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burn before reading

Chapter Text

Jack gets the message the night blue markings first stain and twist their way up Angel's arm, a short and cryptic Burn before reading.

He ignores it. It's probably junk or spam or whatever, and he has bigger things to deal with. Like getting Angel to a doctor.

 


 

He comes back to the message a week after -

After-

Jack's cleaning out his inbox, scrubbing it clean of conversations about Angel. Stuff he talked about with his wife, mostly.

He cleaned out hers earlier.

The stupid subject line still reads Burn before reading. Sender unknown. Attached file encrypted heavily. Not a problem for Jack, who'd been hacking since childhood.

 


 

After wasting thirty minutes, Jack comes to a conclusion: whoever encrypted that was good, really good, to Jack's frustration. He’s about to call it quits, he has other projects to do and Tassiter breathing down his neck every hour, so he tries to drop it but…

But his wife is gone, is dead, and his daughter, his Angel, she was there when it happened, it wasn’t her fault but her powers-

Jack flinches in his empty office, mentally shying away from his own train of thought.  He opens the email again.

Burn before reading, he reads again.  The file is incomprehensible when he does manage to open it.  He’s already run it through all his ciphers, using “burn” and all synonyms for it he can think of as a key but it remains incomprehensible.  

There is a lot of junk in Jack’s office.  He’s a programmer, sure, but he’s also an engineer and that comes with a messy office crowded with the detritus of current and future projects, that they take up too much space to comfortably fit another person in here is just a happy coincidence.  This also means he has some well and truly outdated equipment stored here, just on the off chance he can find a use for it.

It takes a few minutes of rummaging, but he finds the ancient data disk machine in the middle of a pile of dusty boxes. These things were before his time, but he remembers the parlance from his time in college: writing data on a disk was called “burning.”

Attaching the data disk machine to his workstation is pleasantly simple after he finds and rigs all the right adapters.  He pops a disk into the drive, takes the file from his email, and burns it.

The machine hums obligingly, etching the file from the email onto the disk inside.  When it’s done, his workstation lets out a cheerful ding, showing a new file on the disk accessible now that it is done transferring.

Jack clicks it open. 

Jack,

You aren't going to believe me, but your wife is going to die. A bandit who goes by “Grogmouth” is going to recognize Angel for what she is – a Siren – and try to kidnap her.

Sirens are women with incredible powers, only six can exist in the universe at the same time. I don’t know why or how your daughter came to be one, but she is. I know this must sound crazy, but you just have to trust me.

I've hidden blueprints for dampeners in this (no problem for you decrypt, right?) that should help Angel regulate her powers. Until then, I suggest investing in long sleeved shirts for her.

- R.S.  

The schematics included are detailed and complex, but not beyond his capabilities as an engineer to assemble.  Looking at all the parts laid out like this, he can see exactly how they would work together to dampen a Siren’s powers.  The materials will take a little effort to get together, but once complete they would result in two bracelets, enough like jewelry they could go completely unremarked on a young girl.

Jack snatches the trash can from under his desk and pukes. Everything he needed to protect his family was in his inbox the whole time. How to keep Angel safe, how to help her control her powers. If he had just been smarter, better, his wife would still be alive, Angel wouldn’t have seen her die right in front of her, everything would be fixed.

He’s sick until he had nothing left to bring back up.  After, he cries so hard he’s almost sick again. It’s ugly, tears, snot, the works.  When he’s wrung out of tears, he allows himself to sit in wretched silence in his now rancid smelling office. Then he opens some back channels and orders the parts he needs.

He can do that, at least.  He’s failed her once, but he won’t again.

Chapter Text

Jack spends his free time obsessing over the damn email.

Not that he actually has any free time. Tassiter wants A.I. improvements to the latest generation of loaders, work that should take a month and that he expects Jack to finish in a week.

So, to be accurate: as he numbly works his way through the tangled mess of code, he obsesses over the damn email.

He has questions, like how the hell this R.S. got the private ECHO mail address he only used to talk with his wife and daughter. It had to be some type of set up, the details were too perfect. Intimidation maybe? Did this asshole think he could get to Angel by threatening Jack’s wife?

(Angel, looking up at him with dead eyes and flatly asking if he blamed her for killing Mommy. Another loop for his nightmares.)

Jack swallows the sick feeling. An idea starts to take shape in his weary mind. Ridiculous and fed by his lack of sleep. It can’t possibly work.

He calls up the open window with the message, hitting reply before his brain can catch up with his fingers. Hoping to hell his private ECHOnet connection is still private and not tapped by Tassiter or his goons, he types out who the hell are u?? and hits send. 

For a long, restless minute he keeps his eyes locked on the screen. Common sense hits Jack first, telling him this was foolish.  The MAILER-DAMEON hits him second: Message not delivered, there was a problem delivering your message to-

He closes his email in disgust.

Raking his hands through his already disheveled hair, Jack forces himself back to work.  The only way to significantly improve the A.I. would be to give them sentient reasoning, which he’s pretty sure is exactly what Tassiter wants.  He’s already been tinkering with the idea, he’d even exchanged a few emails with dear old De Quidt in Artificial Intelligence but the guy had very little insight beyond what Jack already knew and seemed to be struggling with his own projects anyway.  Not that the CL4P-TPs ever made anything easy.

This sucked. Everything sucked.

Jack takes his glasses off to scrub a hand down his face.  He doesn’t want to be here, he wants to be home with Angel.  Even after everything that happened, he was only allowed one day of leave before Tassiter called him back in to work.  Normally her mom would be there, but now of course she can’t. Until he gets the bracelets built, he can’t leave her with anyone so she’s home alone. She’s smart for a six-year-old, but no kid should be left alone for so long.

It’s while he’s agonizing over this for the third time that day that he hears the ding! of an incoming email. He puts his glasses back on and opens it, expecting another haranguing from his boss. At least it won’t be in person this time…

Sender unknown. Jack thinks he broke a speed record opening it.

A picture of a cat (kitten, based on the size) hanging precariously from a branch or something greets him. Jack rolls his mismatched eyes, guessing the trick at once. Hiding text in an image, really?

Jack,

I’m sorry about your wife.  I’m sorry I was too late. I really thought I could change things, but this might all be futile.  I have to try anyway.  

Attached is all the information I’ve been able to find on sirens; admittedly it’s not much but it’s better than nothing.  I know this doesn’t make up for the loss of your wife but it’s all I can give you right now. I hope you and your daughter are well.   As well as you can be, given the circumstances.

- R.S.

Jack is silent in front of his terminal, eyes slipping over the words again and again until they lose meaning.  

The absurdity of what he's about to do weighs heavy on him. The entire situation is surreal. He can't trust the stranger, Jack knows he's being played. To what ends he couldn't say.

He can't do this anymore.

Deleting his personal files takes no time at all, he was never stupid enough to have much sensitive data stored on Hyperion servers. Jack doesn't know if Tassiter will be pissed or grateful he's gone, he spitefully hopes the former. Hopefully, Hyperion will be too busy fussing over Atlas to send a kill team after an absconding programmer. Last Jack heard, the rival company was currently shelling mercs on the southern side of the planet. Just a little too close for Hyperion’s comfort.

Jack doesn’t leave a letter of resignation. Getting off planet will be hard enough even without alerting Tassiter first, and he wants every advantage he can get. Jack never ate from the crappy cafeteria, so no worries about flushing his body of the nano-trackers Hyperion laced the garbage they tried to pass off as food with.

No one speaks to him on his way out, wanting to avoid being seen palling around with the boss’s favorite chew-toy. It comes in handy today.

He has to get off this frickin’ planet.

Chapter Text

When he opens the door to his little two-bedroom apartment, Angel is on the couch watching cartoons with papers and colored pencils scattered haphazardly across the coffee table in front of her.  She looks at her father and her face lights up, beaming like sunlight through winter clouds or something poetic like that. And that look of happiness on his little girl who just went through hell, that look reminds him that he’s doing the right thing.

“Daddy!” she shrieks in her ear-piercing little girl voice.  “You’re home early!”

“I sure am, baby,” he responds, running an inventory in his head of what he can grab and carry easily. “Did you eat lunch?”

“...Yes.” Angel gives him her second best innocent smile.

Jack opens the refrigerator and pulls out the plate of sandwiches he made for her lunch that morning and places them on the kitchen counter. Angel deflates.

“But I’m tired of sandwiches,” she sulks, crossing her arms petulantly.  

Jack crosses into his bedroom and grabs the go-bag hanging stashed in his closet.  “I know, honey,” he hollers as he checks its contents. “But if you eat one, I promise we’ll get something different for dinner.”

But he didn’t need to yell, Angel is standing in the closet doorway.  Jack jumps when he turns and sees her there. “Dinner? Aren’t you going back to work?”

“I took a surprise vacation!” Angel shrieks again in delight.  “Eat at least one sandwich, I’m gonna pack you a bag.”

Angel scampers off to the kitchen and Jack fetches the nearly complete bracelets from the work table in the corner of their- of his bedroom.  Hopefully he can find a few quiet moments to finish them so he doesn’t have to worry about people seeing Angel’s arm on top of everything else that will be happening.

Angel reappears while he’s packing her bag: the essentials plus some long sleeve shirts.  She watches him with all the intensity a six-year-old can muster (it’s a lot). She garbles some words at him around a mouth full of sandwich.

“What did we tell you about talking with your mouth full, Angel? I didn’t understand a word you just said.”

She takes a moment to finish chewing before she can respond. “Sorry, Daddy.  I said, ‘Where are we going?’”

Jack stills, half-folded shirt dangling in his grasp. “Good question.”

With the confusion of the Crimson Lance suddenly withdrawing from Tantalus, getting off planet should be easy as pie. It was all over the ECHOnet, Jack couldn’t find an outlet not covering it on his trek home. Really weird. Too many Hyperion personnel will be left scrambling to figure out what was happening when from all reports Atlas had the upper hand before a sudden and efficient retreat. 

But where could they go once they got off planet? The inner worlds were too expensive. Demophon was closest but a total dump. Euryphaessa was a major hub for Hyperion, so that was another no.

“Eden-5.” 

It was as good a place as any.

 


 

Disappearing on Eden-5 isn’t too difficult once you grease the right palms, and the police force there is always willing to look the other way for the right price. Purchasing false identities is pretty uncomplicated, plus the criminals are more trustworthy than the cops when it comes to keeping their mouths shut. And they don’t charge nearly as much.

Thus, Jonathan “Jack” Hanson and Angela “Angel” Hanson arrive in their new home.  Jack finds them a decent apartment, purchases some second-hand furniture, and gets a part-time job at a bot-shop nearby repairing cleaning bots for the local businesses.  He finished the bracelets for Angel on their second ship (they took seven, hopping from various planets and space stations to obfuscate their trail) and she hasn’t taken them off since.  

Thanks to his sparse work hours, he’s able to walk her to school every morning and pick her up in the afternoon.  Other than that unintended perk, his job gives him no benefits, pays shit, and his boss tries his best to get Jack to work unpaid overtime; but he gets to help his daughter with her homework every day. Something he never could do while working for Hyperion.

He didn’t realize how much they needed this until they had it. Jack’s still a little antsy. Luckily, he’s been stowing money away in untraceable accounts since he left his grandmother’s house. Even with the extra expenses, they have a cushion in case they need to run again. Preparedness is next to godliness, or something like that.

It's not perfect, nothing ever was, but it was an improvement. Just getting off Tantalus had improved his mood immensely. Angel smiles more. A nearby planet Jack's never heard of has a popular custom of tattooing the left arm, so most assume Angel's own pale blue markings are a cultural thing not worthy of further scrutiny. Lady luck finally flipped a face card for them.

Hyperion's throne atop the domestic bot market helps, to Jack's amusement. He was on the team that implemented the planned obsolescence protocols in the newest models, now he works at undoing the very thing his code was made to accomplish.

R.S. being a Siren was his leading theory. How else would they have known about Angel being a Siren, about how Jack’s wife would die? Little is known about Siren powers, maybe one can see into the future. Why they would decide to help him and not just use it to take over the universe, though, is beyond Jack.

Whatever and whoever they are, Jack's still suspicious, but he also feels he's in the stranger's debt.

He hates that feeling. Wants it gone. When he gets home that night, after putting Angel to bed, he accesses the ECHOmail account and does something about it.

thx

- jack

It gives him closure, or something. For a short while, anyway. He nearly falls out of his friggin' chair at the new message ding. Jack feels the threat of a smile coming on, curious and close, as he opens his new email.

Chapter Text

Life on Eden-5 is fairly peaceful, or about as close to peaceful as a planet can get in the six galaxies. Jack had thought they were happy before- well, before. But he realizes now, unchained from his office and twenty-hour workdays, that he was in fact super miserable. And that he’s missed so much.

He’s meticulous about leaving false trails on the ECHOnet daily, checking for signs of pursuit in the vapor trails they left behind. The fear of being found by Hyperion hangs over his head, a constant and annoying headache of a crown. The thought of Hyperion stealing Angel and doing god-knows-what with her and her powers lingers at the edge of his mind, chilling him and keeping him alert. If Jack had to compare, it’s about the same amount of stress as having Tassiter breathing down his neck constantly, except with no Tassiter. Jack tallies it up and calls it a win.

Angel even starts making friends as the months march on. Chief among them is a little red-headed girl named Gaige, who gets his daughter into all kinds of trouble at school.  Jack wants to dislike her at first, she’s always causing some kind of explosion or engineering related catastrophe and dragging Angel along with her, but she’s also Angel’s best friend who pulls his little girl out of her shell with almost ruthless efficiency.  Plus she’s pretty cool for a little kid. Smart. She says she wants to build her own robot, and Jack really can’t fault her for that.

Angel smiles and waves at him from the school bus. He waves back, uncomplicated by his worries in that moment.

He emails R.S.  Sometimes R.S. takes days to respond, but they develop a kind of bantering rapport that’s easy to fall into. Jack worries that it’s too easy, that this person is still trying to play him somehow, but so far he (Jack had asked, R.S. said he was a guy) has done nothing but help Jack.

But Jack’s never been given anything for free. Especially not kindness. 

R.S. is undeniably a dork though. His favorite frogurt flavor is chocolate dill pickle. That's got to be the grossest thing Jack's ever heard of, right up there with skag burgers. Or maybe the guy’s messing with him, who knows.

Jack's sure he's being being messed with when in response to complaining about his job, R.S. suggests he apply to Atlas.

thats real cute pumpkin like atlas would even want to touch my non compete agreement.  pretty sure that counts as an act of war these days anyway

no ill just be down here fixing my own forced redundancy coding on these crummy cleaning bots.  dont worry ur pretty little head about me im having a great time

Technically, if Jack enters Atlas in a low enough position as Jonathan Hanson he might be able to get away with starting a new career at the megacorporation, but it would also entail having to forge a work history and professional references that would actually get him hired there.  Plus, he’s kind of enjoying how relaxed his job is. Even if it is really boring. And he has nothing to really challenge him. It’s insulting, really, to an engineer of his caliber. And he wishes he could kill or otherwise maim the customers on a daily basis.

Okay, so maybe he kinda hates it.

Like, a lot.

Jack's expecting a straightforward “haha, ok” or even a succinct “lol” as the next reply, what he’s not expecting is:

Too late, already put in an application for you ;)

- R.S.

To which Jack instantly responds:

lol nice joke

Minutes tick by.

please say sike

Jack bounces his leg nervously.

Four minutes pass. No response. He's- he's serious. He seriously did that didn’t he. Holy nutballs.

This is it, isn’t it? Jack’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop. The betrayal. The backstab. For the game R.S. has to be playing to finally fuck Jack over.

Jack tries not to freak out. It’s a school night and Angel is sleeping in the other room so he can’t start cursing like he wants to. Or throw something.  Instead he settles for pacing his bedroom. Then he checks to see if R.S. has replied. He hasn’t, so Jack paces some more.

This is probably not a big deal.  He’s built up their false identities enough they won’t be easy to track by Hyperion and he’s laying low enough he shouldn’t even be a blip on their radar. And even if R.S. sent his information to Atlas, it wouldn’t be enough to locate him.  At least, it shouldn’t.

He really doesn’t want to move Angel again.  

He flips on a newscast to give himself something else to focus on and what he sees gets his attention quite effectively.  

A pillar of smoke billowing dramatically from the side of a high-rise building. Under the video, a headline:  PERSEPHONE - ATTACK ON ATLAS HEADQUARTERS?  

Huh.

All the news channels were airing that same grainy footage (except the ones run by Anshin, they were still broadcasting ASMR videos).

Jack bites his thumb, and connects dots that maybe weren’t meant to be connected. This is probably just one big, unhappy coincidence, but Jack has a desperate hope left in him that Granny never managed to beat out completely. A cunning that could never be killed.

The attack on Atlas, the abrupt radio silence from R.S. They couldn’t be connected, right?

Chapter Text

Jack gets a few alerts on the false trails he laid, but nothing indicating Hyperion was anywhere close to sniffing them out. His little pen pal’s stunt didn’t seem to endanger him. Jack wonders when R.S. will respond, if he even can respond. He works his boring part-time job without ambition, doing just well enough to not catch the attention of his boss. He goes home on time every day, listens to Angel talk about school as he cooks dinner. She’s happy here.

Jack lets his guard down a fraction. Gets complacent.

So he’s not as ready as he should be when shit inevitably hits the fan.

Angel is happily recounting Gaige’s latest exploit (setting loose a computer guided basketball during recess that got tired of being thrown around and opted to hunt down the players instead) as they approach the door to their apartment.  He can’t get more than a ‘wow!’ in edgewise through her relentless chatter. Jack doesn’t really mind. But as he’s pulling his keycard out, she stops abruptly. Her hand tightens around his as she comes to a complete halt beside him, dragging Jack to a standstill with her.

“Angel, honey?” Jack gently squeezes her hand but her eyes never leave the lock.

“I-” her brows furrow, gaze unwavering. “Never mind.”

Jack never gets the chance to slot the card into the lock. The door opens on him, knocking him to the ground by the force of it colliding with his face. It’s been a long, long time since he and physical violence were intimately acquainted. 

There’s a hand on his ankle. His mind is still reeling from the blow as he’s dragged into the apartment.

Ow. Fuck.

Stupid. So stupid of him. Damn it. He should’ve told Angel to run.

A boot connects with his ribs. Instincts long dormant kick in and he clenches his jaw, stopping the scream in his throat.  He doesn’t want her to hear him scream, he doesn’t-

He catches the door frame for just a moment before it’s wrenched from his grasp, the force of it scraping a layer of skin from his palm. A foot slams onto his hand with crushing force and he feels something break inside with a visceral crunch. A second figure emerges in his line of sight, small and angular with one of those I-want-to-talk-to-your-manager haircuts he remembers too well from his time in retail while putting himself through college. Jack recognizes her, vaguely, from a mandatory Human Resources meeting. She pulls the door shut with a gentle click.

“Stop that,” says a friendly voice from above him.  Jack looks up through eyes watery with pain to see an amicable face smiling down at him, soft and pleasantly round.  The cherubic face beams down on him just as its owner’s boot bears down on his hand, grinding it into the floor. Jack makes an undignified noise of agony. The lovechild of a moan and a bleat.

The silent figure wrenches open his mouth, Jack gags at the taste of the cotton swab and glove. Soft-and-Round watches serenely as the other processes the stolen sample on a small ECHO device. “It’s him, alright,” she drawls.

God, everyone in Human Resources was always so friggin’ creepy.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Jack No-Last-Last-Name-Provided!  We’re here for your exit interview. This will only take a moment of your time,” Soft-and-Round takes their boot off Jack’s hand so they can crouch over him as he lies prone on the floor, holding their ECHO to his face to record.  “Now, what made you leave Hyperion?”

This close, he can see they aren’t packing a shield. Not dressed for much of a fight. Despite the pain, Jack smiles. “Oh, well, you know those pretzels in all the snack machines? They sucked.”

Sharp-and-Angular nods, the motion slick with the practiced insincerity Jack expects from HR. “Anything else?”

All Jack wants to do is throw up, he can’t think up a cool one liner to spit out. Maybe if he aims well enough he can vomit on one of them.

The two seem to take his silence as a no.  Soft-and-Round is holding a repeater. If his head weren’t spinning, he could probably name the make and model. It’s Hyperion though, he knows that.  They point the barrel at his face, smiling merry and pink-cheeked as they do it.  

“Thank you for your cooperation,” they gush, “Your feedback will be taken into consideration!”

Jack sucks air through his teeth. Defiant. Ready to pounce.

Sharp-and-Angular drones: “Tassiter wants him alive, remember?”;

Soft-and-Round looks over their shoulder, pouting in dismay;

Jack reaches for the gun with his uninjured hand, taking it by the grip and jamming his thumb under the trigger;

Soft-and-Round whips back around to face him, pulling the trigger and crushing his thumb under it while simultaneously punching him in the face;

Jack reals back, but his thumb is still stuck under the trigger.  It does something it shouldn’t with a bright, cold flash of pain;

And finally, the front door explodes inwards, the closing mechanism smoking, and takes Sharp-and-Angular along with it to the ground.  Angel stands in the now empty doorway in her cute blue dress, tears streaming down her face and tattoos lit up like a distress flare.

“Leave my daddy alone!” She screams, and all the electronics in the room scream with her before dying terrible deaths.  Soft-and-Round is staring at her, flabbergasted, when their ECHO explodes on their hip and catches their pants on fire in the process.  They let go of the gun with a curse and Jack struggles to get a hold on it with no working thumbs.

Sharp-and-Angular clamors out from underneath the door, she looks pissed.

“To hell with what Tassiter wants,” she hisses, and she pulls out her own pistol because of course she does and takes aim at Jack.

Or, she starts to anyway, before a  blade erupts from her chest.

Jack’s read about storms, about cyclones. Weather phenomena that was alien to him. At their center was an eye of calm weather; the bizarre silence in the room now has to count as one. It’s not silent, not really, the rush of his blood is too loud in his ears. 

Her grip on the gun loosens, she stares with wide and glassy eyes as the blade slips backwards, leaving a gaping hole. The quiet’s breached when she makes a wet, retching sound Jack’s sure he never wants to hear again as she crumples to the floor.

“Unsatisfying,” shadows ripple into humanoid shape, a bright red numeral zero flickering to life on their facemask (or, what Jack assumes is a facemask.)

Angel’s at his side on the floor, her small hand gripping his shoulder. Jack puts an arm around her. Soft-and-Round bolts for the now empty doorway, but the dark figure moves with an inhuman grace and slices their leg off.

“Did you really think to run?” Their voice sounds distorted, amused. Soft-and-Round reaches weakly for Sharp-and-Angular’s gun. It’s not worth the effort. The sword cleaves their neck; a Hyperion shield might have delayed that moment, but little more.

The stranger turns to him. 

Reality comes crashing back to Jack. He scurries up from the floor, multiple parts of him screaming in pain. He means to grab Angel with his wrecked hands but she positions herself in front of him, a tiny and fierce guardian. 

“You will not hurt my dad,” Angel says firmly. Jack’s proud, even as he pushes her behind him. Out of danger.

A question mark lights up the stranger’s mask. “This is true, I won’t.”

In one fluid motion they pull something from Sharp-and-Angular’s corpse. Jack recognizes the cylindrical object in the stranger’s hand for an Insta-Health Vial.

They hold it out to Jack. He notices they only have four fingers. Weird.

“Uh, thanks? I mean -- can’t really use it,” Jack raises his battered hands in defeat.

They sigh in annoyance, grabbing Jack’s nearest arm and slipping the needle into his skin. Jack yelps. Angel shouts, ready to fight this walking apocalypse.

Jack wants very badly to whimper. He also very badly doesn’t want Angel to see the depth of his injuries. He squirms instead. It’s uncomfortable, the sensation of bones healing and righting themselves at an unnatural speed. Been a long time since he was subjected to one of those things.

Jack sighs in relief when the bone-stitching feeling stops.

“Here,” the stranger holds out a thin, unmarked package to Jack. He takes it gingerly in his newly healed but still sore hands. Jack’s totally aware he’s gambling on this stranger not killing him now. The seal breaks easy, and Jack slides a stack of papers from the envelope. His breath catches when he sees the cover page. When he sees what’s on the cover page.

The Atlas logo.

Chapter Text

What Angel likes best about their new place is that she gets her own bathroom. 

The condo is located in a more upscale part of the city, figures since it houses mostly Atlas employees not wealthy enough to own their own turbomansions.

R.S. still was silent. Frustratingly enough, Jack’s starting to miss him, especially after all the crap that went down. He sends him a short do you work for atlas while moving in but hears nothing back in the weeks following his abrupt new employment at Atlas.  The stranger had given him his contract over the cooling corpses of the Hyperion HR assassins and, really, who could say no to an offer like that.

It’s fine.  As fine as any of this (his wife dying, his daughter randomly getting space-magic) can be. Everything has been so weird over the last few months, this might as well happen too.  Headhunted by Atlas after Hyperion tried to have him killed. Jack can’t help but suspect that this has all been a set-up, but he’s kind of backed into a corner.

(And Jack can’t blame Atlas for wanting him, he is pretty awesome at what he does.)

Their new place on Persephone is comfortable; hot and cold running water, heating system, the works. Angel’s been decorating her own room, and his new job is actually interesting and doesn’t demand twenty-one hours a day from him. So things are okay.

Well, Jack wants it to be okay. Angel’s been acting off.  He thinks at first it’s because she had to leave Gaige behind, and that is a factor, but there’s something more to it.  She frets with her bracelets more than she ever did on Eden-5. Sometimes he catches her staring off into space, eyes focused on nothing while worry digs a crease between her eyebrows.  And she doesn’t seem to be sleeping well, nodding off over her homework with increasing frequency and he’s told by her new teachers she’s finding it difficult to maintain attention in class.  It’s rough to move at that age, it will pass, they reassure him, but he knows there’s something more to it.

He thinks about bringing her to a doctor (Atlas gave him health insurance of all things.)

So one day after dinner, Jack sits down next to Angel where she’s watching cartoons on the ECHOvision and puts on his best Dad Face.  She looks away from the screen to eye him in mild concern as he struggles to find the right words for this situation.  

He clears his throat, unaccountably nervous.  “Hey, kiddo, you doing okay?”

Angel looks even more uncomfortable than she did when he first sat down.  “Yeah, I’m okay.” She looks down as she answers to watch her hands fidget in her lap.

The silence stretches, ferments into awkwardness. Jack really didn’t think this out well. Super unusual for him, he knows, but he has no point of reference for this sort of thing. Grandma sure as hell never asked Jack about his feelings and any conversations with his parents are long lost from his memory. Practical things, he could learn. Coding, programming, engineering. Emotions were esoteric, not nailed down to anything logical.

(He wishes his wife was here, she’d know what to say.)

“I’m sorry,” her voice is brittle, Jack realizes with a metaphorical stab to his heart that she’s crying.

He reaches out to comfort her, but Angel curls into herself like a spiderant about to roll away, leaving his hand hovering uselessly in the air above her shoulder.

“I’m sorry I used my powers again, Daddy,” her words are muffled by her knees, but Jack can still make them out.  “I know you told me not to take my bracelets off, but I was so scared. They were hurting you!”

“Angel-”

Her whole body is shaking with her sobs, but she looks up at him with eyes already bloodshot from crying, tears and snot streaming down her face, expresion rent open with anguish.  “I know it’s my fault Mommy died, but I couldn’t-”

Angel cuts herself off with another sob, curling back into herself and ripping Jack’s hear out of his chest in the process.  Then his arms are around her, pulling her into his lap so they can hold onto each other for dear life. Jack presses his lips to the crown of his daughter’s head, breathes in her horrible strawberry shampoo, and tries his best to quell his own tears.  He’s not entirely successful.

“It’s not your fault, nothing’s your fault, honey,” Jack says. “I’m just- I don’t want you getting hurt. I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to you.”

There was the painful truth. If anything happened to Angel, if she died, Jack’s certain he couldn’t live with himself.

He wants to keep her safe forever, a dark part of his mind whispers that he could.

“I- I knew people were there, in the apartment,” Angel hiccups. “You got hurt because of me.”

“No,” Jack knows at most Angel could have delayed the inevitable, but how the hell do you explain assassins to a child? He tells her another truth instead.

“You saved me.”

 


 

Typing is a pain. Turns out having your hands smashed to bits and fixed by dubious science still left sore spots.

From what Jack’s been able to glean thorough gossip, Atlas went through some major corporate policy overhauls months ago. Not all unwelcome changes. Robotics and Engineering got a little bump in funding.

Wasn’t like Hyperion, which was always more bacon than his pan could handle.

In fact, Jack might have too little bacon in his pan today.  He’s already nearly done with his latest project, this would be the perfect time to do a little research on his new employer.  Flexing his aching hands, Jack opens a new program.

Nothing too intrusive, just a little prodding. To discover what Atlas had on him.

Atlas, for all its military might, was years behind Hyperion when it came to internal cybersecurity. Which was good for Jack, but maybe not so good for Atlas. He’ll have to mention it at the next meeting.

His employee profile is appallingly short. Half a paragraph, Jack’s tempted to grab the word count. He feels his eye twitch in irritation. All that effort to poach him and this is all he gets? Nothing about Sirens, nothing about Angel. Yet. R.S. still might be waiting to tip his hand on that one. Sighing, he refreshes his mailbox for the ninth time that hour.

Well, speak of the monogrammed devil.

No, but I have influence with them.

- R.S.

Jack huffs.

oh hey kiddo, i’m doing fine thanks for asking. still alive despite that pesky assassination attempt but hey i’m sure you already knew about that!!!

Jack hits send and minimizes the window.  R.S. usually takes a while to respond anyway and technically Jack should be working, but his email dings almost immediately. 

Don’t call me “kiddo.”

- R.S.

“Don’t call me ‘kiddo,’” Jack mocks under his breath. Guy has got to be younger than him if he’s getting pissy at that. 

sure thing, pumpkin

ps- atlas cybersecurity sucks

Jack yawns, he could really go for some coffee right now. Allegedly, R.S. takes eighteen sugars in his coffee. Eighteen. 

Thanks, I’m sure Altas is thrilled to have you as an employee.  

(And I am glad you’re alive.)

- R.S.

A warm thrill shoots through Jack upon reading R.S.’s latest reply, kinda like hitting his funnybone on the edge of a desk but somehow... nice.  Annoyed with himself, Jack leans back in his chair and takes a sip of his coffee, only to find it’s now room temperature and disgusting. He just barely restrains his instinct to spit it back into the cup and swallows it with a grimace, then shoves his chair back from the desk.  A moment to collect himself is in order, as is a fresh hot cup of caffeine. He’s too tired to be feeling whatever he’s feeling right now, anyway.

 


 

The breakroom isn’t as empty as Jack was hoping.  His fellow engineers Maria and Rick are flanking the coffee pot like twin sphinxes guarding forbidden knowledge.  They appear to be flirting, which is really not something Jack needs right now. He dumps the dregs of his coffee in the sink and without preamble reaches between them for the pot, causing them both to jump apart like startled teenagers despite both looking like they’re in their thirties.

“Oh, Jack!” exclaims Rick.  “Taking a little coffee break?”

“Just topping up the ol’ gas tank,” Jack replies inanely, no stranger to the necessity of company smalltalk despite his abiding hatred for it.

Maria sidles up beside Rick, short and round to Rick’s tall and square.  Seeing them standing next to each other leaves Jack with the impression that together they would have the perfect silhouettes for the main characters in a cartoon series.  She smiles up at Jack warmly and he finds himself thawing a little against his will.

“Are you looking forward to the big meeting tomorrow?  I heard Mr. Strongfork will be there!” 

Jack dumps four sugars and a creamer into his coffee before giving it a stir.  “Who?”

Maria beams, thrilled for an excuse to gush.  “Mr. Stongfork is the CEO of Atlas! He’s been implementing all kinds of neat changes recently, he’s the reason we have all the name brand candy in the vending machines now!”

“And he had cake delivered to the break room that one time,” Rick interjects with an approving nod.  Maria nods too, leaving them both looking like bobbleheads.

Jack has no recollection of this name.  Last he heard, Atlas was owned by some geezer named Prichett. Or was it Pritchford? Something like that. An old man that fit in perfectly with all the other old men that owned the major galactic corporations.  “That’s... nice. So, uh, how long has he been CEO?”

Rick opens his mouth but Maria cuts him off.

“Almost a year! After he promised the Lance they’d all get healthcare and more PTO with him as CEO.”

Rick scoffs good naturedly. “Um, actually he won it from the old CEO in a card game.”

Maria’s smile becomes strained. “Oh? Did you hear that from Hasib?”

Jack’s torn between staying to watch the verbal car crash that’s sure to transpire or slinking back to the peace of his office. Of course the thought of returning to his office reminds him why he came to the breakroom the first place. He sips his coffee, scrunching his nose. Needs more creamer.

Chapter Text

To the palpable disappointment of the entire department, Mr. Strongfork does not attend the meeting.  This isn’t terribly surprising to Jack, considering how dull it is. An hour of his day devoted to something that could have been handled with an email.

The coffee is good at least, and the donuts even better.  Both provided, their department head tells them, courtesy of Mr. Strongfork with apologies for having to miss their meeting but he wants to congratulate them all regardless!  He had some last minute business to take care of and couldn’t make it away from his desk, but he nevertheless compliments them on their productivity et cetera, et cetera. So boring. Jack might just fall asleep to the man’s droning monotone presentation. He zones out, checks his email surreptitiously under the table.

Trading college stories with R.S. is way more entertaining than whatever new office culture synergy program his boss has fixated on most recently.  R.S. seems perfectly happy to distract him, or maybe he’s looking for distraction himself. 

It’s strange, and definitely foolish, but it makes Jack happy when R.S. shares scraps of himself.

Jack doesn’t look up until Maria elbows him at the end of the meeting just as the department head mentions something about there being absolutely no ghosts in the office and to please stop spreading rumors about it, some people are sensitive to that kind of thing.  

(Jack doesn’t believe in ghosts anyway.)

Is it weird that he still doesn't know his boss’s name?  Probably, but Jack isn’t planning on learning it. He won’t need to once he maneuvers himself into the man’s position.  This department could be doing so much more with some proper leadership. First thing Jack plans on is less unnecessary meetings.

Jack snags the donut box on the way out.

 


 

“Gaige wants to know what that thing under your mouth is.”

Jack glances up from his doodles (preliminary work for an upcoming project to pass time while waiting for the oven to ding) to find his daughter staring at him.  He hadn’t heard Angel enter.

“The what- that’s my soul patch, sweetie.”

“What’s that?”

Jack looks away from his draft, giving Angel his full attention. “It’s a type of beard.”

“Gaige thinks it’s weird,” she says. “Why do you have it?”

“Chicks dig it,” he replies defensively. His wife, specifically. He grew it as a joke, only keeping it when she confessed to finding it cute. The memory stings him with melancholy. “Eh, enough about that, how’s Gaige doing?”

“Not good. Marcie’s being a jerk, she shoved Gaige yesterday and the teacher didn’t do anything!” Angel huffs. “She’s gonna make a robot bodyguard.”

Jack nods sagely. Practical, that kid. Angel brightens as she remembers what she had actually come out of her room to show him. “Oh, dad, look!”

She scurries over to him, Tediore Super Entertainment Box 400 proudly in hand.

“I know you said you’d fix it later,” she says, “but I asked it what was wrong.”

“You, uh, you asked it?” 

“Uh-huh.”  She smiles at him shyly, holding the game system up for her father to examine.  “It wasn’t the box’s fault, it was just a little dusty. I blew the dust out and now it works!”

“Wow, honey that’s great!”  Angel positively glows under the praise, giving Jack a megawatt grin.  “But what do you mean exactly by ‘asking it’?”

Angel puts the console on the table next to him and rubs her bottom lip thoughtfully, a gesture he recognizes with a jolt of tenderness as one of his own.  “I dunno. I wanted to play with it, so I just… kinda thought at it? I was thinking ‘why won’t you work?’ and I could feel the dust in it. Is… is that okay?”

Jack smiles, gently tucking her hair behind her ear.  “Oh honey, that’s wonderful .”

Angel lunges at him in joy. He can feel a rib or two protesting under the force of her hug, but Jack hugs her back all the same. 

“I blew the dust out and it worked!” She chirps. “Anyways, you get back to work!”

She bounces out of his workroom, console in hand.

The stupid smile doesn’t leave his face even as he sends R.S. a quick email:

hey so facial hair? sexy right?

R.S.’s reply is prompt:

I had a mustache for a while but everyone told me it was weird.  I think some people can pull it off, though; maybe I’m just not one of them.

Jack wonders what he looks like, with or without a mustache.

 


 

Atlas headquarters at night was kinda spooky, Jack would concede that.

Didn’t make the place haunted, though.

It was all standard ghost story stuff: things disappearing or being moved and seeing other people who weren’t actually there. Days ago, Maria breathlessly told Jack she saw him reflected off a screen down in R&D, only to turn around and find no one else but her in the room.  He wasn’t even down in R&D that week.

Jack stretches, boot hitting the gutted fuselage of a Lance Probe.

Angel’s at a sleepover tonight, perfect for Jack to work late. She’s been having an easier time making friends since starting therapy. Jack’s wary of the concept, but R.S. suggested it, and his insurance covered it.  And it does seem to really be helping.

(Plus, Angel’s reassured him she plans on frying any would be kidnappers.)

Something pops as Jack stands. He’s not as young as he feels and sitting cross-legged on the floor for so long didn’t do him any favors.  He should stretch his legs a bit before he gets too stiff to stand up again. God, is he getting old? Yikes.

The door slides open obediently at Jack’s approach. It was eerie seeing the hallways of Atlas so empty. Somewhere, a cleaning drone was whirring. His office was three floors down, and he’s hardly had a chance to get familiar with this part of the looming building.

So, he walks.

Jack ponders the efficiency of the distance cleaning bot’s odometry until the thing is out of earshot. His thoughts drift, settling on non-work related crap. Sirens. His own secret research on Sirens the past months hadn’t proven as useful as the stuff from R.S. The most common accounts were of charlatans, women pretending to be Sirens to fleece rubes out of their money. Scant publications from the inner worlds regarded them as fairytales, or freak accidents of nature. 

He catches his disheveled reflection in a window, frowns and tries to fix his hair. Reportedly, Athenas was ruled by some cult with a Siren at its center.

He rounds the corner and freezes.

There on the opposite end, a tall black silhouette against the immaculate white of Atlas’s walls, is the stranger that rescued him on Eden-5.

They don’t give any indication of seeing Jack. They continue on, silent as a shadow.

In the scant few months he’s been at Atlas, Jack’s never heard his coworkers mention a tall, dark, mysterious four-fingered assassin.  Watching them move silently down the corridor, Jack thinks maybe they’re the ghost everyone seems to think haunts the building.

So of course Jack follows.

Jack sidles along the wall with careful, soundless steps. He’d always been good at sneaking, at hiding. Necessary skills for surviving Grandma.  The stranger doesn’t make it easy to trail them, they’re much better at being quick and quiet at the same time than Jack is, but luckily they aren’t going far so he doesn’t have to keep up for long.  

They’re almost out of sight when Jack sees them slip into a room.  He creeps down the hall and just barely catches the trailing edges of a conversation.

“-tafeyo’s secured, at least,” someone sighs. Not the stranger’s crackling voice, no, this voice sounds young. Nerdy, but in a popular nerd kind of way, like someone who knows how to work both a computer and a room.

Before he can overhear anything more, the door opens and spills light into the hallway and then the stranger is there, moving so fast that Jack doesn’t even have time to be startled before he’s on the ground.

Cursing under his breath, Jack scrambles to his knees. The cool edge of a blade shuts him up and lifts Jack's chin. His eyes follow the ridiculous half-striped pants up slender legs until he is eye to eye with the man behind the stranger, and Jack knows he's fucked.

This has to be him, the Atlas CEO.

He shivers and feels his pulse quicken for reasons unrelated to the sword at his neck.

Chapter Text

“Zer0,” the man sighs. Jack had visualized the mysterious Atlas CEO a few times. Always ugly and withered like any member the Hyperion Board of Directors; with a voice snooty in a way that could only be the result of a silver spoon, like Tassiter’s. That is so not what he gets.

The man before him is kind of devastatingly attractive and also painfully Jack’s type. Tall and leggy and very well put together, his hair swept back with precision to advertise his handsome face. His clothes are sharp and very obviously expensive, and he has the coolest, most top-of-the-line robotic arm Jack has ever seen, ATLAS written in all caps right below the shoulder joint. Jack makes the obvious conclusion from the arm alone that this is probably their illusive CEO.

And here Jack is on the floor in the grimy tanktop and jeans he always wears in the robotics lab.

When the blade kissing his throat eases up a fraction, Jack stupidly takes this as an invitation to speak. “I, uh- good evening, sir!” Jack fumbles, panicking a little. “Just- just got a little lost on my way to the bathroom, still kinda new here.”

“Uh-huh,” Strongfork replies, and it’s really super unfair of him to be this pretty right now. “What are you still doing here?”

“What am-- what are you still doing here?” Jack wants to throw himself out the nearest window. He’s pretty sure there’s a word for that. Starts with a D?

His super hot CEO seems taken aback. “I’m working,” he sounds unsure. Was that a tattoo on his neck? Holy shit, this really is unfair to Jack specifically.

Defenestration. Yeah, that’s the word. Jack’s gonna defenestrate himself.

“You and me both, pal.” Does he sound too defensive? Jack is going to die. He’s going to die and he hasn’t even told Angel he forgave her for opening her Mercenary Day presents early.

“I-- forget it,” Strongfork sighs in resignation and visibly restrains himself from rolling his eyes, like he’s somehow used to this kind of behavior and doesn’t want to encourage it. He gives Jack a long look. “Why were you eavesdropping on us?” Jack bristles because what he heard hardly rose to the level of eavesdropping. It was accidental overhearing at best. And who has important conversations in hallways anyway, everyone knows everyone else is listening, this is a corporation for god’s sake. “If you wanted to remove this,” Jack taps the blade still hovering menacingly inches away from his neck, “I could explain.”

Zer0 shrugs when Strongfork looks at them, then sheaths their blade. They make it very apparent from their posture that they don’t find Jack at all threatening which is, to be honest, kind of offensive.

Jack rises slowly to his feet, hands up like Strongfork’s bodyguard might flick their sword out and cut him in half, holovid style. When he’s fully upright, he’s just about on eye level with Strongfork, maybe a little shorter, and he does his best to ignore how giddy that makes him feel. (Or maybe it’s Strongfork’s heels working their magic because hot damn, kitten.)

“Okay, so, obviously I wasn’t really looking for the bathroom. I know where the bathroom is.” Jack flashes a charming grin at Strongfork, who just scowls back. “Anyway. I was just stretching my legs after working late and I saw your buddy here skulking around. So I followed them.”

Strongfork looks like he wants to facepalm, but there’s a sliver of amusement tugging at the corner of his lips. “Well, just don’t do that-” Strongfork interrupts himself to turn stare at his bodyguard. “Wait, Zer0 did you know you were being followed?”

They shrug again, this time a bit more exaggerated, more playful. Their mask lights up with a smiley face. Strongfork pouts at them, and it’s so adorable Jack thinks it should be illegal. He’s tired and past the point of no return, so he laughs.

What a dork, a terrifyingly handsome dork.

 


 

He goes home at the behest of a frazzled Mr. Strongfork (but only after he smooth talks the man into promising to get some rest himself.)

It’s way too early when he wakes up. Jack’s not anywhere near coherent, but he sits upright. The room’s dark as pitch. He feels electric hate buzzing in the air and doesn’t know why.

He lays back down on his bed, grumbling. Probably just some stupid nightmare he can’t remember having. He won’t remember this either.

 


 

The door to Rick’s office is open the following workday. It’s been shut for a week (Jack suspects Maria had him killed) so his curiosity is sufficiently roused.

Jack doesn’t bother announcing his presence at the doorway. He recognizes Maria’s backside, but not the taller figure next to her. They’re both transfixed by something on Rick’s desk.

The taller figure turns, revealing themselves to be a programmer Jack’s worked with before, Esyllt. She elbows Maria curtly, who peeks over her shoulder. “Oh, Jack!” Maria lights up. “Come see what Rick built on his staycation!”

They both step away from the desk simultaneously. From the door, it looks like a fish tank, complete with obnoxious little plastic castle. Jack steps deeper into the office and he’s able to distinguish a CPU in the bubbling tank.

It looks incredibly goofy.

“Mineral oil,” Rick says, full of smug satisfaction. Jack chokes down a snort.

“Oh, uh, that’s cool,” Jack absently wonders if Angel would like a fish. She’d never mentioned wanting a pet before, content with her legion of plushies. Maybe she’d like a cat. He flinches away from the idea. Don’t think about that, dummy.

Rick nods, finding Jack’s praise satisfactory. He snaps his fingers, seemingly without meaning to, drawing the room’s attention to himself. “By the way, Jack, since you’re here, mind taking this to Mr. Beneventi? Your office is closer to his, after all.” Rick’s new computer bubbles loudly, sounding exactly like a fart while in a bath.

Rick produces a file folder, oblivious or intentionally ignoring the sound his computer just made. Jack sees his exit and grabs it like a lifeline. “Sure, why not.” He’ll laugh about Rick’s ridiculous computer once he’s in his office.

He barely makes it to the hallway before the childish giggles bubble out of him and he laughs all the way back to his office.