"Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down to the boneyard ten feet deep?"
The world narrowed around the girl, teetering, and she kept her balance.
The room was filled with people and the sounds of metal and absence. With the missing members of the team gathered in the gaps like ghosts in her head the girl looked to the side inside her mask and blinked. Her hands blurred and became watery reflections as she activated her cloak. Agent Texas reared back and hunched again, heaving back and forth through the battle with all the weighty grace of a rattlesnake striking, and the axe-head bobbed. It caught in Tex's hand at the end of the arc, and she threw the blade forward.
The girl had calculated correctly.
She ducked out of the way as she saw her hologram phase into being beside her, the angular brown armor heavily shadowed.
Texas flicked her wrist, a tiny, quick movement too subtle for the girl to have expected it to come from those slow metal hands, and the axe blade slashed forward.
For a moment, the girl existed in two places, one real and one false and projected.
The axe missed, did not miss, missed again, the possibilities fighting it out in her head.
Missed, did not miss.
The girl felt the world tip over.
The girl grew up at the end of a dirt lane in Rhode Island. One long weekend her mother took her to northern Connecticut to find a waterfall that had been painted in a storybook. They found it: green trees and the white stream spraying over the rocks. The storybook had been illustrated by a man the girl's mother had taken art classes with in college. He made money by being an artist. The girl's mother did not. Later the girl would think about her mother standing inside the storybook scene and wondering which brush stroke separated her from her friend and his success, which side of which leaf she had failed to capture. The girl thought this many years later. On that long weekend she asked if she could stand under the waterfall. Her mother said yes, and the girl walked into the pool of water next to the waterfall and stood there for some time before ducking under the fall and finding her footing on a round-backed rock slippery with green algae. The waterfall did not dislodge her from the rock or push her down into a girl-colored pancake as she had suspected. The water was so cold and so all-surrounding that it faded away into the background, and what dominated her senses was its sound.
The dirt lane was not so long that the girl and her mother and father could not walk into town on the fourth of July. Store fronts were decorated with bright yellow awnings and ranks of flags, still in sconces but so many that they seemed to march down the road in parade, undulating in the wind. Her parents lead her to the shore and they looked at the coast line, smelling salt and weathered rock.
There are moments like this that got caught in the back of her head, lurking like dreams but never quite coming out into the open in any form as blatant as sleep. They made her, and they became the things she wanted to leave behind.
The girl was average in elementary school, perhaps known more than the others for sitting on step stools in the corner of the library and disappearing after the teacher had led everyone out to the next class. She read about history, the presidents, the moon, and the Loch Ness Monster. Her hair was long and brown.
She did not cut it until high school. In high school she was average, made a few close friends, and also read, although she had learned not to become so distracted. She never took to fiction. Although she liked the action of reading, fiction felt too nebulous and variable. Nonfiction was full of comfortably unchanging information.
In high school she met the first recruiter. The war was a shove on her shoulder, her friend saying "Look what they're doing."
They were doing pushups in the rust-and-cream checkered hall of the high school.
The girl thought that she should be able to do enough pushups to win a t-shirt, and when she did her friend smiled at her and bent down to the floor while the girl was handed a white shirt with UNSC printed on the front in gaudy green and yellow. The girl looked at the soldier's uniform and cropped hair and thought about the fact that there really was no war: the army was just protecting people out in the vastness of space, although there were mutterings about colonies discussed in board rooms and dining rooms.
She thought about the histories of the UNSC, how it had been formed when Earth unified, and how many people had protested any force having singular power: she thought about the stories of presidents meeting with army chiefs in back rooms. She thought about the Office of Naval Intelligence and its leader, Admiral Margaret Paragonsky, whose name she vaguely remembered as the crux of hundreds of accusations and tall tales and conspiracy theories.
The girl joined the UNSC because she thought that she could be good at it. She got good grades and she had won a t-shirt. She joined because she thought it would make her a better person to cut her hair and put on a uniform that was not gaudy. She joined because she thought that she would be able to get away from her home town easily if she did so.
When she joined up she did not think that she would be transferred very far; only as far as the stars whose names her parents recognized.
Even before she went into space she cried and raged and fought her way through boot camp, made friends, walked down some corridors she was not supposed to walk down, and was pulled out of line by an officer with an instinct that the girl did not have, who said that she would be good at computer slicing and security work.
She thought this was a veiled insult.
Standing straight in front of a teak desk with her hands behind her and her name pinned to her lapel she said, "I thought I was going to be outfitted for combat, sir," and the officer (older, white-haired, no one she knew very well or had shouted at her before) looked at her with gray-blue eyes.
"You are," he said. "But we feel that your talents would be useful elsewhere. A new program is recruiting and looking for troops with multiple specialities. You may be a candidate."
The idea of an elite program sustained her as she sat in classrooms with tens of other uniformed soldiers, learning about programming and surveillance and hologram technology. Some of these were desperately boring: others were so interesting that she would lie awake thinking about them.
Just when she started thinking about how she could apply them to the base she lived in, she got a call.
The base commander stood in a room with five chairs. Three were occupied by other soldiers in clamshell-white dress uniforms. When the girl sat down she glanced at her companions' faces and looked attentively into the eyes of her superior.
He said, "I would like to introduce you to Doctor Leonard Church," and activated a screen on a wall. Doctor Church was dark-haired and dark-glassesed and dark-shouldered. The girl could see nothing else of him and very little in the grayness behind him, although she guessed by the color that he was on a spaceship.
He told them about a program called Freelancer, sponsored by and overseen but not directly linked to the UNSC. He asked them to sign. He said, in a thick Southern drawl, that he would pick one of them. "Volunteers will be chosen from various branches of the force, for a diverse group of elite soldiers."
The girl perked up at the word "elite". She thought that if she had this attached to her name, she would wear it like a rank blaze.
Two days later, she was chosen.
She wrote home.
She went to the spaceport, in the heart of Texas, and waited with her bag over her shoulder.
Years later she would think of York wandering across the tarmac with a mustard-yellow duffel bag, a color he somehow made look natural, and Connie wondering where the cameras were, but at the time he had no name that she knew and the girl watched the way his jacket bunched up at his neck.
They were waiting for a shuttle to take them to Doctor Church's ship, and another man stood some distance away in a black coat with very straight sides, a square-edged suitcase at his feet. She had thought at first that he was there for a different shuttle entirely, since he had arrived so early and stood so apart and waited so quietly.
"Hey man," said the man with the yellow bag, and the girl turned around.
He said, "I'm James Murray," and held out a hand for her to shake. She did. She told him her name and he nodded at her, then up at the stars. (James Murray had long ago discovered his ability to give a bro nod to the universe, and had lived his life with the universe's benevolent blessing ever since.)
"So," he said, and leaned back, settling into himself. "You here for the Church project?"
"I'm devout," she said, and watched the skin around his big brown eyes crinkle. James Murray was effortlessly handsome.
He didn't seem to get the joke. "Okay. Which ship are we taking, huh?" He looked around at the parked shuttles with their dark shadows. The girl saw another figure approaching across the tarmac, and the man leaning against a wall few benches away heaved himself off the wall and moved over to join the group as if he had only just realized they were there for the same thing.
The next person to introduce herself was a red-haired woman with green eyes so bright it was almost nacreous. The girl wanted to ask whether they were contacts, but she doubted it. The woman's hair was a vivid color but had been bound up to military regulation, and only the spiky edges showed around her forehead and the back of her neck. She wore the hood of her black sweatshirt up.
James Murray put his back to the girl. "So," he said to the red-haired woman, slowing the words down. "You are here for the Church project."
"Yes I am," said the woman. She gave her name.
"May I welcome you," said James Murray, "to this beautiful tarmac." He looked around as if for the accessories to the party he was about to throw. "And this..." He extended a hand, included the second man who had, suddenly and quietly, gotten closer to the rest of the group. "Is another one of us?"
"David Baskerville," the second man said, quietly but firmly. His jacket's very square shoulders that revealed almost nothing about the thin body underneath. The girl turned to the red-haired woman and looked her up and down. She wore a blue bracelet made of small turquoise stones.
"Hi," said the girl, and extended her hand. They shook quickly. The other woman was shorter than the girl, and thinner, but carried herself with an unbreakable air. The girl sized her up and saw her doing the same and was struck that they were both competing already. Something didn't click. The girl turned away thinking that the woman had already done better than her in some ephemeral social ranking system.
Maybe they could be friends, one day, but for now her thought was she is so much better at this than me.
James Murray had gotten David Baskerville to throw back his hood. The morning was cold; the girl understood why the woman was keeping hers on. The sun had risen but was not doing much to shine through the thick gray clouds in the wide, empty Texas sky.
David Baskerville had flat, pale lips and a round face that gave him a generally genial appearance; his eyes were bright blue and his eyelids lazy. He looked like he wasn't quite sure where he was, but his eyes darted from person to person, fixing absolutely on each of them for a moment as if he were memorizing their faces.
They talked about what branch they were from, and what state. Murray was from Oregon. He told them all about his brothers, three kids in a young family and how they would run around the city to the waterfront, and he really was good at telling stories. His words roller-coastered and dipped like starships and she found herself staring at the tarmac quite a lot until another group of people arrived, headed by bare-headed twins with blonde hair, and then lights started blinking inside the tarmac and they all moved back, going from casual conversationalists in front of a bus stop to soldiers who knew the code written in the lights.
The Pelican came down without fanfare and sat on the runway, creaking.
The pilot, in a white helmet with angel wings nodding at her temple, stayed inside, seeming to listen to a radio station with a strong beat that only she could hear. The man who walked out of the back ramp was not the doctor. Instead, he was a round-faced black man in a slick black coverall.
"Please," he said in a laconic tone that was almost a whisper, "present your identification."
The girl ended up in line between the female twin with the pink-tipped hair and a tall man with a thick, black mustache. She drank in her last glimpses of Texas hungrily.
The man in black looked at her UNSC ID for as long as he had looked at the others'. He said her name. He let her into the ship, where she sat on the hard seat and pulled the restraints down in front of her.
The pilot had talked and joked at them, bantering with Murray. The girl had watched the little she could see of the stars and wondered whether it was everyone else's first time in space too. The Pelican took them to a capitol ship that floated black and green and decorated with pinpricks of red lights, the name in ten-foot high letters stenciled on the side. The girl felt disoriented, than ecstatically and thoroughly at home. She had joined the army because she had wanted to be in space, and now, earlier than expected, she had arrived.
As soon as they got to the Mother of Invention, the counselor would take their names away.
The girl did not know this yet.
The military, though, conditioned people to do things they did not understand, and to follow orders the end result of which they did not know, so when the group marched into a hangar and then a small room without ever seeing a hallway of the frigate they had docked with, the girl stood in front of a map of the United States with the states clearly marked out and saw her new name on it, and drank that in too.
"So," Murray muttered. "What did Delaware?"
"What?" said Baskerville, loudly as if he hadn't heard, and the red-haired woman whipped her head around to fix him with a stare as if she were his drill sergeant.
The male twin's quieter 'what' actually acknowledged the joke. He was standing a few feet to the girl's left, and she couldn't help but turn her head to look at him.
"A New Jersey!" Murray whispered, loud and self-congratulatory, but the girl couldn't help but smile at the way she could hear his own smile in his voice.
Doctor Leonard Church stepped out in front of the map. "Welcome," he said, "to Project Freelancer. It is called this because we are overseen by but separate from the UNSC." He pronounced the letters slowly, as if he were the first person in the universe to declare them meaningful. His thick accent made the girl wonder what state he was from. Texas? Louisiana? She did not know. He was not from Rhode Island.
"What you will find here is an exceptional program designed to turn you into the best soldiers the corps has to offer."
People muttered, the female twin letting out a sharp "Yessss." The red-haired woman did not speak, but stared fixedly ahead, tracking Church's small movements as he swayed back and forth. Otherwise, he stayed behind the podium.
"As director of this program," he said, "You will report to me. You have already met my counselor. We are not technically a military organization, although we are, for all intents and purposes, revolutionizing war. Your ranks do not matter here."
More muttering. The girl looked straight ahead. She did not have a high enough rank for this to concern her greatly, although she was not sure how it would be put in practice. It made all of them equal, responsible only to the Director, the Counselor who had met them in the Pelican, and themselves.
"Why is there a map?" She heard Baskerville wonder, and a moment later, the director explained.
"You will each be given code names." Again the words were slow, filled with gravitas. Please see the councilor for your names."
He nodded his head and walked out, quickly, as if wanting to disappear into the shadows at the edge of the room.
"That was brief," said she girl before she could stop herself, and the female twin laughed too loudly. Baskerville looked at them both as if shocked they had spoken up. Murray shoved and cajoled to the front of the line, and the girl found herself between an older man and the twins.
Their names were the names of states: she found this out as soon as Murray left the stage near the counselor, because the New York on the map glowed green. Murray sauntered across the room and stood with his arms folded by a hall.
Everyone moved slowly up the line toward the councilor, and more states lit up. The girl wondered which she would get, and how they were chosen. Murray was New York, this was very clear: he was loud and brash and pleasantly boisterous, and she wondered what his dark side looked like, what fires and floods and messes cluttered up his past.
She craned her neck to see what name the red-haired woman got, could not hear the words, and looked up at the map instead. Almost as soon as the woman stepped up in front of the counselor both North and South Carolina glowed. The girl furrowed her brow, wondering: two? Why did she get two? Had she missed something?
Then the man in front of her became Florida, and the girl stepped up to the Counselor and stood with her hands at her sides, like a proper soldier, and looked up a few inches to his eyes.
He did not look directly at her. In his hands he gingerly held a large datapad, and he looked from it to over his shoulder at the screen behind him, only grazing the option of meeting her eyes.
"Hello," he said.
"Hello sir," she replied, surprised by the informality.
"You have been assigned..." and he waited, looking between the screens, making her wonder whether the names really were an arbitrary decision. Would there really be fifty elite soldiers here on the ship?
(And why had she been declared elite? This thought nestled gently in the back of the girl's mind, to emerge at a quieter time.)
"Connecticut," he said, and she stared up at the small state so close to her own. So close. For some reason, that felt important.
She said, "Thank you sir."
They stood at ready in the line, unwilling to chat while an officer was present, but she could see in the way Murray's lips twitched and Baskerville's eyes widened that they wanted to talk about what they had gotten. The woman - the Carolinas - remained staring straight ahead. Connecticut tried to make eye contact with the female twin, who so far had looked like the friendlier woman, but could not without leaning out of line. Connecticut, she thought. She could not remember much of its history to associate it with. All of her friends had been from Rhode Island.
When they were all in line again the director reappeared, quietly. He simply stood by the podium while the counselor told them all to follow this hall down to their quarters and that they would find a locker room further down, and that most of the doors were locked. He told them the amount of crew the ship had, that it had medical, lecture halls, mess, an AI named Alpha and pilots and engineers and had not seen battle before. He told them that their real work would start tomorrow. He told them that they could sleep while they got the chance, and Connecticut remembered the cloud-blurred morning sky over Texas and realized that they had a day, an entire day to themselves. This was unheard of in the military, this was summer camp, this was -
The director saluted, sloppily, and the elite of the UNSC, who had just been told that they were getting a whole day's vacation, saluted too, with a thunderous snap of heels.
Connecticut thought that she would like this ship, but also suspected that it was too good to be true.
The group marched out of the room: they dissolved out of line after that, at first hesitant and then with Murray stomping along at the front they became a group that felt less like the military and more like a high school field trip.
The counselor had been right about the locked doors. Murray - New York stopped at a few and idly stroked the controls before passing on, deciding that this was not the door they had been directed to. One turned out to be a closet, getting genial laughs from the group as New York peered in at a mop and bucket.
Then, a doorway on the left led to a room probably sixteen feet long and eight feet wide, all bare dark metal with green running lights, and smaller doorways lining the walls. There was a wall in the front that prevented them from seeing the room immediately, but they could go around it to either side and see. A worn but plushy-looking dark green couch sat facing the wall.
"This is incredible," said the Carolinas, and Connecticut felt like she was speaking for all of them. Rooms this big - and with this much privacy - were unheard of. The director must have something up his sleeve if he had offered this. What was their job going to be like? Connecticut had to think that the room was a compensation for something. How many of them would be walking in here with blood on their shoes?
That was to be expected, though. This was war.
But it was beginning to feel like summer camp.
New York disappeared into a room. "Man, you could fit anything in here. Whose tuba is this?" He said, muffled, and Baskerville started to follow him. At the threshold, New York backed out of the room. "Just kidding. Don't go in there. That's the girls' room."
Baskerville blushed ferociously, and the male twin chuckled. Connecticut moved over to the doorway and saw that there were nameplates written in the same dark black metal. This one said Carolina and Connecticut.
"Hey," she said. "We're here." She looked for Carolina, whose name was apparently singular. She had her back to Connecticut, looking into another room while the big bald man whose state she did not yet know looked on. He looked tough, but not brutish. He would have been a good New York too: maybe he was New Jersey, or Texas, if the names really matched their personalities.
"So," said the male twin, putting one hand on the couch and the other on his sister's shoulder. He had already shed his leather jacket and was wearing a purple t-shirt. "What are your names? I am North Dakota," he introduced himself like an emcee. "And this is my sister, South."
"Yeah," said South, by way of greeting.
"We aren't going to use our real names?" said Baskerville. He was wearing a black button-down shirt.
"It's like a fresh start," said a tall man who had stayed near the back of the group. "I'm Utah, by the way, and I think there are other rooms down the hall. All the names aren't on here."
The bald man grunted and knocked with his knuckles on a door that said Washington and Maine.
"Fine," said Baskerville, looking unsettled. Connecticut wasn't sure why he was so antsy, but she also understood: she could feel the same emotions inside her, refusing to come out. She had too much pride for that.
Baskerville said calmly, "I'm Agent Washington."
"Our nation's capitol," said New York. York had shucked his jacket when Connecticut hadn't been looking, and now wore a yellow Grifball t-shirt.
"Or just a state in the northwest," said Washington, seeming to gain some composure now that he knew he was right about something.
This did not phase New York. "Are you authoritative? Do you like taxes?"
"I..." said Wash.
She met Washington by her door, him standing straight and her leaning against the doorframe because she felt like she ought to have an anchor or something. "Don't you think this is strange?" she said. "He gave us so much."
"This isn't a usual project," he said. "I have a feeling we might see stranger things before we get through."
His foresight was one of the first things that drew her to him.
"Maine," said the bald man, and everyone looked at him. He had small blue eyes under bumpy brows.
"I'm Wyoming," said the mustached man in an unexpected and ridiculous British accent: Connecticut thought at first that he was mocking it. New York smiled, and South Dakota actually laughed quietly but explosively before shutting herself up. Wyoming continued unfazed. "Who is Florida?"
"That's me, my friend," said another older man, and bounded over to Wyoming. Florida had skinny arms and such a happy countenance that Connecticut wondered when he had been drugged.
Washington moved away from her to look inside his room with Maine.
"What about you?" said North Dakota kindly, and looked at her.
She said, "Connecticut."
"Connecticut," he repeated happily, as if it was the first time he had ever heard the word and he liked it.
New York smiled. "So," he said to the redhead. She put her back to Connecticut. "I can see why they gave you two states. You're too much for just one," he drawled like a late-night DJ, and Carolina stiffened. Connecticut could see her spine bend.
"I guess that's why," she said, haughtily, and turned and went into her room. Connecticut followed, looking for a place to put her kit bag down. Carolina took the left-hand bed, the one nearer the door. They were proper beds, not cots, with storage space underneath and the whole thing looking like it had been built right into the ship. Connecticut ran her hands over the dark blue sheets reverently. This really was incredible, compared to the usual bare-bones living quarters that soldiers got used to.
"He looks familiar," Carolina muttered, and Connecticut sat down on her own bed and faced the woman she was going to room with.
"Did you really get two states?" She asked.
"Looks like it," said Carolina, neatly and forcefully folding clothing in drawers, and she did not comment further.
Carolina turned and faced her. Her hair framed her face nicely, although there was a haughtiness to her chin that made her look wrinkled. Her eyes looked almost computerized, but the sum impression was that she was beautiful.
This annoyed Connecticut, who remembered New York's flirtatious words and wondered how Carolina had established herself in the group so quickly.
Carolina said, "I don't know."
South Dakota poked her head in. Connecticut noticed that the tips of her white-blonde hair were dyed a light purple, and wondered how she had gotten that past regulation. Maybe she hadn't seen combat. That would be unusual...but if Director Church wasn't going to be paying much attention to hair regulations, maybe Connecticut would try to grow hers out again. Just cutting it off made more sense than trying to take care of it.
North and York followed South as if they were headed somewhere purposeful, and Conencticut gravitated to the door while Carolina remained on her side of the room.
"Where are you going?" she asked, and with a smile in his voice New York said, "To find the kitchen!"
"It isn't summer camp," Connecticut said, and Maine passed by her like a freight train, trailing the metallic smell of the room.
She turned back to Carolina. "Are you coming?"
Carolina held her gaze for a long moment. "No."
Connecticut watched her for a moment, wondering whether it was vulnerability or something else that she was showing at this moment, and then followed the others.
Washington trailed the group. "Wait up, Wash," she said, following him and mangling his name. North Dakota looked back at her fondly.
They explored. They were a big ragged group who walked like soldiers when white-armored support staff entered the hallways. More doors were locked than open, and Connecticut couldn't help but think that they were penned in as surely as babies in a crib.
But the doors that were unlocked lead to a mess hall with far more tables than there were soldiers; an exercise room, a small, drab kitchen stocked with coffee and ration bars, and even a tiny greenhouse, large enough to walk seven paces across and packed with vegetable and fruit trees and one tiny swatch of grass lit by a lamp that accurately, probably to a photon, replicated Earth's natural sunlight. The occasional door lead to familiar marked byways: this way to the hangars, this way to the mustering room. There was even a recreation room with a couch and a folded, cloth movie screen, a tiny wireless player ready to receive data chips.
The team grew tired and giddy and almost forgot they were on a ship. The Mother of Invention moved smoothly through space.
Connecticut watched the others as they explored, just like she watched the locked doors.
The ship reminded them forcefully of itself when Carolina stepped one foot down a darkened hallway and met the ship's dumb AI.
A panel brightened, displayed a symbol of three angled lines like a Y or the interior of a peace sign.
"Hello," said a female voice. It sounded a bit like it had been disturbed, or caught in the middle of something. (Later, Connecticut would notice that his was a core difference between FILSS and Alpha. FILSS sounded put-upon, out of place. Alpha sounded earthy and very present and placed, which was why it was disturbing when he was uprooted.)
Carolina shied back a little, her ponytail flopping. The wall panel said, "Thank you for activating the Freelancer Integrated Logistics and Security System. You may call me F.I.L.S.S. It is a pleasure to meet you."
Carolina looked at the panel from under furrowed brows. She pronounced the acronym like a human name. "Hello, Phyllis."
"My systems identify you as Freelancer Agent Carolina. Welcome back."
Everyone crowded around, York propping an elbow on South's shoulder. She shrugged it off with a huff, and he leaned his arm on North's shoulder instead.
"What do you mean, welcome back?" Connecticut said.
Washington commented before she got an answer, and she looked at him for a moment. He seemed glare-proof. "I thought this ship's AI was called Alpha," Washington said.
FILSS said, "My systems identify you as Freelancer Agent Washington. Welcome. The Alpha is the Mother of Invention's smart AI." Her voice got prissier. "I am a dumb AI, although I seem to have been programmed to feel mildly offended at that term. Would you find that offensive, Agent Washington?"
Wash raised one arm to scratch at the back of his neck. "Um...I don't know?"
"Can you show us around?" Carolina asked.
"You have all ready explored a large portion of the ship."
"It looked bigger from the outside," North said.
Connecticut said, "You mean the public portions."
"Yes. Other areas are used for engineering or training. I am sure the Director will introduce you to those sections eventually. He is here to help you save the universe, after all."
None of them needed to ask who it needed to be saved from, although using the entire universe to refer to the portions of the Milky Way Galaxy that humanity had explored was a bit hyperbolic. Since Connecticut had joined the military, the Insurrection had grown up against it. Although she had not known it at the time she had been part of one of the large classes of UNSC graduates who had, unknowingly and unapologeticly, contributed to the massive international and interplanetary power the UNSC held. The rebellious colonies that had loosely allied to form the group called the Insurrection had reacted against the UNSC's perceived overabundance of power.
Connecticut thought they were just angry and bored, but she also acknowledged that she had never been to an outer colony. The cliche was of farmers, like the Wild West but quieter, on carefully terraformed planets, prone to being provincial and uneducated. They also produced a good deal of food that was sent back to Earth.
Carolina said, "Nice to meet you, FILSS," speaking in a tone that was cheerier and more open than Connecticut had heard her sound to a person so far.
"The pleasure is all mine. Do you need any assistance, Agent Carolina?"
"I don't think so," said Carolina, and looked around the group as if to poll them for their collective answer to the question. Connecticut recognized this as good leadership: although Carolina was not personable, she was inclusive. Already Connecticut had been assuming that she would be the leader of the group, the popular one per se - York's reaction to her had solidified that, and Carolina would, to Connecticut's initial displeasure, probably be good at it.
(Connecticut did not like to see authority collapse in general: if she had, she would never have joined the army. However, she fostered strong opinions about the people in authority - namely, that she feared and did not understand them because she had never been one. Combined with the feeling that she had perhaps gone back to high school, or never left it - did anyone ever leave high school in their mind? - she was not nursing incredibly positive feelings toward Carolina. She was not dreading them rooming together, although she saw that as a possibility in the not-too distant future. She would have to wait and see.)
While Connecticut had been having these quick thoughts, Carolina had continued.
"We're just looking around the ship."
"You are welcome to," said the AI.
"There are some pretty heavy-duty electronic locks on these doors," New York said appreciatively.
"This a military vessel." FILSS managed to convey that she was shrugging somewhere just by the tone of her voice. "The Mother of Invention follows standard safety protocols."
"The director said we were separate from the UNSC," said York.
"That is correct. There are many independent programs working to create a final solution for the war. It's all very exciting."
"So we'll still be fighting the colonies?" said South.
"That is correct. Insurrection forces will be our primary targets, although the Mother of Invention has not yet been tested in combat. I will receive further training just like you will, over the next few weeks. This is a very forward-thinking program."
"So why doesn't the Alpha talk to us?" Washington kept on his former train of thought.
"He will, I am sure. While I run the ship, he coordinates personnel and mission schedules with the director."
"I see," said Carolina. "We'll leave you now. Don't want to ask too many questions."
Again she looked back over the group. Connecticut thought frantically of any other questions that she had, just to show Carolina that she didn't have authority over them, but there wasn't anything else she could think of to ask. She would go along with whatever the director wanted if he gave them as nice a living space as he had and asked them to do no more than what they would be doing in the army anyway.
"You should be equipped with your armor soon," said the computer, and even Maine and Wyoming, who hadn't seemed to be paying much attention to the conversation, looked at her.
"What armor?" asked South.
"Oh, has he not told you yet?" FILSS sounded coy and apologetic. Connecticut was pretty sure dumb AI weren't supposed to get so complicated as to purposely sound like they'd said something by accident. "Part of the Freelancer project includes powered armor that is also currently in development in several other projects, although the director has created some additions that are unheard of in the other projects."
"Hold on." York raised a hand. "That's like those...those...what do they call 'em?"
North said, "The only other project that uses powered armor is the Spartan project. That only started a few months ago."
"We only started hearing about it a few months ago, after Reach," Connecticut said.
"Yeah." York got quiet and glanced at Carolina. (Later, Connecticut would learn that they had met on Reach, once, and that a quiet but determined obsession with her had, in a roundabout way, brought him to the project. For now, Reach was just statistics, other pitchfork-wielding colonists she knew very little about. She had stayed silent for the moments of remembrance with her entire country.
"You are correct," FILSS said. "Your armor will be a derivation of that produced by the Spartan project. But I've said too much. As you said, you should probably leave me now."
"Is there anything else we ought to know about the project?" Washington said, not impressing Connecticut with his vague question.
"I do not believe so," said FILSS. "I will speak to you many times over the course of the coming campaign, I'm sure."
"Okay. Thanks," said Carolina.
"Oh, it's not a bother at all. It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Agent Carolina."
Carolina gave a quirky, sideways, endearing smile that lifted up one of her eyebrows. Connecticut believed her when she replied, "You too, FILSS."
The group wandered around. They told stories of their backgrounds. York was the loudest about Oregon and his brothers.
North and South traded commentary on their family. They had been the only children, they had joined the military together.
Florida was a father, although the way he talked about his children it sounded as though he hadn't seen them in a long time, and there was something about him that Connecticut disliked. He was from Texas, but had an otherworldly oddness, a slimy sense of wrongness. She planned on staying away from him, but he talked jovially to Wyoming and York.
It was hard, though, to really want to make friends with someone who kept saying he wanted to hug everyone.
"We need peace in our team," said Florida. "We're the best of the best, and we're fighting for peace. In between times of peace, we'll be darn good at war."
"I saw you at the spaceport," Connecticut said to Wash, and he looked up as though he had been contemplating the floor and suddenly jolted away from it.
"Yeah?" he said.
"I didn't think you were part of our group," she said, and began to wonder whether this had been a good way to attempt to start a conversation.
"I got there early," he said. "I didn't know you and York were part of it either."
"Did you know York from before?"
"No. I just..." He was nervous, but his voice had a tight seriousness that belied his hesitation. "We just met."
York was standing on the other side of the common room, talking to Carolina and South. Connecticut glanced over, feeling the conversation begin to loose steam. She just wanted someone to talk to, and she had liked that he was quiet. She would probably have stood alone if she had arrived early too.
She could not phone home to her parents; not from space, and not without the jurisdiction of the director. In that way, the Freelancer project was more like boot camp than summer camp. Without pen or paper she composed a short letter to her parents on her datapad.
Dear mom and dad,
We have boarded the ship and been given all of our information. There are about twelve of us so far, with more to follow.
(The name of the ship would be redacted, so she did not bother to write it. The number of soldiers would likely be redacted as well, but she figured she would try and pass it through. The suggestion that more were coming would hint that the group was small. She had told her parents a little about her friends in the UNSC, and they would be reassured that she had found more.)
Today was restful. There is not a lot to report. I wonder what mom would think of the kitchen (we have a small one!) and what dad would think of the director.
There would be more time to add more. She signed her name but planned on writing more after she had been here for a few more days. She crawled into bed. The blanket was thin but warm.
Outside in the common room, she could hear scraps of conversation. Someone had found or bought a radio or phone, and and New York was singing along to county music. Connecticut had not listened to more country than she needed to know that it was not a requirement for her happiness, musically speaking, and did not recognize the song. "She was a city girl lost in a field of rye, now she's out in a boat on the ocean..." The song was jaunty and sad at the same time. More footsteps, and the door opened. His voice got louder.
"Hey, it's your song," he drawled as Carolina stepped into the room and put her bag down. She shut the door and changed into her pajamas quietly, nudging the door open a crack before she got into bed and pulled the covers over herself. Connecticut appreciated the crack in the door: she liked to hear the others in the common room. It was just York and the twins now, hulking Maine and quiet Baskerville - Washington already gone to bed, and Wyoming and Florida had not been seen for some time. Maybe the had kept talking to the councilor, who was closer to their age.
New York sang. "She's a cowboy lost in the long steel halls..."
North Dakota laughed. "York, that's not 'Sweet Carolina'."
York's footsteps stopped. "Huh? What is it?"
(York acquired his nickname effortlessly, although his name was not as much a mouthful as Connecticut. "York", with its implication of Britishness, did not fit him geographically, but it fit him to have a name that was short and sweet. York attracted nicknames.
Connecticut, usually, did not.)
"I don't know," said North. "But it isn't Sweet Carolina."
"I thought it sounded like it might be called that."
"Nothing I know," South Dakota said, as if she was proud of it.
Connecticut turned over and buried her face in the blanket. It was scratchy, but the fibers settled against her skin. It wouldn't be hard to pull these sheets flat in the morning.
The song floated back and forth through her head just beneath her notice as she tried to fall asleep.
This was written for my NaNoWriMo novel in 2012 and will be longer than 50,000 words. In my computer the file is called "Makes Me Sound Like A Freaking NaNo".
A lot of the headcanon and the fact that I wrote this at all is indebted to Ree, chii, and the rest of RoosterTumblr.
York and North are listening to "Ships" by Redbird.