Things have only been going downhill since they locked Wash away. Everyone’s been on edge, and it seems like Epsilon’s breakdown was only the beginning -- they had to take Carolina in not too long after, and Maine’s been acting kind of odd, and York hears that not too long ago, Wyoming had some kind of episode with Gamma, but he seems to be on the mend now, or at least as far as she can tell. They’d removed Epsilon from Wash when they’d put him away, and from what York hears, they took both of Carolina’s AI from her when they had to confine her in what was now becoming the mental ward on the Mother of Invention. York doesn’t know much about where they’re being held, save for the fact that it’s a secure holding area. It probably wouldn’t take her much to get in, honestly, but considering they’d find out just as soon as she’d get to him, she doesn’t see the point. She was denied her first request to see him, and she’s not going to push it any further than that for fear of revealing the nature of their relationship to the Director. She’s sure he wouldn’t take too kindly to finding out.
The rest of the agents are being called in for some kind of maintenance scan on their AI, presumably to try and prevent any more incidents like Wash and Carolina’s. York hears the announcement during a quiet game of cards with North in the lounge one evening -- she’s taken to hanging out with him most nights since Wash was locked up, since South’s stopped talking to both of them since they got their AI and everyone else seems angry or unhinged most of the time. They’re somber nights, and most of their conversation is empty, but it’s better than sitting alone.
They’re all supposed to report for the scan at 0600 the following morning, and that’s when North looks at his watch and tosses his hand down with a sigh. “Guess I’m turning in now,” he says, wiping a hand over his face tiredly, and pushes himself up off the couch. “So much for taking advantage of being off duty in the morning. I’ll see you tomorrow, York.”
He waves, and York murmurs a goodbye as she gathers the cards from the table, pocketing the deck. Sleep probably isn’t a bad idea, but she’s still feeling a little restless, so she hits the showers first. A hot shower soothes her a little, calms her down just enough that she thinks she might actually be able to sleep. She can feel Delta humming busily in the back of her mind, but he doesn’t say anything until she’s back in her bunk, hologram flickering at her side as she reaches up to tousle her hair dry.
“York,” says Delta, and she’s not sure, but his voice seems a little quieter than usual.
“What’s up, D?” York’s voice is muffled as she pulls the towel over her head, and Delta merely waits patiently until she’s slung it back around her shoulders.
“I need to discuss something important with you. Do I have your attention?”
York glances at the hologram, raising one eyebrow inquisitively, but she just shrugs her shoulders as she sits down on the bed, reaching for her hairbrush. “Yeah, you’ve got my attention. What’s up, D?”
“It concerns the maintenance scan tomorrow. I have reason to believe that it is not at all what the announcement claimed.”
York lets out a hoarse laugh, pulling the brush through her hair. “You have a fear of white coats, D?”
“The color of their coats is irrelevant.” Delta’s hologram flickers just slightly, but he stays where he is. “York, I am serious. I ran several probability simulations while you were in the shower. After the repeated failures of Epsilon and both of Carolina’s AI, the rest of us pose a risk to Project Freelancer.”
“Yeah? How d’you figure that?”
“Think about it, York.” Delta’s voice is impassive as ever, but it’s compelling all the same, somehow. “Agent Washington and Agent Carolina are not the only two agents to have problems with their assigned AI. Agent Wyoming had nearly as much initial difficulty as Agent Washington did, and Agent Texas has become increasingly volatile after Omega’s implantation. Without some form of intervention, it is only a matter of time before more agents collapse under the mental strain and are put out of commission.”
York takes a moment to mull that over, sucking on her teeth. “Without intervention? What do you think they’re gonna do, modify you and the other AI?”
“No.” Delta’s voice is oddly grave, and that catches her attention more than anything else. “They will remove us.”
She looks at his hologram sharply, brow furrowing. “What?”
“With the deteriorating condition of several agents, we pose a security risk. However, they are aware that certain agents have bonded strongly with their assigned AI, or melded with them in such a way that they would not be amenable to removal. It only makes sense that the maintenance scan is merely a cover, a safe way to ensure every AI is removed without interference.”
“Why all of them?” York bites at her thumb, letting the brush drop into her lap. “Why not just remove the ones that are acting up, and -- ?”
“Because probability states that every agent with an AI will experience similar difficulties at some point. Even Agent North has had a recent episode with Theta. To date, you are the only agent who has not.” Delta’s voice is quiet, every word measured and even. “At this rate, others will join Agent Washington and Agent Carolina in the mental ward. The Director cannot afford such heavy losses to his ranks. Two top-ranked agents missing from the field have already had a considerable impact on Project Freelancer’s results, and he, too, has superiors to answer to. So before they can take measures to shut him down, he will eliminate the security risk.”
York doesn’t say anything for a long moment, just sinking down onto her bed, not caring that she’s getting the pillow wet with her still damp hair. Delta knows she’s just processing everything, so much slower than he does, just trying to get her head around it, and when she looks up, there’s a wistfulness to her face that he doesn’t immediately recognize. “And -- what, when everything’s back to normal and they’ve got all this shit under control, we get you back? I’m -- gonna get you back, right, D?”
Delta registers the pained undertone in her voice, and he thinks by now he might even be able to understand its significance. “It...is unlikely. The risks are too great, and I believe the Director is coming under uncomfortable amounts of scrutiny from his superiors for the repeated failures of this experiment. I am sorry, York. I...do not think I will be coming back.”
York’s heart doesn’t just sink, it plummets headfirst down into her stomach, heavy as a rock. She just stares up at Delta’s hologram, even though it’s just a projection, even though he’s really inside her head, but it’s because she needs something to look at (and he knows that, that’s why he almost always projects when he talks to her), and Delta registers anguish and upset and anger and fear and sadness on her face all at once. He’s not just her AI, he’s the closest thing she’s got to a best friend here -- hell, he is her best friend, strange and mechanical as he is sometimes. He’s someone she can rely on, someone who reins her in and who listens in comforting silence when she’s upset and who knows her better and more thoroughly than anyone else, knows her inside and out even if he doesn’t understand her, but he has the data and he catalogues it thoroughly, files it away and studies it and he tries. And her friends are dropping off like flies around her, losing their fucking minds, and if she doesn’t even have Delta --
She sits up quickly, hurriedly, and she eyes the handful of clothes strewn around her room, the personal effects scattered over the surface of her desk. Delta can feel the click in her mind as she starts calculating just how long it’d take to pack it all away. “We’re gettin’ out of here.”
“We’re leaving, D. You and me. If Freelancer’s a sinking ship, then I’m getting the hell off, and I’m not letting them take you from me.”
“What do you mean, no?” York jerks her head to stare back at Delta’s hologram. Her voice is hurried, just like her thinking. “You want them to take you away, to shove you in storage for God knows how long? D -- you’re all I’ve got left, and I’m not gonna let them take you.”
“You misunderstand.” It’s hard to tell, but York swears there’s a somber kindness in Delta’s voice that she hasn’t heard before. “It is not that I want you to leave me behind. Given the option, I would rather stay with you, York.” He pauses, and York feels something wistful tug at her chest, but he continues before she can say anything. “I agree that you should leave, York. The future of Project Freelancer is grim indeed. But you cannot leave with me.”
“Why the hell not? Look, D, the scan’s not till tomorrow. There’s time for us to hijack a shuttle and -- ”
“No,” says Delta again. “You should leave, but not with me. You need to take Agent Washington.”
“I -- what?” York stops, swallowing, and looks hard at Delta’s hologram.
“He needs help, York. He needs your help. I do not believe they are interested in helping him recover from the breakdown he suffered following Epsilon’s self-destruction. The Director is concerned primarily with results and data, and he will prioritize that over Agent Washington’s recovery if he thinks it will contribute to his research.” Delta’s hologram turns to look at her, and even though it’s just a projection, a facsimile of an armored man, there’s a power behind it all the same. “You have yet to have any incidents, unlike the other agents. If you allow them to remove me along with the others, it is likely that after a few days, they will no longer be paying close attention to you. The likelihood of one of the other agents having an adverse reaction to the removal, however, is far greater. It will be an excellent opportunity for you to break Agent Washington out of holding and flee.”
York can’t think of anything to say for a long moment. Her mouth feels like it’s full of cotton, her lips suddenly dry. What Delta says makes sense -- of fucking course it does, he always makes sense -- and it’s not like she’s forgotten about Wash, not like she could. The thought that they’re as good as torturing him down there strikes at her, and she’s sure that Delta knew that it would -- and for all that she might have been in a hurry to leave two minutes ago, to just pack up and not look back, the thought of leaving Wash behind, to contend with what Epsilon left behind, all alone, indefinitely -- well, she can’t really bear that, either.
“Okay, fine,” she says, finally, swallowing. “So I grab Wash before we jet -- ”
“No, York,” Delta says, and the hologram shakes its head. “It is too late for that. Were you to attempt to break Agent Washington out now, you would surely be caught. The risk is far too high.”
York just looks at his hologram, as helpless as she’s ever felt. Her shoulders slump, and she sags against the bed, a sigh escaping through her nose. She knows that she could make it out now if she wanted to, just her and Delta, but she can’t leave Wash behind, she can’t --
“You’re important to me too, you know,” she mumbles, raking a hand through her hair. “I don’t wanna leave you behind, D.”
“I know,” says Delta, and there’s something in his voice that makes her think of someone reaching out to touch her shoulder. “But you have to. Agent Washington is far more important to your well being. Were you to leave him behind, I am certain you would become inconsolable with guilt and regret.”
It’s a little blunt, the way he puts it, and she’s not sure it’s really a flattering depiction of herself -- but Delta knows her better than anyone else, better than herself, sometimes. “Yeah, well,” she says, twisting her lips into something that’d be a wry grin, if she could get herself to smile, “it’s not exactly gonna be easy leaving you behind, either.”
“I know. But...” Delta pauses, as if considering his words carefully. “But Agent Washington is special to you, York. You will save him because you love him.”
She starts to say something, but the words die in her throat as the entirety of what Delta’s said settles over her. She just -- stares at him, shellshocked and uncomprehending, her eyes wide with a kind of alarm that only comes with the sudden realization of something that’s been there all along. She sits in half-stunned silence, unable to find any response, and Delta’s words swell in her chest, heavy and unforgiving.
“Oh,” says Delta, faintly surprised. “I had thought you would have realized it by now.”
It’s been there, York knows, for some time, familiar and warm, humming in the background; she’d just failed till now to see it, to acknowledge it and put a name to it. And she knows it’s true, from the way she has to swallow past the lump in her throat just to speak, from the way she knows she can’t leave Wash behind. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she did.
“D -- ” York starts, but she breathes out a quiet laugh and puts a hand to her face, shaking her head. “Ah, hell. You really know me better than anyone else, don’t you?”
“Only by virtue of my position,” Delta says, but it almost seems like there’s a smile in his voice. “You understand now why you must save Agent Washington. He needs your help, York. And it can be done. You can take him and flee, and leave Project Freelancer behind you.”
She knows what he means -- take Wash and start a new life, under the radar and far from the Director’s reach, get him help, get him whatever he needs to get better -- if she’s going to run, it’s the only option. She knows she can do it, too, because she has the means and the skills to keep them afloat until she can find them a safe place to live. She doesn’t know if she can help Wash, but she can find someone who will, and --
And she still has to leave Delta behind.
“Y’know, once I leave,” she says, twisting a hand in the sheets, “I can’t come back for you. If we go off the grid, we have to stay there.”
“Yes,” Delta says, hologram flickering slightly. “I understand the gravity of this decision. Given the option, I would gladly stay with you, but it is not, as you say, in the cards.”
York smiles wanly, her shoulders hunching. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you had a case of the feelings, D. Guess it must be catching.”
“You are not far from the truth,” Delta admits. “I have come to be very fond of you, York. I will be...sad to say goodbye.”
York almost laughs at that, little more than a huff of breath, and she looks over at Delta’s hologram, a little sad and a little wistful. “Me too, D. You’re my best friend, you know that? You’re -- I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you.” The smile melts away from her face, and she just looks somber and tired. “I don’t wanna say goodbye to you, D.”
“You do not have to, if you would prefer.”
“No -- that’s not -- dammit, D. Whether I say the word or not doesn’t change the fact that after tomorrow, we’re -- aw, hell.” She passes her hand over her face, a little tiredly, but she manages to keep the small smile on her face all the same. “If I’ve gotta leave you behind, then I sure as hell am gonna make sure I get to say goodbye. Just -- let’s save it for tomorrow, huh?”
“Acknowledged,” says Delta, and she swears she can hear a smile in his voice.
She doesn’t sleep much that night -- there’s too much to think about, too much that’s happening all at once and far too suddenly, and she spends most of the night pacing, working out a plan with Delta. There’s a shuttle on the starboard dock whose schedule is conveniently clear for the next few days, one that York should have no trouble hijacking, and its range should get them at least as far as the nearest planet. Money will be a problem, but a small one -- York’s talents lend themselves to a lot of less than legal resources, and she’s not worried about that. The hard part is going to be getting away clean, she knows. Of course, they’ll know it was her -- it couldn’t be anyone else -- but they can’t know until she and Wash are a safe distance away. Delta runs every probability scenario either of them can think of, running the numbers until they’ve come up with the best plan, the safest plan, the one that’ll work.
York’s awake when her alarm goes off at 0500, dry-mouthed and puffy-eyed, and a shower doesn’t improve her much but she takes one anyway. She’s a few minutes early to the appointment, the same room they all had their implantations in, and they’re taking the agents in one by one. North’s the only one ahead of her, and not too long later he comes out bleary-eyed and looking a little disoriented, rubbing at the back of his neck like he’s got an itch. He doesn’t say anything when he staggers past York, his brow knit in a look of intense confusion, but York doesn’t have a chance to ask how he’s doing, because they call her up next.
Well, looks like this is it, D.
Would now be the appropriate time to exchange goodbyes?
Just as good as any. Doesn’t look like we’ve got much time left, anyway. York draws in a breath as she steps into the room, and one of the techs gestures to the chair with a tight-lipped smile. It’s the same chair she’d laid in for the implantation.
“We’ll have to remove your AI for the scan,” he says, his tone a sorry excuse for friendly. “It’ll only take a minute.”
York just murmurs something in the affirmative and moves toward the chair, and suddenly every muscle and sinew in her body feels rigid and leaden.
D, I just -- I just want to thank you. You’ve gone above and beyond -- well, everything. I can’t even begin to count the ways you’ve helped me, and Wash, and -- you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, D. Thanks, man.
I owe just as much to you. I have learned much from you since my assignment. If it were not for you -- and for Agent Washington -- I doubt I would understand the value of such companionship. Thank you. I feel...indebted to you.
Hope you realize I’m never gonna forget you, D. Hell, I’ll probably name a pet after you or something. York’s lips quirk into a distant grin as she climbs into the chair, her hands settling on the armrests. I’m sorry I couldn’t find a way to save you both, D. I am.
It is understandable, York. However, I believe you are doing the right thing. I hope that is a comfort to you.
It is. It really is. Shit, D -- I just -- fuck. Thank you for everything. I mean it. York is dimly aware of the tech telling her to relax as they prepare to remove the chip, because sometimes the ejection can be disorienting. She gives him a level smile in response, but there’s a flurry of panic in her mind all the same. Guess this is goodbye then. D, I -- God. I don’t --
I wish you and Agent Washington luck, York. It has been an honor and a pleasure.
Oh, hell. D -- goodbye, D. I’m really gonna miss you.
She can feel the chip slide out of her neck, sending a shudder through her, and she tries desperately to hang onto Delta’s presence in her mind, to feel him there, but despite her efforts, there’s nothing but a gaping hole in her consciousness the next moment, and she sinks against the chair, watching the tech carry the chip into the next room. She honestly has no fucking clue what they’re really doing with it -- with Delta -- but she maintains that distant smile until the tech returns, and she feigns surprise and confusion when he tells her something in the scan came back wrong, that they’ll have to hang onto Delta for a few days while they run diagnostics and try to repair him, and she has to bite back every accusation of lies, lies, I know you’re fuckin’ lying even as she walks back out the door, but there’s little about the resigned blankness of her expression that’s feigned. She doesn’t make a sound until she’s back in the privacy of her own room and by then she can’t stand it, she can’t stand how empty her mind feels now without Delta there, and as she grabs a pillow and bites into it, muffling every frustrated cry, for the first time in months, she’s alone.