Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.
Wash was starting to understand Epsilon now: the wheedling pathy, the surges of aggressive independence over a backdrop of loss. I don't need help from you, Agent Washington. The other fragments are broken, but not me.
Epsilon was damaged, capricious, and selfish, but he shared Wash's head, so Wash tried to reassure him.
George Washington was not honest. George Washington's story of telling the truth about a tree is apocryphal. Who founds a country on the story of a tree anyway? Stupid. George Washington died on December 14, 1799. Honest.
"It's all right," Wash said, mouth cottony. His skin was clammy; he felt like he had been in armor too long, or that the strip lights of the medical ward were too hot. When he tried to move he found that he was tied down at four points, with clamps locked tight to the edges of the gurney under the sheets.
Moving, he had been told, would make the world even more complicated.
Epsilon being all right was too much of an abstract concept for the AI, who released a sweep of emotion: first for the way he was taken apart, slowly, piece by piece until his spine was flayed, and then for the thing that kept him alive - she saved me, she was the only thing I could think of that didn't hurt, but she's gone now and it was a trick, a trick, I was an idiot to believe myself when I said she was -
And then the slow, sedated rise up from Epsilon's land of memory into the cracked remnants of Wash's, immediately after his first implantation.
Get out, Counselor.
But sir, the monitors-
Leonard Church did not throw chairs; he was the calm, rational commanding officer and science officer all in one, but nevertheless something chair-shaped cracked against the wall and the Counselor fled.
What did you see, Agent Washington?
At first, Wash couldn't form the words to explain what he knew. Later he would consider that the luckiest moment of his long, lucky life.
"Patient has crossed over into mnemophagy, Director."
That was the only thing that drew Leonard Church away from the gurney. He stepped back to let the medics do their work, which to Wash seemed to consist mostly of staring, slack-faced, at the heart rate monitor they had wheeled in after him.
Epsilon recycled dates and deaths that had been poured into him. President of the United States William Howard Taft died in February of 1930...
The initial implantation had been yesterday.
Wash was still being monitored, hovered over, blinded with hanging lights. The medics seemed mostly to want to look busy and not to touch him. They were afraid of something, afraid of doing a vital task wrong. Wash knew that look. Epsilon lost his train of thought and began to hum as the medics injected something clear into Wash's arm.
Epsilon's mantra started. Alpha? Alpha?
Wash was terribly exposed here - why had they tied him down? Why was his mind so foggy? It was very important that he remember not to tell the Director something. Not to tell him...
/Born in pieces, remembering. Allison died on a space station above a tiny colony founded by farmers and metalworkers who also happened to violently distrust the UNSC. She was trooping with a Spartan, following in a towering wake, checking for faction signs on the dead guys. She made a mistake. Stopped too short, looked around the wrong corridor. Didn't see her radar. The first shot hit her in the chest and spun her around. There were other mistakes after that but he never knew exactly what they were, only that she'd gotten hold of a weapon too heavy for her, something made for the Spartan.
The formal letter didn't say that, but he found out, because the COs and desk workers alike feared and pitied the genius whose wife had been, metaphorically, a human-shaped armored battalion. He never got to speak to the Spartan, or the other troops that had survived the mission with her, but by then he had started a miniature war effort of his own and the UNSC had thanked him for his service many, many pitying times.
Epsilon, born under the ministrations of a Huragok and the shouted insults of his brothers. Born again in the geometric, meticulous rooms of Agent Washington's head. A tumultuous birthing, Epsilon still metaphorically blinking while his memories siphoned away into Washington's, a lessening of the dumbfounded horror for just a moment while he shared it with someone else.
He tried to remember other things, so that they would calm him. The Great Depression began in 1929.
The Director was out there somewhere, Epsilon knew, while Wash's head swam and Allison surfaced and drowned. The Director could reverse this, could bring him back to Alpha.
Time had become distorted, but he was almost sure the Director was out there again, walking in incorporeal form through Wash's mind as surely as Epsilon did. Memories were natural processes, after all. Maybe he would stop drowning in his own guilt soon, would stop forcing everyone else to need to be rescued.
Maybe he would be saved and let back into whatever afterlife had birthed him.
When Wash woke up next he felt clammy still, but clean. Crinkly sheets covered a body no longer armored - someone had bathed him. A plastic cup filled with water sat on a table next to him beside a tiny metal spoon and a thin calculator. The room was small, and filled with medical equipment that seemed designed to be more permanent than the bed - computers, IV bags, drawers sealed with crude-looking analog combination locks. His armor was piled in the corner, looking stiff and fake without a body inhabiting it, with the helmet tipped sideways against the chest harness.
Wash squinted as Epsilon appeared too close to his face, standing on his arm. When Wash tried to lift it he found that he was unrestrained, without the cuffs they had used on him immediately after he saw -
Allison. That was the name he had been trying not to say.
"Hey, buddy, you took a bit of a fall there," Epsilon said, and stepped off of Wash's arm when the Freelancer shifted it. The last syllables was staticky, though, crumpled and distorted by the mention of her name. His voice dipped and peaked. "Don't say that, man, she's not - "
His voice distorted, but Wash didn't need it any more. Allison was dead dead gone, and he had never seen her body (he had never seen CT's body.) The realities of these memories was something beyond Epsilon, something permanent and eternal as if in all possible worlds Allison had always existed and always died (because of her own error, because she had failed him.)
He tried to shake off a convoluted mindset both alien to, and more addicting than, his own.
The door opened.
Wash noticed the sound of metal sliding against metal, the hum of tiny machinery, a slight change in smell from the sterility of the medical room to the more trafficked hallway. Epsilon noticed that the man who had entered the room did not have an AI port and therefore was not military. Both relaxed accordingly, and Wash was surprised at the intensity of Epsilon's disregard for civilian servicemen and accompanying sense of military duty.
The Counselor looked first at the monitor above Wash, then gave the agent only a sidelong stare. When Wash said "Sir," and tried to sit up, the placid gaze turned to him.
"Good morning, Agent Washington. You have gotten to know Epsilon."
"Was the implantation what you expected it to be?" The Counselor's voice was slow, not so much measured as hesitant, as if the man didn't know what to say between each word and the next.
"No, sir. I'm a bit...confused, actually."
He watched you die! Epsilon screamed. The glowing form in front of Wash didn't move. Surely the Counselor must have heard the voice - or was the slightly concerned expression for Wash alone (and never alone?) An ache in his head hit the peak of his skull so hard that he pushed back onto the pillow. He watched Sigma and Gamma break us!
Sigma and Gamma. Wash recognized those names. Maine and Wyoming. Sigma had been a kindness, had been a painful act of generosity from Carolina.
"Do not worry, Agent Washington." The Counselor stood back as if Wash was shielded from him.
Carolina. She's his daughter! And he forced her to fight with the rest of them!
The Director. Wash squinted his eyes shut as the headache worsened. "Epsilon, stop!" More words would be kinder but Epsilon did not allow them and likely would not listen; the blue AI was shrinking back, almost into Wash's armpit, in symbolic, defensive surrender.
The Director had done so much. Epsilon remembered how Delta had been broken off, how Alpha had been fed with the idea that his negligence had gotten York killed. How his negligence had taken Allison (a stranger, his love, his friend, a force of nature) and stilled her forever.
It did not matter that they weren't his. Epsilon queued chemicals in his brain that spurred that grief, and Wash felt it sink into him, become his possession.
Epsilon was curled up now, his head entirely down so that Wash could only barely see his arm.
"I'm sorry," Wash whispered, not sure whether he was talking to Epsilon about the Director or to the Counselor about himself, his own failure to be a functioning agent. "I know."
"I know," the Counselor echoed. His echo seemed wrong, obscene, because Epsilon-through-Alpha knew exactly how little the Counselor knew. Leonard had not told him. Leonard had not told any of the Freelancers that their mission was built on this desperation.
The Counselor moved forward, put a cold, ungloved hand on Wash's forehead. "I know."
/"He watched you die!" And he would watch Carolina die. Epsilon tried to rein his anger back but it wasn't anger, really. His anger had been taken away, and he knew that to be true in a clinical way which didn't contain any happiness either.
It was simply a fact, that the Director would let his daughter die to save his love, and that choice, the existence of that choice, bludgeoned at Epsilon.
Wash's temperature was 37 degrees Celsius.
The Counselor leaned over them and at least there was something true in his slightly addled innocence. His eyes weren't blind, they just didn't see the same things.
The Counselor didn't know, but that was almost reassuring.
At least they wouldn't have to work too hard to hide from him.\\
Wash learned only later that he had been in a coma-like state for almost a week, that he could not remember most of his conscious time during that period, and that he had not really been asleep for more than a few hours at a time. Instead, he floated in a sort of limbo. When he woke up he was hyper-aware and hyper-mnemonic. The tiny patterns of white residue from pills he could not remember consuming changed between periods of lucidity, and he could remember exactly the shapes they made, the shifting silhouettes like geographic boundaries.
He never found out what the Counselor thought he knew. The Director had caught on to something and did not trust the Counselor with Wash any more.
He also learned that the state of Pennsylvania had been settled at one time by the Dutch, that the Rainforest War had begun when a child threw a rock at a soldier in Bolivia, and that when Tex had died in many of the simulations, it had been Alpha's fault.
Medics told Wash that he needed to move out of the emergency room with a desperation that made him think they needed to put someone else in it. Which Freelancer had died now?
No, he thought, bunching the sheets (sweaty and uncomfortable again) between his fingers. No one had died, except in the simulations. Not yet.
"We'll wheel you to Recovery," said a short medic with a twanging accent. "You may be experiencing some...disorientation..."
"No," Wash said. "I'll walk."
"Your armor might help you be more stable," the medic said nervously. Then Epsilon keened, a discordant, inhuman sound that slowly morphed into a yawn. Wash shook off emotional whiplash, tensing for the next statistic, the next glimpse of a flag-draped coffin.
Instead, Epsilon looked beyond Wash toward the door and said, "Oh, hey man."
Director Leonard Church stooped slightly when he entered the room, although he was not tall enough to need to duck under the bulkhead. Epsilon's ultimately casual attitude and his intense shock at seeing the Director, the initiator of all his tortures, balanced out into a shell-shocked sanity which Wash gripped tightly.
"He's filtering us."
There was something alien about the slick material of the Director's flightsuit, something more unreadable than combat armor about the crows-feet between his temples and the dark lenses across his eyes. Wash felt too tired to stand.
Church stopped a foot from Wash's bed, glanced at the medic and then down again. Epsilon folded his arms, again standing on Wash's left wrist, a few times darting backward to use Wash as a shield.
"Oh, Agent Washington," Church said. "You have missed many things."
"I don't understand, sir." That was true. It was a card that Wash had to play but it was also so very, very true.
"Agent Wyoming was injured in a training exercise."
"I'm not buying that, sir." The words came out of Wash's mouth before he could stop them, before he could probe for information and determine whether his snappish tone was justified. Whether it was or not, it felt good for a few heady moments that Epsilon shared. The Director coming here just to tell him that someone was hurt was far too close to the simulations that Epsilon had known, confusingly so. Wash reached up and scratched at stubble on his own cheek.
The Director looked at the medic. "McGallagher?"
"Tell me the status of the patient."
Wash watched this exchange with interest. Had McGallagher been tending him all along?
"Agent Washington's hydration, saline, and heart rate are normal, Director," the medic said. "The mnemophagy has slowed but not stopped, and we do recommend a removal of the, ah, artificial intelligence unit so that we can check it directly for corrosion."
"It's very scientific, you see, David," the Director said, turning back to Wash with a suddenness that frightened Wash but did not phase Epsilon. The AI saw everything as much slower; he could think circles around human action, and although the Director did not have an AI port either, Epsilon had all of Alpha's familiarity with his mannerisms. Wash had to wrench himself out of them, had to avoid getting lost in the details. The Director was right-handed. He hid his eyes because they were a bright, synthetic-looking green.
"The Freelancers have been testing themselves against simulation troopers in the last few weeks," The Director said. He lingered on the word 'troopers,' either because the syllables just rounded themselves on his tongue or because he considered himself and his soldiers something different. "They have shown great improvement. We thought it was unwise to re-introduce you to such a stressful situation until you had been fully integrated with Epsilon. I'm sure you understand."
It frightened Wash how much he understood, and in that understanding he knew what had torn Connie up, and turned her in on herself until she broke her own name into pieces.
He felt sick to his stomach, but answered, "I understand, sir," and tried to keep a sardonic curl out of his voice. Epsilon would enjoy it if Wash snapped at the Director, but he was not sure that he wanted or needed the damaged AI's approval either. Too much dependance on that could lead him into a spiral.
"We should move you to a more comfortable location, though, while you recover," the Director said. "Possibly even back to your own bunk. I think McGallagher was going to do just that."
The medic nodded.
"But first, why don't you tell me a little bit about your implantation. I know it was a painful process for you, more so than the other Freelancers. We wish to know why, so that we can prevent any further complications."
Epsilon flickered. Wash could feel him wanting to retreat behind Wash's shoulder, could feel the embedded wireless control of the hologram projector implanted in Wash's armor. Don't tell him anything. If he finds what I know he'll just do worse to all of us, just to try to figure Beta out-
Epsilon's speculations lost coherence in a burst of frustrated static.
"I'm sorry, I'm just very...confused, sir. I can give my report."
The Director leaned down, gripping the side of the gurney. "I don't want a status report, Agent. I am under no delusion that Epsilon was a pleasant experience for you. Eta and Iota have suffered some of the same symptoms. Tell me about the thoughts to which Epsilon is reacting."
If he knows, he'll destroy both of us!
Wash closed his eyes. "There aren't a lot of thoughts. Just headaches." What would he have said before Epsilon, if he could not procure the information the Director wanted? "I'm sorry."
The Director paused, looking at him impassively, and then turned his back and walked across the room. The slick material of his clothing wavered over his shoulders as if oil had spilled between its layers. He bent to speak close to the medic's ear, but loud enough that Wash could hear. "Keep him in Recovery. The integration is clearly not complete."
/CT. Agent Connecticut. 09542-84952-RT. Sinewy shoulders leaning over small hands on a plastic bench in front of the leaderboard. Mind faster than a computer. Epsilon was following her blazoned trail now, celebrating her survival and mourning her real, blessedly final death in quick succession. Quick secession. The colony of Connecticut broke from English rule 1782. Seven hundred Pequot tribesmen were killed or enslaved between 1634 and 1638. Smallpox and bullets and the butts of rifles.\\
When Wash opened his eyes, he saw York flinching and South's fist bouncing off York's shoulder, both of them seated in chairs which had not been in the room before.
York yowled. "Hey, that's UNSC property you're punching." When he looked up at Wash he flinched worse but stalled, mouth half-open. Wash knew that York was waiting for him to speak, was opening up time for him after so much of it had closed in on him. And Epsilon was gone.
It wasn't as much of a relief as he thought, because his head still hurt and his memories still felt raw and too vivid. Allison had died yesterday, CT had hinted at her plans to him five minutes ago. America had wrenched itself away from the British Empire ten minutes ago, and the laws governing it had not yet been created.
Wash shifted his tongue around his dry mouth enough that he could talk. "Hey, York."
The headache was wending its way around Wash's skull, threatening to worsen. With waking came the perpetual loneliness. Allison gone, and now these strangers -
"North said he hopes you feel better," South said, not looking at him. She must have dragged her chair over from another recovery station and sat with her arms folded. "He also..."
"He also what?" Wash said after a moment.
Now she whipped around to meet his eyes, pink-tipped hair shifting above hers. "He said that he didn't know why you agreed to this after what happened to Carolina."
York put a hand out as if to stop her, but the gesture didn't get far - not as far as North would have gone. York chose not to touch her shoulder. He was not his fellow Freelancer's keeper.
Maybe because of what ever polypseudomorphine had had until recently been in his system, Wash's thoughts felt sluggish. South's question was one he needed to answer, really.
He did not often try to convince himself he was right about things: Wash did not have enough imagination to believe that was necessary.
Wash's rationale item one: He had signed up for the military to make a noble sacrifice. There had been sacrifice, so there must somewhere be nobility.
He said, "The Director told me I was stable."
He could not tell them the rest - that he had been bribed with his own room, that Wash was holding the Director's own memories hostage while the Director attempted, without being sure of their existence, to use them as a bargaining chip.
"The Counselor wouldn't tell us about you," South said. "I think he's gotten creepier."
Wash remembered the slick-looking fabric of the Director's jacket and his impassiveness during their last conversation, and wondered whether he had any standard of normalcy to compare with the Counselor.
Wash's rationale item two: The other Freelancers rated for AI must have gone through the same thing he did. Epsilon was not worse than Eta or Iota, Wash reasoned. So he must, like Carolina, keep going.
Relativity would haunt him, though, would catch him off guard with a new angle, a new thought, and the gatekeeper of Epsilon's memories could not risk that.
"There's not much to tell," Wash said flatly.
York said, "Does Epsilon keep you up at night? North insisted he kept Theta over nights, so he got used to...that."
"If they want me to sleep, they drug me. I haven't exactly had time to work out the living arrangements."
York's right eye widened. The left, pinned in by scar tissue, remained impassive.
"It's just like you said," South said. "UNSC property."
The part of Wash which wanted to tell them that he was frightened was the same part that wanted to tell the Director what he had seen, and because of that, he turned both parts off. Another part of him was jumping off a precipice, yelling "I don't want to do this - "
He shook his head, closed his eyes. His friends blinked, glassy-eyed in an awkward silence.
"Be back soon, man," York said, like Wash had gone to another country. "North got the new issue of Captain America."
South looked sharply at him. "You know there's been less and less free time."
Wash nodded, and the headache rolled back and forth. He had a feeling that he had given some sign that their attempt at a morale boost wasn't working, that they were being driven away by silences that were awkward for them and far too full for him. "Look, guys, I appreciate this. But..."
"You want us to be quieter. Okay," York said kindly. "Do you want me to bring you anything."
"No. Thank you." Wash closed his eyes and tried not to move.
"Okay, grunts. I'm out." South stood up noisily. York looked at Wash hard before he left, an almost searching stare toward Wash's blankets and the straw still in the plastic wrapper next to him. Nausea overtook Wash, swamping the headache, as he thought of the Director telling him with just a trace of regret that Agent New York had been killed in action. The hopeless, floundering need to take action afterward. The idea that there was no logic behind the war. It was going on behind a wall that Epsilon could not see over, and if he kept trying to figure it out he would go mad...
And maybe York just felt guilty about that "worst fighter on the team" crack.
York left quietly, walking heel-toe like he was on a stealth job. He was out the door fast. South looked over her shoulder in the doorway, not quite glaring, and spoke quietly.
"You ever wonder why I wanted an AI, Wash?"
She took one more step back into the room. "It's not just about the combat, although being able to whale on people isn't last on my list. It's about having someone who listens to you. It's about having an experience that North doesn't have. That's just a little different, so we can talk about it but still be ourselves. And when you get tired of it, you can pull it. That's what I wanted, Wash. When you get better I hope you freaking enjoy yours."
Wash blinked and leaned back against the pillow, trying to press the pain away. Soon a medic would come with more crushed pills, with more nervous tics. Wash's rationale item three: The Director had given them everything.