Screams rang through the Mother of Invention, and once again no less than half the Freelancers were woken up. There were three voices in tonight's symphony –two male and one female.
South jumped out of bed, stalking out of her room. A few Freelancers had popped their heads out of their doors, curious but unsure whether to act. Only one was, like her, moving towards a source of a scream. The dulled lighting revealed it to be York. South doubted he'd gotten much sleep for the past three weeks. His rank on the board had dropped three places, and he'd been taking hits that should have been easy to block.
He nodded a greeting. "Wash?" he guessed. He seemed unsure about South –fair enough, really. Usually she'd just try to block out the screams as much as she could and go back to sleep.
"Carolina?" South returned.
They didn't say anything else, and they parted when York reached the turn to Carolina's room.
Another scream filled the air, while the woman's voice faded. Another man. Someone pushed past her, someone with bobbing white-blonde hair and the general appearance of a baby-doll. Montana.
When South reached the door to Wash's room, Maine was already there, about to go in. They stared at each other for a moment, then Maine made a sound almost like a scoff, and backed away. He gave her a doubtful, accusing look and seemed to expect her to walk right past.
South ignored the large man standing just inside her personal space and opened the door, only hesitating for a fraction of a second.
The wails became clearer, blasting her ears and making her want to run in the other direction. She still could –he was still asleep, she could just dump the job on Maine like she did every other night. It would be easy. Nobody would know, except for Maine and York, but they probably wouldn't tell anyone. But there was one problem with that brilliant plan.
She would know, too.
South took a deep breath, told herself to suck it up. She'd chosen to do this. She stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind her.
It was then she encountered the first real problem: how to wake Wash up. His screams were accompanied by violent rolls, and South knew the likelihood of him hitting her was high. Wash's pillow was now on the other side of the room, and a glass was shattered on the floor near his bedside table.
She scowled. She'd woken people up before, sometimes violently. The fact that he was having a horrible nightmare didn't make things much different.
With that in mind, she marched straight up to him, faltering only for a moment, and poked him in the arm, hard. It was the best she could come up with.
Her assessment proved right. He woke up, eyes half-crazed, and launched himself at her, sending them both to the floor. Wash got a sloppy punch to her face –not that the sloppiness mattered much considering her position. He tried for a few more, but she managed to flinch away from most of them or get in some half-decent blocks.
"Quit it," South hissed.
He paused, his eyes cleared. "South?"
He scrambled away, not meeting her eyes, letting her sit up. "Sorry," he mumbled.
She stopped herself from making a biting comment, before nodding. "That's… fine. I'll live."
There was a moment of awkward silence, and South searched for something to say.
"What are you doing here?" Wash asked.
"Trying to shut you up," she attempted a half-smile, "you're keeping the whole damn ship awake."
"Yeah, I'm sure they're used to it by now," he said bitterly. "And you could've done that any time in the past three weeks."
"I…" He had a point, damn it. Maybe she should've just let Maine handle this. "I'm going to clean up the broken glass. Before someone steps on it."
South got up, flipped on the lights, and brought the wastepaper basket to the bedside table. She used the opportunity to not look at the now well-lit Wash, knowing very well the pale skin, gaunt eyes and general appearance of a corpse warmed up. It looked bad enough on the morning after –she didn't want to dwell too much on what he looked like now, right after an… episode.
"Beautifully subtle change in subject."
South frowned, trying to remember when he had become more sarcastic. It must've happened while she wasn't looking.
"I just came to check if you were ok or not," she muttered. She trashed the pieces of glass and kicked the wastebasket against the wall, pure luck the only thing that prevented it from spilling out its contents. Actually, she had come to demand some answers from him while the nightmare was fresh in his head, but that seemed like a bad course of action now. Probably safer to pretend the thought never crossed her mind.
"Why now? We've barely spoken in two weeks, except to argue." She turned to him, flinching at the sight. He didn't look like a corpse warmed up now. He just looked like a wraith, something you might see in a terrifying nightmare. No colour, no light.
But worse was the bitterness. The harsh edge that hadn't been there before, something she couldn't fix.
"Let's not," South said. "Ok? Let's not fight. It's too early in the morning for that shit."
Wash smiled a little. "Yeah, I guess it is."
He got up and stumbled to his bed, more falling than sitting onto it. After a moment of consideration, she joined him.
"Don't suppose you'll tell me what happened?"
He glared at her. "We've been through this already."
"Just asking," she muttered, looking away. She drew her legs up, hugging her knees to her. "It's just… talking's supposed to help, isn't it?"
"How?" he asked. South turned back to him at the tone of his voice. Damn near pleading. A sharp contrast from her earlier attempts.
She was sure that she could get something out of him. She just needed to figure out what to say before the moment was lost.
"I don't know." Honesty is the best policy. "Makes you feel less alone. Like someone's looking out for you. That's how it supposed to work."
"Supposed to, huh?" Wash asked. "That's great."
"Hey, I'm trying ok? I didn't have to come tonight. I could've stayed in my nice, comfy bed, avoided the black eye that you just gave me, and not have to deal with any of this! God knows that would've been easier."
They both were quiet after that. South was shocked at the display of emotion. It was a mistake. Now he'd never tell her anything, and probably just demand that she leave. Not that there seemed to be much of a point in her staying.
She sighed, tugging on her hair. "I'll… just go now."
She made to get up, but he grabbed her wrist and tugged her back. He didn't look at her.
"The nightmares…" he began. He hadn't let go of her wrist. "They're not mine. They're Epsilon's."
"What are they about?" she asked gently.
"Death." His answer was immediate, and frighteningly hollow. "Torture. It didn't come from his imagination, either. It's his memories…" Wash gulped. "I don't know how to explain it."
South bit back her curiosity, and immediate wish to demand him to try and explain. "You don't have to."
Wash was as surprised at her response as she was, but he smiled thankfully at her. "They're about this girl: Allison. Alpha loved her, and I think she loved him, too. She didn't show it much, though." The bitterness was back, even if it was just the tiniest hint. South freed her wrist and put her hand over his. She didn't ask who Alpha was. She had heard of the mythical AI.
"They kill her. Over and over and over again, right in front of him. Always just before he can help her. Never giving a reason. Just… just to hurt him. That's the worst part; knowing that she died so they could get to him. Then there's the pain…"
Wash shuddered and stopped.
"Who have you told about this?" South asked. She had very little idea of what he was saying, who they were and how they could kill someone over and over, but she pretended that didn't matter.
"Maine and you," he said.
"Maybe you should tell someone else. The Counsellor, get the AI away –"
"The Counsellor?" He laughed with no humour. It scared the hell out of her, and she gripped his hand. "Who do you think caused all this? It was them. The Director and the Counsellor. Connie was right. She did everything but spell it out with flaming letters, but I still didn't listen."
"You couldn't have –"
"Hard to believe I could be so dumb, don't you think? I decided to trust them because… hell, I don't even remember anymore. There were ridiculous amounts of signs. The fact that he never seemed to care about any of us, ever was the biggest one. For God's sake, he fired a MAC cannon at us. How the hell did I just ignore that?!"
He still held her hand but it felt like he was going to crush her bones. He was too angry to notice.
There was no way this was the same Wash from three weeks ago. Oh, she'd known he was different. He wouldn't talk to anyone and he showed less concern about… everything, really. The nightmares were only part of it.
But the man sitting next to her was so completely alien that South wondered whether she should just… just hide from him. Avoid him like the plague.
And then the obvious thought crossed her mind: how much of this could she have prevented?
She'd made some attempts to talk to him over the three weeks. Four… five, in which she was usually rude, mean and on one occasion downright cruel. But other than that, she'd kept quiet.
"I can't even do anything about this. If I tell them I know, they might… kill me, or lock me up, try to cover their tracks. But I can't just sit here and live with it. I know Epsilon's not doing this on purpose, but the nightmares are getting worse and I can't think about… I just…" He slumped against her, anger gone, nothing left to replace it.
"I'm just… fucked up," he muttered.
For a moment, it felt like something else was taking over South. Her actions certainly didn't come from her. But to that other, it felt perfectly natural to let go of his hand and wrap her arms around him, letting him rest. He wasn't exactly crying, but he seemed mere inches from it.
To this other, it also felt natural to give herself some distance from him, wait til he looked up, and then kiss him. It was just one more thing South had done that night that surprised the both of them.
The kiss never developed much further, but there was need behind it. Need for comfort, for closeness. Neither of them fully understood it, but they were beyond caring.
She pulled back first.
"…South…?" he asked. His eyes were almost glazed.
She got up and left him, ignoring Maine standing by the door, who for some reason never left.
She closed her door behind her. She wished very much that she could lock it.
The screams were gone, the ship silent except for the hum of the engine and air conditioning.
While some woke up again and began to cry, Wash didn't.
Neither of them spoke the next day.