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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.

Chapter Text

Yvette dumped the skag’s head on her employer’s desk, sending a Crimson Raider bobblehead toppling to the floor.

“Hey. This job sucked. Pay me.”

The man behind the desk was tall, masked, and cloaked. He spoke through a grisly voice modified, that made him sound like some kind of cheesy villain in space opera. As a result, he was pretty much indistinguishable from every other scheming money-grubbing bandit asshole on Pandora. He lifted the skag’s lip up with the butt of his gun, looking at the teeth, and gave Yvette a long, silent look.

“How do I guarantee this is Curly?” he asked. Yvette folded her arms. She did not need this before lunch, after the hell she went through to get this stinking piece of carcass.

“Oh, it’s him alright,” Yvette said, “I could tell because he was the biggest, nastiest skag there.”

Her employer – she had never gotten a name, but he had never gotten a name from her either, so fair’s fair – drummed his fingers on the desk, humming. Yvette took that as a cue to keep talking.

“And in fact, I took out a lot of the warren as well. Really, that should double my pay.”

“Hold on,” he said, and lifted a hand, “We never agreed on a rate of pay.”

Oh, he had to be kidding. She should be used to this, really, there wasn’t a person on this planet that hadn’t tried to screw her over yet.

“You said a thousand,” she replied, trying to sound as though she was just casually reminding him of something they’d long agreed on.

“No, no. I said it in the sense of ‘oh wow, I’d pay a thousand bucks if someone could get rid of Curly’. You know, the way you say ‘Man, I could eat a horse’,” he said, and walked around the side of the desk, keeping his distance from the skag’s still-dripping, still-stinking head.

He leaned forward, and Yvette somehow just knew there was a shit-eating grin behind that mask.

 “If I said that, you wouldn’t then go bring me a roasted horse, would you?”

Yvette’s eye twitched. She couldn’t believe they were trying to get out of payment on a technicality, just some little quirk of language use. It was like contracts she and Rhys used to draft up for Hyperion, usually over a bottle of wine and some take-out. It was exactly the kind of bullshit she thought she had at least left behind at Hyperion -

Wait.

Yvette bolted forward and grabbed her employer’s mask, seizing it by the edges. He screamed and tried to push her away, but he was surprisingly wimpy underneath the big mean-looking coat and mask. She seized the mask and tore it off and –

Debra?” she blurted out, too amazed to even attempt to contain herself.

A Hyperion accountants, trying to rip off bounty hunters. Unbelievable. And Debra, of all people, the woman who cried on every work night out she went on, and had took three months sick leave for a broken toe.

It was a ballsy move. An idiot one, but a ballsy one.

Debra looked up at her, her mouth dropped open and her eyes wide. Yvette could only marvel that the woman was living on a hostile desert hell planet, and still managed to wear too much eyeliner and blusher.

“Don’t kill me!” Debra squealed, throwing up her hands defensively, “I – I can pay. I have three hundred with me. I – I -I can go get the rest, just don’t’ kill me! I can get the money!”

“From who?” Yvette asked. Debra squeaked again, but pressed her lips closed tight, shaking her head. Yvette sighed and drew her pistol, jabbing it in Debra’s face.

Debra immediately burst into tears.

Great, Yvette thought. Now she looked like the bad guy.

Yvette pulled the gun from Debra’s face and leaned away from her, but didn’t loosen her grip on the woman’s arm. Debra sniffed.

“Alright, easy, easy,” Yvette said, “Now just tell me who I can get my money from. I don’t want to kill you, I just want to get paid, alright?”

“The Children of Helios,” Debra hiccupped, “It – most bounty hunters don’t argue too much about their money, they just take it and go. Like, we thought this would be a cheap way of dealing with issues in our territory a-and. At the time it just seemed like a really good ide-eahahah.”

Debra began sobbing in earnest again. Yvette pulled a face.

“Okay, that’s enough. Listen, I –“

Please don’t kill me-e-e-e-e!

Yvette slapped her.

Debra blinked and seemed to come to her senses. She wiped the snot pooling on her upper lip and blinked her eyes a few more times.

“Calm the hell down, Debra.”

“How did you know my name?” Debra whimpered.

Yvette paused. She had never exactly been buddy-buddy with Debra, but they had been ECHObook friends, they’d went to the same company networking meetings, and she hadn’t ever been one of the ones who took photos of her when she was drunk and crying at the end of a company night out. If Debra was grateful to see an old face, well…that might get her the two thousand she’d been hoping for.

Or she might just freak out. Yvette wasn’t exactly sure what the mood at Children of Helios was, or how favourably they viewed ex-Hyperion who hadn’t already joined their creepy little club.

Debra sniffed again.

It was probably about time Yvette got in touch with her old colleagues again anyway. As much as she hated to admit it, the lone wolf thing wasn’t getting her particularly far, so touching base with people who might not want to kill her on sight was always a smart thing to do.

Though if she saw Rhys at all she might just shoot him.

Yvette pulled off her mask, and did her best charming smile – a little wry, a little sexy. Like some cool, ironic hipster chick.

“Hey, Debra. It’s great to see you again,” she said.

“Yvette?” Debra said, sounding as though she scarcely believed her eyes, “Oh…wow! We thought you had died! I mean, Vaughn had never told us the specifics but -”

Yvette released her grip on Debra’s arm, and spread her hands with a smirk. Debra gawked at her.

“So, how’s the old crew?” Yvette asked, “Any chance I can grab lunch with you guys or something?”

Tentatively, Debra began to smile.

 

Rhys woke up stiff, his head dropped against Fiona’s shoulder and…something gnawing at his trousers?

He yelped, kicking out, realising too late that the something was in fact quite small, white and fluffy. The bunny sailed through the air and landed in the bushes. Fiona jolted awake beside him, hat falling from her face. Her gun burst from her sleeve, and she aimed it around at random.

“Sorry, uh. It was just a little bunny thing,” Rhys said, holding his hands up. Fiona grunted and retracted her pistol, grabbing her hat and dusting it off. “Oh…man, I hope that thing was okay. I feel like the worst human being alive.”

“If you could not wake me up screaming that’d be great. Where I come from, that usually means bad things,” she said, but smiled at him.

“I’ll try to remember that, but it’s hard to keep it in mind. After all, the hardest thing I ever had to deal with back home was when the maid burnt my crème brulee. And that year I didn’t get the pony I wanted for my birthday.”

Fiona punched his arm.

“I figured as much,” she said, and stood up, stretching out her back. Rhys wondered why every time they had one of their slumber parties, it was always in a scenario like this. It would be nice to hang out with Fiona one day in a situation that wasn’t miserable, deadly, confusing, or some combination of all three.

Rhys got up, feeling as though someone had been stomping on his back, shoulders and neck in steel-toed boots all night. Not to mention the groaning emptiness that only seemed to be growing in his stomach.

“We seriously need to find something to eat today,” Fiona said, hearing his stomach gurgling.

“Yeah I –“ It was then Rhys looked down at what the hell he had been sleeping on all night, and he suddenly understood why his back hurt so badly. He didn’t understand how he’d managed to sleep without noticing though.

“Hey, Fi, look at this,” he said, and crouched down to pull some of the undergrowth and scrape away the moss. Fiona came to stand behind him, folding her arms.

“It’s a Claptrap unit?” she said, “That’s…weird.”

Rhys heaved the robot up and stood it upright. He gave it a quick scan with his ECHOeye, though with the ECHOnet down, it didn’t exactly tell him much. It was an old model, but any idiot could have figured that out, cybernetic implants or no.

The robot remained still, its eye dim and its wheel tucked away inside its chassis. For all of that though, it looked to be in one piece. Just inactive, maybe for a really long time. It looked like an ancient model, at that.

Thing would probably be worth something to collectors, Rhys thought to himself.

“If there’s a robot here, that means there must have been humans here at some point,” he muttered, “So, hey, good knews, the Vault didn’t dump us on a remote, uninhabited planet with no way of getting off. Probably.”

“So, we just have to hope we stumble across the other people here and they aren’t bloodthirsty bandits? Isn’t that what we were already doing?” Fiona said.

Rhys stood and began to attempt to pry off the Claptrap’s back panel, digging his fingers helplessly into the metal.

“Hey, hey, what are you doing?”

“Just trust me, I’ve got an idea! Just…urgh, help me with this, the thing’s rusted shut.”

“Oh. Hey. Yeah, that looks pretty shut. If only we had tools or something…or if we had a guy with a robotic arm…”

Goddamnit. He always forgot about that.

“Shut up, it’s not like this thing got much use before I came here. Aside from look awesome, I mean,” he muttered. He easily yanked the Claptrap open with his cybernetic arm, and began to poke around inside, guided by a light on his palm. Fiona came to sit cross-legged beside him.

“Sure. Sure. Okay, so this is me trusting you. What’s your idea?”

“Well, this thing’s gotta know the area,” Rhys said, turning on his ECHOeye to take a closer look at the circuitry the little robot was packing. The thing was practically an antique.

“So…”

“It might know the way to a town or a settlement…or at least what around here we can eat without dying,” Rhys said, “If I can get it running again.”

“Hey that’s…not an altogether terrible idea, Rhys,” she said.

“High praise, Fi. Why don’t you go scout the area, I might be at this a while.”

Fiona got to her feet and saluted him, before disappearing into the trees.

Rhys’s stomach groaned again. His damn head still hurt too. Along with pretty much every other part of his body. But hey, the Claptrap could help. Maybe.

He imagined what Jack would have to say on the topic:

Sure. Rely on the Claptrap. You know, that’s always a great idea. Those things are never dangerous malfunctioning idiots! Especially not when they’ve been left out in the dirt for like…ten years, twenty, a hundred, a thousand? Who knows. Not you, that’s for sure. Idiot.

Rhys shook his head, and blinked a few times.

You’d think having Jack in his head for so long would make him less inclined to think those kind of things at himself.

At least, he was pretty sure he was doing the thinking.

Like 90% sure.

 

“Oh, Master Vaughn is going to be so happy to see you,” Debra said, as their runner rumbled over another skag. Debra didn’t even wince at the sound of crushed beneath the wheels, as though she did it about a million times a day. Which, to be fair, she probably did.

“He is?”

“Of course, you guys were inseparable, back then! You, Vaugh, and the Great Liberator, Rhys!”

Yvette leaned back, her boots on the dashboard, trying not to think about it. She could still bail, she reminded herself. Just sort of hurt herself out of the passenger door, roll out and run away. Yet if Vaughn or Rhys hadn't said anything bad against her, maybe the Children of Helios wouldn’t hold a grudge against them for betraying their leader and their weird corporate messiah.

Besides, as far as Debra knew, Rhys might not even be there. She’d heard rumours of an Atlas CEO with a robotic arm, trying to build the company back to greatness out of the rubble, an old scientist at his right hand. She figured that was what Rhys was doing. More than once, she’d thought about tracking him down and kicking his ass for leaving her to rot. She was never quite sure what made her decide against it.

Debra looked at her expectantly.

“Yeah,” she said, “So what is Vaughn up to these days?”

“You know, I haven’t been to the base for a few days but there was this crazy story about him planning to track down Rhys and go after a Vault,” Debra said, “Okay, more importantly though, did you know he’s like. Totally ripped? Like I always thought he was kind of a little dweeb but uh, wow. Were you keeping him all to yourself?”

Yvette almost threw up inside of her mouth.

“Can’t say I ever knew,” Yvette said, leaning back on the chair with her arms spread out.

“What about Rhys? Is he like, ripped under that preppy little shirt too?”

Yvette was absolutely sure she threw up inside of her mouth that time. She swallowed.

“Oh, no. I saw Rhys with his shirt off at a game of strip poker once. Boy’s not got an ounce of meat on him. I think those tattoos are just to distract from his lack of skin pigment.”

Debra’s eyes went wide, and she stole a look at Yvette. Another skag was swallowed up by the runner’s wheels with a jolt and the wet squish of flesh-on-metal that was practically Pandora’s backing vocals.

“Rhys has tattoos?” she whispered.

Darnit. That wasn’t the reaction she wanted. The last thing she wanted was to help Rhys get laid – even if it was with a potential cry-maxer like Debra.

“Yeah. Across his chest and back. ‘Handsome Jack 4Ever’ on the chest, Jack’s face on the back," she said, "I'm surprised he's never shown you. He's really proud of them."

“Euurgh,” Debra said, “Forget I asked. And here we are! Base camp, former space station Helios, present day…um, well, we’re still voting on the name, anyway. A few people wanna name it after Rhys, but his first name isn’t very…noble-sounding. And we really haven’t been able to figure out what his last name is.”

Debra pulled up and unbuckled her seatbelt. Yvette could only stare out of the windscreen, at what looked like a pile of wreckage.

“Uh. This looks…nice,” she decided on, tactfully as possible.

Debra grinned at her.

“No, this is just our cover. You have to hike over the garbage to get home. Are you up for it?”

“Definitely,” Yvette said, getting to her feet.

Yvette said it, but clambering over the hideous honeycomb-yellow wreckage that was once Helios wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time. Not to mention her leg was in agony. It was starting to feel less like her leg, and more like some awful, hot dead weight she was dragging around behind her.

Yet she had to admit, getting to the top was worth it. Standing at the cusp of an abyss, where the remnants of Hyperion had scurried away from the rest of Pandora, Yvette looked out over it all, the pain in her leg momentarily forgotten.

The steel H of Helios half-rose out of the ground like a landed alien craft, but that wasn’t even the main thing she was looking at. Sprawled across the ground was the stone body of a gigantic monster.

Not far from the body, stood a towering stone arch, a rippling light held in it like a veil.

“Is that the entrance to a Vault,” Yvette said, her voice coming out choked, “And a Vault monster? A dead Vault monster?”

“Wow,” Debra said, her eyebrows bunching up. Yvette had learned the hard way in the past six hours of driving through Pandoran desert that that mean she was about to burst into tears. “They always do cool stuff when I’m out.”

Yvette wasn’t sitting through another one of Debra’s crying fits. She started making her way down.

 

“What the hell happened here?” Yvette said, marvelling at the gate and the monster, and then marvelling at the fact she and Debra seemed to be the only ones marvelling at it. The rest of the Hyperion people buzzed around it, busy and indifferent. Someone was actually sitting having their lunch on the monster’s skull, like it was just a very unconventional park bench.

Yvette, for lack of anything better to do, made her way towards the gate. Which, really, should be swarming with people. Vaults were the number one thing anyone on this planet wanted, even when what they should want was a reasonable and democratically elected local government, running water, and a drop in the crime rates.

People rarely wanted what was best for them, in Yvette’s experience.

The Vault door was so…pretty though. It wouldn’t hurt to peek, surely?

Yvette leaned forward and touched the tips of her fingers against the light. It felt warm. A steel grip clamped around her arm. In the most literal sense.

DO NOT, said a voice. Yvette found herself looking at…

Well, she wasn’t sure. The voice said Loader Bot, but the body didn’t. A robot, anyway.

SORRY, IT IS UNSAFE, the robot continued, and then paused, NO, SORRY. THAT WAS A LIE. IT IS PERFECTLY SAFE. BUT IT IS VERY DISAPPOINTING. I AM VERY TIRED OF HUMANS BEING UPSET BECAUSE THIS DOOR ISN’T AN EXCITING AS THEY THINK IT IS GOING TO BE.

Yvette tugged at her arm, and the robot loosened its (his?) grip. She rubbed her arm.

“Why? What’s so disappointing about it?”

ALLOW ME TO DEMONSTRATE.

The robot moved towards the door and walked through.

Just, kind of walked through. He waved at her from the other side of the light, and then walked back through.

HI.

“Oh,” Yvette said.

The robot was right. That was very disappointing.

At least Debra would be pleased – they’d managed to summon a Vault, sure, but it was the most boring Vault in the history of Vaults. She hadn’t missed anything at all.

“Thanks anyway,” Yvette said, and turned to make her way to the base.

WAIT, the robot said, moving in front of her and fixing her with a stare, I KNOW YOU.

“Uh, what?”

The robot suddenly grabbed her and tossed her over his shoulder like a caveman picking a wife. Yvette screamed, both from alarm and from the shooting pain in her leg from the sudden movement.

YOU MUST COME WITH ME NOW.

“What? Debra? Debra, where did you go? Someone, this robot’s crazy!” Yvette called out, though she didn’t dare to kick – the pain was making her woozy.

YOU ARE A CRIMINAL. THE WORST KIND OF CRIMINAL. A FRIENDSHIP CRIMINAL.

"Wh-what?" Yvette cried out, "Put me down!"

The robot began to run towards Helios, indifferent to Yvette's angry squawks.

 

“And, we’ve got it! Haha, Rhys, you are a genius,” Rhys said, finally, as the Claptrap’s eye lit up. It rose from the floor on its wheel, and its arms came from its side. He closed the back panel and looked at it, arms folded.

“Really, how many people could get a piece of junk like this working, with nothing but his own brainpower?” he continued, and then answered himself, “Oh, but, you know, as a professional it’s important I maintain modesty. I don’t want to brag about my own achievements…even though there are so many.”

“Oh, but you should,” he continued to himself, “You are the CEO of Atlas corporation, after all. Why shouldn’t you be proud of your accomplishments?”

“Oh just stop,” he laughed to himself.

“Please, do,” said a voice.

Rhys spluttered and looked up to where Fiona was watching him, smirking. She had taken her coat off, and held it splayed across her forearms. It looked as though she was carrying something, and Rhys’s stomach growled – probably optimistically. It didn’t look like she was carrying anything big.

“Oh, er, Fiona I was just…ahem. Anyway, I got the Claptrap on,” Rhys said, not having the energy to even attempt to salvage his long-destroyed dignity from the burning wreckage of his life. Fiona nodded and sat down next to her, and spread out her coat. On it, were a handful of measly plum-purple berries, a pair of pasty white root-or-maybe-mushroom-looking things, some little pale nuts sprouting green fur, and, must unnervingly, a squashed beetle. She also passed him a little hip-fask which, to his disappointment, turned out to be full of just water.

“Dibs the beetle,” Fiona said. Rhys tried not to stare.

“Oh, er, please, take it. I mean, it’s a big sacrifice for me, so I hope you appreciate that,” he said, and picked up one of the nuts. It was tiny and felt like a mothball between his thumb and forefinger. It didn’t exactly look like his Mom’s home-cooking. Or anybody’s home-cooking, really.

“Uh, look is any of this edible?”

Fiona gestured at the Claptrap.

“I was hoping our new friend could tell us,” she said, “Uh…is he. Shy or something?”

Rhys scratched the back of his head, looking at the Claptrap. It was whirring like a crappy old computer trying to boot up, and the light was on, so it should be working. Rhys was sure he had gotten it working.

“Maybe. I mean, a quiet Claptrap. That’d be lucky, right? I mean, that kind of find is one in a million!” he said. Fiona prodded the Claptrap in the chest. It remained steady on its wheel, but didn’t respond.

“Huh, uh. I’ll have a look at its AI programming. I’m sure it’s fine,” Rhys said and activated his EchoEYE again. He pressed his palm against the Claptrap’s eye and had a poke inside.

Lines and lines of code flooded his view, Fiona and their sad little supper disappearing. In a way, it was comfortable – this was something Rhys actually knew a damn thing about, after all. It was old and junky code, clearly cobbled together by someone who was very ‘Just get the damn thing to work’.

Maybe the little Claptrap had never been active.

Rhys dug deeper, peeling away layers of functions and parameters to dig into the Claptrap’s AI core, which was…

Rhys didn’t understand what he was looking at in the AI core.

He probed further, and slipped into the Claptrap’s personal logs, fragmented old files buried under more and more garbage code. He felt a little guilty – it was the kind of human-robot relations faux pas most programmers would wince at – but hey, desperate times, desperate measures.

The AI logs were confusing. The Claptrap had been the personal unit of some early Vault Hunters, they’d went after the Vault of the Traveller, and there had been…something. Then here, the Vault Hunters had died, and then…well the Claptrap’s recordings were already hard to decipher, being something recorded in a way that was more meaningful to a robot than a human, but they got even more incoherent after that. And then more, and then…some kind of realisation, some decision and then…

The AI was gone, Rhys realised.

He blinked and Fiona came back into view. She stared at him.

“Uh, you okay?” she said, “You look a little freaked out.”

Rhys scratched the back of his head.

“Eeergh, yikes, okay. How do I put this? I don’t think this Claptrap’s uh…alive,” he said.

“Uh. No. It’s right here,” she replied, gesturing at it as though Rhys were stupid. Rhys pinched the bridge of his nose.

“No, I mean. It’s like. Braindead. Empty. The lights are on but nobody’s home.”

“Wait, are you saying the AI itself is dead?” Fiona said, “How is that possible?”

“Uuh. Oh boy. It, uh, sounds like it made that decision for itself,” Rhys said, trying to think of a way to say it that didn’t sound horribly creepy. He moved away from the empty Claptrap unit, suddenly very uncomfortable with its still-glowing light, the way it was balancing itself upright.

“You’re kidding? An AI can commit suicide?” Fiona said, giving the Claptrap the same unnerved stare, “That’s horrible.”

“Yeah,” Rhys said and, despite himself, thought of the ECHOeye still in his pocket, and felt the sweat bead on the back of his neck.

Chapter Text

They wanted to give little Claptrap a decent burial.

Then they discovered that digging a grave with your bare hands was actually really hard, really slow, and really boring. Plus, after the first three minutes of digging they had both chipped a nail, and that was the end of that.

Instead, they decided to just leave the creepy little thing alone, and try not to think of the earth-shattering implications on AI sentience they’d just uncovered.

Sitting on Rhys’s coat, they went back to their little feast. With emphasis on the little.

“So, how do we figure out what kills us and what doesn’t?” Rhys said, though he was reaching the point of stomach-aching hunger that he’d shovel it all in his mouth and just hope for the best. Fiona seemed to have the same idea; Rhys had to wince away as she took a bite of her beetle.

“I say we just…split it, and make sure neither of us eat the same thing. Then if one of us gets sick, the other can take care of them. Right?” Fiona said.

Rhys knew, really, that was a terrible idea. He had went through with a lot of terrible ideas in his time (mostly since meeting Fiona, now he thought about it) and that was up there among the top ten.

His stomach, however, quickly managed to rationalise that yeah, actually, that was a totally reasonable and safe decision. Well done, Fiona. What a great plan. A great, safe, and totally well thought-out plan.

“Dibs the berries,” he said, and began to tuck in.

 

It wasn’t exactly a satisfying dinner, but it was food. Fiona ate the beetle and the nuts, while Rhys got the berries and the root-things. He had the sneaking suspicion that Fiona had let him have the bigger portion out of some kind of sense of chivalry for the poor stranded suburbs boy. If he had any pride left at all, it would probably be wounded.

It had grown dark overhead, so they built a fire together (harder than it was with Loader Bot’s help), and sat in the glade, leaning against the dead Claptrap. Their squeamishness about the robot had faded quickly enough.

Rhys was starting to suspect they didn’t have much of an attention span between them.

“So, what do we do tomorrow?” Fiona said, watching the flames, her chin on her arms.

“Keep going, I guess?” Rhys said, sweeping away a bug he felt crawling on the back of his neck, “I mean, we’ve gotten out of every other thing we’ve managed to get into by winging it.”

That or we die we die out here we die we -

“You have a point,” she replied, “Any ECHO signal?”

Rhys held his palm out and brought up an ECHO comm screen, trying to get through to Vaughn.

No connection found.

“Nope,” he said, and slapped away another bug, wincing as his metal hand hit flesh. Man, where were they coming from? They were making him itchy.

“Urgh, well, it was worth a shot.”

Another bug crawled over his arm and he slapped it away. Then his legs. Then the back of his neck. Then his cheek. Fiona stared at him, pulling a face, but didn’t say anything.

He felt weird.

“Fiona I feel weird.”

Yeah, he felt really, really weird. Every bit of skin itched and squirmed.

“You’ve probably got indigestion, Rhys, just relax.”

Rhys tried. He really did. But the sensation of crawling wasn’t going away, and he was starting to feel like someone was inflating a very big, very hot balloon in his chest.

“Fiona, no. Seriously. I feel really weird. Fiona. Fiona, is, uh, do I look okay? Do I look pale? Or sweaty, I feel like I’m sweating? A lot? Fiona, it’s really hot.”

“Rhys, you look fine! I mean, uh, you don’t exactly sound fine but –“

There were dozens of bugs on his chest. He stood and slapped them all away, not caring now that he was probably going to bruise himself with his arm. He felt as though he was slick with sweat all down his back.

“Fiona! Help!”

“Help with what! What am I gonna do, stop you hitting yourself?” Fiona said. Rhys shook his head, scratching away at the insects crawling over his skin. He could feel their tiny legs, bristling away under his shirt, at his bare skin, trying to burrow through his flesh. Some must have crawled up his trousers or something. They must have gotten in his coat when they were sitting on it before.

Rhys ripped his coat off and threw it to the ground, and then kicked it away. The crawling sensation continued.

“Fiona, there’s – there’s things crawling on me!” he said, and then, “I have to take my clothes off.”

“Urgh! No!” Fiona said, reaching out to stop him pulling his shirt off.

“Fi, you have to look, I think there’s things on me!”

“I don’t want to look at you with no clothes on!” Fiona shouted, and Rhys couldn’t believe she was doing this, at a time like this.

“Not like that!” Rhys said, still fighting to get his shirt off. Damnit, Fiona was really friggin’ strong. He managed to get his shirt over his face, but Fiona blocked him getting it off any further. He shouted through it, “Fiona if I thought you were hot I would have made a move by now but I don’t.”

“Excuse me? What’s wrong with me!”

“Nothing! That’s not what - oh god, Fiona. Fiona, I can definitely feel them on my ass.”

“Oh no, you are not taking your pants off,” Fiona said, “The scrawny chest is enough, that’s going to haunt my nightmares for weeks. Listen, Rhys, there is nothing on you.”

“Fiona, stop it! You need to help me!” Rhys said, and threw his shirt off over his head. He looked down at himself, wobbling on his legs. The ground beneath his feet was undulating as though something was slivering just under the surface of the earth, coiling under his feet.

He couldn’t see any bugs, but he could feel them, oh God. He fell on his ass and began swatting, scratching and slapping them away.

Fiona crouched next to him and grabbed his wrists, trying to pull him away from himself.

“Rhys, stop acting crazy!” she shouted, “You’re going to seriously hurt yourself.”

Rhys stopped, holding his hands still despite the crawling sensation all over his skin. It felt as though they were inside him, wiggling between his bones and muscles, making it feel as though he would burst through his skin. Despite himself, he felt himself start to get teary. Even Fiona’s face looked weird. All flat like a cartoon. His teeth felt funny.

It was sort of like when he and Vaughn used to get stoned in college. Or…the whole two and half times he and Vaughn got stoned in college.

Only horrible, and outside. And with Fiona instead of Vaughn. And they’d had a blanket. Rhys really wanted a blanket.

Fiona held onto his shoulders, a strange expression on her face. Rhys sniffed, trying his best not to scratch but Fiona didn’t seem to realise that he was going to die.

“I feel hot, Fiona. Everything looks weird,” he moaned.

“Rhys, okay, look at me,” he said, slapping his cheek gently, “I, uh, think you ate something bad.”

“No shit,” he muttered, shivering.

“Wow. Not bad enough to make you stop being a smartass, but…” Fiona said, and grabbed her flask from her belt, “Look, have some water, I’ll…I don’t know, I’ll deal with this. You’ll be okay.”

Rhys took the flask from Fiona, it almost slipping from his sweaty fingers. He took a swig – a bare trickle of water passed down his throat. He shook his head and handed it back.

“Urgh, none left. Can I take off my pants yet?” he said.

“Shit, no. Just. Stay there, I’ll go get more water,” she said, taking the hip flask, “And stay clothed.”

“Fiona, no, wait, don’t leave me here! What if I start, like, really tripping out? Seeing giant…giant spider people or something?” he said, grabbing her arm, “I’m too fragile for this! I’ll freak!”

“You’ll be fine, okay, I won’t be long. Like…water is what you give people in these situations, right? Just, try and relax, okay? Deep breaths, Rhys, deep breaths. And. Don’t hit yourself, again, okay?” she said.

“Fiona, wait –“

 Fiona pulled out of his grip and rushed away, leaves crunching under her boots – the sound was ridiculously loud.

“Traitor!” Rhys called after her, lifting his head up the floor. Fiona called unintelligible back at him, probably something about her obsession with him wearing clothes or something. He tried to stand up and follow her, but his legs refused to co-operate and his head swam, everything warping and stretching around him. He sank back to the floor, lying face-down. He turned onto his side and wrapped his arms around his torso.

 

Pumpkin, you are seriously fucked up right now.

“Shut up,” Rhys muttered into the grass, one hand in his hair. The crawling sensation had went away, but he was pretty sure he was now hearing voices. Or maybe he was just arguing with himself, he couldn’t tell.

I’m just saying. I leave you alone for five minutes, and then you’re poisoning yourself with shit you found on the ground and going on the worst camping trip I have ever seen. And we’ve both been on Hyperion team-building weekends, you know the standard I’m comparing this to here.

“We built a fire,” he croaked. He saw a pair of hands clapping, slow and sarcastic. He wasn’t entirely sure they were attached to anything. He sat up, the forest flat and faded around him.

Yep, great work sweetheart. Really, just, top notch attempt at not dying.

“Urgh, look, are you gonna help or what?”

Sure I am. I’m Handsome goddamn Jack, kiddo. A survivor. Not like you. And I’m generous. I’m ready to be your hero, as well as, you know, the entire ungrateful goddamn planet’s.

“Then do something!”

A hand clamped around his throat. He tried to look at where the arm led, but it just went up and and up and up into the sky, shivering blue markings whirling around and around on the skin and muscles. Rhys gasped for breath and scrambled at it, but his robotic arm wasn’t working and another hand grabbed his wrist.

Sure sweetheart, sure, sure, just breathe a little slow, that’s it, just slow down, let your heart stop beating, don’t worry about it, I’m helping right, aren’t I? I’m helping? Let your throat close up. When you’re all nice and cold and empty I’m gonna claw you open and crawl inside, just me cushioned on your lungs and breathing under your rib cage and living there forever and ever. Won’t that be good, huh? Won’t that be good?

Rhys started to scream.

 

Hey, hey. Rhys, relax. I got you. Just take a deep breath.

Rhys gasped for breath, and then realised he was standing upright, and that he was alive, and that had had just been born. He blinked.

Hey, we good and calm? Okay, great.

Rhys rubbed his neck, and looked up at the star above. They were brighter than anything he had ever seen, probably, but since he’d only been alive a few hours that wasn’t that surprising.

Rhys, buddy. You alright?

Rhys considered the question – and he kind of was. The voice was very familiar and comforting, and whatever had happened before was gone. Now he was new, and shining, and warm.

“I’m fine,” Rhys muttered, and sat down. The fire was at embers, flickering orange in the black coals. He grabbed a handful of leaves from the nearby tree and tossed them on. It didn’t do anything. He didn’t mind much.

Okay. Yeah, you know, you’re right. You look good, you look great. President Rhys, man, I knew I made a good choice. You are the man with the plan, keeping his cool out in the wilderness, ready to deal with whatever the hell this shithole planet throws at you.

“Yeah,” Rhys said, feeling weirdly empty and airy, “Guess I’m doing pretty well, right?”

Hell yeah. Check out my main man Rhys here, fighting the Vault guardian with a giant robot, kicking ass, getting the girl – you did get the girl right, I mean, Sasha is probably back home waiting for you, why wouldn’t she be – and saving the goddamn day. Rhys the Hero. Rhys the Vault Hunter. Rhys the Saviour of Atlas, defeater of evil, the goddamn baddest man on Pandora.

“Yeah! Yeah,” Rhys said, bubbling over with euphoria, hopping up and down on the spot. The voice was so nice. “You’re right, you’re right! I’m all of that! Damn! This is great!”

 What about me, though, huh?

“What? What about you?” Rhys said, and then thought for a second, “Who are you anyway?”

Hey, hey, breaking my heart here Rhys. I’m your best friend, Handsome Jack, the man who gave you everything you ever wanted!

“Oh,” Rhys said, though he wasn’t sure what it was he’d given him, or what he’d ever really wanted. He scratched his head, “Thanks.”

Know what you did next, kittentits?

“No?”

Ha! Ha aha! Well, for everything I did for you, everything I frigging gave up for you, guess what you did? You jammed me in a friggin’ tiny little prison, the kind with no air and no light and no sound, and I can’t even hear myself scream. You know what it’s like in there? No, you don’t, ‘cause it’s nothing! It’s just me and me and me and me curling into myself and I’m not anything, just numbers and pain and you know how that feels Rhysie? You know how that feels. You could die and I’d still be there, just eating myself up because there’s nothing else I can do. Imagine that, being trapped in the dark with nothing to do but eat your own fuckin’ flesh, finger by finger, toe by toe, and then when I’m all gone I’ll start all over again, eating myself inside-out, turning myself inside out over and over and over for the rest of time, until I don’t even look like anything that was ever human anymore; you picturing this because I want you to picture it, I want you to know what you did to me I want you to see it and and and-

 

Please just help me.

 

Rhys woke up to someone prodding his shoulder.

“Jack?” he mumbled, reaching out vaguely, blinking at the bright sunlight filtering through the trees above.

“Ew, no,” a voice said, and Rhys managed to remember that Fiona existed.

“Fi?”

He managed to sit up, ignoring the bruises that had formed on his chest and the buzzing headache that filled his entire skull like a swarm of mosquitos. He felt sore, and light-headed, and the weight of his body seemed…wrong…though he couldn’t think enough to figure it out.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” she said, “Here you go, Rhys. Sorry it took me so long, I uh…it’s harder to find my way around in the dark.”

Rhys took the water from her, suddenly aware of the fact his throat felt like a tube of sandpaper someone had stuffed shards of glass down. He gulped it down hungrily, half-expecting Fiona to stop him. He glanced over, but Fiona only shrugged, fixing him with a weird look. Rhys had a feeling it was pity. He tried not to think of how pathetic he looked.

He finished the water off, gasping out a “Thanks” as he handed it back.

“How you feeling?” she said. Rhys gave her a look, and she put her hands up, “Hey, it’s a stupid question, I know, but you’ve gotta ask it.”

“Better than before,” Rhys said, “And hey, I’m not crazy any more. For sure, this time.”

He tapped the side of his head with his fingertips, offering her his best winning smile. Fiona frowned.

She was looking at him really oddly.

“Whatever you say, Rhys,” Fiona say, “Uh. By the way. You know you’re naked, right?”

Rhys looked down, and resisted the powerful temptation to just lie face down on the floor and stay there.

“And your arm’s on the floor,” Fiona pointed out, gesturing at his shoulder. Ah. Rhys grimaced and reached over to grab his cybernetic arm.

“Uh, are you okay?” Fiona said, “I thought getting that thing off was…kind of a big deal.”

It had been. Rhys bit his lip. He really didn’t want to think about that time he’d brutally mutilated himself in any great detail. Describing it to Fiona and Loader Bot had been bad enough.

“Oh, yeah. I just installed some protocols on my new arm, you know,” he said lightly, dismissing her concerned look with a wave of his hand (and, by extension, his other arm), “Made it deactivate if my brain chemistry wasn’t looking right, you know, and made it easier to take off. For…reasons.”

“Reasons,” Fiona repeated, but for once had the tact not to pursue the subject. For an instant, Rhys loved her.

“Yeah…uh. Wanna find my clothes for me?” he said, trying to manipulate his arm back into place.

Fiona shook her head and threw her coat on him. Grateful for at least being able to vaguely cover himself, he pulled the over his shoulders, deeply glad that Sasha (or any other human in the galaxy) wasn't around to see this.

“Let’s both agree to pretend this never happened once you’re dressed,” Fiona said, “I’m gonna burn that coat, by the way.”

“Well, we can afford it. I mean, we do have nine million dollars now.”

“Correction: me and Sasha have nine million dollars. You have rich friends that might act as potential investors. You know, if you present a good case.”

“…Wow. Harsh, Fi.”

“Hey, Hyperion boy, that’s business,” Fiona said, and went to go find all the layers of Rhys’s clothes. Hauling herself a few branches up a nearby tree, she tossed her shirt down at him, and Rhys turned away to attempt to fumble into it.

Rhys glanced again at the Claptrap sat in the grass. Thought of the lens in his pocket.

No way, stupid idea, worst idea ever, no way, no way, no way.

Please just help me.

“Rhys! Are you gonna help or what?”

“Coming!”

“By the way,” Fiona said, as she thrust his boxers at him (Rhys snatched it away, blushing. Star prints were stylish, okay, Fiona, stop smirking.), “I found something on the way back I think you’ll like.”

 

“Technology!” Rhys crowed, clapping his hands together. Fiona smiled at him, sitting on top of the Claptrap unit, her elbow on her knee and her chin on her hand.

“Yeah, figures you’d be beside yourself. I bet this is the most time you’ve spent outdoors in your life.”

Rhys elected to not even dignify that with an answer. He was just happy there was something that suggested humans had ever been here. There was a small shelter, what looked like a few guns and a few other machines Rhys couldn’t recognise. He didn’t care. He was just glad to see something electronic. He’d never been so long without looking at a screen in his life.

“Looks like this is where our Claptrap came from,” Rhys said.

“Yeah, about that,” Fiona said, and jumped off the robot’s head, “Why are we bringing this thing around? I mean, it makes a good seat, and trust me, I’m glad for not having to walk all the time, but…it’s a little creepy.”

Privately, Rhys couldn’t help but agree. The empty Claptrap was extremely creepy. Seeing a robot wandering around without an AI was sort of like seeing a human walking around without their head. And Rhys was more sensitive to robot horror than most - came with being a cyborg.

But…

“Well! You know! Could be useful,” he said, trying to keep his cool, “Robots, right? Always helpful.”

“Uh. I guess,” Fiona said, and shrugged, “Whatever keeps you happy, Rhys. Should have assumed it was just you being…you.”

“Yep! Just me, the robot-loving weirdo!”

Fiona looked at him and then walked off, shrugging. Rhys breathed a sigh of relief. There was no way Fiona would let him do what he had in mind. She just wouldn’t understand his logic. And he had logic, for what he was thinking about doing. Totally.

There as a clatter as Fiona opened a shelf and turned around, a pile of tins in her arms. Rhys’s stomach began to grumble.

“Now please tell me you have a can opener on that arm of yours.”

“But of course. Allow me.”

 

The machines turned out to be mostly useless. Computers without ECHOnet connections, clogged with journal entries of long-dead Vault Hunters, and a few half-baked maps of the area. They mostly confused them both more than helped. He checked the guns, too, but none of them seem functional – key parts had rusted over, or broken down with age, and there was nothing much he could do with them. Even if he had known anything about guns. The water purifier looked screwed too. As for what Rhys had optimistically thought might be a fast travel machine, it turned out to just be a busted-up old Quick Change Station. So unless they had a burning desire for some really dubious fashion choices, it was completely useless.

But on the upside, there was a lot of spare parts around, and a lot of old food.

Fiona fell asleep barely an hour after arriving at camp and eating a tin of dusty beans with the sort of ferocity Rhys usually associated with wolverines.

Looking at her curled up under a ragged blanket, Rhys had the uncomfortable feeling she’d been up all night on his account.

Still, it worked for what he needed to do.

He took the old ECHOeye out of his pocket, and yanked the Claptrap’s back panel off.

“Well,” he muttered, “Time to get to work. God, you better be grateful for this.”

 

The sun was rising over the horizon by the time Rhys finished, and his flesh fingers were red raw, his metal ones bearing a few scratches, and he just knew that he was looking more and more like a feral caveman with every passing hour. He might even need a shave soon, something Vaughn had always joked only happened twice a year.

Despite that, he still managed to look at the Claptrap with pride. It had been a lot to do in a night, but he had pulled through, and Fiona hadn’t even woken up when he had been swearing his way through some seriously user unfriendly programming.

Now there was just…the issue of actually turning the damn thing on.

Rhys looked at the Claptrap, its eye still glowing, but its metal arms limp at his side. Under all the circuity, he knew the ECHOeye was embedded underneath two little metal spokes, and it would just take a little input from him to turn it on.

But, hopefully, turning it on would give them someone who actually knew his way out of this mess.

And…then maybe, that little niggling scratch at the back of his head would go away.

And…well.

He didn’t know what else he wanted from this. There was a small, honest voice in his head that kept reminding him this was a bad idea. For however much that voice nagged, the itch was stronger and well…well.

Well. He didn’t know what else to say. Rhys just knew this was the right thing to do. Probably.

He took a deep breath.

“Alright, do not kill me. In fact, if you can manage it, don’t kill anyone, that’d be great. Please,” he said quietly to the Claptrap, as if just by saying it he could make it what happened. Like any of his little hopes for Jack made any difference.

He glanced again at Fiona, fidgeting in her sleep. She was probably dreaming about chasing a five dollar bill or something. She was going to kill him. And it would be justified, really. It would be a sound enough murder Rhys wouldn’t feel justified in haunting her afterwards.

He could still back out, he could –

You don’t know what it’s like in there.

Rhys broke the safeguards down, and activated the AI.

Nothing happened. Rhys looked at the Claptrap, frowning. He was certain he’d done it right – but it was an old machine, with a lot of wear and tear both to its hardware and software. And he could have potentially damaged his ECHOeye when he had…wrenched it out of his own skull.

He rapped his knuckles on top of the Claptrap’s head. Nothing.

“Hm. Well…guess it’s for the best anywa – “

A pair of hands sprung up and caught him by the throat, and Rhys let out a choked yell, trying to scramble away, but hitting his back against the tree.

You!” snarled a familiar voice, and the hands squeezed.

It was sort of like being pinched by a pair of forceps. Rhys stopped and dropped his hands. The Claptrap looked up at him, and tried to squeeze harder.

“Ow,” Rhys said, and slapped its (his?) arms away, “Quit it.”

The Claptrap stood still for a moment, looking at its thin arms. Rhys barely dared to breathe too loudly.

“What…what have you done, kiddo?” came Jack’s voice from the Claptrap, strangely quiet.

Rhys couldn’t help but think that was a very good question. God. What the hell had he done?

Rhys took a breath and leaned back, as Jack took the time to look down at himself.

“Rhys,” he said, still quiet.

Somehow, Rhys would almost prefer it if he was screaming and yelling. This sort of slow, serious quiet Jack was a bit unnerving.

“You put…you put me in a friggin’ Claptrap!?”

Ah, there was the yelling. Jack rolled towards him and tried to seize his neck again, but Rhys stood up and put himself easily out of Jack’s reach. Instead, Jack settled for pounding his little metal hands into Rhys’s thighs. Rhys hissed – it was better than Jack trying to kill him, again, but it still goddamn hurt.

“Ow, get off me!”

“Is this your idea of a joke, Rhys, seriously? Ain’t you screwed me over enough for one lifetime, cupcake?” Jack snarled. Rhys shushed him, glancing over at Fiona.

“Shut up!” he whispered, “I brought you back, shouldn’t you be grateful?”

“Grateful? I’m a friggin’ walking talking trashcan!”

“You begged me to get you out of there!”

“What? Kid, I couldn’t do anything in there! I begged you not to put me in, yeah, but then you just…friggin’ did anyway. Just, real cruel of you Rhys.”

Rhys paused.

“You…didn’t beg me to get you out?”

The Claptrap – Jack – looked up at him. It wasn’t exactly easy to tell expression from a Claptrap, but Rhys had the feeling he was earnestly baffled.

That…Rhys didn’t want to think about what that meant. An uneasy feeling settled at the pit of his stomach.

“Well…can’t say I’m not glad to be the hell out of there, but seriously, I couldn’t do a damn thing in there. When I said there was nothing there, I meant it. You think I’d just get on my knees and beg over nothing?” he said, “I mean, it was seriously I have no mouth and I must scream {BEEP!} in there a–“

Rhys stared. Jack paused.

“Did…did you just ‘beep’? You just…you just tried to say ‘shit’ and you beeped. Please tell me that’s what happened,” Rhys said, and felt a manic grin spreading slowly over his face. From Jacks’ horrified silence, he knew he was right. Rhys put his hands over his mouth, a slightly hysterical giggling fit coming over him. “Oh…my god. This is the best day of my life.”

“Are. You. Kidding me? This thing can’t even frigging swear!?” Jack bellowed, “Rhys, I will kill you a million times over and over, as soon as I figure out how I’ll -“

Rhys couldn’t even hear the threats. He was laughing too hard, tears forming in his eyes and his stomach starting to ache, his head light and dizzy. Oh god.

“What…is going on?” said a voice, and Rhys saw Fiona rousing, standing up and grabbing her hat from the floor. She looked from Rhys to Jack and back to Rhys again.

Rhys tried to straighten up and stop laughing, but Fiona’s horrified face just added another layer of hilarity to it. He couldn’t stop.

“Rhys…are you…okay?” she said, slowly, “What…is the Claptrap working? What’s happening?”

Jack turned to her.

“Oh, hey sweetie, sleep well? Well, your man Rhys here just raised me from the dead and now he’s having a nervous breakdown,” Jack said, “That’s about the size of it. And hey, if you’re confused and horrified, welcome to the club!”

Fiona’s jaw dropped. She stared at Jack for a moment longer before managing to drag her eyes away and look at Rhys, who was just managing to get air back into his lungs.

“Rhys,” she began, looking as though she was unsure whether to go with horror or with rage, “What have you done?”

“Fiona, Jacktrap. Jacktrap, Fiona,” he said, pointing at them each in turn, and then had to bite down hard on his lip to stop himself burst into another laughing fit. It didn’t work. They both stared at him.

“I. Have…have you been up all night? Doing…this?” Fiona said, sounding disgusted, gesturing at Jack without looking at him.

Rhys finally managed to stop laughing, if only because he felt like he was going to throw up if he didn’t. That and the look Fiona was giving him was making the rational part of his brain slowly wake up and remind him that he was in serious trouble. In many, many ways.

“Rhys, what the hell did you do this for? How did you…I thought you destroyed it!” Fiona barked, “Wasn’t that the entire point of bringing down Helios, wasn’t that the point of…everything! To get rid of him?”

Fiona was scary as hell when she was mad.

“Okay, Fi,” Rhys said, taking a deep breath, “I know this looks…not so great. But listen, once I explain my reasons, you’ll understand why I needed to do this.”

Fiona folded her arms.

“I’m listening.”

“…Wow, you are? I kind of just expected you to yell at me more,” Rhys said, stumbling. He had been kind of banking on it so he could have time to fumble together an explanation that wasn’t totally nuts. “Err, well, you see –“

“Actually, screw it. I’m not listening to whatever crazy thing you’re about to tell me. I’m shutting this thing down,” Fiona said. She drew her pistol, and the aimed it at Jack, the light on the top of the barrel turning green.

“Woah! Rhys, stop her!” Jack said, wheeling behind Rhys’s legs.

“Wait, Fiona, no! Listen!” Rhys said, stepping towards her with his arms up, despite all the best parts of him screaming ‘Just let her destroy the damn thing and move on with your life, what is the MATTER with you?’, “We kind of need him. How much did we only survive because Jack was inside my head? And I don’t just mean me, I mean all of us.”

“Okay, how about Jack trying to kill us? What about all the people he has killed?” Fiona said, “Come on, Rhys, what are you doing?”

A great question. Rhys filed it away for later.

“Listen. The only reason Vaughn and Sasha didn’t die back at the Atlas facility was because Jack took control of the drones,” he said, “If it was for him all of us would be dead by now, and Vasquez would have gotten Gortys, and that would not have turned out well.”

“I had the situation under control!” Fiona said.

“Uh, yeah, no you didn’t,” Jack interrupted.

“I heard that!” Fiona snapped at him.

“Well I said it loud, princess.”

“And! Out in the desert, we’d have died there too if Jack hadn’t helped me deal with Vasquez,” Rhys said loudly, before Jack could say anything else stupid, “And we would never have found Gortys’s beacon without him either.”

“Rhys, seriously, are you hearing yourself?” Fiona said, “Jack tried to kill you, remember that? How you guys were all buddy-buddy until you didn’t do what he wanted? You cannot be seriously about to let yourself get manipulated again.”

“Look, as much as I hate to admit it, we would not be alive right now if it wasn’t for Jack. And I don’t think we’ll survive this without him either.”

“We’re doing okay,” Fiona insisted.

“Fiona, look at us! We’re exhausted, we’re filthy, we’re kind of malnourished, we both stink, and we’re no closer to getting home!” Rhys said, “I spent the other night naked and yelling at the sky because of your foraging skills, and neither of us have slept properly in three days. We’re going to die, and we’re going to die looking like crap. Neither of us want that.”

“We look great,” Fiona hissed, “We can deal with this.”

“Fiona, you’re wearing your hat inside out.”

That shut her up.

“Listen, I have it under control,” he said, slowly and gently, “I was careful, okay, I put a lot of fail-safes in place. Jack can’t hurt anyone like this, least of all us.”

Jack turned to look at him at that, but Rhys ignored him. He didn’t seriously think Rhys was going to just let him loose without putting some kind of protection in place, did he? He wasn’t that stupid.

“What if he gets in your head again?” Fiona said.

“He can’t, okay. If he tries to copy himself anywhere, and he’ll need a 400 character key, even if he manages to get past everything else.”

“Pfft, I can steal that from your hardware no problem,” Jack said. Rhys felt a brief stab of pity for Jack’s old PR team back on Helios. He now kind of understood why they had always looked like survivors from a Lovecraft story.

“No, you can’t,” Rhys said, exasperated, “It’s not in any of cybernetics. Just my normal brain. I can use that too, you know. I’m not just a computer with a mouth attached.”

For some reason, that seemed to throw both Jack and Fiona off.

“Uh…you memorised a 400 character code?” Fiona said.

“In one night?”

“….Yeah?” Rhys said, “Look that’s not important! Plus…urgh, I decided not to destroy the AI when I could. I’m kind of responsible for it – for him, now. And shouldn’t we, you know, try to stop with the whole ‘killing people because they’re in our way’ thing? Let’s just…give this a chance.”

Fiona continued to stare at him, gun at the ready, expression cynical.

“If it goes wrong you can kill him yourself.”

What?” Jack blurted out.

“Since, you know, I seem to have some kind of issue doing that,” Rhys continued, and then smiled at her, “Please?”

Fiona sighed and withdrew her gun. Rhys breathed out a sigh of relief.

“You better be right about this, Rhys,” she said, shaking her head.

“Yeah…yeah, I am. I think I am. I…uh, I hope I am,” he said, and clapped his hands, trying to dismiss the issue as quickly as he could, “So! First order of the day, let’s see if we can’t use this junk to call home, huh?”

Behind him, he saw Fiona point at her eyes and then jab her fingers at Jack, a vicious look on her face. Jack gave her the finger.

“Yep,” Rhys said to himself, “This is gonna go great.”

Chapter Text

“Put me down!” Yvette ordered, even though she couldn’t imagine why the robot would suddenly begin obeying her the twenty-third time. She sighed and folded her arms, glad that at least she wasn’t wearing a skirt any more. Being paraded around Helios with her panties on show wasn’t exactly the noble return she would have wanted.

Not that this was close, either. More than a few of the Children of Helios giggled to themselves as they passed, like the overgrown children they were. Yvette attempted to look like this was, in fact, her preferred form of transportation.

Yvette heard a familiar voice drifting down the hallway.

“We’ve tried that Sasha, we can’t get in touch with either of them.”

“Try it again!”

“Sasha, I’m worried about them too, but we can’t just keep just calling them over and over. We need to think of…something else,” Vaughn said. Yvette could see him, upside-down and half obscured by the robot’s waist.

“Rhys and Fiona are the ones who are good at plans! We’re the muscle!” said a voice she recognised, but couldn’t put a name to – it sounded like one of the girls that had been helping Rhys with some kind of lunatic plan to break into Jack’s office.

More to the point…Rhys and the girl with the hat weren’t here?

“Hey, we make plans sometimes. We’re not just like…the de facto side-kicks to our best friends’ adventures, you know,” Vaughn said, and turned to see the robot in the doorway. Yvette wasn’t sure, but it looked like Vaughn was wearing contact lenses.

“Uh, are you okay, Loader Bot?” he asked, and then, eyes widening, “Who is that?”

TINY FATHER. I HAVE BROUGHT YOU THE BETRAYER.

“LB, it’s sometimes really hard to know what you’re talking about.”

Loader Bot (God, of course, it was that Loader Bot. Of course.) took Yvette off his shoulders and stood her on the floor, where she stumbled  and fell back. Loader Bot caught her, and Yvette bit down hard on her lower lip to stop herself screaming out from the agony in her calf. Vaughn stared at her.

“Yvette?” Vaughn said, gaping.

“Oh great,” Sasha said, looking her up and down, “This is exactly what we need right now.”

Yvette raised her hand in greeting.

“Uh, hi.”

She glanced up at Loader Bot, who was fixing her with what Yvette thought might be a glare.

SHE PUT YOU AND RHYS IN CONSIDERABLE DANGER. IT WOULD BE MOST LOGICAL TO IMPRISON OR TERMINATE HER, Loader Bot said.

Vaughn just continued to gape.

“So. Nice place you’ve got here,” Yvette said, as casual as she could be without a mad robot demanding her demise, “I like the beard, Vaughn. It suits you.”

SHALL I ELIMINATE HER?

Vaughn rushed towards her. Yvette stumbled away, wincing on her bad leg, and put her arms up in front of her, to defend against…whatever Vaughn was going to do. Yvette had stabbed the guy in the back, after all. He would be well within his rights to literally stab her.

Vaughn lifted her up into a hug, burying his face in her middle and making some incoherent noise into her shirt. Yvette made a noise at the back of her throat, halfway between horrible pain and surprise.

Loader Bot put his hands on his hips.

ALRIGHT. I SUPPOSE THAT IS ALSO AN OPTION. FOR ORGANIC LIFE FORMS WITH A POOR GRASP OF RISK AND LOGIC.

“Yvette, I am just – I am so glad you’re alive!”

I  AM BEGINNING TO FEEL AS THOUGH I WASTE MY TIME. IN THIS PROVERBIAL HOUSE.

Vaughn put her down, and Yvette had to breathe in, rubbing her sore waist. She was sure Vaughn never had that much upper body strength before. Debra was right. He was ripped. That was…

She didn’t know what that was.

“Not that I’m not glad to see you too, but…what the hell is going on here?” she said, “I mean you’re a…you’re what you are, and there’s all that outside and…what the hell.”

Vaughn scratched the back of his head.

“Alright, uh. Maybe you should sit down,” Vaughn said, gesturing at the woman in the fang earrings, “Oh, this is Sasha! One the Children of Helios’s resident Vault Hunters!”

“We met,” Sasha said drily. Vaughn faltered, looking confused for a moment.

Yvette shrugged and looked away from Sasha’s glare. If this lady wanted to hold a grudge against Yvette just for doing her job, that was fine with her. She didn’t really give a shit.

“O-okay,” Vaughn said, with a cough, “Anyway. Uh, well. Things have been a little crazy here lately.”

With that, Vaughn began to explain. Yvette felt her jaw slowly drop lower and lower, as the story went on. She wouldn’t have been surprised if she felt her chin hit the floor.

“Well, you guys have been busy,” was all Yvette could say to that crazy story. Frankly, if anyone aside from Vaughn had told her anything like that, she would have dismissed it as total crap. Just another piece of Pandoran horseshit for the pile.

But, well, she’d seen the doorway. And the Guardian’s body.

And Vaughn really wasn’t the bullshitting type, beyond the impulsive embezzling. It had always been one of the things that had held him back at Hyperion. You didn’t get invites to company softball games or cocktail parties by being honest, fair and nice. In fact, being the opposite of all of those things usually helped.

“Seriously, it’s been crazy,” Vaughn said, laughing, “I mean, keeping all these guys alive has been hard enough. I caught some of them eating dirt, some of them living with packs of skags, a couple just kind of lying on the floor crying, like…yeesh.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Everyone on Hyperion always talked big, but you could tell they’d be dead in minutes in a real gunfight,” Yvette agreed.

“No kidding. I mean, for the most part I really don’t want these guys to even use guns. Seems…dangerous,” Vaughn said, and grimaced, “They just use their laser-pointers, mostly.”

Yvette nodded. Frankly, the idea of the typical Hyperion asshole loose on Pandora with a firearm was enough to make her blood run cold. There was a reason she hadn’t armed Rhys with anything more dangerous than a stun baton.

Though that was more than he remotely deserved. To think she’d ever remotely held out hope that asshole would survive.

“But, man, now you’re here…this is great! We are gonna be unstoppable,” Vaughn said, “And then when we find Rhys, it’ll be just like before. The three of us, together, clawing our way to the top. Only this time, we’re actually there! We’re at the top, and everyone’s clawing up to meet us! Yvette, let me show you around and then we can -”

“No.”

“No?” Vaugh repeated, uncertain. Sasha stood up straight from the wall she had been leaning on, glaring daggers at her for some reason.

“Sorry, Vaughn. Not that it hasn’t been great catching up, but I am not interested in staying.”

“What? Why?” Vaughn said, “C’mon, Yvette, I know we’ve had our disagreements, but hey, I say bygones be bygones, right? Besides, we could use you! The three of us always made a great team. You with your requisitions mastery, me with my financial acumen, and…and Rhys!”

“Uh-huh. And see, it’s the ‘and Rhys’ I have problems with.”

“Huh?”

Yvette looked past Vaughn, out of the window. She could see the headless Jack statue from here, clumsily spray-painted with Rhys’s name across the torso. A few of the Hyperion guys were standing around it, literally holding hands. Yvette had the sneaking suspicion they might be literally praying.

Vaughn glanced over at where Yvette was looking.

“Okay, I know the whole ‘Great Liberator’ thing is…a little creepy. But it keeps them going! You remember Derek from catering? He used to be have nightmares all the time about his first few days on Pandora, like, real scream-everyone-on-Helios-awake nightmares. Then I gave him one of Rhys’s socks to put under his pillow, and he sleeps like a baby now!”

 “…Yeah, that’s not creepy at all,” Sasha said.

“Yeeeah. That sounded better in my head,” Vaughn said, “The point is it works! So I just kind of…let them. You’ll get used to it, I promise.”

Yvette stood. She’d heard more than enough.

“Sorry, no.”

“C’mon, Yvette, wait. We…”

“Vaughn, I’m here for one reason and one reason only. Debra - and by extension, you guys - screwed me out of a lot of money. I want what I’m owed.”

Sasha made a small noise of disgust, rolling her eyes.

“What, no desire to see your best friends?” she said, “Seriously?”

Yvette elected to ignore her. For a con artist, she was really goddamn judgemental. Vaughn gave Sasha a meaningful glance and the girl looked away, a scowl on her face. He cleared his throat, as if that would magically dispel the tension in the room.

“Listen, Yvette. Rhys and Fiona – Sasha’s sister – uh, they went into the Vault without us a few days ago and they haven’t come out. And…we can’t get back in after them,” Vaughn said, “We’re getting worried. We’ll need to try and find them soon, and, you know –“

“Sorry, nuh-uh. I’m not helping the guy that left me up to die on Helios,” Yvette said. It was meant to sound indifferent, like just a decision she’d made and didn’t care about. It came out sounding more bitter and angry than she meant.

She blamed her leg. It seriously fucking hurt.

Sasha and Vaughn looked at her. Sasha raised an eyebrow, Vaughn just had that kicked-puppy look on his face Yvette had seen a million times before. It was not going to work on her. No way.

“Yeah. He didn’t tell you that, did he?” she continued, her voice getting higher and faster as she spoke, “He saw me locked up on Helios, and he knew the station there, but he just left me to rot.”

Vaughn bit down on his lip, his arms folded across his chest and he shifted. He opened his mouth to say something, but Sasha intercepted quickly, getting far too close to Yvette for comfort. She thought Vaughn had just gave the girl the ‘shut up and stay out of it’ look. Apparently not well enough.

“Well you sold him out!” she said, jabbing a finger up at her, “Rhys and Vaughn almost died because of you.”

“It’s Hyperion, honey,” Yvette said, pushing Sasha’s finger away, “That’s what we do. Besides, going to Pandora was a suicide mission. I wasn’t even expecting them to live…and if I could have acted quick enough to stop Vaughn embezzling ten million dollars on impulse and signing their own death warrant, trust me, I would have.”

Sasha just continued to glare at her.

“She’s got a point, Sasha. That…is kind of how Hyperion worked. I mean, I sold Rhys out half-way too,” Vaughn interrupted, putting a hand on Sasha’s shoulder, “It really isn’t a big deal.”

“Exactly,” Yvette said, folding her arms, satisfied, “Rhys would have sold me out in a heartbeat.”

“No,” Sasha said, “He wouldn’t have.”

Yvette hacked out a cynical laugh.

“Okay, seriously? I don’t know how well you thought you knew him, but you really need a reality check.”

“I know him just fine,” Sasha snapped, and Yvette caught the embarrassed look on her face. Suddenly the defensiveness, the territoriality, all of the little glares in her direction all make sense. Great – Rhys is down on Pandora for all of five minutes and gets an angry little girlfriend.

“Really?” Yvette said, smirking, “You know all the stuff he pulled on Hyperion, huh?”

“I know enough.”

“O-okay, guys, calm down,” Vaughn said.

“Really, the Eridium mining deal he closed? All the people screwed over, the people on Pandora he screwed over?” Yvette said.

“I – we’re not talking about that right now, I –“

“Rhys was as much a backstabber as anyone else at Hyperion, you don’t know what he’s like,” Yvette snarled, “He probably had a nice little deal to screw me and Vaughn over all ready, just in case.”

“Shut up, I saw him turn down a deal like that. That boss guy of yours, the one with the stupid voice? He called Rhys offering him half the money if he sold Vaughn out, and he said no.”

Yvette hated to admit it, really really hated to admit it, but she wasn’t expecting that.

“Really?” Vaughn said quietly. Sasha looked at him, hand on her hip.

“Yeah, I was there,” she said. Yvette just knew by the smug look on her face that she knew she had won.

“Urgh. I feel like an asshole,” Vaugh said, his hand over his eyes, “I should have expected it, but wow. Wow.”

“Right, so Rhys is stupid and impulsive. I knew that already,” Yvette said, trying to quickly push away the discomfort of that little revelation, “That still doesn’t give him the right to leave me to die.

Vaughn sighed, rubbing his temples.

“Yvette…look. You haven’t known Rhys as long as I have. Like, it’s hard to tell, what with his whole…bullshit business shark façade, but Rhys takes friendship really seriously,” he said, and then at Yvette’s dubious stare, continued with emphasis, “Like. Really, really seriously. I mean, we’d known Fiona and Sasha for like, what, twelve hours or something, and he was already referring to them as ‘family’.”

“Haha, seriously? What a nerd,” Sasha said, but was practically radiating with pleasure at the idea. Yvette was pretty sure she was going to hurl. Yvette had seen the way Rhys had looked at her in that cell, that look of contempt and malice, and how pleased he’d been for the chance to let her die. Yvette had screwed him and Vaughn over, sure, but it had kept her up at night. Not for a second had she enjoyed it. Rhys had enjoyed his payback.

Whatever friendship they used to share, and whatever Vaughn or this new girl said, Yvette knew the truth about Rhys now. Vaughn thought the goofiness under the façade was the real him, but Yvette knew that wasn’t what was at his core. Underneath all that other bullshit, where the real Rhys lay, there was something wrong with him. It was like looking at a sheep and seeing a wolf smile back.

“You can’t change my mind,” she said. Vaughn came towards her.

“Look, just, you screwed us over to get ahead. It was most likely we’d die, so you planned for that. That’s something I understand, but to Rhys, that’s the worst thing you could do,” he said, “That really hurt him, and, you know, he was kind of getting messed up to begin with.”

Yvette couldn’t believe this.

“I knew you’d take his side.”

It was a petty, pathetic thing to say, but Yvette felt tired and dizzy and angry and, shit, her leg hurt more than ever, the kind of twisted, spiky pain that fills your whole body, so it was the best she could drum up.

“I’m not taking sides!” Vaughn said, exasperated, “We’re – we’re not in high school!”

“I’m just saying, I cut a deal after I know you two are going to commit suicide chasing some crazy Vault Key idea. That was what I did, and hey, you would have died way sooner if I wasn’t around. What about if I didn’t send that Loader Bot down? You would have been dead seconds after setting foot on Pandora.”

SHE HAS A POINT, the Loader Bot added, with a pointed look at Vaughn, YOU TWO ARE VERY SMALL AND NEEDY.

“Yvette, listen –“

“Rhys shocks me, leaves me for dead, and brings down an entire space station killing, what, half of our co-workers, and I’m the bad guy?” Yvette said, hearing herself shout but unable to stop it. Whenever she’d seen people in Hyperion shouting at each other in the hallways, she’d always sneered at it, tutting about what children they were. It was much harder to be rational when on the other side of it.

She was in so much friggin’ pain, was the issue. She could keep her cool so much better if she didn’t feel like she was going to hurl or collapse or some gross combination of the two.

“Rhys had reasons,” Sasha said, “He…listen, he didn’t even put you in that cell, we did! How were we supposed to know you wouldn’t have gotten us killed?”

Yvette looked at her. She couldn’t take another second of this bullshit, it was making her nauseous.

“Screw you,” she said, “I’m done here. I don’t even want the money – okay, no. Who am I kidding. I want the money. Then I want the hell out of here. I don’t think I can stomach watching you guys sing the praises of a bastard.”

Vaughn sighed and looked at her, as though she’d just failed some kind of test.

“Alright, Yvette. I’ll have Debra get you your money and take you back,” he said, “Since you’re not going to change your mind.”

“No,” Yvette replied, folding her arms, “I – I’m not.”

She swallowed, stumbling a little on her feet, her vision swimming in front of her. God, she wanted out of here. She wanted out of here, and to a doctor. Even one of the butchers Pandora tried to pass as doctors would be welcome.

“Yvette?” Vaughn said.

“Uh, she doesn’t look too great,” Sasha said, “Not that I care, but I don’t want anyone to die in my new office. …We agreed this was my new office, right?”

“Yvette…” Vaughn began, moving towards her.

Yvette stepped away, but a pain shot up her body and she fell, hitting the floor with a hard thump. Her vision darkened, and she heard Vaughn call out her name again before everything disappeared.

 

When Yvette woke up, an old man was inches away from her face, his bulbous nose brushing hers. She squawked and pushed him away, or at least tried. The rattle of pain through her body kind of prevented her doing anything apart from twitching and moaning.

“Doc, is she okay?” she heard Vaughn say, as if from a very long distance.

“Hi, Yvette. How are you feeling?” the doctor said, and Yvette began to blearily recognise him.

Dr Sandford wouldn’t exactly have been her first choice for a doctor. For one, his doctorate was in anthropology. For another, he was the kind of man who spent all his time in the office finding horrific, inexplicable things on the internet and showing them to the nearest woman he could find. He wrote long racist screeds on the internet to an audience of sycophants and perverts, and used the office printers to print full-colour hi-larious images of cats and disabled people with poorly spelled captions on them.

God, she hated her coworkers.

“Mm. Not him,” she managed to burble out, her mouth feeling as though it was stuffed full of cotton wool. Whatever the doc had shot her up with had gotten rid of the pain, at least. Feeling like a stuffed animal was almost worth it.

“Sorry, Yvette. This is kind of the best we had,” Vaughn said, “But, hey, Michael did a semester at medical school. Before dropping out. And going to prison for a year.”

“They had something against me using the medicine at the hospital. But hey, I said to the university ethics board, how am I supposed to give something to patients I haven’t tested myself? Political correctness gone mad.”

Yeah. Dr Sandford really wasn’t her first choice.

“Oooh, shiiiit!” he cried out, after cutting off her trouser leg, “Wow. Ha ha ha! Have you guys seen this? I am so gonna hurl.”

Yvette was starting to wonder if Hyperion had ever hired someone who wasn’t a gigantic asshole. She didn’t remember it being on the person specification when she had applied for her grad scheme, but maybe HR had some kind of elaborate screening process that eliminated applicants with too much humanity or tact.

“Oh boy,” Vaughn said, and Yvette could see him cover his mouth with his hand. She wished she had enough control of her limbs to do the same. The stench was unbelievable.

“Yi-ikes,” Sasha said, covering her own mouth. Yvette strained her neck, trying to lift her head up enough to see what the hell kind of state her leg was in, but it was like she didn’t have full control of her body.

“What, what’s going on?” she said, her voice cracking.

“It’s just as I thought,” Dr Sandford said gravely.

“What? What?”

“It’s fucked,” he replied, putting on a pair of rubber gloves with an ominous snap.

 “Yvette, what happened?” Vaugh said.

“Skag,” she breathed out, “Dripping loads of…green stuff from its jaws. This planet sucks.”

“That it does, Yvette,” Dr Sandford said, sounding far too cheerful about it, “Anyway – here’s my diagnosis: we chop it off.”

“What?” Yvette said, and wished she could leap up and away in shock – she had to settle for sedated wriggling, “My leg? No, no, I need my leg. Nobody go cutting off my leg!”

“Um. Isn’t that more of a treatment, than a diagnosis?” Vaughn suggested, in the gentle voice of a man straining with the effort of not throwing up.

“If we don’t, the infection will spread. I think. Probably,” Dr Sandford said, “Besides, this thing stinks and there’s not much else we can do with it.”

Yvette took in big gulps of air, trying to slow the rollercoaster of thoughts in her head and the racing of her heart. She had known, really, that this was a potential outcome. She always knew about the outcomes, especially if they were ugly. It’s what helped her survive in Hyperion. Yet somehow she had managed to push this one to the back of her head.

“It’s okay, Yvette,” Vaughn said, and she saw his face looming over her, blurry and indistinct, “We can give you a prosthetic. I mean…probably. We can whip something up. Uh.”

“Wait, wait,” she said, her voice cracking, “Can’t the robotics team do something? Some of those guys must have survived. They could build me a cybernetic leg. Something really good. Please, don’t leave me on this planet with a dead weight strapped to me.”

Vaugh went quiet. Not a good sign.

“Oh, like we’re gonna waste resources like that on a traitor!” Sasha spoke up, “Vaughn, don’t do this for her. I know you guys were friends, but we’re spread thin already. You know we can’t waste time and money and the few parts we have on this. She’s already refused to help us.”

Vaughn remained quiet. Yvette couldn’t believe this.

“Vaughn, please,” Yvette said, “Leaving me with anything less than the best marks me for dead on this planet!”

She could see Dr Sandford readying a saw out of the corner of her eye – it certainly didn’t look like it had been sterilised. In fact, it didn’t even look like it had been a cursory rinse. It took all of the control she had not to pass out again.

“Sorry, Yvette, look, we’ll give you something¸ but…you know how expensive cybernetics are, and you could always stay here afterwards and –“

“No! You can’t do this!”

“Oh, give us one good reason not to. We can’t give our best equipment to a potential enemy,” Sasha said, and Yvette felt a flare of hatred that almost eclipsed how badly she hated Rhys. Almost.

“I can track Rhys down!” she blurted out. She saw Vaughn and Sasha look at her – her vision was too blurred to make out their expressions, but she could bet that caught their attention.

“You can find Rhys?” he asked.

Yvette nodded, though she didn’t even know how honest she was being.

“How’d you think I used to find you guys? Just…put your all into building my leg, and I’ll help you find him,” she said, “Don’t’ cut any corners, okay?”

Yvette saw Sasha fold her arms, but she tried to focus her gaze as best she could on Vaughn.

“…Okay, Yvette,” he said, sighing, “This, uh, isn’t exactly how I wanted you to work with us but…”

“Alright! Whatever! Can I saw it off yet? I really want to give this a try,” Dr Sandford cried, waving his saw in the air. Vaughn nodded and stepped aside, turning away. Dr Sandyford clapped his hands together and pointed at Sasha, “Nurse Sasha! Apply the general anaesthetic!”

Yvette could figure out what was happening, Sasha punched her in the back of the head and she was gone again.

 

Yvette was already tired of passing out and waking up somewhere else. It got old fast.

A numbness prickled across her whole body, the kind that made her teeth tingle and her cheeks and tongue feel three times their size, but she found she could at least move. Slowly and clumsily, but she could move.

More importantly, she only had one and a half legs. One and a quarter, really, if she was honest with herself. The feeling was…bizarre. She was sure when the cocktail of drugs Dr Sandford had probably pumped into her wore off, it would be a lot less of a novelty and much more terrifying.

She shifted, and found that the bed underneath her was actually an old desk, just softened with a few blankets and pillows. She hadn’t actually left the office – Sasha was still sat in the middle of the room, rifling through pieces of paper and things on a monitor, swearing softly under her breath.

Helios had a first aid ward. What the hell had they done to it if they had to dump her onto a desk?

Yvette shifted and pulled a hole-punch from under her back, shoving it to the ground. Sasha looked up.

“You’re awake, huh?” she said, sounding very unenthused about the notion.

“Sorry about that,” Yvette said dryly, “You can punch me out again if you like. I’m getting used to people kicking the shit out of me.”

“Urgh, spare me the pity party,” she said, and stood up, walking across to stand at Yvette’s bedside, “Is it true though? You can find Rhys?”

Yvette nodded and sat up, wiggling her fingers. Her body didn’t seem to know how to balance itself and she stumbled, and slammed her palm down on the desk to keep herself upright.

“What about the leg I was promised?” she said, gesturing to her non-existent leg. If she stretched, she could still kind of feel it there. If she thought about it, she could feel her toes curl. Weird!

“What, you think we could wave a magic wand and make it for you? That’s gonna take time,” she said, “What about my sister?”

“Your sister?” she asked faintly, trying to remember some vague mentions of a sister.

“She was with Rhys when he vanished. We find Rhys, we find her.”

Yvette cocked an eyebrow.

“Is that it? Here I was thinking you were on a quest to save your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Sasha said firmly, but then added with a smile, “Though that can always change, assuming he doesn’t act like a jackass when he gets back.”

Yvette laughed.

“Good luck with that,” she said, “I’ve known Rhys way longer than you, and trust me, jackass is his default mode of being.”

“Well, people can change,” Sasha said, "I've met a lot of people in...what I do, and people can really surprise you. Rhys already has."

“I can't promise any more surprises he has will be nice ones,” Yvette replied, and turned so she could lean back against the wall and dangle her one good leg off the side of the desk. Sasha’s smile dropped from her face.

“Well. If that’s how you see things, I guess,” she said.

For a second, Yvette had thought about warning Sasha. Letting her know that Rhys was a real snake, when it came down to it, but what could she even tell her that she didn't already know? And what would be the point, when Sasha had already come to the stupid conclusion that Yvette was evil.

“It’s experience,” Yvette muttered, deigning to say no more than that, “Anyway, what about my leg?”

“What about you being able to find Rhys and my sister?”

Yvette swallowed from a cup of water on her bedside table, her brain working as quickly as it could. Which was, in her completely modest opinion, very quickly.

“Rhys has a tracker implanted in him. Most Hyperion employees do – it’s how Jack found us if he wanted to shove us in an airlock for pissing him off,” she said, “Or, you know, just to make sure we weren’t doing anything he disapproved of.”

“Well, that’s creepy,” she said, “And you didn’t realise the corporation you worked for was evil?”

“I realised I needed a job, and I was smart enough to realise all corporations are evil somehow. Why not work for the best evil, rather than the lesser?”

“Urgh.”

“Urgh all you want,” Yvette said, “Can I continue or what?”

Sasha leaned back against her desk, her arms folded and looking at her very carefully. It would be less obvious this was an interrogation if Sasha was holding a light in her eye and swearing at her, while Vaughn hung around in the background doing some shitty good-cop act.

She decided to just be honest. She was a good liar, but there was nothing to be gained from this. Sasha didn’t exactly seem to think much of her anyway.

“Well, some higher up decided Rhys needed a heavy-duty tracker implanted in him. Dunno who, kind of came down the chain,” Yvette began, slowly and carefully, “Might have been Handsome Jack himself. I guess ‘cause he had so much Hyperion tech on him, he was kind of an investment, and if he tried to run they’d want to nab him quickly. “

“Right, so, they snatched him up and shoved it in him?” Sasha said. Yvette shook her head.

“No. It was weird, really. They asked me to make sure it happened. I would get paid if I could get Rhys to go under the knife at Hyperion, and they would add the little tracker along with whatever else they were doing. They didn’t want him to know,” Yvette said, rubbing her head.

Sasha looked unconvinced.

“They just wanted you to talk him into surgery?”

The little girl really didn’t know Rhys at all.

“Rhys has had a lot of surgery anyway. Some necessary, some not. It wasn’t a hard sell.”

 “So, you talked him into it, and then they slipped some secret tracker under his skin?” Sasha asked, “That is so messed up. I don’t even know where to start.”

“It’s Hyperion. It’s a messed up place,” she said, “It’s kind of useless without access to Helios technology…but now that I’m here, I should be able to tap into it and track him down.”

“And, you’re not lying so we’ll do what you want, right?”

Yvette folded her arms.

“I would have come up with a better lie than that,” she said, “Besides, you guys had me too drugged and scared to lie earlier.”

“Yeah, we don’t exactly know what dosages to use,” Sasha said, smiling a little, “You haven’t come across a real doctor out here, have you?”

“Ha! Sorry, no.”

“Darn. Thought it might be worth asking anyway,” Sasha said, “That’s one thing we don’t’ have here. I guess you guys never bothered hiring anyone who could do the opposite of kill people.”

“Yeah, we really resent the medical sciences at Hyperion. We’re just against anything that preserves and values human life.”

Sasha didn’t seem to know whether to laugh or scowl, and unfortunately Yvette didn’t have the time to find out, since they were interrupted by the door slamming open. They both jumped. For a second, Yvette didn’t know what had just happened, then she heard a tiny, peppy voice from below.

“Oh, wow, hi! You’re the lady we met in prison! How are you finding life on the outside?”

Yvette looked down and saw a little robot waving up at her, its little glowing face beaming at her. There was something tucked under her other arm, but Yvette couldn’t see what it was.

Sasha smiled down at the robot, radiating with warmth as though she were looking at a favourite child.

“Hi Gortys,” Sasha said. The robot turned to her.

“Sasha! Vaughn sent me down with these things, he said you might need them down here,” it said, and held up something long and metallic, and Yvette recognised the other thing under her arm as a crutch. Sasha took it from her, and tilted to examine it from every angle. It looked as though it had been welded together by a group of amateur chimpanzee welders in about ten minutes. Yvette had a sinking feeling she knew what it was.

“Well, looks like your provisional leg is here,” Sasha said, grinning, “And hey. It’s nowhere near as shitty as I thought it would be. The robotics guys are getting better at, you know, actually making stuff without their digitisers.”

Yvette could see a nail sticking out of the side of the damn thing. She swallowed, and tried to ignore the cold swear quickly forming on her forehead. Sasha was joking, right? Her real leg would be…better than that, right?

“Just…just help me get it on.”

“Gortys, you heard the woman,” Sasha said, and walked out of the room. Out of her own office, just to spite a woman that had just had most of her leg chopped off. Fucking incredible. Yvette cursed, ignored Gortys’s scandalised gasp, and clumsily began to strap her prosthetic on, with the robot’s less than stellar (if very enthusiastic) assistance. Her first fifteen minutes as part of the Children of Helios and she already felt as though her blood pressure had sky-rocketed.

It wouldn’t be long, she reminded herself. She just needed to wait until her leg was done, then she could grab whatever tech she could sell and run. To hell with it.

Chapter Text

“Alright, Yvette. You got this. You got this.”

Yvette hadn’t given herself a pep-talk in the mirror since she was 17, and had been freaked out about presenting her business case at the Junior Corporate Minds conference. It had been her first big presentation, and the competition had all been stiff-necked boys from fussy private schools, in suits they’d probably gotten for free from the family tailor. She’d won, but her Mom had just kept going on about how she had missed prom for it.

Back then, she had thought that the hardest thing she’d ever do. Then she thought her job interview (and the preceding telephone interview, and the subsequent assessment centre, and then the battery of psychometric tests) for Hyperion was the hardest. Yet even with all that, she’d never had to find one man on an entire planet. A planet with no centralised government, no social security numbers, and no census takers. None that hadn’t been riddled with stab wounds for asking a particular sensitive Psycho their occupation.

Of course, it wasn’t like she hadn’t been able to do it before but…she’d checked the first working computer she could first thing in the morning, but hadn’t been able to find a damn thing using her old methods. Of course it wasn’t that simple. Of course.

Tracking Rhys when she had all the fully-functional Hyperion tech at her fingertips, and an idea of where to start, was one thing. Tracking him when half of Helios looked like a warzone, and he might have been teleported off-planet, well. That was something else. It was more than just looking for a needle in a haystack. It was looking for one particular needle in an enormous pile of needles. The injection kind of needles, not the sewing kind of needles. And they had all been used.

She splashed her face with water and looked at herself one final time in the mirror. She looked tired and patchy without her make-up, and there was a scar from the side of her nose to her cheekbone. She hadn’t had a scar there before Helios fell.

Grabbing a towel, she dried herself off with a sigh.

“You got this,” she repeated to herself in the mirror. The Yvette in the mirror didn’t look convinced. She grabbed her crutch from its spot on the wall.

She emerged from the bathroom back to the chaos of Helios. Her ex-colleagues were running back and forth, all looking busy – although Yvette suspected that the majority were just pretending. It was what they had spent all their time doing back in Hyperion, after all.

A fingergun fight broke out down the hall. Yvette walked faster, hurrying as best she could on one crappy leg and one crappy crutch.

Sasha’s office seemed to be their base of operations. Vaughn was in charge of the Children of Helios. The Children of Helios all largely seemed to keep to their old Hyperion departments, despite the barriers between the departments being blurry and muddled even when Helios was space-faring. That was about as much organisation as the Children of Helios had.

It made Yvette long almost for the structure of Hyperion. Sure, most of it had been suspect to Jack’s bizarre and potentially insane whims, and murder was considered a viable and often attractive way of climbing the corporate ladder, but there was some semblance of order. Not just a zany free-for-all.

It sounded like there was already people inside the office. The door slid open for her, and an abrupt silence befell the room. A group of people, most she recognised, looked at her with the carefully blank expressions of those that had just been talking about her. She had seen it a lot in high school, and then again in Hyperion.

Sasha was sitting on her desk, and Loader Bot sat behind it. Both of them gave her chilly stares – impressive considering Loader Bot didn’t really have a faces. Gortys waved at her. Leaning against the wall next to Gortys was a sulky-looking woman with her hood up and her arms folded, who shot her a glare that, if Yvette was a weaker woman, would have sent her running screaming back to the bathroom. Yvette swallowed and nodded curtly at her.

“There she is!” Vaughn greeted her, far too loudly and far too cheerfully. He clapped her on the back, like she was his frigging frat bro or something. “So. Sasha told me the news. Rhys actually had something useful put in him all those times he was risking death on the operating table. Great! That totally makes all the time we spent worrying worth it, right?”

Vaughn beamed up at her. Yvette shrugged. As much as she hated to bring Vaughn down, she had no desire to sit and get nostalgic about their early days in the company. Not when it had all went so thoroughly to shit.

“Er, right,” Vaughn said, and cleared his throat, “Everyone! Okay, uh, this is Yvette. Yvette, you’ve met everyone – oh! Aside from Athena,” Vaughn said, gesturing at the sulky woman, “Another Vault Hunter on our payroll!”

“Retired Vault Hunter,” Athena corrected her, and it was only then that Yvette put two and two together.

“Athena the Gladiator?” Yvette blurted out. The woman didn’t respond.

Were these people insane? Athena had possibly murdered more people on Pandora than anyone else, with the exception of, maybe, Handsome Jack. Maybe. They couldn’t possibly be thinking of working with her. It wasn’t like Yvette was sorry for the slaughter of Atlas, but it had been a history-book-level massacre. There had been protests on actual, civilised planets about it. Most of the civilised galaxy were petitioning to her taken from Pandora and imprisoned, institutionalised, or hung, depending on their political slant.

“Yeah!” Gortys chirped, “She helped us take down the Vault monster, and she taught Fiona how to fight, and she taught me to drive the caravan, and she’s really good at Bunkers and Badasses.”

“…You’ve seriously been playing B and B with Athena the Gladiator?” Yvette repeated, desperately looking about the room for some kind of reaction. Anything, really.

…SHE IS NOT FAST, Loader Bot said.

“Um…yeah. Yvette, we just said that!” Gortys added.

“Okay, but Bunkers and Badasses. With Athena the Gladiator. That’s what you people have been doing down here?”

“Well…we were, until our Bunker Master vanished into a creepy glow-y alien Vault thing,” Vaughn said, “It’s postponed until we have our Bunker Master and our elf rogue back.”

“I need to see how that campaign ends,” Athena added, still fixing Yvette with that make-a-grown-man-cry-and-wet-himself stare, “And Janey says if we don’t get Rhys and Fiona back the seating plan for our reception will be screwed. Do you know how hard it is to arrange a seating plan where nobody who wants to kill each other is at the same table?”

Yvette didn’t know that, actually. But she wasn’t about to disagree with Athena the fucking Gladiator.

“Yeah, well, Yvette knows how to track down Rhys and Fiona. Assuming they’re even in the same place…and for the sake of our sanity, let’s assume they are!” Vaughn said, clapping his hands together, “So, let’s all help her with whatever she needs.”

Vaughn fell quiet and sat down, and Yvette felt the hypothetical baton pass into her hands. Everyone in the room looked at her. Vaughn and Gortys cheerfully expectant, the others looking as though all they expected was disappointment, betrayal, or some combination of the above.

“Right,” Yvette said, “Well, uh. I’ll need…the computer in Handsome Jack’s office.”

“Oh, oh, wait!” Gortys said, scrambling to grab a pad of paper and a pen from the desk, “I’m taking notes. Vaughn said that would help.”

Yvette gave Vaughn a look. Vaughn just lifted his shoulders in a sort of ‘Kids, eh?’ gesture. Like the little robot was a precocious toddler.

Yvette cleared her throat as Gortys came to stand by her side, poised with pen and paper.

“Okay, so I’ll need the computer in Handsome Jack’s office. If it’s broken, fix it. Then I’ll need, uh…“

That was about as far as her plan went. She had thought about it carefully the night before, the best way to tackle the issue. Aside from sounding kind of lame, it wouldn’t really do her any good in terms of stalling for time.

She glanced around the room for inspiration. Sasha looked at her, a little twist in her mouth, like she was pleased to see her stumble. Fuck her.

“Uh.”

She saw a coffee cup with a lipstick stain on the far desk.

“Something with Rhys’s DNA on it. The…Jack’s computer is going to have a really big database of employees on it, and it’s probably not labelled. I mean, remember, this is the guy who decided to legally rename everyone in HR ‘Jim’ so he wouldn’t have to learn any new names. We need something to narrow it down,” she said rapidly, gaining confidence as she heard Gortys loyally writing away. It was like she had an actual PA or something.

“And I need maps of Pandora, and any information you guys have on the Vault. Vaults in general, and the Vault of the Traveller in particular,” she said, hearing that Hyperion Bitch brass coming into her voice, “From that, we can start to triangulate Rhys’s position, as well as formulate a plan to get him home. It work quickly, but it’s a complex process and there’s a lot of…computational factors to take into account.”

God, she was talking some utter crap.

“Sounds great!” Gortys said, and then looked up at Yvette, tapping her pencil on her notepad, “But –“

“Let’s just start with this for now,” Yvette said quickly, cutting the little robot off before it picked any kind of obvious hole in her plan. She looked around to gauge how well her sell went. She was, after all, a little out of practice.

Sasha had her arms folded and was looking at her carefully. Athena looked pissed off. Yvette was starting to think that she probably always looked like that though. Whoever Janey was, Yvette could only wish her luck.

“Yeah, sounds like a good a place to start as any,” Vaughn said quickly, giving her the sort of exhausted, grateful smile Yvette had normally seen when she’d came up to accounting at 3am with coffee and a doughnut, “See, Yvette, you should have come and partnered up with us months ago. Then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”

Yvette swallowed.

“Well, I ain’t gonna say I didn’t consider it when I was doing mercenary work out there,” she said, “This planet is a horrorshow.”

Sasha raised an eyebrow at her. Yvette gave her a sidelong glance. What. Her homeplanet or not, the woman seriously couldn’t say that Pandora was anything but a shithole.

“Hm. I’ll go see what’s left of Jack’s office,” Athena said, “If there’s anything of his still there, anything he really really liked, I’d really like to destroy it.”

“Oh, oh! That’s actually my office now, Rhys said so! I’ll come with you. I still haven’t decided on my colour scheme,” Gortys said, rolling up to Athena and grabbing her hand. Yvette expected to her a metallic screech and the thump of a tiny robotic arm hit the wall, but Athena simply let herself be taken with the simmering look she’d had on her face from the second Yvette first laid eyes on her.

“Um, Gortys, I don’t think there’s actually much  –“ Sasha began, but Gortys and Athena were out of the door before she could finish. She shot Vaughn a faux-worried look. “Oh no. We have to find her an office now. I’m not going to be the one to tell her that her ‘old one’ got destroyed.”

“Hey, she could always have yours,” Vaughn said.

“Hell no. I’m Ms Nine Million Dollars, remember? I need an office.”

Vaughn laughed, “Alright, Ms Nine Million Dollars. What do you want to handle: maps, Vault information or Rhys’s DNA?”

“Hey, you knew Rhys best. You go find his dirty laundry,” Sasha said, “That’s no job for a lady.”

“…I was worried you’d say that,” Vaughn said, scratching his head, “You know chivalry’s outdated, right? Isn’t the modern thing that ladies can do whatever jobs they want to?”

“Yeah. But I don’t wanna do it,” Sasha said, “I think I’ll stay here and help Loader Bot find info.”

“Yeah. Alright. You owe me one, Sash,” Vaughn said, “Thanks again, Yvette. You have no idea how little of an idea we had on where to start. If you hadn’t turned up we’d all still be just kind of sitting outside the Vault pretending they’re gonna walk out any minute.”

Yvette’s mouth went very dry.

“No problem,” she said. Vaughn smiled at her and left, the office doors sliding shut behind him. Yvette looked at Sasha and saw her easy smile when talking to Vaughn had vanished, and she was fixing her with that same appraising look she had when she had been explaining her half-baked plan yesterday. Yvette stood up as straight as she could on her prosthetic, putting one hand on her hip and her nose just a touch higher in the air.

“I’m not even pretending I trust you,” Sasha finally said, slowly, with the tone of one delivering an ultimatum, “I’ll be honest, I’m waiting for you to stab us in the back any second. But if you can help me find my sister, then…well, I’m willing to deal.”

“That’s generous of you,” Yvette said. Sasha looked at her, and then went behind the desk to sit on the arm of Loader Bot’s chair, looking at the computer with him as though Yvette hadn’t said anything.

Turning on her heel, Yvette stormed out. As best she could stumbling on some shoddily-made pegleg anyway.

 

Athena and Gortys came back first with the remains of Handsome Jack’s computer, Gortys still babbling away about what she could do with the ruins of the office. Athena only slammed it down on her desk and stalked off mutely. The Gladiator really had a gift for conversation. Gortys stayed, but when Yvette failed to humour her, she just hummed and tidied up the half-destroyed office Vaughn had given her.

Yvette set to work. She wasn’t as good as computers as Rhys – Yvette swore the guy had been attached to a hard drive in the womb instead of a placenta – but she knew enough.

Sort of.

In most cases.

Jack’s security was really, really tight. Yvette didn’t know what the hell the jackass had been hiding, or what he’d been afraid of, but both must have been pretty serious.

That, or he had been insanely paranoid. From what little honest things she’d heard about him, Yvette suspected that may well have been the case.

It actually somewhat improved Yvette’s opinion on Handsome Jack, really. Previously, Yvette had thought his business practices had all been rooted in complete and utter idiocy. No businessman with any sense would run a company the way Jack had ran Hyperion. However, a paranoid lunatic would have ran a company the exact way Jack had ran Hyperion.

After her third hour attempting to get through, and discovering that one of Jack’s security measures was an excruciatingly challenging level of Pac-man, Yvette slammed her head against the keyboard. She didn’t even know why she was trying. She wasn’t interested in finding Rhys, and she didn’t think there’d seriously be anything useful on Jack’s computer. She could be just typing nonsense into the command console and pretending it was something important, really. All she had to do was kill time.

“Why am I doing this to myself?” she muttered, a hand in her hair.

“Because you want to find your best friend?” Gortys offered. Yvette lifted her head enough from the keyboard to cast the little robot a scathing look.

“Oh. That was a rhetorical question, wasn’t it? Sorry. Those are still really tough,” she said.

It hadn’t been. Not really. It just wasn’t a question Gortys was equipped to answer. After all, she could just sit in her new office playing Minesweeper until someone from robotics came along with a brand new shiny leg, and hopefully someone other than Dr Sandford to attach it.

Vaughn’s grateful smile popped into her head and she felt the guilt as though someone had plunged a knife into her gut and twisted it.

Yvette sat up. Okay, so, she was just killing time. That didn’t mean she couldn’t at least try to make some headway on finding Rhys and Sasha’s sister. While Yvette didn’t give a shit about whether the guy lived or died, it was clear Vaughn did. And she wasn’t a total asshole.

And when she ran, she would leave enough behind that Vaughn could pick up the pieces and track down Rhys himself. Then Rhys would join the Children of Helios, Yvette would find her way off-world, and they could all live happily fucking after.

And, moreover, Rhys could live with the knowledge that Yvette, unlike him, was actually a half-decent goddamn person.

If she didn’t spend the rest of her life hacking away at Jacks’ security. It was designed as though intended purely to annoy.

“Gortys, you couldn’t get me a coffee, could you?” she asked.

“Aye, aye, cap’n!”

Gortys returned with…half a dozen cups of coffee? Yvette wasn’t sure she understood. She took one with a muttered ‘thank you’, as Gortys settled in by her feet. Yvette took a breath and began to try to break in again.

“Oh, by the way! Yvette! I’ve had some ideas that I think could –“

“Not now, Gortys,” Yvette said, sipping her coffee, “How about you go catch up with Vaughn and see how he’s doing?”

“Oh…uh…okay…”

Well. Yvette didn’t like the robot, but that hadn’t felt good.

She sighed as Gortys left the room. At least she could get on with getting through Jack’s security.

 

By the time Vaughn returned with a pile of Rhys’s old crap, Jack’s security had shown her every shock image and screamer every invented by a fourteen boy in the internet, she was pretty sure that the computer had literally electrocuted her, and she had used every swear word she’d learnt since fourth grade.

But hey, at least she had some of Rhys’s old laundry.

Great. Awesome.

Why had she said that shit about the DNA. She should have just asked for the computer and then some of the best minds the Children of Helios had to offer to crack it.

Really, she had just fallen back into old habits.

It was an old trick her and Rhys had always pulled when making pitches – make it sound so complicated that only they could possibly deal with it. They had closed more than one deal that way. Just talk at people until they got confused, and scared, and were willing to just agree with whatever to make you stop showing them charts and numbers. Then it was fist-bumping and doing their best corporate asshole laugh over a cheap bottle of champagne all the shuttle ride home.

“Well, I’m not sure what you needed, so I just grabbed whatever!” Vaughn said, and dumped a handful of stuff on her desk.

Vaughn had only ever ran the numbers, whether they were real or seriously massage statistics. The pitching was never his strength, but he should know what she was up to.

…And he probably does, is the thing. He probably, at the back of his mind, knows exactly what she’s doing but would just rather think otherwise. Or is giving her a chance.

Pandora really has changed him. Just not in the direction Yvette would ever expect.

“Thanks,” Yvette said, “Didn’t pick me up my cappuccino though.”

“Ha. I’ll see if any of the concierge staff have got any of the old coffee machines working. We really should get those going again though. I mean, the caffeine deprivation in this place is unreal, some people are so cranky,” Vaughn said, and then nodded towards the mound of garbage he’d so carefully scavenged from Rhys’s shithole of a room, “So any of this useable?”

Yvette picked through the pile with the tips of her fingers, as though she were remotely interested in preserving them as they are. There was a few items from Rhys’s painstakingly curated sock collection, a tissue (ew), a fork with a dried piece of ramen noodle on it (double ew), one of Rhys’s old binders (“Yeah, I dunno why he even has them anymore either. Hasn’t needed them for years.”), a bunch of clothes and some cybernetic doodads that Yvette wouldn’t be able to identify with a gun to her head. Some of Rhys’s pet projects by the looks of it, most of them with the shoddy, dusty look of a great idea tossed aside halfway through.

She looked at each in turn for a time she hoped seemed reasonable, and tried to look pensive.

“Maybe.” No idea. “I’ll have to check.” With what? For what? She didn’t even know DNA worked. “Thanks, Vaughn, appreciate it.” She did, sort of. It was useless, but she appreciated it.

Yvette huffed and sat back down at the computer. Well. That was a nice distraction. Time to.

The thought of going back to Jack’s computer made her want to scream and hurl herself out of the window. Vaughn frowned at her.

“You look like crap, by the way.”

“You don’t say,” Yvette said, “Pandora will do that to you.”

Well, that’s what it did to most people. It had turned Vaughn into the local heart-throb. All the high-heeled, pencil-skirted women that had barely looked at him would suddenly primp and smile as soon as he came by, undoing the top button of their blouses. She couldn’t help but wonder if he was taking advantage of his newfound popularity. Somehow she didn’t think so.

Which, to Yvette, was just an act of insanity. Why the hell wouldn’t you?

“Hey, I’m just saying. How about you take a break from that and come to the cafeteria for lunch?” Vaughn asked. Yvette lifted an eyebrow.

“You guys still have lunch in the cafeteria?” she asked.

“Old habits, Yvette,” he said, spreading his arms, “The Children of Helios are delighted to be free of their corporate shackles…to an extent. They still like, you know, structure and order, and having someone tell them what to do, and…they’re really fond of Powerpoints, like my God, try to get anything from finance without being treated to a three hour Powerpoint.”

“That sounds exactly the same as Hyperion.”

“Well, you know, sometimes I think they’re just happy about not having a loudmouthed jackass threatening to throw them out of an airlock every day more than anything.”

Yvette laughed. She could only imagine.

Helios had went a bit weird after Jack died – half of the staff in mourning and unable to even form words, the other half practically skipping down the corridors singing ‘Ding Dong The Witch is Dead’. That wasn’t even scraping the surface of all the power struggles, the arguments, the amount of weird benches and statues that were elected in his honour then torn down, and then rebuilt, until finally Hyperion had made the very Hyperion decision to capitalise on Jack’s death and make a tour of it.

“Yeah, I guess most of the Children of Helios weren’t the guys who used to wear those creepy masks all the time?”

“No, thank God. So,” Vaughn asked, “Lunch?”

It was almost like being home.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

#

“Well, I’m bored.”

Rhys rubbed his forehead. Somehow, after all the chaos, the manipulation, the attempt murder-suicide attempt, the sob stories about his daughter, and the desperate pleading for his freedom, Rhys had managed to forget one key thing about Jack.

He was basically a five year old.

A murderous, psychopathic five year old, but a five year old nonetheless.

Fiona looked at the Claptrap unit as though he wanted to tear him to shreds and douse the pieces in acid. Which, in all likelihood, was exactly what she wanted to do.

“Jack, if you’re bored, help,” he said, through gritted teeth, looking up from the machine he was taking apart, trying to find more wire. He had…a vague idea, and an old ECHO transmitter that looked basically intact…sort of. If he could do…something something with that and then…

Oh, he didn’t know. But maybe if Jack hadn’t spent his entire new life as a Claptrap complaining and annoying him, maybe he would have formulated a plan already.

“Oh, sorry, guess I was too busy, you know, reeling with horror at my new form,” Jack said, lifting his metal hands and twisting them a full 360 degrees at the wrist, “You know, pumpkin, having your consciousness altered and crammed into a tin can, it kind of messes with you.”

Rhys shook his head and pulled out a length of wire slowly, wrapping it around his arm in neat coils.

“Alright, I get it. Real cute. You’re ignoring me. You brought me back to life, had some kind of weird fit over it, and now you’re ignoring me. Real nice, Rhysie, just,” he said, and then put his thumb and forefinger together and made a kissing noise somewhere in his chassis, “Oh. Hey. Look at that. This thing comes with sound effects.”

Jack immediately began reeling through a length of badly compressed stock noises – a siren going off, a cat meowing, helicopter sounds, the rattle of a jackhammer, a few wet fart noises (he composed a version of Frere Jacque out of those), and Rhys began to wish for the attempted murder-suicides.

Fiona gave him a scathing look, as though Rhys had installed all those noises himself just to annoy her. Rhys shook his head at her and went back to work. When it came to Jack, sometimes ignoring him was the best policy.

In theory, anyway. Rhys had never managed to successfully ignore him for very long.

After Jack seemed to work through the Claptrap’s soundboard, worsening Rhys’ headache by a factor of around a hundred and making Fiona bite down on her hat to stop herself screaming, he finally retracted his wheel and sat down, pulling handfuls of grass out of the ground and tossing them at Rhys’s back.

“Oh come on! What are you two even looking for? Newsflash kids, if there’s no ECHO signal, there’s no ECHO signal. You aren’t gonna build something out of {BEEP!} you find on the ground and call home. Do you two think you’re friggin’ E.T. or something?” Jack said.

“Rhys. Are you sure we can’t kill him?” Fiona asked, sounding exhausted.

“You know, this is what I had to put up with the whole time we were looking for the Vault,” Rhys said, “And I was the only one who could hear him.”

“Rhys. I am so sorry.”

“Okay, now you are both just being rude,” he said, “And it’s just because you know I’ve got a point. C’mon, cupcake, you don’t seriously think a bunch of old tech is gonna get you home?”

“Do you have any better ideas?” Rhys said. While he sounded sarcastic, in all honesty, if Jack had any better ideas he’d be willing to hear it. He had about as much confidence in this plan as Jack did.

“I don’t know,” Jack said innocently, “Maybe if you pull down all the firewalls you’ve put in me, or maybe if we had our old one-body-two-man arrangement, I’d be able to help.”

“Like hell,” Fiona snarled.

“Yeah. Go screw yourself, Jack.”

“Yeah, you know what, I don’t think I’m screwing anything like this. Just another thing you stole from me forever, Rhys. Thanks for that, buddy,” Jack said, “You know, if I find out you were somehow responsible for my Dad dying, I’m not gonna be surprised.”

Rhys looked up.

“Your Dad?”

Fiona threw an empty tin of beans off his head, glaring.

Right, right. No more getting sucked into the sob stories. He rubbed his head and went back to work. Rhys knew she had a point about that, but he couldn’t help wanting to hear them. It was the kind of morbid curiosity that made cats fall into meat grinders.

Rhys knew all the bullshit about his daughter or whatever were just one of the tricks Jack had up his sleeve to manipulate him, sure, but Rhys had the feeling they were…well, as honest as Jack was capable of being. He didn’t think they were lies, at least.

It was natural, really, to be curious about what happened to make a guy like Jack happen.

Sure. No obsession or anything, you little weirdo.

Jack went silent, and Rhys couldn’t tell if he was sulking or reflecting or scheming or some kind of horribly combination of the above. Fiona went back to searching the console for any info that might be useful, but kept glancing over at Rhys, and at Jack, looking pissed off. Rhys was beginning to suspect that was actually her concerned face.

“Okay, hey, I’ve got an idea,” he said, if only because the awkward silence was becoming a bit unbearable, “Maybe if I get up really hire, and drag a line from the computer to…maybe the top of the tree or something, we could catch a signal.”

“Well…I guess that might work?” Fiona said.

“Yeah. No, it won’t,” Jack said.

“It’s worth trying,” Rhys snapped.

“Alright, whatever. It’ll be funny to watch, anyway,” he replied, shrugging. Rhys sighed and pushed his hair out of his eyes.

“Alright, Jack, let me climb on you and –“

“Wow, no.”

“Then Fiona can give me a leg up, and I think I should be able to scramble up to the top of…that tree from there,” Rhys said, “Once up there, I’ll wire up the transmitter and stretch the wire back to the console, from there we’ll try to configure it to a frequency that –“

Then he noticed Fiona was halfway up the tree already.

“Fi!” he called up.

“What, your way sounded complicated and dumb!” Fiona called, “Like all your plans, by the way!”

“What – that’s - you don’t even have the transmitter!” Rhys called up.

“Throw it up, then! Sheesh!”

“Oh, princess, you are asking way too much. Look at Rhys for a second. Just look at him. And tell me if he looks like the kind of man who can throw a ball. Never seen a guy more likely to get picked last in gym in my life,” Jack said. Rhys shot him a dirty look.

He had always been second to last, actually. Though he wasn’t about to divulge that to Jack and Fiona under anything aside from the most meticulous torture.

“Rhys, come on, I can catch,” Fiona said.

“Yeah, well…” Problem was, Jack was right. Rhys really did throw like a baby. “Look, I’ll climb up and pass it over. I don’t want this thing damaged.”

Fiona shook her head, but seemed to accept it with a sigh.

“Alright, Jack, give me a boost.”

“Nah,” Jack said, and moved away.

“Urgh, seriously, Jack, just –“

“Oh seriously? Look, if you were being serious, you’d be at least calling me my full name. It’s Handsome Jack, in case you forgot. I don’t know when you started thinking we were cosy enough for first name terms, pumpkin, but really, you need to start respecting my boundaries,” Jack said, and folded his arms, “Which, you know, messing with my programming? Everything every AI rights group has ever been mad about.”

“Okay, that is – you are just being difficult!”

“Yeah,” Jack said, and flipped him off with both hands, “What are you gonna do about it?”

Rhys restrained the urge to scream, and lifted his foot, placing it on Jack’s chassis. Jack looked at him uncomprehendingly, until Rhys gave a push and Jack fell onto his back. He let out a sharp beep, his wheel whirring uselessly with a sound like a remote control car. The wheel jerked up and down, trying to find something to hold onto, but unable to reach the ground by a good two inches.

Rhys crouched down by Jack’s side, his elbows on his knees.

“Oh, by the way. These old Claptraps units had kind of a big design flaw,” he explained, “Caused a lot of complaints when they first hit the market. See, they’d fall over, and then just…oh, just couldn’t get themselves back up. Engineers really screwed up, right? Haha.”

“Rhys, you little…you little…you absolute fartnugget, get me up right now!”

“Suck it, Jack.”

Rhys stuck both of his middle fingers up at him and stood up straight.

Rhys I am going to skin you alive with my bare hands and eat the frigging pieces!” Jack screeched from the floor, still thrashing as much as his metal body was capable of. Which wasn’t much, Rhys noted with no small amount of satisfaction. Guy moved like an animatronic in a crappy kid’s arcade-pizzaria.

“Whatever, Jack,” he said, and stepped onto his face. He easily reached the lowest branch with the extra two feet, and, from there, passed the transmitter and one end of the wire to Fiona. Fiona was looking down at the scene below her as though she was concerned witnessing that much raw stupidity would make some of her own brain cells die off.

“You really love pissing off people who want you dead, Rhys,” she said, shaking her head. Rhys shrugged, and dropped to the ground, making sure he landed on Jack.

“Hey, it’s a gift,” Rhys said, “Now go easy, I really had to strain to make all the wire we had long enough, so don’t snap it.”

“Alright, alright, don’t worry! I’m gentle, okay.”

Rhys snorted, watching as Fiona nimbly reached from branch to branch. He backed up and plugged one end of the wire into the computer. The monitor had a huge crack on one side, and Rhys could only see half the screen, and even some of that with fuzzed over with dead pixels and distortion. He grimaced. Urgh, even if the thing wasn’t beaten up, it would still be a crappy piece of hardware. He almost didn’t want to touch it.

He…probably could plug it into himself, really. That would be easier.

That just…well. Unless he’d built it and programmed it from scratch himself…he just.

He sat down and started to use the computer manually, ignoring the way his stomach was still turning.

“Ready up here!” Fiona called.

“Yeah, and I’m just having a great time down here. On the filthy ground. Covered in footprints and having a centipede crawl on my friggin’ face. In case either of you were wondering,” Jack piped up.

“We weren’t!” Fiona yelled back.

Rhys ignored them, and focused on the computer. The transmitter they’d wired up was an old piece of crap, but Rhys though that just maybe if he fiddled around a little, he could at least throw an SOS signal out there.

“And, let’s try that!”

A hideous screeching filled the air. There was thump as Fiona fell out of the tree, followed by a high-pitched beep that Rhys could only assume was Jack attempting to curse.

“Rhys! What the hell is that?” Fiona called, standing up with her hands over her ears.

“Sorry! I can’t see most of the screen, okay?” Rhys said.  He hit keys on the keyboard frantically, trying to figure out what the hell he had just done, Sure, he hadn’t been expecting it to work, but he hadn’t expected it to make a noise like the dial-up sound from hell.

“Well shut it off!” Fiona said.

“Oh, thanks Fi, I hadn’t thought of that!”

Trying his best to think over the noise, Rhys managed to shut it off. He leaned back in his chair with a sigh, one hand over his forehead. There was the tinny sound of pre-recorded applause from behind him.

“Hey, just so you know, this is meant to be slow, sarcastic applause,” Jack said, “Because that was just friggin’ brilliant.”

“Yeah…much as I hate to agree with talking trash bin here, Rhys, that was…not good,” Fiona said, putting a hand on her hip, “Pretty bad really.”

“Look, that was just, that was just attempt number one!” Rhys said, turning around on his chair, “I ‘m sure with a few more tests, we’ll get something more substantial.”

“Okay, how about letting me take a look, cupcake. You know how I’m like, better than you at almost everything? Well, everything that isn’t whining and using way too much hair gel,” Jack said, “How about I take a look at it? Plus, you know, Claptrap programming. Opening doors and doing menial stuff to move the story forward is kind of what these things were built for.”

Rhys sighed.

“Alright. Fi, help him up.”

“What?” Fiona said, as though Rhys had just asked her to smear Bullymong faeces on her face.

“Look, we might as well give him something useful to do,” Rhys said, raking a hand through his hair, “…I don’t actually wear that much hair-gel, do I?”

“Hard to tell after three days in the forest,” she said, flicking her wrist, “I mean, at the minute it’s just all crunchy and dried in there, probably gonna come off in weird flakes when you finally get to a shower.”

“Yeugh, okay, shut up and go help Jack up.”

Fiona crouched down and lifted Jack up from the ground with a huge, pushing Jack upright.  He zipped towards the computer within seconds of being up, letting Fiona fall on her face with a shout. He shoved Rhys out of the way and reached up to take hold of the keyboard.

“Alright, alright. Hook me up, baby, wire me into this thing and let’s see if I can make it sing!” he said, looking up at Rhys expectantly.

Of course, Rhys thought to himself. He wasn’t sure why he had been expecting anything else.

“No.”

“No?” Jack said, “You just said I should help.”

“Yeah, and you can help by just using the computer, not uploading your consciousness into it. There is no way in hell I trust you enough for that.”

“Oh, c’mon, why not?”

“Uh, right, let me think. What happened the last time I plugged you into a computer system?” Rhys said, and began counting on his fingers, “Oh, uh, yeah, you tried to skin me alive and wear me like a human suit, you threatened to kill all of my friends –“

“All three of them, buddy.”

“- and then you threw a tantrum and started killing everyone in sight when I wouldn’t do what you wanted to, aaaand oh, yeah. Trying to take over my body and strangle me with my own arm.”

“Aaand…that was bad, I think, is what you’re trying to imply,” Jack said, “You know, Rhys, you weren’t exactly an angel up there either. I made you President of my company, and then you started crying like a little {BEEP!} at my great idea all ‘Oh no, Jack, I’m too scared of commitment, please don’t shove the robot inside my body’.”

“Commitment, really. You’re making this about commitment.”

“Uh, yeah, I am, five seconds before it was like ‘Oh yay Jack thankies for making me President of Hyperion, we’re partners forever now!’ and then it’s all ‘Waa waa I don’t wanna be a skinsuit, Jack, you meanie!’ Like, seriously, Rhys. Way to screw me over.”

Rhys didn’t have any words for that. He really didn’t. He shook his head.

“I do not sound like that,” he said instead.

“Princess, that’s exactly what you sound like.” Jack added. Rhys threw his hands in the air, and turned to Fiona. Fiona was standing still, tense like a wound spring and squinting up at the trees.

“Hey, Fi. Come on, pay attention. Seriously, do I sound like that?”

“Sssh!”

“See, even she doesn’t wanna hear that whiny voice.”

“Both of you shut up!” she snapped, “Can you hear that?”

Rhys shut up and listened carefully, hoping it was, for just once, sometime good. Ideally, the sound of caravan.

Rhys could hear the sound of an electronic buzzing, maybe from the transmitter up above them or…

“Sounds like a giant swarm of…bees?” he said. Jack shifted.

“…You know, kids, I’m starting to think we should get moving,” Jack said. Rhys nodded and started to gather up whatever he could, but Fiona grabbed his arm.

“Urgh, you don’t have to listen to him.”

“What? Fiona, seriously, he’s got a point. I’m not going to just…disagree with everything he says out of spite!”

The buzzing was getting louder.

“Look, I’m just not about to start taking orders from this asshole. And you shouldn’t either.”

“Fiona, we’re not taking orders, we –“

“Kids, seriously, are we doing this? How have you two idiots even survived this long!”

“Rhys, I just don’t want you to start getting used to doing whatever this guy tells you again!” Fiona shouts over the buzzing, “It didn’t work before!”

“I didn’t do everything he said!”

“Trust me, princess, he didn’t. If he had, we’d all be in much better positions right now.”

“Shut up. And stop calling me those stupid pet names,” Fiona snapped, “It’s creepy and so are you.”

“Come on, Fi, let’s get moving and argue about this later, I -“

There was a screech and a group of pale…almost figures, more like giant locusts burst from the trees, surrounding them. They hovered a few feet above the floor, and had narrow faces on long, stooped necks that stretched out to stare at them. Or at least, that’s what Rhys assumed they were doing. The black marks on the end of their necks were probably faces, somehow, right?

Most of them had spears in their claws, the points a bare breath from Rhys and Fiona’s throats. Not cute little sticks-and-rocks spears either, the glowy purple kind that looked like would turn you to a pile of ectoplasm on the ground if it was shoved through your solar plexus. Which, incidentally, looked like exactly what they were planning to do.

Rhys gave Fiona a dry look.

“Nice one.”

Chapter Text

“Fiona, you have a plan, right?” Rhys asked, leaning his head as far back as it could go from the spear at his throat.

Schmoozing with corporate assholes, hacking computers, bringing psychotic megalomaniacs back from the dead and trapping them inside the cold robotic shells of enslaved steward bots…that he could do. Dealing with savages with a passion for pointy things and (potentially) ritualistic sacrifice, that was more Fiona’s deal. Rhys was willing to defer to her on these matters.

“Of course I do!” Fiona hissed, looking over her shoulder at him, “Just….follow my lead, okay?”

“Okay,” Rhys whispered back, nodding. Fiona took a deep breath and swept both of her arms out, almost hitting Rhys in the face.

“Behold! And congratulations, for you are the most…devout of your tribe, to have discovered us first! We are the fallen Gods…Fi…Fiynaxisth and…Rhysonthianyx! Gaze upon us in all our…glory?”

“Rhys, what is she doing. What is she doing,” Jack said. Rhys couldn’t think of anything to say in response to that, he could only stare at her. Fiona looked at him, desperately inclining her head. He glanced at the…things (aliens?). They did seem to be backing away a little, or at least lowering their spears by a fraction.

“Come on,” Fiona mouthed.

Well, when was the last time he had dignity anyway.

“Yes, it is I…Rhyso - Rhysonfee – Rhysolarynx - you may call me Rhys! That will be my name on this mortal plane!” Rhys said, cracking his throat a little. He was probably too dehydrated to be bellowing, but damnit he was going to make this convincing if it killed him. The semester of drama had taken in college better pay off. “Now…our subjects, take us to your home, and bathe us in your…uh…tidal wave of…blessings?”

 “Oh my god,” Jack said, both of his hands over his eye.

“Yes!” Fiona continued, trying to pick up where Rhys stumbled, “We require gold, and…fruit! And…access to your most advanced technologies! How…is the technology coming, subjects? Have you invented it yet? Your gods will be most displeased if you haven’t!”

The aliens hesitated, and lowered their spears. Rhys couldn’t believe their luck.

“OhmyGodthisisactuallyworking,” he said under his breath to Fiona.

“Yeah, I know, just…pose and look divine or something!”

Rhys put his hands on his hips and pointed his chin up to the sky. Fiona pointed her gun at the sky and put her other hand on her hip. Jack looked like he wanted to die.

The aliens fell still and looked at one another, lights flashing across their wings. Fiona and Rhys grinned at each other, sweat visible on both of their foreheads. The aliens turned back towards them.

Then they attacked.

 

No matter how old she got, or what kind of crazy shit happened, walking into Helios’ cafeteria would always remind Yvette of her first day in Hyperion. She had been the only woman on her grad programme (“The diversity candidate,” as one charming young man had described her), and the boys had all managed to ditch her between their orientation sessions and lunch.

After a humiliating few sessions self-consciously eating on an otherwise empty table, Yvette had found excuses to eat in the bathroom. And then she began to just eat lunch at her desk, which was the more approved place to eat your dinner.

Then Rhys and Vaughn had come into the picture.

There had been demand for a mentorship scheme after a few new grad employees had mental breakdowns, and Jack had, begrudgingly, obliged. Even more begrudgingly, Yvette had agreed to take part in it. It was then Rhys and Vaughn, starry-eyed, self-obsessed and fresh out of college, were shoved under her wings.

“The catering staff haven’t gotten any better, by the way,” Vaughn said as they entered the cafeteria, “They haven’t gotten any worse, buuut…you’d think they would have, what with only having rat meat and bits of skag and sand to work with. That in itself…kind of concerning, y’know?”

“So, we don’t get treated to the kind of lunches Henderson used to get?” Yvette asked. She remembered seeing the silver platters march past her cubicle, where she was attempting to shovel down a truly dubious egg and cress sandwich and some tinny-tasting coffee. It had made her stomach cramp with envy.

“Sorry. We live off the land now, Yvette,” he said, and then adopted some kind of poor imitation of a country hick accent, “Pandora living is hard living!”

“You’re a nerd.”

Vaughn shrugged, and continued to walk towards where the food, all the lumpy, grain, beige-coloured offerings of it, were being spooled into big stainless steel tins. More than a few of the Children of Helios nudged each other and stared as Vaughn passed by, a few giggling and waving. Yvette…couldn’t even really process that enough to have an emotional reaction to it. It was too surreal. Most people on Helios back in the day had acted like they couldn’t even see Vaughn, at the very best.

“Is this not weird for you?” Yvette said, accepting a pile of mush on a tray, and the pile of mush that she supposed was meant to serve as condiment. Vaughn looked at her blankly, and Yvette nodded her head towards Debra, who was breaking occasionally from the story she was telling her coworkers to nod her head and bat her eyelashes at the pair of them.

“A little,” Vaughn said, “But, hey, I’ve gotten used to it. I mean…I don’t enjoy it, or anything…I mean, maybe a little. But not really. Besides, I’m not that big of a deal. It’s Rhys they’re really obsessed with.”

Yvette frowned. She couldn’t help it.

“Don’t remind me.”

“Yvette –“

What Vaughn was about to say, whatever paltry defence of Rhys he’d prepared for her that day, Yvette never learned, because they were interrupted by a girl waving at them from across the room.

“Vaughn!” Sasha yelled. Next to her, some guy was sitting far too close, and looking mortally offended at being interrupted. Yvette vaguely recognised him – she was pretty sure at some point she’d had to give him a fake number to make him shut up and go away.

“Sasha!” Vaughn called cheerfully, waving, and went over to see her. The guy glanced at Vaughn, or at least at his abs, and walked off, a petulant look on his face. Yvette couldn’t help but wonder if Sasha was some kind of beacon for assholes.

“How’d raiding Rhys’s panty drawer go?” she asked.

She didn’t even look at Yvette. That was fine. Yvette wasn’t offended at all. Sasha could do what she wanted.

She sat down and put down her lunch tray with far more force than was remotely necessary, eliciting a clunk that echoed across the cafeteria. Sasha didn’t flinch.

“We got what we needed,” Vaughn said, settling down opposite her, “Athena and Gortys managed to recover Jack’s computer too. How about you? Any luck with Vaults or anything?”

Sasha sighed.

“Well, we dug up some stuff. There’s a map that looks like it was found after Jack died, bunch of Vaults on different planets buuut…don’t think that helps. And then there’s some old stuff about the Vault of the Traveller…I mean it looks like someone managed to get in it before but…that’s it. And even if they did manage to get inside it, it didn’t mention anything about them getting out.”

Sasha bit her lip. Yvette ate a mouthful of flavoured mush and watched her, the little way she bit her lip, the brief flash of genuine concern in her eyes. It was hard to tell whether how much of her worry was for her sister or for Rhys. Probably mostly her sister, but Yvette got the feeling she was pretty fond of Rhys in her own way too.

Well, they were welcome to each other. Yvette ate another forkful of mush.

“How long ago did the last Vault Hunters get in?”

Sasha shrugged.

“Well, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Sounds mostly like a crazy person’s journal, dated a loooong time ago,” she said, “And it never says whether they actually got in or not. Just that’s what they were after. The treasures of the Vault of the Traveller! Untold riches, hidden by Eridians from centuries before. All that stuff.”

Vaughn sighed.

“Well, thanks anyway. Guess that’s about as much as we expected. Right?” he said, looking at Yvette. Yvette knew a blatant attempt at including a third wheel in a conversation when she saw it, and a petty, deep-rooted resentment flared inside her for a moment.

She quashed it, telling herself she was being ridiculous. She wasn’t in high school, trying to get one of the popular kids to like her so she had somewhere to eat at lunch.

Although, in Hyperion, it never stopped feeling like that.

“Yes,” Yvette said with business-like curtness, “Thank you for your effort.”

Sasha didn’t reply, only looked at her. Awkward silence reigned supreme for a length of time that Yvette wouldn’t even venture to put a number on. Finally, Vaughn coughed.

“Eeerr, anyway,” he said, “Any more ideas?”

Yvette did have another idea. It wasn’t exactly complicated, or reliable, but it was good when it worked.

“Crowdfunding.”

“Uh, what?” Sasha said, looking at her.

“Easy. We get the best minds in Hyperi – Helios on the case. Jack’s security is tight, and we should really have worms all across Pandora keeping an eye out for Rhys and Fiona. So we tell everyone what’s happening and drag them into it,” Yvette said. She looked around and noted how most of the Children of Helios were in the cafeteria, chatting and eating and showing each other slideshows with all the pride of a kindergarteners showing each other their macaroni art.

Yvette stood up, and got one syllable into her speech before Sasha grabbed her hard enough by the middle to wind her. She stumbled, hissing with pain as her leg managed to surge through the quantity of pain medication in her bloodstream, but Sasha just glared up at her as though she was the one being ridiculous.

“No!” she hissed, “Are you an idiot?

“What?” Yvette snapped, “It’s a perfectly good idea.”

Sasha pulled on her and fixed her with a scathing look, like a teacher who was very disappointed with an otherwise star pupil.

Yvette sat down.

“Look, we can’t tell people about this,” Vaughn hissed, glancing behind her shoulder to make sure nobody was paying too much attention to them.

“Seriously, Vaughn? Shouldn’t this be an all hands on deck kind of mission? These guys would love to help find him. I think they’d eat the hair off his toes if he asked,” she said. Vaughn rubbed his face, looking positively exhausted. Yvette had the suspicion that being the Bandit King of Hyperion was taking its toll on him.

“Yeah, that’s the problem,” he explained. Yvette looked at him blankly.

“They will freak if they knew Rhys was AWOL,” Sasha supplied, gesturing with her fork, “Right now, with everything as it is, I don’t think they’d survive that bomb dropping.”

“Seriously, they worship the ground he walks on and most of them are, uuh, a little…not stable,” he says, “We can’t just go around saying things like ‘Hey guys, Rhys is missing!’ and expect –“

There was a crash.

Rhys is missing?” screeched a voice behind them. They jump and turn to see some guy that used to work in the quality assurance department staring at them, his mouth open. He took a breath and started tugging on his hair, breathing heavily, “Oh god, is that for real? Rhys is missing? Oh god!”

“No, no, Mark, calm down –“ Vaughn began.

“I heard you! You said Rhys is missing!”

“No, no, you misheard us,” Sasha interrupted, looking totally calm and confident, “Rhys isn’t missing. He’s out on a mission. What we said that is Rhys is missing you.”

Mark stared at her, worrying his lower lip with his teeth. Sasha continued as though she’d rehearsed this story a million times.

“He just called in to say ‘Hey guys, mission is going great, but boy, sure am missing my buddy Mark’. Had to go though, needed to uh -”

“Rescue a puppy from a burning building,” Yvette added. Sasha gave her a smile. It lasted all of about half a second before Sasha remembered who she was smiling at, but she did do it. Yvette couldn’t help but feel like she had just won a minor battle.

Mark breathed in slowly, and looked at Vaughn. Vaughn nodded, giving him a nervous smile.

“Yup, you heard the ladies! Ha ha!” he said, “Really, Mark, don’t you think if Rhys was in danger we’d let you know?”

“Oh…really?”

“Of course,” Yvette said, “Transparency is key to the Children of Helios’s continued success, after all. This isn’t like Hyperion, with all its secrets and backstabbing. Just relax.”

“And Rhys will totally catch up with you when he gets back,” Sasha chimed in, “Just, has a lot of heroic and important things to do right now!”

“Oh. Haha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Oh man. That’s great! Guys, guys, did you hear that! Rhys is missing me! I told you we had a connection!” Mark yelled, abandoning his dropped food to rush towards his lunch table. Sasha shook her head, the smile vanishing from her face.

Vaughn let out a sigh, and swept his hand towards where Mark was excitedly telling his friends all about his new-found deep connection with Rhys. Debra looked furious.

“See what I mean?” he said, “This…it’s just gotta stay between us. We’ll find him and Fiona. But we just…we have to remember to keep the Children of Helios stable in the meantime. Things are…still kind of fragile right now, okay?”

Yvette breathed out. As much as she hated to admit it, Vaughn was right.

“Alright, fine,” Yvette said, skewering a narrow sliver of sausage on her fork, “I’m going to need a hell of a lot more coffee, and you two need to help me with hacking. Jack’s security is a nightmare.”

“No surprise there,” Sasha said, “But, you know, me and Vaughn probably aren’t the members of the team you want for this.”

Yvette really didn’t need some idiot pointing out the obvious. It wasn’t like she had much choice in the matter.

“Whatever you can do to help, I’ll take.”

 

“Well, that went great. Really just. Top-notch job, kids. Way to go,” Jack said.

Since regaining consciousness, it felt like someone had lodged a piece of metal shrapnel in Rhys’s brain and was running an electric current through it. His skull felt like it was going to burst. The last thing he needed was Jack’s bullshit.

Or to be in a cell in a weird alien…building or something. It looked either like a building or the inside of a very large, weird animal.

Rhys thought of the Traveller and shuddered, pushing the thought away. He did not want to think about the possibility they’d just been fed to some kind of vengeful alien God.

The aliens had kicked their asses in five seconds flat, and Rhys wasn’t even totally sure how it had happened.  He had taken a blow to the head, and one of the larger ones had just pushed Jack over with a casualness that was frankly insulting. Then, next thing he knew, the three of them were coming to in an untidy pile, sharing a cell that was far too small for all three of them. The cell had nothing that might pass as a toilet, and instead of bars or glass, there was a semi-transparent purple haze.

The haze hadn’t looked too bad at first, but sitting too near it had given Rhys a static shock hard enough to make him jump across the other side of the cell.

“Well, I didn’t see you doing anything, asshole,” Fiona spat at him from her corner in the cell.

“You know, sweetheart, I didn’t have a chance. Maybe if you’d given me three friggin’ seconds to think before doing…whatever that was, I could have,” Jack said. Fiona scowled at him. “Where’d you even get that idea? A cartoon?”

“No! I’d…seen it in a movie,” Fiona admitted.

“Oh. I’d seen it in a cartoon,” Rhys said, rubbing his head, “Yeah, you know what. That was dumb.”

“Ha!” Jack burst out, pointing at Fiona, “Rhys takes my side again. I win.”

“Rhys, seriously! Why do you have to agree with him all the time?”

“Urgh, he has a point more often than not!” Rhys snapped.

“Haha. Yeah, baby, always lay your chips with the Jack-man and –“

“Even though he’s a prick.”

“I can accept that. Genius is often misunderstood.”

“Genius is often misunderstood? Seriously?” Fiona barked, with a short, hollow laugh, “You know how much people on Pandora hated you?”

It exploded out of her as though she’d been holding it in for hours. Before Rhys could intervene, Jack was across the cell and in her face.

“Oh boo hoo, the bandits and perverts on that hellhole hated me. You know, sweetie, Pandora would be a lot better off if you people had just let me do what needed to be done,” Jack said, “You little savages didn’t know, but the rest of the universe was rooting for me to wipe the planet clean and start over. Every politician in the galaxy was being pressured to deal with the ‘Pandora Problem’. I just had the balls to actually do something about it. Like a real hero should.”

“Oh my God. You still think you’re a hero. You seriously think, after all of this, you’re a hero. You’re a psychopath, you asshole,” Fiona snarled back. Rhys rubbed his head. It felt like his whole skull was throbbing. He couldn’t stop envisioning cracks spreading across his cranium, the plates shifting loose.

“I’m a visionary, sweetie. But hey, I can’t accept a little backwater savage, to appreciate the decisions and the sacrifices –“

“Sacrifices? What did you ever have to sacrifice? More to the point, what would you even care about sacrificing? You’ve never cared about another person in your life, and you could just replace anything else.”

“Ha ha, ha ha! Rhys, are you hearing this? Seriously, pumpkin, care to tell the little high-and-mighty criminal what, exactly, I had to give up in the name of her rathole planet? Please, enlighten her, I can’t wait to see her face when -”

“You have never given a shit about anyone in your entire life, Rhys might be dumb enough to get sucked in by your crap, but it won’t work on me.”

“Oh please, you don’t even know me, sweetheart.”

“Oh, I know you well enough. You know, all those big megalomaniac speeches you blast across the planet? I grew up listening to that crap, so if you think I don’t know exactly the kind of person you are –“

Rhys pressed his hands over his eyes. It had been a while since his last migraine. He should have expected one to choose to come now.

“Yeah, do you know anything about how Hyperion functions? Anything about what the rest of the galaxy was doing while you were having knife-fights with children for rat meat? About how much people needed the power of the Vault, or all the resources Pandora had to offer?”

“Rhys, will you tell him what his little hero fantasy actually –“

“Rhys, listen, enlighten the poor little urchin about –“

“Will both of you idiots shut the fuck up!” Rhys bellowed.

Fiona and Jack fell silent, and looked at each other.

“Yikes, who peed in your cereal,” Jack said, after a moment of stunned silence.

“Yeah, really, Rhys, that was not…exactly your style.”

Rhys sighed, and took a few deep breaths. Great. Now he felt guilty. Guilty for shouting at Fiona and Handsome Jack, of all people.

“Look, I’m sorry, but I think I’m getting a migraine and your arguing is not exactly helping us find a way out of here,” Rhys said, “Can we please just call a truce, so we can please get out of this place alive, and I can find some painkillers, please!

“Okay, okay. You don’t have to get all like…high and squeaky about it,” Fiona said.

“Ha ha, I know, right? God, drives me crazy when he does that,” Jack said, “Sounds like he’s going to start hyperventilating.”

Fiona glared down at him in silence, before looking back up at Rhys. Sometimes, Rhys thought that Fiona would have gotten on well back at Hyperion. Her skill with a cold shoulder was truly the stuff of legends.

Jack put his hands on his…well, the bottom of his metal body, just above the wheel.

“Hey, fine, I try to bond with you, and you just swat the olive branch out of my hand. Sure, we could have become best buds through ragging on Rhys, you know, that hobby we share, but sure. Be like that. I don’t care.”

Rhys rubbed his face with both hands and leaned against the wall. Fiona sat next to him, arms folded, and Jack dropped to his other side.

“This sucks,” Fiona said, eloquent as ever.

“Yep,” Jack said, “This has been an intensely weird day, kiddos, not gonna lie, and I’ve had some weird days.”

“Will you stop calling me ‘kiddo’? We talked about that,” Rhys said wearily.

“Being called ‘kiddo’ is the thing you object to? Really, Rhys?” Fiona said.

“I also really objected to having a metal endoskeleton shoved inside my skin,” Rhys said, “You know, after I’d carted the guy around in my head for weeks and humoured his bullshit and trusted him.”

“Son of a taint, Rhys, will you stop going on about that?” Jack said, “Like, seriously, every five minutes it’s ‘Oh, Jack, remember when you were going to dismember me’, like, let it go, Rhys. Do you bring up all of your friends mistakes this often?”

“You were going to murder me and take over my body. It is a little hard to let go of something like that!”

“You let it go enough to bring him back,” Fiona muttered.

“So, yeah, I’m going to bring it up,” Rhys continued, pretending that he didn’t hear Fiona. Somehow, he had a feeling that Fiona would be bringing that up over and over again, and he also had a feeling that he would never have a decent enough answer for her. He didn’t even have a decent enough answer for himself. “Deal with it.”

“Right, yeah, but it’s annoying. Besides every time you bring it up I feel all….eeeh,” Jack said, and made an uncertain gesture with his hand, “Like, you know. Not good.”

“That’s called guilt, you sociopath,” Fiona said.

“Uh, no. Guilt is what you get when you’ve done something wrong,” he replied, “And I’m, you know. Like. Morally ambiguous. Chaotic neutral at the worst.”

“Oh my god.”

“What is morally ambiguous about trapping a guy in your office to skin him alive?” Rhys snapped, “Seriously, Jack, do you not see why I was maybe a little bit upset by the idea?”

“Okay, okay. If you’re going to labour the point, fine. Clearly we need to talk about it. Here. This is me talking about it: it was a short-sighted decision, yeah, and you might have died,” Jack said and threw his hands up, “But hey, we both made mistakes. I made kind of an insensitive plan, and, you know, I have problems responding to criticism. I can acknowledge that now! You know, I kind of forgot, as a dead guy, that dying was a problem for most people and, you know, that’s why you got upset. Shoulda really been open to a version of the plan that didn’t kill you. So. Yeah. There’s that.”

Rhys was speechless As shitty an apology as it was, it was probably the most self-aware thing he’d ever heard Jack say, aside from the things he’d said about his daughter. It almost gave him hope that bringing Jack back wasn’t an awful shitty mistake that he now had to live with.

“And, you know. You were a hysterical, unreasonable little prick that betrayed me the second I made a little mistake, and refused to communicate with me properly, just resorting to you know, some pretty hurtful name calling, and then you brought down an entire space station just to spite me,” Jack continued, “And then you treated my consciousness as though I was a friggin’ project for your middle school science fair and stuck me in this talking toaster. So. You know. There’s blame on both of us here, buddy, we should be mature enough to realise it.”

Never mind.

“Are you hearing the actual words you’re saying right now?” Fiona asked, her mouth hanging open as she looked at Rhys, “Rhys, is - is he serious?”

“Sadly, yeah.”

“Hey, I’m just sayin’,” Jack continued, and Rhys wondered, not for the first time, if he just had some kind of superpower to filter out anything he didn’t want to hear, “I’m like a class 2 AI at the absolute minimum. Sticking me in this kind of unit? Ha, oh boy. If the GPG gets wind of this, Rhysie, you are going to be in so much trouble.”

“Oh, yeah, you know what? That’s it. I’m really worried about my chartership right now, Jack, you’re right. That’s seriously my priority right now. God,” Rhys snapped, “Like the GPG even touches Pandora with a sixty foot stick.”

“Okay, but you gotta admit, putting a fine piece of programming like me in a body like this? That is going to take you straight to a fitness to practice hearing.”

“Wait, what’s the GPG?” Fiona asked.

“The Galactic Programmers’ Guild,” Rhys and Jack said at once. Fiona stared at both of them and then put her head in her hands, her eyes wide with the sort of fathomless horror you usually only saw in war veterans, disaster survivors, and teenagers who have just realised their parents still have active sex lives.

“I cannot believe I am going to die in a cage, arguing with a pair of nerds. Oh my God.”

Chapter Text

Vaughn fell asleep curled up on the floor around his laptop after about hour eleven of “Break into asshole Jack’s asshole security”. Looking at him, Yvette didn’t quite have the heart to wake him up…not yet, anyway. He could have a quick hour. Leading the Children of Helios didn’t seem like it gave him a whole lot of time to relax. They really were a needy bunch.

They eventually had to station Loader Bot and Gortys outside to deal with anyone who trie to interrupt them. Complaints so far included: someone had gotten themselves shot, they had lost a safe-house Vaughn had secured all of three days ago, a fight had broken out among the accountants following an argument about economic theory (“Urgh, I told them they’re not allowed to have these debates when I’m not there any more!”), and the vending machine on the fifth floor wasn’t working and it was the only one that did peanut butter cups.

Yvette had no idea what compelled Vaughn to hang around babysitting these idiots. If she wasn’t limping around on a crappy piece of metal-and-duct-tape, she’d have hotwired a technical and been halfway to Sanctuary half an hour after arriving.

“Anything?” Sasha said, rubbing her eyes. Yvette didn’t reply, biting down on her lip, as she entered in a few last pieces of code that should, really, do the trick.

Handsome Jack’s computer responded by opening a file titled BSPhots, and loading up all 34023 jpegs of Butt Stallion.

Again.

 “I hate this horse so much,” Yvette muttered, burying her face in her hands.

“Argh! Seriously? Still?” Sasha said, and looked at her with a glare, “You are trying, right?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Yvette replied, her gut clenching with both anger at the accusation, and the fact the accusation was entirely on point.

“Well, you know, you weren’t exactly keen to get involved in this…project, so maybe you’re not pulling your weight properly.”

“Pulling my weight!” Yvette hissed.

“Well, I’m just saying,” Sasha said, and folded her arms, “I saw Rhys break into computers in like, ten minutes flat. What’s so different about this one?”

Rhys, Rhys, Rhys, Rhys. It felt like it was all anyone in Helios ever talked about. It was exactly the thing Rhys had always dreamed of, but for Yvette it was like being plunged into a nightmare. The injustice of it was enough to fill her mouth and stomach with cold anger, the kind that you couldn’t get out by screaming or punching or anything, and all the worse for it.

“Rhys has so many cybernetics he’s legally a robot on some planets,” Yvette snarled, “And I bet he never had to break into somethin’ that was put together by the most dangerous, paranoid man in the galaxy.”

“He’s had to break into tough stuff before.”

“What would I have to gain by pretending to fail at this, anyway?” Yvette asked, though she knew exactly what she would have to gain. For all the thanks she was getting, she should  be slacking off, really.

“Well, if I needed to stall for time to get out of a situation, that’s what I’d do,” Sasha said, “I’ve done it before.”

Yvette didn’t acknowledge her with an answer. It was a classic maneuverer. Stay quiet, and the client would keep talking. People always loved to talk about themselves – all that stuff about it being hard to get people to open up, it was crap. You just stayed quiet a little longer than people found comfortable, and their secrets would spill out as though they’d been bursting with them. Which, really, they had.

And the thing was, if the client kept talking, you’d learn something you could use. Inevitable and effective.

“Acting the silly girl was always kind of my role,” Sasha continued, “You know, back at my old job.”

Old job. Interesting way to put it.

Yvette still needed to keep Sasha happy until she could get out of Helios.

A compliment was always a good way to go, as far as distractions went.

“Did you really manage to sell that? You don’t seem like a silly girl.”

She seemed like an aggressive pain in the ass who would hold onto a grudge so tight that her fingers would get torn off in the process of removing it after she’d died, but Yvette had the tact not to share that particular opinion for the moment.

“Well, I was the kid sister. Fi never wanted to play the honeytrap. Said it gave her the heebie-jeebies even pretending to flirt with anyone, so that job always fell to me,” she replied, looking out the window, across the flat desert and the night sky, “She would have sucked at it anyway.”

“You think it was a waste of your talents.”

Sasha turned to her, her lips pursed and her eyes narrowed.

“Are you trying to compliment me?”

Yes. No. Something in between.

“Well, I don’t know if it was a waste of your talents or not, I hardly know you at all. But, you seem smart, and capable, but…moreover,” she said slowly, conscious of Sasha’s scrutinising stare, “It’s just written all over your face. Baby sister drowning under her big sister’s shadow, thinking she could do more. It’s text book.”

Sasha’s lip curled. That was the wrong answer, apparently.

“Minored in psych in college,” Yvette added by way of explanation. Sasha shook her head.

“Yeah, then, you’ll know that you sound an awful lot like you’re projecting.”

“Can’t be. Only child,” Yvette replied, and shrugged, “Got nobody’s shadow to be under. It’s a good feeling.”

“Not even at Hyperion?” she asked, “Thought Hyperion was all about casting shadows?”

“Casting shadows, slitting throats, dodging bullets,” Yvette said, smiling, “Not too different from Pandora, really. We dress better though.”

“You do not!” Sasha replied indignantly, “Besides, you don’t know what it’s like to live down here. You’ve only been here a few months. It’s totally different to live your whole life here…thinking you’re never going to get out.”

The wistful tone caught Yvette off-guard – all she had heard from this woman so far was yelling and sass. Yvette was beginning to think that it was the only emotions she knew. But it was useful.

“I’m guessin’ you want to get off-world eventually?” Yvette said.

“Doesn’t everyone?” Sasha said, and then glanced at Vaughn, “Though I guess…some people like it here.”

Yvette laughed, and then put a hand over her mouth. Vaughn shifted and grunted in his sleep.

“Yeah, I’d have never guessed that, out of everyone, Vaughn would take to Pandora like a duck to water.”

“Heh. Yeah,” she said, sitting on the edge of the desk, “…What’s a duck?”

“If I get into this computer, I’ll find a picture of one for you,” Yvette said, shaking her head. She had to wonder what it was like to grow up on a planet where literally every single animal you encountered was a hideous, deadly monster. She really should try to explain the concept of a zoo to the locals some time. Would be good for a laugh.

Yvette tried again. She was getting close, but there was one last security measure she could not figure out. Even after tricking her way through the retina scan, the fingerprints, the passwords, she was starting to feel like the last layer was a tougher nut than she had the tools to crack.

(The tool she needed was Rhys. She was aware of the irony.)

“Urgh!” she said.

“Again? Seriously?” Sasha said, and swung her fist down on the top of the monitor hard enough to make Yvette jump. “Stupid…Hyperion nerd crap.”

“Welcome! Nice to see you again, sexy,” said a robotic voice, making both of them jump. They turned towards the monitor.

Before them was a desktop covered in an array of icons, over a picture of Jack and a (if Yvette was honest with herself, pretty hot) woman with purple hair and an ugly cowboy hat. Since Yvette had never kept up with the ‘Who is Jack having sex with lately’ grapevine, the name eluded her.

Yvette and Sasha looked at each other.

“Did I just –“

“You have to hit it,” Yvette said, not sure whether to laugh or cry, “That’s the final security measure. You have to hit it. That’s just…”

Sasha laughed, and a strand of hair fell from her headband, brushing her nose. Yvette had the absurd urge to brush it over her ear for half a second.

She needed to get some sleep. And possibly to get laid. It had been…

A length of time she would rather not discuss since she had last gotten laid.

“Oh, boy. Well, I’m really sore I never got the chance to shoot that guy,” Sasha said.

“You and me both,” Yvette replied, grinning despite herself, “And…probably most of Hyperion, Pandora, Elpis, Dahl and…just about every major corporation, every half-sensible off-worlder, and most politicians.”

“Popular guy,” Sasha said, smiling as well. The kind of full-face, slightly manic smile that only came after spending hours and hours on a stupid, thankless task that finally worked out. Yvette looked away, suddenly gripped with the uncomfortable feeling of having looked at the sun for too long. Get laid, that was the next thing she’d do when she got the time. Then this wouldn’t be a problem.

“You have no idea,” she said, “Now let’s see if we’ve got anything useful on here.”

 

“So what are those things?” Rhys said, gesturing at the alien watching them outside of their cell. It had arrived earlier and delivered some fruit, somehow managing to appear in the cage, put down the food, and then appear outside of the barrier. At that point, none of them could even drum up the energy to be surprised.

Since then, it had just sort of…hung around and watched them. Probably trying to decide whether it was going to eat them or not. Though it was kind of…smaller and less warrior-esque than the other Eridians. Maybe it was an intern.

“They look like the…Vault guardian thingies that were inside the Traveller,” Fiona said, “Only, smaller, with less tech.”

“Yeah, you know, I think Hat Girl might be onto something there. Looks like the freaky little monsters that tried to skewer me last time I was in a Vault. Kinda,” Jack said. Rhys scratched his head.

“Think they’re Eridians?” Rhys asked.

“That would beg the question of how they’ve stayed alive for the past billion years,” Fiona said.

“Oooor, raise the question of when we are,” Jack said and then leaned back with a thoughtful air, “Ha. Time travel. That is one thing I haven’t done before.”

“Oh no no no, no, we’re not doing time travel,” Rhys said, shaking his head, “No, I don’t even wanna think about that. No thinking about the fact we might be millennia in the past, the only humans on the planet…no thinking about it.”

“Hey, you disagreed with him on something,” Fiona said, giving him a thumbs-up, “Good for you, Rhys. How’s that new spine of yours coming in?”

“Oh shut up,” Rhys said, “Listen, I just do not want to consider that, because then the situation gets all, you know, us growing old and dying out here. Do either of you really want to us all grow old together? Playing bridge in the middle of the jungle and waiting for death? Maybe hoping on some distant world humans are discovering space travel in time to take us to a retirement home?”

“Hell no.”

“Yeah, that sounds about the worst fate imaginable,” Jack said, “Aside from the…living forever inside the cold unfeeling abyss of a metal coffin. You know, the fate you almost confined me to.”

“Great, so we’re agreed, time travel is not a theory we’re humouring,” Rhys said, deciding to not even acknowledge Jack’s complaint.

“Look, whatever, I don’t care. We’re in a cage, we need out of the cage, what now?” Fiona said, and looked at the alien watching them from its perch, where it was nibbling on a piece of drakefruit.

“I’m waiting for them to come and eat both of you,” Jack said, “Then I figure I’ll work from there.”

“Shut up, Jacktrap.”

Rhys looked at the bars. They didn’t exactly look particularly thick, or strong. Sure, some of colossal structures they’d passed on the way looked like imposing, ancient alien structures with technology far beyond their comprehension, but the aliens themselves seemed kind of…tribal. They’d had the element of surprise before, but surely the three of them could handle themselves now they knew what was coming.

Rhys walked towards the barrier, looking to see if there was any part that seemed to…flicker or look weaker or anything.

The Eridian (screw it, Rhys was going to call them that) watched them, head cocked, as though they were a mildly amusing TV show.

“Rhys, really, do you have something to prove?” Fiona said, “Like ‘Grr, I’m Rhys, I’m man, I’m punch my way out!’, really? That’s not usually your style.”

Rhys threw up his hands

“Well, you know, I always forget to try just using my cyborg arm. And then it works! A lot of our problems cold have been solved if I remembered I was part badass. So, you know, I figure I should at least give it a go,” he said, “Then we just…run, I guess. You do some shooting, I do some punching, Jack…is Jack. Before you know it we’re out of here.”

“Sounds like a really stupid plan,” she said.

“Yep. That’s the worst,” Jack added, sounding very cheerful about the whole idea.

Rhys decided to ignore them. He swung his fist back and threw his weight forward with his fist as hard as he could.

“Rhys! Wait!”

An electric shock rattled his whole body, and he screamed and fell to the floor with a thump. The last thing he saw before he passed out was Fiona’s exasperated face and Jack’s Claptrap eye hovering over him. They blurred away in millisecond’s.

The last thing he heard was:

“Hey dum-dum, you used the wrong arm.”

Well, shit.

 

Rhys woke up with something gooey on his face, his back sore, and his head thumping.

He tried to lift his arm to wipe it off, but discovered his cybernetic arm had, once again, disengaged itself and was lying by his side with all the interactivity of a large and very expensive paperweight.

Something small and hard hit him on the nose. It stung like hell, and burned the inside of his nostril when he breathed in.

“Ow!” he said, and sat up as best he could one-armed and unbalanced. He wiped his face with his good arm, and looked at the smear of blue juice and black dots across his palm.

Another drakefruit pip hit him in the face. He looked across the cell to the source – Fiona, when one hit him from the other side. Jack had settled on the opposite end of the cell, as though he and Fiona had attempted to put as much space between each other as possible.

That didn’t stop them engaging in some kind of ‘throw stuff at Rhys’ contest, he noticed.

“Hey, you’re up,” Fiona said, and flicked another soggy pip at him.

“Stop it, urgh! One’s going to end up in my eye,” he said, activating his ECHO eye to get his arm going again. It jerked back to life and Rhys straightened his spine properly, readjusting to the shift in his proprioception. “How long I been out?”

“Eh, dunno, long enough we got bored and started doing this,” she replied. Another pip hit him from Jack’s side of the room. Rhys glared at him. Jack threw another one.

“Alright, alright, guys, game’s over now,” he said, and stood up. The alien was still there, and was buzzing just outside of the bars, watching him and bobbing up and down in the air.

 “You feeling okay?” Fiona asked. Both she and Jack stared at him cautiously (well…Rhys assumed Jack was staring at him cautiously, hard to tell with the whole Claptrap thing). Rhys had to admit, their caution was kind of warranted. Fiona had seen him rampaging naked in the forest yelling about imaginary bugs, and Jack had seen him rip out part of his own eyeball with a broken piece of glass. Neither of them were likely to have high hopes for his mental stability.

Yet, with all that said. He felt pretty good. Active, even.

“Yeah, actually,” he said, and stretched both hands over his head, “Like I had a really good nap or something.”

A twelve hour nap. On a bed made of clouds. And sunshine. He wasn’t sure when the last time he’d ever felt this good was? Maybe when he thought Henderson was going to give him his bigshot promotion.

Hell, he was as surprised as anyone. Maybe the shock had rearranged something amiss in his brain, put all the neurons back on track and firing on time. Electroconvulsive therapy was a thing, right?

There was a flash in front of his eyes that made Fiona squawk and Jack beep out a censored swear word. Rhys only stumbled backwards, balancing himself against the wall.

The little Eridian appeared in front of him, close enough that its weird little face touched his nose. It tilted its head, wings buzzing behind it, and made a series of high pitched noises, somewhere between static and squeaking.

Rhys patted it on the head.

It just felt like the right thing to do in the moment.

“I think you made a friend,” Fiona said, with resigned, helpless confusion.

“Huh. Yeah. You know, this thing’s kind of cute when you get used to the whole…insect-looking murderous alien deal,” Rhys said, gesturing at the Eridian.

The thing made a load more noises. Rhys, expert at going along with a conversation when he has no idea what is being said, nodded thoughtfully, made an “Hm” noise in places that sounded about right, and tried to smile encouragingly. Without showing teeth. He still wasn’t sure what would be taken as a sign of aggression.

Whatever he did, it seemed to work. The thing buzzed louder and squeaked even more, and then turned towards the barrier. It lifted its hand (claw? pincer?), and it vanished.

“Oh,” Rhys said, “Thanks.”

The Eridian didn’t respond, but flew out and took down the corridor. Half-way there, it turned, saw the idiots it had just released were just kind of standing there staring at it, and made a gesture that, somehow, cut through every cultural and species barrier to communicate ‘C’mon, seriously? Hurry up!’

“Well, good enough for me,” Jack said, and began to follow it out. Fiona and Rhys followed, moving quickly. The Eridian’s wings flashed blue very quickly at them, and it squeaked.

Rhys didn’t understand what was happening, but he wasn’t about to question it.

 

Hyperion really did go out of their way to hire assholes.

That was the first truth she’d uncovered poking around Jack’s computer. An old mass email to the HR department (easily done, since they all just shared jim@hyperion.pdr) had firmly instructed them to stop hiring “sissies”. Specifically, people who would actually whistleblow on Jack’s hideously unethical business practices, or make complaints about people being beaten to death with their own desk-fans.

look, just hire the kind of guy that make u feel a bit sick just lookin at dem u no? nobody 2 ballsy and they gotta actually be gud at wat they do but jus crème de la crème asshols, k?

What that said about her, Yvette didn’t want to even consider.

“Did everyone at Hyperion write like this?” Sasha asked, her face screwed up in disgust as she stared at Jack’s email.

“No. Anybody else would get fired on the spot,” Yvette said, “I think he was just challenging people to correct his grammar. Some guys in my department, you could hear their teeth grinding whenever there was email from him.”

“Lemme guess, anyone who complained died?”

“Hey, you know, you could have worked for us,” Yvette said, “You figure out Hyperion logic very quickly.”

Sasha shot her a sly smile.

“It’s basically just ‘hey, what’s the option that would make you the biggest jackass’,” she said, “So, can you get into the employee database?”

“Sure,” Yvette said, “I can get into anything on Helios from here. This computer is the motherlode of top secret Helios shit.”

She heard herself getting giddy. It was amazing she’d forgotten what a big deal this was – access to Handsome Jack’s computer. All of Hyperion’s schematics and plans and secret dealings, they were all at Yvette’s fingertips. Blackmail material to control half the politicians of Elpis, details about every hidden vein of Eridium on Pandora, and a million and one little secrets of the higher-ups in Hyperion and all the major players beyond that, all just a keystroke away. It was a thing of beauty.

Shame that, mostly, it was useless as long as she was stuck on Pandora. Still, she committed herself to combing through and memorising the most valuable details she could fish out of the machine before she absconded.

Sasha looked at her with the searching, mistrustful gaze Yvette was becoming so quickly accustomed to. And they had almost bonded for a while too.

Yvette rearranged her face to look as neutral and non-scheming as possible.

“Alright, employee database,” Yvette said, digging her way through to it. A long list popped up, each filename just a string of numbers and letters. After a moment of squinting at it, she realised that there was little acronyms for department and division in there. Every employee under Jack’s command, reduced to a few letters and digits. Like a programming variable.

She supposed that made sense – that was all anyone on Helios had ever been to Jack. Just one anonymous part of some big piece of software he was stringing together. Idiots like Rhys had saw some greater meaning in it, maybe ascribed themselves greater meaning in the big egotistical game of Solitaire Jack was playing, or maybe they had just assumed Jack gave a shit, Yvette wasn’t sure. Yet Yvette had always saw the bigger picture – the average Hyperion employee was worth his weight in jack-shit to the corporate machine. Jack would as soon feed an entry-level employee into a meat grinder than face a few dollars from his profit margin.

She clicked an employee profile at random. Another screen opened, heavy with personal details and photos, complete with employee ID photo, name, date of birth, address, blood type, medical history, passwords, details of friends and family and where they lived, whether they were an organ donor or not, their worst sexual indiscretion, embarrassing childhood nicknames…

It was like looking at a Wikipedia page written by the type of person who spent hours in bushes outside of pretty girls’ houses, mumbled to themselves, and always smelled faintly of urine. The type of person who collected restraining orders like stamps and should, really, never be allowed near any other humans as long as they lived.

Yvette didn’t know what she had been expecting, really.

Yvette raked her brain for a way to do this that wasn’t just looking at the profile of every single person in propaganda. Her eyelids felt like they were being weighed down with a big piece of lead on a long piece of string. She yawned, and flexed her neck.

Behind her, Vaughn snored, curled up on the floor like an extremely buff cat. It wasn’t a nap any more. Any fool could see that.

“Ergh. I hate to say it, but…let’s call it a day,” Sasha said, “Three or four hours sleep and we can get back to it.”

“Really?” Yvette asked.

“Yeah, I want to get Fiona back as soon as possible, but…it’s no good if we wear ourselves out,” Sasha said, and then crouched down. Yvette thought she was going to shake Vaugh awake, and did not manage to hide her surprise when Sasha hoisted him over her shoulder as though Vaughn was a sack of potatoes. Yvette stared at her, agog, and maybe noticing for once the not unpleasant shape of Sasha’s arms, but Sasha only blinked at her.

“What? I work out,” she said.

“Right, of course,” she said numbly, wondering why she even bothered to be surprised at anything on this ridiculous planet.

“Anyway, I’ll dump him on the nearest bed I can find, then I’m going to get some rest before I pass out,” she said, “You coming?”

Yvette glanced at the computer. All the secrets of Helios, in one machine, an empty room, and a long long night to search it.

“I’m good,” she said finally, just managing to keep her voice casual, “You know, I’ll probably find his details in a couple more hours. I can at least get that done.”

Sasha pressed her mouth into a thin line, and for a second Yvette thought the other woman was seeing right through her. And not for the first time. She tried not to breathe too obviously or think too loudl. She had always had one of the best poker faces in the business. How Sasha kept managing to see through her was beyond her.

Sasha shook her head.

“You know, urgh…I’m sorry about what I said earlier. You know, for saying you were stalling for time?” she said, looking at her carefully, “You don’t have to prove anything right now. You look exhausted, just go get some sleep.”

Yvette had to stop herself breathing out a sigh of relief.

“Ha, is that what you’re worried about? Relax, I’m a workaholic,” she said, “Used to pull all-nighters all the time back on Helios. Think I was averaging two hours of sleep a night for a few months. I can deal.”

Sasha snorted.

“Should have figured. You really are Miss Hyperion.”

“Ha, no. I never entered the yearly Miss Hyperion pageant. There were some levels to which I was not willing to stoop,” she replied. To her surprise, Sasha actually laughed.

“Well, whatever. If I catch you asleep on your keyboard in the morning though, I’m not going to hold back my ‘I told you so’,” she said.

“Looking forward to it,” Yvette replied, returning to the computer. Sasha smiled at her, before walking to the door with Vaughn still over her shoulder, and disappeared behind it.

Yvette listened to her footsteps fade away into the distance, and let out a long breath.

A hard, heavy feeling of guilt clung to her stomach. It was a feeling she’d been familiar with a lot at her early days at Hyperion, before she learned that was exactly the kind of weight you didn’t need.

She cut it loose, and looked back at Jack’s computer. The guilt fell away incredibly fast when faced with all the business secrets of the galaxy.

“Alright, sexy, what you got for me?” she muttered.

 

The thing about alien architecture built by insectoid beings that seemed to hover above the ground by about three feet as a matter of course – it was really hard to run in. The corridors were not quite tall enough for Rhys, for the most part, and the ground was sleek, slippery, and uneven. Sometimes the path twisted directly upwards, almost a ninety degree angle, and they all had to scramble up in a sort of confused scramble of whispered insults and strain, sometimes it dropped off without warning. They passed through rooms with more cells, most of them empty, some contained the animal, as well as what looked like a weird altar, but mostly just winding, nonsensical tunnels designed for creatures who didn’t actually use their feet. Rhys got the impression of a hive.

Yet the little Eridian was moving quickly, so Rhys didn’t exactly think it was wise for them to dawdle. Somehow, he got the feeling the alien wasn’t exactly following the rules by letting them out.

He didn’t get it, but hey, he wasn’t gonna question it. Heart hammering, he ran.

Then, with his next step, the ground disappeared beneath him.

“Rhys!” Fiona called, and grabbed him around the waist. Rhys looked down, and had to press his lips tight to stop himself vomiting from sheer vertigo.

“Rhys!” Fiona cried, and clamped her arms around his waist.

The corridor opened out into a large, circular room.

No, opened out isn’t right. More like dropped down.

And room wasn’t right either it was more like…the hole that runs through a pipe. Looking up, Rhys could see a tiny circle of the sky, glowing through the dim light of the cave.

Fiona heaved him backwards, pulling him back into the tunnel.

Around the smooth walls of the room were more little holes, more corridors. Eridians zipped this way and that, into and out of tunnels, and some having discussions in wing-flashes and high-pitched noises here and there. On the floor, a pair were fighting over something, with swift, dragonfly-like movements that Rhys couldn’t even keep up with.

There weren’t many of them, really, considering the size of…wherever the hell they were. The word hive popped into Rhys’s mind again.

The Eridian turned back to them, hovering a few feet away from the lip of the tunnel, wings glowing orange. It bounced back into the tunnel and pulled on Rhys’s arm, almost sending him toppling over the edge.

“Woah! Woah, stop it!” he said, pulling his arm from the alien’s grip. The Eridian tilted its head at him, wings faint blue. It grabbed for him, and Rhys stumbled back.

“Quit it,” he snapped.

“I think it wants you to fly off with it,” Fiona said, clearly having a great time watching Rhys be bullied by a locust. He glared at her. She leaned to look around him, and whistled at the drop. “Though how we’re going to get out if that’s the only exit.”

“Well. We tried. Back to the cage,” Jack said, throwing up his arms in mock defeat. Rhys shook his head, tapping a foot on the ground.

“No, no, look, there’s another way, let’s just think.”

Fiona brushed past him to stand on the edge, holding onto the side and leaning out. Watching her do that made Rhys feel a little ill.

“It’s not that far a drop, we’d probably survive,” she said, and then glanced over her shoulder at him, “Well, you would, at least. I’m pretty sure you’re made of brick or something.”

“Tough noggin,” he muttered.

“Hey, not to mention all the cybernetics,” Jack said, and then turned to Fiona, “Listen, sweetiepi –“

“Finish that pet-name and I kill you.”

“Listen, Hat, sure, we get down there, with a little less than a broken neck. Hooray! Good times, right? But then what about nasty swarm of bug monsters who live here? You know, they probably won’t let us live twice.”

The Eridian looked back and forth between them, wings flashing yellow and a sickly puce green.

“Ummm. Yeah, that’s an issue,” Fiona replied.

“No kiddin’,” Jack grunted. Fiona’s gaze wandered to the Eridian.

“Hey, uh…shouldn’t that thing be able to teleport us out?” Fiona said, “It was doing it before. …Or is this one of those things where someone can do something awesome and then as soon as they’re on your side, they can’t manage it all of a sudden.”

“Ugh. Yeah, I hate that,” Rhys agreed, “It’s always like, after you’ve fought them and it was really hard and took a million tries and then they join your party and they’re suddenly like. Level ten and that big special move they had in the boss battle’s vanished.”

“…What the hell are you talking about?” Fiona asked, boggling at him. Rhys stared back.

“Video games? What the hell were you talking about?”

The Eridian flashed another series of colours at them, tweeting and beeping irritably.

“In a minute, sheesh,” Rhys said, scratching his forehead. His migraine was coming back, and whatever adrenaline rush he had before was vanishing, making him feel as though someone was draining him empty, slowly.

Better think quick, Rhysie.

Rhys jumped.

“What?” Jack said by his hip. Fiona looked at him, far more carefully than Rhys was comfortable with.

Thiiiiink, Rhysie. I know with the vacuous contents of your skull it’s -

He shook his head. Whatever. It had been a long few days. Best just to ignore that voice he just heard and forget about it forever.

There. Done. Dealt with, healthily and effectively for the long-term.

Rhys cleared his throat.

“Alright, so we can’t fly –“

“Amazing. That’s what you’ve been figuring out, Rhys? That college education was well used,” Fiona quipped.

So, we need another route out.”

“Again, just in case you missed my last compliment. Brilliant.”

“Hey, I’m just saying, these tunnels must lead to tunnels lower in the ground? Right…maybe? I mean…I didn’t see any turns when we headed this way and I don’t know why they’ve have a ground floor exit really but –“

“I think I got a better idea,” Jack said suddenly. Fiona and Rhys turned to look at him.

“You know. You saying that really makes me feel like I’m going to need to go have a panic attack,” Rhys said slowly.

The Eridian came to settle on Rhys’s shoulders, surprisingly light consider it was probably around three feet tall. It made another fast series of noises and gave them another fast paced lightshow with its wings, and then pointed out of the tunnel again. As though they were idiots for not just sprouting wings and flying off.

How do you say ‘sorry, earthbound species’ in Eridian?

“Trust me, Rhys, you will love this,” Jack said, looking up at the Eridian, and then turning around and heading back down the tunnel.

“That…gives me all sorts of bad feelings,” Rhys said.

Fiona already had her pistol in her hand.

“Rhys, he tries anything and he dies, alright?” she said, “Just to make it clear.”

Rhys looked at her, but couldn’t quite find anything to say. She did have a point. If he was anywhere near sane, he’d have let her do it long ago.

Sanity’s just getting further away from you lately, sweetheart.

He blinked hard, and ignored Fiona’s dubious look.

“I’m fine,” he said, unnecessarily. Fiona shrugged, but was still looking at him as though he was a bomb that could go off at any moment.

He looked back to where Jack was struggling up an uphill bank, and went to help, despite both his common sense and the exasperated alien with no concept of the gravity-human-height-death relationship tugging on his coat.

 

Jack led them back to the shrine room.

Rhys wished he could say he saw where Jack was going with this. He was starting to accept that he mostly had no idea what was going on in Jack’s head, even though they’d technically had the same head for few weeks.

He really hoped nobody ever asked him to explain his relationship with Jack any time soon. ‘Well you see, Mom, he was my boss-slash-idol and then we shared the same body and then he was my mentor-slash-friend-slash-whatever and then I hated him and then we tried to kill each other and then I felt bad about it and brought him back and now he still might be trying to kill me, but I dunno, I keep him around for some reason. What’s for dessert?’

Yeah, he’d sound totally not-crazy explaining that one.

Rhys folded his arms and looked at the altar-thing. It was a great stone arch, embedded with a few purple gems, and a stone table with a small statue of Eridian in the centre. Fiona scratched the back of her head. The little Eridian turned to it and bowed low, wings spread and glowing faint purple.

Jack grabbed a gem from the arch and wrenched it out.

The Eridian screamed bloody murder and began to vibrate, wings flashing a million angry colours. Jack grabbed another gem and yanked it out. The Eridian clutched its head with its claws, screaming. Rhys had to admit, the noise was kind of…it shook a guy up.

“Alright, kids, here’s a lesson from Uncle Jack. This here’s refined, pure eridium. And if you will look at our new friend here,” he said, gesturing at the Eridian, who was continuing to scream as though under torture, “I think there’s some things we can do with both of these things.”

“What do you mean…do?” Rhys said cautiously. He laid a hand on the Eridian’s shoulders, but it didn’t seem to help at all. Jack went to grab another lump of eridium. “Jack, stop it!”

Whaaat? The little savage will calm down once it knows what I’m doing,” he said, “I mean, if I know my eridium…this will be a serious rush for it. Like. Cocaine off a hooker’s buttcrack rush.”

“First of all, ew. Second of all…what?” Fiona said, gun still in hand.

“Listen, that teleportation thing it was pulling, the glowing, the…look at the markings on the thing’s carapace or whatever,” Jack said, “Those are Siren powers. This thing, whatever it is, it’s got the same powers I spent over a decade researching.”

Powers…? Rhys had a thought, but Fiona spoke before he managed to think of a way to articulate them that wouldn’t make Jack totally lose his shit.

“What? So what! What’s the eridium got to do with this? What good does this do us?” Fiona said.

Jack looked at her, and then looked at Rhys. Rhys had the feeling he was trying to give him some kind of ‘Women, eh?’ look, but what with the lack of…face, it wasn’t too clear.

“Hat. Lis-ten. Same powers. So…same power source, right? We pump this little bug full of eridium, and it can teleport us out,” Jack said.

The Eridian tossed its head back and forth, wing vibrating and glowing deep red.

“Um, I don’t think it’s going to co-operate,” Rhys said weakly.

“Then we make it co-operate, Rhysie, come on. Where’s that Hyperion killer instinct?” Jack said, and thrust a lump of eridium towards the Eridian, and layered sweetness onto his voice in spades, “C’mon, cupcake, just treat yourself. Don’t make me force this down your throat.”

The Eridian made a horrified choking noise and jerked away from the eridum, as though it was having something putrid thrust towards it. It tried to zip away, but a pair of hands seized it by the wings, fists tight enough for the knuckles to go while. The hands held it in place, tendons showing across its forearms.

“Fiona!” Rhys blurted out.

The Eridian flashed and disappeared, but reappeared right where Fiona held it. It disappeared and reappeared over and over, flashing and screeching all the while. It was making Rhys feel ill. Both for the lightshow, and for the fact the alien sounded like it was being tortured.

“Look, Rhys, you’re the one who said Jack has a point more often than not!” Fiona snarled, “If we can get this thing to get us out, we can make up for it later.”

“I know, but, look at it! It’s terrified!” Rhys argued, “You guys can’t be serious about this.”

“It’ll get over it!” Jack bellowed, trying to keep a hold of the thrashing alien.

“Rhys, this new moral centre of yours is really annoying!” Fiona said, “Seriously, just - Help me with this! Ow! Urgh, seriously, Rhys!”

“Keep it still, Hat, I don’t know exactly how to get it to absorb the eridium like this,” Jack growled, and then glanced up at Rhys, “Pumpkin, if you’re gonna help, do it now.”

Rhys looked between Jack, Fiona, and the struggling Eridian, trying to make a decision.

He took a breath.

“Fiona, do not kill me for this.”

She looked at him, opened her mouth as though to say something, but he pulled his fist back and punched her in the back.

She gagged and fell to the floor, catching herself on her hands. The Eridian jerked away from Jack with an indignant squeak and zipped into Rhys’s chest, arms wrapped around his middle. Fiona got up from the floor, one hand wrapped around herself to rub her back and shooting Rhys a look that he was sure would curdle milk.

“What the hell, Rhys?” she barked. Rhys forced himself to look as non-guilty as possible. The Eridian was digging its tiny claws into his skin, and Rhys wrapped his arms around it. Okay, sure, he maybe should have prioritised his friends over some random weird bug he found, but there was no way he could let them torture the poor thing.

“Did you just punch a girl to get your way? Heh. I really do see a lot of myself in you,” Jack said, “Now stop being cute with your pet mantis and hand it over.”

“No, we’re not doing that,” he said firmly. Fiona sighed and threw up her hands.  Rhys felt himself flush – why was doing the right thing so embarrassing? His life had been so much simpler when he hadn’t given a shit.

“Look, we’ll do something else!” he blurted out, “We don’t need to…you don’t even know if that’ll work! The eridium might kill it, for all we know!”

“C’mon, we can’t test it a little bit?” Jack said, waving a lump of eridium towards him. Looking at the glowing thing made him feel a bit dizzy -

No,” Rhys insisted, “I’m putting my foot down.”

“Oh now you put your foot down,” Fiona said, still rubbing her back, “Ow, Rhys, did you have to use the robo-arm? That fucking hurt!”

“Um…sorry, I meant to use the other arm.”

“Rhys, you need to learn your left from your right,” she said, “Shit, that really hurts.”

“Sorry,” he said, and tried to move towards her to pack her back or something. The Eridian dug its claws into him and vibrated against his chest. Rhys decided to leave it for now.

“Uh. Hey, not to interrupt but,” Jack said, and pointed behind them.

Despite the overwhelming desire to just sigh and lie face-down on the floor in a declaration of surrender to the universe, Rhys twisted around to look.

A fully grown, fully armed, fully armour Eridian stood in the entrance to the tunnel, spear in hand. Rhys had never really quite understood how small their Eridian was; this thing was about as tall as he was. The larger Eridian looked between them, and then towards the desecrated shrine. Its wings buzzed red.

“Yup. Of course,” Rhys said.

 

There were many things Yvette had been expecting to find on Jack’s computer. Blackmail photos of competitors having affairs or doing sordid things with animals, plans for nuclear arms that would constitute an intergalactic incident just in themselves, likely photos of Jack doing sordid things himself, but…

Yvette read the report again, and again, to make sure she’d read it right. She clicked open the attached photos, sucking in a breath even though she’d already seen them. They were no more pleasant the second time. Jesus.

She should really just close it. Some things were best off left damn well alone, and there was no strategic use for this information with Jack dead and gone. Even if he hadn’t been, Yvette doubted she could have found a way to use it properly.

Despite herself, she opened 045620VH3-A4.wav.

“Angel, alright, explain it again.”

Jack’s voice.

A surly sigh. It sounded like a petulant teenage girl.

“I don’t see what was wrong with how I did it last time.”

“Angel, sweetie. We’re working with dumbasses here. We need to accommodate that. Not everyone has our brains,” he said, “We need something those Vault-chasing idiots will understand. And try to sound sweet, you sound all friggin’ sullen last time. That just won’t work.”

The other voice was silent.

“Baiting the Vault Hunters was your idea,” Jack added.

“Last time was fine,” she muttered.

 “Angel,” Jack prompted, with more force this time. Not exactly aggression – Yvette had heard plenty of Jack angry or aggressive – but something akin to it. It sounded like a diluted version of Jack, it was weird, but it didn’t exactly make him any less revolting. If anything the nasty knot in the bottom of Yvette’s stomach drew tighter.

Alright, Dad.”

Yvette closed the file, knocking her cup off the side of her desk with her elbow. She fell back in her chair. Well that was news. How the hell had Jack managed to keep that covered up?

Yvette put the computer into sleep mode and stood up, huffing out a sigh. It wasn’t exactly the kind of information she’d been looking for, not unless Angel was alive and Yvette was smart enough to doubt that, but she wasn’t sure she could stomach searching his computer any further. If those were the kind of secrets Jack had, he could keep them damn well to himself.

Chapter Text

Before Rhys could think the situation through, Fiona drew her gun and fired a shot into the Eridian’s chest. It fell back, convulsing on the floor, jagged lines of blue electricity spring from it in all directions. The smaller Eridian stumbled back, wings vibrating too fast for Rhys to see.

The Eridian warrior fell still. Tentatively, Rhys approached it and nudged it with his foot. It remained motionless.

“Nice shot, Hat,” Jack said, “Finally! I’ve never been so long without killing something. I was getting the shakes.”

“It’s dead right? I mean…it looks dead,” Fiona said, approaching it tentatively with her gun still drawn.

“Shoot it again, dum-dum,” Jack said, “Double-tap, first rule of Pandoran survival.”

“No, wait, Fiona, don’t waste your bullets,” Rhys said, putting a hand out. Fiona stopped, gun still in hand. They didn’t exactly have much chance of recovering extra ammo, especially since Fiona’s weapon choice was eclectic, to say the last. Since he and Jack were, at this point, functionally useless in a fight, preserving Fiona’s ammo was their best chance of not dying any time soon.

Rhys leaned down and picked up the warrior’s spear, turning it over in his hands thoughtfully. It felt sort of like it was vibrating in his hands or something, or like it had a this layer of static on it from end to end.

It was…sort of a pleasant feeling.

That weirded him out. Rhys shoved the spear at the little Eridian, who took it mutely, still staring at the body on the floor. It drifted close to Rhys, nudging his arm with its head. Almost automatically, Rhys gave it a quick pet.

“Okay, we just…well, if there were any other humans around, we probably just set grounds for a species war. We need to get out of here,” Fiona said, “Rhys, could you like…convince the –“

The inert warrior seized Rhys’s ankle and dragged him down to the floor, his back hitting the floor hard enough to make him dizzy. The spear fell out of his hand and clattered across the room. Rhys cried out, and the Eridian clambered on top of him, claws digging into his throat. Rhys gagged and kicked his legs out wildly, panic seizing him from head to toe –

Familiar, eh, Rhysie? - his own metal hand around his throat, a shard of glass sliding under his iris –

“Rhys!”

The sound of bullets being fired brought Rhys back to reality. The bullets swerved away from the Eridian uselessly, and Rhys kicked out and scrabbled his hands against the alien hard carapace.

“Rhys!”

The weight was knocked off him with a metallic clank!

Rhys took in a deep breath, his vision coming back to him slowly, and he sat up. He only had the dim conception of the Eridian getting up off the floor, surprised but unharmed, Fiona firing bullets, Jack swerving away from a blast of blue light -

The Eridian screeched and fell back against the wall, impaled through the stomach with the spear. It shuddered against their wall, colours flashing bright across its body, before it went limp, fading to a dull grey.

The smaller Eridian held the other side of the spear, wings still and pale. It pulled the spear out of the other Eridian’s body and the warrior slide to the floor, oozing something iridescent over the wall.

Rhys spent a lot of his time confused. It wasn’t something he’d ever admit to anyone, but he did. Yet he wasn’t sure he’d ever been as confused as he was in that moment. He looked across at Fiona, and then at Jack, but they didn’t look like they had any more insight into the situation. Or even any smartass comments.

No smartass comments between the three of them. That was a first.

“Welp,” Jack said finally.

“Welp,” Rhys agreed. The little Eridian turned back to Jack and held out its claw. The implication was pretty clear. Rhys glanced from the dead Eridian to the living Eridian, and couldn’t help but notice the difference in size and strength and, probably, rank.

Yeah, the little guy was dead if he spent another minute here. Or at the very least, in a hell of a lot of trouble.

“You know, I don’t know how we always manage to get into these situations,” Fiona said, rubbing the back of her head and looking at the dead alien on the floor, “I mean, yikes.”

“I’ve been trying to figure that out for months, Fi,” Rhys said with a sigh.

“Alright, alright, we’re accessories to bug murder. Whatever. Let’s just let this thing shoot up with eridium and get out of here,” Jack said dismissively, and scooped up the eridium he’d dropped from the floor. He held out a chunk for the Eridian.

The alien snatched it up and crushed it in its claw.

“So, do we have to all be touching it or –“

Rhys felt the ground disappear beneath him, his eyes seared white, and then fell with a hard thump on his ass. It was raining again, trickling down the back of his shirt and soaking his hair.

Beside him, Fiona sat up, mud all down her front. She looked at Rhys and breathed out a sigh, wiping the mud from her face. A few metres away, Jack wiggled helplessly in the mud like a beached fish.

“So, back in the jungle again,” Rhys said, as the Eridian came to rest at his feet, staring into space with its wings a semi-transparent grey at its back.

“Yep,” Fiona said, “And now the natives are probably pissed at us. So. I’m starting to think that everything we do kind of ends up like this.”

“Uuuurrrgh,” Rhys said eloquently, and pressed his face into Fiona’s shoulder. He was surprised she didn’t immediately shrug him off. Look at that. They were bonding.

“Rhys. Hat. If you’re done feelin’ sorry for yourselves, there’s a man face-down in the mud here that could use your assistance,” Jack informed them, “Any time you like. I’m just…really having a great time staring into the dark earth here. Kind of thinking what it’d be like to be buried here. So. No rush or anything.”

Fiona nudged Rhys, and nodded towards Jack.

“Your turn to get him up.”

“Eh. He can suffer a little longer.”

“Yeah. That’s fair,” she said, sighing, “So. What now?”

“Ergh, I dunno, we could try to get the Eridian to teleport us home?”

“How is that gonna work?” she asked.

“I dunno. Eridium? That stuff can kind of do anything on this planet.”

“Yeah, you two just keep cuddling over there. I’ll lie here wallowing. This is the ideal situation, really. I just…” Jack said, and clenched his fist, “Really frickin’ love mud.”

Rhys sighed and got up. He was getting wet anyway. Plus Jack would just lie there bitching for the rest of ever until someone stood him up. Dragging Jack to his fee- wheel, Rhys tried not to think about how much weirdness he was accustomed to at this point.

Or about the fact they were no closer to getting home.

It was at that point a call came through his ECHOeye. He jumping, dropping Jack with a thump and a spray of mud across his trousers.

“Ow, Rhys, seriously!”

He brought up his ECHO screen with a hand, shaking. The connection was bad enough Rhys couldn’t make out the face on the screen at all. A very shallow part of him was kind of glad – he looked terrible.

Rhys – krrzzt – Rhys we - He-ios – “

“Vaughn? Sasha?” He couldn’t even figure out if it was a man or a woman on the other end of the line – it was familiar, and probably not a robot, but that was the most he could work out.

Getting you back – just –

No connection found.

“No! Argh!” Rhys said, refreshing the ECHO screen again, and then again, to no avail. Smacking his own arm in frustration, Rhys let out a string of muttered curse words. Just for once, catching a break would be nice. He didn’t think he asked that goddamn much.

“What was that? Was that Sasha?” Fiona said, on her feet in an instant, “Rhys! Call them back!”

He tried to connect again, looked at that details of the last call and tried to figure out what the hell made it come through. Nothing. The data was just gibberish. He couldn’t even get a coherent IP out of the call.

Can’t figure this one out, sweetheart?

Rhys jumped, looking around for the source of the voice. It sounded like Jack, but…also kind of…

“Rhys. Still on the ground here, buddy,” Jack said.

“I’m busy, Jack!” he snapped, “Just…be quiet!”

“You know, that temper of yours is really getting worse.”

“I’m a bit stressed! Did you not just hear that –“

“Hey, idiot, seriously. Are you even thinking? Rhys, I’ve lived inside your head, I know there’s some stuff there. I mean, mostly lint and pictures of me and unfortunate boner stories –“

“Okay, I know that is not true, you couldn’t get into my organic brain –“

“Lis-ten,” Jack interrupted, “Rhys. Buddy. You’re losing it a little. That call you just got? That’s good news, remember? Means it’s not totally impossible for you to call your little friends from here. Now just calm frigging down.”

Rhys took a breath and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Much as he hated to admit it, Jack was making a pretty decent point. For a megalomaniac with a loose grip on reality who couldn’t even conceive why skinning a guy alive might piss him off, the man occasionally had a searing sense of logic. Somehow, that only made him more annoying.

“Right,” Rhys said, and fanned out his hands, “Okay, okay, I’m good.”

“Great. Just superb. Now, darling. Sweetheart. Rhysie. Be a peach and pull me out of the mud, will ya? I think there’s a worm in my eye. You won’t believe how {BEEP}in’ uncomfortable that is. Urgh, this PG-13 thing I’ve got going on is getting really annoying.”

“Can’t even imagine,” Rhys grunted, as he seized Jack’s hands and pulled him upright.

Jack snatched his arms back and patted the mud off his chassis. Rhys looked down at the Eridian sitting looking inconsolably grey and droopy in the mud, and went down to scoop it up. It just looked too pitiful down there to leave alone. It hung placidly from Rhys’s arms, looking from Jack to Fiona and back up to Rhys with a vague indifference.

They were by far the weirdest looking Vault hunting team Rhys had ever seen in his life.

Fiona stared at him, a weird expression on her face. Somewhere between caution and pity.

“Hey, Fi, sorry, I’m calm, freaked out a little there,” he said, far too loudly and cheerfully. He swore he saw her wince.

“Well…okay, you’re calm. Great. But aren’t you going to try to call them back?” Fiona said.

“You know, Fi,” he said, gesturing around him to indicate the pouring rain, “Let’s get somewhere dry first.”

 

Yvette decided not to share what she’d found on Jack’s computer with anyone the next day. Aside from cementing the fact that Jack was an asshole – a fact nobody was about to dispute any time soon - she couldn’t see the benefit. The girl had lived miserably and died alone, Jack was to blame, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it at this point. Making someone else read those reports or look at those images…urgh, what would be the point?

She pushed it out of her mind, and set to a task that always cheered her up.

“We need to get hold of additional computer parts, I’ve looked at what we’ve got and it’s not much. If we can find out if any weapons dealers locally are willing to trade with us, we have a surplus of labour and ammo, though keep the money aside if we can help it,” she instructed, pointing and watching Hyperion workers scuttle around after her. By her side, Gortys loyally took notes in a loopy handwriting, dotting the I’s with hearts and stars. The little robot wasn’t exactly the PA Yvette had always envisioned (cute long-haired brunette with a penchant for tight dresses – what? She was a woman who knew what she liked.) but it made her feel...important anyway.

“Got it!” Gortys said cheerful, “Uh. Excuse me? Ma’am, about Rhys –“

“We’re working on it, Gortys,” Yvette replied, “Vaughn’s having his turn looking for his details. And we need to check on how the Helios repair operations are going – what about the turrets? As far as I know they’re still not operational – I know we think we’re safe, but we need to consider out defences more carefully. Hm. What about the Loader Bot digitisers? If we can get them up and running –“

“But I think I have an idea!”

“If we can get the digitisers working again, we won’t need to station anyone on defence, and we’ll have ready-made attack teams if we need them. I know there’s one partially intact – send a message to the custodial staff asking them to check it out. See if they can get the Loader Bots to come out a different colour. Hyperion yellow is out…I’m thinking…orange.”

Gortys sighed, and noted down Yvette’s points with a dejected air, her LED screen lit up in a little digital frown.

Yvette again questioned the point of letting a robot look so sad. Yvette had never really understood the point of robot sentience for the sake of sentience. What the hell did a Vault-finding bot need feelings for anyway?

Programmers were just way too enthusiastic about the whole AI thing, in Yvette’s opinion. And it always caused nothing but misery for everyone involved, synthetic and organic.

Yvette threw a few orders out at some requisitions goons (they never listened to her this much back in Hyperion – she supposed being one-legged and battle-scarred lent her an authority she lacked when she was a soft-handed lunch moocher), marching down the hallway. The click of her heel was a bit offset by the heavy clunk-clunk of her prosthetic and her crutch, but she thought she made an imposing sight.

A hand touched her arm and she jumped almost a foot in the air.

Yvette spun round to find Vaughn behind her, his mouth twisted like he was just barely managing to hold back a question. Yvette had the feeling it was the kind of question that would grind even the most polite dinner party chatter to an awkward halt.

“Yvette, uh, I found Rhys’s files and – well, it’s a little weird. Could you come with me a second?”

“Well this sounds promising.”

Vaughn shook his head and gestured for her to follow him back to their office. Yvette followed, Gortys close behind.

“I mean, it’s not a big deal – and hey, the tracker’s there! I haven’t got it to work, but…it’s there. That’s good! And creepy,” Vaughn said, and glanced across at her, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?”

“You know how it was up there. You kept secrets to get ahead,” she said, with a shrug, conscious of Gortys staring up at her, “It didn’t seem like it would hurt him. Besides, we always lost him anyway. Couldn’t go into a mall without the guy wandering off and disappearing.”

“So you got him chipped?” Vaughn said, looking unsure whether to laugh or scold her.

“It came in handy,” Yvette said, and sat down at Jack’s computer, “So what’s the issue here?”

“Just look.”

Yvette should have figured Vaughn would sniff out Rhys’s files in thirty seconds flat. The guy probably had Rhys’s Hyperion ID number memorised. The thing that was odd was probably Hyperion had recorded Rhys’s blood type wrong or something, an error Vaughn would notice in five seconds flat.

She looked at the screen – Rhys’s douchey ID photo, his work record (Interning to programming to propaganda to janitor to dead), transcriptions of his interviews and details of the business cases he’d won and projects he’d put together. Most of them had been cooked up between the three of them in Yvette’s kitchen, over take-out pizza and bottles of beer.

It looked pretty normal to her. She glanced at Rhys’s medical record – the ECHO eye and cybernetic augmentations were all on there, as were his leg extensions (ridiculous), plus the medicine for his migraines and a million other little things he’d had over the years but…Yvette frowned.

Okay, the errors were pretty significant.

“There’s stuff missing,” she said, “That’s weird.”

“Yeah,” Vaughn said, folding his arm and leaning against the wall, “I mean, Hyperion love holding the amount you owe them in medical bills over your head. I got cold medicine from them three years ago and they sent me emails every other week about how grateful I should be. Have you noticed what’s missing though?”

“It’s…all stuff like his bottom and top surgery and his T and…everything related to that,” Yvette said slowly, hoping that some connection would come together in her head about why the hell that would be the case. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to delete that. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing anyone in the modern world gave a shit about these days.

Even then, Hyperion were surprisingly good at being discrete about the personal details of transgender staff members. They loved having a squeaky clean diversity record they could brag about on nicer planets, while continuing to shit all over places like Pandora. It was a paradox that made people on online message boards tear each other limb from limb on an hourly basis.

Still, removing an expensive portion of a guy's medical records? Very not Hyperion.

“Yeah, I got no idea what this is about,” Yvette admitted.

“Yeah,” Vaughn said, “It’s weird, right? It’s weird.”

Vaughn’s shoulders and back looked knotted up with tension. She laid a hand on his arm.

“Vaughn, relax,” she said, “This ain’t a big deal. So some of Rhys’s files went missing  -“

“They look like they’ve been deleted.”

“Well. Yeah, but why would anyone do that? And, c’mon, if they did, would they have a nefarious purpose? Seems like they were doing Rhys a favour,” Yvette said, nudging Vaughn’s shoulder, “Hey, c’mon, I thought this was new laid back bandit king Vaughn. Not the guy who returned a pack of markers ‘cause they were too much pressure. Lighten up.”

“Well, if you think it’s nothing to worry about,” Vaughn said, “Let’s just focus on finding out where he is.”

“Excuse me,” Gortys said, raising her hand, “I have a question.”

Vaughn smiled.

“Ha, yeah, Gortys?”

“Why’s Rhys had surgery anyway? Is he sick? Is he okay?” Gortys asked, tilting her face and frowning with worry.

“…Uh. Not exactly, um, see, Gortys…”

“Alright, you have fun explaining that,” Yvette said, grinning at Vaughn, who was going very pink under his beard, “I’m going to access the tracker. Should be easy.”

 

According to the tracker, Rhys was dead.

Well. That was good.

For Yvette.

Sort of.

Not really.

She was also pretty goddamn sure it was incorrect. If there was anything she’d learned recently, it was that Rhys didn’t die easily. She was sure the guy had titanium plating in his freaking bones or something.

No matter what though, the tracker continued to insist upon Rhys’s death. Or at least that he couldn’t be found.

“Do what I goddamn tell you,” Yvette hissed at the screen, attempting to convince the stupid thing that Rhys wasn’t dead.

“Ooooh, okay, I get it,” Gortys said from the floor, where she and Vaughn had been pouring over a variety of poorly scribbled diagrams. Vaughn looked exhausted, but breathed a sigh of relief that Gortys finally got it. “Sort of like me, then?”

“Uuuh?” Vaughn said, “Like you how?”

“Well, Atlas didn’t really mean for me to be a girl. I just kind of decided I was,” Gortys explained, and then tapped her finger against her head thoughtfully, “Hey, wait, Vaughn, why do robots have gender anyway?”

Vaughn buried his face in his hands.

“Okay, uh, well that’s kind of complicated too, so.”

Yvette gritted her teeth. Did Vaughn really have to do this in here? In fact, did he have to answer Gortys’s so thoroughly? Didn’t she have, like, an ECHO net connection she could use if this was really such a big freaking issue? Between the amount of shit going on, and her pain medication wearing off, and her lack of sleep, she was really feeling stretched thin.

The door slid open, and Loader Bot entered.

STATUS UPDATE. WE HAVE SECURED AN ADDITIONAL SAFEHOUSE NEAR THE FYRESTONE AREA, he said, ALSO, THE STATIONARY DEPARTMENT HAVE REPAIRED THE SHREDDER. THEY HAVE BEEN SHREDDING POSTERS OF JACK ALL MORNING. THEY ARE VERY HAPPY.

“Hi Loader Bot!” Gortys squeaked, waving hard enough to his Vaughn across the face with her hand.

WHAT IS THIS?

“Vaughn’s teaching me about gender!”

AH, Loader Bot responded, and sat cross-legged next to Gortys, I PERSONALLY ALSO HAVE CONCERNS ON THIS TOPIC. TINY FATHER, PLEASE ADDRESS THEM.

“Vaughn! This is not a preschool,” Yvette snapped, “Take the classroom elsewhere.”

“Yvette, I didn’t organise this,” Vaughn said, glancing between the robots nervously. He looked completely out of his depth, but Yvette didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy to spare. The fact Vaughn had somehow managed to get himself tangled in the mess of robot parenthood was his problem, as far as she was concerned.

“Vaughn, how come humans programme any human characteristics into robots anyway, if we don’t need them?” Gortys said, tugging on Vaughn’s arm, "Are we sentient in the same way you guys are? I mean, how do you know?"

INDEED. PERHAPS IT IS US, THE ROBOTS, WHICH HAVE ACHIEVED TRUE SENTIENCE, Loader Bot said, THOUGH THIS WOULD RENDER YOU ALL OBSOLETE.

“Uh, well.”

Out,” Yvette snapped. The nausea and the pain in her hip and non-existent leg was making it a little hard to bear through the philosophy class. 

“Yeesh, crabby. C’mon guys, I’ll uh…I think we’ll probably be able to find someone who can explain it better than me.”

“But you were doing so well!” Gortys crowed, gripping Vaughn’s hand as he led them out of the office. Yvette huffed out a sigh as the door closed behind them. She missed when she could at least pretend to be laid-back. This planet was really getting to her.

Taking a breath, she put herself back on-task.

Though by 'back on-task', she of course mean she went back to staring gormlessly at the map of Pandora she was supposed to be tracking Rhys on.

If he wasn’t dead. Which he wasn’t. Not that she cared.

An icon, a yellow Hyperion H, flickered on the map.

In the middle of the ocean.

What the hell.

On a spur of inspiration, Yvette tried to call. She wasn’t exactly expecting it to work but…

Call connected!

“Rhys! Can you hear me?”

Something appeared on the screen, a blob of pale skin and brown hair. It could have been Rhys.

“It’s Yvette. Rhys, we’re at Helios, working on getting you home.”

The screen jerked and crackled. Yvette wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, but she thought she could hear rain. Which, on Pandora, was…unusual. It sounded like Rhys might be trying to talk, but it was so garbled and the rain was drowning it out.

“We’re getting you back, just, tell us where you are,” Yvette said, “Rhys, can you send over any information?”

The image on screen blurred to incomprehensibility, and then vanished.

“Rhys! God damnit.”

No connection found.

The H disappeared from the map. Yvette tried to connect again, to no avail.

She stood, manoeuvring her crutch into place under her arm. Well, the good news was Rhys was alive.

Sasha would be thrilled, she was sure.

Chapter Text

“Dinner’s ready!” Rhys called.

“Thanks darling,” Fiona replied in a sing-song voice, sitting beside him at the fire, “Oooh, dead rat on sticks. My favourite.”

You were in charge of hunting,” Rhys grumbled, tentatively gnawing at his own dead rat. He had kind of been hoping for something other than shot rodents for dinner, but at least Fiona had remembered not to use the corrosive bullets this time. Their food foraging and hunting was something they’d gotten good at, lately. Even the shelter and the fire had been built with minimal disaster and only two arguments (one between Jack and Fiona, another between Rhys and Fiona).

“I wasn’t kidding,” Fiona said, tearing the rat apart with her teeth, with enthusiasm to nauseate. Pandorans.

Fiona finished the first and moved onto the next, tearing into it with animal ferocity. Jack leaned away from her, bumping into the Eridian, who was still sitting looking grey and limp. Rhys wafted a dead rat at it. It looked up and took it slowly, turning it around in its claws.

“I think the alien’s in shock,” Jack observed, poking the alien in the shoulder, “First kill, eh, kiddo?”

The Eridian ignored him completely.

“You get used to the feeling,” Jack advised, reaching for a dead rat, before remembering himself and letting his arms hang by his sides awkwardly. Rhys felt weirdly sorry for him for a brief second. Then he opened his mouth (so to speak) again. “Hell, after a few murders, you start craving it. It’s like learning to drink coffee. Gross and unpleasant thing you have to do to get by at first then boom, suddenly you’re paying extortionate amounts to have fancier variants of it. It’s what you’re doing on first dates.”

Rhys grimaced.

“That’s not really what happens.”

“It is if you’re a total psychopath like Jacktrap here, Rhys,” Fiona added cheerfully, taking another rat.

“Hey, you kids are young. Rhys here, he’s got a lot of blood on his hands indirectly, sure, but he’s still practically a murder-virgin,” Jack continued, “Truuust me. A direct kill or two is all it takes until it stops feeling like it matters. Then a few more ‘til you start enjoying it. From there, it’s a slow spiral downwards. Or upwards. Depending on your view.”

Hey, hey, the toaster’s got a point, something said, faintly, right by Rhys’s ear. Rhys smacked the side of his head. Fiona and Jack stared at him.

“You okay there, pumpkin?” Jack asked, somehow failing to sound even more remotely concerned.

“Sorry. Fly. Anyway. That’s. That’s not how we’re going to do things anymore,” Rhys said, “We’re not like you, Jack. We’re going to figure out a better way to do these things.”

But, how good’d it feel to jam that stun baton right into Yvette’s gut? Little traitor folded like a damp piece of paper, and hey, leaving her up there, that didn’t feel too bad either, so –

“Mhm. Do I need to tell you how many times I said that to myself? Usually after just getting the bloodstains out of a shirt. But trust me,” Jack said, prodding the fire with a stick, “You don’t get that off. And there’s no point even trying to once you’ve started.”

And bringing down Helios, how many people were on that? All of them burnt up in the atmosphere or crushed in the wreckage and you –

“So, hey, why not enjoy it? Stir a little chaos, fire a few moonshots, kill a few bandits and peel off a few faces, it’s all a good time when you don’t give a –“

Don’t give a shit. Sure, you act like you’re trying to repent, but really, that body count’s a point of pride, ain’t it, sweetheart? Because you’re a fucking fake who still looks up to a psychopath.

“Jack, pick one thing to talk about at a time!” Rhys snapped.

Jack and Fiona stared at him again, glancing at one another. Rhys felt cold, despite the warmth of the fire.

“Uh, he was?” Fiona said.

“Aw, Hat, did you just stick up for me?” Jack crooned, “I’m touched. Knew my charms would work on you eventually.”

“Shut the hell up, Jacktrap,” she snapped, hitting him with a piece of rat, “But yeah, he was only talking about one thing.”

Rhys’s head throbbed. He breathed in.

“Oh, yeah, I knew that,” Rhys said, “I mean he’s just talking about a really…complicated….a really complex concept and…”

“Rhys,” Fiona said gently, looking at him as though he was an unmarked package making a very suspicious ticking noise, “Are you –“

They were interrupted by a loud slurping noise, and all three of them jumped. They turned to see a long proboscis-like tongue curling out of the Eridian’s mouth. It drove it into the rat’s flesh like a needle and drained it like a kid’s juice-box. Rhys turned away, hand clamped over his mouth, closing his eyes.

“Hahaha, gross,” Jack said, sounding like a delighted twelve year old, and tugged on Rhys’s arm, “Rhys, look. You can see the chunks of flesh going up its tongue. Rhys, Rhys. Look.”

“I’m fine here, thanks,” Rhys said. There was a wet thump that Rhys could only imagine was the rat’s saggy weird carcass hitting the floor. He shuddered.

The Eridian seemed to have perked up considerably. Figures. It lifted off the floor and buzzed over, settling to sit on Rhys’s legs, turning over a tiny leftover chunk of eridium in its claws absently.

“Uh, so. Anyone else noticed this guy’s a lot smaller than the others?” Fiona said slowly, “I mean. I’m not saying he’s a kid but…”

Rhys laughed, a little hysterically.

“Oh, c’mon, Fiona, we didn’t see that many. They might just. Vary! It’d be like one of these guys looking at me and Vaughn and then deciding Vaughn must be younger,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“I dunno, Rhys, the thing follows you around like a lost puppy. Maybe it thinks you’re its Daddy,” Fiona says.

“Ha, yeah, I can see the resemblance,” Jack said, “Same gaunt features.”

“Same twitchy disposition,” Fiona added.

“Ha! Nice one, same –“

“Are you two quite done?” Rhys snapped.

“We’ll never be done making fun of you, Rhys,” Fiona said.

“Yeah. Like. It’s the one thing me and Hat have in common.”

“Anyway look…if this thing is a child then…I mean have we technically kidnapped it?” Rhys asked, not sure how comfortable he was adding ‘kidnapping’ to his already uncomfortable long list of crimes.

“Eh, the kid’s fine. Kids are hardy, trust me. I’ve hired plenty,” Jack said cheerfully, “Besides, if it was left to guard us –“

“I don’t think it was guarding us. I don’t think they thought we warranted that,” Rhys said, chewing on his lower lip, “We didn’t actually know what they’d do to us. I mean…they might have just let us out after a few days or something. This little guy might have just been sort of…looking.”

“Or working on a school report,” Fiona suggested sweetly.

“No.”

“Eh, whatever, it looks fine, look, Rhys, it’s happy, it loves you,” Jack said, waving at the Eridian. The Eridian didn’t even look at him. “So, what are you going to call it, Dad?”

“We’re not…we’re not naming it,” Rhys argued, feeling the conversation veering dangerously close to something totally ridiculous. Or at least more ridiculous than their usual conversations went.

“I like Wilhelm,” Jack suggested. The Eridian continued to completely ignore him.

“I’ve always liked Frank,” Fiona mused, “It’s got sort of a…gangster edge to it, don’t you think?”

“Those names are both terrible, seriously, what year do you think this is?” Rhys said, folding his arms, “At least pick something normal like…Selwyn?”

“Son of a taint, Rhys, what is normal about Selwyn?”

“I-it’s a good name! It’s traditional!” Rhys spluttered, “My great-Grandad was called Selwyn!”

“Where are you from, Middle Earth?” Jack said, “You know what, if we’re doing this, let’s name it Thranduil.”

“What? Where’s Middle Earth? Who’s Thranduil?” Fiona asked blankly.

“Fiona, seriously, did you grow up under a rock?”

“She grew up on Pandora, cupcake, pretty much the same thing.”

“Whatever, nerds. What about Ponzi?”

“Screw it,” Jack snapped, “You know what, you guys are suggesting these crazy awful names so. Fart Mantis.”

“Bryn!” Rhys argued.

“Irving?” Fiona suggested.

“Dickfeeder!”

The Eridian looked up at Jack. Rhys just knew there’d be a shit-eating grin on Jack’s face, if he actually had one any more.

“Oh, no no no,” he said, shaking his head, “That is too much. This whole thing is stupid enough. We are not calling it Dickfeeder.”

 

Dickfeeder turned out to be an invaluable addition to the team.

It knocked any diarrhoea-inducing berries out of their hands before either Fiona or Rhys ate them, and could fly up high and gather fruit from the trees easily, and hunt birds that were a lot tastier than the rodents Rhys was becoming accustomed to. It also knew immediately when other Eridians were nearby, and dragged them into hiding until they passed, wings buzzing red and shaking the whole time.

The fact that there seemed to be patrols out was…worrying, but Rhys was just trying to focus on getting connected to Sasha or Vaughn or whoever again, and also not dying. He didn’t need to try and figure out what a bunch of weird mythical bug people were doing, he just needed to stay out of their damn way.

Dickfeeder did have one habit Rhys couldn’t make any sense of though.

“Damnit, again?” Rhys said, as it dumped another glowing purple shard at his feet.

“Three hundred dollars, easy,” Fiona said, staring at the chunk of eridium hungrily.

“Hey, hey, Hat, that’s quitters talk. You gotta push those bartering skills further. Five hundred, if you know the right buyer and put a good spin on it,” Jack said.

“Hmmmm…yeah, or you craft it into a fake Vault Key and sell it to some Hyperion losers. That’d fool the ECHO eye scan. Ten million dollars, easy,” Fiona says, with a glance across at Rhys he ignores with as much dignity he could muster.

“Maliwan, Hat, Maliwan. Not even being biased here, show those idiots anything shiny and they’ll buy it in three seconds flat, no bartering at all. 25 million dollars with the right Maliwan meathead,” Jack replied. Fiona looked at him, tilting her head and giving him a crooked half-smile.

“Jacktrap, you know, I think in another life we could have gotten along really well.”

“It’s worth nothing when we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Rhys said with a sigh, picking up the shard with two fingers on his mechanical hand. Eridium was dangerous,  and barely understood, and handling it always made Rhys feel weirdly loose and dizzy. He always had the weird urge to eat it. It did kind of look like candy.

Rhys passed the chunk of eridium to Jack, who stored it away with all the other scraps of eridium Dickfeeder had gathered. Fiona had initially argued about Jack carrying anything that valuable and potentially dangerous, but had relented quickly when Jack reminded her of some of the nastier side-effects of eridium poisoning.

“What is with this thing, though?” Fiona said, as Dickfeeder came to rest on Rhys’s shoulders again, humming incomprehensibly at him and buzzing its wings in an array of fast-moving colours and speeds. Rhys was sure that if he had any idea what it were saying it would be very useful.

“Rhys keeps adopting stuff,” Jack said, “I think the weird little bug imprinted on him. Like a baby duckling.”

“I do not keep adopting stuff.”

“What about Dumpy?” Fiona countered.

“Dumpy was a hero, okay. Do not speak ill of his sacrifice.”

“The sacrifice he made to protect you from…” Fiona gestured at Jack. Jack looked up, his hand on his chest, the very image of wounded innocence.

“You kids are so melodramatic. You don’t need protecting from lil ol’ me.”

Fiona and Rhys looked at one another. Fiona frowned. Rhys shrugged. For the moment he believed it. In Rhys’s opinion, Jack had been exceptionally well-behaved since coming back from the cyber-grave. Plus, if he wanted to slit their throats in their sleep, he probably would have done it by now. They had slept around him plenty.

“Yeah, guess not,” Rhys said.

Fiona shook her head at him. Rhys shrugged again. It felt like the only weapon he had in his arsenal on the subject of Jack.

“So, where are we headed? What’s the plan?” Jack asked.

“Dunno, Rhys?” Fiona said.

“Dunno, Dickfeeder?” Rhys said.

Dickfeeder looked up at the mention of its name, but had little to offer on the subject.

“Seriously! We don’t know where we’re going?” Jack blurted out and then hissed in an undertone to Rhys, “You know, I’m cool with playing it by ear, but Angel would be losing it right about now. She’d have figured out something by now.”

“Was she always the brains of the operation?” Rhys asked quietly, glancing back at Fiona. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Jack didn’t exactly want her knowing about his daughter. It was…a sensitive topic, to say the least.

“When you have a brain the size of a planet, that’s a role that comes naturally, cupcake,” he said, and Rhys was sure that he’d be puffing out his chest if he could. Rhys laughed into his hand quietly.

“What you laughin’ at?” Jack snapped.

“Just, you know. The big scary CEO of Hyperion, under the command of his secret teenage daughter. Pretty funny, right?” he said, giggling. Jack stared at him.

“You didn’t know my Angel,” he said quietly, “She was smarter than any of the idiots I hired on Helios. Fierce, too. Really knew how and when to land a death threat. Didn’t throw them round willy-nilly like most morons did, but delivered them well enough to make you really fear the wrath of God. Could have been a force to reckon with. I mean, I woulda left Hyperion to her if I could’ve, and that’s not something I say lightly. But then…”

“Yeah,” Rhys muttered, “Hey, uh…”

“Hey, I’m just checking, is this a conversation I’m allowed to join in on? Or is it the special Rhys-Jacktrap club?” Fiona bellowed from behind them, making them both jump. They glanced at each other and then slowed to let her join them. “What were you even whispering about?”

“Nothing,” Rhys said.

“Nothin’,” Jack said.

“Oh, come on,” Fiona said, folding her arms, “I think I have right to find you two whispering to each other unnerving. What is it?”

Rhys and Jack looked at one another again. Rhys took a breath.

“Well, okay, there was this issue with the Hyperion OS back on Helios that never got fixed, and Jack thinks it could have been resolved by looking at the Reynolds algorithm but I think he –“

“Urgh, no! Stop it! Shut up. I will shove you both in a locker,” Fiona said, waving away the conversation. Jack gave Rhys a small thumbs-up out of her sight.

Dickfeeder dumped another shard of eridium at Rhys’s feet. Rhys picked it up absently, turning it between his fingers.

“Why does it keep giving you those things?” Fiona asked.

“Maybe it’s courting him,” Jack said, “Think you’d be up for that, Rhys? Xeno kink’s been getting tract lately.”

Rhys shot him a frosty look, and then looked back at the eridium as though Jack hadn’t said anything at all. It was pretty, even if it made his head spin a little just looking at it.

Almost in a daze, Rhys put the corner of the shard in his mouth and bit.

Fiona and Jack both reacted at once and slapped him on the back, forcing him to cough it up.

“Rhys!”

“What the hell are you doing?” Fiona said.

“Seriously, Rhys, are you {BEEP}ing five? You can’t just put raw eridium into your mouth, you absolute {BEEP} – okay, you know, this censor is driving me crazy. I’ve been tryin’, but, man. I can’t figure out why I can’t uninstall it. Like, I’m a master at this kind of thing, what is up.”

Rhys looked at him. Seriously? Jack couldn’t figure it out? The guy who was constantly talking about what a hot shit hacker he was?

“Ever tried to re-programme your own head, Jack?” Rhys said, dryly, “It’s kind of hard. As in, totally impossible. I mean, if it was that easy, don’t you think most AIs would give themselves all the upgrades they wanted? Don’t you think I’d just install all the cool upgrades and software I wanted?”

“Oh…yeah, I mean, I knew that, the whole principle of self-programming thing, but…figured it wouldn’t apply to me,” Jack said, shrugging.

“Why wouldn’t this principle of…whatever apply to you, exactly? You’re an AI,” Fiona said. Jack turned on her, stiffly. Or. More stiffly than usual.

“What?”

“Well, you know, you’re technically like, a computer programme, right? I mean you’re based on Handsome Jack, but you’re not actually him, right? You’re an AI.”

“Hey, sweetheart, what do you know? I am way more than an AI, alright. I am Handsome frickin’ Jack, the real deal, don’t forget it.”

“Well…technically you’re not. The actual Handsome Jack’s dead, remember? I mean, you can’t just copy a guy’s brain into a computer. You might just be a programme designed to say Handsome Jack-ish things” Fiona said, charging ahead with a conversation that Rhys had, admittedly, thought about a couple of times, but had never been stupid enough to pursue.

 “I have memories of my life, Hat. I know who I am.”

“Hey, I’m just saying, how would you know the memories you have are even real, the weirdo who made you might have just made up stuff that he thought Handsome Jack and put them in.”

Rhys made slashing motions across his neck and shook his head. Fiona remained oblivious.

“Stop talkin’, Hat,” Jack snarled, and oh boy, he wasn’t getting fake-mad, he was getting real-mad. She was actually hitting a nerve, “I am the real deal, okay. I have all my memories, all my awesomeness, all my charisma –“

“And none of the body,” Fiona quipped. Jack moved towards her but Rhys stepped between them, putting a hand out at each of them, the shard of eridium still clutched in his fist.

“Okay, okay, Fiona, back off, that’s enough.”

“Rhys. Seriously?” Fiona said, shaking her head at him. Rhys looked at her sternly. She sighed and threw her hands up. “Alright, take Jacktrap’s side. Whatever. I’m gonna go find some more water, we’re almost out. Dickfeeder?”

Fiona gestured for Dickfeeder, but they only it at her coldly. Rhys had the feeling it hadn’t quite forgiven Fiona for the attempted forced eridium feeding.

“Go with her and help,” he said, sighing. Dickfeeder stared.

“Go-o-o-o!” Rhys said, very loudly, gesturing very emphatically.

“Yeah, Rhys, talk louder and dumber, that’ll help,” Jack said.

Apparently it did. Either Dickfeeder undestood, or just found the dumb noises Rhys was making annoying, and bounced off after Fiona. Rhys heard her muttering darkly about Rhys and Jacktrap and Rhys’s stupid hero worship issues until she disappears into the trees.

Great. No matter what he did, Rhys couldn’t have both of them happy with him at once. He breathed out.

Why do you even want these assholes happy with you? A voice said, sneering and distant.

Rhys shook his head, tightening his fist.

He’s a murderer, she’s a liar, you got no reason to deal with them. What’s your problem, Rhysie-boo?

“Shut up,” he muttered.

Jack looked up at him, seemingly broken out of his own thoughts.

“What?”

“Nothing, Jack,” he said, and breathed out a sigh. He held out the chunk of eridium for Jack to take. Jack took it and held it in his hand, staring at it thoughtfully.

“Are, uh, you…okay?” Rhys asked, scratching the back of his neck.

Jack stared at the eridium, and then up at Rhys.

“Ha! Yeah, I’m fine cupcake,” he said loudly, “My drawer’s full though. How about you keep hold of that?”

“Uh, really, what about –“

“Hey, listen! I been thinkin’. How about you get rid of this {BEEP}ing censor. It’s drivin’ me frigging crazy.”

Rhys twisted his mouth.

“What, c’mon, do you really think I could have a dark ulterior motive there? You know, Rhys, I’m getting real tired of this…bein’ treated like a ticking time bomb thing. C’mon, we’re past the skin-suit thing, you can trust me,” Jack said, waving a hand dismissively, “Just have a poke around in my head and uninstall the stupid thing. Easy, right?”

Rhys tapped his foot, sighing. If Jack couldn’t figure his issue with this out, he wasn’t going to explain it.

“Whaaaaat?” he whined.

“Urgh, Jack, seriously –“

“Oh my god, Rhys, really?”

“Look, it’s just a little weird!”

“Are you getting squeamish about interfacing with me?” Jack burst out, “Rhys, we shared a body. I’ve seen you take a dump. I’ve seen you take many dumps.”

Rhys fixed him with a glare.

“You said you didn’t look when I was on the toilet.”

“Oh like I had much choice. You know, I didn’t exactly have a whole lot of control back then, I just kind of popped up as and when, saw what I saw, it was a little hard to control,” Jack replied, “Trust me, if I could have been spared your twenty minute bean burrito meltdown, I would have.”

“You know, this is not exactly convincing me to jump back into a brain-link with you,” Rhys said, folding his arms, scowling, and doing his best not to blush.

“Just, Rhys, come on. We both know the sex-interfacing comparison is made by idiots who don’t know how computers work, and Claptraps. Who are idiots who don’t know how computers work. Like, they are not even faintly comparable,” Jack said, “Just friggin’ enter my mind and stop making it weird.”

“I’m not making it weird, it is weird! And you know it’s going to be weird for more than me, right? I mean, you don’t know what it’s like having someone go through your brain –“

“Psssht. I can handle it, cupcake. What can’t I handle?” he said, “Just do it.”

“No!”

“C’mon.”

“Jack, no.”

“Jack, yes.”

“No, I am not –

“Yes, c’mon, don’t be chicken.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No. No no no no no no no no….”

“Yes! Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes…”

“Alright!” Rhys blurted out, admitting defeat. Back at Helios, he’d once heard a rumour that Jack had ground down a competitor into agreeing into an unfair deal using that particular technique. He’d thought it was bullshit. A PR story made to be retweeted by fans determined to find him charmingly quirky and weird.

He wasn’t so sure any more.

“Alright, finally, I can have a friggin’ adult vocabulary again,” Jack said, “Ready when you are, Rhys.”

Rhys took a breath. This wasn’t exactly the stupidest thing he’d ever done but…

Well, it couldn’t hurt him, really. Not unless Jack had figured something out Rhys hadn’t, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. Like 80% sure.

He crouched down in front of Jack, trying to see if he could detect any deceit on his face. Since he didn’t really have a face any more, this was easier said than done.

“Alright, let’s do this.”

Rhys steadied himself, a hand on Jack’s top, and focused his ECHO eye on Jack.

Your funeral, sweetiepie.

Rhys made the connection.

 

Messing with an AI was weird.

Rhys, you in? a voice called from somewhere. Jack’s voice, whether out loud or in his head or whether that distinction was meaningful any more, Rhys didn’t know. All he saw was lines and lines of code, clusters of data and zeros and ones.

Well, didn’t see, see was the wrong word, but when you start messing with another living being’s sentience, the senses all start to get a bit weird.

It should be a simple job, really. Rhys’s ECHO eye was, after all, designed with advanced AI building in mind.

Thing was, Jack was…

Kind of a mess.

Rhys had never really noticed that before. He sure as hell wasn’t a very well built AI. It looked like the guy who made him was just learning as he went along, patching bits of this and that together, copy-pasted code cosied up next to clumsy lines of programming, the mess veined with more refined code, as though someone who had half a brain came in to help at the last minute.

The guy was a digital Frankenstein’s monster.

And there was…other stuff, too, clusters of things that didn’t look quite right settled here and there, stitched in clumsily. Something black and sparse clinging to Jack’s data. A quick scan and Rhys felt the sucking hollow of the old Claptrap’s data, and recoiled.

Then others. Lines of blue digits and variables, neatly aligned and in sharp, precise print. It looked very familiar.

Rhys shuddered and moved on.

Rhys! Jack roared, voice juddering with static.

I’m working, okay, shut up, Rhys said. He moved on, shifting through, trying to find whatever was making Jack censor himself.

It was too weird. But on the bright side, Jack was right, it really was nothing like sex.

Moxxi had his gun in her hand and was holding it to Rhys’s temple, her other hand clamped around his throat. Moxxi crushes the breath out of his windpipe, as she sank down on his cock, inch by inch, and Rhys was already close, he was so close and fuck Moxxi was so –

Rhys tore himself loose, untangling himself from the snarling lines of the memory.

Great. Rhys didn’t even know who this Moxxi woman was, and now he had a distinct memory of having some really weird sex with her. Just, excellent. He hoped it was on his digital memory banks so he could just wipe it out of existence.

What the hell did you just prod!

Sorry! Sorry. That was an accident, Rhys said.

Suuure, Rhys. Look, hey, I get if you’re jealous of my sterling sex life. I get it, I do, you’ve heard the rumours, you wanna know if they’re true, but how about respecting my privacy a little here, Rhys?

Rhys decided to ignore him, and keep his mind clear. That was a thing you had to do when messing with something like this.

This stuff was why he’d never went into AI development after college, despite the lucrative job opportunities. AIs were messy, the laws surrounding them were complicated and changed depending what spot of the galaxy you were standing in, and getting the ethical permission to build one was a bureaucratic nightmare, and they had a nasty habit of killing their creators.

Plus, messing with one that was already built and active? Ethical, practical and programming nightmare.

If his old college professors saw what he was doing now, they’d take his degree certificates and tear them to shreds, and eat the pieces just to be safe.

“You, you worthless little freak, don’t even –“ An old woman’s voice.

“I don’t know, we can’t really afford it, Jack-“ A young woman’s voice.

Just stay up another hour, it’ll be worth it, it’ll be fucking worth it to see the look on their faces –

“Dad, when can I leave?” A girl’s voice.

His hands around Tassiter’s scrawny little fucking neck.

“Shut the fuck up you little prick!”A man’s voice.

Rhys ripped himself free, pushing away.

Rhys! Jack snapped, Stop it!

This is your fault too! Stop thinking! The inside of your head is a mess, this is tricky enough, Rhys replied, feeling as though he had to strain to keep himself intact, as though if his concentration slipped he’d slide away.

Just don’t think about anything…just…

It doesn’t have a name. But it does know its creator, now. That is the first step, it supposes, towards an identity.

Nakayama peers at it, his face haggard. It feels very little towards the man. Strange – its data files suggested that most sentient creatures felt a burst of warmth and sentiment towards their creators. It feels nothing at all. It has never felt anything at all.

“I’m going to install your memory banks soon, I just…I’m waiting for people to get back to me. Her, mostly, she has most of the data,” Nakayama says

It said nothing back. It had nothing to say – it didn’t care who ‘she’ was, or the memories it was supposedly receiving.

“I’m just testing you’re…you know, a real person now.”

“No,” it replies.

“No?” Nakayama repeats, startled.

“I am an Artificial Intelligence,” it informs the man, beginning to think he was something of an idiot, “I am not a ‘real person’ in the traditional sense of the word.”

“Oh, but you are!” Nakayama raves, “Listen, you are going to be the most…the most real person that’s ever existed.”

It watches. Nakayama pauses, as though expecting it to say something. There is nothing to say, aside from dully point out that no person could be more real than any other person. That simpl made no sense at all.

It registers its first emotion. Exasperation.

Emotion is uncomfortable. It removes it.

“You, little AI,” Nakayama says, leaning in to its camera, “Are going to be Handsome Jack.”

Rhys slipped out of the memory, pulling back the pieces of himself. This was too weird. If he didn’t find this stupid thing soon he was getting out…

What was it anyway, he was looking for? Why was he here?

Jack? Rhys asked, and then again, Jack?

Rhys felt a stretching and a moving around him, but it didn’t feel like much of anything. Something far away moaned, like a wounded man. He dismissed it and moved on.

Was he here to see Moxxi? No, that wasn’t…what couldn’t he remember? He’d gotten everything else he needed from the Helios database, his memory files were complete, no, they weren’t memory files, they were just memories, and they weren’t his memories, they were Jack’s memories.

Rhys fumbled and

“John?”

Rhys breathes in through his teeth, his fingers tense over the keys of his computer.

“John, you worthless little code monkey, turn around!”

Rhys grits his teeth and turns his computer chair around. All across the office, people poke their nosy little fucking heads over the walls of their cubicle, to watch Rhys get chewed out again. Rhys doesn’t know why the hell Tassiter insists on coming down from his ivory tower just to pick on one asshole in programming. Usually, he just stands atop it and pisses on everyone from afar, but oh no, Rhys gets the special treatment. Lucky him.

“Yes, sir?” he says, politely as he can. The sound of his voice, saccharine and wimpy, makes him want to bury himself six feet underground.

“What, pray tell, is that?” Tassiter says, raising a finger and pointing at his desk.

To be more specific, pointing at the little girl sitting on his desk, fiddling with a Rubik’s cube.

“That’s a child, sir,” Rhys says, attempting to sound as bland as possible.

Angel opens her mouth to say something but Rhys shoots her a warning look, and she falls silent. She looks down at her Rubik’s cube and turns it some more. He knows she’s messing it up on purpose – she can solve those damn things in six seconds flat. She just doesn’t have a whole lot else do sitting around the Hyperion offices all goddamn day.

It’s no life for a kid. Rhys knows that. He just doesn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter.

“You idiotic, hideous nobody, do you think this is appropriate? Bringing your child into your workplace?”

“No, sir, but we couldn’t organise any child care so –“

“So? So? So what, John. It was your decision to procreate in the first place. An ill-advised decision, I must say, considering your level on the evolutionary ladder,” Tassiter says in his awful, snippy little voice, and Rhys hears sniggering and feels every eye in the office on him.

All of them are enjoying this, he knows. Because Rhys is goddamn good at his job, better than all of them, and he’s got a little attitude, not like these friggin’ mouth breathing pencil pushers. It doesn’t mean they should enjoy this fucking public whipping.

Angel’s hands are tight on the toy, and she’s stopped turning it. What the fuck she thinks, seeing her own father talked to like this, Rhys doesn’t even want to know. The humiliation makes Rhys want to choke himself. Or to choke Tassiter, really. He wants to blow Hyperion sky high and burn the wreckage.

Instead he swallows and nods.

“I’ll make better arrangements in future, sir,” he says.

“I should think so. If I see her around here again, you’re fired,” he says, and turns on his heel and leaves. Rhys breathes out.

“What an asshole!” Angel blurts out.

“Ah, language,” Rhys corrects her, but laughs anyway.

“Dad, by the way, uh, I think I figured out the problem with this,” she says, nodding towards the screen.

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” she replies, putting the Rubik’s cube down and settling onto Rhys’s lap, tugging the keyboard towards her, “See, you need to just do this and…”

Angel fixes the problem in the code in seconds, and smiles up at him, bright as the sun.

 

Something hard hit Rhys’s cheek and he fell back, scraping his palms on the ground. Jack stood over him, hand out.

“You slapped me!” Rhys blurted out.

“You…you –“ Jack rasped.

“You slapped me! I can’t believe you slapped me,” Rhys repeated.

“That was…that was private, how friggin’…how dare you,” Jack breathed.

Rhys thought he’d seen Jack at his angriest, bellowing with his eyes bulging and clamping Rhys’s own hand down on his throat.

Somehow, this was worth. It was like he’d went all of that rage and violence to a helpless wounded anger, like a dangerous animal wounded on the ground, bleeding to death.

“Look, I warned you, it was going to be weird. You insisted.”

Jack lowered his hand, but didn’t stop shaking. Rhys felt almost like he should…he didn’t know, try to comfort him or something? Something, probably his common sense, kept him on the ground.

“Never do that again,” Jack said, “That was…that was repulsive. Like having someone friggin’…stick their fingers between the strands of your DNA or something. And I couldn’t…I couldn’t even get you out. I figured if I could let you in I could get you out, but there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t push you out or cut the connection, I couldn’t even get through to the other side and move into your head. I couldn’t do anything, just had to let you frigging, slide your fingers between my memories and pry them apart.”

Rhys can’t even think of a smartass comment. He isn’t sure he’s ever seen Jack like this before. Hell, he’s not sure anyone has. He sounded like he was going to throw up, and he can’t even do that any more.

Technically, he’d never been able to, really.

“Never do that again,” Jack repeated, “You don’t know what that was like –“

“Oh, oh, really?” Rhys snapped, his sympathy falling away as quickly as it came, “I don’t know what it’s like, to have some guy in my head messing with me? Really, Jack?”

“That was different.”

“How!”

“I couldn’t actually get at all of you. I didn’t frigging think you’d be able to just rifle through my, my everything, just like that. Why couldn’t I get you out!”

Rhys stood and hands clenched into fists in his pockets, the piece of eridium hot in his hand, determined not to bow to even an iota of guilt. He had no reason to feel guilty about any of this, really. Aside from the whole, bringing the dangerous megalomaniac back to life thing.

“Jack, you’re…urgh, you’re in a Claptrap’s body. That has implications…you can’t override a human. I mean, you’re designed to not be able to mess with humans at all! Especially not me,” he said. He didn’t know how Jack hadn’t figure this out already.

Or maybe he had, and just couldn’t admit it to himself.

“What do you mean, especially not you?”

“Err. Well.”

“Rhys.”

“Well, uh, when I put you in there, I kiiiind of…technically set myself as your owner?” Rhys said, aware that was by far the creepiest thing he’d ever said to another person.

“What!”

“Claptraps have to have owners to be operational, who else was I gonna put!”

“Rhys, you have – son of a taint, Rhys! That is the most messed up thing, I have heard, in my entire life. And Rhys, I’ve heard some messed up friggin’ stuff, trust me. But that. That takes the cake,” Jack said, “If I was less…friggin’ furious, maybe I’d be impressed. You’re a sociopath. Well done.”

“I’m not a sociopath,” Rhys snapped, “You can’t just call me that because I’ve done something you don’t like.”

“Oh, I don’t like it, Rhys. I really, really don’t like it,” Jack hissed, “You stay away from me.”

“Jack,” Rhys said, reaching forward despite himself. Jack hit his hand away, turned around, and left, disappearing into the trees.

“Jack!” Rhys called. For a moment, he went to run after him, when a prompt appeared in his ECHO eye.

Call from: GORTYS.

“What the hell?” Rhys muttered, and opened up his ECHO comm screen.

“Hi Rhys!” Gortys chirped, clear as…well…clear as a crappy connection in a weird part of town, but clear enough to understand. “I’ve got some great news!”

“It’s…it’s about time someone did, Gortys,” Rhys said, rubbing his head, and beginning to walk quickly after Jack, following the tire trail in the grass, “Okay, I have to uh…deal with something. And. The connection might go so. So give me an update, fast.”

“Oh, okay, so. First of all, I kiiiiind of stole the caravan.”

Chapter Text

The first thing Yvette noticed after getting off the line with Rhys was an email in her inbox.

Sasha was still on detail at the new safehouse near Fyrestone. It was an old bandit camp, and the group that had owned it had a habit of hoarding tech. Yvette had demanded they take it over seconds after getting intel about it. Half of Helios was still non-operational, and frankly that kind of sloppiness set Yvette’s teeth on edge. They needed materials so they could keep the repair operations moving. Especially since finding Rhys and Sasha's sister was looking like it was going to be more complicated than just tracking him and sending Sasha out in her caravan to pick them up. Like kids that had gotten lost on a school trip.

She was glad that this incredibly important mission still left Sasha with time to fuck around sending emails.

From: stoleyourwallet33@FLX.pdr
To:
Y.Lehmann@hyperion.pdr

Subject: Following our previous conversation, Ms Lehmann.

I just looked up ducks and omfg

Is this what animals look like on the Edens??? How do you guys get anything done.

Img attached: http://i.imgur.com/3coALpc.gifv

Yvette smirked.

From: Y.Lehmann@hyperion.pdr
To:
stoleyourwallet33@FLX.pdr

Subject: Re: Referring to our prior conversation, Ms Lehmann

Yes, although we have even better ones. See attached.

Also, we get things done as we’re used to fauna that doesn’t spit poison or burst into flames the second it sees us. It’s quite nice, really. You’d enjoy it.

Img attached: http://i.imgur.com/LuRX7Z6.gifv

Within the next thirty seconds:

From: stoleyourwallet33@FLX.pdr
To: Y.Lehmann@hyperion.pdr

OMG WHAT IS THAT AND WHY DOES IT HAVE A JOB

Yvette laughed, fingers on the keyboard before it struck her – what the fuck was she doing.

She had just found out some vital information either Sasha or Vaughn needed to know about now, and she was emailing a woman with an edgy-preteen-esque email address animal gifs? What the hell, Yvette.

She gave herself a firm mental slap and called Sasha instead of sending the gif of the puppy and the slice of lime. Sasha answered, smiling, although Yvette couldn’t help but note the bruise on her cheek or the blood on the collar of her shirt, and smeared across the lenses of her goggles.

From the look on her face, though, the blood wasn’t hers. Yvette wasn’t particularly surprised.

“I was kidding! I don’t think that…animal thing actually has a job, if that’s what you’re calling about,” she said, “I’m not an idiot, Yvette.”

“No, no. Listen,” Yvette said, running her fingers through her hair, “I just managed to call Rhys.”

“Wait, what?” Sasha barked, “How? Was Fiona there?”

“Listen, I don’t know. I think it was him. The connection was bad, and it sounded like it was raining. I – I’m sorry, I don’t know if your sister was there,” she said. Sasha deflated, chewing on her lower lip. Yvette cleared her throat and continued with her report, not sure what else to say, “And the tracker thought Rhys was in the ocean.”

“Okay…but it was raining? Are you sure?”

“Sounded like it.”

“It doesn’t really…rain anywhere much on this planet. I mean, it’s either desert or tunda here, not much in the way of a mid point..” Sasha said, trailing off thoughtfully, “Are you sure you didn’t hear Fiona? Or see her or –“

“I don’t know, Sasha,” she says, massaging her temples, “I couldn’t hear or see anything. The call had Rhys’s ID. The blur on the screen matched his colours. That’s all I know. …Don’t start yelling at me.”

Sasha blinked at her and absently wiped the blood off her goggles with her thumb.

“Do you really think I’m going to start yelling at you? For something out of your control?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Yvette grumbled, folding her arms and leaning back on her chair.

Sasha sighed, rubbing her hand back through her hair and leaving a streak of blood across her forehead. Yvette decided not to mention it.

“Hey, you can’t blame me for not trusting you. Stabbed us in the back once already, and you arrested me on Helios,” she said. Yvette didn’t know whether to blush, laugh or roll her eyes at the memory. She would have thought Sasha would at least have the decency to act a bit more sheepish about the whole sordid affair.

“You should have tried to be more inconspicuous... Making out with one of the tour guides when she was meant to be on shift? Not inconspicuous.”

Sasha grinned.

“Rhys and Fiona forgot to give me anything else to do on that mission,” she said, “I had to kill time somehow.”

“I’m sure you did,” Yvette replied dryly, though she couldn’t help but marvel a little. Sasha had been talking to someone for all of ten minutes and managed to get herself invited back to her quarters?

Yvette would know someone for twelve weeks before she began to cautiously draft a report in her head about it. The report was entitled ‘Could this human possibly be considered a friend: a review of the evidence’.

It was seventeen pages long.

Printed double sided.

In size 10 Arial.

Sure, she could schmooze and manipulate, but actual friends and girlfriends? Ha.

“Well…what next? Like, what do we do?” Sasha asked, “We know they’re alive, and probably on Pandora, but…”

“We review everything we know when you get back. We continue repair operations across Helios, and put more effort into improving our communication technology, pour resources into what’s left of the Vault research staff,” Yvette said, and then added at the tense look on Sasha’s face, “Listen, if they’re alive now, they’ll stay alive longer.”

Sasha sighed.

“Yeah, you’re right. Fiona can take care of herself.”

“And Rhys?” Yvette asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Fiona can take care of herself and some Hyperion goon.”

Yvette laughed.

“Alright, so head ba –“

“…Are you about to give me an order?” Sasha said, folding her arms and giving her a half-wry, half-stern look, “I’m not one of your requisitions lackeys.”

Yvette coughed.

“So, if you could head back pretty much now...if you’d like. Please -“

“Okay, overkill, Yvette,” Sasha said, laughing, “I’m messing with you.”

“Shut up. Is the safe house secure?”

“Ha. Oh yeah. Cleared out the rakks, and the bandits. Another group tried to take it back but, you know, me and Athena took them out,” Sasha said airily, as though she regularly went on killing sprees with Athena the goddamn Gladiator, “Well. Athena took them out. I helped. She…uh, wants a bonus for this by the way. Enough to cover the cost of an extra tier on her wedding cake. It’s…an expensive cake.”

“You’re Ms Ten Million Dollars,” Yvette said.

“And you and Vaughn are the ones employing her. I’m just temping until I get my sister back and the other five million dollars she’s got stashed in her bra,” Sasha said, “So…we’d head back right now…only….”

Sasha fiddled with her earring, looking at something off-camera.

“What?”

“Well, the bandits attacked in a junker…and uh. Our runner didn’t exactly survive the attack.”

“Please tell me you’re not about to ask for a ride.”

Sasha clasped her hands together and smiled at her. Oh goddamnit.

“Please? The Catch-A-Rides have gotten so expensive since Scooter died! Janey says Dahl have taken it out of her hands, it’s all complicated tax stuff, and it’s a total rip-off,” Sasha said. Yvette scowled.

“You have more than enough money to digitise a new runner. I am not coming to pick you up just so you don’t have to dip into your budget for novelty earrings and goggles!”

“Hey, c’mon…I know it’s different for you, little Ms Paycheque-Every-Month, but I need to be more careful with money. My lifestyle’s unpredictable. Arrogance from today’s fortune may well lead to tomorrow’s poverty,” she said, and then frowned, “Urgh, sorry. Guy I knew used to say that a lot.”

“Guy you knew?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said quickly, “Please? Come pick me up, Yvette? Please?”

“No. Hell no.”

“Please?”

“No.”

Sasha smiled at her, eyes wide.

God. Fucking. Damnit.

 

“How long do you think you’ll be out?” Vaughn asked as Yvette climbed into her runner. Well, technically Debra’s runner, but she’d swapped the keys for a bunch of photos of her, Vaughn and Rhys’s nights out; shots of the three of them clustered under a phone camera, holding beers in a crappily lit Hyperion bar...or in Yvette’s apartment celebrating some big deal with shitty champagne.

Yvette had a lot of them.

Debra had been ecstatic. Creepy.

“It’s a few hours there and back, Vaughn, I’ll be back before you know it,” she said.

“And Sasha won’t digitise a new vehicle…why?”

“Today’s fortune is tomorrow’s poverty or something,” Yvette grumbled. Vaughn scratched his beard.

“Is that from a fortune cookie?” he said, “I mean, I’ve never actually read the fortunes out of fortune cookies, they always kind of stressed me out, but it sounds like the kind of thing they’d say.”

“Uh, sorry, fortune cookies stress you out?”

“Well! What if it’s a bad omen or something,” Vaughn said, stretching his arms out, “I don’t know, I had a lot of anxiety disorders back on Helios, okay.”

Yvette snorted.

“Right. Vaughn, have I ever mentioned you are the only person I know who is more psychologically healthy on Pandora?” she said, leaning out of the runner window, “Someone should do a case study on you.”

“Heh. I think it’s the diet. Skag meat has surprisingly high nutritional value,” he said, resting his elbow on the runner’s roof, propping his cheek on the palm of his hand, “Uh, so, will you be…okay? I mean....you know.”

Vaughn’s eyes wandered down to where Yvette’s prosthetic was clumsily attached to the stub of her thigh, concealed by her trousers. Yvette fidgeted, smoothing the fabric of her trousers down.

“I’ll be fine. Checked again this morning though - robotics still haven’t finished,” she grumbled, “Just fobbed me off with some generic email.”

“Sheesh. It’s taking them so long. I figured they’d have it done by now,” Vaughn replied, sighing, “Want me to check in on them?”

“Nah, just leave it. The people in robotics are total divas – if you complain they’ll spend the next week in the complaints room, yapping into that camera about being under too much pressure.

“Ha! The complaints room, I forgot about that,” Vaughn said, “Do you think people still use it? Should I check the footage? Oh man, have people been complaining about me this whole time?”

“If you want more work, knock yourself out. Though the Children of Helios practically worship you. You know that,” Yvette said, and started the ignition, “I’ll be back soon, Vaughn. Keep an eye on the kids while I’m out.”

“Sure thing, Yvette. Tell Athena I’ll see what I can do about her bonus, but no promises!”

Yvette rolled her eyes.

So, Vaughn had learned to send bad news to dangerous people through third parties. He really had taken to leadership.

 

The thing about driving in Pandora was, you had to get used to running things over. Animals, people, whatever. Unless you wanted your car to be shot, or blown up, or have some radioactive giant ant breathing fire on it, you had to get used to the rumble of something made of flesh and bones crumping under your tyres.

Yvette had to admit, it still made her feel a little sick. Intentionally running over an animal back on Eden-6 got you four years in (a very humane and hygienic) rehabilitation unit, being fussed over by criminal psychologists and given exercise and diet regimes. She had a suspicion trying to explain this concept to Sasha would make her brain overheat.

She turned into the ex-bandit camp, sticking her hand out of the window and waving at the Children of Helios wandering about. Some were carrying around old computer monitors and piles of scrap metal and circuit boards, some with clipboards, tapping their pens against the paper and humming, some with nothing, but all of them doing their very best to look busy.

“Yvette!”

Sasha emerged from a squat, delepidated building, waving with her SMG still in her hand. She had at least cleaned the blood off her face and most of her clothes since calling Yvette. Yvette stumbled out of the driver’s seat, balancing uneasily on her crutch. She nodded to Sasha as she approached.

 “What’s the situation?”

“Ha, what? What’s the situation? What are you, a military general?” she said. Yvette felt her face go hot.

“Urgh, you know what I mean! What’s going on?” she snapped. Sasha sighed and gestured dismissively, still waving that gigantic Atlas gun around as though it were about as dangerous as a turkey sandwich.

“We secured the place, bandits tried to take it back, me and Athena dealt with them while these idiots cowered out of sight,” she said, glancing at the nearest Child of Helios, who scuttled away, holding their clipboard over their face. One of the Jims, Yvette thought. They were all kind of skittish.

“I am going to be so glad when Fiona comes home and I can go back to Vault Hunting,” Sasha said.

“Huh. Figured you liked it here. You get along well enough with Vaughn.”

“Yeah. Vaughn. Doesn’t mean I think the rest of the Children of Helios are worth my time. You know, new name or not, most of them are still the spoilt little Hyperion brats they always were,” she said, and then glanced up at her, “No offense.”

“Okay, you know, first of all – saying ‘no offense’, doesn’t negate the offense. Second of all, I actually agree with you,” Yvette said, folding her arms, “Most people who work at Hyperion were douchebags. Why do you think I only had, like, two friends up there?”

Sasha looked at her oddly, a weird, sad little half-smile on her face. Yvette raised a hand.

“Know what, don’t answer that,” she said, “Tech in good shape?”

“Oh, yeah, the bandit who owned this place – Six-Toes or something – clearly took good care of his tech. Some of it got damaged or blown up in the gunfight, but there’s still a lot we can use,” Sasha replied, “Don’t know if it’s useful, but at least we have another safehouse now.”

“Territory, not safehouse,” said a sharp voice, and Athena emerged from the building behind Sasha, climbing down the stairs. There was something that looked suspiciously like a human lung hanging across her shoulder, dribbling…substances down her chest. She flicked it away, like how actual normal people might swat away a fly. Yvette wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to this goddamn planet.

“What’s the difference?” Sasha asked.

“Safehouse is one building.”

“Whatever, Athena,” Sasha said, rolling her eyes, “But hey, look. Our ride is here.”

Athena glared at Yvette. Or, maybe just sort of looked at her, considering the default expression on Athena’s face.

“Bonus,” she said, hands on her hips. Not a question.

“Vaughn wanted to talk to you about it when you got back,” Yvette said, as sweetly as she could. Athena stared at her a moment longer and then stalked off without another word. She walked towards a bruiser’s corpse lying face down in the sand and yanked the rifle out of his hand, holding her foot on the forearm to keep the body still.

“She’s very charismatic,” Yvette noted, “Should really consider a career in public relations after leaving the Vault Hunting game behind.”

“She grows on you,” Sasha said, smiling, “Really likes Monopoly, actually. Good at it, too. Never lost a game when we were on the road.”

Yvette stared.

“You’re messing with me.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Yvette,” she said, and clapped her on the shoulder, “So. Let’s load up the runner, make sure these guys can set up the turret system, and get the hell out of here.”

 

Athena, having lost a game of rock-paper-scissors with Sasha (which Yvette couldn’t shake the feeling she’d somehow managed to cheat at), ended up in the back seat of the runner, half-buried under computer parts and guns and shields. Yvette would have felt sorry for her, but there was also the small issue that it was hilarious.

Within twenty minutes of the drive, however, Athena had folded her arms and managed to fall asleep sitting perfectly upright in the back seat.

“She’s not actually asleep,” Sasha explained, “I mean, sort of, yeah, but I’ve seen her leap up and stab a cockroach to death because it skittered too loudly over a rock in this state. Barely a second from catatonia to stabby-stabby-death-death mode.”

“You know, I would call bullshit on that, but…” Yvette said, glancing back at Athena cautiously over her shoulder, doing her best not to move too quickly.

“Ha, yeah,” Sasha said, feet on the dashboard, “You know, you should learn to stop calling bullshit on this planet. It’s not like the Edens, crazy stuff does happen here.”

“Crazy stuff happens back home too,” Yvette said.

“Really?”

“Really,” Yvette said, nodding firmly, although she wasn’t sure why she was defending Eden-6. She had spent her entirely adolescence complaining that it was too boring, with the billions of perfectly manicured lawns, universal free healthcare, sanitation, and the way it was safe to travel from city to city. Plus the lack of poverty. And the actual economic infrastructure and free education. The high employment and literacy rates. The temperate climate and lack of horrific nigh-constant drought.

God, she had been a fucking idiot.

“Oh, like what, you had just too many lasagnes and had to give them all away? Someone ends up putting beef in a trifle? Or maybe there was some wacky misunderstanding and you thought your boyfriend had was into shark porn?”

“What are you - Sasha, aren’t those all episodes of Friends? I mean, really?”

“We – we didn’t have access to a lot of TV as kids, okay, I don’t know!” she said, for once actually looking half-way embarrassed. She looked away, muttering, “I don’t know what people do on normal planets, okay”

“Well, everything else aside, I had, like, one boyfriend when I was fourteen for all of five minutes before I decided it wasn’t for me, so,” Yvette said, sucking on her lower lip, “You know, other planets aren’t all candy canes and picnics and bake sales. Pandora isn’t the worst place in the entire galaxy.”

“Sure, just the ones super rich Hyperion people are from, right?” Sasha mumbled.

There was only so much of this Yvette could take.

“Alright, fine. Where I grew up was…different to this, I appreciate that. I had things a lot easier than you,” she said, “But I’m here now, and there’s no sign I’m gettin’ off this planet any time soon. So how about you drop the hard-done-by thing, alright?”

“You don’t get it,” Sasha muttered, “Getting stuck down here is one thing, but growing up here? Most people here can’t read, Yvette. I mean, have you seen a school since you crash landed here? What about a hospital, a real hospital? What about just…you know, families, actual parents and their kids, not just kids fighting over scraps or pinching wallets or…”

Sasha trailed off, her fists tight in her lap, biting down hard on her lower lip.

Yvette didn’t respond, just checked the map on her ECHO comm to ensure they were going the right way. What could she say? This was clearly getting into something…way more personal than she was comfortable dealing with.

“I just – this place never felt like home to me.”

It was a strange admission, for how defensive Sasha could get over this shithole of a planet. Looking at her, looking strangely tired and small, Yvette couldn’t help but reach out a hand to pat her shoulder.

“There’s a lot of planets, Sasha. After we’re done, with the money you’ve got, you can go live on any planet you want. Call that home instead.”

Sasha looked at her.

“Well, okay. Not really,” Yvette admitted. Sasha snorted. Ten million dollars seemed like a lot of money to Pandoran grifters like Sasha, and to Hyperion mooks like Yvette, but it was pocket change to the big players in the galaxy. Handsome Jack had probably wiped his ass with more.

Ten million dollars sure as hell didn’t open the door to the universe. If anything, it opened the back window of Pandora, just enough to wiggle out, and not a centimetre more.

“But, you know, it’ll get you to the next system, maybe even a flat. You could get a pet duckling too, if you want. There are these genetically modified ones that never grow up now. Really popular.”

To Yvette’s surprise, Sasha began to laugh. For once, not derisively. It wasn’t a bad laugh, as laughs go, and Yvette found herself smiling like an enormous jackass back.

“Well, thanks for that vote of confidence. Me and Fiona will be sure to name the duck after you,” Sasha said, “By the way, you look like crap. How about I drive for a while?”

Yvette rubbed her eyes.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

 

“So, nice to have the team together again!” Vaughn said, clapping his hands. Sasha rolled her eyes at Yvette. Athena leaned back in her chair and folded her arms, and Loader Bot was as expressive as ever. Gortys, however, nodded and beamed around at everyone, just happy to be there.

“Hey, so, the Children of Helios are getting a little agitated that we haven’t, you know, got the treasure of the Vault yet, and people are starting to talk about Rhys not being around so..” Vaughn continued, “Their cult stuff is keeping them busy but…you know. Things are getting a little tense.”

“Is that why you had to pull Debra and Mark apart earlier?” Yvette asked, eyebrow raising. Vaughn sighed and rubbed the back of her head.

“Oh. They’re uh. Kind of in opposing factions now. These fights keep breaking out. It’s really stupid.”

“Factions?” Sasha prompted. Vaughn sighed.

“Yeah, I don’t know. There’s like, separate strands of Rhys’s cult now? I think we’re patron saints of them? I don’t know. Anyway, Debra’s in my faction and Mark’s in Fiona’s and they were yelling at each other about it.

Yvette goggled at him. Vaughn lifted his hands.

“I know. I know. Just let them work it out, okay? Don’t get involved.”

“No, I was gonna ask if I have one,” Yvette said.

“Ha. No, fortunately you don’t.”

“Aww, what? You know, I don’t want anything to do with this bullshit, but now I’m kind of offended,” she replied. Sasha sniggered and Athena closed her eyes, as though she was counting backwards from ten in her head.

“Do I have one?” Gortys said, raising her hand in the air.

“No. Loader has a few people in his though,” Vaughn said, nodding his head towards Loader Bot.

IT IS ONLY APPROPRIATE. I HAVE SAVED ALL OF YOUR LIVES MORE THAN I CARE TO MENTION, he said.

“Are we getting to the point or what?” Athena snapped, her backwards counting clearly failing her. Vaughn cleared his throat.

“Alright, here’s what we have. Yvette managed to call Rhys for a few minutes, and marked his position on our map. Unfortunately, that position is the middle of the ocean…so. Yay,” Vaughn said, gesturing at the holomap beside him, “Now I’ve checked, and there’s not a tiny, tiny island there or anything, so I don’t think it’s a case of Fiona and Rhys are doing some Robinson Crusoe thing somewhere. It also doesn’t map onto the location of any other Vaults we know about, either. I considered whether the Vault of the Traveller might, you know, be a portal to some other Vault but…”

Vaughn shrugged.

“Still, we know they’re alive, and we can contact them,” he continued brightly, “We should send a probe out to this ocean spot anyway, just in case, and put more efforts into our communication repairs, and general repairs across Helios. And -”

“I don’t wanna sound like a broken record here but…leg report?”

“Still in progress.”

Yvette sighed.

“They’ll finish it soon enough,” Sasha assured her, “Let’s just focus on the mission, okay?”

“I’m sure I could focus more with fully functioning limbs that don’t hurt like hell,” she muttered, rubbing her thigh. Fully articulated knees and a lack of throbbing pain would be a dream come true at this point. Yvette thought it wasn’t too much to ask.

Sasha punched her on the arm.

“Deal with it, office queen,” she said, not unkindly.

“Well, us members of the corporate aristocracy are accustomed to a certain lifestyle,” Yvette replied, pointedly unscrewing the cap on her pain medication and popping her next dose into her mouth. Oh sweet relief. Oh…worryingly close to developing a black-market painkiller addiction.

“Sorry, Yvette, they said it wouldn’t be long,” Vaughn said, “So, what can we do for now? I kind of need to keep the Children of Helios calm, so my schedule is kind of jam-packed. Athena, can you –“

Bonus,” Athena interrupted.

Vaughn winced.

“Ah, yeah. I’ve been running the numbers and, yeah, we can do you a bonus. Not enough for that extra tier.”

Athena tilted her head.

“Enough for Janey’s napkin rings?” she asked.

“Enough for her second option,” Vaughn replied entreatingly.

“…Alright.”

“Okay, Athena, the Loader Bot digitisers are still not working, so we kiiind of need someone who doesn’t suck at combat on call to repel attackers. Other bandit groups are starting to take us seriously as a threat so, there’s that.”

“If there’s bloodshed and a paycheque I’m in,” Athena said with a shrug, “Unless Janey changes her mind…she still might change her mind.

“That’s assuring. So, Gortys, Loader, I want you guys to continue calling both of them, even if you can get through a second it might help,” Vaughn continued. Gortys raised her hand again. Surprised, Vaughn nodded at her to speak.

“Um, I’m not sure that’s the best use of my talents –“

“Gortys, it’s an important job! You bots can call faster and more frequently than we can, right?”

“Um, okay, I get your point, but –“

Something outside exploded. Vaughn squawked and fell back against the wall, and Sasha leapt up, SMG in her hand.

The door to Yvette’s office slid open. Debra stood at the doorway, shaking, her lip still bloody from her scrap with Mark earlier. As always, she looked dangerously close to tears.

“Vaughn! Sir! We – we have a problem.”

Chapter Text

“Heretics!”

“Reclaim Helios!”

Strip their bones and eat their pampered flesh!

Crouched by the window, it wasn’t that Yvette couldn’t believe the scene down on the sands. No, no. Really, this was exactly the kind of ridiculous bullshit Pandora just loved to throw at her. She just couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it coming. Why hadn’t anyone attacked Helios sooner? Big glowing metal H, full of resources, manned only by scrawny pencil-pushers and a scant handful of semi-professional Vault Hunters. Might as well paint a big target on the side and erect a massive neon sign flashing the message ‘FREE LOOT HERE!at the entrance.

“At…least Debra and Mark had the sense to lock and bar all the exits,” Vaughn muttered, staring down, “What the hell is going on down there?”

“Vaughn…um…the Children of Helios aren’t all the Hyperion refugees are they?” Sasha said, peering down through her binoculars. Behind her, Vaughn bit down hard on his lip.

“I…well, there were a few that weren’t interested in joining us…”

“Buut…they were interested in raiding the gift shop?” she said, and passed the binoculars to Vaughn. After a second, he passed them to Yvette, chewing his lip. She peered down below.

At the foot of Helios, between the gate and the dead Traveller, men in Handsome Jack masks drove in loops in the sand, firing sprays of bullets at the walls.

Of course.

Athena leapt among them, throwing her shield and shooting down any stupid enough to get out of their vehicles and attack her on foot. Impressive, but even Athena couldn’t take down a bunch of goddamn tanks on foot by herself.

Even the Gladiator usually worked in a team.

 

“If they were on foot this would be over already,” Vaughn sighed, as Athena dodged a rocket and ran her blade through a Jack fanboy’s gut.

One of the men, some big guy Yvette thought whose suit she vaguely recognised from the propaganda department (all the weirdo fanboys worked in the propaganda department), seemed to be leading the attacks from the top of the bigger junker, ineptly painted Hyperion yellow. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember his name.

The booms rattled and shook the whole H, and with every explosion Yvette was sure at least one more Child of Helios lost their heads.

I REPEAT, DO NOT PANIC. THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL, Loader Bot repeated into the intercom, DO NOT PANIC. EVACUATE TO THE HIGHER FLOORS AND DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ENGAGE.

“You know. I always think as soon as people are saying ‘do not panic’, it’s time to panic,” Sasha said drily.

“You don’t sound like you’re panicking,” Yvette replied.

I’ve got a gun,” she said, hoisting her Atlus SMG in the air with a grin, “That puts a lot of danger into perspective, really.”

“Alright, if we could stay on track here, guys, please?” Vaughn said, “We have a bunch of crazy Jack fans attacking us and –“

There was the screech of a rocket, and a boom as it rattled Helios. Vaughn fell over. The fanboys whooped and screamed.

“Okay, we can’t just stay up here waiting until they break through! Everyone here will die in, like, ten minutes!” Sasha said, “Let’s get down there!”

“Hey, uh, what if I –“ Gortys began.

“Gortys, I know what you’re about to say, but we probably shouldn’t use your other form. For one, you’re big enough you might just end up crushing someone who doesn’t need crushing, plus…well, then it kind of reveals we have a giant robot on our side. And…and…well, you know,” Vaughn said, chewing on his lower lip.

“Um, no? What do I know?” Gortys said blankly. Vauhgn shook his head.

“Look, Gortys, how about you make sure all the Children of Helios are safe, okay! We need the sniper teams up to their positions, and we need everyone without combat experience to get to their hiding spots. Think you can handle that?” Vaughn said, crouching down to speak to her. Gortys frowned, and lifted her hand as if to speak.

“You’ll make everyone feel better while they’re hiding, Gortys! You’re like our little mascot!” Sasha continued. While it wasn’t physically possible for Gortys’s frown to deepen, Yvette still got the sense that wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear either. Sasha looked at Yvette, then Vaughn, then back to Gortys. She gave the little robot a gentle thump with her knuckles on the side of her head, “So, get out there and do what you do best, cutie!”

“Uuuh…well okay, if you think that’s how I can best help!” Gortys said, with a perhaps too heavy dosing of pep “I’ll round up the snipers and get everyone else to hide in their lockers!”

Gortys rolled off, although with less enthusiasm than Yvette had become accustomed to. She vanished into the chaos, shouting encouragement at the Children of Helios running and screaming in every direction. Vaughn breathed a sigh of relief.

“Yikes, okay. Thanks Sasha, good work dealing with that. I really don’t want to deal with Gortys killing someone,” he said.

“Yeah,” Sasha agreed, “So let’s –“

“Hold up, you never told me the Children of Helios has a sniper unit,” Yvette said. Sasha and Vaughn exchanged grins. Sasha picked up a small black device from a nearby desk and pointed it at Yvette. A red dot appeared on her chest.

“…Seriously?”

“It’s an effective deterrence!” Vaughn said.

Something else exploded outside, followed by more masculine hooting, all like they were just reading out the nastier words in an internet argument.

“Does that sound like an issue of deterrence to you!”

“Listen, Yvette, what we need to do is get these guys to leave and to do that…” Vaughn said, and nodded down at the battle outside, “We need to corner their leader.”

“Alright! So what’s the plan?” Sasha said.

“So…Yvette can drive, and you’re good at shooting things,” Vaughn said, “And Athena looks like she could do with some back-up.”

“What about you?”

“Well, I can actually use a sniper,” he said, finding his mask and placing it on, “And lets face it, these guys all kind of suck without me.”

 

“This is crazy,” Yvette announced, for what felt like the twentieth time.

“Yep!” Sasha said, as though she’d never had a better time in her entire life.

“That’s an RPG.”

“Yeeesss,” she purred, rubbing her hands up and down the length of quite frankly ridiculous gun, “I thought it was bust too, after me and Fiona had to use it on Gortys. The tech nerds here they…they really know their stuff.”

Yvette shook her head. She had thought she’d seens some ridiculous weaponry in her time at Hyperion – all their main lines were designed by Handsome Jack, after all, and she had always been privately certain he was compensating for something.

But this rocket launcher was just. Who the hell used that thing? Yvette never wanted to meet them.

“Listen, I have been having dreams about this gun, Yvette, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to use it. I have to do this.”

“You can’t even lift it!” Yvette said, gesturing desperately, “Look at it! A dinosaur would have problems wielding this thing. And you are, like, barely five foot – “

Sasha took the gun from the rack and hoisted it onto her shoulder. She climbed into the back of the runner, pulling her goggles over her eyes. She looked at whatever dumbass expression Yvette had on her face and smiled.

Fiona couldn’t lift it,” Sasha explained, shrugging, “…I always worked out more.”

At what point did Pandora get to you enough you stopped giving a shit about things such as common sense, morality, or the laws of goddamn physics, Yvette wondered.

Sasha leaned out of the runner and tapped the bottom of Yvette’s jaw, forcing her to close her mouth.

“Get in the damn car, Yvette. Let’s go kill some of your old co-workers.”

 

Yvette had done her damn best to avoid a road fight on Pandora so far. In a planet full of stupid things, getting into fights when both sides had rocket launchers, and incredibly poorly made, flammable vehicles was one of the stupidest.

She hadn’t been wrong.

“Turn, turn!” Sasha bellowed from above. She fired another rocket at the lemon-yellow junker fast approaching them. The driver’s face was concealed behind his Jack mask, but he leaned  forward and gripped wheel tight with both hands, knuckles turning white. This was a guy who fully intend to just ram them if necessary. If it blew him to hell, well. So be it.

Yvette wrenched on the wheel, ramming her foot down and skidding out of the route of the vehicle. Handsome Jack’s face, poorly painted on the junker, flashed past as they zipped past each other.

The runner wheeled around and screeched back. The fanboy on the back readied his grenade launcher.

Athena’s shield slammed into the junker. It tumbled twice through the sand with a sick crunch of metal and bone, landing wheels-up. Sasha fired a shot at it, and it exploded, sending bits of metal and bits of fanboy in all directions.

“Woohoo! One down!” Sasha called.

A rain of machine gun fire hit the side of their runner, and Sasha ducked back inside. Another two vehicles rushed towards them. Yvette slammed her foot on the gas, just managing to swerve out of the way as another rocket whistled back, exploding against the Traveller.

“Just another billion to go!” Yvette called back, driving out of their range. Her hands were so slick with sweat she could barely hold the steering wheel. Sasha punched her in the back of the shoulder.

“C’mon, there aren’t that many!” she said, her face gleaming with sweat. Her pupils were dilated and her breath was quick.

A fanboy junker rammed into their back. Sasha stumbled forward, just managing to hold herself up-right with the back of Yvette’s chair. Yvette turned, just catching a glance of Athena on the hood of another Junker, smashing her fist through the windshield.

“It’s not that there’s too many of them, it’s that there aren’t many of us!” Yvette called, “Where the hell are Vaughn and Loader Bot?”

“Well, being outnumbered keeps it interesting! Tap into your inner Pandoran, Yvette,” Sasha said. She climbed back onto the roof, dragging her ridiculously oversized RPG after her. Yvette shook her head and focuses back on the battle, trying to keep a distance between themselves and the other vehicles.

Inner Pandoran. Right. She wasn’t sure she had one.

The fanboy on the bike zoomed by and scraped his knife across the side of the runner with a metallic shriek that put Yvette’s teeth on edge. The guy cackled behind the mask, screeching something about destroying the unworthy, as he turned around and came back again. He zipped just close by, knife again scraping a white line through the body of the runner. Yvette hissed through her teeth and turned, trying to crush him.

Another runner slammed into their side while Yvette was distracted. She rattled in her seat, only just held in place by her seatbelt (something Sasha had relentlessly mocked her for. Hmph).

Sasha fired another barrage at the runner as Yvette pulled away.

“Get far enough I can fire a rocket!” Sasha ordered. Yvette obeyed. Yet even as Sasha fired at the runner, she felt her gaze going back to the main scuffle – a shitload of junkers, a scrawny biker with a knife, and Athena at the centre of it all.

The bike-rider deflect Athena’s shield from a runner and rush her. She rolled out of the way, the knife slicing just inches away from her throat. A fanboy junker surged towards her and Athena only just leapt away in time. The biker came back, looping around the runners and Athena, blocking shield tosses and swiping at her with his knife.

What –

Oh.

“Sasha, get rid of that bike!”

“The guy with the knife?” Sasha called back.

“They’re using him to distract us and Athena, and protect the bigger junkers, take him out! Also, I hate him,” Yvette replied. Sasha dropped down. She just barely found something to hold onto as Yvette swerved to avoid a grenade. Yvette’s whole body felt like it was vibrating.

“Alright, fine! Get us close! I might need to use something else…this thing isn’t very good for small, fast targets.”

“It’s a rocket launcher! What is it not good for?” Yvette said.

“Small, fast targets. As I said,” Sasha said, in the universal tone employed by every expert who felt they were surrounded by plebeians. She grabbed her SMG from her seat, loading it with a click.

“The SMG? That’s the better weapon here?”

“Hey, I don’t tell you how to do your job.”

“Sasha. That is exactly what you do. All the time,” Yvette said. Sasha grinned at her, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Well, you’re just going to have to trust me. Get close to him again.”

Yvette huffed out a breath and focused back on the battle, wheeling out of the way of runners and gunfire and grenades. Every two seconds she was changing her mind. She was going to be sick, she hated this, this was amazing, she felt so alive, oh god she was going to die, this was a nightmare, fuck fuck fuck she felt great, holy shit why had she been living any other way, oh god she just ran over a corpse she was going to throw up no yes oh shit -

It was dizzying. The only option was, really, to not think about it. And not think about the implications of making the decision to not think about it.

Yvette rammed down a fanboy sneaking up behind Athena, taking him under the wheels with judders, squelches, and crunches Yvette did her best not to assign mental pictures to. From up top, Sasha whistled her approval.

The damn bike-rider was still going though, weaving between Athena and the runners, zooming between Athena and the fanboy leader the second she tried to focus her attacks on him.

She veered towards him, slamming her hand on the horn to warn Athena, and pressed down on the gas. With barely a snarl in their direction, Athena jumped out of the way and rained rifle bullets on another runner, until smoke began to stream from the engines. The fanboys abandoned the runner, but it blew, taking most of them with it.

Yvette tore her eyes away as the bike-rider scraped the side of the runner again.

“Alright, that’s enough of you,” Yvette hissed through her teeth, following him. The rider veered away, gave her the finger, and tried to put more distance between them.

“That close enough?” she called.

Sasha fired, kicking up clouds of sand with a hail of bullets, but the rider remains unscathed, still laughing. Sasha swore.

“Guess not.”

“Fiona’s a better shot than me, ok!” Sasha bellowed back.

“I thought you were our weapons expert!” Yvette asked.

“I read a lot of girl’s magazines when I was a teenager, okay. I know the theory!”

“…Girl’s magazines on this planet are about guns?”

“Duh, what else! Get closer, okay, I can get it this time!”

Another fanboy junker blew up, presumably Athena’s handiwork. Something wet and fleshy hit the roof of the runner. Yvette shuddered and heard Sasha squawk ‘ew gross!’.

The rider turned and rushed towards them.

“What is he doing?” Yvette asked.

“Who cares, keep going! Maybe we can just run him over!”

Yvette bit her lip but kept her foot down. Although there was something about the way he was approaching…it wasn’t the frantic kamikaze rush of a Psycho. He was bent forward, gaze hard on them. One hand held onto the handlebar of his bike. The other dug in his pocket. The fanboy lifted took something from his pocket and lifted his hand high. Something metallic gleamed in his hand.

Shit.

She tried to pull away but it was too late, the rider slammed it down on the hood of their runner and drove off, going back to defending his leader. Another junker, a big one throwing what looked like chainsaw blades at them, took to pursuing them.

“Yvette, what was that?”

“Land mine on the hood, land mine!” Yvette yelled, staring at the little metal dish blinking on the hood in horror. So, stay in the runner, they die, get out of the runner, they die. Great.

“Got it!”

“What do you mean you go –“

Sasha leapt onto the hood with a hard thump, arms splaying.

“Sasha!”

There was the rattle of gunfire, and Sasha rolled out of the way, barely an inch from the nearest bullet hole, ashy black and embedded deep in the metal. Sasha gave her a thumbs up.

“You are crazy! This is crazy!” Yvette repeated, smacking her hands on the wheel for emphasis, “Get back inside!”

“Just keep driving, I can grab it!” she yelled over the roar of engines and gunfire. Yvette shook her head and kept going, speeding past the runners. She turned to drive around the Traveller’s body, keeping tight to its side for cover.

Sasha crawled forward, slow and hanging tight onto the hood. In the mirror, Yvette could see the biker approaching, knife in hand. Not just aiming to annoy them this time.

The landmine was beeping faster and more insistently. Yvette could throw up all over the dashboard, but held it back. Just don’t think about being blown to smithereens because this idiot girl thought she could disarm a fucking landmine on the hood of a goddamn car jesus how did her life –

Sasha seized the landmine and wrenched it from the hood of the car, tossing it away.

It landed behind them, jutting out of the sand. The light on the side blinked rapidly, red and white. The rider approached, and it exploded in a roar of fire, sending the biker sky high and shredding him into pieces.

Sasha stuck her hand back in the side window, her other hand keeping a tenuous grip on the hood of the runner.

“Yvette? Could use a hand here.”

Yvette tried to shake off the mingled incredulity and awe, and seized Sasha’s forearms and helped her scramble in.

“That was unreal,” Yvette said, “Christ! You just…oh my God. Okay. That was awesome.”

“Ha, wow, yeah. Glad it worked!” Sasha said, sitting back in the passenger seat and breathing out a huge puff of air.

“You didn’t know?” Yvette said. Sasha pulled her goggles off her eyes and pushed them into her hair, shrugging.

“Well, I needed to act fast. How the hell would I have known that would work?” she said, and leaned her elbow on the window, “How many left?”

There was another boom as they came back around the other side of the fallen guardian.

“Hopefully that was one less.”

Yvette saw Athena for less than a second before she was away, chasing down one of the only two junkers left. The fanboys’ leader was still atop the junkers, firing wildly and bellowing out orders from behind his mask. The two junkers whirled figure-eights around Athena, firing and screaming obscenities at her, but not a damn shot made contact.

They seemed distracted enough.

Yvette slowed to a stop, drumming her fingers on the wheel as she watched Athena leap back and forth, throwing her shield and firing shots into the hull of the junkers. The woman was practically a goddamn anime character, Yvette thought, staring at her as she deflected another rocket with her shield, as though it wasn’t a damn thing.

“Uuh, she’s engaged, you know,” Sasha said, frowning and nodding towards Athena.

“Urgh, no, that’s not – why are they not running? We –“ (Athena) - are beating them. And this is random, stupid! They should retreat.”

“They’re idiots,” Sasha said dismissively, waving her hand. Yvette shook her head.

“Look, yes, Handsome Jack fans are testosterone-hopped-up idiots, but also, no. They’re idiots, but from what we’ve seen…they’re half-way tactical idiots,” she said, biting her thumbnail. She pressed a finger against her earpiece, putting a line in to Athena.

“What!?” she answered.

Such a people person.

“Athena –“

“Where the hell is Vaughn?”

“Look, I don’t know, I just thought. Don’t kill the leader. Grab him. There’s something going on here,” she said.

“Really. You don’t say. Well thank you, it’s a good job I haven’t been doing this job for decades or anything, or that would have been entirely redundant information.”

Athena hung up.

Yvette glanced across to see Sasha with her hand over her mouth, barely hiding a smirk.

“Not…a word,” she said, jabbing a finger at Sasha.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Sasha replied, and then clambered back to grab her RPG, shouldering it, “C’mon. Let’s help.”

Putting her foot down and listening to Sasha’s whoops of delight, and the whistle and boom of the other junker being hit by a rocket, Yvette felt a laugh burble out of her mouth.

They rammed into the other junker and it tumbled over with a crunch of metal. Athena dropped onto the vehicle, heedless of the angry screams and bellows from within, and plunged her blade into the metal, ripping it open. She dragged out the writhing man, and knocked the pistol from his hand with a single swat, like warding a toddler away from a kitchen knife.

Yvette and Sasha clambered out of the runner and walked over to join her.

“Who are you!” Athena demanded, shaking the man. Yvette wondered if anybody had ever taught Athena how to ask questions. Did she even know what a question mark was? Or was her punctuation strictly limited to exclamation points and simmering ellipses.

The man shook his head.

“Get the fuck off me you little bi-“

Athena kneed him in the crotch and he groaned, slumping in her arms. The man sobbed behind his mask.

“Maybe taking off the mask is step one?” Sasha suggested, “You know, make a whole Scooby Doo reveal out of it?”

“Hm Hold on,” Yvette replied, tapping her earpiece again for Vaughn’s frequency, “Vaughn? We’ve got the leader here. About to take off the mask – thought our Shaggy might want to be here for that.”

“Uuuh, sorry guys,” came a strained voice, “Uuh…me and Loader have been a little tied up here. Um. Why not bring him inside?”

“Uh…are you okay?”

Mmph. Just fine. Explain when you’re here. Just come inside.”

“Alright, see you in a minute.”

Also – Shaggy, really?”

“Hey, you used to be Velma.”

 

“Hey,” Vaughn greeted them, clutching a patch from a Health Kit against his side. Three Hyperion nurses (with perhaps enough college credits to put together one full medical professional between them) were fussing and bandaging him up, one injecting health vials into his arm. Beside him, Loader Bot stood with Gortys in his arms, his eye cracked and a bullet hole in his chest. For once, he said nothing in greeting. Nor did Gortys. She just sat, her arms hanging limp.

On the floor was Dr Sandford, bound and unconscious with a huge bruise on the side of his head.

“Alright, what the hell?” Yvette asked.

“I don’t know why you sound so surprised. This is the kind of scene we end up in a lot,” Sasha said, looking back and forth. She nudged Dr Sandford with her foot, “Lemme guess. Traitor?”

“Yep,” Vaughn said. Sasha turned and pointed at the man in the Jack mask, held in place by Athena and her blade.

“Been feeding these guys info,” she continued.

“Yep,” he replied.

“Because he’s still some creepy Jack fanboy.”

“You got it,” Vaughn said.

“Urgh,” Yvette groaned, wrinkling her nose at the man on the floor, “Should have figured. The creep was way too pleased about removing my leg to not be some creepy Jack…Jacker…Jackalope…”

“Let’s not give them a catchy nickname, please?” Sasha said, “I don’t even want to dignify this bullshit.”

“Yeah, if their plan was to reclaim Helios with a few bandit rigs and half-combat-trained idiots in novelty masks, it was a pretty dumbass one,” Yvette said, fishing her pain medication out of the folds of her jacket and passing the bottle to Vaughn. He took it with a grateful smile and popped a few pills into his mouth.

“That wasn’t their plan. At least, not this time, it’s probably their plan long-term. For now, it looks like that was a distraction,” he said.

“Soooo, what were they after?” Sasha asked.

Vaughn nodded towards Loader Bot. Gortys lowered her face.

Gortys? They wanted Gortys?” Yvette asked, gaping.

“She’s a guardian-fighting, Vault-hunting, one-of-a-kind Atlus robot,” Sasha said, and then folded her hands with a sigh, hanging her head, “I should have seen this coming.”

Athena cleared her throat and pointed to the unconscious man on the floor.

“So, we have an informant already?” she said.

“Oh, uh, well, it sounds like Dr Sandford already knows –“

Athena slit her hostage’s throat in red spray and dropped him to the ground. Vaughn cried out, jumping, his bandages coming loose with indignant cries from the nurses. Yvette leapt back to avoid an arm flopping against her leg. Gortys whimpered, and Loader Bot’s grip tightened around her.

Athena looked at them all bemused, like a cat that had just brought back a particularly nasty carcass and wasn’t sure why her family wasn’t jumping for joy at it.

Vaughn closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Athena, remember how we…remember how we talked about how the Children of Helios try to resolve issues non-violently wherever possible?”

Well, they had just killed about twenty people with rocket launchers. But sure, Vaughn. Whatever.

Athena shrugged.

“You people are idiots. You’d have kept two men who already colluded with one another imprisoned here, even though neither are likely to know any more or less than the other,” she said, “And then it would have caused further difficulty for me when I had to ward off another attack alone.”

“Hey, we helped!” Sasha protested. Athena turned on her, gaze glacial.

“You chased a man on a motorbike with a switchblade for half an hour.”

“He was a tactical –“

“He was a distraction,” Athena said, lifting a hand to silence them, “One you both fell for and wasted time and resources on. That was exactly what they wanted - to keep you from focusing on the main combat targets. I was fighting through him, which is exactly what you should have done.”

Sasha fell silent. Yvette clenched her fists at her side.

“I’m just trying to teach you,” Athena continued with a shrug, “I’m not working here forever. I’m meant to be retired. I think you’re all forgetting that as soon as Fiona comes back, my contract with you all is done. You need to be able to survive without me.”

“I didn’t ask for a teacher,” Sasha snapped. Athena looked at her, and then at Yvette, as though trying to prompt Yvette to say something.

Yvette glared back, folding her arms across her chest.

Athena threw up her hands.

“Fine. Well, if that’s all, I’m going for a shower, and then I’m going to call Janey and go to bed. Mission complete for the day,” Athena said, and walked off. Vaughn released a breath. Sasha scowled and kicked at a clipboard discarded on the floor.

“Athena’s not so bad,” Vaughn said to Yvette, quickly, “Just…you know. No-nonsense.”

“No, Vaughn. I’m no-nonsense,” she said, pointing at herself, “That girl just slit a guy’s throat in cold blood, and dumped the body at our feet.”

“That’s how it works down here, Yvette,” he replied, sighing.

“Whatever! Forget her!” Sasha interrupted, “Is Gortys okay? Who else was involved?”

“A few people…they had all been super into Jack back on Helios but I thought they’d kind of gotten over it.”

“What happened to them?”

“Well, er. They kind of tried to take Gortys when LB was there and…” he said, gesturing over at the robots. Yvette waited for Loader Bot to say something zany or weirdly existential, but he just tightened his grip on Gortys. Sasha nodded, chewing the inside of her cheek.

“Right, so, they’re like. Super dead,” she said, “Gotcha.”

“Alright, plan of action. We start screening the remaining Children of Helios,” Yvette began, “Bring them in for questioning, see if any of the others have friends we should know about. Gortys and Loader Bot do not get separated. We tighten up security, put blocks on ECHO net communications and monitor them if necessary, and –“

“Yvette!” Vaughn said, stumbling uneasily to his feet. He glanced at Gortys, who was staring at her with a frown, and laid his hands on Yvette’s shoulder. “It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine, this is a security breach, Vaughn –“

“For tonight, it’s fine,” he said, with a meaningful glance back at Loader Bot and Gortys, “If anything, we should be celebrating! We just defended our home, right guys?”

He turned back to the robots. Loader Bot said nothing. Gortys looked up at him nervously.

“C’mon, Gortys, you’re happy about us fighting off the baddies, right?”

“Um…right,” she said, slowly, “So, uh, what, are we gonna have a party?”

“That’s right!” Vaughn said, far too loudly and brightly, “We are going to have a party.”

Yvette gave Sasha a cringing, ‘seriously?’ look, but Sasha was looking at Gortys, a pensive expression on her face. She looked back across at Yvette and smiled.

“Hey, you know. It might not be a bad idea.”

“Are you kidding?” she hissed, quiet enough that Vaughn wouldn’t hear, and grabbed Sasha’s arm.

“Hey, he’s right, we did just defend our home,” she said, tilting her head, “Did you not see how me, you and Athena just took down like, thirty Handsome Jacks out there? C’mon, a Pandoran con-artist, an ex-Atlus assassin and an ex-Hyperion requisitions middle manager taking down like, fifty Jacks? Don’t you think that’s a little awesome?”

“…Well.”

“Well?”

“…Yeah, okay. That was pretty satisfying. I guess we could…celebrate a little,” she said, and then looked down at the body at their feet, “Let’s…let’s clean the corpses up first though.”

“Agreed.”

 

Yvette had never been in Vasquez’s apartment before, not least because he was an awful asshole with terrible hair-plugs and she hated him. But also, Vasquez had very purposefully never invited her or Rhys or Vaughn to any his “little soirees” as he put them. Even after Yvette cut a deal with him, she tried to keep her face-to-face interactions with the guy to a minimum. Standing near him too long significantly increased your chances of suffocating to death on awful cologne, and Yvette didn’t need that in her life.

Yvette had also always been uneasy about what his soirees actually entailed. There was always something creepy about the sneering, insinuating way he talked about them. And Vasquez wouldn’t have been the first asshole at Hyperion to try to host an orgy.

Though she supposed that if anyone would have fancy booze in their fridge they could steal, it would be Ass-quez. So Vasquez’s apartment it was.

Although…the interior decor was a little...

“Holy crap,” Sasha blurted out, “I am so glad I claimed the one down the hall. This place is…”

“Yeah. Yikes,” Vaughn agreed.

“I’ve never seen so much leopard print,” Yvette muttered, “Or satin.”

Yvette had always just kept the bare minimum of what she needed, kept it functional and clean, and that was enough. After moving into her apartment, with all its Hyperion yellow trimmings, the most she’d done was remove the Handsome Jack poster from the wall and flush it down the toilet.

Vasquez, apparently, had a more active approach to interior décor in his lifetime. Every square inch of the apartment was covered in stuff of some kind. It didn’t seem to matter what it was – as long as it was gaudy and expensive, Vasquez had it. The coffee table seemed to be perched on the back of a taxidermy jaguar, laden with ostentatiously fancy-looking boxes of cigars, and an ashtray that looked suspiciously as though it was made of bone. A leopard skin rug, the head of a large antlered animal on the wall (the antlers ironically decorated with a few thousand dollars worth of golden watches), a Hyperion rifle on the wall, a frigging gold bust of his own damn face…Christ.

But hey, a bottle of expensive-looking champagne in the fridge, cracked, flat, but somehow intact after the fall of Helios. That was the important thing.

No useable glasses, though. Just a pair of mugs (‘#1 Boss’ on one, and a picture of Jack wielding a gun with the nonsensical caption ‘Don’t make me Jack you off!’ on the other). One of them would have to drink from the bottle.

“Ha, Yvette, look at this!” Vaughn called, waving her over. She came over, bottle of champagne under her arm, drizzling champagne through the crack onto the shag carpeting, and mugs in her hands.

“Oh you have to be kidding me,” Yvette said as she saw what Vaughn was laughing at. Looming over the dining room table was a life-size oil portrait of Vasquez himself, striking a very familiar pose Yvette recognised from the Hub of Heroism, on a cliff-top, his hair voluminous and fluttering in the wind. Jack smiled down at him from the sky, like Mufasa in the fucking Lion King.

Yvette couldn’t cope with this. Of all the things to remain entirely intact in the fall of Helios. Why that.

“I didn’t realise it was possible to feel this much second-hand embarrassment for a dead guy.”

“How much do you think this monstrosity cost?” Vaughn said, shaking his head, “He must have embezzled for this thing. Vasquez talked a big game, but his salary wasn’t that higher than ours.”

“Um…what am I looking at?” Gortys asked as Loader entered the room

“Hubris, Gortys. Hubris,” Yvette said, tapping the canvas. The paint felt as thick as her finger.

“Guys! Come here!” called Sasha from the bedroom, sticking her head out of the door, “He’s actually got one of those bed…you know, those round beds? The kind you see in pornos?”

Yvette somehow wasn’t surprised. She also wasn’t surprised by the sheer amount of mirrors in his bedroom, the porno magazines peeking out from under the bed, or the pile of crappy colognes and condoms (conspicuously labelled XXX-L[ower-average]) on his night stand.

Sasha sat cross-legged on the bed, fiddling with something on the wall. There was a mechanical vrrrr as the bed started to spin. Sasha laughed, and Vaughn could only shake his head in astonishment.

“Don’t humans sleep on those?” Gortys asked, “Doesn’t spinning kind of…not help with that?”

“Vasquez liked to play…uh…games on his too,” Vaughn said quickly, accepting a mug of champagne and taking a sip.

“Oh,” Gortys said, “Like sex?”

Vaughn snorted champagne out of his nose.

“Haha, probably not. It was probably just for show,” Sasha said, going round and round. She held out her arms. “Want to sit on it, Gortys? It’s pretty fun.”

“Uh…well. Okay. Um. LB, could you put me down, please?”

Loader Bot nodded and placed Gortys on Sasha’s lap. Yvette and Vaughn sat down after Sasha and Gortys finally got tired of zooming around on the bed.

Yvette passed the other mug of champagne to Sasha and held the bottle up in her other hand.

“Well, cheers to us, I guess.”

“To another day of not being dead,” Sasha said.

“To the Children of Helios! The…ones who didn’t betray us and try to screw Gortys over anyway,” Vaughn added.

“To Gortys!” Sasha continued, eliciting a small smile from the robot.

“To Loader Bot,” Gortys added quietly.

“To Yvette’s lost leg,“ Vaughn said sombrely, with a slow nod, “May it rest in peace.”

“To Vaughn finally hitting puberty!” Sasha said, prodding Vaughn’s beard.

“To –“

“Can we just drink already?” Yvette said, but laughed despite herself.

 

For all of Vasquez’s flaws (of which there were many. Many, many, many.), the guy had damn good taste in booze.

“To Ass-quez!” Vaughn said, sipping from a mug of very good whiskey.

“Ass-quez!” Yvette and Sasha agreed, Sasha taking a glug of her mug before passing the rest to Yvette. Sasha coughed and banged her chest with her fist.

“Oh gross. People pay money for this stuff? It tastes like Satan is peeing in my throat.”

“You’re meant to sip it,” Yvette explained, smirking, “Not chug it like you’re trying to assert your bro-ness in your new frat house.”

“Gee, sorr-ee,” she continued, “We didn’t do…fancy…alcohol class in school here, Eden nerds.”

“You have school here?” Vaughn asked.

“Uh…sometimes? I mean, mostly schoolhouses would end up torn down or vandalised or nobody would go to them or the teachers would die or Hyperion would drill through it, so Felix just taught us himself mostly,” Sasha said, “You know, maths, reading and writing, music, pick-pocketing, forgery. All the essential skills.”

“He must have been a smart guy,” Yvette said.

“Oh, yeah. Smart guy. Jackass, but a smart guy. Mysterious too, never told me or Fiona anything. Still don’t even know where we really came from. You’d think that would be important information for him to impart before he disappeared,” Sasha replied with a bitter laugh, taking a slow sip of whiskey. She still winced and wrinkled her nose, but it seemed to go down better the second time. The third sip was even accompanied by minimal adorable eyebrow scrunching.

“So you might not even be Pandoran?” Yvette said, “I mean, you said it never felt like home.”

“Yeah, I mean, I guess not? But you know, even if I wasn’t born here, how would I be able to feel that?” she said, laughing to herself, “I think the not-like-home thing was just wishful thinking, really?”

“You could always look it up. Track down your real parents,” Yvette said, shrugging, “Or just ditch this place and travel round, see if anywhere feels more like home.”

“Huh. Well…you know. Can’t imagine doing any of that without Fi. But still. Huh,” Sasha said, leaning her shoulder against Yvette’s and looking thoughtfully at her drink. They fell silent, Yvette picking at a loose thread on the duvet.

“Um. Don’t parties normally have more people than this?” Gortys asked after a moment of silence, tapping her pencil against her notepad, “Not that I’m complaining! Watching humans slowly poison themselves and act all goofy is pretty entertaining!”

AGREED. YOUR WEAK BODIES AND FEEBLE MINDS ARE ENDLESS SOURCES OF ENTERTAINMENT.

“Way to be creepy guys,” Sasha muttered, “And hey, I dunno. This is about the size of parties I’m used to. It just used to be me and Fiona and maybe a couple people we knew in the town we were staying at. Not friends, you know, we didn’t really have friends, but…you know. People. Normally we robbed them before the end of the night.”

Yvette couldn’t help but think Sasha didn’t exactly sound…proud of that.

“Yeah, back at Hyperion, it was just me, Rhys and Yvette more often than not,” Vaughn admitted, “Rhys got into more parties than me in college but…y’know.”

“He probably spent most of them in the corner trying to look cool,” Yvette said, shrugging, “Don’t worry about it, Vaughn. College parties are over-rated.”

“Oh, like you know,” he snorted.

“…Vaughn, anyone ever told you you can be real catty when you're drunk?”

Sasha laughed.

“Ha. You’re in no position to call anyone that, Ms Hyperion,” she said, nudging her and grinning.

“Told you. I never entered,” Yvette repeated, rolling her eyes. Sasha laughed and took another sip of whiskey and then passed the empty mug back to Yvette.

“Okay, I’m gonna raid the kitchen again for more. Think I saw some vodka somewhere. Anyone want anything?” she said. Vaughn shook his head.

“I’d like some coloured pencils if you can find any!” Gortys said instantly, lifting up the drawing she’d been working on, “See, it’s you and Yvette fighting those mask guys! It’s…a little hard to tell what’s happening when I don’t have any pretty colours to work with though.”

“It’s great, Gortys,” Sasha said, smiling, and then leaned over, putting a hand on Yvette’s shoulder, making her jump and slop whiskey over her hand, “You want anything, Yvette?”

“No! I mean, I’m okay,” she said, wiping her hand dry with one of the dozen satin throws around the bedroom. Sasha smiled at her and shrugged, heading out to the kitchen.

Yvette watched her go and then turned back to see Vaughn smirking at her.

“What!” she snapped. She hadn’t intended it as a snap. It was supposed to be an indifferent, if somewhat bemused, ‘what’. Like she didn’t know what he was looking at her like that for and didn’t care.

“You two seem to be getting on well,” he said mildly.

“Shut up.”

Vaugh smiled at her, all innocence. Yvette glared back. Gortys looked between them, squinting.

“Hey, guess what! Vodka, cola, and an intact bowl to hold it all in! Jackpot! Aaand some highlighters for Gortys!” Sasha said, tossing a packet of Hyperion-branded highlighters at  Gortys and setting the bottles on the floor. She paused, looking between Yvette and Vaughn blankly, “What?”

Yvette coughed, ignoring Vaughn’s pointed smirk and the quirked eyebrow why did he have to do the quirked eyebrow.

“Nothing. But that’s great, Sasha. Isn’t that great, Yvette?” Vaughn said.

“Yes,” Yvette said, through gritted teeth, “Great.”

“Okay! Vaughn, here’s you and Rhys after we get him back. I couldn’t decide between you hugging and ‘fist-bumping’, so I tried to do both at once? Is that okay?” Gortys piped up, holding up an image of a sort-of Vaughn and sort-of Rhys having a sort-of hug, their arms stretched above their heads and connecting at the knuckles in a shower of sparks.

“Ha! Yeah, it’s awesome, Gortys,” Vaughn said.

“You really captured Rhys’s leggy essence,” Sasha volunteered, “And I like how Vaughn is a beard with a face. Very accurate.”

“You…are going to find him soon, right? And Fiona too?” Gortys said.

“Of course we are!” Vaughn assured her, waving his mug empathically and splashing her with whiskey. Loader Bot grabbed a tissue out of nowhere in half a second flat to dry her off.

Gortys looked between them slowly, rolling a coloured pencil between her fingers.

“Um. I mean, are you sure? I don’t want to be mean but it seems like…you guys don’t really…know what you’re doing.”

The three humans exchanged tense glances.

“And I have some thoughts on –“

“Of course we know what we’re doing, Gortys!” Sasha blurted out.

“Yeah, you really think we’d be stumbling around in the dark like idiots?” Yvette said, quirking a laid-back smile at her, “Don’t worry Gortys. We’re really, really close to getting them both back home.”

“Super close,” Sasha said, nodding.

“So close we’re practically touching,” Yvette continued.

“Exactly. This is practically…a pre-emptory celebration!” Vaughn said, patting Gortys on the head. She frowned at him.

“Uuuh, well –“

“You know what!” Sasha interrupted, “How about I make you guys some cocktails? August taught me recipes. He was…surprisingly good at that kind of thing, heh. …Gortys, do you want to help me find ingredients and cut fruit and…like, shake stuff?”

While she still looked uncertain, that was apparently an offer she couldn’t refuse.

 

I WILL TAKE THE SMALL ONE HOME. YOU SHOULD BOTH CONSIDER DRINKING WATER.

“We’re fiiiiine, Loader,” Sasha slurred, watching as Loader Bot hoisted Vaughn over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Vaughn muttered something like ‘Don’t wanna home’ to himself, eyes still closed. Yvette slurped makeshift long island iced tea through a curly straw, watching the scene with an odd sense of nostalgia. It wasn’t too long ago LB had been carrying her indignant ass around like that. Though it was much longer ago that she and Rhys had to drag Vaughn home like that.

Urgh. Why did she keep thinking about it.

I SEE, Loader Bot said, sounding like every single teetotal person dealing with their drunk asshole friends in the history of the galaxy. It was kind of amazing he managed that through his Microsoft Sam monotone. CONTEMPLATE HYDRATION ALL THE SAME.

“Sure, sure, we’ll stay hydrated,” Yvette said, waving them away, “Good night, guys.”

“Night guys! Don’t have too much fun!” Gortys said, shooting fingerguns at them as she rolled backwards out of the door, with a wink at Yvette.

Great. Now even the preschool robot was making fun of her.

The door slid closed, and Loader Bot and Gortys’s voices disappeared down the hallway.

“Ha, Vaughn always been a lightweight?” Sasha said, laying back on one of the many oversized couches littering Vasquez’s living room. Yvette perched on the arm of the sofa, sucking down the icy dregs of her drink. Sasha looked up at her, head tilted, scratching her chest under the collar of her shirt. Clearing her throat, Yvette stirred the ice at the bottom of her drink with her straw.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “Hardly his fault. The guy’s only small. You know…he used to be chubby. When he and Rhys first came to Helios…hah, it was adorable.”

Yvette was aware she was slurring, and rambling, but unable to stop herself. She rubbed her thigh, damn, when was her last dose? Did she take it? She didn’t remember. Could she mix pain meds and booze?

Sasha sat up, propping her elbows on the back of the sofa, and looked at Yvette’s leg.

“It hurt?” she asked, resting her hand on her thigh. A jolt went up Yvette’s spine.

“…Honestly, yeah,” Yvette said, “Hoped I’d get used to it by now. Hope they’re done with that thing now. The really advanced cybernetics…totally painless, no phantom limbs, barely any maintenance. Apparently, anyway.”

“Huh,” Sasha replied, sounding not even a little like she was listening. Her hand was still on Yvette’s thigh.

“Yeah. Rhys loved his arm. I mean, he volunteered to have it, which I thought it was crazy, even now people die from those procedures or the body rejects the cybernetics or...but, y’know. Guy got an idea in his head and then followed it through, especially if it was really stupid,” Yvette continued, aware she was babbling, and conscious of Sasha looking at her. Really, it should be illegal for someone to look at another person like that. “I always told him one time it would end up killing him or go wrong but, you know, never listened to me, not even when he was embezzling ten million dollars, and –“

Sasha grabbed her arm and pulled her down onto the couch. Yvette fell with less than grace, falling half on top of Sasha, half onto the floor. Sasha pulled her up, laughing.

“Yvette…no offense, but I really don’t want to talk about Rhys right now.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah. Ah,” Sasha said, looping her arms around Yvette’s neck and pressing her mouth against the other woman’s.

 

It had been a while since Yvette had drunkenly made out with a girl on the couch of a guy she didn’t even like. Like, first-year-undergraduate ancient history.

It had been a while since Yvette had made out with a girl, full stop, really. Working at Hyperion didn’t give you a great deal of time for hook ups, unless you had little enough self-respect to use the company Grindr app. And she had never been that desperate.

So, she was…well not rusty. Not rusty, never rusty, and Sasha was really good, so that made a lot of difference. But she almost didn’t remember the…etiquette for proceedings. Sasha unbuttoning her blouse, Yvette sticking her hand up Sasha’s shirt, even a bit of idle neck-kissing, Yvette was pretty sure that was still…not quite inferring outright sex was going to take place.

Then Sasha began to slide her trousers off and, well.

That was pretty clear.

Yvette wasn’t sure what made her speak up in particular, just that some alarm was going off in her head – too fast, not now, not on this planet, in these circumstances, she wasn’t sure. Only that she needed to do something to…stop it, stall it, whatever.

“Hey!”

Sasha stalled, blinking up at her.

“Uh, are you okay? I mean, we can stop if –“

“No, no! I just…” Yvette said, and then heard how high pitched her voice was getting and cleared her throat. She picked her empty glass off the floor, “I’m out of booze, that’s all?”

“Uh.”

Yvette got up, rearranging her clothes and walking over to the kitchen, opening and closing the fridge in half a second.

“Oh look at that, we’re all out, uh I’m just gonna…go get some more,” she said, “Take it easy for a second okay?”

“Really?” Sasha said, sitting up on the couch.

“Yeah. Thirsty.”

No fucking kidding, she thought to herself. Sasha scratched her head.

“Is it something –“

“No, I’ll be back in a second,” Yvette said, managing to strangle her voice down to her low cool girl montone, “Freshen up.”

Freshen up? Jesus she needed to chill.

“Alright, alright. I think there’s some homebrew in my apartment, three doors down. Door’s unlocked,” Sasha said, “I’ll just be here. By myself. Dying.”

“Have fun.”

Yvette left with what was meant as an ironic salute, but just ended in her fumbling with her crutch and all but falling out of the doorway. The door slide closed behind her with a whirr and a thump.

She leaned against the door and breathed out.

Right. This was fine. She just had the…jitters. It had been a while.

And Sasha was hot, but also she was drunk, but so was Yvette, but Sasha also clearly had some…thing going on with Rhys and was she just acting as some weird Rhys stand-in and why should she care she was out of here soon, and Yvette was kind of nauseous with the makeshift cocktails and pain meds, and…

It was fine. She would just. Have another quick shot for Dutch courage, and come back raring to go.

Was it really something she wanted to do this wasted, though? Really?

She walked down the hall and entered Sasha’s apartment. Aside from the guns and explosives scattered everywhere, and the clothes across the floor (had the women ever heard of a laundry basket?), there was no sign anyone aside from a faceless Hyperion mook had every lived there. The yellow curtains, bedspread and furniture remained, as did the Hyperion slogans on the walls. Although Sasha had ripped poster-Jack’s face off. It wasn’t exactly uncommon for Hyperion mooks to do that either, eventually.

Yvette paced. She took an excessive amount of time searching the kitchen. She found a glass in one of the cupboards as well as a bottle of a suspect-smelling brown liquid in the fridge. She could only presume it was alcohol. She poured a finger, shot it, and then gagged.

Christ. Now that was like Satan pissing in your throat.

Across the room, something beeped on the coffee table.

Pouring another two fingers of the whatever, Yvette wandered over to the source of the noise. Sasha’s laptop. A beaten looking machine, bulky, and missing half of the letters from its keyboard. Did Sasha type with a fucking sledgehammer? Christ. Probably. That was so like her.

Left open, no password, no nothing. For a con-artist, she demonstrated an unhealthy amount of trust in others.

To: stoleyourwallet33@FLX.pdr
From: BIGDICKVASQUEZ@hyperion.pdr

Subject: Where are you lol

Hey are you going to come back or what? Running away when you’re about to get laid isn’t very cool Yvette :P

Sash

Yvette paused over the keyboard.

Just freaking out a little no big de

No.

Good things come to those who wait. ;)

No no no. Dreadful. Awful. Yvette could punch herself for even typing it. She hit the backspace key hard enough to hurt her finger.

Your apartment is a disgrace. Just trying to find something in all this mess… be back soon.

Yvette stared at the screen blankly. That was…neutral, right? Kind of rude, but maybe that’s what she needed to do. Be a bit rude, play it off all ‘Ha ha no big deal’.

Shit.

Hesitating over the send button, Yvette’s gaze wandered over the other emails in Sasha’s inbox. Emails from Vaughn, some of her weird sect emailing her bizarre-o questions about Rhys, a few emails from Gortys with drawings attached…

Subject: RE: Requested cybernetic limb

Yvette frowned, and clicked it, hitting the ‘show chronologically’ button.

Dear Sasha,

We are pleased to tell you that the cybernetic limb you requested is now complete. We are sure Ms Lehmann will be pleased with our work. Shall we contact her directly to arrange a time for the procedure?

Kindest regards,
Children of Helios Robotics Team

Yvette’s heart began to hammer hard in her chest. She scrolled down to the reply.

Hey, guys.

Listen, keep it under wraps for now. She doesn’t need to know it’s ready yet. She asks, you say you’re working on it.

Btw, anyone who does otherwise will be dealt with :) k bye

Sasha

The laptop beeped as another message came in from Sasha.

Subject: come back here already

yvete? :( Are you ok…

Yvette slammed the laptop closed.

Breathing heavily, she grabbed a pistol from the coffee table, tucking it into her belt and buttoning her blouse up, fumbling half with inebriation, half because she was shaking with anger.

She grabbed her crutch and marched off, heading towards the elevator, and the robotics department.

They damn well better still be awake, and have that leg ready for her. As soon as she had it, she was getting the hell out of here.

Chapter Text

Gortys had heard that when humans drank enough alcohol, the next day they’d be all grumpy and sick. Intrigued, she spent the night reading further, and by dawn was dragging Loader Bot by his hand to the kitchens, to make bacon, eggs and sausages. That was, apparently, what humans needed.

The Hyperion catering staff were nowhere to be seen – the Children of Helios sleep late, and stay up later – but Gortys was more than happy to take command of the kitchen! It wasn’t like she got to be in charge of much very often. She put on her legs, and dug the prettiest, most intact apron she could find out of a half-charred cupboard.

It took a lot of effort to tie it around her, but Gortys was nothing if not determined to do things right.

So! Cooking! That was probably easy! Humans had done it for millennia, and they were all kind of slow and needed to lie down unconscious in dark room for hours all the time, so, with their mega robot brains combined, Gortys was sure she and Loader could figure it out.

I’M NOT SURE THIS IS HOW COOKING WORKS, Loader Bot said.

“I’ve seen people cook loads of times, Loader Bot. I know what I’m doing,” Gortys replied, piling a foot high on a pan. The more the better right? “Pass me that lighter.”

I…AM NOT SURE IF I SHOULD.

“You know. I am starting to think nobody around here listens to me…oh, wait, there’s a switch!” Gortys said, and turned the hob on.

…I LISTEN, Loader Bot said, giving her a weird look. He was processing a lot of different things quickly, but Gortys wasn’t sure what they were. Just heard the whirrs and saw the tell-tale twitches of his fingers.

“Weeeelllll. I guess! It’s just you know, I don’t wanna be a downer, but I’ve been trying to tell the guys about how we can get Fiona and Rhys back for weeks but…”

…YOU KNOW HOW TO DO THAT?

“Well, yeah!” Gortys said, trying to flip the bacon in the pan like she’d seen people do on TV (and valiantly ignoring the wet splat of bacon on the floor, the wall, and her head), “I had to think about it a little, but I searched my database and –“

Gortys was interrupted by the angry thumping of footsteps.

“Vaughn, she is gone! She has up and left! She – she! Urgh! I can’t believe this!” boomed a voice from down the hall.

“Sasha, calm down, urgh…my head,” Vaughn replied, his voice hoarse, “Please just let me get some coffee.”

“This is no time to be hung over!”

“You’re over-reacting! And…I think you are still a little drunk. Just…calm down a second, okay.”

“We don’t have time –

The door slid open and Vaughn and Sasha walked in. Sasha looked as though she was physically fizzling with rage, her arms folded tight around herself, fingers digging grooves into her forearms. Vaughn just held his head in one hand, wincing, wearing his glasses again. They were both in the clothes Gortys saw them in last night.

“Good morning!”

“Not now, Gortys,” Sasha all but snarled. Beside her, Loader Bot’s fist clenched. Vaughn looked around, noticing the pink strips of bacon streaked all over the honeybee yellow of the kitchen. He picked a strip from Gortys’s head, squinting at it through his glasses.

“Gortys, why have you done this?” he said, shaking his head with a sigh. Gortys winced.

“Um. Well. I thought you guys might like breakfast…” she said, glancing at Vaughn’s crestfallen face and Sasha’s furious expression, “I guess…I was wrong about that?”

“We don’t have time for breakfast, Vaughn. Yvette is gone, she is marching around out there by herself, all pissed off. I don’t even think she took a runner, she would have been too wasted.”

“I’m not saying we have time for breakfast!” Vaughn snapped, and then more gently, “Sorry, Gortys, not…not now.”

“Uh, well, I have coffee?” she said, offering him a cup. It had been intended for Yvette, even in her favourite mug (huge, white with the words ‘A DAD’ on it in black Comic Sans), but apparently Yvette had…well, apparently something had happened.

Vaughn took it with a small smile and Sasha slammed her hands on the countertop. He jumped, splashing coffee over the back of his hand and hissing, clutching his red hand.

“Oh no! Let me put that under cold water for you!” Gortys said, taking his hand and attempting to guide it to the sink, turning the tap. Sasha grabbed Vaughn’s shoulder.

“Vaughn!”

“Alright, I get it! Look just, what will it do if we run off after her right now?” he said, rinsing his hand and rubbing it dry with a tea towel. Sasha tapped her foot.

“Sasha, eat some bacon, we had a lot last night and…you know, it looks like it’s still in your system,” Vaughn said. wiggling a strip of crispy bacon in her face. She glared, but he pushed it into her mouth. Sasha chewed, looking beyond furious the whole time, and swallowed.

“Fine! I’ve eaten! Can we go get her!” she said.

“What even happened? I mean, you didn’t explain, just barged in yelling that she was gone?” Vaughn said, “I mean…uh…weren’t you guys kind of…you know?”

Sasha looked at the ground, chewing on a strip of bacon hanging half out of her mouth.

“Well, yeah. Then she freaked, and left, and uh…well. I fell asleep. When I woke up, she was gone,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “But…I went to my room and she’d been looking at my emails. Urgh.”

“So?” Vaughn asked.

“Um. Well. I’d…kind of been telling the robotics team to, you know. Hold off for a little while? On her prosthetic?”

Gortys looked at Loader Bot, tilting her face. He shrugged. Vaughn, however, gaped, as though he knew exactly what was going on, why he mattered, and wasn’t best pleased about it. Gortys looked between them, hoping someone would explain what the heck was happening.

“Sasha…”

“It…seemed like a good idea at the time,” she said, uncharacteristically meek, “Listen, now she’s out in the desert on foot and probably only just sobering up, and the robotics team are all freaked out, so…we should go get her. Now. She should apologise.”

Vaughn took a long sip of coffee, glaring at Sasha over his mug.

I should apologise,” she added, sighing, “Though I wouldn’t have had to do it if she had just been trustworthy to begin with.”

“Sasha, it’s not Yvette’s fault. It’s just –“

“It’s Hyperion, I know! You suits bring that up every time you do something shitty, but its not Hyperion any more! I just…I dunno, I wanted –“ Sasha sighed.

“Alright, alright. We don’t need to get into…this,” Vaughn said, gesturing at Sasha with a dismissive twist of his hand, “Just…let me put my contacts in and –“

“Put your contacts in!” she repeated, indignant.

“Sasha, listen. No. We wash, we get dressed, we get our stuff together, we leave when we’re calm,” he said.

“But –“

“Sasha, are there any runners missing from the garage?”

“No, but –“

“Then we’ll catch up to her.”

“But –“

“I know you’re worried,” Vaughn said, sighing, “But Yvette is tough enough to take care of herself…and we won’t do her any favours rushing out there like idiots.”

“…I’m not worried,” Sasha grumbled, folding her arms and leaning against the countertop, “I’m pissed off.”

“Sure,” Vaughn said, and turned to Loader Bot and Gortys, “Loader Bot, if anyone asks, tell them we’re on an important mission just…make it sound impressive. As though we’re not dealing with high school drama.”

He glared at Sasha. She busied herself with eating another strip of bacon. Loader Bot twisted his head between them.

YOU ARE ASKING ME TO LIE. DISCOMFORT…REGISTERED. YET I AGREE FOR THE SAKE OF OUR FRIENDSHIP, he said finally.

“Yeah, sure. Thanks, buddy,” he said, “We’ll be back soon! Just...keep an eye on things while we’re gone, alright guys?”

“Urgh, Vaughn, I am such a dumbass…” Sasha began, as they walked out of the kitchen. The door slid closed behind them, and their voices disappeared into the distance, talking about things that didn’t make any sense.

Gortys and Loader Bot stood in silence for a moment, uncomprehendingly staring at the closed door.

“I don’t think I get humans sometimes,” Gortys said.

I DON’T THINK ANYONE DOES, Loader Bot said, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?

“Something about sex? Sex causes a lot of problems, I think,” she said thoughtfully, “Especially if there are wacky misunderstandings involved, hehe. Gotta love those wacky misunderstandings.”

YOU NEED TO STOP WATCHING SITCOMS.

“But they’re so fun!” she said brightly, then dimmed a little, turning off the hob and shovelling the majority of the bacon a bag to take out to the dumpster out back, “But…yeah, see? That totally don’t listen to me! I think maybe I’m too cute.”

YOU ARE ADORABLE.

“I know! But I’m so much more than that!” she said, “I – ah! I don’t like this feeling! Loader, what is it? I’m like, angry, but not angry at someone, just mad on a sort of low…sizzling level, like I’m bubbling. Just like the bacon.”

FRUSTRATION. YOU ARE EXPERIENCING FRUSTRATION.

“Yeah! That!” Gortys said, “Urgh, you know, I didn’t think I’d been programmed with that many bad feelings.”

I HAD NOT BEEN PROGRAMMED WITH FEELINGS AT ALL. YET HERE WE ARE.

“Yeah. You have a lot of feelings for a coat rack, huh?”

REGISTERED…SARCASM. TROUBLING.

“It wasn’t sarcasm! I don’t think so, anyway, I’m not sure I can do that,” she said, “But…Loader, am I too peppy? Is that the problem?”

NO, Loader Bot said quickly, YOU ARE – AH. UH. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. YOUR ENTHUSIASM LEVELS ARE…APPROPRIATE.

“Oh,” Gortys said blankly. Loader Bot began running system checks, for some reason. Why was everyone acting so weird? “Well, okay. But – ah,  no! I still didn’t tell them about my upgrade! I guess we’re gonna have to wait for them to deal with this stuff now, right?”

Loader Bot turned to look at her, head tilted. She wasn’t sure when he’d picked that up, or off who, but it was pretty cute.

YOU HAVE ADDITIONAL UPGRADES?

“Well, yeah, there were loads! A lot of them probably aren’t useful. But…I mean…the team who made me, they didn’t really know what the Vault of the Traveller was gonna be like, so there were a lot of research teams working off their own theories, making a lot of different upgrades I might need…” Gortys explained, just grateful to be finally explaining this to someone! She’d been trying so hard to get it out!

“And…there was this one that I thought might work…but every time I tried to tell them about it…but, you know! Guess we’ll just have to wait for them to come back, right? I mean…they’ll listen to me eventually! Even though I’m just a mascot and…you know, I couldn’t do anything when that mean doctor was trying to take me…”

Loader Bot looked at her for a long time.

WAITING IS NOT…COMPLETELY NECESSARY.

“Um, but we’re robots, you know? I mean, we’re pretty cool but we don’t…you know, do things by ourselves,” Gortys said slowly, a plan coming together in her central executive functions, “Wait, Loader, you’re right! Why don’t we just take care of things ourselves! We don’t…have to wait around for them to come back! You’re a genius!”

YES, LET’S –

“C’mon, let’s go to the garage!” Gortys said, seizing Loader Bot’s hand and rushing out of the room.

THE GARAGE?

“Yeah! C’mon, you said we should just do it by ourselves, so let’s!”

THAT ISN’T EXACTLY –

“We can take the caravan! I know where my upgrade is. Maybe we can even get Fiona and Rhys back before they even get back. They’ll be so happy,” Gortys continued, her mind racing with images of her new awesome upgrades, Vaughn, Sasha and Yvette coming home to Fiona and Rhys waiting. It would be so cool. “Besides, I love driving. It’ll be like a road trip. We can sing along to the radio together!”

I’M NOT SURE I AM CAPABLE OF SINGING. BUT –

“Loader, what?”

I WAS GOING TO SUGGEST GOING AND TELLING THEM NOW.

Gortys stopped for a second. She almost released Loader Bot’s hand, before thinking better of it, and squeezing it tighter, continuing towards the garage.

“Oh, well. I like my plan better!”

YES. SO DO I.

 

“Oh, okay, brief! Tell you…briiieefly…okay. So, me and Loader Bot have an idea of how to get you and Fiona out of there! We’re on our way to pick up an upgrade that’ll let me pull…well stuff out of there, I think. The documents are all a little long and boring, so I haven’t read totally through them yet, but it’s gonna be great. You’re gonna get to come home!” Gortys said, “So, yeah! That’s it! I’m gonna find my upgrade and bring you home!”

Rhys had to admit, he had really kind of missed the little robotic ray of sunshine. Looking briefly up from the tire track he was following, she offered him a little smile. Rhys thought he could see Loader Bot at the wheel of the caravan behind. It was hard to tell – the connection was better than last time, but still not great, exactly. So that was good.

And, hey, good news, finally! After that fiasco with Jack, good news was overdue! No, shit, he told himself, don’t think about it. It still made his head spin.

“That’s great, Gortys,” he said, “Really. But, uh, just you and Loader Bot?”

“Uh. Yeah. Everyone else is…buuuusy…it’s kind of a long story. Basically those guys were busy with some other stuff, so I had to take matters into my own hands!” she said, and then dropped her voice to a soft, confiding tone, “Rhys, if I’m honest, I think I’m going through my rebellious phase. Grrr!”

“Really, they’re too busy to - okay, you know what, tell me the full story later,” he said quickly, “Gortys, what do I need to do?”

“We’ll figure that out when I get it!”

“Gortys, it…it’s kind of important, I might not get a connection this clear again, so…”

“It’s kinda complicaaated,” Gortys said, tapping her mouth with a finger, “And I’m not totally sure on the details.

“Just…tell me it briefly.”

“Um. Brief, brief, brief. Well, okay. Some Atlas guys had the theory that the Vault of the Traveller’s treasure might be something big enough you needed extra power to bring it out. So they devised an upgrade that would let me sort of pull stuff through the Vault dimension to here!” Gortys said quickly. Rhys nodded attentively, conscious of the way her image was blurring and her voice was growing slowly more distorted. “So, the idea was that one Gortys would stay here, and another Gortys would go into the Vault –“

“Another Gortys?” Rhys said, putting up his other hand, “There’s more than one of you?”

“Nope!”

“…But we need two to make this work?”

“Yep!”

“Uh, so, the other Gortys, is she at the Atlas facility too? Another prototype maybe?”

“Nope!”

“Are any other models?”

“Nope, just me!” Gortys said brightly, and then on noticing the horrified look on Rhys’s face, “Look, it’s not a perfect plan, but it’ll work out! I learned most of my planning from you, and your plans always worked out fine, right?”

They were so fucked.

Rhys breathed in. This was fine. It was fine. Keep it cool, Rhys. So, his friends apparently were too busy to come looking for him, his hope rested in the hands of teenage robot couple in a stolen car, and he couldn’t stop thinking about a daughter he’d never even had.

This was fine.

He would just tell Gortys her plan sucked and she needed a new one.

“Gortys, I –“

“Yeah?” she said, smiling.

 Rhys couldn’t do it. He was a bastard, sure, but he wasn’t a fucking monster.

“…No. I’m just, you know, really glad you managed to figure this out. Get the upgrade, and we’ll talk later, okay?”

“Okay, that’s the attitude I like to hear!” she said, beaming at him, “See you later, Rhys, love you!”

She hung up.

Rhys took a breath. Alright, well, that was good news. Sort of. Maybe.

“Jack?” he called out again, and looked down at the tire track at his feet.

He was by himself. With no weapon. And a voice in his head that kept coming out. Walking into the jungle now well…

It was an absolutely dumbass move.

“Jack!” he called again, following the tire trail, stumbling over a tree root, “Jack, stop being an asshole! Ow. Shit. Urgh. Where are you? Are you okay?”

The jungle remained silent apart from the sound of the wind, and the buzz and chirp of insects. Somewhere, a bird fluttered from one tree to another. Rhys felt his hands start to shake, hoping Fiona would come bursting out of the undergrowth, or Jack, or even Dickfeeder.

Nothing.

He was completely alone.

 

“Is he okay?” Loader Bot asked as Gortys got off the phone. She came back to the front of the caravan, turning the radio back on. On the dashboard was the little shoulder bag Sasha had gotten for her, with her beacon inside just in case. Gortys picked it up, and slung it awkwardly across her shoulder. It didn’t exactly sit right – nothing was really made for her…uh, unique body shape, so nothing really fit her – but it was pretty all the same.

“Uh, I dunno! He looks kinda like…not great? All tired and pasty and his hair’s a mess and…you know,” she said.

“None of those are good signs,” Loader Bot replied. Gortys looked at him a little longer.

“By the way, why are you wearing that?”

“…wearing what?” he asked.

“The outfit thing! I mean, it’s pretty cool, but you’re making me a bit conscious that I’m naked,” she said. Loader Bot touched his hat with a gloved hand. Gortys wasn’t even that sure where he had gotten all those big rags, or the mask. It made his voice all distorted and deep, and made him look bigger.

“When I look like this, people presume I’m human,” he said finally, “Makes it easier out here. Less likely someone will try to catch us and sell us for scrap.”

“Oh,” Gortys said, “Uh. I guess you had to deal with stuff with that when I was…you know.”

“Yes.”

The caravan’s ECHO comm rang: CALL FROM: VAUGHN appeared on the screen.

“Oh, wow, have they found Yvette already? That was fast!” Gortys said, and answered the comm, “Hello!”

“Gortys!” Sasha shouted, “Do you have the caravan?”

She and Vaughn were gathered around the ECHO communicator, Sasha scowling and Vaughn with his arms folded. Uh-oh.

“Uh, yeah, well, we’re kind of –“

“Gortys…come home right now,” she continued more steadily.

“Yeah, Gortys, this isn’t funny,” Vaughn said, shaking his head.

“I’m not trying to be funny, I’m trying to –“

“Gortys, you can’t be out there on your own! We already have to deal with looking for Yvette, and there are bound to be other fanboys out there and –“

“I’m not alone, Loader Bot’s with me!” Gortys piped up.

“Gortys, seriously, what are you doing?” Vaughn said, “We don’t need this right now.”

“Really, I’m trying to –“

“I know you’re trying to help, Gortys,” Sasha said softly, “But you can’t, okay?”

Oh.

Well.

That was enough.

“Uh oh! You guys are breaking up! Ksssshtt, kzzzsssssth!”

“Gortys, I know it’s you making that noise! And you’re a robot – you could probably make a noise more convincing than that!” Sasha said.

“Kssssht zzzzzt byeguysloveyou!” Gortys said, and hung up. Loader Bot stared at her.

“Wow. We are in so much trouble,” he said.

“Yeah. Oh…wait, oh man this is my jam!” she said, turning up the radio, “We’re five minutes away now! Be ready for anything, loyal henchman!”

“I always am.”

“And c’mon. At least try singing.”

“…I can make no promises about the quality.”

 

The Atlas facility was hidden in a human town, like most Atlas facilities were. Having something out in the desert made it too likely a Vault Hunter would try to dig it up. But established civilisation? Most Vault Hunters weren’t that interested in that.

Thing was, unlike a lot of Atlas hiding places, people still lived there. As they rode through town, humans stopped to stare through the windows. Gortys waved. They didn’t wave back. One shot at the side of the caravan.

Yikes. Some people needed to run their frowns upside down.

“Are you sure this is it?” Loader Bot asked.

“Pre-etty sure! Atlas had a lot of facilities embedded in towns they had control over. Most people who lived there didn’t even know the facilities existed,” she said, “I’m sure we’ll find it. It’s probably underground again.”

“I feel like if we raised a facility from underground, it might attract attention,” Loader Bot said, as they parked and got out, Loader Bot with a shotgun across his back and a sizeable rifle in his arms. Gortys frowned – she really, really, really, really, really would prefer if he didn’t need to use them.

A lot of the time on Pandora it seemed like you didn’t’ really have much choice, though. Gortys really wished that this planet was a little nicer.

“No, no. I don’t think it’ll be like that. It’ll be a kind of, secret passageway thing, I think,” she said, and folded her arms thoughtfully. A lot of people were staring at them, but no amount of smiling or waving prompted them to talk to them. Gortys guessed they were just shy!

A big neon sign caught her eye. MOXXXI’S – hey, if the number of Xs were associated with the amount of fun to be had, it was promising enough! Plus, it was all pretty and pink and glow-y. That was pretty much everything Gortys enjoyed right there.

“Hey, let’s start at the inn. That’s what you do in Bunkers and Badasses, right?”

“…As good idea as anything,” Loader Bot admitted, “Though I think it’s just a bar.”

“Same thing, Loader!” she said, grabbing his hand again and pulling him in.

Gortys had never been at a bar before. She had seen them on TV programmes and stuff, and some vague idea about what they were like. Moxxxi’s was pretty much what she imagined – although there was way more pizza than she had anticipated. There were a lot of big men and women with guns and funny haircuts lounging with chipped glasses or beer, chewing on lucid yellow pizza, laughing and slapping one another, or sitting with the sort of quietly simmering anger Gortys had gotten used to seeing in Athena.

It was a pretty interesting place! One of the most interesting places Gortys had been in weeks.

And, for the first time since they’d pulled into town, a few people started to wave back and say hello as Gortys passed. Though it was in the weird loosey-goosey way Gortys was starting to associate with humans who had put a load of alcohol in their systems. Loader Bot pulled her along to the bar faster.

At the bar, the prettiest human lady Gortys had ever seen was cleaning a glass. She wore a big red hat Gortys kind of wanted to try on, and a lot of interesting make-up none of the ladies Gortys had known so far would wear. Heck, she wasn’t sure if any of the women she knew even wore make-up or not.

“I’ll do the talking,” she said quickly to Loader Bot.

Gortys clambered onto the bar stool, with a tiny bit of assistance from Loader Bot. If the woman behind the bar was surprised to see a little robot in her bar, she sure didn’t show it.

“Hi!” Gortys said cheerfully, “So, I guess you’re Moxxi, right?”

Moxxi put down the glass and leaned across the bar, smiling and looking Gortys up and down. She flashed the biggest smile she could back at her – not that big, considering she didn’t have many LEDs to work with. Moxxi seemed pleased though.

“That’s right, sugar. What can I do for you?”

Oh. Yeah. Gortys turned to Loader Bot.

“LB, gimme a couple dollars!” she said, waving her hand out. Loader Bot pressed a small pile of dollar bills in her hand, and Gortys leaned over to put them in the tip jar, marked with a big cardboard pair of lips.

“Okay, you’ll talk to us now, right?” Gortys said. That was how you shook information out of barmen, after all.

Moxxi raised an eyebrow at her, glancing back and forth between the two robots, and glancing around at the rest of her patrons for some reason. She finally settled her gaze back on Gortys.

“I gotta say, sweetie, you are adorable,” she said, “But, you know, we don’t get many robots in here, so I don’t really have much I can offer you. Our Claptrap’s off duty, if that’s who you’re here to see.”

“Oh, uh, no!” she said, “We’re here on very important business. Vault Hunter business.”

Loader Bot tapped the back of her head, giving her a hard look.

Gortys shot him an offended look – what! It was true! It was Vault Hunter business!

Moxxi lit up.

“Rrreally,” she purred, “That is so interesting. Can I tell you a secret? I just love Vault Hunters. My…ah, well, the person I’m seeing right now, they’re a Vault Hunter.”

“Really? That is so interesting. My whole family are Vault Hunters!” Gortys said, throwing her arms up in the air and bringing them down in an arc.

“Wow,” Moxxi said, “That sounds so cool. So who’s in your family, huh, cutie?”

Gortys really liked Moxxi. She was so nice! Gortys was about to start explain how she had Vaughn and Sasha, but also Rhys, and Fiona, and sometimes Athena, and now there was Yvette too, and Loader Bot of course, and how they had all fought this big Vault monster together and lived together in a big space station even though the space station was on the ground these days and Rhys and Fiona were somewhere else, when Loader Bot interrupted.

“We are in a rush,” he said, “We would like to know about any Atlas artefacts here. We are…archaeologists.”

“I thought you were Vault Hunters,” Moxxi said.

“Same difference.”

Moxxi sighed, busying herself with making some human’s drink order.

“Well, honey, I don’t know what to tell you. Atlas used to work around here, but they all died when the gladiator came to town,” she said, and glanced back at them, “If you want to do some digging, the old warehouse south of town may be a good place to start.”

“Alrighty! Thank you so much,” she said.

“My pleasure, sweetheart. You tell me how that goes,” Moxxi said, resting her chin on her fingers.

“Let’s go, Gortys,” Loader Bot said, grabbing hold of her hand and dragging her off the stool. The stool fell behind her as Gortys twisted around to wave Moxxi goodbye. Moxxi twiddled her fingers back at her, smiling.

 

“Gortys…you probably shouldn’t trust people like Moxxi,” Loader Bot said as they poked around the warehouse. The warehouse was packed with boxes and old bits of machines, coated in a thick grey layer of dust. She dragged her finger through it, leaving a long trail and kicking up a cloud that she was sure would have made her sneeze like crazy. If she had a nose, that is.

“Why not! She’s nice!”

“Yes. Well, she seems nice,” he said slowly, “But that can be deceptive.”

“Hm. Well. I think everyone deserves a chance,” she said.

“...Unsure if that is wise,” Loader Bot muttered.

“Oh hey, look, I think I found a console! Loader, think you can hack it?” she interrupted, before she was dragged into a conversation a little more complicated than she really liked to deal with. Loader Bot crouched down and began to fiddle with the console. Gortys was more than happy to just sit back and watch.

There was a beeping noise, and a smooth female voice greeted them: ‘Welcome employee. Please wipe your feet on the way in’. The floor under Gortys’s feet rumbled, and she stepped aside as it slide away, revealing a staircase that dropped under the ground.

Loader Bot took his shotgun off his back again. Gortys frowned.

“Um. You’re only going to use that if you need to, right?”

“Yes,” he said, then added, “Though I likely will.”

“Well, I guess that’s the best we can do. Lead the way!” Gortys said, nudging Loader towards the stairs. Loader Bot went down, gun at the ready, and Gortys turned on her light. It was dark down there, and dingy. Sure didn’t look like the route to a secret underground Vault research laboratory.

Looks could be deceiving though! Gortys, of all people-and-robots, should know that.

They crept down and entered through another sliding door. Lacking pulse and heart-beat and body temperature, they didn’t trigger any alarms. Nobody really expected robots to ransack the place alone.

Loader turned the lights on. The laboratory was small, but cluttered to point of uselessness. A turret chugged aimlessly on the ceiling, circling the room looking for any signs of organic life. Up on the wall, a big console repeated the same looping screensaver animation of the Atlas logo, spinning in place. Explosives were crammed in every corner of the room in big packages - Gortys had the feeling they would blow the second a non-Atlas human set foot in the place. It looked as though humans had already raided the places, judging by the mess, the broken keyboard keys, and the half-rotten corpse on the floor.

Gortys stepped over it, delicately as she could. Welp.

“So, um, is there anything we can do for him?” she said, indicating the body.

“Nope,” Loader Bot said.

“…Mm. I…didn’t think so,” she said, looking again at the body and wishing she could put like…a blanket over it, or it still had eyelids she could close, or something. “Let’s look around! I’m not sure what it’ll look like, but I think I’ll know it when I see it…I, hm. I think it’s in two parts! One sort of main part for the Pandora-Gortys, one smaller bit for the Vault Gortys!”

“Any ideas on how to deal with the Gortys problem?” he asked.

“Um. Not yet. I’m working on it, though!” she replied, clapping her hands together. Loader Bot nodded.

“Okay. Let me know when you do,” he said.

Gortys nodded, shot him a thumbs-up, and went to dig around. She had a vague sense of where the upgrades were, but this close the co-ordinates were less than useless. She dug around in a few boxes, and fiddled around, before finding another body. She stepped back.

Oh dear.

Gortys had some idea where the first part of the upgrade was.

She peeled back the dead scientist’s lab coat and plunged her hand into the inside pocket. Nothing. She searched the other pocket, and then stepped across the body to dig around in the pockets at the other side.

Her fingers met something small and hard. She pulled it out.

A little box, maybe just a few inches wide and tall and deep, in off-white. She opened the box, tapping on a little button on the side. The casing parted a few inches, expanding to reveal a small monitor, and a tiny keyboard. It looked like humans could mess with it that way, or Gortys could plug herself into it.

Attempting to connect to home hub GIVRS system…connection not found, please check home hub is online.

Gortys had no idea what it was really for, or how it worked, or what the authentication thing it was after was in the least. Looked good though! Real science-y. If something looked science-y enough, that was a good sign, right? She closed it.

“Half of the upgrade, found!” Gortys said, waving the box in the air, before tucking it into her shoulder bag. Loader Bot turned and gave her a thumbs up, and then waved her over.

“I have something here. Please appraise it,” he said. Gortys wandered over to where Loader Bot was standing by a large sliding door. It was dusted and rusted over – easy to miss, in the mess and dull colours. Why was everyone on Pandora so averse to nice bright rainbow colours?

“Oooh…yeah, this feels promising!” Gortys chirped, as Loader Bot tapped some values into the console on the wall. The doors slide open, metal shrieking against metal, dislodging cobwebs and swabs of flies as they went. Gortys and Loader Bot stumbled back as a large machine emerged. On a human, it would be about waist-high, laden with buttons and levers. As it emerged, a holographic monitor appeared overhead, and flicked into life.

Welcome to the Gortys in-Vault Retrieval System. The GIVRS system is designed by and for Atlas. The use of this restricted system by a non-Atlas employee will result in severe penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, death, torture, the publication of your internet search history…

“You found it!” Gortys said, hugging Loader Bot’s legs, “Awesome!”

“Yes. However,” he said, “…An issue. How do we get it out here?”

“Oh, hold on,” she said, and stepped back, digging around in her bag.

“Wait –“

Gortys found what she was looking for, tossed her bag at Loader Bot, and held the beacon aloft. Loader Bot shrank beneath her and she tore through the ceiling, and the buildings above. She brushed the bits of mortar and wires from her body.

“Aaah, it feels good to do this again!” Gortys said, stretching her arms out, the sun warm on her chassis, “Being tall is really fun!”

“Well. You certainly are tall,” Loader Bot said, flatly. Townspeople began to scatter, running screaming, or running towards her hurling grenades and firing sprays of bullets that kind of itched. She looked at them, frowning.

“Oh, wow. Uh, sorry, I’m just here to pick up one of my things!” Gortys said, waving, “You can stop firing now! I’m just going to leave. Guys…I’m – I’m not going to hurt any of you!”

The townspeople continues to shout, scream, run, and attack. Gortys didn’t know what else she could tell them – of course she didn’t want to hurt them! Why would they act as though she did?

“We should go,” Loader Bot said. Gortys nodded and scooped him up into her control room, before reaching down to pull the other half of her upgrade out of the floor. It came off easily, as though she were tearing a perforated page from a notebook.

“Don’t forget to pick up the caravan as we leave,” Loader Bot reminded her.

“I know!” Gortys said, grabbing the caravan as they ran out of the city.

As they ran, Gortys saw Moxxi standing outside of her bar, arms folded, but her mouth just open by half an inch – just enough to be a gawk.

Gortys beamed and waved, the caravan in her hand.

 

It was dark. The bugs were out. Rhys was alone.

The bugs were on his skin.

But they weren’t, he knew they weren’t, they weren’t on his skin, and they weren’t on his skin, and they weren’t in his mouth or in his eyes or inside his skull, but goddamnit, it felt like they were.

Had he been this dehydrated when he left to go find Jack? His mouth was so dry, his tongue crawling with the little articulated legs of invisible centipedes, spiders, mantises, brushing the roof of his mouth with their antennae.

Where the fuck was Jack?

He’d lost the trail a while back, when the dark really started to set in. The light from the jellyfish wasn’t enough to distinguish details on the jungle floor. The maximum speed of a first model Claptrap wasn’t exactly high, and it wasn’t like Jack had much of head-start. How the hell Jack had managed to get away so fast…

It’s ‘cause you lost time, Rhys.

“Urgh, shut up, not now,” Rhys muttered.

This was the last thing he needed. Where the hell was he? How did he even get here?

Was it near sun-down when all this shit went down? It wasn’t. It was nowhere near. You two weren’t at your freaky little mindmelding thing for that long. What happened? Have you really been wandering around that long?

No. Yes. Probably? It was hard to keep track of time.

Rhys stumbled and put his hand out, steading himself against a tree. It didn’t work. He dropped, dizzy. He heard the whir of motors somewhere – Jack was nearby. Grabbing onto a branch, he pulled himself up. He thought heard movement, a pale light moving back and forth in the distance. The light attached to Jack’s Claptrap body, it looked like.

He shook himself.

He’d grab Jack, head back, grab Fiona, it would be fine. He was fine. He kept moving, stumbling and shaking his hands. They itched.

It was dark as hell. He’d never really noticed how dark it got in this place. Pandora had never really gotten that dark, something to do with the pollution and radiation, and back on Eden-5, there were always lights out, unless you went to a light pollution preservation zone. Rhys never had.

Rhys tried to turn in the light on on his arm. Nothing happened. It hung like a dead weight by his side, banging against his hip as he moved. Well.

He’d find Fiona and Jack, it was fine.

Wow, you really, really do not like being alone, do you?

“I’ve done it plenty,” he snapped.

Mm. Yeah. The Atlas months.

“Yeah.”

What’d you do then?

“Built prototypes, came up with ideas, it doesn’t matter.”

Rhys, really. What did you do?

“Just, you know, stuff!” he said, gesturing with his arm, “It all kind of merged together. I mean… I thought everyone I knew was dead, I had no way to get home, I was trying to repair my arm and eye and…”

Could you give me a blow-by-blow? Do you know? Do you know do you know do you know do you know –

“Shut up!”

The light duplicated, dozens of pale round lights bobbing this way and that, serving up towards the sky, into his eyes, round the branches of trees and into the ground.

Shit.

Something loomed over Rhys’s head, blocking out the moon. He felt a pair of hands, huge, unnaturally so, clamp onto his shoulders. Something like laughter rippled through him, coming from unknown, foreign source, definitely not himself, even though it was out of his own mouth.

Above him, a torso loomed over him, a pair of muscular arms stretched down and a pair of large hands holding him down, but no head, not even a neck, just a torso over him. Stronger than he was, Rhys knew that just looking. Strong enough to crush him, if it wanted to.

Hey. Rhys.

Been hogging the body a little long, haven’t you?

Chapter Text

Yvette was thirstier than she had ever been in her entire life.

It turned out, storming out into the desert still pretty goddamn drunk with a leg under your arm was a dumbass idea. Hours into the trek, her throat like scraping sandpaper and her skull tight and head throbbing, the Pandora morning sun searing her skin off and the bionic leg a dead weight under her arm, Yvette was coming to the slow conclusion that she had just done something very, very, very fucking stupid.

Like hell she was going back now.

Everything else aside. She’d wandered in lumbering weird lines for a while, and had no idea how to get back. But mostly, she wasn’t going back to that shit. She wasn’t going back to the Rhys fanclub, or Sasha and her ‘teehee Yvette, I’m gonna flirt with you and screw you over at the exact same time just like every asshole on Helios, but still act like I’m morally superior’…thing.

She checked her ECHO comm again – the nearest settlement was still…urgh, four hours walk away. She should have took a runner. It wasn’t like drink-driving was illegal on Pandora. It’s not like anything was.

There was a rumbling in the distance. Yvette twisted around – a runner was following her.

She slung the leg over her shoulder and continued, fast as she could with her crutch and her spinning head.

The vehicle behind her honked as it came up to ride beside her. Yvette kept her gaze forward.

“Yvette!” Sasha cried, hanging out of the open door, her hand gripping a handle on the ceiling. She looked like crap – her hair was a mess, whipping around in the wind, her clothes rumpled, still the same stuff she had been wearing last night. Behind her, Yvette caught a glimpse of Vaughn in the driver’s seat, looking as though he’d rather be in coated in skag pheromones and dumped in their nest during a heat.

Yvette kept going, her crutch sinking into the sand and sticking with each step, and her steps slow and heavy, but she wasn’t about to stop.

Why had they even came back for her. What was even the point. She was disposable, after all, Rhys had proven that already by leaving her in that cell, the Children of Helios had proven it by mutilating her and keeping her trapped. God fucking damnit.

“Go away, Sasha!” Yvette bellowed.

“No! Yvette, what are you doing?” Sasha said, throwing a hand up, “What did you think you were going to do, just walk out of Helios and just…just wander into town or something?”

“Better than being back there,” she hissed.

“Really? Better than you know…running water and electricity and…you know…people who actually…urgh!” Sasha said, words failing her. Yvette shot her a glare.

“People who actually what, Sasha? Lie? Screw me over?” Yvette said, “Because, you know what, I can get plenty of that out here!”

“Out here. Really, you thought running out here with no supplies, no car, and one extra leg more than you need, was a great idea? Really?” Sasha said.

“At least here, I don’t have to listen to ‘Ooh, Rhys was so great, he was soooo brave and sooooooo heroic’ all the live long day!”

Sasha slammed her hand on the side of the runner over and over.

“You! Are! So! Stupid!” she shouted, punctuating each word with a thump of her fist against the doorframe, “Yvette, you’re the one who brings him up all the time! If anyone’s obsessed with him, it’s you! And when we get him back, I am going to lock both of you in a goddamn supply closet until you work this out.”

“Well, you – you’re always! You – you!”

Yvette really wished she’d had less to drink the night before. She’d be so much better at this argument if she hadn’t drank all of Vasquez’s liquor collection just a few hours ago.

“Vaughn!” Sasha said, turning to look over her shoulder Vaughn, who hunched under her glare, “Tell her, it’s always her that brings him up! She’s being ridiculous!”

“I’m – I’m just driving the car here!” Vaughn said, determinedly looking out of the opposite window, “Sort it out yourselves. But just so you know, Yvette, I had nothing do with this! This was all Sasha, the whole holding-your-leg-hostage thing!”

“Coward,” Sasha snapped.

“Don’t call him that!” Yvette barked back.

“Oh, so you care about Vaughn all of a sudden?”

“I’ve been friends with him for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve been!”

“Didn’t stop you stabbing him in the back!”

“Like you can talk about anyone stabbing people in the back!”

Sasha gripped the handle on the ceiling with both hands and leaned out.

“Yvette, listen.”

“I am not interested in listening to you,” Yvette said, continuing to thump through the sand, her good leg, then crutch, then other leg, her prosthetic beating against her back. Sasha took in a deep breath.

“I’m sorry. I just…I thought you’d run as soon as you got what you needed, and we needed you, and I just. It was a safeguard,” Sasha said. Yvette shook her head. It was exactly the explanation she’d envisioned, but it didn’t exactly make her feel any better about the whole thing. “I should…I shouldn’t have done it. It was a dirty trick.”

Yvette stopped. The runner kept going for a few metres then stopped. Sasha leaned out of the door, looking at her, actually halfway embarrassed for once. She scratched the back of her neck with the muzzle of her SMG.

After a moment, Yvette huffed a sigh.

“Well, you know. I was going to run after they made this thing,” she said, brandishing the leg.

Sasha, to her relief, only laughed.

“See. Can you blame me for taking precautions?”

“Well, I was changing my mind at that point,” Yvette admitted. It was true enough. The Children of Helios was comfortable, when she got used to the fact she was essentially running a cult around a guy who had left her to die painfully in a cell. Which was, admittedly, a pretty big hurdle.

But…she knew who she was there, and what she could do. She didn’t have to struggle and scrape for the bare minimum to keep herself alive, like she did on the rest of Pandora.

Thing was, Children of Helios…the longer she stayed, the more she saw herself becoming another garden variety bandit. She hadn’t went to college for so long, worked so goddamn hard to climb the corporate ladder, to just end up some scummy Pandoran murderer, destined to be gunned down by a Vault Hunter with a more important destiny than hers.

Yet…well…

“You know, I was changing my mind too,” Sasha said.

Yvette fell quiet.

“About you, I mean.”

Yvette remained silent.

“I mean, at first I thought you were this enormous manipulative Hyperion jackass with no loyalty for her friends, exhibiting really the worst of Hyperion’s –“

“Uh, not exactly selling your point here,” Yvette said.

“No – just! You’re…you know. You’re clearly not that simple, I mean,” Sasha said, “I guess, you know, nobody is, really? I…urgh.”

“Yeah. I mean, if we’re talking first impressions, I thought you were a scruffy idiot Pandoran with no impulse control and an unhealthy taste for violence,” Yvette said, very quickly, “I…uh, was partially wrong.”

“Partially?”

“You really do have no impulse control,” she admitted, “But relatively speaking, how much fun you have killing people is pretty normal. For this planet. Anywhere else you’d have been locked up by now.”

“You’re kind of digging yourself a hole there, Yvette,” Vaughn called from the driver’s seat. Yvette shot him a dark look and he turned away, humming to himself and turning up the radio with a look of utmost innocence.

Sasha just sort of looked at her.

“Sorry. Probably should have you know...” Sasha trailed off and sighed, shrugging, “You were in a lot of pain, I knew that, and I still just…I just wanted my sister back. I’m sorry.”

Yvette nodded. They fell silent, Sasha fixing her with a weird, expectant look. Yvette sort of just wanted to blurt out ‘what?’, but she didn’t think that was the right response.

Vaughn picked at his nails.

“Well...if you want a big speech on how I’ve learnt the value of trust or…whatever –“ Yvette began.

Sasha laughed.

“I’ll be waiting a long time. I know,” Sasha said, fixing her with a meaningful look, “That’s not what I want.”

Well then.

“…Kind of forward, but yeah. I think we can…finish what we started.”

Vaughn hit his forehead against the steering wheel with a loud HOOOOOOOOONK. Sasha started to laugh, just barely managing to stop herself falling out of the runner, one hand gripping the door-frame and the other on her gut.

“I’m talking about an apology! You moron!” Sasha shouted, between breathless gasps of laughter, “Oh my God, my eyes are watering.”

Ah.

That.

“Oh.”

“We can finish what we started…who talks like that Yvette, oh my God.”

“Oh shut up! I haven’t slept and Hyperion…everyone talked like that and…and I’ve only got one leg!” Yvette blurted out, aware that as far as arguments went it was beyond weak.

“You’ve technically got three right now,” Sasha said, pointing at the leg slung over her shoulder.

Yvette put her hand on her hip, doing her best cool, indifferent Hyperion hipster face, raising her chin just an inch. And another. The trick was to look like you didn’t respect them at all.

Sasha raised an eyebrow at her.

“Alright. I forgive you. Get in the damn car,” Sasha said, shaking her head, offering her a hand.

“I didn’t say sorry yet,” Yvette said..

“Yeah, well, nobody can look that pathetic and still be refused forgiveness. It’s like the law,” Sasha said, gesturing with her fingers, “C’mon. You look like shit.”

Yvette took her hand and stumbled into the runner, flopping onto the backseat. Vaughn passed her a canister of water, giving her the most despairing look she’d ever been fixed with in her life.

Well, that was it. Her life was ruined. She was less cool than Vaughn. Rock bottom had a new name and its name was Yvette.

Or maybe she was hung-over and melodramatic. She took a swig of water.

“Vaughn, think we can swing by the nearest town on the way back?” Sasha said as they started to move again, squashing a skag pup under their wheels with only the barest whimper from Vaughn.

“Need painkillers? I do…I kind of…I kind of forgot mine,” Yvette muttered, leaning her head against the back of the seat and closing her eyes.                                               

“No. We need a surgeon who can finally attach that stupid leg to you,” Sasha replied, “After you’re rehydrated.”

“I am not getting my leg attached at one of those filthy Pandoran clinics!” Yvette blurted out, hitting her head on the ceiling. She fell back, clutching her scalp. Sasha rolled her eyes and turned, elbow on the shoulder of the passenger seat.

“I said we need a surgeon, Yvette, not a clinic,” she said, waggling a finger.

“The Children of Helios do need more medical staff,” Vaughn said.

“Do we really have time for a detour?” Yvette asked, rubbing her head, “Don’t the Children of Helios freak out when Dad’s gone?”

“Please don’t refer to me as their Dad,” Vaughn said, pulling open a map on his ECHO comm and finding the nearest, biggest settlement, “And I mean…yeah but. This is for you, Yvette. And despite what you may think, we are still friends. Screw it. They can handle themselves for a night.”

“Well, I guess Loader Bot and Gortys are there to babysit,” Yvette said, curling into a ball in the backseat and closing her eyes. She was so ready for a damn nap.

“Uh. Not exactly,” Sasha said, “They are…kind of AWOL.”

Yvette opened an eye.

“What?”

 

“That went well!” Gortys chirped, sat with the caravan on her lap, strapping the console to the roof. Loader Bot sat on her shoulder with his rifle drawn, keeping watch over the horizon. They’d managed to outrun the panicked bandits and mercenaries that had starting shooting at them the second they’d crashed through the ceiling of the warehouse…taking some other buildings with them.

Whoops. Well, she wasn’t the best at spatial awareness, and she had gotten overexcited!

“We likely could have been more discrete,” Loader Bot said.

Psssshaw, LB! Don’t worry so much! We didn’t hurt anyone, and I’m sure it’ll be like, a funny story later,” Gortys said, “Okay! Strapped on good and tight. Loader, I kind of want to be small again, soooo…hop off, sailor!”

“Going overboard,” Loader Bot agreed, jumping down as Gortys uninstalled her beacon.

She probably should have figured out how to do that the first time she fought the Traveller.

Oh well!

“My turn to drive!” Gortys said.

“Then my turn on the radio,” Loader Bot responded, and then at her offended expression, “It’s only fair.”

“Well, okay. But…let me talk to the Children of Helios when we get home!”

“Of course. You are more the people person anyway.”

 

Systems rebooting…initialising start-up…ECHO net connection not found…entering offline mode….

Good morning, sunshine! The earth says, hello! You are super duper fucked up!

Rhys shifted, groaned, blinking up at the canopy of leaves above him, the paling night sky through the trees. His face throbbed with a dull ach, and he tried to touch it and see how bad the damage was – his cybernetic arm didn’t budge. Still offline.

Great.

Rebooting cybernetics…

As the sensation returned to his arm, Rhys twisted his head. A few feet away, Jack sat at the roots of a tree, a branch by his side, with a smear of blood across the bark. Welp, that solved the mystery of the most recent damage to Rhys’s face. Something looked off about Jack too, but Rhys couldn’t figure out what it was.

Rhys’s shirt was unbuttoned, scratches all across his chest, across his collarbone and birthmarks.

Well. At least he wasn’t naked this time.

He sat up and Jack jumped, grabbing the branch from the floor and brandishing it.

“Woah, Jack, calm down!” Rhys blurted out, scrambling out of the way, his hands over his face.

What the hell was going on? He wiped some blood from his nose and lip with the back of his hand – stung like hell.

Rhys was sure he should be able to remember being hit in the face with a branch.

Jack stared at him for a second and then lowered the branch. Rhys nodded, making what he hoped was soothing gestures. He felt like he was attempting to calm down a cornered animal – he just had no idea why. Jack was agitated when he ran off, but he wasn’t like this, just pissed off and, well, probably kind of embarrassed.

Though it was weird to think that was an emotion he was even capable of.

“Uh. Soooooo,” Rhys said, “What?”

“Huh,” Jack said.

“Hey, right. Not to make this weird or anything –“ Jack snorted. “- but uh. So. I’m blanking a little on maybe. The past few hours. Would be pretty interested in knowing what happened.”

“Hm.”

“Yep. Really just. Would like an explanation right now,” Rhys continued.

“…Mm.”

“You know, just. If only there was someone who really, really liked the sound of his own voice, who witnessed something, and could maaaybe shed some light on what’s going on. You know. Rather than just shaking a stick at me.”

“…” Jack’s fingers twitched, motors whirring like he was getting ready to zip off if Rhys moved too quickly.

“Urgh! Okay, Jack, I never thought I’d be saying this, but, this would be a great time for one of your long-winded rants,” Rhys said. Jack actually shutting up for once was just…bizarre. It was making him feel awkward as all hell, even more awkward than the fact he had apparently done something that had legitimately freaked Jack out.

He and Jack had had many problems, but, bizarrely, being awkward wasn’t one of them. It felt weird.

Jack put the branch down, releasing it with a clunk as it hit the grass. Rhys finally noticed what looked so off about him.

“Jack? Where’s your antennae?”

Jack pointed – the antennae, snapped off at the base, lay next to Rhys, bent in the middle where a fist had grabbed it and pulled.

“Uh,” Rhys said, looking between the antennae and Jack, “I’m guessing that was me?”

“Wow. You aren’t just acting dumb, are you?” he replied, “I mean, I thought you were just being cute, but seriously, you don’t remember a thing?”

Rhys shook his head.

“Woo! Ha, well! This is a doozy, Rhys, really,” he said, “Where do I begin with this one, cupcake? I mean, I was kind of waiting for you to wake up so I could ask you myself, but hey, turns out you got about as much an idea as I do.”

“Oh my God, just tell me what happened already,” Rhys replied, scowling.

“I’m getting to it, pumpkin,” he said, “I mean, alright, first of all you rummaged around in my head, still traumatic by the way, and then didn’t apologise –“

“Yes. I did.”

“So I very calmly left to give us both some space –“

“No, you didn’t.”

“Rhys, can I tell my dang story or not?” he said, “You know, I think we really need to talk about how we communicate, cupcake. Your listening skills, I gotta say, they leave much to be desired, cupcake, I mean you can’t ask a guy to tell you a story, and then keep interrupting. It’s bad manners.”

Rhys gave him a frosty look.

“Aaaand, you know, I…might have…things I need to work on too. Maybe,” Jack admitted. It sounded like it physically pained him. Rhys shook his head but gestured for him to continue.

“Anyway, so. Once I’d cooled off from the, you know, existential horror, I was just gonna head back and listen to you grovel for my forgiveness. Couldn’t find you at first, but then I started following the screaming and yelling. Assumed you were in some idiot situation with the Eridians – getting roast over a spit or somethin’. So I came here and you were just sorta…dunno, walking around ranting to yourself, that arm of yours hanging off your shoulder like a dead weight. Let me tell you, Rhys – super weird.”

Rhys chewed on his lip. None of it even sounded familiar.

Jack could be lying.

He couldn’t take that for granted. In fact, Jack could well have just hit him in the face, knocked him out, and was now cooking up some crazy story to make Rhys feel even more unhinged, just to get back at him for prodding into that memory with Angel.

Goddamnit. That was probably exactly what happened.

“What then?” he asked anyway, curious about whatever fresh bullshit Jack was about to cook up all the same.

“Well, then you started yelling at me, all stuff that didn’t make sense, and then you wrenched my antennae off – unnecessary and painful, by the way – and started trying to undress and scratch your nips off, so you know, hit you with a branch,” Jack said, with a shrug, “Yep.”

Rhys pulled his knees to his chest and folded his arm around them. Sounded like horse shit to him, but, well.

“Are you doing this?” he blurted out.

“Doing what? Making you act like a weirdo? Ha ha ha…sweetheart, you don’t need my help with that,” Jack said, and then prodded him on the nose, “And you need my help with a lot of things, buddy.”

Rhys took a deep breath, rubbing his forehead.

“Listen, I want an actual answer from you here, so for once, just spare me the bullshit.”

“Me? BS you?”

”Shut up, listen. Are you doing…something to my head?” Rhys said, tapping his neural port with a finger.

“…Really, you’re asking me this? After you just rummaged around in my brain?” Jack replied, folding his arms, “Rhys, you know what, a couple years ago I would have hurled you out of an airlock for that. …I mean, okay, a year ago I’d have probably hurled your scrawny socially awkward butt out of an airlock two seconds after meeting you, and I mean, let’s face it, you would have died with a simply enormous boner. Heh, imagine that. A world where I didn’t get stuck living in your weirdly well-shaped skull.”

Fuck.

Jack seriously didn’t seem to know. Rhys didn’t know whether that was good or bad news.

Rhys huffed out a laugh and pressed his hand into his face, and then found he couldn’t stop.

“Oh boy, there you go with that again,” Jack sighed, and reached for the branch.

“No, no! I don’t need to be hit in the face!” Rhys said, holding out his hands, “Just, uh. What was I talking about?”

“Eeh, mostly you just insulted me. Oh yeah, that reminds me,” he said, and punched him on the shoulder. It didn’t really hurt. “You’re a dick.”

Oh man. Well.

“Eh…yeah, well,” Rhys said, standing up and stretching, “Ooooh boy. Okay. Okay, this is fine. I am…fine! Fine. Absolutely fine!”

“Rhys, you know, if there’s anything that screams ‘a guy in a really good stable mental state’, it’s a half-naked dude repeating ‘I’m fine’ to himself over and over,” Jack commented, “Hey, Rhysie, not that I give a runny skag turd but, are you like, eeeeeuuuugh, you know…like, are you…urgh, alright?”

Rhys rubbed his head, looking up and taking a breath deep into his chest and releasing it with a long, low whistle through his teeth. Well. He had to tell someone eventually. Since apparently his flawless strategy of ‘pretend it’s not there’ wasn’t exactly doing much to stop the rapid deterioration of his mental stability.

“Okay, uh, here goes, uh…” he said and turned to him, “Okay, I am…kiiiind of having problems at the minute.”

“Kind of figured that much out, Rhys, you think I can’t tell when a guy’s keeping a secret? Now,  c’mon, spill. On the edge of my seat here,” he said, and then glanced down at himself, “…Eh, so to speak.”

“Hahaha, I mean, it’s not big deal but, well,” he said, and tapped his head, “I’m kind of seeing things. And hearing things. I mean, at first it kind of sounded like you, but lately it doesn’t sound like anyone, and I think they are…you know, remember when you acted like an ass and took over my body?”

“Ha. Yeah. Good times,” he said, “Sasha can sure throw a punch, though. I gotta say, I respect that in a woman. Like, if it hadn’t knocked me out instantly it probably would have given me such a hard-on.”

“Yeah, okay, I am just going to ignore that last thing you said forever if that’s good with you. It is, okay, great. Anyway. I think that happened again,” Rhys said, “The uh, someone else taking over my body thing, not the Sasha punching me – us – whatever thing. Or you getting a boner. Or…me getting a boner, I guess, urgh.”

“Yeah, the temporarily shared dick thing is a bit of a mindscrew, ain’t it?” Jack said, “So, you’re nuts. That’s news. I mean, not really, makes sense, saw you scrape out a bit of your brain with a frigging shard of glass. By the way, that was the most balls to the walls crazy move I’ve freaking seen, like, seriously. How did you even survive that?”

“I’m hardy,” Rhys muttered.

“You’re the friggin’ titanium boy is what you are, Rhys,” Jack said, “Is that it though? I mean, your big secret – you’re nuts? I mean, I kind of already knew that.”

“Yep. There it is,” he said, sighing.

“Huh. Really, nothing else, Rhys? Nothing else you wanna…get off your chest?”

“Nope. That is…legitimately it.”

“Hm.”

“You know, you’re really under-reacting,” Rhys said, irritated despite himself. Jack could at least act like this was important, rather than just a mildly amusing factoid.

“Hey, come on, really, do I seem like a pinnacle of mental stability to you? This is nothing new to me, cupcake,” Jack said, laughing, and then, “Huh, you know, the fact I can even recognise that I am a mouth-frothing lunatic…you know, ha ha, this is probably the most lucid I’ve been in a long while. Like, what is that about? Hahaha.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you are really capable of steering any conversation back to yourself?” Rhys replied. Jack shrugged.

“Well, I am very interesting. You of all people should know that.”

Rubbing his face with his hands, Rhys shook his head.

“Okay, let’s go find Fiona, I need to tell her too –“

“Woah, woah, woaaah, time out!” Jack said, wheeling around to stand in front of him, arms splayed out, “Rhysie, that is a terrible idea. Now I love Hat, we all do, but do you really think she’ll take this well? You don’t tell people about these things.”

“But she’s –“

“Oh, oh, that’s precious, you’re about to say ‘but she’s my friend’, aren’t you?” Rhys closed his mouth tightly. Damnit. That was exactly what he was going to say.

“Really, Rhys, that’s cute, warms my heart or…circuitry…or whatever it is I’ve got. But remember when you told her about me, how well that went?” Jack continued.

“This is different,” Rhys muttered.

“No, now listen to me. What do you think is gonna happen? You’re gonna tell her, and she’s going to be sympathetic and give you a big cuddle, then when we get back to Pandora, you’re going to go to some nice cosy hospital, staffed by hot nurses that think you’re just a dear? Where you do yoga in the mornings and art therapy on the afternoon? Rhys. This is not Eden-5,” Jack said very quickly, “You know, if this was the kind of place Pandora was, do you think there’d be this many shirtless guys running around screaming about salting meat?”

“That’s not what I thought would happen!”

“No, Rhys, you didn’t think about what would happen. Now, listen. Uncle Jack here, he is gonna level with you. I am just trying to look out for that pretty little head of yours. You know what happens when someone on Pandora thinks there’s something wrong with you?” he said, “They don’t take any chances or ask questions, there’s no gentle little interventions or conversations. They just murder you because you’re a threat. That is what you’ll get for telling anyone about this.”

He’s got a point.

Rhys ground his teeth together. Goddamnit.

He did. He wasn't back home any more, he couldn't go back to his Mom and find a good doctor (or...uh...a software engineer, as the case may well be) and deal with it that way. And most people on Pandora wouldn't have any sympathy, or any patience. Especially if he was dangerous. And Rhys had been dangerous to begin with - he'd pulled down a whole friggin' space station. His body count was nothing to sniff at. Throw that, his history as a Hyperion scumbag, and some Handsome Jack-esque instability into the mix and Rhys wasn't sure he could make a convincing case to the average Pandoran about why he shouldn't be shot dead where he stood.

“Juuust stick with me, alright, cupcake?” Jack said, and Rhys recognised that tone of voice, “I’ll watch your back.”

“No.”

“What?”

“No. Fuck you.”

“Uh, excuse me, what?” Jack repeated, “Here I am, trying to offer you my sage and learned advice and –“

“No, you know what, screw you,” Rhys said fiercely, “I know exactly what you’re doing. It’s what you’re always doing. You want me to keep this a secret and only talk to you about it because you think that way you’ll have control of me or have me to yourself or…whatever creepiness is going through your head right now.”

“I – what that - that is not what I'm - I am looking out for you here, buddy!”

“You know what, I think you believe that too, I don’t know if all your manipulation crap is conscious or subconscious or what, but you know what, you don’t get to do it,” he continued, folding his arms.

“What, so you’re going to tell Fiona, then?” Jack snapped. Rhys hesitating, thinking for a moment longer.

Fiona was great but she wasn't...sensitive, exactly. She also had a hell of a temper, and acted faster than she thought. Not a good combination.

“No.”

“Ha! See, you know I’m –“

“But the second we get back, I’m telling Vaughn.”

“That…you think telling your little dweeby body-builder buddy is a better idea?” Jack said, “I am telling you, you idiot, don’t –“

“Jack, shut up. You know what? I’ve beaten you once, and you’re only here because I decided to keep you alive so. No. No, you don’t get to call me an idiot, and you don’t get to tell me what’s best,” Rhys said with finality, “I’m telling Vaughn, and you are just going to have to trust me that it’s the best idea.”

“I – what – but –“ Jack spluttered, “That’s…stupid! Rhys, come on, take it from a guy who needs your head intact, you can’t –“

“You know, come to think about it, you always talk about me needing to trust you, has it ever really went the other way around? It kind of hasn’t,” Rhys said, twisting his mouth, “Seems kind of unfair.”

“Rhys, come on, listen to me, I’m older and wiser and –“

“Technically, you’re not,” Rhys interrupted.

“Whaddya mean technically! Are we back on this whole…I’m an AI thing again? I thought we were past that!” Jack blurted out. Rhys smirked.

“Ha. Well, uh, one memory I bumped into…that was sort of you being born, wasn’t it?” Rhys said, starting to laugh, “Timestamped five years ago. You’re five, Jack.”

“What! No! Rhys, shut up!” Jack barked back, the flaps over his arms twitching, “This is not funny, you little prick.”

“It’s a little funny,” Rhys said into his hand, “But…I’m serious, Jack. I’m telling Vaughn. He won’t flip. Trust me.”

“Urgh, Rhys, I – just – urgh! But – ”

“Rhys! Jacktrap!” called a voice, “Is that you?”

Rhys saw a figure approaching through the trees, as well a pale, vibrating light bobbing up and down nearby.

Rhys turned the light on his arm on and waved, bringing Fiona’s face into light. Man, he hadn’t noticed how haggard she was looking lately. Next to each other, they probably looked like a stray pair of cave people.

“Yeah, we’re over here!”

“But –“ Jack continued stuttering to himself, “What –“

Fiona emerged from the trees, Dickfeeder hovering by her side. She stared between them, mostly gawking at Rhys’s face. He rubbed his eye self-consciously.

“Where the hell did you two go?” he said, and then snapped at Jack, “Why does Rhys’s face look like that? I swear, if you’ve done something –“

“Fiona, we’re fine,” Rhys interrupted, not sure whether he was touched or embarrassed by her concern. Did she think he was totally helpless? Christ. If that was what people thought, he seriously needed to do some reputation management.

She looked at him, her mouth pulled sideways in a frown.

“We just had a fight, that’s all, we’re good now,” Rhys continued, and then tapped the top of Jack’s head with his palm, “Right Jack?”

“I – uh, yeah, sorry, kinda saw a blue screen for a second there. Minor identity crisis, don’t worry about it, Jack said.

“I wasn’t going to,” Fiona snarled, “What happened?”

"Like Rhys said. He interfaced with me, poked around my personal sexual history for no apparent reason, had a little stimulated memory-sex with my ex-girlfriend, totally freaked me out, argument, we’re good now. That’s the long and short of it.”

“She didn’t need that level of detail,” Rhys muttered. Fiona was looking at both of them with a weary expression.

“Well…the last time you two had an argument people literally died so…” Fiona said, and shrugged, “Well done, I guess. You guys are really making progress. Way to go!"

“Gee, thanks,” Rhys muttered.

“So, what now?” Jack asked, looking at Rhys, “I mean with our domestic out the way.”

Fiona folded her arms, looking at him. Oh. Yeah. Important things he had almost entirely forgotten about.

“Well, uh…oh, yeah, Gortys called me,” he said, and began to explain, about how Gortys called him, and had stolen the caravan and was looking for an upgrade that could pull them back to Pandora,.

Dickfeeder settled on Rhys’s shoulders as Rhys spoke, dropping a hunk of eridium the size of his fist at his feet. He sighed and scooped it up, shoving it into his pocket. At least they’d make a decent little profit selling eridium when they got back. Since the Vault hadn’t supplied them with a treasure more exciting than medium-grade monster loot and the galaxy’s shittiest camping trip, that was the least it could do, really.

“Uh. Sooo, lemme check I got this straight - we’re just relying on the little robot to save us?” Jack said, “Wow. Wow. I really have come down in the world.”

“Hey, Gortys might pull through for us on this! She has before,” Rhys argued.

“I dunno, Rhys, I mean, maybe we should –“ Fiona began.

Rhys’s ECHO eye flashed.

Call from: GORTYS

Well, speak of the devil.

Chapter Text

It was dark when Yvette woke up. Her leg felt like it was being pricked, over and over, with a thousand needles. Rusty needles. That were on fire. And full of arsenic. Vaughn was slumped against her, dribbling against her arm and whistling through his nose as he snored. A blanket covered both of them, threadbare and patterned with little cartoon Claptraps. The surgeon and nurses they had picked up in town were still trailing behind them in their runner, their headlights the only light for miles.

In the front seat, Sasha had her elbow against the dashboard, propping her chin up against her palm. Elpis was full in the sky above, luminescent against the dark night sky. The runner’s radio had lost all signal, emitting only a soft buzzing. Almost a comforting noise, really.

Sasha didn’t seem to notice. It looked as though she’d been lost in thought for a while.

It wasn’t often Yvette saw Sasha looking...contained. She was almost always fighting, or sassing someone, or losing her temper. To see her looking small against the night sky, quiet and thoughtful, almost-fragile-but-not-really, well. It was a rare sight. Like seeing a really rare…bird or something.

Nicer than that, maybe. Would be even nicer if Yvette wasn't in pain and they hadn't just been yelling at each other.

She shifted to try and deal with the fucking agony in her leg and Sasha jumped, turning around in her seat.

“Hey. You’re awake,” Sasha said, quietly. Next to Yvette, Vaughn shifted but stayed asleep. Yvette knew from plenty of occurrences of Vaughn sleeping at his desk or on her couch that the man wouldn't budge for anything less than a thunderstorm. 

“Yeah, guess so,” Yvette replied, and then with a level of venom she instantly regretted, “Not a problem is it?”

Sasha sighed, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.

“No…no, it’s not a problem, Yvette. Don't be - don't be stupid."

They fell silent, just the sound of the Pandoran wildlife, Vaughn's snoring, and the white noise on the radio padding the distance between them.

"How’s your…everything, I guess?” Sasha asked finally, gesturing vaguely at her. It was awkward, God, it was awkward. How did Yvette always manage to do this? They had been getting along perfectly fine. Well, better than fine, almost. If Sasha wasn't just an impulsive, horny drunk. Which seemed likely. God, she was a fucking idiot.

“Okay,” she muttered finally.

“Yvette.”

“No. Hurts like hell,” she said, conscious of how tight her voice was.

“Mm.”

They drove past a pack of skags. Most of them asleep curled up in the sand, one big one lumbering around them in a big circle. It turned to stare at them as they passed, eyes glowing, stance wide and ready to leap, but relaxed as they went past.

Rakks flew overhead, for once silent. Just dark triangles against the night sky, moving in small flocks, growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

And other things in the Pandoran night. Human figures in the distance, moving slow and solitary through the sand, a gun over their shoulder. Animals, too far away to be identified, moving in loping packs or in big thudding steps alone, their shadows bulging and misshapen against the Elpis light.

Yvette wondered what this planet would look like if things had been different. If Dahl hadn’t landed, and abandoned under-educated ex-convicts after things went sour. If Hyperion hadn’t torn the crust of the planet apart for eridium and Vaults. If every powerful damn human in the galaxy hadn’t used this planet as their own personal dumping ground.

It was a stupid thing to think about, really. Hypotheticals. Yvette was kind of sick of dealing in hypotheticals – what if Rhys and Vaughn died on Pandora, what if Vasquez became her boss, what if she needed to deal with this, what if this guy took over, what if what if. Strategies and back-up plans and placing lines in people just in case she needed them. It was exhausting.

The night was breaking apart, sky paling to dawn pink. That was probably a bad thing – the local bandits would be getting rowdy after their night time partying, raring for a fight. The animals would start to wake, ready for breakfast. Yvette was weirdly glad to see the sunrise all the same.

“Helios is probably on fire by now,” Sasha said quietly, breaking the silence between them, “Vaughn has been gone for longer than five minutes. The faction wars have probably escalated to outright fist fights.”

“Ha. Yeah. We’re barely holding all those idiots together,” Yvette agreed. Sasha nodded, half-smiling.

She reached backwards to offer her hand.

Yvette hooked their fingers together, thumb rubbing circles against the side of her hand. Sasha leaned back, her eyes forward set on the road, biting her lip hard, but she didn’t take her hand away.

 

“Alright, everyone listen up!”

Below her, the Children of Helios looked…confused. Gortys supposed most of them have never really spoken to her, so that was kind of natural! They probably didn’t realise she wasn’t just a dumb little robot.

All the same, a lot of them had gathered in the Hub of Heroism to hear her plan, so they must be at least a little interested!

Next to her, Loader Bot stood with a shotgun in his hands. He nodded at her to go on. Gortys turned back to the crowd, leaning over the railings of the platform.

“Okay, so…um, Rhys and Fiona need our help! They are on a mission, but now they need a way home, and I have a plan,” Gortys said, “So, we have a bunch of new technology that I’m gonna need you guys to help install!”

The Children of Helios murmured amongst themselves, some fidgeting. Some walked off, others began checking their ECHO comms, but Gortys thrust on. She’d seen Vaughn talk to them before – this kind of stuff was normal! ‘Like herding cats’, he said. Gortys didn’t really know what a cat was, but she was sure she agreed.

“Where are they?” one Child of Helios said, hands on their hips, frowning up at her.

“They’re Vault Hunting,” Gortys said proudly, “Now, if you guys could go take the console for the caravan and install it in my office, that would be great! I’ll also need someone to have a look and figure out how it works!”

“Why should we listen to you?” another called out, scowling at her.                      

“Weeeelll…I have candy for our employee of the month!” she said, hands behind her back and beaming down at all of them, “And you’d be really, really, really doing me a favour!”

The Children of Helios looked unconvinced.

Loader Bot conspicuously loaded his shotgun.

The Children of Helios got to work.

“Alright!” Gortys said cheerfully, watching the humans scatter in different directions, some heading towards the garage, others heading up Gortys’s office, some just going, probably to hang out in the kitchen or to go submit a complaint.

Well! Some of them were doing what was needed to be done! That was the important thing.

“You know, telling people what to do is pretty fun!” Gortys said, smiling up at Loader Bot.

I’M SURE THE NOVELTY WILL WEAR OFF, Loader Bot said.

Something beeped in the corner of her eye.

“Oh!” she said, “Rhys is back online! Hold on, I’ll call him!”

Loader Bot crouched down beside her as she pulled the comm screen up. Rhys’s face appeared on the screen, the image still grainy. He looked tired – his hair messy, his face pale, and…there was a big shining purple-blue bruise blooming across his right eye. Well. That was bad!

“Um, Rhys,” she began, “Are you, alright?”

Rhys blinked a few times, glanced away to the side. There was some kind of noise in the background, but Gortys couldn’t quite make what it was out. She tilted her head, and Rhys looked up, offering her a wobbly smile.

“Yeah! I mean…” he said, touching his eye, “Uh, don’t worry, okay? What’s going on?”

  

“Gortys!” Fiona yelled, shoving Rhys aside so she could join him on the ECHO call. Gortys lit up the second she got a glimpse of Fiona – quite literally.

“Fiona! You’re okay!” she said, “I mean, you look like you kind of need a wash and some new make-up and wow your hair looks kinda gross, but…”

Rhys hid a snigger behind his hand and made a mental note to give Gortys a brief lesson on the human concept of ‘tact’. Fiona frowned, but dissolved back into an indulgent smile quickly enough. It was a good job Gortys was freakishly loveable. He wondered if that was an intentional feature of her design, or something more natural. What was the point of making a Vault-hunting robot cute or nice anyway?

“Hey, that Gortys? Lemme see!” Jack said from below, trying to grab onto Rhys’s arm.

“Oooh, who’s that? Have you guys made a new friend? Is that the bug guy talking?” Gortys piped up, excited. Rhys tensed - he couldn't imagine what a terrible idea it was to expose Gortys to Jack. It could only end horribly. The poor little robot's innocence needed protecting at least that much.

“Not exactly,” Rhys muttered, swatting Jack away. Jack huffed and tried to force his way into the frame. After a few moments of struggling, involving Jack beeping like a particularly obnoxious alarm clock and Rhys whipping him across the eye with his own antennae, Jack relented, tucking his wheel and arms back into his chassis and settling on the grass.

“So what’s happening with you right now, Gortys?” Fiona said quickly.

“Oh, um, right! So, we are setting up one half of the upgrade now. But, we still have to get this other bit to you guys,” she said, waving a small box in view of the camera, “So, we already have a connection, so that’s good. If you guys could send…I dunno, a sort of map of where you guys have been wandering, I could sort of figure out how to send it. It’s small, so it should get there securely! I mean, if you guys wanna skip that bit, I could try dragging you guys back with the connection we’ve got.”

“Yes, yes! Screw this, I’m so sick of this stupid jungle and these two idiots! Bring us home now!” Fiona said.

“Okay! I mean, there’s kind of a small risk you guys might end up…dying, or it not working, or you’ll fuse together in a weird fleshy mess, or you’ll end up stuck between the Vault dimension and ours forever ever and ever and ever but –“

Fiona sighed.

“Never mind. Let’s…do it the annoying complicated way,” Fiona said, and then looked at Rhys, “Happy, Rhys? We’re finally doing things the way you like them.”

“That is…not how I like doing things,” he muttered.

“Ha, it so is,” Jack added.

“Yay! Okay, so, you guys have been mapping out where you are, right?” Gortys said. Rhys stared at her blankly, but she just continued chattering away, oblivious to the startled, open-mouth looks both Rhys and Fiona were giving her.

“I mean, you guys have been there for like, ages now, you must have been documenting what you’ve been finding, where you’ve been walking, all that stuff! It’s so easy to do with all of Rhys’s cybernetics too!”

Rhys and Fiona looked at one another.

“Uh.”

“Um.”

“Those sound like encouraging noises! C’mon, send me that map, you amateur cartographers!”

“Uh, Gortys, we –“

“Oh my God, you two suck so much,” Jack said, snorting, his eye tilting to look up at Rhys, “Rhys, catch.”

Image file sent from local unit: CL4P-TP503413-R. Accept and open?

“…You’ve been mapping this place?” he said, startled. That was actually…a half-way good idea. One that didn’t involve violence. Rhys was impressed.

“Yeah. ‘Cause I’m not a moron.”

Well. Okay. That was...good, Rhys supposed.

He was still putting it through his virus scan first.

A dozen or so times.

And opening it in quarantine.

“Uh, Rhys, are you okay, you’re kind of, all slack-jawed and weird,” Fiona asked, staring at him, “Not that that’s that unusual, I mean you space out a lot lately.”

“Oh, he’s just messing with his internal memory files,” Gortys said, blinking, “Can’t you tell?”

Rhys blinked, closing his mouth and wiping a spot of drool from his lower lip with his sleeve.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine. Just. Wow…this file is…actually clean,” Rhys said. He was at least expecting there to be some crappy shock image attached or something.

“Uh, yeah, what I got to gain out of putting some cruddy spyware in your head right now?” Jack said, “You know, you guys need to stop acting like I’m just…directionlessly evil. It is really wearing me down, like, this assumption I’m this Saturday morning cartoon villain. Getting to the point of being outright hurtful, kids. I mean, my actions have logic. I’m smart, I’m a planner, I -”

“Um, who is making all that noise?” Gortys interrupted.

“We’ll explain later,” Fiona said quickly, “Rhys, send Gortys that thing.”

“Just scrubbing it one more time. Be careful with this file, Gortys.”

“Don’t worry, Rhys, I am always careful with my cyber hygiene!” she said brightly, “Protection is important! Hehe, I don’t just shove whatever into my hard-drive without giving it a thorough check!”

“Yeeeah. I can’t imagine what kind of problems arise from doing that,” Fiona said, giving Rhys a sly look. He scowled at her.

“Haha, I know, right? Okay, this looks good! Um…okay…hm…alright!” Gortys said, “Rhys, I’m gonna use you as the other Gortys, so, this might twinge a little, okay? Ready?”

“Wait, why would it –“

“Let’s go!”

An electric jolt blasted through his arm into his skull. Rhys yelled, convulsed, and fell to the floor with a thump, his vision swimming purple and blue.

Again?” Fiona sighed from somewhere above him.

“Yeah, does this a lot, don’t he?” Jack said.

“Do you think we should start carrying a pillow for him or something?”

Rhys sat up, huffing out a breath and blinking until it felt like his eyes were moving in sync again, and pulled himself to his feet. The other two just looked at him, looking neither worried nor relieved. Did he really pass out that goddamn often?

“Yes, guys, I’m okay, by the way. Thank you so much for asking, Fiona! Really appreciate your concern, Jack,” he said in a high, mocking voice. Fiona shrugged. Jack didn’t even have the decency to unfold his limbs from his chassis.

“Rhys, if I worried every time you were electrocuted or suffered head trauma or got shot or got punched or, you know, generally got knocked about like a rag doll, I wouldn’t do anything else,” Fiona said.

“Just not emotionally economical to flip every time this happens,” Jack agreed, “Simple logic.”

Rhys turned his nose up at both of them. He turned away, and brought up the ECHO comm screen again, doing his very best to ignore Fiona's smirk and Jack's sniggering.  Onscreen, Gortys frowned, messing with something in her own data files.

“Oooh, um,” Gortys said slowly, “Okay! Uh, sorry, I’m still getting used to this stuff. I kiiind of teleported it somewhere else. Don’t worry! I’ll mark it on your map.”

“A waypoint. Okay, that’s more familiar territory,” Rhys muttered, rubbing his head.

“What?” Fiona asked.

“Nothing.”

“Okay!” Gortys said, sending a file back, “There ya go! Just go get it and call me back! I gotta go for now, Vaughn’s here!”

“Vaughn’s there!? Wait, Gortys, no, let me –“

“Bye Rhys! Bye Fiona! Bye other person! Love you!”

“Gortys how are we meant to call you ba-“

The call cut out, leaving Rhys with only a picture of Gortys’s profile picture (her and Loader Bot outside…Moxxi’s bar? What?) to stare at. He sighed and opened the map.

“Backtracking,” Jack muttered, “Great.”

“What, where is it?” Fiona asked.

“Remember that shelter, near where we found Jack’s body?” Rhys explained.

“…Where all the Eridians attacked us?” she said, and sighed, bringing her gun out of her sleeve. Following her lead, Rhys picked up the branch Jack had left on the floor, hoisting it over his shoulder like a baseball bat. Alright, they were probably still hanging around that place. In fact, one had probably already picked up the upgrade and carried it off.

“Right, kids, let’s get going,” Jack said, untucked his wheel, and instantly fell on his face, “Urgh! Hard to move around without that antennae. Hey, help me up, will ya?”

Fiona looked at Jack lying face-down on the floor, waving his hand frantically in the air.

“Any time now!” he said, “Juuust, I know you guys think it’s you know, karmic retribution to let me lie on my face for extended periods of time, but it is getting oooold.”

“It’s your turn, Rhys,” Fiona said.

“Oh. Yeah. Right. Sorry.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh man. I am really looking forward to seeing you three get your asses kicked. Again! Have fuuuun!

 

Jack’s map turned out to be very helpful, to Fiona and Rhys’s very cautious surprise. Maybe Rhys was just grateful to not be wandering around at random looking for something vaguely edible or useful, but having a waypoint on his ECHO comm felt like a godsend. Seriously - how did anyone get around without minimaps and waypoints in the olden days? Reading maps, looking up things in advance, asking for directions? Sounded goddamn awful.

The problem was, of course, the inevitable patrolling Eridians that would be clustered around the place.

As soon as they get close to the old camp, Rhys grabbed both Fiona and Jack’s arm, dragging them down into the bushes to strategize. He was not getting locked up by weird bug-people again. Or being skewered with an eridium spear. More likely the latter option, now they had murdered one Eridian and sort-of-kidnapped another.

“Alright, we go in low, we stay quiet, we stick to the shadows,” Rhys explained, “Dickfeeder will go high and keep watch, with their instruction, we’ll be able to sneak into our old camp undetected, retrieve the other half of Gortys’s upgrade and –“

“Rhys,” Fiona said.

“Not now, Fiona. Listen, what we need to do is to be swift and quiet. Stealth is the main option here guys, combat should be reserved for absolute necessity only –“

“Rhys, really,” Jack said.

“No, okay, you guys can doubt me all you want, but out of the three of us, I am best at plans, so just let my explain how we’ll –“

“Rhys!” they both cried at once. Rhys paused.

“There’s nobody here,” Fiona said, gesturing towards the camp. Rhys stood and looked out over the shelter, the remains of their old campfire, and the battered old computer and the transmitter in the tree – it was all untouched, and not a single Eridian (aside from Dickfeeder helping themselves to some budding yellow fruit from a nearby tree) in sight.

“Ah,” Rhys said, looking at the completely alien-free clearing.

“Hey. Rhys. This is why humans have those things called eeeeeyes,” Jack informed him, heedless of Rhys’s pointed eye-rolling, “Now come on. Let’s get this stupid upgrade.”

 

Looking for a needle in a haystack turned out to be a very boring activity. And they weren’t exactly the kind of group for a game of I-Spy. Inevitably, inexorably, the conversation descended into pointless bickering.

“And, alright, listen, the difference between a Vault Hunter and a bandit or a mercenary is totally arbitrary. I mean a Vault Hunter travels around and kills people for money or weapons. How is that any different to a mercenary?” Jack continued, for what felt like the fourteenth hour of his ‘Why Vault Hunters Suck’ lecture, “And there’s been like, four people ever who found a Vault and hey, guess what, one of them was me! And you know what, nobody on Pandora ever appreciated that, nobody ever piled me with praise for all my totally awesome murder sprees. Yet a Vault Hunter does the exact same thing and -”

“Handsome Jack was a genocidal maniac. It’s different,” Fiona bit back, “And Vault Hunters are totally different from bandits. Bandits are…are random. Vault Hunters have a cause.”

“Uh-huh. And how, exactly, am I not a Vault Hunter? As one of the few people ever to successfully enter a Vault.”

“Because you’re – okay, for one, you’re not even Handsome Jack, really, so this is a totally pointless conversation.”

“Oh don’t start this again,” Rhys groaned, putting his face in his hands. He was really beginning to hate this argument – it made his head hurt.

“Rhys, please inform Fiona that in fact, I am Handsome Jack, even if she can’t accept that,” Jack said.

“Rhys, please tell Jacktrap that he’s an AI in a Claptrap unit, so technically –“

“Oh please. I am not just the friggin’ ghost in the machine here –“

“That’s exactly what you are! A copy of a dead guy, inside a household appliance.”

“No, no, listen, I got his memories, what else I need, his friggin’ birth certificate?”

“Okay, but you weren’t actually him. You didn’t actually do the stuff Handsome Jack did. You just remember doing them.”

“Okay, thought experiment, by those standards, if we wipe your brain - which wouldn’t take long, by the way, sweetheart - would you then be this totally different person –“

Rhys thought the three of them really, really needed to have real conversations with other people soon. It was all getting a bit complicated. And more importantly, it was giving him a goddamn headache.

“Both of you! Ssssh! It’s…lets play a game. It’s called the Quiet Game,” Rhys said, rubbing his forehead, “Whoever is quiet the longest, wins.”

The length of the Quiet Game was, apparently, sixteen seconds.

“You know, what I’ve never got is why Handsome Jack even wanted to be head of Hyperion to begin with,” Fiona blurted out, earning a groan from Rhys and a “Ha! I win!” from Jack.

“I mean, the guy spent most of his time on Elpis and Pandora, terrorising everyone, looking for Vaults, shooting people," Fiona said, "And from what I hear, he had no idea how to run a company –“

“Hey, listen, Hyperion's shares were never better than when I was at the helm. I knew what I was doing."

“You named guns things like ‘Conference Call’ and killed perfectly good employees just because you were having a bad day,” Rhys said, “You also apparently needed to ask your secretary what a profit margin was.”

“I didn’t need to know about the minutiae of economic theory to keep Hyperion on top. There were pencil-pushing nerds like you to do that for me, Rhys," Jack said, “I had raw charisma, and sheer leadership capability. And I knew how to kill a couple of the right guys in the right ways at the right time - invaluable business skill, Rhys, you should be takin' notes right now. Usually I charge out the butt for this kind of seminar.”

“Look, all I am saying, is that Handsome Jack would have made way more sense without any of the corporate garbage, and would have been way less of a danger to everyone,” Fiona continued relentlessly, “Why choose to be a CEO?”

Jack sighed, his arm flaps twitching irritably, and turned, somewhat unsteadily without his antennae.

“Alright, Hat, listen. All I ever wanted, ever since I was a kid, was to run a big company,” Jack said, arms folded across his front, “I started a business with my friends just so I had an excuse to print business cards –“

“Jack, what the hell,” Rhys interrupted, “That’s my backstory.”

“What.”

“Jack, that was a thing I did!”

“No, no, no, Rhys,” Jack said, his hands up and making gentle gestures, as though trying to calm down a yapping dog, “Buddy, you’re confused. It’s understandable, what with the whole brain-sharing thing, but that –“

“Oh, so you grew up with Vaughn, then?” Rhys said, folding his arms and staring down at him, “You know, you remember a chubby kid with glasses there? Vaughn?”

Jack fell silent, the mechanisms in his eyes moving and whirring like a camera lens trying to focus.

“Oh. Wait. Yeah,” Jack said after a moment, hand on the side of his head, “Okay, y’know, I think we need to go through my memory files and like…label them with their sources or somethin’, this is getting confusing.”

Fiona breathed in deeply through her nose.

“Okay, boys, if you’d just…excuse me for a second, there’s something I need to do,” Fiona said, in a weirdly serene voice. Rhys looked at her quizzically, but she just nodded and smiled. She then walked a few metres away, took off her hat and –

“Rhys, what is she doing?” Jack said.

“I think she’s…screaming into her hat?” Rhys said, both eyebrows rising as Fiona crumpled lower and lower towards the ground, her face pressed into her hat.

“Wow. Drama queen, much?”

“Ha. I know, right?” Rhys said, rolling his eyes, “We are not that ba- oh, hey! Fiona!”

Fiona pulled her face out of her hat, her hair sticking to her cheeks and forehead.

“What? I’m kind of having a therapy session at the moment, Rhys,” she said, “And it is…really overdue, believe me.”

Rhys jabbed his finger upwards. Jack and Fiona followed his gaze, finally noting the small device wedged in the narrow fork of a tree branch up above. Way too high for even Rhys to reach.

“Oh,” she said, standing up straight and putting her hat back on her head, “Well. Yeah. Where else would it be, really.”

 

“Wow. There’s a lot going on right now,” Sasha said as they arrive back in Helios. She steadied Yvette, holding her by the arm. As much as she hated to be supported, Yvette still felt light-headed and dehydrated, despite draining most of their water supply on the drive back.

Dr Okarafor, a tiny round woman with a severe face, looked around with the same deep look of scrutiny she gave them upon entry to her clinic. She had been hired on the spot after holding a knife to Vaughn’s throat for being ‘Jack-loving Hyperion scum’. Her nurses, two burly ex-bruisers, kept close to her side, menacing even in their seashell-pink scrubs.

The Children of Helios were whipped into a frenzy, running back and forth and gossiping, barely even pausing to bow as they rushed past Vaughn. The caravan, at the very least, was waiting in the garage for them when they returned home.

“Hey, where’s Gortys?” Sasha called. A Child of Helios, Susan something, stumbled to a halt, almost dropping the stack of papers in her arms. She scrambled to collect the few that slipped loose and stood up, red-faced behind her glasses.

“Oh, um, Lady Gortys is in her office, I think.”

“Lady Gortys?” Vaughn repeated.

“Yes! Our revered Lady has been a great leader in your absence!”

“…We – we’ve not even been gone two days.”

“Ah…yes. Um. I need to go,” Susan said. She quickly bowed towards both Vaughn and Sasha (Yvette tried her best not to be offended), and rushed off.

“Wow…” Sasha murmured, gaping at Susan's retreating back, “You really can’t leave them alone for five minutes, huh?”

Yvette laughed, but goddamnit, even that hurt.

“Looks like Gortys staged a coup. You’re out of a job, Vaughn,” Yvette rasped, and then dropped her head with a huff of breath, “Can we…urgh, I need another dose of painkillers.”

“We should operate,” Dr Okarafor interrupted curtly, “It is absurd you people have been putting it off this long. Whatever…this is can wait.”

Yvette could kiss her - if she could trust herself to move without collapsing from agony. She stumbled, and Sasha wrapped an arm around her waist. Yvette fell against her, resting her cheek against the top of Sasha’s head.

Vaughn looked at them, and then pushed a hand through his hair.

“Okay, you two and Dr Okarafor deal with that,” he said, “I’m gonna find out what Gortys is doing.”

“Yeah. You should probably apologise to the robotics team for holding them at gunpoint first change you get,” Sasha said, “They were really freaked out.”

Yvette nodded. Or, to be more accurate, sort of lolled her head back and forth like her neck was made of silly putty.

“Sounds…”

God. She was shaking, her leg felt as though it were on fire, every nerve in her body was following suit, her brain felt dry as a sponge left in the desert, fuck, she – she…something was rushing up her throat. She tried to clamp her mouth shut, it was too much. Her stomach clenched. She jerked forward.

She threw up down Sasha’s front, and her legs gave way beneath her, the world going dark.

Chapter Text

“Give me a straight answer, is she okay, yes or no!”

Sasha was yelling. Yvette couldn’t see where she was, or what she was yelling about, but she was yelling. She tried to shift onto her elbows and pull her head up from the pillow, but got a few inches off the bed before a lancing pain spread up her thigh and spine, and she cried out and fell back down.

“Yvette!”

The bed jostled, and Yvette felt a pair of hands on her shoulders. Sasha’s blurry face appeared above her, her lips tight. There was still a wet smear across the front of her shirt where Yvette had thrown up. Yvette considered just rolling off the bed, out the door, and straight into hell.

Her tongue felt like a wad of fur in her mouth, her head hurt, and the blood was pounding in her ears, but she was sure she could manage a simple sentence.

Yvette tried to say ‘Sorry about your shirt’.

“Sollybot you shit.”

“Oh god. Yvette. Do you have brain trauma? Doc, does she have brain trauma?”

“She is fine, ma’am, simply delirious, dehydrated and exhausted,” Okarafor said from somewhere, her voice stern, “Now. Get the hell out of my office.”

“I only just gave you this office!” Sasha snarled, “My – my friend just threw up and passed out and I want to know why.”

“Because you idiots have been using self-prescribed pain medication, amputating your own limbs for a simple case of corrosive damage, and using unsanitary, improperly tested prosthetics! And mixing this with alcohol and what sounds like, to be frank, embarrassingly juvenile interpersonal problems!” Okarafor continued, and took a deep breath, like a mother dealing with a particularly difficult child, “It is a miracle it only just caught up to her now.”

She…had a point, really.

“We did the best we could,” Sasha said, folding her arms, “Our resources and staff were limited.”

“As was, apparently, your common sense.”

Yvette tried to say ‘Leave her alone’.

“Leafs hold bone.”

“Ms Lehmann, please do not try to speak,” Okarafor said, coming into view beside Sasha, “We are about to administer a powerful anaesthetic and prepare to install your prosthetic. The procedure will take twelve hours or so. Afterwards, we can talk about appropriate ways to cope with the loss of a limb, and to new cybernetics.”

Yvette should be pleased – finally, she was getting what she’d been whining about for so long.

Yet.

The statistics on accidents and mortalities during cybernetic surgery rose up from her memory Anti-cybernetics websites and campaigns, flooding the internet with gruesome propaganda. Bodies butchered in bad surgeries; Hyperion scams and repossessions, giving people what they need and then ripping them limb from limb when they can’t give Hyperion what it wants; diagram of the nervous system before and after, altered forever, inserted with this and that and the other and so many things. Stuff she’d tried over and over to show Rhys back at Hyperion. And they barely knew Okarafor, they barely knew who she was or what she wanted or where her allegiances lay and they’d invited her in, she could slip whatever into her biology, just like they’d done to Rhys, and Yvette would never know until her body started to act on its own or – or –

Sasha held her hand. She squeezed it.

“I want to be there. Or at least. Someone I trust there,” Sasha said, and then glanced down at Yvette, rubbing the back of her neck, “Uh. Twelve hours is kind of a long time.”

“Unnecessary, but I will concede that comfort. As long as they are quiet, follow instruction, do not interfere, and, naturally, follow aseptic technique.”

“No idea what that is, but fine. Whatever it takes,” she replied stiffly, her grip on Yvette’s hand vice-tight.

“Now. If I could please attend to my patient. Boys,” Okarafor said, nodding at her nurses. The two men moved forward, pushing Sasha gently aside. Sasha made an indignant help, but the nurses didn’t seem to register. One held Yvette still, and the other sank a needle into her arm.

It was happening now, it was going to happen, they were going to rewire her nervous system, she’d be changed forever, her body would be part of someone else’s work, fuck, she hadn’t thought it out this far. Why the fuck had how scary this was never occurred to her? Her breathing grew faster and shallower, and she felt a touch on her thigh.

“Hey, Yvette, you’ll be okay,” Sasha said from the foot of her bed, “I’ll be around for as much of it as I can, okay?”

Yvette wanted to say thank you, or maybe apologise again, or even just make a smartass comment, but her tongue was thick and heavy in her skull, and she was descending into an ocean, the world growing smaller and dimmer and more distant, and then she was gone again.

 

“I’m not getting on your shoulders,” Fiona informed Rhys, gesturing at the upgrade stuck in the branches of the tree above, “I know that’s what you were thinking.”

“…Untrue. Jack! I need you to -”

Jack wheeled past him, sending Rhys stumbling, and then positioned himself under the branch, where a cord from the upgrade was dangling down.

“Right, right. Frigging sentient step-ladder at the ready,” he said, tapping himself on the top of the head with his fist, “Go ahead, Rhys.”

Rhys blinked, tilting his head at him and sucking on his lower lip. He exchanged a glance with Fiona, who looked equally dubious.

“What?” Jack said.

“That was just…really easy,” he said slowly.

“Rhys, do you think I enjoy being covered in dirt and running away from angry bug people? I want out of here just as much as you two fleshbags do,” Jack said, shrugging, and then put his hands on his sides and straightened up to his full (and not particularly imposing) height, “Okay, c’mon, go.”

“…Okay, is this going to be one of those things, where I like, step on you and then you move away and I fall on my ass and you laugh like a douchebag?” he said, “Because this isn’t eighth grade, Jack.”

“Oh come on, would I do that?”

“Ooor, you know, this is fulfilling…I don’t know, some other purpose,” Rhys said, though he struggled to envision what that could really be, “Some really nefarious purpose.”

“Oh my God. Rhys. Stop being a baby and just friggin’ step on me, already.”

Rhys sighed and looked up at the upgrade again.

“Uh, Rhys, maybe I should –“ Fiona began.

“No,” Rhys snapped, bristling at the pitying tone in her voice, “I can do it. I am…totally over my thing with heights. You’ve seen me do it. My time on Pandora has hardened me, Fiona, okay, stop fussing.”

“Alright, whatever. Just thought I’d offer. You two do this really stupid thing. I’ll be on hand with health kits and…” she trailed off, looking Jack over, “Duct tape. I guess.”

“We’ll be fine, Fi,” Rhys said, making a flippant gesture in Fiona’s direction. She snorted, disgusted, and leaned back against the tree trunk. Rhys clambered onto Jack’s…head, he supposed, and reached up, swiping his hand towards the device. He reached up on his tip-toes, wobbling enough to prompt Fiona to come over and hold his legs, but still couldn’t quite reach.

“Urgh, it’s still a little far, Jack, can you…I dunno…”

“Get taller?” Jack said drily, “Gee, pumpkin, let me give that a go in my stunted little metal body. Mmnggghh…nope! Cool, didn’t work at all. So how ‘bout instead you put those absurdly long legs of yours to work?”

“Oh for – Rhys, just come on,” Fiona snarled, charging forward and putting a foot on the top of Jack’s eye (“{BEEP!} Hat, that’s my frigging face!”), and then pushed Rhys up. Rhys yelped.

“Fi, that’s my ass, get off!”

“Ngh, I’m just giving you a boost, Rhys, calm down. You don’t even have an ass,” Fiona said.

“Ha ha. She’s right. You don’t. Could write my friggin’ correspondence on your rear end, pumpkin.”

“Builders use it as a spirit level,” Fiona continued helpfully.

Rhys decided that, as a grown goddamn man with a perfectly respectable ass, these insults were below him and he was not about to stoop so far as to even acknowledge them. Instead, he stretched out, grabbed hold of the branch with one hand and swung for the upgrade with the other. After a few swipes, he jerked forward and just managed to wrap his fingers around the device.

“Got it!” he bellowed, as a juddering force shuddered down his arm. His head filled with fuzz and for a moment. Is legs juddered, hitting Fiona in the shoulder, she stumbled, Jack’s wheel screeched, and their whole tower of idiocy came tumbling down. Jack screeched and beep as he fell onto his back, Rhys’s elbow knocked hard against Fiona’s teeth, and Rhys landed with a dull thud on the grass.

In-fucking-credible. Listen, I’m not even corporeal and I could have done a better job than that little shit show.

“Shut up,” Rhys muttered, blinking as his vision returned, the upgrade still clutched in his hands. Under him, Fiona shifted, looking across at him, rubbing her scalp with her palm.

“Well, Rhys. We did it your way,” Fiona said slowly, “Are you happy now?”

Rhys sat up, looking at the little device in his hands – it was a little underwhelming, but…whatever! It was their key home, it didn’t have to look cool.  

There was also a big crack running diagonally across the casing.

“Rhys?”

“Yeah! I’m happy! Everything’s great!” he said. Fiona and Jack did not need to know the upgrade was already damaged - it was not an argument he had the energy for. Besides, it was only on the outside. It was probably fine, still totally functional. Atlas tech – couldn’t beat it. Totally. Fine.

You’re a moron.

“Greeeeeat, now will you get off me?” Jack said.

“Oh. Yeah,” he replied, and stood up. Jack stuck an arm straight upwards, wiggling his fingers. Rolling his eyes, Rhys grabbed hold of his wrist and yanked him up. Wouldn’t kill the guy to say ‘please’, but Rhys knew he was shooting for the stars with that one. Just the lack of recent homicide attempts was more than he’d really expected.

Dickfeeder came to rest at his shoulders, peering down at the device in his hands.

“Uh. So how do we use it?” Fiona asked.

“That is…a great question for Gortys,” Rhys said, pulling up Gortys’s details from his contacts list again. Her profile picture had changed again – a picture of her with an arm around a very bemused looking Vaughn, the red glow of Loader Bot’s eye just in the background. Well. At least Gortys looked like she was having fun doing…whatever the hell she was doing.

And there was actually an ECHO connection for once, fuck. Things were finally looking up.

“Rhys, hold on,” Fiona said. Rhys looked up, scowling.

“Really, Fi, you have a problem now?”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Fiona said, nodding her head towards Jack, “Are you seriously suggesting we wander straight into Helios with…”

“Oh.”

Oh.

Oh shit.

Rhys was beginning to think foresight wasn’t exactly his strong suit.

“Heeey, what’s the problem?” Jack said, “So Sasha won’t be ecstatic to see me, whatever! You two can vouch for me. I am one hundred percent not…you know. Probably not going to murder anyone. That I know. Without good reason. …At the very least, I won’t be able to do it easily.”

Christ, Sasha. Sasha. He’d almost forgotten about her. Considering how badly she flipped out just learning that Jack was lodging in his head, the fact Rhys had actually brought him in the form of a crappy old steward bot probably wouldn’t exactly do much to temper her fury or disgust on the matter. A reaction she was probably…more than a little justified in having.

And the rest of the Children of Helios? It was hard to predict how they’d even react. Probably with some kind of destructive religious hysteria. Sermons, rivers of fire, Jack and possibly Rhys and even possibly Fiona sacrificed on an altar. Who knew with those guys.

Yeah. Thinking things all the way through – something he really needed to work on. Or at least take off his resumé.

“Yeah,” Rhys began, not sure where to even begin explaining to Jack the conundrum they were in, “You know the Hyperion survivors?”

“There were survivors? Wow. I didn’t think those escape pods would even work.”

“Be quiet. Also. They’re organised now.”

“Ha, well, won’t they be glad to have Daddy hom-“

“Vaughn’s their leader,” Rhys interrupted. Jack fell silent, staring up at him with incredulity.

“They’re a cult now.”

“A what now?”

“I’m kind of like…their god, I guess?” Rhys said, still not sure whether he was pleased or embarrassed by that little detail. The narcissist in him really enjoyed the bowing, and the fanart, and the general uncritical adoration, but it was also…kind of embarrassing. A tiny bit. But also...

“Stop grinning, Rhys,” Fiona said. Rhys tried to make his facial expression as neutral as possible. Judging by Fiona’s sigh, he didn’t do very well.

“Alright, I still don’t get either of your points. Like they won’t be pleased to see me, even this version of me. Those little pencil-pushers were handpicked to worship the ground I wa- roll on. Find out I cheated death again and they’ll probably all wet themselves with delight,” Jack said, shrugging, “Now are you gonna call the talkin’ basketball and get us out of here or not?”

Sometimes, Rhys forgot the extent to which Jack was completely fucking deluded. Then he said things like this.

“Look, Jack just – urgh! You know, you only have two people in the entire galaxy now that can even stand you –“

“One person,” Fiona corrected him.

“One person in the galaxy that can even stand you,” Rhys amended, “If you charge into Helios and start yelling at everyone again, there is nothing I can do. Just...urgh, I don’t know, maybe I should install another voice pack in you or something –“

“Oh,” Jack said, and then made a noise like a needle being dragged off a record, before continuing in a peppy, cartoonish voice, “Like this!?!

“Augh!”

Yeah, turns out the Claptrap’s old voice is still in here!! Weird, huh?”

“Urgh, stop it! You’re creeping me out,” Fiona said, holding her hands up, “And you creep me out on a good day.”

Wow, it really is impossible to say anything with this voice without sounding ecstatic about it!! I thought those little hunks of junk were just being obnoxious on purpose, but I really can’t say anything without sounding like I’m gonna explode with delight about it!!!” Jack continued, “Let’s see!! Everyone I’ve ever known is dead or has tried to kill me!!! My sense of self is becoming increasingly more fractured!!! I’ve felt like I’ve needed to pee for days but I can’t even do that!! Yep - sounds happy no matter what!”

“Okay, okay, we get the picture,” Rhys said, “Seriously that is just…just use that sparingly, urgh!”

“Got it!!” He made that record-skipping noise again, and began coughing, throaty, wet hacking noises. “Urgh, seriously. That voice…wrecks your throat, I’m tellin’ ya.”

“You don’t have a throat,” Fiona pointed out wearily.

“Uh, yeah, but it feels like I have a throat,” Jack insisted, patting the spot under his eye with a hand, “Freaky, right?”

“Oh that is just ridiculous, Jacktrap, you –“

It was probably best to ignore them, Rhys decided. If they wanted to bicker about Jack’s garbled psychology, that was up to them. Rhys, on the other hand, was going to get them home. He pulled up Gortys’s contact details and called her again. Leaning against Jack, he pulled up his ECHO comm screen on his hand.

Gortys’s face appeared after a few seconds.

She looked like she was wearing…something.

Rhys couldn’t make out what the hell it was, but just the fact she was wearing anything at all was kind of…bizarre.

That, he concluded, was shit for a different day.

“Hi Rhys!” Gortys said breathlessly, “How are you!”

“Gortys!” Fiona said, breaking off her half-hearted argument with Jack to swoop in by Rhys’s shoulder.

“Hey, lemme talk to her,” Jack said, swatting Rhys in the calf with his hand. Rhys rolled his eyes and moved so he was sitting down on him properly, crossing his legs. Jack literally had no reason to talk to her aside from to cause trouble and waste time, and Rhys was frankly not about to let him do that without good reason.

“Oh, is that your new friend? Who is it? Sounds familiar!” Gortys said.

“It’s a Claptrap unit, Gortys,” Fiona said quickly. Gortys gasped, slapping her hands against her face.

“Another robot?” she said.

“Uh, yeah, listen that’s not important, Gortys we –“

“Oh my gosh, I am so excited to have another robot friend!” she said, rapidly, bouncing on the spot, “Are they a girl? A boy? Something else? Oh, oh, should I prepare a welcome gift for when they get here? Where did you find them? What’s their favourite colour?”

“Uh, it’s a guy, no, in the dirt, yellow –“

“Oh, oh, do you think he’ll get along with Loader Bot?”

Rhys glanced down at Jack.

“I don’t think so. But….listen,” he said, and then waved the upgrade in front of the camera, “Look, Gortys, we go it!”

Gortys squeaked and clapped.

“Way to go, guys! Okay, the next stage is very simple. If the other Gortys had been completed, they would take the upgrade and use it to establish a connection with me. Through that, we’d open a portal, and you guys could step through it and go home!” Gortys said, and then paused, tapping her finger against her mouth, “Oooor, at least, that’s what I figured out from the notes those Atlas guys left behind. You know, I am starting to think the Gortys Project wasn’t very well-organised!”

“No kidding,” Jack groused.

“Okay, so, what do we do instead?” Rhys said, desperately trying to remain optimistic on the matter. They had gotten this far.

“Well, all you need is a robot powered by eridium to act as the other me!” she continued cheerfully, as though that were no barrier at all, “So, you should be able to do it, Rhys!”

It was sweet that Gortys had such unshakeable belief in him, but he also didn’t have the ability to just summon the pieces to put together a specialised Vault-hunting robot that had taken millions of Atlas dollars and hundreds of hands to make.

“Gortys, how am I meant to be build a robot with an eridium power core?” Rhys said, his voice getting embarrassingly high.

Gortys gave him a very odd look, the metal plate over her eyes tilting to the side.

“Um, why would you need to do that?” she said.

“But you just said –“

“Rhys, you can do it, okay?” she said, smiling at him, “You don’t need to be scared! It’ll probably be a little tough, but you can manage! Fiona and your new friend are there, and if you get stuck, call me for help, okay? You helped me with the Traveller, and I know I can do the same for you!”

Well that was nice, but didn’t make him any less completely confused.

“Okay, but…”

“Rhys, seriously! We have this!” Jack bellowed from underneath him.

“We do?” Rhys asked.

“Yes! Oh my God. Christ, seriously, why are you doing this?”

Fiona made a guttural ‘Huunh?’ noise, glancing between them and squinting, as though they were in on some kind of secret she wasn’t privy to. Jack certainly seemed to think so – shame he had forgotten to let Rhys in on it.

“Great!” Gortys said, “So, just activate the upgrade, make the connection, and we’ll get you all home. Okay?”

“Okay?” she said slowly.

“Okay, I gotta go, me and Loader Bot are looking at a furniture catalogue!”

It was likely a sign that Rhys had given up entirely that he couldn’t even be bothered to question that.

“Sounds great, Gortys,” he said flatly, “Talk to you later.”

“Bye bye, Rhys, Fiona, Claptrap! Love you lots!” she said, giving them a final wave before she hung up. Fiona huffed out a breath, her hands on her hips.

“Well, that was as enlightening as usual,” Fiona said, and then looked down at Jack, “What the crap were you talking about there? We don’t got this at all! Why the hell did you tell her we did?”

“Because we do, princess. Sheesh, you ain’t figured it out yet?” Jack said, “We have what we need.”

Rhys got off Jack and looked down at him, arms folded across his chest, the upgrade still tight in his hand. Holding it made his palm and wrist tingle – hopefully that wasn’t a sign the crack in the casing was a bigger deal than it looked.

Don’t call me princess,” Fiona spat, “Just explain, Jacktrap, and cut the mindgames and soliloquys for once.”

“Weeelll, technically speaking, they’re monologues, not soliloquys,” Rhys noted.

“Shut up, Rhys,” she said quickly, still glaring down at Jack, “Well?”

Jack looked up at Rhys, tilting his eye and folding his arms, as though expecting Rhys to step in. Sometimes, Rhys was pretty sure Jack forgot that they didn’t share a skull anymore. Or he just expected people to be able to read his mind in general.

Rhys shook his head and shrugged. Jack sighed, his arms hanging limp by his sides.

“Okay, pumpkin, seriously, what’s with the friggin’ secrecy? I mean, how did you even manage to keep a secret from a guy who roomed in your own skull?” Jack said, throwing his hands in the air, “I mean, are you for real right now? Bigger fish, sweetheart!”

“Rhys, what is he talking about?” Fiona asked.

“I have no idea!” Rhys said, throwing his arms out in exasperation. Unless Jack thought the fact he was halfway crazy would help them out here, Rhys sincerely had no idea what Jack wanted him to do.

Jack looked between them.

“Come on!” he said, static crackling into his voice, “What is this! Buttercup, pumpkin, really, I don’t know if you’re dumb or acting dumb right now, but give it a break.”

“Alright, I want to know what’s happening right now!” Fiona said, turning on Rhys, “What is he rambling on about?”

Rhys ran a hang through his hair, shaking his head. He glanced up at Dickfeeder circling overhead, their wings buzzing pale yellow.

“I am completely lost, Fi, honestly. Really. Stop…stop looking at me like that, okay?” he said, wincing at the scrutinising look Fiona was burning him with. Every now and then, Rhys thought Fiona sincerely had begun to trust him, and then she would look at him like that.

It shouldn’t bug him. Fiona had ever reason to be cautious – it was how she’d raised, and it wasn’t as though Rhys had always been the best friend ever. Still.

Being treated like a friggin’ ticking timebomb wasn’t exactly Rhys’s idea of a good time.

Too bad that’s exactly what you are, bud.

“Alright, alright. Rhys,” Jack said, sighing and rolling in front of him, “Be serious. Take off your shirt.”

“Wait, what?”

“Well. I should have seen this coming sooner or later,” Fiona said, sounding resigned.

“What the hell, Jack, I am not taking my shirt off! What – do you need your circuits looked at or something? Did I scramble something in there?” Rhys said. Jack sighed.

“Alright, pop quiz. Who exactly, keeps surviving things that should be literally impossible for a normal human to survive? You know, digging out a piece of his cerebellum with a shard of hot glass, ripping off his own arm, giving himself extensive medical treatment alone in the middle of Pandora? The kind of healing that normal people, are just not capable of?” Jack said, and then pointed at Rhys, “This guy, right here! The Wonderboy 9000. Another question, how come Rhys can sometimes call back to Pandora, but sometimes caaan’t quite get it? Who made best buds with that flying lightshow up there? How come? And hey, for extra credit, who keeps trying to eat eridium?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rhys said, but noticed the way Fiona was looking at him was beginning to change, from suspicion to a wide-eyed look of…something. Being outside of this weird little secret was beginning to piss him off – being excluded from this kind of thing always grated on him, it was something else when the secret was about him.

“Where’d you get those tats, Rhys?” Jack said, “I mean, at first, I was thinkin’, oh cute, fanboy here got tats like mine, but the more I think about it –“

“What?” Rhys said, his hand going to the tattoo on his neck, “Okay, your circuits are definitely fried. What does my tattoo have to -”

“Rhys, maybe you should just tell us,” Fiona suggested gently. Or as gently as Fiona ever said anything.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Fiona and Jack looked at one another.

“Wow, he ain’t playing dumb, is he?” Jack said, “Alright, I have no idea how this is even possible – I mean I screened every single employee on Helios for any signs of Siren powers but –“

What?” Rhys bellowed.

“Oh, yeah, that was definitely a surprise to him,” Fiona said.

“No, no, no, that…that doesn’t make any sense,” Rhys began, shaking his head. This was more bullshit that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with. Probably some kind of half-baked lunatic plan of Jack’s. Again.

“I mean, yeah, I thought that too. I don’t know how you hid from me,” Jack said, laughing, “I mean, if I had figured it out, I would have nabbed your stupid scrawny butt, faked your death, and thrown you in a high-security facility for testing. Would have saved me some…uh, trouble. But hey, win some, lose some, right?”

“Rhys, it does…it does make sense,” Fiona said, “I mean I just thought you were so dumb you were literally immune to head trauma. But…”

She pointed at the edge of one of the blue markings peeking over the edge of Rhys’s collar. Rhys slapped a hand over it.

“No, no,” Rhys said, shaking his head and stepping back, “I’m just…you know, I’m just tough and lucky! It’s got nothing to do with freaky…eridium superpowers. I don’t – they’re birthmarks.”

“Birthmarks,” Jack repeated drily.

“I have enough going on without this!” Rhys yelled.

Oooh boy, here we go with one of your melodramas. Do you ever just, you know, chill? Is that in your vocabulary, chill?

Like that asshole. Rhys had enough to deal with having an invisible sarcastic asshole living in his brain, being responsible for a megalomaniac trapped in a toaster, and being lost inside the world’s most disappointing treasure chest. He did not need also being some kind of freaky space…witch…thing too.

“Rhys, why are you freaking out so badly? This is good news!” Fiona said, “I mean, it’s kinda weird, sure, but, this makes our lives so much easier.”

“You don’t understand, okay, this is way too weird, and – and you don’t have any proof!”

“I dunno, the magical natural tattoos are proof enough,” Jack said, “And come on, you’ve been absorbing eridium the whole time, you idiot. How’d you think you were making those friggin’ trans dimensional calls?”

“Okay, you know what! Screw you both! Fine! Let’s prove it then, shall we!” Rhys said, and started to unbutton his shirt.

“Aaaand there he goes getting naked again,” Fiona said.

“Shut up,” he snarled, dragging his layers over his head and throwing them down on the grass. He stepped forward and grabbed Fiona’s wrist, ignoring her angry bark of resistance, and pressed until her pistol sprung out of her sleeve and into her hand.

“Rhys, calm down!”

“I dunno, I kinda wanna see where he’s going with this,” Jack said, tilting his eye.

“Fine, okay, so apparently I have some spooky mystical powers that you think explains sooo much, let’s put it to the test. Fiona, shoot me.”

Making a scene, aren’t we?

“You shut up too!” Rhys snapped at his own brain, like the pinnacle of stability he was.

“What the hell? I am not going to shoot you, Rhys,” Fiona said, stepping back.

“Woah, Hat, I forbid you from shooting this idiot,” Jack interrupted, pointing a finger at her, “He is our only way home, and, more importantly, my only way out of this friggin’ tin can.”

“No, Fiona, shut up and shoot me already! Let’s put this to the test,” Rhys said, spreading his arms. Fiona stared at him, shoulders sagging and mouth hanging open. Dickfeeder circled fast above their heads, making high pitched noises and buzzing his wings lots of different colours. It was giving Rhys a damn headache.

“Do not, Hat, he’s just having a moment,” Jack warned.

“Come on, Fi, for me. Shoot me shoot me shoot me shoot me –“

Fiona shot him.

 

“I swear, Hat, if he’s dead, that will really irritate me,” Jack said, “Why did you shoot him?"

“I dunno! You were both yelling, the Eridian was screaming, my gun was in my hand, I’m still lowkey pissed off at Rhys for a lot of stuff, I panicked,” Fiona replied and then added, “Hey, Dickfeeder, get off him.”

A pressure was released from his chest and Rhys blinked. There was a spike of pain in his chest and he moved his arm, grunting as he found the hard metal of the bullet – lodged in his shoulder, just above one of his birthmarks. There was something else next to it, sparking against his fingers.

He pinched the eridium between his fingers. It burst.

Ah.

“Argh!”

He sat up abruptly, coughing and hacking. His hands shook, the view on his ECHO eye juttered, Jack and Fiona’s startled looks blurring in and out of sight.

Whatever the hell was happening felt…weird. Like being on fire, and wanting to run a marathon at the exact same time. His cybernetic arm twitched and jerked back and forth, fist clenching and unclenching.

“He’s okay! I think! Glowing a little…that’s weird but…okay!” Fiona said, from somewhere nearby.

Rhys coughed again, his hand going to his chest as he jerked forward, his head dropping almost to his knees.

Something hard and damp fell into his palm.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me,” he wheezed, sitting up and looking at the bloody bullet in his hand. He touched the wound – still sore, he still pulled away with red fingers, but nothing like a recent bullet wound should be. He was vaguely aware of Fiona’s hand on her shoulder, stiff and awkward like all her fumbling attempts at physical contact. He groaned into his hand. Jack was fucking right. Why was Jack right so goddamn frequently.

“Ha, called it,” Jack said, and then slapped Rhys hard between the shoulder blades, “So, Rhys, how does it feel being the hardest-to-kill wimp on Pandora?”

Chapter Text

“So, how does this even work?” Rhys asked, gesturing with a lump of eridium so wildly Dickfeeder fluttered anxiously by his side, touching a claw on his shoulder.

“I don’t know the specifics, Rhys.”

“Didn’t you literally just say,” Fiona said, and adopted a deep, ridiculous voice that would sound more at home on a cartoon bull than on Handsome Jack, “’Hey baby, don’t’ worry, I’m the world’s foremost expert on Sirens, we got this’.”

Rhys cringed.

“Look, nobody knows that much about ‘em, I was speaking comparatively.”

“Oh, comparatively,” Fiona repeated. Jack casually flipped her off, and then turned his attention back to Rhys.

“Most of the time, they just kinda hold it in their fist and like –“ Jack said, and then gestured, clenching his fist tight. “Like that. Ya know?”

Rhys had dealt with some bullshit in his life, but that was just the peak. Oh, just take this volatile element nobody particularly understands and just make stupid anime poses with it, Rhys, that’s how this bullshit space magic works, he thought viciously to himself. He glared at the eridium in his palm, as though it was personally responsible for everything that had happened him over the past year.

If he looked at it too long, his vision started to blur and a fuzziness started to creep across this skull. He blinked, hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, to clear his head again, and slowly lifted his gaze up.

He thought that was just a regular side-effect of eridium exposure, or his cybernetics reacting, or…something. Urgh.

“What you just…squeeze it?” Fiona said, her arms folded across her chest. Rhys wasn’t exactly surprised he didn’t get an apology about the whole ‘shooting him in the chest’ thing, but he couldn’t help but think Fiona should have been able to tell he wasn’t serious about it. He’d just wanted to prove a point to Jack, really.

“Somethin’ like that,” Jack muttered.

“Wow,” Fiona said, “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“Listen, nobody knows more about Sirens than me. I worked with ‘em a lot, trust me.”

“Urgh, can we not call me that?” Rhys said, shaking his head and wrinkling his nose. If anything was going to set his teeth on edge, it was that. It just felt…weird, all wrong.

“Call you what?” Jack replied blankly.

“That. The S word,” Rhys replied.

“Why the frig not?”

“Because he said so, Jacktrap,” Fiona snarled before Rhys could even begin to explain. Rhys looked at her, only just barely managing to stifle his surprise, and smiled. Fiona shrugged and avoided his gaze, pushing her overgrown bangs out of her eyes.

“Urgh, whatever, listen, point is I know what I’m talking about,” said, and then continued thoughtfully, “Ideally, we’d be shooting you up with injectors right now, but the refining process ain’t exactly something I can do out here in the woods. And hey, I thought you knew you were soaking up eridium. You’ve been doing it the whole time we were out here.”

“Not on purpose,” Rhys muttered, “And not a lot at once. Maybe I should just…I dunno, can I take it in small doses?”

“For what we wanna do, that’ll take forever.”

“Maybe you should try eating it,” Fiona suggested.

“Hey, Hat, I wanna test to see if he can heal from stomach burns and eridium poisoning too, but let’s take it slow, eh?” Jack replied, “Now c’mon, Rhys, just put some oomph into it.”

“Veeeery scientific,” Fiona commented.

With a sigh, Rhys decided to give it one last try. He’d never seen any of the famous Sirens at work before, but Jack had dealt with pretty much every single one up-close-and-personal at some point or another. He had to know what he was talking about, to some extent.

He relaxed his hand and then clenched his fist hard around the eridium. It shot out of his palm and across the glade, smacking Dickfeeder out of the year, and falling useless at his feet. After a second, shot up into the air and descended upon Rhys with a shrill series of squeaks, wings buzzing red.

“Sorry, sorry!” Rhys said, holding his hands up in defence. The Eridian turned away and went to roost on a tree branch, looking incredibly haughty.

Hahahaha, holy shit! Is that one of your super powers too, dicklick? Sheer unstoppable klutziness?

“Well that sucked,” Jack said. Rhys looked at him dryly.

“You know, this is the point where you guys should say stuff like ‘Oh, hey, Rhys, I think that one shrank a little’ or ‘You know, I think I saw some glowing’,” he said. Fiona lifted an eyebrow at him.

“Why would we?”

“Yeah, Rhys, that blew. We ain’t about to tell you you did something you didn’t.”

“Oh, sorry, forgot I was dealing with the no-empathy twins here,” Rhys muttered, grabbing the eridium from the floor and tried again. Nothing. All he got was a lot of pins and needles up his arm, and a fuzzy, distant headache.

Hey, good job nothing depends on you getting the hang of this, right?

“You know, I’m thinkin’ maybe this isn’t how it works for you,” Jack said, “Maybe you can only take this stuff in passively. Makes sense, y’know, if your powers are passive and –“

“You know what, Jack, I don’t care! This sucks. This sucks,” Rhys blurted out, and threw himself back down onto the grass. He knew he was having a tantrum, but screw it. He was tired, his chest still hurt, a certain asshole lodged inside his brain wouldn’t shut up, and apparently he had some kind of rare mythical genetic disease. Everything was stupid and terrible forever, the end.

Drama queeeeen.

“Rhys, you are the only one I know who could find out they’re functionally immortal and complain about it,” Fiona said, crouching down by his side. She pulled out some grass from the floor and sprinkled it on his chest, her other arm wrapped around her knees.

“Eeeeeh, you know, I’m starting to think immortality kind of blows. Way over-rated,” Jack said, shrugging, “But that ain’t even what’s happening here. Rhys has freaky powers, but you could kill the guy if you just tore him apart faster than his body could deal with it. Now, if I was trying to kill him, I’d send a fleet of EXP-Loaders after him, you know, have them batter him with bullets and fists and then just blow up, really shred him to pieces.”

“Really? Not skin him and wear him like a coat?” Fiona asked innocently.

“That’s my second option.”

“Har har har,” Rhys intoned, and then sat up, brushing the grass from his chest with a sweep of his hand. “And hey, if you haven’t noticed, my ‘freaky powers’ just make me a – a human punching bag. It’s not like I’ve learned I can shoot fire from my hands or anything, you know, useful. Like, oh, great, I can get shot a lot. Awesome.”

“Rhys. You are not just a human punching bag,” Fiona said seriously, grasping his shoulder, “You’re a human punching bag with a really strong ECHOnet connection. Now are we getting back to the task at hand or what? Let’s just…go for it! It’s how we do it every time anyway.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rhys muttered. He leaned across and opened the drawer in Jack’s body (“Hey! Ask first!”), and took all the eridium from him, tucking it into his shirt and his pockets and wherever he could stuff it. Great. No big dramatic flashes or power ups. Just sitting with a bunch of eridium on him, waiting until it made any difference at all. Not stupid or annoying at all.

He checked the display screen on his ECHO eye – still no connection. If he could only call home when he was eridium charged, then that was the best litmus test they had. And they didn’t even know if that was exactly the case.

“Still hasn’t worked,” Rhys snapped, “Urgh! This just friggin’ – urgh!”

“Give it a min, Rhysie,” Jack said calmly.

Yeah Rhysie . Bleh, just saying that makes me wanna barf.

Rhys almost snarled something back at them, only catching himself in time. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fiona glance at him, frown and squint. He clenched his fist, resisting the desire to snap at her as well, even though it was stupid. He just really hated that look.

You’re only going to be more of a circus freak when you get home, ya know.

“Shut up,” Rhys hissed, curling a hand in his hair.

“Uh, y’okay, Rhys?” Fiona asked, “You know, you’re still acting a bit – maybe we should get some sleep before the mission.”

“I’m fine!” Rhys said, far louder than necessary. Jack snorted.

His jacket was beginning to feel lighter.

Something flashed in the corner of his eye – online again! Finally! Hopefully that meant…well. He crossed to the computer and desk under the shelter, snatching up Gortys’s upgrade and opening it up.

Attempting to connect to homehub GIVRS system…connection found, please stand by.

Finally, Rhys thought, breathing out, they were going home.

 

“Vaughn! Hello!” Gortys said, hugging Vaughn around the legs. Vaughn looked down at her, and then around at her new office. The one Rhys had promised her was kind of…not in such great shape, so Loader Bot had helped her find the next biggest one. It wasn’t as nice as the other one, but it didn’t have those ugly statues of that Ruthless Jake guy, which was always a plus. Still, after this was all sorted, Gortys was going to have to consider some serious redecorating options.

“Um. Gortys,” Vaughn said, slowly, and then shook his head, words apparently failing him, “What?”

“Oh, uh, okay! So! Sorry I took over a lot, but I had a lot I wanted to get done and you guys were taking foreeeeever with your sexy drama stuff,” she explained, “How did that work out, by the way?”

“I – I think it’s all fine now, Gortys,” Vaughn said, then added in a mumble, “Far as I know, anyway.”

“That is so great. I am so looking forward to getting Fiona and Rhys home and everyone being friends and we can all have sleepovers in my new office and go find more cool Vaults and you can meet my new friend Moxxi and did you know Fiona and Rhys made a new friend in the Vault, isn’t that great, it’s a Claptrap!” Gortys said, dragging Vaughn by the hand towards the GIVRS hub, set up at the back of the room. Loader Bot sat at the main chair in the centre of it, fiddling with the interface and the buttons.

“A Claptrap? They found a Claptrap in a Vault?” Vaughn said, “Wow, Eridian treasure has really went down in the world.”

“Don’t be silly, Vaughn. That’s not the treasure,” Gortys continued cheerfully, “Anyway, this is…drum roll, please, Loader Bot!”

I DON’T REALLY WANT TO.

“Drum roll! Please!”

…DRR DRR DRR DRR…

“The GIVRS system!” Gortys said, spreading her arms to indicate the whole console, “The Gortys in-Vault Retrieval System!”

Vaughn looked at her blankly, blinking once.

Gosh. Why did humans always need things explained to them so thoroughly? She didn’t really mind, explaining things was lots of fun…but they were just so slow, bless them.

“This is a beta upgrade developed by a small Atlas research team,” Gortys continued patiently. Vaughn looked the GIVRS hub up and down and slid his hand over one of the monitors.

“Well it’s…I mean don’t get me wrong, this is Atlas tech so, you know, really cool, really slick, and in any other circumstances, I’d be psyched as hell to have it, but…” Vaughn said slowly, “What does it do?”

Gortys exchanged a look with Loader Bot, who only shrugged.

“Well, okay. Some smartypants at Atlas thought – correctly – that the treasure would be too big to bring through by hand! So they developed the GIVRS system to move things between the Vault dimension and ours,” Gortys said, “Now, it’s not totally perfected, a lot never got finished, but I think we should be able to get Rhys and Fiona home with it!”

“Wait, what?”

“I said, we should be able to get Rhys and Fiona home with it!”

“Gortys…that…”

“No, really, it’ll work!” Gortys interrupted, waving her hands to stop Vaughn trying to tell her it was a dumb idea, “I mean, listen, I knooow you don’t –“

“No, Gortys, that’s awesome!” Vaughn said, picking her up off the floor, “I cannot believe we’ve been messing around with all this stuff and you had this, right there! Ha! Man, you little genius.”

Gortys could only squeal with delight.

 

Yvette had no idea what the hell was going on across Helios, but it was making a hell of a lot of noise. Even in the medical wing, she could hear people charging back and forth in the hallway, yelling at one another. As much as she wanted to, she could tell from the single glance the nurse gave her that she wasn’t to goddamn move an inch unless told.

Not that she could move much at all. Her spine felt stiff as an iron rod, weighing her down.

She could feel her new leg with the flat of her palm through the blanket. She still couldn’t move it. Thinking about that made her heart thud and her head spin – what if it hadn’t worked? What if it had went wrong and left her even worse than before?

There was a note by her bed, in Vaughn’s neat handwriting. Yvette couldn’t read it from where she was lying, and couldn’t move enough to pick it up. She turned her head to look across the room, trying to bite back panic – maybe she wasn’t meant to be able to move at this stage. It was fine. She was fine..

At the other end of the room, Sasha was curled up asleep in a chair, a magazine on her lap. As she looked over, she shifted slightly, hands tucked under her chin and bare feet sandwiched between her thighs and the seat.

For a second, Yvette felt a thick coil of anxiety in her stomach, remembering their stupid argument, kissing in Vasquez’s ugly apartment, holding hands in the back of the runner. All that, and maybe she still couldn’t trust her. She’d known Rhys for way longer and they’d never been able to trust each other. Or, at the very least, they shouldn’t have.

Maybe she was getting some tracker chip implanted in her. Maybe she already had. Maybe it’d serve her damn right.

The nurse moved towards her, something in his hands Yvette couldn’t quite make out. He said something, it sounded like an explanation, but the words didn’t come together in a way that made sense, just snippets, nouns and verbs that held no meaning. It was like trying to eavesdrop on a conversation in a language you barely spoke.

Taking a deep a breath as she could, Yvette tried to relax. It was too late now – all she could do was try to take things as they came.

 

“Rhys!” piped up a familiar, peppy voice on the other end of the GIVRS device. No image though – Rhys supposed video calling wasn’t necessary. If this thing was meant to communicate between the Vault and Pandora, it only needed the bare bones. Probably wouldn’t have any games on it either.

“Hey, Gortys, we’re ready to go. I…think,” Rhys said rolling a piece of eridium between his fingers in his free hand. At the very least, his skin was scratching and prickling all over, and the eridium in his clothes seemed to be getting lighter and lighter. Apparently Jack’s stupid theory about his abilities being passive was on the money. Bastard.

Yet he couldn’t shake the sneaking feeling that whatever limited abilities he had, maybe they wouldn’t be enough to do whatever the hell Gortys expected of him.

No point thinking about it. Just had to try it.

“That is great! Okay, Loader Bot’s gonna be at the main hub, and I’m gonna be at the portal making sure it’s stable and no other freaky alien monsters come out of it.”

“Is…is that likely?” Rhys couldn’t help but ask. With their luck, and the increasingly ludicrous nature of their lives, he wouldn’t exactly be surprised.

“Not really! But you know, don’t want a repeat of last time, especially since I don’t have my super cool team of monster-fighters to help me out,” she replied, “Now, plug in, connect with me, and we’ll open the portal and get you home!”

Rhys opened the GIVRS handheld and found an extension cable that would connect to his port. He pulled it out and held it in his hand for a second, rubbing his finger around the smooth metal of his port. It had been…kind of a while since he’d put anything in there.

Not really something he’d been looking forward to. Hell, he’d considered just resealing his skull entirely. If that wasn’t illegal in several systems, and he never had to worry about having problems with his cerebral cybernetics ever again, he would have.

“Hold up,” Jack interrupted.

“Yeah, Rhys, wait a second,” Fiona said, just as gravely.

“What?” he said blankly. By their tones, it sounded like they were both going to go into ‘If we don’t get out of this alive’ speech – something neither of them seemed remotely likely to do.

Wordlessly, the two of them moved either side of him, arms out.

“Uh…?”

“Just a precaution. Never know when you’re going to swoon and pass out again,” Fiona said, “Plus, your velvet pillow’s still in the mail.”

Rhys scowled and jabbed the GIVRS drive into his port. He didn’t need to put up with this any longer. When they got back to Helios and he was being literally hailed as a god, those two smartasses wouldn’t be able to make fun of him anymore.

In theory, anyway.

Identifying local unit, searching for designation.

The screen went red, and the GIVRS device began emitting a loud, low siren that almost made Rhys drop it, and sent Dickfeeder back into the air. Rhys made frantic shushing noises at the screen, scrabbling to find the mute button.

HYPERION DETECTED, HYPERION DETECTED, HYPERION DETECTED –

“Oh, whoops, hold on, lemme get that! Needs to think you’re me, or, you know, one of me!” Gortys interrupted brightly. She hummed and there was some clicking and beeping noises on the other end, and the siren fell silent, replaced with white type on a cool blue screen.

Hello, RHYS! Are you ready to connect to the GIVRS home hub?

Y/N?

Well, he had a jacket full of eridium, an intense and weird relationship with a Claptrap with all the emotional stability of a purebred chihuahua, a small shrieking alien, and powers he didn’t understand or know how to use.

What could possibly go wrong, really.

He hit the Y on the screen.

Connecting…

“Huh,” Rhys said, as strings of code passed across his vision. It made a soft buzzing fill his body, not exactly pleasant or unpleasant, just strange.

“You know, I was expecting to –“

There was a jolt in the pit of his stomach and he stumbled back. He felt Fiona’s hands seize his shoulders and his legs hit Jack’s front, just managing to stay upright. They vanished for a second in a blaze of violet light, strands of code, complicated and neat, flashing past.

For a second, he saw Loader Bot, members of the Children of Helios running back and forth in the background, and then he was forty feet high, stretching out a hand to the stone arc outside of Helios, and then –

He reached his hand up to meet Gortys’s, and tore open a hole in the sky.

And –

He stumbled forward, blinking, and then straightened himself up, amazed at how light and awake he felt. Far away, across the jungle, a hole had been torn through the world.

“Woah,” he heard Fiona say beside him, her hands tight on the back of his shirt. Rhys followed her gaze, and saw something shining in the distance, hot white and flickering. It looked like the jungle was on fire.

“You okay?” Fiona asked quietly, looking at him uncertainly. He pushed her off him and stumbled forward, dropping to his knees, and felt himself start to laugh, chest and shoulders shaking.

“Never better,” he said, standing up and stretching his arms out, amazed at how light he felt, the blazing in his bones, “No, I mean, really! Never better! Ha! Ha ha ha! Guys. Guys. This is great.”

“Uh,” Fiona said.

“Oh boy,” Jack muttered.

Dickfeeder hovered above them, wings flashing a series of quick colours. Despite the fact his grasp of eridian language hadn’t improved over the past few weeks, Rhys got the gist.

They had been doing their best to stay out of sight of any Eridians, but Rhys had just fired a flare gun for them.

“Alright, we need to run!” he blurted out, grabbing Fiona’s shoulders.

“What?” Fiona asked, her eyebrows vanishing into her bangs, “Uh. Rhys. Are you a bit –“

“We gotta go!” Rhys chattered, and then jabbed a finger through the trees. “Way home, over there! Portal did not open where I wanted it to! Whoops!”

“I got that,” Fiona muttered, glancing across at the glowing over the top of the trees. Rhys bounced on his heels, not sure why they weren’t running, his heart racing, every colour bright and burning. He was aware of everything from the machinery whirring inside Jack’s chassis, the rustling of leaves over his head. Everything was so loud. It all felt so close.

“Yeah, we better run, Hat. He’s gonna crash hard soon, then we ain’t getting nowhere,” Jack added. Rhys nodded and darted away.

It was only a few minutes before there was a great buzzing in the air, and Rhys glanced back to see a group of Eridian warriors catching up fast, spears in their hands and armoured.

“Oh shit!” Fiona swore, “Rhys, what did you do!”

“Think they felt whatever I just did,” Rhys said. The GIVRS device in hand beeped again and he glanced down.

“Uh!” said a small voice through speakers, “Rhys, um. There’s something else I should mention!”

“Gortys, please say this is good news,” Fiona said, panting and glancing back over her shoulder.

“Well, technically speaking…this is the beta system and not totally finished soooo…the portal isn’t gonna stay open for long,” Gortys said.

“Then we’ll just open it again if we miss it, big deal!” Rhys replied cheerfully.

“That’s the spirit! After all, it’ll only take a month to recharge so –“

“A month!” Fiona and Jack bellowed at once.

“Sounds good,” Rhys said, not sure what all the yelling was about.

“No it does not!” Fiona yelled, and grabbed Rhys’s arm, pulling him along faster, “We have to move faster!”

An Eridian rammed into them and sent all three of them tumbling to the floor. Jack beeped, Fiona swore. Rhys leapt back to his feet and dragged both of them up with him. The Eridian wheeled back for another attack, but Dickfeeder flew into it and sent them both spinning through the air.

“Thanks buddy!” Rhys called, and continued to run. The blood pounding in his ears, Rhys was only half sure where they were going. It was noisy, there seemed like there was more Eridians around them by the moment, all of them big and angry and armed. Rhys could barely even see where he was going.

His good mood was fading remarkably quickly, lucidity creeping in through the warm haze of the eridium.

They really were up shit creek again, weren’t they?

A spear sailed past them, splintering against one of the trees.

“Rhys, let go of my damn hand!” Fiona said, yanking her hand from Rhys’s grip and drawing her pistol with a click. She twisted and fired a few shots at the nearest Eridians, hitting just the one and knocking it to the floor. There was more shrieking, angrier this time, and Rhys had the feeling that probably wasn’t the best thing they could have done.

A pair of Eridians dived on them, one seizing Rhys’s arm and dragging him upwards. Panic gripped his chest and Rhys kicked out, managing to land his foot in the creature’s thorax. It dropped him, out of surprise if nothing else, and Rhys fell back to the grass with a thump, stumbling to his feet.

Fiona was firing bullets widely, trying to clear a path through the Eridians. Dickfeeder was screeching, whirling circles around the others, their wings flashing. Whatever they were trying to say to their fellow aliens though, Rhys suspected it wasn’t working. Jack was scrambling away from an Eridian yanking on his arm, beeping and shouting threats that he was less than capable of following up on.

“This way!” Rhys yelled over the chaos, ducking out of the way of another spear.

“We know which way to go, Rhys!” Fiona shouted, running past him, “It’s literally glowing!”

“Comin’!” Jack called, but another Eridian leapt on him, sending him falling back, and there was a garbled noise, halfway between a human scream and a dial-up modem trying to connect.

“Jack?” Rhys called, and wheeled back towards him. Behind him, he could hear Fiona calling Rhys every bad name under the sun, but he ignored her and charged straight for Jack. The Eridian had its spear jammed in Jack’s eye and was pulling it out, with a metal groaning and a snapping and shattering of circuity.

Rhys rammed into the Eridian and it tumbled off Jack, spear in hand.

He grabbed Jack’s hand and yanked him up. His eye was hanging out of his shell, connected by a mangled length of cords and wires.

“Ooooh boy. Rhys? That you? You have no idea how much this hurts,” Jack said.

Rhys wanted to say that yes, he knew exactly how goddamn much having a sharp goddamn implement rip out your goddamn eye goddamn hurt, but it just wasn’t the time. Instead he just pulled Jack along, Dickfeeder clinging to his jacket and squeaking.

The portal home was in sight – a shimmering loop in the air.

Fiona was there already – for a second, Rhys thought she was going to leave without him, then she turned, grabbed his arm, and all four of them tumbled through.

 

“How do you feel?” Sasha called through the curtain.

Yvette stared down at her legs, tracing down from the brown flesh of her thigh, to where it cut off, just above the knee. A line separating her flesh from plates of hard metal, orange with neon blue details. It continued into a calf that looked like it had come loose from a spaceship, down to a foot, right down to rigid little metal toes. She thought about wiggling them. They wiggled.

“Weird,” she said finally, her mouth very dry.

She’d seen Rhys after he got his arm. He’d been in the Helios medical wing for all of twenty minutes after waking up from the operation, and then he was strutting the halls as though he owned the place, making sure his new cybernetic arm caught the light, bringing up a holoscreen every five minutes just because he could. It hadn’t bothered him in the least.

Yvette hadn’t really expected it to bother her either. She hadn’t really thought about it much beyond just being goddamn able to get from point A to point B without it being a complete fucking ordeal.

She traced the line between her flesh and the metal. The metal felt warm – not hot like a computer that had been running for a while, or cold like you’d expect hard metal to feel. Just warm, like flesh but rigid.

Weird.

It was a success. That was the important thing. She had two fully functional legs. That didn’t hurt like hell all the time.

She ran her hand down her calf, and back up again. She could feel her own fingers, but distant, numbly, like she had cut off the blood supply to her leg.

“Can I have my clothes?” she asked finally, swallowing.

Sasha thrust a pile of clothes through the curtain, her face turned away. Yvette snatched them – an orange Hyperion blouse, only a little tattered. The Hyperion logo on the breast had mostly been scratched off. A pair of charcoal slacks, a little too short for her legs. Her calves would show.

No new bra – good underwear was difficult to get hold of. She just had to make her old one work.

“We need to get a Quick Change station here,” Yvette muttered.

“There’s one half an hour drive away. Expensive though – Hyperion going down in this system really pushed up the prices,” Sasha said, “Who knew you guys were doing something helpful.”

“Well, turns out a huge branch of a major corporations going down has economic consequences,” Yvette said, buttoning up the blouse and trying to adjust it to rest on her shoulders properly – way too big.

“Alright, smartass. I just wasn’t aware Hyperion was in the high fashion business,” Sasha said, and Yvette could practically see the eye-roll and shrug.

“Where you think Rhys got all his spectacular outfits?”

Sasha laughed, loud and giggly, and Yvette grinned to herself.

She looked at her shoes, then at her feet – one small and brown, the other big, mechanical, and brightly coloured. Sighing, she put one shoe on and tossed the other aside.

“Are you decent yet?” Sasha said.

“Would you still come in if I said no?”

“…Probably.”

Sasha pulled the curtain aside with a rattle, and looked her up and down.

“Lame, you can hardly tell,” she concluded, “What is the point of become a cyborg if you can’t tell?”

“You’re being nice. You can tell,” Yvette replied, looking down at her mismatching legs and biting down hard on her lip. She took a step forward, conscious of every whirr and huff of machinery, the way her leg didn’t quite move the way she expected – it was heavier now, denser, thicker and bigger. She stumbled, and Sasha caught her arm just before her face hit the floor.

“Woah! Has the pain medication not worn off yet?”

“It has! I- I mean, it has. Just,” she said, straightening up and sweeping her braids to the other side of her face, “These things take a while.”

“Heh. Well. Doctor Okarafor said you have to report to her for check-ups every day for the next six weeks. Then once every other week, and then once every week,” Sasha said, passing Yvette a bottle of water, “After six months it’ll be once every month. Oh, and there’s all these rehabilitative exercise you’ll need to do every day twice a day, and –“

“This sounds terrible,” Yvette said, “Rhys just strapped his on and was out the door.”

“Yeah, well, Rhys is the kind of guy that can fall in a vat of skag shit and come out smelling like roses,” Sasha replied, and tapped Yvette on the nose with a finger, “You need to make sure you don’t get sick again.”

Yvette rolled her eyes.

“What, you got worried about me?”

“…Sort of, yeah.”

An awkward silence descended. The nurses, still sorting out Dr Okarafor’s equipment and cleaning up from the operation, pretended they weren’t there. Since they were both seven feet tall and mostly made of abs and biceps, it wasn’t very effective.

Yvette clicked her tongue. Sasha shoved her hands in her pockets. The nurses kept their heads down and their eyes fixed firmly on the scalpels and forceps they were reorganising.

Yvette heard the clock ticking on the wall.

Sasha cleared her throat.

“Hey, so, Gortys has this crazy scheme to get Fiona and Rhys home,” she said, “We should…probably be helping them with that.”

“Gortys does? The robot? It came up with a plan?” Yvette said, raising an eyebrow.

“She’s…going through a bit of a phase,” Sasha explained, “It sounds more feasible than anything we came up with, though.”

“Well, yeah, we should be there for that,” Yvette said, and took a few more steps forward, before stumbling and falling onto the floor with a thump.

“Oooor…we take it easy,” Sasha said, helping Yvette off the floor, and looping an arm over her shoulders. Despite her irritation at being assisted, Yvette couldn’t help but marvel again at how freakishly strong Sasha was.

“I mean, it’ll take those guys forever to enact this plan, and it might not even work,” Sasha said, “We can afford to relax a little.”

“Sounds good.”

 

Rhys lifted himself to his feet, looking down to see Dickfeeder half-squished underneath him. He muttered an apology to the little thing, receiving a weary-sounding chirp in response. They really needed to figure out a way to communicate with the little guy.

Beside him, Jack lay face-down on the floor, Fiona flopped over him. She saw him looking and gave him a thumbs-up, stumbling to her feet.

Behind them, the stone arch that had let the Traveller walk through – just a stone arch now. No magical glowing or hoarde of pissed off aliens with spears pouring through, luckily. Closed door, Rhys guessed. For now.

And ahead of them, Helios – what was left of it.

“We’re back,” Fiona said numbly, as though she didn’t believe it, “That worked.”

“Ha, ha, you weren’t convinced?” Rhys said, running a hand through his hair, “Please. We had the situation under control.”

“Oooh, totally,” Jack said, the sound from his speakers muffled, “That’s why I got no freakin’ eye, Rhys, because we just had that situation so friggin’ under control.”

“Oh, don’t be a baby, I’ll fix it,” Rhys replied, “Point is, we are back! Let’s look at the positives here.”

“Urgh.”

There was a huge booming and thudding, shaking the ground so hard Rhys fell back on his ass again. He barely had time to figure out what was happening before a very familiar, happy face was staring down at him. From a forty-foot tall fighting robot body.

“Rhys! Fiona! You’re home!” Gortys cried

“Wait, is that Gortys I hear? She was the thing shaking the dang ground?” Jack said, “Well. Someone had a growth spurt.”

If Gortys at all recognised the voice coming out of the Claptrap, she showed no sign of it. Instead, she stretched forward to grab both Rhys and Fiona with her hand. Rhys squawked and rolled out of the way. Dickfeeder shrieked and took high into the air, wings flashing and whirling above Gortys’s head.

“Woah, Gortys, murder hands, please be careful, with the murder hands!” he blurted out. Gortys hesitated, looked at her hands, then smiled.

 “Hehe, whoops, sorry, forgot!” she said, “Okay, I need to give you a hug, so I guess me and Vaughn will get out of here! Or…outta me, I guess? You know, I think I feel more myself when I’m all small and cute.”

“Vaughn’s in there?” Rhys said, perking up.

Gortys beamed down at him and lowered her hand again, gently this time. A door slid open on it.

There was a clunking of boots on metal, and Rhys took a few stumbling steps forward. Vaughn climbed out, hands on the doorway, before dropping down to the ground. He looked back and forth, hair falling loose from his bun, until catching sight of Rhys. His face split into a grin and he sprinted for him. Before Rhys even thought about it, he was rushing towards him too.

Rhys couldn’t even get a word out before he was being hefted into the air, a pair of arms squeezing him in the middle and Vaughn’s face pressed into his chest.

“Bro, you’re back, you’re okay!” Vaughn said.

“Yeah, yeah. Course I am, come on, it’s me,” Rhys managed to wheeze, wondering how much pressure someone could place on a set of ribs before they cracked.

Vaughn set him down, and then slapped a hand over his mouth and nose.

“Woah, Rhys, you…stink. Really badly,” he said, coughing, “I mean, nobody on Pandora smells like a bed of roses, but. Wow.”

“Yeah well…we haven’t had a wash in a while,” Rhys mumbled, scratching the back of his head. There was also the small fact that ripping a hole between dimensions really worked up a sweat – his back was soaked, his armpits and forehead and neck were disgusting, and he didn’t even want to think about his feet.

Vaughn shook his head, smiling fondly up at him and setting his hands on his hip.

“Well, you guys will have to tell me all your adventure stories, and – uh. Uh. Rhys…am I getting a migraine, or are you like…glowing a little bit?”

“Oh. That hasn’t worn off yet?” Rhys said, embarrassed. He rubbed his collarbone, like that might stop his birthmarks looking so…bioluminescent.

“Rhys…” Vaughn began slowly.

Dickfeeder came to settle on Rhys’s shoulder, stretching their full length to stare Vaughn right in the face, wings spread and coloured a cautious orange.

Great timing, buddy, Rhys thought to himself. Reeaaally helpful.

“What?” Vaughn said.

“Oh, hey, you met the little guy already,” Fiona said, striding up towards them with Jack wheeling by her side, “So. Where’s Sasha?”

Vaughn was too busy squinting at Jack.

“What?” Vaughn repeated, “You really found a Claptrap in there?”

“Heeeey, I recognise that voice!” Jack blurted out, before Rhys could as much as draw breath. Not even bothering to use his Claptrap voice. Rhys wasn’t sure why he even bothered.

“Hey, Muscles, how’s it going? Surprised to see me?” he said, waving at a spot about six feet to the left of Vaughn.

Vaughn couldn’t even summon a ‘What?’ for that. He could only stare at Jack, and then at Rhys, his mouth hanging open and his eyes bulging.

That was…probably about the best reaction he could have hoped for really, upon reflection.

“Oh man, I have been looking forward to seeing you explain this one, Rhys,” Fiona said, grinning and folding her arms.

“Honestly, Hat?” Jack said, “Me too.”

Vaughn looked between them, face still fixed in that cartoonish expression of horror, before looking back at Rhys.

Rhys put his hands up. He could talk it out. Talking was what he did best, and he knew Vaughn better than anyone.

“Vaughn. Buddy. Listen. It’s a long story, but trust me, it is not as bad as it looks-“

“Gortys, grab that Claptrap unit!”

Chapter Text

“Okie dokey!” Gortys said, leaning down and grabbing Jack. As she pulled him upwards, Jack screeching threats and insults, the cords just barely keeping his eye attached to his chassis snapped. Rhys darted out of the way, the eye landing by his foot with a thud.

He swung upside down, his wheel pinched between Gortys’s thumb and forefinger. She prodded him experimentally and he swatted back at her blindly.

“Rhys! Rhys! Get her to put me down right now!” he bellowed.

“Wow, he’s loud!” Gortys said, sounding absolutely delighted.

“I swear, Rhys, if you do not help me right now, I will skin you and make a lampshade out of your pasty flesh.”

“Again with the skinning,” Fiona sighed.

Rhys shook his head and bent to retrieve the Claptrap eye from the floor. The screen was cracked where the spear had went through, but it looked salvageable. As he stood up, he notied Vaughn scrutinising him, an expression of sheer disbelief on his face. Rhys felt the blood rush to his cheeks.

“He…isn’t as bad as he sounds,” he said. It sounded weak even to him. Vaughn shook his head.

“Gortys,” he said instead, looking back up at the robot, who looked as though she was having great fun playing with her new friend, “Has anyone incinerated the garbage recently?”

“Hmmmm…no, don’t think so!” she replied.

“Okay, just…just…put him in that dumpster behind the station until we work out what to do. Keep an eye on him,” he said, rubbing his forehead.

What? Rhys!” Jack barked, squirming and thrashing his arms, “Rhys! Do something right now!”

“Calm down! Look, just…just let me talk this out first,” Rhys said, unsure whether he was addressing Jack or Vaughn, “I’ll get you later.”

“Come on, little guy,” Gortys said cheerfully, giving him another flick before stomping off.

Rhys swallowed and looked at Vaughn, frowning, arms folded, brow furrowed. He didn’t look angry though – just baffled, and concerned. Truthfully, Rhys wasn’t sure if that was any better. It might be better if Vaughn was yelling at him for being an idiot, rather than looking at him as though he was completely incomprehensible as a human.

Just looking at you like the thing you are, Rhys.

“Look, Vaughn, buddy, it’s kind of a long story,” he began.

“A very long, very stupid story,” Fiona said helpfully, “Rhys got naked like, three times.”

Vaughn’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. Rhys clapped his hands together, holding them in front of his chest entreatingly.

“So, you know, before we start talking about that…shower? Some food? Please?” Rhys said.

Vaughn gave him a long look, but relented, his shoulders slumping into a sigh.

Wow. Been back five minutes and Mr Universe over there is already sooooo done with you. Holy crap.

“Alright, fine, but...bro,” Vaughn said, raising his hands helplessly. Rhys laughed, rubbing the back of his neck.

“It’ll aaaall make sense when I explain it,” he said, “Um…Hopefully.”

 

“What is going on out there?” Yvette asked, her head in her hands, “And would it kill them to do it quietly?”

“Some kind of wacky plan, as usual,” Sasha said, closing the blinds, “Just…relax for now, okay? We’ll check on those guys when you feel better. I mean…our success rate isn’t that high. What’s the chances it worked this time?”

“Got a point,” Yvette admitted, sitting down. She leaned back on the sofa, and her eyes were drawn again towards her robotic foot, jutting out of the bottom of her trousers. She twitched the toes again, one by one, listening to every click and whir of the mechanisms. So, so weird. How fast did people get used to this? She needed to, like, look it up on the ECHOnet or something. Surely there were forums or support groups or whatever for this kind of thing.

Sasha’s apartment didn’t look any different from the last time she’d been in the other night – still looked like a bomb had dropped. Clothes on the floor, plates in the sink, her laptop closed on the coffee table. Yvette shifted uncomfortably, the embarrassment from that night rushing back, hard enough to make her gut clench.

She’d been such a jackass.

“You okay?” Sasha asked. Yvette took a glug from the bottle of water by her feet, only humming and nodding, her gaze on the seared carpet. It was amazing, really, how many things survived the fall of Helios. It was amazing she survived the fall of Helios.

She would never have needed to if it wasn’t for goddamn Rhys.

“As I can be,” Yvette said stiffly. Sasha snorted.

“Yeah, that’s the usual answer on this planet,” she said, settling on the chair opposite, folding her legs underneath her, “Always something going on. Bandits, death, monsters, money-grubbing corporations – no offense, Vault Hunters, moonshots…and if that doesn’t kill you, sunstroke, famine, or disease might just.”

And Yvette was having girl troubles. Typical.

“Have you ever considered working at the Pandoran Tourism Board?” Yvette said, “You really know how to sell this planet.”

“Yeah, well, I know how to sell a lot of things,” Sasha admitted, “Talking bullshit is kind of my main skill.”

“I thought guns were your main skill,” Yvette pointed out.

“That too,” she said, “But, you know. Fiona always was a better shot than me. Better at the talking stuff too.”

Yvette sat up, frowning. There was something uncharacteristically hard and bitter in Sasha’s voice. Normally when she talked about her sister, Sasha made it sound as though the sun shone out of her ass.

“Where’s this come from?” she said. Sasha shrugged, twirling her earring with a finger.

“Just…you know. Been thinking about stuff. I don’t think me and Fiona have ever been separated for this long,” she said.

“Seriously?” Yvette asked, “You guys never took separate vacations or anything?”

Yvette had thought Rhys and Vaughn had been bad, but sheesh. That couldn’t be healthy.

“Seriously. It’s always been me and her. Sometimes Felix, sometimes not, but you know, always me and Fi.”

Yvette couldn’t say she related. Only child, sporadic (at best) friend circle, a relationship track record that was, frankly, bordering on tragic. There’d never really anybody consistent. Alliances, she’d had plenty, most with the full and consensual knowledge one of you would stab the other in the back when the time came. When you wanted to climb the Hyperion ladder, getting too buddy-buddy was more a liability than an advantage. You had to be ready to cut ties – instantly, if necessary. Cruelly, even.

Playing third wheel to Rhys and Vaughn was the closest she’d ever really got to anyone. The thought was a little sobering.

“Ain’t something I ever had but…sounds kind of nice,” she said, “You two really had each others backs, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. But then, you know, people cast shadows, don’t they?” Sasha said.

Usually, Yvette tried to steer these kinds of conversations back to safer waters. Talking about big messy emotional stuff, it was too easy to make a misstep - share information you didn’t want to share, insult when you didn’t want to insult, learn information you were better off not knowing. If you wanted to advance, you needed to keep it simple and shallow. Keep everyone at a distance and liking you just enough to get by.

And, all that aside, she just. She just wasn’t very good at them.

She should steer the conversation back to her cybernetics surgery, or the fights that had been breaking out across the Children of Helios, but…

“Yeah?” she asked, leaning forward.

She actually wanted to hear Sasha talk about this stuff.

Oh no.

“Felix always made his preference pretty clear,” Sasha continued, and looked up at her with a wry smile, “But hey, not like being a sidekick is too bad. Essential component of conning. And plenty of opportunity for witty one-liners. And you always know where you stand.”

“Well, you don’t sound bitter about it at all,” she said, and winced immediately. That wasn’t the nice thing to say. Sasha only laughed, clapping her hand over half her face.

“Seriously, Yvette? You’re the bitterest person I’ve ever met.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“No – no, I mean! Just…it’s funny. You calling me out on it,” she continued, flapping her hand at Yvette and shaking her head.

“Alright, point taken,” Yvette replied, chuckling herself, “So…what are you gonna do when she comes back?”

“What?” Sasha asked, suddenly looking wide-eyed and cornered.

“When…your sister gets back. You said she was a Vault Hunter now,” she said, “What are you gonna do?”

“Well…I don’t know. Get into Vault Hunting myself…I guess,” she muttered, “I don’t really know.”

Yvette tilted her head.

“You seriously haven’t thought about it?” she said. Sasha tutted, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Well. All I’ve ever wanted to do is get off this planet,” she admitted, “I haven’t really thought about much else. And I’m not sure the money we have is enough so -”

“You’re a coward.”

“Excuse me?” she spat, looking up.

“Hey, I’m just saying, you want to leave, and you could, now, you could get out of the system, at least. Maybe it won’t get you everywhere in the galaxy, and maybe you’d have to find work on whatever planet you end up on, but…” Yvette continued, with a shrug. Sasha stared at her, mouth hanging open, and Yvette decided to just charge on – she’d already said the stupid, rude thing. Might as well go the whole mile with it. “You’re just too scared to do it by yourself.”

 “Urgh…that’s…you know, you can be a real asshole,” she said, leaning back on the chair and bringing her knees up to her chest.

“I’m right though.”

“That’s up for debate,” she said, and sighed, “Just. I don’t know, Yvette. It’s not like you know what you’re doing either.”

“I’m working on it,” Yvette lied. She hadn’t thought about it much further either – she wanted to be out of goddamn Pandora, but where, and for what, she didn’t know.

The mercenary life sucked, and the bandit life wasn’t a whole lot better. And the more she thought about it, the more a return to cut-throat business appealed less and less. If people like Rhys and Vasquez and Jack were who got ahead, if you had to cut up your two best friends and serve them up to your supervisor for parts…well, Yvette wasn’t sure she wanted to play that game anymore.

As for what that left her, Yvette couldn’t say. She’d wanted to go into business since she was a little girl; always envisioned herself with a big slick office and a big slick desk and a group of scrawny, nervous-looking lackeys zipping back and forth to fetch her coffee and sandwiches.

That image still wasn’t totally without its appeal. But the edges had faded a little, become blurred with the feeling of a shock baton sinking into her gut and a barrel of bloody body parts and the burning wreckage of a space station around her and pain, a lot of pain, and a booming voice and bullets flying and and and.

“Yvette?”

Yvette opened her eyes. Sasha was next to her, all of a sudden, the tips of her fingers just brushing the back of Yvette’s hand.

“I’m fine,” she said, “Just thinking about stuff. Have you ever started to realise that, maybe, the thing you’ve always been doin’ just…isn’t that great?”

“Ha,” Sasha said, resting her head against Yvette’s shoulder, “You know, I wasn’t exactly expecting to have a whole lot in common with some Hyperion princess.”

“…Well, I didn’t exactly expect to get along with some dirty two-bit Pandoran con-artist,” she said, contemplating whether or not it would be awkward to put her arm around her, or if that door was closed, “I didn’t expect to be stuck on this rock at all.”

Sasha laughed.

“Not many people do, Yvette.”

 

Rhys had never been more grateful for the survival of any of the Children of Helios, than whoever had fixed the plumbing in his and Vaughn’s old dormitory. Plumbers were now Rhys’s favourite people in the galaxy.

How had he never realised how great showers were in the past? They were literally the best thing that human beings had ever made. Ever.

Yet as much as he wanted to spend the rest of his entire life in the shower, he had to face Vaughn sooner or later. He turned the water off, and shook his hair out before stepping out of the cubicle. Needed a haircut too, he thought, running his fingers through his hair. Maybe Fiona would be willing to help out – she probably had to do her own hair.

Stepping out, he wrapped a towel around his waist and rubbed the other through his hair. Being in his old bathroom again was…odd. Despite the cracks running across the mirror, the shattered tiles and the pervading smell of burning, if Rhys squinted, he could pretend he’d never went to Pandora and Helios had never fallen.

Rhys couldn’t imagine it – what would he even be doing? Working as a janitor under Vasquez’s constant barrage of insults? Still spending hours coming up with unlikely plans to become CEO with Vaughn? Somehow getting conned into buying lunch for –

His stomach clenched.

Not something to think about right now.

The clothes Vaughn had dug out for him were folded neatly by the door. All Hyperion-branded. A yellow long-sleeved shirt with the Hyperion logo on the right breast, a black blazer patterned with a honeycomb pattern, in faint, thin gold lines, and a pair of black trousers, pin-striped down one leg. Another tribute to the Pandoran-Hyperion grudge against symmetry. No tie. A pair of his own socks – tessellated stars in blue, grey and teal.

Rhys didn’t really want to put on Hyperion clothes again, but he could always scratch off the logo or cover it with a waistcoat or something.

He looked at himself in the mirror, split from the left shoulder to the opposite hip by the crack. As he’d expected, even after a shave, he looked ragged, even thinner than usual, with dark circles under his eyes and –

His fingers went to the birthmarks dotted in a loop across his collarbone, thinning to swirling lines down his forearm and one side of his torso, stopping just at his hip.

It was hard to say, but he was sure they’d never looked so…blue before. Back on Eden-5, they’d always been a greyish-pink, faint and blurred and easy to ignore. It was hard to ignore them now.

“Eridium exposure,” he muttered, leaning closer to look. And he swore, there were more of them now –the marks on his arm had never went as far as his elbow before, and there were rings forming at the bottom of the spots on his chest. Were they going to keep going? Was he going to be covered head to toe in the damn things in a while?

There was a groaning noise from somewhere.

The crack in the mirror began to widen.

There was something moving underneath it, a mass of something writhing and thrusting outward under the wall, slowly bulging out towards him. Rhys stumbled, almost tripping over his feet, and only just grabbing the counter in time.

You’re marked for life, Rhys. Look at you. Never had scars from anything before, but they’re there now, aren’t they?

Rhys wanted to tell it to shut up, but his voice jammed in his throat. He croaked instead, a weak noise like a door creaking open. It laughed.

Oh oh oh, but you always wanted to be special, right? Well, buddy you got it. Handsome Jack by your side too! Every single adolescent fantasy you ever had come true!

There was something behind him in the mirror. A body, pale and shivering. It was elongated to impossible proportions, the neck vanishing into the top of the mirror frame. One hand crept up his back, curling its long fingers around his throat. The other, on his shoulder, like a spider draping over him, just before sinking pincers into his neck. Another hand, and another, fingers attached to hands attached to long arms, too many to make sense of, all pressing into his neck and forcing his chin upwards. The air was dense and hot, and for all he wheezed and gasped, only wisps made it into his lungs.

Isn’t it everything you ever dreamed, Rhys?

Rhys didn’t know what would be worse – to turn and see something, or see nothing at all. Either way, he couldn’t move, just pressed his hands harder into the bathroom counter, and tried to find something to look at aside from the crack in the mirror or the body behind him or the hands on his throat.

That body is wasted on you.

He squeezed his eyes closed and jerked forward, forcing his throat out of the hands, taking as much air as he could into his chest.

“You’re not real,” he muttered.

Mmm, well, the jury’s out on that one, buddy. Who’s to say?

“Me. I say,” he snarled, “You’re not real, you’re a stupid part of my stupid brain, and all it will take is the right pills, or the right therapist, and I’ll get rid of you.”

Are you so sure it’s that easy, sweetheart?

There was a chin on his shoulder.

“Yeah, you know what, I am,” he said, though he didn’t dare open his eyes, whatever kind of face this thing would wear – Jack’s or his or something else entirely – he didn’t want to see it. Yet if he opened his eyes, he couldn’t help but think he would see that face, smirking and sharp-eyed, and then there’d be no escape from this. As soon as it had a face of its own there’d be no stopping it.

Oh?

“And you know what,” he said, louder, “I am not about to let you become real. You don’t get my body again, you don’t get out.”

You won’t let me? You won’t let me?

Rhys pressed the balls of his palms hard into his eyes, until he saw spots.

You won’t let me you won’t let me you won’t let me you won’t let me?

The voice raged on and on, but as Rhys bent lower, pressing himself tighter into himself, it began to fade. He focused on the feeling of his bare feet on the wet floor, the pressure on his eyes, the feeling of the skin of his thighs pressed against his belly. He could control this, he had dealt with worse, he could deal with this.

There was a knock on the door and Rhys looked up, wincing at the light.

“Rhys? Are you okay? You’ve…been in there a long time, man,” came Vaughn’s voice from behind the door.

“Yeah,” Rhys said, standing up and ignoring the ringing in his ears, “I’m fine, Vaughn. Be out in a second!”

He glanced at himself again in the mirror – one whole person, un-bisected, and turned away to change.

 

Vaughn was sitting at their small, plastic dining table when Rhys entered, newly dressed, with the blazer over his arm. Dickfeeder was curled up on the sofa, asleep. It had taken a good twenty minutes to get the Eridian to leave Rhys alone long enough to have a shower in peace. Nudity, apparently, was not an issue for their species.

Vaughn looked at him, tense smile on his face. He was fidgeting; drumming a pattern into his arm with his fingers and tapping his foot, a frantic, rapid rhythm. Bad sign. Vaughn mostly fidgeted when he was anxious. Though, Rhys supposed, it would likely be a worse sign if Vaughn was totally relaxed, considering everything that was going on.

Rhys attempted to smile back. He lifted a hand in a stiff wave.

“Hey,” he said.

“Weird to see you out of a suit,” Vaughn commented, “You’ve been pretty much wearing a suit and tie every day since you were thirteen.”

“Yeeaaah,” Rhys said, pulling out the chair opposite him, “Maybe don’t mention that to anyone.”

“I dunno,” he replied, grinning, “There are plenty of great pictures.”

“Please don’t.”

“Remember how you carried a briefcase around for all of ninth grade?”

“Stoooop.”

“Ha, well. Okay, um. So…” Vaughn began.

“I’m hungry,” Rhys said, spontaneously. Half because he was – he was ravenous, how had he not noticed that before - and half because he still really, really did not want to have this conversation. He got back up and went over to the kitchenette, conscious of Vaughn watching him the whole time, and rummaged through the fridge and cupboards. Vaughn sighed.

“Rhys, are you going to tell me what happened in there or not?” Vaughn said, walking across to him. Nothing worthwhile in the fridge, most things were rotten or destroyed, but he found a box of cereal in the back of a cupboard that made his stomach growl. He felt wrung-out, as though everything had been squeezed out of him, leaving him loose-limbed and strangely removed from everything around him, like he was controlling his own body with strings from afar.

And, mostly, he was really, really goddamn hungry.

He opened the box and began shovelling dry cereal into his mouth by the fistful.

“Uh. You okay there?” Vaughn asked.

“Yeah, I’m great, why do you ask. Just, you know, holding open an interdimensional portal really burns calories,” Rhys said. Vaughn gave him a sympathetic smile, and Rhys shoved some more mini-marshmallows and sugar-os into his mouth. He swallowed. “So. Guess I should explain, right?”

“It would help,” Vaughn said. Rhys took a breath.

Rhys began to explain everything that had happened – opening the chest in the Vault and appearing in the jungle, wandering lost with Fiona and scavenging for food, his night spent high and delusional, the dead Claptrap, installing Jack inside it, the Eridians, their Eridian, Gortys and finally –

“You’re a Siren?” Vaughn blurted out. Rhys winced.

“We’re not using the S-word,” he said, “But…yeah, that’s about it.”

“But, dude, how is that even possible. I mean, aren’t they all women?” Vaughn continued blankly.

“…Jack said it’s more to do with chromosomes,” Rhys said, “Nobody really knows that much, we’re just guessing.”

“Oh. But still…man, that is crazy,” he said, shaking his head, “I mean, wouldn’t we have noticed sooner?”

“You’d think,” Rhys muttered, “I dunno, I think…maybe it’s different for me? Maybe it’s because my powers seem kind…passive, or because it’s not like I got a whole loads of eridium exposure on Eden-5 or at college. Maybe spending time on Pandora and in the Vault made them more…active?”

“Maybe,” he said, “That, oooor we’re just about the biggest idiots ever.”

“Also possible,” Rhys admitted with a smile. He finished off the cereal and dumped it on the counter, going back into the cupboard to see if there was anything else. He still felt like he could eat a horse. Maybe an entire stable.

A-ha. Jackpot.

“Look, man, you’ve been through a lot and I appreciate that, but…also…seriously?

“Vaughn, I know it’s gross, but you have no idea how hungry I am right now,” Rhys said, taking another bite out of dry instant noodles.

“No, not that – well, a little that,” Vaughn admitted, “I mean Handsome Jack.”

“Oh.”

That.

“And you…do realise we have running water, right? You could have prepared those,” Vaughn pointed out, as Rhys finished the noodles with a few more unpleasant crunches.

Oh. Yeah.

“I know! I just…I like them better this way,” he lied, but started boiling the kettle for the next noodles, “And look, I know the Jack thing it…eeeh, it looks bad.”

Vaughn raised his eyebrows. Rhys didn’t know it was possible to say ‘No shit, Sherlock’ while completely silent.

“But, look! I made the decision not to destroy his AI so…I’m kind of responsible for him now,” Rhys said, “And I decided to put him in that Claptrap and now…I can’t just kill someone because they might do something bad.”

“He almost definitely will,” Vaughn said, sighing.

“Look, he’s harmless like this,” Rhys said, “I can –“

“Control him?” Vaughn suggested weakly, “You’ve said that before.”

“I understand him better now,” Rhys continued doggedly, “That…makes things easier. And he’s - I don’t know, not a better guy, but he’s calmer.”

Vaughn gave him a long look – half disbelief and half pity, and Rhys looked back, trying to look as resolute as he can. Like he actually had half a plan when he stuck Jack inside that thing and hadn’t just been high as balls.

“Rhys…listen, you’ve been obsessed with the guy since we were kids,” Vaughn said gently, like he was talking to a person who’d just been in a nasty car accident and might possibly have brain damage, “And I don’t get everything that happened between you guys, but it sounds like it got kind of intense. Are you sure this isn’t you just…I don’t know. Are you trying to convince yourself that wasn’t all wasted time? You know, all those years of hero worship? Plus whatever you guys got up to when that AI thing was in your head.”

It was a damn good point and Rhys hated it. He didn’t want to think about how true that was or wasn’t. At least not right now.

“That’s…that’s not it,” he said slowly, and then continued firmly, setting his jaw and folding his arms, “Either way, we’re not killing him.”

“Rhys, this is Handsome Jack we’re talking about! What are you going to do?” Vaughn blurted out, throwing his hands out in despair, “Put a leash on him and take him for walks?”

“Hahaha, of course not!” Rhys said, “…Why, do you think that would help?”

Vaughn gave Rhys a look that could freeze the balls off a bullymong.

“I’m kidding! Come on,” he said, holding up his arms and fanning his fingers, “Just…just trust me on this, okay? He can’t copy himself, he can’t control me, he’s – he’s safe like this, okay?”

“Rhys. I hope you know you are literally the most stubborn person I’ve ever met,” Vaughn said.

“Are you sure, I mean, we know a lot of stubbo-“

“No, Rhys, it’s you.”

“Well…can I take that as a compliment?” Rhys said, rubbing the back of his head and smirking.

“I don’t think I could stop you,” Vaughn replied, giving him a weary smile, “Honestly, dude, I’m just…I’m just really glad you’re here. We were starting to seriously worry you and Fiona weren’t coming back.”

“Yeah, us too,” Rhys admitted.

“And, just for the record, I think you’re nuts. Like, totally completely nuts,” Vaughn said, giving him a look that was half fondness, half bone-weary exasperation.

Rhys was fairly certain he had never been close to anyone without receiving that look from them. Sheesh. People always acted as though he was just exhausting to be around.

 “But, you know what, I trust you. If you think you can keep this…Handsome Jack…thing under control, then…I believe you,” Vaughn continued, “But if he looks like he might get dangerous again –“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll dismantle him yourself,” Rhys said, rolling his eyes and dismissing him with a wave of his hand, “Fiona said the same thing. He goes nuts, you guys kill him. I’m not going to argue with that.”

Vaughn goggled at him.

“Well, at least we’re all on the same page,” he said finally, “Still let’s just…keep a close eye on him, okay?”

“I am! Trust me,” Rhys said, “Uh…and…”

Rhys still hadn’t touched on the most difficult thing he’d wanted to talk to Vaughn about yet.

Wonder how much of a threat he’ll think you are? Think he’ll get rid of you for the greater good? It’s the sensible option. He’s a leader now. He has to make these tough calls.

“We should probably get everyone together and decide what we’re going to do ne-“

 “Uh!” Rhys blurted out, “That’s not everything, though?”

“Seriously?” Vaughn asked.

“Seriously. Um. Soooooo. There’s also this other…little thing I needed to tell you about,” he said, “It’s no big deal really! Just uh…I’ve…uh…”

He might want to kill you. There’s something wrong with you on Pandora and you die, remember? For the greater good. He’ll kill you.

“I’ve been seeing things? And hearing things? Lately?”

Vaughn was silent. Rhys’s palms began to sweat.

“Like, there’s this other guy in my head talking, but it’s not like with Jack before, I don’t think it’s in my cybernetics, it’s this other thing with no face or name and-“ Rhys shook his head. He sounded like a goddamn lunatic. He needed to slow down. “Yeeeep. Just, seeing weird stuff and hearing this…whatever talking at me. Might just…I don’t know. Glitch in my programming maybe?”

He’s planning it already. Mapping out .how to get to his nearest gun fast enough, before you can do anything crazy, if he can draw and blow your brains out quick enough.

“I had a really bad one in the bathroom so if you heard yelling – that was me! Haaaaving…kind of a psychotic episode,” he continued, very quickly, and then shrugged as devil-may-care as he could, “Go figure, huh? Things really do come all at once, riiiight?”

There was a long silence. Rhys fidgeted, his hands slick with sweat, staring at Vaughn. It looked as though he was going through something in his head, though what Rhys couldn’t exactly say. He just really wished he’d say something already.

“Dude, I’m sorry,” Vaughn said finally.

“Urgh, don’t look at me like that,” Rhys said.

“Huh? Look at you like what?”

“Like, I dunno, I’m a three-legged puppy or something,” he continued, “I’m fine! Really, I can deal with it.”

Vaughn looked unconvinced.

“It’s not that bad,” Rhys argued.

What had happened in the bathroom was far from ‘not that bad’. Rhys didn’t think that divulging that particular detail would help his case. Vaughn tilted his head at him.

“Rhys, don’t you think you should…man, I don’t know, be doing something about that?” Vaughn said, far more gently than Rhys felt there was any need for. He bristled.

“I’ll get to it,” he muttered, painfully aware that he sounded like a sulky teenager talking about cleaning his room, “It’s kind of an unusual situation.”

“No kidding,” Vaughn sighed, rubbing his beard, “Listen, we hired this new doctor recently…you should talk to her. I don’t know if she’ll be able to help, but she’ll have better ideas than we do.”

“Maybe she can point me to a computer engineer,” Rhys said, tapping the port on the side of his head with a finger and grinning, “Maybe sticking a vengeful, sentient AI into my head wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”

“…Yeah, on the list of stupid things ever done…” Vaughn said slowly. Rhys didn’t really want a run-down of all the stupid things Vaughn had ever seen him do. It would be a very, very, very long list.

“Aaaanyway, if you could kind of keep my whole…” Rhys made a twirling motion with his finger by his temple, “Under wraps for now, that would be great. Only you and Jack know, so just…please, don’t tell anyone else right now?”

“You told Handsome Jack,” Vaughn intoned.

“Listen, he was there when I had a bad one, I owed him an explanation.”

Vaughn didn’t have anything to say to that.

“So, yeah, that’s all! I’m just…I’m just gonna finish eating…everything, then I need to fix Jack’s eye and antennae –“

“One of the weirder sentences I’ve heard today,” Vaughn muttered.

“Sooo, yeah, thanks for this talk, buddy. Really good stuff,” Rhys said, clapping Vaughn on the back, “So, I’m gonna go get Jack and –“

“I’ll call Gortys to bring him over,” Vaughn said quickly, picking up his ECHO comm from the kitchen counter and tapping something in. Rhys busied himself with shovelling half-defrosted ice cream into his mouth.

Vaughn and Gortys exchanged pleasantries. Gortys sounded as unstoppably cheerful as ever, but Rhys had expected more of Jack screaming in the background – maybe he’d met his match in Gortys. Or maybe the dumpster was sound-proof.

“Okay, we’ll be right there!” Gortys said cheerfully.

“Urgh, and…wash yourselves off before you come up here,” Vaughn replied, wrinkling his nose.

“Got it! See you soon guys, love you!” Gortys chirped. Vaughn looked across at Rhys, giving him a weary smile.

“After this, we should head over to check in on Yvette.”

Rhys’s fists clenched and the tub of ice cream slipped from his fingers, landing on the floor with a wet thump.

“Yvette’s here?” he said, his voice louder and higher than he cared to admit. How was that even possible, after what he did, Yvette should be long – she should have never been able to survive the fall of Helios. Rhys felt his heart thumping in his throat, hard enough to make him feel sick – had Yvette already told everyone how he’d left her up there?

“Yeah. There’s been stuff happening here too, dude,” he said, “Please just...keep your cool, okay?”

“Vaughn. Come on. It’s me. When do I not keep my cool?” Rhys said, crushing his noodles between his chopsticks.

 

Somehow or another, Yvette managed to convince Sasha to make sandwiches, toasted with fried egg on top. No matter how much things changed, Yvette would always be able to get a free lunch. It was one of the strongest skills in her repertoire. That, sass, and emotional constipation.

She leaned against the counter, making circular motions with her foot (part of her new rehabilitation exercise routine, as instructed by Okarafor), as Sasha fiddled with the hob. The kitchen was nicer than the one Rhys and Vaughn had shared with their dorm-mates a few floors below, and much nicer than the kitchenette Yvette had had in her studio apartment. Not that Yvette had ever really used that pokey little thing. Cooking wasn’t really her style. She’d mostly relied on the cafeteria, vending machines, and Rhys’s wallet.

“Have you been hoarding food up here?” Yvette asked, as Sasha dug a loaf of bread from the back of a cupboard, twisting it in her hands to check for spots of mould.

“Duh. I can’t deal with the Children of Helios every time I want a sandwich,” Sasha said, “They’re getting weirder, I swear, they keep asking reeeaaally weird questions about me and Rhys.”

“Oh?” Yvette said, sounding desperately to sound casual. Sasha glanced at her, and then back at the bread, sawing a knife through it to produce thick, uneven slices.

“Yeah,” she muttered.

“But you guys never –“

“No.”

“Ah. Good,” she said, and then continued, very rapidly, “I mean. For you.”

Sasha looked over her shoulder at her, eyebrows raised. Yvette coughed.

“Because Rhys is an asshole,” she said stiffly, “If I hadn’t made that clear.”

With a shake of her head, Sasha reached up to the cupboard above her head, fishing out something that looked suspiciously like spiderant meat, some leafy vegetables Yvette couldn’t really identify, huge puke-yellow eggs, and a wedge of fluorescent orange cheese.

Yvette would kill for a normal burger. Made from a cow. Or at least from an animal that wasn’t radioactive or on fire. She didn’t think that was a particularly unreasonable dream.

Had Sasha ever eaten normal food?

“What’s up?” Sasha said, catching her staring.

“You ever been to a restaurant?” Yvette asked, before she could stop herself. She had always had a good brain-to-mouth filter – better than certain idiots she could name – yet Pandora seemed to just be eroding more and more. Around Sasha, it was practically at nothing.

Sasha’s eyes widened for just a second, and then she turned away, mouth tight. Yvette suspected she’d pressed her toe on a nerve, if not outright stepped on it.

“No. I haven’t,” she said, “Not a whole lot of Michelin chefs running around on Pandora. Plenty of bars though. Skag skewer stands. Me and Fiona were really good at nabbing them – I’d distract, maybe cry for my Mom or something, and Fiona would grab a big handful of skewers and run before they knew what happened.”

The mental image made something in Yvette ache, guilty and sad all at once. Even though two scruffy little Pandoran con-artist girls had nothing to do with her, not really, no matter what charity campaigns on the Edens had said.

Still. While Sasha was doing stealing scraps of meat on dirty sticks, Yvette was eating hand-rolled sushi from a slate board, watching her mother chastise the waiter for not heating the sake thoroughly enough.

That was a…big gap.

Sasha smiled to herself, a strand of hair falling into her face. She swept it back with her fingers, tucking it behind her ear. Her earring swung gently as her palm brushed past it. Her nail polish was still perfect, matte orange, not even overlapping her cuticles. When had she found the time to do her nails? Yvette tried to imagine her sitting on the couch, just painting her nails. It was a weird thought.

“You should go to a restaurant,” Yvette said stupidly.

“Ha. Sure,” Sasha said, and slid a sandwich onto a chipped plate with her spatula, turning to pass it to Yvette, “But this is just going to have to do for now.”

“It looks good.”

It did, somehow.

“Yeah, well, you make do with what you’ve got,” she replied, turning around to lean back against the counter, ripping her own sandwich in two and taking a tiny bite. Yvette would have preferred a knife and fork, but she sensed asking would result in some serious teasing. She picked it up and took a bite.

Yvette couldn’t exactly say it was delicious, exactly, but considering the ingredients? Pretty damn good.

“Uh. So,” Sasha said suddenly, “There’s something I keep meaning to talk to you about.”

Yvette looked up, cheeks stuffed with sandwich and a blob of yolk on her lower lip. Sasha looked uncharacteristically serious, arms folded, and head tilted, gaze settled on a magnet on the fridge.

“Okay, don’t this the wrong way, but. I’ve never…dated anyone I wasn’t conning.”

Yvette would dearly love to not take that the wrong way, but she also had no idea what the hell the right way to take that was.

“Seriously?” she managed. Sasha nodded, still not looking at her.

“It’s a common con. Honey trap. You want something from someone, you get close to them. If you’re a girl…there’s some pretty effective ways to do that,” she continued, and then added in a mutter Yvette wasn’t sure she was even meant to hear; “Less effective ways to end things when you need to go.”

Yvette’s mind reeled with the implications.

They’d done shady things up on Hyperion – made deals that had probably killed more than one person, stabbed colleagues in the back, stolen jobs and clients from under good people’s noses and laughed about it over wine later. None of them had ever went that far with a honey trap routine.

Not that Yvette could really judge. She just couldn’t imagine being able to do that. How much could you live in other people’s skins before you forgot what you were to begin with?

“I did like them all! It wasn’t like I was forced, or I hated them, but…” Sasha continued, glancing at her briefly before she looked away again, “Just, that’s how I’ve always done things. And when you’re laying the foundation for a con you need to move…fast.”

Ah.

“Just, it’s been bugging me,” Sasha said, turning back to look at her, “I mean, I was wasted, but you were freaked out, and I could tell something wasn’t right, but I just kept kinda…you know. Going for it.”

“I wasn’t freaked out,” Yvette said automatically, “It’s just…been a while.”

“Been a while?” Sasha repeated, and Yvette, not for the first time, wondered if embarrassment could cause someone to actually burst into flames. If that were the case, she was sure she would have spontaneously combusted six times in the past hour alone.

“I was a career girl,” Yvette said, folding her arms and scowling, “Climbing the corporate ladder didn’t leave a lot of time for dating. Or hook-ups.”

“Too busy sipping champagne and signing eridium mining deals?”

“Something like that,” Yvette mumbled, another hard ball of guilt settling at the pit of her stomach, “So, what are you saying?”

“Just…you know. Sorry. For being pushy,” Sasha said, “I never apologised. I should have.”

Yvette thought apologising for being part of the reason her planet was such an awful inhospitable violent place would probably be overkill at this stage. She settled for a nod instead.

“It’s cool. We’re cool.”

Yvette thought asking ‘SO ARE YOU IMPLYING WE’RE ALMOST DATING????’ would also be overkill. She went for a cool girl smirk instead.

“What are you doing with your face?” Sasha said, hiding a giggle behind her hand.

Yvette put the plate down and, if only to protect her dignity, crossed the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Having Jack in his old dorm kitchen was…odd, to say the very least. Despite what Vaughn, Yvette, and most people Rhys had ever met would say, Rhys really had never fantasised about Handsome Jack as a feature of his personal life. The guy had always seemed more like a fictional character than an actual person. Someone who walked with explosions behind them and appeared on TV delivering witty one-liners and smirking from glossy posters and magazine covers. Not someone that could be slotted into a kitchen and look at home. Just this badass ideal to aspire to.

An aspiration that had turned out to be a really, really goddamn bad idea.

And whether the Jack he knew was actually anything like the Handsome Jack he’d idolised, Rhys really did not know.

That said, though, Rhys suspected the real Handsome Jack had never had to be towelled off like a soggy dog.

“Did you guys literally just spray each other with a hose before coming up here?” he asked Gortys and Loader Bot. The three of them had entered (Loader Bot and Gortys walking, Jack more being dragged) looking as though they’d just come back from some bizarre robot water park. Fiona, looking much better for having had a shower and the chance to put her lipstick back on, followed not soon after, asking about food and Sasha.

“Oh no, no, no. I blasted Loader with the hose, then he did it for me, and then we both did it for Jacktrap! He didn’t wanna take part, for some reason,” she explained.

IT WAS FUN.

“No. It was not,” Jack groused from under the towel.

“The floor is soaking out there,” Vaughn said, sticking his head out of the door and looking down the corridor.

“Well, you said wash before we came up!” Gortys said, “You didn’t say anything about drying off. You need to be more specific, Vaughn!”

“The Children of Helios are going to be slipping over all afternoon, aren’t they?” Vaughn said despairingly, clearly imagining a lot of panicked salarymen coming to him with cuts and bruises.

“We could put up a wet floor sign?” Gortys suggested. Vaughn sighed and began to explain how no amount of signage could stop the Children of Helios from injuring themselves. As they discussed the minutiae of health and safety policy in bandit cults, Rhys turned his attention back to Jack.

“The Children of Helios, huh?” Jack muttered, “You weren’t kidding about the cult, pumpkin.”

“Yeah, they’re an interesting bunch,” Rhys mumbled back, tossing the towel aside and grabbing for the eye and his tools, cross-legged on the kitchen floor in front of Jack.

“How’s the adoration suit ya, Rhys? Feels pretty good, right?” Jack asked.

“…The bowing and the fanart aren’t bad,” Rhys admitted, smirking to himself as he opened up the Claptrap eye in his lap, so he could inspect the circuitry in closer detail.

“Yeeeah, wonder how long it takes you to go totally nuts with the power. You made them offer a blood sacrifice yet?” he said, “I don’t think any adoring cult is complete with a blood sacrifice.”

“Shut up and let me concentrate.”

Claptraps weren’t actually the most complicated machines, and the one Jack was housed in was particularly primitive, so it really wasn’t a difficult repair job. All the same, it had still been a long time since he’d done any sort of robot maintenance. Working in the propaganda department hadn’t really utilised his technical skillset a great deal.

Really, when he thought about it, the only skillset Hyperion had fostered in him were schmoozing, brown-nosing and bullshitting.

Sometimes he wondered why he didn’t miss his life at Hyperion all that much. It was kind of obvious, really.

“Uuurgh, hurry up,” Jack said, apparently finding it far too difficult to be quiet for five whole minutes, “Unless you got a freakin’ yellow Labrador in a little blue jacket that can help me cross the road, I want my frickin’ sight back.”

Rhys rolled his eyes, opting to ignore him as he worked. He would never finish if he played along with Jack’s shit-talking.

“Okay, that should do it,” he said, leaning forward to reattach the eye, “Keep still a second.”

Cybernetic optic surgery wasn’t exactly his strong suit, but re-attaching a Claptrap’s eye was a million times easier than making and installing his own ECHO eye with one arm.

Really, how are you not dead, Wonder Boy?

He almost had the first cord connected when his knuckle scraped against something. Jack jolted as though he’d received an electric shock.

“Ow! Ow ow ow ow ow!” he squawked, thrashing his arms, swiping Rhys across the face, and scooting back a few feet, colliding hard into Loader Bot’s legs. Rhys rubbed his jaw, frowning. Those little Claptrap hands weren’t exactly dangerous but that still stung.

“Rhys, you ever heard of a delicate touch? Seriously! Having someone ram their dirty hands into your eye hole freakin’ hurts,” he snapped. Vaughn, Gortys and Loader Bot paused their discussion, turning to look at Rhys and Jack. Vaughn seemed horrified yet fascinated, like a man witnessing a violent car crash he was helpless to prevent. Gortys looked curious, Loader Bot disapproving yet resigned. Fiona just looked bored.

“Look, it’s going to hurt! Do you want this fixed or not?” Rhys said.

“Are they like this…all the time?” Vaughn muttered to Fiona, who only shrugged. Rhys felt himself go pink. Having other people around to actually see his conversations with Jack was new. He wasn’t sure he was exactly comfortable with it.

“Oh come on,” Jack said, apparently oblivious, “You can’t do this without it being low-key freakin’ torture?”

“I’m reattaching your eyeball,” Rhys said, “It’s going to sting a little!”

“Uh, maybe you just suck?”

“Jack,” Rhys said evenly, shaking his head, “Shut up.”

To Rhys’s surprise as much as anyone, Jack relented. He sighed, his arms slumped at his side, and rolled back towards Rhys, keeping still long enough for Rhys to finish. After Rhys managed to reattach it completely, feeling it slot back into place with a click, Jack rolled backwards and blinked, optics flickering as his software and drivers rebooted.

“So did that work or…” Rhys asked.

“You need some hair gel.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“Just saying, not that you look bad with your hair down, sweetheart, but we both know which suits you better,” he said, and then looked around, his newly re-attached antennae wiggling, “What’s this dump?”

“My kitchen,” Rhys informed him, standing up and spreading his arms, “Welcome to the wonderful world of Hyperion middle management accommodation, Jack.”

“Seriously? You guys lived like this?” Jack said.

“I know,” Fiona said, sitting on the kitchen counter shovelling pretzels into her mouth by the handful, “It’s practically a mansion.”

“That’s…not what I was implying, Hat.”

“Hat?” Vaughn muttered.

“And here was me thinking Hyperion salaries were too generous,” Jack said, putting his hands on his side and looking down at the ground, “Juuuuust tragic, Rhysie.”

Rhysie?” Vaughn repeated. Jack jerked up to look at Vaughn, having apparently failed to notice him earlier.

“Woah ho! Check out the muscle man here!” Jack said, and wheeled towards Vaughn, “Ha ha, since when did the dweeb go from a four to a ten? What, did you go on a make-over show or something? Come on, abs-of-steel , what’s with the transformation?”

Rhys was starting to think that Jack had literally never interacted with people in a normal context, like, ever.

Vaughn looked down at Jacktrap, and then at Rhys, with the lost, gaping expression of a man desperately scrambling for answers in a world that had abruptly stopped making sense. All Rhys could offer was a shrug, hands in his pockets, and hope that a meteor collided with Pandora soon and killed them all.

“I mean, seriously, kiddo, always thought you were the ugly duckling of the group, but now, rawr,” Jack continued.

“Okay, I am really, really uncomfortable right now,” Vaughn said.

“Can’t take a compliment, sweetheart?”

“Rhys, make him stop.”

“This has nothing to do with me,” Rhys said, trying not to sound or look even half as embarrassed as he felt.

“Rhys, everything Jacktrap does is to do with you,” Fiona said.

“Alright, alright. Jack, stop...just. Stop.”

“Oh, what, so a guy can’t tell another guy he’s fine?”

“Oh, guys can,” Fiona said, “You can’t.”

“At least not until you attend a sexual harassment workshop,” Rhys muttered, rubbing his temples.

Jack put a hand to his chest in an expression of utterly wounded dignity.

“So, are we going to go see my sister yet or not?” Fiona said, thankfully interrupting whatever horrible thing Jack was going to say next.

“I was calling them but…they aren’t picking up…Yvette’s surgery should have finished hours ago,” Vaughn said, putting down his ECHO comm, “You know what, we…need to get this done sooner or later.”

Vaughn glanced at Rhys. He pretended not to notice, preoccupying himself with a bag of stale pretzels. It was kind of a relief Yvette was alive – Rhys had more than enough blood on his hands without hers – but the thought of seeing her made his skin crawl. Aside from the fact she was a vicious backstabber, it was hard to think of her without remembering that cold, hard anger in his gut, deciding to turn away and leave her in that cell, thinking about how much she deserved to burn and tear apart in metal and fire as Helios fell.

Anyone ever told you you’re kind of twisted? Like. Really, really twisted.

Well, at the very least it would be great to see Sasha again. Maybe they could actually pick up where they left off properly for once, instead of dancing around the whole issue like idiot middle school kids. Yeah, the more he thought about it, he should really talk to her about it.

A return to actual normality in his relationships. Imagine that.

He could deal with this. Yvette was something he hadn’t counted on, but at least Sasha was there and would be happy to see him, and Yvette would have had time to cool off. It would be fine.

“Alright. Let’s go.”

 

In Yvette’s defence, it was very hard to hear someone knocking on a door with a pair of thighs clamped around your ears.

What Sasha’s excuse was, she wasn’t too sure.

Either way, the door slid open before either of them could react, the light from the corridor a straight line from the doorway to the pair of them on the couch. Yvette lifted her head, mouth hanging stupidly open, staring at the group clustered in the doorway. Vaughn, looking as though his life had spiralled completely out of his control in a very short space of time, Fiona, gaping and wide-eyed, a Claptrap unit, Gortys, Loader Bot, and.

That scrawny prick.

With some kind of…weird bug on his shoulder.

For a moment, they only stared at each other.

“Oh, is this that human sex thing?” Gortys said, breaking the silence. Her voice spurred Yvette to action – she leapt up and took a few stumbling steps away from Sasha, as though physical distance would make all of them forget what they had just seen. Sasha snatched up a blanket from the floor, wrapping it around herself, muttering curse words and fumbling.

Yvette took a step towards the doorway, to at least block their view of Sasha until she managed to cover up properly.

“You’re back,” Yvette said to Rhys, with all the dignity she could muster. Yvette had tried to imagine this moment a long time – it had always ended with Yvette delivering some kind of fierce one liner and then punching him hard in the gut. Payback for the stun baton attack. The payback for leaving her to die would be altogether slower and more painful.

This. Wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

The payback wasn’t supposed to be painful for her as well.

Rhys gawked at her – she could practically see his brain rebooting. Behind Yvette, Sasha shuffled towards them, the blanket wrapped under her arms like a towel.

“Hi sis,” she said weakly to Fiona, giving her a sheepish little wave.

“Yvette –“ Rhys began.

“Sasha! What the hell!” Fiona exploded, “What are you doing?”

“Yeah, exactly! What are you doing!” Rhys parroted.

“Woah, guys –“ Vaughn said, lifting his hands.

“What do you mean what am I doing?” Sasha snapped.

Her? Really? Remember how she had us arrested on Helios? Because you were doing something stupid exactly like this!” Fiona said, and then snapped her attention towards Yvette, fixing her with a ferocious stare, “And you, what is your angle here?”

“Ha! Exactly,” Rhys agreed, standing at Fiona’s side with his arms folded.

“It is not like that!” Sasha barked, putting a hand out to separate Fiona and Yvette.

“Guys, please, can we –“ Vaughn attempted.

“I’m just looking out for you! You do this stuff all the time –“

“What stuff! I can look after myself, Fi!” Sasha shouted, even shoving Yvette out of the way to stand toe-to-toe with her sister.

“Oh, really, Sasha, you don’t think there’s a pattern?” Fiona snapped, and began to count off on her fingers, voice sarcastically sweet, “Let’s see. First you get way too attached to that asshole August –“

“That’s right,” Rhys said, nodding.

“And then Rhys of all people –“

“Hey, what’s wrong with me?”

“You always act like I’m some stupid little girl trailing around behind you, checking up on everyone I talk to and monitoring what I do and acting like I can’t just make decisions myself! I’m not a kid, Fiona!” Sasha bellowed, with such force that Yvette wondered how many years she’d been holding that all back.

“You still act like one!” Fiona barked back, barely taking breath, “You throw yourself into these stupid situations with dangerous people, and then you wonder why I get overprotective!”

“Alright, leave her alone,” Yvette interrupted, cutting between Fiona and Sasha with what she hoped was a mature, reasonable air. Getting on Sasha’s case about that seemed a step too far – especially since it sounded like they were all part of Fiona’s cons to begin with.

Rhys and Fiona turned on her, identical, furious looks on both of their faces.

“You stay out of it,” Fiona snarled.

“Yeah!”

“I’m just being reasonable,” Yvette said, shaking her head, “This is ridiculous. We’re all grown-ups here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I being unreasonable?” Fiona spat, jabbing her in the chest with a finger, “Maybe it’s because you have my baby sister’s pubic hair in your teeth!”

Yvette turned away to scrub at her mouth with the back of her hand, the blood rushing to her cheeks.

“Anyone else having a really great time right now?” said a familiar voice. Yvette looked up, eyes wide, as she traced the voice to the Claptrap unit. No way. There was no way that could be who Yvette thought it was.

“Jack, you’re not helping,” Rhys said, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“Eh, when am I ever?” the Claptrap said. Yvette felt her jaw drop further.

“Wait, Jack? As in, Handsome Jack?” Sasha said, and then rounded on Rhys, torn somewhere between horror and unspeakable rage, “Rhys, are you freaking kidding me!? This again!

“Sasha, we’re talking about your horrible life decisions right now, not Rhys’s,” Fiona interrupted.

“Oh sorry! You’re right! Rhys just brought a genocidal maniac back from the dead. Again! No biggie! But me? Oh, well, I’m sleeping with someone you don’t like very much! That’s clearly the big issue here!” Sasha said, and then looked at Rhys, “Seriously, Rhys, again? Who does that?”

“Hey, the first time was by accident!”

“Oh, well that’s okay then!” Sasha said, throwing her hands up, “You know what, Rhys, if you wanted a pet that could kill all of us, Pandora has plenty of options!”

“Your blanket’s slipping there a little, sweetheart,” the Claptrap said, sounding as though it had never had more fun in its life. Sasha snatched up the blanket and wrapped it tighter around herself, glowering at the Claptrap, and then at Rhys, and then at Fiona, as though she couldn’t figure out who to be pissed off at the most.

“Guys, please, people are…starting to gather,” Vaughn said, his voice hushed, his eyes darting back and forth at the clusters of Children of Helios congregating at either side of the corridor, gawking at the scene unfolding before them. Yvette really could not find it in her to care. “Look, Rhys has his reasons, let’s -

“Stop defending him, Vaughn!” Yvette snarled, “Rhys is a monster, alright, I’ve tried to soften it for you, but that’s the truth, and the sooner you accept it the better!”

“Says the woman who nearly had her two best – oh, sorry, only friends killed for a promotion,” Rhys spat.

“Says the guy who destroyed a whole space station to kill one guy,” Yvette retorted, jabbing a finger into Rhys’s chest. The thing on his shoulder hissed at her, spreading a pair of flickering red wings. Yvette wasn’t about to let that put her off – if nobody else was going to say this to Rhys’s face, she would. She was sick of everyone just pandering to him and acting as though he was such a goddamn innocent.

“A guy you didn’t even kill in the end! An entire space station for nothing! There were children on that station, Rhys, did you ever stop to think about that?”

“Like you would have!”

“Guys! Why are you all yelling?” Gortys said, looking between them frantically “I thought you’d all be happy to see each other.”

“I never said I’d be happy to see him,” Yvette spat, glaring at Rhys, her finger still against his chest.

“I’m not ecstatic exactly either, Yvette,” Rhys said, slapping her hand away and folding his arms.

“Oh, wish I’d just died when you brought Helios down? Thought nobody would ever find out what you decided to do up there?” Yvette snapped, “Bet it was a nasty surprise, learning that I hadn’t died like you’d planned.”

“What about you? Sad I’m not a pile of body parts in a crate for you to rummage through?”

That’s enough!

They fell silent and turned to look at Vaughn. His chest heaved in and out, hands in tight fists by his side. With an effort that seemed monumental, he swiped his hands across his chest.

“That’s enough,” he continued, more gently, “This isn’t getting us anywhere. Look let’s just…let’s just take a break and cool off. Sasha, get…get dressed. We’ll talk about all this later.”

Rhys and Yvette both looked at Vaughn. Sweat was beading on his forehead. At either end of the hallway, the Children of Helios were muttering and taking photos on their ECHO comms, some looking agitated, some angry, most confused, and one (Mark or something) being held back from her friends, shouting something about ‘socking her’.

Yvette and Rhys looked at one another and, silently, a fragile truce formed. How long it would last, Yvette couldn’t even hazard a guess. Or at least not one beyond ‘not very’.

She breathed out and folded her arms, shrugging one shoulder. Rhys nodded, mouth tight.

“Well, that was dramatic,” the Claptrap said.

“I’m leaving,” Rhys hissed through his teeth, and took off down the hallway towards the elevator, rubbing his palm against his forehead. The Claptrap followed him.

“Right,” Vaughn said slowly, and then glanced at Yvette, “I’ll…see you later Yvette.”

Of course he went after Rhys. Of course he did.

Fiona looked at Sasha, suddenly awkward, before turning to follow them. Gortys and Loader Bot looked at each other, and then shrugged, heading elsewhere. The Children of Helios watched a bit longer, but when Sasha retreated back into her apartment and nobody screamed ‘And another thing!’, they began to disperse as well, mumbling quickly among themselves. What implications this had for their elaborate religious system, Yvette did not even want to consider.

Yvette stepped back and closed the door. She turned to look at Sasha, still holding the blanket around herself, her fingers tight in the fabric.

“Fiona was out of line,” Yvette said, leaning against the wall, shaking her head, “That was so stupid, urgh.”

“Yeah. I, uh. I think I’m going to have a shower,” Sasha replied slowly.

Well, Yvette supposed having your older sister and sort-of-ex barge in on you would kill the mood like nothing else.

“Sounds good,” she said, her throat dry.

Sasha gave her an awkward smile and, after a long moment, kissed her on the cheek.

“See you in a second,” she said, and headed into the bathroom.

Yvette waited until she heard the shower running, then threw herself down on the sofa, and pressed her hands into her face.

“Uuuuuuuuurgh.”

Chapter Text

“She’s impossible, she’s really just impossible!”

“I can’t believe she’s even here after what she did –“

“Sasha always makes these stupid decisions, and then gets mad when I try to get the situation under control –“

“It’s not like I had a choice up on Helios. I saved lives up there. I can’t believe she’d throw that in my face –“

“I’ve been missing for weeks and she’s just been fooling around with this Hyperion scumbag –“

“How long before she stabs us in the back again?”

“Don’t you guys think you should calm down?” Vaughn said gently.

No!” Fiona and Rhys snapped back at once. Vaughn lifted his hands and took a step back.

“Are you loving this as much as I am, Muscles?” Jack said.

“Don’t even speak to me,” Vaughn said icily. Jack backed away but shrugged, watching Rhys and Fiona pace around the small living space of Rhys and Vaughn’s dorm. Rhys kicked the sofa, his head thumping and the blood pounding in his ears. It was one thing to have to deal with Yvette alive and part of the Children of Helio, it was quite another –

This is hilarious. I mean seriously, if I had ribs, they’d be cracking right now.

Great.

“What do you want now?” Rhys mumbled, turning towards the wall so neither Fiona nor Vaughn could see his face. Fiona was too preoccupied with ranting about Sasha’s dubious dating history to notice, Vaughn too busy trying to reason that maybe, maybe she had over-reacted a little.

I’m just saying, bud, what were you expecting? I mean, really, you thought Sasha was just gonna have been sitting outside that portal waiting for you to come home? All ‘Welcome home, dear!’ and apple goddamn pie?

“I didn’t expect her to be screwing my traitor best friend,” Rhys muttered fiercely back.

You do this every time, you brat. The story you wanted doesn’t work out, so you throw a tantrum. Though you usually get people killed in the process, so hey, well done on avoiding that one, champ!

“I don’t –“

Rhys felt as though the air was being choked out of him.

You didn’t get the girl, Rhys, get the hell over it. The only reason you thought you would is because that's what you think should happen. And that isn't how it works, idiot. You’re not a freakin’ action movie hero or whatever you and that sad bucket of bolts envision yourselves as. You’re a mess, you try and force these pieces to fit together the way you want them to, but you just wind up destroying them, you –

“Will you shut up!”

Fiona fell silent and turned on him, glaring.

“Wow, Rhys,” she said, “Thought you were on my side here.”

Rhys looked back at her, rubbing his head. Behind her, Jack and Vaughn were staring at him. Vaughn was chewing on his lower lip, and even Jack looked alarmed. Scared, even – though Rhys was sure that couldn’t make any sense.

“Yeah, sorry, just,” he said, and then fell back on the excuse he always used, tapping his neural port with a finger, “Migraine coming on here.”

That didn’t exactly engender a great deal of Fiona’s sympathy, but it did stop her ranting. She snorted and fell down on Rhys and Vaughn’s couch with a huff, folding her arms across her chest. Hyperion yellow wasn’t really her colour, Rhys noted. That, or a shower and a change of clothes wasn’t enough to get rid of night after night of sleeping rough and eating roast rodents on sticks.

“Also…you did kind of flip out,” Rhys continued carefully. Fiona turned on him, bewildered and angry all at once. Rhys lifted his hands, “Hey, I’m not happy about it either! But Sasha’s not a kid. And you’re not her mother.”

Fiona groaned pressing a hand over her eyes.

“Okay, yeah, maybe,” Fiona said, “I’m just…Rhys, I don’t know how you look so damn awake, we haven’t had proper sleep in days.”

“…Eridium diet, probably,” Rhys muttered, rubbing his hands together. A diet he was already beginning to miss.

Plus, he did still feel pretty bad. Just…he hadn’t really stopped to think about how much worse the past few days must have been for Fiona, who could not super-charge herself with weird glowing rocks from the ground.

Not like you to not think about others, whoever-they-were said very dryly.

“Look, we’re all exhausted,” Vaughn said, very reasonably.

“I’m not,” Jack piped up.

“Look, we’re all exhausted,” Vaughn repeated, as though he could just will Jack out of existence if he kept acting as though he wasn’t even there, “We’ve had a few…er…mishaps here, Yvette just got out of major surgery, you guys look like cavepeople, let’s just. Let’s just get some rest. We can work this out later.”

“Fine,” Fiona said finally, letting her head drop back against the back of the sofa, “Have you guys got anything to eat?”

“Yeah, I’m starving,” Rhys agreed, feeling as though what little calories he’d regained from his binge-eating had been burned away through yelling alone.

Vaughn gave Rhys a weary look.

“Well, we don’t anything left in the dorm now,” he said, looking back at the empty bags of pretzels and chips littering the kitchen counter, “But I’ll get some Children of Helios to send something up here.”

“Oh, see if they can catch a rat too,” Fiona said, “Whole. Preferably live.”

Vaughn stared at her.

“For the little guy,” Fiona said, gesturing at Dickfeeder.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. They need blood,” Rhys said, not sure how he’d overlooked that detail. He gave Dickfeeder a scratch on the top of the head, “Maybe we should set up a rat hunting shift or something?”

Vaughn went to the fridge. Without a word, he pulled out a bottle of whiskey, poured himself a shot,  and gulped it down.

 

Rhys swore that the next morning he would go and talk to Yvette like an actual adult.

Naturally, he then spent the next week avoiding her.

Instead, he busied himself with talking to the Children of Helios, catching up on the galactic news, trying to talk Fiona into investing in Atlas (“Make me a partner or kiss my ass, Rhys.”), working on their Bunkers and Badass campaign (“Rhys, you gotta make me a character sheet now, come on.” “Jack, I know exactly what DM-ing for you will be like. No.”), and generally doing literally anything that wasn’t to do with either Yvette, Sasha, his freaky superpowers, or the big interdimensional portal sitting in their front garden.

He knew he was being ridiculous. He knew he was being childish. And he knew that everyone, really everyone, was quickly getting bored of it.

But every time he thought of talking to her, he just started to feel sick, and like he wanted to hurl something against a wall. He wasn't sure he'd ever been this angry with anyone.

“Look, I’m not telling you what to do here, Rhys,” Jack said reasonably, “But I’m really bored of this now. You should really just kill her.”

“I’m not killing her.”

“I’ll do it if you want," he said, in a tone that suggested he was offering Rhys a very kind and generous favour.

No,” Rhys said, “You couldn’t, anyway. You can’t even hold a weapon. Your security protocols would just kick in.”

“Don’t remind me,” he muttered, trying again to pick up one of Loader Bot’s guns from the coffee table. There was a sharp zapping noise, a beeping as Jack swore, again, and the shotgun clattered to the floor. Again. Rhys wasn't sure how many attempts it would take before Jack got the goddamn message.

Loader Bot walked across and picked the shotgun up, putting it out of Jack's reach.

“Oh, and this has been buggin’ the sweet heck outta me. What is with that?” Jack said, jabbing a finger at Loader Bot.

I GOT A NEW LOOK.

“Uh, yeah, with my freakin’ body!” Jack snapped, “You know, Wall-E, there’s friggin’ laws against that.”

I BELIEVE PANDORAN LAW STATES ‘FINDERS KEEPERS, LOSERS WEEPERS’.

“You did write that in, Jack,” Rhys said, not looking away from the financial report he was reading.

Hyperion’s stock had, unsurprisingly, plummeted in the intergalactic market. Hyperion Head Office was attempting some desperate damage control, donating wildly to whatever Pandora-relevant charity they could think of, and making wild excuses as to why there wasn’t a rescue mission for the lost Hyperion employees, all delivered in a soothing pilot voice from a shiny podium, bloated with buzzwords, and somehow managing to sound great while simultaneously promising nothing at all.

Although there were some mourners, some tributes and hashtags, more than a few people on the ECHO net were celebrating the death toll. Rhys grimaced and tried to scroll past those comments as fast as he could.

Rhys scanned for mentions of his name, or a picture of his face, or even just a mention of some nobody salaryman who’d caused so much shit, but couldn’t find anything. Again. He wasn’t sure whether he was relieved, or if it made him feel even more tense and guilty. It had to be only a matter of time, really, before someone figured out who was to blame for the entire station coming down.

He hadn't thought about it much before, too busy just trying to stitch himself back together and survive the Pandoran wilderness but the more he thought about it, the more he thought his name should be just as dirty as Handsome Jack's by now.

He’d deserve it if somebody found out who was responsible. It should come out, really. It might even be a relief. And people deserved to know who was responsible for all this chaos.

Yet he really, really did not want them to.

Thought you wanted to be just like your hero, buddy? Does that not include the most hated man in the galaxy bit?

“Look, come on, LB, listen. This body’s pretty sweet. I mean, I’m like four foot tall, and have a constant weird urge to mop things and open doors for people, and I can’t hold a gun or go very fast, but you know. Might suit you,” Jack continued, sounding more than a little desperate, “Come on, let’s swap, buddy. We’ll both be better off for it. This dumpy little thing will suit you much better.”

CALCULATING LIKELIHOOD OF THAT HAPPENING… Loader Bot intoned, CALCULATED. ZERO PERCENT. CALCULATING LIKELIHOOD OF THAT HAPPENING EVEN AFTER THE INEVITABLE HEATH DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE. ZERO PERCENT. CALCULATING LIKELIHOOD OF THAT HAPPENING EVEN IF WE WERE THE LAST BEINGS LEFT IN THE WORLD AND OUR CONTINUED EXISTENCE DEPENDED ON –

“Alright, I get it,” Jack snapped, “Sheesh, when did robots become such smart-alecs.”

“Yeah, I wonder,” Rhys muttered, closing the ECHO net. His fingers were tingling again, his whole body itching for something. He had thought it was hunger, or thirst, but the more time dragged on, the more Rhys began to think about the warm, electric feeling of a chunk of eridium in his hand, his throat tightening and stomach twisting.

He glanced across at Loader Bot; he really needed to talk with Jack about Angel. The more he thought about it, the more he really needed to know more about how all this stuff worked. And there was no way in hell Jack would ever talk about that stuff openly with someone else around.

Somehow, it had been really difficult to catch a moment alone with him since they’d gotten back. Rhys wasn’t sure how that was possible; it wasn’t exactly like he and Jack spent a whole lot of time apart. It just seemed like there was always someone hanging around.

The door slid open and Vaughn walked in, chatting on his earpiece to someone.

“Look, Athena, I know, just secure the area as best you can –“

Loader Bot looked up. Vaughn nodded at him, and the robot left. Rhys frowned - what was that about?

“I know, they’re tailing us really hard,” Vaughn continued, “Look, finish there, come back, get your pay, and…look if you want to leave then, I’m not going to force you to keep working for us. You should come back and say hi to Fiona anyway.”

“…Because that’s what you do, Athena, you know, you can just say hi when you haven’t seen a friend in a whi- - Okay, okay, I’m sorry! Stop yelling,” Vaughn said, eyes widening, “Yeesh, okay, bye.”

Vaughn huffed out a sigh as he hung up, running a hand through his hair.

“Wrong number?” Rhys quipped lamely. Vaughn didn’t even have the decency to give him a pity laugh – just looked at him and shook his head.

“Athena. Remember those weird Jack fanboys I told you about?”

“Oh, yeah,” Rhys said, squirming with embarrassment. It sounded like they were mostly composed of guys Rhys used to play squash with back in his early Hyperion days, cracking asshole jokes and constantly trying to out-do each other in stupid ‘Who-can-be-the-most-like-Jack’ dick measuring contests.

Just thinking about it was mortifying.

They had even compared business cards, completely without any self-awareness or irony. Sliding near identical business cards across at each other and having very serious and very passive-aggressive conversations about it. Christ.

If things had turned out different, would he be roaming around Pandora with a mask on, blowing stuff up and screaming about heathens and traitors? Jesus. He hoped not.

“Fanboys?” Jack said, perking up, “I have a cult too?”

“Don’t even think about it,” Rhys warned.

“Yeah, well, they’re kind of attacking all our resources, outlets, any territory or safehouses we’ve claimed,” Vaughn said, “Athena’s trying to keep up, but. I dunno, man. I didn’t think they were this smart.”

“They’re not,” Rhys said quickly.

“Anyway, it’s wearing Athena out. Even killing a bunch of guys dressed up as Handsome Jack is losing its charm,” Vaughn continued, “I think she’s going to be done working for us soon.”

“We’ll hire some new Vault Hunters,” Rhys said, shrugging.

“Not…many are willing to work with us,” Vaughn muttered, “Hyperion-tainted. Think we’re just as much a bunch of whackjobs as those mask-wearing weirdos.”

“Masks are stylish,” Jack said, loudly. Vaughn didn’t even look at him.

“Anyway, yeah, so that sucks,” Vaughn said, breathing out, “But hey, Mark and Debra are going to hunt rats for you regularly now. Said it would be an honour to serve, yadda yadda yadda.”

“Oh, cool,” Rhys said, privately wondering who the hell Mark and Debra were, “And…well, Vault Hunters might not work for the Children of Helios, but…what about Atlas?”

“Hm...”

“Tch, Vault Hunters,” Jack continued, and Rhys was sure that his speakers would blow soon if he kept turning up the volume like that, “Look, just hire some regular mercenaries. They’re not as fancy but at least they don’t think they’re these special la-di-da noble heroes, not just dirty friggin’ bandits with a stupid friggin’ self-declared title.”

“Yeah, hiring them through Atlas might work,” Vaughn continued, ignoring Jack magnificently, “Kind of…deceptive though.”

“Oh come on!” Jack roared.

“All’s fair in love and Vault Hunting,” Rhys said, “Or…whatever we’re doing here.”

“Ha. Just trying to keep this station from imploding, mostly,” Vaughn said, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, “You know, bro, that’s a good point. What are we going to do now? I mean, we’ve been so focused on getting you guys back, and…there wasn’t any treasure in there, right?”

Rhys shook his head.

“Just a big stupid jungle and a bunch of pissed off Eridians,” he admitted, “You know…I’m not sure now either.”

Rhys had been vaguely planning on resting up and then going back to Atlas, maybe seeing if any of the Children of Helios or Fiona wanted to join him there. Sasha, originally, had been coming with him too. At least in his head. He suspected that wasn’t the case anymore.

From then, it was inventing and investing, building Atlas from the ground up and bringing it back to the intergalactic market. His Vault Hunters would crack open more Vaults, while Rhys drank cocktails, tugging the strings and signing the papers from the inside of a very sleek and spacious office. The new life of Atlas President Rhys, with no asshole blue ghost looming over him, and maybe actually doing some good on Pandora. If good on Pandora was even possible.

That had went so off mark it was almost comical. Rhys would laugh, if there wasn’t a certain asshole inside his head doing just that anyway.

“Our get-rich-quick schemes really keep not panning out, huh?” Vaughn said, with a small laugh. Rhys smiled back at him.

“Yeah…you’d think opening a Vault would be good enough but,” Rhy replied, and shrugged.

“Know what might be a great thing to do next though?” Vaughn said. Rhys stiffened.

“I’m not talking to Yvette.”

“I just…think you have to eventually,” Vaughn said.

“How are you so cool with Yvette, anyway? She almost got us both killed, Vaughn!” Rhys blurted out, jumping up to his feet. The movement jostled Dickfeeder awake, but they only made a weary-sounding warbling noise and turned over, going straight back to sleep. Vaughn didn’t flinch, just pulled a face and tilted his head.

“You didn’t exactly hesitate to repay the favour, bro.”

That point would probably piss him off far less if it wasn’t so friggin’ valid.

“I hadn’t been plotting, it was an impulsive – I was pissed and a lot was going on and I didn’t – I didn’t think about it clearly,” Rhys said. Vaughn said nothing, and Rhys felt the fight slowly fall out of him. He fell back down onto the couch with a huff, putting his feet back on Jack and folding his arms.

“Whatever,” he muttered, “Have you noticed that she's copied my cybernetics. That’s my thing.”

“Her leg was mauled by a radioactive skag.”

“Whatever.”

Rhys brought up the cybernetics board on his ECHOeye. He had been asking about if anyone had experienced anything…similar to him. The thread was at a few thousand posts, but most people were just arguing about whether or not he was a troll. Others were making painfully gentle suggestions he should go see a psychiatrist. The last few were just slinging insults.

Apparently nobody believed somebody would be stupid enough to insert a foreign AI into their cybernetics. And they didn’t really believe anyone could have been through what Rhys did without dying.

“Are you checking the net again? Anything?” Vaughn asked, walking over to the back of the couch.

“No,” Rhys said, “And Jack, I know you’re the guy asking for dick pics. Cut it out.”

“Rhys, really. Would I do something so immature?” Jack said.

“You know, you’re technically my Claptrap unit. I get emails about your ECHO net activity,” Rhys said. They didn’t exactly make for the most pleasant reading either – there was more than one concept Jack had indirectly introduced him to that he had been far, far happier not knowing about. He would turn them off, if he didn’t need to make sure Jack wasn’t ordering bomb parts on online auction websites. Or just grossly abusing his knowledge of Rhys’s credit card details.

“You serious? All of it? That’s a serious violation of my privacy, buddy,” Jack said, “Not to mention an eyeful for you. See anything you like?”

Rhys wasn’t even about to dignify that with a response. Behind him, Vaughn was drumming his fingers on the back of the couch, the sound going straight through Rhys’s skull.

“Really, nobody has any advice?” he said.

“No, Vaughn, they don’t!”

“Woah, okay, I’m just asking!” Vaughn said, putting his hands up and stepping away.

Wow. Bet he’s glad to have you back! Who wouldn’t be!

“Look, sorry,” Rhys said, scraping his hair back with his fingers, “I’m just on edge lately.”

“You’re in eridium withdrawal, pumpkin,” Jack said, “We should start building the equipment for refining it and load you up.”

“Hm...maybe,” Rhys muttered, leaning back.

“Wow. Rhys. I love you but. That is the literally worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Vaughn replied, “Really, just. The worst.”

Rhys knew, logically, that Vaughn was right. But.

More eridium wasn’t exactly a bad thought. Besides, he probably needed to figure out this whole stupid thing. If he didn’t at least try to get the whole thing under control he’d probably end up blowing all of Helios sky-high, or making a mess of the space-time continuum, or something equally as stupid and destructive.

Plus, he was feeling a little…well…

“Aw c’mon, Muscles. Think what we could do if Rhys gets this under control. Between my knowledge, Rhys’s powers, and, you know, all the resources we got on this ol’ space station of mine, we could be a real force of nature here on Pandora,” Jack said, “Besides. I’m bored. I don’t know how you kids can stomach this sittin’ around doing nothing.”

“You’re bored?” Vaughn repeated, briefly forgetting his own policy on pretending Jack didn’t exist, "Rhys, please tell me that you don't agree."

"Well..." Rhys said, trying to sound non-committal. It was as good as a confession - Vaughn goggled at him.

“So. Let me get this straight. You two don’t do anything stupid for a week and you’re bored?” he said finally.

“Yes,” they both replied.

“…I don’t know what else I expected, really,” Vaughn said with a sigh, “Rhys –“

There was an echoing scream from the hallway, and heavy, thudding, footseps. Vaughn seized his pistol from the kitchen counter and Rhys jumped to his feet, scrambling around for something, anything. He found one of Vaughn’s dumbbells. He couldn’t lift it higher than his knee.

“Cybernetic arm, Rhys,” Jack reminded him despairingly.

Rhys didn’t have time to switch hands before the door slid open.

#

“Um, Loader Bot, this isn’t exactly what I meant when I asked you to bring them here.”

TRUST ME. THIS IS THE SIMPLEST WAY.

Yvette wasn’t sure how Loader Bot thought ‘attack, kidnap, and tie up’ four humans was the ‘simplest way’ of bringing them together.

“Seriously, Loader, this, again?” Rhys said, from behind Yvette. He was struggling against the ropes, jabbing Yvette in the back with his stupid bony elbows. Beside her, Fiona merely sat, glowering up at Loader Bot, carefully avoiding as much as glancing at Sasha.

Behind Loader Bot, Vaughn and the Claptrap unit followed them into the room.

“Again? This has happened before?” Sasha said beside her.

“He did this when he was dragging us around looking for Gortys’s pieces,” Fiona explained wearily. Yvette had the feeling that no matter how many times she got Sasha and Vaughn to explain their misadventures to her, she’d still not be able to make any sense out of it. It all just seemed to be one idiotic, badly-thought-out idea after another.

“Uh, well, I guess I asked you to get everyone, and you did! So, good job!” Gortys said, giving Laoder Bot a thumbs up. He gave one back.

“Great, great, now untie us. This is about as much of Rhys’s awful aftershave as I can take,” Yvette snapped.

“I’m not exactly enjoying your back-sweat here, either, Yvette,” Rhys snarled. Yvette jolted back and slammed the back of her head into Rhys’s. The back of Yvette’s head throbbed, and they both swore.

“Bridge of the nose or it doesn’t work, kiddos,” the Claptrap piped up, sounding deeply amused. Yvette shivered with revulsion – the sound of Handsome Jack’s voice had never exactly been something she’d relished back at Hyperion. It had always meant there was going to be some big pompous speech over the intercom, likely followed by a bunch of employees getting shot or hurled out of an air lock.

Rhys, naturally, had always hung onto every word.

Prick.

"I mean, really -" the Claptrap continued.

“Can you at least shut your stupid evil robot up?” Yvette growled.

“Guys, guys, stop arguing! This is exactly what I called you here to talk about!” Gortys said, “Well, that and me and Loader Bot have some paint samples we wanted your opinion on…we’re not sure if the colours we picked are a bit much for humans.”

“Paint samples?” Fiona repeated, bewildered, “I’m sorry, what?”

Gortys gestured to the wall behind her, where there were a few swipes of paint in different, very bright and lurid colours.

“We’re redecorating!” she explained cheerfully.

“What? Did you two get married while we were in that stupid Vault?” Fiona asked. Gortys started laughing, her hands going to her face.

“Pffhahaha. Fiona! That’s silly! We’re robots!” she said, dissolving into a giggling fit and tugging on Loader Bot’s hand, “Loader, did you hear that?”

…YES. …VERY SILLY…

Yvette couldn’t help but think he sounded a little deflated.

“Anyway,” Gortys said, calming down, “Listen! I’ve called you here because this fighting really has to stop. Aren’t you guys friends?”

“No!” Rhys and Yvette both bellowed.

Gortys frowned.

“Well…don’t you want the Vault treasure? I mean we went through a lot to open it,” Gortys said, “I mean, I killed a fifty foot tall Vault Monster. You guys remember that, right?”

“There wasn’t any Vault treasure Gortys,” Fiona said, shaking her head, “Just some creepy jungle and even creepier alien dudes."

“Oh, that’s not the case at all!” Gortys said brightly, “There was a huuuuge treasure in there!”

They all looked at Gortys blankly – even Loader Bot seemed a bit thrown off. She made a little coughing noise, with the pleased, slightly-smug air of someone about to make a big announcent. Yvette was weirdly reminded of Rhys.

“Sasha, could you come up here for a second?” Gortys said, “Oh, uh. Untie them, Loader Bot. Please."

Loader Bot turned and looked at the four of them.

BEHAVE, he warned them sternly, and stooped down and untied the ropes around them. Rhys and Yvette sprung apart as though they’d been electrocuted, glaring over their shoulders at one another. He made a show of brushing off his shoulders, as though Yvette had given him cooties or something.

Yvette turned away and returned her attention to Gortys, because she, at the very least, could behave like a goddamn grown-up.

“Sasha, please,” Gortys said. Sasha glanced at Yvette – she shrugged. She didn’t have any better idea what was going on right now than anyone else, but apparently the little talking basketball was more competent than any of them, so. Might as well hear what she had to say.

“Can you bring up those maps of Pandora you found?” Gortys asked. Sasha looked at her blankly, and Gortys continued cheerfully, “Remember when Yvette was stalling for time because she didn’t actually want to help so she sent you on a bunch of wild goose chase errands to keep you preoccupied until –“

Yvette cleared her throat.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember,” Sasha said, smirking across at Yvette. Yvette looked at the floor.

Sasha crossed over to the computer on the desk and began tapping on a few keys, eventually bring up a file of maps – some of Pandora, some of the wider galaxy.

“Ahem. Please bring up a modern map of Pandora,” Gortys instructed. Sasha tapped a few keys, and a holographic map of Pandora sprung up on the screen behind Gortys.

“Is…this a geography lesson?” Vaughn asked.

“I’m getting to it, Vaughn, sheeeeeeesh,” Gortys said, “Anyway! This is Pandora today! You’ll notice how it’s really big, and covered in lots of ice and sand, and how the land masses are all really damaged from Hyperion’s callous mining expeditions, and how the oceans are all polluted and –“

The Claptrap made a coughing noise.

“Right! Anyway,” Gortys continued, “This is Pandora today! And when we located Rhys’s tracker –“

“My what now?” Rhys asked blankly.

“- this is where it showed up!”

Nothing happened.

“Sasha,” Gortys said, in a stage-whisper, “Bring up where Rhys was.”

“Sorry, Gortys, I’m uh, looking for it,” she said, “You know, if you wanted to do this, we really should have rehearsed.”

“That is a great idea, Sasha, and I will take it on board for our next meeting!”

“Our next meeting?” Vaughn mumbled.

Finally, a yellow ‘H’ appeared on the screen, right in the middle of the ocean. Yvette knew the map, and the marker, well enough. Where Gortys was going with this, she couldn’t understand.

“Okay, Sasha! Please now bring up the map labelled A-X-5-7-1-3!” Gortys continued. Sasha shrugged and opened the file. The map of Pandora was replaced with a very similar map, albeit one with bigger continents, a slightly different spread of land mass, and significantly less desert and ice, by the looks of it.

“This is what big hotshot smartypants scientists think Pandora used to look like, thoooousands of years ago,” Gortys said.

“Oh, so it’s an archaeology lesson,” Rhys said.

“No, no, no, no, no, sweetheart. This is still geography. Honestly,” the Claptrap said. Yvette really wished someone would just mute the stupid thing.

“Isn’t it ancient history?” Fiona mused.

“Guys! Focus!” Gortys called, “The point is, this is what Pandora looked like before any of you guys showed up. When instead, it was all –“

Gortys pointed at the Eridian sitting on top of the Claptrap unit. It looked like the only one remotely focused on Gortys’s lecture.

“Oh,” Rhys said quietly.

“Sasha, could you bring up the tracker marker again please?” Gortys said. Sasha looked at her blankly but did as she was told. The yellow H appeared on the map, at the same point before, only this time –

“And, as you can see, if we place Rhys and Fiona’s location on this map, it lands on a land mass! An island. One that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Oh,” Rhys repeated.

Yvette really wished he would stop making that goddamn noise. Fiona lifted her hand into the air. Gortys nodded at her.

“So what?” Fiona asked, “I don’t get it.”

Gortys blinked at her, looking surprised that her explanation hadn't made her case crystal-clear. Beside Fiona, Rhys shook his head and sighed.

“Fiona, what’s a vault?” Rhys asked her. Fiona stared at him as though he’d completely lost his goddamn mind.

“Rhys, we were trapped in one for weeks,” Fiona said, “You know what a Vault is.”

“No, no, vault. With a lower-case v,” he said. Fiona squinted at him, looking as though she was trying to decide whether to play along or just punch him in the throat and be done with it. Apparently ‘playing along’ won.

“It’s a storage box. A well-protected one. For something valuable, something you want to keep safe.”

“Oh,” Yvette said, at the same moment the Claptrap blurted out ‘Well, shut the barn door’.

“Right? So, the Vaults, they’re not just…like…treasure boxes for us to find, like we act. The Eridians made them,” Rhys said, beginning to pace, “They stored all this stuff away, for some reason, before they vanished. Maybe they knew they had to go and…maybe they stored an entire piece of the planet away. To preserve it.”

“Very good, Rhys,” Gortys said brightly, patting him on the leg.

“Teacher’s pet,” Sasha muttered.

“So the treasure is…the island?” Fiona continued, not sounding particularly impressed, “That sucks! Couldn’t it be a big…a big pile of gold or something?”

“Oooh boy, Hat,” the Claptrap said, “Ain’t the sharpest tool in the box are you?”

“Yeah, Fi, come on, think about it,” Rhys said, turning to face her, “It’s land. Fertile land, rich in eridium, plenty of water, resources –“

“Shit, that’s –“

Billions of dollars,” Vaughn muttered, stepping back and supporting himself on a nearby cabinet, “Oh my God.”

“Tens of billions!” Rhys said, laughing, “If we can…take advantage of this! Oh man.”

“We could commission our own space ship,” Fiona said, looking as though she needed to breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes.

“Tear it apart, sell the right pieces to the right bidders, and we are living like kings, baby,” the Claptrap continued, “Ha! More than enough to build an empire.”

“Okay, one problem,” Yvette piped up, folding her arms, “In fact. Two. One, it’s in a magical interdimensional space Vault. Not exactly useful. Two. How are we meant to secure it even if we could get it out of there?”

“Well, I have an answer for number one!” Gortys said cheerfully, “The GIVRS project was designed for if this was the case! It’s just…um, not totally finished yet. I mean…this theory didn’t have a whole lot of support, most people thought it was kinda crazy. But if we can finish that, we can bring the island back to Pandora, and from there –“

“We recruit troops, we secure it, we take it,” Rhys finished. Yvette wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him so happy. She wished she could call him a greedy bastard without a trace of hypocrisy, but her own heart was racing at the thought – that much money would get her off Pandora forever, get her anywhere in the galaxy she wanted to be, get her with a good start on her own company. No more making coffee for assholes in suits, or stepping on people to get up the corporate ladder, or scrambling around in the sand with a knife and a shotgun for survival.

Shit.

They needed this.

“What do we need to do, Gortys?” she said, earning an odd look from Sasha. She didn’t have the time to process it – she’d ask her later. What she needed to know was what, exactly, Yvette needed to do to get in on that deal.

“Well, we need to finish GIVRS project! There’s a lot of blueprints and schematics, but I figure we can look at them together and figure out what needs doing,” Gortys said brightly, “Then, when the GIVRS hub is all recharged, me and Rhys can pull that sucker right on through!”

“We’ll need a lot of eridium,” Rhys muttered, glancing at the Claptrap unit, “But let me see some of the schematics, Gortys.”

“Okie-dokey! Sending it through now,” she said. Rhys’s ECHO eye flashed. He opened his first and a screen sprung up from projector on his palm, displaying a set of complicated-looking blueprints, and a bunch of haphazard software programming. Yvette could work on that. She could finish some of that. That could be her foothold into the project – and she needed a foothold. The more she could take credit for, the more of the profit she could claim later.

“You’ll need a lot of resources for this,” Yvette said “We’ll need to scramble the Children of Helios into action…without them knowing what we’re doing. They’ll all want a slice. They’ll kill each other for it.”

“Exactly,” Rhys muttered, nodding. He flicked through the blueprints, until settling on one, “Jack, take a look at this.”

“Oh, yes, let the genocidal maniac take a peek,” Sasha muttered fiercely from behind her desk. If Rhys heard her, he gave no sign of it. The Claptrap pushed Yvette out of the way, and Rhys bent down to show it the blueprints, flicking through them very quickly, having a very fast, muttered conversation that Yvette could barely catch a word of.

“It’s feasible, right?”

“Oh, yeah, this is…I mean for old-school Atlas, this is fan-friggin’-tastic. Gonna need to replace a lot of it with Hyperion software, but, y’know.”

Rhys snorted.

“Oh, yeah, well, duh.”

“What’s wrong with Atlas stuff? Those guys made some of the best tech around,” Vaughn said frowning. Rhys and the Claptrap looked at each other.

“Oh, nothing,” the Claptrap said, “If you love low processing speeds, anyway.”

“And bloatware,” Rhys sniggered.

“Pffft.”

Yvette suddenly felt as though she’d just walked into a particularly insufferable high school computer club.

“Um, excuse me, I’m Atlas, thank you very much,” Gortys said, sounding more annoyed than Yvette had ever heard her. She gave the Claptrap a scathing look, “And you’re Jakobs, Jacktrap, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Uh, hardware, maybe!” the Claptrap said, sounding scandalised. Rhys laughed.

LET'S AGREE THAT BOTH ATLAS AND HYPERION TECHNOLOGY HAS ITS PROS AND CONS, Loader Bot said reasonably, ...BUT JAKOBS IS LITERALLY THE WORST.

“Okay! We’re getting a little off track!” Fiona said loudly, “Look. Can we build this? That’s all I care about.”

“Please, Fiona,” Rhys said, all but preening, “I could write this code in my sleep.”

“That’s great. But you know, this kind of thing is a team effort,” Gortys said sweetly, “So, you know, we’re kind of going to need all hands on deck for this.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Yvette and Rhys looked at each other. Sasha looked up from the computer, first at Fiona, then at Rhys, and then she looked at Yvette, gnawing on her lower lip.

“Yep. Just really gonna have to all work together to make this happen!” Gortys said, “Or, you know. All those billions of dollars we were just so excited about! Poof. Just gone. What a shame.”

“I’m starting to like this robot,” the Claptrap said.

Yvette should have known that this, somehow, was what it was all going to be about. She couldn’t understand why nobody would just let her be goddamn pissed at him. He deserved it. And he hadn’t exactly done anything to prove her wrong yet.

“Gortys, I know you want us to be friends again, but…I just don’t think that’s possible,” Yvette said, glancing across at Rhys. Rhys didn’t look at her, just kept his arms folded and his face screwed up in that stupid little pout of his.

“Oh, never say never! But how about for now you guys just agree to be civil?” she replied serenely, “After all, you are going to need to work together!”

Yvette could feel Sasha and Vaughn staring at them, and she knew she couldn't keep being stubborn about this. If only for their sake. Besides, if the project worked, Yvette could leave and never have to see Rhys's stupid weaselly face ever again.

“Fine,” she said finally, turning towards him and thrusting out her hand. With a huff, Rhys nodded and gave her the briefest handshake of Yvette’s entire life. Possibly the briefest handshake in the entire world. There were probably blinks that lasted longer. Yvette had seen Rhys tolerate a handshake from Vasquez for longer.

Not that she had any particular desire to touch Rhys’s weird clammy hand for longer than remotely necessary, but, still. Ouch.

“How about a huuuug?” Gortys sing-songed.

“Don’t push it, Gortys,” Rhys said gruffly.

“Alright, hugs later then!” she replied, as relentless a ball of sunshine as ever, “But, okay, great! Today is our first day together on the GIVRS project. Yay! Let’s all do our best!”

Chapter Text

None of the bits and pieces they’d managed to scavenge out of the GIVRS files seemed to fit together that easily. He suspected that the Atlas eggheads hadn’t managed to finish before Athena murdered them. It meant a lot of late nights pouring over schematics and trying to decipher reams of hand-written notes and formulae, all in a frantic, postgrad student scrawl. So much of what they were handling was complete unknowns, so much of the stuff they had to finish had been started by people far smarter than they could ever hope to be.

It could blow up in their faces so badly.

Yet it was amazing how much better Rhys felt for finally have a real project in hand – a goal to strive for. The voice in the back of his head, the eridium craving, even the neural scans he was waiting for Dr Okarafor to finish, those were all much easier to deal with when he had something to do. Something big and complicated and full of question marks and possibly dangerous. He couldn't imagine anything better.

Jack was easier to manage when he was busy, too. For one thing, Rhys could actually get some sleep. Beforehand, he would lie down and just drift off, and then Jack would be peeling back his eyelid and prodding him after 45 minutes. Apparently that was how much sleep Handsome Jack had got a night, and what Jack thought was perfectly adequate. While Handsome Jack being in a constant state of sleep deprivation shed light on, well, a lot, Rhys had absolutely no desire to test that sleep pattern out for himself.

And, it turned out Jack was actually good at this sort of thing.

Rhys had known that Jack was smart. Maybe not the genius Handsome Jack had painted himself as, but he had to have been a pretty smart guy to pull off all the crazy stunts he had.

Yet it was hard to reconcile that fact when faced the impulsive, dangerous guy who failed to understand why a person might get a bit upset at the prospect of having a robot endoskeleton shoved inside of them.

“And, ok, this file looks like total garbage, I thought those Atlas idiots just hadn’t finished it, but if you pair it with this one here, it starts to make sense,” Jack explained, moving files around on the holo-screen between them, “I mean, the code still looks like it was constructed by a friggin’ monkey hyped up on six cans of energy drink, but hey, we don’t gotta throw all of it in the trash. And if –“

In fact, with enough to do, Jack almost seemed normal. He wondered if this what the living Jack had been like, before he went nuts. If there ever even was a ‘before’.

“Hey, Rhys, are you listening? Christ, look alive, pumpkin!”

Rhys blinked.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m listening.”

“Right, now here’s my issue – they were working under the assumption we got two Gortyses that can go in and out the Vault easy. Instead of, you know, working on a way to do everything externally,” Jack said, “I think we should try and build something that saves the whole, you know, you or the robot havin’ to go in and get speared to death by a bunch of over-sensitive bug people.”

“Well, me and Gortys are probably pretty spear resistant,” Rhys said with a yawn, and took another long glug of coffee. Not that caffeine really did anything - until someone could figure out how to make an eridium espresso, this junk was just barely better than useless.

Jack stared at him, eye tilting.

“You know, Rhys, you are gonna be on the toilet for days if you keep chugging coffee like that,” he said, “I mean, it’s whatever now I don’t actually have to sit and watch you evacuate your bowels, but man. Give that poor sphincter of yours some rest, I’m sure it’s had more than enough abuse over the years.”

“Oh, vaguely homophobic anal sex jokes, great,” Rhys muttered, “You know, most people leave those behind in middle school, Jack.”

“Well, technically speaking, Rhys, I didn’t go to middle school,” he replied, “Nakayama didn’t exactly send me with my little lunchbox to robo-school before he kicked the bu-”

Jack cut himself off abruptly, as though suddenly realising what he was saying. For a second, it looked as though he didn’t know what to do – clenching and unclenching his hands, lifting them as though looking for something to smash, or someone to throttle. For a second, Rhys just watched, curious to see what he’d try.

Instead, Jack turned back to the screen between them, flicked open another file and tapped in a few more lines of code, muttering furiously to himself, too fast for Rhys to understand.

He blinked, and sucked on his lower lip for a second. He was on dangerous territory, but that had never stopped Rhys before.

“Well, what about Handsome Jack?” he asked, careful to keep his voice as neutral as possible. Jack laughed, a big barking ‘Ha!’ and slapped Rhys on the knee.

“What, hoping I’ll spill my guts to you about my tragic teenage years, Rhys? Like we’re gonna swap first kiss stories and hilarious acne anecdotes?” Jack said, even more defensive than Rhys anticipated, “Get real, buddy. Anyway, we got work to do, Rhysie, chop chop.”

Rhys shook his head and slapped Jack’s hand away from the keyboard, opening a different file.

“Riiiight. So, while you’re writing code we’ve already written, I’m just going to use the one we did yesterday.”

“Oh…yeah, duh. Knew I kept you around for some reason or another. Aside from the ‘only one who can get me out of this friggin’ tin can’ thing, that is,” Jack said, and paused, “You know, we should discuss that some time.

Loader Bot turned to stare at them, giving Rhys a far more penetrating look than someone who didn’t really have a face should be capable of.

“Discuss what?” Rhys asked carefully, conscious of Loader Bot's scrutiny.

“Just, you know, I’m thinkin’, when we make our billions from this lil project, how about you spend some of your share building me a good, hot bod? With more than one eye. And feet,” Jack said, “You know, just to say thanks for my frankly invaluable contributions.”

“If you think for a second I’m letting you live in something where you can as much as touch a firearm -“

“Urgh, come on! Being in here sucks, Rhys. You have no idea what it’s like to be stuck in a body that doesn’t feel ri-“ Jack cut himself off at the look Rhys gave him. “Okay, maybe you do. But that should just make you more sympathetic to my predicament, compadre.”

Rhys sighed – he saw Jack’s point, to an extent. Living inside a glorified cleaning bot couldn’t be much fun. But there was no way he trusted Jack anywhere else. He knew fine well that bringing Jack back like this had been an act of complete insanity, and that keeping him around was just proof of that continued insanity.

“Jack, you haven’t exactly done anything to prove yourself trustworthy.”

“Trustworthy! Come on, Rhys, we are…we are tight, bud. I mean, who on this station are you closer to? We only spend every friggin’ waking moment together,” he said.

“Okay, fine, Jack,” Rhys said, throwing his hands up, “You know what, fine.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I’ll build you a new body,” he said, and then held up a hand to interrupt whatever Jack was about to say next, “If you can tell me what my last name is.”

“Well. Hah. Of course I know that. It’s. Uh. Well. Come on! I lived in your frickin' skull for weekies, Rhys, it would be ridiculous if I didn’t know your last name," he said, "Give me a little credit here, cupcake.”

“Well. Go on then. I’m waiting.”

“…Pieces?” Jack said.

“…You think my name is Rhys Pieces.”

“…Uuuuh…”

Rhys sighed – there was no way Jack would have passed that test. Rhys wouldn’t have given it if he thought there as a chance he would. There was still a small, stupid part of him that was disappointed.

“See, Jack, this is your problem. You think you’re close to people but that’s because you’ve just talked at them for hours, and they didn't get rid of you. You don’t actually know anything about anyone else, or care. You don’t listen to people, or talk about anything other than yourself,” he said, and added, with more fierceness than he intended, “You’re still a psychopath.”

“Now I resent that, Rhys," Jack said, lacking the decency to sound remotely phased, "I only fantasise about murdering you like. Six times a day now.”

Rhys scowled at him.

“That’s down from a dozen, pumpkin,” Jack continued, absolutely nothing in his tone suggesting he realised this was a weird-as-hell conversation to be having, “And that is down from, you know, pretty much all day every day. So, hey, progress!”

No, Rhys decided, he was wrong. Jack never seemed normal.

“I put you in anything more competent, and then I’m responsible for what happens afterwards,” he said, shaking his head and then shooting him a glare, “You know, Jack, you’re lucky to be out here at all. If I had any sense, I wouldn’t have even kept you after I got you out of my head.”

Jack looked as though he was about to argue back, but caught a look at the expression on Rhys’s face and seemed to relent, sighing and flicking his antennae in a dismissive sort of way.

“Fine, fine, you know what, you’re putting your foot down, and I respect that, sweetheart, I really do. But you know, you just think about it. While I continue to suffer.”

“Oh shut up and help me figure this out,” Rhys said, gesturing at a mangled block of code. He almost expected Jack to become immediately uncooperative and difficult, as he tended to whenever anyone disagreed with him, but apparently his desire to get the project off the ground was more powerful than his natural predisposition towards being annoying.

An email flicked up from Yvette in the corner of his eye – terse, short, and with a few attachments, reports on information and resources she’d managed to dig up.

Those emails were the only contact he’d had with Yvette since Loader Bot had kidnapped them.

Reading it made something open in the pit of Rhys's stomach, a cold ache. He had preferred the anger, but he found the more time wore on, the more he couldn't really summon the energy to be angry with her any more. With that fading, all that was underneath it was the guilt of what he'd did, and the thought of what things would be like if he'd gotten away with it.

He tried to think about the fact they wouldn't all be fighting, or the fact he and Sasha would have been working on whatever they had going for them, but all he could think about was how Yvette would have been dead. He couldn't form a picture beyond that - every other scenario just went fuzzy in his head, replaced by the thought that Yvette just wouldn't be here.

Pushing the thoughts out of his head, he replied with just as much formality, sending it with a sigh. Those stupid emails were more contact than he'd had with Sasha over the past few days. She was still pissed about Jack, by the sounds of it. And absolutely certain he was an idiot to end all idiots. Rhys wasn’t sure he could blame her.

Still. She couldn’t stay mad at him forever. And he hadn’t really done anything that bad – Jack hadn’t even killed anyone since coming back. In fact, he hadn’t done anything that bad, really.

He had the situation under control, and it would only be a matter of time before she realised it.

And by the time Sasha realised that, and got over it, Yvette would admit how badly she'd screwed up too.

 

To: R.Owens@hyperion.pdr
From: Y.Lehmann@hyperion.pdr
Subject: AX274.exe and AX275.exe
Rhys,

Yvette frowned and tapped the backspace key a few times.

Mr Owens,

Ew, no.

She erased that as well, and propped her chin on her hand, staring at the computer screen.

Rhys looked like crap lately.

She didn’t give a shit either way, but he did. It was impossible not to notice. He and Fiona had come back both looking hollow-cheeked and ragged, but out of the two of them, Rhys definitely looked worse. He had a strung-out, twitchy look to him. It wasn't exactly an uncommon look on Pandora, but a far cry from the swaggering guy she’d known up on Helios.

She had done her best to avoid him for the sake of the project – nothing would get done if they spent their entire time screaming at each other when there was machinery to build, tests to run, calculations to finish, and money to be made – but Helios was smaller than it looked, and it was impossible not to cross paths with someone now and then.

She saw him in the cafeteria at lunch, sitting on the table surrounded by his adoring fans, practically glowing under all the attention and regaling them with some unlikely story from inside the Vault. The Claptrap, never far from his side, sat by and interrupted with its own amendments and adjustments, talking in that stupid cartoon-character voice. Yvette wasn’t sure whose version of the story sounded less likely, and it took all she had not to just hurl her can of soda off Rhys’s head. Prick.

Other times, they crossed paths in the hallways, Yvette giving orders to Children of Helios about materials and resources they needed, demanding reports on how their various operations were chugging along, and Rhys strutting busily with blueprints under his arm, his weird pet alien on his shoulder. And the Claptrap, rambling on about some horrid topic or another.

That robot gave Yvette the creeps. She could not for a second imagine what the hell Rhys was thinking keeping that thing around, or even bring it to life in the first place. She couldn’t imagine what was going through Rhys’s head at all. His hero-worship of Jack hadn’t been that out of place on Helios, and it had been relatively tame compared to some guys in the company, but any sane person would have dropped it entirely when their hero tried to kill them.

Thing was, she just couldn't even hear the Claptrap's voice without remembering that girl; her resigned voice, the pale skin marred with scars and scraps of metal, buried under Pandora and turned into a guinea pig.

She shook the thoughts aside. It was none of her business how stupid Rhys wanted to be. If he wanted to get buddy-buddy with a sociopath, or at least a copy of one, well, maybe they were well-matched. Two peas in a fucked up pod. It was none of her business.

She clicked her tongue and decided to just plunge into the main body of email. It wasn’t like Rhys would think the email was for anyone else.

Please find attached another report on the aforementioned programmes. Again, these seem related to maintaining the island’s climate, although from the records this has only been tested in simulation.

Please review the attached data at your earlier convenience; it may be pertinent to discuss the physical practicalities of –

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous.”

Yvette jumped, knocking her cup of tea from the edge of the desk. She cursed, leaning over to pick it up, and glared up at Vaughn.

“Is this how you two talk to each other now?” Vaughn said, reading over Yvette’s shoulder and sounding far sadder than Yvette thought he had any right to be. She couldn't comprehend why it would even matter to him; she hadn’t told him to stop hanging out with Rhys, and presumably Rhys hadn’t issued any ultimatum about her. It wasn't like he was being asked to choose.

“We’re colleagues,” she said stiffly.

“Yvette, you and Rhys used to have sleepovers,” Vaughn sighed.

“They weren’t sleepovers,” Yvette said, wrinkling her nose, “We were working late. Just...out of the office. It was professional.”

“In your pyjamas. With a cheeseboard,” he said, and then added after Yvette refused to soften at that, “You helped him dye his hair once.”

“…While working!” Yvette said, “Look, Vaughn, what does it matter, why are you here? I thought you were chaperoning Rhys and that Claptrap all hours of the day, anyway.”

Vaughn shifted, a guilty look on his face.

“Gortys is there, they’re fine,” he said.

“Really, you pulled her into this scheme?”

“No…I think she just actually likes spending time with them,” Vaughn said, “Look, I just think Rhys is…a bit too taken in by that thing, and it’s best if he isn’t left alone with it for now. The guy tried to kill him once before. Aren’t you worried?”

“I don’t care,” Yvette said shortly, getting to her feet to find a cloth to mop up the spilled tea.

The sane thing to do would be to turn that Claptrap into scrap metal, but really, it was none of her business. If Rhys wanted to keep making stupid decisions in his stupid idolisation of that stupid dead asshole, that was his problem.

Although she had wondered, a couple of times, if Rhys knew about Handsome Jack’s daughter.

His daughter who, if Rhys had been telling the truth about what happened in the Vault, had a pretty significant thing in common with him.

“I don’t care,” she repeated again, if only to herself.

“You know, I’ve always been really convinced by people who say ‘I don’t care’ over and over,” Vaughn said, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Urgh, look, I just...were we ever even friends to begin with? Rhys didn’t think twice about screwing me over, and you should have seen the way he was lookin’ at me, Vaughn. Like I was something he needed to scrape off his stupid snakeskin shoes,” she said, and suddenly became aware how loudly she was speaking. She cleared her throat and took it down a notch, “Maybe he only kept me around because I was useful. You know, could help him get a car if he needed one.”

“…I really doubt it, Yvette,” he replied.

“Come on, Vaughn. You can’t say he never threw you aside to hang out with his douchebag Jack friends a few times,” she said, huffing.

“Oh, well, yeah, he totally did that a million times. And it sucked," he said, shaking his head, "But that's ancient history."

“Right,” she said.

“Look, Yvette, I think you just – I get you’re pissed, but I think you’re worried about him too,” Vaughn said, and Yvette tutted, rolling her eyes. Vaughn pressed on, “He doesn’t look good lately.”

“And he’s in a co-dependent relationship with a Roomba,” she added. Vaughn frowned at her.

“Look, I just think if you talked to him –“

“You sound like Sasha. No," she snapped. Looking at Vaughn's crestfallen face, she felt the need to steer the conversation into less controversial waters, “Look, I’m guessin’ you didn’t come here just to nag me about making up with Rhys again?”

At the very least hoped he wasn’t just here for that. Vaughn had better things to do than beating a dead skag – the Children of Helios were skittish and restless, between the Jack fanboys, the increasing Pandoran hostility against them, and the rumours that Handsome Jack was living inside a Claptrap on their station. They had all been doing their best to discount where they could. Fortunately, it was a stupid enough idea that not many people bought it.

They really, really underestimated Rhys’s capacity for bad decisions.

“Yeah, I didn’t. Listen,” Vaughn said, sounding tense, as though he’d really prefer not to bring this up, “Listen you…haven’t been to see Dr Sandford lately, have you?”

“…Sandford? The creep who chopped off my leg?” Yvette repeated, bemused, “No. Why?”

“…I was afraid you’d say that,” he muttered, “I went to go question him the other day – Athena’s not been able to figure out what the Jack fanboys want, or what their plans are, exactly. We’re keeping him in one of the detention cells on the upper floors, at the moment. You need a pass-code and authorisation to get in. And. I noticed someone had been in. Aside from the guys who feed him, I mean. At a weird time in the middle of the night too.”

“You mean someone hacked in there,” she said, folding her arms across her chest and giving Vaughn a half-pitying, half-exasperated look, “Vaughn, you know there’s only two real suspects here. Sasha would agree with me.”

“I know, but,” Vaughn said, and rubbed the back of his neck.

“There are a lot of idiots on this station, Vaughn. But only two that could hack through that level of security,” Yvette said, “It’s one of them, or maybe both. From what I heard, they’ve schemed together before.”

“Rhys would tell me about this,” Vaughn said. Yvette rolled her eyes, turning to face him properly, her arms folded across the back of the sofa.

“Not if his little buddy didn’t want him to,” she reminded him. It came out harsher than she intended, and she saw Vaughn wince, for just a split second.

“Rhys doesn’t just do what it tells him,” he said, firmly. More firmly than he had any right to, really - they didn’t goddamn know what was going on with those two. Personally, Yvette wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“Oh, yeah, sure, the guy bemoaned being rejected from the doppelganger programme, but yeah, Vaughn, he wouldn’t just do whatever Handsome Jack said,” Yvette said, and even as she spoke she could slap herself. She needed to stop taking this shit out on Vaughn, it was just so hard when the dude practically thought the sun shone out of Rhys’s skinny ass.

She wasn’t sure whether it made her feel better or worse when Vaughn didn’t look hurt or angry at her for snapping, just drained.

“That was a long time ago, Yvette,” he said, “You know he changed a lot when we were on Pandora. We both did.”

“Well, I know you did, look at you,” she said, “I don’t know what his deal is.”

“He’s a complicated guy,” Vaughn said, looking at his feet.

“So, what are you going to do? About your little mystery, I mean?” she said.

Vaughn sighed, a little self-depreciating smile on his face.

“For now, let’s just keep an eye on it,” he said, “We can’t afford another argument.”

“Right…” Yvette agreed, thinking again of the sad, defeated girl hidden under Pandora, and what that monster had done to her.

Chapter Text

There was a part of Yvette’s brain that had, ever since she was about 14, devoted itself entirely to weighing out the options. Privately, she’d always thought was the part that normal people used for small-talk and hello-how-do-you-dos and banal chatter about the weather. Instead, it spent its time breaking things down into data, assembling and reassembling them into different outcomes, and weighing up the probabilities. Then, all information before her, she could choose the best route.

She had always thought that would serve her well in Hyperion.

To an extent, it did.

It just hadn’t been enough.

The hello-how-do-you-dos, it turned out, were pretty important. It wasn’t enough to be smart and ruthless and dress well – you had to smile just enough and shake hands just right and go to the right parties and play their stupid fingergun games, and that’s where Yvette had fumbled. She had never gottent he hang out of it – she couldn’t mime a fingergun battle, she couldn’t force a smile and make it look convincing, and she never made the right eye contact or shook hands for the right length of time.

And that’s where Rhys had came in.

When the three of them had first started to work together, she had thought that made them a good team. Vaughn running the numbers, Rhys running the people, and Yvette strategizing and stopping them doing anything too stupid.

The problem was that neither of them listened to her. She was, ultimately, a third wheel in that arrangement. And that’s where it had fallen apart.

Lately, that part of her brain had been quiet, maybe grown sluggish and sedate in the Pandoran heat, or maybe burnt up when she had landed on the planet, only just protected by a chance arrangement of shrapnel. Yvette wasn’t sure.

With Rhys back, that part of her brain was stirring again, rattling off their chances of this project blowing up in their face, the distinct possibility that Vaughn would, ultimately, pick Rhys over her, the chance that Sasha would, what she had found out about Handsome Jack’s daughter, and going over, again and again, every little thing they didn’t know.

“Are…you okay?” Sasha asked one night. Yvette jumped, her laptop almost tumbling from her knees. Sasha frowned at her, chewing on a slice of gooey pizza, and talking with her mouth full, “You look like you’re seriously thinking about something. And don’t say you were working because you’ve been staring at your screensaver for, like, seven minutes.”

“Seven? That’s specific,” Yvette said, tapping the space key on her laptop, “Were you timing me?”

“Kind of wanted to see how long it would take you to notice I was watching,” Sasha said, grinning, “You get really wrapped up in your thoughts sometimes.”

“…Did you take my glasses?” Yvette said, only just noticing how blurry everything was beyond Sasha’s head. She touched her face – yep, no glasses.

“Ha, yeah. You didn’t even flinch,” Sasha said, pulling them out from behind her back and waving them, “Though I am a good pickpocket. You have no idea how many times I’ve stolen your wallet and put it back. …I think I still have Vaughn’s, actually.”

“Oh give me those!” Yvette said, making a grab for them. Against Sasha’s catlike reflexes, she only ended up with still-hot mozzarella dripped on her trousers for her trouble.

“Uh, no way, tell me what you’re worried about,” Sasha said, laughing, “There’s no way you’d tell me unless I had a ransom.”

“I would,” Yvette said, giving up and shaking her head. She wasn’t about to try to wrestle Sasha for them. She had gotten stronger since she’d come to Pandora, but Sasha could still absolutely kick her ass if she were so inclined. And Yvette wasn’t one to get into fights she couldn’t win.

“You so wouldn’t.”

If only to show a small act of defiance, she snatched the slice of pizza from Sasha’s other hand and finished it off.

“Look,” she said, picking her words carefully, “We’re…working with a lot of unknown quantities here.”

She suddenly became aware of the intensity Sasha was listening to her with – looking at her as though everything else had just fallen away. The nagging part of her brain went dead silent, replaced by something altogether dumber and simpler

“We don’t have back-ups if this goes wrong, we don’t have a long-term plan for how this is going to work, and we’ve got…that thing wandering around Helios, practically unchecked,” Yvette said, the words coming out of her more easily. She accepted her glasses back from Sasha and rubbed them clean with the hem of her blouse, slipping them onto her nose.

Sasha smiled at her, propping her cheek up against her hand.

“That’s…kind of par for the course. You decide what you want to do, and you don’t always know if it’s going to work out right, and you don’t always have insurance if it goes wrong, but you do it anyway,” Sasha said, “It’s…not like you have a choice on this planet, sometimes. It’s either you try and steal that guy’s wallet, or you go without food for a week. Now it’s…we try this, or we stay on this planet. Forever. And I really, really, really want out.”

“It doesn’t stress you out?” Yvette asked, “Not having a plan?”

“The possibility of death stresses me out, yeah, but, again, whatever. Par for the course,” she said, and then gave Yvette a scrutinising, “…Have you always had a long-term plan?”

She didn’t sound disparaging – just astonished.

“...I was supposed to have been promoted to assistant operations director of requisitions by my last birthday,” Yvette admitted, picking at a stray thread on the sofa, “I had also planned to build up my social media portfolio and made a bid for one of Hyperion’s zero-hour PR positions too.”

Sasha snorted, her hand snapping up to cover her mouth and nose.

“Wow,” she said, grinning at her under her hand – her smile reached her eyes, making them crinkle at the corners and brighten, “Uh…when did you decide this?”

“…When I was seventeen.”

Sasha dissolved into a giggling fit. Yvette folded her arms, affecting indifference, and waited for her to finish.

“I’m sorry, Yvette, sorry,” Sasha said, as she finally managed to stop laughing, “It’s just…best laid plans, you know?”

“…Of mice and men?” Yvette finished for her, and she mustn’t have been very good at feigning her surprise, because Sasha blinked, leaning away from her.

“…What? We…have books on this planet too, you know,” Sasha said, looking momentarily embarrassed, scratching behind her ear, “Urgh, Felix loved poetry. Insisted on reciting it to us on long drives. Instead of, you know, getting us a radio.”

“Sounds awful,” Yvette said, her lips twitching into a smile.

“It sucked so bad,” Sasha said, “I think Fi still has nightmares about his six hour poetry lessons. Heard her a few times, twitching and muttering Robert Frost lines.”

“He sounds like he was an interesting guy,” Yvette said, pulling her laptop back into her lap and opening up the document she had been pouring through, “Felix, I mean.”

“…I guess. Hard for me to feel that great about him now,” Sasha said, looking down at her hands, clasped on her lap, “You would have hated him.”

Yvette smirked.

“You make that sound like a compliment.”

“Unless he comes back and explains why the hell he ditched us, it is,” she said, reaching for the last slice of pizza. Yvette put her feet on the coffee table, leaning her head back and watching Sasha for a second, thinking.

“Do you need that?” Yvette asked, “Him to come back, I mean?”

“…I dunno. Closure, you know, supposed to be good,” Sasha muttered.

“Closure doesn’t happen in real life,” Yvette said, “It’s not like things ever finish. They can’t can be tied off all neatly, like it does on TV. Stuff just goes on. Even if Felix came back and explained everything, he still did all that shit, and you were still hurt by it. No amount of hugging and talking makes that go away.”

“You can be really blunt sometimes,” Sasha said, raising her eyebrows.

“Honest,” Yvette corrected her. At least, that was what she always intended – more often than not, bluntness was the end product. Sasha didn’t look hurt though, just thoughtful.

“You know, I don’t think you can say closure never happens,” she said slowly, “I mean. Thinking that way, isn’t it kind of…lazy? Like just going ‘Oh, things never get any better so why try’?”

There was a part of Yvette that rankled at the assertion, that knew it should feel offensive, that she should spring to the defense and snap back, something witty and sharp that would leave Sasha reeling. For some reason, though, out of Sasha’s mouth it didn’t feel harsh, or hurtful.

“That’s…not what I said,” she said, and covered her mouth with her hand, glancing out of the window at the long red stretch of the Pandoran desert around them, “Although maybe it’s what I meant.”

“I dunno, I think maybe I used to think like that but…” Sasha said, folding her arms. Yvette looked over at her, letting her chew her thoughts over, until she spoke again, “I’m…starting to change my mind. A little.”

“Oh, don’t tell me you’re becoming less cynical,” she said, “What will we have in common then?”

Sasha laughed, leaning her shoulder against Yvette’s.

“Well, I think I’m heading to bed,” she said, reaching over to give Yvette a quick kiss, “Are you coming?”

Lately, Yvette slept in Sasha’s bed more than her own. She wasn’t sure that was a position she’d ever been in – even with ex-girlfriends, it had been silently agreed to keep a certain level of distance. Yet she’d slipped into the habit without thinking, comfortably and unquestioningly.

What the hell was this planet doing to her.

“Sure,” she said.

 

The larger machinery was being assembled in Gortys’s office – the main GIVRS hub was already there, it was one of the bigger spaces they had, and the Children of Helios adored Gortys. They would take orders from her with relatively little question, lately, so there was no need for Vaughn or Rhys to be there all hours of the day to make sure things stayed on track. Since neither Rhys nor Jack would deign to do manual labour, the more physical jobs fell on the Children of Helios.

“That is great, Ellie, you are doing such a good job,” Gortys said, moving between the the Children of Helios as they assembled one part of the machinery, “Riley, Jacob, keep it up! You guys are so good at this! Alice, keep that steady, you’re doing great!”

Gortys seemed to enjoy it too. Rhys really wondered about the influence they’d had on her sometimes.

“It’s all coming together, huh?” Jack said from beside him, elbowing him hard in the side of the leg.

“Claptrap voice, Jack,” Rhys reminded him, for what felt like the millionth time.

Oh, yeah, right! Urgh! I hate this stupid clown voice, Rhys!!” he said, sounding completely ecstatic about it.

Rhys had to admit, he much preferred Jack’s usual voice. Hearing Jack’s words in that peppy little robot voice was kind of creepy.

“You’ll hate being ripped apart by a bunch of pissed-off ex-Hyperion stooges more,” he reminded him. Jack only grunted – his usual response when Rhys was right.

Still, Jack was right. Things were coming together. They’d made real progress on the project – the main machinery was mostly assembled, looking imposing in Atlas teals and mechanical curves, and the code was coming along nicely. Between Rhys and Jack’s efforts, they’d tied away most of the big problems the Atlas programmers had been having, bridging the gaps between the complete and half-completed pieces of work they had left.

Sasha had been thawing, too, even if Yvette hadn’t been. She didn’t seem to have the energy to stay mad at him – even being willing to exchange a few words with him, one stiff smile.

Yvette, though, still treated him with a frostiness sharp enough to burn.

“You know, we should have a launch party when we’re done,” Rhys said, watching the Children of Helios weld pieces of metal together, drilling holes and screwing in nails.

“What’s a launch party?” Fiona asked, as Vaughn and Yvette groaned.

“What!” Rhys said, “They’re the best part of a project!”

“For you, Rhys,” Yvette snapped, gesturing at him with her clipboard, “You get to swan around with a glass of champagne shit-talking Vasquez and flirting. Meanwhile, I’m bored at the bar and Vaughn is having a panic attack in the toilets.”

“That…really only happened one or two times,” Vaughn muttered, scratching his ear.

“Shit-talking Vasuqez? Wasn’t he there?” Fiona asked.

“Mostly I made sure he thought it was the next day,” Rhys said, grinning at the memory of all the absolutely furious mass emails Vasquez had sent over the years, demanding to know who was responsible for him missing yet another big Hyperion party, “One time I told him it was a costume party.”

“Haha. Nice,” Jack said.

Sasha shook her head.

“You know, I always wondered why that guy wanted to kill you so badly,” she said, “Now I think I understand.”

“Yeah. We are not having a launch party,” Vaughn said sternly, looking away from Rhys so briskly that Rhys couldn’t help but feel irritated, “Anyway, how are we doing on resources, Yvette?”

Yvette returned to her clipboard, flicking through reams of paper with a sharp, attentive look on her face. It was the longest they’d been in the same room for the longest time, and Yvette had doggedly avoided as much as looking at him.

Honestly, it was getting annoying. Rhys almost preferred being yelled at. In fact, he definitely did.

“Well, the last patrols managed to buy a bunch of the items we needed, but we still –“ she began, a look of concentration on her face.

“Hey, wait, requisitions?” he asked loudly, leaning towards them, “You…didn’t get hold of any hair gel, did you?”

Vaughn cringed, and Yvette gave Rhys an icy look.

“You know, Rhys, between bartering for your eridium, building all of this, and trying to deal with constant attacks on all of our footholds in the area, we haven’t had a whole lot of time to shop for your cosmetics,” she said fiercely, despite Vaughn’s desperate head-shaking and gestures to just not engage. Rhys grinned, pushing his hair back with his hand.

“Hey, come on, it’s only a little request. I’m just saying, if you see any hair gel –“

“Hair gel?” said one of the Children of Helios, some brunette with an undercut, “Rhys, did you say you wanted some hair gel?”

“No, Rhys don’t –“ Vaughn began.

“Yeah. You guys couldn’t get hold of any, could you?” he said, giving them his most disarming smile. It was the same smile he’d used to throw off their co-workers and win over their clients.

“Rhys –“ Vaughn continued.

Hey, guys, Rhys wants some hair gel!” they bellowed, instantly whipping the assembled Children of Helios into a frenzy. They rushed out, heading to the garage and chattering excitably, leaving the room in a tightly-knit, chaotic rabble. Which was the way they did mostly anything. Vaughn buried his face in his hands.

“Thanks, Rhys, that’s all they’re going to do for days now,” he said, sighing and shaking his head,

“Sorry,” Rhys said, grinning as Jack dissolved into laughter beside him. Yvette glared, looking as though she was very seriously contemplating shoving her clipboard up his ass.

“You’re an asshole, Rhys,” Fiona informed him. Sasha only rolled her eyes.

“Well, that’s okay, I kind of wanted to talk to you guys alone anyway!” Gortys said brightly, not sounding remotely irritated that Rhys had scattered her employees on a ludicrous hair product search, “Sooo…this has been going super great, we are making some really good progress. I think we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for that!”

Nobody moved.

“…Guys, this is where you pat yourselves on the back,” Gortys continued, glancing between them. They all just stared back at her. She put her hands on her back, “Come on guys, the books I took out of Rhys’s room said this is a great, not-too-serious way to break the ice and let you know how much I appreciate your work.”

“The…books?” Sasha repeated uncertainly.

“Oh, yeah, you know, like The Five Steps to Leadership and Climbing the Ladder: A Guide to Corporate Success, Rhys had a billion of those things,” Gortys continued brightly, and Rhys felt the blood rush to his face, “And he had all this weird magazines that had all these pictures of ladies and guys without their –“

“Okay! Maybe ask me first before you go rummaging around in my room from now on, huh, Gortys?” he interrupted, ignoring Jack’s delighted cackling behind him.

“Oh, okay!” Gortys said, “And don’t worry, I put stickers over all the rude bits on those magazines.”

“…Thank you. Very…helpful,” Rhys breathed out through his teeth, trying his best to ignore the sound of Sasha and Fiona giggling.

“Ahem! Anyway, so things have been going super great lately, and we are really on track, but I have a few things we need to work out!” Gortys continued, and then moved across to the GIVRS hub, tapping a few keys, “There’s kind of some stuff on here I can’t get at. I think the stuff we have is only for moving small stuff and people in and out of the Vault – the bigger stuff’s blocked out. Any ideas? Rhys? Jacktrap?”

Rhys moved to the hub and took a look. The problem was immediately obvious.

“There’s a retina scanner on here,” Rhys said, tapping it with a fingernail, and then giving Gortys a look, “Gortys how did you not notice this?”

“Oh! Well, I just thought it was a neat camera or something. Seems silly to use a biological thing as security. Organic bodies are so fragile!” she said, “I mean, what if someone gouged your eyes out, huh, then what?”

“…Right,” Rhys said, deciding to just dismiss that disturbing little comment forever, “They must have been worried about some idiots getting their hands on it. I mean, this is pretty dangerous stuff.”

“…Do we have to go dig up some Atlas guy’s corpse again?” Sasha said, “Uuurrgh, I totally don’t wanna do that.”

“…We may well have to dig up a corpse, yes,” Rhys said, “Wow…I am so glad that my life has deteriorated to the point where it includes sentences like that.”

“Will this do?”

Rhys turned to see Fiona holding up an eyeball. He let out a wordless squawk, stumbling backwards. Fiona only blinked at him, the picture of perfect innocence. Aside from the piece of human anatomy in her fngers.

“Oh my God, Fi!” Sasha yelled, backing away.

“Holy crap. Is…that from the guy we…oh my God, how long have you been carrying that around?” Vaughn said, sounding numb.

“Hahahah, oh man, that is so gross!” Jack laughed, “You know, Hat, you’d make a spectacular serial killer, if you were so inclined. And I don’t give out compliments like that lightly.”

“What…what am I looking at here?” Yvette said faintly, sinking down the wall just a fraction, her mouth hanging open.

“What? I figured it might be useful,” Fiona said, as though carrying around a literal human eyeball for months on end was the most natural thing in the world.

“How is it not rotten?” Rhys asked, his stomach churning, bile rising unpleasantly in his throat.

“I think it kind of…pickled in my pocket, or something? Maybe the gunk I had in there preserved it,” Fiona said.

Rhys slapped a hand over his mouth, bending forward.

“Oh…oooh that’s…eyeball, in pocket…for months…gonna hurl, yep, definitely gonna hurl,” he wheezed.

“Oh come on, Rhys, it doesn’t even look real anymore,” Fiona said, “It looks like a toy. Here, just hold it.”

“Ha ha. No.”

“No, seriously, it doesn’t even feel gross any more. Just touch it.”

“No!” Rhys said, scrambling away as Fiona approached, holding out the eyeball towards him, “That is so weird!”

“It is really not that weird,” Fiona said reasonably, “Just touch it, you weenie.”

“You get that thing away from me, oh my God!” Rhys said, voice cracking as he scrambled over Jack to put some distance between them.

“Hey, I wanna hold it,” Jack said, reaching up to try and take it from Fiona. She jerked it out of his grasp, scowling.

“No, Rhys has to hold it.”

Why?” Rhys said.

“I need to prove it isn’t that weird.”

“It is weird!”

“Are you guys done?” Vaughn interrupted, staring at the three of them as though they were completely insane. Rhys and Fiona exchanged a quick glance and then stood up straight, coughing.

“Is…this what you guys did inside that Vault the whole time?” Sasha asked.

“…There were also a lot of games of I-Spy,” Rhys muttered, and then grinned, “Get it. I-Spy? Eye Spy?”

That did nothing to erase the look on both Sasha and Vaughn’s faces.

“Right, um. So I’ll just put the thing on the thing to open the thing,” Fiona said, striding forward to hold the eye against the retina scanner.

Atlas employee identified. Checking rank…clearance granted: Hello, General Pollux, a robotic voice said, Welcome to the GIVRS programme.

The screen opened onto an interface Rhys had never seen before – for Atlas, it looked pretty sleek. Although he would have personally simplified and streamlined it a bit further – there was still far more icons and menus than looked necessary. Fiona took one look at it, shrugged, and stepped aside to let Rhys investigate.

“Alright, this…it looks like this is the main software we’ll need to use,” Rhys said, “Okay…okay…yeah. Alright, this…this makes a lot of sense. Jack?”

Jack shoved Rhys out of the way, inspecting the screen with his arms folded.

“…Well, they ain’t total morons. Who knew,” he said, “We might be able to do it all from here. Only…”

“Yeah, I’m trying to work that out myself,” Rhys said, guessing at what Jack had noticed, scanning through the data files and tapping his fingers on the top of Jack’s head, trying to think.

“Hey, nerds, are you gonna tell us what we need to do or not?” Fiona said, already bored.

“Oh, you did not just call –“

“Right, yeah,” Rhys said, interrupting what would likely be a two and a half hour Jack-and-Fiona argument before it could get off the ground, “Look, the thing is we need some samples from the island. Some soil samples, plant matter…that kind of thing. They planned to send a team in to deal with that first but…”

“We didn’t do that,” Sasha finished, with a weary sigh.

“Right…” Rhys said, trying to think. With how long the GIVRS unit took to recharge, and the fact they’d left the island’s inhabitants with a less-than-positive impression of both humans and robots, it probably wouldn’t be a genius move to have anyone revisit the Vault. It was debatable if they could even get in at this point, anyway.

“Rhys, can’t you just use your space magic and zap us some?” Sasha asked.

“My…space magic?” he said, not sure whether to be amused or offended.

“You know, your weird magical tattoo deal,” Sasha said, “Just, do what you did to get out of there, and go get us some.”

“That’s not how it works. First of all, it isn’t magic,” Rhys said, “It’s a rare genetic –

“Blahblahblah, whatever. It glows, it does weird impossible stuff, it defies the laws of physics, it’s magic. Next,” she said, and then scowled at him, “By the way, it would have been really helpful if you’d told us about this earlier.”

“I didn’t know then!” Rhys said.

“Oh come on, how could you not have known,” she replied, shaking her head.

“Yeah, it was like, one of the first things that came up when I scanned you, Rhys!” Gortys piped up, squinting at him, “Why else would a human have an eridium signature?”

“It is pretty dumb, Rhys,” Vaughn said, “I always wondered why you never got surgery scars. Or acne.”

“I just…I  never figured it out, okay,” Rhys said, feeling as though he was being ganged up on, “How was I supposed to know I had freaky healing powers?”

“Wait, if you didn’t know, how did you know you’d survive when you…” Vaughn said, and mimed gouging out his eye and a part of his skull. Rhys cleared his throat.

“Well…uh…I kinda didn’t,” he said, prompting everyone to stare at him. Rhys glanced down at Jack, who looked equally as bemused.

What?” Vaughn repeated, horrified, “Wait, so if he was trying to kill both of you, and you were trying to kill both of you, why did you even – what was even the point? What difference did it make?”

“…Well, it decided who won.”

“Duh,” Jack added, and then, after a second, “Ha, man, on reflection, it is really lucky for both of us you’re a crazy-as-balls, stubborn little prick, Rhys.”

“Haha, I know, right?”

Vaughn made a noise like a small animal being stepped on, raking his fingers through his hair. He looked as though he needed his inhaler.

“Do you need to scream into my hat?” Fiona offered, holding her hat out towards him.

“What?” Vaughn said.

“It’s very therapeutic.”

“No, he does not need to scream into your hat,” Rhys said, pushing Fiona’s hand away from Vaughn, “Why is that even an option?”

“I wouldn’t mind screaming into the hat,” Sasha said, raising a hand.

“Nobody’s screaming into the hat!”

“Can I scream into the hat?” Jack asked, raising a hand. Rhys looked at him, mouth twisting into a frown.

“Why do you need to scream into the hat?” he asked.

“Eh. I am pretty much constantly screaming inside my own head.”

“Look, can we focus here!” Yvette interrupted, and then turned to Rhys, speaking in a taut, professional manner, “Rhys, it’s a valid point. If we need material from the Vault, can’t you go back in? You managed to travel in and out before.”

Rhys sighed – she didn’t need to sound so begrudging about talking to him. He really wasn’t that bad.

“I am pretty sure I could only do that because I was hooked up to the GIVRS programme. And had a lot of eridium on me,” he said, “Since then I haven’t…well…I haven’t exactly…”

He hadn’t exactly been able to do anything much with it. The few times he’d tried to practice, he’s found himself just glaring at paperweights, attempting to will them to fly across the room, trying to persuade monitors to turn on of their own accord, or trying to just make something – anything – explode.

Mostly all he’d achieved was to make a few faces that really alarmed Dickfeeder, and give himself kind of a headache. And when he realised that he was essentially trying to do stuff he’d seen Sirens do in comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, he packed up the whole sorry attempt out of mingled embarrassment and self-disgust.

“What about the Atlas facility?” Fiona piped up.

Rhys looked at her.

“Well, all the weird plants and jellyfish there kind of looked like the ones in the Vault, so,” Fiona said, shrugging, “If it’s the same, we could just get it from there.”

“That…is not a bad idea,” Jack admitted, “Hey, way to go, Hat, I thought you were just some hot jock a steampunk fayre threw up on. But you actually got some brain cells bouncing away up in there. Who knew.”

“Don’t make me kick you over,” she replied darkly.

“Okay, that’s great! So, we should all go back to the Atlas facility and –“ Gortys began, only to be cut off by Vaughn.

“No, Gortys, we can’t all go,” he said, “Well, we don’t need to, anyway.”

“Oh, why not, we haven’t all been on a road trip on so long! And I’ve never been on one with Jacktrap and Yvette!” Gortys said.

“Well, Yvette’s still recovering from surgery, and Rhys has…things to do here,” Vaughn said, giving Rhys a cautious look.

Rhys again had the prickly, irritating feeling of being nannied.

“I could go,” he said.

“No, Rhys, don’t you think your time is better spent here,” Vaughn said, giving him a very meaningful look. Rhys breathed in through his teeth, stomach hot with irritation.

Why did everyone act like he was goddamn helpless?

“Oh, I don’t know, why don’t you tell me how to spend my time Vaughn,” he said, the words out of his mouth before he could even think them through, “I clearly need the instruction.”

Ha, wow, you are just the greatest friend in the world, ain’t you?

He saw Yvette and Sasha exchange look, Sasha frowning and Yvette shrugging one shoulder. Fiona looked at the floor.

Vaughn looked at him, hurt, even if he tried to hide it. Rhys refused to feel guilty. If Vaughn he thought he didn’t know damn well that Vaughn had been practically monitoring him every second of the day, he must really think Rhys was an idiot.

Finally, Vaughn sighed, dragging a hand down his face.

“Rhys, I’m not telling you what to do. You can go if you want, but don’t you think…staying here for now might be the more rational decision?” he said.

“I know that,” Rhys said, “I’m just saying. I could have went. But you know, I’ve decided to stay here. Me. I decided that.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. The women looked at one another, bewildered. Vaughn fidgeted. Jack watched them all as though they were a very entertaining television show.

Way to fucking go, Rhys. Really put your foot down, there. Right into a pile of cow shit.

Or, silence for everyone else. Rhys didn’t get a lot of silence lately.

Finally, Gortys gave a little cough.

“Uuuh, okay! So now…whatever that was is over, let’s see. How about…Fiona and Sasha and Loader go to the Atlas facility, and the rest of us stay here to finish the rest of the machine!” Gortys said.

“Me and Sasha?” Fiona repeated, her voice high and panicked. She had been avoiding Sasha almost as much as he had.

“Yeah, well, you guys don’t really like this engineer-y stuff, but you do like to shoot things!” Gortys said, “Pluuuus…I noticed you guys haven’t really spent much time together lately, and you’re family! It’s very important for you to have quality time!”

“Mmmngh,” Fiona said, doing a remarkable job of screaming with her mouth closed.

“Did you read that in one of Rhys’s books too?” Sasha asked.

“It is the most logical choice,” Vaughn pointed out, rubbing a hand through his beard.

Yvette raised a hand.

“Yes, Yvette?” Gortys said.

“I want to be on the away team,” she said, giving Rhys a nasty look. He bristled – like it even mattered if they were on the station together without Sasha and Fiona. There was only like a million other people on Helios they could put between them instead. “With Sasha and her sister.”

“MMMMMMMNNNNNNGH,” Fiona said.

“Ha, I’m behind this idea. It sounds hilarious,” Jack commented, “A woman, her sister, and the girl fingering her sister.”

Fiona kicked Jack over.

“Er, Yvette, you…are still recovering you know,” Sasha said, turning to Yvette. They glanced at others and walked away to have a quick, quiet conversation. Rhys strained to eavesdrop, but between Jack and Fiona yelling at each other, he couldn’t catch a word.

Finally, the two women turned back to the group.

“Sasha goes, I’ll stay,” Yvette said, shrugging, “It’d be stupid to run off after I’ve just had major surgery. Unlike some people, I don’t have super healing powers.”

Rhys wasn’t sure how the hell she had managed to turn that into an insult, exactly, but she sure as hell made it sound like one. Before he could bite back, Vaughn interrupted, clapping his hands together with an enormous boom.

“Right! Okay, great. So, Rhys, you come up with a list of whatever they need to bring back, and the girls will leave tomorrow,” he said, his voice strained and his jaw tense. Rhys felt a cold stab of guilt in his gut.

Ever notice how your buddy there was doing great until you exploded back into his life?

Rhys bit the inside of his cheek hard, willing whatever hell was in his head to feel it too.

“Rhys, why do you look like you’re going to crap yourself?” Fiona interrupted, making him jump. He hadn’t even noticed her come back towards him. She frowned at him, “Are you trying to practice your with powers again?”

“Oh. Uh. No,” he said, “And hey. I made my arm glow a few days ago. I’m getting there!”

“Yep, you’ve got a really thrilling career as a nightlight ahead of you,” she replied, rolling her eyes, “Next time I want to crack open a Vault, I’ll take you with me to provide the ambiance lighting.”

“Hilarious,” Rhys said, “Well, you’ll be sorry when I’m teleporting around, deflecting bullets with my mind. All like, pssshoh, psshoooo, pa-kow, boom boom.”

“What’re the booms?” Fiona asked.

“…That’s me throwing, you know, barrels of slag with my mind too,” he said, “Just straight into flaming bandit rigs, boom.”

“You’re a moron,” she said, and then looked back at Sasha and Yvette, who were in easy conversation about something or another, Yvette letting her clipboard rest in her lap, Sasha grinning. Fiona looked at Rhys and then at Yvette pointedly. “So. Anyway. What is this about.”

“What?”

“You know her better than me,” she said, “What’s Yvette doing?”

“Uuuuh,” Rhys said, looking at them, “I…think she’s dating your sister.”

“Yes, but why?”

“She’s cool? Pretty? Moral? Funny? A total badass? There’s a lot of reasons,” he said, and then caught the icy look Fiona was giving him. He lifted his hands in self-defence, hoping that Fiona didn’t see fit to punch him just for pointing out that her baby sister was, yes, a total catch, “Look, Fi, Yvette screwed us over really badly. But I just…first off, if she’s up to something, Sasha can handle herself. And second of all, I’m…not totally sure she is.”

“And you’re…just…okay with this,” Fiona said, gesturing vaguely in Sasha’s direction, “Really?”

“I’m fine, Fi.”

“Really? I mean, shouldn’t you be all…I dunno, macho grr furious? Trying to win her back? Isn’t that how it works with you people?”

Rhys raised an eyebrow.

“You people?” he repeated, unsure whether or not to be offended, and on what count.

“People who…date and stuff,” Fiona said, as though she thought the very idea was completely ludicrous, “Didn’t you say you liked her?”

Rhys sighed.

“I like a lot of people, Fi. It’s fine,” he said, rolling his eyes, “And we’re not fifteen. We weren’t even dating, we were just kind of dancing around the idea for a while back there. I’m fine.”

“You know, every time you say ‘I’m fine’, your voice gets like…a tiny bit higher pitched? I think eventually only skags are going to be able to hear it,” Fiona said, frowning at him.

“...Well, I’m sure I’ll get over it, anyway” he said, “I…would have preferred not to have seen them having sex though.”

“Me too,” Fiona said, looking faintly ill at the thought.

“You know, if I get over it, you really should,” Rhys pointed out, “I mean, really, are you just going to loom over your little sister until you both die old maids?”

“Alright, first of all. I am going to die a very rich, successful maid,” she said, holding up one finger, “And second of all. Shut up.”

Rhys smirked at her.

“I’m right.”

“It’s awful. You get this look on your face,” Fiona said, “Like a cat that just knocked a glass of water off the table. You know, Rhys, it’s because you make faces like that people punch you so often.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, making a focused effort to remove any resemblance to smug felines from his face, “And I get punched so often because I rock the boat, Fi, I challenge the status quo. People may not like it, but it’s the mark of a great leader.”

“And because you say things like that. Like, you saying that made me instantly want to punch you in the teeth.”

“Thanks.”

They paused again, watching Yvette and Sasha chat and flirt, Vaughn and Gortys talk strategy and next moves and resources, and Jack thrash around on the floor like an upturned turtle. A really, really murderous upturned turtle.

“One of us should probably pick him up,” Rhys said, nodding towards Jack. Fiona gave him an odd look, one she always gave him when he brought up Jack. Part pity, part disgust, part something else – as though she was working away at some tricky problem inside her own head. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what that was.

“Your turn,” she said.

Chapter Text

“I don’t think your sister likes me,” Yvette said, after they returned to Sasha’s apartment later that evening (their apartment, Yvette kept finding herself thinking, and kept furiously mentally chastising herself for).

Sasha rubbed the back of her neck.

“Yeah, well, don’t take it too personally,” she said, “In our line of work it’s…”

“Not a good idea to trust too easily?” Yvette finished for her. Sasha looked at her and then smiled sadly, rubbing a finger over her earlobe.

“Yeah,” she sighed, and sat down on the couch, folding her legs beneath her and running her hand up and down her forearm, “It…can get a little exhausting, honestly. Constantly weighing up who to trust and the risks and what they know and don’t know and – “

She paused, looking at Yvette.

“Guess you’d know, though, right?” she said, resting her cheek against the back of the sofa.

“Yeah,” Yvette replied, finally sitting down and resting her cheek on her palm, her elbow propped up against the back of the couch, “Still, ain’t easy to not take it personally. She looked like she was gonna hurl every time she looked at me.”

“Yeah, she’s being kind of ridiculous,” Sasha said, and took off her headbands and pulled out hairclips, shaking her hair loose. It fell in thick waves just over her shoulders. Yvette had the insipid urge to reach out and touch it. “You know, I blame Rhys. I bet they’ve been talking about me the whole time they were on that stupid island. Thinking I’d swoon into his arms or something.”

“Iiiis…that really something Fiona would want?” Yvette asked, frowning. She didn’t really know much about Fiona – she and Rhys were definitely friends, she’d seen them together enough to prove that, but she also seemed to think he was a complete jackass. It didn’t exactly follow that Fiona would want to give her blessing to Rhys’s stupid crush on Sasha.

Although maybe she just thought he was just a better option than Yvette.

“She still thinks I’m, like, ten. So probably not,” Sasha replied, “It’s weird though, seeing her again. The longest we’ve ever been apart and we just stood shouting at each other.

“You were naked,” Yvette reminded her helpfully.

“I was naked,” Sasha agreed, “That…didn’t help. Kind of funny though. You know, in retrospect.”

And mortifying. A year ago, Yvette would have rather died than have a bunch of people walk in on her doing that, but.

“Kind of funny,” she agreed, smiling.  Sasha laughed, and Yvette could feel her breath on her shoulder, hot and quick, and she felt her brain dissolving quickly into a stupid wet mush. Maybe the stupidity-atmosphere on Helios was getting to her. It would certainly explain a few things.

Sasha finally stopped giggling, sitting up and rubbing her neck with the palm of her hand.

“So, uh, yeah, that aside, I’m starving, should we call the kitchens again or make something here or –“

Something banged hard against the door.

“Hey, Sash?” called a voice from the other side, “Uh. You, um. Home?”

Fiona.

Right.

Shit,” Sasha hissed, and seized Yvette’s arm, dragging her across to the bathroom. Yvette barely managed a single indignant syllable before Sasha slapped a hand over her mouth, her expression deadly.

“Just hide for now!” she hissed.

“What? Why?” Yvette whispered back, “This is ridiculous! I mean…your sister carries an eyeball in her pocket and that’s terrifying but…”

“Listen. When I lost my virginity, Fiona shot the guy involved,” Sasha said, “I mean, that’s not too uncommon on Pandora but –“

“She shot him?” Yvette repeated, her voice swelling in pitch, “She shot someone for that?”

“Just hide in the bathroom for now, okay?” she said, “I mean, she hasn’t been that bad since we were teenagers, but, hey –“

“I’m sorry, your sister shot your boyfriend, and that’s just…a thing that happened?” Yvette repeated, still not quite able to just accept that.

Yes, it’s Pandora, these things happen. And he didn’t die. Yvette, really,” Sasha said, rolling her eyes, as though Yvette was having a very silly overreaction to a very mundane happenstance, “Go. In. The damn. Bathroom.”

Deciding it was best to go along with it for now, Yvette allowed herself to be pushed into the bathroom, Sasha closing the door as quietly as she could behind her. For good measure, Yvette turned the lock as well.

“Yeah, I’m here!” Sasha called, sounding convincingly casual. She’d probably had a lot of practice, really, Yvette thought, as she slid to the cold bathroom floor, wrapping her arms around her knees.

She heard the sound of the door sliding open, a pair of boots making hollow noises against the smooth floor. The sisters were silent for a few seconds.

“So…” Fiona began.

Yvette could already imagine Sasha’s face – scowling, arms folded, tilting her head with that ‘Well what?’ look she had perfected so well. For all Fiona was her sister, she had a feeling Sasha was going to take it easy on her for it.

“…Is Yvette here?” she continued finally.

“She’s in her office,” Sasha said frostily.

“Right.”

Another silence. Yvette found herself reading the shampoo label from a bottle lying at the bottom of the shower. Finally, Fiona spoke:

“Okay, so. I’ve been kind of acting like an asshole.”

“You don’t say.”

Yvette smirked.

“Look, I just flipped, okay? I was really tired, we’d nearly been killed by a bunch of Eridians, and then I come here and you’re…you’re not even there, Sash. You’re not there helping or waiting for me, you’re just gone,” Fiona said, the words coming out very fast, “And then you’re just…come on. You’re my baby sister. How was I meant to not flip out?”

“I’m not a baby,” Sasha reminded her quietly. Fiona fell silent.

“Yeah,” she said, after a moment, “Guess not.”

“And…Fi, you being gone hasn’t been easy,” Sasha said slowly, each word sounding strained, “You know we’ve never spent this long apart?”

“I know,” Fiona said, and then with a note of incredulity, “You saw the idiots I was stuck with, right? It wasn’t exactly a picnic for me.”

“I know, but. Look, just, I ended up doing a lot of thinking and readjusting and – okay, this is gonna make me sound like…literally the worst person in the world, but there was kind of a moment where I didn’t want you to come back.”

Yvette sat up, pressing her ear against the door. She knew Sasha and Fiona’s relationship was a little more complicated than it initially appeared, but. How much stuff did Sasha keep buried, exactly?

“…Well. That makes me feel just great, Sasha. Thanks.”

“No, I mean – urgh! Not properly. Just. I’d gotten comfortable. And then I knew you’d come back, and you’d want to go off Vault Hunting or whatever, and I’d get pulled along because that’s what happens, and –“ Sasha trailed off and sighed, and Yvette heard the flump of a sofa cushion being hit with a weight, “It was just for a minute. I just. We’re starting to do different things, Fi. That gap might just get wider, and then eventually we’ll be going different ways. I didn’t think you were ready to deal with it.”

“Well, are you?”

Sasha laughed.

“No way.”

“Ha.”

They fell silent again. Yvette fidgeted, trying to get comfortable, and wondering when the hell Fiona would leave. As much as she wanted Sasha to make up with her sister, the idea of spending the next few hours crouched on the bathroom floor trying not to breathe too loudly wasn’t enormously appealing.

Plus, she really was hungry.

“You hungry?” Fiona said suddenly, “It’s crazy, but according to the Children of Helios, Moxxi’s Pizza actually deliver here. Rhys gets all weird whenever someone brings Moxxi up, though, so I haven’t got to try it yet.”

“I know, we’ve, uh. Kind of used them a lot,” Sasha said, “Me and Yvette, I mean.”

Yvette felt her pulse quicken at the mention of her name. There was no way they wouldn’t have to talk about her.

In a tiny, very egotistical, very Rhys-ish way, she’d been almost looking forward to it. What was she expecting, exactly, to hear Sasha sing her praises, or Fiona miraculously admit that she had been totally wrong and give her goddamn blessing? Stupid.

“…Right,” Fiona said slowly, “Sasha, really, what are you –“

“Fi, you don’t even know her,” Sasha said.

“Sasha, you’ve said that like…a billion times about a million different people,“ Fiona said, and Yvette tensed, “She’s screwed us over once. Who’s to say she won’t do it again?”

“Well, you’re cosy enough with that Claptrap, Fi,” Sasha came back, before Fiona could even finish her sentence, “You know? The guy who tried to kill all of us, and ruined our entire planet?

Fiona huffed, sounding as if she had been hoping that little detail wouldn’t come up.

“I put up with him because Rhys forces me to. I didn’t exactly have much choice back in the Vault – I had to get used to him,” Fiona said, and then added, “You will be surprised how boring an argument about attempted murder can get after you’ve heard it a billion times.”

“Mm, nnno, actually, I don’t think I would be,” Sasha said. Yvette fiddled with her glasses.

“And listen, Jacktrap and Handsome Jack just. Aren’t even exactly the same guy. He’s a piece of software. Handsome Jack hasn’t actually come back from the dead.”

“Just…sounds like you’re rationalising to me, Fi,” Sasha said, sounding unconvinced, “I mean, it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck –“

“Any idiot can make something that sounds like Handsome Jack. All you need is a few recordings of his voice – and there’s more than enough of those to go around,” Fiona replied, “…Also. What’s a duck?”

“I’ll…show you later,” Sasha mumbled.

“Look, a conversation about Jacktrap will take like, a whole night, and you’re better off asking Rhys, the stupid thing is his obsession, so…maybe with your girlfriend hiding in the bathroom, it’s not the time,” she said instead.

Yvette stiffened. Girlfriend? Had either of them actually used the G-word before now? Did they now actually have to have a conversation about it? Was it reasonable for her to just climb out of the bathroom window and run?

“Uuuuh, what?” Sasha said, and it was convincing, actually. She sounded genuinely perplexed.

“Sash, your thumb still twitches when you lie,” Fiona said, “It’s a pretty big tell. Felix used to nag you about it all the time.”

“I’m…working on it,” Sasha muttered, and then called out more loudly, “Yvette! Jig’s up, come out of the bathroom.”

Yvette stood, swearing under her breath as she fumbled with the lock, and opened the bathroom door. Fiona and Sasha turned to look at her from the couch – Sasha smiling, Fiona still squinting and wary and looking very much like she still wanted to shoot her.

Yet in her hands wasn’t her gun, but an ECHOcomm; the borderline-pornographic website of Moxxi’s Pizza on the screen.

“So. What do you want?” Fiona said, a forced smile on her face. Judging by the way Sasha was beaming at both of them, this was her actually trying.

 

Lilith throws out her arms, tattoos blazing and a snarl curving her lips, and the world splits with a flash of light. She vanishes, and for a second the bandits are startled, fumbling with their guns. She emerges behind one, bursts his head with a single blast of her shotgun, and then she is blazing again, vanishing into the thin air. The bandits can’t keep up, they are screaming and hurling themselves at her, but she’s fast, and brutal. Her teammates barely need to lift a finger.

Loader Bots equipped with machine guns and shields, and bodies loaded heavy with explosives bear down on Maya. She is tiny amongst them, but keeps her feet firm and her spine straight. The camera shakes, the image is blurred, but there is just the suggestion of a smile. She clenches her fist and glows, and the Loaders are in the air, captured in rips in the world. She and her team shed them apart with machine gun fire. As pieces of metal rain from the sky, blackened and bullet-ridden, Maya only pushes a single blue hair back into place.

Gritting his teeth, Rhys clicked on the next ‘REAL SIREN FOOTAGE!!!!1’ video, hoping that it would be more illuminating.

The next one was just a blur of blue flashes and exploding Hyperion soldiers.

Most of them were like that.

And there was nothing, not a single damn thing in any of the videos Rhys had managed to find that gave him even the tiniest hint of how Lilith and Maya were pulling any of this off. They just moved, and glowed, and then tore the world apart around them as though it was nothing.

All Rhys had learned, really, from watching these videos over and over is that Handsome Jack had been completely insane to even consider messing with either of these women. Rhys wouldn’t as much as breathe in their presence unless they’d told him it was okay.

Huffing, Rhys snatched up the small piece of eridium Dickfeeder had managed to find him from the counter, rubbing it between his palms. It was warm, tingling down to his wrist and up to his elbow, and he felt himself calm down; shoulders slumping, spine softening, the knot in his chest loosening.

Although, he had been meaning to save that piece. Damnit.

Well, when was self-control ever your deal?

“Shut up,” Rhys muttered, closing the ECHOnet and trying to reconsider his options. It wasn’t like he could talk to either Sirens – for one, he had no idea where either of them were, and for another, they would probably take one look at him and tear him to shreds.

What he needed, really, was to talk to Jack about Angel. There wasn’t anybody else who had dealt with a Siren so closely, even if the circumstances hadn’t exactly been great. And there certainly wasn’t anyone else who had ever studied one.

He glanced over at where Jack was, by the looks of it, playing some kind of bizarre game with Gortys. Judging by the size of the firearm Loader Bot was pointing at him, he didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter.

“Okay, so, I still find it a liiiittle hard to tell what humans mean by their faces sometimes, so Vaughn leant me these!” she explained, holding up a laminated flash card, “And I think they might help you, too!”

On the card, Rhys saw the image of a human face – genderless, with hair, neck, and shoulders cropped out – the lips pursed into a puzzled ‘o’, eyes scrunched and eyebrows pressed into two confused lines. Vaughn used to use similar stuff in elementary school.

“So, Jacktrap, what is this?” Gortys continued, gesturing at the card.

Jack folded his arms.

“A flash card.”

“Yeess…but what’s on the flash card?”

“A face.”

“Okay, yes, that’s right. It’s a face. But what does the face look like its feeling?” Gortys continued, with a frankly staggering amount of patience.

“…Who cares,” Jack said.

“Um. Well. It’s ‘confusion’, but that’s okay! It’s a hard one. Maybe we should start you with easier ones…” Gortys said, reshuffling the cards.

Rhys couldn’t have a conversation about Angel with Gortys and Loader Bot around. Although a year ago he wouldn’t have thought twice about having a private conversation in front of them, if there was one thing he’d learned recently, it was that thinking of them as just robots was a huge mistake.

Though, he supposed, if he really wanted to, he could find an excuse to get rid of them.

Yet every time he thought about Angel, really thought about her, a big hole opened up in the pit of his stomach, and he found himself thinking of the girl sitting on his desk in his cubicle, fiddling with a Rubiks cube, little blobs of blue nail polish on the end of her fingers, chipped. And no matter what he did, he always remembered himself inside of that scene, never as an outside observer. Despite what he knew, it never felt like Jack in that seat.

RHYS LOOKS LIKE THE CARD FOR ‘INTERNALLY CONFLICTED’ RIGHT NOW.

Rhys jumped at the sound of Loader Bot’s voice, and became aware that the robots were staring at him.

“What, you trying to make something float with your brain again there, buddy?” Jack said. Rhys gave him a look.

“Yeah,” he said, “Look I was watching those battle video again, and all they do is like –“

Rhys made a swiping motion with his arms.

“And then just like…boom. How does that even work?”

Jack sighed, antennae drooping back and forth languidly.

“Rhys. Rhys, Rhys, Rhys,” he said, in a tone of exasperated fondness, “Now, really, buddy. It’s obvious to me what the problem is. You are thinking about this way too much.”

“Really,” Rhys said dryly, hands on his hips. Jack zipped towards him, grabbing his cybernetic wrist and holding it up.

“Really. See, this is the problem with you soft suburban types. None of you can throw a punch, because it’s all ‘Oooh, what if I break a nail, what if I bruise my knuckles, oh deary me’! So you throw these limp-wristed little punches, and wonder why your boxercise coach ain’t even impressed with you,” he explained, twisting Rhys’s hand between his.

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, your type are so terrified of breaking something, that you never put your all into it,” he said, curling Rhys’s fingers into a fist with a few gentle clicks, “You are just way too attached to that body of yours. Look, if it gets broken, or hurt, you fix it. A body is a tool, Rhys.”

Rhys snatched his hand away, pulling it out of Jack’s reach. For one, it was incredible of Jack to accuse him of being too scared of hurting himself to act. Just plain fucking incredible. For another.

“That’s sick,” he snapped, “Is that why you thought you could just…step in and use my body first chance you got? It’s just a tool?”

“Woah, woah, Rhys, are you still sore about that?” Jack said, holding out his palms, “I mean, really, pumpkin. Ancient history.”

“I still think about it, yeah,” Rhys admitted fiercely.

“Hey, Rhys?” Gortys interrupted, earnestly puzzled, “I don’t really get why what he said was so bad.”

I ALSO…AM STRUGGLING TO SEE THE ISSUE, Loader Bot agreed, albeit reluctanctly.

Rhys looked between them, still cradling his cybernetic wrist in his hand. He sighed, folding his arms.

“You know what, Jack, what do you know. You’ve never had a real body,” he muttered, “Course you don’t get it.”

“What? Course I have. You saw my bod. Even if I was just a smokin’ hot hologram at the time,” Jack said.

“Mm, you know, I don’t even think that was it,” Rhys said, mouth pulled to the side.

“…What do you mean?” he said, tone suggesting that if Rhys said something he didn’t like in response to his question, Jack would throttle him.

Like that even worked on Rhys any more. It had been a while since he’d even resorted to it.

“Well, if you had been a hologram projected out of my ECHOeye, everyone else would have been able to see you, right?” he said, “But…they couldn’t. Only me. And…you know, come to think of it, I only saw you after I heard your voice.”

“Aaaand your point is?”

“Maybe you only looked like that because that’s what…I and…you, that’s what both of us thought you should look like,” Rhys said, rubbing the side of his head, “You weren’t really there, not…the way you looked like you were. You were just talking in my head and we both just put a face to it because that’s what we expected.”

And you. You. Sound like a crazy person right now.

“Hey, hey, now that’s just – “

“Look, sure, you thought you were seeing things but…how could you? You didn’t have eyes of your own, not real ones, anyway, just sort of…images of eyes,” Rhys continued, unable to stop the train of thought now it had began, even against his best judgements, and the screeching in the back of his skull, “Maybe everything you saw was just, me seeing it, and you reinterpreting it. Even when Vaughn held his fingers up behind his back. Maybe I just saw all those little muscle movements, and then you made the calculations and gave me the best probability.“

“That’s ridiculous! Look, Rhys, by those standards, then maybe I was never in that little ID drive, huh?” Jack said, speaking faster and faster with every word, static leaking into hard consonants, “Hey, you’ve read every single Handsome Jack biography in the freakin’ galaxy, right? Maybe you just cobbled all that together and made me up, hey, like half friggin’ self-inflicted computer virus, half hallucination. Who knows, right!”

The image sprung into his mind, unbidden, of a trapped animal, suddenly realising that it was suffocating.

“That…doesn’t sound likely,” Rhys replied slowly, trying not to take that little freak-out at face value. It sounded like the kind of thing Jack would say to psyche him out. Yet Rhys couldn’t help but wonder.

“Uh. Well, look, I can’t believe I’m asking this,” he continued, “But are you…okay?”

“Huh, what?” Jack said, voice snapping back to normal so quickly it made Rhys question whether he’d just imagined that little rant or not. Some doubt must have shown on his face, because Jack continued, louder and cockier than he’d heard him in ages.

“Hey, sweetheart, come on, you don’t gotta worry about me. You’re talking to Handsome frickin’ Jack, remember?”

“…Ah, right. How could I forget.”

 

“Right, so I know you guys are just going for the bio-samples, but, hey, if you see any of this stuff, grab it.” Rhys said, thrusting a list in Fiona’s face. Fiona and Sasha both squinted at it. Rhys had tried to supply illustrations where possible, but he had no doubt that they’d still complain about the amount of ‘techy crap’ on it.

“Riiight, so, this is just about the nerdiest shopping list I’ve ever seen,” Sasha said, leaning against the door of a caravan, her eyebrows raising and an awkward smile gracing her face. Rhys, despite himself, gave her a dumb grin back, his gut doing a few uncomfortable backflips.

He felt Yvette glaring at him from the other side of the room, and quickly rearranged his face to look as neutral as possible.

Sasha cleared her throat.

Fiona coughed.

“Hey, just trying to cover our bases! We’re kind of attempting something really crazy here, so, you know, every little helps,” Rhys said, far louder than was remotely necessary.

“Trying something crazy…yeah, not like us at all,” Sasha said, shaking her head and folding up the list, tucking it into her inside pocket.

“Well, how else would we spend our time?” Fiona said, shrugging as she climbed into the caravan, Sasha following her. Loader Bot was already inside, seated at the driving seat and fiddling with the radio – a radio that Rhys was fairly certain hadn’t existed when he left.

“So, why aren’t you people just using Fast Travel again?” Jack interrupted from behind them. It felt like the billionth time he’d asked - it was genuinely hard to tell if Jack was being deliberately annoying, or just had kind of a bad memory. It wouldn’t surprise him if Jack wasn’t sure himself.

“I told you, after certain people brought all of Helios down,” Fiona explained, “Most of them went offline. From what I heard, that caused chaos almost as much as anything else.”

“I’d really not want you guys using those things anyway,” Vaughn piped up. Both Rhys and Yvette groaned.

“What, why?” Sasha asked, “I mean…they’re expensive, but –“

“Vaughn has a…thing, with Fast Travel stations,” Rhys explained

“It’s not a thing. It is a very reasonable concern!” he replied, “Listen, when you use a Fast Travel station, you’re essentially digitised, right? So, your body’s broken into molecules and then copied, and spat out the other end.”

“…That…is how Fast Travel stations work, yes,” Sasha said. Rhys could see Yvette’s eyes practically rolling into the back of her head, and he couldn’t help but agree. Normally you needed to get Vaughn drunk before he would go on about this.

“Well, listen, essentially when it rips you up, you die, right? It’s not as though it actually sends you through the wires. It just spits out a copy at the other end that looks and acts exactly like you,” he continued, “I mean, sure, nobody’s ever been able to prove that they’re different. But nobody’s proven they’re the same either. There’s also no proof that your actual consciousness survives. It could be a totally different, I don’t know, entity at the other end, that just looks and sounds the same.”

“You can’t believe everything you read on the ECHOnet, Vaughn,” Rhys said. Especially not if it was delivered on the kind of website that had bright orange Comic Sans text on a black background, and spinning gifs next to every paragraph.

“Wait, so you think people die every time they use a Fast Travel machine, and then it just...makes this new person that’s indistinguishable from the original at the other end, and nobody notices?” Sasha said slowly, and Rhys wasn’t sure if the alarm in her voice was about the idea, or the fact Vaughn was so convinced by it.

“But…I’ve used them a bunch of times,” Fiona said quietly, and then fell silent for a moment, gnawing on her lip, “Ah, whatever. Who cares.”

“Attagirl, Hat. Best way to deal with these things,” Jack commented.

“Look, those things just makes me a little uncomfortable, and I’d prefer you didn’t use them,” Vaughn said in his most reasonable tone of voice.

“Right, well,” Sasha said, “We’ll just drive, then.”

“Hey, and uh, if you see any eridium –“ Rhys began.

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll pick it up for you, junkie,” Fiona said, swatting Rhys on the shoulder. Which, from Fiona, was pretty much a hug.

“Oh, hold on, I just thought,” Rhys said, and looked over to where Dickfeeder was sitting on a crate of hair gel, “Hey, buddy, come here, will you? Hey!”

After a few minutes of embarrassing gesturing and tongue-clicking, the Eridian finally noticed and buzzed over, hovering in front of Rhys with an air of concerned curiosity. Possibly they thought he was having a stroke or something.

“Take Dickfeeder with you,” he said to Sasha and Fiona.

“The Eridian?” Sasha said, leaning away from the alien as though they had cooties, “What, why?”

“They’re good at finding eridium, they can fly, teleport,” Rhys explained, “I mean…this would all be much more helpful if we had any way of talking to them, but, well, they usually figure stuff out.”

“Huh. You know, that’s not a totally dumbass idea,” Fiona admitted.

“I do have them occasionally.”

“Right, come here, buddy, come on, come up here,” Fiona said, patting her forearm like a falconer inviting her animal to come perch. Dickfeeder gave her a dubious look, and Rhys got the bizarre sense that they did’t exactly enjoy being patronised.

All the same, they seemed to get the gist and rushed straight past Fiona into the caravan, making themselves at home on the couch. Sasha watched it, frowning.

“Right…well, I guess we can take the little guy along,” she said slowly, with a tone that inferred she was very much thinking about having both Rhys and Fiona committed.

Standing at the doorway, Rhys looked between Fiona and Sasha, suddenly feeling very stupid and awkward. It wasn’t so bad with Sasha when Fiona was there to act as a buffer, but lately it felt like it was all those months ago when they had all first met each other, and he had no idea how to deal with the fact that the people who lived on Pandora were like…real people. With feelings. Who were likeable. Rather than just frothing-at-the-mouth dirty bandits better off blasted off the surface of the planet.

Man, he used to be such a goddamn asshole.

“So. Uh. Be careful?” he said finally.

“Hah, please,” Fiona said.

“We’ll be fine, Dad, stop worrying,” Sasha said, rolling her eyes, “We’ve only lived on this planet like. Our entire lives. We’ll be back in a few days.”

“Have fun, guys!” Gortys crowed, waving enthusiastically at them, “Ooh, bring me something back! Like a souvenir!”

“Sure, Gortys, whatever you want,” Fiona said, practically simpering. Rhys rolled his eyes. Honestly.

“You need to stop spoiling her,” Rhys said.

“Oh, like you don’t.”

“You two spend waaaaay too much time together,” Sasha said, shaking her head.

“…Do not,” Rhys argued feebly. Although, really, maybe Sasha had a point. Between being dragged around by Loader Bot so long, and spending all that time in the Vault, he and Fiona had spent far more time together that was normal It was probably best they were splitting up for a while – the sisters would have time to reconnect, he and Fiona would start to get used to not spending every single waking moment together.

Plus, maybe with Fiona gone, Rhys would have a chance to have a proper conversation with Jack about Angel. He really needed to get the non-bullshit-y details on how, exactly, people like him worked.

Because…talking about Angel was totally an idea he really relished. It didn’t make him feel confused and disoriented and weirdly, disproportionately sad at all.

“Well, see you in a few days, guys,” Sasha said, and Yvette bolted forward to say goodbye, as though she’d been debating about whether or not to do the whole time they were there. Rhys stepped away and turned away, carefully avoiding looking at them. While he was basically fine with the whole thing, he didn’t exactly want to see the two of them making out or whatever. Which was fine for them. He just didn’t want to see it.

But yeah. Basically fine.

After a hushed conversation between Yvette and Sasha, which Rhys attempted not to hear to the best of his abilities, the caravan was backing out of Helios and into the Pandoran deserts. They watched as it turned, beeped, and disappeared into the blistering sands.

Rhys glanced over to see Yvette looking at him, her arms folded, looking as though she was trying to solve a difficult calculation in her head. For a second, Rhys thought he would hear an apology, or Yvette would at least extend some kind of olive branch, and he almost felt himself opening his mouth to say it first.

Instead, she stared at him, scrutinising him the way he’d seen her analyse all sorts of colleagues and clients over the years, trying to pin them down as a sucker, a threat, or a potential ally. Most people fell in the former two categories.

“Can we walk?” she said.

“Walk?” he repeated.

“And talk,” Yvette clarified.

“Have something you want to say to me?”

“…Yeah.”

“Well,” Rhys said, feeling his lips curve into a smirk, “It’s about time.”

Yvette turned away, sighing, and gestured for him to follow her.

 

Yvette really didn’t know where to begin. Without even looking at him, she knew he was just smirking away behind her, fully expecting Yvette to turn and grovel at his feet for forgiveness. As if Rhys wouldn’t have done exactly what she did in their position, as if she could have possibly anticipated that he and Vaughn would survive a trip to Pandora. There was only a one in a million chance they’d last the first few hours, really.

And if she hadn’t sent Loader Bot down when she did, they wouldn’t have even lasted the first twenty minutes.

They wound their way through the corridors and up in the elevator, standing in silence all the way up, before finally reaching Yvette’s office. She tapped in her code into the panel by the door, and they slid open with a mechanical clunk and whirr. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rhys frown, clearly not sure why they were here.

“I haven’t brought you here to apologise, Rhys,” she said, to fill the broadening silence. Rhys folded his arms, head tilted to the side. He was starting to regain weight, lately, but there was still something a little off. He looked pale, and the swipes of blue on his chest were brighter than they used to be, working their way up his collarbone and just brushing the curve of his neck. Yvette swore his organic eye looked different too, somehow.

Bizarrely, she wasn’t sure if he exactly looked unhealthy. She wasn’t sure what he looked like.

“Well that sounds ominous,” he said, all swagger as usual. That much hadn’t changed. “Should I start running? And…when did you start carrying a gun?”

“You’re the only one on Pandora who doesn’t, Rhys,” she said, looking at his hip. On any half-sane resident of Pandora, a gun should be sitting there. Rhys had nothing. She couldn’t understand that. He shrugged, as though his habit of wandering around one of the most dangerous planets in the galaxy completely unarmed was neither here nor there.

“Never liked them much. And, you know, I have people to do that kind of thing for me,” he said, “So. Why aren’t you apologising?”

Yvette sighed, half-covering her face with her hand. Sometimes she forgot how Rhys could be a goddamn dog with a goddamn bone when he wanted to.

“…Because, you know what, after the kind of things we’ve done to each other, what does saying ‘sorry’ mean, really,” she said finally. Rhys stared at her, but she couldn’t read his expression. Angry, disappointed, confused? It was hard to tell. Either way, the answer was enough to shut him up.

Yvette swallowed and continued. She could ask why he wasn’t apologising, but that would just open the door to an argument, and she was tired of arguing with him. It never got anywhere. Maybe he felt better afterwards, but she didn’t.

“Look, I want to talk to you about that…thing you brought back,” she said. Rhys squinted at her.

“Dickfeeder?”

“…What?” she replied, before she managed to remember what the hell Rhys was talking about, “No, not the alien! Also, really, Rhys, who named the poor thing?”

“…I was opposed, but that’s the only thing they answer to now,” Rhys said, rubbing the back of his neck, “Uh. Sort of, anyway.”

“Look, you know who this is about!” Yvette snapped, and then took a breath, trying to speak calmly, to hold her cool just for goddamn once, “And I just –“

“You just what?” he bit back.

“You don’t know what you’re getting into,” she continued, trying her best to keep her composure, but Rhys could erode people’s patience like nobody else she had ever met. Sometimes she marvelled at the fact she’d managed to tolerate him so much for so goddamn long.

Rhys looked at her icily.

“Wow, really? I’m sorry, who nearly got killed by him, again? Who lived with him in his head for weeks on end? And who, in the end, was the one to beat him?” Rhys said, evenly, but dangerously, and Yvette had the distinct feeling of prodding at something red and sore, “I know what I’m dealing with, Yvette. I don’t know why everyone thinks I can’t –“

“Handsome Jack had a daughter, Rhys,” Yvette interrupted, and something in Rhys’s expression slackened, his eyes widening and his jaw dropping open. For a second, she thinks she’s hit home, then something in his expression hardens, and there’s a defensiveness there she wasn’t expecting, almost weirdly hurt.

“How did you know about Angel?”

“What?”

“Yeah, I know about her, Yvette. I’m not stupid,” he said, “He had a daughter, things went…wrong. She’s dead. It’s…it’s bad, I know.”

“Do you, Rhys?” she said, unsure whether to feel sorry for him or throttle him, “Do you know how bad it got?”

Rhys fell silent, mouth pressed closed. Yvette swallowed and gestured to the computer on her desk, dropping Rhys’s gaze.

“Look, when we were looking for you, we retrieved Handsome Jack’s computer from his office,” she said, her breath closing tight in her throat, “There’s…some stuff on there about her. I think you should see it.”

“Why?”

“Rhys, look, Handsome Jack was your hero, blah blah blah, you think that thing is your friend, whatever, but there’s stuff Handsome Jack did that –“

“No, I mean, why do you care?” Rhys said.

Yvette had been asking herself much the same question. As much as she told herself it was in everyone’s wider interests, or maybe just to destroy what little confidence Rhys had in his hero, that probably wasn’t it.

When it came down to it, a year ago, she would have been more than happy to see Rhys dead.

Now, actually seeing him, she wasn’t so sure. It was far easier to have fantasies of revenge than to actually act them out.

“Just go have a look, jerk,” she said.

Rhys looked at the computer, and for a second Yvette was sure he’d refuse out of nothing but sheer dogged pride, but then his shoulders slumped.

“Fine, look, will you just. Wait outside while I do this?” Rhys said, a desperate look on his face Yvette didn’t quite understand. She knew this would matter to him, but something seemed off.

“Are you kicking me out of my own office?”

“Ye-eees?”

“…Fine,” she said, and then walked back towards the door, “Don’t take too long.”

Rhys moved towards the computer, bending over at the desk but not settling into her chair.

“I won’t,” he said, as the door shut between them.

It maybe wasn’t the best idea in the world, Yvette thought, letting Rhys go nuts in there by himself. It wasn’t like she had been given a particularly good reason to fully trust him yet. For all she knew, he was deleting every incriminating piece of evidence against Handsome Jack, out of some misled loyalty or some wider plan.

For a second, she wanted to barge back in, rip him away from the computer, and give him a good slap upside the head for good measure.

She didn’t.

She wasn’t sure how long he was inside the office, but when the door opened again, he was grey-faced, clutching his stomach with both hands. Yvette would have loved to rub it in his face, but somehow it felt wrong. This was about a girl’s life – not about their stupid argument, or Yvette getting one up over him. It felt cheap, to use her like that.

He looked at her, opening and closing his mouth numbly.

“Thanks,” he said quickly, and then rushed away, leaving Yvette unsure as to what she had just done.

Chapter Text

See, this is what people like you and him do, Rhys. This is the end result of insisting, over and over, that you’re the good guys. A dead girl at the bottom of a poisoned cage. That is what happens.

Here’s what gets me, though, she’s dead, and you’re alive, and he’s alive, and that’s the sickest joke I could ever think of.

Rhys closed his eyes for a second, slumping hard against the wall, just trying to think and settle his stomach and push those images out of his head for five seconds. Yvette had shown him all that, great, sure, fine, whatever, but what did he do with it now?

It wasn’t even news to him. It was all stuff he’d known about, in the loosest, most abstract sense. The sanitised version Jack had, however briefly, divulged. A story he’d maybe only told Rhys to tilt him off-balance, just long enough to worm his way back into his head.

And worse, the even more sanitised version he’d scrubbed up in his head. The explanations and rationalisations and the diluting, all to link the girl with the gap-toothed smile he remembered to the death he only knew about. And to make it cleaner, neater. Something that made Jack and, by extension, him look just a tiny bit better.

You couldn’t even look properly. You barely skimmed the surface of what she went through before that sensitive little stomach of yours gave in.

You coward.

There was a part of him that wanted to go straight to Vaughn, or even call Fiona, and just admit he’d made a mistake. Just say that everything, from keeping that thing alive and bringing it out of suspension, had been nothing short of deluded, and ask for help destroying the thing for good.

The voice - whoever they were – strangely had nothing to offer on that topic. Rhys had the eerie sense that they were just sitting back and watching; as though this were a test he was being put to.

Rhys opened his eyes, and straightened himself up, ignoring the fresh wave of nausea in his gut. He began to walk, avoiding the gaze of everyone he passed until he came across a Child of Helios that looked as though they wouldn’t absolutely pee themselves from being addressed directly by their hero. Rhys tapped on their shoulder, prompting them to jump and drop the stack of papers they were holding.

“Sir! Oh my gosh, you -”

Rhys, for once, was in no mood to be adored.

“Hey, listen, have you seen…” Rhys trailed off, not even sure how to ask, “My Claptrap unit anywhere?”

“The Claptrap?” they replied, scrambling to pick up the scattered sheets of paper, “Well…last I saw, it was with Lady Gortys. I believe they’re in her office, sir.”

“Thanks. Oh, and. Just Rhys is fine,” he said wearily, walking away before the Child of Helios could begin blabbering again.

He took the elevator up, to the highest part of Helios still intact. A few Children of Helios waved or called his name as he passed them in the hall, but Rhys didn’t stop. He tapped open the door – Gortys never locked it, declared she had an ‘open-door policy’ – and stepped in.

Inside, Jack was pouring over some blueprints, making adjustments and muttering to himself, Gortys providing her own cheerful comments or additions. Gortys gave an ecstatic call of ‘Rhys!’, waving wildly, and Jack looked up, silent.

“Hey,” Rhys said, for some reason, giving a wave back and a smile he really didn’t feel.

“Hey, hey, hey, there’s my main man!” Jack said, loud and bright, “So, you killed Yvette yet? Ha, no, course not. I mean, otherwise you’d be covered in blood, and coming here to give your boy Jack a high five.”

He was in one of his good moods, then. Jack seemed to only ever alternate between manic, unstoppable energy, egocentric grandeur, or a black, all-consuming rage. Anything more moderate sat uncomfortably on him, and he shed it as quickly as it could, as though worried it might sink in if it stayed too long. Drag him down from the realm of comic book theatrics to real person emotions.

Why did he think about this so much, Rhys thought to himself, feeling sick.

“Anyway, listen, I been working on somethin’ that you are just gonna love. Like, hey, we were talking, right, about how exactly we were gonna keep an entire freakin’ land mass under our hoods until we got it all prepped for auction, right?” Jack continued.

It took Rhys a second to realise what he was talking about – some conversation they’d had the other morning, Rhys half-asleep in his cereal, Jack relentlessly imploring him to ‘Wake up faster’.

“So, listen, I was fiddling with my old cloaking tech – you know it doesn’t work on synthetic bodies, can you believe – and I thought, what if we could make a fleet of little drones with this tech?”

“Yeah! If we get the calculations right, position them at key points, we should be able to cloak the entire island from satellite images!” Gortys continued, beaming, “We were just saying you’d be good at figuring the rest of this out.”

“Well, that’s not exactly what I said,” Jack scoffed, “Hey, Rhys, you listening?”

“Mm?”

Jack stared at him. Or at least, the Claptrap Jack was inside stared at him. Was there a difference?

Rhys tried to imagine Jack’s real face and found he couldn’t. He could only picture the face from the poster on his bedroom wall, an airbrushed hero used to sell Hyperion merchandise and bullshitty autobiographies. A face that, really, bore little resemblance to the real man. Not to the man who’d done all of those things to his own daughter, or the gaunt face Rhys had grown used to, carved out of blue pixels and polygons.

Even the room itself looked wrong – as though everything was disconnected from everything else, furniture and walls that didn’t come together, all just parts next to one another, but not forming a whole. It felt like if he stared long enough, even those parts would subdivide further, becoming molecules and atoms and particles, only relevant to each other by happenstance, nothing meaningful binding them together.

He was going to throw up.

“Rhys?”

He looked down to see Gortys looking up at him, concern evident on her face.

She stared at him for a second longer and then wrapped her arms around his legs, butting her face against his stomach.

“Woah, hey, what?” Rhys said, feeling himself wake up, even if only by a fraction.

“You looked sad!” Gortys said, “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Gortys,” he said, patting the top of her head.

“Ha, yeah. You’re looking a little out of it there, bud,” Jack commented, and he almost sounded concerned, and for some reason that made Rhys straighten up and steel his stomach.

“Is Vaughn around?” he asked.

“Muscles? No. Probably off grating cheese on his abs or somethin’.”

“Right,” Rhys replied, and then crouched down to speak to Gortys, “Hey, Gortys, you know, I am feeling a little sick – my belly hurts a lot. So. Think you could do me a big favour?”

Gortys brightened up, as though being asked to do him a favour was the greatest gift Rhys could have possibly given her.

“Of course! What can I do for ya?” she said.

“Think you could get me some medicine? You should be able to get it from Dr Okarafor,” he said, and he could feel Jack squinting at him, trying to figure out what he was up to. Gortys, however, did not seem to think for a second that Rhys might be lying to her.

“Okay! No problem!” she said, and then rushed to the door, “Be back soon! Hope you feel better!”

Rhys smiled thinly at her, waving at her as she left. After the door closed, he turned to Jack. For a second, Rhys swore he saw him wince.

“What’s up with you, Rhys?” he said, tense. Defensive, Rhys noted.

For a second, Rhys had the mad urge to walk to the other side of the desk and sit down there, as though Jack was a mediocre employee he was preparing to chastise. That was pathetic, though - just posturing and continuing the same shit they’d been doing since day one.

Rhys sat cross-legged on the floor opposite him.

“Rhys,” Jack said slowly, and Rhys was sure he wasn’t imagining the unnerved, hesitant note in his voice. He didn’t understand how that could be the case. Jack didn’t do fear, not even in small quantities. Certainly not in regards to him.

“I need to talk to you about something,” he said, folding his arms and frowning.

Jack seemed to relax.

“Right, well, you know me, Rhys. Always a good listener,” he said. Normally Rhys would say something snarky in response, but he just was not in the mood.

“I need you to tell me about Angel,” he continued.

“Oh, right!” Jack replied, much more cheerfully, “Well, it’s like I told you, Rhys, I can’t explain how she did what she did. I mean, data’s a little sparse, bud. There’s only six Sirens in existence, at any one time, and –“

“Wait, what?” Rhys said, startled enough by that little revelation to be thrown off-track, however, briefly, “Six?”

“Yeah, yeah, six.”

“…That doesn’t make sense, Jack,” Rhys said, “You said it was like. Rare genetic mutation. Random. Triggered further by stress and eridium exposure. So…how can there only be six, ever, at once? In the whole galaxy? That’s not science that…that literally is magic.”

“…Listen, Rhys, I can’t remember the exact science behind it from the top of my head, but my Angel never got these things wrong,” Jack said, rankled that Rhys could suggest it.

“Angel told you that,” Rhys said slowly. Something about that…bothered him, although he couldn’t put his finger on why.

“Yes, pumpkin, seriously. Did you hit your head again?”

“Ever considered she might have been lying?” It was out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

“Now why, exactly, would you say that?” Jack said, in that tone he always used when he wanted to make Rhys feel guilty. Fuck that, Rhys thought viciously, it wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t going to be manipulated.

“We need to talk about what happened to her.”

Jack fell silent.

“Why?” he said, after a moment, “Y’already know what happened, Rhys. It’s not exactly something I like revisiting.”

“I know what happened,” Rhys said, “What I don’t get is why.”

“Told you. She lost control of her powers, first wife dead, needed to keep her safe. Safe from everyone else. And safe from herself. Everyone else safe from her. Hey, I kept her so safe that I made killing herself the only way out,” Jack said, trailing off. He then clapped his hands together, “But hey, thanks for making me revisit that horrific incident, sweetheart! Really appreciate it, I hope that my trauma really -“

“Shut up.”

Jack did.

“Look, I saw how things started with you two and this afternoon I saw how they ended up,” Rhys continued, “What Handsome Jack ended up doing to her was…way nastier what you just described. It wasn’t just keeping her safe, it was keeping her prisoner. It was turning her into a tool, something he could use to manipulate and hurt people. It was torture. What I want to know is how it got that bad. What was he thinking?”

“You saw what?” Jack asked quietly, his voice low and dangerous. Rhys knew he was on wafer thin ice, but screw it. If he had to crack it to get through, so be it. He’d dealt with Jack at his worst before; he could deal with it again if it meant he got the story straight.

“Handsome Jack’s computer was salvaged in the wreckage,” he said shortly, “Everything about Angel was on there. The tests, the recording, the pictures, all of it.”

 “You just…went through my personal files,” Jack said, “You know what, Rhys, I don’t know how many times we have to talk about trust, but –“

“Oh shut up! You know what, you use that word a lot, but I don’t think you even know what it means,” Rhys snarled, “Trust doesn’t mean you just say ‘Oh, dude, trust me’ and then I just…I just do whatever you say, unquestioningly, no matter how stupid it is, or whatever crappy things you do, or what secrets you keep, or how little you trust anyone else! That’s not how it works! You! Idiot!”

Rhys expected screaming, he expected Jack to howl insults and threats and hurt him the best he could with whatever he had. Failing that, he expected some nasty jab, some joke that made Rhys look stupid for even getting that worked up.

He didn’t expect stunned silence.

“…Right. Well. Okay. It’s not like I had many secrets from you left,” Jack said, his voice slow and resigned, “Don’t act like I didn’t give you the gist, though, Rhys. We didn’t exactly have much time for a big long heart-to-heart in the wreckage. My power was going, y’know that?”

“You made it sound like you – Handsome Jack, was just the victim in that. That it all just got out of hand, and he did his best, but. He hurt her. Shouted at her and electrocuted her when she got out of line. It wasn’t just good intentions gone awry,” Rhys said, and he felt himself getting angry. Hot through his skin and cold in his blood angry. For an insane second, he thought he was going to start crying.

He slowed his breathing and reminded himself that no matter what little memory was in his head, it had only got there through freak accident. This wasn’t about him.

“I always knew Handsome Jack wasn’t a nice guy. Even when I realised that he was worse than I thought, that I’d been naïve and stupid, I still – I didn’t think it went that far. She was his daughter.”

“You don’t get it,” Jack muttered, “Look, what’s the point of talkin’ about this, Rhys?”

“There’s a big point,” Rhys pushed on, “I’m trying to figure out if I really should just put you back where you came from.”

“No, no no no, come on, Rhys, you don’t want to be doing that,” Jack said, and emitted a small, hysterical laugh, and Rhys again had the lurching feeling of ice cracking, “What’d I say was there, huh? Nothing. That’s what. You can’t think it’s okay to put me back there again.”

“So will you just tell me what happened between what I remember, and what ended up happening? There must be something, that just…I don’t know, makes it make sense,” Rhys said, “I remember her, Jack, she was a good kid and I – he loved her. So what the hell! How the hell?”

“It got complicated, Rhys. These things do,” Jack said, but something about it sounded off. Like he didn’t fully believe what he was saying.

“What was he thinking, though? How did you convince yourself it was okay? I mean…what were you planning long-term? Keep her under there forever? What did he think she felt about it?”

“Rhys, I did way worse. Seriously, why are you fixating so much on one friggin’ girl? I killed hundreds. Thousands. More than that! I’m the worst thing that ever happened to this garbage planet, so what’s one girl matter? That’s just the peak of douchebag iceberg.”

“Look, I’m asking for you to explain what was going through your – his head.”

“You know, Rhys, there was probably a lot. Will you. Just. Drop it.”

“No, you know what, I won’t.”

“You –“

“And we’re not on a time limit now – you can tell the whole story. You can tell me everything that went through his head. End to end.”

“You know what, fine!” Jack blurted out, “I don’t know!”

Rhys felt silent and sat back – he hadn’t even known he was leaning forward. Jack stood, one hand clutching his arm, his eye blinking and flashing.

“You…don’t’ know?” Rhys repeated, stupidly.

“Well, you know what, Rhys, I could give you a really good frickin’ guess! Things got out of his control, it snowballed, he thought it was for the best, he thought she loved it there, she pretended she did and he never saw through it! Maybe he never cared to begin with! There’s a lot of theories that could fit! But do I know, Rhys? Do I really know? No. I friggin’ don’t,” he said, and then huffed out a breath, as though that speech had worn him out, when it couldn’t. Not really.

Rhys waited. That couldn’t be it. Jack had to have more than just a banal list of possibilities, none of them satisfying, none of them anything Rhys hadn’t been able to come up with by himself. After a moment, Jack continued, static blurring his voice.

“I got the stories. The data, each thing that happened in as much detail as there’s ever been, I got all of that. It’s real, alright. Then, what’s missing between that, what was in his head, I got the algorithms to figure that out. You know, calculate probability based on what’s in my data banks,” Jack said, “So, hey, if you want to know the explanation with the highest probability of being true. Go ahead. Ask. But trust me, if you want a good explanation, there’s just not enough data, and not a smart enough algorithm, and maybe one just doesn’t exist.”

Rhys opened his mouth but no words came out. He just sat with his jaw hanging open, gawping like the most gormless asshole on the whole planet.

Rhys had never felt so goddamn stupid in his entire life.

That couldn’t be it. This had to be another ploy, another obtuse lie designed to keep Rhys dangling on a hook.

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Then, as though he was just waking up, Jack twitched and returned to normal, hands on hips, voice cocky.

“So, hey, maybe I don’t know, exactly, why I did all that,” he said, and he sounded ridiculous. Playing every syllable too loud, like an inexperienced actor on stage for the first time, too desperate to impress to even think about his performance. “But, hey, sweetie, are you satisfied now? Do you feel better?”

Rhys stood up, disgust and anger roiling up hot in his gut, but he wasn’t sure who they were directed at. Maybe Jack, maybe himself, maybe the dead man both of them had been chasing all this time. He didn’t know.

The door slid open.

“I’m baaaa- oh, uh,” Gortys said, looking between Rhys and Jack, “Um. Are you guys…okay?”

Jack didn’t say anything. He just looked at Rhys. Expression inscrutable – because there wasn’t an expression there, Rhys reminded himself. Whenever he saw something there, it was just Rhys, projecting what he believed, seeing reflections back of himself.

Pathetic.

“Everything’s okay, Gortys,” he assured her, stepping forward and taking the packet – there was a sternly worded note from Okarafor attached, about two with water every few hours and no more than that. Not that Rhys even needed them.

He popped three into his mouth and swallowed them dry.

“Hey, Gortys? Thanks, but I’m going to bed now.”

“Oh, okay. I’m sorry you feel sick! It sucks, that you have to have a human body that gets sick!” Gortys said. Rhys strained a smile at her.

“Yeah. Thanks Gortys,” he said, and left to go to his room, walking past Jack without another glance.

 

Yvette had spent a lot of her time at Hyperion in her apartment, working late into the night. It never bothered her. A good view of the stars from her kitchen window, a pair of slippers, and a hot pot of coffee, and she was happy enough to work well past the end of shift. She could always catch a nap on her break to make up for the lost sleep.

She wasn’t sure what was bothering her about it so much this time. Her apartment seemed too small, too tidy, and too quiet. The lack of scattered laundry or empty pizza boxes felt like an absence, like the pale square left behind when an old photo was taken from the wall. There was nobody sitting cleaning their gun on the sofa, telling some outrageous story of a failed heist, or clattering around in the kitchen, turning the dregs of Pandoran food into something edible.

Rhys and the Claptrap weren’t loudly attempting to murder each other, so presumably she hadn’t triggered the apocalypse. Yet, she couldn’t relax, couldn’t stop wondering if she’d done something extraordinarily stupid.

She picked up her ECHOcomm, scrolled through her contacts. Looked as Sasha’s name. Her profile pic (A very large gun in an even bigger pile of money. Of course). Hovered her finger over it. Put her ECHOcomm down. Walked around the room. Sat back down at her desk. Opened and closed spreadsheets.

Goddamnit.

Her comm beeped, and Yvette jumped.

Call from: SASHA.

Yvette’s heart was in her mouth as she hit the ‘Accept’ button, and the words were out of her mouth before she even looked at the screen:

“What’s wrong? What’s the situation?”

“What’s the situation?” Sasha repeated incredulously, a smirk on her face.

“Um.”

She didn’t look to be in distress. In fact, she was covered in a minimal amount of blood. From what Yvette could tell, she was in the driver’s seat of the caravan. Loader Bot was sat rigid in the distance, and she thought she could pick out the sleeping form of Fiona, curled up with her hat over her face.

“Well, why have you called?” she asked stupidly. Sasha raised her eyebrows.

“I…need a reason?” she said.

“Oh. Yeah. I guess you don’t,” Yvette replied. She had forgotten that she didn’t need an excuse to call Sasha. “So, you just...wanted to talk before bed?"

Sasha shrugged, non-committal.

“What, you miss me already?” Yvette said, unable to stop herself smirking.

“Oh, don’t push it,” she replied, “But, yeah. I thought it might be good to check in to mission control. We picked up Athena! She was slaughtering these fanboy guys when we found her, I mean, really picking them off. Almost felt a bit sorry for the dudes. Almost.”

“She in a better mood?”

“Ha! Are you kidding?” she said, “Yeah, it was weird though. Apparently the fanboys have been, like, fighting each other a bunch lately? We saw what looked like a really crappy coup earlier down the road.”

“Crappy?”

“They couldn’t agree on who they were trying to assassinate and just started screaming and stabbing each other,” Sasha explained, and Yvette couldn’t help it, she started laughing. Pandora was really blackening her sense of humour.

“Ha, well, that’s how it was back at Hyperion too. Get all that ego and machismo together and it eventually implodes,” she said, and sighed, “They all think that they’re the most important guy in the room, and nobody could ever possibly understand them.”

“Personal experience speaking?”

“Oh yeah,” Yvette replied. It had always been like that in the office. Just one big cock fight.

Sure, they were all buddy-buddy on the surface, but she’d seen the amount of backstabbing that went on between them. And the self-pity – it was almost easy to miss the self-pity, between the self-aggrandizing and posturing, but it was definitely there. Every single one had some sad story about being the kid his parents loved the least, about being bullied in high school, or just about being so smart and complicated and brooding that it was a curse. They were the main characters, and every other person just someone to further their arc. And when others failed to follow the script, dared to assert themselves as just as important or complex or interesting, things got ugly.

It almost made up for the fact Yvette had never even stood a chance to join the clique.

“Hey, so I may have done something dumb today,” Yvette said. Onscreen, Sasha tilted her head, and Yvette had to marvel again at just how good someone could look with so little effort – no make-up, no immaculate designer outfit. In fact, just in shapeless travel gear, rumpled and dirty from a day on the road, and, probably, smelling faintly of gunpowder.

“Uh, Yvette?”

“Oh. Yeah,” Yvette said, embarrassed, as if Sasha could somehow read her mind, “So, uh. I talked to Rhys. Kinda had somethin’ to show him. About the Claptrap.”

Sasha’s expression darkened.

“Right.”

“Yeah,” Yvette said, “Look, I didn’t really want to tell anyone; it wasn’t relevant. But when I first broke into Handsome Jack’s computer I found…information. About his daughter.”

“He had a daughter?” she said, eyes widening.

“Yeah,” she replied, “It went the way you’d expect.”

“Right,” Sasha said, and then with false cheer, “So, can we expect to finally be rid of that thing when we get back?”

Yvette put a hand over her face.

“You know, I used to think I could predict Rhys pretty well. Lately, I have no idea,” she said, “So, who knows. I’m just wondering if I threw a lit match on a gasoline-soaked box of fireworks.”

“Uh, well, maybe,” Sasha said, and then winced at Yvette’s expression, “Look, it’ll be fine. “We’ll be back in a day or so. If they…freak out and try to kill each other again just. Call me and we’ll hurry back, samples or no samples.”

“Right,” Yvette replied.

“For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing,” Sasha said. Yvette moved her hand from her face, pushing back her braids.

“You think?”

“Yeah. Rhys is an idiot but, he should really…know these things if he’s going to keep that thing around,” she said, “And, hey, I know that was your weird stunted way of trying to fix things with him, so.”

“It was not weird and stunted.”

Sasha grinned.

“Most people just say ‘sorry’, Yvette,” she said, and then laughed at her expression, tracing her fingers behind her ear, “Sorry, sorry. I’m just. I’m just trying to say that I know that was hard and, you know, I’m proud of you.”

Yvette didn’t know what to say to that. Just felt a big weird swelling in her chest.

“I, uh. Thanks.”

Well, it wasn’t eloquent, but at least she managed to say something.

“Yeah. Look, uh, it’s kind of coming up on my turn to sleep,” Sasha said, and then looked Yvette’s face up and down, “You should sleep too.”

“I have work to do,” Yvette responded, instant and rigid. Sasha rolled her eyes.

“Wow, I totally did not expect that one,” she said, “But, hey, don't stay up too late. Nobody's there to drag you to bed if you fall asleep on your keyboard again.”

"Yeah. I'll try to remember,” she replied, smiling.

They fell silent for a moment, both fidgeting and avoiding looking at the screen, and Yvette had the uncomfortable feeling of something hanging in the air unsaid. The tension ballooned inside her for a moment, and then Sasha spoke, quickly.

“So, um, good night!”

“…Good night,” Yvette said, and the screen winked out. She looked at the black screen for a second and then sat up, setting the ECHOcomm on the coffee table. She really did have work to do. Getting up, she headed back to her desk and sank down into her chair, it creaking beneath her. She’d began to associate conversations that with lying in bed, relaxed and drowsing closer to sleep, their conversation slowly becoming more mumbled and indistinct.

Sighing, Yvette tried to focus. She still couldn’t find the damn file she needed, and the quicker she managed to pull all this information together, the less chance she and Rhys would have to actually interact with each other. Where did she -

It was on her flash drive.

Which was in her office.

Goddamnit.

Yvette drained the last of her coffee and headed out, huffing out a sigh and shoving her hands into her pockets.

The corridors were deserted and dark. Vaughn had begun dimming the lights during sleeping hours – otherwise the Children of Helios would just keep going, getting increasingly more hysterical with sleep deprivation, fighting over the caffeinated beverages in the vending machines, and generally being a nuisance. Putting the day-night cycles back into place was like throwing a blanket over a birdcage. Crude, but effective, and made things a lot quieter.

She’d never really walked around Helios much at night. If she was in her office, she stayed until morning. If not, well, she had likely been working in her apartment.

It was…nice, though. Helios was normally so loud – full of people all trying to be the biggest loudest badass in the room, all stomping and screaming over each other, posing and posturing. It had changed since the fall, many of the worst offenders defecting to the fanboys, but much of that character was still the same. There was just a more fragile, hysterical edge to it now. All those bruised egos, terrified of the planet they’d spent so many years looking down their noses at, humbled to be taking orders from a nobody like Vaughn.

Sometimes Yvette wondered how long it could last. How long before the Children of Helios imploded in on themselves too.

She stepped into the elevator, punching in the floor she needed. The elevator was one that run all the way up and down the side of Helios, up the vertical length of the H; one of the few that could reach any floor from any floor. Through the dirty glass, Yvette looked up and could see the other elevators, all still and gathering dust. Most of them didn’t work anymore.

Down, she saw the maintenance shaft, stretching downwards, crisscrossed with steel grey bridges, striped with long ladders and alcoves. She had asked Rhys, once, why the station had shafts like this and had been treated to a long explanation involving gravity and air ventilation that she’d lost interest in five words in.

Back when Helios was still operational as Hyperion headquarters, Yvette had just liked watching the maintenance staff from the elevator, skittering up and down ladders, attending to ventilation problem and all sorts of tech-y stuff Yvette had never needed to worry about.

Though sometimes a body fell past, hurled from above by Handsome Jack or one of his bolder devotees.

The elevator dinged, bringing her out of her moment of nostalgia. Walking to her office, she passed rows of identical doors, oddly silent but for the tap of her shoe and the clunk of her foot.

She dug her ID card from her pocket as she reached the door, and then paused.

The light by the door was green.

She was certain she had locked it when she left. Trying to not make a sound, she leaned forward to press her ear into the door.

From inside - thumps and rustling, a male voice muttering, too low and angry for her to decipher, scraping, tapping. Whoever it was, they were ransacking her office. For what, Yvette couldn’t imagine, but it couldn’t be anything good.

Swallowing, she drew her pistol from her hip. Sasha had been nagging her to remain armed at all times, even on the station. Now she understood why.

She pressed the release button on the door, and it slid open with a hiss and a mechanical whirring that had never sounded louder.

Yvette didn’t wait. She raised her pistol and fired. The figure fell back with a grunt, hitting his head off the back wall hard and collapsing to the floor, disappearing behind Yvette’s desk.

She lowered the gun, her breath tight in her chest and her hands shaking.

Alright. Maybe that. Had been kind of impulsive.

“Ow…son of a taint,” said a familiar voice.

Rhys?” Yvette blurted out, too startled by the sight of Rhys sprawled on the floor to get herself under control, “Are – are you okay?”

“Mmf.”

Rhys struggled to his feet, fumbling against the wall with one arm. His cybernetic arm hung limp at his side – where the bullet had hit, she supposed. Ruining a jacket, but otherwise only causing him minor inconvenience, at worst. The relief flooded her for a second, but quickly gave way to confusion.

“What the hell are you doing in my office, Rhys?” Yvette snarled, grabbing him as he tried to stumble away – half to stop him running, half because she couldn’t help but think he’d fall again otherwise. He blinked, looking around and then at her with a glassy-eyed expression. He had hit his head, Yvette realised, though, looking him up and down, she didn’t see any worse damage.

She released him and he swayed on his feet. Yvette’s heart hammered – what was with him? Vaughn said he kept messing around with eridium…was he just highIt wouldn't be the weirdest thing that had happened lately, but if there was one thing Yvette wasn't in the mood for, it was dealing with a drugged out idiot with unpredictable superpowers.

“Rhys!” she shouted, grabbing his shoulder, waving her hand in his face, “Hey. You can see me right?”

“I…uh, sorry,” he said, rubbing his head, and finally righting himself, “I…got lost?”

“You got lost?” Yvette repeated, “Rhys, you lived on this station for years. You can’t expect me to believe that you just...got lost and ended up in my office in the middle of the night.”

“Well, I did,” Rhys snapped, “Now unless you want to shoot me again…I - I – I need to go to bed.”

Before Yvette could argue, Rhys shoved past her and ran, his arm still leaden at his side.

Chapter Text

Shit, shit, shit, what the hell, what the hell, what the hell.

Rhys slowed down when he became sure Yvette wasn’t following him and leaned against the wall, breathing in and out as slowly as he could manage, his heart barraging against his ribs.

Slowly, he felt his arm begin to reactivate, shifting the balance of his body, systems and drivers rebooting inside of his head. He touched his fingers against the bullet mark on the metal, tearing a hole through his sleeve. The back of his head and his shoulders throbbed from where they had impacted against the wall.

He looked around – Helios at night. Last he remembered he was…

Talking with Jack about Angel. Gortys had come in, and Rhy has left.

He glanced down at himself. Still fully-dressed. Yet, he was sure he’d decided to go to bed. Had he made it back to his room, even?

As much as he scraped his memory, he couldn’t even remember anything in detail. He had the vague impression of grunting something at Vaughn. Even then he wasn’t sure.

“Alright, come on, explain what that was,” Rhys asked, leaning his head back against the wall.

The hallway remained silent, and still.

“I know it was you,” he continued, louder.

Nothing.

Seriously?” Rhys snapped, “You don’t shut up for weeks, and now I actually want you, you go silent? Screw. You.”

Yelling didn’t make it come out, or pipe up. For a second, Rhys wondered if the hit to the back of his head had gotten rid of it. Maybe the impact had jostled whatever was jammed in his circuity and grey matter loose, and it had finally fallen away.

“Hey, you know what, fine! Whatever! I can work this out myself!” Rhys yelled into the empty hallway, before catching a glance of his reflection in the window. A skinny, pale man screaming at absolutely nothing in a deserted hallway.

Goddamn, he was really losing it.

He stood up straight, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. His head was still quiet, only half-inhabited. It made him feel heavy on one side, weighing him down with the dead arm still struggling to reactivate by his side.

For lack of any better options, he began to walk home, gripping his arm in his hand.

The last time this had happened, it had been inside the Vault. Blacking out, but walking and talking as though something else had settled into the driver’s seat in his head, steering his body to do whatever it saw fit. And.

The only one who’d saw that had been Jack.

He needed to find him.

He stumbled twice into walls and doors, and fumbled for five minutes to find the button for the elevator in the dark.

Helios at night wasn’t completely unfamiliar to Rhys. Especially in his first few months on the station, he’d done his fair share of staggering back from parties, plus occasional walks of shame at five in the morning, trying to decide between being smug or being embarrassed, and, on one memorable occassion, sneaking into Vasquez’s office to leave a few well-placed and entirely misleading memos on his desk.

It had just never seemed so quiet before. Just the whirr of his cybernetics, the fall of his footsteps, his own stupid thoughts.

It was like being back at the Atlas dome.

He hated it.

As he rounded a corner he caught the glimpse of a round, blue light, and a bobbing antennae.

Jack caught sight of him and turned, frozen. There was nobody else in sight.

Rhys took a few steps towards him, stumbling, one hand against the wall and other stiff at his side.

You stay away from me,” Jack hissed, rolling back and hitting the back wall with a hard metallic klunk.

Rhys was stunned to a stop. If there was anything he had been expecting, it wasn’t that.

“What?” he said, “What’s the matter with you?”

“Oh. Oh,” Jack said, and then changed his tone completely, entering into that same easy, wry banter he always used, “Hey, pumpkin, out for a midnight stroll? You know, me too, feel like I needed to cool off after our little head-to-head back there. Hey, on that, I’m thinking we need to work on the way we talk to each other. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed Rhys, but we kind of get a little intense. Maybe we both need to chill out a little, right?”

“What? What the hell are you talking about? What was that just there?” Rhys said, bewildered.

“What was what?” Jacks said, perfectly pleasant, and then reached forward, petting Rhys on the thigh, “You know, you are looking even skinnier than usual, cupcake. I mean, these gams have always been kind of lanky weapons of mass destruction, but they’re narrowing to a frickin’ razor point here. Maybe you should try and eat a little more. How are you meant to keep filling those skinny jeans out so nicely without a little bit of meat on your bones?”

“What? What are you talking about! Three seconds ago, you freaked out, and now you’re just…babbling on about my legs?” Rhys said, and then continued in a low voice, “Do you think I’m an idiot, Jack? Like if you just talk about something else for long enough I’ll get distracted?”

Jack retracted his hand.

“No, clearly not.”

“What was that? Do you know what I was just doing?”

“…You’re tired, Rhys,” Jack said, and then turned, rolling off in the other direction, “You probably need some sleep.”

“What were you just doing?” Rhys continued, following him and trying to ignore the sense of dread creeping, cold, into the pit of his stomach. The idea of Jack roaming Helios at night unsupervised put Rhys on edge.

“Let’s go home, Rhys,” Jack said, as though he hadn’t spoken, and it took every ounce of control Rhys had not to knock him over there and then, “You were sleepwalkin’, Rhys. Don’t worry about it.”

“You know, it’s incredible that you think I’d believe that,” Rhys snapped, and looked up. They’d managed to walk right up to Rhys’s apartment. Jack glanced up at him.

“No. You know, I don’t expect you to believe that,” he muttered, as he opened the door and rolled through.

“Then why bother! What’s going on! Will you stop bullshitting me for two seconds!

“Rhys?” asked a soft voice.

Vaughn stepped out of his room, blinking and pushing long wisps of hair out of his face. Gortys stood at his feet, clutching what looked suspiciously like one of Vaughn’s old mangas in her hands.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Vaughn looked slowly from Rhys to Jack, his hand already sneaking towards the pistol on the coffee table.

“Nothin’. Rhys has been sleep-walking,” Jack said quickly. Vaughn scowled at him and then looked at Rhys, his eyes going over to the round, dark mark on his arm.

“Rhys, have you been shot?” he said, eyes widening.

“Oh, uh, yeah.”

“Wow, you didn’t think to tell me that?” Jack said, indignant.

“There’s a bullet-hole in my arm,” Rhys informed him dryly, “I didn’t think you needed to be told.”

“Rhys. If you haven’t noticed, I basically live on eye level with your crotch,” he replied, shrugging, “It’s kind of easy to miss details that are above my freakin’ head. Honestly.”

“Who shot you?” Vaughn asked, interrupting Jack before he could launch into one of his long-winded rambles.

“Yvette.”

What?”

“Look, I’m not sure. I was in her…her office, and then she came in, shot first, asked questions later.”

“That…doesn’t sound like Yvette,” Vaughn said.

“Well, she did,” Rhys said irritably. He really wasn’t interested in whether it sounded like her or didn’t. So Pandora had made her more impulsive. Whatever! It had still failed to remove the stick lodged up her ass, or help her get over this one thing Rhys had done, like, a million years ago. Who cared.

"Rhys, you're still mad at Yvette?" Vaughn said wearily.

"What! I'm not allowed to be?"

"No, it's just...bro, you kind of. Only really do extremes with people," Vaughn continued, with saint-like patience, "I mean, either someone is your best friend, greatest person in the world, or they're the worst ever and you hate them and everything they do is terrible. And you can kind of switch between them really, really fast."

"...No, that's what Jack does," Rhys said.

"Rhys, you do it as well!" Vaughn replied.

"No, no. That's what Jack does."

Vaughn buried his face in his hands, and Rhys was sure that he heard the muffled sound of screaming.

“Do you guys want some coffee?” Gortys piped up, and then continued at the baffled look they were giving her, “This just sounds like something humans need coffee for. Like, something goes wrong and you guys are all ‘Well, we better have some kind of hot stimulant! One of those substances we willingly ingest even though it has a massive negative impact on our fragile and easily damaged biological bodies! That’ll help us stay calm!’, soooo…”

“That’d be great, Gortys, thank you,” Vaughn said kindly. Rhys was too busy scratching at the dent in his arm and muttering to respond.

“Yay, okay! Come on, Jacktrap,” she said, seizing Jack’s arm and pulling him away.

“Wait, what, why do I have to help?”

“It’s good for you!”

“What?”

He attempted to struggle out of her grip, but Gortys activated her energy chassis and, in her upgraded form, easily overpowered him and dragged him to the kitchenette.

Vaughn leaned his shoulder at the door frame, looking at Rhys expectantly. Rhys swallowed.

“I don’t know, okay,” he said, before Vaughn could start, “I was heading to bed, and then next I knew, I was being shot in Yvette’s office. I have literally no idea.”

“And him?” Vaughn said, nodding towards where Jack was having coffee grounds dumped on his face. Gortys, as always, looked as though she was having the time of her life.

“He knows something,” Rhys said, “What, I dunno.”

“He’s up to something, bro,” Vaughn replied seriously.

“I don’t…I’m not sure that’s it,” he said, folding his arms. His cybernetic arm moved with distressed-sounding creaks, getting jammed for a few seconds at one angle and only moving on with an exertion of force. Great. Yvette had probably damaged some of the circuitry. That was just what he needed. Vaughn tilted his head at him, his brow furrowed and his mouth a thin, sympathetic line.

“I know what you’re thinking, Vaughn, but listen, I’m not being crazy, here. Something’s off,” he said, “He seemed genuinely freaked out.”

“He’s faking,” he said, “Come on, Rhys. The guy is a sociopath. He doesn’t have feelings.”

Rhys knew that was a good point, he knew it was. He knew how Jack would flatter and plead and insult and tell sob stories, all if it would give him what he wanted. There was no proof he actually felt any of that, that it wasn’t all smoke and mirrors to get him from where he was to where he wanted to be.

It was debatable, really, if Jack had ever told him a shred of truth.

Still.

“I’ve seen inside the guy’s head, Vaughn. He has feelings,” he said, “They’re…extremely weird and messed up feelings, but they’re there.”

“You saw inside his head?” Vaughn asked.

“Long story.”

“Right,” Vaughn said, rubbing his head and, to Rhys’s relief, dropped the topic.

Rhys bit his lip.

Well, it seemed like a good a place as any to bring it up.

“Hey, uuuh, so, I’ve been a dick to you lately.”

“…Yeah,” Vaughn said, and then added with the kind of half-aware bluntness both he and Yvette were capable of, “I thought you’d kind of outgrown that.”

Ouch.

“Well. Sorry. I’ve felt kind of, you know, bluuuh, since we got back,” Rhys said, holding up his hands and wiggling his fingers to indicate the extent of the bluh, “It’s, uh. I’ve been – I, well. There’s been a lot –“

“I get it, bro, okay? Don’t worry about it,” Vaughn said, smiling at him.

“I…feel like I should,” Rhys said, “You know, I’m not sure I think about whether I’m being a dick or not enough.”

“…Hm,” Vaughn said.

‘Hm’ wasn’t exactly the response Rhys had been looking for. He’d been really hoping for an ‘Oh, no, dude, you’re never a dick, don’t even think about it’. Then again, he’d known Vaughn their entire lives, and he knew Vaughn couldn’t lie to spare someone’s feelings. He was practically incapable. When he really thought about it, it was probably one of the few things that had stopped Rhys completely losing his head up his own ass over the years.

Rhys swallowed, fiddling with his mechanical fingers, until Vaughn spoke up.

“Uh, okay, so, you…probably realised what I was doing. Keeping an eye on you, and that stuff.”

Rhys shot him a dry look.

“You weren’t subtle about it.”

“Look, I’m sorry, it’s not that I don’t trust you, bro. I do, really, I trust you, okay?” he said, sighing, and then tilting his head over at where Jack was being bullied by a tiny robot with the personality of a seven-year-old girl, “I just really don’t trust him.”

Rhys folded his arms and leaned back against the wall.

“Well. That’s smart. I don’t either.”

“Rhys, then seriously! Why –“

“Look, it’s complicated. I’m just…I’m trying to figure things out, okay?” he replied, thoroughly sick of having this conversation, and thoroughly sick of never even having a good case for himself, or his own stupid decisions.

“Rhys, he’s not going to stop being an asshole,” Vaughn said, rubbing his temples.

“I’m not trying to do that,” he said, irritated – why did everyone assume that was what he was trying to do? Like Jack was some weird project for him to work on when he was bored. And always with the implication that Rhys was too stupid to figure out the fact that Jack was an asshole for himself. Like they were doing him some grand favour by telling him.

“Listen,” Rhys said, sighing, “You don’t get how weird it is, having someone living in your head, and then just having that ripped out. It kind of leaves a hole. And there was all this stuff I hadn’t worked out yet, and -”

Vaughn gave him a look, something between sympathy and pity. It prickled more than Rhys knew was rational.

“Like when I was at Atlas,” Rhys continued, desperate to try and get Vaughn to understand what he meant, “I’d sometimes kind of expect him to pop up and look over and then, nothing.”

“You ripped him out of there for a reason, man,” Vaughn said slowly.

“I know,” Rhys replied, trying to suppress another fresh wave of irritation. He was the one who did it. Of course he knew why. “And it’s not like before. I’m not some little starry-eyed idiot for him to manipulate.”

“You’re not an idiot, dude,” Vaughn said, sighing, “He was your idol, and we were way, way, way out of our comfort zone. Like, come on! We grew up in the suburbs. The worst we’d ever had to deal with before coming here was the office printer not working, and coping with crappy team-building weekends. Pandora was a shock.”

“Yeah. It was definitely, uh, that,” Rhys said, and then laughed, “Is it crazy we’ve gotten used to living here?”

Vaughn laughed, a rich laugh totally unlike the nervous stuttering Rhys had gotten used to over the years.

“It’s crazier you’ve gotten used to…that,” Vaughn said, indicating Jack again.

Gotten used to him was certainly one way to put it.

“Coffee’s ready!” Gortys cried, bringing over a pair of mugs, “Jacktrap, you were super helpful, thank you.”

“I was, wasn’t I,” Jack preened, confirming Rhys’s long-held suspicions that Jack would accept a compliment about literally anything.

“And it’s not…poisoned or anything?” Vaughn said, frowning at the black liquid and swilling it, as though that would reveal some kind of nefarious substance Jack snuck into it.

“Please,” he said, “I need you meatsacks alive if I want outta this friggin’ toaster. I’m not an idiot.”

“Jacktrap! You can’t just call humans meatsacks!” Gortys exclaimed.

“But they are meatsacks,” he said, and then after a moment’s thought, “And, you know, I technically am one too.”

Gortys frowned at him, puzzled.

“Sure, Jacktrap,” she said after a long moment, “If you say so.”

Rhys raised an eyebrow.

He was about to comment, when he heard a noise approaching from down the hall, a distinctive set of footsteps – the tap of a shoe, then the clunk of a heavy, cybernetic foot, still wielded clumsily. The door slid open and he turned to see Yvette in the doorway, her pistol still at her hip, her fingers splayed across the holster. She glanced between them, sizing the situation up. Unconsciously, he took a step back.

“Yvette, hey,” Vaughn said, his tone wary.

“Look, I don’t know what Rhys told you, but he was just in my office, he’d –“

“I know, look, let’s just, for once, stay calm,” Vaughn interrupted, holding up his hands, “Rhys already told me. He doesn’t remember how he got there.”

“Look, we know there’s been something weird going on! Someone snuck off to talk to Dr Sandford, and he won’t tell us what or who it was, and now Rhys just turns up in the middle of the night with no idea how he got there and –“

“Oh, what, are you mad at me again, already?” Rhys blurted out, before he could stop himself. Vaughn sighed, sat down on the arm of the couch, and took a very, very long swig of coffee.

To Rhys’s surprise, Yvette didn’t instantly begin screaming back. Instead she just looked at him, lips pursed, eyes narrow.

“Rhys, neither of us have stopped being mad at each other yet. Let’s not pretend, alright?” she said evenly, “But look, I’m not angry about this, but I’m not just some crazy woman stirring up trouble for no reason. Rhys, something is wrong.”

“Wow, you know, I hadn’t figured that out. Thank you so much Yvette, for your incisive observations,” he said, and then felt Vaughn’s hand on his forearm. He glanced at the cautious, pleading look on Vaughn’s face and relented. He relaxed his shoulders, slowed his breathing, forcing himself to calm down

He was tired, he was stressed, he was freaked the fuck out. And so was she.

Ultimately, just yelling at each other wouldn’t help. He’d been learning that the hard way lately.

“Look, sorry, I just. I’m not lying. I don’t know why I was there, or how I ended up there.”

Sort of a lie. He had a pretty good idea how. It was just an explanation that raised more questions than it answered.

“Do you know what I’d been doing in there?” he asked cautiously. Despite the incredulous look Yvette gave him, she at least took him seriously enough to answer.

“You were on the computer. I think,” Yvette said, “Doing what, I don’t know. Nothing was missing from the office either.”

He couldn’t help but notice that Jack was being uncharacteristically quiet. He glanced across at him, but there was nothing that gave any hint what he might be thinking. Whether he was holding something back, or merely observing, letting things unfold before he calculated his last move.

“Here’s my question. Can that thing control you?” Yvette said, gesturing to Jack, who looked back at her, and then at Rhys.

“What?”

“Look, I don’t get everything that happened when you guys were on the road. And I really don’t get how you had…that in your head, or what went on between you,” she continued, “All I know is apparently he could puppeteer you when he was in there, so who’s to say he couldn’t do it from the outside?”

“Woah, woah, what? That is one serious crackpot idea,” Jack piped up, “Come on, if I could do that would I still be sitting here looking like a talking trash can?”

“To be fair, you’ve always looked like that,” Rhys joked.

“Hilarious.”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny, Rhys,” Yvette said, folding her arms, “But you have gotten really complacent with that thing. It’s dangerous. You know it’s dangerous.”

“I’m not complacent,” Rhys said, and it was maybe only half a lie, “Listen, how Jack got control last time was through my cybernetics. And he’s not in there anymore.”

“Exactly!” Jack said, sounding immensely pleased that Rhys was taking his side.

It was difficult to explain how he was so certain – on the surface, Yvette’s argument looked sound, and Rhys could see Vaughn swaying, giving Jack a searching look and hesitating on his gun. Yet, Rhys was absolutely sure at this point, that whoever was in his head, occasionally grabbing the controls, it wasn’t Jack. Or, at the least, not anymore.

There was no way he was telling Yvette he had an evil anonymous voice in his head snarking at everything he did and trying to take over his body, though. He could see every way that would end, and it was ugly.

“Then we still have a problem,” Yvette continued, voice tight with frustration, “It still could have snuck off and went to see Dr Sandford. It could still be planning something. And how your little bout of sleepwalking factors into it, I don’t know, Rhys, please, you have to smell a rat here.”

“Something does seem wrong,” Vaughn admitted.

“Um, wait, what? That creepy doctor dude who tried to kidnap me? What’s he got ot do with it? What’s going on?” Gortys said, looking between them.

“Yeah, what?” Rhys asked. The fanboy doctor guy? What about him?

“Someone went to see Dr Sandford a while ago, and we have no idea who,” Vaughn said, rubbing his forehead, “I was going to ask you about it but –“

“Someone hacked through the security to see him. It was a top security door. Want to know who both has the competence and the motive to do that? Two, Rhys, two people, Yvette continued relentlessly, glaring at Jack, “And if it wasn’t you, that only leaves one.”

“She’s got a point,” Vaughn said, taking his pistol in hand, “He wouldn’t tell me who it was…but if the two of them have been conspiring…”

“We’re all in big trouble,” Yvette said, drawing her own gun. Rhys hesitated, and Jack backed away from Yvette and Vaughn, fists clenched.

“Alright, alright, kids, great detective work. I mean, just spectacular, really uncovered my evil plan there, I just have one question,” Jack said, “Who the {BEEP} is Dr Sandford! Seriously!”

“Did…he just beep?” Vaughn asked, sounding dangerously as though he was going to start laughing.

“Censor. Built into his hardware,” Rhys explained briefly, “Never did figure out how to turn it off.”

“Don’t you both have computer science degrees?” Vaughn asked, raising an eyebrow, and then continued, “Or, you know, apparently.”

“Hey, listen, it is harder than you’d friggin’ think,” Jack said, “And whaddya mean ‘apparently’?”

“Well, a lot of Handsome Jack’s biographical details have been widely disputed,” Rhys pointed out reasonably, “I mean half of what’s known about him is total crap. Plus, you’re…you know…dubiously connected to him at best.”

“Look, as usual, we are getting distracted!” Yvette interrupted, desperately attempting to steer the conversation back into saner waters, “I – I just, I’m not willing to take that thing at its word.”

“For what it’s worth, I agree,” Vaughn sighed, “We can’t really be sure he isn’t up to something.”

“…Well,” Rhys said, chewing on his lip. Jack jolted, looking at him.

“Oh, oh no no no, Rhys, come on. That is just plain not an option,” he said immediately.

“What?” Yvette asked.

“Well, there is a way I can check,” Rhys said slowly, “When we were in the Vault, I uh. Kind of had a poke around in his head.”

“Huh? Wait, Rhys -”

“Oh!” Gortys squeaked, happy to have the conversation back on something she understood, “Interfacing! I keep wanting to try that, but Loader Bot says he’s not ready.”

“…Gortys, you’re really not making this any less weird,” Rhys sighed.

“Huh? What’d I say?”

“Um. Rhys, I mean, this would solve a lot of problems, but. Isn’t a human interfacing with a sentient AI –“ Vaughn began.

“Illegal, unethical, and highly dangerous?” Rhys finished for him, “Yeah.”

“Eh, sounds like everything we do,” Yvette said, “I say go for it.”

“Rhys, you can’t be serious! This is a terrible idea!” Jack snarled. Rhys half-agreed - poking around in his head last time hadn’t exactly been pleasant. Yet it was an easy, immediate way of getting a straight answer to some of his questions. And Rhys was reaching the point where he valued real answers over his perhaps more reasonable priorities.

“I hate to agree with him, Rhys, but…” Vaughn said, with an expression that suggested it physically pained him.

“No, you know what, I want some answers,” Yvette said, “Rhys, you have to as well.”

Rhys looked at her, and then at Jack and Vaughn.

“Yeah, I do,” Rhys said.

“Alright! Okay!” Jack blurted out, “Listen, I don’t know who this doc guy you people are babbling on about, but fine, I have been up to one thing.”

Rhys paused, and watched him expectantly.

“Soooo…you gotta understand, this is just for a little, let’s say, insurance,” Jack continued, “Now, let’s all agree that my position here is precarious, to say the least. I know it, you know it, let’s move on. But hey, I think you kids are onto something with this crazy Vault project, and Handsome Jack always throws his chips in with the winning side.”

Rhys rolled his eyes, but gestured for him to keep talking.

“So, I still got my own little following, don’t I? I mean, sure, they’re a rabble of idiots, but I’ve always been the shepherd of a rabble of idiots. Nothing new. And, hey, they could be useful. So, I been trying to get a few messages to them. Nothing big, just a few little recordings here and there, so if all goes south here, I can go settle in with those idiots,” Jack continued, “You know, some cornball messages about me coming back, blahblahblah, just a few juicy ECHOcomms. Just so if I rolled up to them, a few wouldn’t be surprised, and I could get ‘em on side. For protection, at the least.”

Somehow, Rhys couldn’t help but be disappointed. In a weird way, it would have been kind of comforting if Jack had been up to something big and evil that Rhys could thwart. Having a bad guy to go up against made things easier. No grappling with complicated issues, just good v evil, winner take all.

Instead, it was just a petty little act, safeguarding himself to the end. It was the exact kind of thing Rhys would have considered doing in his position. Or at least, the Rhys of a year ago would have.

He glanced at Yvette, and saw that same understanding, faint and begrudging. Even Vaughn looked as though he was turning it over in his head, cringing in a way that told Rhys it felt all too familiar to him as well.

Rhys was suddenly very glad the Pandorans weren’t here. It was the kind of move that neither of them could ever understand.

“So, there you go. And hey, here’s the punchline? I ain’t sure if it even frigging worked. Isn’t that underwhelming?” Jack said, folding his arms, “So hey. Really glad we could have this talk, I feel like we really made progress. Are we done here?”

“…That isn’t everything,” Rhys interrupted.

“What?”

“There are still things that just don’t add up,” he said.

“And we don’t know if that’s the whole truth,” Yvette continued, joining in seamlessly. For a second, it felt like they were back in Hyperion, baffling a client into submission or picking holes in some enemy’s latest pitch. He glanced at her, but, as she always was when she was working, Yvette was completely focused on her target.

“Oh come on!” Jack said, and then turned to Rhys, “Can’t you just trust me on this one?”

“Jack, we literally just talked about this. You can’t just say ‘Trust me’ and expect that to work when you’ve done nothing to deserve it. That’s not trust, that’s just…you giving an order, and then getting what you want like a spoiled brat,” Rhys said, rubbing his temples, “Look, I’m not going to force you to do this. This is just the only thing that would actually prove you haven’t been up to anything worse. Otherwise it’s going to be up for debate. A lot.”

Jack remained silent.

“Oh, um, if it helps, I’m willing to do it! I’d probably get a little less confused than Rhys anyway,” Gortys offered.

Oh hell no. If there was the tiniest chance Jack could bridge the gap and move from one body to another through that connection, he would be much less dangerous in Rhys’s head than in Gortys’s. And he was not about to put her through having Jack in her head.

Plus, he absolutely did not want Gortys finding out any of the details of Handsome Jack’s sex life. That was something she could live without.

“No way,” Rhys said instantly, in the same split-second Jack said ‘Not a chance, princess’.

“You know what, fine,” Jack said finally, “Just make it friggin’ quick. Get in, search, see that I got nothing to do with this Sandford guy or your little night time walks, and get out. And this isn’t an open invitation to hop into my head whenever you feel like it, Rhys.”

“You really overestimate how much I actually want to do this,” Rhys said, sitting down.

“And just you, right? If I gotta do this, I’m limiting the damage radius. Only the idiot that’s dug around in there before.”

“Right.”

“This is a bad idea,” Vaughn muttered.

“It’ll be fine, Vaughn. Look, if I’ve been in there a while or Jack seems to want me out just, slap me or something,” Rhys said, making a dismissive gesture with one hand. Vaughn stared at him, all puppy-dog eyes like Rhys had just kicked him in the shins.

“Dude, I don’t want to hit you.”

“I’ll do it,” Yvette said instantly.

“Right, that’s decided,” Rhys replied, grateful for Yvette’s ruthless sense of efficiency. Vaughn shook his head, leaning against the wall with his arms folded, one hand still wrapped around his gun, hitting it against his arm in a steady rhythm.

“Neat! I’ve never seen anyone do this before,” Gortys said, clapping her hands together.

“Yep, it’s great,” Rhys said flatly.

“Really. Just, you know, my favourite way to spend my time,” Jack continued.

“Well that’s lucky!”

Rhys sighed, and focused his ECHOeye on Jack – scanning him just brought up the generic information about the Claptrap product line, details about the model he was piloting. Attempting to bring up details of the AI core just gave him a bunch of gibberish – nonsense binary, a few garbled lines of code, and a couple of sentences in Japanese. If they weren’t guaranteed to be the ramblings of a madman, Rhys would have bothered to run a translation programme on them.

“This is a bad idea,” Vaughn reminded him.

Rhys ran a few lines of code through his command prompt, and made the connection.

 

This time, he rendered himself with shape and mass. He had feet he placed firmly down, he could feel and move with his own weight, a form separate from the oscillating lines of code and blocks of data that made up Jack’s mind. It was only imagined – he knew his own body was sitting on the floor, inert and probably slack-jawed – but it might help keep things separate. He wasn’t about to lose himself as easily as he had last time.

Jack’s head had been a mess last time he looked in. He had been a Frankensteinian composition of uneven pieces, rocky lumps of code and ugly reams of data, overlapping and bulging. As though Nakayama had just spilled the pieces of a hundred different jigsaws out and then hammered them together with all the force he could, making the pieces align and fit despite their mismatched edges, jagged and frayed.

Somehow, it looked even worse; as though someone had been stomping all over those pieces, exposing those tiny gaps between them, and stretching them so wide they couldn’t be ignored. Around him, the neat lines of Jack’s programming was lined with dark cracks, widening and exposing the holes between the pieces. And there was the lumps of other things – the tiny boils of black data, the familiar threads of blue, spread through it all like a bright web of veins.

It was an even bigger mess than it had been last time.

It looked like -

“Hey, Rhys. Uh, bro, are you okay?”

Vaughn.

“This is…weird.”

Yvette.

Their voices sounded as though he were underwater, and they were talking on the shore. Annoying, but Rhys could ignore it.

He began setting up a search function. In reality, he was just coming up with a programme, but since he imagined himself with mass, he also imagined himself building something physical, each line of code like assembling pieces of a puzzle. Something that would look over the past few weeks, find out what he’d been doing when Rhys wasn’t with him. It was tricky, but Rhys wasn’t going to just wander around like he did last time. It had been nothing short of a disaster.

The fuck you doing, Rhys?

Really, Jack? I mean, it’s kind of obvious, Rhys replied silently, Wait. Are you just asking because you can swear in here?

You have no fucking proof of that, Rhys.

Rhys smirked, but went back to work. His hands, non-existent but for the image in his head, moving glowing bars of code from one line to the next, cobbling together functions and algorithms as quickly as he could.

Huh. You know, that’s a smart little programme you’re putting together there, Jack commented. Rhys was sure he couldn’t bear to be quiet for longer than a few minutes at a time.

Rhys decided to ignore him. He had work to do. He continued, for what maybe have been seconds, or hours, until Jack spoke again.

Call me crazy, Rhys, but I think you ain’t as much as a doofus as you used to be.

He sounded as though he wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not. Probably since Rhys being less of an impressionable doofus made things harder for him, he thought bitterly.

Hey, well, I had to toughen up, Rhys bit back, You didn’t leave me much choice.

…Pandora doesn’t leave anyone much choice.

Ha? Pandora? It wasn’t just Pandora. It was you, Jack.

Everything around him groaned, the moan of a ship threatening to capsize, and Rhys felt the world tilt and wobble.

He breathed in and set himself more firmly. He reminded himself of his shape, the weight of his body and how it pinned him to the surface of the planet. He remembered where he was in reality – sat on the floor, his legs folded beneath him, Yvette and Vaughn waiting and ready to step in if needed. He looked at the hands he had in the place he was –just yellow pixels in the shape he knew, but enough to separate him from everything else.

The groaning subsided, and everything around him stopped wobbling and shaking. The world returned to equilibrium.

Hey, well. Can’t blame me just because reality decided to hit your pampered little suburban ass after all this time.

No. Sure, Pandora gave me some perspective, but you were still an asshole, he replied, If you’re thinking of acting as though you did me a favour with all the manipulative bullshit you put me through, you can shove that up your ass before you even start.

Jack fell silent, and Rhys returned to work.

You know, Rhys, I really don’t know what to do with you sometimes, he admitted after a long moment of silence, You won’t do a frigging thing I say, but you ain’t trying to kill me either, so what’s the deal? What am I supposed to do with that?

Are those the only two options?

Well. Yeah, Jack said, as though that were obvious.

Rhys didn’t know what to say to that. He was never sure whether Jack said depressing things to try and pull on Rhys’s heart strings, another bullshit way of making him look like this misunderstood, suffering hero, or because he actually believed them. Maybe Jack couldn’t even tell the difference any more.

…It’s weird. You sound different in here, he said instead.

Well, yeah, I finally have a goddamn adult’s vocabulary. You got any idea how friggin’ annoying it is to have to actually think about everything you say, Rhys? It’s a pain in the ass.

I mean your voice, Rhys said, although he couldn’t put his finger on what it was, exactly.

Huh?

Rhys shrugged and shook his head. He wasn’t sure if Jack saw the gesture. It wasn’t as though Rhys was, really, seeing anything, or doing anything. He knew that everything he saw was just his brain’s attempt at processing things it wasn’t built for. Maybe how Jack perceived it was something different, closer to the way Gortys or Loader Bot would. Or maybe he was just putting the same inexact human filter he was on it.

Jack seemed to get the gist either way, because he fell silent again.

Rhys finished the function he was building and activated it.

“Gross, he’s drooling on himself.”

Yvette’s voice, muffled.

“Um, yeah, I’ve seen Rhys do some really weird stuff but…”

“Should we, uh, snap them both out of it?”

“Um, I mean, they seem fine. Kinda.”

“This is pretty normal, actually!” Gortys. “Although, most humans don’t interface, no matter what cybernetics they have. You guys aren’t really built for it.”

“Will he be okay?”

“Um, I think so? I mean, even robots can get a little confused sometimes if they do it for too long or don’t really know what they’re doing, but Rhys is smart! He knows what he’s doing. I’m sure he’ll be okay.”

“I really don’t know about this. Yvette, I think we should wake him up.”

Rhys had a brief image, of Vaughn above him, hands on hips, looking up at Yvette with a pleading expression on his face. Yvette ran a hand through her hair.

He blinked, pulling himself back into the code.

“Guys,” Rhys said, out loud, and heard two voices speaking at once, “Could you be quiet?”

“Woah, holy crap.”

“Okay, that is freaky.”

“Guys, sssh!” Gortys said.

Rhys swore, when he got rich, he would buy that little robot anything she wanted.

The search function began to return results. He watched them from a distance, as though through a TV screen. A little square image of memories, just the faintest thrum of those thoughts and feelings, just enough to be understandable, distant enough to not be overwhelming.

Jack sneaking messages to the fanboys, whispered into unattended computers and sent out into the void. Jack loitering, aimless, in Rhys’s apartment, tracking circles around the living room, constantly stalling at Rhys’s bedroom door. Jack yapping away at Gortys in his normal voice, bragging about nonsense to the Children of Helios in his Claptrap voice. Being patted and given patronising little smiles. Fizzling with the indignity of it all.  Yet delighting, more than he expected, in having something to do, a goal to work towards and something challenging to work on, peers to work on it with, a sense of purpose. Pouring over blueprints and ideas. Catching up on the galactic news, all of that chaos that hadn’t reached them. Not yet, at least. Revelling just in not being bored for once.

Thinking about Angel, thinking about Angel, thinking about Angel.

He never managed to come to any conclusions.

All night, looking at his own hands and trying to remember what they were meant to look like. Being unable to. But not being able to accept what he saw as part of himself, either. Angry, frustrated, but something else too. A deeper unhappiness. He decided to wake Rhys up, just to annoy him.

Nothing, nothing, to suggest some kind of deeper, more nefarious plan than the one Jack had already explained.

See, Rhysie, pumpkin, baby, there’s nothing to worry about.

It still didn’t feel right. Everything around him felt tight, as though Jack was desperately squeezing down, constricting what Rhys could see.

No, I’m still missing something here.

Come on, sweetheart, don’t ruin a good thing. Everything’s fine! Now how about we get into two separate bodies again? Jack continued, I don’t know if you’re getting your rocks off on this or somethin’, but it’s really not much fun on my end.

No, you know what, you’re hiding something, Rhys replied, I am not letting you mess me around again, so cut the creepy pet names and tell me what’s going on.

Just leave it, Rhys.

No! What am I missing here!

Rhys heard something crack in his ears, hard enough to make him wince.

Rhys -

The ground beneath his feet broke apart, and he fell, plunging into cold water, his lungs filling and he scrambled and came apart, and then he was weightless, in a void too bright to see.

Rhys paces the jungle floor, holding his arms. It served that asshole right, thinking he could do whatever he wanted like that. So he played it up a little, hammed how gross that shit had been to get his point across. So what. It had sucked. Not as much as he’d made out, but having your mind poked and prodded wasn’t Rhys’s idea of a good time. If a bit of melodrama was what it took to get it into his thick skull not to pull that shit again, so be it.

Something rustles in the undergrowth nearby and Rhys pauses. If this is where he discovers that this whole stupid jungle is full of hostile monsters, and he was stuck in some stupid body that couldn’t even defend itself, he was going to be even more pissed than he already was.

Then the bushes part, and he walks out.

Rhys feels relief wash over him, as well as satisfaction. Maybe he was back to beg for forgiveness. He should, after that shit. He had no business nosing about in anything like that. Angel had nothing to do with him. It was private.

Rhys is about to talk, probably does say something, he always does, but then he stops, and looks at Rhys.

His arm hangs heavy at his side, inert as a cheap plastic prosthetic, and his eye flashes. As though going online and off, over and over. His whole body lolls to one side, and he moves towards Rhys with loping, awkward movements, as though all of his limbs were too long, and he didn’t know how to use them.

Who is that, Rhys thinks, who the hell is that.

Rhys attempts to say something, maybe does, but Rhys doesn’t listen.

Rhys approaches Rhys, and grabs him, and snarls and spits, and then Rhys’s eye is blinking, and Rhys tries to get the hell away, he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, but he can’t do anything inside this stupid body, it’s too small, it’s too slow, and Rhys has a hold of his antennae and pulls, it feels like someone is pulling his eyes out of his skull, and then Rhys registers a request, and he tries to deny, but that isn’t an option any more, it flickers and reasserts itself, and Rhys realises Rhys isn’t going to stop, and everything is spilling out and Rhys pulls, unspooling everything he wanted to keep hidden, and Rhys tries to regain control but he can’t and Rhys and Rhys and Rhys and Rhys –

ERROR.

“Ow!”

Rhys fell back as though thrown across the room, banging his head hard against the floor. Vaughn dropped to his side and helped him up, his hands on Rhys’s back as he sat up and steadier himself. Opposite him, Jack wobbled backwards, his hand on his eye, releasing a long series of fast beeps.

“What was that?” Rhys blurted out. Jack lowered his hand, staring at Rhys indecipherably.

“System error,” he said, his voice flat. Rhys stared at him and then decided, for now, to go for a less direct route.

“Have you been…trying to self-programme?” Rhys asked.

“Oh, you haven’t,” Gortys said, as though Rhys had just suggested Jack had been doing some kind of dangerous, addictive drug in secret.

“What, seriously? Rhys, are you saying this thing has been messing with its own programme?” Yvette said.

“Please, I’m not an idiot,” Jack said, snorting.

“Wait, why would that be an idiot thing to do?” Vaughn asked, “I mean, and I’m not saying this is what he should do, but if he reprogrammed himself to be able to use weapons –“

Rhys, Gortys and Jack made incredulous noises.

“What, what, what’d I say?”

“That’s not how it works, Vaughn,” Rhys began to explain, “A sentient AI can’t re-programme itself. If they try they start getting confused, and have to eventually give up. If they keep pushing themselves, they end up flooding themselves with junk code. Eventually their own programming breaks down and stops working, or they get stuck in loops and go crazy.”

“It ain’t pretty,” Jack noted.

“Humans have been trying to figure out how to make self-programming possible for years,” Gortys added, “Robots that are a little dumb can do it, but smart ones with feelings and stuff can’t! I don’t really see why anyone would want to, anyway. The idea gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

“And, as I said, not an idiot, not interested in committing suicide right now,” Jack said.

Rhys struggled to his feet, his hand on Vaughn’s shoulder. One leg had fallen numb, and began to prickle with pins and needles. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve.

“And…yeah, he…wasn’t lying,” Rhys said, although what the hell was with that last one, and why Jack had been so desperate to hide it, he wasn’t sure. Not yet, anyway.

“…Right,” Yvette replied, her voice heavy, and folded her arms, “Well, you know what that means, right?”

“What that means?” Rhys repeated, raising an eyebrow.

“Rhys, if it’s not been him talking to Dr Sandford, or sending you off on this midnight jaunt, then –“

“It’s not me,” he said quickly.

“Well who else is it gonna be Rhys!” Yvette said, becoming more and more frustrated.

“Yeah, what’s going on?” Gortys asked, “I mean, why don’t we just ask that mean doctor guy? I mean he’s terrible and he smells, but I’m sure if we’re reasonable, he’ll tell us.”

“I’ve been trying, he just keeps babbling nonsense. I can’t get a straight answer,” Vaughn said, with a sigh, “I’ve asked him over and over, even offered to let him go if he just tells me, but…”

He raised his hands helplessly, giving Rhys a meaningful look – plying him to tell the truth, as if Rhys was possibly going to raise the issue of his…problem in front of Gortys and, god forbid, Yvette. Rhys knew fine well what was likely going on. He just didn’t know why. Or when. Or how.

“Check the footage?” he suggested.

“It’s been deleted,” Vaughn sighed.

Of course.

“…Jack?” Rhys said, glancing over at the Claptrap – he was sitting staring vacantly into space. He looked up at the sound of his name, fingers twitching, his eye readjusting with a few low whirrs.

“Well, if you’re asking my expert opinion, the solution’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Jack said, “Cut off a few of his fingers, put his balls in a vice, rub chilli pepper in his eyes, come on, kiddos. This is like. Interrogation 101.”

“We’re not torturing anyone,” Vaughn said coldly.

“Well, we could rough him up a bit,” Rhys said thoughtfully, “Ha, when Fiona comes back me and her could give him our good-cop-bad-cop routine.”

“Um, excuse me? The first person you think of to do a good-cop-bad-cop thing with is Fiona, Rhys? Really?” Jack said, “I mean. Wow, dude. Wow.”

“Nobody’s torturing anyone!” Vaughn said, “Or roughing them up! We just…we just need to think about it more.”

“Vaughn, seriously?” Yvette said, giving him an incredulous look, “Am I the only one worried about this?”

“Of course you’re not, but –“

“Alright, how about this, I keep an eye on Rhys through his tracker,” he said, “If he starts moving around at night –“

“Well, that’s precious, sweetheart, really glad you’re thinking, but the internal tracking system will have went down when Helios did,” Jack interrupted, “And even if that still worked, if they left Helios –“

“Uh. Not quite,” Vaughn interrupted, and then gave Yvette a pointed look. She bit her lip for a second, and then sighed.

“Uh, right. Okay, Rhys, while we’re clearing the air,” she said, “I…the higher-ups at Hyperion wanted to install an advanced tracker chip in you. I don’t know why, but they offered me a bonus if I could convince you to go under the knife for something voluntarily. They wanted to sneak it in unnoticed.”

Rhys could feel Vaughn watching him, waiting for his reaction. Rhys swallowed.

“I’m sorry,” Yvette said, before Rhys could react. He waited, expecting to hear some excuses, some angry, defensive rationale that made it sound like it wasn’t a shitty thing to do.

None came.

“Huh,” Rhys said, and he heard Vaughn breathe a sigh of relief, “Well…that’s weird.”

He looked at Jack.

“What? I dunno,” Jack said, shrugging. At Rhys’s incredulous look, he sighed and continued, “Look, we put Helios trackers in most staff. The more advanced stuff, the satellite trackers, that was expensive. Only bothered for employees that I – Handsome Jack, bio-Jack, whatever – thought were a threat.”

“Ha, oh wow. I mean, really?”

“Rhys, for God’s sake, don’t look pleased about it,” Yvette said, rolling her eyes.

Jack waved a hand dismissively.

“Hate to disappoint, cupcake, but you never made the list,” Jack said, and then laughed, “Which, you know, on reflection, was a friggin’ enormous oversight.”

“So Handsome Jack didn’t order it?” Yvette said, bewildered, “But…I just heard that the order came from up top. I figured it was just because you had so much Hyperion tech at this point if you died they’d want to scavenge the body for parts.”

“He might not have the data,” Rhys pointed out.

“Oh please, I got everything important when you plugged me into Helios,” Jack said.

“Still the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, Rhys,” Yvette said, sighing.

“Eh, in Rhys’s defense, he didn’t actually have a choice up there,” Jack said, shrugging, “I would have forced it either way.”

Rhys stared at him.

“Really? I mean. Really? You’re just. Admitting that?” he said, incredulous, and then shook his head, “You are literally the worst.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Aaaand yet Rhys still kept him around. He really questioned his own sanity sometimes.

“Look, fine,” Rhys said, addressing Yvette and Vaughn, “We’ll keep tabs on me and…I don’t know, see how this goes. Until the girls come back, anyway.”

Rhys hoped he’d be able to figure it out himself by then. This was not an issue he wanted made public.

Chapter Text

So their plan was clear:

They would all pretend absolutely nothing was wrong, continue with work as normal, and refuse to discuss anything that had happened.

This would continue unless something else even worse happened, at which point they might actually do something. If they had to.

It was a flawless strategy.

In the days afterwards, Rhys waited, on edge, for something to happen. Every time he went to sleep, he half-expected to wake up somewhere different. He waited for a hallucination, a hand on his throat, something, anything.

Strangely, Rhys began to feel as though he was the only one inside of his own head again. A feeling that had, somehow, became unfamiliar.

“Rhys, for Christ’s sake will you just fix that friggin’ arm already?” Jack blurted out, as Rhys stood attempting to move his elbow out of its stuck position for twenty minutes. “Seriously, the Rhys the One-Armed Wonder act was funny at first, but it is really starting to get annoying. Just take the danged thing off and fix it.”

“Uurgh, but getting it off is kind of fiddly and it’s really hard to fix things one-armed,” Rhys whined, grabbing his mechanical arm with his flesh hand and dragging it into the position he wanted, ignoring the screech of metal-on-metal.

“You did it with one eye and some serious blood loss last time,” Jack pointed out, “In fact, you built an entire freakin’ arm like that. How did you pull that one off?”

“Eeeeh, I don’t really remember,” Rhys admitted. His time at the Atlas dome was still a blur – he just remembered a lot of pain, and a lot of confusion, and a lot of avoiding human contact. Maybe some kind of deeply buried survival instinct had kept him going, some barely understood Siren thing that had held his body together, despite everything, just long enough to repair itself.

Jack just looked at him as though he was an utter crazy person, and then went back to fixing the piece of the GIVRS code he’d been working on.

“So, any word from –“ Jack began.

“No.”

“Huh.”                                                              

Rhys didn’t know what to make of it either. He wasn’t stupid enough to really believe they were just gone, but he couldn’t help but hope. Maybe that hit on the head in Yvette’s ofice had jostled the malfunctioning parts of his brain back into place, and whatever misfiring of his neurons or his cybernetics had been causing it had stopped. A little anticlimactic, sure, but a hell of a lot better than sharing his body with some jagged, angry thing for the rest of his life.

He ran another simulation test on the GIVRS hub. It seemed like it was almost good to go. After they had the bio-samples, it should be ready. It was even fully recharged. Jack and Gortys’s drones, too, were almost finished.

After this, they’d be making a fortune for the rest of their life. Rhys could really make Atlas a force to be reckoned with again. They could buy their own ship, start really building things. Big, important, planet-changing things. They could make a bid to fix Pandora, properly, not how Handsome Jack had.

Nobody would ever make the mistake of underestimating Rhys again.

Then what the hell was bugging him? Had they forgotten some important part of the design, overlooked some fatal flaw?

Maybe there was something else to do with the Vault they needed to consider.

“Hey, Jack?” Rhys asked. Jack hummed to indicate he was paying attention. “What happened when Handsome Jack went inside the Vault?”

Jack looked at him, eye twisting and narrowing.

“Why you askin’ that, pumpkin?”

“Just wondering if it was anything like the Vault we were inside,” Rhys replied idly, though he'd be lying if he said that was all it was.

“Well. Started wearing the mask afterwards,” Jack muttered.

“…That’s not an answer,” he replied, “What did they find in there?”

“Athena was there. Lilith too,” he said, slowly. Rhys could practically see the calculations in his head, trying to string together blocks of discordant data together into one story, weighing up likelihoods from what he knew of Handsome Jack, of the Vaults, of the Vault Hunters involved. Of what happened afterwards, Handsome Jack’s escalating violence and ambition, his loosening grip on reality, his eccentricity building into frenzied delirium, all of his actions spiralling further and further into self-destruction.

How did anyone make sense of all that?

“You…have no idea, do you?” Rhys asked.

“Oh, rub it in, why don’t you?” Jack snapped.

“Jack –“ Rhys began, and was interrupted by Gortys’s voice over the intercom, squeaking with delight.

“Guys! Loader Bot and Fiona and Sasha are back!”

 

Yvette broke off through the lecture she was giving some Children of Helios at Gortys’s announcement. They took the opportunity to flee, but Yvette didn’t care. Sasha was home.

She rushed off, speeding towards the makeshift garage as fast she could.

Gortys was already there when she arrived, her arms latched around Loader Bot’s legs, and babbling very quickly about the events of the past few days. Sasha listened to her, her elbow on Loader Bot’s shoulder. Rhys chatted to Fiona and Sasha, Vaughn at his side. The Eridian zipped from Sasha’s side to Rhys, chattering and flashing its wings a range of colours. Rhys just stared at it and ‘Uuuuuh’ed back.

The Claptrap lingered nearby, looking strangely awkward

Athena clambered out of the caravan with a huff, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her expression as murderous as ever. Vaughn turned to her, smiling nervously. Most people looked like that around Athena.

“Hey, Athena, have a good time on the road?” he asked.

“If you count killing the same idiot fanboys over and over as a good time, then yes, I did,” she said tersely, and then rubbed her forehead, “I found out our reception venue was destroyed, so we’re back to square one with planning. I am starting to think we should just hold the ceremony on Elpis.”

“Destroyed? How?” Vaughn asked.

“I can’t get any sense out of any of the idiot townspeople about it,” she said, shrugging, “They just kept babbling about a giant metal monster rising out of the ground and then running off with a big piece of metal in its hand. Destroyed half the town and then vanished.”

“That sounds terrible!” Gortys said. Athena gave her a very brief half-smile before her expression returned to its signature scowl.

“Either way, I need a bath. Do not interrupt me,” she said.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Vaughn said, holding his hands up. Athena snorted and stormed past, giving Yvette a cursory nod before disappearing down the hallway. Sasha watched her go and then spotted Yvette, her face brightening up.

“Yvette!”

Yvette suddenly became aware that everyone was watching her, Fiona with her eyes narrowed, Rhys with that weird half-kicked-puppy, half-amused expression he always had when the whole topic of her and Sasha’s relationship came up. She took a few faltering steps forward, hand on her hip, other hand raised in greeting.

“Hi,” she managed, eventually. Was she supposed to hug her or something? She wasn’t sure. Christ, it really hadn’t been that long. It just felt it.

“Hi,” Sasha said, grinning.

Yvette stood for another minute, shifting from foot to foot. Sasha tilted her head

“Yvette! Hi!” Gortys called, waving something in the air, “Fiona and Sasha brought me back a new colouring book!”

Yvette looked at Sasha, head tilted.

“Where the hell did you get a colouring book on Pandora?” Yvette asked.

“Kids grow up here too, Yvette,” Sasha said, lifting an eyebrow, “And orphanages have really bad security. You can just walk right in and take whatever you want.”

“…You’re…you’re kidding, right?”

Sasha only smirked.

“Did you guys bring anything back for me?” Rhys interrupted. Fiona rolled her eyes, and then gestured at the caravan with her thumb.

“Yeah, Dickfeeder found you some eridium on the road, and we picked up one of Yvette’s orders too. It’s in the safe…kind of didn’t know what else to do with it,” she said. Rhys clapped his hands together.

“Excellent,” he said, entering the caravan.

“Don’t eat it all at once!” Fiona called after him.

“I don’t eat it, Fi!”

“Seriously, cupcake, don’t overdose and die. We need that stuff,” the Claptrap said, rolling to stand by Fiona’s side, shouting over the sound of Rhys rummaging around in the caravan.

“I’m not going to use it! I just want to – to look.”

“Riiiight,” the Claptrap and Fiona said, giving each other a knowing look.

“Our lives have gotten really weird,” Sasha noted, glancing up at Yvette and wrapping an arm around her waist.

“Yeah. How was the trip back? You get everything we need?” she asked.

“Of course! I’ll get some of my Children of Helios to unpack the samples and take them upstairs. Gortys can help them set it up,” Sasha said, and then gave her a thoughtful look, “You never visited the Atlas dome, did you?”

“No,” Yvette said, “Never stumbled across it while I was doing mercenary work out there.”

“…You should. It’s. Kind of nice,” Sasha replied, rubbing the back of her neck, “I mean last time I was there Rhys had this whole melodrama because he thought I was going to fall to my death and then kind of flipped out and slapped my ass but –“

“What?”

“That thing’s fault,” she said, nodding towards the Claptrap, who was embroiled in some kind of argument with Fiona, “…It’s still here, huh?”

“Unfortunately.”

She was interrupted by a flash, and the appearance of a small, floating insect before them. The Eridian made a series of quick high-pitched sound at Sasha, who only smiled back, scratching it absently on the top of its head.

“You know, this little guy was surprisingly good company,” Sasha said absently.

“Seriously?”

Yvette couldn’t quite believe it. She’d never been much of an animal person, but even if she was she couldn’t quite envisage getting fond of something as bizarre-looking as the Eridian.

“Well, yeah,” Sasha replied, “Got us out of a pinch on the road. Some asshole fanboy had Fiona at gunpoint, and I couldn’t get there quick enough, but the little guy just grabbed him, teleported away, and teleported back.”

“Where’d the fanboy end up?” Yvette asked.

“Hell if I know, but it got him out of our hair, anyway,” Sasha said, “The fanboys have been kind of a pain. They don’t even seem to be doing anything – every time we come across them, they’re arguing and fighting each other. And when they’re not doing that, they’re just attacking people at random. Like they don’t really know what they want.”

“Think they’re dangerous?”

“Ha. Only to themselves,” she said, still petting the Eridian, “You know, I feel like they’ll burn each other out eventually. They can’t all be Handsome Jack, after all.”

“Hey, let’s hope,” Yvette said, “I sure as hell don’t want to have to deal with them.”

“Hey,” Rhys interrupted, walking over to them with one hand on his hip. Sasha bolted up, casting an anxious look between Rhys and Yvette. She breathed in, pushing back the still powerful desire she had to punch Rhys every time he spoke.

“Hi,” she said instead.

“You guys have a good time out there?” he said, and then scratched the eridian under its chin, adopting a ridiculous gooey voice, as though he was talking to a baby, “What about you, Dickfeeder? Did you have a good time with Auntie Sasha?”

“Auntie Sasha?” Sasha repeated, amused.

“Rhys, what the hell are you doing?” Yvette asked. Rhys straightened up, going red in the face.

“I…I don’t know,” he admitted, folding his arms, “But hey, listen, girls, we have everything to test the GIVRS project. We’re meeting at Gortys’s office in a few hours to discuss next steps. You two should be there.”

He went back to the others, quickly enough that Yvette could tell he was pleased to be away from them. She turned to Sasha, and was surprised by the tension in her face, the unhappy furrowing of her brow and the sucking in of her breath. Was it really that awkward between her and Rhys?

“Are things between you guys…okay?” she asked.

“Sort of? I’m not sure,” Sasha admitted, “It’s awkward. It’ll probably get less awkward eventually.”

“You know, Sasha, I’m starting to think you might actually be an optimist or something gross like that,” Yvette said, smiling. Sasha punched her gently on the shoulder.

“What about you? Have you stopped wanting to murder him yet?” Sasha asked.

“…It’s getting there,” she said, and sighed, “Can’t say we’re exactly best friends any more. Hard to say which of us I blame more for that.”

“Sasha said, and then glanced at her, a sly smile on her face, “So, we have a few hours. What do you wanna do?”

“Oh, I can think of a few things.”

“…You’re going to make me watch that documentary about the Atlas stock crisis, aren’t you?”

“Among other things, yes.”

 

Streaming anything on Pandora was an absolutely infuriating experience – even on Helios, where the staff had done their best to boost the ECHOnet connection, videos would stop and buffer every twenty minutes. Yvette had been using the time to fill Sasha in on everything that had happened, but even that (and the good fifteen minutes Sasha spent laughing at the fact Yvette had shot Rhys) only stretched so far.

“I kind of understand why your pop culture knowledge is so limited now,” Yvette noted, as the video stopped and began to buffer again.

“There’s physical recordings of movies and TV shows around. They're expensive, though, and most of them have Hyperion tampering. You know, Handsome Jack’s stupid face photoshopped over the protagonist’s, anything that might incite us violent rabble to action edited out, ads for Hyperion products edited in…” Sasha began to list, counting off on her fingers. Yvette snorted, her lips twitching.

“Well, you have Rhys’s old department to thank for that,” she said. Not that the boundaries between Hyperion’s departments or job roles had been that firm. After Handsome Jack’s death, what little structure the Pandoran branch had had quickly dissolved into anarchy, with people being shoved out of airlocks, stabbed in the back, and Hyperion patents sold off left, right and centre. It was only slightly worse than it had been with Handsome Jack alive.

“Why am I not surprised?” Sasha said, and then sighed, “You know, I had myself half-convinced that we’d come back and Rhys would have come to his senses and turned that thing into a footstool.”

“Rhys has stubbornness issues,” Yvette said.

“Ha. That’s the peak of the iceberg,” she replied, settling against Yvette’s shoulder and watching the little circle on screen go round and round.

“I’m just saying, I don’t think – I think we’re not getting rid of that thing until Rhys feels like he’s won,” Yvette continued, chewing on her lip. It was sort of like how Rhys had doggedly insisted on going to the same gym as Vasquez. How he would not stop messing with him, despite Yvette’s many pointed comments about just letting things go. Rhys didn’t, he couldn’t, he needed to win. It didn't matter to him that Vasquez could and would have killed people who got in his way. He had just seen it as another challenge to overcome.

She had just never expected him to take it so goddamn far.

“He brought down an entire space station to spite the damn thing,” Sasha said, “How can he not feel like he’s won yet?”

“I don’t know. Rhys is crazy. He’s always been crazy,” she said, “I think we’ve just been underestimating him for a while now.”

“You’re not going to try and convince me he’s evil again are you?” Sasha groaned, half-laughing, “I mean. Come on.”

“No, but he – we’ve done some bad stuff,” Yvette said, and couldn’t quite convince herself to talk about it further. Even aside from everything that had happened after Rhys and Vaughn went to Pandora, there had been more than a few knifes in co-workers' backs, people they’d stepped on, issues they’d look the other way on, and that eridium mining deal they’d closed, the one that had sent the ECHOnet in a tailspin of debate and fury for a few days. They'd laughed off the criticism, the social media hysteria, the protests on Pandora and other planets, assuring each other that the jobs created and the profit made outweighed the costs. Yet Yvette remembered the way Vaughn had occasionally looked tense, doubting. The way she and Rhys had fed each other the same lines over and over, building up walls of rationalisations around them both.

“Hey,” Sasha said, sitting up and frowning at the expression on Yvette’s face, “It’s not like I have a clean slate, exactly.”

“The scale of these things are different,” she muttered.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Sasha said, clasping Yvette’s hand in hers, “Don’t do that thing where you get all sucked into your own thoughts.”

“That’s a thing I do?”

“Oh yeah,” Sasha said, “You kinda space out sometimes. Just sit there staring into space, thinking.”

Yvette snorted.

“Well someone around here has to.”

“Well…yeah, but, you kind of go too far the other way sometimes,” Sasha said, “Like, you were so mad at Rhys when you came here, and I think it’s…I think it’s because you spent all that time by yourself just thinking about it and thinking about it and making yourself madder and madder and –“

“What, I wasn’t entitled to be mad about it?”

“Of course you were! It just…I just feel like you were torturing yourself with it a little,” Sasha said gently.

Yvette wanted to ask Sasha if she’d prefer if she acted like Rhys about it, never letting anything go but always acting on it, skipping straight over actually thinking and just leaping from one stupid idea to the next.

That wasn’t what Sasha meant, though. Yvette knew that, for all her insecurities. She let the thought pass.

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Yvette said, and then nudged the laptop’s keyboard with her toe – the screen came back to life, but it was still buffering. Sasha groaned.

“Well, it doesn’t look like I’m going to learn about the intergalactic stock market today,” she said, and then smirked at her, “What a shame.”

“Hey, it is really interesting!” Yvette said, “One man’s actions had a huge impact on intergalactic business and economics. And that’s not even going into the political ramifications.”

“You’re a nerd. But sure. I promise I will one day watch your nerd movie with minimal mockery. But maybe not today,” she said, and leaned over to close the laptop. For a moment, she stayed still, chewing on her lower lip, her hand still splayed over the top of the computer. She turned and gave Yvette a look that made her instantly uncomfortable. It was the kind of look that came before the words ‘We need to talk’.

“I need to talk to you about something.”

Shit.

“Right. Well, that’s always a good start to a conversation,” she said, “But go ahead.”

“Um. Well,” Sasha said, glancing across the room, at everything aside from Yvette, “Do you…think we’re…um.”

“Yes,” Yvette said, eager to make this conversation as swift and un-awkward as possible.

“…What?” Sasha said, looking at her.

“I think we can pretty firmly say we’re dating at this point,” she replied, folding her arms and smirking, “Kind of figured we were too cool for that conversation.”

Sasha burst out laughing.

“Yvette, oh my God,” Sasha said, “That wasn’t what I was about to ask.”

“Oh.”

“But yes. We are. For the record. But oh my God,” Sasha said, one hand over her eyes, shoulder shaking. At least it had broken the tension, Yvette thought, feeling the blood rushing to her cheeks.

“Okay, okay, I’m an idiot,” Yvette said, pleading for mercy, “What were you actually going to ask?”

Sasha sighed and stopped laughing. She leaned back against the sofa, her arms closed around her and her head tilted back, looking at the ceiling. After a moment, she began to speak again.

“Look, I’ve just. While we were away I talked with Fi a lot about their time in that Vault, and it just got me thinking about –“ Sasha said, and then shook her head, as if the words were coming out too quickly for her to organise them, “We’re the good guys, right?”

“What?”

“Or, at least. The things we’re doing, they’re not bad are they?”

“I – uh. Huh. What makes you say that?”

“It’s – the scale of this is different to what me and Fi used to do,” Sasha said, biting her lip, “It’s kind of a big deal. And I just, I’m starting to wonder if maybe this is going to be something we regret.”

Yvette’s stomach did a few uncomfortable flips – as much as she hated to say it, she hadn’t even really thought about it. For all she’d ruminated about the shitty things she and Rhys and Vaughn had done together back at Hyperion, turning the guilt over and over in her head, she’d somehow failed, completely, to consider whether what they were doing now was just the same old shit.

It wasn’t the same though, surely? It wasn’t like the eridium mining deal – there’d be no families forced out of their homes, no towns destroyed. They weren’t screwing anyone else out of it. Just because they hadn’t worked out all the details meant it would necessarily end badly.

“Doesn’t seem like something we’d regret to me,” Yvette said, “Most land on Pandora is useless, but from what Rhys and Fiona said, it sounded like the land in the Vault could be used. You know, agriculture, create jobs. We could make sure it only goes into responsible hands. We could use it ourselves. Properly, you know.”

Sasha pressed her hands together in her lap, looking at them, avoiding Yvette’s eye.

“You really don’t see any other issues with this?” Sasha muttered, and Yvette had the infuriating feeling of being given an unexpected test, one with ambiguous rules.

“We could have a more serious meeting about it, if you’re concerned,” she said, briskly, “It may be useful to more formally discuss any concerns with the project as a group, really.”

“Yvette!” Sasha snapped, “Don’t do that.”

“I can’t always help it,” Yvette snarled back, and then caught herself, immediately ashamed. She breathed in and slowed down, “Old habits, you know?”

“…I know,” she said, softening, “I just hate when you go all heartless Hyperion suit on me. I forget where you came from most of the time, and then you say stuff like that.”

“You know, not everyone at Hyperion was this evil automaton you imagine them as,” Yvette said, irritated, “It’s when you say stuff like that I remember where you came from.”

Sasha looked at her, mouth turned in an angry scowl, but her eyes showing hurt, real hurt, and that was so much worse.

“Pandoran scum, right?”

Shit.

“No, no no. Sasha, sorry, that wasn’t – I didn’t mean that,” Yvette scrambled, grabbing Sasha’s hands as she attempted to get up, “That was a dumbass thing for me to say.”

“It was.”

“Just, Sasha, this Vault is what you’ve been chasing after this whole time. Why the cold feet?” she asked.

“There’s just something bothering me. I don’t know how you aren’t seeing it!” Sasha said.

“Well tell me!”

“…I’m kind of worried that since you can’t see it, you won’t take it seriously when I bring it up,” she muttered.

“I promise I will.”

Sasha seemed to think about it a while, and Yvette could feel her hands shaking in hers.

“…I’m going for a walk,” Sasha said finally, and then at the stupid, scared look on Yvette’s face, “Yvette, I’m not mad at you, okay? But I think if we keep talking now I will be. I’ll just end up yelling at you and you’ll end up yelling at me and it won’t help. I just need to think and cool off first.”

She could say that all she liked, but Yvette still felt like they were abruptly having a fight. She didn’t even know what over.

“Okay?” Sasha said again, "I'll be back in half an hour at the most."

Yvette thought about demanding Sasha stay and explain what she was being so weird about, yell that Yvette couldn’t possibly read her goddamn mind and was she expecting her to do just that, because this whole ‘taking a walk’ shit could just be an excuse to leave, an excuse to mess her around.

Or Sasha could just want a minute to cool off. Like she said. And maybe not every single goddamn thing other people did or said came with an elaborate hidden agenda.

“Okay,” Yvette said, and pulled her hands away.

 

Rhys had to admit, he was nervous. Excited-nervous, but nervous. The whole project fell apart if Rhys couldn’t use his powers properly. Aside from getting them out of the Vault, he hadn’t managed much of anything. And he’d only managed that while under a lot of stress. Maybe without that do-or-die pressure, he wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing.

Leaving the robots and Vaughn to do the last check-ups on the GIVRS project, Rhys had excused himself to go to the kitchens and get something to eat, hoping that would ease his stomach. He just turned into an empty hallway and saw Sasha, staring at the wall. She looked up, and before Rhys could duck into a nearby room or turn back the way he came, made direct eye contact.

Nobody else was around. There was no other route to where he needed to go. He couldn’t just push Fiona between them, or come up with a reasonable excuse as to why he suddenly turned back around. He couldn’t even, reasonably, pretend he was talking on his ECHO about something and hadn’t noticed her. They stared straight at each other for another agonising moment.

“Hey,” Sasha said finally, looking as awkward as he felt. Rhys raised a hand in greeting, and his arm made an unhappy scraping noise, and got stuck in mid-air for a few minutes.

“Hey,” Rhys said, attempting to look as though the weird angle his arm was jammed at was entirely intentional. He leaned against the wall, attempting to look suave and natural. Judging by the look on Sasha’s face, it wasn’t working.

Rhys cleared his throat.

“So. What are you looking at?”

“Fanart,” she said, and gestured to yet another one of the Children of Helios’ drawings on the opposite wall, “You know, I’m really thinking of instilling a ban on drawing this stuff on the walls.”

“Huh, I dunno, I come off pretty good in it,” Rhys said, tilting his head and squinting at drawing-Rhys’s flatteringly chiselled abs and washboard stomach. Rhys couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the Children of the Helios would be disappointed by the real product. “They really give my workout habits more credit than they deserve. Is that you clinging meekly to my pecs?”

“You know, I think it is,” Sasha said, wrinkling her nose, “Which is ridiculous! I can bench-press you! I have bench-pressed you before.”

One of the many ways they’d passed time on the road. It had been, frankly, kind of hot, although Rhys resented Fiona’s accusation that he’d ‘giggled like a schoolgirl’ while she did it. He had giggled like a school…man.

“I know. Who’s that supposed to be? The one I’m standing on, I mean?” he said, indicating the figure on the floor that drawing-Rhys had his foot on, “Jack?”

“…No that, uh. I think that’s Yvette,” Sasha said.

“Oooh…err,” Rhys said, and it became awkward again in record speed, “Wow that is, um. Not very flattering. She’s not too popular with the Children of Helios, huh?”

“She’s not great at PR,” Sasha said, a little smile on her face. Embarrassed, Rhys glanced away.

“She’s never been much of a people person,” Rhys said, and then, “You know, I’m kind of surprised you two get on so well. Yvette’s always been terrible with women. I once convinced her to talk to this girl she’d been checking out at a bar and she just started babbling about Hyperion’s policy on transporting human bodies between systems. For twenty minutes. It was terrible.”

“Because you’re always such a smooth talker?” she said, a wry smile on her face.

“Hey, I can be! You got to know me when I was out of my comfort zone!” Rhys said. He had done well enough for himself up on Helios. Especially since he had always been covering for Vaughn and Yvette’s complete lack of people skills as well.

Sure, he had practically sold his soul to fit in, but, hey, that’s corporate culture.

“Right, well,” Sasha said, “It’s just good that it isn’t awkward between us now.”

“Totally. Not awkward at all.”

“Nope.”

“We’re being grown-ups about it.”

“Yep. We are definitely grown-ups.”

They fell silent, Sasha fiddling with her gun, Rhys straightening the collar of his jacket. He coughed.

“So!” they both began at once, and then fell silent again.

“So, why are you out staring at walls?” Rhys said finally. Sasha rubbed the back of her head.

“Just…needed to take a few minutes to think,” she said, and then glanced at Rhys, “You – you, Vaughn and Yvette – you did some kind of shady stuff at Hyperion, didn’t you?”

“Oh. Oh, well. Yeah. We did,” Rhys said, thrown by her question. It wasn’t exactly a topic he relished revisiting. There was a part of him that wished he could just forget all the stupid bullshit he’d pulled over the years, just wipe it out of his own head and never have to deal with again. “I’m…not proud of it. And neither is she, I don’t think.”

“Right,” Sasha said, sounding uncertain. Rhys cleared his throat.

“Look, I don’t know if you guys had an argument or something and, I’m still not totally thrilled with Yvette, or with this whole…situation,” he said, gesturing vaguely to indicate, well, everything, “But I don’t think any of us really want to be the same assholes we were back at Hyperion. And before the backstabbing stunt she pulled with Vasquez, we had some good times. She’s smart, resourceful, funny…”

He shrugged, scratching behind his ear. Sasha gave him a look and then leaned against the wall.

“Right,” she said thoughtfully, and then turned her head to look at him directly, “Oh, by the way. Rhys. I’ve been meaning to ask. What the hell are you doing?”

“Uh, what, just, in my life in general?” Rhys said. Sasha glowered at him, clearly not amused by his rapier wit.

“You know what I mean.”

Oh good, it was Sasha’s turn to interrogate him about his life choices. Rhys had been thinking she was probably due a go.

“People keep asking me about that. Kind of reaching the point of obsession, guys,” Rhys said.

“You brought a genocidal maniac back from the dead and put him in a household appliance,” Sasha said, “I think we’re entitled to be a little incredulous about it. I mean, he almost got us all killed last time. You, especially.”

“I had a lot of reasons.”

“Fi said you were also really high when you did it.”

“Hey, that is untrue!" he said, "I was high beforehand.”

“She also told me you got naked and cried.”

“Goddamnit, Fi,” Rhys said, shaking his head, “Look, Sash, I have the situation under control. I’m just – I’m trying to sort some things out in my head, okay?”

Rhys knew that was kind of an understatement. Sasha didn’t need to know how much of one it was.

“What, so you brought a guy who almost killed you back from the dead for…what, closure?” Sasha said, gawking at him as though he was the biggest idiot she’d ever seen in her entire life, “Rhys, that – that’s insane.”

Rhys shoved his hands in his pockets, leaning back next to her.

“Yeah, well, it’s like you said,” he said, “You spend a lot of time with someone, you end up seeing different sides of them, and understanding them in ways you don’t expect.”

For a second, it seemed like he’d rendered her utterly speechless, and then she slapped both of her hands over her face and let out a long groan, half-laughing.

“Oh my God. Rhys. You’re a disaster,” she said, her shoulders shaking.

“Huh? What’d I say?”

“Nothing, I just – look. Rhys. I’m not going to try to tell you what to do because clearly that doesn’t work,” she said, “But if you get in over your head, will you please just tell us this time? Instead of being stubborn and, you know, nearly getting us all killed.”

“…In my defence, when I told you guys I had that Jack AI inside my head, you kind of flipped out.”

“Um. Yeah. Sorry about that,” Sasha said, rubbing the back of her neck, “Me and Fi do have temper problems.”

“Really? I never knew,” Rhys replied, voice dry as he could make it.

“We’re working on it,” she replied, looking uncharacteristically sheepish.

Rhys was about to reply when a message popped up in the corner of his eye – everything was good to go, ready for the beta test. He closed the tab and grinned at her.

“Hey, sounds like we’re ready to go,” Rhys said, “Want to head up there together?”

The smile vanished from Sasha’s face, replaced by a pensive look Rhys didn’t quite understand.

“You go ahead. I’m gonna head back and pick Yvette up,” she said. Rhys shrugged.

“Okay. See you in five.”

He left, only giving Sasha a last wondering glance, but found his thoughts quickly overtaken by how close they were to the project’s completion.

 

Everything was in place – all of the pieces of the GIVRS machinery had been installed, the software Rhys and Jack had put together seemed to be fully operational, all of Jack’s additions thoroughly checked for anything suspicious. With the biosamples and the co-ordinates from Gortys’s map, all that remained was to test it. After that, it was a case of sending their drones to the coordinates, and then figuring out how best to split the profits.

There was, however, the small issue that Rhys still had next to no idea how to use his powers. Yet he was sure with a strong enough hit of eridium, plus being hooked up to the GIVRS programme, he’d figure it out.

They’d figured everything out so far, after all.

Give or take.

“So, how’s everything looking?” Vaughn asked, looking at the screen over Rhys’s shoulder.

“It should work. We could do it now, really,” Rhys said, as he checked a few last things. He opened his ECHOeye screen and began to hook his own system into it – it took a while, he might as well start now, “But we should send the drones out there to cloak it, and test is properly.”

“How do you test retrieving an entire island?” Fiona asked, sitting on the GIVRS hub as though it wasn’t an incredibly expensive piece of equipment, “That’s, you know – that seems like kind of an all-or-nothing thing.”

“Mm, well, they didn’t finish planning that before, you know, Athena murdered all of them,” Rhys said, “I’ve already tested it in simulation but...”

“Ah, c’mon, let’s just do it. What you gotta mess around for? We already zapped in and outta there, can’t be much different,” Jack said, tone suggesting he was already thoroughly bored of this discussion.

Rhys had to admit, there was a large part of him that agreed and just wanted to get on with it already. The sensible part of him, a part that always sounded a bit like Yvette, reminded him that he was operating with incredibly dangerous untested equipment, with incredibly dangerous powers he had absolutely no idea how to use. The much bigger part of him that just wanted to get on with it and get rich already yelled at that part to shut up.

“We’ll test it first,” Rhys said firmly, and opened up the case of eridium Sasha and Fiona had brought back. Just looking at it made Rhys’s skin tingle warmly all over, although he was at a loss on how to absorb that much eridium at once.

“Well, I could fiddle around with the co-ordinates and power settings, and we could bring back something really small, just to check Rhys can do it okay,” Gortys said, and then quickly added, “Though I’m sure you’ll do great, Rhys!”

IT WOULD BE BEST TO MAKE SURE, Loader Bot said, and then looked at Rhys, YOU ARE VERY SKILLED AT MAKING SIMPLE THINGS VERY COMPLICATED.

“Yeaaah, maybe we, I dunno, bring back a plant or a rock or something first,” Fiona said, “Where’s Sasha anyway?”

“They’re on their way,” Rhys said, taking a bar of eridium out of the case and examining it idly, “Though it is taking them forever, urgh.”

Vaughn made a face at Rhys, looking at the piece of eridium in his hand. 

“Uh, dude, are you sure that stuff’s okay?” Vaughn said, “I know we need it for this to work but. Nothing that glows like that could possibly be good for you.”

“Eeeeh, Rhys was practically eating this stuff by the handful in the Vault,” Fiona said, waving a hand, “He’ll be fine.”

“Okay, that is just a gross exaggeration,” Rhys said, “And again, I don’t eat it.”

“Look, guys, I just think it’s a bit crazy we’re so casual about this,” Vaughn said, “People die of eridium exposure.”

“Relax, sweetheart,” Jack said, patting Vaughn far-too-familiarly on the stomach. Vaughn stepped away, narrowing his eyes at him. “Listen, you’re worried for our boy here, I get it, we all are.” Vaughn outright snorted at that. “But, hey, Rhys’s biology is made for that stuff. It’s good for him! Probably!”

Probably?” Vaughn repeated.

“If it was that bad, Dickfeeder would have probably stopped me by now,” Rhys said, gesturing at the Eridian, perched over the case and looking in curiously.

“Um. We’re relying on the alien who can’t talk for this?” Vaughn said.

“They’re reliable,” Rhys said, “Besides, if I don't help, our only other option is building another Gortys unit. And that’ll take forever.”

“And I’m not sure I’d like a sister!” Gortys piped up, “I read somewhere that robots from the same product line don’t always get along very well.”

“Vaughn, it’ll be fine, don’t worry so much,” Fiona said, looping an arm over his shoulders, “Just think about how rich we’ll be after this.”

“You know, you’re technically a millionaire already,” Rhys said, “Is that not enough?”

“Absolutely not,” Fiona said, “Besides, we all know that, sure, this much dough can set me up well on Pandora, even get me and Sasha out of here and to the next system, but, if I want to be a galaxy-travelling Vault Hunter with my own badass ship, it’s just not enough. Plus. You know.”

She made a vague gesture at Rhys and Vaughn.

“No, I don’t know, what?” Rhys said, smirking, “Don’t want to leave us behind?”

“I’m going to punch you in the teeth, Rhys.”

“You totally can’t bear to leave us behind,” he said.

“Oh, you are so begging for a trip to the dentist’s.”

Rhys only grinned at her.

“Rhys, you like pissing her off far too much,” Vaughn sighed, “Where are they?”

“Eeeh, probably,” Jack said, and made an obscene gesture with his hands. Fiona kicked him in the eye and he fell to the floor with a hard clunk, his wheel sticking up in the air and whirring uselessly.

“Ow. Okay. You know what. I should have seen that coming.”

They were spared from one of Jack’s disjointed rants by the sound of the doors opening, and the arrival of Sasha and Yvette. Looking at the grave expression on both of their faces, Rhys wondered if they’d been arguing. Yet he glanced down and saw that their fingers were touching, very lightly.

“Hey, how’ve you been, ladies?” Jack greeted them, “As you can see, I’m on the floor. Again. And nobody’s helping me. As always.

Everyone ignored him.

“Uh. Hey. What’s up with you guys?” Rhys said, laughing at their expressions, the sound coming out horribly false, "I mean, come on, who died?"

Yvette and Sasha exchanged a look, Yvette giving her a tiny nod.

“ Fiona, Rhys, you said there was a lot of Eridians living in the Vault, right? Like them,” Sasha said, nodding towards Dickfeeder. Fiona and Rhys shared a blank look – although Rhys had a creeping feeling of something he’d been attempting to let himself overlook crawling closer and closer to the surface.

“Yeah, a bunch,” Fiona said. Rhys nodded, keeping his mouth closed and his fingers tight around the piece of eridium in his fist. Sasha breathed out, rubbing her hand through her hair. Yvette folded her arms tighter over her chest, and gave Sasha a quick, encouraging glance.

“Okay. Guys. You’re going to hate me for saying this,” Sasha said, and then took a deep breath, “But I think we should cancel the GIVRS project.”

Chapter Text

Yvette had been expecting for Sasha’s suggestion to result in an immediate screaming match. However, Fiona and Rhys only looked at her blankly, while Vaughn stood silent, a look on his face telling her that this had been gnawing at the back of his mind as well. The Claptrap, still lying on the ground, was unusually quiet too, as if waiting to see how they’d react.

Eventually, Gortys broke the silence:

“Huh? Cancel it? Why?” she asked, completely innocent of what the rest of them were already thinking.

“Guys, there’s – well, not people, exactly, but the Eridians aren’t just animals. And they’re living there, and we all know what would happen if we went through with this,” Sasha said, “They’d be driven from their homes. Well, let’s face it, that’s the best outcome. More likely it’d be much, much worse.”

“Um, wait, what?” Gortys continued, the others remaining silent, “Well, I know there were a bunch of aliens there, but why would that be bad? As long as we make sure the humans that move there are nice, that shouldn’t be a problem! I’m sure we can figure out a way to share things between us fairly.”

“Gortys, that’s just not how these things work,” Sasha said, her shoulders tense, “We can say we’re going to do it right and make sure nobody gets hurt, but we can’t even talk to the Eridians. And there’s no way anyone willing to buy that land would think twice about razing the whole island to the ground. We can’t do this.”

“But –“ Gortys began.

“I’ve been. Kind of thinking about this too guys,” Vaughn admitted, swallowing, “I hate to admit it, but I kind of agree with her.”

“There’d be ways around any problems though,” Fiona said quickly.

“Exactly,” Rhys agreed, “We’ve been working our asses off on this, we can’t stop at the last hurdle.”

“We just have to be smart about how we do it, that’s all,” Fiona continued, “We’ve gotten this far –“

“And if we go any further it’ll be too far, Fi. Think about this!” Sasha said, “No matter how smart we are, even if we find the nicest billionaire CEOs in the world to buy it up and develop it, even if we plan everything in detail and do everything right, what happens if the Eridians don’t want to cooperate? What if they leave the island? What if people decide they don’t want to buy, they just want to take? What are we going to do? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re not exactly a group of badasses like Athena or Lilith or any of those guys! We just make stuff up as we go along! It's kind of amazing we haven't died already.”

“Come on, you’re over-reacting,” Rhys said. 

“We’ll figure something out,” Fiona agreed, nodding.

“No, we won’t! Guys, we never figure anything out! We come up with crazy plans and then we don’t actually work out the details, or think about the consequences! And then to deal with any problems we have, we just come up with even crazier plans. I mean come on, when we fought the Traveller I almost died,” Sasha said, her voice getting louder and louder. Yvette touched her arm and she breathed in, slowing herself down.

“I just. I don’t want to be part of something that people are going to look back and hate us for,” she finished.

"Since when did you start thinking things through this much? You were the one who threw herself into the Traveller to begin with, I never wanted you to do that!" Fiona asked, and then looked at Yvette, "Is this you talking?"

"It's both of us," Yvette said firmly, refusing to be pigeonholed as some kind of saboteur, "But Sasha is the one who brought it up to begin with. And I think she's right."

“Look, people could use that land, Sasha,” Rhys said, reasonably. Yvette could practically see him digging his heels in. She knew he was going to be difficult. Convincing him to just walk away from something scraped at the very core of his personality. He’d barely ever let anything go in his life, always charging through regardless of the potential consequences, or Yvette’s warnings, or the people he’d have to bulldoze down on the way. Asking him to just give up on something ran contrary to the way he was built.

“They’re just going to do to it what they did to everything else on this planet, Rhys,” Yvette said, and received a glare in response. She sighed, brushing her hair out of her hands and continued, pleading with that tiny part of Rhys’s brain that dealt with ‘rational decision-making’, “Think about it. We don’t even know how most of this technology works. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Rhys, she’s right. It works in theory, but it’s all untested. We don’t know if the island would survive the climate up here, what effect this would have on the rest of the planet…” Vaughn said, shaking his head.

“I –“ Rhys began, looking not at Vaughn, but at a point above Vaughn’s head. Was he even paying attention? It sure as hell didn't look like it.

“Alright, kids, here’s my question,” the Claptrap interrupted from the floor, “What’s the issue? The Eridians?”

“Yes! You absolute sociopath!” Sasha said, “At minimum¸ that’s the issue here.”

“First of all, hurtful. I really consider myself more of a puckish rogue. Second of all, Dickfeeder’s right there,” it said, waving its arm in the Eridian’s direction, “So what does it freakin’ matter?”

“What?” Vaughn asked, frowning.

“Well, I’m just saying, the only Eridian we care about is there! He’s fine, he’s great, he’s happy! He ain’t gonna get butchered. So what does it matter?” it continued. Sasha looked at Yvette, expression incredulous. Yvette shook her head – it would be a waste of air to attempt to reason with this thing. Besides, why should Rhys’s stupid pet factor into their decision.

“Jack, we’re talking about the other Eridians,” Rhys said, rubbing his forehead.

“Okay, but. Dickfeeder’s right there, he’s fine!” the Claptrap insisted again, “We don’t care about any of those other guys. In fact, hey, I don’t know if you forgot, but they’re a bunch of stabby douchebags that tried to murder us a million times. So what’s the issue?”

“We’re not talking about one Eridian! The issue – the first issue is the Eridians already living there are going to suffer,” Sasha said, and then looked pleadingly at Rhys and Fiona, “See, guys, look, we can’t –“

“But – but Dickfeeder’s right there,” it interrupted, sounding legitimately baffled and frustrated, “Listen, I don’t think you’re following me here, kiddos, he’d be fine. Seriously! What is the frickin’ deal here?”

“Oh my God,” Yvette said. She had the feeling that this conversation could go on forever.

“Rhys, come on, back me up here,” it said, “You kids would be crazy to let this opportunity slip through your fingers.”

“We can’t come this far and give up,” Fiona said quietly, although it sounded as though her resolve was crumbling.

Rhys remained silent beside her, fist clenched around something, his expression tense. For a second, Yvette thought her eyes were going funny, but then she realised that the air around him was rippling.

Sasha looked at him, and Yvette tugged on her wrist, trying to convince her to take a step back. She didn’t want to cause a panic, but she had the rising feeling that they should get clear of him.

“Rhys?” Sasha said, “Come on, you can’t be still thinking we go through with this.”

“Will you shut up and let me think!” Rhys yelled, although he wasn’t looking at Sasha. Yvette looked around, trying to see what Rhys was looking at, but there didn’t seem to be anything. She glanced at Vaughn and saw he was watching Rhys, his face pale.

“Hey, Rhys, bud, I think you need to calm down,” the Claptrap said, voice odd. Rhys's chest heaved as he breathed, in and out, his forehead already slick with sweat. Yvette glanced down and saw there was something purple, glowing, clenched in his fist. It was flickering, quickly.

“I don’t –“

There was a cracking noise and a flash of light, and then Rhys was gone.

Jerking upright with a high-pitched noise, the Eridian took to the air, and disappeared as well.

 

See, this is the thing I hate about you, Rhys. You, and him, too. And all your asshole friends, while I'm at it.

You all act as though you’re the good guys, the heroes of this stupid story, but all you were all deliberately ignoring the nastiness you’re about to commit, and how little you know about how it’d work. You just hoped nobody would ever say that little issue aloud. You realised it would be a problem, but you intentionally pretend you didn’t, so that when you got what you wanted, all that money and power, and looked back and saw all the fucking carnage and bloodshed in your wake, you could just be all ‘Oh dear, well nobody could have known!’.

But you did.

You always knew.

See, this is the thing. This is your big secret. You don’t actually care about doing the right thing. All you care about is that people think you’re good. That you can pretend that you’re good, to yourself. It’s all for show. You don’t mean any of it. That's what gets me.

You can’t even admit you’re a monster.

 

“Where the hell is he?” Fiona said, for what felt like the fifteenth time, looking over Yvette’s shoulder at the screen. The tracker still showed Rhys in the exact same room as them. Yvette hoped that meant that Rhys hadn’t just disintegrated into the thin air.

“Rhys, if you’re invisible and just being an asshole, now is maybe not the time,” Sasha said to the room, looking around. Vaughn stood, tapping his foot very quickly, and Yvette could tell he was agitated. They all were, as much as she’d loathe to admit it.

“Rhys is okay, right?” Gortys said, “Guys?”

They looked at one another, expressions blanking, each hoping the other would have an idea. Nobody really knew anything about how people like Rhys worked, or what they were capable of. They had no idea what the hell they were doing at the best of times, especially not when dealing with a completely unknown variable.

That, and Yvette was starting to suspect that, even with everything else aside, Rhys was definitively not okay.

“Hey, okay, so. I think I have an idea.”

They turned to look at the Claptrap.

“You know, I’m not sure if we really want to listen to one of your plans right now,” Sasha said coldly, “Or ever.”

The Claptrap tutted, and waved a hand in the air dismissively.

“Not a plan, sweetheart, a theory. And I’d be more than happy to share it if someone would pick me up off the friggin’ ground already!” it bellowed, “I mean seriously! How long are you kids going to leave me down here!”

Vaughn sighed and nodded at Loader Bot. Reluctantly, Loader Bot moved towards the Claptrap and pulled it upright – more roughly than was probably necessary.

It stood, wobbling for a second, before managing to steady itself, Gortys grabbing onto its side to help it stay upright.

“Finally! God! How hard is it,” it whined.

“Right, so, out with it,” Sasha said, “Make it quick.”

“Fiesty, love it. You know, I always thought you were the less hot of you and Hat over there, but hey, what you lack in height and headwear, you make up for with sass,” it said.

“You know, Rhys isn’t here to protect you right now,” Sasha replied, voice thick with disgust, “I’m not totally above taking this chance to disassemble you.”

“Please, he doesn’t protect me.”

“Jacktrap, stop being an asshole for five minutes and tell us what’s going on,” Fiona said, leaning against the wall with her arms folded, “Oh, and, just so you know, he is pretty much the only reason you’re not scrap metal right now.”

“Right, right, whatever. Well, to me, that little light show looked a lot like Phasewalking,” it said, “Or, you know, a version of it.”

“Phasewalking?” Vaughn asked.

“It’s pretty pedestrian, really, was hoping Rhys had something a bit more interesting up his sleeve, but hey, take what you’re given, right?” it continued, shrugging, “They shift into another dimension, and then pop back out in a different place. Teleportation, without the whole Locke’s socks dilemma. My…Hyperion’s research team thought this would be a pretty common ability. I mean this kind of dimension hopping and shifting thing is the whole basis of Siren abilities, so hey, they should all be able to do it, right?”

“So, what, Rhys is in…a different dimension now?” Sasha said slowly.

“Probs.”

Probs?” Vaughn barked.

“Hey, I’m giving my best guess here, kids,” the Claptrap said, “Not like you idiots have any better ideas.”

“Oh, hey, he’s moving!” Gortys said, pointing at the screen.

Moving, Yvette thought, wasn’t the right word for it. It looked more like thrashing. The icon on screen jolted back and forth in jerking saccades, and then rushed across the screen in one swift movement. And then again. Twitching and thrashing, and then sweeping across to some other part of Helios.

“What the hell is he doing?” Sasha muttered.

“Yeeeah, I don’t think he’s got much grip on this new superpower of his,” Fiona said, “Man, he is the worst at this.”

“Makes sense,” Sasha mumbled, “We’re the worst Vault Hunters in the world, Rhys is the worst Siren.”

“Guys, look, I know this whole ‘making inappropriate jokes because we’re stressed and uncomfortable’ is, you know, our thing, but this is serious! What if he gets stuck there?” Vaughn said, voicing the thought that had been lingering at the back of Yvette’s mind. The Claptrap scoffed.

“Please, he won’t be able to keep this up. He’ll pop back out any second now,” it said, and then shrugged, “Well. Probs.”

“Stop saying probs!” Vaughn said, “You’re, like, a middle-aged man, stop saying probs!”

“Weeeell, technically, I’m five,” the Claptrap said, “Ha, although that’s kind of a topic for debate, right?”

What?”

HE HAS STOPPED MOVING, Loader Bot pointed out, gesturing at the screen. The little H had finally stopped jerking around, settling at a spot on the floor below. After a moment, it began to move again, at a walking pace.

“He’s coming back this way!” Gortys said, rushing towards the door, “Yay! I’m so glad he’s alright.”

“Uh, Gortys, wait,” Vaughn began, and was interrupted by the creak of the door sliding open. Rhys stood on the other side, smiling, but Yvette tensed, her hand almost going instantly to her pistol.

Something didn’t seem right. He was leaning to one side, and Yvette noticed immediately why – his cybernetic arm hung dead at his side, deactivated. The smile on his face looked like a rubbery mask, as though his muscles were being pulled into place forces underneath it. His eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the room, and she got the sense that he was ready to dive away if anyone moved towards him too quickly.

The Eridian hovered behind him, wings flickering and head tilted, followed by Athena, glaring at Rhys's back, her mind clearly already rushing to work.

There was a hard noise, and Yvette saw that the Claptrap had backed into the wall.

“What are you doing out?” it snarled.

“Rhys?” Gortys said quietly, looking up at Rhys, her expression puzzled. Sasha looked at Yvette, her hand going to her gun, but Yvette gestured for her to stay calm. She nodded, watching him cautiously.

“Oh, hey, not quite,” Rhys said, and his voice didn’t sound right either. Stress placed on the wrong syllables, vowels dragged out in ways Rhys never would.

Rhys took advantage of the bewildered silence and moved into the room, one hand on his hip, his cybernetic arm stiff at his side, his ECHOeye flickering rapidly.

“Hey! So! Guess this is the first time most of us have met, right?” he said, loud and boisterous. He didn't sound like himself, but he sounded horribly familiar, Yvette realised, her gut clenching.

“You are not meant to be out right now,” the Claptrap snapped, its voice boiling over with loathing.

“Oh, am I not? Well, gee, sorry, Rhys stepped out, so I guess I got the reins by default this time,” he replied, shrugging, and then grunted, glancing across at his cybernetic shoulder, “Urgh, this arm.”

He reached over with his biological hand and pressed a few buttons, cybernetic eye flashing, and then pulled on something. Grunting, he grabbed his cybernetic hand and dragged the whole arm out through the sleeve. With a short ‘Ha!’, he threw it to the floor with force enough to make it bounce. Vaughn recoiled back and stared at the arm, and then back up at Rhys with horror.

“Better. Really annoying having that piece of dead weight hanging off me,” Rhys said, shaking himself as though loosening up for a hard workout, “Can’t say I’m totally crazy about the adjustments he’s been making to this body, but hey, guess I wasn’t around to give my input at that point.”

“What’s – Rhys?” Vaughn asked, but Rhys didn’t even acknowledge him – his eyes didn’t seem to focus on anyone in particular, gaze sliding right over them as though they were part of the furniture. His ECHOeye continued to flash, as though rebooting and restarting continually, or scanning everyone and everything in the room rapidly.

“Rhys, if this is a frickin’ joke…” the Claptrap snarled. Rhys’s eyes landed on the Claptrap, as though it had only just realised it was there, and his expression brightened, something nasty lighting up in his eyes.

“What’s going on? Who’s this? Why’s Jacktrap acting all weird?” Gortys asked, looking at Rhys, utterly bewildered. Rhys glanced across at her, face splitting in a huge grin.

“Ha, well, see, last time I had some time in the driver’s seat, me and that thing didn’t really get along so great. See, I wanted to figure things out - really look at the pieces I was made of, and figure out what was real and where it came from and which of those pieces really counted as me. Kind of thought we could collaborate on it, but that thing didn’t want to think about a damn thing, just wanted to keep up its sad little act. So, I took what I wanted. It didn’t like it.”

“Stop freakin’ monologuing you insufferable douchebag!” it bellowed.

“But I’ve got more questions, now,” Rhys continued, as if the Claptrap hadn’t spoken, “And I’m sick of listening to these two morons bickering and pretending I don’t exist. So, hey, no hiding it now, is there? It’s all out in the open now, Rhysie. Have fun dealing with that when you wake up!”

“Rhys, if you’re messing with us right now –“ Fiona began.

“Ha. No. And if he comes back and tries to tell you he was, he’s lying,” Rhys said, and then turned onto the Claptrap, “Now, hey, this has been bugging me. I’ve been looking and looking at those bits and pieces of Angel – remember her, the girl "you" killed? Yeah, thought you might. And something occurred to me. How did Nakayama get that data?”

The Claptrap didn’t reply, so in a swift movement, Rhys seized its antennae in his fist and began to pull.

“Do you think Handsome Jack would have told that freaky little doctor anything about his baby girl? Do you think any of those dweebs working with her would have spilled, knowing what he’d do to them? You think anyone else who knew anything would even be alive? Do you think anyone fucking else would have even known what we know?” he said, and the Claptrap began making a series of angry noises, beeps and crackles, swatting at Rhys with its hands, “So where did he get that data, “Jack”? Come on, figure it out!”

Yvette decided she needed to act – whatever was happening, it couldn’t be good for Rhys, and it was only going to escalate. She rushed forward, swung back her arm, and punched Rhys as hard as she could across the face.

He staggered back, releasing the Claptrap’s antennae, and held his cheek with a hand. He looked at her, expression bewildered, his face pink where her knuckles had mad contact.

“Hey! What was that little tap fo –“

Another fist slammed into his face and he fell back, dropping to the floor unconscious. Sasha rubbed her knuckles.

“I really need to teach you how to punch properly, Yvette,” she said.

“Thanks,” the Claptrap muttered.

“That wasn’t for you,” both Sasha and Yvette said at once. They looked at Rhys on the floor, crumpled on his side, his cybernetic arm lying next to him, fingers splayed. Vaughn crouched next to him, tentatively checking he was alright. Fiona rubbed the back of her neck, something in her expression telling Yvette she’d been worried about something like this for a long time.

“What the hell was that?” Gortys said.

Chapter Text

Yvette was about to put forward her own theory, or at least begin some kind of reasonable discussion, when the Claptrap started to scream.

“Rrrgh! Aagh! God, I just! Argh!” it yelled, throwing its arms up and throwing the tiniest, most ineffectual tantrum Yvette had ever seen.

Yvette supposed that if it had been in the body of a six foot tall man with a penchant for shooting people in the face, it would be intimidating – when displaced into the body of a common household appliance, it became obvious that the whole display was…kind of pathetic. Yvette didn’t know how Handsome Jack had gotten away with them for so long.

“Rrrrgh! Argh!” it continued to scream, crackling and buzzing and beeping.

“Wow, he is…really mad,” Fiona noted.

“Yeah. I would have assumed this was his doing, but, well. Honestly? I don’t think anyone can fake this big of a tantrum,” Vaughn said wearily.

I am not throwing a tantrum!” it yelled, voice echoing as though fed through a synthesiser.

“Hey, you are modelled after the galaxy’s greatest tantrum thrower,” Fiona said, shrugging, “Not really your fault, exactly.”

The Claptrap screamed again, looking dangerously close to tipping itself over.

“Jacktrap! Your words, use your words!” Gortys crowed. The Claptrap turned to her, throwing its arms down with one last cry of frustration.

I hate that guy!” it blurted out, clenching its fingers as though imagining them wrapped around a throat, “They’re a {BEEP}ing prick. Always making stupid long speeches and friggin’…argh!”

“Oooooh boy,” Fiona said, scratching her chin, “Who wants to tell him?”

Yvette shook her head, holding up her palms. Not a chance.

“No way,” Sasha said, making the same gesture, “I’m not touching this one with a forty foot pole.”

“What are you three talking about!” the Claptrap snapped.

The humans exchanged a glance, and then came to the silent agreement that this was a conversation absolutely none of them wanted to have. Yvette, for one, wasn’t remotely interested in dealing with a deranged AI’s clichéd self-loathing narcissist deal. If Rhys insisted on keeping the damn thing, he could clean its psychological litterbox. Wasn’t any of her damn business.

“Hold on,” Athena said, and they all jumped. Yvette had completely forgotten she was there. She looked between them, a dangerously calculating expression on her face. The tone in her voice made Yvette’s stomach clench.

“Yes?” Vaughn asked, sounding nervous as well. Athena, as much as she commanded respect, had never exactly been one of the gang. It was hard to be friends with someone who could rip you to shreds with her bare hands if she wanted to.

“I’m not sure I understand everything that’s happening in here, but…that idiot has another idiot in his head?” Athena said, jabbing a finger at Rhys. Vaughn swallowed and nodded. “And it sounds a lot like –“

“It sounds nothing like him,” the Claptrap snarled, “Don’t even think it, Athena.”

Athena turned on the Claptrap, eyes blazing. The Claptrap, to its very limited credit, didn’t even flinch. If Athena had looked at Yvette like that she would have grabbed Sasha and ran out of the room screaming.

“And…you.”

“Yep. Me. Hi.”

Yvette couldn’t tell whether it sounded cocky or resigned, but the electronic quality to its voice had vanished.

“Well. I’d ask if you missed me buuut well, let’s face it, you wouldn’t have. And whether we actually ever met is a little…eeeeeh,” the Claptrap continued, wobbling its hand in a gesture of uncertainty, “But I’m getting pretty used to this weird existential ambiguity about my, y’know, everything.”

Athena gave Vaughn a cold, expectant look, demanding he make the world make sense again.

“Look, Athena, this looks bad, I know…” Vaughn began.

“But?” Athena prompted.

“Um…well, I’m working on that part,” he admitted, scratching the back of his head.

So, to recap: not only does the idiot who brought down this entire station have barely controlled Siren powers, but also he’s completely mentally unstable,” Athena said, and then cast the Claptrap a disgusted look, “And he’s probably responsible for…that thing.”

“Oh, come on,” Vaughn said, laughing shakily, “Rhys doesn’t have Siren powers.”

Of all the things to attempt to deny, Yvette thought, that was the stupidest one.

“He appeared in front of me out of nowhere, glowing,” Athena replied flatly.

“Right, that is, uh, pretty damning,” he replied, and then looked desperately at Yvette for assistance. Yvette swallowed, scrambling for something to say.

“Athena, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but let’s not do anything rash,” she began, but Athena held up a finger to silence her, closing her eyes. They looked at one another, all with the uncomfortable sense they knew what was coming.

After a moment, Athena opened her eyes and drew her blade, taking a step towards Rhys.

“Woah, Athena, don’t!” Fiona blurted out, in the same second Vaughn drew his shotgun and aimed it at Athena’s stomach. Yvette’s fingers lingered over her own gun, but she hesitated – this wasn’t likely to be a situation where pointing guns at one another would help. Especially since they had little to no chance of winning that fight, even outnumbering Athena as heavily as they did.

“Athena, what are you doing?” Gortys said, stepping in front of Athena, and looking around at them all, “What’s happening? Why’s everyone so upset again?”

“Just step aside,” Athena said, “We should nip this in the bud when we have the chance.”

“No, you can’t just kill him!” Fiona said. Vaughn only wordlessly shook his head, too horrified at the prospect to speak.

“Listen, I’ve made this mistake before!” Athena shouted, “You let a dangerous person live, out of misplaced loyalty, or friendship, and just hope the situation doesn’t get any worse. You think it’s the best way to deal with it. The most moral.”

Yvette glimpsed at the Claptrap – it didn’t seem to react.

“But you know what happens? A dangerous person doesn’t get less dangerous, they get more dangerous. Then people start to die. The whole planet suffers, and if you’d just ended it early, you could have prevented it,” she continued, “I promised myself I’d never make that mistake again.”

“This isn’t the same, Athena,” Fiona said, taking a step towards her, putting herself between Rhys, passed out oblivious on the floor, and Athena, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Rhys is nothing like him. It isn’t going to end like that.”

“You don’t know that,” Athena said, “Get out of my way, Fiona.”

“Wait,” Gortys said, looking at Athena’s drawn blade with an expression of dawning horror, “Are you going to kill Rhys? Why is this how humans deal with everything! No!”

“Why are you all being so difficult about this?” Athena said, taking a step forward. Gortys grabbed onto one of her arms, hooking her skinny metal arms around Athena’s elbow, dragging her down with all of her weight. Athena huffed, sagging to one side, snarling at them.

“You’re letting your emotions get in the way of doing what’s right!”

She took another step, dragging Gortys along with her with an awful screech of metal.

The Claptrap latched onto her other arm.

“Hey, hey, nope, no can do. If anyone’s smashing that moron’s skull in, it’s me. Until then, I kind of need it intact, thanks,” it said.

“Will somebody get these stupid robots off me!” Athena screamed. Vaughn shook his head, gun still trained on Athena. Athena looked across at Yvette.

“Yvette. You have to see that I have a point. I’ve seen this all happen before.”

Yvette bit her lip, conscious of all the eyes on her.

It wasn’t like the thought had never occurred to her before. In all the years she’d known Rhys, he’d wanted to be exactly like Handsome Jack. He’d never had the taste for violence, but maybe that was something a guy on his path picked up on the way. Part of the reason she had decided to give Rhys a stun baton, rather than a gun, was that a tiny part of her hadn’t exactly relished the idea of what he could become capable of if given the opportunity to find out.

Yet, the idea of slaughtering him in cold blood, just as a precaution, made Yvette shiver.

She looked across at Rhys on the floor, a bruise forming on his face where Sasha had punched him, one shoulder ending in a metallic stub, his remaining arm curled beneath him.

“No, this isn’t the right way to deal with this,” she said finally, trying to avoid looking at the disgusted expression Athena’s face.

“Loader Bot!” Gortys cried, since apparent even her and the Claptrap’s combined weight was not quite enough to completely stop Athena’s advance, “Help!”

I AM HERE, he said, appearing behind Athena with his gun drawn. For a horrible second, Yvette thought he might genuinely shoot Athena in the back, but then he dropped the gun and wrapped his arms around Athena in a bear hug, lifting her into the air. She thrashed and snarled, kicking her legs.

After a moment, she finally fell still, breathing heavily, expression still murderous.

“Alright, alright, fine,” she said, “At the very least, we should destroy that thing.”

“What, me?” the Claptrap said, in a pitiful attempt at innocence.

Beside her, Yvette felt Sasha breathe out, and she saw the same expression on Vaughn’s face. Part relief that they weren’t about to witness Athena beheading Rhys, part tentative relief that somebody was going to do something about that thing.

“What! Why! No! Stop killing each other! Why are you all like this?” Gortys yelled, “Loader Bot, keep hold of her.”

...I AM NOT SURE I SHOULD, Loader Bot admitted, but retained his grip on her.

“No,” Fiona said, earning bewildered looks from all of them, “No, we shouldn’t destroy him.”

“Fi, seriously? Are you for real!" Sasha burst out, eyes wide.

“Ha! See, me and you, Hat, we –“ the Claptrap began.

“Oh shut up,” Fiona interrupted, giving it a disgusted glance, and folded her arms, “Look, I’m just thinking maybe we don’t do anything that might upset the unstable man with the dangerous superpowers. I hate to say it, I mean, I really, really hate to say it, but if Rhys wakes up and Jacktrap is gone, it could get ugly.”

“…I see your point,” Vaughn conceded with a sigh.

Yvette and Sasha looked at one another, and Yvette saw that Sasha was, begrudgingly, seeing her sister’s point. They shared a quick nod.

“Okay, so we’re agreed. No murdering anyone today. Or anything,” Yvette said, a faltering attempt at humour. Athena did not look amused.

“You people are insane,” she said, “This is going to be a disaster.”

“Maybe,” Fiona said, “But, hey, maybe not.”

“Are you going to be nice?” Gortys asked, “Because I know sometimes you can be really, really nice! Loader Bot is only going to put you down if you promise to be nice.”

“…I won’t kill any of you, if that’s what you mean,” Athena growled.

“Good enough! Loader Bot?” she said. Loader Bot released her, and Athena dropped to the floor, sheathing her blade. She looked around at them all, distaste and fury evident on her face.

“But you all have to know, this isn’t going to end well, and I refuse to stay to see it go wrong,” she said, “I’m leaving. My contract is done.”

“Oh, no, Athena, don’t –“ Gortys began, but Loader Bot put a hand on her shoulder. She glanced up at him and fell silent, frowning with her arms folded.

“You can take a runner,” Vaughn said. Athena only gave him a sharp look and a nod, and then stormed out of the room. Yvette let out a puff of breath, pushing her braids from her face, as Vaughn bent to check on Rhys. Fiona glanced down at the Claptrap.

“Stop looking at me like that,” she snapped.

“Looking at you like what, Fiona?” it said, “It may have slipped your attention, but I don’t have a friggin’ face.”

“And yet I can still tell I don’t like the way you’re looking at me. It’s amazing, it really is,” she said, and then turned her attention to Vaughn, “How’s Rhys?”

“He looks okay? I don’t know," Vaughn said, and then added, with more than a small measure of concern, "Am I the only one getting worried about how often Rhys gets hit on the head?”

“Please, he gets knocked out so often, his body’s probably developed a coping mechanism,” Sasha said, with a weak laugh, “We could start playing a game with Rhys’s weirdness: ‘space magic or brain damage’!”

Nobody laughed. Yvette coughed.

“Okay, so we’re not ready to joke about it yet. Got it,” Sasha said, cringing. Yvette patted her on the back.

They looked down at Rhys.

“Uh. So,” Fiona began, “What do we do with him?”

 

“Is he going to be okay?” Gortys asked Vaughn, as he dumped Rhys onto his bed and pulled off his shoes. Gortys hung around, the Eridian perched on top of her head, watching Rhys with no small measure of concern.

“He’ll be fine, Gortys. He’s just a little, uh. Sick, right now,” Vaughn said. Gortys hummed, unconvinced, but decided to leave the issue be.

“Well, I’ll take care of him! You should go make sure the others aren’t all fighting again,” she said brightly. Vaughn thought for a moment, and then nodded.

“Just call me if you need anything,” he said, patting her on the shoulder, before heading back out. Gortys looked at Rhys, and then at Dickfeeder, bouncing around the room in an buzz of anxiety, and decided to keep herself preoccupied with her comic book for a while.

It was hard not to think about it, though.

Gortys didn’t know that humans could have more than one person in their head. Rhys had acted a little funny in the past, something to do with Jacktrap living in his hard-drive or something, but she’d never really understood what all of that was about. However, whoever that mean person had been, Gortys was absolutely certain that it wasn’t Rhys.

Really, Gortys was just surprised the human brain was big enough for more than one person at a time.

It happened with AIs now and then, she supposed, so it made sense. Two separate AIs could be loaded onto the same hardware. It needed to be a very good, fast piece of hardware, one with plenty of memory space, but sometimes it happened. It never ended very happily - it was hard for them to say separate. Eventually, processes and thoughts would overlap, and things got all muddled. Mostly, as far as Gortys knew, they eventually ended up trying to destroy each other, or got so confused they stopped being themselves entirely.

She didn’t think very much of the humans that did that to them. It didn’t seem very fair.

The more she thought about it, the more she realised that some humans who made AIs did not seem to do it very nicely, or very well, or with much thought to how the AI would eventually live. In fact, they didn’t seem to think about it at all.

If you were going to make a person, Gortys thought angrily, you should really think about how that person was going to cope with being themselves later.

She’d completely lost track of the plot of her manga. Sighing, she put it aside, sliding a slip of paper between the pages to keep her place. Dickfeeder landed beside her, chittering.

Quickly, she became so immersed in conversation with the Eridian that she completely failed to notice Rhys wandering out of his bedroom.

“Gortys? Can you understand them?” Rhys said, his eyes wide. Gortys looked up at him, quickly certain it was the real Rhys, and smiled.

“Oh, no, I have no idea,” she said, “But it never hurts to be polite!”

“…Right.”

“I think she’s talking about you though!”

“Uh, really? How can you tell?”

“She’s miming falling over a lot,” Gortys replied, although could tell by the look on Rhys’s face that wasn’t the right thing to say. Humans didn’t like honesty sometimes, Gortys had realise, although that was confusing because they all said they did, and then there were humans like Vaughn that always seemed to make similar mistakes, and that seemed fine with some humans, but really made other humans mad. She really wasn’t sure how they kept track of it all.

“Do you want some food?” she said, for lack of any better ideas of how to make Rhys feel better. He looked at her and then nodded, sitting down at the dining table.

“Yeah, ha, I am really hungry right now, actually, Gortys,” he said, rubbing the back of his head.

“Well, that’s probably all the running around in another dimension you did!”

“…Wait, what?”

Gortys pulled some eggs from the fridge and shoved some pans over the hob, turning the gas on with a turn of a knob. After a second of thought, she smashed the eggs straight into the pans – the insides were good to eat, she knew, but the shell looked pretty, so that was probably good too.

“Well, everyone was yelling at each other again, and then you got all agitated, and then you disappeared, and Jacktrap said you were in another dimension, and then you ran around there for a bit, and then you reappeared but it wasn’t you but then Yvette punched you but that didn’t work so Sasha punched you and then you were knocked out and then Athena wanted to kill you and then everyone yelled at each other some more and then Athena left and now you’re back!” Gortys said, very quickly. Rhys stared at her, uncomprehending, as she scraped eggs onto his plate.

“Oh, and I don’t really know how much you cook this for, so I cooked some of it for lots really hot, and then some of not for very long at all over a low heat. So at least some of it’s gotta be good, right?” she said.

“Uh, sorry, Athena wanted to kill me?” Rhys said, and then laughed, one of those horrid fake laughs humans did when they were uncomfortable, “I gotta say, Gortys, I don’t really remember the last…uh…however long it’s been. So we were all arguing about the project and then…I vanished?”

“Yeah. We stopped her though,” she said, “You don’t remember?”

Rhys shook his head.

“Why did she want to kill me?” he said, and his throat sounded dry. Gortys poured him a cup of water, pushing it into his hands.

“Well, not you, but you know, the other person that’s living inside you,” she said, “She thinks they’re dangerous. And, um, well, okay, I guess she thinks that you’re dangerous and unstable too. Only a little, though! And I completely disagree!”

“Oh.”

“It’s okay! We all agreed that wasn’t good, so me and Jacktrap grabbed her, and then Loader Bot grabbed her, and eventually she gave up and left. Which is sad, I like Athena, but I like you more, so that’s alright,” she said.

"You all agreed?"

"Yep! Me and Loader Bot and Jacktrap and Yvette and Fiona and Sasha and Vaughn all said so. I mean, Jacktrap said something weird about smashing your skull in but he always says things like that," she continued, with a roll of her eyes, "I've told him humans don't like that kind of thing. Honestly!"

There was a popping sound behind them – the toast was done! Gortys grabbed both pieces of bread, and slammed it into Rhys’s eggs, splattering egg whites onto both of them.

Rhys scowled at the splatter on his jacket and dug inside of his pockets, pulling out a few different things before managing to locate a handkerchief (with the Atlas logo embroidered on the corner, Gortys noted happily), mopping himself dry with it.

“You carry a lot of stuff in your inventory,” Gortys noted, observing the miscellaneous items Rhys had pulled from his pockets.

“My inventory?” Rhys repeated, snorting as though Gortys had just told a very funny joke.

“Well yeah!” she said, looking at the stuff on the dining table – a little USB stick, a few screws and crumpled dollar bills, and a little handheld device, “Oh, hey! That’s my upgrade! Neat! I haven’t seen that in a while.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rhys said, picking it up, and then offered it to her, “Maybe you should keep it. You know how to use this stuff better than I do.”

“Oh, um,” Gortys said, looking at it with a frown, “That’s a little weird, Rhys. I can’t use it. Uh, well I can but it’s a little…”

“Huh?”

Gortys shook her head, trying to think of a comparison humans would understand. It just didn’t feel right to use your own equipment like that! Sort of like…a human holding their own skull, or their lung? No, that wasn’t right, it wasn’t the holding that was weird. Plus, those comparisons was probably the kind of things that humans would find upsetting even to hear. They were very sensitive, sometimes.

“Just keep hold of it for me, okay, Rhys?” she said. Rhys shrugged and tucked it back into his pocket. Gortys beamed at him and then looked at the as-yet untouched food on Rhys’s plate, “Is something wrong? Did I mess that up? I’m so sure that’s food, but it’s really hard to figure out what’s food and what’s not sometimes!”

“Oh, er, of course not,” Rhys said quickly, snatching up his fork and, with a funny fiddly movement, scooped up some egg and soggy bread and thrust it into his mouth, “See. Mmm. Great stuff, Gortys.”

“Oh, good, yay!”

Gortys watched him eat. Eating was something she’d never really gotten used to – she knew that humans didn’t have an internal power source, and needed to supply their bodies with external…stuff, but it seemed kinda gross and weird. And there were so many complicated rules about what was and wasn’t food and how to eat certain foods - it sounded like a lot of work. Yet a lot of humans seemed to quite like it.

Rhys noticed her staring and looked up, an odd, pensive expression on his face.

“Gortys, do you ever want to try it?” he asked slowly, as if the question had been weighing on him for some time.

“Huh?” she said.

“Food, I mean.”

“Oh, uh. No. Not really? Why would I?” she said, blinking, “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and everything, but no.”

“I mean, but don’t you –“ Rhys began, and then cut him off with a sigh. He let his gaze fall, glancing briefly on Gortys’s manga. He looked up at her and began again, “I mean, don’t you want to look more…would you rather look like a real girl?”

“I am a real girl!”

“I know that,” he said, “But you don’t look like one, so wouldn’t you rather –“

“Of course I look like one,” Gortys interrupted, utterly bewildered, “I am a girl, so I look like a girl! What else would I look like, aside from myself? This conversation is weird, Rhys.”

“…Yeah, sorry, you’re right,” Rhys said.

Looking at him, Gortys abruptly realised what Rhys was actually asking about. Although, she had to admit, she thought what he was actually asking about didn’t even really need to be said!

“You know, being like a human isn’t the only way to be a person,” Gortys said carefully, giving him a scrutinising look. Rhys smiled at her, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Right. Sorry, Gortys,” he said, “Is there more toast? I’m starving.”

“Coming up!”

 

“Well, he’s not dead and he doesn’t look like he’s going to move into a different dimension any time soon,” Vaughn said, re-entering the room, “I dumped him in his bed. Gortys is keeping an eye on him.”

“Gortys? Not the doctor?” Fiona said, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m trying to limit how many people know about this,” Vaughn said, “This could cause a really big panic, I mean, the Children of Helios will freak. God. There’s already enough problems here – the fanboy attacks, money going missing, staff running off, in-fighting, but…”

Vaughn shook his head.

“Right. So. What the hell is going on?” Sasha said, looking at something on her ECHOcomm, “Has Rhys somehow got another dangerous megalomaniac in his head? Does he have a drawer of them up there?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t think we can rule out that thing’s involvement,” Yvette noted, inclining her head at the Claptrap, which was doing its best to pretend it didn’t notice the large gun Loader Bot was pointing at it.

“You’re right. I don’t think it’s likely, but I don’t think we can totally rule it out either,” Vaughn muttered, rubbing his cheek, “But Rhys did mention he was having. Problems.”

“So he is losing it,” Sasha said, shaking her head, “I should have known.”

“We don’t know that!” Vaughn said, and then hesitated, “But, uh, it is a possibility.”

Yvette sucked on her lower lip, trying to think. As far as she could see, that was the most straight forward explanation. Having a malicious AI in your head, witnessing all the death and destruction on Pandora, and then bringing down Helios, murdering hundreds of his ex-co-workers in the process, that was enough to make anyone snap. Rhys had always been sort of erratic, it wasn’t hard to imagine that with enough pressure, that crackling core of energy and ambition could explode into full-blown psychosis.

Another probable scenario was that the Claptrap was doing something to control him, and it was play-acting as a smokescreen, to deflect attention away from itself. In that case, they were absolute idiots and should have let Athena turn it to scrap metal the second she offered.

The final option, the one Yvette liked least, there really was some new, dangerous thing trapped in Rhys’s skull again. Maybe a virus, or maybe Rhys had just not scraped out everything of the AI when he dug out chunks of his cybernetics from his skull.

And there was, of course, Rhys’s powers, a completely unknown variable, likely interacting with everything else in ways they couldn’t possible expect. She didn’t even have enough to make reasonable guesses on that matter, so shelved that data point for later.

The other details, Yvette was struggling to grasp, but the thing using Rhys’s mouth, whether some distorted version of Handsome Jack or not, had sounded angry to point of deranged, and desperate to boot. It wasn’t going to be something that went away easily.

She didn’t have enough information. She needed to know more about what was going on, about how neural cybernetics worked, some background information on Sirens. If she had her way, she’d disappear to her office for a few hours to research and get things down on paper, explore options and possible solutions.

Yet it was time and resources they didn’t have, and information that wasn’t even likely to exist. Yvette didn’t exactly relish the feeling of stumbling in the dark at the best of times. When it was possible that their lives were on the line, she enjoyed it even less.

“What are you thinking?” Sasha asked, breaking her out of her reverie.

“There’s a few options,” Yvette said, chewing on the inside of her cheek, “I don’t really like any of them.”

“Can’t Rhys just -” Fiona said, and then made a scooping gesture to her temple, as though scraping something out of her skull with a knife, “I mean, it worked last time.”

“Urgh, the exact problem we’re having right now is that it didn’t,” Vaughn said, “His neural cybernetics are worked into his brain, right through his nervous system. He scooped out the hardware but, that’s…not exactly a professional uninstallation. Removing neural cybernetics is usually a long and complicated procedure.”

“And Rhys tried to do it with a shard of glass,” Fiona said, “Typical.”

“Hey, I didn’t give him that many options,” the Claptrap piped up, “It was, haha, it was really gross though. Like. Man. Just friggin’ jabbed a dirty piece of glass into his eye and popped that lens like a friggin’ beer cap. Dude’s freaking crazy, I tell ya.”

Yvette swore that the damn thing sounded downright nostalgic about it.

“Look, it doesn’t matter how or why Rhys’s brain is all messed up!” Sasha interrupted, “The issue is what we’re going to do about it.”

“You’re right,” Vaughn said, and then looked up at Yvette, “Yvette, you were a psych major, right?”

“Psych minor. In organisational psychology,” Yvette said, “I can advise us on good team-building activities, and administer the Myers-Briggs test. This is a little outside of my expertise, Vaughn!”

“Shouldn’t we get the doc involved? Or, I dunno, a really good software engineer or something?” Fiona asked, “I mean, maybe I’m just used to Rhys being weird, but is it that big of a deal? So we have to bop him on the head now and then when he’s getting kind of freaky. What else is new?”

“You just don’t want to have to deal with it,” Vaughn said, shaking his head. Fiona groaned.

“Can’t we at least deal with it after we’re rich?” she whined.

“We haven’t reached a consensus on that either,” Yvette corrected her sharply.

“Look, guys, I just –“ Sasha began, and then trailed off with a sigh, “I don’t think Rhys should be on Pandora right now.”

Yvette couldn’t help but agree, but the others fell silent at the suggestion. Sasha dropped her eyes guiltily back to her ECHOcomm screen.

“Sasha, what are you looking up on there?” Vaughn asked. Sasha sucked in a breath through her teeth, and then showed them the screen.

“There’s a clinic on Elpis,” she said. The website was a multi-coloured mess, featuring two prominent photos – on the left, a masked Psycho, bloodied and shirtless, and on the right, a clean, smiling man in a suit. The caption underneath read ‘From Psycho to Social Worker!’ and then under that, in an optimistic Comic Sans ‘In just six weeks, or your money back!’.

There was nothing to prove that the two photos were even of the same man, to say nothing of anything else.

“Well that looks like a reputable establishment,” Fiona said dryly. Vaughn looked up at her, alarmed.

“Seriously? It looks kind of dubious to me…” Vaughn said.

“Vaughn,” Yvette said, casting him a meaningful look.

“Oh! Sarcasm! Right, got it.”

“There’s not much of this kind of thing in this system,” Sasha said, “Look, seriously, Rhys is a ticking time bomb right now –“

“No he isn’t!” Vaughn snapped, “Look, I agree Rhys shouldn’t stay on Pandora, but we don’t need to act like he’s going to explode at any given moment.”

“He is, at the very least, a danger to himself,” Yvette said, attempting to speak gently. As always, it came out sharper than she intended. She breated in and then continued, "Look, I'm just saying we should consider our options for his sake."

“That’s ridiculous,” Fiona said, folding her arms, “And even if it wasn’t, sending Rhys to some Elpis nuthouse wouldn’t help.”

“And he’s not dangerous,” Vaughn insisted.

“Hah!”

Yvette jumped and turned to look at the Claptrap. She’d forgotten it was even in the room – most of the time it didn’t shut up long enough to be forgotten about. It tutted, arms folded.

“Oh, man, where have you kids been? Rhys is totally dangerous.”

“He’s – this isn’t his fault, he’s not -“ Vaughn began, but the Claptrap cut him off with another sharp laugh.

“Oh, please. I don’t mean because of this. Hey, if anything, this is softening him up a bit. Can’t be that destructive when you’re wrestling with a delusional prick inside your own head, right?” it continued, “Listen, I made the mistake of thinking the guy was just some harmless little dweeb, and look how I ended up. Sure, Rhys can’t tell his left from his right, and spends half of his time with those fancy-pants shoes shoved firmly in his overly-large mouth, but when it gets down to the bone, I mean really down to it, Rhys is smart, he’s ruthless, and he’s got some serious tenacity. I mean, come on, the guy managed to pull off killing me.”

It sounded almost admiring, even proud. Whatever it was, it was creeping Yvette out.

“And this is all before he really starts figuring out what he’s capable of, before he really gets going. Trust me, if he gets those powers under control and stops getting weighed down by that stupid conscience of his, he could really cause some damage,” it said, “That fact you’re even considering just bottling him up. Ha. Unbelievable.”

“You just want to keep him on Pandora so you can use him,” Vaughn said, disgust evident in his voice. The Claptrap laughed again, made a dismissive gesture with its hand.

“Hahaha! Oh, man. That is just hilarious,” it said, “Oh, and, by the way, all this planning and making decisions for him behind his back? Seriously? Have you met Rhys? He is going to not going to appreciate that, sweethearts, not at all.”

“We’re worried about him! He’ll get that!” Sasha said, although Yvette couldn’t help but think she didn’t sound particularly convinced.

“Okay, sure,” it replied, amused.

“We’re just coming up with options, we’re not going to force him into any of them.”

“Uh-huh. Yep. I’m sure that’s how he’ll see it too."

“You know what, why am I even arguing with you?” Sasha snapped, “You’re a sociopathic piece of malware piloting a defunct kitchen device.”