A Buried Past, Part II


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Scene Title A Buried Past, Part II
Synopsis Following Noah Bennet's lead Nicole, Kara, and Yi-Min uncover a conspiracy hidden within the Manhattan Exclusion Zone.
Date August 3, 2020

At night the Manhattan Exclusion Zone feels like something out of an anxiety nightmare.

It is ostensibly a city, but the location lacks any sense of light and life that something of that namesake deserves. Kara Prince has seen places like this on the long cross-country journey from Sedro-Woolley to New Jersey, but even they paled in comparison to the subtle horror on display here.

Skyscrapers eviscerated by fire and bombs rise up like broken, skeletal fingers to claw at the sky. But at night only a sliver of them are visible. They grasp into a suffocating, starless darkness that hangs ever-present overhead. The light of the Safe Zone exists as a dim glow protruding over the top of the high concrete wall surrounding the Exclusion Zone, so dim as to not even cast shadows, but merely turn one edge of the skyline a faintly luminous shade of brown.

What can be seen must be viewed under the stark contrast of flashlights. The streets are split from fire and explosions; glitter with spent shell casings and broken glass. Stands of scrub trees grow up from between the asphalt along with tufts of brownish-green grass. Creaking protests of straining buildings groan overhead and the occasional rumble of something collapsing uptown serves as a stark reminder of the precarious nature of this place.

There are cars here on the road, both lanes jam packed with vehicles that contained whole families trying to evacuate New York when the worst of the war came upon the city like a tidal wave. The families are still here; blackened skeletons frozen in place in their vehicles. Children huddled in the back seats of cars atop one-another, their bones fused together by the intense heat of a thousand tons of napalm dropped on the city of New York during the Scourge. Molten tires are welded to the asphalt and the windowless hulks of rusting cars serve as tombs for these forgotten dead.

There have been numerous articles written about how many millions of people died in the scourging of New York, but it’s one thing to read about such atrocities and another to see them first-hand. For Nicole Miller, Kara Prince, and Yi-Min Yeh, it is their first time bearing witness to what lies beyond this wall and the sobering sense of scope it provides.

A reminder that though the war is behind them, it still casts a long shadow ahead.

Ruins of the Financial District
Manhattan Exclusion Zone
New York City

August 3rd
10:48 pm

Just outside the unfinished subway station at the corner of Monroe and Catherine Street Nicole, Kara, and Yi-Min are but two blocks from their destination. According to the research Nicole had done prior to their departure, they just need to follow the line of destroyed cars down Catherine street until it crosses Water Street, and the Manhattan Mini Storage building will be on their left.

Not far now.

Nicole is still in shock from the horrors beneath the city’s broken husk. She’s been quiet as they’ve made their way through the last of the tunnels and finally arrived topside. Her mask is finally tugged off again, left to hang around her neck as she takes in the sight of the walled off tomb of the city. This had been her home once. Her neighborhood. It takes her a moment to get her bearings, but her feet would still know the way back to the old apartment.

What’s left of it.

There’s a profound sadness that sinks into her muscle. This could easily have been her own grave. Her sister’s. Nicole tears her eyes away from the remains of a family in the burned out shell of what was once a Buick very similar to her own. If she thinks too hard about the circumstances under which she wasn’t present in Manhattan for the first bomb, she may decide to just lay down and wait for death to take her.

And she really doesn’t want to have to explain any of that to her companions.

Peeling her hands out of her gloves, she shoves them into the pockets of her jacket, then drags her fingers through her hairline, tugging gently at dark strands as though it will keep her present, and not focused on some time over a decade gone. “At least we’re almost there,” she murmurs just as much to herself as she does to Yi-Min or Kara.

Between a nightmare in the stale, stifling aura of the subterranean and a nightmare beneath the freeing breath of an open sky, Yi-Min knows which one she would choose in an instant.

Even with all of the connotations of this fresh hellscape.

She is silent too during their emergence from the bowels of the earth, and she is silent for a time after, just letting the cathartic thread of cold night air twine about the fullness of her senses like some sort of warding cloak. It's only a thin, tangential physical layer— but it lends her a measure of psychological distance while she studies the ghastliness present in every front around them.

Laying one ungloved hand on Nicole's forearm once she sees her friend's sorrow, the smallest member of the trio still seems tacitly resolute after both what they had left behind in their venture, and what lies now at their feet. "Almost there," she reiterates, her voice a tiny anchor under the ubiquitous deadness of the atmosphere. As it slips through the scarred-out hollows of the closest vehicles, with so many dead still present in them, her gaze registers the same firm forlornness as her voice. The expression of her mouth, once she strips her respirator mask from her face, is unreadable.

There is a distraction close at hand: a teeny rattling that Yi-Min pulls out of her pack, then holds out to Nicole specifically.

It's an opened tin of breath mints.

It takes Nicole a second to realize there’s something on offer to her. She double-takes, as though startled, but mostly she’s just sort of numb at this point. “Oh, fuck,” she breathes out, taking one of the offered mints from the tin. “Thanks.” It will help with the lingering taste, if nothing else.

Compared to the shock of the sewer below, at least the hellscape they emerge into is a semi-familiar one. Kara is numb to the insides of the vehicles, her expression blank much as it has been since they began the ascent up. Her grip around the P90 rifle she acquired in the tunnels has slacked none. She's not removed her mask, nor the safety goggles above them.

She's not had the thought to yet, even seeing the other two.

She continues scanning for threats with quick jerks of her head, unconvinced they're anywhere near done seeing them. Aboveground, now they would see worry against any number of other issues posed by this environment.

Or its occupants.


Kara finally lowers the compact rifle, turning its muzzle down as she looks back. "If we run into any issues up here like we did down there, we take the nearest exit out." Terse, she looks to Nicole rather than Yi-Min. "Whatever it is that's out here? It's not worth us dying over. Not when we could take a knee and run this down another day with clearer heads, fresh feet, and additional arms."

"I figured we'd run into scavengers. Maybe a rogue bot. Not…"

Not the sight that rattled them so.

Nicole looks vaguely offended to be singled out. She looks like she might be ready to bark out any number of counterarguments, but instead, she sucks on her mint with an expression like it might have gone sour in her mouth. Begrudgingly, she nods her head.

While she’s concerned that whatever it is she’s meant to find here could be jeopardized by leading scavs to it, Kara is right. Nothing out here is worth dying for. Nothing she can conceive of off the top of her head, at any rate. She could be proven wrong, because what they ran into in the subway below is nothing she could have conceived of either.

“Fine,” Nicole relents, slinging her her backpack off one shoulder so she can tug it around front and dig into its contents. She retrieves her pistol, pausing a moment to press a hand against the case she recovered from Meredith Gordon’s last run as though that alone would confirm the security of its contents. Then she’s zipping the pack back up and shoving her arm back through the strap before hooking the holster to her belt and thumbing open the fastening. If she needs to draw, this will make it quicker.

As it stands now, Nicole’s jumpy enough that she isn’t sure having her weapon in her hand is wise.

Slipping her little tin of mints back into a pocket, Yi-Min just looks between the two other women with a glimmer of her old mild cheer, spinning her Colt Python once in a deft, idle cycle of her fingers.

"No dying tonight." is the one thing she sees fit to reassert aloud, her posture confirming her easygoing agreement with Kara's stance.

"Jia you. Come." So saying, she swivels the glaring brilliance of her headlamp away from her companions, and properly into the darkness of the city of the twisted dead.

Onwards they go.

The remainder of that trek down Catherine Street only takes all of five minutes. There’s rows upon rows of cars just like the ones behind them. No one removed the bodies, no one’s even tried. So much here was blackened by fire that the smell of soot still clings to the air so many years later. The Manhattan Mini Storage building is visible a decent distance away as a blocky silhouette occluding the glow of light from the Safe Zone. By the time it comes into the range of the flashlight the building’s tremendous size is surprising when contrasted with how diminutive its name is.

The Manhattan Mini Storage building is a five story concrete building that looks like it might have been something industrial in decades past. The way Nicole’s team is approaching takes them right to the loading docks. There’s cars jammed up in there, ones that tried to escape the napalm runs and were never-the-less caught in the conflagration. Some skeletal bodies lay huddled in corners of the loading dock, fused together for all that they huddled close to try and avoid the liquid fire falling from the sky.

Animals or scavengers have torn some of the bodies apart, while time and the elements have broken others up. In the swirling stains of phosphate and ash on the concrete floor, there are scuff marks of someone who had come through here to a shattered wall of floor-to-ceiling glass windows, rows of smashed shelves, and beyond that to a door blackened but undamaged by the heat. A blistered sign above the door reads DELIVERY ENTRANCE.

Nicole has seen plenty of death — caused plenty of it, too — but this affects her more deeply than the blood on her own hands. It’s with difficulty that she’s able to drag her gaze away from the skeletal remains as she leads the way toward the loading dock.

Climbing her way up, she makes her way past the broken glass, glancing around the scavenged ruin for signs of anything useful. Or anything hostile, for that matter. Nothing jumps out at her on either front, so she moves to try the door that will lead inside the building. The scraping on the floor indicates that it’s been open since the dust settled, but it’s — perhaps predictably, but no less frustratingly — locked.

Sliding her backpack around again, she pulls open the zipper and digs in to retrieve a crowbar. Of course Bennet would have made sure to lock up behind himself. That’s presuming the last person to be here was Noah Bennet, but how else would he have known what could be found here?

Lots of other ways, Nicole supposes as she starts to wedge the instrument between the door and the frame, leaning forward to push it in as much as she can before throwing her weight off to the side with a quiet grunt of effort to pop the lock. But if whatever’s inside is valuable enough that Bennet risked her breaking his nose, it’s worth locking up after.

When the door doesn’t give way the first time, she readjusts her grip, pushes harder to jam it further into the seam, then again tries to pry open.

The fact that the path taking them to their destination is just a short jaunt, vehicles and corpses they have to sidestep notwithstanding, is a mercy. The shade of relief Yi-Min had found merely by stepping outside again is siphoning away, gradually but surely, in the face of the burnt stagnation inseparable from this air.

Following Nicole with more care as the three pick their way through tracts of broken glass and debris, she watches on as the other woman attempts to jam her way through the interior door with a crowbar. They (or at least, she) had brought along tools appropriate for attempting to pick the lock, but it might be faster just to…

Yi-Min looks back meaningfully at Kara. Then, back at Nicole.

Well. Either way, they should have this handled.

Okay, the name mini storage did not put off this vibe. The Midwesterner in Kara blanches when she realizes the entire building is the miniature storage… unit. No, it's not a fenced in yard with several small sheet-steel buildings. Maybe it was for storing small items?

God, she hopes so. If they find something that'll be nearly impossible to take back with them, on top of what they've already brought from the sewer…

It's fine. This is fine. Everything's fine.

Nicole's approach seems like the best one, so she stands at the ready to either add her weight to the levering of the crowbar, or take a crack at it herself if Nicole stands back.

The door was strong, but the lock wasn’t meant to keep out a determined intruder. The bullet-resistant glass that’s shattered all over the floor from the other room was meant to do that. The inner door pops with a clatter of metal pieces hitting the ground after a little bit of Nicole’s elbow grease. Honestly, it was easier than she expected it to be.

In the beam of her flashlight it doesn’t look like anyone’s been in here much. There’s a thick coat of dust on the floor pockmarked with pieces of broken debris from the walls and ceiling. It makes the footprints of whoever was in here last stand out against the grime.

Nicole tosses her hair over her shoulder with a shake of her head after she pries the door open. The crowbar is shoved back into her bag and she scouts ahead into the building at first with just her flashlight. Then, she starts to follow the footprints in the dust.

“Hopefully this will be a roadmap to where we need to go,” the dark-haired agent murmurs. “We’re looking for unit twenty-six. With any luck, it’s on the ground floor and it won’t be far.” Nicole stares into the darkness and frowns faintly. This is a big building, and she isn’t sure where the numbering system starts. It could be on the other end of the facility entirely.

The fact that they had found the place successfully sealed, despite the ease with which they had ultimately circumvented the barrier, is reassuring to Yi-Min. It means it's unlikely that scavengers had already gotten to their intended mark first— a possibility, given the utter state the rest of the entrance is in.

"Unit twenty-six." Yi-Min repeats in a corroborative murmur, only the crackling of thin, tiny glass shards still adhered to the bottom of her boots heralding her faint approach as she comes up to stand next to Nicole. She nods up ahead of them, the almost too-cheerful beam of her headlamp bobbing up at a slight angle when she does. It throws the discrepancy of those floor markings into golden, sharply filthy relief. "Think those footprints are from that dear friend of yours you punched?"

The chances are good.

Thankfully for this trio, the numbering of the storage units begins at the other end of the building, so they’re already in the mid thirties when they step into the long concrete hallway lined with rolling garage-style doors. The footprints ahead are a road map to their destination, as Nicole’s flashlight reveals once they hit storage unit 26 a brisk three-minute walk into the ground floor.

This storage unit, like all the others, is probably a ten-by-ten space on the inside. The door is rolled down and free of dust, unlike all the other lockers, and is held shut by a simple padlock of middling quality. There’s just a thin door between three very tired women and the answer to a question Nicole didn’t even know to ask. If Noah Bennet did come and go through this space, he didn’t offer Nicole the kindness of a key.

Thankfully, there’s no one here to complain as she bludgeons the padlock clear off the door with a liberal application of her crowbar, repeatedly, to the lock. The broken hinge clatters to the floor with the lock still intact, allowing Kara to roll the door open and open into an unlit storage space that looks like it belonged to a deranged conspiracy theorist.

The back wall of the storage locker has a pegboard that is currently pinned with two dozen or more newspaper clippings, each connected by lines of red string to colored pushpins. There is a work bench below the pegboard where a spool of red yarn sits partly unwound along with an ashtray and several cigarette butts. There’s scraps of newspaper, scissors, paper clips. It’s like a scrapbooking nook, except tuned to high-paranoia projects.

Cardboard boxes are stacked up on either side of the storage unit and are flush to the door, allowing for single-file entrance only into the space. The boxes look to be full of newspapers, stacks of them can be seen slouched against one wall. Other boxes are full of old VHS cassettes — movies, primarily, though some look like unlabeled home video recordings.

Once they finally make it to the unit and can see what's inside, only then does Kara relax. She still looks once over their shoulder to check one last time to make sure nothing's following them inside the facility, and then does she turn back to the storage unit's contents.

She lets the other two go first. It's them who stood the most to gain by coming here, and them likely who would know at a glance what stood out as exceedingly useful information.

"What I'd not give for a teleporter right now," she murmurs to herself as she inches inside the space. "Or a Bag of Holding." She leans forward to peer at the newspaper clippings at the back, seeing if she can catch sight of any headlines from this distance.

“No kidding,” Nicole agrees, a note of astonishment coloring her voice. She makes her way to the workbench at the back first, casting a glance to the ashtray. Noah doesn’t smoke, last she knew, so this implies the presence of someone else. She’s worried that she knows who, and doesn’t like what it means. Worse, she’s worried that she doesn’t know who, and that they risk being found here. She takes note of the brand — or lack thereof — before turning her attention to what’s being mapped out on the board. Or who?

“What the hell were you doing here?” she asks the missing participant of this excursion. “Fuck. We’re going to need help to haul things out of here. And I… don’t like who I think I’m going to need to turn to.” Nicole stops just short of rubbing her hand over her face, forcing it back down to her side with a slap against battered denim. Digging into her backpack, she retrieves a single-use camera meant for snapping underwater photographs, having to withdraw it from a watertight bag as well. She wasn’t taking chances on this one. If what Noah put her on to is as sensitive as he makes it out to be, taking photographs the old fashioned way seemed a smart idea. Once she’s begun deciphering what’s present on the board, Nicole starts snapping photographs of all of it.

Bringing the camera had been a wise call. Yi-Min's expression conveys her approval of the notion for the second or two she spectates before she is busy looking around herself.

Like Kara, the string-and-scrap pegboard spangling the back wall is what had captured her attention right up front, but it seems unlikely that she'll get a great view while the other woman is engrossed in her picture-taking. Instead, she engages herself nearer the entrance for the time being, inclining to rifle curiously through the nearest box of VHS recordings.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York sits on the top of a stack of VHS cassettes that look like they came from a video store that was going out of business. There’s a copy of Sleepless in Seattle below that, When Harry Met Sally, and Scrooged. The others are lacking the cardboard sleeves that would make them easier to identify, though as Yi-Min lifts some up to look at the printed label on the cassette face, she finds Predator, LA Confidential, and Beethoven. Several of the other tapes are unlabeled, looking like home recording cassettes that may or may not be blank.

Yi-Min catches out of the corner of her eye that there are four tapes wedged in at a different angle that have white labels with hand-written titles on them that don’t… outwardly sound like familiar movies:

Everything Ends

For Kara and Nicole, the pegboard string map looks like a mashup of confusing and unfamiliar clippings from newspapers. At the center of it all, though, is a clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer from March of 1999. It shows an old man holding a photograph of a younger man, and a headline that reads:

Ship’s Myth Keeps Reappearing For Crew of USS Eldridge

The article is about a reunion of octogenarian former US Navy officers who served aboard a ship called the USS Eldridge during World War II and a conspiracy theory that suggests the ship may have been a part of a government experiment that displaced it in time. The article doesn’t take that science fiction seriously, but instead focuses on the old crew members' lives and how the media around their service on the ship focuses on the supernatural.

Fanned out from that page are clippings about the USS Eldridge, how it was decommissioned and allegedly sold to the nation of Greece in 1951. Other articles fan out from that one, showing photographs of two different US Navy ships, comparing the exhaust stacks. Handwritten notes suggest that it isn’t the same ship as older photos.

Scanning around, Nicole spots blurry black and white photos of someone in a dark suit with their back to the camera. There are additional clippings showing military service records and a War Department identification card for a Marcus L. Raith issued September 25, 1936. String from that connects to a series of newspaper articles without datelines or publication headers with a series of alarming titles:

RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch In Roswell Region
Strange Lights Seen Over Skowhegan
5 Missing After Late Night Gas Explosion
Area Woman Claims Room In House Disappeared
US Airforce Douglas C-54 Skymaster Disappeared En Route Alaska to Montana
Farmer Claims “Men In Black” Stole UFO Wreckage

There’d dozens of articles like these, and judging from the condition of the newsprint some are decades old and others of the oldest articles look like photocopies or computer print-outs. Down near the bottom of the board, though, is a photograph Nicole recognizes. It’s the inside cover image for Wolves of Valhalla:


The man with the question-mark post-it note isn’t an enigma, though. He shares the same face as the soldier from the War Department ID Card, save that he looks several years older and is missing an eye.

"What in the world were you up to, Bennet?" Kara breathes out while looking over the mappings. She begins to frown, lifting her flashlight to examine one headline after the next. There's some kind of similarity she sees right away, even if it doesn't feel like a… total fit for what happened with Nicole and Yi-Min.

"Displaced in time?" She begins to frown. "Does he think that's what happened to you? That you're you, just…" Earlier? As wild as that sounded?

"But that doesn't explain everything," Kara acknowledges in a murmur, and then her eyes roam to the other photos. She's thoughtful and calm until she catches sight of Adam Monroe's face on the wall. Then, silently, hackles raise.

Talk about a face she hoped to never see again. God, and the context of it. Of those uniforms.

Her eyes go to the mystery man next, wondering what the fascination with him might be. "I don't get it," she admits on her first blush. "What's a bunch of Nazis got to do with…"

Shit,” Nicole breathes out when she finishes snapping her photographs of the board. “Displaced time could account for… For how we were suddenly where we were and how far away we were from where we started in so little time.” She shakes her head, still sounding unconvinced. Not because the theory isn’t plausible, but because she isn’t sure what’s in front of her is completely related to what’s happened to her and Yi-Min.

Scowling at the photos of Marcus Raith — a surname she recognizes — she tries to decide if she sees similarities to the man she knew on Pollepel Island or if she’s only seeing what she wants to see there. Not that she knows where to find Jensen Raith anyway. No one seems to know where he fucked off to after the exodus to Canada. And would he know anything about this even if she could find him?

So what do the USS Eldridge, Marcus Raith, UFO sightings, and a bunch of dead (and a couple not-so-dead) Nazis have in common? She’ll have some historical records to comb when she gets back to the office next month, she supposes. “I wonder if I’ll find some links to the progenitors of External Investigations when I look into these,” Nicole wonders aloud, pointing out the headlines.

“He said he was looking out for himself. Said I should be too, but… looking out for what? What is this all about?” How could any of this be traced to Nicole in such a way as to be a threat? Or maybe it’s just one of those things that’s a threat to anybody? Who the hell even knows?

Taking out another plastic bag from her backpack - this one empty - she turns it inside out and uses it to pick up one of the cigarette butts, pulling it inside as she rights and seals the bag. She’ll see if there’s any usable DNA to lift, given she’s dubious that this is Bennet’s secret lair.

In the meantime, Yi-Min is prodding her way through that stack of VHS cassettes with a scientist's slow, sure care, placing the tapes with recognizably prosaic titles off to the far side in favor of those bearing somewhat— stranger labels.

These four tapes she removes from the pile entirely, and after some pause, bap-baps them into a little stack of their own before opening up her pack to pop them inside. Might as well take the most intriguing-looking things immediately, just in case they could not come back.

The phrase 'displaced in time' as spoken by both the other women perks up her attention in full. "What on earth are you two looking at over there?" she wonders aloud, drawing herself up and turning her critical gaze onto the board herself, scanning over everything she can from where she is.

Oh. Ah.

This is a lot.

Yi-Min slides a small look over to Kara, then back. "I suppose if it is possible to be displaced in space, then why not time? Both, perhaps, yes. Certainly, that could be one explanation for why Nicole came back in the manner that she did." As though someone rewound a VHS tape on the lives growing in her womb, leaving not a single trace. She stares down at the face of the cassettes below her.

"I don't suppose you could get in touch with that friend again. You know. Interrogate him further on what the heck this is all about."

“If he thinks I’m not going to break into his fucking house and wait for him to show up like I’m the goddamn Batman,” Nicole replies in a low voice that’s taut with her vexation, “then he deserves the heart attack that’s going to give him.”

As Nicole is collecting the cigarette butts she notices some old manilla envelopes sitting on the small shelf beside the ashtray, small mailer envelopes. There’s two addresses on the open envelope, both of which look to have possibly been written by a child for how horrible the penmanship is. First there’s the delivery address to where this envelope was sent:

33 Thomas Street
New York, NY 10007

It strikes her that there’s no recipient name, just an address. But the return address is much the same:

162 Cardinal Way
San Antonio, TX 78253

The postmark on the envelope is May 18th, 2014.

The envelope is opened, with just one very small content inside. A single glossy photograph of Kristopher Voss sitting at an outdoor dining space in what looks like either a pre-war cafe with a thin bald man probably a decade or two his senior that is unfamiliar to Nicole. Both men are in business attire.

Suddenly this has taken a turn.

The face is unfamiliar to Kara, the information well outside of her wheelhouse. She edges back when Yi-Min approaches to allow her better access, her flashlight dancing across the stacks. She makes her way back to the front of the unit, looking up and down the hall in a check that they're still as alone as they were before. It's the most she can do to help, since what's inside isn't anything she feels like she can help with.

Never mind they're all just throwing tomatoes at a dartboard at this point.

Fuck me,” Nicole breathes out as she looks over the picture of the Deputy-Director and the other man she doesn’t recognize. Whatever this is, it now involves Voss before he took on the role he has now. She takes snapshots of the envelope and photograph both, before placing the latter back inside the former and transferring both to her backpack.

33 Thomas Street. “That address isn’t far from here,” she informs the others, expecting her knowledge of the layout of Manhattan is a bit more extensive than theirs. “Who the fuck tried to send mail to the Exclusion Zone after the war? More importantly, how did someone actually manage to intercept it and bring it here?” Nicole frowns, determined. “I want to check it out before we head toward the breach in the wall on the north side. It’s on the way, and it might be a good place to hunker down for the night.”

She’d much rather travel the rest of the way by daylight.

Kara isn't alone in that. Being given a slightly-widened spread of the board doesn't help Yi-Min much, not at the moment. Nor does the vague, niggling tickle of exhaustion she feels behind her eyes like an old surfacing memory when she goes to scan over the display again— a reminder of miles of travel over water and through fetid labyrinthine passages to get here.

"If you think that would be safe," she murmurs in matter-of-fact agreement. "To hunker down in, that is. Of course we should investigate, especially if it is on the way."

She's not so much a fan of the prospect of getting attacked in the night, though. Especially after the journey they had undergone in the earlier part of it.

"We've got the supplies to last a night. It won't be comfortable, but we could manage," Kara says over her shoulder. This, after all, was exactly the reason she'd brought as stuffed a pack as she had. When she turns back to the other two, she resists a frown. If it was on the way, anyway, there seemed little harm in heading that direction. "Do you think you have everything you need out of here?"

She’d love to go through every box. Every newspaper and video cassette. Every scrap of paper. But there simply isn’t the time. Nicole gives the unit one last once-over for anything she might have missed. “I think I’m good.” She may attempt to return at some point, on a much different route. If it hasn’t moved, that will tell her something.

The last thing she does is run her hand along the edge of the board on the wall. Ryans kept all sorts of things hidden in his home in plain sight like that. It doesn’t hurt to check. “If you’ve got everything that looks of interest, we can go.”

"You have photographs of it all. I've gathered up the most interesting tapes I could find," Yi-Min asserts, also giving the place a last once-over. In her case, it's more out of ceremony than real expectation for anything to jump out at her. "In other words, yes. I am ready to go."

Leaving the storage unit behind is easy enough, but re-emerging into the war-torn hellscape that is the Exclusion Zone is another all-together. Nicole, Kara, and Yi-Min find themselves in that oppressive, lightless gloom again. Checking their map, Nicole’s assessment of “close” for their next destination is something like a New York minute, a hot and bold lie.

From the storage building, the trio cross through a walkway that cuts between two demolished school buildings. Fire-blackened windows billow with shredded curtains. Napalm-torched school busses that were ferrying war refugees lie melted to the parkway, tires turned into blackened lumps, skeletons of terrified civilians fused together in a macabre tableau of tragedy and horror. There is still the faintest hint of charcoal stink coming from them.

Past the school going northwest it’s a quarter mile to a vehicle-choked intersection of twelve lanes of traffic that fork off into five different major arteries. There are so many cars here in tightly-packed rows that it feels like a massive parking lot. The rusted, heat-warped vehicles are also peppered with bullet holes, skeletal victims trapped in their steel coffins, hundreds here among the tens of thousands that died in the Scourging of New York.

Past the graveyard of Kimlau Square the trio are forced to take a two block detour to go around the toppled ruin of the The Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building, what is now little more than a scattered pile of fire-blackened whitewashed stone, shredded office documents, shattered furniture, and skeletal remains from a collapsed skyscraper.

The three come up through Foley Square, where the ruins of so many government buildings make the space seem flat. There are hills of brick and stone, twisted metal from bombing runs. What vehicles were here were blasted to oblivion along with much of the street, and the middle of the square divots down into a sinkhole filled partly with stagnant water shimmering with an oil-slick sheen. But looming nearby, untouched, is what Nicole identified as 33 Thomas Street. It is the only skyscraper still standing.

A tall, windowless, gray monolith sticking up like a tombstone from the middle of the Financial District, buried up to its second story in dunes of crumbling buildings that obscure any ground-born entrance, making the ominous structure seem more like a monument than a building.

By the time they approach their destination, Nicole is surprised she still has vision left for all that she’s dug the heels of her palms against her eyesockets, like she might block out some of the images that have stuck with her. Not just of what she’s been able to glimpse in the dark of the Exclusion Zone, but what she remembers from the war. This whole thing has been a trip down Repressed Trauma Lane and…

No. It will have been worth it.

“How the fuck is this place still standing?” Nicole half-whispers in astonishment. That 33 Thomas remains upright while everything around it has fallen like dominoes is just too convenient, somehow. She just refuses to believe in dumb luck.

Lifting her voice to a more conversational level now, she asserts, “There’s got to be some way inside.” Because if they walked all this way just to have to find somewhere else to hole up, Nicole is going to scream. “Note to self,” she mutters as she starts scanning for some less apparent entrance to the building. “Actually break Bennet’s nose when I get back.”

Maybe, like the storage unit, there will be signs of recent life. Some clue as to where entry can be gained. Is it underground? Fuck, it’s probably underground. That would be their luck.

That's where Nicole's thoughts lead, but Kara's brings her to look up instead— searching for windows already broken they could enter by, or at least ones already cracked they could more easily shoot their way into. She approaches the rubble pile with a small frown, wondering at its stability.

Climbing it wouldn't be the most dangerous thing they've done today, at least.

But then she notes the severe lack of windows, and begins to frown. "I was going to suggest this as a good place to stop… but I'm not even sure there's a good way in," Kara admits quietly.

Either way, it was too big of a task for the three of them to take on at this hour, in this condition, and after the night they’d had. Distant pops of gunfire from inside the Exclusion Zone serve as a reminder that they aren’t the only people who chose to call the ruin of Manhattan home. The only safe route back will be to approach the gates, to flash badges of authority at the Military Police operating the entrance and solicit bribes to keep it from getting directly back to SESA.

Nicole knows how this works. Even though this isn’t the political world she finds herself in now, knowing how to grease the wheels of the city and do so without getting caught was something Daniel Linderman taught her, made sure she was armed with the tools necessary to survive in the world he knew was coming.

Lessons that have kept Nicole alive against all odds.

When to push…

…and when to run.

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