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Episode Five: I'm A Gay Robot

Episode no.

5

Release Date

May 2nd, 2014

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Fresh Meat, First Blood

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Rumors and Rogues

"You can not replace her. Sarah was one of us."

- North Dakota defies The Director's eagerness to replace Agent Alaska

'I'm a Gay Robot' was released on the 2nd of May 2014. It is the fifth episode of The Freelancer Archives. It first appeared on website 'FanFiction' here: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/9837816/6/Red-vs-Blue-The-Freelancer-Archives-Season-One.

Characters

Project Freelancer

United Nations Space Command

Synopsis

In the War Room Leonard Church orders all the Project's Agents to stand before him, very few attend. In the aftermath of Agent Alaska's death, many of the agents refused to attend the briefing. The Director announced that the Project would need to replace Alaska with another certified lock picking expert. York raises his hand so that the agents can leave earlier, claiming to be an expert infiltrations expert (a lie). Once the Agents leave the Director and the Counselor discuss a call received from the UNSC, not about 'an asset' but about a representative from the military coming down to monitor Project Freelancer's progress.

In the Mess Hall York and Virginia meet up and discuss how other agents are coping with the death of Agent Alaska. That Agent Nevada seems to be coping quite well with the loss, and Virginia too due to the countless deaths of comrades he saw during his time as a UNSC sniper. Not far, in the Rec Room agents Carolina and Vermont converse about the mourning process. Vermont offers her history as a freedom fighter and Carolina discusses her relationship to Agent York.

Agent Utah, a broken shell of a man, watches the salvage team pick apart the ruins of the Laboratory where Alaska had died weeks earlier. The men discover a small shard of broken armor that was once part of Alaska's suit; the sight makes the depressed Freelancer gag. York, still in the Mess Hall now converses with Agent Oregon and Connecticut about whether or not Camping is a Legitimate Strategy.

A month now since Alaska's death and nearly all the soldiers have recovered. Over the world of New Validimire Agent Carolina leads a team consisting of Nevada, Oklahoma, Dakota, Montana, Florida, Wyoming and Georgia. They practice dropping at great heights from a speeding Pelican. They do three jumps, after the second coming under attack from local resistance fighters and militias. However they survive without a problem.

In the Mess Hall Iowa and Dakota are discovered by Agent Colorado arm wrestling. Colorado seizes the opportunity to become a book keeper and allow the other soldiers to place bets on the Freelancers. Meanwhile in the Rec Room Agent Georgia reflects on his friendship with Elanor, Jackson's younger sister. He remembers that none could make his best friend smile like she could, yet she had met her untimely death at the hands of The Covenant. Shortly after Utah appears, announcing his recovery from the mourning period. Back in the War Room The Director lectures Iowa, York and Colorado about breaking the rules of UNSC regulations on illegal gambling aboard a starship. Colorado defends Iowa and York, allowing them to be dismissed. The blame is then pinned on Colorado alone, at which point he diverts the blame to a made up soldier. He is dismissed and the Director confirms that he is the perfect man for a mission.

Carolina and Oklahoma, having returned, stack munition crates to get them out of the way for a UNSC asset that is said to arrive. Carolina asks if Vermont is a nice person as it is too soon for her to make her own decision. Colorado then 'wolf whistles' Carolina at which the female agent responds with tactics of intimidation.

A long way away, on the planet of Reach three UNSC operatives: Holly Jackson, Micky Anderson and AI Phillip are sent on a mission to retrieve a lost UNSC asset. In a race against time they grab the device they believe is the correct asset and are forced to flee to an unarmed Pelican and fly away without cargo. The three escape through the Glasslands chased by three Banshees. The Banshees rain fire on the Pelican, wounding Anderson and forcing Holly to try and pilot the ship. She accidentally causes the ship to lose all it's fuel and pressure, and in an attempt to save them Anderson crashes the ship into a canyon wall.

Meanwhile Agents Carolina and Florida leave the training room having emerged victorious over Agents Connecticut and Montana. Connecticut moves to the Observation Deck where she meets a boastful Carolina. Carolina gives Connecticut the nickname 'Connie', a name that is immature and childish; one that Connecticut hates. In the Classroom Jersey meets with the Counselor and The Director who discuss with the 'demon' agent his enhancement, a ghost suit. While the Ghost Suit does not work, the two believe there is a method to help make the enhancement a success.


In the Mess Hall Agent York and Rhode are seen conversing about their zombie plans while Colorado explains the meaning of his catch-phrase 'Hakuna Matata' to both Connecticut and Utah.

Some time later the Agents all leave to a Classified Location to experience something the Director designed called the Jungle Gym. It is a massive facility in which a large labyrinth arena is situated, in the labyrinth is a series of varied terrain and fort structures. Carolina leads a team of females against the males. She is seen utilizing her Speed Unit to flee the crowds before climbing atop the walls to examine the sheer size.

Seven hours later Oklahoma is alone and lost. She implements her 'Comms Hack Enhancement' to gain the upper hand over Agent Nevada. By doing so she uses a lie detector to learn the location and movements of many of the males. She then intrudes the location known as 'Fort Reginald' and overpowering York plans to eliminate the munitions dump. After incapacitating Agent York, Utah attacks; and she uses Utah as a human shield against Virginia who is sniping from across the arena. Oklahoma proceeds to use Utah's battle rifle to take out the sniper. Oakey then leaves to destroy the munitions pile, in doing so she damages the 'respawn' button, preventing any of the males from respawning in the paintball match. By the scoreboards an hour later she sees that: 1st is Carolina 2nd is Georgia 3rd is Oklahoma 4th is Rhode Island and 5th is Virginia As a result of the match Oklahoma is promoted to squad leader for the 'Decoy' Team.

In the Engineering Deck of the Mother of Invention Engineer Sarah Ashton receives a message from the Office of Naval Intelligence about a soldier coming to monitor the Project's progress.

In the Docking Bay Agent York and the others return from the Jungle Gym. They watch as a UNSC Pelican arrives dropping off Holly Jackson and Phillip. Holly reveals to the Director that she was the one assigned to watch over the agents as a liason officer. She also passes the Director 'The Package' he had been waiting for. He and the Counselor take the package to Dr Leonard Church's private quarters where they open it, revealing an Artificial Intelligence. Alpha.

Episode

Red vs. Blue The Freelancer Archives Episode Five: I’m a Gay Robot

Mother of Invention, War Room

York looked around, he wondered why not all the agents were present. Most were, but some hadn’t bothered to show up. He thought back to the notice on the board, what had it said? Had he misread it? No, it certainly did request all agents to the War Room. That’s when he picked up on the pattern. Present were Agents York, Iowa, Vermont, Montana, Dakota, Wyoming, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Oklahoma and Jersey. They were all the agents who hadn’t been there when she died. Except Dakota, he was. Maybe he felt like he could handle it.

Away of course was those who watched as Agent Alaska died. Connecticut, Georgia, Nevada, Rhode, Virginia and Utah… and poor Carolina. Carolina was in the infirmary for nearly a whole day afterwards. The tests had caused her to faint, Utah. Utah hadn’t experienced any medical sicknesses yet, other than those he’d probably have to cope with psychologically.

Over the past few weeks he and Utah had become close friends, he must have coped really badly. He wouldn’t talk to anyone except for Georgia. Even then Georgia felt massively excluded. Utah had been ordered to accept psychological help, but he just cursed at The Director and left; that had only been a few days ago. Those who had seen it, none were coping well.

‘You may know why I’ve called you here today.’ The Director said as he entered, the Counselor trailing behind. ‘The death of Agent Alaska was a harsh one. I have come to discuss replacing her.’

There was silence amongst the agents. None wanted to replace her, she was a human being. Project Freelancer had only had agents for a few weeks, but it still had responsibilities. Replacing Sarah would be immoral. York looked to his left where Dakota stood shaking his head angrily.

‘You cannot replace her.’ He grumbled.

‘Please, Agent North Dakota.’ Leonard Church urged. ‘We do not want to replace her.’

‘We merely intent to find one of our already recruited agents who can adopt Alaska’s skill set.’ The Counselor corrected.

‘You can’t replace her. Sarah was one of us.’ Dakota pushed.

‘We know.’ The Director continued. ‘And her name was not Sarah. It was Alaska. Please refrain from using the names of your past life. You are Freelancers!’

The Director stepped towards the table in the center of the room. Holograms began to light up across the table. The database for Alaska appeared. Highlighted were the stats about her skill set. She was the infiltration specialist.

‘Agent Alaska was our Infiltration Specialist.’ The Counselor began. ‘She had a certain skill set that allowed her to pick locks at amazing speeds. This is among the reasons she was recruited to join Project Freelancer. With her untimely demise we are left without an infiltration specialist.’

‘So?’ Dakota challenged.

‘Exactly. We don’t need a lock pick. It’s called explosives.’ Jersey growled.

‘Some of your missions will require stealth, Agents! Step back in line!’ The Director ordered.

‘As I was saying,’ the counselor continued. ‘Due to her death we are left without a lock pick. We would ask that one of the agents present raise their hand if they are skilled in lock picking.’

Again there was a long pause. No agent said a word nor raised a hand. York figured some would undoubtedly have experience in picking locks, but he knew that this was their approach to showing signs of rebellion. But York had to get back to Carolina and see how she was coping. He raised his hand.

‘Aye. I can do it.’

‘Agent York?’ The Counselor asked. ‘You have experience picking locks?’

‘Ah, yes… sir. I do. Extensive experience. I’ll take over that role.’ York laughed uncomfortably.

It was a lie. He’d never picked a lock in his life. He couldn’t hack if his life depended on it, considering he was going to war too that was a likely situation he’d be in. He’d have to do heaps of research on lock picking if he was ever going to pull this off.

‘Excellent. An easy process.’ The Director said gleefully. ‘Agents, dismissed.’

The Director turned away and began to speak to the Counselor privately. The agents cleared out. York knew that the others wouldn’t be pissed off that he volunteered, he just wanted to get back to Carolina. She had barely spoken to him since the accident. He wasn’t actually sure whether it was because he’d done something wrong, or whether she was struggling with Alaska’s death.

‘That’s ridiculous.’ Dakota said to himself, loudly enough for York to hear.

‘What?’

‘Treating her as if she was expendable. She’s a person. Expendable is a term used to describe someone who they can afford to let die in a war situation. We are not at war yet.’

‘Don’t let The Director get to you.’ York warned.

‘I’m not. I’m just angry at the system behind all of it. UNSC protocols.’

Side by side all of the agents left the War Room until the only personnel left inside the room were The Counselor and Leonard. They had been speaking softly as to avoid the agents hearing. Not that they were gone, and the doors were shut they felt free to speak up.

‘We received another call from the UNSC Command Office this morning, Director.’ The Counselor explained.

‘Was it about the request?’

‘I’m sorry, no. They needed to let us know that they are sending in contacts to complete a task for them.

‘What contacts? And what kind of task?’

‘Couldn’t say.’ The Counselor said as he looked at his screen. ‘However they said they would keep in contact and inform us soon.’

‘Will the contact arrive at one of our command outposts?’

‘No, here to the Mother of Invention.’

Project Freelancer had expanded over the years from nothing more than an idea. Now it was a massive military branch with scores of Simulation Bases across the Galaxy. Several Command Outposts had been built too, to ensure that operations ran smoothly.

‘Director,’ The Counselor began to ask. ‘May I make a recommendation?’

‘If you must, Counselor.’

‘Studies have shown that personnel under combat situations react better to aggressive leaders but only when the leader fights beside them. Agents respond best to passive leaders when off the field regardless of whether or not their superior has fought alongside them. Might I recommend you act more calmly and respectively when you converse with the agents.’

‘No Counselor I will not. It is my right and responsibility to treat agents aggressively. Your studies may show otherwise but I know my agents, they need to be hardened up. They need to be machines.’

‘Yes sir.’

The Director turned to walk away, towards the door that would lead to The Bridge. He turned at the last minute and looked back to his chief of staff.

‘Counselor, when I was a child I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted a wide-brimmed hat, belt with a shiny gold buckle, long cow hide boots and two holsters by my side. I wanted revolvers. I wanted to become the fastest gunslinger that anyone had ever seen. When I grew older I learned about the ways of modern technology, I learned that cowboys were a thing of the past. I was torn. I had been so passionate that I wanted be something I could no longer be. I fell apart and pursued something at the time I had no interest in. The sciences, physics, biology and chemistry.

‘There came a time where I had become so involved in my career that I had forgotten entirely what my childhood passion had become. I stood, looking in the mirror at the age of twenty wearing a long white lab coat. Immediately I remembered. This was the closest thing I would ever wear to a leather duster. I wore my lab coat proudly and underneath hanging from my hips two revolvers to remind me of the innocent child I had been, a symbol of the dream I always had wanted to fulfill. I am in the business of war, Counselor. And in war, people’s dreams die. …but I aim to bring them back.’

Mother of Invention, Mess Hall

After the conversation in the War room York had made an effort to meet up with some of the others in the Mess Hall. The only agents inside were York and Virginia. Naturally, to avoid being rude York approached his friend. Virginia was another of the agents who York hadn’t spoken to since the incident. While York had befriended him, they were never really that close.

After a long conversation that seemed to go for hours the two finished socializing and turned to more serious matters.

‘Hey, have you seen Utah at all?’ York asked Virginia.

‘You know, I most certainly have not.’

Virginia thought for a moment, when was the last time he’d seen Utah? It hadn’t occurred to him but he realized he hadn’t seen Utah since before the accident. Utah had been a good friend to Virginia but the only person who Virginia had spoken to truly since Alaska’s downfall was Nevada. Nevada was coping surprisingly well.

‘No but I have seen Nevada.’ Virginia said at last.

York didn’t want to seem rude but he diverted the conversation elsewhere.

‘If you don’t mind me asking, how are you coping?’ York asked.

‘… not terribly. I’ve seen people die. Many of the agents have seen people they knew die. The only thing that made this different was how she died. She died calling for Utah. I’ll be good in a few days, so will everyone else.’

‘Except for Utah.’

‘Except for Utah.’ Virginia agreed.

Mother of Invention, Recreation Room

The Rec Room was large and was built just for the comfort use of the agents of Project Freelancer. There was a vending machine, lounge area, small library corner, pool table, pinball and arcade machine, and a bar. It was a dark room lit only by the pale LED lights of the bar, the flickering lights of the pinball machine and the lamps in the lounge area.

Carolina had come out of her armor and was wearing her casual clothes. She was wearing a American Grifball League of America shirt. It was York’s and was far too big for her. Below she was wearing denim short shorts, not York’s (obviously). She looked as though she’d just woken up maybe ten minutes earlier, and she had.

She had thought she was alone in the rec room, minutes earlier she had just been sleeping on the couch. Alone she moved over to the bar and began drinking the glass of Cola she hadn’t finished from the last time she’d woken up.

‘You look tired.’

Carolina hadn’t noticed Vermont sitting on one of the couches. She was wearing long dark blue denim jeans and a black Black-Brutes boy band shirt. Her long black hair swayed as she wandered over.

‘Black-Brutes,’ Carolina acknowledged. ‘York and I saw them in concert two years back.’

‘You and York? You’re a thing?’

‘Yeah.’ Carolina confirmed before taking a swig of the cola.

Surprisingly Carolina didn’t feel in anyway sick or sad about the whole Alaska thing, she’d gotten over it. What she hadn’t gotten over was the lack of sleep and lack of attention from York. She missed her boyfriend, and understood that he hadn’t been avoiding her. He’d just not been able to find her.

‘So tell me a bit about yourself, Vermont.’ Carolina said.

‘There’s not much to tell.’ She began to think. ‘I went through college with Agent Montana. He joined me when I joined an illegal freedom fighter force on Kallista. He was recruited with me when we joined Project Freelancer.’

Carolina had heard about the Kallista incident. A corrupt UNSC branch seized control of all the cities on the world. A group of the planet’s citizen’s escaped the planet-wide quarantine and settled in the worlds of Reach, Earth and Yasonne. Veronica looked like a Reach girl. She must have been recruited there. Those who escaped began to recruit people in the streets and were supplied weapons through the black markets.

They had to operate underground as the rogue branch hadn’t yet been recognized as traitors. If the rebels attacked they’d be seen as rebelling against the whole UNSC, and it was a risk not worth taking. They were self-trained in brutal guerilla warfare. To do the things they did, the Kallista guerillas had to be merciless and immoral. Carolina saw Montana as a dark and brutal man, quite fitting for the job. Vermont looked as though she was one for more pristine and finesse, fighting real wars against a more deadly enemy. She suspected however, that Montana and Vermont were quite the opposite. Vermont may have been the cruel one, and Montana the kind and morally torn one.

The fighting had lasted a good six months before one of the guerilla leaders lost their mind. He decided that he was losing the war and made a suicide run hijacking a civilian transport ship and loaded it with explosives before flying it, filled with civilians, into a city spaceport. The casualties were raised to near a thousand and unbeknownst to the rebels the rogue UNSC soldiers and used that very spaceport to smuggle massive alien weapon batteries. A mix of the explosion from the collision and the explosion of the battery caused a whole to burst through the atmosphere. Everyone in the inside cooked. A world once compared to the paradise of Reach became a barren wasteland much like many of the other worlds affected by the Human-Covenant War.

‘Do you miss Alaska?’ Vermont asked in an attempt to break the awkward silence.

‘I miss my friend. But I knew her for no more than a month.’

‘Sounds like you’re doing better than some of the others.’

‘I am.’ Carolina looked at the door to the Rec room. ‘Utah was her best friend. Once we’re all recovered, he’ll be the only one struggling. A month was all he needed to get attatched.’

Mother of Invention, Laboratory

Utah stood by the window he’d been looking through for days now. He’d been here everyday, more than an hour each time. Every time he came, every time he remembered. He repeated the events over and over until he could look no longer. When he could no longer look he’d sleep and wake up hours later and try again. What was he trying to do? He didn’t even know.

Inside Project freelancer staff were busily removing bits of wall, glass and console from the site. The glass that Utah had beaten on had a massive crack in it now. The five men and women inside pulled up large pieces of rubble and searched around for pieces of wire that they could recover. Days after she had gone and the staff were still cleaning up. At the rate they were going it’d take at least three more years.

One of the men pulled up the large piece of grating that now covered the scorched table along one of the walls of the laboratory. He held up a piece of something and began calling out to a few of the others. It was a shard of something, a shard of blue armor. A piece of Alaska’s armor.

The Director once said that the armor of Freelancer was a priceless of tailored technology.

Agent Utah gagged and felt a burning liquid rise at the back of his throat. Tears swelled up in his eyes and his nose began to feel uncomfortable.

Mother of Invention, Mess Hall

Minutes later Connecticut and Oregon joined him. In an attempt to take his mind off the absence of everyone else. Oregon was certainly a dark character, but he was more or less drawn to Connecticut. It wasn’t as though he had a thing for her, he just respected her.

‘It is not.’ Oregon stated.

‘It is too!’ Connecticut argued.

‘No, it just makes you look like a pansy.’

‘Pansy? Who are you, Wyoming?’ Connecticut laughed.

‘Second me, Yorker.’ Oregon pleaded.

Yorker, it was Oregon’s nickname for York. A name he’d only called him since this afternoon. In fact, this had actually been one of the only times Oregon had spoken to York.

‘Nope. Can’t.’ York declined. ‘I agree with you, but I’m probably a culprit of it too.’

‘What?!’ Oregon panicked. ‘No way! Camping is not…. IS NOT, a legitimate strategy.’

‘Snipers camp.’ Connecticut reminded him.

‘Yeah but they move eventually. Camping means to stay there forever.’ Oregon tried to explain.

York returned with, ‘It depends on the mission. If we’re holding an extraction point then we don’t have much choice but to camp.’

‘No!’ Oregon refused. ‘Incorrect. We continue to move about at different set up positions made up of sniping outposts and heavy artillery. If possible we split up to outflank and cut off reinforcements. There is no need to camp, stay at one place for only a few minutes and move on.’

York could see that he was getting nowhere, Oregon was unbelievably stubborn when it came to battle tactics. He could see however, that Connecticut wasn’t in any place to give up in the argument just yet. She continued to get Oregon riled up.

‘Unless your objective is to stay at a certain point and wait until extraction.’ She proposed.

‘No. Those kind of orders go to marines. We are Special Agents, our mission would be to bend the rules and find a special position to defend the marines from. We are the extraction.’ Oregon refused.

‘You just said it!’ she jumped.

‘Said what?’

‘Find a special position. A defending point. A camping point.’

‘No. Only for a few minutes until extraction arrives.’

‘I thought you just said that you were the extraction.’ Connecticut chuckled.

‘No, I… Damn. Look, this is just how it is. Camping sucks.’

‘No. My word is final.’ Connecticut continued. ‘Camping is a legitimate strategy.’

Oregon shifted in his seat and began spinning the hunting knife he had sheathed in his chest plate. He shook his head, not as if defeated but as if there was no point in arguing – because he was arguing with a wall. A wall in brown EOD armor.

Mother of Invention, Laboratory

A few more pieces of Sarah’s armor were discovered in the past two hours that Utah had been staring through that window. Each shard had been placed on the scorched table which had been relatively repaired so that it would stay upright.

Utah heard footsteps behind him. This wasn’t an irregular occurrence, throughout the days he’d spent by the window many footsteps could be heard behind him. They would be quick and then slow as they passed behind him, either to stare at the agent or through the window. Then they’d scurry off in the other direction. This time the footsteps stopped altogether.

‘Jackson?’ The Counselor’s voice.

Utah didn’t reply. He continued to stare at the salvage team on the other side of the glass.

‘Jackson? Are you listening to me?’

Again Utah ignored him. He continued to stare through the window and began to wonder again why he was doing this. Was he trying to think of a way he could have saved her? What would that bring? More sadness he would beat himself up over?

‘Jackson. Come away from the window, talk to me.’

‘Go away.’ Utah grumbled.

‘Jackson, acting with hostility is not the way to talk to someone-’

‘My name is not Jackson!’ Utah screamed turning around in anger. ‘You gave me my new name!’ The agent grabbed the Counselor by the shoulders and threw him against the window. ‘I am Agent Utah! Not Jackson! Go away!’ he had him pinned against the glass, unable to move.

This was the first time that Utah noticed he was significantly taller than the Counselor, that was the effect the armor gave. Utah stepped back and released his employer. The Counselor shook his head and continued on down the hall. Utah stopped watching him walk away and returned him gaze to the window.

The soldiers within had stopped searching for pieces of armor and were instead staring at Utah, distracted. It was likely they noticed when the Counselor was thrown against the window. Annoyed at how slow they were moving, now that all they did was stare at him, Utah left down the hall in other direction that the Counselor went in.

Pelican No. 479, En route to New Validimire

It had now been a month since Alaska had died. Combat training was now well underway for all Agents (excluding Utah who had disappeared socially weeks ago). Today Pilot Four-Seven-Niner had gathered a squad of agents for a ‘drop test’.

The idea was that she would fly over the destroyed village of Vane and the Agents would, one by one, practice jumping out the back of the flying Pelican and land on the ground. Their first attempt they would simply need to jump out the back. On their second and third attempts they would need to land in the middle of a specific location marked out by a green smoke grenade. On their fourth and final jump they’d have to land on a green marked location and fire upon a red marked location with the weapons they had come equipped with.

Carolina, by this stage, had ended her mourning period over Alaska’s death. Her and all the other witnesses were ready to fight once more – again with the exception of Utah. She looked about the cabin of the Pelican, each of the agents were seated.

‘Entering atmosphere.’ Four Seven Niner announced.

‘Buckle up, people!’ Carolina ordered.

Each of the Freelancers lowered their safety bars over their torsos to prevent them from falling out of the chair. The Pelican began to shake violently and shunt forward in small yet very noticeable bursts. Next Carolina noticed the heat. They were pushing through the atmosphere at an alarming rate.

From what she gathered from a conversation between Four Seven Niner and The Director, the Pelican was going to be brought through the atmosphere and across the surface of the world at an alarming speed. Twenty Six Hundred Miles per Hour to be precise. That’s why they needed the bar harnesses.

The Pelican began to swerve and Carolina looked around the cabin once more. Nevada was seated beside Oklahoma and Dakota on the other side. On Carolina’s side sat Montana, Florida, Wyoming and Georgia. Eight agents accounted for.

Four Seven Niner pulled the emergency breaks and suddenly the Pelican began to slow, still at a surprisingly fast speed – just not fast enough to suck the Agents out of the Pelican’s rear once the ramp was lowered.

The safety restraints automatically lifted and the agents began to remove themselves from their chairs. Carolina made her way to the ramp where she stood closest to the exit. She’d never completed this exercise before, but she had been assigned leader nonetheless. She looked through to the cockpit where she saw Four Seven Niner poke her head around the side before holding her right thumb up.

The ramp lowered.

New Validimire was a desert world, but not nearly as barren or saharistic as the Red Waste. New Validimire was more like the plains of South Africa on Earth. There were deserts, but much vegetation and rivers and lakes. There were many mountainous regions and the ground had a yellowy-green coloration. The natives of New Validimire lived in huts made from black bark trees native to the world. To the pomp of the Galaxy, many will look at the world and call it quite primitive. Especially when compared to the gargantuan technological marvels of the cityscape at Reach.

‘Alright, line up in single file. On my mark you’ll individually jump out of the back of this Pelican into villages, planes or mountain ranges. Your mission will then be to rendezvous with me by the Pelican at 500-349.’ Carolina ordered.

Accordingly each of the agents began to line up.

First was Dakota.

He stepped up to the edge and waited some time.

‘When do I jump?’ he asked.

‘For the first jump, whenever the hell you want!’ Carolina yelled.

It was hard for her to project her voice over the rushing of the wind passing under, over and around the Pelican at this speed. Dakota stepped back and leapt out the back of the Pelican. He fell to the ground falling a long way behind the Pelican. He flailed his arms about but upon hitting the ground slammed his fists into the grass. He’d landed in the center of a village. All the locals had dropped what they were doing, stunned by the tremendous trick that Dakota had just pulled off.

Soon he was out of sight. Next lining up was Oklahoma, the only other female. She stood at the edge of the Pelican facing the rest of the agents inside the cabin. She jumped into the air and crouched into a ball, the Pelican blasting off away from her as she flew out the back. She spun in a series of backflips before landing on a mountain edge and sliding down the ridgeline. She skidded and came to a halt before saluting to Carolina.

Next was Wyoming. He ran up and leapt out. One by one the agents jumped out of the back of the Pelican until only Carolina remained. She had watched the eight agents exit the Pelican over the last ten minutes. Little time had passed but much distance had been covered.

‘We good?’ Carolina called out to Four Seven Niner

‘We good. You can jump out the back when you’re ready.’ She replied over the short-distance radio.

Carolina waited no seconds and stepped off the back of the Pelican as soon as she received the all-clear. Five seconds later she landed in a small dead forest. It was clear by the way the trees had darkened that they had died during some heat wave. But there was no time to sit around and watch trees. She had to meet Four Seven Niner at the rendezvous point and catch up with the other agents.

Turns out she had been correct. Three years back there had been a heat wave that lasted for three days in a fourteen mile radius, it killed off all plantation. All of it, dead. Since then the locals had been doing their best to re-vegetate the land. This is what Carolina had been told by Four Seven Niner and Georgia upon arrival at the rendezvous point. Georgia had been dropped off before Carolina, and before Montana. Somehow, he managed to make it back before both of them. He was a runner, and claimed to ‘triple time’ it back to the pickup point. And so he must of, if he had beaten Carolina that quick.

An hour passed before the last of the Agents arrived. A standard wait but they could have done better.

‘Good work. But after the next drop I want to have to only wait 30 minutes. And no, that doesn’t mean those who arrive first in five are off scot free. If you made it in five last time, you’ll be in here in two and a half next time.’ She ordered.

Before they knew it they were back in the Pelican and swooping in for a go round.

The agents lined up, this time in a differing order than before. Again Carolina waited for the ramp to lower before joining the front of the line. She then waited for the thumbs up from Four Seven Niner. When she received it she began projecting her orders.

‘Jump when you think it’s appropriate, as long as you hit the green smoke.’

On the approach to the starting position Four Seven Niner had dropped a series of green smoke grenades in various locations, one per agent.

‘Hit it and continue moving in the direction of the Pelican until you reach us at the rendezvous point.’

The Pelican was now moving twice as fast over the land as it had before. The target would be much harder to hit. Minutes passed and one by one the agents leapt off the back. Then it was time for Nevada to take a leap of faith. Carolina looked back at him, his helmet was off an under his right arm. He wasn’t wearing any armor, just a thin black nano-cell bodysuit.

‘Nevada?’ she asked shocked.

‘What?’

‘Where’s your armor?’

‘I don’t need it.’

‘You are not dying on my watch, Kangaroo boy. Where’s your armor.’

‘I told you…’

Nevada stepped closer to the edge.

‘I don’t need it.’ Nevada said as he placed the helmet on his head and leapt from the Pelican. He landed perfectly within the green smoke and she lost sight of him.

Was he dead? Carolina couldn’t tell. His body had disappeared amongst the green.

Another hour or so passed and Carolina was pleasantly surprised. This time she had been the third person back at the Pelican. The others were sitting by Four Seven Niner having lunch and flasks of coffee. For a planet as warm as this, well, the cool breeze had kicked in.

Carolina was only willing to wait another seven minutes. After that the Pelican would be taking off and leaving whoever was left behind. The others had all arrived, they were waiting on Wyoming. Wyoming had been the first to drop.

‘It’s just rude. Bad hospitality.’ Florida continued.

‘Bad hospitality?!’ Nevada choked (now in his full suit of armor) ‘They fucking shot at us!’

Agent Carolina decided to join the conversation. She stepped forward. ‘What’s this?’

‘Some of the locals,’ Nevada continued ‘didn’t take us being here as a good thing. Methinks they saw the smoke and thought they were under attack.’

‘What happened?’ Carolina asked.

Dakota stepped forward. ‘I’d found Oklahoma and heard shots from behind. We backtracked and found Nevada suppressed under heavy fire. The locals had smuggled black market arms in and were trying to gun him down.’

‘Is anyone hurt?’ Carolina concerned, now fearing that Wyoming may have died.

‘No.’ Oklahoma stepped in. ‘They may wake up with a headache, they were all incapacitated but not killed.’

‘I meant you guys.’

‘Us?’ Florida spoke. ‘No offence, lady. But we are super badass space marines, we know a thing or two about fighting. Don’t you worry about us.’

But Wyoming. Was he alive?

Mother of Invention, Mess Hall

‘Push! …Puuuuushhh!’ moaned Iowa.

‘Give in! Give in!’ replied Dakota.

‘What the fuck is this?’ Colorado asked walking in on the two of them.

It was an arm wrestle, the most intense ever. – The two were competing for reasons they couldn’t even remember. They’d been at it for an hour, and in that hour they’d forgotten what the purpose of the competition was. With each passing minute the importance of victory seemed to greaten. And with each passing minute more and more Freelancers, and more and more soldiers seemed to come in to watch the Agents battle it out.

Dakota readjusted his seating so he could put more effort into pulling Iowa back. As a result the Hayabusa Freelancer clenched Dakota’s palm more tightly. Dakota fell back, all part of the master plan. Iowa’s confidence grew and suddenly out of nowhere Dakota increased his strength pushing Iowa closer and closer towards the table.

It was by this stage that Agent Colorado had become fully enthused.

Iowa lifted a finger, the center finger of his right hand. Slowly and carefully, as if playing a game of Operation he wedged the finger between Dakota’s index and middle finger. What was the significance? Nothing at all.

Dakota’s eyes bulged, panicked. Agent Iowa seized the distraction and quickly forced Dakota’s knuckles into the tabletop. And explosion of shouts filled the Mess Hall from all the soldiers. Many happy, many…not so happy.

‘Boom! That just happened!’ Colorado shouted.

The agent in silver and blue made his way around the table closer to the victorious Agent Iowa.

‘Clap the man!’ Colorado shouted, now clapping; half the soldiers in the hall copying. Colorado turned to the mob, ‘Alright, you knew the odds. And you took the bets. Please line up in an orderly fashion to collect your winnings.’

Mother of Invention, Rec Room

All was quiet in the Rec Room. Georgia sat alone and pondered. Since he’d arrived he’s seen very little worth fighting for. When he was recruited by The Director he couldn’t help but think of all the lives he’d save fighting in a war against the Covenant. Countless humans would survive.

Thom had thought, if Jackson was alive (as at that point he wasn’t sure), then joining Project Freelancer would protect him. Georgia he would be, and he would be prepared to lose his life in order to save various others.

It was war. And Georgia had known this very well. He continued to stare at the bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy on the bench. He hadn’t removed his helmet, and though he’d removed the drink from the fridge behind the bar he hadn’t prepared himself to drink it.

Oh if only Elanor had been here, he thought to himself. She was the one person he missed more than Jackson. The old Jackson. Not the mourning and depressed Jackson. Sure, Thom missed Agent Alaska too, but not enough to be this sad. Maybe in that month before Georgia had arrived the two had become intimate.

If Elanor was alive she could tell him what to do, how to make Jackson smile. The two were close. They were closer than most siblings. When the Covenant killed her it almost destroyed Jackson. He couldn’t sleep for what seemed like months. Eventually drugs and alcohol saved him and he managed to sleep, for weeks. Thom’s best friend had been comatose. When he awoke he was new, oddly happy.

Elanor was only a year and a half younger than her older brother, Jackson. Their mother had been quite young when Jackson was born. They were more than siblings, but friends. Then Thom showed up, still just a little kid, years later she died and even later so did Sarah Chantelle. He wasn’t surprised to hear that Agent Utah was a broken man.

‘Broken man?’ came a voice from behind him.

He hadn’t realized it yet, but the voice hadn’t been imagined. Upon realizing he began to panic at how many memories that he’d reflected on, he’d spoken aloud. Agent Georgia looked up into nowhere in particular.

‘I’m done. I’ve given up feeling sorry, I’ve given up feeling angry. I can’t take it.’ Continued the voice.

Was the person talking to Georgia, or to no one?

‘I am done. …and bitch, I am back.’

Utah sat down on the chair to the right of Georgia, his helmet removed. His old friend Jackson had returned. He pulled up another Serrice Ice Brandy and the two toasted and drank to a new beginning. One agent had died yet Project Freelancer marched on.

Mother of Invention, War Room

‘That is a direct violation of protocol.’ The Director began to lecture. ‘You knew the rules, yet you breached them anyway. And for what? For profitable gain?’

Dakota and Iowa remained silent, like schoolboys being told of by a teacher.

‘In my defense, I wasn’t aware of the rules.’ Colorado spoke up.

‘You weren’t aware that gambling on a UNSC vessel was illegal?’ Church turned. ‘Did you even read the Rules and Regulations guide?’

Colorado looked around.

‘Wait, there’s a guide?’ he asked confused.

The Director sighed and continued pacing past the three agents. ‘This is your first warning. No more gambling. And in the very least, gamble well enough that you don’t get caught.’

Colorado stepped forward, speaking up again. ‘If I may sir, neither Agent Iowa nor Agent Dakota actually did place bets. The soldiers did.’

‘Are you telling me they are innocent?’ the Director asked. ‘If that is the case, then you are free to go.’

Iowa and Dakota looked up from the ground, then to the Director and Colorado. All confused. The three made their way to the exit.

‘Uh, Agent Colorado. I am not finished with you.’

While the other two left, Colorado stopped and turned back to his superior. ‘Yes, sir?’

‘From what I’ve been told you were the book-keeper at today’s event. Is that true?’

The agent was thinking. Truth? ‘Uh, no sir. I think it was that new Joans guy.’

‘Joans? Is that Private Joans Jessup you are speaking of?’ The Director asked.

‘That’s the one!’ Colorado lied.

‘Dismissed.’ The Director spoke. As Agent Colorado left the Director turned to the holo-map. ‘There’s no private Jessup.’ He spoke to himself. ‘Colorado’s going to be trouble, but the perfect candidate.’

Mother of Invention, Docking Bay

‘Is Vermont, nice?’ Carolina asked.

She had been careful in the way she enunciated. Failing to be careful could result in looking like a rude person. This early on in her military career and she could not afford to be making enemies.

‘I’m sorry? What?’ Oklahoma asked, not hearing.

‘I mean. Is Agent Vermont a nice person? I just don’t know her well enough.’ Carolina said at last.

The two continued to load up munitions. The UNSC had contacted the Director about something private a few hours prior. Something unauthorized and unprepared for was coming to the Mother of Invention. They had to move as much as they could from the Docking Bay landing area to make room. Carolina, Colorado and Oklahoma put up their hands to volunteer.

‘Why are you asking me?’ Oklahoma asked.

‘Only, you fought alongside of her in your first training scenario.’

‘Ah.’ Oklahoma understood. ‘I see where you’re going.’

‘You do?’

‘Yes. She isn’t a horrible person. But, well, she is a tad bitchy. She was little miss popular in high school, always hung out with the bad boys. She’s a princess, but a deadly one. The way she treated Connecticut is nothing, the two are friends now. Vermont is quite a skilled fighter.’

‘I guess.’ Carolina was unconvinced. ‘I just need to know how to work with people, if they’re going to be in my squad, I mean.’

‘Your squad?’

‘Apparently I’m being put down for squad leader.’ Carolina smiled.

She may have smiled, not too excitedly (it was concealed under the helmet); but Oklahoma must have detected a hint of happiness within her tone.

‘Good job. Congratulations.’ Oklahoma patted her on the back.

Carolina picked up another weapons cache. This one was much heavier than the others, and forced her to bend over as she tried to fit her arms around her. It wasn’t too heavy exactly, just awkward. The size didn’t seem to match the weight at all. She just wanted to know what was inside of it.

A whistle.

A wolf whistle.

Immediately Carolina dropped the box. The ground almost seemed to shake the tiniest amount.

‘What the hell was that?’ Carolina turned, speaking slowly and angrily.

‘Nice view, Carolina.’ Colorado had turned his head on his side, as if checking her out.

‘Excuse me?’

Agent Colorado hadn’t been wearing his ODST helmet. The second Carolina showed anger Colorado seemed to freeze up, his eyes widened like a crappy anime drawing. He quivered.

‘You…must have misheard me…Agent…uh…Agent Carolina.’ He giggled nervously.

‘I must have.’

She watched as Colorado awkwardly sidestepped away towards more boxes. Not looking he seemed to childishly fall in a heap amongst the crates. Ammunition and grenades spilled out across the deck as Colorado tried to pull himself to his feet, failing every time.

Carolina looked at Oklahoma, a gaze turning back in acknowledgement. The two laughed. Colorado, the thorn in their sides.

Reach, ‘The Glassed Canyon’

Holly was feeling dizzy. The constant shaking of the Pelican at this speed was causing all the blood to rush to her head. The open ramp at the back probably wasn’t helping all that much. The constant weaving in the depths of the rocky canyon contributed to. Oh, and that sense of impending doom; there was that.

Behind them five Covenant fighters tailed them, trying to shoot them out of the skies. Banshess, they were called. Banshees were small fighters that fired light fully-automatic laser weaponry with an additional secondary ‘Banshee Bomb’ capable of devastating damage. Holly stopped standing by the ramp and turned towards the cockpit. She wiped her long blond hair from her eyes and she headed for her allies.

‘Miss Jackson? What do you have to report?’ the smart AI Phillip asked.

‘Uh, the bad guys are still on our six.’ She panicked.

‘Well can you do anything?’ Michael shouted back.

Michael Anderson, he was piloting the Pelican. The three had been on a secret mission to recover a lost asset from the planet of Reach. Whether or not the asset they retrieved was the right asset, they couldn’t be sure. Michael and Holly often worked well together, members of the UNSC since their teens. Phillip, the smart AI had been working with Holly for only a few years now, two to be exact.

‘Like what!?’ Holly screamed at him.

‘I don’t know, drop cargo on them?’

‘What cargo? You unloaded when we took off so that we could fly faster!’ she shouted. ‘F.Y.I. Banshees fly faster than Pelicans always.’

‘Shields eliminated. Sorry guys but it looks like the ship is breaking apart.’ Phillip interrupted.

Holly stepped back, looking out the back ramp. The second she did a ‘Banshee Bomb’ made impact blasting the ramp off the back. As it flew off, one of the Banshees soared straight into it, exploding into purple plasma-fueled flames on impact.

In a desperate attempt Holly opened a storage locker located in the rear of the cockpit. Inside was a minigun. She used all her energy to lift it, pushed the barrel as it rotated and squeezed the trigger. Immediately the petite girl was forced back, recoil launching the bullet spray into the roof of the pelican. She was forced to let go, leaving the minigun to fly out through the crew area and out into the canyon behind them.

‘Did you just shoot us?’ Michael panicked.

‘I did! Get over it!’ Holly shouted back. ‘We have bigger issues at the moment!’

As she finished a flurry of blue laser blasts shot by, just missing her as she stood in the cockpit doorway. She looked back at the tailing banshees and back towards Phillip and Anderson. And the blood on the windscreen.

‘…yeah….ugh, like me…getting shot…’ he groaned.

Phillip’s physical image flickered and appeared at the console. The yellow smart AI appeared as a man fully dressed in janitor’s overalls and a mob. ‘Oh boy.’

Michael slid off the chair, losing consciousness. He began to slide across the floor out of the cockpit and towards the back of the pelican. Before he could fly out the back Holly stepped on his leg, then grabbing it and pulling him inside the cockpit once more.

‘Phillip! Shut the doors!’ she ordered.

Suddenly the cockpit door slid shut.

‘Okay, Phillip. Time to teach me how to fly this piece of metal.’ She said, trying to remain calm.

‘Holly Jackson, you haven’t been certified for piloting.’ He responded.

‘Then you fly!’

‘I can’t.’

‘Then teach me how to fly!’ she panicked, now noticing the Pelican beginning to dip towards the front right hand side.

Phillip flickered again, his appearance changing to something more suiting. A mid 1900s Aviator Uniform.

Holly sat down, doing her best to ignore the squelchy blood-soaked chair that she was forced to sit on. Behind her Michael was groaning. ‘Shut up, Michael. This is not the time.’ She placed both hands on the console, one on the throttle and another on a large lever-stick-thing.

‘Now what?’ she asked.

‘Lift up the throttle, rotate the third nozzle to your left. The nozzle is the exhaust control. Once that’s been tightened you’re going to have to quickly turn the one on the left of that. That’ll sacrifice fuel so that you can rely on staying upright.’

‘No fuel? That’s bad!’

‘Sorry to disappoint, but if you don’t account for exhaust then at this rate we’re not going to stay airborne anyway.’

Holly Jackson wiped the sweat from her brow. She lifted the throttle with her left hand. A small shunt in the Pelican pushed the Pelican upright for a few seconds before dipping once more. With her left hand again she turned the exhaust nozzle. A fizzing sound was heard. She panicked, the sound was unexpected. White sprayed fumes covered the windscreen in a matter of seconds.

‘Turn the nozzle! Turn the nozzle!’ Phillip raised his volume. ‘Oh, no. Too late. You took too long. Now you’ve got no exhaust to keep us airborne.’

‘Buzzkill!’ she shouted back in anger as she turned the other nozzle.

‘No don’t!’ Phillip shouted.

‘Why not? You told me to turn the nozzle!’

‘That was before you opened the exhaust valve. Now we have to gas to keep us up and no fuel to keep us moving! We are literally running on nothing!’

The Pelican stopped shaking, which felt good but Holly knew the truth wasn’t. The shaking was the engine trying to find fuel, and now there was none.

‘Great.’ Phillip exclaimed. ‘The Glasslands will be our resting place.’

‘So? Can’t you just make a backup of yourself?’ she reasoned.

‘Oh yeah. That’s a great idea. Why don’t I just back myself up to this console, so that when it crashes I’LL BE PERFECTLY FINE!’ he shouted sarcastically.

‘For an AI you’re an asshole.’

Holly tried to push lever, turn nozzles move gearsticks. All seemed lifeless, non-stationary. They slid around aimlessly and could not be locked into place. Why isn’t anything moving the way I want it to? What’s wrong? They aren’t locking into place!

A loud ear-piercing screech rang out above the gunfire and loud soaring sounds. The white smoke no longer covered the screen and suddenly the canyon walls were revealed once more. Holly steered, banking to the left. Steering seemed just about the only thing that worked.

A second later the Pelican was launched forward. Blackened smoke began billowing on the outside of the room. She could see in the reflection of the glass, small sharp red sparks. Fire. The Pelican must have been hit by a ‘Banshee Bomb’. She looked through the glass window in the door to the cockpit. Out the back she watched as all six remaining Banshees tailed her.

‘Aaaaaand there goes life support.’ Phillip chanted.

‘What?’

‘If you decide to go into space you’ll last a good ten minutes using the oxygen already trapped inside. If you want to leave the planet you’re going to need a new ship.’

Damnit. One bad thing after another. A small flash. More bad luck. The flash had indeed come from crossed wires poking out of the smoking hole in the roof. Suddenly the Pelican launched itself to the right. The starboard turbine working at 400% rather than 100. It was slowly moving closer to the canyon walls. Holly Jackson pulled on the steering. It was slack. Nothing. They were going to crash. They had to get the data back to Command.

Behind her Anderson groaned. He pulled himself up with his left hand, using the chair she sat on as a guide. Clutching his bleeding chest with his right hand he grasped the lever that sat in front of her. It was the only one that was not loose. He yanked it down and suddenly fell to his feet, weak and dizzy… and unconscious once more.

A fizzing sound similar to that of the gasses spreading across the windscreen was heard. Anderson, he’d diverted the gasses into the gear locks under the console. The hydraulics working perfectly once more. All the nobs and wheels and levers and things seemed to lock back into place.

She looked at her friend for a second. Thankful and pleased before reaching out and pulling on the steering levers. The Pelican dodged the right wall, ducking under the several archways and rockslides. Now the Banshees engaged again.

Lasers flied past.

The Pelican was not equipped with any armaments, unlucky. Otherwise they’d bomb the canyon and force rocks to crash into the Covenant fighters. Instead-

A wall blocked off the exit.

There were still massive Covenant Cruisers above the canyon. If they left it they’d be glassed in a minute. If they stayed below, they’d crash and die. Decisions. Anderson leapt of his feet with unbelievable strength. He groped at the directional controls. And a second later they made impact, head first with the massive rock wall.

Mother of Invention, Training Room

Absolutely wasted. Training sessions with Carolina always were. The woman wasn’t human, and she could never lose! Connecticut limped out of the room with Montana, Carolina and Florida were already in the Observation Deck celebrating their victory. Connecticut would have spoken to Montana, apologized perhaps, but she had no energy to speak.

She walked up the ramp to the Observation Deck, Montana now nowhere to be found. Her helmet was in her hand, the hand she used to hold her bruised ribcage. Her breath was far from normal, raspy and desperate. She kept her left hand free as to have something she could catch herself on if and when she fell from exhaustion.

‘Why so tired?’ Carolina laughed, boasting in front of her cohort.

‘Huh?’ Connecticut barely replied, confused, still tired, ears still ringing.

‘Jeez. Don’t be such a sore loser, Connie.’ Connie? What kind of name was Connie? ‘Huh. Connie. Got a nice girlie ring to it.’

Girlie? Who was she calling girlie? Connie’s a kid’s name. She was no kid.

‘I’m sorry? What was that you called me?’ she asked, doing her best to sound superior.

‘Connie. Like Connecticut, but more… childish.’

And thus their competitions began; a competition that would conclude with death.

Mother of Invention, Classroom B

Jersey had been in the second classroom only once before. He had sat at the bench and listened to the lecture as every other agent had. Now was different. Now Agent Jersey was up the front of the class, sitting on top of a desk in the front row with both the Director and the Counselor standing less than a meter away.

While technically Jersey was with his two superiors, he still felt alone. And for an agent who preferred to work alone it never hurt to know that an ally with a gun was close by.

‘I don’t get it.’ Grumbled Jersey, his voice still dry and harsh.

‘The science behind it should not be of any concern.’ Assured the Counselor.

‘I realize that. But I’d still like it to be explained to me.’

The Director rolled his eyes and began pacing the classroom. Time was something of a concern to Doctor Leonard Church. Jersey had to show his power by defying any care towards the matter. He needed to keep up a reputation.

‘Show me.’ Jersey repeated.

‘Okay,’ the Counselor promised now stepping closer to Jersey. ‘picture this, a person is made up of a group of thousands of particles. When the particles are together it becomes a solid. When they are apart it is no longer a solid, instead it can be broken really easily, allowing things to pass through in unbelievable rates.’

‘So you’re saying that bullets will go right through me?’

‘Not at all.’ Corrected Church. ‘Unless you activate you enhancement, that’s when you’ll be safe.’

‘However,’ the Counselor continued ‘bullet impact prevention isn’t the primary concern of the armor enhancement. Theoretically, you would be able to walk through walls at your command.’

‘…like a Ghost?’

‘Uh yes.’ The Counselor realized. ‘Exactly like a ghost.’

‘So why not hook me up?’

The reason for him being here had thus far been misunderstood, the Counselor realized. He wasn’t here to be linked to his enhancement. Jersey had been summoned because his enhancement could not be harnessed.

‘That might not happen, Agent Jersey.’ The Director apologized.

From the Doctor’s own lab coat he pulled out a tablet. He swiped his finger across the screen and suddenly the classroom’s front screens flickered and began relaying security camera footage.

‘This, Agent Jersey is the testing of your enhancement.’ The Director began.

From the top corner of a room was the camera. The room below was small, white and cube shaped. In the center stood a man in armor identical to Jersey’s. However, the agent himself had a much more physically advanced build.

Jersey listened carefully. The voices of the scientists into their little microphones were near impossible to hear over the static of the camera footage. ‘Ready… mark…’ Jersey thought he heard.

A flash. The space marine in the center of the room collapsed. Lifeless. The enhancement was a failure.

‘The first test was a dramatic failure. After Alaska’s death we had to ensure that our agents weren’t the ones testing the enhancements.’ The Director continued.

‘What was wrong with this enhancement?’

‘We hadn’t hooked it up to a command server nor had we installed a control grid. We realized we may have had to install both, but there were only enough ports in the enhancement to store one. Using neither resulted in an instantaneous heart failure.’

Jersey looked again at the lifeless husk of meat and metal laying on the ground. As he examined the poor man the screen changed again. Suddenly the man was upright once more. At the bottom right of the camera feed was a small red number ‘two’. This was not the same man.

‘This test subject has a control grid installed but no pipeline. The control grid is what allows the user to walk through specific solids on command.’ The Director’s voice, unemotional as ever; also unreadable.

The man on the camera feed stepped forward, then back as if unsure of himself. Suddenly the armor became almost transparent. The subject could still be seen but you could see the opposing wall ever so faintly through him. He truly was a ghost. But a ghost without a pipeline to a command server. He leapt. Unbelievable so he went through the wall. A real ghost.

A small spark flickered as the test subject went through. The transparency disappeared and the subject was solid once more, but he had been only half way through the wall at the time. He was stuck, through the wall for a second. One mere second. Then his right arm which had been out beside him, the right side of his body excluding the head, and his left leg all dropped to the ground. His insides spilled out across the ground. He had been torn apart, much of the subject’s body still trapped inside the wall.

‘When the enhancement is deactivated, intentionally or not, and it is already through a solid object a competition takes place. It must be decided whether your particles or the particles of the solid object will be the ones that remain.’ The Director continued. ‘However, considering it is always your particles that are split up, and the solid object’s that are together – the solid object will always win. If you phase out when in a wall you will not survive, part of you will be destroyed within the object.’

The man had died because the Director had been careless, because the Director cared not for human souls. He was a harsh man and a tyrant. Agent Jersey was not sure whether he would support use of the ‘ghost suit’ enhancement, no matter whether or not it had been perfected.

Jersey loved violence, and death, and the cracking of neck bones within a man’s tightening grasp. Pain was power. And power was man’s best friend. Pain, blood, death, violence, anger, rage and aggression – these were things that made a man tick. Like clockwork. It was all theoretical, but Jersey would time and time again put this into practice.

Another man appeared in the room. Most of the blood had been washed away. Lighter, and smeared puddles of blood where the limbs had collapsed still remained. The blood could not be cleared. The third test subject stood in the center of the screen. He hadn’t been there long, and the test initiated sooner than Jersey expected. The man began to sink into the floor. Further and further at a fast rate until his body became invisible. Jersey cringed, he feared he’s have to watch another man be torn apart by physics.

But he just kept sinking until the man was no more.

Jersey was no scientist, but he assumed that he’d keep sinking until he deactivate the enhancement, or it lost power, or it glitched, or he hit the planet’s center of gravity.

‘Test subject three,’ the Director continued, his voice sharp and cruel ‘pipeline, but no control grid.’

Jersey took a deep breath. A few seconds silence for the deceased.

‘So I can’t use my enhancement. Why am I here?’

The Counselor smiled. ‘We may have found a way, be patient you will be able to use your ability.’

Mother of Invention, Mess Hall

Rhode sidestepped to his left. The lunch cue was moving oddly fast for a normal lunch time. Most of the agents had skipped lunch, the Director had ordered every single to be at the Docking Bay in two hours from now. York had grabbed his mystery lunch and was waiting for Rhode on one of the tables. On another at the end of the hall sat Connecticut and Utah.

The terrifying lady behind the food counter croaked ‘next’, and soon enough it was Rhode’s turn to receive lunch. He held out his tray and the woman placed a large piece of steak on the plate. …normal, juicy steak. He looked at her a moment.

‘What? Don’t tell me you’re allergic to this too!’ she barked.

‘No. I- just. This is normal. Thank you.’ He nodded before making his way to York.

Rhode weaved between the rows of tables before finally picking the spot across from his friend in the Khaki armor. He realized he’d left the knife and fork by the counter, but was too afraid to confront the woman again. He looked back at the meal. His gaze was interrupted by York who was holding out another set made up of a fork, knife and napkin.

‘Oh, cheers.’ Rhode smiled.

The steak was juicy, not too much blood and not too much fat. When a piece was cut off, his teeth sank into it ever so easily. The taste was something he felt he hadn’t tasted in months, years. Memories of his lost love of food had been forgotten, again they began to reappear as he continued eating.

‘So, where were we?’ York continued, interrupting the process.

‘Uh…’

‘That’s right!’ he remembered. ‘What’s your zombie plan?’

Zombies, every male’s dream come true. There had not been a day gone by since he was sixteen that Ryan had suspected the day of reckoning wouldn’t be upon him. A skillful combatant was always prepared.

‘I’m a saboteur.’ Rhode laughed.

‘How so?’

‘Well, while everyone goes out to Wallmart I figure I’ll do something like raise the alarms. While the zombies butcher the survivors, eliminating potential bandits, I’ll move offworld. I’d go to Sidewinder or something. Some place cold where the zombies would freeze, or at least be seriously slowed down.’

York thought for a moment.

‘What type of zombies? Infected? Fast? Slow?’

‘I’m not quite sure. As long as they aren’t all, crawl up out of the grave I think I’m good.’

Before York could respond with his another Agent entered the Mess Hall. Agent Colorado, he passed York and Rhode whistling the tune to Falling Towards the Skies.

‘Hey, what’s for lunch?’ he asked.

‘Steak.’ York responded.

‘Cooked?’

‘Yup. Medium-rare.’

‘Oh boy!’ Colorado’s face lit up. ‘Just how I like my women!’

Rhode and York looked at each other. Confusion.

‘Uh Medium-rare?’ Rhode asked, reluctant.

‘What?’ Colorado replied confused. ‘Oh man, lol. I thought you were going to say hot.’ He looked at his feet and shook his head. ‘Oh well, I like women that way too.’

Agent Colorado was in an exceptionally good mood. The Agent made his way to the lunch line, no other agents nor soldiers were cueing and this meant that Colorado could get his food quicker. The woman behind the counter plopped the lump of meat on carelessly. Colorado considered telling her off, that steak needed to be treated with respect. Instead, he figured he preferred to keep his head attached to his shoulders.

The young space marine weaved between the tables to where he found Connecticut and Utah. He had at first been reluctant to join Utah, the poor bastard hadn’t been seen for weeks. At first Colorado mistook Utah for Wyoming. Utah had his helmet on, his food had been eaten – how he achieved this was a mystery of the universe.

‘May I sit here?’ Colorado asked.

‘Will the Covenant fall?’ Connecticut asked symbolically.

‘Urah.’ Utah repeated.

‘Hakuna Matata.’ Colorado followed and sat beside Connecticut.

The two who had already been seated looked at each other, then towards Colorado. It was a look the Rhode and York had shared not a minute earlier.

‘Huh…?’ Colorado barely mumbled with a large piece of steak in his mouth.

‘Hayunar ma- what?’ Connecticut tried to repeat.

‘Hakuna Matata.’ Colorado repeated again.

‘It’s like Spanish for amen, right Colorado?’ Utah asked.

‘Uh no.’

‘It sounds Finnish to me.’ Connecticut tried.

‘Uh no.’

‘Then what country is it from?’ Utah asked.

‘Uh, I don’t know. Africa perhaps?’

‘I didn’t know that the Africans were Christian.’ Connecticut wondered.

‘They’re not!’ Colorado burst out. ‘I mean Hakuna Matata isn’t a religious term.’

‘Then what does it mean?’ Utah asked at last.

‘And why aren’t Africans Christian?’ Connecticut followed.

‘I- uh- …they… they are… I …I- I don’t know if…. Fuck you guys.’ Colorado conluded.

He stepped up out of his seat, placed his helmet on and walked away. Stupid Freelancers, he thought to himself. Who did they think they are? They might as well- oops, he continued to think, forgot the steak. Colorado rushed back to the table, quickly interrupting another conversation. He picked up the meat in his steak and slowly backed out of the room. As he walked back out the door he watched as Utah, Connecticut, York and Rhode stared at him in confusion.

CLASSIFIED LOCATION, Jungle Gym Training Facility

‘Welcome Agents of Project Freelancer to what we call the Jungle Gym.’ Shouted the female Project announcer.

She was allegedly a sergeant, a woman who had helped oversee this facility’s creation. What was this facility? Fun. The Jungle Gym had been a well-kept secret by the Director. A surprise for all the agents. None had heard of the Jungle Gym, but now all were going to experience it for the first time. All they’d been told was a quick tutorial by F.I.L.S.S. that it was the fourth largest Project Freelancer training facility. A training facility. One that was so top secret, the Agents had not been debriefed on the planet they were currently standing on.

Carolina stepped forward as the announcer left to her post. In truth Carolina had been told what ‘kind of’ things would be at the facility, but not what was actually here. She had (as usual) been assigned squad leader. Beyond the wall that stood before them was apparently the greatest training field known to the UNSC. And only Freelancer Agents were allowed to use it, what was better was that it was large enough to fit a good two hundred combatants.

She turned and looked at the wall, what she could see were heaps of rungs. The rungs were the only way of going over the wall. A small height above the wall was a massive net one that stretched along both endless directions of the wall. Covering it were a series of green and brown mats, simulating an environment. Where they were seemed extremely humid, possibly even a desert. It was hot, and made the shade of the training battlefield before them more appealing.

Behind her all the Agents stood, she turned back to them.

‘Agents, we all have been told that use of this facility is a gift. It will be fun. So why don’t we establish an old and unforgotten conflict eh?’

‘And what would that be?’ Oregon asked.

‘Who’s better in battle? Boys or Girls?’

Connecticut stepped forward. ‘I nominate Carolina as female team captain.’

‘I most humbly accept your nomination, Connie.’ Carolina smiled.

‘It’s not Connie.’

‘It is now.’

The Agents all seemed to laugh. It probably wasn’t fair to pick on Connie, but all Agents needed to be molded. This was how Connie would be. It dawned on the newly appointed team captain that there were only four females in her team. It was good that no one pointed it out. Oklahoma was a loyal soldier. Vermont was a violent soldier. Connie was a strategist. Four soldiers, four winners.

She turned and charged for the war. All the other agents charged close behind.

She leapt up onto the rungs, and hoisted herself up. She climbed for a good thirty seconds before rolling over into the Jungle Gym itself. And it was awesome.

There was no time to stare, she sprinted as fast as she could. There were eight PA systems throughout the facility. One in each corner and a couple on various poles scattered under the massive net roof. She sprinted as fast as she could, engaging her armor enhancement to sneak out of view. She had no weapons on her, none of them did.

The rules were simple. All guns were to be loaded with paint, not Freelancer paint but real paintballs. Hand-to-hand combat was allowed. Once you were hit, you had to return to your base and press a button to ‘respawn’. Each gun was monitored by the administrators of the facility, when a gun was synced up it was linked to the agent who used it. When an agent was hit his gun, whichever he tried to use, would lock down. Carolina needed to get to the base. Find it.

By the time she had, she realized the others in her team were likely already engaged in mid fight. She took the time to calm herself, taking note of her surroundings. The Jungle Gym was a maze, literally. It was a massive labyrinth that seemed to go on in a kilometer in every direction (though that was unlikely). The ground was brown and soft soil. It was a game, but an effective training exercise. If at any time she realized her team couldn’t be trusted, she’d have to find Agent York.

At the base, where she stood now she located a small Battle Rifle. The weapon of opportunity. Upon picking it up she heard a click, likely the administrator’s had unlocked its firing capabilities now that it had been picked up by one of the match’s players. A game.

Carolina ran. She pushed herself to the limits, weaving when she could. It was eventually, after a good six minutes of not finding anyone that she discovered a ladder. Naturally curiosity took over and she climbed it. The ladder took her to a plank of wood that crossed over one of the walls and over to the other side of the next one over. At the top she located her position and for the first time noticed the sheer size of the Jungle Gym.

If she had taken a second to look at it when climbing over the wall at the start, she would have been shot for certain. It was massive. And there was so much varying terrain. There were forts, bridges, nets, ladders, chains, ponds, playgrounds all located in small pockets of the maze. She looked up at the fort and noticed Vermont running for her life, York and Wyoming chasing after her firing what appeared to be paint filled TMPs. Objective updated.

… hours have passed. Seven or eight, it’s too hard to tell. This is no longer a game. It is still about winning and losing, but now the price is higher. Oklahoma was after such a long day alone. She hadn’t seen another Agent for a good hour. The sound of screams and gunfire had ceased. It was still war, but all agents were here.

She just feared their arrival. She feared what might happen if she saw Oregon or Jersey appear from around a corner. It became an obvious realization that the forts were not a good strategy for the girls’ team. They were exposed. The maze walls were the best form of safety.

The scores, no one knew the scores. They would be revealed when the battle was up. The boys had taken advantage of their massive population and holled themselves up in the forts, it was here that they settled. Each agent had been assigned an ability, their scavengers had managed to take most of the armaments off the field.

The short distance radios were a skill to harness, and also a burden for the unaware. There was one tower in the center of the map, team members could communicate with each other this way. Oklahoma had hacked it to hear the enemy’s conversations. Though her hacking abilities had not lasted long. And it soon became known that the towers weren’t exactly the best, that occasionally a snippet of the enemy’s conversation would seep into an opponent’s helmet. All agents had found this out eventually – most, the hard way.

She had stolen a TMP from Agent Virginia a good three hours ago. Now she was almost out of ammunition. The last agent she had seen in fact had been Virginia a short time later. He was perched atop a small tower in the far corner of the arena and armed with a sniper rifle of some sort. The Eagle in the Devil’s Corner; that was what he was called over the radio. Code. She hadn’t used the radio in some time, and wondered what the status of her allies was.

Footsteps.

A light kick of dirt.

From where? The next row over? Why would the Agent be running? Was it one of the girls running from a guy? Or an overconfident male looking for a lady to kill.

Panting.

Getting closer. Deep. Heavy. A masculine breathing style. But whose? It didn’t matter.

Where?

‘Vermillion, tick-tick foxtrot?’ Oakey whispered into her radio.

‘…’ no response, only static.

Either there was a problem, or no one had heard her. No one was being chased, except… her.

‘Hi there.’ A male’s voice. An Australian’s.

Oklahoma dropped to the floor, kicked her legs behind her making impact with something. She heard a short groan and the sound of something heavy plummeting to the ground. She turned a moment later, staring and kicking Agent Nevada’s gun away from him. She stood strong, confident. She aimed her weapon at him, strong, powerful. He was on Recon, his name had come up in conversation when she’d hacked the comms tower. He was most likely alone, and the second he radioed for help she’d let him have it.

‘Why don’t you just shoot me?’ he groaned.

‘I want information.’

‘If you shoot me you can just follow me back to base.’

‘And walk into a trap?’ she laughed. ‘I don’t think so. No, I want something else.’

‘If you don’t shoot me, I’ll do it myself.’

‘Will you? You do that and I will give you the world of pain. I’ll redefine the word.’

‘…you’re bluffing.’

‘Is it worth the risk? I have nothing to lose?’

Nevada went quiet, not resistant but nervous. He couldn’t tell what she was planning, the uncertainty is what fueled her enjoyment.

‘Let’s play a game.’ Oklahoma giggled somewhat maniacally. ‘I ask you a question, you have to guess the answer. Guess right, I don’t shoot you in the neck. Guess wrong, and I shoot you in the balls.’

She thought for a moment, not waiting for a response.

‘In what fort are the munitions stored at?’ she asked.

Nevada was silent. He wouldn’t budge. Oklahoma cocked the gun. He spoke.

‘Uh, at the closest fort. Wyoming has called it Castle Reginald.’

Oklahoma lowered her gun, raising her left hand to her helmet and flicking a small switch at the back of her armor enhancement. She listened closely. A light and soft female voice repeated words to her, like the little voice inside her head. It said:

‘Analyzing data. Truth. Definite Accuracy.’ It declared.

So he was telling the truth.

‘And who is guarding the fort?’ she asked, raising the gun once more.

‘At the moment only Agent Utah by the south wall, he’s patrolling. You can get in if you jump the North, East or West wall and infiltrate under the bridge.’

Again she stopped to switch on her armor enhancement. It analyzed his voice. And again the small recorded voice returned with results.

‘Analyzing data. False. Definite accuracy.’

Lies.

She pulled the trigger, seven pellets in the space of a second hit the soldier in the pelvic region. He groaned and stood up as if to return to base. She fired at his knees and forced him back onto the ground.

‘Oh no you don’t.’

‘Hey, mate. What gives?’

‘You’re going to answer more questions or I beat you.’

‘Ya reckon?’ Nevada pleaded.

‘Aye, I do. Riddle me this, Skippy, how do I get to the munitions?’

‘The pond below the wooden bridge isn’t a pond but an underwater cave. If you find the other side of the pond you can get through to under the bridge.’

‘Where’s the other side?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know.’

The enhancement revealed truth. It whirred, taking more time than usual.

‘Alright then,’ she continued. ‘how do I get there?’

‘I guess if you formulated a distraction you could distract Wyoming, Utah, York and Florida away from the fort. It isn’t likely that they would all leave. York’s patrolling the bridge, I suggest you take him out when the others are gone. The pond is under the bridge and the munitions are elsewhere. I don’t know where.’

She turned away, directing her attention to her enhancement while sure not to lower her gun from her prisoner. It responded in an instant.

‘Analyzing data. Truth and False. Definite accuracy. Quote: The pond is under the bridge. False. Quote: munitions are elsewhere. False.’

She fired, not taking a second to look where. Dead center visor. Right between the eyes.

‘Tell me, you upside-down prick! Where are the munitions?’

‘How do you know…?’ he wondered under his breath.

She fired once more, the impact making him flinch and shake with panic.

‘Uh. Ooh. Um. The munitions are under the bridge, and the pond… it’s uh. Under the gazebo next to the fort!’ he shouted in panic.

‘Good.’ She responded.

While he spoke she needed not use her Voice Analysis Enhancement to test whether he lied or not. Fear would make the agent break. Weak. Instead she recorded the last two sentances. The enhancement analyzed. Using her mind she used a recording and manipulated it; the enhancement allowed that. It also granted her the ability to hack local radio towers wirelessly.

Most suits of armor came equipped with a voice modulator that allowed the user to manipulate their voices. Oklahoma’s enhancement allowed her to off the top of her head project recorded voices. She could save the template under Agent Nevada.

She looked towards the fort, or in which way she perceived it. Her voice, almost an exact replica as that of Nevada’s. Before she began though, she made sure to intercept and destroy Nevada’s short and long distance radio. He couldn’t talk to her allies, but they would be thinking he was.

‘York? York! Help! Uh, alpha…foxtrot…uh… oh shit!’ she screamed in Nevada’s voice. ‘York, please! Hel- oh shit! Piss off! York. I don’t remember the codes! Help! Anyone else? Help! Oklahoma, she’s set up a trap! I don’t know how but she somehow has!’ her voice slipped up. Occasionally every few words would come out in her voice and she’d have no control of it.

‘Hello? Nevada?’ York replied, slightly panicked. ‘Florida, try and get on to him.’ He spoke under his breath to Florida, somewhere nearby.

Oklahoma waited some time, dramatic suspense.

‘York! Over here! I’m a prisoner!’ Nevada shouted out, the local projector not projecting far enough for York’s men to hear.

‘East! Run east! …’ she began to pant, mimicking the fear in Nevada’s voice. ‘…Virginia? What? No! Help someone! Carolina, please I- Arrrgh! No! Uh.’ Then she cut off the signal, static.

She fired two more shots at Nevada. The first in the pelvic region and then another at the visor. For a split second he would not be able to see, before he could wipe it away she made quick work. Lifted a leg and dropped it down on his forehead, knocking the Australian unconscious.

She ducked. She wasn’t to the east, but from what she could recall to get to the East those at Fort Reginald would have to pass by, not in her row but from the next one over. That was one issue, what if she was caught. The next, what if Virginia spotted her at the fort.

Rustling. The sound of running footsteps.

A British voice.

‘This way!’ Agent Wyoming.

They ran down in the row adjacent to her. She ducked, and slowed her breathing. Practically invisible.

‘Florida, go that way.’ Utah’s voice. ‘Reggie, you the other. I’ll do a go-round before making my way back.’

As she waited a few more seconds the others left. Then she scavenged Nevada’s gun. It unlocked as she picked it up, and instead of keeping it she lobbed it as far as she could in one direction. But she couldn’t hear the impact it made with the ground. Where it landed was not important, access to the munitions was.

Agent Carolina had suggested some time ago that there was no way to end the game unless the time limit hit zero. It was assumed the Agent with the most kills one and the most collaborative kills per team was regarded the winner. Oakey had a pan to turn all of that around.

She ran.

One foot after the other, she had never felt so determined. Oklahoma had assumed that missions would change this, but at the moment all the Freelancers were still in basic training. When her legs moved, they did so like clockwork. This was why she was a Freelancer, only the best were chosen for the project. She was just surprised she was one of them.

She swerved left and right, careful not to go the wrong way. It was after a few seconds of running that she noticed the massive wooden encampment poking out above the walls.

When Oklahoma arrived at the fort she appeared into a clearing. She noted the guns piled up just in front of the shaky wooden bridge. Out to her left in the clearing was the deep pond. The fort seemed unguarded. Footsteps. On rock. No, on wood. Oakey raised her eye-line to find Agent York patrolling atop the fort, going across the bridge. For a second she lined the sights of her TMP, but then withdrew and dove behind the cover of the armaments pile.

She crouched, even if she had stood up she’d be well hidden. Fort Reginald contained a lot of guns. She waited for him to pass. If she fired a shot and missed then her cover would be lost. She was a good shot, but not the best. Agent Oklahoma was agile and strategic, they were the perks that set her above normal UNSC soldiers.

Looking around to her right she could see a net ladder. Climbing it would take her up to the level York was on. He was so exposed, and she couldn’t understand why he would put himself out there. She poked her head around the right side and watched as the khaki soldier stretched, facing away and continuing to walk the opposite direction.

Oklahoma side stepped towards the net. Managing to put one hand after the other, pulling herself up as she moved. She reached for the TMP which she had placed atop the fort’s flooring before climbing and moved into cover behind a low wooden picket wall. She turned to look out across the small bridge. York had crossed it into the stable tower on the other side. It wasn’t far, four minutes at the most.

She stood and placed her finger on the trigger.

A crack. A loud gunshot from behind. Oklahoma turned for a second and looked back at York, who had now turned and aimed a handgun at her. He pulled on the trigger thrice, letting three paintballs fly.

Oklahoma ducked, the three flying over her head. Instead of dropping into cover she let the TMP spray paintballs at him. He stepped out of the way, not doing much. At this close range in such a confined space, dodging paintballs from a gun with such a high rate of fire was pointless. Instead York used his initiative and threw the handgun at her.

Oakey stepped back. Stunned. York was sprinting right at her. Instead she pushed forward too, ducking under the first of his punches. The maneuver pushed him back onto the bridge where they would both stand. Her response was a simple, but heavy roundhouse kick with the right leg. It clipped his side and forced him over the rungs beside the bridge. As he fell she fired. The TMP coating him in an assortment of colored paint.

York landed, his left arm in the pond and the rest of him wounded in the dirt.

Oklahoma looked around, and saw a small distance away Carolina. At one end of a straight pathway (between two high maze walls) was her ally. She was crouched around the corner and firing a handgun down to two individuals closer to Oakey. She followed the shots and noticed Dakota and Jersey standing on the other side. They returned fire without a second thought. They were machines. Well-oiled and upgrading for killing. – But that was Carolina’s fight.

Oklahoma peered down at the massive pile of scavenged munitions. Still York was on the ground with his arm in water. Utah had made his way back to the fought and was casually making his way towards her. Wait, what? Utah had returned to the fort. And as it dawned on her, he too noticed her. He fired a battle rifle at her, four shots coming her way. She dropped to the bridge and scurried into the cover she had first been in atop the fort.

She heard Utah climbing the net but realized then that she had been nearly out of ammunition, it wasn’t worth the risk. Utah climbed to the top and met her. Another burst fire met her but she slipped away from the paint with not a second to lose. As she threw a punch to the male freelancer something caught her eye in the distance. She was careful not to let it become a distraction. In the very far back corner of the arena was a small person atop a perch. A second later her vision was blurred with a super bright red laser light.

Oklahoma punched Utah’s arm. She grabbed his neck, holding him in a headlock, dropped the TMP in her right hand, used the hand to grab his left shoulder and turn him away. She pulled him in closer. A second later something pushed her back, only a little. Her Human Shield was done for. As soon as the paintball shell from Virginia’s sniper rifle made impact with Utah’s chest, she released with her right arm (still holding him in a headlock with her left) and grabbed for his battle rifle. In the same split second she raised it and pulled the trigger. A small volley of paintball shells were fired and took the Freelancer sniper out.

She leapt off the fort, closer to the munitions pile. York had moved. Oklahoma turned to see her fallen enemy climb the bridge fort, on the further tower he pressed a button. A light click indicated his gun had unlocked. Agent York had respawned, she had situated herself only a few meters away from their respawning point. York fired. In the same second she caught a glimpse of Utah moving to respawn as well.

Her plan was placed into action.

From the pile of arms she picked up a frag grenade placed on top of a shotgun. She pulled the pin. Dropped it on the ground. …and ran.

She ran out into the clearing where her enemies began to fire on her. Close. She couldn’t tell whether she’d been hit. However, she hadn’t felt the impact and assumed the best.

She sprinted, diving into the pond.

Nevada was correct, it was deep. More of a small lake than anything.

She hid her whole body in the depth of water as the grenade exploded. The force and the paint caused the munitions to release all its paint as well (due to the fact it was all unlocked). She looked up in the pond, noticing a thick layer of paint land on the water above, darkening the world below.

She stayed beneath the water.

Each Freelancer helmet had a basic rebreather, pulling in oxygen from the outside world. Underwater the rebreather self-disabled. She had only a few seconds of oxygen. She used up that oxygen, and held her breath for another minute.

Time stood still.

When she surfaced she gasped for fresh air. Crawling out of the water she noticed that she had somehow managed to stay clean. All the walls in the area, the fort, the dirt, York and Utah – all were coated in an array of colored paint. Nothing but her was perfectly clean.

York stood, confused. Utah had been blasted off his feet with the force of the explosion. She wondered what the other agents would have been thinking, undoubtedly all would have seen it. York saw her and moved to the respawning button. He pressed on it.

And fired at her.

Nothing.

The gun was still locked.

He pressed again.

And fired.

Nothing.

He pressed again, and again.

His visor was mostly covered.

He hadn’t realized that the respawning button had also been covered in paint.

By touching the button he would immediately get paint on him again. Death was forever. He would have to find another button to press.

She walked away, slowly and valiantly. To her right Agents Montana and Wyoming appeared and aimed at her. Without even looking she used the revolver she had picked up and firing two shots, eliminated the two of them.

She left.

The lone wanderer.

Seconds later a siren blasted through the megaphones. Followed by the female announcer shouting that the game was over. Whether by time or by error, Oklahoma couldn’t tell. Following the announcement music began to play indicating that the Agents would be forced to exit the arena.

…An Hour Later

Oaklahoma’s muscles had begun cramping now. It was a long battle, one that felt like it had lasted days. She, like the other Agents had cleaned their armor. She, also like the others was fully suited up with the exception of her helmet.

She left the locker room and moved beyond the cafeteria. Aside from the fact that the Jungle Gym was a Freelancer Training Facility it could easily be mistaken by glance as a recreational sporting location. Many of the agents were seated on the various couches reading magazines or watching televisions. Others sat eating cakes and drinking coffee. Rumor had it there was a bar somewhere, but not celebrated or drank their failures away. – That was what the Mother of Invention’s rec room was for.

She figured she’d at least peer outside for a minute.

Just outside of the cafeteria was the entrance, on the other side of the path less than five meters away from the café was the massive wall that the Agents had to climb over to enter the arena. On another wall nearby were small plasma television screens. On each of them were the listed names of the agents who had competed. The scores had not been released yet.

Not long after watching Agents Rhode and Colorado soon joined her in watching the screen. Soon the crowd was brought too. All gathered under the screens in eager wait of the scores. In a matter of minutes the numbers appeared.

In third place was Oklahoma. She had one third. To the far right of the second last screen the scoring tally was produced. The rules there stated that points were added for enemies eliminated. No points were deducted from being hit yourself. Third place.

In first was Agent Carolina. In second place was Agent Georgia. In fourth rested Agent Rhode and in fifth sat Agent Virginia. The Girls team had won, not by much; but enough. Another screen blinked and revealed the agents who received the least amounts of hits. Agents Carolina, Rhode and Colorado were not hit once throughout the whole match. This was odd, Oklahoma was certain Carolina had been hit at least once.

The Freelancers began to break. Two Pelicans descended just beyond the reaches of the Jungle Gym. It was time for extraction back to the Mother of Invention.

‘Agent Oklahoma,’ shouted a woman’s voice. The announcer.

Oklahoma turned to the woman and moved closer.

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘There’s no need to call me ma’am. As a Freelancer your only superiors are you squad leaders and Director.’

‘Then why have you called me?’ Oklahoma asked at last.

‘The Director asked I send you a message. Due to your efforts in the arena today he has assigned you the privilege of being Decoy Team’s leader. This means that in infiltration missions you will lead the team responsible for causing a distraction. It is an incredibly difficult and dangerous mission. He would have told you himself but as you can see he isn’t here. The Director is expecting a priority level zero data file back at the Mother of Invention. Congratulations, squad leader.’

Squad Leader. Oklahoma like the sound of that.

Mother of Invention, Engineering Deck

The Engineering Deck was loud. A beautiful orchestra of whirs, hums, bangs, clangs, zaps, fizzles, schizzles, snaps, claps, bobs, crashes, revs, scratches, sparks, more hums, more whirs, scrapes and even more hums again. Someone, it manages to sound perfect. It was a fully functioning orchestra. And it was music to Sarah Ashton’s ears. Beautiful.

Ashton loved working on the Invention’s engineering deck. By no means was she quiet, not at all. Most elite and renown engineers appreciated well built, soft and quiet engines the purred and soared. Not Sarah. Sarah preferred the smoked roar of a motor. Something that signified power. The Mother of Invention was so massive, and it was so heavy that only a massive engine would be able to support it.

She whistled away as she twisted the power relux cable on the fourth segment of the Engineering Deck. The power relux cable was responsible for ensuring that the component of the engine that transferred fuel to power cells stayed intact, without separating mid-flight. The fact that she had to tighten it did not inspire confidence. Ashton did not build the ship, but she should have. All its architects were dead, or designed the ship like they were. Ashton and F.I.L.S.S. had made so many upgrades and modifications it had almost become unrecognizable on the inside. However, it was still so powerful.

As she tightened the connection something vibrated in her back pocket. A reminder, or pager. She stood and pulled it from her back pocket; (as she was wearing an engineering suit rather than armor). On the engineering deck it was protocol to wear the suit rather than armor. It was her UNSC reminders device. Orders were coming in from UNSC Command that had to be relayed back to Dr. Leonard Church.

As requested by the Office of Naval Intelligence, an informant belonging to the United Nations Space Command will be sent to the Mother of Invention to monitor progression of Project Freelancer. Project Freelancer is not under investigation, the Office of Naval Intelligence is merely interested in what potential outcomes the Project has to offer Humanity.

The Office of Naval Intelligence. They were the eggheads of the UNSC. Actually that was incorrect, Sarah realized to herself. ONI were the guys in black coats that came and took people away. They were the darker side of Humanity’s lead military defense force. There would be a different reason for them to monitor the Project. One they wouldn’t likely raise for any particular reason.

The young woman stood and turned towards the exit, along the deep and long running hallway that was the engineering tunnel. A few steps closer to the door and sparks routinely sprayed out of one of the vents.

Sarah Chantelle. Alaska. Electricity. Death. Blood. Fire. Screams. Death. Crying. Screaming. Gurgling. Blood. Ashes. Cries. Pain. Death. Explosions. Faint. Silence. Fire. Bursts. Death. Cries. Screams. Pain. Why? Why? Why, why, why, why? Questions?

Sarah felt the floor beneath her feet disappear. The blood rush to her head. The metal flooring make impact with her forehead. The footsteps of rushing staff members. And the panic. The flashbacks. And the sweet, yet bitter memories of the blood curdling screams.

Mother of Invention, Docking Bay

Five minutes since their return to the Mother of Invention and there were already controversies arising. York headed out of the Docking Bay with the other agents when it was pointed out by no one in particular that the Director and Counselor were standing out at the other side of the Docking Bay. At first York considered approaching them, but then he noticed another Pelican.

This Pelican was painted all black, not standard UNSC. It had landed not far from where Dr Church was now standing. He wondered what was going on…

As the Pelican’s ramp lowered she stepped out into the docking bay of the legendary ship. The Director watched as she stepped down, her blonde hair incredibly familiar. In her hand was a briefcase, a black one with the white UNSC logo printed on the side.

‘You’re late.’ The Director spoke to her as she arrived. ‘I had hoped my Agents weren’t here when you arrived.’

‘Well, you’re welcome.’ She scoffed, offended. ‘I only just got back from a mission. I’m sorry if my schedule didn’t synchronize with yours.’

‘I apologize.’ The Director lied. ‘Do you have the package?’ he asked her eagerly.

‘I do.’ She handed it to him.

‘Do you know what it is?’

‘I do not.’

‘Good. You are dismissed.’

‘Sorry?’ she asked, almost offended.

‘I’m sorry. Did I say something offensive?’

‘I’m not here to deliver a package. I am here on behalf of the Office of Naval Intelligence. They earlier reported to your chief of engineering that a representative of the UNSC would be coming to observe your Project’s work for some time.’

The Director looked at the Counselor then shook his head. ‘We didn’t get the memo. Our chief engineer is in the infirmary sleeping off a severe anxiety attack. What is your name?’

‘I am Holly Jackson.’

‘Well Holly,’ Church continued ‘welcome to the Mother of Invention. You are officially a temporary member of Project Freelancer.’

‘Thank you, sir. I was also requested on behalf of the UNSC to deliver to you a mentor for some classes. UNSC designated smart AI Phillip will accompany me and assist you where you need it.’

‘Much appreciated.’

Without further ado, much like an excited child the Director retreated. He left Jackson to fend for herself as he and the Counselor left to look at their shiny new toy.

‘What do I do?!’ she shouted as they left.

‘I don’t know. Ask your ONI commanders!’ the Director shouted back without looking.

I am not ONI. I don’t answer to those bastards. She said to herself. She looked at the far end of the Docking Bay towards a large group of elite space marines. In an act of curiosity she left to go meet them.

…Agent York watched as the Director and the Counselor left the woman, the woman who was now making her way towards them. He couldn’t help but wonder what all the secretive business was about. What was going on?

Mother of Invention, Private Quarters of Leonard Church

The Director burst into his quarters. They were as large as the rec room, filled with couches, a library and a massive king double bed. He moved into the center of the lounge and placed the black briefcase on the table, he unclipped it and opened it. Behind him the Counselor waited in anticipation.

Within was foam lining. In the center of the foam lining a small chip. The chip was about five times the size of a thumbnail, not that large. It was rectangular in shape with a small white circle in the center. The Director touched lightly on the card.

Appearing in a holographic projection was an AI, a smart AI. It appeared in the form of a space marine, a freelancer perhaps. It was white, with a slight bluish tinge. An Artificial Intelligence such as this could not simply be built, it had to be born. Four years ago the Director was forced to offer DNA strands to the UNSC, and this was the result.

‘Hello, Alpha.’ The Director greeted him.

‘Please, call me Church.’

-End-

Trivia

  • This episode's title is a reference to a quote made by 'Church' in the first season
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