Wash didn't hesitate at the edge, although he should have: he didn't look back, although it felt like his four friends in the hanger had multiplied into a thousand staring eyes. He kicked off from the deck and sailed through the force field with a burst of his jetpack, and was suddenly struck by the empty and precarious gulf of space.
In a way, Georgia's fate was a terrible convenience: the scary part about space was not that there was too much to slam into but that there was so much nothing everywhere else. He felt lost, like an animal separated from its pack, but as soon as he crested the ship the little yellow light that was CT's FIF beacon lit up and he became a predator instead. He still yelled, a little yowl of fear as he felt himself tip off of the semblance of balance that he had. There was nothing to fall off of in space either, but he still felt the same dizziness that he had jumping off the building with York and Carolina. For a terrifying moment his hands cupped empty air - less than air, formless vacuum.
And then CT's FIF disappeared again, and with the confirmation that she didn't want to be found he doubled his determination to find her.
The fear still beat at him, turned what he wanted to be a smooth flight over the surface of the Insurrectionist ship into a jerky series of spirals as he turned the jetpack on and off. There was no ground, no flat surface, but somehow he oriented himself and found the flat, iron-gray plane that was the roof of the ship. His boots thunked down on the surface with a familiar clamping sound just as he saw CT's back a few yards away. She touched down in front of him and floated a few steps, kicking up from the metal, then bent to touch the hull.
He said, "CT." The not-name felt clumsy on his lips, but it was the one she wanted, and he would respect that. If she heard derision in his voice too, that was hers to interpret as she wished.
She turned partially around, still bent with one hand on the hull, and stretched out her arm to point a pistol at him without hardly looking at him. "Don't do this."
He felt cold in her sights, frozen, unable to bring his rifle to bear although really he had just as good a shot as she did. Words were more appropriate here. "Why not?"
He nudged a tab with his tongue to switch the radio frequency to the team channel, so that everyone could hear whatever her response was. So that she could maybe offer an explanation to all of them through him.
Her gun wavered slightly, mere centimeters of human error. "Stop it, Wash, because I'll listen to you."
That wasn't useful. (It was headily, deliciously personal - so she did care, so she had, despite however she had tried to prevent it from seeming like this, been leaving him specifically. But it wouldn't relay any information to the team.)
She tipped her head as if listening to something, and the false impression that he was her first priority was broken. She had a whole world besides him, and that disoriented him not out of self-certainty but out of his conviction that he knew so much about her.
But he had known enough to predict her being unpredictable.
His radio crackled and he heard Carolina's voice. She wasn't even out of breath. "Wash, what are you doing? Where's CT?"
"We're on top of the ship," he said, and CT turned her back to tend to the trap door.
Wash shot at her. He intended to miss, and just like he wanted one bullet sent sparks from the hull of the ship and the other flew past her into space. A waste of ammunition, it might fly forever until the edge of the universe.
CT looked up. "You want to know what I'm doing here?"
He lowered the gun.
She paused a moment, and from the slight movement of her chin thought she might either be calling someone on another channel or just bowing her head under the weight of her situation. "I'm going to take something from my backpack," she said, and Wash nodded while he tightened both hands on the gun. She reached back and took something that had been magnetized or shelved inside her armor.
It was a small metal chip, black and silver and green.
"This is information about how the director created Delta," she said slowly.
"What do you mean, created? He brought the AI from the UNSC."
She said, "I'm going to switch to a private channel."
"Why? You're obviously keeping this all from us?"
"That's why. Switch."
She said, "He also created Agent Texas."
"Created - what?" Wash spluttered. "Like, she's his daughter, or something?"
CT gave a soft, dry bitter laugh. "Not exactly. Get out of here, Wash. You don't want to know."
"No, I don't, but I'm not just going to let you leave."
That was his duty. It had never left his mind. He would bring back the traitor.
But her hurt silence hurt him.
"You want to know what I'm doing?" she said.
"Not really - "
"You want me to come back?" She sounded nervous now, like she wasn't quite paying attention. She raised the data chip between two thick brown-armored fingers. He realized that now that she'd told her that questionable fact about Texas he was complicit. She had involved him.
"Yes," he said.
The word didn't have a chance to toll in the vacuum like it did inside his head. CT said, "Catch," and threw the data chip.
It wasn't propelled like a bullet: in the vacuum of space it flew for a second before drifting gently toward him over his head. It would be easy to reach up and catch it. When he did he realized at the same time that he had shifted his gun from its aim at CT's stomach and also that the little piece of metal was moving faster than he had expected: his fingers brushed it and it seemed to bounce away, necessitating a mental curse and an instinctive lifting of the other hand.
He heard a whooshing sound and looked to the side, glancing down at his radar just in time to see a friendly FIF beacon close in on the pair of circles that was him and CT.
Carolina jetted onto the top of the ship, shadows playing over her blue armor, with North, York and South following a moment later. Carolina had her head down like a bull about to charge. Wash fumbled for the data chip again and grabbed at it while CT raised her gun at Carolina.
The number one Freelancer sounded icy. "Both of you, put your guns down. Get back on the team channel. Now!"
"This isn't what it looks like," Wash said, suddenly realizing what it did look like -
CT said, "Let that thing go and change your radio," and as Wash loosened his hands for another grab at the floating chip he heard her comm click.
"It's not what it looks like!" he repeated.
The other three were still at ease but Carolina raised the plasma pistol in her other hand and pointed it at him.
"What were you talking about, Wash?" Carolina said, sounding so certain and in control, and Wash wasn't.
"I...I don't know," he said, which was true. The men behind her looked at him questioningly. Suspiciously?
CT very slowly raised her hands above her head. With her boots magnetically clamped to the ground and all eyes on her palms or the stars, the trap door was barely noticeable. CT said, "Agent Washington and I were just discussing the terms of our defection."
York cursed, and North gave a sigh that sounded tired and somehow disappointed.
"That's not what happened at all!" Wash yelled, his voice cracking, and shut up when Carolina's narrow mask-eyes looked at him.
"For now," she said coldly and questioningly, "We treat it as it is."
"She had some kind of data chip," Wash said. "It floated, over there."
"I wouldn't worry so much about that," said CT. "I'd worry about the alert you're going to get in a few seconds."
North, South, and York visibly jumped. A moment later, 479's voice flooded the team channel. "Guys, get out of there! that piece of junk just released a nuke!"
The ship shivered, and Wash put his arms out to stop from tottering around despite his magboots. CT and Carolina were doing the same. North and York had started to flank Carolina, to surround Wash and CT.
The blue-armored Freelancer looked back and forth between Wash and CT with a pointed stare. "Everyone back to the Pelican! Go!" North, South, andYork lifted off, their jetpacks flaring yellow, but kept their positions. "I mean everyone," Carolina continued, and kept her weapons pointed at CT. "You two, in the front. If you try to escape we'll shoot you. Won't take much to die in vacuum."
They lifted off with CT at the forefront of an irregular arrow pattern: York and North flanking her, with Wash floating to her left with South to his left and Carolina beside him. Wash wanted to move closer to North, to feel some sort of solidarity with his silent friends, but the jetpack controls were precarious even at a distance. Carolina's stare seemed to burn into the back of his head, and the shame crept up on him: he had done something wrong, he had failed to bring CT back, he had lost the data she stole. He was going to, possibly, blow up.
He couldn't be this nervous now. 479 was yelling - "Get inside, now!" and the Pelican bay approaching like a toy in the vastness of space, somehow the only stable thing in the world but so tiny that he was sure to miss it if he tried to fall in. His teammates' jokes resurfaced, swirling around his other fears like milk in coffee and he tried to decelerate, the question bubbling up: What happened to Georgia?
Carolina didn't slow down. She caught him by the elbow and powered along next to him, dragging him into the Pelican just as York and North set down beside a glowering CT. She sat heavily and said nothing. Wash stumbled to a seat and grabbed onto a rung just as Carolina stomped across the floor and the hatch closed, leaving the six of them in harsh bars of gray light from the overheads.
"Everyone okay back there?" 479 yelled. Wash felt the Pelican shake barely imperceptibly as it accelerated.
"Never better!" York replied. "Thanks for asking."
A moment later Wash ducked his head as debris pattered against the ship. The Pelican seemed to tip forward and accelerate.
The Director's voice invaded the team channel, livid and unusually uncontrolled. "What the hell just happened, people? Tell me you accomplished your mission!"
"Negative, sir," said Carolina. "Their leader escaped."
While York and South muttered in the background the Director seemed to regain some composure. "That is most unfortunate. Are all agents encountered for?"
"Yes, sir. Agents CT and Washington have some...explaining to do, sir." It reassured Wash that Carolina didn't sound certain. "They were found trying to get rid of some sensitive information. We believe it's what's been transmitted out lately."
"Do we?" North said quietly.
The Director said, "Bring them back home."
479 whistled, but if anyone was going to talk to her it would have been Carolina, and she didn't. Instead she turned her back to Wash and walked the few feet across the troop bay.
Carolina looked down at CT, touched the top of one of her pistols against the chin of CT's mask. "I was bluffing when I said I'd kill you," Carolina said.
CT kept looking down. "Next time, if it's me with the bigger squad, I won't be."
CT went quietly, although Carolina wasn't gentle in disarming her and prodded her a few times on the way to the brig. York and the twins had stood by the ramp of the Pelican and let Carolina and the prisoners go, escorted by white-armored sim troopers who chatted nervously in whispers that CT couldn't decode.
This hadn't been part of her plan, but part of her was glad to be back. Joshua, uncreatively codenamed Leader by the Freelancers, would be able to retrieve the data chip that had been magnetized to his ship. as long as the nuke hadn't sent debris through his shields. And here CT was, home again in the sterile smell of the Mother of Invention, and all she needed to do was talk to Tex.
She also needed to make sure that she wasn't killed immediately - the Director would do that, since he already had enough things to hide from the UNSC that there was surely a convenient disposable folder of them in the Counselor's hands - and that Wash didn't get too caught up in this.
She hadn't been expecting that, and it flattered her, but she also knew that he had no stake in her mission. If he had wanted to defect with her he would have done it before. She had given him chances. Now, he was on the Director's side even as they were walking to jail. Even as the hallways did feel comfortably familiar.
She glanced aside at him, but didn't want to say anything here. She wouldn't give Carolina and the troopers the satisfaction.
They brought her to a hall she had never seen before: not the bottom deck of the ship but an out of the way place nonetheless, just as black-tiled and light-lit as the parts of the ship where she lived. Six cells, three on either side: the Director, she noticed, did not have the capacity to inter his whole team if he needed to.
"Someone will be in to talk to you later," Carolina said, and gestured equanimously toward two open doors. Wash backed away from her into one, still working under the automatic assumption that he always had that meant he did what he was told.
He spoke up for himself, though. "I'm not a traitor!"
"We'll see." Carolina sounded disappointed in him, and CT thought that she believed him. Carolina had to prod her again to get CT to step into the next cell, but when the door closed CT supposed she should be glad that she hadn't been hurt. She didn't dwell on that. The wall between her and Wash was an impermeable force field instead of a wall: a costly but useful precaution for prisoners in powered armor.
"What's going to happen to us?" Wash asked Carolina.
"I'll try to keep them from hurting you," Carolina said, with a warmth that surprised CT; Carolina was not vicious but she seemed unable to understand how to convey affection. Wash looked relieved.
Carolina and the troops left, and Wash rounded on CT, shouting through the force field. "Why did you do that?"
"Which part?" CT fixed him with a stare.
"Throwing me the chip!"
"I thought you'd catch it." She shrugged. "You wouldn't miss that. You fumbled it because you didn't want the responsibility."
"I wouldn't miss it? I'm not a catching machine. We were in space!"
She stared at him. "You said yourself you didn't want to know what was on that chip. You don't care. I understand that."
"So you intended to set me up."
She hadn't, but it had worked out. "To show you what he's like." She gestured out at the hall, meaning the Director.
"Was it part of your plan to come back?"
"No. But I..." she paused, and felt her brow scrunching up. "We had plans in case I didn't make it to one stage of the collection or another. The data chip magnetized with a certain command. It's stuck on the side of the ship. My contact will get it when he comes out of slipspace."
Wash took a step back and folded his arms. He sighed. "So you really are a traitor."
"I really am trying to help all of you. You don't know what the Director is going to do."
"And you do?"
She heard footsteps down the hall and turned to see a black-armored hulk walking down the hall: Tex, in all her heavy grace.
"You got us into this mess," Wash hissed, and CT wasn't sure whether he hadn't seen Tex or didn't care.
"I got me into this," she replied. "You made it a mess."
Tex approached slowly. CT moved away from the front of the cell, compassionate but unable to not be afraid of her: Beta, Allison, this...woman-thing in the Director's files, his love-borne Frankenstein. CT pitied her.
"This ain't gonna go well for you, kid," said Tex.
"I left something in your locker," CT said. She needed to tell her now or she wouldn't have a chance later. "Take a look at it before you make any promises."
Tex's head tipped, and CT realized she probably thought CT had left a bomb. CT bit her lip, her small mistake in wording letting all her worried feelings gain a foothold.
But Tex just kept looking at her, another tip to the side like a predatory bird trying to keep her in its sights. "I'll see you two around," she said, and walked away.
There was no trial, and that more than anything convinced Wash that the Director was not an upright citizen. "They need to court martial us - I can't believe I'm saying this!"
"Looks like they're not, Wash," CT said as a white-armored trooper tugged her hands together behind her back. They had been in the cells for a few hours. The troops had refused to speak, even as both Wash and CT had questioned them about where they were going next. They had just let the Freelancers out of the cells and began to take them away. CT knew that if they tried to escape they would likely be caught somewhere in the ship.
Maybe when they got to a more familiar deck, though, she could try. She and Wash could work as pilot and gunner in a pinch and get away in a Pelican, although 479 or one of her pilots would catch them if it didn't work perfectly. She wondered how she could convey this plan to Wash as they walked through the upward-sloping hall, then wondered why she was even thinking to include him.
She had meant it when she said that if he told her to stay again she would want to.
But she had been wanting to for a long time.
He wouldn't sway her, but if she could she wanted to save him. The Director was going to implant more AI, and she had seen in his files that they were not all as friendly as Delta. If Wash was implanted with an AI full of rage or deceit it could change him, turn him into something different than what he had been. He was already so full of blind loyalty, and she didn't want to see him turned into a brutish enforcer against his will.
If it was all his will, then...she would be willing to leave him again.
They marched her and Wash into the largest training room, the arena where Tex had trounced York, Maine and Wyoming. The Director was standing there, scowling beside Tex and the Counselor with his hands clasped behind his back, and Wash immediately flinched as if he had been hit. CT looked up, wondering if any of the Freelancers were looking down from the viewing area.
(She considered that it was really the Insurrection, not the Freelancers, who were more likely to send help. Would Joshua have mobilized a force to go after her? He was dedicated enough to do that. If she could coordinate that with her own escape, she and Wash would have a better chance...)
Maybe there was movement behind the thin-striped, bulletproof glass above her, but she couldn't tell who it was before she was pushed forward. The Director just looked at her frostily. She wondered if he was going to mention her crime or his disappointment first.
It was neither. He turned to look at Wash, exposing the side of his head and his bright eyes behind the ever-present sunglasses. "I expected better of you."
The comment hit CT harder than she had expected. She didn't want his respect, but if he had wanted to start off by conveying how livid and dismissive he was toward her, he was he had done it right.
Wash immediately raised his hands up, almost shaking. "It's not what it looks like, sir. I tried to tell Carolina. I'm not on her side." He glanced at CT. "I mean, I'm not working on whatever she's working on!"
The Director said, "Hmm."
"Why don't you explain this the way you saw it?" The counselor asked.
"I, I followed her when I saw that she left. I was going to bring her back."
CT realized then that she could help him: if she denied Wash's involvement with the Insurrection but not her own the Director may or may not believe him. But did she want him to be safe? She wanted him with her.
Did she want that enough to get him in this much trouble?
"He didn't know where I was going," CT spoke up. "He just got lucky."
"Lucky?" Wash's voice squeaked. "I just followed you!"
"Your crimes are evident, Agent Connecticut!" The Director shouted, and the sim troopers shifted around in fear. CT tried not to.
She looked down, and she must have looked defiant, because the counselor clarified. "We have been tracking your transmissions for some time. Agent Washington was one of our first...helpers in identifying you."
"It looks like the accomplice may have gotten too close to the source," said the Director.
A door opened, and everyone's heads turned to see Tex walk in, with her long, dramatic stride carrying her quickly across the floor. She was carrying a rifle in her arms and a pistol at her hip.
The Director stared at her for a long moment, then switched back to CT with no less an intensity in his stare. "Agent Connecticut," he said.
"I know what you're about," she replied. "You're using us."
CT thought frantically, wondering what she could say or who was listening. Would it even bother the Director to hear that she knew what Tex was? He had lived with it this long, but maybe the hurt was just under the surface.
"I know," he replied. "And that is exactly why you won't be surviving this. Texas."
Tex stepped to the Director's side and raised her rifle. "Step against the wall, Connecticut. Face whichever way you'd like."
A flare of fear rocked CT. It wasn't supposed to go like this. There had to be an option. Something she could say. Would Allison's name break him? It wouldn't matter to the Counselor. The sim troopers were all around her, but maybe she could take them out. If she attacked the Director first the others would become confused, but Tex would shoot her before CT got to him with her hands -
Tex shouted, "Step back!"
Wash started to speak, but a moment later he paused, rallied and started again. "Sir, I never intended to work against you. But dealing with CT like this without trial is...it's unconstitutional!"
The Director shook his head. "Be glad that your sentence has not yet been written, Agent Washington."
"What's going to happen to him?" CT said.
"That does not concern you."
And it didn't really, but still she had the horrible image of the empty mouth of Tex's gun pointing at Wash too. A burst of fear wormed into CT's throat and her situation seemed to fall on her, more real than anything else had ever been. She looked at Wash. "I didn't mean for it to end up like this."
He said, "I know," and for a moment she was disgusted that he would believe that without any proof.
Texas raised her gun and CT prepared to make her last living move an attempt to punch the Director in the face.
Glass behind her shattered. Tex looked up, CT lunged forward, and her punch actually landed, cracking through the Director's sunglasses. She fell to the floor on top of him, and a moment later felt a shove like the air being pushed out of her as Tex's foot caught her in the gut and threw her to the side. In a blur she saw the Counselor running backwards. Wash was backing up too, now reaching down a hand to pull her up - and the arena was filled with a blur of blue, because it had been Carolina who jumped down from above.
The Director and Counselor were cowering, the Director speaking something that CT didn't bother to hear in the cacophony of footsteps and shouts. She pushed herself to her feet, catching Wash's hand as he pulled her up but breaking apart from him again as soon as she started running. Carolina and Tex faced off, bouncing on the balls of their feet like boxers. CT had not heard any gunshots - not yet. A moment later York thudded onto the floor next to her and stood up, groaning. He immediately turned to Tex. "Hey there."
"You two," Carolina's voice snapped, and CT looked at her. "Come with me."
Wash barreled toward her. CT followed only when she saw them heading toward the entrance. A few shots hit the walls and Carolina slowed down as soon as she hit the hallway.
"Why are you doing this?" Wash said.
"Because you're my team," Carolina said, and stopped so fast that CT stumbled past her. "Get out of here while you can."
"What'll they do to you?" Wash said.
"Less than they'd have done to you," Carolina said.
CT ran a few more steps and paused. "Thanks." She waved Wash forward. "Let's go!"
He was yelling in her ear about clearance and safety tests, checklists and 479, but she knew where the security cameras were and headed for the hall to the hanger that had the least of them.
"We can't just run away!" Wash yelled.
"I can. He was going to kill me."
"I can't make a decision this fast!"
"I think you just did." They had passed a camera. "I told you I'd stay if you asked me to," she said. "Would you return the favor?"
"I, CT, I - "
"Would you stay with me?"
CT started to hear footsteps and voices behind her just as they reached the hanger. The huge room looked open and dangerous.
A Pelican had just come in, its drives glowing blue as it sat in a painted square. Possibly, agents were being recalled to deal with the chaos on the Mother of Invention, and CT barreled up the ramp to find the pilot in the troop bay. CT clotheslined him. There was someone else in the pilot seat, but she fled over the back of the seat and tripped her way past Wash, grabbing her woozy companion on the way out.
"Can you fly?" CT yelled.
"I, I've read the manuals!"
"Good enough. I can shoot."
"Okay." He sounded more confident than she had expected.
It almost wasn't good enough. The ship coughed and screamed before Wash, yowling and gritting his teeth, got it through the force field. Red alarms were popping up all over the screen as CT watched the much simpler blue lines of her gunner's console mirror the hanger behind them, and she hoped that they indicated the unlicensed departure rather than mechanical failure.
He said, "Remember how I was tracking your transmissions?"
She let the silence get accusatory before she said, "I remember."
"Well, this signal has a very familiar code on it."
A red dot appeared on her tracking screen, and she spun the simulation around to point her gun and her field of vision at the other ship heading their way. It was an unmarked Pelican.
"Take the call," she said.
He did. The voice on the other side of the signal didn't belong to the Insurrectionist in charge, but was a woman whose voice CT recognized. She had lurked behind a few of CT's conversations with Joshua. "Hello."
"Who is this?"
"This is, uh, I'm with CT."
Before the silence on the other end grew too long, CT leaned down, her shoulders straining, and shouted into the comm. "I'm here. It's me."
"Okay," said the woman. "We're coming to pick you up."
"They'll be sending ships out after us."
"I don't know why he wants to do this," she muttered. "But I'm here to escort you."
"He? Who's he?" Wash said in a rush.
The voice on the comm continued. "The Staff of Charon's coming out of slipspace right in front of us in a minute. Keep your eyes open until then."
The radio clicked. CT watched the other Pelican move into formation with hers.
Wash slumped back against the seat. "What just happened? What did we just do?
"I smuggled you out," she said, and smiled down at him.
"Did you plan this?"
"No. But I like it better than it would have turned out otherwise." She felt suddenly very tired, and pillowed her head on her hands on the console.
"Your people aren't going to like me!"
"They're not my people. They're the people who can help us. I'll explain to you what was on that chip."
"I...does it matter? We just deserted. We're runaways!"
She looked down at the yellow-striped crown of his head, then heavily lifted herself out of her seat and descended the stairs to the pilot's seat. "What was on that ship was proof that the Director isn't part of the UNSC at all. He's using it to further his own experimentation. He's doing unlawful experimentation on the AI like Delta." There was more, but this was the part Wash would concern himself about. She could imagine his blue eyes widening behind his visor. "Soon, Tex will know that too."
"Yeah. I'll explain it all."
The other Pelican approached, then turned around to lead them away. Radar signals of other ships started appearing far behind them, and a larger red blip ahead which was surely an Insurrectionist ship equipped for slipspace.
He said, "I trust you."
You don't trust, she thought. You follow. but you're following me now.
And both of them, who had the common sensibility that trust should be either in writing or proven in some definite way such as stealing a spaceship together, used that connection and felt a little stronger.
Behind them, the Director began to send out ships. CT thought the Pelican should be able to reach the Staff of Charon before they caught up, especially if the Charon gave them some supporting fire. CT suspected that 479 wouldn't be among the pilots. Carolina, if she had broken away from the fight with Tex long enough, would talk her or order her out of it.
The Charon's bay loomed as laserfire started to lance out from the Mother of Invention. CT tried to talk herself out of worrying about the MAC canon while Wash gunned it, starting to curse under his breath.
The bay closed around them as the space behind them filled up with laserfire, and CT breathed a sigh of relief.
A moment later all of her fears came back: what she would do now, how she would move against the Director, what Wash would do.
She would manage. Just like she had done before.
And maybe, one day, she would go back for Carolina and the others.