Of all the things that C.T. had investigated, she had never wondered about the state names that didn't have Freelancers attached to them. She cursed herself for that afterward, but she couldn't show it. Texas was a new person, a stranger, a variable. C.T. hadn't heard anything about it on the outgoing channels, and when the word started going around that a new agent was going up against three of her group in the training arena, she took the risk of just asking FILSS about it to her nonexistent face.
"Oh," said FILSS, as C.T. stood looking down at one of her consoles in a long empty hall, "that's Agent Texas."
"Is she new here?"
"Oh, yes." FILSS was almost as enthusiastic as Florida. "She's very capable. You should go see."
C.T. said, "I think I will."
By the time she found the others, the match was already in progress. C.T. walked quietly into the viewing room. Carolina noticed her immediately, then turned away. Wash and South were leaning on the lip of the large window, South balancing one foot on the toe of her armor and Wash's shoulders canted. The director wasn't in the room. C.T. was sure he was watching from somewhere. North looked at her from the far left as she entered, and for a moment she loitered, caught between the four of them and the battle down below. She saw someone swung into the air and stuck to the wall twelve feet off the ground with paint bullets.
It was just as she approached the lip of the room, planning to lurk behind Wash's shoulder (still a place she perceived as safe), when Wash jerked back from the window and she saw down below that bullets were tearing through the faux stone columns that C.T. had fought over and around so many times. Wyoming and Maine were running toward Tex. She was the big black one - she must be, even though it was hard to tell her gender from the shape of her suit.
"What?" Wash yelled. "Are they using live rounds on the training floor?"
Her heart sank, then hitched up against the bottom. This wasn't a surprise. Of course the director didn't care whether they lived. "Looks like it."
It was just a fact. He should be able to understand it.
"That's against protocol. They're going to kill her!"
"Someone should get the director." Wash said this like it was also irrefutable fact.
"The director?" C.T. replied. "Who do you think gave them the ammo?"
"Watch your mouth, C.T.," Carolina snapped, and C.T. looked back at the window, her cheeks heating with embarrassment and anger.
And then when they all saw the grenade roll in front of York it was like a slow motion-accident, all breaths held. C.T. could imagine York's eyes widening and his shoulders tensing as he tried to crawl away, knowing what was coming. C.T. flinched with the rest of them when Tex shot him and the grenade went off and then they were all running, down to the training floor in a huddled and then loose and jarring panic. C.T. found herself falling behind. She couldn't do this. She couldn't mourn York when she knew she could have stopped this whole thing weeks ago if she'd known how. It hurt too much.
Instead, she realized that this meant she had been right all along. The training was bad for them, the program was bad for them, and they would all see it now. This was punishment.
Still it was reassuring to see medics cluster around York like flies onto food, so quick that C.T. wasn't sure what paths they had taken to get there from the med center so fast.
"You better check your place on the board, Wash," she said, close enough to his shoulder that she could practically smell him, and she knew he would hate her for it. Not only for the jab - that was not new - but for the insinuation that she didn't care about York.
And she did, a little. She winced at the thought of what he was feeling.
But in the place where she should have been feeling bad for him, should have been shouting and running like the others to her friend's side, she felt only old expectations finally crumbling. She probed her feelings like a wound and found it numb to York in this particular instance. Of course the director's experiment would come to something like this.
When he lined them all up and yelled, C.T. stood at the end of the line trying not to be seen and watched Wash backpedal.
When he dismissed them, she was the first one to start to leave. She could still see the medics up ahead, carrying York away.
Carolina started to follow Wash when he left the room, but she hesitated beside Connie, probably wondering whether the director would need to talk to her about anything else. She was wondering about Tex too. Connie saw that Carolina looked over at her as Tex refused the medics' help.
It was certainly possible for Wash to hate. It was hard to get him to do something about it.
C.T. felt weighty again as the medics took York away. His cracked armor dropped golden shards on the floor. When Wash followed them as close as he could get to the surgical rooms, asking if there was anything else he could do and generally getting in the way, she tagged along out of habit and intuition. Pausing a few feet from him, she realized that the medics had taken Texas this way too, but hadn't brought the whirring, clicking body into the med center. Carolina was right that there was something wrong about Texas.
Where would the medics take her, the new person, if she was even human? She whirred.
Wherever it was, it was a place C.T. had never been before.
She looked around, hesitant, and saw a door propped open. Whirring like Tex, it tried to slide closed, but a medic's had rolled between the door and a jam. C.T. turned on her heel and dashed the few feet to the door. Inside she saw just another hall, dark and lit with small red diodes. She kicked the helmet aside and held the protesting door open for a moment.
She heard Wash sigh, wanting someone to talk to, but she didn't look back.
When she stepped fully into the dark hall she heard the door sigh closed behind her.
She saw medics pushing a gurney in front of her. They weren't taking Tex to the medical center. She followed a few steps behind, trying to walk casually and dearly wishing that she had gotten Maine's augmentation instead of the hologram. Invisibility would be nice. Being doubly visible was useless, practically a nightmare in this tiaution.
There was only one door off the hall, this one leading into a room so brightly lit that a while stripe fell out of the door. There was another door at the end, though, and this one opened for C.T.. She thought about the medics and how she didn't know how she was going to get out. The medics with their UNSC implants were green dots on the far right side of her HUD, and no other life signs were showing up. She stepped through the last door.
It was a small room. She immediately saw the camera in the corner, a little round eye, and shied away. Stupid. She shouldn't have charged in like this without a look at the wiring or the plan of the ship. She felt cold.
But she had been doing enough work that she could tell what the camera could see and what it did not. She moved back by the door.
The room had a desk and a computer, and nothing else. A disk was sticking out of the computer like a tiny, viral growth. It didn't look like the room was cleaned as often as others were: dust fogged the corners.
She needed to either access that disk or access the computer manually.
Seconds ticked by and she didn't know how to do it. Maybe it would be possible to get in through her datapad if she could track where the wires went.
Instead, she pulled out the knife kept in her armor for emergencies. It doubled as a weapon but was really a holdover, a practicality in case a soldier needed to cut wire or drain a wound.
She balanced the knife and threw it at the camera.
She would have had to be Wash to hit it straight: instead the knife jarred the camera and bounced, but that was enough to break something in the turning mechanism and snap the camera to the side like a broken limb.
CT eased into the room and pushed the disk into the computer. A moment later, she followed it with a connection to her datapad.
She snapped up the few files she was able to access and backtraced the file names of the others, copying entire folders without looking at their contents. Spiriting the data away was almost the easy part. Almost. The fact that there were no passwords or data trapped behind firewalls frightened her. He couldn't have just thought that no one would look.
Or maybe he could.
Either way, she just needed to get out of here. The room, the low, close walls, were making her skin prickle.
She thought of the medics in the next room, whatever processes they were doing to Tex, and the ones surely doing something different to York She thought that he would live. When his helmet cracked she could see blood dripping over his shoulder, but surely -
The data finished its download and CT returned to her intense, terrible feeling of not knowing how to get out of there.
She looked back and forth between the door to the room with the terminal and the little door to medical, still open. Maybe there was a second, sealed door beyond there - she didn't know. Lack of information was going to kill her. She had to stay out of the medics' sight, and she couldn't do that from anywhere on the ground. She would have to be above the door.
The download on the screen glowed complete. CT drew in a breath. She could do this.
She engaged her magnet boots, and immediately felt as heavy as if she were kicking through wet sand. This would not be easy. She felt dizzy already, and hunched.
She walked up the wall.
It hurt. Hanging upside-down the blood rushed to her head and made her mind feel fuzzy and gray. When she got to the lip of the door to medical she was too tall; they would see her head and shoulders passing the door. She grabbed at her ankles and succeeded in reaching up to handholds on her own body. Her back ached, and she knew she never would have been able to do this without the powered armor, which was able to hold, though some science she did not understand, its own weight and more.
She dropped to the ground on the other side of the door. Her boots and then her hands made a terrific clang on the floor, but she straightened up fast and no one looked out the door. If she had she would have said she was mourning. She powered back toward her bedroom, shut the door, then retreated to the hall closet instead. The bedroom was too risky. Everywhere was too risky.
She opened the information on her datapad and lost track of time.
It was so easy to find the things that would later become the center of her universe. Part of her remained calm. It would take time, hours and days, for the shock to set in. The realizations. But for now:
She scrolled through the names and descriptions of the AI that had been split from the Alpha. One, Beta, required a second set of hacking skills, and when she got in she saw a video of a woman, looping, telling Leonard to let her go.
The rest of the AI were easier to access.
Then she found the director's notes, curt, sharp dictations about how he could split the AI off not just in theory but in practice, and how the key was that Gamma could lie to Alpha.
"I will fragment the Alpha using its memories," he wrote, calm and controlled, giving no hint of what she would find out, such a short time later, that he was mirroring his own pain.
CT wanted to talk this out with someone wanted to explain. But who could she talk to? She felt lonely and distanced, trapped behind a door she had closed on herself. Except - Joshua. She could only talk to him. But there wasn't time now. There would be a debriefing. She would have to go back into the spotlight, not retreat into the hall closet.
She would have to stay silent.
Not speaking of something as insidious as this felt as bad as lying about it.
The director lied to all of them. He concealed, he manipulated, he had plans and charts to prove how he wanted strangers' lives to go, and he expected his plan to work. Of course believing in his own success was not a crime, but pulling people from all over the world, all over the galaxy and roping them into his scheme before they saw what was coming - that was his crime.
There was no reason not to betray a criminal like that, and besides, C.T. was left feeling like she was the one being betrayed.
The more she thought about it the more she realized that she had cared what the director thought of her. He had been aloof, but in that way he had been the perfect officer. Now it was as if he had left his troops in hostile territory, depriving them both of safety and of the image of him that they had formed. They head feared and respected him. Now that she thought about it she had known nothing about his home life, although the accent had suggested it. Now, with his family laid out in front of her on the screens she looked at over and over in her mind, she realized how little he had been telling them all. Any process that had been going on in his mind had not been intended to further the war, to save humanity, or to make the people he recruited better soldiers who were less likely to die in that war.
She put the story together slowly: that he had loved Allison, and lost her, and turned her into Beta.
It had all been for himself, all an attempt to bring his Allison back. Just for this. Just for a half-imagined love. (Half imagined, because she was dead and gone and could not love him back no matter what he built.)
He's trying to built these robots, C.T. thought as she sat on her bed and stared at the floor, wondering if someone would come get her. The horror and revulsion and betrayal sank to the bottom of her stomach and sat there, acidic and sick.
He is selfish and thoughtless and arrogant, she thought, and the words keep running over and over in her head. She hadn't seen this coming. She had trusted, and everyone had done what he had said, even strong Carolina, and Wash had trusted.
He would never believe this.
He would not, in the same way that the average human being did not believe in the Sasquatch, believe this.
C.T. ran her hands over the data pad and glanced down at it. She had to put this away now, keep it, look at it later when she had more time instead of just one condensed moment that she had stumbled into and somehow escaped. (Maybe she would forget this later. Maybe she would go to sleep and in the morning she wouldn't care anymore, or it would have been a dream. Maybe even wishing for those possibilities was criminal, because in front of her in English and Greek and the face of this woman Allison, she held the truth.)
She could worry about Wash later.
Sick. She still just felt sick.
Maybe one of the others could help. South. Would she tell? Would she be too loud? Carolina would tell. She looked up to the director, saw in him something that she did not have herself and which was why she fought so hard. There were also the occasional hints that she had met the director before. None of that, C.T. noticed, was referenced in this data.
Sick. Everything dizzy and heightened, both pain and pleasure infinitely possible. She scrolled through a few more pages without seeing them, then closed the file, feeling the skin around her spine prickle as if she could sense unseen eyes behind her. (When she was a child, she had been afraid to turn her back on the night, but the stars had been beautiful.)
Wyoming and Florida were out of the question: she didn't know enough about them personally to know whether they could be trusted. Would York or North work?
She slipped the data stick out of its port and held it in her palm. She patted her leg with her hand closed around the data stick, regretting that her armor would need to be returned to Processing. Would hiding the data stick work? She would be caught. Luck would not favor her again.
What about York or North? She felt like they wouldn't believe her either. They would take it lightly, and they might spread it around to the others, and that was the last thing she wanted. She liked them, but they were a risk.
Maine..she wasn't even sure he would understand.
That didn't leave anyone.
That left her alone.
She trapped her secret, and with it inside her her sickness abated. She could still feel it, less acidic and sharper now. She felt her heart beating loudly and took deep breaths, trying to control it. She would have to act like nothing was going on when she returned to the others. She would have to look normal, like she had discovered nothing.
She would have to live on this ship, while the director did whatever he was doing to the Alpha.
She didn't care much for the Alpha, not yet, but she knew she had to find out more. If the A.I. was more than human - even as human as FILSS...it made C.T.'s stomach turn.
And this also meant that the board didn't matter.
Being number one didn't matter.
C.T. knew more than Carolina.
C.T. had won.
Suddenly, her field of vision was filled up with a purple t-shirt. She shied backwards, only to look up and find South doing the same. The other woman blinked at her. "Hey."
"Hey," said C.T..
"Get out of here," South said. "We've been looking for you. We've got debriefing." South looked around the room. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I was worried about York," C.T. said, giving the first answer that didn't convict her and tightening her hand around the data stick pressed against her leg.
South's expression twisted, but there was pity somewhere there, like South thought that what C.T. wasn't saying was that she had been shaken by the accident.
"That Texas is bad news," South said, turning to go. "Hurry up."
C.T. said, "Okay."
She took a deep breath and watched the other woman go.
The speed with which her breath and heart grew quiet surprised her, and again there was that feeling of being on top of a precipice. She could feel the emotions and revelations and drawn conclusions somewhere around and below her, but she hadn't fallen into them yet.
She couldn't hide the data chip under her pillow and expect that to work. She hadn't touched her duffel bag in months. That might work, but just tossing the chip in the bottom seemed like a recipe for disaster. Of course as soon as she hid it someone would need to look in the bag for some unknowable reason. (Wash would look. What would Wash think?)
C.T. went down on her knees by the side of the bed and pulled out the bag. The inside was dirtier than she remembered, speckled with dust. She reached inside, scraped at the dust with the nails, and found her UNSC dog tags.
She picked them up with an odd sense of history. She'd nearly forgotten about them, nearly forgotten that there was a normal army out there. Maybe she could go to someone out there to help, to find out what the director was doing. There was no question that it wasn't on the level. But even the fact that she hadn't been thinking about the army was a sign that the director had tried to separate them from it. She didn't know how, but he had kept all of this secret. He had distracted them with the board and the mission, this grand mission against monstrous enemies, dazzled them with the grand technology of Alpha and FILSS and their armor. (He had dazzled them with each other, sometimes. She wondered if he knew about Carolina and York. She wondered if he cared.)
She could hide the chip here, between the metal plates. It would require some tools. She'd need to get them from one of the workshops on the ship, where-ever they were, because she had nowhere else to go. The only other people the Freelancers had contact with were their monstrous enemies.
If the director was doing wrong, maybe his enemies were doing right. She had already gotten in contact with Joshua, and she was sure that she needed him now. She could go to the Insurrection.
If the director was watching out for his soldiers to remember what they signed up for, she could go only to the Insurrection.
But how would that be less obvious than going to the UNSC?
She dropped the chip next to her tags and zipped the bag. No one would notice it was zipped, right? She pushed it back as far under the beg as it would go and sat down in front of it, further crumpling the fabric.
She sighed a few times, deep, almost sobs of relief.
After her next class she stayed, looking at the part of the floor where the blue hologram had stood. She couldn't have said why. Maybe to look at the triad pattern on the floor, or to see how close she could get to being director watched her as she hesitated at the top of the sloped walkway.
"Do you have any additional questions, Agent Connecticut?"
She tried to look into his eyes, regardless of the dark glasses getting into the way.
She thought, His name isn't Alpha. It's the Alpha.
It was the simple things that revealed how much people never knew.
She said, "No, sir."
In the end she went to bed without speaking to Joshua, still not sure what she would say.