It’s the rumors that let Tex know something’s wrong, at first. Nothing defined, just hints, whispers. Chatter on the radio. And nothing from York himself. That in itself is what’s most telling; York likes to keep in touch, for his own reassurance if nothing else.
Last she heard, he was on Old Earth, in Kenya. When one man is the needle, a country is an awfully big haystack, but Tex has a fast bike and a faster brain, and she doesn’t need to sleep. She’ll find him.
Eventually she finds herself in Voi. It doesn’t take long to find the seedy underbelly, start talking to the criminals and the homeless and the drifters, have you seen, do you know –
“You lookin’ for dah soldah?” rasps a bum, three crumbling teeth left in his black cavern of a face. “Military man?”
Tex nods, removing her helmet, and crouches down to place credit chips in his trembling palm. “Yes,” she says. “Where is he?”
“Likes to hang out undah de bridge,” cackles the man, pointing. “He craziah dan I am! Hah!”
A polite smile is the best she can manage with the way worry chills her. “Thank you,” she says. “Be safe,” and in one swift movement is up and striding away. He’s alive, she tells herself, getting back on her bike and starting the engine. He’s alive. Anything else can be reversed.
you know that’s not true, you know there’s some things that can’t be undone, 01100010 01100101 01110100 01100001 –
The bridge in question spans a defunct canal, the only water a shallow stream running down the middle. Noonday sunlight creates sharp lines between white concrete and black shadows, and any plants pushing their way up through cracks in the pavement are rusty-brown and withered. According to Tex’s sensors, it’s 104° F outside.
Tex vaults over the fence and side of the bridge, landing on both feet in the water. At first glance it looks deserted, but as she focuses on the shadows under the bridge she sees what might be a pile of garbage.
It’s not. It’s a human figure in filthy armor, curled up around itself like a wounded animal.
“York,” says Tex under her breath. She approaches cautiously, waiting for him to stir. With the armor on it’s difficult to see if he’s truly asleep or awake and watching.
When she’s a few feet away she stops and calls his name again. This time he jerks upright, scrambling to put his back against the wall, a hand going instinctively to the empty holster at his thigh. “Stay back!” he shouts, voice muffled by his helmet.
“York, it’s all right,” says Tex, holding her hands up. “It’s me. It’s Tex.”
But he’s already standing, backing away from her in an odd shuffle that looks like he wants to turn and run, but can’t quite get his feet under him. York stumbles, catching himself on the wall. “Don’t – don’t come near me –”
“York, it’s me,” she says, pulling off her helmet and hitching it to her belt. “Me. Tex. Allison. Remember?”
He just turns and starts moving down the canal in a broken jog that’s clearly the fastest he can manage; Tex watches him sadly. It doesn’t take more than a quick walk for her to catch up to him; grabbing his shoulders, she spins York around to face her, catching his flailing hands. “York.”
“No –” He struggles in her grasp, ineffectually, and kicks her in the shins; thankfully for his sake there’s not a lot of force in it. “Let me go –”
“It’s me, I’m not going to hurt you –”
York cries out wordlessly, writhing. His knees buckle, and Tex lowers him down to the ground rather than hold him up by his wrists. “I don’t have it,” he babbles, back arching in a desperate attempt to break free. “Please –”
“Stop,” she commands, and he flinches. “It’s Tex. Do you remember me?”
He doesn’t respond, just stares up at her, breathing raspy. Tex can feel him shaking. The visor of his helmet is smudged and smeared, badly, and maybe the whole problem is that he can’t see her properly. Pinning York’s wrists to his chest with one hand, Tex hooks the fingers of her other under the edge of his helmet.
“No!” yelps York, as soon as she starts to tug on it. “No no no no, please, please don’t –”
Merciless, Tex pulls it off, ignoring his whimper.
Last time she saw York, he was a little scruffy, a little leaner, without the mostly-stable living environment PFL provided. This is much worse.
His hair is long and ragged, matted with dirt. There’s grime in the creases of York’s face, aging him, and his beard is coarse and scraggly. His cheeks are hollow, the skin under his eyes gray and sunken, and his lips are chapped so badly they’ve split, weeping blood. York stares up at Tex with pure terror, no recognition in his gaze.
Delta should know her, Tex thinks. Unless he’s gone off the deep end, and that’s why York’s like this. Reaching out over shortwave, she tries to establish contact, make a connection, but… nothing.
York’s hyperventilating now underneath her, still struggling to throw her off. He responds well to physical contact, Tex remembers. With her teeth, she takes her glove off, and then cautiously touches her hand to the side of York’s face. There’s an initial flinch, but it seems to work, York gradually leaning into her hand, his panicked breaths slowing. He’s still staring up at her, wide-eyed.
“There,” says Tex, palm flat against his cheek. “All right?”
Throat working, York swallows, and his lips move several times before sound comes out. “Tex?”
Thank Christ, finally. “Yeah.”
“Tex,” repeats York, face crumpling, and bursts into tears.
She gets him back to the motel room eventually. Once inside York just stands there, shivering, hands clenching and unclenching nervously. “It’s all right, you’re safe here,” says Tex, placing her pistol on top of the low dresser. “See? I got this right here. No one’s getting in.”
York turns his head towards her (helmeted again, he refused to go anywhere without wearing it) and his shoulders sag infinitesimally. Crossing to the bed, York sinks down onto it, pulls off his helmet, and covers his face with one shaking hand.
She’s seen York unclothed before, but this is the first time Tex genuinely feels like he’s naked, stripped of any and all of that confident veneer. For a brief moment, she is uncomfortable, and then Tex walks over and kneels in front of York, setting aside her own helmet, and reaches up to pull his hand down.
Tears trickle down from York’s good eye, leaving a shining track in the dirt on his cheek. “What happened?” asks Tex, as gently as she can manage.
His hands clench around hers. “What?”
“What happened to you? Why are you like this?” A horrible, horrible thought crosses Tex’s mind. “Where’s Delta?”
York looks stricken, and for a brief moment Tex is worried he’s going to cry again. “Can’t find him,” he whispers, hoarse.
Tex frowns. “What do you mean?”
Pulling away one trembling hand, York points to his head. “He’s not – he’s not here anymore, I can’t – I can’t hear him –”
That doesn’t sound like Delta was taken, and besides, if he was, she’d have heard about it. “How did he go?”
York shrugs miserably. “I don’t know, he just – he’s gone –” He’s shaking again, speech becoming labored.
“All right, all right.” Unsure of what else to do, Tex rubs circles into his hand with her thumbs. “Did you hit your head?”
She just gets a blank look in response. Definitely not ruling out head trauma, then. Maybe there’s a malfunction with the implant. Rising, Tex moves onto the bed behind York; he starts violently, one hand flying out to grab her, the other covering the back of her neck.
“It’s okay,” she says, urging him back around. “I won’t hurt you.”
He’s as tense as drawn wire, but York allows her to pull his hand away and part his hair over the nape of his neck, inspecting the implant site. It’s definitely red and irritated, the skin inflamed where it rubs up against exposed metal to the point it’s oozing pus, but when she presses a cautious finger to the implant itself (York whimpering and jerking his shoulders), it feels intact. As far as Tex can tell, the only problem is poor hygiene. “Okay,” says Tex, sighing. “We’ll figure this out. We’ll get him back, all right?”
Swallowing, York nods. “All right.”
The trouble is, any hospital with the personnel and technology necessary to deal with AI implants will turn both of them into the police. Frankly, even the unlicensed ones might if they think it’ll net them enough profit (which it will), and that’s only if Tex trusts any of them enough to let them near York (which she doesn’t).
So that leaves only one man.
Tex tracks him down, to the Project Freelancer facility on Minister. Talking to F.I.L.S.S. at the door sends York into a minor breakdown, so Tex has to half-carry him, his arm slung over her shoulders, as they pace down echoing halls with steel walls and concrete floors.
They find Dr. Church in the basement, sitting at a desk, watching a video clip of Allison. When the clip ends, all he says is, “Play it again, F.I.L.S.S,” and she does. Tex stands, waiting for him to acknowledge her, but he doesn’t even turn around.
In the end it’s York who makes the first move by losing his balance and stumbling against Tex. Only then does Dr. Church swivel around in his chair, and as his eyes fall on Tex they widen behind his spectacles. “Agent Texas,” he breathes. “You came back –”
“Not for you,” she snarls, snagging another rolling chair over with her heel and dropping York into it. He bends over his knees, head in hands. “Fix him.”
Dr. Church tears his gaze away from Tex to glance briefly at York. “What?”
“The AI you stuck in his head, he’s malfunctioned, he’s gone. Fix it!”
“Beginning playback,” announces F.I.L.S.S. serenely.
Tex barely spares a glance at the woman on the screen, the one whose face she stole. Her attention is fixed on Dr. Church, whose expression would be heartbreaking if only she had a heart to break. “I can’t,” he whispers. “I can’t fix anything, only break it…”
Rage is often described as hot, but Tex has never felt it that way; she is cold, cold cold cold to the bone, and with perfect precision she draws her pistol and points it at Dr. Church. “Wrong answer,” she says. “This is your fault. Fix it.”
Dr. Church looks like he’s about to cry. “I can’t…”
“Tex,” mumbles York from the corner, sounding green.
She doesn’t move her gaze or the gun from Dr. Church. “Do you have a bucket? He’s going to puke on your floor.”
Thrown by the change in topic, Dr. Church stammers out an “I don’t know,” his hands clutching the arms of the chair. Bony, long-fingered hands, like cave spiders. “I…”
There’s a clatter behind Tex as York tosses aside his helmet, followed by dry heaving. “Too late,” she says.
Dr. Church winces and averts his eyes, and Tex is struck by a wave of powerful loathing. “Look at him!” she orders, a step away from grabbing Dr. Church’s face and forcing him to. “You did this! You face what you’ve done.”
He goes pale but obeys, watching York cough up the little food he’s managed to eat today. “Agent Texas,” says Dr. Church quietly, when York’s done. “Beta. Allison. I am so sorry.”
“I don’t want an apology,” snarls Tex. “I want you to fix it.”
All she can see is Dr. Church, tunnel vision, her entire being focused on the man at the end of the barrel of her gun. Tex can’t feel hate, she’s been told, she wasn’t programmed for it, but what else does she call this feeling that demands she put a bullet in Dr. Church’s skull for the simple fact that he exists? “Then why should I let you live?”
Tears brim now in those lurid green eyes. “You shouldn’t.” His voice is barely louder than a whisper.
She can see it happen – bang. A shot too quick for human eyes, Dr. Church slumped in his chair, eyes blank, a bloody hole in the dead center of his forehead. Gore sprayed on the TV screen behind him. The whole thing over in less than a second.
“Don’t,” rasps York. Tex glances over to see him attempting to stand, leaning on the chair, face drawn and clammy. “Tex, don’t, he’s not…”
“Not what? Not worth it?” Tex continues, almost fondly, “I appreciate the attempt to save my soul, but I’ve killed before and I’ll kill again.”
“I know,” says York, miserable. “But he’s…” He stops, steadying himself. “Death’s too good for him.”
Dr. Church looks rapidly from Tex to York, and for the first time there’s real fear in his eyes. “What?” he says. “No –”
“You fucker,” hisses York, staggering towards Dr. Church. “You ruined me. You put this – this thing inside my head, changed me from the inside out, and now –” he leans over Dr. Church, one hand on the desk, and Dr. Church recoils, either from fear or the smell of York’s breath “– you can’t even fucking help make that right?”
“I – I will try,” he says, “but I can’t – I can’t promise –”
York leans back on the desk, looking over to Tex. “What do you think?” he asks, voice hard.
Twirling the pistol between her fingers, Tex deliberates. “What do you want?”
He pauses, and then his face creases, and in a voice quiet and desperate he says, “I want D back.”
And it’s right here, in this room, that they both know the answer to that question. York’s expression breaks, piece by piece, until he’s hunched over and quietly sobbing in painful bursts of sound. Dr. Church looks profoundly uneasy. “I can… I can see what I can do…”
“Stand up,” orders Tex, and Dr. Church obeys. “Hands behind your back.”
He waits until she comes over to cuff him, and then makes a desperate grab for her pistol. Tex sees it coming, could have easily stopped him, and yet –
She stares down at Dr. Church’s body on the floor, crimson liquid forming a puddle around his head. “Well,” she says. “That settles that.”
From the roof of the facility they have a commanding view of the landscape, rolling dusty green hills dotted with scraggly trees. The wind ruffles Tex’s hair, dries the tears on York’s cheeks. “Everyone always… everyone thought I was popular.” He clears his throat, gravelly. “All the time. School. F-f-freelancer. But.”
Tex, her arms folded over her knees, watches him struggle for words. “But what?”
“But I was always. Lonely.” He sucks in a deep, shaky breath, and when he speaks again his voice cracks like broken glass. “D knew my heart.”
His face is scrunched up like he’s trying not to cry again. And deep inside her, Tex feels a sudden pang of sorrow and regret for her own lost brother. He should have been here, she thinks. He should have held Dr. Church accountable too. She clenches her fist so tightly the knuckles strain against her gloves before slowly, finger by finger, relaxing. Justice will still come, she tells herself. There are more than just the Director who need to pay.
But for the moment, the thought is as hollow and empty as York must feel.