Run “Steam” “C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\Steam.exe”
Launch “Tales From The Borderlands” “steam://nav/console: app_info_print AppID: steam_library_folder/steamapps/common/gamefolder/TFTBL.exe”
Launch Program Failed, Error Code: 1054928b. Corrupt File Detected. Attempting Automatic Backroute Scan In 3… 2… 1…
Backroute Found, Automatic Launch: True. Executing Backroute In 3… 2… 1…
Run “Steam” “C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\Steam.exe”
Launch “Tales From The Borderlands” “steam://nav/console: app_info_print AppID: steam_library_folder/steamapps/common/gamefolder/TFTBL.exe”
Launch Program Failed, Error Code: 1054928b. Corrupt File Detected. Executing System Reboot In 3… 2… 1…
Run “Steam” “C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\Steam.exe”
Launch “Tales From The Borderlands” “steam://nav/console: app_info_print AppID: steam_library_folder/steamapps/common/gamefolder/TFTBL.exe”
Launch Program Failed, Error Code: 1054928b. Corrupt File Detected.
Run saydialogue “Hello? Hello, can you hear me? Are you there? Dammit, listen to me! You can’t do this! Everything will go terribly wrong, so very wrong! Do you understand? ...Shit!”
Run “responsedetect” “C:\Program Files\Applications\Camera.exe” “C:\Program Files\Applications\Microphone.exe”
File Not Found. Program Output “No Response Detected”. Program Reboot In 3… 2… 1…
Run “responsedetect” “C:\Program Files\Applications\Camera.exe” “C:\Program Files\Applications\Microphone.exe”
File Not Found. Program Output “No Response Detected”. Program Reboot In 3… 2… -
Executing Phase Shift.
In case you were wondering, yes. All of that was bullshit.
“Shit. Shit shit shit shit.”
Twelve Dahl military soldiers. Trained military soldiers. Two platoons. A new wave just outside the service doors, waiting impatiently for them to slide open. And all he had to his name at the moment was a very quickly receding ammo reserve.
A hailstorm of bullets whizzed through the air, just barely dodging Jack, the (hopefully) last remaining engineer still on Helios. By this time, if there were any more scientists left on the station, they were either stupid, insane, or dead. Or some combination of the which. Judging by Hyperion’s track record (and their well-meant employment of Jack), the latter was probably true.
Jack swore another time as a bright red reload alert flashed on his HUD. Two shots left, and too many soldiers to use them on. Thankfully, getting desperate and getting creative were his normal states of panic, given that the majority of his decisions affected a fuckton of important and lethal people, so he turned to peer around the Dahl barricade behind him and prayed that there was a clean way out of this.
Just around the corner, thrown amongst the thick of the troops, sat a Torgue grenade bundle package. Hyperion had paid some sort of tens of thousands of dollars on it, but with the destruction of everything else on Helios, paying for another explosive bundle was probably the last thing on the station’s priority list. Which meant it was perfect kill-Dahl-troops material.
Unfortunately, it was also out of his firing range. He’d have to get closer, and for that, he’d need a distraction.
“Argh. Damn Dahl. Damn Zarpedon. Damn purple weapons. Where the hell did these guys get their friggin’ guns, Zarpedon’s personal damn Vault?” Jack muttered to himself. Then he leaned back against a Dahl barricade, shut his eyes, and yelled louder, “Hey, asshats. D’anyone tell you we recently replaced the water in our sprinklers with corrosive acid?”
With the troops suitably distracted (looking at the ceiling like complete dumbasses, god he was so hacking the security camera history later), Jack dove sideways, extended his arm, and fired, gripping his shield like a lifeline as the grenades exploded brilliantly, demonstrating their ten thousand dollar worth well.
The entire room was filled with heat, screams, detached limbs, and then an eerie silence peppered with the slow whirring of dazed Loader Bots. Now there was something that had fallen off of his complaint list. Useless Loader Bots, staring at the destruction with austere bewilderment, then slowly padding on with slightly less of a purpose than they had before.
In the ensuing quiet, Jack picked himself up with a groan and cracked his neck, surveying the damage he had caused. Scraps, shards of metal, and various weapons littered the ground, and Jack outlined the room, meticulously picking through the rubble for available upgrades. He managed to avoid looking too long at the detached limbs and pools of blood scattered about, knowing that if he stared for too long, he wouldn’t be able to look away.
On the bright side, the shitty Hyperion roombas were gonna have a field day with this mess.
Somewhat satisfied with his five-minute result of a hefty Dahl pistol, he began to strut to the center room control panel, when he kicked something metallic and small and glowing bright orange at the top of the steps. Interest immediately peaked, he bent down to one knee, scanning it with his ECHO device as he plucked it from the ground, scrutinizing it between his fingers.
Level Requirement: 1
Doppelganger Action Skill Adaptation Mod
Class Requirement: The Villain
- +5 200% Cooler Skill
- +10 Company Man Skill
- +10 Hero Pose Skill
Adds Expendable Assets sub-Action Skill to your Skill Tree.
Jack blinked, as if he wasn’t sure he was looking at it right. Alarm bells warbled in his head, and he held the device at a cautious arms-length. “...What the hell?”
He turned the device over and over in his hands, half-expecting it to be a fluke, and half-expecting it to explode, as if it were some sort of deadly april fools joke. After a jaw-working moment of debate (on one hand, epic superpowers )((on the other hand, it could have a virus that could completely obliterate his ECHO )), he went for a middle-ground and equipped the mod to his wrist-mounted lasers.
A loading bar appeared at the corner of his ECHO, but it was achingly slow to progress. Jack tapped his foot a few times, then ignored the progress bar and padded up to the control panel to multitask.
A brief analysis on the panel showed that Hyperion’s security was still down; the jamming signal from Elpis was still going strong, and Jack was almost at his wit’s end. The analysis didn’t show Jack’s frustration, but the console would have had a considerable dent if he had kept beating it with his fist. The engineer flicked on his ECHO and remembered at the last moment to stop grinding his teeth and to articulate.
“Vault Hunters- in case you’re lookin’ for an update: we’ve got a space station under heavy attack by ridiculously well-trained soldiers, and every half hour or so, Zarpedon’s carving her lovesick initials into Elpis with our gigantic friggin’ space laser. ...So get off your butts and get that jamming signal off, now .”
“Alright,” Jack muttered to himself, scrolling through the map of Helios on the control panel. “Manual evacuation center, manual evac… there. So… go there… two rights…”
It took two seconds to input the waypoint into his ECHO device, which then gave a cheerful ping, indicating the completion of the installation process. He powered up his lasers, not knowing what to expect, but anticipating the worst. He couldn’t afford to waste ammo experimenting, so he shook out his lasers, smacked them a couple of times, then frustratedly looked up his Skill Tree.
“Doppelganger Action Skill… must mean Tim-Tams. What the hell did those R&D guys give him, anyway?” Jack scowled, leaning toward the console to look up the files, when he was interrupted by loud banging just outside of the room.
“Hyperion detected; eyes open, soldiers!”
“Open up, Hyperion scum!”
It seemed impatient Dahl troops plus heavy artillery equalled an explosive threat to doors. Fingers flying across the keys, Jack leaned imperceptibly forward to try to hurry his movements.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Keep your tits on, I’m going,” Jack yelled, activating the self-destruct initiative on the console and turning tail to run in the opposite direction of where he needed to go. “Heh. See you in hell, suckers!”
The service doors burst open just as Jack stumbled around the corner, the harsh aftershock blowing him sideways. None of those soldiers would get out of there alive, and Jack might have felt bad, had the guys not ambushed him and his station with the exact same intent.
That, and he was kinda pissed that Hyperion’s security was overtaken in a whopping forty-five minutes. You’d think, on a space station packed with engineers, they’d at least take steps to ensure their own safety. But no. They were only here to ‘ observe ’.
God, if only he was in charge of the entire place, he might actually get something done for once… Hell, if he managed to not fuck up getting rid of Zarpedon and hunting the Vault, he might just get the promotion of a lifetime. Which meant more Vaults to hunt, and more riches beyond his wildest dreams.
For now, he had a moon to save.
His feet slapped against the floor, his arms flailing to keep himself from slipping on the newly cleaned tiles. His heart pumped fast enough to power Helios by itself, making breathing difficult in the close quarters of the stuffed Helios hallways. He made it two more minutes down the winding halls, panting, before another part of the legion cut him off at the Hub of Heroism.
“Multiplying like friggin’ rabbits,” Jack grumbled to himself, ducking behind a pot of decorative foliage and powering up his lasers. “Purple, insane, SWAT rabbits.”
“Woo-ho-ho-oaah. Talk about a throwback. When was the last time this place was still painted red?”
Jack froze, his arm automatically swinging to his left to shoot the offending voice, but the lasers didn’t penetrate anything solid, nor did any damage numbers appear. Instead, what he turned to face was a translucent holographic figure, which flinched immediately, clutching its torso as if to block the laser.
“Wh- Aarghh! Jesus, you scared the crap out of me! Don’t- don’t do that.”
His voice was a sharp contrast to his outfit, but parallel to his demeanor. A skittish and obviously out-of-his-element disposition suggested the cowardice of a bottom feeder, but his jacketed vest and gelled hair were common appearances of the wealthy shark-heads at the top of the corporate food chain. Typical of complex AI projections without a mechanical body, blue flecks reminiscent of the Fast Travel stations’ effects floated off of his form. His name appeared in ally green above his head: Rhys.
“Ohhkay, now that’s what I call cool,” Jack looked him up and down, restraining several sudden ideas behind a growing smirk. “Not bad for Tim-Tams. Dude needs all the help he can get.”
“Just ‘cause I’m a hologram doesn’t mean I don’t take damage!” The man frowned, folding his arms as he looked down at the crouched engineer. “What are you, some kind of technician? I don’t need some stupid moron who thinks he’s an engineer experimenting with my health circuits.”
“Oh, great,” Jack rolled his eyes. “They gave it a mouth.”
Across the room, gunfire pierced the air, and a bullet nearly struck the side of Jack’s face. He flung himself sideways into his shelter and took a breath.
“Right, introductions aside, how about you do your damn job and get rid of those troops out there for me, m’kay, pumpkin? Then you can, uh, talk, or whatever tickles your code.”
“What? I’m not made for com- ” the man grimaced towards the sound of the gunfire, then began louder, “I wasn’t built for combat!”
“Look, kid, if I wanted a shitty butler with an annoying voice, I would’ve called for a CL4P-TP,” Jack snapped, opening his ammo compartment and sucking on his teeth. “I’m almost out of ammo. You’ve gotta have some kind of defense protocols in there.”
“Defense protocols. Right, right, I’ve got ‘em somewhere,” the hologram echoed, staring down at his fingers like he was trying to remember something. The iris of his right eye expanded and began to glow a bright yellow, indicating the presence of an ECHO eye.
Wordlessly, he straightened up, nodding uneasily to himself. He turned toward the open Hub and raised his arms, folding his hands into finger pistols. Jack barely opened his mouth in a question before two blinding yellow lasers streaked from the hologram’s fingertips, downing a few soldiers with well-aimed critical hits. For several minutes, he managed to clear out half of the room, though Jack couldn’t help but notice just how badly his hands shook or how his resolve visibly weakened with every pained scream.
“First time killing, huh?” Jack squinted into the fray, expression pleased as the hordes of soldiers fell one by one. Eventually, the room went relatively silent. “Gotta say, you look like a great big box of asswipes, but you’ve got some good firepower. Might be more useful than you look, huh?”
The projection’s firing caught, more out of surprise than the lack of anymore targets. His arms went almost limp, chest heaving as if he had lungs to exert, and he glanced out at the damage he had done.
“Yeah,” he breathed, looking back at Jack as if seeking his approval. “I am pretty good, aren’t I? ...Wait, what the hell did you just say? This is polished skag-skin!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, kid,” Jack waved him off, eager to bring the hologram’s attention back to the fight. Just around the corner, soldiers’ gruff orders and the faint teeth-rattling thump of a mech suit’s footsteps bounced off of the metallic walls. “Keep doin’ what you're doing, kiddo, I'm gonna get more ammo. There’s bound to be way more baddies coming up now that they know where we are, so cover me.”
“Um, that doesn’t sound good,” the hologram blinked, sounding a little subdued, “Nothing about that statement sounded good. Hurry, please.”
Jack didn't respond; instead, he dove toward the nearest ammunition chest and popped it open, crying out jubilantly at his luck. “Full house, now that's what I'm talkin’ about!”
His joy didn't last long, however, as he turned and felt the familiar sting of his shield being pierced. A triumphant cry on the other side of the room was cut short with a gargled scream, but Jack didn’t have time to think about it, as he immediately dropped to the floor, army-crawling his way behind another potted plant.
“Hey, blue-skinned moron! ‘Cover me’ means stop the soldiers before they shoot me, not after!” Jack peered around the plant and caught sight of the hologram similarly ducked behind a bench.
“Yeee-ouuch!” The hologram cried, blowing haphazardly on his smoking fingers. “Ah! Oww! Ehh, that burns, it burns!”
“Oh, for- so much for being useful, dimwit,” Jack huffed, peering around the decorative foliage to aim his lasers. Then to the hologram: “We’ve got to get out of here. You got anything else to blow the lid off these guys?”
“Don’t think so. It’s the only thing I know how to do,” the man grunted, giving his hand a smack and shaking it out. “At least for right now. Until I figure out how to reload my- freaking- hands - ...Dammit! I won’t be combat useful at all.”
“Wh- wait a sec- you don’t even know where your reload protocols are?” Jack frowned, turning his back on a marine to reload. “God, kiddo, how much of a mess are your systems? I took two half-assed courses in AI building, and even I know to always keep a clean code.”
“God, that’s just incredible advice, thank you. Are you always this helpful?”
“I could say the same goddamn thing about you, asshole. I’m stating facts, don’t get all snippy at me ‘cause you were made like a defunct toaster who thinks he’s an espresso machine.”
He glanced at the hologram once more time, an odd expression on his face, before turning back to the fray. The hologram didn’t fail to notice this, and scoffed.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, kiddo. Just that now that I’m thinking about it, you are lookin’ kinda familiar. Like, post-alcohol pre-hangover accidental project kind of familiar,” Jack shrugged, as if he hadn’t just insinuated that he had mistakenly built the hologram beside him. “Got a name, princess?”
“I- ” the man stopped his frustratedly smacking his hands and stared a little oddly at Jack. “Uh- Rhys. The name’s Rhys. Hyperi- um, ex-Hyperion employee. Do you make sentient ‘accidental projects’ a lot?”
“Only after a fuck-ton of whiskey and an unlucky night with the women- but I wouldn’t worry your pretty little code about it, since that hasn’t happened in freakin’ decades, am I right?” Jack chuckled, then looked Rhys up and down unappreciatively, “Nah, I’m like, 90% sure I didn’t make you. I mean, no offense, but I think I would’ve remembered fucking up that badly.”
“With that stellar personality, I gotta say, I’m not that disappointed,” Rhys deadpanned, then turned his attention outward, to the battlefield. “Does the womanizer have a name, or can I just keep calling you arrogant asshole?”
“Jack,” the engineer glared at the hologram. “Follow my lead and don’t make me mad and I won’t strip your code into little binary strands and hang you out to dry. Capiche?”
“Um, yeah. Whatever, dude,” Rhys shook his head, looking back out at the battlefield. “You know we can’t sit here forever, right? They’ll come for us sooner or later.”
“I’m inclined to tell you to screw off, but I’ll tell you what, kiddo, I’m gonna wager you’re gonna be more impressive than your smack talk,” Jack said, looking slightly pissed. “Given that assumption, I’ll do both of us a favor and let you know now: you backtalk me again, I’m switching you off and pelting you out of the nearest airlock. Understand?
“You’ve officially got the explicit honor of being a part of the Hyperion rescue team. We’re gonna stop these assholes from taking over this space station and go save a goddamned moon. So hurry up and find those reload protocols and let’s get cracking, cupcake,” Jack said, and bounded into the fray.
“We’re on a shrinking timetable, here, princess,” Jack growled, glancing back at the hologram, who was leaned against a wall, catching his breath with his hands on his knees. “We ain’t got time for stupid dawdling.”
“That’s funny, y’see, ‘cause I thought breathing was pretty important for life-function.”
“Is there glitch in your code somewhere, pumpkin? How many times I gotta say it? You’re a hologram. You don’t need to breathe.”
“Says you,” Rhys grumbled, then suddenly got an idea. “But. I should have protocols to teleport me to your side once you get far enough away.”
“If you can’t handle the exercise, idiot, then get back in the friggin’ lasers,” Jack glared straight ahead, keeping a heavy pace and glancing at his watch.
Jack could feel the instant that he had gotten far enough away from Rhys for the protocols to kick in; his wrist-lasers heated up and started to whirr dangerously. Anxious about his favorite jacket getting a hole seared through it, Jack skidded to a halt.
This incidentally gave Rhys the space and time to flicker into existence directly in front of the engineer, where he collapsed on his hands and knees on the floor and wheezed like he had inhaled slag vapour.
“Je-esus,” he gasped, squeezing his eyes shut. “That’s gotta be the worst idea I’ve had in… worst idea in ever. Nngh… Do robots get health care? ‘Cause this is… Ohhh, god. What the hell kind of condensed system did you stuff me in, this is agonizing. ”
“Your systems are really friggin’ inefficient, kiddo,” Jack frowned, putting his hands on his hips and scrutinizing the hologram at his feet. “I figured you’d at least be designed for easy reconstruction. Major design flaws, missing files, finger guns… you sure you’re past your beta stages, cupcake?”
“...No. No, it’s gotta be a-a glitch. Maybe a virus,” Rhys countered between clenched teeth, gesturing towards his chest. “God. I feel like I just got my sternum blown out by a freaking moonshot.”
“You know, cupcake, I’d bet my dazzling good looks that Tim-Tams’ holograms weren’t nearly as- ah, talkative ,” Jack bit out, leaning down to one knee and moving to see Rhys’ pained expression.
“If that’s supposed to be some sort of passive-aggressive hint, you’re failing miserably.”
“In fact,” Jack continued, ignoring the interruption, “I’d go so far as to say his holograms were also probably made in my image.”
“Congratulations, that adds something other than ‘full-length mirror’ to your list of things to masturbate to.”
Rhys glared at the engineer, whose close proximity was starting to do funny things to his circuits. The intimacy paradoxically soothed and simultaneously agitated him, not to mention that calculating expression that grated on the hologram’s circuits and yet sent a thrill down his spine.
“Can you shut up now? You’re making it hard to breathe.”
“Which, of course, begs several questions,” Jack raised an eyebrow and rested his elbow on his knee. “If you weren’t made by my engineers, then who the hell are you, and where did you come from?”
“Look, asshole, I don’t-” Rhys stopped to stare icily up at Jack, his glower deepening. It seemed with an increase of intense emotion, his form began to glitch and his voice sputter. His right eye flickered dangerously, then glowed a molten gold. “I can’t even access my own weapons reloading protocols, you really think I know who the hell made me?”
“I think out of all of the things you shouldn’t be doing right now, yelling at the person in control of your hard drive is at the very top,” Jack boomed, gesturing with his wrist lasers to solidify his point. A breath later, he shook his head and chuckled mirthlessly in the hologram’s face. “There’s something about this that feels off, kiddo, and I’m not gonna risk my skin out there because you won’t give me answers.”
Rhys gave no indication of any emotion except for the tightening of his lips and the skin around his eyes. When he spoke, it was in a restrained, almost condescending tone.
“All I can tell you is, keeping a corporeal form is hard enough when I can barely sort through the tangled wreckage in my head. You might not like it, but providing you with answers isn’t even close to being on my priority list right now.”
“...Alright,” Jack relented, rising to his feet and glancing down both ends of the hallway. Phantom footsteps echoed in surround sound and his adrenaline was running too low to waste energy on a pointless argument. “Forget about it. Right now, we don’t have the time. But if your malfunctioning circuits put me down the barrel of a gun-”
“It’ll be your fault for not turning me off sooner,” Rhys finished, his tone still a little bitter. To himself, he added, “How’s that for risking your skin?”
“Fine,” Jack deflated slightly, and looked down at the hologram. “I’d offer you a hand, but I don’t think it’d help.”
“It wouldn’t, actually,” Rhys grimaced, standing by himself and cracking his back. He sighed, gazing down the long hallway in obvious paranoia. “Can we just get moving again?”
With that, they set off again, a terse silence settling between the two men, though not completely because of the argument. Jack was contemplating the quickest way out of the place to the fast travel stations and Rhys was preoccupied with pondering the mess of his code, so it was no wonder that both of them, so engrossed in their personal thoughts, were surprised to be flung to the floor at it’s sudden trembling.
“Woah! Is… that what I think it is?” Rhys yelped and scrambled up from the ground, still reeling from the aftershocks. “It- it can’t be.”
“The Eye of Helios,” Jack answered briskly, maneuvering deftly to his feet without a glance to his companion. “You said you’re ex-Hyperion, right? You ever work here on Helios?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Rhys said, a little nervously. Before Jack could ask what the hell that meant, Rhys cut him off. “Hey, is it just me, or does it seem a little too, um, quiet for an overtaken space station?”
Jack froze. The phantom footsteps had quieted, revealing that they hadn’t been phantom after all, and without blood pumping through his ears, he could hear the quiet almost too well. The engineer turned on his heels, eyes automatically darting to the hall’s entrances and exits. Empty.
“...Well, thanks for giving me the creeps, Rhysie, but whatever the hell they’re doing, they’re waiting for something, and I don’t want to be there when they stop. There’s nothing we can do but keep moving. Plus, who even knows what that crazy colonel chick’s up to.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that, by the way?” Rhys frowned, shaking his head out, as if there was a loose screw in there. “Actually, more relevant question: where are we going?”
“You sure know how to pick out all the annoying questions, kiddo,” Jack answered absentmindedly, his mind still puzzling out the suffocating silence as they started to jog on. “We’re headed to the manual evacuation center; there’s a few fast travel stations there we can use to get the hell out of Dodge.”
“Woah, hold on,” Rhys’ pace slowed dramatically to a stop, inviting Jack to halt impatiently a few feet ahead. “You- we’re running away?”
“I wouldn’t call it running away,” Jack said, and Rhys could hear the masked disdain in his voice. “More like recuperating. It’d be two iotas above stupid to try and retake the station when it’s just me and a loud-mouthed AI. I’ve hired a group of Vault Hunters for… other stuff; once I get out of here, we’re gonna meet up, get some artillery, and hit Zarpe-dunce so hard, she won’t be able to see straight for months. Look, I’ll brief you on everything once we get out of here alive. If we get out of here alive.”
“Well. If you get out of here alive. If you don’t get out, I’ll just have to roam the hallways of Helios until someone either picks me up or shoots me,” the hologram covered with a nervous laugh, picking up his pace again, and Jack followed.
“Sorry,” Rhys picked back up again after a beat. “I didn’t mean to insult you, or anything, back there. I dunno, I just- you, retreating… look, it sounds weird . Or something. I guess.”
“Heh. You read people pretty well, kiddo, I’ll give you that. That might actually come in handy,” Jack huffed, glancing appreciatively at the AI. “In any other situation, I’d be storming Zarpedon’s bedroom myself, dragging her out of bed, and shooting some sense into her.”
“Um. Right.” Rhys said absentmindedly, then turned his head and warily scanned the room behind them. “You don’t think they’re planning an ambush or something, do you?”
“Could be,” Jack said. “I highly doubt they don’t know where we’re headed. Though they could just be on their coffee break. Hell, we’re already pretty close to the manual evac center, they could’ve forgotten about us, already. Moving on to more important things.”
“...Hey, uh, Jack?”
“Look, d-don’t freak out, but. I think there’s something wr-wrong with my sys-systems.”
“Oh, god, Rhys, what the hell did I say about- ” Jack slid to a grinding halt, turning back to Rhys and letting his surprise cut him off.
The hologram had silently fallen to one knee and looked to be in pain, his face contorted into an ugly grimace and his form fizzing in and out of reality. He was staring at his hands as if they were stained with something, and the yellow light of his eye kept blinking on and off. And ever so often, the blue squares floating off of his skin burned bright red, then dissolved into the air with digital ashes.
A moment later, a searing heat on Jack’s arms drew his attention to his smoking wrist-lasers. With an undignified yelp, he ripped off the weapons and tossed them at Rhys, who blinked down at them like Jack had just tossed two perfectly acceptable ice cream cones onto the floor.
“Uhh, Rhys?” Jack began to panic; the appearance of the red squares was getting more frequent, and it looked like it was spreading. “Remember what I said about staring down the barrel of a gun? I’d really appreciate having some kind of backup for that scenario…”
“I-I… I can’t… -” He fell to his other knee, clutching his midsection with a cut off scream. “I-It’s really hot… system’s overheating… not e-enough processing power… ”
“Wha- well thanks for the update, kiddo, now what the hell am I supposed to do? Turn it off?”
“No…! Would corrupt my data… Ah!... Weapons disruptor signal… maybe?”
“Oh, for… A disruptor signal,” Jack muttered, carding his hands through his gelled hair. “Alright, whatever, hologram troubleshooting first, weapons second. Just gotta find a console and upload it to the wireless. Where the hell’s the nearest console?”
“I’uhno,” Rhys growled, squeezing his eyes shut in pain. “Control panel, your far left...? Hurry…”
“Duh. Moron,” Jack bounded into action, vaulting off of rails and raised platforms to reach the control center at the next exit of the room. A few searches, and he had a location for the signal source. “Yahtzee! Got it, babe; hold on just a few more minutes. All I need now is -”
“Jack,” Rhys whimpered, his pained expression shifting to fear as he swayed in place. “Burning up… help-”
He groaned, falling sideways onto the floor and curling into a ball, his lithe fingers tugging at tufts of well-groomed hair. “Get me out… ”
“Ohhh, son of a taint . Rhys, kiddo, you’re really not lookin’ so hot,” Jack swore, sprinting over to Rhys’ side, reaching for his shoulders but stopping a hair short, remembering that Rhys was just a hologram and feeling a tiny bit helpless for it. “C’mon, asshole, don’t die on me now, I need the extra firepower. Look- gimme the code for the signal, you’ll be right as friggin’ rain, m’kay pumpkin?”
“M’sorry,” Rhys slurred from his protective position, his muscles slowly falling lax. “Can’t control… ”
“Rhys, gimme the code. Rhys! Don’t leave me here without backup! C’mon, give me the code! Hey!” Jack grunted, slamming his fists down on the floor. They went straight through the flickering hologram, and pressed onto the tile for a few moments before the heat radiating off of his nearby weapons began to singe his skin.
“Oh,” he muttered the revelation, snatching up his weapons and ripping off the overheated class mod. “Okay, idea of questionable viability- my favorite. Installation on a weapons system doesn’t give you much freedom, but my ECHO is pre-programmed to hold terabytes of shit like whatever the hell a sub-Skill Tree is, so… ”
Jack removed his ECHO device and equipped the class mod, grimacing at its blistering heat against his hand. He had to do this quickly; until his device was re-equipped, his shields, oxygen, and enemy radar would remain down.
“God help me, if you mess up my ECHO, Rhys, I swear I’m gonna stick bugs all through your friggin’ code.”
When the mod was in place, he re-equipped his ECHO and waited for it to reboot, crying out in triumph when the HUD lit up. “…ah! Ahaha! Ohh, I’ve never been so glad to see a loading bar in my life. Would’ya look at that, I’m a genius!”
“…Shit!” He dove forward as heavy gunfire riddled the air, one hand almost crushing his shield, willing it to turn on. A stray bullet clipped his shoulder, twisting him into cover, and a moment later, his shield sprang up.
“Ack-! God- damn- timing !” Curling into the small barricade that hid himself from the artillery fire, he mashed his hand against the wound and vented his screams through seething pants. Lances of pain bolted through his nerves like strokes of lightning under his skin, and he swore as stars burst into his vision.
He managed to blink through his watery eyes enough to scan the room, noting the sheer amount of soldiers thundering into the room like a tsunami of hellfire. It definitely surpassed three times the number of troops he had already fought, meaning he was practically dead already. A glance at his shoulder supported his posit.
“F’ck, tha’s a lott’a blood,” Jack slurred, feeling himself start to grow dizzy. The blood was pooling over his fingers, staining his jacket and dripping silently onto the floor.
Distantly, he glimpsed the loading bar at the top of his HUD fill up with a completion chirp. His body exhausted and overwhelmed with pain, he leaned his head back against the barricade and succumbed to unconsciousness with artillery bursting in his ears.
“...Make no mistake: you may have considerable power on your side, but no one will stand in the way of my troops and our mission.”
“Y’know, I had a feeling you were gonna say something like that.”
Jack groaned softly, lifting his eyelids to glimpse the scene before him. Rhys was standing in the middle of the room, addressing the ceiling- or, more likely, Zarpedon, on the ECHO.
“I’ll pass on the offer, thanks.”
It was then that the stench of blood and death hit Jack full-on, and he coughed raggedly. This caused Rhys to glance sideways at him, surprise and relief crowding his expression.
“Then you’ll die for your stupidity. Turrets, fire!”
“Ohhh shi- movemovemove-”
Jack blinked sluggishly and saw Rhys dive towards him; he tensed for impact, but the holographic form passed straight through his torso without any contact. It wasn’t like there were any effects to feel, but it still sent shivers down Jack’s spine.
“Jack,” Rhys breathed a sigh of relief, until he caught sight of Jack’s shoulder. “Oh god. Oh no no no, oh god, you’ve been shot! What the hell, w-what do I do! Jack, tell me what to do!”
“M’fine,” Jack garbled, his mouth full of teeth and tongue and everything felt way too heavy. “Can’t feel it tha’ much ‘nymore.”
“That’s shock, Jack, and definitely not ‘fine’,” Rhys panicked, looking around wildly. Bullets pinged off of the wall behind them, and Rhys’ expression darkened. “But we can’t leave until these turrets are taken down.”
“Then take th’ damn turrets down,” Jack groaned, hitting his head against the wall and stretching his mouth open to articulate. “What’s the hold-up?”
“I kind of used all of my power taking out the rest of the troops?” Rhys huffed, clenching and unclenching his fists, a tick festered by his inability to help. “In any case, it’ll take me at least an hour to recharge, and frankly, I don’t think you don’t have that kind of time.”
“Mmm,” Jack hummed disinterestedly, “So you did find some of those reload protocols, huh?” He closed his eyes and was on the verge of passing out when Rhys interrupted him.
“Hey, hey! Jack, c’mon, focus! Don’t you dare pass out on me!” Rhys was suddenly right next to him, arms extended out, hands clenched into fists hovering just over Jack’s shoulders. “I swear, if you die here, I’m gonna haunt your dead ass for the rest of eternity! …Literally!”
“Alright, alright,” Jack moaned, waving a hand in front of his face, passing through the hologram and making it sputter. He sat up reluctantly, knowing that Rhys couldn’t physically drag him out of here; he’d have to do it himself. “No death until we get out of here, fine. You’d better have a plan, cupcake.”
Rhys sighed, squinting off at something unseen. “We’re only a wall away from the manual evacuation center; if we had enough firepower to cut a hole through that wall, we could probably make it to the fast travel quick enough to escape without severe harm. Any more severe harm.”
“Uhhh-uh, nope, no can do, kitten,” Jack said, his head lolling to the side to stare at the wall. “No point in even trying. There’s no way in hell you’re blowing a hole in any of those walls, ‘cause I commissioned them myself. Strongest friggin’ metal this side of the universe.”
“Jack, I can’t- wait a minute, commissioned? You built this space station?”
“Ehh, I run it. Mostly. Not completely,” Jack said, “It’s a ‘side project’ I’m in charge of, so I make all the decisions around here ‘cept the big ones. I’ve still got a boss tellin’ me stupid shit to do, is what I’m sayin’.”
“Yeah, whatever, I get it. I don’t suppose work is gonna be very fun after all of this. So. Sorry ‘bout that,” Rhys commented, but didn’t leave room for Jack to respond. “I might have just gotten an idea for getting us out of here, so… stay put for a second, alright?”
“Wait, ju- hold on, Rhys,” Jack griped, grappling feebly toward the hologram. “Woah! Hey! You can’t leave me here! Rhys!”
“It’s just a few minutes!” Rhys’ voice echoed back to him. “Just don’t die before I save our asses, alright?”
“No guarantees,” Jack muttered under his breath, closing his eyes and resting his head. “ Ass hole.”
Rhys returned a few minutes later, avoiding the turret fire with deft clumsiness and making his way over to a way-too-pale Jack. If it wasn’t for the occasional exasperated twitch of his features, Rhys might have believed he was dead.
“Hey. Sleepyhead, time to get up,” Rhys spoke, turning back momentarily to check that the waypoint he had set was still there. “C’mon, I need you to shoot something for me.”
“Unless it’s you that you want shot, I’d leave a little room for personal space, princess,” Jack grumbled, his eyes sliding open. He caught sight of the waypoint and blinked. “Pfft. The hell do you want me to shoot, the wall? I told you, Rhys, strongest friggin’ - ”
“Not the wall,” Rhys rolled his eyes. “At least, not if you can help it. If your aim is good, you should be able to hit the corrosive barrel just beyond the corner, there.”
“... Right. The barrel full of acid. The one that’s closer to me than the turrets. Makes absolute friggin’ sense. Oh, wait, no it doesn’t- you’re crazy and a moron.”
“Yeah, yeah, but that’s where it gets cool,” Rhys smirked, pointing at the barrel Jack was expected to snipe with a revolver. “It should make a large enough explosion to short-circuit the generator beside it, which controls- guess what?- the turrets.”
Jack followed the plan with glossy eyes, and leaned his head back against the wall. As impossible as the plan seemed- how the hell was he supposed to snipe a shock barrel with a friggin’ Dahl revolver he picked up?- the hologram was right. Blasting the corrosive barrel meant a shutdown of the turrets’ systems.
“Thaaaaat’s incredibly convenient.” Jack squinted suspiciously. “I’d compliment you for a good job, but I’m too busy being really friggin’ skeptical of what the hell our engineers were thinking with that decision.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not it,” Rhys grimaced, pointing just beyond Jack- who followed his eyes to the shock barrel settled directly next to him. The shock barrel that just happened to also be beside an electrical system hooked up to the generator. “With every good plan, there’s a catch, right?”
“Shit,” Jack swore, edging as far away from the barrel as possible while not sticking out the other side of the wall. “Oh, goddammit. …That’s gonna hurt like a bitch.”
“Look, at best, it works, the barrel doesn’t even go off, we get out of here with barely another scratch. ...At worst, you’ll get some nasty burns, I’ll short-circuit, and neither of us will ever make it out of here alive.”
“Oh, well then, great plan there,” Jack scoffed. “Let’s just fry the dying man and his insane friggin’ AI with 12,000 friggin’ volts and just see what friggin’ happens, shall we? Spoiler alert, kiddo- I’ve seen the end of this movie, and it’s one hell of a tearjerker.”
“You’re right, sorry, I forgot to ask,” Rhys folded his arms. “You got a better plan?”
“Cut it with the cutesy sarcasm, cupcake. Besides, I never said it wasn’t gonna work,” Jack said, prepping his revolver and taking aim. “Just really freaking dubious, is all.”
Rhys’ eyes widened comically, and he reached forward, “Wait, wait, don’t do it yet, I’m not - ”
With a bang, Jack’s gun went off. A moment later, the explosion of the generator blew against their faces, and the shock barrel splintered, sending wood slivers firing into the air like rogue missiles. The electric shock came a moment later, white energy spanning the room and blinding its occupants.
“Ready,” Rhys finished, leaning heavily against the wall, his outline shorting out and twitching saccadically. “Jack? You ok-kay?”
He glanced backward at Jack, who was splayed almost motionless out on the floor. At Rhys’ inquiry, his head slowly lolled back and forth in a crude attempt at shaking his head. His chest was barely moving, and rattled with a congealed grind, as if each breath could’ve been his last.
He finally settled his head to face Rhys and rasped weakly, “If I ever get my hands on you, pumpkin. You’re dead.”
“Guess I should be glad that’ll never happen then,” Rhys muttered resignedly, pulling up a holographic interface on his cybernetic palm. “At least it worked.”
“Oh, great. So then all the turrets are gone? ‘Cause I really don’t know what’s gonna happen to either of us if I don’t get some good news real soon.”
“Um. Not exactly,” Rhys hedged, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “Control for the turrets have been overridden, but. They’re still armed and highly dangerous, so they may still register you as an enemy. Y’know. Probably not. But. Probably.”
Jack slowly faced Rhys, half-lidded eyes boring a hole into his holographic form. “You’d better be glad you’re a hologram, or I would be strangling the hell out of you right now.”
“Eh, eheh, yeah… please don’t do that,” Rhys chuckled nervously. “D-don’t worry, though, now that they’re unlocked, I can shut them down manually. I think.”
“I changed my mind,” Jack informed him, raising a fist and using his perception differential to mime strangling the hologram. “On second thought, maybe if I just try hard enough, I could just manage to curl my fingers right around your stupid little- ”
“Aaanyway,” Rhys swallowed audibly, then closed his hand and jabbed a thumb at the evac room. “We probably want to get moving; Zarpedon’ll send in more troops eventually, and personally, I don’t want to be there when that happens. So… can-can you move?”
“Who the hell knows, buttercup,” Jack groaned, rolling onto his stomach and attempting to get up. “...But it won’t exactly matter if Zarpedon’s SWAT gerbils catch us sooner, will it.”
“Fair enough. It’s only a couple of meters away,” Rhys encouraged idly, looking down at Jack. “Um. I’ll just shut up so you can concentrate.”
“You’re just bursting with good ideas, kiddo.”
Jack gritted his teeth and managed to stumble on his hands and knees to the automatic sliding doors of the main evac room, which he waved open with all of the strength of a dead psycho. The doors closed behind them, and Rhys stared at it intently for a few moments until a locking click was heard.
“There they are,” Jack panted. As soon as the fast travel stations were in Jack’s sight, the adrenaline rushing through his body stopped, and he fell back onto the ground, limp. “…Never mind.”
“Argh, come on, Jack,” Rhys said frantically, soldiers’ orders echoing in the distance. “I can activate one of the stations from afar, but you- just- just get a bit closer.”
“Y’know, I’d love to, babe,” Jack wheezed, using his hands to drag himself forward. “I don’t suppose you’d know what dying feels like, huh?”
“Oh, please. If you haven’t died yet, you’ll make the trip out of here just fine,” Rhys scoffed, though the worry didn’t fade from his face and he kept glancing at the door. “Pretty sure death’s not in my code, anyway. Unless my creator was a sadistic asshole, and I just haven’t had the good fortune to experience it.”
The voices were getting closer, and soon there was pounding on the doors of the manual evac room. Rhys reached for the fast travel, seething with frustration as his hands passed straight through it.
“God, we’re so close, Jack… Just a little further!”
“Shut up, asshole, I’m going as fast as I can!” Jack grunted, shaking his head to rid his vision of the dark spots inviting him to unconsciousness. “Look, when I get there, take us to Moxxi’s Up-Over bar, in Concordia. On Elpis. God knows, however much I would like to never see her clown-ass face again- she’ll be able to help me out.”
“Concordia, Elpis, got it,” Rhys glanced back at the doors, then whipped around to face the travel station. “Alright, alright, we’re there, you can stop crawling. I’ve just got to integrate myself with the system, get past the firewalls, authorize myself through Hyperion’s servers, and… and… ”
“Don’t you dare friggin’ give me another piece of bad news, kiddo,” Jack hissed. “And what?”
“No. No, no, I can’t… argh! The Fast Travel has to be broken or something; it’s not working!” In a misguided attempt to vent his frustration, the hologram sent a foot flying straight at the Fast Travel Station. It passed clean through, leaving him even more frustrated and a little angry at his own stupidity. “God. Okay. Okay. Maybe something’s jamming it…?”
“Fantastic,” Jack groaned, switching on his ECHO. “Vault hunter! Need that jamming signal shut off. Like, yesterday. Wherever the signal is, there should be a few transmitters- I’d bet my left ass cheek there’s three of them- you’ve just gotta shoot ‘em till they explode.”
Rhys tutted at the Fast Travel Station for a moment, then glanced back at Jack. “A jamming signal? Zarpedon sure went through a lotta work to keep you out of commission. What do we do now?”
“Give the Vault Hunters time, pumpkin,” Jack sighed into the cold tile, closing his eyes. “They can be a bit scatterbrained sometimes, but they’re damn good at what they do. Professionals, or some shit like that.”
“I sure as hell hope so. Otherwise, we’re not getting out of here,” Rhys huffed, fiddling a little harder with the Station. A few moments later, “ Wait, you may have been right… hells yes! We’re on our way.”
“Great job kiddo,” Jack blinked heavily, lying almost deathly still as his legs began to disappear. “Hey, we should- uh, talk sometime, if I’m not dead. For an AI and all, I gotta feeling you’d make a… good- uh… vault hunter.”
“Heh- yeah, y’know, I mi-” Rhys crossed his arms, swinging around to face the engineer. He froze. “Jack? Oh no, c’mon, hey, hey, hey, Jack! Keep your eyes open.”
Rhys dove downward at Jack, keeping his intangible blue hands at a safe, intangible distance. There was a warping sound, and the last thing Jack heard before his vision went dark was the doors bursting open and Rhys screaming his name into oblivion.
When he came to in Moxxi’s bar, lying spread-eagle in the back cot with the covers pulled up to his chest, he was blissfully pain-free, and its cause was evident at once.
He had always had a natural tolerance for drugs granted by countless evening sojourns in sketchy back alleyways, so it was easy for him to recognize the blood-of-lead heavy feeling of a hefty amount of drugs. It also wasn’t too hard to recognize the sticky disgust at peeling his back off of sweat-drenched fabric.
It happened to be boring as hell being high and staring blank-faced at a grungy ceiling, so he attempted to sit up, which was suddenly not the best idea, because he spun like he was on a carousel of death, his head throbbed out a wicked drum solo, and his blood felt like liquid kraggon shit, and by god he couldn’t have been the one that made that pitiful whine, right?
“Calm down, you’re not dying,” Moxxi’s voice, coupled with the sound of metal clanking, reverberated around the room and thumped to the beat of Jack’s headache. “Not anymore, anyway.”
“Unhh… You sure? ‘Cause it- heh- it damn sure feels like it.”
Jack ignored his nerves’ pained screams all over his body and sat up, distantly watching the world spin and stars flash. Once everything had settled and the stars winked out, he was able to see Moxxi descending the flight of stairs in her workshop outfit, looking… well, looking as sexy as ever. Definitely a nice sight to wake up to. When he pulled his hands through his hair, though, he felt his stomach sink.
“Who put on the bandages?”
“Nurse Nina,” Moxxi said, placing her hands on her hips. “She’s in town, avoiding various corporation giants. And lucky for you, or you probably would’ve died in my workshop. And then I would have beat your dead ass to a pulp and fed it to a couple of kraggons.”
“Can't say I expected anything different,” Jack noted, wincing as his head throbbed with every blink. “As always.”
He spied a bottle of painkillers at a side table and snatched them up, barely glancing at the label before popping two in his mouth and dry swallowing. Moxxi watched him with mild curiosity and just a slight hint of amusement, which was far more unsettling than her threatening welcome.
“So how come you’ve shown up on my doorstep, sugar?”
“Mm. Dire circumstances, Mox,” Jack shook his head slowly and swung his sore legs over the edge of his cot. “Trust me, I wouldn’t’ve come if I could’ve avoided it. Like, really wouldn’t’ve.”
“Can't say I expected anything different,” Moxxi approached the cot, leaned down to eye-level, and put a well-manicured nail on his chest. “What I didn't expect was you thinking you didn’t have anywhere else to go in such a ‘dire’ circumstance.”
“Ehhh… yeah yeah, alright, you got me,” Jack grimaced, pushing Moxxi’s fingernail away and trying his best not to stare at the friggin’ amazing view he was being offered free of charge just an inch downward at her corset… and instead keep his focus on her face. “That part was more for convenience.”
“Convenience, right,” Moxxi smirked, something about the movement just a little too insincere. “Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?”
“It's almost as if you're trying to be spiteful,” Jack’s tone dripped with sarcasm. A moment later, he softened “Mox- ”
“Yeah, save it, hot stuff, I’m over it,” Moxxi waved him off, turning and sashaying over to a locker opposite the cot. She popped it open and tossed him his jacket, as well as an old Hyperion shirt that he… totally didn’t think she would’ve kept. “Get dressed, the Vault Hunters are waiting upstairs.”
“God, finally. Just want to get this over with. No rest for the weary, my ass,” Jack huffed, ignoring the stale atmosphere between them and instead pulling on his shirt and jacket. “I’d take one of your infamous blackout cocktails right now if the med conflict wouldn’t probably kill me.”
“And here I was, looking forward to being ten moonstones and a dead ex richer,” Moxxi droned, climbing the stairs with a tired sigh. “I have another shift in ten minutes. Make sure you’re out of here by then.”
“You got it, Mox,” Jack grinned, watching her go before he spotted his ECHO device on the side table. “Oh, and- I owe you one.”
“You damn well know it,” Moxxi said, before disappearing up the steps. “And don’t forget to pay Nina!”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” Jack grunted under his breath, fixing his jacket sleeve and reaching around to the side table to retrieve his ECHO.
The device must have taken a hit sometime while he was out, because it took a full minute to boot up. His right wrist-laser lit up dimly and Jack smacked the left one, wondering why it wasn’t lighting up. One flickering light and a fizzling pop later, Rhys appeared.
The projection didn’t look much better than Jack felt. Scratch that, he definitely looked worse. He was shivering, with a look of pure terror on his face as he gazed off at something that wasn’t there, and every so often his fingernails would dig into his palms hard enough for Jack to wince by association.
“Oh, look at that. Hello? Anyone home?”
His dialogue seemed to shake Rhys out of his stupor, and the hologram flinched visibly, coming back to reality with a breath of relief.
“You’re alive,” he chuckled nervously under his breath. “That’s… whew. I thought I was gonna be lost forever in your ECHO. Heh. Wow. I… A-are you okay? Crisis averted, and all that?”
“Uh, not so fast, kitten,” Jack stared at him a little oddly, pondering on his skittish demeanor. “I still owe you a good strangle for what you did to me up on Helios.”
“Heh, yeah. About that,” Rhys began, “I mean, strangling aside, what the hell is going on up there? I-I recovered some of my memory files. But it’s… not at all like what I remember. And I don’t just mean because of the magical shooty loonies.”
“Good question, kiddo,” Jack groaned, twisting his wrist to glance at his watch. “We’ve already got a briefing upstairs in a couple of minutes, I can probably catch you up by then. So… yeah, right now Helios is going through what you might call a, uh, transition phase. Lots of changes going on.”
“Uh-huh. And murderous space alien magic military troops is which part of the memo I obviously missed?”
“You tell me, Mr. I-think-I-worked-at-Helios-before,” Jack shot back, shaking himself and stood unsteadily, a hand gripping the cot’s frame with white knuckles. “Psycho-bitch Zarpedon started attacking Helios just as a couple of Vault Hunters and I were headed out to Elpis. Said she wanted to save the universe, or some stupid crap like that.”
“Yeah, um. Jack, should you be standing so soon?”
“Quit whining, kiddo, it’s annoying,” Jack said without hesitation, taking baby steps and hissing as he pulled the scarred muscles on his back. “I’m fine. What the hell is up with you?”
“I- what?” Rhys looked like his train of thought had been completely derailed and blown up. “Me? What do you- ”
“Something’s up with your systems,” Jack refused to let him finish, feeling like he was wasting too much time wherever he was. The steps were coming up soon, and he wasn’t sure he was going to stay vertical until then. “Soon as we can, we’re checking that out and getting it fixed.”
“Thanks?” Rhys frowned. “I appreciate it. But- everything seems fine, now. All systems go.”
“Yeah? That’s not what your face was sayin’ two minutes ago when I booted you up.”
“Wh- my face? My face wasn’t saying anything. My face can’t say anything!”
“I’ve seen that expression before, kiddo,” Jack said, grunting in half-pain half-frustration as his knees began to shake with the effort of walking. “It said a hell of a lot.”
“Then you tell me, O Wise One,” Rhys mocked, hands on his hips as he peered down at the struggling Jack. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Nah, I’ve got a better one for you. Who made you?”
Jack stopped walking and sat his aching ass down on the bottom step of the stairway. He blinked languidly through a drugged haze, peering up at Rhys’ disgruntled expression. His silence echoed unpleasantly through Jack’s head.
“You don’t know, do you?” Jack said, his voice softer, muffled through his folded hands scrubbing at his face. “I figured. We know already that your memory files have been tampered with. I’ve got a theory, but it’ll need a little testing. You up for it?”
Rhys didn’t say anything, letting his expression show Jack just how suspicious he found the idea. After a moment, he crossed his arms defensively and muttered, “Nothing too intrusive.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Jack grinned, twisting sideways to view the frankly daunting staircase. And getting to his feet with swaying stability. “It’s about time we got some good news around here, eh champ?”
“Hey, I tried my best up on Helios, y’know,” The hologram’s previous suspicion began to melt away, replaced by a cautious smirk as he carefully watched Jack ascend the stairs. “I saved our asses, anyway. Um. So where are we now?”
“Mad Moxxi’s bar, in Concordia,” Jack gestured up the stairs with one hand, the other solidifying around the staircase rail as he trekked on. “We’re in her workshop right now. Up there, she runs the best bar on Elpis.”
“Wait, Elpis- Elpis, as in the moon? The best bar on the entire moon?” Rhys blinked, momentarily looked elated, then groaned. “Oh, god, I can’t drink. I’m a hologram.”
“Wait ‘till you lay eyes on her, pumpkin,” Jack grinned lopsidedly, squinting sideways as the hologram. “You’ll be really friggin’ upset you don’t have a real body.”
There was no possible way for Rhys to blush, but the implication was thick in his stammering denials. Jack normally would have taken note and teased the hologram to no end, but suddenly there was a bright flash behind the engineer’s eyes and his foot caught on the step and down he went face-first, falling up the stairs.
“J-Jack? Jack!” Rhys flitted to Jack’s side, the only indication of his presence a soft crackle and his sudden, breathless panic. “O-oh no, nonono, please don’t be unconscious- Jack! Hey- wake up!”
“Jesus, cupcake, pull it down a few hundred decibels, would you?” Jack groaned, piling his face in his hands and rolling sideways to sit on the nearest step. “Aghh god, it feels like my head's gonna split.”
“Jack- hey, open your eyes for me,” Rhys said, his voice barely above a relieved breath, directly in front of Jack. “Whew. There you go. Let me see those baby blu- uh- discombobulated irises.”
“Nice save. I’ve only got one baby blue,” Jack huffed, squinting as Rhys’ palm turned into a flashlight and its blinding light blanketed his eye. “An’ I’d prefer to keep it, if you don’t mind. Point that thing somewhere else.”
“Sit still,” Rhys shifted, looking like his feathers were beyond ruffled. Which didn’t make much sense, because they hadn’t been doing much except sitting there for the past couple of seconds.
“I’m gonna take a gander and say you have no experience in this area,” Jack raised a pert eyebrow, shading his eyes with his forearm so he could glimpse Rhys’ face. “Do you even have any healing programs in your code?”
“Not that I could find,” Rhys muttered, peering intently at Jack’s left eye, then at his right. “But something tells me I’ve pissed off enough people in my lifetime to know what to look for.”
“Ha. There’s something we definitely have in common,” Jack affirmed, his voice dying down as he inspected the unorthodox amount of detail in the hologram’s eyes. “Best way to know what your life’s been worth, by how many people you’ve pissed off.”
A moment passed in silence, both of them barely moving or breathing. Then, Rhys’ hand appeared in his line of sight just beside Jack’s face, and the engineer instinctively flinched away. He realized what had just happened, but by that time, Rhys had already pulled back his hand and wiped the expression from his face. He opened his mouth to speak, but Rhys beat him to it, backing away.
“I’m not an expert, but I think you might have a concussion,” Rhys diagnosed, scratching at his wrists. Jack briefly imagined him pulling off latex gloves, snapping them at the end like an overdramatic surgeon.
“I might have a concussion. Well, I’m glad we wasted five minutes doing all of that,” Jack deadpanned, then looked over his shoulder up the stairs. “Then again, something tells me Nurse Nina wouldn’t’ve missed something like that.”
“Something tells me you weren’t aware of any kind of concussion,” Rhys said, a little slow on the uptake as he frowned at the floor and tapped his chin with a cybernetic finger. “Shouldn’t Moxxi have told you?”
“Yeah, uh. Moxxi and I have a special relationship,” Jack hedged, his nose twitching as if he was trying to suppress an expression. “She likes to deal out pain. Especially if I’m the one receiving it.”
“Oh,” Rhys said, his eyes going very wide. “So you two are- ”
“Were,” Jack corrected, eyes drifting half-lidded to the opposite wall in something vaguely resembling shame. “She’s not the only one who knows how to hurt people.”
“Ouch. Sorry,” Rhys winced in sympathy. “So then… Not to be rude or anything, but why did we come here, of all places? Don’t you know anyone else down here? ...We are on a gigantic moon , after all.”
“You’re talkin’ someone with the same smarts and resources as Mox, not to mention who owes me a favor?” Jack shook his head slowly, using the movement’s momentum to encourage him to stand. “There’s not many of those people, kiddo, and if we’re being honest, most of them are dead.”
“Fair enough,” Rhys dipped his head, his mind obviously elsewhere already. “Think you can make it up the steps?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think,” Jack said, his sense of urgency mounting. He didn’t look like he was ready to take on the steps, but if he thought he could, Rhys wasn’t going to argue. “We’ve got to get up there and meet the Vault Hunters.”
“The- wait, they’re already up there?” Rhys suddenly perked up, looking like an excited puppy. “Oh-hoh-ho, the real Vault Hunters? Up there right now?”
“No, the fake Vault Hunters, I made them up,” Jack growled, his sarcasm barely cutting through his pain. “I should’ve known you’re the fangirl type from the minute I met you.”
“H-hey! I’m not the fangirl type!” Rhys objected, his voice rising several octaves. He cleared his throat and tried again in a blatantly artificial manly voice. “I’m not the fangirl type.”
“Sure,” Jack said, “Just like I’m sure you don’t have any fan posters hanging up in your room. Am I right?”
“I don’t- you can’t- it’s- ugh!” Rhys looked boyishly frustrated, and Jack almost forgot that he had to keep moving forward. “I’ve never bought a single fan poster, ever!”
“No, you just collect them. Don’t try to deny it, princess, I can see you blushing.”
“I- that’s- I can’t blush! I don’t even have blood vessels!”
“But you do have embarrassment protocols. Don’t you.”
“Yeah, yeah, calm down, kiddo, you’re about to meet your idols,” Jack shook his head, getting back to business in an instant. “Just don’t wet yourself, you might short something out down there. Relax, kiddo, don’t be an idiot, and we’ll both be fine.”
“I don’t have protocols for wetting myself,” Rhys grumbled under his breath, if only to have the last word.
“Whatever you say, cupcake,” Jack pushed himself up to the last step and panted briefly. “Whatever you say.”
Moxxi’s bar, like any other bar this side of the universe, was exactly what one would expect out of the only bar in town. It smelled like skag piss, the music was just this side of ear rape, and the main appeal was drawn from the alcohol.
As soon as Jack and Rhys crossed Moxxi’s workshop threshold into the bar, the atmosphere hit them head-on, and Rhys reeled back momentarily, struck by the sensory overload. Jack, conversely, waltzed in like it was his natural habitat, which wasn’t too hard to believe was true.
“Alright, Vault Hunters, gather ‘round,” he called to the open room, sending the two DJs a slicing gesture at the neck, and the music cut off. “Playtime’s over.”
All around the room, people seemed to bleed out of the walls and floors, abandoning their tasks to form a scattered audience in the middle of the bar. At second glance, it was a wonder that any one of them was able to blend in with the atmosphere of the bar, which ultimately only spoke to the quality of the company kept in Moxxi’s establishment.
Rhys tracked each person’s movement across the room, sizing each of them up. To Jack, he may have fangirled a bit, but the truth was that the title and reputation of Vault Hunter meant more to Rhys than the individuals, so meeting them in person was a bit sobering. In fact, most of them he didn’t even recognize.
To his immediate right lumbered a hulk of muscle mass and cybernetics, grunting in irritation- though it was unclear if it was because he had just barely missed three sevens in a row at the slot machine, or if it was because he was forced to give up the game for work purposes.
Across the room on the dance floor, a woman in a cropped cowboy outfit swayed and rocked to the music. Even when the music stopped, she continued the last swishes of her dance with an almost scandalous expression and crushing of her hat between her fingers. Rhys got the distinct feeling that Jack’s raptured look as she sashayed towards him was definitely not aimed anywhere near her face.
Adjacent to the threshold of Moxxi’s workshop and atop the elevated platform lined with dining tables and accompanying windows stood an impatient figure, the only one whom Rhys actually recognized. Athena the gladiator, foot tapping impatiently and fingers drumming on her infamous shield, had perked up before Jack’s call to arms, and had begun walking at the moment Jack had stepped into the room. Her reputation preceded her, and Rhys eyed her with trepidation, paradoxically comforted by her presence.
The last member of the eccentric party was quite possibly the weirdest one there. Weirdest in the sense that it was really freaking weird to see a tired, flushed, and quite possibly smashed replica of Jack ascend the stairs beyond the bar counter with the most depressed expression on his face Rhys had ever seen. Rhys’ gaze must have lingered longer on him than anyone else, because by the time that the dude made it to the rest of the group, everyone else had already gathered.
“Alright, now that we’re all here,” Jack began, hands on his hips as he looked over his team with something akin to pride. “We’ve got some work to do. First on the list, introductions are in order. Rhysie, don’t be shy, come on over here. Theeere you go.”
Rhys glared as hard as possible at him as he strode forward, gauging the reactions of the Vault Hunters as best as possible despite being insecure at the center of attention.
“Vault Hunters, Rhys the whiny hologram. Rhys, meet the Vault Hunters- Wilhelm, Nisha, Athena, Fragtrap, and Jack. My body double.”
“Your body dou- ” Rhys frowned, staring in consternation at his situation and wondering what the hell it all was. “I have sooo many questions.”
“Oh, hold up, I got this. No, he wasn’t born that handsome. No, he doesn’t autograph paperwork, clothing, or ass cheeks. Yes, we’re almost identical, down to bone structure, DNA samples, and dick size.” Jack thumped his chin with his forefinger. “Anything I’m missing?”
“I was going to go with ‘why the hell do you have a body double’, but I think we’ve passed that now,” Rhys grimaced.
“Good call,” Jack said appreciatively, then turned to the Vault Hunters. “So, everyone, welcome Rhys to the team, he’ll be sticking with me, you can ask him your prying questions later. Next item on the list- ”
“Jack,” Moxxie spoke up, not looking away from the glass she was cleaning with a dirty rag. “I think your friends have something to tell you.”
“What?” Jack frowned at her momentarily, then turned back to his makeshift team, all of which turned to stare at Jack’s body double. The man shrank under the collective gazes, and stammered uncontrollably.
“Well- y’see, it’s like this… when we were turning off the jamming signal, it was- over the ECHO- I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation- ”
“For what?” Jack folded his arms, tapping his toe impatiently. “Spit it out, Tim-Tams.”
“The Meriff was working with Dahl,” Athena cut in abruptly, her tone impatient and unemotional. “We heard him ask dumb and dumber why the signal got shut down.”
“What- no, no,” Jack shook his head, arms unfolding and eyebrows narrowing. “Why didn’t I hear this?”
“You were unconscious,” Rhys broke in, looking warily at Jack. “You passed out before the fast travel station got us here, I heard most of it before I got- shut off. I probably have the stored info in my files. Um. Somewhere. But- why’s it so important? Who’s this Meriff guy?”
“Mayor-Sheriff, big hotshot here who used to work for Hyperion- for Jack, actually,” Tim-Tams said, then cleared his throat and suddenly glanced at Jack like he was gonna tear him to pieces. “Um. I mean, for me. Worked for me. Of course. C-cause- I’m- I’m Jack.”
Fortunately, Jack looked too busy thinking about the Meriff to care about Tim-Tams’ mistake. He looked up, past Athena’s shoulder and out of Moxxi’s bar, into the street where the Meriff’s office resided.
“That bastard better have a good explanation,” Jack grumbled. “We need to talk to him.”
A tense silence settled around the circle as the implication crossed everyone’s mind. Glances were shared, which Jack did not see, having being too focused angrily at his shoes, but the silence was shattered when the cyborg buff dude growled, “Oh, got it. We’re killing him.”
“No, Wilhelm, we’re not going to kill him,” Jack said irritatedly.
“Just talking,” the engineer intoned forcefully, looking at the cyborg incredulously. “For now, at least.”
“That’s all well and everything- totally something I’m looking forward to later-” the woman with the cowgirl hat spoke, looking at Jack like she wanted to eat him whole, “But we’ve still got one problem. The Meriff won’t let us up his elevator shaft. And I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of girl that likes consent when she plays.”
Jack opened his mouth, looking a little too eager to reply, when Rhys interrupted with a stern frown.
“She’s got a point,” he said, peering at the cowgirl a little oddly. “Sorry, what’s your name again?”
“Nisha Kadam,” she tilted her hat, looking completely nonplussed at Rhys’ interruption, and in an instant her eyes were locked with Jack’s again. “Nish to my friends, bitch to my enemies, and Ms. Kadam if you’re dirty.” She looked Rhys up and down, looking less than impressed. “ You can call me Nisha.”
“Right, well, Nisha’s right,” Rhys turned to Jack, reflecting Nisha’s indifferent attitude. “We need access to the elevator to get to the Meriff’s office, preferably through some kind of outside computer system. Unless you want to scale the building and climb in through the window, that is.”
“There’s always that recording of the Meriff with the Geisha bot,” Moxxi pointed out, giving Rhys an appreciative glance. “We could send it through the intercom all over town, blackmail him into letting us in.”
“That probably wouldn’t be necessary,” Athena said, her back turned to the group. Her eyes trailed the form of the Customs CL4P-TP rolling in front of the bar and slowly everyone turned to look.
“Bingo!” Jack whooped suddenly, pushing past Athena and Wilhelm, and limping as fast as possible to catch up to the CL4P-TP. “Oy, lawbot! I’d like to report a crime. It’s about your Meriff.”
“A crime ??” The CL4P-TP exclaimed enthusiastically, and Rhys glimpsed Jack wince. “Why, of course, upstanding citizen!! I would love to file any sort of complaint you have to our ruler and savior, the Meriff!!”
Rhys thought that last comment might indicate some sort of problem in their plan, but Jack seemed confident enough as he shouted to Moxxi, “Alright, Mox, play the tape!”
“Play the tape,” Moxxi growled, slamming the glass down on the bar counter and storming to her back room. “Haven’t even got my computer out, asshole, it’s gonna take longer than your average orgasm to hack into the network.”
“I can help with that,” Rhys said, whipping around to face her, a little relieved to be of some help. “I’ve got the sound file somewhere in my system, just point me to the nearest intercom, I’ll hook up to it and we’ll be ready to go.”
“Ugh. Y’know what, fine,” Mox huffed, beckoning the hologram behind the bar to the nearest intercom speaker, where Rhys got to work examining the interface. Beyond the counter, the Vault Hunters began to make their way outside to join Jack. Meanwhile, Mox watched Rhys work with a mild curiosity. “So. How did Jack end up dragging you along?”
“Oh, heh. Uh, I’m uploaded onto a class mod, he picked me up, reactivated it mid-fight, and here I am.”
“You say that like you owe him.”
“I do, in a way,” Rhys said a little defensively, visibly uncomfortable around the topic. “It felt… it feels like coming back from the dead.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any concept like the afterlife for robots, huh?” Moxxi chuckled, though it was the slightest bit sardonic. “The void seems pretty scary, but not having a hell to face- that sounds pretty good to me.”
“I guess,” the hologram replied, the concentrated frown on his face deepening. He glanced at Moxxi out of the corner of his eye. “Are you religious?”
“You’re cute, kid, but not that cute,” she tossed casually, tossing locks away from her face and gazing out at the group of Vault Hunters, who by this time had caught up with Jack, on whom her eyes lingered. “I do believe we all have to own up to what we’ve done, eventually.”
“Can’t argue with you there.”
Rhys gave with a soft smile, which faltered slightly when he saw the sudden twinkle in Moxxi’s eye and her indecipherable expression. He felt the distant instinct of a shiver at the base of his neck and opened his mouth to speak, but a triumphant beeping from the intercom stole his attention.
“Got it. Now all I’ve got to do is upload the file, and… augh!”
Suddenly the world went dark, and all sensation left his limbs. The only thing he could feel were strange tendrils of electricity, like lines of water running down open skin. He tried to cry out, but what came out instead was far different than a scream.
“No! You let your enemies live, they shoot you in the back! I don’t want any surprises! I don’t want any survivors ! You blow up that ship to hell, and you do it now !”
It only occurred to him that he recognized that voice when he was pulled out of the void by Moxxi’s yell. “Rhys! Wrong file! Play the geisha bot file!”
Right. The blackmail material. Or- whatever it was. He had it, it was right here, if he could just untangle it from everything around it…
“I should’ve seen this coming- ever since I came to this nacho-flavoured shithole of a planet, I’ve been betrayed by everybody I gave a rat’s ass about. My boss. My girlfriend. Hell… my goddamn daugh- ”
“Was that- ”
“What the fuck - ”
“Oh, blimey! You really know how to listen to a bloke’s problems, I’ll give you that! You sure I can’t book you for more, uh, ehhh… physical services? I’m a bloody stress volcano right now and could do with the uh, with the um… relief.
“You know that’s not what geisha bots are programmed for.
“Sereena, really? I’m your Meriff! You’d be doing Concordia a public service! I’d make it worth your while - I’m swimming in Dahl money right now!”
Then, like a taut rubber band stretched too far, the connection snapped, and Rhys flew backwards through the bar counter and onto the floor, where his form flickered and buzzed.
He felt like he had been tortured, his limbs stretched, his code broken apart and put back together in the wrong order. He groaned, rolling onto his side and allowing his aching head to loll to the side, eyes half-lidded and stinging. Outside of the bar, Jack gestured for the Vault Hunters to follow a seething CU5TM CL4P-TP to the Meriff’s office, then gazed back at Rhys.
The earlier instinct to shiver hit Rhys like a freight train, and from his frozen state he registered the crawling pin-prick feeling of fear, far too strong to have been programmed, but far too natural to be real. He shirked under Jack’s stare for a few moments until the engineer hauled ass and limped over to the Meriff’s elevator.
Once Jack left his field of vision, Rhys rolled onto his back and let out a shuddering breath. A moment later, his body seized and shook, curled tight in pain.
“Jesus Christ,” he wheezed, squeezing his eyes shut as feeling returned to his body, overloading his electrical nerves and frying him from the inside. Aftershocks were a bitch, especially when you’re made of electricity.
“Congratulations, sweet cheeks,” Moxxi spoke from across the bar counter, where she held herself at a distance from the smoking PA system on her wall. “You’ve managed to destroy my equipment and piss Jack off at the same time. What the hell was that?”
“Ohh, man, whatever it was, I’m glad it’s over,” Rhys moaned as his body began to loosen and he started to pick himself up. “Sorry about your, uh, wall… thing. I… the geisha file, I couldn’t- clean it. It got stuck on something. I think. I don’t know.”
“That was Jack’s voice,” Moxxi said, the same strange expression from earlier crossing her face, but this time Rhys could recognize the twinkle in her eye, speaking before he could stop himself.
“You’d better go,” she said quickly.
“Wha- I didn’t even- ”
“That was Jack’s voice,” Moxxi repeated, her serious gaze snapping to meet his, exasperation evident. “Jack’s voice, saying he didn’t want any survivors who could stab him in the back, and he’s out there now, ‘visiting’ the Meriff with a group of Vault Hunters and a metric fuck-barrow of loaded guns.”
“…Oh.” Rhys opened his mouth, then closed it. He scrambled to his feet. “ Oh. I-I’ve got to get up there, get to him, stop him.”
“If that was really Jack, then I- ” she cut herself off, looking intently at Rhys. “You can’t stop him. Not alone. Seriously, from personal experience- I get it, you think you can, but there’s a part of him that’s not- ”
“Not salvageable,” she finished after a moment, looking at him like he was a pitiful basket case she felt obligated to help. “You can’t save him.”
“Y’know, there’s a part of me thinking the same thing,” Rhys said, and there was that undefinable expression on the bartender’s face again, but he continued nonetheless. “But the rest of me knows I wouldn’t like who I am if I didn’t try like hell.”
“That’s poetic,” Moxxi said, as if describing gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “And dumb as all shit. Tell you what, though, I’ll tell them to put ‘moronically heroic’ on your gravestone. If you’re lucky enough to get one, that is.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Rhys said, not sounding particularly enthusiastic about the idea. “Catch you later.”
“Sayonara, sweetcheeks,” Moxxi said, and Rhys disappeared in a flicker of blue and white specks.
In the empty air, her expression hardened, and she shook her head into oblivion. With a click of fingernails on metal, her ECHO switched on, and she sighed.
“Sorry to budge in bearing the bad news on your endearing vacation, but we’ve got another problem. He’s got himself an AI attached to him. And I’ve got a feeling it knows exactly what Jack is, yet it’s still loyal as all hell. Get your resources together, and find me a complex programming scatter signal. …Yep. We’re gonna have to take it out before we can get to Jack.”
This time, when he materialized, it wasn’t with a pop or a sudden jolt, but a rushing momentum, like he was being pulled through a digitized wormhole. But mainly, he knew exactly where he was ending up this time, and even if it still did hurt a bit, at least he could be sure he wasn’t materializing straight into a wall.
“Huh,” he muttered to himself, stretching his limbs out and standing straight, looking around at the empty hallway.
Well, empty of anything alive; bodies and shells of machinery bespeckled the floor, blood and bullet holes painting the walls gruesome tones.
“Just when I thought I was getting a handle on things,” Rhys grumbled, stepping over the carcass of a suspiciously humanoid robot and feeling a little sick to his stomach.
Exploring wasn’t his main goal, but it wasn’t easy to navigate anywhere without a working minimap, and since he had fried himself on the wall, his HUD hadn’t stopped spritzing out every few seconds. It wasn’t a sensor that told him where to go, but the echo of Jack’s voice through the building, falsely loose and joking but with a tense undertone of anger.
“Where the hell is the FR4G-TP, anyway?”
“We let him drive a moon buggy. By the time we all respawned, he was still sinking into the lava pit. We came here as soon as you called, and left him there.”
“Can’t say you haven’t got my seal of approval,” Jack replied, and Rhys turned the corner just fast enough to see his toe tapping come to an end as he addressed the CU5TM CL4P-TP with barely concealed impatience. “Y’know, I can see them together in there getting pretty far, you’d better get that door open, now .”
“ No! Meriff, you bastard! Don’t worry Sereena- I’m coming, my love!” The CL4P-TP cried, then body-slammed his tin can hull against the security wires, deactivating them and him.
“Wha- is he dead?” Jack inquired, peering at Nisha’s boot, which gave the unit a sharp kick with no response. “God, that’s a relief. Now comes the hard part.”
“Jack,” Athena spoke softly, and when she had Jack’s attention, indicated toward Rhys, who swallowed embarrassingly loudly, pinned under the engineer’s gaze again.
“Oh right, you. Stay. Here.” Jack jabbed a finger in his direction, then abruptly turned his back on the hologram, raising a foot to step inside the Meriff’s office.
“Jack, I- ”
“I said. Stay,” Jack bit out between clenched teeth, then continued through the office.
It was difficult to see the action through the stained window doubling as a fish tank wall, but Rhys did his best until he couldn’t take it anymore and stood in the door’s threshold, watching the scene from afar. The Meriff, as it turned out, was a moronic coward in retirement, and Jack treated him as such, with a superior air of dismissal.
Right up until the Meriff pulled a shotgun on Jack’s retreating back, and suddenly Rhys felt momentum and a sharp pain at his fingertips and he stood between Jack and the Meriff, whose the shotgun was on the ground and who was cowering with his hands over his head, whimpering and weeping for mercy.
Relieved that no harm was caused, Rhys didn’t think to check on Jack until he felt the energizing of the laser weapons, pointed straight at the Meriff’s chest. He had barely turned, spread his arms, and shouted a desperate, “Don’t!” when Jack pulled the trigger far many more times than was necessary.
The lasers pulsed through Rhys and beyond, straight into the Meriff, who collapsed behind his desk, followed down by a spray of blood. Slowly, Rhys peered over his shoulder to take in the corpse curled up in its own blood and still twitching slightly.
At the same time, Jack’s expression uncurled from anger into something darker, a deep-seated pleasure driven by his unblinking gaze at the Meriff’s still form. He began to shake himself out, feeling more energized than any kind of caffeine boost could give, and a shaky laugh erupted from his throat.
“Uh… Huh. Wow. That felt… kinda good. Okay. New feeling, yeah. Good,” he spoke to himself, making his way around the Meriff’s desk to the other side, where he toed his coworker’s arm experimentally. It moved limply, completely pliable to his foot, and Jack looked at it the same way a blind man would see the stars for the first time.
“Alright, first thing’s first,” the engineer began, pulling up the Meriff’s chair and starting to swat at the keys on his computer. “We’re gonna need a plan for retaking Helios. I’m thinking big guns, robot armies, maybe a professional military AI to head it all up, all bang-bang-blap-blap-ka-blam-o and we’re back in goddamn business. So. Vault Hunters, you head out and try to find us a military AI, top notch, nothing less. Mox, you connected? Gather up your feelers, see what you can find on anything that’ll help us get what we need to get back. And Rhys- ” he glanced up, still typing but diverting his attention just to drive home the point, “We’re gonna have a talk.”
Rhys nodded resolutely, acting strong despite his fear, but he still very much appreciated when Tim-Tams took the time to shoot him a sympathetic expression and a heartily silent ‘good luck’.
He had to admit, the whole doppelganger thing freaked him out, but to be fair, it probably freaked out Tim-Tams more, and at this point, he seemed to be more soft-edged than Jack, which was a pleasant contrast to the hard-ass routine every five minutes.
Once everybody had left, and the footsteps had receded down the hallway, Jack stopped tapping on the keyboard and stood, placing both of his hands palm down on the desk.
Despite his slouch, he still seemed to loom over Rhys, who suddenly became very aware of the fact that there was a dead body just behind Jack, and the engineer was the one who had put it there.
“I asked Timothy,” Jack said, interrupting his train of thought, and at Rhys’ confused expression, elaborated, “My doppelganger. I asked him if he had ever made those recordings. I told him there’s only one other person who had my voice, and if he didn’t make them, who did? I drilled him for answers and got shit. For your sake, you’d better have something more than shit.”
“I- Jack, I didn’t- ”
“You’ve got ten seconds to tell me where and when that audio was recorded.”
“Look, I can’t tell what- ”
“ Where did that audio come from, Rhys?”
“I don’t know!” Rhys exploded, his exasperation fanning a deep-seated anger that felt almost too familiar while looking at Jack’s face. “There’s no timestamp, no data or information or source for any of it! Hell, I don’t even know where it came from! One second I was interfacing with the PA system, next thing I know, I feel like I’m being stretched onto a spit and baked over acid! That good enough for you, kiddo ?”
“Oh, for god’s sakes,” Jack rolled his eyes, glaring at Rhys like he was a petulant child. “You think I didn’t get that from the way my ECHO fizzled out? Take a stupid, unnecessary breath, asshole, and get your shit together. You retrieved the file somehow, now go get the file back.”
Rhys, against his better judgement, did take a deep breath, and spoke softer through gritted teeth. “It’s not that easy, Jack. In case you haven’t gathered, my code is a mess. The only reason that thing surfaced is because something pulled it out of me. And even then, it was just because it was tangled in the file I actually needed.” He paused, then narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute. Your ECHO stopped working?”
“You overloaded the circuits, moron,” Jack said, “What about it?”
“I shouldn’t be able to do that.”
“Hopefully this is the only time I’ll ever tell you to talk more than you usually do,” Jack grumbled. “Explain.”
“My circuits are independent of your ECHO. They’ve been uploaded, but they’re still on an external drive- I shouldn’t have access to drain power out of your ECHO.”
“So… what, you hacked through my ECHO? Like a virus?”
“That, or I’m self-sustaining enough to inhabit something much larger than your ECHO,” Rhys contemplated with a frown, his left eye whirring to life and glowing a molten gold.
“Something larger than my ECHO,” Jack repeated, a playful glint in his eye. “Something like military-grade kind of larger?”
“I doubt it,” Rhys said, but his frown remained. “Of everything I’ve remembered, combat protocols are at the very bottom. But then again, if I was built to command, I would probably be more well versed in strategy than strictly combat.”
“Woah, hold on, hold on,” Jack interrupted his train of thought, looking positively enthusiastic. “You’re telling me there is a chance you could just be a mentally repressed, fully stocked, special combat military commanding AI?”
“With the state my code is in, Jack, I don’t think you’d want me in charge of any kind of mechanical army,” Rhys looked back at Jack regretfully. “Besides, as much as I hate the idea, I don’t think we should disregard the virus theory. I’m more familiar with code than anything else, and me instinctively taking energy from your ECHO sounds pretty much like the definition of a virus.”
“Sounds to me like it wouldn’t hurt to do a few experiments,” Jack said, not completely ignorant to the way Rhys attempted to contain a flinch. “Just a few tests, nothing too big.”
“Yet,” Rhys completed, a little irritatedly. “Nothing too big yet, is what you meant, isn’t it? I’m not your toy, Jack.”
“Ehh, sure, whatever, kiddo,” Jack said, his attention back on the Meriff’s computer. “I gotta admit, you’re a pretty interesting mystery, and I’d love to tear you apart and find what makes you tick, but at the moment, we haven’t got the time. So, just to make sure we’re not wasting our time, you and I are gonna go find one Janey Springs.”
“Um, what?” Rhys blinked, completely thrown. “Why? Who’s that?”
“No clue, supposed to be some sort of engineer/technician,” Jack replied, plugging a drive into the Meriff’s computer and uploading its contents. “She should be able to help us find out if we can use you to command an army. Otherwise, I may have just sent the Vault Hunters out on a wild goose chase for a military AI we don’t need, and getting blamed for that is precisely what I don’t need right now.”
“W-what exactly do you have in mind? To… test me with?” Rhys questioned, though he couldn’t quite suppress his small joy at the thought of being useful.
“Dunno. Maybe put you in a mech suit, or give you command of a few robots, see what you can do,” Jack shrugged, pulling out the external drive and smirking at the hologram. “I’ve got high hopes for you, Rhysie-cakes. Let’s go see what you can do.”
"Quit worryin’, pumpkin, you’ll do just fine. I’ll be there just in case you need something to kill you dead.”
“I’ve got a few toys around here… nothing to your degree, though. Maybe I could check in the back, crush together some sort of prototype… ? You’ve got money, by the way, right?”
“Rhys. Rhys! Hey! God, what the hell is that?”
“Now all you’ve gotta do is step inside, take the reins, and show us what you’ve got. Apparently it’s all wasteland out there, so don’t hold back, m’kay cupcake?”
“Ooh, you’ve met Athena? You hired her? Well then, I guess I have you to thank for the eye candy I’ve been indulgin’ on. Tell you what, I’ll service you at a 20% discount. Savor that- never happens even once in a blue moon- er, planet, I guess.”
“He’s not comin’ out of it! I’d stay back if I were you, mister!”
“I’ll give you something easy to infiltrate at first; an empty shell of an AI I programmed as an itty bitty little rascal. Don’t worry about the AI left inside, it shouldn’t give you any trouble. Dead as a paralyzed vegetable. You’ll be driving the wheelchair.”
“Nah, quit whining, you big baby. There’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s not gonna come close to your code unless you let it. Rhys. Rhys, for god’s sake, shut up and grow some before I deactivate you and shove you in there against your will! God, you’re annoying as hell.”
“Rhys, you asshole, cut it out! Why the hell can’t he hear me? Rhys! Rhys! ”
“By my calculations, everything’s working at least a little bit. Worst case scenario, the prototype’s code gets ruined on impact so to speak, and holo-dude won’t be able to move. Otherwise, we’re primed and ready to go, whenever he’s ready.”
“Here we go, babe, you ready? Uploading in twenty seconds. This won’t hurt a bit. Y’know, probably. Ha, just kidding! How the hell would I know? Anyway, knock ‘em dead, kiddo.”
“We’ve got to snap him out of it! Get that remote control or whatever, before he turns that thing towards us!”
“I-I can’t! It’s not working, damn thing! At this rate, he’s gonna burn himself out, explode himself and everything around him, including us! Wh- hey, that’s my rocket launcher- !”
“Oh, Rhys, you absolute d-dick… Look what you’ve d-done… I built this p-place with my own two ha-hands… Now it’s r-rubble… So, tha-anks for that. A-Asshole.”
“Finally. You’d think after all that, he’d have the decency to wake up and explain himself.”
“Yeah, well, it ain’t exactly his fault, is it, Mr. He’s-a-perfectly-functioning-AI-no-technical-difficulties-whatsoever? The prototype was corrupt enough, who knows how the hell his code looks right about now.”
“He told me it was a mess, not the aftermath of a nuclear disaster,” Jack huffed indignantly. “Kept saying things were tangled up- he should’ve said they were torn to shreds and glued back together with gorilla gl- ”
“Ohh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Rhys groaned, flickering into existence on the Janey Springs’ Emporium tiled floor. “I can’t still be alive after that.”
He slowly peeled back his eyelids and blinked into the light of the workshop. Behind the desk sat Springs herself, looking pretty, pissed, and pretty pissed. Leaning against the front of her desk with his arms crossed stood Jack, indignant and angry and just the slightest bit disappointed. To his right, a pile of dissembled machinery sparked and twitched ominously, as if alive.
Following his gaze, Janey scoffed, rising to her feet and crossing her arms over her chest. “It’s not just you that’s alive now, kid. That AI I built as a kid? Dead as a vegetable, I said? Well, it’s certainly alive now! And as mad as a dozen skag-hounds in a nest of rakk-hives!”
“I- what?” Rhys turned his overwhelmed gaze to Jack, whose expression offered no sympathy. “What did I do?”
“She means you drove it rakk-shit crazy, you dunce,” Jack said, unfolding his arms and gesturing to the hunk of scrap metal still shuddering in the corner.
“We had to blow it to smithereens to stop it from turning us inside out,” Springs spat, “So thanks for that.”
“I’m… I’m sorry?” Rhys swallowed, looking warily up at Springs, who didn’t look at all softened by his apology. “I can’t- I don’t know what happened.”
“Well, you’re obviously not cut out to be put in any other piece of technology, never mind command an army,” Jack said, his tone scathing but, more painfully, disappointed. “After all of this, I’m starting to think the virus theory might hold more water than we thought.”
“N-no, I- I don’t even remember anything,” Rhys shook his head, starting to feel backed into a corner. Desperation was growing in his stomach, hollowing out the sides and eating through his skin. If he couldn’t fight, couldn’t heal, couldn’t command, what use was he? What was his purpose? “I couldn’t have known what I was doing. Please, just- let me try again. I just to get a grip on my code, that’s all- I can do this, I-I can do this. Please.”
Jack shook his head at the ground, opening his mouth, but Springs beat him to it. She had a reproachful expression, but morbid curiosity weighed down her eyebrows into a stern opportunity.
“There is one thing we could try,” she said, “But- ”
“Let’s do it.”
“It could kill you. Or worse.”
“Please,” Rhys pleaded, knowing he sounded too desperate than what they would have expected. But if he kept going like this, all of his glitches would haunt him- worse, the not knowing would haunt him more.
“What do I have to do?”