VII.

"Your task is to find one data chip that will be hidden in the Insurrectionists' computer room," the director said to the assembled Freelancers in the briefing room. Laid out on the table before them was the map of another Insurrectionist base, this one smaller and newer-looking than the desiccated warehouse. "For this reason," the director said, "Agent Connecticut will have a critical role in this mission, extracting the data."

Connie looked up. She was glad that she had her helmet on, because she was sure that he could see the guilt in her face - he knows I overheard him, he knows I'm planning something. (What she was planning yet she wasn't even sure, but maybe the director's flat black eyes knew better than she did.)

But he moved on from her and said, "Agents Carolina, Washington, and the Dakotas will accompany her." The twins glanced at one another, maybe surprised by the confluence of their names. "Agent Carolina will be fire team leader."

Carolina nodded, as if this fit with her view of the world.

"The rest of you will back her up and invade the base. The rest is up to you and Alpha."

Connie latched onto the word 'invade'. He hadn't said 'infiltrate'. This was not going to be - was not supposed to be - a quiet mission.

She asked, "What's on the chip?"

"Information that will tell us how many ships the Insurrectionists have in their fleet," the director said calmly. She did not think that he had ever heard him be so level to her specifically. It was almost like he was talking to someone else. "They have recently acquired some that are..quite seizable, but we do not know enough about them."

She said, "Thank you, sir."

So it was to be a quiet mission about spaceships.

And Alpha was going to help somehow.

The director said that the AI was supposed to meet the five Freelancers at the hanger. North and South were rolling their shoulders, craning their necks like they were carrying heavy suitcases. North's sniper rifle and South's battle rifle were magnetized not to their backs but to the walls inside the Pelican, already ready to go. Connie looked across at Carolina, surprised every time she really thought about the fact that Carolina was shorter than her. Carolina walked like she was taller, had longer legs. She defied her short waist and the brusque, thick, punchy silhouette of her arms and thin shoulders.
And Connie, also short-waisted but long-limbed, feeling like she was going to fall over.

She caught Wash's eye and he reached out and tapped the armor over his forearm against hers, a solid, brotherly reassurance. I'm here. We'll get back okay.

I'm going to try to talk to one of them, Connie thought. I'm going to tell an Insurrectionist that I want to be on his side, and we will see if he will or will not kill me.

She tapped Wash's arm with hers, returning the gesture, without looking at him.

They had never seen Alpha in the hangar before, and Connie would not have guessed that 479 did not necessarily know that the AI existed for all she or other pilots talked about them. They waited for a few minutes that felt like a long time.

South said, "I thought Alpha was supposed to show up."

Connie said, "I did too."

"Any minute now he's going to be late." Carolina shook her head.

"I'm sure he's on his way," North said.

"Whatever 'on his way' means for an AI," Wash said. He sounded concerned too.

"Are we allowed to go without him?" Connie asked.

Carolina uncrossed her arms. "We might have to. What do we know about the mission already?"

"We've got the map downloaded," North said.

"And the placements of their turrets...if they're right," Wash said.

Connie liked when Wash doubted the information he was given. It didn't happen often enough. It was like finding a mythological creature.

479 clattered out of the Pelican. "Hey. The boss says we should take off now. You ready?"

"We were supposed to be waiting for Alpha - " Wash started, but Carolina cut him off. Connie bit back her words, although she wanted to come to his defense.

"We're ready," Carolina said. "Get in, everybody."

"Yes ma'am," South said sarcastically.

"I wonder what's up with the director," North said. "It's not like him to send Alpha late."

"So what?" South said. "So we don't have our GPS on this trip."

(Later, Connie would realize, and maybe the others did too, that South's dislike for the AI was not due to her feeling left out and deprived of one. As far as Connie knew, South had an AI to look forward to. Instead, she tolerated exactly as much of what she viewed as imperfection in AI as she did in humans. South was an equal-opportunity hater, and sometimes this manifested as bravery.)

"Okay," Carolina said. "We're going anyway."

Connie dimly heard North say "Saddle up," and then she was clomping into the Pelican with the rest of them. Wash dropped heavily into a seat and she followed, wanting suddenly to be outside the ship and not to have the excuse to go down and talk to the Insurrectionists. She wanted to have picked something else when she went for the computer during her first trial in front of the director. She wanted to be curled up in bed.

Instead, the Pelican rumbled and she watched the walls, unable to see the hangar sliding by and then the black shock of space without craning her neck toward 479 in the cockpit. Carolina had taken her usual seat up near the pilot, leaving North and South on one side of the ship and Wash and Connie on the other. Connie wondered where York was and what he was thinking. Would it bother him that he hadn't been asked along? Wash and North were the firepower on this mission. Although South had recently shown an aptitude for heavy weapons too, she was usually used as support.

The ride down to the planet was brief. The Mother of Invention had parked close. Either the Insurrectionists didn't have ships and anti-aircraft guns, or they weren't well enough liked on this planet to show their presence in such a big way. Either way, 479 parked the Pelican in a wooded area not far from a small, new-looking building set back from a city. Unlike the warehouse there was no immediate sign of structural weakness or an easy way in. Like the warehouse, dirt roads worn to ruts by the passage of many heavy vehicles indicated that the place was occupied by a sizable militarized force. The walls of the building were clean and white, with brown struts. It looked not so much like a military installation as like a home. One outbuilding sat next to it, painted in the same colors. Someone had cared enough to make these buildings match. Probably, they had been intended for commerce instead of civil war.

"I can't stand these Innies," South muttered. "Can't they just petition for rights like regular people?"

"Now South," said North, "We don't know what their stories are. Just because they're with a bad group doesn't mean that individually they're bad people."
"But we're going to shoot them anyway, right?" His sister sounded nonplussed.

North said, "That's right."

Carolina clambered down from her seat in the bridge. "Connie." She pinned Connie with a stare, and the younger Freelancer pushed up her restraint and stood, feeling slightly unbalanced after being cocooned in her jump seat. Wash glanced at her.

Carolina said, "Your job is to get inside and find the data. The rest of us are here to protect you. Stay with me and Wash at all times. North, find a sniper position and stay there. South, you're with him."

"Of course I am," she muttered.

"Good. I'll need some cover. If you get pinned down retreat back up the hill and call in to activate your shield. With both of us shielded we should be able to hold out while the others are inside...right?" He tipped his head at Wash, who nodded a couple times assertively. North started giving South more specific instructions - "When I find a place to camp out you range out along the bottom..." and Connie zoned out, focusing instead on her own task. She had no idea where the data was kept - but of course she didn't. She had been picked because she was supposed to be able to think on her feet...and maybe locate computers using digital psychic abilities, or something.

That would make her more likely to succeed, anyway.

Carolina looked over at her. "You ready?"

"Yes." She got the sense that she was going to talk into the middle of something bigger than her.

Wash stood up, and then 479 was yelling for them to get out of the ship and Connie dashed out the door, her boots sliding in the dirt. The Innies were ready for them. Gunshots hit the ground as soon as Carolina and Connie showed their heads outside the Pelican. Connie saw Carolina spread her arms out as if to either protect and embrace or herd Connie toward the building. "Go, go!"

Connie ran. She heard the deep sound of Wash and South's assault rifles and the higher-pitched zing of the sniper rifle as North fired, surely backing up as he did. Connie pulled her pistols - one of hers and one of Maryland's - from her side and ducked low. There wasn't any time to scope the bad guys out from this distance at this speed.

With Carolina covering her and her mind not even having time to race she got to the door and slammed her palms against it, twisting the handle so hard that it snapped. They didn't need York for this mission, though, and the director had known that - the building was new or the Innies were lazy or the director had put some kind of plan in place before the Freelancers even got here.

They surely had someone guarding that door.

Connie signaled for Carolina to flank the door on the right side, behind where it would open. and she did so without question, although she said "What's your plan?" over the radio.

"Watch," Connie said, and triggered her hologram. The world got blurry as the hologram imposed itself in the few inches between her and the door, and she thought that with a complete overlap she could really confuse people. She opened the door and jumped to the left side, leaving the hologram where it was.
What looked like multiple streams of gunfire converged on the hologram. It ran forward, flickering, and Connie and Carolina charged in on its tail. The hallway was barely wide enough to contain them in file and filled with gunfire, but Connie's first pistol shot downed someone in black armor at the far end of the short hall. Carolina shouted in her earpiece, not a word but just a growl to go with her forward momentum.

The hall was only eight steps long and ended in a crossroads. Connie ducked to the left, saw a moving body, and punched the barrel of her pistol into its chest. The masked Innie doubled over. When she shot him he almost fell onto her arm, and by the time she stepped back Carolina had dispatched two more that had fallen in the other two arms of the cross like macabre signs pointing which way to go.

"Looks like they didn't have much to throw at us," Carolina said. The hallway was empty.

"Upstairs," Connie said. "They'll probably have the files in a far room."

She liked that she sounded like she knew what she was talking about. She wondered if Carolina could tell.

Resistance was minimal, although they heard gunfire from outside, and Connie wondered where Wash had gone. He hadn't needed to follow them into the hallway and probably knew that, or was going to follow shortly to pick up any stragglers. He knew what he was doing. (She would have to shake him later if she was going to talk to an Innie alone. She had to kill them when she found them with Carolina at her side. Wash would be easier to get away from.
Later.)

They charged up a switchbacking metal stairway into an identical hallway. From the pipes on the ceiling she could tell immediately that they had central cooling in here, which was a good bet to say that the computer room was on this floor. If the Innies knew what they were coming for, or wanted to protect their data at all, the placement of their guards would lead the Freelancers right to the most important pieces of information.

(How would they know what the Freelancers were coming for? They didn't have anyone on the inside. Not as far as she knew. She would find out. Maybe there would be someone else. Wyoming? Florida? Someone odd in the other group, someone who felt just slightly off? What did a traitor act like?)
At the top of the stairs, neck-and-neck with Carolina now that the way was wider and scared any minute that Carolina might barge on ahead, Connie heard a window break and a woman scream. It wasn't South's voice. North had probably shot an Innie sniper out a window. Connie kept going, breathing harder now.

"Everything okay in there?" It was Wash's voice over the radio, and Connie felt her stomach lurch.

"We're fine," Connie answered, too fast, just as a dark-armored Innie popped out of a door halfway down the hallway in front of her. She heard him curse through his mask. There were two more behind him. Connie reached out to point her pistol at them just as Carolina opened fire too, the bolts blasting past Connie's head. One door guard went down.

"We're fine," Connie said, more snappish than she'd planned.

"Do your job!" Carolina growled, just as snappish. Connie assumed she was talking to Wash but had second thoughts a moment later and stepped further into the hallway. The gunfire subsided, but there was still at least one other person in the guarded room.

Connie sent out a hologram. (Carolina's ability, a burst of speed, wouldn't do much good in the narrow hallway, but she wondered if she was going to use it anyway.)

Two other guards moved out of the hallway to attack the hologram, and Carolina shot both. They fell against the walls, a barrier to Connie's destination. The hologram paused attentively at the doorway, looking around, dumbly scouting like a bird dog.

"Move in," Carolina said, but Connie had already been on her way. She moved slowly to the hallway, crossing one foot in front of the other like the hallway was a house she knew and she could prevent stepping on the creaky boards if she just walked right.

There was one person still in the room. She could see him dash to the side. The room had a bank of low computer terminals set against a wall that looked out over the field where 479 had landed her Pelican. Connie took two long steps in with her pistol held out in front of her with both hands.

The Insurrectionist shot at her arm. One bullet glanced off her armor, and she thought she heard it tear a strip of plaster off of the wall.

She slammed into the man, feeling out of control and like they were both just going to fall over for a moment until she wedged his arm against hers and felt her attempt at an arm bar actually catch. He screeched and she changed the hold, turning him to face the wall and holding his wrist in both of her armored hands. She had to use much less force than she was used to like this. The armor magnified everything. His gun, also a small pistol, dropped to the floor.
She looked down at the squirming Insurrectionist and said, "We're here for data about your fleet. Where is it?"

Carolina stalked into the room to her left, headed for the bank of computers near the window, and Connie only took passing notice of her.

"Where is it?" she said, unsubtle, breaking the Insurrectionist's wrist, not sure if this would work. It worked in movies. Carolina stepped over the man like she didn't care what Connie did and didn't have any useful input on whether it would work, but then she stopped and looked over Connie's victim's shoulder at her. Waiting. Connie continued under that judgmental gaze. "Where is the data about your fleet?"

"We don't have a fleet. Argh."

"I know you do." Connie didn't know what else to say. What if they didn't?

"Oh. That fleet. You mean the ship?" He stretched out his other arm, stiff and awkwardly bent, toward a console in the corner. Not the center one, not conspicuous.

Connie met Carolina's eyes. "What is it?" she said to the man. She kept twisting his wrist, but no further than before. His bones were clicking. "On a chip, a file, what?"

"A disk. It's right there."

Carolina nodded.

Connie dropped the man's arm. He fell to the floor and braced himself on his forearms. She still couldn't see his face. She turned away to head toward the computer and heard Carolina shoot him.

It really was just a disk, sticking out of a slot. A little black piece of plastic, the size of her palm or smaller. It would have been easy enough to snap in half. It was unmarked.

She thought of saying 'What, is this it, you didn't really need me here,' and reconsidered. Carolina might consider it too hard.

"This is what I need," she said, and looked at the other Freelancer. Carolina was standing sideways to the door, watching it with her gun held low and one hand tapping flat on the barrel like it was a drum and she was the quiet backdrop beat to some melody.

"That's it?" said Carolina, and Connie felt her stomach turn. Even if Connie hadn't said it, Carolina knew anyway. She was thinking the same thing. Connie was expendable, even on the mission that she had been supposed to lead. She was along for the ride.

"Yeah, that's got to be it." Connie looked down, slipped the chip into the small case that served as a pocket on the right hip of her armor. The black was barely visible against the brown armor. It could have been a component that was supposed to go there. "I could look for more," she said, needing to do the job as thoroughly as Carolina wanted to. If they left now and she had been wrong -or if the man now lying dead on the floor had been lying while she crushed his hand between hers - Carolina would never forgive her. Neither would the director. No one would.

Carolina nodded. "Do it."

Connie sighed and turned back to the computers, frustrated and sure she wouldn't find anything else. People traded shots down below, and through the reflections on the windows she thought she saw a purple blob move between trees and hills as South protected North. Where was Wash? He would be a gray blob. His armor made him surprisingly hard to see between shadows.

(He wasn't what she needed to be looking for right now anyway.)

She joggled mouses and tapped on touch-screens, waking the computers up. She searched menus as quickly as she could, flagging secure files and shunting them into a folder she could extract when she got back to the Mother of Invention. She would leave a little bug in here that would upload the information to a cloud she could access and then delete it on the original computer. They would never know where it had gone, and could not use the bug as a back door.
Simple stuff.

She hadn't expected, when she was told that she would be a special agent, to be shunting files around.

But she heard Carolina shift and realized that she had been distracted by a task that was simple for her. She should still be straining to sense that gooseflesh feeling that meant someone might be aiming a gun at her back. She should still trust her team and stick to the mission.

But their mission was not hers.

It would be safer for her, in the long run if not immediately, for her to talk to an Insurrectionist in person, but she could modify the bug so that it stayed in the system, so that the Innies could trace where it had gone.

She did that with a dry mouth and a sudden, overwhelming sense of fear. Task completed, she turned back to Carolina and crossed the room. "Done."

"Got it?"

"Anything not on this disk I can recover back on the ship."

"Good."

Connie thought that maybe she should say thank you.

If she left the program for good, caught as a traitor or just gone, maybe she would never had to worry about what Carolina thought she should say again.
But leaving wouldn't solve the problem. Connie did not want to leave Freelancer, not yet. She wanted to fix it.

And she had taken her first step.

"Is anyone following us?" she asked, because the hallway and her HUD was empty and she felt her nervousness wanting to come out in the shape of words instead of just nonsense or sobs.

"Doesn't look like it," Carolina said, sounding amused and like she thought she was superior to any possible follower, and she started down the hallway.

No one attacked them on the way down. They moved in silence, and quickly, although neither used their special abilities. The sounds of shots from outside grew louder, and although she tried not to think about it Connie found herself worried about Wash.

You'll do worse to him soon if you betray them.

Maybe he'll come with me.

Almost as soon as she stepped out the door, a motorcycle roared by in front of it. An Innie with an assault rifle was riding one-handed, not firing yet, trying to find North and South. Wash was crouched by a hillock, trying to make himself as small as possible while the square shoulder plates of his armor hunched over him, trying to get a bead on the rider.

"Time to go," Carolina said, and Wash uncurled and walked backward into step with them.

Nothing I can do now, Connie thought. We're going and I can't talk to anyone. Maybe I can backtrace the data and get a line in. Maybe they'll change it all once they know this is gone.

Maybe if she went after the motorcycle.

On foot?

As if on cue, the rider spun the bike around, kicking up dirt and digging a new rut at the corner of the building. Connie fired, two short, ineffectual pistol bursts that were more a statement than an actual danger to an armored rider going that fast. Wash was a better shot. One yellow blast from his rifle that she saw out of the corner of her eye and the front wheel of the bike blew with a hiss of escaping air. There was no fire, but the bike bucked end-over-end and shot toward the smaller of the two buildings as if to hide behind it.

Carolina threw a grenade that Connie hadn't known she had. The bike really exploded now, tossing the rider and making him look thin and limp like a doll. The bike crashed into the side of the smaller building with a splintering sound, leaving the rider on the ground.

It was beautiful, really, the way the Freelancers all worked together in a row, first Connie, then Wash, then Carolina adding their own movement to the fray. It would have looked nice in a movie. It would be captioned 'the last synchronized move Project Freelancer ever made'.

More shots came from inside the building. Someone had survived Connie and Carolina's visit, or else the Innie force hadn't been as small as they had thought. North walked out from behind a knoll and South appeared from who-knows-where, maybe behind a building. Connie didn't know, but now they were all arrayed together, and Connie couldn't escape to go see if the rider, now her closest chance at communication, was still alive -

But the five of them standing close together provided an easy target for the people inside the building. Clods of dirt flew and became clouds of dust. The Freelancers could easily track one another through their HUDs, but Connie started inching toward the fallen motorcycle rider, feeling the skin prickling her back. Like when she'd gone outside at home to see what the dog was barking at (an owl, a fox, a ghost perhaps) and turned her back on the dark to get to the door and felt the gooseflesh rise on her back when she sensed, with some animal fear, the eyes in the forest.

"Connie, watch out!" It was South yelling, sounding panicked. Connie heard a grenade tick and realized South had thrown it too close to her in an effort to get to the rider. The shots from the building were getting fewer and farther between, desperate staccatos now, as Wash and North fired back. In the dust she saw the rider turn and run into the alley between the two buildings.

Connie threw herself to the side and ended up tripping over her own feet for a few steps just as the grenade blew up the motorcycle and a sizable chunk of the outbuilding's wall. Debris slammed against her helmet and shoulders.

Wash was yelling in her ear: "Connie, Connie!" but resistance was getting heavier again outside and she could hear the engine of the Pelican. 479 had thought it fit to come in and scoop up the Freelancers herself. Someone would come after Connie if they didn't think she had died back here.
They would come after her anyway. She had the data about the Innie fleet. She was why they had come here.

She needed to make this quick.

The eyes in the dark in her childhood were still watching her back.

She ducked into the alley where the motorcycle had gone down, pausing for a moment at the edge to think about releasing a hologram. It would probably just draw people to the alley instead of leading them away from the building at all, like her disappearance would do.

The motorcycle had arced over the alley when the grenade hit and landed here, but she couldn't hear anyone moving inside the shadows. She switched her DMR for a pistol and moved slowly inside.

The man was on the ground and moving gingerly, taking his time to turn over as if it were a lazy Sunday morning instead of a war zone. The motorcycle had slammed against the wall and fallen to the ground in a twisted, smoking pile: it looked like the man had jumped before the wall had caused him any danger. He lifted his head off the ground when he heard her footsteps, and she saw the light sheen over his rounded helmet. She couldn't tell an expression on it, maybe because it was different from the shapes of the Freelancers' helmets, or because she didn't expect him to be making any expression at all.

He scrabbled for a gun that had been trapped underneath him.

She bit the tab inside her mask that turned her radio channel off. She said, "I'm not going to hurt you."

"Yeah, right you're not. That's why you've got the pistol."

She thought about lowering it, then felt that would be a bad idea. It would give him a chance to pull a gun on her if he was hiding something, and it would show a sign of capitulation too easily.

Already she was thinking in the language of deception, trying to get four steps in front of him, playing conversation like chess, modeled after war.

She said, "I don't think the Freelancer project is doing right."

He sat up, with one hand flat on the floor but still no sign of a gun. Maybe he had lost it in the crash and only thought it was still at his belt or under his dazed body.

He said, "I would be more inclined to believe you if you hadn't been shooting at me a few minutes ago."

She didn't dignify this response with 'what else was I supposed to do' or 'I had to make it look good'. She said, "I could shoot you now."

He stood. He was quite a bit taller than her. "The project has stolen from us, killed our people. They've never apologized to us before."

"I think the director is doing something to the AI. He never tells us our goals."

"The director? I thought it was run by the UNSC, Lord Hood. Maybe the ONI. What's his name?"

Names were important.

If the director had a state, which one would it be?

Big and shouldery and sand-blasted.

Texas.

She said, "Leonard Church."

She said, "I have to go. They'll be looking for me in a minute. Give me your comm code. We need to be able to talk."

No time for motives now. H would have to be quick to trust her.

If she was lying she would have had him in the perfect trap.

Because she was not lying his innocence would save them both.

He gave her his comm code and she gave him hers with not quite the tone a pilot took with an airport and not quite the tone teenagers took on a first date, but something in between.

He said, "My name's Joshua."

She said, "Call me Connie."

(Later, she wouldn't bother to change it. He would change it for her though, making it an endearment, a nickname, everything she wanted Wash to forget about so that she - and he, maybe, maybe in her restless imaginings before she went to sleep - could leave the project behind.)

She said, "It might take me a few days to get around our security. I won't jeopardize the rest of my team."

He stood up, flinched as if expecting her to attack him, and brushed dust off his black pants. "I don't expect them to do the same for you. You're special."

She thought, you don't know me well enough to know that.

She said, "What kind of code filters do you use?"

He said, "I'll talk to my techs. We'll be careful. If I call in - "

"Don't call in," she said, suddenly horrified that someone might find her. "I'll call you. Then I'll set up secure channels." She would have to get FILSS involved somehow, or, more accurately, bypass her. That would be difficult. Not to mention the Alpha, if he monitored anything outgoing...and if he was alert enough.

"Stay low when we move out," she said, and backed out of the alley.

She couldn't tell Carolina she killed him: he would just show up at the next mission (trying to kill Carolina again, trying to kill Connie's friends again.) She would need to tell Carolina that he escaped and that she couldn't find him, no matter how hard she tried to look in the alleys and around the roofs.

Wash was still yelling in her ear. Maybe he had been for some time. Now she heard him behind her, pushing around the debris from the motorcycle. Idiot. He was waylaid by his dependance on the HUD. If he looked further back he would find her in the shadows of the leaning roof.

She looked at Joshua. "Go!"

He ran.

Connie jogged back to Wash. When he saw her he came forward with a spring in his step. "Thank God." He lowered his head and touched their foreheads together. The armor clunked and she felt her stomach drop, but not unpleasantly. She was done with the first part of her private mission and she had Wash.
"What happened to you?"

"I was chasing him. He got away."

"Your comm was off."

"They must have some kind of jammer. I think he was the leader."

Lying was like jumping off a cliff. Luckily, something caught her. She wasn't sure what it was.

Wash said, "We've gotta get out of here."

There was just a tiny waver in his voice. He had been scared for both of them. Funny how he showed it and never cared when he got flak for worrying too much.

The chip in her pocket was like a badge of guilt. She had been the most important part of the mission, and how far past the parameters she had gone. "Here. I almost lost this." Carolina would believe that. She handed him the data chip. He closed his hand around it carefully.

When she and Wash got back to the others they were cleaning up, South leaning slightly to the side presumably with a wound Connie had not seen her sustain, North moving a body out of the way of the Pelican's jets for its own dignity's sake. What little kindness in war became. 479 had set down, the other Innies in the building apparently eliminated.

"Did you find him?" Carolina turned and looked over her shoulder from where she had been walking up the ramp, her feet still facing forward, her whole body still straining toward the completion of the mission, her mask glaring at Connie.

"He climbed over the roof," Connie said, keeping her voice level, and it was level, it was working, she was convincingly lying, even if she hadn't added this embellishment for Wash. Don't add too many details, she thought. Make your lies easy to remember. "He got away."

"He got away?" She turned further and Connie saw that she really was livid. Disappointing her still hurt a little.

What would Connie say here? She had the odd sense of acting in a play where she had been cast as herself.

"Yes," she said. "He got away."

"You should have chased him harder," Carolina said, and showed Connie her back. "But we don't have time now. Get that data on board."

Connie huffed. Wash moved past her and waited for her to come to his side. He had his rifle in one hand and the data chip in the other.

She walked with him, comforted by his presence. (Later she would realize every single moment of every day that she had to leave him but for now that didn't even occur to her. She needed nice things to make her day less heavy, and his existence was nice.)

In her seat in the Pelican Connie started at the floor, looked around, and felt that the slight lifting, nauseous feeling of takeoff matched her emotions perfectly.