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Break It Down to Build It Up

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Hey pumpkin. You really kicked my ass, huh? Hey, well, credit due where credit’s due – that’s not easy! See, I’m kind of a friggin’ hardass. Killing a hero’s no easy task, kid, so hey, well done. And hey, you opened the vault, saved the day, and you’ve got a nice chummy group of friends to go home to. Hoo-fucking-ray. Let me just bust out the confetti, sweetcheeks. Shit, I’d be spraying confetti out of my dick for you if I could. I’m beside myself, pumpkin, I really am. Like a proud fuckin’ father. The kind who isn’t screwed over by his own kids.

Thing is, you really think it’s gonna be that easy? You think I’ll just slink away with my tail between my legs? Just because you got rid of a few bits of metal in your head?

Ha, oh man. That’s hilarious. Listen, sweetheart. I’m in more than your cybernetics. These roots run deep, alright, me and you, we’re committed now. I’m in your brain. I’m in your flesh. I’m in your frigging soul.

And I am not. Going. Away.

 

The first few seconds Rhys woke up, he had no idea why he wasn’t in his crappy Hyperion dorm room, looking up at some looming six foot poster of Handsome Jack. The fact he was in some kind of weird jungle thing, like some old-school natural history museum exhibit, was even more confusing. Looking around at the shrubbery, and wincing at the rain falling on his face, he rolled over and pressed his hand into his aching forehead.

Why the hell was he…

The events of the past few months rushed back. Vasquez, the fake Vault Key, Fiona and Sasha, Jack, Gortys, LB, and finally the Vault. He had found and opened a Vault. He had killed a Vault Guardian.

Goddamn. He is a stone cold badass.

When he has enough help, anyway.

But he still had no idea where he was.

A spotted insect crawled over his hand. He shrieked and jumped away. The little insect flew away harmlessly, and Rhys was glad nobody was around to see that.

Rhys looked around at all the plants, long pale trees and glowing mushrooms, huge flowers with big spreading petals. It sure as hell doesn’t look like anywhere on Pandora or Helios. Not even anywhere back home – though Rhys had always lived in the suburbs, he wouldn’t really know what the jungles back home would look like.

It looked…sort of like the Atlas facility.

“Fiona? What’s going on?” he groaned, lifting his head up and looking around more carefully.

Fiona was nowhere to be seen.

Shit.

Rhys stood up, trying to hide the extent of his panic.

Okay, sure, he was a stone cold badass vault hunter, but Fiona was the one with a gun. And Rhys had no idea where he’d left his shock baton, probably somewhere on Helios. In unfamiliar territory on Pandora, no matter how peaceful it looked, you needed a weapon.

“Fiona?” he called again, “If you’re hiding to freak me out, job done, I’m freaked out. Please come out now.”

Nothing but the sound of rain answered him.

“Okay, okay. This is fine. I can work this out,” Rhys said, “I’ve been alone on Pandora before…sure on a, uh, hyper-protected ruin of an Atlas facility…with running water…and lots of fruit…but still. I can do this. Let’s just…”

Rhys activated his ECHOeye, hoping to at least get a GPS on where he was, maybe call Vaughn or Sasha for help. LB could always swoop by and pick him up if all else failed, that was always a reliable option.

No connection found.

“Okay. Oookay. Stay calm. There’s gotta be a connection. Even a planet like Pandora has planet-wide ECHOnet by now.”

Rhys attempted to reconnect. He sank down to perch on the roots of a tree, watching the Connecting circle go round and round – surely propelling him closer to a nice safe ECHOnet connection and an automatic route home –

No connection found.

“Oh come on!” he blurted out, wishing he had something to throw.

He tried again. And again. And again.

Nothing. He was lost in the jungle, he had no idea if he was even on the same planet he had been a few minutes ago, and Fiona was nowhere in sight.

And he had no internet connection.

“Oh. God,” Rhys muttered and curled up into a ball.

 

Statistically speaking, Yvette should not be alive. She should have been a dead woman the second Rhys left her in that cell to rot, like the total asshole he was. The chance of surviving the fall of Helios was just ludicrous. Even the escape pods, statistically speaking, were more likely to just kill you upon entering the atmosphere than actually get you to safety. It was about a 60:40 chance – Yvette should know, she’d been part of the team crunching the numbers.

Yet she survived. Somehow, against every realistic expectation.

Maybe that shouldn’t surprise her as much as it did. Rhys and Vaughn, of all people, had survived Pandora. Like, those guys had once gotten their asses kicked by a high school intern. Anything was possible

She’d woken up poked and prodded by a CL4P-TP unit, half-dead, surrounded by burning wreckage, terrified, in pain, and completely confused. Soon she found herself running from open fire, fumbling with whatever firearms she could loot from unattended chests and corpses, and smashing Psychos’ skulls in with the butt of a Jakobs shotgun.

From the stories she’d heard, this was a pretty typical introduction to Pandora.

She didn’t have much of a goal, wandering. The dream was to get the hell off this awful planet. Space travel, however, wasn’t something Pandora was known for, what with being half-destroyed with eridium mining and Jack’s mad search for Vaults, centuries of violence, and a local flora and fauna that all looked like it was designed by a 14 year old boy.

So Yvette wandered. She grabbed bounties and scavenged, she sold what she had to spare, and she kept her ears open for any hints of a way home.

Children of Helios was a title coming up more and more lately, mostly in late-night bar gossip. A band of unlikely heroes that had fallen from Helios, led by a muscular and extremely handsome Bandit King, that were using Hyperion’s tech for the good of the borderlands. Apparently they worshipped a guy they called the Great Liberator.

Sounded ludicrous. More likely than not, her surviving colleagues had completely lost their minds and started a cult. It would be very…Hyperion of them.

Sure, she was Hyperion too, but she hadn’t plastered her office walls with pictures of Handsome Jack like some people she could mention. She entered the company for the bonuses, the career progression, and the excellent insurance plans. She had made real, sensible grown-up career decisions that she’d pursued through hard work, interviewing practice, and a hell of a lot of networking.

Not just chopped off her right arm and skewered out one of her eyeballs for the vague chance of meeting her childhood crush, like certain hipster idiots.

Yvette wrenched a pistol out of a dead bandit’s hand a little hard, and ended up breaking the corpse’s fingers. Taking a breath, she checked the gun and tucked it under her cloak. She’d taken to wearing stuff that covered her as much as possible – big cloaks with hoods, masks, and a hell of a lot of armour underneath all that.

It wasn’t to look cool.

(Although she did look very cool, she thought, privately to herself.)

It was so nobody took one look at her, identified her as former Hyperion jackass, and really pulled out all the stops to put her head on a pike. She had never quite grasped how much people on Pandora hated Hyperion. She had known but…they really hated Hyperion.

Yvette continued on, keeping low to the ground and moving quickly. All she needed to do was take out one of the local skags – some mean bruiser called Curly Howard.

The job had seemed simple, sort of. She had heard Curly was a vicious motherfucker, but hey…skags, right? You practically started your mornings on Pandora shooting a skag to death. Couldn’t be that hard.

And it was a lot of money. Maybe enough she could finally buy a runner. A big one. With armour, layers of shields, and a rocket launcher on top. Then she could just drive around this planet until she found a way off it.

She passed rakks hanging upside down from a long loop of stone, snoozing in the midday sun, barely daring to breathe. Rakks were kind of a pain to take on alone; the best thing to do was avoid them.

She checked her ECHOcomm. The waypoint she’d downloaded from the bounty board was close by. Yvette checked the scope of her sniper – a few hundred feet away was a big skag hole.

Presumably, her mark.

She settled down on a high, rocky outcrop, far away enough to be safe, with plenty of potential cover.

The Pandora thing was easy when you had a brain, Yvette thought to herself. It was the idiots who charged in all guns blazing that died. Which, since everyone on Pandora seemed to be in a planet-wide dick-measuring competition, was most of the population.

After what felt like an eternity of lying staring at some rocks, skags began to emerge from their den. A few whelps, a couple of adults, and a few skinny green ones she’d never encountered before. They didn’t look particularly tough though – not tough enough to get a name, at least.

She kept waiting. The sun began to set as finally, a big skag emerged from the nest, dragging its huge feet and tossing its head back and forth, saliva dripping from the folds of its toothy mouth. Despite herself, Yvette winced. The animals on this planet were all so disgusting.

That, she assumed, was Curly Howard.

Yvette steadied the sniper, watching Curly threw the telescope sight and steading her aim on its head. She just needed to wait for it to yawn, or bark, then she could fire three quick rounds into its throat and shred the awful animal to pieces. Take out the smaller skags before they could figure out what was going on, then she could take Curly’s head and swap it for a tidy thousand.

Well, a few thousand after she negotiated the price even higher. Her business degree had to come in useful somehow.

Curly yawned, and Yvette fired. The skag fell dead in one shot.

And half a dozen rakk shrieked and raised from their perch underneath her, none of them remotely pleased at being woken up.

She was an idiot.

Yvette swore and rolled out of the way, swinging her sniper and taking one rakk out with a hard bash to the skull. She scrambled to her feet, firing wildly as more came down, shrieking and ramming against her, making her stumble and fall. Below, the skags began to howl and snarl, and she could hear them getting closer. She dropped the sniper, grappled for her shotgun and blew a hole in the nearest rakk’s torso.

A whelp grabbed the back of her cloak, snarling and tossing its head back and forth. She tore it out of its grip and slammed her heel into the skag’s skull, before blasting it to pieces. She reloaded another round, running from the rakk swooping at her.

Behind her, the skags were closing in. Though she swore it sounded like one of them was being sick. Turning, she fired a few rounds wildly, her hands slick with sweat. There was a thump as another whelp went down.

Behind it, Yvette saw Curly’s body.

Some other bounty hunter was bound to steal it if she didn’t get his head now.

And she still had all her SMG ammo.

So, Yvette decided to charge in, all guns blazing. Like an idiot.

This planet was really getting to her.

She drove her elbow into the nearest skag’s face and dashed away, spraying another round of bullets into the adult’s shoulder. It snarled and staggered, before taking a leap for her, jaws splaying open. Yvette ducked out of the way and threw herself towards Curly. She grabbed hold of the skag’s head with one arm and taking her knife from her belt, driving it through the neck as hard as she could.

“Come on,” she snarled. One of the skags grabbed her shoe, snarling. She kicked it away, and then drove the knife through Curly’s neck again.

Curly’s head came off with a grotesque slurp and snap, followed by a burst of stench hard enough to make her gag. She stood, taking the skag’s head under her arm, and trying to ignore the damp feeling spreading through her clothes. She killed the skag nearest to her with a blast.

One of the green ones leapt for her, she dodged and hit it with the butt of her gun, before firing a round through its skull. It dropped dead.

That was it, she realised. The rakks had left, and the skags were dead. She had won. She had Curly’s head, and her financial future was secure. If she wasn’t gasping for breath, she’d jump up and down on the spot and scream to the heavens. Pandora had thrown its worse at her and she was still fucking standing and –

Pain.

She screamed, and fell, Curly’s head slipping from her grip, and landed cheek-first in the sand.

One of the green skags had latched onto her leg, green liquid oozing from her mouth and sizzling holes through her clothes, down to her bare skin. She reached for her gun with one hand through the pain, kicking her leg.

With a groan, she grabbed it and jabbed the barrel into the skag’s face, and pulled the trigger.

The skag’s skull shattered, splattering her with blood, and it fell to the floor. Yvette hissed through her teeth and leaned over to look at her leg, and then resisted the powerful desire to vomit.

“This is okay, I got this,” she muttered to herself, finding a health vial from her pockets. She readied the needle and slammed it into her leg, trying and failing to resist the urge to scream. The pain ebbed away, slowly, and she pulled her trouser leg down. She didn’t want to look at it anymore.

She stood and grabbed Curly’s head.

Well, she might as well get the bounty.

 

Rhys didn’t stay in the ball for very long. It wasn’t like he was pathetic or anything. He’d just never been offline. Not since installing the ECHOeye at least. He just needed a few seconds to compose himself, that’s all.

Rhys stood and took a breath.

“Okay, okay. No ECHOnet, no weapons, no Fiona, no Vaughn, no Sasha, no LB, no – “

No Jack.

“No anybody. And that’s fine! I’ve got this.”

Not sure you do, sugarplum, a sarcastic voice whispered at the back of his head. Rhys shooed it away.

Rhys looked around, trying to decide on a direction to walk, just to start. He couldn’t just sit in the trees forever. Surely, if he started walking, he’d eventually hit civilisation. Then he could hook up to the net, find Fiona, and get home. Or at least somewhere familiar, since home wasn’t really a thing he had anymore.

He set off….maybe west? It felt west, anyway.

“Fiona?” he called out, clambering over the undergrowth, “Fiona? You there?”

“Rhys?” came a small voice.

“Fiona? Where are you? Fi?” he shouted, looking around wildly, “Oh, God, are you invisible? Did the Vault turn you invisible?”

Something soft hit him on the top of the head.

“Up here, idiot!”

Rhy looked up. Fiona waved down at him with the barest twitch of her fingers, clinging with her legs and arms to the tree branches. Rhys looked down and saw her hat in the grass below.

“Haha, what are you doing up there? Did you see like, ten dollars on one of the branches or something?” he yelled up at her, picking up her hat and waving it up at her. Fiona glared at him, and he was pretty sure she was attempting to give him the finger without actually letting go of the tree.

“I just…I just woke up here, okay! Help me down!”

“What? Just climb!”

“No, come up here and help me!”

“Ha! Oh my God,” Rhys said, putting his hands on his hips, “Fi. Are you afraid of heights? Come on. Just tell me, if you are, I won’t judge.”

“That’s – that’s not the issue! Just get up here and help me down!”

“Alright, alright,” he said, placing Fiona’s hat on his head and limbering up, “Just gotta…do my stretches. You know, before I get up there and rescue you, like a knight in shining armour.”

“Urgh. Shut up.”

He stretched out and grabbed onto the lowest hanging branch with his cybernetic arm. Bracing the soles of his feet on the tree trunk, he pulled himself up.

“Hey, any bugs down there?” Fiona called. Rhys looked up at her.

“Uh, there’s some beetles and mosquitos and stuff?” he called, stretching up to grab the next one. He hadn’t climbed a tree since he was ten. It was way harder than he remembered.

“Anything…any nests, anything like that? Weird birds or snakes or anything that looks poisonous?” she called, as he managed to hike up another few feet, almost falling only half a dozen times. He didn’t even want to look up, or even look away from his hands or feet for a second. Now that he thought about it, had he ever climbed a tree when he was a kid? He was pretty sure he spent most of his time on his computer, come to think of it.

“No? Why the hell are you –“

The branch he was hefting himself onto shook all of a sudden, and Rhys fell with a squawk. He sat up, groaning, and looked up. Fiona stared at him from the tree.

“Are you okay?”

“Hold on, did you just make me check the route was clear for you?” Rhys said, sitting up.

“Sorry, Hyperion boy, when you’re Pandoran born and raised, you learn to take precautions,” she said, and dropped to the ground. Fiona took her hat back from him and dusted it off, putting it back on.

“Sooo, where are we?” she asked, “Back in that Atlas greenhouse thing?”

Rhys pointed up.

“Don’t think so. No dome or anything,” he said, “I was kind of hoping you could tell me, Ms Pandoran-born-and-raised.”

“Um. Looks like a jungle,” she replied, rubbing her neck.

“Wow. Ve-ery helpful.”

“Urgh, shut up!” she said, jabbing him on the forehead, “You’re the one with a computer in your brain. You tell me.”

Rhys scowled and pushed her hand away.

“Easy on the head. I think we both know that’s had enough damage,” he said, “And no, the ECHOnet’s down here. I can’t scan, and I can’t look up where we are.”

“You’re kidding?” Fiona said, “What now?”

“We…we must be on Pandora, right? The Vault wouldn’t send us off-world,” Rhys said, trying to sound like he had any reason to believe that, “Look, let’s just keep walking, and hopefully we find a town, or an Echo connection, something like that.”

Fiona made a face at him.

“Look, do you have any better ideas?” he snapped, and Fiona threw her arms up in defeat.

“Okay, we walk. Not like we have much choice,” she said.

 

Rhys was pretty sure he’d never walked so far or for so long in his life. He had said that when he and Vaughn were lost in the desert, but this time he really meant it.

The forest, or jungle – Rhys wasn’t sure what the difference was, and found himself habitually reaching for an ECHOnet search for the answer – was at least a lot nicer than the Pandoran desert. For one, none of the plants or animals tried to kill them. And it was pretty.

He just tried not to think about the way it didn’t look like humans had ever set foot here. Or about how hungry he was. Or how sore he was. Or how thirsty.

He could practically hear what Jack would be saying if he were here. He’d be floating nearby, a grim sort of smirk on his face.

You are gonna die out here, pumpkin, you and her both. See, this is what happens when you screw me. This is what happens when you pick your friends over Handsome Motherfucking Jack.

His head still hurt like hell.

“Wonder how the others are,” Rhys muttered, after they’d lapsed into an exhausted silence too long to be comfortable.

“They’ll be fine. Sasha’s there,” Fiona said, “And Loader. Vaughn, too. They can handle themselves.”

Rhys nodded, and ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch, stumbling down a bank. He turned to help Fiona climb her way through.

“Has Vaughn always been that ripped?” she asked.

“Ha. Not always,” Rhys said, “I’m not sure when that happened. He was pretty fat back in college. I didn’t realise he took his weight-loss regime that seriously though.”

“I can’t imagine the little guy as a fat dude,” Fiona said, “But I guess since I’ve always lived among people almost always on the brink of starvation, I never saw that many fat guys.”

“Uh. Yeeah, guess you wouldn’t,” Rhys replied, suddenly feeling conscious of the fact this was the longest he’d ever went without eating. He coughed and continued, “Speaking of which, we should think about finding food soon.”

Fiona nodded, and pulled a knife from her boot. Rhys jumped, putting his hands up. Fiona tilted her head at him.

“What? You always need to carry a knife,” she said, gesturing with it in a way that made Rhys frankly nervous, “Um, so, I guess we just cut off some of the plants around here, eat it and hope they don’t kill us?”

“You’ve never done this before?” Rhys asked hopelessly. He always assumed that growing up on Pandora, Sasha and Fiona had spent all their time eating like…grubs or something.

“Hell no. Felix always kept us well-fed. You know we can buy food on Pandora, right?” she replied, “I mean, we don’t always have to resort to cannibalism and chewing on shoe leather.”

Rhys held his hands up.

“Alright, alright, you made your point,” Rhys said, “But I have no idea what we can eat, and we can’t scan it.”

We are so screwed.

“Then…uh, we…taste-test?” she said, “Let’s just flip a coin. Whoever wins doesn’t have to eat the potentially hazardous substances first!”

“Yeeeah, as fun as that sounds, let’s….let’s just keep walking for now.”

We are going to literally die out here.

 

After the sun set, it got a lot harder to walk. Aside from the bobbing and zipping fireflies that seemed to cluster everywhere, and the thin sliver of the moon above, there wasn’t a pick of light to be seen. They hadn’t seen any other people, animals, any signs of civilisation.

It would have been a really, really nice hike if Rhys wasn’t hungry enough it felt like his stomach was trying to turn inwards and eat itself. Fiona looked like she was dealing with it better, but maybe Fiona was more used to being hungry and tired.

“I miss Zero,” he blurted out. Fiona immediately began to laugh.

“That’s who you miss? Not your best friend, or my sister, or Loader Bot. No, it’s the weird ninja guy you have a crush on?”

“No, I mean – he’d be able to deal with this. He’s like, a big cool badass Vault Hunter, not like us” he said, and added wistfully, “If Zero, or Athena, was here, we’d already be home. Well, back at your caravan.”

Fiona looked at him, looking as though she wasn’t sure whether to smile or not.

“The caravan’s home now, is it?”

“Uh. I dunno. I’m really tired,” he said, “That or the Atlas facility. Or Helios I guess.”

“Yeah, well, remember, we’re Vault Hunters now. Or, I am, at least. You can be my sidekick,” she added, “Urgh, its getting dark.  We should set up camp. Besides, we’ve been walking for ages – we must have made plenty of distance.”

“Right, right, okay Ms Badass Vault Hunter,” Rhys said, and pulled up his ECHOeye display – what was working without the ECHO connection anyway, “You do know we’ve only been walking for four hours, right?”

Fiona ground to a halt and turned to him, the horror clear on her face.

“Oh God. Seriously. That’s it? Oh God,” Fiona said, and sank to the floor, “I feel like my legs are going to fall off.”

“I feel like I’m going to starve to death. Like, right here, right now. Just, you know in cartoons, where a character just kind of fades away and then all that’s left is a pile of bones on the floor? That’s what’s going to happen. Get a good look at my pretty face while you can, because soon I’m just going to be bones.”

“That’s practically all there is of you anyway, Rhys,” Fiona said.

“Har har.”

He sank down next to her, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t see a thing, even with the ECHOeye.

He fidgeted, the ground hard under his ass. He didn’t exactly wish he was back on Helios, but he did wish he was back somewhere with a mattress, a fridge, and running water. And maybe somewhere he could get take-out.

His stomach groaned, and Rhys pressed a hand over it.

He couldn’t help but feel like Jack would, at least, know what to do. He’d been an irredeemable asshole, sure, but he knew Pandora, and he could survive. He’d probably scavenged and hunted food before.

“We should go hunting in the morning,” Fiona said, “I can’t walk any further tonight though.”

Hunting what, Rhys couldn’t help but wonder. They hadn’t seen any skags, or bullymongs, or any of the other horrible things that passed for game on Pandora. Just insects and little frogs and a few of those weird jellyfish. Rhys wasn’t sure any of those would make for a good meal.

“That’s fair,” Rhys breathed out, and dropped his head onto Fiona’s shoulder.

Fiona shoved him away.

“Don’t do that.”

“Ow, jeez, sorry! Just felt like the moment,” he replied, rubbing his head and leaning against the tree instead. He was pretty sure they had found the most uncomfortable place to sit in the world, it felt like he was lying on a pile of rocks , but he didn’t have the slightest energy to do anything to fix that.

“Well, it wasn’t,” Fiona grunted.

“Duly noted,” Rhys said, rolling his eyes, “I’ll be sure not to show any affection to you in future.”

“Good,” Fiona said, and yawned, “Look, maybe everything will make more sense in the morning. We might actually be closer to home than we think. Hell, Sasha might drive by with the caravan while we sleep and pick us up.”

“Always possible,” Rhys muttered, as Fiona began to drop drowsily away, still mumbling about their supposed rescue in the morning. He couldn’t shake the feeling that she was, in her weird way, trying to make him feel better.

Fiona began to snore, but Rhys couldn’t drop off. He sighed and stared up at the sky, where what he hoped to hell was Elpis hung overhead.

Rhys wasn’t sure how this was meant to be the treasures of the Vault. And he’d been so pumped to open that big glow-y chest thing, sure there’d be some ancient artefact or uncountable riches within. Instead it had sent him on a…hiking vacation or something? One he’d likely die on, just out of starvation or dehydration. What a lame way to go, after taking down a monster the size of a skyscraper.

He had a feeling he might be being a bit melodramatic due to hunger. But it sure as hell felt like he might die out in this forest.

Ha, you might be onto something there pumpkin. See, I leave you alone for a tiny while and you fall to pieces. Ha!

Making sure Fiona was asleep, Rhys dug into his back pocket and fished out an ECHOeye lens.

No way. That wasn’t a good idea. They could do this by themselves. And Jack would never do anything but make the situation ten times worse. And Rhys couldn’t exactly guarantee he’d be able to take him down again if it all went wrong.

Rhys tried to keep convincing himself, the lens clasped in his first, as he dozed off.