He knew there was something wrong with the Sabre as soon as he saw the broken side of the moon. The ship's walls shook, little shivers like a nervous person, and the engine ramped up and down in frenzied, finitely cycling coughs. The man put his hands on one button after another, trying to calm the systems needing calming. They kept bucking and howling. The broken moon sat in front of him close enough that if he raised his armored fist he could have just covered it. He could see black craters and grey regolith. It had not been part of his plan, to dally this close.
He shouldn't have come out here - he could see his teammate's face as she told him that a few minutes before he left, curt and angry. And he had thought that she was petty, that she was jealous. She may have been both of those things and right. He wasn't on company dollar, out here. He was doing no work that would be recorded as such, although the engine was working hard and struggling, and his heart was starting to beat in his throat and his ears as he wondered whether the drives or the life support were about to go first.
At least if he got to the moon and through the debris field left by its breaking he would have some ground to stand on - he would, metaphorically and literally, have arrived somewhere.
He just needed to hang on from here, just needed to sit out the engine trouble until he could land, and do what he had come here to do and...what then?
Wait for the engine to fail again?
He wouldn't have to ride that fear back to the ship though. It was just a little worm of fear and sadness in the larger mass of it that had engulfed him over the last few days. He shut down one engine and cruised, hoping to cut off the power to whatever system was growling. He just needed to land here.
A chunk of the small moon, almost a quarter of its total area, had been sheared away in a cosmically recent collision. There were people inhabiting the planet below, but he did not know nearly anything about them or their wars. He had chosen the broken moon because no one would look for him here. The debris field around it was navigable, the chunks of rock big and far apart. He had not expected a challenge.
An armored finger flicked over one button. The engine went quieter. Something behind him ticked, so close that it sounded like it was inside his borrowed helmet. The cargo shouldn't be moving.
What if I die here?
He was a man who had been raised in a place rural enough that spaceships still filled him with awe, but he had no knowledge of mechanical things to fall back on. He was sweating now, and it was hard to do that in armor - his body was working harder now to dispel fear than the unfamiliar suit was in keeping him alive. He twitched a control stick a tiny bit, angling down for a landing he wasn't sure he would make.
Something hit the ship from the back. A terrible jolt set him rocking forward and the control stick slamming. He thought for a moment that another ship had hit him - it felt like being rear-ended.
He accelerated as more debris smacked against the canopy.
The surface of the moon loomed, and before he could heave the stick back the Sabre had nearly reached it. The moon had only a small amount of gravity to push him forward, enough that the ship should skip lightly over the regolith when it landed, but what should have been a gentle nudge of the ship's nose into the asteroid was in fact happening at speeds the man had trouble comprehending.
He looked around for an an attacker, wondering with a jolt whether his enemies had found him. They had been so close a few days ago. But nothing showed on the radar; the screen was gray-black and clean.
A sound exploded out of the right side of the ship, and then a rip opened up, spilling white insulation and starting a frenzy of escaping air. Another chunk of rocky debris ripped into the ship and tumbled away after the first. The man was panicked now- having prepared for the landing all ready it felt like there was nothing else he could do. He flicked his eyes around the delicate menus and indicators inside his mask, and narrowed his eyes at the first emergency light that glowed red. Distress beacon. Blink. Another menu, this one unfamiliar. Names and numbers. The ship shook, pieces starting to float around, and he blinked again, determined to do something else to help himself before he landed.
Even taking a look at the space between himself and the broken moon calmed him. The ship could not clamp down on itself, but his life support in the suit had always been running. He had air, even as it was keeping him sweating and gasping. What would happen to the cargo? He had to be sure that nothing would
Another small rock clunked against his viewscreen, and he realized that these smaller pieces of debris might have been what had damaged the engines in the first place.
He kept the landing sequence going.
The Sabre's nose dug into the regolith and jolted. Something else hit him, and as the ship bucked again and almost turned to face back the way he had came he saw another rock, stately and slow, bearing down on him like a cruise liner coming into shore. He didn't know whether his controls hadn't alerted him to it - maybe they had and he hadn't understood. He was looking through an unfamiliar mask after all, these small eyes with the HUD information displayed on the blackness to the side like a much older technology. The armor had so many functions he didn't understand yet, and he had not flown a Sabre many times, and he had been foolish to do this, just like she said.
His frustration saved him. Instead of trying to raise the ship and compounding the problems with the engine, he cut the power. The smaller piece of debris slid by overhead, bumping him into the ground. Something in the Sabre coughed again, protesting even its shut down. The bottom of the craft was pressed against the surface of the moon, dust that had been dislodged from the ship's pointed nose digging into the rock already beginning to drift away and disappear, first foggy white motes against the blackness of space, and then nothing. The shipmetal creaked, and he looked around, panting. A red light blinked in the closer blackness at the edge of his field of vision. Alert, alert.
The red light was making no sound - his voice was the loudest noise now that the engine had shut down. It seemed like it should make some sound, but instead he could hear everything else. The engine ticked as it cooled down. The cargo ticked as it cooled down, and the man turned around, straining his elbow to reach, to scratch at the slack arm of the body in the navigator's seat.
"It's all right," he said. "It'll be all right."
"Where is she?"
"Where is she?"
"She's dead." That was South screaming it because Carolina wouldn't. Carolina just looked at him with pity in her eyes and Washington wanted to fall, wanted to slump against the side of the hallway until he fell into the Pelican and into tomorrow and into all those days that were just down-distances to fall into now, but he couldn't. He stood up straight instead, and breathed deep, and let the tears coat his cheeks until there were more tears than skin.
Carolina told him that Texas did it, and he knew that that could have been a victory for her: it could have been Carolina's last straw, the final cincture of her belief that Tex was awful and deserved to be fought, but Wash saw none of that in Carolina's eyes, no matter how unblinkingly he looked.
Instead of finding hatred there, he found it inside himself:
Connie lied. Connie stole. Connie died in someone else's arms.
Wash recognized that he was actively trying to remember all the reasons why he was better off without her.
He went to the range and shot until the holographic bullseye-flash bored him. Then he unfolded Bowie knives from cloth-lined cases. Wash threw until ideas of angle of blade and angle of wrist surrounded him like bandages, dulling the wound.
When his teammates and friends tried to help him he told them, in a voice stern enough to turn them away, that he was all right. Not a soul believed him.
He packed the days after the mission, usually a period of light work and R&R, with regiments and self-appointed challenges and dares.
Sometimes he would share the training floor late into the night with Carolina. She did not ask about his demons, and he admired hers.
His HUD pinged in a daytime session, three days after. Sweat rolled down from his hairline under his helmet and tickled his ear as he couched the butt of a sniper rifle under his arm and aimed the unfamiliar weapon. Unlocked by North, the 99D-S2 was refreshingly weighty and difficult. His target was a holographic oval the glaring green color of cartoon sludge.
A radio channel opened, the numbers identifying its frequency flashing red just under his right eye. He tongued the receiver without thinking about it. The Director could be calling for a debriefing or Carolina for a sudden launch. Which it was did not matter to Wash. He would face both with stoic distraction.
The voice was unfamiliar - brash, male, unremarkable, without any broad accent. "Please help."
Wash froze, the sniper rifle not wavering. "Who is this?"
Static. "I've been stranded. Please, help me."
"Who is this?" He thought of calling the names of the people most likely to prank him - York, North - but did not speak them. If it wasn't them, he did not want to give away their code names. If it was...they should have known better than to call him.
The voice said, "I'm a security officer for the Charon Corporation. I was dispatched to this stupid moon on a humane mission when my ship was hit by some kind of freaking debris."
Charon. That name sounded familiar. The Freelancers had captured ordinance from a Charon base, at least once. Wash blinked, shifting his fingers on the trigger.
The Insurrectionists had been posing as security officers.
Wash swallowed. "Are you alone?"
"Uh. Yeah. Why does that matter? Get me out of here!"
"Just wait," Wash said flatly. "We'll send someone for you."
"Oh thank God."
Carolina had set Wash's helmet on the table in front of the Director in the war room. Occasionally, the Charon man's tinny voice would eek out as the recording played back. Wash had already told him that there would be a rescue on the way. He had told him that he was a scavenger in a ship full of scavengers, snooping among the rocks for precious metals.
The Director had confirmed that the voice was the Leader's and told Carolina to organize a team to retrieve him.
"Do it fast. We'll have him in the brig in an hour." The Director sounded certain and satisfied.
Then Carolina had taken over, because they didn't have much time, and the idea that Wash was about to be ordered to capture the Leader replaced the denial and grief that had settled around him over the last few days. He had a chance for revenge now.
"I won't be going with you," Carolina said.
Wash tipped his head and didn't have to ask why: she continued, "I'm scheduled for surgery this afternoon."
York, too, needed only to move in order for Carolina to address him.
"York, Maine, and Wash," she said. "You'll go out to that moon with 479. Find what the Leader is doing out there and bring him back."
Wash liked the quickness of her assignment, the twin gleam in her and the Director's eyes. Make it quick. He could do that.
"You want us keep this guy back alive?" York said casually, glancing between them.
"Preferably," the Director said.
Wash was about to leave when Carolina stopped him. She hooked one hand under the helmet on the table and gestured it at him, and only then did he realize that it was his and he had been about to leave bare-headed. Carolina took off her mask, but the expression on the yellow visor was nearly the same as the one in her eyes as her eyebrows drew together in hesitant, shielded concern.
"I realize that he called you on CT's emergency channel," she said.
"She, ah, she had me in her favorites." He knew exactly the sequence the Leader must have done to activate the emergency hail. He and CT set it up themselves, back when she was Connie.
Carolina said, "But he doesn't know who he was talking to."
"No. I wasn't going to give him that advantage."
Those words gave him away: something in Wash's voice had gone hard and vicious and Carolina saw that now and, for a few seconds, reconsidered the team she decided to send. York was a people person but not a negotiator, and Maine and Wash could both get single-minded when there was something in front of them that they'd been told to kill.
But Carolina had already comforted Wash, and she wasn't going to do it again. "Do you want to go on this mission?"
"Then go. Get it done. And be careful."
479 chatted with her usual loose enthusiasm on the short flight. The Mother of Invention had practically nestled up to the orbit of the damaged moon, after being sure that no Insurrectionist ships were stationed around it or its planet: to both Wash's and 479's surprise there were not.
"What did this guy do, huh, get himself stranded on reconnaissance? There's nothing freaking out here," the pilot drawled.
Wash lurched to the navigator's station, finding his feet on the stairs as he gripped the back of the seat where Carolina usually stayed. "He got separated from his squad somehow."
"Well, too bad for him."
"Yes," Wash said.
Texas killed Connie, and he knew that that could have been a victory for all of them: one enemy defeated, one mole ousted. Wash had trouble hating Texas because she was authority, she was an arm of the Director, she made the rules, and she had not given Wash permission to hate her.
He could hate the Leader though. After all, the Insurrection were the bad guys. They had lied. They had stolen. Connie died in this man's arms.
The Leader was wary when the Freelancers arrived. The Pelican was unmarked, but Wash thought the Leader had been wise to sit with his gun in hand inside the crumpled cockpit of the Sabre. Grey soil and broken rock kicked up by the ship's passing masked the Freelancers as they moved, Wash Maine York, single file. The gravity was low enough that single steps turned into wide, arcing jumps.
"We're gonna have a lot of kickback here," York said. "Be careful."
The Sabre was a wreck. One wing was crumpled, making an avalanche of metal parts that rose up to the fractured body. The canopy seals had not broken, but there was a furrow in the glass where it had been struck, and the occupant had opened the front canopy as soon as the Pelican had landed. He was wearing CT's armor. Wash recognized the color and the triangular faceplate. The Leader filled the suit out differently though, the black bodysuit underneath still conforming to different proportions: thicker sides, shorter hands.
The Leader had propped his gun up on the edge of the ship as soon as the Pelican landed, probably thinking that his rescuers might actually have been pirates, and then he recognized them.
"Wait you're - "
Wash rushed forward.
The Leader cursed and raised his gun in shaking hands. Wash took the first shot on his armor, his shield dialing down by a fraction of a percent. Then he barreled into the side of the Sabre, clawed at the door and lifted himself up off the ground. The Leader reeled back, realizing that three hundred pounds of Freelancer was about to drop on him. Wash, shoved forward by the light gravity and the force of his jump, smacked the Leader's trigger hand aside with the barrel of his own gun.
CT's armor was compromised in two places: the brown metal cracked and the black suit hastily stapled together on the left shoulder, and a gray patch of what looked like worn-out Kevlar on the right side, just below the armor covering the ribs. The old material wouldn't hold up against a point-blank shot with a DMR.
So Wash shot him there.
York flinched. He didn't say anything, not quite - but Wash could hear York's breath, the sound of his flinch, shushing toward him in the helmet mic snugged up against his ear.
"He can still walk," Wash snarled, and then he punched the Leader with a left cross and across again. The third time he felt something crack, and wasn't sure whether it was the Leader's nose or Wash's knuckles.
Wash spun in the low gravity, and momentarily flailed his arms to grab ahold of the ship.
"That was you on the comm!" The Leader reached out, hooked his arm around Wash's head and pulled down, crushing Wash's arms against the side of the Sabre. Proximity just further drove home the fact that the man was wearing CT's armor: Wash could see scratches that he knew, scars whose stories he remembered.
"Hey, stop it, kid," York was saying. "You're gonna hurt yourself."
"We were told to bring him in," Wash said, struggling. "That's...what..I'm...doing..."
The Leader writhed around, trying to hold himself down as much as he was trying to keep a grip on Wash, and pushed his elbow up under Wash's neck, exposing his throat. The man's other hand, Wash knew, held a gun.
Then he felt himself lifted, and a different pain around his neck as Maine bodily hauled him out of the cockpit. Wash lashed out and kicked the Leader hard enough to snap the broken second compartment open.
When Maine let go of him, Wash practically bounced to the ground. From this distance he could see Maine menacing the leader, and the rest of the ship stretched out beside them.
A black-clad arm fell out of the Sabre's rear seat, a baggy body following behind it.
The clothes were too big for the body, leaving accordion folds all across the legs and shoulders. The slack face was Connie's though, her hair falling across the broken rocks churned up by the Sabre.
Wash charged forward.
"The distress call was real," the Leader said. "I wanted to bury her in real ground. Some crappy luck meant that you got the distress call -"
Wash grabbed the Leader by the shoulders again and dragged him out of the ship. The other man used what momentum he had and jumped for it, colliding with Wash's shoulder in an effort to escape. He almost bounced off of Maine, then turned and aimed a punch at Wash that skipped like a stone off of the gray chest armor. Maine stood there like an executioner, while York resorted to, "Wash, man, don't panic."
Maine wrenched the Leader's gun out of his hand, leaving this person who dared to wear CT's skin to stand in the middle of the circle of them, swaying like a drunken bar-brawler. The Leader lunged for Wash and Wash caught him, just held for a moment until he reared back and punched the man again. The Leader blocked once, a few times: his armor was good but he didn't have the same training as a Freelancer, and just as it was about to become a fight with some back-and-forth to it Wash snapped out a kick that doubled the Leader over.
The recoil of it drove Wash back. Both of them floated. But Wash had gotten the hang of the low gravity now, knew exactly what it did to his balance. Instead of trying to clamp his feet to the ground he kicked off without ever having landed.
He slammed into the leader, driving them both to the ground in a slow roll. He held that helmet - his fingers in familiar grooves. The leader raised his hands to try to shield his head, grunting and swaying to try to get away. Wash held.
He hit until he blinded himself with adrenaline, and still hadn't gotten through the man's helmet -
CT's helmet -
One more strike for her too, since she had died on him.
York pulled him back.
Maine fireman's carried the Leader, pinning his arms and legs, almost gently removing CT's helmet so that he didn't use it to call anyone else.
Wash, tense and only now feeling the chafe of his gloves against his fists, stepped back. Stepped once toward the body lying curved over the side of the Sabre.
"Do you want to get her or should I?" York said quietly, right next to him.
"I'll - " said Wash, and stepped forward, but as soon as he did nausea came over him and he knew that he would feel the shape of her body in his arms every night for months - knew that to touch anything would be to touch her. "Maybe you should do it," he croaked, and didn't speak for the rest of the trip home.
Maine kept one hand on the Leader's arm and the other on the trigger of the gun pointed at his ear. With Wash on the other side, they marched.
For the trip back to the Mother of Invention, the Leader sat surrounded by the living and the dead in the blood bay. They found CT a body bag, and Wash swung up into the navigator's seat so that he didn't have to look at her so close and so gray, and wonder what had gone on in that head that had caused her to leave them.
Techs gathered up CT's body when the team arrived at the Mother of Invention. Wash tried to follow it to the double doors where it was being taken and 479 stopped him. "Don't do that to yourself. And besides, word is it's classified."
Wash kept going, dogging the whiteshirts until the doors closed on him.
In the war room the team stood before the Director and saluted. Wash was shaking with adrenaline and wrathful disgust. He would be implanted soon: after, he would not stop shivering, imperceptibly or erratically, for years.
The Leader was brought to a room containing four computer monitors and a chair. A blue holographic form appeared in front of him: a person in miniature with lowering light.
"Hey man, you've come a long way," said a voice, warm and conversational. The Leader blinked.
"Is this good cop and - "
The Director emerged from behind him, pulled the Leader's head forward to reveal the small silver FIF tag at the back of his neck, and jabbed a syringe into the captive's throat. The last thing the Leader saw was another dark-clothed black man holding a bundle of wires.
"We cannot have this happen again," the Director said.
The Leader thought he was being addressed and tried to raise his head, but the weight was too much and when he tried to speak he hissed instead, air just barely pushing past his teeth.
"Make a note of that, counselor," the Director said. "SOS calls should be routed through a central operator in the future."
The second man said, "Yes sir."
The counselor secured one clamp to the Leader's FIF tag and another to a small hard drive. Between that link and CT's helmet they had enough data not to need to wake the Leader up before they killed him.