(the scenery from a car seat)
She wasn’t born in Connecticut, although she was born in a small state with a long name and sometimes went to Connecticut for vacations. It had rocky beaches and wild, rocky wooded hills and, she remembered, was a cold that her mother insisted on calling ‘nippy’. One thing her state and that state had in common was that their names were too big for them on maps of the country. She would, during long car trips when she had nothing to read, look with some pity on the abbreviated ‘CT’ and ‘RI’.
After the naming, some Freelancers who weren’t from the States went around asking where theirs were. It was in between explaining that she didn’t actually know where Missouri was located that she settled on calling herself Connie. It sounded shorter, and friendlier-traits which she tended to identify with herself.
They had all done basic and weapons and combat experience years ago; the training now was based on their individual speciality. Connie’s speciality would be reconnoissance; physical or digital information-gathering. She passed the heavy hitters on the range on her way back from a session of sitting at semi-sentient computers.
There was glass between her and them, bouncing back squares of white light so that she saw Maine, York, Washington, and Carolina through flattened diamonds.
New York had gotten his nickname without having to tell anyone about it. He seemed the sort of person nicknames came naturally to. He wore them well, breaking them in like new shoes that would be comfortable afterward. He was neither too quiet nor too brash, a winning combination out at the far end of the bell curve.
He waved at Connie with a knife between his fingers, looking at her oh-so-briefly before Carolina called “Eyes up front!” and threw.
They started knowing names well within days. Connie liked to say hello when she passed people in the halls. “Hey South. Hey North.”
South smiled. North waved. “Hey dude.”
The first battle was against simulation troopers, of course.
“They couldn’t exactly ship aliens in, could they?” Connie said as she sat in the shaking ship with her hands on her armored knees.
Across the crowded troop bay, Maine said, “Now that would be fun.” Connie could hear the smile in his voice.
She flipped the first guy over with one hand dug into his collar and the other pulling his pistol out of its holster. His feet flew to the level of her head: she clamped both hands onto the pistol, unlocked, and fired. Maine was lurching across the room with five troopers around him, firing between long, dodging steps. Connie shouted, “Channel 17, they’re trying to block our signal.”
She heard crackling in her radio as Maine switched through channels. Connie worked closer to the wall as troopers flew by, propelled by the band of Freelancers backing her and Maine up. He was the tank, she was the slicer.
The computer panel on the side of the wall flickered with the three-sided symbol she knew so well as she slammed her hands against it. Lines of code emerged at her command. This was tricky, though. This wasn’t the radio command console, just one of the feeds connected to it and dozens of other systems. It was one vein, not the brain.
A trooper skidded to a stop behind her, flattening his hand on the wall. Part of his white armor was burnt black. He gasped a few times, straightening slowly. “I’m not getting paid enough for this…”
He saw Connie, turned, and pulled out a grenade. She could picture his eyes flicking back and forth under the mask, wondering how many Freelancers he could take out and how much space he could clear if he threw it at her right now.
She shot him and ducked. The bolt caught him in the chest. He fell against the wall and the grenade exploded, vaporizing the computer and the trooper. The radio crackled again. Smoke engulfed Connie.
Her helmet kept afterimages from messing with her eyes. She could see the slightly curved readouts on the inside of her faceplate quite clearly. This had been a vein, but it had been a main one. The command center had lost communication with the radio tower, and the jamming signal stopped as they realized they could no longer control it. She said, “The jamming signal has been disrupted, at least for now.”
Maine said, “Moving in.”
The smoke cleared. Connie shook her head and loped out into the hallway to join the trailing Freelancers as they moved further into the base. Somebody patted her on the shoulder. “Nice.”
They had scant time to talk during meals, so evenings were the time when the teams would get together and chat. Connie was stretching in the girls’ barrack, lying along the floor in a t-shirt and shorts, when she saw South and Carolina switch their looks toward the door as fast as if they’d been attacked.
A woman stomped by in black armor, heavy shoulders hunched.
The footsteps faded.
“Who’s that?” Connie tentatively asked.
Carolina said, “That’s Texas.”
Texas had been, until recently, a big empty spot on the map of names.
That’s when the Director instated the board.
Carolina took an instant dislike to Texas. Even at meals they would glare at each other, heads lowered as if to show they weren’t any less tough without the masks. Connie would look back and forth between them and wonder when the fight was going to happen.
It didn’t, though, and once Connie came around a corner to find them happily discussing tactics and numbers and gesturing like like were going to hit each other-
She stood there for a moment, her helmet under her arm and her hair ticking at her eyebrows.
Then, she would admit, Connie ran away.
Because Connie was good, but she wasn’t lucky. And when she didn’t get lucky she got angry, and one missed step turned into one spilled cart and one Freelancer down for the count, by accident, and one alarm going off, and said formerly invisible Freelancer giving Connie this look over the shoulder like you did this-
And it’s harder to forget the missed step than the look, because Carolina was back to calling her “girl” a day later, and that was normal.
But every once in a while, Connie remembered.
It was the middle of the night and she didn’t think anyone was watching, but somebody was listening.
Arizona came over and sat on the side of Connie’s bed and pulled the blankets up to her shoulders.
Connie said, “I feel like I’m in boot again.”
Arizona said, “Try to get to sleep.”
Connie sniffled. “That’s really nice.”
“I worry about you sometimes.”
“Well thanks, mom.”
“If you knew how it felt to get messed up a little in boot then you know you’ll start thinking about other stuff as soon as you wake up. ‘Night, Connie.” She stood up.
(watching over you)
Connie wanted to be on the top of the board the same way she’d wanted to be in the army when she was a kid. Only the top Freelancers were displayed, and so only they existed. Only they got their names spoken in that Director drawl. He debriefed everyone, but he cared about the top.
“Hey, Connie. A bunch of us are doing workouts and drinks tonight, in that order not at the same time, if you wanna join.”
South talked fast.
Connie said, “If you think no one’ll mind…”
“Why would anyone mind? Honestly?” South raised an eyebrow.
She did patrols-that-turned-into-just-plain-walks with York and Wash, and filled Mother of Invention hallways with footsteps. Both of the men were logical in different ways: York’s voice was always even, giving him an air of perpetual control. He thought in bits and numbers. Wash was quieter, but the things he said were pointed.
Connie bumbled along and tried to keep her back as straight as they did and say things that were relevant.
Then of course someone would come along and stomp on her equations.
“There’s poker going on on level three.”
Connie thought, Well, that wasn’t relevant but it sure made them happy anyway.
Maine stomped off, and she looked at York and Wash. Windows behind them reflected faces and armor.
Connie said, “So, are ya gonna go?”
Wash said, “Maybe. What do you think?”
York said, “Sure. Let’s check it out.”
The mess was filled with Freelancers eating and relaxing, dressed in t-shirts and exercise pants and snatches of armor. Connie, Wash, and York coming straight from patrol meant that they were the only ones in full armor and masks. Either they would appear more more prepared than everyone else or just more stiff. Connie wasn’t sure. Carolina was leaning across a table in a t-shirt, her armored legs stretched out along the bench, a hand of cards fanned out in her fist.
(ideals and truth)
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this. They’re all so much more capable.”
It was after the card game, all of them sleepy and heading back to the barracks.
Wash looked down at her. “You’ll do fine.”
Her first helmet got busted up on a mission, but the second one was more specialized any way. She looked into the small, yellow eyes before she put it on. It looked different from everybody else’s, and maybe that was good.
It was her face now.
(drawing a boundary line)
Every day she would go look at the board, and wash her face for a moment in that blue light. But everyone did that.
Soon enough, there was a board on every level.
The top six established themselves and stayed that way pretty quickly. There was some fluctuation. York rose up through the ranks fast, after a particular mission involving some lock-picking. He was better than Connie at getting to places people didn’t want him to be.
(scent of blood)
And then there was the last mission (it wasn’t her last, really, but it was the last one that mattered. the one where she should have known and had known and had gone on anyway. But all of that was just one big excuse.)
She had failed.
(before we know each other)
“You’ve always been hard on yourself, Connie.”
“What do you want, Agent Washington.”
CT had to get the full name out, letting all the rocky syllables flow over her tongue like Connecticut streams, because it was more formal that way. More distant. She was done with him. She walked on, trying to get nearer the skin of the ship.
He said, “You need your helmet back.”
He held it out and she snatched it back, fingers catching on the rectangular cheek plates.
He said, “I’m sorry.”
“Stop patronizing me. I’m going to be fine. It’s the rest of you who are just going to…keep competing, and…”
She ran out of words.
“What do you need?”
His voice was very thin and quiet, sometimes. She noticed it around the edges. He said, “What do you need?”
CT said, “I don’t, I can,” and he hugged her. It was a sort of awkward hug around the shoulders that filled up her vision with gray curve of forearm armor.
She said, “No. I don’t need this.”
She said, “I don’t need…”
And then it was like a war: nobody could have told who started it. She turned and there was a scrabbling sort of embrace of palms and armor plates and her hands at his chest and his hands at her hair like he’d been waiting to brush the strands away from her eyes for a while, and it didn’t matter any more what she didn’t need.
He eased his arms around her waist. She stretched up across his chest to find the rubbery material of the neck armor, then the cold, slick underside of his helmet. He leaned into her as she found the catch at his jaw, working to unclip the unfamiliar angle of the latch. The seals released with a gentle hiss, and she guided the mask off with her hands at its ears. She held it between them, propping it against his chest so that she could touch her nails and the edges of her fingertips against the jaw vents, the reflective surface, the stubby black nose. His hand caught hers and splayed them both against the yellow stripe along the crown.
She leaned down to press her lips against the forehead of the mask.
He said, “Well, that’s not what I expected.”
She looked up and saw his face for the first time: brown hair, dark stubble, brilliant eyes.
She pushed up on her toes and kissed his face desperately, almost angrily, like she was searching for another trigger.
At breakfast, they didn’t talk about the kiss. Ignoring it was, like the kiss itself, simply the logical next step.
“You will be individually examined for enlistment into the experimental A.I. program. It is needless to say that those with the highest scores will be considered first.”
They all looked up at the Director in the same blue light. He was calling from somewhere else and sounded, at the end of the speech, unusually hurried.
CT went through pretty much a standard physical, and then a brain scan, and then they looked at clipboards for quite a while.
And then she was ushered out.
This was, for a few hours, exactly what happened to everyone else.
Then the names got called.
(things one cannot understand)
There were Freelancers who were chosen and those who were not, and no one said that they had to stand away from each other for a while.
Then it was fun for a bit. York and Delta got along like brothers and bounced repartee off each other. The training went on, the war went on, she heard that the aliens had made a big ring structure somewhere and, maybe, it was a weapon.
(before falling asleep)
“So what’s it like?” CT was lying in bed with the blankets drawn up around her neck, looking at the other bunks across the room. Carolina was sitting on her bed with her blanket drawn like a cloak. Texas was just getting up from a set of push-ups.
Carolina said, “It’s cold. But the rest, you can see. They talk to you too.”
CT said, “Right.”
Texas said, “I feel pretty much the same.”
Someone in the darkness laughed, and Tex’s gaze was on them in a second.
The someone stayed silent.
And then Carolina and Tex got into that fight over the dinner table, and Omega and the other two AI just sat there and watched, and then Omega started laughing.
CT spent an endless wait in the med ward with Wash while he curled in on himself, hunched and tossing, growling into the bedsprings.
“Allison, Allison stop it, make them,” and then just screaming, burying his face in the bed so she could just see his hair and how much it had grayed. The nurses didn’t come in yet. Maybe they were used to things like this. CT looked up and around for some kind of help. For some kind of superman to come flying out of the sky.
She looked down at him and said, “What do you want?”
She couldn’t stop recycling condolences.
Because she didn’t have one (it was always said like that, like maybe the AI were diseases or passports but certainly not people), she was let go.
Then, for a while, she went back to a normal, government-funded life. She lived like a veteran at the age of twenty-nine. But she missed the camaraderie and the purpose.
She looked in the mirror.
“Who are you, CT?”
She put the helmet on.
She changed her voice on the day that she became a lowercase-f freelancer. A mercenary, really, and that’s a rough job. There were a lot of men in the bar where they were recruiting and she switched the voice modifier on as a last-minute decision. She didn’t need to be a woman now. She didn’t need to be Connie or CT or anything, really; she just needed to be a gun.
It turned out later that she was a better leader than a lot of them, because she knew how to work in a team instead of just paying a team.
The voice modifier wasn’t a special enhancement; CT, after all, didn’t have one. It came standard. Any other Freelancer would know the voice.
Luckily, she never saw any.
(“I don’t want to realize”)
People didn’t really treat her any different because they thought she was a man. They didn’t treat her special, either, and that was nice.
CT liked the desert. It was quiet and sane in its messy, sandy way. And, comparing herself to the struggling twigs of plant life, she could feel like she’d really grown up.
The first time she killed civilians was in the takeover of the desert temple. There were humans and aliens, and they were sitting on something that was important.
(words in the chaos)
As her team was cleaning up (that meaning going around and making sure the bodies were actually bodies and not slightly alive people), CT retreated into the big sandcrawler. It was quiet up there. She could, maybe, wipe the blood off her hands, if only on the controls as she started looking for more destruction.
One of her team shouted up to her. “What’re you doing up there?”
CT looked over her shoulder. “Reconnoitering!”
“In there? Why don’t you drive it?”
“Because it drives slower than you walk.”
She was getting better at making it sound like she knew what she was doing. It was, after all, all about perception.
There was a member of the original team left, but she only got to hit him once before he locked himself inside the temple and started haunting it with all the other ghosts. Sometimes, he shouted about his son. She was pretty sure he was making it up.
Working with the aliens took some getting used to. Johannes knew some of their language, and taught it to her despite not quite knowing how to pronounce his own name. They were both smarter than she thought. The aliens sniffed around and hunched and most of what they said was completely untranslatable, but all they needed to know how to say, really, was “dig”. They just scratched with those big shovely hands and reclaimed their own from the dirt.
She sat on top of the temple and wished she could feel the sun against her skin and the wind moving her hair, but she had to keep the helmet on.
“You’ll do fine.”
The aliens were quite friendly. When she asked Smith to pass her parts of the machinery she was overseeing, he did it. His troops patroled around the base, and after a while the spiky shapes on the horizon started to feel reassuring.
Then of course the motion was made to put in the mine field, because there were definitely strange things happening on the graphs and dials that brought them here in the first place. Something in the temple was shrugging its way to life.
Knowing the aliens it might just have been Johannes putting his iPod on shuffle, but at least it was something to do.
She didn’t get close to her team: she didn’t really want to. She tried to avoid knowing where they came from, because she tended to have this inevitable flinch response involving states. Mostly they were just in it for the money, for themselves or their families, and that worked for her. Johannes asked her if CT was a nickname, and she said it was and ended the conversation there.
She knew that the invaders were simulation troopers as soon as they showed up, although she wasn’t sure why Blues and Reds were working together, and she hadn’t expected them to be so stupid. (At least, she thought that one was red: his armor was sortof yellowy-orangey.)
One of them growled, “Is north left?” and part of CT’s brain said no, of course he isn’t, and another, healthier part of her brain just shouted because the troopers were, clearly, and with no gray areas, morons.
And then came the haranguing and the corralling and the I can’t believe I have to babysit these people, grrr, so when one of them said “yes mom”, it almost went over her head. Then she had to consciously not stop and react.
She had forgotten she was in disguise.
(pain & wounds)
The primary objective had always been to protect the temple. People needed to be kept out, doors needed to be opened at the proper times, that one surviving soldier needed to stop getting into the pantry.
So when the fighting started and everyone was milling around, CT felt herself focus. There didn’t have to be so many people and so many elements. There could be just one.
Kill the bad guys.
“And out of the darkness came…”
Except then the aliens turned on them, and CT had to get out of there fast while Johannes still had a smoking hole in his chest. Technology, she thought, that’s all that started this, and scrabbled through the sand.
It hurt, sure, to see those big forms that had been so friendly suddenly turned on her. It was like she’d purposely forgotten what those guns could do, and the fact that this was a race that based its logic around one great man coming to kill all the ones the gods hadn’t chosen.
She recognized the relic. It looked pretty much like it had before, except they hadn’t known before what it was for.
Now, it seemed to be for floating and glowing and talking in this accent that indicated its owner came from the land of the perpetually annoyed.
“You’ll do fine.”
(skillful & clumsy)
There were vehicles and rockets everywhere. The last time she’d been in a fight this big, she had killed the original dig team. The time before that, she had come home to a scoreboard.
The Warthog flipped over and she levered herself up on aching arms. Her first thought was a slew of curses that she gifted to the airwaves at large.
Her second thought was, well, that was definitely not my fault.
(if I die)
“And out of the darkness…”
The lurker-revealed-as-a Blue soldier backed up. His boots caught on the cracked edge of the temple. They were high up and she was staying out of sword range, and her finger pulled at the trigger.
And then that artifact, of all things, showed up, and there was a lot of red light and a ripping feeling and a lot of blood.