The loading ramp finally closes, blocking the the Archon’s flagship from view. As the Tempest preps for an FTL burn, Gwen Ryder staggers in the with the shift in a-grav and doubles over, panting, her shotgun overheating in her grip. Not only do her muscles ache from the exertion but so do her mutated nerves from the strain of her biotics. There’s a sullen twinge in her skull that warns of an impending headache.
There’s also an ache in her chest, like a ghost clutching her heart in its phantasmal grasp, but she knows that one’s a figment of her imagination.
Gwen clips Silent Partner to her back and hits the seals on her helmet, enjoying a deep breath of recycled air. At least it hasn’t bounced her own awful breath off her helmet and back into her face. Beside her, Liam and Jaal do the same.
“What a victory! We struck a blow here the Archon won’t soon forget.” Jaal is positively radiant at their victory, wearing his heart on his rofjinn—and it’s hard to tell which one is brighter.
“Yeah,” Gwen agrees, and hopes neither of them notice how out of breath she is. “And we got Meridian’s location.”
But of course Liam has to notice. Now there’s a thin line of tension threading his eyebrows together as he looks her over. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s get you to medbay. Lexi can check you out.”
Jaal glances between the two of them. Even if humans are downright reserved by angaran standards, he’s picked up enough by now to notice the way Liam hovers near her. Or maybe neither of them are as subtle as they like to think they are. Always a possibility. “That would be wise,” he says. “I admit, I was preparing myself in case you could not be revived.”
“Lucky for us, SAM makes a good paramedic,” Gwen says.
Liam rests a hand on the small of her back and leads her through the cargo bay. She can’t feel his touch through layers of ceramic, but something about the gesture sends a skitter of warmth through her. He must shoot Jaal a look over her shoulder, because the latter breaks off to gather the others and give them the run down of what happened. It’s usually too informal to qualify as a debrief by Alliance standards.
In the corridor, she says, “Liam—”
“Doc first. Everything else can wait.” It’s the crisis specialist in him, prioritising the most vital task, pushing everything else away until it needs to be dealt with.
The razor-thin press of Lexi’s mouth telegraphs that she already knows about Gwen and SAM’s little escape artistry. As she ushers Gwen towards the nearest bed, Liam is politely yet swiftly evicted, and he retreats with a final glance in Gwen’s direction. For once, she can’t decipher his expression.
“Get out of that hardsuit so I can take a look at you.” Lexi turns away to check over her already-prepared equipment.
The icy disapproval radiating off the good doctor puts a dampener on what’s usually a welcome experience, keying the code to power down her hardsuit. Finding the releases on her hardsuit, Gwen starts with her limbs before splitting open her torso armour. The Heleus Champion hardsuit—a combined present from the Nexus and the angara—has a few catches in strange places that still trip her up when she’s tired. Like now.She’d like to punch whoever put the toggles for her breastplate halfway down the back. Her brewing headache flares when she bends over to peel off her boots, and they hit the ground with two sullen thunks.
Her undersuit follows with more difficulty; when Gwen almost topples off the bed Lexi steps up to help free her arms from the sleeves. Left only in a standard issue crop top and shorts, Gwen has no defence against Lexi’s glare.
For all her visible frustration, she’s still gentle as she initiates a body scan, starting with Gwen’s heart. Oh yeah, she knows already. “Pathfinder. SAM killed you. Yes, he brought you back, but what if he hadn’t?”
The AI himself jumps into the fray. “I cannot learn without the Pathfinder. That would be like killing a part of myself.”
Lexi briefly glances up at the ceiling. “You’re lines of code. You can’t die.”
“Woah, there.” Gwen holds up her hands. “I know what we did was was… unorthodox, but it worked. He didn’t hurt me and he isn’t going to.”
“Thank you, Ryder.”
There’s a beat of silence as both women register that SAM called Gwen by her name rather than title.
Lexi’s exhale cuts through the momentary quiet with the precision of a scalpel. “Look, I’m not against SAM. But my job is hard enough without an AI stopping your heart. Even to save your life.” Her omni-tool beeps, indicating it has finished its examination. She peruses the results, and her soft exhale might qualify as a sigh. “Your heart rate is elevated and your electrolyte levels are dangerously low. There’s also the matter of the foreign compound in your bloodstream.”
Oh. Right. Gwen had nearly forgotten about that with all the other drama taking precedence. But there’s an itch under her skin where the veins are prominent. Every beat of her heart, which was a victorious drum mere moments ago, is now a traitorous sound. Every beat cycles the neurotransmitters through her bloodstream. At the time the Archon’s little present hadn’t felt like a big deal in the face of being captured and having to let SAM kill her to free them, but now it has her undivided attention. What if it’s changing her from the inside out, figuring out a way to exalt her? What if it’s doing something worse?
“Turn your head this way.” With a gentle touch to Gwen’s chin, Lexi can examine the injection site. “No swelling and minimal inflammation.”
Gwen resists the urge to scratch her neck. “So about these neurotransmitters…”
“They are for monitoring purposes,” SAM says. “I have been working to deactivate them, but progress has been slow due to prioritising more immediate tasks.”
She still fights a shudder. Monitoring. “The sooner you can switch them off, the better.”
Gwen watches as Lexi ties the tourniquet and draws a blood sample, if only to prove to herself she isn’t suddenly afraid of needles. There’s not getting comfortable in a medbay, especially not while the doctor frowns over the bloodwork.
“From what I can tell, the neurotransmitters will break down and be cycled out of your system. If they were purely for monitoring purposes they should have no lasting impact. I’ll give you an immunobooster to speed up the process, but I want you to remain here overnight for observation.”
Gwen fights a groan. It never helped with Dad. “Really? I’m fine, doc—”
“Nobody is ever ‘fine’ after dying, even temporarily.” Steel threads through Lexi’s tone. Credit where credit’s due, her doctor voice is impressively stern. “I need to monitor your heart for signs of permanent damage.”
Brooking no further argument, Lexi attaches the electrodes and sets up a saline drip—and from the way she’s been clucking over the crew’s caloric intake, Gwen suspects there may be some supplements may have been sneaked into the bag as well.
“Dr T’Perro.” SAM’s voice floats around the medbay. “I apologise for for any distress I have caused you.”
Lexi sighs. “And I’m sorry for calling you ‘lines of code’. You’re more than that, even if you don’t have the cells to prove it.” She cleans up the medbay, slow and methodical, and the ritual of it seems to take the remaining edge off her frustration. “Pathfinder, get some rest. Don’t leave that bed. Doctor’s orders. Dinner should be almost ready.” And then the door whooshes shut behind her.
Since ‘remaining in bed’ and ‘lying down’ are two different things, Gwen sits on the mattress with her knees loosely pulled up to her chest and rests her forearms on her knees. First thing, she writes her customary email to still-comatose Scott. This is one of the rare times it isn’t spam, but she doubts he’ll ever read it—he’ll probably mass delete all two hundred or so messages from her when he finally checks his email. She’s still working on convincing SAM to take a picture of Scott’s face when he sees his inbox.
Subject: Guess What I Did Today
Hey little brother
No, I didn’t fight a metal three-legged metal thresher maw. That was last week. Today I boarded the Archon’s flagship, snuck into his quarters to find something valuable, and stole the salarian ark from under his nose. Good times.
Wake up soon. Please.
Your big sis
Hitting send never has the same satisfaction in space, knowing it has merely queued as part of a tightbeam data package to transmit the next time they’re in range of a com buoy.
Gwen fiddles with her omni-tool, paging through the panes, opening a fresh document for a post-action report, but she’s too fidgety to get the words down. So she pings Liam. You’ll be relieved to hear I’m still alive.
She gets a response a scant forty seconds later. Would have been embarrassing, surviving the horror show of the Archon’s ship only for Lexi to kill you. She just walked by. Does not look happy.
We sorted it out. She told me and SAM to get a new party trick.
Now there’s a pause.
The next message alert isn’t a reply from Liam but a quick message from Cora. Jaal’s report from the Archon’s flagship sounded pretty rough. Hope you’re doing okay.
Doc’s tied me to the bed, but it’s just precautionary. I’ll be up and Pathfinding again by tomorrow.
Gwen drums her fingers on her knees, looking about the softly lit medbay for something to occupy her. But while the information panels on the walls are filled with scrawling text and anatomical diagrams, she can’t decipher the medical jibberish. There’s no escaping her thoughts, or the AI literally sitting between them. For all that the medbay has the peculiar stillness that comes from the absence of life, she isn’t alone.
“Hey, SAM? Can we talk?”
“Of course, Pathfinder.”
Gwen rubs her breastbone, feeling the tiny tremors of her heart through her skin. “I can’t believe we did that. That was— well, I guess we’re both lucky I trust you.” She closes her eyes. “I trust you. You have unfettered access to my physiology and I trust you.”
It’s not that she didn’t know what it meant when SAM made his suggestion, what he was asking from her—but. But without the containment field suspending her in the air, without the foreign hum of the kett ship, without the ugly scents of rust and antiseptic reminding her what kett do to prisoners, she can fully appreciate the scale of the risk.
One of the many distinguishing features between VIs and AIs is the latter can understand of the complexities of organic expression. “Yet you are concerned, Pathfinder.”
“I just didn’t realise you have the ability to kill me is all—” She draws in a sharp breath and pinches the bridge of her nose. To her dismay, her eyes are wet. “Dammit.”
One second draws into two. Three. An unusually long processing time for SAM. “Your shipmates also posses the ability to inflict lethal damage on you, yet you have shown no concern about this.”
The tears recede as quickly as they surfaced, but it feels like something has shifted in her chest. Relieved a point of pressure. “It’s not the same, SAM. They might be able to shoot me, or break me with their biotics—or in Drack’s case break me with his bare hands—but they aren’t sitting on a kill switch that could turn off my heart. If they did, I’d be freaking out because I don’t like the thought of anything having that kind of power over me.”
Another pause. “I have observed that humans are often discomforted when reminded they may not control their own fate. As a survival instinct, it is logical, and exponentially increases the value of trust.”
She shifts on the mattress. Picks at a loose thread in the sheets. “If it makes you feel better, I’m glad it’s you out of every living being in the galaxy that could have the Gwen Ryder Kill Switch.”
“I believe I understand what you are trying to say, and I appreciate the sentiment.”
“I just— I do trust you, SAM. You’ve had this power the entire time and never abused it. You’ve done nothing but help me, and my dad before me. I’ve just been thrown for a loop and I’m still regaining my balance.”
“I understand, Ryder. A degree of trauma is to be expected given the circumstances.”
Again with her name. “And SAM? Thanks for reviving me.”
Her omni-tool pings. She checks Liam’s message. Just putting this out there. Had a friend in HUSTL, Dondi. We were on the job one time when she got hit with a piece of rebar. Four minutes dead, but we got her into emergency stasis. They’re so good at patching us up she was back in a week, but she shouldn’t have been. You don’t just walk off something like that. She ended up disappearing for five months. Came back different.
A follow up: What I’m saying is take your time. Dying isn’t something you can just shake off.
She replies. Received loud and clear. Can you swipe me dinner? I’m starving and hospital food sucks.
You’re not under quarantine? Want to know if I should prepare for Lexi’s wrath.
Nah. As long as we don’t trade blood, we’re fine.
Not ten minutes later, the door parts to reveal Liam balancing a tray laden with her biotic-sized ration.
Gwen arches an eyebrow. “Well, well. I didn’t know the Tempest had such a good-looking nurse.”
“Only for you, Ryder.” Liam sets down the tray on the bedside table and chuckles at the exceedingly loud grumble from her stomach.
“I lucked out, then.” Smirking feels halfway normal, so she enjoys it.
His gaze travels from the IV line to the needle taped to her hand. It’s a tether, and an obvious one when it isn’t medically necessary. “What’s the verdict?”
“Not good. Doc might have to amputate.”
Liam can’t help the quirk of his mouth that betrays his amusement, but there’s something grim behind his eyes—gone in a heartbeat, leaving her wondering what she saw. “You must be feeling all right. Then again, I bet you could joke on your death bed. So maybe not.”
Unbidden, her thoughts skip to the day her mother dies.
Nope, not going there. She shoves the memory into a box marked To Be Dealt With Later, Hopefully Never. “Me? Joke about something serious? It’s almost like you know me, Kosta.”
This time Liam returns her grin, and at that moment Gwen loathes the monitors because the beat of her fluttering heart is recorded for all to see. And he knows it too, the bastard, if the fresh mischief in his eyes is any indication.
Gwen scoots back on the mattress and pats the space in front of her. Liam doesn’t need to be asked twice, hopping up so fast he winces. Gwen isn’t the only one who was roughed up today. He rests a hand on her knee and she goes one better, leaning forward to cup his cheek. It mirrors another day, another mission, another aftermath.
Funny, just how good a simple touch feels. What had Liam called it? Normal.
He drags in an uneven breath and closes the gap. Their kiss is slow and relieved, and Gwen can feel herself start to decompress. The second kiss is an affirmation they’re both still alive, and the third pure whimsy.
An imminent crick in her neck forces her to withdraw, and she leans forward to comfortably rest her head on his shoulder. With any remaining adrenaline drained from her system, she’s left slumped in lactic acid and fatigue.
His fingers ease the tie out of her hair, then trace gentle circles on her scalp. “How are you feeling?”
Liam’s smile is more amused than relieved. “Good. Now how are you really feeling, without the bullshit?”
Yeah, she deserved that one.
Gwen pulls back, his hand sliding free of her hair, and settles against the headboard. “Worn out. My biotics took a pounding. It was a hard fight, before even thinking about the part where I died today…”
Liam’s fingers tighten reflexively on his thigh. “Speaking of, word of warning: you die again, I’m taking it to HR as emotional abuse. Stop it.” But there’s something of a laugh threading through his tone.
Gwen holds a hand over her heart. “Scout’s honour.”
Her stomach decides now is the moment to remind her of its existence—loudly.
Liam chuckles. “Sounds like you’ll have a mutiny on your hands if you don’t fill that belly.”
Home is the only place where Gwen has never felt self-conscious about her biotic appetite. Even in the peacekeeping corps it was still unusual for someone her size to pack down so much. It had been a sign that she was different, even if the Alliance was the one place that actively sought out biotics. But her stomach waits for no awkwardness. Besides, Liam has never seemed bothered by it.
With her mouth full, Gwen waves a hand to indicate Liam can take what he likes, but he shakes his head. “You need it more than I do.”
It’s a simple reconstituted affair of mystery meat and vegetables, weeping a greasy fluid—and her mind’s eye conjures the yellow liquid in the containment tanks, and the things that floated in them. Test subjects. People.
Suddenly her hunger feels distant.
“Something wrong?” Liam’s gaze, warm and concerned, pierces her fugue.
Gwen shoves her spork in the diminished pile of reconstituted potato. “I don’t know if I made the right choice. Sure, we saved those krogan from exaltation, but we lost another Pathfinder.”
“Hard calls all around.” Liam squeezes her shoulder and waits until she meets his gaze, dark and steady. “We’d have lost people either way. But we’d have saved people either way, too. Don’t forget that.”
When the job entails saving people, it’s an expectation, not an accomplishment. “It’s not the call my dad would have made. He’d have prioritised the more valuable asset.”
Except the one time he didn’t—and it cost him his life.
“You aren’t your dad. Ad you don’t have to measure yourself against him all the damn time.”
Gwen goes back to her meal with decidedly less enthusiasm. Still cleans the plate, knowing she’ll regret it if she doesn’t. Liam dumps the tray on the bedside table while Gwen scoots over to let him sit beside her, back to the headboard. He drapes an arm around her shoulders and she curls into his side. Freshly showered, he smells of soap and something uniquely him.
Tucking her head under his chin, he lets out a heavy exhale. “Seriously though, I had no idea SAM could do that.”
Gwen chuckles once. “Neither did I.”
“Don’t know if I could have done that, let an AI effectively kill me. Even if he said he was going to revive me afterward…”
What was it she’d said right before SAM stopped her heart? Three’s usually the charm, and this is only strike two. “If SAM loses me, he, well, loses out. It’s a kind of symbiosis.” It isn’t something she usually brings up, heeding SAM’s advice to keep the extent of their connection quiet. But the cat’s out of the bag on that one. It’s also out of the containment field it was trapped in, so Gwen won’t count it as a loss.
Liam eyes her sidelong. “Human-AI relations aside, that’s still a hell of a thing.”
She draws her knees up to her chest. “Yeah.”
He looks up to the ceiling, the gesture the crew have taken to when calling on the resident disembodied AI. “SAM? Thanks for saving Ryder. I owe you one.”
“You do not owe me anything. One of my primary functions is to assist the Pathfinder in the field.”
“Still appreciate it. Everyone deserves thanks for doing good.”
It’s quiet but for the beeping equipment and their mingled breathing. The medbay is cast in soft greys and blues, similar to Alliance ships, and finally the familiarity of the decor is comforting. It might also have something to do with the man beside her. She settles more comfortably against him, feeling his ribs expend with every breath, and he idly traces a pattern on her shoulder with one finger.
In fact, she is halfway asleep when SAM chimes, “Pathfinder, Dr T’Perro and Suvi are on their way to the medbay.”
It’s all the warning Gwen and Liam need to put a respectable distance between them.
Besides SAM, Gwen isn’t really sure who else knows about her and Liam. But they’re not ready to go public yet—or rather, she isn’t ready. Liam’s made it clear he’d be happy to shout it from mountaintops, but only with her permission. Maybe her Alliance training holds strong, warning her of the dangers of fraternisation. So even if she suspects Lexi already knows, everyone present is going to pretend otherwise.
By the time the doors whoosh open, Liam is occupying a seat beside the bed while Gwen fills the free space on the bed.
Suvi bustles in, Lexi at her heels, her omni-tool a glove of gold. “Feeling all right? You were clinically dead for a few seconds.”
“I’d say I’m feeling pretty good for someone who was clinically dead for a few seconds.” Gwen almost shrugs, but thinks better of it when Lexi’s face pinches.
“I have something you need to know. We detected a some kind transfer between you and the flagship while you were being revived. SAM believes the information shared was… memories of yours.”
Ice runs down her spine.
The black space between her last breath and her first gapes, filled with dizzying flashes, figures, faces retrieved from the recesses of her brain. “The Archon saw my memory flashes?”
“Memory flashes?” Liam repeats.
“That part about your life flashing before your eyes when you die? Is a lie. I had these… flashbacks when I was revived.”
He smirks. “One mystery of the universe down.”
She shakes her head, more perturbed than she’d care to admit. “I could barely make sense of those memories and they’re mine. Good luck to the Archon if he wants to decipher them. I think I remembered my goldfish’s funeral.”
Liam’s snickers aren’t loud enough to drown out Lexi’s sigh.
Suvi’s mouth tightens with worry. “Whatever the Archon injected you with allowed him access. Our connections were wide open when SAM… killed you.”
The weight of three pairs of eyes is almost too heavy. Gwen draws in one breath, then another. “Well. I think I just gave away how badly we need Meridian.”
“And storming his flagship didn’t?” Liam shakes his head. “This one isn’t on you, Ryder.”
“I thought you needed to know sooner rather than later,” Suvi says. “I’ll let you rest now. Call if you need anything.”
She and Lexi vacate the room. Gwen watches the door even after it shuts behind them. She fluffs herself out like a small bird on a lonely perch and tries to fight the yawning dread that sits in her chest, as heavy as a black hole. The disjointed flashbacks slip through her fingers, as fragile and formless as sand, the more she wracks her brain. What did the Archon see? What did she give away?
“Take it easy.” Liam covers her hand with his own and she realises she’s been twisting her fist in the sheets.
“It’s—” she sighs, short and tense. “What a wonderful way to cap the day.”
Liam shifts from the chair to the edge of the bed, perching lightly in case she wants more personal space right now. Always sweet, that one, even if she doesn’t have the headspace to appreciate it right now. “I know it’s a lot, and I know I have no clue what it’s like to have someone else watch your memories like an old vid collection. But I’m here.”
Gwen lets her head thunk on her knees with a groan.
The thing about creeping dread is that it inevitably pounces. And in that moment heat rushes through her body, followed by a flash of ice. A shudder starts deep in her chest, originating from a spot just below her heart. She grabs fistfuls of hair, tight enough to sting. Sometimes having SAM perpetually peering over her shoulder is too much, let alone having her nemesis witness something so raw and personal.
Liam pulls himself the rest of the way onto the bed and wraps her in his arms, running a hand up and down her spine. It gives her something to focus on, something real, something now, something to make a new memory. He croons through her shakes, that she’s safe, that they’re safe, and her alarm fades under his steady reassurances. She bumps her shoulder against his in silent thanks. But even so, the disquiet doesn’t fade. It sits in her chest, an ink-black blob of concentrated anxiety.
“You,” Liam says, gently yet firmly, “need some time off. Remember what I said about Dondi.”
“We need to go to the Nexus,” she protests. Having never been a stickler for protocol, she isn’t entirely sure why she’s defending the same workaholic system that chewed up both her parents. Maybe it’s the gnawing dread that Andromeda won’t wait for Pathfinder Ryder to be ready. Not kett or colonies or politics.
“Good plan. Go to the Nexus, blow off some steam at Vortex.”
It isn’t what she means and they both know it.
But it’s tomorrow’s argument. Tomorrow’s problem. Right now Gwen makes a vague noise that could be interpreted as agreement and curls against Liam’s side. He presses his lips to her hair and whispers something that might be a please be all right.