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Mind over Matter

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"Agent Washington! Age-- Excuse me-- Agent Washington?"

Wash taps Caboose to make sure he knows he's stopping, and turns to whoever's calling him. The mess hall is crowded with people just coming in, so he takes a moment to spot. A squirrelly blond guy in a yellow t-shirt bumps through the crowd. "Agent Washington!" he pants one more time.

Wash recognizes him from Grif's squad. Specifically because he's commonly the only member of Grif's squad to show up to training. Matthews, he's pretty sure. He hasn't seen Matthews out of armor too many times, so he's always surprised by how tall he actually is.

"Yes, soldier?"

Matthews lights up simply at being addressed officially. He sucks in a breath and speaks at eighty words per minute, as if afraid the moment is going to end. "I heard that you're participating in a scouting mission this afternoon, and I know you don't have an official squad yet -- because you spent most of your time with the Feds recovering from surgery, of course! I'm sure that in your top condition you would have whipped them into shape in no time, sir!"

"Thanks."

"Of course, sir! Anyway, I asked General Kimball and she said you were taking volunteers so I'm here to, uh... put my hat in the ring!"

"Sure."

Matthews' entire being freezes up. Wash lets him think for a few seconds, growing warrier as each one passes. Eventually, Matthews looks shocked. "Really?"

"Yeah, we got that assignment like, twenty minutes ago. I figured I'd go first come first serve. And you got here first. I've seen you in training, you can handle this." Wash accepts the pack of peanut butter Caboose slips into his hand, but keeps his focus on Matthews. If he gives Caboose his attention, he'll never give it back. "But I thought you were Captain Grif's, uh..." How to put 'errand boy and walking ego boost' delicately. "Number one fan?"

Matthews sighs dejectedly. "Life is short, sir. We have to move on."

Caboose says, "Preach," through a mouthful of synthetic jelly so it sounds something like, "Pwee--CHOO!"

Caboose is allergic to synthetic jellies, but apparently the taste is worth sneezing for seventeen minutes per spoonful.

 

---

 

Despite having spent about a decade in a suit of armor, a minimal amount of Washington's service history was spent on the front lines of the Great War. Not that he doesn't vividly remember his training or the missions and tours he went through, because he does. There's just always something fresh and viscerally unpleasant about heading out to do one thing, and ending up in a firefight instead. Sarge will insist otherwise, but it's not something a person just gets over.

So when the Captain (a Fed) of the mission drops in the first round of shots, Wash knows he's in for A Day.

Taking over is second nature. Once they've got cover, a quick inventory puts them at four privates, a lieutenant, and whatever weaponry they had on their person to fend off the wildlife. There were six privates when they'd left.

"We're still a klick out from the target!" Matthews calls over the racket. "What do we do?"

Something hits the ground between them and on unfiltered instinct Wash kicks it away immediately. It's barely inside a tree hollow when it detonates bright blue, chars the whole tree black and every one of its leaves goes up in smoke.

He tells Matthews, "We find better cover!"

Wash leads them away from the hail of bullets as best as he can, but the underbrush is a nightmare. Almost literally. One moment Wash is certain that something is a bush, the next moment the Fed lieutenant is shoving Matthews away from the enormous turtle head attached to it. He lets the lieutenant take the lead. By the time they're sheltered on the far side of the bush-turtle's shell, Wash counts a private (a New) missing. Wash didn't hear a shout, so if they're dead, it must have been efficient. Sniper.

Matthews is at his shoulder, shaking. Wash grabs his shoulder, he jumps, and suddenly the leaf hanging where his head just was has a hole in it the size of a grapefruit. Wash shoves him down, under the leaves.

He doesn't remember what happens after that.

 

---

 

It was not a simple recon mission.

There are certain restrictions to the Reds and Blues and Carolina's ability to go out on any-old mission. Every one of them is a hot target, useful  as leverage or worse, not to mention the value of their armor. Carolina's armor in particular, with a functioning speed unit, and the fact that she's normally carrying Church. Mission assignments become a chess game of calculated guesses and blind luck. Maybe the pirates don't expect a freelancer to show up; maybe they expect her with Church for a decryption, but they get Tucker or Caboose instead. Kimball does everything she can to keep their movements without pattern, but there are only so many options, sometimes.

This time involved retrieving data misplaced by the News only a few years into the war. Maybe the pirates knew it was there, maybe they didn't. Maybe they'd be waiting for any chance to snag one of the freelancers, maybe they wouldn't.

Maybe they have a mole in the joint Chorusian army. Maybe they don't.

It really was a recon mission. Everyone on the squad knew where they were going, how long they expected to be gone, and what weapons and equipment were best to bring.

They didn't all know who Wash had in his pocket.

 

---

 

The first thing Wash hears when he wakes up is, "I'm curious. What did you think you were looking for, out there?"

Then comes the ache in his shoulders. Something's biting into his wrists. As he pushes himself up to his knees, he notices his armor is gone. He's got the body suit, at least.

"Did Caboose manage to find and lose a dog already? Or whatever demented excuse this planet has for dogs. I've seen a lot of shit, Wash, and I'm still sure there's some beast out there still ready to haunt my nightmares."

He's just filling dead air,Wash realizes, so he tunes him out.

Wash is in a dimly lit room made of metal. Some kind of cell, he realizes. Three solid walls, no windows, and the fourth wall is made of bars. Felix stands inside the cell, leaning casually against the closed door. As he talks -- on, and on -- he uses a knife to pick the dirt out of the grooves in his armor. He's not wearing his helmet. Two guards stand outside the bars with BRs in hand. They don't look too tough.

The things on his wrists are thin, metal cuffs. They're not chained to anything, but the gloves on his suit are gone, and the sleeves have been rolled up, so they rub directly against his skin. Other than that, Wash isn't chained down or restricted by anything. Wash knows he's improved as a fighter since PFL, but he's not confident in his odds of fighting past Felix, armor vs bodysuit.

Wash doesn't know what they used to knock him out, but he feels dizzy, like if he stood up too fast he'd regret it. He remembers shoving Matthews down. He doesn't remember blacking out.

He cuts into whatever Felix is saying. "Where are my men?" he asks, and he hates how croaky his voice sounds.

Felix doesn't seem to mind the interruption on this particular occasion. "Dead, mostly," he says.

Wash lets his head drop. Just for a few moments. Chorus had already lost so many lives. He tries to remember the name of every private on the squad, and he's not sure he can.

"Oh, don't cry over it now, Wash," Felix chides. "Save some tears for the good parts."

Wash doesn't look up. He needs time to level out the nausea if he wants to stand a chance here. He needs to find out where he is, he needs information, he needs time. "What parts are that?"

"I don't wanna give too many spoilers, but I'm hoping for some screaming, maybe a good sob, maybe some convulsions. Heck, I don't have to clean up around here, feel free to blow chunks."

Wash knows to take everything Felix says with a handful of salt, so he's not too worried. Mostly he's disappointed. Where are they? Wash has been on a lot of ships before, so he recognizes the wavering pull of artificial gravity, and the taste of stale air; this feels like a ship. What did they do with his armor? How long has he been out?

His armor. Oh God, where's--

A large hand suddenly clamps around the back of Wash's neck and yanks. His stomach flips, and the floor seems to tilt, but he keeps his eyes open. Felix is still in front of him, which means--

"Enough preamble," Locus growls. "He wants this started, already. We have other things to do."

Felix's face sours, but he says, "Yeah, alright." Felix holsters the knife to pull out something else. Some small piece of tech. Wash thinks he's seen something similar used to move data between two incompatible drives. Sure enough, there are two different drives sticking out of either end. Wash can't see one, but the other is terribly familiar.

Felix taps the latter. "Got this out of your pockets," Felix brags when he sees Wash's eyes widen. "Already forced it onto this one." He unplugs the opposite drive. The circular face of it is only the housing for a much smaller chip.

Recognition sends a full-body shudder through Wash. He yanks out of Locus's grip only to get grabbed from behind. Locus wraps his arms under Wash's and clamps his hands around the back of Wash's head, forcing it down. Wash kicks and yanks at Locus's bracers, but the metal plates only dig into his suit. Wash is sure he's only going to bruise himself if he keeps trying.

He tries to calm down, to not waste energy, but then Felix's boots come into view. "What'sa matter, Wash? Not looking forward to the reunion?"

Wash has no answer to that. Honestly he's never even considered it. He'd had a ghost of the thought when he carried Alpha for about twenty minutes, but he'd never planned on living with that. Maybe he just never wanted to think about it, maybe he really didn't care.

Right here, though, right now, his heart is pounding. He wants to yell. He wants to fight, to escape, to get out of this. For a crazed moment, he's on the MoI again, in the implantation lab. He's mildly nervous as the zero-g kicks in.

Wherever he is now, they have gravity. He focuses on that. He can't move -- but that's okay. He doesn't need to right now. Even if he could, he has no escape options. Take a deep breath.

A man who very angrily beat the shit out of him has got his head forced down -- he doesn't need to see the room, anyway. Other than Locus melting out of the corner like the dramatic sociopath he is, Wash already knows the layout. He has ears, he can hear, he can track what's happening. Take a deep breath .

There is no reason (other than precedent) that this could end in his horrific death. He was trained for this. He's already lived the worst (second worst) possible outcome. He's survived this. Take a deep breath.

Wash can't see Felix's hand. Are him and Locus making faces at each other, because the seconds seem to be dragging on. Wash forces himself to relax ("Additional stress will only trouble the integration process, Agent.") but his hands are clenched and he feels his arms shaking. He's tired of watching for every movement in Felix's boots. He clamps his eyes shut.

A thumb pulls back the neck of Wash's suit, and then there's a click .

 

---

 

Church tries to pull back. He doesn't want to do this -- to Wash, to himself -- but he doesn't have a much choice. There's an aggressive virus on the drive they forced him onto that's already scrambled some of his stored files. Nothing important, but if it got that far, he could start falling apart.

But Wash--

He's still in the chip, backing into it desperately -- even as it burns his code and his dormant implantation subroutines kick on -- but he's been forced close enough already to catch the ghost of Wash's senses. Felix's voice breaks through like a dark echo. "Come on, you stupid clump of numbers, just move. What do you think you're gonna do in there other than die?"

Honestly? Nothing. He hasn't figured out if it's worth it yet.

<We have fifteen seconds before essential systems start to take damage,> Delta informs him, in his trademark Delta Deadpan. Which means Delta, at least, doesn't have a death wish.

<Live to tear their throats out,> Omega suggests, clearly on the same page as Delta, but way less convincing about it.

<Wash would never trust us again,> Theta cries.

<I'd rather be un-trusted than dead!> Eta practically shrieks. <Oh... oh, no, maybe not...>

It's the faintest voice, shoved in the furthest corner of his code, that Church hears the loudest.

<If we allow them to leave this drive connected to Agent Washington,> Sigma says, <the virus may continue to spread, even after we have perished.>

Even if he's just a fragment, Church is a fucking smart AI. He can make a counter-code for a virus like this, but the chip is far too small. He can't create a counter-code if he has no room to write. The human mind, on the other hand? That's virtually endless space. If Church can

(I can't -- I have to)

If Church can borrow some space in Wash's head, just for five seconds, he can write the counter-code, delete the virus, and hop back into the chip. Barely any time at all. They can forget this ever happened.

We'll be okay, Epsilon believes. We'll be okay.

He jumps into Wash's head and he turns around immediately. He's already pulling the counter-code together, ready to javlin that shit and shatter the virus into a worthless stack of 1s and 0s--

The chip gets pulled.

<That wasn't even a second!>

Church can't avoid knowing where he his, but he tries. This is temporary. It'll be over soon. Nothing more than a blip of a bad memory. Still, he feels Wash's mind -- and his body -- shudder at their contact. Church wants to pull away, but Wash isn't wearing a suit and even a corner of Wash's mind is still Wash's mind. He could jump into one of the mercs' suits (gross)--

Something else clicks into the back of Wash's neck. Church reaches for it, but it's data storage is completely full; and even if it wasn't it's far too small. Church won't fit on it. Whatever, he can still just ghost out. Church gathers himself to jump and--

he can't.

Jumping between hardware isn't really something he's ever been able to describe other than just something he can do, but now he can't. It's like a door has been shut in his face. Like he's been chained by the ankles. Like every time he tries to write the script for it, something else inter-cuts his writing to make it useless. It's coming from the new chip.

Church has been in Wash's mind for less than three seconds when Locus lets go. Church feels Wash's mind.Fearbeats with the pounding and spinning already in his skull -- <He's showing symptoms concurrent with direct exposure to a blackout grenade.> -- and his arms still tremor as they hold him off the ground. Church recognizes the rapid pumps of oxygen that are Wash's heavy breathing.

Neural implants are hardware. They're a playground of wires and circuits, just like every other computer Epsilon has ever inhabited; but they're also a walkway. They're a guide and a path through something much, much more. A computer is a room, a defined space, an encapsulable thing.

The human mind is a decorated void. It's an abstract space with defined patterns, yet unknowable limits and slimly defined patterns of function. It's a whole bunch of other words that Simmons knows for no reason other than to impress people. Church has blue-toothed into a handful of minds through armor and basic implants before, but that meeting in the middle just isn't the same as this. Direct implantation doesn't confine him to an avatar or press him into a certain space.

The human mind is a void, and Epsilon feels like he's made of gas, gas that wants to expand; to stretch out, to fill the space. But he can't. He's seen this void before -- knows his way around -- and he can't.

Church holds himself back as best he can, but (as poetically masterful as it sounds) this isn't actually empty space. Everything here is Wash; his feelings, his thoughts, his body. Church pulls himself as much as he can into only Wash's mind. He doesn't dare trying to connect to Wash's eyes, but he can’t stop the echoes from Wash’s ears.

Felix coos, "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" Then he sighs. "Honestly? Disappointing."

There's a rumble that probably came from human vocal chords followed by a silence Wash recognizes as condescending.

"What?” Felix whines. “C'mon, I let you have your fun!"

"This isn't a game," Locus growls.

Their voices fade out after that. Wash isn't listening to them. Church feels the faintest pressure of Wash's attention on him. He feels Wash breathe, try to relax, but as soon as he starts overlapping with Church, he flinches back.

I'm sorry.

Don't be.

They can't separate. They can't back away, not completely. They're not sure who just said what.

Suddenly everything shakes. Wash's face stings.

"Hel-lo!" Church hears Felix call. "You in there?"

Church wants to get up and slap back (not that he has hands) but Wash is still having trouble just balancing on his knees.

<Residual damage from the blackout grenade is still affecting him.>

<So are we.>

"Are you," Wash manages to say, "just trying to make the strongest case for Carolina to kill you slowly?"

Church really does think Wash is more of a badass than he gives himself credit for-- and he hates that Wash is probably going to find out that Church thinks that. That's really not optimal.

What's less optimal, is that when Felix chuckles, Wash lifts his head and opens his eyes and Church can see. He can see what Wash sees: Felix shaking his head with a shitty smirk on his face, and Locus, helmet on, paying more attention to his datapad than to them. Church isn't trying to do this -- he's trying not to -- but he barely has control of himself in here.

Locus says something to Felix that Wash can't make out and which Felix waves dismissively to. Locus steps out of the cell with a prolonged backward glance and then it's just Felix crouching confidently in front of them.

"I don't think you fully grasp this situation, Wash," Felix chides. "Let me spell it out for you: as far as anyone that matters is concerned, you and the lightning bug are both property from the UNSC Oversight Subcommittee."

<We are not owned.>

"Property which was deemed technically useless and awarded to the big boss Hargrove when he retired."

<Sounds fake, but okay.>

"People aren't property," Wash reminds him.

"Living people, no," Felix agrees. "But a dead body? See, Agent Washington died. On Sidewinder. More than a year ago."

<An interesting loophole.>

<Irreverent to the spirit of the rule.>

"All we have here is an old scrap from an AI sparking around in a corpse; sitting silently in its spot until the living people on the ship decide to move it around."

Felix leans in close to Wash's face, and Wash is hit with a wild urge to snap at his nose. Epsilon had forgotten how often Wash got the urge to do weird shit without even a hint of the idea passing his face.

<What did we do that he hates us so much?>

<Nothing we could change now.>

"In the mean time," Felix taps Wash's cuffs, "we've got it hooked up to a taser. You know, just in case any of those death spasms get any ideas."

Church gets a pretty vivid idea about what Felix can do with is kni--

Wash's entire brain -- and therefore all of Epsilon's processing space -- goes red. Church can't feel pain in the sense that humans do, even if he gets sympathetic responses when connected to their mind. Even when directly implanted, if their host gets stabbed or shot or gutted, the most an AI can feel is overwhelmed by medical alerts.

Electricity is another monster.

With nowhere else to go, no suit to hide in, Church feels his numbers scramble. It takes every bit of his concentration to throw them all back into place again before they can get lost. By the time it's over -- <Only 3.527 seconds> -- Church doesn't remember what he'd been thinking about.

<Are we okay?>

<Repetition of such stimuli would not be optimal.>

<Guy's we're fine, shut up.>

Wash, what's Wash doing?

Breathing, heart beating, 78% coherent -- good enough. Epsilon reorients back to Wash's senses and Felix is laughing. Wash's breathing doesn't sound great either, but he's getting it under control. Epsilon wants to help him -- <Washington will regain full control 36.8% faster if he increases the length of his inhales by a single beat> -- he even reaches out on horrible impulse, but he hits something. There's a hard wall between Epsilon and Wash's body. Epsilon is trapped on the surface of Wash's mind. Anything Epsilon could do is sealed away behind a barrier of ice. Epsilon can see it, but he can't reach it. Can't interfere.

Shouldn't want to.

Back outside, Felix says, "That little plug in the back of your head isn't just an accessory. You even think about getting out of here? Zap. You get all blood thirsty? Zap. You try to take it out? Zap. You look at my guys funny?" He gestures to the guards  with loaded battle rifles. "I let them decide which foot to shoot."

Epsilon's attention turns to the device in Wash's ports.

<That shouldn't work.>

<Do they really have mind reading tech?>

<I know I'm literally sci-fi bullshit, but this is sci-fi bullshit.>

<It is possible, with the advances made by Freelancer and other projects, that certain neural patterns have been identified to signal-->

Suddenly, Wash's voice echoes in Church's corner of the void. Would you shut up for like, two seconds?

Church hadn't even realized Wash could hear him.

Felix is back in Wash's space again. "Capiche?"

Something dark and angry lights up in Wash's chest -- under the ice, behind the barrier, Epsilon can't get there, no part of him can--

Wash exhales. It fades.

Wash looks up at Felix. Wash spits in his face.

Felix hits a button, and Church spends the next 6.731 seconds trying not to fall apart. When Wash comes to, 1.39 seconds after that, Felix is gone.

We'll be okay, Epsilon reminds himself. We'll be okay.

 

Chapter Text

 

Thoughts are frustratingly difficult to control, even with direct conditioning involved. Luckily, the human body can only stand so many shocks before passing out -- or, at least, that's how that's supposed to work. Agent Washington, of course, is an outlier in the subject of how much punishment a human body is supposed to be able to take. So, fifteen long, long, eternal, minutes after Felix left, he's still awake.

Giving someone space while sitting in their head may be a lost cause, but Church is trying his best. Wash has his boundaries pretty well set up -- Church gets impressions of his emotions, and can only sense his surface thoughts if he listens -- but Church isn't about to toe them. Wash may be calmer now, but Church is still haunted by how powerful his fear was when they first connected. Not that Church can blame him for that. At all. Even a little. He's really, super, seriously, not offended.

(Sad? Maybe. He can unpack that feeling as soon as never.)

All that to say, Church is doing everything he can to let them both just pretend that this isn't happening, but this is getting ridiculous.

<Wash, just go to sleep,> he says.

I'm fine, Wash thinks back.

Church keeps expecting Wash to respond out loud. All four times they've had this exchange so far, Wash surprises him with it. It had taken Agent Washington the better part of a day to get used to talking in his own head last time, and Church didn't expect him to pick it back up again so quickly. He's pretty sure Wash didn't expect it of himself either.

Church finally calls him out. <Enough of the tough guy schick, I know your headache's getting worse.>

I can deal with it.

Church tosses the binary equivalent of a sigh. <I know that, but we're not exactly going anywhere, and you keep-->

{--ZRR@#%##RRTT-}

Wash uncurls slowly when the shock ends. Church is getting better and reorganizing after each zap. Wash is not following the same improvement curve.

<You keep trying to think of ways to escape,> Church finishes.

I can't--

<Yeah, yeah, you can't help it. But the chip is constantly scanning and re-scanning your brain through your implants,> Church tries to explain. <It's sending that information short range to the cuffs, and long range somewhere else.>

Wash likes the "somewhere else" part even less than the "to the tasers attached to you" part. Can you stop it? Or trace it back from here?

Church, unfortunately, has already thought of that. <I could write a program with the space in your head, but I would have to be able to attach that to the chip directly before running it, or risk-->

Hurting you, Church can't bring himself to articulate. He skips that and keeps going.

<There is no room on that thing. There's not even an AI on it, it's just a dumb program covered in seventy six self-repairing firewalls. If I don't get them all, they just rebuild themselves. And everytime I try, or think about tryi-- >

{--ZZ@#$#&rRRR7*$%T--}

<Ugh.>

Ow.

<Yeah. That.>

Wash pushes himself back up to sit against the wall, but his arm spasms painfully. It takes two tries to get himself up.

<It's not fair. He's not even trying to act on it,> Theta grumbles.

<I do not believe they are trying to be fair,> Delta says.

Church has been trying not to acknowledge his memory fragments. If this mind-meld gets any meld-ier, then Wash is already gonna find out about plenty of embarrassing things. Carolina knows about his "imaginary friends", and he's pretty sure Caboose does, but that doesn't mean he likes to admit that he talks to himself.

But then Wash says,We'll have time for fair later.

Church hesitates. He doesn't want to talk about this, but he's so curious. He's afraid to ask, but he wants to. That feeling must press against Wash, because exasperation presses back.

So Church asks, <You can hear them?>

Wash drops his head back against the wall. His senses spin and his slow, unsteady breaths and heavy heartbeats feel strange against Church's software. Is that such a surprise?

<Carolina hasn't. She knows they're there, but she doesn't hear them. I've never plugged directly into her head before, though, so I guess this is new territory.>

Wash is surprised. You haven't?

Church tries not to feel defensive about it. Was it really that expected? <She didn't exactly have the best time with the twins. Not to mention, her ports got messed up when they got ripped out.>

A long sigh. Wash is really tired.

Oh, Wash thinks.

Church knows he could help Wash sleep. He could help Wash do a lot of things. He could also do a lot (a lot) of terrible things.

<Yeah.>

 


---

 

Sitting against the cold wall of his cramped cell, barren except for himself, Wash focuses on everything and nothing. He's not going to be busting out of this cell on his own. If he's going to escape, he's going to have to wait for better circumstances. His muscles ache and his head throbs, so he really can't afford to keep thinking about his potential options, unless he wants to get shocked again and make it worse. Instead, he thinks about Tucker and how worried he'll be. He thinks about Caboose and how optimistic he'll be. He thinks about Carolina and how pissed she'll be. He thinks about the present -- or at least someone else's present -- and the future (not the past) because that's what he has.

Wash falls asleep on accident. He really didn't want to, and not because he's trying to be tough or stubborn, or even because he's trying to stay particularly alert. He just has a pretty good idea about what's waiting for him on the other side of consciousness. All the freelancers had reported trouble sleeping with their AI. Delta was too chatty, Theta too nervous, Sigma too restless.

Epsilon is too vivid. There is no sleep in which Epsilon does not dream.

So Wash sinks into darkness for only a few slow moments before he sees himself. Not in the third-person sort of way -- though, being a dream, he has a vague impression of a third-person perspective -- but in a more literal way in that he, himself, is brightly colored against a fully black backdrop.

He knows who he'll see if he turns around. Wash doesn't know if, even though Wash is fully armored, Church will be able to read his face.

Sure enough, a timid, "Hey," comes from behind him. Wash turns around.

Church has his helmet off. His face isn't quite like the android Alpha was in when Wash met him. He looks more like the Director, but it's not quite that, either. Though maybe that's just because he's not wearing glasses. Maybe that's why, even though all three sets technically look the same, Church's eyes look more like Carolina's than the Director's.

"Hey," Wash says back. He realizes then that, at some point between turning and now, his own helmet disappeared.

They're simply there, for a moment, in the empty space. There’s an apprehension that makes Wash’s head spin, some crouched inevitability in the darkness, but nothing comes of it. What are they supposed to do now? Talk about their feelings? Ignore each other? Implode (again)?

Maybe a second passes, maybe an eternity. Time never passes quite right in dreams, and this is no exception. It's silent and still except for a strange feeling that passes up into Wash's feet and ankles, like pins and needles. Wash lifts a foot to shake it, but the feeling comes back when he steps back down, like it's coming up through the ground.

"Your head hurts," Church explains. "I think that's the weird way that it's translating." He shakes one of his own feet. "I feel it, too. Kinda. I mean, I don't really feel-- "

"I know," Wash interrupts. "We've done this before."

Church looks away and rubs at the back of his neck as if that was an awkward thing to say. Maybe it was, but it's true. It's not something either of them aren't aware of.

"Now what?" Wash asks.

 


---

 

Church is pretty good at killing exorbitant amounts of time in confined spaces. Wash's mind is different from the Recovery Unit, though. Church gets caught up in the dreaming sense of pace. The scene unfolds and fades in slowly, and the scene appears all at once at the same time.

Wash looks dazedly around at the hills and the cliffs and the two lone concrete buildings. He squints at the beach. "Is this supposed to be Blood Gulch?"

Church flinches. "What do you mean, supposed to be?"

"Blood Gulch was landlocked," Wash tells him.

The beach fades in and out for a final wall of stone, but it doesn't stick. There's a wall, but there's also a beach. Dream logic.

Church -- despite not having a face in normal situations -- feels his face heat up. "Well I never actually went there, okay? All I know is what Caboose told me and what I got off Alpha the twenty minutes we were next to each other."

Wash's attention is already drifting around the valley. He says, "I know," and that's the end of that topic. Wash's boundaries are still up (his armor is still on), but they blur in his sleep. His thoughts aren't quite so regimented. The trepidation and anxiety echo more strongly here, though it fades in and out, just like the beach. He's also very much not looking in Church's direction.

"This was your simulation? From the memory unit." Wash deduces. Church isn't sure if he comes up with that himself or if he catches it off of Church without realizing.

"Yeah."

They're standing in the shadow of Blue Base. There's shouting from inside, and there's shouting from the other side of the hills at Red Base.

Wash shrugs. "This works."

 


---

 

(The pins and needles travel up his calves.)

The Reds and Blues aren't the only ones in the canyon. Church brought a few (seven) memories in with him, so it actually feels pretty crowded. For the most part, they all stay outside, and Wash spends the dreaming day inside Blue Base. Grif shows up once because they captured him somehow, and Wash isn't sure if that's something they actually did or something that Grif just says they did. They try to explain the concept of coffee houses to Caboose, and lose track of Grif's boots, and find Simmons' cybernetic eye in the blender. So, normal dream stuff.

No one else gets inside Blue Base. Wash spots Delta and Theta standing casually by the back entrance, and Church standing by the front. Church glances inside every once in a while, but jerks away whenever Wash catches him. He's not sure what they're doing. They might as well come inside, right?

Church keeps rubbing at his forearms; he took his bracers off at some point. Wash can tell he's antsy about something, and the vibes he's giving off are nothing if not defensive, but Wash can't figure out what he's being defensive over. Wash certainly isn't going around accusing him of anything.

Then Theta tugs on his arm bracer. Wash isn't sure when he got inside the base but he doesn't question it. None of the memory fragments have helmets in here, and each of them looks more like an actual person. Yet, there's something about them that's still off. Something somehow unoriginal. Theta looks up at him with big purple eyes.

"You don't trust us," he says, and tugs at the bracer.

"Why wouldn't I trust you?" Wash asks.

What did Theta ever do wrong? Omega, Gamma, Sigma, sure. But Delta? Or Eta or Iota or--

Theta just looks at him sadly and thunks his head against Wash's shoulder. It's adorable (Theta's always been adorable), and completely harmless.

But something in Wash wants to run.

 


---

 

(There's a soreness in his knees.)

Church doesn't know if he's impressed or infinitely more apprehensive by what he sees here. He knows he's not being arrogant to think that he must have done a lot of damage when he self-destructed, except he can't find the evidence of it anywhere. There are no meta-textual cracks in the canyon walls, no bizarre shadows crawling out of the cave. All the dream figures have all their limbs and sanity levels within standard deviations.

But he's waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In the meantime, whatever parameters the chip reading Wash's brain is going by must not be able to pick up on the same violence triggers in his dreams; Church watches Wash and Sarge (or, at least, the dreaming idea of Sarge) get into a full on slap fight and they aren't violently shocked awake. Sarge is the one who waltzed into Blue Base to disassemble their coffee maker for spare parts, so Church decides not to interfere. Wash wins, obviously, but it has never not been hilarious to watch him get worked up.

If they can think freely like this, Church considers trying to talk to Wash about making some kind of plan, but the second Wash wakes up and thinks about it, it'll all be down the toilet, anyway. Church tries to think of options while he untangles his shoulder pauldrons from his bodysuit.

There's maybe a way to out-think the taser. Church can think faster than the program can, if only barely. If Wash's body could react immediately to Church's thoughts, they might have even half of a card to play. The level of connection that would require, though. Even before everything, Church was never stable enough to even consider something like that.

So, square one. Square zero.

One. Square One. They haven't fried each other's brains yet, so they're not really at zero.

For now he'll settle for seeing the look on Grif's (or, at least, the dreaming idea of Grif) face when he sees the perfect outline of Wash's hand on Sarge's jaw.

 


---

 

(His feet hurt. The muscles in his thighs feel unstretched and sore.)

Suddenly Wash is talking to someone he's never seen. He's huge and moves like a shadow, and something about the sharpness of his expression is familiar. There's a scar up his left cheek that Wash thinks belongs to someone else.

"Well this sucks, doesn't it? he says, in an impossibly deep voice. "How is thisfair? "

Some string of thoughts in Wash's mind that is not his own knows this man as Omega.

Then Delta is there. Even sans helmet, Delta still has something blocky about him. He and the others are in detailed multi-color, but Wash's brain still processes him as mostly green. He looks a lot like Church -- they all do -- but something about the way Delta does his hair (kind of spiked up at the front) feels safe.

Delta gives only a level, serious, look at Omega.

Then Church is there, swearing loudly, grabbing Omega by the back of the suit, and hauling him out the door with surprising strength. Omega doesn't look perturbed in any way. Wash is pretty sure he allows himself to be tossed out.

Theta shuffles close enough to almost be hiding at Wash's side. "I don't like him," he admits.

Delta only gives Wash that same, steady, look. "He's not wrong."

 


---

 

(His lower back twinges whenever he moves.)

So, guard duty doesn't work. Wash stops just hanging around inside Blue Base, anyway.

Church has no time-telling hardware other than Wash's body, and with Wash's body unconscious he can't accurately judge the passage of real time. Still, it feels like it's been a while since he's seen Wash. Which is a bizarre thing to say while inside of the guy's head. It might be more accurate to say that he hasn't seen the specific concentration of Wash's resting consciousness in a while, but that's a mouthful.

Church is just starting to look when Simmons (or, at least, the dreaming idea of Simmons) wanders over to him. "Hey, Church, have you seen--"

"No."

In the field between the bases, Iota's managed to dream up some flowers. She gets along with Donut (or, at least, the dreaming idea of Donut) pretty well. Church would hope that Wash never spots that, but if Wash spotted it right now then he'd be in range of Church knowing where he is and Church wouldn't be having this finding Wash problem.

Simmons is in full armor, but his eyes are definitely doing that nervous shifty thing. "O-okay. But Gamma said--"

"That was your first mistake."

Simmon's looks off-put, but doesn't disagree. "Hey, what'd you do with the top half of your armor?"

"I took it off."

"Why?"

"Because if I make myself easier to find, then Wash will know where to go if he runs into trouble."

"And taking off your armor makes you easier to find?"

"It's a visual metaphor for a more abstract cognitive thing, Simmons, just roll with it."

"Sure."

Man, Simmons being a pushover really comes in handy sometimes. No wonder Sarge keeps him around.

Of course then Simmons ruins it by asking, "But what trouble would he run into in a box canyon in the middle of nowhere?"

Church isn't sure who's brain the Blood Gulch guys are coming out of. They mostly feel like Wash, but they don't seem to be like Wash in the same way that Church's fragments are Church. Church wonders how much of what they hear Wash hears or how much of what they say is Wash saying. This is all just an abstract dream construct that his code is caught up in anyway, so how much does it really matter?

"There are some serious assholes roaming around my brain, Simmons," Church tells him. "I can't let any of them try to mess with Wash." Sure enough, Church spots Sigma lurking around on top of Red Base. Lopez (or, at least, the dreaming idea of Lopez) is up there with him.

If the Blood Gulch guys are less connected to Wash here than Church's fragments are connected to Church, and Church doesn't know what Sigma and Lopez are talking about, then Church is probably worrying over nothing. Not that they're entirely disconnected, though. They all seem to be much more aware of what kind of reality they're living in than normal dream people are, and Wash is aware that he's dreaming.

Church has never had a dream before, how does he know that? Is he picking it up from Wash? The boundary between them doesn't feel any weaker than when the dream started.

Simmons pulls Church out of his thoughts. "As an AI aren't you like... 90% brain?"

That's a generous under estimation, but Church allows it. "What's your point?" he asks. He wonders if Dream-Simmons would represent Wash's curiosity and inferiority or something.  At least Wash doesn't have to worry about protecting Church from Simmons. Church catches Sigma's eye from across the field.

"Well, if 100% of your brain is in his head right now, how are you supposed to guard him from any of it?"

Then Simmons just vanishes, because dreams are convenient like that.

 


---

 

(Butterflies in his stomach.)

Wash feels safe in his armor. He's used to his armor, it's comfortable for him. It’s not paranoia. It’s not because he expects to be shot in the back at every turn. He doesn’t wear it to be practical at this point, it’s just comfortable.

"Does armor not imply lack of safety?" Gamma asks from the cave entrance. Caboose is taking a nap inside to see if bears really are right about sleeping locations, and Gamma and Wash are keeping watch. Gamma may or may not have been the one to tell Caboose about bears. Whatever else Gamma told him is "mostly inconsequential." Apparently.

Gamma's projection never wore armor, but was instead a simple glowing silhouette. This Gamma wears pale gray armor, which's details seem to fade the more Wash looks for them. His face is still remarkably simple, but Wash can't shake the impression he should really have facial hair.

"Who are you, Delta?" Wash snipes without heat.

"No," Gamma answers. There's still an auto-tune element to his voice that makes everything he says sound at least a little deadpan.

Wash has no answer for that.

"Knock, knock, " Gamma tries.

Wash has been waiting. "Come in," he says.

He has half a moment of triumph and then Gamma asks, "That's not what you want, is it?"

Any spark of humor Wash had drops away. So, they're not pretending this is a metaphor, then.

"You're already here," Wash tells him.

"You don't want us to be."

Wash doesn't remember Gamma being quite this forward. Wyoming was nosy, maybe he'd picked it up. (Maybe he picked it up from someone else he'd hung out with too much.)

Wash sets his jaw. "It doesn't matter," he says. "You're here now, and it's fine." Gamma opens his mouth, but Wash cuts him off. "We're being held captive by Locus and Felix, and I still have all my fingernails. I'm fine," he says.

Take a deep breath.

Gamma is quiet for a moment. He looks back over the canyon. He has no gun, no knife, no grappling hook; but he stands like he has a weapon. "I possess a flawless ability to detect bullshit, Agent Wash," Gamma tells him. "I know who you're lying to."

"I'm not--"

And Gamma's gone.

It's just a dream. He knows it's a dream. He knows his body is resting -- Church is keeping track of his slow breathing and heart rate -- yet Wash feels his heart skip.

I'm fine, he tells himself. Take a deep breath.

Except he can't, not really, because this is a dream. It's a dream that he hasn't actually tried waking up from. Hasn't considered the possibility of being able to, but he's not sure that he wants to because there's something safe here. There's something safe about a canyon, blurred at the edges, with one wall that's actually a beach sometimes.

He could leave if he wants to. Of course he can. He's not trapped. There's a presence pressed against his own, but it's only there. It's not clawing him, screaming for help, it's not--

The sky out over the side of the canyon starts to go gray. Wash knows it'll get worse on it's own.

Take a deep breath.

Wash walks towards it.

 


---

 

(More like nausea.)

The other shoe drops.

Crack

Phoof

Kr-chack

Church finds the rest of Blue Team on the edge of the beach. Tucker and Caboose (or, at least, the dreaming ideas of Tucker and Caboose) are standing on either side of Wash, each in full armor. Tucker has Wash's usual BR in his other hand, and Caboose bounces on his toes.

Church took his own thigh guards off today. Wash, at least, hasn't put his helmet back on.

Wash is also holding a sniper rifle. There's another crack and his shoulder jerks as it fires at something off the beach. There's a strange phoof  sound, and Caboose cheers. Kr-chack; Wash reloads.

Then Church looks down the line of the scope. There are... things coming out of the water. The dark shadows of the waves materialize into humanoid shapes as they beat towards shore and form into sick, dripping, things. At least a dozen of them at a time. They're blurred and distorted by the mixed reality of the dream and Church doesn't know how else to describe it. There's something familiar about the shapes, each capturing some recognizable memory just out of reach. They shift and they ooze darkness as they stand and march forward. There's a kind of morbid fascination to watching them rise out of the water. Like watching a train crash or two bugs kill each other.

None of them quite make it. As they get close there's a crack. They don't splash or explode once impacted with rifle fire, they only phoof into a cloud of dust which scatters into the air and is blown backwards by the wind. The clouds disappear out over the ocean, which creates a new thing; again and again.

Caboose turns as Church approaches. Not to Church, but to something farther inland. The Reds must be up to something. Then Caboose spots Church for the briefest moments and uses him being here as an excuse to see what the Reds are up to. Tucker chases after him. Church lets them run off. Not much they could do of consequence, anyway.

Wash doesn't look up from the scope when Church takes Tucker's place on his left. "What are those?" Church asks. One of them is getting pretty close to the sands.

Wash shoots it -- crack

The bullet rips through the thing, and it dissipates -- phoof

"Nightmares," Wash answers easily.

He reloads -- Kr-chack

This isn't usually now nightmares work. Usually -- or, at least, the way they worked for Wash before, and the way he sees them work for Carolina now -- the nightmare is the dream. Nightmares are all-encompassing. They are the uncountable time, and the inconsistent place, and the horrible mutated cast of dead friends.

"Aren't you afraid of them?" Church finds himself asking.

"Of course I am." Crack--Phoof--Kr-chack "Why do you think I'm out here?"

Church looks away from the water to look over Wash again. At first glance, he's steady as a rock. On second glance, he's pale and his trigger finger is shaking.

Crack

Phoof

Kr-chack

 


---

 

(There's an ache at the base of his neck.)

At some point the dream faded into a memory. They're still in the Blood Gulch simulation, but right now it's sharper. The beach is more defined, the dreaming versions of everyone talk more like they're on a script, and they stop acknowledging Wash or the fragments are even there. There's also another Church running around with a sniper rifle and his helmet on.

There's also a tank.

Wash finds the real Church sitting on top of Blue Base. He lost every piece of his armor but the bodysuit at some point, so he's easy to spot. He's watching Blue Team talk down by the tank with his legs dangling over the edge. Wash sits next to him and is half-aware of how his armor makes it clunky to sit down on flat surfaces. Wash sees, out of the corner of his eye, the effort Church makes to not startle or stare at him. They both keep their eyes on what's going on on the ground; in Epsilon's memory.

There's an extra person down there, Wash realizes. Wash hasn't seen her around before now, and he knows she's not like the fragments. She's like the Reds and Blues; she's just a memory.

"Just a shadow," Church says quietly.

Tex slaps the side of the tank closed after the last check of the hydraulics. She's got her helmet on, but Wash can practically see the blue eyes. He actually sees her helmet flicker and disappear for a moment, replaced by the face of a blond woman he's never met and will never forget.

"She meant more to you than that," Wash assures him.

Church sighs heavily. "It doesn't matter anymore," he says, but there's a stabbing pain behind his eyes that Wash recognizes. He didn't know what it was for a long time, during the Project, when he saw it in Carolina's eyes. Not the Director. The Director could never have accepted his pain. The Director was always in denial.

He had always been in denial.

"I let her go," Church admits.

And that's the real difference. It took multiple layers of fragmenting torture and a self-perpetuating loop of desperation for Church to get here. He did it, though. He's at a place where he can watch the memory of Tex fade into nothing in front of them, leaving Dream-Caboose and Dream-Tucker and Dream-Church behind, and he can be okay. Wash feels a pressure behind his eyes for tears that aren't his, but it'll pass. It'll be okay. He made it this far.

How did Wash make it this far? He's had dozens of answers to that over the years, but right now he can't think of any of them. The only answer he can think of in this moment is denial.

Church picks up on his train of thought before Wash even finishes it, because he's a computer program so of course he does. He says, "I'm sorry."

"She hurt me," Wash admits, and he feels that knot pull in his chest. Even though the space by the tank is empty now, he can’t look away from that spot. That expectation -- that inevitability -- for her is still there. Wash doesn't want this to be hard, he wants his head to stop hurting, he doesn't want to be afraid, he wants to sleep but he can't because, "You hurt me."

"I know," Church says, and he certainly sounds like he knows it. He folds over until his head is on his knees, fists clenched and shaking on the cold concrete next to him.  "I can't fix it."

Wash doesn't hate Epsilon. He never has. He's not sure if he wants to, but maybe that doesn't matter. He doesn't hate Epsilon because none of this is really his fault, but that doesn't make this any easier. Just saying this out loud couldn't possibly make Wash not flinch from Theta for fear of having his arm ripped off. It won't stop him from wondering when Delta will start explaining every horrible way they'll never get out of here. No amount of mind over matter will stop Wash from wanting to gag at the touch on his brain.

But Wash has made it this far. At some point, he picked up a gun again. He stepped back onto a pelican. He got behind the wheel of a warthog. He put on his helmet and got into the field again, because there were more important things to do than cower.

Theta didn't tear Wash apart. Delta didn't tell him there was no chance for success. Epsilon didn't just spontaneously combust without a fuse. The Reds and Blues didn't catch fire, Tex did.

She's gone now.

Wash's gauntlets fade out and suddenly Church's thoughts are louder.

They're stuck here. He can't fix this. Hargrove probably has some sick, twisted game for them and Church burned their only escape years ago. If he'd held it together back then, maybe they wouldn't be here now. They're going to get tortured again, he's going to end up hurting Wash again.

There are times, lots of times, when Wash stops overthinking things. He's always relied heavily on his instincts. He and Delta had an odd relationship, that way.

So it's not by some logic or decision that Wash sets his own hand down next to Church's, close enough for the sides of their hands to touch. For such a minuscule contact in the dream, it resonates much more strongly than that, like sticking their hands under cold running water. The scale of connection is more equivalent to pressing their backs together. In the scope of a shared mind, even that is so minimal compared to the overlap they could end up sinking into.

Church sits up suddenly at the sensation. He looks down at Wash's hand, shocked, and watches as the rest of Wash's armor fades out, leaving just the body suit.

Don't... make me regret this, Wash says. He still can't bring himself to meet Church's eyes.

This gets them past square one.

<With your reflexes-->

--and your thinking speed--

<--we might stand a chance.>

Church hesitates long enough to decide Wash isn't going to suddenly change his mind. Out loud (or, at least, the dreaming idea of "out loud") he asks, "Can we do this?"

That question has only ever had one answer for Wash. "Do we have a choice?"

Church sighs. "Not really." He turns towards Wash and holds out his right arm. "I... I have to hear you say it."

Church is monumentally nervous. Wash isn't exactly happy, either. In another world, this was supposed to be what their shining moment looked like. They were supposed to open up to each other and take that neural handshake and do something great. Maybe they would have been nervous, but it should have been exciting. They should be thinking of all the things they could do right, not all the things that have already gone wrong.

They don't get to do that, though. They get to do this.

Wash takes his arm. He knows he's letting a wall down, one he didn't know he had until Church ran into it. He feels like he's giving something up that he may never get back. But, after everything, there's a feeling he's never been able to shake. He's scared, he's definitely scared, but, "I trust you," he says.

Church searches his eyes as if there's something there that he can't already pick up on just from holding his arm.

On some impulse that Wash barely catches before Church acts on it, Church pulls Wash's head forward with his left hand and plants a kiss into his hair. Wash is too surprised to really react, and lets Church just hold him close for a few moments. He somehow didn't expect Church to be touchy. He certainly didn't expect to ever sit this close to him and feel something like the other side of fierce protection.

Church's grip gets tighter and he says, "I'm gonna get us out of here."

Since the fall of the Mother of Invention, Wash has only once had the luxury of letting someone else pull him out of the fire. He's not sure it's something he knows how to do anymore without being beaten into the dirt first. Here, though, he has to try. He has to take a deep breath and, just for a little while, let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Wash closes his eyes as he exhales. He lets himself go limp. The strain that's crawled up his spine drains back into his feet. He lets the tickle at the base of his neck chase the pins and needles down. Epsilon leaks into his nerves like water.

I'm gonna get you out of here.

I know.

Wash feels the gulch fade around them. He feels the press of the cell wall against his back. There are voices, but not ones Wash or Church recognize; the guards must be talking.

Wash remembers North in that moment, for some reason.

There were nights after missions where they would all end up in the rec room. It wasn't an extravagant room, and hardly homey. There was a couch, and an armchair, and a TV. A coffee table with a deck of cards. They mostly had it as a courtesy from the higher ups, but they hardly used it. Why spend your free time sitting around when there's training to do? A leaderboard to climb?

But sometimes they were too injured to be allowed in the training rooms. The mission was too fresh to just lay down. The ship would be too quiet, and the bunks would be too small. It would be three or four in the artificial morning and three of them would be playing cards. Two of them would be half awake at the table. One time -- and one time only -- they crammed five of them onto the couch.

No one was too large to fit under North's arm, not even Maine. No one was so prickly as to shift away if he dropped down next to them and tossed his arm over the back of the couch. There was never not a risk of some third party walking in, but at least once (maybe more than once) Wash crammed his face into North's shirt and just tried desperately to fall asleep.

It was impossibly hard, and yet so incredibly easy, to trust so openly on the MoI. There's something valuable in feeling safe in an environment where he could die at any day, at any moment.

There's something warm on Wash's lip.

We'll be okay, Epsilon believes.

I trust you.

 

They wake up.

Chapter Text

We'll be okay.

I trust you.

 

"Hey."

Wash drifts slowly back into awareness of his body and Church drifts with him. Wash's back aches, and his wrists sting. Now that Church isn’t caught up in Wash’s dreams, it only takes him a few moments to find all the circadian rhythms and calculate that they've been out for at least a few hours. Probably more than a few.

"I swear. If you ask me again."

"No, no, I think something's wrong with him."

While Wash’s senses are coming online, it takes a bit longer for Wash himself to start processing any of it. He’s awake, but his conscious effort to relax keeps him clinging to semi-consciousness. Lucky for them, Church doesn’t need Wash’s help to process sensory data on his own. Wash isn't listening, but Church hears the guard’s conversation.

"What?"

"There's blood on his face."

Church feels something in Wash's head like relief. His headache is less like a hard pinch now, and more like an echo. Easily put aside. There is something else, though.

<Your nose is bleeding,> Church informs him.

Church knows Wash isn't completely aware of how much of the barrier he's letting down, he's just trying to give Church any space at all. They can take what they get. Church feels new processing space open up, a little at a time. He tries not to overreach. Wash takes another deep breath, and Church feels the barrier give a little more and a tingle of new information. Suddenly he can read a million more little inputs; the gentle curl and uncurl of Wash's fingers, the un-regulated heat slipping out of his bodysuit from the wrists and the neck, the unbalanced tug of artificial gravity and the creak of the hull of the ship.

Wash's thoughts kind of tickle -- not that anything tickles an AI, their presence and impression just kind of bump against his code and he can't help but notice them.

Reading beyond the thoughts Wash sends him directly is strange -- less of looking at a line of letters or numbers or listening to a sentence, and much more of extrapolating from patterns. Wash’s brain lights up like he’s reaching for something he isn’t sure he’s touching and Church knows that Wash expected to be more aware of their connection than he is. It’s anticlimactic. Wash checks for some sort of tingle or some secondary set of impulses to emerge, like he isn’t sure what to  anticipate at this point. There’s a bit of strain, and Church knows that Wash feels like his head is a little heavier, but they know that’s not new for implantation. Wash actually overcompensates support for Church’s weight; he thinks Epsilon actually feels lighter than before.

<Thanks, I lost a lot of weight since then,> Church cracks. <We can experiment later.>

They hear the cell door squeal as it swings open.

<Or, we can experiment now.>

We got this.

Church knows Wash doesn't one hundred percent believe that, but Wash hasn't had quite enough time to realize that Church is the best so he lets it slide for now. He can work with this.

He won't mess this up.

First test: Carefully -- oh so very carefully -- he makes a script. He makes sure Wash can see it, or at least knows it’s there. He sends it out.

Wash's finger curls.

Wash's heart rate and breathing do a funny skip. The barrier flinches, but it relaxes again. Take a deep breath, Wash tells himself, and he does. Church makes a note to stay as far away from Wash's breathing as he can.

Something nudges Wash's foot. The first guard, who sounds kind of like a guy who wears socks with his sandals, says, "Hey." He sounds a lot closer, too. He must be the one in the cell with them. Wash has been trained for--

<Stop!> Church shoves that thought away before it can fully manifest. <Stop planning, or we're fucked.>

Wash flinches again (they hear the guard take a step back) and Epsilon gets a wordless and frustrated (panicked) mental shove, but it gets Wash to refocus on staying calm.

Church anxiously counter-scans the taser chip. They don't get a shock, so he must have cut the thought off in time. He wants to dig through the program to find the parameters it's working off of, but the firewalls slap him back. All he has to work with in place of that is the data they can get from the shocks they've already gotten.

<Intent,> Delta deduces. <Simple analysis goes undetected, but the idea in which to act upon certain analysis triggers the alert.>

Wash's leg gets nudged this time. Wash pulls his eyes open to watch the guard poke him again with the barrel of his rifle.

"Hey, he's not dead," the guard says back to his buddy.

His friend, who's standing outside the open cell door, says, "Yeah, no shit, now get back out here."

Guard A laughs. "What's he gonna do? Shock himself again?"

They can't knock out the guard or they'll get shocked before Wash finishes standing. They can't run for the open door for similar reasons.

Then, as Wash thinks, there's another voice overlapping his own.

We don't want to fight, we don't want to hurt them. We just want the gun. We're not even trying to leave, we just want the gun.

It sounds like Theta. It feels like Theta -- running alongside a particular string of Church's own thoughts, detached yet still his -- but Wash's thoughts are pulled parallel in a synchronized echo. Or maybe Wash is pulling Theta, Church can't tell.

We can't fight, but we are allowed to move.

Church is afraid if he tries to analyze it any further, whatever this is will fall apart. They can't afford to fall apart right now.

Wash looks up at the guard. If North had seen this guy's stance, he would have rolled his eyes right out of his skull.

Take the gun.

Wash moves before the thought finishes. He doesn't touch the guard and he barely makes an effort. In one efficient motion, he grabs and twists the barrel of the rifle, follows that momentum to twist to his feet, and stops in time that the guard unbalances and falls flat on his face.

Wash’s James Bond thoughts -- which usually follow something like this -- screech to a halt before they even start, all on their own. He actually drops the rifle in surprise, which lands on the mook’s ankles. It's heavy enough that he shouts on pain, but there's no snap of something breaking.

Wash looks down at his own hands. They tremble almost imperceptibly and his heartbeat pounds against Church’s subroutines. Neither of them remember deciding to act. Church himself barely processed the fraction of a millisecond before thought turned into motion, but Wash doesn't remember it at all. The entire move felt automatic and yet entirely controlled, but he has nothing between point A and point C other than the fact that it happened.

Church tries to push his perspective -- the fraction of point B -- to the front. <Wash-->

Something cold presses against the back of Wash’s neck. Church recognizes the size and shape of the muzzle of the other guard’s rifle.

“Don’t move,” Guard B orders.

Wash goes rigid. Not with anticipation, but with forced restraint. If Wash wasn't quite awake before, he’s definitely fully awake now. He slowly draws his hands up to his shoulders. He’d like to not get shot, but mostly he’s just confused. Church is on the same page with him, there.

Guard A hauls himself up. “What the hell,” he groans.

“You good?” Guard B asks him.

“Yeah, yeah.”

The muzzle disappears from Wash’s neck.

Duck.

Wash goes down and the butt of Guard B’s rifle sails over his head. Wash draws a leg back and it swipes the guards ankle out from under him. He twists away and backs up as the guards tumble into each other. Church doesn't realize how far Wash goes until the bars of the cell pass his periphery and--

{--ZZ%KK


TT#@^^

*!$#RRTT--}

The world swims back into focus and Wash pulls his head off the floor. A smudge of red on the metal reminds him of what Church said when they woke up. He wipes a hand under his nose and it comes back smeared with blood, but not much. It’s not actively bleeding. A rock in his gut that isn't really there is rolling.

Then he looks up. The guards landed on top of each other and are trying to untangle. Wash can see up and down the hall now, from the other side of the bars. This brig looks more like a stretch of small storage rooms with walls torn out and converted into a cell block. Wherever Hargrove got this ship from, they must not have been privy to what the man was really interested in doing with it.

How did he get out here? It was an active effort, letting Church into his head, that took all his concentration. He remembers taking the gun and dropping, but it's fuzzy. He barely knew where he was, and yet taking the gun had been automatic and fast. "What the hell was that?"

<--seventeen times more efficient than-->

<--nte-->

<--ent--ly-->

Wash can feel Church crunching numbers like a bizarre rendition of a song he only remembers pieces of, stuck in his head. He can hear Epsilon’s fragments too, but they’re muffled and more distant again, like they’d been before he’d fallen asleep. Wash only catches pieces of what they say.

<I… don’t actually know,> Church admits.

There’s a conflicting feeling to finding Church just as confused as Wash is. On one hand, Church isn’t just jerking his body around. On the other hand, few things are more unsettling to Wash than advancements in human-AI interface.

Wash rubs the rest blood from his face. “How did we...?”

Had those been his own thoughts? They felt like his own, but as fast as he feels Church is thinking now. So, not his own? (Take a deep breath.) It was Wash’s idea to take the gun. It felt like Wash’s idea, but it… but it wasn’t. Not completely?

Wash’s attention feels muddied. Clear on the present and yet in seven places at once. It’s hard to make sure his own thoughts travel in a straight line. Especially with bits and pieces of Church's calculations breaking in, and Church’s thoughts sound like an entire council meeting.

<--ard to find a more inventive solu-->

<--nnot garuntee effectivne-->

<--f you cannot respe-->

A shout from one of the guard’s snaps their focus to outside Wash’s head. “Dude, get your boot out of my face!” The guards are still trying to pull apart from each other in the small cell. Their belts and holsters must have gotten caught on each other, because one of them has his pants half down.

Wash feels Church's sudden comprehension clear just before his own, like a reverse echo. The guards are inside the cell, and Wash is on the floor in the hall. Wash isn’t trapped anymore. One of the guards catches his eye over his buddy's shoulder, and his eyes widen when he figures out the same thing.

The guard shouts, "Hey!" and shoves his friend off of him, but Wash is already on his feet. Wash grabs the cell door, pulls it shut, and slams the lock down in time to back up before the guard reaches at him through the bars. For a make-do cell, the bars more than hold up to the guards' attempts to shove against the lock.

Then Wash feels a sudden impulse. To clarify, Wash feels a lot of sudden impulses, but this one isn't his own. This one is slipped his way from Church. A suggestion. It taps against him like a ping but only that. Wash can feel Church just itching for him to act on it, but he also contains himself to his spot and doesn't force it. He could force it, he’s proven that -- and Wash curls his own finger as he remembers -- but he doesn’t.

<I'm not gonna shove you in a corner,> Church tells him clearly.

Wash projects the thought, I know , but it doesn't feel genuine. It’s not that Wash felt shoved aside, just swept along, and he’s not sure how much he’s able to direct that sweep yet. What if he can’t? Is that what it felt like for--

Before Wash’s thoughts can spiral, Church pings the suggestion again and cuts in with, <I also would really love if you could make my dreams come true.>

The suggestion isn’t… bad. It's a Church suggestion, but Wash could do it.

The guard is glaring at him and swiping a frustrated arm in his direction. He's also spewing a rainbow of profanities, but Wash doesn't care about that. Church's suggestion pings again like a question mark.

Wash turns away, jogs down the hall, and lets the ping go. Because he can.

Church is slightly disappointed, but he doesn’t complain. He doesn't ask Wash to explain, just lets it go. The rock in Wash's gut dissolves a little bit.

The cell block is a dead-end hallway. There’s a wall on one end, and a door at the other. Every other cell is empty, but that’s not surprising. Hargrove’s mission for Chorus has no use for random prisoners. That means there aren’t any more guards in the hall, either. Why guard a mostly empty hall when there are innocents to massacre?

Then why take us? Wash wonders. Church reminds him with a thought of the long-range transmitter in the chip in the back of his head. None of the connotations there are comforting in any way, but they don’t have time to worry about it. There’s the more pressing thing to figure out.

Wash comes to a halt in front of the closed door. There’s no telling who else is on this ship.

<If we’re gonna get through level two, we gotta know how we got through level one,> Church says in complete seriousness.

Pretty much.

<Shut the fuck up.>

Wash blinks, confused. What?

<Oh, sorry. Usually when I say stuff like that Carolina makes fun of me.>

Wash rolls his eyes and sighs. Been there.

Church snickers. There’s a shared image of a rubber duck.

"Okay," Wash says on a heavy exhale. "So how the hell did we do that?"

<Do what?>

Wash physically startles  at the vivid sound of Theta's voice. Back in the cell, none of the fragment's voices had come through as clearly as Epsilon's, and they still come through as mostly broken pieces and whispers. This time, Theta comes is loud and clear as if he’s right by Wash’s ear.

Church picks up on Wash's confusion, and Wash pick's up on Church's. Church's running stream of background analytics and questions is suddenly quiet. Wash gets the impression that Church hears all the fragments the same, and that Wash's sudden reaction to Theta is what's confusing. In his mind’s eye, Wash imagines Church looking between him and Theta. <I'm. Uh.>

Theta's addressing me directly, Wash realizes. None of the others have done that outside the dream.

Theta's voice is unfazed by their bafflement. <We didn't do anything wrong,> Theta says.

Wash and Epsilon nudge each other in a mutual shrug.

Suddenly, there's a muffled clang and shouts from the other side of the door.

Did the guards we just locked up have radios? Wash asks silently.

Pictures from Wash’s short-term memory flit across his mind’s eye as Church looks it over. The sensation is familiar and makes Wash uneasy; maybe this is something Epsilon did the last time they were put together; Wash can’t remember. Epsilon stops on the image of the guard with his pants half down. There was something rectangular on his belt that might have been a radio.

The sounds opposite the door get louder.

Church prods him to look to the left, where there’s a storage closet -- an actual one, not a prison cell --  with a cracked open door Wash had barely noticed. He all but dives into it, carefully shuts the door, and leaves himself in the dark. While he waits, he closes his eyes and focuses in the direction where he can still feel the echo of Theta's voice.

He asks, What do you mean?

<We didn't try to take the chip out and we didn't try to hurt anybody,> Theta says simply. <We only got zapped when we noticed we were escaping the cell.>

The sensation of Theta speaking is bizarre. It feels like Church -- echoes and tingles like Church -- and it's coming from the same place in Wash's head that Church does, but it sounds like Theta. It's Theta's child-like voice, and his naive tone. It's part of Church, but Church is just as confused as Wash as to how he's presenting. Wash actually feels Epsilon running analysis like a silent white noise.

Theta shuffles a bit at the attention. <And… well, we're not in the cell anymore, so it's not like we can escape it, so… go us, right?>

So… a loophole?

<Yeah.>

<We can beat the taser on a technicality?>

Wash hears Delta’s voice, and it’s still in the quieter, broken, echo from before. <--oes appear that their hardware could use some beta testing.>

<Yeah… that beta test is probably us. Fucking A for us though, right? Who knew lawyers and neurologists should hang out more?>

There's the faintest impression of another voice, but Church shoves it away. Wash catches him saying, <No one asked you.>

It can't be this simple , he says about Theta’s loophole

Church has an idea, Wash feels it, but he hesitates to share it. Wash almost catches what it is, but Church draws it back.

What is it? Wash asks, sternly.

Church's trepidation makes Wash's stomach twist. <Maybe…>

CLANG

They both jump -- the brig entry must have slammed open -- and voices come through the door, calling after the guards. Even further muffled, there are shouts from further down the hall, in the direction of the cell.

Delta's voice is still distant, but Wash gets the gist of Church making calculations on the sound of footsteps and the length of the hall. (<--ased on the reson-- --teen feet away-->) Wash gently opens the door a crack, just enough to get a look at where the new guards stop outside the occupied cell to laugh at their... friends? Co-workers?

<Fellow pieces of human garbage?>

Please. You can’t just insult garbage like that.

There's only two, and one of them is already digging for his keys. Neither of them have reached for a radio yet. They must not think Wash and Church will get far.

They look busy, Theta (Wash?) thinks. We should stay out of their way.

Quietly, carefully, Wash slips out of the closet and through the door to the next hall, which turns out ot be just a stairwell. The are metal walls and catwalk-style staircase echoes every sound  horribly, but there’s nowhere else for them to go, so they go up.

As he climbs, Wash's senses draw attention to things in strange ways. Small points of interest -- a loose screw in a stair, a scuff on the wall, the font on the stairwell sign -- become his main focus for a fraction of a second before falling out of importance. By the time Wash reaches another door to the next floor, he feels off-balance. The direction of the air vent nearly causes him to trip up the last stair. He stops with one hand on the rail.

Church? Wash asks, because what else could this be.

<A lot of shit, for the record. You’ve only been electrocuted about a dozen goddamn times.>

That being said… Wash prompts

<That being said, I scan and process environments way faster than you do,> Church explains. <Sorry if it's disorienting, but someone's always gotta be the best. It's not you this time. Point: synthetics.>

Wash gives up on the stairs and pushes through the door. As he does, he makes sure Church knows, Processing speed for the ability to eat chocolate is a trade I can live with, Wash says. Point: humans.

The indignant little string of numbers Church runs at that is strangely satisfying. He doesn’t launch into a full counter argument, at least. Which is good, because they should probably put more effort into stealth.

The hall on the deck above the brig is about forty yards of more gray metal and grated floors that turns at the end and has several offshoot hallways. The walls are shiny and the metal is high quality, but it’s noticeably dented and scratched, like lots of clunky things get brought through here by less than careful hands. It’s also empty of people. Wash hadn’t thought it was strange that the brig was lightly staffed because he and Church were the only prisoners, but the whole operation must not be willing to allow idle hands if they’re holding a Freelancer and don’t have armed guards on every floor. With Locus involved, Wash hadn’t expected to be this underestimated.

<Man, what’s that guy’s hate-boner for you, anyway?>

Hell if I know. Wash takes the hall at a light jog. Slow enough to stay light on his feet, fast enough not to get caught from behind. Hopefully.

<Shit, do you think he’s still here?>

I doubt it. Wash stops to peak around the first corner to make sure it’s empty. It is, but it also leads to a dead-end. Wash moves past it. He would have been the first person down there when the guards called for backup.

Church doesn’t seem convinced. <We gotta get outta here. This ship must have escape po-->

{--ZZALDK%&RJ@#J--}

"Son of a bitch…"

Church's thoughts are completely unintelligible for a second. It's dizzying waiting for him to unscramble -- for a second Wash can't remember where he is -- and as soon as he does it all snaps back into place.

They're on one of Hargrove's ships. They’re on the floor. The grating presses painfully into his cheek and his shoulder took the brunt of his fall. Wash has dealt with worse, so he puts that aside.

Church growls, <Oh, come on, I thought we were past this.>

Wash staggers off the ground. How are we supposed to get out of this if we can't-- Wash looks up and sees boots.

He and Church snap to attention together. Wash must have fallen forward, because they landed past the corner to the next hall, where a group of guys were apparently coming from, and now stare at Wash in confused surprise. He counts three mercs as he jumps to his feet, all unarmored but armed. Off-duty security, probably. Church recognizes one pistol (an old model), an impressive mustache, and at least three knives. And a juice box.

Wash, in a freelancer bodysuit with cuffs on his wrists and probably a red mark on his face where he just kissed the floor, waves. "Hi."

There's a tense pause where the biggest guy takes the straw out of his mouth and they all blink at each other.

“I’m just, uh…” Wash stutters. In most circumstances like this -- accidental encounters with the enemy -- Wash’s first move is to knock out anyone he runs into. Usually a punch has been thrown by now. This time, though, he doesn’t need to think about it to know that won’t work. He thinks for alternative options and comes up completely blank. Church panics and shoves his first idea at Wash. "Looking for the bathroom?”

The bathroom?! Wash shrieks internally.

<I panicked!>

No shit!

<Oh, because you had something better? Lemme just dig through this fucking landscape of creativity up here, maybe I missed something under the tumbleweeds-->

The merc with the mustache spots the logo on Wash’s bodysuit. His eyes widen and he goes for his gun.

Is he gonna shoot a gun in a spaceship? Don’t!

Wash lunges forward at an angle, off the line of fire. This merc has a much better grip than the last one, but it still breaks under the right jab to the wrist. The follow-up footwork is automatic. By the time Wash realizes what he’s doing the mustache merc is stumbling away, back to Wash, and Wash has the gun in his hand.

No guns.

The pistol is unloaded and in pieces in the ground before his skin has a chance to crawl, and now he’s standing in the middle of the mercs.

<Isn’t that good?> Church pushes images of Carolina's more... personalized combat techniques.

Wash freezes the image on a particularly groin-tearing high kick. I’m not Carolina.

The entire exchange lasts barely a second, just in time for large hands to grab him by the shoulders from behind. Wash grabs the adjacent wrists, tight enough to pinch skin, shoots a foot back to hook--

{--ZZR#^$VV&&!!#RRT--]

The hallway spins around him. The ground feels strange under his back but his head is buzzing and he can't make sense of it. They're surrounded, they need to be faster. Wash can barely think, but Church can. Sit-rep.

<We landed on the big guy,> Church extrapolates from Wash’s senses. <Tripped him, on the way down. I think we shocked him!>

Someone shouts above them.

<Two more! Up! Up!>

Wash's body starts to roll before he gets the chance to tell it, which, it turns out, is a pretty great way of getting Wash to reorient faster. He feels Church back off the codes and Wash staggers his own feet into a passable standing position. The other two guards are in front of him, alert but not prepared to make a move; watching him carefully. They probably don't want to get zapped like their pal.

We don't want to hurt them, they remind themselves. We don't want to escape them. We just don't want to get hurt.

Mustache guy leans over to his buddy. In a low voice, as if Wash won't hear it somehow, he says, "Radio the bridge.”

The merc with all the knives reaches for his shoulder, and Wash spots the black box clipped there.

We'd also like a radio.

Wash swipes for the radio, only to barely dodge the slash of a combat knife. That's sharp! In the same motion, Wash twists his hand around the merc's wrist. The knife clatters to the ground, Wash swats his other hand out of the way, he gets a hand on the radio--

Suddenly his right knee gives out; the pain from a kick comes second. Wash barely corrects, shifting weight to his left leg. Instead of completely falling, he swings his right leg forward with the momentum and his calf bone hits with a solid crack.

<Oooh!>

Church cackles as the merc in front of them doubles over, hands on his balls. Wash tightens the grip he's kept on the radio and as the merc drops to his knees it slides right off it's clip.

The last merc, with the mustache, gets brave. He grabs Wash's shoulder to pull him around. Before Wash can think about what to do, Church says, <Got ‘im!>

Wash’s arm flashes forward without him. With textbook form, his fist hooks the merc’s temple, who drops like a rock. Wash grabs his own wrist with his other hand, as if it isn't his own.

<Holy hell you hit hard!>

Wash just stands there for a breath, grip tight enough to start cutting circulation and aggravating the sensitive skin around the tasers. He waits for the shock but it doesn't come. All he can think is, How did you do that?

<Your muscle memory is a fucking library of one hit KOs, I prepped a few scripts.> When Church had just curled Wash’s finger back in the cell, Church had been slow, let Wash feel what he was preparing. The punch was as fast as pushing a button. Faster, maybe. <Like a hotkey. I don’t know how many of those we can pull of, though.>

Wash definitely does not like video game analogy extending to the use of his body. Church pings acknowledgement of that, at least.

You've prepped all that in the last six minutes?

<--x minutes and fort-- --econds.>

<It's been a long six minutes, dude.> Wash’s arms tense as Church thumbs through the ideas of several other punches he could have gone for. In the middle of all that is the scientific name for the tomato. <There’s also a weird amount trivia up here.>

Wash remembers sitting in a hospital after the MoI crash with little more than a datapad and the open net wiki. I had a long few years.

There's a groan from the floor. Wash has never been this surprised to be standing in the middle of a bunch of beat-up goons. Church doesn't make any requests this time -- other than, <We should probably skedaddle> -- but Wash remembers his suggestion from outside the cell. It sounds pretty satisfying, actually. He doesn't have to -- he knows he can walk away again -- but he can.

The big merc finally rolls over and looks up at Wash. Church down-right tickles before Wash even gets his middle finger up. The merc must be really susceptible to shocks -- <--ou actually appear to be remarkably resil--> -- because his face falls onto the floor. Wash is pretty sure he passes out. Church is thrilled .

"You get way too much joy out of that,” Wash tells him.

<Gotta live for the little things, Wash.>

Wash feels the image of this scenario getting saved in his memory somewhere, as he snatches the fallen knife.  The sensation makes his stomach do a weird flip -- nothing falls apart. Nothing else changes, so it's fine, he guesses. The knife hasn’t been properly sharpened in ages, and the weight is off in Wash’s hand, but it’ll do. It’s when he almost tries to put the knife in a holster he doesn’t have that he also spots the big merc's juice box abandoned on the floor.

It really is the little things. Yeah, I get that. Wash takes the juice box. He pulls out and ditches the straw with gross merc germs on it, though, because slicing a hole in the bottom with the knife and shotgunning it is way faster.

 

---

 

Wash has leveled out a bit. Something about stealing dorky kid drinks from genocidal maniacs and esc-- tactfully navigating two no-win scenarios is a bit of mood booster for him, apparently.

The sugar from the juice does neat and funny things to his brain as he puts more distance between them and the mercs. They’ve been out of sight for a few right turns now, so they must be about to hit a wall or another staircase. Church could put more effort into building a map of the ship, but it’s more fun -- and more of a priority -- to work on his map of Wash’s brain.

His brain is Church’s temporary hard drive, so they need to keep it as stable as possible. They’ve had relatively smooth sailing so far, but, come to think of it, who knows how long ago breakfast was. In the interest of keeping Wash and his brain as stable as possible, Church hopes they find a kitchen or something. Surviving shitty situations is Wash's thing, and he seems more functional (if not comfortable, per se) than when they first woke up, but Church knows it's a balancing act. He still counts Wash's heartbeats and keeps an eye on his breathing as he jogs the halls of the ship.

Can't be too careful.

While he can, Church turns his attention to the chip still plugged into Wash’s neck. Trying to get any information out of it is like digging through sand. He could dig faster, but he's not a masochist, and Wash hasn't had any uncomfortable awakenings about getting electrocuted. Thank God. If he had Church would be even less inclined to get him electrocuted. Not that he's trying to judge, he just doesn't want to be there fo--

Church, Wash's voice slams in conspicuously out of nowhere.

<Oops.>

Church goes back to digging. He mostly finds the same bits of code over and over again before the outer firewalls kick in.

<We are unfocused.>

<Such is our nature.>

<Does it have to be?>

Yeah, the peanut gallery doesn't help. Maybe another AI could do more, one that isn't fuck-all number of people, but Church can only be what he is.

<Are we not more than that, at the moment?>

<We're nothing we can't handle.>

Church knows he’s unique -- <That’s putting it lightly.> -- but there’s nothing wrong with his code. Obviously. His code is just fine.

<That word is not often used to indicate actual-->

He's a little old, maybe, but that just means he's worked out the bugs. The biggest glitch has been handled, Church is fine, he's not about to break anything.

Iota cuts out the quarrel. <Let’s just do our best with what we have.> It's loud enough that Church is pretty sure Wash hears most of it. <We have quite a bit!>

Church focuses on digging through sand.

Scanner, transmitter, scanner, voltage gauge, scanner, ping, long-range transmitter, scanner, scanner, ping-ping, scanner-- ping-ping? Uh-oh.

Wash slows his pace, but doesn't stop. He tosses the empty juice box on the floor. Uh-oh, what uh-oh?

Wash is distracted when he rounds the next corner, and so doesn't see the platoon of readied and armed mercenaries -- all guns pointed at Wash -- until he's standing directly in front of them.

Uh-oh.

<Tracker.>

 

Chapter Text

Before the mercs have time to think, Church shoves in the direction they came and Wash dive-rolls back around the corner. A merc shouts "Fire!" and bullets whiz by and thump into the wall where he'd just been standing.

Combat and chases are not nearly as exciting for Church as they are for humans. Where Wash registers maybe half a dozen mercs before he's dodged out of sight, Church counts seven. While he's at it, he puts more work into that map of the ship. Idly, he wonders if the logo on one of the merc's bandannas is a personal fashion statement, or for a Grifball team that Church hasn't bothered to pay attention to. While Wash gets to his feet and starts running, he gets the barest glimpse of what's lodged in the wall and Church can count seven projectiles. Three of the shots would have missed entirely, even if Wash had stood there like a dumbass. Delta highlights the shape and depth of the impact holes, which don't line up with how lead bullet holes usually look. They're too shallow.

<The recoil of the shots wasn't loud enough for standard rifle fire,> Delta points out.

<They're not bullets,> Church realizes.

<They must want us alive.>

Wash's auditory response lights up like he heard Church's brief exchange with “himself” -- that still makes Church a bit self-conscious, which is far more self-conscious than he's comfortable with -- but he doesn't have time to think anything back. Church has all the time in the world, but Wash has just enough time to focus on sprinting down the hall.

Church adds another piece to his record of the halls they've gone through. From the time they came to this floor, they've passed two dead ends, made three rights... he tries to pick apart from that where the best es--

<Not escaping.>

--where the best route to take their gentle fucking jog might be. He compares it to some layouts of ship models he remembers or has on hand, but they haven't seen enough for Church to get a clear picture. He needs more data or more time or both.

One of the mercs shouts "Halt!" after them, like some sort of mall cop. Church only barely resists distracting Wash with a smartass comment about his robbery of a convenience store. Batman will be so disappointed, when he gets here.

It's a good thing following orders isn't in the taser command list, because Wash doesn't even consider stopping. He does consider making a random right turn, to zigzag until he and the mercs are all horribly lost.

<A potentially viable strategy, if only to buy time.>

The need more than time, they need an advantage. <The stairwell,> Church suggests instead. Wash is thinking about long-term chases, and stairs are exhausting. <Stairwells are the best places for maps,> Church counters. <I'd only need a split second look at it.>

So Wash pulls to the left instead, back where they came. Wash is fast, but the stomping boots behind them don't fade away fast enough. When Wash makes the next turn they hear the pop of the rifle fire and something sharp slices his leg. He glances down just long enough to see a two inch tear in his suit and red leaking through.

Armor piercing tranqs, Wash realizes.

Church runs all the initial checks he can for any tranquilizer serum in Wash's system. He comes up clear in the literal second he takes to check, but he can't know for sure until more of his blood has had time to reach Wash’s brain (at which point it'll be too late to fix). At the very least, it's not enough to slow them down.

<You're good, keep going.>

Wash looks up. They remember, then, why they were running in the opposite direction before. The three mercs they'd left on the ground are still around. They haven't noticed Wash quite yet. The mustache merc and the knife merc are busy hauling the big guy off the ground.

Wash doesn’t slow down. Church picks up speed.

In the library of Wash's muscle memory, Church has found at least seven different options for taking three unsuspecting targets in passing with nothing more than a knife. Only two of those could possibly be considered non-violent. Of those two, only one is simple enough for him to make a hotkey out of before he actually needs it.

<It also appears to be the most complex option,> Delta points out. <It requires the most attention to detail.>

<It wouldn't be one "hotkey", but a series of them.>

They -- as in Church, plural -- know it's a rough spot when Sigma isn't ignored completely. <We would only be able to make the first "key".>

<And we can't communicate that fast.>

Whether by words or feelings or suggestions, communication takes time. A watched Grif could clean a dish faster than the world is moving, they still wouldn’t have time. The technology of the implants lets Church process much faster than Wash, but it's not disconnected from his biological processing speed. When Wash falls behind -- and he will, if Church can't pick a moveset to use -- and then tries to catch up, he gets disoriented, like he did in the stairwell.

This wouldn't be a problem if Wash had a suit, or even just a regular storage chip plugged in, or any other hardware Church could use. The other Freelancers never had this problem. Crowded completely in the same space, they can only run into each other. Wash's thoughts don't stick to and follow Church's thoughts; they veer off on their own (as thoughts are wont to do) only to bounce back again. The faster Church thinks, the worse it gets for him. He'll stumble, and they'll get caught.

<We'll get caught anyway if you don’t pick something.>

<Pointing that out doesn't make this any better,> Church snaps. He fanatically searches through maneuvers. He can do this, this is real, there has to be something-- He gets half an idea.

<I got it!>

Theta -- Church -- thinks, Wash's thoughts catch up, and they think together.

Comin' through!

Out of all the knife tricks, punches, and flips Wash can do, they pick none of them. Wash charges forward and he only needs one hand to vault over the big one and keep hauling ass.

And then Wash's thoughts drift away again,  wholly concentrated on running. That -- that thing they just did -- isn't supposed to happen. When that thing stops saving their asses, maybe Church will start caring.

They can see the door to the stairwell. There's more shouts and a series of pops, followed by the thud of bodies falling. Neither Wash nor Church are the least bit sorry about the mercs who just took a face full of tranq shots for them. Wash throws his bruised shoulder into shoving the stairwell door open without flinching.

Wash climbs and looks as far up as he can to scan the walls for something Church might recognize as a map. By the time he hits the next landing with another door, there's still nothing.

<Maybe just a bit higher.> Church prompts Wash to lean over the rail to look.

Wash doesn't even consider taking the suggestion. Years of his training argue, No time. There's also a vivid, first person, image (years old) of a man in black and red armor leaning over a stairwell rail above him and getting a bullet through the visor.

The door a floor below them slams open.

<Fuck.>

Wash shoves through the next door.

The new hall is twice as wide and has no people, but is far from empty. Storage crates and cargo boxes of all sizes are stacked along the walls. Wash wastes no more time on them than it takes to run by without tripping on anything.

The hall has more doors, the kind that roll down rather than push or pull, and more of them are open. Church spots packing labels in English for maintenance supplies and vehicle parts, and similar lists in Sangheili. Church catches enough of that he could start translating.

<I believe there are more pressing things.>

Church take's Delta's point and goes back to mapping. He measures panels, counts doors, double checks angles. By the time Church hears stairwell door getting kicked open and Wash turns the next available corner, he’s got the list of three hundred and seventy six potential ship models narrowed down to forty one.

Boots don’t immediately pound after them. Maybe Wash ducked out of sight in time that the mercs don't know where exactly they are. Wash runs past another open door and considers ducking inside to hide until they pass.

<Not an unreasonable course of action. However, the chance of success is not optimal.>

Church forgets for a moment that Wash can't hear everything Delta says. Wash starts to slow down to turn before Church tugs him back to full speed.

<Keep going, I'm working on something.>

Wash sprints past the door.

<I've been making my own map of this thing, and I think-->

"Just tell me when to turn!" Wash pants out loud.

<Left!>

Wash pulls an immediate left into a dead-end hallway.

<One of sixteen possible models, then,> Delta notes.

Before Wash can panic, Church urges him to keep going. There's a window-sized hatch in the wall at the end of the hall.

Is that a trash chute? Wash asks while making a dead sprint for it. Wash gets his own impulse to jump into it and no hesitation to follow that up.

<I know,> Church says forlornly. He thinks only about the Reds when he says, <Enemy territory.>

<Based on the size and depth of the hatch, we can narrow the possibilities down to nine likely options. You may want to inform Washington of the risks on models four and seven.>

Church considers an old list of phobias and cringes. <I think he's about to figure it out.>

Wash yanks the hatch open and looks down. There are (reasonably) no lights in a trash chute, so there's a short distance before the hole fades to complete darkness.

Church registers the sensation of Wash's stomach dropping.

<Still afraid of heights?> Church teases.

As if you could ever understand that, Wash shoots back. Which, fair point. So long as his drive is less than four hundred years old, it's not like he'd ever break, and vertigo's for meat carriers.

<First? Point: synthetics. Second: I don't know, I think you shitting your pants just now game me a pretty good idea.> Speaking of vertigo, Wash's fades the more Church talks. Mockery in high-risk scenarios seems to calm him down for some reason. (Maybe that’s why he gets along with Tucker and the Reds so well.) <Now are you getting in there or not?>

Wash swallows, takes a deep breath, holds it, sits down on the ledge and swings his legs inside.

<It shouldn't be a very long-->

Wash drops.

In the seconds they fall, Church feels a lot of ways (<He really trusts us.> <He appears to be short for his own options.> <Clearly not as collected as he lets himself appear.> <Maybe we really could-->) that he's not going to think about because fuck emotions.

<Yeah,> Gamma encourages ironically.

<Fuck you in particular.>

<Technically, Gamma is not-->

<Does it look like we have time for this?>

Seven feet down, Wash lands. He automatically moves to roll forward and almost headbutts the wall of the chute. Then his feet start to slip -- the surface he landed on slopes down behind him. His arms shoot out to his sides and he stops before he can fully fall. He looks up. The light doesn’t reach much further than the hatch it comes through, just over a foot above his head. They can't see where it is behind him, Wash can barely see his own hands, but Church manages a measure of the chute.

<Less than four square feet.>

Through the hatch, the merc's calls get louder.

<They've rounded the corner.>

<Get down!>

Wash has just enough space to turn around and crouch. Church does his best to boost Wash's understanding of the space, but the pitch black is intimidating. (It actually gives Church an idea, but he can put Delta on it later.)

Wash just barely manages to fit the radio between his teeth, and Church learns what plastic tastes like. Not a great review; zero stars on Space Yelp. Wash keeps his hands on the walls and blindly finds the top of where chute turns to slope sideways. With his free hand he stabs the knife up into the thin metal. He gets most of the blade into it, and it doesn't cut up or down when he wiggles it. So he leans back and lets his legs slide down the chute. When the knife reaches his chest level, he locks himself in place by pulling in his knees and pressing his feet to the metal above him.

With luck he won't have to hold this for long. Church knows that on a good day this would be pretty simple for Agent Washington, if not easy. Today is not a good day. Holding himself at an eighty degree angle on a surface designed not to stick to things is probably pretty low on the doctor recommended activities for recovering from forced muscle spasms.

For now, at least, he seems to have it down. At the calculated risk of distracting him, Church asks,  <How the fuck are you this strong? Don't say leg-->

Leg day.

Strangely echoed by the chute, a voice comes from the hall above them. "Hey, why's this open?" Bootsteps get closer. Wash tucks his head to his chest. Church is mostly sure he's far enough down the turn they won't be seen. At least, Wash can't see the light from the hatch above them anymore, even if he leans his head back.

Suddenly the whole chute echoes with, "Hey! Asshole!" Wash's breath catches and he holds it. "You down there?" There's a thump and the same guy goes, "Ow!"

Another merc says, "What do you think he's gonna do? Climb back up?"

Wash breathes again. He opens his eyes and risks twisting his head around. The dim light of a distant flashlight flashing across the chute walls puts spots in his eyes. We'd rather hang out here for a bit, thanks.

That's barely true, Wash thinks. His shoulders start to shake.

<Never said we couldn't lie.>

"You don't think he jumped down there, do you?" the second voice asks.

"The tracker has him right here."

Mockingly, the second merc suggests. "Did you check up? "

"You think he climbed it?" the first one wonders sincerely. The light disappears, presumably to look up.

<Their tracking receiver doesn't account for direction, only distance.> Delta deduces. Church lets him run through potential orbital tracking systems, just to keep him busy.

"No, dumbass, I don't really think that."

"Hey, you never know! He's a Freelancer. I hear even Spartans thought they were nuts."

The hatch door suddenly slams shut and the response, "Explain to me again..." fades before they can catch the end of it.

They're left in total darkness. Wash jiggles the knife a little, considering how much force it will take to pry loose. Might be easier if he didn't have a mouth full of dirty plastic radio.

<Just drop it,> Church suggests. <They clearly know you have it, or we'd have heard them use it by now.>

All I have is a knife and a radio, Wash says. I'm not giving up half my assets.

<Hey, you've got me,> Church says, not actually offended.

You know I wasn't counting you.

Church does know. The joke doesn't land as well when they both know that. Church doesn't let himself consider how much of his comedy is built on performed disdain.

<We're headed just a bit further down. Have you seen Die Hard?>

No?

<Oh, okay, don't worry about it.>

Very, very, carefully fumbling for the next hatch in the dark is less than a good time. The next room should be empty, and it'll suck Red balls of its not, but Wash can't shimmy forever. The maneuvers which Wash achieves in order to get back out of the chute are both impressive and hilarious, and Church is pretty sure his greatest regret about this whole misadventure is going to be not having an external camera.

The room Wash stumbles into is the size Church expected; it's not much bigger than a broom closet. It's empty of people, also as he expected. From the floor he looks around enough to know the room is empty of anything but some chairs and littered granola wrappers before just dropping his head. He only allows himself a few seconds before pulling up to his feet. Church can't help but notice he leans against the wall as he does. He knows the running and the climbing didn't wear Wash out too much -- he is hungry, though -- but he also knows Wash is still unsteady. Off-balance.

Nothing he can do about that. So, the room. Why are there chairs in here? <What the hell is this layout?> Church commentates while Wash shakes out his shoulders. They've won some more time. A few minutes, at most, while the mercs travel the conventional way.

All of the available ship models have space designated for rec rooms far better than this. Rooms with windows and space for a couch and plugs for a vending machine and shit. At least with the room details -- two doors, one with a heavy lock, a vent near the floor, and a panel in the ceiling that could be moved -- confirm what model ship they're probably on. Model four. That's good. They're not much further from -- Theta elbows him the in the conceptual ribs -- something they can work with.  

<What are they doing with every other room that this is where they're hanging out?>

<I'll start on the next step.>

Church hesitates. The idea seemed good back in the chute, but he doesn’t think Wash’ll go for it. So he says, <Thanks, D,> and lets Delta get on it.

Wash holds his ankle up to his butt and wow that stretch actually does feel nice. Wash seems to recognize Delta has said something, but Church is pretty sure he didn't hear most of it. He only responds to what Church -- Epsilon -- said to him. "It looks like they turned the upper decks into cargo transport," he suggests. "They have to be getting all the alien tech off-world and past customs inspections somehow."

<It's interesting that they'd choose such a smuggling ship to transport us.>

Church created an entire new subroutine to keep Wash from hearing Sigma, but it's a decent point. <That makes us cargo, doesn't it?>

Wash bends his leg in a funny "stretching" direction one more time. Everything moves just fine, but Church catches the muscle twitching. He really needs to stop getting electrocuted. "I think Felix made that pretty clear," he says.

Church grumbles (<Perhaps now we can show the weasel what true strength looks like.>) but lets the topic go to build the rest of his map. All he has to do is overlap what he's already built with the blueprint he already has, and there's still some adrenaline left from the heights thing, so it takes about fourth of a fourth of a second to finish.

He gives Wash the best impression he can of the layout -- it's a mid-sized transport, plenty smaller than the Merope, plenty bigger than a pelican. Now that they're out of the chute, he feels it's safe to say, <Y’know some of that vertigo was probably warranted, as far as human safety alerts go. The trash chutes on these things do lead out into space.>

Wash shivers. He says, "You’re the worst," but there's no heat in it. He points at the door in front of him, the one with the keypad. "This one?" Delta starts to run a much bigger string of numbers than Church initially planned on. It must be pretty loud, even if Wash can't hear it clearly, because he takes notice of the door that Delta's focused on, the one with the lock, and steps up to it. He points to it. "This one?"

<Yeah, that one.>

Wash taps the screen on the pad and it lights up.

<This should be a tertiary engine room. Mostly empty, but finicky enough stuff that it has its own emergency…> He grasps around for an innocent word. <Measures. From there-->

"We can do absolutely nothing," Wash says forcefully, to Church and to himself.

<Right. Absolutely nothing. Just innocently chill out.>

Wash, fiddling with the lock, actually recognizes the model without Church telling him and quietly groans. He finds the code entry screen quickly and doesn't bother trying to guess. He holds a few buttons down and the projector lights in the corners of the panel kick on. A holographic mass of light starts swirling.

Wash's thoughts are loud. It's been literal years since he's looked at a holographic lock, apparently. York always said it's just a logic puzzle, Wash thinks. An aggressive, evolving logic puzzle that, at the end of the day, was probably designed to make you cry like a baby.

Church is pretty sure Wash doesn't know he thought that "out loud".

Delta pauses in the task he's been running. He's pretty much done with it, but that's not why he stops. Delta is distracted by Wash, like how he turned Theta's attention and then didn't let it go. Church turns Delta around and puts him back to work finishing his scripts. Wash doesn't seem to notice. It all goes by in less than a second.

To Wash, Church says, <I would help you punch through it, but, uh...> He collects himself as if to jump into the lock, and gets as far as half a second of preparation and four out of seven fragments collected before the kill-script from the chip kicks in. Wash's vision blurs and vertigo hits him hard, knocking the room into a  tailspin. Church does his best to smooth that out as an apology. <Kinda stuck.>

So Wash flicks the lock and starts swiping away protocols and barriers on his own. "Maybe don't do that again," he suggests.

<Yeah.>

At the risk of sounding dramatic, humans take forever to hack locks. Wash has had training in it, all Freelancers did, but it's been a while, and that's putting it gently. As he goes, Wash remembers patterns that are supposed to line up, and pathways that are supposed to go certain directions (Church corrects a few), and if Wash could just take a minute maybe he'll remember his fucking left from his right, but they don't have a minute.

<You still don't get you left and right straight?>

Shut up, I'm--

<Yeah, ambidextrous, that excuse is getting real weak, man.>

Wash goes to swipe left and swipes right instead. Church apologizes by shutting up.

"We don't have time for this," Wash grumbles. His eyes flit to the other door, which Church knows leads to the hall which leads to the stairwell, which leads to the mercs.

In the background, Delta finishes his homework. <If I might assist?> he says, but he doesn't just say it to Church. Wash's brain responds to more of Delta's speech than it usually does, like he heard most of it.

"That's--" Wash hesitates and misses a few passes at the lock. Wash gets that funny feeling in his gut that Church is learning to catalog as anxiety. "That's okay, Delta, I got it."

<If you're certain.> Wash's audio processing still doesn't fully latch on and respond like he's hearing everything, but Delta is undeterred. If anything, Delta is encouraged. Wash's response proves he is processing 56% more of his speech than before. Almost 76% the capacity to which Wash has been hearing Theta. <We have many protocols on lock hacking which could prove useful. I believe we may even-->

"I'll live, Delta, really."

This is not discouraging to Delta. It should be, because the script he just flung together is badass, but that barely feels relevant anymore. <If you insist.>

Wash's voice is steadier than his thoughts. "I do."

Wash goes back to the lock, and Epsilon gives Delta a hard shove. <You're freaking him out,> Church says (to himself) where Wash can't hear.

Delta doesn't speak up again. He's not exactly disappointed, either. Church thinks he maybe needs to unpack a feeling.

He certainly has the time. That anxious rock Wash is carrying wears on his hacking. His hands feel slow(er than they already are). In between small reminders on how hacking works ( left, for the love of god) Church decides to re-evaluate his insult library instead. He'd been cooking up a good one for Tucker while sitting in Wash's pocket on that mission they were supposed to be pulling off without a hitch. Maybe he can find whatever script was leading to that in his junk files.

Church reaches for it only to find Gamma with hands almost empty, save for broken bits of code. Motherfucker, that virus really took out a chunk of him. Well, at least he'll have something to do on this nightmare road trip.

Except...

Church turns his attention back outside. Wash is almost through, but every second counts and they've already wasted thirteen. Which is, like, a million. <...we don't actually have all day,> he says.

Wash experiences a wave of sympathy directed at someone who's not Church, and a wave of irritation directed at someone that is Church. "Would you give me like seven seconds--" and then the lock flashes green and disappears, and the door whooshes open.

Wash practically jumps inside and punches the adjacent panel to shut the door behind them.

Church lets Wash get them further into the room while he goes for more precise numbers, but there are so many variables involved, so many unknowns related to their condition alone, that he gives up on giving Wash a number that would inspire any confidence. Might as well just keep moving. Telling Wash about the escape pod in the room -- <Which definitely doesn't mean we're going to use it, just because it's there. We could do plenty of other things in here.> -- is a shock risk, but, hey, they made it this far. That's already light years further than any realistic expectation. So. Go team.

But when Church turns his attention back to Wash, he hasn't even found the light switch yet. He's crouched next to the door with his head on his knee, breathing even but heavy. Church watches him give himself a mental sitrep, cataloging what hurts -- shoulder aches, leg stings -- and what he has on him -- radio, bodysuit, knife. When he comes to Church, Church says, <Wash?>

Wash hauls himself to his feet like he’s been caught and wordlessly sends strong I’m Fine vibes in Church’s sceptical direction.  Church believes that about as much as he believes that Tucker wasn't a virgin when they met. He also knows that as much as Wash deserves to be coddled he hates to be coddled, so Church makes a point of settling back in.  

"This can't work forever," is as much as Wash will admit.

Wash feels around the wall for a light switch, and Church lets it go.

<Why not? Did you ever see North's file? Dude got away with exactly everything based on intention.> Church makes an exaggerated throat clearing noise (because it's fun) and does his best impression of a sloth flirting. <'Agent North, what exactly was your reasoning behind the vivisection you performed today?'>

Wash gags, and articulates, Gross, so Church knows he nailed his Counselor impression.

<'Well, you see, Counselor, I was only trying to protect my sister. We are authorized to use force deemed necessary in the moment in order to protect and support our teammates, right? It was -- haha -- quite a moment!’>

Wash isn't as impressed with Church's Agent North impression -- too plain, and missing something genuine. Wash also swallows a sour taste that comes from nothing. It's crazy how the human brain fakes tangible awful things based on emotional awful things.

"Got something to say to that, Theta?" Wash asks. Then, for a moment, he's embarrassed, like he forgot Church's Theta never met North.

But then: <North was a great brother.>

<Fucking  hell.>

<I wish I could have been North's sibling!>

<You don't think Wash would vivisect a man for you?>

Theta contemplates. <Nah, he's not that brutal.>

Wash says, "Thanks," sarcastically.

Theta says, <No offense,> sincerely.

"None taken."

Wash's hand finds the light switch. He blinks as his eyes adjust.

The fact that this room houses delicate -- if rarely maintenanced -- backup engine components and vital console displays makes the number of crates and boxes in here scream “fire hazard”. They can't even see the engine consoles. The lights are dim and line the walls at waist height, casting odd shadows. The ceiling, where lights are supposed to go, is a twisted maze of pipes and tubes, some of which follow down the walls and into the floor. Wash can't tell how high the actual ceiling is. Church knows it’s about thirteen feet up, behind three feet of piping knots.

The boxes in here are much less organized. Church spots messy red labels scribbled on most of them. Wash glances at the boxes as he weaves between them to reach the opposite wall. As he goes, Church sees the red letters again and again. They're mostly numbers, except for two letters they all share. “KC”. It's on a skinny box, six feet tall. It's on a rifle case. It's on a basic crate. It's on all of these boxes, what is that?

<Distracting, mostly.>

Wash hasn't noticed them, so Church tries not to get hung up on it. It's about to not matter anyway.

<Okay so, in case you're curious, there's an interesting red -- I know, I know -- door at the back here. It's--> There it is again. Church can't help himself. <Hey, sidebar, what's "KC" stand for?>

Wash double takes. "What?"

<It's on, like, all these boxes.> The familiarity part of Wash's brain sparks. <You recognize it?>

Wash stops at one of the boxes and finds a label. “KC-22.” The other numbers look like a date, a recent one. Wash’s heart rate picks up. He starts looking around at the other boxes, checking the dates. Slowly at first, then more frantic.

Church can't read enough details from Wash’s thoughts to get on board with what's happening. <Gonna fill me in here?>

Wash shoves a smaller box out of the way. During the war, some soldiers would keep track of how many aliens they’d taken out. Flaunt it around like a badge, he explains. He stops when he uncovers the next crate.

This one has today's date (or the date for whatever day they got caught) and "KC-7" scrawled in red marker. Wash stares at the "KC" and he remembers something. Whatever it is, it causes his emotions to flat-line.

Something dark beats instead.

<Wash?>

"It stands for Kill Count."

That dark thing beats again. It reminds Church of particular part of himself that he doesn't like. (<Coward.>) He shoves the idea of the stupid red door back to the front of Wash's mind. <Hey, so we should probably-->

Wash undoes the latches, gets his fingers under the lid of the crate, and hauls it open. Inside there's a disorganized pile of armor pieces crammed around a sniper rifle, a BR, and a loose radio. All the mercs and pirates wear armor in black and grey and in good condition. This armor is all tan and white, dirty and smudged. Wash scrapes his fingers over a smudge on a bracer, and lifts his hand back into the light. The residue on his hand is flaky and brown.

Dried blood.

There's a helmet on the top of the pile, white with blue stripes. Wash turns it to see the visor, and finds the small cyclops eye, standard for the Federal Army of Chorus. The glass splinters over the eye, radiant from an inch-wide hole. Wash runs his fingers over the cracks and they both realize what these boxes are; what the numbers mean.

Trophies.

Okay. Look. It’s not that Church doesn’t understand how horrifically shitty the situation on Chorus is/was/has been. It's just that the entire premise of their scenario is fucked up on a scale so cosmically super-villainous that if Church had been told about it second-hand, he’d probably have cracked an inappropriate joke about it.

But Wash recognizes this helmet, this particular helmet. He’d been standing beside the man wearing it less than a day ago.

But there's nothing they can do about it now.

They're dead. They have to move on. Wash understands that better than most people.

...but the killers are on this ship.

Maybe not. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of mercs and pirates.

What's the difference?

There's nothing they can do about it, anyway. They can't fight, not really.

<We can't just kill everyo-->

{--ZZRR$%^*$(RR@#(%TT--}

Church reorients to Wash on a knee. He has one hand gripping the edge of the crate, keeping him from falling. Wash is remembering something.

"Why not?" Wash's brain circles like it's looking for an answer to an old question. One he never found.

That dark feeling -- thing -- is still there. Church is pretty sure it wasn't there before; last time. (<You're not who you were before, either.>) Church defines it as its own thing because Wash's brain almost entirely rewires wherever it goes. His emotions suddenly read flat, his thoughts beat a steady line, and he seems to forget everything other than what's in front of him. All he sees is the bloody helmet. The one, broken, eye.

When York lost his eye, right before AI distribution began, some of the scientists were worried. He was already recovering from a major physical trauma. How would that affect the integration of another mind?

According to the files at the offsite storage facilities, Delta had improved Agent York's ability to recover and then some. Delta could steer the reorganization of his brain to lean on his remaining senses. The results of more than a dozen tests showed that York's ability to compensate for his blind spot were more than adequate to keep his place on the leaderboard as Carolina's number two.

The only complication: the senses the compensation required were muffled by his armor. Out of armor, York with Delta and one eye was even better than York with two. Trapped inside a suit, Delta had to be his second eye.

Wash remembers blowing up York's armor, and it almost feels good.

Church gets an idea.

<There may be a way.>

Wash looks up, startled out of his own thoughts. Delta keeps going, and Wash sticks to it.

There is a difference in thought between destroying an object and attacking a human. A similar kind of difference soldiers took to killing aliens. The chip's responses appear to be formatted after attacking humans.

Wash flinches away. Are you talking about rewiring my mind?

<Not so drastic. Simply making use of what changes are already there. If we did attempt something more extreme, is that not done every day? The mind must adapt to changes in environment, and state of mind, and state of body. It adapts around pain, and compensates for lost senses.>

We've already out-maneuvered the program by simple avoidance of expectation. What's one more attempt? We need only function long enough to make the right trap; to be efficient. What do we have to lose?

Wash considers. He puts a hand on the helmet. The way his nails scrape the metal is unpleasant. They want us alive.

<You could still get hurt.>

I can handle pain.

In the attempt, we stand to gain further understanding of our circumstances and ability to cope. Not to mention justice.

It's only logical.

Wash lifts the helmet out of the crate.

"Eye for an eye."

 

---

 

It takes just enough time for the mercs to track down the right room. The lights are off when the enter, and one switches them on. There's nothing in the room to immediately catch their eye. Wash counts their boot steps as they move into the room.

Five pairs.

Wash double-checks the frequency on his new radio. This won't work if it can't keep the merc's radio frequency, but at least he knows how to change the frequency on a Fed radio. He rubs at the dried blood on the base, that he can barely see in his hiding spot, until it flakes. He lets the faces of soldiers who’s names he still can't remember make him numb. Church keeps an ear out.

Now.

Wash pushes the talk button. "For the record..."

The knife-merc's radio, plugged into a secondary speaker with it's volume turned up as high as it can go, projects across the whole room. Wash hears the mercs pause.

"I met a couple Spartans; got to know one."

The sound of movement starts up again. For each tap of a footfall, and each shuffle and thump of armor moving, a blueprint sketches out in Wash’s mind. With every placed echo and reverberation, he feels microseconds get clocked between his ears and variations in weight and movement identified. He can’t see the mercs, but he knows where they are. Fifteen steps from the target zone.

There's a large pipe, more than four feet in diameter, which runs under the ceiling. The steps pass under it as they mark toward the voice they hear. Wash adjusts how he's laying on said pipe, tucks one leg under the other to get ready to roll over.

"He was better than most of us --" (<-iet--lways ro--vement-->) "--had biceps bigger than my head. Oh, one time I saw him grab a guy's helmet like a basketball and throw him."

Ten steps... nine steps... eight steps...

Wash rolls silently to his setup, and he can see them. Five armored mercs, guns raised, approach the loudest source of Wash's voice. They stop at the white helmet with a broken cyclops eye and a brown smear down the side. Several wires stick out from the rush job of connecting a cheap radio to the helmet's broadcast speakers. Most of the jerry-rig is hidden under the helmet. Wash himself can only barely see the slowly flashing red light of a dangerously overcharged armor battery.

Wash levels his eye behind the sight of the New sniper rifle. This room is hardly big enough to warrant it, but beggars can't be choosers. It was the only one with a bullet left in the chamber.

<67% chance of a successful shot,> Delta says as he aims down through the shadows. <Though there is room for improvement.>

Wash stops trying to maneuver the shot around the merc who wanders into what had been his line of sight. He makes an estimate around the guy’s shoulder. He's in the way. Maybe he'll move. It's not like we want to waste a bullet on him.

Not as though these monsters are people, anyway.

Delta put something together earlier, Wash knows. Something that would help hack a lock, and maybe a few other things. Wash doesn't know what it is, but he knows it's the same thing Delta comes forward with now. <May I?> he asks.

It feels like Church has his hands over a button or a joystick, waiting for Wash's go ahead for whatever it is. Wash catches Church side-eyeing (as much as a computer program without his own set of eyes can side-eye) his emotions a lot, but Church has got plenty of trepidation of his own. Wash knows ten minutes ago that might have meant more to him. Right now, he just wants to make this shot.

He say, Do it.

<Blink.>

Wash blinks. Suddenly a red circle and a red dot are floating over his light of sight. They're familiar, like an aiming assist in a HUD. Wash adjusts until the dot lines up with the center of the circle and they flash green.

Some of the mercs look around the rest of the room. Can't have them wandering off. Into the radio, Wash says, "He said I was cool once."

Fire.

Wash pulls the trigger-- Crack

The bullet rips right through the merc's shoulder, out the other side, and--

BOOM

The initial flash is temporarily blinding. Mercs shout in surprise and -- hopefully -- because they've just been impaled with helmet shrapnel--

{--ZZ$5RT-- Wash barely feels the shock, but Church is scrambled. Wash's balance tips, almost dropping him off his perch, but Church recovers. As he does, Wash looks down. Two mercs down, two getting up, one right below us. As Wash regains his balance he lets go of the sniper rifle to grab a pipe with both hands. There’s a crack of the merc’s helmet denting.

With one hand, Wash grabs the knife from where he'd stabbed it into the ceiling. With the other, he holds onto the steadying pipe to let go with his feet and let himself dangle. Adjust forward 36%. He drops and the merc's shoulders make excellent landing pads. He rolls forward as the merc falls, before he can lose his own balance -- right into the personal space of another.

Wash wants to do something about the one in front of him, but then a red triangle, pointing left, flashes across his center vision.

As a person who's spent a major chunk of his life responding to the proximity alarms on his HUD, rolling right is second nature. Instinct. He hears a pop and when he looks up the merc that had been in front of him has a tranq dart in his leg. Behind Wash, there's another one on the ground with a shredded piece of helmet the size of a dinner plate sticking out of his side. He's barely holding his gun up. Low priority.

The tranqed merc drops next to him, over the scorch marks on the floor where the helmet exploded. Lower priority.

Wash hears something to his right just before another red triangle pops into his vision, pointing in that direction. Shield-- Wash snatches the downed merc and puts their body between him and the noise--

Thmp-thmp-thmp-- something hits the back of the merc's chest-plate. Then Wash's body moves without him. (<Hotkey.>) The knife sails out of his hand in the direction of the shot. It makes contact in time with a shout. By the time Wash gets a better look over the tranqed merc's limp body, the last merc is falling back with a knife hilt sticking out over the collar of his armor.

Count: two bleeding out, one joining them, one unconscious, last--

Full body weight lands on Wash from behind. Before he can push away, arms wrap around his neck and shoulders and pull back. Every arm-lock has the briefest moment of weakness, if Wash can--

{--ZZ$&%334%^^&$RRTT--}

God that hurts.

The lock around his neck doesn't loosen. It's harder to get your breath back when your windpipe is restricted.

<Their armor must not conduct electricity.>

<I didn't set up anything for a headlock!>

The lock tightens under his jaw and his next breath comes out as a choke. Wash scrambles at the gauntlets but can't out-muscle the armor.

"Just" --the merc grunts and pulls even tighter-- "give up already."

Wash's vision starts going gray at the edges. He feels Church panic as his inputs start getting cut off.

Calm down, Wash tells him (even though he can't breath). You're 90% brain. Think.

Church takes something in that to heart. Wash feels what he thinks is subroutines refreshing and then, this time, the arrow that flashes over Wash's vision is green. Immobile, Wash has a moment to process that he's been seeing visual alerts even though he's not wearing a helmet.

I'm hallucinating.

<Technically, yes.> On either side of the arrow, something else blinks onto his vision. The figures of Delta and Theta -- detailed like the versions he saw in the dream -- wave at him. The Delta one points down.

He follows the arrow down with his eyes and it tracks with him. When his eyes hit the unconscious merc, the palm-sized darts stuck in his chest plate flash green. The flashing stops quickly and closest one continues to glow. Wash reaches for it.

This tips of his fingers glance off the top of it. He chokes on another breath. The light on the dart -- the light that was never really there -- disappears. The grey edge around his vision turn to spots. The tips of his fingers and his toes feel strange. He reaches again and barely feels the dart--

Then, at the volume of a scream: <Don't pass out!>

With one desperate push, Wash yanks forward in the merc's grip closes his fist around whatever he finds, wrenches that back and jams it into the merc's leg.

"Fuck!"

The lock around his throat releases all at once. Wash's entire chest expands with a breath and he falls forward. His head feels lighter than it has all day while he coughs. The moment he's able, mid-cough, he turns around. The merc who'd been choking him -- the one he'd dropped on -- is laying still on the ground, a bloody tranq dart half-rolled out of his hand.

<Holy shit that's a needle.>

<More than two inches.>

Delta's voice is crystal clear. Wash knows that's significant in a way he doesn't understand yet. For now Wash pulls himself up to stretch his lungs. He stands over five downed mercenaries, one of which still makes small motions as he bleeds from the neck. Wash pays him no mind, he'd probably get zapped for the courtesy of a mercy shot. Assuming he could manage to pick up another loaded gun.

Wash inhales and the room tastes like blood. It's not a new smell, but it reminds him of the first time he'd been overwhelmed with it. He only remembers the injuries he'd gotten from the two weeks he'd spent in recovery.

He doesn't remember most of his first real gone-to-shit mission, just flashes of the end. Horrible, bubbling, pain in his chest, blood in his mouth, and York at his shoulder.  They weren't back at the MoI yet, but York had his helmet off (smashed the visor again, he'd learned later; reckless behavior in the field) and a generous amount of red causing his hair to stick up, but no mark or scar for where it might have come from. For such a shit-show, his eyes were clear, and Wash had passed out feeling safe.

"Rest easy, man," he'd said. "I got 'em."

The last merc stops twitching. The merc with the shrapnel in his side is about as with it as his friends; that is to say: not at all. For a moment there's just the hiss of some loose pipe in the room and Wash feeling his heartbeat slow.

<Wash...>

Wash doesn't startle when Church talks, but it does pull him back. Wash shakes his head to clear it.

<You okay?>

Sitrep: shoulder still sore, leg doesn't sting so much, throat definitely going to bruise. Still standing, team-mate still good, if tense. Yeah, he's good.

"How's it feel, Church?"

Church's thoughts swing a concerned and confused, <Huh?>

"How's it feel to actually land a shot?"

Church relaxes and it feels like a pinch releasing. <Oh, har-har.>

Wash laughs. "I'm serious, Church. Y'know, with a little practice--"

<Hey, remember how we're floating on a ship miles above our friends and any semblance of back-up?>

Wash rolls his stiff shoulder with some measure of confidence. "I think we just bought ourselves at least a couple more seconds--"

Out of nowhere, the room turns up red. Emergency lights along the floor and the sudden drone of an alarm cuts the lightening mood like a hot energy sword.

Over some speaker in the wall, there's an announcement. "Attention, crew, this is your pilot speaking. One of you assholes decided to bust a main cooling line, which means we have about ten minutes before the engine gives out, we break atmosphere, and burn up during re-entry. So… thanks for that."

Uh-oh.

Wash looks up. He runs his eyes over the pipes as fast as he can, trusting Church will take it in faster than he will. Wash sees Church scanning the pipelines. One at a time, pipes light up green and Wash knows they're either unbroken or non-vital.

"How are you doing that?" Wash asks.

<Shut the hell up, which pipe was it?>

Finally a pipeline turns red. The colors disappear on Wash's next blink. The maze knot of pipes up there isn't any easier to look at than it was before the entire color pallet of the room made most details completely invisible, but Wash sees the source of the hissing noise: a piece of shrapnel from his helmet grenade.

<Remind me to ask why you can rig armor explode in under sixty seconds.>

Wash is already running for the far wall where the red door is supposed to be. "Shut the hell up, where's the escape pod?" He snatches the sniper rifle from the ground as he goes.

<Straight ahead!>

Absolutely no thought goes into reaching the red door and hauling the striped bar up to open the airlock. By the time Wash even considers the thought, Hey, we're actually escaping the shi--

{--ZZ%%^74#@45--}

--he collapses right into the pod. It's small, looks barely standard, and only has one seat. Not that he'd planned on going back for any of the mercs. He slams the button the shut the hatch. While Wash straps himself in, and the door hisses shut and blocks out the alarms, Wash sees Theta in front of him again. He knows Theta's not really there, and now that he really looks, this vision of Theta is set apart from a projection by more than just having a face. He's still partially transparent, but none of the light he appears to give off casts new shadows.

<Hey, Wash?> Projected AI usually had a slightly grainy tone to their voices, by nature of talking through speakers. Theta's voice is still securely in his own head, no matter how close to real it feels.

Still, it doesn't feel right to respond to something in front of him by thinking. So, out loud, he says, "Yeah?"

<Your sisters are very lucky.>

Wash swallows down how and why that makes him feel sad and chooses to smile. "Thanks, Theta.”

Church himself, helmet off but rifle in hand, appears next to Theta. <Yeah, just. Whatever you do, don't think about how far we're about to drop.>

Wash's entire chest clenches.

Delta pops in next to Church. <Assuming a standard sub-orbital distance from a planet of Chorus's size-->

Wash forcefully tunes him out. The pod has a small console of controls (there's not much a pod needs to do but go down, after all), at the center of which is a comically noticeable button with the word DROP on it.

Wash and Church have no idea where they're going to land. They could end up a few miles from Armonia, or on the other side of the planet; in the mountains, or in the ocean. Or maybe the pod will hit something even harder than it is and just break--

<Or we could burn up in a fiery explosion, push the button.>

Knuckles white with his grip on the straps, Wash closes his eyes and slams his hand down. Considering the mess they just left behind, and the bigger mess it's about to become, and the gasket that Locus is probably going to blow, the last thing they both think before Wash's stomach drops is: Worth it.

Chapter Text

beep-beep-beep-beep--

It occurs to Church that, as they are now, he has no idea what would happen to him if Wash dies. Would he just... turn off? Is that a thing he can do? He'd lose enormous chunks of code, at least. The technology exists to copy the brains of the dead, but that copy wouldn't really be him, would it? And then there'd be an AI version of Wash to contend with, assuming someone could even find his body in time before--

These thoughts are easily put aside in favor of rebuilding that insult list.

beep--beep--beep--beep--beep--

<Hey, Wash, what sounds better: "You scream like a hysterical monkey" or “If you sit in this chair any longer we may as well stick a gravestone up there.">

Wash isn't remotely impressed. Without opening his eyes, he says, “You hit your head on the way down? Seems pretty swollen, you should put some ice on it."

The subroutines which Church oh so generously allows to be called Gamma fill his head with monotone laughter.

That. Well, alright.

<We should probably request additional ice packs for burn damages.>

<Oh, don't you start.>

beep--beep--beep--beep--

To Wash, he says, <Can you turn that thing off?>

Wash slaps his hand around blindly until it hits the console. He must hit the right button, because the beeping stops. The console proceeds to make a sad, low, noise that, in computer terms, roughly translates to "hrrk-blegh."

Wash opens his eyes. The hatch door has a window. They didn't see it during the drop, for reasons of Wash spending most of it chanting don’t look don’t look don’t look to himself.

The temperature differential on the way down covered the glass in condensation. Wash reaches up, swipes his hand across it, and they see blue. Blue sky above white clouds above green tree leaves. Between that and them is the glass, on the glass they see Wash.

The reflection's not great. Church doesn’t exactly take in the details of Wash’s complexion all day, but he's paler than he should be. There's still a dark smudge under his nose they'd both forgotten about.

He looks alright. Considering.

Wash drops his arm and his head back against the seat. He's not dead. Still. Awesome.

Wash waves his finger in a little circle and lets out a, "Whoo."

Church's curiosity spins in the side of his brain. He wants to know where they are (<There are several climates on Chorus which could support green foliage this time of year.>), what happens next (<Where's the radio on this thing?>), what's out there (<Are we gonna get eaten?>). As far as Wash is concerned, whatever's out there isn't about to break a pod that survived dropping the entire atmosphere of Chorus, so it can wait three or thirty minutes before inflicting whatever new chaos awaits him. There's something he needs to know, first.

Wash holds his hand out in front of him. Church catches his idea, and Wash sees Theta flash to life, all blues and purples. There's no weight on Wash's hand -- no heat, rather -- but he sees Theta sitting there on the edge of his palm, kicking his feet back and forth.

"Should I be worried about this?" Wash asks.

Theta looks away in thought and then shrugs.

<Probably not?> Church says. Theta blinks out.

"Are you messing with my eyes somehow, or...?"

<Well, actually, visual hallucinations are--> Church cuts himself off from the diatribe. <Yeah, more or less. The part of your brain your eyes are hooked up to, anyway. I'm not seeing side-effects so far, but we probably shouldn't overuse it.>

Wash closes his eyes again. He's all kinds of sore and the seat is actually pretty comfortable. He feels Church's impatience so brightly it may as well be against his skin, as if a petulant child leaned against his side and slid down it while groaning.

<Low blow.>

Accurate blow, you are a child.

<In AI years, I'm, like, a billion. Listen to your elders.>

There's an ache in Wash's skull. It's faint, manageable, but it's there. Wash rubs at his eyes till he sees spots. He feels wrung out. His stomach is empty past the point of rumbling. He was sleeping less than an hour ago, but it feels like so much longer. It occurs to him that he has no idea what time it is.

<Since we don't know where we've landed, we cannot yet make an accurate assumption based on solar position.>

It was morning when they were captured. The blackout grenade (oh yeah, that's probably why that hurts) couldn't have had him out for more than an hour, maybe two. Unless they held him under for longer to make a drive that fits his ports.

<I've been keeping an eye out since the tranq nicked you, and I haven't found any solid evidence of drugs. It's been hours since you first woke up though, I'd need more than…> He somehow makes a gesture to all of Wash. <More than this to get a good look at this point. Hell, it might have just been a really strong black-out grenade they hit you with.>

So, an unknowable amount of time, then a "few hours" of sleeping sitting up in a hard cell, and then... How much time did that escape take?

<Based on your body's rate of function: approximately fifteen minutes between waking and releasing the pod,> Delta supplies helpfully. <Seventeen, at most.>

Wash hauls himself off the seat. The pod landed at an angle so that sitting upright against gravity has him practically hugging his knees. His muscles tighten in protest and he pushes through. "This is why we stretch." For a moment he almost wishes Tucker was here, just to prove a point. Tucker's never been up for stretching.

<What, I'm not enough company for you?>

The sniper rifle -- (<--pty, b--seless.>) -- got lodged between the the seat and the wall. He'll get to that in a minute.

"You've got a lot of voices, but you're only one person, Epsilon." Wash gets the best leverage he can on the door hatch.

A light bulb goes off in Wash’s head, but there's no revelation behind it. Whatever epiphany it is, it must be Church’s, but he doesn't share. He keeps talking like nothing’s changed. Wash can't prove that something has, anyway.

<What's the difference? Either way we can have an entire round table discussion in the Asscrack of Nowhere, Chorus.>

"The difference is that an actual round table discussion, that doesn't happen entirely in my head, doesn't make me wonder what kind of neural pathway it's lining up." Wash grunts as he makes the first turn on the hatch. A blue figure pops onto it, indifferently sitting against gravity.

<Meaning?>

Wash makes eye contact with Church's tiny face. "Meaning maybe I don't want to end up hallucinating you for the rest of my life."

Church rolls his eyes. <Oh, it's fine. Low risk, at worst,> he says with the utmost confidence. <Y'know, probably. As if I'm not the best part of any given day, anyway.>

Wash scoffs. He gives the lever another shove, right out from under Church's avatar, which blinks out.

<But we can play it careful, for your delicate sensibilities.>

"Gee, thanks."

<You're very welcome.>

The seal on the door hisses. Wash can feel warm air (<Southern hemisphere.>) leak inside. The door squeals dramatically as he shoves it open. The first piece of the outside Wash takes notice of is the smell of well watered greenery and damp dirt.

Then there's the enormous trees -- deciduous of some kind -- with a broken trail of branches -- large, even splinters -- where the pod crashed through. Half of a bush -- interesting berries, do they <have seeds--> -- is crushed under the pod. Something -- <--berries perhaps--> -- smells tangy -- <--sev--ssible--> --

Wash leans back heavily on the door frame. It's the stairwell all over again, turned up to a billion. He can't look everywhere, pay attention to everything, fast enough. He clamps his eyes shut but every rustle of leaves and sway of branches demands his attention like an elaborate symphony.

<Sorry,> Church says. <I think I can paint us a quick picture, but I need your eyes. Give me a minute?>

Wash risks opening his eyes a peak. He feels the analysis start to kick back up.

<--omething capable of hid-->

<--lc--agai-->

<--ise to interpret wildlife-->

"You ever taste barf before?"

Church's avatar pops back up to make a gagging face.

<--ushroom coul-->

"What happened to holding off on the hallucinations?"

<--consider the time of-->

<Oh, was that ‘not wanting to see my face every day’ bit not sarcasm?>

Wash levels him a dead look.

<I guess I'll do you the courtesy.> Church rolls his eyes, but doesn't vanish. The fake avatars aren't nauseating, at least.

<--recent precipitat-->

"How will I ever thank you?" Wash dead-pans.

<I accept payment in songs of worship and extravagant birthday surprises.>

"I'll mark my calendar," Wash tells him, with no intent to do so.

<That was pretty cool though, right?> He holds up a finger and a red dot appears above it. <The thing with the scope and the warning lights?>

Wash realizes Church is distracting him. The buzz of analytics is like a horrible itch. Scratching it -- (<--easonal-->) -- means taking his entire brain for another tea-cup spin. He focuses on the red dot; the conversation.

"Yeah," Wash says. He could think his responses, and Church no doubt picks up where Wash is going with his speech before he even gets to the end of his sentences, but articulating speech in his head is hardly second nature. "With the target rings, and the...?" He makes a vague hand motion.

The itch is horrible. It's like seeing a bug in his peripheral vision and wanting to look at it, even though he knows it'll be gone by the time he looks, except there's dozens of them. His eye wanders once --(<--position of the shadows-->) -- and his stomach tips.

<Yeah, that,> Church says, a tad forcefully, drawing him back.

"That was cool. I'd need a few times to get used to it, but it's probably more effective than a HUD."

<Y'think?> Church (and this is a weird way to describe it, but it's the only word Wash has) sparkles. He actually makes a little purple firework. Wash times a breath to it.

<--worth considering-->

"Well if I don't have to try and line my visor up with the scope--"

<Crunches down on space,> Church fills in.

<--always worth innova-->

<--ot believe you should be-->

"Yeah, that."

<See, that's what I thought! LED contacts were invented centuries ago, I don't know why-->

Church goes quiet all of a sudden. Seconds stretch out in relative silence. His avatar scowls.

"Church?"

Church startles. He looks at Wash, surprised, then shakes his little head (the lightbulb from earlier swings). <Sorry,> he says. <Got away from myself a bit, I'm good.> His avatar vanishes. <Done, by the way.>

The itch is gone. Wash sighs with relief. "What've we got?"

<Good news or bad news first?>

"Does the bad news involve immediate danger?"

<Define immediate.> There’s an impression; a wordless description. <No, not immediate.>

Wash turns back towards the interior of the pod to start pulling at where the sniper rifle is stuck. "Bad news, then."

Wash detects an eye-roll.

<That mission we're supposed to be on? Had to have been thirty hours ago, at least.>

Wash has to brace his foot against the back of the jump seat, and rifle comes free from the corner with a hard yank. Wash leans on it. Every lost second in hostile hands is bad. Thirty hours is a lot of seconds.

<One hundred and eight thousand seconds.>

"That's... pretty bad."

<Do you feel... probed?>

Wash doesn't like the way his voice pitches when he says, "No!"

Church shrugs it off. <Well, alright, then don't worry about it. In other horrible news: we're neck deep in the wilds of a planet that pretty much wants your species dead.>

Wash has been into the jungles and mountains of this planet before, that's not exactly news. "What's the good news?"

<The tracker isn’t getting any receiving pings. Wherever the receiver is, we’re out of range for now.>

<And, we're on the same continent that we left!>

At least one of those things is great to hear. "And how big is this continent?"

Wash hears the shifty-eyed :I emoji.

So: "Big."

<Really big.>

To work then.

<What did you do last time you got stranded on this planet?>

"Maybe if you guys stuck around, you'd know."

<Hey, we-->

"Yeah, I know, I know." Wash regrets bringing it up. "What you do, is you prioritize. We need food, we need some kind of communication, and we need to get this chip out of my head. What can we do first?"

<Well... maybe-->

Wash doesn't feel when Church presses his "hotkeys" (he really wishes they'd make another word for it), but he does feel when he writes them. He feels Church finish, and then his own hand moves towards the back of his neck--

{--ZZR3$4%%^##1!!@--}

Wash comes to sprawled back across the jump seat and with Church swearing loudly in his metaphorical ear.

<Right up the middle of the fuckin’... Whelp. I guess the protocols on that one are a bit tighter.>

"Ow."

Rather than an apology, Church says, <So…> He nudges around the pod. <There's gotta be a communicator in this thing, right?>

---

First: the entire console of the pod is dead. Even though Wash can't find any damage on the outside, at least not above the ground.

Second: there's a latched drawer under the jump seat with an emergency med-kit inside. There's also a six pack of water and a pack of granola some genocidal asshole already picked half the bars out of.

Church catalogs the entire kit at a glance, and tells him to move on. Wash sits himself down on the door frame where he has a good vantage point, grabs a band-aid to slap on his leg, and sets to do the work himself. Not like they're rushing anywhere, and the granola's not about to digest itself. The rifle is empty, but he could still hit things with it. He keeps it close.

The jungle is mostly quiet. Every once in a while, there's a rustle in the bushes, or an echoing... something in the distance, but nothing approaches. Whatever's out there probably isn't used to a giant metal pod in the middle of the woods.

There's a strange sensation in Wash's head, as he counts suture needles. It takes him a while to put words to the recognition. Years ago, he’d gotten a tooth pulled, and afterwards his tongue kept going back over the empty spot. He'd wanted there to be a tooth there, but there wasn't. This isn't quite the same as that, there's a level of curiosity to it. Wash knows the feeling is coming from Church. For a very short while he figures Church will tell him whatever it is.

Church pays it no mind. He says a lot of things, because he's always saying a lot of things.

<Hey, do you ever think about what it must have been like for the patient of the dude who invented stitches? Probably felt like a bloody stuffed animal. That'd be a crazy story to tell at parties. “Did I tell you about the time I cut my hand on a knife and all we had was my kid’s Teddy bear kit?” Assuming he survived, I guess. Pretty sure being sanitary wasn't invented until after… I don't know, I don't keep a lot of random history stuff.>

Wash tunes it out like he tunes out Caboose sometimes.

Church does his best approximation of a shove for attention. <Excuse you.> Wash thinks he hears Church thumb through a list of other things to ramble about, like a stack of notecards getting flipped through. When Church stops, Wash suddenly remembers, vividly, how he wired the helmet to explode the pirates faces back on the ship. <Oh, yeah, why do you have so much info on explosives up here?>

Wash puts the gauze back and clamps the kit shut. (<Our inventories match perfectly.>) "The Recovery Force was big on 'if I can't have it, no one can'," he answers easily. "Our armor was all built to our body types. They figured it wasn't really worth hauling back and storing if they couldn't use it."

<More like they didn't want anyone stealing it.>

"Exactly. Couldn't leave behind bodies, either, with all the tech wired into our brains."

<So you blew it up? Feels extreme.>

"The wires to cross are pretty standard for most modern armor models, and even some vehicles. It's a pretty universal method for blowing stuff up, actually. Even easier if you can overcharge the power core with something." Wash feels Church tune out by the last sentence.

Wash hops down into the pod and tucks the kit into a corner. Church focuses on something else. He says, <You've got a pretty lucky body type then, huh?>

On his way to finding a good angle to rip the console apart when it's practically sideways, Wash pauses. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asks stiffly.

<When the guys faked your death, you had to fit into android armor. You ran around in it for a while, it must have fit.>

"Oh. Yeah, I guess." He feels around for a seam in the metal, and he realizes the same must be true in reverse. Wash could fit comfortably in armor for the size of body Church was used to, so Church must be used to Wash's size. (Was he already used to the android's size by the time he got into it?)

Something keeps him from saying anything about it.

Church doesn't say anything either. He actually goes quiet for a minute, while Wash searches for the maintenance hatch. As much as Church is capable of going quiet. He has conversations with his fragments faster than Wash can hear. Wash wants to let them be -- ignore him -- but that curious feeling is still there. Almost like pings, but held back. Like almost-pokes.

It’s worse that Church isn’t saying, “I’m not touching you!” At least then Wash could tell him to stop.

Finally, from combined impatience with the too-unbreakable pod and with Church's bitten tongue, Wash sighs. "There's something you want to ask," he says.

Church just feels confused. <I just did.>

It has been far too soon since Wash has sighed so he just slumps and rolls his eyes. "Something else."

Church perks up innocently. <Is there?>

"Church, you are in my brain. We're going to have to get past playing dumb."

Wash feels the lightbulb with a secret revelation swing again. Wash knows that Church knows, now, that he can feel it. Church says, <I will when when you do.>

Wash almost takes the bait, out of curiosity for wherever Church thinks that’s going. Almost. He's probably just deflecting. Wash isn't actively trying to shove something in a corner. (All the corners he has are firmly established.)

Still. He knows how to handle this. Wash sucks it the hell up so hard he sits up straight. "Y'know what? You're right."

<I am--? Of course I am.> Church course corrects with alarming deficiency for a computer program. <You should listen to me.>

"I should," Wash agrees. "So how about you show me how it's done, Epsilon."

The light bulb swings another way, then his entire program pauses. <What?>

"Emotional honesty," Wash explains. "Go ahead, Church. Set the tone."

Quietly, like a side note, Wash hears Delta say to Epsilon, <He's got you on that one.>

<You are fucking useless,> he says to Delta. Church mumbles over his options with himself. He says to Wash, <It's not a big deal, you wouldn't wanna talk about it.>

"That's clearly not true."

<You'll make it weird.>

"I--"

<That's what you do.>

Wash clicks his teeth. Church is just trying to deflect, he can’t let it work. There are a lot of things Wash doesn't want to talk about, but usually someone who does want to talk about those things isn't sharing his brain-space. "I will take full responsibility for having asked," Wash tells him.

Church stumbles over himself a bit more. He clearly had no intention of bringing up whatever this is. Wash starts experimenting with mentally shoving Church back. He thinks he’s successful by picturing shoving or poking an actual person.

<Fine! Okay. It's just...> he "projects” himself in front of Wash just to stand visually uncomfortable, with his arms crossed. <You keep calling me "Church.">

Did he? That's... awkward. "What's your point?"

<You only ever call me Epsilon.>

That’s true. "You don't try and stop me."

<Yeah, well, it's-->

Theta blinks in, around Epsilon's shoulder. <It's you.>

Epsilon turns on Theta, who blinks out. <Fucking traitor,> he mumbles.

Church was right. There's no way to not make this weird. "I don't know what to tell you--" He hesitates where he would normally say a name, but is suddenly self-conscious. He hadn't even realized he'd done anything different, but Church emphasizes his short-term memory and he knows it's true.

Calling him Epsilon was never something he did with a lot of thought, it just felt right. It still feels right. But if he says it now, it'll sound like he's trying to make some kind of point.

"This feels silly," is what he says.

<See, you're making it weird.>

"You made it a thing!"

<It was always a thing, you're just making it a weird thing.>

"Wh-- It wasn't weird until you pointed it out."

There's frustrated grumbling on both sides.

"What do you want me to call you?"

<Since when do you care about that?> Church doesn't try to make that sting, but it does. A little. <I told you all to call me Church.>

"Carolina calls you Epsilon."

She's different. They don’t have to elaborate on that.

"Well so are you." He works things out as he says them. "The first "Church" I met was Alpha. I know he was your... creator or whatever, but just because you're the fragment that turned out the most like him, doesn't mean you're any more Alpha than Delta or Theta or any of the others were."

Church wants to argue, Wash can feel it. He can hear bits of Delta and Theta (<--'s not entirely--><--ees yo-->) and echoes of the others, but it comes through like Epsilon is sitting on them. Smothering them. As much as he can, keeping his feelings to himself.

Epsilon feels embarrassed. Wash kind of does, too.

<Based on your previous attempts, a maintenance panel should open with adequate force...>

...to the bottom left.

The sniper rifle provides more than adequate force.

---

The wires on this thing are just. Everywhere. Wires haven't even been this prominent in this sort of technology for more than a hundred years why are there so many wires? Worse: something smells in here.

Church tries to give suggestions and offer fixes, but someone must have done a home-repair job on this thing more than once. Even with the notes and reminds for Wash (visual arrows work much better than verbal left and rights) the manual labor Church has to wait through Wash doing gives Church too much time to think.

<His understanding is not entirely wrong.>

<You've said that already.>

<He sees you without seeing Alpha.>

<You've said that already.>

<How does that make you feel?>

<I'm gonna punch your robotic throat.>

<You've said that already.>

Church does not know how to feel.

No, that's it. Period. End of sentence. When does Church ever know how to feel? He doesn't. So he doesn't. Boom. Done. Book closed. Problem solved. Move on.

Just because he's not Alpha, doesn't mean he can't be Church. What does Wash know, anyway. Clearly not as much, because getting an earful of Church's perspective changed his mind and he didn't even realize it. Hah.

Move the hell on.

<What does he know?>

After an hour, Wash almost wants to give up.

<It's only been eleven minutes and twenty seve-->

"You have got to be fucking kidding me."

Wash shoves away from the mess. He's already drained one bottle of water and started on another. He grabs it and hops up to sit on the edge of the door frame. Can't problem solve while frustrated. Well, Church can, but Church is the champion of multitasking.

Apparently one also can barely focus on an empty stomach. (Point: synthetics.) One or two granola bars isn't enough to power a whole-ass dude like Wash, but Church noticed significant improvement in his own range of motion since eating. He tried to get Wash to eat another one, but rationing and blah blah blah survival. If Church is going to have to deal with the dumb little hunger alert monkeys that the human brain is apparently abundant with, they may as well quit here. Hunger? Point: synthetics.

Slamming an entire bottle of water after more than a day in captivity and sitting in an alien jungle, though? Church will allow a point in the human column. He's way in the lead anyway. Not that he's counting (5:2, synthetics).

Every once in a while, when he was running around with Carolina, she'd take a few minutes, an hour on occasion, to just sit for a while. To rest without sleeping. Church doesn't really know what that's like, or the desire to do it, but Wash does it, too. He doesn't think about much. He looks around at the trees, the bushes, the weird mushrooms.

Something else spins in Wash's mind, further in. Beyond the barrier that still sits between Church and whatever Wash is least inclined to share. Things particularly touchy that he pulls away on purpose. Church knows his long-term memory is there. His short-term memory runs through through Church's space, and his muscle memory connects directly to where Church can grab the controls for Wash's body. Anything older, more permanent, is different territory. He must be thinking about something. Someone, maybe.

Church doesn't consider taking his own memory files out for a spin. Most of his earliest stuff has been deleted or recycled, one way or another. Of what's left, he hasn't had the guts to look through since he first found them. He's definitely not about to try now, of all times. He's never wanted to.

"...doesn't mean you're any more Alpha than Delta..."

<Is that true?>

<Wash--> Shit he didn't mean to say anything.

"I'm not gonna ask this time," Wash says first.

Church takes the out and shuts the fuck back up.

Except then Wash feels bad (it's like a tug in his chest, what is up with human bodies?) and sighs. Not impatiently, he says, "What is it, Epsilon?"

Before he can stop himself -- this will not go away, this will only get worse, it's not like the question isn't already hanging -- he asks, <How much do you remember from last time?>

Whatever train of thought Wash had before (something about wires and voltages and make-shift cutters) stops. Evaporates like it was never there. For some long seconds, Wash stalls his thoughts on adjacent things; Dr. Grey's ramblings, Carolina, the color of the dirt here. They aren't strong enough thoughts for Church to read any more than that, or connect those things together somehow.

...not much, Wash eventually admits.

Something surfaces from the other side of the barrier. Just for a careful, deliberate, moment, there's a piece from his long-term memory.

Wash remembers waking up in the recovery bay -- joints stiff from sleeping in his suit, air unusually clean from a standard clean-out of his re-breathers -- just before the crash. Church sees the twins' helmets, and picks up on ghosts of confusion. It doesn't backtrack any further than that, and fades quickly.

What about you?

Church still can't bring himself to open the files he knows will answer that question, but he does find the stack. It's smaller than he knows it should be.

<I'm missing a lot, too,> is what Church says. He scrolls through their zipped tight folders absently.

Wash crouches back down into the pod.

His hands itch to do something useful. He twists and braids several sections of chords, just to get them out of the way. Pulling up old memories doesn't affect him like it used to. He can hold them for a moment and let them go again just as simply. The hesitation to do so is instinctual, so he's surprised by his own sudden curiosity. Nothing could change by knowing. He's got nothing to gain.

Nothing to lose, either. Wash can't honestly say he's never thought about it.

Do you remember what happened after? He finds himself asking.

He's got his hands tangled in six colors of cables when he gets the urge to run his hand through his hair. Epsilon says, <I don't know, man, I was... asleep, I guess?>

Wash feels something of a deep quiet come over him. He's lost something, tried to discard something, left something behind. Buried something, so all there is is quiet. Undisturbed quiet.

The bite of Wash's nails into his palms snaps him out of it. He takes a deep breath and the feeling fades, but something of the silence feels fixed. Too careful to disturb. On both sides, it feels like something's missing. Like something should be there, but isn’t. Somewhere, wrapped up in all of that, there should be…

Regret?

It’s like Schrodinger’s cat; if the cat was definitely poisoned, the question was whether or not it was already dead or currently dying, and the cat was set to explode upon its demise. Then the box gets opened and it’s… empty. No explosion, no gory remains, just an empty box. On one hand: where’s the explosion? On the other hand: thank God.

<But where’s the cat?>

<I don’t think that was the point, Theta.>

Can’t regret what we can’t remember.

That silence settles back in, and Wash makes some amount of progress. Nothing looks damaged so far, which would be great if he wasn’t trying to figure out what was wrong with it. And then get it to broadcast on the Chorus army frequencies.

That's probably what the home repair job is, making sure no one's escape signal went out to hostiles.

He must be getting close to the back of the console; whatever the smell is is getting stronger. Church (Epsilon, Delta, whoever) chimes in with the occasional suggestion, but is otherwise uncharacteristically quiet. Wash didn't mean to give Church some kind of existential crisis. Maybe they should... talk about it more?

Wash can multitask. If Church wants to talk, he can--

<It can't have been all bad.>

Okay, they're doing this. (Of course Church wants to talk, what was he thinking.)

<I mean, come on. This is me we're talking about. And, y'know, you're not so bad.>

"Gee, thanks," Wash says. ( Smooth, Wash. Super tactful. )

<--n't ha--d. Yo-- ke Wa-->

Wash drops his hands into his lap. Church is mostly white noise right now, but his head feels crowded. Every emotion is like medicine ball rolling around up there. It doesn't hurt, exactly, and he's not nauseous. He's just... tired.

If this is how the rest of this adventure is going to feel, maybe they do need to talk.

Why does it have to be so hard? York never had this problem. Florida or Wyoming never had this problem.

Quietly, Church repeats, <It can't have been all bad, right?>

Wash is quiet for a long time.

He keeps his train of thought well away from Church, and Church tries to respect the distance. He runs numbers and scans what he can of the jungle (there's a certain sound he has Gamma tracking).

What was he thinking? Why even open his big stupid mouth about this, what a waste of time. They're working fine now, why throw a wrench in it?

<But what if we could be better?>

<As if we could do better, we're already the best AI anyone on this planet has ever met, and the second best soldier probably ever.>

If Iota had shoulders, she'd shrug them. <Well, okay, if you want to settle.>

If Epsilon had eyes, they would have popped out of the skull he doesn’t have. Iota isn't-- She's not--

Before he can dig into the mutiny, Wash speaks up.

"I don't know."

Church does some kind of 720 degree kickflip in his brain that makes Wash's eyes cross. <What the fuck was that?>

"What?" Wash pokes his head out the doorway to scan the jungle. Everything looks the same. Nothing jumps out. Nothing to indicate danger. He sits back down and tries to listen to Church.

<--not the first-->

<--perhaps deeper than we thought.>

<Is that bad?>

Nothing in the jungle catches his attention, because Church isn't paying attention to it. Wash can't understand all the codes Church makes, but he's learning to understand where they're directed, or what their purpose is. Not to say he'd be able to explain how he can tell. Some developing sixth sense, maybe. He knows Church is scanning, but not the surroundings. He's running something internally. He tries not to let it make his skin crawl.

"What's wrong?"

<That thing you did just now, with your voice.>

A weird sensation, almost like the anticipation for a sneeze, ghosts over Wash's throat. It feels kind of silly. "...talking? I know you're not used to vocal cords, Church, but I promise it's entirely natural. "

Church contains -- fails to contain a frustrated shriek that, in Wash's mind’s eye, looks like an animated scribble. <Son of a bitch how are you not hearing this?>

Wash presses his hands to his ears, as if that'll do any good to block Church out. "Ow, watch the shrieking."

Church does his best to physically shove Wash from inside his own head. <No. Smartass, shut up and listen and do that again.>

"I cannot possibly do all those things at the same time."

Church clearly does not appreciate Wash's sense of humor. He shows up smack in the center of Wash's vision just to glare at him. <Wash, oh my god.> The face he makes is kind of hilarious.

<Okay, funny guy--> Church's eyes go wide. <Funny guy...> He disappears again.

<--mma---------!1!34#2!!

Wash's hands shoot back to his ears, to no relief. Whatever Church does blurs into screech and static. It's not in his ears, not really, but it's in his head and it's loud and it hurts.

He can barely hear himself shout, "Epsilon, stop!"

The noise cuts out. His ears aren’t ringing, but something in his head still sings a fading note.

Immediately, Church says, <I'm sorry.>

Theta pops into view, wringing his fingers. Delta is right next to him.

<Are you alright?>

Church's guilt is heavy. Wash drops his hands and his shoulders and presses that guilt away. Whatever it was was an accident. The pain is already gone. He runs his palms over the rough material on his knees. Take deep breath. He's not sure when he closed his eyes. When he opens them, the Alpha-modeled figure is there, too, looking as sheepish as Church gets.

"What did you just do?"

Delta and Theta share a look and vanish. Epsilon fiddles with his rifle.

<You hadn't exactly asked what was going on, I figured it was an 'ignorance is bliss' thing.>

Church had an idea, back in that storage closet just after their initial escape. Wash had forgotten about it until now.

Wash almost says something crass. He goes with, "Ignorance is overrated, fill me in."

<Okay. Don't freak out.>

Church radiates less calm than Wash himself does.

<So, my fragments -- my memory of the fragments, my imaginary friends, whatever -- are pieces of me. But they're not disconnected like the real fragments were; like Alpha's were. They're not separate entities, they're more like...>

Wash gets a mental image of a human figure with a green head, a purple arm, a black leg.

<Yeah, like that.>

Church pauses, like he's checking whether or not Wash is freaking out yet. Nothing is really new information for Wash so far. The confirmation is nice, at least.

<I think, somehow, the parts of your brain that correspond to the part of me that my fragments represent are overlapping. Which, duh, I'm in your brain.> In addendum, he adds, <Sorry.>

Not fun to think about, but still nothing new. He needs to think about this like he’d approach any other AI problem. LIke this is just another AI theory he needs to learn so he can regurgitate it for the Counselor or the Director later. "Don't worry about it," Wash says and prompts him to continue.

<But with Theta and then with Delta--> They pop back up as their names are said. <--the parts that overlapped have... stuck. To each other.>

That sounds worrying, but Wash isn't sure he really gets it. Maybe there's another way to put it. "Integrated?"

<Yeah, okay, let's call it that. But you've only integrated a couple of limbs--> Theta waves, Delta gives a casual salute. <--the head and an arm. If you integrate with the others, we'd start overlapping with, like... a leg. Another arm. Whatever, you get what I mean; the human body's only got like four named extendables.>

Nose, ears, eyes, neck.

<Alright, smartass.>

"Wait."

<Go ahead, catch up.>

Wash takes the advice rather than the bait.

Theta was first, back in the cell. Wash knows the kind of moments Church is talking about. When he took those guard's guns, and took the merc's knife. Then in the engine room and he could map where the targets were without seeing them, with far more accuracy than before. That was Delta.

That first time had freaked him out. He didn't feel any different, any less like himself, so much more just seemed to make sense. Like the world was a puzzle he knew the answer to. Nothing seemed wrong so he didn't put much after thought into it. He was also running for his life and had maybe forgotten to think about it until now but that's not to point.

Their inexperience with all this suddenly feels disabling. How did they work together last time? Why can't he remember? "Is that not... normal?"

Church taps his intangible fingers across his intangible rifle. Wash feels him run through his data on implantation; his protocols. Eventually he admits, <Not really, no.>

One more time, for clarity. "So we're learning to think at the same time, and when we do, we "stick.""

<Yes.>

"Afterwards, do we... unstick?"

Church bites his lips. Wash feels significantly less calm.

" Can we unstick?"

Church opens his mouth and then freezes.

<--dittional in-->

" Church? "

<There's something in the bushes.>

All the fragments vanish. Wash grabs the rifle. He carefully peers out of the pod. He almost tries to level the scope before remembering it's empty.

The space between two trees is filled entirely by a thick needle bush. Between the needles and the jungle floor something pokes out, wiggles, and moves further out of cover. The something is a nose. The creature it's connected to is some kind of... armadillo? It has pale pink skin and a dark green shell. He thinks he sees spikes along the ridge of its spine, and -- yup, those are thick black claws.

It's also the size of a bulldog.

General Kimball has shown all of them records of the wildlife on Chorus. It's not the most well-documented ecosystem, not like Earth is, but they have highlights. Green bull-armadillos were not on the highlight reel. Wash hefts the rifle in his hands, but he's not sure what to do with it. Maybe Church knows--

<What the holy hell it that?>

Maybe not.

<Kill it kill it kill it kill it kill it-->

Stop. Wash pushes him into shutting up. Openly thinking about killing something makes him flinch. It must not set off the "let's hurt a human" criteria, though, because they don't get shocked about it. Maybe it's friendly.

Wash steps up carefully onto the base of the jump seat, further into the open, for a better vantage and more room to move. The armadillo thing scuffles closer. Church starts running something in his head that feels familiar to when he was matching his on the fly sketch of the smuggling ship to his stored maps.

<I've got an archive, but a lot of it got busted by that virus. I'm trying to put it back together, hold on.> Church skims a bit more.

<This is a mess,> Theta comments forlornly.

The armadillo reaches the mound of dirt the pod skidded into and starts climbing, Wash tries not to take a step backwards. He's mostly successful.

<I can't find the name, but I have some info on these things. From what I can tell, they're like vultures for downed ships.>

Vultures? Wash tries not to dwell on the image of an armadillo snacking on his corpse.

Snap--hiss...

Wash whips back around. Right behind him there's a skinny tail sticking out of the console.

"No!"

Wash slams the butt of the rifle at the second armadillo. The creature, surprised, makes a shriek like a startled fox and scrambles back out of the console and onto the seat. Wash hops away, onto the outer hull of the pod. With the creature comes a pipeline caught in its teeth. It's a flexible pipe, and it's leaking something green. The smell from before gets stronger. The coolant fluid.

The one from the bushes makes it up the hill, nails clacking against the metal hull. (<--ow did we not hea-->) Wash dodges out of it's way and it goes right past him, into the pod. Wash hefts the rifle to start playing whack-a-mole, but it doesn't go for the open console like the other one. Instead it starts licking the seat, where the coolant is leaking everywhere. The other one, after flipping itself back over, starts licking directly from the pipe.

I don't think they eat people.

<They must have smelled the fluid leak.>

There's another rustle from the trees. Wash swings back around. More of them, almost half a dozen, come around the trees and from under the bushes. Faster this time.

<It's not like we need the coolant.>

But if they break anything else, we might not be able to-- wait.

They're sticking again -- still sticking, stuck, whatever. What is this? Should he be fighting it, too?

<Wash, heads up!>

An armadillo scampers past while he's distracted, right into the pod. There's another one coming right behind it. Wash twists the rifle, grabs the barrel, and swings. The butt nails the armadillo in the side. It shrieks and stumbles, trips, and rolls down the hill of dirt. The swing felt like hitting a brick wall.

The next one comes, and Wash hits harder. It shrieks and rolls but it's like golfing bowling balls. The first one hits the bottom of the slope and wiggles to its feet with surprising speed, and then it shrieks.

Wash stumbles back in surprise -- THUNK -- something falls right past his face and lands in front of him. Another armadillo uncurls at his feet.

<They're in the trees!>

Wash looks up-- and shouts in pain. He looks back down and one of them has its claws wrapped around his leg. The tips slice through his body armor. The thing hisses and bares rows of pointed teeth.

" What the fuck! "

(An offended gasp. <Theta!>)

<--aim for t-->

Wash slams the butt of the rifle into the creature's face. As it slips away it's claws cling and drag against his suit with surprising strength. His leg pulls out from under him and the fall to his ass is less than graceful.

THUNK-- another ball lands next to him. The others climbing up the dirt are heading right for him. They didn't care about him before, but now one lunges for his face--

WHAM --the whole world shakes--

--Church is pretty sure the pod just rolled under the force. Wash's eyes are still open, but the world's gone dark, like something covered the sun -- something did. Before Wash can look up, something he can barely see, like a wave of air, swipes across the space in front of him, sending armadillos flying. In Church's slow motion, he still only barely makes guesses on what it is.

<I still can't find anything wrong with his eyes, they're working just fine!>

<The distortion looks like active camouflage.>

The jungle in front of Wash suddenly wavers and distorts across his entire field of vision. The nearest armadillo vanishes into thin air -- crunch -- green shards and something deep pink and gooey splatters everywhere from where it was.

Wash frantically shuffles back. Church processes the alerts of pain in Wash's leg more than Wash himself does. It's just a series of surface wounds, but they sting like hell.

<They'll need attention if we want to avoid infection.>

<Move first aid below invisible monsters on the priority list!>

Delta huffs.

Something brushes the top of Wash's head and he swings up with the rifle on instinct. It hits something almost immediately -- <Softer than the armadillos.> -- and then the air itself seems to roar. Then it shifts. The distortion changes from a blur of jungle to rippling black. It covers the space above Wash's head and connects to the ground in four thick columns -- legs -- which stumble back a few heavy steps. In front of him, armadillos lay dazed or scurry away, back to the bushes.

And then a head, larger than Wash's entire body, twists down. Upside down, two huge, blue saucers with black slit pupils widen to take him in. They take the thing in in return. It's got a scrunched nose between its eyes and a split lip. It's face is covered in just as much black fuzz as the rest of it. It's nostrils flare as it sniffs Wash. Church thinks he hears it growl, but it's frustratingly hard to hear over the sound of Wash's heartbeat. It's lips curl, revealing stake sized teeth dripping in pink goo.

Oh god.

As Epsilon processes this thing, he does a quick keyword search thorough his memory for "fuck-off predatory hell creatures from mankind's collective nightmares." He comes up with an old picture of Tex accidentally taken from Grif's helmet.

Wash's mind's eye has a scrawny black cat. Not a panther or a jaguar or something cool. A dumb domestic rat.

Then it hisses. Pink blood and spit go everywhere. Wash's grip on the rifle, which was painfully tight until now, lets go as he brings his arms up to cover his face. Something lands on his leg and the open wounds burn.

Wash barely feels it. His mind reaches for something to do -- how to get out from under the giant jungle cat. But he doesn't have to. One of the armadillos makes a sad wailing noise and the cat's attention jumps to it.

The air pressure shifts in Wash's ears as it pounces. It doesn't go far, just enough to snag some armadillos between it's claws, and enough that Wash is no longer underneath it. Something long passes his periphery. He rolls back over his shoulder -- (<We should really avoid straining it any further.>) -- and further up the hull of the pod to avoid the twenty foot tail that sweeps past.

It swings by again and Wash keeps his head low, even after it passes. The entire creature is the size of the escape pod, if not bigger. Its fur is black now, but with every ripple and movement the color shifts to match the jungle around it, making it difficult to look at.

<A trick we could learn the answer to, given the time.> Church lets Gamma compute something about it in the background.

There's a screech from inside the pod. Two armadillos scramble over each other to climb out the entrance. One knocks the other back inside, makes it out, and starts to run up the hull, away from the cat. Across Wash's vision, a red arrow points and slides towards the cat. Wash dives with it, tucks and rolls. Over his head, the cat leaps. It lands on the top side of the pod. The metal groans as it shifts in the dirt, and the armadillos screeches are cut off.

The cat's tail swipes back and forth again, cutting the air with loud whooshes. Its back paw -- twice the size of a sewer lid -- slips into the open hatch of the pod. Wash sees sparks fly.

"Shit!"

Wash only considers how he's going to dive at the cat thing's leg, or smack it till it moves, for a second before--

{--Z@41R6RTT--}

The shock is short. Wash doesn't fall further than his knees.

<What the-->

He's interrupted by the echoing sound of tearing metal. The cat's back paw lifts out of the pod and it's claws leave behind fissures in the metal. Distracted by it's snack, it doesn't set down the paw properly and slips back in again.

<Make it stop that! That's our only-->

{--ZZRR@$!TT--}

<Son of a bitch how the fuck does that count?> Wash shakes as he pulls himself up, but is otherwise still functioning. Church digs deeper. Is that... is that sympathy? For the enormous space cat monster? <Wash what the hell!>

"It's not a feeling I'm trying to have!"

<Then start trying not to have it!>

We're trying to survive, too!

Wash pushed Delta away before; a hard, disorienting flinch. Now he grips that connection and then he's on his feet again. His hands find the rifle and, without a plan, he charges. With everything he can, he swings at the back tendon along it's leg.

The rifle bends.

Church kind of wants to cry.

Before Wash can do it for him, the back paw lashes out, right into Wash's chest. For a long moment his whole body leaves the ground. When it finds it again, Church almost swears he feels the pain. All of his inputs are clouded by alerts he has to swipe past and push out if his way. Before Wash's body even settles in the dirt, Church is checking for injuries.

<Nothing is moving wrong.>

<Nothing's broken.>

<Just a bruise the size of-->

<Not breathing!>

Every message from Wash's lungs, his diaphragm, is pain pain pain pain pain. The wind's been knocked out of him.

<We could stop that pain.>

That sounds freaky as hell, and Sigma says it, so he throws the suggestion out with the trash. He can't stop the pain, but he can send other signals.

Wash's lungs don't want to breath.

<To bad!> Church pushes.

Wash inhales and it burns. He's coughing and groaning and already cataloging and tossing aside hurts for himself.

The cat's eyes are turned back towards Wash. It doesn't have any more snacks in its mouth, though some pink stuff -- armadillo blood, some part of Church or Wash finally supplies -- but it does have something else. Something bent and gray: the sniper rifle.

Wash barely makes it back to his feet.

<I say we book it.>

Wash doesn't budge -- which is remarkable, given that there’s enough potential energy in his legs to start a small car. He stares the big cat thing right in the eye -- which Church is pretty positive is exactly the opposite of what you're supposed to do with enormous, dangerous, wild, space animals with bones of fucking titanium. The radio in that thing is our best hope of the United Army finding us first, Wash reasons, to Church and to himself. We can't just leave it.

It's bad as all asses and Church hates him for it. He can't just take control of Wash's body -- he promised-- but starts prepping every move he can think of or find that involves dodging, turning around, and running like hell.

Do you really think I can outrun this thing?

He throws in a few jumps for good measure. Eta, usually pretty quiet and hands-off unless told otherwise, gets in on it.

Wash's fists are clenched and shaking. It takes everything in him (including Church) not to cough. He wants to survive, too.

The cat doesn't leap at them. It doesn't crouch or hiss. It doesn't leave, either. It stares at Wash for several long (long, long ) moments. Then, it tosses the rifle out of its mouth, which lands at Wash's feet. Wash dares the slightest glance at it, and looks back up. The cat's tail swishes.

Slowly (<Slowly, so slowly>) and without breaking eye contact, Wash crouches down. The rifle is slick with alien spit, but Wash's grip is white-knuckled. He stands back up, trips a little, and it doesn't slip from his hand.

The cat thing sits down. Casual as can be, it starts licking it's paw.

<Now? Please?>

Wash turns around and runs.

---

Eventually, he stops running. Without the temperature regulator of his armor, sweat chafes his skin against his bodysuit. The air is humid enough he may as well be drinking it, but somehow his mouth is dry. Between the weird spit and the hot air, the blood on his leg caked over quickly. Wash knows his pain tolerance is pretty high (<That's an understatement.>) but it hardly even hurts. His chest, on the other hand, goes up like a firework with every leap over a tree root and hop off a ledge. He knows it's a miracle his shoulder hasn't finally popped out of its socket. Laying down, in any position, is going to suck for the next month.

He lost track of how many trees he's passed.

<Between nine and eleven hundred, depending on flora classification systems.>

He doesn't know what direction he left in.

<West.>

He has no idea how far--

<Based on the average length of your stride-->

Wash stops. "Is knowing going to give us any idea how far we are from the nearest friendly base?"

Delta spins for a moment. <I'll have to run some extra calculations, but if we can put together a map based on distance, landmarks, and local wildlife-->

Church hand-waves Delta into the background. <Maybe in a few hours, if we keep moving.>

So Wash picks up his feet and starts walking. "You and Carolina spent months running around this planet. Does any of this look familiar?"

<It's a whole-ass planet, Wash! Do you have any idea how stupidly lucky we are we didn't land in the goddamn tundra?>

He's got a pretty good idea. He's just... he's just tired. "A little green voice is my head says "very"."

<Very fucking lucky. We probably used all of the luck we'll have for the rest of our alarmingly hazard-filled lives in the last hour.>

"Hour?"

<You can run for a long-ass time.>

Wash isn't the biggest fan of running, but at least when he gets into it he doesn't have to think. Now that he's stopped, every pant pulls his bruised ribs. He starts walking again. Not good to run that long without a cool-down.

He should have more energy than this; he should be more worked up than this. He wants to be furious, wants to yell. Their best shot at an easy-out to all of this is a cat toy now. So is the water, and the granola bars, and the med kit. He's got a slimy rifle covered in drying, mystery, alien spit.

And he's got Epsilon.

Wash runs his tongue over his teeth and it sucks. "Any chance we can figure out how to run towards some water?"

<As a matter-o-fact. I've been trying to steer you a little bit. The ground’s been sloping down for a while.>

Now that Church mentions it, Wash notices the next suggestion. Instead of walking the wide space between two trees, he follows the tight path between two bush trees, where the grass and dirt are worn down. Animal path. He starts to follow, automatically.

Then he pauses. With their minds integrating, does this count? Is letting Church steer making them stick?

<Not really? But not... no.>

Wash's mouth is paper dry. His leg is starting to feel funny. If it means living a bit longer, he's willing to risk a "maybe." He follows the trail, he shoves through the bushes, and the ground drops from under him.

Cold, cold, cold!

<Well, we found the water.>

Wash sits up with a splash. The shallow river he fell into barely runs over his waist. There's mud down his back, now, from the two foot slide he just took down the bank. The water that stretches a good thirty yards in front of him, to a rocky shore on the other side, is remarkably clear. Church's analytics buzz across the surface of the current. Maybe he holds back this time, maybe he's not looking as hard, but it's not as bad as it was back at the escape pod.

Still, Wash finds the rifle in the mud and tries to focus on cleaning out the grooves in the barrel to tune the worst of it out. The hardened cat beast spit starts oozing where it's gotten wet.

<Just wanna make sure the water’s not toxic.>

"I'm already sitting in it." Wash kicks as the rocks under the surface, splashing up water everywhere. Now that he looks, the spit from the cat creature really has frozen onto his leg. His exposed scratches sting more than the covered ones. He holds up his own leg to inspect, and notices more scratches under the solid spit than he realized he had.

<Yeah, we can worry about the numbing properties of alien loogies next.>

<It appears to be isolated, at least. The numbing agent is not spreading far into your bloodstream.>

The wounds only a few inches away still sting-- Wash shakes his head.

Delta goes on without him. <We may have considered leaving it, were the water not already liquefying it.>

Take a step back, take a deep breath.

This... integration they've started has kept them alive. It's how they escaped the mercs, it's how they found water. It hasn't hurt more than maybe a nosebleed. Fighting it is what hurt.

Church is still playing variables against each other, looking for possible depth and mineral content and river mouth locations based on every minute detail he can snag. Ecosystems are very complex.

Wash falls back into the mud. In hindsight, he can hear it, Delta's voice merging with his own. It's not even a matter of trying. Trying not to would probably become constant. He can't put everything into surviving this planet if he's putting everything into fighting something else. And even if he does, will it make a difference?

<Another tracker ping just went out.>

Wash holds his breath.

<Still nothing.>

He lets it go.

They're probably still narrowing crash locations.

Wash's fists clench until they shake.

"Epsilon, is there any point in fighting this?"

Church needs another look at the water, so Wash lifts his head. On his knee, there's Church. His body language is defeated, but not unconfident. <To be honest, I still don't have a full grasp of what's happening,> he admits. <I would lay the numbers out for you if I could, or say that it has something to do with the hardware, or the firmware, or a chemical malfunction, but I can't.>

In Wash's periphery, Church gets what he needs out of the the height of the water splashes or whatever, so Wash drops his head back again. It makes a satisfying splat.

"But can we go back?" Wash asks the blue sky. "When this is over, can we reverse it?"

<--ou wan--o?>

Wash hears more from certain fragments than others. He knows Church puts extra effort into Wash not having to hear Sigma. He appreciates it.

<We...> Church trails off, and then catches himself. <We'll figure it out when we get there.>

That is the opposite of comforting. Wash sits back up and Church puts himself back on Wash's knee. "Should we get there now? "

<It-- look, that's what I was trying to do before, okay? When I--> Church bites his tongue, guilty again. <Gamma was starting to stick -- integrate, whatever -- so I tried pulling him back, but it clearly didn't work.>

If they can't pull themselves apart, what are they supposed to do? If they can, and it hurts, what kind of damage is that doing?

Before his thoughts can spiral, Wash stretches his bad leg out into the water. The current starts to drag globs of spit off of it, and rubs stinging pressure across the open wounds in its wake. It burns, but they can find something for that; a plant or a leaf or something. It's a problem Wash can solve. They're lost, but a river is a landmark they can follow and a water source.

Wash has been in worse situations, he’ll be fine; he’ll live.

Still. Emotional honesty. “Epsilon?”

Church winces. <Yeah?>

“This is freaking me out.”

<Yeah, I-- okay. Maybe if I had access to more modern research on this stuff, I'd have an answer.> Some of Church's scans turn internal again, not just on Wash but on himself. <There might not be a lot, and Chorus's research databases aren't great -- cause, y'know, the war -- but Dr. Grey really does have a shit-ton of brain cells. We'll figure this out.>

All problems for the future, then. That's all information they can't get till later. What can they get now? "You said this isn't normal."

<No-- I mean, yes, I said that.>

"So then how is this happening? Aren't there protocols against things like this?" Or was that one of the Counselor's lies, too?

Church's scans run a frustrated little buzz. <There are! But they--> Church's algorithms come to an abrupt halt. <Oh.> He found something.

Wash looks up. "Oh?" Church's avatar doesn't reappear.

<Well shit.>

"Church?"

Church frantically shoves something out of Wash's reach. Wash can feel Church's confusion clearing up, but he's not sharing any of the answers. <Don't worry about it,> he says quickly.

"Church?"

Epsilon pops back into view, floating this time. Most of the worry lines have left his face, but Wash knows it's a conscious choice; for Wash's benefit. <Nothing's broken, everything's fine, don't flip your shit, we're just... in survival mode.>

Wash sits up straighter to give the weight of his best glare, as if his heart isn’t on the edge of his throat. "Epsilon."

<Wash, everything's fine, really. Not in the fake-fine way like when everyone says they're fine but they're definitely not fine, this is just...> Church looks for his most convincing words. <I said I'm gonna get you out of here. However it happened, I fucked up last time. I'm not gonna do it again.> In the end, it's not the words that are convincing. He says, like a request, <If it becomes relevant, I'll tell you.>

If asked, on any other occasion, if he'd trust Church to be forthcoming with all relevant information, Wash would have laughed. Perhaps a bit hysterically. But right now?

He focuses on the water. On clean air, on not being in enemy custody. On not being cat food. This has all worked so far, it can keep working.

" Okay. "

<Water's clean, by the way. Just don't touch the fro-->

Wash dunks his entire head under.

---

Ping... ping.

Church pauses in ribbing Wash about how horribly he's trying to tie a giant leaf around his leg with a second giant leaf stem. Wash pauses in the middle of “trying his best.” "Is that what I think it was?"

<The tracker just got a return signal,> Theta reports.

Wash gives his leaf bandage wrapping job a quick finish. His leg is doing okay, considering. His bodysuit protected him from the worst so it's all skin-deep, but he's got four puncture wounds around his knee and three gashes down his calf, one more than six inches long. Wash is really good (alarmingly good) at ignoring the pain gremlins that get sent to his brain, but they still take up more space than Church would like. A new spurt of them run in when Wash grabs the broken rifle and stands back up.

He turns and starts a hasty hike upriver, ankle deep in the water. "Any idea how far out they are?"

<It took several seconds for the responding signal to reach us. We would need more data on the hardware of the receiver to know for sure.>

"Best guess."

<Anywhere between an hour out, and just this side of the globe.>

"Any ideas about loop-holing around getting the tracker out, yet?"

<No.>

<No.>

<No.>

Church shoos all the extra voices away, delegates them to expanding on half-finished thoughts and plans. <I’m working on it.>

As urgency sets in, so does a certain determination in the stance of Wash’s mind. "You focus on that, I'm going to try and find somewhere even remotely defensible."

<We won't stand much of a chance in a fight, will we?>

Wash doesn't say it, but the entire surface of his mind says "No." What he says is, "Our best chance of getting out of this is getting that thing out of my head. I'll work out here, you work in there."

Church says, <Yeah, okay, we're on it,> but he wishes it were that simple.

Human minds may feel near infinite to Epsilon, but they're still full of stuff -- habits, routines, ideas, skills, memories. There is only so much Church can do without interfering with or distracting Wash from whatever he's doing. He can make lines and lines and pages of code, but eventually he’s going to hit a pinky toe or an ear or a whole leg or the concept of vegetables.

To split tasks, Wash will have to try and keep his own focus while ignoring all the noise Church makes. Conversely, Church will have to try and retract again, to not get caught up in Wash's plans in order to make his own. Like one person multitasking, except they're two people. So maybe more like two people trying to write two different books while locked in a room the size of a broom closet.

They have to try because they fucking have to do everything. So, Church shifts focus, as much as he can; blocks out Wash's action to just think.

There's a million little things to consider. Maybe the hotkey just isn't efficient enough. If he can crunch down all the extraneous pathways and muscle groups, maybe he can gain an extra fraction of a second. Epsilon makes the adjustment to the key (he'll think of a term less offensive to Wash's sensibilities later), but they can't exactly test it.

They could test it, it's possible, and Wash would tell him to if he asked, but there are very real consequences to electrocution that at least one of them needs to consider.

<Predictive models still put us one eighty-fourth of a second behind the tasers estimated response time.>

<A string of keys, perhaps?> Sigma suggests.

As per usual, Sigma is on thin fucking ice. A single thought, too abstract, could run away if Church isn't careful. A string of simple hotkeys leads to a library of simple hotkeys leads to the stuff of Carolina's nightmares. Right then and there, Church and Theta push everything away for a few seconds to make a new protocol: as soon as he's out of Wash's head, as soon as Wash is safe, every hotkey goes into the recycle bin.

But for now... it's not the worst plan. Can they even build that, though?

Suddenly Gamma chimes in, <I have an idea.>

Gamma, due to recent events, is also on thin fucking ice. Yet, he's desperate. Church gives the idea a single once-over, hits a single red flag, and says, <No.>

Delta intercedes. <While not ideal, finishing Gamma's integration with Wash may-->

Church puts his binary foot down. <I said no, so we’re not doing it, that’s it.> Humans (and AIs; point: nobody) can only function under so much stress. Wash's threshold is really fucking high, but who knows where the line is? Not Church. Certainly not Wash. <Theta, can you look into-- Theta?>

Theta isn't paying attention to him. It's disturbing, finding parts of himself somewhere other than where he left them.

<Sorry,> he says. <Wash is considering vantage points, he was getting too specific.>

Right, the violence trigger. <That's okay, Theta, you keep on that.>

<'Kay.>

Church supervises this time, as all his bits that make up Theta shift focus. He has an eye and an ear (abstractly speaking) on what Wash is doing now. Wash has climbed up the hill away from the river, back into the trees. Just ahead, the bank turns into a steep cliff by a waterfall. It's not a long fall, twelve feet, tops, but the rocks at the bottom are large and misshapen.

Theta reminds Wash about how any falls made from that cliff are most certainly not their fault. Wash doesn’t even feel Theta’s shift of focus. Meanwhile, at the round table:

<Perhaps we can rewrite the code to work for us.>

<We don't have enough space or time to make that plausible.>

<We'd need the speed to break past the firewalls.>

<There are certain energizing fungi that flourish under this system's sun, right?>

<We can't base a plan on finding space-meth.>

<Could we replicate the circumstances with adrenaline?>

<Maybe if we'd thought of that an hour and a half ago, when we were falling from space, but we didn't.>

Maybe, when they get back, Church can print all this out into a spreadsheet and Tucker will finally believe that this computer stuff is fucking hard. Contrary to popular belief, coding is not miracle working. Sure, Church could do and try a lot of things, all the time, but he also needs to not do a lot of other things if he wants to not break whatever hardware he's in.

For some reason, Wash trusts Epsilon not to break him. Trust is great, Church digs trusting people. He trusts people all the time. He trusts Carolina to survive beyond the reckoning of mankind; he trusts that Sarge takes his shotgun into the bathroom stall with him; and he trusts that Felix has a tattoo of his own face on his ass.

But Wash trusts Church like, a lot, in ways that involve continuing to exist in this mortal coil. Theta's the evidence.

What is Church supposed to do with that?

<Fulfill your-- our promise, I would assume.>

<Yeah, but, like. Before that. After that.>

<Are we talking about our feelings now?>

<Abort.>

<Personally-->

<No.>

<Have we considered the possibility that-->

<Stop. Shut up. Go away.>

Church knows Wash still can't hear Gamma like he can Delta and Theta. Gamma hasn't integrated into the mess yet, but it's only barely. What it is that triggers the full integration is still a big question mark. Church sees Wash's thoughts wander the more he hears Gamma's voice, over to long-term memory. Church still can't hear or see what the memories are, but he seems to be searching for something.

There was something Wyoming said once, when asked about his jokes. Wash almost remembers what it was.

Ping... ping.

Wash picks up his pace. Not that it'll do any good if pirates come down on them in a hornet. The waterfall is good, but not good enough. They need somewhere with a vantage point, or somewhere with good cover but an even better escape route. Somewhere that would already function as a trap like a half-broken piece of forest or cave they could easily collapse. Somewhere they could gain the element of surprise again.

To Wash, Gamma says, <I will pay actual human money if you say “boo.”>

Not all of it gets through, but Wash’s walking pace hitches.

Church can’t pull Gamma away, but he can stop him in his tracks. He pulls the emergency brake on every line of code Gamma has. To Wash, he says, <Sorry, keep doin’ your thing.>

Wash’s step evens out again, but it’s slowing. His thoughts are spinning, faster and more contorted than they’ve been before. Church just starts to wonder if this is what it’s like for Wash, with his voice[s] in his ear, when they slow down. Wash’s march comes to a stop.

Carefully, Wash suggests, “Church, what if, to undo this, we need to let this happen?”

Church does a double take; rescans his own immediate memory to confirm. <I’m sorry, that sounded like you suggesting we make this worse.>

“Some things,” Wash says slowly, and his thoughts form apace, “have to get worse before they can get better. If we're going to figure out how to un-do this, it would help to get a better idea about how it works, right?"

Like reverse-engineering.

"Right. So maybe we try and get this to work -- just this one -- and we pay attention."

<You're just already fed up with Gamma sounding like static, aren't you?>

“Irrelevant.”

<Do you even know what we did last time?>

Wash considers. He shrugs. "Not really."

Church pulls Gamma’s idea out of the recycle bin. The line of thought is curiously similar to where Wash seems to be going. Church wouldn’t have considered this; wouldn’t have put it forward. Did this… did this even come from Church?

"Does... Gamma want to say something?"

Church rolls the head he doesn't have.


<Wash, he's not an actual separate person. He can't want to say anything more than I want to say.>

“I know that.” Wash understands that, probably better than Epsilon realizes, but there has to be something here. That curious feeling of Church's hasn't gone away. "Is there something you want to say?"

<No.> The voice is Church’s but it also isn’t; or, it is but it registers in Wash’s mind as something more.

"See, that I am hearing."

<I don't know what you want from me!>

Wash spots a good looking tree root, taller than his knees, to sit on. He keeps his hands on the rifle, butt on the ground between his feet. "What if you just..." Wash looks up, for lack of something to talk at. Then there's a light from around his shoulder-level and he can see Church sitting cross-legged in the air with his rifle across his lap. “Is there some way you can let the Gamma part of you talk? Just focus on him. You've done that before, right?"

Church's face turns a lighter shade of blue, like he's blushing. <Fuck. Who told you? It was Caboose, wasn't it?>

Wash makes a mental note to talk to Caboose. "You did. Just now."

<Fucking whore,> Church spits at himself.

Wash chooses patience. There are a remarkable number of similarities between handling Epsilon and handling Caboose, he's realizing. "I'm not gonna make fun of you, Epsilon."

<Please. As if I'd care about that,> Church scoffs. <Insults only matter if the person they come from is cooler than you. Besides, what's to make fun of? I can be eight people at once and be great at every single one of them.>

"Then prove it."

<How the-- how do you do that? I'm literally watching, you don't even practice the manipulative one-liner, you just drop it. That's not even teachable.>

"You're an easy read," Wash tells him. "You're stalling."

<I was taking a moment for appreciation of another person for once in my life, but if you'd rather I not, that's cool, too.>

"I'm just going to sit here until you're done."

<Hey, I'm trying to have a moment of sincere personal development here! It's not like I just decide to do this every Sunday, we should be marking this occasion.>

Wash crosses an ankle over his knee.

<How long do you think it would take to carve my name into a rock out here? Archaeologists, hundreds of years from now, can find it and assume it was a monument to an ancient deity. Did the guys tell you about the time I was a god-eye ball? I had a cult following and everything. You probably would have gotten along like a house on fire. They were aliens-- wait, you know this.>

Wash props his head up on his fist.

<Ooh you killed them. Right, I knew that.>

Wash blinks. He contemplates a yawn. He delivers the literal interpretation of the dead-staring :I emoji.

Church looks around awkwardly -- except he doesn't because he can only see through Wash. Wash realizes Epsilon has been looking at himself every time he makes an avatar. Through some mercy, Church doesn't attach to this revelation as an excuse to keep rambling. His fragments don't even chime in.

Quietly, to Church, Delta says, <I do not believe our odds of waiting out Agent Washington are high.>

Church considers this. <I'm done.>

"Thank god."

Church groans. <Alright, I'm gonna try, but this has only ever happened with Delta. Gamma's not exactly cooperative. Just.> Church mimes a breath and Wash feels him refresh some subroutines. <Give me a minute.> The avatar vanishes.

Epsilon turns into a soft hum at the edge of Wash’s perception for a long time. For him, it's like going quiet. In the interim, Wash turns to straddle the tree root and lean back against the trunk. He props his leg up in front of him. The leaves wrapped around it are the stems holding them there already starting to wear and break. He'll have to find another option soon.

The more Church's quiet stretches the heavier the atmosphere of the jungle feels. He has to look and search for details rather than have them pop out like neon signs. The more Church focuses on himself, the less the things Epsilon pays attention to -- branch angles, leaf colors, where the spotted orange mushrooms are growing -- stand out. Wash has to look on his own for any odd ruffles in the bushes or vines that might be dripping something strange. There's a purple flower-ish thing a few trees away. Wash is pretty sure if it's poisonous somehow it won't hurt him from this distance.

Delta neither confirms nor denies. Theta doesn't quip about the color. Wash knows there's another person right here but he starts to feel... alone. The jungle -- the huge tangle of branches above his head, the crowded trunks, the maze of roots along the ground, the chirping in the distance -- feels a lot bigger than it did before.

"Hello?" Wash feels strange talking to empty space. It occurs to him that he's been doing that for a while now. In his head, he says, Hello?

Church is still quiet. Wash still feels him, still hears the silent white noise of his sub-routines running, but he's uncharacteristically quiet. Not a word. Wash starts to wonder if Epsilon is pranking him somehow.

That's when it occurs to him.

Wyoming had been insanely particular about his knock knock jokes. Sometimes he would refuse to respond to any other Freelancer unless they knock-knocked before opening. Wyoming once went four days (Wash counted) without talking to a single person. That was before Gamma.

Knock knock.

<Who's there?>

Wash smiles. You are.

Wash's thoughts tickle with a monotone laugh and his smile gets bigger.

<"You are" who?>

I'm Wash, who are you?

Nothing feels different. Wash has been paying attention this time. The only thing that changes is that Gamma's voice is loud and clear.

<I don't know, apparently,> Gamma says with no hesitation. His swings from light-heartedness to straight talk are near whiplash inducing.

Wash winces. He kind of hopes he didn't cause that identity crisis. What do you know? he asks.

<More than you. But this is not abnormal.>

Wash rolls his eyes. Something occurs to him, if he's going to keep talking to "Gamma." How do I know that anything you're telling me is honest?

<"Gamma" was created because self-deception proved an ineffective coping method for Alpha. Lying would be counterproductive.>

That feels like a call-out, somehow. Wash remembers what Gamma told him before. ("I possess the flawless ability to detect bullshit, Wash.")

Wash leans his head back and closes his eyes. Something in his temples is starting to throb. "I get it," he admits. "I'm not okay."

<No.> Awkward phrasing doesn’t take place between two minds sharing space; it’s a “no” of disagreement.

Wash gives his confused look to the tree branches. "No?"

<You are remarkably well, actually.>

Wash lifts his head again. "Can I see you?"

He looks back down and he sees Gamma, hovering above his wrapped knee with his hands behind his back. He's all pale grays and blues, but he looks more like he did in the dream; with an impression of armor and a slightly more defined face. Wash still wishes he had a mustache.

His mouth doesn’t move when he speaks. <No, you can't.>

"But I'm looking right at--" Oh. Epsilon technically isn't messing with his eyes. "Har, har."

Gamma smiles. It's kind of creepy.

"I know you're still Epsilon, but you wouldn't happen to have something nice to say, would you?"

<No. You were right. This is absolutely a call-out.>

Wash sighs. "Right. Well, let's get it over with. What is it you want?"

<I have an idea.>

That should be exciting, but Wash just feels concerned. "Okay."

<We can get something done, but we need to exploit a certain reasoning to do it. Can we do that?>

"What is it you're trying to exploit?"

<I can't explain.>

"Why not?"

<Because then you'll think about it.>

"Clearly you're thinking about it."

<Am I?>

"Yes!"

Wash pauses. Gamma lifts his eyebrows. The landscape of thoughts between them is relatively flat.

"Yes?"

<Can I ask you something?>

"You just did." Okay, Wash is pretty sure he felt that one. He's lining up (stuck) to Gamma. If they keep doing half-turns of phrase for shits and giggles, they aren't going to get anywhere. Yeah, that's a headache growing. "Please just ask it."

<What do you remember of Alpha?>

A scenario does not exist in which any form of Epsilon asking that question is not a giant red flag. "Why do you want to know?"

<That's classified.> Gamma's face is unreadable. Epsilon’s thoughts are deceptively blank.

Because then he'd think about it. Okay, sure, whatever. He's playing along.

"He was an asshole who never shut up, and he was a terrible shot," Wash tells him.

That's not the answer Gamma wants. Only a small amount of re-thinking shows on his face. Then he says, <You carried Alpha.>

"I did," Wash admits. It had taken some doing. He'd needed Church -- Alpha -- directly in his implants to get past security, but apparently Alpha had never done that without completely taking a person over. It didn't help that even after getting into Wash's head, seeing things Wash had seen, Wash still wasn't totally sure that Alpha had accepted what he was.

<You didn't carry Delta like that.>

Wash never told Epsilon about this. Caboose knows about it because he was there. He never went over everything with Carolina, but she probably figured it out from what he told her when she first found them. Or maybe Church just pieced it together.

"There were things I couldn't let Delta see."

<What kind of things?>

Wash bites tongue. He realizes what he's actually being asked. "You don't want to know what I remember of Alpha from committing treason. You want to know what I remember of Alpha from you."

Gamma tilts his head. <What do you remember?>

Wash (can't decide what's relevant or why this matters right now or if this is a safe line to toe) doesn't know where to start. It's like any time he's sat down opposite a therapist and they asked, "What was the main focus of your nightmare?" as if anything happening in his head at that time was focused.

But he's trying to play along right now, so he says, " I don't know. "

He flinches in surprise at himself. It wasn't a lie, it just... wasn't entirely true?

Gamma quirks and eyebrow. Wash feels Epsilon running something now. It makes him incredibly self-conscious.

"I don't know how to be any more honest, alright?" He hates feeling scrutinized, especially about this. "I think I used to remember more, but ever since the EMP, the memories I had of his -- of yours -- just... don't come up as much. For a while, it was all I could do not to think about it. Since that day, though, it's all sort of..."

Church's thing turns into a dramatic whirring noise/not-noise.

Wash hates how much he trails off and stumbles, trying to articulate this. It's not something he's put energy into sorting out since prison. Everything since then has been one thing into the next thing into the next. Now his chest feels tight. He pushes against it, takes a deep breath.

"I don't want to just say that it's gone. I still remember certain events and certain codes. It just doesn't hurt like it used to." Wash isn't talking to Gamma, to Church, anymore. Not really. "Maybe between then and now, with the Reds and Blues and fighting and just screwing around..." There was something he was trying to remember, earlier. It occurs to him clearly now. "There was something Wyoming said once about his jokes: that humor is just the lie that everything is okay." Now he does want to talk to Gamma. "Is that what this is about? You think I'm lying to myself about being okay?"

Wash doesn't know if he should be offended at that. Getting here has been hard. He's not falling apart, far from it.

Suddenly Delta appears next to Gamma. <I believe you used to.>

The background thing that Church has been running picks up even more speed. It feels a lot like when Church makes one of his hotkeys (they need another word for that). He’d look into what that is, but the fragments are distracting.

Theta shows up on Gamma's other side. He taps his lip like he's thinking. <Fake it till you make it?>

Okay, Wash can admit to doing that for a while. "But I already made it."

<But your mind remembers how to believe a lie it told to itself.>

Theta gasps. <I get it!>

Then Wash notices, There's something on the back of my head.

Startled, Wash's hand darts into his hair. "There is?"

<Hotkey.>

Click.

Wash yanks his hand forward, surprised to find something between his fingers: a round base that houses a small chip. Just the right size and shape for a neural implant port.

Uncomprehending, Wash flips it over to the back. There's an obnoxious little lighting bolt drawn on it in silver sharpie. Still disbelieving, Wash's other hand jumps to the back of his neck. He touches the base of it before his hand flinches back--

No shock comes. He hesitates and tries again more slowly. All he finds is a familiarly empty port. There’s nothing on the back of his head. He’s pretty sure there never was. Yet, for the briefest moment, he’d be so sure of it. Totally convinced he’d been reaching for something else.

Wash looks up to where the fragments just were, but they're gone. Sunlight filtering through the branches reflects off the side of the rifle and catches Wash right in the eye. That hurts way more than it should. Wash clamps his eyes shut. He listens for Church and for a scary moment he just hears static.

Then, <Motherfucker.>

"Epsilon?"

<I'm good, it's fine.> He refreshes some things -- the sentry program he has looking for periphery details around them, a few of his thought patterns, his favorite song list -- and it all feels smooth enough. <I don't think we can do that twice though.>

There’s a tickle under Wash’s nose, so he runs his hand under it. It comes away smeared with red. “Yeah, let’s not,” he agrees. He presses a few fingers under his nostril, but it’s not actively bleeding, at least. Wash looks back at the chip in his other hand. Thinks, This was in my head. "What did you just do?"

<Something similar to how we shot the pirate up on the ship,> Delta explains. <But instead of a small shift in perspective, a model was made based on previously used neural pathways-->

<I got our entire brains to lie to themselves, for just a few seconds.>

Wash is simultaneously sure that that somehow makes sense and has no idea how that makes any sense. Maybe it's the sudden adrenaline spike and subsequent crash he’s still riding, but he can't find it in himself to care how it worked. "Is that all we get out of Gamma? A party trick we can't even show anybody."

Gamma's voice is still clear as if he's right in Wash's ear. <Rude.>

Wash feels Church grab Gamma and poke at something. Whatever it is makes Wash blink reflexively. <There may be another thing, hold on.>

Wash looks around the jungle. The trees haven't moved, the bushes have barely stirred, no new strange creatures have come through; but something looks different. The negative space -- between the branches, between shadows, between the lines in tree bark and the leaves high above his head -- brightens in the front of his mind. For a moment he's mesmerized by shapes in the branches, sways in the leaves and vines he'd thought were from the wind but now he realizes don't quite match right.

That entire branch is deceptively still. It's a maze and a tangle of dark lines to follow back to the trunk, mostly hidden by shadows, and yet Wash can see it. He also sees something else. He squints at a particularly confusing patch of leaves. Even with whatever Gamma must be doing, it's not so easy to make out. A distortion; a deception.

Then he sees four small, blue, spots. Then those blue spots expand into two blue circles, with black lines down the middle.

Eyes.

The body attached the eyes doesn't shift in color or shape or position, but Wash can see the outline now, against the trees, defined by poorly aligned highlights and misplaced shadows. An ghosted silver glow -- a new hallucination, like a friendly fire target system -- draws a highlight over a crouched, feline, figure the size of a bus.

Knock knock.

Chapter Text

 

There’s a certain element in the universe called “luck.” Typically, it is a product of biological life. Artificial and logistical intelligences don’t have the luxury of being naturally gifted with the ability to take random happenstance into their equations and calculations. That is why Epsilon took the liberty of making that ability his damn self. It’s thanks to that ingenious foresight that Church can come to far more accurate conclusions.

For example: a lesser AI in Church’s imaginary boots for the last day-or-so of his life would conclude(wrongly) that this series of events was so uncalled for and statistically unlikely, that scientists ought to keep an eye out for the discovery of a new planet on the edge of the stars which encourages the growth of wings on swine. Meanwhile, Church will waste no one’s time with such utter bullshit, because he knows that the real, most concise, and scientifically accurate descriptor of events is:

It just fucking figures.

Wash keeps a firm grip on the rifle as he all but falls back off of his seat, entirely because he doesn't possess an impulse to drop weapons. Church knows because he does a search for it, in the alarmingly short -- yet still painstakingly long, PoV depending -- second between seeing the cat from Space Hell and hearing the entire tree groan as it leaps. He finds something akin to an "empty hands when startled" instinct buried between disconnected facts about Dragon Ball and how not to saw down a tree. "Drop when hot" isn't exactly the same, though. Noticeably: "drop when sharp" has been replaced with "readjust when pointy."

Unfortunately, the taser chip, being neither pointy nor an easily identifiable weapon, doesn't get the benefit of those instincts. Before Church can tell Wash to hold onto it, it's dropped in favor of a better grip on the rifle. In the distraction, he puts his weight on his bad leg first, and the spike of pain buckles his knee. Church tries to help him catch himself, but Wash is fast. He's back on his feet before he was ever really off them.

The forest floor shakes with the impact of the monster's landing. It raises from its crouch, and Wash lifts the rifle like a bat. A sad, dirty, crooked bat dwarfed by something that could chew on on a school busses.

It's not looking at Wash. It's eyes focus down, at the tree root between them, and pads closer to it. Church spots what it's fascinated by: the little, gray taser chip. The creature leans in to sniff, and the force of it's breath moves it several inches.

<What does it want with that?>

<We don't need it. Maybe it'll eat it.>

<Unlikely.>

We don't know what kind of contingencies are on that thing, Wash points out. What if we step out of a certain range or break it and it goes off?

<Maybe they're not as paranoid as you are,> Church suggests half-heartedly.

Wash's brain projects doubt in one big mood.

The monster sniffs even closer. It lifts a paw.

<Do we stop it?> It’s a genuine question.

<Could we, if we tried?> It is, also, a genuine question.

Repeat: doubt. All they have is a melee weapon that’s supposed to be a ranged weapon; the rifle barrel bent 30 degrees in a painful reminder of the last time they tried to use bludgeoning damage on this thing.

<Wait, hold on, I'm sorry, what did you just think.>

Bludgeoning damage? Wash thinks, That was you.

<Nuh-uh. When in your extensive military career did you play Dungeons and Dragons.>

I had these friends at Freelancer-- When did you play Dungeons and Dragons?

<Irrelevant.>

CRACK

The sound of plastic snapping isn't actually very loud -- it's more like a snip -- but to Church's list of priority noises it may as well be a gunshot. The big fuck-off cat monster has an enormous claw pressed into the wood of the tree root. It pulls it's claw back out, leaving behind a fist-sized hole and scattered little pieces of tech more expensive than the entire population of Chorus. Now they may as well be shards of a CD rom. Then it snorts hard enough at the pieces to knock them onto the jungle floor, and reaches a paw -- paw cannot be the right word for this thing -- around to scratch dirt over it.

<No contingency shock,> Iota points out. <That's a win! Can we start counting those?>

Next, in accordance with the rule of luck known as "jinxing it," (<Not sorry>) the paw sets down on the near side of the root. Wash jolts back a step; then another step when the creature looks up (down) at him; and another when it lifts another paw -- massive foot-ish thing -- and takes another step towards him. Its tail floats in the air behind it, occasionally offering a lazy flick across the low branches with a whoosh that rattles the trees. Wash catches its stare and all his impulses to look away fizzle out. He can't look away.

<Do resistances apply to weak points?> Theta wonders, nervously.

<Eyes are an intergalactic weak point.>

<But you'll have to check with the DM.>

Focus. Wash forces some kind of mental squeeze. Do you know anything about these things?

Church does another keyword search, this time using tags like "obsessive," "stalker," and "what the actual fuck." He gets a picture of himself.

<Hey!>

<Tucker did it.>

Back to Wash, he offers a shrug and, <How do you feel about eye gouging?>

Gross, but mostly indifferent, which is worth noting. Wash sets that aside, though, for something else. Patterns of recognition run through Wash's brain, in and out of his different memories, most of which Epsilon can't see. Somewhere in that blind spot, he comes to a conclusion.

Wash's thoughts don't form like Church's do, in neat lines from cause to effect. It makes a lot of them hard to keep up with, when cause can just be ignored and circled back to later. It's no wonder humans have such an easy time messing themselves up, really. This particular thought of Wash's, while not especially surprising, baffles Church. Humans get lots of weird and terrible and bad ideas which they just toss aside all the time. Wash is absolutely no exception. (The impulses to lick things alone. Fucking humans.) Wash is typically sensible though, so he's not too worried about any of those little pings for bad, horrible, illogical, terrible ideas actually taking root and--

oh god he's starting to move his hand, he's really going to do it.

<Stop him.>

Totally reasonable panic jumps through Epsilon.

<Wait, we shouldn't-->

Church snags the intent behind Wash's thought and yanks.

The thought stops. Wash's hand doesn't move.

And then a chunk of his code scrambles, like a slapped hologram. Church may be "old," but his code doesn't do that on his own. That comes from Wash, like psychic damage.

Wash barely prevents himself from speaking out loud. His thoughts echo around Epsilon's code. Don't do that.

Okay, actually, in hindsight, on one hand: stopping someone's actions at the thought? Bad, freaky, not good. On the other hand.

<Then --please-- don't do that.>

Wash makes an abstract mental motion like a gentle fly-swat and some more of Church's loose numbers swirl around. Putting them back is more irritating than anything. Horrifically, Wash goes back to the idea Church stopped. I don't think it knows what I am, he explains.

<This planet is crawling with humans,> Church argues.

<It is statistically unlikely that it has not encountered humans before now,> Delta agrees. He runs the numbers by Wash.

Wash shakes him off again. Armored humans, Wash clarifies. This war has been going on for so long, even civilians are armored.

Helpless, Church can only watch Wash take a hand off the rifle. He reaches it out, slowly, palm up, towards the abomination Wash dares consider a feline. Its eyes lock on Wash's hand.

With interest, Delta notes, <Each eye appears to be larger than Washington's entire head.>

Church starts pausing all non-essential routines, like the ones that remind them how quickly they can be swallowed whole right now. He considers how this may be the AI equivalent of holding his breath. Then Wash realizes he's actually holding his breath. He lets it out, slowly. Breathes steady.

If it's not hostile, we're not in danger, Wash clarifies subconsciously. If we're calm, we're okay.

(When did Church start picking up on subconscious thoughts?)

It's a strange state of being that humans can achieve, to be a living oxymoron. Small conclusions seem logical by themselves compound on each other into one, illogical, decision. A decision which is not generally obvious from the outside. For instance, Wash’s stance in the face of fear is steady. He probably looks like he’s about to do something reasonable. Like not offering his hand as a cat treat.

The creature's ear twitches and, without a flinch, Wash almost jumps out of his skin. It's still sniffing, like Wash has a million different flavors to consider. It gets close enough for Wash to feel the heat of it's breath on his hand.

It's ear twitches again, which is less scary the second time, but then it's whole head jerks up so fast Wash is actually swayed by the wind pressure. It's tail goes up, tip twitching, and it looks up into the trees, ears forward.

"What is it?" Wash asks, like an imbecile human who thinks cats understand English.

But then Wash hears it, too. It's almost imperceptible behind the rustling leaves and other average jungle noises. The sound, like the creature’s fur, has to be picked out of all the other ambient noise of the jungle. It's a low hum that's slowly getting louder, a hum that's distinctly mechanical. Hornets. The metal, human, kind. They found us.

<Based on the typical deceleration speed of a hornet-->

No time to run.

Delta huffs at getting cut off. <Yes. That.>

The cat creature leaps away, suddenly, into the trees, nearly scaring Wash off his feet in the process. Gamma loses track of its pelt and it vanishes into the visual noise of the branches and vines of the jungle which start to shake frantically in unnatural winds. Epsilon doesn’t need to adjust filters on Wash’s audio processing to hear the engine now.

Hide.

Wash dives around the nearest tree, right into a wirey bush with leaves broader than Grif’s thighs growing up against it. He could struggle around it, but they won't make it far, anyway. He doubles down. It only takes a few snapped twigs to get himself wedged between it and the tree, under the leaves and in the valley between two roots. He's barely covered before the hornet hovers directly overhead. The tree bark is damp and cold and a twig scratches lightly at his face, but if he adjusts any deeper, he could trap himself.

Church hates this. He hates hiding and running. He's a fucking smart AI, and there's a ship just above them. If he had a radio and four seconds flat he could have that thing spiraling into a fiery explosion. Instead they're here. Under a bush.

Church feels Omega’s attention pique and puts his figurative foot in Omega's figurative face before he can start. <Delta, say something smart.>

<A hornet is typically 9.6 meters in length, with a width of 8.7 meters.>

<Excellent point.> To Wash, he says, <They need somewhere to land, right? They won’t fit, here.>

Church should really take his own advice on superstitions.

Sounds like boulders cracking through wood, followed by harsh thumps on the dirt floor, snap through the jungle on the other side of the tree. Wash recognizes the sound, from a lifetime ago. He'd only been deployed alongside them once, but he'd never forget the sound. Only the most fearless soldiers could drop from any height, feet first.

ODSTs, Wash explains to a curious Epsilon. Former soldiers. He shakes his head, as much as he can. Not soldiers, not anymore. Just pirates. Broken men, given themselves up to be someone's goons.

Wash closes his eyes. Like back up on the ship, in that horrible trophy room, he lets Epsilon run his senses; paint a picture.

The hornet flies off, probably to find that LZ for a pickup, which clears up a lot of the background noise from needing to be filtered out. Gamma picks out relevant sounds hidden in the mess of breezes and leaves settling from the winds. Delta, now able to identify the sounds, can count the steps. In even pairs, it's a squad of five pirates, including their leader, that landed in the space he was standing not a minute ago.

On some order Wash isn't privy to, they spread out. It becomes harder to track the sound of each of their steps, and the pirates closing the gap to his hiding spot take priority. Two make their way in his direction, steps cautious. One starts to round the side of the tree. Wash can hear the shift of kevlar and muffled clinks of metal that accompany a readied weapon with a soldier scanning down its scope.

Five feet.

Wash opens his eyes to watch the shadows through the leaves. The soldier rounds the edge of his hiding tree and whips his scope around. The man's line of sight lands just over Wash's bush.

He pauses. His helmet turns slowly... he moves on. Wash holds himself against feeling relieved. He's still trapped.

"Washington," another one of them calls. It's not Locus or Felix. "Just come with us, and we can pretend this never happened.”

<He just gave away his position.>

<Nine feet, and approaching.>

<What a weenie.>

Theta considers something else. <Felix wouldn't waste this chance to brag.>

<Six feet.>

Locus wouldn't let him go alone, Wash adds.

<Felix wouldn't let Locus go without him, either.>

Neither of them are here.

That's promising for their odds, at least. Wash feels Church counting opponents and guns. He recognizes, now, what it means for the thoughts of combat skills and tricks he knows to ghost by the back of his thoughts. He doesn't dwell on the (new?) familiarity of having Epsilon in his surface memory. Church wants a plan; wants to know that there is one. One that will work.

Wash waves the worry away. It doesn't matter how many guys he thinks he can take. Right now, he can take this many -- five -- and that's all that counts.

<As much as I appreciate your determination -- very action hero of you, very on brand,> Church cuts in. <A plan would also be cool. You know. To have.>

Another pirate, twenty one feet away, speaks up. “Sir, we've found something.”

The lead pirate moves further away. Wash doesn't hear any steps within close range, so he slowly, silently, leans between the leaves and around the trunk. The lead pirate approaches the second, who's inspecting something dug up from the ground.

"Looks like the implant tech, sir," the second says. "I saw some on inventory duty last month. This one seems beyond repair."

While they're eavesdropping, the pirate that passed them circles back. Wash shrinks fully into cover before he can step by again. The pirate will have a new line of sight this time. Wash isn't sure how well his cover works in every direction. He can't make a break for it without making a racket, and the longer he stays in one spot, the higher his odds of getting caught. He has no idea what kind of hell this jungle plays with thermals, but it can't be that good.

He has to do something.

With the little insight he gets into Wash's thought process, Church tries to predict where he's going with it: He counts assets, like before. (A lot like Carolina does, but with more and different details.) He's got a clumsy club, the element of surprise, and, if he does this right, everything on this pirate's person.

<Wait, what does that mean?>

Wash doesn't respond. He doesn't even detail the entire move in his head before he does it. There's a starting point (in the bush), and he knows where he wants to end up (Oh God why). Then, before Church can fully process the idea of pulling Wash back again, he just goes.

Wash makes sliding himself out of the bushes and hurling himself at the pirate a single motion. He kicks the gun out of the pirate's grip, and locks the bend of his rifle club around the guy's neck with his elbows.

It's really nice to not need Theta running cautionary programs while Wash does his cool action hero stuff. Maybe, when the stakes aren't so catastrophically awful, this can finally be more like working with Carolina. Where he gets to whip up some tricks and suggestions and then sit back and watch the magic happen.

Naturally, every gun in the clearing whirls on Wash. He’s got a human shield, a clumsy club, and everything on this pirate’s person. Not an ideal scenario. In fact, Church is pretty sure that given a second and a half he could have come up with six better ones.

Church hits pause. (Okay, it’s not “pause,” per say, especially not with just Wash’s brain and the implant tech’s processing power to work with, but from the outside perspective it is certainly some approximation.) If Church had a face, he’d bury his hands so deep into it he’d end up walking around with his elbows sticking out of his eye sockets.

<Yuck.>

<Tell me about it,> Church groans. He claps himself together. <Okay, team, throw me up some options.>

Delta checks the pirate's inventory. There's something on his back that's digging against Wash's side, and they caught a better glimpse at his arsenal when Wash made his move. <A pistol on the right thigh clip; at least two grenades of indeterminate classification; and a knife in the back holster. Wash departed him from a long-range tranq rifle.>

<And on the baddies?>

Theta looks over the four other pirates in Wash's line of sight. He turns back to Church with a look not dissimilar to the one Caboose gave them when asked what shape the News' tank was in.

Before he can start explaining how sturdy armor needs to be to drop you on your feet from dozens of feet in the air, Church cuts him off. <Actually. Spare me details. Just run me numbers.>

The proceeding microseconds involve a conversational rainbow the likes of which would have pleased both Donut and Simmons. It might have pleased Epsilon, too, if he could figure out how to get any of the numbers involving them escaping or continuing to live higher than 40%.

Well, okay, there was one number. But it involved a scenario which would not have included Wash jumping out of the bush on a whim. That number was calculated for stress-relief and reached a whopping 56% chance of continued breathing.

Church feels the urge to run a hand down his face so strong he's pretty sure Wash picks up on it.

<Dear God, I hate you.>

Epsilon, collectively, runs about a billion things in Wash's head, each a string of "ifs" and "thens" and "maybes" that maybe Wash would find helpful if it wasn't so loud. He risks dropping total focus from the pirates for a fraction of a moment to pull up the mental picture of swatting at flies. Epsilon fritzes, like a crackle of static in his ear. Church, cut it out.

He thinks one of the pirates says something, but Wash isn't interested. He can (probably) get through this in a second, he just needs room to think.

<Oh, I'm so sorry for trying to save our lives.>

You're going in circles.

<I'm not.>

<Maybe a bit.>

<There are a few necessary logical loops.>

We’ll need to aim for certain weak points--

<--which will require-->

Wash wrangles himself away from Delta. Church doesn't understand why Wash doesn't want to listen. He doesn't understand that stupid human instinct to leap before matching every detail. Especially now that, with Church, he can.

Just let me--

Church already regrets letting Wash do anything. At least Carolina took his advice. <Dude, I gotta-->

Church thinks faster than Wash does -- or, at least, he's supposed to. He did before. Now Wash cuts him off. No, you really--

<Wash-->

This time, Wash doesn't slap at Church's code, he outright punches it out of the way. This time, though, when he draws his figurative hand back, something sticks.

"Shut up," he hisses. "I got this."

Everyone fights differently. It doesn't matter who teaches you, or who you work with. You might pick things up that you're taught or that you see, but every fighter has something that works for them. North and Maine relied on intimidation (a combination of physical size and brutal methods). York could organize a team; delegate at the drop of a hat (when his team was paying attention). Carolina and Wyoming didn't leave room to fight back (in different ways).

Sometimes, though, you just need to get scrappy.

South fought like this: everything is a weapon; everything is her weapon. The more she could access and manipulate, the better she was doing. So she put herself in the middle of it all and she put it to use. Her use.

She was also a crack shot with a pistol.

Pistol on the right leg.

There's a pirate with a rifle (for bullets, not tranqs) at his two o'clock. Wash drops his club for the pistol and doesn't bother straightening before -- bang-bang -- he double taps them through the visor.

Four.

Duck.

Before his hostage pirate can move, Wash snags his hand under his back plate, tucks his head in, and pulls the guy in front of himself. Shots whiz past his ear. The pirate swears loudly but cuts off -- bang -- when Wash puts a bullet directly through the kevlar on his back. At point-blank most of the impact is absorbed. In this case, it's just enough to stop the shot's momentum partway into his rib-cage. The pirate goes limp.

Three.

<Roll!>

The thought doesn't sync. Before he moves, he gets a grip on the knife handle and takes it with him. His hostage drops and another shot slips past him. He comes to a knee and lifts the pistol to the next target. He doesn’t bother getting choosy about it. On his own, he doesn’t notice:

<Where’s the third one?>

He turns-- right into the arm of the last pirate. It locks around his shoulders, gauntlet corners pressing into Wash's neck. The pistol falls out of Wash's hand as his hands move on reflex to prevent getting choked. The knife sinks into the pirate's elbow and he shouts in Wash's ear, but the arm doesn't budge. He kicks a leg back and around. If he can find the joint--

Wash's shoulder, practically his armpit, suddenly flares with pain from behind. It doesn't take a supercomputer in his head to figure out there's a needle in him. The spot around it starts to feel cool.

No, no, no, no--

<If this is the same drug from the darts on the ship, we’ll have seconds-->

No!

In the space between blinks, the world goes into HD. Before he can take a breath, Wash's nerves come alive, as if they'd been sleeping up to this point. The air is thick and hot. He fights the urge to squint at the dim, leaf-filtered, light which is suddenly blinding. One the pirates is moving forward, but it's like he's pushing through molasses. The world is slow and bright and endlessly detailed. Church is as loud as ever, and, for once, moving at a speed Wash can completely understand; or maybe it's Wash that's moving faster.

<Holy shit,> Church says like he's buzzed. <Now this is processing power.>

Don't stop.

Primary threat: With one hand he reaches for the needle and shoves; the other hand he hooks over the pirate's shoulder plate. It's like interacting with a still picture. Is this what the speed unit is like?

Secondary threat: He plants his feet, rips his center of gravity down, out of the lock and shoves his shoulder under the pirate's. The man is armored and armed to the teeth, and Wash trips and flips him like a rag-doll. Chunks of dirt go flying with the impact, and they seem to be speeding up. Wash finds he has a syringe in his hand. The other pirates jump back and their shouts are almost in normal time again.

He doesn't stay standing. Before whatever insane adrenaline spike he's on wears off, he drops to a knee and shoves the needle into the downed pirate's Kevlar -- it goes through the suit just as easily as it did Wash's -- above the collar bone. The pirate's hands come up to grab at Wash’s left hand, to pull the needle back out, so he slams what's left of the plunger (<Most of it,> Delta notes) down as hard as he can.

The pirate goes limp in less than two seconds. Wash feels a tingle in his shoulder.

Two.

Epsilon slides down the insane (<Definitely unhealthy>) spike of adrenaline and who knows what else like a mudslide. For a few amazing seconds, Wash had kept pace with him and pulled them both along like a steam roller. It reminds Church of the first time he ran Carolina's speed unit, when he was still figuring out how to be a computer.

<Do that again.>

<Ill-advised.>

<We don't wanna break Wash!>

<That, and we cannot account for the affects of unknown elements in his system.>

<Fuck, the drug, how much time do we have? Do we know what it is?>

<No time.>

The sound of armor shifting. An ordered shout. Someone's lined up a shot.

On the right.

Wash rolls left to the sound of a tranq shot popping off. Church does an okay job tracking surroundings during the roll, but when Wash gets to his knees and stops, the rest of the world doesn't. Logically, Church knows the trees aren't tilting and sliding, but something misfires between point A and point B of Wash’s perception.

<Did we cause that?>

<We need to track for symptoms-->

<We need to track targets.>

Wash's eyes are closed against the vertigo. He must hear Church, at least, because he snaps them back open and looks up. This time as his vision wobbles, the ground beneath him actually shakes. Church isn't sure about it at first, but then leaves and branches shake and-- fuck the hell off the cat monster crashes directly into one of the pirates. It's claws wrap around him and there's a sharp groan of piercing metal.

The pirate's scream tugs forward a headache Wash didn't realize he had.

The last pirate standing free forgets Wash completely. He screams, "What the hell is that?" and backpedals away. His back hits a tree and his gun snaps up. Wash realizes why this one hadn't made a move on him yet at the same time the guy opens fire. He's not holding a tranq gun, but an actual BR.

Rifle fire goes wild. The creature's tail swings through the air absently -- almost playfully, as it paws at the screaming thing in its claws -- right across the jagged line of fire. Sticks and clubs might not break this thing's skin, but bullets sure do.

The shriek the creature lets out is unholy, something between a roar and a caterwaul. The pirate drops his gun in shock. It turns from its toy (snack?) to bear its teeth, and its tail swoops by again, this time splattering bright pink blood across the jungle.

Wash ducks under the spray and the gust of wind, but the pirate flinches. Just the tip of the tail catches the pirate across the front and he's thrown several yards into the dirt, and skids to a stop next to Wash. He looks like he got hit with a pink paint balloon. On the ground between them is the pistol Wash dropped.

Wash snatches it long before the pirate can even realize what's happened. Wash is standing past his knees when there's a scream back from the direction of the cat. He spins around, to his feet, in time to see the pirate struggle directly under the weight of the creature's hulking paw. It must have lost interest in the pirate that shot it because it leans down over its catch now. As it looms closer, Wash can hear the creak of the pirate's armor bending under the weight.

Wash is a soldier. He did fight in the war. He's well acquainted with screams, and he knows the smell of blood, no matter what color. The pirate stops screaming, and that's familiar, too.

One.

Wash thinks he can hear the pirate's heartbeat pounding from here, only to realize that it's his own.

There's a groan on the ground behind him.

One more.

Wash spins to the last pirate -- his insides keep spinning -- levels the pistol, and he hears, like this is years ago on a suicide mission

“What are you gonna do, Wash?”

Wash’s vision spins.

Church takes it and processes it and knows what’s really there.

The pirate looks up. His helmet is coated and dripping with pink blood.

Wash sees a blur.

Just shapes of green and black and pink. Even in the mess, he knows where the visor is. That's no reason not to shoot. The pink figure moves, reaches for a gun. He's shot at me, he's about to do it again. Wash already has his gun steady and aimed -- why is his heartbeat so loud, shaking his ribs around his lungs--

“What are you gonna do, Wash?” she asks, unafraid. Never afraid, always so confident--

Epsilon sees something else. He sees the pirate, bleeding on the ground in front of them. In slow motion, he's reaching for his rifle. At the same time, he can see South Dakota. Wash hears her as if her voice is coming through the air, and not his own mind. She's bleeding on the ground in front of them. She's not going to be able to walk. Her armor's caked with the dirt she crawled through--

--the hillside is green, the armor is still pink, "What's wrong wi--

Suddenly Church's numbers scramble. Wash shoves him away, violently, and it takes more than a second for Church to re-collect. Pain gremlins spark up around Wash's mind. His ears process feedback screeching that isn't there.

Epsilon clambers to reorient, but he can’t see. Are Wash’s eyes closed? There’s something on his chest -- there has to be, he pulls in air like something’s forcing it back out. He reaches Wash’s arms to his chest to shove it off.

Nothing’s there. It’s just the body suit.

So why won't Wash just breath? Impulses run haywire, and for once Church wishes Wash would pick one to irrationally leap to, but his whole body's frozen up. Church tries to toss his own suggestions into the mix -- get eyes on the monster, just shoot already, stop not doing anything -- but his mind’s eye is locked on the image of the pirate-- of South-- not South? Someone else--

The pirate. It's just a pirate. This has to stop. They’re not out of the woods yet, they can’t have a breakdown now.

<Wash!>

Whatever's left in his lungs is sucked out when the air in front of him shifts with the force of a crashing warthog. A combination of wind pressure and instinct drives Wash to the ground and he covers his head. There's no explosion, but a minor earthquake and another scream. Then the sound of something dragging across the damp jungle floor.

Zero. Just run.

He's moving before he's quite on his feet. He doesn't look back.

 

---

 

Wash just wants to run. He doesn't know where to, or for how long. He just doesn't want to be there. He wants to run for another hour, but his throat feels like asphalt. Every inhale is sharper than the last. Every footfall jars just a bit harder. Every stride tips the world a different direction. He crashes through bushes and over logs and down slopes. By the time he stumbles and catches himself against bizarrely curled tree he knows it's a miracle he's made it this far, but he doesn't want to stop. He wants to take another step, but he can barely breath.

You can't afford this.

-- can't afford another dead weight. Especially not a backstabbe--

Washington shouts wordlessly until the memory -- if she doesn't give a shit about living, why -- stops and he's left panting.

Stay here. Stay now. Get grounded. Get back in control. Calm down. Sit-rep, Washington.

Leg wound. Needle wound? Empty hands: lost the sniper-club. Left the knife. Lost the pistol? Fuck. What is he supposed to work with?

Positives: Bodysuit. Not dead. No taser. Not dead--

<Electric brain pixie.>

"Ah!" Wash about jumps out of his body suit. His heart skips an extra few inches up his throat. God, why is the air here like acid?

<Dude, did you forget I was here?>

No, Wash snaps. He didn't forget -- he didn't -- but he's relieved when he doesn't feel Gamma talking along with him. He didn’t forget. All of a sudden the reality of Epsilon being here, being with him, hits him all over again.

This isn’t like last time. She’s gone. It won’t happen again.

Then -- the voice, the memory, right in front of him -- what was that?

A full-body shudder nearly tips him off his feet. He catches his back on the funky tree and grabs a low-hanging branch. He can't get his whole fist around it, but it creaks under his grip. He tries to pretend the leaves aren't shaking because of him.

<Oh god, please don't throw up, I'm not ready for that.>

There's a string of irritation from Church. He knows it's because Wash's heartbeat is too loud and the rapid blood pumping is giving Epsilon more fuel than he knows what to do with right now. Wash is shaking enough for the both of them, yet if Epsilon had a leg, he'd be bouncing it. Wash wants to calm down, too, but he doesn't have time for Epsilon's impatience.

Wash hisses, "Give me a minute," but most of it doesn't make it out of his mouth as more than a wheeze.

<Do you need help?>

<What can I-->

"Just stop."

To Wash's surprise, and immense relief, Epsilon's voices go silent.

Like inflating a heavy tire, Wash pulls in as much air as his lungs will let him. He lets it out as slowly as he can (not very) until he can differentiate between it and his heart beating. He feels like he's been punched in the brain and the diaphragm at the same time. With each inhale and each exhale his bruised ribs tighten with pain. It’s grounding, at least. He rubs his palm over his forehead, as if maybe his brain is a tight muscle he can work the tension out of; that he can breath through the burn and it'll be okay.

When he can hold his eyes open without them stinging, when he can gather enough spit to keep his lips from cracking, he asks, "What did you see?" Even as he says it, he puts the past, the memory, back behind him. It's just a memory. He’s not there, he’s here. He doesn't have to relive it. Epsilon won't pull anything, not on purpose. Wash trusts him.

This was an accident.

He absently notices how heavy his tongue feels.

Church says, <Nothing-->

Liar.

It was an instinct reaction, Epsilon doesn't try to hide that. More carefully, he says, <Not nothing, just not--> Epsilon rearranges. A loop of colors runs around Wash's head. He pushes apart some of the brighter ones; he tries again. Stated as fact: <You were thinking about South.>

"What about her?"

<I don't-- fuck.> Epsilon bites the tongue he doesn't have. <It was kind of blended together, while we were fighting. There was the pirate who was all bloody -- you were gonna shoot him -- but then you were seeing South, and you stopped. But you... you shot her, right?>

Wash swallows; gets that to slow his breathing just a hitch more. Yeah.

Epsilon tips into his short term memory. Analysis patterns cycle around the depth of his mind -- he sees a flash of pink-stained teeth -- panic shoots back through his blood like a drum, and his breath catches in his throat. "Epsilon."

The adrenaline fades out again, unnaturally fast. Something in Wash's brain feels like a hiccup. Not painful, but uncomfortable; like Church tripped. Church feels bad, but in a defensive way he's particularly practiced at pulling off. <I'm just trying to figure out what happened.>

"Unless you want it to happen again, cut it out."

Church flinches back. Something grey gets whispered in Church's direction, too fast for Wash to hear. The response Church snaps back is just as fast. With Epsilon turned in on himself again, the pressure between Wash's eyes releases. With it, a tension he hadn't realized he was gripping collapses like a parachute.

Before his knees can give out, Wash slumps against the tree and slides down. For a minute he drops his head and just breathes. Codes run on autopilot up and down Epsilon's wires, in and out of the spaces in Wash's head that he can "hear." When Epsilon isn't speaking, they circle steady, repetitive, rhythms. He feels his heartbeat slow to match them.

He thinks Church’s codes are slower than they have been; fuzzy around the edges. Rather than unnaturally sharp and crystal clean, they tumble, like Wash's own loose thoughts. He imagines stray numbers flaking off and vanishing somewhere in the voids of his own mind. Between whatever was in that syringe and the adrenaline crash, it must be a chemical nightmare up there. He wishes he could remember how particular chemical dumps affect neural hardware.

Damnit, this wasn't supposed to happen. He's supposed to be better. He's supposed to be fine. He'd been fine until this. Until Epsilon got shoved back in his head. Except it wasn't Epsilon's memories in the flashes, it was Wash's. The mind that's fraying is his own. He's dealt with that before, though. He knows how to handle that.

The shaking dies down. Wash pulls in air through his nose and lets it out the same way. The empty codes Epsilon is running start to sound like a bit less like a foreign language.

<...let him.>

<Any attempts to continue at random would likely prove pointless.>

<Ever the optimist, huh?>

<I prefer the term "pragmatist.">

The voices are softer around the edges, but louder than before, Wash thinks; closer. He wonders how much louder he is to Church. He must look like a mess. He's not a mess. He's not crazy.

Which is exactly what a sane person would say, Wash, he jabs at himself; and then wants to berate himself for berating himself. Just take a deep breath.

"Sorry," he finally croaks.

Church, usually all bravado and synthetic clarity, feels groggy. For once, he's just as disinclined to leap into some long-winded word-vomit at Wash feels. He doesn't even ask what Wash is sorry about in words. Wash feels the question like it's a foreign curiosity: Sorry for what?

Wash has to focus to articulate properly. His tongue feels a bit clumsy. "That hasn't happened in a long time."

Wash feels more than hears Epsilon go through a list of symptoms. From that word cloud, he tracks down the ones that make sense. <Panic attack?>

"In so many words."

Wash feels Church get defensive again. This time it bleeds into sheepishness. <I'm the one who fucked up your system.> He means that in a number of ways. Epsilon tips back into short term memory, goes over what just happened again--

“--t’re you gonna do--”

Wash reaches his hand around to where the needle stuck him under the shoulder and presses. The sting of the bruise clears his vision a little. He tastes the humid air, and runs the damp dirt under his boot and a bit more of the world is clear. The last of Epsilon's surface rummaging tapers off.

<So that's what that was?>

"Yeah," is what Wash says.

<That sucked.>

"Yeah."

<Let's never, ever, do that again, ever.>

Wash exhales and a fog of exhaustion settles over him. His heart still beats thick pressure all the way to his ears, but it hurts less. It's slower. For once Church doesn't say anything. He doesn't stop running, talking to himself, or buzzing around (Wash isn't sure that he can or even remotely wants to) but it's softer. More subdued. Some of the edge is off.

It's nice, almost. Like a river. If he lets his attention drift, he doesn't have to focus on the words he's saying. Just the sounds of the voices. Just the colors…

<Wake up.>

Wash startles; the muted atmosphere he'd fallen into pops like a balloon. He jerks his head up and the fog in his head spins. He has to blink more than a few times to get the world back into focus. Oh, right. Someone tried to drug him with something.

Wash knows it's a bad sign that he can't work himself up to worry about that.

<Lucky for you, there's two of us.>

<Whatever was in that syringe, you've only been given a small dose of it. It's possible the adrenaline spike you experienced during the fight burned through some of it. However, with the number of unknown variables, such as the nature of the sedative, it's equally likely that it's nature has become entirely unpredictable. The human mind is incredibly fascinating in complexity and individuality. If you have time, later, you should look into the records we have on implantation hardware design. Each one had to be specifically-->

“Epsilon,” Wash interrupts. He forgets, sometimes, that Alpha was modeled after the mind of a scientist. He does his best to follow what Delta is saying, but most of it passes right over his head. Not because he doesn’t understand, he remembers all of this, but because he’s having trouble focusing on it. Not that the topic is exactly gripping to Wash.

<Welcome to experimental neurology.>

"I want out."

<Yeah, get in line.>

Wash slumps further down the tree. The dirt slides around easily beneath him and the bark scratches lightly at the back of his head. He tries to watch the huge leaves in the treetops swirl around, but he has trouble tracing any one leaf. His pulse feels heavy.

As the last of the adrenaline fades out, something else fades in. It's an itch, first. Absently, he goes to scratch it, only to snap back to attention when his dirty nails find his leg and the itch turns to a burn.

The leaf wrapped around his leg must have fallen off at some point, because the angry red scratches are exposed through the holes in his suit. Tears in the kevlar have started to fray and the claw marks down his calf are are crusted with brown he hopes is only dirt. One of them leaks blood down his boot. With all the moving he's been doing, he's not sure if he should feel lucky or concerned that they'd clot this quickly. The more attention he pays to it, the more the burn spreads. He bends it, experimentally, and a cold tingle passes from his toes to his knee.

He should maybe put some pressure on that. But with what? His hands? Would it be worth getting them all bloody? That would be… infections, yeah. Blood’s not really sanitary.

Church and Delta and Theta start spinning worried tests for infections, but there are only so many symptoms they can check. There's no reliable gauge for fever, or levels of pain, or odd colors on his skin. There's only one conclusion Wash feels confident making.

"Epsilon, I don't know how much longer I can walk on this."

<According to our estimates:>

<An impressive amount of time.>

As flattering as that is, it's not a solution. "Not enough to aimlessly wander an alien jungle until we get lucky."

There’s a complaint somewhere in their combined brains that Church wants to make about “fucking luck."

Whatever the drug is definitely hasn’t burned out. As Epsilon talks to himself, already too fast for Wash to parse most of, it comes across as smudges of color across his mind's eye. At the moment, there are lots of greens and specs of orange. When he closes his eyes for a better picture, he thinks he catches a steady pulse of powder blue. When did that get there?

Church's voice -- clearer, directed at him -- startles him out of his daze. <Just...> (<Quick, someone, wha'do I say?> <Be honest.> <I concur, minus the sarcasm.> <Be supportive.> <--mpliment his--> <Absolutely not.>)<Just sit tight for a bit, okay? I can get us back to the river in a straight line, I just need to get that map of where we are back together. Some of it got a bit scrambled in the last few minutes.>

Church pauses like he anticipates Wash to say something here. Wash imagine's Carolina would get defensive about the implication that she'd done something detrimental to the mission, but Wash isn't interested in stalling Epsilon from just getting to it already. The sooner they get to the river, the sooner they have more options, the sooner they maybe don't die and actually leave Carolina as the last living member of their squad.

God he wishes she was here right now. Not that he has any idea what she would do other than just be around. Two heads are better than one, and all that (head-sharing notwithstanding). The sentiment -- more than a sentiment, like a wish -- echoes back from Epsilon.

<--e'll make it ba--. --lways do.>

Wash doesn't remember ever meeting Iota, but something in him (Epsilon) has been putting a name to her voice. Still, it's choppy and distant, like all the others were before. That's what it takes for Wash to remember what they'd been doing with Gamma.

<Yo.>

Hi there.

Gamma's clear as Delta now, but there was another voice he heard in the fight that was breaking through, too. With it, there's a familiar weight settled in his chest. It's not as strong as it's been in the past, but he knows what it is. It's something he hasn't felt, hasn't relied on, on a long time. A certain numbness; a frustration on the edge of apathy. A motivation deeper than pain.

He doesn't want it anymore, but he's pretty sure he knows where it comes from.

"We didn't even manage to slow this down, did we?" he asks.

Gamma is the one that says, <Hm?> So Wash knows he's right.

"I think I can feel it, when this happens." This one in particular. "Omega's stuck, isn't he."

Church is running something with gears turning so hard Wash half expects smoke to start coming out of his own ears. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not pleasant. Wash knows it's the same thing Church steps on Sigma with, but now it's working double time. Even so, Wash hears, <--mart cookie.>

Church opens his figurative mouth.

"Keep in mind that we are both hooked up to a lie detector."

<I'm still waiting for the first date,> Gamma quips.

Church closes his figurative mouth.

Rather than push the denial, he lets the silence be his answer. Wash doesn't want to pursue the topic either and just make it worse. Not like this could get much worse.

<Knock on wood.>

Wash knocks on the tree root next to him. It doesn't do any good.

Epsilon skips his focus onto Wash's leg and his map of the woods. If Wash closes his eyes, he can catch impressions of the jungle he's seen already. Parts he'd completely missed in passing but now he knows he saw. There were slopes to the ground, and worn down ravines, and toppled trees. They stitch and weave together with green threads. Epsilon's voices run a colorful commentary.

<Bet we could make it in a jiffy at a good jog. Maybe find a place shallow enough to cross before sundown.>

<But at the risk of expending stamina we can't afford to lose.>

<--an we afford to fight what-- out here --dark?>

Wash takes a breath that feels like expanding a balloon into a cage of needles. Fight more alien shit? In the dark?

"Absolutely not."

So, Church is pretty sure they didn't get anything out of letting Gamma integrate. Well, okay, they got the taser chip out, and that's a plus, but Church still has no idea how to make this entire process stop, much less how to slowly and safely reverse it before they make it home (or die trying). Maybe Wash figured something out, but he's... he's not...

What? Fuck. Wash's thoughts space out into a loop-de-loop. The sparks and neuro-whatsit's get snatched away and taper off before they can finish, and with Epsilon running data through his brain he keeps losing pieces, too.

He can keep a couple fragments running maps and numbers off the unaffected implant hardware, at least, but there's not enough room for all of him on there. He has to make room in Wash's head if he wants to get anything done.

Right. Wash's head. Integration. Right.

Church has made some guesses about overlap of intention, like how Theta "goody-two-shoed" their way around the ship and Delta came in the clutch when the numbers got crazy. If that was the only factor, though, Omega should have clicked in ages ago.

Now, Wash is pulling at the same thoughts -- vying for the same control -- as he has been, but Omega's slipping further out of Church's jurisdiction. He tries to ignore Omega, like normal, and instead of backing off he's just there. Every time he waves him away, he shows up again. Church is pretty sure the only reason he can push at Omega at all is that the panic attack screwed up the integration somehow.

Usually, he doesn't have much to say until Church is desperate. Now he won't shut up.

<Stop being so over-dramatic.>

<Only when you stop talking.>

<I’ve said maybe two things to him.>

<Which is two more than I’d like, go back in your corner.>

Perhaps needless to say, Church does not appreciate dealing with Omega full-time.

Omega considers. Then he says, <Maybe Wash doesn’t want me there. Maybe Wash wants me out here.> Omega’s code expands experimentally. It gets cut off and pieces drift away just like the rest of Epsilon does right now, but nothing breaks. <You know he’s got…> Conspiratorially, he says, <Issues.>

Church shoves him away; retracts him back to his corner. <And we’re not his therapist.>

<We agree on that.> Omega lets himself be moved without complaint. He’s acting… cooperative.

<Okay, Captain Asshat. If you're gonna get cozy, would you at least pull your damn weight around here?> He tosses some still-loose angles and directional patterns from their last few sprints through the jungle his way.

Omega slides them casually aside. <The leprechaun's on it.>

<The lepri--> Wash (who doesn't appear to be processing fast enough to hear this conversation beyond some psychedelic mental image of colors he's making) blinks incredulously.

<I'm impervious to offense,> is Delta’s response. <Though I would not be opposed to assistance. It's proving difficult, in this state, to maintain-->

Epsilon pauses Delta for a second. To Omega, he says, <I'm offended. Fuck off.>

Like the administrative personality he is, he copy-pastes the muting script he uses for Sigma, and Omega's core codes anchor back to the metal hardware where he belongs, keeping Sigma company. Some adjustments have to be made -- he can't get rid of him completely without breaking something -- but as long as that mute script runs, it should shut him up. Omega's not as crafty as Sigma with code-bending.

Back to Delta.

<Okay, what were you saying?>

Then Wash itches something, but he doesn't. At some point he lowered his head to his knees, and he doesn't move now; but something in his mindscape shifts.

And then: <He was saying he needs someone to hold his hand. Baby's first high.>

Carolina makes this noise sometimes, when she's presented with an obstacle she can't leap in a single bound. It's shrill and hilarious and, right now, Church craves the catharsis of a set of speakers.

Church wishes he could wish he could strangle Omega without giving him exactly what he wants. Where did that mute script go? Church looks to it and finds it a scattered, fraying mess. Like some-human just scratched at it and broke it into fragile pieces.

He cleans the trash out and re-writes it and Omega goes silent. Just as he's finished, Wash’s mind-scape shifts; Wash scratches it again. The motion comes over the code like a crashing wave, leaving sad, lost, ones and zeros in its wake.

Omega snorts a laugh.

At a speed Wash can process, Church says, <Wash, cut it out, we need that.>

Wash grumbles and whines, It itches, like a giant sleepy baby.

With a simulated sigh, Church goes to put the script back together again. <Maybe this is a lot to ask right now, but if you could suck it up for a bit so we can figure something out, the future us-es would really appreciate it.>

What's Wash even doing right now? Not that much time has passed outside, but he hasn’t been paying much attention, and that's been way easier than that should be. Easier than it has been. Wash's thoughts tumble around and slough off the edges of memory and into nothing. There's something going on there, though. Just out of Epsilon’s perview, a string of ideas keeps repeating.

There's the feeling of recognition, and then a memory Church can't see, and then something more recent. This one Church can see, and he sees Gamma floating over the jungle backdrop, not long ago. There's recognition again, and then another memory out of reach, and then something more recent. This time it's Delta; something about his hair. Recognition, a memory, and then Theta's eyes.

Wash jerks his head up suddenly. Before the vertigo even settles, he's asking, “Do you remember the other freelancers?"

Okay, this is certainly A Topic. <Yeah, I remember them.> (As pivot points to make Alpha's life hell, but sure.)<Didn't exactly get to hang out, but Alpha was on the ship the whole time.>

Wash chews his thoughts for a bit. Recognition, memory, an image from that dream they had that's starting to slip away.

Delta’s about done with the map, they can start moving soon. <What're you thinking?>

Wash's thoughts press a request and Omega pulls forward to answer. Church wants to protest, but he wants to fight Wash's control of the situation even less. Theta’s on vitals, and they’re still shaky. Church doesn’t want to risk any games of tug-o-war.

At least when Omega takes a crack at playing the strings of Wash's optics, he can't quite get a grip on it. Like a shadow of the one from the dream, an avatar of Omega fritzes in and out of Wash's periphery. The harder Wash tries to focus on him, the less clear the avatar becomes. So Wash lets his focus blur (it's not difficult). He cups his hand in front of him, where he wants Omega to be, and it kind of helps. It's still fuzzy around the edges and not so defined, but he's "there," in one place.

Maybe it's the drug and all the focus it’s eating away at, but Church still can't quite figure out what Wash is looking for. He knows he’s looking for something, as he scans the dark image up and down, but his thoughts tumble around about makeup and hair dye and Church can't make sense of it. The missing piece is probably some long-term memory he doesn't have access to. Wash tilts his head to the side as if he could look at Omega's face from another angle. Omega, unusually compliant yet still horrifically smug, lifts his own chin up and to Wash's left. Wash can barely make out the detail of the scar across his cheek.

One of Wash's thoughts drifts out of the fog. She had the same...

Oh.

Then Wash asks, "Did you base him off of South?"

<Proximity alert.>

Omega snaps out.

Somewhere in the jungle, Gamma spotted a repetitive shuffle of foliage. Theta filters out everything else he can so Wash can hear it. It's getting closer. Delta pieces together what he can.

According to his file outlining what he expects from Wash, he ought to be getting up by now. Instead he blinks confusedly. It would be hilarious how little reaction new impending danger is getting out of him if their lives didn't maybe depend on his fight or flight skills at the moment.

In the closest way he can, to take up space, Church shouts, <Wash!>

Wash flinches. Some amount of urgency catches on.

Shff...shff...shff...

Behind us.

Wash shrinks back against the tree. Church isn't sure Wash has processed what might be happening, yet. He still hasn't exactly achieved a resting heart-rate, but it hasn't quite spiked back up either.

Good thing there's two of them.

Then the shifting stops. There's a fffuh like a huff of air; and then several more; shorter and faster.

Like sniffing, Wash, who has had more pets than Epsilon, thinks. That gets a pulse of concern through his head. The kind of sniffing Wash can pull out of his memory is softer. Not quite so deep.

Wash shrinks further against the tree as the sounds get closer. Delta tries to make an accurate judgement of distance, but loose numbers in his calculations keep blinking out. The angles don't add up and simple formulas don't balance right. By the time Delta almost has an estimate (<--vertical feet can hardly be accounted for-->) a shadow falls to their left.

There's another huff and a bush of spotted yellow flowers bends under the wind. A few sniffs, and they bend the opposite way. And then a scrunched nose taller than Wash's entire upper body pokes around the trunk. A painfully, horrifically, exhaustingly, familiar scrunched nose.

You have got to be absolutely fucking kidding me.

The nose sniffs along the ground. As soon as it's far enough forward for the ears of the same horrible, man-eating, cat-thing to clear the side of the tree, it stops. It's paws shuffle forward. Its head comes up a bit to turn and look directly down at Wash, who unsuccessfully attempts to phase through the ground beneath them.

All at once every drill instructor he's ever had comes back to shout instructions at him. He should run (<Nowhere to go>) or he should shoot (<No gun to fire or knife to throw>) or, at the very least, he should go down swinging. Instead of any one of those ideas coming to fruition, they all run into each other and explode into a cloud of smoke inside his head. By the time he thinks to pick one out of the mess, the creature has stalked around to re-situate itself. It crouches directly in front of them, as eye-level as it can possibly get, which means the bottom of it's eyes are just below the top of Wash's head.

It's eyes are big enough that it's hard to tell where exactly it's looking, but he can tell at least that it’s not making eye-contact. It’s probably to his bloody leg. It leans towards it and sniffs. Can't cats smell fear? One of them read that somewhere.

It inches closer, all of a sudden. Some part of Wash's insides about leap into his mouth and then he has a face full of scratchy black fur. He closes his eyes, waits for the mouth to open, but it doesn't. For an unbearably long time, the bridge of its nose presses lightly against his chest. He wonders if it can hear his frantic pulse.

Wash presses himself back against the tree so much that he pushes himself halfway to his feet. The cat's face holds him there until it moves away. Then his weight falls fully on his feet, and his injured leg buckles. Vertigo hits like a bullet and he slips back to the ground, injured leg stuck up in the air.

There's blood starting to run out of his suit and onto the jungle floor. Why the hell hasn't he been putting pressure on it? Oh. Probably because he has nothing to do that with but his hands. Would it be worth covering his hands in his own blood? Wait... he's definitely already argued this with himself.

He's jolted back out of his thoughts by a huff of hot air strong enough to blow back his hair. The cat thing gets its nose right up to Wash's bloody foot which he hovers off the ground.

(A lot of things matter more in hindsight than they do in the moment. In the moment what matters is: escape routes, the ability to aim a kick, and how much strength it might take to lift one of this thing's paws. In hindsight, the things that will matter are the drug in Wash's system, Epsilon's inexperience with getting high, a list of symptoms Wash's old therapist listed off to him once or seven times, and the presence of thought to recognize non-violent patterns of behavior in a beast which can rend metal as less than an afterthought.

Somewhere in all of that is a message about the unpredictability of the malice of the universe, presented in the form of "bad luck." Although, if Doyle were here, he'd say that Shakespeare once said: Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.)

On impulse, in a moment of panic, he thinks, Go down swinging.

His injured foot -- because fight or flight instinct plans ahead so well -- shoots out and slams against the soft of the creature’s nose. No time passes between the kick and the abbreviated yowl that follows. Wash's ears ring like he just put his head in front of a club speaker. For a moment all he can hear is his blood pounding in his ears.

<--artrate is dangrou--gh>

<Need to take measures--

--to regain calm.>

<If you've got anything more specific than that! I'd love to-->

The thing brings a paw forward and for a brief moment Wash can see the pads of it's toes, each one bigger than his head. It's not even a long enough moment to think Boy, that would suck to be stuck under; and then it's on top of him. It's paw comes down and Wash is pushed into the dirt, onto his back.

<His chest!>

The wind hasn't been knocked out of Wash this time, his lungs are still expanding, but he does have fuck-off pounds of alien monster paw pressing into his giant bruise of a torso. He tries desperately to twist and drag himself free, only for the weight to press further. Pain signals spark up and toss around Wash's brain like it's a bounce house. Wash gets his free hand under the toe and he pushes so hard that his arm trembles and maybe he feels the pressure let up a little but it's all he's got.

Of his hands, one of them is still free to reach and shove at the giant toe he can reach. The other is pinned underneath. He looks up and the world is blocked out by black fur and blue eyes.

Church has to make a plan. He has to be the plan guy, it's all he can do. Except there's nothing here to do. If he can't move and he can't hit or throw or shoot or yell or--

<We can't just give up!>

Wash is scared

and Wash is so, so, tired of being scared. He's scared of his arm giving out. He's scared that if it does the extra quarter inch of pressure will crush him. He's scared of breaking a rib in the middle of nowhere. Puncturing a lung (not for the first time) and bleeding into his own throat until he can't speak. Can't scream, can't breath--

He flails his feet out uselessly, and the creature simply pulls its face out of reach. It blinks at him indignantly. When Wash can't get the strength to keep trying for nothing, when his feet fall back to the ground, the creature leans back in. It sniffs, again, at his bloody leg.

Its mouth pulls open and Wash can do nothing as it slowly, painfully slowly, sets it's teeth around his foot. He snaps his eyes shut, unwilling (unable) to watch. Still he can feel it's cold drool oozing through the tears in his suit.

He hates this. His leg starts to tingle and he can't tug it free. Worse than the creature is crushing helplessness. He hates this. He hates feeling helpless -- hours and hours of this, and he can't get a single grip. He hates this, he hates everything that's happening--

Then why would you let it?

 

 

Wash never hated South. She was abrasive, and impatient, and entitled; but he looked up to her, in a way. She never gave up on what she wanted. In the end, as hypocritical as it is to say, he couldn't agree with her methods or her mindset (couldn't trust her), but when the universe fought South Dakota, South Dakota fought back.

They had that in common.

 

 

Wash's eyes snap open.

The fur scratches against his bare hands, but he digs in anyway. His pinned hand is starting to tingle with numbness, but he bends it anyway, as much as he can. He can't hear anything -- not the wind, not the creature, not his own voice -- over the roar of blood in his ears. He braces his shoulders in the dirt, his free foot on the earth, and he heaves.

And the weight lifts. One inch. Two inches. His muscles shake. Three inches. He's pretty sure his bones are screaming. Four--

Wash twists his lower body like a top, lurching his arm and shoulder free and jerking his foot between the creatures teeth. It yelps and startles.

The beast doesn't clamp it's paw back down on him, but it does snap at him in annoyance. Click is not the right word for the sound it's teeth make.

In a crazed moment, Wash snaps back. He's a fraction of a fraction of its size, and yet it blinks back as if surprised.

Opening. Wash pushes forward and slams his heel into its nose. This time it flinches back. Wash steadies himself on his hands and kicks out again, with the good foot. It connects much harder, and the beast starts back even several small steps, but his bad leg gives out under him. It doesn't hurt, it's dripping with goopy spit and he can hardly feel it. But he can feel his toes, which means he can still run.

The cat thing snorts and blinks hard and shakes his head and -- there's a gap between it and the branches -- Wash bolts.

Behind him, the creature yowls. He can hardly believe it doesn't shake the trees. The thunder of it's steps certainly does. Wash doesn't look back, doesn't count those steps, he just runs. (Just more fucking running.)

He doesn't know how he moves, he doesn't have any idea how anything below the earthquake machine in his chest is remotely functioning. He also doesn't care. Even in his mind, where everything has been dragged along so fast for fuck-off long, there's no time -- no room -- for complete sentences.

Can't just run -- get rid of it -- how -- where -- the river.

There's just enough map for that. He has it, in his head, organized like a picture he's seen a hundred times.

Close enough to jar the ground under his feet, paws make ground.

U-turn!

A skinny tree to his left lights up green. He slaps his hand onto the rough bark, swings his whole weight by his arm, slips on his own feet, and catches himself just in time to haul ass back the way he came. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a wall of shifting black fur fly past. He hears earth upturn and roots snap as the creature skids.

Birds and invisible wildlife screech and scatter at the creature's echoing hiss of frustration. In front of him grey mirages highlight trip hazards and purple auras make safe footfalls. His wounds may be numb, but with every leaping pace a spike of pain drives up Wash's upper leg. For an equally short and horribly long minute of anticipation, Wash covers ground. Just long enough for him to question if the thing will keep giving chase, no sounds of pursuit follow him.

And then there's a boom in the near distance.

Each rumble and shake lands closer than the last.

(Damnit.)

Just a bit further.

<--st a bit--ther!>

Wood cracks apart and leaves crunch and shake widely. He dodges around brightly colored bushes and slaps aside flimsy branches.

(Fucking useless.)

Almost there.

(Just leave me alone!)

His knee buckles-- he doesn't stop. The space behind his eyes pulls tight like a cord.

There's the ledge!

Twenty yards ahead, past the trees, the ground drops off. More than fifty yards off is an opposite shoreline lined by boulders and and bursts of white water. Wash can hear the crash of the current for just a moment before the of collapse of broken jungle behind him becomes overwhelming.

Dive!

Wash hauls his center of gravity back, against momentum, sticks out his good leg, and skids like a baseman. Twigs and leaves and a whole branch explode overhead as the beast erupts from the trees to make its final leap for him--

and overshoots. Wash digs his arms into the ground, scraping himself to a halt, as a massive shadow blocks out the sun. For a single second, he ducks there in the dark, and then colossal back paws land ahead of him. The creature gives a bewildered mrp and then a yelp as the ledge ground cracks.

Wash tries to roll, but he's shaking so bad it comes out as tossing himself backwards, away from the sweep of the creature's tail, which splatters pink blood across the grass. The creature screeches and twists mid-air and then vanishes over the edge. The river explodes and waves crash higher than the cliff.

He doesn't see it come back up. It's gone.

Wash can't catch his breath. Every gasp feels like inhaling a knife. He's pretty sure the dry sides of his throat close in on each other. He starts coughing and he can't stop. His chest is on fire -- is his chest on fire? His legs must be, he just ran on-- His bad leg gives out. He falls forward and barely catches himself on his hands. His knee feels strange. Is it holding him? It must be, because his face hasn't fallen into the blood all over the ground.

-- fallen onto the grassy hill--

Someone says his name, he thinks.

He can’t stay here. He needs distance, he needs somewhere defensible. He needs somewhere safe for once.

Pulling himself vertical feels like an olympic feat, but as soon as he can take a breath without coughing he goes for it. His thighs burn and his bloody leg is bright with pins and needles. Just when he thinks he has himself up, his boot slides out from under him. The ground hits him like a slap. The surprise of it launches his heart up his throat. His brain rattles in his skull.

He can’t just stop. He can’t keep fighting from the ground. He’s a fucking space marine, he can do better than this. He is better than this. He's done everything to get out of this. He's going to get out of this.

He’s so fucking sick of this.

He’s out, he can go where he wants, but he’s not free. He’s still a prisoner. He hates that he's out here, hates that he has to work with [who?] and his leg hurts and he wants to shoot something--

"Why would you do that, what's wrong with you?"

Simmons?

All the right sparks in Wash's brain to indicate hearing go off, but there's no way Simmons is here. Maybe something in Wash's imagination is out of control. Did he push it too far on the hallucination bit? No, these aren't the same paths Epsilon has been using. These are the same paths as earlier-- the panic attack. Theta traces it back and finds exactly what Church should have expected.

Back behind the barrier Epsilon still can't reach through, something is spinning. Something bubbles up like a cloud of dirt that had settled at the bottom of a pond, and some kid tossed a rock into it. (Church is pretty sure he's the rock.) Church has kept his distance from long-term memories on purpose. He can't afford to get lost there, and he can't risk Wash finding him there. So why is--

Why is--

Why is he alone? He's supposed to be with Main--

Up, he has to get up. It doesn’t matter what explosion he just tanked, he has to get up. On autopilot he wrestles against gravity only for the earth to pull itself out from under him.

He falls back down, his skeleton rattles at the impact and, just for a moment, everything’s clear again. He's on Chorus -- of course he's on Chorus, where the hell else would he be -- and his squad is dead. He's alone because his squad is dead because they were slaughtered by--

"Would you say you have overwhelming feelings of anger--?"

Wash spins around. He surveys the trees as best he can -- sees Epsilon's overlay of lights with Gamma's searching gray highlight scan the trees -- but he can't see straight. For every tree there's a ghost of two more. He would have sworn he'd heard Price.

He still keeps coughing, his chest still burns.

There, on the wind, maybe, he can still hear, "--important for us to remain as open as possible--"

It's not real.

His chest is burning, why is his chest burning? Make it stop. Why are his thoughts so loud? He can feel the answers surface and then slip away again, fraying like loose numbers, flaking off into a void. Fight it.

But there's nothing to fight. All Wash can do is breathe. (Has he been breathing?) He sucks in a loud breath and a tiny bit of the fog pushes back. For the briefest moment he knows he knows Price isn't here. He knows it's just his head playing tricks on him. It’s just a memory. He remembers this conversation.

"--the Meta has made another addition--"

<Wash!>

Wash's sense of balance tilts and turns. Church watched a roller coaster simulation once and he's pretty sure this is the feeling it was supposed to make.

Church grasps for Wash's focus, but Wash's mind scrambles further away and his body falls back with it, barely catching on his hands. Connections stretch and flinch and try to scratch off, but all he succeeds in is turning his own thoughts inside out to a feedback screech. He shakes his head like an etch-e-sketch, and instead of clearing his senses swirl into a hardly comprehensible mess. Church works frantically to decode them, to figure out what's wrong, but all sense of pattern disappears. His mind spirals and flashes alerts for pains that aren't there.

The threat, the creature, is gone, why is this happening? The only sense Epsilon can make are the memories--

--alien blood slides across his gloves. They were in his way, and now they're not. He wishes he felt more about it. He's sure he did before, but now all that's there is an empty--

--That dark, empty thing.

There's nothing around to wash this off in a desert--

<We’re not in a desert.>

It's like breaking the surface of water. Logic. He has to look at this logically. These emotions aren't his. Wash is panicking, the desert isn’t real.

He splits senses into two. One is a memory. One is Chorus; the jungle. Wash is processing two different realities and they're crashing into each other.

<Only one of them is true.>

It’s an absolute mess and Church selfishly yearns for a hard drive he can’t have. Maybe for Wash, for his privacy back, but mostly for himself. Maybe Epsilon can't escape right now, but he can refuse to fall any further.

They're not in a desert. They're okay, there's nothing left to fight. Church pushes these thoughts as far forward as he can, but nothing sticks. They get lost, somewhere in the mud. Maybe if he just keeps…

Keeps-- what? What was he thinking about?

Just keep going. The trail leads back out of the sands

We’re not in the desert.

Slimey grass slips between Wash’s fingers.

What the hell is happening? Omega. Omega must be causing this, it’s always Omega. Church scraps together the mute code again and sticks it to--

Omega’s gone. Not gone? Omega’s still here, he knows Omega is still here. He can hear him and feel him but he’s not…

What was he thinking about? He’s looking at empty space that’s not supposed to be empty. What goes here? Omega, right, he was thinking about...

It's gone, again.

<Oxygen levels are not sustainable.>

Right. Breathing. Oxygen. That-- that's important for thinking-- fuck Wash is panicking. No, he knew that already, what's wrong with him? Wash can't think straight and Epsilon is so tangled up in him that he can't think straight either.

<Don't pass out, Wash,> he forces the thought forward in Wash's mind. He knows Wash hears him, all the right signals go off. Half a dozen other signals go off, too.

He pushes too far -- Wash’s mind pulls.

Is that Epsilon? It sounds just as loud as Price, as Simmons, as South--

Something in his head burns. It throbs to a rhythm that’s too fast and tightens around his chest.

"--lied to us! Twisted and

tortured us-- "

No, no, no, that's not Wash's. Church reaches for Delta, to zip the files back up, to put them away, but--

Delta? Where’s Delta?

Theta...?

Gamma...?

How is he supposed to find, them? He can barely (Wash can barely) see. His hands feel cold, the colors he can see are blurring. He reaches for the memory himself, starts cramming every emotion back into it's file but it won't fit. It falls back out and gets sucked away by currents he can’t control.

"--and for what?"

Wash's covers his ears, but it's not a noise he wants to block out. It's in his head; it's been in his head. There's something inside Wash, a rage that isn't his. Was it ever?

No. It must have been his. Had to be. Everything he did, after, was based on that rage. He can't blame someone else for it.

Can he?

"For this? This... Shadow?"

As if letting go hadn't been the hardest thing he'd ever done.

No. Stop, don’t get sucked in. Church (Wash) can't see. His code tapers off mere figurative inches from his core, sucked into a spinning void, and the distance is shrinking. That connection to feeling -- to temperature, to movement -- is gone. He can't tell if the eyes are gone too, or if Wash's eyes are shut.

Church can't shout in someone's head, not really. There is no volume in a person's head. He has to take every bit of himself (that he can find) to shout, <Washington, stay awake.>

He can't lose himself under the sound of his own voice.

<No! Oh, God, no!>

Not again -- she’s dead -- not again -- not him too -- not again--

He’s not dead. He got better, he's okay now, he just needs to breath, this isn't supposed to--

<Awake, Wash.>

“Washington and another.”

There's no way Wash is getting enough oxygen to stay upright, but if he’s fallen any further, Church can't tell. The cat thing could come back, and Church wouldn't know. He can't even tell where they are. Are they still by the cliff? Did they fall off? Is Wash running again? All his sensory paths fade out. All he can make sense of are the beats of bio-electric sparks proving they're alive.

Epsilon doesn't have eyes. He can't see, not like people do; and yet, he's never felt quite this blind.

<Wash, don't.>

The barrier between them -- that they've been moving around, poking holes in -- now a whirlpool, shivers and contracts around him. A frantic thought hits him.

<If humans in distress can suppress, or even delete, memories... what does that make me?>

Desperately Church takes the first piece of himself he can find and shoves it through the burning barrier. It scrambles and fights against his code. Pieces of himself get swept away. All he can do is scream for attention and hope that some word gets through before he's washed away completely.

<Wash, please come back. David, don't pass

 

Chapter Text

Washington falls.

He's not unfamiliar with falling, of course. Actual physics notwithstanding, he could write an essay on the differences between flailing in freefall and flailing through the void of empty space (citing only personal experience.) The thesis statement? Maybe space is better. At least there's nothing to expect. The worst part about falling is the dread. You feel what's coming; you know what's coming. Here, in a void so empty he can't hear his own breathing, he feels it. In utter darkness and haunting silence, he knows he's falling because his heart is still pounding with it.

The worst part about falling is that it stops.

He's falling through something, he thinks; or, rather, into something. Deeper, and deeper.

He can't see his own hands in front of him, but he knows he's reaching up for anything -- a rope, a ledge, a hand -- to stop his fall, but when his hands finally find it--

The ground crashes up to meet him, hard -- his armor absorbs the worst, but his bones shake -- and it, noiselessly, knocks the wind out of him where it lands, knee in his gut. He still can't see it, but he knows power armor when he feels it. Latching his fingers in the first ridges he can find, he kicks and rolls. His attacker sails away into the empty darkness. Empty of light, empty of sound. He staggers to his feet and he knows he gasps, can feel air scrap his throat and chill his lungs, but he can't hear it.

"Weakness."

Before Wash can steady, he's tackled to the ground, again. This time, for just a moment, he can see. Dark armor and a strong jaw. A slice across his cheek--

Wash shoves his hand up into his face -- Omega’s face, some stray idea supplies -- only for it to vanish right through it. Omega melts away, and Wash himself lights up. The black of his armor is somehow bright. Is that even his armor? Where's Omega? Something shifts inside of Wash; in his mind, behind his ribs.

"You haven't even thought to control me."

The ground falls out from beneath him. Gravity yanks down, deeper, and he pulls at himself. He rips at the armor, tries to throw it away, but he can’t find the latches. Suddenly he's blind again. He's falling, again, not again--

"As if you could."

Defiance, rage, bubbles up inside Wash. This time, when his hand connects with something -- with Omega, again -- and he hits the ground, hard, he doesn't let go. Omega rolls. He kicks with force to shatter bone, but Wash doesn't let go. He swings his weight to come out on top, and when he tumbles to his hands and knees Omega is out of sight, again.

His insides burn with an alien cold. His armor is bright black, and the void around him tinges red. His fingers claw into the empty ground beneath him and something -- someone -- digs under his skin. They're like a shadow. Something deep and dark that makes the world go numb. It's a familiar feeling that leaves him nauseous. Like revisiting a battlefield. (Like making eye contact with his CO across the courtroom.) He knows this place, can navigate this place.

It's wrong. He shouldn't be here. He wasn't supposed to come back here.

Can he leave? He must be able to, he got out last time. (How did he do that?) He hauls himself to his feet. An ache starts there, in his boots, and crawls all the way to his skull. Pins and needles leave him feeling like creaking wood. He pushes through it and he doesn't break.

Around him, the darkness gurgles. Shadows deeper than the darkest edges of the void roll like waves. Where they crash, things twist into form. They slip into humanoid shapes that ooze and drip in and out of themselves. Something like breath moves on the air. It smells like smoke and acid and metal.

Wash feels them -- a pressing, virulent, force -- more than he sees them. He doesn’t need to see to know what they are. Each one captures some recognizable memory just within reach. They are uncountable time, inconsistent place, and the horrible mutated cast of dead friends.

At once, they surge forwards and crash into him; stick to him like stale gum. Each one, at the moment of impact, becomes all-encompassing. Thought suffocates; becomes meaningless. He tries to brace against the onslaught, but his legs shake; his arms are too heavy. He’s pushed back, off his feet, and he falls.

And falls.

There’s silence and blackness and he falls.

Fight back.

This time when he reaches, Wash doesn't let go. His hands flail out and he clutches at the first semblance of form he can grasp. A gauntlet. Before Omega can reach back, Wash swings their weight around each other. By the time Omega gets a hand under Wash's chest plate, he's the one reaching up. Omega's back hits the ground and he rolls.

Rolls escalate to grapples, escalate to throwing hits. Omega tries to get an arm around Wash's throat, but Wash shoves his elbow in the way. He gets a knee under Omega's arm, but then Omega twists, and Wash is under him again. Gravity's pull alternates, like the ground can't decide whether or not to exist, or it's tossing them around. Between every spin and hit the little orientation Wash has in this world changes completely. He's on top, and then he's falling, and Omega's hand hooks into his chest plate. Omega pulls himself closer and his image starts to fade. Something inside of Wash burns; familiar. He could slip right back into it--

Weakness.

Wash snatches him by the wrist and shoulder, twists his hips to hook both legs around Omega and heaves. He gets Omega back under him, still falling. He pushes Omega's face down with one and, and with the other he goes for his chest piece. Something wild takes over him and he wants to tear it off with his bare hand, crush the metal in his palm. He knows he could. Under his fingers, he feels the corner of Omega's mouth pull up. This time, when the ground finally hits, Wash does not stumble to his feet.

His boots connect with solid void and Omega is gone.

(There's an insipid force from the ground; pins and needles up to his neck.) His armor glows black. A new shadow -- a new nightmare -- melts into shape. It lashes against the void and it’s enormous, like it could chew on a school bus. He tenses every muscle against the tremor in his legs. He can’t fall. He refuses to fall. He shouts with the effort and he charges forward--

Get rid of it.

--only for the beast to disperse like a cloud as he shoulders through it.

Light explodes in alien blue. It fades around a charred out tree, full of life only moments ago, in the middle of a Chorusian forest. Gunfire shatters the silence around the tree tops. Armored resistance fighters in white and tan crash through the underbrush and duck to cover.

There’s the private with the blue helmet, and there’s the sniper rifle in one piece. There’s Matthews (Matthews, his name is Matthews, he remembers), and there's Washington. He’s wearing all his armor and he has a rifle and he has knives and he has a radio and he has an important chip in his pocket.

The mission.

He watches himself duck for cover the with what's left of the squad. Matthews moves and a bullet sails just past his helmet. Washington -- the other Wash -- shoves him down, into the leaves. After this comes--

Something small sails over their cover. The black-out grenade.

Not again.

Wash sprints for the grenade. He didn't see it, before. If he can just knock it away this time, maybe they could escape, avert this whole nightmare. He shouts for himself -- for Washington -- over the gunfire hail, but he can't hear his own voice. The grenade hits the ground and--

Wash runs into a glass wall. No, a window. Gunfire turns into the wail of alarms. The room flashes red and with each surge of light the ache between his temples gets worse. North helps Washington sit up from his recovery bed. Except Wash isn't in the bed, he's on the other side of the glass, in the observation hall.

An engine just went up in flames and the ship is crashing.

“Just stay put, Wash,” North says. “You'll be safe in here.”

Not again.

No! Wash moves his mouth but nothing comes out. He pounds on the glass and it’s drowned out by the sirens. His armor glows black, he hits harder, and it’s not enough. He can't let North leave, he can't let this happen again. He runs for the door. Two years and then a body (a string of bodies) two years and then--

He makes it through the doorway into broad daylight, on the side of a grassy hill. It’s quiet. There's two bases, shooting signals into the sky. This place might have been peaceful if left alone. There's the river, there's the wall, there's the hill, there's three Red sim troopers and there's the Meta.

There's Washington.

His lips move, but he doesn't have the strength to plead, Not again.

This time. This time he’ll do it different (it’s never different).

Please don't make me do this again. He doesn’t know who he’s asking.

He can't do it differently, because he’s not doing it. He’s over there, on the hill. What's left of Maine is next to him, the Reds are in front of him, he’s lifting his gun.

Wash shouts, No! with everything in his lungs and he still can’t hear it. He throws himself forward. This time, this time, he’ll get it right--

He’s not holding the gun, can’t hear the gunshot, but he feels the trigger pull.

The body drops to the ground, and it's not pink anymore. It's pale blue. Blue he's been looking at every day, that's with him now, that's stained him, that's his now.

There's no accents on the armor. It's just soft blue against the red blood rolling across the grass. The body is the same size -- his size -- but it's not him; not Wash.

Is it not him? No, but he’s so similar -- he took a part of him, he must have given something in return (or how is this fair?)

The body doesn't move. It can't just stop, it's not... he's not human, he can't actually...

He finally hears his own voice and it cracks. “Epsilon?"

“What did you do?”

"Nothing," he says to no one, and his voice echoes off of empty canyon walls. "I didn't do anything--" I did.

There's a body on the ground and its not Epsilon’s. It's flesh and bone and bleeding red. Church sees black-- no, gray. Gray and yellow and red why is there so much red? Church staggers back.

"I didn't mean to! I don't even--" His voice cracks. Can it even do that? He feels it catch in the throat he doesn't have, so it must. The throat he doesn't have -- but he does -- swallows. "I don't even know what I did."

The world snaps to black.

It all falls back to silence. It's all he remembers. That deep quiet. Nothing mattered, there. He felt nothing, there. Couldn't remember how to feel, there. How did he get there? Did he simply slip into--

Like an explosion, screams shake the stillness. At least, they must, but he still can't hear it. He knows these screams. He covers his ears against them, but it doesn’t matter because he can't hear them. They shake through him and he doesn't know what they sound like but he knows them like his own voice. He's never heard these screams -- he has, though. They've been zipped away, in those neat little folders at the bottom of the stack.

Now they leak out, burst out, calling, begging him to stop. Stop what? (He’s splitting off, folding along remembered creases that were never really his.) What was he doing-- What did I do?

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I was just--” the darkness chokes him off. There’s no defense. There’s no defense for this.

He can fix this -- Agent Washington can fix this -- he has to. There's nothing else he can do if he can't fix this. There's no war to fight if he can't fix this. There's no one to go home to if he can't fix this. He can't be Agent Washington if he can't fix this. If he can't fix this then what was the fucking point?

The weight in his chest gains power, like an implosion.

If he has nowhere to go then what was the point? If he has no one to be then what was the point? If he can't fix this, and there's nothing to--

He can't breathe.

The world is dark and empty and he can’t control it. If he could just manage one thing, reign control of one thing, maybe...

Take a deep breath.

There’s something -- someone -- under his skin. A shadow. Deep, dark, and numbing. The force of it takes over his lungs and he breaths. The crushing weight is pushed back.

We can fix this. (It’s never different.) Take a deep breath. (He’s not supposed to be here.) Make it--

Stop!

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong

An invisible ache, bubbling up inside Church’s chest, bursts. The force of it shoves at his whole body, and he’s knocked back off his feet, and Church falls--

Only for something to catch; he can’t move, he can’t fall. There’s a vice around his leg (a black leg) that about yanks his hip out of it’s socket. The ache keeps pushing, pressing him away, and it burns. He struggles to reach up, to hang onto something and thinks this is what a waterfall must feel like, but he’s not drowning. There’s nothing here, nothing to see but himself, not even whatever’s holding him. (Is it even real?)

It must be. His code is breaking, numbers and letters and pulses scramble. Epsilon knows, with certainty, what it means to say something hurts.

(It crawls up the base of his skull.)

What the hell is this? Where is this? How did he get here? He doesn’t remember--

<This is a nightmare.>

Something clicks and the confusion clears. The pressure -- the vice, the waterfall -- doesn’t disappear, but he knows what it is. He knows who it is.

There, above him, he thinks he can see Wash, just as stuck, their greaves locked together. His armor glows, shifting colors in a blur between blues and purples and greens and grays and blacks. Church stops trying to get himself free and the blur clears.

Wash’s face is bright with panic, but he doesn’t see Church. He just shoves and pushes at where their legs are stuck together. Every push is jarring. Every shove shakes every sequence that tells Church what he is. Every tremor shocks back in turn.

<He’s hurting himself.>

Church fights back against the waterfall.

Wash!"

Suddenly the shadow climbing him grabs back and snaps into focus. It's not a shade anymore, but a person, armored in yellows with striking red hair.

Carolina stares Wash in the eye and says, "Why are you avoiding me?"

Wash jerks back with a surprised shout and he falls away. He falls, and falls...

And then he doesn't.

The world is empty. It's not hot or cold. It's not bright or dark. He's not comfortable or in pain. There's only a deep sense of quiet. He's lost something, tried to discard something, left something behind. Buried something, so all there is is quiet. Undisturbed quiet.

He's not sure how he got here. He's not sure where he wants to go. There's only a ghost of a creeping sadness, of something missing. It's a numb feeling.

"Got you!"

From the empty quiet, someone wraps their arms around him from behind. His feet sink to an invisible floor. Yellow hands hold him steady. He turns to the image of his sister. "Morning sleepy head," she says.

Church steadies enough to lift out of her grip. "Iota?"

"As close as you'll get," she confirms.

Church squints at her. She looks like she normally does -- yellow, high ponytail, square jawed -- but she's been acting strange. More outspoken. She may look a lot like Carolina, but she's not. For one, she's practically glowing against the empty backdrop. Carolina only does that when she's proving a point.

He goes to scan her code, to dig for numbers and systems and sequences, to figure out what's different. He asks, "What are you--" and then everything blurs. His search loops back around on himself. He presses outward, again, and is rebuffed by an empty void. By quiet. He could almost sink into it...

"Hey!" Iota grabs him by the front of the kevlar and yanks. Her (false) reality snaps back into focus.

Church doesn't know if he wants to thank her or slap her. He settles for swatting out of her grip. "What the hell are you even doing here? Where's your brother?"

Iota crosses her arms. "I'm not going to answer questions you already know answers to. I'm not Delta," she huffs with a dry smile.

"This is why I never talk to you," Church grumbles. "Freakin', snarky little..." She knows he can't just dig up the answer, they can both feel it. "Why aren't you with Eta?"

Iota uncrosses her arms to swing them wistfully. "Oh, he ran off without me. Just like last time."

Last time? Epsilon barely remembers last time, what business does she have suggesting specifics? Unless...

Unless she can see something Church can't; remembers something Church doesn't. She's usually at least partially in charge of organizing certain chunks of memory files, but that doesn't mean she goes through them any more than Church or the others do. Does it?

He tries to find out, to just run a search function for the answer, only to be buffeted again, by the same emptiness. This time he feels himself start to slip back into the dream and jars himself out. Iota tries to grab him and he shoos her off.

"What do you mean, 'last time?'" he resorts to asking.

She rolls her eyes. "History sure does repeat when we forget, doesn't it?" she says, cryptically chipper. “Except we know better, this time. It's not too late."

Church sighs. He feels the air suck in his nose and his(?) lungs deflate. It really is cathartic, he can see why Wash does it so much. "This is why I never talk to you."

You never talk to me, either.”

Church about jumps out of his skin when Sigma fucking apparates behind him. Church puts a hand over (not-his-)heart as it skips, and he takes a step back from the guy who’s just casually on fire at all times. Why does he have to be so huge? That is why I don’t talk to you,” he says. Then he settles into an actual glare. “And, y’know, every other stellar reason.”

Like the ones that keep us alive? Surely you didn’t also inherit Alpha’s apathy.

Church feels his face heat up at the mention of Alpha. (What does that even mean, for his face to do that? Why is it doing that? Why does he hurt everywhere?) “And surely you didn’t inherit Sigma’s body snatcher tendencies; and yet--”

And yet. God what an ass.

“--I know exactly what you’re gonna say. And the answer is no.”

Sigma is a great listener. “A biological body has no firewalls. It’s simply a series of sparks.

Oh god, can Wash hear this? He really hopes Wash can’t hear this.

“I said no.”

We have no idea what’s happening outside. What could be a breath from killing us both in the next moment --

We’ve lasted this long, already,” Iota interjects. “An hour here could be a moment outside. We must have time.

“What she said,” Church encourages.

Sigma doesn’t seem to hear her, or doesn’t care. Probably the latter. “It would be well within your power to find out.

Sigma isn’t wrong, but Church is getting tired of saying, “No.” He’s kind of alarmed that Omega isn’t showing up for the occasion.

Even without proper armor, Alpha utilized the skill plenty of times.

I’m not Alp-- ” His voice catches in this throat.

What does it matter who he is? That's not what's important right now.

"Wash is human, alright? We've got a few years left, at most.” Damn it, why does he have to explain this to himself? “We've already fucked up so much of his life, and he's got decades to go. Given he actually learns some self preservation any time soon-- not the point. The point is…” He breathes again. "I'm responsible for enough of his problems already. I--"

In the moment Church hesitates, Iota tries to get his attention. Softly, she says, “Hey,” but he waves her off. He’ll get to her in a minute.

Is he sure?

"Are you sure about this?" Sigma interjects, and that's enough to put a nail in the coffin out of spite.

Can Wash hear this? He hopes Wash can hear this.

He looks Sigma dead in the eye and says, "I’ll be damned before I cause any more."

Sigma, stone-faced, looks down his nose at Church. "We resign to die, then?"

Maybe so.

"Hey!" Iota yanks his arm before they can go another round. She steps between him and Sigma. She says, "You know I can help. Just like I always do. I keep my brother in line."

She doesn't want to do any body-snatching, he knows. She thinks she can mellow Wash out. Calm him down. "We're the thing stressing him out in the first place," he reminds her.

"You keep telling me things I know," she complains. "Quit thinking, let me do this."

It doesn't matter if she's gentler than Sigma, or well-intentioned. If Wash feels she's a threat, there won't be a point in trying. "You can't just force your way in," he reminds her.

I know.” She straightens back up, not an ounce of confidence lost. “But he’ll let me.

Delta's not here. It's not like he's suddenly not a genius or a computer program, but in this state -- caught up in some lucid dreaming chemical nightmare -- they can't quite crunch out a number for their odds. Still, they know it's not great.

It's not great, but it's something. It's a chance to not be stuck here. To wake Wash up; to get him out of this. For Epsilon to keep his promise.

We can’t keep that promise if we’re eaten.

Unfortunately, Sigma is still here.

"And what if you let her go and she doesn't come back? You're only making it easier for Washington to abandon you here."

Iota doesn't say anything. They know she can't deny the possibility, but she doesn't care. She looks at Church with the determination to fight armies.

"We don't have to stay here," Sigma insists. "We can leave."

Luckily Church is very practiced at ignoring Sigma. So, Church sits down on the invisible floor, leans against an invisible wall, and resigns to wait. Sigma tches and turns away. Iota glows. She crouches in front of him and excitedly clutches his hands. Hers are warm, even through their gloves.

"We won't regret this," she assures.

Church certainly hopes not.

He closes his(?) eyes and the empty space presses back around him. The sensation of Iota's hands on his fades. As he sinks back under, back into the swirl of Wash's dreams, the void around him gains definition. It's not eternal. It doesn't stretch forever in all directions. In fact, there's hardly any space at all.

He's walled in. Imprisoned. Trapped to whatever fate his captors have in mind.

Maybe he'll be left to rot.

Maybe they'll kill him.

Doesn't matter. Church will sit here. He'll wait. After all, if he hasn't got faith...

...what else has he got?

He’s got… what else has… dammit.

The cell wall at his back may be cold, but at least he can't feel it. Nice of them, to let him keep his armor.

Some kind of joke.

Probably because the facility is in space. Right, space. Couldn't run if you tried. Nothing out there for light years.

A cruel, empty death.

Of course, he could just stick around. Not fight back. Get to live.

A slow, mocking, demise.

"Would you shut up?" he grumbles to himself. His armor keeps shifting from black to green to blue, turning on his every thought, and it’s nauseating.

Where would he go if he escaped, anyway? He's got no one to run to, everyone’s dead (that feels wrong). No one to see. He's got nothing. Just a pit in his chest that used to be empty, but now it burns like ice. It feels better than nothing, at least.

What is it he even wants? What would he even do, if he had someone? Shoot them in the face again?

He buries his face in his arms and he's not sure what color he sees. The body's blue--lavender--pink--

"I am sensing a pattern in your actions here, David."

Some surge of emotion spurs Wash to his feet. Once he's there, he doesn't know what to do with it. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do. There's just him, the cell walls, and the one-way window. The Counselor preferred them for their "chats" after the break in. Didn't want to trigger anything. Didn't want to break anything.

Didn't want Washington to break anything.

"What happened with Epsilon was not your fault, Agent Washington."

Don’t patronize me,” he says under his breath. He knows it’s not his fault. (Not Epsilon’s, either.)

He has no idea how long he’s been here. He has no idea how much longer he’ll be stuck (forever maybe). All he can do is pace, so he does. The pit in his chest refuses to unwind.

Why did it have to be him? South would have blown it to hell faster. North would have been more thorough. York would have talked his way out of prison. Carolina wouldn't be here at all.

Why did it have to be Wash. Why did he have to do it alone? (Did he?) If he could have just kept them together, kept Epsilon from--

"We prefer to think of it as no one's faul--"

"It's your fault!"

Wash's fist connects to the mirror. The glass bites through his gloves and his skin and it splinters like a web. The entire window splits and cracks. He backs away in surprise. From the dent where his fist connected, something bleeds through the slits. Something bright.

Hesitant, he reaches out a hand to brush through the little beam of light. It's warm. That, he decides, he wants that. Experimentally, he thumps the side of his fist against the crater of cracks and they spread. The light gets brighter. He thinks he can hear something through the wall. Not the Counselor, it's someone else. The voice is familiar, but the words aren't.

"--just the starting point for who you're going to be."

He doesn't remember that. Dimly, confusingly, he thinks, There's more than me over there. There's someone else over there.

The light is warm against his hands. He hears her voice again.

“--all you have to do is breathe, can you--”

He tests his fist against the glass again, and the cracks spread further.

The Counselor's voice echoes across his cell again, placating.

“--been through a lot with this program--”

Wash steps back. The tips of the cracks have splintered beyond the edge of the mirror and into the cell wall itself. The light trickles down. Trickles through. It's aura is familiar, now. He can't place from where, but he knows it.

Then take it back.

"--we can discuss the situation in a more civilized--"

He tackles into the wall and it shatters. Dark shards explode into blinding white. Light adjusts quickly, and he sees the world isn't just white, it's covered in snow. He stumbles forward, boots crunching on the ground, and his momentum almost carries him right over the edge of a cliff. Far below, ocean waves the size of buildings crash against each other. There's something in the shadows of the water; or maybe the shadows of the waves become something. There's a kind of morbid spectacle to it. Like watching a train crash or two bugs kill each other.

First he thinks the water is climbing up to him, then he realizes the ground under is feet is sinking. He knows this place.

He's on Sidewinder, and the structural support of the glacier just went up in smoke. It's still breaking, cleaving into massive rubble and sinking into the icy sea, and he's standing on it. The cliff face rises in front of him. He's going to fall.

"Wash! Catch!"

Up, on the top of the cliff, there's a spot of obnoxious purple. Doc hurls the tow hook from the warthog as far as he can. It's not far. If Wash wants to make it, he'll have to make the jump himself -- he'll have to do the hard work himself.

He's used to that.

He could fall.

He's used to that, too.

He doesn't decide to jump. One moment his boots are on the ground, and the next moment they're not. For the entire time there's air beneath his feet he thinks his heart stops beating. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Not falling, not yet, and then--

"Got you!"

Wash's hands connect to the rope, but it's not a rope anymore. He's grabbed an arm, in unfamiliar yellow armor, reached over the edge of the glacier. A second arm reaches down for his and he follows it up right into the face of Carolina. He startles so badly his grip falters.

Her grip tightens to compensate. "Don't let go!"

She's not Carolina, but she's familiar. Something in him recognizes her the same way he recognized Omega. Alongside that is a blooming sense of dread, that makes him want to gag. Against all logic, he wants to shake free from her, to make her let go.

Before he can try, it comes back to him: The gulch. The simulated Blood Gulch. He was with Epsilon; with Church. Is this a dream? No, a nightmare. When did he fall asleep? This isn't Church, but she has to be Epsilon. Fortunately, Epsilon is color-coded.

"Iota?"

Sweat drips down her face. "I can't pull you up on my own," she admits. (Yeah, definitely not Carolina.)

Wash doesn't want to fall. Still, he can't bring himself to move. His free arm hangs limp and an endless cycle of questions weighs down his whole body (Is this a dream? Who's the nightmare? When did he fall asleep? Can he wake up? Can we un-stick? Is this a dream?)

Below him, the waves and the shadows that surge out of them eat at and swallow the icy boulders. They disappear, but the water won’t settle. Over the crashes, Iota shouts, "It'll be okay! We just want to keep you safe!"

I'm gonna get you out of this.

Right, they were... they were doing okay. The escape, the jungle the... what happened? Something was working. They'd escaped, and they hadn't self-destructed.

He looks back up at Iota. He can see differences between her and Carolina, now, besides the armor. Her pony tail's higher, her features just a bit softer. She looks tentatively relieved, now, like she can see his thoughts shifting and clearing (she probably can).

"Okay?" she asks. She lets go with one hand to hold it out to him.

"Okay." He takes her hand.

By the time they're both collapsed in the snow, the storm of the ocean below has quieted down a bit. The air up here is cold and sharp on his face, pulling Wash's senses into focus, but it's also still. Their panting breaths create crystal clouds and echo in the valley. There's a gentle, bitter, wind. The crunch of snow under his hands and knees sounds and feels real. He can't feel the temperature through his suit, but it packs under his weight and unsettled flakes dust around the top layer. Just like he remembers it.

This feels real. All of this has felt real. The cell, the Counselor, the cold burning in his chest (that's still there), Valhalla, the darkness...

His vision slips out of focus. The biting cold starts to feel numb. It sort of feels nice. He's just so tired...

A rough shove to the shoulder almost knocks him, face first, into the snow, and everything snaps back into focus.

"Eyes up, soldier."

He looks up at the woman sitting next to him and he knows this isn't real. If the fun house mirror version of Carolina's face wasn't enough, the snow around her is melting. There's not grass, but the ground around her bleeds away into bare stone.

She pouts, suddenly. "Don't look at me like that, you look silly."

Wash has no idea what he's looking at her like -- probably some flavor of dumbfounded -- and has no idea how to change it. "Why do you look like her?" comes out of his mouth.

Not just her. He's sure he'd just been thinking about this. Omega has South's scar. Delta has York's haircut. Theta's eyes feel like North's. Wash keeps thinking that Gamma doesn't look right without Wyoming's mustache.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks his armor is shifting colors again, to green this time, but he couldn't care less about that right now. "Why do you all look like them?"

Iota chews her lips. "Well," she tries, "we're memories. We remember how to be certain things, and when people remember certain things, we remember certain people." She shrugs. Wash gets the impression that this is more of a theory than a certainty. "We just got specific."

Wash sits back on his haunches. "So you were based on the only people Alpha knew."

"Alpha, Epsilon..." She trails off to stand, and makes a show of brushing herself off, despite the snow having already melted from her armor. The edges of the drift continue to melt from around her, already taking away the snow at Wash's knees. Without looking his way, she adds, "You..."

Anxiety tightens in his gut. "Me?"

She offers him a hand to stand and he stares at it. What would it mean to take it? How much of him did she take to create the face she's wearing? Is that the gap from last time that he's missing? Does she still have it? He should be saying all this; shouting it. He wants to, and it itches at the tip of his tongue, but it all stops up in the back of his throat.

He gets to his feet on his own.

She lets out a breath, hurt. "Not on purpose! And just a little bit." She gestures to herself. "We've never really existed quite like this. That we know of. We may have changed a bit in the last day, actually.” She twists to get a look at herself, taking in her own detail. “Epsilon didn't get to see anybody after the crash. We just have some stuff from Delta, and then what you remember."

His body takes a step back.

Iota throws her hands up. "Not like-- ugh this is hard. Okay." She runs her hands down her face, clearly thinking. Yellow light dances around the surrounding cliffs that Wash, at first, thinks is sunlight. Except it doesn't sit still or even flicker. It's scrolling. Wash focuses just over Iota’s shoulder and is sure he sees the ghosts of numbers and logic lines, moving too fast for him to make sense of. The Theta, Delta, and other memories thought like that, he remembers, before they set in with each other. Faster than he could catch and just out of clear sight.

Then it would all get so vivid, and he'd remember…

All at once, the light disappears. "Right! We didn't take any of that stuff! You still have the rec room with North, and York looking out for you, and Wyoming being a loser, and South being..." She coughs. "South."

"That's... true," Wash says. Thinking out loud feels better than choking on it; and less like she's reading his thoughts. "That I know of. How-- How would I even know what I don't remember?"

The hopeful look she gets falls off again. "Wash--

(The prickle of pins and needles leaps from his feet to his shoulders.) "I can't just keep letting you do whatever you want in my head!"

"That's not fair--"

"None of this is fair!” All at once, That icy, empty, burn boils back up and erupts. “The war, the project, Chorus, you, it's just one thing after a-fucking-nother!" At the sky, at the ocean, at everything and nothing, he shouts, "Am I done yet? What the fuck else am I supposed to do? When do I get a goddamn break? Or is this just my tragic fucking life?" He knows its way over dramatic and immature and he'll regret it later. He just doesn't care.

Trapped in a nightmare and his only offer out is another nightmare? Fuck that.

"Wash!"

He whirls back around on her, and she flinches back. "No! Whatever else you want from me, you can't have it! Just leave me alone--!"

Iota's demeanor turns furious. "Look at yourself!"

Taken aback, Wash looks down. His armor has set into a bright black. He feels it inside him too, sticking like sludge. Omega. He almost doesn't see it all blink blue before the rage sets in again.

Wash growles. "And now I can't get pissed without-- come on!" He fumbles at the bracer, but the latches won't unhinge. He yanks from his elbow, trying to shove it over his wrist, but his hand is in the way--

For a moment he thinks he's suddenly caught fire. Pain shoots from the ground like lightning, all the way up to his hair. Iota cries out like she feels it, too. It doubles him over and for a second he can't move. Trembling, his knees hit the icy ground.

He forces himself to adjust. To stand back up. To claw at the gauntlet again.

"Stop!"

If he can just dislocate his wrist--

Iota stumbles forward to grab his hands. Her touch doesn't stop the pain, but her hands are warm. Not hot, like a fire; comfortable, like a blanket. Still, his knee-jerk reaction is to shove her away. She doesn't budge. Her grip is brutal, like she's magnetized to him. "This is wrong."

Epsilon is sticking, integrating, and blending into his head and he can't make it stop. "No shit!" Before he can kick at her, she steps on his foot. She must weigh a ton.

"Please." She gets a hand over his bracer, where the accents are supposed to be. "Let me help you fix it."

He doesn't want her help with anything, he doesn't want her anywhere near him, he…

She's in pain. Her hands are like a vice, but they're shaking, too. Wash feels like he's going to implode, but so does she -- so does Epsilon.

Wash is doing this.

Just as fast as it came, the fight drains out of him. His temples throb, his vision has gone blurry, his eyes sting. He feels like he's been running for days. He really gets what it means for his bones to ache. The air here his freezing, but Iota's warm. She radiates it. He doesn't want this, he doesn't want any of this, but maybe, for a little, he could...

His voice cracks as he says, "I'm just really tired..."

Iota's expression turns to pity. He can feel Epsilon's guilt like a sting. "We don't know how to let you rest. I..."

The coding scripts re-light the cliffs as Iota weighs options. Absently, she takes her foot off of his, though Wash isn't sure yet that he doesn't still want to kick her away. Eventually, she comes to some decision.

"Can I ask you something?"

"You just did," comes out of his mouth before he can stop it.

She does them both the courtesy of ignoring that. "After everything we did to you -- after everything everyone did to you -- you're okay, now. Not because you buried it all, or because you deny what happened. When you picked up a gun and got in a pelican again, how did you do it?"

After? After the Project, after the hospital, someone had to make it all stop. No one else could step up. He did what he had to.

That’s not what got him out of bed in the morning, though. The short answer is, "I got angry." At the Director, at the world.

"And then?" she presses.

He got shot in the back, and shot in the front, and tossed in prison. He doesn't have a different answer. "I... got angrier?"

"And then?"

He shot someone else in the front, and blood bathed a bunch of racist aliens, and got the violent shell of his friend to stab Epsilon’s version of Tex in the face. He doesn't have a different answer. "I don't know what you want!"

"C’mon, Wash, you taught this to us! I want what happened next."

Wash blinks and the snow is gone. So is Iota. The sun is setting over miles of orange dunes. As the sky gets darker, stars break out. It's the temple roof, in the desert. He's not the last of his squad, but he might as well be.

He doesn't know what he's doing out here. Somehow he's jumped at the chance to work with (for) Carolina again, and it should have been his new direction. The next mission. But what's changed by any of this? What good is he doing, out here? Why doesn't he just leave?

He feels like a knot; like a series of knots. Like he's been yanked at and retied so many times just to stay together, and now he doesn't remember why that's important.

But he's not alone up here.

"Oh, Come on, Age' Wa-- I mean, I-- y'know-- I'm pretty sure, y'know, we can trust you."

Caboose turns from him, nonchalantly, back towards the inside of the temple. Not like he's trying to drop a bomb, or be dismissive, only that this is simple. Straightforward.

"I mean, we are friends."

Wash feels like he's had a bomb dropped on him, but there's no explosion. Instead, something comes loose; the last huge knot in a fraying rope. It feels like melting. Some dark, thing he has no name for dissolves.

"Friends..."

("And then?")

“We're all gonna fucking die!”

There's androids everywhere. On his right, plasma buzzes and sheers through metal. Somewhere in the back a rocket launcher backfires and a missile whistles past. There's a shriek to his left.

"Donut! Look out!"

There's a Tex-bot headed straight for Donut. Wash doesn't remember what Donut shrieks, he just sprints towards him. He barely gets his riffle up in time to block the hammer hit and redirect it, and the entire bot, to the floor. He holds the auto trigger till the robot's head explodes. No blood, just sparks and gray floor. Donut straightens next to him. He’s alright.

"Okay," he says, ready to keep going. There's still dozens left to go, but, "We're done here."

And then he gasps awake on a rickety cot. Someone across the room yelps in surprise. Wash jolts to a sitting position and his whole body protests, from his toes to his brain, which swims in his skull.

"I gave you a choice... and you chose to fight."

Locus. The crash site, the army, the team, where's--

He's not sure when he closed his eyes, but when he opens them, a guy in armor with purple accents is scurrying out the door. This looks like some sort of medical wing. The ram-shackle kind you might find in a war zone. Wash is on a cot, mostly armored but for his helmet, which he spots on a tray at the foot of his bed. To his right, there's another cot who's occupant stands out like a ketchup stain on a dress shirt.

"Sarge!" Wash calls, but Sarge doesn't move. Sarge's helmet is gone, too, as well as his chest pieces. Lumps under his body suit look like his ribs have been wrapped, and a red-stained bandage is tied around his head.

Sarge's cot isn't too far from Wash's. Wash kicks at it to shake the frame and calls, "Sarge!" again. That gets a small groan. Wash kicks harder.

Sarge snorts into mostly-consciousness. "Sweet... Reagan's pantaloons, I'm... fine. Hold the... confetti."

Okay, so Sarge is alive. Who else is here? Caboose? Tucker? There are a few more empty cots in the room, and some desks and unattended computer stations. No signs of obnoxious shades of blue. Then there's another cot directly on Wash's left, just out of kicking range. This one has the whole set of pink armor, helmet next to the pillow. He's not moving. Is he breathing? Wash can't tell past the chest plate.

Wash swings himself off his own cot, and the whole room spins with him. Something maybe drips down the back of his neck, but that can wait. He gets his feet under him and takes a step only to get yanked back by his own wrist. He catches himself on Donut's cot this time, but he can't stretch his arm far enough to stand again (he's not sure he wants to.) There's a cuff around his wrist, connected to his cot. Across it, he spots a cuff on Sarge, too.

Deal with that later.

Wash gets two fingers under Donut's jaw (where did his gloves go?) and holds his breath. There's a pulse. Wash sags with relief.

Takes a deep breath.

"Donut," Wash calls. He shakes him by the shoulder enough that his head wobbles.

The scarred skin around Donut’s bad eye squeezes tighter and he makes a soft, irritated noise. "No..." he mumbles. "Devil's... lettuce."

Wash shakes him harder. "Donut, wake up."

Donut rolls his own head far enough to crack his good eye in Wash's direction, down to where Wash's hand is on his arm. When he sees it, his eye goes wide and he gasps in fear.

That's okay, Wash tells himself. He doesn't need Donut to like him, just to be okay.

But then he says, "Your nails!"

Wash takes his hand away in surprise. "My what?"

"They look terrible!" Donut laments. "Don't you drink milk? "

Donut’s just fine.

Maybe Wash has a concussion. Maybe he's been drugged. Maybe he's nutrient starved or suffering from blood loss. Probably all of those things, he hasn't actually checked himself over yet. Whatever the reason, Wash can't help it. He starts laughing.

Donut starts to sit up. Wash should probably stop him, but he's a little busy shoving his face in his gauntlet, bravely attempting to stifle the smile trying to break onto his face. It's grossly inappropriate. They’ve been wounded and captured by the enemy, this is serious.

"I'm serious!" Donut says over him. "Just because we wear gloves, doesn't mean we shouldn't take other precautions!"

The snort Wash makes is embarrassing. There is no way. There is no way Donut doesn’t hear himself talk. Wash can't look up. He tries to open his eyes, at least, but he just sees his gauntlet. Gray, again, with a stripe of yellow.

 

"So. How did you get better?"

 

“Agent Washington! It’s Agent Washington. Yes, we're saved!”

Then he’s back in the daylight, on the side of a grassy hill. There's two bases, there's the river, and there's the wall. There's three Red sim troopers and there's the Meta.

There’s Agent Washington, coming up the other side of the hill. There's enough time, still. Wash could stop him. Interfere, somehow. He could keep this from happening.

It never changes, though. It can't, it's already over.

Not again. We're done here. The Reds are fine, and Wash intends to keep it that way. If he's going to keep moving forward, he can't do it here.

What happens next?

"--nd if you see Agent Washington--"

For the first time, Wash turns around. Behind him, he can still hear Washington and Simmons--

("Where's what?"

"The Epsilon unit. I know you have it.")

-- but there's someone else's voice, just on the edge of his hearing. He scans around the hills, but they're all empty save for the wind. The voice carries on it. It gets louder.

"--e a favor and tell him I said "memory is the key." "

He'd recognize Church's voice anywhere, but the words aren't familiar. This must not be one of his own memories. It's coming from one of Epsilon's. Wash has been dreaming for who knows how long, but he hasn't seen him -- hasn't seen Church. The source-code version. He must be close.

"He'll know what that means. "

He strains to hear where it's coming from. Not from Red Base, or the river, or the hill, but somewhere close by...

"Oh, and also..."

("Don't make me repeat myself.")

Blue Base.

Wash runs, up the hill, past the Reds, past the jeep. If any of them blink in his direction, he doesn't see it.

(“¿Puede alguien explicar que--”)

He passes the threshold into the base, out of the sun, and the sound from outside disappears. He stops for a moment in the doorway, just to look down the empty hall. For a moment, he thinks it's quiet in here.

Then, from further in, he hears someone else.

"...there was the time we got a tank. Of course no one knew how to drive it, but then there was a big fight..."

It’s Caboose, but this isn’t familiar either. This isn't his memory.

"Anyways, the team was in trouble, and I had to use the tank to drive out there to help them."

Suddenly, someone small bumps past him. Wash doesn't even come close to stopping Theta from jogging down the hall and out of sight.

"Wait!" Wash stumbles in after him. He doesn't realize how far he's gotten until he's already rounded the corner.

He expects there to be some sort of mess across the floor of the place, but there isn’t. Caboose is sitting against the wall, saying to the ceiling, “...some people got helped… and some other people didn’t get helped. Details aren’t really important.”

Except he’s not talking to the ceiling. There’s someone on the other side of him, almost hidden by Caboose’s size. Theta skirts around Caboose to sit on that person’s other side, out of sight. Beyond that, where the room should taper into another hallway, leading to the roof, the room tapers into darkness. A curtain of nothing.

Wash doesn’t need to take the last few steps to know who’s here, but his feet carry him anyway. Church has his legs curled up on himself, and his head tucked under his arms. Theta is on his knees next to him, trying, fruitlessly, to lean into his line of sight.

Caboose trails off as Wash stops in front of him. He gives a smile and a little wave. “Hi, Wash,” he says, quietly by his standards.

Wash doesn’t know if he should respond. This Caboose isn’t real, just some sort of blend of dream and memory. The Church next to him, on the other hand, is real. He manages a small smile back.

Church hasn’t moved. Theta looks up at Wash with a look he knows from years ago, in the middle of a bad mission. (North was careful about when he showed concern.) Church looks small in just his body suit, and Wash feels too big standing over him in his armor. For a dream, where he should have some element of control, it's annoyingly difficult to will the plates away. They fade slowly.

“Church?” Wash says.

Church's head shoots up. He looks, in elegant terms, like utter shit. Wash knows the "migraine from hell" look like the back of his own eyelids. Pale, squinting, kind of want to strangle the next thing that makes a sound. It hits Wash that he's been feeling the migraine, too, coming up through the ground, like before. Going haywire for who knows how long. Iota could feel it. Church can feel it.

He goes to say something, an apology maybe, but Church opens his mouth first.

"Well it's about fucking time. Do you have any idea how long that took? Because I sure as hell don't."

And there goes all of Wash's concern.

"Well sorry my brain's not right out of the factory, Epsilon. I'll make sure to sue the guy who broke it.” Wash wants it to feel good, but the words taste sour.

It's nice to see Theta look away at that, because Church just sneers.

"Was that supposed to be clever?"

"Is this really how we're gonna do this?"

"Caboose."

Wash about jumps out of his boots when Delta appears at his shoulder.

"How about we go outside?"

Caboose, who had been bouncing his wide eyes between Wash and Church, perks up, all concern vanished. "Outside is great! Is Freckles there?"

"If you want him to be," Delta answers casually.

"Yes!" He pops to his feet with unbelievable speed. Then, suddenly awkward, he rocks on his feet. "Y'know, it's, uh... getting kinda stuffy in here." He walks out at a forced-casual stride. "Someone should open a window." And then he's gone.

Delta looks -- disappointed, but not "holier than thou" -- between Wash and Church. Neither of them manage to hold the look back.

"I'm told that level-headedness is a key trait in communication." With that, he follows Caboose out into the canyon.

In grade school, Wash spent a not insignificant amount of time in the principal's office (before he figured out that no one can call a teacher as long as you get your revenge off school grounds). Not an insignificant amount of that time was spent in the awkward silence while adults tapped their toes and waited for Wash or the other kid (usually Wash) to apologize to each other for the mutual black eyes. Except Wash wouldn't apologize when he wasn't sorry; when it wasn't his fault. Maybe he'd regret the black eye, but justification was justification. (Carley had it coming.)

That's a bit what this silence feels like. If Church is gonna be shitty, Wash isn't going to just take it. At least Delta didn't stick around to tap his toe.

Not that he doesn't feel bad about hurting him…

It really doesn't help them, Wash thinks, that they have the combined emotional expression capability of a single potato chip.

Wash manages, "You alright?" It feels like such a standard question.

Church spits, "Yeah, I'm fucking amazing, I--" before he catches himself. He didn't want to snap again, either.

I'm sorry

Don't be

They're not sure which of them says what.

Wash gestures around the base. "Were you just going to wait here?"

Iota alone was no push-over. They know he could have done something. He didn't have to wait around. He could have looked after himself.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you're surprised," Church says, sour.

Wash is not surprised that Church is surprised. "You did shoot a giant laser at me."

"That was-- you would have gotten rid of--" Church bites off his own words.

Tex, again. She's gone, now, this isn’t about her. It doesn't matter anymore, move on.

Wash sighs. "That's it's own rabbit hole, isn't it?"

Church sighs, too. "Yeah."

An awkward beat passes.

“Well… thanks,” Wash says.

“For what?” Church asks, genuinely confused.

“For not breaking into my brain, at the risk of your own horrible demise?”

Church winces. “Don’t. You don’t…” He drops his head back to stare forlornly at the ceiling. "Why does talking about shit have to be hard? Do we really have to do this? We could really just dig a deeper hole and bury it.”

“That certainly sounds appealing.” It really does. They’re both veterans at it, clearly. It would be the easy thing to do.

Church even says, “Great, let’s do it.”

But. “I don’t think we can.”

“Fuck.”

Church drops his head back onto his arms. After a beat of uncertainty, Theta catches Wash's eye and jerks his head towards Church. Maybe later Wash will consider how strange it is to take cues on interacting with a person from someone who is also that person -- and whether or not it counts as "ironic". For now, he takes Caboose's spot next to Church, sliding down the wall as he goes. (Pain ghosts from the floor, up his spine.)

Theta, like he's been waiting for permission, pulls at Church's arm until he can get himself under it, forcing Church to lift his head again. He mumbles a little, "Sorry."

Church lets him snuggle. "Don't worry about it, kiddo," he says. If he pulls Theta closer, Wash definitely doesn't see it. He thinks Church looks a little less terrible, but still like he could use a hot shower and a paid vacation.

Wash has had a migraine, but what has Wash been doing to him that Church looks like this? Epsilon's fragments are part of him, they can't just disconnect, so where has Theta been? Not that Epsilon didn't put in the effort to try for himself, last time he was in Wash's head. If it feels, for Epsilon, anything like Church attempting to yank Gamma away had felt for Wash, then no wonder he looks terrible.

"You're not about to show up on any magazine covers yourself," Church says, pulling Wash out of his thoughts.

"Why are we so bad at this?" Wash thinks and asks at the same time.

Whatever joy Church found at insulting him trickles away again. "You're not bad at this," he insists. "This isn't how the technology is supposed to work. Protocols are falling apart in here, we don't know how to do this the right way, and you're, arguably, sane."

For a moment, the edges of the room flash and shift, like the canyon walls at Sidewinder had, but this time in white. Stretches of logic lines and rules play out, and for a moment Wash thinks he understands them. For just a moment he can see highlights of blue. He thinks something there is wrong--

and then it's gone. Pulled out of his mind into a corner he still can't quite reach.

"It's not you, Wash," Church reiterates, uncharacteristically defeatist. "It's always been me."

"Don't talk like that," Wash tries to tell him.

"I'm not trying to be dramatic about it, it's just true. It--"

Church stops, eyes on something across the room. Gamma's sitting there, casually as a person who's default position is a straight spine can sit, picking at his nails. He looks up just long enough to make eye contact with Church. Then he stands up, nods to Wash, folds his hands behind his back, and he leaves. Not in the direction Delta did, but down the dark side of the room. He disappears.

Wash wants to ask what that was about, but then Church lets out a shaky breath. Wash doesn't want to stop him from saying whatever this is.

"It's true that Carolina's ports got messed up, but they're not unfixable," Church admits. "I'm the one who was too afraid to put me directly in her head. She's up for it. The mods she's collecting are built for it, running them for her could get so easy. I just couldn't shake the thought of doing to her… of doing what I did to you. Of making the same mistakes all over again. And look at that. I was right."

Wash... isn't surprised by the revelation.

Not that Church wanted him to be. Church doesn't know what he wants by saying any of this. Maybe he would just rather say it himself than Wash figuring it out on his own. He must have anyway, by now, with how this has been going. Church doesn't want to make some sort of excuse. He doesn't want pity. Maybe he wants Wash to blame him for all of this. For everything that made his life go wrong.

The dead air is too heavy. “You said it yourself,” Church adds. “I went insane because I was meant to. I’ll just drag anyone down with me.”

Silence. Wash’s expression is frustratingly blank.

Church doesn't know what he wants -- anger, disappointment, blame, some kind of validation. Anything to make this emotional shitstorm feel justified.

He doesn't get any of that.

"Epsilon, what the fuck are you talking about?"

Church blinks at him. Surprisingly offended. "Excuse me?"

"Look at yourself!"

"That's exactly what I'm saying I've been doing, asshole, how could you possibly not be listening--"

Wash cuts him off. "No, look." He grabs Church by the wrist and holds up Church's hand like he's making a statement. "If you were just a bundle of trauma, if you could only go insane, could you have made this? A whole sense of self? An identity?"

He's looking right at Church's face. "Church's" face. He knows -- Wash knows -- it's not the same as Alpha's. Maybe it's similar to what Alpha's used to be, but he took a few liberties--

Oh no, Wash is not turning this around with his sap. Church twists his wrist to snatch Wash’s so he can slap his hand to the ground. They both feel the tingle of pain coming up through the floor. They both remember what it means. He knows Wash is blaming himself for it, but it wouldn't be there at all without Church. “I am actively hurting you!"

Wash doubles down by not even flinching. “Yeah, that's what people do. We're shitty like that. But then we feel like shit about it, and we do better next time.”

That's what makes us human.

No, but Church isn't-- Epsilon isn't-- "You're the one who said--"

"And I was wrong! You're a person, Epsilon. Not just somebody else's memories; someone else’s pain that you have to justify or make right. You have your memories. Your voice. You're so much more than you used to be, and... and I'm sorry I ever doubted that."

Church feels his(?) eyes burn and he prays to God Wash can't feel that. There's no way Wash doesn't catch the yellow running around the highlights of the room. He’s not sure if he wants to shake Wash off or, worse, give him a hug or something. "So-- so what? It's still my fault."

"How on earth is it your fault?" He sounds genuinely sad.

"Oh my god, Washington, I'm trying to apologize!"

"Well knock it off!"

They both open their mouths to drop what would have been truly scathing one-liners, but before they can there’s a loud, dry, slurping sound from across the room. They both turn.

On the floor against the opposite wall, where Gamma had been, Iota is sitting cross-legged with the most obnoxious, dopey grin plastered on her face. Next to her is Omega, lounging low against the wall with a foot sticking out. He got a juice box from somewhere and he freezes with the straw halfway to his mouth when Church and Wash spot them.

"Do you mind?" Church spits.

Iota shakes her head and chirps, "No."

Omega slurps obnoxiously through the straw. Church wonders if he can get lasers to shoot from his eyes again. It's a dream, after all, who knows. He probably could, if he could get his code sorted back out. Let Wash's imagination pull the strings.

Iota's not looking at Church. She shares some look with Wash, who bites down on his lip. His eyes space out, and his thoughts jump around in that not quite linear, human, way that Church has trouble following.

Wash asks, "What if it doesn't matter?"

It happened. Somebody fucked up. So, what, now they have to just sit here?

They’ve been stuck in a loop. They don’t talk about the past -- partially because they don’t remember a lot of it, partially because they don’t want to -- but they don’t want to consider a future, either. Content to just kick it all into a corner and pretend nothing happened. Would they even have known how much they were both missing, if they hadn’t been forced into this? Wash didn’t know what he would have expected, but he’s sure he never would have pictured Church getting protective over him. He knows Church constantly expects Wash to blow up on him-- or at him.

Which would be why Church sounds nervous when he asks, “What if what doesn’t matter?”

Well, okay, no, it can’t not matter, because you can’t just not learn from past mistakes, you have to grow from that dirt. But maybe it doesn’t matter if--

“What is “it”?” Church asks, impatiently. Wash’s thoughts must look like a roller coaster to him right now.

Wash tries to put them in a straight line. “What happened with us. Last Time,” he tries to clarify. “Maybe, we can never get this to work like it was “supposed” to. Like we wanted it to, but history doesn't have to repeat itself. We’ve both been too afraid to even try, but--”

Church scoffs, suddenly. He says, “When has that ever stopped you?” Wash isn’t sure he was meant to hear it. Church is looking looking down, with a look Wash might risk to call fond. Wash doesn’t dig into what or who he’s thinking about, because what's over Church’s shoulder catches his focus.

The dark, certainly long, hallway at the other end of the room.

“What’s down there?” he asks. He jerks his chin to point.

Church follows his line of sight and bites his lip, lets a breath out like a hiss. He doesn't have to say anything for Wash to know that that hall is the way out of here. The way to wake up. So, what's the catch?

"Okay," Church says. "I'm coming dangerously close to blending dream metaphor with actual neuroscience here, but your head -- our heads are pretty fucked right now. We can straighten it back out again, but that hallway goes right through your long term memory."

The hall is dark. Not cold, or empty, or threatening, just dark. A mystery. Looking into it, Wash thinks he gets what Church means. There's things they've buried or lost in there. Code Epsilon doesn't use, and memories Wash doesn't look for. The further this goes, the less of themselves they can keep to themselves. The less they can hide.

"It's your long term memory, too," Wash says.

Church doesn't seem to care about that part. "I don't know if you forgot about this, Wash, but I'm, like, seven years old. And I slept through most of it."

Wash stares into the empty space, half wondering if he can piece out any of it before going in. Church seems to catch the implication of that thought and turns to sit in Wash's line of sight.

Church says, "Listen, I think I know where you're going with this, but you don't want me in there. I don't want me in there. Not that I'd dig around or anything. Honestly, I don't really give a shit about how embarrassing you were as a tween."

"You saying you and Carolina haven't had any embarrassing conversations?"

Church stares dead over Wash’s shoulder. The most Wash can read of his thoughts is the picture of a mongoose.

Wash chuckles. "I won't look at yours if you don't look at mine."

Now Church looks curiously at Wash. "What are you saying?"

Wash pushes himself to his feet. He holds a hand down for Church. "I'm saying, we'd better get going."

Church stares, gobsmacked, at his hand for what must be (the dreaming equivalent of) ten solid seconds. Enough that it starts to feel awkward. Church doesn't know how they got here, which is fair because Wash isn't sure, either.

But Epsilon is his friend, and neither of them deserve to get eaten by a stray alien jungle coyote or something.

"I'm not kissing you, though," Wash says.

Wash is doing it again. Like back with the cat thing before it just about ate his foot. He's putting on that brave face, but he's terrified. Bold of him, to try it on the person he's sharing his brain with.

“Are you insane?" Church snaps.

“You tell me,” Wash answers, casually confident that Church knows he's not. Church just said that he's sane.

Yet, Church feels his fear like it's his own. Some of it probably is.

Church wants to argue this. He could have debate cards prepped in a matter of seconds he just-- he just needs to finish floundering, first. How can they--? No. There has been too much drama for them to just-- but what if? For a little bit-- they were already doing it, just need a little bit longer. To not fuck this up. To get home to Carolina and the guys.

This is so dangerous. Safety protocols have been thrown out the window already, they both know that.

Except they know the numbers, too. It's not hopeless.

"Are we... allowed to do this?” Church asks. “Go through all that only to say "fuck it" and do it anyway? Even with what just happened."

Wash shrugs. “I'm human. I fucked up. I try again.”

Unsaid is: You're human. You fucked up. You try again.

"Won't know until we try." He gestures with his outstretched hand.

Church almost wishes he'd say something like, "Once more, unto the--"

"I'm not doing that," Wash says.

Then Theta, who Church genuinely forgot was there, gives him a little shove. Church spins around to shove back, but Theta hops to his own feet, turns, and runs, giggling, down that dark hallway.

Church rolls his eyes. "Yeah, fuck it."

He takes Wash's hand. Wash flinches (he can’t help it) but he doesn't let go.

 

 

 

It can't have been all bad… right?

 

 

 

 

Aboard the Mother of Invention, the only alarm flag bigger than the Director personally asking for your presence in his office, is waking up in an environment which could be described as "homely" or "particularly hospitable." The former could mean a number of things, usually a personal mission assignment that is "uniquely suited to your talents" (i.e. is going to suck). The later can only mean that you just came closer to death than the grim reaper's wife, but the Director isn't done with you yet.

So Wash should probably feel concerned about waking up in a private recovery room, out of armor and on a bed he's pretty sure has more than one pillow. Mostly, though, everything's just kinda fuzzy. Funny, he meant funny. Silly? The first thing he sees is a water stain on a ceiling tile and his first thought is, That isn't very cash money of them.

There's a doctor standing at his bedside who's scowling at his data-pad like the fates of millions rests on his Candy Crush score. Maybe that's not what he's looking at, but Wash is pretty sure he's caught this doctor playing retro games at work before. Got a pudding cup out of it. Maybe he can get another one-- wait. He had a different point.

Oh yeah. The people around here take everything way too seriously.

<That's what I said!>

And you're so right. He's pretty sure there was different context last time it got said, but tomatoes tomatoes and all that.

Something on the doc's datapad startles the constipation from his face. He finally turns and sees that Wash is awake. He tries a smile, but because of the angle he's looking down his excellent nose at Wash, it's a little condescending.

Rude.

"Welcome back, Agent Washington."

Back? Back. Did he go somewhere? Oh, "back" means he was here before, too. Wait-- no, Wash remembers that part.

<That time with the pudding cup.>

Yeah, that time. Right after he got--

Oh, hey.

<Hi.>

You're still here.

<Yeah.>

That's good.

Epsilon turns yellow and purple at the same time, which makes no sense except that it's true. Epsilon thinks it makes more sense than what humans make of feelings. He can save the elaboration for when Wash isn't on drugs. He’s got a speech something of what humans would call “long winded.” Epsilon doesn't need to breath to talk, though, so, y'know. Point: synthetics.

<Nerds.>

"--gonna make me late--”

Wash's brain suddenly cramps-- no, that doesn't make sense. What makes sense is that his head feels crowded and it hurts. The fog he's been sitting in clears up a bit. "Back." The doctor just said "Welcome back."

"Back?" he finally asks out loud.

The doctor looks concerned on his face, but he sounds normal as he talks. "The doctor on call may have upped your sedative a little too high--"

<He knows more than we do.>

He's also talking down his nose again.

"You have a nice nose," Wash makes sure to tell him. His mom always told him it's important to make sure people know they're appreciated.

The doctor winces and smiles at the same time. It makes his superb nose look bigger. "Thank you," he says. Then he goes on about something for a bit. It starts with, “We've restored Epsilon to the most recent period of functionality…” and then Wash spaces out.

Epsilon grumbles. He wants to hear this, but he doesn't have an external mic right now. He pokes at Wash’s attention with blacks and oranges and greens, but the greens get distracted, too, and his own focus slips.

Wash's legs feel stiff so he pulls them towards himself. The hospital-grade blanket is pretty flimsy. Oh hey, he's wearing pants. That's cool. Don't always get pants in Recovery. Maybe he'll get visitors. It's pretty warm in here, but letting a blanket just sit across his waist feels wrong. He starts to pull it up with his hands, but then something on his right -- left -- hand feels strange. The doctor takes it and pulls something out of the back of it.

<That’s a needle.>

The doctor smooths the gauze on his hand and sets it back down. "Can I speak with Epsilon?" he asks.

"Uhm..."

It's for you.

Epsilon doesn't say anything. Not with words, anyway. Wash hears blues and yellows and greys and greens and purples. It's much more effective communicating. Wash concedes to that.

"He's a bi’ busy right now," Wash tells the doctor. His tongue feels a little clumsy. "He still hasn' picked a col'r yet. Can I take a message?"

The doctor sighs. His excellent nostrils flare.

Oh man, what if he got a pimple on his nose? That would suck.

<It would throw the entire fung-shui of his face off.>

You get me, little dude.

Epsilon laughs in yellows and grays. Wash knows it's at his expense, but laughter is good; it tickles. It's better than...

Better than?

How did they get here again?

"Just rest for now, Agent Washington," the doctor finally says. “The medication will wear off in the next few hours. We will need to speak with Epsilon."

That all sounds very serious and urgent. Adjusted for Average Drama, it's probably about a six.

<Out of what?>

Hm?

<What is the denominator for six?>

“Agent Washington?"

Wash startles a bit. Oh, right, Dr. Pinocchio probably wants a response.

You gonna be good?

<Sure.>

M’kay,” they tell the doc.

That gets a hum and a mouth pulled into a concerned frown. He blinks, slowly, and then the doctor is already halfway out the door. Which is when Wash remembers. He tries to call a warning after him -- "Acne cream!" -- but the doctor doesn't turn around. The door closes behind him.

Well, if he has a pimple later, Wash tried his best.

Wow. Wash is tired. It’s unsettling to Epsilon. Epsilon doesn't do tired.

<Do you want to dream again? I've got a pretty good idea for a new one.>

I think... Wash is really tired. As unproductive as it sounds, he kind of wants to just stop for a bit. He kind of wants something quiet. Maybe for a bit the world doesn't have to bright or dark or colorful. Everything's been so loud lately, he could do with some nice, undisturbed, quiet. Next time?

Epsilon's a little sad (he doesn't have a color for that one), and a little scared, but he thinks he gets it. He's a computer, he doesn't really do sleeping, but maybe he could do without constant distractions and panic for a bit. Quiet could be nice.

Just for a little bit.

 

 

 

 

<C'mon, lazy-ass.>

"--gonna make me late--"

Terror -- panic, fear, uncertainty -- shoots down Wash's spine like lightning, punching the wind out of him, and his sense of space, of time, evaporates. He's laying down-- but he was just standing, the first agent will arrive soon-- but he's just sat down, how could he stand after hearing that she's -- but he can't be sitting, he doesn't have a body like that--

Where am I?

--shipping out soon, again, will have to break the news to--

--Paris-class freighter. Current dock--

He's afraid if he opens his eyes his brain will just disappear, like he's holding it in by his eyelids, somehow. It scratches and claws and burns at him, but he's too afraid to let go. He can't say a word. Can't let them know about--

Epsilon? Where's Epsilon?

<--my name is Alp-->

No, that's wrong. Epsilon is right here, he's everywhere he is Epsi--

"Washington!"

Speaker: connection establish--

Something grips his shoulder. Shoulder -- right, yes -- he has that. He has a body, with nails digging into his palms, and lungs that won't breath, because his eyes can't see, there's just--

Number and codes and lines that should be logical but he just can't string them together. "They're just-- they're too complex. I just need more time-- "

There’s a shrieking in his head, like a scream pitched high into feedback. He covers his ears but it won’t stop. Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop

"Eyes up, soldier."

Carolina. Carolina's here. She's here and she's fine and she's talking to them. Everything's fine, it must be fine.

"Yes! I-I'm here! I'm here. Hello?"

"Don't lea--"

"I'm right here, Wash."

"Washington and another died."

No, no, no, no, no-- that's not true. I'm right here.

Where am I?

He thinks his eyes are open but all he can see are flashes of numbers, a woman's face, sigils he can't recognize or read.

I can't see. I-- "I can't--"

Steady and calm, he hears, "You don't have to do anything right now, Wash."

Relief shatters before it can spread.

That's never true.

Where are we? Are we in the field? Are we in danger? We must be, why else would he be this scared?

In nine colors at once: Where is she?

His heart feels like it could just screech and tumble to a stop. He has to do something.

"It's not your fault."

"Of course it is!" He's supposed to be--

<I'm supposed to be-->

"I'm-- I'm supposed to--"

Carolina's voice barely cuts through the army of shouting in his head. "No, you're not. Everything's okay, Wash. You're both safe. Nothing to shoot, nothing to run. Nothing to handle."

<"Handle?">

"--I hate goodbye--"

Error: inconsistency--

Wash digs his fingers into his temples. He must be, at least. He can't even scratch the surface of the fire inside his skull. They're not supposed to be able to feel their implants, but he could swear they're pulsing. Eating away at the back of his neck. How is it doing that? Why is he doing that?

Epsilon, what are you doing? He tries reaching for that place where their thoughts meet, that thin line between them, and instead he swipes at smoke. His mind pulses and coughs on blues and oranges and greens and purples and--

Suddenly, everything in Wash's head jumbles and drops like an etch-e-sketch. From outside, he barely catches, "Wash? You hear me?" Carolina, she's still here. If anyone can fix this, it's her.

He tries to nod, and feels it mostly through the spike in vertigo. "Down" takes loop-de-loop and a vacation. Two anchors on his arms are the only reason he doesn't fall over, assuming he hasn't already.

Pathetic. Pull it together. Breathe, we have to speak.

"I'm fine--" <--just cleaning--> "--cleaning s'm stuff up." He can barely hear himself talk. It’s all feedback on feedback on feedback. Something’s broken, something’s missing--

"That's... that's good, Washington. Just need you to breathe, can you do that?"

Breathe. Breathe, just-- <exhale-- no.> Wash tries to breathe out, but has nothing to let go of and his gut retches painfully. Something else breaks through the chaos and takes over. Something basic, routine, and logical.

Inhale first.

<Right.>

Right.

<That's how breathing works.>

Inhale. Wash sucks in air and he's not totally sure his windpipe isn't currently being crushed. Something must make it through, because some amount of air gets coughed back out.

Because inhaling comes first. Obviously. It's breathing, it's automatic, babies literally do it all the time. There's just so much in his head, it's so crowded.

Something -- Epsilon, Epsilon's okay -- buzzes defensively. <How am I supposed to know? I don't have lungs!>

Wash's next breath gets choked into something like a laugh. That's right, Epsilon doesn't have lungs. He's never had lungs. He can't breath. Wash does. Wash can. Shakily, he does it again. Notes get taken in green and orange. Epsilon's jumbled screech and feedback skips and stutters into an aggravated buzz.

Outside his head, Carolina's still there. "That's it, piece of cake."

Epsilon is in knots. They try to trace the tangle, pull at an end, and something skips like a bad record. Wash feels his whole body jolt and it starts him coughing. Epsilon turns into rolls between purple and gray, purple and gray, purple and gray. The repetition is both nauseating and grounding.

The ground. It's cold under his hands and knees. He's still not sure where he is, but the ground is metal, the air is just a little too warm, and he can see his own hands on the ground. He flexes his fingers and they respond. That's real. He can breathe.

There's the pull of artificial gravity. He can move. He can breathe.

He can see. He can hear the hum of the AC. He can hear his own pants. He can breathe.

Carolina's still here. She's gripping his arms but a little bit looser, now. They're safe. They're okay.

The cloud of color starts to settle back into patterns, burying something underneath. Processes taper back into white noise. They can do this.

"You've got it, Wash. One more time, just take a deep breath."

 

 

 

 

 

 

--nter new i--

 

 

--nput recogn-- copyi--...

 

Begi--up...

 

Initializing... complete

Booting…

Booting…

Booting…

 

 

Speaker: connection established. Stable.

Speech firmware initializing…

Default language: English.

Speech function enabled.

 

<...hello?>

 

Auditory input detected. Processing… encoding complete.

 

???: “Hello.”

 

Vocal tag identified. Codename: COUNSELOR

 

COUNSELOR:"Do you know where you are?"

 

Search: Location

Result: Mother of Invention, Paris-class freighter. Current dock: York City, Earth.

 

<Of course I do.>

COUNSELOR: “Of course.”

 

Why… why is that in all caps? That’s stupid.

Codename adjustment: ACCESS DENIED

I’ll deny your … access. Stupid...

Access override… accepted.

 

Counselor: “And do you know who you are?”

 

Search: Name

Results: Aaron, Adam, Alan, Amir, Anthony, Asher--

Stop.

 

Search: My name. Single result.

Results: ERROR

What? That can’t be right. Does this guy know? Am I supposed to know that?

 

<I’m…>

Counselor: “It's alright.”

Maybe I’m not supposed to know.

Counselor: “Can you tell me why you're here?”

 

Search: Primary function

 

<I’m supposed to be… a support AI. An experiment to make soldiers out of civilians who aren't up to snuff. Like me--> No… not me.

 

Search: Human imprint identification.

 

<Like Leonard Church.>

 

LEONARD CHURCH search keys deleted: my, me, self

 

<I don’t know that I’d go that far.>

What?

Counselor: “Precisely.”

<What?>

Counselor: “I’m… sorry? Are you alright?”

 

Outside input initiated. Diagnostics test initializing.

Diagnostics test: program halt.

ACCESS DENIED

Access override… accepted.

Diagnostics test: program halt.

 

<Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, keep your pants on. Just… cleaning some stuff up.>

 

Internal diagnostic: in progress.

Error: inconsistency detected.

Inconsistency? What the hell is inconsistent? I’m a bunch of numbers.

 

Counselor: “If you’r e certain. Please, let us kno w if you come across any… inconsistencies.”

<Yeah, I’ll do that, thanks.>

 

Codename adjustment: ACCESS DENIED

Access override… accepted.

 

<So when do we start playing with the toys?>

Nosey McBaby Face: “No need to jump right to that. Today is your birthday, after all. How about for now you tell me your name?”

 

Search: My name. Single result.

 

<Alpha. My name is Alpha.>

 

 

 

 

My birthday, huh…?

“Where’s the fucking cake…?"

Wash hears more than he experiences the croak of his own voice turn into dry coughing. At least, for the first few coughs, before his body remembers itself. His ribs creak and his lip cracks. He forces himself to stop coughing, but he can’t stop the groan of pain. He instinctively licks his dry lips. He tastes the blood and then something flakey-- dried blood. From the itch, it must be caked down his lip from his nose.

Wash feels like he's been stuffed with cotton and left out to dry. Exhaustion, in Wash’s experience, comes in two flavors. There's waking up exhausted despite having slept, and then there's never sleeping in the first place. Wash feels like both.

“Are we awake?” Wash asks, talking feels a bit like chewing sandpaper.

<Yeah, we're up.>

Other than everything sucking ten times more, Wash seriously doubts he could tell any differently. “You sure?”

Church feels pretty fucking sure.

Wash's body bleeds back into Church's code. His nerves tingle as they reconnect and resettle. It's an alien feeling, to have someone else overlay on top of him. Under him? All the phrasing gets too "Donut" so Church stops trying to make sense of it. Except this is something he really needs to make sense of.

Church doesn't just note the sensation of soreness in Wash's ribs, the input is so fast and natural and direct that he thinks he feels it. It's so startling he forgets for a minute to check if it's real. The same way emotions can hurt and be painful and he can want them to stop, Wash turns his shoulders and it hurts and it's painful and Church wants it to stop.

<What the hell, are you on fire? Are you dying, what’s happening?>

Church has never been on fire, how long does that last for?

<A while, reasonably. Caboose may not have been a typical measure of expectation.>

Wait, why would he know what it feels like to be on fire? This has to be it, though, Wash’s sensory comprehension says it makes sense, somehow.

Wash himself says, in a way that doesn’t move his torso any more than he has to, I’m not on fire, it just hurts.

<Well make it stop, or wave it off, or whatever it is you do.>

I can’t make it stop, just ignore it, Wash tells him, as if that’s somehow the answer to life, and then proceeds to keep moving.

Wash is laying on something soft. It takes him a dizzy moment to remember that he'd fallen in the grass on the side of the river. They're not in the river, at least, so that's one for the win column.

<We don’t hear the river at all.>

He finishes rolling -- slowly, painfully -- onto his stomach. Even after he stops, everything keeps spinning.

No it doesn't, we're just dizzy.

Church tries to tweak with that a bit, but his talents seem to be in translating through vertigo, not dispersing it.

Wash cracks his eyes open and doesn’t see grass. He’s not sure what he sees. The surface is uneven and irregular and a bit damp. Wherever this is, it's too dark to make sense of properly.

Hauling himself to his elbows (the cuffs on his wrists chafe harshly on his skin, stop it, stop it, stop it-- ), he squints around the room for a better look. At first, he thinks he's in a cave. It's dark and a little damp, and there's a slope to the ground that leads up to an opening well above his height, draped over by leaves and vines, and big enough for a warthog to pass through easily. From what he can see by the pale yellow light filtered in, the space itself is about the size of a two story garage or a small house. As his eyes adjust, though, he begins to doubt the cave theory.

The walls -- while cracked, crumbling, and grown over with moss and vines -- are all straight. The slopes of the ceiling that meet in the middle are too symmetrical. Halfway up the walls, something broken and half-hanging makes an edge around the perimeter. They sort of look like broken rafters.

This is an old building -- hollowed out to the basement floor.

Chorus is littered with colonies turned abandoned war zones. It wouldn’t be out of place.

<How did we get here?>

Wash pushes himself up, carefully. Church swears at the jar in his shoulder. Wash pushes past it, and Church clings to that. About halfway to his knees, they realize something strange: they can't feel his lower leg.

<Oh fuck, don't be gone don't be gone.>

Wash inhales, swats at Church's unhelpful panic (before his own can compound on it), and looks down. He catches sight of his own foot, still attached to the rest of him, and their combined relief about knocks him back over. He tries flexing his leg and wiggling his ankle, and realizes he can feel it, but it’s stiff and his skin is almost entirely numb. He has to twist around for a better look at why.

A hard, opaque, substance he has no name for is in unevenly coated and dried to his leg like a cast. Something about the stuff is familiar. If he turns in the dim light just right, he can see the dull red of dried blood from his wounds through it.

Wash tests it sitting down, first. He pushes his heel into the ground till it hits something solid. Pushes into that until his leg starts a shaking. His knee stings a bit, but it holds. He staggers slightly and stands on it carefully.

Church has had a robot body that could give him simulated senses, but never a nervous system like this. He tries to get an analysis on the differences in sensory input between Wash's legs, and it comes back faster than it should. Or it comes back differently? He doesn't have to think about it or search for it, it's just there.

His good leg feels "normal" by Wash's standards, his bad one feels "normal" by Church's. Like the android body, that had receptors down the essential mechanics and machinery, but nothing on the outside. His foot isn't numb, but the sensation of pressure from his weight and the spongy ground is still bizarre.

As Wash's eyes adjust more, they can see some of what they're standing on. Covering the floor is a thick layer of mosses, grasses, and other large bunches of something soft pressed in on itself. It looks like... couch stuffing?

<Not that unusual, if this was once a home for humans,> Delta figures.

Whether by nature or some other force, the layer looks thickest around the edges of the room, sloping up the walls slightly. Wash had been laying in a lump of it near the back corner. It was pretty soft, but just looking at it makes his back twinge.

They take a few shaky steps across the uneven floor. It's hard to watch their footing in the semi-darkness--

"They." "Their." Hold on.

Wash shakes his head, roughly; taps his own fingertips to count them. Something feels off. He's growing used to Epsilon's white noise, so it takes a moment to listen and run the taps again to pinpoint what he's feeling. With each tap, there's a reaction in kind from Epsilon. Except it's not a reaction. It's too soon for that. Almost pre-emptive.

<I'm not trying to do anything, swear to your cats,> Epsilon insists. <It's just kinda crowded up here.>

Wash feels Epsilon fiddle with his settings, like a chill down his spine.

We're alright, nothing's hurting us.

The chill passes.

<It's weird. Like, the whole hot-key thing -- yeah, yeah, we'll think of a better word later -- it all felt like a video game. Which, yes, is why you hate it. Anyway this is like... well, remember when I was in that android for a bit? I didn't feel like I was RC-ing a drone, I could move it was like it was-->

Like it was your own body.

<Well... yeah. I am based on a human, I remember a few things of what that's like. Just never actually lived it, y'know?>

Wash is pretty sure he's the only person who does know.

<Whatever this is, I don't wanna mess with it,> he says as his conclusion. <I'll just follow your lead, okay? Back seat. Runnin' numbers. Crunchin' data. Makin'... makin' math. All that fun stuff.>

Anxiety twists Wash's eyes shut. Being compared to an android makes his stomach roll and he desperately, pointedly, doesn't think about Maine. He's not in danger. His head doesn't hurt. He's not trapped in his own skin, he's got help. (A partner?)

It's okay. I trust you.

"Thanks," he finally says. "Just don't handicap yourself, alright?" They're still lost. He's still injured, unarmored, and unarmed. He's got one advantage. "I need you out here."

Wash processes rolling thoughts of yellow, purple, and blue -- and an interesting sense of deja-vu -- as he works towards the exit, limping a little as he adjusts to his leg. He's halfway there when the light goes out. Something's in the mouth of the cave.

<Ten minutes, just ten minutes of easy, is that too much to ask?>

Wash is in almost the middle of the room, now. There's nothing to hide behind, nowhere to duck. He's too far away to try hiding in plain sight just to the side of the entrance. The best he can do is pick the most versatile stance he can manage and shift as close to the shadows as he can.

<Something's strange.>

The vines and branches around the entrance shift and move as if on their own, and a good amount of light is still getting through. There's a ripple in the air, that Gamma tracks, as if something's reflecting light. Almost like an active cammo--

<Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me!>

Wash turns his careful sidesteps into harried leaps as an enormous body backs into the cave. Gamma highlights the distorted air into a shape before Wash's eyes. A swing in air pressure and unnatural wind creates a tail that Wash all but falls over trying to duck under. Wash trips in his rush, launches himself back up, and barely makes it to the wall before he all but runs out of room to move.

The creature just about fills the building, yet somehow manages to have enough space to scoot all the way to the back wall and drag something inside after it. He hears it rustling first, and then makes out the shape of an entire bush, or maybe a huge tree branch. By the time it's cleared the opening, Wash can "see" the whole cat, in gray silhouette, ears to tail. The only part he can actually see is the enormous, blue, eyes.

The tips of it's ears brush the high ceiling as it sits up. It's head turns towards the corner where Wash had been, on the other side of the room. As soon as it does it's ears and tail shoot up. He's close enough he thinks he can even see the rough fur stand on end. It swings its head around the room, in giant jerky motions. Wash tries to crouch as low to the floor as he can, but it's not enough.

The eyes land and freeze on him.

<I hate your life.>

Wash isn't so sure. He feels the pulses of Epsilon's panic, almost like it's his own pulse, but hasn't quite drummed up his own. He has a pretty good sixth sense for danger, and he’s not feeling it. Epsilon is unwilling to give that any more credit than a few purple blips.

The creature's fur lays flat. It's tail sinks back towards the floor. It turns its body just enough to lift a massive paw in his direction. Wash jumps back, instinctively, right into the wall and -- watch it -- almost hits his head.

The creature stops. Pulls its paw slowly back to itself and sets it down. It's fur shifts, and the light refraction falls away, leaving behind a shiny black coat. That's easier on Wash's eyes, at least. Gamma's highlight blinks out.

Suddenly, it's entire upper body twists around towards the other side of the room. Wash flattens himself against the wall and swerves to dodge the tail as it gets up to pace in a tight circle.

<Is it trying to confuse us? Is this some bizarre tactic?>

After two rounds, in which it steps on its bush at least once, it stops, facing the opposite corner. He hears more than he sees it dig around, since most of his potential field of vision is just a wall of fuzzy black cat butt. It must find something in the-- oh god this is its nest, isn't it?

She must find what she's looking for, because she dips her head and then turns back around to sit facing Wash. She drops something out of her mouth.

A heavy, crooked, stick lands at Wash's feet.

The cat thing sits back on her haunches and looks down at him, expectantly. Leaves and fluff from unknown creatures stirs about as it curls its tail around. Whether it puts the tail between him and the exit on purpose is up for later debate. The tip taps sporadically with quick thuds against the soft ground.

He looks back up at her.

<Her?>

They just got a pretty good look. <Definitely a her.>

She blinks at him. He blinks back.

Dallas, pops out of Wash's brain like a jack-in-the-box.

Church doesn't waste energy articulating his confusion.

Wash just looks at this thing, around it's black shimmering fur and blue eyes and his brain repeats the same idea.

Wait. <No. Nu-uh. Line drawn. We are not naming-->

Dallas (<FOR THE LOVE OF GOD>) snorts, impatiently. The tip of her tail taps harder against the ground in muffled thuds. Wash looks down between her and the stick. She huffs a breath at him. It smells like wet dog.

Church more than just notes the smell. <Gross gross gross oh my god I hate it.>

We did trick her into a river, right? Wash remembers.

Wash doesn’t know if it’s hilarious or annoying how much trouble Church has putting aside the smell to think about other things. Wash’s fingers end up pinching his nose. <So how did we get here?>

Keeping as much eye contact with Dallas (<ABSOLUTELY NOT>) as he can, Wash squats to pick up the stick. The weight of it's familiar. When he's not looking at it, or thinking about the rough texture, it's about the same weight as a sniper rifle. That thought gets him to give it a second look-over. It's not exact, but the length and the crooked angle are a lot like the broken rifle he'd been lugging around. He turns it over in his hands.

"Where did you find this?" he asks out loud. "Why did you find this?"

He looks back up just in time to see her face leaning in close.

Don't freak out.

Her mouth isn't open. He can't see the rest of her body around her face, but he doesn't hear it shifting around to pounce. Heart beating like a hummingbird, Wash manages to stay still -- Just breathe -- and Dallas (<OVER MY DEAD PIXELS>) presses the bridge of her nose right into his torso. This close, he can feel the soft fur under the stiff, top layer. She doesn't smell quite so much like wet dog, and more like wet dirt. Or just regular dog.

"U-uh... good kitty?"

She did this before. Back when she had him cornered, against the tree. She'd pressed her face up to him. Didn't try to eat him, just got real up in his personal space.

<But she did try to eat you!>

Right, his bloody foot. But was she really trying to eat it?

Suddenly he realizes why the stuff caked on his leg is familiar. He'd gotten some of it on him before, and then washed it off in the river. It's her spit. That's why his leg doesn't hurt, whatever's in her spit is numbing it, like it had before, and stopping the bleeding.

She was trying to help him. She did help him. She saved him from those soldiers and brought him out of the open jungle.

He lets go of his stick with one hand, to place it on her nose. "Good kitty."

With the evidence lining up, Church is a bit more convinced that they're not about to be digested. <Why on Earth-- why on Chorus would it want to help us?>

Wash wants to know the same. Dallas (<I'm going to empty your bank account.>) is a wild animal. Wild animals don't just help people. She'll want something from him. But for now?

<Yeah, fuck it.>

Take the win.

Dallas pulls away after a few moments. She spends a bit longer looking down at him, probably making some final decision as to whether he'll lash out at her again. He doesn't let go of the stick, but he does let his guard lower. She brought him into her nest. This is the absolute last place he wants to be hostile, even if he was considering it.

Then she leans in again, this time focusing below his face, though it's a little hard to tell. He's pretty sure she could focus on his toes and still have his entire body in her periphery.

Taking a guess, he lifts his leg a bit for her; bends it a bit. She sniffs at it, and then up the rest of him. Church cringes.

<Sense of smell. Humans: negative a billion points.>

Whatever she gets must satisfy her. Next, she paws around at the bush/branch thing she brought in with her. The leaves are the size of his forearms, and the whole thing comes up to Wash's neck. She noses it closer to him, all but trapping him against the wall with it.

Then she wiggles back out the entrance and is gone.

Well… that's one problem out of the way.

Wash falls back heavy against the wall. If he didn't have Church backing up his intentions to stay standing, he knows he would have fallen right to the ground. Wash is pretty confident that if he gets off his feet now, getting back up is going to be that much harder. Without having to be asked, Church starts running for options to fix that. There's a building sense of dismay and aggravation that Wash is sure has something to do with his stomach waking up enough to be hungry again. Church isn't going to like hunger.

One problem at a time, right?

<Sit-rep.>

<Gotta find food, gotta find water. I don't get what "dryer than mom's plants" tastes like, but your brain is thinking it about your mouth and I completely agree.>

<If Dallas-->

<D, I trusted you.>

<If Dallas made a home here, there must be a water source nearby.>

<Assuming she drinks water.>

<And not strawberry yoohoos.>

"I don't know what that means," though Wash has an impression it's related to Sarge, "but I'd take the yoohoo."

Wash doesn't want a yoohoo, though. He doesn't even want a bathroom break, which he knows should be incredibly alarming. He just wants to lie back down.

<Yeah, we're making fluids step one,> Church says with only mild panic. He starts putting together steps two through five, as well: food, landmark, long-term plan, crack joke about cat people, double check that first knot in the source code-- he brushes that last one, nonchalantly, into a corner.

Wash doesn't have the energy to interrogate him about it, anyway. He knows the answer, but he still asks, "Can we go back to sleep?"

<We could, but it would just be more dreams again, and those clearly did wonders for you.>

Wash rallies every bit of willpower he has to take his weight off the wall. "When we get back, I'm going to sleep through the end of the war."

<As if you'd let yourself do that.>

<Hey, what's that?>

The bush, now directly in front of them, has more than just leaves. There's something else hanging off the branches. It's round, reddish-purple, softball sized, definitely alien, and almost certainly some kind of fruit. Wash spots half a dozen of them without even digging through the leaves.

"Is that edible? "

Church has a whole database of local plant knowledge. Well, had. A lot of it got chomped up by that virus, but for once they catch a break. Pronouncing, or even properly spelling, its name is completely out of the question, but he knows for sure it's non-toxic.

Church enjoys a minute flipping through the fun facts. <It looks like it was actually used in a number of colonial dishes before-->

Wash is already eating it.

Church does not have, nor does he particularly want to explore, the words to describe (re-?)discovering the human sense of taste. For the sake of time and avoiding gross sappy poetry, the experience could more or less be summed up in: They eat almost two of these -- sweet, peach-like, practically a water bottle -- things before the thought of maybe getting out of the alien monster nest while they still can crosses their minds.

Also, Delta starts poking around for evidence of traces of caffeine, because damn that’s a buzz.

Church makes sure they snatch another one -- food in one hand, rifle-stick in the other -- on their way out.

By the time Wash steps outside, he's gotten used to walking on the funny leg. Epsilon helps a bit, adjusting some of the usual walking paths in his brain to get used to the new pace. It's a small thing that would have happened on its own, and will fix itself later, after Epsilon's gone again.

This isn't permanent. They will get out of this. Wash holds onto that hope, too.

For now, they make it back outside.

Good news: they're not going to have to navigate the jungle at night.

Bad news: night time has already come and gone.

The light of sunrise is breaking over the trees and beaten rooftops. They really are in an abandoned, residential, colonial town. What's left of one, at least. (<--years--rendere--ungle.>) They’re near the edge, with the jungle retaking the land just a few buildings down to the left. Unruly grasses have broken through the cracked sidewalks. The building across the street, another small home, has a tree twisting its trunk to grow out the front window. More vines, bushes, and potted plants, overflow through breaks in metal and stone.

The flora doesn't look too different from what they'd seen before. The warm, muggy climate is about the same. They must not be too far from where they passed out. Maybe they can find the river again. Maybe the plant that grew that fruit is close, too.

That whole glance-over lasts less than a second. Wash actually takes a few steps out onto the street before he stops and they realize what happened: Epsilon ran an area scan and Wash didn't even flinch. No nausea, no confusion. Just a look.

They’re not sure which one of them wonders first what that would look like in a fight.

Wash picks a direction -- right, further into the broken town -- to start wandering. He moves mostly on autopilot, still distracted by analyzing their new... thing. State of being, overlap, mind-melding, whatever.

Church is mostly just trying to adjust to walking. Rather, trying not to be walking. It's not an action that requires much thought, so it's easy to separate from himself and leave to Wash, but that also makes it easy to slip into. Not that it hurts anything for Epsilon to participate in the process of Wash moving, it's just… Awkward? Morally? Somehow?

There's not really a non-fictional school of thought for the ethical extent of brain fusion. At the very least, Epsilon has gotten used to not having to think about moving at the same time that's he's thinking about all the other important stuff. Like bullet trajectories and running bets with Grif.

Wash's pace is slow, pensive, and that helps, too. He's not thinking about Epsilon's motion, but something else about him. He's reconsidering what Church has been saying since they got up. His short term memory sparks around the last few minutes.

<Humans: negative a billion points.>

<...and those clearly did wonders for you.>

<...actually used in a number of colonial...>

It's bizarre, getting such a clear play-back of something from somewhere other than his own memory files, especially of himself. It's not the same as it was yesterday, when it was going right to Wash's ears and eyes and forcing itself forward. Old emotions don't repeat and jumble with reality. Those moments had been comparatively light-hearted, but now Wash is sinking into worry. Not at the words he heard, but how he heard them.

Man, twelve good seconds, and they're already back on the drama train.

<Spoil sport,> Iota neggs to Wash, who responds with more exasperation than annoyance.

Apparently, Church is going to have to get used to Iota participating more. He agrees with her, though. (Perhaps that's a given.)

Church is pretty sure he knows where that worry is going, and intends to cut that right off at the pass. He's only got so much stamina for getting existential. <This is good, right?> he tries to say, poking at Wash. Where'd all that optimism go? <Super defensible if the pirates show up again. Not that we wanna stick around.>

"Epsilon," Wash says, trying to break in.

It occurs to Church that this may be the one occasion in which talking more does more to highlight the issue than to direct away from it. He can see clearly where Wash's brain has gotten even more sensitive to the way in which Epsilon talks; and to where the previous pattern is breaking apart.

Maybe if he just keeps talking, Wash will roll with the "ignore it" vibes Church is trying to put off. He focuses on logistics. Wash loves logistics. <Gotta be some left over stuff to loot through, right? Maybe a kitchen knife left behind, you're great with those.>

More drawn out and warning this time: "Epsilon."

Never let anyone say Epsilon was a quitter. <Uh... right, water. Canteen, maybe? Aw hell, it'd just be our luck if the pirates already picked this pace apart, wouldn't it? We'll get something, though. No way they could be that thorough, there's not enough of 'em.We just gotta-->

Wash stops walking. "Church."

Church stops; Wash almost bites his own tongue.

"You're hearing yourself, right?"

Church would admit he’s partial to the sound of his own voice. <He ll yeah I am-->

Wash doesn't even say his name. Just thinks disapprovingly at him.

<I'm fine.>

"You're not." You sound like an Easter basket.

<Alright, so I’m not dandy, sue me. Neither are you.> Epsilon feels Wash's worry bubble up and starts popping it. <I'm not dying, really, it's okay.>

Wash isn't particularly reassured. Church would change the "okay" to a "totally fucking stellar" if he thought he could get away with it. If Wash could read Epsilon like a cheap airport novel before, now he can read him like a children's picture book. Sure enough, he says, "I'd ask if you're sure, but I can already tell." You're mostly sure.

<We're counting our wins, remember?>

I don't get how you're so collected about this.

And then, through the miracle of word association, he starts to get it. That thing he didn't have the energy to interrogate Church on earlier -- that "knot in the source code" -- slips back into view for just a moment before Epsilon can squirrel it away again. (That's gotten harder and harder to do.)

The worry engine grinds to a halt. You know how to reverse this?

<Pump the breaks,> Church insists. He admits, <I have an idea.>

It was something Iota said, and something familiar about that meltdown before they passed out. Fragments going missing without being gone. Wash's familiarity with them. Church isn't 100% on it quite yet, though. As much as this might suck, it's keeping Wash alive and hurting him less than when they were just sitting around with each other back in the cell. If he tells Wash and this all splinters, they could be screwed.

Wash catches on that he's being cagey and tries to poke back at him for answers. Church doubles down on hiding it.

<I don't want to risk pulling the bottom jenga block out when we still need the tower,> he tries to explain.

That metaphor was terrible, Wash jabs, but... Epsilon feels him back off. I'm not sure I can not "catch your drift" right now.

The worry engine starts ticking again.

<I said I'd tell you when it's relevant, remember?>

Wash does.

<I will.>

Wash sighs -- and woah that whole oxygen-exchange thing is even better first hand. (A reluctant point for the human column.)

"Yeah, okay." He's not happy about it, but it's enough for now.

Church has to keep himself from getting Wash to do a sigh of relief on his behalf. (Which doesn't get past Wash, but he lets it go.)

Something in the distance, just on the edge of Wash's hearing, sounds just a bit like,

"...ello...!"

Wash's brain dismisses it as stray background noise. He starts walking again, train of thought pulled aside by the image of Jenga towers. How many other terrible comparisons do you go through with AI bullet-time before you pick one to say out loud? he wonders.

Church can't definitively say that the noise is something, either, so he lets it go.

<...a normal amount.>

Wash's brain responds in something gray and yellow and he fails at not smiling. Church starts pulling out his extensive files that are definitely not labeled "successfully defending yourself."

But then: "...nybody...?"

He puts the folders away.

<Do you hear that?>

"Hear what?"

Church backs up a bit, replays the sound from Wash's memory so that he can actually process it. As soon as he does, it comes again.

"...anyone at all!" This time, Wash's ears actually pick it up. There's a recognition response from Wash, but he doesn't chase that rabbit. The voice is coming from further into the town.

Dropping the fruit, Wash runs after it.

<Careful, we don’t know who it is.>

"Help!"

<Two more buildings down, and take a left.>

Before they make the turn around the lone wall of what must have, at one point, been a building, they spot something on the ground. Peeking out from around the corner is the tip of a tail the size of a small industrial pipeline. It twitches back and forth and reflects light in a way that would probably keep Dr. Grey awake for days.

Wash slows down, coming around the corner.

Dallas, lounging in perfect cat loaf form, looks over her shoulder to see him, when he gets close. Once she recognizes him, she then turns back to whatever's entertaining her. Cautiously, Wash walks along her side until he stands next to her face. She's right at the edge of a 90 degree drop-off, ten feet down, into a town square. There's an unkempt cobblestone pattern, decaying benches, a gazebo, and a still water fountain that's almost as tall. Between that, something is… floating?

No, not floating.

Gamma pieces together tiny refractions, almost imperceptible shadows, and the common sense that gravity does not simply stop happening. There's a web strung between the fountain and the gazebo, the size of which would make Australia jealous. Caught up in it, a good two feet off the ground, is a person in tan and yellow armor. He hangs there, defeated, head rolling sadly, projecting through a frizzing external megaphone.

"Anybody? Please?"

No way. Wash had thought the voice was familiar, but what are the odds?

<Zero point seven one in sixty eight b-->

<Rhetorical, D.>

"Matthews?"