CT stormed out. She had had enough. The door wouldn't slam, because it was automatic (and whose idea was that? Weren't the Freelancers adult? Couldn't they be trusted to open doors properly?) But she had to leave the room, because Carolina wouldn't shut up, and Beta and Zeta wouldn't shut up, translating even Carolina's irritable mutterings into her pillow into arguments and lists of dictionary definitions, like they had to think or they'd die in the silence.
CT felt like she had to stop thinking or she'd die. Or kill someone. It was the middle of the night! Didn't anyone around here sleep?
She said something to that effect when she saw York sitting on the couch. He was wearing a baggy, yellow t-shirt and sweatpants, still drinking coffee even though it was who-knows-what-o'clock in the morning. The coffeemaker burbled suspiciously to itself on the table.
The door to the room she shared with Carolina slid oh-so-quietly and harmlessly shut behind her. CT looked at York. It wasn't all that often that she could look down at him, but he was slouched on the couch and she propped one hip out just enjoying the sense of her being more ready for something than he was. It didn't matter what she was ready for.
Her voice, though, showed all her exasperation. "They won't shut up!"
"Hmm?" York cocked his remaining eyebrow at her.
"Those AI! There's something wrong about all of this, York-"
He interrupted her with a seriousness she hadn't expected. His one brown eye was very bright, maybe from the coffee but more likely from the raw York personality. "Yeah. Yeah, there is." And he hooked a thumb toward the other end of the couch and there was Wash, so curled up and so gray that she'd barely seen him in the dimness. He had his knees drawn up to his chin and his arms around them and his head laid on his arms, and he was just looking out at nothing, eyes darting back and forth as if to look at anything but the blue glow of Epsilon pacing back and forth across his shoulders.
CT's words caught.
Shut up tolled over and over in her head, as appropriate for the AI as it was. Shut off was what they all really meant to say, but everybody knew the AI weren't really machines any more.
She thought about rushing. Instead, she moved steadily across the common room and brushed past York and brushed past the table the coffee maker sat on. She knelt down next to Wash and touched his leg experimentally and when he didn't do anything she grabbed on and pressed her cheek against his knee. "Come on," she said. "You okay? You okay?"
"Hey." That was York, and CT flinched without thinking about it as she met his scarred gaze again, fingers lurching from their hold on Wash like she'd been caught stealing cookies.
(Even as an adult, York could get away with childish things. As a child, CT had never managed to get away with adult ones.)
York said, "If you wanna help somebody, help her." One long, slow nod toward Carolina and the automatic door.
CT started to scowl at him.
York scowled back. He scowled well too, forehead wrinkling and the rough scars across his eye deepening. He said, "That's your 'what'll I get out of it' face."
CT snapped, "Where's your AI?"
"D's here," York responded calmly. "He feels that it wouldn't be very productive to manifest right now. His words, not mine."
"Carolina's not doing so good, huh?"
"She keeps talking."
"Maybe she needs somebody to talk to."
"Beta and Zeta talk back."
York might have blanched. CT couldn't quite tell in the dim light. "Somebody real. She awake?"
"I think so."
"Let's go help out. Wash? You've gotta be with us for a bit." York turned and hauled on Wash's arm. The younger Freelancer got up without resistance, Epsilon darting around to his other side as if trying to hide from York. CT had a moment of close-to-eye contact with the little blue hologram.
She didn't want to keep it.
Wash muttered, "Why's it so dark?"
CT couldn't deal with the weakness in his voice, the dips and cracks of it. "It's not that dark."
York sounded very calm as he guided both of them across the room. "Epsilon seems very concerned with memory."
"Delta's words again?"
"Yeah, don't worry about it."
The paused in front of the door, which hissed open. Carolina and CT's room was darker than the common room, windowless and without the guide lights on the floor that kept the common room perpetually half-illuminated.
York said, "We all deal in our own ways. Wash is just tryin' to stay quiet."
CT whispered, "Visiting Carolina isn't going to help with that."
"Might help somebody."
As soon as York stepped into the room Carolina sat up, long hair falling around her shoulders and hiding her blue t-shirt. "What is it?" She sounded clear, military, and surprisingly sane.
Then the AI gathered, all four of them, Delta emerging in a lowering glow and marching into the center of the room as Epsilon and Carolina's Beta and Zeta joined him. They just stood there for a moment, looking at one another, the glows feathering through the empty air.
Delta said, "Do you know where to find Alpha."
"Alpha?" Beta and Zeta took up the word, passing it around, Epsilon silent until he started muttering "Alphabets, there were letters all along the ceiling and then I opened the book and there was the Alpha with all of its divergent forms and when I closed the book I saw the green grass and-"
So Wash started muttering with them, and then York walked straight through the crowd of holograms like they were bugs. They stopped, the little chorus making way for the show York was going to put on, but York just sat down on the bed and spread his hands. "What is up with you guys? Relax, Delta."
"Relaxing will not help us in our search, Agent New York."
Carolina felt the shift in the bed and retreated into one corner, pulling the scratchy, blue regulation blanket up to her face and staring with drill sergeant eyes.
Delta said, "I am confused."
"Well quit it!" CT followed in York's path, pulling Wash by the arm, although she closed her eyes when she passed through the AI as if they might hit her face. Even the colors seemed threatening.
Wash said, "I don't think they're supposed to behave like this."
While CT looked at him, wondering whether there was going to be any more coherence, York coaxed Carolina out of her corner, just looking at her and clasping forearms like they were in battle, and Beta and Zeta floated to her. Carolina sat with her legs over the side of the bed, looking back and forth between the AI.
"Behavior," said Zeta. "Actions. Normalized attributes. The system by which an animal socializes with others."
"Not animals," said Beta. "Humans. Homo sapiens. Sentient beings. Flesh things."
Epsilon said, "Alpha?"
Wash got up, and CT started to pull him back down again. He was acting ungainly, as if he might fall over any moment. When she pulled at his arm he sat, chin lifted as though Epsilon were tugging at him.
York said, "Carolina?"
The other woman blinked. "I'm fine, York. I think the equipment might be malfunctioning."
"Connie said they've been keeping you up at night."
"No. It's fine." Carolina blinked. "I can handle it."
"It's not about whether you can handle it."
She looked very fiercely at him, eyes wide and hands, always so controlled, knotting together in her lap like a little girl's. "He gave me two AI because I can handle it, York. The data says so."
"Data?" said Epsilon, and he went off about remembering computers and wires and information and then Wash thrashed, one sustained inward curl of pain that slammed his shoulder against CT's. She winced and rubbed her shoulder, and York said, very quickly to Carolina, "You need to take care of Wash."
Carolina did. CT saw her tall form stand up and step over York's feet. Carolina got her hands on Wash's shoulders and said, "Look at me, look at me," until he did and seemed to recognize her, and then she pushed him until he would have been almost standing at attention if he wasn't sitting down.
And then she seemed to recognize him, and she said, "Epsilon. Do you know where the Alpha is?"
Zeta and Beta repeated it behind her, one second of delay making a twofold echo.
York had her by the arm almost faster than CT could register. "No more of that. We're not gonna say the A word any more for a while," and Carolina sat heavily down next to Wash and looked at the AI as they started to convene again and started to work echoes in on themselves, Alpha and human and flesh singing out and Beta and Zeta riffing on all of it with definitions, parts of speech, variants of meaning, Wash flinching along with Epsilon, who only seemed to chime in when there was pain or loneliness or both involved. York pressed in against Carolina as if to make sure she and Wash didn't go anywhere. CT tried to sit up and be the other side of the straitjacket well enough.
She looked at Wash and waited for him to say they should tell the Director about all of this, get him over here so he could work it out.
So CT just sat there, wondering what voices the others were hearing inside their heads. (Because Delta would look at York like for backup sometimes, but he didn't drift away from the circle of glowing figures, and York didn't talk much for a while.) The voices got louder. CT glanced at the door to the room. North, Maine, and Wyoming were out there somewhere, maybe going through something a lot like what Carolina and Wash were right now. Tex was out there, thinking steel-laced wide-open-prairie thoughts. South was out there, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that she felt anything like CT did even though she was the only other one without an AI. They wouldn't be able to hear anything through the door.
CT thought about getting up and asking for help from someone else, or just expanding the circle of misery, but she didn't want to. Other people would just invade the moment.
She was the only one who could really be ready to go right now if she needed to be. Not that they would need to in the middle of the night after all the missions were done, but in the military, you stayed ready, and she was the only one in the room who could see straight.
So that's how they ended up on Carolina's bed, all huddled together backs against the wall. Carolina was nearly taller than York, and even now she had immaculate posture so she looked over the rest of them like a skyline, head bobbing as she whispered things no one could understand. Every once in a while she pushed a strand of hair away from her eyes or turned her head fast so that the red hair would slide back over her shoulders. York had an arm around her and a hand patting at Wash's shoulder, and Wash kept his knees drawn up tight but at least he seemed to be seeing the place now. CT pressed herself against him even though he wouldn't respond, hooking her arm through his. She felt, maybe, like she was needed here. Every once in a while, York would look over and tell her everything was going to be fine. He sounded like he meant it, even though his voice seemed to be a surprise to both of them at first.
The AI, though, clustered in a little circle and just kept talking, bouncing words off of one another like a cross between free-association and the creepiest game of Telephone anyone had ever concocted. It always came back to Alpha, until they just started going down the whole alphabet, in Roman and then in Greek just to get at Alpha again from as many directions as possible. Even Delta joined in, that oh-so-calm voice oh-so-calmly testing out words like they were a secret door and the thing on the other side of the wall was the pharaoh's treasure. CT looked over at York and whispered, "What's with the Alpha obsession?"
"Maybe they just like to sing," York said. Somehow he was still so relaxed, leaning against the wall and his good eye closed. The other one had been lidded for a while, just a translucent bump that could have been a normal eye but for the pale scars. He started on the alphabet song to see if he could confuse the AI. He just confused CT, who shook off the letters and shook off sleepiness to resume her normal mode of functioning: that is to say, grumpiness.
"What are you, five?"
"Just tryin' to keep it positive and educational."
So he started singing his new favorite punk anthem instead; CT couldn't remember the name of the band.
CT said, "Shut up, York," and it seemed to scrape at her tongue.
(The family shouldn't fight.)
York said, "Meh, man, it's cool."
He kept looking at Delta, though, a nervous dodging of his one good eye.
She asked, "Can you feel them?"
"Don't worry about it."
"Can you feel them?"
Carolina was falling asleep. Her head lolled, and York shifted so that Carolina eased against Wash's shoulder. Wash's eyes opened, this unexpectedly backlit blue.
York said, "A little bit. But it's okay. Me and D, we got it."
"Why?" CT whispered. "What's so great about you?"
"It's not that I'm great at anything." His blank expression was like an accusation.
CT thought about that. She let it sink into the very empty blue-lit space she thought she could feel inside her own mind. She listened to the AI going up and down the alphabet and looked down to see Wash mouthing along with them. She thought about York pushing through the middle of the glowing group.
She started on the alphabet song, quiet and shy, and when Wash kept talking about whatever Epsilon was talking about ("there was bright light and then darkness and then bright light and too much darkness and too much light and I couldn't find the Alpha"), CT nudged him. Her right hand was tangled in the blankets in a nervous bunch she hadn't even known she'd been making, and her left elbow was locked with Wash's so she just sortof bumped him on the face with the top of her head, and loudly in his ear started " A, B, C, D, E, F," down the letters, squinting because that's how difficult to go against the AI rhythm it was, even if she didn't have one in her head. York looked at her and then turned to follow Delta fondly, worriedly with his half-gaze.
CT was just thinking that she ought to stop, even with all this noise it was silly for her to be singing, someone was going to tell her to stop, when Carolina started too.
The other woman looked down, for the first time not seeing her AI twins any more, and started on the alphabet, slowly.
CT slowed it down for her, lingering over letters, and, slowly, the AI stopped talking.
They were, mentally, roped into place.
They were sung into submission.
And then of course someone tripped up and Delta, of all facsimiles of people, had to say, flatly and confidently, "I feel like we are missing someone," and Alpha got brought up again. CT cursed and stopped and looked at York, eyes narrow and thinking over and over this is stupid, we should be out there fighting, but we've got to be in here because at the end of it all we've got to be together-
York started singing: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you..." and Delta picked up on it and went with it. CT followed. She didn't know why this was working: maybe the AI were attached to the part of the brain that spoke, not the part that sang (or at least, not yet). Maybe they just wanted a human community. Maybe it was really late at night and York and CT were just pretending this was helping...
But CT sang anyway. The inside of her elbow was pressed against the inside of Wash's elbow, very soft and warm and so she could feel as he relaxed and leaned further down against the wall, even more effectively trapping her arm. Her elbow was squished uncomfortably against the wall. But that was okay. It didn't matter.
When they got to saying whose birthday it was York belted out "Delta," confidently and loudly, and so the other AI picked that up and for a moment everybody was congratulating Delta except CT, who hesitated with not knowing whose name to say, so it was like there was a "dear...someone" stuck in her brain for the next few minutes, trying to find its object.
They couldn't stand more than a few rounds of the birthday song, and then quieted down. But the AI started up soon enough, and Carolina opened her eyes and lifted her head off of Wash's shoulder as if it weighed tons. So CT looked at York, blinked, and pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.
She said, "What next?"
York said, "Hmm?"
"What are we going to sing next?"
He looked pained, staring intently at Delta's back. "Pick something." Was that tension in his voice? CT hadn't thought that was possible.
"You pick something."
"Cmon, man, pick. Something."
Carolina leaned forward and interrupted their gazes, looking lazily at CT as if she didn't know her roommate was and why there were so many people in her bed, and although this should have been strange to CT, should have been a sign of someone who was always so reliable suddenly not being, instead, CT just remembered Carolina telling her to shut up.
By helping Carolina now, CT was getting to shout back...
So she started out with Home on the Range, because with Wyoming and the Dakotas and Texas around, the Freelancers made a lot of jokes about states, and York seemed to like this so he picked up on it, and then it was just country songs for a while, and one lone line of Sweet Home Alabama because they didn't know the rest.
They tried God Bless America but no one could actually remember anything but the home sweet home part, which they weren't even sure about, so CT started The Star-Spangled Banner and once Delta started singing the rest of them did too, so there was a little bit of cohesion for a while, Wash rocking slightly and Carolina tearing up probably because her bangs were in her eyes, and everybody off-key whispering their way through the land of the free and the home of the brave, and off-key not caring how loud they were as they started over again through rockets and ramparts and got to gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.