betaread by mumblybee: thank you.

They were all maniacs, really, driven by one man's hopeless fervor, and the AI proved it. How could they not have seen? Long before armor-sheering bullets clicked into the pistols in white-armored hands, the forges had been heating up, the Director deciding that whatever hot-coal ghost tortured him should haunt them all too-

CT thought all of this with her mask hiding her face. The Director was giving a speech in front of them all, but it didn't really matter. She'd heard a lot of talks in her time about discipline and diligence and quickness in battle. She was good at them too, except for those few moments where she couldn't keep the crackling out of her voice because she wanted to be on the board, and then Wash had to be so, so whatever he was, he had to call her Connie-

No matter how much discipline was poured into them, though, each Freelancer had their own stance, telegraphing their feelings as if the armor was meant to reveal instead of hide them. The whole team stood at attention in front of a large holographic screen, waiting. A practice mission would start soon. It was a test that didn't require them to step a foot outside the Mother of Invention, but it was still, like all the missions, a test.

CT tried to stand as straight as possible, watching the others for any clues of what they knew about the things they were about to face. Maybe the Director had told some about the mission and not others. That would be his sort of idea. South's posture was all hips, one leg thrust out like a flag of defiance. York's arms were crossed, but something in his shoulders negated the closed-off impression that pose would give from anyone else. He might as well have been lying on the beach. Wash stood at attention regimented and stiff, although his hands were open and occasionally swayed slightly, fingers opening and closing as if to feel the tiny resistance from the air. CT had posture, but that's where her contribution ended.

The Director stood on a balcony to their right, but out of the corner of her eye CT saw him leave without comment and without looking back.

Wyoming muttered something about Alpha dogging the Director's heels. Delta perched on York's shoulder, looking trim and demure even though he had the same armor as all of them. Even a hologram took on its own posture. Maine growled, bug-eyed mask tipped forward in concentration.

"Ready for this?" York looked down at CT. She thought she could see the cords of his neck moving underneath the rubbery black suit.

"This is a joke," CT snapped. "Giving people with AI the same test as the ones without them? Now the Director just wants to laugh at us."

A countdown started on the holographic screen in front of them, red numbers burning down from five.

York said, "You remember that I've got one, right?"

The red lights flicked to three.

CT said, "Delta knows when to be quiet."

The hologram opened up and the wall opened with it. A hanger had been transformed into a danger zone, a obstacle course of lasers and men lurking on balconies holding paint guns and concealed suggestions of sharp things- CT charged forward, feet pounding, with York doing the same on one side and South on the other. Scarlet light lashed through the air. CT dodged three laser strikes as thick as her arms, rolling once before coming to one knee next to York. The familiar shouts filled her radio lines: "Synch! Switch!", teams forming up and splitting as quick as maps tearing.

She raised her rifle, tucked it under her elbow, and fired. It only held paint bullets, but some of the soldiers retreated. Blocks rose out of the floor, and ahead of her CT saw Freelancers split to go around or over the sudden obstruction. Wyoming skidded. The air rumbled. CT sensed someone behind her and turned to rub shoulders with Wash. His chin tipped toward the balconies and a white-armored trooper rappelled down with a heavy gun under his arm. The air was full of sparking yellow bullets and CT dodged behind one of the columns even as they started to rumble back down into the earth again, the terrain shifting as behind her she saw three Freelancers sprinting down the field. Was there even an objective here? Nothing was being relayed to her HUD map. Maybe they were just supposed to survive. Further down the room the forms were all white and silver, Maine, Wyoming, and Carolina shimmering floor-colored. CT turned a corner and, face-to-face with a trooper, opened up with chattering paint blanks that folded him over and spiked him purple. North backed around the corner in the opposite direction with a trooper following him. The Freelancer took paint blobs to the shoulders but grabbed the trooper by the helmet, pushed his face down toward the column and hit him in the back of the head. Another paint pellet secured the trooper's face to the column.

Footsteps beat like drums as somewhere on the other side of the huge room, South whooped. Another trooper dashed behind North and shot him twice in the shoulders, leaving the Freelancer's hands in the air as if he was ready for arrest. CT took one look at the paint grenade couched in the trooper's hand and vaulted the column. She barely heaved herself over the top, feet scraping at the synthetic stone. When she teetered and looked down from the top she saw that as soon as the trooper had turned his attention to North and then her he had now switched it to Wash, who was crouched and circling with the lighter, paint-loaded version of his favorite battle rifle held in one hand. Another trooper was coming around the column behind him, but Wash was facing the wrong side-

The second trooper looked up at CT just as she started to move, and she almost thought she saw a confused look on the masked face before she dove off the column.

Both troopers opened fire just as she tackled Wash under the arm and hauled him out of the path of three globs of paint. They fell apart a meter away, feet crabbing on the floor. Wash eked out, "I had him."

CT could only say, "Sure you did."

Another glob of paint pinned her hand to the floor. "Hey!", she called after the offending trooper.

Wash stood up and took off. The troopers were coming thicker, the air so full of different colors of light and paint that it looked like a party. CT whipped her feet around and hooked the nearest trooper's ankle as he came in for the kill. He dropped with a yowl, and she grabbed at the underside of his chin as he fired uselessly into the air. Another twist and she was on top of him, her hand still sealed in the paint but able to turn just a little bit. She slammed her armored knees down on the trooper's wrists. He wriggled but let go of the gun, which she locked her free hand around and dragged toward his face-

A succession of things happened all at the same time. Another glob of paint rocked CT's left shoulder from the back, completely immobilizing her arm. Wash's yellow-painted shins slammed into the ground in a controlled fall in front of her. A bright red laser, hot enough to scorch but not kill, converged with a second burst of paint as troopers seemed to come from all directions. A silver-column-colored silhouette turned into Carolina and fired off six or seven bursts that felled a trooper each. The red laser shattered the paint around CT's arm and hand. Immediately freed, she rolled over and got to her feet just as Wash stood up too. More voices were adding to the radio chatter as AI got louder and more authoritative in the increasingly crowded, hazardous battlefield. CT was used to hearing Carolina's Beta and Zeta argue like shoulder angels: CT roomed with the number one Freelancer and knew that they even kept up their brotherly banter at night, inventing puzzles just to solve them. Carolina, now as then, remained disciplined, driving the two back on track.

"Focus," Carolina told them, told herself, and CT thought it was the first time she had ever heard Carolina admit she wasn't.

Delta said, "Incoming paint missiles," to all of them, and CT saw Wash and Epsilon run across her field of vision toward them. Wash was going to try to climb, staying under the field of fire, and make the balconies before too many of his fellow Freelancers got taken out. Epsilon wasn't speaking out loud, but as CT crouched behind a column and glanced aside at North she saw Wash raise a hand to his temple one or two times, and shake his head. Something was going on there. He didn't want the others to know, and he didn't want the Director to know, for some reason CT couldn't fathom. Wash didn't want to accuse the Director, and CT did not understand that.

"We have a fifty-percent chance of three-quarters percent survival if Agent Washington succeeds in knocking out some of the enemy," Delta said.

"Fifty-percent chance that past me again, Dee." York was dodging paint blobs out in the open.

Delta said, "Even if he succeeds, which is unlikely, two of us will be tagged."

Carolina said, "That's acceptable. Wash, York press the offensive. Everybody else, cover them-"

Maine charged like a bull and two of the troopers near Wash tumbled down with Maine's paint bullets on them. CT's instincts said stay back, one foot sliding along the ground as she put her shoulder to the column and lurked like she's good at, but another part of her was watching Wash and wondering how his passenger was riding him, what Epsilon was whispering that was efficient, yes, so efficient that the brain couldn't just handle it, it had gone from regimented to straightjacketed-

CT followed him. She kept lurking, shoulders hunched and high, but the nose of her rifle was up and tracking at the balconies even as Wash started to sneak up a ramp hidden behind a column.

Delta was right; the troopers saw Wash fast and sent two men down after him even as another flurry of bullets pinned Maine to the ground. CT reached the bottom of the ramp just in time to see Wash backing down, one paint blob flying past his helmet and leaving little pink streaks that she knew from experience could sting. They could get in the little spaces between helmet and neck and just burnt there-

The two troopers overcame him. Two more paint blobs caught Wash on the foot just as he was taking a step, and he pinwheeled backwards and fell three or four feet, she couldn't be sure, off the ramp. CT dashed along the other side and fired upward, getting one trooper across the face and the other on the shoulder even as he groaned in sympathy for his companion. She nearly skidded under the ramp and landed on her knees next to Wash as he was sitting up, rubbing his neck.

CT said, "Did you have that one?"

Epsilon's voice said, "Above you," and Wash grabbed her by the shoulder and heaved her out of the way even as a grenade dropped straight down and landed between them. As it exploded he got her other shoulder and turned his back to the blast, pink paint spattering him. He said, "Thanks," to Epsilon, and the AI started muttering.

"She said thanks one afternoon we had dinner in the grass we had cucumber sandwiches and a red blanket the color of the first car I saw when I walked outside and in the rain the red hood in someone else's headlight was the reddest thing I'd ever seen..."

Wash said, "Shut up, would you?" then looked at CT. He barely moved, but there was an obvious, conscious change between when he was talking to her and when he was talking to Epsilon (who still hadn't projected his hologram; Wash might as well be talking to himself.)

"Cars," said Epsilon, "I locked the keys in the trunk once and someone came to help and unlocked it with small machines, and-"

Wash did the fingers-to-temples thing again. He said, very calmly and flatly, "Epsilon."

Epsilon shut up.

CT was just watching. "Are you okay?"

"Fine. You?"

"I had them." She smiled.

He tipped his head. "Are, are you joking? It's hard to tell, you know..."

He really couldn't tell her expression under the helmet? She could tell his, and she would think that even in her small eyes he would recognize something. He seemed to recognize well enough when she was angry when her helmet was off. Maybe he needed a memo from the Director, granting him permission to understand people-

Then York and Carolina rushed in taking the balconies by storm and York trailed them with Delta spouting probabilities as Beta and Zeta just called out to him like children begging for a treat, "Delta, Deeeltaaa," friendly and playful but Delta was just trying to say "Probability of success exceeding pre-ordained predictions."

Seventeen days later Maine had lost his voice and York had lost his eye and the Director had found the sarcophagus. Wash sat on North's bed and held the lock-picking manual open on his lap, reading to try to keep Epsilon quiet. He couldn't just command the AI to be quiet any more any more. It didn't work. Voice didn't matter to a whisper inside your head, and besides, Wash wasn't sure which voice was his any more.

He read, Step One. Ascertain the situation.

Wash felt the memories coming even from such plain words. Everything had a connotation for him now, a reference that only Epsilon could understand. He was pretty sure that the memories were at least his own this time. They were from the Sarcophagus mission: there wasn't enough time for ascertaining situations. The tower was coming down and they were burning through the door and York just had to run. I just had to run. Now he had blankets pulled up to his chin in his fists and his own hands looked knobbly and old to him. Where was he? This wasn't his room although the walls, coated with Epsilon-blur, were the same corrugated-looking gray and the sheets were the same starchy-smelling regulation sheets. It was North and York's room. Wash dormed across the hall, but Maine was there and Maine didn't understand pity. He was a nice guy but he just didn't pay any attention to pity being needed. York wouldn't mind if Wash was in here. Wash borrowed his manuals all the time. York collected them, being effortlessly prepared and getting half of them for free from techs who don't need their yellowed copies any more, but Wash read them.

He tried to keep his thoughts organized.

As soon as they returned to the Sarcophagus, though, he-

it's like a cough in his throat in someone else's voice and then the Epsilon-mutter remembers and it is all syllables without connections. Epsilon remembers the Director remembering highways, back and back layers of roads stretched across a world-sized America, little whispery memories, every time the Director ever saw skyscrapers or overpasses or yellow lines-

Wash thought, Ascertain the situation.

The manual was a thin, leafy brochure like the kind he had been given many times over his years in the military, light and practical and with this almost offensive positiveness, like it was patronizing him. It said Lock-Picking on the front in Copperplate Gothic. The font was reassuring.

Step Two. The philosophy of lockpicking. It is a puzzle, a maze in miniature, and an end as well as a means.

Wash shook his head. This was too vague, too poetic. His thoughts rattled like pins. Epsilon knows a lot about philosophy, piles and libraries of books that he would read when he-

can't join the military, can't get off of Earth even, he's tangled here in the highways

Step Two.

every puzzle spread out on his grandmother's rug

Step Two...

libraries- Wash licked his lips and blinked and Epsilon subsides, still muttering high-pitched and going on about-

Step Three. Choose the proper tools: tension wrench, snake pick.

That's, there, that's better, that's ordered, it was almost numbers.

Step Four. Determine the number of pins. With the snake pick in one hand and the tension wrench in the other, check the action of the pins.

There were diagrams. Four pins in one, three in another. Simple, civilian locks that were a good place to begin.

If you are beginner, you must work much faster or you will be frustrated.

Why did whether or not someone got frustrated matter?

Wash knew that he was a beginner and then thought I am a Freelancer, I am a soldier it has been a long time since I was a beginner at anything, and then Epsilon starts remembering all the times he learned things and Wash is not sure anymore what point in the timeline he is on: he think he can remember learning how to walk but that's just memory, like anything else, and it might not be his.

He read more, and looked up because someone was cracking the door open, letting in a patchy strip of yellow light from the common room. There was a brown-armored foot in the light, and then a feminine voice and he could make out the two people looking in at him.

"What happened to him?"

"Nothing. He's fine." York was like looming over Con...CT, even if he didn't mean to, blocking her and Wash both from getting out from or into the doorway. "He locked his keys in the trunk again."

Wash read, The technique now depends on the type of lock. See page 47 for holographic locks and 49 for multiple-action deadbolt locks as used in case of vaccuum...

The shadows in the doorway went away. He looked down at the book, flipped at a couple pages with his thumb. This was nice. Now he can just think about numbers.

He couldn't sleep. He got up and went to the bathroom just to look in the mirror and check that he was still there. His head was full of manuals and locks and numbers. Maybe he could graph it all out. I'm right here on the sanity scale. It's fine. I'm totally sane. I'm totally sane.

He'd gotten himself pretty well convinced when Epsilon roused again and suddenly even though his thoughts were full,with no room at all for any to spill over, but there were always so many more. Epsilon was trying to remember something and just couldn't do it, like leaving the keys in the living room and you've got to get out of here now-

Wash remembered driving down dirt roads and then he didn't any more and then he did. Such an innocuous memory. It had been hot, one long strip of sunshine laying on his arm on the car window. It had been nice...

But it wasn't his!

Or maybe it was, and he had left something in the dust of that road and would never be able to get it back.

The worst is remembering everything I've forgotten...

Wash bent and pushed his forehead against his arms, leaning on the sink and pushing down, closing his eyes until everything was touch instead of sight, as if to remind himself he still had his own skin.

Appointments, old friends, phone numbers, the mailbox on the dusty road with her number on it-

He scraped one hand through his hair and grimaced. He couldn't yell, although maybe that would help relieve some of the pressure to talk about all these memories and stories and accusations-

He's filtering us.

Who said that again? Who...? Whose was that?

There had been a girl, of all things. The opposite of graphs and lines and ascertaining situations, she had been unpredictable. She would embrace lost keys as an adventure and forget about the locks and walk away into the world leaving the car rusting on the side of the road, because look at all these walkways-

He lost the sense of touch as the doubled memories took him. There was always this girl lurking, always one layer of dream away...

She said, "It's okay," and she brushed his hair off of his forehead. With his head in her lap and her knees pressing against

the AI port at the back of his neck, Wash could look up and just barely see her face over the bulky armor covering her chest. She craned her neck to look down at him. Her face was so serious even without the helmet, with her lips pursed and little hollows at the sides of them. He had never kissed her.

the back of his neck, Leonard Church could look up and just barely see her face. She smiled in a pained sort of way. He opened his eyes slowly, wary of what he would see. But she was real, and solid, and

"CT? I thought you weren't talking to me."

"I wasn't talking to you about the director. That doesn't mean that we can't happen to be looking at the same stars and talk about them."

"There's not much to talk about, really."

"It's a metaphor, Wash, come on."

she kept brushing her hand across his forehead. That was nice. Nice and simple and he could almost feel his shoulders relax across the

hospital bed with its crinkly white sheets. Blue curtains surrounded him; he could brush them aside if he wanted to. But people had stuck cables into his arms and into his neck, raising fresh bruises and scars, and he didn't really want to.

lounge in the sunlight in Georgia or Louisiana or...oh, he doesn't much want to think about states right now...

He just wants to think about


CT didn't gaze at the stars very often, but when she did it was a long, confrontational affair, and her glare demanded they do something better than shine.

The Mother of Invention had its fair share of windows: CT just needed to find one, so she walked and walked into the dark corridors looking for someplace where Carolina and South weren't.

In that place, she folded her arms and stared at the stars. She felt like she still couldn't get out from under the light.

The troopers had started installing scoreboards on every level. Freelancers didn't only get to look after their debriefings now. They always knew, soon after every mission, who had changed places and who still wasn't on the board.

And so, CT kept catching glimpses of that blue light in the most unexpected places. One star out there was a glimmering blue thing shedding light like fall leaves, like the little pieces that crunch under your boots.

She heard footsteps and looked up to see someone moving down the hall, slowly and stopped and looked at her, barely recognizable in the shadows except by the muddy yellow stripe. She asked, "What are you doing here?"

No answer. He moved closer, head bobbing, and she was inexplicably frightened. She had never really thought about how his position on the board meant he was so much stronger than her. But because of that, she was able to desperately throw an arm over his shoulders and haul both of them further into the hallway, out of the blue light.

"What's up, Wash?" She started to be angry at the mysterious act.

He put his arms around her shoulders and just held on, and she sank down from the weight of him. The helmet nodded against her cheek, cold and metallic. She said, "What is going on."

They have never had a grand secret tryst to hide from the others. They have never kissed. They just tend to collapse, after the arguments, in ways like this, although he was never quite so heavy.

He said, "Epsilon." And then he said, "What?"

She pushed him to his feet again.

He said, "We have to get you somewhere safe," and took her hand and started to run.

She followed along well enough, her feet padding against the ground and her mask suddenly smelling a lot like her own sweat. She didn't need to be saved from anything right now but being safe sounded nice. He took her to the distant hallway where they had patrols with York weeks ago and where they talked about the stars. He took his helmet off and just dropped it. His hair had started to go gray ever since he got Epsilon, and she couldn't help but reach up to loosen some of the strands and comb his hair back behind his ear to make it neater. He got his arms around her and pulled her close, pressing her against the armor. It was uncomfortable against her collarbone but she slid her hands around the back of his neck and his hair was soft, so that was okay, and he leaned closer now.

He said, "Allison..." and buried his head against her neck. She wondered angrily who this Allison woman was: he had never mentioned her before. His shoulders were shivering, and then he gained some control and breathed, deep, hitched and pressed his lips against her neck again in something that was less of a kiss and more of a slump.

But then he recovered again and she could feel his teeth grab her skin, slow and dragging.

She was never in love with him, really, but he was pushing against her and her hand found the latches at his back and maybe she could be in love with him being in love.

She whispered, "Who is she?"

He straightened up a little, breath damp on her cheek, and looked straight at her. "Who? You've gotta help me, Connie."

She said, "I told you not to call me that."

This whole thing was strange and frightening and she should probably be reporting it, really, but this latch right here, just twist to unhook the plates along his back and shoulders, and she had to be good at something, right? He was starting to push again, and she could be good at this.

He said, "I missed you, Allison, all this is because I," and she kissed him, clumsy and catching at the stubble around his mouth. He pulled his hands to her hips so fast that she almost lost her balance.

He said, "All this was for you," and she twisted the latch.