There’s a piece of eridium in Jack’s trophy case.
It’s small, naturally, since why waste a valuable resource, but it’s undeniably radiant: a little reminder of the material’s unbelievable power, and of everything Jack’s accomplished with it. Rhys can only wonder why it doesn’t have more pride of place. It’s sort of shoved over to one side, tucked behind other artifacts. Maybe the associated memory isn’t as bright as it once was. Or maybe someone just got sloppy while dusting. Who knows.
Rhys keeps staring at it nevertheless.
He’s still anchored in Jack’s chair, trapped in place while the AI goes off after…something. Jack had been laughing, before. “Oh, I’ve got such plans for you, Rhysie,” he’d said. “You just wait right there while I get everything ready. Some tools, a set of schematics I worked up just for you…it’s gonna be awesome.”
Then he’d winked out of the monitors, leaving Rhys feeling lost and small and very alone in Jack’s enormous office, wondering when Jack would return and what might happen when he did. That's still unanswered. Of course, there’s also the question of just how gone Jack actually is, now that he has access to the whole of Helios and, presumably, its entire security-camera system.
Rhys remains very, very aware of the glint of a camera lens in the eye of one of the room’s enormous statues. Jack’s still watching him, metaphorically and literally. Rhys doesn’t give him much to work with, though. He keeps his gaze locked on the eridium instead.
An odd, low buzz in the back of his head keeps reverberating as he stares, because there’s something…important…about it. Something that wants his attention.
He doesn’t find out what it is, though, until after something else happens: a sound that reverberates through the entire station, one that literally shakes the floor, that sounds like a growl of nearly animalistic anger and pain. And it sounds…oddly familiar. Rhys sits bolt upright, sweat prickling on his forehead.
“Jack?” he says anxiously. “Is that—“
There’s a brief flicker of static on the nearest monitor. Rhys sees Jack there, but only for an instant, grimacing at him with no pleasure and even less patience.
“Change of plans, cupcake,” he says. The growl still runs through his voice as a dangerous undercurrent. “No—not a change. A delay. I’ve got…” He trails off, working over the words with effort. “Things to deal with. You sit tight.”
Rhys fires his reply back, trying to sound more angry than scared. “You can’t just leave me here.”
Jack’s mouth twists. Something’s wrong, severely wrong, but Rhys can’t get a finger on what it is. “Oh, yes, I can,” Jack says, and the monitors go dim.
This time, the silence is so absolute that Rhys is sure he actually is gone. He has even less idea what to do now, though, so he isn’t sure how that helps.
No matter if the cameras are still watching, he pulls futilely at the wrist restraints, hard enough that it hurts. Finally he falls back, hitting his head once against the chair in utter frustration, and shuts his eyes. It’s hard not to wish for another hit of dopamine—anything to take the edge off. It’s just that he trusts absolutely nothing anymore that this chair might do. Or what Jack might do. Or…what anyone might try with him, really.
Even me? something whispers. Rhys doesn’t even know what said it. He looks around, eyes darting frantically, but there’s no one else there. Just a flicker of light, weirdly purple, like an afterimage of the eridium. His eyes are probably playing tricks on him. Or else he’s just losing it. Seems pretty likely at this point.
He shuts his eyes against it all, trying to think through options. Trying to think of anything he can do.
In his mind, that low, persistent sense of urgency still burns, trying to make him understand something, but it’s still too far away for him to grasp.
Somewhere along the way, he dozes. When he wakes, it’s like struggling up through layer upon layer of heavy fog. Maybe the chair did drug him with something while he was out.
Or maybe it’s just the futility sinking in.
Don’t think like that, something in his head whispers. You need to focus. You need to escape.
“How?” he says aloud, his tongue thick in his mouth. He doesn’t get an answer, but seeing as it’s a voice in his head, that isn’t surprising. Yep, he thinks dourly. He’s definitely losing it.
He also has a headache the size of Elpis, an awful taste in his mouth, and a nagging need to pee. He really, really hopes his situation changes before he has to do anything about that. Even just getting one hand free would do—enough to unzip his clothes and aim, anyway. Pissing all over Jack’s desk would be oddly satisfying.
I don’t even blame you, but you need to think bigger than that.
“Okay, what the hell,” Rhys says, trying to sit up straighter. That time the voice had sounded much clearer, much richer, much more distinctive, and he isn’t sure whether to be worried about that or just plain pissed off. “I have had enough of disembodied voices haunting me already. Either shut the hell up and leave me alone, or tell me what’s going on.”
The buzz comes back, but this time it’s focused, making Rhys’ head jerk as if he can get away from the surge of sensation that’s crackling out from his data port. It’s entirely futile. His vision fragments for a horrifying instant, shot through with streaks of eridium-shaded magenta, and it takes a few seconds before the lines resolve into something. His physical eye can’t see it, but his ECHO eye can: a faint, ghostlike digital image of a girl’s face, watching him and smiling almost sadly.
“Hello, Rhys,” she says.
He yelps and jolts back so hard he almost tips over the chair.
“It’s okay. I’m here to help,” she says, all in a rush. “Please, calm down.”
“But you—you’re a—“
“Sorry we had to meet like this,” she says, and she actually does sound apologetic, not that it makes him feel any better. “I wish I could be there in person, but…well, there’s not much left of me anymore, I’m afraid. I’m just bits of information now. But when Jack hooked you up to Helios, I was able to slip in past him and connect with you directly…and if I can still get through to you like this, it might be enough.”
Rhys, understanding maybe one word in three, goes for the obvious, desperate question. “Who are you?”
She gives him that smile again, and tilts her head like she’s indicating something. Rhys’ gaze slides across Jack’s desk, confused, not sure where to focus. The monitor? The arm? But then he lands at last on the photograph. Something prickles through his sluggish brain. It’s the picture Jack hadn’t quite wanted to talk about, the one that made his expression soften into something almost wistful, at least for a handful of seconds. The photo of that strange little girl. “Angel,” he says, remembering. He’s slowly putting it together. “You’re—wait, you’re Jack’s—“
“Daughter,” she says. “Yes.”
Rhys stares at her, his mind reeling.
He hadn’t guessed wrong about that photo, then. Jack really does have a daughter. But how had Rhys never known about that? How had no one in Hyperion known? And—
She’d said there’s not much left of me anymore.
He makes another guess and a small mental correction, changing the tense around that sentence. Jack had a daughter. Had.
“Oh, shit,” he whispers, before he can think up anything better to say.
“It’s all right.” Angel’s voice is still gentle, but there’s a certain firmness creeping in, a tone of insistence. “I’m on your side. There’s no reason for me to be on his.”
“I wish I could call that comforting, but…”
“Jack’s just found out that I’m dead,” she says, awfully matter-of-factly under the circumstances. Well, at least it means he won’t have to break that news to a second person. Once was more than enough. “His AI wasn’t up to date enough; it didn’t have that memory. But Jack had the information in his private files, and his AI’s accessed it all. That’s why he’s…upset. And it means we’ve got some time while he’s distracted. It won’t be long, though. So I need you to listen.”
“Wait a second,” Rhys protests, wanting to understand what’s happening first. “Are you an AI too? Another one?”
“More like…a shadow.” Her image flickers. “He kept data on me for so long. Years of captivity, monitoring, testing, experiments…all that information is still here. Enough to make a ghost of me, anyway. Or something like one.”
“But data can’t self-actualize.”
“It’s not exactly ordinary data,” Angel says, her voice soft, and finally the other things she’d said sink in: Captivity. Monitoring. Testing. Experiments.
He feels sick to his stomach. “What did he do to you?”
For a second, there’s no reply. There’s just another buzz of electricity and a break in her image, one that makes her look like she’s in terrible pain. But before he can react, it resolves, and she returns to that steady, calm expression as if nothing had ever been any different.
She tells him, even though he knows it’s a lie, “It doesn’t matter.”
He wants to protest, because oh, God, it does. He can’t think of anything right now that matters more. Part of it is horror for her sake, and the rest of it…well, he’s already captured and being monitored himself. The testing and experiments part? He doesn’t want anything to do with that.
“The important thing,” she says, echoing his thoughts, “is that I’m not letting him put anyone else through this. We have to get you out.”
“Yeah,” he says hoarsely. “Yeah, we definitely need to do that. But how?”
“There’s not much I can do for you in this state, unfortunately. But…”
Angel pauses. Rhys focuses in tight on her, as if his ECHO eye can bring her into full resolution, make her more solid somehow, make her real. It’s enough to make her eyes shine at him when she replies. They’re a brilliant blue, they’re as wide as the world, and oh, God, they look so sad.
“I might have a terrible idea,” she tells him.
The first step is simple: it’s just locks and hacking, in its way. Unfortunately, it requires interfacing with the chair again. “I can keep him from noticing we’re doing this,” Angel assures him, and Rhys hopes like hell that she’s right. Especially since talking to a dead girl in his head is twelve kinds of crazy, considering what her dead dad got him into, and he’s having serious second thoughts about listening to her at all.
At least both he and Angel seem to share a common problem. Maybe the right word is “enemy,” to be honest. It just feels terrifying to put that label on things, to confirm how much of a crisis he’s really in.
He decides not to think about it. He tells her to go ahead, focusing instead on something only slightly less worrying: that awful, spindly arm aligning itself with his head again and sliding into place. The slightly painful, slightly intoxicating buzz of connection sizzles through his skull.
In that moment, he gets an impression of a slim young woman in a tight-fitting bodysuit veined with wires and tubes. She bends close, studying his hands. Her hair’s falling over one eye again, and he’s struck suddenly by the shaved side of her head, all of her own input ports visible.
“Angel,” he says hoarsely. Then there’s a swift whisper of commands racing through his head, fluent and fluid. Rhys’ gasp of surprise covers, just barely, the sound of his wrist restraints popping open.
“Get up,” she tells him, so faintly it’s like she’s exhausted herself.
Rhys scrambles up, all wobbly limbs and too-eager urgency. It tips him right into Jack’s desk. He braces himself there with both hands, feeling the rush of the adrenaline, not to mention whatever Angel just did to him, or through him, and the….well, yeah, he’s definitely been drugged. But he’s going to get out of here, damn it. Just as soon as he catches his breath…
…and as soon as he figures out how.
“Okay,” he says, feeling his heart race. “Mobility. Awesome. So…step two?”
Step two is getting ushered in and out of the ridiculously opulent bathroom, where he’s too dazed to worry about Angel being able to see him, and too preoccupied with downing a huge glass of water afterward, because he’s parched. These last few hours have done a number on him. Somewhere between his gulps and gasps, Angel urges him back into the office.
“You might want to take a seat again,” she tells him. “I have to tell you a lot of things very quickly. And it might be easier just to show you.”
He sets the glass aside. “Isn’t leaving the idea? Not sitting around for storytime? Listen, I already know where the trapdoor is—“
“And that’s the problem. Jack told you. Everywhere you go between here and the exit, he’s got eyes. And he could come back online at any second, along with every turret in the station. I’m not sending you anywhere without defenses.”
“Well, okay. Defenses would be good. What did you have in mind?”
Her digital projection dims, like she doesn’t want to say it. “I need to tell you something about me first. Please.”
Rhys slowly sinks onto the nearest ledge. Angel flickers in his ECHO display, with her head tilted so that her tied hair falls aside and he glimpses something on her collarbone. Then the pixels of her projection rearrange. It’s like she’s holding something out to him. He nods, just once.
When her face vanishes from the screen, it’s replaced by a different view of her entirely.
Flicking past Rhys’ gaze is a whole set of medical scans and photos. Rhys blushes, he can’t help it, because she’s undressed in all of them, but there’s nothing sexual about it; it’s just disturbingly thorough, leaving no detail unexamined. And there’s one detail that’s impossible to ignore.
Rhys reaches out a finger like he can trace the dizzying lines of the blue tattoos that swirl across her skin.
“What…” he whispers, disbelieving. Angel doesn’t reply. She merely directs him with a silent flip of photos to a close-up of one arm.
There’s something emotionally jarring about this one. It’s taken in profile from the left. Angel’s shoulders are protectively hunched, her soft curves still visible but cropped just at the edge of decency, and he can see the hint of her jutted chin, stubborn in an oddly familiar way even though the rest of her looks so vulnerable. But the focus is on those unmistakable tattoos, cascading from her chest and shoulder almost to her fingertips. If he’s not imagining things, they’re glowing.
Stamped across it all is a giant CONFIDENTIAL watermark, a set of required clearance codes way above Rhys’ pay grade, and the heading STAGE 3 RESULTS. Below that are annotations by two different people. The doctor’s notes are thorough, dispassionate, and—to Rhys at least—mostly incomprehensible, but they still come across sounding like a warning.
The reply is under a redacted name, but the tone is so recognizable that Rhys can almost hear Jack’s voice.
Don’t you dare tell me she can’t handle another boost in eridium, it says. I know what my Angel’s capable of. We’re not stopping before we exhaust all possibilities. And hey, I hired you to be an advisor, not a friggin’ roadblock. We all know how I take care of roadblocks, right?
Rhys stares at it, then raises his hand again, experimentally swiping to the left, Sure enough, the image slides aside and is replaced with a death notice for Angel’s erstwhile doctor. The official cause listed there is conspicuously vague.
Rhys swears and swipes again. The obituary is replaced with a video.
Burned in across the top is a timestamp and title: SUBJECT 4N631, SESSION 36. Angel’s in the center of the frame, dressed in that bodysuit again, inside a wide, nondescript room. There’s some sort of device there that Rhys can’t identify, but it looks, to his increasing horror, like she’s being injected with something, straight into her skull. There’s no diegetic sound, just a synthetic voice reading off dosage amounts and other medical technicalities while light blooms around Angel, her face contorts, and her mouth opens like she’s screaming.
Unfurling behind her as she lifts off the floor is a pair of shining silver wings.
Rhys stares in awe, and he’s still sitting there agape when he hears Jack laughing in pure satisfaction.
Panicked, Rhys leaps to his feet and whirls around. The room’s monitors, though, are dim. The hologram hasn’t reappeared. At last he realizes that what he's hearing is only the recording, because the audio feed from Angel’s observation chamber has kicked in. That laugh is Jack crowing at his own accomplishment: his Siren daughter pushed to the height of her powers.
The sound keeps echoing in his head even after Angel shuts off the feed.
For a minute, Rhys just tries to catch his breath—again—and calm down his own racing heartbeat. Angel doesn’t interrupt. Finally, though, she reappears in his lens. Her gaze is steady, and there’s only the slightest audible break in her voice when she says his name. It would be easy to blame it on corrupted data or a bad connection. Maybe that’s really all it is.
But he doubts it.
“That’s…” he says, stopping short when he realizes he has no good way to sum up what he’s just watched. “You…”
“That’s what I am,” Angel says for him. “A Siren. A tool at Jack’s disposal. A battery for his precious Vault Key. That’s what my father made of me.”
“Holy shit,” Rhys whispers. He reaches out for something to lean against. “And I thought…whatever he had in mind for me was bad…”
“It is,” she says somberly. “I’ve seen those plans, too. That’s why I’m helping you.”
Rhys closes his mouth before he can ask what Jack’s got in mind. He abruptly doesn’t want to know. With another look around at the ostentatious office, Rhys says, “Okay, so, let me get this straight. You’re a Siren…an actual Siren, with all sorts of crazy powers…and now you’ve got those rattling around inside my head? And that’s what you want to use to help me?”
“In a sense,” Angel says. “I have the knowledge. Everything I’ve ever done, everything i learned about how to manipulate Hyperion’s systems, and yes, every power I had—the full analyses are all on file. Many of the hacking skills I should be able to integrate with your cybernetics, like I did to get you out of the chair. Give me permissions and I can run an upgrade.”
He’s about to say yes when he flashes back onto the image of Angel, airborne. “And, um,” he says. “Are we just talking about hacking here?”
She hesitates, too, just long enough that Rhys gets nervous. “I…don’t know, exactly.”
“You don’t know?”
“There’s things I’ve learned about this place than I can teach you. But how many of my skills can be expressed through you when you don’t have Siren powers…well, there will be limits. Unless.”
She pauses again. Rhys clutches one hand in his hair. “Unless what?” When she doesn’t answer, he presses, desperate. “Angel, come on, I don’t have all day here.”
Her image flickers again. There’s a dark tilt to her expression, and he hears her mutter, “You sound just like him.”
The bottom drops out of Rhys’ stomach. He’s halfway through fumbling out an apology when there’s another sound in his ears, a distant, booming thing, and the room doesn’t quite quake but it shivers, which is almost worse. “What was that?”
“Wait,” Angel murmurs before she’s gone, too. Those empty seconds without her are terrifying. Rhys turns uselessly in place, not really knowing what to do, where to go, or if he should just take a dive down that trapdoor after all, before Angel’s speaking hurriedly in his ear again.
“There’s some sort of fight happening. I believe your friends are involved. They’re trying to ready for escape, but—”
“We have to get there,” Rhys interrupts.
He gets the impression of a brisk nod. “Then let me in. I need your permission.”
Rhys shuts his eyes. God, he did this before with Jack, and it led to disaster then, but does he really have any choice…?
There’s always a choice, she whispers, like she can already hear more of his thoughts than she should. But I’m not him.
He’s trembling all over when he says it. “Fine, fine, do whatever you have to, just—”
It’s then, of course, that a crackle of blue lights up every screen in the room. Rhys jolts upright, going tense with fear. And Angel in his ECHO display quivers, too, her whole image shaking like she’s poised either to fight or to flee. He wants to shout out to her don’t go, please—but right then, he can’t say a word.
After all, they both know what’s happening even before the all-too-familiar voice booms out from every speaker.
“Well, well, well, Rhysie,” it says. “Look at you. What’s my favorite President doing, thinking he can walk away from his own throne?”
Rhys looks up into the towering image that’s watching him from the room’s high windows, and the way a set of turrets he’d never even noticed have emerged from the walls, pointing straight at him. But all the figure does is look right back at him, too. And smile.
“Jack,” Rhys whispers.
As always: kudos are love, comments are life. Thanks for reading, and look for more of this after the holidays!
Facing Handsome Jack down is a difficult thing at any scale. There’s something truly intimidating, though, about what Rhys is facing now: Jack’s face looming above him, several stories tall, and backlit with the raging fires of Elpis. No smile could look kind in a face so cracked with glowing scars, and with both eyes violently flaring.
Rhys has heard rumors about what’s hiding beneath Jack’s mask. It’s hard not to imagine that he’s staring at the reality dead-on.
It’s also hard, now that he’s picked that word, not to imagine that Jack really does want him dead.
“We had a deal, Rhys,” Jack says, his voice coming from everywhere. He’s moved past nicknames now, pronouncing everything with unmistakable precision. “There are commitments you need to make if you expect to get handed all this power and prestige. And I didn’t promote you just for you to turn on me and run off the instant you get spooked.”
“Yeah, well—what did you promote me for, exactly?” Rhys tries to keep his voice from wavering. “You’ve got to want me on that chair for something. Don’t you think it’s fair to tell me what?”
Rhys, don’t antagonize him, Angel whispers in his head. She’s not gone, at least, although she’s certainly not visible. Rhys feels very alone right now, caught in the crosshairs of not only Jack’s stare, but several ranks of weapons. I can tell you what he wants.
I’m just trying to keep him busy, Rhys thinks back at her. Didn’t you say you had a plan?
Then do whatever it is you’re going to do while we’ve still got time!
She falls silent, withdrawing deeper into his head. Rhys wants to yell after her, but of course he can’t. In the meantime, Jack just grins.
“You’ve got a very special job to do here as President, Rhys,” Jack tells him. “You’re the right-hand man of the CEO! In fact, you and that robot arm of yours have gotten awfully good at being my right hand. So I’m also going to ask you to be my eyes and ears in this little company of ours.”
“Oh, is that all?” Rhys says sarcastically. Going by the look on Jack’s face, he really shouldn’t have asked.
“Y’know, as it happens, no,” Jack purrs. “Eyes, ears, right hand, left hand, the rest of my limbs…basically, you’re going to be the whole damn package.” He pauses. The grin turns into a leer. “I’ll be using that part too, just so you know. God knows you haven’t doing enough with it lately. You might as well consider it a favor.”
Rhys backs up a step. “Wait, wait, wait,” he says uneasily. HIs stomach’s twisting at what Jack is saying, and now his head’s starting to hurt. It’s like one of his migraines, almost, but it’s manifesting with the worst timing he can imagine. “Just…no way. You’re talking about taking over my whole body.“
“That is exactly what I mean, cupcake.”
“But that’s not even how it works,” Rhys says. His gaze darts around in every direction. The turrets are still tracking him, and there’s nowhere to go that’s out of their scope. “You’d have to have my permission to get in past my data drive, and you do not have my permission!”
“Oh, Rhysie.” Jack sighs. “After everything we’ve been through together, this lack of trust of yours? It’s hurtful, it really is. Gets me right in the heart you aren’t letting me borrow. But besides all that…”
His eyes abruptly go so cold that Rhys backs up another step. Angel, Rhys whispers, beginning to feel a little desperate. Angel, where the hell are you?
She doesn’t answer, but the pain in his head redoubles. Sparks are starting to flash through his vision, eridium-bright and searing.
“For another thing, Rhysie,” Jack says, “once I get this new armature in you? I can hack it just like I did your arm, and I won’t need your permission to do anything.”
A panel in the floor slides aside, and Rhys watches in horror as another one rises, bringing an entire robotic skeleton up into view.
“What—“ he says hoarsely. He’s struggling to talk around the intensifying shocks of pain in his head. Something is wrong, something far worse than an ordinary migraine, but stuck as he is with danger on all sides, there’s nothing he can do about it. All he manages to say is, “You can’t.”
“Oh, Rhys. That’s your problem right there. You’ve got no vision, kiddo. You need to think bigger!”
Rhys’ vision warps from the pain, making Jack’s admonishment almost literal truth. The skeleton seemingly distorts until it’s towering over him. He cringes away, shaking his head, struggling to think straight. Jack just keeps on talking.
“I’m gonna graft this baby right on into you, Rhys. It’s way stronger than your own bones. Practically indestructible. It’s one hell of an upgrade, if you think about it. I mean, let’s be honest, this process will probably kill the hell out of you, but no one ever achieved true innovation without a little risk, right?” A truly vicious grin spreads across his face. “And if it does work…well. You’re going to be so much fun to play with, cupcake.”
The shock of revulsion and denial that goes through Rhys is doubled in strength—partly his own, partly someone else’s. And finally, finally, he hears that voice in his head again: Not if I can help it.
“Angel,” he whispers aloud, but there’s so little strength in it that Jack doesn’t hear him. “Please—“
Hang on, Rhys, she tells him, almost like she’s apologizing. Just hang on.
And something in his head twists, sharp and sudden.
Rhys howls in pain, but he’s barely even aware that he’s doing it. The shock as he falls to his knees is only a distant, unimportant thing. His mind’s full of light, new paths blazing through it and obliterating old ones, and he can’t control himself under the onslaught, can’t even try. He just shakes and shudders, feeling tears in his eyes.
“Hang on,” Jack says, somewhere beyond all the noise. Those words sound utterly different in his mouth—confused and agitated, and edging right on up to fury. “What the hell, Rhys?”
He can’t answer. Angel’s watching him too, he’s sure she is; he can almost feel her hands on his shoulders, then touching his cheek. But he can’t move, can’t reach her in return, and oh, God, everything hurts—
But that light in his head keeps getting brighter.
“What is going on, Rhys?” Jack demands. He almost sounds a little scared now. He’s probably right to. “What the hell is wrong with you? Are you having a stroke or something? This is not the deal, okay? You don’t get to just up and die before I kill you, for fuck’s sake! Get up!”
Rhys actually tries. He does. He rises, stumbles, and falls down hard, tasting blood in his mouth when he does. But then something shifts again, and that strange feeling in his head crests over, breaking everything wide open. For the space of a heartbeat, there’s nothing in his world but pain. Then it all vanishes at once. He goes so lightheaded he’s practically weightless, and he’s not even thinking, just aware, feeling it through every nerve as Angel’s energy rushes through him and brings him back to his feet.
It’s her looking out through his eyes in that moment, filling him with quiet, powerful confidence, and telling her father through Rhys’ mouth, “Language.”
Jack looks like he’s just been struck with Rhys’ stun baton.
And Rhys, still distant and careless, watches his cybernetic hand lift and propel a blast of raw power across the room, striking that skeleton and knocking it to the floor.
The rush of it is unbelievable. It’s such a mad, wild feeling, half hers and half his, that Rhys doesn’t even know what to do with it except to laugh. After the pain he’s just been in, this feels incredible. And God, that look on Jack’s face—it’s…it’s…
“What have you done?” Jack whispers, and it’s so horrified that the bottom drops out. As quickly as the energy flowed through him, it all disappears.
Rhys has no idea how he’s crossed the room far enough to be slumped against Jack’s desk again, but he is, gripping the edge with one hand and practically kneeling as he gasps for breath. He’s back at the wheel of his own body, for whatever that’s worth. He’s pretty sure he’s just spent all the strength he has. Even his vision’s gone fuzzy, dark and clouded at the edges. There’s a subtle, flickering feeling on one shoulder, though—the ghostly hint of a touch, like Angel’s still there and trying to support him.
I’m so sorry, she whispers. This was too much to ask. You don’t have enough—
Jack unwittingly interrupts her with an ear-shattering roar. “What did you DO?”
Rhys makes himself lift his head, staring up at Jack in the windows.
“Ask your daughter,” Rhys says, his voice cracked at every edge. “It was her idea.”
For a second, everything’s frozen. Then the turrets unleash a sudden, vicious blast, spraying the desk with bullets.
Rhys yelps and flings himself aside, knocking what’s left of his breath from him. He can hear things breaking, shattering, hear the thud as that hated chair is knocked to its side. It’s all accompanied by a sound of utter rage from the speakers, one that only breaks into distress when the inevitable happens.
Rhys looks up just in time to see a bullet strike the picture frame on Jack’s desk, knocking Angel’s destroyed photograph to the floor.
The hail cuts off as suddenly as it’s begun, and Jack just stares, caught somewhere between fury and horror. And he can’t decide whether to look at the ruined photo or at Rhys. Finally, though, his gaze focuses. Pinned beneath it, Rhys can’t even move.
“Angel?” Jack asks, almost as a plea.
You monster, Rhys tries to reply, but the words don’t make it out of his throat.
Please, please, you’ve got to get up, Angel’s telling him, somewhere in the gray edges of his mind. It’s getting harder and harder to hear her. I was afraid of this. You’re not a Siren, you don’t have the power to do what I’ve just taught you to do, and it’ll kill you if I keep trying, but…
Jack breaks in, so loudly it makes the room quake again.
“If you’ve…used her…” he grinds out. “If you’ve brought back my baby girl and manipulated her for your own ends, I’m not just going to kill you, I’m going to rip you apart piece by fucking piece.”
He’s not hearing a shred of the irony of what he’s saying. Rhys still believes that he means every word.
Feebly, he pushes himself back across the floor a few inches.
Please, Angel’s begging him. Please, Rhys, please, you have to get up.
“Why?” he asks fuzzily, not even caring if Jack can hear him this time. “What can I do?”
There’s another weak flash through his head, one that knocks his gaze aside until he can see, barely, the trophy case behind him. There’s the faintest glint of purple there, the shape of a rough-cut stone.
You have to get the eridium, Angel tells him. It’s our only way out.
Slowly he puts it together. Eridium. The fuel that made Angel so powerful—and destroyed her in the end. Rhys blinks hard, seeing afterimages of all those medical scans, and the footage of Angel growing stronger and weaker all at once.
He’s about to protest, but she already knows what’s in his head, and she’s having none of it. DO IT, she yells. Rhys can’t deny her.
Collecting what little strength he can, he turns and pulls himself up to his knees, half stumbling, half crawling, across the floor.
Artillery fire follows him.
His ears are ringing, the piercing shriek of it almost obscuring the report of round after round from the turrets. He tries to scramble out of the way, but it’s impossible to avoid every volley. One bullet hits his cybernetic hand, deadening two of the fingers. Another strikes his metal shoulder, and the jolt of it knocks him off balance. In the instant he stumbles, a third blast hits his leg, and he howls, feeling the skin and muscle tear. But there’s nothing for it but to keep hauling himself forward, trying to ignore Jack as he flashes from monitor to monitor, crackling through the air.
“There’s nowhere to go, Rhys,” Jack yells. “You can’t get out, you can’t save your friends, you can’t save yourself. Just undo whatever it is you’ve done to my girl.”
Rhys grabs a shelf and pulls himself up with trembling arms. “Too late for that, Jack,” he breathes.
Jack growls at him, so close now it’s like he’s right back in Rhys’ head. But he’s not—clearly, he’s not—or he’d know by now what Rhys is planning. He’s too consumed by fury even to notice.
“It’s never too late,” he says. “If I have to blow your brains out to get her out of there, so help me, I will.”
Rhys hears another turret swinging into position. He groans, wrestles himself up another few inches, and fumbles out for the eridium shard. It knocks the Atlas stock certificate aside, sends something else crashing to the floor. But none of that matters now, none of it matters, because he’s almost there, his broken hand scrabbling against the glass and reaching as far as it will go—
Jack realizes what Rhys is after a second too late.
“No,” Jack cries out, but when Rhys falls back to the floor, it’s with the eridium clutched to his chest.
It lights up in his hands, and his whole body bows with the sudden onrush of power.
If he’d thought Angel’s recoding of his mind had been painful, and that her first attempt at using her Siren abilities through him had been a roller coaster, he was not at all prepared for this. Even just holding this little, unimpressive fragment is an agonizing pleasure. It’s flooding him, fueling him, filling in the gaps. His skin is burning with sensation, the whole left side of him on fire, but his leg isn’t hurting anymore, and both arms work just fine as he pushes himself upright again. He immediately flings out his hands—the eridium is simply gone, as if he’s already absorbed the entirety of it into himself—and yells, “Stop.”
The turrets don’t just stop firing, they explode. Every last one of them.
Yes, Angel sings out, her voice rising above the cacophony. She’s absolutely radiant in his head now. And somehow, none of the shrapnel hits him. Yes, that’s it! Now the monitors—
He’s way ahead of her there. Before Jack can say another word, Rhys reaches out and says a phrase he’s never even heard before, but suddenly it makes perfect, perfect sense: “Executing phase shift.”
There’s just enough time for Jack to look utterly overwhelmed before every system in the room responds to Rhys’ call, and simply shuts him down. The monitors go black, even the window goes opaque, and everything is pushed away—not erased from the system, because Rhys has no idea yet how to do that, but booted well and truly out of the way, absolutely.
He’s not even tired when he’s done. He’s excited. Energized. Feeling more alive than he’s ever been.
And then there’s the distant sound of another alarm screaming itself into action, elsewhere in the station.
“He’s still in Helios somewhere,” Angel says. It’s not even a surprise that when Rhys looks to his left, she’s standing right there: eridium-tinged and slightly translucent, but more real to him than Jack’s hologram ever had been. “There are systems he’ll still have access to. We need to shut him down before he finds your friends.”
Rhys’ eyes widen. He’d…almost forgotten about them. “Shit. Do we know where they are—?”
Before he’s finished asking the question, the station map unfolds from his palm display. A cascade of unfamiliar data through his head fills it in with a stunning amount of detail. When he zooms in, he can see Fiona, Sasha, and Gortys marked out on the map, moving in real time.
Rhys looks around, and after a moment of searching, plucks up the beacon from the mess on the floor. He holds it up into Angel's line of sight. “I have to get to them."
Angel nods and gestures to the front door. With barely more than a thought and a desultory swipe of his hand, the security deactivates, and then the massive barriers unlock themselves and slide out of the way. Rhys shakes his head in astonishment.
“I am the best goddamn hacker in the galaxy,” he murmurs.
“You’re welcome,” Angel replies, only a little bit wryly. “Now let’s see how fast you can run.”
Rhys almost takes the dare. Then suddenly he laughs. Angel frowns, confused, as he calls up another wave of power—and, well, of course she would, because she’d have no real way to know how much he’s about to echo her father. But it’s just too perfect, and after all this, he has to try.
“Who’s running?” he asks her. “Baby, I can fly.”
And on a rush of stolen power and his borrowed wings, he does.
Helios is a massive station, and it turns out that even when dashing along on a Siren’s powers, you eventually have to stop to catch your breath.
Rhys skids to a halt, almost hitting the wall—I’m gonna have to learn how to brake, he thinks, wanting to laugh—and ends up bent half over, surrounded by a faint purplish glow. When he glances behind him, still heaving in breaths, he can see hints of the trail he’s left. They fade quickly, but they’re there: marks of speed and power sketched out in the air.
He’s not quite spreading literal wings like he’d seen Angel do, but that, right there? He’ll take it.
“Oh, my God,” he breathes, laughing faintly after all. “That was…awesome. Exhausting. But awesome. Now where are we—?“
Angel, beside him, draws his attention to the nearest sign. He looks up. He’d hardly even seen the halls he’d traversed between Jack’s office and here, but in the blink of an eye, he’s made it as far as the prison wing. A niggling sense is telling him he should stop and look around. There’s something here, maybe someone…
“Rhys?” he hears after he takes a few steps forward. It’s not Angel’s voice. It is, however, entirely too familiar.
He makes a noise somewhere between a groan and a sardonic laugh. He pivots on one heel to face the nearest prisoner.
“Yvette,” he says, spreading his hands out in a sketchy little bow. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Yvette just stares. “Rhys, you’re…you’re glowing.”
And he is, can’t deny that. The eridium haze is still clinging to him, and he wonders what it looks like from her perspective. Then a slightly hysterical wave of humor washes over him. The best he can do in lieu of explaining all this to her, since he’s not in the mood, is to joke about it—and to deliver the jab she deserves.
“Well, why wouldn’t I be radiant with excitement to see you, Yvette? After you sold me out and left me to Jack’s tender mercies until I had to break myself out by any means necessary?”
He's practically spitting light and color now, and Angel, still silent, gives him a warning sort of look. Rhys shakes his head and leans closer to the electric blue wall separating him from Yvette’s cell. She steps back in turn. She actually looks afraid of him right now. Rhys has no idea how to feel about that.
But he doesn’t back off, either.
“Rhys, you know that wasn’t the plan,” Yvette tells him, sticking to familiar ground: trying to talk her way out of things. “I made the only deal I could that might keep you alive. Hyperion wanted to rip some top-secret file out of your head, and…”
She pauses, looking at him like she’s unsure now what that top-secret file really was. Rhys wants to laugh again. The deal was about Jack, of course—they’d just wanted the AI back from Nakayama’s drive—but oh, boy, he has something even more valuable in his head now.
Joke’s on you, Hyperion, he thinks, watching Angel out of the corner of his cybernetic eye.
“Rhys, I’m so sorry,” Yvette says at last. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble, and…please, just…would you tell me what happened to you?”
He presses one hand over the repeating blue hexagons of the wall. From the inside, it would shock Yvette if she tried to touch it. But it doesn’t hurt him. It would never hurt him. The wall’s just a digistruct, and if he thinks about it, he can feel the code underneath, all the commands and constructions that make it what it is. Under his human palm, it tickles. He has to fight back the urge to giggle aloud.
“I learned a few things,” he answers, watching light ripple around his fingertips. “Found a few other files. Also found what I was looking for in Jack’s office, so really, I need to get going. Things to do, CEOs to overthrow, you know how it goes.”
“You can’t leave me in here. You know I’m as good as dead if you do.”
“And I can’t have you making some other deal as soon as the opportunity presents itself.” Rhys grimaces and turns like he’s about to go, but Angel stops him. She puts one hand to his arm. Unlike with Jack’s hologram, he can actually feel it.
“What?” he asks aloud, despite himself. Yvette blinks. Angel just frowns at him.
“Rhys, think. You’ve got two problems. You have to get the beacon to Fiona and Sasha, and you have to stop my father. You can’t just chase after him from point to point. You’ll have to cut him right off at the source. And even with powers, you can’t be in two places at once.”
“So?” he murmurs. Angel tips her head toward the cell again. Rhys eyes Yvette, who of course can’t hear Angel’s part of the conversation. She’s just watching him, looking a little bit desperate.
“Convince her,” Angel murmurs, and suddenly Rhys knows what she means.
The legends all do say that Sirens can be very, very convincing, after all.
Rhys’ head tilts speculatively as he studies Yvette. A hint of electricity tingles through him, going warm in pleasant and heady places. Then everything steadies. There’s something of Angel’s cadence in his voice this time when he speaks.
“I can let you out, Yvette. But I need you to do something for me.”
She still looks guarded. “What is it?”
“I have to get to the core.” He holds up the beacon with his mechanical hand. “And this has to get to Fiona and Sasha. I can tell you exactly where they are. You have to promise me you’ll take it to them. No tricks, no deals, just help them in any way you can.”
“Last time I saw them didn’t go so well, Rhys.”
He just smiles at her. “Trust me. It’ll work. You can do this. And if you just finish this one thing for me, none of the rest will matter anymore.”
The way she stares at him, Rhys wonders if he’s glowing again, or if it’s just his voice getting to her, low and even and compelling. Finally Yvette nods. She seems…almost a little haunted. “Yes. I’ll do it.”
Rhys lets out a relieved breath, some of the strange tension going from him. Then he puts his left hand to the wall again. Pushing just a little makes it warp and waver, makes light ripple through it like waves. Rhys taps in and thinks about it. Just a little adjustment to that subroutine, there, and canceling out a handful of functions…
He keeps pushing. His hand slides right through the wall.
Yvette gasps. “How are you doing that?”
Rhys doesn’t answer, exactly. He just turns his hand over and beckons her closer. “Come on. I’ve got you.”
Yvette gulps hard, but she takes his hand. Rhys pulls her forward. The wall flickers, but it doesn’t shock her, and when he draws her through into the hallway, it offers no more resistance than a thin sheet of water. Only after she’s through does it harden back into place. Rhys looks at it, smiling.
“Well. Wow. That worked.”
“You weren’t sure that it would?”
He ignores the outburst. “I just wish I could stick around to see the guards try to figure it out.”
Yvette shakes her head at him. Rhys giggles again, half from just plain being overwhelmed. And then he blinks hard, swaying a little. He’s starting to feel lightheaded again, and he can’t afford that, not now. With some effort, he focuses on Yvette and holds out the beacon.
“I know this is all really weird right now,” he says apologetically, in something more like his usual voice. “But this is super important, Yvette. You still with me?”
She nods and gingerly takes the beacon. Rhys opens the map from his palm again, zooming in on the girls’ coordinates. “Do you know where this is?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can get there.” Her eyes narrow slightly. She’s coming back to herself, too. “But when this is over? Assuming Fiona hasn’t knocked me out again and stuffed me down a garbage chute? You’ve got some serious explaining to do.”
“Oh, you bet. But for right now? We both gotta hurry.”
Yvette looks like she’s about to ask something more. Instead, she nods. “I said I’ll do it. I will.” And as she turns to go, she adds, “You won’t regret this, I promise.”
“Uh. I wasn’t going to until you said that…”
She’s already gone, though, and so that goes unheard. It’s quiet until Angel points at the wall beside Yvette’s cell and says gently, “There is a release button there, you know.”
Rhys turns to see. “Oh.” After a second he adds, “Guess that would have been easier.”
“Don’t burn yourself out, whatever you do. The eridium won’t last you forever.”
“Yeah, yeah. Got it.” He runs a hand back through his hair, breathing in deep. “Okay. Core—”
He looks at her. She’s flickering around the edges again.
“You’re going to need everything you’ve got to face Jack down. And eridium withdrawal…you don’t know yet what it’s like.” Her whole image shudders. “Please, just…use it wisely.”
He wants to give her some sort of snappy rejoinder, but the yet in that sentence gives him pause. He has just enough time to begin wondering what he’s gotten himself into when there’s another crackle of sound over the station’s PA. It’s another alarm of sorts. But this time it’s spoken.
“All right, kiddos,” another all-too-familiar voice booms out through the halls. “It’s Handsome Jack, and I’ve got a project for all of you lovely little underlings of mine…”
“Oh, crap,” Rhys says under his breath, as Jack, being Jack, keeps on talking. Sure enough, Rhys hears his own name pronounced with utter disdain soon enough. “He’s gonna try to bring the whole station down on me, isn’t he?”
“Yes. And you need to go before that happens.”
“So, uh…do you mean I need to speed my way to the core after all, or go on foot and hope I don’t die?”
She glares at him, just a bit. “I said use it wisely.”
Rhys tilts a smile at her, hoping to get one back. “When am I not wise? …Okay, don’t answer that.”
Just for an instant, he does see her lips curve upwards. There’s something kind of heartbreaking about it, to be honest, watching that amalgamation of memories from a terrible, terrible time beginning to remember how to smile. Then she takes off ahead of him, too fast to follow at a simple run, calling “come on!” over one shoulder.
Rhys gathers up his strength again and follows.
Fiona’s running down a seemingly endless corridor when she hears it. The station PA has come to unwanted life again, and it’s Handsome Jack’s voice sounding from it, echoing so loudly that she can feel it through the walls. She’s already heard it too many times before. That voice has been piped into every radio and every speaker across Pandora’s settlements, blaring propaganda one day, threats and ultimatums the next. And this? it’s the same snide humor. The same arrogance. The familiar way he isn’t even trying to hide how much he wants them all dead. Even here in the heart of his own company, it sounds just the same.
She wishes it helped that right now, he’s targeted that disdain at someone other than her and her family. It really doesn’t. Not when they’re still way too close to the crosshairs.
“We have got to get off this station,” Fiona breathes as they pass a bank of windows. They’re overlooking a scene of surreal, slow-motion terror: ranks of Hyperion employees lined up before a larger-than-life projection of Handsome Jack, and getting picked out one by one to answer impossible questions. Chief amongst those: Where the hell is Rhys?
“We can’t leave yet,” protests Gortys. “We haven’t gotten my beacon!”
Fiona pauses, swiveling around to look at the little robot. Gortys isn’t as little as she used to be, of course, but she still looks reduced somehow like this, with her hope so bruised. After all this effort, and all they’ve had to do, and all they’ve already lost…
Fiona hears a sudden shout over the speakers. Someone’s evidently failed to answer Jack to his satisfaction. “Useless!” Jack pronounces, and there’s a sudden blast of turret fire. Fiona and Sasha both jolt with shock, and then quickly turn from the windows. Fiona’s suddenly glad that Gortys isn’t quite tall enough to see over the bottom edge.
“We can’t stay here,” Sasha hisses to Fiona, who knows her sister’s right. She sighs and crouches down, giving Gortys a sympathetic look.
“I know we never got the beacon like we said, and I’m sorry. But we can’t go back for it now.” Fiona’s heart twists at Gortys’ crestfallen expression. It’s almost hard to believe how just a little curve of downturned lights can make Gortys look so sad. “We’ve already gotten people hurt, and…and worse, and this station’s more dangerous than we counted on. And it’s not worth any more lives just to finish a deal to keep Vallory happy.”
“But…what about Rhys?”
What about Rhys, indeed. Fiona looks up at Sasha, who only spreads her hands and shakes her head. She looks just as unhappy, but she doesn’t have an answer any more than Jack’s hapless targets do. And when Fiona hears another smattering of gunfire, she knows she has to make a decision.
“We’ll keep hailing him on the comms,” she tells Gortys. “I promise we’ll try to make sure he meets up with us before we leave.”
“I’m trying to connect with him right now,” Sasha puts in, tapping her earpiece—a little too theatrically, Fiona thinks. They both know his comm’s been silent for nearly an hour. But she knows what Sasha’s trying to do.
Gortys turns to look, thinks about it, then sinks back down.
“Okay,” Gortys says glumly. “But even if that works, if we get back to the ship and don’t have the beacon, we’re all gonna end up in trouble.”
“That we most definitely are,” Fiona says under her breath as she stands back up. “Sasha, any ideas?”
“Just bad ones,” Sasha admits. “I mean…we could grab some other artifact and lie, see how much time that buys us. They wouldn’t know right away, right?”
Fiona shakes her head. It really might be the only option right now, but Sasha’s right, it’s a bad idea. It won’t take much to expose the deception. “This is going to blow up in our faces,” she whispers, anxiously eyeing the room outside. Jack’s hologram has winked out, and the terrified Hyperion employees are scattering—but that, unfortunately, means that Jack could be anywhere now. “I don’t know how we’re getting out of this one, Sash.”
“Wait a minute,” Gortys says unexpectedly. “Are we sure we can’t get the real beacon before we escape?”
“We’re out of time, honey,” Fiona apologizes. “We should already be gone by now.”
“Yeah, but,” Gortys says, pointing one spindly finger down the hallway. “I can still pick up its signal, and it’s coming from right over there.”
“What?” Sasha’s chin jerks up. “Down the hallway? Why would it be…”
Before she can finish the sentence, the far doorway slides open, and the last person Fiona expects to see halts right there at the threshold, taking in the sight of all three of them. Then her hand hurriedly jerks up. She’s holding out a familiar artifact like an offering and a shield all at once.
“Before you say anything,” Yvette says, “Rhys sent me. Said you’d need this. Take it, it’s yours. Just…no punching this time, please? And we all need to go.”
“My beacon!” Gortys exclaims, lighting up. Literally.
Fiona, for her part, just stares in shock. And Sasha’s gaze goes flinty. “You.”
Yvette’s mouth opens, but shuts again hard when Jack’s voice booms into the halls again. “All right, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “I think it’s time to offer you all more incentive to answer my questions.”
“Oh, crap,” Fiona mutters.
“You know how much you all enjoy your little on-board perks here, like, oh, let’s say the oxygen?” Jack continues. He’s aiming for vicious humor, but mostly he’s just sounding angry. “‘Cause it’s funny: from where I’m standing, which is to say in every non-organic system onboard, things like life support are starting to feel remarkably optional.”
Yvette stares horrified at the nearest speaker, then points to the door. “Yeah, okay, it’s me. I know, I messed up before. But I know the station, and I can show you the fastest way to the docking bay from here. Right about now, I’d say that’s a really damn good idea.”
“You’re not about to lead us straight to Jack, are you?” Sasha says, still suspicious.
Yvette rolls her eyes. “The way he’s picking people off, he’s not about about to hand me a shiny prize if I do, is he? Here—take this.” She tosses the beacon to Sasha, who grabs it out of midair, looking surprised. “I said that’s yours; I meant it. It just won’t do you any good if you don’t escape, so come on.”
“I don’t know,” Gortys says anxiously, hanging back. “You said Rhys sent you. But where is he?”
For the first time, Yvette looks truly uncomfortable. She obviously knows something she’s not letting on, and it makes Fiona’s stomach turn. “Yvette,” she asks warily. “What’s happened to Rhys?”
“He’s still onboard,” she says slowly, “But it’s a really long story. And I’d feel a lot better not telling it here.”
Fiona and Sasha consider each other, both of them worried. But it’s Sasha who tucks the beacon into a pocket, then swallows down that particular pill and says, “I think we better go with her.”
“Yeah.” Fiona’s voice cracks, but she urges Gortys forward anyway. Gortys reluctantly concedes. “Let’s move.”
Yvette nods, and points out the way.
There’s something changing about Angel, something shimmering and strange, the deeper they get into the station.
Rhys wonders if it’s the eridium bleeding through to her, or if it’s something else. Maybe something about Helios itself. It’s like she’s picking up on all the systems layering around them as they get closer and closer to the core. Before this, after all, she’d been filed away in a secure database, kept under virtual lock and key. She wouldn’t have had access to the full network. And before that she’d been trapped on a isolated satellite. She could still reach out through what channels she had, but she really had nowhere to run.
It had been so unbelievably lonely.
Rhys isn’t even sure how he knows that, but he does.
He’s got an awful lot of her memories in his head now, however, so maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. The integration is very, very different than when he’d had Jack onboard. Jack had been able to worm into a few systems, but most of Rhys’ mind—thank God—had still been walled off. He’d heard a few things here and there, things he’d never admit to, but…well, it wasn’t like this. He’s let Angel in so much deeper, and it’s impossible not to feel it when things are affecting her.
Finally he has to ask it: “Are you all right?”
She pauses at a junction in the halls, and he stops beside her, rubbing at one aching shoulder. In motion, he can forget about it, but when he's stopped like this, he remembers again how oddly sensitive his skin is there. It's like somehow in the eridium transfer, it got singed.
As for Angel, the longer this goes, the more human her appearance gets, and the way she tugs at her hair looks almost like a gesture of his own. “I keep hearing things,” she says uneasily. “My f…Jack’s getting agitated.”
“It’s okay. You can call him your father if you want.”
She just shudders. “I’d rather not.” She casts a quick look around. “Could you pull up your map?”
Rhys does, and Angel zooms in on a quadrant some distance from here. Rhys whistles low, impressed, because every time she taps into his cybernetics like this, the information gets more detailed. Not long ago, all he was seeing to represent his friends on this map was tiny dots. Now he can make out the faces of all the girls—Fiona, Sasha, Gortys and Yvette—as they approach an elevator that leads to the docking bays. He suspects Angel’s picking it up and adapting the images from the security cameras.
Or maybe he’s doing it himself. The lines are beginning to blur.
“Good, they’re almost clear,” Rhys says, shoving that thought aside. “But damn, they better wait for me there…”
Angel frowns. “I don’t know. There’s something wrong.”
When he sees it, he stops cold. The group’s walking down a hall covered with monitors. And as he watches, the screens all switch on at once.
“Oh, shit,” he mutters. Jack’s face is appearing in every single pane.
Angel nearly fritzes out with frustration. “We’re too far away. You have to call for help. If Jack knows they’re there, he’ll send guards. Or worse.”
“Help? Who else is there to call—” Rhys cuts off. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.”
Angel shrugs. Rhys grimaces, then reflexively reaches for his comm. Unfortunately, the device broke and fell away some time ago, probably in the fight in Jack’s office. For a second he’s flustered. Then he remembers. He’s got access now to every communications system in the station.
Hopefully, if Jack’s distracted, he won’t notice if Rhys borrows one little channel to call a notorious Pandoran bandit.
Rhys shifts his way into the system, sends out a ping, and lifts his chin when the signal connects. It’s a near thing, but he manages to speak up before the voice on the other end of the line can demand to know who this is.
“Hey, August,” he says. “I might need you to do me—and Sasha—a really big favor.”
You know, when I started this fic, I wasn't expecting to retool quite this much of Episode 5. But the more I played around with including Angel, the more I kept thinking of ways to turn things juuuust a little sideways. The next chapter ought to allow me to do something especially satisfying with Yvette. And then I really get to blow shit up. Insert scheming little grin here.
I'm going back to work this week, so my update schedule might have to slow a bit, but I'll continue posting here whenever time allows. Thanks for reading along so far. :) also, in the meantime, come hang out with me on Tumblr: http://pagerunner-j.tumblr.com
The greeting that issues over the speakers is syrupy sweet but edged with acid, and while it’s nothing Fiona doesn’t expect, it’s the last thing she wants to hear:
They’re surrounded. Every monitor, every panel, is showing them Jack’s holographic face in searing blue. He’s looking entirely too pleased to see them. The same can’t be said for anyone else in the hallway. Gortys is hanging back behind them all, trying to hide. Sasha looks absolutely livid. Yvette’s going tense. And for her part, Fiona tries to school her expression into a glare. it probably looks as exasperated as it does determined.
And…well, all right. It’s still a little afraid.
“We’ve got nothing to say to you,” she tells Jack, and keeps on walking. The monitors swivel to face her as she goes. Out the corner of one eye, she can glimpse Sasha’s hand balling into a fist inside one pocket. It’s probably equal parts out of anger and the urge to keep that beacon hidden.
Fiona just really, really hopes she doesn’t lose her temper.
“Ah, now, come on. No need to be like that,” Jack says. “I’m just looking for a pal of yours. Tall, gangly, about half robot, answers to Rhys.” His voice goes silky smooth, but also subtly dangerous. “Pretty sure you know where he is.”
“If he’s that important to you,” Fiona says, arching an eyebrow, “seems you could have done a better job of keeping track of him.”
“Yeah, well. He’s picked up some interesting tricks recently. One of those is keeping him off my monitors.”
Fiona feels a smile quirk one corner of her mouth. “So he’s too much of a hacker even for you, huh?”
“Oh, pet,” he replies, voice low. “You really have no idea what he’s done to himself, do you?”
Fiona, on the verge of formulating another comeback, goes quiet. There’s something in his tone that’s making her nervous. So, too, does the way Yvette’s expression abruptly hardens. Jack zeroes in on that and lets out a cruel laugh.
“Oh, ain’t that just priceless. You, there—you work for me, don’t you? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I caught wind of some scheming friend of his trying to play everyone. You’re her, aren’t you? And now you’re helping this bunch?” He pauses, giving the next word a little too much weight. “Really?”
“Really,” Yvette says flatly.
“Interesting. Because I gotta repeat: you work for me. And I’m pretty sure there’s a line in the company bylaws about what happens if employees contravene a direct order from me. Kinda put it there myself. It’s colorful. It really is.”
“You’re dead, Jack.” Yvette folds her arms and glares the monitor down with what is, really, an impressive evil eye. “I don’t care what’s in the bylaws; it doesn’t apply to you anymore. And I’m not telling you shit.”
“Oh, ho, ho, look at the pair on you.” He sounds downright gleeful now. “Man. If I’d known about you when I was alive, I’d have put you somewhere useful. Or maybe I’d have just dropped you out an airlock, saved us all some trouble. It’s kinda fifty-fifty.”
Fiona notices the woman’s minute flinch.
“Either way, though, it’s about to get a whole lot less fun for you, real quick. But it’ll still be hilarious for me. ‘Cause seriously—you haven’t told them anything either, have you?”
Both Fiona and Sasha side-eye Yvette. Sasha’s hissing “I knew it” under her breath. Fiona, though, still feels less certain. She really doesn’t think Yvette walked them into this on purpose. She looks too genuinely pissed off at Jack for that. But there’s something else in play. Something about Rhys.
And it’s sending chills up her spine for reasons she doesn’t even understand.
Fortunately, Jack doesn’t notice her shiver. His attention is all on Yvette now, and his voice is lowering into a dark, deadly purr.
“You’ve seen him,” Jack says, sounding eerily certain. “You’d still be in that cell otherwise. Ten bucks says he went all misguided-loyalty on you and let you out himself. Such a Rhys thing to do.”
Yvette’s spine goes stiff. “Maybe. But so what?”
“That means you know, sweetheart.” His smile becomes an outright leer. “You know what he’s done, and you haven’t said a word. I wonder why.”
They’re all looking straight at Yvette now. It’s Sasha who finally says it. “Know what?”
When Yvette hesitates, Jack’s image shakes with the force of a silent laugh.
“All right, all right. I gotta help you girls out here. Because this is just too good.” Jack cuts out of sight, but predictably enough, he keeps on talking. “I did catch some of this on the security cameras. And I’m not gonna lie…this footage is really something.”
Before Fiona can even begin to guess what he’s getting at, the monitors flash a brilliant, blinding purple. She winces and turns aside. So she hears Sasha whisper “holy shit” before she sees it herself, and she’s already braced as a result, which is…fortunate, all things considered.
Because what’s on the monitors ought to be impossible.
The speeding swirl of light onscreen is resolving bit by bit, forming what looks like strings of code chasing each other through the air. Fiona blinks hard, trying to focus, because she’s recognizing something in the flow—glimpses of a wireframe, hints of a familiar shape. There’s something else twining through it all, too, something paler and swifter, a ghostlike little echo of the pattern. But it doesn’t all come together until the motion stops. When it does, all the information catches up with itself, slamming into a single, vivid image: Rhys’ breathless, exhilarated face, his eyes wide open and the cybernetics so bright they’re practically blinding.
Fiona’s jaw drops as he looks straight into the camera, smiling almost like he can see her there. Then the expression goes wry, nearly wistful, and he shakes his head.
“That’s enough of that,” he says.
Fiona gets the briefest impression of his robotic hand lifting before the image whites out. She’s still staring blindly through the resulting haze, trying to get a handle on anything, when she hears Jack’s voice again.
“How ‘bout that, sweetcheeks?” he asks, all honey and arsenic again. “Our boy’s gone from hacking off and replacing parts of his own goddamn body to making himself so much less human that you can see his friggin’ source code. So what exactly do you think it is you’re protecting, here?”
“I…I don’t understand,” Gortys says, her voice small and shaky. She’s clearly speaking for all of them. No one else can say a word.
“Rhys has as good as killed himself already,” Jack says, making Fiona’s heart clench. “But he’s stolen something of mine and I want it back. And you know what he’s up to. You’ve at least got some clue. So you’re gonna tell me. Or else I’m gonna pop those doors open and you can tell our friends the guards why they shouldn’t shoot you dead on sight.” His terrible smile cuts through the light. “Except they will. Kind of how it works.”
“Fiona,” Sasha says, strained. They can all hear the elevator approaching now.
“Any last words?” Jack asks carelessly. “Confessions? Groveling? Groveling would be entertaining. You gotta hurry it up, though. The guards are almost here. Shame to miss your chance.”
“We’ve got to do something,” Yvette hisses, not inaccurately, but Fiona has no goddamn idea where to begin. She just keeps seeing Rhys’ face on the monitors, so open and full of wonder…
“Out of time, girls,” Jack says. For a second, it almost does sound regretful. “And just when I was starting to—”
He doesn’t get the chance to finish the sentence. The elevator dings and the doors slide open, and Fiona, her mouth dry and her eyes wide, waits for the seemingly inevitable hail of bullets. But when they strike, and they do, they don’t hit her. The barrage of gunfire that sprays out across the hall is targeted straight at the monitors.
Fiona whirls around to see Jack’s surprised face splintered into shards on a dozen screens.
And then she has to duck, because the man at the door hasn’t finished shooting.
“Oh, my God!” Sasha gasps out, not without reason, as monitor after monitor breaks apart. She’s crouched right between Fiona and Yvette, her hands over her head. Shrapnel’s spraying everywhere. “August, what the hell!”
“August?” Fiona repeats, and she can almost hear herself when she does, because the gun has finally gone silent. She lifts her head. Sure enough, it really is August at the door, surveying the wreckage he’s created. Not a single screen is still operational. And he’s standing there with eyebrows raised, taking it all in.
“Hell of a lot of monitors in this place,” he says.
Fiona stares at her sister, who only shakes her head and shrugs.
“Right,” Fiona mutters, and gets back to her feet. “Um. Thanks?”
She doesn’t really mean to sound uncertain. Well, all right, she means to sound a little sarcastic, but uncertain, no. Still, she can’t help it. Her ears are still ringing from the gunfire, her eyes still burning with…whatever it was they’d seen in the monitors…and she really didn’t expect to see August inside Helios at all, so she’s having a hard time getting her bearings. August, unsurprisingly, doesn’t look pleased at her greeting. He just snorts and turns a cockeyed look at her.
“You better thank me,” he tells her. “Had to fight through an awful lot of crap to get here. Next time your crazy cyborg boyfriend calls me for help, I’m gonna tell him to stick it up his ass.”
Sasha’s eyes widen. “Wait. Rhys called you?”
Fiona, Sasha, and Yvette all shoot looks at each other, and even Gortys peeks up from where she’s still scrunched in on herself in self-defense. August, though, breaks in with another abrupt question. “Never mind; I don’t care why. Just tell me—did you get what you came for?”
Sasha at last pulls the beacon from her pocket. “Yeah,” she says, holding it up into view.
August nods. “All right, then, let’s go.”
They all begin to hurry forward when August suddenly raises his weapon again, pointing it dead at Yvette. She stops short, gasping. He just glares.
“Not you,” he says.
“August, for God’s sake,” Sasha bursts out, unexpectedly coming to Yvette’s defense. “She helped us. She even brought the beacon here from Rhys.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve kinda had enough of Rhys making other people run his errands. Besides, she’s Hyperion. And she’s not part of the deal. So she’s not coming with us. You got a problem with that?”
Yvette holds her hands up, stepping back. She does glare at August, but only briefly. “Fine, fine, I get it. You guys go on. I can find my own way off the station.”
Fiona’s still concerned. “Are you sure?”
“Really, I got this. Just…Fiona?”
The question’s soft, and Fiona suspects August might not have even heard it, since he’s busy herding the others into the elevator. It’s taking some effort. Gortys, true to form, is keeping him distracted. Fiona silently thanks the little robot and turns back to Yvette, who’s watching Fiona intently.
“About Rhys,” Yvette says, her voice low. “What you saw, on the monitors? That’s…real. Jack wasn’t making that up.”
Fiona shakes her head in disbelief. “But how?”
“I still don’t know. But I have a guess.” She takes a deep breath. “There were…rumors, back before Jack died…about some special AI Jack had in the system. No one knew exactly what it was or what it was for. I mean, some people thought it was an actual person, which didn’t make any sense. But he definitely had some sort of crazy secret plan going on. The AI was supposed to be super powerful. It could hack into anything, mutate any system. And I think…”
Fiona suddenly remembers that second stream of data, the ghost she’d seen in the in-between. “You think Rhys has that in his head?”
Yvette nods reluctantly. “And that’s what Jack really wants now.”
“Shit,” Fiona whispers. “Having Jack in his head was bad enough…”
“And this might be worse. Because Rhys thinks it’s helping him.” Yvette looks unhappy, too. “Listen, maybe I’m wrong. But whatever’s happening to Rhys just doesn’t feel right. And if this really is something that Handsome Jack engineered for his own benefit? There’s no way we can trust it.”
Fiona swallows hard, wishing she could argue that point for Rhys’ sake. But she can’t. “Yvette, I…”
“Fiona!” August shouts, interrupting her. “Get a move on!”
She looks behind her, seeing August waving agitatedly toward the elevator. “Just a second!” she shouts back, before returning to Yvette. The other woman just takes a deep breath, sighs, and waves her on, too.
“You better go. I’ll find my own ride out. Because seriously, whatever Rhys is planning, I don’t want to be here when it happens. Especially if it goes wrong.” She shudders delicately. “Just…watch your back, okay?”
Fiona agrees reluctantly. “Yeah. You too.”
Yvette gives her a nod, one that looks like a gesture of respect, and then she’s gone, sprinting out the door she first came in. All Fiona can do is back up a step or two, still staring at the destruction all around her. For a second, she swears she can see a glint of purple light reflecting from one of the shards.
She shivers again, remembering that look in Rhys’ eyes. The joy. That impossible power. Then she shakes it off and turns away, going to the elevator, where August is grousing at her, “Finally.” She snorts and brushes that off.
Sasha looks far more thoughtful about it all. “What did she say?” she whispers, while August jabs at the buttons and the doors slide shut. Fiona pauses, turning over several possible replies. Eventually she shuts her eyes and sets her jaw.
“We’ll wait for Rhys if we can,” she says, not even voicing her real fear: that she’s not entirely sure if that is Rhys anymore. “But above all…we’ve got to get ourselves somewhere safe. And fast.”
“Yeah,” Sasha says humorlessly, staring at August as he prepares to take them—and Gortys’ final piece—right on back to Vallory. “Any ideas?”
For all that she’s supposed to be the glib one, Fiona finds she has nothing to say.
Next chapter: Rhys and Angel make their way into the core. Please picture your friendly author steepling her fingers and grinning a weeeeee bit worryingly.
As ever, thanks for reading. Comments are always welcome, and come hang out with me between installments on Tumblr.
It’s hard not to think that it should be quiet in the core, hidden as it is, isolated as it is. It’s the heart of the station in a very real way, and so it’s walled off behind an array of security barriers that ought to be better manned than this. Under these very odd circumstances, however, almost everyone’s been diverted to deal with the chaos elsewhere in the station. That's giving Rhys a clear shot. The only guards left don’t even notice him when he blinks on by. He’s getting better at turning down the light show when he flies.
Of course, that also takes more energy, and as much as he hates to admit it, he’s running low. By the time he comes to a stop before the power core, he’s outright dizzy. The air around him vibrates, practically hums with the force of the energy, loudly enough to be distracting. But he can’t tap into it, not like this. He doesn’t feel quite…together, somehow. And when he looks up, Angel’s gone low-res, too.
That can’t be a good sign.
Rhys scratches at his shoulder, wincing—the skin there is just burning, and he’s afraid to look and see why. Instead, he pushes himself upright at the nearest railing, not enjoying the way his arm’s trembling. “Angel? You okay?”
Just…tired, she says. He picks it up more as an overheard thought than spoken words. But we’re here. That’s the important thing. You can get access at that panel.
Rhys brightens. “Access to the power circuits? How granular can I get?”
Angel unfurls a diagram on his ECHO display. It’s so huge and sprawling it takes up his entire field of vision. You’ll want to turn off everything except what’s highlighted in red. You touch circuit 12, you’ll cut off life support. And if 4-8 shut down, you may destabilize the station’s orbit.
"That would be bad,” Rhys murmurs. “Okay. Yeah, I can do this. Just gotta be careful. Right.”
He puts both hands on the control panel, prepared to slide on in with a thought. But the furthest he gets is an erratic spark of light around his fingers, then nothing. Even the diagram disappears from his display. “Shit,” he whispers. His head’s abruptly starting to hurt. “Angel, I…”
She doesn’t say anything, but he glimpses her at his shoulder, looking worried. Which is…not encouraging. Rhys shakes his head hard and sets his jaw.
“Fine,” he says. “The old-fashioned way will do.”
He taps at the panel, keying quickly past the initial screens. He doesn’t get much further, though, before the control panel lets out a censorious buzz. Rhys arches an eyebrow. “That how you’re gonna be? Okay, then.” Another handful of keystrokes and some input from his arm’s hacking interface—fortunately still online—and he’s made it through the backdoor. Rhys grins, despite the shaky feeling in his limbs, the cool sheen of sweat on his forehead. That diagram Angel had shown him is glowing on the panel before him now, and he’s got access to all the switches. “Gotcha.”
It’s right then, of course, that lights pop on above his head, the control panel slams into lockdown, and a dark chuckle spills its way into the room.
“Shouldn’t’ve tried to tickle my systems like that, Rhysie,” Jack says. He sounds…odd, right now. Weirdly relieved for a second, and then just plain vindicated. “Manual hacking? That still shows up on my scans. Led me right to ya. And I hate being tickled. …Nah, that’s a lie. I love it.” The next words come out uncomfortably edged. “Just ask Angel.”
Rhys pulls his gaze up enough to see Angel again. Suddenly, though, her wide-eyed image gets overwritten, because he’s being hit with another memory: Angel so much younger, so much smaller, her dark hair in pigtails and her eyes scrunched shut instead as she helplessly giggles. Rhys catches his breath. Compared to the other footage she’d shown him, this one is so vivid. It’s not just photos or data, not just numbers. It’s like…a home movie, almost. Like it was taken by one of those old POV-cams, the sort you could wear on glasses.
That’s what makes Rhys realize what he’s watching, even before he sees Jack’s hands come into frame. You gonna get me back, Angel? he says, his fingers teasingly wriggling. Come on, I know you can do it…
The little-girl version of Angel squints one eye open, and a mischievous smile so like her father’s spreads across her face. Then she jumps at him, getting at his sides and tickling away. Jack’s resulting laugh is so shockingly bright, so free of any malice at all, that Rhys feels like he’s been turned completely upside down.
Somehow, the most unsettling part is that this isn’t a memory of hers. It’s one of his.
“Oh, yeah. That, right there? That’s part of her now,” Jack’s ghost confirms, quiet and smug. “That’s what happens when you’re not a real AI. She’s just one big splice of bits and pieces, and some of what’s holding the whole mess together? She got it from me.”
Rhys shuts down the video and looks to his Angel, hoping for…well, anything other than what Jack’s implying. She looks shamed and nervous, though, not quite able to refute what her father’s saying. “Angel,” he says warily, but Jack keeps talking.
“You’re putting all your trust in a patchwork girl, kiddo. And you’ve let her drain you practically dry.” There’s a brief silence, one that suggests, somehow, a cocked head, a pointed look in Rhys’ direction. “How are you doing down there? ‘Cause I just got the security cameras back online, and really, Rhysie…you’re not looking so hot.”
Rhys shakes his head again, turning away from the nearest glint of glass. “None of your goddamn business, Jack.”
“Oh, I’d say it is. Technically speaking, you’re still a Hyperion employee, which makes you entirely my business. And I don’t walk away from investments, Rhys. Especially not one like you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, my God.” Jack laughs aloud. “Angel, I know you’re in there somewhere. So you wanna tell him? You’re the one responsible. You should do the honors.”
“You don’t have to,” Rhys says, but it doesn’t stop her from replying.
He’s not wrong about one thing. You’re…unique, now.
“Is she telling you the good stuff?” Jack asks, the instant Rhys flinches at her words. “You are gonna have to help me out here, pumpkin, because I still can’t hear her, and that’s…well, it’s annoying, not gonna lie.”
“She just…said I’m unique,” Rhys replies. He shoots a look at the power core, the entire reason he’s here. Jack’s distracting him from it. But now he’s not sure how to wrest control back, and he’s afraid that what Jack’s about to say is important. He has to listen.
“Of course you’re unique. Really, Rhys, you haven’t thought this through? Siren powers, cupcake. Powers you weren’t born with and weren’t supposed to have. But you’ve got them now, thanks to what’s left of my daughter. Do you have any idea how many people have tried replicating that kind of thing? Hundreds. And you know how many failed? All but you, Rhysie. All but you.”
“Lucky me,” he mutters. “Guess I’m special.”
“Yes. You are.” The words hit flatly enough that Rhys looks up from the core, as if he can find Jack somewhere in the rafters. “And you clearly have no idea what that means for your future.”
He has to admit, he hasn’t thought much further ahead than an hour or two. But now he’s thinking, and thinking hard, while he anxiously scratches at his left arm.
“You’re going to be in high demand, Rhysie boy,” Jack purrs. “Governments, corporations, mad scientists a-plenty. Bandits looking for new, fun toys to break. Everyone for planets around is going to want to get their hands on you. The wonder boy. The proof that they can have that kind of power too, if they can figure out how to control you. Or how to yank it out of your head.”
Rhys recoils. “That’s not…that is not happening.”
“Oh, really? Think you’ve got enough steam to fight ‘em all off? ‘Cause right now, you can barely keep yourself standing.” Jack’s voice tilts into something almost seductive. “You’re gonna need more eridium for all that, babe. And that’s gotta come from somewhere. Someone.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Angel says, her voice gaining strength again—but out of what sounds like sheer panic. “He’s just going to tell you to stay. To let him use you before anyone else does. But Rhys, you can’t. I know what he’s going to make you do—"
“I’ll find my own damn way, thanks,” Rhys says aloud, quite possibly to both of them. But it’s hard to make a stand when Jack’s absolutely right about how weak he is. It takes determination to force the next words out. “I came here to shut you down, Jack. Not make another deal with the devil.”
“Oh, come on, Rhys. Devil? That's overdramatic. And you really think you can go it alone? Here, in a station full of schemers and backstabbers like your little friend Yvette? Wait, no, sorry—I ran into her already. And she’s hightailing it off the station right now to get the hell away from you.”
Rhys’s chest tightens. He…he can’t really blame her for running, but…did she even do what he asked first? What about the beacon? And Fiona? Did she—
“And oh, God, the thought of you back on Pandora,” Jack goes on, laughing now. “In the shape you’re in, you won’t last five minutes. You’ll get shot, dissected, picked over by scavengers. You’ll be nothing more than a shitstain on the sand, Rhysie. Nothing more. At least without my help.”
“No,” Angel says, but he’s not even looking at her anymore. He just stares into the distance as Jack keeps speaking.
“I mean, you’ve got a target on you now as big as Elpis, cupcake. I know it, you know it. But you haven’t even looked at it. You’re too scared to. You just keep rubbing at your arm and your side like they’re hurting, but you haven’t once looked to see why. All that flashing around through the station and you haven’t done one fly-by past a mirror? You should’ve, babe. You really should. Because you’ve changed.”
Rhys looks at his hands, trembling. They look normal enough. Honestly, they do. Jack’s got to be talking shit. Except…except there’s that funny little mark on his left hand, a blue line emerging from just underneath his sleeve before curving forward, and…
He pushes his sleeve up a little more, looks, and quickly tugs it back down. Then, after a second thought, he reaches up to his collar to slowly, carefully pull it aside. He looks down. And…oh.
“Sirens have tattoos, Rhysie,” Jack says, softly, dangerously, while Rhys stares at what he can see of the patterns extending down from his collarbone and across his shoulder, and coiling along the whole left side of his body. “They’re gonna make it really damn hard for you to hide.”
Rhys puts a hand back to the railing, trying to keep from tipping over.
“Did you know that was going to happen?” he breathes aloud, still not quite turning Angel’s way. “Marking me for goddamn life?”
When she replies, her voice is so compelling that he has to look at her.
“You were already marked, Rhys,” she says. “It was always leading to this. And you’ve only got one real choice now. It’s between trusting me and ending this, or letting him back in.”
Rhys stares at her, this patchwork girl of his, then finally just bends down until his forehead’s resting against the bars. He’s almost on the verge of tears when he feels a hint of someone’s presence, like a light press of someone else against his side. It’s the left side, of course. It ought to be comforting, but his new tattoos burn with it.
At least they don’t look like hers did, Rhys thinks. They are mine. But…I don’t even know what that means, or what that’s worth…
Angel presses closer while he gulps in a breath.
Don’t say anything, she whispers into his ear. Don’t let him hear you. But…there’s still a way.
Spectral fingers nudge his chin up until he’s staring right at the reactor.
“Hey, Rhysie,” Jack interrupts, while Rhys blinks hard and tries to focus. “I know, you’ve got a lot to take in here. All this Siren shit, basically becoming a total freak of nature, all that. Fun times. But I’m not going to sit around watching you have a nervous breakdown all day. I can get you out of this. Get you powered up again and ready to take on the world. But whatever you were planning on doing in here? You need to walk away.”
When he tenses up to move, Angel holds him in place.
The power core’s not quite like eridium, but you can use it, Angel says. It’s going to be harder to channel, harder to control, not as powerful. Still, there’s a lot of it there. You should still have just enough power to get in and shut him down. But…
“If you’re still worried, seriously, forget my old plan.” Jack’s words slot in right against Angel’s, disconcertingly. “That skeleton thing you were freaking out about? You were right. It’s crap. Old news. Out the door. This plan’s way more awesome. You, me, plus a little juice for your new powers? I can get you that. Hey, you know how powerful you became just from a tiny little dose. One hit and you’ll be flying high again, and then…well. Think about the possibilities.” Jack laughs again, dark and deep. “All we have to do is follow your friends right to that Vault you were planning on opening, and you could take the whole thing on. All the eridium you’ll ever need will be in there, babe. Riches. Power. Everything. I can guide you. Get you what you need. You just gotta let me back in.”
Rhys clutches his head, the heel of one hand pressed hard over the data port. “What about…what about Angel?”
“I told you, kitten,” Jack says, and he sounds, at least for a moment, just ragged enough that it’s hard not to interpret it as real pain. “That’s…not her. Not really. Just pieces. Old data. You’ve already gotten everything from her you could possibly need. The rest…just scrub it.”
He’s lying, Angel says, and Rhys wonders sickly how much of that is true and how much is self-preservation. Of course, Jack’s own game of manipulation here is no better. Rhys supposes she learned it from the best. I can still teach you so much, Rhys. And you’ll need that in order to handle your powers safely. Jack won’t know how. He’ll burn you up from the inside out—you know he will!
He’s afraid she’s right. He’s almost certain that she’s right. And yet…
So if I listen to you instead, what then? he shoots back. What was that “but” you were getting at before?
She flinches. If you shut him down this way, by manipulating the reactor directly…you’re not going to have precise control. If it goes, it all goes.
She doesn’t even reply, but he knows. It’ll destroy everything, system by system. Power. Heat. Air. Orbital thrusters. The station has backup systems, generators…but they’ll only last so long.
He’s going to have to kill Helios to kill Jack.
“You and me…we will rule this damn galaxy, Rhys,” Jack says fiercely as Rhys raises his reddened eyes again. “Not just Hyperion. Not just Pandora. I told you you were special before, and I meant it. Because with your powers and my guidance? You’re gonna be a fucking god.”
Angel’s watching him, wordless. Rhys pulls himself painfully to his feet. There’s really only one answer he can give to that, and he’ll be damned if he’s not standing straight and tall for it.
“No, Jack,” he says. “Never in a million years.”
Jack growls. “Goddammit, Rhys—“
“I said no. You're the one who wants to be a god, and I’m not letting you use me to do it. I am ending this.”
Before Jack can even reply, he’s whirling around to face the reactor. He swears he can feel Angel’s fingers twining with his, too, because she’s right there, relief and regret radiating off her in equal measure. He wishes he could give her a proper hug. For that matter, he needs one himself.
But he knows there’s no more time.
This might hurt, she whispers, pulling at the one last spark of eridium-fueled energy within him. I’m sorry.
Just stay with me, is all he can reply.
When they reach out together, murmuring the words to execute the shift, Jack’s shouts of rage fade away, and the whole room flares to brightest white.
The station doesn’t come apart all at once. Neither does Rhys.
For a few seconds after the first explosion, it’s just noise and light. Pain seems like something that should be happening, but it simply isn’t; that would require Rhys’ body to be working at full capacity, and he frankly isn’t sure if that’s a going concern anymore. But what is happening, undeniably, is that things are falling all around him, thanks to weakened joists and broken beams, to whole panels of the room breaking away and platforms wheezing into slow collapse. He’s distantly aware of the way the whole room’s shaking, how something’s venting through a split in the wall. It’s loud, screaming like a dying animal, and the pull of it is tremendous, but somehow—perhaps physically, or maybe with the last little gasp of stolen power he’s got—Rhys drags himself away from the destroyed core and into the hallway, slamming one hand to the door controls. Fortunately, those are running on a generator, and the security barrier still slams shut. The air stops howling around him when it does. The station quaking with the force of what’s happening…that part doesn’t stop at all.
Neither does that furious howl of Jack’s, still echoing so loudly between Rhys’ ears that it’s like he never left.
Rhys squeezes his eyes shut, because his head’s absolutely killing him, and then it’s like he forgets all at once how to use his hand, or his legs, or anything else at all, and he falls onto the grating while the lights cut off hard and fast. He’s only convinced that the darkness is the fault of the broken station, not his eyes, because of the distressingly cheerful recording that’s issuing from the nearest functional speaker. “Helios is experiencing power failure. Please proceed to the nearest evacuation stations,” it tells him, over the whirr of another emergency generator kicking in. This one sounds a little shaky. Rhys doesn’t expect it to last. “Follow the indicator lights to the nearest available pods.”
Rhys blinks at the thin, narrow strips of lights embedded along the walls, pulsing from left to right to urge him down the corridor in that direction. They’re red, of course. Nothing else would do for an emergency but red. He thinks, as he lies there unmoving and barely aware of what’s happening, that it looks like the pulse of arterial blood, like a vein’s been cut and the station’s bleeding itself dry.
All around him, he can hear dire creaks and rattles, another muffled explosion, someone screaming.
Rhys reaches out his left arm to try to push himself up, or maybe just reach for something, anything, but all he really accomplishes is seeing that half his sleeve is torn away—when did that happen?—and there’s blood dripping down past his elbow, feebly obscuring the faint glow of his tattoos.
The fact that they’re still glowing makes him murmur tiredly, “Huh.”
In response, there’s a static stutter in his head, one almost too broken to understand: Y-you…h…ave….to get up….
Rhys, whose ECHO eye doesn’t want to maintain enough focus even to see the outlines of her face, just lets out an exhausted laugh. “Really?” he says. Slurs, really. “You think I’m…getting up?”
There’s another muffled boom from the reactor chamber. He has no idea how many things he broke in there, honestly. He suspects his own body’s on the list, though. Absorbing eridium to fuel himself had been one thing, but interfacing with all that to pull it apart had been…less controllable. He feels singed inside and out, and breathing’s getting hard.
C-call for help. Loader Bot.
His fingers go to the spot over his ear where the comm used to be. Funny thing: his ear’s bleeding, too. Shrapnel, maybe. “Can’t.”
You know his frequency. I—
She cuts off so suddenly Rhys wonders if there’s something else wrong, but then something twists in his own head, something painful and disorienting. He feels some sort of connection click open. Then he hears his own voice saying, “Loader Bot. I need your help.”
His eyes widen, but there’s no time either for him or LB to react before Angel plows on, giving instructions over the unorthodox connection. “Go to storage room H5220—it won’t be guarded anymore—and use the security code I just uploaded to you to get in. Get one of the boxes marked E629 and bring it to the core. And hurry.”
“Rhys,” he hears, entirely too distantly now. It’s Loader Bot, sounding both skeptical and confused. Well, he ought to, because Rhys has no idea which direction the sound is even coming from, or how. “This is not—“
“Please, just do it,” Angel begs, all in a rush, and then she runs out of energy. Rhys’ head thunks back to the floor with a painful jolt.
I’m sorry, Angel whispers. I—I didn’t want to, but you…
“S’okay,” Rhys mumbles. “Doesn’t matter now.”
It will, she says uncomfortably. If you live.
He doesn’t really hear it. Despite Angel’s pleas for him to stay awake, he’s slipped too far under to respond.
Helios is dying too, sector by sector.
What’s left of Jack is racing through the circuits, trying to stay ahead of the shutdown, to find something he can control to stop all this. He’s not running scared. That would be ridiculous. But he’s wounded. He’s reduced, and he’s furious. And he’s running.
So are Fiona and Sasha, dodging bullet fire from Finch and Kroger, because of course things have gone south at the docking bay. And Fiona can’t help but wonder why she’d ever have thought that this deal wouldn’t go wrong at the worst possible moment, because why wouldn’t it, why would anything ever work out for them—
—and Yvette’s racing through the corridors, knocking people out of her way with well-placed elbows and a voice that will not be denied. She’s deliberately making herself sound way more important than she actually is. She knows it’s a dirty trick. She also knows how short Helios is on escape pods, because she knows every damn statistic on what this station has on board.
She is not going to let herself die today.
But others will. Thousands of others will.
The battered robot hurrying into the center of the disaster may only be able to save one person from it all, if he’s fast and if he’s very, very lucky—and if, of course, luck means anything to a robot, which is debatable. But he has his orders, and he’s going to execute them.
He also has…questions.
And now he has a small box covered with warning labels, which is exuding a sort of energy that makes every bit of his electronics buzz.
What he doesn’t have, and he knows it, is time.
So Loader Bot puts on every bit of speed he can, and he runs, too, straight into the core.
When it happens, Rhys is drifting further away from consciousness, into dangerously vague shadows and memories that can’t be his. Some little part of him distantly wonders if it counts to see someone else’s life flash past your eyes before you die. The rest of him is too tired, and simply lets it all wash over him.
But Angel’s memories are also why he recognizes it when the singing begins.
Nothing in the universe should make that noise. It’s so warm and shimmering, so seductive, so bright. It’s a little familiar, but only just; he’s only heard it once before, and it happened so quickly. Angel, though…she’s heard it so many times. She knows it so well, she’s spoken with its voice. Through his ears and her memories, it shivers into him, sparking all along his nerves and echoing through his head—and it’s so beautiful he wants to cry. He tries to reach for it, has to reach for it, because he needs to get hold of whatever’s making that glorious sound and never let it go again.
He doesn’t really process the fact that he’s seeing Angel’s hands reaching out, not his own. He’s not seeing the medical case in Loader Bot’s hand; he’s seeing Jack leaning close, gingerly touching the shaved side of Angel’s head, in the only human contact she ever gets anymore, before slotting a needle into place. He's also hearing Jack’s slow chuckle of satisfaction as the world lights up, but that doesn’t even matter, not anymore, because oh, God, the eridium’s in his blood again and it’s singing singing singing, and it’s glorious—
When his eyes flash open, everything’s changed.
He’s upright again, but not standing, not exactly. It’s like a giant unseen hand has plucked him up and left him suspended, just an inch or two above the floor. He’s radiating with renewed energy, his wounds have closed, and his heart’s hammering like he’s just run a marathon—but it’s still beating. And he’s putting out enough light from his tattoos alone that the whole hall’s illuminated. It’s like the station power never failed.
He blinks his eyes back into focus, amazed that he’s alive. Amazed at everything, really.
In the moment he slowly settles back to the floor—fortunately, his legs are able to support his weight again, and, well, hey, at least the a-grav hasn’t failed yet, so that’s something—he sees that he’s not alone.
Loader Bot’s there in the hallway, staring dead at him. He’s holding a case marked with obscure Hyperion R&D codes and biohazard sigils. And he’s also glancing furtively at the empty needle that’s slid out of Rhys’ arm to clatter uselessly on the floor. It’s still tinted faintly purple from the residue of what it had contained.
Rhys doesn’t even have to ask. He knows. It’s pure, distilled eridium.
All Loader Bot says, after a long, long moment, is, “What.”
“No time for that,” Angel says, and Rhys watches as Loader Bot jerks up to attention. He’d heard her, and she hadn’t even borrowed Rhys’ voice to say it. All Rhys can figure is that Loader Bot is, after all, Hyperion tech, and Rhys—and by extension, Angel—is juiced up enough right now that she can talk straight to him. Which should be a little eerie. He’s just too distracted to care.
God, the world’s still so bright.
“Give him the reserve needles,” Angel continues. “He’ll need those soon enough. But we need to get him out of here. Can you get us to the pods? Spare him the energy?”
It feels ridiculous to hear her say that, when Rhys feels like he’s putting out enough power to control the whole of Helios. It’s unbelievable, how he feels right now. He wants to walk right back through that wall and plug himself in, pull everything critical back online, become one with the station in a way Jack could never really manage. And oh, God, he could eradicate Jack like this. He could find him with a thought right now, destroy every last little bit of code—
He could save everyone. He could do it.
The idea’s so intoxicating that he almost shoves his way straight past Loader Bot and does.
Angel puts a hand to his shoulder, though, when he’s halfway through a step. The touch feels almost as warm and real as an actual human hand, and it makes him breathe in roughly, shiver, come to a sudden halt. He’s a little afraid to look at her.
It won’t last, she whispers privately.
Oh, come on, Angel, I have to do something—
It won’t. You know it.
He does, and he hates it. He hates it enough that he almost ignores her. But there are only two more needles in the case Loader Bot’s holding—he can feel that without even having to look—and he can do the math. He might indeed be able to hold up Helios, but only for a handful of hours. And then…
Then it’ll collapse again, completely, and he’ll go with it.
With a sick twist of regret, he lets the idea go. And it takes effort, but he smiles faintly at Loader Bot instead. It’s weird doing it, like he’s remembering his own gestures and expressions bit by bit. Being Rhys again…right. He can do that.
“Hey, LB,” he makes himself say, hoping his voice sounds right. “Ready to get off this trash heap?”
“Your systems are compromised,” Loader Bot replies flatly. “This is inadvisable.”
“Aw, come on.” Rhys tries not to look as uneasy as he’s starting to feel. “Diagnostics later, okay? Escape now.”
The station shudders again, and a crack starts to split the ceiling above them. Loader Bot takes that in, then looks back at Rhys. And, for all Rhys knows, he’s looking at Angel, too. Whatever it is he sees, though, he comes to a swift decision.
“Fine,” Loader Bot says, and thrusts the case at Rhys. He takes it, gripping it even harder than he means to. The hum of the eridium inside is strangely comforting.
He’s just trying really hard not to look at Angel’s expression, because she’s watching him like she knows.
Before Rhys can say anything else, Loader Bot picks him up, sits him atop his remaining armature, and goes running down the corridor, trying to stay ahead of the crumbling structure of the station. Emergency doors slam shut behind them as they pass, in a futile effort to seal off the unstable sectors. It’s standard procedure, of course. It might even have worked if the damage were within the expected parameters, like a collision with a small piece of space junk, or a simpler, localized mechanical failure.
It won’t be enough this time. Not considering the sort of notices the ECHONet’s superimposing over his vision right now.
Helios orbit destabilizing, it reads, above a worrying diagram of the station’s decaying trajectory. Impact with Pandora imminent. Proceed to escape pods immediately for emergency evacuation.
“Working on it,” Rhys mutters, and then he jolts upright. Something above them is cracking. “LB!”
Loader Bot jumps aside, just in time to avoid a collapsing beam. Rhys gasps, then coughs hard at the shower of dust and fragmented metal, and tries to shield himself from the sparking wires suddenly dangling from the ceiling. Just like that, the entire hallway’s blocked. For a second Rhys thinks about simply blasting his way through, but he’s not sure what else might come apart if he does. Worse, he’s remembering what Angel asked Loader Bot on his behalf: Spare him the energy?
He can’t afford to drain himself too fast again. Not even for this.
He grimaces, pulls open the station schematics on his ECHO display, and after a hurried survey, points left. “We can get through that way,” he shouts to Loader Bot. “Come on!”
Whatever else might be going through Loader Bot’s mechanical brain right now, he still trusts Rhys enough to do exactly as asked.
They jog through a short service hallway and around a corner, emerging into a long, curved corridor with red lights flashing beside every sealed door. He’s made it, but those lights aren’t a good sign. They’re marking escape pods that have already ejected. The hall’s empty of people. Everyone else who got this far has already been and gone.
Shit, Rhys thinks. The only pod he can see that hasn’t been used has a broken control board, its button flashing from one color to another while sparks fly from the wires. His ECHO eye scans it and promptly comes up with, System compromised.
Yeah, that makes two of us, he thinks grimly. Loader Bot passes it by and keeps on going.
Of course the monitors in the hall pop on as they pass.
“Too late, Rhys,” says Jack’s voice. Rhys grits his teeth. God damn it all, he’s disabled and practically destroyed half the station already; why isn’t that bastard dead yet? “They’re all gone. There’s only one way you’re getting out of this now, and—“
Rhys raises his left hand. “Not interested,” he says, and lets out a raw blast of energy. The nearest monitor doesn’t just shut off, it explodes. And from somewhere nearby, Rhys hears a yell. Angel tugs at him, pulling him aside just in time to miss a sudden, wild shot.
“What the hell was that?” shouts another familiar voice, as Rhys slides off Loader Bot’s back and lands on his feet with more grace than he frankly expects from himself. At least it lends a little drama to the moment. Rhys stands tall and looks up, then probably spoils the effect by rolling his eyes. Of all the people to still be here, looking for his own escape route…it’s Kroger.
And wow, does he suddenly look terrified.
Rhys has only a moment to consider why. When he realizes his own free hand is still glowing, though…yeah, that probably has something to do with it. Rhys watches purplish light dance around his fingertips, then looks up. He wishes he weren’t suddenly remembering Jack taunting him: You haven’t done one fly-by past a mirror?
He still hasn’t, quite. And he refuses to look at his reflection in the windows even now.
“Back off, Kroger,” he warns instead, trying to shove his own doubtful thoughts away. Fine: if he looks scary, he looks scary. At least he can use that. “I am getting off this station, and you are not going to stop me. You’re going to put that damn gun down and back away. Got that?”
It’s silent for a second. Kroger backs up a step, then another. His eyes are huge, and he’s trembling, and for a second, Rhys thinks he’s about to get away with it.
Then—out of what looks more like panicked reflex than an actual plan—Kroger fires again.
Angel yells, and Rhys flings an arm up, energy sizzling before it like a shield. Somehow it’s enough to make the bullet ricochet, punching a hole in the nearest monitor that’s just tried to turn itself on. At least it shuts Jack up again. But Rhys gasps from the force of the impact. That shot may not have struck him, but it’s still enough to stagger him. If Kroger keeps firing…
“You and your whole goddamn crew,” Kroger growls. “You are way more trouble than you’re worth, all of you.”
Rhys goes very still. Your crew…
“What did you do with Fiona and Sasha?” Rhys bursts out. Almost literally. Light’s flaring around his hands again. “And Gortys—if you hurt any of them—“
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Vallory’s gonna take real good care of them. But you…” Kroger raises his gun again in response to Rhys’ horrified little sound. “I’m not letting you mess this up for me again, you freak.”
Rhys reacts on instinct, pretending he’s still holding his stun baton. He aims for Kroger’s hand with his next blast of power, and manages to knock it off-center just enough that the bullet goes wide. Kroger yells. Rhys just shakes with the effort. Eridium infusion or not, he’s not practiced enough at this to keep this up. “Anyone got a backup plan here?” he yells to Loader Bot and Angel, as Kroger shakes his head and tries his best to aim again. It’s more of a struggle this time. Rhys blinks, finally seeing what he’s done—there’s a deep, angry burn on Kroger’s wrist.
He feels queasy. He’d only meant to stop the guy, not wound him. Rhys drops his hand behind his back, shivering hard.
Loader Bot replies to that by grabbing Rhys and pushing him down the hall in the opposite direction. Rhys hears another shot ring out, hitting metal this time. LB twitches, but he keeps going.
“Whoa,” Rhys gasps, because he’s just realized what Loader Bot is doing. “Wait…”
They’re heading for their only real option, poor as it is. They’re heading for the malfunctioning pod.
It only takes seconds to get there, because Loader Bot is seriously booking it, and he doesn’t stop for any of Rhys’ questions. He just shoves Rhys into the seat before Rhys has a chance to protest. “You have to get away from here,” the robot tells him. “Now.”
“Loader Bot, wait—“
“You carry unsafe data. You should isolate it. Eradicate it.” Loader Bot’s gaze flicks aside at just enough of an angle that Rhys suspects he’s looking at Angel. “But…you may have to use it. Protect yourself. Protect your friends.”
Rhys knows he’s right, but he still bursts out, “LB, you’re my friend too. I can’t just…”
“She is more important,” Loader Bot says, and Rhys can tell he doesn’t mean Angel at all, doesn’t even mean Fiona or Sasha. But before can reply, Loader Bot tugs the doors of the pod shut. When the panes lock into place, going secure and airtight, Rhys hears the engines engage and the automated piloting systems come to life. Rhys drops his eridium crate onto the floor of the pod, reaching forward as if he can stop this somehow. But with power of his own or not, he can’t think of anything he can do.
On the other side of the glass, Loader Bot curls his hand into a fist and bumps it against the window. He’s saying a silent goodbye.
“No,” Rhys shouts, but the pod is already blasting away from its dock. All he can do is watch as Kroger storms back into view. It’s as if he didn’t dare approach as long as Rhys was still there, but now…
There’s a muffled but vindictive blast. And another. And another.
Rhys shuts his eyes and bends forward, his head in his hands, trying and failing to shut everything out. Angel isn’t responding in the shock of it all, and even that soft, entreating whisper of power in his head has gone quiet. Gone useless. And when there’s another, terrible explosion somewhere in the depths of Helios, his ECHONet connection—which had been displaying a terrifyingly reduced station population count—simply winks out. Everything’s going shadowed and worn. Even the fires of Helios burning seem dim and distant, not quite real.
He did this. He’s responsible. Yet somehow it’s all simply fading away.
All that power he drank in…and for what?
It’s what you chose to do, princess, something in his head whispers, sounding altogether too much like Jack. Whether it’s a real connection somehow or a memory of something Jack once told Angel, Rhys will never know. And now you get to live with the consequences.
Rhys raises his eyes to the windows again, seeing the consequences writ large across the sky. When that little flicker of Angel’s presence wraps her arm around his shoulders, holding him tight as they plummet away, this time he doesn’t feel it at all.
It’s amazing how many plans can come apart at once, and in how many pieces, burning down to ash through an already livid sky.
Vaughn doesn’t want to say he’s running, especially since he’s practically being dragged. Cassius, who patched him up after that last, fateful encounter with Vallory, had been helping him craft a plan for getting Rhys and all their friends out of the deal for opening that damn Vault. Things had, however, promptly gone sideways in every conceivable fashion. Somehow, the caravan landed without most of the crew, delivering Gortys and the beacon right up to a satisfied Vallory—and she'd wasted no time at all in using them both. Now the Vault was open, its guardian monster raging, Gortys—a freaking giant Gortys, and what was up with that—was looking woefully underprepared, and Rhys and Fiona were nowhere in sight.
Cassius had already been urging Vaughn into a retreat and regroup, and he’d had no other ideas but to agree, when the worst of it happened.
All right, Vaughn admits to himself as they flee: maybe calling this part the worst thing is a narrow view. Maybe it’s selfish; maybe it’s absurd. The Vault and the monster roaring from its mouth ought to make everything else pale by comparison. But he can’t even bring himself to care now, not about that. Because Rhys, the others, everyone who hadn’t made it back from Helios…
He looks up from the back of Cassius’ salvaged jeep as it revs to life and starts to move. Up there, beyond the sickly haze of dust and unnatural light, he sees the explosions.
“Cassius,” he chokes out, almost literally. The dust is making it hard to breathe. But that’s Helios up there, that all-too-familiar H, split down the middle with fire—and that can’t be right. It just can’t. “Cassius, we have to—“
There’s another flare above them, and something pinwheels off from the bulk of the station. Vaughn shouts out again, because it’s all he can think of to do. “Cassius!”
The reply is like another quick, sharp stab right through him.
“I see it, young man. But what do you expect me to do?” says the man. He presses his foot down harder and jabs one finger at the sky, leaving him to navigate the dangerous terrain one-handed. Vaughn yelps, thuds to one side of the vehicle, and does his best to right himself. “That is nothing we can stop. We can only get out of the way before it kills us in the re-entry.”
“Re-entry…” Vaughn repeats weakly. He still can’t get his head around what he’s seeing. How can Helios be exploding? How can it be falling?
Cassius, looking eerily as if he doesn’t quite care about the how or the why, just shakes his head.
“If my assessment is correct”—and he clicks an extra set of lenses over his eyes, briefly staring skyward and making some sort of calculation Vaughn can’t follow—“the remains of Helios will begin entering the atmosphere in less than five minutes. Unless you care to remain in its debris field, we have no choice but to depart as swiftly as possible.”
Remains of Helios. Entering the atmosphere. Debris field…
Vaughn grabs at his own glasses, mashing the button to connect with the Hyperion databases. He’s expecting some sort of status message like he’s seen over the last little while, a default notice about his access being blocked, but the only thing it displays is CONNECTION FAILURE. Connection failure, over and over again. When he looks up once more through the empty lenses, he sees a terrible, bright bloom overtake the entirety of the station’s eye. It looks like a moonshot gone utterly wrong, killing the station instead of its targets.
Vaughn makes a small, unidentifiable sound, and then an almost voiceless whisper: “Rhys.”
Nothing, not even Cassius, answers him. The scientist just cranks the wheel, hard and fast, and sends them careening onto a pathway that crests a small hill. Some sort of creature shrieks at them there, because, well, of course: it’s still Pandora. There’s not even any time to react before Cassius drives smack into it, and the creature tumbles out of the pathway in a bloody, messy cloud.
“Get the gun!” Cassius yells, as they veer past the spatter. Vaughn, utterly disoriented, takes a while to figure out what he even means, but finally he sees the weapon secured in the backseat. “There may be more!”
It takes a few more seconds to blink his vision clear enough to pick up the weapon. It’s hard to ready it. His chest hurts. And goddammit, he’s crying.
It’s a strange thing to realize. He’s not even crying out of emotion, not really; he has no idea what he’s feeling. But the shock of seeing all this makes it feel like he’s had all the air punched out of him. All hell’s breaking loose, and here he is in the middle, just…
One little guy on a giant deathtrap of a planet, he can almost hear Rhys say, like he’s standing right there, ruffling Vaughn’s hair. The planet better watch out.
A pained sound tears out of him. Half of it’s a laugh. Half of it’s…something else.
Overhead, another section of the space station rips free. The explosions this time almost look like fireworks.
Vaughn’s hands are shaking, but for lack of any better ideas, anything else to do at all, Vaughn lets go to knuckle his eyes dry. It knocks the glasses sideways, and he grimaces, then grabs them and throws them aside. He doesn’t even see where they fall, though they’re presumably breaking into pieces somewhere out there on the rocky, jagged road. He doesn’t care anymore. He just swipes again at his face with the side of one arm, then picks up the gun again, hoping like hell not to have to fire it, but…well, he’ll hang on. Just in case.
And he tries to watch the road, but mostly he’s watching Hyperion burn.
Thousands of people work up there, he knows that. They all live there, too, for years at a time. Sometimes kids even grow up on the station, born to employees and taught in company schools until they’re ready to graduate right on into a job, with no other address to their name but the corporate HQ. Vaughn himself had lived there ever since college. Practically everyone he knows anymore, except for this ragtag bunch he’s landed with…they’re all on Helios. Were on Helios. He can’t even try to count them all, and numbers are his entire thing. He does, though, try to count the flares of a handful—God, just a handful—of escape pods entering the atmosphere, their heat shields glowing to mark their paths.
Oh, my God, Rhys, he thinks, overwhelmed. He can hope Rhys is in one of those, but…he just doesn’t know. What happened up there? Where are you?
“Hold on,” Cassius says as he accelerates. Vaughn tries to, but there’s just not much to get his hands around out here, literally or otherwise. He just keeps thinking numbly of the sudden barrage of facts. Helios is falling. The Vault is in someone else’s hands. His friends are…
Not gone. Don’t say ‘gone.’ Don’t even think ‘gone.’ Think, you idiot. Come up with something.
He clutches the gun even tighter and scans the horizon. He’s starting to track trajectories, see where people might be landing. And that starts off a whole other chain of thoughts. I know what it was like when I landed on Pandora, and I meant to land on Pandora, Vaughn thinks. All these people…they’ll be stranded. Completely lost. No resources. Nothing. They’ll have no idea what to do out here.
At first the thought just makes him queasy. Then something about it solidifies into the one concrete idea he can get his hands around.
Someone’s got to help.
He swallows hard. Then he clenches his jaw. “Cassius,” he yells over the noise of the rattling vehicle. “We’re gonna have to go back for them.”
“We are going back,” Vaughn shouts, pointing at the distant pods. “The minute we get a clear shot. And we are pulling as many people out of this as we can, before they get eaten by rakks or starve or get lost or Vallory finds them or…we’re just going back for them, all right?”
Cassius stares back at him, amazed. Then, perhaps, he turns impressed, or at least not willing to argue with the man with the gun. Or maybe—and this is, indeed, the worst thing, because Vaughn knows how fragile a hope it is—he knows who Vaughn actually wants to rescue. Whatever’s behind the expression, though, it leads to the same thing: Cassius is nodding, just once, and giving him a crooked smile.
Vaughn doesn’t return it. He doesn’t have that in him yet. He just turns back around, his knuckles white and eyes wide, and watches the sky.
Maybe it’s just a lingering tear in his eye breaking up the light, but he swears he sees an odd streak of purple scorching through the falling debris before it, too, fades, and arcs somewhere out of sight.
Short chapter this time, but I wanted to post this little interlude with Vaughn before delving into what's happening with Rhys and Angel. I'll post more as soon as I can. In the meantime, feel free to come hang out with me on Tumblr, and comments & questions here are always welcome.
First there’s falling, and then there’s pain. And for a long while afterward, there’s just darkness.
The eventual light comes as a surprise.
At first the glow reminds Rhys of a monitor, but it’s just a hovering projection: one defined frame of illumination. Then it spreads out and multiplies into a graceful arc of images. Rhys stares at it all and steps slowly forward. Drifts, really. This all feels strangely dreamlike, and he’s not really conscious of physical space right now.
He is conscious, painfully so, of what those images hanging before him are about.
One of the screens is showing him his own face, back when he was little, playing with a battered but well-loved toy robot. Another is nothing but a grid of numbers and codes. After a second he recognizes it as a security system he’d hacked years ago. A third screen’s showing his office, and the view through the narrow window, the one he hoped he’d get a serious upgrade on someday.
It’s…snapshots. Memories. Bits of his life writ large.
The last screen, though, doesn’t match the sequence all. It’s a little girl’s face, bright, open, and laughing.
And standing before the whole display is the owner of that memory. It’s Angel, one hand raised, flicking through images—and the security code vanishes as Rhys watches, replaced by a crowd he vaguely remembers from some college party—like she’s trying to make sense of it all.
Rhys feels as if he ought to say something, but he doesn’t know what. He doesn’t feel…together, somehow. When he looks down, he sees his hands tremble, then outright flicker, like a digital image breaking up. The right hand changes twice while Angel rearranges memories, going from flesh to metal and back again. He slowly wriggles his fingers, disconcerted. The human hand stays put.
“Well, that’s…” he murmurs, but trails off. He just lifts his hands up to the light, turning them back and forth. For a second there’s a double image, like the cybernetics are overlaying his own skin.
Beyond the gaps between his fingers, the memories keep changing.
He can see so many things there, a few frames at a time. Going under for surgery to get his cybernetics installed. Angel being put under against her will to get her injection ports implanted. The blurred vision and overwhelmed rush of that first eridium high, from both of their points of view. Then: first times of every sort, some more intimate than others. There’s a flash and a flicker, and an image of Rhys’ own: a well-known, beloved face, eyes closed, face flushed, while Rhys throws his own head back and moves above—
“Wait,” he hears himself say, and he hurries forward, scrolling past that memory with a hurried flick of his hand. “That’s…that’s private.”
Angel ducks her head, at last stopping her work. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—it’s just—”
He turns and gets a good look at her then.
Whatever’s going on here, this is clearly happening in the deepest reaches of his own head, and he can’t afford to stay. But Angel looks so present, so real, that he can’t turn away. And the details just tear at him. He briefly glimpses a smattering of freckles across her nose, but they vanish as he watches. It’s like they’d existed once, then faded after years without sunlight, and she can’t decide which version of herself to remember, either.
She’s trembling like she’s utterly exhausted.
“You hit your head when the pod landed,” she tells him. That should mean something, he can tell, but he just feels puzzled, not caught up yet with that particular set of facts. “I think it shook things up. Your memories. Mine. I’m trying to put it in order, but…”
Rhys peers up. There’s something on the screens he doesn’t recognize, something that looks like a…bedroom? He gives both it and Angel an inquisitive look. She waits long enough that he’s almost ready for her to pull the “that’s private” line on him, too, but finally she makes a different sort of gesture. The image quickly expands, and Rhys watches in amazement as the whole room solidifies around them.
“What?” he murmurs, turning in place. It’s a bedroom, all right, the room of a little girl just starting to grow up. There are still toys in sight, but they’re getting tucked away, and other things have pride of place now. Books, especially. Computer equipment. Rhys steps forward, tentatively touching a tablet that’s lying on the nearest table.
“Angel,” he says, watching a family picture illuminate on the tablet’s lock screen. It looks like Angel as a little girl, held by a tall, dark-haired woman who must be her mother, although her face is oddly out of focus. Standing beside them, one arm crooked around them both, is Jack. Rhys stares at him, feeling jarred at a deep, visceral level. He looks so predictably proud, as arrogant as usual, but…there’s something else in his expression too, something fiercely protective. Loving, from a certain angle. Terrifying from another. Rhys steps back from it, almost afraid Jack can see him watching. “What is this?”
“It’s a projection,” Angel says from somewhere behind him. “I can make any scene like this feel real. I used to do it to get away from my satellite.” Her voice lowers. “My prison.”
“You mean…it’s a Siren thing?”
“It’s my Siren thing. Yours, now, too.”
Rhys doesn’t know how to get his head around that idea. He puts it aside and looks at Angel instead. She’s sitting on her childhood bed, perched just upon its edge, and it makes her look almost as young as she does in the photo. She’s still dressed in that bodysuit, though, the one Jack put her in. And that collar.
“Can you change how you look? Your clothes, I mean? Or…” He gestures, trying to suggest at those ports without saying so outright. “Well, the hair?”
“I can,” she says slowly. “I just…usually don’t. That’s harder. Especially now.”
Rhys looks at his hands again. They still can’t decide whether to be flesh or metal. “I think I know what you mean,” he admits. “I’m not sure I know what I look like right now. I’m…it’s like I’m forgetting something important.”
“I know. And I have to tell you. But…”
She doesn’t answer right away. Rhys looks around, trying to fill the silence with understanding of his own. She had to be thinking of this place for a reason. This room, all the little details of Angel’s life, before…
“Oh, my God,” he says, laughing suddenly. He’s just spotted a drawing of hers up on the wall, showing a young Angel astride a rather remarkable pony. “Is that—no way. Butt Stallion?”
She doesn’t reply to that either. It makes Rhys pause, wondering. “Wait. How did I know that?”
“You’re remembering,” she says softly.
Rhys walks up, touching the edge of the paper. He does remember drawing that, in an eerie sort of way, although it feels more like he’d watched it from a distance. At that thought, he casts a suspicious look over one shoulder. He might not have the literal use of his ECHO eye in here, but his borrowed powers, attuned to electronics, detect the equipment right away. There’s a small security camera tucked between picture frames on an out-of-reach shelf, and it's trained right on Angel’s desk.
“Crap,” he mutters. “You had that watching you the whole time?”
“He had his reasons,” Angel answers slowly. Rhys reflexively opens his mouth to argue the point, but she cuts him off. “I’m not saying he did the right thing. But especially after…”
She doesn’t finish the sentence. All Rhys can hear is an odd buzzing noise. It’s coming from the tablet, the one with the family photo, vibrating atop the desk as if there’s an alarm going off.
“Don’t look at it,” Angel whispers. “Please.”
Rhys tries not to, he really does, but all it takes is one glimpse sideways and the data hits him anyway.
He staggers back, squeezing his eyes shut. It doesn’t help. All he can see is Angel in jagged bits and pieces: more medical scans. Revised power assessments. Numbers skyrocketing dangerously off the charts. Specifications for containment, in her father’s urgent hand. An explosion, screaming, too much light everywhere. Just…too much light.
At the end, before he yells and breaks himself free of the onslaught, there’s a spread of her mother’s autopsy reports.
When Rhys comes to, the bedroom’s gone.
Angel’s kneeling beside him—when did he fall, exactly?—and she’s scrolling rapidly, almost frantically, through more screens of memories. That last frame vanishes before Rhys can truly focus on it. Once Angel files it away and dismisses it, the pressure…lessens a little, enough that he can sit up at least, although he still feels like he’s crashed to earth with all the force of…
The comparison slides away from him again, but the feeling remains.
“Holy shit,” Rhys breathes, rubbing his head. The room’s dark and vacant again, and Angel looks so small in the midst of it. She’s hugging herself tight. He suddenly can’t blame her. Oh, God, her mother. He’d seen the whole thing. And all those memories, the truth of what she’d done without ever meaning to…she’d been carrying that burden for years. Alone.
“I’m so sorry,” he tells her, and she looks so shocked that he’d say it that she goes speechless.
For a while they just watch each other. Then Rhys makes himself get to his feet, and he offers her a hand up. The sheer tactility of it when she accepts almost overwhelms him.
It’s not only that this touch is this intimate, this necessary, for both of them. It also, unfortunately, reminds him that he does exist in physical space, he does have a real body, and somewhere out there, he’s in pain. And it’s because he’s done something just as bad as what Angel did to her mother. Maybe worse. But she still hasn’t put those memories back together for him…and he’s not sure he wants her to.
“Angel,” he says hoarsely. “I…”
She stops him, squeezing his hands gently. “Come on,” she says, maybe a little shakily. They both ignore it. “Let me show you something else.”
It takes him a minute, but he nods. She pulls him away from that thought and into something else entirely.
For a while they just walk together down a long, narrow walkway. It terminates in a round platform only big enough to stand side by side. He waits there with her, puzzled, before a whole vista begins coming to life. At first it just looks like a few scattered pixels, but slowly it blooms into full resolution, and all around him, in every possible direction, there’s the view.
Oh, God, the view.
Rhys feels like he’s hovering in the middle of unprotected space, because the platform is completely surrounded by stars. It’s unobstructed, clear as can be, miles better even than the view out Jack’s office window. He gasps at the sight, as if air or the lack thereof matters out here. In here. Wherever this is.
Angel sees the question on his face, and tells him.
“It’s the view from my old satellite,” she says. “Or it’s what I would have seen, if it didn’t have walls.”
Rhys stares in astonishment while she keeps holding tight to his left hand. It’s the one, at least, that he can be certain of.
“I looked at all the star charts,” she explains, her head tilting at a wistful angle. “I had access to all the data I could ever need, so it was easy to run the calculations. Then I simulated what I’d be seeing if I had windows. It meant I had this to look at, instead of gray walls. It helped sometimes.”
Rhys doesn’t even know what to say. He settles for a long, soft whisper of “wow.”
Eventually he tears his gaze away from the glittering vista and looks at her.
It’s still hard to know what to think. After the memories he just saw, and all the gaps in between of what he still doesn’t know—like what else she might have done with all that power, especially at Jack’s behest—Angel ought to be terrifying. But if she can remember things this beautiful, and if she created things this beautiful…
She’s a marvel, is what she is. He doesn’t care about the rest.
“And Jack told me I should get rid of you,” he murmurs aloud, shaking his head. “Even LB did. Telling me you’re bad data, like you didn’t deserve better, like…like you’re not a person, and an amazing one, with all this in your head…”
She looks aside. On impulse, Rhys reaches out and gently touches her cheek to turn her back around. This time, she’s the one to gasp, and it turns out she remembers how to blush.
“Oh,” Rhys says, even as he does it. He laughs a little ruefully, letting her go. “Sorry, that may have been a little…forward?”
She reaches up with her free hand, touching her cheek where his fingers had been. “No, it’s all right. I just…”
“Never had a lot of, well, contact, did you?”
She shakes her head, making her hair fall over one shoulder. Her expression’s at an odd point between wistful and bitter. “No.”
“You know, there are times I really wish I’d gotten a chance to punch Jack in the goddamn jaw.”
“You’re not the only one.”
Rhys smiles crookedly, then turns aside himself. There’s clearly something else she’s not saying, and it would be very, very easy to tread wrong here. So he looks at the stars instead, and slowly scans across until he’s facing Pandora. The immensity of it from this angle is truly something.
He’s still taking that in, feeling like something about it is especially important, when Angel murmurs, “What you said, though…I hope you can believe all that of yourself, too.”
He knows right then that whatever she’s about to show him, it’s not going to be good news.
Their view on Pandora is slowly getting closer. Rhys watches it expand, seeing the weather patterns swirl and suddenly break away, like Angel’s wiped it clean for the sake of a better view. Above it all hang Elpis and Helios, but he wonders if she’s modifying that part of the projection, too, because they look blurred and oddly distant, all wrong for this scale.
She pauses it there. They’re halted right on the verge of something.
“Rhys,” she says. “The memories of yours that got…confused. I can help you with those, but I wanted to warn you about something first.”
“What is it?” he asks warily.
“I’ve already done my own damage here.” Angel answers, her voice muted. “What I did to teach you about my powers, and then the eridium, and now your injury…there’s a lot wrong. It’s…a complicated fix.”
“I don’t know. I can’t be that badly off. I mean, I’m still thinking clearly, at least…”
“You’re not,” she sighs, indicating Elpis. “You’re obviously not seeing what’s there.”
“Angel, it’s a cracked moon and a big old space station. I know that already. What’s there to see?”
He doesn’t mean to sound defensive, but he does. He’s starting to get nervous. Angel looks too cagey, and the view in every other direction is so vivid that there’s no way this particular distortion doesn’t mean something. But what…?
He suddenly wishes he’d distracted her when he’d had the chance.
“I can try to finish putting things back in order without changing anything else,” Angel tells him. “But it won’t mend all the hurt. You may be…unstable. Still needing the eridium too much. You’d have more power, but…it’s a much bigger risk.”
His hand twitches. Rhys looks down at it, seeing metal this time, at least for a moment. “You’re phrasing that like there’s a second option.”
It takes her a minute to say it. “I can take myself out of the way.”
“No!” Rhys whirls around. “God, Angel, I just said you’re not just data, you’re not dispensable. I can’t—”
“I’m more than just data because of my powers,” she says, cutting him off. “That kind of thing lingers. And it’s what I can use to help you. But I can’t keep existing as…as what I am…and heal you at the same time.”
He makes a face. “Well, then, we’re not doing it.”
“Rhys, this isn’t about me.”
“Well, maybe it should be!”
She blinks at him, speechless again. Those big, bright eyes look more vivid than all the stars she’s drawn around them.
“Look, Angel, I…I did something,” he says, edging dangerously close to the memory he’s been avoiding. “I did something huge, and…I can’t remember what’s happened to my friends, and if I don’t rescue somebody from all this, I’m…”
This time, she’s the one to touch his face, tentatively cupping his cheek with her palm. “That’s why I have to help.”
“I know what you’re going through. And I walked you into this. I have to get you through.”
Rhys closes his eyes—or at least stops thinking, which is much the same thing in here—because everything, suddenly, is too much. He leans into her touch, though, needing the reassurance, and even when he finally gets a hold of himself and draws her hand down, he still keeps his fingers interlaced with hers. It’s for comfort, he tells himself. He hopes that’s all it is. The last thing he wants, especially after what Jack did to her, is to get too possessive.
She’s a Siren right to the core, though. Compelling in every way, and so hard to resist.
It figures that that’s the one way she’s exactly like her father, too.
“Okay,” he sighs, before he can get lost in that tangle. “Okay. Just…show me what it is I’m not seeing. Then let me decide what to do about it. All right?”
She concedes. “All right.”
Angel makes another little gesture with her free hand, bringing up a smaller set of images. This time he watches closely enough to see what she’s actually doing. The way she flicks through them is almost like sorting cards, filing one after another, filtering her memories out of the flow and putting his back in sequence. Something twinges in his head when she does it, like he’s starting to remember a headache that he’s actually had all along. You hit your head when the pod landed, she’d told him. He reaches up, rubbing at one temple. It’s the one with the data port. Of course it is.
As for the pod…does she mean an escape pod?
“Rhys?” Angel asks softly, noticing his discomfort. “Are you still with me?”
He grimaces, but waves her on. “Just do what you gotta do.”
She nods, flicks her fingers, and braces herself. And the entire landscape in front of them changes. Elpis and Helios rack into focus with terrifying speed, and—oh, fuck, he remembers.
And he’s watching the station break apart again and plummet toward Pandora.
He hadn’t really been conscious for half the fall. Re-entry velocity had been harsh, and he’d simply blacked out. From the looks of it, he’d been lucky not to experience the entire thing. Angel’s overlaying markers on the map—the landing sites of the escape pods and the biggest portions of debris, a brutally concise X over one settlement that got struck, a whole grid of grim statistics that he hadn’t really been ready for. He’s got a death grip on Angel’s hand now. She bears that in silence.
He’s silent, too. There really aren’t any words for this.
“You’re there,” she says at last, adjusting focus again. They’ve zoomed in much closer to Pandora’s surface, highlighting a craggy but otherwise nondescript landing site. He can see an emergency beacon blinking through the dust. “The crash scared off the local wildlife. And not much scares Pandoran wildlife, so…that’s something.” Her lips quirk. “But they’ll be coming back around to scavenge soon enough.”
“I,” Rhys says haltingly, still staring through the cloud. Staring at himself somewhere in there, still unconscious. He’s glad the haze is making everything so opaque. “How much time do I…?”
“Not much,” she says quietly.
Rhys swears under his breath, rubs his face with one hand. The map keeps filling in with detail as that sinks in. From the looks of it, most of the escape pods are landing further east. “What about everyone else?”
“There’s a small rescue party heading that way. Someone planet-side is helping out.” She squares her shoulders. “You’ll have to leave that part to them, Rhys. You have to focus on yourself. You have other problems.”
“Other problems?” he asks hoarsely. “There’s so many—and I did this—”
Angel shakes him gently, making him turn to face her.
“Rhys, you can’t take all this on,” she insists. “I’m as just much to blame. Jack’s to blame more than anyone. And I know that better than anyone would. Put the guilt on him. Not you. Deal with him.”
He grimaces bitterly. “I would, but he’s gone already, right? He gets to dodge that bullet.”
Angel goes quiet enough that Rhys’ stomach twists.
“Oh, no. No. Don’t tell me—”
She doesn’t, exactly. She just lets go of him and points. Rhys sees another bright dot flare on the landscape: a marker that she’s projecting over a mangled mass of debris.
“It looks like he withdrew to his private blackbox right before the crash,” she says. “It’s where he kept all the most secure backups. I was hoping he wouldn’t have time, but…he did. The drives survived. So what’s left of the AI is right there.”
Rhys stares at her, then back at the map. The blue light there almost twinkles, like it’s Jack’s old digital form again, waiting for him, leering at him from miles away.
He wants to rip the whole projection apart with his bare hands.
“The whole station goes down and he’s still not dead?” Rhys asks, sounding half furious, half despairing. “What’s it going to take?”
Angel just regards him solemnly. “You.”
You. Oh, hell. As if it’s just that simple. As if he didn’t just…just destroy all this, hurt all these people, and it still wasn’t enough. He chokes back the outburst he really wants to make, but he can still feel himself clenching his right hand into a fist. It’s undeniably cybernetic now, for whatever that’s worth. Sparks of purplish light flare out from the joints.
“Fine,” he says, his voice strained. “Then there’s only one option, isn’t there?”
When she makes a worried sound, he turns to her.
“Angel, if I’d taken him on, really taken him on, when I was fully charged up, this would be over. Maybe I’d be dead already, but it would be over. And I know you talked me out of it to save my life up there, but this has got to stop.”
He wishes he could take a deep breath to steady himself. But his decision’s been made.
“Bandage me up as much as you can. But we’re going to have to go for the ‘higher power, higher risk’ option. I can’t afford to just…I don’t know, talk him down and hope for the best. I mean, what if someone else finds the wreckage? What if he makes some other desperate leap before I break his drive? I need to make sure he’s destroyed. And I need all the power I can get for that.”
Angel doesn’t exactly reply, but she very slowly nods. Rhys feels a little woozy. He runs a hand back through his hair, in an old, nervous gesture that’s finally come back to him.
“All right,” he says, trying to talk his way through it. “So I’ve got two eridium injections left—”
“One,” she quietly corrects him. “I scanned the crate. One of them broke.”
Shit. Rhys winces, but shakes his head. “Fine. One will have to be enough. It’ll get me a little way at least. Your map, there…I’m not far from the crash site, right?”
She looks back at the planet, drawing out a little dotted line from pod to wreckage. It doesn’t look like easy terrain, but he’s right, it’s not far. “You can walk it,” she confirms. “Or…well, speed over it if you have to.”
“But burning too much energy…”
“Not a good idea.”
She’s being especially quiet about that. Hesitantly, Rhys asks, “Angel?”
“Just how hurt am I?”
For an awful second he’s afraid she’s about to cry. Then she lifts her face to his, giving him a heartbreaking smile. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’ll get you there.”
He shivers. Then he tries to smile back, even though he’s sure he looks afraid. When he reaches out to her again, it’s because he can’t do anything but. Instead of holding her hands this time, though, he just plain gives in and pulls her into a hug.
“We’ll finish this,” he whispers. “I promise.”
Angel, who feels as real as anything in the universe ever has, nods against his chest. Then she leans into him. At least for whatever fragment of time they can spare, she doesn’t let go.
Well, that chapter wrung me the hell out. Man, I hope this works. :)
As ever, thanks for reading, comments are love, and come hang out with me on Tumblr while I recover and get ready for the next big showdown. (aiyiyiyiyiyi.)
Everything’s almost silent when he comes to.
Consciousness returns in funny phases: first the dull remainder of his headache, then the slow processing of images as he blinks his eyes open and looks around. There aren’t any starscapes to be found in here, just the dim interior of a Hyperion J-class escape pod, battered and bent and with most of its lights gone dark except for a flashing red alarm that is, really, only stating the obvious.
As for Rhys himself, everything still hurts. At least he can move, though. Barely. The first attempt reminds him of actual, physical dimensions, of weight and gravity, and of the effort everything requires, not at all like the dreamlike drifting he’d been doing in…in there.
In that strange, shared headspace, where Angel presumably still is.
I might be pretty quiet when you wake up, she’d told him. I need…to rest. There hadn’t been much to her voice at the time, either, just a tired whisper. She’d literally been hacking him from the inside to heal that head wound, after all: fixing neural pathways where she could, creating new ones where she couldn’t. Rhys doesn’t even want to think of how difficult it had been.
What he can’t help but wonder, though, is if she’d changed anything in the process, accidentally or otherwise—and if he’d ever even be able to tell if she did.
Rhys grimaces, raising one hand to his head. The whole left side is streaked with dried blood. He winces, scrubs the worst of it away, and decides to stop thinking about what else might be going on beneath the surface. There’s not much to be done about it now anyway. As for what he can control, for better or worse…
He looks down at the medical crate at his feet.
It got knocked open during re-entry, and sure enough, one syringe is shattered. The liquified eridium within has already drained away, leaving holes in the case like it had sizzled its way straight through. Rhys swallows hard at that. The other needle’s still there, though, still protectively enclosed, and he reaches in to grab it. For a minute he just sits there clutching it against his chest, smelling the faint, electric buzz of it and doing his best to breathe.
He can use this. Because he has to get up, he has to get out, he has to find Jack. And as drained as Angel is, he’ll be doing it on his own.
The thought’s overwhelming enough that it’s no wonder that the next few moments blur.
It’s not really a conscious decision to try opening the door, first with a kick too weak to break the lock. Then he ponders his hands. The metal one might be strong enough to break the glass, if he can concentrate enough. The human hand? Definitely not, but with the eridium…
He doesn’t even feel the injection, not really, just the rush when it hits. The whole world promptly goes dreamlike again, and infinitely malleable. And all it takes is a thought before there’s a little pop of pressure, a sound like a thousand things shattering, and then the escape pod is simply…in pieces, blown outward and held suspended in midair.
All he can do after that is stare at it all, astonished at how easy that had been.
When he finally gets to his feet, his knee protests, but that seems inconsequential. He’s too busy studying the cloud of shards and shrapnel. Slowly Rhys lifts one hand to nudge a piece of glass, and it turns lazily where it’s hovering, but it doesn’t fall. “Hey, Angel,” he whispers, as if she’s still there. “Would you look at that?”
She doesn’t answer. The silence, though, jars him a little further back to earth. He’s suddenly remembering her warning: he can’t afford to waste the power he’s got left, especially on things like this.
With a guilty wince, he lowers his hand. In response, the whole array shivers. Rhys frowns, then, on nervous impulse, looks directly up. There’s…an awful lot hanging up there. And the more his control slips, the more it’s starting to tilt out of balance.
He has a few seconds to put those facts together before the panic kicks in, and he throws himself out of the way.
It’s just in time to avoid the collapse as every part of the escape pod crashes back down.
The dust only slowly clears. Rhys, sprawled out on the dirt, takes even longer to stop coughing. When he wipes his eyes, he can see a jagged hunk of metal embedded exactly where he’d been standing, still quivering from the impact.
“Okay,” Rhys says weakly. “That was…close…”
He half expects Angel to chide him. She still doesn’t say a word.
With some effort, he gets back up again. It’s quickly evident that whatever Angel had done to patch up his head, she hadn’t spared any attention for anything else, because this time, his knee nearly gives out entirely. He stumbles, gasps, and has to try his best to steady himself. It isn’t easy.
So…I’m in top fighting form, then, he thinks. Somebody laughs at that. It takes him a second to realize that the sound is coming from him, but after all, there’s no one else around.
His escape pod came down by itself, for better or worse. That rescue party Angel had mentioned is far, far away from here. The wildlife still hasn’t come back around, at least, but he’s still wary of any signs of their return. For now, there’s only the sound of things falling. The smell of fires. The quake of an explosion or two, muffled by distance. And—fortunately—the sound of his own breathing, still ragged but slowly falling back into rhythm.
Rhys rubs a hand over his face and tries to take stock of himself.
His ECHO display isn’t giving him much out here, but he can pull up the basic functions, and navigation’s one of them. He’s facing northwest—okay, north-northwest, just barely, but if he turns a few degrees to his left, he’ll be pointed in the right direction. He needs to go over that ridge, past a nasty tangle of debris, and across what looks like a dry riverbed before he’ll be at the endpoint Angel marked for him. Then…well, he’ll be facing Jack. Again.
If Rhys has any luck at all, what’s left of that AI will be just as battered from the fall as he is. He knows he can’t count on it, though.
You blew up the escape pod, he reminds himself, peering back at its remains. So you can blow up a black box. And then…
Another crash of something falling interrupts him. When Rhys yelps with shock, everything lights up.
“Shit,” he whispers, trembling from the adrenaline and the instinctive rush of power. His tattoos are glowing, searingly bright, and the air is crackling all around him with the energy discharge. It takes a minute of gulping in air and trying to talk himself down for that to fade.
Deep breath, buddy, he tells himself, while shakily tugging his torn sleeve as far down over the marks as it will go. Keep it under wraps, keep it together, save it for when you need it…and get going before something else falls on your head.
It’s not much to go on, but in the absence of anyone else—Angel, his friends, even Jack, for God’s sake, and all his twisted little motivational speeches—it’s the best he’s got.
Rhys smooths his mechanical hand over the bloodied shirt fabric as if he can tamp down the last of the glow along with it. Then he squares his shoulders and starts limping his way across the debris field.
One thing at a time. It’s all he can do. And the first of those things is Jack. After that, if he’s still standing…he’ll have to figure out what to do with himself then.
He just wishes, more than he’s had cause to in a long time, that he weren’t facing that decision alone.
And across Pandora, in the center of a maelstrom Angel did not mark on Rhys’ map, the friends he’s missing are facing each other down.
Sasha’s standing beside her sister, at least, so things aren’t all wrong, even though she and Fiona are hefting up a giant rocket launcher and aiming it at the sweetest robot who ever, for lack of a better term, lived. Because that part hurts. But Sasha understands the logic. They’ve got to shut this Vault monster down, and if the only way to do it is to banish the Vault…well.
She knows what she has to do. And she wouldn’t be anywhere else but at Fiona’s side for this, helping shoulder that weight. She can be the spunky kid sister again, and keep a smile on her face even when Fiona looks like she’s almost in tears.
Yeah, it’s a hell of a thing, but…she can do this.
“Come on, Fi,” she says, bending her knees and hefting Vallory’s rocket launcher up a little higher. “Aim it with me. A little to the right—”
“Hey, I know. I’m with you. Just budge it a little farther.” She shoots Fiona a look across the bulk of the weapon. “You ready to fire?”
Fiona looks like she wants to say no, but she grits her teeth and nods. It’s decisive enough that Sasha lets out a tiny breath of relief. Fiona better be ready and willing, after all, because she is not going to have the oomph to keep this thing aloft for another go.
But she can be resolute for a little while longer. And she can just…not think about Gortys’ distressed voice still echoing around them, or the even scarier sounds the monster’s making, or what just happened to Vallory. Or, hell, even what became of August. He’d turned out not to be a total asshole in the end, which just figures, but now he’s hurt, and she’s…worrying. It’s a little disconcerting.
He’s not the only person she’s worrying about, though. And that part she absolutely can’t afford to think about right now. She doesn’t need it. Not…creepy purple lights and impossible powers and whatever the hell had happened up there on Helios before everything blew apart.
Not Rhys turned into some sort of avenging goddamn angel.
Definitely not that.
One thing at a time, Sasha, she tells herself, as she fights to steady herself. You can’t think about them yet. August will still be back at the caravan when this is over, and Rhys is…wherever Rhys is…and damn it, your questions come later. Your feelings have got to come later. One thing at a time.
One giant, scary thing at a time.
For Fiona’s sake, she says, “I’ll give you a count.” She stares dead ahead while she does, keeping the rocket launcher trained on Gortys. It means she misses the flash of violet light in the distance, and whatever that could mean—and there’s no way for her to see the single point of red up above her, watching in disbelief as events unfold. There’s so much happening, and it’s impossible for any one person to get her head around it all.
But she’s here with her sister, and that’s not nothing.
So she says three at last, and Fiona says it with her.
After the explosions, it’s quiet for a very long time.
Sorry for the short-ish update, but it came down to breaking it here or ending up with a behemoth. The next chapter will get Rhys where he's going. Pinky swear.
As ever, comments are love, Tumblr is a thing, and chapter notes should not be written at 2:45 a.m. when the author should actually be asleep. Learn from my bad judgment, kids.
There’s an erratic blue flicker coming from the ruins of Jack’s office. It looks less like electricity than a wounded thing struggling to climb the walls of its cage, or—Rhys thinks grimly—like a frustrated, foiled ghost.
He’s standing before it now, knowing all too well why there’s light flickering around his own hands, too. Another ghost in the machine, really. Or what’s left of her.
He wonders if that still counts as two against one. Right about now, he’ll take any advantage he can get.
The remains of Helios’ erstwhile penthouse make for an impressively mangled monument. It’s towering over him, blocking out everything else on the horizon. Some of it is damaged enough to be unrecognizable. Some of it…he doesn’t even know how it’s still this intact. That trophy case of Jack’s is tipped over in one corner, almost hidden by bent and burned metal but with its contents still present and accounted for—except for the eridium fragment, of course. And those enormous, grotesque statues of Jack are still looming over it all, tipped at precarious angles. Rhys feels his human hand clench, agitated energy thrumming there. It would be so goddamn easy to knock both of them to pieces.
He stops himself, but just barely. The statues aren’t the problem. That blue light sparking across the enormous cracked windowpanes…that’s what he’s here for.
The patterns up there are starting to look like a face, and the voice in the broken speakers is unmistakable.
“Jack,” Rhys says quietly, stepping forward.
The first coherent thing he hears in reply is a wry, bitter laugh.
“Rhys. You. Whatever you are. Look what you’ve done.”
Rhys’ hand twitches. He hadn’t been planning on even letting himself talk to Jack, but he finds himself replying anyway out of sheer self-defense. “I’m still me, thanks very much.”
“Are you now.”
“And this isn’t all on me, Jack—”
“Riiiight. Me, not me. Y-you’ve definitely got all this straight in…your own head.” Jack’s speech is hitching in odd places, corrupted by static and distorted in tone. Still, the sneer in it right now is hard to miss. “You want to just be you? Own it. T-take some…responsibility. And see what you’ve decided to stand for. You don’t get to blame all the little voices in your head for this. Not even mine.”
Rhys goes quiet. Especially now, with Angel out of reach and Jack standing separate and in judgment, he really does feel alone in the spotlight. He looks down at his hands—one still human, one still cybernetic, a Siren’s tattoos coiling down one side—and does the only thing he’s sure of: clenching both hands into fists and saying, “I had to take you down, Jack.”
“Me. One man. And for that…you took down all of this.” He shakes his head, looks around, laughs almost wistfully. “You know…I really kinda loved this goddamn station. Then along comes a nobody with a little stolen power…and just look at the mess you’ve made.”
Rhys’ lip curls. “As if you never did anything to get power you didn’t deserve.”
“Oh, Rhysie. Y…you say that…and yet you’re following right along in my footsteps. You don’t see the irony, kid?”
“I am nothing like you, Jack.”
“Oh, I might’ve argued that point once. Come on, kiddo, let’s rewind: going after the big, bad CEO? Chaining up a Siren and using her powers? Trying to go after a Vault? It’s a pretty convincing copycat routine, don’t you think?”
Before Rhys can respond, Jack’s whole image zooms in like he’s leaning closer.
“Now, though, I gotta tell you…what I’m seeing now? That’s something different. That’s something new. And you’re nothing like anyone anymore, are you?”
Rhys, despite his best efforts, hunches his shoulders defensively. Jack’s not complimenting him, not in the least.
“I meant what I said up there.” Jack’s voice lowers. “You’re going to have everyone on this craphole of a planet coming after you. By the end of this, you’re gonna wish it was only me trying to take over that fucked-up head of yours.”
Rhys grimaces. Jack watches him do it, missing absolutely nothing.
“That’s the thing about power, kid,” he says, more quietly. “The more of it you have…the harder you have to fight to keep it. And the choices you gotta make, the things you’re going to destroy…you’ll have to decide what’s worth it, and what you can live with. Even I know that those aren’t always the same thing.” He tilts his head. “I just gotta wonder if once all this sinks in—everything you did, everyone you killed—you’re really going to be able to live with this one. Because if you can’t, you’d be better off taking yourself out right goddamn now before someone else uses you to do worse. And if you can…” His eyes glint sharply in the glass. “Then you turned into something way scarier than me.”
Rhys, whose tattoos are glowing again and his whole body trembling with tension, turns away.
God, he hadn’t meant to let this happen. Angel’s warning not to let Jack affect him is still echoing in his head, but Jack’s entirely too good at this: worming his way in despite Rhys’ best intentions and then stabbing right where it hurts. Because nothing Jack’s saying is a lie. Not one word. Without Angel there—and he wishes so much that she were, for lack of a better word, awake; he hopes that she’s all right—Rhys doesn’t have anyone else to listen to besides Jack and his own doubts.
So he’s getting distracted.
Focus, he reprimands himself. But he’s only partway through looking around the wreckage, trying to scan it all in hope of finding the server where Jack’s hiding, when he hears a peculiar, metallic sound from behind him.
“Y’know, Rhysie,” Jack says laconically, while something swerves closer in Rhys’ peripheral vision. “When I said you need to take your opportunity right goddamn now?”
Rhys’ eyes widen, but he doesn’t duck aside quite quickly enough. When the data link from Jack’s chair jams itself into his port, despite Rhys’ yell of protest and flare of power and every attempt to yank it loose, he hears Jack’s next words echoing horribly through his own head before his vision cuts out:
“I meant exactly what I said.”
Rhys isn’t sure what end is up when he can think again, because everything feels too heavy and too dim, and he’s lying on the floor in Jack’s office. Jack’s old office, undisturbed and most certainly not destroyed. For a moment he’s just disoriented. Then he’s outright horrified.
Finally he sees that no, it’s not quite the same as the old office after all…because the view out the window isn’t Elpis. It’s Pandora instead.
It’s the whole of Pandora on fire.
Rhys gets to his feet and staggers to the window. The devastation below is unbelievable. Whole cities have been reduced to craters, whole continents have been obscured with black smoke. Fires blaze through the darkness only briefly before ash covers them again. Rhys presses his hands to the glass, thinking of his friends down there and choking back a cry.
It takes him a second to realize that he isn’t actually feeling the glass beneath his palm.
“Good freakin’ God, Rhysie, the things you can do in here,” someone says from behind him. It’s not even a question as to who. “I made Angel fess up about projection some time ago, sure, but she never told me it was this awesome. One little wave of my hand, and boom—”
Pandora explodes as Rhys stares at it. One second, there; the next second, it’s detonated, flying to pieces in a cartoonish spray of stone, dust, and screaming bandits—and chunks of eridium, so much of it, all the resources you could ever possibly desire. No matter if it’s fake, no matter if it’s a horrible tease, Rhys leans toward the window, wishing for a twisted moment that it were real.
Across the room, Jack’s laughing at him.
“Oh, I could have so much fun messing with you like this,” he says. “Too bad I’ve got other things to do.”
The view beyond the window abruptly goes dark. Rhys spins to see Jack striding across the floor, down a corridor even grander than the one back on Helios had been, punched up by exaggerated and annoyingly flattering lighting. Jack looks like a lost king returned victorious to claim his throne.
Except the throne isn’t his. None of this is. They’re in Rhys’ head, and Jack is manipulating it to his own purposes, and no, no, no—
“How are you doing this?” Rhys demands. “I never gave you access beyond the data drive. You shouldn’t be able to—you shouldn’t be here!”
Jack barely even pauses. He just goes right up to his computer, pulls up something on its screen, and pokes experimentally at the keyboard. “I was wondering at that myself, cupcake. But—oh, here we go.” He beckons Rhys over like there’s nothing wrong between them, pointing at a diagram that looks worryingly like a scan of brain functions. “Somebody’s been doing a number on you. Repairs. Rewiring. Looks like the last fix to give you a power boost blasted all your channels wide open.” His mouth spreads in a dangerous smile. “You couldn’t stop me if you tried, kitten.”
Rhys stares at Jack. He doesn’t even look like an AI in here, not really. Sometimes he still flickers around the edges, shot through here and there with blue, but Jack’s own image of himself is holding sway, and so he’s disconcertingly real. When he steps close, Rhys can imagine the body heat radiating off of him—and in here, imagination is more than enough to make it true.
On the other hand, that also means…
Rhys gets a hold of himself and literally changes his mind. After a minute of concentration, the room around them contorts. Before long, the projection looks like his old office: much smaller, much more cramped, but with a terrifically handy storage locker positioned—Rhys thinks about it, and rotates the whole room by about ten degrees—right behind Jack.
“Two can play at this game, asshole,” he says.
For the first time, he reaches out toward Jack and shoves.
Jack’s shocked expression as Rhys’ hands connect with his shoulders is absolutely priceless. He’s caught so off guard that he can’t brace himself against it, either, and he stumbles backwards into the locker, its door promptly slamming shut and locking tight. Rhys grins viciously, but doesn’t stop to gloat about it. He turns around and runs.
That lock won’t hold Jack for long, Rhys knows. But if he can distract Jack just long enough to find what he needs…
“You can’t get away from me that easy, Rhys,” Jack’s voice bellows from the speakers. “Different rules in here, kiddo. I’m everyw—”
Rhys grimaces and does his best to think of something else, anywhere else. For some reason the first thing that pops into his head is an old school corridor, filled with classmates he hasn’t seen in years, lined with lockers on either side…
“Oops,” Rhys says, as one of those lockers opens. Jack’s stepping out of it, hands spread, a sardonic grin stretching wide. “Bad idea.”
He skids sideways through a classroom door and into another memory entirely.
And he doesn’t recognize this one.
It looks like some sort of park—a grassy, green area surrounded by trees, everything tilted at a funny angle as if he’s viewing it from a child’s perspective. It’s faded as if projected with too little light, but it’s stable, if barely. Rhys knows right away what that must mean.
“Angel,” he breathes.
He turns in place where he stands, looking around in every direction. The door he came through is gone. The closest thing that approximates it is two trees standing close together, their branches curved and interlocking like an arch.
On impulse, he thrusts his tattooed hand forward and breaks the trees down to wireframes, then nothing more than specks of dust.
When they fall, he hears a distant, frustrated yell.
“It’s still my head, jackass,” Rhys snarls. “Just try thinking faster than me.”
He crashes another tree down across the empty space for good measure. Then he swivels back around, studying his surroundings again.
If he’s veering into Angel’s data space, he knows the best he can do is keep heading through. He’s got an idea—maybe a terrible one, but an idea nevertheless—of what to do about Jack, but he’s going to need Angel to finish it.
Which means he has to find her, and fast.
“All right,” he murmurs, tilting his head and squinting, like he can see right through this if he finds the right angle. Maybe he can. “How deep did you go, Angel? Where exactly are you hiding…?”
She doesn’t answer, but there’s the faintest glimmer off in the distance. It’s not much. Still, it’s the best lead he’s got. And with Jack doing who knows what in other corners of his head…Rhys knows he can’t afford to waste any time deliberating over it.
He takes a deep breath that actually feels like a deep breath this time, and steps forward.
While he retreats even further into his own mind, Rhys’ semi-conscious body is lying amid the ruins.
The data link is still embedded in his skull. He's breathing only slowly, as if deep within a dream. But his limbs are starting to twitch—only a little, but still a worrying amount—as if someone’s doing their utmost to play puppeteer and tug him back to life.
And despite Rhys’ best efforts to maintain control, the lights around his port and his cybernetic eye are starting to slide from their natural bluish white to an all-too-familiar shade of gold.
Things start to break down the deeper Rhys gets into Angel’s data space.
He feels like he ought to be worried that she has this much space carved out in his brain. By now, though, that really doesn’t seem like the important thing anymore. The best he can do is continue through the maze, and find wherever she’s withdrawn to. And this really does feel like a maze the further he goes. It’s becoming all twisting and distorted, with projections blurring into each other at odd angles and then breaking into nothing.
Rhys wonders if it’s meant to keep Jack from finding his way through. He also hopes it’s not meant to keep him out.
Or that Jack himself didn’t start throwing obstacles in his path…
But there’s no sense even going down that road. Rhys shakes his head. This still is his head, after all, and he’s got the right to be here. So he keeps pushing through, even though he’s less and less certain with every step where he is, or where he’s headed.
When he nearly stumbles over the edge of a sudden cliff, it definitely comes as a surprise.
Rhys pinwheels for balance thanks to stubborn muscle memory, no matter if he’s not really using those muscles, and finally jolts himself back to a safe distance. From there, he takes a much more careful look. He’s hearing something like waves down below, but he doesn’t dare focus on it. He doesn’t even want to look down. What stands out more is…well, all those jagged rocks all around him. One of them stands higher than the others, flatter than the others, and it’s covered with moss or lichen or…hell, Rhys isn’t a botanist; he doesn’t know. He has no idea who’s imagining this scene, either, because he’s never been to the ocean, so it can’t be him. Still, there’s a weird, stylized look to this, like the scene is an illustration more than simply a memory. It’s almost like something from a storybook—a creepy one, but a storybook nonetheless—of weird old fairytales. Something read to Angel once, he’d wager.
Maybe that explains the girl sitting out there on the rocks.
She’s black-haired, pale-skinned, wearing a low-shouldered dress that begins as sea green and froths down into pale waves around her feet. She’s sitting with her hands folded and her head bowed, and her face is almost completely obscured. It’s that spill of hair, actually, that throws him. She looks like Angel, but her head’s not shaved, and she’d said changing her own appearance was harder than everything else. So did someone else make this projection after all?
Or is that even her out there?
“Angel?” he asks warily. She doesn’t lift her head.
Rhys takes a hesitant step forward. He’s still warring with the instinct to run the other way, because heights, damn it, but…he keeps trying to convince his roiling nerves that the cliff isn’t even real. It’s a projection. An illusion. Angel told him once that he could create them himself, too…
That also means, he realizes slowly, that he can hack this one.
While he doesn’t immediately know how, he finds himself remembering Angel’s monitors—and then considering his own cybernetic hand.
Maybe his physical self, including that hand, is all figurative in here. Maybe he’s only working with old, ingrained habits. But he’s so familiar with how his hacking interface works that it’s easy to imagine the palmtop display. It spreads out wider than normal this time, and much taller, and after a concentrated thought or two, it starts displaying wireframes of the entire room. Sure enough, it’s all just an artificial construction, one he can break down into something almost like code. That, he can manipulate. The only complex, distinct thing here is Angel, who looks much more like herself in the monitor than she does in the projection.
“Huh,” he murmurs. “So if I work around her, and start with this…”
Rhys rotates the display and taps at a few things with his tattooed hand. One good flick, and the sea spray around her stops. Another, and half the rocks are gone. Rhys nods to himself.
“Okay.” He cracks the knuckles of his left hand against his right. “Time to take this sucker apart.”
He does, piece by piece. It all comes apart so easily, in fact—and he’s so focused on Angel instead of himself—that he forgets to shore up the cliff he’s standing on. There’s a lot of yelling and flailing until he manages to imagine something solid, and he falls onto a hard, flat walkway, far below where he’d started. The waves are still crashing below him, sounding even more foreboding from here.
For all that this is happening in his head, that fall hurts a hell of a lot more than it should.
Rhys winces, sits up, and looks up at the outcropping where Angel’s still waiting. It’s a hell of a climb now to reach her, but…well, that’s fixable. A few architectural hacks later—and after rubbing the soreness out of his tailbone—Rhys clambers up the newly formed staircase. “Okay, Rhys. Get to Angel,” he murmurs, “and then go find—”
He reaches the top before he finishes the sentence, which trails off fast—because he’s got another problem he hadn’t bargained on.
Angel’s chained into place with narrow, glowing cables. The fact that they’re yellow really just goddamn figures.
“Jack,” he mutters.
Rhys’ first instinct is to reach out and tug them loose, but he discovers all too quickly that touching the chains burns. That makes no real physical sense either, no more than the fall did, but that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts to get close. Rhys shudders to think of what it’s doing to Angel. And he’s suddenly, incandescently furious at Jack doing this. I mean, how? he thinks. How did he find her that fast? And how the hell could he be so much of a bastard to tie her up again and just leave her here?
He’s so mad at it all that it’s hard to think straight, but finally he kneels next to Angel, pulls up his display again, and tries again to dismantle Jack’s work.
He’s doing this to distract you, a quiet thought whispers at him. Rhys doesn’t pay quite enough attention to it. He’s doing it to slow you down, and if you aren’t careful…
Rhys grits his teeth, shakes that worry off, and zooms in tighter on one of the chains. This is turning out to be a much harder hack than modifying the projection. This thing is pernicious. It’s got hooks deep into Angel’s files, and it’s hard to isolate them from each other, because…well, part of her is Jack’s data. Rhys fights with it for a minute, trying to figure out what he dares delete, then finally lets out a frustrated sound and sits down hard beside her.
The new worry creeping into his head is all too clear this time: Was Angel already too tied to Jack when this started? And did she just walk him straight into this mess?
You’re in over your head while you’re in your own head, he can nearly hear Jack say. Ain’t that a pickle, princess?
Rhys shakes his head, does his best to shut it all out, and focuses hard on what he knows. Because he trusts her, he does—even if he shouldn’t. He has to believe in her, after all this.
He’s tied to her now, too. They can’t afford to let each other go.
Rhys shuts down his display, looks away from the chains, and reaches up instead to tuck Angel’s hair behind her ears so he can see her properly. She’s even paler than usual, her face tense with pain and exhaustion, and her eyes are flickering beneath their lids like she’s in the throes of a nightmare.
His cybernetic hand drops down, almost touching the curve of the tattoo on her bared shoulder. He only backs off at the last second. Then he sighs and looks back at her troubled face instead.
“I don’t know if this will work,” he says apologetically, not knowing if she can hear him, hoping even more fervently that no one else is listening. “It’s just…you have to wake up. Jack got in after all, and I need your help again. Sorry.”
She maybe flinches, just a little.
“We’ve got to isolate Jack somehow. Get him cornered again, locked back in my cybernetics. If we can cut him off there, I…I can do something about him. But you know better how to hack things in here than I do, and two’s gotta be better than one. I’m going to need the help.” He shakes his head. “Besides…I don’t want you trapped like this. Not again.”
She doesn’t respond beyond a little shiver of pain. She’s still locked in tight. Rhys smiles ruefully and leans a little closer.
“This works in the stories, anyway,” he says. “You can smack me for it after, okay?”
Hoping like all hell that this isn’t the stupidest idea he’s ever had, he tilts her chin up and kisses her gently on the lips.
For a second, there’s no response. Then there’s a gasp, one he feels so potently it’s like he’s doing it himself. Rhys pulls back in a hurry, hoping he hasn’t freaked her out completely. To his surprise, though, she stirs a little, blinks up at him, and—just a little bit, just enough—smiles.
“Hey,” he whispers.
“Hey,” she says back, just as softly. It looks for a second like she wants to say something else, do something else, maybe even reach for him. Then she remembers, and looks down. “Wait, this is…oh, no, Rhys. You can’t be…”
He’s about to try to explain when the whole projection shudders, and the outcropping they’re sitting on rocks dangerously. They both look with alarm over the edge. The waves below are rising, responding to them both with an absolute roar.
And they’re not the only thing that decides to retaliate.
Angel cries out when her chains tighten, nearly pulling her over. A blast of cold—more like emotion than physical feeling this time, all doubt and fear tangled together—knocks Rhys over, too. And when he tries to get up again, he’s suddenly so dizzy that he can’t hold himself upright.
Something…something new is really, really wrong.
Rhys puts one hand to his head, feeling like he’s moving in two different directions at once. The vertigo is terrible. He’s trying to imagine everything going stable again, tries to imagine dry, stable ground under his feet, but suddenly he can’t get hold of his thoughts at all.
“Rhys,” Angel gasps. “Rhys, hang on, he’s…”
His palmtop display opens again on its own, projecting an image big enough to fill the whole sky. And it looks exactly what Rhys would see out of his own ECHO eye. Rhys stares up at it, disconcerted, to see his own POV as he gets up from the floor of Jack’s destroyed office and heaves himself to his feet, leaning against the wreckage of Jack’s desk for support.
“That’s…” he says roughly. “That’s…not me doing that.”
When he hears a response echo through his head, however, it is, horribly, in his own voice.
“Gold goddamn star, Rhysie,” it says roughly. “Guess what happens when you get distracted and don’t pay attention?”
Rhys’ stomach drops. “Oh, shit.”
“You two are just precious, by the way,” Jack says, while Rhys casts a horrified look at Angel. She looks just as dismayed. “But for the record, I do not give my blessing. Not that it’s gonna matter for much longer.”
Rhys struggles to get up again. He has less luck at it than Jack, who’s levering Rhys’ actual body upright with both arms. Rhys can feel the effort of it through every nerve. Jack doesn’t exactly have full control yet…but he’s getting there fast.
“At least I can thank you for getting out of my way,” Jack continues. “And what a great spot that is for you both. Hanging out right there above the chasm of your subconscious, where all it would take is one…good…push…”
Rhys ducks just before another wave crashes over his head. This one’s pure nightmare, and he gets up shuddering, feeling chilled to the bone. Angel, who’s still tugging uselessly at her bindings, shouts in frustration.
Rhys manages to turn himself her direction, reaching out with one arm to the fiery gold chains. He’s still got just enough control over things to pull up a little power, which he’s trying his best to focus on now.
“You know, I could just lose you both in the back of my mind forever,” Jack laughs, making Rhys’ voice sound chillingly cruel. “I’d keep enough of you around to pull out any useful little facts, make people think you’re still you, and then suckerpunch them right where it hurts. God, that could be fun.”
Rhys grabs one of the chains, howling with pain as he does, and pushes as much energy as he can through his palm. The gold sizzles, purple light slowly crackling through the length of it. Jack’s too distracted to notice.
He’s also, unfortunately, got too much control of the rest of Rhys’ power to care. Rhys can see the flare of it in the ECHO display above them, can feel the unnerving hum of it rising in the background.
“This, though,” Jack whispers. “This is my number one priority, Rhysie. And oh, man, once I solve the eridium-supply problem…because you bet I’ve got ideas that I never told you about…oh, kid, I am going to take this world apart.”
There’s a dangerous little pause, and Jack swivels around until he’s facing the broken window in his office. It’s enough that Rhys can see a reflection of his own face, and Jack’s distinctive leer stretching his own mouth far too wide.
“Might as well start with you,” he says.
Rhys turns away, pulling hard on the weakened chains. They pop free in a shower of sparks just in time for Rhys to grab Angel’s hand.
They’re both hanging tightly to each other when the next wave crashes in, one big enough to blot out everything but Jack’s all-too-familiar laughter.
phew. This chapter fought with me, not gonna lie, but I got it far enough to post this much in one complete section, so I will do my best to stop feeling guilty about posting a short chapter and just move on now that I'm set up for the rest. ;) And that part will be interesting, especially since a couple new POVs are very, very likely.
As ever: comments welcome, my Tumblr's over thisaway, will accept donations of cute cat pictures, etc, etc.
Jack can barely believe how good it feels just to breathe again.
The first, deep gulp of air is as heady as any drug, filling his borrowed lungs and making his head spin. The rush of blood in his ears is disconcertingly audible, but he kinda loves it, too. Just to have such primal, necessary things back again—to be able to move, no matter if Rhys had managed to injure himself in all sorts of ridiculous ways and it’s not exactly easy right now…
Yeah, he has to admit it: even the pain is kinda awesome.
Jack runs his hands through Rhys’ hair, twiddles the cybernetic fingers, stretches out the tattooed arm and looks at it with a wide, wide grin. “Look at that,” he whispers as he studies the symbols—which are unique, go figure; there's a hint of Angel’s patterns, but not as much as he'd have guessed. And he can't help but laugh to hear himself sounding so different when he speaks. He sounds just like, well, a certain middle management nerd with delusions of grandeur. God, the friggin’ irony. But at least it's a nice voice to have stolen, especially when he gets to hear it from the inside. “Oh, Rhysie, look at what I can do with you.”
He lifts that hand up, dizzy with ideas.
It does take a second to work out how to call up Angel’s powers. He spends some time digging into memory files to get there, since he knows a few tricks with Rhys’ equipment that he doubts Rhys has ever used. But once he does—oh, son of a taint, it's so easy. It’s such a rush that he giggles, and that sound in Rhys’ voice is so absurd that he just leans there on the desk and laughs for a while.
Then he shuts his eyes and takes a look inward, since he’s gotta share all this great news with someone, after all.
The whole ensuing conversation with Rhys is surreal. It’s like swerving between a dream and consciousness while still being awake. One minute, he’s standing there in the office; the next, he’s looking into an imagined landscape, one he’d already hacked and manipulated, watching both Rhys and Angel squirm. It’s really something, finally getting first-hand knowledge of what Angel’s been able to do all this time.
(He corrects himself a few seconds later. It’s what Angel had been able to do. That’s not really her in there, and he keeps telling himself that, or else he’d have no good excuse for doing this to her—)
At any rate, that little chat ends quite satisfactorily. It’s quiet in the back of his head after the waves sweep through. And he stretches up, enjoying a flash of smugness at how much in control he feels. God damn, he’s got a body again. And it’s got so much potential.
He’s testing out his powers on the remains of his old office when it happens.
Halfway through blasting apart a portion of the old window—and he laughs again to see it shatter, to see Angel’s abilities turned to such destructive purpose—Jack starts to feel it. There’s a low, subtle twinge in the back of his head. He flinches, but at first doesn’t think much of it. Rhys got headaches sometimes, after all. Hell, everyone gets headaches. “Probably just dehydrated,” he says under his breath. “I can fix that, if…”
He’s looking around for the remains of his bar when the twinge gets worse.
“Shit,” he mutters, clenching his eyes tightly shut. The pain flares brightly, then ebbs somewhat. He shakes his head as if he can toss the rest of it off like water. It doesn’t work.
Well, that’s not going to fly.
Jack grabs at a nearby shard of glass, angling it so he can see his reflection again. As odd as it is to see Rhys’ features, not his own, he recognizes something of the expression. Discomfort, annoyance at the discomfort, the underlying urge to shoot whatever’s messing with him in the face—
When the next stab of pain hits him, he sees the ECHO eye go suspiciously bright, too. And the placement of the headache feels wrong. Rhys’ headaches before had all started at the temple. But this one…
Jack had thought he’d swept Rhys under, but he’s still up to something in there, he knows it. And he snarls at Rhys’ face in the glass. “Oh, you bastard,” he says. “If you think you can screw with me now…”
Light flares from his hand, and he tosses the shard aside. He’s got better weapons at hand for this.
Jack glares up at the remainder of the broken window, then shuts his eyes again and dives in even deeper than before.
The world looks pale and gray from here, on the edges of Angel’s fading projection.
She hadn’t meant to return to this old story in the first place. It just came back to her like a recurring dream, flickering back to life as she tried, or at least hoped, to rest and recover.
Things haven’t worked out quite that way.
Angel shifts onto her side on the shore. That wide, flat stretch of sand is the last clear bit of imagery left. It’s like they’ve fallen through the world down here. Bits of broken landscape are still visible above, but beyond that…there’s no point in even trying to make visual sense of it. She gets only the impression of the firing of neurons and the swift transit of someone else’s thoughts before she turns her head away, shivering. It would be so easy to slip away into that.
So terribly easy.
Holding onto the exhausted scraps of herself, Angel gets up to her feet.
“Rhys?” she says, remembering to talk, but there’s not much point to it; speech doesn’t carry very well down here. So she sends out a data scan instead, and senses one particularly concentrated knot of information just nearby. She can even see the silhouette of it when she tries. Unsurprisingly, Rhys is having an easier time holding onto the idea of his physical self than she is. She just worries it won’t last long down here, so she does her best to get to him in a hurry.
Doing so without breaking up her form means dealing with that unfamiliar dress, however. That, annoyingly, is still clinging to the rules of the projection. She’d envisioned an ocean, and so ocean waves were what she got, and her skirts are still heavy with the water. Her feet get tangled within just a few steps and she very nearly falls beside Rhys on the shore.
“Rhys?” she asks again, then holds her tongue, because there’s something very different in his eyes this time. It takes him a while to speak.
“You let go,” he says at last, his voice low and lost.
Everything goes a little colder. The wave that had hit them—a manifestation of Rhys’ buried fears, so potent and painful that it sent both of them under—had simply been too much. She sits before him, trying to reach out. “I didn’t mean to,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry.”
He doesn’t take her hand. He’s got his arms wrapped around bent knees instead, and he wearily rests his forehead there. “It all made it look again like you were just a trick. Like everyone was. Like they were gone…”
“I’m here. And I’m no trick. I promise.”
He laughs hollowly. “Doesn’t even matter. Just look around you. It’s all breaking down.”
“I…I can’t look at it, Rhys. I’ll get lost out there.”
His voice goes low. “I guess you might.”
Angel winces and looks down at her hands. The tattoos coiling up the left side look…faded, somehow. Drained. She rubs the other hand over them as if she can scrub off all this gray uncertainty and see them more clearly, but it’s exactly the wrong instinct; too much has been scraped away already. I am Angel, she thinks, angling for stubbornness but hitting something plaintive instead. There’s no one else for me to be. I’m her, I’m me, I’m real, I’m…
As much of a parasite as Jack, another thought whispers. And with both of us in here…it’s killing him.
Rhys looks at her, smiling sadly. “I can hear you, you know,” he says. “It’s all starting to bleed through.”
Angel flinches. In the face of that, there’s not much else to say. Finally, though, he shakes his head in a “to hell with it” sort of way and gestures for her to sit at his side. “Sorry. Come on. It’s…it’s okay.”
It’s not, but Angel silently joins him. It takes some maneuvering. “Stupid dress,” she mutters, fighting with all the fabric, and he gives her a tired smile.
“Why’d you put it on, then?”
“It wasn’t my idea.”
Rhys winces, then tries to help her tug the skirt straight. It’s drying out, for whatever that’s worth. Or maybe that detail, just like the color, is starting to fade. She sighs and sits shoulder to shoulder with him, and after a minute he gingerly curls the cybernetic arm around her. “Sorry,” he says again, more sheepishly this time. “It’s a little blocky. I should be on the other side…”
“Doesn’t matter, either.” She looks slantwise up at him, thinking. “You know… before, when you woke me up?”
It’s such a small detail. It’s such a silly thing to remember right now. But she has enough data that she’s sure this is true, and for some reason, now that they’re sitting together like this, she wants him to know. “That was my first kiss.”
There’s a pause. “I…wondered. I mean, if he’d locked you up like that, there wouldn’t have been…”
“Anyone?” she finishes. “No.”
“Damn. I guess I should have gone more for the grand gesture. Something memorable.”
“No, that’s…it was nice.”
He looks like he’s about to say something else, but he looks at her, really looks, and instead, his own expression softens. He hugs her a little closer. Angel finally sighs, tilting until her head’s resting against his shoulder.
She wishes they could stay like this. But she knows they can’t afford to wait.
As Rhys holds her with his right arm, she looks across to his left—the one marked by her own Siren powers. Those tattoos are fading, too, just like her own. Jack’s taking it all for himself, like he always does with everything. And she knows, sickly, that he almost always wins. But before it’s all gone, before they’re gone…
Rhys puts things into words before she does. “There’s still one thing we could try.”
Angel turns her face into his shoulder, then makes herself sit up. She knows what he means. She doesn’t dare voice it, in case he’s listening somewhere up there. But one word still hangs between her and Rhys, impossible to ignore.
Because there is one possibility they’ve got left, even if it means they might destroy everything.
Rhys hasn’t wanted to admit it to anyone, but ever since Jack trapped him up on Helios and subjected him to the data link, he hasn’t been feeling quite…himself.
Some of it happened gradually. Some of it hit him all at once. Having both Angel and Jack make their marks on him, stake out their own territory, corner what was left of him into defending himself however he could…it really did force him to become something different in the process. And now…
He looks down at his hands, then at the incredibly complex neural grid beyond.
“Attacking myself to save myself,” he says under his breath. “Yeah, this is gonna be great.”
Angel’s still at his side. Her silhouette is so familiar now, even if it’s slightly altered again, because he’d helped her do something about that fairytale dress. She’d admitted she didn’t know where to start, and he didn’t know much about fashion either, at least where girls’ clothes were concerned. But he figured he couldn’t go wrong with giving her something simple. So she’s standing there now in jeans and a hoodie—something that could have been scrounged out of his own closet, honestly—and even though the hoodie he’d imagined was too big for her, she’d huddled happily into it.
She’s still so pale beneath that hood. So obviously tired. But she’d smiled at him, like someone had finally given her something real, and at least that was something.
Rhys glances at her now and says, “You sure you’re up for this?”
“So long as you are.” She pushes her hood back. “We’re sort of a package deal now, aren’t we?”
“Just what I was thinking,” Rhys murmurs. “Well. Time to do something about our uninvited guest, huh?”
Angel nods and raises her arm. So does Rhys. After drawing in whatever energy they can still access, they both take aim.
And they fire.
It’s the worst, crudest way Rhys can think of to get at Jack, because he’s harming himself to do this, but he knows damn well how debilitating a headache can be. So he keeps it up, inflaming everything he can reach. He can feel the results as he works; there’s an insistent ache growing at the back of his skull.
Angel winces, too, but presses on. It’s not long before the pain flares higher, and an angry flash of yellowish light crackles up above.
Rhys has to steel himself then. Those nightmares Jack had dredged up from his subconscious are still too fresh in his mind, and that fear of what else Jack might do and what he might take—it’s all still right there. Rhys shudders, almost losing his grip on what he’s doing. Fortunately, Angel’s still there, too, and she reaches out to him.
He takes her hand just before the ECHO-eye view comes to life again above them.
“So, kiddos,” Jack says. He’s not even trying anymore for fake joviality. Now every word is just barbs and spikes. “What the hell do you think you’re doing in there?”
Angel squeezes his hand. Rhys takes a deep breath, however metaphorically. After a second, they both look up. Neither of them even bother to answer Jack. Rhys just wraps his arms around Angel as her wings manifest and stretch wide.
“Hang on,” she whispers, and pushes off.
Layers and levels of consciousness go whizzing by in an instant. Rhys holds tight and tries to lend Angel some speed, and to do what he’d promised, too: push back at any hint of Jack’s interference he sees, He’s trying to drive Jack out of the depths along with them.
He’d suspected the retaliation wouldn’t take long. He just doesn’t expect it to happen without a single word of warning, just a blast of pain so awful that Rhys screams out.
His arm…Jack’s doing something to his arm.
“Two can play at this game, Rhysie,” Jack says, over the sound of something smashing. “Pain circuits? Yeah, those are hackable, too. The only one feeling this right now…is you.”
“Rhys!” Angel cries out, because his cybernetic arm is starting to break apart—physically and mentally. It’s making him lose his hold on her, too.
“It’s old tech, cupcake. Who needs it? I sure don’t.” The image on the monitor above them is far too clear: Jack holding something blunt in his left hand, and bringing it down hard to crush the other. Jack’s amplified the cybernetics’ force feedback somehow, because it’s reading just as potently as smashing bones and flesh would be. “I’ll get a sweet upgrade once I get rid of this old trash. And in the meantime, I can hurt the shit out of you.”
The next smash hurts so badly that Rhys does lose his grip. And for a few horrible moments he’s falling, fading, starting to come apart at all the edges—
Angel swoops down in a sudden rush, and Rhys feels himself getting caught up and swept to a walkway that wasn’t there a second ago: something that looks like a Helios corridor. But it, too, is smashed and burning and breaking apart. It has to be from a memory of the explosion. Rhys tumbles to the floor, clutching at his shoulder and choking on remembered smoke. He has no idea what Jack’s even done, but…the arm’s gone. Completely.
When Angel tries to help him up, he sees the monitors in the corridor. Three of them are dark and dead, dangling from sparking wires. The remaining one shows the ECHO feed again. In staticky streaks of blue, Rhys can see Jack holding up the whole cybernetic arm. He’s torn it loose from its socket. There’s blood on the metal. Rhys can almost feel it on his own fingers.
“Okay, wow,” Jack says, laughing a little. “That was…wired in even tighter than I thought. Whoopsie?”
“He’s losing it,” Angel whispers, watching in horror as he flings the arm away. The monitor goes dead when it falls. “Rhys, he’s going to kill you like this.”
“Can’t let him do it,” he says hoarsely. “We can’t.”
“Then…what do you need?”
“Just keep going,” Rhys grinds out, getting the rest of the way to his feet. With the hand he’s got left, he shoves hard against the wall. It breaks apart the memory in a shower of sparks.
Angel, no matter how worried she looks, comes right along with him as he crosses that threshold.
They promptly come up against something else eerily familiar.
“What is…” Angel says, and then her voice trails off. They’re in a sterile room filled with medical equipment, and Hyperion logos are everywhere in sight. Someone’s on the bed, covered by sheets and surrounded by doctors and techs, so it’s hard to see who it is…but Rhys knows. Even though it’s impossible for him to have seen the procedure from this perspective, he’d had enough dreams about it before and since…and he knows.
That’s him on the table, and there’s a surgeon methodically carving a hole into his skull.
Rhys reflexively presses his hand over the port on his own temple. The sound alone—that screech from the whining, buzzing saw—is almost too much to take. Angel reaches up, though, and pulls his hand back down, twining her fingers tightly between his. “I know, I know,” she whispers. “I went through it too. I know…”
He turns to her, away from that pale dust floating through the light, and someone depositing bone fragments into a nearby tray. It means confronting the ports on her head again. He winces. “I’m sorry.”
“No. It’s all right. This is where we need to be. Look.”
It takes some concentration, but soon he can tell what she means. This memory’s inexorably tied up with the data port itself, and he can sense the connections to it. This was the whole idea: get Jack’s attention, force him back into the data drive, then cut him off.
Rhys nods and looks for a way to start up another disruption. He’s trying not to think about the pain in his shoulder, or that giant needle that the masked surgeon is lifting up. Maybe if he sabotages the equipment, or breaks down another wall, or…
“Rhys,” Angel gasps suddenly, and he whirls around. The light in the room’s gone entirely wrong, and the surgeon has just tugged off his mask.
To reveal another one beneath.
“Still haven’t given up?” Jack says, his eyes flashing.
“Shit,” Rhys whispers, stumbling back a step. Then, really by pure instinct, he moves again until he’s standing defensively in front of Angel. Jack sees that and outright laughs.
“Oh, my God, seriously? I’m in your head—really, in your head—and I’m holding all the cards. And what do you do? Try to play the romantic hero? If it weren’t so sad, it might be cute. But…nah, mostly it’s just sad.”
Angel grabs Rhys’ remaining arm when he tries to lunge forward. Jack’s got the needle poised over the body on the hospital bed. And the other people in the room are starting to fade. Everything else is dissolving away. It’s just harsh white light and Jack standing over Rhys’ unconscious body, and it’s hard suddenly for Rhys to think that he’s anything else but that version of himself, utterly helpless. It’s all blurring. It’s all so close to real.
But if he can keep himself together, and time this right…
“I’m not going to keep putting up with this forever, Rhys,” Jack says flatly. “You’re getting on my nerves. And they are mine now. Stop kidding yourself. You’ve lost. All you’re doing now is putting yourself through more pain. What’s the point?”
Rhys clenches his fist, ready despite everything to fight right back. He is not going to let Jack be right. Not here. Not like this.
But Jack just aims for the most vulnerable spot in Rhys’ skull and jams the needle straight down.
The pain’s so overwhelming that Rhys nearly blanks out. He gets only a brief impression of Angel yelling with rage, and Jack, too, doubling over, as if he’d forgotten again how much the attack would affect him. But when he comes up again, raging, Rhys can’t even make himself do anything. It’s Angel who swings forward, yelling in pure defiance. There’s purplish light, an electric crackle and a feeling like something exploding—and a sudden, surprising smell, like something burning.
“How dare you?” Angel yells. “This isn’t yours to take!”
“He’s…not yours either, sweetheart…”
“Maybe not. But finishing you?” Her voice strengthens. “That belongs to both of us.”
And whatever she does right then makes everything goes suddenly vivid, suddenly searing. Rhys screams again as he comes back to himself. But that rush he’s feeling…it’s the eridium. Angel’s hacked the pathways again, and she’s taken away Jack’s access to her powers, giving it all back to Rhys instead. Jack’s constructs are breaking apart. And Rhys—
He feels one of Angel’s hands touch his temple. The pain wanes under her fingertips, like she’s doing something to help mend it…or at least she’s doing what Jack did with his arm, and redirecting the pain. Then she gently cups his cheek. Rhys still has to struggle to focus, but finally she comes clear. Somehow, at least for this moment, she’s pushed everything else away.
“Two down,” she whispers. “It’s up to you now.”
She goes up on tiptoe. Rhys realizes in that moment that when he was helping replace her clothes, he hadn’t thought to give her shoes. He’s oddly caught by the detail of her bare feet, and that last little curl of blue making its way around her ankle. But she tilts his chin back up, away from all that, and when he meets her gaze, he almost thinks she’s about to kiss him again.
Instead, she winks, making sure to make the gesture with her left eye. And the last of the power that she’d redirected flows straight into him. It feels…kinder this time, somehow. Less like dizzy delirium. More like an infusion of life.
She smiles at him before sinking back down.
“I got your back,” she says. “Let’s finish this.”
Rhys barely knows what he’s doing, and he doesn’t want to let go of her, not in the least. But he nods, slowly gathers himself back up, and takes the hint.
Purely mental creations are one thing, she’d told him earlier. But I called them projections for a reason. They can be seen in the real world if you try hard enough. It’s a little like a light show, or…
She fades, it all fades, and then Rhys feels his form crackling back to life, shaped by flickering lines of blue and purple light this time. The world around him is suddenly so much wider, because he’s outside again, standing in Jack’s destroyed office. And he’s facing himself—his human body, his real self—with his ruined arm and his malfunctioning data port, which is singed and scarred around the edges now. Jack’s staring back at him through the last bit of functional cybernetics. He looks…almost like he’s seen a ghost.
Or, Angel’s voice echoes, a hologram.
“Hello, Jack,” Rhys tells himself. “My turn.”
*flails a lot*
*mumbles something about comments and Tumblr and all the usual stuff and then just kinda goes "aaaaaaa" for a while until she picks herself back up to write the end of this*
The ruins, for a second or two, are almost silent.
Off in the distance, debris is still falling. Shadows pass by from a creature overhead, shrieking before it flies off in search of better prey. But apart from the creaks of slowly settling metal, nothing else nearby is making a sound.
The only people to be found there, in fact, are just staring at each other. One looks horrified. The other is horribly fascinated. It’s a subtle distinction, but Rhys can tell the difference—especially when he’s the one studying his own face.
“You bastard,” he whispers at last, while he makes the rounds of his stolen body. It’s hard not to make a catalog of all the wounds, some of which he’d gotten on his own time…but most of which were Jack’s fault. Like the arm. He can’t stop staring at the arm. “After all your talk…all that crap about taking me back before someone else takes advantage…you get a hold of me and this is what you do? You really do destroy everything.”
Jack’s voice is louder, but somehow sounds weaker. “You…you shouldn’t be able to…”
“What, do this?” Rhys comes back around to the front and spreads the hands of his projected form. “You thought you’d cut off my power, didn’t you? Well…surprise.”
Jack looks down at his hand and makes a face. It suggests he’s making an effort at something, but he’s getting stymied. There’s a faint glow around his fingers, but it’s only barely there. And Rhys peers at them, oddly curious now. He still hasn’t seen the entire pattern of his new tattoos, now that he comes to think of it. He wonders what they all look like.
He sure isn’t going to ask Jack to show him, though. For one thing, Jack doesn’t deserve to know.
“Angel.” Jack says it darkly, and grimaces as the light fizzles. “She did this.”
“Oh, what…we’re only talking about her like she’s a real person when you want to blame her for something?”
“Don’t you dare,” Jack growls.
“Dare what? I’ve seen her memories, Jack. I know what you did to her—”
There’s an inchoate sound of fury, and as if it’s an instinct he just can’t shake, Jack lunges forward. His hand goes straight for Rhys’ neck. It’s hard not to jerk away, but Rhys knows what’s coming, and so he keeps himself still as Jack’s hand passes straight through him.
“God,” he says, shaking his head as Jack struggles to steady himself. “You still haven’t learned?”
“I can still hurt you,” Jack grinds out. Rhys, who knows all too well how true that is, braces himself and counters him anyway.
“You can’t do that without hurting yourself, and you know it. Haven’t you already done enough?”
Something about that must have hit Jack oddly, because his eyes go wide before a look of twisted humor takes over.
“Oh, Rhysie,” he says, laughing bitterly. “Why do you think I’ve been fighting so hard, huh? Why do you think I wanted a body back? My life back? I died before I got to the end of my own damn story, Rhys. Of course I haven’t done enough.”
“Pretty sure the people of Pandora would tell it differently.” Rhys shivers in a little ripple of light. “And so would your daughter.”
Jack points one shaking, accusatory finger. “You don’t get to speak for her. And neither does this…this thing in my head.”
“She’s real, Jack, and you know it.”
“She’s a shadow!”
“No,” Rhys says quietly. “You are.”
Jack turns away, spitting something furious. Rhys can still see how his face crumples at that. It’s awful seeing himself look that wounded, on every possible level.
But he’s not backing down now.
“This is it, Jack,” he says flatly. “I’m taking my body back. This is over.”
“Over.” Jack laughs hollowly. His hand goes to his wounded shoulder, holding back a slow trickle of blood. “And what are you going to do once you wipe me out, huh? What is left for you?”
Rhys stays silent and listens to Jack, listens to himself, lay out one long litany of loss.
“Your friends are gone. Your career. Your home. All your plans, all your dreams…I’ve gotten a good look at what’s in here, and I know you, Rhys. I know you better than anyone. So I’ll tell you what you won’t tell yourself: everything you have ever wanted is gone. So what is the point?”
It’s so horribly close to true that Rhys shudders again. But there’s one thing in that Jack’s got wrong. Something that Jack never, ever understood.
Rhys leaves it unspoken, but he holds onto it for all he’s worth.
“My future’s my call,” he says as he moves forward, holding Jack’s wide-eyed stare. The ECHO eye’s starting to glow, as if Jack’s making one last-ditch effort to do something in there. To trick him. Hack him. But it’s not going to work. Bringing all his focus to the eye only makes this easier.
“And you,” Rhys whispers, just as Angel closes in from behind, “have no place in it.”
“Wait.” The eye flickers. Jack suddenly wobbles on his feet. “Wait—”
Rhys tries not to listen to his own terrified voice. He focuses every last bit of power Angel’s given him before his hand brushes Jack’s face—almost, almost able to touch—and his thumb presses in against the eye.
“Executing phase shift,” he whispers.
Jack doesn’t have enough control left to scream. Rhys feels it anyway, right down to his bones, as Jack’s memories and machinations and self break apart.
Then all at once, it stops.
It goes quiet again. Rhys has just enough time to see his body collapse before he, too, breaks up into nothing but falling sparks.
The softest sound follows him down, like the brush of someone’s wings.
It’s a long time before anyone finds out what’s become of him.
The wreckage of Helios goes for miles, and even Pandora’s most industrious scavengers have their work cut out for them sorting through it all. A strange band of refugees makes the most headway—almost, a few observers say, as if they have insider knowledge of the station—but no matter how hard their leader searches, because he’s definitely looking for something specific, the most he can find of his absent friend is the broken remains of a cybernetic arm.
He sits there in the ruins with it for a long, long while before consenting to return to the base. Without a word said about it, he takes the arm with him.
And in his wake, before she retreats too, his second-in-command spitefully orders those enormous statues of Jack to be blown up. She has no way to know it, but the last possible remains of Handsome Jack—the black box backup drive his AI had fled to, embedded into the left statue’s base—is destroyed right along with them.
She’d have been at least a little satisfied if she knew.
Back at Hollow Point, one of the few settlements in the region protected from the fallout, life starts returning to normal—after a fashion. Two of the most notorious bandits in town return to find their bounties rescinded, since no one’s left to collect on them. So they have a little time at least to find some respite. It’s hard, though, even thinking of getting back to how things were. Too much is gone, and too much changed. And both of them…
Both of them have people they miss.
One of that number, assumed dead and destroyed in the fall of Helios, has secreted himself away with a particularly valuable piece of scavenged equipment. It’s going to require deft engineering work to assemble his new body—and deftness is a challenge when he’s this broken down—but he’s determined in a single-minded way that perhaps only robots can truly muster. He has companions to gather and a friend to save, and he’ll do anything he can to make that happen.
It’s an eerie parallel, although he doesn't know the whole of it either, to what’s happening at the abandoned Atlas installation where all this mess truly began.
People had called it a ghost town before, but there are really stories now.
No one lives there anymore, no one works there—everyone knows that. But it doesn’t explain the odd signs of activity around the place. Power spikes that light up the sky out of absolutely nowhere, then dim to utter blackness. Noises like long-dead machinery grinding back to life. Once or twice, echoing from deep within the facility, there’s a chillingly human scream. Or possibly a wild laugh. Or both.
Of course, considering the only real source of the stories is the psychos still loitering around the edges of town, no one pays the ravings much mind.
So no one really knows what’s getting pieced back together in the halls of Atlas, bit by painful bit—and they don’t know how difficult an effort it is, or just how broken the pieces were. But what’s emerging from the wreckage is something stronger and stranger than before.
Before anyone can begin to guess as to the truth of it, the person at the center of it all is out and on the move.
And he’s not exactly alone.
There’s a technical rattling through the desert, on the way to a greenhouse at the edge of the frigid wilderness.
It’s a risky drive to make, considering the sheer number of predators one might encounter out there, but at least Rhys knows the way. Besides, it’s amazing how many creatures simply give him space, these days. It’s more than a little weird. He figures, though, that it’s got to be something about the new energy signature since the last round of fixes and upgrades he did in that difficult time back at R&D. He’s been calling it The Fuck-Off Aura. As unexpected side effects go, that’s one he’s not planning to turn down.
So he relaxes a little at the wheel for once, taking the opportunity to give his internal diagnostics another scan.
“How’s the new eye?” he hears, from over in the passenger seat. Rhys adjusts his focus before he replies. The new eye’s great, actually, and his long-distance vision is a hell of a lot better than it used to be, although it’s still disconcerting balancing that out with the ordinary input from his human eye. He’s been tweaking the settings to zoom more on command instead, and it’s working out all right.
“You know perfectly well how the new eye is,” he answers, smiling crookedly. “You can look out of it yourself, remember?”
“Yeah, but I mean, how’s it working for you?”
They’ve had this discussion in a lot of different ways. Rhys knows what it’s really about, but he doesn’t dwell on it. “Kinda like everything else,” he says, scratching briefly at the still-healing joint where the new arm’s attached. “It’s getting there.”
He feels the slightest hint of a touch beside his own hand on his shoulder. Something about it puts a lump in his throat, but he leans into it anyway and keeps on driving.
They make it to the greenhouse facility soon enough.
Technically speaking, he owns the place these days, which feels odd. Well, okay, Atlas owns the place, and ever since fishing their deeds out of the wreckage, he’s single-handedly in charge—if “single-handedly” can possibly apply to him anymore. It sure did in a literal sense for a while, at least, but fortunately, that’s fixed. Getting the new arm installed was a terrible relief, and he has to admit, he’s pleased at the looks of the chrome. Atlas was apparently way more stylish about this stuff than Hyperion ever was. It’s a trend he’s intending to continue.
He’s also hacked the internal workings of this particular piece in a way neither Atlas or Hyperion had ever intended, but that access panel on the forearm is…well, important these days.
He gives his diagnostics another quick check, noting the power level of the eridium cartridge inserted into the arm. 97% capacity, it reads. He smiles, if a little tightly. All the adjustments he’s been making for efficiency seem to be working just fine.
It doesn’t change the fact that he’s going to need more supplies, and soon. It doesn’t make it any better that he needs the stuff far more than he’s comfortable with. But the one memory of Jack’s he made sure to keep, just in case, was a set of mining locations…and hey, when it comes right down to it, this eridium thing is just another engineering problem. He can solve engineering problems. He’ll fix this, too. Eventually.
For today, though, he’s glad he doesn’t have to worry about it. Yeah, he’s got things he needs to do and people he has to find, and the feeling something huge is still on the horizon…but for a little while at least, that can wait.
Today, after all, is for her.
“All right,” he says, catching himself before an unwanted kiddo escapes his lips. It’s just a memory, though, he reminds himself. Just a shadow. “We made it. Welcome to Atlas Terraforming.”
At that he finally turns to see her, which turns out to be good timing. Angel’s just thrown her hood back, revealing her face. It’s really a sight to see. At the prospect of experiencing a place like this first-hand—and seeing something green and growing for the first time in years—her eyes are absolutely shining. It’s impossible not to grin back at her when she smiles.
Then she hops out of the car, landing with bare feet that clearly don’t feel the cold—but which make, if you look at it at just the right angle, subtle little footprints in the snow.
Rhys should probably slow down to think about that, but he doesn’t. He just smiles again at her laugh of excitement, puts on all the speed he can, and hurries after her.
A faint trace of light lingers in the air long after he’s gone.
So I know there's a lot of Episode 5 left, and there are scenes yet to tackle, stories yet to tell (and a certain current-day, Fiona-POV scene I'm still REALLY tempted to write where Rhys springs all this on her), but this is the part that I really, really wanted to write...and I think it's time to step back and let Rhys and Angel take a little bit of a break.
So for now, I, too, am calling this done.
Thanks SO much to everyone who's been reading and commenting -- I appreciate it so, so much -- and I hope you've all enjoyed! And stick around, because who knows...there may yet be vignettes in this AU yet to come. God knows I've had no luck not indulging my notions about it so far. :)
*goes off muttering about "short" story ideas, hah hah, brain, that's real cute...*