They stood in front of the director for debriefing in the same room in which he had first sent them on this mission.
"You found what you were looking for," he said. There was no question. Carolina or 479 had told him on the way back to the ship. They must have.
"Yes sir!" They said in tandem, and Connie placed the data chip on the table. The counselor, standing in the corner quietly like usual, stepped forward and slid the chip over to the director.
It was almost as if the counselor thought the director was too weak to move that far himself.
The director examined the chip as if for microscopic flaws. He didn't meet Connie's eyes or specifically indicate that he was speaking to her when he said, "Good work." Then he looked up, white light sitting on his sunglasses in a severe square. "You are dismissed, agents."
"Excuse me, sir?" said North, leaning over the table and craning his neck at the director, and everyone, including Leonard Church, looked at him.
"Speak," said the director.
North straightened up when he had their attention. "Earlier, you said that Alpha was going to help us out. But he never showed up."
The director's lips curled down the slightest bit at the edges. "Alpha has been having some technical difficulties. He will be available for all his usual tasks when necessary. There is nothing more to add."
South wrinkled her nose in anger. Connie thought she was maybe trying not to sniff in disdain.
Could Connie trust South if she had to tell someone she had opened communication with the enemy?
She didn't need to think about bringing anyone else into her plan yet. She had barely even put it in motion yet.
She went back to the common room with the others. They joked and talked and traded obscure facts and reminded themselves that they were alive. North played music. South played hers in competition. Maine rumbled at them all.
North did not play the song that Connie remembered from her first night in the Mother of Invention, the one about cowboys and silver.
She downloaded the information she needed from the cloud and forwarded it to the counselor and to an address the director had told her to send it to in the initial briefing. She kept an eye on it, as if it was a tiny pinhole tunnel through which she could spy and find more about the man she had chosen as an ally.
Later, she would find out that Joshua was the leader of the group. He hadn't organized it but he lead it. He had been hired to it. He was Charon's Project Manager. They weren't really Insurrectionists, he said. They worked for the Charon Corporation. Maybe some of them knew Insurrectionists. He didn't mind the colonies. He didn't have strong feelings about the war. Except - and here he stopped, laughed, nervous. Insurrectionists. Where had they gotten that idea? She looked at the wall like it had the director's face. Like he would emerge from it like out of a scrying pool. She said, "I don't know," ashamed of her ignorance at the same time as she worked to reverse it. The director had hidden so much.
Joshua would tell her that he usually didn't charge into battle like that but he had seen that his team was being overwhelmed.
She would prop her chin on her hands and look at the screen of her datapad, balancing it on her knees as she sat on her made bed. She had told Carolina that she was talking to Georgia. He didn't want to leave his side of the suite because he had lost his lucky penny. (This was true. She had talked to him earlier about it. He would corroborate her story as long as Carolina didn't look too hard.)
She had just called Joshua. Like she was calling a new friend for the first time, not sure whether the conversation would be awkward.
She had put up a lot more filters and firewalls and counterspies than she usually did with her friends, though.
"So what were you doing out there?" She said.
Joshua said, "I had to protect my team. We weren't there to get killed. We were just doing our job."
"Yeah. A lot of people use that excuse."
"Well, I...you know that's not what I mean."
He had a way of assuming things about people, making them familiar. He probably did it to his troops too, but she didn't know. He made it sound like he knew you well so that you told him things until he actually did. It wasn't a tactic, either. He was just, as far as she could tell, honestly nice. Maybe a little too honest. It wasn't like York, with his ability to make friends. Joshua didn't have the suave. He just had...nice.
Alpha displayed the information that Connie had found at the Insurrectionists' base in a classroom session a few days later. He seemed to be back to normal, walking and talking the same, shrugging his shoulders. Connie was sitting next to Wash in the far corner of the classroom, half-watching everyone else when she wasn't looking either at Alpha or at Wash's hair.
"Okay, so we've got this data." Alpha projected a blue rendition of a small fleet of starships - three Pelicans, a couple single-person fighters, and a large capitol ship. North whistled.
"That one looks dangerous."
"That's the Staff of Charon," Alpha said grumpily, as if he didn't approve of the name, and Connie almost flinched when she recognized the name of the company. The AI continued. "Lame name, anyway. But look, it's a capitol ship. It's got some turrets and stuff. No big deal. In fact, they're pretty understaffed for this thing. Probably mostly running it on elbow grease and, I don't know, hate. We have way more fighters."
Connie squinted at the ship. Maybe Joshua lived there. Maybe she would go there one day, find a bunk in a quiet corner.
If she was going to communicate with Joshua, she needed to be sure that no one was watching her or piggybacking on her signals, and that meant that she needed to be monitoring everything that came in or out of the Mother of Invention on sound waves too. She should probably have been doing so before. She needed to know as much as possible. She needed to know everything.
The computer records weren't hidden under very strong firewalls. It was easy enough to trace anything Project Freelancer put online back to its source. The problem was that most of the important documents were being handled by the ship's AI - or weren't being handled at all, if most of the records Connie saw were the whole story.
She wracked her brain for a way to ask FILSS and Alpha without directly asking them, but realized that she was almost clueless about how AI worked. They weren't really - or weren't just - computers. She couldn't get into their code, not when part of it coded for...sentience. Besides, she was sure the director would know anything she said to them - maybe they would tell him.
Instead she did what work she could from her datapad and from the occasional public terminal, always looking over her shoulder, always afraid. The fear sloughed off when she thought of what she was doing as freedom as opposed to slavery, not a child disobeying a teacher.
She was an adult now.
It felt like jumping off a cliff.
Wash would be her parachute if she just let him, but she couldn't tell him anything. She couldn't tell anyone.
This wasn't about her friends, although she was doing it for them. There was something wrong with Alpha and the director was pitting them against one another for no reason. That was what drove her.
That, and a continued hatred of the board. In training she failed to rise into even the eighth spot. She was getting better with two pistols, hers and Maryland's, but something else was wrong. She found herself tripping, being clumsy, having bad luck or maybe lacking in good luck, and then going back and curling up with her datapad and feeling more comfortable when she was hacking into things. She began to dread when people would call for her, to grow sick at the sound of her own name. She couldn't figure out why the name itself bothered her. There was a strange disconnect between her distaste for the sounds and her distaste for the idea of being caught.
She figured out when South called her name and stretched it out, extending the 'ee' sound into a wheedling whine, like an irate child calling a cat.
Connie. None of the other names ended like that. It sounded like an endearment, and she had no room for endearing words between her and the Freelancers now. They were too dangerous.
It was all about eyes now. Mechanical and natural ones. Eyes and sound waves.
She was going to change something, so that when they called her she wouldn't have to come any more. And by then, the wires would have taken her name away.
Wash had been sticking by her, occasionally bringing her small things that he thought would comfort her, and this reassured her immensely until she discovered, by more and more careful toe-in-the-water processes of monitoring the data that did and did not pass out of the Mother of Invention, that he was spying on her.
Officially, he was reporting to the Department of Internal Affairs, which seemed to consist of the counselor.
The thought of Wash talking alone with that man, about her, made her feel unclean.
On one of the outgoing transmissions she found out that Wash had been meeting with the counselor more and more often lately. He had been worried about her. He had also been telling the counselor that she stayed alone a lot, that she brought in equipment when she could borrow it from techs, that someone in requisitions had told a pilot who had told a tech who had told York that Connie was looking for something.
She had to leave soon.
She still had some reasons to stay.
"You haven't been acting the same lately," Wash said, one night when they sat on the couch with their palms pressed together and their fingers interlaced.
"We're so competitive now."
"You mean because of the board?"
She nodded, blinked her eyes. "I feel like it shouldn't have drawn such a line between us. The military is always competitive, but when you climb the ranks there's a sense that anybody can get there. This...it's like a dog show. He's trying to find out who's best of breed."
"You think the director did it on purpose?"
"In what other way would he do it? He runs this problem." She had to stop, take a breath, realize that he did not know she had been investigating the Oversight Committee, or anything else.
She was becoming very good at keeping secrets, and to her own surprise this meant that she did not have to tell any less truths than before.
Wash hesitated. He practically stuttered. "He...I...I don't think of it like that."
She said, "I know," and tried to meet his eyes for a moment, but he looked up, into the corner of the room, and he was colder to her then.
That didn't last long. He still brought her things.
She started to notice things she hated about him, came up with excuses for why his body wasn't perfect. Too pale, too skinny.
He didn't know she was trying to push him away with these standards he didn't know she was chosen, but, well, that paranoid mix of judgement and ignorance was pretty much the same relationship Connie had with the director.
It was like she had Stockholm Syndrome for the whole project, loving her captors tenderly. The word sounded right: Stock-holm, those hard letters colliding in the middle, forcing the voice to hitch like a car on cracked asphalt. Stock-holm. Gnawing letters buried in innocuous sounds, the bump there in the middle all the time but forgettable if you remembered the more familiar syllables around it. And that last one, almost home.
She wondered whether Wash would go with her if/when she left the project. She asked him once as she was passing by. He was sitting on the floor reading a book. Or maybe not: she craned her neck and saw it was a map. He was just flipping through the maps.
She said, "Do you ever think about quitting?"
He looked up. "Hnuh?"
She stopped and looked at the wall not quite behind him. The one by the side of the bookcase that York had dragged in from somewhere. York brought most of the things. He didn't seem worried about not being able to take them when he left. "Quitting," she said. "The army, Wash. Going home."
"We have to serve our four years." Funny how he sounded knowing and resigned all at once, meaning everything and nothing, reigning himself in. He could have been a terror on her side but she couldn't trust him.
She sighed and sat down, suddenly very tired and very much not thinking about what she had been doing. ("It's nothing something I've done," he said. A line from a children's book. It had been floating through her head a lot because the next line, filled with guilt and winter-cold and fear, was, "It's something I am doing." She was familiar with that feeling of committing a crime at the same feeling as being overwhelmed with guilt for the committing of that crime.)
He reached out and rubbed her arm, and she put her hand over his and moved over to lean her head against his shoulder. She looked over into the shadows on his lap and saw the map opened to her state. Connecticut. Displayed big enough to see all of the little towns, not just the capitol, the whole name was written out across the state in block letters. If it had been smaller, like it usually was, it would have been reduced to initials. C.T.
Maybe she should go by C.T.. It was a lot less childish than Connie.
They looked at the map in silence, but it was nice to feel a stripe of heat next to her where his side pressed against hers.
And then there was the next mission. It wasn't against the Insurrectionists, and she was glad for that. She wasn't sure who they were fighting. The director had just told them to go and they went, with Carolina at the head of their column like pennant and general all at once, onto a cracked landscape where fans whirred. It was a new factory, everything white and silver and gold, beautiful and dangerous. No one had decided to put in railings or to enforce rules and safety shields or signs.
Flush them out, the director had said. Go find out what they're up to. Odd formality for him, but later Connie found out that the raid was on one of his old friends, more a show of power than anything really useful, and that drove her over the edge. He could not just use an army to intimidate his college rivals, even if he had gone to a college where you learned how to lead people in the most sinister manners and to program trash-talking AI.
It nearly literally drove her over the edge as the group walked along a wide, shining catwalk. It was a small group, four of them: Carolina, North Wash, Connie, with York and South waiting outside on the lawn of the mansion next to the factory, not far from 479 and her Pelican. York kept talking into their mics, never telling them directions or anything useful, but just asking questions. "How's it going? What's it look like in there? Do you see anybody? Do they have a fridge? We need a fridge. Like, a little one. A mini one. Right, Carolina?"
"Shut up, York."
"Yes, ma'am," York said in Connie's earpiece, although of course he was talking so that all of them could hear, and really referring to Carolina. Connie realized that she had almost been drifting off. The factory was empty. It was after hours, the middle of the night, and although the workers had gone home the electricity was still on, lighting the place like a football stadium. Connie thought it was a waste of electricity.
(She didn't quite think of herself as Connie any more. She didn't know what to call herself. Even as a child she had gone through periods where she didn't refer to herself, in her head, by her real name. Sometimes she used nicknames. Sometimes she found a blank space and prodded at it like at a loose tooth, until it gave and bled and the aching, tender new name was there.)
She had been looking at her feet. Below were silver and gold stacks of machinery: gears and crushing, chomping shapes like mouths and printing presses. There were no guards here. There wouldn't be. It was a factory that made disks. The disks were blank, of course, so she couldn't get any use out of them unless they found used ones inside the house. The owner of the factory was certainly rich. If he was friends with the director, or had been once, than maybe Leonard Church was rich too, or had been once, and he was hoarding his money away (or spending it on his Mother of Invention and his Freelancers' power armor) because the war was more important to him than his money.
Lost in her thoughts, Connie toed the edge, and North's voice blared into her attention as she widened her eyes and flinched from her shoulders to her hips.
"Be careful," North said. "You'll hurt yourself."
"I'm fine," she said, and looked straight ahead.
"You're distracted, Connie," said York, and she sniffed. How could he tell? He was too far away.
"What do you know, York?"
"Whoa now, don't get touchy. I just noticed. You've been out of it lately. I'm worried about you, Connie."
People just made noises. Connie sniffed again, Wash drew in a breath like he had clenched his teeth. North and Carolina sighed. They were like a wolf pack, but still trying to figure out the dynamics of who was the alpha male. Connie could read so many little problems in the ways they breathed.
"Focus," said Carolina, and everyone's heads snapped to the front. She was the alpha for now. "I mean everybody."
York said, "Yes ma'am," quietly.
South said, "It's still all clear out here," like she was reminding Carolina that she was still doing her job.
"Remember why you're here," Carolina said.
It didn't matter why they were there. Memory was not the key, and Connie could barely remember the purpose of the mission later. It didn't matter. Carolina had taken care of it, had accomplished the mission as easily as a cat clawing down on a mouse. Everything fell into place when Carolina told it to.
What mattered was that in the next moment, red lines of sniper sights lit up the entire building. five snipers at least maybe more, and two smoke grenades. Connie saw them arc for one terrible moment, silent but for the creaking and clicking of armor as the Freelancers around her looked up. Everything was obscured except a few moving figures she could see, closing in.
"I see one!" Connie yelled.
"Where?" That was Carolina, voice cracking. Connie could barely see the muzzle of her gun tracking this way and that through the reddish smoke.
"Right there!" Connie pointed when she saw a human figure again again, just a flash of a shape, and Carolina turned to see it.
Two red tracer lines swung around and converged. Two tiny snake-bite dots on Carolina's back, on the black part between her armored shoulder blades.
Carolina was shot in the back, twice. Neither round hit her skin. They took her shield down but she wasn't hurt.
Connie could have sworn she had seen right. There had been a man, right there, in murky gray armor.
Carolina yelled, "What are you doing?"
Connie's shame sank into her.
"I'm sorry" caught in her throat.
She helped fight her way out. North and Wash tried to do what they needed to do, destroying parts of the factory, leaving Leonard Church's old friend without some of the source of his fortune, but there were too many guards. The Freelancers had walked right into their trap.
Connie stayed down for the rest of the mission. She liked to have someone in front of her. She had to survive this or else the Insurrectionists would lose their inside man. There wasn't an option where she could describe the mission in terms better than 'at least I survived'.
Her mistake bothered he because information was the only thing she was good at, and she wasn't even good at that. Not good enough. Not good enough to rely on, so she couldn't rely on herself. She was unstable ground.
When 479 brought them back to the ship she didn't bother to stop by the techs to take off her armor. she knew from experience that no one would care if she wore it around. She went to the locker room to be somewhere alone, everyone else all talking among themselves in an informal debriefing just as psychologically important as the official one they would surely have later. (The director would bring her mistake up again. She would have to wait, fifteen or twenty minutes or an hour, knowing that was coming.)
She just hadn't seen. She hadn't known what was coming. She had nearly gotten Carolina killed, chasing a shadow, not knowing there were more guards coming from the other side.
You couldn't punish someone for what they didn't know.
Yes you can, said the world. It happens all the time.
There was even a leader board in here, the blue light falling all over the floor. She could see it even covering the brown armor on her arms, erasing herself, burying her skin.
Maybe if she sat in the light long enough she would become one with the board. Maybe her name would show up. She swung one leg over the bench nearest the board for a moment and slumped there, embracing the bench, her forearms flat. Then she swung the other leg over and sat with a little more dignity, still hunched, staring at the floor between her feet. She had a powerful urge to call Joshua and tell him what had happened - not even because she thought it would effect her work with him, but just to tell him how it had gone. At the same time, that urge was at war with the desire just to sit here, forever, and sink into the ground.
It was all the fault of that board. All the fault of the director. Carolina was obsessed and the director was obsessed and only Connie, little Connie, could see it, but no one listened to her.
When Wash came up behind her she heard him before she cared to turn around and see whose footfalls they were. Wash, number six on the board. She would have been staring at his name if she'd been paying any attention to what was in front of her.
"It wasn't your fault, Connie."
She could feel her face contort, wrinkling, skin pulling toward the bridge of her nose. She was ugly when she was angry. And his name was right there in blue. "Easy for you to say. You didn't drop the ball."
She could picture him shrugging, turning his head, trying to shrug it off for her. "The ball got dropped. We were all there, it was everyone's responsibility."
"Dammit, why are you doing that?"
Even more shrugging. "What am I doing?"
"Making excuses for me. I'm not making excuses for myself. Why are you."
"I'm trying to make you feel better." He stepped closer.
She needed to lash out because if she didn't she would cry and let him hold her and she would never be able to go on with her mission that day and talk to Joshua. Too much progress would be lost. "Yeah? Great. Why don't you make Carolina feel better? Go pat Maine on the head. See how that works out for you."
"We all make mistakes."
"No. We don't. That's the point. We don't all make mistakes. Some of us very specifically make mistakes, and others don't seem to make any, mistakes at all." She thought that he should know better than to say otherwise. She had obviously never kept up with the others. Saying otherwise was just lying, and both of them liked facts.
Soon after she drove Wash away from her, turned her back, denied herself his help and told him he was a fool. He kept trying. He pressed his hand against her shoulder, strong, dipping beneath the severe square upper edge of the plating to find her shoulder without having to think about it.
She told him to call her C.T. and he didn't say no. He tried to turn the argument back to compassion, to keep trying to help her instead of fighting - stop being so hard on yourself, he said, and he didn't understand that it didn't matter if she did that if the program kept being hard on them all anyway. She wondered what he was thinking in his silence as she walked away. She needed to grow up and cast off childish things and be hard and angled like her mask.
That night she asked Joshua what his end goal was. "What do you want to do to the director?"
Joshua wasn't wearing his mask. C.T., newly possessed of the solid shape of her name, sat in the supply closet across from the common room, wearing headphones so his voice wouldn't carry and pitching hers low. She knew there were no security cameras in here.
"We want to find out what the director's doing," Joshua said, as if he thought C.T. hadn't known that that was the plan all ready. "He keeps stealing things. Weird things, too - cryogenics equipment, this...we had some stuff that nobody in the army has. Sebial thinks he wants that."
Connie remembered just then that Wash still had her helmet. He hadn't talked to her since she left him.
"Rhee Sebial, he's our security manager. He hired me."
"Are you okay, Connie? You look...distracted."
"It doesn't matter. I'm tired."
"I think it matters."
The first thing she thought to say was Why? Instead, she just stared him down.
He looked down, into the corner of the screen at some floor she couldn't see, and she thought it was much like the pose she had been holding all day.
She brought the discussion back to their mission. "What should I do next? I feel like there's got to be more."
"Have you gotten closer to Alpha?"
"Closer? All I can do is talk to him."
"Find out how he works. He's got to be housed in a computer somewhere." Joshua sounded absolutely certain. C.T. wasn't sure how much he actually knew about how AI worked.
"If I poke around, he'll know."
"Are you sure? Maybe he won't. You're our inside man, Connie. I know you can figure this out."
He sounded trusting instead of demanding. And he was still using that name. She wondered if she should ask him to change it, but it didn't really matter. He wasn't the one treating her like a kid. (Neither was Wash, but Wash could be a stand-in for the entire Freelancer experiment.)
She said, "Don't you have anything? Some kind of lead for me?"
"I don't know, Connie, I'm not there."
She felt the weight of the responsibility fall on her. In the books it always aimed for the shoulders but hers were too small: she felt the weight fall all across her chest and back. She had thought the Insurrectionists were going to be able to help her, but they weren't really Insurrectionists at all - more like mall cops for a company, and they thought she could help them.
She wanted to disappear, to never have influenced anyone, but that was both impossible and would have been a disgusting dereliction of duty. She had chosen to take on the job of finding out the director's secrets. She had to do it.
"Okay," she said to Joshua, glaring into his eyes, giving him the same determined face she gave everyone else. The one that deepened the furrows around her mouth. "I'll do it."
"I knew I could count on you."
After that they said good night and she thought that was an odd way to end the transition. Good night was an intimate thing. It was a thing that friends did.
She thought about going back to her room. Most of the other Freelancers were asleep. Instead she gravitated toward Wash's room and found him lying awake, staring at the ceiling, blue eyes flat and bright. When he sat up and reached for her with his lips parted and his eyes questioning she tumbled into the bed and let him turn her over so that his arms were around her shoulders and her back and hips pressed against the wall on the far side of the bed, comfortably confined. He kissed the top of her head quietly but desperately, as if she had been gone a long time.
She whispered, "I know you're watching me."
To his credit he didn't pretend, didn't feed her a line like of course I'm watching you and look her in the eye. He hardly even stiffened.
He said, "Why do you you need to be watched?"
She ran her fingers through his hair and shushed him and he seemed content with that.
The next day, Agent Texas.