Athena slept. The monitors behind her jumped and changed according to her vitals. Jaal had his head pillowed among his arms, his fingers tight around Athena’s slack hand.
She is fine. She is alive.
But somehow the words sounded hollow in Cora’s head. She took a deep shuddering breath and squeezed her eyes closed. Athena fell to the ground again, dead. This time by SAM’s doing.
Her heart stopped, was stopped, to get them out of the Archon’s trap. She was dead.
Cora’s eyes snapped open. She blinked rapidly to get rid of the image from behind her eyelids. Lexi glanced her way, worry and concern furrowed her brow. They had all been lectured once by the doctor. Cora knew Lexi meant well, but neither she nor Athena could see a way out of the trap.
But what if SAM couldn’t restart her heart?
Cora kept her eyes on the sedated Pathfinder instead, her eyes staring at the monitors, the waveforms peaked and dipped according to Athena’s heartbeat.
You promised Grace to take care of her little sister. And you let her die to save your life.
Her jaw tightened. If she felt bad, what was Jaal going through? His heart must have shattered into a million pieces. The woman he was just starting a relationship with offered herself up as tribute. It was hard on all of them.
The Archon’s ship was a nightmare. A rollercoaster of ups and downs. To find the Paarchero teetered to the Archon’s ship was a stroke of good luck, but that was the end of their luck. Once they boarded, it went from bad to worse. Athena had visibly recoiled at the rows upon rows of salarian bodies in various stage of decomposition. They were sliced up, pulled apart and experimented on. Still, she shrugged off all attempts of comfort citing the need for speed.
Their team fought through waves of kett to find the salarian Pathfinder alive at the end. It was the best possible reward. But the situation soured when minutes later Athena was forced to choose between Raeka and Drack’s scouts. Athena was torn, her movement jerky and clipped as she paced. Clearly, she wasn’t as unaffected by dying as she had let on.
“You have to decided,” Cora remembered saying. “There is no time.”
“Kid, you can’t do this to my scouts. You’re consigning them to a fate worse than death,” Drack all but begged through the comms, the anguish clear in his voice. “Please, Ryder.”
Athena’s eyes flicked towards Jaal then herself. Neither could offer an answer. There was no right choice just a host of bad ones. She squeezed her eyes close for a second and barked, “We’re getting Raeka. I’m sorry, Drack.”
With a flip of her finger, she turned off the comms. Cora heard the vulgarities Drack spewed through the channel. As they raced towards Raeka, Cora was sure whatever Drack was saying wasn’t as bad as what Athena was telling herself.
As soon as they boarded the Tempest, Drack was upon Athena, rage and disappointment clear in his eyes. An apology was on the tip of Athena’s tongue, but Drack brushed it off like it was worthless scrap.
“Drack!” Jaal stepped forward, shielding Athena with his bulk. “That is not fair. It was a hard decision to make but-"
Athena tugged at the angara’s arm, she shook her head and stepped between the pair. “I am the Pathfinder. I make no excuses, it is my decision and mine alone.”
Athena stood pale, exhausted and heart sick. Her head bowed as she waited for Drack’s judgement. Cora slammed her palms against Drack’s chest. “This isn’t the fucking time or place, Drack,” she growled. “Ryder just had her fucking heart stopped to get our asses out of there.”
Drack’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Maybe she should have stayed dead then,” he rumbled before stalking off.
The krogan’s words raked over Athena like claws. She shuddered at his words, a hand pressed against her chest. She wavered where she stood, still clad in armour coated in kett guts and salarian blood. Looking up, her eyes were watery with tears standing in them. Athena’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Her arm out stretched towards Drack, as if calling him back. Her legs moved as she made to follow him but her knees buckled. Jaal was quick to catch her.
A loud slap rang out. Cora jerked her head up to find Lexi with an open palm against Drack’s cheek. “You have no right to speak to her that way,” she barked.
Without waiting for a response, Lexi brushed past the others surrounding Athena. “To the med-bay,” she ordered. “Now!”
With an arm around her waist, Jaal helped Athena to the med-bay while Cora followed closely behind.
Once inside, Lexi gestured for Athena to strip out of her armour and asked, “What were you thinking?”
Athena’s hands moved mechanically as she unclasped the buckles. Pieces of her armour fell to the ground. Jaal moved to help her with the hard to reach ones.
“I had no choice,” Athena explained, her voice dull and flat, all energy drained from her. “It was that or all of us dead at the Archon’s hands.”
“I don’t like it, I don’t like it that SAM has such control over your physiology.”
“I would never harm the Pathfinder,” SAM chirped in.
“That’s not the point,” Lexi snapped. She took a deep breath. “Enough about that. Get on the bed, Ryder. I’m doing a full body scan.”
It took some convincing on both Jaal and Lexi’s part, but Athena eventually agreed to be sedated. If only to escape from the unbearable migraine that had been assaulting her. Lexi could tell the entire ordeal was eating away at Athena’s external stoicism.
Lexi prepped her syringe. As she approached, Athena said, “Cora, make sure we’re heading to the Nexus. I need to speak to Tann.”
Cora nodded. Athena drifted off with Jaal watching over her. She knew why they were headed to the Nexus. There was only one thing on Athena’s mind all this time. With her end of the bargain fulfilled, they would be able to go search for Grace.
Athena walked, back straight, shoulders squared into Tann’s office. One glance from her convinced his assistant to scamper. The assistant remembered what happened the last time the human Pathfinder visited. Cora placed her hand on her shoulder and squeezed. Athena nodded.
Her boots thumped as she ascended the steps. Tann looked up from his terminal. There was an almost imperceptible flinch. Neither of them had been in the same room since she threatened him.
“Please find the salarian ark, I promise to do what I can for your sister.”
Athena remembered. From the way Tann reacted, he recalled as well. The map to Meridian found, the Paarchero located and brought back to the Nexus. Everything on her to-do list checked and completed.
Who cares if it took me a month to do it. Who cares if I had to actually die to get it done?
Athena rubbed the back of her neck, the memory of a needle plunging into her body flashed before her eyes. She stiffened.
“You know why I am here,” she said, her voice tightly controlled.
Tann nodded. “I’ve heard the good news. Ryder, you have done such a good job, the press will want to interview-” he said, straightening in his chair.
The director clamped his mouth shut. Athena took two steps closer. She rested her hands on the table and leaned forward. She levelled her eyes on Tann and waited.
“Right, right,” Tann stammered.
His long slender fingers tapped against his omni-tool quickly. “There, done,” he said. “I’ve granted Kandros permission to send APEX members to Voeld. He can start the search for your sister.”
Athena didn’t bother correcting Tann. She turned on her heels and walked away, but the scrap of the chair against the floor made her paused. “Ryder,” he called out. “For what it is worth I hope you find her.”
She didn’t move. The words burnt the tip of her tongue. There was so much she wanted to unleashed on the director but to say them was to make Grace’s situation true. It was a truth she wasn’t ready to accept, not yet anyway. Maybe not ever. Athena sighed and walked out.
Her strides took her to Kandros’ little office. He took one look at Athena and he knew. “I heard that you-"
Athena shook her head. “I’m not here for that, Kandros,” she said. “I’m here for the co-ordinates.”
Kandros’ mandibles pressed tight against his face. He nodded and picked up the datapad to hand it to her. There was no hesitation. He didn’t have to look for it. It was just right there.
How long had it been sitting on his desk? How long had he been staring at it?
Athena’s brilliantly blue eyes flicked between the offered datapad and Kandros. Her chest ached. She pressed her palm against it and took the datapad greedily out of his talons. As she quickly skimmed through the information, she missed the look Cora and Kandros exchanged.
His mandibles fluttered in concern, his talons gesturing towards his chest, mimicking Athena’s own gesture. Cora shook her head. When Athena looked up again, nobody seemed to have moved. She nodded at Kandros and turned away.
“Ryder,” he called out, echoing Tann.
Athena closed her eyes for a moment before turning back to face Kandros. She would give him that at least. “Promise me, you’ll find her,” he pleaded, his voice softly keening.
She stared at Kandros. The simmering anger was still there though its intensity was much reduced. It had been more than a month since Grace’s disappearance. It was no longer the fresh wound it had been. Athena gritted her teeth and kept her mouth shut. She didn’t need Kandros, of all people, to remind her the duty she had to Grace.
Damn you, Kandros. Damn you, Tann.
Athena sighed again, loud, long and hard. “Let’s go, Cora.”
Her first stop was the Bridge. “Kallo,” she called out.
“Hey, Ryder,” he greeted, turning around to face her.
Kallo must have seen something in her eyes because whatever he wanted to say dried up in his mouth. “Where to?” he asked instead.
“Voeld,” Athena replied. “As fast as you can manage.”
She turned away only to find Cora waiting. She couldn’t quite meet Cora’s. Athena clenched her fists. A shuddering breath was all she allowed herself, anything more she would fly apart. Keeping her eyes just over Cora’s shoulder, she said, “We’re going to bring Grace home.”
The tension in the galley was so thick, Athena could slice it with her omni-blade if she wanted. It was quiet. Everyone seemingly absorbed in their own chewing. Drack who would usually be cooking up a storm was sitting sullenly at one end of the bench. His eyes trying to burn a hole on the table with all the glaring he was doing. Athena was sitting with Jaal on the other end. He was slurping his nutrient paste, something he had told her he didn’t particularly enjoy, while she was chewing on some pineapple flavoured protein bar.
Why the hell is there a pineapple flavoured one? Who makes that? Someone must be out of their mind to think anyone wanted a pineapple flavoured anything.
The chomp, chomp chewing sound from Liam and Vetra was only punctuated by the slurping from Jaal. The noise was driving her up the wall. She concentrated on her own chewing. The pineapple flavour got stronger the more she bit down. Her stomach protested and Athena gagged.
“Are you ok?” Jaal asked, his hand massaging her back, his pack abandoned on the table.
Athena cleared her throat, forcing the piece in her mouth down. “I’m fine,” she gasped as she squeezed past Jaal, making a beeline to the fridge.
She yanked it open, her hands searching for the milk. With a quick twist, she wrenched off the cap and drank directly from the bottle. Vetra made a face while Liam raised an eyebrow at her. For a moment, Athena could pretend everything was just normal.
Then, Drack snorted. It was a noise filled with derision. She stiffened as she tossed the empty bottle into the recycler. Athena turned to find Drack looking back at her. Her chest ached again. The tension was back, thick and heavy. Vetra and Liam scarfed down the remains of their protein bars and made their escape. Jaal shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Athena bit her lip. Her eyes seeing only anger in Drack’s. She sighed. “Drack, I want to apologise.”
“Kid,” Drack growled, rising to his full height, towering of Athena. “You don’t get to say sorry and be rid of this responsibility.”
Athena couldn’t help the thundering in her chest as her heart quickened. She took a step backwards before she steeled herself. “I know words are meaningless to your scouts, to you, but these words must be said.”
The krogan folded his hands across his chest, he waited. His predator sharp eyes pinning Athena on the spot. “I am sorry that I’ve sacrificed your scouts,” she said.
“Sacrificed?” Drack roared, “You think they are merely dead? You know they are not. They will be exalted, be made into pawns for the kett, serving them in death, killing-"
“Drack,” Athena yelled, “I know. I know, all right? Their blood and the blood of anyone else they spill are on my hands.”
Her body shook as her hands tightened into fists. “I’m sorry and that’s all I can say.”
Without giving Drack another chance to respond, Athena fled the galley. Jaal lingered a little as she left. She didn’t want to know what passed between them. Athena didn’t have any capacity to take on anymore.
They were heading to Voeld.
She ran, thighs burning. Her sniper rifle clicked empty, but the Archon was still after her. She threw the rifle behind her but the Archon dodged it deftly. He had a syringe in his hands. There, an opened door! She raced towards it. But as she stepped through, her body froze.
“No, no, no!” she screamed.
But the stasis field held her fast. “SAM, help me!” she cried, her struggles were futile.
The Archon emerged from the shadows before her. She frowned. His face was shrouded in shadow. As he raised his head, instead of the Archon looking upon her, it was Grace. Her face all slack and pale, her eyes dull and lifeless.
The dull eyes locked onto her. A chill ran down her spine. This wasn’t Grace. This was a lie. Her struggle grew more frantic and panicked, but outwardly she didn’t move a hair. She was a frozen puppet on strings. Grace floated closer and closer. Her mouth opened impossibly wide. It stretched more than half the width of her face. Blood poured from the gaping hole that was her mouth.
But that wasn’t the worst. It was the scream.
Grace screamed her name. She never hated hearing her name more. Grace was mere inches away from her face. The monster that had Grace’s face reared her head back and bit down between Athena’s neck and shoulder. Blunt teeth sinking, grinding deeper and deeper into her flesh.
Athena jerked upright, screaming.
It was a nightmare, just a nightmare.
She pressed her hand against her chest, trying to calm her racing heart. Athena squeezed her eyes shut, taking deep breaths.
It’s not real. It’s not real at all.
Athena rose to her feet shakily. For once, glad that Jaal wasn’t sleeping with her. She didn’t think she could explain her nightmare to anyone, not even Jaal. She swallowed and her throat protested. It was sore from the screaming she did.
She shuffled towards the galley to get herself a glass of water, but she hesitated at the door. She didn’t want to face Drack. “SAM, what’s the time?”
“It is 0300 hours ship time.”
Athena heaved a sigh of relief. It was unlikely anyone was up at this time. Pressing her palm onto the door, the holo-lock cycled, and the door opened. Athena blinked. Lexi was nursing a cup of tea inside.
The doctor cocked her head at Athena. Her expert eyes took in Athena’s appearance and a frown furrowed her brow. Athena sighed and resigned herself to a lecture. If it was a lecture she was to have, she might as well get her cup of water.
Instead, Lexi rose. “Sit,” she gestured towards the bench.
Athena dutifully sat. Lexi opened the cupboard and took another glass out. She took another precious tea bag from her hiding spot. Athena’s eyes widened. Lexi turned and winked, pressing a finger to her mouth. Athena nodded eagerly. The fragrance of mint infused the air as hot water was poured into the glass.
As the tea steeped, Lexi looked at Athena. “I heard about our destination,” she said.
Athena nodded. She knew what Lexi was going to say.
“You shouldn’t go, let Cora lead the team,” Lexi said.
But I have to be there, for Grace. If I’m not there, it doesn’t make it right.
“You have just gone through something very traumatic. You are not in the right state of mind to do this,” Lexi went on. “Your heart was stopped. Dealing with the search for your sister on Voeld on top of that is just not a good idea.”
Athena straightened her spine. “Do you think I forgot? I died, but I remembered every single thing. I am alive,” she snapped.
She sighed, running her fingers through her hair. “Fuck, sorry,” Athena apologised. “Shit, damn.” Athena grunted in frustration.
Lexi sighed, her eyes softened. Reaching out she cupped Athena’s hand in her own. “You’re not ready to face this,” she said.
Athena stiffened and pulled her hand away. “I want to know once and for all. Not knowing is what’s killing me.”
“Then why are you running?”
Athena’s brow all but knitted together. “I am not. I had to work with what conditions Tann placed on me. Find the salarian ark, get the co-ordinates to Meridian. I’ve done all that as fast as I could.”
“If you’re not running, why are we orbiting Voeld for the past two days,” Lexi pointed out, her gaze infinitely wise, endlessly patient. “Kallo got us here in record speed the moment you stepped off the Nexus with Cora. Now, we’re just squandering the time sitting up here. Why?”
Her hands flew to her mouth, words crowded around her tongue, all of them vying to be first in line but Athena knew they were all excuses. Her eyes grew hot as she took a ragged breath in. “I’m stuck.”
Lexi shifted and sat next to Athena. She pulled the Pathfinder’s head gently down onto her shoulder. The sobs came, quiet and tight. “If I stay here, Grace is still alive and I should lead the team to rescue her. But that means I’ve left her to her fate for an entire month on Voeld. She can’t possibly…”
The words failed her. Her thoughts, oxymoronic as they were, chased each other around in her head. Lexi stroked her hair, humming as she did so. “You’re not ready for this. Let Cora lead the team,” she said, softly.
Athena struggled a little. Her sense of duty warred against her realistic nature and her wish to remain optimistic. In the end, it was the guilt that overwhelmed her. Her sobs came loud and hard. The walls that propped her up for the past month had been chipped away by a trip to the other side. Now faced with Voeld and the prospect of finding Grace, it all came crumbling down.
Athena opened her eyes. Her first thought was to check her omni-tool. There was a message from Cora. She blinked.
Last night wasn’t all a dream. I did message Cora telling her I’ll speak to her today.
She sighed. Lexi was right. Athena squeezed her eyes shut, for a moment wishing she was still asleep. But her puffy eyes and stuffy nose convinced her to get up. Levering herself upright, a wave of vertigo swept over her, her unsteady legs took her forward a couple of steps before they buckled. Athena fell heavily to the ground. As she winced, her stomach roiled and cramped at the same time.
She groaned as she dragged a small empty crate over. Athena barely made it in time before she heaved the dregs of the tea she shared with Lexi into the crate. Her gut tightened again as her body forced what little she had eaten the day before up and out. Again and again and again. Waves of cold and heat ran over her as she clutched the crate like a lifeline.
“Pathfinder, do you require assistance? I detect high levels of stress,” SAM asked.
Athena just groaned as she heaved again. Her limbs trembling as she pushed herself back against the foot of her bed. Her chest expanded as she panted. “Get Jaal, please,” she begged.
Cora paced. Three steps forward, pivot, three steps back, pivot. What the hell is Ryder thinking? We’re orbiting this goddess forsaken planet for two whole days. Why? Grace is down there, waiting for her, for me, to bring her home. Why the fuck are we still stuck up here?
She was evicted from the cargo bay where she had been working her frustration out loudly. The brand new punching bag they picked up on the Nexus was looking worse for wear after she went through it. Vetra’s mandibles flicked in annoyance. “Cora,” she said, “just quit it. Ryder will give the order when she is ready. I can’t imagine dying-"
Vetra’s mandibles snapped shut. The topic was still pretty much a taboo on the Tempest. All of them had heard how Cora and Jaal had protested Ryder’s decision. And the silence while SAM restarted Ryder’s heart was long and fraught. Vetra didn’t need to be there to know. She had heard it, they all had. Cora sighed and took her frustrations to the showers then back to the bio-lab where she had taken up pacing.
Cora was mid-way her 2364th circuit when her door chimed. “Come in,” she called.
She stopped in her tracks. It was Athena and Jaal. The Pathfinder’s eyes were red-rimmed, her skin so pale it was almost translucent. Ryder somehow looked worse than when she got off the floor on the Archon’s ship.
Jaal bent and whispered something into Ryder’s ear. She nodded. Jaal pressed his lips on her forehead. Cora averted her eyes, feeling like she was intruding in a private moment. Jaal walked away as Ryder made her way into the bio-lab. Cora backed away, giving her room. The door slid shut behind Ryder. Ryder’s steps weren’t steady, and she sank onto a nearby crate with a sigh.
“Ryder,” Cora said, “Are you all right?”
Ryder kept her eyes to the floor. Her teeth bit down on her lower lip. A slender fingered hand ran through her hair before finally lifting her head to look at Cora. In the pools of brilliant blue, Cora could almost see herself reflected in them. Her breath caught in her throat, for a split second she saw Grace. Cora blinked and Grace was gone.
“Damn,” the curse was soft, but it lingered in the air between them.
“Cora,” Ryder said, her name coming out in a croak. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Cora, I can’t-"
The words died again, stillborn in her mouth. Cora waited. The realisation hit her the moment Ryder came in. There was only one thing Ryder needed her for, here and now. It wasn’t hard to guess. Still, Ryder needed to say it herself.
Ryder sighed, her hands ran over her face, pressing her hair back. “I can’t lead the team. I need you to do it,” she blurted.
Cora had expected as much. Ryder was no condition to lead a team anywhere but back to bed. She hunched over and buried her face in her hands. Blonde hair fell over her face like a shroud.
Cora stood up and bridged the space between them. Her jaw tightened as her hand hovered over Ryder’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,” Ryder whispered over and over.
Her best friend’s sister, her Pathfinder, her teammate and dare she say it, her friend.
Cora pressed her palm onto Ryder’s shaking shoulder. Her apologies ripped apart by the quiet sobs that shook her body.
She is hurting, so badly.
She sank down onto her knees in front of Ryder. She bent, attempting to catch Ryder’s eyes but Ryder kept her eyes fixed on the ground. “Don’t worry. I will bring Grace home. I will find her.”
Ryder’s litany of a “sorry”s was endless. Cora’s grip on Ryder’s shoulder got tighter the more Ryder went on. Her sobs came harder and harder. Cora looked away, a lump growing in her throat. Taking a deep breath, she mastered herself as she stood. “I’ll to get the team ready.”
With that, Cora fled the bio-lab.
Athena sat on one of the bed in the med-bay. Her temperature being actively monitored by SAM and thrown up on one of the screens behind her. In her hand was a small piece of chocolate that had survived the 600 year journey to Andromeda. Lexi was kind enough to share it with her, but it was now slowly melting between her fingers.
“Why don’t you lie down?” Jaal asked. His face pinched with worry.
She managed a slight tug of her lips. Her big boy was worried, surely she could manage a smile. Athena offered him the chocolate. “You want to try it?” she asked, “It’s good.”
Jaal eyed the sticky brown piece. He shook his head. “You should eat it. Lexi said it was precious, and she’d only share it with you. I don’t want to incur her wrath.”
Athena smiled, something more than the weak little thing she managed moments before. Jaal always knew how to perk her up even if it wasn’t his intention. The door slid open and Lexi entered. Her eyes zoomed in on the piece of chocolate still in Athena’s hand. She promptly popped it into her mouth, licking her fingers clean.
The bitter sweet taste of the chocolate melting on her tongue brought a sense of home to Athena. She closed her eyes, she could almost see her room back on the Citadel. Going to school with-
Her breath hitched. Grace. She took a shuddering breath as Lexi came over with a cup of water in her hands. “Drink,” she ordered, “slowly, otherwise it will all come up.”
Athena took the cup of water and sipped at it. Voeld. Her breath came in sharp and sudden. She choked on the water and started coughing, hard. Jaal came over quickly, taking the glass away from her. His hand rubbed her back as Athena tried to get her coughing under control. The harder she attempted to hold back her cough, the harder her guts heaved. It didn’t take long before Athena lunged for a waste basket. The water and the bit of chocolate all came out again.
Lexi sighed. “This won’t do,” she said, as she prepped a syringe.
“No,” Athena barked, “No sedatives.”
“This isn’t a sedative. It’s an antiemetic,” she explained. “Give me your arm.”
The tingling cool of the alcohol swap on her skin, then a sharp prick followed by a strange sensation in her arm. “Lie down,” Lexi said, pressing Athena’s shoulders.
Her jaw was set. Fingers tight against the waste basket of vomit. “Listen to Lexi,” Jaal coaxed. “It will take Cora some time to get to the co-ordinates. You can rest for a while.”
It was only with Jaal’s persuasion, she relinquished the waste basket and gave in. Athena lay back, her mind filled with swirling thoughts of Grace on cold, frosty Voeld.
“SAM,” she called, “Patch the main comm channel to my omni-tool.”
On her back, Athena missed the way Lexi’s mouth twisted while Jaal sighed. A tinny hiss started emitting from her omni-tool. Then Cora’s voice came in, “Heading out to the co-ordinates now.”
“Roger that,” Kallo replied.
Other than the hum of the Nomad’s engine and the howling winds outside, it was almost deathly quiet. Liam shifted uncomfortably in his seat while Vetra’s mandibles flexed and clenched slowly. Cora kept her eyes on the road, relying on SAM to keep track of the direction they were supposed to go.
“50 klicks away,” SAM announced. Liam flinched like he was burnt.
The Nomad went chugging on, through canyons of ice and snow. The trail was winding, and it took all of Cora’s concentration to keep the Nomad on the path.
There is no reason to think there will be fighting.
Vetra started to tapped her talons against her armour, making a click, click, click sound. Liam sighed, flicking the safety on his rifle on and off. Cora gritted her teeth and kept her eyes on the trail.
Are you delusional? What possible reason for an APEX team to go dark for more than a month? Of course there was fighting.
All three of them were locked in their own thoughts. Nobody could put their thoughts into words as the miles past them by.
Athena listened to the countdown of distance. Her guts tightened with each new number. She wished to know, but she wasn’t sure if she was ready for it at the same time. Athena sat with her legs crossed, her arms resting on her folded legs, head in her hands. Lexi had decided she was too dehydrated and had started an IV drip to replenish all the fluids she had expelled. The vomiting had stopped but her throat was burning too badly to contemplate anything but water.
Jaal sat next to her on the bed, his arm on her shoulder was a reassuring weight. His bio-electricity helped relax her tense muscles. “Do you want to sleep?” he asked.
Athena shook her head, looking at Jaal. It was unfair that he had to deal with her like this. He didn’t sign up for this. “I’m better now,” she said, her lips tugged upwards for him. “My stomach is feeling settled now.”
Jaal grunted, unconvinced. He pushed her limp damp hair out of her face and pressed a hand on her forehead. His eyes glancing between the monitors and her face. “You still feel too warm.”
His eyes shimmering with worry and her heart clenched. She shouldn’t make him fret over her so. Athena straightened and shifted closer to him. “It takes a little while for the medicine to kick in,” she explained.
For a while, she could pretend she was merely coming down with a cold, the anxious fluttering inside her guts be damned. The recursive thoughts of Grace being alive, being dead, waiting for rescue, frozen and picked over by wildlife or worse, were silenced by Jaal’s proximity and his warmth.
Then, the monotonous hum from her omni-tool was interrupted. Cora’s voice came through strong and clear. “Contact! Contact! Contact!”
Athena jerked upright, her hands clutched her omni-tool to her chest. Jaal stiffened but he kept his hand against her back, slowly rubbing it. Gunfire rang out. Instead of the boom of shotguns and bark of a rifle Athena was used to. The gunfire sounded hollow and almost toy-like, as if it was just a game being played on her omni-tool. But the churning in her guts said different. Athena grunted as her muscles cramped up.
Did I just send them all to their deaths?
There was a pack of wild adhi barring the path. And the only way was through them. With a shotgun in hand, Cora shouted, “Vetra, cover us!”
The turian was instantly climbing to the top of the Nomad, giving herself a better vantage point. Liam had his rifle out, firing indiscriminately into the horde. “Damn, there are so many of them!” he cursed.
Cora didn’t bother answering. She Charged right into the pack, sending a couple flying. The majority just shook it off and came at her with fangs, claws and brute force. Her shotgun roared, taking the nearest one in the face. Blood and guts splattered across her armour. This wasn’t a smart enemy that fought from the shadows, this was a mindless horde.
Liam’s rifle barked next to her, wounding a bunch while Vetra’s sniper rifle boomed with pinpoint precision, plugging a headshot into the mess of adhi.
What got them all excited?
“I am not food!” Liam yelled as he fired at one that got particularly close.
Cora gritted her teeth and sent a shockwave into the adhi swarm, flinging them backwards, giving them more space. It would be ugly if they lost ground.
“Can’t we just run them over?” Vetra asked.
“There are just too many,” Cora replied, in between firing her shotgun.
“And Gil will kill us for the mess!” Liam interjected.
Red soaked the snow white field. Pooling around the melted snow, mixing and mingling into a brown sludge. Is this what happened to Grace’s team? A slaughter? Cora growled and Charged deeper into the swarm. Liam followed close behind.
Click. Cora blinked. She pulled the trigger again. Click. “Fuck!” she cursed. “My shotgun has jammed.”
There was no way back as adhi closed in from the rear. They were surrounded. As many adhi were lying dead on the ground, there were just as many snapping their jaws at them. “Damn it!” Vetra shouted, “I can’t see you guys!”
Cora could hear Vetra scrambling off the Nomad through the comms but she had bigger problems on her hands. There was no way she had time to fix her shotgun. Holstering it on her back, Cora drew her pistol. Her fist a blue glow, punching at any which got close enough. Her pistol bucked in her hand. Punch, fire, punch, fire. It was almost cathartic.
Pain flared up her right hand as her armour dented and eventually it cracked. It didn’t matter if a small trickle of red dripped from her hand joining the sludge at her feet. It didn’t matter if her lungs could barely keep pace with her exertions.
Punch, fire, punch, fire.
When the last adhi fell, the silence was almost overwhelming. Cora let her arms fall to her side. They trembled in the absence of action. She shook her head, looking at the battlefield with fresh eyes. Blood coated everything. Liam was equally gore splattered. “You ok?” she asked.
Liam mutedly. He sighed. “Let’s get going.”
Athena heaved a sigh of relief. Her heart was in her mouth throughout. When Cora shouted about her jammed shotgun, her guts cramped so badly tears sprung from her eyes. She jerked upright.
“Shit,” Athena said, “your arm must be numb by now. Sorry.”
Jaal shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he reassured, pulling Athena back against his chest. “If it gives you relief, this is just a small discomfort.”
Athena shook her head. “I should try to drink some water.”
She started to slide off the bed, but Jaal pulled at her arm. “Let me go get it,” he offered.
Athena nodded. The door slid shut behind Jaal, leaving her alone in the quiet hum of the Tempest. Without Jaal, her thoughts started swirling again. Even through her intense concentration on the comm channel, nothing but Jaal could block the image of dream Grace from her mind’s eyes. She groaned, pressing her palms into her eyes, hard enough she saw stars.
A shuffle from the other end of the med-bay reminded Athena she wasn’t alone. Her head lifted to find Lexi evaluating at her. Without a word, the asari walked over. Her omni-tool out ready to scan Athena. She sighed, resigned to it. She straightened and watched the orange light washed over her.
Lexi frowned at the readings. “You really should accept the sedative. I can give you a mild one. Your cortisol levels are off the charts.”
Athena opened her mouth to speak but Lexi raised her hand. “I know, you have to see this through. I understand, but this isn’t good for you,” she said as she stepped in front of Athena.
She bit her lower lip and nodded. Athena widened her legs to allow Lexi to step between them.
“Come here,” Lexi’s face softened, a smile on her face. This wasn’t the doctor speaking. This was Lexi, Athena’s space mom. She leaned her head against Lexi’s chest and hugged her. Lexi returned the gesture.
Warmth, that’s what Athena felt as Lexi’s arms tightened around her. Safety, security. It was solid, immoveable as sure as the planets revolved around the sun. “It’s ok to lean on us when you need to,” Lexi whispered.
Athena nodded, feeling her muscles relaxing for the first time in hours. She pushed away from Lexi as the asari loosened her arms. “Thank you,” Athena said, a genuine smile gracing her face. “I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”
“Getting into trouble no doubt.”
Athena chuckled, conceding the point. The door slid open. It was Jaal returning with a glass of water and a cup of hot tea. Athena took the water gratefully, taking slow sips. For a moment everything was on the path to normalcy.
“We’re at the co-ordinates,” Cora’s voice came through.
And it all shattered to pieces again.
Cora stared at the wreckage. Snow had covered most of the scattered bits of metal and carbon fibre. Adhi track marks were all over.
“That explains why the adhi were so vicious just now,” Liam said.
Vetra nodded, her mandibles tight against her face. “They were guarding their stash,” she replied, her voice filled with disgust.
Cora sighed, casting her eye at what remained of the shuttle. The black stark against the white. Jagged edges, sharp corners screamed of the violence that had happened. Cora could almost taste the horror of the team’s last moments. She clenched her hand tight, the pain pulled her back to the present.
“Scan the area,” she barked. “If you find any bodies, tag them. We will be back for them later. Our priority is Grace.”
At the other end of the line, Athena stiffened. Her sister’s name echoed in her head, over and over. Her mind’s eye replayed the image of dream Grace. She pressed a hand over her abs and held in a groan. Her fingers that was laced with Jaal’s tightened.
“It’s too much,” Jaal said. “You should stop listening in.”
Athena shook her head vigorously. “It should have been me down there. I can’t just abdicate my responsibility. I can’t keep running away. I have to see this through!”
Lexi exchanged a glance with Jaal which Athena missed. Her attention was completely focused on her omni-tool.
The crunch of boots on packed snow came through clearly without interference. The minutes stretched on. Vetra and Liam calling out as they tagged the bodies. Thankfully the scanner was powerful enough to get DNA verification. “If this was anywhere else, I don’t think we’ll find remains intact enough to scan,” Liam pointed out.
Vetra snorted. “The adhi didn’t help. I can see tooth marks on the bones.”
Cora shot them a look, and they fell silent. Her limbs were heavy but her work had barely begun. With her scanner software running, Cora swung her arm left and right, hoping, praying one of these lumps in the snow was Grace.
And I can finally bring her home. We should have been here with her. We should have been here way earlier. We shouldn’t have been an entire month late.
Athena’s heart clenched at the sound of Cora’s sigh. A sigh of her own echoed Cora’s. Jaal and Lexi only had eyes for Athena while the three of them were holed up in the med-bay. All of them riveted to the progress of the field team in their own way.
Cora looked and looked and looked. But all they found were the remains of Grace’s team. The names got checked off one by one. And it wasn’t just the team they found. “Look at this,” Cora pointed out.
Her finger stabbing at the largest broken piece of the shuttle’s engine. There was a big hole right through it. “This was an ambush,” she said.
Vetra walked over, bending down to examine the edges of the hole. “Look at the edges, it’s all curved inwards. Something went in, instead of out.”
“They were shot down,” Cora said.
“I agree.” Liam pointed at the path where debris littered the snowfield. “Look at the crash path. They were shot at and this was the nearest open space for their pilot to attempt a crash landing.”
“But who shot them down?” Vetra asked.
Cora didn’t answer. She poked around the wreckage, sifting and scanning even the tiniest pieces, anything that could give her and Ryder an answer. Minutes ticked by.
“Fuck,” Cora said, her voice was without heat. It was frozen, as cold as Voeld itself. “It’s the fucking kett.”
Liam and Vetra looked over. Cora had a dud kett ordnance in her hands. “The team survived the crash but not the massacre after.”
The snow had long since covered the bloodshed on this ground. The remains were clustered together, evidence of a retreating effort. The team wasn’t routed, but they fought to the bitter end.
Athena squeezed her eyes shut. Ambushed. Targeted. By the Archon, by the kett because she was my sister. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she dashed them away furiously.
This is my fault.
The mission was ticking over into the third hour. Her posture had gone from ramrod straight to a coiled spring that was winding tighter with every passing minute. Her hand ached. Athena gasped, realising she was crushing Jaal’s hand. “Sorry,” she whispered, withdrawing her hand to her lap.
Jaal watched helplessly. His hand felt cold in the absence of hers. All his attempts to get her to rest, to give up this vigil, to just stop torturing herself were futile.
Her name went unheard by her. Lexi stood and placed a hand on Jaal’s arm. “You need a break,” she said.
Jaal’s face fell, shaking his head. “I can’t, not when she needs me.”
Lexi squeezed his arm. “You can’t help her if you’re as stressed out as she is. I’ll watch her. Take a ten minute break at the galley,” she suggested.
Jaal glanced at Athena again. Her eyes fixed on her omni-tool as if she could will Grace into being. He sighed, bowing to Lexi’s wisdom. Athena didn’t hear the conversation, she didn’t hear the door opening, and she didn’t realise Jaal had left.
Athena sighed, in time to Cora’s. Cora looked at the wreckage, Liam and Vetra were within shouting distance, scanning and searching. They had been at it for a while. She tapped at her omni-tool, her eyes flicked through the list. All five other members were tagged and accounted for. Cora declared, “I don’t think Grace is here.”
Liam and Vetra stopped. Their heads turned to her as one. “Are you sure?” Vetra asked.
Liam frowned. “We’re still a lot of ground to cover,” he pointed out. “She could be somewhere.”
“The snow might have covered her…”
Cora shook her head. “I don’t think Grace is here,” she repeated. “The rest of her team were clustered together. If she was here, she’d be with them. I think she survived the initial ambush. She would have choose to retreat and tried to contact the Nexus and not let her team die in vain.”
Liam and Vetra shuffled uncomfortably on their feet. The wind howled in the wake of her words. Cora couldn’t bear their gaze. They were tip-toeing around her like she didn’t know Grace was dead.
I know. Goddess, I fucking know. Grace is gone. There is no way she wouldn’t have made contact if she is alive.
Cora swallowed her sigh. Instead, she said, “SAM could you analyse the scans and see if there is something we missed.”
Cora had her hands on her hips, her fingers tapped a fast rhythm as they waited. Liam and Vetra approached. SAM didn’t need long. “Based on the scans and the topography of Voeld taken from orbit, I have extrapolated a few places Grace Ryder might have taken shelter under the conditions of a kett ambush and injuries consistent with a shuttle crash landing.”
A few nav-points popped up on her omni-tool. Cora scanned through them. There weren’t much choices, just three spots. The first one wasn’t far but they should head back for the Nomad first. As Cora turned towards the Nomad, SAM spoke. “Harper, based on the meteorology data we’ve collected. On the date of Grace Ryder’s mission, there was a snow storm during the estimated time of the crash. I’d suggest you check the furthest spot first.”
“Thank you SAM,” she replied, lengthening her strides. “How’s the Pathfinder?”
Athena, on the other end, stiffened when Cora’s attention turned to her. She took a deep breath, steadying herself. Her omni-tool was set to audio output only, but it wasn’t hard to change the settings. Her finger hovered over her omni-tool.
Instead, Athena heard SAM replied, “She is recovering in the med-bay. Lexi and Jaal are with her.”
There was some shuffling sounds, then the distinctive sound of the Nomad’s door opening and shutting. “Yeah, I’m glad she’s not alone. Ryder shouldn’t be alone right now. Thanks SAM.”
“Before I log you off, there is a similar sized storm is headed your way now. You should hurry,” SAM said. “Logging you off, Harper.”
Cora didn’t reply and there was just the hum of the Nomad in motion coming through. Athena relaxed and whispered, “Thank you SAM.”
“Based on your past interactions when distressed, you’d prefer face-to-face conversations as opposed to ones conducted over the omni-tool.”
Athena snorted. “You’re not wrong.”
The door slid open and Jaal was back. She offered Jaal a smile of her own accord. And the trio settled to wait again.
“Harper, I detect kett activity.”
A single sentence from SAM ended the relative peace. Athena straightened, pushing away from Jaal again. For a split second, she wished she could watch what was happening.
Cora slammed the brakes on the Nomad. Throwing everyone forward against their seat belts. “We’re close enough, let’s walk the rest of the way,” she said, “weapons free.”
Vetra and Liam nodded. With weapons in their hands, they advanced. The snow storm was almost upon them, snow swirling to obscure them, but it hid their enemies as well. Three quick clicks as safeties were flicked into the off position.
The nav-point set by SAM led up a small hill. Cora’s senses were keyed up for the slightest shadow on the trail ahead. But the snow was heavy enough that none of them saw the kett before the first shot was fired.
Cora led with her now repaired shotgun. She was a blue streak against the white. “Die!” she screamed
Cora’s scream sent chills down Athena’s spine. Just listening to the gunfight as it unfolded made it all real and unreal at the same time. Her right hand tightened involuntarily around a pistol grip that didn’t exist. Muscles memory tugging at her body, her finger pulled again and again at an imaginary trigger. Athena flinched at every bullet that whizzed too close, panted in time with Cora’s own heavy breaths. Every second, her guts twisted tighter and tighter.
Lexi glanced the monitors behind Athena and shook her head. She patted Jaal’s arm comfortingly.
Cora and her team were relatively fresh even if the kett had caught them in the middle of a snow storm. They weren’t wounded from a crash or victims of an ambush. They were healthy and rested. The kett were simply no match.
Were they just lying in wait all this time?
Kett didn’t need much sustenance and could survive the harshest environment, that much Cora knew. However, to wait a rescue team and ambush them spoke of intention. This wasn’t an ambush of opportunity.
The kett are gunning for the Pathfinder. This is all a ploy to draw Ryder out!
Relief flooded Cora. Before, she had been glad Ryder trusted her enough to do this in her stead. Now, Cora was fucking over the moon that Ryder was safe and secure on the Tempest.
“Not on my watch,” Cora yelled into the howling winds. “You are not getting another Ryder!”
Her shotgun roared as she fired. Her shoulder ached from the abuse of the recoil. Her right hand, despite the medi-gel slathered on it, was bleeding again. Cora screamed her defiance, taking her revenge in blood from the kett.
Liam kept close to Cora, covering her flank. Vetra’s sniper rifle watched their backs, picking off any kett who dare strayed into her crosshairs.
Athena waited and prayed. Please, please, please. Come back safe.
Cora’s shotgun boomed. The shot echoed and nothing came after. The wind whistling through every nook and cranny of Voeld filled the void. Athena bit her lip and tasted iron. What happened?
“Clear,” Cora said, everyone else chimed in as well.
Athena let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding explosively. She gasped as tears welled up in her eyes unbidden.
Cora trekked upwards, marching past the kett they had fell. The wind died down the higher she went, the storm was finally passing.
Did Grace make this same climb?
As the landscape levelled out, she spotted a cave.
If Grace sought shelter here, that would be where she would have gone. To make her last stand.
Cora grimaced and pushed the thought away. She was realistic, but the thought was still unbearable. Vetra and Liam kept a vigilant watch as Cora trudged towards the cave. It felt like the finish line. It felt final.
Her grip tightened on her shotgun. Step by step she walked. Then she froze. There was something black half hidden under the snow. The storm had blew away some of the top layer, revealing what was hidden below. Cora fell onto her knees and dusted the snow away.
A sob escaped her throat. “She was here.”
Athena keened. It was a sound so raw, so distressing. Jaal had to act, he had to do something, anything. His arms wrapped themselves around his Taoshay. She was unhappy, in physical pain, looking paler than she usually did. Jaal rubbed her shoulders, trying to bring heat back to her cold skin. Athena trembled as he pulled her close against his chest. Tears stained his rofjinn, and he didn’t care. She needed him. There was nothing he could do but be there. He rocked her a little, stroking her hair as she whimpered
Cora stared at the weapon in her hands. A familiar black and red emblem gleamed on the shotgun. There was only one N7 soldier on Voeld. There was no doubt now. This was where Grace fell. Cora checked it out of pure habit. The magazine was almost empty.
She fought with every inch of her life, till the very bitter end.
With unsteady hands, Cora secured the shotgun on the magnetic holster at her back. Another ten steps ahead, she found something else. It was also black but round. As Cora lifted it, she gasped.
It was Grace’s helmet. The helmet was mostly pristine except for a single hole that cracked radiated from. Her bleeding armoured finger traced the perfectly circular hole. It was clearly not from a sniper rifle round but an energy beam. Her lungs heaved. Cora bit the inside of her cheek, she would mourn later.
“Kett!” Vetra shouted.
It was all the warning Cora had. She moved instinctively. Her hands jerked up to protect her head as she dove to the ground. Her biotics shield instantly enveloped her. The round slammed into her and Cora fell heavily onto the snow.
“Cora!” Vetra screamed.
“No!” Athena cried.
Gunfire rang out from her omni-tool again. I can’t afford to be sitting here now. They need help, Cora needs help!
With a smooth motion, Athena ripped the IV from her arm and tossed it on the bed. She pushed to stand as she shrugged off the blanket that was draped over her shoulders. But her legs buckled, completely unprepared to take her weight. Jaal’s strong arms were there before she could truly hit the floor. “Where are you going?” he asked, his eyes wide.
“They need our help,” Athena said, her voice steady and calm.
She felt it. Her mask was on. It was a switch flipped. She was the Pathfinder now, not wholly Athena Ryder. “Suit up,” she said as she struggled free from Jaal’s arms.
Her legs steadier this time. As she made her way towards the door, Lexi barred her way. “No,” she said, her arms folded across her chest. “You are in no condition to lead, let alone leave the med-bay.”
“Cora is in trouble, Liam and Vetra are in trouble!”
“I know,” Lexi replied, her voice tight. “I am not saying you don’t send help. I am saying you can’t go.”
Athena huffed. The need to take action was strong. This was her responsibility, going to Voeld, finding Grace, it belonged to her. She refused to let anyone hurt over her inability to do this. For a split second, Athena considered using her biotics to move Lexi out of the way. But the thought of using her abilities against anyone on the Tempest made her sick to the core.
“Athena!” Jaal yelled, “listen!”
The weapons were silent. The battle was over. Or are they all dead? Athena’s eyes widened as she pressed her hands over her mouth. I’ve killed them.
“I’m fine, I’m fine.”
It was Cora’s voice. “Did you get the bastard?” she asked.
“No, Vetra is trying to flank the asshole. All I was concerned with was getting you behind cover,” Liam replied.
Cora grunted. Then, the clear sound of a shotgun being primed came through. “Let’s get the fucker.”
Athena stared at Jaal, then back at Lexi. If she wasn’t all drained of tears, she would have been crying. Relief and fear lanced through her, leaving her depleted. Lexi jerked her head at Jaal. He was instantly folding Athena into his arms and helped her back to the bed. Lexi tsked as she searching for a new site to place the IV.
“I’m sorry.” That was all Athena could offer the pair before focusing her attention back on her omni-tool. She was a mess, and she knew it.
Cora grunted as she stood, pressing her back against cover. Her chest protested as she straightened. She prodded the sore spot with her hand. The dull ache promised to be an impressive bruise by the time she got back to the Tempest.
Was this what happened to Grace?
Cora peered out from cover. Grace’s helmet was left lying in the snow where she fell. “SAM, some help?”
SAM didn’t reply, instead an overlay of the project trajectory of the energy beam appeared on her visor. The asshole was near. If she was quick, she could make it. Cora shifted back into cover and looked at Liam.
He frowned and backed up a little. “What?” he asked a little defensively. “I don’t like that look, Cora.”
“I need a diversion.”
Liam sighed. “You mean bait?”
“Shit, I know coming to Andromeda was a bad idea.”
Cora chuckled. “That ship has sailed a long time ago, Kosta.”
Liam peered out from over the cover. He turned back to her and nodded. “On three?”
Liam shifted towards the edge of the cover they were sharing.
Cora flicked the safety off her shotgun.
Liam’s feet shifted while Cora pulled at her biotics.
Footsteps heavy and fast crunched against the ground as Liam took off, drawing fire. Cora vaulted over the cover with her biotics. “Charging!” she roared over the comms.
That was all the warning she gave before she turned into a blue fireball that blazed across the battlefield. She slammed into the Ascendant with all the rage of an eiroch. Her shotgun pressed against the kett’s ugly face as she snarled, “For Grace!”
With a single shot, the kett’s brains was splattered over the ground. She panted.
Cora sagged back onto the ground. Despite not finding Grace yet, she was sure of what happened. The hole in Grace’s helmet, the fallen shotgun in the snow. It only indicated one thing. Grace was chased and herded like prey. Wounded, bleeding and probably scared, she thought she found refuge only to be taken out by the Ascendant.
Her jaw ached, not realising she had been clenching it. Cora straightened. If this is where the fatal shot took place, where is Grace?
Cora spun around and scanned her surroundings. Her eyes snagged on the cave again. She walked towards it at first but started jogging then running. Faster and faster, she went. Liam and Vetra kept their weapons ready, just in case the fight wasn’t over.
The cave wasn’t wide. It was enough for one person to walk in alone. With a tap on her omni-tool, she turned on the flashlight function. The light pierced the darkness inside. Cora squinted. There was a trail on the ground.
“SAM, analyse this,” she said as she scanned the ground.
Cora swung her flashlight about. The ground hadn’t been disturbed, it was protected from the elements. There were tracks of one person going in but not coming out.
“Harper,” SAM replied after a while. “It is human blood.”
Cora knew, but in her hearts of heart she had still hoped. A small flame kept out of the winds of reality. It had endured even through Kandros’ evasiveness and Tann’s bullshit. Through the race to Voeld, through Athena’s crisis, through the entire ride that led to this point, and it was snuffed out.
“The blood type matches Grace Ryder’s.”
Athena’s breath hitched. Her lower lip quivered as she listened to Cora’s footsteps. Each step was a step closer to a truth Athena didn’t want, closer to a conclusion she needed. A cry escaped her lips. It was a noise so torn and wretched, it twisted Jaal’s heart. Athena turned her face into Jaal’s chest. Her arms clutched at him as if afraid he might disappear as well.
Grace was all alone on Voeld. She faced the elements alone, without help. I wasn’t there. Did it hurt? Did she think of me? Did she hate me? She must have. She was targeted because of me. Grace, I let you down. I failed you. I should have… I might have… I…
Then Cora’s voice came through again. “I found her.”
The remaining pillar propping up Athena had crumbled. When her tears came in earnest, but it was near silent. She was completely sapped, all she could manage was to hang on to Jaal.
Cora’s voice was low as it came through the omni-tool. She wasn’t speaking to Liam or Vetra but to the single other person who was with her. “You’re coming home. I’ll bring you home. I’m sorry it took so long. I’m sorry.”
Lexi walked over to Athena and gently stroked her hair. “SAM,” she said, “Deactivate the Pathfinder’s omni-tool for now.”
Athena stared at the mirror. Grace’s face flashed over her. Not the nightmare version but her true face. She didn’t want to blink. Blinking meant not seeing Grace, losing her all over again. But it was a losing battle, her eyes burnt and eventually she blinked.
Grace was gone, again.
She closed her eyes and mastered herself. Today of all days, she needed to be a rock. Opening her eyes again, Athena focused her eyes anywhere else but her own face. The black dress uniform of the Initiative hung a little too loose on her shoulders. It wasn’t really meant for a public memorial but it would have to do. Slowly, her eyes drifted back towards her face.
Grace didn’t return. Athena was disappointed and relieved.
Dark rings circled her eyes. The lines of her face were sharper than before, and no amount of makeup was going to put meat on her bones. She sighed. Picking up her hairbrush, she ran it through her hair, noting the more than usual rate of hair fall. Another thing she could do nothing about.
Just like Grace.
Her door hissed open and Jaal came in. “Are you ready?”
She nodded. Jaal offered her his hand, and she took it. Warm and steady, infinitely patient and endlessly protective. He had been so gentle. Taking care of her when she didn’t want to get out of bed, when she didn’t want to eat, when she didn’t even speak.
What will I do without him?
Despite still feeling a bone deep exhaustion, she was forced into motion today. You can’t have a memorial for Grace and her team without the Pathfinder present, can you? Athena sighed.
Jaal’s brow furrowed. “Are you sure you want to go?”
Athena shook her head. “I don’t want to but I have to,” she replied, her voice raspy from disuse.
Despite her negative reply, Jaal smiled reassuringly at her. That was how far she had fallen. Athena bit back another sigh that was begging for escape.
I’ll do better, for Jaal.
Athena forced a small smile. She stood on her tippy toes and pulled Jaal down by his rofjinn. Pecking him lightly on his cheek, she said, “Thank you for putting up with me.”
Jaal’s smile broadened and squeezed her hand. “I’ll be with you.”
Cora sat next to Athena, Jaal was forced to sit with the rest of the crew. They were given the front roll seats to this travesty. She glared at the many hovering cameras aimed at Ryder. Her lips curled in disgust.
How vulgar can we be? Don’t we have even the slightest decency?
It took all her self control not to blast them all down. She glanced at Ryder. Her face was drawn. Her cheekbones so prominent they almost could cut. But what concerned Cora most of all was her gaze. It was withdrawn.
She barely seen Ryder since they recovered Grace’s and her team’s remains from Voeld. Cora could barely find words to speak to Ryder since the mission. She had spoken to Lexi and learnt Ryder had been listening in on the entire mission.
“She needed it,” Lexi said.
“But to put herself through this is just…”
“I know, I know,” Lexi patted her shoulder. “She will grief, she will mourn but Jaal is looking after her. I’m keeping an eye on her health, both physical and mental.”
Cora nodded, feeling marginally better. But Lexi wasn’t done. “I’m worried for you, Cora.”
She blinked. “Why?”
“Have you taken the time to process this? She is your best friend. You know her since before the Initiative was formed.”
Cora grimaced but tears sprang unbidden to her eyes. She blinked harder.
“Lexi,” she said, “I can’t do this right now. There is just so much to do. I have to make arrangements for the…”
Cora sighed, her tears more stubborn than she was. They forced themselves out of her tear ducts against her will. Fuck.
“I just can’t,” Cora said as she escaped the med-bay.
Lexi stared at the door after Cora left, a frown on her brow.
Will Ryder ever recover from this? Can anyone pick up the pieces from a tragedy like this?
“How are you holding up?” Cora asked.
Ryder sighed in response. It was a sentiment Cora knew well. “Fuck Tann right?” she said, “I wish I could strange him myself.”
Ryder only offered her a weak smile. Cora bit her lip and kept quiet. She turned her eyes to the stage. A giant screen dominated the space with a podium smacked in the centre. The artificial light inside the Nexus made it seemed like the inside of a stadium. It was an audience made up of more press than APEX members. Cora growled low in her throat and gritted her teeth.
This wasn’t a memorial, it was a publicity stunt.
It might have started as a military styled ceremony to honour the fallen but Tann had hijacked it. He was using it to drum up sympathy points to combat all the bad press he got during the Uprising.
It galled Cora to be forced to be a part of this. It was bad enough she and Ryder had to be here. Tann was using the sacrifice of six people for his gain. But in this time of flux, with the kett and Roekaar against them, what could they do but present a united front?
A wave of polite applause rippled through the crowd signalling the start of a very different kind of torture but it was torture all the same. Cora shifted in her seat trying to get herself comfortable but there was no getting there. Ryder merely sat passively next to her.
I just need this farce to be over as soon as possible.
A video started playing with an appropriately patriot sounding backing track. The pictures of each of the six fallen APEX members were fading in and out. As much as Cora wanted to roll her eyes, she refrained. Instead she kept her attention on Ryder.
This has got to be way worse for her.
She pressed her palm over Ryder’s clenched fist, trying to will support through the touch.
Sitting here among so many was bad. Athena longed to just leave but she couldn’t. Cora’s touch helped, but it wasn’t quite enough. Seeing Grace’s portrait blown up larger than life on the screen had shaken her. Grace’s eyes seemed to look down upon her , almost sneering at her.
She would be so pissed at the shit that is going on now.
Then Kandros’ voice pierced through her thoughts. “My name is Tiran Kandros and I am the Commander of the APEX unit. We are here today to honour the fallen of APEX Team Alpha. I had the privilege of commanding one of the best teams ever.”
Athena kept her eyes on Kandros and listened. His words meandered, his voice rose and fell. A little anecdote of shared experiences here and a funny story there. Grace’s team were a collective to her but after listening to Kandros, they were living and breathing people like Grace. Athena listened and tears were streaming unashamedly down her face.
This is harder than I anticipated.
A sharp keen escaped Kandros. The turians among the audience started muttering at his lapse. Kandros paused and his mandibles fluttered as he fought to master his voice. Athena found him looking at her. For a moment, their pain sang in chorus as their eyes met. Her resentment towards Kandros faded as their souls cried for the same lost soul.
He looked away first, clearing his throat and tried again. “Grace Ryder, she was the leader of Team Alpha. She was the defender, the protector. She was the fury in battle. Her abilities stretched beyond a mere soldier, she was also a stalwart leader. Leading Team Alpha in life and in death. Grace Ryder was the best of us all. She gave us her strength, her time, her life and death. Team Alpha have fallen but they will never be forgotten. For them, we will go on, we must forge our way in Andromeda.”
Polite applause rang out as the turians whispered amongst themselves. Kandros stepped away from the podium. His mandibles tight against his face as if it was the last barrier keeping his emotions in check. As he walked past Athena, she could hear a soft continuous keen.
He is crying. Athena bit her lip and tasted blood. We’re all mourning.
Another wave of applause dragged her thoughts away from Kandros. Athena jerked her head up and her eyes narrowed at the sight of the next speaker, Tann. She closed her eyes and prayed for patience.
“The kett fell six APEX members. They are one and all highly trained, all of them decorated soldiers. Among the six was Grace Ryder, sister to the Pathfinder,” Tann said.
Athena closed her eyes. Tann’s nasally tone was a battering ram against her ears. But she drew on her countless experience speaking with him. She had learned to filter his words out despite his ability to drone on and on.
“Let’s welcome Athena Ryder to say a few words.”
Her eyes flew open as she glared at Tann. Athena straightened in her seat as the audience started clapping. She could put up with a lot, she had put up with a metric ton of shit. But this took the cake.
Tann beckoned with his finger.
What in the world is this?
Athena looked at Cora, she looked equally puzzled and pissed. Cora stood, anger clear in her furrowed brow. “Tann said nothing about this!”
The anger was a cleansing fire that burnt all Athena’s fatigue and malaise away. The urge to blast Tann off the Nexus was overwhelming as she glared at the director with something dangerously close to hate. Cora was beyond passive anger and fast crossing into action. Athena yanked Cora’s arm. Her second looked at her, her face all twisted into a snarl.
“No,” Athena said firmly.
“I’ll fuck him up, this isn’t right!”
Athena pulled harder, keeping Cora seated. She stood instead. Cora frowned. “Are you sure? You don’t have to do this.”
“Pathfinder Ryder, a few words for your sister?” Tann’s voice boomed through the speakers.
Athena took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
Walking towards the stage, mounting the steps to the platform and then to the podium felt like a marathon. Athena was breathless by the time she was two steps away from the podium. She was never one for the public eye.
Maybe this was a bad idea.
Her eyes wild as she searched for someone, anyone she knew among the audience. A waving hand caught her attention. It was Cora. Ever mindful of the cameras that swirled around them, Cora snapped an Alliance style salute at her. The gesture though wildly out of place here steadied Athena. It reminded her who she was.
Alec Ryder’s daughter, Grace Ryder’s sister. I can do this.
With slightly shaky hands she grasped the microphone, Athena took one more look at Cora who gave her a thumbs up. Athena exhaled through her mouth. Her hands stayed steady. She had Cora’s support and a towering inferno of rage to prop her up.
“Grace Ryder is my sister. She is the only family I have left here. And now she is gone.” Athena stopped, willing her voice to stay steady.
The lump in her throat grew three sizes. For Grace, for the shit show of a memorial, everyone deserved the truth. With her mind made up, Athena took a deep breath and spoke.
“You’d think I’ll be informed the moment Grace’s shuttle went down. But I wasn’t. I didn’t learn about it for weeks,” she went on, in her peripheral vision she could see Tann frowning. He was slowly realising Athena Ryder wasn’t so easily manipulated. Kandros met her eyes. He looked simultaneously shocked and proud.
“When I do find out, I found out about it from a colleague not working for the Nexus. I didn’t believe it at first. I was so sure director Tann wouldn’t keep something like that from me. He would have informed me if something happened, right?”
Tann was speaking with his assistant, attempting to get back onto the stage. Cora was there physically blocking him. Athena was too far away to hear the words exchanged. Cora was making sure she got a chance to speak her mind.
“I had to know the truth. I asked Kandros, and he confirmed it. Why wasn’t I told sooner? I don’t know. Tann refused to authorise a search and rescue mission to bring our fallen home. I demanded answers from director Tann. These were six treasured APEX members. Members that Tann had spoken about like they were precious to him, abandoned, left to be lost forever,” Athena paused, her eyes scanned the audience. They were silent. The only noise came from the faint purring of the multitude of hover-cams all pointed at her and Tann.
Athena ignored them and forced herself to continue. “I wanted to go to Voeld to hunt for the team and bring them home, but director Tann used them as bargaining chips,” Athena all but spat the words, “just like what he is doing now.”
Tann was staring at her slack jawed. She didn’t care if he looked bad, she didn’t care how this would all play out. The people deserved the truth. Grace and her team didn’t deserve to have their deaths twisted into some stunt for him. Athena drew herself up at full height as she glared at him. “Their deaths may have been avoided, we don’t know. And we’ll never know.”
Her chest expanded and contracted as she fought to calm herself. Her hands clenched tight at the corners of the podium. Her biotics crawled just under her skin. Her eyes pinned on Tann. It would be so easy, so bloody easy to blast the podium at Tann. Athena walked off the stage with her head held high. In the wake of her speech, the audience roared to life. Their outrage, their questions rang out.
Cora hesitated at the door. Her hand hovering at the holo-lock. The speech Ryder gave made her heart swell. Her Pathfinder was cut from the same cloth as her sister.
She spoke the truth, shining a light in the darkest depth on the Nexus.
And now Ryder was hurting. It had to hurt. Dragging a private grief into the public limelight was unfair and cruel but she did it to set the record straight.
Cora sighed. Her heart ached for Ryder. Her heart ached for herself. But it was better to remember they were both grieving over the same lost soul than to do it alone, right? She pressed her palm against the holo-lock before she lost her nerve. The door slid open silently. Snatches of music drifted over.
She’s listening to music?
Cora stepped in to find a figure sitting on the bed, a blanket drawn over her shoulders, her back facing the door. The figure underneath it was so small, so fragile.
“Ryder,” she called out, not wanting to startle her, giving her the chance to refuse a meeting.
Ryder didn’t move, she didn’t give any indication she heard Cora. Cora approached, making sure her footsteps were heavier than usual. There was something in Ryder’s hand. It was black, scarred and rounded. Her breath hitched as she realised it was Grace’s helmet.
Ryder shifted slightly. It was the only indication she knew she wasn’t alone. She traced the perfectly round hole with her finger, over and over.
“How are you feeling?”
She shook her head and shifted a little on her bed. Cora took the invitation to sit. For a while neither spoke. Then Ryder sighed and handed her Grace’s helmet. “Thank you for bringing her home.” Her words were a mere whisper above the music.
Cora tilted the helmet in her hands. The cracks glinting off the lights. Her finger brushed against a new blemish. “You know that wasn’t there when I found it,” she said.
Ryder lifted her head. The first indication she was in the present, not locked in her mind with grief. Cora pointed out the scratch in the paint job. “This was the beam fired by the Ascendent during the mission.”
Ryder reached out to brush her finger against it. “She protected you,” she said.
“She is… was my heart and soul. She was my only family left,” Ryder said. “And she is gone, truly gone.”
Cora’s eyes burnt as her breath hitched. The gentle strumming of the music tugged at her memories. It was familiar. She gasped when she remembered where she heard it before.
“This song,” Cora said, “Grace listened to it a lot.”
“Really?” Ryder perked up, the nugget of new information tugged at her.
“It was right after your mother’s passing.”
Ryder stiffened. Cora wondered if it was the wrong to say. She snorted. It was a wet sound, her hand brushed against her face roughly.
“That’s apt then, fucking apt.”
Ryder closed her eyes and tilted her head upwards.
If I could be with you tonight
I would sing you to sleep
Tears streamed down her face as her lips quivered.
Never let them take the light behind your eyes
I failed and lost this fight
A shudder ran through her body. A sob ripped through her throat, a sound so raw it lanced Cora’s heart.
Never fade in the dark
Just remember you will always burn as bright
“I wish we never came to Andromeda.”
Lyrics taken from The Light Behind Your Eyes by My Chemical Romance