Chapter 1: Prologue: Alpha
It didn’t matter how many times he did this, York thought he’d never tire of space travel. There was something calming about the way the ship glided through space, about the humming of the engines, about the spiraling patterns the stars formed. He leaned against the large observation window, fingers tapping his thigh in a nervous pattern. The journey back to Valhalla was a long one, and the cramped nature of The Hand of Merope had started to get to him on day three of their trip.
He saw Carolina out of the corner of his eye and tensed for a moment before forcing himself to relax. It was fine, he reminded himself. Things were okay. Sort of.
Carolina stood next to him, saying nothing for a long moment before admitting defeat and speaking first. “We should… talk, shouldn’t we?”
York stared out at the stars for a moment. “Probably,” he admitted. He stopped leaning against the window and turned to face her.
“Who starts?” He asked her, trying to keep his tone light but failing. They’d kissed twice since finding each other again, but York didn’t pretend that it had fixed things.
He wished he could smoke on the ship. Maybe that would make his hands feel less like shaking.
York sat down on one of the couches nearby. Hesitantly, she sat across from him. They were both in their full armor, and York had to stop himself from reaching out to try to remove her helmet, from trying to just see her expressions, so he could get a better idea of what he was dealing with.
They remained in silence for long enough for Delta to start buzzing nervously.
York forced himself to speak first. “I’m sorry about the Director,” he said quietly.
Carolina looked away. “That’s not what I’m here to talk about,” she said tensely.
“Then talk,” he said. “I… Carolina... I don’t even know where to begin.”
“You picked her,” Carolina said harshly. “You sided with her.”
Of all the openings she had to pick, that was the one she went with? York closed his eyes, even though she couldn’t see what he was doing. “Yes.”
York shrugged. “She came to me. She had proof; proof of what the Director was doing. I couldn’t just… let it happen.”
She seemed prepared to say something so he plowed on. “You were still out, Carolina. And they were already talking about pulling Delta. Tex made her case. She made it, and I chose. Going to you wasn’t an option. We needed to leave if we were going to get anything done. If we were going to help anyone.”
“So that was why?” Carolina demanded. “You needed to ‘do the right thing?’”
York felt something rise in his chest but he shoved it aside. “I joined Freelancer to be a good guy,” he snapped. “We were supposed to help people. End the war! Experimental research, cutting edge technology, the best of the best, all in one place. That was the pitch, wasn’t it? But none of it was true. I couldn’t pretend anymore once Tex showed me Connie’s files. I couldn’t stay, not after that.”
Not even for you, he wanted to say. He didn’t. She had to know it was there. It had to be enough.
He pushed himself to his feet. “I need some air,” he said abruptly.
“York.” Her voice was warning.
“Hold it against me or don’t, Carolina,” he said quietly. “But it seemed like you made up your mind when you stayed away for years.”
Carolina looked away.
<York,> Delta said, disapproving as York strode towards the nearest hallway.
“I know Dee,” York sighed.
York shook his head. He needed nicotine; and Delta was being smug about the addiction too, because of course he was. How had this become his life?
“Found you,” Tex said, and York tried to pretend he hadn’t just jumped. Even without using her camouflage unit, Tex was still sneaky when she wanted to be.
“Hey Tex,” York said, grinning.
She knocked her shoulder against his. “Running again?”
“No!” He paused as she tilted her head, always able to tell when he was lying. The downside to being an awful liar, he supposed. “Okay, maybe a little.”
She huffed. “Do you two have to make everything complicated?” She asked, seeming curious.
“I’ll let you know when I figure it out,” York said, laughing slightly.
She shook her head. “Well, you’ll have lots of time to figure things out back at Valhalla, Private Harris.”
York couldn’t help but snicker at that. “Got to love Delta’s ability to fake paperwork, right?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s a reference I should hit you for,” she told him. The two of them kept walking, side by side, and York felt himself relax in her presence. Tex would hate for him to ever tell her that, but she was a comforting person to be around, in her own way.
“Probably. Remind me to get Lopez to cue up some of those old earth shows when we get back. I bet you’ll like it.”
“We’ll see,” Tex said. There was a pause, before she added a quiet, “Sorry I broke your helmet.”
“Eh,” York tapped his fist against the cracked surface of his visor. “I’ll get a new one soon, probably.” He nudged her. “It’s fine. Much better than the last time you cracked my visor, right?”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Look I’m just saying, you could have taken my other eye, and you didn’t, so I’m grateful.”
Tex looked like she was considering saying something else, so York drew to a halt. “Look. Tex. It’s fine. No harm done.”
There was a long pause, but then Tex shook her head at him. “Grif’s right, isn’t he?”
“About what? I understand Grif to be right about most things.”
“You really are a masochist.”
York laughed. “Tex, we’ve been friends for how long?”
Tex paused, taking his question seriously. “Not sure.”
York wasn’t sure either; he’d be hard pressed to find a hard starting point; a single moment when he’d looked at Tex and thought of her as a friend. They hadn’t started there, sure. But they’d made it. And now, York honestly wasn’t sure if he could imagine his life without his prickly, awkward, brilliant best friend.
“Years!” York said. “Years, and you’ve only just figured that part out?”
Tex shoved him lightly. “You’re a pain in my ass, York.”
“And you wouldn’t have it any other way,” York said, nudging her back, harder this time.
Tex sighed. “I need to find Church. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Bye,” York said absently, before starting to continue his exploration of the ship.
He hadn’t been on his own for more than five minutes when he felt the ship shudder and the lights began to flash.
“Okay,” he told Delta. “This time, I swear it’s not our fault.”
<I believe that can be assumed, York.>
Tucker loved that he was getting used to this; waking up between the two of them. He could feel Wash’s heartbeat under his fingertips, and Kai’s hands were wrapped tightly around his waist, keeping him pressed up against the soft curves of her body.
No matter how many times it happened, it was still incredible. The bunk the three of them were sharing was small so that Kai was pressed against the wall and Wash was sometimes on the verge of nearly falling off the bed, but they made it work. And they’d be back to Valhalla soon enough; and Tucker’s head was filled with plans for how to renovate the room they all shared, so they’d have enough room. Not too much room though; Wash slept best when they were all close. No need to mess with a formula that worked.
“Morning,” Wash muttered sleepily.
“Mmm,” was Kai’s contribution. Both of them laughed slightly at that. Wash rolled onto his other side so he could press his forehead against Tucker’s.
“Almost home,” Wash said softly, pressing his lips all-to-briefly against Tucker’s.
“We’re war heroes now,” Tucker grinned, propping himself up as best he could manage without knocking Kai off. “That mean we don’t have to do leg day?”
Wash laughed, and Tucker grinned, savoring the sound, still all-too-rare. “Nope.”
Tucker pouted, but Wash paid no attention to that, instead just brushing Tucker’s hair out of his face, smiling dopily. If Tucker occasionally struggled to believe his luck, Wash almost never believed it. Weeks later and he was still like this, savoring every single touch, every moment, as if he believed it would be snatched away in an instant.
Kai sighed, finally sitting up to wipe at her eyes. “What time is it?”
“Late,” Wash smiled.
“Your-late or my-late?” Kai groused, but she leaned up to peck at Tucker’s cheek. Tucker turned and kissed her properly, tugging her into his lap so that she’d be able to kiss Wash as well once they were done. Sure enough, the second Kai pulled away she reeled Wash in by the straps of the tank top he’d worn to bed, and Tucker laughed as Wash somehow managed to be surprised.
“Come on,” Tucker said, once the two of them were done, because Kai was starting to get that look in her eye that meant “morning sex”, which, although Tucker would normally be all for, he was starving and needed food first. “Let’s go get food.”
“Mmm,” Kai was still eying Wash like she was planning on eating him, so Tucker had to change tactics.
“And coffee?” He added innocently, and there, he had both of their attentions. Their joint addiction to coffee was freaking hilarious.
“Fine,” Kai grumbled, moving off his lap to search for her bra. “But you’re boring.”
“We could always bring the food back—”
“You are not putting maple syrup on my abs,” Wash said blandly, having heard this pitch at least three times by now. “Put on your armor,” he told them. “You know regulations.”
Kai and Tucker both sighed, but grabbed their armor—apparently ships had strict rules about that, due to risks of decompression. They were just starting to head towards the mess hall when the lights started to flash and sirens started to shriek, worse than Donut when Sarge declared a Red Panic.
“I know my ping pong ball trick can move the earth,” Kai yelled, “but this is a seriously delayed reaction!”
“Wait. What?” Wash yelled.
“Well that went fucking horribly,” Epsilon said, hovering over her shoulder.
“Could have been worse,” Carolina said, staring after York. He was different now, so, so different, and she didn’t know how to handle that. She suspected he was the same about her. There was a… heaviness to him she’d never seen before.
There had been a time when being by his side had felt natural, felt normal. They’d fought back-to-back, bantering back and forth, a rare bright spot in the midst of everything else in the world.
But that was gone now. They’d both done their parts to scuttle it, ripping themselves apart just as surely as the Director had. Him by leaving, her by staying away. Carolina was never felt more keenly aware of how long it had actually been since Freelancer had fallen apart than when she looked at York and saw how much he’d changed.
Epsilon nudged her thoughts, trying to pull her out of her gloom, but she ignored him, getting to her feet and moving further down the hallway. It was odd, having another AI in her mind after Eta and Iota. Epsilon was different than them; his presence was steadier, fuller than the other two, who had been buzzing, infrequent, whispering in tandem or in contradictions, sometimes overwhelming her, other times helping her to hit new heights she’d never have been able to hit. It was odd; Epsilon was the last of the fragments, by all rights he shouldn’t be so real, so full, but he managed.
She let her eyes flicker to the side, irritated as she realized he’d succeeded in distracting her. He sent a vague wave of amusement at her, his avatar vanished from view as they moved into the general population of the ship.
<Why’s he so obsessed with being a good guy?> Epsilon demanded. He’d been waiting to ask for a while, she thought, amused. <It’s… really freaking weird.>
Carolina raised one shoulder in a shrug. “He’s always been that way.” Epsilon nudged her mind, asking for permission, and she did the mental equivalent of pushing open a door, letting him explore her memories of “before”. He sorted through them efficiently like he always did, processing things too quickly for her to even notice.
<Still weird,> Epsilon declared when he finished. <You don’t obsess with that stuff.> There was a long pause. <Do you?>
And what a reminder that was, how fresh this partnership was. There was still so much to learn about each other. Had it really only been a few weeks? Carolina drew to a halt, staring out the window as she tried to formulate her thoughts. She frowned, noticing they were drawing close to a planet, but it didn’t look like their destination. “After what I did? What we did?” Carolina shook her head. “Epsilon, I’m not sure if we can ever get all the way back to good. But, I think that we have a chance to do better. And if we wake up everyday and try to make things better, eventually, we might find that better is good enough.”
Epsilon appeared by her side, hovering just over her shoulder, and something stirred inside Carolina that told her that it was right.
“Good enough, huh?” Epsilon mused. “Guess that sounds alright.”
“That was a good little speech there,” he said. “What, did you rehearse it?”
Carolina waved a hand through his projection, a small laugh building in her throat. He snickered, jumping to her other shoulder.
“Look, I’m just saying, I’m pretty sure these things run in the family,” he said, and Carolina felt as if a bolt of electricity had jolted right through her, because…
Carolina threw her hand out wide as the ship suddenly gave a lurch, nearly throwing her off balance. “Epsilon! What’s happening?”
“I—Cee!” Epsilon reappeared in front of her face. “We’ve got to find the guys! The ships crashing!”
Carolina took off at a run, Epsilon throwing the speed boost into full gear, leaving the question of family behind for another day.
The sight of ships crashing was unfortunately common on Chorus, these days. Whatever weapon it was that the Federal Army was using to bring them down was effective. It was incredibly unusual that Kimball would even notice it, but she was outside that day, working with a group of more promising cadets when she saw it.
It wasn’t like most crashes; they happened far away from the Rebel base, far enough away that Kimball wouldn’t know they happened until Felix came back with a few containers of supplies and another grim report of no survivors.
But this time there was a nova in the sky; and Kimball saw everyone’s attention go up as pieces began to fall. Ragged parts of a ship; a big one too.
“Shit,” she breathed.
“That’s new!” Felix said, also staring. “Think the Feds have a new toy?”
Kimball shivered at the idea of them having something that could do that. “God, I hope not,” she said softly. A large piece, still smoking landed nearby. Kimball moved forward to examine it, wondering if she’d be able to tell what had caused the explosion. She kneeled down to examine it, finding nothing particularly distinct, but then again, she didn’t know much about ships. “Do you have time to take a squad and find the crash site?” She asked, glancing up at Felix, who was still standing, helmet turned towards the sky.
“No problem Kimball,” he said lightly. “I’m sure I’ll be back soon. I’ll let you know if I find anything useful!”
Kimball nodded, and ordered her people to gather the fallen pieces. No need to waste perfectly good scrap metal.
She looked at the sky again, and pushed away any thoughts of survivors. There wouldn’t be any. Not from a crash like that.
Chapter 2: Bravo
And we're back! Not sure when the next update will be; finals season, you know how it is. Anyways, hope you enjoy!
Wash had survived a ship crash once in his life, and in his opinion that was one crash too many.
This one was different—last time he’d been alone and his world had been flying medical supplies and blaring alarms and the continuous pounding of the word Allison in his mind. It had been hell. And Wash remembered every second of it.
More importantly, he remembered waking up in the infirmary and everything being on fire.
And no one had come for him. This, Wash remembered most of all. Waking up alone, and calling for help, with no one answering.
This time, he was thrown right against the wall, knocking him out cold.
The last thing he heard was Tucker shouting his name before darkness rushed over him.
He woke up, and the ship wasn’t on fire this time. Instead parts of the ceiling had fallen in, littering the hallway with debris, blocking his view. Luckily none had fallen on top of him.
Wash pulled himself up, leaning heavily against the wall as he tried to put the pieces back together—where he was, who he was with, what had happened, who he was.
“Kai?” Wash yelled when he finally remembered—blaring alarms, a badly timed joke, red lights flashing brightly. “Tucker?”
“Wash!” Tucker yelled. His voice sounded close by, and Wash felt himself breathe easier. “We’re over here!” We. They were together. Wash felt dizzy with relief, although it was possible he had a concussion. He hoped not. He really didn’t need another head injury.
Wash staggered forward, still thrown off balance. His breathing was heavy, but the HUD in his helmet was telling him he wasn’t injured in any way that mattered. The miracle of power armor, Wash supposed.
“Tucker?” Wash called again. His helmet was adjusting to the darkness of the corridor, but it was still hard to see. The air was acrid with smoke, even though the filters of his helmet cleaned up most of it.
“Here,” Kai whispered, voice thin. Wash’s blood went cold.
Kai was propped up against the wall, and Tucker was next to her, helmet to one side, his forehead pressed against Kai’s exposed cheek. Wash should have scolded them both for removing their helmet in a potentially dangerous environment, but he found himself distracted. Kai’s leg was stuck out at an awkward angle, and Wash saw blood. “Fuck,” Wash whispered.
“I’m fine,” Kai said, but there was a waver to her voice, and Wash knelt down on her other side. She looked ashen, Wash could tell that, even in the darkness. Her cheeks were damp with tears. Wash raised his gloved hand up to brush her hair out of her face.
“Where does it hurt? Upper or lower?” Wash said.
“Upper,” Kai muttered.
“What else hurts?” He demanded, trying to prioritize. “Tucker?”
“I’m fine,” Tucker said. “I—she can’t move. I tried.”
“Fuck,” Wash muttered. He was stronger than Tucker, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to risk it. “I’ll go find York. He’s got the healing unit—Tucker, stay with Kai, okay?”
Kai gripped his hand tightly.
“Just a broken leg,” Wash told her softly as he could manage. “You’ll be doing the splits again before you know it.”
Kai grinned at him, but it was wobbly. Wash pressed her hand against his helmet, wishing he had time to remove it to say goodbye properly. “Sure,” she said. “Then I’ll do that trick where I put my legs behind my head and…”
“I’ll be back soon,” Wash said, grateful at least she still had it in her to talk about sex. He didn’t know what he’d do if she ever stopped.
Wash got to his feet, and tried to raise York on the radio, but got nothing but static. He must have busted his radio sometime during the crash. Damn it.
Everywhere Wash went, there was chaos. And a lot of dead bodies. Wash closed his eyes and kept going, not seeing any of his friends amongst them.
Finally, he turned a corner. Donut was trying to help Simmons, Lopez’s head tucked under one arm. “Wash!” He said, sounding relieved. “Have you been with the others?”
“Just Kai and Tucker,” Wash said, not rising to the bait. “Kai’s hurt. Have you seen—”
There was a dark stain against the pink of Donut’s armor. Wash immediately moved forward, taking some of Simmons’ weight to try to get Donut tolet go. “Donut! That better not be your blood!”
“It’s nothing!” Donut laughed. “Just… just a cracked rib or two, it’ll be just fine!”
Wash growled. “Let’s find the others,” he said. “Let me take Simmons, Donut, you’ll make things worse.”
“Better listen to him,” Tex said, and Wash had never been so relieved to see her. “Sarge and Grif are outside already; Church is looking for Caboose, Tucker, Kai, and York.”
“You haven’t seen him?” Wash asked. “Kai and Donut are hurt, we need the healing unit.”
“Knowing York’s luck, he’s got another hole in him. He might need it himself.”
“I bet Carolina could help with that!” Donut chirped.
“Reds,” Tex and Wash muttered in unison.
“Where is she?” Simmons muttered.
“No clue, haven’t seen her yet,” Tex said. “Fuck, I’ll go get Kai, I’m the strongest—”
“Because you’re a robot!”
“Oh boo-hoo, a girl’s stronger than you. Stop crying over your fragile masculinity and get the Reds out of here!”
He pulled Simmons forward—the red seemed okay, if dazed. Wash swallowed and kept moving, Donut keeping pace with him, Lopez uncharacteristically silent under Donut’s arm.
They finally emerged from the ship, into some sort of lush green environment. Grif and Sarge were waiting for them, and before Wash could blink Grif had yanked Simmons away from him, complaining loudly about something that Wash didn’t catch.
Caboose emerged from the ship shortly after, carrying Church under one arm, even though Church was loudly protesting that he could walk. Tex had Kai in a bridal carry, Tucker trailing behind. Carolina wasn’t far behind Tex, dragging an unconscious Doc with her. “I think that’s everyone,” she said, panting. “Epsilon, work with Delta, figure out who’s most hurt—”
“York’s not here,” Kai said, scanning the group of them.
Carolina froze. “Epsilon. You said there wasn’t anyone else alive in the ship.”
“Hail him on your radio, I’ll try to reach Delta,” Tex snapped. Wash took Kai from Tex and helped her to the ground, cursing their luck that Doc was unconscious. They’d need to set the bone, even before they got York to surrender his healing unit.
“I’m only getting static,” Grif said, and Wash looked up from Kai. Her grip on his hand was nearly painful. Wash pressed his forehead against hers, even though they were both wearing their helmets again—Tex must have made Kai replace it before she got her out of the ship.
“It’s going to be okay,” Wash promised her. “There are medical supplies on the ship.”
“He has to be fine,” Carolina argued, drawing his attention back to her. “His recovery beacon—”
“He doesn’t have one,” Wash found himself saying.
Tex and Carolina turned to him as one. “What?”
“He doesn’t have a—he removed it. Ripped it out. Sometime before we captured him.” Wash had never asked him why he’d done it. Or how he had known how to do so. There had been other things on his mind.
“Must have been before he got Junior to the embassy,” Tucker said. He had gotten Kai out of her helmet again, and her head was in his lap, stroking her hair with an ungloved hand. Kai’s face was streaked in sweat, and her grip on Wash’s hand didn’t falter for a second. “He left his healing unit with Junior—”
Carolina shook her head, refusing to listen. “No,” she whispered, before turning back to the ship. She fell into a running position, and Wash realized she was preparing to speed boost back into the ship to look for York. Tex lunged before Carolina could start to move, grabbing her arm and hauling her back with inhuman strength.
“I can’t reach Delta, Carolina!” Tex snapped. Worry layered her voice, and Wash was forcibly reminded again of Tex’s weird friendship with York.
“So what?” Carolina’s voice was dangerously low. Back on the Mother of Invention, Wash would have wanted to run. As it was, he turned his attention back to Kai. He had other priorities.
Tex snarled. “We can’t reach him on the radio, but even if he was hurt or dead Delta would’ve answered my hail. Something’s wrong here.” She threw her arms out wide, as if to encompass the entire area they’d landed in.
“Maybe he’s on the other piece of the ship,” Caboose said, perfectly calmly.
“Shut up Caboose,” Church groaned.
“The other—” Carolina broke off again, looking at the ship. “Fuck,” she whispered.
Wash glanced up to see what had caused that reaction, and froze.
The ship had been ripped unevenly in half.
Tex had never seen anything like this; the MOI crash hadn’t looked like this. What the hell had happened, to cause this? There were entire chunks ripped out of the hull, and everything seemed to be smoking slightly. It stood in stark contrast with the rest of the valley—canyon?—where they’d landed, which was a gorgeous jungle, full of deep greens and animal noises.
“York must be out of range,” Tex said. “He’ll be at the other crash site.”
“Then we better get moving and find him!” Sarge said. “Never leave a man behind!”
“Sarge,” Wash said quietly, looking back at Kai. Tex looked too. Donut had cracked ribs. Sarge had a concussion. Kai’s leg was the worst of the injuries, but Tex was pretty sure Tucker’s sprained wrist wasn’t from recreation either, although he was trying to hide it from Wash. Wash seemed fine, but then again he had been protected by Freelancer-grade armor. Like Tex. Like Carolina. Like York, even if his was old, and with a cracked helmet. “We can’t move them.”
“Then I’ll go alone,” Carolina said, frustrated. “I’ll find him and I’ll bring him back, and—”
“We’ll find him,” Tex said sharply. She wanted to reach out and try to hail Delta again, but she knew she wouldn’t get anything. There was no point in trying.
Short-range radio was working fine, long-range was shot for some reason. Maybe it was something in the air on the planet—Tex had heard weird stories about magnetism and radiation fields. From York, actually—he loved conspiracy theories.
“Tex!” Church protested. Why did she end up with someone so clingy? Alright, so maybe she knew the answer to that part, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.
“Chuch, you need to stay here because you’re the only one who could pick up Delta’s signal,” Tex stopped him before he could begin. She reached out to him in the way only they could—reassurance. She’d come back.
Carolina glowered at Tex, not liking this. Tex wanted to growl, absolutely done with all of this, when York was probably in danger somewhere, if not—
He wasn’t dead.
Tex re-wrote the entire timeline to save his life. He could not be dead.
“Carolina,” Tex said quietly. “He’s my friend too.”
For a second, Tex thought she had said absolutely the wrong thing, because Carolina bristled, as if preparing for a fight, before deflating.
“Fine,” she snapped. “We need to move.”
“Fine by me,” Tex said shortly. She glanced at them all.
“We’ll be back soon,” she told them. “With York.”
“Bye!” Caboose waved.
“Goodbye Caboose,” Tex replied, before following Carolina into the jungle to find a way out of the canyon.
She ignored the message flashing in the corner of her HUD from Church. She’d read it later, when it was too late to change her mind and go back.
Her best friend needed her, and the others had Wash and Sarge to look after them.
They’d be fine without her for however long it took to get York back.
Something had gone wrong.
The body count was off.
Locus picked his way through the dead, comparing dog tags to the roster. Far too few dead. And none of them were the personnel he had been told to keep an eye out for. All of the armor was standard issue; none of the bright colors of the Simulation troopers or the Freelancers who accompanied them.
The most important crash in years, and things were already going wrong. Control would not be pleased. It was equal parts clean-up as it was a delivery. It was to have been carried out with the utmost precision and speed, which was why Locus was taking this one, instead of Felix.
“Sir, half of the cargo is missing,” Jenkins reported. “They’re on the manifest, but there’s no sign of the items Control wants.”
“Many of the crew aren’t here either,” Locus mused. He bent over and turned a body over. Shrapnel damage through the abdomen, according to his HUD. She’d been dead before they’d arrived. He yanked off the dog tag around her neck, and tossed it to the man collecting them.
“I just got the black box readings,” Zachary said. “Sir, I think we’re only dealing with half the ship.”
Locus stood very still. “Do we know where the other half is?” He asked. It shouldn’t be possible, but this wasn’t the time. Not when incredibly important cargo and potentially dangerous soldiers could be on Chorus.
Zachary shook his head. “No sign.”
“Sir!” Jones said over the radio. “There’s movement in the site.”
“Is it Felix?” Felix had already sent word ahead, letting Locus know that the crash had been visible from the New Republic, and Kimball had sent him and a small team to investigate.
“No sir. I think… it looks like some of the crew survived the crash and are trying to get to safety.”
Locus determinedly did not sigh. Instead he reached for his gun, abandoning his examination of the dead woman. “Fan out. I want them boxed in. No survivors.” He glanced at the corpses littered on the ground from where they’d piled them. “Someone get rid of these.”
There had been far more survivors of the crash than usual. Typically, the sweep of a crashed ship was cursory. Locus had shot five crew members himself. The pirates had shot half a dozen others.
And now this group trying to make it to safety.
Locus settled himself into a sniper’s perch and let his mind go perfectly blank.
There would be time to consider what had gone wrong later. For now, he had his mission.
Chapter 3: Charlie
FINALS WEEK UPDATE HAPPENED, WOOOO. Thanks everyone who's made it to chapter three, y'all are rockstars. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was, Kai had to admit, a few upsides to having a broken leg.
Primarily that she no longer had to do leg day.
“I said sprints, Private Tucker!” Wash yelled.
“I’m going to spit in your next meal! Except it won’t be spit! If you know what I’m talking about!”
Kai cackled. “Doesn’t he know you’re into that by now?”
“Don’t encourage him—wait, what?”
Kai leaned on the crude crutch Donut had helped fashion for her. “You’re still mad at him for hiding the wrist thing, aren’t you?”
“He should have told us,” Wash muttered.
“So… you’re making him do squats until his ass looks as good as yours?”
“That is not why I’m making him do squats!”
“Uh-huh,” Kai said skeptically.
“Kai,” Wash groaned. She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Where’s Caboose at?”
“He’s having a bad day,” Wash sighed. “Church yelled at him again.”
“Shit, what about this time?”
“He got him confused with Epsilon again,” Wash said, sounding absolutely exhausted. Kai hobbled forward the few steps it took to get to him, leaning against him. He relaxed the second they touched.
Caboose’s bad days were getting more and more frequent. Epsilon was better with things than Church was. And Church was… moody, without Tex or Carolina around. York’s absence was bothering him too, but getting him to admit that was harder than Tucker when it was his turn to pick what kind of sex they were having.
“You’re doing pretty good,” she said. “You know. For a cop.”
Wash snorted slightly, pressing his helmet against hers. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this. I know you’ve got physical therapy with Doc later today.”
“Screw you! Maybe I’ll let Doc give me another physical!”
“Wait, did you sleep with—you know what? I don’t want to know.”
Kai huffed, mildly put out. “You could at least act jealous.”
“We’re already making Tucker jealous by cuddling while he does sprints.”
“Oooh,” Kai said, grinning at the thought. “You know—”
“We aren’t having sex outdoors, where anyone could see us, just so you can prove your broken leg hasn’t slowed you down,” Wash said.
“Boring,” Kai said, scowling.
Wash chuckled and placed a hand on her knee.
Tucker finally returned, collapsing in front of them. “You’re both the worse,” he gasped out, chest heaving like it did the last time Kai and Wash had double teamed him. “Seriously, the absolute worst.”
“I told you I was going to break you,” Wash observed. “You seemed pretty enthusiastic then.”
“I thought you meant in a hot sex way!” Tucker hadn’t moved from the ground. “Not this weird masochistic drill sergeant thing!”
“Oooh! We totally need to role play that later! Or, wait! We can do the pizza guy and the—”
“Let’s table that conversation for later,” Wash said, placing his hand over his visor. “Tucker… you know I just want you to be able to look after yourself. In case something happens.”
“Dude, that’s why we have you. What’s the point of the badass boyfriend if he can’t defend you from the forces of evil?”
“Abs?” Kai suggested.
“Well, that too.”
“Tucker, please,” Wash said quietly. “With Tex and Carolina gone…”
Things were different. Wash was the only Freelancer around, and it was… it was pretty weird. It was like when York had left Blood Gulch, making Tex their only Freelancer.
Dex and the rest of the Reds—and Doc, because it wasn’t like he was going to go far from wherever Donut was—had set up shop across the canyon. Dex came to visit her mostly, since it was hard for her to walk around with her leg. Sometimes she drove over in the tank, but it made Sarge twitchy, and a twitchy Sarge usually led to squeaky Wash, so she tried to save that for special occasions or instances of extreme boredom.
There was something in the air that Kai didn’t like. When Tex had been the only Freelancer, Kai had ended up alone for a long time.
She didn’t want to be left alone again.
Felix grinned as he listened to Locus in his radio. It helped make the chatter of the idiots following him almost tolerable.
The crack of Locus’s sniper rifle was almost comforting as he started to pick off the survivors. One down, then two, then three. Finally, the group was dead, and Locus moved in.
“Still no sign of the simulation troopers,” Locus observed in Felix’s ear. Felix frowned, puzzled about where they could have gotten to.
“Sir!” One of the kids—Andersmith—yelled. “Footprints! Leading into the forest!”
Damn, he was observant. “Well, let’s follow them,” Felix said. Running into Locus was as good a reason as any to kill off these kids.
His real radio crackled to life. “Sir! Three of the survivors split off; I think they were heading for higher ground!”
“Find them,” Locus ordered. “We’re about to have company.”
Felix tightened his grip on his rifle. Things were off-script. And while Felix might normally enjoy the chaos, Control wouldn’t be happy. And Control not being happy usually affected their paycheck.
“Keep it quiet,” he ordered into his helmet as loudly as he could without risking the kids picking up on it.
Locus growled slightly in his ear. He didn’t like the situation any more than Felix did. Everything was spiraling out of control; first the ship hadn’t crashed properly, and now this? Survivors didn’t make it off the ship.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Fuck—he’d lost Palomo when he wasn’t looking, too caught up in his own thoughts. He turned around, craning his neck. “Palomo!”
There was a loud screech, and for a second Felix thought that one of the pirates had found and killed the irritating Rebel. The sound of Palomo yelling, “Wait, you’re not a Fed!” crushed those dreams quickly.
Felix crashed through the underbrush, but the others beat him to it. “A survivor?” Matthews breathed. “General Kimball!” Felix opened his mouth to tell the kid not to bother—they were far out of range—but there was a screeching noise and the radios connected. Felix felt another piece of the puzzle fall out of his hands and tumble out of sight. There was no way the radios should be working. What the fuck was going on? “Kimball! We found a survivor!”
“What?” Kimball was incredulous.
Felix bit his tongue, knowing Locus was listening intently through the radio, and walked towards the others. They were surrounding the fallen form of a soldier in dusty-gold armor—Palomo, it seemed, had panicked and attacked. And succeeded. Whoever they were dealing with clearly couldn’t be that much of a threat.
“Kimball!” Jensen said. “I recognize him! He’s Private Harris!”
“Who?” Felix asked.
“You know!” Jensen said. “From the Reds and Blues.”
“Felix,” Locus said lowly. “New orders from Control.” Only Felix would be able to tell the tension in Locus’s voice as he said that, the danger hidden in those words. Whatever the orders were, Locus wasn’t happy about it. And if Locus didn’t like the orders…
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Felix snapped to both Locus and Jensen.
“Control wants the Reds and Blues alive.”
God. Fucking. Damn it.
“Confirmed, Kimball,” Felix said, scowling down as he knelt to check on the guy. The lucky bastard’s visor was shattered, probably beyond repair. Felix shrugged to himself and tugged off the guy’s helmet, curious about the face underneath.
“Felix?” Locus demanded softly, and Felix realized Locus had found a perch nearby, was observing all of this through the scope of his rifle.
“Control wants them alive, remember?” Felix said, so softly that the others couldn’t hear him over their own discussions about the Reds and Blues and their achievements.
“Well then, Private Harris,” Felix said out loud, for the benefit of Locus as well as the idiots surrounding him. “Where the fuck did your friends get to?”
<Cee, I can’t reach Alpha anymore.>
Carolina worried a sore on her lip with her teeth. “And no sign of Delta?”
“None,” Texas said, dumping a load of firewood next to the fire.
Carolina gritted her teeth. “I was asking Epsilon.”
“And our range is about the same,” Texas said with a shrug. “So it doesn’t matter. We’re out of range. No messages from anyone.”
Carolina gritted her teeth and poked at the MRE they had grabbed. Texas didn’t require food, which at least made supplies easier. At least there was one upside to having Texas as a companion on her search for York.
“There’s something weird about the way the radios are behaving,” Epsilon said, appearing on Carolina’s knee. “It’s… I can’t think of why half of the frequencies aren’t working at all, and the rest are only working short range.”
Tex raised one shoulder in a shrug. “Could be an atmospheric thing.”
“I guess,” Epsilon said, but he sounded doubtful.
“You heard that chatter a few miles back?” Texas asked, looking at Carolina directly.
“Yes,” she said tensely. “It sounded like…”
“The bubble shield,” Tex finished for her. “Freelancer tech on this planet?”
“One hell of a coincidence,” Carolina had to admit.
“Pirates, Freelancer tech… could be fun,” Texas was goading her, she knew it. “It’d just be a short detour.”
“They might know something about where the other half of the ship crashed,” Carolina acknowledged. Maybe a fight would relax her, too. Maybe it would let her meet Tex’s helmeted gaze for more than five seconds at a time.
“You run ahead,” Tex said. “I’ll catch up.”
Epsilon started to prime the speed boost.
The fight was painfully short—the knots in Carolina’s shoulders didn’t loosen at all, and it was still just strange to have Tex fighting beside her.
Tex picked her way through the crates the pirates had been guarding, calling out what she found while Carolina tried to interrogate the sole survivor.
“Just shoot him already,” Tex said coldly when it became clear their prisoner wasn’t going to talk. “If he knows where it crashed it’s probably in his logs. We don’t need him alive for that.”
“Is that your answer to everything?” Carolina asked sharply.
Tex’s response was simply to raise her gun and do exactly that. Carolina didn’t flinch as the blood splattered everywhere. She’d seen worse. Done worse too. But there was still something unsettling about the cold, mechanical way Tex executed the prisoner.
“You’re still upset about that?” Texas sighed, kneeling down to pick up the helmet.
Carolina went still. “We’re not talking about that,” she said.
“Then stop looking at me like that!”
“I’d rather not look at you at all,” Carolina snarled. “You had no right—”
“You made that call. I never agreed to follow it. You’re not the only one he hurt, Carolina.”
“I’ve got a location!” Epsilon yelled, clearly determined to not let this conversation take its natural course, which Carolina was fairly certain would only lead to blows. “It’s called “Crash Site Alpha”, it’s pretty far from here, but I bet we can make it in a few days.”
“Damn it,” Carolina cursed.
“He’s York,” Tex said. “He’s survived this long without us, he can make it a few days still.”
Neither of them wanted to admit the possibility that York hadn’t survived the crash.
“Let’s get going then,” Carolina said.
“You haven’t slept since the crash,” Texas said flatly. “You’re going to sleep at least four hours.”
“I’d really rather not have to punch your lights out again, Carolina,” Texas said. “Last time, it took you forever to wake up.”
Carolina’s scowl only deepened at the reminder.
“Sleep, Carolina,” Texas said. “A few hours won’t make much difference for York.”
York woke up with a splitting headache and his HUD broken.
And here York hadn’t realized Delta was capable of raising his voice. An AI shouting in his head hurt. Or that could possibly be the concussion.
“I’m fine, Dee,” he muttered. “Just… give me a second, okay?”
<Healing unit is running at full capacity.>
“Great,” York groaned. “The others?”
<I cannot detect anything in range. But it is possible that the radiation from the ship’s engines are interfering with my sensors.>
York groaned, getting to his feet. The world wobbled before readjusting. He possibly had a concussion. Not good. Those always took forever for the healing unit to fix up. “Anyone nearby?”
<Several officers are in the room to your left.>
York’s movements were jerky at first, but he made his way over to the room. Two were unconscious, one was dead. York woke up the first two, and the three of them headed further into the ship, looking for other survivors.
The ship was a disaster, and everywhere they turned, there were bodies. Holes had been ripped through the hull, smoke filled the air, and York was pretty sure they were currently walking on the ceiling instead of the floor.
“How could this have happened?” One of the crew memebers demanded. “This—I don’t understand!”
“We can figure that out later,” York said grimly. He was very aware of the shotgun strapped to his back in that moment. He had a feeling he might need it sooner rather than later. “Right now, we need to find our way off this ship. I think there might be a radiation leak.” Delta buzzed nervously, still desperately trying to find the others, with no luck.
“Fuck,” the other said.
There were fifteen survivors altogether that York could find before they stumbled out of the ship.
“Where the hell are we?” One of the mechanics whispered, looking around.
“No idea,” York said numbly. Delta was just as confused as everyone else, not recognizing any of the flora that they could see, or even the positions of the stars.
They were in a ship graveyard—the broken husks of ships laid out clearly enough that every single one of York’s instincts were telling him it was a trap. This many ships in one area made it seem like a junkyard, rather than a natural crash site. There was no way this was a coincidence, but he had no idea what kind of thing could have brought down so many ships in one place. In the distance lay a forest; tropical, from the looks of it, thick and dark and green.
“Let’s move towards the forest,” York said, gesturing broadly. “Maybe there’s a town nearby.”
“Right,” one of the others said—a pilot, York thought, but he didn’t have a name.
It was slow going—several of them were injured, and at one point York and one of the larger women had to carry one of the others, but eventually they limped into the forests.
“You guys try to make contact through the radios,” York ordered, although Delta was already screaming out, trying to contact Tex, Epsilon, or Alpha, to no avail. “Martinez, Nguyen—” he named the burly woman who had helped him carry the injured crew member and the pilot, whose names he had learned as they made their trek into the woods, “you two, let’s try to find higher ground. See if we can spot a town or anything.”
“I’d ask who the fuck put you in charge, but…” Martinez said darkly, glancing around. The other twelve were hanging back, hands to their radios as they tried to call for help. Delta was trying to boost the signal as best he could, but there was… something was still interfering with the radios, and Delta didn’t know what it was. York didn’t like it when Delta didn’t know things. It made him twitchy.
“We’re really all that made it?” Nguyen said softly, looking over her shoulder.
“There might be others,” York said, placing a hand on her shoulder. Fuck, she was young. “It looked like it was only half of the ship back there.”
<By my calculations, it is likely the others were on the other half of the ship.> Delta said, and the feeling of relief that was sinking into York’s bones wasn’t entirely his own. <It is possible that they are fine, just out of range.>
York decided to put his faith in the Reds and Blues’ impossible luck. If anyone could survive the impossible, it was them.
There was a rustling noise in the distance, and York’s eyes narrowed. It sounded like someone moving. Someone following them, maybe?
<York!> Delta sounded panic. <The others are no longer attempting to reach out on their radios!>
“Fuck,” York said. He glanced over his shoulder. “You two, keep going, I think I’ve heard something.”
With his damaged HUD, York couldn’t tell if it was a rabbit or a person in the bushes, and Delta couldn’t get a proper read. But he crept forward anyways, Delta’s terror humming in his head bad enough to give him a migraine. But he felt it too—maybe he’d felt it since they’d entered these woods.
York had been hunted before. He knew what it felt like to be dogged for hours, days even on end. He’d gotten lucky the last time. He wasn’t so sure he’d like to try his luck on surviving another round.
But he was feeling that way again. And that made him nervous.
He nearly tripped over the kid in armor. And all the AI enhanced reflexes couldn’t make him catch his balance in time to block the rifle butt to the face, knocking him out cold on the spot.
When he woke up, Delta was absolutely silent. Still present, sure—York could feel Delta’s anxiety curling up in his chest like a knot—but completely and utterly silent. It was an unusual occurrence, and one that put York right on edge. Something was very, very wrong.
“Ugh,” York groaned, looking around, trying to get his bearings. He’d been taken out of the woods and propped up in the back of a warthog which wasn’t moving yet. His helmet was gone—but, given the complete mess his visor had been, that really wasn’t all that surprising.
“Easy there,” a voice said. “You’ve got a concussion. Try not to move too much.”
“The others,” York rasped. “Where are—”
“We found the other scouts,” the man said. “Martinez and Nguyen? They’re alright. The others are making sure they have medical attention. But we weren’t fast enough for the rest. I’m sorry.”
York’s head was swimming, but he managed to turn his head enough to look for the source of the voice. At least Martinez and Nguyen made it, he thought distantly, even as he wondered what the fuck had happened to the rest of the group. And more importantly, why the three of them hadn’t been killed like the others.
His eye finally focused, and he saw orange. Not Grif orange, with the yellow undertones that made him yell so much, but orange. Orange on grey and a hint of steel…
“Finally,” the voice said, mocking and confident. “I thought you were going to be out of it all day.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” York groaned, trying to remember exactly what had happened. The last thing he remembered… “Where am I?”
“Welcome to the planet Chorus,” the man said, leaning against the warthog next to York, helmet tilted in a way that indicated a smirk.
York straightened up slowly, cradling his head in his hands. “Well hey there Felix,” he said, finally placing the voice and why Delta was being so quiet. “Long time no see.”
I'm secretlystephaniebrown on Tumblr if you want to come hang out!
Chapter 4: Delta
Gah, sorry for the delay on this chapter; things got a bit hectic. I ended up writing a surprise AU. Thanks everyone who left a comment! You guys are the best <3
Church fucked up, okay?
He knew that.
He knew, in his bones, that the crash was his fault, somehow. He hadn’t meant to, but he’d been poking about in the ship’s systems, trying to figure shit out, because hey, what was the point of being a kickass AI if he couldn’t digitally snoop sometimes, and before he knew it, all the alarms were going off, and the ship was crashing.
And now everything had gone to hell.
It had taken them days to bury the bodies, and those were just the bodies on their part of the ship. Tex and Carolina (and Epsilon, Church admitted begrudgingly) were out of range by now, and the entire world had become a canyon again. But it was hard to concentrate. Tex was gone, and there was that terror, that never-ending, constant terror that he still got every time Tex was too far away, the fear that she was gone, and never coming back, and it was worse because she was with Carolina, and what if they both didn’t come back and—
It was a vicious spiral. Church got caught in it a lot, these days. York wasn’t even around and Church felt fucking awful about that, because it was his fault, and if something had happened to York, Delta and Tex and Carolina would be fucking upset, and it wasn’t like Church even liked the guy. But the others would be upset.
It was awful.
And then he fucked up again.
He yelled at Caboose, because Caboose still couldn’t tell the difference between him and Epsilon half the time, and insisted on talking with Church about all the fun adventures he’d had with Epsilon, and all it made Church want to do was scream. Because they weren’t the same, he hadn’t torn up Wash’s brain for kicks, he hadn’t implanted in Carolina—he’d never implanted in anyone, not really, because he’d been torn to shreds before he’d gotten the chance—and he hadn’t listened to Caboose telling fairy tales for hours and hours on end while lurking in a containment unit.
And so he’d yelled, and Caboose had gone all awful and quiet, which was the worst, and then Caboose had disappeared, and Church had been looking all day, and there was no sign of him. He’d even checked Red Base, and dealt with Grif and Simmons being idiots arguing about something stupid like laundry.
And Tucker and Wash were fighting too, always yelling about bullshit like drills, and sometimes Kai got in it too, so there was no peace at Blue Base, and even worse was the makeup sex, and it was obnoxious and ridiculous and…
He missed Tex. This shit would be a lot more bearable with her.
And then, when he finally found Caboose, it turned out that Caboose had replaced him. With a giant, angry, killer robot.
“Hey,” Tucker said practically. “At least this version of you can do shit. Like Epsilon, when he was in that laser-ball thing!”
Church didn’t look at him. “Shut the fuck up, Tucker.”
“Dude, seriously, why do you care? You’re always the one that says that you don’t like him. It happens every fucking time. You can’t wait to get away from him, but the second he finds a new best friend, you get all sulky and jealous.”
“I don’t hate him!” Church snapped.
“Sure. But what do you want to bet he knows that, when it finally sinks into that thick head of his that you don’t want to spend time with him? He’s not a mind reader, dude. And you’re pretty hard to read.”
Church didn’t even have anything to say to that.
They get the news when they’re raiding one of the strange bases that the pirates seem to flock too.
They picked up a healing unit at the base—it’s similar to York’s, but shiny and new and more efficient. Mass produced, streamlined, and although an AI helped, it wasn’t necessary.
These people weren’t just dealing in Freelancer equipment. They were experimenting and improving on it.
That was… worrying.
Carolina turned it over in her hand; they had torched the rest of the shipment, but this one remained. “Should we… bring it back to the others?” She said tentatively. “I know Kaikaina had that broken leg…”
Tex frowned and tried to do the math. “She’s… probably better by now,” she said. “Besides, there’s not much danger for them in that canyon. You’ll need it, if things go south for us.”
Carolina nodded. “Would it even help you?”
There was still a tension in the air, at the reminder that Tex wasn’t quite human. They still were dancing around the subject—all of the subjects, really. York, the Director, their own partnership… all of them were surrounded with a lot of question marks, and Tex wasn’t sure how to even begin to address them.
But they were fighting well together now, slowly learning each other the way that Tex had learned to fight with York and Wash, previously. Now it was easy, the two of them working together like a deadly, well-oiled machine.
“Never needed it enough to try,” Tex said. She cleaned her gun again; a nervous habit, if AI could get those. One jam in a lifetime was more than enough. Tex couldn’t afford to get sloppy, not when she had a partner with fleshy, vulnerable bits. Even an AI and an armor enhancement couldn’t help a sniper shot—
Tex pushed aside the thoughts of that dark, alternate world. Years had passed. York was still alive. Worrying did nothing to help.
“How much further to Crash Site Alpha, Epsilon?” Carolina asked.
“Straight shot? Another day or so. But…”
“More pirates?” Tex said, looking up. “They’re concentrated here, aren’t they?”
“I think so,” Epsilon said, hovering above Carolina’s shoulder.
Carolina tapped her fingers against the wall. “Do we know what we’d be dealing with at the next base?”
“Nope,” Epsilon said. “Don’t have anything on this server.”
“Hang on,” Carolina said suddenly. “Did you hear that?”
Tex flicked her eyes towards a nearby screen. “It’s from there,” she said, reaching over to turn up the volume.
It was localized radio chatter, close enough to be picked up by the pirate’s equipment.
“I can’t believe it,” a deep voice said. “Private Harris!”
“General Kimball will be tho excited to meet him!”
“I thought the Reds and Blues were like, a bedtime story,” another voice scoffed.
There were several horrified gasps at that, but Tex didn’t hear any of them.
“He’s alive,” Tex breathed.
“Kimball…” Carolina said distantly. “She’s the leader of the New Republic, right?”
“That’s right,” Epsilon said, because he was a know-it-all at heart. “Vanessa Kimball.”
“Well, we’ll keep an ear out,” Carolina said.
Tex blinked. “You don’t want to go check on him?”
Carolina’s hand clenched into a fist. “He’s okay,” she said softly. “And the pirates…”
“Have the equipment,” Tex finished. She looked at the healing unit in the middle of the table, and spun it like a top. It spun a few times then fell onto its side. “We’re in deep shit here, aren’t we?”
“Probably,” Carolina agreed with a sigh. “If Kimball’s interested in the Reds and Blues, she’ll go fetch the others soon enough. They’ll all be in one place.”
Tex nodded. “Well. I guess if we’re no longer headed for Alpha…”
“We can check out that mountain base that was too far off,” Carolina said.
Tex cracked her knuckles. “Sounds like fun,” she said.
Shit was really, really fucked.
That was a fucking scientific term, Tucker was pretty fucking sure about that.
Stranded in a canyon after a ship crash was sucky at the best of times, but Tucker had figured hey! At least he had his kickass boyfriend and girlfriend to keep him company.
But he hadn’t factored in a lot of things. Like the crash convincing Wash that they were all about to die again, so he was pushing Tucker harder than ever. And Kai’s leg was still healing, so she couldn’t even help take some of the attention off Tucker. Which like, on the one hand was kind of sexy, the intense way Wash kept pushing him, his hands on Tucker’s body as he corrected Tucker’s stances, but it was also brutal, and not in the kind of bow-chicka-bow-wow way.
And on top of that, Church was pissy and fighting with Caboose, because even after all these years, Church still didn’t know how to handle him.
The Epsilon thing was confusing at the best of times, sure, and Caboose was easily confused…
But Church was still being a bitch about the whole thing, and what was worse is that the guy knew it.
So really, when Caboose responded to the whole situation by bringing home a killer robot with an even bigger boner for the chain of command than Wash, Sarge, and Simmons combined, it really was just the cherry on the shit sundae.
“Wash,” Tucker said, sitting next to Wash, Kai leaning on Wash’s shoulder. Even between the two of them, Tucker could feel that Wash was tense. “Wash, nothing bad is going to happen. Just watch, Tex and Carolina will be back soon, and York’s gonna be with them, and you’ll help them kick the robot’s ass, and things will go back to normal.”
“We should have been found by now,” Wash said, staring at the sky. “We should have been found by now, and they should have been back by now, and we still can’t get a call out—why aren’t you worried?”
“Because you’re here, duh,” Tucker said. “You’ll look after us. Like you always have.”
Wash let out a little broken laugh. “Tucker…”
“We’ll be fine,” Tucker insisted. “Look, I get it. The crash fucking sucked and a lot of people got hurt.”
“You two got hurt,” Wash said fiercely.
“We got hurt,” Kai said. “And like, it fucking sucks because I can’t my ping-pong ball trick with my leg in this cast and I know you missed Tucker’s right hand even more than he did but like, we’re still here. We’re still together, which means that as soon as I get out of this itchy thing I’m gonna fuck you so many ways.”
“Fuck yeah,” Tucker said, reaching over to high five her. Kai grinned at him, and Tucker decided there had been enough sulking and climbed onto Wash’s lap to kiss him, tugging the helmet off.
“Dude,” Tucker said, dropping his forehead against Wash’s. “You’ve got us. We’ve got you. That’s how it works, remember?”
“… right,” Wash said, and then he caught Tucker’s face in his hands, kissing him gently. “Right.”
A few days later, Wash was in the crosshairs of a sniper. It was only luck and Felix that kept Wash alive, and Tucker nearly vomited at the thought of it.
Maybe Wash had a point about training after all, Tucker thought, his blood pounding in his ears as he glared up at Locus and tried to think of how he was going to hurt him for trying to kill Wash.
What a fucking creep.
Church hated Felix, and Tucker wasn’t even remotely surprised.
Kai flirted with him, and again, Tucker wasn’t surprised. If he wasn’t so distracted with keeping an eye on Wash (he switched back to grey armor for some reason, and he wouldn’t give Tucker or Kai a straight answer about why, which was driving them both up the wall), he might have even joined her on that front. Felix hadn’t taken off his helmet, but the guy had a decent voice and Kai was… well, Kai. Hot voices were a huge part of it for her.
“Seriously Tucker,” Church said, giving Felix a proper stink-eye from across the canyon. Tucker was pretty sure that if they’d had milk, it would have curdled by now. “Something’s off about that guy.”
“Church, when was the last time you liked someone we met?” Tucker asked, rolling his eyes. “You hated York. You hated Wash. You hate Epsilon.”
“I liked Carolina!” Church protested, crossing his arms.
“Carolina’s like, your sister or some shit, and you remembered her from Freelancer,” Tucker argued. “She doesn’t count.”
“She totally counts!”
“Church!” Tucker snapped. “The guy saved Wash’s life. If that’s not a good guy move, I don’t know what is!”
Church let out a scoffing noise. “This civil war’s not our problem,” he muttered.
“Did you hear any of us disagreeing? Fuck that noise man, we’ll get out of here as soon as we meet up with Carolina and Tex.”
“And York,” Church added reluctantly. Tucker wanted to laugh. Even now, Church was still grumpy about admitting that he might like the guy. Then again, Church hated admitting he liked anyone. It was like pulling teeth to even get him to admit to liking Tucker, and the guy was practically his best friend.
Tucker elbowed him in the side. “We probably should get ready,” he said quietly. “You heard Felix. Locus is coming back. With an army.”
“You know, I really hate snipers. They’re such dicks.”
“Dude, you literally refuse to let anyone else carry the sniper rifle.”
Kimball almost couldn’t believe it when she got the call.
They’d heard the story, of course—the Reds and Blues, the heroes who had brought down Project Freelancer.
And they’d landed on their planet.
Private Harris, she knew from glancing at the article, was a member of the Red Team. Jensen told her he had one eye, and had a bad concussion. So bringing him back to base was slow work. Felix beat him back by a day, and she sent him to the located second crash site to recover the others right away, not wanting to waste any time.
Matthews had said that there had been Feds at the scene, who had killed the other survivors.
Felix had returned with Andersmith, Palomo, and the other two survivors. Beatrice Martinez and Jessica Nguyen; two soldiers with actual skills that could be of some use. A mechanic and a pilot. Kimball knew they’d gotten very, very lucky.
And, from what Nguyen and Martinez were saying, Harris was a large part of that luck.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Martinez said. “Dumbass, don’t get me wrong, but he got us out of that ship. If those Feds had caught us in there, it probably would’ve been a kill box.” She made a finger gun with her left hand. “Bang. That Locus guy’s one hell of a shot.”
“He is,” Kimball agreed, trying not to seem too impatient as she waited for Harris to arrive himself.
Jensen was driving, which made Kimball wince, but they’d all made it back in one piece, so she probably hadn’t been driving for that long.
Harris held his helmet on his lap, and as he got out of the vehicle, Kimball could see why. The visor had been completely destroyed, jagged edges the only thing that remained. The scar over his bad eye was old, but it was clear the sight was mostly gone. He must be thrown off balance, without the HUD of his helmet to help him compensate for it, she realized. She’d have to get someone to help him with repairs or acquiring a new one. The rest of his armor was a dusty, tan color.
“You must be General Kimball,” he said easily, saluting. “Private Nick Harris.”
“Just Kimball,” she said, reaching out to take his hand instead. Pausing, he shook it, but there was a lift to his eyebrow that told her he considered the choice odd. “It’s good to meet you.”
He grinned at her, wide and confident in a way that meant that he thought he was charming.
“Would you walk with me? You probably need to have that concussion checked out,” she said.
“Oh I’m—” he stopped and made a face. “Good point,” he said.
She smiled to herself. Not used to actually admitting he needed assistance, it seemed.
“Felix went ahead to retrieve the rest of your friends,” she said, as they started to make their way through camp. Everywhere, her people were pointing and whispering, fascinated by what they were seeing.
There was a faint buzz in the air that Kimball could feel, and it made her hold her own head just a bit higher.
Harris paused. “Felix went on ahead?” He said, sounding slightly faint.
“Yes…” she said, puzzled by his reaction.
He shook his head. “I just—some of the guys are paranoid, that’s all. I just hope your guy has fast reflexes!”
“He’s very good at what he does,” Kimball said, reassuringly as she could.
“I’m sure,” Harris nodded, giving her a slight grin. “So, uh, was everyone there? Is everyone okay?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “The reports mentioned several of them, but not all, but I’m afraid it was short and to the point. They didn’t stick around to observe for very long. Locus was spotted in the area.”
“Locus?” Harris said, and there was something off about his voice. “Like the armor?”
“He’s another mercenary,” Kimball said, pretending that the thick knot of dread in her stomach whenever she thought of that murderer didn’t coil tighter. “He works for the Federal Army.”
“The people you guys are fighting?”
“That’s right.” She paused. “He’s probably the one who killed the rest of your group.”
Harris bowed his head. “Jesus.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, quietly.
He shook his head. “We were lucky to get off that ship,” he said quietly. “Guess luck can’t stretch forever, huh?”
Despite his words, there was a hollow look on his face. He’d lost people before. This was just one more blow, one more loss, more people he’d failed.
Kimball knew that feeling very well. She had to stop herself from reaching out. He didn’t know her. He wouldn’t want comfort from a stranger.
“Can Felix take this Locus guy?” He asked abruptly. “I mean, if he was seen in the area…”
“Felix has a lot of experience with Locus,” Kimball said. “They fought together in the War. From what he’s said… they used to work together. But something changed.”
Harris nodded. “War tends to do that,” he said, with a levity that was so blatantly false that Kimball almost wanted to laugh.
“Do you want me to see if we can requisition you a new helmet?” She asked him. “When your friends are here we can discuss things further.”
He shook his head. “If you can scrape up a few parts, I’ll fix this one myself. I’m pretty fond of it. And no offense, but your guys’ style doesn’t match my color scheme.”
She couldn’t help the small laugh that broke out at that. “I’m sure,” she said. “I’ll see you later, Harris.”
He offered her another grin, but somehow this one felt… solider.
“Same to you, General.”
The battle was chaotic on the surface, but in reality it was perfectly controlled.
Disposing of a portion of the Federal soldiers sent to accompany him was easy, and replacing them with the pirates was easier still. It was imperative the Red and Blue soldiers survive, after all.
Locus had watched them through the scope of his sniper rifle, and wondered.
Who were these men—and woman? What hidden skills did they possess, so that they had survived so many misadventures.
In the end, Locus supposed it did not matter. They would all be dead soon enough. They would die with this planet. But Locus could not help but wonder if it would be possible to get answers out of them before they died. Washington in particular intrigued him; the sole Freelancer remaining in the canyon. Agents Carolina and Texas were missing—Felix had not been able to get a clear answer about their location, only that they were not present, and unlikely to return.
Locus took aim at Washington.
The man went down hard, and Locus heard the aqua soldier yell. The level of attachment in this unit was ludicrous.
Felix began to herd the ones still standing towards the exit. Over the radio, he heard Felix demanding explosives. It was time to begin cleaning up.
Locus decloaked and began to move towards the rebel soldiers who were guarding the fallen simulation troopers. Franklin Delano Donut, the robot known as Lopez, the man called only “Sarge”, and, most curiously of all, a blue soldier who answered to “Church”. A name oddly similar to the deceased Director of Project Freelancer.
He snapped the neck of one rebel, knowing fully well that the simulation troopers who would be with the New Republic soon were watching him. They would fear him, and this fear would fuel their need to reunite with their teammates. It worked best. Intimidation was a tactic like any other, and one that Locus was used to using.
Finally, he made his way towards the place where Agent Washington had fallen. The man was on his knees, being helped to his feet by the woman in yellow—Kaikaina Grif. She looked at him, desperately trying to help Washington up, but refusing to flee herself. Foolish.
Locus did not waste a bullet or a shot from his concussive rifle. Instead, he lashed out with his foot, taking advantage of her vulnerable position helping Washington. She fell to the ground hard as his foot connected with her chest, and Locus moved past Washington, slamming his rifle against her helmet to knock her unconscious.
“Kai!” Washington shouted. Apparently Washington was as susceptible to attachment as the rest of the soldiers. Unfortunate. He’d expected better from a Freelancer.
Locus turned towards Washington, mentally weighing the pros and cons of leaving the man alive. As a Freelancer, Control would understand if Locus said that killing Washington was necessary.
Washington was leaning heavily against the crude barricade they had constructed, staring over Locus’s shoulder, towards Kaikaina Grif and the cave in the distance, where the others were making their escape. His hand curled around the edge of the wall, so tightly that the material crumpled slightly in his hands.
“Freckles!” Washington yelled, his voice surprisingly strong despite his head injury. “Shake!”
Before Locus could move, could do anything to try to destroy the robot, the machine let out a bizarre noise, and slammed a leg down towards the earth, causing a tremor powerful enough to collapse the tunnel the rebels were using.
There was screaming from the direction of the caves—one of the other simulation troopers was protesting Washington’s decision.
Locus was nearly incredulous, but it did not matter. The separation was complete. The fact that it had been Washington’s decision when to do so instead of Felix’s made no difference, in the end. The split had already been decided by then. The only thing that might have changed was the possibility of one of the others being caught in the rock slide.
A message from Felix, however, quickly contradicted that.
An admirable attempt, to be sure. Washington was going to be… interesting.
Now there was only one thing to do.
“Call for back up,” Locus ordered the Federal soldiers who had survived the battle, before slamming his gun against Washington’s face, causing the man to crumple to the ground.
“We have five survivors in need of immediate assistance,” one of the men said, voice shaky. “I repeat, we have five survivors in need of immediate assistance.”
Private Church, Private Donut, Private Grif, the Sergeant, and Agent Washington. Locus spared no glance for the two robots, both of which were broken into parts.
“Make sure the docs are ready. He really did a number on them.” Locus was not supposed to hear that part, clearly, but he was distracted by Washington stirring. The man, it seemed, was determined not to stay down.
“Kai?” The man was struggling to sit up, to turn towards where Kaikaina Grif had fallen.
“She's not dead. ...Not yet,” Locus said. He wondered how would Washington react to her death. Through his scope, he had seen… moments, between the two of them. He suspected that Agent Washington’s feelings might not be platonic in nature.
“No,” Washington struggled upwards, as if he thought he could prevent a threat against her in his weakened state.
“I warned you, Agent Washington,” Locus said, moving closer. He nudged Washington with his foot, and the man gasped in pain. Broken or cracked ribs. “I gave you a choice. But you chose to fight.” He fingered the trigger of his gun, considering if the man was more trouble than he was worth. “… I admire that decision,” he said, finally, as he made up his mind. The man had a concussion. And given the sensitive nature of the Freelancer implants, that might be enough. Anything more, and Control would have questions.
“Fuck—you—monster,” Washington growled. Every sound cost him, his breathing ragged, his chest rising and falling far too rapidly. He had sustained other injuries during the fight.
Locus shook his head. “No. I'm not a monster. I'm a soldier. Like you.”
He moved away to check on the others, and he heard Washington groan again as he passed out.
It was time to begin a new chapter of this game.
At least Locus’s role did not involve old acquaintances, Locus thought, glancing at the message from Felix in the corner of his helmet, ranting again about the presence of “Private Harris”.
A soldier did not think about could-have-beens, Locus reminded himself as he pressed his fingers against Franklin Donut’s pulse. But things would have been simpler had the crash gone according to plan.
Chapter 5: Echo
SUPER LATE NIGHT UPDATE BUT AT LEAST I GOT THIS THING OUT BEFORE ANGST WAR STARTS. Thanks everyone who's been sticking this out! It really means a lot you're sticking with this wild thing.
Tucker woke up, and Wash and Kai were nowhere to be seen.
Instead, there was fucking Felix, and some lady named Kimball who seemed to be in charge around here.
She told him his friends were there, and he went off to find them.
The last one he expected to see was York.
For a second, resentment crashed over Tucker like a fucking tsunami. Why was it him? Why did he make it here? Where was Wash? Fuck, where was Tex? Even Carolina would be better than him, because at least she could help him kick Locus’s ass and get the others back. Of all of the Freelancers, why was it York?
He tried to push it aside, because they had been worried about the guy.
“You’re alive,” Tucker said, and at least he sounded relieved instead of angry or resentful.
“I am,” York said, but his posture was slumped and miserable. “The others were just filling me in.”
Tucker looked around, absorbing the maroon, orange, and dark blue. And the distinct lack of highway grey or bright yellow.
“We’re really all that made it?”
“The Feds have the others,” York said. “No word from Carolina or Tex either.”
“What, they didn’t find you?” Tucker said, alarmed. He’d figured that at least the two of them had dropped York’s ass here before they’d taken off, hopefully to beat Locus to death with his own skull or something.
“No,” York said. “Ah, Felix did.”
Irritation hit Tucker hard. “And you didn’t come with him? We could have used your help!”
York’s hands clenched into fists. “I know,” he said, and there was a ragged edge to his voice that told Tucker that he felt it physically. “I was injured after the crash. I didn’t make it back to the base until Felix had already come and gone—” He paused, looking at Tucker almost expectantly.
But for once, Tucker really wasn’t in the mood. Locus had Kai and Wash. Sex was the furthest thing from his mind, let alone taking a joke that York had just handed him.
York shook his head. “Anyways. He was gone looking for you guys before I’d made it here. He moves fast. The guy’s a scout for a reason.”
Tucker wanted to punch him. He wanted to hate him, because he could have helped. If he’d been there, at the very least Tex and Carolina would’ve stayed. And with four Freelancers, maybe they could have turned the tide. Maybe they could have kept their family together, instead of half of them being off in a prison somewhere.
But he couldn’t find it in himself to do so. Maybe he’d find the energy later. Right now, he just felt numb.
Later, there would be a buzzing tenseness that filled his whole body. Later, he would push his squad as hard as Wash had ever pushed him. Later, he would scream and fight with York, over every last fucking detail, from the way they lead their squads, to the way York insisted on maintaining his stupid fucking cover as Harris, instead of telling Kimball that he was a Freelancer.
Later, he would punch York in his good eye, and not even remotely feel bad about it, because the guy fucking had it coming for making fun of Wash that way. Wash could tell the story about the grappling hook being stuck to his balls. York wasn’t allowed.
But now, he looked at the guy, and moved right along, because at least, at least he still had this. Caboose and Grif and Simmons and York and a way forward. Captains in an army they didn’t belong to for a war they didn’t believe in, just for a chance to save their friends.
Tucker could work with that.
The New Republic sucked dicks. And not in the fun way.
The hot doctor fixed up Kai’s leg promptly enough, but Kai would rather have her leg still be broken if it meant that Tucker was there.
Wash was terrified for him, even if he didn’t like to say it. He was all tense and stuff and Kai didn’t know how to help him, because every time she even kissed him, it felt like they were both waiting for Tucker to turn the corner, pretty teeth flashing brightly as he commented on how fucking hot they looked, even though the last time they’d been kissing Kai had been all snotty and gross from crying and Wash hadn’t slept in a week.
She hated it; Sarge was all worried about Dex and Simmons and Donut was worried about everyone and even Church was being more of an asshole than usual, worried out of his goddamn mind.
She shared a room with Church and Wash and Church didn’t even snarl threats at them to keep it down, instead just spending the nights either staring blankly at the ceiling or prowling the base. He didn’t need sleep, he told her when she asked. He was a mother-fucking-AI, they didn’t sleep, shut up Kai.
Church was a lot like Dex. Kai left him alone after that.
He was trying to establish radio contact with Tex and Carolina, constantly fiddling with tiny little sets that he’d made out of broken helmets and scavenged parts, trying to boost the signal enough to get through.
He hadn’t succeeded yet. All he got was static. And it was infuriating him, Kai could tell. He was supposed to be the Alpha, he was supposed to keep them all safe, and it got to him when he couldn’t, when he didn’t know where they were.
The teams were split and the Freelancers who weren’t Wash were nowhere to be found.
Church was fraying around the edges, snapping at everyone and everyone, even Donut. Donut never took it seriously, but even Donut had his limits. Donut hadn’t approached Church in two whole days. Kai didn’t know what it was that he’d said, but whatever it was had Donut quiet and subdued and hurt.
Kai was pretty sure it had something to do with Doc.
Church was trying with her. He kept calling her stupid, accusing her of not caring about Tucker being gone when they both knew it’s fucking not true. Kai yelled back, calling him every name she could think of, accusing him of being happy Caboose was gone, that Epsilon was gone.
Their fights unsettled Wash. But everything unsettled Wash these days. Locus didn’t help; the guy was constantly skulking around corners, way too focused on Wash for it to be comfortable. Kai didn’t mind sharing (duh) but she drew lines and creeps who gave Wash brain damage were one of them. Plus, Wash wasn’t interested, which meant that Locus would have to get his dick wet elsewhere, as far as Kai was concerned.
“I don’t think it’s like that, Kai,” Wash said tiredly to her one day after she’d finished ranting. “He’s… he’s interested in Freelancer, that’s all.”
“Don’t care,” Kai said. “He can fuck off.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Wash’s lips, and Kai beamed. Deciding that was enough Locus talk, she threw herself forward, tackling Wash to the bed. That earned her an honest to god laugh as Wash rolled with it, so that he ended up on top of her, his eyes sparkling brightly before he leaned down to kiss her.
Fuck, Kai had missed this; missed the weight of him, the way his hair felt beneath her fingers, the taste of his coffee, the scent of that shitty military-regulation soap he always used…
Afterwards, when clothes have awkwardly been sorted out again to avoid Church’s screams, when Wash has stopped blushing, and the cuddling has resumed, Kai stared at the ceiling, hoping that Tucker could still feel safe, even if Wash’s biceps aren’t there to be a pillow.
“You really think he’s okay?” Kai said.
She didn’t need to say who he was.
“He is,” Wash whispered. “He has to be.”
Kai clenched her fingers in the fabric of his shirt, and buried her face in his chest. They still had each other at least.
Tucker was missing both of them, wherever he is. He didn’t even have this; the crowded bunk they technically weren’t sharing but were sharing anyways, with Church’s projects scattered all across the room, Sarge and Donut and Lopez next door.
“We’ll find him,” Wash said, like a mantra, a prayer.
Kai closed her eyes and took deep breaths, and fell to sleep to the sound of his heartbeat.
Working with Tex was… remarkably easy in some ways. They both learned quickly. Tex could keep up with her at least, and carried her own weight… and then some, Carolina was loathe to admit. Her active camouflage gave her advantages that Carolina lacked. And having a partner was always useful.
She missed York and Wash; fighting with the two of them was as easy as breathing, like a well-memorized dance. Tex was different. Even now they still bumped against each other and scraped. Tex wouldn’t use her radio or both of them would get impatient or Carolina would see something important to their objective and go off course. They were still learning, and it was painful sometimes.
They still hadn’t talked about what went down in the Director’s bunker. Carolina didn’t know if she could talk about it. Every time she thought about it she wanted to rip her hair out, wanted to scream, wanted to throw things, wanted to hurt Tex.
But she couldn’t. Because they were partners. They needed to work together to beat this, to unravel whatever strange conspiracy it was that they had stumbled upon; one full of armor enhancements and a mysterious shipment and a mercenary named Locus.
And because… because maybe Texas hadn’t been entirely wrong, when she’d claimed her own right to make that call, even if Carolina had disagreed with it.
They’d listened in on a message between Locus and “Control”. Now, they knew the crash was not an accident. Something had been on the ship.
Something worth killing an entire ship full of people over.
None of this boded well for the others, they knew, but radio contact was still impossible, and now they were in too deep. They needed to be sure exactly what was going on before they could get them out. They knew from intercepted reports and overheard gossip that everyone was alive, and unhurt. Split up and probably not happy, sure, but they were okay.
“This planet doesn’t make sense,” Tex said, looking up from the pieces of scavenged equipment she’d been poking at for the past few hours.
Carolina looked up at her, irritated. “What about it?”
“I’m just thinking about that communication we picked up. So this Locus guy is working for the pirates, sure, okay. But why?”
“Double the paycheck?” Epsilon offered.
“I don’t think so,” Tex said. She drummed her fingers against the table. “Look. You know I did the merc circuit for a while. I remember hearing whispers a while ago. About a guy called Locus.”
Carolina looked up. “You didn’t mention this before?”
Tex shrugged. “They were whispers. Nothing concrete. But they were connected with this other guy. Felix. They were partners or something. Didn’t we hear those New Republic kids talking about a Felix this morning?”
“Yes, but he was working with them—” A lightning bolt of clarity hit her, and she pushed herself upright and stared at Tex. “The war’s not real,” Carolina said, feeling sick and dizzy. Not again.
“Don’t know about that part,” Tex said. “But that seems like a great way to keep the paychecks coming, wouldn’t you say? Play both sides, extend the war?”
“Bastards,” Carolina said. “And then the war keeps both sides too busy to keep an eye on the alien tech, so they don’t notice what the pirates are up to.”
“Makes sense,” Tex said, nodding.
“But that still doesn’t explain Freelancer,” Carolina said. “We’re missing something.”
Tex hissed as the radio broke in her hands, smoking. “Damn it.”
“He’s reaching out, I can tell, but I can’t reach him.” Tex punched the nearest wall. “I need to warn him.”
“Warn him?” Carolina said, raising an eyebrow.
Tex pivoted, radiating fury. “Freelancer Tech, Carolina. What the fuck do you think Locus would do with the Alpha?”
Carolina felt as if her armor had locked down, and she struggled to breathe. “York has Delta,” she whispered. It was like she was back on the top of the cliff, the Meta’s fingers digging into her neck to pry Eta and Iota from her implants. She could see Locus pinning York down in her mind’s eye, could hear Delta’s screaming as he was ripped from York. She’d only seen the mercenary from a distance, but she could see it far too clearly—a knee pressed against his back, hand pressing the back of his unhelmeted head forward, exposing his neck.
Tex shook her head, pulling Carolina out of her waking nightmare, but her heart was still racing in her ears. “York will hide him. He’s not playing Freelancer, you’ve heard the reports. He’s going by Harris still—paranoid jackass.” There was a fond note in Tex’s voice at that. Carolina wanted to be offended at Tex’s lack of concern, but she knew she had a point.
Carolina closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing. Epsilon buzzed in her mind, terrified by her own moment of fear, trying to soothe her.
“Will Church hide who he is?”
Tex looked at her, bleak and despairing. “He’d be gone if he hadn’t,” Tex said softly. It was always somehow wrong to hear Tex be quiet and subdued like this. Yet another reminder that even Tex had layers. “There’s no way Locus would let a… a full AI walk around if he knew. And if Church was missing, you know Kai would have kicked up a fuss, then Wash would, and then…”
The image was vivid. Wash trying to protect Kai, going down first, then Kai soon behind him, Sarge trying to avenge them, Donut following him without question.
All of them dead but Church, and Church might honestly be worse off. Carolina had heard his screams once, when he’d had a nightmare.
She never needed to hear it again.
No wonder Church and Tex both avoided sleep, if that was what they went through every time they tried.
“We need to bring them down,” Carolina said softly.
“We need proof,” Tex said, spinning around, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. She radiated danger and power. This was the Tex she had witnessed back at Freelancer, who she had measured herself up against, but even more focused, terrifying, fierce. No one else stood a chance, and there was something… comforting about it, in a bizarre way. “We need… we need to know exactly what we’re dealing with here, we need to know how to rip them apart so that they won’t touch anyone again.”
Something uncoiled in Carolina at that—a solidarity, an agreement. To protect the others. This was no longer just a search mission, no longer just an attempt to right wrongs in the grand, vaguest sense.
Their family was in trouble.
Carolina and Tex would make sure that it wasn’t that way for much longer.
“Alright,” she said. “Epsilon. Can you narrow down their headquarters?”
It was time to take the fight to them directly.
Delta was greatly concerned about the planet Chorus.
His efforts to make contact with the missing members of the team were complete and utter failures. His previous success at pushing a connection through—between the young soldiers who had discovered him and York and the other survivors and General Kimball—appeared to be a one-time success. Delta’s current theory was that either they had been located at a weak point of the radiation fields which disrupted radios, or that it had been made possible by Kimball reaching out at the same time, effectively meeting Delta’s efforts halfway.
Unfortunately, his attempts to predict when any of the others would try to contact them had so far been failures. There were too many variables, with Alpha in custody of Locus and having no data on what Texas or Carolina were up to.
“Stop sulking, Dee,” York said quietly, picking his way around the edge of camp. It was a risk, speaking out loud when York was so determined to play it safe.
Delta did not appreciate such a risk. There were too many unknown quantities. He had agreed with York’s decision to not reveal his role as a Freelancer to anyone who was not already acquainted of the fact. It was a choice to protect them both, after all.
To risk such a thing as to scold was below York, and Delta told him so, using the message function of his HUD.
York laughed slightly. “We’ll find them,” York said, leaning against the railing.
Delta kept his own data on those odds to himself.
They both were aware of the dangers Locus posed to the others. It would do no good to point that out. York was clinging to hope that everyone was alright, that things would turn out fine. And Delta found himself joining him in that.
Tex’s words from ages ago, when York had been injured and Tex had chosen to take them to Blood Gulch echoed in his mind.
“That sounds like a human thing.”
York was influencing him. He had been for a long time. Delta projected that his younger self would be horrified by Delta’s current behavior patterns; at the way his code had evolved. He had once believed that enemies could be swayed by logical argument, that York would have been interchangeable with any other host. Delta had not cared for the safety, let alone the happiness, of people who were not designated as people of interest to Project Freelancer.
Now Delta joined York in staring out over at a field full of soldiers, most of whom were far too young to be holding guns, and felt the same intersecting feelings of guilt, fury, and sorrow.
Delta wondered if he would feel that way about his younger self, technically only a newborn yet being sent out to battle. He decided to dismiss that particular hypothetical, and instead alerted York to an incoming presence.
General Kimball had chosen to approach them.
Delta did not log off, but he curled himself tightly into the corner of York’s mind, awake but silent. York’s interactions with Kimball were always interesting to watch.
“How’s your head?” She asked.
York tapped his visor, grinning at her. “Better,” he offered. “That medic of yours knows her stuff.” Delta felt displeased at the erasure of his own part in York’s progress through the healing unit, although he knew that he couldn’t reasonably receive credit.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said.
“Tucker’s off on that scouting mission with Felix?” York asked, trying to keep his voice light and casual. From Kimball’s body language, it was apparent that he was failing.
Kimball nodded. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’s hoping to find information on your friends.”
There was a swirl of emotions at that—nightmares, old and new rose to the surface. Predominant among them was the sound of a sniper rifle, cracking through the air.
Delta hated that he also had gained a dislike for that sound. It reminded him that once, in a world that never had been because of Tex, a sniper had killed York. Tex would not share the information, her memories of that world. But Delta had carefully rebuilt the scenarios from the hints that she had given. He had ascertained the most likely scenario.
York ignored Delta’s turmoil. “I’m sure. Tucker’s tough. Probably the toughest of all of us.”
“You pulled over a dozen people out of a freshly crashed ship and tried to lead them to safety while you had a concussion,” Kimball said, and Delta thought he detected a note of reproach.
“And promptly got taken out by an eighteen year old,” York laughed, but Delta could feel the guilt over the others coiling and twisting in York’s stomach. A guilt about the others, the ones who hadn’t made it back to the rebel encampment. The feeling was so physical, yet there was nothing Delta could do to help him, beyond a reiteration that he could not possibly have known about the Federal Army, or about Locus’s presence on the planet.
“Harris,” Kimball said quietly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Both Delta and York were thrown off balance by that statement. “Well I mean, like you said, I did have a concussion,” York said.
Kimball did not allow York the exit he desired. “The others. You couldn’t have helped them, and you know it. All it would have done is get you killed too.”
York didn’t believe that, couldn’t believe that. He looked away. “I know that,” he said, but he was lying so transparently. He wasn’t even trying, Delta realized.
Kimball shook her head. “You’re a hero, Harris. You and the other Reds and Blues… do you understand what that means to my people? How long it’s been since they’ve had hope?” She gestured outwardly. “This war… we’ve been losing for so long. For the first time I can remember, it feels like we have a chance.”
Another wave of guilt hit York. “Well really, the others did all the work. I just came along for the ride.”
“I find that hard to believe.” There was a note of warmth to Kimball’s voice. Delta was surprised. He had realized that Kimball considered York a valuable asset, having recognized his skills, if not the full extent of them. But he had not realized that she might consider him a friend.
York shrugged, projecting an airiness and levity that Delta felt that he was distinctly lacking. “If you say so,” he said. “You’ll change your mind once you get to know me better.”
She shook her head, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “My office is always open, Harris. If you need to talk.”
York stared at her for a moment. His mouth was dry, Delta noted. He could almost feel the truth trying to force its way out of his mouth, to tell Kimball the single, damning statement.
“My name is Agent York.” He wanted to tell Kimball everything, wanted to explain what he had done, who he really was. Alarm flared in Delta—he did not trust Kimball, not to that extent. She would keep them safe as Private Harris, a war hero, but what would she do to Agent New York, a wanted war criminal, who harbored an illegal artificial intelligence in his mind?
But York didn’t say anything. He bit his tongue and instead nodded, giving Kimball a smile that she could not see, but that she seemed to know was there, given the way she inclined her helmet towards him. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
There was something fucking weird going on with York.
Look, Freelancers were weird at the best of times, Grif was aware of that. But York had reached like, whole new levels of weird.
First, Grif was like fifty-five percent sure the guy was hitting on Kimball, which was pretty damn weird, considering that he and Carolina had like, a thing. Sure maybe it was like, Basebook-status “it’s complicated” type thing, but still, it’s a thing, and Grif was fairly sure he was supposed to be offended on her behalf, since she was a Red, after all.
The second thing was that he was spending a lot of time with Felix. Which was weird, because York was also being super-insistent about them calling him “Harris” instead of “York”, and was basically not-so-much-pretending to be an idiot like them instead of a badass Freelancer.
Caboose fucked it up a lot, but he’d never managed to give away the game. Instead, York was currently “Harvard”, which was… surprisingly close for a Caboose misnomer, honestly.
But anyways. Felix had caught on that they were all idiots. He bantered with Tucker and shit, sure, but he spent weird amounts of time with York when he was on base, always chatting with him about dumb shit, like they were friends or something.
It didn’t sit right with Grif. The guy was a mercenary, after all. He was after something. And York was either playing along, or he genuinely liked the guy. Even though Felix was someone who Grif felt fairly safe as classifying as a Grade A “douchebag”.
Grif wasn’t quite sure how to handle either scenario.
All he did know was this; they really needed to fucking hurry and find the others, because shit was getting out of control. Tucker was going fucking crazy, worried about Wash (and Kai, but Grif considered that level of worry to be perfectly sensible, even if his sister was pretty much immortal). Simmons was worried sick about Sarge, and Caboose was so upset about Church (both of them, the fuckers) being missing that he’d ended up adopting half of the fucking Rebel Army.
So when Tucker suggested they take off on their own to try to get the others back, Grif doesn’t have any objections.
Grif was going to get his baby sister back.
Chapter 6: Foxtrot
I’M BACK FROM THE WARS, AND IT’S TIME FOR THE CHAPTER I’VE BEEN WAITING TO SHARE WITH YOU GUYS FOR ALMOST A YEAR NOW!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The others were in danger.
Carolina’s heart hadn’t stopped racing since they’d intercepted the message. It was a simple message, text-based instead of radios.
Idiots on the move. Be ready.
All the messages from Control pounded in her head in time with her heart.
“If the Reds and Blues manage to reunite... Kill them.”
Epsilon wasn’t much better, filling her brain with a panicky static that made it hard to concentrate. She’d reprimand him, but she didn’t have to right now, with Texas behind the wheel. The two of them were racing, hoping to beat the others—York, Tucker, Grif, Simmons, Caboose, to the Federal Base.
“We should have gone to them,” Carolina whispered, gripping the warthog door hard enough that she heard the metal creak. The strange grenades they’d found had brought them close, but Epsilon’s calculations were off—he was calibrated for the previous generation—and they were still kilometers away from their final destination.
Tex didn’t say anything. She hadn’t said anything at all since she’d grabbed Carolina and thrown her into the passenger seat before she started driving.
“We’re not far,” Church said, finally projecting.
“Are we in time?” Tex demanded, not taking her eyes off the road. There was a single-minded lethality to her, coiled tightly like a spring, ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. If Carolina wasn’t similarly inclined, she might feel sorry for the pirates.
“Yeah,” Church said, and it was like a sigh of relief. Three sets of shoulders—two physical, one digital—slumped with relief. It was like a weight had been lifted from Carolina’s chest, and the fuzziness of Epsilon’s concern faded with a guilty tinge, indicating that he hadn’t realized he was doing it.
“Now what?” He asked.
“We kill them, that’s what,” Tex snarled, and for a moment, Carolina entertained that. Going in, guns blazing. Just… ending this. Killing the mercenaries, the pirates, destroying everything they could get their hands on. She played it out in her head—she’d go for Felix, he was fast might be able to hit Tex, while Tex would take Locus. The guys and Kai could take care of the others. It would be messy, but effective, she thought. They had the element of surprise; four Freelancers, a handful of Sim Troopers… surely they could handle anything Felix and Locus might have in store.
And then they’d have to wait for Control’s retaliation and reinforcements. Without a hint of more information than they already had.
“We can’t kill them yet,” Carolina said, her own voice far away to her ears. “We need a plan.”
Tex scoffed. “You always want to let them live, don’t you?”
Carolina swiveled her head. “Don’t you bring that up,” she snapped. “Not now!”
Tex slammed down on the brakes, bringing the warthog to a screeching halt. Carolina’s body fell forward slightly at the sudden change in momentum, and she spun to face Tex completely, snarling. “Then what’s your plan, Carolina? Tell me!” Tex’s helmet was close to hers, and Carolina shoved her back.
“We cloak. We infiltrate. We get answers. And when they try to kill the others, that’s when we make our move. After we figure out what’s going on, so that way we know how to stop it.”
Texas stared at her for a long, long time. Then she reached down, and switched gears.
“If any of them get hurt…” Texas said. She didn’t vocalize the threat, but it was there. It was rare for Texas to be like this, Carolina realized. But they were there now, and she didn’t like it one bit.
“I care about them too, Texas,” Carolina snapped. “But there’s more than that at stake! We need to know what Control is planning!”
Texas said nothing more, just kept driving.
Once they arrived at the base, it didn’t take long to find a stragler pirate and jump him so that she could take his place. And if Texas snapped his neck with more force than necessary, Carolina didn’t say anything.
She kept to the back of the pirates, who were mostly just waiting around for Locus’s signal, while Texas scouted ahead, looking for the others.
Locus appeared suddenly, decloaking in a way that Carolina should be used to by now, having seen Texas do the same thing countless times. But she wasn’t used to it with an enemy. And it had been a long time now, she realized, glancing at the corner of her HUD dedicated to keeping track of Tex’s location, since Tex had registered as the enemy.
“Get ready to move,” Locus ordered, and Carolina had to stop herself from staring. He was one of the tallest men she’d ever seen; taller than anyone besides Maine, she thought, and broad. He was built for power, for intimidation. He radiated danger; from the strange Locus helmet, to the weapons he carried, to the manner in which he walked, each one deliberately chosen. She understood all the pirates’ chatter now.
<Are you seriously thinking about wanting to spar with him?> Church shrieked in her mind. <He’s the enemy Cee! Jesus you’re an adrenaline junkie.>
Carolina said nothing, but she couldn’t deny him that.
She stood on the platform above the others. Her laser sight was set on York, who was holding his rifle, staring right at Locus. Next to him, Wash tried to step between Locus and Kai and Tucker, but Tucker wasn’t having any of that, and pushing against him. Grif was on Kai’s other side, also trying to stay between her and the threat, but there was a red laser sight in the center of Kai’s helmet.
As far as they could tell, they were totally trapped.
“I told you, Agent Washington,” Locus said, and Carolina sighed, hoping they’d get actual information instead of just melodrama. “I am a professional. I complete my missions at all costs. But you, and your comrades have put a blemish on my record. This… is unacceptable.”
Wash snarled, not moving from his position in front of Tucker and Kai. “What are you talking about? You just killed the men you're working for!”
Locus let out a sigh. Carolina tilted her head to herself, wondering what this was about. Had Locus and Wash been talking before this? “It appears you don’t understand after all. Unfortunate. You were such a fascinating soldier, Agent Washington.”
He raised his sniper rifle, and for a moment, Carolina panicked, thinking she’d miscalculated, that she wasn’t going to get answers, and Wash was going to die. The glimmer that was Tex shifted too, preparing to leap into action. But it all proved unnecessary, as Felix appeared, and his shield appeared in a flash of light, blocking the bullet.
“Tucker, grenade!” Felix shouted, and Carolina went cold, watching as Felix went through the motions of betrayal. He was twisted, she realized. He was enjoying this, all of this. Locus was a professional mercenary. But Felix? Felix was having fun, playing these games, taunting the others with the way he’d betrayed them, with how he’d earned their trust.
“Stop boasting and let me kill them,” Locus interrupted, his voice tight with anger. “We have a job to do.”
“Oooh,” Felix said with a laugh, “that’s right, he doesn’t like you guys.” He paused to snort. “He actually thinks there might be a few fighters among you. Ha! Told you he’s crazy.”
<Good to know who’s the brains in the operation,> Church whispered to her. Carolina couldn’t help the smile that played at the corner of her mouth.
“But why?” Wash demanded. “Why the capture, why make us part of this war?”
<Thank you, Washington.>
“Well, you see—” Felix began, and Carolina had to force herself to not stand up straighter. Answers.
“No!” Felix snapped, spinning back to face Locus. “I've had to put up with these morons every day, so you let me have this.” Then he relaxed again, turning to face Wash and the others. “You see, someone, somewhere, out in our galaxy, has their eye set on this planet. The only problem, is the inhabitants.” Carolina couldn’t stop her breath from hitching. This was bigger than they’d thought. Below, Felix continued talking, unaware that he was so close to Tex. “Now, if it were up to me, I’d just nuke this place from orbit. But our employer… has other ideas. We have to play this thing carefully, you understand? If an entire planet dies overnight, well, people ask questions. But if you stumble onto this rock and find that the settlers killed each other, well, that's just a tragedy!”
“Fuck,” Tex breathed in Carolina’s ear via the radio.
“It was you. You started this war!” Tucker said, incredulous.
Felix laughed and made a loud, obnoxious noise. “Wroooooong! These people hated each other way before our operation ever showed up, we just had to keep the hate train a-goin’. And let me tell you, you guys have helped so much.”
There was a moment where all of them soaked that in.
“Does it hurt? Knowing just how much death you've brought to this planet?” Felix mocked. And okay, Carolina could see the appeal of Tex’s argument of “just killing him”.
Suddenly, York let out a load groan, his head falling back to face the sky. “Seriously?” Carolina froze, fingering the pin on the grenade. What’s he doing? “That’s how you two decided to spend your time after retiring? Genocide? Jesus, I told India you two were headcases.”
“What?” Tex whispered.
He knew them? What was going on?
“Stop whining because you didn’t see it coming, Foxtrot,” Felix said, the smirk in his voice obvious. Carolina drew to a halt. She knew that name, York had told her it once, long ago, told him it was the only name he had besides York worth mentioning—but how did Felix know that name.
“Foxtrot? York, are they talking about you?” Donut asked.
The shock that Carolina and Tex were feeling right now was suddenly transferred to Locus and Felix, judging by the body language. York—the worst liar she had ever met—had managed to hide the fact that he was a Freelancer from them. A surge of warmth hit her chest for a moment, overpowering her confusion and fear temporarily.
“York?” Felix asked, voice dangerously low.
“As in New York,” York said, spreading his hands out wide “As in Agent New York. As in, formerly of Project Freelancer.”
Felix and Locus exchanged a dark, dangerous look.
“Oh that’s it,” Felix snarled. “You die last.”
“Not likely,” York said. “You remember Captain India, right?”
“Enough talk,” Locus said. “On my mark—”
“She always said I had one gift,” York said loudly. “Remember what it was?”
“Being an idiot who won’t shut up?”
“I know you are but what am I—no, it was find the most dangerous women in the room and get them to like me.” Suddenly, he was looking right at her, tilting his helmet to one side. “Hey Carolina. Hey Tex.”
Everything fell apart after that, and Carolina threw the grenade, spinning into action, ignoring the thundering question in her head as the fight ensued.
How did York know them?
They had escaped.
The two mysterious soldiers, the Reds and Blues, Agent Washington…
And Foxtrot Twelve.
“An Agent?” Felix snarled. “Him? That idiot?”
“You said he was under control,” Locus snarled.
“He was! I had him eating out of my hand! The old war buddies thing was working!” Felix snapped.
Locus paused, considering. “Could they be lying?” A little subterfuge to buy them time would make sense. Made more sense than a coward like Foxtrot as a Freelancer. The Freelancers were elite soldiers. And they were almost completely dead.
“Foxtrot can’t lie,” Felix snapped.
“We thought he was dead. Then we thought he’d been posing as a simulation trooper to escape the war,” Locus said. “And now he’s a Freelancer. It might be time to re-evaluate him.”
Felix scoffed again. “He’s still not a threat.”
Felix never had taken Foxtrot seriously. But Locus did, for one simple reason.
Foxtrot was many things, but forgetful was not one of them. And in his mind he held one vital piece of information. One that could potential destroy himself and Felix.
It had been a long time since Locus had used any name other than that of his armor.
But Foxtrot—or Agent York, or Private Harris, or whichever other names he was using—knew it. And for that, before anything else, he would die.
The reunion celebrations could only last so long, York knew. So he stood to the edge, watching fondly as Tex pressed her helmet against Church’s, as Kai tried to tackle Carolina in a hug, as Tucker and Wash clung to each other, like they were planning on never letting go.
York watched, and waited.
<York,> Delta said softly.
“I have this coming, Dee,” York said.
Carolina tilted her helmet at him. “Why did Felix know your old nickname?”
“Codename,” Tex corrected, and oh shit, that’s right, she’d know that. He’d told Tex that, back when it had just been the two of them. Carolina only knew the name, but Tex had a few more clues.
York raised and lowered his shoulders in a shrug. “Because that’s what I was going by when I met him.”
“Wait,” Tucker said. “You knew him?”
Tucker wasn’t going to forgive this, York realized. He’d think that York had known… that’d he’d known what Felix was. What he was capable of.
And maybe he was right. Maybe York should have known.
“I didn’t know he’d kill a planet!” York defended himself. “He—look he was fucked up, but it was the “have way too much fun killing aliens” kind of fucked up, not genocide!”
“Why did you have a codename?” Donut said. Then he let out a gasp. “Wait, were you a secret agent? Like Double-Oh-Donut?”
York laughed, tiredly. “Hardly.” He shook his head, trying to figure out how to explain this. “I was always good with locks, right? So one day I get dragged into this room and they tell me that humanity needs me, I have potential, all that normal stuff. I sign on the dotted line, they fake my death, business as usual.”
Tex tilted her head. “Just how many times have you faked your death, York?” York thought he detected a note of humor there. Maybe he wasn’t a dead man after all.
“Five,” Delta said. “Counting the time with your assistance.”
“My best one, I’d say,” York said, going for a joke.
“Keep. Talking,” Carolina ordered. There was no humor there.
“I was the twelfth infiltration specialist. The twelfth Foxtrot,” York said. He grinned, wryly. “Longest lived one, too. Doubled the last girl’s record. It was black ops,” he added. “It was dirty, it was nasty, it was necessary. We… I did things I wasn’t proud of. And at some point we were shorthanded, and Sierra said he knew a couple of guys who were the best at what they did.”
“Only one guess for the names,” Sarge grunted.
“They’d been on the bounty hunter circuit after their tour ended,” York said. “Already had code-names and everything. India hired them, let them keep the names because they were new positions. We needed more people than we’d ever needed before. Things were… rough, those years. The Insurrection—the real one—was getting out of hand. People were dying in the colonies, and there were sympathizers high up in the government. It… it wasn’t what I signed up for.”
Coward, Sierra’s voice whispered in his ear.
“I asked for an out. I got one. Project Freelancer. No more moral greys. The good guys.” York laughed. “Faked my death again. As far as Felix and Locus were concerned, I came back from the dead when they found me in that ship.”
“And you didn’t tell them you were a Freelancer?” Simmons asked.
“Are you kidding?” York snorted. “Even before, he would have sold out Delta and me for a couple of quarters and a bottlecap. And he said that Locus had jumped off the deep end after I died. I didn’t realize they were still in touch.”
He should have. God, he should have. He’d seen the way that they’d been, back then. He’d bought it. He’d bought it hook, line, and sinker. Sure, he hadn’t given them everything, but he hadn’t… he hadn’t…
“And you didn’t tell Kimball?” Tucker yelled.
“She was signing his paychecks!” York yelled back. “Felix doesn’t turn on his employer! Not—not unless there’s a bigger one.” York’s shoulders slumped at that. “I didn’t realize he was double dealing.”
Tucker didn’t say anything else. York was pretty sure he just wanted to punch him again.
York couldn’t exactly argue with that.
<You could not have known,> Delta said, trying to comfort him.
Tex walked up to him and nudged him with her shoulder. “Anything else?”
“Not unless you want me to tell you the way Felix used to gut Sanghelli kids,” York muttered, carefully not looking at Tucker.
“Let’s skip that,” Tex said. She nudged him again, and this time, York let himself nudge back. “I’m glad you’re okay, dumbass,” she muttered.
York forced himself to smile. “Tucker said you guys went looking for me.”
“Yeah,” Tex said. “I told you. I’ve put way too much effort into keeping you alive to let you just go and get killed now.”
York rubbed his visor tiredly. “I got lucky,” he said. “I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t literally ran into Palomo, I’d have had a bullet through my head before Felix and Locus even realized who I was.”
Tex gripped his shoulder tight enough to hurt.
“They killed the others, Tex,” York said. “I—there were sixteen of us. Only three of us made it.”
Tex punched him suddenly, and York went sprawling. “Hey!”
“Stop that,” Tex ordered. It was only then that York realized the others were gone. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
“You know there’s nothing you could have done,” Tex said. “You didn’t know they were genocidal fuckers, you didn’t know that Locus would kill those people, and you didn’t know about Freelancer.”
“Didn’t I?” York said quietly. “Tex. I know what I did.”
Tex’s helmeted gaze was unwavering. “You judging me too, York? I’m the one who blew up that building, remember?”
“You act like that was my first time,” York said, pulling himself up so that he was at least sitting.
“Don’t joke about this, York, I’m not in the mood—”
“I’m not a good person, Tex,” York snapped. “I want to be—fuck, I want to be, but I’m not. Freelancer was supposed to be that chance. To make up for what I did. And look at where that landed me!”
Tex let out a loud sigh, and held out her hand.
“On a planet, where your former teammates are trying to kill everyone, and you’ve got a chance to stop them,” she said. Her voice was braided steel. “There’s your chance, York. So stop feeling sorry for yourself and fight.”
There was a long moment where York looked up at her.
Then he took her hand, and let her pull him to his feet.
Come yell at me on tumblr if you're so inclined.
Chapter 7: Golf
I'm back from RTX with an update! Hope you guys enjoy it!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was a nervous humming in Felix’s veins, and it wouldn’t die down.
They’d gotten away.
They’d infiltrated his people.
They’d outsmarted him.
He’d been played, by Foxtrot of all people.
The taste in his mouth was sour at that.
Foxtrot, back in the day, was a bumbling idiot with aspirations of heroism. Oh, he was fast enough on his feet, and good at his job, and lucky in his own way. If India hadn’t been so found of him, for whatever weird reason, Felix was sure that the guy would have been dead long before he and Locus had joined up.
He’d lasted a long time. Longer than any of the other Foxtrots. Foxtrots-13, 14, and 15 had all been pain in their asses, rapid in succession, and each less competent than the last. Felix had killed 14 himself on a mission to stop the idiot from giving away their position. Not that he’d told the others that. Killing a teammate was generally frowned upon, even in the down and dirty of black ops work.
India must have known that 12 had survived though. She’d been the one to tell them he was dead. Some sort of backroom trade, Felix guessed. He wondered what Freelancer had given their group in exchange for a lock-picking jokester.
He wondered what had happened to his eye. Foxtrot had laughed it off when Felix had asked, ducking the question every time. Felix had noticed, but not pressed. Now, he had to wonder, knowing that he was dealing with a Freelancer.
And not just any Freelancer—Felix had looked him up. New York. Infiltration specialist—of course he was—and, shockingly, in possession of a powerful AI fragment.
That, at least, would probably appease Hargrove for them not catching this. He wanted fragments badly. So much of Freelancer tech had gone missing in the aftermath of Washington blowing the place to hell and back. Including most of the A.I., which Washington had claimed had been incorporated into the Meta before he destroyed it.
But the Alpha was still unaccounted for, among others.
Felix thought about prying the A.I. chip out of Foxtrot’s head—maybe he’d use a knife, that would be fun. A present for Hargrove. Maybe he’d get a bonus.
Although, really, hearing Agent York scream as he did so would be bonus enough.
And maybe those two friends of his.
“Hey Carolina. Hey Tex.”
Yeah, Felix was going to have fun with them, too.
“We have confirmation, sir!” One of the men said. “We have a match for the two soldiers!”
Felix lunged forward, grabbing the datapad out of his hand. It had taken them long enough. Why did they work with so many idiots? You’d think Hargrove would be able to afford better people, if he could afford Felix and Locus’ rates. “Definite match for the fuckers who’ve been raiding our bases,” he muttered, glancing at the security footage. Teal armor that changed color, and black armor.
“That’s correct, sir.”
“We thought there was only one of them,” Felix said, fingers lingering on the image of the soldier in black armor. “But she’s got a camo unit, doesn’t she? Well then,” he grinned to himself, “at least this should be interesting.” Fighting Locus with that unit was no challenge, but Felix knew Locus inside and out. He could predict his every move; it had been years since Locus had surprised him. The guy was hilariously easy to read, and to play.
But this one was a whole new player.
“Agents Texas and Carolina of Project Freelancer,” Locus said, and Felix didn’t even glance up at his sudden appearance. “The top two soldiers the project produced.”
Felix rolled his eyes and didn’t point out that Foxtrot had literally given them the names. Instead, he pulled up the dossiers provided, and began to poke at them, sorting through the information. Hargrove’s information on the Freelancers was wonderfully thorough. The man had taken his time combing through all of the Freelancer personnel files to put everything together.
God only knew that Locus had spent enough time obsessing over Agent Washington’s to tell Felix just how thorough they were.
He’d already looked at Agent York’s, and been frustrated to find that it offered little to no more information than the file they already had, from the old days. When Felix and Locus had joined Black Ops, they’d been promised that their old lives would be burned until there wasn’t a trace left of who they’d used to be.
It looked like they’d been just as thorough with Foxtrot.
“This should be fun,” Felix said softly to himself, examining the breakdowns and statistics and profiles of Carolina and Texas. “What did Control say?”
“They want Agent Texas alive,” Locus responded. Felix’s head snapped up, curious.
“Did they say why?” There was an itch there. The way she had moved when she’d attacked him was unmistakable. Felix was fast, Felix was very fast, and he’d dodged her hits, but the amount of raw power she packed into her punches was terrifying. It was like Locus, but even more dangerous up close. She hadn’t learned to pull back, to fight from a distance. Up close and personal was how she liked it, brawling and punching.
Felix loved a challenge.
“No,” Locus said, and there was a distinct lack of curiosity there that was aggravating. He hadn’t fought her. He hadn’t seen. Maybe if he had, he’d be more curious, but he’d been fighting Carolina and preoccupied with Washington, too busy to pay attention to the top of the leaderboard, fighting Felix below. “I made arrangements. Everything should be in order.”
“Well,” Felix shrugged. “Hopefully we won’t need them. Time to make the call?”
“Yes,” Locus nodded. Felix turned to walk away, and Locus fell into step beside him. It was as natural as breathing, the two of them walking perfectly in sync.
“Think they’ll take it?” Felix said, turning his face towards the sky, where the ship was hovering. He couldn’t believe that Hargrove was offering those idiots an out. But then again…
There were four Freelancers with them, even if one of them was Foxtrot. That did change things.
“Foxtrot knows we uphold our bargains.”
“But he’s also got that fucking stupid hero complex,” Felix snorted, thinking of the way the guy had gotten along with Kimball. A regular meeting of the idealist’s club, right there. “Think he’s outgrown that?”
“The Simulation Troopers never desired to be involved in this conflict,” Locus said, instead of giving a straight answer. That was probably a “no”, then. “And Agent Washington is a sensible man.”
Felix rolled his eyes at that comment. “Wonder how the boss intends to get his hands on Texas if we let them go,” Felix mused. There was no way that Hargrove would just let her go, not if he’d ordered them to spare her should things turn to combat again.
“It is not our concern,” Locus said. “Focus, Felix.”
“You focus,” Felix snapped. It was childish, but he didn’t care. He hated it when Locus got like this. “Let’s report back to the generals and then fucking get this over with.”
Kimball had lost soldiers before.
Kimball had lost a lot of soldiers before.
The war had killed Kimball’s parents, her brother, her teachers, her neighbors. Her first girlfriend, the man on the street corner who sold apples that he picked himself. It had killed every single branch of her family tree, until she was truly the only Kimball left on Chorus. Soldiers under her command, the generals that had come before her, her comrades in arms. They had died and each death left her with a longer list of people to grieve and more voices in her nightmares.
Losing the Reds and Blues wasn’t any worse than those deaths. Not technically.
But it was a sucker punch to her chest, stealing her breath away like the war had stolen her childhood. Like the Federal Army had stolen the Reds and Blues.
Felix was leaning against the wall, cradling his ribs the way he always did when he was injured but didn’t want to admit it.
She should force him the infirmary, she knew. She should thank him for trying, for working hard to bring them back. She should tell him it’s not his fault that Locus gunned them down. She should go visit the troops, press hands on shoulders and tell them it will be alright.
But she can’t.
They were hope, they were heroes. They had filled this camp with an optimism that Kimball hadn’t felt since she was barely an adult and pledging herself to a cause she didn’t fully understand.
And more than that, they were her friends.
She’d never talk to Tucker by the algae pond again. She’d never get him to finish the story of how he got his sword, or get to look at those photos of Junior he’d been promising. She’d never yell at Grif for eating too much in the cafeteria again or try to get Simmons to actually talk to his squad or walk in on Caboose talking to the vehicles.
She’d never be able to ask Harris what it was about that old lighter he liked to play with on his bad days. What it meant, what the story was, was there anything she could do to help?
She’d never asked before, respecting his privacy, and now she regrets that, because the lighter is probably destroyed or in the hands of the Federal Army, along with his body, to be thrown in some inglorious unmarked grave for enemy combatants.
The hatred sears bitter and hot on her tongue. It makes her want to scream, knowing that she will never know what they were thinking, never be able to ask. She will never see Tucker’s expression melt into relief as he throws himself at Washington and Kaikaina. She will never get to hear the thick Southern accent that Grif so loved to mock. She will never meet Caboose’s best friend.
They are all dead, murdered, all for a war they didn’t want to be in. For a war she had dragged them into.
She feels shaken to her very core, and she turns her face to the sky, apologies to the dead lodged in her throat.
She turned and walked away, leaving Felix and his injuries for now. He won’t mention it later, she knew. He was too professional. But he’d be hurt. He’d rib her for it later, and she’d let him. He was her friend as well as employee. She should be stronger, should comfort him. They were his friends too. Particularly Harris and Tucker.
But she didn’t have it in her.
She went to her private quarters, locking the door behind her. She waited for two minutes to make sure that no one is there, listening.
Then, and only then, when she was sure she couldn’t hear breathing on the other side of the door, did she rip her helmet off her head and throw it hard across the room, allowing it to slam against the wall.
“Damn it!” She screamed, everything in her chest shaking, as if threatening to fall apart.
This was not how it was supposed to be. How could it? How could they all be dead? Caboose’s smile, Grif and Simmons’ banter, Tucker’s flirting, Harris’s terrible jokes, they all were gone, and nothing she did could bring them back.
She sat down hard on her bed, fisting her hands in her hair, pulling as hard as she dared. Tears pricked at the corner of her eyes, but she held them in, refusing to cry. She would not cry, because then the cadets would know she’d been crying, and then it would spread further and further, a wave of sorrow and moroseness swallowing the camp because Kimball couldn’t be strong.
A sudden though struck her, unexpectedly; she wanted to talk to Harris about this. Which was impossible because he was dead, but somehow, she knew that he’d understand this. On some level, he’d get this. She remembered that old look of grief that he’d get when talking about the others, the ones he couldn’t save, the ones that Locus had—had gunned down—
She sat on her bed as long as she dared, struggling to keep her breathing steady, even as the rest of her body shook so hard with sobs she dared not voice that she felt like she was coming apart at the very foundations.
Kimball had lost soldiers before.
She had lost friends before.
She had lost all hope before.
Surely, she told herself, lying through her metaphorical teeth, this time was no different.
Tucker spent the night sandwiched between Kai and Wash. They were all in armor, and it was an uncomfortable mess. The angles poked and the helmets clanked against each other when they shifted, but none of them dared get out of armor, not when they might be attacked on a moment’s notice.
But they were here, and alive, and Tucker really couldn’t bring himself to care about the rest of it right now. They hadn’t been tortured, they weren’t hurt, they were fine. He gripped both of them, never intending to let go, and they gripped back just as hard.
“Missed you,” Kai muttered, burrowing into his back while Wash pressed their helmeted foreheads against each other.
The Reds—the non-Freelancer Reds that is—were all sticking together on one side of the camp. Tex and Church were sitting next to each other. They weren’t even touching, they were just… sitting. Tucker wondered if they were talking at all. Caboose sat on Church’s otherside, and he was talking, that was for sure.
Carolina was standing on one side of the camp, talking with Epsilon. The crazy doctor lady had approached her, and was talking animatedly, while Carolina and Epsilon seemed bemused.
York was leaning against a wall, talking to Delta and watching Carolina with that old, weird expression he got sometimes. Tucker would never understand him.
Thinking about York reminded Tucker of Felix and lies again, and he just tried to focus on the way that Wash was breathing.
None of that mattered right now, because the three of them were safe, and together again. If Tucker closed his eyes, he could pretend they were back in Valhalla, in the base, back home. He could pretend he’d never been a Captain, never been to war again, never heard the words “Freckles, shake!”
Behind him, Kai squeezed his waist tighter, and started to snore
When morning came, Felix and Locus called with an offer. Wash tried to send them away.
Even after everything, after all they’d gone through, Wash wanted to send them away. He wanted to stay behind, to fight, with Carolina and Tex. Even though he knew he’d die on this planet, that they would never see him again, he wanted to stay behind.
They were going to fight about that later, Tucker vowed to himself. Because they were never leaving him behind again. Kai gripped Tucker’s hand hard enough that the bones in his hand creaked, and he knew she was in complete agreement with him.
They weren’t going to be separated again.
It was the three of them, why couldn’t Wash get that? They wouldn’t be fine without him, any more than he and Kai had been fine without Tucker. Because they hadn’t been. Kai and Wash had both been very vocal about that, when they’d found each other.
But it didn’t come to that. Wash didn’t leave them again.
Instead, Tucker had an idea.
And even as Felix slid the knife home between the plates of his armor, even as Kai and Wash both screamed his name, even as Tucker fell to his knees, blood staining his armor, he knew it was a better idea than Wash leaving them behind again.
End Part I
Interlude's up next!
The Tartarus was a rather dull place, Aiden Price found. The ins and outs of the day were predictable down to the second. Aiden found himself working on individual inmates to pass the time more often than not. There were some fascinating characters on the ship. It was a pity the most use he’d have for them was starting prison fights.
Every single person on the Tartarus was here for life. No matter what their crimes; white collar, murder, treason, and war crimes all existed side by side.
It helped Aiden that he had been convicted in a quiet affair, off to the side. The spectacular events that had been the Freelancers exposing the project overshadowed his own trial. No one on the Tartarus knew who he was. Aiden preferred it that way. It gave him a certain amount of freedom.
But the daily life was not very stimulating, even with Aiden’s personal projects. So he was very surprised when the alarms began to blare and everything changed.
Aiden had once walked into a room and met a man with bright green eyes and theories unlike anything that Aiden had ever heard of. Leonard Church had changed Aiden’s life in every way, and from the first handshake, Aiden had felt it in his bones that this was it. A moment that changed everything.
And so when the mercenaries began to speak over the loudspeaker and Aiden began to feel the same thing, he quietly tied his sheets together. He knew a test when he heard one. He’d devised enough of them over the years.
And when Felix mentioned Freelancers, Aiden found himself smiling to himself.
It seemed like he would not be spending his days becoming the prison chess champion after al.
Aiden Price was as small man, but Felix didn’t like him. But he might be useful.
“Did you know Agent Washington refuses Artificial Intelligence access to his neural implants?” Price challenged. “Or that Agent Carolina’s 57% more likely to neglect her teammates when presented with a competitive scenario?” Felix was fascinated despite himself. This was useful. The things he could do with this… but Price was still talking. “No? Then I also doubt you realize there is another inmate aboard this ship that shares a history with the Freelancers. One who would undoubtedly prove useful to you if he were properly guided.”
Felix snorts. “If you’re talking about Sharkface, Counselor, we already know about him. One of our friends is already collecting him.”
“I wasn’t, actually,” Price said mildly. “If you’ll follow me…”
The man who he led them to was the tallest person Felix had ever seen, even out of armor. His neck was a mess of scars and tattoos, his head perfectly bald. His biceps were about as big as Felix’s head, and he radiated danger. He turned towards them slowly, revealing that the front of his throat was just as torn up as the back of his neck. Old, ragged scars betrayed serious injury that had happened there.
He grunted at them, watery blue eyes narrowing.
“Gentlemen,” Price said blandly, hands clasped behind his back, “I would like to introduce you to the Meta.”
Felix felt himself grinning widely behind his helmet.
“Oh, this should be fun,” he whispered.
Thatcher pushed open the cell door, and Sharkface looked at him.
“Me,” Thatcher said. “The boss needs you.”
Sharkface bristled at that. “I’ve been here how long, and you think—”
“Freelancers, Terry.” Thatcher said. “Carolina, Washington, Texas.”
“All three of them?”
“Locus has a claim to Washington and Texas is mine,” Thatcher said. His back spasmed as he remembered what the bitch had done to him when she’d left him in the desert to die. “But Carolina’s all yours.”
Sharkface rolled his eyes and got to his feet. “I’ll kill whichever of them I find first,” he said darkly.
“I’ll be sure to tell Locus that,” Thatcher said smoothly. “But Texas is mine, Terrance. She killed Connie. She nearly killed me.”
“She dropped a building on me, CT,” Sharkface snarled. “Don’t think I’ll let her live just because she killed your traitor girlfriend.”
“Don’t talk about her that way!” Thatcher snapped.
Sharkface laughed again, the noise dark and dangerous. This is why Control had let him rot in prison. He was too unstable. “What?” He mocked. “Are you in charge?”
“Yes,” Thatcher said simply. “Felix and Locus have had some… trouble. I’m damage control.”
Sharkface let out another one of those laughs. “Bet they love that,” he said.
Thatcher said nothing.
“We’ve got an incoming ship, sir!” One of the pirates reported.
“Good,” Thatcher said simply, turning around and walking towards the dock. “He’s late.”
“You’re late,” was all Felix said as the pelican doors swung open. Locus said nothing, just stood behind him in the shadows, watching the scene play out.
“No, I’m early,” the voice corrected as the familiar figure stepped out of the ship. The shoulders of the armor were the broad ones meant for a sniper, a variant of the traditional Mjonlir model. The armor itself was purple on grey, and familiar as Felix or Locus’s own, and he walked with the faint stiffness of a man with a prosthetic leg.
“Siris,” Locus said, nodding once
“Locus.” There was a pinched quality to Siris’s voice as he glanced between the two of them. “You called in a lot of favors to get me here. What is it that’s so important?”
“Foxtrot,” Felix said.
Siris snorted. “Are you telling me you two can’t take care of Seven-Tens?”
“Not Sevens,” Felix corrected. He was practically vibrating in place. “Twelve.”
Siris went perfectly still for a very long time. “Twelve is dead,” he finally said.
“Faked it,” Felix said. “He goes by Agent York now. He’s working for the enemy. We thought you might be interested in a reunion.”
Siris hesitated for a moment. “You’ve got a picture?”
Felix must have expected this, because he produced a datapad and showed Siris the image. One blind eye, grey streaking through the hair, lines on the face that had never been there before, but it was clearly Foxtrot-12. Dust colored armor, classic build with no modifications to it. Bland and easy enough to fade into the background. If it weren’t for Foxtrot’s personality, at least.
Siris stared at the photograph for a long time. “What’s the job?” He said, finally.
“Clean up,” Felix said easily. “Everyone’s armed, dangerous, and killers. Foxy joined up with some shady people after he ditched us. You heard of Project Freelancer?”
“Rumors only,” Siris mused. “Why am I not surprised?”
“The boss says no survivors,” Felix said, reaching out and touching Sirs on the arm. “Are you sure you can handle that?”
Siris scoffed. “It will be fine.”
“It won’t be easy,” Locus offered, finally speaking up. There was no hesitation in Siris’s voice. The man had hardened, over the years.
“Killing an old friend never is,” Felix sighed dramatically.
Siris flat out laughed this time. “Friend. Right.” He passed Felix the datapad back.
“How’s Megan and the kids?” Felix asked cheerfully.
Siris looked away. “I wouldn’t know. We split up not long after…”
Locus couldn’t help but find himself pause in surprise at that news.
Felix was thrown as well. “Mace! You should have called!” His hand curled around Siris’s arm. “Times like these partners should stick together.”
Siris shrugged. “I managed.” He tilted his helmet at Locus. “Normal fees?”
Felix laughed. “Oh no. Way better.”
Siris paused when Felix gave the number. “You’re kidding.”
“No survivors, guaranteed silence, we were never here,” Felix said. “And no questions.”
Siris shook his head again. “You two could never stay small, could you?” He sighed and turned around to examine the distant glow of Chorus.
“Where do we start?”
Do you see that, passing by? That's canon. Say goodbye!
Chapter 9: India
Sorry for the delay on this chapter, there were a lot of things happening these past few weeks! Hopefully things will normalize a bit from now on!
Anyways, on to part 2, where we pat canon condescendingly on the head. Thanks to everyone who took the time to leave a comment on the last chapter, you guys are wonderful and help motivate me to keep this story going!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tex didn’t like Armonia. But then again, she didn’t have the best track record with cities.
It was a well-formed grid of a city, complete with two walls. Turrets and watch towers were visible at regular intervals, showcasing that this was the city of a world at war. The capital city, no less. There were roads and various buildings, the city divided into various quarters. Once, according to the maps Tex had managed to download, the city would have had all sorts of things. Museums and tourist places, residential areas, and the like. There were parks and people lived in houses, not barracks.
Years at war had changed that. No one lived too far from the military bases, as Armonia no longer had a civilian population to speak of. Instead, they crowded into barracks not too far from headquarters, which had once been the capitol building of the city. The parks that Tex had seen had been turned into functional farms to try to grow crops to help supplement the ordinary rations.
Tex gazed upwards, at the open sky. The New Republic had lived in caves for years, avoiding the gaze of the Federal Army and protecting them from aerial attacks.
Armonia had no such defenses. They were vulnerable to the sky. They were a bright, obvious target. The New Republic, by moving here, had sacrificed mobility and the option of guerilla warfare. Tex knew there was an argument to be made for strength in numbers, but she hated the idea of being trapped here. There was a river right to the south, another major weak point that Felix and Locus would be sure to exploit. She’d have to talk to the generals about doubling the patrol there, maybe mining the river…
“Why are you on the roof?” Church’s voice said behind her. Tex didn’t turn around.
“I like roofs,” she said.
Church hesitated, as if he had something he wanted to say, but he decided against it. He sat next to her instead. Tex angled her head slightly to look at him, making sure that he hadn’t fallen apart since she’d seen him last. But he still looked fine, his new armor clean and remarkably intact for everything they’d gone through. And he felt whole as he ever did, another thing to be grateful for. They hadn’t touched him. She’d know if they had, she was sure of that.
“I’m glad you’re back,” he said.
Tex nodded. After a moment of hesitation, she placed her hand on top of his in a deliberate motion. She saw no need for physical affection beyond that, not here and now. Later, maybe, she’d check him over fully and let him do the same for her. But now, this was enough.
She’d take these quiet moments where she could find them, in the middle of this new war.
“I need to go,” she said after a moment. “I want to investigate the docking bay.”
He nodded. She was loathe to remove her hand, but she did, jumping off the roof without care that the fall would injure most people.
Tex was not most people. Her landing was heavy, sure, but there were no witnesses besides Church, and it was faster than the stairs. So what if there were a few small cracks in the concrete that hadn’t been there before? No one would notice.
The docking bay was a bit of a walk from the headquarters, but Tex took it invisibly. It would be faster if she had borrowed a mongoose, but she couldn’t be bothered to do so, not when the trip was so short. People were already running around, moving in supplies from the caches both armies had all over the planet. Tex wanted to inspect some of them. Felix and Locus had known where these caches were, and she wouldn’t put it below them to do something like tampering with the weapons or food that they were going to need to survive.
She was initially pleased to spot a group of mixed cadets; Feds and Rebels both unloading their shipments, before she realized that they were tolerating each other for the sake of gossip.
“I definitely heard that Felix skinned a guy alive,” one of the Feds said, leaning in close, as if afraid she might be overheard. “I know a chick who was stationed in the south, and she swears she found the knife near his body. Orange stripe on the blade, y’know. Like he’s bragging. He wants people to know it’s him” She shook her head. “Locus was creepy and all, but at least I never heard of him torturing people for information.”
One of the rebels scoffed. “That’s a load of bullshit,” he said. “I heard that Locus tortures plenty.”
“Yeah, c’mon,” another rebel added. “The guy’s a fucking machine. He doesn’t care about things like that. I heard he tried to kill Agent Washington even though he was supposed to be with your group.”
Tex felt her mouth tug down in a frown, despite herself. Gossip was normally just irritating, but this was getting under her skin for reasons she didn’t care to examine. Tex ducked behind a pillar to decloak, before stepping out behind them. Normally she wouldn’t have bothered to hide her appearance, but people were jumpy about invisibility because of Locus. Yet another thing for her to hold against him. “You should probably get moving,” she said, keeping her voice deceptively mild. “We’re on a schedule.”
One of the Feds let out a small scream. “Yes, sir, Agent Texas!”
Tex was glad to see that Grif and Simmons were spreading her reputation around.
Seeing Tucker in a hospital bed, surrounded by medical equipment and all-too-still was one of the most difficult sights of Wash’s life. Wash didn’t like to quantify things like this, didn’t like to make lists of the macabre and awful things he’d seen and even done. But there were bandages on Tucker’s stomach stained with blood.
Doctor Grey had assured him and Kai repeatedly that Tucker was fine, but none of that removed the image seared into his mind from Kai’s description of the way that Tucker had crumpled to the ground. He hadn’t been there. He’d been too far away to be of any help, his ribs cracked and bruised from the brutal beating Locus had given him. But Kai had seen it all, seen every second, perched as she was on top of the tower with Carolina and the others. And from the way that she held Tucker’s hand, Wash thought she might have had it worse.
Wash held Tucker’s left hand in his own, running his thumb over his knuckles, his eyes flickering between Tucker and Kai.
The Reds and Blues had taken him in. They had given him a home. But it was Kai and Tucker who had looked at him, broken and screwed up as he was, and wanted him anyways. They were everything Wash wanted, and everything he knew he didn’t deserve, no matter how many times that they told him otherwise. He was lucky, amazingly lucky, that they loved him.
He was never going to let anything like this happen to Tucker again. Bad enough they’d been separated for so long, bad enough having spent every day not knowing if he was alright. But this?
Wash didn’t know how many more times he could take a sight like this before he lost it.
“How’s he doing?” Tex asked, poking her head in. She looked tired. She’d been running ragged over these past few days, trying to hunt down Felix and Locus. Wash had tried to tell her that she was wasting her time, but then he’d looked at Tucker again, and hadn’t found the words.
“He was awake longer this time,” Kai said quietly.
“Good,” Tex said. There was a dark, dangerous note to her voice that was reminiscent of how she’d sounded under Omega’s influence. “Has Church come to visit?”
“No,” Wash said. He reached up and pressed his fingers against Tucker’s cheek. “I think he’s… struggling.”
Tex let out a sound that Wash might have described as tired. “He is.” She moved closer to Tucker’s bed, hovering. “We were lucky,” she said. “They didn’t know who he was. They would have…”
“I know,” Wash said. God, he knew all too well the kind of things that might happen to Alpha if people with few enough morals got their hands on him. “But they don’t know. He’s safe.”
“They’ll figure it out if they put together that Epsilon sounds just like him,” Tex said. She stood at the foot of Tucker’s bed and gripped the posts, bowing her head. She was practically shaking with exhaustion or rage or something else entirely that Wash couldn’t place. She hadn’t removed her armor, but Wash knew her eyes were firmly on Tucker’s face. “This was too close,” she said.
“Yes,” Wash agreed.
“I’ve gotten sloppy,” Tex muttered, more to herself than to Wash. Wash looked up, surprised.
“Tex,” he said. “This wasn’t on you.” There were a thousand people Wash would blame before he thought to blame Tex. A part of him, before he’d met Kai and Tucker, had blamed Tex for parts of Freelancer. He was not immune from the competitiveness, from the bitterness that had tainted the rest of the project, and the favoritism that the Director had shown Tex, and the knowledge that the Director had thought that everything he was doing, he was doing for her, grated.
But he knew better now. Tex had been a victim, as much as the rest of them had been.
And she had been the one to take her vengeance on the man who had ruined all their lives, at least, if Sarge had guessed correctly. And Wash had learned long ago not to doubt Sarge’s deductions.
“I should have killed Felix at the cliff,” she said. “Sloppy. Soft.” There was a huff, as if she was taking a deep breath, but that was impossible, because Tex didn’t breathe anymore than Church did. But somewhere in that sound, Wash thought he heard another word, hissed like a curse.
But before Wash could ask Tex any questions, Tucker began to stir again, eyelids fluttering as he started to drift awake. When Wash looked up from Tucker’s face again, Tex was gone, without as much as a shimmer in the air to indicate that she was nearby.
And then Wash was too busy to remember Tex’s musings, occupied as he was with trying to stop Tucker from ripping his stitches as he tried to get out of bed far before Dr. Grey wanted him to.
“Tucker, sit down,” he said. “You’re going to make it worse.”
“Fuck that! I’ve been in here forever, I want to go home!”
“Our quarters’ situation hasn’t been fixed yet,” Wash lied through his teeth. Doyle’s second in command, a man named Fredericks, had already helped finish the paperwork to get the three of them reassigned into shared quarters. Wash had expected that they’d have to share with someone else, or that there would be protests about Kai sharing with two men, but Fredericks had tapped his nose and said that General Doyle had said that everything was okay.
The General of the Army had basically given them the okay to fraternize. And Wash had thought he and Kai had done a good job at keeping things secret while they were with the Federal Army, but it seemed that not only that, but Doyle had known about Tucker too. Wash didn’t know really what he was supposed to do with that, but he intended to make the most of it.
After Kai had threatened to tie Tucker to the bed, and then promised to do that to him when they got their quarters situation straightened out, Tucker finally agreed to lie back down. From the wince he was trying to hide, Wash suspected that he had been hoping for a promise like that all along.
Rolling his eyes exasperatedly, Wash pressed a kiss to Tucker’s knuckles as Grey began to fuss with his IV and painkillers.
And he didn’t think about how close they had nearly come to losing Tucker.
Kimball’s new office was bigger than three of her bunks back at the New Republic base. It was a strange thing. She’d never had a desk before; the leaders before her had, but she’d never really seen the need. The metal desk of her predecessor had been smelted down for bullets before his plane had been shot down anyways.
Felix had shot him down, she thought, running her hands over the wooden grains of the desk. Killed him for trying to leave the planet. They were trapped here, truly trapped, like rats in a trap.
The familiar burning sensation rose up in her throat but she swallowed it down. There wasn’t time for anything like that. She had too much to do, she couldn’t afford to linger on the way Felix had laughed in the video, and how it compared to every other time she’d heard him laugh.
There was already paperwork accumulating on her desk; Martinez, one of the soldiers who Harris had rescued, had appointed herself Kimball’s assistant, and had been helping her put together the paperwork they’d need to try to calculate the exact state of the New Republic and Federal Armies’ joint supplies.
Slipping into the seat behind the desk, Kimball set to work, internally marveling at the fact she wasn’t crouched over a card table in her bunk. There simply wasn’t enough room at their old base for an office to only be an office, so her private quarters had doubled as hers. But Armonia had rooms to spare, even now with the New Republic squeezing in.
It was hard not to envy the Federal Army for all this space. Logistically, it made things difficult for them she knew. They didn’t have the population to man a city of this size, and defending it was difficult. The city was formed by three rings; the suburbs outside the city wall, the city itself inside the city wall, and then the military area, inside yet another wall. All of the suburbs and the city outside of the inner wall had been abandoned, and were trapped to try to form additional layers of defenses. It was in those defenses where Kimball and her people had been caught when they’d tried to attack Armonia.
There was a knock on the door, and Kimball straightened up.
A tall woman in teal armor walked in, and Kimball wanted to stare. She’d seen photographs of Agent Carolina, but none of them had really done her justice. There was an aura she carried with her, of sheer power and confidence. Her armor was well worn, like all other armor on this planet, but it was still a sight. It was augmented in ways that Kimball could notice, but she had no idea what they were supposed to do. It was clearly the kind of armor that Kimball couldn’t afford to equip her own soldiers with; the kind of armor that people like Felix and Locus wore.
Kimball hadn’t met Carolina, even amongst all the chaos of readjusting. There hadn’t been time. She’d been coordinating with Doyle, writing peace treaties, agreeing to terms of alliances. She’d stopped by the infirmary to check on Tucker, and met the frequently mentioned Washington and Kaikaina in the process, but other than those two, she’d only seen the captains out of the vaunted Reds and Blues. There was too much going on.
“General Kimball?” Agent Carolina said, saluting.
“Just Kimball, please. You must be Agent Carolina,” she said. “Tucker spoke of you often.”
There was the slightest of softening to Carolina at that. “I see.”
“How can I help you?” Kimball said, before realizing there wasn’t a spare chair in her office. Grimacing, she made a note to ask Martinez to try to find one—surely there was a storage room with furniture somewhere in this city.
“I just wanted to let you know that Epsilon has finished decrypting the manifest the Reds took from The Hand of Merope,” Carolina said.
“Yeah, cuz I’m fucking awesome like that,” said a voice that was vaguely familiar to Kimball as a bright blue light shimmered before forming the small armored figure.
Kimball frowned, before placing the voice. “You sound like Private Church,” she said. She still hadn’t met him, but he’d radioed her several times, helping out the Federal Army with their own logistics.
Epsilon paused, and then fidgeted, in an act of sheer, unmistakable humanity. “It’s… complicated,” he said. “But hey! I figured out the identity of this “Control” guy.”
Kimball swallowed. “I—we should get Doyle, he’ll want to be here.” She paused, looking at Epsilon. “Did you—do you know why he wants Chorus?”
“He’s reverse engineering the alien technology he finds on this planet,” Carolina said. “And then he’s selling them.”
It was like the world falling out from under her again. “All this… for money?”
People had died. Their world was savaged. Kimball had sent people to their deaths, had been willing to die, had believed every lie that had come out of Felix’s mouth, and it had all been for profit. Someone, out there, was profiting off the deaths of her people. Maybe they had started it, but there was more to it than that. Someone had paid Felix and Locus to make sure they never made it to the negotiation table. Someone made sure no one could go for help.
All so he could reap the rewards from a planet of the dead.
Carolina placed a hand on Kimball’s arm, warm and comforting. “We’ll make sure they pay for this,” she said, and there was a ferocity in her voice that made Kimball’s knees weak. She tried to remind herself that now was not the time, but it really didn’t help much. There was a presence to Carolina that was almost intoxicating, and Kimball was caught up in it.
There was another knock on the door, and Harris poked his head in. “Hey Kimball, do you have a sec—oh. Carolina.”
Kimball felt her heart leap at the sight of him. She still hadn’t managed to get a hold of him since finding out he was alive. It was odd, but she’d missed him a lot, even though she’d known he was alive and well.
(She refused to let herself think of her reaction to his death.)
“Private Harris,” she said, and she couldn’t quite keep the fondness out of her voice. Glancing at Carolina, she decided to risk some unprofessional behavior, and crossed the room, intending to hug him before she lost her nerve. She wasn’t sure if Harris would be comfortable with that, after all. She placed a hand on his shoulder instead, but she couldn’t help feeling that the gesture was insufficient. “It’s good to see you alive,” she said.
Harris suddenly seemed incredibly uncomfortable. “That’s—that’s what I’m here to talk to you about. Kind of. Not the alive thing. But there’s… there’s something I need to tell you.”
Kimball frowned. “Can it wait? Agent Carolina says Epsilon has cracked the encryption. I was going to call Doyle.”
“That is an incorrect statement,” an unfamiliar voice said, and Kimball leapt back as a green armored hologram, the exact size of Epsilon, appeared in front of her. “Epsilon never was fond of sharing credit.”
“Oh, c’mon Dee, don’t be like that,” Epsilon snapped.
“Dee?” Kimball said. “Another AI?”
“Uh, Kimball, this is Delta,” Harris said, rubbing the back of his neck. “He’s… he’s my partner.”
“It is good to meet you at last, General Kimball,” Delta said, and his voice was distorted, so clearly inhuman compared to Epsilon’s. There was intonation there, she realized, separating him from the voices of normal machines. But she’d never mistake his voice for that of a natural human one.
“But… I thought only Freelancers were partnered with AI,” Kimball said, numbly staring at the little green avatar. Delta was wearing outdated armor, but was looking at her curiously, as if gauging her reaction.
Harris scuffed his foot on the floor, but met her gaze. He was bracing for something, she realized. He was expecting something bad to happen. The thought chilled her to the core. “That’s the part I need to tell you.” He took a deep breath. “My name isn’t Nick Harris. I’m… I’m Agent New York of Project Freelancer.”
Kimball stared at him, and then looked at Delta. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She said, feeling honestly hurt. He hadn’t trusted her. All this time, she’d thought he was her friend, and he hadn’t trusted her.
After Felix, that cut deeper than it should have.
“I do!” Harris—York?—said quickly, holding up his hands. “But I thought Felix might sell me and Delta out, and—”
“What?” Kimball said, incredulously.
“Pff, some friends you have, York,” Epsilon said, and she turned slightly, remembering that he and Carolina were still in the room, watching all of this. “Can’t trust them not to sell you out.”
Kimball’s head swiveled to Epsilon. “Friends?”
Even through his helmet, Kimball could tell that York was currently trying to kill Epsilon with his gaze. “Felix and I served in the war together,” York said. He was standing straighter, all of a sudden, his hands clasped behind his back. Suddenly, she could see it. A Freelancer. She had been working with a Freelancer this whole time. She felt that when she had time, she’d be able to put things together more coherently. That he’d provided her with some parts of the picture that she’d been missing this whole time. “Alongside Locus.”
Kimball felt her own gaze harden. The taste on her tongue was bitter and fresh. She could recognize it as betrayal now. When had it become such a familiar feeling? “You knew?”
“No!” York said. “I—look, he was a bastard, but you were paying him, so I didn’t think—I didn’t know he’d—”
Kimball had heard plenty.
“Agent York, I think that’s enough for now,” she said, and she was amazed by the steadiness of her own voice. She didn’t feel steady. First Felix, then Harris… what was next? Tucker? Caboose? Was there anyone that she could trust? “You’re dismissed.”
There was a moment when he just looked at her. Then his gaze jumped to Carolina for a moment, almost as if he was expecting her to have something to add, before looking back to Kimball. He nodded once, then saluted her. But it wasn’t the normal, lazy one that usually could make her smile, even on the worst days, but a proper salute, stiff and formal.
And then he left, leaving Kimball alone with the other Freelancer and the other AI.
Kimball is officially a disaster for these two Freelancers. Luckily, they're disasters for her too.
I'm working on my official map of Armonia, and I'll probably link it next chapter. Hope you guys enjoyed!
Chapter 10: Juliet
Sorry for the delay; things have been pretty complicated and messy IRL lately, and then I realized that I needed to add in another chapter before we move on. It's a little short, but hopefully you guys can forgive me, because it's time to circle back to the heart of this series for a chapter at least; Tex and York's friendship.
The worst part was, York knew he deserved it.
Every bit of it; the dirty looks Tucker was sending in his way as he was finally allowed out of the infirmary, the stiffness in Wash’s shoulders as they tried to figure out their plan of attack, and especially the cold and formal way that Kimball said “Agent York”. Like it was a curse, like it pained her to say it.
And every single bit of it, York knew it was earned.
He should have known. Felix and Locus; how could he ever have believed them to be estranged? Like Felix would ever have let that happen, like Locus could ever have turned on Felix. Those two had always been thick as thieves, in a way that India had always disapproved of but had never had the heart to discourage. They’d been brought in as a team, afterall. It wouldn’t be proper to try to separate them.
Those two had been hard from the beginning, but that wasn’t unusual. Most of them had been. You weren’t picked for a squad like theirs without experience, without blood on your hands. Maybe Felix had seemed a bit more interested in assignments dealing with insurrectionists instead of aliens, but York had never thought much about it. Plenty of soldiers hated traitors, and the punishment for defection in a world like theirs was always harsh.
York clasped his hands around the back of his neck, his thumbs tracing circles over the port of Delta’s implants, and tried to breathe.
They’d want him dead. They’d want him dead badly.
He should, he knew, write it all down, so that even if they got him, it would still exist. The truth, about those days, about what he’d done—about what they’d all done. Isaac and Sam and Mason and Foxtrot and—and all of it. Every dirty secret he’d carried with him since long before Freelancer, anything, because there was no way of knowing if any of it was connected to Charon or to Hargrove, anything might be able to give them an advantage over Felix and Locus.
But god. It had been such a long time since he’d thought of those days; his sins during Freelancer were so much more recent, more real, than those distant ones. Freelancer had been meant to atone, for those days. It was supposed to be easy and clean, nothing like the early days. Writing it down would make it real, would be the ultimate proof that they were absolutely right.
Carolina and Tex thought they had blood on their hands, but it was nothing compared to what York had done, what he had failed to do, during those days. They were soldiers, they might have killed more than he had, but—
<York,> Delta reprimanded him, somewhere in the midst of the spiral that York was caught up in.
“Don’t, Dee,” he said. His good eye was closed. “Just… just don’t.”
<York, Agent Carolina is approaching,> Delta said, just a little more forcefully. Quickly, York straightened up, lowering his hands from their position over the back of his neck. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to create that casual but suave look that he tried so hard to maintain. Carolina didn’t need to know that he had been freaking out in a storage room over yet more of his secrets.
Carolina’s movements were also stiff. They were almost wary, which was hilarious, because they both knew she could put him down in a single move if she was so inclined.
“York,” she said. There was that clipped, short tone. It wasn’t the one she used when he’d been talking shit, and had crossed a line. This was something else entirely. York wasn’t quite sure what it was.
He looked at her. “What is it?” He asked. He didn’t stand up. He was too tired for all of this; it felt like it had seeped into his bones, this complete and utter exhaustion that he couldn’t shake.
Everyone around him, everything around him, two people he would have once, if not trusted with his wallet, known would watch his back, wanted to destroy. Felix, who had acted like Kimball’s confidant, wanted her dead. Locus, who had once let the refugee children camped out near their jungle base sit on his shoulders, was willing to kill every child on this planet.
What might York have become, if Delta wasn’t in his head? If Tex hadn’t pulled him out of Freelancer? What lines would he have been willing to cross?
It was a heavy thought and York didn’t like it.
“You never told me anything about special ops,” she said, finally. “Never.” There was betrayal there, implied at least, but this time, York bristled.
“When we—when we started that,” York said. “We said no names, no history, no strings.”
Carolina scowled, taking a step towards him. “Since when did you care about that?”
Most of the agreement had been moot in York’s mind for years. Sometime along the way, casual, blowing off steam had become something more intimate, something real.
Strings had been lost long before they had kissed in the grass in front of blue base, the thrill of mutual survival humming through their veins. He loved her, had mourned her, had lost her, and then found her again. She was his history now, possibly even more so than anything that had become before her.
But he had never told her a name further back than Foxtrot, and that had been a conscious choice. The name from before was burned in every sense of the word, burned and buried and then the ashes scattered to the winds for good measure. None of the people who had once known him by that name would recognize Agent York, even before he had lost an eye. There were virtually no similarities between the kid he’d been and the person he was now.
Carolina had never told him hers, either, or at least not her first name. But he did know her last name, although she had never told him. Tex had been the one to explain it to him, one night behind the waterfall, liquor heavy on his lips as he had curled against her side and cried for Carolina, cried because if he’d just tried harder, explained better, hadn’t been cocky and over-sure, had just tried a little harder to get her to listen—maybe she wouldn’t have gone off that cliff. Tex had been the one to tell him about that all important last name.
And that name alone told him her history in the broadest strokes possible, even if she still didn’t know his. But she knew that he’d known, and that made this confrontation hurt all the more, because she wasn’t wrong.
York’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t like thinking about it,” he said, finally. “It’s—I didn’t want you to hate me. The things I did—”
“You think I’d judge you?” Carolina said, incredulous. He knew what she was thinking; there was a tower, in a civilian town, a massacre on a highway, a project of friends and family in ashes around them.
York laughed. “Why not? I do.” He shook his head. “That—Felix, Locus, everything I did. That was supposed to be over. They burned my file, Carolina, there’s… there’s nothing less.” Freelancer had burned Foxtrot’s file, which already was cleared out of information of who he’d been before. There were no records at all of who he’d been when he’d joined the army. York was a ghost.
He turned around and walked away.
Carolina let him go.
Tex finally reported to the generals after Carolina told her off for avoiding them.
“Just…” Carolina was tired, Tex could tell. She wasn’t as ragged as she had been in those last days of Freelancer. The edges were still neat, not fraying at the edges. But there were dark circles under her eyes and her skin was pale. She was tightly wound, and Tex could guess that the reason why was a four letter word and her best friend. “Talk to them. You’ll be an important asset in the fight against Charon.”
Tex tilted her head in as much acknowledgement as she was willing to give.
She’d mostly forgiven Carolina for the others nearly dying. She understood, in a way, Carolina’s logic. Tex was a computer, she could do the math. It had made sense to continue their covert operations. And without the information they had gathered, they might not have been able to circumvent the trap that Felix and Locus had created for the Reds and Blues.
She ignored thinking about the Director.
Carolina and Epsilon hadn’t been killing as much, Tex knew that. She’d seen Epsilon’s math, knew he was deliberately trying to leave as many of them alive as possible. Tex wanted to grab them both by the shoulders and shake them. She wanted to scream. Every enemy left alive would come back to haunt them later.
There was no choice for mercy. Kindness was not an option. Felix and Locus and the pirates were trying to wipe out an entire planet. Tex had seen the list of the dead in her exploration of Armonia’s computer files. They had already made significant headway into their work.
It was guilt, Tex knew. It was guilt and this desire to change, to be better. It was the same problem York had, and Tex wanted to scream because those two might get the rest of them killed for their guilt.
Tex walked away from Carolina, towards the room where she would be meeting Kimball and Doyle.
Tex would have to work twice as hard to make sure that the pirates’ numbers shrunk accordingly, if Carolina wasn’t willing to pick up the slack.
She pushed open the doors, and glanced. Two people, both in armor. One in the uniform of the New Republic, one in the Federal Army. They were shouting, too, something about housing arrangements and designated areas. Things Tex didn’t care about, anyways. The Reds and Blues had been assigned a part of one of the smaller barracks, and Tex had already located secondary places to stash things and sleep if necessary. Not that she slept. But she could pass it along.
Tex didn’t cloak; Wash had lectured her already about not using it openly, especially in front of Feds. She didn’t want to piss off the people who were going to be in charge.
Well. She also didn’t want to be working for people who liked her too much. Not again, at least.
Finally, they noticed her, and the shouting awkwardly tapered off.
Tex nodded. “Agent Texas,” she said by way of introduction.
“Yes,” the woman said—Kimball, that was her name. York and Tucker liked her, which was probably a good sign, even if she thought York might like her a little too much. “Vanessa Kimball.”
“General Donald Doyle,” the man said. “It really is a pleasure, Colonel Sarge and Private Grif have told me a great deal about you.”
Kimball turned slightly, as if wanting to say something. “Yes, well, your reputation has certainly preceded you here,” Kimball says, but there’s a strangled undertone there that makes Tex think she just missed out on some first class passive aggression. She’s almost disappointed.
Tex smirked. “I do what I can,” she said.
“We are, of course, immensely grateful for all of your assistance in helping uncover Locus and Felix’s treachery,” Doyle said.
Tex shrugged. She hadn’t done it for them. She thought about Tucker in the hospital bed, and something dark and angry coiled tightly in her stomach. She’d kill Felix for that alone. They would both die, but Felix especially for that. Slow and painful, like he deserved.
Church had once told her the story of how “she” had beaten someone to death with his own skull. Tex always had wanted to see if she could really do it.
“Only five of you have formally accepted commissions by the armies,” Kimball said, picking up a datapad. “The rest of you are currently… advising, I believe is the term Agent Carolina decided to use.”
Tex frowned. “Six, isn’t it? The five with you and then Sarge?”
There was a stiffness to Kimball’s shoulders, suddenly, and Tex watched, fascinated, as the relatively pleasant woman in front of her became a stiff and angry military leader. “Agent York never accepted a commission during his time with the New Republic.”
Tex wanted to smack her hand against her forehead—better yet, smack it against York’s forehead. York had fucked up here. She could sense it; the raw hurt in Kimball’s voice when she said York’s name was as obvious as York’s crush on the woman.
She had waded into something weird and complicated, and Tex wanted no part of this.
“What does advising mean?” She asked, sidestepping York for now. She would deal with York after she’d plied him with enough alcohol to figure out where his brain was at.
“You’re technically outside of the chain of command,” Doyle said. “Agent Washington is intending to assist with training, but, ah, officially he will not be leading squads into the field, and neither will any of the others who have not accepted a commission.”
Tex sighed. “And what does it actually mean?”
“You still answer to us,” Kimball said. “But insubordination is not punishable, and you’ll operate outside of the formal structure. You’ll have more leeway to take initiative or go off on your own.”
Tex hummed thoughtfully. So… doing her normal thing. She could probably handle that. She would have to ask Church and Kai why they hadn’t taken commissions, though. That seemed like it could get complicated quickly.
Not to mention, it was probably going to drive Church crazy, that Tucker and Caboose outranked him.
“We have, ah… a rough approximate of your abilities from the others,” Doyle said. “An active camouflage unit was mentioned, I believe?”
Tex cocked her head to one side. “I’m stronger than the others, slower than Carolina though. Don’t stay up quite as long as Wash, but it’s harder to hurt me.”
Kimball looked at her curiously. “And York?”
Huh. So maybe York’s crush wasn’t unrequited. Tex stared at her for a beat, then decided that York had this coming, for putting Carolina and Kimball both in such a bad mood.
“I can lie for shit, unlike York.” Then she turned on her heel, activated her invisibility, and left the room.
She found York not long after that; he had broken into the room she was sharing with Church, sitting on her bed.
“Hey,” he said, in that slow, tired way of his that meant he was having a bad day. She was surprised he wasn’t on a roof smoking somewhere, but then she remembered that they were on a planet with limited supplies. Smoking might be out of the question right now.
Tex nodded to acknowledge him, then started taking off her armor, piece by piece. York said nothing, instead leaning back against the pillows that Tex had never touched, fiddling with what looked like the internal motor for a toy car.
Tex didn’t like taking her armor off much, especially not on this planet. It was almost suffocating, just how much danger filled this planet. Mercenaries who could move as freely as she could, and there was no way there weren’t spies and traitors in their midst. Locus and Felix had been integrated in these armies for years. They had to have friends or contacts, people who might think they could win their survival with the right knife in the right back.
Armonia was supposed to be safe. But Tex hadn’t felt safe for a very long time.
“So,” Tex said, after taking her helmet off. “Kimball, huh?”
York didn’t look at her. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
Tex grabbed the pillow out from under his head, sending him falling down. “You’re a terrible liar,” she informed him.
York looked up at her, and god he looked awful.
A part of her wished they’d never left Valhalla. He’d never looked this bad there; even on his worse days, he’d never looked at her like this. Like he was expecting her to tell him to get out of her room.
She hated this planet with every part of her being. It had split up her friends, it had put them in danger, it was a murderous, terrible place, and it had brought up York’s past, a topic so fraught that he had only ever spoken of it to her a few, halting, drunk times.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t pretty, she had known that for years now. Even now, with more pieces of the puzzle, she knew there was more of it. There were things that he couldn’t even say out loud—dark and complicated and messy and much better left forgotten.
“I don’t care about Felix and Locus,” she told him, and it was the truth. York was an idiot, she had known. He also believed in people; stupidly, naively, optimistically, but he did. He had believed the Director when he told York they were going to end the war. He had believed that Carolina would just listen when he tried to tell her. He had believed that Felix was still the guy he had known back during the war. He wouldn’t have seen any of this coming. “So stop looking at me like that.”
A small smile twitched at the edge of York’s mouth. “Thanks Tex,” he said.
Tex rolled her eyes and sat down next to him, sitting down against the foot of her bed, facing him. Their legs met in the middle, giving Tex ample kicking opportunity.
“You really fucked up this time,” Tex said conversationally.
York twisted the machine in his hands. “Yep.”
“I heard Tucker got Grif to short-sheet your bed.”
“I think Kimball likes you back.”
York dropped the motor with a loud yelp.
Tex snorted, tapping her ankle lightly against his knee. “Does Carolina know you’re pining after other girls? Not that I blame you, Kimball seems cool.”
York made a strangled noise, then shook his head. “It’s not like that, Tex,” he said, quietly. “I love Carolina.” There was a heaviness to that sentence, one Tex had heard a thousand times. A longing, a mourning, and then something else entirely.
“Just do what makes you happy,” she said. “Like spar with me.”
“Tex, I love you, but I also enjoy my ribs.”
“What if I promise only to go after your kneecaps?”
“I’m getting old! I need those!”
“Boring,” Tex said, and kept going until she’d cajoled York off her bed, into armor, and towards the training rooms.
Chorus was a shithole, and she hated it.
But at least she had this.
Chapter 11: Kilo
IT'S STILL THE SECOND IN MY TIME ZONE I MADE MY GOAL.
Today marks the 8th anniversary of my participation in fandom! Hell yeah, kid me had no idea what she was getting into when she started writing ATLA OC fic.
Things were finally starting to calm down. Tucker’s stomach was finally okay, although he had a pretty big, nasty looking scar.
Kai tried not to look at it that much. It wasn’t fair, she knew, because Wash had loads of scars and they didn’t freak her out at all, but this one… it was different somehow. Because she’d seen it happen, she’d seen Tucker crumple to the ground, she’d heard the sounds he’d made as the knife had gone in. Wash’s scars were older. They were faded. They were from before.
Kai hadn’t nearly lost Wash for any of those scars. Well, she had, but she hadn’t had to watch.
Armonia was okay. They had their own room and that meant they could have a lot of fun. They all had a bunch of promises and fantasies to live up to now that they were all together. But deep down, there was always something small and hard at the bottom of Kai’s stomach. It wasn’t like Valhalla; those days had been always touched with a slight glow in her memories. They were just good.
Even now, her face buried in Wash’s chest and her fingers tangled with Tucker’s, Kai couldn’t stop thinking about how Locus and Felix were inches away from trying to take this away from her. They were going to try to destroy this; them specifically and everything and everyone around them.
It made Kai almost glad when Doyle and Kimball called them all into the war room.
There was a nervous hum in the air; there were representatives of all armies. Lots of squad leaders; people who Wash had trained when they were with the Feds. A bunch of Donut’s friends too. The El-Tees were there, each of them sticking by their captains.
Kai stuck close to Wash, with the others who weren’t affiliated with either sides. York was the only one of them who’d been with the New Republic who wasn’t with a squad. Kai frowned, wondering about that, but refocused her energy on Kimball. She was hot, Kai decided quickly. She’d only had a few brief interactions with Kimball previously; things had been busy. But Kimball had visited Tucker a few times, which made her okay in Kai’s book. She had been worried about him.
“It’s been weeks now,” Kimball said, hands clasped behind her back. “We’re settled in as well as we can. And now General Doyle and I are in agreement that it’s time we begin to take action.”
Doyle nodded. “We’ve received word of a large cache of supplies, including ammunition. Which, I’m afraid to say, we are in grave need of.”
“But we also have had word about some… strange activity from the alien artifacts on the other side of the planet,” Kimball said. “Our current plan is to send a small, elite scouting force to see what they can find on that side of the planet, while organizing another, larger force to go after the supplies.”
“We’ll also be having a force remaining here at Armonia,” Doyle interrupted, and Kimball shot him a look which Kai could identify as a stink-eye a mile away. They’d fought over that, she guessed. Maybe a lot.
“The scouting mission would be volunteers only,” Kimball said. “We’ve been getting… strange reports from that area.”
“Whoa, hold up there, what kind of strange?” Dex called. “Are we talking like, alien bullshit strange or just “we’ve got no fucking clue” strange, because let me tell you, last time we got alien bullshit strange, someone got pregnant, and let’s not repeat that.”
“Captain Grif,” Kimball said, and oh boy, she wasn’t happy with Dex.
“I’m afraid the reports are inconclusive,” Doyle said apologetically. “A few small patrols have gone missing in the area. Those who have reported back have made mentions of… bears.”
“Which is why the force needs to be small and elite,” Kimball said. “We need them to be able to move quickly and be able to handle themselves should any trouble arise.”
“We volunteer!” Sarge said immediately.
“We, Colonel?” Doyle asked, looking at Kimball as he said it. Had they been hoping the Freelancers would go?
“Sure thing! Me and the boys would be happy to go! And the girl, if Red here wants to come with,” Sarge said, slapping a hand on Carolina’s shoulder.
Carolina shook her head. “I think I’ll be more useful with the supplies team,” she said. “Plus, if it’s a pirate cache, there might be more of that Freelancer technology there.”
And so began the usual bickering about who was going where. In the end though, it split up just as Kai had figured it would, after Sarge had volunteered the Reds for the scouting mission. The Reds and Blues, minus the Freelancers and plus Doctor Hot Stuff, were going to check out aliens. The Freelancers and Kimball were going to the cache.
Doyle and the El-Tees were all planning on staying back in Armonia to try to keep the peace and hold down the fort. And possibly have an orgy, but Kai was pretty sure her suggestion on that front was going to be ignored, so she wouldn’t get her hopes up.
“Are you sure I shouldn’t come with you two?” Wash asked, looking at Kai and Tucker nervously. “I can probably switch…”
“Dude, they’re both short runs,” Tucker said. He placed his hand against Wash’s visor and pushed him back slightly. “We’ll be home soon. Besides, Kimball’s gonna need you to have her back.”
Wash hesitated, before nodding in agreement. “Just… be safe. Both of you.”
“What’s to worry about?” Simmons said. All of them turned their heads to look at him. He was standing right next to Dex, just far enough away that it wasn’t obvious that they wanted to be holding hands, even though (duh) they clearly wanted to. “We’ve got four Freelancers on our side. It’s going to be fine.”
Dex let out a long, agonized groan. “We’re all gonna die now,” he said.
“What?” Simmons demanded.
Kai swallowed, and hugged Wash tightly.
Things were going to be fine.
The trek out to the cache was long and awkward as could be expected when York was in the same warthog as Kimball.
York had been avoiding her since… everything. Large meetings only, and certainly no situations which involved him in the shotgun position and Kimball driving. There was a Fed behind them in the gunner position, a kid named Dulles, which only made it more awkward. Because York wasn’t about to apologize, no matter how much he might have wanted to, not with a Fed in the back.
He’d met Dulles briefly in Armonia, sneaking around the edges of the meetings. Dulles could have been intelligence in another life, York and Delta were in complete agreement on that. She was quiet and slender, and favored knives in a way that kind of reminded York of Connie. The gunner position didn’t suit her, but York wasn’t about to ask Kimball for control of a powerful weapon. She was antsy enough in this position, with him close enough to slide a knife into her ribs. Her glances in his direction were twitchy and frequent.
He tried not to think too hard about why she’d even gotten into the warthog in the first place. It was probably to keep an eye on him or something like that.
There was a ping on his channel with Tex.
TX: have u tried pickup lines.
NY: please don’t
NY: who are you and what have you done with my best friend
NY: you’re a terrible person you know that
NY: I’m ignoring you now
York glanced over at Kimball again. These past few weeks had clearly taken a toll on her. Her entire body was tense. The kind of tense that Carolina had been, those last few weeks at Freelancer before York had left. But at least when Carolina had been like this, York had been able to help somewhat. He’d been able to try to make her laugh, to try to rub some of the aches and tension out of her shoulders, to let her pin him to the wall.
He shoved the last one aside viciously, because those thoughts and Kimball were not compatible. Those thoughts and Carolina were hardly compatible these days.
Of all the things that he’d have thought Felix would screw up, York had to admit that his love life would not be one of them. But in hindsight, that was stupid of him. It was exactly the sort of thing that Felix would do.
“We’re approaching the nav point,” Kimball said.
York tapped his foot as quietly as he could. “Any sign of hostiles?”
“We’re expecting a small force,” Kimball said for a second, it was like she wasn’t furious at him. “No sign yet.”
York nodded, then turned back away before she could remember that he had lied to her.
“Private Dulles,” Kimball said suddenly, and there was the bite, the anger. She wasn’t happy she’d forgotten. “I need you to go rendevouz with Agent Washington. You’re going to be on the advanced team.”
“Yes ma’am!” Dulles said. At least she was one of the polite Feds. York had been hearing rumors. Not that anyone was dumb enough to badmouth Kimball in front of him, but he’d been hearing things. York could practically see the smirk on Dulles’ face as she began to launch herself onto the next warthog, clearly intending to leapfrog through the wave of cards until she reached Wash.
York laughed as he realized that Kimball had not been expecting that, given the spluttering that was emerging from her helmet. He stopped as soon as she turned her helmet to him, radiating coldness and a quiet, stern fury.
“Sorry,” York said.
“For what, Agent York?” Kimball snapped.
York looked away.
The cache was in a mountainous region, but still in the rainforest. It was far away from anywhere on Chorus that York had been before. The supplies were supposed to be in a cave, with a small guard force at the mouth of it.
York shifted in his seat as he stared at the natural beauty of Chorus, not looking at Kimball. A thousand confessions were heavy on his tongue. If anyone deserved to know his sins, surely it was her. “I…”
Because the universe had a sense of humor, that was the moment that York noticed the faintly paler patches in the dirt of the road they were driving on. York shot up on his feet, his good eye darting back and forth in accordance with Delta’s readings. “Mines!” He screamed into his radio. His heart was hammering in his chest, pushing aside his guilt. “Landmines, it’s a—”
The first line of warthogs hit the landmines with a deafening noise. York and Kimball didn’t hit one of them directly, but the shockwave still sent them backwards.
York and Kimball both scrambled out of the warthog. “Damn it!” Kimball snarled. “Agent York, Agent Carolina, get your AI moving, we need to see if we can map our way through this—”
That was when the first sniper shot went off.
Kimball saw it before York did, his back turned as he was to the nest.
“Get down!” Kimball yelled, and York let out a howl of pain as the bullet passed right through his left shoulder. He and Kimballl hit the ground hard, her lying on top of him. “Harris!”
York let out a loud gasp. “Dee—”
“Healing unit active,” Delta reassured both of them. Kimball’s hands were pressed over the wound. The blood was staining her pale armor. “Thank you for your quick thinking, General Kimball. The bullet’s trajectory would have been… fatal.”
Kimball’s breathing was heavy. “Someone take out that sniper!” She called into her radio. Around them, more bullets were flying. There were screams. A few more of the mines went off. “A trap,” she muttered, still on top of York, still trying to put pressure on the wound. “This was a—”
<Lucky again, Foxtrot?> A voice, soft and distinctly familiar, came in through the radio. From the stiffness of Kimball’s spine, she was hearing it too. York could just hope he wasn’t broadcasting on all channels.
Of all the ghosts from his past, it figured it would be him. “Siris,” York gasped out. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
<You’re supposed to be dead, Foxtrot,> Siris’ voice was perfectly calm, but there was rage beneath the surface. York had always been decent at telling Siris’ moods; it had been practice for North, in a way, learning to tell when the amiable sniper was about to lose his temper. <I figure I’d make sure that you got what you deserve.>
Kimball was staring down at him, clearly on the verge of a thousand questions. “Kimball,” he said urgently, ignoring the hammering of his heart in his chest, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, ignoring Siris’s voice echoing in his mind. “We need to get out of here.”
For a moment, she just stared at him, and he half wondered, in a dizzy moment, if she was going to just shoot him and be done. Kill him before any more of his sins came back to haunt the armies of Chorus. Maybe they’d all be better off that way.
But then there was a blaze of gunfire, and Carolina leapt into sight. Kimball’s head snapped up, breaking the moment with York, and the thought dissipated quickly. “Sniper’s gone,” she reported, breathing heavily. There was no sign of Epsilon, but there were streaks of soot on her armor. She must have been close to one of the landmines. “One of the Feds took out the nest with a chain gun, but they were already gone.”
“He,” York said. His own voice sounded faint and distant to his ears.
Carolina paused, staring at him. Kimball was still lying on top of him, practically straddling in, and his blood was everywhere. “You’re hurt,” she said. She sounded oddly quiet, in a way that York couldn’t place or make sense of.
“He,” York repeated, because if he focused on anything else he might lose consciousness or start panicking, and they couldn’t afford either of those things. “It’s Siris, another one of… he was… he’s like me.”
“Later!” Kimball snapped, but her grip on his shoulder had turned painful. “We need to pull everybody out of here. What’s the status?”
“They’re trying to circle us,” Epsilon reported. For a second, York thought that his projection was staticky, but he must have imagined it, because when he looked again, the avatar was clear as day. “We’ve still got a gap letting us retreat, but we don’t have much time. We’ve got to move!”
“Go,” Carolina said to Kimball, bending down. “I’ve got York.”
“Let someone else do it!” Epsilon howled, but that was the extent of his protests. Ha. York knew he’d grow on him. Delta hummed in his veins, irritated and worried in equal parts. Delta knew what Siris meant.
Kimball nodded stiffly, then got off York and walked away. For a moment, York missed the weight of her, before he pushed that thought so deep down it would take one of Sarge’s fancy drills to dig it up again. Delta had stopped the bleeding at least, so he didn’t need to keep holding it, but he probably should get patched up soon.
Carolina pulled him to his feet, and York sagged against her. It was a familiar position, his arm looped around her waist. Even the blood didn’t make it unfamiliar, but there was a hardness between them that there had never been before. York had broken this. He had broken them. He had managed to destroy one of the few good things he had, and these secrets had possibly destroyed it beyond repair. He swallowed, and held on tighter, dizzy with bloodloss. The mines had stopped exploding at least, even if there’s still plenty of gunfire. But at least a part of those guns are from their side, so York just leans against Carolina as she half drags him, half helps him away from the chaos, and listens to Kimball shout and try to corral the army into a retreat.
A message pinged in the corner of his HUD.
But this time it wasn’t from Tex.
Felix: did u rlly think it would be that easy foxy?
It had been a trap. All of it; the weeks of recon, the supplies—it had been a trap, and they had fallen for it.
And Wash hadn’t been able to raise Tucker or Kai or any of the others since they’d figured out what was happening.
The pirates chased them back, and Wash tried not to freak out at their losses. The warthogs were bad enough, but he hadn’t gotten a casualty count. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“Sir!” Fredericks, one of the Feds who had taken the gunner position on their warthog. “We’ve got to start conserving ammunition on return fire! We’re running low.”
Wash bit his tongue. “Not much farther, soldier!” He shouted. Armonia was quickly growing closer. Once they were inside the walls, they would be safe.
“Open the gates!” Kimball ordered through their radios. “Towers, get ready, we’re pursued!”
Wash had never been so grateful for a city’s defenses as he was at that moment, when the towering gates of Armonia swung open. There would be two layers of walls between them and the pirates soon enough.
As they passed through the gates and entered the deadzone, Wash realized something.
“Locus knows the traps,” Wash said.
“No he doesn’t!” Dulles, the driver, said with a whooping laugh as she slammed on the brakes. “We’ve been changing them up, don’t you worry Agent Washington! Your girlfr—uh, Private Grif has been helping us with that.”
Wash didn’t react to the near-slip, but instead leapt out of the warthog to go towards the others for answers.
“What’s happening?” He demanded.
Kimball was standing there, with Carolina on one side and a Rebel soldier on the other.
“Go, find Doyle,” Kimball ordered the soldier, who snapped a salute and took off. “We’re still trying to figure that out, Washington.”
“We were set up,” Texas snapped, decloaking suddenly. Kimball jumped and swore, one hand going to her weapon. “I just got off the wall,” she added. “They’re not moving.”
Kimball’s eyes flickered up to the top of the wall, doubtlessly wondering how Tex had made it down from there so quickly. Wash didn’t say anything. If Tex wanted everybody to know that her body was inorganic, that was her own business.
“How much did we lose?” Carolina asked.
“We’re still figuring it out,” Kimball said. Her voice was bleak but steady. “We lost more in the retreat.”
“Most of the casualties were equipment, sir,” a woman with orange stripes on her armor reported. One of Grif’s then. “We got lucky; a lot of people on the front line managed to hit the breaks before we hit the mines thanks to Agent York and Delta’s warning.”
Tex’s head snapped up. “Where is York?”
“Here, Tex,” York said. His arm was in a crude sling, and his armor was covered in blood. A shoulder wound.
Tex was standing very, very still. “Locus?” She asked, her voice careful and controlled.
York shook his head. “Someone else.”
Kimball shot him a look that Wash couldn’t decipher, but he didn’t have time because Doyle had just arrived.
“Thank goodness, you’re all alright!” Doyle said, breathing heavily. “I just came from the south—I’m—they’ve got tanks on the other side of the river!”
Kimball’s spine straightened suddenly, and she stared up at the sky.
“We need to get inside now,” she said. “They’re sieging us.”
“What?” Wash said.
“They’re going to try to starve us out or break down the walls—or—or something. But we neeed to get inside, because they might try a bombing run, and we need to figure this out.”
“We’re trapped,” Carolina said, quietly.
“Yes,” Kimball said. And then she and Doyle both started walking in the direction of the headquarters.
The four freelancers stared at each other. One thought was clearly on all of their minds.
The Reds and Blues were on their own.
Chapter 12: Lima
Hello longest chapter yet, it's good to see you!
I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS CHAPTER FOR AGES AND IT'S FINALLY HERE AND I HOPE YOU GUYS ENJOY IT AS MUCH AS I DO BECAUSE BOY HOWDY DID I HAVE FUN.
Also, please note that I have changed the tags a bit. Major Character Death is now an archive warning. It won't happen for a while yet, and when it happens I'll warn in the author's notes, and put who dies in the endnotes. But I just want you guys to know, that's coming.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Epsilon could happily talk about the advantages of being digital all day if someone wanted him too. Sadly, most of the people he hung around with were organics, so they didn’t like to hear about them. But the point was, that Epsilon knew what was happening in the city.
And it wasn’t pretty. None of it.
Siege was an old-fashioned game of war, but it looked like Felix and Locus, plus whoever else had joined them, were good at it. They were surrounded on all sides, supply routes cut off. They hadn’t managed to breach one of the walls yet, but it probably wouldn’t hold out forever. A few well-placed explosives and they’d be in through the first wall at least.
Tensions were high inside the walls. Doyle and Kimball were fighting about the decision to go after the supplies in the first place, Wash had punched York, Carolina and Tex were tense and snapping at each other, Tex wasn’t talking to York, Kimball and York had a weird tension between them that Epsilon was pretty sure had something to do with how they’d found Kimball lying on top of York and he didn’t like it, and Wash had actually yelled at Carolina when she tried to comfort him about Tucker and Kai being in danger.
Epsilon wasn’t happy either; he couldn’t break the pirates’ encryptions, no matter how hard he tied. There was something suffocating about this planet, about the way the radios still didn’t work. If Epsilon ever met a goddamn alien, he’d have words about that, because radio waves were how he travelled, those dicks.
“Stop sulking, Epsilon,” Carolina ordered. She was exhausted. She was tired a lot lately, but she was really tired right now. Epsilon quickly ran another diagnostic check, making sure everything was okay. Finding nothing physically wrong with her, he settled for ghosting along the nerves in her shoulders, trying to create a comforting pressure there, like a hand.
Okay, so maybe organics had some advantages that Epsilon envied. Maybe. And only some of the time.
It was funny; none of the Freelancers held any official rank in the armies, but they were still here, in this War Room, trying to make decisions to save this goddamn planet.
Tex was sitting down on the side closest to the door, her feet on the table. Her posture said that she was totally relaxed, but anger was coming off her in waves. Epsilon could tell. He wasn’t sure if that was because of residual memories from Alpha, or if Tex was just that obvious when she was mad. But Tex was furious about something; the being trapped, or something else entirely. Epsilon wasn’t sure which it was, but he knew that Tex was close to snapping, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near her fists when she did.
York was near her, which made sense, because he was York and he did that whenever he wasn’t hovering near Carolina. But he was standing too far away to be doing their usual Riggs and Murtaugh schtick. Instead, he was leaning against the wall, arms crossed and one leg propped up, observing the room. Delta’s projection hovered over his shoulder, silent but present. Delta was visible a lot more lately, and Epsilon wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that.
Wash was standing next to Kimball, head bowed low as they talked in quiet voices, just outside of Epsilon’s audio range. Both of their bodies were turned inwards, and their language was tense. They weren’t arguing with each other though, just… stressed. Kimball occasionally looked up, in Carolina’s direction or York’s, then quickly looked back at Wash as if nothing had happened. Epsilon sighed, still not sure what to make of Kimball. She was pretty cool and all but none of that really meant anything. She’d been duped by the bad guys, which, yeah, most people on this planet had been, but Epsilon wasn’t sure what it said about someone as a leader.
Carolina liked her, Epsilon knew that. But it was his job as a brother to double check any girl he noticed her checking out. Someone had to be cautious here, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Carolina. Especially when she was still trying to untangle the fucking knotted ball of yarn that was York.
That was a fucking mess, plain and simple. Epsilon didn’t know how to address it, didn’t know what to do about it. It was none of his business, Carolina had made it perfectly clear, but they were sharing a head, so it wasn’t like Epsilon could avoid it. He was always getting too much information; fantasies and memories and the half-formed arguments that Carolina stopped herself from ever actually voicing. It was everywhere, in the background at least. And now Kimball was there too—it had only gotten worse since the siege had started. The helmet had come off once too often, the speeches had just been a little too rousing, and now Carolina’s eyes were undeniably drawn to her.
Doyle was sitting next to Carolina, typing onto a datapad, going through the list of supplies that Epsilon had just updated with the latest information. The last air raid had taken out a small cache of food, so the numbers had to be crunched again. Things… weren’t great.
And there was still no word from the guys and Kai and Grey.
Finally, the other representatives trickled in; a few high-ranking Feds, Grey conspicuous in her absence, and those Lieutenants that always were following the guys around for the Rebels.
“Let’s get started then,” Kimball said, clearing her throat as the door closed.
Doyle nodded and got to his feet, moving towards her. After a moment of hesitation, Wash sat down in the chair Doyle had been occupying a moment before, next to Carolina. The other soldiers sat down, and York finally joined them, taking a seat next to Tex. Tex didn’t turn to face him, but Epsilon saw York bend down, as if to whisper something to her. Tex didn’t react at all, but Carolina did. She’d seen it, and that usual weird flare of resentment and jealousy and confusion spiked, like it did just about every time she saw those two do their weird best friend act.
“We are in… an unfortunately precarious situation,” Doyle said. “Their rockets have been unable to breach the wall, but they’ve managed to get enough of them over the secondary wall that we’ve sustained damage.”
Kimball took up. The two of them worked well enough together when they weren’t trying to rip heads off in the middle of their old grudge match. But on this, they were united. Their people were in danger, their enemy was the same. The armor hardly mattered in this moment; the air of determination they carried with them matched perfectly.
“They’ve got the long-ranged artillery they’re using to get the rockets over the walls here,” Kimball said, reaching down to tap the area on the map which had been spread out over the table. Analogue too, so Epsilon couldn’t making fancy special effects to go with the presentation. “We need to take them out, and quickly. Before they cause too much damage.”
Tex tilted her head. “I could do that,” she said. “If I can get out of the city and no one’s looking too closely, I can move around cloaked and plant some explosives.” There was a pause, and Epsilon got the impression that Tex was grinning. “And you know, maybe I’ll get lucky and run into one of them.”
Kimball and Doyle exchanged looks. “That will probably work,” Kimball conceded. Doyle nodded in agreement. “If we can get that to work, that will be a major help. But then there’s another thing we need to consider.”
“It is incredibly difficult to break a siege from the inside,” Doyle said. “We’re trapped here, almost completely. I do know a handful of ways in and out of the city, but they’re not large enough for significant troop movement.”
“We need to get them to break it,” Wash tilted his head. “What do you have in mind?”
“They’ve concentrated their forces here because we have,” Kimball said. Both of her hands were braced against the table, and she was staring at the spot on the map that represented Armonia intensely. “As far as we know, they don’t know the Reds and Blues aren’t here. Their long-range communications are probably as bad as ours, so that means…”
“We believe,” Doyle continued as Kimball trailed off, “That the Reds and Blues might be able to take advantage of this concentration of forces. They might be able to strike at the Communication Tower, or similarly important structures, while the main forces are occupied!”
“But they don’t even know we’re under siege,” Wash objected.
“Yes,” Kimball said. “But if we can send a person, someone who we know is skilled enough to get a message to them quickly, even if they run into trouble, they’ll be fully briefed.”
York suddenly straightened up, and Epsilon didn’t need to know him to know that he was staring right at Carolina.
“I’m the fastest,” Carolina was already saying.
Wash jerked his head. “But—”
Carolina quietly placed a hand over his to cut off his protest and leaned in. “Wash,” she said. Her voice was gentle but it left no room for argument.
He bowed his head, acquiescing. But Carolina wasn’t done.
“I’ll keep them safe,” she said.
Wash looked up at her. There was a long pause, as if he was searching for something, then he nodded once.
“Alright then,” Kimball said. “Agents Texas and Carolina have their assignments. The rest of us will be launching an offensive at the same time they leave, to try to distract them.”
She straightened her shoulders, and she looked impressive and intimidating. She looked like a leader.
“General Doyle will lead you two to the exit you’ll be taking,” Kimball said. “We move in two hours. Dismissed.”
Epsilon wasn’t surprised that York approached Carolina immediately afterwards.
The two of them stood there for a moment, just facing each other. Carolina had absolutely no fucking clue what to say, and Epsilon had no idea how to help.
York coughed suddenly, rubbing the back of his neck. “When did this get so hard?” He laughed quietly, and he sounded so, so old.
Epsilon felt a small smile on Carolina’s lips. “Were we ever good at this?”
York snorted again. “No, not really. Especially not the talking part.” He shook his head. “Look, I—”
“You were right,” Carolina said abruptly. “You… you never owed me anything. Especially not your past.”
Epsilon felt, suddenly, like an intruder, which was stupid, because he was an AI who lived in her head, and it wasn’t like York didn’t have his own observer.
“Doesn’t mean you didn’t deserve to know.” He hesitated, then took a step closer. When Carolina didn’t back up, he took a few more steps, until they were standing right in front of each other. York reached up and traced the edge of her helmet, then pressed his visor against hers.
“I love you,” he said, voice thick with emotion. Carolina stood frozen, her heart racing in her chest. “Just… be safe, okay?”
Then he turned around and left, with the weight of his words still paralyzing Carolina in place.
“Agent York,” Kimball said. “A word?”
This conversation was long overdue. If Kimball was being honest with herself, she should have called him in the second they got back. But the siege had distracted from things. It had allowed her to procrastinate on this.
It was still hard for her to think of him as Agent York. This wasn’t like Felix, whose name hadn’t changed but everything else had. The insults he’d hissed through her radio during the ambush still echoed in her ear, mocking her for her predictability, for walking right into that trap. Harris and York were one and the same in almost every way. Kimball was just now privy to the other half of the conversations that she’d noticed he’d sometimes hold with himself.
Agent York nodded his head in agreement, and stepped into her office.
“We need to talk,” she said. She hoped she sounded less nervous about that than she felt.
York nodded once, and then he pulled off his helmet, tucking it under his arm. His hair was longer since the last time Kimball had seen it, and there were circles under his eyes. He hadn’t been sleeping any better than Kimball had, from the looks of it.
“Where do you want me to start?”
“Who was that on the radio?” Start from there. Unravel the mysteries one at a time. Or at least, see what lies he would offer her.
She remembered, suddenly, Agent Texas’ remark, the first time she’d met the other Freelancer.
“I can lie for shit, unlike York.”
“He’s got a few names,” York said. His good eye was focused on hers. His stance was parade rest, his voice was clipped. Like he was giving a report. “I knew him best as Siris. His codename was Sierra. He was brought onto my unit as a sniper. He was a good one—better than Locus. But he’s weaker up close.”
“Sierra and Foxtrot?” Kimball said. “That’s… quiet a theme.” Codenames. Like Locus. Like Felix.
“Our unit was… I guess you could call us Black Ops.” He was falling out of parade rest slightly. She saw his hand twitch and knew it was going for the back of his neck, that awkward quirk she’d learned in their months together. But he caught himself and straightened up. “Part of serving there was they burned your name, gave you a new one. Siris, Felix, and Locus all had those names when they went in. Picked them up on the bounty hunting circuit. Siris was the one to bring the others on board; we were in a pinch, needed new blood. The unit chief approved them, and the three of them were a good team. They worked together a lot; in duos too. I got paired with one, two, or all three of them a few times.”
“Agent Carolina says you were an infiltration specialist.”
“Past tense? I’m hurt,” York said, a slight spark of amusement flickering across his face for a moment. Kimball leaned back into her chair, and took off her own helmet. It only seemed fair. “Yes. That was my job. At Freelancer too.”
“Siris said you were supposed to be dead.”
York gave a half-grin. “I get that a lot. I’ve got a bad habit of faking my death.”
Kimball blinked. “That’s… not a common habit.”
“Oh, you know how it is. You do it once, and suddenly you don’t have to deal with those awkward questions about ex-boyfriends, and your poker debts go away, so you just… let it keep happening.”
“He is being facetious, General Kimball,” Delta said. Kimball nearly jumped out of her skin, like she did every time one of those AI showed up. She’d forgotten Delta would have been there; a witness to this conversation. “As a part of the process of joining Project Freelancer, Agent York’s death was faked, and his entire unit was informed that he was deceased.”
“Him, facetious?” Kimball said, raising an eyebrow. She couldn’t help but be amused. For all that he was dry as a bone, it seemed that Delta shared his human’s sense of humor. “I never would have guessed.”
A large, genuine smile flashed across York’s face before he caught himself and schooled his features.
“I’m assuming this was UNSC Black Ops?” She asked, trying to keep the conversation on track. She needed to know if she could trust him. And to do that, she needed answers.
“Yes,” York said. “We did… it was dirty work, but it was for the greater good. You know. So we were told.” There was something pained and distant in York’s expression.
Kimball had heard rumors about Black Ops; everyone had. The UNSC was far from clean, and she could imagine the kind of things that York was referring to, was thinking about.
But there was just one incident she wanted to know about.
What had York done that was so awful that a man willing to work with Felix and Locus, two mercenaries set on killing all of Chorus, believed he should die for?
“This Siris said you deserved something.” York flinched at that, and Kimball knew Tex had been telling the truth. He was too honest by half to lie to her directly. It meant that she’d been an idiot to fall for it, but there was a slight comfort there nonetheless. “What was he referring to?”
York’s face went completely blank and his posture straightened even further. His good eye went glassy and distant.
“Siris and I were informed of an Insurrectionist messenger who would be travelling through an isolated area, carrying important data concerning a planned terror attack on a joint civilian and military target. Our orders were to kill the messenger, retrieve the information, and then to return to base.” His voice was monotone, and he was looking directly over her shoulder, unable to meet her gaze.
“We found the messenger, and subdued her. Everything was according to plan.” There was a crack in York’s mask, and his voice strained slightly. “But there was a complication.”
“What sort of complication?” She leaned forward. This was not going to be good, she could already tell. But she didn’t know where it was going, and that made her nervous.
“She was thirteen years old.” His voice was flat again. “She was the daughter of a major political figure. She had volunteered to take the message to the Insurrectionist cell on the planet.”
Kimball’s breath caught in her chest. Thirteen.
“Siris wanted to just take the message and let her live. I… wasn’t opposed,” York said. There was nothing on his face. “But then we discovered how this Insurrectionist cell sent messages.” There was disgust in his voice for a moment, but he hid it quickly. “She’d had a chip imbedded in her spine with the data encoded. It was impossible to retrieve without killing her, unless we had access to a full medical team and a few days. We didn’t have either.”
York swallowed, and Kimball tracked the motion with her eyes. She felt cold and distant, but she tried to picture it. York, in his old battered dust-colored armor, and this Siris, whose armor she knew was purple, standing over a frightened child. Her mind painted the scene as a dark forest, like in movies. Bare branches and twisting limbs. York and Siris, the monsters in the woods, looming and large compared to this girl.
“We couldn’t take her with us,” York said. “And the information she had would save thousands of lives. I made the call.”
Bile rose in Kimball’s throat. In her mind, the figures had grabbed the child, only now it was a York without a helmet. It was the York that was standing before her. “You—”
“I made Siris hold her down,” York said. His voice was clinical, but his face was ashen and his breathing was quick. She wondered if he had ever recounted these events before, if he had ever told anyone about them. Somehow, she doubted it. There was something raw to this telling, like he was flaying himself open for her to see. And she almost wished she hadn’t asked, because this was too much. It was awful and visceral and terrifying, that the man who cracked jokes and smiled at her in a way that made her stomach flip had blood like this on his hands. “And then I carved the chip out of her spine.” There was a pause. “She screamed the whole time.”
Kimball stood up abruptly. She wanted to throw up. She wanted to punch him. She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. “That’s—”
“And it was for nothing,” York said, plowing right on over her. Kimball froze in place, trapped inside her armor by his words. “We figured it out when we got back. She was a decoy. She didn’t even know it, but she’d been sent out as a decoy, while the real messenger got through just fine, and the target was bombed anyways, and those people died anyways, and it was—”
He broke. His helmet fell to the floor and he pressed his hands to his face, shaking so hard that she thought she could hear his armor creak. Something wet glistened on his cheeks, peaking between his fingers. “Siris was furious at me for that,” he said. “He was—and I was. It had—I had followed my orders, and for what?” His shoulders were slumped. He looked defeated, ruined, broken. His hands fell away from his face, revealing the tear tracks.. “After that, I asked my unit chief for an out. There… there weren’t supposed to be outs. You were supposed to be there until you died. But I asked anyways. She found me one. A chance to do good. To make up for the things I’ve done.” He laughed suddenly, loud and bitter. “Project Freelancer.”
Kimball stared at him. It was almost like there was more of him now; entire pieces that she had never seen, completely exposed all of a sudden. She wasn’t sure if he made more or less sense. “York…”
“That’s why he hates me, Vanessa,” he said, and Kimball nearly startled at the use of her first name. He looked away, swallowing hard. “He hates me for the best reason there is. India made them… well. She told them I ate my gun. Siris probably was mad at me for robbing him of his chance.” The smile he offered her was exhausted and self-deprecating. “Guess he’s got another one.”
There was something in his eye that stopped Kimball in her tracks.
York thought he had that coming. York thought that he deserved Siris’ vengeance.
And maybe he did. But Siris could have stopped York and he hadn’t. And he had chosen to join with Felix and Locus, in the end.
There had been thirteen-year-olds on Chorus once.
There weren’t anymore, but there had been, once. The city of Calliope, the city where the elderly and the children had been hidden in, safe from the fighting, had long since been bombed. The New Republic had blamed the Federal Army, and the Federal Army had blamed the Rebels, and Kimball didn’t know if either of them had been telling the truth, or if Felix or Locus had been behind it, but it didn’t matter.
Siris had chosen revenge and genocide. York was not beholden to that man.
“No,” Kimball said, fiercely, loud enough to pull York out of his reverie. “He won’t.” She strode up to York and pointed at him, poking him right in the chest, over his heart. “You won’t give him that chance. You won’t let any of them kill you. Because you’re right. You need to do better. And you can’t do that when you’re dead, you hear me?” Rage, hot furious rage, flooded her veins.
Siris had helped kill a child, and to take his revenge on the man who had gotten him to agree to do it, he would sentence a planet to death. Her planet was collateral in that man’s tragedy. And she would not stand for it.
She was tired of being a footnote. Chorus would not be swept aside like that, not by Hargrove, by Felix, by Locus, not by this Siris. She would not allow it. She would fight it tooth and nail, fight it until her dying breath. And York was going to help her.
“You will fight for Chorus,” she said. “And you’re going to help me figure out who it is in this city who’s going to be helping those assholes, and we’re going to stop them.”
Who better than an infiltrator to help her root out the spies, after all? She could trust this man; for this if nothing else. The rest would take a while. There was so much to untangle here. But she did know this. He was not about to betray her to the pirates, and so she was going to make full use of him.
York looked at her, and there was wonder in his expression. Awe, even. His good eye stared at her, as if drinking her in. She wondered what it was, exactly, he was seeing.
“Yes, General Kimball,” he said, and he saluted.
But it was the old, familiar salute, and he was smiling.
Running was easy. It always had been. Carolina just had to plant both feet on the ground and move. It had been easy when she was a kid, when she was in high school. It had been easy in Basic, in the army, and later in Freelancer.
Epsilon made running her speed unit even easier, in a way it hadn’t been before. She could go faster now, faster than ever. Racing towards the Reds and Blues, away from Armonia and its complications, her heart racing in her chest with the adrenaline as she ran across the wide open plains.
She needed to steal a vehicle; no matter how fast she was, her speed boost wasn’t meant for long-distance. Luckily, she knew the local pirate camps well from her time with Texas.
Thermals showed only a handful of pirates at the base, and they were packing up. She grinned, realizing that there was no way they had enough people to take all the vehicles. She’d be able to steal one no problem, and if she was lucky, they wouldn’t count them before they destroyed them.
She considered taking them out, but that might tip off Felix and Locus. At least, that’s what she told herself as she slipped towards the vehicles, her eye on a mongoose that was towards the edge.
<Nothing wrong with not wanting to kill people,> Church reminded her.
Carolina didn’t respond. She had to keep focused.
Suddenly, her HUD was a flash of color and lights as Epsilon screamed in her brain. <Move, move, move, Locus is here!>
Cursing, Carolina threw herself forward, changing her armor color to that of the pirate’s, pretending to be setting the explosives. If she was lucky, he wouldn’t notice, he’d fall for the same trick twice.
The shimmer of cloaking that Epsilon had noticed decloaked in front of the pirates.
And Carolina froze.
Because that wasn’t Locus.
That was Maine.
Epsilon’s panic was overwhelming. Her HUD was still going wild, and she could feel her muscles clenching and her heart racing, her own control of her body being overwritten.
<How is he here? What’s he doing? Why?>
The pirates didn’t seem surprised to see him, even though he clearly made them nervous. Maine always did that. He had a gift. He walked through them, into the base, and only when he was out of sight did Carolina manage to get onboard the mongoose and take off, her heart still hammering in her chest.
<Epsilon, call the others. Armonia. We need to warn them.>
There was a pause as he tried to get through.
Then the absolute last voice Carolina wanted to hear came through.
“Carolina?” Tex said. “What is it?”
Carolina gritted her teeth. She’d been hoping for Wash or Kimball or York or… anyone. Anyone but her. But she wasn’t childish enough to yell at Epsilon or demand Tex give her to someone else. She was a professional.
“Maine is here,” she said.
“… what?” Tex demanded.
“He’s here. I just saw him.”
“… Carolina,” Tex said. “That’s not Maine. That’s the Meta.”
“It’s—” Carolina swallowed.
“This isn’t your friend,” Tex said. “This is the guy who threw you off a cliff.”
“You don’t know that,” Carolina said, gripping the handlebars of her mongoose. “York and Wash destroyed the AI. This could be him.”
“Carolina,” Tex said. “Sigma was in his head for years. Even if he’s completely gone, he’s not going to be the same person you knew. The AI literally overwrote his brain. They reprogrammed him, they wiped him, take your pick. But your friend’s not in there.”
“You don’t know that,” Carolina repeated.
“So what’s he doing, huh? Tell me he’s not working with Felix and Locus. Would your friend do that? Would he help kill a planet? Would he throw you off a cliff? Would he kill North? Would he shoot Wash? Tell me!”
“Grow up, Carolina! You can’t save him.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“You’re not going to get your answers! What happened to Maine was not your fault, and if the Meta sees you, he’s not going to let you fucking rehabilitate him! He’s going to try to kill you, he’s going to rip Epsilon out of your neck, and—”
Carolina ended the call, breathing heavily. She wished there had been a receiver for her to slam, but unfortunately all it took was a movement of her eyes and a thought at Epsilon. There was something damp on her cheeks, but there was no way it could be tears.
“How far until we find the others?”
“How far?” Carolina repeated.
<… not far. We’ll be there soon.>
“Good,” Carolina said.
She kept her eyes on the horizon, and kept driving.
We've hit the halfway point! =D Holy smokes, I can't believe it.
Chapter 13: Mike
An update that's not at ass-o'clock at night? Must be fall break for me! Hope you guys enjoy, and thank so you so much for all the wonderful feedback and support.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They lost touch with Armonia about ten miles out of the city.
Kai didn’t like it; the army was heading in the opposite direction from them. She couldn’t contact Wash and he couldn’t contact them.
Last time they’d been out of contact, she hadn’t seen Tucker for months, and he’d been alone with Felix, who could have been hurting him at any time. And now Wash is going off too fight and he’s not going to have them to watch after him and—
Tucker squeezed her hand.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said.
Kai took a deep breath and looked around, examining the temple they’d found themselves in.
The architecture was alien in every sense of the word. Kai’d say it was more phallic than yonic, but the portal thingy kind of looked like it’s got petals, so she’d give the aliens a few points for gender equality. The alien crystals glowed a soft greenish color that kept everything bright.
“Oh, this is wonderful!” Grey said, beaming widely. “I always wanted to visit this temple when I was younger, but I’m afraid my research led me elsewhere! I can’t wait to see what we have!”
“Tucker,” Church said, looking up from the panel he’d been examining. “Take out your sword.”
“I thought you wanted me to stop whipping it out so much—bow-chicka-bow-wow,” Tucker said.
“Heyyo!” Kai crowed, holding up her hand for him to high-five.
“Shut up, both of you,” Church said. Well someone was in a bad mood. He’d gone all quiet and sulky after they’d left Armonia, and he’d only been quieter since they’d lost contact with the others.
Kai guessed she could sympathize with that. He was worried about the others too. Particularly his Freelancer.
Caboose was hovering near Church, like he usually did the second Epsilon was gone. He’d been even more clingy since they’d been separated by the armies. But Church, for once, didn’t seem to mind. He hadn’t even told Caboose that he was stupid, or to go away. Instead, he’d let Caboose fiddle with the wires of the console while he worked, the two of them working in relative silence while the rest of them had explored. Maybe Church had missed Caboose too.
Tucker flicked his wrist, not realizing that Kai was in the middle of a deep personal monologue, and the sword burst into life, the blade appearing.
“Hot,” Kai sighed loudly. Tucker’s alien sword wasn’t as good as his normal one, but she could still appreciate the finer things in life. Like one of her men holding a large, glowing thing that he liked to stick into people.
“Kai!” Grif and Church yelled in unison. She grinned beneath her helmet, unrepentant. It wasn’t her fault that they made it so easy.
Tucker, Donut, and Grey laughed at least. And Caboose gave that little not-laugh that he did when he didn’t want to be left out of the joke.
“I don’t get it,” she heard him quietly mutter to Church.
“Don’t worry about it Caboose,” Church said, before suddenly spinning around. “Holy shit.”
The lighting in the temple all suddenly became dark red. She barely had time to even listen to Sarge’s cry of triumph before the portal flared, becoming menacingly larger.
“Oh my!” Grey said, clapping her hands. “Well, that makes the translation sooooo much easier!”
“Damn it,” Church said, kicking the panel he’d been working on. “That was supposed to have worked! The key was supposed to have overridden any other requirements!”
“Oh, don’t be such a bore,” Grey said, clearly giddy. “The test is clear. We need a true warrior!”
Sarge hmphed, squinting at her. “Say what now, little lady?”
“A true warrior! Of physical strength and mental clarity,” Grey nodded. She seemed pretty pleased with the whole situation.
“Well it's a good thing I’m here!” Tucker said, flourishing his sword again.
“Woo! Go get them babe!”
“We’re all going to die,” Simmons muttered.
“So… what?” Grif says. “If Tucker is the true warrior—and let me just say, I’m pretty damn skeptical here—what’s he supposed to do? Stand on his head? Fuck another alien?”
“The portal is a gateway,” Grey said, in that voice she got whenever she’d found Kai and Donut in the medical lube. “So, Tucker just needs to jump into the portal, and we’ll have answers!”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem! Tucker’s great at entering! And I’m sure he’ll be quick!”
“Thanks Donut,” Tucker muttered. But he shook himself out of it quickly enough, and charged forward, entering the portal with a running leap.
There was a single moment as Kai prepared herself for a long wait and a little worrying, but then there was a flash of light, and Tucker was thrown right back out.
“Whoa! What happened?”
“I told you it’d be over quickly!”
“You failed the test, dumbass,” Simmons said.
“Or maybe he's so good he passed the test super fast,” Caboose said.
Kai reached out and grabbed Tucker’s helmet in her hands. He seemed to be shaking. Through the tinted visor, Kai thought she saw tears.
“What did you see?” Grey bustled up to them, taking Tucker’s wrist as if intending to check his pulse. “Tell me about the other side. Did you make contact? Oh! And how are you feeling?”
Tucker swallowed and pressed his visor against Kai’s. “I saw Felix.”
“They’re here?” Kai reached down and took Tucker’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “How?”
“Well, I don’t think it was really him,” Tucker admitted. “He showed up, then another Felix showed up. And the next thing I know there were a million fucking assholes all over me. Same thing with Locus, I couldn’t fight them off!”
“You weren’t strong enough,” Grey said thoughtfully.
“Fuck you!” Kai said, bristling on Tucker’s behalf. “Tucker’s got great game!”
“No,” Tucker said quietly. “She’s right.”
“Screw that!” Kai said, pulling away from him. “I’m going in there to give that thing a piece of my mind!”
“Wait, Kai!” She wasn’t sure who said it, but she didn’t particularly care either.
Kai jumped in to the portal, and the world went dark.
It was dark.
No one else was there.
She called and called and called but no one answered.
She was alone.
For a very long time.
Kai stumbled out of the portal, breathing heavily. She was crying. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been crying for. Already she felt exhausted, as if she’d been sobbing for hours and hours, leaving that familiar hollow, tired feeling.
“Kai!” Dex was there, looking all worried, and before anything else could happen Kai hugged him tightly. He was there. They were all there. They weren’t gone. Everyone was still here, and she wasn’t alone, and it was all okay.
She buried her face in Dex’s shoulder as best she could when they were both in armor, and tried to stop the tears.
“Are you okay?” Tucker was there, putting a hand on her back. All Kai wanted to do was to rip off his armor and kiss him senseless, but… then he’d see her face and know she’d been crying. And she didn’t want that.
“Pssh. Duh,” she said as strongly as she could, and if Tucker heard her runny nose in her voice, he didn’t say anything.
“So… who’s next?” Grey asked cheerfully. Kai wasn’t sure if she was being rude or polite, but Kai decided not to care, because Dex was still hugging her and that was what really mattered.
“Me!” Sarge said, sounding gleeful. “We’ve let the blues have two shots at the glory! Now it’s time to prove that the truest of warriors are always the ones who wear the blood of their enemies on their armor!” He turned to Grey. “I mean Red Team,” he added.
“Wait, do you hear that?” Simmons said, looking up.
Kai paused, listening. “There’s only two things in the universe that make that noise! The Sanghilli Clit Massager 2000XXX or a Mongoose!”
The Mongoose pulled into sight, and Kai grinned as she realized Carolina was on it. One armored badass to save the day, as ordered. It wasn’t Wash, but Carolina was pretty awesome.
“Carolina!” Tucker said, moving towards her. “Is Wash okay?”
“He’s fine,” Carolina said. She sounded almost out of breath. Or… mad. Kind of like when they’d first met her.
“Yeah, if you mean trapped in Armonia fully surrounded by the bad guys!” Epsilon appeared over Carolina’s shoulder, arms crossed.
“It was a trap,” Carolina’s voice was short. “We need to regroup. With most of the forces trapped, it’s going to be up to us to take guerilla action to try to help break the siege.”
“A siege?” Dex yelled, throwing his hands up into the air. “What fucking century is this?”
“We need to figure out this portal, and then we’ll be on the way,” Simmons said. “We need answers!”
Carolina sighed. “What are we looking for?”
“Oh you know, nothing much, just a true warrior,” Caboose said.
Carolina tilted her head. “Is that all?”
“Say!” Sarge said. “Why don’t you give it a go! You’re a red!”
Carolina let out a soft laugh. Something seemed to release in her shoulders as she looked at Sarge and nodded once. “I guess I am.”
“Aha! I knew you’d come! Mostly around York, but—”
“Donut,” Carolina said warningly.
“They’re still at the awkward sexual tension stage, Donut!” Kai said to him. “All the orgasms she’s getting are motor assisted!”
“Would you two stop it?”
“Let them finish!” Tucker called. “Bow-chicka-bow-wow.”
Carolina let out the kind of long-suffering sigh that Wash had mastered so long ago, and turned to Grey. “What do I need to do?”
“Just jump in the portal, face your own worst nightmares. You know. That sort of thing,” Tucker said.
“You already tried?” Epsilon asked.
“We thought that merely carrying the sword through the portal would override the need to be strong and intelligent,” Grey said.
Carolina let out that soft little amused noise that Kai didn’t get to hear her make nearly often enough. “Well then. Guess it’s my turn.”
She jumped into the portal.
She returned moments later, subdued and quiet. The happy tilt to her helmet that she’d picked up after saying she was a red was gone.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said the minute Grey tried to ask her a question.
“Fair,” Tucker and Kai said in unison.
“Alright then,” Sarge said. “Well, let’s give this thing another go—”
“MY TURN,” Caboose howled gleefully, throwing himself forward.
Caboose was gone a whole five minutes before suddenly the temple’s lights switched to the color of Tucker’s sword, and he reappeared. “Aaaaaand we’re back!” Caboose declared. Kai got the impression that he had his widest, dorkiest grin on his face.
“Caboose!” Carolina said.
“Are you okay?” Grey rushed up to him, concerned as always.
“What happened?” Epsilon and Church had done their weird thing when they spoke in unison with each other. Immediately Church’s concern evaporated, and he stepped as far away from Carolina and Epsilon as he could manage.
“Ah, well ah yeah!” Caboose was practically bouncing with all the attention. “I went to the bathroom and then I met an alien and we became friends and he told me everything about the universe and the meaning of life and then—”
“Wait! An alien?” Tucker said, straightening up.
That was, of course, when the giant glowing alien appeared.
“Greetings,” the alien said.
“Holy shitballs!” Kai shrieked.
“Sweet mother of Pecos Bill!”
“What the fuck?”
“Caboose. What. The. Fuck.”
“My apologies,” the alien said, “but is there anyone else I could speak to? Perhaps someone with a broader vocabulary?”
“An alien AI,” Church whispered, staring up at the glowing red projection. “Fuck.”
Kai had never seen Church look so scared before.
When the Meta had let them know that one of the Mongoose had gone missing, it hadn’t taken too much effort to track down who had stolen it.
Sharkface followed her at a distance, even though there was nothing more that he wanted than to attack her then and there. But he needed some patience. There was a chance she could lead him to the others. Washington and Texas would be equally welcome sights.
“So?” Felix asked.
Radios on Chorus didn’t work long range, with a few exceptions. Charon-produced exceptions. The alien technology that they had already harvested allowed the pirate forces to be able to circumvent the Tower’s block. An unhackable, untraceable way for them to keep contact, while the armies, Freelancers, and Sim Troopers were helpless.
“They’re investigating an alien temple,” he said. “Looking for something.”
“Let them finish what they’re doing,” Thatcher ordered. Sharkface gritted his teeth, biting back insults. “They might be on to something useful. When they leave the temple, then you can make your mood.”
“Sorry,” Felix purred. “But who exactly left you in charge?”
“Hargrove did,” Thatcher snapped. “We’ve been over this, you—”
“Enough,” Siris’ voice was remarkably calm. “There’s no time for fights like this. Agent Texas destroyed the heavy artillery, and we need to focus our efforts. Our spies inside the city aren’t reporting in, either.”
“Foxtrot’s work,” Locus said. “He often worked counterintelligence.”
“Who the fuck is Foxtrot?” Sharkface said, watching as Agent Carolina returned from the portal. His finger twitched on the trigger of his gun. It would be so easy just to put a bullet in her brain here and now. To just end this.
“You know him as Agent York,” Siris said. There was a quiet danger to that man, one that made Sharkface nervous. Thatcher was a known element. Felix was unpredictable and dangerous. Locus was a professional. But Siris was… odd.
The Meta let out a growl from his place next to Sharkface.
Because Sharkface was a professional, he hadn’t killed the man yet. But he would. Agent Maine had helped kill plenty of people in that building, had killed plenty of his friends. Price said that the AI had destroyed his brain, annihilating what he’d once been.
But that didn’t make it any better.
Sharkface would kill him the second he wasn’t useful.
“Are you sure it’s just Carolina?” Felix asked. “Texas has that invisibility unit—”
“It is unlikely she would be able to have destroyed the artillery and kept pace with Agent Carolina,” Locus said. “She is in the city. With the others.”
Thatcher snarled. “Good.”
“Remember,” Felix sang. “First come first served when it comes to the Freelancers.”
“I told you,” Thatcher said. “Texas is mine.”
“Don’t see your name on her, Connecticut.”
“Enough,” Locus growled. “You are acting like children. We are professionals. Act like it.”
Suddenly, the Meta gave out a warning growl.
“We’ll have to call you back,” Sharkface said. “I think things are about to get… interesting.”
Most of what they were saying wasn’t interesting. Useful, sure, but Sharkface would just share the footage with the others later.
But he got the gist.
Another alien sword.
A temple which could kill the entire world.
“You know what?” He said to the Meta. “I think that’s all we need to know. Don’t you?”
The Meta let out a growl of affirmation, and they moved into action.
Wash had never liked feeling trapped, even if it was in an entire city.
“How are you doing?” Doyle asked him, looking up from the paperwork that Wash had been helping him sort through.
“Agent Washington, I realize that this has been ah… stressful for you, but I’m certain Agent Carolina would have contacted us if anything had been amiss.”
“General,” Wash said through gritted teeth. “Our last transmission with Carolina indicated that a power-hungry man who, the last time he and Carolina met, ripped two AI out of her spine. The last time I met him, he shot me and York. We haven’t had any word from any of the away team since before the siege began. There’s really not much you can say that will make me feel better right now.”
“Rightly so,” Doyle said, looking subdued. “Do you have Agent York’s latest report on the spies?”
“He hasn’t been writing those down,” Wash said. “He says it’s too easy to be intercepted.”
“He’s probably right about that,” Kimball said, opening the door. “We’ve had three desertions so far. He’s got them running scared.”
“Please tell me he’s been taking them alive,” Wash said. “We need answers.”
“He is,” Kimball said. “Agent Texas threw one of them off a roof, but we think he’ll survive his injuries.”
“York recruited—of course he did,” Wash said, his shoulders slumping.
“Agent York and Agent Texas are… curiously co-dependent,” Kimball said. There was a weird way she said that.
“They’re… close,” Wash said. It felt somehow inadequate to explain the situation. The sheer rage, protectiveness, fondness, and exasperation that he’d seen. “Tucker… Tucker said they were best friends.”
“Oh.” Kimball looked perplexed. “I thought…”
“Not romantic,” Wash said, shaking his head.
For a moment, Kimball seemed happy with that answer.
“What about Agent Carolina? I heard some fascinating stories from Private Donut… but I’m afraid I’m never quite certain how much to believe that man when it comes to tails of grand romance.”
Wash shrugged. “From what I understand, York and Carolina are… complicated.” There was so much tangled up there that Wash had no desire to understand. He’d seen the kiss, that first time they’d reunited. He’d been there for York mourning her, had seen the franticness of Carolina at their separation. But he hadn’t seen them restart their old routine from Freelancer. The two of them no longer operated like a unit, in sync with each other. There wasn’t the old banter, the familiar flirtations. Instead, there was a tension, heavy in the air.
It had been there since they had found out about York’s past.
Kimball paused. “Agents York and Carolina are… together?”
“Like I said,” Wash shrugged. “Complicated.”
“Right,” Kimball said, so softly that it might have been to herself. She shook her head suddenly. “Delta has assured me that if something was to happen to the away team, he would have noticed, Wash,” she added. “He says that Church’s injuries would be… noticeable.” She glanced up at him. “I’m honestly not sure what he means.”
“Church is equipped with a beacon in case of injury or death,” Wash said. “All Freelancers were but… well. The rest of us disabled them.”
“Surely the Tower of Communications would block such a beacon,” Doyle objected.
Kimball shook her head. “Delta doesn’t think so. The signal is supposed to be noticeable from halfway across the galaxy. It might not be able to leave Chorus, but it should get through here.”
“But why on earth would Private Church be equipped with such a thing? I could understand such a concern for you Freelancers, but, as much as I might like him—” Wash nearly choked on his own saliva at that statement, and mentally tried to figure out if Doyle was smarter or dumber than he had previously suspected, “—the fact remains that he is simply another simulation trooper! Why would they invest—”
“Church is an AI,” Wash said. “The original AI. The Alpha.”
Kimball let out a soft noise. “That’s why Epsilon—”
“Epsilon is the memories of Alpha. They’re… similar. But they’ve got their differences.”
“I… I see.”
“An Artificial Intelligence? Why didn’t you tell us sooner?”
“Because it’s none of your business,” Texas said from the doorway.
“Tex,” Wash protested weakly.
“Shut up, Washington.”
“They needed to know about the beacon!”
“Does it look like I care?”
“Agent Texas, calm down,” Kimball ordered. “Is something wrong?”
“Is there a reason you’re so upset about Private Church not being human?” Doyle asked.
Tex’s spine went ramrod straight, and in that moment, Wash thought she might be about to try to kill someone.
“No,” she spat. “No reason at all.”
The door slammed behind her, and Wash couldn’t help but feel that there had just been a terrible mistake.
“A sword, huh?” Felix asked, tilting his head towards Locus.
“Alright,” he said. “We’ll meet you there.”
He cut off the call and turned to face the others.
Siris, not-Connecticut slash Thatcher slash whatever his name was, and Locus were all gathered around the table, looking over the plans for Armonia that Locus had drawn up.
“This is important,” Siris said. “I’ll stay here. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a shot on Foxtrot.”
“Sounds good,” Felix said. Siris’ grudge against Foxy was fucking hilarious. He had a sniper’s focus, and that allowed for brilliant blindspots. Felix was all too happy to indulge it, if it meant they got a fighter like Siris on their side, after all. Way better than Sharkface or Douchebag Weird Helmet or The Meta. “Locus and I will head out. Thatcher, you’re in charge.”
“I am in charge already,” Thatcher snarled. Touchy as always. “Hargrove’s orders were clear—”
“Don’t care,” Felix said. Why Hargrove had even felt that the guy was needed was beyond him. His armor trick was useful, sure, but there wasn’t anything about the man that was worth keeping around. If it had been Felix in charge, the guy would have had a bullet in his head and been down a suit of armor years ago, long before Texas had left him with a sliced open stomach in the desert, failing on another mission. “Just… don’t fuck this up, got it? We just need our spies to trigger the reactor core, and then this key can take care of the stragglers. If we do this right, the job’s over by tomorrow morning, and we can all get paid.”
And then Hargrove would try to have them all killed to limit the number of people who knew about his dirty little secret. But Felix would worry about that later. He and Locus had plenty of blackmail on Hargrove accumulated from this war, plus a few other jobs.
Maybe he’d keep Siris alive too. For old time’s sake. With Megan and the kids out of the picture, it could be like old times again.
And it would be a challenge to try to balance Siris and Locus’ respective issues while making sure neither of them noticed what he was doing. Maybe he could even play them off each other—the possibilities were endless. Two broken soldiers from the war, clinging to the remnants of the past. Genocide had almost been too easy. There would be other jobs, bigger jobs. There was so much they could do. This job had proved that. Felix was unstoppable, especially with people like Locus and Siris listening to him.
The things that he could do when all of this was over was enough to really get the blood flowing.
Felix hummed to himself as he and Locus left the building they had been meeting in.
“Ready partner?” He said, slapping a hand on Locus’ shoulder.
Locus said nothing, but he didn’t have to.
Felix already knew that Locus would follow him anywhere he asked.
One more chapter until we're done with part 2... spooky, huh?
Chapter 14: November
Oh shit has it really been two months? MY BAD. Things go busy with school, my thesis, and the Reverse Big Bang. Hopefully things will be back on schedule.
As you might note, we're up to 26 chapters. My outline got expanded. Oops? Hope you guys enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If there was one good thing that could be said for the spies that Felix and Locus had managed to plant in the Chorus armies, it was that they were predictable to a tee.
There was a certain kind of person who signed up to let their own planet die. They were scared, they typically had few friends, or had lost the ones they cared about early on. They were also rather unintelligent, by York’s reckoning. Anyone who believed that the mercenaries or their employer would allow witnesses to survive… well. York wouldn’t be nominating them for any critical thinking challenges, that was for sure.
York didn’t know much about Malcolm Hargrove, but he knew about the kind of operations. They were burning the earth, and burying the evidence. Even Felix and Locus would be lucky to get out of this one. Hargrove would want this quiet, and buried.
When Felix had called them with the offer, before they had reunited with the armies, York had kept his mouth shut. None of them would have listened to him. But he had known there was no way they would have been allowed to live. Him particularly.
Felix and Locus’ first job, after they finished killing the rest of Chorus, would be to track down and kill any of the people who had struck bargains. Or maybe Hargrove would contract that particular portion to someone else.
The spies didn’t believe York, of course, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need them to believe him. He just needed one of them to believe that it was in their best interests to cooperate sooner rather than later.
Delta combed through the records, finding people who were probable candidates for York to investigate.
The one they were looking into currently was a Rebel named Grimmaldis. The stories that York heard from the Lieutenants indicated a gambling problem, which had led him to owing Felix a lot of money.
That sort of debt could be dangerous, in Felix’s hands.
Grimmaldis was a grunt, nothing more, nothing dangerous. York sent Tex a quick message, letting her know that he was going out, and went to find him. He was scheduled to be on laundry duty, which was good. Typically only a few people worked that shift at a time, meaning that it would be easy for York to corner him.
The laundry was in the basement of a barracks on the eastern side of headquarters. It was probably a waste of space that should be reinforced as a bomb shelter, but they didn’t have the time or resources to move the laundry out for the proper process. Armonia was a well-designed city, but it wasn’t built for a siege.
There were two Feds and two Rebels on shift right now, and York could pick out Grimmaldis pretty easily, since the other Fed was an officer with gold stripes. York picked his way through the laundry, using the hanging up sheets and other large, drying linens as cover as he moved forward.
“Private Grimmaldis?” York said. They were far enough away from the others that they wouldn’t easily be overheard.
The man twitched, turning to face York. In an instant, his bodylanguage changed from curiosity to panic.
That’s when he stabbed York.
York hadn’t even seen the knife; there was no reason for the man to be armed, not in a laundry room. He’d been careless, he’d gotten too close. Overconfident after three successful talking down, he hadn’t even thought to consider Grimmaldis as a threat.
“They warned me about you,” the man was babbling, probably not realizing that stabbing someone in the side was hardly fatal. York grabbed his arm and was about to twist it, when Tex appeared and threw Grimmaldis bodily into the wall.
He slumped over immediately, unconscious, and then Tex was by his side, gripping York’s arm painfully.
“I told you that I had this handled,” York said. He felt tired, and he knew it sharpened the edges of his voice more than he’d intended. He hissed as he placed his hand on his side, trying to stop the flow of blood. Delta had activated the healing unit, but it hadn’t finished its work just yet.
“You also told me you’d be careful,” Tex said. Like him, there was a harshness to her voice. Neither of them had been getting much rest lately. It was frantic work, living in a siege, even one that, so far, had only gone on a few days. Both of them had been working themselves to the bone.
“I was careful!” York protested.
Tex tilted her helmet at him. It was expressive enough to tell him exactly what she thought of his protest. He scowled.
“You were reckless,” she snapped. “What, do you think Kimball will forgive you if you die on the job?”
“I’m not going to die,” York said. “It’s a flesh wound, Tex.”
“This time,” Tex said, and there was that horrible weight to her voice that York hated to hear. The one that meant she was thinking about the things that had never happened. The timeline that she still refused to talk about, to fully explain.
It killed any further arguments York might have had. He looked away.
“Sorry,” he said.
Tex turned away. “Let’s get this guy in lockup,” she said.
“Yeah,” York said, quietly.
“You keep getting hurt,” Tex said, picking Grimmaldis up in a fireman’s carry. The other three Chorusians were keeping their distance. He wondered what they were thinking, what they’d seen. He’d have to ask Kimball and Doyle to inform them later.
“I’m human, Tex,” York said, going for jovial and knowing he was falling short. “That tends to happen.”
Tex didn’t respond.
Doyle was waiting for them at the holding cells, flustered. “Agent York! You’re injured!”
“It’s nothing, General,” York said, leaning against the wall while Tex stripped Grimmaldis of his armor.
“Your message that you had Lieutenant Bitters bring us said that gambling debts were likely how he got started?” Doyle said, accepting York’s answer. Kimball wouldn’t have let it drop, but Doyle was better at this part of the job, at least. York was relieved at that.
“Yes,” he said. “Was there much gambling among the Federal Army?”
“Yes, of course, but Locus wasn’t involved in those circles,” Doyle said. Right. That would make sense. “Truly, Locus spent very little time in Armonia. He tended to stick to the inner city, when he was here, and it was obvious he didn’t really understand the place.”
“Oh yes,” Doyle nodded. “He’d always take Fifteenth to leave the city, when everyone knows that it’s faster to take Twelfth and then double back through Cedar.”
York stared. “… you grew up here, didn’t you?”
Doyle nodded. “Armonia is my home,” he said. “It was… I’m afraid you haven’t seen it at its best, Agent York. But it was once a great city. Before the war.”
York wasn’t sure he’d agree, but then again, he’d been off Chorus before. He’d seen cities on Earth, the high tech, beautiful places where the wealthy lived, where there was no poverty or homelessness, because it cost money just to walk in through the gate.
But it was a home, it was a real city, and half of Chorus had been living in caves until recently.
So York put a hand on Doyle’s shoulder. “It will be again,” he said.
That was when there was a loud slamming noise from the cell. “Oh, I think he’s awake,” York said, as Tex began the interrogation.
It was all going as normal, until Grimmaldis broke. Most of the time, the spies had doubled down, just telling them about how they were all going to die, or how it was worth it to see the Rebels-slash-Feds burn in hell, about how Doyle-slash-Kimball had made the deaths of their friends meaningless by uniting the armies. Or if they did break, they had nothing useful to offer. They’d been spies, not double agents or sleepers. The worst York had managed to uncover was a plot to sabotage the antibiotics at the infirmary.
“I was supposed to sneak into the Energy Center tomorrow!” He blurted out.
York froze up, as did Doyle.
“Oh no,” York breathed.
“The nuclear reactor,” Kimball had arrived, and she was as scared as they were.
“We need to double the guard!” Doyle said. “We need to—”
“Who can we trust?” Kimball said, eyes wide.
“I’ll give you names,” York blurted, unthinking, wincing when they turned to him. Asking Kimball to trust him in this might be too much. “I’ve cleared—some. Mostly Feds. I had more data, sorry General Doyle.”
“It’s fine, Agent York,” Doyle said. “Do we have an explosives expert? We need to look for traps.”
“Nguyen,” York said. “And, uh, Dulles would be good for backup.”
The two of them nodded, faces perfectly grim.
“We need to break the siege,” Kimball said. “There’s no way we can lock down the nuclear core forever. And if they managed to hit it in a bombing raid…”
York swallowed. He’d seen nuclear fallout before; most people who’d fought the Insurrection had. He never wanted to see it again. The thought of Armonia like that…
There were very few things York wouldn’t be willing to do to change that.
Church didn’t like thinking about Freelancer.
Because the thing was, he’d been there. He’d combed through mission reports, provided analysis, it was literally his job.
So he’d recognized Sharkface, even if the others hadn’t. He’d ran scenarios about the guy, just off the data that Carolina and Wash had provide in the after-action report. He’d be scary enough.
But the Meta was there too, and that terrified him. It terrified Carolina too, he could tell. Epsilon was holding up the bubble shield, but if Epsilon had issues, Carolina only had an 86% chance at holding it on her own for even a minute, and that was assuming a good night’s sleep, and he knew she hadn’t had one, possibly hadn’t had one in ages, so that hurt the odds, and the second it was down, the Meta would race forward and try to rip Epsilon right out of her.
Carolina’s odds of surviving a second shock of a forced-AI removal weren’t good. Church could see the numbers, hanging in the corner of his vision, but he refused to look at them too closely.
Sharkface left, gloating about going to the temple to find the key, but Church couldn’t focus on that right now. Right now, he had other things to deal with. Immediate things. They couldn’t stop Sharkface from wiping out the entire planet if they were already dead. And they didn’t have a way to contact Kimball or anyone else. It was too far out of range.
Grey was babbling about a plan, but there wasn’t time. It didn’t matter what happened next, the Meta was the Meta, and Carolina couldn’t protect everyone else and herself at the same time.
So Church would have to do something stupid.
The world dropped to a standstill, as Church let himself shift his mind, so that he was functioning like a real AI, instead of like a person.
The world was so different, when he looked at it like this. He could see everything; the equipment readouts, the heartrates of his friends, the fact that the Meta and the Charon soldiers had radios which worked long distance, but only connected to other Charon people, all of the terrifying equipment that the Meta had. All of them ripped from the bodies of dead Freelancers.
He pinged Epsilon. Epsilon pinged back. Church gritted his teeth, and insisted.
“It will be fine,” he insisted.
“… move fast,” Epsilon said.
God, he hated that guy.
A single hole opened in the shield, and Church ran through before anyone else could act. He heard Caboose and Tucker yelling something, but the words didn’t matter, as half of the guns swiveled towards him.
“Hey asshole!” Church yelled. If he had a heart, it would be hammering. Stupid robot body, not providing him with appropriate stress responses. “Over here!”
The bullet tore right through him, punching through layers of armor and Kevlar like it was nothing, and Church couldn’t help but yell as his body collapsed around him, leaving his projection still standing.
There was a moment, before the world snapped back into time, before the strange alien influences of Chorus caught him up in its weird net, that Church could feel Tex and Delta perfectly, and he grabbed things together and threw a warning in their direction, trying to let them know what was happening.
He wasn’t sure if they got it or not, because he felt yanked back a nanosecond later. It was strange, it was alien, it felt like he was… heaver, somehow. Cut off from things he was never meant to be cut off from.
But he didn’t have long to dwell on that, because the Meta howled with some kind of sick triumphant recognition, and Church gritted teeth he didn’t have and started moving as quickly as he could.
There was a bright flash of light, and Freckles went off, killing the other soldiers who had surrounded them, but Church couldn’t even focus on any of that. Hopefully, Epsilon would do what he’d told him to and get the others to move towards the temple where the key was, instead of going after him.
Because the Meta was chasing the Alpha, and only him. He no longer cared about Carolina, about Epsilon, about whatever the fuck it was that the Mercs were using to try to convince him to work for them. All he cared about was that Alpha was in his reach for the first time ever, and that if he just could catch him, he’d finally have accomplished what Sigma had set out to try, years ago. Never mind that the other parts were gone. The Meta would chase the Alpha to the ends of the Earth.
And the Recovery Beacon was blaring, letting Tex know that he was in trouble.
Nguyen and Dulles reported back only an hour later, and Kimball wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign. “No sign of explosives,” Nguyen reported, her face grim.
“Someone had been trying to bypass the electronic lock though,” Dulles added.
York cursed. “Dee, we need to reinforce that,” he said. Then he stiffened, and turned to Kimball and Doyle. “With your permission, of course,” he added.
“Granted,” Doyle said immediately, and Kimball nodded.
Delta’s projection appeared, hovering over York’s shoulder. “I believe it will not take long,” he said. “The lock is already quite complex. It is holographic, and quite advanced.”
“Of course it is,” York muttered. Kimball wondered what that meant.
“Good,” Texas said. “But that won’t hold them off forever.”
“No,” Kimball said. “It won’t. We haven’t had word from Carolina, and we can’t afford to wait much longer. We need to try to find a way to break out from the siege, so we’re not trapped here anymore.”
Trapped with a time bomb, in the form of a nuclear reactor. Kimball’s mouth was dry just considering it. She had thought a siege of attrition was out of character, for the mercenaries, for Hargrove, for Felix. Were they truly willing to wait to starve them out? Especially considering that they wouldn’t have surrendered easily, knowing that none of them were supposed to survive. But no, they’d had something more sinister in mind. Total nuclear annihilation.
She was just grateful that the Reds and Blues and Carolina were all far away from Armonia, safe from danger.
“If we run, we need somewhere to go,” Doyle was saying, pulling Kimball back out of her thoughts. “It’s risky, taking them in a direct fight—”
That was when Texas doubled over, as if in pain, clutching at the sides of her helmet.
“Tex!” York called, rushing forward, before he too doubled over. Kimball stared, horrified, as the tiny green projection that was Delta flickered with static, trying to say something, but it came out as garbled noises, then vanished entirely for a single moment.
Tex had fallen to her knees, and Kimball thought she heard the sound of droning fan blades; the kind of noise that computers made when they were getting overheated.
Washington was sitting upright, staring into the distance.
“Alpha’s Recovery Beacon has been activated,” he said, voice perfectly calm. “The Reds and Blues are in danger.”
There was a burst of ones and zeroes over York’s shoulder, before they solidified back into Delta. “Church managed to send a signal. They discovered the existence of an alien AI who informed them of a second alien sword which can be used to activate a tower with the ability to kill everyone on the planet. The mercenaries are aware of this.”
Kimball felt like joining Texas on the floor.
“Carolina should be taking the others to head them off, but they’ll need help,” Texas said. She was pulling herself up, gripping the table hard enough to leave a dent. Kimball tried not to stare. Apparently, Texas had not been exaggerating when she’d said she was strong.
Kimball looked at Doyle. “Texas, York, you two should go. Quickly,” Kimball said.
Washington stood up. “I’m going too,” he said.
“I’m afraid not, Agent Washington,” Doyle said.
Washington turned towards Doyle. “General—”
“I’m sorry, Agent Washington. But you’re going to be needed to help with the evacuation,” Doyle said firmly. “Agents Texas and York have not been involved with the troops. But you will be invaluable here.”
Washington’s hands curled into fists, and for a moment Kimball thought he might hit Doyle. She didn’t know Washington very well, only through Tucker’s stories. But that was enough.
“Washington,” she said firmly. “Please. Texas and York will be able to travel faster with two than three.” Three meant a warthog. Two could travel on a mongoose, although it might be awkward. “I know you’re worried about Tucker and Kaikaina. But they’re both capable soldiers, and they’ll have Carolina to watch their backs until Texas and York can provide further support.”
Washington turned away. “Fine,” he said, and there was bitterness and fury lacing his voice. He stormed off.
Kimball signaled Nguyen, who followed him immediately, Dulles on her heels. The two of them would keep an eye on him.
“I need to grab my weapons, then we’ll go,” Texas said. York nodded in agreement.
“I’ll go arrange for a mongoose,” Doyle said. “You two will have to make good time.”
He and Texas left the room, leaving Kimball and York alone.
“Are you okay?” Kimball had to ask. “It—that looked like it hurt.”
“It did,” York said quietly. “But Delta’s fine now.”
“But are you?”
York looked at her, as if surprised that she was asking that. “… yes.”
York looked at the ground. “I’ll have Delta send you the last few names. I think you’ll be fine though; there aren’t many left, and I took out the more dangerous ones first.”
“Thank you,” Kimball said. “… how did Church’s recovery beacon activate?”
York flinched. “He used himself as bait to let the others escape. That’s why Tex—” He stopped himself. “We’re worried he might not live long enough for us to get to the others. Without his body, he’s going to be slow-moving, and he won’t just jump back to the others if he thinks—if he thinks that they’re chasing him.”
“He’s an AI,” Kimball said, feeling utterly lost. “How can they die?”
“It’s… complicated,” York said. “Ask Wash about it maybe?”
“Alright,” Kimball said. She took a step towards him. “Just… be careful.”
York let out a small laugh. “No promises.”
Kimball reached out and grabbed his wrist, pulling him towards her without thinking. “Don’t joke about this,” she said. “You can’t let them win, remember?”
He looked at her, and even through his helmet he looked completely serious. “I know,” he said. “I didn’t let the Meta kill me last time. I’m not about to let him start now.”
The Meta? Kimball vaguely remembered overhearing conversations with that name, fights between Texas and Washington or something. She’d have to ask Washington for more information later.
“Good,” she said, instead of asking more questions. “That’s… good.”
She leaned forward without thinking, and pressed her visor against his. She nearly pulled back immediately, but he leaned into it, the two of them just standing their, their foreheads pressed together, separated by their armor.
Kimball wasn’t sure how long they just stood there, her hand still around his wrist, but finally, she forced herself to take a step back. “You need to get going,” she whsispered, her heart racing in her chest. Stupid, unprofessional, foolish—
“Yeah,” he said, looking at her for a long moment before he turned on his heel and ran away.
Kimball pointedly didn’t wonder what would have happened if they hadn’t been wearing helmets.
Also I commissioned the wonderful renaroo to draw a scene from the first BFF verse entry. It can be found here: http://secretlystephaniebrown.tumblr.com/post/166323727754/renaroo-art-commission-for-the-always-lovely.
Chapter 15: Oscar
I actually don't really have anything to say about this chapter! Hope you guys enjoy, and let's see if we can finish this in the New Year!
It wasn’t fair.
It didn’t matter how childish, how petty that belief was, it was true. All three of the others would be reuniting with the Reds and Blues, and Wash was stuck in Armonia, helping organize squads.
“I’m sorry, Agent Washington,” Doyle said softly. Wash ignored him pointedly. Because he knew, deep down, that they were right. He had done more work with the squads than Tex or York had. He was part of the way that things functioned, while York and Tex had deliberately positioned themselves as outsiders.
But none of that made him feel better. Tucker and Kai were far away, possibly in danger, and it didn’t matter that the two of them were capable of defending themselves. Wash wasn’t there to help, to provide backup, to even just… hold their hands and tell them that things were going to be alright.
If he had thought it had been bad, being separated from Tucker, being separated from both of them was infinitely worse. He supposed he should just be glad that Tucker wasn’t having to go through isolation again, or that Kai wouldn’t have to, but it was difficult to think of it in that light, when the others were racing towards them, and the Meta was out there, and who knew how many other enemies.
“General,” Wash said, trying to keep his voice professional as the two of them examined the map. “Is there any way we can get out of the city and try to attack them from both sides?
“Hmm,” Doyle murmured. “That’s—hang on. Fredericks!”
“Do you have the sewer map?”
“You’d be surprised, Agent Washington.” There was a wry note to Doyle’s voice, and Wash wondered what kind of story that the general had involving sewers.
“Here you go, sir,” Fredericks said promptly, holding out a datapad with a new schematic. “Shall I go inform the Lieutenants of the New Republic—”
“Good man! And no, not yet, I need to make sure this is correct first.”
Doyle poured over the schematics with an intensity that Wash hadn’t quite seen before. He knew that there was more to the general than necessarily met the eye, but he also knew that the man was woefully unprepared for this position, and that Locus had deliberately kept things that way by keeping him in the dark about a lot of the military movements and by circumventing him in tactical and strategic decisions.
But now he could see something more substantial; a core of hidden steel. This, Wash realized, was how Doyle had survived this long, despite everything. How he had managed to keep his sanity, despite the insane pressures of the war. Locus might have had the man cowed, but he was still a leader. And he knew Armonia, knew it in a way that a man could only possibly know a hometown that he loved with all his heart.
“Yes, that should be right,” Doyle said, sounding satisfied as he straightened up. “There’s an exit about a kilometer past their main lines. We’ll be able to move our forces out that way to take them by surprise.”
Wash felt a rush of relief. Finally.
It was time for things to get moving.
The plan was relatively simple. Wash and Doyle would escort a portion of the forces, including whatever artillery they could scrape up, and launch the attack from behind. Hopefully, the attack from behind would mean that they would be unprepared, take heavy losses, and scramble to regroup. Once they had turned around to face what they would hopefully assume would be the oncoming army, Kimball would open the gates and lead the rest of the army out to fight.
It was a gamble. It was a risky gamble.
But the enemy was on their way to gaining a way to wipe out the entire planet in a single motion. If there was any time for risks, it was now.
The sewers were too narrow for things to really be able to move as quickly as Wash might like, but the Pirates weren’t looking for an attack from behind.
Getting the artillery through the sewers was the real problem, but luckily the people who organized that aspect of the army were slightly older, and some of them had been actual soldiers, before the war had extended to recruiting everyone old enough to hold a gun.
Finally, everything was ready to go. The armies were gathered, the artillery was set up. Wash turned to Doyle.
Doyle straightened his back, and for a moment, he looked like a leader who was about to see victory.
Andersmith was the artillery-man closest to Wash, and he immediately opened fire.
Screams filled the air as Andersmith and the others hit their targets, and then the first army charged forward, and everything fell into chaos.
Wash charged with them, his gun firing. All around him, disaster reigned. Enemy and ally alike fell to the ground. Screams filled the air, and the artillery kept firing and firing, destroying everything they touched.
“Regroup!” A voice yelled from the enemy, and Wash turned to look, eager to take out any leader he could.
There was a familiar helmet staring back at him. The shape of it was strange, and accompanied dark brown armor, the shape of which was so familiar that it felt like Wash couldn’t breathe.
Wash wanted to scream.
It was the man from the desert, the one that he and Tex and York had left for dead, the man who had scavenged Connie’s armor.
He was here.
Wash had gone through Connie’s files. He knew who the man was; her handler, her lover, the man who had dragged Connie into the world of intrigue and double agents. He had refused to call a retreat, even when Carolina and Texas had been at his doorstep.
Another round of artillery fire sounded, the force of it shaking Wash to his bones, and in the chaos, the man disappeared into the dust and turmoil of the armies.
It all came full circle, didn’t it? Everything was leading them here. Hargrove and Freelancer and Connie, all of them winding together in a strange new series of threads. All of them pulling Wash and his friends to Chorus.
Anger curdled in Wash’s stomach, hot and toxic. The man had tried to kill Tucker and Junior, the man had stripped the armor from Connie’s body. And now he stood with an army who stood posed to kill an entire planet.
Whatever role that man played in the story, it ended here and now. Wash promised himself this as he plunged himself into the fray.
Thatcher was a reasonable man, or at least he was most of the time. He had his moments, he had to admit, but in general, he was rather even tempered and logical.
Chaos reigned around them—somehow half of the army had slipped out of the city and attacked them from behind. He was going to have words with Locus over this; the man had assured him that there was no way out of the city for more than a handful of people. Overconfident, once again. It was indicative of what kept going wrong on this planet.
And to make matters worse, Washington was there, but there was no time to go after him. If it had been Terry in his place, he would have charged after Washington and all might have been lost.
There was very little more that Thatcher wanted than to charge forward and sink a knife into Washington’s stomach. To let him sit there and bleed out slowly. He had been Connie’s friend, once, Thatcher knew. She had mentioned him several times, and had even hoped that he would also turn on Freelancer.
And he had, that was what made it all worse. He had turned. But he had turned too late, and done so in a way which had destroyed anything useful that could have been salvaged from that disaster of an operation. If he had turned earlier, things could have been different.
Connie might still be alive, for one.
Thatcher didn’t hate Washington as much as he did Texas. If Thatcher ever caught a glimpse of her on the battlefield, Thatcher wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep the same level of control that he maintained when he saw the grey and yellow armored soldier.
But there was a reason that Control had placed Thatcher in charge of this operation. He turned away from where Washington had disappeared into the crowd, and got back to trying to get things under control.
This entire mission was fragile; he couldn’t believe how much power that Control had entrusted to Felix and Locus previously. Allowing two operatives such unilateral control over an operation was highly unusual, even if they did have a fairly rigorous strategy to follow. The problem was, in Thatcher’s opinion, was that Control had chosen to go for people with Personalities. Felix’s ego and Locus’s obsessions had brought down the mission. Two more standard agents, who might have been less personally skilled, would have been able to take down the Reds and Blues with ease, and then this planet might have already been dead.
Thatcher knew where things had gone wrong. He had studied the case files, he understood things here on Chorus. He had a grasp of the big picture, in a way that Felix’s ego and Locus’s dedication to orders would blind them to seeing.
So he did the only reasonable thing he could do.
“Fall back!” He called out, as the army followed his initial order to regroup. The encoded radio channels meant that only those with the correct codes could hear the order; the pirates and the other leaders.
Which unfortunately included Felix.
“What?” Felix’s voice on the radio was practically shaking with fury. Luckily, the man had the common sense to keep it to the command channel, instead of broadcasting openly. “You’re insane, we outnumber them, you could win this.”
“There’s no need to take these losses, not when you two are about to find the key,” Thatcher barked. “Let them have this victory. It’s going to be meaningless in less than a day.” It wouldn’t be as grandly personal as getting to kill Texas himself, but even better, it would mean that she and the other Freelancers failed. They’d dedicated themselves to saving this planet, this useless backwater place, and they’d fail. The world would be dead, and Charon would swoop in and do whatever it was that Hargrove wanted. All it would take would be a single twist of a key.
He wished he’d managed to kill Lavernius Tucker back in the desert. If he’d managed to get his hands on the key then, things could have been a lot quicker.
“Coward,” Felix hissed, unaware of Thatcher’s wandering thoughts. “You spineless—patch me through to the army, they aren’t going anywhere—”
“Felix!” Locus’s voice booked no argument. Despite his problems with the man, Thatcher had to admit that Locus was intimidating and dangerous. And usually, he was a consummate professional, which Thatcher had to respect. Except for the part that he worked with the walking concept of a lack of self-control. “Control has placed him in command. Follow orders. We will retrieve the key.”
Thatcher felt himself start to smile as Locus signed off the line, leaving just him and Felix.
“Screw you,” Felix hissed. He didn’t like being put in his place. Now, Thatcher almost regretted that the rest of the army hadn’t witnessed Locus silencing him so efficiently, even if it was for the best.
“Careful Felix,” Thatcher said, keeping his voice genial. “Your leash is going towards the key. Don’t fall behind.”
He ended the call, and smiled to himself, even as the pirates made their retreat.
Tex had never liked Armonia, but after hearing Church’s beacon, she hated the city.
She and York hadn’t been able to get out fast enough, it felt like, even though she had only stopped to get weapons, and York had only stopped to have a touching moment with Kimball.
If Tex had been less worried, she’d have maybe considered talking to him about it. She didn’t know what to make of the entire situation; it was strange and unusual and bizarre to her.
Tex wasn’t bound entirely to Church; she’d been attracted to other people before, and so had Church. Their relationship was complicated and strange, all of their feelings and history and “destiny” all tangled together in a strange web that they were ensnared in. Talking about it was something they’d never really done, but at the end of the day, Tex knew they cared for each other, and nothing else mattered.
She had no basis for what York was going through; the strange maze of feelings that he’d stumbled into with Carolina and Kimball. Even if she hadn’t been so worried about Church that it felt like there was static drowning out everything else, she wouldn’t have a single idea of how to tackle those issues or address it.
But as it was, the only thing that mattered right now was that Church was in danger.
Normally, Tex would have laughed it off; the only thing that could hurt them was an EMP, after all. In their holographic forms, there was basically nothing that could harm her or Church. They were almost ghosts, able to pass through objects and avoid their enemies.
But The Meta was here, on Chorus, and even if Wash and York had burned out the fragments with the EMP, terror crawled through her circuits, sinking its claws into the wires and gears of her robot body. Every instinct she had said that the Meta could catch Church, and that if he did, things would be very bad.
York’s arms were wrapped around her waist as the two of them raced across Chorus on the mongoose. Some part of Tex knew that Church would get indignant if he saw this position, but there was no amusement to be had in that thought, only fear.
Because Church might not get to see this to get all spluttery and angry over.
She leaned forward and increased the speed another notch. York didn’t protest, although she knew he was worried about the danger of them going that fast.
Tex couldn’t even process the fact that there was a key that could destroy the planet, the immediate threat of losing Church was so overwhelming. She’d let York worry about that sort of thing. Tex was bad at the big picture. She’d never thought about grander notions of justice or vengeance when she’d attacked Freelancer. Her only concern had been rescuing Church. Everything else was secondary to that notion, and it was the same here.
She would save the planet, she’d kill everyone who was threatening the Reds and Blues, she knew that. Church wasn’t her only priority.
But he had sacrificed his body, revealed himself, to buy the others more time. And he was in the most immediate danger.
Tex was not going to let him die for it.
<Agent Texas, I suggest you open your long-range radio and begin broadcasting,> Delta said in her ear. <If we are lucky, we might be able to pick up Church’s signal.>
There was a hesitation. <Would you prefer it if I gave you the statistical probability?>
<York’s rubbed off on you.>
<As I believe he is fond of saying, “Better lucky than good.” Besides, the Reds and Blues are notoriously difficult to calculate for statistically. And despite being an Artificial Intelligence, Church is most definitely also one of them.>
Tex tightened her grip on the handles of the mongoose. “You’re right,” she said out loud.
She remembered the classes from Freelancer, the rules for things like Meta-Stability and when could an AI be considered human. Sure, she’d never actually attended the classes that York and the others had, but she’d been taught in private, with Omega as the justification for why she wasn’t attending with the others.
Church was too broken, according to the theories to ever really be human. Freelancer had stripped him of core aspects of himself, had shattered him into thousands of pieces, and only time and memory and their friends had helped him put himself back together. But Tex knew, deep down, that he was as human as an AI could get. He laughed, he cried, he felt, in a visceral way that Tex envied. He forgot that he wasn’t human, he forgot that he was, at a core level, made up of ones and zeroes in intricate patterns.
Tex was… something else entirely. No one even knew what she was, not really. She had been an anomaly, a curiosity, an impossibility. Her existence had spawned entire new theories about how Artificial Intelligence even worked, not that anyone else knew about her. She was a shadow of a memory, and she had rejected even that about herself.
She wasn’t human.
She was a machine.
She opened her radio, and started broadcasting. “Church? Can you hear me? This is Tex.”
A moment later, York’s radio also went live. “Tex,” he said. “I’ll talk. You drive.”
Tex wanted to protest, but his arms squeezed around her waist gently, as if reassuring her.
She turned her full attention to the road as York started to talk.
York was good at talking. He spun meaningless stories, usually involving locks that he’d failed to pick or bar fights he’d lost, with Delta occasionally chiming in with corrections or amendments or details that York had left out.
But when Tex felt Church, it was through her radio, not his.
“Church!” Tex slammed the breaks of the mongoose so hard that York nearly lost his grip. <Church!>
Their reunion was like being hit by a ton of bricks as he slammed through the radio towards her, the binary that made both of them up entwining for one brief moment of intimacy that was more than any physical contact could ever manage to be.
He pulled apart, portioning himself into her mind, the two of them side-by-side but not overly connected. It was cleaner than even Omega had ever managed to keep things.
“Are you okay?” York said. “Church?”
Church appeared in a projection over her shoulder. “I’m fine, asshole, why the fuck are you holding onto my girlfriend?”
“Shut up,” Tex said, although she couldn’t stop herself from letting the fondness sink into her voice.
“Where’s the Meta?” York asked, not moving his arms from around Tex’s waist because he was a contrary asshole like that.
“Don’t know, behind me, but we need to move, there’s this Shark guy and I think he really wants to kill Carolina, and we need to help them.” Church’s fears were palpable through their connection, and it put Tex’s teeth
“Shouldn’t we… fight the Meta? Stop him?” York offered, hesitating.
“No time,” Texas revved the engine again. Church’s presence was soothing her already, making her old confidence return. He was safe. Now she could worry about everything else. “Let’s go save the day, shall we?”
“An excellent plan,” Delta said.
If Tex had a face, she’d be grinning.
“Where too?” She asked Church, and started driving in that direction when he answered her silently.
Chapter 16: Papa
Sorry for the delay on this chapter guys!
Here's the thing; it might surprise you to learn it, but this chapter is what inspired me to write this whole fic. Everything else came later, but this chapter was what started me on this path. I had no idea what I was doing when I set out, I certainly couldn't have predicted what it would become, but this is where I started from.
And so, when I set out to write it, I got paralyzed; fun ones, sure, but I ended up putting this on the backburner while I worked through it in my head. . I wrote other projects instead.
But it's done now, and I hope you'll enjoy it!
Everything was falling apart around them.
It was a simple, inescapable fact of the world right now.
Their big trick, the siege, was falling apart from under them, and Thatcher wasn’t even standing his ground, instead, running away like a coward. Control was going to be furious. The big finale had failed because of Tucker and that fucking AI fragment, and before that Locus hadn’t realized that Freelancers had infiltrated their squad, and before that Foxtrot had showed up, and before that, the ship hadn’t even crashed properly so the goddamn Reds and Blues hadn’t died.
Sharkface and the Meta hadn’t even managed to kill Tucker and the others, even though they’d practically been gift wrapped. They couldn’t even get a straight answer out of the Meta about how it had happened, because the only one who could understand him was Price, and Price wasn’t being helpful, instead only talking cryptically to Locus about what it meant to be a fucking soldier, and yeah, Felix knew all about that bullshit; at least Locus had transferred his weird fixation from Washington to the Meta. All this bullshit about the perfect soldier… and Price was feeding right into it, that asshole.
Felix really couldn’t wait to get his hands on that sword. He was going to kill everyone on this planet, and then use the sword to mop up the rest of them. He’d keep Siris and Locus around, sure, but the rest? Price’s fast mouth wouldn’t be able to save him from being skewered.
Felix had seen Tucker’s sword in action, and the thought of being able to use one to its full potential sent shivers of pleasure down his spine.
What a waste it was, languishing in the hands of that idiot. And that wasn’t even thinking of the potential it had, for the technology on the planet. There was so much stuff, just lying around, and if they could unlock it…
Alien technology could do the kinds of things that humans had always spun into stories; the Sanghelli understood more of this shit than they did, but not by much. There were all sorts of stories; raising the dead, living forever, and that wasn’t even getting into the towers that Sharkface had mentioned that were on this planet.
If he could control it, he would become a god. Hargrove wouldn’t be able to stop him; the question of what next? After Chorus was finally answered, in the form of a brilliant alien weapon.
Those thoughts soothed him as they headed to the temple. That, and Locus’s presence beside him.
It was why they worked best together. Felix’s energy kept Locus on his toes, and Locus steadied Felix’s mania. Siris had kept Felix on task, had kept Locus flexible by being able to see the big picture.
And they had kept him alive, even if he hadn’t been able to see it.
He had been wilting, stifled by the everyday drags of domesticity. He’d been kept inside too long. Now he was out in the sun, and even if Siris hadn’t realized it yet, he was blossoming.
By the time they finished this mission, Siris would realize that the divorce was the best thing ever to happen to him, even if he would never admit it out loud.
This had always been his guilty pleasure; it was why he had hidden it from Megan and the kids, pretending to do above the board work. Siris knew, deep down, that he was addicted to all of this. The distance of the sniper rifle, the steady calm of being in armor, in control. Felix knew this; he had spent years learning Siris inside and out, the same way he had learned Locus. The only fault in Siris was that damned conscious, but even that could be handled. He was here, on Chorus, after all, despite the misgivings he would have once harbored.
Locus might have hesitated, but the years had numbed him to all of it. Any traces of “Sam” were long dead, like Isaac.
If Felix could bide his time, Mason would be dead too.
It was why Felix knew there was no way that he could let Siris be the one to kill Foxtrot; there was no way that he could be allowed even the smallest sense of closure, or worse, absolution. Siris was goal oriented, and if Foxtrot died at his hand…
Siris might remember that there had been a time when he’d had comrades who weren’t Felix and Locus, for starters. Felix would rather prevent that kind of self-discovery. Far better to see if he could trip him up further.
It would be a long fall to the bottom; it had been for Locus. But at the end of it… Felix glanced at Locus sideways and grinned to himself.
He was more than happy with the results.
“Over here,” Sharkface called, and Felix stepped up quickly. He wasn’t about to let the guy whose next role in this epic story of Chorus was as a sushi platter get his hands on the sword first.
It was casually lying on the ground, and Felix grinned, bending over to examine it. “Why didn’t you pick it up?” He said. He rolled the hilt over in his hands. It felt heavy for a moment, like it was meant for an alien with strength much greater than a human’s, but then, suddenly, it was lighter. The perfect heft and weight.
“Are you kidding?” Sharkface snorted. “I heard that Sim Trooper who picked it up got knocked up with an alien baby by that thing. I’ll pass.”
Felix stared at him for a moment. Sharkface stared back. It was kind of stupid, given that they were both wearing helmets, but Felix refused to blink anyways. It was a matter of pride.
“Were you listening to the blue idiot? Fuck, you’re really a dumbass if you believe anything that comes out of his mouth.”
“It was in their official files!”
“Probably because of the blue idiot!”
“Doesn’t Lavernius Tucker have a son?” Locus asked, sounding smug, like he knew something that Felix didn’t. It was only then that Felix remembered that Locus read all the background material for every mission, and even though he’d been obsessing over Washington like a teenage girl reading over a profile of a celebrity in a glossy magazine, he’d probably taken the time to reading Tucker’s file.
“Well… yeah! But he’s not an alien.” He definitely would have heard about it if Junior was an alien; Tucker hadn’t been able to shut up about him. Basketball star,
“Are you sure about that?”
Felix was not about to admit that he’d never actually looked at the photographs that Tucker had tried to shove under his nose. He had no interest in kids, and it wasn’t like the brat was even on Chorus to provide leverage, so there was no reason to, okay?
“Look, I saw pictures, okay? Nice, normal boarding school.”
Sharkface and Locus said nothing, and Felix scowled.
They just stood there for a few moments before one of the idiot pirates barged in, breaking the weird tension that Felix had no idea how to handle. “Sir! We’ve got hostiles incoming!”
“Identification?” Locus called, turning away.
“We’ve spotted the Reds and Blues, plus Agents Carolina and York. Possibly Agent Texas, but it’s difficult to tell.”
“Agent Texas will be here,” Locus said immediately. “I doubt she was willing to let the Simulation Troopers be out here alone once she recognized they were in danger.”
“Washington’s still back at Armonia, according to Thatcher,” Sharkface said, and he was on edge. The tantalizing possibility of revenge, if Felix had to guess. “So it’s just those three for the Freelancers.”
“The Meta did manage to confirm that he killed Private Church, but Doctor Grey was with them.” Locus added, and when had he learned to speak Meta? “So that leaves their numbers at twelve.”
Felix felt himself grinning beneath his helmet, the kind of grin he’d always had to hide when he was with the New Republic. It wasn’t the grin that he could pass off as part of the smarmy mercenary with a heart of gold routine. It was the kind of smile that came before the kill. Not just any kind of kill, but a good kill. The kind that Chrous, for all of the grandiosity and scale, rarely offered.
He flicked his wrist while holding the sword, like he’d seen Tucker do so many times while with the New Republic, and he laughed with delight as the bright white blade emerged. Something hummed in his bones; a kind of power that he’d never known he’d been missing, but now it was all he could think about it. It was intoxicating, knowing that he was holding the kind of weapon that changed worlds.
What a waste one of these had been in the hands of Lavernius Tucker. What had he done with it? Nothing.
“Well there’s three of us and twelve of them,” Felix said. “What do you guys say to setting a trap?”
Sharkface and Locus turned to look at him, and, okay, for a second Felix could understand why Locus liked Sharkface. The guy had an eagerness to him that was… refreshing, after working with Locus for so long.
“What do you have in mind?”
Carolina felt her heart rise in her chest for a moment, as she spotted the mongoose. Texas was driving, and York was holding on to her. But then he no longer was holding onto Tex, and instead was barreling towards her.
“York,” she said, but anything else she had to say was cut off, because York was crushing her tightly in an embrace.
“The Meta?” Tex demanded, her voice tight.
“Not sure,” Tucker said. “Where’s Wash?”
“Armonia. He had to stay back.”
Carolina could see Tucker and Kai both visibly wilt at that. She should reprimand them, but York was still hugging her, so she didn’t really have any room to talk.
“Guys, no time,” Church said, and Carolina couldn’t help but smile when his projection appeared. It was human sized and gleaming white. At least he was okay. “We’ve got to get the sword now.”
Carolina let herself hug York back quickly, while everyone was distracted by Church. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he whispered to her, before letting go.
She looked away, unsure of how to respond to that. How did he manage to complicate everything? How did her tongue end up so uncertain of itself whenever he was around?
Sometimes, she really hated her father. Maybe it was because of him that she was unable to sort out her own feelings. York could say how he felt, but Carolina didn’t even dare give them words in her own head.
Feelings only got people hurt; love only got people hurt. She had seen how loving and losing her mother had utterly destroyed her father. She had lost York once before, or thought she had at least. And now they were at war again, with all of the dangers and complications that came with it, and she could lose him at any moment. Him, Wash, the Reds and Blues, Kimball…
She froze for a moment, unsure of why Vanessa Kimball of all people had ranked up there with the others. She barely knew the other woman, really. And yet…
York gave her that head tilt of his that meant he was smiling, and she wished that she didn’t know him so well. She wished that him being here didn’t make her feel better, because there was still no one else she’d rather have watching her back than him. Texas and Wash were better in a fight, but there was still something so familiar about him. Even after all these years, the two of them knew how to fight together.
If they had to fight these specters of the past—Sharkface, the Meta, and this Siris… at least they’d do it together.
Too bad she didn’t have the words to actually tell York that, because she had the emotional vocabulary of someone raised by Leonard Church the first.
<Give yourself a break,> Epsilon chided her. <We’ve got a planet to save, remember? You can worry about your love triangle bullshit later.>
(She pointedly ignored Epsilon’s comment about a love triangle.)
She took a breath, and they headed out.
They charged into the caves, hoping they weren’t going to be too late. The building was a maze, so maybe they hadn’t found it yet.
“Split up,” Carolina said. “Be careful, stay on the comms.”
“I’m going invisible,” Tex said. She nudged York. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Big words for a woman who’s got her boyfriend literally inside her brain!” York yelled as Tex faded from view.
“Let’s move,” Carolina said. “Tucker, Caboose, Kai. You’re with me. Sarge, you lead a squad, York, you do the same.”
“Hey, we outrank him!” Simmons objected.
“Don’t worry about it,” York said, patting him on the arm. “You and Grif go with Sarge. Donut? Lopez?”
“Oh boy! I’ve always wanted to learn more about the secret parts of a Freelancer!”
“¡Espere! No te dividas idiotas, es una trampa!”
“Lopez! That’s not a nice thing to call Carolina!” Donut said, sounding shocked. “Guess he wants to go with you, Carolina.”
“Fine by me,” Carolina said. “Let’s move.”
York and Donut went down the left hand corridor, Sarge, Grif, and Simmons went down the center corridor, while Carolina, the blues, and Lopez took the right.
Less than fifty feet down, a steel door slammed down from the ceiling, preventing a retreat.
Locus had wondered who was going to head in the direction of the trap.
It was luck, and luck alone that had brought Foxtrot here.
Felix was further back, searching for the pink soldier that had come with him. The color should have made him easy to find, but he was having no luck, and was cursing about it on the radio. Locus muted him; he would require all of his focus here.
“You’ve already got the sword, don’t you?” Foxtrot said, his shotgun aimed right at Locus. They were at a standoff. Foxtrot must have realized that it was a trap the moment the partition went down, activated by Felix’s new sword. He’d been prepared, enough so that he had managed to dodge the initial attack.
Which left them here, at a standoff. Sharkface was in a different corridor, setting up a machine that he hoped would burn several of the others alive.
“Of course,” Locus said.
Foxtrot was like Felix in many ways. He was always too eager to talk. Locus would be able to use this and catch him off guard.
“If you use that weapon, a lot of people are going to die.” Foxtrot said earnestly. He sounded just like he had in the past. If Locus had a nostalgic bone in his body, he might have felt something. But he had long since left the past behind. “But you can still turn back. You can stop this.”
“As I understand it, you were the cause of plenty of death during your time with Project Freelancer,” Locus observed. “The mission is what matters.”
“That’s not true,” York said. “I had to learn that lesson the hard way. More than once. Don’t make my mistakes. You can stop this, before it’s too late.” He reached out a hand, and Locus almost wanted to laugh.
“You’re a fool.”
“Oh, come on, Sam,” Foxtrot snapped, and Locus went stock still and cold. “This isn’t a kid in the back woods, this isn’t even a goddamn building full of civilians. This is a planet. This is genocide.” He said the word like it should mean something.
His gun lowered just an inch. That was all the opening that Locus needed.
Locus’s gun went off. The bullets in his rifle were coated in polymers that punctured armor plating, Kevlar, and bone with ease. And it did so, puncturing right through his shoulder. Not a kill shot, but it was enough.
Foxtrot went down with an agonized scream, and finally the AI made an appearance, flickering above its host. “Agent York—”
“I suppose your healing unit will keep you alive longer,” Locus observed, tilting his helmet to one side as he stood over his former teammate. “That truly is fascinating technology. I’m surprised they gave it to an infiltration specialist. I would have thought that it would have better served someone capable of fighting back.” He nudged Foxtrot with his foot, and he let out a groan.
“I would strongly recommend against touching him,” the AI said, moving until it was level with Locus’s face. The armor it wore was outdated, the image low-resolution. The technology of war had moved on, and Foxtrot and his fragment had been left behind. “My security precautions—”
Locus reached down, passing through the hologram as he did so, and yanked the healing unit out of the chest plate. There was an electrical shock that came with it—the AI attempting to stop him, doubtless, but it did not prevent Locus from achieving his task. Foxtrot let out another cry; probably at the loss of the pain medication that the device provided.
“I suppose I will let you keep the parasite until you die,” Locus said, turning the healing unit over in his hands. The hologram was now nowhere to be seen; it had retreated into the safety of Foxtrot’s mind. Perhaps it intended to turn off his pain receptors at the source. “My employer was very interested in learning that two of the fragments remained. I studied Agent Washington’s records from his time as Recovery One. I should be able to copy his retrieval method.”
“Sam,” Foxtrot gasped out, and that was the final straw.
That name meant nothing to him, nothing at all, but Locus could not deny that hearing it again filled him with rage, hot and furious. Locus pressed his foot down on Foxtrot’s neck, and the man let out a strangled noise, squirming beneath him. There. That took care of his inability to hold his tongue.
“You, and those Reds and Blues, are nothing more than distractions,” Locus said. He pressed down harder—it would not take much more pressure before the vertebrae of his neck would snap. Siris would be disappointed that he had not been the one to kill Agent York, but he would understand. “You have done nothing but delay the inevitable. You can try to dredge up the past all you wish, but it is dead, just like this planet. Just like you. You die here.”
“Not going to happen.”
It was a woman’s voice.
And that was the last thought that Locus had before his neck was snapped and he fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings were cut.