Dylan Andrews understood herself to be a woman of facts at the end of the day. The facts were what mattered the most and more often than not she chose the ability to tell the facts over the question of playing sides or making people happy. It was probably why her marriage hadn’t worked out.
And it was probably going to get her killed someday.
As she looked through the available patient files, ignored the stench of decay and morbidity around her, Dylan could feel the tension gradually rising among her current peers. Even with at least three of them gone, the palpable disgust that Carolina and Doctor Grey were exuding could quickly turn on Dylan.
After all, she was still an outsider, a tag-along. And what her part in this story was meant to be was still unseen. And things always got sloppy when a reporter failed to keep themselves out of their story.
“Are you finding anything in there or is this whole thing an exercise in wasting time?” Carolina demanded sharply. Her agitation was growing bad enough to get her pacing.
For perhaps the first time since Dylan had met her, Doctor Grey was quiet and withdrawn, choosing instead to move in solemn quiet. Turning to answer Carolina was the first time Dylan had even really observed what the doctor was doing. And what she found was that Emily Grey was going to each and every corpse and doing the gentle though somewhat meaningless gesture of closing their eyes.
Well, meaningless to Dylan Andrews, the reporter who had thrown herself into more battlefields for the sake of reporting than almost anyone else still alive in the journalistic world.
“Andrews!” Carolina snapped angrily.
Returning her attention to Carolina fully, Dylan took a breath and readied herself to disappoint the angered super soldier. “I thought we were finally on first name basis.”
“Finally?” Grey piped up with a low grumble. “It took fifteen minutes.”
“This isn’t the time to play psychiatrist with what everyone means,” Carolina snapped at them all. “We need answers or we need to move. We don’t now if there’s more prisoners on this ghost planet or if the people who gave us that false lead to trap us here had some backup plans prepared.”
“Those prisoners were left behind by the UNSC as much as any soldier or agent of Project Freelancer,” Dylan reminded her. “You saw them. They were starving to death out there.”
“We have a plan already for what to do regarding that specific situation,” Grey announced, moving from the last body and getting to her feet. “We shall leave a high-grade sonar distress beacon just within orbit of the prison planet. Considering the number of cargo flight paths that go past this sector, they should be detected relatively quickly and someone will come to the rescue or at the very least alert authorities who will actually come to these poor souls’ aide.”
Dylan was a bit surprised by the swiftness of the answer and quickly glanced between the two of them. “We’re going to just trust someone else to be the good samaritans here?” she asked.
“We can’t really contact the UNSC or any other kind of authorities ourselves after what happened on the Charon ship,” Carolina replied.
“When did we decide all of this?” Dylan asked, mystified by how on-page the two women were with each other.
“Oh, we all discussed it over the radio, even Washington and Private Grif,” Doctor Grey said with a flip of her wrist.
Carolina crossed her arms over her chest. “Better not forget Junior’s contribution about the beacon. He was very proud of it,” she noted.
“Oh, yes, of course,” the doctor nodded happily.
Blinking a few times, Dylan tried to reground herself. “I’m confused. Why wasn’t I consulted?”
“You were supposed to be finding out vital information from these files with those investigative instincts of yours,” Carolina answered haughtily. “So, Miss Andrews, what’ve you got?”
Exhaling sharply, Dylan pulled out her notepad and turned it around to the other two women.
They leaned in slightly to get a better look at the pad only to back away almost simultaneously.
“Did you spell out all of our names in box letters during all this time?” Doctor Grey asked seriously.
“And decorate them with doodles?” Carolina added. “What’s that journalistic shorthand for?”
“It’s not journalistic shorthand for anything,” Dylan answered, turning her notepad back around to herself. “I got bored because there was nothing on any of these outdated systems that we weren’t already aware of. It’s a dead end outside of whatever discovery you think we got from the room itself. Or from learning the fact that we were tricked into coming here to begin with more or less.”
“That’s basically nothing,” Grey scoffed.
“I’m aware,” Dylan responded with a tilt of her head.
“No,” Carolina responded darkly, her mood visibly turning foul. “We know that it’s the same bullshit that it always is. We know that they’re hurting the Reds and Blues — hurting my family. And we know that I’m going to be fucking pissed once I get my hands on them.”
Once the Freelancer was done, they allowed silence to overwhelm the room. Dylan hardly felt as though she could breathe, especially once Carolina’s gaze turned directly on her.
“There’s nothing else we’re going to get here?” she demanded.
“No,” Dylan answered, doing her best to not betray any discomfort under the gaze.
“Fine,” Carolina said, turning to head out of the room. “Then we’re moving on.”
For a moment, Dylan could only watch Carolina’s back turn to her. She caught her breath and looked almost desperately toward Doctor Grey as she walked up to her
“Why is it that every time we get bad news, I feel like it’s my spot on this team that’s on the line?” Dylan asked almost flatly.
“I would say you have a reporter’s intuitive instincts,” she said back.
“Gee, thanks,” Dylan snapped, looking ahead and beginning to move forward only to be yanked back by Doctor Grey’s rather firm grasp on her shoulder.
“I would say that,” Grey clarified. “But that isn’t the answer. And I believe we both know it at this point. You’re proving rather valuable. And we have proven in the past to be rather soft.”
“Soft? I would not use soft to describe a single Freelancer I’ve met,” Dylan half scoffed. “Especially not in this group. I would say hard. Hard enough to be brittle.”
“Well, sometimes you have to snap a few of those sharp corners off to make someone a little more… rounded!” she offered loudly.
“Hm,” Dylan remarked, unimpressed by the metaphor. “Sounds painful in real life.”
“That, our dear Lois Lane, is a truth worthy of a Peabody,” Grey said almost somberly before leading the way out, once more asserting herself between Dylan and Agent Carolina, like a protective labradoodle.
Staring after her company, Dylan considered — not for the first time since walking in on vandals in her apartment — finding a way to escape the shenanigans and find answers to the Reds and Blues more objectively.
But her journalistic fervor won out as usual and she hastened her walk in order to catch up with the others.
It did not take too much hastening, however, as just a short way down the hall of the prison, the group was gathered, standing still while Washington with a rifle in hand pointed toward the scaffolding. Agent Carolina quietly and very specifically followed his direction with a piercing glare. The Sangheili child stood behind the two of them, both anxiously following their looks and staying firmly beneath their watch.
Confused and intrigued, Dylan walked up to the others. “What’s going on—“
“SHHHHHHHH!” Kaikaina Grif snapped at least ten times louder than Dylan’s calmly asked question.
As overdone as the gesture was, it did not earn so much as a glance from Doctor Grey who was continuing to watch over Carolina and Washington almost protectively. Dylan tried to not take it to heart that whatever bonding experience there had been between the two of them before seemed observably absent at the moment.
“I’m shushed,” Dylan responded to the the private calmly. “Would you please explain what is going on?”
“Why you need to know? You a cop?” Kaikaina asked her with a suspicious look over.
“Reporter,” Dylan answered flatly.
There was an exaggerated, and loud, groan as Kaikaina rolled her head and shoulders back with a long groan. “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s even worse than a cop. At least there’s, like, a fifty-fifty chance with cops that they’ll just start shooting at you. You just keep asking questions even after I tell you to fuck off. This shit sucks.”
“I’ll stop asking questions if you explain why we’re all congested in this hallway,” Dylan offered.
To her near-surprise, Kaikaina actually considered it, letting out a long sigh as she apparently decided to accept and crossed her arms. “Yeah, Wash and I were hugging it out because it was that fifty percent of the time where he did stuff other than shoot unarmed people posing no threat. And then he was all like ‘zomagawd there’s a glint!’ And I was like bullshit there’s no glint! I didn’t really know what he was talking about, but I feel like I have to argue with him. Y’knnow. Keep him in his place because my taxes pay for that paycheck he gets, not the other way around—“
“As a part of the military, aren’t your paychecks and benefits also provided by civilian taxes?” Dylan pointed out.
Kai grew a near disgusted look on her face. “Bitch, you said no additional questions.”
Realizing her folly, Dylan raised her hands up and nodded. “Sorry, sorry. You are right. My bad. Continue.”
“Thank you,” Kai answered. “Anyway, there was this whole argument about there’s a glint and then he pointed it out to me and I was like, Wash, you stupid asshole, that’s not a glint, that’s someone’s binoculars spying on us. Which I know all about because when I used to go skinny dipping at the nudist beach — which is just swimming by the way and you’d think that’d be obvious to people like how gay married is just married — I’d see creepy assholes with those from miles away. And now everyone’s freaking out over it because they think it’s a grasshopper. Like, that ain’t any grasshopper. It’s a fucking dude with binoculars. I already told them. They stopped listening, though. So fuck them. I just want to leave this stupid place.”
“Why would anyone left on this planet want to spy on us?” Dylan asked herself out loud.
“Hey, it’s like I already told Wash, dudes with binoculars are always interested in me, not in whatever the fuck everyone else on this stupid fucking team’s doing,” Kai blabbered on. “Not that he listened because he’s a paranoid fucker who thinks everything is about him. Which it’s so not. Like fuck off, Wash it’s not all about you.” She then bristled and looked at Dylan sternly. “Hey! That was a free question! I’m not some fucking endless wish granting genie, you know!”
“You’re right, my apologies,” Dylan replied before moving past Kai and heading straight toward where Washington, Carolina, and Grey had all gathered. “Trouble?” she asked immediately.
“Oh, don’t play dumb, I already explained the binoculars!” Kai snapped, coming up alongside Dylan.
Junior let out a chuckling clatter of teeth that left Dylan and her not altogether unreasonable amount of experience on the battlefield reporting more than a little unnerved.
“It was probably someone assessing us from a distance, but we didn’t see any sort of equipment that would lend itself to that among the left behind prisoners that we encountered,” Carolina explained. “Which makes me concerned we’ve had a tail since the Charon.”
“And there’s still nothing saying it wasn’t the scope of a sniper rifle, which would be a calling card to… someone we’ve encountered before already,” Wash continued.
“And who has not been seen since he was last sighted fighting the Reds and Blues,” Grey added nervously, a hand on the chin of her helmet.
“Hey! I already fucking told you they were binoculars,” Kaikaina screeched. “Oh my fucking gawd what do I have to do to make it clear to you assholes. Can’t you, like, take my word for it? Like just for once, assholes?”
The others stared at her.
“Yeah, fuck you too,” Kai snapped in aggravation.
Seeing an opportunity to jump in, Dylan stepped close to the group. “Regardless of any motivations we do or do not find here, I think our best bet is to get back to the ship and let me do a deep read of this FILSS AI we’ve gotten a hold of and see what crosses with any of the information we’ve found here,” she offered. “And if that isn’t enough, we can also work with any of my access to my news network’s database. It’s on a deep web server so it shouldn’t be anywhere close to Charon or the UNSC’s radars at the moment.”
“Deep web? Fuck, I thought that’s where the really fucked up porn was. I didn’t know you were that kinda kinky,” Kai snorted.
“And why would you require personal access to our AI?” Grey hummed expectantly. “I have performed diagnostics on her myself already. Do you think I missed something of importance?”
“No, but I believe that a different perspective — an investigative journalist’s perspective, maybe — could put some new things into perspective,” Dylan continued. She could see the pitch was not a hit and run with the majority of the group so she concentrated instead on Carolina. “It’s worth a shot.”
The others followed suit and also looked in Carolina’s direction. The former Freelancer leader crossed her arms and let out a huff of air. “She’s right. We don’t have much else to go on at the moment. And I know the wind has been taken out of my sails after this turned into a bit of a bust.” There was a meaningful glance between herself and Washington. “We were all hoping for more here. But it didn’t work out. And we still need to find the Reds and Blues. The search continues. Dylan, hope you are as good at searching through code as you are with pulling on heartstrings.”
A wry smile hid itself behind Dylan’s helmet. “One can only hope.”
Without much more delay, they began the walk back and Dylan couldn’t help but be surprised by what a smoother and quicker path it seemed to be returning to the ship than getting off of it. Part of that was, perhaps, the anxiety of dealing with the unknown and knowing that a small, though alien, child was leading them into it without care. But that wasn’t entirely accurate either.
Looking at the Freelancers specifically, Dylan could see how tense their shoulders remained, how their weapons were already drawn and their concentration seemed mostly on the upper levels of the prison. Perfect sniper posts, after all.
Still, they made it to the ship, and the moment they were within perimeter, the door opened.
“You weren’t kidding when you said that you had left FILSS in charge of the ship,” Carolina mused, standing by the door with Washington as they waited for everyone else to load. It was fascinating to see how both of the professionals seemed to ride a strangely comfortable line between soldier drilled into their heads and naively optimistic.
From everything she had read, Dylan had her bets on the former having sprung up from Freelancer while the latter was the result of their association with the famous Reds and Blues.
“FILSS, it seems our reporter fan will be wanting to interrogate you, so you should allow Kaikaina to deal with the take off and flying for the moment,” Grey informed the AI with a sing-song voice. “After all, we would want you to give the reporter your complete attention.”
Frowning a bit, Dylan removed her helmet and ran a hand through her helmet hair. “Alright, Doctor Grey,” she sighed. She had thought they were doing so much better earlier.
“Oh, I am completely serious, Miss Andrews,” Grey responded lightly. “If you can give us any information about where next to find our friends, then it will be more important than having a less-than-smooth takeoff at the hands of Private Kaikaina Grif.”
Taken aback, Dylan only blinked at Grey in surprise. She could hardly register the sounds of Washington and Carolina entering the ship and the doors closing behind them. It was the largest show of trust and sincerity the doctor had given Dylan since they began interacting.
But before Dylan could manage a response, the navigation screen between them lit up, a blue eye-like icon appearing, glowing at various intervals as if to garner their attention. F.I.L.S.S. was spelled out beneath it.
“If there are questions about the Reds and Blues then I am very happy to assist!” FILSS informed them excitedly. “After all, they have just reached new analytics as a search term and are appearing in multiple channels of communication in at least forty-two Earthling and Covenant dialects as we speak!”
“What?” Washington asked, leading the others into gathering around the navigation screen.
“FILSS, what are you talking about?” Carolina demanded.
“Only exactly what I mean, Agent Carolina!” FILSS answered before blinking the screen off and then opening up to a brand new window altogether. It was a lifestream of an address of Chairman Hargrove to the rest of the UNSC with a running text above and below all at once. The headline read UNSC Breaks Silence On Chorus & More.
“The Chairman? Holding a public briefing in the middle of all this scandal?” Dylan asked critically. “That’s incredibly unlike him or the rest of the UNSC for that matter—“
Her rambling monologue was cut off quickly, however, by the collective gasp of the crew around her. The shock in the room was palpable, drawing Dylan’s attention back to the screen where she found exactly what horrors the others had been concerned with. On the screen before them, without pomp or circumstance, the Reds and Blues were revealed to be standing in attention behind him. And what’s more, they stood beneath screens which were displaying the general profiles and military IDs of Agents Washington and Carolina.
“The hell…” Carolina got out just before Hargrove tapped on his microphone and cleared his throat.
“Let’s begin to clear the air, shall we?” he said with a crooked smile on his face.