Wash didn't belong here. The chattering soldiers had fallen away. (Robots, soldiers, he didn't know what they were.) He didn't know what most things were, right now, with CT gone and CT so close at the same time.
And then Tex, barreling down the hall half-visible like a phantom, and Carolina hating her so much that Wash could almost feel it, and he thought he should stay back here with York and Wyoming and Blue. It was safe, behind this column.
It was safe, and his love was useless.
When York jogged back toward the sunlight to create a perimeter and monitor the radios, Wash did not go with him. Wash waggled his fingers at Blue in the 'you go on ahead' gesture and got an patriarchal nod in return. Wyoming shouldered into line behind York, blocking him from Wash's sight, and Wash went on alone.
It took him time to catch up to the women, and even when he did he was almost too late.
He had been too late a long time ago, though, so he ran down the hall past the creaking crane and into a control room the color of space and blood and CT's armor in the dark. The room was too close, too filled with hip-high computer banks for gunfire, although he rewrapped his hands around his rifle. On his left CT whipped a knife over Carolina's head and Tex backed the Insurrectionist leader against a console.
Wash hesitated, hearing metal slam against metal and footsteps accelerate.
Wash had to have rationale for everything. Wash's rationale for risking himself in this room looked like this:
If you do not:
a.) Carolina will bruise you, now or in training later
b.) Connie will leave
c.) If Texas kills you it will probably be quicker than either.
He stepped over a thin black threshold.
Washington said, "Hi."
To Carolina who had forgotten that he was on the board and to Texas who had forgotten that people mattered and CT who had not so much forgotten as misplaced him, and to the Leader who did not know him yet, but would.
Carolina looked at him. CT used this moment to crack the handle of a serrated knife across Carolina's faceplate. The Insurrectionist leader noticed and Tex grabbed him under the pill-emblazoned chestplate and slammed him onto the ground.
"What are you doing here, Wash?" Carolina yelled, and the possessiveness in her voice told him that she wasn't speaking as a tactical leader. She wanted ownership of this fight. She thought that ownership would be good for her.
Wash understood this feeling.
CT hit Carolina again, but in the moment that Carolina turned to respond CT flickered and disappeared. Wash cursed the equipment he had forgotten she had. She shouldn't be running that without permission, but surely she must have stolen it specifically to gift to the other side. She reappeared next to the leader and grabbed his arm, dragging him away from Tex while he moaned and struggled to find his feet, and Tex stalked forward. Wash could almost hear the mechanisms in her legs whirring. Had he ever been this close to Tex before? He did not know. Blood rushing in his ears turned his hearing selective.
Tex took one final step, dragging an axe in her right hand, and CT looked up, still pulling the man by the armpits, and saw her death coming.
Wash raised his rifle and fired. Two shots sank into Tex without her seeming to notice. A third caught her attention, and she raised her head like a dog sniffing the air.
Carolina had straightened up and crossed the room to Wash's side by then, just using him as the straightest path to the others, and as she passed him Wash realized that he could either assure or prevent that hypothetical beating with just a few words:
"She's going to get to her first," said Wash, and Carolina triggered her enhancement. Heat and smoke filled the corner of the room, and Wash started running toward CT before the smoke rose up in front of his visor. CT and the leader were already meters away, his arm around her waist and hers over his shoulders. One or the other of them opened up a door, and Wash saw a blue datapad clutched in CT's hands. She hadn't been holding it before, and he wondered whether she had fumbled it, and whether she was cursing gravity and the world as well as the two women behind her. Carolina and Tex were posturing, Tex holding the axe cocked behind her head like she could whip it around at any moment. Carolina held a pugilstick, ready to fight back.
They were getting in one another's way and Wash wasn't sure what he wanted to do: to stop CT or just to make himself heard, a boy's plea for the family to stop fighting. He felt fear try to get a hold in his head and shook it off as unacceptable. It could cripple him now. He must refuse it.
He dove toward CT. Keeping her near the Freelancers was something he and Tex and Carolina could agree on: keeping her alive was Wash's priority. Stupid, he thought, stupid to try to rescue someone who doesn't need it, but he had chosen this.
He slammed into CT's legs, knocking all three of them down. The Insurrection leader scrabbled for the door controls as he attempted to crab past CT into the hatch, but she was almost in his lap now and shoved Wash's chest, less an attack and more of an effort to move a fallen object.
"I don't want to hurt you!" Wash said, and maybe that was important to CT and maybe it wasn't, but Tex and Carolina were coming back at them now, and the Insurrectionist was reaching out a hand for CT, shouting "Come on!", his voice shaking, one knee braced against the ground.
CT shot Wash the angriest look he had ever received from someone in a helmet.
Suspended in the doorframe, feeling the hatch nick at his legs as it tried to close and he watched Tex's and Carolina's feet rush toward him, Wash felt trapped. Leaving CT was not an option: for the first time in a long time, his personal rules overrode and meshed with those inflicted on him. He needed CT back, and he needed answers from her. That the Director also wanted her back, dead or alive, was a convenient excuse for Wash to make her his top priority.
CT pushed up, shoved Wash toward the hatch, and flung herself in after him.
The head of an axe caught the floor behind them and sparked.
Wash was still holding his assault rifle, which was now wedged uncomfortably under his arm with the muzzle shoved against CT's shoulder. She noticed and heaved herself away, backing into the Insurrectionist as he slammed his palm against the door controls and stumbled across the room as it shut. Wash recognized this as the back half of a Pelican, a captured UNSC ship. CT and the leader must have been on their way to this hidden escape route when Tex and Carolina caught up.
(The women were still outside now. Wash couldn't hear anyone slamming on the door, which either meant that it was reinforced against powered armor, or that the top Freelancers were talking. He imagined that conversation would be very terse.)
The Innie leader extended a hand to CT, who dipped her head toward the floor for a moment and stood up by herself. The expression in her mask was unreadable again, the golden eyes flat.
Wash didn't know the Insurrectionist's name. In the Freelancers' war room he was known as the Leader. All Wash knew was that he was out-of-state, estranged from the union, and that Wash could smell blood on him from whatever Tex had done. She must have cracked him against the side of a console, because his shoulder armor was more distorted than Wash had noticed before, crumpled like paper. The red-striped helmet turned toward Wash but addressed CT. "What does he have?"
CT straightened up, took two wobbly steps toward the front of the ship, and leveled a pistol at Wash. "What do you mean?"
Still on the ground, Wash aimed back at her as the Insurrectionist slung his gun to bear.
"What equipment does he have?"
Wash glanced toward the EMP controls that could activate with a blink of his eyes.
CT was thinking the same thing. "He has an EMP-!"
Wash blinked. His palm on the floor gave out a burst of blue light. The EMP changed nothing: with the ship's engines inert, it only meant that they wouldn't be able to take off for a few minutes. The doors were still locked, with Tex on the other side. The three were trapped now.
The Insurrectionist lunged toward Wash, his gun sparking blue, and Wash reached out and punched him. The helmet clanged against the armor on the back of his hand.
"Don't kill him," CT shouted, and her voice cracked as both of them glanced at her, wondering who she was speaking to: her next words were sharp and controlled. "It's not worth it. We've got the data."
The Insurrectionist shoved Wash's shoulder: as close to the ground as he already was, the Freelancer fell back, raised the butt of his rifle, and cracked it across the other man's face. The Insurrectionist cursed.
"I'm not going to kill him," Wash said.
CT stared at him. "We have to get out of here."
The Insurrectionist slammed a fist against the wall behind him. "Well, now we can't." The rounded visor turned to Wash. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm just here for her equipment," Wash said, and although it was the easiest answer and true he felt like someone would catch him in the lie.
The other man said, "That's what the others wanted too. But you barreled in here after them. Was that part of the plan?"
CT said, "It doesn't matter." She still hadn't moved from the other side of the room; her feet could have been pinned to the floor. Wash looked for some sign of confirmation that she wanted him to be here, some relief or personal response. The Insurrectionist was obviously prickly, and the idea that CT had been seeing this man instead of just liaising with him to get the data felt like something was drilling into Wash's stomach. She couldn't have left Wash alone like that, couldn't have made it personal instead of just about the program - but if she had, at least it would confirm that his worst suspicions were true, and he wouldn't have run them through his head over and over again for nothing.
And he was here for the data, as much as Carolina was. Carolina had been fighting Tex and Wash had been fighting CT, so were either of them really serving the Director?
Wash could picture himself handing the little blue data chip back to the Director, even feel a flush of pride at the praise he would receive. (He would be the top of the board.)
"The EMP won't last," Connie said. "Start up the ship."
The Innie moved to her side. "We're just leaving him here?"
"The EMP shorted out his gun too. And besides...I don't think he'll shoot me. Will you, Wash?"
"Connie," the Innie said, and Wash stood up. The bile in his stomach seemed to spread, weakening his legs.
"Connie. We can't trust him."
She said, "Start up the ship."
The leader turned his back, put a hand on her shoulder, and headed for the pilot's seat.
Alone with Wash, CT raised her pistols. "I won't give this data back."
"You're right," he said. "I won't shoot you. But another EMP might knock this ship out of the sky."
"You can't use it again without an AI," she snapped.
"I can't call in for permission."
"Which means you won't do it. And it would overheat your suit anyway. But I don't think that's what's important right now, Wash. We can't drop you back on that platform. You're stuck with us."
He raised the mouth of his rifle, not quite to her head. "So does that mean you won't shoot me?"
"I never meant for you to be involved in this."
"Yeah? Is that why you picked him up instead?" Wash couldn't help staring at the door, hating the man behind it. CT had to give him some answer, some confirmation as to whether his love was worth it. They had been together in the project - stolen kisses and quick flings in supply closets but more than that he felt that he was friends with her, that he was meant to be with her, to have lunches and walks and in-jokes with her.
But she refused to answer his unspoken questions. "That's because you were still working with the Director. Do you even know what the AI are? Has he told you yet? They're pieces of a human brain, Wash. His brain. Tex is one too. He's...he's messed up, Wash, and he's going to ruin all of us...you, to try to further his own goals. You're not a real army. You're an experiment."
The floor rumbled as the ship took off. Wash lurched to a seat, while CT only hooked a hand through a strap and watched him.
Wash said, "But, I...wanted to get you back."
"For the Director."
The words sat in the air. The door to the pilot's perch was closed. (It had been one touch on the shoulder, one Connie, a name she didn't even like. But Wash could imagine the Innie was seething.)
CT sat down. She crossed her hands over her legs and buried her head against her arms, still holding the pistols. Wash lowered his gun, daring to, maybe, relax, only to start when she sighed. It was a long sigh with the beginning of a laugh in it somewhere, but exasperated and tired and wanting to be anywhere but here: it filled her up and left no room for him.
When the sigh stopped she looked up. The ship was taking off; Wash could feel it tip and shudder. The Freelancers would all be wondering where he was, Carolina knowing and maybe tracking him by his armor, maybe some of them suspecting he was dead. Only York would know for sure that he had gone not just after CT but because of her.
He needed to get back to the Mother Of Invention.
But here, he couldn't even see the stars, and he was just distracting himself waiting for an answer from CT anyway.
"Men," she said. "Can we not talk about this now? You just either defected or got captured, Wash, and you're lucky I'm letting you decide which one it is."
Her voice had gotten smaller, calmer, and although he still thought of the way she'd sounded when they were alone her words calmed him too. Set aside their emotion and you had...what?
"I want that data back," he said, "but that's not why I'm here."
"You haven't seen what's on it. Whose AI have they put in so far?"
"You're not getting it back. And if you did, you'd be killing them. Do you still not care what's on the chip?"
He wasn't sure.
The pilot's door hissed open. The Insurrectionist let himself into the room, adjusting his helmet like he had been trying to get the dents out. Wash looked up fast: CT looked up slowly.
"We're heading home," the Innie said. "What's going on back here? Aren't you going to get rid of him?"
"No," said CT, and stood up. "I don't think Wash is a threat. Joshua, meet Washington."
The Innie tipped his head at Wash, his voice still strained and angry. "What's your real name?"
If Joshua had been content to call her Connie, maybe he would accept the jab inherent in the idea that Wash was David's real name.
Joshua didn't. "Seriously?" He raised a pistol, maybe taken from the front of the ship. "We're getting this joker out of here if I have to shove him out the airlock, Connie. He's a security risk."
She kept her arms crossed. "He's not going to hurt me."
"That's true," Wash quipped.
A little green light blinked in the corner of Wash's vision, other sigils telling him that he couldn't make a connection to the Mother of Invention right now, but his enhancement was recharged. Activating the EMP now would kill the ship's engines, but it would have enough oxygen to last a few hours, long enough for someone to float outside and fix it, or for the Mother of Invention to find them.
Wherever they were, back at the shipyards or on 479's Pelican, York and the others would be waiting for him.
"I don't care," Joshua snapped. "He's the enemy. He's...supporting that program that you found out about. What about Allison?"
Wash was intrigued by the mention of a name he hadn't heard before. "How much do you know about it?"
Joshua looked between Wash and CT frantically. CT had propped her chin on her hands, observing like a judge.
Joshua said, "I don't need to tell you what I know. You stole our equipment and destroyed a building."
Wash said, "That's fair, but you stole ours too."
CT stood up. "There's no use fighting here. Let's..." She looked at the leader. "Let's just get back to our base and talk about it."
"And then what? Let him shoot us?"
CT said, "I like you, Joshua, but you need to listen to me."
"I am listening, Connie. I'm hearing some things that I don't like."
"I'm more loyal to this mission than anyone on your team, and you know it."
Joshua pointed at his chest. "It's our team."
She spread her arms, and Wash saw the same silhouette from the front that she had presented to him when she walked away from the board.
He wasn't sure what he wanted. Going home sounded nice, but he wasn't sure where home would be. He just didn't want to be here.
He activated the tracking tag in his helmet, surely the same kind that CT had deactivated as soon as she had slipped away from the Freelancers for the first time.
"You're not getting back to your base," Wash said, and activated the EMP.
It hurt. He had expected something to go wrong, without an AI to power and guide the systems slung between his armor's shoulder blades, but the squeeze of heat and pressure came across as pure pain first. It felt like his skin was moving, crawling, racing: for a moment his armor weighed every ounce of its three hundred pounds and he slumped back against his seat.
In the haze, more blue and stars filling up his mind than he was sure the EMP had actually produced, he heard something begin to beep, and the Insurrectionist announce that a ship was approaching.
"It's the Staff of Charon."
When Agent Washington woke up he did not know where he was. He thought he saw blue light, and the squared-off six from the scoreboard. He blinked, and the world became more real. He was sitting propped up against a wall, his back sore. He could smell coffee burning and hear tires crunch on gravel.
He remembered CT and Joshua.
The Innies must have picked up the ship just after he activated the EMP. He shook his head and felt a headache pulse but start to fade. So this was why they said not to use an enhancement without an AI. He could feel sweat sticking to the inside of his bodysuit. Damaged by the EMP itself, his suit had not been able to scrub it away. North must have felt like this when he used his overshield, and Wash quietly and belatedly increased his respect for him.
The walls around Wash were brown, rusting metal, the ceiling barely high enough for him to stand. The noises outside spoke of consistent, unhurried activity. He looked to the side and saw his helmet lying upended on the dirt floor next to him, all of the sensors inside reading nothing.
Someone knocked on the door. The sun outside was yellow and pleasant. The visitor, a skinny man, wore light armor and a scarf over his mouth and was carrying a mug of what smelled like coffee.
Wash stood up and checked for his gun with a quick brush down his leg. The Innie flinched, but Wash was unarmed.
His captor handed him the mug. "CT said to tell you this was from her."
Taking that to mean that either it wasn't poisoned or she wanted him dead, Wash took a sip. The coffee was brackish and seemed to cling to his tongue. "This is terrible."
"Hey, you people killed our best barista."
Wash laughed through his nose, the coffee still sitting hot in his throat. "Where is she."
"She's busy." The man sounded nervous. "You've got to stay in here."
Wash looked around, holding the cup in both palms. He couldn't feel any heat through his gloves. "I could probably knock down these walls."
"She thinks you won't," said the Insurrectionist, and stepped away. "It won't be long."
He shut the door, leaving Wash the cup.
Wash sat down, sipped the coffee, and stared at the ground between his folded legs.
The truth...not a sad or hard truth, but a fettering truth that sat on him like a shortness of breath was that the Insurrectionist was right. Wash would not do what CT did not expect him to do, because his rules and her rules were bound up with permutations and connections too fragile to break without sending a whole system falling down, and he had thought it all ready fallen, so would do anything to get it back.
Besides, Tex and Carolina would find him soon, and whatever they wished to do to this camp, he wouldn't stop them.
For now, he would wait.
After a few minutes a guilt fell over him like sludge. He was just sitting here in the Insurrectionist camp, when he could be going out there or gathering information - but he couldn't fight tens of people, and he wanted to give CT a sign that he wasn't here to hurt her. (She knew that but maybe it wasn't quite the same as a guarantee of protection from her.) The dirt was rutted as if this room had been erected in the middle of a staging area as a last-minute jail. The Insurrectionists weren't working with the highest of technologies -
But of course they weren't. They were outside the jurisdiction of the UNSC, an organization from which the Director had its blessing. Whatever CT had found out, it had to be allowed by the army. It wasn't anything bad. CT just thought it must be, because it had been hidden from her.
Who was Allison?
Wash would have to ask the Director when he he got back to the ship.
As for the AI being parts of a human brain, everyone knew that they were based on people. They were based on volunteers, donors to the UNSC. Delta and Theta had suggested that the Freelancers' AI were fragments of an original, but that implied no illegal process that Wash knew of. But then, AI were not his specialty.
He drank the coffee fast, and was looking at the spotty dregs sooner than he'd expected. The cup was emblazoned with the word Charon, and for the first time Wash connected the raid that the twins and Carolina had conducted on the oil platform so long ago with the name of the Insurrectionists' ship. That didn't make sense. Innies were an anti-military group, not guards for any one corporation...
The door opened again. He stood up, suddenly very conscious of his helmet on the ground and who knows what his hair looked like-
It was the leader, Joshua. For a moment he stood on the threshold, letting the corrugated door swing shut behind him and hit lightly against the wall under only its own power.
"She loved me," Joshua said, like a plea.
"No she didn't," Wash said.
(What else was he going to say? The denial, and a little bit of bullheadedness, took over his mind first.)
When Joshua continued to just stand there, shoulders slumped and no weapons in his hands, Wash leaned back on his hands and crossed his ankles. He felt that he had some kind of advantage here, since Joshua was so broken up. Wash's own brokenness was waiting for a more opportune time to emerge. What he felt instead was a clarity that let him prompt a conversation by faking sympathy. "But I'm not sure whether she loved me either."
"She talked about you," said the Insurrectionist. "She told me how hung up you were on protocol."
Wash shrugged. "I think it's important."
"If you hurt her..."
Wash spread his hands to indicate the cell, but also CT's independent streak. "I don't really think it's possible for either of us to hurt her. She does what she wants."
Joshua hesitated, and Wash wanted so badly for him to say that CT had been bothered about Wash for hours, had been torn about what to do with him, had been - anything but ignoring him.
"It might be possible for you," Joshua said, and turned away. He was perhaps the most expressive man Wash had ever met: even through the armor the slump of his shoulders told that he was disappointed and confused and in a huff all at once. He almost looked like South.
Wash felt some relief that at least Joshua had been ignored too.
They kept him in the makeshift cell until he pounded on the door to ask to use a bathroom. When the young man who had brought him the coffee appeared again, walked with him to a low-tech bathroom, and then brought him into the main road of the Insurrectionist complex, Wash was surprised to realize that perhaps all he had had to do to get out was ask.
Maybe CT had planned it that way. She would find it symbolic.
They were on a planet. He hadn't expected to find a ship when he got out of the cell, but all he could tell beyond the place's planet status was that the sky was covered with bright reddish-white cloud. The prefab buildings didn't look very different from the ones at Longshore.
CT was sitting on the running board of a Warthog, her pistols holstered, seemingly surveying the activity around her as people and vehicles moved about on errands unknown to Wash. Even in this unfamiliar setting she retained the mien of someone set apart, separated from the world by a thin film that gave her extraordinary clarity. She still wore her mask, and he realized that he had not yet seen her face, although he was still carrying his helmet under his arm and did not know what Joshua looked like. He feared that she had changed her hair, or would look like a stranger.
"I've been thinking about what you said," Wash said to her.
She tipped her head. "And?"
"If North and York, and the rest, are in danger, I need to know what is going to happen to them."
She hopped off the Warthog. Joshua emerged from between it and a wall as if he had been lurking in a nearby ally, and Wash gave him a nod.
Joshua said, "You."
CT said, "Wash. If I show you this data, you're one of us. And if you betray us, we kill you."
"I'm used to clauses like that," Wash said, and thought that maybe she was relieved that he hadn't tried to hurt her. He had shown her that he wasn't here as an enemy, and, he supposed, had fallen into her cause more quickly than expected. Not the Insurrectionist cause, but whatever was putting the AI and their passengers in danger. Wash didn't even like the idea of something being wrong with little Theta.
Wash and CT were at an unspoken standstill now, with only their history between them, and Wash had gambled that that would be enough.
He had put her ahead of the program without even realizing it.
That scared him.
CT said, "This is serious. I need to travel to other planets, all around the galaxy to find out what some of this means. I'm not stopping, no matter who Freelancer sends after us."
Joshua looked down at her, and Wash pinned him with a stare, wondering if he was going to pledge his loyalty.
"Connie," Joshua said, "I joined the Insurrection a long time ago, and..." A nervous glance toward Wash, but this was not a man who hid his feelings, whether they were sadness or frustration. "when I met you I thought we could get out of it together. We could forget this whole war."
She looked at him for a long time, Wash silently wishing that she would say what she said next.
"I'm sorry I gave you the impression that I would help you do that," CT said. "This isn't about you. I need to find out more about this artifact. Are you coming with me?"
"I...I have to be done with this." He looked around, nervous, as if another Insurrectionist would hear how tired and burnt-out their leader had become. He was a traitor like CT, but she was a fighter who wouldn't let go, like Wash. "You told me we could go somewhere safe!"
"Yeah, well, that is what I wanted," said CT. "But I need answers, and I never told you where that safe place was."
She stood up, leaving Joshua standing dejectedly beside the Warthog, and walked a few steps. "Wash," she said. "Do you want to find out about the AI?"
He jogged to her, just glancing at the other man. "Ready."
She fell into step with him, not looking back. Wash did, and Joshua wasn't moving. No one else noticed. The two of them just walked.
CT nodded her head toward him. "Great. I guess we're lower-case freelancers now."
Wash looked down at her. "You know I'll turn you in if I get the chance," he said idly.
"To the UNSC?" CT replied. "If we can find an actual representative who isn't in the Director's pocket, I'll be happy to go. I didn't get a chance to contact this one organization that I think could help before I left, but we could try that."
"Okay." Wash nodded. "I still don't believe that the Director's wrong. But if the UNSC proves his innocence, will you believe them?"
She looked at him sharply as if he had passed a test. She said, "Maybe. We need to try this group first. I think they'll be perfect.
"They're called the Oversight Committee."