“What do you want, Doc?”
“I was just, uh... wondering about those AI? After they were implanted in people, were there ever any, like, side effects?”
“Uh...” Washington steals a few glances at the Meta, who is... pacing back and forth in the sand. A little unnerving, but okay. “Yeah. People would always talk about headaches, stuff like that. Nothing too drastic.” His side glances at the Meta turn to glares as memories of a flaming hologram form in his mind. “But there are always a few deviations,” he adds icily.
“That... sounds really cryptic, but you had one too, right? Epsilon? All I know from the reports is that you ‘went crazy’ and... Well, I was going to say that’s not a very accurate choice of words, but you were dragging me around in a wall, like, a few days ago.” Doc clears his throat, restarts. “So, uh. Crazy, huh?”
At the mention of the AI’s name, Wash sees flashes of a blonde woman smiling and hears desperate whispers of her name. He pushes down the intrusive thoughts, grips his rifle tighter, and clenches his jaw. “Listen to me,” he starts. “Epsilon is the one that went crazy, not me. I’m not crazy, Doc. Why are you even asking me about this?”
He puts his hands up, defensive. “Okay, jeez! I believe you!” He mumbles something under his breath, something that sounds like ‘well, for the most part’. “And I’m asking you because I...” Doc’s helmet moves slightly to the side; he breaks ‘eye’ contact. “I’m just curious, is all.”
“Uh-huh,” Wash says dryly, as is his specialty.
“Honestly,” Doc insists.
An old message from Command plays on loop in Wash’s head. Something from when he was first ordered to check out the Blood Gulch troopers. “...Are you asking me this because of Omega?”
“What?” Doc looks taken aback; he actually flinches at the name of the AI.
“Omega,” he repeats. “It lived in your head for a while, right? Is that why you’re asking? You’re experiencing some ‘side effects’ and you’re wondering if that’s normal?”
Doc sputters and shakes his head. “I-I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Washington sighs. “Look, I don’t know what it did to you,” he starts, “but I assure you --”
“He didn’t do anything, Wash! He didn’t hurt me, or -- or anyth--”
“Okay, no offense, Doc, but I don’t believe you for a second. Christ, look at yourself! Omega must have left a serious mark on you!” Trust me, I would know about AI leaving marks on people. Wash spares another glance toward the Meta. He repeats his own name a few times in his head; there is no ‘Leonard’ or ‘Church’ in Washington. “What were you like before it infected you? What did it make you believe -- what did it turn you into?”
“I mean it, Wash! O’Malley didn’t do anything negative to me!” the medic insists. “He only did good things for me! He taught me how to stand up for myself!”
“Oh, is that right? Is that why you still flinch when I use its real name? And ‘stand up for yourself’?” Washington barks a humorless laugh. “Doc, you’re the biggest pushover I’ve ever met.”
Doc’s armor shifts; he balls his hands at his sides. He sighs, and his brain tells him that Wash is right, he’s weak, he’s stupid, incompetent,
“You know,” he continues, driving the nail deeper, “I remember when Tex had Omega. It drove her, told her to do more than she could do, be more than she could be. It was almost like...” He pauses, as if searching for the right word. “Almost like it wasn’t her AI, you know? Felt more like it was controlling her.”
Doc continuously clenches and opens his fists. Some energetic feeling jolts up his spine. A thought drifts through his mind, saying that he should clock Washington in the face, just to shut him up. Violence doesn’t fix anything, he scolds himself. It only creates more problems.
However, the feeling of being scrutinized under Washington’s gaze causes his self-restraint to wither and crack.
He faces the ex-Freelancer head-on. “Cut it out, Wash! Don’t -- don’t act like you knew him!” Doc stops himself a bit too late, exhales deeply. He mumbles an apology and turns to face the alien temples. “You know what? I’m going to bed. I don’t feel like talking about AI anymore.” He walks the distance to the temples without turning back around.
Washington is left standing in the desert alone. He mulls over what he said, hears it repeat in his ears over and over. His fingers idly drum on the side of his battle rifle as his eyes scan the horizon. “God damn it,” he sighs. Wash finds himself following Doc’s footprints in the sand.
A growl from the Meta informs Wash that the medic would rather be left alone. A half-snarl says that Washington should know better than to bring up dead memories. Wash ignores both noises. This isn’t Meta’s business, anyway. Hell, Wash isn’t even sure this is his own business. He walks into the desert temple, his subconscious nagging away. It, he notes, sounds suspiciously like another old teammate.
Wash rounds a corner and calls out Doc’s nickname. He walks slowly, checking each area with care. “Doc?” he calls out again, trying to sound... y’know, not like a scary ex-Freelancer. “Doc, I...” Washington exhales. He clips the battle rifle onto his back in a conscious effort to look more approachable. “I wanted to apologize,” he says, the last part of the sentence sounding more like a question. Wash laughs nervously. “I’m, uh... not very good at this, you know.”
He thinks of that one time he rode his skateboard through the halls of the Mother of Invention. He remembers the forced apology he gave to the Director, filled with half-stifled laughs and hot, embarrassed faces. “I’m kind of... out of practice.” Another memory, one he’d rather forget, one he hasn't been able to forget since he joined the Project, fills his mind with the feeling of split skin across his knuckles; the feeling of adrenaline rushing through his veins as he bashes that poor kid’s face into the mirror, over and over.
Washington’s vision goes slightly tunneled and suddenly he can see Doc in front of him, with his helmet off and his eyes downcast. Vulnerable, even. He watches Doc’s mouth move (What did he just say? Forgive?). Wash shakes his head, tries to clear his mind, but the smell, the smell of sweat, blood, and the raw fear of that kid, rolling off him in waves -- he can’t get it out of his head, it haunts him, reminds him that this is what he could be if he can’t learn to control himself --
Doc is giving him a wary look, one that someone might give to a stray dog as they feed it. Are you going to bite my hand off if I try to help you? “Are you alright, Wash? You’re, uh, kinda creeping me out by just standing there.”
It’s a miracle he hears Doc speak in the first place. There’s darkness around the corners of his eyes, he’s too far lost in thought, and fuck, Meta was right; he shouldn’t be bringing up dead memories -- stop living in the past -- but he never did mean to beat that kid to near-death, it was supposed to be self-defense, he was just a kid, but he was the one that just had to push him until he snapped, the one that ‘started it all’ --
“Wash, are you listening at all? ...Can you even hear me?”
He, faintly, notices that his hands are moving; scratching at one another, trying to scrape off the blood. The blood that came off years ago, the blood that he washed off as soon as he realized what had happened. These memories are a decade old but the muscle memory in his hands are newer, fresher, as his index finger twitches, pulling a trigger that isn’t there. It’s done out of reflex, to teach South a lesson, to get Donut to shut up, to get everyone out of his way --
It’s all too much.
Washington hears a weak call of his name as his vision goes black and his armor hits the sand.