CT did not get caught. This fact fascinated her even as she poked at it with something like revulsion. Had she really covered all her tracks? It seemed more likely sometimes that the director was playing with her. But she encoded and compacted and triple-checked, and she did not get caught.
She resolved to do as much as she could with the time she had. She needed to find out what had been done, or was going to be done, to the Alpha.
With the director continuing to not catch her she became more bold, lurking around the classroom more often when Alpha was present. One day when the counselor had left and she was about to slip inside, it was Wash who caught her.
"Are you coming?" He said as the others left behind him, his helmet bobbing, and she thought about whether she should make an excuse. She could say she had forgotten something, but he wouldn't believe her.
She said, "No," as she entered the lecture room, expecting her cold shoulder to drive him away. He had sounded so mewling. It did not.
He followed her down the aisle between the desks. She began to feel hunted, there in the slightly sloping room, but she could at least tell part of the truth here.
"You don't have to come with me," she said, reaching the end of the aisle and looking at him.
He said, "I know."
(Later she would see this stubborn loyalty as a distorted version of the familial admiration he had for the director.)
She said, "I think something might be wrong with the Alpha."
She could hear his armor creak as Wash shrugged. "You always think something's wrong."
"Wash, I'm not some kind of...AI hypochondriac. He's acting funny. I have a bad feeling about this." And that was all she had. She didn't know whether the data contained plans for things that hadn't happened yet or records of things that had.
"He's an AI. How would you even know if something's wrong?"
She didn't know.
Both of them circled Alpha like predators.
CT thought that she should have known something was up as soon as she heard his name. AI were usually given flowery designations like the famous Cortana, names designed to elevate their mechanical beginnings and increase morale. But designating the Mother of Invention's smart AI Alpha implied sequence, a preparation for more letters to follow. It implied an Omega. CT did not pause to berate herself for not considering this earlier.
She said, "Alpha."
The little AI looked around as if he couldn't tell where the Freelancers were, then settled his blind gaze on her. "Yeah, what?"
"How are you doing?" She stopped moving, causing Wash to come to a jerky halt on the other side too.
Alpha said, "What do you mean, how am I doing. I make calculations, I run the ship, I teach you guys. It's not - well, it is rocket science, actually." he muttered.
CT felt suddenly like she wasn't prepared for this, like she didn't have anything to ask under the scrutiny of Wash's eyes, and maybe the director too looking through Alpha's.
"I thought FILSS ran the ship?" Wash asked, giving her time to think.
"Eh, part of it," Alpha said. "She's built in. She does all the...secretarial stuff."
"I heard that," FILSS's disembodied voice said, and CT jumped so hard that it hurt her shoulders, and Wash looked directly at her.
She snapped at Alpha instead of him. "How does the director treat you?"
Alpha made a noncommittal noise. "As well as he treats himself. What is this, some kind of checkup? Want me to stick my tongue out and say 'ahh'? Gonna hit my knee with a comically small hammer?"
CT shrugged. "Okay. I get it." She turned and walked away up the ramp and out of the limelight, with Wash's footsteps following her.
When she paused at the door Wash looked at her with concern. She knew that he could see the fear, frustration, and disappointment in her face. He did not comfort her, and she did not expect him to.
Later, she looked through the data that she had stolen again and found videos of a blonde woman pushing Leonard Church away. CT watched the video loop a few times, then shut it down and tried to order her thoughts.
She heard footsteps, and looked up past the tiny hydroponic garden she had sat down behind. The spot wasn't exactly hidden but she could pass it off as a place she wanted to go to read quietly. She still had her helmet on, so that she could feed the audio-visual into the suit directly, like a high-tech pair of earphones. If she left no data-residue no one would be the wiser. She took the mask off and set it on the floor beside her as the footsteps got closer, wondering whether she could push both it and the little data chip under the nearest shelf if she had to.
The footsteps stopped.
The person wasn't entering the room, but he might be watching her, so CT put the helmet under her arm and the chip in her pocket and walked into the hall, feeling heavy and dangerous and exposed all at once.
The man in the hallway was Maine. He looked at her blankly before continuing on.
The Sarcophagus heist went quickly. CT watched both Alpha and the director in the cool blue light of the war room and snapped to attention when he wanted her to. Not long after, she was crouched in the dust behind an overturned cop car with North and Wyoming in front of her. They were supposed to be the distraction, and what bigger distraction than this - North had shouted to shoot the tires and this car was here because CT had done just that, but when an officer had gotten out Wyoming had reeled back like he was going to punch him and shot him through the forehead.
There wasn't time to think about much except when the Pelican would come and how to survive this. Wyoming fell and CT caught him, staggering back and turning her fall into a rough sit behind the car. Wyoming lolled, and she scrabbled to see a hole in his chest armor. The wound was closer to his armpit than his heart. North backed into view moments after, and they held down the macabre fort. CT never saw whether North killed anyone.
On the way back in the Pelican, North asked what was in the Sarcophagus.
York said, "I don't know, man," and Carolina said it didn't matter.
It did, though, and CT kept an eye on it for the rest of the trip. By the time of the debriefing, the diamond-shaped hulk was gone.
By the time she found a quiet corner near Engineering to reroute some wires (blatant, frightening, essential theft) she was trying to order her thoughts and failing. She didn't bother to say hello to Joshua, even when he appeared without his helmet. He had a wide, innocent face but a down-to-earth soldier severity in his eyes, and a black slash of hair.
"I found it. I know. I know everything. I was wrong about some things, but - that's only because I'm not right yet."
"Slow down. Explain, explain."
Joshua was bare-faced today. He seemed to have cut his hair.
"Today he captured the Sarcophagus."
"He - that's the doctor, right?"
"The director. The Sarcophagus is some sort of big...machine, thing. He took it from a Charon building."
"Yeah, we...heard about that."
"They also killed Rhee," said a feminine voice, and a blonde woman pushed into frame. CT winced, reminded of her own brush with Maine. Did Joshua have people watching him while he talked to the enemy too? "Did you hear about that?"
CT wasn't sure she was talking to her. "I, me?"
"They killed him."
"I wasn't there for that."
The woman huffed and stood behind Joshua with her arms folded. She had a lot of hair.
Joshua said, "You can tell her too."
CT said, "You wanted to know what Leonard Church was doing."
"We wanted confirmation, yes."
We want our technology back," the woman said.
"Our bosses do." Joshua seemed to be trying to clarify that he and his bosses were not on the same page. The woman was not either: she was the loyalist, CT thought. She was his Wash. But if Joshua wasn't a loyalist, what was he?
CT said "I can't get you the Sarcophagus back." She knew there was fear in her voice as she thought about what a huge undertaking that would be. "It's too big."
Joshua and the woman glanced at one another. "What did you find?" He said.
"Data." CT settled into the telling. She wasn't interested in the physical things - although if she could possibly get the Sarcophagus away, maybe she could stop the production of the AI.
She fit more pieces of the puzzle together even as she was explaining what she definitely knew. "He's splitting AI. He started out with one that was based on a human brain. His brain. He's trying to use the Sarcophagus to split that one AI apart. He's Alpha, he...works with us."
"The AI's name is Alpha?" Joshua asked.
"And he's using the Engineer..." Joshua said. Again the two Insurrectionists glanced at each other like they weren't telling CT everything.
"The what?" CT asked.
"Nothing," said the woman, but Joshua continued on.
"The Engineer. It's an alien in there."
"A Covenant alien?"
"What other kind is there?" For the first time, Joshua sounded acerbic.
CT didn't care. She was too busy wondering, examining the idea from all angles. How did that work? What did aliens have to do with human AI? Who fed it?
She asked one of those questions. "Why is he using a Covenant alien to make human AI?"
"We don't know," Joshua replied. "But it must be something."
"What were you going to use the Engineer for?"
"We'd just captured it. Were waiting to find out whether the UNSC would buy it."
CT could have gotten stuck on the idea that there was something similar between the AI and the aliens, but she didn't know the science of it. A search for specificity in her own brain came up blank. She had never considered the aliens as factors in any of this. They were far away, striking occasionally at colonies. How in the world had the Insurrectionists- the Charon team - captured one?
"Well look," she said, "The director isn't trying to find anything out about the aliens. He's trying to make more AI, and he's trying to make a person out of them. He's made a woman - his girlfriend, or fiance. He's trying to crack the AI into enough pieces that one of them becomes her."
Joshua looked blank.
"That's not very...scientific," said the blonde woman, and then looked at CT with sharp accusation in her eyes.
"He's already made a few," CT said, figuring that going ahead and ignoring the attempt at an insult was the best thing to do. It made sense for the woman not to be trusting. It didn't make so much sense for her to be hostile.
Joshua was still looking distant and blinking, and CT wondered what he was thinking. What about Church's problem had intrigued him?
She spoke to fill the silence. "I don't like any of it. I want to get out of here. Can you get me off this ship?"
She hadn't realized she was going to propose that so soon. The idea sank into her, painful, and she realized that she had decided some time ago and even hidden it from herself. Dropped the ball again.
Joshua nodded immediately, though, but the woman spoke, not unkindly. "What exactly will you be bringing with you?"
"All the data I have."
"When can you leave?"
CT thought about it. She wasn't ready yet. She had the data but she didn't understand it - and she didn't want to leave. She just couldn't picture it. She made herself meet Joshua's eyes, fidgeting with her hands below the screen's field of vision. "I...need to stay a little longer. I'll send you what I can."
"It'll take time for us to plan how to make the transfer anyway," Joshua said, seemingly stealing the conversation away from the antagonistic woman. "You don't have a ship?"
"Not a private fighter. "
"Maybe we can get your team to come to us. Plant a diversion."
"The director likes to investigate things. Plant some of that alien technology, or something that looks like it."
The woman nodded. "That could work."
"But be careful," CT said. I've got at least two people on my trail."
She thought about Maine stomping around the corner. He was in medbay now, undergoing lengthy repairs to his throat. Everyone had gone to visit him. She hadn't yet. The medbay looked too much like a torture chamber, reminded her too much of the doctors or whatever it was that tended Texas, that she had had to sneak past. She said, "Yes."
"Okay. Take your time," Joshua said.
"Or don't," said the woman.
"What's your name?" CT asked.
"It doesn't matter to you yet," the woman said. She stood up and put a thin but not delicate hand on Joshua's shoulder. "Don't take too long...sir," she said. "Keep an eye on the channel."
"I know," Joshua said.
After the woman left CT felt suddenly very alone with him. "I should go," she said. "Keep an eye on...channels."
"No, she -" he almost reached forward. "She's just worried. You don't have to go."
"I'm not sure what else we have to talk about. I'm doing my job. I'll contact you when I'm ready to be extracted."
"I like to get to know the people I'm working with. Her name's Katie, by the way."
"She didn't want you to tell me that."
She was left with nothing to say and felt like disclosure had suddenly become required: he was conversational and she didn't understand that. "I'm going to go. I'll call you later."
She had her finger over the button when his mouth turned down. She waited a moment in silence and realized that she had been tapping her fingers on her leg for a while now, a nervous beat that she didn't stop. When Joshua didn't reply she broke the signal off, leaving her staring at a frozen image of his face. She switched the screen off.