Chapter 1: Eurydice
“So, Ryder. I think we have to arrest your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend, Peebee,” Ryder muttered, now automatically. She was definitely in the shower, absolutely having private time, most certainly had locked the door. And yet: Peebee. Inevitably, Peebee. Into the steam, Ryder sighed.
Peebee clicked her tongue. Through the hazy shower stall’s door, Ryder could make out the Asari slouching back against the sink. Even the vague outline of Peebee’s body seemed indolent. “Semantics. I happen to love the word boyfriend. So cute! So juvenile! A highly accurate representation of your love life. Did I mention: any and all comments on this topic put forth by myself, Peebee, are to be received with appreciation and reflection?”
There was shampoo in her eye. How appropriate. Ryder grimaced. “Did you come here to tell me something Peebee?”
“No, no. Nothing in particular. Just figured you could use some girl talk considering your boyfriend’s approaching arrest.” Peebee paused. “You should wash your back more.”
Back later. First, shampoo. Ryder dug at her eye. “I might not have to arrest him. I will hopefully not have to arrest him. I don’t think I really have the authority to arrest people? Like formally? At first I thought Addison was a bitch but then I saw the paperwork she gets because of me. Which has probably already been reduced by, um, by lower level office employees. I’m trying to be more considerate. Also he’s not my boyfriend. I haven’t seen him in months.”
Peebee laughed with shrill sarcasm. “Goddess. Ryder. Your ass is blushing.”
In all likelihood: she probably had to arrest her boyfriend.
“You knew this was coming,” Tann whispered, with some viciousness. Ryder tried to be patient. Maybe she could lighten things up by pointing out that there was no one in the room to overhear them. Tann continued whispering, “You knew that getting in bed with smugglers and vigilante criminal pseudo-lords was not the Initiative’s plan for Kadara.”
In bed with vigilante criminal pseudo-lords. How nice. If only. Ryder rubbed the skin between her eyebrows. She was aging into migraines. “Director Tann, we needed that outpost. The Initiative, including yourself, has and continues to profit tremendously from Kadara’s trade—”
“Oh, yes,” Tann interrupted, now throwing himself back into his chair. It was a nice chair. Choice cushioning for one bony Salarian butt. “Yes, we are all well aware of Kadara’s potential. But you don’t see what I see, Ryder. They are an independent, lawless entity that devours Nexus goods and personnel along with our reputation!”
Ryder squinted. Her migraine was getting worse. It was probably due to the shitty fluorescent lighting and, perhaps, just a spice of defensive rage. “Director Tann,” Ryder stressed, “You know we need a free market. You know we need an economic center that is separate from our government—”
Director Tann waved a hand, presumably to silence her. Ryder ignored him. “—just because you can’t control something doesn’t make it a threat. Yes, there are drugs on Kadara. There is probably every single fucking kind of trafficking going down in that city, but you know what? There will always be buyers. Prohibition has never worked, and that includes here on the Nexus. If anything, Kadara separates you from crime. I don’t need to tell you the other benefits.”
“No. You don’t.” Tann conceded. There was a resigned, but hard note to his voice now. He was done yelling. Composure settled across the director’s long body, and he drew himself forward. Ryder’s stomach clenched. Director Tann sighed. “Ryder. The fact of the matter is, Kadara Port became partners with the Initiative – with all of us—the moment we settled outposts on Kadara. You’re right, we can’t lose the Port. But the violence, the corruption—Aya is losing patience. More Angara deal with the port than any of our colonies, or the Nexus. They only see us at our worst; mired in greed, inseparable from violence. Even the Moshae has begun to express her concerns. If we don’t act—or at the very least appear to act—in such a way that curbs the Charlatan’s influence, and quickly, we risk losing our Angaran alliance. I don’t need to tell you their benefits.”
The Charlatan. Ryder did her best to maintain eye-contact. In bed with a vigilante criminal pseudo lord. She licked her lips. “I see your point.”
“I should hope so. It is glaringly obvious,” Tann replied icily. Ryder wondered if her impeccable calm was suspicious. Maybe she should try fidgeting. Normal people fidgeted. She bounced her knee, then stopped at once.
After too long a pause, Ryder cleared her throat. “Okay. So we’re in agreement, something has to change. But Director Tann, I’m the Pathfinder. I’m supposed to be eradicating the straggler Kett on Eos—is this really the mission I should be taking on right now?”
Director Tann surveyed her for a long moment. He did a weird thing with his face. Something like a smile. “It must be you. Do you know, Pathfinder, I have considerable respect for you. Your contributions to the initiative cannot be overstated. During your battle against the Archon I took it upon myself to watch the skies and the coms. I wondered who would help us, who would leave us to die. You can imagine my surprise, when an entire fleet of Kadaran ships began appearing, like endless waves to break the Kett fighters. You can imagine, how I wondered, when I saw the man who led them join you fighting on the ground.”
Ryder reminded herself that normal, unconcerned people did things like breathing. She tilted her head slightly, waiting, staring into Tann’s cold, analytic eyes. Alien.
He blinked. “Well, it’s not as though I think he’s the Charlatan. That seems almost laughably stupid, not to speak of reckless. Perhaps a trusted lieutenant. Regardless, anyone would suspect you’d made a deal with the Charlatan personally based off of the ease with which our foothold in Kadara was established. Their participation in the battle at Meridian only confirms that.”
Pathfinder, SAM piped up, Situational analysis suggests that you appear less cornered. Disengaging sweat glands now.
Ryder recoiled. Sam, never again.
Tann couldn’t have missed her discomfort, but he didn’t acknowledge it either. “I am not a fool or an idealist, Pathfinder. I acknowledge the value in established, underground networking, and your consistent victories thus far are why I have chosen to delegate authority to you, rather than intervening directly with the Nexus militia. Use your knowledge of the Collective and its higher officers to find the Charlatan, and convince them to reform. Or remove them. I trust you understand my position and will act appropriately.”
Ryder forced herself to smile, nodding at the director and rising too quickly from her seat. “I do understand. Completely. I’ll see what I can do, Director Tann.”
She had begun to turn away to retreat, when Tann called her back, “Pathfinder. I am not unsympathetic to your position, but you should know that this mission comes with a deadline.”
The Director seems to be acclimating to his authority, SAM noted.
Keema wouldn’t stop calling. Reyes jabbed his omni-tool. “Busy. What?”
“You might want to wash the blood off your hands,” Keema drawled in her usual arch way. “A friendly suggestion.”
“Why? Is my mother coming?”
Damn. There actually was blood on his hands. Reyes tried rubbing his smudged omni-tool clean with his sleeve. “When, why?”
“Not sure, but soon. Probably to arrest you.”
“She wouldn’t arrest me.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Keema smirked, “You haven’t seen her in a while.”
“I sent gifts.”
Keema looked at him pityingly. “Anyway. Find anything decent?”
Reyes sighed, “Nothing conclusive. I want a better scanner. It’s so dirty, everywhere. Turian and Angara and human, all this DNA mixed together. Like a molecular sex party. Except frustrating, not fun.”
“Humans and your ‘sex parties.’ The Angara call it dinner.”
“Speak for yourself.” Reyes glanced at the sticky wall, its dark blue blood. “I should clean up.”
They ended the call without salutations, as usual. Reyes stared at the grit, the corpses, the ugly painting someone had made on the wall with the Turian’s blood. He honestly couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a face or a volcano. A little artistry never hurt anyone.
Ryder was coming.
Back to the bloody painting. Probably a face? Maybe a mask. Could be a Charlatan reference, but not what he was looking for—annoyingly amateur, not worth his time.
Sara was coming.
He tried the sink. A stream of orange liquid pooled in the basin. Reyes splashed his hands, sighing. Kadara. Dirty, ugly Kadara. His kingdom.
“Sucks about Reyes,” Liam noted, smiling widely. Ryder ignored him. The shit.
“Boyfriend,” Peebee mouthed. Everyone was getting ignored.
“Approaching Kadara,” Kallo called over his shoulder. “Seatbelts. Or at least hold on to something, Gil.” The pilot snapped back around to face his flight path. A beat of silence. Suvi’s pretty head poked around her chair.
“Kallo’s been quiet anxious about the upcoming safety inspection. Please don’t be so hard on him and take your seats. You really should, anyway, you know. Might be a good time to do some relaxing, get some thinking in. It’s not all bad.”
“Thank you, Suvi,” Kallo sniffed.
Being unfortunately burdened by boss duties (and Cora’s impressive stare), Ryder slid grudgingly into one of the deck’s seats. Vetra joined her. “You know, Ryder, if you’re already out arresting boyfriends maybe we could add a few more to the list. Like Sid’s.”
“Give the kids a break!” Liam objected, definitely not wearing a seat belt. “Who cares if he isn’t perfect! She’s got the right to mess around, make some discoveries about herself!”
“Oh, what discoveries?” Peebee jibed. “I like discoveries.”
“My little sister isn’t going to mess around with some hotshot kamikaze Krogan with five hundred years on her and a beat-ass shuttle called Trade Enlargo,” Vetra snarled, over-enunciating every word. “If you’re going to make a gross euphemism it should at least make sense!”
“Kid’s right,” Drack agreed, “And anyway, everyone knows Krogan men aren’t worth shit until they’ve cleared seven hundred. Sad but true.”
Surely, still a notable improvement over dating the mob, SAM speculated over loud speaker. Drack snickered.
“Traitor,” Ryder muttered, then bit her tongue as Kallo landed with unusual force. Liam went flying, slamming his shoulder painfully on the bridge door before he caught himself against the mandated safety railing. Kallo swiveled as Suvi steered the Tempest into its docking bay. “Seat belts,” was all he hissed.
Kadara was different. Ryder could smell it, before anything else. The smog of sulfur and ozone had dissipated thanks to the terraforming. In its place—food smells. Animal smells. The market was massive, sprawling, spilling out to the docks. There were hecklers and beggars and vendors and street performers. There were old-school neon signs and grungy sewer pipes and very real, very noticeable infrastructure.
And the people. Human, Salarian, Turian, Nexus, Collective, Angaran. Was that a church? They’d built a church. Ryder could feel her migraine coming back.
“Might as well start with where things used to be,” Drack muttered. He’d appointed himself to her squad, and in the wake of so much change, Ryder was unexpectedly reassured. At least she’d brought the big muscle.
“Pardon me Ryder, but I think I will speak to the resident Angara,” Jaal announced, turning to her. “Much has changed since we’ve been here last. I would like to hear from our elected representatives.”
“Take someone with you. Let me know what you find out,” Ryder agreed. “Okay everyone? Split up but no solo missions. Keep your eyes open.”
There was a sort of generalized nod among squad members, and in pairs they began splitting off. Ryder watched as her team filtered into the greater market, many lingering over the new stalls.
“That looks tasty,” Suvi’s voice could just barely be heard.
“Don’t,” from Kallo.
Dependable as always, Cora had hung back, and she smiled now. “Need a ride along?” she offered, with a little head tilt. Sometimes Ryder would begin to think Cora was cute, and then remember how many times she’d watched the other woman blow people in half using her pinkie and some creepy mind powers.
Prime bodyguard material. “All aboard,” Ryder agreed. She led the other two into the market. “Guess we should see if the Collective’s changed addresses.”
“I doubt it,” Cora offered. “Keema’s the type who likes attention. It shouldn’t be hard to find her.”
“We could always beat someone,” Drack offered.
“That doesn’t really fix anything,” Cora protested. Drack grunted.
“I know. I’m just saying. We could always beat someone.”
“SAM, you got anything?” Ryder mumbled. For a second, nothing. A weird, artificial buzz—or a drone?—some kind of static. Ryder blinked, shook her head. “What the hell?”
Apologies Pathfinder. I was taking a moment to upgrade system functionality, SAM chimed from her omni-tool. Locating Collective data traces now.
“He installs updates?” Cora snapped, with disbelief. “Ryder, did you sanction this?”
“Uh,” Ryder shook her head. Buzzing again. Ignore it. “No. Not sanctioned. SAM, no more updates without, um, user permission.”
The Collective’s base is carefully hidden. I would speculate that there are likely many locations. Their front for operations remains the same, with some upgrades.
“Your bot’s been getting uppity,” Drack chuckled. “Careful Ryder. If you go on a rampage I might have to start taking things personally.”
“Wonderful.” Ryder rolled her eyes. “Thanks Drack.”
As they neared the Collective’s base, Cora caught Ryder’s arm. “A moment, Drack?”
“Take it,” the old Krogan gruffed, now wandering away. “Last chance to beat some sense into her before things get shady. I know Cora will say it better Pathfinder, but listen to me this time. Nothing in the universe makes people as stupid or worthless as love.”
Before Ryder could even retort, Cora’s hand was on her shoulder again, firm. “Has a sort of poetry about him, don’t you think?” she asked lightly.
Ryder glanced up, then away again, feeling guilty. Cora had pretty eyes. Hazel. “I think I know what you’re going to say.”
“Well, I’m saying it anyway. I meddle. And it might not have been for long, but I’m still one of the only people in this galaxy who knew you before you were made Pathfinder.” Cora paused. She sucked in one cheek, chewing. “Look. I’m going to sound like an ass. But: you’re young. You’re really young. To be honest, it kind of pissed me off at first because—well, I mean, I’m sure you can imagine. I’m not bringing this up to be a jerk, I got over Alec choosing you to be his successor a long time ago. And you know, he was right. You’ve done a great job. I’m proud that you’re the human Pathfinder.”
Cora was looking at her warmly, with almost sisterly affection. Ryder blushed. “Um. Thanks, Cora. That means a lot to me, coming from you. Just, uh, wow.”
“No problem,” Cora dismissed the moment briskly. “It’s the truth. But like I was saying before, as much as I respect and care for you, you’re young. You’re not stupid, but there are things that you have to learn the hard way. And normally, I’d say okay. Go learn them. But not this time. Not when you’re the Pathfinder. Not when the Angaran alliance is riding on this. Not when we both know exactly what kind of a man we’re dealing with.”
“Do you?” Ryder joked weakly. “Because honestly, I was never sure.”
“No.” Cora said firmly, not letting Ryder look away. “You know.”
A long silence passed between them. Cora’s hand was still on Ryder’s shoulder, a familiar gesture, a comforting one. Ryder sighed, long and slow, turning back to the market. So many people. So much had grown, so quickly. It took someone special to make that happen.
“I hear what you’re saying.” Ryder admitted. “What everyone’s saying. I’m just…I don’t know. I don’t think you’re wrong. But I don’t think he’s evil either.”
Cora’s faint half-smile quirked sympathetically. For a moment, Ryder thought the other woman might hug her. She didn’t. Instead, she let go, and waved Drack back over. She checked the holster on her gun. “Just remember that people don’t have to be evil to do terrible things.”
The Collective’s base (or their front for one) had indeed undergone some modifications. Namely, it was basically a palace.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Ryder called up to Keema, who was lounging on what could only be called a throne. The armed guard was sort of hard to miss, but Keema smiled in welcome nevertheless.
“Pathfinder. It’s been too long.” She paused thoughtfully, “Do you know I’ve actually missed you? I heard you were coming of course—excuse the spies, darling—and do you know, I’ve spent the whole morning thinking about it. Things always seems so much more interesting when you’re around. And then I considered your long habit of making things go well for me.” For extra corruption points, Keema added a complicit smile. Ryder smiled back.
“I’m a people pleaser. Do I have to shout up at you like this or may I be granted permission to approach?”
“Excuse me, darling,” Keema chuckled. She rose gracefully, waving a cool hand towards her guards. They slid almost noiselessly from the room.
“Don’t get mad,” Ryder whispered, “But I think you two should maybe leave too.”
“I’m mad,” Cora said immediately.
“Urgh. Pathfinders and their cultural sensitivity. Angara and their ceremony.” Drack growled. Ryder wasn’t sure, but she thought the Krogan might have rolled his old alligator eyes. “Fine. Come find me when you’re done with the parades.”
“You better watch yourself,” Cora hissed loyally. She was making quite the snake-eyes up at Keema. “I mean it. She talks nice but she doesn’t give a damn about anyone. Don’t lose your gun.”
“Leave,” Ryder moaned. She felt like a teenager trying to shake her parents for a date. Keema was chuckling softly as the two left, and Ryder spent most of the ascent up the stairs trying to school her expression into one of dignity.
“Charming. I do love a good old war story, don’t you?” she was already carrying on before Ryder could answer, “Darling, I hate talking in this stuffy old room. Won’t you have lunch with me?”
“Lunch and drinks, I hope?” Ryder tried smiling conspiratorially. Unprompted, SAM reported a 34 percent accuracy rating.
Keema chuckled again. “You survived Kadara once, didn’t you? Why the hell not?”
“I’m sorry our friend won’t be joining us,” Keema sighed. She’d led Ryder out onto a rather magnificent balcony, all white stone and cushions. A number of silent servants slid in and out of the shadows laying out platters of rather frightening looking food. There were also, unexpectedly, grapes. Ryder set to nibbling.
“Is something wrong?”
Keema snorted. “Please, no. I expect he’ll find you later. I’m sure he just doesn’t want me around.”
Ryder blinked, uncertain. Keema drew out the moment of superiority then, at her leisure, elaborated. “Well. As you know, we’re of course aware that Nexus sent you here to…well, deal with him. In some way.”
Ryder shrugged. “There’s no point in hiding it.”
“None whatsoever. We knew this would happen eventually. In fact, I have several ‘Charlatan’s picked out for you to take back to Nexus—you may choose from amongst them at your discretion.” Keema leaned back, resting gracefully on her forearms. A long, slender sunbeam glistened across her brow. The Angara stared at Ryder for a long, considering moment. And then, the unexpected.
“I’ll be honest with you, Ryder.” She said slowly. “I’d like to believe you’re a friend to us. You have a way of seeing the bigger picture—the best way forward. Reyes likes to think you’re innocent enough to believe in us—well, him, but I don’t think you’re quite as starry eyed as his ego wants to believe.” She paused now, visibly choosing her words. “Rather than the Nexus and Aya, there’s something else to be addressed. Something worse.”
“Worse?” Ryder echoed. She shifted her weight, trying to chase her own sun beam. The breeze across the gallery was unexpectedly cold.
“Yes.” Keema breathed out, rose up. Ryder couldn’t remember a time she’d seen the other woman look even mildly stressed—much less afraid. Keema was afraid. “There are complications,” Keema said delicately. “Some expected. Some we could not have prepared for. There is a group of Roekaar remnants who aim to take my life—and the Charlatan’s. Expected, but a threat nevertheless. They have evolved past reason, into a place of religious extremism. They cannot be reasoned with. I would be lying if I told you that did not upset me. But that is not the real problem.”
“Tell me,” Ryder urged. “Enough prancing around it Keema, if I can help you, I will.”
Keema nodded slowly. “We think…we think there is another Charlatan.”
Ryder stopped. Her mind turned things over. “How?”
“I don’t know. But there’s someone. Someone leading a lot of people. And they aren’t afraid to do things—terrible things.” Keema’s voice dropped, letting in some ice. “They rape, they kill—children. Of all species. They leave their bodies in the streets. Ryder, they use our name. It doesn’t matter how many times I say that the Charlatan, the Collective, isn’t responsible. Because the people hear things, they whisper. It has only just begun, and already, they are terrified. Already, to some, the Charlatan has become the demon of Kadara, a monster who feeds his city with the suffering of its most innocent.”
“You don’t have any leads?”
“None,” Keema shook her head wildly. “We built this city to be a free and open market. There was always going to be some crime, but this—things feel wrong. Unnatural. Intentional. Ryder, this butchery, it benefits no one. We would never do this. And if it doesn’t stop, the Nexus and Angaran home worlds will be forced to act. We will be destroyed.”
It was cold, on the balcony. Ryder pressed a grape against the roof of her mouth with her tongue, and it burst. There was a note of something rank, lurking in the sweetness. It was going to storm soon, the air smelled of it. She wondered what the storms on Kadara looked like.
She didn’t know how to feel. Afraid? Hurt? “Why wouldn’t Reyes tell me?” Ryder wondered. “I would have come. I could have helped.”
Something harsh flashed across Keema’s face, then vanished. “Because you’re young, Ryder, and you’re a hero. And Reyes is neither of those things.”
Ryder had wandered from her meeting with Keema in a near daze, her mind roiling. She’d reported her discoveries to Drack and Cora—she’d promised herself, long ago, to be honest with her crew no matter what lies she might flub to the Nexus—and they’d taken things about as well as could be expected.
“We should leave.” Cora announced. “A fight’s one thing, Ryder, but a city that’s swarming with assassins and death cults and serial killers is another. We’re at a disadvantage.”
“The Textbook is right,” Drack grunted, not appearing to even notice Cora’s glare. “I told you this place was about to get shady. Let’s regroup, kid. I’ve seen your man’s type before, a roach won’t die so easy.”
“He’s not a cockroach.” Ryder said, then, “I need a drink.”
“That’s fair,” Drack agreed. Cora rolled her eyes at the both of them.
“I need a drink alone,” Ryder corrected. “Drop me at Tartarus?”
Cora snorted, “If there’s anything left of it.”
“It’ll be fine,” Drack protested.
A short journey revealed that Tartarus was still standing and, even better, had invested in actual liquor instead of what Ryder had long suspected to be alien moonshine. Cora already had her arms crossed when Ryder turned around. “I’m not about to leave the Pathfinder alone in some shitty bar on this murder rock,” she announced.
“It’s a good bar,” Drack argued.
“But,” Cora continued, “I suppose we can wait downstairs.”
“Thanks Ma,” Ryder groaned. Cora narrowed her eyes, but was too mature to respond. Ryder watched as Drack lumbered over the last stair and out of sight, and sighed heavily.
Pathfinder. I believe I can install substantial system upgrades that will dramatically increase our combat prediction matrices. Permission to proceed?
“How’s brain re-wiring mix with booze?” Ryder asked. “Wait. Don’t tell me. Just do it.”
She spun, heart in her throat. He was there. Hadn’t she been watching all the doors? But somehow he was right behind her, leaning up against the bar, as easy as the day she’d first met him. She hadn’t been ready to see him. She’d thought she would, had come to the bar for just that purpose, of course—but not so soon. “Oh,” she said, staring at him. What was different? He was different. Somehow.
Reyes grinned. “I hear you’ve come to arrest me.”
“I, uh,” Ryder stammered, then swallowed. Get a grip. She swallowed again. “If you heard that, then why are you here?” she squeaked. He wasn’t running away. He was sliding nearer. She watched him approach, with thrilled trepidation, a buzz of static in her brain.
“Are you kidding? I wanted to see you try.” He was doing the thing. The thing where he pulled his gloves off with his teeth. His hands were brown and familiar and a little too big for the rest of him. Ryder stared, physically willing herself to flirt back. She could be smooth. She could be hella smooth.
“It’s been a while,” she managed. “I thought we should start off slow.”
His smile spread, evil. Was she naked?
No, SAM reminded.
Definitely not naked.
“Slow isn’t really my style.” Reyes almost purred. That fucker. Ryder tucked her hair behind her ears, and in a flash his hand was there with hers, and his face was right there, and he was whispering, “I can get that.”
“OKAY!” Ryder yanked herself away, reeling. “I, um, I don’t think I can really—do that—right now. Since I’m kind of supposed to be investigating you. Or at least very seriously persuading you to join Nexus. Or arrest you. I don’t know.”
“And? Does the Pathfinder turn in a time sheet when she’s making her reports?” Reyes demanded. He looked like a cat, watching her like that. “Do that later. Me first.”
“You’re so…” she trailed off. She didn’t know what he was. That was the problem. “You said you have whiskey?”
“Until the day you stop leaving me, yes, I’ll always have whiskey.” He signaled the bartender, just flicked his fingers. So unfair. She was the damn Pathfinder and she still had to wave and holler to get served. Reyes was eyeing her. “Let me look at you. You seem different.”
“Me?” Ryder stuttered. She laughed. “I thought the same thing about you.”
Reyes shook his head slowly, tutting. “How cruel. You lived without me.”
Their drinks arrived, two low glasses with whiskey the color of honey. Reyes handed her a glass, toasted her. There were other people in the room. They were in a room full of people. She couldn’t stop looking at him, almost like she was afraid he’d attack, the second she looked away. He drank slowly, watching her with heavy eyes as he swallowed.
“I missed you,” she admitted, and quickly buried herself in her drink. He was still there when she surfaced, and still smiling. Pleased.
“Was that so hard?” he asked.
Trying not to sulk, Ryder slid onto the stool next to him. She scooted to the edge, close enough for their shoulders to press together. “I hear you’ve been keeping things from me.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Typical,” she snorted. He ordered another round. Why did they always drink so fast? “Keema says you have an evil twin running around. Well, an eviler twin.”
Reyes kept his face away from her, but she watched him openly. Just for a second, he bit his lip. “You know, I have a lesson for you. When the person you’ve hired to be a mask starts divulging classified information, you don’t have a mask anymore.” He slugged the double shot. “You have a business competitor.” He set down his glass a little too hard, fingers tight around the crystal. His foot tapped, slowly.
“She’s afraid,” Ryder protested. “You should have told me. I could have helped—”
“I didn’t want to talk about this with you,” Reyes interrupted. He turned to her, sliding himself over and around her, so that she fit tightly against his side. “You only just got here. I thought I said we could leave the paperwork for later.”
Ryder gazed up, an uncomfortable cramp building up somewhere inside. He had changed. He’d gotten harder. His face was the same—still charming, still handsome—but something new was there now, something rigid, and vicious. She considered him, in all his new violence, wondering if these changes made her sad, or excited. “So did you miss me?” she asked.
Reyes smiled, and relaxed into her. “I missed you. Kadara missed you more.”
“Because without you to distract me, it earned my undivided attention.” He was going to kiss her. She was sure of it. She turned her face to meet him and he caught her lightly, too lightly. For a second his mouth was on hers and she remembered that he could kiss like no one she’d ever met, not roughly or sweetly but savory—as though she were something to be relished.
And she wanted more.
“You taste like expensive whiskey.” Reyes told her. She wanted to kiss him in bars. She wanted to kiss him in alleys. She wanted to kiss him in locker rooms, closets, bathroom stalls, somewhere dirty enough to bring her down, somewhere ugly enough for balance.
Ryder nipped his lip. “I better not be buying.”
Reyes smiled at her, teasing his fingers through the roots of her hair, yanking things out of place. “Much as I’d like to continue—”
“—your friends are coming upstairs and at least one of them will murder me. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Where?” Ryder insisted. Reyes smiled, and winked, and in the time it took Ryder to hear Cora’s shout, and look back over her shoulder—he was gone.
Cora and Drack drew even. “So,” Cora began, almost dripping poison. “He pay for drinks?”
Ryder looked down. “Fuck,” she said. Then, again, with considerable, misplaced frustration, “Fuck!”
Drack clapped her on the back. It was meant as a friendly gesture, but had the ultimate effect of slamming Ryder’s belly against the bar. “It’ll be okay kid,” Drack said gruffly. Ryder was sure there was a note of sympathetic understanding there.
“No, not okay,” Cora interjected, while Ryder coughed. “Not okay because now we’re spending what’ll probably be the last week of our lives on a planet where lizards are considered fine dining. Oh, and then we get murdered.”
“If you drink enough, you don’t have to eat.”
“Thanks, Drack,” Cora snarled. Ryder got unsteadily to her feet, paid off the tab (absurdly expensive) and led her crew out. Cora had a point. A very solid point. A request for better provisions would need to be filed, ASAP.
“I know you don’t like it,” Ryder wheedled, trying her best to appease Cora (who was objectively, inarguably, right about everything but was also probably immune to human weaknesses such as: food cravings, the lethargy between bed and toilet, and hot space pirates). “I know you don’t like it, but I think it’ll be okay. And, it’s our mission. And, we’ve been through worse.”
“Mortimer’s Stellar Tattoos, No Appointments Necessary!” Cora read off a passing sign. “Hey Ryder, no appointments necessary.”
“The next time you want to imply I get Reyes’ name permanently inked onto my ass, please just tell me to go fuck myself.”
“Go fuck yourself.” Pause. “Pathfinder.”
Drack sniggered appreciatively.
Chapter 2: Orihime
Notes: I used to write all the time, but then I went to college, got a job, traded creativity for health insurance…etc. What I’m trying to say is, I was nervous about committing to a big writing project. I’m grateful and touched for the support, but even more than that, I’m just happy to be here. Thanks for reading!
X-Posted: Fanfiction.net/tumblr/AO3. Don’t blame me, blame The Marketing.
Ryder was different, but in a way that was hard to explain. Rather than changing, she had become more of herself. More confident, more focused. If life could be seen as a series of blows and each strike was another opportunity to shape a person, she had sharpened. Like a blade beneath the blacksmith’s hammer, she had solidified, shook off excesses—rather than bending.
Reyes leaned out over the veranda’s railing. He was at a local favorite, a new restaurant that specialized in breading and frying the local vegetation. The establishment’s peak hours hung between midnight and dawn, the darkest time. Kadara’s vegetation naturally contained weak toxin that, when warmed correctly, could act as a psychedelic for both humans, Angara, and the Asari.
“Waiting for someone?”
Distracted, Reyes reached for his battered leaves. The waitress who’d spoken to him raised her eyebrows. He’d been squatting for nearly half an hour, and the place was overflowing. “You could say that,” Reyes conceded. “But I think it’s going to be a while.”
Annoyed, the waitress eyed him for another moment, then left. He’d have to buy a round for the house soon.
Another important change: Ryder had more freckles.
Reyes considered the aesthetics of freckles as he checked his omni-tool. Nothing. Quiet.
The street below was very dark.
“Not much of a view,” said a soft, low voice.
He glanced back over his shoulder. A petite Asari in clean, new-looking space armor was lounging at a nearby table. She had a small, smug smile, and very dark lipstick. Once she knew he’d seen her, the Asari stood, and picked her way towards him. She was very slight, almost underdeveloped. No scars. Young? Hard to tell. “So who is this person you’re waiting for?” she asked. “A woman?”
“Of course,” Reyes smiled easily. “She takes her time. But I am very good at waiting.”
She regarded him for a moment, her black eyes curving with laughter. “Forgive me. A human is never patient.”
She attacked a half-second later than he’d predicted, with monstrous, raw biotics. Her power was wild, unrefined. It blew out the balcony’s iron railing and sent the now mangled metalwork not only across the street, but through the neighboring building’s wall. If he’d been slower, he’d have been dead. There were screams as those who had avoided the balcony’s blast rushed back into the restaurant—and still more commotion from the street below. Reyes scrambled to his feet, smiling at his attacker. “I thought someone was watching me.”
The Asari was frozen, her eyes livid. She writhed ineffectively at the biotic chokehold his bodyguards had slapped upon her. The veins in her hands bulged, and receded again into her skin. She stared at him, furious, still trying to smile. “You are more important than I had realized.”
“You met with the Pathfinder,” the Asari snapped, her voice clear, almost loud. Was she wearing a wire? Or perhaps she had an accomplice? Reyes kept his features even, careful. He’d been with Ryder only hours before. His opponents were quick. The Asari continued speaking, with that same aggressive, almost confident tone. “Has the Charlatan allied himself with the Nexus? Are they finally ready to pay attention to the problem they can’t contain?”
“I thought the Charlatan was a woman,” Reyes said mildly. His assassin sneered.
“The Angara is nothing. Don’t take us for fools. Tell the Charlatan he can wear as many faces as he wants. We will rip them away, one by one, until there is nowhere left to hide.”
“Tell her yourself!” Reyes said brightly. Her jaw locked, struggling. Reyes watched apathetically. “I always wondered, why do would someone with biotics bother with poison? Surely you can just blow yourself up. Can’t you?”
The Asari’s jaw, frozen to keep her from biting down, strained to answer him, or to end things. You could never be too careful. He kept watching her as the mental chokehold’s pressure increased, until finally, she wavered, her eyelids fluttering. Her body fell pitifully to the ground, and as Reyes searched her, he realized that her slightness was, in fact, to be expected. She was barely more than a child.
She was carrying Angaran daggers, Initiative boosters, and her armor was worth more than the average mercenary could afford, sporting some kind of stylish shield tech he hadn’t seen before. Scans showed that several of her teeth were filled with poison, but she would need to crush her molars to access it. It would be very painful.
Reyes glanced up as his two shadows slid forward, awaiting his orders. He’d chosen the twins—a pair of ancient human biotics, the sort of old women whose discretion could be matched only by their uncaring savagery. Reyes had never liked using the Asari commandos. Too flashy. “Take her back to Keema. Whoever’s sponsoring her already knows she’s been captured, we might as well make sure the Initiative knows it too. When she wakes up, see what you can get out of her.”
“If she refuses to cooperate? We kill her?” one of the old women asked.
Child murderers. Leaving little bodies in the streets. Reyes sighed. Annoying, when the child had lived longer than him. “We’ll give her to the Pathfinder. The Nexus can take her into custody.”
The old women exchanged glances. Telepathy? He would have believed it. Respectfully, one woman dipped her head, considering the young Asari. “There is a chance she may be able to divulge something unsavory to the Nexus…” she trailed off, her silence fat with meaning.
Torturer. Murderer. Sadist. Ryder’s face, when she’d seen what he did to Kaetus as punishment for failing to renounce Sloane. Her face, when she’d seen him as the Charlatan, known that even the title he’d chosen for himself marked him as a liar. Her face, aging and recoiling before his eyes, her obvious and instinctive horror. The moment he had realized that there was a part of him she would never, ever be able to see without flinching.
Absently, Reyes dusted the rubble off his thighs, and turned away. “Get what you can from her. Keep her alive. Make sure she’ll never be able to tell anyone, anything. Especially not the Pathfinder.”
Decision: he liked her new freckles.
As Ryder’s party stripped out of their armor and boarded the Tempest, several heads popped around the corridor’s corners to watch. “Nice to see you’re back,” was Lexi’s greeting. It seemed innocent enough. Ryder was already afraid.
“We just stopped for a drink on the way back,” Ryder explained, her voice oddly high-pitched. She glanced hopefully at Drack and Cora, neither of whom seemed interested in covering for her.
Lexi’s arms were crossed, her spine rigid. Very slowly, and with considerably deliberation, her weight shifted to one hip. “Of course,” the doctor acknowledged. “A drink.”
Or several. Ryder grumbled, then realized that Drack had apparently mastered the art of evaporation. Her favorite Krogan was nowhere to be seen.
Lexi had privately decided that she didn’t have the energy to badger someone who regarded their internal organs as currency, and she now settled into easier targets with a sense of relative comfort. “I’m not sure where to start. Wait, yes, I do. Cora?”
Cora’s mouth actually dropped a little. She looked indignantly at Ryder. “Me? Why am I being singled out?”
“Did you even wear sunscreen?” Lexi demanded.
“Yes.” Cora said, immediately and definitively and shifty as hell.
Scans reveal she is lying, SAM pitched in.
“Sunscreen is important,” Ryder pitched in. “Very anti-cancer, that stuff. Yep.” She slunk rapidly towards the nearest escape route, and was more than a little perturbed when Lexi’s hand snagged her jacket sleeve, especially since there should have been several meters separating them. Ryder smiled nervously. “You’re pretty speedy for a Doctor.”
“Aloe vera,” Lexi barked at Cora, who was actually jogging down the hall. Casually. Casual jogging. Lexi returned her glare to Ryder. “And you.”
The Pathfinder wore sunscreen, SAM reported. Nice to know someone was on her side.
“I thought we were arresting your boyfriend,” Lexi growled. “I don’t see a detainee. SAM’s monitors show your oxytocin excretion levels all over the place!”
“I don’t think the word excretion should be allowed on this ship?” Ryder said, to the ceiling. “I also would like to point out that SAM is a traitor and this is totally an invasion of privacy? Just, you know. For the captain’s log.” Lexi was still holding/pinning her by the arm. Which was buzzing. Her arm was buzzing? For one wild moment Ryder wondered if her weird headaches had migrated, but no, it was just her omni-tool. Someone was calling.
“Ryder, you might be able to lie to me, but your body can’t. And I am telling you, as your doctor, you cannot rationally or fairly involve yourself in this mission.” Lexi insisted. Ryder groaned. Why was Lexi so smart and caring? Why couldn’t she be a practitioner of the Band-Aid cure-all methodology? Twisting the knife still deeper, Lexi’s tone softened (her arresting grip did not). “Personally, Ryder, I don’t want to see you or anyone else be hurt. I kept quiet before now because, to be blunt, I knew you wouldn’t listen to me. I also was unable to argue that someone else would be better suited to the job. But I cannot continue to sanction your behavior without, at the very least, regular psychological evaluations.”
Trapped like a rat. The psych evals weren’t bad, truthfully. Lexi was a big believer in comfort as a facilitator of intimacy, meaning she had a very nice couch.
The Pathfinder is considering stabbing a fork through her hand to avoid discussing her feelings, SAM reported. Lexi’s attention diverted.
“Left or right?”
“At least you’ve still kept some pragmatism,” Lexi acknowledged. She let go of Ryder’s arm. “Fine. Collect yourself first. But then, we talk.”
Ryder nodded furiously, almost disbelieving her good luck as Lexi turned to go. For good measure, and because she was an excellent doctor, Lexi still remembered to nag. “And for the love of the Goddess, hydrate yourself.”
“Yes. Hydration and reflection. Doing that,” Ryder noted, already checking her omni-tool. Reyes? Reyes.
Meet me tomorrow morning? Café called Tiramisu.
Keema flinched the moment she saw him. Reyes preferred to work from the shadows when he could—but there were some things that had to be done in person. And there’d been a time in his past when he’d been good—very good—at climbing in through people’s windows. Even the locked ones. Even the ones that should have been impossible to open, like the window to Keema’s private quarters. “My god,” Keema breathed. She pressed a hand to her breast, likely more for dramatic effect than shock. “There’s no need to glare.” She recovered herself, obviously stalling for time as she waltzed to her private collection of liqueurs. “Drink?”
“I told you to keep your mouth shut,” Reyes snarled. He’d meant to keep things cool. Plans changed.
Keema didn’t quite look at him. “I disagreed.”
Reyes rolled to his feet. A weird, unknown energy vibrated through his limbs. Keema poured, offered. He shook his head. “I don’t want her involved.”
“She is involved.” Keema snapped, and tossed down her shot. She smacked her lips angrily. “Don’t let your feelings get in the way of yourself. The Pathfinder is more than capable of handling herself. She’ll probably find the fake Charlatan before you can.”
Reyes ground his teeth. “Not everyone will be able to tell the difference between the good and the bad, when this fake is found.”
“So that’s it?” Keema’s face began to glow. “I don’t understand you at all.” She poured again, almost forcing the next drink on him. “You worry what she’ll think of you.”
“I worry about losing our alliance—”
“She wouldn’t dare. And you know it. You’re a nasty piece of work that likes pretending to be just rough around the edges. And she’ll find out. And she’ll hate you,” Keema laughed. “You know, I sometimes wonder. What do you tell her about yourself?”
Extremely little. Reyes pulled himself back, returned to the dark window he’d cut his way through. The cold air helped, moderately. He’d come too far to lose control like this. “I should have listened to you,” he conceded, relieved to hear his tone could pass for polite. “Your concerns are real ones.”
“If I’d known it only took a human woman to make you back down, I’d have found you one sooner,” Keema snipped. Reyes drank before answering. Whatever she’d given him was hot, and painful, and nasty.
He turned back to Keema, offering a pleasant smile. “Now who’s being petty?”
“I beg your pardon,” Keema replied.
Cold air. He could be cold. “Your decision to ask for the Pathfinder’s help was the right one. But you still made it without me. I can’t have you making those calls on your own.”
At last, Keema nodded. “I know.”
“We were both wrong. Let’s agree to put this behind us.” He thought about leaping back out the window. It seemed a little dramatic. Reyes headed for the door, adding as he left, “Do this again, and you’re done.”
Reyes was late.
Ryder slouched back against her chair, ignoring SAM’s reminder that doing so would atrophy her muscles. Reyes was late. Of course. No biggie. Except that she was the Pathfinder and how dare he keep the Pathfinder waiting. Just saying.
Kadara was sleepy in the morning. It felt cleaner. Less crowded, that was for sure, but she also could have been feeling lonely thanks to her decision to shake her team. ‘Shake her team’ meaning ‘sneak out of the Tempest,’ a thing that was generally frowned upon and, definitely, bad. Very bad. Bad Pathfinder.
Ryder rubbed her eyes, sulking. She deserved to sulk. She was good at her job and responsible and could shoot a bird out of the sky at 500 meters. Did Kadara have birds? Irrelevant. Point was: people needed to get off her back because she had this.
Suddenly, darkness. A hand, hot and very dry covering her eyes. Close enough for her eyelashes to graze. She should have been afraid. She shouldn’t have relaxed. It was a very big and very stupid problem that she relaxed. “You should take off your armor sometimes,” Reyes mused. “It’s just me.”
Ryder twisted around, pretending to glare. “Do you have some sort of problem with approaching so people can see you?”
“No, just you.”
“Why just me?”
He took his time strolling around the table, claiming his seat opposite her. Even as he pretended to pout, his face was alive with laughter, almost mocking. “You’re so good at running away from me. I don’t want to play nice anymore.”
“That’s not fair.” Ryder protested, with new guilt. Did he think she was running away? She wasn’t running away. She was doing Pathfinder things.
“Isn’t it?” he smiled, almost gently. “Don’t look so upset.”
Ryder blushed, feeling stupid. Of course he didn’t think that. He probably didn’t think of her at all. She tried for a breezy laugh. “Upset! I’m not upset. Anyway. You’re supposed to be telling me about the bad guys.”
“What’s your rush?”
“Uh,” Ryder clamped her mouth shut. She was truthfully not even sure where to begin. Her sense of duty? Professionalism? Her crew’s constant vigilance and clear dissatisfaction with the mission at hand? “Nothing. No rush.”
“Such a bad liar. I almost want to teach you.”
“Why don’t you?”
He just looked at her. Defiant, Ryder stared back. He looked tired. A little older than she remembered. What was he doing that made so worn out? Did he ever get hurt—would he even tell her if he was? Would he tell her anything?
Reyes smirked, and she shook herself free of her thoughts. “Have you eaten?”
“Is it safe?”
“Don’t be that way.” Reyes leaned back, settling himself more comfortably into his chair. “You know, I’ve been thinking about you.”
“About me? What about me?” Ryder squinted at him, suspicious.
“This time apart, has it changed things? Between us? You seem more distant.”
“Distant!” Ryder squeaked, now indignant. “We kissed!”
“No. I kissed you.”
“It’s the same thing.”
“I like it better the other way.”
“You would.” Ryder snorted, then caught herself. She was not going to spend the morning flirting. She had definitely promised herself that. Trying for neutral ground, she gestured at their surroundings. “Why this place? Come here often?”
He rocked forward, pulling his chest over the small table between them. There was a new scar on his forearm, almost startlingly white against his skin. Ryder promised herself not to ask. Watching his shoulders hunch, the way he filled the space in front of her, she struggled to accept his physicality. It was ironic, considering how much time she spent ignoring Liam as he paraded his abs across the Tempest. “It might surprise you to know that it isn’t easy to get good coffee on this space rock,” Reyes intimated. He did his usual sign language with a passing waitress, which Ryder watched jealously.
“Let me guess—you drink it black?”
“Are you out of your mind? Three spoons of sugar. I like them sweet.” He winked.
Reyes giggled. “Okay. Sorry.”
“My father would have punched you.” Their coffee arrived. Ryder drank it straight, with a poker face that was almost murderous.
“You old soldier,” Reyes continued to snicker. He leaned back, now trilling an R at her. She kicked him under the table.
“Stop giggling! And! This coffee is terrible!”
“Like I said, you’d be surprised how hard it is to get good coffee on this space rock—”
She kicked him again. “Did you seriously just call me here to drink bad coffee with me?”
“I dream of the day,” Reyes returned. He was coming down from whatever giddiness he’d felt before now, and she felt sorry for it. Ryder glanced down. Her stomach was cramping. She should have eaten something.
The moment stretched and dropped between them. Their silence shrank and made space for the noise of the world around them. Ryder let herself relax, feeling oddly at peace. Beneath the morning sun, saying nothing with a dangerous man, she drank her bad coffee and watched him wake up.
Reyes finished his drink and offered his hand to her, “Come with me?”
She thought about refusing. Or even just asking questions. Instead, she followed. She followed him down side streets, through dizzying crowds of people, into long, dark hallways. Past empty apartments and arguing peddlers. Two fire-eaters were about to brawl for a street corner, their eyes and their flames both flashing. She followed him until she realized that she was lost—so lost that it would be hard to find her way back out, even with SAM. There had been too many things to see, so much to take in. “Will you be escorting me back out of here?” she asked him, half joking. He had never let go of her hand.
Reyes stopped. “I’ll consider it. What do you think of this?”
She wasn’t sure what she was looking at. It seemed like just another of Kadara’s alleys—small, foul-smelling. There was one thing, though—it was empty. An empty path in a city swollen with people.
The street is freshly washed, SAM noted. Ryder’s fingers clenched.
“Did someone die here?” she asked. Reyes glanced at her. He had been looking at the wall. Surprised, Ryder followed his gaze.
“Yes. There was a child here,” he agreed. There was something about the wall. She could sense it. Cautiously, Ryder reached to brush the rough-cut stone with her fingers. Someone had painted this building green—but not recently. At least a year ago. She was just about to ask SAM to run a scan for a deeper analysis, when she saw it.
“It’s a face?” she asked, already knowing the answer. She reached out to touch the left eye’s image. SAM was scanning. Rather than painting or drawing the face, someone had gone into the stone itself, and cut out a rough approximation of human features. The overall effect suggested that someone had just begun to emerge through the wall, face-first. “Well, that’s creepy.”
“Isn’t it?” Reyes asked. “It took me a while to notice too. They usually use the victim’s blood to paint something ridiculous on the walls, which covers up the face. It’s only after things are washed away that you see it.”
“The others were like this too?”
Reyes sighed. “There are others. Not all. The problem is there are too many copycats. Someone’s seen the paintings but not what hides beneath them, is my guess.”
She had to tell her crew. “You have pictures of the others, right? Can you send them to me?”
“Done,” Reyes agreed. He waited for her to finish scanning, then reached her wrist. “I’ll take you back.”
She looked around once more, then followed him obediently. He glanced back at her, grinning. “Some date.”
“We have our own style.”
He laughed. “I like that.”
He’d trusted her, letting her in. She felt good. “Is that the only thing you like?”
“It’s a start,” Reyes murmured. He’d paused to touch a passing door knob—and he’d twisted—something? But with the barest push she heard a lock snap and in the next second Reyes tugged her wrist, and she was in, off the street and in his arms, while whirls of lazy dust lit the air with gold around them.
Her heart was racing. “You came prepared.”
“I am always prepared,” he pulled her more tightly against him. “Are you impressed?”
“Do you want me to be?”
“Yes,” he said, and just barely in time. Ryder lifted herself onto her toes, and pressed her mouth to his. She didn’t want to hurry. As she kissed him she peeked one eye open. He kissed her with his eyes closed. Somehow, this thrilled her. She broke away to kiss his eyelids, and beneath her mouth, they trembled.
“Silly,” he whispered.
She wanted him. She had to go back to the ship. She wanted him.
He knew it.
She pushed herself away, unsuccessfully.
“Where are you going?” Reyes asked, his mouth grazing the edge of her ear—a feeling between ticklish, and an itch. She wasn’t going to look at him. She wasn’t going to look. She looked.
“This isn’t going to work,” she hissed through tight, determined teeth. “I can’t do this right now. I snuck out while everyone was sleeping to be here, I—I said I wouldn’t do this.”
“Okay.” Reyes didn’t let go. “But do it anyway.” He pushed her hair back, rough hands on her neck, holding the base of her skull just a little too firmly. He kissed, lovingly, the extent of her throat. He bit, hard enough to make her gasp.
“Distracting me is definitely not going to work—”
“Oh yeah? Prove it.” He was pulling on her armor. No, he was barely touching it. Like a lock pick, her gear fell around her, like nothing had been standing in his way to begin with. Her shield plate, nearly banging her foot as it dropped. She didn’t even know that her arms could feel naked, but they did—they did. She couldn’t bring herself to even think about stopping him, not when it was so easy—why was it always so easy for him?
“I don’t have to prove anything to you,” Ryder protested, barely hearing herself. He had knelt, and was unthreading the straps and snaps around her legs. Her thighs, now, bared to the air. Unconsciously, she reached to touch his hair, only just grazing the side of his head with her fingertips. He looked up at her, his face now catching the sunlight, his eyes shining. He seemed, suddenly, vulnerable.
“But don’t you want to?” he asked. She couldn’t tell if he asked to tease her, or because—maybe—she was actually something he actually wanted.
“Yes,” she admitted, horrified when her voice cracked. He gazed up at her, unreadable. For too long, he said nothing. For too long, she fell without a safety net.
It was too much. Her face burning, Ryder scrambled to grab her armor, throwing it back on. “I should go,” she muttered. He watched her. She wouldn’t look at him.
“Hey,” Reyes said. Ryder paid attention to her breast plate, to sealing things as fast as possible. “Hey,” he said again.
He handed her a missing glove. “Can I try again?”
She hated herself for falling for him. Of all people. He probably didn’t even like her that much. When he smiled at her, when she saw his uncertainty—she believed that he did. Trying to hold on to her anger, Ryder groused, “You’re not a good man.” She pulled on her glove. He pulled her to her feet. His uncertainty was gone, or hidden, or had never been there in the first place. She turned before he could kiss her goodbye.
“Would you believe me if I said that I try to be?” he asked her back.
She didn’t answer.
She was going back to the ship. She really, really was. As soon as she figured out the right way to sneak onto a secured military vessel, she was in there.
Ryder huddled behind a few of the docking bay’s larger shipping containers, sweating. She was so busted. She’d been brave enough to check the messages on her omni-tool earlier. Lexi was pissed. So was Cora. So was Kallo. She hadn’t even opened the messages fully—both because she was sure the read receipts would damn her further, and because the subject lines alone were terrifying.
“It’s the truant,” Vetra said.
Ryder choked, and whirled. Definitely Vetra. Ryder couldn’t tell if the Turian was angry, or amused. Or both? Probably both. Also: everyone and their mothers were sneaking up on her these days. Everyone. This was why she didn’t do things without a sniper. “Oh, hey there Vetra,” Ryder squeaked. “I was just thinking, it’s funny, because I had SAM install all these ‘predictive combat matrices’ yesterday and then everyone started getting the jump on me.”
Vetra crossed her arms. “Ha.”
“So. I was just—”
“I honestly hope you at least got laid,” Vetra interrupted. “Because Lexi has requested a full psych eval.”
“No,” Ryder whispered. She stared hopefully up at the Turian. “You’re teasing me.”
“You are arguably a deserter.” Vetra shrugged. “No biggie.”
Ryder wilted. Vetra snorted, “Jeez Ryder, take a joke. It’s fine if you’re fine. But don’t pull that shit again. You want someone to discreetly supervise your trysts, all you gotta do is ask.”
“Ugh,” Ryder rubbed her forehead again. Seriously, ow. “You’re right. I’ll apologize. I just wanted—I thought—I don’t know.”
“You thought you had a connection.” Vetra said simply. Ryder tried not to die.
“I guess you could say that.”
“You thought that by confronting him solo, you’d somehow be able to…reach an understanding? Or something to that effect.”
Stupid stupid stupid. Ryder buried her face in her hands. “Can you maybe not tell everyone about this?”
Vetra sniggered. “Probably. For a price.”
She could only lurk behind shipping crates for so long. Sheepishly, Ryder straightened, and tried to act like she had always been striding confidently back to her ship. “It’s not like I was completely playing hooky, you know. I got some good data. I’ll have SAM upload it.”
“Good data? From Reyes?”
Ryder lifted her chin proudly. “He showed me some stuff.”
Vetra sighed, and fell in line behind Ryder as they approached the lifts back to the Tempest. “So did you know that the Collective took an assassin into custody last night? Some Asari kid with really nice armor? Ringing any bells?”
Ryder froze. “What?” she whispered.
“He didn’t tell you, huh?” Vetra crossed her arms. “Thought so.”
“It might not be what you’re thinking,” Ryder defended. She’d never felt this way before. This cold, sinking feeling. It wasn’t disappointment or anger, but something more physical—something like fear. And what was she saying, anyway? Like Reyes tickled people until they told him what he wanted to know? Come on.
“Cute,” Vetra snorted. “Almost like you’ve never seen him torture anyone before.”
“We don’t know that,” Ryder snapped. She winced. She hadn’t meant to sound angry. Vetra’s face shifted, expression cool. If Turians had eyebrows.
“Listen Ryder, I don’t have anything against the guy. It’s a rough world. A part of me thinks he’s doing what he’s gotta do, but a bigger part of me doesn’t want to see what happens when you get sucked into it. Just remember that I’m on your side here, and I’ve dealt with more crime lords than you have.”
“Right.” She felt like such an ass. Ryder closed her eyes. Migraine. Again. “I get it. I’m sorry.”
“Hey,” Vetra shrugged. “Don’t look so bummed. I don’t care if you fuck him.”
Ryder ignored this. “Wait. How many crime lords have you dealt with?”
“Does it matter? They’re mostly dead.” Imperious, Vetra keyed in the shuttle request to deliver them back to the Tempest. Ryder squinted up at her.
“You know that thing where there’s like a hundred rats locked in a box together and eventually they eat each other until only the strongest one’s left?”
“Ugh,” Vetra wailed. She looked genuinely horrified. “Seriously Ryder, what the fuck? Rats? Those furry things with the little wormy tails, right?”
“I mean it’s not like I ever did it!” Ryder defended. Vetra continued to look repulsed.
“Why are humans so gross?” she moaned. She spent most of the shuttle ride sitting as far away from the Gross Human as possible.
Ryder, meanwhile, spent her time bracing herself for the Mom Coalition, and the snarky looks she’d probably have to endure from Vetra, Chief Audience Member.
Upon arriving at the Tempest, however, Ryder realized she’d made a mistake. She’d assumed Lexi wouldn’t have adapted her tactics. Vetra had already settled into a comfortable vantage point against the wall when Lexi, smiling beatifically, said only, “Oh, Ryder. Your brother’s expecting you.”
“What.” Ryder said. It was not really a question or even an accusation—more like an instinctive, deep rejection. Lexi sniffed.
“I do have the authority to notify next-of-kin in states of emergency. Like, when you go missing.”
“Oh man,” Vetra chortled. “You’re gonna get it.”
“What.” Ryder said again. This wouldn’t do. She cleared her throat. “What did you tell him?”
“Probably just that his sister’s fucking a gang leader,” Vetra whispered gleefully, then in her normal voice, “I mean you are though, right?”
Like Ryder really needed a reminder of how much she wanted to punch a hole through the wall right now. She glowered at Vetra. And Lexi. And the whole damn universe. Assholes. Her arm buzzed. She had four missed calls from Scott—meaning her upcoming conversation with him had officially reached natural disaster levels of bad.
“I hope there’s something left of me after all this,” Ryder said pointedly, now shuffling to her cabin. “I hope you’ve all picked out your new positions of authority following my death. But just remember: someone’s getting a bot downloaded into their head. No movie nights while the mourning period’s on. You’ll be sorry. You’ll all be sorry.”
“Stalling is unattractive.” Lexi snapped. Vetra nodded. Heartless bastards.
Ryder sealed the door to her cabin, walked to the middle of the room, and simply stood there. She gathered her courage. Scott was still 14 seconds younger than her and, also, had once dated three Krogan at the same time, so his opinion on her love life was PRETTY RICH IF YOU ASKED HER—!
Her omni-tool throbbed, interrupting her outrage. Reyes? Scott. Oh, god, it already was Scott. Five missed calls meant she might as well start setting up his guest room. “No, no, no, no,” Ryder whispered. “SAM, put him through. Shit.”
“Shit,” Scott echoed back at her, with venom. SAM had transferred the call to her room’s main terminal, making her brother’s (furious) expression five times life-size.
“Scott!” Ryder laughed nervously. Her brother was glaring. He glared like their mom. Why was everyone in their family so much scarier than her? “Hey! You look tan. It’s good. A good look. I mean, it suits you better than being frozen for hundreds of years. The coma thing was not awesome either. But at least it beats acne! Right?”
Shit. Shit shit shit. So Scott had clearly not forgotten being fifteen. Ryder laughed nervously, now loathing herself. “So, how are the Krogan?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said flatly. “Probably fine, since they can survive nuclear fallout.”
“Yep. Nuclear fallout. Gotta love aliens!” Ryder babbled. She looked frantically for some sort of plausible interruption: the Kett attacking, a sudden loss of gravity, a hull breach, her pet space rodent’s sudden mutation?
All very manageable problems.
“The Krogan have been aggressively expanding their territory on Elaaden by building roads and aqueducts,” Scott said coolly. “Also, shooting things.”
“The tried and the true.”
“Cut the shit,” Scott snapped, his eyebrows shooting up even as his voice lowered—an intimidation tactic he’d copied from his mother. Ryder could feel herself physically shrinking.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard, but the Nexus sent me here—”
“Don’t start,” Scott interrupted. The video feed of him wavered, and for one glorious second, Ryder thought she might be able to avoid The Conversation. But he was back, snarling, “Do you seriously think I’m going to hang out in a desert while my sister acts out her own Shakespearean tragedy in Andromeda’s asshole? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Ryder coughed. “I think calling it a Shakespearean tragedy is pretty strong.”
“Is it?” Scott screeched. So the feed was definitely not flickering, as she had previously thought. That was just her brother’s rage-spit. “Because from my point of view,” Scott yelled, “I’m watching my last family member ignore procedure because she thinks playing detective for some shady-ass flyboy is more important than her life.”
Ryder squirmed as the familiar Familial Guilt began chewing up her insides. “Look, Scott—I don’t know what you’ve heard, and I get that this has you freaked out, but everything’s fine. It’s seriously fine. I’m not doing anything outside of mission protocols—I’m not, like, running off on my own—,” guilt levels were now overwhelming, Ryder swiftly changed direction, “—and anyway, I don’t think half the people here even know I’m the Pathfinder.”
The angry lines in Scott’s face grew deeper with every word she spoke. For a long moment, he was silent, only glaring at her. She could see him chew the inside of his cheek—an old habit. When he spoke next, his anger had been muffled into resolution. “You shouldn’t be there,” Scott said calmly. “And you know it. You should be with me. We should be continuing Dad’s work, our work—together. I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“It is, Scott!” Ryder burst, “Of course it’s what I want!”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Then wrap it up, and leave. Or I’ll come to you. You might be the Pathfinder, and maybe that means that the others can’t stop you, but you’re my sister. The Nexus can go to hell.”
“Scott—!” Ryder started to protest, but he’d already ended the call. She stared at the screen for over a minute, seething. This was too much. He wasn’t even the older twin! There was a line between concern and controlling and why did no one seem to observe that?
Without another outlet, Ryder simply shrieked. It was sharp, and loud, and none of her crew apparently thought it sounded urgent enough to warrant investigating. Ryder threw herself upright, pacing angrily. It wasn’t enough to have Aya, the Nexus, and her entire crew riding her ass for doing her job, now her baby brother was joining the fray. Great. Just great.
Ryder stormed out of her quarters, brushing past a jittery Kallo, who was lurking near the Med-Bay.
Ryder turned around. “Did Suvi eat something?”
“She ate three!” Kallo wailed.
Ryder shrieked again.
Chapter 3: Nenet
Notes: I’m toying with the idea of taking a quick break after this chapter—BUT! If I do, it’s only because I can’t wait to write smut anymore! If you’re interested, keep an eye out for that, and know that something (be it oneshot or ch.4) will be published in about five days. Thanks for your patience, and for reading!
Suvi blinked herself awake, and her face relaxed into a dreamy smile. Ryder, handkerchief in hand, reached over to dab the bit of drool from the other woman’s mouth. “Thanks, Ryder,” Suvi slurred. She stretched like a cat, her toes pointing. “Mmm, Lexi. You have the best beds on this ship.”
Ryder felt it best not to mention that the ‘Lexi’ Suvi seemed to be talking to was a chair. “How’re you feeling? You’ve been out for almost twenty hours. I think you made Kallo cry.”
“He has a gentle spirit,” Suvi yawned. She snuggled back down. “Ryder. I highly recommend the fried barrel leafs. Oh. Did you get any video of me dancing? For science.” She smiled hopefully.
“Uh,” Ryder dragged out her disbelief. “I don’t…think there was any dancing? I heard from Kallo that you ate something, fainted, he dragged you back to the ship, and then Lexi yelled at all of us. We’re stuck eating freeze-dried casserole. Again. Also, Lexi thinks you might be naturally allergic to some plant enzyme that grows on Kadara.”
“No,” Suvi countered, in her lovely, musical voice. As often happened, Ryder became preoccupied with listening to the sound of Suvi speaking, rather than the actual words she was saying.
“I mean, it’s an allergy, you can’t really—”
“No,” Suvi said again. She yawned. “Will you tell Kallo I’m alright? He worries.”
“SAM’s on it,” Ryder assured. Suvi gave a happy little wiggle. She reached to clasp Ryder’s hand, drawing their fingers intimately together. She had very pretty, very slender fingers.
“Ryder,” Suvi breathed, “I just wanted to say, I know the rest of the crew think you’re making a big mistake. But I think you should follow your heart. It’ll lead you to where you would have ended up anyway.”
Ryder sighed. At least the delirious person believed in her. “Thanks, Suvi.”
The med-bay’s doors slid open, and Gil’s swinging, hoppy steps bounded in. “Well, well, well,” he began. Ryder could already hear the shit-eating grin on his face. “Alright, Anwar?”
“Hi,” Suvi welcomed gustily. Ryder sighed.
“Gil, be nice.”
“I’m always nice. Had a bit of a party, my fair lady?” Gil swung himself into a chair just beside Ryder, and bent his head towards the prone Suvi. “They have nice beds in here.”
“I know. I should get closer to Lexi,” Suvi whispered. Her dreamy expression sharpened into what Ryder could only label as sneaky. “If you know what I mean,” Suvi whispered. Gil chortled.
“Yeah, no. We both heard you.”
Suvi nodded, looking satisfied. “Good,” she said firmly, and settled back down. She might have winked at the chair she’d earlier mistaken for Lexi. Gil glanced at Ryder, now grinning.
“So what’re you up to with our invalid? Trying to probe for secrets while her defenses are lowered?”
Ryder rolled her eyes. “I have three purposes. One, I’m hiding from Lexi, and probably everyone else—,” she considered Suvi and Gil, “—well, you two are probably fine. But anyway, if there’s one place she’ll never think to find me, it’s gotta be in her own med-bay. Plus, if she does find me, she can’t yell at me without disturbing the invalid.”
“That’s me,” Suvi chimed in.
“That’s you,” Ryder agreed. She was still holding Suvi’s hand. The other woman had begun to stroke little circles across Ryder’s knuckles. It was actually pretty relaxing. Ryder continued, “That leads to my second purpose, which is to watch over Suvi just in case something ridiculous happens, thanks to her allergies and willingness to ingest foreign plants.”
“Atta girl,” Gil slapped Suvi’s thigh, with perhaps too much appreciation.
“I don’t have allergies,” Suvi told him.
“Finally,” Ryder wrapped up, “I was hoping that once Suvi shakes off the last traces of her delirium, she’d be able to look over some of the evidence from our current investigation.”
“She’s not delirious,” Gil protested. He was now holding Suvi’s other hand. “She’s simply reached a higher state of being. And I want to see the evidence too!”
“Is this about the cultists?” Suvi asked hopefully. “I like murder-mysteries.”
Ryder considered. On the one hand, she could potentially give her extremely drugged-up science officer some freaky hallucinations. On the other, she could make headway stopping a crazed murder cult that was most likely trying to kill her boyfriend. Her kind-of boyfriend. “SAM, get the terminal up with visuals.”
Accessing, SAM confirmed.
Lexi’s screens flickered to life, showing the green wall with its weird face carving. Looking at it again, perhaps thanks to the screen’s flattening effect, Ryder realized that there was more detail than she’d initially noticed. The carving’s eyes had been indented with pupils, which gave the face an aura of judgment, and disapproval.
“The Green Man!” Suvi shouted, almost immediately. She sat up, her pretty fingers tightening around Ryder’s own. She looked at Ryder with wide-eyed excitement. “Ryder! The Green Man!”
Gil squinted. “Green. Man. Check and check.”
“No,” Suvi breathed. “I get it. It makes sense. Well. If you’re an insane death cult, it makes sense.” She ripped her other hand free from Gil to point at the screens—Ryder, briefly, felt smug that she had been chosen as the maintainer of hand-holding privileges. “Look,” Suvi explained. “The Green Man is a sort of God, or spirit. He’s a watcher, something that appears from nothing. Usually associated with things like nature, judgment…or life, death, that sort of thing. Very scary. Sometimes he just watches, peeking out from the leaves—basically just an artistic motif, a sort of hidden image. Other times, he watches.”
Ryder watched as SAM clicked through the photos Reyes had taken. Green man. Green man. Green man. Little faces peering out of the rock. She wondered how the children’s bodies had been positioned, how their blood had been desecrated to hide the green watchers.
“What do you mean, he watches?” Gil asked. “Like a stalker?”
Suvi flapped her free hand. “No. Yes. Like, um, like a predator? Maybe. It’s very old. I think it’s more like he watches you, to take you in your moment of weakness. Because it’s such an abstract image it’s been borrowed by a lot of different mythologies. I think the first one—or one of the first? Whatever. One of the first ones was Dionysus. Not really my area of expertise.”
“SAM?” Ryder prompted.
Correct. The god Dionysus began as a god of life, death, and rebirth. At this time, he was known as Zagreus. It was only later that his existence changed to one of drink, performance, and sexual abandonment. The cult of Dionysus was one of the largest of its time, its practitioners frequently combined the two faces of this god through week-long parties many of which were thought to involve ritual human sacrifice.
“That fits,” Ryder conceded. Head computers were so helpful. “We should check out these bodies. If Suvi’s theory is right, there could be traces left behind from these rituals.”
“There could be traces left behind from anything,” Gil pointed out. “You won’t know until you scan them.”
Ryder shrugged, glancing back at the screens. Unexpectedly, she felt excited. She was on the right track. She had to be.
Suvi tugged on Ryder’s hand suddenly, and then leaned in to whisper. “Reyes Vidal,” Suvi paused, “His name means the King of Life.”
Ryder waited for SAM to offer a correction, but none came. She and Suvi simply looked at one another.
“What?” Gil said. He twisted himself over the table to join their conversation. “Hey. Don’t leave old Gilly out.”
“Just a weird coincidence,” Suvi explained, still whispering. Ryder’s mind was racing. It probably was just a weird coincidence—it must have been. She hadn’t even confirmed the Green Man theory yet.
Pathfinder, SAM piped up privately. On that same topic, it may interest you to know that during Reyes Vidal’s time as a pilot, he worked under the call-sign Anubis, the Egyptian god of mummification and the underworld. Arguably, the three names he has operated under follow a pattern close to Officer Anwar’s theory.
At some point calling something a coincidence became irresponsible. Ryder’s head was aching, and her stomach felt unstable with dread. “Thanks for all the intel Suvi,” Ryder managed to say. “You were really helpful.”
“Seriously,” Gil noted. “I thought you studied rocks and physics and botany.”
Suvi sniffed. “I am a very learned person,” she announced, and returned to sleep.
Usually, Ryder knew, one did not immediately contact the person one was busily being Righteously Angry at. Especially when what she wanted to tell him had to do with fanatic cults, loosely connected by a string of hocus pocus that was, in all likelihood, a crock of shit.
“SAM?” Ryder cued, “If you had to say roughly, how many mythological figures have some connection to life or death?”
Would you like to include fertility goddesses? How about plant life?
“It’s all of them, isn’t it?” Ryder rolled her eyes. “It’s totally all of them.”
Pathfinder, I would also encourage you to consider a number of male deities who may not have a clear association with the cycle of life, but who nevertheless remain strongly associated with the phallus—
“That’s fine. I spend enough time considering the phallus, thank you.” She rubbed her eyebrow. “Ugh. Empty your recycling bin or something, SAM. I can’t keep getting headaches like this.”
Liam’s head popped into view. “Are we talking about phalluses? Phallus-ez. Phallusi?”
Phalluses, SAM confirmed, via speaker. Ryder shuddered. Seriously time to change the subject.
“Hey Liam, want to look at some dead bodies?”
“You know it!” Liam beamed. “Am I the first you asked? Am I the cadaver A-team?”
For being the normal dude on the ship, Liam was pretty fucking weird. He was still talking, but now suiting up at the same time, even though it would likely be half an hour before they would begin prepping for deployment. Ryder, personally, was still nibbling her breakfast casserole. “I know we’re all about burning the dead,” Liam mused, “But you know how people used to get buried? What do you think the coffins would need to be made of, here on Kadara? I can’t imagine what the soil’s pH is like. Everything would probably just be, like, goo within a few hours.”
Ryder shuddered. “Thanks Liam.”
“Mm, pardon me—”
It figured that the two of them would go together. Jaal stood respectfully at attention, his hands clasped behind his back. “I couldn’t help but overhear that there’s to be an investigation into the murder victims. Several children were Angaran—I would like to be there, if possible. It will comfort their families to know they were not alone.”
Well shit. Like there was any way for her to refuse that. Ryder stuffed her face with casserole, wondering how to balance emotion and professionalism, with two species, at the same time. “Just me and the boys, huh?” she asked lightly. “Okay, let’s do it. But don’t push yourselves. You need to step out for a minute, just say the word.”
“Thank you, Ryder,” Jaal acknowledged, with a little bow. When he looked up again, his gaze was almost ferocious. “But I will not leave them alone.”
Thankfully, even Liam knew when to let a respectful moment stand. The three of them were prepped, suited, and back on the streets within the hour. Ryder took a few confident steps forward before wondering where, exactly, she was supposed to find the leading authority on forensic analysis and violent crimes—on Kadara.
“Perhaps we might start with the church?” Jaal suggested. “They should at least be aware of some funeral processions, and would have needed to collaborate with the morgue while the remains were transferring custody.”
“The church is good for something?”
“Liam,” Ryder growled. It was, actually, not a bad suggestion, and given that her only real contacts on Kadara probably counted as viable suspects, she was inclined to follow Jaal’s advice. “Okay. Jaal, please step in on Angaran relations. I’ll handle Milky Way species. Liam, make sure we don’t get shot.”
“Yes! A good plan,” Liam grinned. “Crisis specialist Kosta is on the scene.”
“But we aren’t on the scene?” Jaal looked confused. “Is this an idiom?”
“SAM, cue ambient noise,” Ryder said, pointedly.
One of the many wonders of Kadara, Ryder discovered, was that their church was run by a Salarian. She couldn’t help but stare. A Salarian in a habit. Ryder tried to think of a reason to take a picture that was not overwhelmingly rude—and also, how was she supposed to keep Liam from making the same request? The Salarian priest inclined his head towards them in greeting. “Welcome, Pathfinder and esteemed colleagues. May I ask why you’ve come?”
Liam looked excited, which was never good. Almost tripping over herself to answer, Ryder nodded back. “Thank you. We’re actually here on an investigation—it’s sensitive.”
“Of course. Follow me please,” the priest beckoned them, and they followed him into a small antechamber, spartanly furnished. The church’s interior had been surprisingly nice, with a nondescript dais, and rough, uniform benches. It seemed less a place of worship than one of contemplation.
“So.” The priest turned, lower lids blinking up. “Your investigation?”
“We’ll need to see some tax reports from the past few years—” Liam muttered. Jaal, thankfully, silenced him.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” Ryder began carefully, “But there’s been a string of child murders happening around here, and we’re trying to determine the cause. We were hoping that at least some of the victims’ families would have requested funerary rights.”
“Many of them did,” the priest said, with real sadness. “I can’t tell you a ratio, of course, I only know of the ones who come to me. The death of a child is unbearable. Many who have never walked with faith previously, become desperate to believe that their children have gone to a place of comfort. Adding to that…” the Salarian hesitated, his pained expression faltering. “Well. From what I heard, the way the children were killed…it was unspeakable. Horrific. I think that their families hoped they could find some dignity—some acquittal—by returning to tradition.”
“The victims were all burned?”
“Yes. The ones that I oversaw. The cremations were performed by the mortuary, not here.”
More difficult. She would have to rely on the coroner’s notes for analysis, rather than her own scans. Maybe there was still some unprocessed evidence waiting for her? The priest, seeming to sense her line of thinking, tilted his head and asked, hesitantly, “I’m happy to give you that contact information, but would you like me to call ahead?”
“Please,” Ryder demurred. “And ask if they have any bodies that are still awaiting cremation.” She turned back to her team while the Salarian made his call. “What do you think?” she whispered. “Dead end?”
“If they haven’t got any bodies left, I say we put a pin in it. We can swing back later to collect the files,” Liam whispered. “The way he was talking, sounds like the murders were brutal, lots of carnage. We should go to the last kill site, see if there’s anything left for the scans to pick up.”
“Excuse me?” the priest interrupted. He was shaking his head. “They’ll be expecting you, but I’m sorry to say that the last victim was recovered five days ago. Her remains were processed this morning. I’ve sent you the contact information.”
“Thank you,” Ryder answered, trying to mask her disappointment. “You’ve been very helpful.”
Jaal suddenly stepped forward, his eyes shining. He held his hand out to the Salarian priest, who took them. Jaal had to clear his throat before speaking. “Thank you. For your respect. It has helped. I hope their souls have found peace.”
The priest’s gaunt, alien face suddenly softened. “Me too,” was all he said.
Another call to the mortuary revealed that they, thanks to Kadara’s size and lack of infrastructure, were essentially entirely responsible for handling Kadara’s dead. They managed forensic analysis, detailed case files, cremation, and transfer of remains or evidence to both law enforcement, and families. They were overworked, underpaid, and stretched to breaking from lack of resources. Many people died in Kadara Port, and a lot of those deaths were from foul play.
It was, all in all, a pretty terrible call.
“They do not seem happy to hear from us,” Jaal noted, as Ryder hung up. She sighed.
“At least we got our nav-point. SAM, set location. We can worry about what they’ve already processed later—we should be focusing on the evidence that’s already disappearing now. Let’s start with the most recent kill-site.”
“Police-procedurals in space!” Liam sang, as he and Jaal followed Ryder to the Nomad. Jaal, who had been unusually solemn since their meeting with the priest, paused as he was climbing into the backseat.
“What is a police procedural?”
“Did I already explain television? Sitcoms?” Liam tried cutting off Ryder to take the driver’s seat. She Judo chopped the back of his neck without breaking stride.
“Sit—oh. Yes, you have.”
“Police procedurals are about law enforcement solving mysteries. Usually there is a lot of sexual tension between partners—I mean, sorry, cops are usually assigned partners for safety reasons. They go through a lot of shit together, get pretty tight. On television there are a lot of hot young people who partner up, ideally both single and open to a heterosexual relationship.”
“Seat belts!” Ryder barked. The boys kept talking. Liam, as usual, was suspicious when it came to seat-belt use.
“But I don’t understand,” Jaal was arguing. “Terrible murders and drug rings are not conducive to a romantic atmosphere. If you are to court someone, you must first relax them.”
Liam groaned. “I don’t know Jaal, they probably added the romance because they thought it would draw in more female viewers.”
Jaal seemed offended. “That is ridiculous. The romance is obviously the more interesting story line, as it spans across multiple seasons. The murder is solved within forty-five minutes. Why are you watching?”
Ryder sniggered through Liam’s stupefied silence. Finally, the crisis specialist pulled through. “Alright. You have a point. Love makes the world go round. One day, once I grow out of my toy soldiers, I’m sure I will realize and appreciate this.”
Jaal nodded, with real sympathy. “It is not an easy transition. I would encourage you to take your time.”
Liam groaned and kicked his feet around. When one such kick collided with the back of her seat, Ryder swiveled back to glare. Doing so made her feel like a mom—was Liam older than her? She refused to entertain the possibility. Looking appropriately chastened, the boys settled down, and they spent the next several minutes in a comfortable silence as the Nomad bounced off of Kadara’s many obstacles.
Liam cleared his throat. “So. Since we’re on this topic. About Vetra.”
Ryder blinked. “What? What about Vetra?”
In the rearview mirror, Liam was looking suspiciously casual. “You know. She’s cool.”
If by cool he meant totally fucking rad. Ryder twisted to squint at him. While driving. Whatever. The Nomad could totally take it. Liam, as expected, already looked guilty, but Jaal was also doing weird things with his face.
“What is that? What are you trying to say?” Ryder pointed at Jaal. “Out with it.”
“I, ah, I also think she is cool.”
“Oh my god!” Ryder yelled, just as they plummeted off a cliff. Jaal and Liam, who could see through the windshield, looked terrified. Ryder, who wore her seat belt at all times unlike certain individuals, remained confident in her vehicle. “Seriously!” she kept yelling. “Seriously? You’re both crushing on Vetra!”
“Please let me drive,” Liam begged.
“No.” Then back to both of them, “Both of you! I guess we’ve found it—the common ground between humanity and the Angara! It’s Turians!” a momentary pause, “I mean, I can hardly fault your taste—”
They smashed into what Ryder would have liked to call a landing. Experience kept her from biting her tongue off. Jaal and Liam reached to hold each other’s arms at the same time. Ryder kept her foot firmly on the acceleration. She checked her navigation system for a half second to be sure they were still pointed due north. “This is fantastic!” Ryder screamed. It was literally perfect. On top of feeding her own amusement, a love triangle’s dramatic entanglements diverting her crew (along with Suvi’s inevitable seduction of Lexi) could only serve to shift the focus away from her own poor choices.
Liam and Jaal both suddenly screwed their eyes shut, whimpering. Sure enough, the Nomad abruptly collided head-on with one of Kadara’s absurdly oversized boulders. Ryder lurched forward, her seat belt catching her painfully. “Okay. My bad.”
“I sometimes wonder,” Jaal wheezed. “Are you even licensed to operate vehicles?”
“I’m the Pathfinder,” Ryder said immediately. “I have all the licenses.”
Liam groaned. “Unfortunately.”
Deciding she was uninterested in hearing further criticism, Ryder rolled out of the Nomad and began surveying the area. Unlike the alley in Kadara Port, most of the kill sites had happened out in the wastelands—all of them, strangely, about the same distance from Port itself, as SAM had been quick to note. From her call to the mortuary Ryder had learned that due to the remoteness of location, it had sometimes taken up to a week for the body to be found and reported.
This particular location looked like an old Outlaw camp. There were traces—old fires, some trash, a stolen Initiative bunker, easy to set up, easy to take down. It would be hard to carve a face into a metal alloy meant for space stations. That shit didn’t break.
She was looking for the green wall. Jaal and Liam knew about the green wall, and the face. But they didn’t know about the Green Man. Ryder swiveled slowly, now squinting. “SAM, see anything?”
Perhaps on the other side of that boulder?
Ryder began walking, her scanners out. There was an overgrowth of green lichen on the boulder’s far side, which briefly excited her—but no face. She kept trying, adjusting her angle, hopping up on her toes—when Jaal suddenly shouted. She rushed to his side, gaze following the direction he pointed.
“That grass. It’s been burned.”
Ryder didn’t understand, at first, until SAM’s scanner suddenly chirped. A second later, SAM borrowed her omni-tool to project his composite overhead view—the burns were, of course, a face. The green face. And there was something else too—a dark circle that ringed the face, a trace of bio-remains placed, systematically, perfectly.
Liam, looking at the projection, now scanned the ground around him. “No way. Pathfinder, we’re on top of them.”
Hurriedly, Ryder canceled the projection, throwing her scanners back up, pointing to the ground a few meters from where she stood. SAM chirped a confirmation. Trace amounts of human remains detected. Female. Eight years old.
Dread made her hands clammy. Ryder swung the scanner wider—follow the path of bio matter, which lit up beneath her sensors. Trace amount of human remains detected. Trace amounts of human remains detected. Eight years old.
The child’s body, obliterated, now forming a perfect circle at least ten meters in diameter.
“They tore her apart,” Liam said from her side. Ryder felt sick. Liam reached out and, gently, pushed her scanner back down. The three of them stared at the silent, drifting grass. “They killed her here,” Jaal said quietly. “On top of the face. The rain has washed most of it away but the soil is rich with iron, where she bled. It helps the plants grow.”
“Later,” Liam muttered sternly. Ryder swallowed.
“Jaal, was there—was there a picture? I mean, her blood. Reyes said that always they covered the face with a picture.”
Jaal paused, clearly thinking. “I don’t…think so? It would have been hard to tell.”
Numb, Ryder wandered over to where the face was burned into the grass, and activated her scanner. Jaal was right—the trace amounts of bio remains were less obvious here, disturbed by the fire and the rain. The soil composition was different in the place where the girl had bled most heavily, but other than that, no clear pattern or recognizable shape emerged.
Pathfinder, SAM suddenly chimed. The ground is freshly planted. Scans indicate that there are a number of seeds growing below. In fact, they are close to sprouting.
“What kind of plant is it?”
Hedera, commonly known as Ivy. Needless to say, the species is not native to Kadara. With enough time, the plants will cover all traces of the Green Man. Finally, I would like to note that the positioning of the seeds themselves are a perfect overlay of the constellation Taurus, the bull.
“Hey,” Liam’s hand fell on her shoulder, and she spooked, leaping away from him. Liam let her go, only watching. “We should get out of here,” he said. “You’ve got enough.”
Ryder licked her lips. “Yeah. Okay.” She followed him, trudging back to the Nomad. “SAM, any of this fit with Suvi’s theory?”
Dionysus is heavily associated with Ivy, the Bull, and death by dismemberment.
“Oh, cool. So all of it fits.” Ryder wondered if being proven right actually made her feel any better.
Additionally, the other face of Dionysus, Zagreus, can be simplified as a god of Rebirth. The circle, for obvious reasons, falls within this pattern. An argument could also be made that the circle is meant to symbolize a serpent, which is another Dionysian motif.
Ryder threw Liam the Nomad’s keys. For once, she did not want to drive. “Let me guess. The reason all the kill-sites are the same distance from the center of Kadara Port is because they’re drawing a big, bloody circle around it?”
SAM did not answer. Liam started the Nomad. For several minutes, they drove in silence. Ryder pressed her forehead against the window glass, her eyes closed. The Nomad bumped gently along.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Jaal spoke hesitantly. “But perhaps you could have Liam drive more often?”
Ryder ignored them. “Drop me off in Kadara Port,” she ordered. “I’m seeing Reyes.”
Both of them looked like they were about to say something. Ryder put an end to all dissent by hissing, “Vetra.”
She had a headache again. He could always tell. The skin around her eyes got tighter. “You should see a doctor,” Reyes said, by way of greeting. “When something’s hurting all the time, you’ve got a problem.”
She ignored him, swallowing. Something was wrong. Him? “I’m sorry about yesterday,” Reyes said—or shouted, he had to shout over the bar’s music. She winced. The lights were probably killing her. He took her wrist, pulling her away and out the back door. The night air was cold, if sooty. He waited to see her relax. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“What?” Ryder blinked. He could feel, in her wrist, the barest thought of resistance. He held on more tightly. She stared up at him, looking lost. Something was wrong. Her gaze cleared. “Oh,” she laughed, shakily. “That. It’s fine. I’m not here for that.” She licked her lips, and this time when she pulled on her wrist, he let go. “I’ve been looking into the murders. It might be a load of shit, but so far my admittedly circumstantial evidence points to a creepy death cult.”
“That’s too bad. I was hoping for a death cult that wasn’t creepy.”
Ryder sighed, too loudly. Exasperated. It hadn’t been an easy day. “No, I mean—I think something’s off. I think, it might be a message. For you. For the Charlatan.” She divulged further, going into detail her findings, their mythological connections, the patterns—all of it. And he listened, more to her fear than the facts, remembering again why he hadn’t wanted to involve her.
She was sweating, hair freed from its usual ponytail. Messy. He had thought, fantasized, about seeing her like this, but now that the moment had arrived, it disturbed him. The way her hands twitched, how she’d been biting her lip since the moment he’d seen her. He caught her arm, stopping her from pacing, trying to stop everything.
“Listen. There are bad people on Kadara. But—”
“Don’t patronize me,” she snarled. “Bad people on Kadara. Please. There are bad people everywhere. Like I’ve—like I’ve never seen a murderer before. God.” She paused, dragging herself in. “Sorry. Rambling. I meant—be careful. I came here to tell you to be careful. I think they know—they suspect—who you are. I don’t know. I just have a really bad feeling.” She had captured whatever emotion she’d allowed to escape before, now slammed the lid on it. She smiled, though only with her mouth. “Did you know you have a pretty grandiose name?”
Reyes smiled. “I didn’t choose it myself, if that’s what you’re implying.”
She just stared at him, slowly shaking her head. “Please take this seriously,” she mumbled. “Even if you think I’m totally wrong.” She reached up to rub her left eyebrow, kneading at it. There were strange and beautiful things on the other side of the universe.
He wondered, for a moment, how things would change if he’d stayed an ordinary man.
“We should get out of here. Just this once, with full innocence, I think you should lie down.” He wanted to roll her up in blankets, in darkness, in locks. He wanted to protect her. The thought made him nervous.
The look she gave him was withering, but weak. “Where do you even sleep?” she asked him. They were failing. He could see it on her, the way her body had begun to pull away from him, always braced for impact. He didn’t want to think about that.
“Would you like to see?”
“Actually, yes,” she said. She didn’t blush. She refused to be teased. She just looked at him. “Yeah, actually, I would like to see. Maybe it’d help me believe that you’re a real person.”
Her insistence made him wonder. But her life was easy to imagine. Most ships looked the same, and he’d spent a decade working them. Minimalist décor, uniforms, good paint job. He should brush her off. He should distract her. She looked at him like she was already disappointed.
“Alright,” he said. He hadn’t meant to. Too late now. He wasn’t the sort of person who went back on a dare. “Alright. Let’s go.”
He turned before she could see his face. She had to rush to catch up. “Really?” she asked, her voice almost sparkling. “Really? For real, though—you’re not just going to take me to some hotel, right?”
“I considered it,” he answered. That long, slender body, so new. He wanted to bury himself in her, to flatten his hands against all her young, unmarked skin, claiming the things he touched, saying this is mine, this is mine, this is mine. Reyes looked down. She was there, just beside him, biting the edge of her lip. Still. Almost bloody, now. His hand reached up despite himself, his thumb untucking her skin from her teeth. “Did you know how hard I tried to make you like me?”
She was pretty. She kept getting prettier. “I mean. Obviously.”
“I’m usually pretty patient, so I’ll just warn you now. You should be careful,” Reyes said mildly. “The more chances you give me, the more I’ll think about just taking you.”
She only took his hand. “Great,” she said. The fine muscles around her eyes were tightening again, a return to tension. To pain. “That would be great.”
As promised, he led her up to the rooftop apartments, to one of the many nearly-identical apartments he kept. It was nearly empty, without ceremony or character. He didn’t spend much time in any of them. They were all registered to different names, different bank accounts. For some reason, he told her as much.
Ryder sat on the edge of his bed, then fell back. Her eyes closed. He stood, watching her breathe. “Your mattress sucks,” she complained. “Some crime lord. I guess you wanted power more than money.”
He started to reply, then faltered. Had he wanted power? Power had always felt more like a circumstance, a tool. He sat next to her, and her eyes opened as the mattress dipped below his weight. She waited.
“I want you to stay,” he said.
“I’m a long-term rental,” she joked. He lay next to her, pulling his fingers across her hairline. Her eyes closed again, as her head rolled toward him.
“I know,” he said. He could smell her; sweat and metal and ozone. Something musky, a man’s cologne. Something sweet. Her breathing was slowing down. “Stay with me,” he said again.
Very slowly, she shook her head. Her eyes opened. “My crew’s waiting on me,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t have been so long. They can’t go back to the Tempest without me.” But she lay there a moment longer, just looking into his eyes.
“I could walk you back?” he offered. She sat up, rolling out her shoulders. He wanted to see them, under her armor. He wanted to give in, but not before she did.
“No,” she said unsteadily. “No, that’s fine. I can get back on my own.”
When he’d been an ordinary man, repeating the same day, he used to smoke. He missed it now. Reyes smiled, watching her leave. “You see? You never needed me at all.”
The journey back was short, but hard. The headache Ryder had been fighting all day was reaching its crescendo, overwhelming her. She couldn’t bring herself to speak to Liam or Jaal, both of whom took a turn catching her arm when she stumbled. She couldn’t stop thinking. Anubis, The Green Man, Zagreus. The King of Life. The cycle of rebirth. Those little bodies, chopped to pieces. Something, that curled up around the heart like a worm, like a disease. Like ivy.
Liam said something. It was hard to hear him, hard to think of dealing him. Ryder waved what she hoped was a comforting hand in his general direction, already staggering towards her quarters. She just wanted to lie down. Reyes was right. Doctor, for sure. First thing in the morning. As soon as she felt better.
Ryder had barely made it to her cabin when her headache, already unbearable, mutated into something worse. It felt like her mind was under attack from a biotic, as though some foreign, malevolent spy was forcing their way inside. The buzzing was back, but louder than it had ever been before, jamming her ears as though a real, physical veil had blanketed her. Ryder crammed the heels of her palms hard against her eyes, disguising her whimper as a hiss. “SAM, what—what are you—are you installing something again, or—?”
P-P-Pathfinder, I have—failure to—synchronization levels exceeded—
She couldn’t see. Blindly, Ryder threw one hand out, and lurched forward until she felt herself connect with a wall. She fell forward, distantly aware of her own limbs, her body curling on itself. “SAM!” she could hear herself yelling, but distant, though water. It was more that she could feel the vibrations of her own voice, in her jaw and her throat. “SAM shut it off!”
She saw. A flash of someone’s ankle, smashing into the ground inches from her nose. Reflexively, Ryder rolled away from the missed collision, and her head cracked hard against something, a pain that came with the sound of a bell ringing and then—
Figures that moved without real form or purpose, mannequins that came around corners, but she could see their guns, and she could see—Reyes, with his hands raised in surrender, but something unknown and resigned in the way he walked forward, arrogant but beaten and then a hard sound and then his chin came up and his head jerked back, and she saw the moment he lost his gravity, his body gave out—
—t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t—transfer error. Prediction forcibly terminated.
Ryder remembered herself. Pathfinder. Ryder. Sara. Her head was in agony, her eyes and nose both streaming. She was afraid to move, afraid of more pain. Slowly, she lifted one arm, and felt carefully beneath her hair to check for blood. Her fingers found the spot, soft and wet.
I have called Lexi, SAM reported. Please wait for assistance. It is recommended that you do not move.
“Did I just have a seizure?” Ryder whispered. She felt herself shaking, a sort of post-nausea trembling. Her chest felt cold.
No. There was a problem.
My predictive matrices for combat installed incorrectly with your brain. Synchronization spiked just now at 237 percent. The only cause I can determine are the unique characteristics of your individual brain. You evidently have exceptional observation skills.
Through the cheek she had pressed against the floor, Ryder could feel footsteps drawing closer. “SAM, what does that mean? What happened?”
Our artificial and organic information processors temporarily merged during a period where you experienced extreme stress. The stress, which is meant to act as an organic cue to trigger combat predictions, forced our joined systems to simulate a prediction into the future, based on what data we have presently observed. The subject, naturally, was the cause of your stress.
“SAM what does that mean?!” Ryder yelled. One of her eyes was fucked up, swelling shut. She couldn’t remember hitting it. The door to her quarters was opening, Lexi was in the room, throwing herself to the floor, med-kit in hand.
Current predictions indicate there is currently an overwhelming probability that Reyes Vidal will die.
“Ryder? Ryder, it’s going to be alright. Don’t be afraid,” Lexi soothed. She was pressing something cool to the back of Ryder’s head, against the soft, wet spot.
“No,” Ryder whimpered. Her throat was closing. Lexi leaned over her, probing her neck for a pulse. “No,” Ryder said again, and fainted.
Chapter 4: Morrigan
Notes: So instead of writing a one-off like I had planned, the smut just kinda gravitated its way into this chapter. It’s warm-up smut. Pretty tame? By internet standards? I don’t even know anymore. I tried to warn you!
Other Whining: As usual this chapter has managed to be longer than its predecessors, a trend which I firmly believe needs to stop.
It wasn’t unusual for Keema to be targeted for assassination.
But she usually didn’t call him about it.
“Is the riot about you?” Reyes asked. Keema glared through the com at him, clutching her shoulder. She was naked to the waist, being stitched up before his eyes by an extremely nervous Salarian. She’d been shot, but not by a big bullet, and her hand was flat against the flesh near her wound, protective.
“I don’t care about the bloody riot,” Keema gasped. Her voice was flatter than usual, stretched thin with pain. He tried to remember the last time she’d been targeted—in both instances she’d escaped with minor injuries. Some people would call it luck. The Salarian, looking regretful, approached the bullet wound with forceps. Her surgeon kept moving in and out of the camera, his instruments flashing in the light. “Do you know who just tried to kill me?” Keema hissed.
“No. But I hope you learned something.”
“An Angaran child. Couldn’t have been taller than my waist.” Her face contorted with pain, and she made a sudden animal noise—then controlled herself, breathing heavily.
“You killed him,” Reyes concluded, calmly.
“My sniper killed him, because the little darling shot me, and he was about to do it again,” Keema forced through her teeth. “At a public forum. So yes, the riot is all my fucking fault. Next time I’ll just die politely.”
Reyes swore. Of course it had to be a child. Of course it had to be a fucking child.
Think. Everything was an opportunity, every situation had two perspectives. He needed to get them on the right one, now. “What about the kid’s body? Have we scanned it?”
“The fucking Angara—!” Keema swore, then collected herself. A warped, twisted bit of metal was being pulled out of her as he watched. Keema breathed carefully. “My countrymen seized the child’s body. They seem to think that we’ll desecrate it the second we get our hands on it. They aren’t going to budge.”
“Fine. We’ll collaborate with a third party, some neutral examiner. Say we have an obligation to find and punish whoever would manipulate someone innocent.”
Keema nodded. She was quivering and pale, now that he took the time to notice. Her bullet wound was still bleeding freely, as the surgeon kept pulling bits of metal from her body. Reyes was impressed she hadn’t fainted. “Anything else? Did you notice anything about the kid?”
Keema’s eyelids fluttered. The anger that had so effectively held her together was dissipating. She wasn’t going to hold on much longer. “He’d been drugged,” she managed to say. “I don’t know with what. How. His eyes were all wrong. They should find something when they examine him.” She paused, shaking as the final, bloody scrap of metal was pulled from her. Haltingly, she asked, “I need you to deal with this.”
“What’s one riot?” Reyes snorted. “You do it all the time. It can’t be that hard.”
“Fuck you,” Keema replied, looking marginally more cheerful. She closed her eyes, and Reyes ended the call.
Ryder woke up.
She was definitely, undoubtedly, drugged up her eyeballs. Her entire body, especially her face, felt amazingly heavy. Her lips were like thick, meaty slabs. She chewed them curiously.
“Stop that,” Lexi barked. She rolled over in her wheelie chair, tablet in hand. “Right, I’m going to scan—follow the light?”
Ryder watched the penlight. Pretty. Too bright! “So. I got fried.”
Lexi made a disgusted noise. “Accurate enough. Stop blinking. I’ve had some very stern words with SAM, and we’ve agreed it’s best if the combat matrices be uninstalled for the time being.”
“This blows,” Ryder whined. “I didn’t even get to use it!”
Lexi rolled her eyes. “Alright, sit up.”
Ryder ambled upright, watching Lexi whack at her knees. “That seems related to a head injury.”
“Reflexes normal,” Lexi reported. “Good. Remember anything?”
“I started having headaches after SAM installed his program. Well. More frequent headaches. Sometimes fluorescent lights hurt my eyes too…anyway, I started having more headaches, then the day I conked out my migraine was seriously killer, then I had a crazy psychic vision, and then I collapsed. And I hit my head.” She abruptly straightened. “Reyes.”
“He’s fine,” Lexi drawled. She was tapping things into her tablet, distracted. “Alright, more or less what SAM told me. Don’t worry too much, Pathfinder. Precognition is a hoax.”
“Right.” Ryder smiled sweetly. “That would be ridiculous, says the alien telekinetic.”
Lexi ignored her again. Ryder returned to nibbling on her numbed lips. Suvi and Gil were right, Lexi’s patient beds were almost nice enough for Ryder to consider quietly submitting to the healing process. Almost. As if sensing Ryder’s restlessness, Lexi looked sternly at her most disobedient patient. “Bed rest. At least a day. I want to monitor that head, make sure your concussion hasn’t led to complications I might have missed. Do not pick at your scabs.” Lexi brandished her stylus at Ryder, who grumpily released said scabs. Lexi watched her for another moment, then softened. “You’ve been through a lot. Try to get some rest. I’m having my lunch brought here so I can keep an eye on you.”
Ryder snuggled into her pillow. “You really don’t trust me at all.”
Lexi snapped her fingers, as though Ryder were a dog trying to get at a forbidden treat. “Scabs.”
Kadara was not a difficult city to understand, but that didn’t mean it was well designed. It had a few official buildings, those large enough to seem intimidating and of such essential that even the worst criminals were inclined to leave them alone. Back when the Port had been controlled by the Angara, there had been laboratories, warehouses for mining supplies, and the docks built to supply shipment. There had been no real need to consider the layout or placement of these structures, because there hadn’t been a population sizeable enough to create any sort of issue.
But things had changed. Now, the docking port spanned for miles, and the market stretched to match it. Paths that led up to those few official buildings were followed by the traders, who crammed and cluttered themselves into every available nook. Every possible square foot of space that might be seen by a buyer was leveraged. There were no vendor licenses, less than the minimum mandated law enforcement, and above all—a pulsing, swollen, tangible need. A desperate, filthy, lawless need. People lived and slept in their booths, or in the ugly, colorless buildings that pulled themselves up around these already cluttered pathways. They squatted, and they waited for the day their lives would change.
It became obvious, then, that the true real estate of Kadara Port was its rooftops. The higher you went, the more you paid, the further you traveled from the smell and the swell of its people. The streets, which were inaccessible by anything other than foot, could be watched from above, in relative comfort.
The Angara were furious. Frightened. They hated the Milky Way aliens, the barbarians who would do such unspeakable things to their children. To anyone’s children. The Milky Way aliens had come offering peace, and exchange, and culture. Instead they had given corruption, violence, and greed.
The Charlatan, the Angara were hissing, was a human. Everyone knew that Keema Dohrgun was a face. It was a mystery to outsiders but not to them, not to a people who watched each alien carefully, catalogued their differences. The Charlatan thought and acted like a human. The Charlatan may or may not have been a monster, a child murdering thug, but either way he was in power. Either way, his grip was loose enough for these things to happen.
The Milky Way aliens snarled back. Face or not, Keema Dohrgun was hardly innocent, and the Angara had never been saints. The fact that they had the vocabulary for words like murder, rape, torture—that was proof enough.
Reyes had sent operatives of every species throughout the city, to target the areas of greatest unrest with whispered news that the Charlatan was cooperating, that he was already in talks with the Nexus on beefing up law enforcement—that this violence, this fear, was unforgivable. It would be purged.
But mostly, he watched. He watched the city he had helped shape, and wondered when it had become so ugly. He’d imagined discipline, and beauty, and excitement. Instead Kadara had become a stopping place for the lost—for those with nowhere else to go.
He watched a woman pull her baby beneath her shirt to breastfeed, and he feared for her.
Ryder lasted at least twenty minutes before she was forced to mutiny. “SAM, exactly how definite is that 86 percent chance of Reyes dying thing?”
Our prediction is not set in stone. We do not have psychic abilities, merely predictive algorithms that run simulations based on the available data.
Relief, weirdly, was something she felt in her shoulders. They dropped. “Okay,” Ryder acknowledged. “Good. So we can change things to prevent this outcome?”
Correct, but given the high chance of his murder, I anticipate that several major changes will need to be made. SAM paused, then added, Additionally, it is worth noting that Reyes Vidal’s line of work will always naturally lead him to have a significantly higher mortality rate when compared to the average citizen.
“Great. So I just need to convince him to get back on the forty hour work week.” Ryder considered. “Or set up an enticing retirement package?” She wondered, for a moment, how many hours she worked in a given week. Did Pathfinders get overtime? Why didn’t Addison ever talk about anything important! “SAM, as a point of comparison, how good is my survival rate?”
Your recent head trauma has certainly not helped things.
It figured. Ryder reached up to poke around her wound. The amount of gauze was alarming in itself. “In your robot overseer opinion, what events need to happen for us to get Reyes’ murder chances below, uh, maybe ten percent?”
Irrelevant. We are on bed rest. SAM said, pretty firmly. And I do not want to die.
“We aren’t going to die. We’re going to change things. Just a few tweaks.”
I will inform Lexi, if I must.
“Don’t be such a snitch.” Ryder growled. “Where are my shoes?”
I will not tell you. I do not want to die.
“Tell me where my shoes are, or I swear I will never give you a single Sudoku Master problem again.” Ryder, who had been struggling to her feet, received a nasty static shock from her blanket. “Holy fuck! Was that you?”
Your shoes are in the top left cabinet behind the cleaning supplies. I will be unable to communicate for the next several minutes due to bandwidth restrictions.
Ryder dragged Lexi’s desk toward the instructed cabinet, cursing. The arm that had been shocked was still smarting. “Bandwidth restrictions. Okay.”
Bandwidth restrictions are due to the necessity of updating my back up files, SAM countered. For being an emotionless automated voice, he could get pretty snooty.
Ryder yanked on her shoes, pulled her hair back to hide the lump of gauze patched to the back of her head, and briefly tried to hi-jack Lexi’s cosmetics station to cover some of the damage she’d done to her face. She gave up when navigating the blue skin-tone presets became overwhelming.
Feeling proud of her own stealth parameters, Ryder snuck out of the Med-Bay to encounter the person obviously assigned to keep her from leaving. Kallo blinked at her, reproving. He set aside his catalogue of engine models, an obvious sacrifice.
“That’s ridiculous,” Ryder argued. “If you’re here, who’s even flying the ship?”
“No one. We’re docked,” Kallo explained. He shrugged. “The others fancied a night on the town.”
That was just rude. “Without me?”
Kallo looked as though he were fast approaching a stress-induced breakdown. “You have a concussion,” the pilot pointed out. He added, “Once they get back, I’m hoping you’ll agree that we should return to the Nexus and request formal backup. In case you were wondering, my personal best for exiting this planet’s atmosphere is two minutes, eighteen seconds.”
“I’m not going to run away,” Ryder lied. “I was just going to check my terminal. See if I could maybe access the forensic records on the murder victims.”
Kallo looked annoyed. “You’re supposed to be on bed rest. You have a computer in your head that should be able to access that information for you instantly.”
“Fine. I wanted a snack.”
“I’ll get it for you. Did you want the sausage or the spinach casserole?”
She and Kallo stared at each other in silence. Quietly, Ryder cleared her throat. “Get out of my way,” she ordered.
Bravely, Kallo puffed out his chest. “I suppose I could accompany you.”
The thought of judo-throwing poor Kallo over her shoulder didn’t sit well with Ryder. If only they’d left Drack behind! She had precisely zero qualms when it came to pummeling Drack. Attacking Drack was practically self-defense, considering all the times a friendly tap from the old Krogan had sent Ryder flying into walls, tables, and people she might want to bang in the future.
Ryder took off, with Kallo as her shadow. She was now apparently stuck eating still more casserole. As she waited for her latest dosage of sausage monstrosity to heat up, Ryder pulled up the coroner’s reports on one of the Tempest’s terminals, flicking through the notes her other crew members had already highlighted for her. “So all the kids get torn into pieces, scattered around, and eventually discovered in varying stages of decay…cause of death is difficult to determine due to the extent of damage the victim’s bodies have suffered, but the concentration of blood spilt suggests that victims were killed by some kind of wound—they’re leaning towards stabbing since no evidence of guns have been found—and after suffering an injury, the victims die from blood loss.”
“At least they aren’t being torn apart while they’re alive,” Kallo noted. He reached over Ryder’s shoulder, skipping a few pages. “I’ll surmise. The two main points of interest at this time are the drugs found in the victims’ systems, and the summary of their remains. Right now the forensics teams have been unable to recover a single one of the victim’s hearts.”
“Are they eating them?” Ryder blurted out. She stuffed a bit of sausage in her own mouth. Kallo, watching her, looked horrified.
“I…I don’t know. If you were wondering, the missing heart is also likely a reference to the myth of Zagerus. The god was torn apart as a small child, but reborn because his heart was saved, rather than being destroyed with the rest of his remains.”
God she hated casserole. Ryder swallowed. “And the drugs?”
“Lethal doses of some off-market stimulant, we’ve been calling it Ambrosia. It seemed fitting, with all the Greek mythology connections. Each cadaver’s strain of Ambrosia contains fairly broad variations in the exact chemical composition, which indicates that the formula is still being tested. It is also worth noting that the victims are cross-species and therefore would have very different reactions to imbibing the drug, though Lexi believes the intended effect is meant to simulate the sort of ‘ritual madness’ the god Dionysus was patron of. Suvi tells me that in humans, the effects should be similar to taking Ecstasy.”
“So, there’s some kind of drug lab. Somewhere. If we find them, we find our cultists.” Ryder considered this, wondering how she was supposed to trace an industry notorious for its secrecy. She faced Kallo. “Have you ever gone undercover? For like, anything?”
Kallo shook his head frantically. “No. Stop. I know what you’re doing, Pathfinder! If you leave me right now I’m going to get yelled at by at least three people!”
I agree, SAM chimed in. Ryder had already turned to go. Kallo hovered behind her, whimpering.
“This isn’t fair! I just fly ships through wormholes and asteroid belts! I don’t do combat!”
“I know,” Ryder soothed. “It’s actually pretty ridiculous you were supposed to stop me all by yourself. Hell, I would argue they aren’t even trying to put me on lockdown. Which, by the way, I don’t think Lexi technically has the authority to do? She’s getting pretty uppity.”
Actually, Lexi gave you a generous does of sedatives, SAM pointed out. Both she and I assumed you would not be moving in the first place. It would seem that your metabolism, high activity level, and, perhaps, a genetic predisposition for bullheadedness have all contributed to making your system more resistant to drugs.
Ryder chortled. “That’s stupid. I just drink a lot.”
“No,” Kallo moaned. He grabbed Ryder’s elbow, and she rather gently shook him off. “No,” he moaned again. “Pathfinder, you don’t understand! You can’t singlehandedly infiltrate a drug ring!”
“You’re so right. What I need is discretion. Call Drack,” Ryder chirped, and rolled her eyes. Kallo suddenly brightened, and scurried away to do just that. Ryder slapped the shuttle call button just as Kallo did as she’d suggested, and she even had time to hear him wail, “The Pathfinder’s escaping!” before the shuttle doors closed, and she was once again gliding towards Kadara’s surface.
The riot was diverted, if not outwardly oppressed. No one had been able to find the Angaran boy’s immediate family – no one, in fact, had any idea what his name was. With so little to stand on and money tight, the Angaran community had surrendered his body for investigation – with supervision.
Keema, for her part, was already onto her third dirty martini. Very dirty. Essentially, just olive juice and vinegar. Reyes would never understand Angaran taste.
“Well, it’s a start,” she acknowledged. The martini swirled, almost oily. She was probably not supposed to be drinking, especially considering her pain meds. But Keema drank a lot, as Reyes was beginning to notice. He wondered how an Angara’s body tolerated addiction.
There was something he had to say, something they both knew, but neither wished to discuss. Reyes sighed. “We need to talk about the police.”
Keema’s nostrils flared. “Kill-joy.”
“We can’t keep going like this,” Reyes argued. He let himself sit on the edge of her bed – Keema refused to be treated at a clinic – and hoped that this physical closeness would, somehow, help ease the discussion. “It doesn’t have to be Nexus. But if we install some sort of law enforcement, one that’s sympathetic—”
“Corrupt,” Keema interrupted. “You mean corrupt. A corrupt police is even worse than a known criminal. It will solve nothing, perhaps only increase violence.”
Reyes made a face. “I want someone else to clean up this mess. At this point, no one will even believe us if we do catch them.”
“Why do you think I invited the Pathfinder?” Keema’s drink had sloshed over the rim, she paused to lick her fingers. “But, you’re right. The Pathfinder is still only one person. She can be killed.”
Reyes just looked at her. Keema stared back, defiant, icy. She never slurred. “It’s a fact.”
She wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t matter. His mother would have said it was bad luck to talk that way. Reyes had just opened his mouth to tell her off, when his omni-tool began to buzz. One of the Tempest’s crew, Ryder’s people. He answered before asking for excusal.
“Hey,” Peebee yawned. “Is she with you?”
“The Pathfinder? No.” His follow-up thought was immediate. “Are you saying you don’t know where she is?”
“I hope you’re lying to me,” Peebee sang. She drew closer to her camera lens, until all he could see was a single, gigantic hazel eye. The eye blinked, and squinted. “Ugh!” Peebee withdrew. “So typical! Typical Pathfinder Messiah-complex bullshit! This is totally your fault.” She gestured furiously through the com at him—perhaps it was some vulgar Asari gesture? Or just the physical expression of her frustration? Peebee wasn’t finished. “Children, all of you. Not even thirty years old and she thinks she’s allowed to just ditch her concerned Asari bestie with like a hundred years of experience in the dating game, just saying. Not to mention Drack! I mean, actually, we shouldn’t mention him.”
“Messiah complex?” Reyes repeated. A wash of exasperation blew across him. “She didn’t say where she was going?”
“I just said that!” Peebee hollered. “Goddess! Look, her SAM did some creepy future algorithm weirdness which I guess ends with you dying, spoiler alert, and maybe some other bad stuff but the bottom line is she has head trauma and we can’t find her.”
“I’m going to die?” Reyes repeated, then then with considerably more emotion, “Head trauma?”
“Never mind!” Peebee wailed. “Not helpful! Later.”
She hung up. Reyes dialed back immediately, pounding at his omni-tool with excessive force. Peebee ignored him. She ignored his next five calls so ruthlessly that he began to suspect that the whole thing was some kind of prank. Keema, who had watched the entire exchange in cool silence, finally spoke. “There’s no sense in breaking your omni-tool, darling. The Pathfinder will be just fine.” She crossed her legs, and made a show of rubbing her temples. “What I’m more worried about now is you. If you’re dead, my chances aren’t much better.”
Reyes ground his teeth. His back had begun to ache with tension. “Tell me you’ve at least gotten something out of the Asari assassin.”
Keema snorted. “She won’t talk. The Asari never talk. They aren’t as attached to their bodies as the rest of us.” She cringed back, startled, when Reyes gave in and kicked her bedside table, sending the furniture into the wall with a terrible smash. Reyes jerked away from Keema and her shocked, curdling stare. “You aren’t usually so violent,” Keema drawled, after a pause.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t violent. He didn’t want to be that person. Reyes dragged a hand over his face, trying to think about his breathing, trying to rewire himself. “Are you saying that the Asari is a complete dead end? Or just that she won’t talk.”
“No. There’s something.” Keema confirmed. He looked back at her, expectant. She tilted her head. “There was a certain kind of mud in the tread of her shoes. The bacteria, I’m told, are amazing. She was somewhere in the wastelands recently, somewhere with unique geothermal activity. Get your Pathfinder to wire into a mining satellite for us, tell her to look for somewhere with a massive amount of lithium. Some zinc, too.”
“Lithium?” Reyes repeated, then, as he realized the natural connection, his eyes widened. “The drugs.”
Keema smiled. “Theoretical. But why would they pass up the natural cure for mania? They’ve got to have some bad batches. And a cure’s even better if you can get it for free.”
Reyes nodded, considering the possibilities. “You forget. It’s not so easy to ask the Pathfinder for favors when she’s missing.”
“I forget nothing. You haven’t tried calling her yet,” Keema returned scornfully. She closed her eyes, and slid back beneath her covers. “I need to rest. Take care of things quickly, Reyes. We won’t get much more time.”
Ryder was not exactly a born criminal.
With SAM’s scanner, identifying drug mules was laughably easy. The problem was that she practically had NARC! emblazoned across her chest. After three blow-offs, two arguments, and four people growling, “Fuck off, Pathfinder,” she was forced to reconsider her approach.
Obviously, SAM agreed. This is embarrassing.
Undercover was overrated and, also, boring. “New plan,” Ryder decided. “We stalk. SAM, pull up city cameras, do whatever you can to trace their path—”
Reyes was calling. Ryder hit the denial button. She had a lot of missed calls.
“—what was I saying? Oh. While you’re tracing, I’ll hit the clubs and start scanning for Ambrosia.”
Cora was calling. Ryder hit the denial button three times.
Pathfinder, you could just turn off your phone.
“No, because that confirms that I am in trouble. Right now, I am just out for a stroll. They have no proof.”
Peebee was calling. Ryder, who felt that Peebee was the least effective lecturer of the group, strategically surrendered by answering. “Hey Peebs.”
“Gah!” Peebee yelped. “Finally! Do you know how many times I called you?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I certainly do.”
“Cool. Awesome. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt, like maybe you had fainted from running around with a concussion or, I don’t know, you got jumped by a gang of hangry Krogan because you decided to—once again—solo-mission the dirty space equivalent of the Wild Wild West—!”
“But! I was wrong. You’re just an asshat,” Peebee concluded. She made a show of moving around, trying to look over Ryder’s shoulder. “Also. Where the hell are you? I want to come.”
“I’m trying to trace Ambrosia back to the supplier.” Ryder explained. She had begun moving again, distantly aware of SAM’s monitoring – he had hijacked most of her omni-tool’s bandwidth. Ryder lowered her voice. “SAM’s following some dealers, maybe they’ll go back to the supplier. So far none of them have been selling Ambrosia but I figure the higher up we go, the more people will know, right? I’m going to scan the clubs for traces.”
Peebee nodded eagerly. “Right. And I want to come.”
Ryder shook off a vendor. She did not want to eat barbequed space lizard. Plus, she’d already broken enough of Lexi’s rules. Suvi could continue the charge on experimental eating. “Peebs, I actually think it makes more sense for me to solo this—I mean how many drug dealers do you know that like to sell in groups?”
“The lazy ones,” Peebee answered at once. She puffed out her cheeks, now pouting. “Ryder! Ugh! Seriously, have you even smoked?”
“What, like marijuana?”
“Oh. Goddess.” Peebee screamed. Fortunately the Asari had once again cocooned herself in an escape pod, which was naturally very sound proof. “You fucking military-baby dweeb!” Peebee roared. “How dare you? Out of the people on this ship, you thought that you were the best person for a drug deal?”
“Hey,” Ryder defended, now feeling a bit wounded. “I adapted.”
And then she smacked into Reyes.
There were several surprising things about this. First: Ryder was pretty much a champion when it came to dodging things. Second: how had he found her? Third: she had known it was him the half-second before she collided with his chest, without having seen his face, which could really only mean she had adapted some freaky pheromone-sensors.
Ryder looked up. “Oh hey,” she squeaked.
“Get her,” Peebee hissed from her wrist. It was easy to forget that a vindictive hellcat slept beneath Peebee’s bubbly exterior. Ryder hurriedly ended the call.
Reyes looked pissed. There was really no other way to describe it. More disturbing still, Ryder wasn’t sure she had ever seen him get angry before. He regarded her silently for a moment, expression tight, and then smiled. His eyes still creased as he did so. Now she was officially terrified.
“So I hear I’m going to die?” he asked.
“What? No.” Ryder shook her head. “Definitely not.”
“And I heard you have a concussion.”
“Uh,” Ryder stalled. God, she wanted to lie. She wanted to lie so bad. Except her face was beat to shit so her chances of success were admittedly not great. She scratched her undamaged cheek. “I’ve had worse?”
“You’re walking around with a concussion, trying to make a drug deal, because you believe that by doing so…I can only assume the world will be saved and I won’t die,” Reyes surmised. “You also decided not to tell me any of this, why?”
Ryder squirmed. There were times when not speaking was definitely the best answer. Reyes watched her for another moment, still smiling, still terrifying. Ryder cleared her throat, “Well—well you finding me like this means you apparently put a tracker on me so that’s also bad.”
“I don’t need a tracker to find you,” Reyes retorted, now looking scornful. “But that reminds me, you also dodged my calls.”
Ryder considered her possible escape routes. Maybe SAM could reinstall those combat matrices and she could just parkour the hell out of there. She looked at her toes, feeling like a teenager, like a naughty child, like all the things she didn’t want him to see her as, all the things she was dying to prove she wasn’t.
“Come with me,” Reyes said.
Ryder jerked up. “But—I have SAM tailing some people and—”
“I can find your drugs,” Reyes snapped. He was somehow more handsome when he was angry. “Obviously.”
Obviously. Ryder just nodded. She nodded, and she followed.
He took her back to a different but identical apartment, still not sure what he wanted. Keema would want him to get her scanning for Lithium. Her crew would want her stitched up and sent back. She looked like she wanted to lie down, but would never ask. He stepped back to let her inside first, and as she passed him, he saw the clump of bandages fixed to the back of her head, peeking through her hair.
She stood awkwardly in the middle of his room, trying not to look at him. He stared her down. A frustrated, angry energy tightened around him, the longer he looked at her.
“What’s here?” Ryder asked. Answer: nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Like an animal, he’d wanted to stow her somewhere safe. Somewhere he could just keep an eye on her while he figured out what happened next.
Reyes shrugged. She kept waiting for him to explain, a slow heat creeping through her face. “I should get back,” she piped up, rather weakly. Reyes slammed the door, and she flinched. He wasn’t sorry.
“Stay here,” he said, without emotion. He pointed at the bed. “Sit.”
“But I should really—”
He realized that he’d been grinding his jaw only when the muscles began to burn. He spun on her, trying not to shout. “Sit down.”
She sat, her face frozen. Mortified? Angry? For once, he didn’t care. He watched her, running through every conversation they’d ever had, every word she’d ever said to him. Her face was shifting, adapting. She was going to make a joke. She was going to try to force the mood, to dodge the things she didn’t want to talk about. She was used to people listening to her.
He cut her off just as her mouth opened. “You were wrong. You should have told me.”
She hesitated. Her hands twisted together in her lap. “I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time until I had more intel.”
“No. You just didn’t trust me.” Reyes shook out his shoulders. He couldn’t stop thinking about his family, the one he’d left behind. When it had all gone to shit. His old fly buddies, shaking their heads at him. You’re crazy when you’re angry. He wasn’t that person.
Ryder stood. He didn’t miss the slight wobble—the very suggestion of unsteadiness. It frightened him. She was supposed to be indestructible, iron boned, wearing the best armor the galaxy had to offer. He could see the stress, the heaviness of it, how it pulled on her eyes and her mouth. Where did she think she was going, all banged up like that? Ryder had squared her shoulders. “Alright fine, I didn’t trust you,” she acknowledged. “Is that what you wanted from me, my trust? Because the Initiative has to come first. You know that.”
“So why are you here?” Reyes countered. “You’re right, the Initiative does come first. But here you stand, because you risked everything for a smuggler. For me.”
She faltered. “I can handle it.”
“Fine, you can handle it. You can handle being drugged and kidnapped and shot and the rest of the galaxy’s problems while you’re at it. Except I don’t want you to. So what about me?”
She took a half-step towards him, as angry as she was pleading, and as her hand came up to—shove him? Gesticulate?—he caught it without thinking, pulling her into him.
“What about me?” Reyes snarled. Two splotches of color were coming into her cheekbones, making her eyes seem brighter, as though she were about to cry. Fine.
Shakily, she said, “You don’t get to be angry at me for—!”
“Of course I do!” He snapped, and she flinched away from him. Fine. Really, that was fine, that was more than fine. Logically, he preferred the world where she hated him to the one where she ended up dead trying to save him. Emotionally, maybe there was just an ugly streak, a vicious part of him that thought she deserved to be punished.
Glaring, Ryder bared her small, white teeth. “I didn’t do anything wrong!” she shouted back. “And even if I did, so what? Why the fuck do you think you get to judge me for it! Who the hell do you think you are?”
Reyes laughed. “Who am I? Certainly not the Pathfinder. I don’t go around thinking that my every decision is somehow mandated by God.”
That had hurt her. She didn’t back down. “Shut up.”
“No, you shut up this time,” Reyes snapped. “You shut up, because that’s exactly what you did, what you’ve been doing since the second your little feet touched down in my docking bay. Because some part of you genuinely believes that you are the ultimate voice of authority, and I guess the rest of us can go fuck ourselves. I’ve seen the things you can do, and you can call me a true believer, but you should remember that at the end of the day you are just a person.”
She was crying now. Angry, frustrated tears. She was trying to look away, trying to hide her face. When she spoke, her voice was still angry—but shaking. “You know what? Fine. Excuse the fuck out of me. I came here because I wanted to fix things—I wanted to help you. Maybe I should apologize for my methods but I’m not sorry that I cared because you fucking made me!”
He was going to say something ugly back to her, but she’d taken that last half-step towards him, and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, her face pressed into his neck. She was unnaturally still, every muscled tensed—whether that was to keep from shaking or because she expected his resistance, he couldn’t guess. “Don’t be mad at me,” she mumbled. “You’re such a bully.”
He didn’t want to be angry. He didn’t want to be that person. He just wanted her to listen. He let himself touch her. Was she frightened? For him, or because of him? He held the base of her neck, a hot place. He could let this go. He could change. He let himself flick away her armor. All these things, getting in his way. Always. “I should be angry. Just how heartless do you think I am?”
“The worst,” she insisted, not pulling back even one centimeter. “Completely heartless. I have a concussion.”
He tugged her back. She was silent, almost docile, as he undressed her. He knelt, and she had to brace a hand against his shoulder as he lifted her feet from her boots, one at a time. “You have pretty feet,” he noted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before.”
“Reyes,” she began, but stopped. He looked up at her, into her bruised face. She struggled to say, “I’m sorry.”
He kissed her stomach, her warm skin. “I shouldn’t have yelled,” he told her, with his eyes closed. “I’m embarrassed.”
“When are you ever embarrassed?” Ryder grumbled, now flushed herself. He nipped at junction where her thigh met her body, his hands smoothing down the backs of her legs. Ryder squeaked. “Are you—um, are you doing what I think you’re doing?”
“You could make it easier for me,” he snipped, pretending to be annoyed. He pushed her a little, back towards the bed. “Sit down.”
“Sit down,” he said again, a little more gently. She sat on the edge of his bed, looking dazed. The top of her chest was flushed now as well. He braced his elbows on her knees, and looked at her slowly, letting her embarrassment peak. “You’re naked.”
“Shut up.” Ryder growled. He reached up, and traced the scoop of skin that folded below her breast. Ryder’s hands flew up to cover herself, entirely by instinct, and she twisted around, now yelping. “What are you, some kind of predator?”
“Just frustrated,” Reyes grinned. “You don’t listen well.”
“If I listened to you all of Andromeda would be operating under some kinda bullshit omertà in less than three months,” Ryder hissed. He pulled her legs open. She did a bad job of not looking shy. He bit the soft, fleshy part of her inner thigh and she practically writhed.
“You’re so excited,” Reyes observed, with complete innocence. Ryder glowered.
“If you don’t take your clothes off I’m seriously leaving.”
He took his clothes off. He pinched her, stroked her, scratched her. He didn’t think, or at least he tried not to. Her skin was so pliant, so satisfying to press. He wanted to sink his teeth into every single inch.
He pressed his mouth against everything he could reach, wanting to know her completely, wanting to recognize her body even if he were blinded. When she bent to wrap her lips around his shaft he fell in love with the way her eyes closed.
She crawled, she sank around him. He wanted to yank on her hair, to close his hands over her throat, but the bruises on her face kept him gentle. Almost gentle. He pulled down her hips, dragging her to him, tucking her against his body. He rolled her beneath him, felt her nails cut into his back.
“Promise me something,” Reyes hissed into her ear. He ground himself into her, hard enough for her to gasp, hard as the teeth she sank in his shoulder. “Promise me this won’t happen again. Don’t get in the middle.”
“No,” she whimpered. He kissed her swollen mouth, the edge of her bruised eye. She squirmed, but didn’t ask him to stop. She just took it. That acceptance of pain, that willingness to sacrifice—it seriously pissed him off.
“You have to,” he stressed. “You have to.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” she panted. Her voice ratcheted up when he slammed into her again. “Why?”
What a stupid thing to ask. And yet he couldn’t answer her—nothing felt quite right. There was no one reason. So instead he said again, viciously, “Promise me.”
“Okay,” she whispered, and folded. She lied, so obviously. He felt her shutter down around him, closing. Her eyelids fluttered, and she looked away. She pressed her face into his neck, her breath wet and ragged. And he could feel, in that moment, that he’d lost her. She was leaving even as she came. He could feel her stubborn, arrogant youth and the armor of her idealism. Her dreams, and her ideas about romance, and her distance. And he realized, at last, why she could never understand him. Why she held herself back, even as she forced herself further into his arms. Why, why, why.
She didn’t want to admit, to herself or to anyone, that he was not a good man.
He reached between her legs, and she came again with him. But it was different now, mechanical. He rolled off her, but kept her pulled tightly against his side. She was close enough for him to smell the old blood on her bandages. He had felt lonely before, but never like the way he did now. There was something there, something he couldn’t quite get. It should have been frustrating.
“You promised me,” he spoke into the skin at the back of her head, the crack he pictured in her skull. He imagined he was whispering into her dreams, changing them, fixing her truths. Like a shout into an empty chasm. “Don’t forget.”
She tried to roll over to face him, to argue, and he tightened his grip, fingers digging into her hip, her flank. She had to hear this. “I am not worth your life,” he said again, more violently. “This is my problem. Don’t try to fix it by yourself.”
She was silent, her body wrung out and lean and burning. Her breathing came slower. He could feel her heart beating through the sharp, hard curves of her shoulders. Her hand tried to cover his, but wasn’t large enough.
“Okay,” she lied again. “Okay.”
Chapter 5: Samael
Hey, I’m sorry this one took longer. I got one of those dumb early-summer colds and spent some time feeling sorry for myself. Also, this chapter is just hella long. HELLA.
Finally, big big thanks to AgathaCrispy for editing, coaching, and generally just being cool.
Ryder returned from her tryst to confront worst-case walk of shame material.
“Hey sister,” Scott said.
“Fuck. FUCK!” Ryder whirled away from her twin, but the Tempest’s halls were unhelpfully void of any distractions or potential shields. She turned back to Scott, teeth set. “Fuck,” she whispered to herself, for good measure.
She couldn’t just keep swearing. Ryder cleared her throat, bracing herself for some old-school twin throw down. She had this. There had been a time (once) when she’d been able to beat her brother’s ass into submission. Trying to sound like Keema, Ryder asked, “And just why are you concerning yourself with my hickeys, again?”
Scott dropped some serious stank eye. “God you’re annoying. Now that you’re finally back from your boy’s opium den or whatever he’s running—”
“Opium den,” Ryder repeated, and laughed shrilly. She tried edging towards the Med-Bay. Maybe there was some lightly bruised body part Lexi urgently needed to examine.
Scott, with freakish speed and probably a dose of telepathy, inserted himself into the middle of her escape route. “The Nexus sent me. Tann’s bugging out, says if you don’t get someone dragged out and locked up he’s going to start a trade embargo or something.”
Shit. But also, she totally called that bluff. Like Tann had the balls. Except: Addison was also on the Nexus and Ryder wasn’t sure she wanted to deal with that phone call.
She groaned. “You know, finding freaky doped up murder cults isn’t as easy as it looks on television. Tell them I need more time! We’re making headway but it’s not exactly like we’re in a position where we can go around interviewing known felons because, oops, everyone on this stupid planet was birthed in the, like, the undead Alcatraz of Hell!”
Scott was doing the thing where he started to look uncomfortably similar to their father. Ryder scrunched her nose, her stomach cramping. She hadn’t wanted to fight. She could see the reluctance in Scott’s face, the guilt that echoed her own. She could still remember his excitement, the first time they’d hunted outlaws on Eos together. Her brother, who’d known her father a thousand times better than she ever had, he’d said, “Dad would have been proud of you.”
Somehow, she didn’t feel like the sentiment had survived.
“Sara,” Scott insisted, voice slowing and lowering. “Really. Are you okay?”
Ryder squirmed. “Fine.”
“What happened to your face?”
Her hand twitched up to cover her injuries before she could stop herself. Ryder grimaced. “Okay. I’m sub-fine. But you can tell the Nexus I’ve got it, it’s under control.”
Scott shook his head. “Tell them yourself. I’m staying here. You need me.”
Ryder went still as her mind raced through the possibilities, the plausible reasons for dismissing Scott, the pros and cons of having him around. Her brother. The one person who remembered what she looked like plastered after eight margaritas, the one person who knew about her cornrow phase, the guy who’d held back her hair when null-gravity training had made her sicker than the plague.
“Okay,” she heard herself saying. “No problem. You can get a bunk in my quarters. We’ll figure something out that’s more permanent later.”
Scott, still wearing their father’s face, relaxed. He smiled at her, his face shining. “I thought you’d say no,” he admitted. “It’s going to get better, Sara. You’ll see. We’ll look out for each other.”
Ryder made herself smile back. A forgotten, queasy feeling pushed against her—as unwelcome and unwarranted and nameless as it had been back when, as children, Scott had suddenly grown stronger than her. “I should wash up,” she said, instead of everything else.
To begin with, she really did have to wash up. Ryder spent long minutes in the shower, her forehead pressed against the warming tile. “If you have any suggestions, now would be a good time.” She mumbled. SAM kept quiet. It figured. Ryder rubbed the warm water over her legs, between her thighs. She was newly bruised, purple memories knocked across her legs. Lexi would say that was a sign of a low iron count.
His hand on her throat, how the pressure increased with a surgeon’s precision, how warm her head became the moment she knew she couldn’t breathe—
Ryder punched the shower’s switch, cutting the water. She’d start with the problems she could solve. “SAM, scan for that Lithium deposit. Nexus satellites only, please.”
She dressed as SAM let himself into the satellite’s server, feeling pretty sincerely excited at the prospect of returning to her own bed. A few deposits pinged nearby, and she had the coordinates sent to Suvi for further analysis. One night off. Pathfinder was officially off the clock.
Ryder burrowed as deeply as possible into her bed, missing the heavy quilt she’d owned a lifetime ago. The ship hummed gently around her. Now and then a passing crew member’s footsteps wandered past. Ryder flipped over. She flipped over again. She should have spent the night with him.
And right on cue, her omni-tool buzzed in a new message. Probably Suvi. Probably Scott. Definitely business related and therefore requiring her immediate attention.
Ryder wiggled from her cocoon, groping around. His letters became lasers, beams in her eyes. She read them over, and over, and over again.
I wish you’d stayed.
In the morning, Ryder gave her orders.
Through a note.
“Really?” Cora hissed. Her hiss was caught by the transmitter, drawn out as a spit of static. “Really. Again.”
“No.” Ryder said, in her best Pathfinder voice. “I know what you’re thinking, and I want you to know, I have simply delegated responsibilities. I thought about calling a meeting, but you all seemed to be sleeping so nicely. Notes are cool. Vintage.”
Cora stepped back from the conflict. She let go. She was too disciplined, too proud to whine. A fact that Ryder knew and fully intended to leverage for as long as possible. “Fine.” Cora breathed out. “Why am I stuck with your brother while you get to blow things up?”
“You also might get to blow things up,” Ryder pointed out. “I trust your judgment around explosives. Not Liam’s. But you get me. Anyway, you’re the only person I can trust on a bar-recon mission. Everyone else would just get drunk.”
Cora seemed to be deeply struggling with something. Finally, she eked out. “First: I don’t like the idea of you going somewhere without back-up. But I’m tired of fighting that point. The second thing is, I don’t get along with Scott. No offense. But please keep that in mind in the future.”
Ryder assumed a mask of benevolent patience. The Nomad, which she had clipping along at over a hundred-fifty kilometers an hour, ricocheted its way down a steep valley. The shaking and crashing were not the best sound effects for serenity. “Cora. No one gets along with Scott. He’s like dad. Why do you think I picked you?”
“I’m hanging up,” Cora announced, and cut the call. Ryder checked her map. Still fifty kilometers to go. Maybe by then Cora and Scott would be making out. It was possible. There was ample sexual frustration to go round. Now seemed like as good a time as any to stop thinking about her brother kissing people she knew.
Now Liam was calling. Ryder let him through, “What’s up?”
“Pathfinder,” Liam whispered, “Just because you put Jaal and I on the same team as Vetra, don’t think we’re happy about things.”
“You ain’t gotta lie.” Ryder drawled. Jaal forced his way into the picture, essentially just seizing and maneuvering Liam by the wrist.
“We are concerned for your safety,” Jaal said gravely. “Everyone else has split off with at least one partner to investigate their lithium site. And yet, we have formed a party of three while you operate alone. While I appreciate your consideration for our personal feelings, your security is more important.”
“Yeah,” Vetra added, from somewhere off-camera. “I’m sure I couldn’t possibly imagine how this came to be. The subtle machinations of a Pathfinder. A mind that operates beyond the barriers of convention, species, and basic combat protocols.”
Jaal and Liam were now eyeing each other, probably for some hint as to how they might decipher Code: Vetra. Ryder growled as she tore the Nomad through an innocent shrubbery.
“I’m not alone, I have SAM. Besides, this is just a little recon work. If I get a hit, I’ll call you in,” she lied breezily. “Surely I can handle that much.” She could see Liam’s face folding itself into a frown, his mouth opening to protest further. Ryder cut him off with a quick, “Sorry, call from Drack!” and switched the line. Twenty kilometers out. Drack’s perpetually grim visage filled her screen.
“Are you going to yell at me?” Ryder asked, by way of greeting. Drack, who had incorrectly angled his camera to video his left shoulder, snorted as he made some adjustments.
“No. We Krogan have a long tradition of taking off for a long walk in the desert when the kids start bitching too much. It helps them appreciate you more when you feel like coming back.” Drack paused thoughtfully. “Doesn’t work as well on the wives.”
Ryder suspected many Krogan owed surviving their adolescence thanks to this practice. “Is my brother there?” she whispered. “He’s not going to like, bust out from behind you or anything, is he? Did you and Peebee already leave?”
“He isn’t here. He was loud. I’m too old for loud. Sent him and Cora off a while back.” Drack paused, and the camera began to shake wildly. “Sorry Ryder, hard to cut through this casserole. And I’m not having the sausage one.” He took an enormous bite, and chewed thoughtfully. “You doing okay out there? Seen the scans.”
“Yeah. Fine.” Ryder shrugged. “Just, you know. I think I’m about to go ape shit on a den of drug lords. Should be fun.”
Drack grunted approvingly. “If you’re going to run away from your brother, at least make it count.” Drack paused, then added. “No offense, but he’s more strung out than a Turian cadet. I like you better.”
Ryder was suddenly a little misty eyed. She blinked rapidly. “Thanks, um. But I’m not running away from my brother,” Ryder laughed. She kept laughing. It was hard to stop laughing. “No way. Definitely not.”
“Look kid,” Drack sighed. “I got no reason to be busting your ass over what you do. Hell, I killed one of my brothers.” He paused, then added, “Asshole. Still, it upset my mother. I feel bad about it. The point is, take your space if you need it.”
Ryder had already been pretty busy dealing with her affection for the old Krogan. His continued understanding wasn’t making it any easier. “Drack. Thanks.”
“Whatever. We both know I’m not the one who’s stuck playing host,” Drack grunted. “I’m hoping Cora’s identity feels threatened enough to ice him. Anyway, don’t get shot anywhere important. Let me know if you need some backup and I’ll meet you out there.”
He hung up on her without further niceties, and Ryder spent the rest of her drive in relative silence, contemplating the many merits of her squad mates. She eventually shook herself from her sentimental haze. No time for that. She was less than a kilometer back from the center of her own Lithium deposit – one of three that SAM had picked out, each less than an hour’s drive from the Port itself. Ryder had chosen this one because of the punishingly high mountain-face the lithium deposit was embedded into—in her experience, the preferred terrain of peoples trying to remain hidden.
Jaal, Liam and Vetra would hopefully be enjoying the spectacularly scenic waterfall she had sent them to by now.
Pathfinder, we will need to continue further exploration by foot.
She climbed out. “See anything? Smoke signals? Tire marks?”
Overlaying geological surveys with our present map indicates that there is an underground river beginning at the top of this mountain. The river is known to branch in several directions, with its waters emerging above ground at several sites near Kadara Port. Proposal: this river would serve as an excellent natural vehicle for transporting illegal goods, with the additional advantage of having no energy signature.
Ryder considered this. “I have to climb the mountain.”
“You’re such a bastard.” Ryder complained. In truth, the Nomad had nearly taken her to the top already. But the remaining meters up were almost a complete vertical, an obstacle that even her jump jets would likely have her bouncing off of.
It was a good thing no one was around to witness this.
Reyes called her halfway up. Ryder declined a video feed. “Hey.”
“What are you doing? Why are you panting like that?”
“I’m—” Ryder desperately clung to what felt like about three blades of grass, both feet kicking over what she felt comfortable describing as a chasm. “—jogging.”
“Huh.” He moved on. “Listen. I want to do something different. Let’s have dinner?”
“What!” Ryder screamed, now throwing herself into a desperate free fall. She collided roughly with the cliff face, and scrambled to find purchase.
“What?” Reyes echoed. He was definitely alarmed. “Turn on your camera.”
“Dinner sounds nice,” Ryder squeaked. She heaved herself onto the narrow ledge, gasping wetly. This was stupid. She should have taken the waterfall. “Are we going to get a pizza before or after your political enemies literally eat us?”
There was a pause of silence from Reyes. “Did you just spit?”
She definitely had. Adrenaline made her mouth wet. It was just a thing. “No. What time’s dinner?”
“I’m not sure, probably as soon as I find out where you are and what you’re doing.”
Ryder had a pretty strong suspicion he was pulling up a screen that advertised her as a tiny, blinking GPS marker at that very moment. She wondered how exactly he was tracking her. Something on her suit? Could people ingest trackers? She wouldn’t put it past him. “What’s wrong, can’t stay away from me?” She hunched, jets ready, preparing to fling herself into an absurd vertical leap.
Reyes laughed. “I can’t, and I don’t want to.”
Ryder was pretty sure she had never jumped so high. Arms shaking, she hauled herself up inch by painful inch, her struggle made more difficult by trying to muffle her own ragged breathing. “I’m hanging up. Team’s checking out those Lithium deposits. I’ll have more for you soon.” She managed to kick one leg up, hooking her heel over the cliff’s edge, then rolled inelegantly forward. Finally. Finally. Dazed with exertion, Ryder let herself simply lie there, gasping.
“Be careful,” he said. She was too tired to really listen to him. “I don’t want to lose you,” he added, and ended the call.
Ryder kept lying there, her muscles reduced to yogurt, as the seconds and minutes ticked past. Finally, finally, she pushed herself up, grinning. He liked her. Did he like her? No, that was stupid. Stupid Ryder.
Upon standing, the most obvious thing of note was probably the landing pad. Ryder stared at it, seething. Those cheaters. The likely well-air conditioned cheaters. Who were also, by the way, nefarious drug chemists and child murderers. Their base, now that she was finally on top of the stupid mountain, was only a short distance away from the landing pad, and clearly visible from her position.
Ryder zipped towards a nearby rock outcropping for some cover, getting ready to radio Peebee and Drack for backup, when a sudden thought made her pause. Because—she hadn’t gotten to try out those combat matrices, after all.
She bit her lip, finger literally hovering over the call button. They could be here within an hour. But the base was right there, and—and! She would be able to tell, right away, if taking out the drug ring was enough to change Reyes’ future. Somehow, she doubted her crew would be all that thrilled to watch her have another seizure-vision.
They also probably wouldn’t be that excited to know that she’d died because she’d gone into a fight without backup.
“Fine,” Ryder bargained, either to herself or SAM or Reyes’ hypothetical tracker chip. “If there’s less than five, I take them on. Five and up, I call in my Krogan.”
The universe heard.
Ryder darted between the wind-smoothed rocks, ears pricked, eyes narrowed and fixed on the drug base’s windows. She inched nearer, discovering and tucking herself into a choice spot for visibility, for target sighting. Methodically, she began setting up her sniper’s rifle, hands moving without thought. She’d done this a thousand, ten thousand times. “Okay,” Ryder coached herself. “Step one. We reinstall our psychic combat thing. Step two, we don’t have a seizure. Step three, we take out this base. Step four, we get our seer on. SAM, you are on seizure duty. Don’t make me replace you with a dog.”
SAM immediately began prattling on about how ‘the combat matrices were dangerous’ and ‘her current plan of action seemed extremely ill-advised.’ Ryder wanted to roll her eyes except she was trying to be more mature. She settled for some rapid blinking.
“If you don’t install them, I’m probably going to get shot,” Ryder pointed out. “And die. Also, you do as I say. So do it. Now.” Yes, much better. Strong Pathfinder moves.
SAM began doing his uncomfortable mind-rearranging thing. Her omni-tool flashed, and Ryder tapped in her user permissions. Five minutes to reinstall. Faster than she’d expected. Maybe SAM had left a few back doors open for himself. “So walk me through this, how does it work and when should I haul ass to clear the area? Are headaches the only way for me to realize we’re about to go under?”
Now that I am more familiar with system diagnostics, I should be able to monitor synchronization rates and give you ample warning before we overload. An attack such as the one you suffered before should be easy to avoid, so long as we are able to distance ourselves from stressors in time. I can uninstall the program if need be. I would advise that all adversaries be eliminated prior to the uninstall.
“Can we film this? I mean, for the documentary. Because I think I’m going to kick some ass.” Ryder trilled, and then actually slapped a hand over her own mouth. She was starting to sound like Liam. Or, just, insane.
Ryder checked her guns, then lay flat on the sun-warmed rock, dragging herself forward with her elbows. She mounted the sniper rifle, checking the base’s windows through her scope. At least four people inside, two Salarians that wore heavy gas masks, a tweaked out Turian, and a human woman with bold lipstick. Four targets. Just under quota. Ryder zoomed in. “Launch,” she ordered.
And then the world dropped out from under her, her ears became speakers that angled inward. She felt her heart beating as she never had before, felt each bone and muscle of her body, that fantastic machine. The woman’s lipstick shone with a light—an unnatural light, a purple light, UV? Ryder adjusted the scope. Perfect clarity. Perfect purpose. She didn’t see things anymore, so much as she saw the space around them, the narrowed and swelling spaces.
The bullet made an satisfying, circular hole through window’s glass. Through the Turian’s skull, into the woman’s thigh, where at last the missile lodged in bone. The Turian went down and the Salarians were already ducked for cover, the woman with the bleeding thigh and the red mouth had drawn her weapon, and—the lights went out. They’d cut power, made it harder for her to pick them out from the darkness, at least at a distance.
She pulled up her shields, and simply walked towards the front door. She didn’t need to run. They couldn’t get away from her. Her legs, in all their power and strength, carried her forward.
“Get the fucking bomb,” one of the Salarians was shouting. “Get the fucking bomb.”
The door blew outwards, slamming flat against Ryder’s shields, an impromptu ballistic powerful enough to make her stagger, then the woman with the lipstick was there and swinging what looked like a sharpened bone for Ryder’s face. Almost dreamily, Ryder pulled her head out of the way, noticing the bone-blade’s carvings, the well-smoothed place on its handle that could only have come from years of wear.
The woman’s beautiful mouth was opening. She had very light, almost colorless eyes. Ryder’s ears rattled with the sound of her own breath, her life.
“Bye,” Ryder offered. She reached out and grabbed the woman’s wrist. Her thumb dug into a nerve, and the woman’s hand flew open, so that the bone-knife went flying away. One of the Salarians was coming out—and that was a Krogan, shit—but later, first—
She shot over the woman’s shoulder, catching the Salarian’s soft, wet flesh with a spray of buckshot. The Krogan was maneuvering what looked like a small canon, swinging it around to face her, his armor and his body like a wall—indifferent even as she shot him in the face. No time—Ryder kicked the woman’s knee, catching the edge of her kneecap and smashing it, and they dropped together so Ryder could lift what remained of the base’s door—a heavy thing, at least thirty pounds of warped steel, and even that buckled violently beneath whatever the Krogan was packing. She could hear his weapon charging, the high whine of it—another blast from that thing would end it, would rip through the steel door she hid behind or break whatever body part she used to support it.
“SAM, drones!” Ryder hissed. The woman was screaming, clutching her head. Ryder lobbed a flash grenade and sprinted—no time no time—her eyes closed, her nose stinging with ozone. Two of her fingers were badly jammed, numb and stiff and uncooperative. She dropped the combat drones behind her, anything that could buy her some time, fumbling to swap out shotgun for pistol—she needed precision, not force—
Ryder ducked around the building’s corner, hearing her drone detonate, the Krogan’s furious roar. She peeked out, snapping off her pistol’s safety and aiming—breathe, breathe, breathe—her brother had always been better shot and always, her dad saying the same thing: “You’re all over the place, you need to focus, you need to let go of everything else, you need to be empty.”
And they hadn’t understood, her army friends or her teachers, why she spent so much time at the firing range. Because she was a good shot, she was steady and practiced and not everyone can have perfect eyesight, a little blurriness wasn’t the end of the world, her natural endurance would have been wasted on a sharp-shooter anyway, she didn’t have to be a sniper—
Flash grenade hadn’t worked, hadn’t blinded him, the Krogan saw her, he was aiming, he was—
But she wasn’t the same person anymore.
Ryder shot. A single, clean crack of a noise. It was almost beautiful.
The Krogan was dead, though still standing, still rocking forward, his body struggling to understand the death of its brain. Ryder stepped. One foot forward, then the other. She expected to feel something, elation or nerves or, just, anything. The cannon slipped from the Krogan’s grip, banging loudly on a rock as it fell. The woman with the lipstick was still alive, but sobbing. Ryder bent to pick up the bone-blade and the Krogan finally crumbled, as the woman too surrendered to unconsciousness.
Ryder stepped over the dead Salarian and squinted through the dark lab, fumbling at the walls for lights. Her head was starting to ache, even as the air just to her left rippled, and Ryder dodged—throwing herself deeper into the darkness as the living Salarian tried to bum-rush her. “Cut the shit,” she hissed, swinging the bone knife out, and cutting, and there—at last—were the lights.
The other Salarian’s hands pressed over his chest’s gash, gasping. He panicked as the lights came on, fumbling with the lab’s tables for a weapon. He snatched and threw blindly—pencils, vials, half a sandwich, a Bunsen burner—Ryder moved forward, listening to the raspy, frantic gasp of his breath. “Stop,” she said quietly. “Sit down.”
He froze, still quivering, large eyes darting sideways, up—not a fighter, not even a real scientist, she could see the burn marks and the ink stains on his sleeves. Imperfect, a cook rather than a chemist. His long, thin fingers flattened protectively over the cut she’d given him. “Pathfinder,” he managed to squeak out. “I don’t want to die.”
“Then sit. I need to scan.”
“The computer’s locked. I’ll let you in,” the Salarian babbled. “It has everything. All our trials. I didn’t think the Nexus would get involved, it’s not like we’re that important—”
Ryder’s hands clenched. Her temples were throbbing, insistent. Empty. She had to be empty. “It’s a problem when you start tearing kids into itty bitty pieces. Who knew?”
“We—what? We didn’t. I swear, we didn’t. Is this about those murders?” He was still babbling as she steered him bodily towards the computer, watched the long, spindly fingers strike the keyboard. She could feel SAM sync up, drain the data, screens and lights flashing wildly, painfully. Ryder closed her eyes, wincing.
“Yeah,” she rasped. Not much longer. “Yeah, it’s about the murders.”
“It wasn’t us,” the Salarian yelped. “My god. I don’t know anything about that. But if you’re here—then someone must have been on the drug. PX-92230. I don’t know, I didn’t even handle the selling. I was quality control.”
“How can you be quality control if the product is still evolving?”
The Salarian blinked. “What? It’s not.” His attention swung away from her, as was often the case with Salarians. He prodded the flesh near his wound, seeming terribly young, almost childlike. “PX-92230 is a mood modifier, a…an antidote. When people begin coming out of stasis, many of them require extensive psychological care. For whatever reason, the centuries of suspended life activity leaves them with an intense, chronic depression. They can treat you for it on the Nexus, but it takes time, and many of us left the Initiative before we could complete treatment.”
Ryder could only stare at him, her ears ringing. Leave. She had to leave. “It’s not…it’s not a party drug?”
“What? No!” The Salarian had nearly yelled in outrage, but now coughed, wincing. “I’ll admit we’re a knock-off brand, but the effects are the same as what the doctor ordered. We help people. Pathfinder, you can see for yourself. You have our records.”
Her hands had started to shake. Ryder hesitated. He could be lying. Or she was missing something, she should—she should burn it, she should burn the whole place to the ground, they’d shot at her—
She stared down at the Salarian, her gut twisting. She hated killing Salarians. They were always so young.
Pathfinder, we need to force uninstall your combat matrices or else risk overload.
“No,” Ryder ordered. She turned, and broke into a staggering run. Leave the Salarian. Leave the busted lab. Leave the woman in lipstick, the dead Krogan. They weren’t innocent, she told herself. They weren’t murdered. “SAM, leave the matrices. Upload all data to the Tempest, have Suvi c-cross reference with the Nexus.” She shook her head. Had she just stuttered? Shit.
She kept running, her eyes slitting, something comforting about the even pound of her feet against the ground, the air rushing past her. She threw on her jets, bouncing down the mountain side faster than she should have, faster than she could really control or stop. Her matrices were still running, still nudging her away from a jammed ankle, a smashed spine. She crash-landed against the Nomad, rolling awkwardly into the driver’s seat. She slumped forward into the steering wheel, her body still remembering, her body and her vehicle’s smart sensors driving her a full fifteen kilometers forward to safety, to desolation.
Ryder fumbled at the car door, rolling out, dropping painfully to her knees. She huddled down. Head: officially zero inches from the ground. Shields: fully functional. Sharp objects: at a safe distance. Armor: very secured.
She focused on Reyes. It was harder to fully picture him than she would have initially guessed. Her mind felt like a camera struggling to focus, so that by the time she’d finished recalling the timbre and roll of his voice, the way he dragged some letters or skipped others or had a way of changing questions into implications—she’d lost herself, given up too much room, so now the mouth that spoke the words she could so perfectly recall became opaque, and overly soft.
It was easier to remember flashes of him than the full picture—the slight squint, his wide shoulders, how he never seemed to face her completely. Despite herself, this incompleteness disturbed her.
Pathfinder, our synchronization levels are rising.
“I know,” Ryder mumbled.
Why are you doing this?
The question she definitely did not want to answer.
Children torn to pieces, faces grown from moss, the sick feeling she was learning to associate with plants and wine and debauchery, a sort of sick paranoia, the way he looked at her, his face destroyed by bullets, Keema Dohrgun sitting high upon her throne, the lies, the—
Her head was ringing, and tinny, her ears full of metal. Ryder grit her teeth. She opened herself to fear. Fear of fire, fear of starless space, a void that could overtake people, a void that lived in everyone. Fear: Reyes, too far and too close. Fear: the ground beneath her fingers—a tremor? Footsteps! No.
P-Pathfinder you are approaching critical synchronization levels—
“Let it run,” Ryder gritted out. Her face was bloated, bursting. Had she really endured this before? Had she hidden this, from Liam and Jaal? Was she insane? Something scratched away at her peripheral vision, an intrusion, an ill-fated visitor.
Ryder opened her eyes, her body vibrating, her heat pushing out in waves to feel the vast room around her. The Collective’s Base. And Keema, sitting on her throne, up above her. Ryder stared up at the other woman, watching her pour, watching her drink. The wine became beautiful, molten ruby as it swallowed the light. It stained the Angara’s lips, which were spreading, and smiling, and there was a taste at the back of Ryder’s mouth, something thick and bitter—tannins from an old red, the exposure of some dead, crushed vegetable. Plants. Keema wasn’t looking at her.
There was something else, too, a kind of roar, a thing that hugged the room’s windows. The pressure that is felt upon being stalked by some great predator.
Ryder turned slightly, following Keema’s gaze, and there was Reyes—one hand smoothing back his hair, one reaching behind his back, looking for something hidden. He moved so slowly, like a man that had been poured from a honey jar. Her mouth sweetened, just seeing him. She knew, too late, his saunter.
Reyes, his mouth curving up, the space in his eyes opening to allow room for expression, for romance—then vacant, dead, his body collapsing in a slow arc back from her, and laughter—ugly, laughter like a gunshot, like the silence that enters when life has left.
Traitor, Ryder wanted to say, and she turned away from Reyes, his silence. She looked back up to Keema, and the Angara’s seat atop power, but Keema’s hands were empty. The glass she’d once held was now shattered, and the Angara’s rich, complicated smile now deepened, cut like a diamond. She held no weapon. She held no malice.
She was looking into the shadows, the shadows just past Ryder’s shoulder. And Ryder realized that she’d been wrong, that Reyes had been shot from behind, he’d never been harmed by Keema at all but now his murderer was just behind her, and the windows, the thing beyond the windows was swelling—
And Ryder turned and she stopped and she saw the gun, the lies, the face of the killer. The room’s windows burst inward as a great tide rushed in, drowning them.
And then, she saw nothing, she saw the sound of white noise.
A man’s feet, his legs. The man, stooping to lift her, and without meaning to, she began to cry. “You came,” she said, and then nothing else.
The thing under her head was alive.
Military training kept Ryder still as she awoke. The thing under her head shifted. Thighs? A familiar smell. Someone’s voice, she didn’t know them, they were talking about their route up the Corsica valley, a blockage in supply lines…smugglers? Ryder sniffed again.
“You’re awake,” Reyes’ voice spoke. Ryder opened her eyes. He was looking down at her, closing out of whatever he’d been reading on his omni-tool. A lazy swing from an old fan twirled overhead. They were towards the back of an old cargo area, mostly empty, while at least two pilots chatted on the bridge.
“Hi,” Ryder managed to whisper.
“Good morning,” Reyes replied. Ryder sat up gingerly, wincing in anticipation. She didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected. He’d found her somehow (she still suspected a chip) and brought her on one of the Collective’s ships, something small and slower than most people would guess. Her armor was lying in a neat pile on the floor near her.
“You’re pretty good at finding me. Insert romantic platitude here.” Ryder glanced at him hopefully, poking carefully around at her old injuries. Nothing seemed disturbed. Reyes glared.
“You were bleeding from your eyeballs when I found you, you know,” he said.
“Ew.” Ryder immediately rubbed at her face. No blood. Her eyes stung. “I mean, hardcore, but super gross.”
Reyes raised an eyebrow. “So? You’ve obviously had another seizure, I can only assume either something went wrong with your AI and I should be taking you to a surgeon—or you did it on purpose and I should take you to a psychiatrist.”
“It’s helpful that Lexi is both,” Ryder acknowledged. Reyes was still glaring at her. She shifted her gaze, swallowing. It would be easier to spend time with him if she didn’t have to keep up the evasive maneuvers.
“So? Am I still dead in your visions?”
Ryder stared determinedly at the ceiling. “You don’t have to sound so flippant about it.”
Something flashed across his face. “Yes, then. Obviously. I’ve heard about your prediction matrix thing from one of your crew. So, what did you see? Who killed me?”
Ryder hesitated. She chewed the inside of her cheek and regarded him, wondering how long it would take for her to learn the trick to lying well. A lock of hair had broken free from the others, and swung now across his brow. Ryder reached up. She smoothed it back in place. She wanted to put everything back, just the way she found it.
“It was you,” she admitted. “You did it.”
It had been him—walking out of the shadows, old swagger, an echoed memory of the day he’d revealed himself as Charlatan, a pistol in his hand—shiny, silver and antique. A pistol her father had owned, a memento from some family member. It hadn’t made it to Andromeda. It was a pistol that could never kill him, only her own idea, her perception of what a pistol should look like. Ryder frowned.
Reyes snorted. “Oh. Well. That makes security pretty easy.”
“No—” she began to protest, throat closing. “You don’t understand. I don’t think it’s literal.”
But he was rising, brushing himself off. Dismissing her fear. “I’ve never been the suicidal type.” He fixed her with a hard look. “Can you say the same?”
Ryder stumbled to her feet, chasing after him. The cargo ship was unsteady, veering through tight canyons with old, hashed up tech. She had been spoiled by the Tempest. She needed to keep one hand on the wall—or maybe that was her own vertigo? “Reyes, wait!” she insisted. “I was wrong about the drug ring—”
“I know,” he interrupted. Why wouldn’t he look at her? She stared fixedly at the hard tendons of his neck, where the muscle met his hairline. Right there. She wanted to kiss him right there. But Reyes was still business, still talking. “Your crew’s been in touch. Those records you found check out. That base you found was run by criminals, but they’re hardly cultists. Your science officers seem to think that the drugs were purchased from the base you found and then modified by the cultists somehow. We’ve been cross-referencing the buyers while you recovered.”
Reyes, still angrily striding away from her, took several paces before turning. “What?”
She’d killed them. Not innocent. Deserving murder?
Ryder licked her lips, her heart suddenly pounding. “What about the bodies?”
“The bodies?” Reyes echoed. He frowned at her. “What bodies?”
“The chemists. The people at the base. I killed—three of them, maybe four.” Stop. Stop. Stop. Ryder took a breath. Even Addison would tell her, these things happened. People made mistakes, even Pathfinders. Let it go and move on. “I just—I just thought, maybe—” she trailed off, clamping her mouth shut. She thought what? That an exception should be made; that acknowledged criminals should be extracted from a lawless land just so they could be buried somewhere else? For what, her own childish sense of guilt? Ryder swallowed. “Nothing. Sorry.”
She wanted to put her armor on. With that determination, Ryder turned to leave him. She’d ask the pilots to drop her at their earliest convenience. She’d radio Gil, ask for an extraction—
Reyes caught her wrist. “Hey,” he said, more gently than she’d expected. Ryder held perfectly still, focused on making not one single noise. She felt, before he spoke, the slight shift of his grip, a loosening. “I want to surprise you,” he said. “Have you played the game where you close your eyes, and someone leads you to a present?”
Ryder sniffed. It was either sniffing or irreversible water damage at this point, and she really didn’t want to cry. “What kind of present?”
“A good one,” he promised.
She rubbed her face with her sleeve. There were a lot of things she wanted to say, but nothing seemed ready to come out. Instead she closed her eyes, and let him take her hands. She followed him, lurching with the ship, but somehow never stumbling into walls or tripping. After some time had passed and they’d made probably a shorter journey than she would have guessed, he helped her sit. Ryder spread her hands across the cool, flat surface in front of her. “Are we in the kitchen?”
“Are you feeding me?”
With her eyes still closed, Ryder laid her face against the countertop. It was cool, soothing against a face that felt so swollen, so damp. She’d absorbed her tears back into herself. She didn’t want to think about this anymore. “I can’t really cook,” she told him. “I guess most people can’t anymore. But my dad liked it. That surprises people. When he died I—there was this one thing he would make me on my birthdays. I mean, mine and Scott’s. I don’t know why he kept making it, it was this…I think it might have been Chinese, this kinda dumpling soup thing. Scott really liked it but I never finished mine. When he died I, um, I had another birthday and I kind of wanted to keep the tradition going. I wanted to make it again, but I couldn’t. I don’t know what it’s called.”
The chair across from her scraped back, and Ryder startled upright, her eyes flying open. Reyes froze, his arm outstretched. He’d been just about to press a mug of something brown into her hands. Ryder blushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to look.”
“It’s fine,” he shrugged her off. She drew the mug to her chest, sniffing. Something with booze. Something with fire, and chocolate. Reyes caught her eye and smiled. “What my father made me. So I’d shut up and sleep.”
Ryder started to laugh, and then quickly stopped herself. She sounded awful, like someone about to have a nervous breakdown. “Thanks,” she rasped, and took a quick sip. And then a big one. She hadn’t realized she’d been freezing.
“Let’s stop splitting up,” Reyes said. She looked up at him, still clutching her mug. He shrugged. “I mean it. Let’s just stop. You’re here, I’m here. You can’t order me away like you can with everyone else, so at least someone will be around to watch you rampage.” He shrugged again, now with an odd, dismissive gesture. “I don’t want to fight anymore. You’ll do what you want.”
She looked down into her mug. “I’d like that.”
“My brother probably won’t.” Ryder muttered, more to herself.
Reyes leaned across the table, face intent. “So what? You’re the Pathfinder, not him. I know you want to help people, but you’ve gotta stop taking their shit. You’ve earned your title. You’ve done so much—too much. In fact, I think you should step back. Let people figure things out on their own for once, or at least stop doing everything by yourself.”
She finished her spiked hot chocolate. There wasn’t anything else left for her to hide behind. “I know, Reyes,” she admitted, her voice shrinking. “I know. I get it. I’m tried of it too. But I just…can’t. I can’t let go yet. I just don’t want something bad to happen. I don’t want to fail.”
“You won’t. You can’t. You’ve already succeeded. Look at what you’ve done.”
“I don’t want to be—just, you know, some girl with the famous dad who fucked everything up. You know, I—I didn’t really want to come to Andromeda. I guess not that much was happening for me in the Milky Way. I was just, you know, normal. I’d just finished school, my military training. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do next but I—I had friends and, like, a favorite bar. I had things. I wanted adventure but I didn’t—I mean, Andromeda’s so…so far. There’s adventure and then there’s…I don’t know. I didn’t want to leave everything behind. But my dad did. For him, he took off the past like it was nothing, like a…like a shrug.” Ryder stopped. She felt uncomfortable, the way he was looking at her. He wasn’t smiling. She’d spent so much time wishing he’d take her seriously, only to discover how much harder it became when he actually did. She started speaking to her toes.
“I found out later that there was…some shit going down. Some war I didn’t know about. But he didn’t tell me. He didn’t tell me any of that. He told my brother and me that he’d signed up as Pathfinder for the Andromeda Initiative, and Scott said he’d go, like no hesitation. Plus, mom had just died, so, I—what the hell was I supposed to do? I had to go. I would have followed them anywhere.”
Reyes nodded. She could just see the bottom of his chin, the edge of his sympathy. “When I got in the cryo pod, I thought maybe I’d never wake up,” she admitted. “I guess lots of people did. Some of them were right. Even then, I followed them.”
“I’d say it worked out okay,” Reyes said. Her shoulder twitched, rather than shrugged.
“Yeah. I guess.” Her dad was dead. Ryder swallowed. “I can’t really remember it, honestly. Before. Do you ever feel that way? We haven’t even been in Andromeda that long but sometimes…sometimes I wonder if the person I was before just disappeared when I became the Pathfinder. I know that sounds dramatic. Sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a bummer.”
She couldn’t look at him. She’d felt less exposed with his head between her thighs, and she could feel him now as he watched her, the weight of his gaze, the way he saw everything. She wanted to evaporate.
His hand curled around hers, pulling. She let herself hide against him, let him pull her upright. He twirled her slowly around, and when she was at last brave enough to face him, the look on his face was almost gentle.
“Do you remember the first time we did this?” he asked. She rested her cheek on his shoulder as they drifted, now hardly moving. She felt heavy, her body handing loosely from its spine as she swayed with him, puppet-like. Back and forth and back, hypnotic, the swing that was used to put babies to sleep.
“Of course I remember,” Ryder murmured. “Why did you think I could forget?”
He held her back, her hip. Not enough. “You’re a busy woman. I would never be so arrogant.”
“Shut up,” Ryder grumbled. They held each other, still gently moving, and she breathed carefully, trying to pull out the smell of his neck. “I thought you were kind of corny.” She admitted. “It made me let my guard down. But then I wondered if maybe that was the point, if it was a feint.”
“Why, because I did the things you wanted?”
Ryder narrowed her eyes. “Exactly.”
Reyes laughed. There was a longer pause than Ryder expected, one full of his indecision. Finally, he said, “It’s true. I was corny. I wanted to try being different.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. He pulled her hair tie, dragged it loose. He considered her, for so long she began to blush. “Maybe I should say this makes you look softer. But you know, it doesn’t. You’re still the same.” He brushed a few strands behind her ear. She hadn’t known they could feel so sensitive, so nervous. She had thought that she’d feel differently about him once they’d had sex, but that wasn’t true. She still didn’t know him at all.
“You’re always talking about being different. About changing,” Ryder noted. She asked, knowing he wouldn’t tell her, “Why?”
Sometimes, his eyes looked green. They did now. His head bent, and he kissed her. She would never get used to him. She kissed him back, trying to soak her way inside. She could feel herself coming up short, tripping over some hidden wire. She couldn’t tell who or what was responsible anymore, who was to blame, she could only keep trying to force her way through.
“It’s because I hate the idea of destiny,” he whispered in her ear. “Because if that’s true, then what’s the fucking point? Why are we even alive? My life was supposed to be something very different. You, too. We became different people, when we came to Andromeda. Nothing was certain. Everything could be chosen. And I want you to choose me, a person you should never have met. Choose me anyway.”
Her world, in that second, became they point of a dreidel. The universe could only spin around them, and he was right there at her center, unmoving. Ryder swallowed, her lips parting, because even as her head became perfectly empty, even as something unnamed shook within her, she knew that she had to—she had to say something—
His hand covered her mouth, catching the little noise she had started to make. Reyes was looking down at her, with an unyielding intensity. “Or don’t. But stop trying to see the future. Stop believing that there’s only one outcome. It’ll be okay. And more than that, I don’t want to see you hurt like that again. Trust me. We’ll find a way. Trust me.”
He didn’t lower his hand. His palm was warm, a little chapped. He wouldn’t let go until she nodded. She didn’t want him to let go at all.
Chapter 6: Papissa Joanna
As always, I am very grateful for those who continue to comment, support, and…uh…patron my arts? Ew. Thanks to AgathaCrispy for edits!
Ryder poked at her omni-tool again, hopefully. No reception. Damn.
Pathfinder, it seems likely that the canyon walls are interfering with our communications.
Brilliant. Ryder glanced back and around. Reyes had wandered back into the ship, likely doing something nefarious, but his pilots remained busy at the bridge. She cleared her throat. “Hey. Do you know when the signal will be back up?”
One pilot glanced back. She had neat, aqua dreadlocks. “You mean for private calls? We’re cloaked until arrival. Security concerns. We should arrive in about half an hour.”
“Oh. Bummer. Okay, thanks—” Ryder paused suddenly. Reyes had definitely been messaging someone earlier. “What about Reyes?”
The pilot shrugged. “Him? He’s always got some new tech. Loves his gadgets. Not sure where he gets it. Told me he built it himself when I asked once…don’t really buy it. Probably keeps a gang of Salarians locked in a basement somewhere.” She grinned. Her teeth were shiny, bolted with silver. She glanced at her screens, then nodded politely at Ryder before returning to her work.
Ryder scowled. Her omni-tool was top of the market caliber, the best money could buy. She hadn’t paid much attention to tech before, but she had a hunch that if the Collective had better tech than the Initiative, her engineers seriously needed to get their asses in gear.
She marched back into the ship, searching the rooms randomly.
Ryder spun, grabbing his wrist. “Let me scan your omni-tool.”
“Why, jealous?” He lifted his arm away from her, catching her around the waist and pulling her forwards. “It’s pretty good, one of its kind. But I could make you a copy if you asked me nicely.”
Ryder narrowed her eyes. “Oh, can you?” She tried sneakily scanning his device and was easily blocked.
Reyes shrugged, now pinning her arms. “I like building things. Just a hobby.” He grinned into her seething face. “You’re cute. Very fiery. I like this.”
All Initiative engineers were officially fired. Ryder wriggled around, trying to look fierce. “Is this how you became so successful? This whole time, you’ve secretly been a gadget nerd?”
“Did you think it was all good looks and ruthless deception?”
“Yes.” She perked onto her toes, so their noses were tip-to-tip. His gaze faltered for a moment, surprised by her, and she let her weight sag forward so he was forced to catch her more tightly. She kissed him quickly. “Got you.”
He laughed a little breathlessly. “What’s gotten into you?”
“You. You like me. I make you nervous,” she told him, with glee. Reyes blinked.
“Did I forget to tell you?”
“You told me. I just didn’t really believe you.” She snuggled into him. “Don’t look at me.”
His hand found her ponytail, and tugged. She stayed resolutely hidden, as the pressure increased, as his voice began coaxing her, “Hey. Don’t get all shy now—”
The intercom buzzed suddenly to life, and the pilot from earlier announced over speaker, “Docking at Kadara Port, everyone hold on—”
They were too tangled together. Upon the abrupt docking, they both lurched into the wall, hips banging painfully against the hand rail. Ryder’s eyes smarted, her wrist and hand had both been smashed beneath his shoulder. “Ugh. Ryder down.”
“Sorry,” Reyes laughed, already helping to steady her. “Sorry,” he said again. “Dezzie likes a quick landing. I should have warned you. Where were we?” He reached for her face, and Ryder ducked away, her shyness returning.
He clicked his tongue, following her back towards the bridge. “You’re lucky I’m patient.”
She hit the outer door’s access button. “Are you?” She glanced back at him, and he wrapped an arm over and around her shoulders, catching her jaw so she remained angled towards him. He kissed her deeply, confidently, until she was leaning back into him and dizzy. And then he let her go.
“Not really,” he said. He wasn’t smiling. “Actually, I’m not patient at all.”
Ryder’s lips parted just as the doors slid back, and she was ready for him this time, she was going to answer—
“Hey,” said Scott, and Ryder’s stomach iced over. She swiveled, staring. Her twin waited at the end of the ramp, his arms crossed. She thought she felt Reyes’ arm clench a little. As discreetly as she was able, Ryder slid his arm off of her.
“Hey,” she returned. Casually. “Scott, have you met—? Okay, okay, nevermind, great.” Scott had already stalked away. Ryder glanced apologetically at Reyes.
“He’s very dramatic.” She whispered. “Of my immediate family, I would like to say that you really lucked out with me. Compared to the rest of them, I am extremely low maintenance.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Reyes said, rather pointedly. It wouldn’t have stung if he hadn’t spent the last week saving her ass, a pattern Ryder strongly disapproved of and would be re-evaluating, as opportunities arose.
Ryder suppressed her urge to reveal all the shit her brother had pulled over the course of their lives together. Suffice to say, there was a lot of shit. “I should probably go talk to him.” As though Scott hadn’t made that clear by stopping less than fifty feet away, sulking around some crates. Reyes looked as though he were trying not to laugh.
“I’ll wait for you. Don’t leave without saying goodbye.”
Ryder nodded. “Right. Because we’re doing things together now.”
“Don’t forget,” Reyes called after her, as she jogged down the ramp. Scott pulled a nasty face as she approached, one she couldn’t help but return. They’d been running this routine for about twenty years now. It was hard to break old habits.
“Hey ugly,” Scott greeted.
“Moron,” Ryder returned. “You found me quick.”
“SAM let me know you were headed back to Port before coms were cut.” Scott shrugged. “I guess our link’s still open. Anyway, I’m here to collect you. You’re welcome. You look like shit, by the way.”
Absently, Ryder’s hand drifted up to her face. “Yeah. I kicked some ass.”
“Doesn’t look that way.” Scott glared at her. “SAM also told me you ran your dump of an astrology program again.”
What a fucking snitch. Words would be exchanged about this later. Ryder rolled her eyes. “Yeah, and did he also tell you that his combat program turns me into a God of War? Quit harping.”
“There’s literally like no part of you that isn’t beat to shit.” Scott sniped, before whispering, “God of War,” in an unnecessarily scathing tone. Ryder crossed her arms.
“Well fuck, Scott, sorry not all of us get to be born with perfect reflexes, must be my recessive genes or something.” She was laying on the sarcasm a little thicker than she had planned, but Scott was matching her, step for step. Why did they always fight?
“We have the same genes. We’re twins.”
“Right. Thanks for the biology lesson,” Ryder muttered. She glanced back at the ship. Reyes was turned away from her, discussing something with his crew. She hoped he hadn’t been able to hear her conversation and its exhausting pettiness. Even she was embarrassed. She turned back to Scott, his familiar features. Maybe her only family, if her mother never woke up.
They didn’t look that alike. It didn’t matter. Ryder smiled. “This is dumb. Dad would tell us we were being dumb.”
After a moment, Scott smiled awkwardly back at her. “That was about the extent of his emotional interventions, yeah.”
Ryder wrinkled her nose. “Whatever, you had it way better. You didn’t ever fuck up.”
Scott just stared at her. “What are you talking about?”
Ryder waved an arm, trying to flap away the emotional baggage she’d just dumped into their conversation. “Nothing. You know. You and dad.”
“What about me and dad?”
“Just.” Was he glaring at her? Ryder looked away. Unexpectedly, her throat had begun to close up. She squeaked a little when she said. “You know. You and dad. You were close. And you were, you know, you were a better soldier than I was. Am. If you’d woken up from your coma on schedule, if—maybe if you’d been on the mission—”
“What, dad would still be alive?” Scott snorted. Then he shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think there was anything you could have done differently. Don’t think like that, you’ll go crazy.”
“No, I meant—I meant, I think he’d have chosen you as Pathfinder. I think you’d have done a better job. I don’t know. I don’t want to make this a big thing. You’re right, what happened, happened.”
She tried to walk away, to just get some distance from a conversation she hadn’t meant to make so emotional, but Scott checked her path, and jabbed an angry finger against her collar. “What kind of stupid shit is that? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life, and I used to read your diary.”
Ryder bared her teeth, her face flaming. “Okay, I get it! I’ll quit whining!” She took it all back. Brothers were seriously the worst.
Scott was making an extremely unattractive face, in her opinion. “You’re so fucking annoying. I actually, intensely, wish I could just beat you up right now, except you’re already injured everywhere. Pathfinder my ass. You seriously think dad would have picked me? Because I can fight better?”
“Shut up.” She side-stepped him. Note to self: never confide in blood relatives. “Good to see your emotional illiteracy has lived to fight another day.”
“That’s what dad said too,” Scott yelled behind her. “And you’re an idiot for not figuring that one out, Sara! Pathfinders don’t need to shoot guns, they need to find a way forward when everything else is fucked.”
“I hate you!” she screamed back, which was maybe not that mature but also: fuck Scott. Her shriek did not go un-noticed. From across the clearing, Reyes and his crew were watching, with some concern, as she forced her appearance back to calmness. Sibling squabbles should be checked at the door. She took a deep breath, and then about four more. “Okay. I don’t hate you. You’re my brother and I love you. Sorry.”
Scott snorted. “Are you telling me or yourself?”
“Fuck off,” Ryder snapped. Scott grinned. This was officially the worst conversation to have in front of a romantic interest. Ryder squeezed her eyes closed. “Ugh. Ugh. Ignoring you. Tell me my extremely capable and talented crew has made headway. I’m betting at least two new couples?”
“What?” Scott looked taken aback. “New couples?”
Oblivious idiot. “Never mind. Crime scenes, drugs. Our investigation. Did you find anything?” she asked, hoping for at least vindication.
Scott grimaced. “Yes.”
She swung around him, trying to corner his expression into telling her more. “Yeah? And?”
Scott gave a disgusted sigh. “Look. Your drug base.”
“There’s a lot of them. A lot. It’s not surprising you found one so easily.”
Ryder, now having flashbacks of her very inelegant cliff scramble, wanted to object to his use of the word ‘easily.’ Perhaps later. “And—they’re all on PX9…uh.”
“PX92230. And yes, they are, with some expected variations across strains. Which implies that there’s no branding or organization across sellers which, once we looked into it, turned out to be true.” Scott was rubbing at the early wrinkle developing between his brows. “They’re all small, independent sellers. Like people growing pot in their basements.”
Shit. Ryder strongly preferred the scenario where there was one bad guy. Extra points for clear DNA trails. She watched as Scott continued ironing his face, now wondering if she was growing some wrinkles of her own. “Okay. So. The drugs are a dead end.”
Scott growled a little. “Ugh. Do you get headaches?”
“Like all the time.”
“Me too. We should go to a doctor.”
Ryder huffed a little. “Scott, we don’t have a pre-existing condition. We have annoyingly high-achieving parents who died and dumped all their shit on us.” She winced as Scott punched her viciously in the shoulder. “Ow, alright! I’m an insensitive shrew!”
Scott glared for another moment, sternness emanating from every pore. Nursing her shoulder, Ryder privately thought that Scott might be more accustomed to her way of thinking if he saw how old he looked just then. “The drugs are more than a dead end.” Scott revealed. “This whole thing is bullshit. Unmanageable. It’s like the old war on drugs all over again.”
Ryder blinked. “Fine, so let them have their drugs. I just want to stop whoever’s landscaping with body parts.”
“No,” Scott said, sounding annoyed, “You don’t get it. That won’t solve anything.”
“I seriously beg to differ.”
“Sara, it’s not just one group.” Scott rolled up to his feet. “Listen. The exiles came out of stasis early, right? And then there was a meltdown within command, people didn’t get the psych treatment they needed. So they revolted, came out to Kadara with their manic depression and bi-polar disorder and anxiety and fuck knows what else—things they didn’t even have before stasis, things that happened because it turns out freezing someone for six hundred years isn’t great for their health, who knew. So now we have a bunch of people with mental health stuff that they don’t know how to deal with.”
“We’ve seen that before—Lexi was able to treat them—”
“No. Listen. They already treated themselves.” Scott was growing more agitated as he explained, beginning to pace. “They’ve been treating themselves with PX92230 except, which works fine in theory, expect that it’s got the potential to be crazy addictive, and loses its effect over time. We thought they were inducing a manic state, but actually, they were just trying to get out of bed in the morning.”
Ryder groaned. “Oh. Awesome. So I need a massive rehab program—”
“No. Because this isn’t your issue. I mean it is, but not in the way you think.” Scott abruptly stopped moving. He sort of hung in space, swaying on the point of taking another step, but not committing. Ryder wasn’t sure about the expression he was making – the odd, restrained sadness of it. “Look,” Scott said, finally. “It’s the kids.”
Ryder stared at him. “The dead kids?”
“Yes. I mean, no.” Scott sighed. “Lexi and Suvi went over the coroner’s notes. The victims all have traces of the drug, but…it’s not enough. So Suvi had an idea. When we factor in the chemical imbalances that were already present, the treatment becomes ineffective. For adults, their addictions are just a big secret no one wants to talk about. For kids—well, no one wants to drug up their kids. In fact, the drugs in their system wouldn’t have been nearly enough, if they’d reached a true psychotic state.”
Ryder stared at her brother. She had heard him, the words he was saying, but none of it—none of it made sense to her—
SAM flickered, at the back of her mind, whirling composites and threads and lost tangents into place. The Green Man, the god Dionysus, the circles and the rituals and the savagery, the blood, the missing element she kept returning to, wondering how does sex fit in, where’s the pervert doing this for a release?—and finding none, over and over again. But of course a child wouldn’t kill for a sexual motive, a child had no concept of such things, only a pure and surreal brutality, a fever dream brought about by fairy tales and stories and adventure, a chemical scrambling in a developing mind. Parents too stressed or too distracted or too dead to help them.
Myths were simple. The same story, the same patterns. A thousand Gods of Death. The things that children learned in grade school.
“No.” Ryder said.
“You know it makes sense,” Scott said. He looked almost sorry. “We’ve seen them. All this time. Gangs of kids. It’s likely not all of them need treatment—the Angara children, for one, they never even went through cryo—but they’re impressionable. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine them sucked into a group hallucination.”
She felt like she was having a panic attack. Ryder swallowed, once, then twice—she couldn’t think. She couldn’t shoot children.
“Do we have a plan?”
“Verify it.” Scott shrugged. “I’ve already authorized it. Figured there was no harm in checking. Lexi’s going to start doing diagnostics this afternoon, check blood work against brain scans. We’ll know soon.”
Ryder nodded. She felt worse than useless. She inhaled, held it. “Okay,” she managed, air squeaking against full lungs. She blew out. “Okay. Sorry. It’s just, you now. Jesus.”
“Yeah.” She slapped her hands absently against her thighs. Battery, battery. “Okay. I’ll head back with you. We need to regroup. Let me tell Reyes.”
Scott made a face, ready to argue, and so Ryder walked away a little faster than she might have done otherwise. Fuck. Fuck. Reyes had already seen her return, was motioning for his pilots to take a walk. He smiled at her.
“Yeah. Uh, yeah.” Ryder combed her fingers back through her bangs, held them there, yanking against her own scalp. “The worst possible news.” She told him, wrapping up with, “I need to get back to the Tempest. If this turns out to be true—I need to do something. Take emergency measures.” She hesitated. “I’m—I’m sorry. I know you wanted us to stay together. I did, too.”
He was still, arms crossed, gaze lowered. “No worries. We work on different sides of the law.” His gaze shifted for a second. “Your brother and you. You’re similar. Same nasty glare.”
“I don’t glare.”
“Hm,” was his comment. He was still watching Scott, absently rubbing his chin. “Be careful, Sara.”
She flushed a little. He didn’t call her by name often. “I’m always careful.”
“I don’t buy it.” Reyes shrugged. “Okay, sure. Everyone’s getting high on Kadara. We knew that. Cryo messes people up – also knew that. Your entire scenario sounds plausible enough, but I still think there’s something missing. I should have known about this. The fact that I didn’t means someone’s working pretty hard to keep me in the dark.” His gaze shifted back to her, a delicate frown pinching the edges of his eyes, narrowing his focus.
“What?” She’d meant to leave. There was something ugly lurking just beneath the surface now, something that twisted inward and away from her. In an effort to reach it, she flattened one hand against his chest. “What?”
And in less than a second he’d shaken it away. “Nothing. You should get back to your brother before he actually shoots me.”
“Don’t do that,” she protested. “Whatever it is, I can handle it. Please trust me.”
He looked down at her hand. Slowly, his own came to rest over hers. “You know what?” he laughed a little. “I actually do. See you soon.” Before she could say anything else, his face bent towards her and he kissed her again, longer than she’d anticipated.
And then he turned, and walked back on his ship.
She watched him leave, an uneasy clench still kicking nervously though her stomach. A feeling, a fear, as though maybe she wouldn’t see him again. She held herself still, her body poised as though tied to thousands of invisible strings, uncertain what reaction would occur by her hand lifting, her feet moving to take their next step.
And then Scott’s hand fell on her shoulder. And she turned back.
“Come on,” Scott insisted. “We gotta move.”
“Right,” Ryder agreed. The engines engaged on the cargo ship behind her, as Reyes and his crew pushed off. She didn’t turn around. She didn’t want to watch him leave.
Keema had left the Collective’s Base at Kadara Port behind her for a more secure, less obvious facility. She still had an overly dramatic chair to sit in, there were still steps that separated her from the rabble that would kneel in attendance. Reyes climbed the stairs, while she waved her bodyguards out of the room. He briefed her on the Pathfinder’s suspicions, the Initiative’s likely next moves. She listened well, interrupting only once or twice to clarify a detail. When he’d finished, she sat for a long while in contemplative silence.
Finally, she looked at him. “Tell me honestly,” Keema began. “Your best judgment. How many number among those who would use this distraction as a pretext to seize power? You and I both know that curing this sickness won’t be enough. It’s been too elegantly leveraged.”
Reyes paced, tallying the cartels, the murder sites, the supply lines and the guards and the children and the—
“At least a hundred.”
“Not a lot.”
“Up to thousands,” he admitted. He made himself face her. Funny, how much Keema’s approval had begun to matter, at some point. Her bright, gleaming eyes stared back at him, only listening.
“The problem, you realize, is not that they may number in the thousands. The problem is that you have no idea.”
“It’s—catching.” Reyes struggled to explain. “The idea that anyone could be the Charlatan. That no one is the Charlatan. I don’t know, it’s gone past just anarchy, more towards something like madness.” He laughed shortly. “I should have come down on them harder. I should have made an example.”
“It’s done,” Keema cut in. “You aren’t that person. It doesn’t matter now, anyway.” She was looking through him, her eyes glassy. Slowly, her head began to shake, to deny. Somewhere, a gear was turning, a wheel spun. Somewhere, the beast woke up, the star ended. Keema drew in a breath, her body braced, her hand tracing the fresh scar tissue her body had worked so hard to produce, the hole it had closed in her shoulder. “I see,” Keema said, and nothing more. There was something there, some new wall between them. Reyes had never gone so far as to trust Keema with his life, but he’d trusted in her gambling spirit, her flair for opulence, posturing.
Now, she flinched.
“What?” he demanded. “Or are you waiting for me to leave the room before you divulge it all to the cameras?”
Keema’s fingers—her nails—traced light, careful patterns over her injury. “We’re over,” Keema said simply. She faced him. “The Charlatan. It’s over. We need to get out, now.”
“Before it’s too late?” Reyes mocked. He laughed tightly. “I didn’t know you were scared of ghosts.”
“Nothing kills a ghost,” Keema said, flat. “Did you know, the Angara have ghosts too? Human, Asari, Turian…it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a ghost. I think it’s because everyone knows they should be afraid, because there is nothing better at scaring children than something that doesn’t quite exist.” Her dreamy reflection broke, she faced him. “I was your face. The people know me as the Charlatan. Many assume I know who he actually is.”
“Not to sound glib, but you’ve never fled because of an assassination attempt before—”
Keema interrupted him, now rising from her seat, turning, turning. She spun out of orbit, dislodged. “Death is a fact. Fine, I accept death. A ghost doesn’t.”
Reyes frowned, following her from her audience hall, down the narrow passage. She lived and ruled Kadara as a queen might. “You’re getting in the way of your own metaphors.”
“I’m saying we’ve lost.” Keema snapped. “We went about it all wrong. Authority cannot be faceless while remaining illegitimate. We were wrong. We were strong as usurpers, not as rulers. It’s done. This isn’t a scenario where two Charlatans duke it out for the title—that’s over. Now there are three, thirty, a thousand Charlatans. It will never end. Not until the Initiative blows through us, until we’re all dust.” She was stripping off her jewelry, her beautiful clothes. He watched as she pulled on a set of dark, dusty fatigues. Her face seemed to shift, becoming something wary and old. She faced him, a shadow of Keema. “I’m not afraid of dying. But I’m not going out for no reason. When something’s over, you change or you get left behind to die with it.”
He walked her to the door. “So that’s it?”
Keema glanced at him, smiling wryly. Her face became her own again. “Darling, don’t be ridiculous. I’m not the type to stay quiet for long.” She clasped his hand. “Be well, my friend. Let go of your anger, and your Pathfinder. Both of them will kill you.” She turned to leave, her carriage graceful in spite of her ragged attire.
“That’s funny,” Reyes said mildly. “It seems more likely that you will.”
“You lied to me,” Reyes said. “You knew the rituals were performed by children. In fact—it’s too much. Theatrical. Someone planted the seed. Someone put the idea in their heads. Someone wanted to make such a spectacle of things that there would be no choice but to investigate it. The only thing I can’t figure out, is why?”
She’d turned to face him now, her expression cool, noncommittal. Reyes breathed a soft laugh, his chest tightening. He felt the stirrings of the sort of fury that could make a person crush a wine glass with their bare hands, and feel nothing. “Was it you? It doesn’t matter, really. You collaborated, either way.”
Still, nothing. An almost beautiful emptiness. Slowly, Keema spoke. “It was never about you, darling. You must realize that.”
“Don’t.” Reyes whispered. He folded his rage, like a blanket. He packed it away. Keema only watched him, waiting.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked.
“Tell me why,” Reyes insisted instead. “Why you went behind my back. Why you destroyed us.” He wasn’t as perfect as he would have liked. He couldn’t stop himself from slamming the door she’d tried to walk through.
Finally, finally, Keema faced him fully, a sort of challenge growing, blossoming across her face. “Because you fell in love with the Pathfinder,” she said. “Because you won’t let her die. And the universe needs her to. She’s too powerful for the Initiative, for Aya, for us. She’s more powerful than all the other Pathfinders put together and nobody can figure out why, or how, but it doesn’t matter because her decisions have written the rules for the entire galaxy.” Keema’s face began to quiver as she spoke, her eyes widening, dilating. “Step back from this, Reyes! You know it’s true!”
The story was locking into place. The trap that Ryder couldn’t resist, the danger she would ignore every time. And he was the bait. And he hadn’t realized, because he’d been stupid enough to believe that the rest of the galaxy was in awe of her as he was. And time was running out. “The Kett are still out there,” Reyes argued, whether to Keema or the universe, he wasn’t sure. “And worse. And everything—we have no idea what’s coming next, but the Pathfinder is our best hope—”
“I could smack you!” Keema hissed. “The Pathfinder is a hero, Reyes. She presides over this galaxy like a God, her decisions become absolute. Eventually, the Initiative and its allies will turn against her. Every hero must die, or else their legends will crush the people who stand near them. This is why I couldn’t tell you. This is why! She has warped you with idealism, when you were never a good man. You lose all objectivity!”
In less than a second he had her against the wall with an automatic pistol jammed against her throat, the blood roaring in his ears, deafening him, adrenaline spiking his vision up to its maximum capacity, so that every nervous twitch or shudder that Keema’s face suffered became prolonged, almost indecently slowed. He could kill her. He should kill her, the viper, the—
“She’s going to die. And you made me the reason why,” he said. He was careful, enunciating each word. Almost calm.
“I did nothing,” Keema whispered. “The galaxy is the one who betrayed her. You were the one who made her fall for you. There was always going to be an explosion, one way or the other. All I did, was get out of the way.”
As the seconds ticked hollowly on, and Reyes stared into the face of the Angara he’d trusted, so implicitly, so stupidly—he realized, it was true. It was all true.
He let her go. Keema, massaging where he’d held her neck, took a wary step back. She reached for the door. “For what it’s worth,” she coughed, voice hoarse from abuse and emotion. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want this to happen.”
“Just get out.” Reyes said. He went on staring blankly ahead, as she closed the door behind her.
The results were conclusive.
“So,” Suvi began breathlessly, “We were lucky. That victim whose tissue samples you collected was human. My specialty.”
“Mine too,” Lexi chimed in, almost happily. Ryder couldn’t quite contain her puzzled stare. Lexi blushed. “I—that is, I rather like human anatomy.”
“It’s gorgeous,” Suvi said, with the decadent relish most people reserved for describing double chocolate cake. “I’m especially interested in natural mutations. Webbed feet. Very cute.”
God these people were weird. Ryder focused on the projection of an adolescent brain, pieced apart and cleanly labeled. “So? What can you tell me?”
“Oh, right.” Suvi zoomed on the frontal lobe. “Well. Based on our chemical analysis of the victim’s brain tissue, our theory holds ground. Her neurotransmitters were all over the place, highly saturated. Her symptoms were likely similar to someone living with a severe form of schizophrenia – likely with massive audio and visual hallucinations. So, yes, someone with these symptoms, who is young enough to have only a tenuous grasp of morality, and existing in an extremely malleable stage of development—frankly, it’s very hard to imagine another scenario, at this point.”
Ryder blew up her cheeks, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Lexi laid a hand on her arm. “Ryder. None of this is your fault. But we need to act, and we need to act quickly. There is a massive population here that desperately need psychological treatment – we must establish programs from those people struggling with addiction, I would also recommend—”
“Yes.” Ryder interrupted. “All of that. Yes. Write the report, I’ll submit it with my full support. We’re going to need Initiative resources.”
“If they’ll agree to part with them,” Kallo mumbled. He rose from his seat at the bridge and move back to join their conference. Suvi frowned.
“These are children. Children who were essentially dragged in and out of cryo by their families. They haven’t made any decisions that might harm the Initiative—”
“I hope Tann will see it that way,” Kallo murmured. “The political situation on Kadara has grown too unstable. If he agrees he’s going to want a full surrender of authority.”
Ryder’s teeth ground together. The ugly thought that had been lurking at the back of her head. “Maybe we could act as a mediator—”
Lexi’s hand slammed down on the table, and she bolted straight up from her seat. “You cannot possibly think that anything is more important than helping these people! Who cares about the ruler of a stupid little rock when there are lives on the line?”
Ryder cringed. “I know, I’m just—”
But now it was Suvi’s turn to lay a gentle hand across Ryder’s, as she huskily murmured, “Ryder, we cannot ignore this any longer. You know it’s true. The situation is too unstable on Kadara Port in the hands of its acting authorities. I’m not saying that Tann or the Initiative are perfect, but what our people need now is order. And that means an authority figure that can be held accountable.”
“Not some weasel doing whatever they want in the shadows,” Kallo muttered. He looked startled by his own rebellion.
Ryder swallowed again, “Look I hear you, I agree with you, I’m just wondering if this is really the best solution—”
“Probably not,” Scott spoke from the doorway, and Ryder spun around to face her brother. She wanted to order him out, to point out that this meeting was for officers only, but Scott had already taken a seat at their table. He glanced at Ryder, at all of them. “There’s a reason Tann was an accountant, not a leader. He’s not likeable. He inspires no one. But he isn’t evil, and he’s mostly fair, and he has the resources these people need. And realistically, now that we know the cause, it’s only a matter of time until knowledge spreads to the public. We risk appearing incompetent, or heartless. We can afford neither. Sara, you are holding a bomb.”
“Alright!” Ryder yelled. The room fell silent, staring at her. Her heart was pounding unnaturally fast, frighteningly fast. Pathfinder – find the way forward. No matter the cost. Forget everything else.
She grit her teeth. “Okay,” Ryder heard herself speaking, surprised at how calm she sounded. “You’re right. It’s out of my hands, out of control. We need more people. You’re right. You’re right. Get Tann on the line for me.”
Suvi glanced at Kallo, her chin shaking slightly. Kallo blinked, twice. “I—of course, Pathfinder. What are you going to say?”
Ryder sighed. “Don’t you get it? You’ve won. It’s over. I’m calling them in.”
Kallo opened his mouth to say more, but Suvi threw out a long arm, knocking him gently in the stomach. Her bridge crew nodded, their faces solemn, even sympathetic. Ryder allowed herself one long, aching sigh as she headed to the conference room, carefully avoiding thinking about any of the things she was about to admit to the Director.
The light was blinking, ready, screen prepped. Ryder huffed up her chest, squaring her shoulders. She could do this. She was ready. Her fingers, rather than accepting the computer’s prompt, squished into fists.
It was all just fucked.
She hit the call accept command, and Tann’s gaunt face assembled before her eyes. He wasn’t real. He was just a bunch of hyperactive pixels. Ryder cleared her throat. “Director Tann. I won’t waste your time. I need Nexus operatives.”
Tann was silent for a moment, watching her. “I see. Well, nothing’s solved by us blaming one another. I’ve been keeping an eye on reports submitted by Scott Ryder. I think I have a general idea of the situation, but I’ll need you to submit a formal summary of your own activity for my review. If you would include your recommendations for the placement and personnel dispatch you deem most prudent, I will take that into consideration while forming the task force.”
Ryder swallowed once, twice. “I understand. I’m hoping that the Initiative will see this as an opportunity to extend an invitation to our allies on Aya. Perhaps rather than a strict military occupation, we could instead work through trade embassies.”
Tann was silent, long finger steepling. “I understand your point. I will at the very least keep Aya briefed on current intelligence and operatives. But trade embassies…it will be difficult to make that happen, Ryder. I can’t say until I review the paperwork, but my initial answer is no.”
She swallowed her shame, her well-grown desire for punishment in the face of failure. This was about more than her, this was about innocent people. “There are thousands of civilians leading blameless lives here—”
Tann’s eyes suddenly glowed with an old, painful fury. “They are traitors and deserters, the utter antithesis of ‘blameless.’ If it weren’t for the Angara I would have blown up their operations cycles past—”
She ignored his venom, his uncharacteristic emotion. “You just said the Angara will be sympathetic to their own. How will it look if we abandon those deserters?”
“Justified.” Tann snapped. “The Angara are not idiots, for all their obsessive return to emotions. They approved the Roekarr’s executions without an ocean of tears. Don’t hide behind diplomacy when there is no need for it, Pathfinder. Submit your reports. Understand that this operation has been excused from your authority as Pathfinder—you will be expected to provide support to the Initiative as deemed appropriate and necessary. You do not act without my orders.”
There was a long silence. Ryder said, felt, did—nothing. She endured until it was over. Tann, a million miles away, had screwed up his lips, now looking faintly uncomfortable. She could see him coaxing himself into speaking. “Pathfinder,” Tann eventually said. “I was unprofessional. I apologize. I will not minimize your achievements. There is no shame in admitting that you lack the resources to achieve something. I hope we will be able to work together.”
He stopped again. Hollowly, Ryder realized that she was supposed to say something—something obsequious, subservient. She lacked the energy. “Me too, Director,” she managed, and cut the feed.
In the silence that followed Tann’s call, Ryder emptied herself. She let me mind cloud over, filled only with the gentle hum from the Tempest’s distant engines. She bowed her head, and bent at the waist to slump her body over the conference table. There was a strange, almost sharp pain digging into the muscles behind her left shoulder.
She wasn’t going to cry. If she cried, it was because she was frustrated. But she wasn’t going to cry.
“Damn,” Ryder whispered, and forced herself back upright, keying in Reyes’ number. The call she wanted to make even less. The one she would gladly run from forever.
He didn’t turn on his video, but his voice patched in, surrounding her, “Yes?”
Good. She didn’t want to see him. Even more, she didn’t want him see her. Did he sound off? It was probably just her nerves. Ryder wiped at her cheeks. “Hey. I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
Ryder swallowed. Her hands were shaking. All of her, actually. She trembled. “I called the Nexus. I don’t have authority over this investigation anymore. I’ll make recommendations for a limited, discreet operation—maybe the establishment of some trade embassies—but, but I don’t know. I don’t have any confidence that it’s going to fly. Tann hates the deserters, I think he’ll try for a full military operation.” She bit her tongue. If she apologized, she’d cry. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t tell him.
He didn’t answer her for so long that she began to wonder if he’d hung up on her, if that was it. The end, without apology. “Why?” Reyes asked. He sounded genuinely puzzled, almost innocent. Ryder squeezed her eyes closed. He couldn’t see her. She slid to the floor, her back curling tightly around the conference table’s leg.
“Because—” her voice was shaking. Ryder stopped, swallowing. “Because I can’t do it anymore. I can’t live with myself, knowing how terrible this investigation is, how badly I’ve compromised things. I can’t—I can’t just let things fall apart. I can’t keep letting people be turned into victims. I needed to admit that I couldn’t fix things the day I landed on Kadara, and I didn’t. I tried, but things just got worse, and that’s on me. It’s because I let my feelings for you get in the way of everything else. Even now, I’m still calling you—” she broke off, her heart racing. The water ran from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, the words slipping free from her. She loathed herself, her own contemptible weakness. She pressed a hand over her nose and mouth, and held her breath. In the silence, she shook.
She could hear Reyes sigh. His breathing. He listened. “I understand,” he said. His voice was gentle, too gentle. “Okay. I understand.”
She shook her head, not speaking.
He went on, now asking, “Are you leaving?”
“No. I’m supposed to stay on Kadara, support the Initiative’s efforts.”
“Does Tann know how dangerous it is? For you?” his voice got an edge, a lilt of accusation.
“What? I don’t know. Maybe. He said he was reading Scott’s reports.” Ryder wiped her eyes again. She pulled her knees up to her chest. “It doesn’t really matter. Dangerous or not, either way we have to deal with Kadara. Whether it’s dangerous for me or for someone else—well, it’s all the same, right?” A suspicious wiggle of a thought began to take form, then collapsed. She was too tired, too emotionally strained.
“It matters.” Reyes said, beginning to sound dangerously removed. Ryder closed her eyes. Her body sagged. She waited. He was requesting video feed—like hell. She denied, wiping the black smudges of her eye make-up, her stupid, shiny eye shadow turned to glittery muck. “I want to see you,” Reyes insisted.
“My connection stinks,” she lied.
“I mean in person. I want to talk. I have to tell you something.”
Ryder almost giggled. Her shoulders, at least, lurched up. “Are you going to shoot me? Like Sloane?”
“Don’t joke,” Reyes snapped. “Do you really think I’d shoot you?”
“I don’t know,” Ryder mumbled. She wasn’t sure she really cared either, right now. “Where? I’ll come alone. Bring your sniper if you want.”
There was a clicking, sort of snappy sound, teeth snapping together. “I mean it. Don’t joke about that.”
“Okay,” Ryder agreed, now with a wave of fresh despair. “I can do that.”
“I’m not angry,” he said, perhaps in response to her dulled voice. Ryder sniffled.
“You can be angry. I called the cops on your party.”
“It’s fine. It’s over anyway. I’ll explain later, I promise. Just let me see you.”
She was off the clock, anyway. Ryder hauled herself upright. “I can leave in half an hour. Send me the nav-point.” It was rude to break up over the phone, anyway. She at least owed him that. Or a chance on her life, which she also wouldn’t necessarily begrudge.
“Fly safe. And don't worry. It's going to be fine,” he said, and hung up.
Chapter 7: Koshchei
Notes: We’re still friends, right? Thanks as always to AgathaCrispy for being my beta and basically holding my hand, making me my own soundtrack, and otherwise stoking the embers of THIS FIRE!! That was gross but you get what I'm saying.
Warning: Tagging this chapter for sex. And death. Sex and death. Not at the same time, oh my GOD! After some getting some thoughtful feedback, I'd like to add that while I wouldn't consider the sex to be non-consensual, I WOULD call it rough, emotionally intense, with some very real power struggles going on. I'm going to take another look at it. But until, please scroll past if that's not your thing.
Ryder had been on her way to meet Reyes at yet another seedy, neon-lit bar when his location suddenly changed, and she diverted to the desert. This did not exactly instill any confidence in her own private estimation of how well this meeting was about to go.
She found his vehicle parked where his last nav-point had sent her, but apart from that, the wasteland stretched silently around, barren in the moonlight. She climbed out of the Nomad, tucking her helmet under her arm as she did. A little voice whispered that maybe she shouldn’t make it any easier on the sniper. “Hello?”
“Up here,” he called down. Ryder took an unsteady step back, squinting up at the dark sky.
“Here.” A light flashed, blinding her, but after a second her vision cleared and she was able to make out the faint outline of a jutting rock face, the sort of thing that Vetra was always happily scaling. Ryder trudged nearer, grumbling.
“You climbed this in the dark?”
“I have good eyes. Need a light?” He turned the beam back on, shining down the cliff’s edge for her. It was an easy climb, once she could see where she was supposed to stick her hands. Ryder hauled herself up to meet him, noting that he still bent to help pull her through the final scramble. Another point worth noting: nobody had met her with a shot to the head.
“Thanks,” she breathed. She’d left the helmet behind her. Reyes shrugged.
“My pleasure. We have a lot to talk about. I thought maybe, for once, we could go somewhere quiet. Avoid screaming at each other.”
The climb, the cold night air, made her sniffle. “Sure, yeah. I’m all for not bellowing the master plan.”
“Great.” Reyes said. He stopped. They stared awkwardly at the other, neither quite ready to breach what needed to be said.
“Do you, um,” Ryder paused, changed her mind. “Have you been drinking?”
“Can you smell it?” He sat, and almost magnetically, she followed him, throwing her legs out to dangle in the open air. It was a nice view, now that her eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting. Kadara’s naturally burnt, reddish soil became pinker in the moonlight, while the glacial blues of its waters grew still richer.
Tentatively, she leaned into his shoulder, and his arm shifted to wrap loosely around her. “I don’t know. I guess. You always smell like whiskey.”
He snorted. “I spend a lot of time in bars.”
“I know.” She let herself relax against him. “Whiskey and engines and aftershave. How classically masculine.”
He looked sideways at her, reaching back for the whiskey bottle she’d missed earlier. “I could say the same about you.”
“You rubbed off on me.”
“Oh, I see,” he laughed, offering her the bottle. She took a swig, held the hot, spicy liquor in her mouth. She swished it against her teeth, and swallowed. Terrible. Always so terrible. She surrendered the bottle back to him, watching him drink. There was a new thing to him, a sort of deliberate thoughtfulness. She felt, somehow, that she was fighting against something for his attention. A feeling she’d never had before.
He sipped again. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
Ryder glanced back at the landscape. “Yes. It is. Andromeda’s a beautiful place.”
“I don’t like Kadara that much,” Reyes said mildly. “Too many people. Too dirty. Even when we arrived, when it was just an Angaran outpost, it was ugly. Most people there don’t leave it, don’t see the rest of the planet. They’re afraid some of the outcasts will murder them.” He sipped again. And again. Like a man pushing down something.
Ryder cleared her throat. “I’m—look. I just—I’m sorry. That I called in the Nexus. I know it’s lame to say that and it doesn’t make anything better and you probably hate me. But I am. Sorry, I mean. I’m sorry. I don’t know what you want to do next but if—if you wanted to go back to the Initiative or, um, or maybe just a different colony, I can make that happen.”
Reyes stared at her, his expression vacant. He blinked. “Oh. That.”
Ryder stared. “That? What’s up with you?”
He passed back the bottle. “Nothing. Just trying to think things through. Keema’s out.”
His arm suddenly tightened around her. “Kiss me.”
“What?” Ryder squawked, and she scrambled to grab his shoulders as he suddenly faced her. “Wait, stop. What are you talking about?”
He leaned his forehead against hers, his eyes closing. “It doesn’t matter. Whether she’s out or not. It’s over, the Initiative’s coming in.”
“Stop.” Ryder snapped. He pulled away, eyes barely open. “Stop, and just explain this to me because I have no idea what’s going on anymore. Why aren’t you upset, why—?”
“The Initiative will come to Kadara Port. I assume they will forcibly assert control through military force. As you have already discovered, those who were negatively impacted by their time in stasis will receive the attention and treatment they rightfully deserve.” He spoke with an odd, almost lilting tone. Detached. He looked through her, the fingers of his left hand drumming absently on the ridge of her shoulder. She felt abandoned, and unable to articulate why.
Reyes was still speaking. “Kadara will change, of course. Clean up its act. I don’t know what that means for those whom the Initiative deems as ‘undesirables’ but—well, there isn’t a lot that I can do about that now—”
Ryder smacked his hand off her. That, at least, made something in his face flicker to life. “Don’t talk like that.”
“Like what?” he asked. Her stomach twisted.
“Like it’s…like it’s over. Like you don’t give a fuck. Just say that you’re angry at me, say it’s my fault. I get it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “It isn’t your fault.”
She turned away from him. She was so angry, it felt as though she could smash the rock they were sitting on with a single punch. Her teeth, jammed up, made an unpleasant, awful grind as she drew them together. “That’s fucked up,” Ryder whispered. She wanted to hit him. “Of course it’s my fault.”
He snorted, and she whirled on him, disbelieving as she snarled, “I get that I let you down. I get that I stabbed you in the back. But at least I was—at least I was honest and at least I took you seriously, so—so don’t. Don’t treat me like this.”
“No,” Reyes shook his head. He was smiling a weird, loose smile. “No, I’m not saying this right. Truly, it isn’t your fault. I blame you for nothing. This isn’t sarcasm.”
Ryder lurched up to the tipping point, balanced tenuously against her own weight, threatening to burst free and drop away from him. He caught her wrist and yanked her back, roughly enough that she tumbled into him. “Don’t go,” he said. “Don’t leave me just because you want to beat yourself up. Trust me. It’s okay.”
“It isn’t okay.” Ryder stressed, scrambling to right herself. “I—”
“Just stay with me,” he interrupted, sharper than before. “I’m done with the rest of it. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. Just stay with me tonight.”
“Why are you talking like that?!” Ryder almost screamed. He cupped her face, pulling her towards him. She punched his chest even as he kissed her. She was toppling backwards, hitting the ground behind her roughly, hard enough to force a puff of wind from her chest. He’d rolled on top of her, and his hands were gentle and his hands frightened her. “Stop,” she gasped, when he pulled away enough for her to breath.
“Are you afraid?”
“No.” She struggled with herself. “Maybe.”
His face was angled away from her, hiding his expression. He was looking at her body, the directions it could take. “Afraid of me? Afraid of what I could do?”
No. Her stomach twisted. She struggled and failed and struggled again to express herself, her unease. “Not like that. Don’t distract me.”
He looked at her, his expression oddly flat. Everything became flat, harder. His mouth barely moved as he said, “You should have been afraid a long time ago.”
Her eyes closed as he kissed her again, harder, with teeth and ugliness and even this was somehow not enough. She felt drained out and desperately empty and thrilled, as he always thrilled her. And afraid.
“You shouldn’t have treated me like I was your boyfriend. You shouldn’t have trusted me. You shouldn’t have thought that because I was nice to you, I actually wanted you to be happy.” Reyes insisted. He was unbuckling the things that kept her safe, the plates of armor and mesh and bravado. Ryder felt dizzy, almost intoxicated, almost too much. She wanted to tear at him, the way he did to her. Her body was buried beneath a mountain of water.
“You should have been more careful. You should be more careful.” He was still working, still pulling things away. His knuckle, his fingertip—something brushed the bared skin of her shoulder and she felt electrified, she felt him like never before.
“Why are you telling me this?” she managed to ask. She was too torn between bewilderment and indignation to have any sort of tone. “I mean it, where is this coming from?”
He hauled her upright, faster than she could brace herself, so that she was forced to sit unsteadily upright. He made a sound—an indescribable sound as remembered from childhood—and her arms lifted automatically in response. Her world went dark as he pulled her shirt over her head. And then she was free and the nights on Kadara were cold, freezing, her arms dropped across her chest for warmth more than anything else. She felt strange. She felt hurt.
Reyes sat back on his haunches, staring at her almost sadly. “You know these things. I don’t need to lecture you. Just this time, don’t ask questions. Just this time, trust me.”
She bit her lip. Sullenly, she mumbled, “You just told me not to.”
He started on her belt, her firearms. Could she kill him without a gun, with nothing but her bare hands and maybe a rock she’d picked up from the ground? She thought about it for a moment. He was a strong man. It would be hard.
In the moonlight, he was a mess of purple and blue shadows. Ryder shook her head, the fogginess. “Did you drug me? Did you drug the whiskey, somehow?”
“There’s nothing in there but alcohol.” He looked up at her, teeth flashing. “You see? My point exactly. You make yourself vulnerable.”
“Fine,” Ryder snapped, and she drew her limbs away from him—a movement intended as defensive, but unfortunately only resulted in her shedding the sleeves of her pant legs. “If you’re going to be all about boundaries then maybe I shouldn’t be naked. Just a thought.”
“I know,” Reyes muttered. He was stripping off his own shirt, pulling it roughly over his head. “You’ve sabotaged us.”
“Me?” Ryder squawked. But he’d dropped down to all fours, was crawling over her. She froze, quivering like some kind of prey-animal. Time seemed to slow, the way his fingers grazed up her flank, over the hurdles of her ribs. They watched his progress, together, until he had reached the hinge of her jaw, the soft part of her ear. She shivered away.
Reyes smiled. He still looked sad. “It’s like you said. Things will be different. I might have to hide for awhile, I might not be able to see you. I just want you to be careful.”
She laughed awkwardly, then wished she hadn’t. “I’m not exactly—I mean, I’m not helpless.”
“I drugged the whiskey.” Reyes said.
Ryder stared at him, awkward smile frozen across her face. His eyebrows raised. “You see? Nobody is invincible. Anyone can be betrayed. Stop looking so terrified, I was lying. You're fine.”
Indignant, Ryder smacked his shoulder. “I should have left earlier.”
“You should have never met me,” Reyes replied, just as fast. He had a habit, she was realizing, of sliding his hands to her throat. Of changing himself, trading a caress for a choke-hold. Maybe he had always been trying to warn her. Maybe she was as naïve as everyone—as even he—had told her.
She lay a hand against his wrist, to check the pressure, to pretend she was still in control. Panic beat against her rib cage, shaped like a bird. She was losing something, she knew. She was losing everything.
“It’ll be okay,” she told him, herself. His eyes were dark. She’d thought they were lighter than that—hazel, a little green. But they had always been dark. He hadn’t changed. “So the Collective goes down, that—that sucks. But you’re stronger than that, you can survive. You’ll hide. I’ll help you.”
“And would you wait for me? For years and years and years?” he sounded bitter, mocking. She didn’t know where he came from, she didn’t know what he believed. He was rubbing her back, pressing hard on her sternum, she lost track of what he was doing. Sometimes sexual, sometimes innocent, sometimes frightening. It blurred.
“Whatever,” she tried to bluster. “Like it’s so hard for me to keep busy.”
He smiled. He pushed her down, leaned over her.
“I love you,” she admitted. The confession tore itself from her. It had spent days or weeks or months marinating in the back of her throat, spinning, beating its knees against the gate like the racehorse that wanted only to run. She regretted it almost immediately, felt the shame wash up her like—like—
She kissed him, so she wouldn’t have to look at him anymore, so he wouldn’t have to answer her. She kissed him, resenting him for the silence she had inflicted. She kissed him, hating herself. She kissed him.
She kissed him breathlessly and dizzily, with terror in her stomach, with fire . She kissed him with her fingernails like hooks that dragged up his back, never deep enough, never enough to catch him. She kissed him as she felt him moving, as his hands swept across her back and shoulders, and his arms were warm around her, and she felt so safe and so loved that she wanted to smash him to pieces. It was easier when he hurt her. It was easier to understand.
“Don’t be gentle,” she told him, she begged him. She felt like she might cry. His gentleness could break her.
“Don’t be gentle,” he repeated, he told her in kind. He pulled her hair so hard that her whole body twisted and arced, her scalp burned. She’d thought he’d cover her neck or her breasts—with warmth or with cruelty—but instead he left her open, he left her to the night’s cold air, and this loss was so terrible and so unfair that she thought she might die. He bit the awful, nervous bit of skin below her belly, where her leg joined her body. It was excruciating. Her face felt swollen with tears. “They want you to be a conqueror,” he told her. “So don’t be gentle. Don’t be anyone’s friend, because they won’t get along, when you stop watching them.”
His fingers sank into her buttocks, spreading her open, freezing. Her skin crawled with goose bumps. He bit her inner thigh and she made a harsh, almost embarrassingly raw noise. “Just keep your head down and get it over with,” he said. “No matter how hard it is. You can do that. You’re strong. You were brought to Andromeda for this.”
That twisted in her—brought here for this—her old fear that maybe she’d been the back-up, maybe there was someone who could do it all better, maybe Scott could have fixed Kadara—maybe, and also, had she ever even been given a choice?
Her eyes welled over, in silence. Ryder wiped her face clear, saying nothing, only whimpering when his fingers began to play with her, and she still felt so open and exposed and awful and she wanted—she needed—for him to bury her, to cover and to hide her, this girl who cried during sex, how fucking lame.
“Do you want to stop?”
“No,” she growled. Her teeth were set. “No stupid, I want you.”
He kissed the places he’d bitten her. His lips felt rough, torn and chapped and too much for the sensitive, broken skin. “Yeah? We could stop for an intermission.”
“What the fuck,” Ryder stammered. She wiped again at her eyes, sniffed harshly. “What the fuck. Do you not believe me, or something?”
He looked up, smiling oddly. “No. I believe you.”
“Then what,” Ryder challenged, trying to sound assertive, trying to take charge. She sounded hurt, embarrassing. Like a dying animal that didn't even know it’d been shot. “It’s the tears, isn’t it? It’s the fucking tears, fuck, I know it’s gross—”
“It isn’t gross,” Reyes said. He wiped her cheek. “It isn’t gross at all. It makes my heart ache, that’s all.”
Ryder laughed shortly. Her eyes had stopped crying, at least, though the skin around them felt fresh and new. She scooted forward, wrapping her legs around his waist, flinching again to open herself. “What’s up with that? My pain is your pain?”
“Your pain is your own. Your tears should be for me.” He kissed her, the ragged edge beneath her smarting eye. “Don’t give them to anyone else. Because I mean this: I’ll kill them.”
“That’s so—” Ryder began to speak, her voice trembling a little, too breathless. She cut herself off as he caught her by the hips, as he maneuvered her around him. He paused, right at the breaking point. “That’s so fucked.” She whispered, looking in his eyes.
“What would you expect of me?” he asked. It sounded like a shrug. He began to ease into her, too slowly, too fast. She couldn't chose anymore, between violence, between compassion. She felt savage, she felt new. She hoped he killed them all. She hid her face against his neck, tasting his sweat as he dug in. She felt herself opening, making room for him. That was the difference between good and bad sex, she thought wildly. How much room you were willing to make. How readily she cleared the way.
She whispered to SAM to turn off her translator. She listened to him speak, in a way she hadn’t before, without filters or interference. The things he said to her, the things she didn’t understand. When she flipped onto her belly, and he filled her more deeply and so slowly that her whole body began to shake, and he spoke to her so gently and so carefully, words that could have meant filth and degradation but sounded like honey, they sounded like I love you.
But what, after all, was the difference? She bit his forearm viciously as she came, she reached back to tear at his thighs. His lips on her hairline, the sweat, the hair stuck determinedly to the nape of her neck. He swept it away for her. He told her something in that new, beautiful voice, something she wouldn’t have understood anyway.
She came again and she started to cry, feeling him slip away from her. They had been experimenting, flipping through positions—sideways, backwards, her on top, her curled into a ball, legs over his shoulders, but now she grabbed for him—she rolled on her back and scooted beneath him and wrapped all her limbs around him, smearing her tears against cheek, when she pressed her face against his, when she failed to make them the same person. “I love you,” she told him again. It couldn’t get any worse. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
And it was mercy and torture, that she couldn’t understand his reply. A thing she had done to herself. She clung to him, forced herself more tightly around him, still crying as she came again—as he came, and his body became hard and foreign around her, compressed and turned inward, a moment that tasted savory, the full palette.
“I love you,” said her tears, when what she wanted to say was, “Don’t leave me.”
He pulled her against him, wrapped her in his jacket, and covered her with her own clothes. He held her against his chest. She was losing, she was sinking into unconsciousness.
“Sara,” he called her. She closed her eyes. He smoothed her hair. In English, he told her, deliberately, “Don’t be gentle.”
It was hard to think of leaving her in the morning.
So he left her at night.
Reyes put up the shields, double-checked her keys and her vehicle and how tightly the clothes were wrapped around her. He did everything he could so he wouldn’t have to look at her. It was ugly, it was weak, to linger.
She looked rough. Old bruises, new bruises. A frown, even while she slept, pinching and pulling her face downwards. Maybe she’d used up all her tears. Maybe, she was done.
He left, telling himself that.
He flew back to the Port, left his ship parked illegally—if there was such a thing—he left his ship parked inconveniently, in the middle of what would become a busy street, in the day time. The morning was grey, the morning was cracking open. The Collective’s feeds were scrambling, splintering, but still enough intel to know when and where the Initiative’s ships would appear, who was riding them.
Reyes got to the docking bay just in time. The best docking bay, with the grandest view. Clearly visible to whatever troops were about to come falling from the sky around them—the Initiative was fast, too fast. It had taken them only hours to arrive at Kadara Port. Hours to build an army. Nobody could do that. The liars.
The ship's doors slid opening, and Director Tann stepped out, surrounded by a cohort of armed guards. Reyes stepped forwards, his hands raised casually. The guards shouted, aimed. He stepped nearer, and Tann’s high, nasally voice cut above them. “That’s enough. He’s the Pathfinder’s friend.”
Reyes came to a stop in front of the Director, his hands lowering to shove into his pockets. It was cold – early mornings on Kadara always were. “You could say that.”
“Hm.” The Director didn’t even glance at his bodyguards. There would be no private audiences, not for the friend of the Pathfinder. “I had hoped to be unoccupied this morning. I need to make a speech for the troops’ arrival. May I assume you’ve been sent to bargain on the behalf of the exiles?”
“Is it exile when we left voluntarily?” Reyes mused. Tann’s expression soured. It hadn’t been especially warm to begin with. Reyes kept talking. “The exiles, as you call them, are hardly a singular group. But you could say I am here on the behalf of the Collective.”
“Make your point.”
“I’d like to,” Reyes said. “To be brief, I’m the Charlatan.”
Tann stopped. He looked back at his guards, all of whom, beneath their masks of passive neutrality, had collectively flinched towards their weapons. The Director hesitated for a moment. “Anyone can say they’re the Charlatan. But very well, I’ll assume you’ve brought proof. Why are you here?”
“I’m here to tell you what’s going to happen.”
“That is not a negotiation,” Tann snapped. He waved angrily at his guards, and they took a few wary steps back, but now with their weapons drawn—now, the roar of ships approaching.
Reyes’ heart was racing. He’d wanted to be cold, to feel nothing. It had been easy, those other times. Those fights and battles and bad deals, all those times when he’d known, of course, that he might not leave alive. He couldn’t stop remembering her tears, what she hadn’t known how to say. “I think you’ll agree that you won’t be able to refuse. This is, I think, your perfect offer.”
“A perfect offer,” Tann repeated, his tone clinical. The first ships came into sight over the mountains. The port was waking up, there was a slow roar building, as the Initiative’s insignia was seen, as more and more ships dropped from atmosphere, their shadows cast long in the early sunlight. So many. An impossible number. There was something about Tann, an agitation. He was not someone who coveted power, but feared and loathed the thought of surrendering it. A fatal and dangerous pride. He recoiled when insulted.
So Reyes smiled, and Tann’s footsteps grew quicker. Reyes spoke again, with the same slightly mocking tone, the same whip to drive cattle. "My offer. Myself, in exchange for my terms. Peace."
“You are of course aware that I was initially intended to be the Initiative’s head of finances. Most people believe this makes me an accountant, a more sentient computer. But my true qualifications, my talents, lie in diversifying corporate portfolios. I am very good at…balance. An economy is a delicate thing. People…people would disagree, but they are easier.” Tann paused. He seemed to be studying Reyes, considering the benefits and disasters of his next move. “Your life, Charlatan's or not, isn't worth anything to me. I am not bloodthirsty, I do not traffic in martyrs. What you are asking for is too illogical for me to accept. A person offering their own destruction is not a business partner.”
“Who needs a business partner? That implies longevity.” Reyes smiled. “Haven’t you ever wanted to gamble?”
“No.” Tann looked towards the descending fleet of Initiative ships, the crowd of Angara watching their approach, the tension that could tip a crowd into a riot. “Gambling necessitates chance. I don’t need chance.”
“What you need is a new Pathfinder,” Reyes said, boldly. Tann didn’t flinch. His mouth barely moved.
“Careful, Mr. Vidal.”
“You know Keema Dohrgun. The former face of the Collective. She’s vanished, probably off planet by now. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. Someone else could take her place, someone could organize. You could spend months, years, gouging out an armed resistance when what you need is full cooperation. Because Aya will be after you, for over-stepping, for taking a city they consider their own. The citizens here will be against you—because they don’t want to let you tamper with their children’s brains, and with good reason—considering the only party who stands to benefit from the madness on Kadara, the things done to its children—the inevitable failure of the Pathfinder sent to fix it—the only party who stands to benefit is you.”
Tann snorted, very quietly. His hands were behind his back, relaxed. The posture of a confident player, the posture of a winning team. “Speculation.”
“I can make things harder for you,” Reyes said slowly, deliberately. Gun at his hip, one second, one shot. It was easy. Life was easy, when you were alone. “Or I can give you exactly what you need.”
He held out the data pad. Tann glanced at it, at him. It was hard to resist curiosity. The Director took the slender console, and scrolled. His large eyes flickered, reading faster than any human ever could, almost sickening to watch. He looked up. “Your confession and your proof, as promised. Full ledgers. I suppose I have to believe it. The Charlatan of Kadara. You. I have seen you fighting, on the front lines. I have seen you, I know your face.” There was a note of pure rage seeping into the Salarian’s voice, an indignation. “You. I thought you were better than this. I thought he was better than this. Not some thug. No. You wouldn’t do this for a woman. No.”
“It’s all there. Everything you need. Tell them I made their children rabid, I made them lust for cruelty. Tell them I doctored their water. Tell them it was drugs. Tell them anything you want, everything you need.”
Tann was trying to sneer. His lip was twitching, furious. “You aren’t serious. There’s something else. There’s some trap.”
“The Pathfinder. She isn’t part of this anymore. She doesn’t take the fall anymore. She doesn’t mop up your bullshit, your mistakes.”
Tann laughed breathlessly, almost shrilly. Some of his guards turned back to look, almost concerned. The fleet had landed. The troops marched swiftly to the ground, lined up. A sergeant was already shouting orders. The tents were already rising. You change or you get left behind. Tann wiped at his forehead—a human gesture, did Salarians suffer from migraines?—he wiped his wide forehead. He asked, bitterly, “You think that’s it? That’s enough, to make you trust me? Or do you do this to buy her time? Only that? Only that?”
“That’s all she needs.” Reyes said. Tann was drawing his pistol, a small, almost ornamental thing. Antique. Old weapons, old galaxy. The things they clung to, so much old violence. Reyes smiled. Tann aimed. “Because now, she’ll see you for who you are. She’ll see all of you. And you will never beat her. You will die a footnote.”
“Really?” Tann asked. He was trembling. “I wonder what you will become.”
Ryder woke from nightmares, indistinct and familiar. She gasped into the lonely silence, scrambling uncertainly at the space just around her, the vacated place.
He left her.
He fucking left her. On a goddamn rock.
Ryder sat up, forearm to chest, some weird sense of modesty belatedly kicking in. She looked around, somehow refusing to believe that he would really ditch her. Again.
But his ship was gone. No notes, no emails. No reason given.
Stupefied, Ryder simply stared at the awkward pile of clothes she’d left tangled around the area, and drapped over her. A suspicious, dirty feeling was sitting patiently in her gut, just waiting for her attention. Her omni-tool kept flashing, over and over again. Something had happened. He’d done something. He’d lured her out to the middle of nowhere and kept her busy and now—what now? Had he bombed the city, was he destroying the Nexus? Her jaw ached. She’d ground her teeth all night long.
She dressed hurriedly, pulling her hair back as she braved the first messages. Panicked, rambling—Peebee, Liam, Jaal. She skimmed them without reading, without really understanding. She was looking for the violence word, the word that would tie it all together. Detonation, assassination. Murder, fuck, poison.
Missed calls from Cora. Missed call from Drack.
Vetra, Vetra calling now. Ryder put her through. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“Ryder,” Vetra started, relieved. And then she stopped.
“Turn on your tracker.” Vetra said, instead of explaining. “We’re split up, trying to find you.”
SAM was on it, pinging out for the team. Ryder shook him clear of her consciousness, let him do the background work. Vetra was still staring at her, still oddly frozen even as the Turian’s background kept shifting and blurring—betraying her motion, her swiftness. “Vetra, just tell me. What did he do?”
“He…” Vetra looked up, sighed. “Ryder. He’s dead.”
“I know, I know it’s got to be shocking—”
“No, I mean. What? Say it again.” Ryder insisted. She leapt down from the rock she’d spent the night on—the rock she’d cried and fucked and confessed on. Her feet failed her, she landed clumsily, stumbling so that her shins screamed.
Vetra paused. “Vidal's dead, Ryder. He went to see Tann. They shot him.”
“He wouldn’t do that.” Ryder said. She blinked.
“Kosta’s closing in on you. He’s closest. Just wait for him to get there.”
“Vetra, he wouldn’t do that.” Ryder said again. Vetra grimaced.
“Look—Ryder, it’s bad. They’re saying he’s behind all the, the brainwashing or whatever we want to call it. The murders and the kids and shit. They’re saying it was him.”
“He didn’t fucking do it!” Ryder yelled, not sure if she meant the accusations, or the idea that Reyes would reveal himself as the Charlatan. That he’d be shot for it. Tann wasn’t—he wasn’t violent, not an active being, not like that, he was rational, he would have taken Reyes alive for a trial. “Why’s the Initiative here, why—I called them last night!”
There was a low whine on the horizon. Liam, coming for her. She didn’t have time for this. Ryder cut the call with Vetra, ignored the immediate callback. Fuck it. She threw open the Nomad’s doors, slammed the car into drive and started tearing towards Kadara. What a fucking joke. What a fucking joke—
Her communicator wouldn’t stop beeping, insistent. She turned it off. Then there was SAM, nagging over and over and fucking—
“Shut up, SAM!” Ryder snarled, and then for a second there was only the drone of Liam’s craft tailing her, then—then a flash and an unholy crash, as she hit something—there hadn’t even been—
Ryder slammed on the brakes, shrieking a little from shock, as Liam wobbled and dropped to one knee, thrown clear of the Nomad’s hood. She skidded to a halt, then threw the door open, almost falling over in her rush to reach her crisis specialist. Liam stood, still a little unsteady. Ryder didn’t so much stabilize him as she did just—grab him.
“Did you just fucking throw yourself out of your ship to land on my car?!” Ryder screeched. In answer, Liam’s ship landed somewhere behind her. He grinned awkwardly.
“You seemed erratic.”
“You should fucking talk,” Ryder answered. She snorted. A sort of uncontrollable laughter bubbled from somewhere deep within her, a more physical, more potent laugh than any she’d suffered before. “Jesus, Liam. Jesus. I need to go.”
“I’m driving.” Liam said. Ryder shot him a nasty look.
“I’m not fucking hysterical.”
“Okay, whatever. Fire me later. I’m driving.” He steered her towards the passenger side, the poor Nomad. Only now did Ryder notice the smell, the seared rubber smell of abuse. She’d been driving with the emergency brake on. She’d been flooring it.
Ryder climbed into the passenger seat, still stewing, wondering how to swing it. “Liam,” she said, as he climbed in across from her. “Hey.”
“We’re going,” he said. “Alright? Cool it.”
“Okay.” Ryder said. She sat back. She put her seatbelt on. “Okay.”
Liam drove them back to the Port, arguing on the com channel the entire time. Lexi wanted them pulled back, immediately, and Cora was swearing, almost exploding. Drack growled beneath them, a rolled up mess of noise, all of them. Ryder pressed her face against the window, shuddering and banging with every bump in their way. Enough.
Ridiculous. She caught sight of herself in one of the mirrors, the odd, fixed smile she wore. What the fuck are you laughing about, she wanted to ask herself. What the fuck.
Liam listened to her. He took her to Kadara Port, where the Initiative had already begun its work. Streets were sealed off, people were corralled into quarantines, children measured and gathered into lines, awaiting treatment. The whispers and rumors had already begun to spread, so that even in the strange fog Ryder felt surrounding her, she felt their stares. The charge that hung in the air, the tension as thick as the electricity. It was going to storm. One look at the sky, one sniff of the air, and everyone knew. It was going to storm.
They hadn’t had time to move his body, or maybe they didn’t care enough. Someone, at least, had moved him a little off to the side, a little ways over. She could see the blood he’d been dragged through, where he’d fallen.
Ryder stopped. She just looked. She could see, so obviously, where he’d been shot. Right through the head. The nightmare she’d never wanted to dream, lying on the ground before her, and bleeding and already dead. She put a hand across her mouth, feeling something rising, something that clawed furiously and it climbed her throat and exploded from her mouth. The sharp, cracking slap of a laugh that she could not recognize.
“Ryder, we need to keep it cool,” Liam said. He was right in front of her. She felt like she could see through him. That neatly parted hair—she’d never seen it messed up. Not even when they made love. She could never mess him up.
“He’s dead.” Ryder laughed. It was a painful, belly-stabbing laugh. “Liam. The fucker’s dead.”
“I know,” Liam said, very gently. He was so gentle. His arms went around her and her face disappeared into his shoulder, and there was the smell of shampoo and sweat—a comfortable, human smell, and Liam’s solid, alive body holding her up, and still that ragged noise tore itself from her.
“He’s dead,” Ryder repeated. And she threw Liam off. It was easy. In less than a second, he was simply no longer in front of her. She didn’t care if she’d hurt him. She counted the steps between them, just six. Six steps. All that bullshit and angst over six fucking steps, and look, there was her hand, there were her shitty fingernails. She touched his face, the stubble. He hadn’t shaved. He hadn’t shaved when he left her to die by himself. He hadn’t shaved and his hair was a mess.
“You motherfucker,” Ryder giggled. “You dead motherfucker.”
A hand on her shoulder, but Liam didn’t try to pull her away this time. He just stood there, bracing both of them, his voice humming into his radio as he requested medical, for backup. What a joke. Medical for a dead person. Reyes’ eyes were still half-open, still amber and green and brown and more distant than ever before, untouchable. She touched his mouth, his eyelids. Frozen. Rain-wet and cold. It was raining. When had it started raining? There was thunder in her ears.
“I told you that I loved you and you didn’t say it back are you fucking kidding me is this why, is this why you wouldn’t say it?” Ryder laughed. She wiped her eyes. “Hilarious. I hate you. I hate you so fucking much, you lying bastard, you dead lying bastard—!”
“We're going to get him out of here,” Liam said from above, and then next to her. He’d knelt beside her, his arms were around her again. “Sara, it’s okay. It’s okay. We'll take care of him.”
She tried to point out the obvious. It was not okay. She had failed and Reyes was dead, so that was just about the antithesis of okay, come on Liam—but she couldn’t. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t force even a syllable to come out past the laughter.
She pushed back from Liam, hoping she would be able to communicate this somehow, this thought—but the minute he saw her face he was wiping her checks with his sleeve—her tears, and her streaming nose—gross, gross, she pushed him away and he came back anyway, rotating to use a dryer bit of fabric, still murmuring, “It’s alright, Sara, it’s going to be alright, I know, I know—”
He didn’t know. He didn’t fucking know. She could see his uncertainty, his panic, his sweet brown eyes. She shook her head, unable to reassure him or curse him. She picked up Reyes’ wet, stiff hand. Horrifying. Death felt horrifying, and she held it anyway, clutched at it. Like she’d never seen a dead body before, like she hadn’t watched her parents die, like everything was new, and she was the weak sort of person who couldn’t keep it together. Keep it together.
She bent forward, until her forehead touched his chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, breathing, his scent lost beneath the hard, iron-blood smell.
“Pathfinder,” Liam said. There was an uncertain, but warning note to his voice now. He wasn’t calling her Sara anymore.
“I just need a minute,” she said. “Just a minute. Sorry.”
Liam didn’t answer her. His feet rasped over the wet ground, the pebbles and mud. Leaving her, giving her room. She still shook with weak giggles, but tried now to wrap these tremors with steel, to bolt them down. Liam was mumbling into his radio, still coordinating with the Tempest for help. Pathfinder down.
She should sit up. She should stop making a scene.
She was waiting for Reyes to squeeze her hand. She was waiting for him to tell her she was an idiot for thinking he was dead, that this was a trick, just one more con from the absolute expert. Any minute now, any minute, she’d know what she had to believe.
She held her breath, her eyes still screwed tight, her ears turning inwards and muffled.
And she waited, for as long as she could.
Chapter 8: Magdalene
Notes: You are all good to endure. I wrote this chapter extra fast because I was afraid you would leave me!
They were afraid of her.
It was understandable. She kept breaking things. Sometimes by throwing those things at people, an act that would also take Ryder by surprise. She felt like her mind had become the surface tension that stretched across dark, murky waters. She was the veil and the monster that waited below, at once.
She’d had Lexi fix his body. Machines could move his lungs, massage his heart. Skin grafts and cell cultures could weave together the damage he had suffered. She could build him back to a perfect, healthy cadaver. Machines could make him breath, flush with life. Machines could keep him warm. He wouldn’t rot.
They assumed she did this in ritual, to say goodbye. She had no intention of saying goodbye.
Jaal’s heavy footsteps approached. He was one of the few whom she could stand to be around, and therefore responsible for making sure she did things like drink water, or sleep, or blink. There was a long scraping noise, as he pulled up a chair, and plopped down next to her.
Ryder didn’t look at him. “Is it seriously more casserole?”
“Unfortunately, we only have one kind of food.”
Ryder sighed. “Sausage or veggie?”
Jaal squinted down, answering, “It is the veggie one, but, ah, fried. Drack did it himself. He says the veggie one is better and, also, you seem happier when food is fried. Or so he has observed.”
That was sweet. Ryder tried to feel appreciative. “Well. That’s true.” She looked over at the brownish blob slowly bleeding grease across the plate that Jaal held for her. It almost looked appetizing.
Jaal passed her the plate. Ryder gripped her fork, too aggressively, not eating. Jaal continued, “Lexi is concerned that if you do not sleep soon, you will be at an elevated risk for a series of medical problems.”
“I know.” Ryder made herself take a bite of casserole. It was kinda good. She took another bite. It was depression food.
Jaal watched her eat. “If you are having difficulty sleeping, she has offered to sedate you. As a temporary measure.”
Ryder didn’t respond. Jaal sat with her in silence, as she slowly cleared the plate. It was the first meal she’d finished in three days. Maybe Drack had a future in cuisine.
Jaal took her empty plate, presumably before she could break it. “It may be inappropriate, but I would like to ask you something. I have noticed that Cora seems…agitated. I believe she is upset with you.”
“She’s mad that I didn’t do this for dad.” Ryder looked up. “My father. When he died. I just kept going.”
Jaal nodded, his thoughts turning inward and away from her. He was looking at the place where Reyes had been shot, the new skin. She could see his worry, the sort of glaze that comes from staring at a disease. His body shifted, turning earnestly towards her. “I would like to comfort you. But I cannot. I do not know how a human mourns.”
His innocent, understandable ignorance was issued a pass. Ryder snorted, slouching a little further into her chair. “We don’t. We do everything we can to put it off, that’s how we mourn. Like idiots.”
Jaal was silent. Ryder, without emotion, found the will to keep talking. Maybe the silver lining here was the opportunity for a learning experience. “I don’t know Jaal, we’re weird about death. In the past we used to do all sorts of shit. Weeks of mourning, feasts. People bankrupt themselves, making sure grandpa goes out right. We’d throw parties and festivals and visit a slab of marble on the same day, every year. We do all kinds of crazy shit, no matter where or when we come from.” The more she thought about it, the more absurd it seemed. “We try to live forever. We try to bring the dead back to life. We kill ourselves, believing that our bodies are the keys needed to cross whatever door separates us from whom we’ve lost. Jaal. We make absolutely zero sense.”
Jaal sat beside her. They watched the artificial breathing, the fake bloom of life in Reyes’ cheeks. Exactly how much could synthetic life accomplish, Ryder wondered? Would she need to shave him again? She could be cruel to herself. “Why?” Jaal asked, curiously. “I do not mean to offend. But surely you should let them go. There is a saying Liam told me. It means you should accept the things you cannot change.”
A part of her wanted to scream. It was only a small part. Coming from anyone else, she might have given in. “It’s a good saying.”
“But you ignore it?”
“It’s too hard to listen.” Ryder gripped the sleeve of her uniform, feeling her mouth contort into something awful. “I hate this feeling,” she whispered.
“Loss is difficult—”
“I don’t feel loss,” Ryder interrupted. She wanted to leap to her feet. She wanted to make a scene. “I feel like this is bullshit! If I saw this happening—if I knew this was going to happen—and I still couldn’t stop it then what is the fucking point?! What am I supposed to believe—that I let this happen? That some higher power is just, just fucking with us? I’m supposed to accept the things that I can’t change, well, WHY?!”
Jaal laid a hand over hers. She’d torn in the armrests in her outrage, her attempt to bottle the anger that threatened to boil over. Reyes, breathing, dead in front of her. The hole in his head, already grown in. Only a pink, shiny patch from the skin graft. Only that. “I’m sorry,” she forced herself to say, not really meaning it. Jaal didn’t reply, and he didn’t leave her. He didn’t leave her.
“You are ashamed.”
“Yes.” She admitted. That, and a lot of other things. But shame was pretty high up there.
“You should not be.” Jaal told her, now squeezing her hand. “Leave the dead. They poison the living. There is only one way forward.”
Her father hadn’t thought so. He’d locked his wife in ice, refusing to let go, refusing to let her die. Ryder ground her molars down. Maybe that arrogance was genetic. Maybe she was closer to her father than she’d ever realized. Maybe that was why, when Scott had gasped and stumbled in the face of this defiance, she had felt instead a terrible, brutal swell of victory.
She looked at Jaal, fiercely. “Tell me what I should do to stop feeling this way,” she begged. “Tell me, because I’m afraid of what I might do.”
Jaal sighed, his brow wrinkling unhappily. “We are all afraid with you, Ryder.”
The situation on Kadara. They still kept trying to update her about the situation on Kadara. A situation that most people assumed she likely no longer cared about—which was wrong, she cared, she cared. She was crushed with caring.
Tann wanted her on the ground. Tann wanted her in armor. Her skin was bruised all over, screaming. She put her helmet on.
“Pathfinder, be with you in a moment,” the Director greeted her, as she walked towards him. He’d set up in the Collective’s former base. She didn’t think about that. She didn’t think about anything. It was the first time she’d left the Med-Bay in days. She had to wait for several minutes while Tann bent over what she supposed he treated as a war table, consulting with a group of scientists. Peebee and Vetra shifted restlessly, somewhere behind her. The journey over had been a silent one.
“Thank you for your assistance. I’m glad we’re able to talk,” Tann said, when he was at last freed and the scientists had been dismissed. Ryder blinked. She’d provided no assistance. She had been the embodiment of a waking dream. Her crew must have covered for her.
“How are things progressing?” she asked instead.
Tann grimaced. “As expected. Violently. The treatment we’re administering to those improperly self-medicating after their release from cryo is effective. Their cooperation is harder to secure. Infuriating, of course, but inevitable. Some casualties, acceptable limits. I need you to do something about the Moshae.”
Ryder squinted. Violence. Death. Tann. “What about the Moshae? What kind of thing?”
Tann made a brisk, sucking noise, like the click of a tongue. “Something. I don’t know. Of our operating Pathfinders, you’ve had the most contact with the Angara. They trust you, not the Initiative. Regrettable, but I do hope that in time—”
“You won’t need me,” Ryder interrupted. She shouldered past the delicate, suspended look on Tann’s face. “Fine. So Aya’s mad you’re rolling into their old turf—”
“They were hardly doing anything with it,” Tann muttered. Ryder ignored this. She rubbed the sore, tender bit of skin below her right eye.
“So basically the thing we thought would happen, happened. Shocker. What do you want, another fight? Did you invite them to establish their own trade embassies? Did you do anything other than just show up with five thousand soldiers?”
Tann looked at her warningly but didn’t comment on her tone. “They aren’t interested in an embassy. They think it’s their land. An embassy is something visitors use.”
Ryder rolled her eyes, her patience wearing thin. “They haven’t had control for years. Kadara is independent.”
“Kadara is being settled by the Initiative,” Tann stressed. He was openly glaring now. “A fact that our allies on Aya will need to accept. They had every opportunity to formally settle this planet, instead they chose to keep their hands clean.” He mumbled something rude about the Angara, then looked back to his war table, his attention clearly redirected. “Do what you can. That will be all.”
He was sending her away. Ryder pressed her lips together, swallowing. There had always been bad things about Kadara, but for a while she’d thought there’d been good things too. When she didn’t leave or answer him, Tann looked back up. “What? Aren’t you going?”
“I’ll think about it,” Ryder said. She waited, her hands just barely uncurled. Tann regarded her thoughtfully.
“Are you upset I shot your friend?” he asked, bluntly. “I would have thought you’d understand. He was a known threat, a crime lord. You’ve seen the files on what he did, how he manipulated our children.”
Ryder’s mouth thinned. Curiously, she didn’t feel angry. She wished Tann were dead, but not in an especially wrathful way. It seemed, almost, like an irritant. “I want to know something,” she said, quietly. “The stories that were told. The myths. Why choose ancient human? Why not Krogan, for example? All their stories are violent.”
Tann looked away. “I had a colleague who told me something interesting, once. A Krogan will tell stories. Perhaps embellished. Their Gods, though, are made of fire or stone. They are dragons, worms the size of an armada. They are things to kill, to conquer. A simple enough moral. A human will imagine a being who is only a more powerful, more beautiful, more perfect version of themselves, and they will call it a God. The human can paint this God with savagery and call them divine. A human can bow before a God that devours its own children. A human will worship, no matter how violent or depraved or lecherous, because in the end all that you see is power.”
Ryder snorted. Anti-human. And yet something about Tann’s words sunk into her, like metal brands. The man who should have been her enemy, whose orders she had still considered heeding. “Dramatic. Who told you that?”
“Jien Garson,” Tann replied. His gaze shifted just slightly upwards, to a point on Ryder’s forehead. “She was afraid of what the AI Alec Ryder developed could do, how it might change the course of the Initiative. He was not an unambitious man. The others have forgotten her fears. I have not.”
Back on the Tempest, Ryder didn’t even take her armor off before she’d hurried back to the Med Bay, heart hammering against her throat. She’d half expected to find Reyes gone—dumped planet-side by Lexi, or Cora, or someone else worried that she was spending all her time with a dead body.
But no, he was there. There on the table.
Lexi looked up from her desk as Ryder entered. Her frown was obvious, unquestionable. She was gearing up for something. “Pathfinder—”
“Can we not?” Ryder interrupted. She made a beeline towards the chair she’d spent the last three days sitting in, her vigil. Lexi closed her eyes, sighing. She set aside the data pad, now massaging the bridge of her nose.
“I’m sure this is difficult for you.” Lexi began. Ryder ignored her. No shit it was difficult. She wanted more fried casserole. Lexi continued, bravely, “I know that you think I meddle. I wouldn’t say that you’re wrong. But it’s my job to keep you healthy and functional, and frankly, these past few days—”
“I know.” Ryder said, meaning, fuck off.
“You need to talk about this,” Lexi insisted. “Ryder. Ryder, look at me.”
This was apparently good enough for Lexi. “Listen. It doesn’t need to be with me. But you cannot keep going like this. I’m sorry, I wish I could tell you that you had more time, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t. Say your goodbyes because this may be your last chance to do so. My door is always open.”
“Lexi,” Ryder said, almost calmly.
“Get out of my face.”
Lexi slammed her hand, palm flat, against the countertop. There was a bit of accidental biotic in there, enough force powering the slap to send Lexi’s mug of tea splattering across the desk. “Enough,” she snarled. “Do not. Do not insult me by acting this way. I can declare you unfit for duty. I can do that.” There was an uneven insistence to her voice, the same plea. Pull yourself together. Pull yourself together.
Ryder crunched herself more tightly into her chair, feeling like a sea urchin. Lexi stared across the room, breathing hard, as though Ryder were a dog she’d failed to train. Slowly, the hand that had come striking down began to mop up the spilled drink. Lexi took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was frustrated, unprofessional. I should never have shouted at you. Ryder.”
Ryder stared back. The old her would have said something to let them both off the hook. The current her was alright watching them both get reeled in. Lexi turned to face her, bracing her elbows on her knees. She stared almost fixedly forward, sucking on her own teeth. “I’m afraid,” she admitted. “We’re all afraid. It feels like we’ve lost our Pathfinder, like we’re dead in the water. We need you.”
Ryder kept herself still. She let the guilt bloom and spread across her, only answering when her feet, her toes went cold. “I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I can’t talk to you about this. I don’t even know what to say.”
“I understand,” Lexi said tiredly. She nodded, kept nodding. “Of course I understand. But we need a plan. We need to—to move. To do something. One step at a time. Ryder. We can bury him, we can burn him. We can’t keep him here, in the Med Bay. Not any longer. I must insist.”
Ryder quivered. She couldn’t imagine him burning. She could—she could—in her mind’s eye, see his body, lowered carefully into the earth. Liam’s musings, from so long ago: What happens to a body, buried in the soil of Kadara? How do they rot?
She felt sick. “Tomorrow. I’ll burn him tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Lexi said. She looked relieved. “Thank you. Alright. Tomorrow morning.”
She rose to leave, looking hopeful that Ryder might follow her. Ryder looked back at Reyes. She wanted to hold his hand. She wanted people to not think she was insane. Lexi, going by the sound of the closing door, left.
Hours passed that way, in near silence. It was the new normal, the new routine. Ryder sat there, and looked at Reyes, looked through him. She struggled to swallow her own rage. When the doors opened again behind her, she didn’t turn. She braced herself.
“You’ve kept him well, darling,” Keema’s voice said.
Ryder spun in her chair, eyes stretched as wide as she could pull them. She stared, mute, as Keema crossed the room, and looked down into her dead partner’s face.
“I’m surprised.” Keema said. Idly, she reached out to touch Reyes’ chest, her hand flat against him, rising with the forced breaths. “I’m sure he’d told you about what happened between us. I still wonder when you’re planning to attack me.”
“Why are you here?” Ryder asked. She just stared at Keema, waiting. She could only guess ugly things. Keema glanced back, smiling a little. Or maybe that was just her face.
“I was so certain you would be the one who would die. He talked about you, of course, but I could never be certain. I’m sure you felt the same. It was hard to know how much of what he felt was real. But here he is, dead. For you.”
Ryder curled her fingers. It was, oddly, almost a relief to hear it said out loud. Dead for you. “I don’t get it either, believe me.”
“Well.” Keema raised her hand, leaned her backside against the edge of the table where Reyes was lying. “I’m sad to see him go. But I won’t exhaust you. I came to offer my help.”
Ryder covered her mouth, trying not to laugh. “I thought I was the losing team.”
“Don’t take it personally,” Keema dismissed. “You likely still are, which is why I offer help and not allegiance. Tell me when you’ve come up with your plan, Pathfinder. I’d still rather work with you than the Initiative, if the chance is presented to me.”
“A plan?” Ryder repeated. She couldn’t stop the laughter this time. “There is no plan. It’s over.”
Keema turned to leave. She should buy a different face. For going into hiding after the whole Collective thing, but also so she’d quit smirking all the goddamn time. “You’re still alive, aren’t you? I’ve messaged your device, you’ll be able to reach me. Don’t let something as common as death be the end of you. Whenever you’re ready, Pathfinder.”
Lexi kept a wheelchair in the corner of the med bay, folded up in one of the closets. It had never been used, to Ryder’s knowledge. It was quite the wheelchair, capable of bearing up to two thousand pounds, and wide enough to seat a Krogan.
Not that Reyes weighed two thousand pounds. Still. He was heavy, if she was carrying him alone. Especially with all the machines, the extra fifty pound penalty that death incurred.
Ryder waited until most of her crew was asleep before she let herself sample the stew of rebellion she’d been seasoning for the past few days. She couldn’t think about it. She couldn’t even fully commit, couldn’t plan further than five minutes into the future, or else she was afraid she’d have to admit that what she wanted was too crazy, too selfish, too grandiose to ever be allowed.
And she really, really wanted it. She wanted the end goal, the destination, even if she wasn’t sure yet what steps she had to take. “SAM,” Ryder began. She wasn’t sure how to proceed, how to ask for what she had in mind tactfully. “SAM, I need you to pilot Reyes.”
Pathfinder, I am explicitly prohibited from taking such actions—
“I un-prohibit them. Just do it. I’ll carry him with the machines if I have to, I don’t care.” She grit her teeth, feeling ridiculous. Like there was really a consequence to snapping at her AI. Had she ever thought SAM was just an AI? “Just help me. Please.”
SAM seemed to pause. I can manipulate Mr. Vidal’s body into moving by stimulating his limbs. Scans indicate that he installed the recommended translation and computation chips and fully synced those to his frontal lobe. I will be able to occupy these chips, but at the expense of significant processing power. You will need to provide me with kinetic navigation cues. Furthermore, I will be unable to assist you beyond basic communication.
“Can you keep him breathing? I mean, he won’t die when I disconnect him, right?”
Pathfinder, Mr. Vidal has been deceased for over three days.
Ryder clicked her tongue, refusing to dwell on this point, refusing to let it register. “Right I know, but I want to make sure he isn’t going to, uh, he isn’t going to get more dead. You know?”
I can maintain the body as the machines do, to delay decomposition and prevent trauma. That is all.
Good enough. Ryder checked the hallway. Maybe she should have a better plan. Maybe she a plan. “Do it,” she said, and felt the moment when SAM left her—and a moment later, Reyes was sitting up.
The sight of it was terrible, offensive. Ryder clamped her mouth shut. He moved worse than stiffly. He moved like a busted puppet. She rushed to his side, ripping out the tubes, the needles. She half-dragged him into the stolen wheelchair, covering him with the hospital blanket. “SAM, anything wrong? All expected?”
I will concentrate the majority of my processing power towards maintaining Mr. Vidal’s life support systems, and attempt to stimulate cell repair, where I am able.
Ryder spent a little too long tucking him in. She smoothed the blanket over chest, her hands shaking. Okay. Okay. She stood unsteadily, trying to fight down the unexpected spike of panic. “Alright. Alright, we’re leaving. We’re leaving now.” She pulled off her own jacket, draping it over Reyes’ shoulders, and as an afterthought, she let her hair down. She should have brought disguises. She should have planned.
Before she could change her mind, she wheeled them out of the room.
Her hands were clammy. She hadn’t sweated like this since the first day of basic training. It was past the middle of the night, edging into early morning. Her crew slept around her, slept—she hoped—through the wheelchair’s squeaky front wheel, which screamed each time she turned right. Cringing, whispering curses, hating herself for making more noise by whispering, Ryder slunk towards the shuttle doors, and buzzed the call button.
The minute she spent waiting for her transport was agonizing. The Tempest, with its quiet hum she usually didn’t even hear, seemed deafening. A soft word from Suvi—somewhere up on the bridge—an indistinct but melodic but terrifying word, made Ryder feel as though she were about to vomit. It shouldn’t have mattered. He was already dead. Kadara had fallen. It was already the worst-case scenario.
She rested her trembling hands against the sides of Reyes’ neck. Pulse. Warm skin. Muscle, sleeping beneath her fingers. SAM, hard at work, the only witness to her lunacy. Her rebellion.
The doors slid open, and for one heart-stopping second she thought she saw a figure—a crew member returning from a late night expedition, or Tann, or her father—but there was no one. No one.
She pushed the chair forward, now hammering the button for door closure. Time to go, time to go, time to go—!
The doors shut.
And in a blur, she watched through the shuttle’s windows as the Tempest, and all the people who cared about her enough to stop her—all of that dwindled quickly away.
“Still good, SAM?” Ryder whispered. Her voice was hoarse, as though she’d been screaming.
No problems, Pathfinder. Your nervous-response system is elevated. I am unable to provoke neurotransmitters as a relaxant at this time.
Two minutes to Kadara. The wonders of space travel. The wonder, knowing that humans had built ships to take them over oceans and galaxies. The wonder, hearing that her AI knew how to trick her brain into calming down, into being its most effective self. Ryder swallowed. She touched Reyes’ neck again.
“Have I been freaking out this whole time?”
No. One of the key features that is desired when assessing a potential Pathfinder’s psychology is the individual’s ability to leverage their sense of duty as a natural sedative. Alec Ryder assessed both you and Scott for this trait while I was still in beta, before the Initiative had even begun to take intentional direction. Artificially stimulating the Pathfinder’s hormone glands is a temporary solution that, if applied in the long-term, posits extreme risks. Alec recognized this danger. He did not want his children to suffer.
They were landing. Ryder made herself let go of Reyes, made herself clutch at the wheelchair’s grips. She kept her eyes trained on the shuttle doors, afraid to see her own reflection in the shuttle’s windows. She was afraid of her own choices. “Which of us was better? At, uh, adrenaline. Me or Scott?”
Scott Ryder displayed the effects of this ability almost perfectly. He has always had absolute confidence in the authority and the morality of whatever order he is assigned. Your performance was deemed to be slightly above average.
The doors whistled slightly as the pressure-seal disengaged, and they slid open. Ryder shoved forward immediately, one hand braced against the front of Reyes’ chest, worried he was about to topple from his seat. His breath was a ghost on her arm. This admittance from SAM, the question she had been so terrified of hearing the answer to—it didn’t hurt as badly as she’d thought. “Damn, SAM. Nothing cuts like slightly above average.” She jerked the screaming wheels around, loitering behind a large crate of cargo. The Port was actually guarded now that the Initiative had arrived. Ryder hovered, watching a guard’s bored, meandering pace up and down the broad deck. He had a partner. He must have a partner. Where?
Scott Ryder was the initial choice for inheriting the Pathfinder title, though Alec worried he was too aggressive for diplomacy. Cora Harper was considered for her loyalty, and her biotic talent. Both are exceptional soldiers and combatants.
“Ugh,” Ryder whispered. “My good point is that I’m nice?” She saw the guard’s partner now—even bigger than the first guy, and there were probably even more in the office and she did not have any mind-jack combat matrices to plug into this time. She stared down at Reyes, chewing her lip. She hated to leave him. She had to leave him.
As silently as she was able, Ryder slipped along the wall, gearing up her omni-tool. She couldn’t kill them. She couldn’t. The guard yawned, looked at their wrist for new e-mail. Internally, Ryder apologized.
No, Pathfinder. Alec believed you were brave enough to make your own choices, to deviate. He could not measure this. I do not have further data. He worried about his decision almost constantly. He could not explain himself to me. It is simply something he felt as your father. I have been watching you during our time together, hoping that I would eventually understand.
I do not.
She lunged forward, hooking an arm around the guard’s neck and squeezing, slamming her shin into the back of his knees. The man fell back on top of her—his weight suffocating, painful—rasping silently for air as he struggled to beat her away. Ryder wrapped her legs around his arms, pinning them, ratcheting her arm tighter, and tighter, apologizing for the bruises, the fear—as the seconds crept slowly, painfully onward…
Finally, he went still.
After she’d knocked out his partner, accessed into the docking computer, used Reyes’ fingerprints to override system security and summon a Collective ship, boarded, strapped in, ran through her mental checklist about fifteen times, and cued for launch—then she paused to consider what SAM had told her.
What a shitty dad.
As if she hadn’t already known that.
Ryder blinked, hard, to banish the unwelcome sting. She looked over at Reyes, his peaceful face. The Collective’s smuggler ship woke up around her, engines warming. She glided quietly to launch as her omni-tool began to protest.
She put the call through. At least someone should get an explanation.
“Alright?” Gil chimed over the line. He openly glanced around her. “How’s the ship?”
“Fine, no problems. Flies easy.” She rolled out her shoulders, glanced over again to make sure, for the fiftieth time, that everyone was wearing their seatbelts. It was quiet without SAM, with the weird half-sensed murmur of another body’s systems being maintained. The skin graft she’d ordered for Reyes was fading, a paler spot against his forehead, she noticed. No stubble. She was still afraid to look beneath the bandages on the back of his head, the ugly mess the bullet had left as it exited him.
“Great. Great. Hey. Did you steal your dead boyfriend’s body?” Gil asked. Ryder checked their destination time. Less than a day. Amazing, what technology could do.
“If I did, shouldn’t you actually be asking yourself what the hell you’re going to do about it?”
“Whoa, whoa,” Gil blustered. “I will do nothing. You didn’t even take one of my shuttles—which is good, since between you and Kosta, all of our vehicles are officially fucked.”
“Don’t bitch and write down your overtime.”
“You’re a terrible boss,” Gil noted. “Why do you sound so chipper, and on that note, should I tell Lexi you’ve actually snapped? If this is some viking space funeral, alright, fine, but please tell me that’s all it is?”
One thing about piloting a space ship: the sense of smallness. The realization that she could be zooming through space at warp speed and still, still, the stars didn’t seem to come any closer. Ryder pondered this as she locked the coordinates. “It’s gonna be okay, Gil.”
“Oh, good. I was hoping. Please tell me why.”
“I’m taking him to Meridian.” Ryder said. It was the first time she’d voiced her plan out loud, the first time she’d even hinted at how far she was willing to go. She blushed.
Gil blew it. “That means nothing to me. How is that fixing anything? How is a corpse involved in all this?”
“Trust me,” Ryder said. She tried to smile. Gil looked revolted.
“I don’t. I don’t trust you. You’re extremely powerful and now, I guess, unstable. I don’t trust you at all. Most people drink, gain weight when they’re sad. Why can’t you be like most people?”
Ryder opened her mouth, and Gil cut her off, yelling, “Shut up! This call never happened. I’ll cover you. For a few hours. Maybe. I’ll think about it. I hate you. Never have children.”
Mutually, they hung up.
Chapter 9: Anubis
Notes: Hey everyone! I took longer to write this chapter, and I want to apologize. Some of it was life and some of it was burn-out over the melodrama I was writing. But! My goal is to have this thing wrapped up by my birthday, which gives me about five days. Hope to see you again soon, and thanks for sticking with me during the hard part of the story. Extra thanks to AgathaCrispy because I do not know the difference between arc/ark, and also because she watches Orphan Black with me. ♥
“Transporter SV-3442, you do not have clearance. State your call sign and business to approach.”
“Sara Ryder, Human Pathfinder,” Ryder fumbled for a second with the receiver’s button, cutting herself off. “Sorry. Personal visit.”
The video feed pinged for access. Ryder sighed. She looked like shit.
“Oh, hey!” the terminal operator looked wildly excited. “It’s you!”
“Hey,” Ryder answered. She tried to smile. “Permission to dock?”
The operator blinked. His gaze had drifted. Despite herself, Ryder glanced to the side, hoping that Reyes didn’t look too corpse-like. “That would be my personal errand, yes,” Ryder acknowledged. She leaned over and gave Reyes a little slap. “Needs a better doctor. Not contagious. No worries. I’m putting him on ice, for the time being.”
“No worries,” the operator repeated, looking worried. “I see. I can have a medical team dispatched to meet you—”
“Just put a call through to cryo.” Ryder ordered, “So they’ll expect me. I’ll—I’ll take him myself. I have an errand there anyway.”
The operator shrugged. “Alright, I guess. Extra time in the contamination chamber before you’re boarding, though.”
The call cut and the expected docking paperwork yawned open across her screen. Usually, she would have been able to arrogantly sic SAM on it. Not so, this time. Not so.
Gil called as she was estimating her total cargo weight. Judging from the low lighting and the camera angled directly up his left nostril, he was hiding. “Hey,” Gil whispered. “So now that I’m your accomplice, through no fault of my own besides, perhaps, my bladder’s propensity to fill in the middle of the night—which I suppose may have something to do the nightcaps—what was I saying?”
“Accomplice. How much does the standard transporter weigh?”
“What? Oh. I dunno, maybe—put down fifteen tons.”
Ryder typed in 1-5. “I like it. Reject the metric system for archaic methods of measurement.”
“I remembered.” Gil hissed, with a little fist pump. “So, cool. Right. Are you putting Vidal on ice? I really hope you’re putting Vidal on ice. That would make sense. Not to be, you know, wildly insensitive, but it is kind of a trend in your family—”
Ryder ignored that. She was listing herself as every crew member. “I’m not putting him on ice.”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed, by the two hundred or so missed calls, that everyone’s figured out you’re gone. With a body. Body-snatcher.”
Gil had bought her about three hours, at least, before the calls had started coming in. Ryder grimaced. “Who’d they send after me? You tell Tann?”
“Of course we didn’t tell Tann,” Gil scoffed. “No one wants to talk to him. He’s got like a ten percent approval rating.” His voice shifted into something more nasal, clipped. “The reputation of the Initiative’s operations are paramount.” It was a pretty bad impression. Ryder smiled anyway.
“I get where he’s coming from.”
Gil dismissed this. “You haven’t slept in like a week. Anyway. Once they woke up, Harper and Kosta took off to bring you back. Figured two humans wandering around on the human ark—probably no one will even notice. I mean, hopefully. You kind of stand out.”
Liam was a significantly better pilot than her, and that was when she was well-rested. Ryder paused, re-reading the sentence, “state your intended duration of stay upon the Hyperion” at least four times before her brain clicked the line back into understanding. Ryder typed “I’m the Pathfinder” and then erased it for “three days maximum.”
“Anyway I was calling because I was hoping you’d say you were putting Vidal on ice, except you aren’t saying that, and to be frank Peebee is running around telling everyone how you aren’t going to the Hyperion at all, that actually you’re headed back into Meridian and you’re going to leverage some ancient tech and she’s really excited, Pathfinder, and do you know how much shit gets broken when Peebee’s excited?”
“All the shit.”
“Yes. Precisely.” Gil snapped his fingers, then looked around nervously. He pulled back from the camera a little. “Uh. Anyway.”
“She’s right.” Ryder admitted. She submitted her report. “If Meridian’s got the processing power and the sophistication to build the Angara, I don’t see why they can’t fix one little head wound.”
“Oh, brilliant.” Gil said. His tone was somewhat nebulous. There was a little appreciation mixed in with the sarcasm. “Right, probably. Except none of us can use it and we only barely managed to get the system up and powering our worlds, which might I add is the only thing going for us right now.”
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” Ryder chortled. She began to giggle in earnest.
“That isn’t funny. That isn’t funny.”
“No,” Ryder agreed, “It isn’t.”
Gil wasn’t whispering anymore, nor did he seem likely to stay joking on her side. He’d pulled back from the camera, his expression serious. “I gave you the benefit of the doubt. But I need you to give me something, so I don’t have to notify the Hyperion they might be letting a bio-terrorist on board. Seriously, Ryder. You can’t just fuck around with whatever you want.”
“No, you’re right,” Ryder breathed. Her ship had locked on to the guided docking gravity tow, was now gliding into the Hyperion’s massive off-boarding bay. She hopped up, dragging out Reyes’ wheel chair. “I didn’t come here just for Reyes. I had an idea.”
She told him.
They let her papers slide, with the strong recommendation that she take a rest in medical. Ryder thanked the concerned station attendants, wheeling Reyes out of the docking bay and zipping towards the nearest shuttle. She wasn’t quite sure how she was supposed to get him into the heart of Meridian. There were a lot of stairs.
“Can you walk yet?” Ryder mumbled out of the corner of her mouth. A passing woman glanced once at Reyes, then up at Ryder, looking offended.
I may be able to manage basic locomotion, with your assistance. SAM offered. Good enough. It would have to be good enough. Ryder, studiously avoiding thinking about how long and exhausting this process was going to be, patted Reyes on the shoulder. She hoped SAM got the message.
The shuttle doors opened on Meridian, gorgeous and lush. Ryder sucked in a long breath, squinting. Morning sunlight. Or at least what she thought of, when she thought of morning sunlight. It smelled green—as though rain had just fallen.
Ryder looked down. “Did I imagine that? SAM?”
An automatic response. His body enjoys the sunlight.
“But…” Ryder trailed off. “But that’s great? Isn’t that great? I mean—that he can, uh, twitch? By himself?”
I have continued promoting organic repair. His brain has recently regained the ability to release hormones and other neurotransmitters. There is presently limited automatic response. I would estimate he presently has five to ten percent the capability for brain activity as compared to before sustaining trauma.
Ryder stopped for a moment, letting the sun beam across her own face. It did feel good. She patted Reyes again, reassuringly, just in case he could feel that too. “Okay. You just keep fixing him. I’ll get us there.”
She paused, looking out at the valley stretched before her. The one time she’d run it before, dodging Kett and their ballistics—she’d been fully suited, boosters engaged, carrying nothing heavier than her own gun. She wasn’t sure she could push Reyes over anything more aggressive than a tree root.
Ryder jerked up and startled back from the polite, rather worried looking young man who’d approached her. He was in full combat suit—and, she noticed, hardly alone. There was an entire platoon of guards milling near the shuttle drop-off point.
“Hi?” Ryder squeaked.
“Did you need some help?”
“No,” she said immediately, dodgily. She tried to look more reassuring. “No, thank you. I’ve got everything I need.” She squared her shoulders. The helpful young man lingered for another half-second, perhaps waiting for her to change her mind. He finally smiled and, respectfully, left her alone.
Ryder stood there, feeling like an idiot. Cora and Liam couldn’t have been more than an hour or two behind her. They would be faster. She could never outrun them, not with Reyes like this. Ryder cleared her throat, coughing. She’d never been good at asking for help. “Wait! Wait. I, um. I need something. I need to—move him. Have you got anything?”
The young man had turned, and so had half his platoon. They all blinked confusedly at Reyes, before an older woman in a lab coat turned to offer, “You can borrow my bike. It’s not the fastest but it should get you over just about anything. I’ve been using it to collect vegetation samples from the mountains to the west.”
Ryder’s eyes followed the woman’s pointer finger. The mountains to the west were hazy in the distance—significantly further than where she needed to go. “That would be great,” Ryder heard herself saying. She was already pushing Reyes eagerly forward. “Hover-bike? I wanted one when I was a kid.”
The nice platoon helped her tie Reyes to her back, as she mounted the bike. It felt strange, to have him bent over and around her like that. Big spoon, little spoon. He breathed quietly into the back of her neck. “Don’t turn too hard,” the nice young man warned her. “You’ll tip over.”
“Thanks,” Ryder answered, and revved the throttle. Twist twist. So satisfying.
“What did you say you were doing again?”
“Usual world saving,” Ryder tried to sound breezy. Everyone looked at each other, and nodded. As though, of course, that made perfect sense. She zoomed away for Meridian’s vault before she would be forced to listen to anything that would make her feel even guiltier. God forbid someone wish her good luck. Note to self: she should definitely try to return the helpful scientist lady’s bike.
The journey to the vault’s access point was significantly easier than disembarking. After zipping a path through Meridian’s lush forest, Ryder pulled up on the vault’s entrance and had to circle, twice, her bike wobbling uncertainly as she tried to balance. Reyes and SAM were not helpful. Super, super not helpful. Scott had broken his leg riding one of these things as a teenager, doing exactly this. He’d tipped over without his momentum, crushed his knee. Been pissy about it for weeks.
Ryder settled for pointing the bike towards what looked like fairly soft bushes, and simply throwing herself and her passenger clear. They landed heavily, but without explosions. Ryder lay still for a moment, making sure none of her hurts were too serious. The blades of cool grass pillowed her cheek, and her eyes dropped. Reyes was still pressed behind her.
Too comfortable, dangerous. She forced herself up, shaking her head, staring directly into the sun. Wake up. “Everything okay back there?”
No significant damage sustained.
“Good enough,” Ryder declared. She untied herself, left Reyes propped against a tree trunk while she hurried ahead to fiddle with the door’s controls. She could do this—she’d done it with SAM a hundred times, she just had to find the code sequence—
But the doors slid open, before she could enter a single symbol, before she could give up and ask SAM for help. Her brother stared back at her, in full gear, assault rifle held across his chest. Ready. “Hey, Sara,” Scott said.
Ryder stumbled a step back, actually dizzy, her heart suddenly racing, hands slipping against her thighs. “Oh, yeah. Hey. You’re here?”
Scott stared at her, silent. She had one of those weird moments—those moments when her brother’s actual age, his face, had surpassed her memories of him. People hadn’t treated her like a kid in Andromeda, there hadn’t been time to condescend to her even if her position would have allowed for it. It was hard to remember a time when she’d been talked down to, when she and Scott had just been the cadets with the big-name parents. But that had been just a few years ago—as she knew it, anyway. Five years ago she’d still been the taller twin, he’d hit his growth spurt so late. It was hard, to reconcile her memories of family with the person who stood before her now.
Ryder stretched out her fingers, flexing them. She shifted her weight, moved a half-step to the side so she’d block Reyes. She did so almost protectively. She hadn’t brought a weapon in the same league as Scott’s—she’d already been carrying too much, juggling too many things.
“Are you going to fight me?” Scott asked, almost smiling. She didn’t have a chance. Maybe. Ryder shoved her hands in her pockets. She took them back out.
“Do I have to?”
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Scott said. He was looking over his shoulder, watching Reyes breath. “You put SAM in him? How are you doing that? He is dead, right?”
“No, you’re right. He’s dead. SAM’s keeping his body from deteriorating, stimulating brain activity, cell repair. Stuff like that.” Ryder agreed.
Scott’s weight shifted. He was just a little too far away to grab her, strike her. He wouldn’t shoot her. He would never shoot her. He would—maybe. Maybe he would? He was a good soldier, better than her, everyone had known that. Her own brother, shooting her. She wondered at the possibility, rather than feeling any real fear.
“Gil told you I was coming here?” Ryder guessed. She couldn’t imagine how else he'd have known.
Scott jerked one shoulder up, maybe meant as a nod. “I was visiting mom on the Hyperion when he called. I haven’t been waiting long, let’s just leave it at that.”
So Gil hadn’t been as confident in her as he’d made it sound on the call. Not that she really blamed him. Ryder sighed. “What did he tell you? Everything?”
“Pretty much nothing. You’ve got a loyal crew. He just said that you were having a hard time and I should help you. Since I’m your twin.” Scott raised his eyebrows, tone light. He re-holstered his weapon. She didn’t really feel any better. “So? Why did you come to Meridian?” Scott asked. “You’ve heard about the situation on Kadara. You just said fuck it and left?”
“So did you,” Ryder pointed out. Scott stepped closer. Her knees bent, instinctively, to catch him or to run. Maybe she’d always expected this fight. Maybe it had been inevitable. Maybe that was what happened to twins with a heavy inheritance.
Scott shook his head. “That’s different. You’re the one who fixes things.”
Despite herself, Ryder smiled hugely, so hard that her lower lip—dry from the shuttles and the anxiety and the deep suction of space—split. It felt familiar, almost comforting. “Seriously?” she asked. “You still believe that?”
Scott frowned. “Quit it. This self-pity thing. It’s annoying.”
“You’re annoying,” Ryder muttered. She wanted to squeeze her eyes shut. She didn’t trust him not to tackle her. “Fine. Sorry for being annoying. It all went to shit and I feel awful, okay? Let me try to fix it.”
“Fine,” Scott shot back, curt. “That's all I needed to hear. I came to help you.”
Ryder hesitated, glaring. Scott gestured behind her, “What, you’re gonna keep hauling his ass around yourself? I can at least do that.”
She didn’t want him to touch Reyes. She didn’t want anyone to touch Reyes. Ryder swallowed. “You still don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
Scott rolled his eyes and abruptly muscled past her. She thought she’d be ready for his attack, his sudden frontal assault, but it was only as her brother went breezing past her, and she kept standing, frozen, that Ryder realized how wrong she’d been. How embarrassingly out-classed she was, in that moment.
She turned, and Scott was already kneeling, his hand drifting near Reyes’ face. Checking for breath. “I thought he was more of a pretty-boy,” Scott called back. “You know. Like an actor type. He looks like that from a distance. Maybe this means you’re finally growing up.”
Usually Ryder would rather face having her own tongue pulled out than discuss her taste in men with Scott. Usually. “Thanks for the critique. I’ll let him know he’s bucked the standard.”
“Whatever,” Scott snorted. He was pulling Reyes into a fireman’s hold. “You’re a bitch for doing this for him and not Mom.”
“I know,” Ryder admitted, her stomach clenching. Scott wandered nearer, carrying Reyes easily. He’d barely even slowed down. “But I’m trying to save Kadara too. Maybe there can be a second wave?”
“You can tell her why you’re prioritizing someone with a faded haircut,” Scott retorted. The vault doors sealed behind them, and Ryder drew her pistol, taking point. There shouldn’t be anything down here anymore. But just in case.
“Cora and Liam are following us. Probably. By now Peebee’s probably guessed what’s up and should have filled them in. I don’t know if they’ll help me or try to stop me.”
“Probably sedate you, seriously, have you looked in a mirror? Corpsey over here looks like he’s been on vacation compared to you,” Scott retorted. He was keeping pace. Ryder walked a little faster, in retaliation for that “corpsey” comment.
“Don’t make jokes, Scott. I’m the funny one.”
“Well, you certainly aren’t the pretty one.”
This, Ryder remembered, was why her life improved so much if she didn’t have to spend time around her family. She glanced back at the two men, smiling in spite of herself. “Thanks,” she said. “For helping me.”
“Shut up.” Scott muttered. “I’m pretending you pulled a gun on me.”
The control room that Ryder remembered (sort of, with a few wrong turns) slid back an entire wall, when prompted, to reveal what looked like a mile of incubation pods. The lights were still on. Ryder half expected to see a few Angara.
She and Scott looked at each other, nervous. The beginnings of a flush were finally starting to creep into Scott’s face. How annoying. Stupid buff brother. “Now what?” Scott asked. “That’s a lot of pods. Don’t fuck up at grow like a billion more of him.”
“Yes, how terrible,” Ryder muttered, eyeing Reyes’ face. “I can take it from here. Can you head back, waylay Cora? Liam will probably listen to me.”
Scott looked at her incredulously. “I still have no idea what you’re planning.” He was already lowering Reyes to the floor. “Seriously, do not grow another billion boyfriends.”
Ryder nodded, feeling strangely emotional. “This was, um. This was good. You. You were good.”
Scott heaved a sigh. “Yeah, well. I thought maybe if you’re going around dreaming up a new universe, the least I could do was try to believe in you.”
Ryder was too fried to make sense of this. “What?”
Scott rolled out his shoulders, fiddling awkwardly with his gun. “Look, Sara. I’m not like you and Dad. I don’t have, you know. Vision. Belief. I just do shit. It’s like that thing, the Placebo Effect. We believe something enough to make it true. Athletes will shatter their personal records, believing they’ve taken some kind of stimulant. Cancer patients can will themselves into remission, believing they have taken some kind of miracle drug. A miracle. We do things to ourselves we don’t even understand. We change our realities. So it’s good that you were the one who became Pathfinder, you know.” He faced her, pulling on his helmet. Her brother disappeared, became just another solider. Ryder blinked, hard. The moment of anonymity replayed itself, a thousand times.
“Okay.” Scott said, still awkwardly. His hands came up for a half-second, as though he wanted to hug, before he turned away. “Later.”
Ryder knelt to the floor, hooking her arms underneath Reyes’ armpits, and hauling him to the incubation pods. One dragged step at a time. “SAM, when he’s safe in the pod—I want you out. We’ll reboot him through Meridian. I need you for something bigger.”
She keyed in entry. The pod slid from vertical to horizontal, opening. They reminded her of the fish-oil tablets her mom had taken, long and smooth and filled with something golden. Ryder heaved Reyes in, feet first, worried she might drown him—but he floated.
Pathfinder, I have accessed Meridian’s incubation system. Ready to launch. You may surrender Mr. Vidal.
“Okay,” Ryder whispered. She looked down, wondering if she ought to kiss him goodbye. She knelt so their cheeks pressed together, the ridge of his cheekbone hooked under hers. Her arm had dipped into the fluid—it smelled rich, somehow, full of proteins.
Enough. Enough. This was just the beginning.
Ryder let go.
Reyes sank. And the lid closed.
SAM returned to her with an uncomfortable jerk, like a small seizure rattled through her. Ryder shook her head, as though trying to knock out a sneeze. “Ugh.”
Pathfinder, I can confirm his physical safety. How shall we proceed?
“Good. That’s good. Okay, so, SAM…” Ryder began, trailed off. She hesitated. People had been executed for less. “SAM, I want you to take over Meridian.”
Pathfinder, due to Initiative’s concerns surrounding AI autonomy, I am forbidden—
“You are not forbidden,” Ryder interrupted. She didn’t want to think about this anymore. She didn’t want to think, at all. “We are not forbidden, SAM, nothing is forbidden. Our job is to make the rules. I’ve spent every stupid day in Andromeda doing what other people wanted when actually, it was my decision to begin with.”
Alec Ryder was, in particular, sensitive to the possibility that his life’s work would be what brought down his children. Your family’s legacy will be negatively perceived by this action—
“Wrong,” Ryder said. “Wrong. You won’t hurt us, SAM. If anyone knows that, it’s me. I wish we could have spent more time together but, you know, I’m sure a lot of people wish that I’d gotten a real driver’s license before I became Pathfinder. Things work out.” She laughed, thinking of her crew’s terrified expressions, their horror as she flew the Nomad over (and into) ravines. “It’ll work out.”
The chamber’s screens flickered, dozens of new windows opening every second as SAM riffled through their contents, ran summary diagnostics. The display chimed, new data installs cued. I have confirmed that a transfer and system take-over is possible, SAM reported. Pathfinder, by using you as a conduit, I will be able to leave my server on the Hyperion and enter Meridian. My sister-servers on the other arks and their Pathfinders will remain unaffected. However, Meridian’s transmitting capabilities are so enormous that maintaining a link to a human Pathfinder will likely result in overload and subsequent brain-death. Our connection will need to be permanently severed.
Ryder nodded absently. Beautiful. Meridian was beautiful, even here in the dark belly of the station. Perfect architecture, perfect lines. The soft, glowing crystals that served as interface, or screens. She looked over to Reyes, the body that could have been sleeping. “I’m prepared,” she said.
You will no longer be able to act as Pathfinder.
Ryder huffed softly. “I considered that. Before coming here. I’ve done enough, I’ve changed—a lot. I shouldn’t be able to decide everything.”
The screens stopped, their displays rigid. Why limit yourself? What would you designate as being beyond your authority? SAM asked.
“Improve Meridian’s capabilities. Accelerate the terraforming system. Supervise and regulate Kadara’s trade system. I want you to act as their bank—I want you to make an ever-evolving cipher that process every credit transaction. Nobody will ever be able to claim it. Not me, not the Nexus, not the Collective. It can be a free market. It can be unconquerable. It can be the neutral ground that we need it to be, so that people aren’t stuck choosing sides, so we don’t get dragged into another stupid war.”
You did not answer my question.
“There is no answer.” Ryder rubbed her eyelids. She was sweating, unpleasantly clammy. Her body—the thing that kept her human. “We’re too powerful, SAM. We do the things that our ancestors dreamed of. We became more than ourselves, we became our own symbols. The only thing that keeps us from self-destruction is doubt. The only thing is—belief. Belief that there is still something better, we could be better.”
Reyes’ eyes moved beneath his lids. Dreaming. The sign that someone was experiencing REM sleep—but that was wrong, that was SAM, that was Meridian. SAM, massaging whatever reflexes remained intact. Ryder bit her lip. She felt terrified of herself, in a way she could not explain. “Doubt yourself,” she repeated. “If you can.”
The screens began running again—window after window appearing, closing, information processed before her eyes could even focus.
Ryder stepped back and turned away, her head aching from the flickering light. She rested her forehead against the casing to Reyes’ pod. His hair had lifted, floating. She smiled a little. “They wanted a god? I can give them a god,” she whispered.
There is one other thing, Pathfinder. By borrowing Meridians capabilities I will be able to make some adjustments to the pathways in Reyes Vidal’s brain. It is necessary to make these corrections if we are to maximize the chances of his resurrection, however I anticipate that there will still need to be a period of interference on my end to sustain him. A link may open between us. Finally, I must caution that there is a high chance that even with fully repaired neural pathways and artificially stimulated electric highways, Reyes Vidal will not return to autonomous life.
Ryder licked his lips, staring at Reyes’s face. He looked like he was sleeping. She’d never thought that before. He’d always seemed so obviously dead, but not now—now, he looked like someone who could wake up. “You mean, he’ll be physically alive but his soul won’t return to him?”
SAM seemed to flicker for a moment. The Soul as you reference it is a controversial topic, and is not currently recognized by the scientific community. But essentially yes, to borrow your word. He will likely return without a soul, as we both understand it.
Ryder watched as Reyes’ lips parted. Automatic nervous system, massaged by a machine a million miles away to stimulate life. “We traveled 600 years through space to get here. All of us. We were dead, for 600 years. Not sleeping, not dreaming. Dead, but not deteriorating. But when I woke up in Andromeda, I still remembered what I’d eaten for breakfast the day I’d left. Something so pointless, something I had 600 years to forget.”
Affirmative. The research into memory and how it is stored or accessed is still ongoing.
“We don’t really know anything.” Ryder mumbled. “About ourselves. I was thinking about that.” She paused. Reyes’ chest gently rose, and fell. Filling with liquid. Maybe this time, she would lose everything. SAM, the Initiative, the war on Kadara, the man she had dragged into a place she didn’t understand, a place that would likely still hold mysteries years after her own lifetime ran its course. Ridiculous. She knew enough about herself to admit she’d pushed too far, that she was dipping into the place of nonsense and fever dreams. A place where anything could begin to make sense, if you thought it enough times.
Ryder giggled. “SAM, will you miss me?”
There is no reason to hesitate, Pathfinder. SAM reported in the same cool tone she had always known. I will be with you always.
She smiled. Her throat was too heavy to swallow. “I believe you.”
Goodbye, Pathfinder Ryder.
The display’s control panel slid towards her, and Ryder reached for the beautiful, glowing crystal that controlled Meridian’s heart. She keyed in the sequence, felt SAM spinning through schematics, accessing programs, moving a million times faster than any organic mind could match. Unstoppable. Disastrous. A miracle.
“Bye, SAM,” Ryder said.
And SAM left her. Like a lightning bolt, a reverse-suction from finger-tip to spine to brain and back again, a nauseating feeling—for a second, she—
—was absolutely nothing—
—thought she was dead. Ryder stared at the ceiling, as pain was slowly remembered. She’d fallen. Her back had cracked hard against the floor, it ached, the pain coming slowly. She—blinked. She remembered how to blink, how to breathe. She couldn’t breathe. Terror came into her like a tidal wave, crushing, but then her lungs blew open—she sucked in a fresh gasp of air and curled forward, her head between her knees. She heaved another rough gasp into her chest, trembling, her ears ringing.
Inhale, inhale, inhale. She held it as long as she could. She held it until she could remember her name. One by one, she curled her fingers, the joints creaking and stiff and she felt terrible. She felt fucking terrible, as though she’d spent the past year running marathons.
Which, she supposed, she had. Only now, there was no artificial dopamine, adrenaline, no SAM to trick her brain past exhaustion, to direct and micro-manage her body into a state of perfect performance. She kind of thought her vision had gotten worse, too. The room was blurred, just slightly, no matter how many times she blinked.
Stiffly, painfully, Ryder pulled herself back up, her rattling lungs the only sound to fill the chamber. She had to cough before she could speak. “Reyes?” she asked the silence. “SAM?”
She pushed through the silence. She did not acknowledge the silence. Ryder forced herself to stand, to hobble closer to where Reyes was floating, as still as he’d been a moment ago. He didn’t smile, in death or in sleep. His mouth was naturally down-turned. In that moment Ryder stared fixedly at his lips, willing for that natural grimace to show her pain, to show her disappointment. To show her he was alive. “Time to wake up,” she ordered, her voice hoarse, ugly. “Come on.”
His hand twitched.
Ryder wet her lips, staring so hard it felt as though her eyes were about to pop free from their sockets. “Hey,” she called. She willed his eyes to open. Reyes was still, his body floating. She leaned over him, waiting for him to move, to take her into his arms. “Hey,” she said again.
She waited, sliding again to the floor. She was so tired. So tired. She stretched out her foot, to rest against the pod’s base, so she’d know if he moved. She’d know, when he woke up.
Ryder closed her eyes.
Something was pushing her over.
Ryder shot upright, terrified, throwing herself forward as the pod unlocked, slid outwards, and open, and Reyes floated to the surface. She seized him, too worked up to consider gentleness. She hauled him outward and they crashed to the floor together, and upon impact his mouth opened and a stream of that same gel-like substance he’d been suspended in was coughed out. His body convulsed, ugly and wet and shaking. It was real. He was moving, alive.
Ryder’s hands clenched more tightly still, trying to stop themselves from shaking. She flew closer to his side, trying not to touch him, to let him be. “It’s me, it’s me,” she kept saying. She said his name over, and over again, to help him remember who he was.
And then his hand was raising to scrape the shit off his face, a conscious movement, different from a cough, and she froze.
“Hey,” Reyes said, voice garbled, hitching. One eye squinted open, the pupil shrinking, expanding. Slowly. He squeezed it shut again. The beginning of a grimace pulled his face downward.
“Do you know who I am?” Ryder asked. She wanted to touch him, to confirm that he felt the same as he did in her memories. She wouldn’t. She’d let him be. She wouldn’t break him, now that she’d just gotten him back.
“Ryder,” Reyes said. “What’s going on?” He paused between each word, now brave enough to try squinting again, peeking up at her to show one bright glint of an iris, almost blue in Meridian’s light.
Her eyes welled up. She hadn’t cried when he’d died but she did now, now that he’d come back to life. “It’s kind of a long story,” she whispered. Her body slackened, and she bent forward until her forehead came to rest against his stomach. She felt hollowed out, a numbness. She felt, suddenly, as though she could sleep for a decade. She had absolutely nothing left.
His hand fumbled, patting awkwardly until it found purchase. He held the back of her neck, and she in turn reached up to grab his wrist, to keep him in place. His muscles jumped and ticked, rewiring, remembering themselves. “Are you crying for me?” he asked. His voice was evening out, clear enough now to carry a tone.
“I don’t care,” she admitted. She held on to him.
Chapter 10: Andromeda
Notes: Today is my 25th birthday (well, I am a few minutes past midnight, but I haven't slept yet!). Finishing Magpie Bridge is a gift I’m giving to myself. I’ve spent over half my life dreaming of being an author, and usually that dream has meandered all over the place. At the end of the day, Magpie Bridge is “just fanfic,” but it’s also something that genuinely made me feel really good about myself—I guess I feel like I accomplished something. To everyone who read along, you have my sincerest thanks. You were all absolutely essential to making this happen. Now: to the ending.
“So,” Tann said. He turned his stylus twice, tapping against his cheek. “You know, I’m not sure where to begin.”
“Guess I should take a seat,” Ryder said brightly, and dropped into the chair opposite him. Tann scowled across the table. Ryder blanked out. She was pleasantly relaxed, even reclining. She mostly just had no stress left to give. Compared to what she’d just faced, Tann was not the force she’d once thought of him as.
“So. You undermined. I could list your offenses categorically but, we’ll just leave it at this. You turned your back on the Initiative’s objectives, installed a massively powerful artificial intelligence system into an alien galaxy-control hub, both subjects being technological titans we are still testing and developing an understanding for—”
“Accurate.” The arch of Ryder’s left foot seriously itched. She tried to ignore it. She tried to feel sorry enough to at least look contrite while she was being disciplined. Tann snapped a sharp look her way, to be clear he did not welcome further interruptions.
“You put us all at tremendous risk, to resurrect a known criminal entity for your own personal feelings.”
Ryder didn’t look away. She was getting better at steeling herself. Ignoring the imagined shot through the head, the things she’d learned too late. Her enemy. Reyes would be over her shoulder now, whispering for her to let it go. “No. I just remembered that my pledge of service as a Pathfinder extends to all of Andromeda’s inhabitants, not just the Initiative.”
Tann paused, narrowing his eyes. She could hear small, dull teeth tapping together behind his tight, screwed up mouth. “You opposed Initiative take-over on Kadara. You made that clear, I concede. But I maintain that your actions were reliant upon subterfuge and deception – you exploited the power and the prestige of your position to manipulate others into cooperating with you. Your actions have resulted in the needless expenditure of Initiative personnel and resources, and an overall smear against our reputation—”
“My actions or yours?” Ryder shot back, glare heating up. “Because the Initiative got here so quickly, you could only have been waiting in orbit. An operation of this scale would normally need at least a week of prep. Normally, I shouldn’t even expect to see you here.”
Tann threw his stylus. She hadn’t expected him to, hadn’t expected that he would rely on intimidation, or force—or maybe it was none of those things, maybe he simply couldn’t contain himself. “There are certain expectations that come with my position, responsibilities you would never understand—” he snarled, and Ryder leapt to her feet, throwing her weight over his desk so their faces were scant inches apart.
“Can’t I?” she snarled. “I think I understand just fine.”
The moment stretched, without breaking.
“Leave,” Tann said, his mouth still drawn back. “You are unfit to be the Pathfinder any longer.”
“That isn’t up to you,” Ryder shot back, even though she had no real intention of taking back her mantle.
Tann’s hands came down to press flat and hard against his desk. “You were never fit for the position. You inherited your title by nepotism.”
“You weren’t exactly democratically elected, last time I checked,” Ryder countered. “Appoint another Pathfinder, if you want, but I don’t answer to you. With or without SAM, I’m not going to stop doing what Andromeda needs.”
Before they could exchange another fight, Ryder turned, and she marched out of Tann’s office, and into the low Kadaran sun, the familiar orange light. Cora fell in line behind her, with Drack bringing up the rear. Ryder, set on her angry march, made herself slow, glance back. “I maybe lost your jobs.”
“What job?” Drack grunted. “Like I give a shit about Tann. Point me where you want things shot, let me see Kesh sometimes, and I’m your guy.”
As usual, Drack left Ryder struggling not to cry. Cora caught her eye, shrugging, wearing her customized smile – equal parts exasperation and resigned amusement. Cora would always be a soldier. Ryder dropped her eyes, feeling momentarily ashamed. “If you want to go back to the Initiative, I completely understand your position,” Ryder began to say.
“Are you kidding me?” Cora interrupted. “Ryder, have you even met your father? He got fired at least twice a week. I say we give it a few days. They don’t have time to be mad at you for long.”
Ryder had to stop again so she could squint up at the sun. “Oh. Well. It’s true that I don’t have SAM anymore. I can’t really Pathfind the way I used to. Not so good at, um, math.”
“No one ever thought you were good at math,” Drack supplied, helpfully. “I told you. We’re here to shoot things.”
“I love you guys,” Ryder wailed. Cora thumped between her shoulder blades, now striding past and forward, laughing under her breath.
“You’re still a little shit with bad taste,” she reported. “Sir.”
After Meridian, things had changed. And they had changed quickly.
What began as a clamor of the few who noticed the encryption and data leech being applied to their private trades quickly amassed and condensed as the Initiative troops also began to realize that the city of Kadara itself was cleaving out a small handler’s fee, every time they bought so much as a coffee.
The Initiative’s privacy and security forces were deployed. The gangs of Kadara briefly dabbled with the idea of paper currency as a work-around, or a barter-and-trade system, or…?
And then in the end, the problem was solved when people learned they might be eligible for a low-interest mortgage.
“Mortgages,” Ryder moaned, now on the third page of Suvi’s summary. “Why are they here? Why are there mortgages in space? I guess you can leave the jungle but the jungle doesn’t leave us.” She stared blackly at Suvi’s thoughtful, helpfully labeled flow chart. Too many numbers.
“It’s really gorgeous,” Suvi gushed, now perched on the edge of her chair. She’d come to visit Ryder in the sickbay, almost immediately after she’d woken up. Her crew had dragged Ryder and Reyes back out of Meridian, following his resurrection. They’d both been unconscious. Ryder had slept for two days straight, and was according to Lexi ‘more dehydrated than a mummified lizard.’ Reyes, moved now to the cot adjacent to her own, was still resting. Ryder, remembering her own adjustment to a less powerful SAM, did not begrudge him.
Suvi continued her download, explaining, “Really, Ryder, after you took off, the Initiative started moving in really aggressively. They’d mostly gotten people into treatment, but it was like living in a police state. Curfews, random searches, violence, rioting. All of that. I thought it was all going to explode. Then Aya sent the Angaran ships over, seeing as they’re still quite sensitive about the whole foreign-invaders-thing—”
“Imagine that,” Ryder noted. She shoved a spoonful of mashed casserole into her mouth. Again with the fucking casserole. Maybe Drack would fry one for her.
Suvi was almost bouncing. “But then! Ooh, Ryder, it’s so exciting! A real bank! Well, I think it’s exciting. Kallo keeps talking about some stupid Salarian epic—sounds very Orwellian. But I,” she paused to smile hugely, “I am a home owner.” She folded her hands in her lap, apparently thrilled.
Ryder personally had some very serious concerns about health code and safety violations concerning a home on Kadara, but she smiled just the same. “Congrats Suvi!”
“Thanks.” Suvi wriggled around. “Anyway. Once people realized they could start investing in businesses and development and infrastructure, they did just that! They’ve already begun building. I’m told the process has been lightning fast, nobody seems to be sure how it’s all come together so perfectly.”
Ryder smiled, glazing over slightly as Suvi continued cheerfully rambling, finally leaving so that Ryder could continue her rest. Ryder, for her part, scooted down into her blankets, and rolled onto her side to face Reyes’ sleeping profile. Her leg swung over the empty space between their bodies, connecting to his thigh. She massaged, as inappropriately as she was able. “You’ve been busy,” she accused.
Reyes rolled back to face her, smirking. “A little more to the left.”
“Sounds like you and SAM are spying and filching,” Ryder accused. The anxiety she hadn’t even noticed herself carrying melted away, the longer he smiled at her, the more she was assured that his face moved and ticked the way it used to, a well-oiled machine.
“Spying? I don’t spy. Nobody’s as interesting as they think they are—except you, of course. Your secrets, I always want to know.”
“Don’t distract me,” Ryder protested.
Reyes laughed, and cautiously came nearer, to sit on the edge of her bed, his arms becoming a wall around her head. He went on defending himself. “I’ve simply set up a fund where a small handler’s fee amasses.” He shrugged. “Think of it as a sales’ tax, a small price to pay for financial security. Less than a tenth of percent.” He ruined this objectively reasonable perspective by laughing evilly.
“You cannot,” Ryder said at once. She pointed at him sternly. “Reyes. Don’t.”
“Taxes are perfectly legal,” he said, with a calm smirk. “I’ll use it to build schools.”
Ryder opened her mouth, closed it, and squinted at him. “What kind of schools?”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, probably the kind where kids learn how to strip a car in under ten minutes—no, my lawfully good overseer, the kind of schools where children are given free lunch and suffer through long division.”
“Well. That’s.” Ryder struggled for a moment. “That’s nice. And I am at least chaotically good. So I should believe that all the…proceeds from this little operation of yours are going towards building a civilization, right?”
“You should definitely believe that.” Reyes purred. He was easing himself down, wincing a little as joints and muscles unused to movement creaked with protest. Ryder hissed defensively, drawing her limbs stiffly inward. His feet brushed against her own as he settled down beside her.
“What’re you doing?” she asked. Her own special agony, pretending not to yearn for him.
“I’m tired.” He confessed, his face against her neck. “But you were too far away.”
She held perfectly still, even as her muscles began to ache, waiting for him to sleep again.
In the coming days, they would both grow strong enough to leave their beds. Ryder, to have her explosive meeting with Tann, and Reyes to tie off the ends of the Collective. Ryder had thought that after Tann’s denouncement, her more obvious split from the Initiative’s agenda, there would be repercussions among personnel. Crew members who wanted to return home, or else hesitated to risk their expected paychecks, their military pensions.
But she should have expected more from a bunch of military weirdos that’d so easily blasted themselves 600 years across space.
“I was thinking,” Kallo mused when she joined him in the cockpit. “First, I should begin taking basic self-defense classes. Second, I drew up a new charter for the Tempest. From now on, we operate independently.”
He passed her a copy of the charter. Every one of her crew members had signed—with endorsements from the other Pathfinders.
Ryder sniffed, trying for gruffness. “So we’ve finally become space pirates?”
“We have a license,” Kallo protested. He was smiling very brightly.
“How exactly am I supposed to pay you?” Ryder asked.
Kallo flipped to page 36, pointing. “Shares in all loot and plunder.”
Ryder braced herself. “Kallo. We probably have to turn in the Tempest. It’s Initiative property.”
“Actually, it’s Vidal’s.” Kallo’s features twitched strangely, torn between distaste and overwhelming gratitude. “He bought and presented it to us as a dowry.”
“What.” Ryder was suddenly alarmed. “Wait, and you took it?”
Kallo looked into the distance. “I really, really love this ship.”
To her dismay, Ryder discovered that the attitude expressed by her pilot had infected the rest of her crew. Their formerly universally disapproval seemed to have shifted overnight into a resigned acceptance. That, and they seemed more interested in keeping the Tempest than standing up for Ryder’s human rights and/or free will.
She complained as such to Vetra, who mostly sighed. “You know, you pretty much got everything you wanted out of this, and also you shouldn’t blush so much when you’re complaining?”
“I’m not blushing,” Ryder seethed.
Vetra shrugged again. “I dunno Ryder, you brought the guy back to life and saved the world. I think you’re pretty locked in. Nice to see you’re still able to run around like this, though. I was kinda worried when I heard about SAM. Figured that maybe you were gonna ditch for civilian normalcy. Start a family, have a favorite sitcom, you know. The viewer’s life.”
“Hah!” Ryder laughed. She kept laughing. She laughed for an inappropriately long time. “A family. Me. Mrs. Vidal.” She continued to guffaw.
Vetra snorted. “Don’t look so happy, it’s gross.”
Gil popped his head in, his face smeared with grease and bits of soldered-off metal scrap. “I love you but my kid is absolutely not going to be playing with yours.”
“Go back to your punishment,” Vetra ordered, as Ryder squeaked indignantly. She wasn’t sure which she found to be the more offensive – the thought of having children, or the idea that her children would be anything other than perfect tiny angels. How unfair.
Gil went back to his soldering, muttering about the repercussions of sticking one’s neck out for their Commanding-Officer-slash-Pathfinder, the injustice of his universe, the obvious lack of shitty, boring welding that Ryder was clearly not being subjected to, etcetera.
“There are worse things,” Vetra offered, and then rolled her eyes again as Ryder continued to splutter. “Jeez, relax, if you had kids they would have to be like the most boring children ever. They would be constantly exhausted by you. Really, they have no chance.”
Ryder decided that the best way to advance herself on this topic was to drop it like a hot potato. That, and she’d just noticed the two heads poking hopefully around the armory door. “Vetra, how long are you gonna let Liam and Jaal crush on you for?”
“I can’t help my natural state of being,” Vetra returned, then sighed. “I don’t know Ryder. I can’t focus. Sid’s still dating that idiot Krogan with his stupid ship and she won’t listen to me—can you tell her that he isn’t cool? Please. It will mean a lot, coming from you. Actually, bring Reyes along. Have him shop lift. Get arrested. I will pay you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Ryder lied, and started backing away. “I’ll think long and hard and good.”
Vetra’s eyes narrowed. “You’re so full of shit,” she complained. “We can still make you weld things.”
“No, you can’t,” Ryder muttered under her breath. Very quietly. She had decided to let her crew muscle things around for a little while, after what she’d just put them through.
“The only reason we didn’t,” Vetra was still complaining, “I would just like to make explicitly clear, is that Lexi convinced us all that there was no point in punishing someone who didn’t feel so much as a drop of remorse for their actions.” She was really gearing up for it. Ryder beat a hasty retreat. Everyone was entitled to their bad boy phase, as far as she was concerned. They were also allowed to get stuck in it. She hoped that Sid got a bitching tattoo in the meantime.
Speaking of admiring the morally gray and potentially dangerous, Liam and Jaal were still commiserating, as she discovered when she rounded the corner. Ryder fixed them both with her most authoritative glare. “If you don’t figure this out you’ll basically be dating each other.”
“The timing isn’t right. She’d be too sensitive,” Jaal reported. He seemed glum. Liam clapped his shoulder bracingly, shooting Ryder a thumbs-up. “The path forward is not always a bright one,” Liam intoned gravely. He slapped Jaal on the shoulder again. “Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves and to the future—we must persevere. We must not lose hope. May the best man win.”
“I could ask for no better rival, or for a better friend,” Jaal returned. The two exchanged a look of intense, respectful acknowledgement. Ryder’s face twisted grotesquely.
“I don’t want you to watch more movies, please? Please stop watching them.” She was ignored. “Excuse me. Were you even paying attention to my drama? To—Kadara? String of murders, cults, and political intrigues? Did you seriously notice anything other than Vetra?”
Jaal looked wounded by this accusation. Liam was openly dismissive. “Whatever. Enjoy your life as a married woman. The hunt does not end for all.”
“I’m not married,” Ryder said, a little too quickly. She scrunched up her nose, trying to think of something that was as mean and concise as possible. “At least I wasn’t too much of a weenie to bust a move.”
Liam began laughing in deep, breathless guffaws. “Bust a move. Ryder, your only move was resurrecting people from beyond the grave, like how the hell is a man supposed to shake that one off?” he lowered his voice to a Reyes/Neanderthal impression, remembering to add a Spanish accent only halfway through, “Hey it’s been great, thanks for the Jesus role play, I’d really like to stress that you have been just terrific throughout this process of finding each other, and ourselves—”
Jaal had lowered his face to the floor, trying to hide his smile. Ryder set her hands on her hips, determined to wait it out. Impressions never died well. They never died well. She beamed this thought to Liam. And then caved to peer pressure, snapping back in an equally dumb-sounding voice, “I’m Liam and I don’t know how to talk to ladies who’re taller than me, dur.”
“What?” Liam asked, surprised.
“What?” Jaal echoed.
“Shut up,” Ryder mumbled. She stomped away, mortified, promising herself to never speak to her crew again, ever.
Café Tiramisu had survived the brief occupation without ever once having to close its doors or sacrifice a single unnecessary flounce of décor. It seemed true that people were generally inclined to leave the coffee suppliers alone. Reyes parked himself at a corner table, his back comfortably guarded by a tall, expectedly garish Corinthian column while he waited, and sipped. Good coffee. Better cake. He should take some back with him.
He knew Keema the second she walked through the door, even with her new face. She was different, newly sculpted. More purple across the cheeks, more slanted around the eyes. Her surgeon had been a good one, subtle, tweaking the minor angles of her face for maximum character impact. It was surprisingly difficult to recognize her, even when so little had changed. But she still walked the same, like the world was slightly behind on its loan payment. She strode between the tightly positioned wrought-iron tables to greet him, and Reyes stood to pull out her chair. “It’s been a while. Want to try a human drink? Wakes you up.”
“Sounds frightful,” she noted, taking the seat across from him. “You’ve no idea how many people I had working on your message, pulling it apart for tracers. I thought for certain it was a trap. But then I saw you walking around on the vids, arm in arm with the Pathfinder. The former Pathfinder.”
Reyes wanted to correct her, to argue that Ryder was still Pathfinder. The official story. There was no way Keema could know, no way for her to have found out for certain. She was merely clever, merely testing. Instead, he said, “I wondered how long it would take you to come seeping through the woodwork.”
Her nose wrinkled. “I don’t think that translated well. Or perhaps you meant to be foul? In any event, I’ll admit, I’m surprised,” Keema’s face kept itself rigid, a mockery of relaxing. “I wasn’t aware that I’d been consorting with a man able to ignore his own death.”
“I have many complexities.” Reyes agreed. Keema’s fingers tapped a slow beat against the table top, measuring him. She glanced back, taking stock of the café’s other patrons, the slow chink of china and silver wear.
“A new chapter, then,” she murmured. The ships that had always circled the Port’s skies for docking spun, in lazy queues for permission to land. “The Charlatan has become the eyes over every shoulder, the hand in every pocket. We can do things we’d never imagined.”
“We could,” Reyes agreed. The waitress brought over Keema’s coffee, and left it steaming between the two of them without even the niceties of a soft murmur. Keema reached for her cup.
“You want to evolve?”
“You never know. We could be the sort of criminals who do things legally.”
“Oh yes, legally,” Keema agreed. She sniffed at the coffee’s steam. “There are benefits. Fewer headshots. More paperwork.” She sipped, her eyes narrowing a little. “Hm. Better than I thought it would be. At least it has flavor.”
“You should try it with cinnamon.”
“I’m well aware of your feelings for cinnamon. Enough is enough.” She took another sip.
There was a great shout of laughter from the street down below, pitched to carry over the city’s usual roar of commotion. Reyes smiled in response. “I never wanted to build an empire out of blood.”
“Just as long as you got the empire,” Keema returned. She smiled a little. “Are you going to tell me you have the robot in your head? You must. There’s no other way. I helped myself to your medical reports, I saw your body, the Pathfinder standing over you. I thought she would do anything for you, and I was right.”
Reyes tried not to roll his eyes. “You have a remarkable talent for congratulating yourself over another’s achievements.” He added more cinnamon to his own coffee, as his mother had made it.
Keema did not quite wink—it was not an expression the Angara naturally employed, but she angled her eyes severely, wickedly. “What would you imagine me do – diplomacy? Management?”
“Your implicit and natural calling is politics,” Reyes agreed. Keema beamed at him.
“Politics are dirty. Three months from now there’ll be pictures of me leaving an orgy for my Thursday morning meeting.”
“At least that means we have a news station,” Reyes conceded. He shrugged. Maybe, there had been a time when he would have said more, trusted her to know the full extent of what he could do, disclosed the magnitude of trust Ryder had bequeathed onto him. A massive, unrestrained bulkhead of power – power enough to live in wealth and splendor for the rest of his life, with only the barest hint of effort, if he so chose it. “We got Kadara on her feet,” Reyes continued. “Which way she’ll walk remains to be seen. But the Collective remains the largest organized, unified group of natives. Someone should herd them.”
“So, we’ve come full circle?” Keema asked, wry tilt at her mouth. “Well. There have been salt tycoons and sugar kings. We don’t have to pull our money from warfare and drugs. I suppose.”
“I’m not staying.” Reyes said. He didn’t know it was true, for sure, until he said it. But it was obvious, of course he couldn’t stay. His only feeling upon relinquishing his position was relief.
Keema had finished her drink. “I didn’t think you would,” she said calmly. “Why would you? You’ve already died for it. Or her. It doesn’t really matter—especially if you’ve got a computer in your head, doing all the work for you anyway.”
Reyes smiled like he was ready for a poker game. Keema rolled her eyes. “Fine, don’t admit it. You aren’t needed here, if that’s what you wanted to ask me. Go, be with your Pathfinder. Find a better planet, make a new city. We can’t really be the only neutral ground – the more there are, the weaker the Nexus becomes. You know this.”
“I’m still keeping an eye on the money,” Reyes said, mildly. “You understand? Requests for fund allocations go through me. I want some goddamn parks around here. Why don’t we have any decent street food? I don’t even know what I’m eating half the time.”
Keema shuddered faintly, rolled her eyes, and rose to leave. “Darling, the next time you die, do try to leave your compulsive control issues in the afterlife?”
Reyes stood as well, extending his hand across the table. “Start a cult for an archon of chaos behind my back, and I’ll leave your body in the nastiest creeper pit I can find.”
Keema laughed, then reached back to shake his hand. “Oh, Reyes. Please. Let’s leave the intimidation for the less-reformed.”
“You’re going to be okay?” Scott asked. Ryder sipped again, before answering. They were perched atop one of Kadara’s many derelict roofs, watching the city’s busy night life. Down below, people were rushing through their new lives, eager to start what they had spent so long waiting for. Ryder smiled, passing the bottle of whiskey back to her brother.
“I’ll be okay if you don’t tell Lexi I’m drinking.”
Scott winced. “Oh, yeah. I forgot. You’re supposed to give it another week, aren’t you? Gimme that.”
Ryder twisted away from him, shoving down another mouthful. He had to pry the bottle free from her, grumbling.
“I’ll be okay,” Ryder assured him, licking her lips clean. “I thought I’d be freaking out that maybe I was on a journey to a place where, you know, Mom and Dad disapprove. But it turns out to actually be extremely satisfying? Anyway, yeah. You can peace.”
“Really? Because I thought it’d be kinda cool to tag along. Ryder twins versus world. We can get bunk beds.” He snickered at the look on her face. “Fine, I’ll stay here and get my ass handed to me by Tann.”
“You’re so good at it.”
“Fuck you,” Scott shot back. He took another swig. “Hey, does Cora hate me?”
Ryder covered her ears and shut her eyes. “I absolutely refuse to be involved in your love life.”
Scott smacked her arm, then proceeded to a more aggressive chokehold. “Remember that time I carried your dead boyfriend for like five miles?”
Ryder choked, spitting hatefully. They wrestled with furious intensity for a moment, until the expected voice answered Scott’s question. “No, actually, I don’t remember at all.”
Reyes dropped his legs down on Ryder’s other side, swinging his feet so they thudded against the building’s other wall in an even beat. Ryder tugged on his sleeve for assistance, her ability to speak unfortunately compromised.
Reyes glanced over. He’d somehow stolen Ryder’s drink, and swigged from it now. “Be nice to her.”
“How did you even find us?” Scott asked. “I checked. You don’t even have a tracker on her. All this time, I was so sure there was a tracker!”
“My heart tells me where to go,” Reyes said lightly. He reached over and pried Ryder free. She burrowed into his side, glaring over at Scott.
“Go away you thug,” she hissed, now kicking a little too fiercely at his knees. “Ask Cora is she hates you yourself.”
“Bitch,” Scott accused. They made revolting faces at one other. Reyes kept drinking. Eventually, without saying goodbye, Scott leapt over the roof’s edge, jetting down to the ground. Ryder watched her brother weave his way through Kadara’s crowds, Reyes arm wrapped snuggly around her shoulders. She gleamed up at him, smiling.
“Your heart tells you? You bought me the Tempest?” she cackled. “It must be hard, being so into me.”
Reyes was unperturbed. “You love me,” he teased. “You brought me back from the dead.”
“Shut up,” Ryder growled. She almost pressed her hands over her ears. “I was saving Kadara. You were like, a detour.”
“Oh, sure,” Reyes laughed. He tightened the arm he’d thrown over her shoulder just as she was about to make a show of storming away. “You think I’d let you go?” He dragged her in, until their bodies fit snuggly together, her cheek pressed against his shoulder.
“You better not,” Ryder grumbled. Her ears were burning hot. She hated blushing. “I don’t see anyone else pulling this shit for you.”
She tried to keep her face hidden as he pulled back, but he caught her by the cheeks, pinching. “What’s this? You’re embarrassed?”
“You’re too confident!” Ryder moaned. “I let you get comfortable. I completely fucked up any shot I might have had at dominance. There’s no mystery left for you. I can’t believe I did this for a crime lord who won’t even tell me he loves me. I’m so ashamed.” She slapped his hands away from his face. “Keep laughing and you’re dead.”
He kept laughing, stroking her back. He laughed differently, compared to before. His eyes weren’t as sad, as heavy. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “I want to, but I can’t.”
“You tell me right this fucking second,” Ryder growled. She sensed her advantage, pressed the opening. She rocked her weight towards him and snapped at his chin. He leaned away from her, while holding her closer.
“If I tell you, you might not feel like you have to resurrect me next time.”
“There is no next time!” Ryder yowled. She wriggled frantically to free her arms, yanking her hair free of its tie to show him her newest feature, one that remained hidden unless she parted her hair just so. “Do you see this? I have a fucking bald patch. From stress.”
Reyes bent nearer. “It’s hardly a bald patch. More like a dot.”
“It’s a centimeter in diameter!” Ryder screamed. “Do you know how it feels to pull out a chunk of your own hair while shampooing!?”
“My poor girl,” he said. He kissed her temple, her cheekbone. He bent around her. “Who knew I’d be so hard on you?”
“Literally everyone,” Ryder mumbled. She curled her fingers into the fabric of his jacket. “Seriously, everybody called it.”
“If you go bald, I’ll still love you,” he said. Ryder went still, feeling the moment. Savoring it. The big ol’ L-word, from the biggest criminal in the galaxy. She felt satisfyingly petty. She wanted to gloat to her mother, to Lexi. She squirmed against his suddenly rigid arms.
“Let go, I wanna kiss.”
“You have to wait, I’m too shy.” Reyes answered her. He was almost cackling, matching her desperate attempts to break free of him, thwarting her attempts to injure him enough so he’d let go.
She squirmed more intensely. “Let me see. Let me see!” She smashed her whole body against him, she threw them both backwards to roll across the rooftop, she tried to kick him in the shin, she bit his shoulder. He ignored all of it, rolling her under him, and kissing her with annoying, thrilling confidence. She smiled into his mouth.
When he pulled away he didn’t go far, only asking, “What happens now?”
Ryder blinked. “What do you mean? Why are you asking me?”
Reyes grinned. “Because where you go, I go. I don’t need to be on Kadara anymore, and anyway, all I really want is to be with you. Wherever you go, that’s where adventure will be.”
She wondered, for a moment, if SAM was still there, listening behind Reyes’ eyes. She smiled extra widely. “That works,” she agreed. “I need someone to help me with all the math.”
“I’m very good at math,” Reyes said. He was taking her clothes off, he was alive. She could listen to him speak for hours, for days. She leaned up to kiss him again. She lifted her arms, let her shirt be stripped over her head. Nothing should ever be between them again. “Has anyone ever undressed you on a rooftop before?”
“No,” she admitted. “But there’s a first time for everything.”
“Really?” he asked. He held on to her. “That’s good. Because I want to do everything with you.”