Sara forced down a grimace. Evfra's greetings were getting - marginally - more polite. At least he hadn't addressed her as "human" this time. She wondered if the Moshae had had a word with him since arriving back on Aya. "Commander," she replied. "I wanted to thank you for passing on that information about the kett camp on Voeld." Behind her, a few angara were quietly filing out of the room as the sun sank lower in the sky.
"Thanks aren't necessary." Evfra replied shortly, his eyes already back on the array of datapads on his desk. There was a notch between his eyes that signaled what Jaal called "a head splitter." He glanced back up at her after a moment when she hadn't moved away. "Was there something else?"
"Kandros wanted me to ask you about cross-training APEX and Resistance teams. Our teams have been seeing an uptick in kett ambushes and we could benefit from your experience." When Evfra's expression didn't change, she added. "Our teams would be sharing their own training and tactics as well. A lot of them worked in peacekeeping or security back in the Milky Way."
"And now they fight outlaws in Heleus as well?" Evfra asked.
Sara bit the inside of her cheek and took a breath. He is not taking cheap shots at you. That's just how he is. When she looked at him again, Evfra's eyes were narrowed, taking in her reaction. "They fight to protect our people. My point is that training together would allow them to learn from each other. Your Resistance won't be thrown for a loop if they run into outlaws, and our APEX teams will have a better chance of coming back in one piece."
He cocked his head and Sara bit her lip. "Ok. Idioms. Sorry. We learn from each other. Your guys are safer. My guys are safer. We're stronger together."
His voice was dry as sand. "I understood what you said." He pinned her with another one of those inscrutable stares and Sara fought the urge to fidget like a student in detention. "I'll put Kandros in touch with Commander Do Xeel."
"I appreciate it." Sara said. She lingered a moment, frowning at the tension in Evfra's posture. His jaw was clenched and his hands clamped down on the table like a vise. "Can I, um, get you something from the med center?"
He glared at her and Sara tensed. Ok, note to self, that was probably an invasive question. She forced a neutral smile. "Guess not. Thanks for your time, Evfra." Turning, she left his office and headed toward the market. Lexi was on her case about caloric intake again. If she missed dinner three nights in a row, the doctor might tie her to a chair and spoon-feed her.
The angaran woman at the fruit stall was happy to sell her elmohk and something that looked like a Milky Way smoothie and smelled like citrus and cinnamon. "Tajaare," the angara told her. "Half a cup of that will bring you back from the dead."
"After a day like today, I need that." Sara grinned. She tucked the container of elmohk under her arm and caught Vetra's eyes. "Ready to head back to the Tempest?"
Vetra brought up her omni-tool. "Almost. Can you swing by the med center and pick up that antibiotic Lexi ordered?"
Vetra sighed and asked with the long-suffering patience of an elder sibling. "Will you?"
"One of these days you're going to make a smartass remark to someone who doesn't find it endearing, Ryder."
Sara grinned. "Scott mouthed off to Dad one time when we were kids. He had to be about eleven. Dad made him run laps around the lake on the Presidium. Think I've still got the vid somewhere."
Vetra chuckled. "There's an idea. Guess next time you run your mouth we'll have you run around the Tempest until it stops being funny."
"Ouch, Vetra. That was hurtful."
"Yeah, yeah. See you back on the ship."
The tavetaan buzzed with conversation. Sara recognized a few angara from Resistance headquarters, leaning back in their chairs and trading gossip. Drack and Liam bickered amicably by the bar. Sara waved at Roaan as she passed.
Wandering into Resistance headquarters, she paused. The building seemed emptier, quieter. There couldn't have been more than a dozen angara on duty. Sara would bet every last credit and her favorite scarf that Evfra was still in his office, nose to the grindstone. Sara looked down at the container of elmohk under her arm, groaned, and went up the steps.
Evfra didn't look up from his desk as she came in. "Raske, were you able to get confirmation from your team?"
It occurred to Sara that this might be a terrible idea. "It's Ryder, actually." She sauntered toward his desk with a breeziness that was pure illusion.
His eyes flicked from the food to her face. The scars on his face tightened as he asked with biting calm. "Did you need something else?"
Sara set the elmohk and tajaare on his desk and gave him her sunniest smile. It was a habit she'd never been able to break, faking positivity the more stress she felt, filling tense silences. Whenever her father had fumbled for conversation with his children or brooded quietly at the table, whenever her mother was withdrawn and tired, whenever Scott bit his tongue on words that would have started a fight, Sara would keep up a steady stream of bright chatter to contain the oppressive swell of silence.
Most people never saw it for the nervous reflex it was, and instead chalked it up to excessive friendliness. Sara had the sinking feeling that Evfra wasn't most people. "No, I just noticed everyone else down at the tavetaan and it occurred to me that you probably were just going to keep working into the next shift." A knot formed between her shoulders as Evfra met her words with more silence. "It's not a big deal, really. I just thought it was the polite thing to do." She bit the inside of her cheek as the urge to keep babbling rose.
His eyes, star-flecked, cat-like, regarded her with uncomfortable intensity. "You're being - "
"Presumptuous, I know. Again." Sara's smile was beginning to hurt. The words kept tumbling out of her. "I need to work on that. I'll get out of your hair now - goddamn idioms." She flushed and pressed her hands to her painfully hot face. Her fingers tangled in the short locks that fell over her cheek. "Sorry. I'll let you get back to it."
Evfra exhaled in a quiet huff. Great, she'd managed to annoy him again. She started to turn before his voice pulled her back like a hand on her shoulder. "I was going to say 'kind.'"
She looked back at him. Sara had never seen him anything but wary and alert, coldly assessing everything around him. She was still getting the hang of angaran expressions, but he looked almost disquieted.
For once her babbling was restricted to one word. "Oh."
He shifted, stepping back from the desk, and Sara blinked. Evfra was one of the more contained angara she had met. He rarely moved without purpose. "It's not necessary," he said. His words were clipped, brittle.
She clasped her hands behind her back to hide their fidgeting. "I know." She bit her lip before asking, "In angaran culture, am I overstepping?" She'd seen Jaal drop by with food for Gil on occasion when the engineer was preoccupied with the Tempest drive core and lost track of time, so it probably wasn't crossing a line.
Then again, Evfra seemed to have more lines than most angara. Sara forced herself to meet his eyes. The cool scrutiny there made her hands tighten. It was like trying to have a conversation with a glacier sometimes.
"Cultural norms aside, I don't want your kindness, Pathfinder." he said bluntly. Sara's hands clenched tight until her knuckles popped with the force of her grip. Well, I don't know what else I was expecting.
She needed to leave before she started chattering again. "Ok, sure. Like I said, it's not a big deal. I need to get back to the Tempest. I'll let you get back to it."
Instead of the curt "Good." that she was used to, he merely nodded. Sara gave him one last smile, wide and bright and brimming with nervous energy, and beat a hasty retreat to the med bay to pick up Lexi's antibiotic.
SAM's voice filtered into her head through their private channel as she jogged down the steps. "Pathfinder, I am sensing elevated stress levels. Do you require assistance?"
Sara shook her head. "No SAM." She almost tripped on the last stair. Thankfully the guard outside the med center was checking the sights on his pistol when she did. "But I think I might need a psych eval."
"I can contact Dr. T'Perro."
Sara sighed and shoved her hands into her pockets. "It was a joke, SAM. Please don't actually do that."
"You are distressed, Ryder. Why?"
She activated the decontamination station and gave the angaran guard a crooked smile. "Honestly, SAM? Your guess is as good as mine." I should be used to making an idiot of myself by now.
The Tempest crew bonds. Gil trounces Sara at poker. Sara asks Jaal about angara.
Next chapter! Thank you for the comments and kudos; they are lovely! =)
"You know Ryder, I almost feel bad playing you at poker. It's like - "
"Don't say it." Sara groaned as Gil leaned forward to sweep the chocolates to his side of the table.
"- taking candy from a baby." Gil finished. He leaned back in his chair and regarded her with a smug grin. "Seriously, it's a good thing we're not playing for credits this time. You'd never be able to afford all those expensive repairs I have to make to the Nomad every time you crash it into a snow bank."
"One time!" Sara protested. "That happened one time!" She scowled as he dealt the next hand. "How did you swipe this from under Vetra's nose, anyway?"
Gil chuckled. "This isn't my first time taking candy from terrible poker players."
She picked up her cards. "I used to think I had a decent poker face before I met you."
"Eh, so-so." Gil wiggled his hand for emphasis. "But where Cora gets grim and Liam gets loud, you get all chatty and smiley when you're bothered." He tsked.
"Way to rub it in, Gil." She nudged a chocolate to the center of the table.
He flicked two chocolates from his stack into the pot. "It's pretty adorable, actually. Like watching a puppy try to distract you from a ripped-up couch with cuteness."
Sara scoffed. "Oh yeah, it's really adorable. Especially when I do it in front of people like Evfra or Moshae Sjefa or Bradley."
"Tann doesn't make your little list?"
"Tann can go throw himself in an airlock." Sara slumped in her chair and propped her chin on her hand. She steered two more chocolates across the table with the edge of her cards.
"Shit, this really bothers you, doesn't it?"
Her bangs swayed as she blew out an exasperated breath. "Congrats, Gil. Your psychic powers have come to fruition. No force in the universe can stop you now."
He check-raised her again. "Well that doesn't change much for me." Gil stretched, putting his hands behind his head. "You're going to fold in the next two turns, by the way."
She set her cards down. "I'm going to fold now and call it a game while I still have some candy left."
Gil stacked his chocolates into a miniature pyramid. "You know, Ryder, if you're trying to get a grip on your nervous tics, there are worse places to start than asking your friend and undefeated poker champion for help."
Sara covered a yawn. "I'd say that's sweet of you to offer if I wasn't convinced you'd spend half the time mocking me mercilessly." She peeled open the wrapper on one of her chocolates and popped it in her mouth. It melted with buttery sweetness and she let out a contented little sigh.
Gil placed a hand over his heart and a completely insincere expression of hurt on his face. "Ryder, you know I'd never spend more than a quarter of the time mocking you."
The chocolate was improving her mood very slightly. "That sounds about as much fun as having Peebee chase me around with a spray bottle, which was my backup plan."
Gil tossed her another chocolate and she snatched it out of the air. "Never fear, Ryder, we can do both."
/\ /\ /\
Voeld, Ryder decided, was best viewed from the interior of a well-heated ship. While the planet was undeniably beautiful and she loved seeing the auroras that appeared in the newly clear sky, it was much easier to appreciate the view when she wasn't on the verge of turning into a popsicle.
"Vetra, do turians have hot chocolate?" Suvi asked from her position on the floor of Ryder's cabin. She tapped Ryder's leg. "Pass me that datapad on the table, will you, Ryder?"
"Sure," the turian replied. "Spike it with brandy and you've got yourself a Muddy Menae." Her mandibles flickered thoughtfully against her jaw as she read through her messages. She flexed her long legs and leaned back in the couch. "What's the state of the galaxy, Pathfinder?"
Ryder poked Vetra's shoulder. "Addison's snarling, Tann's posturing, the angara are hinting at an actual alliance, and Drack is sending me pictures of guns."
Vetra snorted. "So, it's Tuesday. How did it go over with the Resistance when you told them the Roekaar were stealing supplies?"
Suvi jumped up as the water heater beeped. "Tea's ready. Would you like some, Ryder?"
"Yes. God. Please." Ryder groaned and massaged her temples. "Evfra is exactly as thrilled as you would expect, and Olisk is probably fantasizing about throwing Aksuul off the side of a mountain. Can't say I blame him." She accepted a cup of steaming Earl Grey from Suvi with a grateful smile. "We don't deserve you, Suvi." She took a long swallow of hot tea. "Oh, that's so much better."
Suvi settled back on the floor. "See, I told you all you needed was a quiet sit-down and a good cup of tea."
Vetra chuckled. "I still think it's hilarious how unnerved Kallo gets when Ryder starts grumbling at the terminal in the cockpit."
Ryder grinned and began composing a reply to Lieutenant Sajax's request for information on kett anointed. "You have a chronic case of schadenfreude, Vetra."
Vetra looked up. "What? That didn't translate."
"Really?" Ryder asked, straight-faced. "I would've thought turians of all people had an equivalent word for the concept."
"Finding humor or pleasure in another's misfortune," Suvi explained while Ryder snickered.
Vetra looked over her visor at Ryder, who was still grinning. "Ryder, you know turians don't have a sense of humor."
Ryder patted Vetra's arm with mock solicitude. "Not at all, Vetra. In fairness, I'd still rather go to a turian stand-up show than an elcor one."
"With warm sincerity, thanks so much." Vetra deadpanned.
"Goodness, Ryder, what happened to your arm?" Suvi asked. Her eyes were fixed in horrified fascination on the mottled bruise spanning Ryder's forearm.
Ryder glanced down at the bruise showing where her sleeve had hiked up. "That one? Pissed off wraith." She shook her sleeve back down. "Don't worry, Lexi had a look at me when I got back. It'll turn a lot of interesting colors, but nothing's broken."
Vetra clicked her mandibles in distaste "Ugh, those things give me the creeps. Nothing should still be attacking you after half its brains are hanging out of its head."
"Perhaps kett don't depend on their brains as much as we do." Suvi mused, pursing her mouth thoughtfully.
Vetra caught Ryder's eye. Ryder tried to muffle her laugh in her sleeve while Vetra chuckled. Suvi looked bewildered for a moment before joining them. "Oh, that came out terribly."
"It came out perfectly." Ryder corrected her, grinning. She glanced down at her email and the heading knocked the laughter out of her system. Ah, hell. "SAM, patch me into Kallo? We need to get to Aya ASAP. Moshae Sjefa just sent me a message asking me to meet with her and Evfra. In person. Must be serious."
/\ /\ /\
Ryder slid onto the bench next to Jaal and set her steaming bowl of Drack's Surprise on the table. Next to the oven, Liam and Cora were discussing attempts at Prodromos to set up a greenhouse for edible Heleus flora. Liam stopped with a spoon halfway to his mouth. "I'm just saying, Milky Way mushrooms are way better. Once they start growing portobello mushrooms, that's all I'm going to eat for a week."
"With roasted peppers and garlic." Cora sighed wistfully. "No offense, Drack, this is great. I think you missed your calling in life."
Ryder shook her head. "It's like gnocchi stew. How is that even possible?" She took another spoonful and closed her eyes to savor it.
Drack chuckled. "Kid, who do you think cooked while Kesh was growing up?"
Peebee sat back, patting her stomach. "If I were Kesh, I never would have let you off the Nexus." She jumped to her feet and scooted out the door as Lexi came in.
Lexi sniffed appreciatively. "That smells amazing, Drack." Her next words promptly wiped the grin off his face. "Don't forget you have a check-up in half an hour."
Liam laughed and Cora elbowed him. "Try and keep the schadenfreude down."
Drack grunted. "Seriously, kid."
Ryder glanced over at him in surprise. "That translated?"
The krogan shrugged. "Sure, why wouldn't it?"
Ryder dug into her food, the tension between her shoulders melting as her crew milled around the kitchen. "How is Scott doing?" Jaal asked her.
"Still doing his best impression of Sleeping Beauty," Sara said with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Harry says his vitals are good though, and not to worry."
Jaal shook his head. "It's good advice. But he's family; of course you will worry."
She stood and gathered up their dishes. "Yeah, tell me about it. How do you cope, with all those siblings and mothers to worry about?" She placed their dishes in the dishwasher and stood, cracking her back.
Liam winced. "Creeping hell, that sound."
Jaal chuckled as they left the kitchen. "Usually we handle the worry in rotations so no one is overwhelmed."
Ryder frowned. "Is it unusual for an angara to have no family at all?" She hoisted herself up the ladder, ignoring the too-knowing look in Jaal's eye.
"It's not common. Orphans are usually adopted into other families." Jaal scanned her hunched posture, the hands she'd shoved deep in her pockets. "Why do you ask?"
Ryder gnawed her lip. "It's just . . . family seems so important to the angara. I have to wonder how angara deal with that kind of loss." She sneezed as they entered the tech lab. "Were you soldering something in here?"
"Yes." He sat down at the workbench. "Ryder, what is it about Evfra that is troubling you?"
Her throat worked, but nothing came out. She swallowed. "Oh. Boy. You, um, really believe in cutting to the chase, don't you?"
He chuckled. "It's much easier to deal with these things once they're out in the open." She watched him dismantle his rifle, patiently laying each component out.
She gnawed her lip for a moment, working through the question. "I always seem to be doing the wrong or saying the wrong thing around him. And I'm not sure how much of it is things I'm doing wrong and how much is just him being him. He's the head of the Resistance. I can't keep offending him."
Jaal paused in removing a screw to look up at her. "Why do you think you've offended him?"
Ryder explained about the elmohk and the tajaare. "And I thought it would probably be fine, since I've seen you do the same thing for Gil. But I think I may have irritated him." She made a face.
The angara picked up the disassembled barrel and frowned at some imperceptible flaw. "Evfra is not a particularly open man, Ryder. For him, that was an unusually courteous attempt to enforce the same policy he keeps with everyone - to stay at arm's length." He chuckled. "Frankly, I'm shocked he didn't scan the food in front of you. Can you hand me those pliers?"
Ryder passed them over to him. "How does someone as social as the angara live like that?"
"With difficulty, I imagine. We're a very social people, and isolation is . . . not something that comes naturally to us. I am grateful that I do not have to live that way." Jaal sighed. "Trust me, Ryder. Evfra is starting to believe that the Initiative can be relied upon - or at least you can. Your actions on Voeld and Havarl have earned his respect. A few stumbles won't change that."
"Mmm." Ryder stared at a piece of Rem-tech lying on the table.
Jaal chuckled. "You're like an adhi with a bone. Stop worrying."
The Moshae asks Ryder to bring Vehn Terev back from Kadara. Evfra and Ryder have a moment of understanding. Reyes is a flirt.
The air crackled with anger and frustration when Ryder stepped into Evfra's office. She looked between the two angara at the window, noting Evfra's crossed arms and the tight set of the Moshae's face. Ryder's stomach flipped as Evfra met her eyes and scowled. "I can come back," she said.
Moshae Sjefa gestured sharply. "Please stay, Pathfinder."
Sara's skin prickled with goosebumps as she stepped into the charged air surrounding the two angara. "Sure. Is there something I can help with?"
Evfra barely deigned to look at her. "This is an angaran matter."
Of all the - A hot swell of anger pressed against her sternum, churning the butterflies in her stomach into a fiery mess. Her mouth twitched into a reflexive smile, completely at odds with the heat roiling inside her. After restarting Voeld's vault and rescuing the Moshae, she would have thought she had made some progress with him.
"Ryder," SAM said quietly inside their private channel, "your heart rate is increasing."
Ryder thrust her hands into her pockets to hide her white knuckles. She took a deep breath, forcing her tight lungs to expand, and stared at Evfra until he turned his head to look at her. "I'm standing right here," she said. "If you want to talk over me instead of to me, I have a long list of better things to do."
The angara studied her, brows lifting at the heat in her voice. Ryder gave up entirely on wiping the smile from her face and clamped down on the urge to keep talking with bone-crunching intensity. She had a lot of words for Evfra's brush-offs right now, and none of them were polite.
The Moshae laid her hands on the desk, angling her body between Ryder and Evfra. She flashed Ryder a swift look of concern and Ryder felt the tightness in her chest ease a bit at the warmth in the angara's eyes. "The kett concern us all, Evfra. We must not let distrust fracture us, or we will do the Archon's work for him."
Ryder forced her clenched hands to relax. "Your message said it was urgent, Moshae Sjefa. What's going on?"
Moshae Sjefa lifted her chin and leveled a cold stare at Evfra. "Tell her the truth about my capture." Anger and hurt vibrated under the words.
"Moshae," he began. He uncrossed his arms, glancing between her and the Moshae, and Ryder wondered if he would try to physically steer her out of his office. Moshae Sjefa pushed off the desk, hands clenched, and Ryder sensed another argument brewing. The electric fields churning between them made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
Ryder cleared her throat. "Humans have a saying: trust is a two-way street. I've been open with you about SAM and the Initiative, Evfra. For this alliance to work, I need you to be open with me too." She stared at Evfra, trying not to fidget at the sudden, considering quiet on his face. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the tension leave the Moshae's shoulders.
Evfra turned - grudgingly - to Ryder. "This is different. An angaran concern."
One of the aides milling around the door called the Moshae's name. She dipped her head and excused herself.
Sara wanted to ask Evfra how exactly he classified her restoration of Voeld's vault and the Moshae's rescue. The words burned in her throat. Scott would have torn the Resistance leader a new one. Her father would have -
She shook her head. Pointless. She was the Pathfinder. How was Sara Ryder going to establish trust? She could feel SAM's attention on her as she exhaled slowly and placed her hands on the desk. She focused on her surroundings.
Water pattering and rushing outside the window. Soft murmur of Resistance handlers conferring behind her. Breeze heavy and cool with moisture, carrying the scent of greenery and a touch of ash. Sunlight filtering through the open roof.
Her nervous smile faded by degrees. She exhaled softly and looked up.
Ryder met Evfra's eyes with calm. "Evfra, the kett turned an angara into one of them in front of my eyes and my squad and I could do nothing to help. He was tortured, warped, and enslaved. They erased him. Thousands of angara died imprisoned in that facility because I wasn't fast enough or clever enough to get them all out in time."
She bit her lip. The fear and pain she had seen in that angara's face were beyond what anyone should have to endure. Her skin was hot and tight over her cheekbones and her eyes burned. "I failed so many of your people in that facility. I refuse to fail more. Please believe me when I say angaran concerns are my concerns."
Something like surprise flickered in his eyes, followed by a long look that fell a few degrees short of his usual subarctic expression. His eyes moved slowly over her face and she wondered what he was looking for. "It won't be the last hard call you need to make. But your feelings are . . . noted." He continued to look steadily at her. Their eyes caught and tangled.
She'd so rarely seen him as anything but ruthless and calculating. He was looking at her now like she was a person. Not a threat. Not an annoyance. Not a game piece to be maneuvered around the board.
The tension drained out of her as they studied each other. Her shoulders dropped. Heat fizzed along her cheekbones as she returned his searching look, studying the whorls of vibrant color and glints of light in his eyes. Brilliant. Depthless. Like looking into a nebula. A sense of vertigo crept over her and the image of Ketos flashed through her mind, hanging in a sea of light and stardust at the center of the Heleus, slowly folding everything into itself.
"Your contact's name is Shena."
Ryder blinked. Sound rushed into her ears again, the hum of the computers, the susurrus of angaran voices, the drill instructor shouting in the training yard. Evfra looked over her shoulder and Ryder scrambled to reorient herself. She felt like she'd missed something vital.
The Moshae returned from her consultation by the door. "It's settled then? Good. Pathfinder, Vehn may have more intelligence on the kett. We need him alive."
Ryder lingered a few minutes, trying to build up a clearer picture of Vehn Terev and Kadara leadership. Moshae Sjefa extended her arm to Ryder after they finished and Ryder laid the back of her arm against the Moshae's. "Stay strong and clear, Pathfinder." The angaran woman looked at Evfra expectantly.
Ryder hesitated, then extended her arm toward him. For a moment, Evfra didn't move, and Ryder's stomach clenched.
He reached out and touched the back of his wrist to hers. The Moshae eyed Evfra with exasperation. The expression looked so odd on her regal face that Ryder grinned. She glanced at Evfra.
Ryder blinked as a tiny static buzz zipped up her arm. A muscle in Evfra's jaw jumped and he drew back his arm. Ryder made a note to ask Jaal about bioelectric communication, although she wasn't sure how well "zippy buzz" would translate.
"Stay clear, Pathfinder."
"Stay clear," she echoed. She turned back once at the door to see his hand slowly clench and relax. She gave Moshae Sjefa a distracted smile and began relaying instructions to Kallo to prep the Tempest for take-off.
/\ /\ /\
"You look like you're waiting for someone."
Ryder turned slowly and felt her guard rise at the lazy smile of the man leaning against the bar. His eyes twinkled as though they were sharing a joke. The bartender scowled and slammed two glasses down on the counter. Ryder's eyebrows shot up.
Oh, you have got to be joking. After all the fuss Evfra kicked up about working with her, "Shena" could not be a human. Ryder shoved the colorful diatribe she was going to give to Evfra to the back of her mind. "I've got time for a drink." She clinked glasses with him and tossed back her whiskey. The alcohol burned a hot trail down her throat.
"Shena," her contact said, sealing Evfra's fate. "But you can call me Reyes. I hate code names." He extended a hand.
"Ryder. I have to admit, I was expecting someone more angaran." His handshake was warm and firm. The brief press of his fingers before he let go confirmed her suspicions. Flirt.
Reyes laughed, dark eyes lingering on her face. The sound sent a lick of heat through her that had nothing to do with whiskey. Reyes leaned in like they were old friends. "The Resistance pays me to supply information, among other things."
Ryder set her glass on the counter. "So you're a smuggler."
Reyes motioned her over to the railing. Ryder leaned on the rail, looking down on the misty valley below. "Your man, Vehn Terev, was arrested by Sloane Kelly. Word got around about how he sold out Moshae Sjefa." Reyes shook his head and tsked. "The people are calling for his execution, and Sloane . . . she's a woman of the people."
Ryder scoffed. "Dress it up however you want. She's a criminal." She glanced at Reyes in time to catch the end of an assessing look and an easy smile, and realized that he'd deliberately prodded her for a reaction. Half her mind snagged on the cunning in that look while they discussed freeing Vehn. The other half divided itself between the way Reyes smoothly moved into her space, his shoulder brushing hers, and how the hell she was going to convince Sloane to hand over her scapegoat to an Initiative representative.
She shifted as he began to leave. "How do I contact you if things go south?"
Reyes winked and gave her another one of those knowing smiles. Ryder bit her tongue and held his eyes until he turned away.
It was easier to ignore the flush creeping up her neck once she realized that he'd stuck her with the bill.
Evfra and Moshae Sjefa discuss Ryder. Vehn is a self-righteous twit. Reyes enjoys putting people on edge.
"Jaal's sent word that they've arrived at Kadara. Unfortunately, Vehn Terev is in Sloane's custody." Evfra leaned against the table, watching Moshae Sjefa putter around her office. "I thought you would like to know."
"Thank you for informing me." The Moshae glanced up briefly from the Remnant artifact she was working on. The pale blue light from the artifact softened the shadows and lines that had appeared around her eyes since her capture. "You don't seem entirely pleased."
Evfra crossed his arms. "You know perfectly well that I didn't want to involve the Initiative."
"The Initiative, or Pathfinder Ryder?"
Moshae Sjefa met his scowl with a wry smile. "You give her too little credit."
He scoffed. "Have you spoken with her? She's inexperienced and skittish. If Sloane doesn't put her head on a spike, it will be a small miracle."
"If she's survived conversations with you, I'm sure Sloane Kelly won't trouble her overmuch." Moshae Sjefa brought up a set of schematics on her omni-tool and began adding annotations.
"I'm glad one of us is confident."
The Moshae gave him a look that she usually reserved for when one of her students was being particularly thick-headed. "She's young, Evfra, but not foolish."
Evfra met her look, completely unimpressed. "Young. Out of her depth. Reckless."
Moshae Sjefa chuckled. "Yes, that does sound familiar." She closed the schematics. "It's been a more than a cycle since Jaal joined the Tempest. What has he told you?"
"He speaks well of her. She isn't afraid to confront her Initiative 'directors' when she disagrees with them. By his account and Kiiran’s, she handled herself well with the Moshae’s science team. " Evfra admitted grudgingly. "Jaal believes she can be trusted, even if he hasn't come to terms with her decision to destroy the facility on Voeld."
The Moshae bent over her artifact. "A difficult decision, and one that came at my request."
"It was tactically sound." Evfra said. His scars twisted as he frowned, and the Moshae gave him a speculative look.
"Evfra, we both know that if you truly believed them to be a danger to the Resistance, Pathfinder Ryder would never have made it out of headquarters the day they crashed on Aya." Her mouth hooked in a humorless smile. "You would have interrogated her, executed the rest of her crew, and reduced her ship to ash." She continued to look at him, her eyes filled with old cunning and a hint of mockery.
She may as well have had a staring contest with a glacier. "Do you have a point, Moshae?"
She bent over her work once more. "You're a curmudgeon my dear, but despite that, Ryder cares about your good opinion. I look forward to the day she realizes that she already has it, however grudgingly." Her teeth flashed in a quick grin as Evfra went rigid. "If I were to presume to give you advice, I would tell you to stop behaving as though you're contemplating throwing her off the nearest balcony during every conversation, and start treating her like. . ." she looked up in time to catch the end of a hard scowl ". . . an ally."
Evfra brushed a bit of dust off his roffjin. "You must be feeling better if you're scolding me like one of your students." He pushed off the table and turned to leave.
"Consider it, Evfra."
He gave her a sardonic glance over his shoulder. "I'll keep you informed on Vehn's extradition."
/\ /\ /\
Her anger was a knot of fire in her chest. The blood pounded in her ears as she looked at the other end of the market, where two Outcast guards herded a cluster of people headed for the badlands. A third guard planted his boot in the ribs of a prone angara.
Ryder flinched as the guard kicked the angara again. The alien dry-heaved and blood spooled from his lip. Sara's hands clenched and tiny sparks of biotics began to arc between her fingers. She took a step forward.
“Ryder.” SAM spoke into her ear.
Her nails dug into her palm. "I know, SAM." She'd already needled Sloane and come away empty-handed. She could feel the unfriendly eyes of the krogan guards outside Sloane's headquarters. Pick a fight, and she'd nuke any chance of getting to Vehn.
But it galled her.
Reyes was lounging in the shadow of a column. He smirked when he saw her. "Have a nice chat?"
She shoved her anger down and smiled wryly. "I think she likes me."
Reyes laughed and invited her closer. "Don't worry. I found a workaround."
"Then I guess I'll let you off the hook for sticking me with the bill." She meant for the words to come out dry and acerbic.
They did not.
He chuckled, amber eyes warm and lingering as he held her gaze. Sara forced down the butterflies in her stomach with a vehement swat. She accepted the container he gave her to eat through the bars and pretended to miss the knowing smile that accompanied it. She stalked off, irritated with her reaction to Reyes and the feeling of his eyes on her back.
An Outcast guard patrolled the walkway leading to the cells. Sara lingered at the balcony while the woman completed her circuit. She gripped the railing, still cold in the morning shade, and wrestled her temper into submission.
Sneaking a glance over her shoulder, Sara spotted the Outcast guard turning into the krogan merchant's store. The guard's voice was raised and a furious scowl creased her face. Sara slipped away from the railing and overrode the console nearby. Once SAM confirmed the way was empty, she moved. She wished the guard a long and frustrating argument with the merchant and her customers.
She moved quietly through the maintenance tunnel, depending on SAM's sensors to keep her from triggering any alarms. Once he confirmed the storage room was empty, she stole into the room and further into the jail.
Vehn Terev stared absently at the wall and Ryder paused to study him. There were marks on his gray-green skin as though Sloane's guards had beaten him. Ryder wrapped a gloved hand around one of the bars. "Vehn Terev."
The angara turned sullen eyes to her. "What do you want?"
"The Archon's ship. Where is it?"
Vehn scoffed. "This a new interrogation tactic? Sloane's getting lazy." He slumped against the bench, wincing with every movement. His mouth was tight and bitter.
Ryder shook her head. "I'm not with Sloane. Evfra sent me." She jiggled the container Reyes gave her. "Tell me what I need to know and I can get you back to the Resistance."
"So I'm trading one cell for another." His eyes gleamed with sulky defiance. "Why should I bother?"
"Evfra won't stick your head on a pike." Ryder fought to keep the dislike from her voice.
The angara rubbed at a dark bruise on his jaw. "He must be desperate if he sent you."
"After you gave Moshae Sjefa to the kett, you're lucky he wants you at all." Ryder shot back. "Sloane wants to parade your bloody corpse around the port. I'm your only way out and I'm running out of patience."
"For all his faults, the old man's not an executioner." Vehn sighed. "I never saw the Archon's ship. I got my orders through a kett transponder. I'll tell you where I buried it and you can use its frequency to triangulate the ship's location." He stood and Ryder handed him the canister through the bars.
"This will eat through the bars. A Resistance contact is waiting for you." She turned on her heel and started to leave.
"Don't you want to know why I did it?"
Ryder paused. She considered telling him to take his excuses and shove them. The words burned on the tip of her tongue . . . but traitors were dangerous and motives were intel.
She wheeled around. "Enlighten me."
Vehn stepped closer to the bars, holding her eyes for the first time. "We're losing the war against the kett. And still, Evfra puts my brothers and sisters in danger to protect a useless old woman."
"So you took things into your own hands." Ryder stated flatly.
"I made the call he wouldn't." Vehn snapped. "The Archon only wanted the Moshae. I thought that if I gave her up -" he sighed sharply. "I didn't know what the kett were doing to my people."
"You resent Evfra. And the Archon used that against you."
"If Evfra was a better leader -" Vehn cut himself off with a scowl. "It doesn't matter. And I'll accept the consequences."
No, you won’t, she thought. You’ll feel angry and guilty, and you’ll find a way to make this someone else’s fault. What she said out loud was “People like you never accept the consequences. It means admitting they were responsible.”
/\ /\ /\
"Ryder managed to get Vehn Terev out. He's leaving the port with your soldiers as we speak." Reyes's arms were folded loosely over his chest. "As to the second thing you asked me to look into . . . rumors around the port say that Sloane shows no interest in reconciling with the Nexus."
Evfra exchanged a glance with the intel officer in charge of their Kadara Port contacts. She caught his look and dipped her chin. She would verify Reyes' claim with their other sources. "Pathfinder Ryder arrived well after the mutiny on your Nexus, from what I've heard. And yet Sloane Kelly still isn't inclined to work with her."
Reyes chuckled. "Really, that says more about Sloane than it does about the Pathfinder. Ryder did try to reason with her." His knowing half-smile set Evfra's teeth on edge. "She's quite something, isn't she?"
A knot formed between Evfra's shoulders and his face hardened. A stab of irritation went through him as he saw Reyes' smile broaden ever so slightly. "We're done here. Tjeet will be in contact with you soon."
Reyes flashed a smile at the intel officer. "Looking forward to it."
Ryder comes close to losing her temper. Evfra intervenes. Jaal's instincts are on point.
New chapter! Thank you for the reviews and kudos; seeing them always makes my day brighter!
The sun was just beginning to peer over the horizon when they docked at Aya. Ryder exhaled slowly and felt some of the tension leave her shoulders as she looked around the port. After the shock of Kadara Port, with its seething frustration and naked desperation, Aya was a relief. At least here she didn't need to worry about being knifed around every corner.
One of the angara milling around the market was able to point her in the direction of a botanist with quilloa seeds. Ryder jogged up the stairs to speak to the angaran woman, who was bent over a fern. A smudge of gray and green caught her eye and she paused. "Vehn?"
The angara looked up from the plant he was pruning. His eyes were flat and sullen. He made no sign that he recognized her.
She frowned. "This is a surprise. I thought you'd be in a Resistance holding cell."
Vehn snorted. "That was Evfra's plan. He wanted to throw me down a hole once he got his precious answers. The Moshae convinced him to release me. I 'volunteer' here and they let me see sunlight."
Ryder raised an eyebrow. "I didn't expect the Moshae to be in your corner."
Vehn's voice was thick with scorn, but his movements were careful and deliberate as he trimmed the greenery. "Servitude dressed like forgiveness. The Moshae keeps her high ground and I'm the traitor who gets a second chance."
Ryder's brows lowered and snapped together in a harsh line. "Sure, why bother to appreciate the chance you've been given?" Her lip curled. "Better to insist that everyone's out to get you. Otherwise you might actually have to take a good look in the mirror."
"Of course, lucky me." Vehn flicked his shears, dismissing her. "I better get back to work. They're not paying me to stand around. Oh, that's right, they're not paying me at all." He glanced up across the market, the skin around his eyes and nose wrinkling in disdain. Ryder turned her head to follow his gaze and saw Evfra coming from Governor Shie's office. As he walked down the stairs, he scanned the market, his attention holding on Ryder and Vehn for a brief moment.
Vehn snorted. "Veshanaan."
Ryder went hot and cold. Her pulse pounded once in her ears.
A flicker of blue ran down the back of her hand. Across the market, she saw Vetra focus on her, frowning.
Her heart throbbed against her ribs, swelling in her chest like a hideous growth. Dimly, she heard Vehn continuing to talk as she took a step forward. Her fingers curled.
A large hand grabbed her arm and Ryder started. The sounds of the market rushed in again as she glanced up into Evfra's taut face. "Pathfinder Ryder, a moment."
She allowed Evfra to pull her away. Her pulse still beat in her ears as she followed him down the stairs. Vehn looked between the two of them with sour speculation before dropping his gaze.
Evfra led her down unfamiliar back streets and empty stairways, finally stopping at a secluded balcony a few floors beneath the main market. He studied her, arms crossed. Ryder suppressed a groan at the frustration in his face. She braced herself for a lecture - a completely deserved lecture, she told herself - about her near-altercation with Vehn. Shit. A painful flush burned across her cheeks as she realized how close she had come to causing a diplomatic incident.
He studied her for a few moments in silence. The wind ruffled her hair and Ryder took a breath, tasting salt and damp stone on the air. "I'm sorry." She gripped the railing like a lifeline, trying to wrestle her roiling emotions into submission. She stared out over the shimmering water. "I was out of line, and you shouldn't have had to get involved."
"I've never seen that sort of violence in your eyes before." He paused. "Even with me." A hint of irony colored his voice.
Ryder looked over at him, startled. He leaned against the railing, a frown creasing the skin between his brows. His eyes flickered over her burning cheeks, traveling past her hunched shoulders to her white-knuckled grip on the railing. Sara rubbed the back of her neck, unsure how to answer him.
"I'm sorry." she said again. It seemed grossly inadequate. "Thanks for pulling me out of there before . . . " Ryder huffed out a breath, shaking her head. "Before I did something I would regret."
Ryder opened her mouth, but nothing came out. What could she say? He insulted you?
She scrubbed a hand through her hair, sidestepping the issue. "I don't understand it. He refuses to see his actions had consequences. He'd rather spit in the face of the entire world than recognize the hell he put people through." Ryder stared at her hands. "I don't know how you can restrain yourself when I want to put him through a wall."
Evfra rested his forearms on the railing. "Back when I started the Resistance, I might have." He paused. "I've been leading the Resistance for five years now. I was older than you are now, but also . . . angrier."
Ryder shifted to face him. The breeze whipped her hair across her face, stinging her skin. "Does it get easier?"
The angara looked at her. "No." His eyes followed her hand as she pushed her windswept hair back. "But you learn to control how you react to it."
A half-smile flitted across her face. "My dad had a saying: when your back is against the wall . . . if you can't run from it, use it."
"You replaced him as Pathfinder."
Her smile withered. "Yeah." Her eyes slid away from him to follow a flock of gulls. A familiar heaviness settled in her stomach. "He sacrificed himself so I could live." On the distant horizon, storm clouds scudded across the sky, heavy and gray. Little flashes of lightning wove through the roiling clouds, and her throat tightened.
Sara turned and put her back against the railing. A weight pressed under her sternum. She crossed one leg over the other and stared at her feet, willing that heaviness to disperse.
She heard Evfra shift toward her. "You've been doing well."
Sara glanced back at him, surprised. Either she was having an auditory hallucination, or Evfra had just given her a compliment. She fought the urge to ask SAM to confirm which it was.
The angara had moved closer, and she needed to crane her neck to look up at him. He met her look with steady calm. "You inherited the position without preparation and under terrible circumstances. And despite that, you've done more in months than your Nexus has done in a year."
"I have to." The words tumbled out of her without thought.
Evfra tilted his head, studying her with an intensity she didn't know how to interpret. She realized that only silence and a single step separated them. Her eyes traced the shape of his face, snagging on the scar that raked over his mouth and the quiet fire in his eyes. Why isn't he saying anything? SAM was unusually quiet in her mind, but she could feel him monitoring the situation from behind her eyes. Could an AI feel anticipation?
She forced herself to look away. "I should let you get back to work."
She looked back at him. The wind brushed his roffjin along her arm. Her skin prickled.
/\ /\ /\
Ryder disappeared into the shadow of the stairwell. Evfra lingered at the balcony a few minutes longer. There would be enough speculation already on why he had pulled her out of the market. He doubted any angara would fault her for wanting to slap sense into Vehn; more than a few would have gotten in line behind her.
But the last thing Aya needed now was a riot, and the last thing Evfra needed was a diplomatic incident involving Pathfinder Ryder. She caused enough upheaval on her own without bringing ambassadors and politicians into things.
Her scent hung in the air briefly before being carried away by the sea-and-sulfur breeze. Evfra’s hands tightened into fists before he pushed away from the railing and walked back to his office.
Vehn had moved on to the plants outside of the repository. The angara caught Evfra’s eye and snorted. “I suppose I can stew in a cell for insulting the leader of the Resistance.”
Evfra’s brows twitched in surprise before he smoothed his expression into cool indifference. Vehn’s hand tightened on the shears. His bioelectric field spiked and buzzed, reaching for Evfra’s and breaking against its steady hum. Vehn glared, his lip lifting in a thin sneer. They held each other’s eyes for a long moment, Vehn’s gaze hot as a cornered animal’s, Evfra’s wintry and distant. “Well? No more punishments to throw at me?”
Evfra looked away from him with deliberate dismissal. As he brushed past Vehn, the skin between his shoulder blades itched. Vehn’s field crackled along his own in a taunting gesture he hadn’t felt since the childish scrapping of his adolescence.
“Evfra.” Jaal’s voice rang out as he left the balcony and crossed the plaza. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Vehn’s field receded sharply and Evfra felt him drop his eyes. Jaal’s face was relaxed in a warm smile as he fell into place beside Evfra, between him and Vehn. Up close, Evfra could see the tension in the skin around his eyes. He gave Jaal a brief nod, a flash of understanding passing between them as they walked into headquarters. “I assume you have an update for me.”
“A question, actually. The Moshae has reached out to Aksuul. Ryder wishes to speak with him herself, and see if he and his Roekaar can be reasoned with.”
“A fool’s errand.” Evfra nodded at the guards standing sentry outside headquarters.
“Maybe. But if there is even a chance of avoiding bloodshed between angara and the Milky Way aliens, we must grasp it.”
“We?” Evfra shook his head. “Don’t tell me you want to drag the Resistance into this.”
Jaal paused. “No, I meant ‘we’ as in . . . Ryder’s team.” Evfra glanced at him sidelong and Jaal shook his head and smiled. “I apologize for the confusion. I have grown quite close to them in my time on the Tempest.”
A cluster of trainees parted to let them pass. “You had a question,” Evfra prompted him.
“Yes. Moshae Sjefa expects Aksuul to arrive in a few days –“
“ – And if you ask me to join this meeting, I’ll tell you what you already know. My presence would only make Aksuul resentful and cause speculation that I mean to back the Pathfinder and bring military action against the Roekaar.” Evfra shook his head. “No.”
Jaal smiled wryly. “For someone who despises politics, you seem quite insightful. As it happens, I was not going to ask you to attend the meeting.”
“That is a relief.” Evfra replied dryly. By the windows, Tjeet signaled him and Evfra gestured that he would join her in a moment. “What was your question, then?”
“Some of Ryder’s team have expressed interest in Resistance training. I know a few friends in the Resistance who would be willing to spar with them, but we will need a training room.”
Jaal met his skeptical look with calm sincerity. Across the hall, two angara bickered over encryption protocols.
Evfra sighed. “If a Resistance soldier has duty, that takes precedent. Don’t disrupt other groups. And I know I’m asking the impossible where Ryder is concerned, but try not to make a spectacle.”
“Don’t pretend you’re not a little interested in seeing the Milky Way aliens in action.” Jaal’s smile was bright with the pleasure of teasing him.
Evfra scowled. “Tell Ryder I expect the building to remain standing.”
Jaal chuckled. “I’m not sure Ryder was planning to attend. But I’ll let her know you invited her.” His smile turned speculative and Evfra cut him short before Jaal could make him agree to any more insanities.
“One of the training rooms in sublevel two should be available tomorrow. Check with Jorin before you reserve it.” He sighed. “Storms know how you talk me into these things.”
“Of course. Thank you, Evfra.” That odd smile still hovered around Jaal’s mouth. Evfra ignored the stab of irritation it sent through him, and turned his attention to Tjeet.
Tjeet has unsettling news from Kadara. Jaal gets his training session. Sara and Evfra discuss biotics.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“That thing is possessed. There’s an evil little demon inside and it’s fucking with me.” Gil groaned and buried his head in his hands. The noise of frustration that slipped through his palms was eerily reminiscent of a nauseous elcor.
Cora raised her eyebrows and shook out a coffee packet. Gil winced with every clang and tick of noise as she started the machine. “Not even 0600 and you’re already talking to yourself. Your morning must have been wonderful.” She took two mugs down from the cabinet and waited for the coffee to boil.
“Oh, the best. I banged my head against for the transmitter for four hours and it just cackled maniacally and mooned me.”
“There’s an image.” Cora remarked. The coffee machine whirred and smell of roasted coffee began to fill the room. She poured a cup for Gil, black, no sugar. “Drink your jet fuel.”
The engineer lifted his head as she slid the cup under his nose. “I swear, it broke itself on purpose.” Dark shadows ringed his eyes, and his hair had a furrow where he had been raking his hands through it. “You have no idea how big a pain that transmitter is. I think it can actually feel spite.”
Cora chuckled. “Well, exorcists are second wave. You’ll just have to muddle through.” She set her cup down and opened a bag of dried fruit. Shaking out blueberries and rings of fig, she filled a bowl for herself.
Gil saluted her with the mug and disappeared behind it. When he emerged, half the coffee was gone. “I shouldn’t complain. I have the easy job. Once I crack that thing, you guys are going to waltz onto the Archon’s ship and take a tour.” He paused. “No matter how many times I say it out loud, it still sounds like an incredibly stupid idea.”
“Oh, it is.” Vetra strolled through the door and began to rifle through the cabinets. Her subvocals rasped with dry humor. “But if we had better options, we’d be taking them. You joining Jaal’s training thing today, Cora?”
“Of course. I’m glad Jaal was able to set this up. It’ll be interesting to see what we can learn.”
Gil scoffed into his coffee cup.”You already know fifty ways to punch someone through a wall. Do you really need to learn another?”
Cora rescued her bowl and moved to give Vetra access to the cabinet behind her. The turian shifted boxes until she found a pack of dextro rations. She tore the wrapper off a protein bar and made quick work of it before grabbing another and stuffing it in her pocket. “Cora, Gil, I’m heading to the markets in half an hour. Anything you want me to pick up, send a message to my omnitool.”
“You’d be surprised what you can learn about another species by training with them,” Cora told Gil. She picked up his empty cup, considered the bruised shadows under his eyes, and put the cup back under the dispenser. “And I know seventy-two ways to punch someone through a wall.”
Gil snorted. “Oh, pardon me. Of course you do.”
/\ /\ /\
“Our contacts confirmed most of what Reyes told us.” There was a deep crease between Tjeet’s brows. “I’m not sure whether we should be more concerned that he seems to be playing straight with us. I know his type, and they always like to have at least a dozen secrets and one conspiracy that you don’t know about.” She tapped her datapad on the table thoughtfully. “He was very interested in Ryder. How the angara on Aya perceive her, how she earned an alliance with our people.”
Evfra’s head swung abruptly toward her. Tjeet looked at him expectantly.
He shifted his gaze to the information display for a long moment before returning his attention to her. “What else did we learn?”
“Tensions are still rising between the Collective and the Outcasts. The Outcasts don’t take angaran recruits, but we’ve managed to plant a spy in the Collective’s base of operations in Draulir.” She frowned. “Although I doubt it’s their only station in the region. So far, our agent has been able to confirm the identities of a few mid-tier agents and the Collective’s command structure – loose cells, code names, complete ignorance of who the real leaders are. The Charlatan commands from the shadows, doesn’t play favorites, and won’t come at an enemy head on when they can attack from the side.”
Tjeet cleared her throat. “And this is only speculation on my part, but I suspect he or she has at least one well-connected angara in their inner circle, assuming they aren’t angaran themselves. Their knowledge of the territory is too thorough, and too many angara work within or alongside the organization for it to be a coincidence. A Milky Way vesaan couldn’t navigate the existing politics of our people on Kadara without considerable help. The Collective has barely been on Kadara for a year, and they’ve already established a solid network among the native population.”
“And you say that Reyes has worked with them in the past. He may even be an active agent.” Evfra shifted. Tjeet felt a momentary flicker of static in his electric field, so faint that she might have imagined it.
“If he is, he’s discreet about it. He still does business for Sloane and her associates.” Tjeet rubbed a neck flap absently. “Money is money, after all. Regardless, I don’t think either the Collective or the Outcasts have much interest in the Resistance unless they can make a profit off us.” Her lips thinned as she thought, replaying key conversations with Reyes in her mind. “If we had stronger ties to Kadara, I might worry they would try to use us as a political tool, but with things as they are, we aren’t much use to them. They’re more likely to be interested in-“
“The Initiative,” he finished. Disquiet moved across his face like a shadow.
/\ /\ /\
Sara flung herself down on a bench on the observation platform and cracked a bottle of water. Her body hummed pleasantly with adrenaline, her muscles warm and loose. She chased the damp flush on her cheeks and neck with a towel before draping it over her shoulders. On the training ground below, Peebee chattered to a battle-scarred angaran woman on the sidelines while Cora squared off against a striking blue-violet angara.
Jaal glanced up at her enquiringly, and Sara gave him a thumbs-up. He grinned and turned back to Cora and her sparring partner. The angaran man wore a cheeky grin and made a low comment that drew an answering smile from Cora.
The door behind her opened quietly and Sara turned, smiling. “Decided to join after all, Vetra?”
Blue eyes were wry above a scarred mouth. “Sorry to disappoint, Pathfinder.” He stopped at the edge of the bench. “I was curious to see how Jaal’s training exercise was proceeding.”
“Well, after about twenty minutes everyone stopped pulling their punches, so I call that progress.” Sara gestured at the bench. “Take a seat. Cora and Sveng are starting.” Good-humored taunts began to fill the training room as the biotic and her partner circled each other. Sara fully expected to hear Liam repeating angaran insults the next time they engaged with kett.
Evfra shook his head. “I won’t be long.” He crossed his arms and cast a critical eye on the sparring below. “I take it your turn was earlier?”
Sara tucked a damp strand of hair behind her ear and pressed the water bottle to her forehead. A cold bead of condensation ran down her temple. When she opened her eyes, Evfra was watching her expectantly. She tried and failed to contain a self-conscious laugh. “Yeah. Jaal tells me that I depend on my biotics too much against kett, and I need to work on my hand-to-hand.” She shrugged and added self-deprecatingly “It was a pretty humbling experience. I’m not sorry you missed it.”
He shook his head. “I still can’t wrap my head around how your people talk about manipulating dark energy fields as if it were no more difficult than catching a ball.”
A chorus of ragged cheers rang out and Sara glanced down to see Cora ducking under Sveng’s reach. A little smile tugged at the woman’s mouth and her dark eyes gleamed. Sveng followed her movements with rapt fascination, like a cat preparing to pounce.
“I could say the same thing about bioelectricity.” Sara took a long swallow of water. “I shouldn’t be surprised the angara are so interested in it. Your infirmary doctor, Olvek was pretty fascinated. He’s been bombarding Lexi and Ambassador Rialla with questions ever since we sent him our texts on it.”
“You’re lucky academic curiosity is all you’ve received.” His voice was level and sardonic.
“Plenty of people back in the Milky Way are nervous or afraid around biotics.” Her mouth twisted into something that wasn’t a smile as she tapped the half-empty bottle against her knee. “It’s not exactly a new experience for us. Well, except the asari. Asari have biotics naturally, but the rest of us pick it up through eezo exposure.” She sucked her teeth as she considered her next words. “It’s led to prejudice sometimes.”
He shifted, cocking his head. “Strangeness is most frightening when wrapped in something familiar.”
“That’s a fair description of it.”
From the training ground, Jaal raised a hand to greet Evfra. He looked inordinately pleased to see him. A wide grin stretched across his face that reminded Sara strongly of Gil on a winning streak. She set the bottle down and glanced between Jaal and Evfra.
“It doesn’t look as though anyone’s using biotics or bioelectricity down there.” Evfra’s face was unreadable.
Sara shook her head. “Not today, at least. Focusing on physical training starts everyone on common ground, lets them get comfortable around each other, and keeps things friendly.” She rolled her neck and shoulders before resting her forearms on her knees. “Once they’ve started to relax with each other, we can bring weird alien powers into the mix.”
Evfra gave her a considering look. “You’re being cautious.”
She smiled, a bright flash that was eighty percent humor and twenty percent embarrassment under his scrutiny. “Not my usual style, I know.”
For a brief moment, his expression thawed a fraction. A glint appeared in his eye that could have been humor. “That wasn’t what I meant.” He gestured at Cora and Peebee. “I had been curious to see biotics demonstrated.”
Sara bit her lip, gauging the tension in his posture. Finding none, or at least no more than the usual amount he always carried, she turned to straddle the bench. “Well, if you want a demonstration, I could do something small.” She plucked her water bottle from the floor and placed it on the bench. “Take a seat.”
He raised his brows and there was a moment where she thought he would decline, but curiosity won out over skepticism. As he settled facing her, she unscrewed the bottle cap and set it aside. Glancing up at him, she rested her hands on her thighs. Her thumb brushed a tiny hole in her leggings. “First of all, I’m not going to touch you at all with biotics. Just so you know.”
He met her eyes. Ryder fought to keep her expression relaxed and reminded herself not to fidget. “I didn’t think you would, Ryder.”
A laugh bubbled to the surface despite herself. She ducked her head and scrubbed a hand through her hair before meeting his eyes again. “The short explanation is that we’re using dark energy to manipulate the mass in a given space.” A faint blue glow appeared around the bottle. “Power and finesse can vary. Having SAM helps me to do more fine manipulation and pack a lot more power than I would be able to otherwise.”
Water rose in a slow trickle out of the bottle, collecting into a globe about three inches in diameter. Sparks of light flickered across its spinning surface. Evfra tilted his head to regard it from a different angle. “Perfectly spherical. Your control seems very precise.” He looked at her over the glittering sphere. “Is fine manipulation commonly taught?”
“Precision is valued in the Alliance military,” SAM commented. Sara twitched in surprise and glanced at her omnitool as he continued. “But perhaps not artistry.” There was a short pause before he added, “Sara is showing off.”
Sara flushed and strove for a light tone. “SAM, I’m not going to half-ass a biotic demonstration to a military commander.”
“You are the AI. SAM.” Evfra’s voice was difficult to read, but Sara heard none of the fear that a Milky Way species would have held. His gaze was speculative. “It’s … interesting to speak with you at last.”
“Likewise, Commander Tershaav.” SAM replied. “I hope that we will be able to speak further. I have enjoyed meeting new people through Sara. Jaal Ama Darav is uniquely civil and curious.”
“SAM places a high value on curiosity,” Sara said dryly. “Unsurprisingly.” She glanced down at the arena and smiled as Liam followed Jaal’s enthusiastic instructions on breaking a grapple. A wide white grin lit his face and the angara around him were quicker to smile and laugh.
Evfra regarded her with a slightly lifted brow and she cleared her throat. “We’ll skip the power demo for now.” A little grin teased at the corners of her mouth, and she paused to meet his eyes. “Jaal was very clear that you want the training room back in the same condition it was in when we started.”
A curious mix of warning and humor lightened his eyes, but he refused to be provoked. “I’m relieved to hear it.”
They held each other’s gaze a moment longer and Sara waited to see if he’d crack a smile. A pleasant tug pulled at her stomach and she bit her lip to suppress a laugh. His attention shifted briefly from her eyes to her mouth and back again.
The sphere of water between them wobbled, and Sara swore under her breath and reshaped her grip on it. “This is stasis.” she said, and pulled the sphere apart into glittering pieces. They hung in the air like a dandelion clock. Evfra cocked his head, eyes alight in a still face. “It’s safe to touch, if you like.” Sara added.
He searched her face a moment before reaching out a hand. A warm fizz bubbled through her veins and ran pink over her skin. A smile flickered across her face like the sun breaking through clouds as she caught his eye. He touched a fingertip to one of the suspended drops, trying to nudge it out of place. Sara grinned as it refused to move or rotate.
“Are you holding each one individually, or in a field?” he asked.
“Fields are easier.” she replied.
Sara felt the hair on the back of her neck lift. A small snap broke the quiet between them, and electricity flickered from his finger to pass through the sphere, jumping from one drop to its neighbors like chain lightning.
“How much juice did you give it?” she asked. At his blank look, she amended, “How strong was the field?”
SAM spoke up. “Perhaps 4 kilovolts of static charge, Pathfinder. In layman’s terms, the equivalent of touching a doorknob in winter.”
“It wouldn’t be particularly dangerous unless I maintained a current.” Evfra commented. “But the potential applications are interesting.” Thoughtful calculation curved his mouth as he rubbed his chin.
Sara widened her eyes at him. “Commander, it sounds as though you’re developing an interest in cross-species training.”
Her attempt at innocence fooled him not at all; his hand dropped and he bestowed a particularly sardonic look on her. “I’m interested in survival.”
She grinned, enjoying his increasingly dry responses to her provocations. “Well, in the interest of survival, let me show you how a singularity works.”
Happy New Year, everyone! The past couple months have been a little hectic, but I hope you enjoyed this chapter. :)
Sara meets Akksul. SAM reassures his Pathfinder. Peebee is a people person.
“Evfra should have come to me.”
The speaker’s voice was deep and gritty with anger. Sara paused at the bottom of the stairway. A short, sharp tingle ran over her skin.
The breadth of Akksul’s shoulders nearly hid Moshae Sjefa from view. He had his back to Sara as he spoke with the Moshae, and his movements were quick and agitated. The angara looked curiously out of place among the delicate instruments and Remnant technology. His presence was too restless, too oppressive for this small room.
“Shh, Akksul I’m all right.” The Moshae’s voice was low and tender, and Sara remembered what Jaal had told her earlier, that Akksul had been her best student. Sara studied the hand she laid on his shoulder and the maternal way her body curved toward him and amended that idea. Akksul was dearer to the Moshae than even Jaal had believed.
“You almost died.”
The Moshae glanced over Akksul’s shoulder and spotted Ryder. A warm smile lit her eyes and Akksul wheeled around to follow her gaze.
“What’s she doing here?” He straightened to his full height and the hand closest to her closed into a fist.
Sara approached them, keeping her expression relaxed and her hands open at her sides.
“Ryder, caution.” SAM said through their private channel. “I am receiving biological signs of distress, and a spike in his electrical field.”
A prickling sensation pressed into her skin, like brushing up against barbed wire. The angara’s eyes blazed with loathing. She could smell the sharp, ozone scent of his rage in the air. Her eyes rested on the withered edge of a scar that disappeared under his armor, and she saw him as he must have been in the kett labor camp, flayed, trampled, fearful. Whatever he had been before had been shattered, and only his hate allowed him to stand strong amid the pieces.
She met his eyes again, creased and narrowed with anger, and wondered how much electricity SAM could mitigate. “I asked the Moshae to set up a meeting. I don’t want to be enemies.”
Akksul received her words with flat contempt. “A parasite has no quarrel with its host.”
Moshae Sjefa interceded. Her voice was quiet and firm as she touched his arm. “Akksul, Ryder rescued me from the kett.”
Open scorn appeared on his face. “Sloane Kelly saved Kadara. Look how that went.”
Sara flinched. The meaty sound of steel-toed boots thumping into ribs echoed in her mind, and the high, thin sound of a person struggling and unable to breathe. Blood spattered and became one more stain among hundreds on a cold grey floor.
“I’m not Sloane.” The words were quiet in her ears, but not calm. The sights and sounds of Kadara hovered at the edge of her awareness like distant thunder. “I don’t deliberately cultivate a xenophobic slum. I don’t beat people for money and throw them into wastelands. I don’t mutilate criminals or my enemies to make a statement that I’m not to be fucked with.” Despite herself, her breathing grew harsh. “That bitch does not speak for me.”
As she spoke, Akksul’s lip curled in scorn. “Nothing you say can be trusted. I’ve been watching you.” His eyes were hard as gems. “You’re invaders, just like the kett, except less cautious.”
The back of her neck prickled. “What does that mean?”
“You’ll know soon enough.” He swept past her and gave one last warning to the Moshae. “Do not trust them, shovaan.”
Sara winced and closed her eyes as his footsteps echoed down the stair. Her anger drained out of her, leaving her cold and tired.
Her shoulders dropped in defeat as she listened to the whirr and swish of the door as it closed behind him. “Shit.” She sighed. First Vehn, now Akksul. Where was her self-control? “I’m sorry. I should have been trying to reach him and instead I went off on him.” She bit her lip and stared into the empty air.
Moshae Sjefa was gazing up the empty staircase. “He did not want to be reached.” She sighed. “But we must keep trying.”
/\ /\ /\
Her restlessness pushed her to the outskirts of the city, passing fewer and fewer angara the farther she traveled from the main thoroughfare. Her wandering took her through the quiet alleys and lonely terraces until she reached a bridge overlooking the northern part of the city. Beyond it, the lava fields burned bright as stars as they emptied into the ocean. Angara milled around the markets below, too distant for the noise to reach her. Up here, there was only tearing sound of the wind as it blew over the bridge. The back of her jacket grew chilly with the force of it and Sara shivered in the sun.
“I’m fucking it up, SAM.” Up here there was no one else to hear her.
SAM took a moment to reply. When he did, his tone was gentle as he spoke through their private channel. “Analysis of current Nexus AVP and Initiative reports suggests otherwise, Ryder. Prodromos has supplied the Nexus with an array of resources and Ambassador Rialla reports favorable responses to trade agreements in talks with Aya leadership.”
She snorted. “It’s ok, SAM, you can be blunt. God knows Dad would have been.”
“Alec would have recognized the futility of engaging in diplomacy with a radical leader of Akksul’s temperament.”
Sara raised an eyebrow. “Dad didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘futility.’”
“Lieutenant Harper remarked that Alec preferred saving people to talking with them. I am inclined to agree with her.”
“So I should pat myself on the back for almost assaulting Vehn and losing it with Akksul?’
“Strong emotions are to be expected given the trauma and stress you have experienced since revival.”
“Don’t make excuses for me, SAM. I’m the Pathfinder. I-“ Her eyes stung and she bit her lip.
Her comm beeped. Suvi’s husky brogue interrupted her before she could continue. “Pathfinder, we’ve received a comm from Eos. Bradley’s being tight-lipped, but I’m pretty sure it’s a distress call.”
Sara straightened. “Details, Suvi?”
“Not really, Ryder. I’m sorry. You’d better come and have a listen for yourself.” Suvi paused, and Sara could almost see her fidgeting with the fingers of her gloves. “I tried reaching them, but they’re not answering. Bradley’s probably put the outpost on a brownout.”
Sara’s face felt oddly stiff and numb. Her breath caught and it took her a moment to reply. “Thanks, Suvi. I’ll be right there.” She headed for the stairs, her mind back in the Moshae’s lab with Aksuul and his anger. “SAM, pass the word along to the team. We might be making a hasty departure.”
/\ /\ /\
Evfra was conversing with Jaal when she reached the port. She saw the moment he caught sight of her; a waiting stillness took hold of him, like a runner at the starting line. Sara caught her breath, suddenly as aware of him as she was of SAM in her head. She knew if she met his eyes, she would stop.
Her feet carried her closer to them and she fumbled for a greeting. She gave Jaal a quick, tight smile, intending to go past them, but Jaal held up a hand. “A moment, Ryder. I take it we are delaying our trip to Kadara.”
“It looks like we’ll be making a detour to Eos, yes.” Impatience fizzed beneath her skin. She forced herself to pause and talk to them. “Commander, good to see you again.” Her eyes darted up to his face and away.
Jaal spotted Vetra carrying a small stack of crates. “Excuse me.” He intercepted Vetra and smoothly retrieved a teetering crate before it could slide off. The turian gave him a grateful look and nodded to Sara as they passed.
Sara glanced at Evfra, finally meeting his eyes. His face was tight and his stillness hummed with the restraint of unrealized motion. “Isharay. Be careful on Kadara.”
The remark almost shook her out of her nervous tension. “Of what, exactly?” Her smile was wry, but genuine. “There’s so much. Pirates, thugs, flaming sulfur springs, unfriendly wildlife . . .”
Evfra didn’t share her amusement. “Be careful of Reyes. He’s given information to the Resistance in the past, but I wouldn’t call him trustworthy.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Commander, don’t tell me you’re concerned for my safety.”
Sara felt a shiver of electricity against her skin, soft as the tremor of a spider’s web. Evfra scowled. “Why aren’t you?”
Her mouth fell open as he turned abruptly and walked away. Staring at his back, she closed her mouth. Well, shit. “SAM, remind me to keep my mouth shut next time.”
SAM remained unflappable. “Of course, Pathfinder. Statistically, there is a 16.3 percent chance you will listen.”
/\ /\ /\
The meeting room was always relatively empty, and Sara was grateful for the solitude. Soft murmurs came from the research room, but no one ventured up the gently sloping ramps. Laying back on the couch, she set her datapad down and looked out at the stars sliding by.
“Kallo estimates that we will arrive in the Pytheas system in nineteen hours.” SAM paused. “Your cortisol levels are unusually high. I would recommend getting at least eight hours of sleep before we arrive.”
She knew he felt the tired smile that pulled at her lips. “Are you mothering me, SAM? Lexi will worry you’re gunning for her job.”
“Dr. T’Perro would agree with my conclusion. She would also direct your attention to her latest scans of your endocrine system, which are less than ideal.”
Sara groaned. “I’ll sleep, SAM. Don’t sic Lexi on me.” She stretched, muscles shuddering as she linked her hands and pushed them away from her body. “Just a few more reports.” The intelligence they were receiving from Voeld was worrying. After stumbling across a kett lab, Sara had asked Do Xeel for the locations of every known exaltation facility. Shutting them down would be grueling, bloody work, but until they did, the kett’s numbers would keep resurging.
An inquisitive buzz trailed up the ramp and Sara turned her head to see POC bobbing behind Peebee. The asari jumped when her eyes met Sara’s.
“Hiding?” Sara asked.
Peebee made a face. “Just need a change of scenery.” She flapped a hand as Sara sat up and began to gather her data pad and notes. “I’m not kicking you out. Stay if you want.”
POC trilled and floated over to Sara. She cradled the Observer in her hands and gently jiggled her back and forth as she might do with a puppy’s face. “Hello pretty girl.” Sara ran her hands down the cool metal tendrils that POC curled beneath her body. “How’s the Remnant scanner coming, anyway?”
“I’ve got a blip on Eos. Pretty lucky, since we’re already heading there.” The asari sprawled on the floor and spread data pads and papers in a fan around her. Illegible notes and complex diagrams were scrawled across them.
“Lucky is not how I’d put it.” Sara said dryly. She scanned the latest news from Raelis and rubbed her temple where a slow drumming had started.
Peebee shrugged. “Ok, fine, it’s not lucky that Prodromos has gone radio silent. But if you don’t appreciate the silver linings, you’ll end up like Tall, Blue, and Grumpy and the Tempest does not need that vibe.”
POC floated to the plant at the foot of Sara’s bench and began to prod and bend the leaves. Sara yawned until her jaw cracked. Her vertebrae popped as she twisted left, then right. “You’re handing out cute nicknames now? Careful, or you’ll get attached.”
“Ha!” Peebee snorted. “No danger there. Knock yourself out.”
Sara dropped her datapad. It fell to the floor with a clatter. “What?”
“Go forth. Explore strange new worlds. Seek out new life and new civilizations. Boldly go to third base with hot new aliens.”
Sara realized that her mouth was hanging and closed it. “What the hell, Peebee?”
Peebee gave her a look which suggested she thought Sara was being deliberately dense. “If you’re going to ask Jaal questions, you need to tell him up front what’s confidential.” She stared down her pert nose at Sara. “Angara don’t have the same hang-ups about expressing interest that humans do.”
“I didn’t realize you were such an expert.” Her voice sounded somewhat strangled. “And I don’t – “
“Nuh uh. Don’t even start.” Peebee clicked her tongue. “I’m a people person. Although even with my infinite intellect, I don’t understand the draw. Can’t you find a nice iceberg on Voeld to settle down with?”
Sara looked at the ceiling. Was it wrong that airlocking herself was starting to sound like a viable escape? Should she consider airlocking Peebee instead? “Ok, so when you said you needed a change of scenery, you really meant that you needed to find someone to bother.”
“Well you were pretty grim when we left Aya. I figure if we shake you out of your funk now, you won’t brood the rest of the way to Eos. It’s a waste of time and you don’t have the face for it anyway.”
Sara slumped back against the armrest. “Thanks, I think.” She retrieved her datapad, but the words were incomprehensible shapes and dashes. She shifted in her seat and tried to concentrate while Peebee hummed the opening bars to Krantt Hardly Wait.
Sara realized that she had read the same paragraph twice now without understanding it. She put down the datapad, squeezed her eyes shut and pressed the heels of her palms against them. Goddammit. “I’m going to sleep now.”
“Mhmm.” Peebee wrote out a series of equations and pulled up a scan of the relic box from Eos. “Sweet dreams. She’s all yours, SAM.”
Sara scowled as she stalked down the ramp. “This is a conspiracy.”
Sara and her team go to Eos.
Hi guys, I'm sorry it took so long to update. Work + life = crazy. I hope you enjoy this chapter. :)
The air outside the Tempest burned orange as they hurtled through the atmosphere.
Sara shifted from foot to foot as Kallo brought them down. Hailing Prodromos from orbit had proven useless, and Sara tried not to think about Akksul or the kett fortress looming in the northern cliffs. “Suvi, anything on the scans?”
“No, Pathfinder.” She glanced at the line that notched between Sara’s eyebrows. “Don’t read too much into it. If Bradley thought the outpost was in danger, the first thing he’d do would be to shut down anything a ship would be scanning for.”
Liam patted her shoulder and Sara fought the urge to shake him off. Her nerves were vibrating like plucked violin strings, and had been for the past thirty minutes. “Suvi’s right. We’ll know what’s what in a few minutes, and we’ll deal with it.”
Belatedly, Sara realized that if she wasn’t on the verge of anxious panic about Prodromos, Liam would be. He might be a reckless, cocky maverick most of the time, but he was steady when he thought people needed him to be. She forced herself to look at him and nod. “Suited up?”
“And ready to go. Jaal’s on his way, just wanted to run through his contacts in the Resistance one last time. See if they had anything for us.” Liam started to crack his knuckles, looked down at his hands, and stopped. Sara knew he was thinking of the Roekkar too.
The orange light around them bled into yellow, then gray, and finally blue. “We’re here.” Kallo announced. “Want me to do a flyby or – “ he stopped and leaned forward. “Hmm. Everything looks intact.”
Sara’s shoulders dropped with relief as he brought them in closer. She could see tiny specks milling below, Milky Way species walking through the outpost. Everyone moved as though it were business as usual. She rubbed at the knotted muscle between her neck and shoulder and exhaled softly. “Just bring us in for a landing, Kallo. It looks like we arrived ahead of whatever trouble Bradley was expecting.” The tension she had been holding ran out of her like water. She spun on her heel and headed for the cargo hold.
/\ /\ /\
On the ground, the colonists around her laughed, griped, and traded barbs. If they kept one eye on the perimeter of the colony, or seemed more alert than she would expect this early in the morning, they were at least steady and cheerful. Several voices hailed her as she passed, and she waved and smiled back.
Her smile dropped a bit as she spotted August Bradley. His weathered face was tighter than usual, but his handshake was firm and his expression was calm.
“Mayor Bradley.” The wind gusted and Sara blinked grit out of her eyes. “We came as quickly as we could. What have you got for me?”
Liam shifted. “Yeah, not complaining, but I kind of expected to see some buildings on fire. Everyone’s edgy, but nothing crazy.”
Sara glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and raised an eyebrow. He flushed and cleared his throat.
She returned her attention to Bradley, who pulled up an audio log for them.
An angaran voice crackled. “……four, five, repeat. Stockpile complete, waiting for beacon. Launch on detection. Repeat, one, two, three….”
As Sara listened, the tension returned to coil in her stomach. “What am I hearing, Bradley?” She knew, had known since Suvi pinged her on Aya, but she wanted badly to be wrong.
Bradley closed the log and gave her a long, even look. He knew too. “Here’s my worry: maybe the raids we’ve seen were just a decoy, so someone could do a slow tactical buildup in the Blackrock.”
A loud thump and a crash came from the landing pad. Sara’s head whipped in the direction of the sound. Two technicians had dropped a crate. The salarian was swearing and hopping on one foot while her turian companion apologized profusely.
Her hand fell away from her pistol and she returned her attention to Bradley. “Tactical? You mean military?” Her voice sharpened.
“No.” Jaal rumbled. “That was an angaran voice. He means Roekaar. That’s why he called us.”
“An attack on our first outpost? Can you imagine how the Nexus would react?” Bradley asked. Sara winced.
“Exactly the response Akksul wants.” Jaal said quietly.
Sara laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure we can check it out without drawing too much attention.”
Bradley’s full lips pressed into a thin line. “I hope I’m wrong, Pathfinder. I didn’t want to bring this kind of thinking to Andromeda. Head to Blackrock Tande. I’ll transmit the navpoint for the signal.”
/\ /\ /\
Beneath the churning of the wheels, the Nomad was quiet. Jaal checked and rechecked the sights on his gun. Liam fidgeted in his seat and Sara caught herself before she turned into an exasperated parent on a road trip and told him to sit still.
“Almost at Blackrock Tande, guys.” she said instead. Liam began to tap a foot against the floor and she shot him an annoyed glance in the mirror.
“That is definitely a Roekaar signal.” Jaal’s gaze had focused and Sara wondered what the readouts from his visor were telling him.
She switched to six-wheel drive as they began to climb the incline. The Nomad shuddered briefly, then settled. “Understood. Eyes open.”
Colorful curses and gunfire greeted them as they roared into the camp. Sara swung the Nomad into a defensive position and vaulted from the vehicle. “Bradley was right! Roekaar on site!” She drew her pistol and put her back to one of the massive tires.
Liam launched himself into a pair of angara. His gritted teeth flashed white and his omniblades discharged with an audible hiss.
“Watch for reserves after the first assault!” Jaal snapped. Sara threw out an arm and disintegrated a group of Remnant creepers that scurried toward them.
She rolled into cover behind a Remnant blast shield. A bullet ricocheted off the shield and Sara whipped a singularity in the direction it had come from. She grinned when she heard a startled yell, and glanced around cover to follow it up with a biotic throw.
The resulting explosion churned up the ground and flung tools and machinery in all directions. A saboteur moved to flank them and she flung a shockwave in his direction. “Jaal, on our right!”
“I see him.” Jaal cloaked. Sara covered him, knowing the saboteur wouldn’t resist the opportunity to drain her shields. The saboteur raised his arm and then crumpled as Jaal’s firaan slammed in between his ribs. Sara ducked back as laser sights quivered by her head.
“Sniper! I’m on her!” Liam called over their comm.
Sara heard the distant drone of an incoming ship. “Shit! More of them!” As the ship rushed over them, she threw out another singularity below it, hoping to catch some of the Roekaar as they dropped to the ground. The unshielded Roekaar flailed in zero-G, but a pair of saboteurs and another sniper scrambled away. Sara winged one of the saboteurs and he swore as a chunk of his shoulder plate went flying. He dropped into cover behind a stack of containers and Sara shifted her attention to the Roekaar floating in her singularity. They jerked and went limp as she shot them. Across the field, the sniper shrieked as Jaal’s shot took her through the stomach. His second shot silenced her.
A blade slammed into Sara’s armor and glanced off. A hard shove followed it and Sara went sprawling. Flipping to her back, she saw a saboteur standing over her, firaan drawn. She tangled her legs in his and wrenched him off his feet. The knife went flying. Her pulse jumped in her throat as the angara threw himself on top of her and clamped his hands around her neck. She fired into his stomach and felt him flinch. Hot blue blood gushed over her, but the angara grunted and renewed his grip. She fired twice more and felt him shudder after the second shot. His eyes, locked onto hers with righteous rage, flickered briefly. A spray of lighter color by his cheek looked like the curling foam of a breaking wave. A sharp pang tore through her chest and she fired again.
His grip slackened. The light in his eyes began to dim and Sara shoved him, reversing their position. He felt feebly in the sand for the firaan he had dropped. Sara, her eyes hot and burning, brought a glowing fist down into his pain-etched face.
The field was quiet. She exhaled, her head dropping, then climbed to her feet. She couldn’t quite look away from the dead angara’s face. ”Are we clear?”
“We’re clear. And we still have Bradley’s signal.” Jaal clapped a hand on her shoulder and jostled her out of her reverie. She glanced up at him. Concern sharpened his gaze and drew fine lines around his eyes.
She straightened her shoulders and took a deep, unsteady breath. “Right. Let’s see what they were protecting.”
Jaal fell into step beside her. “This worries me. Roekaar are not pirates.”
Her back throbbed where the dead Roekaar had stabbed her. Her armor had held, but the bruising would be impressive. “These guys weren’t interested in raiding, Jaal. They just wanted a lot of dead aliens.”
“Fuck that.” Liam jogged up to them. “Holy shit Ryder, do you know you’ve got-“
“I know.” Sara snapped. She swiped a hand over her midsection, but only succeeded in smearing the blood like wet paint. “Damn it.” Her eyes stung as the Roekaar’s face flashed across her mind, drawn tight with ferocity and pain. Sara shoved it down mercilessly and refused to let it resurface.
She stabbed keys on the device, opening it. “SAM, what have we got?”
“This signal can call dropships to a precise location.” Unlike her, SAM didn’t have to deal with post-combat hormones. She clenched her hands into fists to hide their tremor. SAM? she asked through their private channel. Can you reduce the adrenaline? She hated having to ask.
Of course, Pathfinder.
“That’s a Roekaar strategy.” Jaal said. “The scout would’ve placed the beacon in the center of Prodromos.”
“Telling Akksul exactly where to strike.” Sara swore. “Bradley? Blackrock was a Roekaar scouting site with a homing beacon.”
“Shit. Glad you put an end to that.”
Her jaw clenched. “We’re not done.” The adrenaline was starting to diffuse, and a cold anger waited beneath it, crouching in her chest like a predator waiting in ambush. It lined her veins with frost. Her mind ticked through possibilities.
Bradley hesitated, picking up something in her voice. “Not sure what you’re asking, Pathfinder. We can’t risk our first outpost.”
“Third.” Liam muttered.
Jaal’s eyes hadn’t left her. His pupils were wide and watchful. “What are you planning?”
Liam was looking at her strangely. Sara set aside the impulse to reassure them that she was alright. The chill in her veins steadied her. As clearly as if he had spoken into her ear, she heard her father say Use it. “To give them an outpost.”
/\ /\ /\
“Motherless!” Kuujin Noskos ducked for cover as the aliens’ vehicle came charging over the hill like an enraged eiroch. “Akksul, the Pathfinder is coming!” She signaled her companions to move around the back of the building and jumped to the roof. Sighting down her rifle, she took careful aim as the vehicle rolled to a stop on the hill across from her. Come on, vesagara. Come on out.
The doors snapped open in a flash of blue light, blinding her. She swore and blinked rapidly, but the aliens had found cover by the time the spots faded from her vision. Kuujin growled in frustration and scanned the field. A human with dark, wild hair was engaging two of her compatriots, flinging up clouds of choking dust in his attacks. She shot at him, and he stumbled away from the killing blow he had been about to deliver to Eskje. His shields flickered and Raake moved in, forcing him to retreat.
A faint breeze against her neck was all the warning she had before she rolled out of the way of a descending firaan. She glared at the Resistance soldier who stood over her, releasing a spurt of electricity in anger and shock. He flinched in surprise and she used that brief second to slither off the roof, cloaking as she went.
The golden-haired alien flung out a sphere of their strange foreign energy, yanking a Roekaar soldier from cover to dangle uselessly. Kuujin’s lips split in a snarl. “Guuvir, cover Eskje! I need higher ground.”
Guuvir’s hoarse acknowledgement echoed in her ear. Kuujin made her sniper’s nest in the building across the shallow pond. Angaran voices overlapped on her comm. until Raake snapped for quiet. “Akksul, we need reinforcements! Send in the Hydra.”
“Already on its way.”
Hearing Akksul’s voice on the comm steadied her. Kuujin reloaded her rifle and scanned the battlefield.
Her heart skipped in excitement. The Pathfinder alien was on the ground, back to Kuujin as she traded shots with a Roekaar crouching behind a crate. Kuujin exhaled slowly and lined up her shot. Patience. An Isharay rifle only needed one shot. She wouldn’t waste it.
The alien glowed. Kuujin pulled the trigger, a fraction of a second too late. A crater of red-hot metal marked her shot where the alien’s head had been. Somehow the Pathfinder was across the field, slicing through Eskje’s armor with a slim blade. Kuujin’s cry tore at her throat as a torrent of blood gushed from Eskje’s abdomen, bright blue against the dusky sand.
Kuujin was slapping a fresh clip into place when she was flung from the roof.
Kuujin’s head rang with a shrill whining sound. She sprawled in the dust, uncomprehending. She pressed a hand to the wetness over her hip. Then the dark-haired one threw another grenade and the world went dark. Her heart stuttered . . . slowed . . . and all but stopped.
/\ /\ /\
“That’s the last of them. We did it, Ryder.” Liam was breathing fast, a relieved grin shining on his face. His cheek bled freely where shrapnel had caught him.
“Pathfinder,” SAM’s voice came in over their comms. “Akksul’s shuttle is leaving orbit.”
“I’ll remember this.” the angara swore. His deep voice resonated with suppressed fury over their comms. “We’re not fin-“
Sara closed the open comm channel, cutting him off. A trickle of sweat ran down her temple and she wiped it away. Her amp felt hot and her head ached. She stood a moment, looking at the bodies in the dust and despising the waste. She glanced at Jaal and saw the same regret and anger in his open face. Sara put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He managed a brief, tight smile and patted her hand. She nodded and stepped back. Sand ground under her feet as she went back to the Nomad. “Come on. Let’s get back to Prodromos.”
/\ /\ /\
When Kuujin regained consciousness, a kaerkyn was trying to gnaw through her boot. She flinched and kicked, sending it flying. Pain stabbed through her body and she bit her lip on a scream. Every movement was agony, but she turned on her side and raised herself on one arm.
Tears drove trails through the dirt on her cheeks as she saw Eskje and Guuvir. They lay close in death, sprawled in a pool of blood. Guuvir’s eyes were open, and he was looking at Eskje. His face was frozen in pain and dismay. Kuujin squeezed her eyes shut and brought a fist down on the earth. A sob hitched in her throat as she tested her comm. “Akksul? It’s Kuujin.”
Static was her only reply. She tried again on a different channel. “Akksul? Anyone? The aliens killed everyone. I’m the only one left.”
Static continued to crackle in her ear, monotone and empty. For a moment, her pain was almost lost in the loneliness that swept over her. “I’m the only one left.” she repeated. She struggled to her feet. Every step sent shards of pain through her. Her wounds bled sluggishly and beneath her armor, her clothes stuck to her skin. A sharp sound escaped her. She didn’t even have the strength to give her brothers and sisters a proper funeral. She limped between the buildings, and nearly tripped over another alien.
Clancy yelped and flung up his arms, but Kuujin was faster. Her hands fastened around his neck and twisted, snapping it in one clean motion.
She dropped his body, heart pounding. Looking in the direction the human came from, she saw one of the alien shuttles sitting in the dust. The human had been in the process of loading it with salvage. Kuujin staggered toward it, unaware that the tears had started to flow again.