November 5, 2550 10:45 a.m. [EEST]

To the herementioned agent of Project Freelancer :

It has come to our attention that the matter previously discussed may be of interest to the UNSC, relative to ethics code 52 section B, known colloquially as the Mortal Dictata. We also believe that this may tie to the case of one of our high level military assets, which went missing some weeks ago. The attached files will be given thorough examination. In regards to the ethics case, please notify this office of your location if you wish for extraction. The war is dire, but do not think that we neglect those people on the ground who are doing good work.

Such requests may take three to five days to process.

Yours truly,

Malcolm Hargrove, Assistant to the Oversight Subcommittee Chairperson.

November 5, 2550 11:02 a.m.

Assistant Hargrove,

Thank you for your response. Has the chairperson been notified? I would rather rendezvous and work together than be extracted and removed from this theater. How soon will you be able to move against the ship?

We took the alien from the tower. I was part of that team.

Move fast.

November 5, 2550 3:43 p.m.

Agent Connecticut,

Three to five business days. I have sent a message to your Dr. Leonard Church, informing him of the severity of his transgression. This office will do all in our power to assure that the stolen asset is returned. The theft of the Alpha AI is more egregious even than the further experiments inflicted upon it.

The Staff of Charon was refit at a small spacedock above a colony world. Looking out, CT thought that the spindly arms of the aging dock looked liable to drop it. Men and women in Charon-branded uniforms repaired, with solder and steel, the hole that York had fallen through. Others performed routine checks, making sure the ship was sealed and stable, doing all the things that FILSS had done on the Mother of Invention with less verve and less error.

Katie had gone down to the planet already, leaving CT alone with a tall, helmeted Insurrectionist who did not trust her. He held his weapon close and did not fidget. Joshua had ordered his entire special forces team down to reinforce the security on an established Charon shipyard.

An excruciatingly long hour later Joshua walked toward her with his shoulders hunched, wiping his hands together.

CT said, "I got a message back from the Oversight Committee."

The leader looked at his oil-smeared gloves.

"Were you working on the ship?" she asked.

"Yeah. But it's nothing."

She furrowed her brow, both impressed with the fact that he had been hands-on with the repairs and irritated that he had not asked her about the message. She could see that his mind was on something else, that his mission to bring the ship back up to Charon-standard operating capacity and her mission to bring the Alpha out of his torture chamber and the director to justice were still just accessories to one another. The search for the second alien artifact might bring them closer together when they had the luxury of pursuing it.

Outside the window , an I-beam on a crane arm floated not far from the hull.

"We can lay low here for a while," Joshua said.

"Really?" CT did not regret the sharp tone in her voice. "We'll be doing more than that. That second artifact is still out there."

"Okay, but we've got to be quiet. Charon's orders, we've got to quit putting their stuff in the line of fire. We did that once already - " To extract you, he didn't say.

"I told you, I have a message out to the Oversight Committee. They'll help us."

"What did those guys say?"

"They're willing to get me out of here if I want." She held up a hand before he could reply. "Which I don't. But they'll go after the director, and when they sentence him I want to be in the court room. His team might come through for us too."

"They're hired soldiers, I don't think - "

"So I really mean Agent Texas. She wants to know what happened to her."

The leader shook his head. "I'd be just as happy knowing that what happened to her was a rocket to the face. She made my guys bug out on the freeway. Those people don't stop."

"No they don't," CT said. "So we won't either. But we've gotta be smarter about it." She looked at the I-beam, which had now traveled to the right side of the viewport, and shook her head. "Because we're sure not stronger."

"We're not hopeless, either." He sounded calm, neither defensive nor pitying.

"Let's just see what they bring down on us. How soon until we can move?"

"The retrofitting will take a few days at least. There are still contracts to sign - we're lucky Charon doesn't go out to bid on these jobs," Joshua said.

CT said, " You've made it difficult for the Freelancers to find us."

"Yep. This planet is out of the way - remember, even you couldn't trace a signal to our shipyard." Joshua gestured out at the close orbit of the planet.

"That wasn't what I was looking for."

"But still. It'll take a lot of work for those idiots to find us."

He was insulting them, not underestimating them, and CT held her tongue and tried to tell herself that it didn't matter if she didn't call him out on the difference. She said, "If this assistant chairman is right, the good guys will be on the move first."

The air at sea level smelled like brine and greasy water. CT stepped out of a helicopter in full armor, into a brown industrial complex. She could see Charon snipers at high points like prison guards in towers.

Katie was there, out of the reach of the helicopter's wash and shadowed by alley walls, leaning over and sharpening a knife. Other faces CT recognized gathered behind her, the Charon security staff unmasked but militant. The bare-armed soldier's mask was as expressionless as the mouth of his gun. The constricted patches of bare dirt stretched out, drab even compared to the blue-black interior of the Mother of Invention; the twins' purple armor would have stood out here, a bright display among all the predators. The soldiers' glances were suspicious, and CT saw Katie shape words she could not hear.

Of course, they should be suspicious. CT had betrayed her people and therefore it was likely that she would betray these people too. Not out of anger but out of dismissal, a repeat half-objective recreancy. Charon had once owned the Engineer alien too, of course. The director had not been the one to put it in the box - he had only named it after a vessel for the dead.

Waves moved by the shoreline, and CT thought she saw something solid floating out there: a piece of trash, maybe, but the way the light shifted it looked liked metal. A moment later it was gone, leaving her with a suggestion of white and the distinct shape of a helmeted face.

"What is it?" Joshua said.

If someone was watching them, what then? It might have been one of Joshua's own people. CT could be wrong.

She had been right before, but the sudden certainty of her own fallibility surprised her with its intensity. There were other tasks to complete, too - now that she had found the director's data, getting it out into the world was more important than getting it away from the microcosm Mother of Invention. "It's nothing. Come on."

November 6, 2550 11:38 a.m.

Assistant Hargrove,

I disagree with your assessment regarding the ranking of the director's crimes, but ranking is not our primary concern. Please inform me on any further developments.

Agent Connecticut

"We're going to a desert."

CT was holding a datapad, looking down at thin, green topographic lines on black. The location of the second artifact felt like a sign to her. She had always thought there was something impressive about the desert. It resisted things.

"We'll need extra rations, supplies of water. That stuff's heavy..." Joshua said, brushing her off, moving on to something more important. She could hear impatience in his voice and darkened the screen, looking instead ahead to the doorway they were approaching.

"We can work that out," she said. There was something mythic about deserts, something that placed them in the canon of Americana, that tied them together with deep space and Freelancers and everything else. A geographical free-association. How did that folk tale go - John Henry, who raced against a machine.

"My team will pack the equipment we need. Heavy loaders, armored trucks..." He reached the door and typed in a security code. She watched his armored fingers and the back-and-forth motion of his wrist to learn the code.

Deserts had both weight and impermanence, CT thought, and then stopped because the door was opening, letting in the metallic smell of the camp by the sea.

"Right," Joshua said proudly. "Connie, this is our defensive team."

There were human shapes there under backpacks and helmets, but at first the two looked like walking turrets. When they saw her they looked up, whirring. CT stopped, narrowed her eyes, looking for bolts. Were these the Charon equivalent of Beta's metal shell? Cruder, humanoid robots?

"Are they...okay?" The twin figures - almost twin - shuffled and cooed.

Joshua strode into the room, looking around at the juggernauts and the simple accouterments of a kitchen. "Do you need anything?" he said to the pair. "Coffee? Do you...drink? Okay. Stay comfy."

One of the gunners turned, and the barrel of the chain gun, painted like a smile in garish, carnivale yellow, knocked a plastic jug of water off a bench. The figure took a knee and tried, patiently, to shovel the puddle back into the jug. The other one lumbered from one side to another, looking over its companion's shoulder without seeming to understand that it could go around.

"They fidget," Joshua said, then muttered to CT, "There'll be plenty of movement later."

After that he left quickly, shutting the door behind him.

CT looked at him like she had him cornered."Why did I need to see that?"

"You didn't. I just needed to check on them." Joshua was nonplussed. "Thought that you might want to see."

She turned away. "Now I've seen."

November 8, 2550 9:56 a.m.

To Agent Connecticut,

Please forgive the lateness of this correspondence, as there have been some concerns regarding priorities within our offic e , which will be mitigated shortly. You will be informed of any matter deemed relevant to an agent of the UNSC, unless you wish to be extracted and treated instead as an informant of our office, removed from combat duty but privy to some of the more sensitive matters regarding this case.

Chairperson Michael Vanstein.

November 8, 2550 10:15 a.m.

To Michael Vanstein,

It sounds like your office is telling me yet again that I need to come out of the field to come into your confidence. While I recognize the risk inherent in my work, I find it essential to have an agent on the ground at this time so as not to lose touch with the forces actively working to prevent Project Freelancer from despoiling their livelihood on the whim of a madman.

I hope that you will come to understand.

Agent Connecticut

The Pelican came out of nowhere. Angel wings indeed.

On the screen, a fabricated approximation of the artifact in the desert glowed.

CT stood in a low-roofed bunker beside Joshua as she watched her team fall out of the sky. Her first instinct was to act, to be the front-line soldier, but she was not that anymore. She watched other Charon people rally, pointing guns at Freelancers. Maine and Carolina scattered them as if the earth around them was shaking, drove two back, including Katie. On grainy screens, CT saw Wash, North, South, and York split up in the direction of the makeshift Charon vehicle bay.

The director had sent everyone after her, she realized.

The last target that had merited mobilization on this scale was Rhee Sebial.

Where was Texas today?

Maine had been dropped in an orbital pod this time. CT saw a flash of color next to him and another next to York. The fragments were here.

When she saw Wash slow down enough for her to get a good look she did not let her flinch hit her skin . He crouched like a superhero and sent out an EMT blast that flickered her screens but did not darken them.

Through pity and revulsion bleeding as they had often before into hones t y, she said, "They're here. I didn't think they'd find me so quickly."

Words that had first irked her and then stuck in her consciousness like food in teeth resurfaced.

The theft of the Alpha AI is more egregious

My friends.

even than the further sins inflicted upon it.

She had a feeling that Hargrove might not see exactly eye to eye with her, but he was working on getting the Alpha out. She had at least one dedicated ally in that.

So many starts, all branching out from right here. Wash would have let himself get lost in them. CT set them aside.

Joshua pushed back from the console even as he spoke into the radio. "It was only a matter of time. Let's deal with this. All hands topside; we are under attack. This is not a drill. Let's go, people, move!"

The hall Joshua and CT retreated to was long and dank. A two-pronged crane moved fitfully beyond the gantries, its operator and purpose hidden. They picked up the turret soldiers from the kitchen on the way. Joshua had pulled a fire axe from the wall and magnetized it to his back in the place of a gun. CT had not thought of him as one who would pick a weapon based on the fear it would instill in his enemies, but that he had done.

Then the Freelancers appeared, as sudden as a stooping hawk, three of them at the end of the hallway and lighting up on her HUD at the same time. Joshua put up a hand for her to wait, but she was already drawing her pistols. A flash of color - blue, as a figure fell agile from the ceiling.

"Catch!" Joshua gloated while he threw.

The ax hit Agent Florida in the shoulder and stuck. Florida went limp, fell, and skidded onto the floor. Joshua and CT backed up at the same time. She stayed further away, her knowledge like a shield and a cage all at once.

Joshua yelled, "Right. We've got company coming. Cut 'em down!"

The pair wielding turrets fired, their chattering becoming laughter that ratcheted up with the sound of the guns. They sprayed the rafters for more stalkers, but CT knew the agents weren't up there.

Then Wyoming strode, almost sprawled into the wideness of the hallway. The long sniper rifle looked unwieldy in his hands, but he shot pure - yellow sparks leapt off of Joshua's leg armor.

The leader stumbled, his anger only building. Then he bent, bent again. "Hold this position," he shouted to the gunners, then stumbled behind the corner from which he and CT had emerged a moment ago.

CT raised her voice over the gunfire and glanced at her HUD. Someone else was closing in. She made a choice from the gut and ran two steps to Joshua while the gunners shifted into new positions, their legs like strangely carved pillars. "Are you okay?" He was leaning against a wall, his dark armor almost blending into the shadows.

Before he answered she saw blood on his leg. "Keep going," he started, but after, Tex was upon them.

She slammed into CT, one iron-bar arm hooked around her neck. CT felt herself fall backward, allowed it. She relaxed and landed clumsily on her back armor while she thought Tex is on our side, she has the message -

"I don't think he will be," Tex said. Joshua had braced himself against the wall with one hand and was patting his sides with the other, maybe searching for a weapon. Tex hauled CT off the reactor on her back and held her by the throat, her grip solid, impossible. Omega was a sickly, belly-laughing shadow beside her. One of the gunners had turned, but CT was dangling between them and and Tex now. She hoped they wouldn't shoot. Her legs swung.

She pushed back, trying to swing up or sideways, risking her Kevlared throat to get one good kick in - and another FIF beacon lit up.

"Thanks for the rescue," CT said, and Carolina pointed a plasma rifle's hooked mouth at Tex, her blue armor still steaming and bleeding heat from her enhancement.

"We're here to get her armor," Carolina said, angry, focused on Tex and barely looking at CT.

Tex sounded tired and frustrated at Carolina's insistence. "We're here to do the job."

Joshua was shouting in CT's radio, "Connie, Connie, get back here." He'd escaped down a passage with one of the gunners - CT could see them melting into the darkness on her right.

Carolina had gone after Tex before going after Joshua. Why had she done that? Connie wondered, but did not let it distract her.

There was still a combat knife sheathed in the armor at CT's thigh. She drew and stabbed upward into Tex's wrist with two hands. The point jerked between metal bones while broken wire in Tex's wrist opened, sparking. I'm sorry, CT didn't say. The steel grip loosened and CT dropped, backward and messily, tucking into a shoulder roll as the remaining chain gunner opened fire and Tex and Carolina peeled off to the sides of them, right and left, to get out of the corridor of gunfire.

CT dashed into the open space to her left, but she was on the wrong side of the hall now, her back to Wyoming and Florida, with Tex and Carolina between her and the route Joshua had taken. Tex and Carolina danced with the gunner in front of her but got in each other's way, jockeying for the quickest way around.

CT saw Florida stand, roll his neck with a movement that looked disturbingly boneless. She didn't know why he was just standing there now, looking up.

She started to move, less toward him than out away from the titanic battle behind her, when Florida fired his rifle at the ceiling. Yellow flashes hit the crane, and it swung toward CT, then overshadowed her and flew back like a roundhouse punch. Tex and Carolina jumped away as the box held in the crate's tines fell out of the air toward them.

The Charon gunner was not as fast. The box caught him up and swept him toward her. CT ran, arms pinwheeling. The railing came up fast at chin-height and she jumped it, hung like a gymnast in the air above it, whipped her legs down, dropped vertical with one hand around the rung.

"You go after the leader!" Tex shouted to Carolina.

The box clattered above CT, then plummeted, ever smaller. The gunner hit the floor underneath it with a sound like a lobster shell cracking, splattering thick orange goo that was not blood.

CT let go of the railing and activated her hologram at the same time. She landed hand-foot-knee, the knife still in her right hand, on top of the box. Above her, an identical body jumped back over the railing and headed past the gunner toward Texas. Tex shot it, two bullet holes making the hologram waver at heart and knee before it disappeared in a flare that did not quite mimic dying shields.

Along the edge of the hallway, the four Freelancer men looked down at CT. Tex and Carolina had stopped fighting. Their twin locomotive gazes pinned her, and her pulse jumped thickly into her collar as she looked at the open level before her.

She began to run. Metal rounds screamed around her, more following fast. Almost there, almost to a blast door and her brain beginning to register that her breath was starting to come shallow, she radioed Joshua. "How do I seal a blast door?"

He sounded out of breath and angry. "There's a big red lock button. It's easy. You're still alive!" It was almost a question. The door was just strides in front of her.

A figure fell from over the railing. Wash uncoiled not more than two feet from her, legs braced and shaking, battle rifle thin and vicious in his hands. He had stepped one foot on a railing and just jumped it, landing hard with the sound of armor shifting like metal pieces thrown into a pile.

She reached for her pistol with her left hand. He let her wrap her fingers around it and draw before he spoke. "You're not under orders to come back." The fact that he had said you're not registered only after the sentence was spoken.

"Get out of my way, Wash."

"What about what you said in the locker room, CT , about how it's not us, it's them?"

"You are them, Wash. As long as you're doing what the director's told you he has you under his command."

"He's our commanding officer! He's a good man!"

"Are you sure you can tell the difference between those two things? "

"I'm not gonna shoot you..." He nod ded toward Tex. "They might."

"Good to know," CT said, quiet as the breeze over the oily sea , and jumped forward and past him.

She kn ocked the mouth of the pistol against the back ridge of his helmet first, pulling him backwards and off balance before she edged the knife across his stomach. "Move backward."

He almost sounded like he was choking. He moved, though, shuffling less like a captured soldier and more like a boy unsure about the conversation. "We'll find you again," he said, colder than she had heard before.

She withdrew the knife. He almost caught her arm with his, but the flat plates over her wrist slid through the crook of his arm, and she shoved him hard. She stepped backward, saw the square, red button. Wash kicked toward her, just his head turned to look and the rest of his body forming the kick before he turned around. As he swung around, the door creaked into motion and CT rushed backward. The slammed in front of her just as Wash raised his rifle, the muzzle eclipsing the gold of his visor.

CT ran into the darkness. Behind her, York would be starting to work on the door.

"Get me a map out of here," she said to her comm.

A moment later, Joshua relayed her instructions. A map would have been better but the verbal cues were good. "Are you okay?"

She thought of Wash, of his face flushed and pale, of how bright and shocked his eyes must have been under the helmet. That wasn't the face she had faced when she caught him, though; she had only seen the visor, and heard his voice go cold. She said, "Yeah." Considering the circumstances.

"Come join me in the bunker. We can hold this facility."

She didn't like it, not the idea of turtling down, not the growing sense that there were just two of them against at least six. "You don't understand. They want me. They don't care about the rest of you. I know too much."

The power went out. Small emergency lights showed the geometric shapes of the corridor. Yellow lines along the hallway provided a dim sketch of her direction.

CT said, "If I leave, they will follow me."

"Did you hear that?" Joshua said.

"York and Wash, they must have cut the power. This station is blind." She kept moving forward.

Joshua cursed. CT thought of the Staff of Charon, battered but flyable, sitting serenely just outside the atmosphere. If the Freelancers were here now, what was the Mother of Invention doing to that ship? "We've got to get back to the ship."

"I already told you," Joshua said. "I can't leave them."

Who was he fighting for? His people on the ground, his robotic soldiers? "Most of them are already dead!" She heard her own voice go increasingly frantic, and hated the wheedling way it sounded in her ears. "Besides, if we leave they have no reason to be here. Please, let's just go while we still can."

"Connie, come on, just get to the bunker."

"You promised me we'd survive this," She growled, then realized how that would have sounded if she used just a kinder tone, a softer voice - he would believe her, then, after she had let him hold her hand. "You said we would be together." She forced the words out, but the tone came through, and all the while she congratulated herself, in a small part of her mind, for acting so well, playing to his sensibilities so well. "I have all the information we need. I have my armor. We can take this to the right people and they'll-"

"They'll what, Connie?"

"I don't know, make a deal with us. Keep us out of prison. They'll help us."

It was the angrier tone that made him back off, not the wheedling. "Rendezvous at my location." He sounded exasperated: she had the upper hand now. But two soldiers were better than one alone.

"Of course." She ran. The closer she got, the more she heard distant, whispering voices, like other people in the hallway with her. Her radar was dark except for the dwindling yellow dots of Wash and the other men.

The door to the bunker was thick and riveted. CT stood in a hallway opposite it and looked to either side, not trusting her HUD. The fact that Tex's augmentation was invisibility meant that she could be anywhere.

The open stretch of hallway was like a killing floor, far too exposed to snipers or ambushers. CT was thinking fast, though, her heart only slowly coming down from its heavy beat. Maybe the best she could do to get across the hall was run.

She ran, stretching out and looking back and forth fast, her pistol still in one hand and a knife in the other. "Joshua, let me in!"

The door opened. Something blurred past her, and she felt her gun hand vibrate before the pain of the blow registered. She tightened her grip on the pistol, feeling resistance from her aching, stiffening fingers. A moment later Tex appeared between CT and the nearest console,. Joshua stood, stunned for a moment with his hands out toward a keyboard, at the third corner of a triangle between them. CT stepped back, watched as Carolina blasted into view and reeled to a stop at Tex's side, her head hardly coming up to the height of Tex's shoulder. Carolina had traveled from far out of CT's radar to within it in seconds.

"You," CT said, looking back and forth between them, judging the maneuvering room she had in the room full of parallel rows of computer stations. "And Carolina."

Tex was holding a semi-automatic handgun that looked small but heavy in her grip. "CT, you have something that belongs to Project Freelancer, and you know how the director hates to share."

"You two are fools. The director is playing you. Don't you see it?"

Carolina spoke for the first time. CT wondered what she was thinking, how she reflected on what had once been her team. "CT, stop it. We know you've been feeding intel to the resistance for months."

Joshua laughed, cruel, enjoying this. "Is that who he told you we are?

CT said, "They're not the enemy, Carolina. We're the ones working outside the rules, not them. You don't know what the director's done! He's broken major laws. When this war ends, we're all going to have to pay for his crimes." Funny how the Freelancers had been they before, but she hardly thought about her penchant for verbal chameleon work. She glanced at Tex, wondering about the AI riding that body. Tex should know what had been done to her by now. "Maybe some of us are already paying for them."

Instead, Tex said, "You need to stop talking, CT." She stepped forward, pointed her gun at CT again. Out of her peripheral vision, Joshua raised his hands in surrender. The fire axe was laying on the console behind him.

It hadn't been supposed to be like this. The dog tags were still waiting, still sitting there on the dusty surface of a locker shelf.

But if Tex didn't use the locker, or if she had given the data to the director, or if she had read it and felt nothing -

CT would need to prod her, but it was like prodding a bull.

She blinked to the side, activating her hologram. If she stood inside it, just stayed still and waited, it would hover over her like a shell.

CT said, "No. I know what you are, Tex." She pointed at her. YRemember who you are or be my enemy. "And I won't take orders from a shadow."

"What did you just call me?" CT could hear, in Tex's voice, the words become as personal as a punch to the face. The data is still waiting for you, CT thought. There's still a chance for you to become more than a killing machine strapped to a body you don't even get to inhabit alone.

Carolina raised her gun. The slatted shadows of the room fell over her bright blue armor like clawing fingers. "You're coming with us, CT. This is your last chance."

Joshua kept backing up, aiming for the ax that the Freelancers couldn't see.

CT made her decision. She had made it long ago and many times, but she would need to make it many more times over the years, she thought. There were tens of thousands of laters looking at her down the barrel of Tex's gun, and this was a decision she would have to re-make, for every her there was - for CT the soldier, for CT the infiltrator, for CT the girl lying on the grass of Rhode Island. "No. I'm not going anywhere with you."

Tex's voice curled. "Actually, we don't need you. We just need your armor."

CT ducked before Tex stopped speaking. She never touched her hand to the ground, just ran, straight at Tex, catching her gun arm under the shoulder and following it around to her back, slamming their shoulders together in a move that left Tex's wrist open, fingers splayed. Tex had patched herself, wound what looked like duct tape around the gash in her wrist, repaired something while CT had been running through the hallway. CT pinned Tex's palm into her back and met almost no resistance.

It was strange to see Tex duck away, arms swinging loose, uncoordinated for once as she veritably fell into Joshua's range. He turned, swung the axe, hit her in the heart with the sound of crunching metal, and Tex doubled over.

He threw the axe toward Carolina, and CT followed in its wake just as Carolina dodged behind a pillar. Carolina raised her gun and CT loosed another hologram as a distraction, hoping the trick would work twice.

It did. CT lodged her knife against Carolina's gun hand, and to her own surprise the disarm worked. The pistol flew across the room. Looking at Carolina's mask gave CT a vertiginous sensation of mirroring or deja vu. The top of the board and the bottom of the board had folded in half and collided, the first will be last, and Carolina expanded a pugilstick in her right hand and swung, then landed a kick to CT's gut.

Only as she pushed herself to her feet meters away did CT recall that she'd been hit in the sternum with the pugilstick too. Carolina was after her again in a second, both hands held up with the stick in one and the other bladed, guarding her chest. CT had time to see Tex pick Joshua up in a wrestlers' carry and slam him to the ground. The room was filled with people and the sounds of metal and absence.

Then she was into it with Carolina again, knife to knife and she had never fought like this before, desperation unlocking something, keeping up with Carolina because CT finally had a cause -

It was only when she was fighting her friends that she found she was good at this.

There was danger in the fact that they had trained together before. Establish a rhythm and everyone and no one leaves openings because they're used to blocking the same kind of attacks. The pugilstick cracked with energy, the wide knife blade glinting silver. CT felt the rhythm and then she felt it break, as Carolina opened up CT's back and then her collar but didn't take the shots. CT felt herself getting sloppy, began moving back so fast she could not stop. A good hit with the knife against the back of Carolina's armored hand revitalized her.

Then the pugilstick snaked around, catching CT once across the stomach and once across the neck. She recovered, stabbed Carolina's arm and hit armor. She cued her hologram, letting it flicker for just an instant and almost falling backward into it while Tex and Joshua thundered by at her right hand. Carolina caught her, though, locked her up, pushed her backward into her own copy. CT saw the image of her own exterior fade away.

She came back toward Carolina feinting, starting low before she pushed her left foot against the air and kicked high with her right. It connected, but only with Carolina's hand up to protect her face. She arced back, ran directly into Joshua and Tex.

CT saw Tex's stomach at her head hight and went for it with her knife, slashing once before Tex jumped backward. Joshua was reeling. For a moment they stood at the four corners of the earth, breathing, resetting.

The Tex crossed the middle line and Carolina whipped the pugilstick toward CT's shoulder.

CT recovered, but her next two good slashes went far wide as Carolina danced around them. Back and forth, they fought with old moves and Freelancer training moves and moves that CT had learned by watching Carolina. Maybe Carolina had learned them from Tex. Maybe -

CT released a hologram. Carolina glanced at it, thinking that CT wanted to outflank her with the phantom soldier, but instead it was Joshua who used the hologram as cover, closing with Carolina. Somehow - CT did not know what Joshua had done - Tex had fallen. She was up again in a moment, though, leaving CT alone at the head of a line of combatants.

The fight went quick, and the fight took no time at all, and CT always felt like she was losing, although it must have been worse for Tex.

Her grip on her goal was fraying. She just wanted to survive, now, but the data was a weight on her hip and a prickling feeling at her back. All those possible futures, piling out of the barrel of a gun.

Carolina disarmed her. She heard the knife spin away through the air with a ripping sound. A second later she saw an opening and swept Carolina's foot. Their armor snagged together and Carolina fell, her hands still up, but caught CT's ankles and took them down together.

CT had already been off-balance from when her last strikes missed, and her hands were floating and empty. When she hit the ground, Carolina rose up in front of her. Carolina who had big breakfasts and woke hours before reveille, Carolina who shared their room kindly and neatly in the beginning of the project, Carolina whose place on the board CT had aspired to take, until she realized that she couldn't.

CT turned and there was Tex, raising a stolen axe.

Beta, who smelled like oil and ozone. One AI augmenting another.

CT dodged them.

She crawled for a minute, became far too acquainted with the shadowy red-lit floor, then stood.

The girl from Rhode Island sent out a hologram. Her hands blurred and became watery reflections as she activated her ability. She ducked out of the way of Tex's strike as she saw her hologram phase into being beside her, the angular brown armor heavily shadowed.

Tex saw a second axe embedded in a console at the same time as CT did. Tex caught it without breaking her step and wielded two blades, holding them back along the length of her arms like wings.

She let the lower blade go from the hip, and ignored the hologram.

CT felt the weight of the axe first, a sudden branchlike extrusion of her body tipping her sideways.

The pain was a terrible pulling and a blotch of color, purple explosions bursting behind her eyes.

The world narrowed around her, teetering, and she kept her balance.

It was just the world that was falling, the red and black corridor stretching up in front of her.

The girl thought about throwing another hologram, but she was dizzy now, and something was hurting and moving in her stomach that should not move.

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 second axe head slashed forward.

For a moment, the girl existed in two places, one real and one potential, both false and projected.

The axe missed, did not miss, missed again, the possibilities fighting it out in her head.

Missed, did not miss.

Missed, did not miss.

November 8, 2550 4:45 p.m.

To Agent Connecticut,

Forgive again the lateness of my reply. There have been disagreements. Your case will be completed shortly. As you may well know, the Freelancer Project is experiencing an upheaval of its own making. It is yet too remote for UNSC response. However, your desire for news is only reasonable.

As an agent of some tact yourself I'm sure you will understand when I say that the chairperson of the committee is an idiot.

Malcolm Hargrove