This was ridiculous.
Connie huffed, twisting her wrists in their bindings a little more, trying to get the right angle. There was a little give now, but not enough to get her hands free without breaking a couple of bones and dislocating a couple of joints. She’d rather not do that. Easy fix with some knitting polymer back at the ship or not, it wasn’t pleasant.
She couldn’t believe this had even happened. She was better than this, she didn’t get captured by untrained goons and thrown into the back room of some shady warehouse that smelt like centuries outdated petrol and god knows what else—noxious and distracting, painfully so. Yet here she was, in exactly that situation, with her wrists tied behind her back and her armour nowhere to be seen.
This wasn’t going to help her tenuous standing at the Project. Getting captured two times in as many missions was going to catch much too much attention from command.
If only it hadn’t come so soon after her last intel drop. Sending intelligence over the Project’s own communication networks, even routed through a variety of proxies and other safety measures, was getting too risky. So, rather than take that chance, she’d arranged for her contact to ‘capture’ her on her last mission. It was simple enough; she tripped an alarm that she’d never have fallen for in an actual infiltration and let Sleeves, their muscle, grab her. Cutting off her own comms was easy and the drop went smoothly; by the time someone had made their way to retrieve her, her contact had retreated and she pretended that she’d escaped part way on her own.
Simple. They got what they needed from her, she kept herself out of the suspicions of the Project.
Whether or not that would last now, she couldn’t be sure. Things were getting… precarious.
Time was running out and she couldn’t see the countdown.
Shaking the thought away, Connie focused back on the bindings wrapped around her wrist and the situation she was in now, not the one she faced when—if—she got out of here. The warehouse was far out of the way; it had come up on the Project’s radar only after reports of them using—maybe even attempting to sell—experimental equipment had reached the UNSC.
Going by the strange way her armour had locked up, allowing them to grab her without her even throwing a single punch, those reports were true. Experimental or not, it did its job and completely shut down her armour’s systems, she hadn’t even been able to trigger her emergency beacon to call for immediate help.
Hours had passed since and she knew that, by now, they had to know she was in enemy hands. Or, more importantly, that her equipment was.
Agents were disposable, if worst came to worst. But their armour, their modifications? Never.
So she knew someone would come, eventually. For her gear, if not for her.
The two guards that stood over her changed out fairly regularly, as someone got bored or they were needed for another duty. Watching them gave away no organisation or pattern of any kind, so that was a bust. Even with her bindings almost loose enough to remove, to do so without access to a weapon or her armour, with armed guards so close by? It would be suicide.
And so it became a waiting game.
More guards came and went. No one seemed to know what they were going to do with her, not-so-subtle whispers passing between the assortment of grunts about their options—should they have killed her already? Dumped her somewhere? Tried to actually interrogate her and find out what she was here for? Something else entirely? No one knew. Capturing a UNSC-sponsored prisoner was clearly not part of their plans for the day.
At first, she didn’t notice when those whispers shifted target. She’d almost tuned them out entirely before a sudden yelp came from one of their earpieces, the high-pitched sound of someone being struck down mid-word.
The guards shared a look.
“I’ll… go check what’s going on,” one said, taking a few, reluctant steps away. His current partner, who looked somehow even less enthused about the concept of investigating than he did, just nodded.
“You do that,” he said, before turning to Connie with his rifle raised. Connie tensed her shoulders. “And don’t you try any funny business. I can still shoot quicker than you can move.”
That was almost certainly true.
Unfortunately for him, they wouldn’t have chance to find out. Moments after the words left his mouth there was a loud CRASH behind him as his buddy was slammed against the wall with inhuman force.
He jumped out of his damn skin, turned his attention away from Connie—
—who tore herself free from her bindings, planted a hand on the floor and swept his legs from under him.
A yelp, a clatter, a shimmer, the snap of bone—
He dropped to the floor dead.
Connie landed back on the floor, her heart pounding at the rush of adrenaline after hours of sitting still. Looking up at her rescuer, she exhaled; it could only be one person. “Texas.” The clean-up crew.
The shimmer in front of her solidified, smooth black armour reappearing in swathes of reality and an outstretched hand. Eyeing it for a moment, Connie took it and let herself be pulled to her feet.
“You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were showing off with that entrance,” she said, rubbing her wrists. They’d definitely bruise. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of blankness in Tex’s posture, before something clicked into place and she chuckled. Delayed social reaction. That checked.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. You okay?” Tex stood almost an entire foot over her. She’d be imposing, if Connie didn’t know as much about her as she did. Oddly, it made her more… human, knowing that she wasn’t. “No injuries that are gonna stop you moving?”
“No,” she shook her head, “I’m fine. They didn’t subdue me physically, it was tech that got me.” Speaking of… “Did you get my armour?”
Connie raised a brow. “I’m surprised. Shouldn’t you have been grabbing the important stuff first?”
Tex’s tilted head held the same sarcastic confusion. “Yeah, well, my orders are to prioritise your armour and the tech, but hey, I found you first, what am I supposed to do? Backtrack on myself? Nah.” Then, a shrug. “Besides, I know you’re our best intelligence agent. That seems pretty important to me.”
Stance relaxing a little and her face softening, Connie sighed.
“But hey,” Tex continued, “you don’t wanna be saved I can just leave you here, go grab the armour and swing back to you if I have time, no skin off my back.”
“Alright, point taken,” Connie said, before pausing. “…and thanks. I don’t mean to sound… ungrateful.”
“Don’t worry about it, you’ve been stuck here for hours, I’d be grouchy too. You know where your armour is?” Tex said, taking a pistol off her thigh and offering it to Connie. She took it. “Fully loaded. Haven’t touched it.”
“Didn’t need to, I’m guessing.” A knife would have been preferable, but a pistol was better than nothing. “I have a rough idea. I imagine it’ll be wherever they’re keeping their other tech. They have some kind of armour locking technology, more advanced than things like the paint. It locked my entire body up with some kind of energy field.”
“Huh. That’s the kind of shit you’re out here for isn’t it?” Tex nudged the dead guard with her foot and glanced over at the other one—not dead, just unconscious and collapsed in a pile of broken crates. No threats in the room.
“Essentially. So, all going well, we’ll be able to complete the mission anyway.” Connie took a deep breath in. Being without her armour on a mission she was meant to run with armour was a new kind of vulnerability she didn’t appreciate at all. “Okay, let’s get this over with before I think too hard about the fact I’m only wearing a kevlar bodysuit.”
“Don’t worry,” Tex said, cracking her knuckles, “I won’t let anyone hit you.”
There was a kind of surety to the statement that only Tex could give off; it wasn’t just a promise, it was a statement of fact. With her track record in the field and training backing that up, Connie felt a little of the tension in her shoulders release.
“Alright, I’m holding you to that.”
“Wouldn’t expect anything less.”
The warehouse wasn’t kitted out with alarms, but the mess in the open rooms they passed and the sound of distant voices betrayed the panic that had quickly spread once the invisible, wrecking ball of a woman had torn her way through. The halls had been vacated, besides a couple of people grabbing the injured, but alive, members of their group and dragging them away.
There was no point in fighting them if they weren’t an active threat, so they let them go. Going by the buzz of turbines above them, the second assault had provoked an evacuation.
“Think I scared most of ‘em off?” Tex said, nodding towards the ceiling.
“Most of them. I doubt they’ll want to leave behind all their tech and they certainly weren’t moving out before you turned up,” a silent infiltration with no casualties never did have the same shock factor as a true assault, “some of them will have to be near wherever they’re storing it, packing it up.”
“Okay, so where we heading? Where would you keep all your top secret, fancy tech?”
A laptop secured against the underside of her bed. A signal scrambling system built into her personal Data Pad. Her medical information used as a layer of defence over the top of a whole drive’s worth of stolen intel. Innocuous places people would never think to look, hidden in plain sight if anyone even bothered to search in the first place.
“One of the standard warehouse rooms, but the furthest one away from where they were keeping me tied up.”
Tex nodded. “Got it. Stick behind me.”
Connie was right. A few halls away they heard voices; orders to hurry up and attitude in return, interrupted by the scraping sound of crates being dragged and the sputter of an old engine. A quick peek inside and they could see them packing crates up into a very outdated van. There was a growing pile of opened and unopened crates beside it, whilst a couple of the group wrangled others into the back.
Stacked on top of one such crate was Connie’s armour.
“You think you can sneak around to your armour whilst I clean up the rest of them?” Tex said. A moment later she was nothing more than a shimmer, distorting the blank wall behind her.
“I should be able to, yeah,” Connie said, double checking the pistol. “See you at the other end.”
The shimmer shifted slightly—an arm being lifted, perhaps—and then it was gone, disappearing into the rows of shelves between them and the vehicle bay at the back.
Connie waited until she heard the first person take a punch and then she was on the move, too.
Moving quickly but quietly, finger rested close to the trigger and on high alert, she slipped down the aisle closest to the entrance. Thuds and bangs and grunts travelled through the shelving—crunching from unarmoured fists against metal and heavily armoured fists against bone, scampering feet and a crate smashing against the floor.
Connie shuddered. Thank god she’d never had reason to be on the wrong end of her strength.
She was at the end of the aisle when one unforeseen side effect of Tex’s distraction made itself known: a couple of the group had ducked behind the crates. Her path was no longer clear, but their view of her certainly was; movement in their periphery drew their attention the moment she got close enough to register they were there.
Emboldened by her lack of armour, they stood to try their luck. That was their first mistake.
They didn’t have guns, so when they ran at her Connie didn’t feel anywhere near as vulnerable as being in open hallways where someone with a weapon that could tear through her suit with ease was a threat. She didn’t even level her own pistol. Soon, they were in range, fists clumsily raised and—
Connie ducked, swept beneath them and half-knocked their legs from under them. By the time they’d steadied themselves she’d already grabbed one of their arms, twisted it up behind their back and slammed her foot into their spine, knocking them down again. As the second of them turned to face her, she bolted towards the end of the aisle. Gave herself room to move and react.
When he came at her again, she ducked, threw a punch into his gut and dodged around him. With a knife this would have been over in seconds. Instead, he came for her again, the first guy grabbed her ankle—
And then he was thrown into the shelves and their arm snapped between the ground and Tex’s foot.
That was their second mistake.
Connie exhaled. Okay.
Tex kicked the first guy in the head and knocked him out. “Told you I wouldn’t let them hit you.”
“You sure did. The others—?”
“Dealt with, get your armour on. I’ll tear open some boxes.”
As soon as the final piece of her armour clipped into place and her HUD lit up, the last of the hairs on her neck settled. Even her knives were still there and she gladly attached them back to their respective hard-points, resting her fingers against the hilt reflexively. There were no more threats, but being in the field was always easier with multiple inches of armour plating between your vital organs and everything around you.
“What did the thing they use on you look like?” Tex called, the sound slightly muffled by the walls of the van.
Connie hopped up into the back with her. Most of the crates had been pulled open by force, their contents now easily seen and examined. Most of them seemed to be weaponry, much of it completely familiar, but one or two contained more… interesting things.
“I didn’t really see, but if I had to take a guess…” Her HUD was scanning and highlighting things that gave off unique energy signatures. Slowly panning past the guns and ammo, she settled on a box of square units that were highlighted as being electromagnetic. “Those things.” Tex reached out, but Connie grabbed her arm. “I wouldn’t. I don’t know how they activated them and I wouldn’t know how to deactivate it either. Find a smaller box and I’ll take off my gloves, minimise the risk of it touching armour.”
Tex tilted her head, but she stepped away.
Connie exhaled. How one would have reacted to Tex’s body, she didn’t know. And she didn’t want to take the risk. Tex had to know eventually, but… not like that.
Taking off her gloves, she picked up a couple of the units. When Tex returned with a suitable box she set them down carefully, padding between them with packing from the original crate to keep them from touching.
“There. Alright, call for extraction.”
“Already on it.”
Turning back, Connie could have sworn she saw Tex… staring, at her? Staring may have been too strong a word, but looking at her, for sure. Maybe that wasn’t notable, but…
In the back of the Pelican, Connie spoke up. “Hey, Texas?”
Tex’s head snapped up, shattering the eerie stillness that had lingered since she sat down. She didn’t share transports often. “Uhh… yeah?”
“I know you’re busy, with briefings and training and all, but… when you have a free hour or two, do you think we could meet up and talk?” It was reckless. Riskier than anything she’d done before now. But she was more aware than ever of that invisible timer, counting down until she’d have to make a choice.
So she was making one.
Tex stalled. That split-second delay she’d noticed before lingered longer this time—ingrained protocol warring with social rules warring with personal desires warring with whatever else was on her mind.
But, eventually, it passed.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll… set some time aside. I think I have an hour between training and briefing in a couple days? About 1300,” Tex said, shifting a little in her seat. Nerves?
“I can make time. Do you know where the observatory deck is?” Quiet, mostly private. Especially during the day.
“Yeah, I know where it is. Guess uhh… guess I’ll see you then.”
Connie offered a smile. “See you then.”
Tex may have tried to smile back, but it was hard to tell behind that helmet she’d never seen her remove. Regardless, the silence felt a little more companionable after that.
A human connection, first and foremost, that was what Connie wanted to offer. Break the isolation that Tex had been experiencing since she came into existence. Maybe, just maybe, if she was able to get past that… maybe she could tell her. Maybe she could do something without having to leave.
It wasn’t a sure thing.
Still, Tex deserved to have a friendly face to turn to. Her unusual circumstances had dictated her isolation and no one had made the effort to change that, not even Connie herself. Tex was owed that much, surely.
Upon their return, everything went as Connie had expected. Without even so much as a ten minute diversion to check her physical condition, Connie was dragged into a dressing-down disguised as a debriefing. She stood there and took it, zoning out and saying ‘yessir’ and ‘it won’t happen again sir’ in all the right places to placate his anger at her incompetence. It didn’t matter, anyway; that board hadn’t changed since the AI started going out, she wasn’t being demoted to Beta Squad now. Even if she was, it would hardly change anything.
It ended, she left, she passed out in bed with only a wave at South.
Tex was nowhere to be seen for the next two days, but that was expected too. It was a miracle she’d even found one hour of free time to promise. So Connie went about her business as normal, continued her work, kept up appearances.
But when that hour came, Tex wasn’t there.
The observatory deck was dark and empty, so silent that the hum of the engines was no longer just background noise. Connie waited there for three hours, just in case—it didn’t make a difference, Tex didn’t come.
Maybe she should have expected that, as well.
After that mission, everything at the Project seemed to move faster than ever and Tex was somehow more absent than she’d ever been before. No one saw her for days, then a few weeks. Never caught so much as a glimpse. AI production showed no signs of stopping and Connie found herself backed further and further into a corner. Every new piece of intel she stole upped her chances of getting caught and the pressure from Jarrett to leave was piling by the day. Tex had been one of her only other avenues of action and that had clearly closed.
Connie was racing that invisible countdown and she couldn’t keep up.
Eventually, she knew something would have to give. Opportunities to drop her intel discretely had faded. Her next chance involved ignoring direct orders, abandoning a mission and risking exposure. Or, perhaps worse, having to leave before she was really ready to make that decision.
So the night before, she found herself back on the observatory deck, amidst the eerie silence of space that made her lungs feel compressed and her mind run in circles about the what ifs of the void in front of her. Unpredictable and infinite. Absolutely terrifying.
And then a voice broke the silence. “Room for another?”
“I’m certainly not going to stop you.”
Texas emerged from the darkness, her pale face and light hair a stark contrast to it and her black clothes. It was the first time Connie had seen her face outside of the files that recorded every detail of her existence, from the exact shade of her hair to the beauty marks that, if pressed right, would open her power cell compartment.
She knew more about Tex than Tex may ever know about herself and it felt as wrong as it was.
The AI who knew nothing of what she was sat beside her, leaned back upon her palms and stretched her legs out in front of her. Stared out at the abyss in front of them, all of the distant stars that only Maine seemed to know the names of, and said nothing more.
Connie glanced at her out of the corner of her eye, watched her. The slightly too even rise and fall of her shoulders, the unnatural stillness of her position—all the little things. Maybe if she’d been around them more, she would have adapted her patterns to match, began to act more human. Then again, what did it matter? She thought she was human, she acted human in all of the most obvious ways.
Shattering that illusion required more trust than Tex had been given time to place in her. She couldn’t do it now.
Quiet ruled the room for almost ten minutes before Tex spoke again.
“Sorry I stood you up. Shit got kinda busy after we got back, I didn’t have the time.”
“It’s fine. You’re a busy woman.”
Another pause. Connie picked at the scar across her palm and took a deep breath in.
“You ever have to make an impossible choice, Tex? One that could either fix or ruin everything all at once?”
Tex hesitated, but this time it felt more… real, not like a software delay. “Not really. Things have always been… pretty straightforward, for me, I guess. I do my job, do it well… don’t have to make the hard decisions, just gotta follow orders when I get ‘em.”
“Hopefully it stays that way,” Connie sighed, pulling her knees up to her chest. Another beat. “You on the mission tomorrow?”
“Technically, that’s classified, but… nah, not tomorrow. Got me hanging back on the ship, ready to go if things get dire, but,” she shrugged, “pretty sure you guys can handle this one.”
Connie rested her head against her knee, turned to face her. “Even me? The one who’s been captured twice?”
“Hey, from what I heard, the first time you got out on your own. Second time, you only got caught because they had some weird tech. I think you’ll be fine,” Tex said. Nudging Connie with her elbow, she offered the first and last smile Connie would ever see her give.
“Next time I get a break, I’ll try and let you know. See if we can find time to really have that talk you wanted to have. Seems like something heavy, if that dramatic question was anything to go by. Like, seriously; that was a hell of a welcome.”
Connie muffled a quiet laugh, shaking her head. “Sorry. I suppose I have a lot on my mind right now. Hence the staring out into space thing.”
“Literally,” there was a note of amusement in her voice, in her eyes. Connie smiled and nodded.
“I’d ask what choice you gotta make, but that might be a bit personal for a first meet-up.”
“Ask me next time you see me,” Connie said, “I’ll have made the choice by then, it won’t matter so much.”
“Can I hold you to that?”
“Yeah. You can.”
“Well alright then, I gotta get going so…” Tex hopped up to her feet, stretched her arms above her head. Even out of armour, she was built like a brick wall. “Guess I’ll have to ask you next time. See you around, CT. And good luck tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Tex. I’ll see you around. Hopefully we have more time next time.”
Tex gave her a mock salute and vanished back into the darkness of the connecting hall, gone as quickly as she’d come. Connie was alone again and as midnight hit, her countdown was no longer invisible. The mission clock projected itself on the glass in front of her.
Eleven hours, fifty-nine minutes and fifty-six seconds, fifty-five seconds, fifty-four…
One way or another, she was going to have to make her choice.
Pushing herself from the ground, she marched through the halls until she reached the locker room. Empty, this late at night, with camera blind-spots that were easily exploited. Finding one, she set her helmet up on a bench and sat against the lockers behind it.
Taking a deep breath, she set it to record.
“Agent Texas. Allison. If you’re reading this, then that means I escaped. Or, well, at the very least, I’m probably not around anymore…”
It took a few takes. The words flowed by with ease, but her voice was unsteady and her tone was off and her heart pounded so loudly in her ears that she couldn’t even hear herself. Recording this was admitting something, something she didn’t want to face. Not yet, not until that countdown was over and things would change irreversibly.
Maybe she hadn’t been able to tell anyone whilst she was here, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t try even when she was gone. Texas was still her best bet, the one at the centre of all of this.
Things could have gone differently, in another world. Where she’d spoken up sooner, where she’d made the effort to reach out and give her that human connection before it was too late for it to make a damn difference. Where maybe they’d have had the chance to know each other, before Connie had to shatter Tex’s concept of her own existence.
Where the sentiment behind, “…your friend, Connie,” could truly have been realised.
But this wasn’t that world.
Choices had already been made.
Within a couple of months, branded a traitor and a liar and risk to UNSC security for the second time in her life, Connie was dead.
Bled out, alone in an escape pod. As alone in death as she’d been in her final months in the Project and in all of her efforts to make a difference.
And, eventually, Texas would open her locker. Find a set of dog-tags that didn’t belong to her. See that name.
Watch the video.
“I want to leave behind all the data I've been collecting about Project Freelancer. I never could shake the feeling that something was wrong with the program. The secrets, the lies, the manipulation; smoke, all of it, obscuring a big damn fire.”
Everything clicked into place. Everything Connie had said, the strange way she’d looked at her, the way she had tried to reach out… the reason she’d left, the reason she’d provoked her, the reason the Director gave no order to preserve life.
“I did some digging, and now I know what the Director's been hiding. What he did.”
The reason something had felt off for months now.
“He broke the law, Allison. The one law they don't just slap you on the wrist for. I'm taking the originals with me as an insurance policy. I leave this copy for you not because you are the best soldier in the squad…”
Constant training and meetings. Carolina’s increasingly bitter attitude towards her. The AI. How she never had even a spare moment to interact with the team. The fact that Connie had to have been the only person she’d ever shown her face to.
“…but because I know that I can trust you the most.”
Before she killed her.
“After reading these files you will understand why.”
There was a long list of things that Texas would regret in the years to come. At the top was what happened in that bunker. What she’d done.
In another world, things would have gone differently. Connie’s attempt to reach out wouldn’t have failed. They’d have had the chance to talk, to know each other beyond the surface level banter and offerings of friendship that had at least proven the concept—that they would be a good team, that they could be good friends or even something more.
Maybe, even if she’d still been forced to leave, Tex would have realised something was up and found the message sooner. Soon enough to matter.
In another world, things wouldn’t have been perfect, but they would have been better. The things that could have been lingered in the back of Tex’s mind.
But this wasn’t that world. In this world, they’d both been just a little too late.
Tex rested her hand over the image and made a promise.
If nothing else, she’d finish what she started.
“Good luck. Your friend, Connie.”