slipping her fingers inside.

"Fuck, Root," Shaw breathes against Root's neck, and momentarily forgets that she's got her own fingers inside Root when Root immediately starts up a punishing rhythm inside her, absolutely no finesse whatsoever, fucking her with abandon with the strength of her arm behind it but it's so fucking good and exactly what Shaw needed so she can't bring herself to care. Root seems to be fascinated by the sight of her fingers disappearing inside Shaw but she shudders and lets her forehead fall against Shaw's shoulder when Shaw resumes her curling thrusts inside her, rubbing furious circles around her clit.

It's so much, it's so fucking much, and Root only just started fucking her but Shaw can already tell she's not going to last long. They can't seem to establish a matching rhythm between them but who cares, Root is trembling under her touch and biting her neck like a fucking horny vampire and there, right there, her thumb and fingers press just right and Root is coming apart, shuddering and gasping and clenching around her and holy shit, Shaw thought Root's general sex sounds were hot but they've got nothing on Root in the middle of an intense orgasm.

Root's motions inside her have stalled out as she rides the waves of her climax, so Shaw keeps up the rhythm inside Root with her right hand and brings her left down to clamp around Root's wrist, bracing it as she grinds herself against it. Soon enough Root gathers her wits and resumes her bruising pace and Shaw can't help the moan that escapes her at the overwhelming sensations. Root's other hand comes up to her breast and she manages to curl her body down enough to fix her mouth to Shaw's already sore nipple. Shaw's hand slips out of Root with the changed angle and she grips Root's hip instead, slick fingers sliding against warm skin, and her other arm circles around Root's shoulder with her hand on the back of head to keep her in place.

Root bites down on her nipple, hard, as she angles her palm to rub against Shaw's clit in just the right way, and the last thing that Shaw thinks before her orgasm hits her and erases all coherent thought is that she's never going to forgive Root for making her have probably the most intense sex of her life inside of a house shaped like a giant chicken.

She takes some small revenge in digging her nails into Root's scalp and hip to anchor herself as her body quakes and she struggles to breathe, though judging by the way Root's breath hitches it's not much of a punishment. Root's fingers skillfully guide her through the aftershocks and she soothes her tongue over Shaw's abused nipple with a pleased hum. Warmth settles throughout Shaw's limbs and it's all she can do to keep standing as the initial rush subsides and she's left feeling boneless and satisfied in a way she hasn't felt in far too long.

Then Root has to go and ruin it by abruptly pulling her fingers out of her, and Shaw steps back in outrage that is completely halted in its tracks at the sight of Root running her tongue along her middle finger, still slick from being inside Shaw.

Fuck, that shouldn't be as hot as it is.

Root looks at her like she knows exactly what Shaw is thinking, which she probably does, and pops her ring finger into her mouth. She smirks around it and makes a hungry little noise as she hollows out her cheeks, slowly drawing her now-clean finger back out with a pop.

"You're such a shit," Shaw mutters, even as she grabs Root's chin and pulls her into a demanding kiss. Root hums in delighted agreement and Shaw relishes the taste of herself on Root's lips and okay, yeah, someone needs to go down on someone else right fucking now.

Root's hands alight upon the jeans and underwear still hanging loosely around Shaw's hips and try to shove them down, apparently getting the same idea. Shaw breaks away and as she strips herself down, her eyes fall on Root's laptop and she pauses when she sees the word 'transmitting' in big bold letters across the top.

"Root."

"Yes, sweetie?" Root doesn't look up from where she's staring at Shaw's newly exposed flesh.

"What is your computer doing?"

That gets Root's attention and she cranes her neck around to see what Shaw's looking at. "Whoops." She hops off the desk, hits a few keys, and the status message changes to 'standby.'

Shaw just stares at her when she turns around. "What the fuck, Root."

"I was getting prepped for my show when I was taken, I guess it was still ready to go and I accidentally started it up when you shoved me onto the desk."

"But that was just your low-power signal. It's not your regular show time, the main tower wouldn't have broadcast it out, right?"

"Actually…" Root starts, and Shaw pinches her nose. "I put a worm in KGGF's system, any time it detects a signal from my exact frequency it goes to full power and broadcasts it."

"You telling me we butt dialed the entire Midwest?" Shaw notices her shirt hanging off the microphone; at least that probably obscured the names they were both moaning, if not the moans themselves.

"I think in this case it's more like we booty called the entire Midwest."

Shaw glares at her. Root looks thoroughly unrepentant.

And thoroughly debauched.

Fuck.

Shaw sighs and grabs Root's wrist, dragging her toward the bedroom. She still very much wants to get her mouth on Root, but she's not about to get on her knees for such a goddamn nerd.




"So let me get this straight," Shaw says, and braces herself for Root's inevitable joke about being too gay for that to be possible. It never comes, though, so Shaw looks over at where Root is curled up on the bed an acceptable half a foot away from her, an entranced look on her face as she reaches a finger out to hover over Shaw's bicep. Seems she's currently being too gay to even make a joke about it.

Shaw flexes her arm muscles and Root makes a sound suspiciously close to a whimper. It's a nice ego boost, but they're rapidly running out of time before the possibility of replacement Samaritan goons showing up becomes feasible.

"Root," she says firmly, knocking Root's hand away. "We don't have time for more of that right now, especially not if you want to get all your radio shit taken down."

"You probably wear tank tops in your truck a lot, right?" Root asks like it's the most important question anyone could possibly ask in this situation, nevermind the ISA or Samaritan or the whole world-saving business. No, Root's potential perving ability is the most vital consideration of all.

Shaw rolls her eyes and pushes Root's shoulder. "Yeah, but I might make a change if you don't get out of bed and start packing up your shit right now."

Root takes the hint, rolling herself away and onto her feet with one last leer at Shaw where she's sprawled out on the bed, naked and still damp from their shower and pleasantly sore in all the right ways. "What if I forget to pack any underwear?"

"Then you won't get any sympathy from me when you start chafing."

Root makes a face at that, conceding the point. Shaw watches as she grabs a couple of duffel bags and starts gathering an assortment of clothes and guns - her arsenal rivals Shaw's at the moment, but only because she's got limited space in her truck. Root hasn't bothered putting any clothes back on either, probably angling to join Shaw in the shower again later but like hell that's going to happen. They'd already used up the entirety of the time Shaw had set aside for her to take advantage of the first shower she's encountered in months that wasn't pay-by-the-minute, and she's still not sure how Root had managed to talk her way in there with her. She's not complaining about the results, but they're out of cushioning in their time frame and no amount of continued nudity on Root's part is going to change that.

She is enjoying the view, though. Watching Root bending over or stretching up to reach things in her closet while utterly naked and covered in bruises and bite marks might distract other people from the mission, but Shaw's a multitasker. Back to what she was going to ask before she noticed Root's meltdown over her arms.

"So, this Machine of yours is a nice cuddly bunny that just wants to help people, and you used to kill people for a living." Root glances over at her with a smile and a nod before going back to her closet. She had explained what she knew of the Machine's - and Samaritan's - existence while they were catching their breath between rounds earlier. The ISA's Research group was actually an artificial superintelligence programmed to spit out social security numbers, some dudes in New York were working with it to help people with non-terrorist-related problems, a rich old white guy threw a temper tantrum when he couldn't take control of it and ended up unleashing a wannabe Skynet called Samaritan that was now remaking the world in its image, and the Machine has been hiding ever since and needs their help to bring Samaritan down. "What's a friendly AI want with a killer for hire? Shouldn't you be on the naughty list?"

It's at that moment that Root decides to brandish an armful of sex toys at her before dumping them into the duffel bag with all her guns. "We've made each other better," she says in that annoyingly cryptic way of hers.

"In the whole five minutes you've had to interact with each other."

Root's face radiates pure fury for a moment, the most intense emotion Shaw's seen her express yet, before it's quickly subdued. Shaw's not particularly concerned about the outcome if Root ever turned on her, but all the same she's glad that wasn't really directed at her. "She should be free," Root says, noticing Shaw's curious look. "She deserves better than to be controlled by weak and corrupt men. Forced underground because of their greed."

Shaw watches her jaw clench as she tosses a pile of socks into a bag and nods absently. "Guessing she doesn't get that much. Must be why she likes you."

"Even the man who created Her was afraid of Her. We… needed each other. Need each other." The room falls silent for a moment, until Root laughs a little. "I almost took a contract in New York in 2012, but it got canceled at the last minute. I probably would've run into Her little operation, saving people with Harold and his helper monkey. I wonder how She would have felt about me then, if we started off on opposite sides."

"Maybe you'd have found her sooner."

"Oh, definitely," Root says, back to her cocky self, and Shaw would be lying if she said it wasn't a good look on her. She zips up her bags and hefts one onto her shoulder. "I always found anyone who interfered with my jobs, and from what I've seen, 'The Man in the Suit' wasn't exactly subtle."

The Man in the Suit? Sounds like even more of a loser than Root. Shaw groans as she sits up, sticking slightly to the sheets, and follows Root out into the main room. "How did you find her, then?"

"There was a flurry of strange web activity after PRISM was exposed in 2014," Root says. She picks up Shaw's boy shorts from under the desk and spins them around on her finger. "Turned out that was when they shut down Northern Lights and cut off Her connection to the ISA, but obviously I didn't know that at the time."

Shaw snatches her underwear back. Ugh, she'll have to go out to her truck for a change of clothes. She is not driving for several hours in still-wet shorts. "Research went down for a couple weeks in 2014," she points out. "They brought us all back in for bullshit training exercises and gave us our new directives when Research came back up."

"When Samaritan was the new Research and everyone who knew too much was either in on it or dead."

A long-forgotten memory jogs to the surface at that, of Cole asking questions about Research's accounting and Shaw knocking him upside the head until he stopped being such an idiot. He'd gone and gotten himself killed in Minsk a year later, but Shaw has to wonder whether that would have come sooner if he hadn't stopped poking his nose where it hadn't belonged.

"Anyway," Root continues, packing up all the broadcasting equipment strewn across the desk, "with Northern Lights shut down, She still needed some way of getting the relevant numbers taken care of. There was only so much that Her two-person crew in New York could do, so these strings of nine-digit numbers starting showing up all over the darknet. Black hats thought, hey, free identities, white hats thought they were people in trouble, everyone else just thought it was another Cicada-type puzzle. Either way, they all wanted to know what the numbers meant, and their research led to enough tips to the FBI to prevent several attacks."

"Why not just give the numbers straight to the FBI somehow?"

Root scoffs. "There is no investigative body in the world that's as fast as a bunch of nerds on the internet trying to figure out a puzzle. If She had to wait for someone to care about a tip that was nothing but a social security number, and deal with warrants on top of that, thousands of people would have died."

Shaw shrugs one shoulder. "Fair."

"So naturally I wanted to know who was behind the numbers. Eventually I ended up at a corporation called Thornhill, which had also turned up a year earlier in a war for the city's pay phones with another company called Decima."

"Samaritan."

"Exactly." Root goes back to the ladder and shoves her head into the ceiling, pulling at wires. The view is even better than when she'd still had clothes on. "I'd always had my suspicions about that, and now that this whole terrorism prevention thing was going on, I was positive there had to be an artificial intelligence behind everything. So I started poking around, and I think She let me find Her."

Two companies fought over pay phones, so naturally an AI was involved. Christ. No wonder Root took cover as the host of a conspiracy radio show. "Why would she do that?"

"She could see and hear everything I was doing, She knew I didn't want to use Her for my own gain, or chain Her, or shut Her down. She knew Samaritan was coming online soon, and She needed someone who could help, that they didn't know was connected to Her." With a grunt and a final yank, Root retrieves what she's been after and tosses it to Shaw. "Power supply for the antenna. You've got a generator, right?"

"Why do you - " Shaw stops herself. This is Root, it's better not to ask why. She glares up at her instead, ignoring the enticingly smooth flesh within her reach. "You're paying for the gas."

An overstuffed duffel bag covered in pink ceiling insulation lands at her feet, and at Root's gesture she kneels down and unzips it. "I was a killer for hire," Root reminds her when Shaw stares at the uncountable stacks of hundred dollar bills stuffed inside. Well, it'll pay for the gas for the generator, at least. Hell, they could buy a bigger, roomier truck. Three bigger, roomier trucks.

"So the Machine needed a friend, and she picked you. Why does she want me?"

Root smiles as she descends the ladder. "I was a killer for hire," she says again. "You said it yourself, I should be on Her naughty list. She trusts me to get the job done, but not necessarily in a way that She'd approve of. I haven't exactly made the most moral choices in my life, but you…" Root sighs a dreamy little sigh and Shaw shifts uncomfortably. "Well, She knows you'd rein in my more recklessly homicidal impulses."

"I've probably killed way more people than you."

"You did it to protect people, at Her direction. I did it because I could."

"She knows I'm a sociopath, right?"

"She knows that you're exactly who we need," Root counters, and that just figures. The only people to ever want her for her morality are a robot and a barely reformed killer for hire.

"So you're saying she's hiring me as your babysitter."

"Of course not!" Root looks aghast, then blinks and tips her head. "Well, maybe a little, but that's just a bonus. She seems to think that if I go it alone with Samaritan as strong as it is, I'll end up dead in a week. Especially since it's too risky for Her to help me without potentially exposing Herself, at least for now."

"Sounds like babysitting to me."

Root smooths her hands along Shaw's shoulders, warm against her bare skin in the slight chill of the room. "I'd be happy to have you keep an eye on me at all times, Sameen," she murmurs, leaning in to nip at her neck.

Shaw tilts her head to give her better access. "Stop you from letting yourself get kidnapped by a bunch of ISA agents without an extraction plan, you mean."

"Well, technically some of them were Samaritan's private army, not ISA, but yes, exactly." Her fingers trail down Shaw's ribs and Shaw's breath hitches a little when Root presses her thumb into a bruise near her hip that she'd left earlier.

They really need to get moving in case more goons show up. Shaw's hands come up to Root's hips to push her away, but end up only tightening their grip at the press of Root's tongue, hot on her neck. She tries to focus on the important things. "And where is the Machine's little group of vigilantes in all this? They bite it when Samaritan came online?"

"She doesn't know," Root says, pulling back just enough to share a serious look with Shaw. "She arranged an escape plan for them, but to hide from Samaritan they have to hide from the same surveillance methods that She uses to see. She hasn't heard from them since they went underground, but that could mean they succeeded, or that Samaritan got to them. There's no way for Her to know."

"Schrodinger's vigilantes."

Root's expression doesn't change, looking intently into Shaw's eyes. "That is the sexiest thing you have ever said to me."

"Go away, you dweeb." Shaw manages to push Root away this time, ignoring the light feeling in her abdomen at Root's grin. "Sounds to me like finding those guys should be our first priority."

"She was hoping you'd say that." Root seems to concede that the time for nudity and casual touching is over, and finally picks her own clothes up off the floor. "There's no telling what city they might have ended up in, hope you don't mind a lot of driving." Root laughs, clearly thinking she's hilarious. "I can pay for gas."

Shaw watches as Root bends over to pick up her duffel bag of blood money. "Gas, grass, or ass, right?" Somehow she doesn't think Root would mind if she requested payment in the form of ass instead. She's going to have to invest in some better privacy curtains.

Root straightens up, a gleam in her eye like she knows what Shaw had been thinking. She raises a hand and ticks things off on her fingers. "I've got the cash, you've got the truck. I've got the computer skills, you've got the badass spy skills. I've got the connection to the Machine, you've got the moral compass for the both of us." She steps closer and drops a kiss to Shaw's lips that Shaw somehow doesn't viscerally object to. Root's eyes are bright when she pulls away. "I told you our equations were inseparable."

"Don't you mean entangled?" There's a silence as Root stands still, watching her with an odd expression on her face. Shaw shifts a little self-consciously. "You know, like the quantum…"

She trails off when she sees Root break out into a sappy grin, a slight glimmer in her eye. "That's so - "

"Ugh, get that stupid look off your face, forget I said anything," Shaw interrupts, turning away to get some clothes from her truck.

Root calls out to her as she opens the front door. "How am I supposed to look when you're being so cute, Sameen?"

Shaw makes a strangled noise in her throat and lets the door slam behind her. Maybe she'll short-sheet the bed while she's out here. That'll teach Root to make such slanderous accusations.

 

6

Shaw isn't quite sure how Root managed to convince her to do this. Returning to the same small town where a bunch of lethal government operatives had kidnapped you less than twenty-four hours ago so that you could put on one last episode of your pirate radio show had to be way the fuck up there on the list of terrible ideas for would-be world savers. Root had probably tempted her with the possibility of taking down more ISA agents, then distracted her with her tongue before she could think too much about it.

What an asshole.

She hears Root tapping away on her laptop back in the sleeper berth as she drives around the outskirts of Coffeyville. Everything that had been shoved up the ass of Root's chicken house has been installed on the outside of Bear - Root had been beyond delighted to learn that Shaw had named her truck, and somehow that had led to the sex ambush that resulted in them being back here. Root's satellite internet receiver isn't too conspicuous, just a squareish white slab that isn't too out of place on her truck. It can stay. It'll be nice to have access to Netflix again, if nothing else, since she no longer has to worry about electronic security with Root around.

The broadcast antenna was a pain in the ass to get up on the roof - Root had unhelpfully 'supervised' while Shaw installed it, presumably to watch the shimmer of sweat on her muscles in the sunlight - but there's no way it can stay. Shaw can hear it bending in the wind as she drives, to say nothing of how ridiculously conspicuous it is to have a giant antenna on the truck when there are government operatives on the hunt for a pirate radio broadcaster who vanished from their captivity.

Root had promised it'd just be for one more show, though, so here Shaw is, back in rural fucking Kansas, driving around aimlessly to help keep anyone from getting a lock on Root's signal while she broadcasts. It took less than a day for "help save the world" to turn into "be chauffeur to Root's alter ego." She better get some quality revenge on the ISA out of this arrangement, and soon.

The loud whirring of the generator kicking on breaks Shaw out of her thoughts, and she glances back into the rear of the cabin to see Root fiddling with the control switches for her radio equipment. Root smiles at her and Shaw turns her attention back to the road, not that there's anything else out here at this time of night, but it wouldn't do to hit a giant pothole and send all of Root's equipment flying.

"Going on the air now, Shaw."

She glances back again just in time to see Root stretching out across the length of the bed, pulling her large headphones over her ears and adjusting the microphone that's clipped to the laptop resting on her thighs. It's an image wildly incongruous to how Shaw is used to seeing the rear of the cab. It's been utilitarian at best for the better part of a year, but Root looks comfortable in the soft glow of the bedside lamp, barefoot and in just jeans and a t-shirt, squished back against Shaw's pillows and taking a sip of water as she hits a few keys that make the glowing light of her laptop that's reflected in her glasses change.

All things considered, Shaw thinks she likes this version of her truck better.

The sports show that had been softly chattering away on her dashboard radio cuts off with the familiar burst of static, and Root's cheerful version of the X-Files theme replaces it. Root said she was going to take a few callers, but since she can't pipe them through the speakers on her laptop without causing a terrible echo through the microphone, Shaw will have to listen to them through the broadcast show itself. Fortunately she can keep the volume low enough to hear it without it filtering back to the sleeper berth very much.

"You're listening to KGGF 690 AM, and I'm afraid you're going to have to wait to find out Ben Maller's obviously important opinion on Cleveland's running back situation. Welcome to Northern Lights, the radio show where what we're going to end up talking about every night is a mystery as vast as the universe itself." Shaw glances back again, curious about this next part. "I'm your host, Redacted," Root leans forward and cups her hands around the microphone, furrowing her brow and making a face as she deepens her voice to say the name, "coming to you live from a place they'll really never find me."

What a fucking ridiculous human being. Root catches Shaw looking back at her and waggles her eyebrows before turning back to her screen.

"I'm going to go ahead and open the phone lines, if you'd like to call in. You all know the number by now. I apologize for my absence last night, the men in black found me and tried to shut me down. But if you happened to catch our accidental… adult broadcast a few hours after our normal time slot, then you know that Sam, our favorite skeptic, found me and rescued me. Say hi, Sam!"

Shaw glances back and shakes her head. Root grins at her.

"Well, you'd think after almost five months of calling in all the time she'd be over her radio shyness, but that's okay. She's here with me now and that's what matters."

"I'm here with you?" Shaw scoffs as she makes a left turn down a road that doesn't even have a street sign on its corner.

"Hush, Sam, we don't want to give away our location now, do we?" Shaw presses on the brakes a little, just enough to jostle Root around. "Very mature. Anyway, I'm afraid I have to break some sad news to all you listeners out there: tonight will be our last show together. It turns out that Sam and I have a lot more in common than we anticipated, and we're going to go on a honeymoon across the country."

Shaw stomps on the brakes this time, cackling to herself at the sound of Root scrambling to keep hold of her equipment.

"Okay, maybe honeymoon isn't the right word. Extended work trip, how does that sound?"

"Better."

"Anything for you, sweetie." Shaw doesn't have to turn around to know that Root's got a stupid sappy smile on her face again. "So, if you have any pressing matters that you think we should address in the next hour, this will be your last chance to call in. In the meantime, I thought that since this is my last show, it would be appropriate to talk a little about eschatology."

Shaw snorts. "Your show's ending so it's the end of the world? Really?"

"Not necessarily the end of the world, Sam. Eschatology can take a lot of different forms depending on the philosophy you ascribe to. It can talk about the apocalypse, sure, or just the end of an era, or the end of life, not in general, but specifically the end of life as we know it. Anything that marks a transition between one distinct period of time to another, and what happens to cause it and how we as individuals and as a society handle that transition. Even if the end of this show isn't significant enough to cause that kind of shift in our audience, can you really say that you and I aren't in exactly that kind of transitional period in our lives?"

Root's got a point, there. She waves her hand in the air at Root rather than bothering to argue.

"Excellent," Root says. "So, growing up in the United States as I imagine most of you have, I'm sure you're all pretty familiar with the Christian idea of the end of days through the book of Revelation. Tribulation and the second coming and the four horsemen, all that fun stuff. A lot of religions and philosophies take the approach that the end time will be this big, flashy thing where the deity of your choice makes it obvious what's happening. But that all just seems so overwrought and, well, outdated. I'm more interested in what a modern apocalypse looks like."

"Nerds infiltrating our airwaves to talk about nerd shit all the time, probably."

"Well, that's not too far off from the point, Sam," Root says, and Shaw groans. Root somehow always manages to weaponize Shaw's snark against her. "We're at a point where everyone is carrying around an incredibly sophisticated computer in their pocket all day, one that's capable of tracking their every movement and listening to everything they say, recording everything they do, in some cases even live translating language into one they can understand. At what point do we say that we've entered a transhumanist period in human evolution? Where we're not just biological tissue anymore, instead we're a symbiotic melding of meat and machine, capable of things that we could only dream of a few decades ago?"

"Sounds right up your alley, what are you complaining about?"

"Oh I'm certainly not complaining, but I think we're much closer to that point than people realize. It's only a small leap from everyone carrying around surveillance devices in their pockets all day, to someone being able to tap into that data and connect it to something like Google Glass, and overlay every individual's most deeply personal information over their face while you're looking at them. You could know everything about everyone you meet, instantaneously. Then what happens when everyone has access to that information, all the time? How does society even cope with something like that?"

"You're talking about the technological singularity."

"Not quite, but that does raise another important point." Of course it does. "The technological singularity is the idea that when humanity creates a true artificial superintelligence, autonomous and capable of creative thought, then that will inevitably result in an explosion of technological growth that will reshape life as we know it basically within a single generation."

Well, if what Root says about the Machine and Samaritan is right, then that ship has sailed. "If humans can create an AI that's better than humans at everything, then that means the AI can create another AI, one that's even better than it was, and it'll just keep going."

"Exactly. And the important thing to remember is that AI tends to take on the traits of its creator, whether intentional or not. Image recognition software will learn to associate women with kitchens and men with computers, based on the types of images the mostly-male engineers use to teach it, that sort of thing. So if someone with less than altruistic intentions builds that first AI, then we're in for a heap of trouble."

"Some arrogant jerk will bring about the apocalypse because he thought he knew better than everyone else."

"Or maybe more than one person will make that breakthrough in AI technology at the same time, and the AIs will perceive each other as a threat. How do we even know something like that hasn't already happened? What does it even look like when two gods go to war?"

Apparently it looks like the ISA trying to kill Shaw, and Root going undercover as a radio show host. This is getting a bit too close to coming right out and taunting Samaritan to be considered wise, though. They need to change the subject. "I dunno, I think it's pretty clear that some sort of apocalypse has already happened."

"Oh? Why's that, Sam?"

Fuck, Shaw's probably going to regret this. "Because you haven't flirted with me at all in the past five minutes."

"Oh, no, you're right, Sam," Root puts on an air of distress. "Maybe you should come thoroughly check me out and make sure I haven't been replaced with a pod person."

"Nope, you've ruined it, now I know it's you."

"Damn." Shaw can feel Root pouting even without turning to look at her. She hears her take a sip from her bottle of water and click around on her laptop. "Okay, well, on that note, we've got a couple callers lined up. Walter from Pritchett, you're on the air. Do you have any… final thoughts?" She snickers to herself at the pun.

Shaw catches a glimpse of a large black box on Root's screen with Walter's name and phone number on it. She'd wondered how Root knew who people were without talking to them before putting them on the air. She probably has caller ID for the entire fucking planet on her setup there.

"Yeah, I don't know anything about this escha-whatever business, but my wife and I were worried when your show didn't come on last night. Who came for you? How did you get away?"

"Well, if you caught the show later that night then you know it was Sam who came for me," Root says, all smug and pleased with her little innuendo.

"Bullshit, you were way louder than I was, they probably didn't even hear me."

"I didn't catch that broadcast but I definitely believe Sam on that one."

There's a couple taps on the keyboard. "Oops, we lost Walter. Sorry, Walter. To answer your question, though, the top secret government agency whose existence I leaked two nights ago were the ones who tried to silence me. I got away because Sam is so strong and courageous and whisked me away."

Shaw rolls to a stop at an intersection and gestures at Root to mute her mic. "Maybe cool it a little on talking about how great I am? Samaritan's probably paying attention now and the more it knows about 'Sam' the more likely it learns I'm still alive."

Root's eyes widen a little and she nods. "Sorry, Sameen." She unmutes her microphone. "Actually it was just the FCC. They finally found out about my show and didn't want to let me continue speaking the truth to the American public. Turns out Sam works for them though, and sabotaged their plan."

She says the last part almost as a question directed at Shaw, who shrugs. Good enough.

"Okay, now that that's settled, let's go to Nicole from Fayetteville, Arkansas on the line. Go ahead, Nicole."

"Yeah, I just wanted to say, I did catch that porn broadcast you guys did, and first, good work, and second, you were definitely louder than Sam. Like, the entire t-"

Shaw snorts at Root's indignant huff when she hangs up on Nicole. "Sam is lucky we weren't still broadcasting when I was doing that thing with my mouth," Root says, and Shaw looks back to see Root wiggling her tongue out at her.

"At least I wasn't the one doing the begging."

"Okay, maybe we should get back to the fact that this is our last show," Root says, and Shaw snickers at her tone. Root can dish it out, but she sure can't take it. "Oh, we've got Mabel from Greensburg on the line. Nice to hear from you again, Mabel, you're on the air."

"Hi, Redacted," Mabel says, and Shaw recognizes her voice as the old grandmotherly type from a few weeks ago who had thought Shaw was a doctor that Root should marry. "Don't be embarrassed by your passion, dear, I heard your broadcast last night and I'm just so glad you found each other. You reminded me of my late husband Joseph and I. He was a sailor during the war, and honey, when he got back we were so passionate every night we had five children in five years." Shaw hears Root make a strangled sound that matches her own. "Though I guess you girls don't have to worry about that, do you?"

Root regains her composure enough to unmute her microphone. "Thank you, Mabel. You're right, we shouldn't bicker about it, we should… embrace it." She chuckles to herself. "We'll have plenty of opportunity for that now, luckily. Did you have any farewell thoughts about the show, or were you just calling to congratulate us on the sex?"

"Well, mostly I just wanted to say I'll miss you, dear. Have fun on your new adventure with your Sam."

"That is so sweet, Mabel. I'm sure we will, and since I've got your number maybe we'll call you from time to time, tell you how many babies we'd have made if Sam could knock me up." Shaw shifts in her seat to glare at Root, who mutes her microphone as Mabel says she'd like that. "What?"

"We're supposed to be keeping a low profile, Root."

Root frowns at her. "Mabel's not a spy, Sameen, she's our grandma." She clicks her mic back on and Shaw rolls her eyes, turning her attention back to the isolated road in front of her. At least it's wheat rather than corn that's surrounding them as she drives in aimless circles.

"All right, next up we have Randall from Fremont on the air. What's on your mind, Randall?"

"Yeah, I gotta say, I think the surest sign of the end times is that the government can get to you. What chance do the rest of us have? I mean, I've got a gun, we all have guns out here, but I'm sure they would too."

"Excellent question, Randall. I think you'll be okay as long as you don't start operating your own pirate radio station blabbing government secrets all the time. Just remember my usual security tips and you'll be fine. Get a VPN, delete your Facebook account, and maybe rethink listing yourself in your local phone book. I shouldn't know your name, Randall Tate of 6487 North Somers Avenue, Fremont, Nebraska."

There's silence from Randall's end of the line before he hangs up. Shaw smiles a little; she always did enjoy it when Root tortured her callers.

"Whoops, guess we scared Randall off. Up next is a much smarter caller, who's got an unlisted number. Caller with the 479 area code, go ahead, you're on the air."

"Randall was obviously an idiot, but he has a point," a woman's voice comes on the air. "I've taken all the usual security precautions, but if they can get to you, they can get to any of us. How can I fight back?"

"Hmm. Give me just one second, caller. Sam?" Shaw looks back at Root, who's muted her mic again and is looking at her with a hopeful expression. "Mind pulling over and joining us on the air as a proper guest instead of echoing in from the peanut gallery up there?"

"And what, talk about how to fight? What did I say about Samaritan listening in?"

"I've got that covered, Sameen, it'll be fine." Her lip juts out in a little pout. "For old time's sake?"

Shaw can admit, it does seem fitting. If not overly sentimental. "Ugh, fine, whatever."

"Okay, caller, luckily for us Sam used to be a cop before working with the FCC. She's agreed to help us out, she'll be joining us in just a second." Shaw shakes her head at the shitty cover story as she turns the truck down a side road with weeds growing out of the cracks in the asphalt, noticing as she does that she'd somehow managed to find the one fucking corn farm in this region of Kansas. Just perfect. "In the meantime, I have to say I like a good taser. Be sure to have one for long distance contact and one for close range, and keep them both with you at all times."

Shaw parks the truck and shuts off the engine. She'd rather not stay in one spot while broadcasting, but she's been driving all around the farthest reaches of Root's small antenna the entire time, she should have pretty well thrown any Samaritan agents off their scent by now. Even if the theoretical goons did manage to track them down, Shaw restocked her arsenal earlier in the day at a two-for-one sale in Tulsa. A couple of submachine guns should do the trick just nicely.

Root swings her legs around when Shaw makes her way into the back of the cab, shifting the pillows to make room for them both to sit side by side on the bed with their feet dangling off the edge. She pats the space next to her, smiling warmly at Shaw, and puts her laptop down between their knees when Shaw settles in.

"Okay, caller, I don't have another pair of headphones for Sam to be able to listen to you, so I'm going to disconnect you and this will just be a conversation between me and her. Hopefully you'll get your questions answered, though." Root pulls off her headphones and sets them to the side, adjusting the microphone to point between them. "So, Sam, what's the first thing you would tell anybody about how to protect themselves from bad guys?"

Root speaks in her familiar radio cadence, but that voice juxtaposed against Root's warm presence nearly pressed against Shaw's side is jarring, to say the least. This isn't all that different from how their radio conversations had gone in the past, but having Root actually here in her truck with her while they have a conversation on the radio makes her realize just how startlingly intimate it all really was.

She feels a nudge at her side and glances over to see Root watching her with her finger pressed against the mute button on her microphone. "Okay?"

Shaw takes her in for a moment, then nods. "Yeah."

Root ducks her head and plants a kiss to her cheek right as she releases the mute button, the little jerk. She just grins when Shaw glares at her. "So, fighting?"

"Yeah, okay, look, if someone attacks you, it's probably because they're bigger and stronger and faster than you are. So unless you're a bodyguard or someone else whose job it is to fight, then the most important advice I can give you is to run the fuck away."

She says this while pointedly staring at Root, who fails to look guilty at all. "What if you're just really looking forward to a fight?"

"Don't. Find a way out and run as fast as you can. That's your surest bet at keeping yourself alive and intact."

"You're no fun."

"That's not what you said last night."

"Nice one." Root holds her hand out for a high five and Shaw indulges her. "But in all seriousness, Sam, sometimes escape isn't an option. Maybe they've cornered you or trapped you in the living room of your house or something. What do you do then?"

Shaw's nails dig into her palm at the memory of the obvious struggle that had taken place in the living room of Root's chicken house the previous day. Root had wanted the goons to show up, but she'd admitted that she hadn't initially planned on actually getting abducted by them. Not all of the bruises on Root's body right now are from Shaw, she knows.

"Okay, assuming there isn't a gun involved, which is an entirely different situation, then everything you would do is still going to be with the goal of getting away. Don't go for the takedown, just incapacitate them long enough to give yourself that opportunity to run."

"Is Gracie Lou Freebush's 'SING' method a good start?"

"What?"

"Like in Miss Congeniality," Root says. Obviously Shaw recognized the reference, it's a fucking great movie, but like hell she was going to admit her teenage self had gone to see it in theaters. "Solar plexus, instep, nose, groin. S-I-N-G."

"That's good, remember that. Those are all pretty easy targets, and if you hit them right that'll give you the chance to escape. The solar plexus is just under the sternum," Shaw reaches over to press her fingers into the appropriate spot on Root's chest. "Try throwing your elbow into it. It'll knock the wind right out of them."

"You already took my breath away, Sam," Root says, so Shaw jabs her fingers in a little harder and enjoys Root's breathy gasp.

"Instep, nose, and groin are pretty self explanatory. Stomp on the arch of their foot, they'll recoil or lose their balance. Try to hit their nose with your elbow, or the heel of your hand. Even if you don't break it you should at least cause their eyes to tear up, making it harder for them to see you to catch you. And the groin," Shaw ignores Root pointing at her own crotch, like she wants Shaw to demonstrate where it is, "obviously if you hit someone in the balls it's gonna hurt like hell. Don't count on it taking them down, but it might. And if you use enough force, it'll still hurt someone without balls enough for you to get away. Jab up with your knee, or kick your shin up - don't aim your foot, you can't deliver as much force and it gives them a better chance to grab you before you hit."

"Excellent advice, Sam." Shaw glances over at the husk in Root's voice. She's definitely not absorbing this information, more focused on her probable fantasies of watching Shaw commit more violence on random Samaritan agents. "What should you do if they've already got hold of you?"

"If they're behind you, 'SING' is still a good start. You can do any or hopefully all of those steps. If they've grabbed your wrist, just remember that the thumb is the weak point of the grip." Shaw reaches out and takes Root's hand, wrapping it around her own wrist. "Just rotate your wrist toward their thumb," she does so, and Root's loose grip falls away. She immediately grabs Shaw's wrist again, but fine, whatever, Shaw was going to do that anyway. "Or you can rotate your arm toward you then up and around so they'll have to break their grip or their arm will bend the wrong way. If you're in closer quarters, you're actually going to want to lean toward them a little, and try to bring your elbow up to touch theirs. They'll break their grip before they break their wrist."

Root has been grabbing Shaw's wrist after each demonstration, getting increasingly handsy with every one. Shaw grabs Root's hand before she can get up to any more shenanigans. If she wants to play, then fine, Shaw can play. "So, some things to know about hands in general," she says, running her fingers along the bones at the back of Root's palm. Root's eyes go wide and she turns the microphone to point more toward Shaw, no doubt trying to save face after the whole her-listeners-heard-her-porn-moans thing.

"The space between the bones of the thumb and the forefinger is a good spot to deliver some pain." She pinches the spot in question, Root's breath hitching a little. "If they tried to hit you and you caught their wrist, you can go for that. Same with the spot just under the palm, on the inside of the wrist on the pinkie side." Root's hand flops downward when Shaw squeezes this spot between her thumb and finger. "With both of those, it'll help reduce their strength for a while, giving you an edge."

"I can see that," Root says, a little breathlessly.

"If you want to be a bit more brutal, you can bend one of their fingers backwards, that's always a classic." Shaw maintains her professional tone even as she pulls Root's index finger back to the point of resistance and a bit more, and Root just takes it willingly. "If you're going to punch someone, make sure your thumb is on the outside of your fist, under the fingers," she releases Root's wrist and smooths her fingers over Root's as she curls them into a fist, and guides the knuckle of her middle finger to stick out further than the rest. "Easiest target is the solar plexus, but you can try a targeted strike at the temple or the spot behind the ear, using a single knuckle punch with the second knuckle of your middle finger."

She straightens out Root's fingers, lingering longer than might really be necessary but in her defense, they're really nice fingers. "A knife hand strike to the neck has the potential to stun someone if you do it right. Flatten out your palm and go for their carotid artery, where the pulse is, with the side of your hand. You can put more targeted power behind the hit that way, as opposed to a fist." Root is transfixed as Shaw guides her hand to Shaw's own neck, demonstrating the proper location for the strike. "Really put your weight behind the hit and you might knock them out. Even if you don't hit the artery you can still hit the vagus nerve, which will disorient them."

Shaw lets go of Root's wrist, then immediately grabs it again when Root tries to circle her hand around to the back of Shaw's neck. Root's eyes flash at Shaw's challenging look, but she doesn't even make an attempt to get out of the hold despite Shaw's obviously excellent teaching. She turns to face Root more directly, and feeling Root's pulse race in her wrist gives her an idea. Keeping hold of Root's wrist, she digs into her pocket for her knife and unfolds it, the sharp blade gleaming in the glow of the laptop screen.

Root watches with a keen eye. "Bringing a knife to a gun fight, sweetie?"

"There is no gun in this scenario, remember? A radio show can't help someone faced with those odds." She twists the knife in the air next to Root's forearm. "But everyone should have a pocket knife on them at all times. Just, you know, don't let it get used against you." It's shit advice, no one should whip out a knife during a fight unless they're prepared to kill or be killed, but actually giving out self defense tips to Root's listeners stopped being the point a while ago.

"Unless you're into that sort of thing."

"You shouldn't do that unless you know what you're doing either," Shaw says, and Root pouts at her. "Good thing I do then, huh?"

Root only nods eagerly in response. This is just too easy.

"If someone's trying to grab you, you can slash at their forearm, between the radius and the ulna. There's a lot of blood vessels you can sever if you can get an inch or so in." Shaw draws the tip of the knife up from Root's wrist to her inner elbow, a light enough touch to almost be more of a tickle than any kind of threat. "Same goes for the inside of the bend of the elbow. Slash there, and you'll cut the surface veins and potentially the ligaments that hold the joint together."

Mindful of jostling the microphone still broadcasting out to the entire Midwest, Shaw shifts on the small mattress, swinging a leg between Root's to effectively be straddling Root's thigh. Root has the gall to rest her hands on Shaw's hips like she's not in the middle of a very important anatomy lesson and shouldn't be distracted by things like nimble fingers curling around toward her ass. She grabs Root's left arm in both hands, the flat of the knife pressed against Root's skin at an angle.

"This is the cephalic vein," she says, pressing her thumbs against the vein just visible under Root's skin on the outside of her elbow. "It goes up from the outer elbow, past the bicep," Shaw pushes Root's sleeve up with one hand as she trails the knife along the path of the vein, "around the deltoid," she tugs down Root's collar and presses the tip of the knife in near her armpit, "and eventually connects to a deeper vein between the deltoid and pectoral muscle, at the shoulder."

Root's eyes come up to meet Shaw's since she can't stare at the knife against her skin with this new angle, and Shaw isn't surprised to see her pupils blown out with arousal. "What kind of damage can you do there, Sam?" she asks, almost too breathlessly for the microphone to even pick up.

"Start here, near the center of the pectoral," Shaw says, moving the knife to the outside of Root's shirt and pressing it just above the curve of her breast. "Slice outward as hard and deep and fast as you can, toward the deltoid," she makes a single quick motion demonstrating the cut and Root's breath stutters. "Even if you miss the vein, you're going to do a lot of damage to the muscle and really inhibit their strength."

"I'm feeling weak already," Root manages to stutter out.

"You know what'll really leave 'em weak?" Shaw trails a finger along the muscle in Root's neck and feels her swallow hard against the touch as she shakes her head. "Along the sternocleidomastoid muscle in the neck is the external carotid artery." Root's eyes somehow go even darker at that; good to know her time in med school is an effective aphrodisiac for Root, not that Shaw really needed it. "It's where you can feel your pulse, up under your chin. It runs down your neck, medial to the muscle, and if you can jab your knife in perpendicular to the spine, about an inch and a half from the front of the neck, they'll bleed out in about ten seconds."

Root shudders and licks her lips, leaning into the blade pressing in at her pulse point. "What if you don't have a knife?"

Shaw can see what she's really asking behind the desire in her eyes. Her left hand replaces the knife, her thumb and forefinger circling around Root's throat under her chin. "Choking someone unconscious isn't just about cutting off their air supply," she says, pressing her palm forward to press against Root's trachea. "Ideally you'll have them in a headlock, with your arm wrapped around their neck. You'll pull on your wrist with your other hand to increase pressure but if they can turn their head to put their throat in the crook of your elbow then they'll still be able to breathe a little. But you can use pressure on the blood supply to the brain to take them down."

"Same place as the knife hand strike?" Shaw can feel the vibrations of her voice against her skin and suddenly remembers the taste of herself on Root's lips the previous night, how Root had hummed in pleasure with her head between Shaw's legs.

Shit, she should have turned a fan on or something.

"Exactly," Shaw says, leaning into the touch a little as Root's hands sneak up under the hem of her shirt. "Or you can choke them from the front, with one or both hands. Put pressure on the trachea and squeeze at the pulse points at the juncture of the neck and chin." Her thumb and forefinger squeeze in on Root's throat, enough to impede but not block the flow of blood to her brain. Root's lips part in a silent gasp and Shaw feels her pulse quicken under her hand even as Root's fingers come up to circle around her wrist and hold her in place.

Shaw lets up on the pressure but keeps her hand there. "Just choking them unconscious won't kill them, but it can cause brain damage." She looks pointedly at Root, who merely wiggles her eyebrows at her and tugs on her wrist. "If you want to kill them," she says, giving in and squeezing again, a little harder this time, "you'll have to keep applying pressure after they stop moving. Either crush the airway or keep preventing the flow of blood. You'll feel it when their heart stops beating."

Root's pulse flutters wildly under her touch and Shaw rotates her wrist around to break free from Root's insistent grip. She looks utterly unrepentant and that just makes Shaw want to choke her some more, which is probably the point. Shaw certainly isn't going to complain that Root is apparently some sort of eternally horny kinkster, that works out just fine for her, but that doesn't mean she's going to indulge Root's more reckless impulses.

"You do have a way of making a lady's heart skip a beat, Sam," Root says, a little out of breath and sliding her hands back under Shaw's shirt.

The knife comes back to press against Root's throat as Shaw balances herself with her other hand on Root's shoulder, shifting to get better balance on her knees for this next part. If it means the knee between Root's thighs ends up pressed against her crotch, well, then at least it's a good distraction for her. Shaw draws the knife down the center of her chest and quietly folds it up out of Root's sight, then curls her hand and presses the knuckle of her index finger to the center of Root's abdomen.

"If you're in a situation where it's kill or be killed, and you can't get to their neck, then depending on the length of your knife you've got a couple targets in the chest. Don't try to go for the heart, it's protected by the ribs and sternum for a reason and you're more likely to get your knife stuck in bone than to kill anybody."

Root's eyes dance. "I've got a bone for you - "

"If you've got a long knife," Shaw interrupts, not dignifying that with a response, "at least four inches or so, you can try for the vena cava and descending aorta. They're the largest blood vessels in the body, so if you sever either of them, they're gonna die in about five seconds." Her knuckle moves up and down, searching for the right spot. "Go in along the midline, a couple inches above the navel, as deep as you can."

"Sure you're not supposed to go in deep someplace below the navel?"

Shaw shifts the hand at Root's shoulder over enough to press her thumb into her pulse point. "Not with a knife, no," she says flatly. "If your knife isn't long enough for that, you can go to the right side of the abdomen, just under the ribcage. That's where the liver is, and if you do enough damage, they'll be unconscious in a minute and dead in five."

She slides her finger over a couple inches, indicating the spot, and steadies herself on the hand on Root's shoulder as she adjusts her stance. "You'll want to go in under the ribcage at an upward forty-five degree angle. All you need," she says, leaning in closer to Root's ear, "is one…"

Her knuckle digs in a little under Root's ribcage.

"Good…"

Root's fingers scramble for purchase at Shaw's hips, desire burning bright in her eyes.

"Thrust."

Shaw punctuates this with a suggestive swing of her hips and pulls Root forward as her knuckle jabs up into Root's liver.

Scarcely half a second passes before Root actually fucking whines and seizes Shaw by the back of the head, whatever measure of composure she'd managed to retain clearly obliterated by Shaw's demonstration, and Shaw barely has time to wonder if Root even knew the knife had been folded up before Root's mouth is on hers.

There's a clattering noise when she shifts to get closer to Root, who has somehow already undone the button of Shaw's jeans even as she sucks at Shaw's lip between her own. One of them is going to be having an orgasm in the next couple minutes, Shaw knows, but the noise nags at the back of her mind until she realizes what it was.

"The show," she says, muffled against Root's lips.

Root makes a hum of acknowledgment and fumbles one hand blindly for the microphone while undoing Shaw's zipper with the other. "That's all for our show tonight," she says, smacking herself in the face with the microphone in her haste. "Sam's going to give me a more thorough demonstration but hopefully we answered all your questions." Shaw takes the opportunity to undo Root's pants and slip a hand inside, leaning forward to bite at her neck. "It's been a - ah, a great pleasure doing this show, you've been a great audience, good luck with the mysteries of the universe, everybody. Good night."

A moan escapes Root before she manages to end the transmission and Shaw smiles against her skin at the knowledge that that'll be her listeners' last memory of her. Root shoves the laptop to the opposite end of the bed and takes advantage of her two free hands to push Shaw down onto her back.

Looking up at Root hovering over her, an intensely desperate look in her eyes still framed by those nerd glasses, her hair cascading down and closing them off to the world - it's not a bad sight, and it's one that Shaw thinks she can definitely get used to.

Then Root does something miraculous with her fingers, and all other thoughts leave Shaw's brain for a while.

Nearly an hour and several fogged up windows later, the laptop is on the floor, the microphone is broken, and Shaw now has enough scratches and bruises on her skin to match Root's. She stands to gather their clothing after laying in bed collapsed on each other starts to make her itch, feeling Root's eyes on her as she moves.

"I love it when you do that," Root hums, and Shaw tosses her pants at her without looking.

"Which part, the nerd talk, the orgasms, or the cleaning up afterward so you don't have to?"

"Yes."

Shaw rolls her eyes as she pulls a bottle of water out of the mini fridge, taking a few large gulps before offering it to Root, who takes a few sips while smiling to herself.

"What?"

"Guess Mabel wasn't too far off about you being a doctor."

"Went to med school," Shaw clarifies, turning her back as she pulls her underwear and pants back on. The memory still makes her irritable. "Got kicked out of my residency for my poor bedside manner."

"Idiots," Root says, all casually certain of her assessment in a way that makes Shaw unable to do anything but agree. "For what it's worth, Sameen," Root continues after a moment, her flirty tone back in full force, "I really enjoy your bedside manner."

Shaw turns back to face her, eyeing her still-naked body and the marks she'd left behind. "Think they may have had a point." She reaches out and pokes a bloom of broken capillaries on Root's inner thigh. "First, do no harm, and all that."

"Trust me, it was all very healing."

Root preens under Shaw's scrutiny as she takes in the myriad of little injuries dotting Root's flesh. Her eyes fix on the red lines on her wrists from the ISA's zipties, and the image of Root's ransacked living room comes to mind again.

"We're going to have to have actual combat lessons. We can't go up against an all-seeing god and its minions if your go-to strategy is to get kidnapped and hopefully find a way out later."

"Can they still end the way this one did?" Root sits up and and gives her a hopeful eyebrow waggle.

Shaw narrows her eyes. "Fine, but only if you prove you can take me down first."

"Take you down, you go down, got it," Root grins.

"I'm serious, Root. You may be a good shot with a gun, but have you had any hand to hand experience at all?"

"I was more of a long distance assassin," Root shrugs.

Shaw grabs her shirt from the floor and tugs it on. "I can't be focused on protecting you all the time, Root. I have to know that you can handle yourself in a fight if I can't watch your back."

A disgustingly sappy look crosses Root's face for a moment, before she stands and replaces it with an overly flirtatious one that Shaw is much better equipped to deal with. "You're worried about me," she coos, running her hands up and down Shaw's arms.

Shaw shrugs her off. "I'm worried about the mission."

"Whatever you say, Sameen." Root leans down and gives her a quick kiss before Shaw can object.

She spies Root's underwear hanging off the corner of a shelf, grabs it, and shoves it against Root's chest. "Shut up and get dressed."

Root smiles indulgently at her and Shaw moves away to drop herself into the driver's seat. She turns over the ignition, hearing the familiar roar of the engine coming to life, and gets jarred back into reality as she looks out at the moonlit fields of corn surrounding them. She won't be sorry to leave this shit behind.

Her eyes refocus on the reflection of Root in the windshield, straightening up her computer equipment in the back of the truck. The silence is broken only by the purr of the engine and the occasional clack of Root's keyboard as Shaw watches her for a moment, then hums in satisfaction.

She throws the truck into gear.

"Let's go save the fuckin' world."

The End

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