The morning started slow, with York finding the coffee and Wyoming complaining that there wasn't any tea, and then FILSS appeared on a screen on the wall between the two hallways that lead to the couch.
"Good morning," she said, and Connecticut stood up and she her door. She got dressed in proper military time, while Carolina did the same and yelled, "Good morning, FILSS!" over her freckled shoulder.
They were told they were going to train with paint rounds, and Connecticut's first thought was 'that was quick'.
They dressed in their standard green UNSC uniforms, and stepped out into the hall. Utah, Georgia, and others had their own set of rooms a few hallways away, but Connecticut saw no sign of them. The group was made up of eight people now - Carolina, South, North, York, Wash, Maine, Wyoming, Florida, and South's roommate, a quiet, dark-haired woman called Maryland.
South looked up and down the hall. "Where do we go now?"
(Connecticut liked that everything South said sounded angry, even if it was a good, innocent question. She was a very alive person. Later Connecticut would realize that what she had taken for a general, universe-scale anger was in fact more often petty and rude. South did not think big enough to question their surroundings. For this reason, she was a good soldier. Her ferocity was all out in the open on her skin, very different from the way North showed none except through action.)
South asked where they should go, and FILSS said, "Follow me."
A light flared at the end of the hall, going from an innocuous to a glaring white. The group trooped off toward it.
They followed FILSS's lights down ramps and around corners until they came to a small room. It had windows high on the walls on either side, one large and shuttered and one smaller and open, revealing a small, green-lit observation room above them. The director and the counselor stood inside, their images muddied by a slight tint on the glass and security wire inside it, but Connecticut could already recognize the director's thin frame and squared shoulders and the counselor's slight slouch. Leonard Church was also still wearing his dark glasses.
The whole room gave the disturbing impression of a well down which the director could look at his trapped subjects. The Freelancers filed in.
Rifles, pistols, grenades, and a single long sniper rifle were arranged neatly on the top of the table. North and York muttered and whistled appreciatively.
Connecticut had the brief, horrible thought that this was an elimination round. If the director was trying to replicate the Spartan program, what else could make the Freelancers' lives more difficult than having to fight each other just as they were getting to know each other?
The director's voice boomed. "I trust you have enjoyed your stay so far." He did not pause for an answer. He did indeed trust. "As elite soldiers you will each have a specialty, and your personal reputation will be built around it. You will be used in the capacity for which you are best suited. This test against my staff will help you find what those specialties should be. This is not a live fire exercise."
A sense of tension drained out of the room. People looked around at each other as the director kept speaking.
Freelancer, was, as she kept getting told, an elite program. They were special agents. The director assumed they knew what they were doing.
Here, Connecticut also realized that he knew what he was doing.
This room was set up to make them all think they were going to fight each other.
"So it's to see what we're good at," said South quietly.
Connecticut muttered, "And what we're not."
The director said, "Who would like to go first?"
York stepped forward fast as if he had been leaning that way to begin with. Wyoming swaggered forward slightly behind him, and Connecticut looked at him, sizing him up. He was the biggest one of all, next to Maine, and she didn't know what his specialty was.
Connecticut wasn't sure what her specialty was either. She had been decent with the assault rifle, decent at hand-to-hand, and was untrained on the more specialized weapons. She thought she could use a sniper rifle if she needed to, but was not rated to do so in combat.
(Everything really did come back to high school.)
"I'll go," said Carolina. York and Wyoming looked at her. She simply walked out of the crowd. She was shorter than most of them, sometimes by more than a head, but her red hair was like a beacon.
The director nodded.
"Agent Carolina," said the counselor, and seemed to mark her name on his datapad.
Carolina scooped up a rifle from the table and holstered a pistol and two grenades.
"Be awesome out there," York said.
"Report back what we're up against!" Wash's voice cracked, but Connecticut thought that she should have thought to ask that same thing. Carolina might think of only herself first.
(Later, Connecticut would find that this was far from the truth. Carolina barely cared about herself at all. The fact that this often seemed to manifest as self-loving arrogance made it hard for Connecticut, who valued honesty, to understand her.)
"Good luck," said North.
A door identical to the one the group had come through opened on the opposite side of the room. Carolina looked over her shoulder as she walked through. "I won't need it."
As soon as the door closed, the shutters over the large window opened.
It was like the sun rising.
Connecticut looked up at struts and panels that looked unfinished, but were probably designed to shift into shapes depending on what was useful for a particular type of training. Although nothing could beat the classic of dropping recruits in the middle of a forest, some UNSC training rooms could replicate a variety of environments using holograms and physical construction alone. The room beyond the window was bright and massive, lit by floodlights and paneled in bare metal of varying colors. Tall, square columns rose toward the ceiling.
It was hard to see the bottom half of the room because the window was positioned over head-height, but they all saw when turrets started firing from the far side of the room.
They shot pink globes of paint that splattered against the columns. Carolina dashed back and forth over and around the tops of the columns in a blur of red hair and olive green clothing. Connecticut craned her head and saw the director watching intently, standing in the exact same place where he had been before.
Carolina's gun shot paint too. Connecticut saw pink blobs fly through the air. Maybe there were other turrets nearer to the ground, but no one in the small room could see them.
She thought then that she would have to go into the training room alone.
(So would everyone else, of course, but so would she.)
Carolina took out the turrets, painting them with her own pink bullets. The director said, "The session is complete. Who is next?"
York and Wash both stepped forward. Others took a few steps or twitched. Wyoming and Florida moved around to the edge of the group to be closer to the table.
Connecticut would have to look like she was enthusiastic, or else her specialty would be assumed to be 'standing around while everyone else worked'.
(It might be best for her to take two pistols, she thought. Getting to those turrets would be difficult without something with a scope. She would also have to take into account that there wouldn't be extra ammo inside.)
Maryland snuck to the front and went next, and her run was unseen. Florida's was too.
Before he left, Wyoming said, "So which of you chaps are going with me?"
York said, "You're on your own."
When they finished, each Freelancer walked around through a door Connecticut couldn't see and ended up standing in the upper room behind the director and the counselor.
"I wonder what's out there?" Wash said.
South said, "I don't know, but whatever it is, I'm gonna deal with it quick."
During his run, Wash remained invisible for a few tense seconds in which they all wondered out loud where he was, and then he popped out and hit one turret after the other in quick succession.
Like most things in the military, the majority of the time was taken up by waiting.
When South took her turn, North put a hand on her shoulder. "Be careful out there," he said.
"I'll be fine," she said but bumped his fist with hers as she left the room.
Then it was Connecticut, Wyoming, and North left in the room. (Despite his initial shoving to the front of the crowd, part of Wyoming was at heart a coward. Despite her quiet ways, none of Maryland was.) Faced with these dwindling numbers, Connecticut darted around and slapped her palm down on a pistol when the director called for the next round. North had been laconic about the whole thing except for his exchange with South. Florida hung back with an air of proudly watching them all move toward some bright future.
Connecticut took the pistol and a rifle. It couldn't hurt to stick with the classics.
The side door let her out into a tall, narrow hallway paneled in the same irregular, shining metal as the room beyond.
Connecticut crept into the bigger room. The light around the columns fell hard and white around navy blue shadow, and as she saw the shadows creep over her own armor she saw other figures move around in the light on the other side of the forest of columns. A white-armored figure helmeted with a thin plastic screen, more like a SWAT team member than a Spartan, dodged between the columns. Connecticut raised her rifle. So this is what had been occupying the others. The director had sent challengers out into the field.
There was also a computer terminal on the far left side of the room, farthest from the hall she had come in by. Over there was probably also where the stairway stood that connected the combat arena to the viewing area above. The room could probably be rearranged in many different patterns, with only that room saying in the same place, secured firmly to the ship.
She glanced at the computer terminal, wondering what it controlled, but had to focus on her assailants first.
They weren't incredibly eager to push forward. They were recycled: one man edged toward her, and she could see the pink spots where paint had already spattered his arms and chest. She took a couple potshots to get the feel of the weapon and immediately regretted it: the heavy, blobby paint bullets fell short of their target and hit the floor, and the gun worked no different than any she had used before. There was no need to get a feel. She was just wasting ammo.
Now the bravest soldier was coming forward. Connecticut wasn't sure how many of them there were, but judging from the way the light moved and the glimpses she saw, it looked like three. Not too many, although she would have liked to have some teammates flanking the enemy right about now, or even just standing next to her and watching her back and hogging the spotlight -
And then there were the turrets. One paint bullet grazed her shoulder, knocking her slightly to the left. She took two unbalanced steps on her toes. She hadn't been expecting the bullets to knock so much weight around. A moment later she turned those steps into a frantic backpedal as a flurry of paint bullets shot from the turret. Connecticut skidded to a stop near the computer, and the first soldier charged her.
She stepped forward to keep moving and confuse the turret (maybe she could get under its firing angle - ) and pointed two shots at the trooper. He shrugged both off, but her third got him on the neck just under the chin, and she heard him yell as paint spattered up under his face shield.
He fell, down for the count, unhurt but sitting there to acknowledge his defeat, and the turret resumed its barrage. Connecticut aimed two shots at it and dodged behind a column farther from the computer and closer to where she'd entered the room.
(She remembered that people were watching her, tried quickly to forget that, and then remembered that they couldn't see unless she got on top of one of the columns.
How had York and Carolina even done that?
The director and the counselor could still see her.)
The turret spat paint but now she really had hidden herself from it, and it hit only the other side of the column. Perhaps hidden by the turret targeting him while trying to get to her hiding space, another white-armored soldier darted around to her right.
He was so close that it would just have splattered her too if she shot him. Instead she cracked the butt of the rifle against his collar, grazing his face and hoping that he had been prepared to take that. He seemed to be, since he didn't start yelling about brutality, but he bent over and staggered backward.
She brought the butt of the rifle down on his head. It was a light strike, just a hint at what she would have done if she were in a real battle.
With a confused yowl, he sat down. "Is that it? Should I sit down for that?"
Someone must have said yes in his earpiece, because he did.
She started to run back toward the computer terminal as the turrets chattered again. A moment later, the third soldier jumped from behind the flurry of bullets, crouching low before standing and swinging at Connecticut's face while raising her rifle with the other hand.
The Freelancer moved, but not quickly enough. The other woman - Connecticut could see her face behind the mask as she looked left, following her deflected punch - caught CT's weapon arm and wrenched at her shoulder, pushing her arm to the side and leaving her front open to attack.
She glanced toward the computer terminal and, without thinking much about it, pulled her pistol with her left hand. She shot the third soldier under the chin as well, prompting a disgruntled scream and a reluctant slide down to the floor. Connecticut jumped over the woman's legs and hunkered down at the terminal even as the second turret started shooting over her shoulder and tracking her. She didn't have much time, the sound getting louder and louder in her ears and she could swear she could feel the rush of air moving over what little was left of her hair, but she scanned the screen.
Along with a sequence of numbers that looked random - ones, zeroes, but also fives and eights - she saw controls for the turrets. They were simple enough, literally just buttons marked on and off. It was ridiculous.
"This is ridiculous," said Connecticut, and pressed 'off'.
The turret stopped, and she ran toward the left-hand doorway.
For a moment, she thought it was locked. Then as soon as her hands touched it the door hissed open and she was through into a smooth, black-green ramp stretching steeply upward. She powered up it, and a few steps in, the door shut behind her.
Connecticut breathed out, looked at the two weapons in her hands, looked at the door, and wondered whether she had done the test right.
No one came to collect her, so she kept walking up the ramp. At the top, the counselor kept looking at his datapad, but addressed her.
"Agent Connecticut," he said, and in a moment of needing simple rules and answers she pressed her heels together and said, "Sir."
"Why did you not destroy the turrets after you had disabled them?"
Crap. I knew I did something wrong. "I didn't need to, sir. They weren't going to do any damage and I could get to my objective without them. If I had been unable to open the door I would have disabled them another way."
"What if your mission had required you to move back through this room?"
She could see the others standing on the other side of the viewing platform, with the whole area visible below them. The Freelancers were standing as still and straight as the director, although Wash and South looked her way when she arrived. Either Wyoming or Florida would be down on the ground now, with the turrets reset and, presumably, the soldiers standing up, wincing from the paint.
She said the only thing she could think of to say, which was the truth. She was too frightened of him to lie. She did not know what he would do if she was found out. It would just make things unnecessarily complicated. "I would have dealt with them when I got back, sir. Probably pushed the button again. Also, it did not. Sir."
His expression didn't change at all. That was strange. It wasn't even a neutral expression, like someone who did not want to reveal his feelings: it was a drugged calm. There was something swampy and dead about his whole demeanor.
She wondered what the director had done to him, and then wondered why she had jumped to that conclusion.
The counselor noted her answer down. He said, "I see."
"Permission to ask a question sir?"
"Why did the buttons just say on and off?"
The Director moved over and looked at her.
"Not all of the agents even stopped to look at them," he said, and Connecticut could have sworn he looked at York and Carolina, who were standing next to one another with no trace of their former awkwardness. Either she had imagined the tense history between them or this little battle had burnt the fog off their relationship.
"Thank you sir," she said to the director, and this seemed to be the response he wanted. He nodded.
He said, "You may join the others," and gestured with his left hand toward them. "Leave your weapons on the table."
She wondered what the director had learned about her while she was out there. Probably that she was better with computers than with people. She was drawn to numbers and words and things that would act the same way every time she interacted with them.
The table where the others had put their paint guns was behind the counselor. He looked over it serenely as she set her guns down.
It was with a sense of relief and happiness, though, that she joined the unpredictable group of Freelancers at the window. Down below, Wyoming was under fire near the entrance tunnel from two white-armored soldiers, and keeping them at a distance from behind a column with the sniper rifle while focusing his shots on the one remaining turret.
"Nice job, Connie," North said, looking over his shoulder, and she replied.
That was the first time her name had been shortened into an affectionate nickname, and later she would remember it less for that first offhand moment than for every other time after. It ingratiated itself to her, that small name, and she thought afterward of the breaking of the other parts of such a long word, Connecticut, as a theft of their dignity.)
(She thought afterward of the syllables as too cute, too easy, like a dog's name or a child's. She poured over maps where her state was tiny, too small for all those letters, and whispered "Ceetee" behind her teeth.)
Wash looked at her and smiled. He wasn't particularly good at it: it looked like it strained him, but it was sincere in his eyes. Wash probably had the same sort of problem that CT had - people always asking whether he was upset or angry. She wondered whether there was something said to life-long antisocial tendencies being linked to just having face muscles that didn't settle into neutrality or happiness well, or whether she should be considering this from the other way around.
"We haven't had breakfast yet," York noticed with just a trace of a whine, and the rest of the waiting period was sent discussing that.
Florida emerged from the training room last, and he saluted the director like Connie had.
"You are dismissed," said the Leonard Church, and FILSS directed the Freelancers to the mess for breakfast.
The Freelancers from the other suite were there too. Connie found herself sitting with South, Maryland, and Georgia, with the others from her suite on the other end of the long metal table.
"What happened this morning?" said Georgia, listening to York, North, and Wash talk about the training.
"I'm not sure we're supposed to tell you," said Maryland, waving a fork, and South scoffed.
"Maybe," she said.
Connie looked around the room as if the director would be there to answer the question. He was not. "I don't know..."
Maryland put her hands flat on the table. "We're all in this together. There were three soldiers with rifles, and two turrets mounted on the ceiling, and we had to take them down with guns loaded with paint."
Georgia looked frightened.
"What do you think you learned?" York yelled from the other end of the table.
"Sim soldiers can't hit," South said.
"What about you Connie?" York said.
When the word 'Connie' came from York, she really started thinking of it as hers. That meant that everyone else would pick it up too. She was right about that: it stuck.
"Did any of you look at the computer?" She looked at Wash. He seemed the most likely.
"I couldn't press the button," Wash said. "I saw it, but the sim troopers kept shooing at me. I saw the button, but it was easier to get to the turrets."
"Easier?" York exclaimed. "If you have freakishly quick and accurate aim, maybe."
Wash settled into his seat and sat a little straighter. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Wyoming was good with the sniper rifle," North said.
"So were you," replied South, adding a defensive "What?" when Connie looked at her.
They ate cereal and meat patties. The quality of food over the next few months would vary widely, from weeks of tasteless MREs to the rare and precious appearance of fresh fruit.
The second group of Freelancers went for their first session in the arena after the meal was over. Connie's group was taken to a classroom by a quiet, masked sim trooper who called them by their code names. The director and the counselor weren't there, and Connie assumed that instead they were observing the other group like they had observed hers. Her group was lead to a large classroom.
There, they met Alpha.
The classroom was far larger than was required for the eight of them. The many screens at the front of the room were dark. Connie had the sense that they, like the shutters in the small mustering room, could unfold to reveal a new vista of unknown size behind them.
The Freelancers all sat down in the second and third rows, waiting for an officer. Connie sat between South and Carolina, still more comfortable with them than with anyone else since she had talked to them (and York) the most. She looked slightly down at the back of Wash's head. The seats were canted like in a movie theater. Wash's brown hair was spiky from the front but cropped short and straight in the back, and she found herself staring at the skin between his hairline and the raised square of skin over his standard FIF marker. She remembered that he had been standing separate from the rest of them at the spaceport.
FILSS's symbol appeared on the middle screen, and a hologram walked out of it. He wore armor like a Spartan, with a reflective visor and a doglike snout. He marched across the front of the room, shedding patches of silvery-blue light. The Freelancers looked at each other, then back at Alpha. Connie had never seen smart AI before, and Alpha's almost life-sized hologram drew her attention away from the unsuspecting Wash.
"Listen up, rookies," said Alpha, and all of Connie's impressions of AI as distant and cerebral were dissolved.
Alpha said, "So, the director told me to give you people the grand tour about missions, tech, whatever. All this stuff." He gestured with an air of extreme disinterest, and the desks in front of the Freelancers lit up, revealing themselves to be screens too, and showed rotating images of armor like his.
"We're going to get this?" York said.
South said, "I thought it was only for Spartans."
"Well," Alpha said, "the director got some."
He talked them through the dangers of using the armor and how the heads-up display functioned. Connie was fascinated. It felt like Christmas morning, but she had never thought she'd be able to unwrap this much technology. Armor like this would let them fight harder, lift more, and just generally stay alive longer.
It was also incredibly impressive. Her friends back in the army would be so jealous...
Sooner than she expected, the instructions were over. Alpha didn't seem to want them in his sight anymore. "Okay. Done. Get out of here." He nodded toward the door. York and North laughed, and Connie stood up as the others around her did. Carolina was looking fiercely at Alpha: she seemed to disapprove of either his blase attitude or the armor. Connie bet it was the former.
Connie was standing at the top of the ramp almost ready to go out the door when Wyoming hesitated at the bottom and called out to Alpha, who was still standing near the front of the room like a human teacher fidgeting after class. Wyoming said, "Hullo mate."
Alpha looked up as if in surprise. "Yeah, what's up," he said, without inflection.
"I wanted to introduce myself. I was just being polite."
"Yeah, well. Good for you."
"Aren't you supposed to be an administrative AI?" South asked from a few rows up.
"I dunno what I'm supposed to be," he said first, angrily, and later -
Later, well, it was just all too obvious.