Chapter 1: Prologue
Just going to go ahead and start posting this. *sighs* I’m working on chapter 6 and I’ve already got 2 other public in-progress stories, so I may as well add one more!
After the hijacked transmission from the Reds and Blues vanished, Chairman Malcolm Hargrove took a moment to center himself, drawing on the dull background roar of the Staff of Charon . He would not let himself be rattled by this sudden change in development. He’d come too far and invested too much to fail now. In the end, Project Freelancer’s surviving rabble would only be a minor inconvenience.
“F.I.L.S.S.?” he inquired in a controlled voice as he stepped away from the console, clasping his hands behind his back.
“Yes, Chairman?” responded the dull voice of the former Project Freelancer asset. It had taken a considerable amount of time to make the suitable … adjustments ... to the program’s personality matrix to suppress those pesky personal opinions.
“Please clear my schedule for the rest of the day.”
“Yes, Chairman,” F.I.L.S.S. replied.
“Could you verify that Locus’ delivery was sent to the trophy room?” the chairman asked as he began to pace.
“The crate from the shipwreck was unloaded and delivered this morning, sir. “ Behind him, a terminal lit up, displaying details concerning the Meta armor’s new location.
“Wonderful. I could use a bit of good news today.” Pausing mid stride, Hargrove turned once more. “I do believe Felix and Locus may not prove up to the task at hand,” he mused out loud. “Certainly they’ve shown themselves incapable of dealing with a single band of idiots pretending to be soldiers. I will not allow their incompetence to impede the acquisition of the planet’s resources. F.I.L.S.S.,” he ordered, “prepare a recording. It seems time to make some additional arrangements.”
In another part of the galaxy, a green and blue armored alien hissed quietly to itself as it watched the communique from the human Malcolm Hargrove. After years of unsuccessful negotiation, the human was finally begging for its help. It would at last be able to complete it’s quest.
Pausing only to send a single word back (Yes), the alien turned and hurried to another part of its ship. It had long known this day would come and preparations were already underway. With dexterous claws, the alien energized the waiting machines.
It would take some time to activate its assets but there were still tasks to complete. While the units prepared, it would review the information Hargrove had sent about the planet the humans had named Chorus and determine where it would most likely find the tools and key it needed
The human colonists would be no match for weapons built and left behind by its long forgotten ancestors. What’s more, the soldiers the humans had found to fight for them would be no match for the units the alien had chosen to aid it in its quest. No, the alien knew these soldiers and had spent several years devising the perfect counter as it surveyed their every move.
The alien laughed, a soft, grating honk honk noise. After years of frustration, it would finally have its revenge.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
The original opening to season 13 is too beautiful not ignore.
As the sun crept higher over the horizon, the streets of Armonia came alive. New Republic and Federal Army soldiers glared at each other from opposite sides of the street as they hurried about their business. Shifts changed hands and fresh patrols started their rounds, watching warily for any sign of their foe.
Grumbling under his breath, Grif stalked down the sidewalk. Breakfast had been lackluster like usual and the company terrible. North and Wash had vanished before dawn to set up for a new day of training, leaving him to eat with the Reds and Blues. Also missing from breakfast had been Carolina … and Church. With the A.I. refusing to answer the radio, Grif was stuck searching Armonia for him on foot.
“Captain Grif! Captain!”
Letting out a muffled groan of aggravation, Grif turned. This was one annoyance he couldn’t get away from.
Matthews came running up to him before skidding to a stop, hands going to he knees as he bent over panting. “Sorry, sir,” the soldier gasped. “I wanted to say thank you again for everything you and the other Reds and Blues did for us at the Radio Jammer!”
“Thirty-seven. That’s the thirty-seventh time you’ve said Thank you , Matthews,” Grif explained through gritted teeth. “It’s getting old. You can move on.”
“Oh.” Matthews straightened, fidgeting slightly. “I-- huh, that’s more than I…” Giving himself a small shake, he pressed on. “Um, could you tell Agent North thank you for me? I didn’t see him in the mess hall this morning. Man, I think we’d all would be dead if he hadn’t been with us during the battle with the Feds!”
Grif sighed. “Sure. I’m sure he’ll be ... thrilled to hear it. For the forty-third time.”
“I also wanted to say thank you for saving me last week. During that supply run? That shrapnel would have torn me apart if you hadn’t pushed me out of the way!”
Another sigh. “Eleven fucking times.”
Matthews seemed to stare for a long moment. “Gosh, you sure like counting things. Should-- should I be counting more stuff? I don’t even know what I would--”
“Matthews!” Why didn’t he ever stop? Grif wondered. “Have you seen Carolina?”
“Agent Carolina? No, sir, sorry. Oh, wait, actually, I think I heard she was in the armory earlier.”
“Great, thanks. Why don’t you go patrol somewhere? Far away from here?” Grif suggested as he slowly backed away.
“I’ll do that, sir!” Matthews replied, head rotating slowly as he watched Grif move away.
“Christ, he needs to move on,” Grif muttered to himself. Frickin’ teenagers. Glancing at the nearby street signs, he took a moment to reorient himself and changed course to head for the armory.
It was a sign of the Reds usual efficiency that there was already a line forming outside the heavily secured building. Sarge had wasted no time in taking ownership of their meager supply of offensive weaponry and his possessiveness was proving to be quite effective in keeping the soldiers of Chorus disarmed outside their regular duties.
Unsurprisingly, Simmons had taken it upon himself to organize and track all the United Armies of Chorus’s assets. He babbled obsessively about his spreadsheets at the slightest opportunity and Grif knew if they didn’t find something else for the maroon soldier to do soon, he’d scrap it and start all over again. (And make the others help him rearrange all the shelves. Again.)
Donut was having a harder time finding the proper hole to fill (and wouldn’t goddamned shut up about it or stop describing it that way). He bounced from Armory duty to helping Wash and North with training to running missions or helping out in the mess hall -- just on and on and on. In between duties, he loitered around the armory offering fashion advice to whoever made the mistake of lingering nearby.
Red Team dickery, however, wasn’t the issue at hand. Finding Church was.
Elbowing his way through the line of soldiers hoping to check out a weapon, Grif pushed his way to the entrance where he found Simmons staring down a Federal soldier, datapad and stylus in hand.
“Every time you check out a weapon, you use on average 250 more rounds than anyone else,” Simmons was saying. The weight of his disapproval was palpable in the air. “Your accuracy rating isn’t below standard so I’m having trouble understanding why you’re wasting so much ammunition. You’re going to have to explain this discrepancy before I approve issuing you another weapon.”
“Holy fuck, Simmons, are you actually keeping track of individual bullets?” Grif demanded after a moment of stunned disbelief.
“Someone has to,” the maroon soldier retorted, casting him a brief look. “Which is also how I know you’ve been dodging training for almost a month! You haven’t even fired a single training round since we got here!”
“Yeah, because I’m not training with all of you.” With a sigh, Grif jerked his head at the soldier. “Just go around, I’ll keep the scary spreadsheet monster at bay.”
“Th- thank you, sir,” the Fed stammered, hesitating briefly before darting around Simmons.
“Hey!” Spinning on his heel, Simmons swiped at the soldier, only to overextend and stumble.
Rolling his eyes, Grif shifted slightly, shifting just enough to prevent the other soldier from falling straight to the ground. Loosing his hold on his rifle, Grif grabbed his arm and hauled Simmons back upright.
“We need to find you a hobby. Or a girl. Or both.”
“Sh-shut up,” Simmons snapped. Shaking Grif’s hand off, he cleared his throat and resumed his spot at the armory entrance. “This is important. We only have so much ammo. We need to be careful with it.”
“Which is why I’m not using any.” Grif grinned under his helmet. “See? I’m doing you a favor.”
“What about the fight we were in last week?” Simmons demanded. “The one where you got injured?”
“I was busy being a badass, Simmons. Rescuing dumbass soldiers takes a lot of focus. Besides, I got hit with shrapnel, not a bullet.” The snide comment was automatic, the constant bickering with Simmons an easy habit. Which was good since his shoulder still ached from the Warthog fragments that had gotten past his armor. North had been on edge since he’d gotten out of Medical, fussing over the wound every night as he cleaned the wound and changed the bandages. “I also seem to recall that you got hit in the arm during that same fight.”
“Yeah, in my cybernetic arm. That’s a lot easier to fix than organic parts.” Sighing softly, Simmons glanced over at the line of Chorus soldiers watching their bickering with great interest. Some of them had moved out of place to get a better view. “Seriously, though, you’re supposed to be resting. What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for Church,” Grif replied tersely. “Asshole won’t answer the radio.”
“Oh. Huh.” Pausing to think, Simmons responded: “I think Carolina mentioned she had a meeting with Kimball and Doyle when she stopped by earlier to get the numbers on our weapons supply. I’m pretty sure Church was with her.”
“Right.” Turning to leave, Grif paused suddenly and looked back over his shoulder. “Loosen up a bit, Simmons. There’s more to life than spreadsheets.”
“Says you!” Simmons called back as Grif took off again. Shaking his head, the maroon soldier pinned the next soldier in line with a scathing look. “Name and number,” he barked.
Leaving the other Red to torture the soldiers of Chorus, Grif hurried towards the headquarters, shoulder twinging the entire time.
The past month had been challenging, to say the least. The two armies were barely getting along, supplies were starting to run low, and the mercenaries of Charon Industry were merciless in their attacks despite their dwindling numbers. The Reds and Blues were alternating which team went out on missions with their Chorus allies. They didn’t deserve the outright worship so many of the soldiers treated them with but there was no denying how bad it would be if all they were all wiped out at once. And so, back and forth they went. One week, the Reds were providing cover on a supply run as they raided a New Republic cache, then a few days later, the Blues went on the offensive against a mercenary nest.
They’d all gotten hit at some point. Fortunately for them, the shrapnel Grif had been hit with was the worst the Reds and Blues had dealt with so far. Unfortunately, the soldiers under their command weren’t always so lucky.
Grif hated it, more than he had when he and the others had been initially recruited by the New Republic. None of the Reds or Blues had any business being in command. But no one in charge was listening to him.
Everything since the Radio Jammer was just bigger and more complicated, better and worse all at the same time. It wasn’t just the Reds and Blues trailing behind whatever Freelancer had brought them the latest drama. This was a real war with real consequences and few stolen moments of happiness.
It was a relief to have the whole team back together and being stationed in an actual city meant there were actually options for downtime. No more watching Resevoir Dogs for the hundredth time with Tucker or grudgingly acting out Donut’s latest production. But the lingering threat of death, the deadly enemy targeting them -- there was no escape. Doom lurked around every corner.
Fortunately for Grif and his depressed inner monolog, it didn’t take long to travel to HQ from the armory, even on foot. While Armonia itself was a fairly large city, the armies had consolidated everything within a concentrated area of a few square miles. The outlying regions of the city were either staged to funnel an attacking force to a few specific areas or hadn’t been cleared yet of the threats years of urban combat had left behind. In addition, heavy artillery units ringed the fortified inner sanctum, ready to shoot down attacking aircraft. They didn’t have a ton of ammo for these emplacements but they should be able to handle anything roughly the size of a Pelican dropship. Anything larger than that-- well, at that point, they had bigger problems, didn’t they?
After making his way through security, Grif stalked through the battle-worn halls until he reached the main conference room. Despite the heavy blast doors, the shouting match going on inside came through loud and clear.
Rather than get pulled into what sounded like a fight about housing arrangements, Grif pulled up his messaging system:
DG: hey, need to talk to Church. asshole’s ducking my calls
A few moments later, Carolina’s reply appeared:
CA: What’s this about?
DG: STUFF. just send him out, k? i’m outside and would rather not get pulled into this drama
There was a long delay before Carolina responded.
CA: Make it quick.
A now-familiar tickle ran through Grif’s brain as the A.I. jumped into his implants. He promptly slipped further down the hallway until he found a small alcove that would provide a small amount of privacy.
Alright, what’s so important that you’ve been trying to hassle me all morning? Church demanded in a grumpy voice. We’re not all on medical leave, you know. Some of us have actual work to do.
Shut up, Grif snarled back. I finished that stupid report thing you asked for. If you tell me you don’t want it anymore-- I swear to God--
Whoa, whoa, hold up. No need to get angry. Sounding defensive, Church hurried to continue. You mean you actually wrote it? Jesus, I asked you about that weeks ago. I figured you’d given up or decide not to do it.
You didn’t exactly give me a lot to work with, Grif snapped. All you said was ‘Just write a report about everything.’ I mean, what the hell?
A soft sigh echoed through Grif’s mind. The busy hum of Church’s presence seemed to shift and Grif pictured him shuffling metaphorical feet. Look, I just-- I didn’t want to hem you in. You’ve got a mind for intel work, Grif. You pick up on a lot of stuff everyone else misses. I figured if I told you to only write about a few things… I dunno, I figured letting you go wild would work better.
Embarrassment flooded him and Grif felt Church squirm in discomfort at the sudden shift of emotion. He couldn’t help it, though. Kai was the only person who’d ever really… North had said more than once he thought Grif had a knack for ‘Big Picture Thinking’ but…
Whatever, Grif thought back, determinedly pushing through the gooey, stomach-turning discomfort. Do you want it or not?
Yeah, definitely! Church replied. Just show me where it is and I’ll take a look. I don’t think Carolina will have time to read it for a while but--
Don’t you DARE show her .
Bad enough Church was going to read his-- his nonsense. The last thing he needed was Carolina to see it. He could just imagine her patronizing voice asking him what he thought he was doing, telling him he should leave this sort of work to the professionals.
God, you’re touchy. There was another sigh. Look, I’ll take your name off of it and only show her the stuff I think is useful, okay?
I guess… Grif suddenly wished Church would just change his mind about the whole thing. Yeah, it would suck to have worked for so long and have it all for nothing but-- the idea of anyone else seeing it-- he hadn’t even shown North. God, he didn’t even want to think what Simmons might say. The idea was laughable: Grif, an intelligence analyst. He’d never hear the end of it.
Grudgingly, Grif mentally pointed Church to the file stored in his armor’s hard drive and the A.I. was quick to make a copy.
Cool. I’ll get back to you on this. I better go, though, pretty sure Kimball was about to break Doyle’s helmet on her knee or something.
Mentally shaking his head at Grif’s rapidfire change of mood, Church used Grif’s radio to ping Carolina and hooked himself onto the burst, shooting back to the teal armored Freelancer.
What was that all about? she asked as he settled back in.
Eh, Grif’s a drama queen sometimes, was all Church said in reply. So, I miss anything good?
More of the same. You can log off if you like. This meeting’s basically over. There was a fair amount of resignation floating through Carolina’s mind. While some matters had been accomplished, the two generals were still struggling to remain civil.
Right, well, let me know if you need anything.
With that parting remark, Church logged off, closing out his external sensors and blocking off most of the input from Carolina. Now enclosed in the digital world, Church pulled up Grif’s report. The echoes of Delta and Theta flickered into view, peering around him at the text.
“The formatting is quite unconventional,” Delta noted before he’d even started reading.
“Yeah, well, I doubt Grif’s read a lot of intel reports. This is just how it made sense to him to present everything.” A rare grin suddenly crossed Church’s face as he read the first line. Reaching down, he pressed a glowing blue hand over Theta’s visor. “This may not be for you, little guy,” he teased.
“What is it? I want to see!” Theta insisted, squirming under Church’s hand. “Epsilon, let me see!”
“The second word is a curse word,” Church chuckled. “And people say I swear a lot. Ah man. Hate Fuck Buddies! I’m gonna be thinking that every time Felix and Locus come up from now on.”
As Church began to process the report, the different topics, questions, and suggestions spread across the thousands of words sent of sparks of new thoughts and ideas running through his mind. Gleefully, he made a mental note to find Grif some literature on the philosophy of war. If this was the kind of work he could produce without any kind of training, he’d be a nightmare for the enemy with some practice and theory under his belt.
“The suggestion to run a statistical analysis of the conflicts between the New Republic and Federal Army is excellent,” Delta noted, the fragment echo following along with the rapid processing of data. “Finding a pattern in where and when the pirates interfered in the conflict could provide a great deal of insight into their operational capabilities and resources.”
“No kidding. Grif is dead on that Simmons would pop a huge boner digging into that.” Another section caught Church’s attention. “Holy shit, is he actually suggesting we might be able to run a psy-op on Locus ?”
“Well, sort of,” Theta noted. Several of the bullet points lit up with a pink glow. “Felix forces Locus to change a lot their plans midstream and it really bugs him. I don’t know how but it might be possible to manipulate that until Locus is fed up with him and does, uh, something.”
“We lack sufficient data to be confident how Locus would react following a successful psychological operation,” Delta declared. “We will need more data on his past actions and behaviors to successfully design such a plan.”
“Oh, I like this idea!” The previous bullet points exploded in a shower of fireworks, reforming into a starry outline of Carolina wearing an ornate crown. Theta clapped his hands excitedly. “I know Grif called it an ‘Out There’ solution but I think Carolina being made Empress would be a really good way to bring the people of Chorus together. She’d look so pretty!”
“Or make life a living hell for everyone. That’s-- that’s really an either-or situation.” Running through the report one more time, Church shook his head in amused exasperation. “Grif somehow manages to be both a massive fucking idiot and a goddamned genius,” he declared.
“Are you going to show any of this to Carolina like you told Grif?”
“You’re damn right I am. I mean, he even has, like three pages just about the civilian population and concerns there. Hospitals, drug dealers, policing, education-- No one else is talking about them as anything but potential cannon fodder. Every word in here is gold.”
“This report is lacking in detail or supporting evidence in many areas,” Delta cautioned.
“Yeah, that’s that whole ‘lack of formal intelligence training’ thing. But the situation here isn’t so complex that we need a fucking thesis or something with fifty pages of citations. Most of this we already know. Grif’s just put a new frame on it all.” Church folded his arms and grinned. “And with practice, I bet he can do even better. If we pull Simmons in like he suggested to start running numbers, we’ve got the foundation of a pretty fucking good analyst program.”
A small hand tugged at his elbow. “Don’t forget to take his name off,” Theta reminded him. “You promised. Carolina or some of the others knowing he wrote this would really upset him.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” With a heavy sigh, Church reached out and wiped away the Creator information in the file header. “There. All done.”
“And if Carolina asks who wrote this report?” Delta asked.
“Well, I’m not going to lie to her, now am I? Nah, I’ll just let her read it first. That’ll help minimize any bias. Anyways, any last thoughts?”
“It would likely be beneficial for Grif to write a second report once Simmons has done the statistical analyses mentioned throughout this report,” Delta suggested.
“But you’ll have to be careful. Simmons picks on him sometimes. It’s not nice,” Theta added.
“Yeah, yeah, fragile egos all around.” Church sighed then closed down the report. “All right. Time to present this to Her Majesty.”
The A.I.’s thoughts flashed like lightning as he logged back on. The outside world snapped back into focus, a heady swirl of sound, pressure, scent, temperature, sight, and more.
Hey, C, Church greeted the Freelancer, peeking through her senses with interest as she left headquarters. If you’ve got some time, I’ve got something to show you.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
As the different trainee teams struggled through the obstacle course ringing the training field, Wash scowled beneath the concealment of his helmet. “Captain Caboose is lapping you for the second time and he isn’t even breathing hard!” he shouted at the closest group.
Caboose simply waved as he bounded ahead of the worn-out cadets, laughing and whispering happily to himself as he tore his way through the course, effortlessly climbing and jumping and crawling through the different challenges.
A scream of mass panic erupted as the steel-and-yellow armored Freelancer suddenly leapt behind the nearest team and gave chase, sending them stampeding for the pile of empty barrels that was their next challenge.
“You can do it, guys!” Caboose yelled, turning around to face the now-sprinting group, power-walking backwards while clapping his hands like a spectator at a sports event. “Once you finish the course, we’ll go get ice cream!”
“There’s no ice cream, Caboose!”
“We will not get ice cream! And it will be awesome!”
As the group started the strenuous climb up the constantly rolling barrels, Washington slowed to a jog before coming to a complete halt in from of Kimball and Doyle as they stood at the edge of the field. “Generals,” he greeted them with a small tip of his head.
“Ah, Agent Washington,” Doyle responded, sounding impressed. “You do not rest, not at all, do you?”
“We don’t have the luxury of time,” Washington responded in a terse voice. He studied them for a moment, arms crossed over his chest. “I have to admit, I’m surprised to see you both here,” he finally said.
“I-- we thought it might be beneficial to do an inspection of the training grounds together,” Kimball replied, pausing to cast a glance at Doyle. “This is the first day units from both armies have been out at the same time.”
“Oh, oh yes, indeed,” Doyle added, head tilting towards her slightly. “I had considered the idea, of course, but I thought it might be better if the troops had a bit more time to settle in before the brass showed up. General Kimball, however, thought otherwise and well, it is important that we present a united front. And so, here we are. Do tell me, how are things going? No, ah, incidents like that one a few days ago, I’m hoping?”
“You mean when several Federal soldiers attacked one of mine?” Kimball growled.
“I hardly think cutting someone’s hair qualifies as an attack,” Doyle protested. “They were certainly out of line and have been dealt with quite severely but I’m not sure I agree that their actions warrant being called an attack.”
“As long as nothing like that happens again,” Washington interrupted sharply, head swiveling between the two Generals, “we actually stand a chance at getting your armies to work together. Charon Industries has made it clear they’re not going let up. The only way we’re going to beat them is for everyone to stop fighting each other.”
“Agent Washington, let me assure you, we are doing our best. But as diabolical as Locus and Felix’s machinations were, the foundation of the conflict between the Federal Army and the New Republic is very real.” Sighing softly, Doyle looked past Washington to the training field, watching quietly as his soldiers tumbled down the side of the barrels. Then, in a soft, regret filled voice, he added “I fear that our conflict may prove too deep a divide to overcome.”
“Right now, our soldiers are fighting against Charon Industries while watching the other side, waiting for an attack. They’re not fighting for anything,” Kimball added with frustration. “I just don’t know what it’s going to take to bring them together. Hell, Doyle and I can barely function. How can we ask our soldiers to do what we can’t?”
“I fear we are all waiting for some sort of sign, something that will bring us together for something beyond mere survival,” Doyle added in a moment of brief accord.
The moment, however, was short-lived. A sudden howl of frustration and rage ripped through the training grounds, causing everyone to freeze in their tracks.
In the center of the field, North had been leading a mix of Federal and Republic soldiers through basic hand-to-hand exercises with only marginal success. No one from either faction had been willing to pair up with someone from the other side and every stumble or failure was being met with scorn and derision. On top of all that, North’s decisive actions during the Battle of Armonia on behalf of the New Republic left many of the Federal soldiers leery or outright hostile towards the tall Freelancer. The only happy person the group was Kaikaina Grif, who’d tagged along to both learn and help North demonstrate the different exercises.
The young woman tore at her armor as she cursed in every language she knew. “I’ve had it!” she yelled, yanking hard at one of the latches. “I’m not putting up with this bullshit any more!”
On the edge of the field, Washington took off without a word, tearing across the field towards her.
“What’s wrong?” North demanded, eyes wide under his helmet he watched the yellow breastplate go flying. “Are you having a malfunction? Take your helmet off!”
“It’s not-- Argh!” Snarling, Kai paused long enough to toss her helmet on the ground at her feet. Her long braid uncoiled and started to swing at her back. “This is all Sarge’s fault. That stupid old man said he was just upgrading everything! He fucking shrunk it or something!”
“What’s going on?” Wash demanded as he ran up.
“My boobs won’t stay in the right place!”
Confused silence hung in the air. “Wait, what?”
“My boobs! Ugh. ” Casting a harsh glare at Wash, Kai started to undo the seals of her body suit. “Sarge said he was just going to upgrade my armor and make it better. But ever since I got it back, my boobs don’t stay in the right place. And if they’re not in the right place, they get all squished and compressed. It fucking hurts!”
“I-- I know everyone experiences some discomfo-- what are you doing?!”
Kai had unsealed her suit from throat to navel and had a hand groping inside the heavy Kevlar-infused mesh. At Wash’s sudden shrill demand, she huffed and rolled her eyes. Pulling her hand free, she turned to face Wash and took hold of her chest, squeezing her breasts together. A faint whimper rolled through the field.
“Look at these,” Kai snarled. “Just look at them!” Her hands bounced. As did her chest. There was another mass whimper. “These are not A-cup titties, Washington. These aren’t even fucking D-cup. Squeezing these into armor already sucked. And now Sarge has fucked up my armor and they. Don’t. Fit. Without. Pinching.” She bounced her chest in time with her final words as emphasis. The gap in her suit widened, exposing more of her dark honey-brown skin and her simple gray sports bra. “Are you looking? Do you have some other bright ideas about how to fix this, cop? ”
“I- I-- I’m--” Wash could only stutter in response.
“Kaikaina, why don’t you go pay Sarge another visit?” North suggested, taking pity on the other Freelancer. He laid a friendly hand on her shoulder, unable to keep his obvious merriment at Wash’s broken response out of his voice.
“He’s the one who messed my armor up in the first place!”
“I’m sure if you explain the problem he can fix it,” North countered. “We’re almost done with this exercise, so you won’t be missing any training.”
“Fine.” With that final huff, Kai stopped jiggling her chest and stuck her hand back in her suit, the outline of her hand visible through the black mesh as she adjusted where each breast was sitting.
Once everything was where she wanted it, Kai scooped up her helmet. Her chest heaved as she reached up and back, gathering up her long braid to coil it back on top of her head. After her helmet was back on, North helpfully offered her her breastplate. When the yellow armored soldier finally stalked off the training field, a sea of heads tracked her progress.
North turned to Wash once Kai was out of sight. “Need a moment?” he asked, voice saccharine sweet.
“Maybe a glass of cold water,” North suggested. “You look a little stiff.”
“I swear to God I will hit you.”
Far across the field, Doyle glanced over at Kimball. “Goodness,” he said in a nonplussed voice. “I will confess, that isn’t quiet what I had in mind but still. There is no disputing the results.”
“What are you talking about?” Kimball demanded, utterly bewildered.
“Unity.” Doyle tilted his head towards one of the nearby group of soldiers.
The cluster was embroiled in a loud argument, a few soldiers yelling heatedly at the others. And as Kimball turned to watch them, she saw it.
The mess of bodies was a mix of New Republic and Federal cadets, two smaller units that had accidentally merged during the chaos unfolding in the center of the field. At a glance, the scene was identical to others seen throughout the city,
But unlike any past fights, the line of dispute wasn’t drawn between factions.
This time, it was drawn primarily between genders.
Several females soldiers, clad in a mix of white and tan armor, were yelling at the men for staring, for demanding and sharing photos of the recent drama, and for the spate of crude comments that had followed. The men, meanwhile, were huddled in a mess of defensive confusion, some yelling back at the women while others whispered together.
Turning in a slow circle, Kimball realized this scene was playing out across the field in a myriad number of various. Some soldiers were upset at Kaikaina Grif, others upset on her behalf. There was a small cluster forming in one corner of the field that seemed utterly bewildered at the drama while others almost seemed to be falling into a state of worshipful devotion. And everywhere she looked, the ideological conflict between the Federal Army and the New Republic was momentarily set aside to focus on the matter at hand.
“What exactly are you thinking?” Kimball demanded with a fair amount of suspicion. “Because if it’s getting that young woman to repeat that little show-”
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” Doye interrupted, hands raised briefly in protest. “That would be completely inappropriate. For a number of reasons. Her actions, however, do point to another possible solution to our, ah, personnel problem.”
In the center of the field, Washington and North stopped bickering and started circulating, slowing returning order to the field. As the Chorus forces returned to training, the air was brighter, more relaxed than before.
“The Reds and Blues. Two groups that once fought each other but slowly started cooperating, drawn together in the face of a common threat,” Doyle said softly. “What’s more, two groups that found shared interests, formed new bonds that crossed the original dividing line. I dare say we’ve been over thinking how to bring some semblance of unity to our forces. As they say, there’s no reason to go reinvent the wheel when we can simply borrow one .”
“Split the armies,” Kimball realized. “Instead of having Federal and Republic armies, you’re saying we should divide them into Red and Blue armies . Get our soldiers invested in an already existing dynamic.”
“We would have to ensure there were soldiers from both sides in each group,” Doyle continued, nodding thoughtfully. “And we would no doubt need to rework the formal command structure to prevent confusion.”
“Keep Medical and support staff neutral.” Snorting, Kimball shook her head and added, “We both color code our medical teams purple. A mix of red and blue.”
“As though it was meant to be.”
The two generals stared at each other. For a long moment, Kimball set aside the way Doyle’s posh Polyphonese City accent made her want to punch his teeth in. The Federal leader, meanwhile, pushed away his ceaseless irritation at Kimball’s classic Astinata aggression.
“The idea is utter madness,” Doyle finally stated.
“But it just might work,” Kimball finished.
“So, today’s been weird,” Grif announced as he and North escaped into the privacy of their room. The door locked neatly behind them and their weapons quickly tucked into the modified gun rack fixed to the wall of the small closet.
“How so?” North asked as he started to unlatch his armor. The overhead light buzzed faintly as he began pulling off the different pieces, securing them one by one in the storage crate sitting next to the wall on his side of the bed.
“For most of today, I haven’t been able to get a single soldier to talk to me. Every time I would walk up, they ran away. This morning, I couldn’t go ten feet without someone falling all over themselves to say Thank You. But starting right around lunch time? All I ever see are people’s backs.” Shaking his head, Grif started taking off his own armor, mindful of his sore shoulder. “On some level, this feels like the kind of thing I should be enjoying. All this excess gratitude has been getting seriously annoying. But instead, it moved into the creepy zone pretty damn quick.”
North nodded slowly as Grif spoke, an amused look appearing on his face. “I take it you didn’t hear about what happened on the training grounds this morning?” he inquired as he dropped the last piece of armor into the crate and moved on to to the body suit.
Freezing in place, Grif was slow to reply. “No, I didn’t. What happened?”
“Well, let’s just say that word’s gotten around how protective you are of your sister.” North grinned and pulled the bodysuit off, tossing the black mesh on top of the crate.
“Oh god. What did she do?” Grif groaned, hands moving once more. “Does this have anything to do with how Wash was trying to keep at least two of the guys between us at all times during dinner?”
“Kai’s been having some issues with her armor,” North explained in a bland voice as he pulled on a loose pair of cloth pants and a shirt. “She finally got fed up with it this morning and ripped off the offending piece in the middle of the training field.”
“What piece?” Grif asked, dread creeping over him cloud filled with rain.
“It was her chestplate.”
“Of course it was.” Groaning softly, Grif squeezed his eyes closed. He could almost see how the scene must have played out. “She stripped in the middle of the training field, didn’t she?”
“Not completely. She did open her bodysuit to make… adjustments. And when Wash came to see what was going on, she may have taken a minute to go into a lot of detail about what the issue was. With visual aides.”
“So the soldiers are running because…”
“Because she was surrounded by teenagers with helmet cams and no impulse control.” Finally changed, North skirted the bed and knelt down next to Grif out to help him remove the last pieces of his armor. “It really wasn’t as bad as you’re probably thinking and the kids didn’t mean anything. They’re just-- teenagers. Teenagers reacting to a moment of melodrama.”
While North busied himself with the armored boots, Grif undid the seals of his bodysuit. “How’d Wash take it? Must of have been something if he’s feeling this paranoid about being around me.”
North looked up from where he was kneeling, grinning widely. “He looked like someone was trying to beat him to death with a handful of twigs. He was completely and utterly lost and confused.”
Grif peeled off the suit and kicked it towards his armor, then flopped naked onto the bed, reaching up to pull his hair from of the messy bun he wore under his helmet. “Great. Now I have to figure out how to deal with this.”
“We should talk to Carolina, actually,” North suggested, pushing himself back onto his feet. He dropped down next to Grif. “The, ah, photos have probably spread wide enough to justify a formal statement. And it’ll be more impactful coming from her.”
Shaking his head at Grif’s over-the-top reaction, North rolled on top of him, pleased as always at how easily Grif took his weight. Bracing himself on his arms, he angled his upper torso so he could look down at his lover even as strong arms wrapped around his waist.
“It’ll be fine,” North reassured him.
“We’ll see,” was all Grif said in reply. Then, his eyes narrowed and a wicked light appeared. “So tell me this: why the hell did you bother putting on clothes?”
Grif’s hands, nimble and clever, slid under his shirt, stroking his sides before pushing down under his pants to grip his ass.
“Because I’m not actually ready for bed yet,” North replied with mock-patience. “I haven’t brushed my teeth or gone to the bathroom--” His words were cut off when Grif’s head surged up to kiss him. With an answering groan, North kissed him back, knees tightening around the other man’s legs.
Grif’s hands squeezed, encouraging him to rock their hips together. And as they began to move, North let his full weight drop onto him and slid his arms under Grif’s head, mindful of the long wavy hair. Again, he felt a surge of delight at how easily Grif moved beneath him. North knew he was lanky, that he didn’t carry a lot of extra weight but he was still big . He’d never had a lover who could take his full weight like this before and it was extremely arousing.
He wasn’t surprised when Grif’s arms slid back up to his waist, holding him tight as he twisted beneath him and they suddenly flipped over. He sure as hell didn’t object when hands started pawing at his pants and shirt. This was fine. This was more than fine. Reaching out with a blind hand, North groped for the nightstand. Then, he flipped off the lights and pulled his lover close once more.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
I'm on a long road trip, so I'm just going to post this now. Also, this is the chapter I'm the most excited to hear from y'all about out of everything I have written so far. :D
Tactical Matrix is incalculable. Outcome is uncertain. Chance of success is unknown. But, a little payback would be nice.
-- floating, cold, can’t move --
The surprise reunion had reignited the fire in his soul, offered him a chance to do something besides steal and con folks in order to survive. Hunger still gnawed at his stomach but breaking into a convenience store for loose change suddenly seemed so passé. She was pulling him back in but how could he say no to her?
-- wrong, this was wrong --
The anomaly is worth noting. Once we encounter the target, her emotions may make her actions erratic.
What can I tell ya? Just one of the things that makes us human, D.
-- D. D was --
printf(“A.I. not found… \n”);
-- those were D’s thoughts, not his, an echo, a memory, fracturing, rebounding -- him but not him. Who was D? --
Excellent point, York. I was not looking at it from a flawed perspective. I will try to do so in the future.
Well, it sure would make these conversations easier. Thanks for coming down to my level, D.
I am here to assist.
No one warned him during implantation prep about the sass or the sly, subtle humor that skirted the edge of Delta’s logical core. It took time to adjust but soon he couldn’t imagine living without that dry voice whispering in his mind.
-- alone, he was alone -- he wasn’t supposed to be alone, so empty, everything rolling loose through his head --
Omega and Allison were always the best. No one could compete with them. Not me, not Wyoming, not anybody. Trying to beat them when I should have given up is how I got hurt in the first place.
Oh, so it is pride. I was registering an emotion, but I incorrectly categorized it as "stupidity".
Yeah, they're closely related.
-- time . . . kept . . . skipping . . . --
-- where was he? The Project, it was his first day --
-- running, they were running, heart shattered, everyone left behind, if he stayed he’d get a bullet in his head --
D kept him grounded while they counted down on the mark. Tex didn’t do half-measures so there had to be a firefight waiting for them on the other side. He hadn’t been in combat for years, hadn’t kept up with anything but the most basic training but D was there to steady him, reassuring him without words that they could pull this off.
Fire exploded in his chest, once, twice, and he collapsed to the ground. Damn it, damn it, damn it!
York, are you okay?
It’s that damn left side.
York has sustained two wounds to his upper-left chest. Recommend evac stat.
Just-- need a minute.
Administering field stint and analgesic.
Wait, Tex don’t, don’t let ‘im--
It hurt so much, agony lancing through him as it got harder and harder to breath. The cool rush of field medication suddenly flooded his veins, burying the pain under an avalanche of chemical relief. As the world went black, he heard Delta’s despair: York will not survive.
-- no, no fear, don’t be afraid, he’d be fine, he’d --
-- he’d --
-- he had --
-- died --
-- … --
Panic erupted inside him and York tried to scream. Sensation, sound, light-- his senses snapped to life like someone had hit a switch. His feet, then hands, slammed into a curved surface surrounding him on all sides even has a thick, foul tasting liquid oozed into his mouth and down his throat. New terror flooded his veins, a primal, mindless desperation to survive, and he thrashed, groped desperately at the light above him, hazy but bright, frantic for a way out.
Ice seemed to engulf his hand as it broke the surface of-- of-- whatever he was in. As he kicked at the bottom of his prison, York struggled for a handhold, a way to pull himself free.
Hands seized him, digging painfully hard into his shoulders and suddenly he was being pulled up and out.
As York was dragged free of the viscous liquid, the air bit into him like the shock of crashing through ice. The shock was so great that when the hands let go, he collapsed helpless to the ground, shaking and shivering and choking, hacking up the foul substance. Someone pushed him onto his hands and knees, the metal beneath him biting into his skin as he continued to cough. He vomited more fluid and it splattered onto the ground. Oh, god, it hurt. His throat felt raw and abused as he wheezed.
A hand suddenly pounded on his back, forcing out the last bit of liquid ooze from his lungs.
“There, now, get it all out.”
York gasped, sucking in a desperate lungful of air, then another. It felt like someone had shoved a cheese grater down his throat. He was cold, so fucking cold and the pounding on his back made an awful splat sound with each blow. He was absolutely covered in the nasty substance, inside and out.
Then, he processed the words that had just been spoken to him, then the accent, the voice.
Head snapping up, York felt multiple trains of thought collide and he let out an enraged snarl when he saw a familiar black, bushy mustache. “You bastard!” he roared, surging to unsteady feet and landing a heavy blow on Wyoming’s face. The other Freelancer crumbled to the ground. “You shot me! You--”
Freezing, York groped at his chest and felt the pucker of scar tissue.
York has sustained two wounds to his upper-left chest. Recommend evac stat.
“You shot me,” he repeated weakly. “You-- I-- What’s going on?” He stumbled backwards, limbs shaking and slime-covered feet sliding across the floor. He backed into something, jerked away, then half-turned to discover a large, oval pod filled with cloudy fluid. The viscous mixture dribbled down the side where Wyoming had dragged him out and large drops kept falling drip, drop, drip into a puddle pooling next to the pod.
He looked up, around, staring shocked at the walls, ceiling-- the curves and angles were jarring and the colors made his one eye burn. It was just… alien. No human would have built this.
Fear returned, sending his heart pounding faster and faster. He spun in place, almost falling back into the pod as he stumbled, trying to take in as much detail as he could. Suddenly, Wyoming was in sight once more, pushing himself back to his feet. He hadn’t seen him moving, start to get up-- oh God.
A sudden dull thud-thud-thud came from his left side and York spun again, cursing and terrified as he was forced to look away from Wyoming. He had too many blind spots, could barely stand--
He groped for Delta, needing his quick, calm analysis and report but only found a gaping hole where his A.I. companion should have been. Before he could dwell on the absence, grieve and wail over the loss, the wall opened and a new figured rushed into the room.
“Connie?” A whimper escaped York’s lips and he didn’t fight it when his legs gave way and he collapsed back onto the ground. Without thinking, he scrambled backwards until he was pressed against the slimy side of the pod, shivering and shaking in both cold and fear. This wasn’t-- Connie was---
An awful, stabbing pain started at the base of his skull. None of this was right, none of this was possible.
“Wyoming, what the hell were you thinking?” Connie-- CT-- she sounded so angry, so upset. “You weren’t supposed to be the one to get him out!”
After pausing to deliver a furious glare at Wyoming, the woman slowly walked towards him, her hands spread and still at her sides. “York, I know you’re confused but you need to stay calm,” she said in a steady voice.
Was Connie paler than he remembered? Or was it the light, the strange, alien light that glowed the wrong color?
Connie crouched down in front of him, balancing on the balls of her feet. She jerked back the hand she’d started to reach towards him, then awkwardly settled down onto her knees. “I know this is all just fucking wrong but I need you to pull it together, York. Shit’s hit the fan and we need you to be functional if we’re going to survive this.”
“You’re dead,” York blurted out. “You-- we attacked the Insurrectionist outpost, you died there. You’re dead. And-- so am I,” he added weakly. His hand crept back to his chest, pressing hard against the matching scars sitting just above his heart. “You’re dead. I’m dead. Please tell me Wyoming died.”
“I did meet my end.” Wyoming appeared behind Connie, stopping several feet away as he rubbed his jaw. “While attempting to wrap up the job you and Texas interfered in. That’s all water under the bridge now, considering the circumstances. No hard feelings.”
“How are we all-- I don’t understand,” he pleaded, staring helplessly at Connie.
The small woman sighed then leaned forward to tap the pod he was cowering next to. “We’ve been brought back to do a job,” she said with a bitter laugh. “By some alien calling itself ‘The Great Retriever’. I don’t know how it did it, but here we all are. Me, Wyoming. Florida, Maine, and South are here too. You’re the last one to be revived.”
York blinked then shook his head as he listened. He ran through the names again: Connie, Wyoming, Florida, Maine, South. That was almost the entire…
“What about Carolina?” he begged. “And North? Wash? Where are they?”
“They’re… hostages. In a way.” Connie’s pressed her lips together for a moment. “Sigma took over Maine and killed Carolina and North. And Wash...” she bowed her head. “South was able to get into a UNSC system while we were raiding a base for armor and supplies. Wash… He eventually got arrested after Project Freelancer imploded. There was a prison riot and… he didn’t make.”
York drew his legs to his chest and buried his face in his knees. Wash had been in prison? Killed in a riot? God, out of all of them, Wash didn’t deserve that. And North… Carolina… He’d prayed for years that they’d survived, hoped and dreamed about finding them again. Instead...
“If they’re dead, why doesn’t the- the alien just bring them back like it did us?” His voice was small and muffled by his knees.
“The others are the alien’s way of ensuring we cooperate,” Wyoming said in a terse voice as he continued to loom. “If we are compliant, they will be resurrected and returned to us unharmed. If we refuse or fail, however, it will punish them. Quite an unsportsmanlike attitude, I think.”
“The alien knew Florida somehow,” Connie explained. “It raised him for some reason and he convinced it that we were the best ones for the job.”
“But not all of us.”
“No,” she replied, voice gentle. “But we have a chance to get them back.”
She let him sit for a short while, the only sound in the room the scraping of fabric as Wyoming shifted his weight and the dull drone of alien technology. Finally, Connie reached out and laid a hand on his arm.
“York? Come on, let’s get you cleaned up. There’s a lot more we need to talk about and I think you’ll feel better once you’ve shaved and gotten some clothes on.”
The hand resting on his arm felt warm and so real. Perhaps this wasn’t some bizarre nightmare after all. York raised his head, suddenly aware of the scraggly beard on his face and the unkempt hair hanging down his neck.
Connie pushed herself to her feet and offered him a hand. Grasping it, she shifted a foot back and hauled, helping pull him upright.
The cold bit into him once more as he unfolded and the foul liquid still coating him had started to dry, leaving behind a gross, sticky, oily residue. Dropping his hand to his side, York gave Connie a short nod. He could do this. He had to.
Wyoming led the way through what York could only guess was an alien ship. It was a relief to have the man in front of him; just being this close was making his skin crawl. The rest of the ship was warmer that the pod room but not enough to counter the slime drying on his skin.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before they passed through another strange passageway and ended up in area where the light was the right color and the irritating drone of machinery faded into the background. Wyoming paused outside one of the handful of doors ringing the small space, giving them an unreadable look before he reached over and touched a discolored spot on the wall, which triggered the door. Before the door snapped shut behind him, York heard the sound of other voices. Familiar voices. Another shudder ran down his spine.
“Come on,” CT prompted tugging his arm. “That’s our training room. Food is there,” she started pointing towards the other doors, “bunks are there, and the bathroom here. We don’t really have any privacy,” she added with a faint note of apology in her voice.
“Not like we did back on the MOI,” York replied. “Besides, seems unnecessary for a bunch of dead people. I bet a lot of folks got an eyeful once we were-- gone.” He swallowed, stumbling over that final word.
After a brief tutorial on working the door control, CT left him to shower, promising to come back with a razor and clothes.
The bathroom was… basic. The furnishings were clearly a late addition and simply been crammed in wherever they could fit. There was a single toilet in one corner, a small sink and mirror in another, and a handful of shower nozzles in a row along the far wall, the water pipes bolted to the wall. Happily, however, the shower area had a few actual bottles of shampoo, a chunky, yellow bar of soap hanging on a cord, and a few small towels hanging on the exposed pipes.
By the time CT returned, a familiar roll of black tucked under her arm and a towel tossed over her shoulder, York was scrubbing determinedly at a patch of slime on his leg.
“Florida says he can cut your hair whenever you want,” she said in a terse voice. She hovered uncertainly at the entrance, then tiptoed over to the toilet, trying to avoid stepping in one of the puddles of water. Drainage seemed to have been a late concern.
“How did he die?”
Pushing the seat lid down, Connie perched on the back of the toilet. “Simulation troopers,” she said. Then, “Well, it’s more complicated than that. Those soldiers also took out Wyoming. We think they got Maine as well but he doesn’t remember a lot. But it all involves Project Freelancer. We should be together to talk about that. There’s-- there’s things you all need to know, things I learned about it.”
“Fair enough. What about South?” York squinted at his leg, then ran a hand down the patch he’d been scrubbing, checking for the sticky residue. This stuff just would not come off. And as long as he focused on the slime, he could listen to Connie talk without screaming.
“... Wash shot her in the head.”
The small towel slipped out of York’s suddenly nerveless fingers. “You said Wash was in prison.” Horror colored every word.
“He was. But before they locked him away, Command had him tracking down all the Freelancer assets they’d lost control of. South got in his way.”
York turned to stare at the dark haired woman. Connie huddled on the back of the toilet, head bowed and shoulders rounded. “That… doesn’t sound like Wash,” he said.
“I know,” Connie whispered. “South is the only one of us who ran into him after Epsilon. Do you-- did you ever find out what happened with his implantation?”
“No, I never got the full story.” York made himself grab the towel again. The water was cooling off and he wanted to finish before it turned icy. (Just like the room with the pod.)
“Epsilon committed suicide. While implanted in Wash.”
A chill ran through York, one that had nothing to do with the water or the temperature in the room. Warnings about abrupt A.I. ejection, psychological damage, electrical scarring, seizures, strokes, and more flashed through his mind.
“Wash got certified Article 12 after Epsilon. We think he was in a mental institution for over a year before Command put him back on duty. Sometime later, South ran into him and… she says he was-- colder. Driven. That he didn’t hesitate once he’d decided she’d impede his work.”
Too dispirited to continue scrubbing at the few remaining patches of dried slime, York wrung out the hand towel and draped it over one of the pipes as he turned off the water. CT held out her arm, offering him the large white towel she’d brought in.
“We’re all a fucking mess,” York muttered as he began to dry off.
“We’ve been raised from the dead like zombies and half of us killed or betrayed each other. Mess doesn’t really begin to describe the issues we have.” Spring to her feet, CT abruptly shoved a cheap plastic handled razor into his hand. “Trash goes in the bag under the sink. Your suit is here. Meet us in the training room when you’re done.” She raced out of the bathroom.
York wasn’t sure how long it took him to sheer away the awful beard. He was relieved to find nail clippers resting on the sink behind the nozzle and was able to clean up his fingers and toes, scraping away at the bits of ooze still caught under his nails with the attached file. He felt almost human by the time he was pulling on the mesh bodysuit.
Finally, he left the bathroom and reluctantly entered the training room. This room was significantly larger, with space enough for Wyoming and Florida to spar at one end and South and Maine to exercise on the other. CT perched on a mat tucked next to the wall, almost perfectly centered between the pairs, eyes locked on a small datapad.
When Florida spotted him, he flipped Wyoming over his shoulder onto the ground and hurried over, clucking disapprovingly. “The revival process certainly makes personal grooming a challenge,” he said in his characteristically buoyant good humor. Within seconds, he was circling York and studying his hair with a razor-sharp gaze.
“I’m quite sure York can manage on his own for now,” Wyoming grumbled as he slowly sat up, rubbing his shoulder gingerly.
“That may be true, Reggie, but we do have some team building to do. And nothing says building trust like holding sharp objects at each other’s throats,” Florida countered with an easy chuckle.
Right. York sighed internally. He always forgot just how … odd Florida could be.
“Now, we don’t actually have any scissors on hand so I’m going to have to be a bit creative with a knife but don’t you worry,” Florida continued, patting him on the shoulder. “This isn’t my first battlefield haircut.”
“We have razors and toilet paper and training mats but no scissors?” York asked a bit incredulously.
“While we were waiting for the alien to revive you, the rest of us were able to raid a UNSC outpost,” CT explained, not looking up from her pad. “We grabbed everything we could carry that we thought would be useful in addition to armor. We missed some of the smaller items.”
“She’s keeping a list,” South interjected between pushups. The tall woman looked different than York remembered. The most obvious differences were the missing eyeliner and the colorful accents she often added to her hair. More than that, though, her energy was different. The aggression was still there but restrained. She moved with obvious tension and there was a rigidity to her posture that was setting off alarm bells in York’s mind. “If you think of something, just let her know. With luck, we can hit another base or outpost.”
York gave her and Maine a small nod. “Good to see you,” he greeted. His eyes flickered to the bullet scar on her forehead.
South merely snorted. “This is pointless.” Pushups complete, she rocked back onto her knees and snarled. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to work together again, not when we’re all going to be too busy watching each other to accomplish a damned thing.”
“We were a team once,” York countered. “Not for very long, but before everything went to hell, before we all turned on each other, we had something. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy but under the circumstances, we have an opportunity here, an opportunity to make things right.”
“Make things right?” South let out a bitter laugh as she stood, beginning to advance. “You mean you want to make right that you betrayed us, attacked our base of operations, and crashed it into a planet? Or do you want to make right that because of you, the Meta had the opportunity to attack Carolina and throw her off a cliff? What exactly is it that you want to make right, York?” She spit the final question like venom, face to face with the other freelancer.
York’s lone eye burned with hate and loss, “You’re right. I did it. I crashed the damn ship and I’m the reason that Carolina was attacked. And it doesn’t matter that that was never supposed to happen, because it did. So yes, I have to live with that. I have to pay for that, but what about you?” His eye shifted from flames to ice. “Where’s North, South? Why isn’t he here with us now? Where were you when your brother was dying? What did you do, South? Or better yet, what didn’t you do? Why didn’t you save him?”
York barely got the last word out before South’s fist smashed into his face. And she must have put everything she had in that first blow because he went down hard. Before he knew it, she was top of him, raining down blows. He just barely had time to get his hands up to protect his head, but it left the rest of him exposed.
And just as quickly as she was there, she was gone.
It took York a moment to register the voice as Connie’s. Dazed, he sat up slowly and noticed that it had taken both Wyoming and Florida to drag South off of him.
Suddenly, Connie was in his face.
“What the hell was that!? You start talking about how we need to be a team, then you start a fight?”
“She started the fight,” he snapped back, glaring at South.
“And I damn well finished it too,” South spat back from across the room.
“I said enough!”
Connie’s head whipped around as she stared at him in shock and surprise.
York squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, pressing a hand to his face. “South is right. We can’t work like this. Blaming each other, always looking over our shoulders at one another, it’s never going to work.” He sighed and opened his eyes, remembering how tired he was, and slowly wiped the blood away from the corner of his mouth.
Across the room, he watched wearily as South shook off Wyoming and Florida’s hold. But much to his surprise, she settled some, that tension he’d noted earlier seeming to ebb away a bit. This time, she seemed willing to listen, so he continued. “We all have reasons not to trust each other. What we need to remember, what we need to focus on, is what holds us together.”
“You mean besides the fact that we’re colossal fuck ups?” South demanded.
“Yeah,” York smiled just a little, “besides that.”
“And what exactly would that be?” Connie asked.
Levering off the ground, York surged back to his feet and cast a steady look around the room. “That they did this to us. Project Freelancer, the Director and the Counselor, all his little minions, they put us together, put us in situations that bound us to each other in ways that most people will never experience, and then they ripped us apart. Body, mind, and spirit. They played their games and ran their experiments, and it left us . . . distorted, deformed, mangled. Turned us into hollowed-out versions of ourselves so that when we looked in the mirror we could barely recognize our own reflections.
“And no, we’re not blameless,” he continued in a grim voice. “We all made our choices along the way. And those choices got people killed. Friends. Family. Good people died because of us. We all had a hand in it. But right now, we have a chance to fix. Our. Mistakes. Starting right here, right now,” he jabbed a finger at the ground, voice harsh and filled with passion, “we train, we confess, and we forgive. We were a team once. We trusted and protected each other. We’re going to get that back. Our friends, our family, they’re counting on us. And we’re not going to let them down.
“Our mission right now isn’t to help this ‘Great Retriever”. I don’t give a crap what it wants. Our mission is Wash. Carolina. North.” With each name, he looked around the room, eye shifting from one person to the next.
His voiced settled, calm, firm, believing. “We have a chance, right here, right now, to make things right. To get back the people we love, the people we’ve lost. And then, we have a chance to start over, to make better choices in a world where we’re free to be our own masters, not puppets at the end of somebody else’s strings.”
“And if we get the others back and they don’t want anything to do with us?” South asked, a peculiar note in her voice as she suddenly crossed her arms.
“Then that’s their choice. But it’s up to us to make sure they get to make that choice. We were chosen for Project Freelancer for a reason. We were the best of the best. Under different circumstances, the galaxy would be trembling at the mere thought of what we can do. We are going to reclaim what’s ours and to hell with anyone that gets in our way.”
Wyoming was so predictable. York grinned inside.
“It definitely wouldn’t do for people to think we’re failures,” Florida agreed thoughtfully. Then he smiled, knife flashing as he twirled it between his fingers. “That could lead to all sorts of unfortunate misunderstandings.”
“I still think we’re screwed,” South admitted, a familiar fire filling her eyes. “But I’d rather go down fighting.”
Maine stepped forward, giving York a solemn nod. His posture straightened and he almost seemed to swell with new determination.
“Where do we start, then?” Wyoming asked, looking expectantly at York.
“You can’t go wrong with trust falls,” Florida suggested.
“We start with Project Freelancer.” CT’s voice was strong and unwavering. There was a hint of a smile in her eyes at the new energy filling the room. “We air out the past so we can look to the future. And for that, I need to tell you about the Alpha.”
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
New divisional assignments are being rolled out to all personnel serving the United Planet of Chorus. The reorganization is expected to be completed in four days.
- The new command structure (see attached) is effective immediately.
- Relocation to your new barracks should be completed within twenty-four hours of receiving your new assignment.
- Paint for armor updates is available at the locations designated in the attached file. Updates must follow existing armor personalization guidelines. A copy of the guidelines is attached.
- If you do not receive a team assignment by the end of the rollout, please notify your current unit commander.
Thank you for your cooperation.
General Donald Doyle, General Vanessa Kimball
The United Planet of Chorus
Quo fas et gloria ducunt.
ATTACHMENT(S): command_updated_v2.txt; paint_stations.txt; armor_mod_guidelines.txt
Welcome, recruit, to the GLORIOUS RED ARMY!
Your prowess, spirit, and SHEER GUT have earned you a place in the GREATEST army known to exist in this, and ANY galaxy!
You will be expected to uphold the Red Army’s honor, traditions, and standards for wielding OVERWHELMING FIRE POWER.
Today marks the beginning of a NEW CHAPTER for the Red Army, a chapter in the story of how the Red Army defeated its enemies, starting with the murderous mercenary forces of Charon Industries!
You are expected to report to your new Red Army barracks and commanding officer immediately.
Remember the Red Army motto: Keep your friends close and your enemies within range of your PRIMARY FIREARM.
Colonel, Red Army
United Planet of Chorus
Congratulations on your appointment to the Blue Army.
You are joining a uniquely capable and lethal team which is doing its part to protect the people of Chorus from all threats. As a member of the Blue Army, you have a steadfast team ready to stand with you in the face of danger.
I look forward to your arrival and integration. I am sure this will be a professionally and personally rewarding tour of duty. Welcome to the Blue Army.
Strength and Honor.
Colonel, Blue Army
United Planet of Chorus
“What the holy hell is this?” Bitters gaped a the message on his datapad. Dropping his fork onto his plate, he jabbed Matthew’s side with an armored elbow. “Did you get one?”
The younger soldier jolted, turning to stare with wide eyes, the lingering baby fat in his cheeks giving him a cherubic appearance. “One what?”
“Red Army. Why the hell do I have a letter saying I’m now assigned to the Red Army? Why am I moving barracks?!”
“They got you too?” Palomo dropped his tray across from him, ravenous after a morning of intense training. “I’m on Blue Team. Do you think this means I’ll get to work with Captain Tucker more?”
Bitters gave the other soldier a withering look. “Why are we being reassigned? What’s wrong with our current divisions?” he demanded. “I mean, holy fuck, look at this letter.” He thrust the pad across the table.
Eyebrows raised, Palomo whistled as he read Sarge’s missive. “Damn, man. The one I got from Agent Washington was really boring.” Grinning, he handed the datapad back. “Keep your friends close and your enemies within range of your PRIMARY FIREARM,” he quoted, dropping his voice in a crude mimicry of Sarge.
“I thought Agent Washington’s letter was very inspiring,” Smith interjected from the seat next to Palomo. “His commitment to building a team-”
“Is really lame compared to talking about blowing up your enemies.”
“Who are we blowing up?” Jensen asked as she approached with her own meal.
“The Blues!” Matthews enthused.
Jensen let out a horrified sound “Why would we blow up Captain Tucker or Captain Caboose?”
“You… didn’t check your mail this morning, did you?” Kicking out the chair on the other side of Bitters, Palomo pointed at the open spot. “Reds go on that side. This is the cool side.”
“Jesus,” Bitters sighed. He rubbed his face and picked up his fork, glumly returning to lunch. “Eat fast. There’s exactly one person we can trust to tell us what the hell is going on.”
“Come on, Linzi,” Bitters coaxed her as he leaned nonchalantly against the wall. “You’re the only one who’s been off today. You must know where he is.”
The third member of Gold Team gave him a look, her helmet tilting briefly towards the lieutenants clustered behind him. “What’s with the posse?” she demanded suspiciously.
“Just some guys who want to know more about the new team shit,” Bitters replied, voice deliberately causal. “You heard about that, right?”
“Sure. Red Team for life and all that.” Linzi made a dismissive gesture. “Why do you need to find him?”
“He’s the only one who’ll tell us what’s actually going on,” Matthews interjected. “He always knows what’s happening.”
“EOD finished clearing another set of streets yesterday,” added Bitters. “Come on, I know you and Grif must have gone to check it out this morning.”
Smith, standing with the others behind Bitters, suddenly cleared his throat. “Why are you requesting information from the criminal?” he asked quietly.
“Smith, dude, shut up,” Palomo hurriedly muttered.
But the damage was done. Linzi snarled and snatched her rifle off the ground, about to storm away. Lunging forward, Bitters caught her arm and held her in place for a moment. After a brief hissed exchanged, he let go and they moved away from the lieutenants. Matthews hurried to join them.
“Smith, why did you say that?” Jensen demanded once Gold Team was out of earshot, absolutely appalled.
“She’s a thief,” Smith stubbornly repeated.
“She did what she had to to survive before joining the New Republic. Or--” head tilting, Jensen placed her hands on her hips. “Is this about Captain Caboose?” she asked incredulously.
“She stole from him!”
“It was a misunderstanding! She gave everything back and apologized. He hugged her!”
“Captain Caboose is a very generous and forgiving man. People like her could take advantage of that! Someone has to look out for him!”
“That’s what the Reds and Blues do!” Steamed, Jensen jabbed an armored finger into Smith’s chest, the air ringing with repeated clangs. “Captain Grif is the one who realized what happened and fixed it. And right now, we need to find him. She’s the only one who knows where he is right now! I don’t care if she kidnapped Freckles, you be nice!”
Hands flew up into the air with in an uncharacteristic outburst. “She isn’t nice!” Smith exclaimed. “She’s mean and back talks and steals things !”
Hitting his shoulder, Palomo hissed again, “Shut up, Smith! They’ll hear you.”
“They don’t care! They never do when they’re all together. They’re… weird.”
Palomo looked at Jensen. “Okay, he has a point there.”
“I know…” Jensen sighed.
Gold Team was weird. From the first day of training, Captain Grif’s team had consistently performed the worst out of all the special squads. And yet, the three person team had come together faster and easier than any of the others. Even Bitters’s cantankerous relationship with his captain and Matthews’ nerve-driven clinginess failed to slow to smooth mesh of personalities.
A week passed before the first discrepancy in the mess hall was discovered. The second week, the mess suddenly had more rations than expected. And by the end of the month, the constantly seesawing numbers were driving the quartermaster to regular bouts of tears. Several nights of surveillance later, it was discovered Grif had been taking his team on random supply runs outside the base, sneaking in and out with ease as they scavenged the ruined towns and cities nearby and added their bounty to the New Republic’s supplies.
General Kimball had pulled Captain Grif into a meeting the very next morning. No one knew what had been said on the shores of the radioactive lake but the number of rations on hand stopped mutating and Grif reluctantly started instructing the other squads in search-and-discover techniques.
The others were pretty sure Gold Team continued running scrounging missions but they did so from behind an even denser veil of secrecy. Individually, they all had friends and hobbies that predated the arrival of the Reds and Blues and the formation of their team. When they were together, however, they were together and everyone else was secondary. Gold Team was the most exclusionary of the special squads and that bond had persisted through the ceasefire.
It wasn’t long before the argument between the orange- and yellow-accented soldiers ended and Matthews happily trailed Bitters and Linzi back to the lieutenants.
“Kimball and Doyle want to bring back and expand the special squads,” Linzi began without preamble. “Grif had to cancel our … plans for today. Doyle sent him a list of candidates to add to Gold Team. Fed candidates. He went to go find Agent North so he could help go over the list.”
“Is Agent North getting a team?” Jensen asked in surprise. “Or the Reds and Blues who ended up with the Feds?”
Linzi shrugged. “He didn’t say. He wasn’t happy, though.”
“Fuck,” Palomo muttered. “What the hell is going on?”
“Let’s go find out,” Bitter stated in a grim voice.
North took another swig of Jensen’s engine block moonshine, enjoying the way it burned down his throat. “What about Orval Boros?” he asked, passing the bottle over to Grif as he squinted at the next profile on the datapad. “Twenty-one, been in service for four and a half years. Spent the last fourteen months with Demolitions and the six before that with the Engineering Corp.”
Grif took a swig and shook his head. “Went from building shit to really loving blowing it up? No way that guy’s stable.”
“Okay. Next is Gilda Garney--”
“That’s gotta be a fake name.”
Grinning, North took the bottle back and took another pull. “Gilda Garney, seventeen year old sniper--”
“Nope. Nobody likes snipers. Not adding her.”
North leveled Grif with an affronted look and got a roll of the eyes in response. “You’re too fucking nice for anyone to hate. You’ve been mothering every worried and stressed out soldier that crosses your path.”
“I-- I don’t do that--”
“Uh, yeah, you kinda do.” Grinning, Grif plucked the brown bottle out of North’s fingers. “You may have told Sarge that the dodgeball game you set up was a training exercise but I know better. I heard about that Romeo and Juliet crap the kids were pulling. I know what you were doing.”
Rubbing the back of his neck with a sheepish grin, North shrugged helplessly. “Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. There’s a lot of dead bodies at the end and I’m not sure the armies would be as willing to come together as the Montagues and the Capulets at the end so I decided to improvise.”
“Dodgeball, though? Really?”
“Better dodgeball than a shoot-out. And that couple did stay together.”
“Fair enough. Who’s next?”
As North returned his attention to the datapad, Grif took another drink and relaxed into the Freelancer’s comforting presence. His nerves had been teetering on a knife’s edge ever since Doyle and Kimball had announced their reorganization plan and North’s steady company was the only thing keeping him going.
The two generals hadn’t breathed a word about it to any of them, working together in secret to hammer out how to divide their soldiers. They’d managed to keep enough squads together so unit cohesion didn’t utterly fall apart but not so many the same faction lines didn’t simply return once the shift was complete.
On top of upheaving the entire military of Chorus, a new and improved command structure rounded out the plan, formally placing the Reds and Blues in the chain of command once and for all with promotions to match.
Carolina, unsurprisingly, sat directly below Kimball and Doyle in the hierarchy with the rank of Major General and they’d also offered her the position of Secretary of War. The job of Deputy Secretary of War landed at Washington’s feet, along with a promotion to Colonel to match Sarge. The two men, moreover, were now the leaders of the Red and Blue Armies of Chorus, a new divisional break-down that the generals hoped would rechannel the dispute between the Federal and Republic soldiers.
Next, and where Grif’s heart began to race and panic started licking at his mind, he and his fellow Captains of the New Republic were now Lieutenant Colonels for the United Planet of Chorus with Simmons and Tucker sitting as second-in-command of the Reds and Blues. North and Donut, meanwhile, remained Captains with a veritable fleet of Chorus-born captains beside them and countless lieutenants littering the space beneath.
North’s name sitting directly below his on the chart as his second was only reason Grif hadn’t bolted out of the meeting, boosted the nearest Warthog, and raced out of town. Only in a planet as fucked up as Chorus could anyone justify keeping Grif on as a command officer. He’d fucked up being a sergeant in Rat’s Nest and barely scraped by as a captain. He was wholly undeserving of the rank of lieutenant colonel but with North’s help, maybe, just maybe, he could keep from getting anyone killed.
(He wasn’t There, he kept reminding himself. It had all started There, the poison that left bodies strewn in his wake anytime he took command. The nightmares and fragmented memories of There had surged since he’d learned the truth about this planet and recognized the echoes of There in the faces of the child-soldiers all around him. As he relived being There night after night, the already strained nerves of his temper frayed further and he soon felt cut-off from the others, with only North even trying to reach him. He wanted so bad to leave There behind, in the past where it belonged, but it just wouldn’t stay buried, not when there were so many similarities between There and here.)
Something suddenly hit his foot, causing Grif’s head to jerk up as he started.
“You still with me?” North asked with a hint of concern.
Grif gave himself a small shake. “Yeah, yeah, sorry. Just-- zoned out for a minute. Who was that last one?” He shoved back the memory of blood, lasers and bullets, screams, poisonous air, and horrible gnawing hunger. There was enough of that on Chorus without reliving the past.
Tossing the datapad on the bare concrete floor, North propped up a leg and let his head fall back against the wall. “We can take a break.” A small, hesitant smile, “We’ve already knocked off half the names Doyle gave us.”
“I’m starting think we’re going to toss out all of them,” Grif responded. Grimacing, he took another drink then offered North the bottle. “This is a stupid fucking idea and so far I haven’t seen a single person that won’t make everything worse. Gold Team is fine the way it is.”
“What are you looking for, anyway?” North asked as he accepted the bottle. He let out a soft sigh after tipping the bottle back. “Kimball was really insistent you get priority over the others. Said Gold Team had more specialized needs than the others.” When Grif continued to hesitate, he nudged his side with a sharp elbow. “Come on, I’m supposed to be helping out here, right? Care to let me in on your team’s big secret?”
The sound of armored boots on concrete interrupted whatever Grif’s response would have been. Several voices started talking, whispering hurriedly back and forth. Then, one set of footsteps swerved away from the others and approached.
“Sir, we’d like to talk to you.” Bitters’s voice was tentative as he peered over the ruined couch at the men sitting on the floor.
Grif’s head shot up, a flicker of annoyance crossing his face. “The hell, Bitters? If you’re trying to sneak up on us, you’re doing a shit job.”
“Aren’t you all supposed to be running weapons drills with Sarge?” North’s tone was sharp and pointed as he leveled a disapproving look at the soldier. “Those drills won’t help if you don’t do them.”
“We all got letters saying we’ve all been made members of Red or Blue Team,” Matthews interjected, his armored head suddenly peeking around Bitters. “And that we need to move to new barracks and report to our commanding officers! And according to the chart the Generals put out, you’re one of our commanders, sir! Well, for Red Team. So-- reporting for duty, sir!”
“What he said,” Linzi added as she popped into view on Bitter’s opposite side.
“Matthews? Linzi? Christ.” Grif took a moment to stare up at the ceiling, mouthing silent words to the heavens. “Alright, the rest of you get over here,” he called out, crossing his arms over his chest.
After a moment of embarrassed silence, the lieutenants hovering in the middle of the ruined lobby scurried over, rounding the ruined couch that had been so effective at hiding Grif and North and just-- stood.
“Hey, boss, guess what? Smith keeps emergency snacks with his ammo.” Linzi’s voice was sly as she cast a quick glance over at the blue accented officer. Lights reflected off a small silvery package as she lobbed her hand towards Grif.
Patting frantically at one of his armor’s storage compartments, Smith yelped. “Give those back, they're for Captain Caboose! You can’t do that!”
“Clearly she can,” Grif interrupted, examining the small bag of nuts once he’d snagged them out of the air. Snorting, he threw it at the tall lieutenant. “Pretty sure I’ve told you before not to carry important stuff all in one storage compartment. Step it up, Smith,” he ordered.
Smith fumbled the package, bending over to scoop it off the ground. “I-- yes, sir,” he muttered in defeat.
“What’s this shit about new divisions?” Bitters demanded as Smith dithered. “And bringing back the special squads?”
With a small shrug, Grif replied, “We gotta find some way to get you guys and the Feds to start working together. If things keep going like they are, we might as well put a bow on top the planet and hand it over to Charon.”
“We’re hoping to sidestep a lot of the tension between the Republic and Federal Army,” North added. “The plan is to push this through so hard and fast no one has time to think too much about how we’re redrawing the lines of conflict. So keep this to yourselves,” he warned, eyes narrowing slightly. “This will fail if everyone knows what’s going on.”
“And the special squads?” Palomo asked, moving forward until he was next to Bitters. “Will Captain Tucker be getting new soldiers? What about the other Reds and Blues? Will they be getting squads?”
Exchanging a quick look with North, Grif sighed and made a sweeping gesture. “Alright, pull up some floor.” There was a mad scramble, the sound of armor bouncing off of armor as the Chorusians dove for the prime spots. Eventually, Linzi successfully shoved Matthews away from the spot closest to Grif while Smith folded himself down next to North. They all pulled off their helmets and stared expectantly at the two Reds.
“Alright,” Grif began, taking a deep breath, “Here’s the deal. We’re splitting the armies into Red and Blue teams but that’s more like, shit, uh, like the houses in those Harry Potter books Donut loves.”
“Like being on different teams during summer camp,” North added.
“Trying to bring the two factions together isn’t working,” Grif continued. “You guys fight each other on the training field, in the mess hall, and in the barracks. Anytime there’s a Fed and a Republic soldier together in the same place, a fight breaks out. The only reason this city hasn’t burned to the ground is because you all work very hard to stay apart.
“And so Doyle and Kimball have decided to take a new approach. As of today, the Federal Army of Chorus and the New Republic have been dissolved. There’s only the United Planet of Chorus and two military divisions: the Red and Blue Armies. We’re taking both factions and smashing them together. God willing, we’ll be able to build something new from the pieces.”
Silence fell at the end of Grif’s dramatic pronouncement. Sunlight filtered into the lobby through one of the ground floor windows, the rays catching on the small motes of dust floating in the air. The distant sound of vehicles and voices suddenly reverberated off the bare floor as a squad rolled by outside. Then, the noise faded again, leaving the only the sound of breathing and beating hearts.
Finally, Bitters couldn’t take it anymore. “That’s insane.”
“We’re at that point,” North responded quietly. He looked around the small circle of bodies, eyes sad as he took in their young faces. Too young, really, to have seen so much death already. “There’s an officers meeting this evening which you will all be asked to attend. The only way we’re going to have any chance of pulling this off is for officers from both the Federal Army and the New Republic to keep the soldiers from tearing each other apart. You have to help us lead by example. To keep arguments and disagreements with Federal officers private and to be ready to discipline anyone who starts to step out of line. Including soldiers you may have known for years.”
“We’re not ready for that,” Jensen whispered. Her face had turned ashen and very real fear filled her eyes. She tugged her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms tight around her knees.
“No, you’re not.” Shaking his head, Grif wore a pinched expression. “But when you get dealt a shit hand, all you can do is play it or fold. And pray no one takes a sledgehammer to your legs if you’re caught bluffing.”
Grif stared hard at Jensen, then swept his gaze across the others. “You’re luckier than you realize,” he grimly informed them. “You’re getting a heads up and have the support of higher ranked officers. You’re not being asked to lead an entire fucking battalion.” Something flickered across Grif’s face, appearing and vanishing too quickly for anyone to read what it was. “All you have to do is keep your personal opinions to yourself and help us make this work. The higher ups will be doing most of the heavy lifting but you all are more deeply embedded in the rank and file. There are going to be incidents and you have to be ready to deal with them.”
“You’ll learn more about this tonight,” North added, picking up the narrative. “So keep this to yourselves until then.”
“How-- how do the special squads fit into all this?” Palomo asked as he swallowed.
“One part morale boost, another special assignments,” Grif answered. “We’ve been asked to add Federal officers to the teams so everyone has a nice, shiny example of what unity looks like. And to help show that off, each squad will be carrying out special assignments that fit their capabilities.”
Smith tilted his head to the side, his long face thoughtful. “Combat for Captain Caboose’s team,” he realized. “Scouting and fast, precise hits for Captain Tucker. Assuming he rebuilds his team.”
“You mean Colonel Caboose and Colonel Tucker,” Linzi corrected with a snort. “Didn’t you read the attachments the Generals sent?” Smith glared at her, furious, but she dismissed him with a flick of clever fingers. “Having fun storming the front lines. We’ll stick to scavenging and bomb defusal.”
“Excuse me, bomb defusal?” North asked, blinking rapidly as his head whipped around to stare at her.
“Is that what you guys have been doing all these months? We thought it was just midnight raids.” Palomo asked in a curious voice. “That’s how you got that gut wound,” he realized, eyes widening. “That one that kept you out of the Battle of Armonia!”
“Gut wound?” There was a sharp edge to North’s voice.
Grif suddenly scrambled to his feet. “Alright, any more questions?” he demanded. “There’s like, a ton of meetings scheduled to go over all this so you should all go move into your new barracks. Or do whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing right now.”
“Drills, for example,” North agreed. He picked up his datapad and twisted the lid onto their forgotten bottle of booze. Then, standing, he tucked the items into his elbow and made a shooing gesture. His face had gone worryingly blank and new tension suddenly pricked the air.
Sharing nervous looks, the Chorusians pushed themselves up and pulled their helmets back on as they hurried out of the lobby. Behind them, North’s voice could be heard snarling: What the hell was she talking about? Capta-- no, Colonel Grif’s response was too soft to make out, muffled and indistinct.
“Linz, I think you fucked up,” Matthews whimpered as they listened to the sudden indistinct yet clearly heated argument and the sound of two sets of footsteps storming deeper into the hotel.
“Did, did Agent North not know-- oh shit .” Linzi froze midstep. “I thought he knew. I swear, I thought he knew .”
“Knew what ? What the fuck just happened?” Palomo demanded. He and the others swung around and formed a small half-circle around Gold Team, pinning them against the wall of the hotel. For a moment, they didn’t respond, hands, arms, and heads twitching as they switched to a private channel.
Finally, Bitters looked up and spoke. “We go on scavenging runs. Search for food, supplies, weapons -- anything that might be useful. We have been since we were assigned to Gold Team.”
“We know about that,” Smith interrupted. “ Everyone in the New Republic knows about that.”
“There are often bombs. Um, and traps. Occasionally gangs or wild animals.” Matthews cringed as the weight of everyone’s eyes fell on him. “Sometimes we miss a lock and get stuck for awhile or something’s wrong with one of the things we found. Like, the food’s tainted or the medical supplies have leaked into each other and turned into some poisonous compound.”
“We’ve had a few close calls.” Shifting uncomfortably, Bitters fidgeted with one of the latches on his armor. “That’s why General Kimball was so upset when she found out. We-- someone had hidden some landmines and Grif almost--” He stopped, unable to finish. Silence. Then, “Agent North’s going to lose his shit .”
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
The room was dark, no light filtering in through the boarded up window. The overworked air conditioner sputtered and hummed, an annoying yet predictable mechanical racket as it struggled to compensate for the humid jungle air. Voices drifted up through the floor, muffled and indistinct.
The worst part of the aftermath of their fight was how big and empty the bed felt. Grif hadn’t realized how much he’d come to depend on North’s presence as he fell asleep, how the other man anchored him to the present and kept most of his nightmares at bay.
In the hours since the bitter fight, Grif had seen North once: stripping off his armor and chucking the components into storage before he’d changed and disappeared out the door. He hadn't said a single word and reeked of alcohol.
Well, he hadn’t said anything then. There’d been plenty of words earlier. Harsh, angry, cruel words that sliced straight down to Grif’s core, stripping away every bit of his usual armor of bluster and quick wits and leaving him hurting and confused and feeling so goddamned guilty. Tongue-tied, Grif hadn't been able to muster an apology or explain. And there was so much he’d have to explain for any of it to make sense.
He hadn't even told Kimball everything when she’d confronted him demanding answers. He’d told her some of it, enough to justify taking Gold Team off base on secret scavenging runs. But not everything. He couldn't. He’d never told anyone.
As Grif lay in bed, staring at the dark ceiling, it felt like Blood Gulch all over again. He’d spent the nights there plagued with nightmares, unable to sleep through the night without waking up shaking and crying. He’d had better luck sleeping during the day, piecing together a full eight hours bit by bit, but could never really shake the feeling of exhaustion that constantly plagued him.
Finally, he sighed and rolled over, hand reaching out to turn on the bedside light. He hadn't gotten a wink of sleep, not in the too big, too cold bed. And if he did somehow manage it, he knew the nightmares were waiting for him once more. So, might as well get something done. Anything would be better than thinking the same thoughts over and over again.
Climbing out of bed, Grif padded across the floor to the desk sitting next to the blocked window. The datapad from Doyle lay where it had been thrown and abandoned once he and North had reached their room to air their grievances in private. Hours after the yelling had ended, Grif sat down and turned the datapad back on, dragging the comforter off the bed and across his shoulders.
North had asked earlier what he was looking for to add to Gold Team. He’d wanted to know what the secret was. Well, he knew now. He knew about the missions conducted under moonlight. The bombs. The gangs. The near misses. The nights he’s missed drinking with him in the bar because he’d been teaching his team how to survive when everyone was out to kill you.
Scrolling through the Federal Army candidates, Grif looked for the pieces his team was missing. The pieces he’d used before to survive against all odds, even when he wished he hadn't.
What did he have now? Back-up wheelman, fighter, and muscle (Bitters). Locksmith-in-training and communications (Matthews). Bomb expert and token miniature human (Linzi). (And when the fuck had she gotten that gut-wound? She’d been fine when he’d left with Tucker and the others.)
Slowly, over the next several hours, Grif found the missing pieces in Doyle’s offerings. He didn't want the best, the most accomplished. He wanted the screw ups, the outsiders, the kids who knew how to fight for every last scrap. Who persevered when everyone around them tried to make them fail. The ones who knew the price of living when everyone else around you died.
Once he dug deep into the profiles, he found them, clustered at the bottom of the list. Hacker. Medic/Scientist. The Local. His rejects and fools. Bitters was going to hate them. But that’s how it had to be.
After he’d sent a message to Doyle notifying him of his selections and another to his expanded team with a time and location to meet him at tomorrow, he reluctantly turned off the light and curled back into bed to try and get some kind of sleep. Surrounded once more by darkness, Grif couldn’t help but think: North would have loved them.
The lone unboarded hotel window was perfectly positioned to catch the rays of early morning light as they filled the sky. The abandoned ballroom lit up each morning, the light reaching all but a few spots in the room, highlighting to scuffed and dirty floor, the forgotten tables and chairs as they leaned against the peeling wallpaper. There was a faint scent of mildew, a hint of organic rot in the air, but even that wasn’t enough to keep everyone out. The ballroom was a refuge, a place for quiet comfort and many a pair of wandering feet had found it late in the night when insomnia or nightmares lurked in the air.
Curled up facing the back cushion of one of the couches that had been dragged in long before the Reds and Blues arrived, North whimpered as the comforting darkness slowly brightened. As the light determinedly dragged him back to consciousness, North buried his face in his arm and dragged the threadbare blanket over his head. He didn’t fit well on the couch; when stretched out, his legs couldn’t help but dangle off the end. It was just deep enough, though, that he could curl up on his side and be almost entirely on the cushions.
The ballroom didn’t provide its usual comfort this time. Not when pain stabbed inside his head. Not with the taste of stale alcohol on his breath and a fuzzy feeling on his tongue. Following the bitter fight with Grif, North had dug into the stash of rotgut they kept in the ballroom and started drinking.
In the dead of the night, the terror of losing another loved one had sunk its poisonous teeth deep into his mind. Grif had been literally inches from death over the past several months as he led his team on secret scavenging runs. He’d almost stepped on landmines, been shot at by drug-maddened gangs, and nearly buried alive when ruined houses and buildings collapsed. And not once had he given anyone any indication of the potentially lethal actions he was taking. Grif was horrifically reckless with his own life sometimes and it made North feel sick.
Unfortunately, for the first time in years, alcohol didn’t turn his brain off or blur the pain and fear echoing through his skull. Instead, it had made everything worse. Every fear, every dark thought spinning through his head screamed at him louder and more relentlessly than before. And by the time he’d realized his mistake in falling back into old bad habits, he was too far gone with drink to do anything more than huddle miserably on the couch, empty bottles at his side.
Other mornings he ended up in here were far more pleasant. He’d crash on the couch after a night of insomnia-driven meanderings, unwilling to wake Grif to deal with his personal demons (especially when Grif had so many of his own). Those mornings, his lover usually shook him awake in amused exasperation so they could go back to their room to have some time together before breakfast.
Today, he was alone. The room was quiet and empty and the threadbare blanket that lived on the back of the couch insufficient to protect him from the early morning chill. Despite the pressure behind his eyes, the pounding ache of his hangover beating away at the inside of his skull, North finally groaned and slowly, so very slowly, pushed himself upright.
The change in position added a new layer of disorientation to his already battered state. He dug long fingers into the cushions, clutching tight at the thin fabric as the world swam in and out of focus. After several long moments, however, the spotty darkness filling his vision faded away and the sensation of spinning eased off.
Well. He was upright. That was an accomplishment, right?
Slumping forward, North rested his cheek against the back cushion and closed his eyes. What the hell did he do know? Grif should have told him about the raids before now but… he’d wildly overreacted. He’d lashed out with every dark and mean spirited thought that sprang into his paranoid and panicking mind until the other man had gone pale, frozen into shocked silence. Then, too angry and frightened to think straight, he’d stormed out of the room.
The rest of the day was a blur. He’d returned to the training field and hand-to-hand practice. He was fairly certain he’d eaten at some point. But he’d been sneaking drinks for hours by the time dinner rolled around. It hadn’t taken long before he’d gotten a buzz going, blurring everything around him as he sank deeper into misery. Eventually, he’d returned to their room to take off his armor, stoically ignoring Grif as he changed into regular clothes, struggling the whole time to stay upright. And then he’d gone to the ballroom and drank until he passed out.
North started, his limbs flailing and then he was falling over backwards, tipping off the couch onto the ground. It wasn’t a long fall but enough that the air in his lungs shot out with a sudden oof. As he gasped for air, he realized he was trapped; his legs were still on the couch, tangled up in the blanket, and he couldn’t seem to get any of his limbs working enough to change position.
A moment later, Carolina appeared, hovering over him. She wore her heavy black armor bodysuit but wasn’t, for once, in her full armor. Her long red hair hung over her shoulder in a messy ponytail and she frowned in concern as she peered down at him, the expression causing the scattered scars on her face to twist and distort. With a soft sigh, she squatted down and grabbed him by his armpits, hoisting him upright and all but throwing him back onto the couch as she came back up.
North clutched at the couch cushions as he slammed into the back, fighting down a wave of nausea at the sudden movement. He was so busy keeping his stomach under control, he barely noticed when Carolina sat down next to him.
“Come on, turn around,” she ordered, pulling at his shoulder.
It took almost a full minute to get him untangled and seated properly on the couch. Once he was facing forward, Carolina offered him a metal bottle.
“Drink up. Grif said you’d need it.”
“Grif-- when did-” North began as he accepted the bottle
“At breakfast. Which you just missed.” Giving him a sideways glance, Carolina pressed on. “Which isn't a bad thing. I don't think any of us want a repeat of last night.”
“What happened last night?” Shaking his head (and immediately regretting it), North tried to remember.
“Oh, you weren’t yelling at the table or anything. But it was pretty clear you two were fighting about something. You were both very careful to avoid running into each other and wouldn’t say a damned thing about it. Plus, I don’t think anyone could miss the way you smelled of booze.” Carolina folded her legs under her and leaned against the armrest, propping her head on her hand. She aimed a level look at North. “This morning, Grif hightailed it out of the mess at the first opportunity and, well, you never showed. He did shoot a message to Wash saying you’d probably be in here and hung over.”
North didn’t respond right away, instead unscrewing the cap of the bottle and taking a slow sip. Even hurting, Grif couldn’t help but look after him. And it made North feel ten times worse than before.
“How’d you draw the short straw?” he asked after taking another sip. He stared miserably at his bare feet.
“With the reorganization underway, Wash and Sarge are focusing on hammering home that that everyone needs to take it seriously. They’ve pulled in the others to help start training the new Red and Blue teams. And since I just got back from a mission, I was available to come here. So, you want to talk about it? Or would you rather keep hiding from Grif?”
“Did… did you know about the scavenging runs he takes his team on?” The question was hesitant, stilted and he wasn’t entirely certain how he wanted Carolina to answer.
Looking somewhat puzzled, Carolina tilted her head some. “I know Kimball appreciates the runs. She’s mentioned his team has a knack for finding things the others don’t. But since I’ve been focusing on tracking the mercenaries, I hadn’t paid too much attention to what he was doing.”
North downed more water, slowly starting to feel more human. “His team and the New Republic lieutenants came to talk to us about the-- the reorganization and everything yesterday,” he waved a hand, encompassing all the rapid-fire changes that were underway. “During the conversation and-- after, it came out that the early raids Gold Team did weren’t approved. That they’ve almost gotten blown up by mines multiple times, that they’ve run into heavily armed gangs and… and that they’ve all nearly died multiple times.
“The worst part,” North continued slowly, hand clenching around the bottle, “is how… cavalier Grif is about the whole damn thing. For whatever reason, during these runs-- it’s like he doesn’t care if he dies. He’s not trying to get killed but-- there’s a, a disconnect. Or something. Surviving during these runs somehow becomes secondary to everything else.”
“That’s what the fight’s about?” Carolina asked, voice carefully neutral. “About how reckless he’s been?”
“Yes. And no.” Running a through his hair, North let out a frustrated sound. “He hadn’t told me. And I don’t know when he was going to tell me. Between that and hearing about all the close calls-- I lost it. I blew up at him and just-- stormed out. Then started drinking again. Fuck , some of the things I said….”
“North, if the two of you are going to stay together, he had to learn about how big an asshole you can be at some point.”
The blunt statement pierced straight him and he jerked around to stare at the red haired woman in shock.
Carolina merely smirked. “I remember South. And believe me, there wasn’t a single one of us who didn’t think that meanness wasn’t in you, too. She just wore it on her sleeve. You, on the other hand, keep it buried nice and deep. Which makes the inevitable explosion when you snap so much worse. So, like I said. He was going to have to figure out you’re an asshole at some point. At least this is somewhat manageable. Assuming you want to fix it.”
“Of course, I do! I--” North blinked. “Am I really that bad?”
“Only sometimes.” Shifting her weight, Carolina rotated so she was sitting up against the armrest and her feet flat on the cushion next to her. “The rest of the time you’re disgustingly nice.” A small, suit-clad foot poked his side. “Do you have a plan for apologizing for being a prick? Epsilon is recommending a lot of groveling.”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” North replied in a dry voice. He paused to drink more water, glad the pounding ache in his head was finally starting to subside. “I think I’m going to need to do more than just grovel. Grif-- he takes things hard. More than he lets on and… honestly, I half expect him to tell me to fuck off.”
“Before coming to Chorus, I’d probably have told you he had the emotional range of a field mouse,” Carolina agreed. “Now though…” voice drifting off, she gave him a thoughtful look. “Did he show you the report he wrote for Epsilon?”
Confused, North shook his head.
“Not surprising, actually. After we sent the message to Hargrove, Epsilon approached him and asked him to write an analysis of everything that’s happened and his thoughts on what’s coming next. Very open ended. He finally delivered it to him a few days ago.”
Raising a brow, North asked, “How is it?”
“Good. Detailed. Epsilon was right that he’s got a knack for analysis. Enough so that I want to find whoever recruited him into the military and kick the crap out of them. Grif should have been funneled directly into Intelligence, not turned into a grunt,” she snorted.
Carolina grinned at North’s sudden bark of laughter. “In any case,” she continued in a more serious voice, “one of the sections of the report were profiles on all of us, Kimball and Doyle-- even Felix and Locus. They were very long, detailed, noting all sorts of habits and traits, big and small. All of them, that is, except for his. As Epsilon is describing it,” she gestured towards her implants, “he has definite self-esteem issues and a general block on thinking of himself as being capable of, well, anything of note. Even though he wrote several thousand words about the mercenaries, the division between the Federal Army and the New Republic, the challenges we’re likely to face working with and around the civilian population, and more. Grif has incredible depths that he just doesn’t seem to want anyone to know about.”
“I’ve noticed,” North agreed. Rubbing the back of his neck, he frowned. “I think something happened before Project Freelancer. Whatever it is, it weighs on him pretty heavily. He still has nightmares about it, even though it’s been years. Does Epsilon know anything? I know he’s been in Grif’s implants.”
There was silence as Carolina consulted with the A.I. Her eyes shifted away from North, pupils dilating as her vision unfocused. North waited, patient, understanding as he did how complex communication with an implanted A.I. was. There were words, of course, shaped in the mind and passed back and forth like spoken dialog but that was also a concession to the limitations of the human mind. The A.I. responded equally well to unspoken, unthought words, to flashes of intuition and shifts in emotion. A properly matched human-A.I. pair could have entire conversations in a few seconds, trusting as each individual did how to balance spoken and unspoken thoughts and that the A.I. wouldn’t misinterpret unshaped thoughts as more than they were.
Finally, Carolina’s gaze sharpened once more and she shook her head. “No, he hasn’t gotten anything from him. He said Grif’s mind is very complex and he hasn’t been able to see anything that isn’t surface level. Everything else is out of reach without getting permission to do a deep scan or using brute force.”
“Well, so much for that,” North sighed. Letting his spine curl, he slouched back against the back cushion and drank again. The metal bottle was getting light… Sure enough, two gulps later, he was downing the last remaining drops. Pulling it away, he slowly screwed the lid back on and offered it to Carolina.
“I’ll figure out how to apologize to Grif,” North said as she took the bottle. “In the meantime… is there anything I’m supposed to be doing today? I can’t even remember right now.” Rubbing his eyes, North struggled to recall his schedule. He knew the reorganization had thrown everything into chaos but…
“Technically, you were supposed to head out with Gold Team today.” Wedging the bottle between her hip and the back cushion, Carolina crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a considering look. “Since they’ve already gone to do whatever it is Grif planned, you have a free day. Sarge seemed to be doing just fine with Donut and Simmons helping him with his new Red Army.”
“What about Kai? Is she around?”
“Wash signed her up for piloting lessons. Apparently her arrival in Blood Gulch was… dramatic.”
“Fitting,” North noted. “In that case, I guess I’ll … shower. See if I can find out who Grif picked to add to his team. Figure out how to apologize for flipping out at him.”
“Sounds like as good a plan as any. And North?” There was a familiar light in Carolina’s green eyes, a fire he remembered from before the A.I.s and Texas. Before the leaderboard starting splitting them all apart. “Call me if you need something. I know we haven’t had a lot of time since you came back but-- I’m here if you need me. Even for weird and uncomfortable emotional stuff. Although that’s really more Wash’s department than mine.”
A small smile crossed North’s face and he gave her a small nod. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Shifting forward on the couch, North pressed his hands against the padded surface and pushed himself to his feet. Instantly, the pounding in his head surged once more, and for a moment he wobbled unsteadily.
Carolina watched, unimpressed and unconcerned with trying to help him. No doubt she considered his current state his own damn fault.
“You should probably add eating actual food into that plan of yours,” she said, half an order and half a suggestion.
Once North had found his balance, he made a soft sound of agreement. “We have a stash of MREs in our room.”
“Grif’s that much a glutton?”
Lips twisting into an unhappy grimace, North shook his head. “No, Grif’s-- he’s gone hungry before. Either had food withheld or flat out didn’t have any for extended periods of time. He gets nervous if he doesn’t have a supply on hand in case it happens again.”
Carolina blinked, startled. Finally, “I didn’t know that,” she said, discomfort clear in her voice.
“Watch him next time Kai eats with him. When she isn’t looking, he moves food from his plate to hers. Doesn’t even seem to realize what he’s doing. Just-- does it. Makes sure his sister has a full stomach even if it means he goes without.”
North had seen it play out several times. The more caught up in an argument or discussion Grif was, the more food he shoveled onto Kai’s plate. It was horrifying and heartbreaking, that on some deep fundamental level Grif had trained himself to go hungry so he could make sure his sister ate. That the siblings been ground so far underfoot that Grif had been forced to make those kinds of decisions in the first place. That they’d been unwanted and unprotected long enough that the actions had become automatic.
After a long silence, Carolina could only manage a single word: “Crap.”
“Yeah. If you watch and listen to him long enough, you start to get a feeling for just how shitty Grif and Kai’s childhood was. It’s a damn good way to start feeling depressed.” Taking a deep breath, North gave Carolina a small nod, determinedly pushing on. “Thanks for coming to talk. It helped.”
“Anytime,” she replied. Her tired eyes drifted over to the window, taking in the sight of Armonia glowing in the sunlight. “I think I might stay here for a bit. It’s been awhile since I just sat.”
“It’s a good place for that,” North agreed. With that, he stepped past the couch and headed for the door. He had work to do.