Wash says “this isn’t right” when they’re barely off the pelican. He says that about everything these days, and he isn’t wrong.
There’s a flash of lightning and Carolina hears him yelp over the radio. She sees his whole body flinch in a demonstration of the shameful excuse of a soldier he’s become. Carolina would stop and beat it out of him if they had the time. Distress peals out of Eta in the back of her head. Okay, maybe when they get back to the Mother of -- the Spirit of Enterprise now -- she’ll give him some personal training. If Wash doesn’t get it together, he’ll be a liability for every mission he goes on, not to mention a walking testament to every failure of Project Freelancer. She’s already accepted that she might have to do all the work on this one.
“We don’t have time for this, Wash. Let’s just get it done.” The rain is so intense in front of her and pounding against her visor that Iota highlights blue base down in the valley. Without his help, she wouldn’t be able to make it out at all. Thunder hits then, shaking chunks of wet earth from the cliffs above them. Carolina wishes she hadn’t heard Wash’s sharp gasp into his microphone. She wishes she had stayed on the ship. She wishes she could take the past two weeks back. Or the past two months, or the past two years.
There’s no break in the rain as they gaze down into the valley from a rock on the hillside. Maybe having a job well done will make her feel better, but she doesn’t think a diplomatic mission is what she needs. Carolina holsters her gun and volleys up over the boulder. She slip-slides through the mud down the hill to the valley. Wash calls her name after her, his voice strung tight with something or other. Eta and Iota surge with concern and she understands. She’s worried about him, too, but all she can do is carry him. They’re both stretched precariously thin. It’s the most she can give.
Carolina stops at the bottom of the hill to wait for Wash, only to have him barrel into her legs and the two of them collapse in a heap together. “I slipped,” he says. Iota spikes with a joy that overwhelms Eta’s apprehension. Both make Carolina angrier. She climbs to her feet and makes no effort to help Wash, clenching her jaw as she turns her back to him and walks down the hill. “Carolina, wait!” He calls, and Eta jumps to attentiveness so fast that she stops. She didn’t want to stop. She wants to get to work and get some lip from blue sim trooper so she can blow off some steam. She wants to cope with her emotions like a fucking adult.
Carolina turns around so fast that Washington jumps again. She realizes that he’s more than just soft. This is something else.
“Carolina, what outpost is this?” Wash asks, canting toward her just slightly. The twins incline toward him in turn, but it only keeps her from shaking him and yelling for him to get it together. “What’s the scenario?”
She answers, although she doesn’t know why it matters. “104b,” she says. “Scenario 17.”
If that means something to Wash, she can’t tell. All she sees is raindrops popping off his bronze visor. She used to be at helmet-reading level of communication with Wash, but it’s been harder to understand him since he got Epsilon.
The twins shuffle through the mission files and find nothing of significance. Wash’s breath comes out slow, a subtle deflation rolling over his shoulders. Carolina clutches her fists and finally takes the bait, turning her whole body to face him. “What is it, Wash?”
“I don’t remember,” he says, and lifts one hand to press against the side of his helmet. It’s a steadying gesture she’s seen him do before. She can imagine his face, eyes tightened into a squint and his lips a fine line, eyes canting down and to the right.
“Does Epsilon remember?”
“No,” his whine reminds her of happier days, when he was just comfortable enough with the other Freelancers to show them his fears. Eta analyzes that particular thought with interest. “It’s… what’s the mission?”
Carolina drops her head back and stares up at the rain. It’s a pointless expression of her exasperation, but it makes her feel a little better. She reads the mission objectives off her HUD, bright yellow against the thick dark clouds overhead. “Make contact with sim trooper base. Convince troopers of an external threat. Orchestrate troop evacuation. Escort troops to their newly assigned location. Repeat for opposing base troops.”
“Diplomatic,” Wash’s voice is quiet; reverent. “We’re being graded on our winning demeanor.”
“I doubt anyone’s paying any attention to us at all,” says Carolina, giving Washington a friendly slap on the shoulder when he stands up. “Especially not if they’re planning another mutiny while we’re out.”
Don’t joke about that, Eta murmurs.
“Too soon,” Wash says, and Carolina feels as though she’s caught a glimpse of the old Wash. He drops his hand, swinging, away from his visor.
“Don’t worry about it. York’s stuck in detention and you know how good he is at picking locks.” Eta worries. Iota likes her jokes. Carolina doesn’t. Carolina can just feel the barb that sticks out of her anger, where it sits heavy on top of her vocal chords. She’s genetically predisposed to lashing out, going for the jugular, and cutting anyone nearby a deeply as she can because she’s hurt and she’s angry and she’s not sure who she can trust anymore. Carolina knows she’s going to hurt Wash on this mission by saying something awful, if she hasn’t already. It’s just a matter of time, even though he might be the only one who is only a threat to himself. Carolina trusts Washington, but she doesn’t know Epsilon, and it’s hard to tell where one of them ends and the other begins these days. “Let’s move out. Set your trackers on me. Sync?”
It’s not Epsilon’s memory, but as soon as it rises to the surface of Washington’s mind Epsilon picks it out for analysis. It’s not old, but it’s damaged, tattered and confusing, and Wash can’t be certain it happened to him except that it’s there and it’s sure as hell not Epsilon’s. Wash remembers his head was clear and Maine was at his side and they were joking together, his white armor a beacon in the haze. He tries not to think too much about Maine when he can help it, because it’s a guaranteed method to trigger the AI into a fit of betrayal betrayal betrayal that sinks deep into his gut, frigidly cold. He’d build up ways to cope with that and allay Epsilon’s fears but in the end he was right. They had been betrayed.
Wash looks back and sets a tracker on the pelican. It shimmers with a thin white outline, Carolina a soft teal, and without it he can barely see her through the sleet. Likelihood of equipment failure: 93% , Epsilon supplies.
“You’re not helping,” Washington tells him, and he jogs a little to catch up to Carolina. He should be watching her back, but he can’t see a goddamn thing. “This isn’t like before, in the woods. The equipment is fine.”
Likelihood of betrayal at 100% , says Epsilon.
“That’s in the past. It already happened. It one hundred percent happened in the past. Who can betray us now? Carolina?”
Likelihood of betrayal by Carolina at 26%. She’s angry she’s unpredictable when she’s angry barbs and shin kicks but obedient she is good we don’t need to care don’t need to worry about her at all but her AI they don’t know don’t know they’re an unknown variable we need a control test. Washington endures a deluge of memories, fond and aggravated, all about a little girl with freckles and strawberry blonde hair who got her period when she was ten. She has his acid green eyes, an after-effect of the genetic modifications his parents had done to him in the womb. You pity her for that just like you feel sorry for yourself for it. No, wait.
“My name is Agent Washington,” he says into his helmet. “I work for Project Freelancer. I’ve never had a daughter.”
Keep track, says Epsilon. Remember the way back. Remember the betrayal. The rain reminds Epsilon of waiting outside of an airport, cold. He wondered when it would stop. He wonders when it will stop. He answers himself with a brief review of an article on the meteorology of Freelancer Testing Ground 104b. Consistent violent convection. The rain isn’t going to stop.
Lightning flashes and Washington fails to contain the leap of his muscles when it startles Epsilon. Carolina turns her visor to regard him, and he’d be ashamed if he had any pride left. She sighs. She’s stopped. Her arms are already crossed. “Wash, is there something you’d like to tell me about outpost 104b, scenario 17?”
“Uh,” he says.
Carolina shares her trackers with Washington and blue base lights up on his HUD, right in front of them. What were once concrete walls and plastic tarps is now a crumbled mess sinking into the mud. A piece of the blue base flag flaps into the wind, the fabric torn into fine strips of thread. It might not last much longer.
“Hey,” says Carolina. He sees her snap her fingers, but he can’t hear anything over the rain. How long was he gone? “Stay with me. Do you know what happened here?”
The key to having an AI fragment whose primary attribute is memory is to keep your thoughts to a minimum, or else you risk going for an adventure into a memory ocean and waking up a few days later in med bay. Having already lost time, Wash chooses not to think and all and just opens his mouth. “We failed the mission.”
“Scenario 17?” Carolina asks. She must be getting used to this since she’s feeding her inquiries to him in bite-sized pieces, but the agitation in her voice is obvious.
“Yeah,” Wash chokes.
“Who is ‘we’?”
“Just me. And Maine.”
She thinks. “How long ago?”
“I don’t know. Before Epsilon.”
“What happened to the files? They should have been updated to reflect the state of the outpost after the mission.”
Sabotage. Epsilon says, and his anxiety spikes. Wash shudders, goosebumps running up and down his arms. Likelihood of betrayal betrayal betrayal at 99%, abort the mission. Return to base.
“I don’t know,” Wash says.
Carolina takes a deep breath. Wash can imagine her eyes closed, her expression even, trying to hide how pissed off she really is, as she breathes out slowly. “Okay,” she says. “Let’s try red base. We can check for troops there and regroup, plan our next step. Get our heads on straight.” She turns and leads Wash down along the rolls of the valley. “Let’s move out.”
“Roger,” Wash replies, and follows her lead, trying his best to ignore Epsilon. Epsilon is wired partially into his brain chemistry, and the fragment’s anxiety is infectious. The next flash of lighting nearly causes Wash to throw himself to the ground as Epsilon cries out about carpet bombing and destroying the evidence and 100% chance of betrayal. We have been betrayed, Agent Washington. We have to run have to run.
Washington takes long, calculated breaths. Wash counts backwards and forward from ten.
There’s something wrong with him, Iota points out. He knows that she knows this already, but apparently it needs to be said.
“There have been plenty of things wrong with him,” she says. “For months.”
What do we do?
“We complete the mission.”
The twins settle into an uneasy acceptance. They keep track of Washington out of the corner of her perception, picking out the extra-auditory sounds of his feet in the mud over the roaring rain and thunder. Iota is concerned. Eta is scared of the uncertainty. Carolina is angry. They’ll go to red base and check for signs of life, if the building isn’t in the same state as blue base. She’ll appraise whether or not the mission can be completed and decide the next step from there.
There’s no grass at outpost 104b, just mud and patches of stubborn moss cut up by tiny streams that run furiously down to a torrential river. They keep it to their right and follow the water flow, since it’s the only guide they have. “Watch your step,” she tells Wash. “If we fall into the river I doubt we’re coming out.”
“We can set up canoe races,” Wash answers absently.
“What?” Wash asks, as if she’d interrupted him.
“You said something about canoe races.”
“Uh,” he sounds skeptical. “If you say so, boss.”
Sometimes Wash shines out with his old self and Carolina is appeased, happy to forget all of the strange behavior and chatter and pretend he’s been fine all along. She can pretend to ignore how every day he gets a little worse, his strength ticking away under the strain. Weeks ago they were talking about cancelling the fragment implantation process and removing them from Freelancer agents. Since the break-in they’d been far too busy to care about how Washington was falling to pieces.
“Open your eyes,” York said to her when she visited him in the holding cell. The Spirit of Enterprise was a temporary place for Project Freelancer, with everything pared down and much less comfortable than on the Mother of Invention, including detention. York stood behind the shields in a room that resembled crime dramas from the 2400s, wearing a sleeveless shirt and sweatpants, looking tired. “We’re the bad guys. Do you think we’ve been soldiers, out to help the little people? No, we’ve been part of the experiment all along.” His voice was pleading, but his expression was already wounded. He knew he wasn’t going to get through to her. “Just look at Wash. He needs help.”
As soon as they got back she promised the twins she would put in a request to command to take a look at him; to reevaluate Agent Washington’s mental state.
They walked for over an hour in silence. Several times Eta or Iota pinged Carolina with concern and she’d turn around, Washington distant and still, marked by her trackers. She’d call out to him, sometimes more than once before he ran to her.
“It’s not right,” he whispers.
“Keep it together, Wash.”
Red base emerges from the haze like a steel creature, its mouth open, the rainfall streaming from its lips like broken teeth or ancient prison bars. Eta is nervous, but he marks it, traced in a thin red line. It’s standing. It seems that red team was more fortunate than blue team this time.
The base has a broad wall open into the valley, and they enter into what appears to be a garage. There are no vehicles. There are no lights on. With shelter from the rain they can see with refreshing clarity, although there are a few leaks in the ceiling that spill out into puddles. The puddles create their own streams back down into the valley and the river.
“I don’t think anyone’s home,” says Wash.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Carolina agrees. “Let’s split up. Patrol for life signs. We’ll meet up here in front. Sync?”
“Sync.” Washington checks his gun with the confidence of the old Wash, and takes off to her right, disappearing through a doorway to check the south end of the building. In front of Carolina is a set of stairs that she climbs, rifle-first, to scout the scaffolding around the garage and the attached second floor to the north. She finds rotten food and mouldy cots, another leak in the ceiling that runs down the stairs. She finds a non-responsive radio system. She does not find spare ammunition, weaponry, or fresh signs of life.
Carolina returns to the entrance of red base and watches the rain spill in sheets over the door, if you could call it a door. She thinks of her mother struggling to fix a tent in a Texas rainstorm, spouting creative curses while Carolina laughed and laughed. She remembers climbing on top of a cabin with branches to shield the building while Washington worked on fixing the radio in his helmet. It had taken some convincing to get him outside. He was scared. In the end she had burned the cabin down, like she thought it was haunted with whatever had come over Wash. They were lucky that command answered them after that. Neither of them had any clue what to do.
On a planet like this, she’d be lucky if paper could catch fire.
Washington’s breath buzzes over her radio. “Boss, you might want to take a look at this.”
“On my way,” she says, and follows the door he went through to the grey outline Eta has flagged. The south end of the building appears to be where red team made a stand of some kind, the storage room with boxes piled near the door for shelter and a reinforced line of sight. On the other side of the room there were more boxes, pushed back up against a doorway and rotted through where the rain blew in against them. The wood is black with mildew. Wash is turned toward her as she enters. He waits in silence when she steps over the ruined boxes and joins him outside the back door, under the shelter of a thin overhang.
A metre from them, water cuts a path down to the river. It’s one of the largest runoffs Carolina has seen so far, that sweeps down through an eroded hill that’s already cast itself over the stream and against the side of red base. In time, the base will be buried as the soft clay comes down to swallow it. The stream has cut a determined hole through the earth that has tried to overtake it, continuing the process of erosion. From this particular mass, Wash has found a skeleton in the mud, the water rushing away its bones at an impressive speed, but the left leg is still recognizable from where the femur meets a hip bone, still half-buried in the dirt.
“Do you know anything about this?”
Washington shakes his head. “They’ve been dead for maybe a year, or less. In the water less than a week. They weren’t buried in their armor.”
“Well,” says Carolina. “It’s something.” She slaps him on the shoulder and he stares at her. “Come on.”
Wash follows Carolina obediently as she leads him back into the final bastion of red base. She gestures him to the end of the room where a couple of cots had been moved, and raised her left hand to her helmet in the universal symbol of I’m on the phone.
“This is Agent Carolina reporting in to Freelancer Command,” she says into her helmet.
“Why, hello, Agent Carolina!” FILSS answers in her standard happy sing-song. The weather causes a soft hiss of interference. “My logs show that you aren’t due to make your first report for another hour and twenty-three minutes! Is something wrong?”
“You could say that,” Carolina says, and leans her hip up against one of the boxes, arranged as if it’s a command desk. “Is the Director available? I need to speak to him.”
“I’m afraid the Director is occupied at the moment,” the Counselor's voice answers on the radio. “What seems to be the problem, Agent Carolina?”
“Sir, it appears that this outpost has been abandoned for some time. Washington has some recollection of completing this objective with Agent Maine.”
“...Agent Maine?” The Counselor's steady voice still reveals a note of confusion.
“Red base is abandoned, and blue base has collapsed. Both may have been empty for up to a year. What’s going on?”
“One moment please,” says the Counselor, and Carolina turns to look at Washington in time to see him taking his helmet off. He looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks and wears a thin sheen of sweat. There’s a fine red mark near his hairline from where he’d gotten stitches after his surgery with Epsilon that will one day turn into a fine white scar. He’s lost a troubling amount of weight. She throws him a ration bar from her pack. He thanks her, unwraps it, and eats.
Almost ten minutes goes by before she hears the Director. “Agent Carolina, you are ordered to standby while we investigate the situation. Report in again in three hours time.”
“Acknowledged,” she says, and the line disconnects. She looks at Washington, who looks up at her, chewing slowly. He has some crumbs on his mouth. He’s sitting on a box, slouched with his elbows on his knees. His gaze is only slightly vacant, with that expression that the freelancers wear when they’re having an internal conversation with their AI. Washington always has that expression, only with different degrees. The twins are curious about Epsilon. No one has ever seen or spoken to him, aside from Wash. “We’re to standby here until they investigate the situation. We’ll report back in three hours.”
Wash gives a nod, his eyes drifting to the side as he disappears back into his head.
“Wash,” she says, and his face pops up to her. “Talk to me.”
“I need you to tell me what you think happened here.” She says. “Tell me what you remember.”
Eta and Iota go tense with anticipation, completely unsure what to expect. Washington blinks back at Carolina. Four seconds tick by. Five. Six. “I’d rather not,” he says.
“You know why,” he says quickly, and she pauses to consider why he might have said that.
“No, I don’t. No one does.” His expression doesn’t change at all. He stares up at her. “Wash, I need you to listen.” Carolina gets down on her knees in front of him, as if he’s a child. He stares through her visor, through her. “I need you with me. There might not be a mission left to do here, but if there is, you and me have to prove something.” Carolina puts her hands on his forearms and he only flinches a little bit. “We need to show everyone what Freelancers can do, no matter what happens. We have to show command that they can still count on us. I need you to help me do that.”
As she speaks Washington squints, his eyebrows knit and show some new wrinkles that make him look older than he is. He removes his arm from Carolina’s touch to put his armoured fingers against his temple. Stop hurting him, Eta pleads.
“What do you want from me?” He asks.
“I need you to tell me what happened here,” she says.
It hurts him to remember things, but not doing it would be worse. Carolina would ask questions. She would peer in at him with that inquisitive cant of her helmet. She might yell and make demands. She might stalk off, disappointed. She’s already asked, so he knows there’s only so long he can fight the thoughts from surfacing anyway. It will be ugly, but he’ll give her what she wants. Epsilon writhes with the promise of diving into the past, where things are understandable in their stillness. Wash has to fight against his recoil against Epsilon’s anticipation. It never works out well for him.
Wash dives. He closes his eyes and for the first time in a while, he tries to remember. It isn’t hard, because as soon as it comes to the surface, Epsilon snatches it like a shark catching a startled fish. Epsilon fills his arms and his head with it, like he’s starving for something he can parse for once, and Wash could relate if it didn’t hurt so much.
It hurts to think of Maine because Wash misses him. The pang of fondness he feels at the memory is a bittersweet consolation prize. They came to the planet together before the break-in. Before Sigma was implanted and Maine got headaches and became distracted and distant. Before he couldn’t speak, when he would just choose not to. White letters on Wash’s HUD in response to his vocal inquiries was their preferred method of communication. They were joking together. They were blissful and ignorant. I heard they're all a bunch of dropouts who couldn't cut it in the real army. People nobody'd miss, y'know? That's kinda messed up. We’ll pretend we’re heavily-armored and armed environmental surveyors. Why no, this isn't a rifle, it's a device used to measure atmospheric pressure. Very loudly. At extreme speed. Maine had laughed. He’d managed to make Maine laugh and Wash thinks that Epsilon might be laughing too, if he could, and he could calm down for five minutes about how Maine had betray betray betrayed them. Wash used to be funny sometimes.
Wash wants to take his time and analyze the information, but Epsilon has already done it, and he reaches in and hauls a particular memory out with such force that it feels like a bullet through his brain. There’s screaming - something he’s heard in his nightmares ever since then, but then he got Epsilon and he shot it all through so Wash just sees through all of his memories to Epsilon’s on the other side. But Epsilon insists that this was here and he can feel how that scream made him feel, pushing through his breastbone and playing his vocal chords like a violin. And he saw something with his eyes - shadowy and bizarre--
Agent Washington is dead .
“Wash!” Carolina says, and he’s outside looking up at the dark clouds in the sky. The rain is cold on his face and Carolina is looking down at him with her helmet still on. He can’t breathe. Wash pushes Carolina off of him and rolls onto his hands and knees as he coughs and coughs and vomits. He hears something becoming the victim of her furious destruction behind him. The rain runs cold across the back of his neck and he struggles to his feet. He feels weak as he turns to go back inside. Carolina stops destroying the boxes in front of the door to allow him to pass. He lies down on his back on the floor.
“They fell back to blue base,” he tells her. His throat hurts. “They blew it up.”
Carolina hesitates, as if she hadn’t expected to hear anything from him. “Why?”
“There’s some kind of predator. They dropped the base on it.”
He can hear her teeth clenched tight when Carolina growls “you have got to be kidding me.”
“It’s possible,” Wash says, and passes out.
“Command, this is Agent Carolina, please respond.”
“Hello, Agent Carolina!” FILSS answers again. “What can I do for you?”
“We need clearance to return to the SoE,” says Carolina. The twins stir at the back of her mind in a harmony of thrill and terror. “There may be an external threat, and Agent Washington is not fit for duty. We have to abandon the mission.”
“I’m sorry, Agent Carolina,” FILSS says melodically, “I cannot give you that clearance at this time.” Carolina had been expecting as much, but she still doesn’t like it. She punches a hole through one of the crates. “After you noticed the discrepancy in the files, the Spirit of Enterprise has been on security lock down until we can be absolutely certain about the safety of Project Freelancer personnel and property. We wouldn’t want a replay of what happened last time!”
“Acknowledged,” Carolina disconnects the line before her anger gets the better of her and she says something she’ll get a lecture for later. She looks at Washington where he’s unconscious on the floor. Eta and Iota hunt for options, and provide them before she can even register any passage of time. She gets to work.
Carolina throws what remains of the rotten crates at the back door out into the rain. She moves the dryer crates that barricade the inside door to the other one, one on top of the other to cover the entirety of the door. After some consideration between the steel mesh of a bed frame and a refrigerator, Carolina drags the latter down the stairs. She pulls it backwards against the door to trap herself with Washington inside.
Wash is awake, drinking water from a canteen. He looks at her for just a moment, giving her an acknowledging nod before he turns away, averts his eyes. His hands are trembling. Iota is concerned. Eta is nervous. Carolina desperately wants to be angry. She wishes things were simple enough that she could just be angry.
“Is this because of Epsilon?” She asks.
Wash flinches, his eyes going wide as if she just guessed the cards he held against his chest. He leans over to pick his helmet up off of the floor and she knows he’s going to hide behind his visor.
“Don’t,” she says, and holds her hand out. Wash freezes. Carolina curls her fingers around the inside lip of the helmet and tugs it out of his grasp. Wash lets it happen. Wash lets it go. He stares at his hands and deliberately does not look at her. “Talk to me,” she says.
“Epsilon…” he says. He closes his eyes. “Epsilon is…”
Carolina bites down on her impatience the way that Washington bites down on his lip. He’s silent for a long time and she allows him to be. A tear falls from his right eye. There’s no way for her to know if it’s from pain or sadness, but she fights her repulsion. He presses the palm of his right hand against his temple. “I can’t.”
“You can’t what?” She asks. Eta and Iota buzz on high alert and feed her strategies for non-lethal incapacitation, but Carolina doesn’t need help for that. She already knows.
“Talk about it,” he says. His voice is strained and wavering. Another tear falls. “I really can’t.”
“Washington,” Carolina says, and takes his shoulders between his hands. She realizes she probably should have removed her own helmet as well, in a display of sincerity, but it’s too late now. “I need you to pull Epsilon.”
Washington’s eyes pop open and he looks at her, his shock so genuine that she wishes she wasn’t there. She wishes someone else was here to deal with this. “I can’t,” he says.
“Why can’t you?” Wash pulls back and tries to squirm out of Carolina’s grip, but she clamps down twice as hard. “Wash, please,” she says. “No one else is here. It’s just me and you. He’s not going anywhere. It’ll just be a little while. I need you to talk to me, and he’s getting in the way of that, isn’t he?
Be careful, Iota warns her.
Stop hurting him, Eta pleads.
It might hurt, she tells them, but in the end, it will be better.
Carolina fucks up. Washington is such a mess that she has her guard down, and later she’ll curse herself that she never noticed him reach for his gun. Wash shoots her point-blank with his handgun in the space between her armour’s thigh and codpieces. She cries out, in pain and alarm, and he takes advantage of her shock to flip her onto her back. The breath punches out of her.
Washington runs. Carolina is only somewhat aware of him when he pulls the crate barricade down and volleys out into the rain.
Carolina lays down for a moment, fighting against her shock and gasping for breath. Her internal dialogue ramps up to berate herself while the twins spin their wheels helplessly between feeding her painkillers. Even at point blank, the bullet didn’t puncture the kevlar undersuit.
She’s more angry than she is wounded when she climbs to her feet - one hand on her thigh. The twins are on high alert, but Carolina has too much focus for them to distract her. She looks down to see that Wash has forgotten his helmet. He left his helmet and it’s raining and there’s barely any visibility out there, but he’s still marked by her trackers with a thin grey line on her visor.
Carolina moves the crates away from the door. She’s slow before the painkillers kick in, but she takes off after him to the west.
Lightning flashes. Wash looks up. The rain falls down around him in perfectly straight lines. He thinks about sunbeams, shining down through a canopy of trees and catching bright dust and tiny insects. They break through the clouds in the pelican on their way back from a mission. Connie is removing her greaves to patch a wound when the sunbeam shines in and lights her up. The moon is bright overhead as Wash holds York up - they’re on shore leave and he drank too much. He staggers.
“You should come outside,” Carolina said. That was weeks ago Washington thinks. She didn’t say it this time. That was another time.
Epsilon doesn’t really understand linear time, which doesn’t make sense because he’s an artificial construct made by humans. He lives in it still, with the rest of them, but he still syncs up Wash’s memories with a bunch of past things all at once now and then. His reminders go on forever like a kaleidoscope, and every day that Wash makes new memories the scope goes further.
“I’m going to lose my mind,” Wash says to himself. “I am literally going insane.”
Epsilon recoils like he’s been burned, and the weight in his mind shifts as if someone turned off the artificial gravity. Possibility of betrayal at 99%. Washington stumbles, light-headed, and falls in the mud. When he climbs to his feet, he remembers Maine’s hand, held out to help him.
“Maine’s gone,” Wash says. “He left.”
Likelihood of betrayal happening in the past at 100% .
“You got it,” Wash sighs. He runs them back to blue base, because Epsilon remembers where it is. He keeps the narrow river to their left. From blue base the pelican is parked at a 90 degree angle to the north. They were going to play a long game, he thought. They would hide in plain sight until the time was right, but Carolina is clever and strong and if they couldn’t fool her then the gig was up. All they could do was run for it.
She left in a pelican. She knows how hard it was for him to let her go but she doesn’t look back. She doesn’t wave. She’ll never say goodbye. Maine didn’t say goodbye. CT didn’t say goodbye. No one ever does. It’s better this way. Is it better this way?
None of Washington’s senses notice Carolina catching up. She tackles him to the ground out of nowhere, the power of five-hundred pound armour slamming him face first into the moss and mud. His lower-left canine punctures the inside of his lip and he lands on top of his right arm. Epsilon spikes with alarm, but there’s no time to react before she twists his left arm behind his back and disarms him. She tosses away his rifle, his handgun, and the knife at his thigh. He can’t even hear her breathing with her helmet on.
Carolina shifts so she’s holding his arm in place at his back with her knee. She puts her hands into his hair. She touches the back of his skull, and ice shoots down his spine. Washington gasps and chokes on the wet mud and blood in his mouth. He cough. He sees stars. It feels like Epsilon is trying to leap out of his brain. When it doesn’t work, it’s like he pushes every button he can in Wash’s mind control-room that is labelled fight or fear or adrenaline to get him to move, to get him to win, to get him to buck Carolina off of his back. Cold rain runs down his neck next to Carolina’s fingers as she tries a few times to catch the fine chip between her gloved fingers, but it doesn’t budge.
“What,” she mutters, parting his hair. Epsilon feeds Wash statistics about how long it takes to drown or suffocate to death. His heart hammers so hard he things it might burst through his rib cage. He shudders and squirms, but Carolina holds him still. Her voice is quiet and cold when she sees it. “Did they stitch him into you?”
It had been a very, very long time that anything had hurt her as badly as York had when she got back from the mission and heard the reports. He had unlocked some confidential archives that neither the Director nor the Counselor would tell her about. He’d assisted Agent Texas into retrieving data, injured Wyoming, crashed the Mother of Invention, and allowed Texas to escape with whatever she had been looking for. It appeared that North had also been involved, and had been missing since the crash along with South. Maine had also disappeared. Carolina had lost half her team. People she had considered friends had stabbed her in the back and abandoned her, so soon after they’d lost CT.
York turned himself over with several stipulations. He was still interested in working for Project Freelancer. He would be debriefed and do time in custody as long as Delta was not taken from him. He claimed that he’d worked for Texas under duress, but he wasn’t a good actor and North’s absence confirmed that it was a lie. It took twelve days before Carolina could bring herself to see him.
“This was about doing the right thing, Carolina, and when I say it wasn’t personal, I mean it.”
“I know you mean it,” she let her words drip with her fury. “But you did it, knowing that it would hurt me.”
York takes a deep breath. “I knew you would feel that way, but you’re just as responsible as we are. You can still do what’s right.”
“You did it to me!” She screamed. “The project is all I am, York! It’s all I have!”
“It’s a job, Carolina.”
“It’s my life!”
“It’s only as much of your life as you let it be,” he ran his hands over his hair, a gesture she’d never seen him do before. “I knew… that I probably wouldn’t be able to get you to let it go, but I had to try. We didn’t mean to be a part of this. You don’t have to be one of the villains.”
“This isn’t one of your soap operas, York. This is war, and you’re either a villain or you’re a victim.”
“Oh yeah? So what about Wash?”
Carolina takes her knife from its sheath on her leg and tells Washington to “hold still.” He shudders, maybe from the cold or maybe from fear. She could understand either one. The stitches never punctured the skin - just weaved through the metal of his implants with a copper wire. It’s hard to see and the rain is drenching him but Carolina goes as quickly as her caution allows her. She cuts the fine wires one at a time, each one punctuated with a little jump from him. The twins help, timing Wash’s tiny trembles so Carolina doesn’t slip up. They tell her when to stop to let him cough. Let him breathe. She feels like her fury is keeping her steady, or it might be the diazepam.
It feels like an eternity, but according to Iota the operation takes two and a half minutes. Carolina removes Epsilon from Wash’s implants and he immediately goes limp and quiet. Carolina rolls him over and smacks his face until he looks at her. His eyes are distant and glassy at first, but she watches him focus. He’s okay she tells the twins, she tells herself.
She opens her mouth to say something to him -- something reassuring -- but before she can, he laughs. Washington laughs, and covers his face with his hands. He laughs and laughs and laughs until he’s sobbing, and it’s embarrassing for everyone, but mostly Carolina. Eta and Iota actually project their avatars and in green and blue-gray light they lean over him. They bleed comfort and relief into each other and into her and she is reluctant at first, but she lets herself feel it.
“Thank you,” Wash chokes.
“Lucky,” said Maine, his familiar voice deep and gravelly. With one hand he held the oxy-rebreather over Washington’s face. With the other, Maine tapped him on the forehead. The rain was falling into his eyes. Maine was covered in blood and soot. Wash had a shaky-sick feeling that some of the blood was his.
“Don’t feel very lucky,” Wash tried to say, and he choked on it. He coughed until black spots popped into his vision and Maine pushed the rebreather over his mouth, giving him a condescending glare. He could be a real mother hen sometimes.
They sat in silence for a while, and Wash looked up at the sky as lightning flickered. No amount of rain stopped the smoke that rose up over them from what he could only assume was the remains of blue base. He took Maine’s wrist and moved the rebreather away. “What was that thing?”
Maine shrugged. “Dead now,” he said.
“I mean-” Wash tried to curl over onto his side, but pain spiked in his ribs and he rolled onto his back with a cough. “-why didn’t we know about it?”
“Don’t know everything.”
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
Maine’s gaze drifted and his face went blank. It was hard to tell for how long. Wash switched his concentration back to taking measured breaths. Wash focused on staying awake. In time Maine shook his head, he shrugged, he did a one-handed version of the sign for smile, a placid smirk on his face. “Nah,” he said.
Wash laughed. Wash coughed. “Just gimme a sec. I’ll be good to go soon.”
Maine put the rebreather back over Wash’s mouth. He looked exasperated - perfect mother hen material. “No rush,” he said.
Everything had been torn out from under them, all at once.
Being free from Epsilon makes Wash feel like hands had lifted from his windpipe. He could think, he could remember. Well, his memory still seems like swiss cheese with Epsilon’s splinters all mixed in from a messy implantation, but it mostly doesn’t hurt for him to look. Wash has been burned by looking and so he peers with caution. And if it hurts he has so much room to get his bearings, without Epsilon crying paranoia. He stretches back out into his mind - into his thought and his memories. Washington lounges.
The relief keeps falling out of him in tears and laughter and he tries to keep it in because he can see how Carolina turns away from him. She has no idea what to do with emotional displays. He wonders how she even started seeing York. It must have all been about sex at first.
They sit together in the red base storage room and eat ration bars. When he talks, it’s not about the mission.
“They were torturing him,” he tells her. “The fragments aren’t copies of an AI, they are disassociated identities of the Alpha. Epsilon was his memories, so I’ve been carrying those around this whole time.” Wash closes his eyes to fight back tears again. “That’s what the break-in was about, I’m certain of it. Tex must have found out.”
Carolina looks at him for a long time. He’d be embarrassed if it wasn’t clear her thoughts were somewhere else. She has her helmet off and it only hurts a little for him to look at her. “What were you going to do with what Epsilon told you?”
“I don’t know,” he answers honestly. “He wanted to hide in plain sight and play a long game, but there was no room in my head to make a plan. I don’t even really think he’s a personality as much as he’s a sense or a backup so I don’t think he really knew what he was doing either.”
A long silence passes between them. Carolina stares into space and meticulously folds the wrapper to her ration bar. Thunder purrs through the room, shaking the floor. “Was it was them who sent us on the forest mission together?” She asks. “Did York manufacture the mission to get us out of the way?”
Wash considers, looking back into his memory with caution. With ease. “I’m sure someone was responsible. I don’t know if it was York.”
Wash folds his hands around the wrapper to his ration bar. “Honestly? Because I want to believe they would have taken me with them. If they knew what the AI were, couldn’t they see that there was something wrong with me?”
“You have to help yourself first, Wash,” Carolina spouts, the usual stuff he gets for jumping in front of a bullet.
“I know, but I couldn’t. You saw me, an hour ago.”
Carolina took a breath. “An hour ago, I didn’t care if you were okay. I just wanted to complete the mission and you were an inconvenience.”
Wash leans to look at her. He tries to parse what part of that she’s mad about, but he can’t quite follow through. “But you came through for me. You took out Epsilon.”
Carolina sighs. “If we’re going back there, we’re going to have to put him back.”
“I know.” He says. “It’s okay.”
She shakes her head. “It’s not okay.”
Another roll of thunder hums around them and that’s all there is. Wash’s mind is so blissfully quiet, it’s almost eerie. “What do you want to do, boss?”
Carolina thinks. She pumps her knee as her gaze wanders. Wash leans back against the wall and struggles not to fall asleep. Dangers are so close around the corner and he feels more at peace than he has in months.
“I’ll talk to York,” she says at length. “We’ll get you out. We’ll get Epsilon to safety. He came back for us,” she glances to Wash. “He came back to get this through to me.”
“York’s a great guy,” Wash says.
“Yeah,” she says in a breath, and he’s not certain she’s convinced. She stands up, crosses the room, and folds Epsilon’s chip into Wash's hands. “Get some sleep while you can. The next couple of days are going to be hard. We’re going to call in two hours to head in, if York hasn’t crashed this ship, too. I’ll put Epsilon back when we get to the Pelican. I’ll wake you up when we’re ready to go. Sync?”
Wash lies down on the floor in his armor, using the cot as a pillow. He folds his hands around Epsilon to keep him safe. “Sync,” he echoes, and for the first time in months, he falls into a quiet, exhausted sleep.