Wash woke up. Lying on his back again, armored and unmasked, on a bed cold enough that he must not have been there long. Opening his eyes would be too complicated. Instead, he made a mental lunge for what was lεft of Epsilon.
The AI's presence was strong, riding Wash's neural port like he had before.
Wash thought, What happened?
We're back in the freaking ship! Where's Carolina?
Maine took her. Or did he take Eta-Iota-Carolina, the part of thεm which was one mind?
Our head is killing me.
Information about the room filtered in slowly. Whatever surface he was lying on was too short for him, and his ankles hung over the edge. Maybe not a bed. He felt like he had been invalid for months.
Epsilon protested as Wash decided to open his eyεs.
They were inside again, in a briefing room Wash recognized as having been near the skin of the ship. On a board which he knew sometimes displayed the team roster, a map of a ragged-edged country floated. Two helmeted medics hovered over him, and something seemed alien about them. That was who he was fighting, wasn't it? Eight-foot tall aliens. Or was it insurrectionists in medic suits?
Remember, Epsilon said. The AI hadn't manifested his hologram yet. Don't tell them anything.
One medic, sounding bored, asked him what year it was. Was this an Insurrectionist, one of the people who had helped Allison, CT, York and all the rest die?
Don't tell them anything.
The medic glanced at her companion, slurring her words. "We need to know that he's coherent..."
"Agent Washington," he spat. "Zero-nine-five-four-two."
Telling such a useless truth was like opening an old wound - there was something satisfying about it.
"Hold on, Agent Washington."
"It may be uncomfortable, but you must be awake for this process." Was that the counselor's voicε? Wash heard static somewhere too close to tell direction.
"Agεnt Washington," the Dirεctor said from the middle distance.
So Wash had not been captured. He was home.
That was when he started fighting.
If he had just not been so dizzy he would have been able to stand. As it was, gravity borε him down again when he swung his feet off the table, and he lodged against its side. Patches of dust on the floor reminded him of the crumbled pills by his bedside, but their topography was different in so many ways.
"You're safe," said the Director. "You're fine."
"Open your mouth." Someone prodded his cheek, scraping against the five-o'clock shadow.
Wash did not understand the reasoning behind this and therefore did not comply. The next prod set off a blaring headache, though, and his flinch back moved his jaw enough for the medic's gloved hands to drag a padded strip of cloth between Wash's teeth, weighing down his tongue until he drew back.
"We will remove what remains of the Epsilon unit in order to make you comfortable," the Counselor said.
Someone had plugged wires from the wall into a heavy laptop and set it on the floor, at what was now Wash's eye level. Another bundle of cords ran to a muddy purple, flanged object the lεngth of his forearm, and thicker.
The lights on the computer shifted. The second masked medic was carrying a Phillips screwdriver.
He's not dead, Wash tried to say. "Ngth nnrr." Epsilon is still here. Parts of him are holding on. and if the fragments-of-a-fragment were removed, Wash would feel him die again.
Later, he would wonder whether that was true - whether all vestiges of the digital consciousness had shut down in the snow, or whether some really had been so woven into his synapses as to persist until their physical connection was broken. And whether he had seen any of that coming.
He could not see the Director, but heard no rushed footfalls. His leader would not save him.
Instead he tried to cry out for Alpha, trying to bring back the nearly psychic connection he had felt to Sigma's electric signature to find the prime AI who was surely still somewhere on the ship. It was gone or missing. York used to blink his blind eye, reflexively, hoping that it would clear. Now Wash understood that.
We won, right, Wash? He'll never know about -
Vivid images, worse than before, of Allison standing on a golden wooden porch beyond a grassy lawn, hefting her kit bag, saying good bye.
And the certainty that the Director knew. They were his memories, after all, and to siphon them out of Wash was an invasion of both Wash's life and Church's own -
A medic slipped one bulky hand around his throat and braced the other against the back of his neck in an unpracticed, choking embrace. The chip wiggled like a loose tooth and clicked as it came out. The tight, metal interior of the port, supposedly sterile as surgical steel and insulated in three different ways, was numb to the inflammation that Wash felt on the surrounding skin, but tiny grains of something cold tumbled down the side of his neck.
The instant the edge cleared the port, Epsilon screamed.
He'll take me! He'll know!
The chip is too damaged. That was char I felt.
And then Wash blinked and pressed his forehead against the cold side of the table. A medic extracted the saliva-soaked padding from his mouth.
Allison still smiled at him, in the sun.
Wash pressed against the metal, realizing that Epsilon was gone.
She'll die over and over again, said Epsilon.
The Counselor said, "Please stay still for the rest of the procedure."
Someone in armor was let into the room, picked Wash up under his armpits and placed him back on the table. Wash didn't recognize the accented voice, which traded words with the Director. When a medic produced a flimsy gauze patch and moved to press it against Wash's nose he lifted a hand, felt it caught. Something tactile jogged his slipping memory.
Wyoming. And Gamma riding him -
When Wash sat up to try to gain more leverage against Wyoming, the medic struck with unexpected speed. With one whiff of the soporific he felt the world retreat from him again. Someone lifted up his head and pillowed something cold under his neck, and started unspooling cords.
The Director was supervising the building of the new framework. Contractors, paperwork, bids and reports about the simulation bases and about the repairs to the Mother of Invention. The ship was becoming a skyscraper, or perhaps a cave system, half-sunk as it was into a live glacier. He would need to stabilize it and begin rewiring. Whole sections would have to be disconnected. His operation would become smaller, focused around the most intact decks.
On the other side of the planet, the ground command base sat in the desert, guards glancing at the wet paint. Warehouses, already staffed with a fragment of the dumb FILSS AI, were filling up.
The project was making progress. Soon, the Freelancers' augmentations would be replicated and the Alpha would be sent away, implanted with false memories, and quarantined with Florida and the most casually incompetent soldiers on file.
Four simulation soldiers were listed far down in the line of scores that made up the leaderboard too, although they didn't know it. These were the dregs of the army.
Project Freelancer had broken apart. The Director planned to continue to use Project Freelancer for its prime purpose.
Church's voice eased forward and dug in. The man standing at attention blinked and did not answer. He recognized the room, although it had changed shape slightly. It opened onto the blasted glacier now. The door was closed, and the man had been standing long enough that he actively resisted shuffling. This was a familiar, almost comforting, harmless resistance.
He looked up at a face he had seεn in a mirror, one of the few faces he had never seen bloodied. The Director never tortured himself, in his memories.
No tears now but the dry, prickly feeling that they had come and gone.
The man in the alloy armor said, "You asked to see me, sir."
"Yes. I did not expect you to be here."
"The briefing room, sir. It is where missions usually begin."
That was a half-truth. The war room on the bridge, with its long table, had crumbled apart in the crash, the relatively fragilε struts and expansive sheets of glass disintegrating like paper in water. This was more properly the debriefing room, the processing center through which each Freelancer had been pulled after their fabricated missions. The same place where Epsilon had been removed, not long ago. The man in the room was not so much testing his desensitization to it as ignoring it. He was too tired to take on any more sadness and so he did not.
And besides, half the time those memories weren't his anyway.
Did it take you some time to find me? How well do you know the new geography of your own broken ship?
The man was not privy to many new initiatives the Director had started, although he knew they were present and felt a sort of detached grudge toward them. He would not repeat CT's mission of theft and ally-gathering, both because it had been poorly timed and because he did not have enough energy.
Instead, he needed to focus. The Director would ask him the same question, every time.
"What do you want, David?"
No. That wasn't the question, wasn't the usual one that he had built walls and labyrinths of second guesses against. That wasn't 'what did Epsilon tell you?'
The door had stuck open like a fissure, inert machinery which had quietly given up letting in cold air that flowed against his face as he held his helmet under his arm.
"You're number one on the leaderboard now, David."
Favors from the winter. The Director would try to flatter him, try to erase from him the memory of "the worst fighter on the team" as if that mattered to him any more.
He would pretend that it did. "I responded to your call, sir. The forward mustering room was a bit...dissolved."
"I'll make this simple, David. Your tests are coming back well. You could be fit for service again."
"Is that my name?" He recognized the flavor of Epsilon's anger, hotter and quicker than his own, a flash in the pan instead of a slow boil.
"Our work will not be about which name you take," the Director said, dismissive and arch. "How do you think you would do if you faced Agent Maine now? Under...controlled conditions, of course."
"I won't do that," the man said. His head felt hollow, but it was a reassuring simplicity, a clear path to wherever he would go next. He had been cleansed - and it hurt like someone had scraped the inside of his skull. He tracked back like a sleeper remembering the previous days and just got glimpses of pain, his own and Epsilon's, and someone's gun lying in the melting snow -
He had read about rampancy, how it should take seven years for an AI to dissolve into its component thoughts. Instead, the fragments were seven spirits for seven years.
He said, "Not if it's controlled."
They looked at one another for a long moment.
"The ship is sinking," the man said. "The glacier is carrying it west."
"I know. This is not our only facility."
Our. And now he knew that the Director had - or wanted him to think he had - other bases for himself, places which he would not yet let his agents locate.
"I wish to recover my assets. You were Agent Washington, and you could remain him."
As he had many times in this conversation and this week, with rote effort, the man remembered himself and his fabricated place. More than anything else he wanted to ask to where the Alpha had been moved, but that would be an unforgivable tell. He let his voice crack and his chin dip toward his chest. "I...I think that would help me," he said.
The director's voice had gone tight and steely, perhaps in sympathetic mirroring of the other man's outburst of openness. "Many agents have stolen my equipment and fled. They are...significant losses, Agent Washington. You could be in charge of the group which recovers them."
Group? Where was he getting these people? He felt that the last few days of his doubled life, the crude surgeries and cruder interrogations, must have traumatized the whole universe. Everyone would have to know, now.
No one did.
The Director said, "Where else would you want to go?"
"Oh, I have many places I want to go. Sunny islands, restaurants with umbrellas in the drinks. This has been a real pleasure cruise, but the scenery's getting boring."
The Director frowned.
His agent was on a roll now. "The problem with all those places is that they're not going to be so pretty soon. Because there are a lot of aggressive AI out there. So, Director, I have some rules."
If the outburst had surprised the Director, he did not show it with a change in expression. Perhaps he, too, was burnt out and did not have time for such things as personal rebellion.
"No more leader boards. No more scores. I won't pit my people against each other." This would show that he did not understand or care about the initial purpose of the board. The experiment would not continue any longer, of course.
Leonard Church nodded. "Agent South made some similar requests."
It took a moment to remember who South was, to unlock one of the two deadbolts in what the armored man now saw as a geometric mental landscape both behind and inside him.
The man said, "Other than that? Do what you want." He shrugged, meant it.
The Director nodded again. He was still wearing those glasses, hiding the synthetic-looking green eyes.
The man in the armor said, "Fine."
It was strange to say that, because the man was always honest. But a gun was also honest. A long wait was also honest.
Slowly, Wash brought his name back to himself.
He had shied away from it. It represented a halvedness which he did not want to feel.
The Recovery team was a lot of running at first, running to regain the muscle and weight he had lost. He listened to music that staggered and broke and staggered again.
The further he moved, the longer he could wait.
A long time later, after he had not thought of it in so long that he αlmost felt stable again, someone else looked at the tumbled interior of the meticulous house in his head.
Alpha wαs a bubbly, carbonated blot of personality. Wash had gotten used to seeing him in the Blue Army's fabricated body, even if he couldn't adopt the others' habit of calling him Church; every time he said the name it felt disingenuous. After he figured it out, though, he both knεw that he had to protect Alpha and that Alpha would throw itself into every fire it could find.
That was consistent with the Director that Wash had known.
The fight against the Meta was far too close to an uncontrolled circumstance for his liking - for all thαt he leaned on control, the Director's eye in the sky avatar was appropriate and frightening. It wasn't much of a fight, anyway - not in close quarters against the Brute shot, not against the pure size of him and Alpha riding mind-drunk and εxultαnt.
Alpha didn't replace Epsilon, didn't fill the same spaces and open the same wounds.
Wαsh would have bεen glad to be rid of the loud, obtrusive presence if he hadn't been too busy hurting and mourning.
Wash's nightmares came true so often that it was almost boring.
He didn't relapse.
It wouldn't have been entirely possible for him to relapse into another person's personality, to rebuild the broken mind out of sickness and mnemophagy alone. There was not enough life in electrical signals alone for that.
He felt like he had traded one Director for another, though, when he stood in front of the Chairman, the enemy of his enemy, and agreed to kill for a new cause.
The cause which lead him back to the wreckage-strewn snow. When he desperately tried to wrest the capture unit away from the Meta, recognition of the machinery that had partially destroyed his mind was not the top priority on his list. Epsilon had sealed Wash up, closed him off from what he had felt before, and Wash was just returning the favor. No offense. It's nothing personal.
The unit didn't belong to him now anyway, if it ever had. It had killed Tex, it had witnessed the death of the Meta (and might in some sightless machine way remember that too)
Relief was flooding him, too. Not in a 'it's Church's problem now' way, although there was some of that. Instead, he felt now that Epsilon had been consumed by the Alpha, that it had finally gone home.
Wash also felt bruised and angry and as if a UNSC-emblazoned spotlight had just turned on him, if he was being honest.
Hε always was.