“Carolina, you’re not ok.” She looked at him like he’d just slapped her, and York fought every urge to recoil from the glare. “Stop pretending to be.”
“I’m fine,” she said firmly. “I’ll be fine, and more than that, I am fine and I was fine, got it?”
“But Sigma-” he said, hopelessly, falling silent when she cut him off like he knew she would.
“Sigma is fine. We’re integrating. It’s a work in progress. I’m fine.”
“So I’ve heard,” he mumbled.
But she wasn’t fine. It’s been weeks and Carolina was still struggling and it showed. It’s been showing. York was the only one brave enough to say anything. She got implanted the same time Maine went into surgery, and by the time he came back after his physical therapy, he found the leader he almost died for a broken woman.
That was when York had to say something.
That was when York had the idea.
“Carolina,” he said quietly, noting how she gave her attention to him, divided, haphazard, unfamiliar. “I’ve been thinking. You do just fine without an AI.”
“But the Director told me-” she started loyally.
“I know, I know. But, you know, Maine is getting ready to start going on missions.”
“He passed his physical exam two days ago,” she rattled off, and it was detached, robotic, almost an echo.
“Well, he’ll need a way to communicate.” She nodded, and he pressed on. “None of the other AI are really ready yet, so…”
“I can give him Sigma,” she whispered, keeping the secret from herself.
“It’ll be in everyone’s best interest,” he desperately encouraged. She grew quiet, like she always did these days.
“It’s my responsibility as squad leader,” she told herself, convinced herself, and York could hear the relief in her voice just as clearly as she felt it in his muscles.
“I think it’ll work out better, especially for Maine.”
After they carved him back out of her, Carolina could still feel him burn in the back of her mind. She could still hear the cackle of fire at the edge of her ears, and when he showed himself next to Maine, silent, looming, the freelancer’s visor reflecting the way the flames danced, she almost took a step back. But she stood there, willed herself to stand there, as the AI smiled as if taunting her weakness masquerading as kindness and said, “thank you, Agent Carolina. I feel I will be much more useful here.”