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Poker Face

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Like so many other notable events in his life, Scott Ryder’s journey in Andromeda began with oversleeping.

Not his fault. Not that it mattered.

Instead of waking up to exploration and excitement, his story began with his sister’s voice speaking a nightmare directly into his head. “Scott?  Can you hear me?”

They’d never been that close.  They didn’t have the special language twins sometimes developed. They’d had separate rooms, from as early as they could remember – and liked it that way.  They’d never been able to communicate without words, or any of the semi-supernatural stuff twins were supposed to have built into their brains.

He loved her, of course. He’d spent his life trying to keep Sara from hurting herself with her crazy impulses.  He’d broken four bones by the time they joined the Alliance together at the age of 18 – all of them in the presence of his adrenaline loving sister.

They had different reasons for joining up. For her, it was practical – a paying job, despite her subpar grades, and a place to get training for her biotics.  She was stronger that way than him, by far. 

But for him, the Alliance had been a goal.

His earliest pictures were of him and Sara, newborns, curled around each other in his father’s N7 helmet. Him at three, stomping around in his father’s armored boots on their Citadel apartment’s balcony – the cuffs going up to his hips.  At five, wearing that same helmet, with his sister bawling next to him because he wasn’t sharing.

His father had encouraged them to be Mini-N7s – from the stamina training, to the early trips to the range, to the jungle gym in their garden on the Citadel. Sara loved the hikes, the stargazing, the extra lessons about other Milky Way races – but for her, the time with their Dad was the draw.  Scott liked the exercise well enough – but he longed to be one of the elite. Like his dad.

But then things changed. His father left the Alliance with the news of their mother’s impending death.

He was old enough to understand when it happened, what his father was giving up – the prestige, the honor, the money, the swanky apartment in the best neighborhood. He’d enjoyed that part of his life and what came after was a major adjustment.

Earth was different. His father worked long hours before, but now he was a regular Frankenstein, obsessed with his work.  Scott had grown up seeing his mother making excuses for him.  “He’s busy with work,” when they still lived on the Citadel, and his father was the Alliance liaison.  “SAM is in a tricky place and your father needs to concentrate,” as she took him yet another pot of coffee, in their first place back on Earth.  “It’s okay,” given with a smile that didn’t quite hide her disappointment, “When you’re a grown-up, birthdays don’t matter as much.  Your father will make it up to me later.”

He was old enough by that time to go out and buy his mother a bouquet with his limited creds – to make her smile for once on her special day.

After that, he trained to prove he had what it took to be better than Alec Ryder.

By the time he left home the Alliance was looking more like an escape. He was tired of watching his mother die by inches, while his father justified his work as trying to save her life, at the expense of the time they had left.  How could an AI save a woman from an eezo-based terminal disease?  Worse, his mother was nearly as wrapped up in SAM’s development as Alec was – even while she wasted away.  At least Alec was finally spending time with her – but it was too little too late.

His father was impervious when he’d left, after finally having it out with him about his priorities. By his detached reply, Alec didn’t think either of them would ever run out of time.  It was like he couldn’t conceive that SAM could fail.

So when Sara told him Dad had died saving her on Habitat 7 – it had to be a dream, right? A nightmare.

He believed it all the same. That was his dad, always letting someone down.  He waited for the pain, the grief that he’d felt on his mother’s death.  It didn’t come.  “But we at least found home, right?”

Sara’s pregnant pause, and her reluctant words hurt worse than the news they’d lost another parent. “The golden worlds didn’t pan out.”

Nightmare, plain and simple. It wasn’t real.  It couldn’t be.  He couldn’t breathe.

Harry broke the connection between their implants, and left him in the dark, struggling once more to understand what his father had done. He couldn’t just fall back to sleep after that.  Sara needed him. 

It took months to fight back to real consciousness. But when he did wake up, it was only to find his sister the hero of the hour in spite of everything life – and their Dad - had thrown at her.  Despite the lack of Scott’s presence in her life for the last year and a few months.

For a while, he hated to admit, that made him even more certain it was just a cryo dream. Only therapy had helped him process the amount of changes that occurred while he’d been sleeping.

He loved his sister, was proud as anything to see what she’d accomplished; but he would have never thought Sara had it in her to lead the entire Initiative to success.  Back in the Milky Way, she’d been flighty, ungrounded, passionate without focus.  Heleus had changed her, or SAM had…

He didn’t want to blame it on SAM. That was the easy way out, and from what he had overheard, there were too many people doing just that.  Sara had risen to the occasion and more – she deserved all the accolades.  She shouldn’t have to share them with the AI.

It was great seeing Sara instead of just replaying her small scared voice on repeat. She beamed down at him, from where he lay flat, his muscles atrophied into nothing after months of inactivity.  He could see the tears, wished he could hug her better than the limp armed thing that she’d tried to give him.  She was never a hugger – for her to offer now, she must have felt so alone.  

And then he found out she had never been alone.

Liam seemed okay, and Scott could tell that he thought the world of her. When the guy had called and asked him about whether it was okay to do something like propose… it got him thinking even more.  About loneliness, and new galaxies, and fresh starts.

It had been a long time since Scott had looked that way at anyone – even longer than the 600 plus years everyone was still joking about like it was actually funny. Back home, Hera had been his last girlfriend – and he’d been thinking about asking her to move in before she’d dumped him in favor of clinching a grant with the Alliance to study some new Prothean tech they’d unearthed at Mars Base – top secret clearance that meant she couldn’t even explain why she was leaving.  One minute they were talking about moving in together, and the next she was moving to the other side of Mars and telling him that they ‘wanted different things’.

Before her, there had been a series of men and women who drifted in and out of his life – not on a constant rotation, but they didn’t stick around to meet the parents. His dad’s reputation was too intimidating to bring someone home, and his mother was too eager.

Hera didn’t break his heart – he ended up more relieved, after the initial shock of rejection, and rebounded easily. He had confidence that attracted people in general – it’s not like he was destined to be alone. 

It turned out harder to meet people than he expected. Alec Ryder had a reputation now.  ‘Whoa, you’re ‘that Ryder’s’ kid?’ was a constant refrain when he was trying to pick people up at an Alliance bar – the only ones accessible to him when he was off duty.  His Alliance paycheck couldn’t cover a personal vehicle, even if he liked to drive – and after Sara’s constant near-misses on her hovercycle he certainly didn’t.  He got used to people having their drink on him, and a nice chat, and leaving with a ‘no, thanks’, or ‘you’re sweet, but-‘.

The Alliance was supposed to let him eclipse his father’s legacy. Ironic, that it shadowed him even there, and led him only to the dead-end mission of a Mass Effect gate, and a guard job that didn’t reflect his exemplary test skills, boot camp performance, and infiltration training, and to a double bed where one side was always empty.

Sara got Prothean ruins – but she was regulated to guard duty, too. Just a little bit more grandiose, ostensibly reflecting her interests in other cultures and life forms over his more technical and muscle-based abilities.  He’d had nothing that challenged him where he’d ended up. 

You couldn’t trust ‘Alec Ryder’s kid’ behind enemy lines. He was nothing but a border guard.

He’d thought about changing his name to his mother’s maiden name. He might have done it, if not for his sister, fighting the same battle to prove herself separate from her father.

And now Sara had left him behind. It shouldn’t have stung.  But it did.

SAM spoke, drawing him out of his reverie. “Scott, I do not believe your father meant to neglect your mother.  His journals…”

“Don’t excuse him, SAM,” His hands fisted in the blankets, hating that the AI could tell what he was thinking. “I won’t let you.  You had the best of his attention.”  He despised himself for feeling jealous – but there was no point denying it.  Harry had told him in one of his frequent counseling sessions that denying the feelings gave them more power.  He was working on just letting himself feel what he felt without censoring himself with misplaced guilt.

“I’m sorry,” SAM did seem contrite. Sara had done wonderful things with the AI.  Scott had no idea when she’d had the time, but SAM was years ahead of the last time he’d interacted with it.  “I didn’t know you felt this way.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Scott rolled over, knowing he wouldn’t sleep. He was supposed to be cleared for active duty tomorrow – or was it today, now?  He craned his neck to see the time readout, slumping back with relief when the time read 0543.  It would be today.  About time.  He was more than ready to be away from Meridian, where everyone was honored to meet “the Pathfinder’s brother”.

He wanted to be himself here, not always in someone else’s shadow. He’d had enough of that back home.

He threw himself backwards on the large bed - spread-eagle because he could - marveling once more that his father had allowed something so comfortable in his room. It didn’t feel like his style, that was for sure.  He had expected a narrow berth in a room full of datapads and conduits.  No doubt he’d chosen this, thinking only of Scott’s mother’s recovery.

Sara had offered to have him live with her and Liam, but he’d elected to stay on the Hyperion in his father’s quarters – better than anything he could manage on his yet to be started salary.

Being broke was becoming a recurring theme in his professional life.

Even now, he was still surfing on the old man’s reputation.

And now he was taking advantage of his sister’s as well.

Doctor Harry had listened. Hadn’t judged.  “I’m not normally like this,” he’d confessed to the doctor.  “I was always the good one, cheerful and obedient, when we were kids.  Sara was the troublemaker.”

“It’s a lot to cope with,” the doctor told him. “Take your time waking up.  Let yourself adjust to the way things are now.”

He had the time to spare, thanks to Sara working herself to the bone for all of them. She looked about ten years older than she had when she’d gone to sleep, between food rationing, lack of sleep, and stress.  She’d lost too much weight to be healthy.  Liam was good for her, though, making sure she ate and got at least a few hours every night.  Her fiancé was becoming a friend – his first in Heleus, since he couldn’t count Harry Carlyle, his physical therapist, or any of the other doctors assigned to his recovery.

He was still trying to catch up with everything else Sara’d been doing, reading the key mission records that she’d left for him – there was a lot he hadn’t understood from her harried and scattered way of describing her goings on, and the scraps of information that SAM had provided when they’d been kidnapped by the Archon. He’d been a little too tied up with SAM in their mutual attempt to control the Remnant, to get the big picture of her fight for survival.

His sister had saved his ungrateful ass. He needed to remember that and knock off the jealousy.

As if thinking about her summoned her, his Omni-Tool pinged, and he pulled it up, wincing at the light in the darkness of the room. “Hey, Scott!”  His sister’s face beamed at him.  “Today’s the day!”  She frowned, her eyes sweeping the room.  “Were you still sleeping?!”

“Um, yeah?” He glanced at the clock again.  “It’s only 0600, sis.”

“Sorry, guess I got used to Gil waking us all up with load tests at 0500,” she shrugged, and her picture wavered gently with the abrupt movement. “But you’re awake now, right?”

Scott groaned, and scrubbed his face with his other hand. “Gil – that’s your engineer?”  He vaguely remembered a tanned redhead with a smirk from the Landing Day Party that he’d barely attended before running out of steam.  Scott had been nothing but an extra in the background anyway - he wasn’t the star of the show.

“Yep!” She bounced a little in the frame.  “His daughter was born a week ago – his friend Jill gets out of the hospital today.  We’re going to meet the baby.  Wanted to know if you wanted to come along?  Maybe grab something to eat afterward?”

“I don’t know…” He should accept. He needed to meet people that weren’t involved with his recuperation.  But he wasn’t about to rush his morning, either.  “What time?”

“Afternoon,” Sara rushed to assure him. “After you meet with the Team, get your assignment – I’ll be there for that, too…”

“I’m a big kid now, Sara. I don’t need to hold your hand.”

She grinned at someone off camera. “He called it, Liam.”  She wrinkled her nose as she refocused on him.  “Can’t I be there for you?  I mean, I’m going anyway, because we’re deciding where we’re needed now that we’re in the Second Wave, but I want you to know I’m, I don’t know, on your side?”

“Surely the Pathfinder has better things to do than hang out with a low member of the Team?”  He just about hid his bitterness.

“Not today we don’t,” that was Liam’s voice, and his face, half-off-screen. “Sorry about the wake-up call, Scott.  She’s over-caffeinated and way too excited about your big day.  Tried to tell her that you might want it to yourself.  She is capable of being professional and respecting personal boundaries.  Occasionally.”

“Hey!”

“No, it’s good,” Scott’s stomach churned with the lie. “Sara’s my boss, after all. Assuming the rest keep me on the Team at all.”  Physically, he was recovered.  Mentally…

“Trust me, we need the people, whatever Second Wave claims about the job being done.” Liam seemed confident he still had a spot, at least, so Scott allowed himself to hope.  “Remember, we lost half our people to retirement or death after Ryder-1.  The Hyperion Team is still operating on a skeleton crew – and the others are even worse off, thanks to their arks being trashed early on.  And Second Wave won’t let us openly recruit, much less train.”

Sara winced, “Don’t remind me. Assholes.”

"You're already on the team, and you've had some training.  It's a win-win."

Scott tried for upbeat. “Feel free to just point me where you want me then.  I’m more than ready to get out there.”

“About that…” Sara squirmed, and exchanged a look with Liam. “Scott, I’m getting vibes that you’d rather… be on your own.  Not on the Tempest, I mean.”

He winced. “Look, Sara… it’s not that I don’t want to serve with you, it’s just…”

“It’s okay.” Sara sighed.  “I’ll miss you, but we can call and stuff.  Like before.”

They’d been in constant contact after Hera, after their Dad’s confusion, cryptic contact, before they’d met up again for their rushed Initiative training. They’d talked on the vidcom, played games online.  It helped ease the sting of the further ostracization of his peers when he announced he was leaving the Alliance and the Milky Way, knowing his sister was coming along for the ride.

“Thanks for understanding, Sis.”

“What are big sisters for?” She tucked a strand of vivid red hair behind her ear.  He could see her dark roots – all streaked with the red dye like it was intentional.  Knowing her, it was.  “Um, so, I’ve had a look at your file.  You’ve got your pick of a few choice assignments.”

“Should I be hearing this now?” Scott couldn’t help himself, he laughed. “Sis, it’s called protocol.”

“The Pathfinder Team isn’t an army,” she snapped. “I wouldn’t let it be!”

His eyebrows went up at her tone, and he raised his hand in surrender, where she could see it. “Fine, fine.  Not an army.  So… what are these assignments then?”

“Things that you’ll love,” she giggled in delight. “In places you’ll love even more.”

Liam’s voice echoed off screen. “Yeah, if he likes sulfur and sand…”

“Shut up, dumbass!” Sara and Liam laughed together at their odd term of endearment, and Scott stifled his jealousy. “Kadara doesn’t smell that bad anymore.  And Eos’ dirt conditioners have cut way down on the sandstorms.”  She blinked innocently.  “They’re all frontiers.  You can’t lose.”

“Frontiers.” Scott rolled his neck and leaned forward, hand between his legs, knees drawn up crosslegged.  “Okay, I admit it, you’ve piqued my interest.”

“Knew it would!” She bounced again, the screen wavering.  “Oh, we’ve got to go.  It takes a while to drive in, and I still have to shower and get my uniform on.”

“What, you’re not wearing Blasto to meet with the other Pathfinders?” Liam again, snarking off-camera.

“You brought that old thing?”

“You didn’t?” He didn’t answer her all too true challenge.  They’d never dressed alike until their mother had given them matching Blasto tanks… but Sara turned as red as her hair.  “I don’t wear Blasto all the time…”

“Only when you sassed the Archon? Or when you landed on Aya and had to rush to change out of your workout gear before you offended someone? Or when you challenged Evfra to a karaoke sing-off in order to let Jaal stay on the Tempest and settle on Meridian? Like when-”

Scott cut in, before their loving banter drove him insane. “You two better get going.  You have a drive ahead of you, right?”

“Fine,” she stuck her tongue out at her boyfriend before turning her attention back to him. “I’ll see you at Headquarters on the Hyperion.”

“See you then,” he disconnected the call and stretched. “Might as well get up, I guess,” he said aloud.

SAM was silent.

“SAM, you can talk to me.”

“I didn’t want to intrude.”

“I’m just a grumpy ass lately.” Scott tried to apologize.  “I don’t know what’s got into me.  Harry’s treating the depression, so I’ll be fine.  I’m just… I need to be useful.  Look at something outside of these walls.  Do what I came here to do.  Whatever that looks like.”  He wandered over to the coffee pot, and poured himself a cup, and added the nasty powdered creamer.  “Hey, you don’t know anything about these assignments, do you?”

“I do.” SAM’s voice was more cheerful. “I can upload the dossiers if you’re interested.”

“Hell, yeah, now we’re talking!” Scott turned towards the large terminal, and sat down.  Four files appeared on his desktop.  “Wow.  Sara wasn’t kidding.”

“She cherrypicked these assignments for you, with my input,” SAM affirmed. “She said she didn’t mind continuing the family tradition of nepotism, if it gave you a reason to…”

Scott closed his eyes, “A reason to keep moving?”

“She worries about you.”

“Ah.” He sighed, letting the air escape.  “It’s all right, SAM.  I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”  He clicked on the first, frowning.  “What’s this?”  His eyes scanned the text, and he clicked through the attached pictures.  “Havarl?”  He snorted, “Those look like dinosaurs.”

“Liam calls it ‘a Jurassic Funfair’.”

“And it’s a… diplomatic job?” Scott winced, “with scientists, huh?  Not sure I want to work as a liaison with a bunch of botanists and biologists, even if the planet is full of these… what do you call them, Roekkar?  Are they freedom fighters or Angaran supremists?”

“It depends who you ask.” SAM paused, “Sara thought that your early work with your mother would be a benefit.  You were often Ellen’s lab assistant.  You have the patience that Sara lacks in a lab environment.  And the Roekkar are a significant threat, despite their leader’s lost face.  She believes you would be a good example of the Milky Way presence.”

“Hmmm, maybe,” Scott sipped his coffee. “What else is there?”

A sandy world appeared, and a group of Krogan, including children, comprised the bulk of the attached pictures. “This assignment has to do with the Remnant ruins on Elaadan.”

“Is this where I say, “I hate sand”?” SAM didn’t reply, so Scott frowned at the picture and short summary.  “This says there’s no night on Elaadan,” Scott deadpanned.  “That’s where the Krogan colony is, right?”

“That is correct.” SAM paused. “Your sister thought that your oversleeping habits might be helpful, as the constant daylight makes it difficult for many to enter REM sleep.  She informed me you can sleep anywhere.”

Scott snorted. “Smartass.  I know Sara loves the Krogan colony, but… I’m not my sister.  I’m glad they’re doing so well though.  Look at those plants!  And I’ve never seen so many Krogan kids…”

“The mutation defense for the genophage has been most effective. Survival rates are closing upon 10%.”

“That’s amazing!”

“Six hundred years changes many things – not all for the worse.”

Scott clicked on the next option, humming in surprise. “Where is this?”  The mountains towered into steep peaks, dropping down to serene lakes.  He could see himself climbing those, just to look around and see what was left beneath him.  He wasn’t the jumpjetter his sister was in her spare time, but he liked to climb well enough…

“That is Kadara.”

“Oh, the one that doesn’t smell anymore?” He snickered.  “What would I be doing here?”

“Classified, with Sara’s apologies.” SAM paused.  “You will know more after your assessment.”

“Huh.” Scott hid his mixture of trepidation and interest with another sip of coffee.

“Your profile suggests you were always qualified for more… subtle assignments. Both your Alliance records and your Initiative background reflect an interest in developing the skills that would be useful for infiltration.  Alec intended you to step into the role that suited you best.  He hoped you would be interested in working with the retired STG representatives that came with the Initiative in an exchange program…”

“If he had lived we wouldn’t be having this discussion.” Scott felt the old annoyance again, and he shut the file on Kadara down, despite his lingering curiosity.  “Next?”

“Eos.” SAM’s pictures were like something out of Utah or Australia on Earth.  Stone arches, rugged pillars of rock reaching to an impossibly blue sky…  “Sara’s first outpost is here.  Prodromos.”

“Oh,” Scott felt himself smile around his coffee cup. “Pretty place.”

“Sara suggests you talk to Gil about the community there. As the oldest outpost, it has grown considerably since these pictures were taken.  You would be outpost security and Pathfinder liaison to Governor Bradley.  Your interests would fit in well with the largely tech-minded community there, with the goal of establishing further outposts as sites become likely.  The planet specializes in mining and scientific exploration, with a significant portion of the colony hoping to establish farming homesteads.”

“Sounds… boring,” Scott hummed, a little disappointed.

“Further details will be revealed after your…”

“Assessment, right,” Scott rubbed his close-shaven head. “Guess I should get ready.”  He closed the file.  “I’ll have to thank Sara.  They’re good choices.  Not sure what I’ll do yet, but it’s nice to have a selection.”

“She is happy you are pleased.”

Scott coughed, “Forgot you could do that.”

“I apologize for making you uncomfortable.”

“Don’t. You’re… a part of her, now. And…” he hesitated.  “And I know Sara thinks of you as family.  I don’t want to get involved in some weird form of sibling rivalry with you.  It’s not your fault Dad was distant.”

“I hope to earn your trust, Scott.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” he stood and wandered off to the showers, grabbing his towel on the way out the door. “You already saved my life once.  It shouldn’t take more than that.”