File upon file scrolled by on the abandoned ship’s terminal screens, about every individual AI; about the fragmentation process; about the thefts committed in the name of the Project; about the psychological experiments, on AI and Agents alike… it wasn’t everything, no, but it was most of everything. Months’ worth of work, the latest of many packets of data Connie had pulled from the Invention’s databanks to hand over.
“This is impressive, Connie,” Jarrett said, visor reflecting blue in the light from the screen. Arms folded under his chestplate, he nodded slowly as they reached the bottom of the directory. “You haven’t failed to deliver.”
Connie had to make a conscious effort not to bristle noticeably. “I told you I wouldn’t. The Project’s security isn’t as tight as they think it is, I’ve broken through better defences in my sleep.” Impressive would have been breaking into ONI without getting caught, or coming back with the entire database at once. This was standard work—if extended. Not impressive. No, this was only impressive if you had low expectations. “I looked at everyone’s personnel files before I met them and internals didn’t bat an eye. Originally I was going to tell them how weak their encryption protocols and other defences are, but I never did get around to that—for obvious reasons. Not that telling them would have made much difference, I’m the only person on that ship that could have made the necessary improvements and I always leave myself a way in, so…”
Jarrett nodded as if he was listening, but Connie knew disinterest when she saw it. She was used to the way people’s attention faded when she started to ramble, the half-hearted nod that everyone used as if it wasn’t obvious they were faking.
“It’s still not complete. There’s more I need to gather, some of it requires more evidence to back it u—”
“It’s exactly what we need,” Jarrett interrupted, ejecting the pad and tucking it into a storage compartment in his armour. He gestured to his guards, who were still eyeing Connie as if she was going to jump them at any moment. Egos still bruised from her entrance, apparently. “Time to get out of here.”
They turned to leave, their gazes finally pulled away. Connie’s shoulders dropped as the tension building there released and she could breath again, though she’d barely been aware of the struggle. Being judged and examined was never pleasant. As if she hadn’t already been worried enough about this meeting.
She still didn’t know what she was going to say to excuse her—
A hand grabbed her shoulder. “You too.”
“I can’t.” The tension was back. Shrugging his touch away, she added, as an afterthought, “Not yet.”
“If they weren’t onto you before they definitely will be now.” Clearly not getting the hint about the hand, he not only replaced it but mirrored the gesture on her other shoulder. “Come with us Connie.”
Tearing herself away from his grip, she dug her fingertips into the grooves in the kevlar covering her palms.
“I said I can’t, Jarrett. They don’t know what I’ve been doing! Leaving now would only jeopardise things. It would only confirm that someone was leaking information and make them work quicker,” she said, stepping back. Fists clenched at her sides, she stood her ground. “The intel isn’t complete. There’s no benefit to me leaving now.”
“And you plan to explain where you’ve been how, exactly?” Jarrett retorted. He didn’t hesitate to stand over her, to try and make her shrink, to intimidate her. Connie didn’t take the bait, squaring her shoulders, squaring her stance, standing up to him. She could take him in a fight, the only thing stopping her from laying a hand on him was the fact she still needed his connections. “It’s too dangerous Connie. Too high risk.”
Denying him came with its own risks, but her work wasn’t done. There was more intel to collect, more work she could do… people she wasn’t ready to leave behind—she thought back to South, in the Pelican, the way she’d kept an worried eye on her.
Leaving now wasn’t an option.
“I’ll figure something out. This isn’t the first time I’ve disobeyed orders on a mission, its not the first time I’ve had to cover myself.” Unyielding, she tilted her head so that the eyes of her helmet would seemingly meet his behind his visor. “I can handle myself, Jarrett. This isn’t even my first time doing something like this. I know the risks and I know what I’m doing.”
Jarrett huffed, shook his head, but…
“Fine,” he said, sighing, “but you have to promise that you’ll contact me if things go south, so that I can get you out of there.”
“I promise I’ll contact you.” It wasn’t a lie. She would contact him, just not necessarily when he wanted her to. “But now I need to go. I need to make it back to the others.”
He let her go. Left with his guards, went back to the Staff of Charon. They’d be in slipspace soon enough, they’d be prepared.
Her journey would be less simple. Even with her radio turned back on she wasn’t in range of the team channel. Surrounded by floating scrap she had little to no frame of reference for their arranged rendezvous point with Niner, even as the marker blipped on her HUD. Having gone far past the main hangar, visible a little way in the distance, she would have to risk using her jetpack more freely to cross the space in time.
It hadn’t malfunctioned on the trip here. She could only hope that since Georgia’s… accident, they’d made the necessary safety improvements.
With a deep breath in, she pushed off the surface of the ship and started her journey back.
It was quiet, out in the junkyard. The was no sound out here in open space and no voices on the radio. Lengthy silences made Connie’s skin crawl even at the best of times, but the silence of space was different. Heavier. The sooner she got back into radio range, the better.
Silence let her mind wander.
As much as she needed to think of an excuse for where she’d disappeared to, her thoughts were otherwise occupied. She kept thinking of South, back in the Pelican, checking on her because she could tell something was bothering her. Again. For the past two years she’d been perpetually distracted, one step to the left of herself as she kept the knowledge she’d discovered and what she was doing with it close to her chest.
It had taken its toll on her, but if telling anyone else put them in the firing line then it wouldn’t be worth the fraction of weight it lifted from her shoulders.
Lying to South, in particular, wasn’t something she did lightly. More than almost anyone else, South had been lied to and mistreated by the Project; deliberate exclusion, underestimation and belittlement, punishing her for mistakes that weren’t her own… but that was exactly why she kept it from her, despite everything. If South was somehow connected back to this, she’d feel it harder than anyone.
Still, it felt wrong. It had always felt wrong.
There’d been times in the past that she’d come dangerously close to just telling her, letting it all come out into the open on an impulse in the middle of the night. One such urge took her as far as sitting on the crates stacked alongside Niner’s docking space, waiting for South to come back from a mission—only to chicken out the moment she saw her face.
It wasn’t that she didn’t trust South—because she did, she trusted her the most—it was that she was scared that if she knew she’d been lying, South wouldn’t trust her. She’d be well within her rights. It went against everything they’d promised each other.
A slight flare of her jetpack tore her away from her thoughts, forcing her to cut power to the extra thrusters. Looked like the issues hadn’t been completely fixed, after all. If she didn’t want to go careening off into space and never be seen again, she’d have to cross the final distance on standard thrusters.
The hangar, passing a few metres below her, was still and silent.
Finally, she caught a flash of colour in the scrap field ahead of her. Bright aquamarine against the dark expanse of open space. Once her eyes focused on the figure of Carolina she was able to discern the other, harder to spot shapes around her. Everyone was there but her.
South was hovering towards the rear of the group. How quickly had she noticed her absence? Realised that once again Connie was acting strange and disobeying orders?
Would she have said anything?
Blinking in the bottom corner of her HUD told her that, finally, she was back in range of team radio. Taking a deep, steeling breath, she connected to the channel.
“Hey guys, wait up, I’m still trying to reach your position.”
There was a full five seconds of dead silence, before Carolina’s voice broke through the empty static. “CT where the hell have you been?!”
“I’ll explain when I’ve caught up.” She couldn’t cross the distance any faster than she already was, but the group started to slow. “My jetpack started to backfire. I can’t move any faster.”
“No. You jeopardised the mission by disappearing, CT. You explain now. Wash had to do your job in the hangar and he turned off the damn gravity!”
“That was an accident!”
Closing the distance was much easier once they’d all but come to a standstill. Their figures became clearer, a cluster of colourful soldiers hovering amongst floating debris.
Carolina’s signature glare was locked on her, even from a distance.
There was no getting out of this.
“I thought I saw something, beyond the hangar. I followed my gut. You had the Insurrectionists’ attention on the main hangar, so I was able to slip by unnoticed.” Another half lie—she was telling too many these days—but not an airtight excuse. Disobeying direct orders, abandoning an objective—doing either would get you suspended from the mission roster, doing both would get you moved multiple places down the leaderboard. Or at least, it would have, before the board stopped changing at all.
Carolina was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you CT. This isn’t the first time you’ve disobeyed orders to do your own thing. What if we’d needed you? You put the team at serious risk.”
“I was rash. It won’t happen again,” Connie said, now outright lying through her teeth.
Reaching the group, the weight of five gazes fell on her, though one felt somehow heavier. Like a mass, pressing down against her chest. There was no question, now, that South knew something was going on and that pull towards her was stronger than ever. That desire to tell her, but— not here. Not now.
Not with everyone around, not when she couldn’t see her face and take her hands and really talk to her. Not when the Director was no doubt moments away from checking in, from finding out that she’d disobeyed orders and berating her.
She’d tell her today.
It was unusually quiet. Even as the chatter of her team filled her ears, Connie was once again hyperaware of the silence of the open space around her. It didn’t make her skin crawl as much now that there was white noise, voices… but something felt different. Carolina had noticed too. The scrapyard was dormant, all activity had ceased. Connie knew what it meant; the Staff of Charon had recalled all of its troops and would soon emerge from its position hidden amongst the scrap.
All she could hope was that Jarrettt wouldn’t do anything dramatic.
Dramatic didn’t even begin to cover it. A nuke, a goddamn nuke dropped into the junk-field! Who the hell drops a nuke after their contact leaves? Who the hell drops a nuke to handle a single Pelican?
Oh, how she wished she could give Jarrett a real piece of her mind.
The short flight back to the Mother of Invention was more than a little uncomfortable. The animosity in the bay was palpable. Another mission gone wrong, another clash within the team, another close call. Things were at breaking point, but no one wanted to acknowledge that such a point even existed.
Connie could only sit there with her fists clenched, rattling off unconvincing ‘yes sir’s, ‘no sir’s, ‘won’t happen again sir’s as the Director berated her disobedience and blamed her for the failure of the mission. He wasn’t wrong, in the end, but it didn’t make being dressed down in front of the others any less insulting.
But she had to sit there and take it and not rock the boat any more than she already had, because if she did she’d only prove Jarrett right and get herself caught.
When it was over, when the Director signed off and they were no more than a minute out from the ship, there was a hand on her leg and Connie almost jumped, before catching the familiar purple shade of its armour. South squeezed her leg, though, when Connie looked, her gaze was set firmly on the blank wall on the other side of the bay.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Connie laid her hand atop hers and connected to their private channel.
“I need to talk to you. Tonight. Not about anything you’ve done, but— I need to explain some things,” she whispered, cautious of sound transfer through the helmet. “After debriefing and mess, in our room?”
No verbal response came, but South squeezed her leg again. That was good enough for her.
Tonight, she’d tell her everything.
Every minute of the next two hours felt like an hour of its own. Their debriefing involved little more than a newly invigorated dressing down and dissection of how the mission went wrong, the weight of which all fell squarely on Connie’s shoulders. If she’d put any value in her position in the Project’s rankings she’d have been devastated, but it had been a long time since that board her even moved, let alone since she cared about where she placed.
As it stood, she stomached the verbal abuse with clenched fists, scripted responses and a mind that was occupied with piecing together her explanation for South.
Making the video for Texas had been tough enough, but she’d barely held a sustained conversation with the woman thanks to the Director’s control over Texas’s life on the ship. South was another story entirely. South was entangled in her life in a way that Texas simply wasn’t. If Tex ever saw that video the worst that would happen if she rejected its message was reporting her to the Director, a risk she’d accepted the moment she started this work.
If South rejected what she told her, it wasn’t tattling she was worried about. It was losing her.
Jarrett might get his way after all, if this went wrong.
The heavy silence from the scrapyard was following her around, weighing down the atmosphere of every room she entered. No one talked. No one so much as coughed. The tension burrowed under her skin and crawled through her nerves like a goddamn infestation and it was all she could do to keep herself composed long enough to get out of her suit and into her clothes before slamming her locker shut and marching out of the room.
By the time the bunk door slid shut behind her, her heart was pounding a mile a minute.
But she no longer felt like she was suffocating.
Breathing in, breathing out, slow and controlled and pushing away all of that negative emotion she’d taken on like a— a— a hyperempathetic lightning rod. In… out… in… out…
A few minutes later she finally walked away from the door. Without turning on the lights, she knelt down and felt around for the hidden compartment she’d built into the bottom of her bed. A little fumbling and she retrieved the data-pad and PC she’d stashed inside of it, pulling them out and setting them on the mattress.
Time to gather her evidence.
Losing track of time was easy and as she became more thoroughly absorbed in her work than ever, combing through her files for everything she needed to make her case, she barely noticed the door open and close.
“Y’know, you look real fucking ominous sat in the dark lit up by your screen like that.”
Reflexes kicked in and the PC lid slammed shut.
“Oh my god South don’t scare me like that!”
The lights flicked on and there was South, with her arms folded and a muted grin. It didn’t quite reach her eyes, or fill her face, the way her usual grins did. Connie wasn’t surprised. She imagined the smile she gave her in return looked much the same.
“You make it too easy,” South teased, crossing over and dropping down onto her bed. “Where’d you even get that thing?” she added, raising a brow. It wasn’t one of the Project’s, wasn’t even the same make. Neither was the spare data-pad, the one with the PFL insignia on the back clearly visible on her bedside table. “Thought your equipment privileges were revoked like, fucking months ago.”
“They were. Along with everyone else’s.” The PC had cost Connie multiple favours and a decent amount of credits to get Niner to smuggle it in for her, but it had been worth it. Without it, getting what she needed would have been much riskier. “Luckily for me I had a way around it.”
“This to do with what you want to talk to me about, huh?”
Connie took a deep breath in. “Yeah. Yeah it is.”
“You’ve been acting real fucking weird lately. This to do with that too?”
“Alright.” South sat cross-legged on the bed, leaned back on her arms. Tense, awkward, but… calmer, than Connie had maybe expected. “Fucking hit me babe, I’m listening.”
Another deep breath. No going back now.
“…you ever notice how they call the AI ‘fragments’, despite all of our classes implying that they’re simply copies of something else?” she said, one of the most obvious pieces of contradictory information that had caught her ear over the past few years. “How they never even explain what it means for an AI to be a ‘fragment’ in the first place?”
South quirked a brow. “Can’t say I fucking did, honestly. But I guess that is kinda weird.”
“It stood out to me because I notice those kind of things—” (“Nerd.”) “—and because well, the story didn’t add up. I’m no expert on AI, but… the coursework they gave us was selective and didn’t mention fragments at all. It was all about the standard procedure for creating a Smart AI, with anything specific to the fragments only ever brought up in class. And, well, I was curious, so… I did a little digging.”
“Right. Digging,” South said, a hint of amusement in her tone and the quirked corner of her lips. They both knew what kind of digging she meant, the kind of digging that would get you in trouble if you didn’t know what you were doing. Luckily, Connie always knew what she was doing. “How many levels of classification did you have to break through?”
“You don’t want to know. But— look, AI fragments are a recognised thing, but… not like this. There’s a couple of types of fragmentation I’ve discovered, only one of which is sanctioned and only in very specific circumstances. AI can be split into pieces to tackle two tasks at once in separate locations, creating two fragments that can be reunited at a later date, but they retain their base structure. They’re just two halves of the same AI. In theory it could be done with more fragmented pieces, but…”
“But they’d still retain the same basic shit?”
“Yeah. Which the AI here just… don’t. Look at Delta, Theta, Gamma— they’re all distinct, separate personalities. There’s no way to replicate that under the sanctioned method of fragmentation, hell I honestly think that the sanctioned method is more accurately described as partitioning, but—” she shook her head, “I’m getting off track. Are you with me so far?”
South had sat patiently through the entire miniature lecture, only moving to sit up with her arms folded over her knees. “Yeah, I’m with you. What’s the other type of fragmentation?”
“Traumatic. There’s… not a huge amount of records, if any. There’s been AI that were fragmented in an attack, but they usually never survived. But— there’s theory work. An AI is a human mind and human minds can fragment, form separate identities within the same mind. DID, essentially. An AI could, theoretically, be split into multiple distinct AI through trauma.”
“…what the fuck.”
“You think that’s the ‘what the fuck’ revelation, Tasha? The guy that wrote the majority of the theory work on such fragmentation? It’s the Director.”
By then, South’s eyes were wide. After blinking at Connie for a long moment she shuffled around to her end of the bed, to look at the screen. Connie pulled up the file.
“His entire doctorate thesis was based around the concept, and— and look, to put things simply, he was always looking for ways to gain more AI for the Project. We were only assigned one AI, South. One. No more. He needed more for his experiments to work, so he was looking into a way and— and something happened.” Scrolling through until she found the account of the incident, buried deep within Beta’s file, she highlighted the relevant section. “His theory was, in his eyes, proven correct. The Alpha AI, the original, he… he spit off this standalone by-product AI, completely independent and fully functional. He theorised that it was caused by some sort of emotional trauma, grief that was passed over from the brain the Alpha was based on. His own.”
“…now you’re just fucking with me.”
Connie shook her head. “I’m not fucking with you. Tasha, I know this is all crazy and I know I shouldn’t have seen any of these files but— something always felt wrong here. The way everything’s set up, the way the teams are organised, the leaderboard… it’s all one big psychological experiment. This started just as me wanting to understand what we were dealing with, what the AI we were being partnered with were, but then… I found more, and more, and more and— and things started to make sense. I had to do something.”
South fell quiet and, despite her surprisingly calm and receptive responses so far, Connie grew worried that she didn’t believe her. That it was just too hard to accept and to understand. It had taken her weeks to truly understand the gravity of the information she’d uncovered and with every new piece it grew harder to take in, she wouldn’t be surprised if—
“You’re the leak, huh?”
Connie swallowed the heavy lump that rose in her throat. “Yeah. Yeah I am. The people we’re fighting… they’re not who the Director says they are. I knew I had to take this to somebody so, I reached out and they took me up on my intel. I’ve been giving them data packets ever since.”
There were several long beats of tense silence and Connie scratched at the scar on her palm, nails catching on the edge of the scar tissue. For the first time, South was unreadable to her. Eyes on the screen, scrolling through the details of the torture that the Director had put Alpha through to produce the AI, once he’d proven the theory. There was more than that to tell, details of the experiments he was doing on the agents as well as the AI but— there would be time for that later.
If South accepted what she saw.
“…how long have you fucking— known about this, babe?” South said, finally, glancing at her out of the corner of her eye. Connie focused on the catch and tug of her nails against skin.
“A couple of years now,” she said. Fingers slid across her palm, disrupting the picking and instead giving her a firm object to squeeze. “I was uncomfortable with the project’s structure long before Bjørndal, had my suspicions about what was going on behind the scenes as they started preparing us for the AI with those classes… when I first started looking, first found out about Beta’s creation, they’d yet to create a stable fragment. It wasn’t until after we retrieved the Sarcophagus that they managed that.”
“Right, okay, I get that shit, but— why the fuck wouldn’t you fucking tell me, Connie?” South said, talking with her hands animatedly. “Two years? Is this the shit you’ve been working on all the time in the middle of the damn night? Fuck, babe, I coulda fucking helped you, I would’ve fucking helped you.”
Questions South had the right to ask, questions Connie had been prepared for, but the questions that Connie had been scared for in equal amounts. With a sigh, she closed the PC and pushed it down the bed. The rest of the details could wait.
Nudging her, she clambered into her lap once she gave her the room and wrapped her arms around her neck.
“You think I haven’t wanted to tell you the entire time?” she said, fingers tracing idle patterns over the muscles of her shoulders. “I didn’t enjoy keeping things from you, Tasha, but— but this has been complicated, I was never sure whether my next move would get me caught.”
“So? I coulda fucking helped, we coulda handled that kinda shit together.”
Connie shook her head. “No, Tasha, I couldn’t risk you being implicated too, not with the shit he’s been pulling on you. One of his experiments is entirely dedicated to seeing what happens when you treat one twin differently, giving one an AI and the other nothing.”
The way South’s face twisted made her chest tighten.
“…that’s on fucking purpose? I’m not just— I haven’t just been fucking imagining that shit? The fuckhole Dickrector is fucking singling me out?!” South said, her fists clenching tighter and tighter until Connie guided them to her hips, where her grip was firm but not painful. Always careful not to hurt her.
“It’s on purpose. You haven’t been imagining it.”
“Fucking— asshole. Fucking cockshit he’s made me— he’s made me—”
With gritted teeth she lifted Connie carefully but quickly out of her lap, setting her on the bed and tearing up to her feet. Connie didn’t stop her, kneeling up on the edge of the bed as South started to pace in rough, uneven circles, hands grasping at her hair or in fists at her sides.
“I was scared that if I told you and I got caught that he’d come down all the harder on you, that you’d suffer for it. Believe me it hurt to keep it from you, but it would have hurt more if telling you had gotten you in trouble,” Connie said gently, slowly clambering off of the bed. She sighed. “Maybe I should have given you that choice— no, no I should have given you that choice, but I was worried. I’ve made a lot of decisions during these two years that I might not have made if given a second go around, but I made them.”
“…god that’s so fucking you. You— fucking hacky nerd,” South said with a groan, kicking some discarded clothing left on the floor against the wall. “Fuck. Fuck. What the fuck.”
Connie came to her with her hands held up, broadcasting her intentions and giving South the chance to back away. She didn’t. So Connie rested her hands on her arms, running them up and down her biceps, thumbs brushing in soothing circles when they paused.
“You believe me?” she said, squeezing her arms.
“Fucking— course I believe you, Connie, you had fucking thousands of files—” (“Slight exaggeration.”) “—there! This shit’s been shady for fucking ever, but shit it’s a top secret project I thought it came with the fucking territory. But that’s— this shit’s fucked.”
Connie couldn’t help but laugh, breaking most of the tension in the air with the grin she got in response. South had such a way of talking about things. “Yeah, this shit’s definitely fucked. So, second question… are you with me? Will you help me finish this? Help me get the truth out?”
“Shit, babe, fuck yeah I will.” Lacing a hand into her hair and resting the other on her hip, she looked Connie in the face. Not the eye, no, she always respected that. “Like, shit, okay, not going to pretend I’m not a bit pissed you’ve been keeping shit from me but I also fucking understand so. You’re smart, you’re super fucking smart and you’ve got balls of fucking steel doing all that shit. So fuck yes, I’m going to help now.”
“Balls of steel, huh?”
“Balls. Of. Steel.”
“Well, thank you. Things have— things have been tough doing this on my own and there’s a lot I need to tell you but… thank you.” Cupping her cheek, she drew her in for a kiss. South returned it without hesitation, fingers combing through the long side of her hair. “I promise, no more secrets. After tonight everything will be in the open with you.”
“You’re totally gonna info-dump about war crimes aren’t you.”
“I am absolutely going to info-dump about war crimes.”
“Fucking perfect. Your info-dumps make even the dullest shit interesting so this should be fucking thrilling.”
Connie giggled, shaking her head at her as she slowly guided her back to the bed. Letting her sit down first, she clambered back into her lap and leaned back against her chest. “That might be overselling it a bit. Some of this might be… disturbing to hear about and it’ll definitely be enraging in places, but… that’s why I’m doing this.”
“Why we’re doing this, babe.”
“…yeah, why we’re doing this.”
The rest of the night was dedicated to filling South in on all of the details, from the torture inflicted on the AI, to the psychological experimentation the Director had been doing on various agents, to Connie’s contact with Jarrett. South listened, like she always listened. Never underestimated her, found her work fascinating and knew the kind of things she could pull off if she really tried.
Telling her had lifted such a weight from her chest. For months now there’d been this underlying tension in their relationship as it became clearer and clearer that something was going on with Connie, that she wasn’t telling South something. All of that was gone now.
Within a few more months, things at the Project would fall apart completely. As everything crumbled around them, as Connie was helped into the back of a Pelican with her gut bleeding heavily, she had never been more certain that telling South had been the right choice.