Chapter 1: Blue Team
Pandora’s star passed its peak in the sky hours ago, but the temperature at the Crimson Raiders' hideout was still baking hot. Amara leaned against a vending machine in the shade, feeling the scratched texture of the plastic against her back. The ammo dispenser was battered from years of exposure to sandstorms and angry customers in equal measure. A warm breeze blew by, carrying stinging particles of dust. It ruffled her fringe and made her squeeze her eyes shut for a moment. The air smelled like a zoo out here, and by out here she meant the entire planet of Pandora so far.
The siren drank from her canteen. Thanks to its insulated walls, the filtered water was still cold from her flight on the space barge. Until the rest of her possessions arrived, it was also one of the few things she had with her. The sense of displacement was as exciting as it was stressful. Finally, off of Partali. Who needed little things like clothes or books when there was freedom, and new adventures to discover?
Okay, she really wanted her books.
A crying rakk wheeled overhead, its torn wings casting a moving shadow on the ground.
Amara turned her head and watched the last surviving Flynt brother walk out into what passed for a courtyard, climbing the rusted metal stairs to Lillith's office two at a time. The harsh light glinted off his hair and his armoured jacket. What was his first name, again? Amara pictured their handshake on the bus that morning. Something that started with a Z. Good looking. Seemed a little… goofy, for someone with his kill record.
She would wait for him to leave before taking her turn with the boss of the Crimson Raiders.
“Listen, Ma’am, I don’t want to be tellin’ ye how to run your organization -”
“-but I have to ask, why are you pairin’ me up with the siren for this?”
“You don’t think she can handle it?” Lilith eyed him, danger lurking behind her smile.
“I think she can handle it, and me, and an extra hundred bandits besides,” Zane clarified, holding up his hands. “It’s the partnership aspect. I’m just not used to it. I thought you’d be sendin’ us on separate missions, is all.”
The commander rolled her eyes. “Being a vault hunter is all about teamwork. That’s why I put you people on teams . Did you think you were going to show up and do everything alone?”
The operative shrugged. “That’s just how it’s always been, I s’pose. The few times I’ve been partnered with someone they always end up tryin’ to murder me.”
“Well, if you’re afraid of Amara, just make sure you stay on her good side.” Lilith’s mouth quirked as she turned away. “Now go get ‘em, killer.”
She felt his presence linger for a moment before he laughed and went on his way. He was a good-natured one, she had to admit.
“Hey siren-sister. About that mission… why are you sending blondie along with me?”
The Partali-born fighter lounged in the doorway of Lilith’s makeshift HQ, where Zane had been not two minutes before. The commander rubbed her temples. Ah, the other one.
“Because you’ll get the job done faster, with less danger,” she said, with as much patience as she could muster. “Why, you aren’t impressed with him?”
Amara separated from the doorframe and slinked inside, bare arms crossed.
“I saw him fight a little this morning before Marcus picked us up. I’m not not impressed,” she admitted. “His tech is good. He knows how to use it. And he’s fast.”
“Then what’s the issue?”
“Nothing! No issue with him. I’m just… more of a solo artist.”
When Lilith leveled a stare, Amara laughed and held up her hands.
“It’s just what I’m used to! It’s hard to change the way you work. I’ve been fighting alone for fifteen years.”
“And now you’re fighting alongside Zane. Go on, give it a try. If you really can’t stand him I won’t force you to work together. Just give this mission a chance.”
“Fine, fine. Forget I said anything.” Amara picked at the corner of a weathered poster on the wall. She wasn’t one to pout, and the idea was already sounding less uncomfortable. A teammate. A partner . Might as well give it a shot.
“Sooo. Hero of Partali.” Zane revved the engine from the driver's seat of the hulking car Ellie had issued them. “You’ve quite the reputation.”
“So do you. Amongst the few people you haven’t killed.” The siren’s tone was rich and musical, filtering down from the gunner seat. “It’s okay. You don’t have to make small talk. We can just get there in... comfortable silence.”
She launched a ball of fire from the cannon. It hit an approaching spiderant with cold precision.
“Point taken,” Zane said, relaxing. The woman was a professional, and he could be the same. He floored the gas pedal and gave it a boost, sending them flying across the sand. A map he had loaded into his cybernetic eyepatch showed the path to take, the cerulean line overlapping the road in his real vision. He could get them there in half the time Lilith had estimated - she hadn't factored in his capacity for reckless driving.
Amara scanned the horizon. Sand and dust forever, with rocky outcrops and the few scattered dwellings Lilith had warned were full of bandits. She had never seen a landscape that went so far into the distance and was so… empty. The closest image in her memory was from the day she climbed the tallest building in her city and gazed out over thousands upon thousands of corrugated tin rooftops. That sea of tangled power lines and painted concrete had stretched on into eternity, broken only by the slow river that twisted through the slums.
Her companion hit a particularly hard bump. Amara gripped the car cannon with white knuckles.
“S’ry,” Zane called up to her. “Somebody’s fallin’ down on the job of sealin’ potholes!”
“Road maintenance not up to code?” Amara said in faux shock. “Unbelievable.”
They hit another massive bump.
“Eh… that were a skag,” Zane admitted.
They parked in the shadow of a curving stone mesa and crept up to the graffitti’d rust pile that the Children of the Vault used to broadcast their twin leaders’ unholy message.
Zane shot a glance at the siren. Her tattoos looked even more alien up close. When he stared at them and then back at the dirt it felt like oscillating between a dream and the waking world. The divine and the mundane. He blinked. Any moment he would see her use her powers at close range, and he had no idea what to expect.
Fighting together that morning had been mere coincidence. The four vault hunters had shown up in the abandoned saloon at the same time, and by unspoken agreement had cleared the bandits out. Zane had been too distracted to pay much attention to the other three and their fighting styles. It wasn’t until they all loaded into Marcus’ bus that they realized they were bound for the same place, and only when Lilith had divided them into teams of two (Red and Blue) did the new vault hunters realized just how closely they would be working.
Now that Zane and Amara were out here together by design, it was a little awkward. Both of them kept deferring to the other to be polite, or deciding to lead at the same time. They moved up to the bandit camp with serviceable stealth and much less grace, stopping too often to see what the other was doing. It was painfully obvious that neither of them were used to coworkers.
The yellow Cl4p-tp model waiting to meet them did little to improve the operation. It seemed like his volume setting was jammed on MAXIMUM. Within minutes of entering the COV propaganda center, he got himself abducted.
“Open the gates, and perhaAaAps I will be merciful!” he announced into the security camera.
Amara and Zane shared a yikes expression.The robot’s overconfidence was rewarded by being sucked inside by a magnetic field.
"What's the plan?" Amara whispered to Zane while they crouched behind cover. They should have discussed this in the car, but… well, better late than never.
"How's about this: we go in, we kill them?" Zane smiled at her, loading his rifle.
No plan, then. Just do what they did best. Amara felt an answering smile tug at her lips.
“Let’s do it.”
From that moment on it actually worked. The siren vaulted over the barricade, bolting to where the enemies were most concentrated. She launched herself into the air, savoring the moment when time stood still, before crashing down with all eight fists to splinter the ground. Pure exhilaration .
She heard Zane’s woop of appreciation behind her through the ratatat of his bullets. After taking out some bigger COV flunkies with her bare hands, Amara drew her weapon to fire rounds as the operative’s pet drone buzzed overhead, shocking bandits with a white beam of energy. The man himself slid over, graceful as a cat, and popped a shield barrier up in front of them both. His timing was perfect: a grenade shell exploded against the shelter a fraction of a second later, leaving them unscathed as they emptied their ammo stores.
When the coast cleared and the shield dropped, Amara punched his arm in excitement. “You come in handy, don’t you!”
“Not so shabby yerself, lass! The way ye throw fists, s’like being front row at the bloody Blitz Dome.”
Amara clenched those very same fists, surging with excitement. She tilted her head back to tell the sky: "I love the Blitz Dome."
"Aye, me too. You ever seen it live? I was there once, for a job. Got to see Lava Hot Austen break a chair on someone's head before I found me target."
Amara whistled. "No, never been. I met Lava Hot once, though."
"You're feckin' jokin'."
"Not at all! He came to Partali on a press tour. Wanted to meet the Tiger." She winked at him, and Zane felt a bit funny. "He wouldn't take me up on my offer to fight. Said it could ruin his reputation."
"Smart man. Want to put those skills to good use? That Shiv fella should be inside there."
"Ready when you are."
They used their newfound rhythm to decimate the bandit boss. He never stood a chance. Amara almost felt sorry for him. A single minor-league murder boss, up against one of the galaxy's best assassins and the woman who Lava Hot Austen himself was afraid to fight.
After a few minutes of easy combat they rescued the Cl4p-tp unit and looted the area, collecting guns and ammo. Neither of them were very impressed with the spoils, but it was better than nothing.
“Need a new water pistol, lass?” the operative teased, twirling a common Jakobs handgun on his finger. Amara demurred, rooting around for anything better than a cheap shield with a capacity of 85.
Now that they had flipped the invisible switch of their connection, Zane was a bottomless well of friendly chatter and jokes. He set up an empty glass bottle on a dumpster and jogged over to her side to test a looted rifle. Turning his head away from the target, he waggled his brows at her as he fired, not bothering to aim. The glass shattered on the first shot. Amara was getting the feeling that he had enough confidence and charisma for his own personal bandit cult, if he was so inclined.
She felt the same tug of attraction she had been pushing back against all day, and allowed herself to indulge in it for a moment. Zane was just as handsome as he loved to remind everyone. From their very first moments together Amara had appreciated his wiry build, his unusual bright silver-blonde hair, and the cheekbones that she imagined he could use to sharpen knives on.
That didn't mean she had to feel giddy around him. She could play it cool, remind her brain that he was a teammate and off limits. After all, a fling with Moze a few years back meant that they were now on different assignments from Lilith. Even though both Amara and the petite gunner had insisted that they were now cordial friends who could work together, the Crimson Raiders' boss had decided to keep some distance between them. Amara didn't want that to happen with her and Zane. Especially now that they had done a mission together - that had actually felt right .
A brief daydream of how quickly she would be kissing him in other circumstances, and then back to business.
“Minions! Time to go back to the base! Lots of other tasks to do!” Claptrap, the Cl4p-tp unit’s preferred name, waved his little grabby pincher hand from the car and blew the horn. Daydream over.
“Hey, outta the driver’s side, boyo,” Zane said with some alarm. Amara chuckled and swung herself into the gunner’s seat. She felt a pleasant hum in her muscles when she flexed them, a sensation of heat and lost tension. A good fight always burned the anxiety away.
Zane tuned the radio to some ghost station being broadcast from the Wastes and they cruised back under a red sunset.
The accommodations provided to new recruits were as spartan as could be expected. Ellie was still working on the ship they planned to use as a moveable Crimson Raider base, so in the meantime various tiny rooms in the temporary structure were all they had to work with.
In retrospect, Amara suspected that it was a tactical decision that Lilith waited until late to show them their quarters. After a few hours out in the courtyard by a brush bonfire, the four vault hunters were all well-acquainted and a little tipsy on Zane’s whiskey supply. In that state they had very little energy for protest.
Moze and Fl4k were shown to bunks in the basement. Blue Team was taken up an exposed spiral staircase to the watchtower. Judging by the ancient weathervane that spun in the midnight breeze, it had been used to store grain - back when people still thought you could farm on Pandora.
“Here’s your digs for the night. Sleep well, heroes. You deserve it.” The commander scooted away so fast that Amara wondered if she had used her firehawk powers.
The room was the size of a largish utility closet. There was only one bed.
Zane looked like he was wrestling with a powerful emotion.
“I’ll take the floor,” they both said, in perfect tandem.
After a little more scrutiny it was revealed that there wasn’t enough floor for even one of them. Entering the room at all required you to have at least one limb on the bed.
“Head to toe, then,” Amara compromised, dropping one of the flattened pillows on the opposite side.
For about the hundredth time in the same day, Zane opened his mouth to suggest something that he had to walk back into appropriate territory. It was hard in more than one way to get used to having a partner to work with - someone who he had to keep some professional distance from.
Amara was beautiful, and amazing in ways that were obvious enough to not need articulating. She was a bleedin’ siren, for starters. Best fighter he’d ever had the pleasure of working beside. She was also funny, in an understated way that took him by surprise. Now they even had some common interests to discuss.
It was easy enough to ignore beauty. Zane did it all the time. Being pretty wasn’t enough to save you, if you were also an asshole or there was a justified price on your head. Just look at the Calypso twins. Pretty as a picture, and all you could see on their faces were the ways they’d like to kill you. No, being beautiful wasn’t enough to make Zane trip over himself.
Amara’s personality, however… this was where the operative had to bite his tongue and make sure not to flirt with too much intention behind his words. When Zane clicked with someone, he had a well-established habit of pursuing them right away. Being loud and brash and friendly gave you a lot of opportunities to meet interesting people and jump into relationships with them - which is why Zane had a string of former lovers of all genders bouncing around the galaxy in his wake.
Now he was set up with someone who he couldn’t just leave and be on his way from. A teammate. Someone who had his back and vice versa, until the vaults all opened and the universe was saved. The timeline was fuzzy, but Zane imagined it would be more than a long weekend.
"Ye can use the washroom first," he grunted, dropping onto the mattress and prying off his boots. Well spoken, Zane lad. A regular orator, you are.
Amara gazed into the cracked mirror above the sink. The water in the shower had been cold and smelled acidic from cleaning agents. The towel provided by Lilith had a stiffness reminiscent of cardboard. Still, it was nice to be cleaner. She struggled to wipe the last of her eye makeup off without the help of the oil in her delayed luggage, achieving a kind of watercolor panda look instead of a fresh face.
The siren drew her hooded poncho over her head, letting her fringe peek out and frame her face. Black leggings and socks completed her soft armour, hiding the light of her tattoos and shielding her from the idea of spending a night horizontal next to a very attractive person she was not supposed to touch. What was this, some kind of sick Promethean gameshow?
She shoved her vest and jeans into her pack. It was getting colder than she could have ever imagined, especially after the midday heat. Pandora really was a landscape of extremes. Amara thought of her agent back on Partali, warning her about the harsh conditions. At the time she had laughed, reminding him that she grew up poor in the roughest neighborhood on the planet. Now, though, she had to wonder if her years of relative luxury as a famous hero had made her soft. She missed her blankets and her half-dozen pillows.
When she returned to their shared closet all complaints evaporated from her mind. Zane had changed into a black shirt of thin material that stretched across his chest and shoulders when he moved, revealing the lines of sinewy muscles. The hard planes of his bare arms made her stomach flip. Shit. Seeing him without his armoured jacket was a shock to her system, and the alarm bells of just my type were ringing . Amara liked an athletic look. Of course, Zane's personality was a lot less serious than she usually went for. As soon as he opened his mouth to crack a joke she focused on that in an attempt to chill out.
“Cold gettin’ to ye? Here, have the blanket.” Zane flipped his side of the thin quilt over her legs when she sat down, giving her a double layer of warmth. With an easy motion he reached up and disconnected his cybernetic patch, dropping it into the backpack by his side.
Amara was surprised. Most people she knew were cagey about things like that. Zane did it with such a casual air, like it was nothing to him whether she saw his blind eye or not. He sat back on his nest of pillows, crossing his arms behind his head and looking at her with one grey eye and one white, unseeing pupil, the picture of relaxation. Pure confidence. Super fucking sexy. Damn it.
“Won’t you be cold?” she asked, lifting the edge of the quilt. He looked so pretty she almost felt resentful about it. Laying down head to toe just meant that they were facing each other while being so close, somehow way more intimate than she had planned for.
“Nah, nah.” Zane looked at her like he was considering something. "So, were ye born a siren?"
Ah, right. Her powers. Everyone was curious about those. Amara felt herself returned to sturdy ground.
“No. They came to me when I was fifteen.”
“No shite? Musta been bloody terrifyin’.”
She blinked. No one ever said that .
“Yes. It was.”
Zane brought his hand down to comb through his goatee. “Bein’ a teen was hard enough, I thought.”
She chuckled, mirthless. “You’ve got that right. Especially on Partali.”
“What was it like?”
The way he asked - so calm, almost drowsy, with his mismatched eyes half-lidded and looking at her so fondly, like it was their hundredth night together instead of their first - made her decide to answer. Made her talk about things she never intended to talk about again.
Out of her voice, low and rich, spun a world light-years away...
“You joined the Tigers? Idiot boy! Those people are killers!”
And so on, and so forth. Amara could still hear her mother yelling in the next room even through her headphones. She was in her bunk, the top one very close to the ceiling, looking out the tiny capsule window at the few stars bright enough to appear above Partali’s light pollution. Brighter still were the LEDs in their neighbor’s windows. If she angled her book just right she could read it in the glow.
Not that she could focus on reading in all this racket. Her mother and her eldest brother fought constantly . To be fair, for once she was on their mother’s side.
The sound of their tin door slamming signaled the abrupt end of the argument. Amara took one headphone off of her ear and listened. Silence. And then, from outside her window, the faintest Oi .
She ripped the headphones off and rolled over, begrudging but compelled to slide the plexiglass pane open and stick her head out into the warm night air.
Her brother Prem was standing in the alley below, almost invisible in the shadows save for his white grin.
“Hey, Ugly,” he stage-whispered. The thrum of a generator fan competed with his voice.
“Hey, Garbage Man.”
“Why are you mad at me?”
“‘Cause mum’s right.”
“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“Why do you have to join the Tigers?” Genuine anxiety tinted her words, overcoming her sibling instinct to be a brat.
Prem shook his head. “I’m not gonna explain it to you. You’ll understand eventually.”
“How about when I buy you those nice gloves you want? And pay for you to go to tournaments? That’s all gonna start happening.”
“I’ve already got my own place, you know.”
That took her aback.
“You’ve already started?”
“Yeah. Just didn’t tell Mum until now.”
“Or you,” he admitted.
“Does this mean you’re not coming home?”
“She kicked me out, you know. Didn’t you hear? Or was your music too loud again? Anyway, I knew she would. That’s why I waited to say something.”
“You’re stupid,” Amara said, because she didn’t know what else to say.
“Love you too. See you around, Ugly.”
She shut the window and rolled over.
The discount bus rattled through the darkened streets. It was a small, orange-painted rocket of a thing, always overcrowded to bursting. The crowding was a comfort - the way these drivers operated, a crash seemed imminent at any moment, and the more padding around you the better.
Amara stood and held the rusted rail above her head, riding the rough surf of the city streets and making a game of keeping her balance. It was late. The music in her headphones made a soundtrack to their travels, giving the strobe of alternating shadow and streetlight a nightclub feel. Her bag was heavy on her shoulder, weighed down with clothes from the gym. Strangers swayed on their feet next to her.
She felt something in the center of her, spreading outwards. It flickered like a spark.
Amara frowned, dropping her hand to press against her sternum. Did she get bruised harder than she thought in training tonight? Worry gnawed at her, eager wolf that it was. If she had an injury her mother would never let her go back to boxing. Her coach might not, either - he always said she was too young.
The feeling subsided, and she relaxed. Just a twinge.
In fact, it was only the pause before the grenade, the bass drop, the supernova. Amara doubled over, clutching her own body as blue light convulsed through her. There was a scuffle around her as people fought to back away or move forward to see. The bus kept barreling forwards.
Someone must have pulled the cord - maybe Amara, though she had no memory of it - because they hurtled to a halt in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She pushed her way off, through people both afraid and trying to help, asking her what was happening, and stumbled onto the dark road.
At any other time, she would have never gotten off here, never wandered out into the network of alleys that linked through her city away from the streets she knew. It was dangerous. Stupid. Something pushed her forward, though, away from the crowd, away away away , until she was alone and could take inventory of the sensations running haywire over her.
I’m dying , she thought, but the words rang false. She was changing. Electricity raced across her skin. Acid burned through her veins. Fire licked at her heart. She dropped her bag on the road, tilting forward until she gripped her head in her hands. Radiance was spilling from her body. She brought her wrist down and saw glowing light being painted on her skin.
With something between horror and awe she watched as it spilled and dragged into swirling patterns, illuminating her face. She ripped off her jacket and saw it spreading across her shoulder, down her torso. With a yelp she dragged the hem of her pant leg up and saw more light twisting around her ankle.
An absolute fool of a man was coming towards her from the shadows, barely registering in her periphery. He said something - words were lost in the roar of her panic and the swell of her power. All that Amara knew was that it was leering, threatening. He was still a few feet away. She raised her hand.
Six ghost-blue arms, swirling with tattoos, burst from her back and seized the man with coordinated strength. Amara felt the raw threads of her fear feed into it, crushing and tearing. For a long second the exact feeling of sobbing - of ripping the pain from her heart and pushing it out into the world as tears and wails - filled her and rushed through her arms. Just the same, but manifested as these terrible goddess limbs. Rage made tangible. Magic made to hurt.
Amara never knew what happened to him. She only remembered running, somehow taking her bag when she passed it, all the way home through streets that ebbed and flowed with crowds and lights. The goddess arms melted away, but the tattoos remained.
When she got to her own home - late, sweating, shaking - her mother was there, ready to be angry. Her face faded into shock as she seized her daughter’s arm.
“Siren,” she had said, with such intensity that Amara started to cry.
“Holy feckin’ hell, lass,” Zane reached over and patted her feet through the quilt. He felt helpless to do what he really wanted, which was to gather her up and hold her to his chest until he could bend time and take away fears that had raged fifteen years before.
“Mm-hmm,” Amara gave him a sharp smile. “I don’t usually tell that story to people I’ve just met.”
“Well, I’ll try to deserve it.” He smiled back, just a shadow across the bed from her.
It was very dark by now, the overhead light’s timer having run out many minutes ago. The siren’s triple drop tattoo illuminated her face, a soft star in the velvet black of the room. They were both sleepy, and with her words fading from the air the full force of exhaustion was filling both of their bodies.
Without discussion, they had ended up pressed together, entwined in a spiral of relaxed limbs. Amara felt her eyes slide shut. Zane’s voice was low, almost a whisper.
“All things told, I dun’ usually take the patch off in front of people I’ve just met, either.”
Chapter 2: Dancing is Great, But Have You Tried Fighting to the Death?
Zane had meant to wake up first and slip out of the room, just to spare them any potential awkwardness. It was a move he was infamous for, although usually deployed in less innocent situations.
When the sun shone through the cracks in the wall boards (no feckin’ wonder it was so cold all night) and into his working eye, he was surprised to find himself already alone.
The operative stretched into the space Amara had occupied, taking back some of the blanket. He felt… very relaxed. More well-rested than he had been in a long time. Kind of funny, considering he had slept next to the human equivalent of a glowstick.
Zane rolled onto his stomach. It smelled really nice in the room. Like Amara, he supposed, but amplified. He imagined her getting ready, maybe spraying something in her hair. Shite, had he really slept through all that? Some operative he was. Twenty-four hours of “retirement” and he was already letting it all slip.
For all he knew, the siren could be on the Calypso’s team. Or working for any one of Zane’s hundred and fifty-four sworn enemies ( sworn enemies, mind you - not the regular ones, he’d lost track of those). There was no real reason to trust her with his life. Not on the battlefield, and not while black-out unconscious in a shared bed. It was a little late for that realization.
That memory she shared with him, though… he just couldn’t imagine it being anything but sincere. Zane knew all about being young and scared. He felt rather touched that she had gone back there with him, to a place she had to keep locked up tight. If Amara wanted to double-cross the Crimson Raiders, she was going about it in the strangest way possible.
He spread out like a starfish, willing himself back into the embrace of dreams. Much more pleasant.
The woman in question was taking a morning jog around the perimeter of the Raiders’ compound. She carried a cheap SMG on her hip, humouring the watchman on duty who warned her about the area’s aggressive wildlife. Nothing that Amara couldn’t handle bare-handed, but better safe than sorry. The spiderants bothered her the most - the way they skittered around like foul kitchen pests - but the groups of wild skags posed an ambivalent moral question. Fl4k’s pet Mr. Chew seemed well-trained, and put an uncomfortable spin on making them target practice. Amara’s policy was to avoid the packs, and only fight if they attacked first.
She trotted to a halt outside of Ellie’s workshop.
“Mornin’, V.H.!” the mechanic called out from her doorway. She was polishing an oversized wrench with a dirty rag.
“Morning, Ellie.” Amara grinned. There was something so appealing about the woman. Seeing her was already like seeing an old friend. “How’s our ride coming along?”
“Oh, the big girl?” Ellie waved her wrench in the direction of Sanctuary III. The bulk of it was hidden behind buildings, but sunlight could be seen gleaming off its hull. “Just about ready for takeoff. I’d reckon a day or two more of work, then we’re off to the races. Oh! All your stuff came. I had it loaded on board.”
“Thanks. I was getting worried.” Amara grimaced. Wearing the same clothes a second day in a row was already not fun. The prospect of a third or a fourth was not something she wanted to contemplate.
“The captain of the transport barge was wild to meet ya - said he was a big fan. I told him to git or I’d turn him into biofuel. I know Lil gets her fair share of siren fans - makin’ cults to her and whatnot. Figured you didn’t want the attention.”
Amara raised her eyebrows. “What is it with Pandora and cults?”
“Cults is the number two pastime in these parts, after blowin’ stuff up.” Ellie dug around in an overall pocket and pulled out a postcard. She held it up to compare with Amara’s face. “You really do make a pretty picture, don’tcha V.H.?”
The memory of a hometown friend resonated, like a bell ringing in Amara’s heart. That same expression of fond concentration, round cheeks and short hair. Deepika, ripping a page out of a magazine in her father’s second-hand bookshop, holding it up to Amara’s face.
“You could be a model,” she had said, as if making a serious decision about her friend’s future. The advertisement in her hands had a famous actress on it, holding a new model of household cleanbot.
Amara, age fifteen, days away from coming into her siren powers, fiddled with the ring in her nose. The dust in the shop was making it itch. Her hair was cut short, dyed blue (badly, at home with a kit) against her mother’s wishes. Acne dusted her cheeks.
“I don’t know if I want to be famous for something like that.”
“But you do want to be famous.” Deepika rolled up the page and swatted her friend’s arm. It was skinny, but getting stronger. Amara spent every other night at the gym these days, hitting people or whatever it was. Deepika’s own interests lay more in the realm of fashion and culture than in blood sports.
“Everyone wants to be famous. I just want to do something cool. Maybe I can get my photo taken for winning the Blitz Dome belt.” Amara flexed, laughing. “Or helping people. I don’t think you get photographed for that.”
“Like running a soup kitchen? Busting all the corrupt cops?” Deepika slipped off the counter. The shop was so tiny and crammed full of books they barely both fit. She dropped to a crouch, pretending to wield a camera. “Amara! Tell us how it feels to be the biggest badass on Partali!”
Amara swept a hand behind her head, placing the other on her hip and twisting into a model pose. Her friend made click click click noises with her tongue.
It was about the same pose she was doing on the bootleg postcard produced a decade and a half later. Present-day Amara turned the paper in Ellie’s hand to look at herself. Smirking, with biceps and abs on full display. Maliwan pistol on her hip. Only a little cleavage in this shoot, because the siren liked to keep her public persona more intimidating than enticing.
“The barge captain had this?” she asked.
“Yep. I confiscated it. Y’know, I bet you could sign a bunch of these and sell ‘em on the echonet.” The mechanic shrugged. “Just sayin’.”
An orange light fizzed in the siren’s vision. A flickering image of Lilith appeared, superimposed on what Amara could see around her. Just like yesterday, the urge to blink the intrusion out of her eyes was overwhelming.
“I have a job for you, Vault Hunter.”
Zane started the ignition, feeling the car rumble to life around him. Amara waved from across the compound, turning around to take her ammo out of the vending machine. The dispenser seemed to be jammed. From this distance he could only see the pantomime of her struggle.The siren’s arm disappeared into its opening. After a moment she slammed her other closed fist into the plastic portrait of Marcus.
Her efforts were rewarded by a cascade of bullet packs. Probably more than she had paid for. Zane snickered. She shoved the ammo into every available pocket and trotted up to the car.
“Did you see that? Piece of junk.” Amara’s voice made everything velvet, even her grousing. With a fluid motion she swept her body up over the car’s cab and dropped into the gunner seat. It looked like an unconscious thing, a natural movement - though it was as impressive as watching an acrobat do a trick. Her arms were strong enough to support the full weight of her body on a whim. Zane flicked his own temple, hard. Reel it in, lad.
“Don’t mind me drivin’ again?” he called up to her, pulling out. They were off to the Droughts, according to the siren-o-gram he had received directly to his brain that morning.
“I should mind,” she teased. “Because I value my life. But I can tell that you love it.”
“Aye, true enough.” Zane rerouted them slightly so he could take advantage of a scrap metal ramp some kind bandit had built by the road. Time to get some air under their tires.
He was rewarded by a shout of delight from the siren as they launched over the sand. My kinda girl.
The Sun Smasher hideout had a peculiar aesthetic, as if it had been designed by someone with a strong idea of what makes up a bandit HQ. Amara remarked that it looked like the curated backdrop of an echogram photo. Broken cars were stacked on either side of the entrance in symmetrical heaps, crisp gang tags stenciled on the walls. Perfect dishevelment.
“The feck is all this?” Zane walked up to an ugly statue of a person, contorted in pain. Eridium crystals lanced through the body of it, which struck him as a pricey addition to what looked like compressed ash. He reached out and swiped his hand across the side of it, staining his glove with black.
“I’m pretty sure these are…” Amara’s bitter voice came to him the same instant that the operative’s brain caught up.
“What the Calypsos have been up ta?” he gave her a grim look. The leeched bandit fell over, crumbling into dust.
Amara dragged her lip back in a snarl, exposing her teeth. He imagined the siren must take it personally, seeing the powers she shared being used like this.
A spray of gunfire licked their heels. They both darted to opposite sides of the entrance for cover before Zane could finish saying: “COV twats!”
As they pressed into the compound, moving methodically this time, Amara’s voice slipped into his ear. She had activated her echo chat mid-battle, just to show off. Zane wondered why he hadn’t thought of it first.
“Hey blondie. I think I’m feeling a little handsy today,” she quipped, sounding very pleased with herself. The operative almost missed his next shot.
The punchline was an enormous ghost-blue fist bursting from the ground, seizing the biggest enemy and locking it in place. He recovered enough to empty a clip into the sphere.
Lilith had actually asked them to rescue a bandit today. Some fella named Vaughn, who the firehawk had described as “Weird dude. But nice.” She had assured them that they would know him on sight. Zane had some misgivings about that. So far on Pandora he’d been using a shoot first, don’t ask any follow-up questions approach. Being able to find a special bandit in the middle of a firefight sounded optimistic.
He needn’t have worried. Vaughn was hanging upside-down in the sun like a bundle of herbs, right in the center of what apparently used to be his own bandit hideout. Zane and Amara kicked down the door, hearts pumping, ready for another wave of fighters. Instead they were met by the sheepish hiii of someone who Zane would bet a hundred credits had not been born on Pandora.
They cut him down, assailed by a flood of “bro!” and “thank you, bro!”. The lad was friendly, Zane could give him that much. He seemed to take a shine to the operative right away, frisking away at him like a puppy. After complaining about his disloyal former warband for a few minutes while the vault hunters examined their new looted guns, he promised them he could lead the way to the missing vault map. Zane had almost forgotten that Lilith wanted the thing.
Vaughn took off at a fast clip, telling them to follow. The man could sprint . It wasn’t long before the vault hunters were huffing and puffing, rolling their eyes at each other. A widening gap was forming between them and their scantily-clad scout.
“Did you guys really clear out the COV all by your widdle selves?” Vaughn asked. His voice was level, unbothered by the marathon.
“They had us outnumbered, twenty-to-one. Bad odds for them.” Zane felt smug despite the way his lungs were protesting. His jacket was lined with lead, and he was feeling every ounce of it.
“We beat down every last one of them,” Amara added, just as satisfied. It was nice hearing the “ we” , Zane had to admit.
“I’m impressed! Think you can take down Mouthpiece? He’s the bandit boss that has the map.”
“More’n likely. Anything we should know about ‘em?”
“Uh, he has a pretty sweet rave setup in his hideout. You’ll see it. Reminds me of Bossanova, did you ever meet that guy?”
“Ohhh ya, Bossanova. Real prick. Great mixtapes.”
“RIP,” Vaughn shuddered.
He led them to Ascension Bluff, where the Children of the Vault had set up a broadcast center. The Holy Broadcast Center, since the twins’ brand revolved around their supposed god status. Zane was less than impressed. Unbearable twits with an echonet channel, if he was being generous. The elaborate nature of the broadcast center and surrounding camp suggested he was alone in his opinion.
More corpse statues littered the area. The vault hunters picked their way carefully through, saving their ammo for the boss man. It was much easier now for them to move in sync. They both were acclimating to the pattern of the other. Zane felt like he was keeping pace with a big cat, the way Amara padded on soft feet. All of her movements were easy. Almost lazy, so deep was her comfort in her own skin.
Vaughn, somewhat less coordinated, showed them the way to the inner rooms of the broadcast center. They halted at a drop that overlooked Mouthpiece’s sound booth room. He volunteered to keep an eye on the exit while the vault hunters went in and did their thing.
“He should have the map on him, so try not to, like, burn his body into little cinders, okay?”
“Got it.” Amara nodded, dead serious. She shook her ponytail out and re-did it, holding the tie between her teeth. Zane’s eyes zeroed in on her mouth.
“Oh damn, I was joking. You guys are hardcore.”
The inner sanctum of the hideout was outfitted like a cathedral-themed club. Amara had never seen so many speakers of this size outside of Promethean music videos.
Mouthpiece himself was set up in the center, the king jockey of the COV airwaves. He recognized the vault hunters right away, screaming a threat that was swallowed by his own EDM mix. Zane and Amara plunged in to join the rave.
Waves of light rippled across the floor. The sound of the music was deafening, drowning out the gunfire and the shouts of Mouthpiece’s minions. Amara jumped in time to the beat, her body blown side to side by the pure noise blasting from the wall of speakers. She crashed down again and again, dealing bursts of damage and sending out forked tongues of electricity that joined the racing colors of the lightshow. Zane bounced along with her, dodging and dishing out pain with rainbow flecks skating over his face. With the press of a button, he added a third to the dancefloor in the form of his digiclone.
Amara was impressed. Digiclones were uncommon, and this one appeared much more well-crafted than was standard. It looked solid, almost identical to the real operative, and had no pixelation problem that she could see. Not that she had much time to examine it, being a bit busy with the murderous club kid in the room. Pandora sure knew how to throw a party.
She almost hated to admit it, but she was having fun .
When Mouthpiece fell, in a shower of credits and guns that he must have been keeping unsecured in his pockets, Amara scooped up the vault map. Zane went to the main console in the room and downloaded the rave track onto his echo.
“You have to send me that song,” she called across the room. Far too loud - her ears were ringing. The digiclone was still standing in stasis by Mouthpiece’s corpse, its timer running low. She walked over to get a closer look.
Zane’s digital face blinked at her. A perfect copy in negative. She whistled, eyes running eagerly over every detail. Amazing.
The operative switched places with his double. Amara staggered back, laughing. She fist-bumped him as she recovered.
“Ye like him? Coded him meself. Not a bad lookin’ fella, wouldn’t ye say?”
“Looked pretty familiar.” She avoided feeding his ego.
“How’s it going down there?” Vaughn appeared around the edge of the door, scanning for danger. “I heard the music stop.”
“All good here.” Amara patted the map in her pocket. “Let’s get back to Lilith.”
Zane insisted they pick up a car at the nearest catch-a-ride. He’d already done enough running for a lifetime today. Amara took her usual spot at the cannon, and Vaughn squished into the passenger seat of the cab. It felt like the pint-sized bandit was on Zane’s lap. As soon as they were on their way he started messing with the radio and chatting away.
“Wow, you’re with the siren? What’s that like? She’s so cool.”
“Ah, I’m not so much with her, if that’s what ye mean…”
“Really? Damn, that’s lucky for me. Think she’d be interested in a gym date? We could work on our abs together.”
“Eh…” The operative was at a loss for words, perhaps for the first time in his life.
“I love women who look like they could rip my head off.”
“Aye, I'm sure she could do that easy enough,” Zane frowned and looked away. The wee muscle man was really grating on his nerves.
Ellie’s voice crackled over their echo links.
“Y’all better get your asses back here! The Calypsos just dropped outta nowhere, and brought their little psycho friends with ‘em!”
“Ellie, are you all right?” Amara’s frown was audible.
“I will be, when y’all get here! I’m tryna get Sanctuary III done in a hot minute. Lil needs your help!”
Zane floored the accelerator and tore off the road, cruising across the baked earth. Vaughn clung to the dashboard.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where are we going?”
“Shortcut,” he grunted. Their car blasted over a varkid or two (or three) as he wove a narrow path between rock formations. It was a more dangerous route, but it would shave a few minutes off their trip. Amara used the cannon to dispatch whatever tried to tail them.
“So, have you guys run into any of the Anointed yet?” Vaughn was pressed into the corner from sheer velocity.
“The Calypso Twins’ ‘eridium tier followers’. They’re really weird. They shoot these purple balls of death at people,” Vaughn grimaced. “I might stay in the car when we get there.”
“ ‘Eridium tier’ ,” Zane scoffed. Insufferable twits.
The Crimson Raiders’ compound was in a tumult. Gunfire popped from the inner courtyard. Raiders and civilian refugees ran in every direction, carrying their belongings. The vault hunters surmised that Lilith had given an evacuation order.
“Have all of yer bits an’ bobs together, lass? Looks like we’re not stayin’.”
Amara nodded. Her eyes narrowed, taking in the scene. “I’ll take the West side, you take the East. Meet you in the courtyard.”
The gathering dusk was not making conditions easy. Every person that ran into view had to be categorized by Zane’s cybernetics - red for COV, green for Raiders, white for refugees - before he felt comfortable engaging. He slipped into the shadows. Here it felt more comfortable, more familiar, but this was no stalk ‘n kill job with one target. This was chaos.
An object was approaching that his patch couldn’t identify. The operative turned and dodged around a malevolent purple orb. Then another, and another. A COV bandit was shooting them in his direction. Big fella. Also purple.
Zane rolled, getting under the projectiles and up into the fighter’s space. A point blank hit with his shotgun should have done a fair job of it, but the Anointed didn’t so much as blink.
“Immune, are ye?” Zane threw a punch and disengaged. He danced with the brute for a few minutes, watching as he cycled through some sort of power phase. A few of the orbs hit home, damaging his shield and sending a health warning to his eyepatch input. Even more disturbing, the Anointed was able to teleport back and forth. It was a game two could play - the digiclone helped Zane hopscotch around the orbs and put in enough damage that the enemy went down at last.
He was hurting, now. The operative went straight back to the shadows and clung close to the wall as he moved. Just need a few seconds to recover .
Zane turned the corner and barged straight into the full firespray of a turret.
In an instant his shield was down and his skin was burning. He dropped behind cover, twisting to fire on some new COV that were bearing down on him far too quickly. The turret continued to spit, breaking against the other side of the concrete buffer he counted himself lucky to find. Zane moved to deploy his barrier. He was a second too late - the nearest scrawny lady-bandit hopped right into close range and pistol whipped him before it could open. The cybernetic patch on his eye cast the scene in greyscale, flickering a warning skull and bones. “Fight for your life,” it prompted. He was feeling far less lucky now.
The bandit slipped through his grasp and scurried away, counting him as dead. Perfect. Now he’d have to crawl his way to the nearest supply crate and pray it contained hypos. His skin hurt like hell everywhere his jacket didn’t cover.
Last time he went down like this it hadn’t ended pretty. So long ago… in fact, it was during that shite job with Wilhelm on Hera.
Their temporary partnership hadn’t started off so bad. Both mercenaries were into building drones, which was a good topic of conversation during long stakeouts. The difference between them was that Wilhelm was only into building drones, and murder, and nothing else. The fella gave Zane a wee bit of the creeps.
When they finally brought their target down, it was in a messy-as-all-hell firefight. Zane had certainly saved the ungrateful bastard a few times over in a matter of minutes - before that one grenade blew up right under the operative’s goatee’d chin.
Through the haze of grey and the blood pounding in his ears, Zane saw his teammate hustling over to their vehicle. Without him. Definitely not returning with a hypo. Definitely turning the engine on and pulling out.
“Oh, ye wanker.”
“Sorry, pretty-boy!” Wilhelm yelled. He always sounded like he was gargling gravel. “Double reward money!”
He drove away, spraying Zane with road dust. Just the start of a very bad night. He had to find his own hypo, patch his own wounds, retrieve his drone from where it was stuck on a low rooftop, and hobble his way several kilometers to a settlement with a fast-travel station. By the time he made it back to the client, Wilhelm had been paid in full and hoofed it off to wherever robo-men like to go. It was the last time Zane had ever agreed to a team mission.
Well, until now. He moved with sloth-like deliberation towards the nearest crate, feeling every painful twinge. Hopefully Amara was doing better than him, wherever she was.
Her location stopped being a mystery soon enough. Zane felt himself being pushed over onto his back, as two knees in ripped jeans pinned his head in place. Amara’s upside-down face swam into view.
“You’re okay!” The siren’s voice was cheerful, declaring something that Zane felt to be untrue. He felt her scrabble around his torso for a moment before realizing that his neck was the only open point. The cool prick of a hypo stung him under his ear.
In two shakes of a skag’s tail he felt himself normalizing. Color returned to his left eye’s input.
“Thanks,” he coughed. A strong feeling he couldn’t name was filling him like a tide. Probably the medicine working.
“Good as new.” Amara tapped him on the forehead and sprang up again, taking off at a run.
Zane deployed his barrier, drone, and digiclone before he was all the way on his feet again. No more underestimating these Anointed fellas.
When they finally broke through the wave of COV, Amara caught her first glimpse of the Calypso twins themselves. Troy and Tyreen were sauntering away from a crumpled figure on the ground. Amara’s heart flipped in her chest. The rush of seeing another siren, doubled this time as she watched the red tattoos glow on Troy’s side. The inevitable crush of disappointment as she reminded herself that they were evil.
Before she could approach them or even sort out her feelings, the twins vanished in a flash of golden fire. That was a Lilith exit , she thought, as her eye retrained itself on the wilted person left behind.
“Firehawk!” Amara heard herself shout. She sprinted to the commander’s side. Her siren-sister was unrecognizable, bare armed and woozy.
“They took my powers,” Lilith mumbled. She took Amara’s offered arms and struggled to be lifted up. “Tyreen. She… leeched me.”
“The feck’s goin’ on?” Zane trotted up, holstering his gun to take the commander’s other hand and help support her.
The ground began to rumble. From nearby came a noise like a seismic shift. Zane and Amara exchanged a look over Lilith’s red hair - worry and confusion mirrored in each other’s eyes.
Ellie’s frantic voice crackled in their ears.
“V.H.! Both of you, get Lil onto Sanctuary! We’re fixin’ for takeoff and there’s more COV closing in!”
The three of them hustled as best they could to the entrance ramp. Zane’s drone was the last to zip inside as it closed, lights blinking through the billowing clouds of launch smoke.
From a distance, the compound itself seemed to lift. There was a horrible grating and a shower of sparks as Sanctuary III sheared off the nearest rooftops, shaking in its first attempt to leave Pandora’s soil.
The COV fighters left behind shot their little guns and screamed their little screams, lost to the ears of everyone aboard the massive freighter. For a moment the ship hovered, gleaming above the black desert. Then the engines let loose a dragon’s roar, and the whole metal bulk of it became just a smear of light, imprinted on the retinas of anyone watching.
Above Pandora a new star glimmered, before it too was absorbed by the all-consuming dark.
Fight! Fight! Fight! Okay, now we’ve established some actual Borderlands 3 plot, so we can really go off the rails and have fun later.
Some nerd notes, just in case:
1. Bossanova is a bandit leader in Tales from the Borderlands that also has a sweet speaker setup. Technically Vaughn almost died at his Charity Deathrace (just kidding, no Pandora Orphanages benefited from that). I imagine Zane would also be familiar with him.
2. I used a little bit of actual in-game dialogue between Vaughn and the vault hunters up there. I think it’s worth pointing out because never in my life would I think to make a character say “widdle”- but hey, it’s canon, baby!
3. Wilhelm is a player character in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. He has two drones, is more machine than man, and is a jerk. Wilhelm calls Handsome Jack “pretty-boy” so he would def call Zane that as well. He is from Hera, a planet that I don’t think we know anything about, so I took the liberty of assuming that it has at least one (1) dirt road.
“Did you ever hear the story about the goddess who destroys the world?”
They were seventeen. A monsoon rain was pelting down, flooding the gutter and drumming on the blue tarp that hung across the doorway of the bookshop. Ostensibly they were in charge of minding any customers while Deepika’s father made dinner upstairs. Amara’s nose ring was gone - too dangerous to keep in when boxing, too annoying to replace every day when not. The blue in her hair was growing out, down past her shoulders now.
Deepika continued, reading from an old fabric-bound book. Her short legs swung from the counter.
“She goes out to fight her enemies and becomes so maddened by bloodlust that she can’t stop. The only thing that keeps her from killing everything and everyone is her own husband, who lies down beneath her. She comes to her senses when she recognizes him.”
“‘ Lies down beneath her’ , huh?”
“Yeah, looks like he’s really into it, ya know?” Deepika turned the book around to show an illustration. She laughed around her gum.
Amara snorted. “I guess she is pretty hot. Look at that face.” She did an imitation of it, tilting her head back, baring her teeth and tongue with maddened eyes.
“She’s a badass. Reminds me of you, actually - ‘ known as the protector, the liberator, the deep blue night’ . Isn’t that what you want to be?”
The siren touched her own shoulder, reflexive. Under her torn canvas jacket and long sleeved top, her tattoos glowed in secret.
The deep blue night.
“Yeah, something like that,” she mumbled.
Amara closed the book. Its fabric cover looked even older and more worn under the lights of her room on Sanctuary III. She set it on the shelf with dozens of its friends and reached into the cargo crate for more.
"Amara, lass, do you have- whoa." Zane stopped in his tracks at the room’s entrance. She looked up after his low whistle.
“Like what I’ve done with the place?”
“Sure, and it makes mine look like a whole rubbish bin. Where’d ye get all this?”
“Just a few things from home.”
“Aye, just a few.” Zane walked over to the table in the room’s center. A maple tree with blood-colored leaves rustled under the air vent. Incense and candles burned, surrounded by more books. He traced the cover of one with the thumb and finger left exposed by his glove. “Big reader?”
A horrified gasp behind him made him turn. He was just in time to see Amara barrel into him with a rugby tackle, lifting him off his feet.
“Shoes? Inside my room?” she sputtered. She had a firm grasp around his waist, holding him so the offending footwear stayed high above the floor.
Zane was too caught off guard to respond. He doubted he’d ever been carried while sober, and never by someone so outraged at him.
“How the feck are ye so strong?” he managed, as the siren marched him out. He had to duck to avoid the lintel.
“You wore those shoes on Pandora ,” she continued, setting all six feet of him down like a child on the other side of her door. “That’s disgusting.”
Zane grinned at her. Now that he was paying more attention, he saw her boots waiting patiently in the shared suite area. He kicked off his own and put them next to hers with exaggerated care.
“Might a fella come in?” He swept a comical bow.
Those violet eyes were still narrowed. Zane’s grin grew wider and his bow dropped lower.
“Pretty please, Tiger?”
“Fine. You can now . Were you raised by bandits?”
“Indeed I was!” Zane took advantage of her startled reaction to dart inside. “Ooo, plush carpet.”
Amara followed the operative around as he pointed to every potted plant and poster, asking questions. She showed him the punching bag from her old gym, the books from Deepika’s father, her kitchen herbs, the miniature tree stolen from a street corner on Partali long ago and maintained ever since. He smelled every one of her candles in turn, and some incense that made his eyes water.
It was a pleasant distraction. The first few hours after takeoff had been a scramble - trying to figure out what happened to Lilith, stabilizing the ship after a rocky start, and corralling the refugees on board. At the time of their departure, the population of Sanctuary III was a few hundred Pandoran fighters and civilians, clutching what little belongings they had managed to grab. With Lilith reeling and Ellie absorbed with keeping Sanctuary in one piece, the duty of leadership had fallen on the vault hunters. They split up the work, Red Team taking lower decks and Blue Team taking the upper.
Pandorans, Zane knew full well, made a hell of a mob. Rumors of doom and mutiny could spread like wildfire. Dissent could turn violent if the wrong person so much as sneezed. Crimson Raider loyalty was strong, but there were plenty of unaffiliated folks on board.
Amara crushed any such stirrings the moment she sauntered into the room. Her voice was clear and ringing, raised but still calm as she called stragglers to attention and took down names. The sight of a steady, collected person in charge cut down on the general panic and griping. The fact that she was a famous siren didn’t hurt.
Zane made a more reluctant marshal at first. His natural crisis response was to melt into the shadows and watch. When Amara finally whispered to him that the interlocking corridors were confusing and that she couldn’t very well take the role call without knowing who was supposed to be where, he had the idea of accessing the ship’s manifest with his cybernetics and sending it to their echoes. From then on he walked behind her as they collected strays from every corner, putting on a stern face to back up her air of authority. To his surprise, a good number of the refugees actually recognized him as well, calling out “vault hunter!” in voices tinged with relief and awe.
With the manifest they were able to assign sleeping quarters and move everyone into the spaces where they belonged. When the ship rocked violently and Ellie’s troubled voice filled their ears, Amara quelled the screams around them with some brave words and a laugh. In that moment, Zane saw a bit of Lilith in her. Amara was no mother hen or nurse - she soothed because she had strength and power and charisma. He could picture her on the barricades, leading a revolution.
They returned to the bridge just in time for the anti-grav to go out. Zane had whooped in delight, always a fan of the sensation. Everything was in perfect chaos. Red team had corralled the lower decks more through a hearty dose of fear (though Zane doubted they had been trying to frighten, Fl4k just didn’t have the necessary human instinct to downplay danger, and Moze lacked the patience), and the only thing between the crew and the cold void of space was the Cl4p-tp unit stuck in a hole in the windshield.
After that had been sorted out, the vault hunters were sent back out to fix mechanical odds and ends on the ship using Ellie's instructions. The temperature had to be normalized, some equipment had been damaged in the turbulence, etc., etc. It was a good opportunity to see some more of the crew. Marcus invited them to check out his new firing range. They met a cheerful big-game hunter named Hammerlock who had the most extensive quarters on the ship - a small mansion’s worth of his cozy decor was shoved into the deck on a public through-way. They also had an awkward first meeting with Tannis, Sanctuary's resident scientist and provisional on-board medic. She emerged from a carcass on her lab dissection table - the same table that she planned to use for operations on living patients in the days to come. Assuring them that she was just trying to stay warm, and that alien corpses were not everyday wear, Tannis started poking and prodding at Amara's tattoos until the siren had to excuse herself. They reconvened with Lilith to discuss their next move.
The commander was still shaken. Amara tried not to stare at the bare skin where swirling blue had once glowed.
“Are you all right?” she asked. It felt like far too little to say.
“I’m fine.” Lilith was as gruff as ever. She waved their concerns away. “What matters now is stopping the twins before they do much worse to all of us.”
“Aye, that’s the truth,” Zane grunted. He was posted up on the edge of a computer terminal, resting one hand on the holster of his pistol.
“So where we headed, Lil?” Ellie shifted her weight from foot to foot. Concern for her friend flowed off of her in waves. Fl4k ventured to pat her shoulder.
“We press on to Promethea.” Lilith brought up a rotating image on the holo display. The spinning orb was pockmarked with light, everywhere that urban sprawl held the planet in its electric net. The vault hunters perked up.
“There are two drop sites. Red team, we’ll put you here, in the hothouse district.” Lilith enlarged an area of the map with two fingers. “Blue team, you’re dropping here, in the drainage floods.”
Lovely. Amara’s lips quirked up into a smile. She shared a glance with Zane, who wore a similar expression.
“What’s our ETA?” Moze ripped open a pack of gum. Lilith turned to her.
“Long enough to unpack and get settled. Ellie?”
“Sixteen hours, if systems hold,” the mechanic nodded. The conspicuous absence of a joke or innuendo gave the vault hunters pause. Maybe this hunk of junk really was… a hunk of junk.
“Lilith,” Tannis’ clipped voice echoed over the PA system. “Stop putting me off and come to the lab now, please.”
The commander rolled her eyes. “I’m fine, Tannis. And I’ll be right there.”
With that, the vault hunters had been given some time to wind down. In Amara’s case, time to arrange her new cabin.
“Are all these books ye got here about sirens and vaults and such?” Zane kept returning to the disparate pieces of her library - which made sense, given that they were spread throughout the room. He ruffled the pages of a book about Athenas, gentle but curious.
“Mm, it’s a variety.” The siren left him to his own devices, standing on a stool and hanging a string of LEDs from the ceiling. “Lots of history... some manga in there, too.”
The operative replaced the volume with care. She noticed that he was altogether more mindful in her cabin than she had yet seen him. The same man who had sat on a keyboard and tried to use Claptrap as a footrest on the bridge was now acting like a patron in an expensive shop. She appreciated the effort.
“Tch,” Moze’s voice came from the open doorway. Amara looked over to see the gunner nose-down in her echo device. “The COV asshats posted a new video. It’s about Lilith.”
Blue team took out their own echoes as Moze wandered away, still glued to her screen.
What is up, my brothers and sisters? It’s your number one most requested murder…
It was painful to watch what they had been too late to stop back on Pandora. Amara flipped through the library of COV videos on the echonet, shocked by how many views they all had.
“ Why are these videos so popular?” she hissed, disgusted.
“Freaks, the lot of ‘em.” Zane switched his echo off, his mouth set in a hard line.
Most of the videos were pure propaganda. A few showed “sacrifices” made by the loyal Children of the Vault who let Tyreen leech them into dust. One of the former started to autoplay without sound under Amara’s thumb. Even in miniature, she recognized the expression worn by the God-Queen. It horrified her, all the more so for its familiarity. The desire to take, consume, devour the world.
She felt sick.
Zane noticed, though he might not have known the cause. He clapped a hand on the siren’s shoulder, shaking her out of her fog.
“Y’know, I spied a bar on the schematic. My kinda spaceship. Buy ye a drink?”
Amara wavered. She wasn’t in the mood for carousing, but… the farther away from her echo, the better.
“Also, I owe ye for saving my arse back there.”
“Yeah, okay. Sounds good.”
Moxxi’s bar was close to the vault hunter’s suite, though the ship’s layout could not have been more confusing. Zane lit up with recognition when he saw the pink neon letters.
“Moxxi’s on board? No feckin’ way. It’s been ages.”
Much to the operative’s chagrin, the eponymous bartender either didn’t remember him - or pretended not to. She laid the charm on thick for Amara’s benefit, though, which made the situation all the more amusing.
“We had a weekend together, at the casino?” Zane mumbled after her retreating back, after ordering them two expensive double whiskeys.
“You got with her ?” Amara tugged a thumb in Moxxi’s direction. “Damn, you just earned even more respect from me.”
That served to brighten his mood up again. They took seats on the far end of the bar, swiveling back and forth and checking out the atmosphere.
“There’s a piano now... Moxxi’s really classed up the place. Ye shoulda seen it planetside. I’ve stepped over a dead body more’n once, gettin’ a drink there.”
“So, you’re from Pandora, I take it?”
“Born and raised. I know, comes as a shock to people, what with all me good looks and, ah, refinement!”
“Lots of good-looking people come from Pandora.” Moxxi brought over their whiskeys, leaning over way farther than necessary. Amara wasn’t sure how her top stayed up. Tape, maybe. “Present company included.”
The siren smiled at her as she walked away. “What was it like, being a kid there?”
Zane wrinkled his nose, thinking back. “Kinda shite, truth be told.”
“Really?” She cheers’d his cup before taking a sip. It was strong. So strong she had to cough a little before continuing. “I can picture you getting in trouble a lot.”
“Well, I got up to some mischief, right enough.”
It was high noon in Lynchwood. A row of firecrackers stood to attention in the dirt alley behind the general store. Zane was ten years old, and four propellers away from finishing his new drone.
Back then, things weren’t so bad. It was before Hyperion set up shop, before the routing of Atlas and Dahl, before the whole planet showed its teeth and claws. Lynchwood was on its way to being one of the first real cities on Pandora. Sure, it was still a little rough around the edges, but it was also full of new construction and big dreams. On the weekends the streets bustled with Dahl employees and their families. The train came in to the station every hour, carrying new supplies from the spaceport and new pioneers to farm out in the Dead Sands.
These “pioneers” would learn soon enough that nothing grew in the Sands worth harvesting before it was eaten by wildlife or ravaged by dust storms. The Flynt family was learning that lesson harder every year, as their credits dried up with the well.
Zane lit the firecrackers and ran.
While the shop owner went out back to investigate, the youngest Flynt careened in through the front door and grabbed four boxes of mechanical parts. He knew exactly where the propellers were kept, just as he knew the slowest time of day in the store. He’d been staking out the place for a week, every time his mother sent him into town for an errand.
Too slow. He’d been seen. The bright-haired boy shoved his looted supplies into his backpack, picking up speed as he ran down the street.
Around the saloon, over the fence, through a junkyard… the propellers clanked together in his bag. A high whistle sounded. This was the crucial part.
Zane risked a glance behind him. The shopkeeper was still behind - not close, but not giving up like he had hoped.
He scrambled up the side of a rusted-out car, just high enough to reach the top of the concrete barrier. One leap - don’t think about it, just jump - and his feet caught the opposite wall. Zane rolled forward, into a bank of sand and prickle bushes. The train roared by, inches behind him and fast as a rocket in takeoff.
The Flynt boy got up and kept running. Now his blood was singing. That train would keep rolling by for another five minutes, and by then he would be jumping over his own fence at home and running to his room. The new drone would finally be ready - he could fly it tonight. This time he wouldn’t make the mistake of showing it to Captain.
“Who is Captain? What did he do?” Amara broke in, frowning.
“The worst Flynt brother. Burned me first drone into flamin’ scrap.” Zane smiled at her deepening frown. “Don’t scowl, lass, this new one was much better.”
Young Zane turned the last screw and admired his work. Pretty little thing . The simple drone - nothing more than a child’s toy, really - sat on a workbench papered with old Atlas blueprints. It had been cobbled together with parts scavenged and stolen, every piece polished and restored with infinite patience.
“ Zane! Where are ye, twerpface?”
Shite. Captain was home, barging through doors and tramping on huge feet through the house. Zane put his drone in the trash can and covered it with his blueprints, pushing the whole can under the workbench. The house was untidy enough for it to be well hidden.
“What did ye do with my lighter, ye wee bastard?”
Captain was bellowing before he got all the way through the door. He was massive, eight years older and fifteen stone heavier than his little brother. He picked Zane up by the scruff of his collar, hoisting him into the air. Cruel porcine eyes narrowed in his thick face as he shook the boy like a rag doll.
“Haven’t got it,” Zane lied through rattling teeth. If Captain had an ounce of observational skills, he would have seen a boy who was too thin and small for his age, whose huge grey eyes burned bright with mischief.
“Liar.” Captain dropped his brother and seized him by the ankles, flipping him over and shaking him all the harder. The object in question clattered to the floor, along with a screwdriver, a coil of spring, and a bottle of epoxy. Zane’s pocketknife stayed secure in his left shoe.
“Ach, knew it! Yer done for!”
Captain made the mistake of letting go of his brother in order to grab the lighter. Dizzy but motivated, Zane ran for his life. Out through the ripped screen door that shrieked like a banshee, over the porch railing and out across the dry grass of Flynt Ranch.
There was one tree to speak of on the property - a twisted, leafless thing with tangled boughs. It wasn’t easy to climb, which made it all the better as an escape route. Captain wasn’t built for dexterity. He could only huff and puff and throw things from the ground as the boy hunkered amongst the branches.
This went on for some time. Captain had a steady supply of garbage from the porch to launch at him, as well as a rotating string of curses. Zane made a game of deflecting the bottles. He heard the door creaking and spied his oldest brother sauntering out into the yard, cigarette already lit.
Baron was built like a weasel, with cold clever eyes and a slight stoop to his back. He was what the people down in Lynchwood called a mean customer . His short bursts of brutal violence were made all the more unnerving by the fact that he never raised his voice in anger. Zane’s parents were afraid of him. Captain worshipped him, and Zane just tried to stay out of his way.
He walked over to the strange domestic scene playing out behind the house, unhurried.
“Feck off, Cap,” he said, toneless.
“Okay.” Captain scampered back inside, as placified as if he’d knocked Zane out of the tree.
Baron spit on the ground. He looked up into the branches, squinting at his brother like it was the first time he’d ever seen him. Zane held very still, staring back. The older man took a full drag from his cigarette before speaking.
“There’s a freighter up at the spaceport,” he said, around the smoke. “Bound for Hera.”
Zane grabbed the bough a little tighter.
“Heard there’s a school there for smart lads.” Baron let his gaze slip to the horizon. He reached into his jacket and took out Zane’s drone, dropping it into the dust at his feet. “Leaves tomorrow at sundown. Think a little sneak like you could get aboard, no trouble.”
He turned and walked back to the house. They were the last words he would ever say to Zane, and perhaps the kindest thing any Flynt had ever spoken to the lad.
When he was quite alone, Zane climbed down and retrieved the drone. The sun was setting now, pink and orange bleeding into the clouds. He disengaged the controller and switched on the miniature aircraft. It lifted from the sand, buzzing like a varkid.
Silver propellers glinted in the fading light, mirroring the distant sparkle of the spaceport.
“Did you take the freighter?” Amara leaned her chin in her hand, eyes wide. She took a sip from her empty glass. The ice slid forward and bumped her lips.
“Want another, sugar?” Moxxi was already placing a full whiskey at the siren’s elbow. She did the same for Zane, who winked at her by reflex.
“Aye, stowed away in a cargo crate. Full o’ holes, mind ye. No trouble breathing.”
“And then you went to school on Hera?” Amara crossed her arms and leaned back against the bar, fascinated. There was so much she would never have guessed about the operative.
“Never even arrived. Freighter got hijacked by pirates, and they found me quick enough.”
“ What? ”
“Not a word of a lie. I joined the crew and stayed with ‘em for, ah, three years or so.” Zane got a faraway look in his eye. His memories of that crew were fonder than any he held of his blood family.
“Well, go on,” Amara punched him on the arm. A bit harder than she meant to, judging by his wince. “Don’t tease me with that story.”
“No, no, I’m not about to talk yer ear off.” Zane waved her away. “I want to know what happened with our boyo Prem, after he joined the Tigers.”
“Oh.” Amara rolled her eyes at his deflection. Back to her again. “I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, after he left. By then I was more worried about the whole ‘ you’re a siren!’ thing.”
“Ah, yeah. That whole dealie.”
Amara took a thoughtful sip. The whiskey burn was a distant sensation now, and the drink tasted rather good. Bit like becoming a siren . In those first few days, the burning was too harsh to enjoy her new powers.
She and her family had decided to keep it a secret, even from Prem. Her mother and twin brothers consulted the echonet for answers every night while she huddled in a blanket on the linoleum-tiled floor. There was very little information to be had. The known sirens of the galaxy were shrouded in secrecy back then. Lilith was a Pandoran celebrity verging on urban legend, with more fan art posted online than real photos. A few rumors swirled about Handsome Jack’s secret daughter.
Everything they learned suggested that Amara could be snatched up by any one of the big corporations to be experimented on or turned into some sort of mascot. Even Rizwan and Devdas, not known in the family for their intelligence, understood the spark of fear in their mother’s eyes.
For a week she stayed inside and pretended to be sick. When she emerged - in long sleeves and a high collar, with makeup on her cheek - Deepika thought the worst.
“Did you get jumped?” She grabbed Amara’s chin, turning it to stare at the patch of cheap foundation that stood out under sunlight. “This is a bruise, isn’t it? I thought Prem was in the Tigers now, this isn’t supposed to happen.”
Amara almost seized on the chance to say yes, it is a bruise, from boxing , before realizing that she would have to cover up her siren marks every day for much, much longer than a bruise would last.
“I didn’t get jumped. I was sick.” She moved away, pulling up the edge of her collar.
“Sick.” Deepika looked at her with complete disbelief. The same eyes that had looked at her since they were little. What’s the point in hiding it from her?
And so, the first slip happened before Amara even made it to school.
Telling Deepika turned out to be the right decision. Vital moral support aside, the girl had far better skills with makeup than Amara’s mother, and soon the siren’s cheekbone matched the rest of her skin.
The second slip came not long after. Amara’s boxing coach knew something was off, even before she insisted on wearing long sleeves to the gym on a warm day.
“What is this nonsense?” he snapped, flicking her arm.
“It’s nothing.” Amara sounded confident as ever, but the lie was already losing ground. She looked down at her coach. His dark eyes blazed back at her.
Gopal was his name. He was a Partali native, born and bred in Nadeemachi. Three feet and eleven inches of solid muscle. Broken nose, cauliflower ear, never smiled for love or money. Amara had known him for two years at this point, ever since the day she had burst in after hours to demand lessons. She had no money then, nor did she now, but she was willing to clean the floors. Gopal had seen the light in her eyes and the free labor in her arms, and agreed. He ran the gym for a big gang boss that almost never came around, and for all intents and purposes it was his to do as he pleased with.
“Something’s up,” he grunted. He walked to the edge of the ring, picking up a package. “First this comes in the post for you, then you miss a week and come back... strange. You seein’ a boy? A girl?”
“No. What’s in the package?”
“You tell me.” Gopal tossed it to her. She caught it with one hand, ripping open the tape.
“They’re gloves.” Amara’s eyes shot open. “Really, really nice gloves.”
They were the kind she used to sigh over on the echonet. Metallic leather, ventilated palms… two hundred credits, at least. To her that was a fortune, maybe as much as her mother made in two weeks as a laundress. The package said Prem.
“They’re from my brother.”
“Ah. The Tigers are treating him well, for now.” Gopal rolled his eyes. Amara almost asked how he knew, but stopped herself. Word got around.
The Tigers were known in town as a mid-level gang, dangerous and full of thugs, but not organized enough to have control over large businesses. Their interests lay in selling drugs, shaking down small street vendors, and occasionally murdering people for fun. No one in their right mind would be proud to know a member.
Amara traced a finger across the leather. They were beautiful, though she felt an unspecified discomfort.
Then again, Gopal’s boss was someone so high up the ladder of organized crime he probably hired Tigers to deliver his lunch. Every piece of this gym was owned by the gangs, just like every part of this city. Amara put them on.
That night she punched the heavy bag so hard that her blue goddess arms appeared. The cigar fell from Gopal’s mouth, and another secret-holder joined the ranks.
When she got home, Prem had sent an envelope of money to the house.
“The story doesn’t end well, you know.” Amara kept her voice light, though she chewed her lip and avoided his eye.
Zane nodded. For a moment the full weight of his years showed on his face - some wordless regret kept hidden most days under bravado and cheer. It slid away, quick as it came.
He bumped her shoulder with his own and lifted his glass.
“Cheers to brothers, good ‘n bad?”
“Living and dead,” Amara finished, clicking her glass to his. They downed what little remained of their drinks.
“Oi, it’s muscle man.” Zane nodded to Vaughn, crossing the room with a colorful iced concoction.
Amara was having some trouble focusing her eyes. How many people had come and gone around them while they talked? And was that a miniature umbrella in Vaughn’s cup?
“What is he drinking?”
“Somethin’ foolish, I’ve no doubt.”
“I want it.” Amara smacked the edge of the bar in her enthusiasm, surprising herself.
“Shite, you heard the lass - two glasses of whatever the feck, please.”
“Two Promethean firebombs.” Moxxi dropped them onto coasters with a sultry smile. Amara smiled back. She had never seen such a pretty bartender in her life.
“Tastes of turpentine. I like it!” Zane moved the straw over and drank from the side of the rim. His throat moved in an appealing way. Amara had never seen such a pretty operative in her life- am I drunk?
“Have I ever told ye about the resort on Aquator I got meself lost in?” He took the paper umbrella out and twirled it between his fingertips.
She laughed. “When would you have told me that? We’ve just met.”
Zane shook his head. “Ach, feels like’ve known you forever. Well, I was on a job there, trackin’ a fugitive. A drug smuggler. Mind, this was one of the more legal jobs I’ve been hired for-”
The siren was a little too out of it to follow his story, but his impressions of being hopelessly turned around (in a tropical jungle, in a stolen car full of contraband fruit, with the customs bots on his tail) made her roar with laughter through the remainder of her drink.
The vault hunters decided to call it a night when their glasses were empty. Zane passed a small fortune of credits over to Moxxi, while Amara stood up and felt dizzy. They didn’t get very far through the ship before she decided to lean on the operative for support.
“You smell great.” It felt like an ordinary compliment to give out, even with her face pressed against his neck.
“Lass, you’re three sheets in the wind,” Zane staggered under the sudden influx of her weight on his shoulder. Eleven stone of muscle, at least.
“I’m what?” Amara’s voice was somehow even richer and more musical than usual. The only thing slurred about her was the wandering path of her feet. Together they careened gently into a side table in Hammerlock’s study, overturning a taxidermy.
“Y’know. Pissed.” Zane’s breath came out in an oof as she stopped short, fascinated by the marble bust of some fella with a stupid mustache.
“Hammerlock has a stone jabber?”
“Dunno if it’s a jabber,” the operative squinted. He could muster enough sobriety to escort Amara back to her cabin, but identifying the fine details of portraiture was beyond him at this time. The siren reached out as if to touch the marble.
“Best not!” Zane steered her onward. He was all for a little chaos, but Hammerlock looked like a sulker. Tomorrow’s version of Zane would be grateful to be spared his ire.
Amara only chuckled in response. She gave a cavernous yawn and leaned harder into his side. At this point the operative might as well have been carrying her.
After a few wrong turns, they found themselves back in the vault hunters’ suite.
“Here’s mine,” Amara pointed to her door.
“Don’t be too proud of yerself.” Zane bumped the door release with his elbow. He kept his arm out for Amara to lean on until she dropped like a sack of bricks onto her bed. “Attagirl. Oh, shite.”
The siren’s boots were still on her feet. Which were now on her bed. He blinked at them. With a heavy sigh, he began untying the laces of one. Amara rolled over, pulling her blanket over her head and ripping her foot out of his hand.
“Oi, hold still. Just be a minute… did ye double-knot these…”
Zane almost took a boot to the face when Amara decided he was tickling her ankles. Only the thought of how upset she would be in the morning to see the Pandoran dirt on her sheets kept him going.
Finally her second shoe popped off, sending him back on his arse. He gathered himself up, feeling a bit worse for wear, and trudged out. He paused in the door, turning back to watch the pile of blankets rise and fall.
“Codladh sámh, Tiger. Thanks for the company.”
1. Hammerlock is on Sanctuary from the beginning, because his study is on the ship in-game as soon as you take off. My interpretation of events is more canon than canon, I declare. Ha!
2. Captain and Baron later lost their accents in order to fit in with their bandit gangs.
3. Please picture Zane as I do - in a tropical print shirt, with yellow-tinted Hunter S. Thompson shades, with a convertible full of stolen grapefruits - Fear and Loathing on Aquator.
Amara treated her body like a fine-tuned machine. A deadly and elegant one, more top-of-the-line Jakobs sniper rifle than Tediore repeater.
Every night she got a solid eight hours of sleep. Each day she performed an optimized fitness routine of weights, cardio, and martial arts. She made sure to ingest the right amount of water, electrolytes, vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates. And she meditated. Every. Single. Day.
For over a decade she had stuck to the program. It wasn’t the most flexible or freewheeling lifestyle, but it worked . It kept her in top physical condition, able to catapult out of bed every morning with fire in her eyes and a spring in her step - which is why this morning in particular hit her like a ton of eridium bricks.
For one thing, she was still wearing her clothes. She could feel her circulation protesting the tight jeans that had overstayed their welcome. For another, she was hungover as hell. When she touched her eyelid to rub some of the sleep away, her fingers came away purple and black. Slept in full makeup, too, apparently. Really checking off all the boxes this morning.
The remnants of her dream still clung around her. It felt physical, like a persistent mist, or the warm body that she had encircled in another world. Zane, of course . Dreaming of him had been inevitable. They had made far too much physical contact the day before for it to be avoided. Amara wasn’t about to ask her subconscious to perform a miracle and fantasize about something work-appropriate.
The dream had been a blessing compared to the nightmares she’d expected. Seeing Lilith drained of her powers had shaken Amara far more than she wanted to admit. It was why she had allowed herself to overdo it with the drinks - a little chance to forget, to push the anxieties down for a while. It worked, didn’t it? Perhaps more because of Zane’s attention and stories than the alcohol, part of her whispered.
She sat up, feeling a grenade go off in her head.
“Ughhhh.” She touched her hair. Her bracelets had pressed into the skin of her wrist, leaving marks. A memory returned to her, of Zane… taking her shoes off? Wait. What else had she done? Had she made a fool of herself? Maybe if she could just get over to her kitchenette she could drink a few bottles of water and clear her head.
Maybe if she held very still she wouldn’t throw up.
Zane could have blown through three times as many drinks as they had and still feel fine in the morning. His internal wiring was reprogrammed from years of fieldwork to accept very little sleep and an excess of everything else.
The operative’s hangover was more of the emotional variety. When he woke up in the alcove cot of his room, the stars had stopped flying by the window and his holonet screen was glitched on a green loading screen. They must have arrived in Promethea’s orbit. He found a long message from Lilith on their shared network, providing background on the planet’s corporate conflict.
Zane stretched out as much as he was able. Less room in this bed than the one on Pandora. Less siren, too, more’s the pity . He winced at the stiffness of his muscles.
For a long moment he stayed right there, scanning his messy cabin and bringing a hand up to absently touch his neck. Amara had been real up close and personal last night. He blew his breath out in a huff, thinking about how rubbish his little plan had turned out.
Seeing the siren in action yesterday - rallying the people on board, shining like a beacon - had served as a strong reminder to Zane that he needed to keep his raging crush under control. Amara was one of the six most important people in the whole galaxy. He was just a man with a gun. And a pretty sweet drone.
And so he had tried to make an effort to take her out for a drink as comrades, colleagues, murder-buddies embarking on a grand adventure. He told himself to just see her as one of his friends he had no interest in. Like Barnabus . Maybe not the best comparison - Barnabus wasn’t much of a friend, considering the recent assassination attempt. But, I’m definitely not goin’ fer him, sooo… act like it’s Barnabus out fer a pint with ye.
It had backfired in a big way. Zane’s intense focus on everything she said (rather than the sweep of her hair against her cheek, her exposed midriff, the enchanting tattoos, stop thinkin’ about it boyo ) only functioned to remind him how well they got along. How, really, she was nothing like Barnabus or any other “friend” he had among his fellow assassins. Amara was intense and level-headed and serious - until she was drunk, and then she was even more fun to be around. Making the siren laugh until she doubled over was one of the more rewarding experiences he’d had of late. Though honestly, Zane enjoyed her company just as much at her most solemn.
See, that right there . That was the kind of thought that would get him in trouble.
When Amara had gone beyond her own alcohol limit, Zane had no problem clearing his head and taking her safe back to her cabin. Maybe he was just a man with a gun, but if he was lucky enough to be partnered with a siren, he could at least be a reliable friend. Not that Amara was about to get mugged on Sanctuary, but he flattered himself to think he might have prevented a twisted ankle. This ship had too many ladders and not enough reflective tape.
He’d spent the rest of the night organizing his arsenal and tooling around the ship. From his bed now he could see the collection of guns hanging up in neat rows on his wall, in stark contrast to the mess on the floor. All of the best ones he had in his backpack already, with room for more if they found them on Promethea. Zane really hoped they found more.
Very late at night he had found Marcus still awake in his shop, playing darts behind the counter. It seemed the arms dealer also had a disturbed sleep pattern. For a nominal fee, he had uploaded an echo feature for Zane that could change his weapon skins. Repainting his gun collection again and again with the press of a button killed another hour before Zane had finally turned in. As of 02:00 hours Sanctuary time, his guns were silver and Hyperion wasp-yellow, to match the accents of his jacket.
Sure, it was vain and kind of silly, but who was he trying to fool? Zane knew what he liked. Visual impact was part of his “brand”, as Amara would say, and nowadays the operative didn’t have to blend in with the shadows.
With that in mind, he got up to shower and tame his hair into the moussed peaks that would keep it out of his face and look fly as hell.
The vault hunters were called to the drop pods within the hour. Red Team gave Zane a nod and a wave (and a happy bark from Mr. Chew) as they stood to receive Ellie’s instructions.
Amara came to join them a minute later, with fresh clothes, makeup, and a slight pallor. She gave Zane a quick greeting before her eyes slid away to face forward. She felt a bit embarrassed by the memories now assailing her of having to be almost carried to bed. Not like her usual self at all.
For someone with Amara’s ordinary confidence level, embarrassment translated outwardly as a stern expression. Zane felt chastised, wondering if she regretted cutting loose around him the night before. He coughed and also faced forward, waiting like a soldier in line for Ellie to finish telling them how unsecure the drop pods were. According to the mechanic, they would be safer ejecting in a couple of large toaster ovens.
The way Amara’s head was pounding, she wondered if the sweet release of death wouldn’t be a comfort. The vault hunters pushed themselves into the small pods, buckling in with their fingers crossed. She spent the next few minutes trying hard not to be sick, while Zane stared out of the porthole like his life depended on it.
“Small spaces! No biggie. Not, ah, fer me. Maybe fer some people.”
Amara would have made a comment if she trusted her mouth to open. Ellie released them from Sanctuary with the press of a button, and the sounds of the larger ship vanished from their ears with an alarming suddenness. It felt like being dropped into the deepest part of the ocean. Promethea spun below them, getting closer every second. Beautiful, even more so than every planetary postcard and holo image Amara had ever seen. From the perspective of their tiny window they were about to be swallowed up by its foreboding mass. Silver flames licked at the porthole as they entered atmosphere, and the whole pod began to vibrate. Zane seemed to find it relaxing. He whooped as they rocketed downward.
When they landed - like dice being shaken out of a cup - Lilith came on the echo chat.
“That looked like a rough ride. You still with us, killers?”
“Worst thing that ever happened to me.” Zane unbuckled and kicked the pod door open, drawing his rifle. “Let’s do it again!”
“Ngh, that landing. I’ve been in gentler fistfights.” Amara’s voice was more of a moan. She followed close behind, loading her pistol.
“As long as you’re alive. Red team just checked in, too. Get your bearings and head into Meridian when you’re able.”
The vault hunters’ boots splashed in the low water of the drainage floods. The patch of soil they landed on was marshy and overgrown, a tiny pocket between sheer concrete reservoir walls that rose hundreds of feet on both sides. It was Promethea’s night cycle, but light pollution from the all-encompassing city made visibility fair enough to move without assistance. Pinpoints of white and gold rippled away in the shallows, the inverted skyline reflected in the expansive surface ahead. Zane turned back to ask his partner if she was feeling all right, considering the waver in her voice. His thought was interrupted by the cluster of red dots honing in on their position and the INSECT: Coleoptera-Type biosignature scrolling across his enhanced eye.
“Critters incoming,” he said instead, moving to stand back-to-back with Amara.
The siren’s eyes flicked over their surroundings. Ratches were scuttling towards them from the overgrowth around the drop site. “ Ugh .”
Amara couldn’t stand the creatures. As a child she had seen them in the alleys at home, nocturnal eyes flashing in the light of passing scooters and neon signs before they darted behind dumpsters. Later, when she patrolled the backstreets at night as a full fledged siren, she had sometimes been attacked by packs of the insectoids. These Meridian City ratches were much bigger than the ones on Partali. Even if these were just protecting their territory, they had to be dealt with before they bit her or Zane and gave them some sort of Promethean plague.
She felt her inner element shifting. Part of her sirenhood was elemental, a facet of her magic that seemed to be unique to only her. Depending on many factors, most of which remained a mystery, Amara’s siren powers changed element from day to day or from hour to hour. She felt rather than saw her tattoos shift to acid green, tasted the corrosive in her blood.
With a battle cry of irritation she phaseslammed the ground, sending a splash of green corrosive to dissolve the ratches that were thrown back. Zane dispatched the creepy-crawlers on his side with precision shooting, reminding her of a joke he’d made about being an “exterminator” on occasion.
Amara wrinkled her nose at the insect carnage around them.
“Okay, now I really need to vomit.”
“Need an Atlas-seltzer?” The operative drew a pack of hangover cure chewables from one of his jacket’s many inner compartments. “Some days ye'll find me eatin’ ‘em like candy.”
She accepted with greedy fingers. Zane shifted from foot to foot, staring at her tattoos.
“So, ah, is the green… new?”
“Oh, right.” She took a swig of water. “You’ve only seen me use shock. I have fire, too. Elementals.”
Amara winced. Why am I so awkward today? Had to be the hangover. Which, thanks to Zane (and Atlas’ pharma labs) was now clearing up.
He nodded, accepting her half-assed explanation with approval. “Dead on.”
She felt the water around their ankles flow with sudden insistence. Something was causing a wake out in the floods. The siren looked up over her canteen with sharpened eyes, awkwardness forgotten. “Do you see what I’m seeing?”
Zane lifted his binoculars up, activating his echo connection. “Firehawk, we’ve got COV feckers on the ground. It’s bandits on bloody holiday down here.”
Lilith’s sigh filled their ears. “They moved fast. Do what you can to take care of them.”
The operative lowered his scopes to wink at Amara. “Two fights in two minutes. I like this town!”
She had to agree. The Children of the Vault were getting close, plowing through the floodwater in vehicles that roared and whined.
“Let’s get one of their cars,” she said, with her first smile of the day. Zane felt relief wash over him. Curious, really. He wasn’t usually in the business of caring so much about people’s moods. They dropped behind cover together, setting up their sniper rifles to halt the bandits’ progress.
“Listen, gorgeous, I’ll get us two cars.”
He did, and with laughable ease. The first two COV he picked off were driving circular blade shaped one-seaters. When the rest of the convoy realized where the bullets were coming from, they charged the vault hunters. Just the way Amara liked it.
She pitched a few grenades at the big boys, springing up to plow her way through the smaller grunts. Zane deployed his clone, dancing his way through the floodwater while firing. Graceful as ever. He sidled up to her.
“Feelin’ all right now?” he asked, conversational. Amara punched a rabid fighter into a cloud of blood.
“Much better, thanks.” This time her smile was stained red. The sight would have been frightening to a sane person. Zane thought it was adorable. "Sorry if I was a mess last night.”
“Mess? You?” An enemy with a modified buzzsaw got way too close for comfort. Zane gutted him with his wrist blades.
“Yeah. I don’t drink much, if that wasn’t obvious.” Amara moved just far enough from Zane to avoid hitting him with her phaseslam. She knocked a half dozen COV onto their backs in the flood, rising to shake water droplets from her fist.
“Lass, if ye ever look up drunk n’ disorderly arrests on the echonet - and mind ye, I dun’ want ye to - ye’ll find more mugshots o’ this handsome devil than any other fool in the star system.” The enemy count was dwindling on his mini-map. “Ye’ve nothin’ to apologize fer.”
“Yeah, well.” Amara pulled out her torgue pistol, an explosive weapon that was fast becoming her favorite. She fired rounds at the last two COV standing in her area. “Thanks for making sure I didn’t sleep on the pool table.”
“Dunno, that thing’s got a mighty fine soft baize.” Zane ended the career of the last enemy fighter and holstered his gun. His digiclone glitched out of sight. “Thought ye might be ticked at me for, ah, eggin’ ye on too much.”
She laughed, a real honest noise of surprise, and the operative felt any remaining discomfort melt away.
“I’ve got no one to blame but myself. Trust me, I’m not susceptible to influence.”
“I can believe it.”
They got into the stolen cars, strange unicycle things that somehow stayed upright. Amara pinged Ellie right away to show them off.
“Promethean cyclones! Ooo, VH, you know just what to say to a girl.”
“I didn’t even say anything yet,” the siren protested.
“Yeah, but I heard that engine purr. Drive those puppies up to a Catch-a-Ride so’s I can add them to the system. Thanks, darlin’.”
They cruised down the center of the drainage canal, watching as the city reared up before them. Even now, almost a year into a planet-wide siege, Meridian was beautiful. Amara felt her heart burning with an excitement spiked hard with nostalgia. Promethea was the place you always saw on the holonet dramas and the interplanetary news broadcasts. She had always dreamed of coming here someday, to go to fancy nightclubs and expensive restaurants with Prem and Deepika. That was before everything - before she became a siren, before her life went down the road it had. Of course it had all turned out more fulfilling than some silly desire to be in the cool city, but a part of her still felt that flutter.
“I never thought I’d finally be seeing it like this,” she admitted over the echochat to Zane. He was weaving back and forth, making ripples slide across the water’s surface. Amara was less at her ease behind the wheel. A city kid through and through, she had gone from public transportation to private car services as soon as her income had allowed it. Before joining the Crimson Raiders, her license to drive had been sort of… honorary.
“What, from a ditch in the ground?” He barked a laugh. “‘Least it’s quiet down here.”
“I meant seeing it as a war zone.” Even from their low vantage, she could spy blast damage in the passing skyscrapers. Lights were dimmed or missing at street level.
“Aye.” Zane sounded wistful. He turned on a dime, spotting a Catch-a-Ride on the side. “Been a while since I’ve paid a visit. Dun’ think it’s much improved since then.”
Amara followed his path with care. Her cyclone stuttered and threatened to stall as she pushed it up the incline and into the Catch-a-Ride car port.
“How did Ellie put these up everywhere? Her digistruction budget must be huge.” She let Zane go to work fiddling with the C.a.R. interface. They were near an exit point in the concrete wall, a hexagon of shadow with slow water leaking out into the main ditch.
Amara stretched, feeling at her ease in his company. The city above had an eerie quiet to it. Curfew in siege times . Distant gunfire popped. Here the only sounds were the soft patter of Zane's fingers on the touchpad, the drip of drainpipes, and the low roar of a motorcycle some dozen streets away.
An otherworldly moan from down the waterway made Amara's hair stand on end. Zane's back stiffened, his hand reflexive on his holster. The sound grew and stretched into a undulating howl, the wail of a predator calling to its pack.
"What the feck - "
“Hey! Over here!” The sound of a normal human voice speaking Universal was almost as shocking as the howl. A figure was waving to them from the exit point, stepping out of the shadows. There was a gun on his back, but he was no COV. The vault hunters nodded to each other and made their approach, still listening to the animal screams.
“You’d better get inside, dudes. The slag wolves move at night.” The man ushered them into the concrete tunnel. Amara’s tattoos brightened the space, casting a dim green glow on the face of their new acquaintance.
She squinted, letting her eyes adjust. Zane had a night vision setting in his cybernetics, but she wasn’t so lucky. The inside of the tunnel was piled with debris and what looked like commandeered traffic barriers. A gun turret was set up at the entrance. The man leaned against it, bringing an enormous pair of binoculars up to his eyes. They were twice as long as Zane’s, more like two telescopes welded together. He scanned the floods.
“I think if we get lucky they’ll find the bodies you left behind. Plenty of dinner, and they won’t come knocking at our door.” He looked back at them with a weak smile, tapping his scopes. “I saw you guys land. You’re here to help Atlas, right?”
Amara opened her mouth and reconsidered. They hadn’t discussed mission secrecy with Lilith.
“Aye, if there’s a reward in it,” Zane offered, playing it safe. Or perhaps he was being serious, she couldn’t tell.
“I’m Kris,” the man offered. “I’ll get someone to relieve me, and I’ll take you back. You should meet Lorelei.”
“We’re with the Crimson Raiders,” Amara said. She was still wary. Zane didn’t elaborate on her admission, busy scanning the floods himself with his own binoculars. The howling had stopped and been replaced by a silence too deep to be comforting.
Kris called for a shift switch on an obsolete military echo device. Old enough to not have visual capability. Curiouser and curiouser. When the replacement came - a short teenage girl - he led them back through a maze of rubbish and rubble, where orange LED construction lights had been strung up in a haphazard way. The siren made a silent check with her partner about whether they should follow, raising one manicured brow. Zane half-shrugged and half-nodded, unbothered by the idea. It didn’t feel like a trap, and if it was, hey- all the better. They came down here to kill COV and open a vault, and there sure as hell wasn’t a vault in front of them.
The drain tunnel met with a wider sewer channel. Here Kris lit a flashlight and guided them along a narrow ledge. Snatches of graffiti lit up on the tile as they passed, like whispers from Meridian’s populace. ‘Fuck Maliwan’ was a common theme.
Amara was getting more and more intrigued by these strange people who patrolled the city’s guts. Kris didn’t move like a soldier. His balance was so precarious on the ledge that she put a hand out just in case she had to snatch him up from a stumble.
“Who is Lorelei?” she whispered. The space felt cavernous around them, dark enough that her perception of where it ended was nonexistent. Water dripped somewhere, far off to the right.
“She works for Atlas,” Kris whispered back. They reached a thin aluminum ladder. He put the flashlight in his mouth and began to climb, words muffled. “Mell, kimda. Matlas melps us.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Amara was distracted. She wondered if Zane could check her out with his night vision as she climbed above him. Probably. Was that too frivolous a thought, considering the circumstances?
The ladder led to a hatch door. Kris showed them through, shutting it behind. They were still below street level, that much was obvious. This was a narrow service corridor of electrical panels, the kind that ran alongside sections of subway track. They squeezed on through. Behind her, Zane made a grunt of displeasure at the confined space. When Kris opened the second hatch, her suspicions were confirmed. Subway . They dropped down onto train tracks.
Here the emergency lights were lit, sterile and blue-tinged, humming through the tunnel. They heard the low chatter of voices. Walking around a bend in the tracks, the vault hunters and their guide stopped short.
There were hundreds of people here. Huddled on the train platform, sleeping on the staircase, walking around and chatting. They all looked like civilians - cold, dirty, stressed. Some of them had weapons. The armed ones patrolled with an air of responsibility, though they just looked like ordinary people pressed into service. Office workers. Families. Zane cursed softly, and Amara agreed.
In the cold light the siren was able to fully see Kris for the first time. He was young, twenty years old or so. Aside from the binoculars, flashlight, and rifle, the rest of his outfit was a set of unwashed but well-made clothes befitting an urban university student - denim jacket, hooded sweatshirt. His hair was shaved into an undercut with a top-knot bun. He smiled at them.
“Hey, welcome to the Underground.”
Meridian City, Five Years Ago:
Zane pulled the hood over his hair with one hand, using the other to guide a swig of whiskey from his flask. It was pissing down rain. Through the lens of his human eye the colors of holo-adverts and streetlights blurred together into a neon mist, hot colors splashing against the gathering dark. His cybernetic view panned across the boulevard, picking out every passing face in crisp detail and throwing up biosignatures. Human, human, human. Big surprise.
The operative was posted fifty stories up in the air, digitally cloaked and crouching like a gargoyle on the geometric glass balcony of one of Meridian’s most expensive skyscrapers. Droplets raced across the window behind him, their speed increasing as the rain picked up. If an electric storm started in earnest he’d be in for a real show up here. Unfortunately, the oversized sniper rifle in his hands would make him into a fine lightning rod.
Zane switched his patch’s visual feed to accept the input of his SNTNL drone. It hovered hundreds of feet below him, drifting among the robotic spheres that floated like soap bubbles above the pedestrians. The facial recognition program (written by Zane himself, an’ none too shabby, thank ye ) parsed the crowd. Here a girl in a crisp scarlet jumpsuit leapt to avoid a puddle. There an old man unlocked a sleek model of cyclone with a key fob. The drone analyzed each face, waiting for a match with the target’s file.
A tall man was moving with the crowd. Dark suit, yellow-tinted glasses, carrying a barrier shield umbrella. Face scan: Positive Match. SNTNL analyzed the shield strength. 500. Two shots, then . Bang bang, quick enough to prevent a reaction. Zane lined up his scope, redirecting the feed to his eyepatch and using it to bump aim accuracy to 100%.
His echo vibrated. The operative was about to ignore it, but Incoming Visual Communication: EMPLOYER scrolled across his eye. He lowered the rifle an inch and opened the screen to the nervous face of Rhys Strongfork.
“Heyyy, Agent Flynt! It’s me.”
“Atlas,” Zane grunted, acknowledging the greeting. “Listen, boyo, if ye want this target dead, yer gonna have to stop buzzin’ me.”
“Yeah, about that - I have to update the mission juuust a teensy bit.”
The operative raised a brow. “Contract’s set, lad.”
“No, no, I’m not backing out, it’s just that… well, this is embarrassing. To be honest, ahh, I’ve been robbed. It’s actually kind of an urgent situation.”
Zane put his gun down with a sigh. He held the echo closer to his face, scrubbing at his platinum hair. Droplets scattered from his hood.
“What d’ye need?”
“Well, he stole some proprietary information. A data drive. Basically all of the prototype designs I’ve been working on this year. They’re encrypted, so it would take some time for anyone to crack into them, but I don’t want, um-”
“Ye don’t want ‘em in his pocket when he’s lyin’ dead in the street,” Zane finished for him. “I gotcha. Right, I’ll get the drive an’ finish the job.”
“Thanks! You’re the best. Seriously, this is a huge relief.”
“No problem, boyo.” The operative shook his head and closed the connection. The new head of Atlas was an odd one. Nice fella, though.
He had contacted Zane for the job with a strange mixture of apprehension and pride - worried about dealing with a contract killer, proud that his rebooted company was getting enough traction again for corporate saboteurs and assassins to be after him. Most of his interactions with Zane were those of a kid wearing his father’s suit and playing CEO.
The operative picked up SNTNL’s feed. It was recording the target’s path as they crossed the main drag and separated from the crowd. They were turning down a narrow side street lined with clubs and arcades, stopping at the door of a place called Quartz and showing their ID to the bouncer. The drone took a scan of the ID’s metal surface. Saul Torrence. The name matched the target’s current pseudonym.
Zane stood up, letting rain course over his shoulders. Thanks to Atlas (and their start-up venture capital) he had a modular fast-travel station set up in the rented office space behind him. There was a public one in the building’s lobby, but it recorded your path and was in full view. Not ideal. He paused to switch weapons and outerwear, exchanging the oilskin poncho for his jacket with the glowing collar and spider crest. Promethea was the only place in the galaxy where LED accents helped you blend in.
The closest fast-travel station to Quartz was on the corner of the block. Zane stepped away from the terminal as soon as he digistructed, making room for the next travellers in the queue. When it was his first time in a new neighborhood, the operative made a point of striding like he was out on his everyday commute. Easygoing but purposeful, without looking to either side. It was the best way to not draw attention to yourself. With the right confident gait you could walk straight into a trash-piled alley in the rain without seeming at all unusual - which is just what he did.
He whistled for SNTNL and let the drone come to rest on his wrist like a falcon. Clipping it to his belt, Zane found the back loading dock of Quartz. There was a digital lock on the door, which he could hack if he had the time. He went for the ol’ swift kick method instead. The wet rusted door groaned open. The trash room was empty - a stroke of luck. Inside he heard the muted thumping of bass, strong enough to make the walls tremble.
Zane slipped out into the club’s main dancefloor, melting into the crowd. Just another partier on the scene. The difference in temperature, noise level, and light was dizzying. Hot loud dark . His mouth curved into a smirk as he moved through the dancers like a shark through water. Zane loved this town.
Saul Torrence was at the blue-lit bar. Another bit of luck. Zane joined the throng waiting for drinks.
There was a trick his maestro assassin had taught him, years ago, about using his appearance. The maestro called it showing your light . In the streets, in the shadows, on busy cargo ships - Zane kept his light switched off. Dull your eyes, look away, keep your face neutral. When he needed it, the light was there to use. With a flash of eyes and teeth he was all handsome devil, impossible to refuse. He used it on jobs, when flirting, and sometimes just to get a bartender’s attention.
It worked. It always works . Zane had a shot and a pint in hand before anyone else was acknowledged. He winked at the server, a pretty woman with a shaved head. Pity he was working. He downed the shot and started on the beer, leaving a credit on the bar as tip.
It was so easy to let the pulsing music wash over him. The comforting dark. The dampening burn of alcohol. Overstimulation was relaxation. Here, he could be swallowed up.
Still, duty called. Zane turned his cybernetic eye towards the target and scanned. Coming in through the back had spared him the security check that could have cost him his eyepatch. Under his radar, the data drive burned red in Saul Torrence’s pocket. He drifted closer.
It was too loud for words, but none were necessary. Zane let the crowd push him up against the bar. The current was just strong enough to slosh his beer over the rim and onto the target’s lap.
“Apologies,” he said, turning the full force of bright eyes and a charming smile onto Saul Torrence. Eyes on Zane's face meant none on Zane’s hand, which dipped in and out of the pocket before the target even reached for a napkin. Data drive acquired.
Annoyed, Torrence muttered what had to be a curse and wiped away at his trousers. Expensive fabric, Zane imagined. He played up his drunken fool routine, staggering as he patted the man on the back, keeping a benevolent smile on his face as he moved away. Just another person here to dance. Clumsy, clumsy.
The needle patch he’d left in Torrence’s neck had the right balance of numbing agent and slow release to have gone unnoticed. In thirty seconds he would be too drunk to sit up. In sixty seconds he wouldn’t be breathing. The poison mimicked the effects of party drugs popular on Promethea this year. Death looked like an overdose. They wouldn’t even clear out the club for an incident like this - just take him out the back, through that rusty door.
Zane left the rest of his drink on a table. He sauntered out the front this time, into the rainy night, passing the bouncer and a growing line of people waiting to enter the club. SNTNL wiped the whole street’s security feeds from the last hour - electrical pulse, storm related. He touched Torrence’s wallet and ID card, secure with the drive in his jacket pocket. Time to return to Rhys.
Back at Atlas HQ, they used the wallet’s contents to find the would-be assassin and saboteur's source. Maliwan.
Meridian City, Now:
Kris had left them, running off to find Lorelei. The vault hunters stood rooted to the spot while Meridian refugees milled around them. Some stared, some ignored them. It was like the decks of Sanctuary multiplied tenfold. A family nearby was roasting a ratch carcass over a trashcan fire.
Were these people the victims of a war he had helped start? Maybe he hadn’t called the shots, but he’d played his own little part. For five years the conflict had been growing. Zane felt an uncomfortable prickle between his shoulder blades.
“Blondie? Everything okay? You went quiet on me.” Amara said out of the corner of her mouth. Zane couldn’t shut up under normal circumstances.
The operative shook his head, dispersing his memories. “Sorry. Thinkin’ about a job I did here once.”
The siren looked at him with mild concern. Zane had a devil-may-care attitude about most things, but any human would have to have some trauma from a career of ending lives. She hoped whatever he was remembering wasn’t going to throw him off his game. They were in a war zone, after all, and she needed her partner to stay safe.
A couple of kids ran by them, engrossed in whatever game they played. Happy enough for now, though no children should ever be camping in a subway tunnel. Amara wondered what the food situation was at this camp.
“These people look like they need a hero or two,” she murmured.
“It’s their lucky day, then.” Zane elbowed her, coming back to himself. “The Tiger’s here.”
“And Zane Flynt himself.” Amara touched his arm with a smile. The simple confidence she had in him - to do good , not just what paid best - made a sharp twinge in his heart. He cleared his throat.
“So, ah, who’s in charge down here?”
The refugees on the staircase moved aside to make room for a woman with mint-green hair. A slash of red warpaint highlighted her eyes.
“That’d be me.”
Ah, the “pool table”. After being so convinced of its existence on Sanctuary III, I played the other day and saw that it’s just a green-topped table. Welcome to my AU, where everything is the same but it’s a fuckin’ pool table, okay?
“You have to make a splash, girl. Have you seen the other fighters? Those guys don’t hold back on the eyeliner and spikes, and neither should you.”
Amara sat cross-legged on the desk in Deepika’s studio while her friend brushed purple shimmer onto her eyelids.
“You don’t think my ‘mystical powers’ are enough to impress?” the siren’s voice was dry, but she held still under the ministrations. “I’m just quoting my press release.”
“Not if you don’t look the part.” Deepika leaned back to squint at her handiwork. Her own round face was decorated with rosy blush and a long pair of false lashes, both of which Amara had refused. “Okay. That should do it. You have to see the basic shapes from the cheap seats, so I used a lot of lip liner.”
“Is that what Lava Hot Austen wears?”
“You’d be surprised.”
Amara shrugged. She would take all the advice she could get. This was her first big arena fight since revealing herself as a siren. No more boxing in the mob-run gyms, holding back her powers. No more hiding.
It was a Torgue-sponsored Circle of Slaughter, where she would be facing five rounds of digistructed enemies. All of them would be replicants of the most vicious wildlife in the galaxy. Amara wasn’t too worried about her chances. At nineteen she had more experience training under Gopal’s intense tutelage than some fighters twice her age. Her record was perfect.
What she was nervous about was the size of the crowd. Torgue arena fights were holo-vised across the galaxy. Local buzz was high, as everyone in Nadeemachi wanted to get tickets to see their own neighborhood siren kick some ass. Amara was the first Partalian to bear the gift in living memory. Now that the word was out about her powers, people were starting to make connections between her and all of the vigilante crime-fighting that had happened in the last few years.
Not that retaliation from the gangs was a concern. Amara just wanted to make her city proud, make a great impression on the wider galaxy.
“C’mon, check out the designs I made for you.” Deepika hopped up and punched her code into the university-issued quickchange machine in her studio. She was studying fashion and tailoring at the best school on Partali, a two-hour bus ride from Nadeemachi (or the blink of an eye, if you had the credits to use a fast-travel). Amara watched her excitement with a proud smirk. Even though she would have also loved to continue her own schooling, it didn’t seem possible to reconcile university with her life as a siren. Having Deepika design a distinctive look for her public persona felt like the perfect way to connect their diverging worlds.
Amara opened the quick-change screen. A digital icon of herself spun in a slow 360 degrees, showing off an outfit in greyscale. Ripped jeans, cropped sports top, embellished vest, heavy boots. She felt the strange wicking sensation of the clothes digistructing on her skin.
“Promethean streetwear-influenced,” Deepika said, leaning over to switch the colors. “And a little Pandoran bandit, to be honest. Just to be edgy.”
“It’s edgy, all right.” Amara touched the spikes on her vest. Sharp enough to draw blood. Could be useful, if someone got too close. The color shifted under her fingers as Deepika tried new combinations. “I love it.”
“You want something that makes you look like a bird of prey, but in a sexy way, y’know?”
Amara blinked. Lorelei’s colorful crest of hair and mask of red warpaint had brought her with such force back to that memory. It was hard to believe that the woman wasn’t an arena champion herself - just a civilian with a knack for community organizing and munitions. Really my type, the siren thought. It was almost a shame that Amara was a one-crush-at-a-time kind of girl, since the Promethean would have been a less emotionally risky pick than her own vault hunting partner. The more she talked, the more Amara liked her - and Lorelei had a lot to say.
It had been a bad year for Promethea. Even worse for Meridian City, headquarters of Atlas and therefore ground zero of the corporate war. Maliwan had encroached so far into the metroplex that the entire civilian population - hundreds of vertical miles worth of people that filled the dense high-rises - had inverted their living space and gone underground. Martial law reigned in the empty ghost town above, inhabited only by soldiers and cultists. Meanwhile, the city’s veins of subway tracks and sewer lines teemed with refugees.
Lorelei and Kris took the vault hunters on a depressing tour, showing them the makeshift facilities. Almost everything useful had been repurposed (looted during raids) from the city above. Zane took a great deal of interest in the generators and power, or lack thereof. He was busy building a three dimensional holo map of the underground on his echo, adding to it as they talked. Parts of the system in dire need of aid were coded in scarlet. The siren looked at his creation with concern. There was an awful lot of red on the map spinning above his wrist.
“Sooo, you don’t have any medical supplies.” Amara had her hands on her hips, tension making her pose a little more threatening than she realized.
She was lucky that her audience was impervious to the effect. Lorelei nodded, tapping her nails of the butt of her pistol. “Yeah, and tons of people with injuries and fevers. Meds are what we need the most. Well, and caffeine, but that’s another story. No, don’t even ask, I’m fine.”
“Ok.” Amara turned to Zane, who wasn’t paying much attention to their trajectory. He had his head buried in the holo-map, and almost ran straight into the siren. She steadied him as he chuckled, trying to ignore a flutter at seeing his face inches away from hers and winking. “We should do a surface raid and try to collect some insta-health for them.”
“Reckon we can make that happen. Bust into the nearest Maliwan gaff and help ourselves, eh?”
Lorelei nodded at them. “It would put a dent in the problem. There’s a whole mess of Maliwan wankers just outside this tunnel, if you head on up to the surface. That’s why so many of my boys and girls are on patrol.”
Amara gritted her teeth. “They’re attacking civilians?”
Lorelei grunted. “In the name of ‘law & order’, yeah. They’ve programmed a bunch of cop-bots to float around, arresting anyone they see. The shit they have listed in their code as ‘offences’ is absolute bollocks.”
“Driving a car and walking on the street are both illegal,” Kris chimed in. “Real awesome of them.”
The siren glanced down at the spinning map. As far as she was concerned, whatever the operative was doing was his own kind of magic. “Can you get aboveground on there, too?”
“Yep. Hold on, this’d be a sight easier with me laptop,” Zane rubbed his human eye while the narrow light on his patch changed color slowly, like a loading indicator. The holo map above his echo froze and then augmented in a rush, adding layers of street and piping in different colors. Teal cubes stacked up into skyscrapers.
Kris pointed at a block near the exit point, his finger sinking into the blue static. “There’s a clinic on the first floor of that building. It should still have supplies, in case you can’t find enough in ammo crates along the way.”
Amara rubbed her knuckles, a habit she had when she was thinking. Lilith’s concerned voice crackled in their ears. The orbit-space-to-underground reception was as poor as could be expected.
“Blue Team - what’s... your status? Your signal is weak and we’re…. tracking you as deep in Maliwan... territory. Everything... all right?”
“Aye, we’re a level or two below ‘em, Firehawk.”
Half of the commander’s next transmission cut out. Amara raised an eyebrow at Zane. Even comms are disrupted? she mouthed to him. He curled his lip and shook his head to say whole city’s totally fecked.
“- to hear. Red Team was dropped… closer to Atlas HQ. Rendezvous... there. Atlas has… vault location info.”
“Got it, Lilith.” Sort of. Amara could only hope the Firehawk heard her.
“Red Team? Those your friends?” Lorelei took out her own echo. Her screen was cracked, the plastic casing held together with electrical tape. “I’ll get Rhys on the line. He is Atlas, when you get right down to it. Like, he’s the reason it’s all here.”
Amara detected a hint of resentment in the fighter’s voice. Still, Lorelei was cordial enough to the blue spectre that popped up above her echo. It was a young man (with an impressive dad-stache) around the siren’s age, which threw her for a loop when she realized “Rhys” was Rhys Strongfork, CEO of Atlas.
“What the hell is on his face?” she whispered to Zane, unable to help herself. The operative snorted.
“Not everyone can pull off this look.” He touched his own facial hair.
No kidding. Amara shook her head.
Lorelei tilted the screen so Rhys could see Blue Team behind her. The CEO was disheveled, like he had put on a tie and hair mousse several days ago and hadn’t slept since.
“Heyyy, more vault hunters! Great, I’ve got two here with me. Kinda wish there were a hundred. Agent Flynt, is that you?”
“The very same.” Zane touched his temple in an ironic salute.
“Wow, never thought I’d see you again! And, hi - are you the siren?”
“Ha! You’re famous, you know that?” Rhys chuckled, seeming genuine in his excitement. “Really cool.”
His blue-tinged face was pushed out of the shot as Moze muscled in.
“Hey guys. We got Sanctuary hooked up to the fast travel network here.”
“Lots o’ outages in the city,” Zane crossed his arms. “Doubt we’ll be able to use one ‘til we get over to ye.”
“Blondie’s got something up his sleeve, I can tell,” Amara said, eyeing him. She realized a little too late that she was speaking to a crowd, not just her ex and her partner. Fl4k’s robotic rumble came through the echo, even more distorted than usual.
“The rumors of a vault on this planet appear to be true. This one knows something, although he is reluctant to share until we have helped him.”
Rhys’ head (unfortunate shrubbery included) edged back into view. He waved off Fl4k’s comment.
“Well, new friends, you showed up at the right time. My top agent is gearing up to strike at Maliwan’s strategic gigamind. If they’re after the vault, that’s where the intel will be.”
“We’re meeting up with the agent soon. Follow our ping and we can take down Gigamind. Or ‘the’ gigamind. I have no idea what it is,” Moze admitted. She put her face close to the camera, so that on Lorelei’s echo it looked huge.
“Right.” Amara frowned as the transmission ended.
The silence felt pressing in the empty space left behind.
“So, you’ll be meeting up with the rest of your team, then.” Lorelei prompted.
The siren looked down at the holo-map in Zane’s hands. The route to the clinic was still highlighted. She rubbed her knuckles again.
“Y’know,” the operative said, catching his partner’s eye. “I’m as much fer taking down the big game as anybody, but we diiid just have Mouthpiece all ta ourselves. May as well give Red Team a chance to shine, ya?”
Amara looked at him in surprise. He continued, prodding her elbow.
“Let’s go raid the surface fer some Anshin goodies. Plenty o’ Maliwan ta dance with up there, I’m thinkin’.”
For a moment they could have been the only two people in the room. Zane was trying to maintain a serious face, but the hint of a smile danced in the corner of his mouth. Amara knew how much the operative liked to be first and best when it came to combat. Was he really willing to give up the chance for boss-fight glory just to help get some civilians their meds? Just because he knows it’s what I want to do? Or was the youngest Flynt trying to be the first in his family to do the right thing?
Kris seemed to sense some hidden debate, though the substance of it flew over his head.
“You could split up,” he offered. “One of you can go fight Gigamind and one can get supplies.”
He was shot down by a simultaneous, and emphatic, ‘No’ from both vault hunters.
“Partners fer a reason, boyo, not about ta change it up.”
“Where Flynt goes, I go.”
Now they were both grinning. No feeling in the galaxy can beat the rush of mutual understanding.
“Let’s get raidin’.” Zane flicked the clinic building with a finger, marking it. “Ping! ”
“Have you ever fought against Maliwan before?”
The vault hunters were alone, picking their way with care up through the empty concrete staircases and turnstiles of the subway station. Neon pink and hot yellow signs flashed on the bullet-marked walls. A moving ad for the Loading Bar. Another for a discreet sex shop. A few mysterious no robots signs. Good thing Fl4k wasn't there to see.
“Aye, and fought for ‘em, too, on occasion.” Zane pressed his back against the wall, peering out around the corner and up the last flight of steps that would take them into the artificially-lit night.
“Anything I should know?”
The operative paused, racking his brain. “Eh, big fellas with flamethrowers. Little fellas dressed like ninjas. Nothin’ ye can’t handle.”
“Sounds fun.” She meant it, too.
Zane deployed his digiclone to draw fire away from them as they emerged into the plaza. It was a good call - a group of Maliwan footsoldiers were posted right outside. Some of them were the big fellas with flamethrowers .
Truth be told, Zane had only ever run up against them one at a time before, not by the baker’s dozen that filled the plaza. A few covert jobs had taken him into Maliwan production facilities in the past, carrying out corporate espionage for Torgue and for Hyperion. (Torgue had been tricky. Mr. Torgue himself had insisted on having a direct echo link with Zane and bellowing helpful hints like “BLOW THAT SH*T UP!” at every opportunity.)
Beside him, Amara phasegrasped the biggest fighter. Corrosive acid melted their spacesuit as they screamed. Not a pretty picture, but useful as all hell. The operative broke into his usual mob-fight dash, circling the enemies and picking them off. It was nice to fall into some semblance of an efficient routine with his siren partner, no matter how chaotic.
Combat as a vault hunter was unlike anything Zane was used to. In his old line of work the killing was done with stealth and silence. He had spent years perfecting his SNTNL drone for remote assassinations, and even longer building his digiclone for fast escapes. The operative was used to long prep hours before a job, hacking and mapping and setting up the dominos so they fell exactly right when the moment came. The sniper shot, the silencer, the fake credentials - these were his daily companions. But that was then, and this was now.
These days his every bar-brawl instinct was rewarded. Fights happened with no warning. They exploded into being, messy and thunderous, kaleidoscopic. He was always running, shells exploding around him, elementals splashing, people shouting, his own blood singing. Splintered lights dazzled his eyes. Sometimes he was even on fire.
Painful fire incidents notwithstanding, he was having the time of his life. Vault hunting suited Zane more than he had expected. Fl4k always described it as “the hunt”, and talked about it as if it were a religious experience. Maybe they weren’t so far off.
In one of their conversations the Beastmaster had read Zane a quote from their memory banks, recorded back at the library they’d called home for years. Some ancient book, with a passage Fl4k thought apropos. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?
Fl4k had gone on to talk about maenads and rituals and other shite that Zane decided he didn’t have enough literary schooling to appreciate. The quote, though… maybe it was a hidden strain of sentimentality in his blood, but it stayed with him. The way a song might, or an old poem.
Amara crashed past him, slamming her open palm up into the capturing sphere she had manifested. Blood and acid coated her arm as she pulled it away, unfelt and unnoticed. Terrifying and beautiful . It fit her to a tee.
“That one needed more training!” the siren crowed, either to him or her last kill, or perhaps just to herself.
The Maliwan fighters were dropping guns and cash like candy as they fell. Zane’s cybernetics scanned the weapons scattered across the plaza, color-coding them by rarity. A few uncommon greens and rare blues, and ah, brilliant! - an epic purple, over there by the shock barrel. When the plaza was clear he scooted around, gathering them up. He was about to call over to Amara and have her take a look at his stockpile when he realized she was going through every Maliwan ammo crate in the area and picking out the insta-health hypos, dropping them one by one into her backpack.
“Tsk. Bloody heroes.” Zane grumbled, his voice fond. Guess I've signed meself up to be one, too. He sighed, gazing into his open pack. “All right boyos, who’s gonna get off the bus?”
He removed the two least interesting weapons to make some room and began cracking open crates himself. It was annoying how his cybernetics prompted him that his health was at 100% every time he touched a hypo. Seemed like a good idea when he programmed it.
They meandered their way through the bombed commercial district, stopping at every source of medical pick-me-ups. Here the bizarre scale of the city was unnerving. Wide streets and sidewalks were desolate without the crowds of commuters. Giant office buildings and shops were locked down and impenetrable with heavy security doors. Yellow police barriers of moving holo-type screamed at them to REMAIN INDOORS - CURFEW IN EFFECT.
They hit two more small pockets of Maliwan soldiers on their path. Simple enough to dispatch, though Zane wondered how it would go once they started radioing back to base. Tomorrow it wouldn’t be so easy to keep the element of surprise. Especially when they found all the corrosive-melted bodies...
A few times he had the added perk of finding more guns and shields while collecting insta-health. His backpack contents had already gone through a few upgrades before he found quite a nice SMG nestled beside some ammo.
Bullets sprayed over his head as he bent over the crate.
“Halt, perpetrator -”
Zane ended that little recording before it went on much longer with two quick bursts from his pistol.
“Geeze.” Amara sauntered out of a nearby alley, swinging her backpack over her shoulder. Glass hypo cases clicked together inside. She gave the tin husk of the cop bot a push with her foot.
“Not a big fan o’ the law, generally speakin’…” Zane grimaced.
“Ha. This isn’t the law. It’s just a Maliwan wind-up toy. Look, it’s even got a logo on it.” Amara let the metal fall back to the street with a clang. She turned her sharp gaze ahead to a building with brutal architectural lines. Strips of blue lighting pulsed down the curving columns. In the early-hours gloom it looked like the corporate headquarters of a demonic entity. “Is that the place?”
Before he could answer, she moved in closer and lifted his wrist to check the map on his echo screen. The little touch was one thing, the ease with which she made herself comfortable in his space was another - Zane’s insides did a somersault.
Every romantic relationship Zane had ever been in had two things in common: the flings were short-lived, and the object of his affection had nothing to do with his work. Intimacy during his off-hours was expected. Intimacy on what amounted to a battlefield? Smiles just for him, small points of contact, standing closer than needed at every opportunity (all of which he was guilty of doing right back to her), during briefings and combat? Absolutely doin’ me head in.
Meanwhile, Amara grunted a confirmation and dropped his hand, reloading her weapon.
“That’s the one. We’ll need a vehicle to take the supplies back, any preference?”
That was enough to bring him out of his head. Zane swept his gaze over the slim pickings of the street. Burned-out roadsters that had been real showy before the bombs dropped, and one military truck with Maliwan markings. Bingo.
All it took to unlock the truck and start the engine was the authorization chip he pried out of the cop bot - no hot-wiring required. They reversed at top speed down the sidewalk, coming to a bouncing stop at the clinic door.
It was one of those combination grocer/pharmacies that were so popular in urban areas. The metal security grating had been torn asunder at waist height, the inner glass storefront smashed open.
“Looted?” Disappointment was palpable in Amara’s voice.
Zane touched the warped grating as they shimmied under together. “Dunno. Looks more like beasties. Strong feckin’ ratches, though, ta do that…”
They both raised their weapons. Amara’s empty hand lingered up at shoulder height, ready to use her powers.
One strip of ceiling lights was still working inside, flickering furiously and illuminating the scene in nightmarish bursts. Zane’s hypothesis was correct, going by the ripped-open bags of crisps and dried meat. Humans and robots didn’t loot this way - this mess was the work of teeth and claws.
“Looks like the pharmacy is fine, no food to scavenge back there.” Amara moved inside. Zane put out a hand to stop her, but she moved too quickly. His cybernetics were loading a room full of biosignatures.
“Hold up, lass -” UNIDENTIFIED BIOSIGNATURE: warm-blooded, eridium element detected...
“Anshin crates back here,” the siren swung her body over the back counter, holstering her gun. Stacks on stacks of the pharma tech’s logo greeted her.
Shite . Zane blinked away the scrolling text, hoping for a moment that it was just a new kind of mutant rodent that he was picking up on. Some little Promethean mouse, not in his database, munching away in the walls. His mini-map populated with red dots - way too many of them, crowded into this little clinic. He edged closer to his partner, back to the wall.
The fluorescents flickered again, strobing like stage lights. The empty space in front of Zane - a patch of linoleum tile scattered with trash at the end of an aisle - filled with the solid presence of a quadruped.
“ Amara .”
The creature - double jaws, too many teeth, spurs of eridium crystal, mad white eyes - sprang with more speed and force than a full grown skag. Their form was vaguely canine, but twisted and malformed, alien genes that had adapted to imitate mammals. Zane fired, fast and accurate, but not fast and accurate enough to prevent being bowled over. He deployed his digiclone and swapped places just as Amara phasegrasped the beast.
The curious sense of displacement ( of being his own photocopy, offset in space ) and the feeling of the wind being stolen from his chest had to both go unprocessed. There was no time. White eyes shone with every flicker of the lights. Slavering jaws and dirty fur. The whole pack was in here with them, circling.
When his digiclone started firing, the creatures set upon them. They were too close for SNTNL and most of his guns, jumping and biting at him in a frenzy. Zane’s shield was taking major damage at an alarming rate. He was seconds away from feeling their teeth in his flesh.
“Melee it is, then,” he grunted, thrusting with his wrist blades. He was sure Amara was having no trouble with that, though he heard her cry of consternation when his clone’s shot ricocheted and blew up a med supply box.
“Flynt! Watch the crates!”
“Right! Bit busy here!” Zane rolled, grasping the closest beast by a fistful of fur. Crystal scraped his palm. Its many jaws snapped at him, close enough that he felt hot breath stir his goatee.
The eridium mutations reminded the operative of creatures from Pandora. They were nothing like anything he’d ever seen in Meridian, the city was too dense with humans for any wildlife to encroach - and really, it was unlike anything he’d ever seen on Promethea as a whole. This planet had leagues and leagues of deep ocean surrounding its urban areas, so no doubt plenty of mind-melting horrors lived beneath the waves. But here, in a clinic in the metroplex? It felt like a surreal dream. The beasts snarled and howled - the scream that wavered somewhere between a predator’s call and the sound of a crashing car.
Ah, yeah. The lad called ‘em slag wolves. He would have to program that into his database later. One of the creatures sank its long hooked teeth into his arm, breaking through armor plating and skin. The pain was immediate and intense.
Zane roared, a sound to rival the howls. He yanked his arm, shaking the beast loose. The warm, unsettling feeling of his own blood sinking down his sleeve barely registered as he whipped out his shotgun. His shield indicator shivered, trying to recover as his health bar shrank. Too many of these feckers.
Amara was going down. She was doing scores of damage with her fists, but the onslaught was quick and chaotic, hitting her from all sides. The digiclone’s timer ran out, blinking out of sight and ending a nice distraction. Zane kicked his way over, reaching her side just as she managed to phasegrasp the biggest remaining wolf. This grasp was more powerful than usual - the corrosive sphere pulled in the other wolves like a magnet, trapping them in smaller bubbles.
“Feckin’ hell, lass.” He ignored the pain in his arm, dropping into a crouch beside her. The siren was panting hard, holding a gash in her leg. Smaller bites and claw marks covered her arms, and a woozy expression crossed her face. She started to tilt over before he caught her up against his side, already pulling open his pack with his other hand. “They’re gonna have to live with one less hypo.”
He administered the insta-health to her leg, where the damage looked worst. For a tense handful of seconds neither of them were able to do anything but let the medicine empty into her bloodstream. The phase spheres held, but their expiration was fast approaching.
“Thanks,” Amara released a breath when he finished, struggling to her feet. The spheres broke like soap bubbles, corrosive-burnt beasts tumbling to the floor in a tangle of claws. Zane vaporized the nearest two and the remaining ones fled, pushing out the broken metal door casing and disappearing into the night. That's a mercy.
The operative sagged with relief. It was always rough to encounter beasties above your skill level. Next time the wolves wouldn’t be so lucky, though - they’d lost their element of surprise. Just like we have with Maliwan.
“We definitely earned this loot.” Amara flicked the nearest Anshin crate.
Zane choked out a laugh, taking out a second hypo for himself. “Dunno if I’d call it loot.”
She noticed him holding the ripped fabric of his sleeve out of the way with his teeth, prepping the hypo with a clumsy left hand.
“Hey, let me do that.”
Without the pressing need to hurry or the imminent threat of one of them blacking out, having Amara give him insta-health was… pleasant. He watched the flex of her arm, thinking that she could probably beat him up as well as heal him, if she was so inclined. Surprising, then, how gentle she could be.
“I owe you this one,” she said, corner of her mouth quirking. Her warmth at his side was delicious. From this close her jasmine scent overrode the sharp tang of melted slag wolf and his own blood.
“Dunno how ye held out as long as ye did. They were all over ye.”
“Eridium exposure, probably,” she grumbled, rubbing the healing marks on her arms. He knew the feeling - itchiness from the increased blood flow. He felt it himself, under his torn sleeve. “It’s like a siren steroid.”
Zane’s eyes moved involuntarily to her necklace. She noticed, touching the crystal there.
“This is a little insurance policy. Just in case I ever need it. You know, like keeping one bullet with someone’s name on it?”
“All right, you’ll live another day.” Amara tossed the empty sharp, giving his arm an extra pat.
They loaded all the supply crates into the truck (more tiring than all of the day’s combat combined) and took a rambunctious drive through the empty streets. A pre-dawn fog was collecting. It crept around corners, hanging thick over the asphalt and blowing apart into rag wisps under their tires. Pink was bleeding into the corner of the sky.
“First sunrise on Promethea,” the siren yawned from the passenger seat. She leaned on the window edge, watching the passing city blocks. There was no cannon on this car for her to operate, it was just standard Maliwan automotive shit without any of Ellie’s transformative genius.
“I’m takin’ a different route,” Zane said, recalibrating his cybernetics. “Don’t want the cavalry waitin’ on us at the entrance! So, ye’ll be seein’ the sun rise over the sea.”
"Sea, huh?” She kept her gaze on the sky, a renewed energy in her posture. He suspected she had never been to one in person.
The subway entrance he chose was right on the water - one of the piers surrounding Meridian on the ocean's edge. They rendezvoused with Lorelei and her team just as the sky filled corner to corner with rose-coloured clouds. In the fog the skyline flattened into silhouettes of pink and blue, the neon still burning in the morning light. The air smelled like salt.
Lorelei was happy to see them. She shone a smile in their direction, startling in its brightness. So cute , Amara thought. Maybe if she really worked on it she could redirect her romantic energy thataway. She snuck a look at Zane. He was half-twisted in his seat, looking over his shoulder to back the truck up to the entrance point. Nope, not a chance . Handsome as ever. The way he drew his brows down as he concentrated - untidy eyebrows, with almost as much personality as his hair - was suspiciously endearing. Annoying, really, how bad she had let this infatuation get.
She made her excuses as quick as she could to leave the truck unloading to others and walk ( not run - she had to maintain some impression of dignity ) to the water’s edge. The sea was pink, too, reflecting the sky, with chips of bright gold dancing on its surface.
Even the sound of it was incredible. The strength of the waves was audible, washing under the concrete pier and crashing against the barrier below. Amara knew high water and the strong current of a deep river, but the sea - the sea was something she had only imagined. In one direction she could not even see the end of it.
Amara felt fire licking at her heart. The corrosive green was siphoning out of her tattoos, being replaced with a molten gold to mirror the sun.
“Pretty grand, right?” Zane walked up behind her, sounding like he was showing off his own property. “I mean, it ain’t Aquator, but it’s nice enough.”
“Beautiful,” she agreed. The breeze stirred her ponytail.
“I should take ye there.” He said with confidence, then fumbled a bit once it hung out in the air, perhaps realizing how it sounded. “Ah, I mean, if ye like this…”
A shadow moved on the roof line, angular and quick. Amara kept her head still and turned to the sea, only letting her eyes swivel as she followed its path. The same pink light that scattered on the waves gleamed off one corner of the shape - black armour. A mask.
“Hey, Flynt - is that a Maliwan running solo up there?” she whispered. She was getting used to checking in with her partner, verbalizing any concerns that she would have otherwise kept to herself.
Lorelei overheard her. She looked up at the figure without any attempt at stealth, and back at Amara with a grin.
“Nah, that’s an Atlas.”
Zane let out a whistle. “I’ll be damned. It’s Zer0! Are ye here ta kill me?”
The shadow dropped to the street, soundless, and slinked up to them. It was a fighter, though that was all the information Amara could determine. They wore light fiberglass armour plating from head to toe, with a digi-blade strapped to their back. The siren counted four fingers on each hand.
When they spoke, their voice undulated with digital distortion.
“It’s not too late, now. / Join us to kill Gigamind - / just like old times, Zane.”
1. See, sometimes crime does pay! By which I mean - sometimes when you do a sidequest to loot medicine for refugees, the NPCs will wait for you to continue the main quest.
2. Fl4k recorded a quote from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, one of the most exquisite books you’ll ever read if you want to give it a go. It probably could not be farther, subject and skill wise, from the material I’m churning out here, haha!
3. Zane has an internal meltdown about three seconds after accidentally inviting Amara to go on an Aquator vacation with him. Good thing Zer0 shows up - assassin colleagues can come in handy when they aren’t trying to kill you.
“ Annnn’ ... done.”
Zane tied one last delicate knot in the thread and broke off the excess with his teeth. He ran a hand over the seam, satisfied by the evenness of the tiny stitches. This innermost layer of his jacket was made with a fine silky material, and without a tailor or sewing machine onboard Sanctuary III he'd had to resurrect his most basic repair skills. Sure, he had plenty of similar outerwear, ready and waiting to be accessed at the quick change machine, but this was one of his favorites - and he liked the work.
He angled the task lamp on his desk up and away, turning the sleeve right-side out and checking the refurbished lining and synthetic armoured leather. He'd done some soldering on this side, and the tear in the material was no longer visible. Nice work, boyo.
The operative pulled out a slim hidden drawer in his desk. Here he had stowed his most delicate tools - the smallest knives and screwdrivers, tiny spools of wire and cord. Zane slid the needle into a mesh cube, parallel to its brothers. His living space was always in a tug of war between the clean, organized minimalism of an operative’s work and the cozy chaos of an alchemist’s workbench.
Now that the jacket was repaired, he was free to take a crack at the less tactile problems faced by Promethea’s refugees. He opened his laptop, unlocking it with his thumbprint and connecting it to his eyepatch cybernetics for some VR work. He took a sip from the dwindling contents of his beer bottle as it loaded. Meridian City's power grid sprang up on the displays, flat on his screen and three-dimensional in his enhanced eyesight. Amara was right when she said he had something up his sleeve.
Tinkering an’ building an’ repairing . Doing this work by hand made Zane feel calm, focused his buzzing thoughts. It was nice to sit in his room and unwind, surrounded by his projects, after a full night and day of fieldwork down on Promethea. Despite his fatigue, his brain had been racing when they came aboard an hour ago.
The fight to bring down Gigamind had been exhilarating. Almost too easy for Zane’s taste, with the combined efforts of all four vault hunters and Zer0’s infamous expertise. Fighting alongside the assassin made Zane feel like a teenager again. The flash of their digiblade and the familiar hum of their voice… he could have been back on that nameless planet again, sixteen years old and proving himself to the maestro. He would have never expected to find himself fighting by their side once again, all these years later. Hell, he always thought he’d be dead by now.
It ended with the vault hunters leaning over their enemy’s strange corpse. Just a brain in a custom-fit suit. No one moved to pick it up.
“It looks… squishy.” Amara kept her hands on her hips. Even Zer0 was finding something fascinating on the other end of the plaza.
“I will take it.” Fl4k reached out, good sport that they were. "Mr Chew, this is not a snack."
Even though Gigamind's brain ( the gigabrain? Zane wasn't too sure) was the least desirable prize any of them could imagine, Rhys fell all over himself with excitement when they brought it to Atlas HQ.
“Hey, Vault Hunters! Did ya get the data from Gigamind? Give ittt!”
Zane stopped Fl4k’s hand.
"Whoa, whoa. Ain't givin' it, unless there’s vault info fer us." The operative narrowed his eyes. The heroes he was teamed up with would do any job for free, it seemed. While Zane was willing to do adventure work pro-bono for the deserving poor, he wasn’t about to let a CEO get comped.
“Ooo, ah, yeah, that .” Rhys hemmed and hawed, moaning about his company and how busy he was with the siege. Moze rolled her eyes at the operative.
“So, you don’t mind if I throw this brain in a drainage ditch?” Amara raised a brow, leaning on Fl4k’s other shoulder. The robot laughed - a throaty mechanical noise. Maybe these heroes were more devilish than Zane gave them credit for.
“Wait, wait, wait, okay, fine , I swear, on this company’s future that I will do whatever it takes to help you open the vault. Which includes telling you some… arguably bad news. Okay, it is bad.”
The operative pinched the bridge of his nose. The pleasures of working with this kid were starting to resurface in his memory.
“What did ye do, lad?”
“Me? Nothing! I just… lostthevaultkeyfragment.”
“ What was that?” Moze popped her gum in disbelief.
“I lost the vault key fragment! I had one, and now it’s gone. I’m sorry, okay? In the last round of Maliwan bombing, I had to evacuate the satellite office across town, and it kind of got... forgotten in the shuffle.”
“It’s still there?” Amara’s shock was clear in her voice. None of them could imagine losing such a precious item. Hell, if Zane had a vault key fragment, he would sleep with his arms wrapped around it.
Rhys scratched the back of his head. The dried hair product was in dire need of a refresh.
“According to my spy reports, Maliwan got their hands on it.” The CEO sounded miserable. “It’s in Katagawa’s sky yacht. Kind of a trophy piece.”
Zane tapped the echo receiver in his ear. “Firehawk, are ye gettin’ this?”
“Unfortunately.” Lilith’s voice was crisp with disapproval.
“Hey, I do know where the other half of the key is. It’s on Athenas, with an order of monks. That’s good, right?”
Lilith made a hum of surprise. “That is... actually pretty good. We have a contact on Athenas. Okay, killers, wrap it up down there and send us all the intel Rhys gives you. Come back home when you’re ready.”
Vaughn, of all people, volunteered to test the fast-travel connection. Sanctuary III’s favorite muscle-bound bandit leader had his molecules reassembled right before their eyes. As soon as he was solid enough to hug, Rhys folded him in a tight embrace and let loose a chorus of echoing “ bro!!! ” noises. Although the operative would never have guessed it, these two goofballs apparently went way back. Zane had to leave them to it before his eardrums blew up.
A few dozen Atlas soldiers were gathered outside the door, overcome with celebrity fever over... Amara. Zane was surprised. Although he would be the first to sing her praises, the operative had forgotten that the siren was also galactic-famous. His good opinion of her was shared by millions.
It was a wee bit jarring, he had to admit, though Zane didn’t think of himself as the jealous type. Seeing his partner being so fussed over was pretty entertaining, and he knew it was the least she deserved. Beautiful magic-wielder an’ all that . He also wasn't about to fool himself into thinking some rando Atlas fan could ever be more interesting to her than her own criminally handsome fellow vault hunter. Right? Right.
The strange thing about it was the way these people thought they knew her. Just because they'd seen her fight on the holo-net, maybe read an interview where she talked about what kind of protein smoothie she liked best. They called her by her name and inserted themselves into her space like they had somehow earned it.
Zane's head twitched in an involuntary shake. Who the hell cares if they think they know her? It dun' trouble the lass, so it dun' trouble me, neither.
Far from it. Amara seemed to take energy from the crowd of fans. Her brightness amplified, and she became more heightened in every sense. Her movements, already easy and self-assured, now oozed charisma. She chuckled at their comments, shook hands and gave fist bumps, posing for photos with her arm draped over their shoulders and a saucy smile. It was like watching a holo-vid in realtime. Amara, but extra . He couldn't help but smile.
She saw him watching from the side and directed a wink his way, along with a little eye roll of feigned embarrassment. She flashed a bright smirk as the next Atlas soldier removed their helmet for a selfie with the siren. Zane felt a little bloom of warmth in his chest.
He decided he was hovering, so he pushed off the wall to go talk to Zer0.
"The siren is popular with our troops. Deservedly so - she is a force of nature"
"Aye, an’ that's the truth." Zane clapped his old friend on the shoulder, giving them a squeeze. Zer0 stood ramrod straight, unwavering even when at rest.
The assassin's mask tilted at him, displaying a ;).
"Perhaps I should obtain an autograph. The mark of a killer."
"Didn't know ye were a fan."
"Ah. Yes. An adherent of her combat." The mask readout switched to :D . "Watch her performance in Torgue's latest arena. Exquisite."
On a whim, Zane minimized the grid map. It was a novelty to see his own long fingers and pale forearms stretch out to use the keyboard after doing work in VR mode. On the holo-net, his query of Amara, Siren was auto-completed to include last year’s big Circle of Slaughter fight. It was a popular search. According to the vid description, the recording was from the siren’s tenth year competing in the Partali tournament.
If Zane was just a little interested in pop culture he might have known more about Amara before they’d met. As it was, he’d heard her name. Knew she was a siren. Recognized her image in a vague way, though not enough to answer a pub quizzo question about her eye color.
Well, he knew it now. Clear violet. Like the pretty gems that washed up on the beach on Promethea - bottle glass, wave-polished into jewels. He pressed start.
However well Amara had fared in her first few arena fights, by the tenth she was pure, unadulterated fire. Watching her move across the screen triggered all of Zane’s instincts to help her in combat, tamped down only by disconnecting the 3d enhancer in his eyepatch. Music was pounding in the background, merging with the roar of the crowd as she danced through the digistructed waves of bandits and skags and made clean shots with her pistol. Headshot, headshot, headshot. She wasn’t even using her powers.
Zane realized she was saving them up, building a show. When the camera zoomed in on her face she made finger guns and flashed a roguish smile. With a sweeping flourish she dragged her wrist through the air, capturing the last bandit in an electric sphere. She unloaded the rest of her ammo until the bubble burst and a shower of rainbow guns and cash rained down. The crowd ate it up, rising to their feet to cheer and scream.
There was a post-tourney interview clip at the end. Subtitles crawled across the base of the screen as Amara answered questions in her native language. She was gleaming with sweat, muscles rippling as she gave the camera that trademark sly grin and pushed her hair back from her face. Zane fidgeted in his seat, unprepared for the blast of pure charisma. No wonder the Atlas mercs were all over her.
Her voice was rich honey, the words making a lovely kind of song. He checked the subtitles. Standard athlete chatter, I went in there feeling good and it all came together in the third wave, etc. The translation was a bit stilted, not doing her dry humor justice.
The door registered a lazy knock on the metal plating. Zane triggered the open mechanism from his seat, not bothering to minimize his holo-vid. The real Amara was in the doorway.
“Watching my greatest hits?” She sauntered in, giving his shoulder a light punch. “Get it? Hits.”
“Heh. Ah, ye know. Research.” Zane mumbled something about combat style optimization and closed his laptop. The siren was wearing off-duty clothes - camo printed joggers and a cropped black top. Her feet were bare except for a few toe rings, black polish, and the glowing siren tattoos that decorated them like henna. She used one of them to push his chair aside, rolling him along with it, and sat on the corner of his desk.
“Moze says you have old Blitzdome episodes downloaded.”
Zane brightened. “Aye, that I do! Did ye want ‘em?”
He had taken the opportunity to bond with the little gunner when they came back aboard, since they had both made a beeline to Marcus’. While they waited for the weapons dealer to examine their unneeded guns and offer them a sale price, Moze had listed off all of her favorite holo-films and drama series. Zane had every single one pirated on his echo or his laptop, a game he continued to win as she tried to list more and more obscure titles. There were fringe benefits to his work besides the money and travel opportunities - sometimes he was able to download the media libraries of entire space stations and corporations. Atlas, for instance. Amazing amount of Handsome Jack body double pornography in those files.
“Yeah, I want to watch them. What about you? In the mood to relive the greatest moments in blood sport history?” Amara wiggled her eyebrows.
Zane only needed a fraction of a second to realize she meant right now .
“Dun’ have to ask me twice.” He got up to rifle through his cabinets, looking for the right data drive. “Somethin’ to drink? I know ye dun’ care for beer, but there’s, ah, cider in me little icebox.”
“You know me so well.” Her voice was teasing as she crouched to open the mini fridge, but he couldn’t help feeling a little smug.
They made snacks out of Zane’s meager kitchenette selection (popcorn, which Amara had improved with some sweet and spicy powders from her room to cover the taste of synthetic butter rations and give it the feel of Partalian street food.) Zane jacked in the data drive to the holo-screen above his cot and they shoved in together, knees drawn up and popcorn spilling on his pillow. The operative would have struggled with the etiquette of offering his partner the bed and rolling over his office chair, but Amara never gave him the chance to second-guess himself. She crowded him in playfully until he sat down and then prodded his side until he scooted over enough for her liking.
And so, in a matter of minutes he found himself edge-to-edge with the same woman he’d been watching on the echonet.
She was just as illuminated now as she had been in front of the crowd. Her tattoos were ember-orange, slightly warmer to the touch than the rest of her skin. Her smile was bright, her laugh ringing out often as they watched the vintage antics of kabuki cage fighters. He wondered what had made her so relaxed, so eager for company and humor after their adventure instead of… dunno, meditation or some shite?
When their ciders ran out he felt no need for another. Amara’s unexpected presence was far too interesting for him to experience in any dulled capacity. He crushed the can and tossed it one-handed into the bin across the room. The siren laughed again and teased him about the state of his living space.
“What’s not ta like?” he retorted, waving at the boxes of half-built drones and racks of firearms on the wall. “There’s decor, there’s guns…”
“I think the guns are the decor.”
“Exactly. I’m a man o’ taste.” Zane shrugged, letting a slow grin surface. He liked having these conversations lying down, the siren only millimeters away.
Amara sat forward enough to pull the tie out of her hair, shaking the thick dark tresses loose and slipping the fastener on her wrist. The next episode began to autoplay.
“Up for another?”
“I’m surprised ye ain’t sick o’ the sight o’ me,” Zane admitted, unable to tear his eyes away from the heavy waves falling down her back. They ended in blue. He wanted to run his fingers through them. “After all that.”
She scooted back down, close enough that he moved his arm to let her rest against his torso. Zane allowed his arm to fall back across her shoulders. It was instantly twice as comfortable on the tiny cot.
“Sometimes it’s easier to relax in company,” she said, then amended: “The right company.”
“Ah. Agreed.” He gave her arm an experimental brush with his thumb. Alright. Cozy. Never mind that he could hear his own blood thudding in his ears. She smelled amazing.
The thought entered his mind that she might not take it amiss if he made a move on her. Risky as all hell, in his opinion, as great as the idea sounded. Maybe this was as close as they could get without crossing some invisible line that Amara had set for herself.
If the alternative was never being able to touch her, he'd take this and enjoy it for all it was worth. And so he circled his thumb against her tattoo a second time and let her hair drape over his shoulder like a heavy cloak. From this angle he could see the sweep of her cupid’s bow, down the bridge of her nose with the pale scar cut across, and her painted eyelids dropping almost closed as she relaxed into bonelessness. His side might be going numb in the near future, but he wouldn't shift for all the credits in the Galaxy.
Sanctuary III, Earlier:
“ Evil Dead: Redemption II , the remake.”
“ Other Space , the original first season, before it got cancelled.”
“Do ye even have to ask?”
“What the hell.”
Moze and Zane walked into Moxxi’s, continuing their game. Amara looked up from the table she shared with Tannis, where they had been engrossed in examining a piece of Promethean eridium together. Tannis would have never volunteered to meet at the bar, but the siren was sick of the ship’s lab and thought it might be healthy to give Sanctuary’s resident scientist a bit of an airing. To sweeten the deal, Amara had gotten them both club sodas and picked the most out-of-the-way, shadowed corner table for them to relax at. In fact, it was so secluded that the other vault hunters didn’t see her when they came in.
“Hey, sugar,” Moxxi purred, putting down a glass to bat her mink-fur lashes at the vault hunters. No, just at Zane . The siren could tell from across the room. “Heard you fought off a whole pack of slag wolves down there. And bagged Gigamind.”
The operative snorted, putting down a few credits. “Yer makin’ me sound awesome! Ye know I did it with Amara, and Moze here, and Fl4k ‘n all them Atlas boys ‘n gals.”
“You’re too modest.” Moxxi let out a giggle and took two beers out for the vault hunters. “Heroes drink free here tonight.”
The bartender reached out a manicured hand to tickle under Zane’s chin. He laughed, while Moze rolled her eyes and opened her own beer bottle with her teeth.
Amara felt an intense twinge of jealousy that set her insides reeling. She kept her face impassive, with eyes that flicked away from the scene without even lingering.
“I’m gonna head out,” she said to her companion. She dropped a credit on the table before slipping out of the room. Her gruffness went unmentioned, one of the many benefits of Tannis’ detached, yet sincere, style of friendship.
What was that all about? Amara hardly knew if she meant her own reaction or the exchange she had witnessed. Quite a turnabout on Moxxi’s part. Maybe she had been holding back the other night when Zane and Amara had come there together. Or maybe she was really feeling the hero-worship today. Hell, maybe she had a little wheel with the names of all the attractive people on Sanctuary, and today the needle just happened to land on Zane.
The last option actually sounded the most realistic. Amara punched her door release with a little more force than necessary, dropping the eridium sample on her table.
Okay, what she needed to do was relax . It had been a tense series of hours down on Promethea, and fighting to the death always raised her levels of agitation. She needed to change, and meditate, and get some rest. Read a book.
Moxxi didn’t do anything wrong. She was just being her normal, trademark flirtatious self. It bothered Amara when she touched Zane - but hey, she was 100% not entitled to that feeling . The siren ground her teeth a little as she pulled off her shirt, clawing through her closet for looser, softer fabrics.
It was natural to feel attached to her partner. At this point they’d survived quite a few dangerous situations with each other’s help. And he was attractive, and amusing, and interesting, with a good heart and a sharp wit under all that foolish chatter…
Amara dropped onto her bed, folding her legs and straightening her back. Okay, the crush was out of hand. Worse than a crush at this point, if she was feeling jealous over a little flirting from Moxxi.
Well, he might feel the same way. The way Flynt looked at her… it sometimes made her nervous, like they were circling towards the doom of their partnership.
Her echo blipped. Under normal circumstances, the siren would have ignored it until her meditation was complete. Considering that she hadn’t managed to start yet, there was no harm in checking her messages.
Zane has Blitz Dome tapes. Thought you’d be interested. - Moze
An honest surge of excitement for her favorite show managed to override her anxiety. She typed a reply right away.
Is he still with you? -A
Nah. Went back to his room. -Moze
Alone? Amara thought, but held back from asking. She examined the chipped polish on her fingernails.
She had the distinct, roughly once-a-year feeling that she was going to do something reckless.
Sanctuary III, Now:
When Zane opened the door she had already spent a few minutes putting herself back into a normal frame of mind. Key phrases bounced around in her head like helium tanks. Teammates! Fun! Off-the-clock bonding!
His outfit - that soft shirt again, and black shorts that left most of his legs as bare as his arms - threatened to falter her bravado. She always knew he had a human body under that flashy techwear, but it was just as startling every time it was confirmed. Too attractive, should be illegal. Now that was a thought she would have to keep to herself, or he’d start using it as a catchphrase.
Zane seemed surprised to see her, but just as keen to spend more time in her company. Amara kept an eye on him as he padded around his cabin, barefoot and with the adorable mussed hair that she was starting to recognize as his post-shower look. He took off his eyepatch, plugging it into a charging port near his laptop and rubbing his bare eye with the heel of his palm.
“Your food supply is sad , blondie.” She touched the shelves above his sink area as if she could feel around and produce more options than cereal. She heard him chuckle behind her, setting up his holoscreen.
“Check the drawer.”
She did so, feeling better every moment she spent in his room. A tin of biscuits and some quick-zap popcorn were revealed. She looked down at them, feeling distinct smugness. Who else would ever know what kind of biscuits Zane liked? One night stands and flirtatious bartenders could come and go, but partners… partners knew where the snacks were kept. It felt reassuring. I sound like a madwoman. Still - ginger snaps, noted.
Cider and snacks, this late at night, were a guaranteed stomach ache for tomorrow. Amara found she didn’t care. She could already hear Deepika’s teasing voice in her head - ooh, rebel. Really throwing caution to the wind here, aren’t you?
She was buzzing with cheer as they settled down to watch, determined to sit as close as possible to the operative. It felt so easy to be here. Fizzy apple dissolved on her tongue, buoying her mood further. Zane’s lean legs, polar-white and dusted with platinum hair, stretched out before them on the roughspun blanket. She looked at them with greedy attention, memorizing every line of muscle and bone so she could imagine them the next time the vault hunters spent twenty-four hours fitted in their combat gear.
On a lark, she repositioned herself on the cot, thrilled to end up with the operative's arm around her. They stayed like that for ages, letting show after show roll by on the holo-screen. Amara felt all of her muscles relax in the halo of his warmth, her mind quieting down the way it did when she meditated. She drifted back and forth between half-sleep and quiet jokes with the man at her side.
“Can ye do that one?” Zane whispered, pointing to the masked onscreen fighter who was executing a flawless piledriver. His voice stirred against her neck, sending a pleasant shiver down her back. She covered it up by punching her open palm, giving him a predatory smirk.
"Can I? I'm an expert , love. Next time we fight, I'll give you a demonstration."
"Ha, dun' threaten me with a good time, lass."
Amara’s echo buzzed in her pocket. It surprised her that there was a world at all outside this little room. Pulling it out with clumsy fingers, she was further surprised to see a call already engaged. She must have pressed the acceptance button with her thumb - Deepika’s blue hologram face flashed in her eyes.
“Hey! It’s you! One second, let me put you on hold.” The siren pressed all the buttons at once in her haste. She sat up, leaving Zane blinking behind her.
“That yer little friend? The tailor?”
She was touched that he had been paying attention to all of her stories. “Yeah. Deepika. Sorry, I’m going to go take this. I’ve been trying to get in touch with her for days.”
He just smiled, putting the arm that had released her behind his head. One grey eye and one white, watching her as she tossed her empty cider can and lingered by the desk.
“We're due back planetside in what, six hours?" she ventured, reluctant to leave.
Zane yawned, stretching to fill the cot even as he mourned her loss. "Call it seven, lass. Have some mercy on this poor old fella."
She snorted, half-turning as she headed for the door. "Goodnight, blondie.”
We are putting the SLOW in slow burn, baby, but hey - that was a suspiciously cozy coworker hangout.
Also, I got the Moxxi Casino DLC today and it is fun fun fun. :) Good Amara dialogue.
Hope this came out okay, I've been sick with a cold this week!!
Chapter 7: Phthalo
Her sleeping form was turned towards him, resting on his shoulder as blue lights flickered over her face. Zane moved to touch her and hesitated. He felt like he was underwater - slow, warm, safe, and moving under pressurized depths. With huge effort his hand caught up with his desires and traced the scar on her nose, end to end. A slash of pale gold.
Who did this?
His voice echoed, inside somehow instead of out. Those violet eyes opened with a smile. She was saying something he couldn’t understand, pulling him closer with transparent arms, carding blue fingers through his hair and scratching them down his chest. Her lips met his, drinking him in and melting into pure blue light…
Zane’s fingers flexed, feeling only the cloth of his own Pandoran blanket. His eyes opened, the sighted one registering an empty bed and a room darkened by the motion-detecting light system. His holo-screen was paused, its eerie glow competing with the green spun-sugar nebula outside his cabin window. Pinpoints of light from his electronics mimicked the stars.
Disappointment and confusion soured his mood. Dreamin’ about her, now?
He rolled deeper into his pillow, clawing at the last wisps of the scene as it fled his consciousness, trying to pull it back. The scent of jasmine was still there.
“Who was that?”
Deepika’s excited face re-pixelated onto Amara’s echo, back in the seclusion of her own cabin.
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for ages, and that’s the first thing you ask me?” the siren teased, flopping down onto her low bed. It was nice to speak in Parti again, the language dancing off her tongue.
“He had his arm around you. And sorry, you’ve been out of range, none of my calls can get through. I told you that would happen during spaceflight. You must be stationed in orbit somewhere.”
“Yeah. Guess I’m not supposed to say where, in case the comms get intercepted.”
“Ooo, spooky. Top secret mission. I don’t even know what you’re doing off of Pandora, so I’d do great in an interrogation situation. Now, tell me who you were cuddled up with.”
“We were just watching holo,” Amara grumbled. “Is this what all mothers are like?”
“Probably. Was it a bandit? They look hotter than I expected. Oh! I know. It was your partner, wasn’t it? I tried to look him up on the echonet, and found nothing .”
“That doesn’t surprise me. He used to be a professional ghost.” The siren rolled her eyes. Zane had been just a footnote in her letter to Deepika, sent while they were still at the Crimson Raider base on Pandora. Trust her friend to zero in on it like a tracking beacon.
“Good for you.”
“There’s nothing to congratulate me for.”
“Ah ha, you’re getting cranky - it must be serious.”
Amara lapsed into silence, glaring at her beloved friend until she folded.
“All right, all right. I know how weird you get about this stuff. I can see we are not ready to discuss the hottie. How about I just congratulate you on being a real vault hunter? Looks like it suits you, you’re glowing. Literally.”
Amara smiled with all her teeth, closing her eyes like a cat. She put an echo filter on her side of the call, something silly that gave her image heart-eyes and a halo of stars. “Thanks. How’s business going?”
Deepika’s only acknowledgement of the filter was to put one on herself. A pair of furry ears and a lolling tongue moved with her face as she talked. “It’s good, I have some awards show dress orders. Nobody you’d be interested in, but it’s good money.”
“Anything new for me? Your best customer?” Amara switched to one that gave her massive sunglasses.
“Actually, yeah. Now that you’re stationed I can send the code to your ship’s quick change. It’s pretty flashy. I call it Hotrod .”
“Ha! I’ll wear it tomorrow. How’re the children?”
“What, you can’t hear them screaming in the background?” Deepika looked over her shoulder, into a space that wasn’t registered by the call. “They’re great. Flipping out, as usual. I blame you. They keep shadow boxing like their Auntie Amara, and knocking things over while yelling all your little holo-net catchphrases.”
“Oh, like,” she put on a faux deep voice, imitating a small child imitating a grown woman. “ I am the greatest! A fight, for me? You shouldn’t have! ”
Amara laughed so hard that a tear escaped her eye. “Those are good sound bites. Very empowering.”
“Tell that to my houseplants. RIP.”
They talked until Amara fell asleep, her fingers curled around her echo. Deepika blew her a kiss and switched off the call.
It was the end of the night cycle on Promethea, and de facto morning time for the vault hunters on Sanctuary.
Zane stepped into the common suite, throwing a casual glance around the room for his siren. It was empty except for Moze, who was making coffee at the little rinky-dink brewer Ellie had plugged in for them. He joined her, noting the crabby expression and yesterday’s mascara. Much like himself, the gunner was not a morning person. They made a sharp contrast to Amara, who he imagined rose to the sun with a yoga pose and boundless energy. Heh. What he wouldn’t give to see that.
“Beats instant,” Moze grunted in lieu of a greeting, noticing him looking askance at the somewhat granular sludge pouring into her mug.
“Aye, fair enough.” He shrugged, taking the pot after her and filling his thermos. The operative and the gunner had both drank more than their fair share of campfire coffee in the field. This batch might need a splash of help from his flask.
Moze slipped her helmet on over her cropped hair. She looked ready for war, and polite conversation before breakfast.
“Did you show Amara some Blitzdome?”
“Quite a few.”
“Ha. Yeah, I figured she’d ask. She used to talk about that show a lot.”
Zane’s interest piqued. “Two of ye know each other from before?”
Moze laughed. “I spent six months stationed on Partali. We used to date.”
His fingers faltered as he screwed the lid on his thermos, a tell that would be imperceptible to most people.
“Oh?” he managed.
“Yeah. In case you ever wondered why we weren’t paired together for a team - that’s why.” Moze gave him a grim smile.
Zane ran his tongue over his teeth, unsure of what to say. Fl4k and the woman in question came up the stairs from Ellie’s, sparing him the effort. He brandished a smile in their direction, trying not to look too caught off-guard.
Amara was just as bright eyed and energized as he expected, drinking a green-colored juice that hurt his insides just to look at. Her outfit today had LED detailing that matched her tattoos. She elbowed him when their paths met, looking over the rim of her glass with a warm expression.
“Lilith wants us to split up again. Red Team is with Rhys today, and we’re going to the tunnels to clear out COV for Lorelei.”
"Let’s do it." Zane snapped his fingers, wheeling around to grab the laptop from his cabin. He called through the open doorway. "I've been, ah, workin’ up a little scheme."
“Put the finishing touches on it last night, after ye left.”
Amara frowned. “Do you ever sleep?”
“Not if I can help it! Take that anyway ye like...”
He kept her in suspense until they met Kris and Lorelei in the underground, staring at a paneled wall inside what had been a subway ticket office during peacetime. The operative began pulling the particle boards away, revealing a tangled nest of interlocking wires. Some of it was damaged by fire, the cords in one section blackened and eaten away.
“So,” Zane clasped his hands, looking gleeful. “I’m ready ta crack on into Maliwan’s power grid and redirect it where it’s s’posed to go - back ta the city.”
He was met with three blank, if supportive, faces. He sighed.
“Steal power? Turn the ol’ lights back on? Get the whole fast travel network back online?”
“Is that possible?” Kris squinted at the mess of red and blue plastic spaghetti.
“Aye, lad. When we took the gigamind, tweren’t just full o’ military secrets. Had all the senior passcodes for every branch o’ their little operation here, power included.” Zane popped open his laptop, adjusting the settings on his eyepatch. He crouched on the floor, jacking in to the wall.
Lorelei threw a questioning look in the siren’s direction.
“I trust Flynt to do anything with wires.” Amara shrugged. It wasn’t her area of expertise. Zane knew by now that coding and mech were not the subjects that lit a fire in her eyes, and he appreciated her willingness to entrust him with whatever needed doing.
“Wicked. This will really help us out. Today’s agenda is basic defense training for civvies, so anything positive is gonna go a longgg way.” Lorelei flicked Kris’ arm. “Come on, string bean. You’re on duty.”
Amara watched them go with narrowed eyes, inclined to suspect that they were leaving before her partner could ask them for help with his project.
The operative leaned close to his screen, his attention caught by something only his cybernetics could see. “Ach. Looks like the line has some disconnections. Amara, ye mind being a set of hands out there fer me?”
“How about eight?” The siren made herself chuckle. She put one of them on his shoulder.
In case you ever wondered why we weren’t paired together for a team - that’s why. Zane pressed the unwanted thought into the back of his mind. He unhooked SNTNL from his belt and handed it to her.
“Bring the zoomer an’ he can be my eyes. I can guide ye on echochat. Looks like there’s two breaks needin’ a fix.”
Amara took the drone like it was a live grenade, her bravado faltering. “You sure about this, Blondie? I’m not much of a tech person.”
“Never surer! Here.” The operative stood up, taking her arm with a gentle touch and guiding it up into position. “Flatten yer palm and press up.”
Amara did so, releasing the drone like a dove. It hovered off her hand, staying close.
“I’ll keep the visual feed, but I’m switching motion control to yer heat signature. He’ll follow ye until he runs out o’ juice. Then just clip him here.” He took SNTNL’s charging port off of his belt and watched the siren attach it to her own thigh. There was something gratifying about seeing her wear his best invention. “Zoomer’ll do the repairs.”
“All right.” Amara cracked her knuckles and rolled her neck. “I assume there will be some COV to pulverize?”
“In the tunnels? More’n likely.”
“Say no more.” She checked her echo for the location ping he sent her. The first break was farther down the subway tracks. Zane adjusted his patch settings again and pulled his gloves off with his teeth, settling in for work.
Amara raised her arm, experimenting, and made a laugh of surprise when SNTNL returned to her open hand.
“See, he likes ye.” Just like I do.
Amara stalked through the tunnels, gun ready, the weight of Zane’s drone distracting on her thigh. Her tattoos and LEDs cast just as much glow as the emergency lights and occasional cracks of sunlight. Everything was cast in a shadowed green.
Nothing that would hinder her from spying COV fighters. She kept a sharp eye ahead, ready on the trigger.
“Left up here,” Zane’s lilting brogue tumbled into her ear, welcome company on the eerie tracks.
“Feels strange walking alone,” she murmured.
“I know. Watchin’ ye on me little ping-tracker, though.” The operative’s voice was more subdued than usual.
Amara realized she was running her hand over the SNTNL like a worry stone. It felt like Zane - same design elements as the lines of his jacket. That man crafted his own personality into everything he touched. She saw that the tattoos on her hand still ran hot and gold, but the rest of her arm was cooling into blue shock element. Soon the last of the fire would leech away. She was sad to see it go - she always felt the most alive and intense when she could burn.
The twisted bundle of cords that marked the trail ran close to the wall, several feet above her head. In the distance the wires drooped all the way to the floor, sparks dancing where it had been severed.
She spotted movement down the tracks. A pack of bandits, just loitering around. Amara was struck by how casual they seemed. A girl bandit with spiked hair and a cropped shirt was chattering to herself, tossing and catching a machete. A huge bruiser with a shield was… praying? Ah yes, to Tyreen. Amara wrinkled her nose. She almost felt sorry for them. Weak-minded followers of an insane murderess. Still, they willingly chose a religion based on human sacrifice, so her sympathy could run only so deep.
“See the line up ahead? S’been cut. Sabotage by Maliwan, I reckon.”
Amara sank into the shadows behind a broken pylon. “Yes. And a little bandit nest.”
“Oo, I’m jealous! Let Zoomer out and I’ll have a bit of fun.”
Amara unclipped the drone, holding it close. She paused, considering, then stood up behind her shelter. For a moment she was fully exposed to the cluster of enemies.
The COV had their final chance at redemption - and they blew it. Amara’s shield absorbed fire from every bandit that was paying attention. She dropped again with a snarl, regretting her moment of charity, and gave SNTNL a push upwards. The drone buzzed off like a happy wasp, drawing their fire and unleashing beams of crackling white fire. She heard Zane’s accompanying whoop on the echo link.
Amara felt less ebullient and more irritated, staying back behind her pylon and using her grenades to pick off the fighters. She had gotten spoiled. Solo combat just wasn’t as appealing as it had once been, and her mind was more on getting the mission done and getting back to her goofy-ass partner.
Speaking of whom… as soon as the rat’s nest was cleared out, Zane was back in her ear, prompting her to change the drone settings and move the power line.
“Can ye... make a big ghost arm, an’ reach up to reconnect it?” Amara could hear the associated hand gestures.
“It’s not really a non-combat skill,” she muttered, taking the wire in hand and scaling the side of the wall, one pitted handhold at a time. Showers of sparks poured out of the end. Now she felt only gratitude for her elemental shift - she had a natural resistance to shock at the moment, just when it was most needed.
“Hm. Someday ye have ta explain ta me how it all works.”
SNTNL buzzed up to meet her, its beam on a soldering setting. Amara held on to her precarious spot as the repair was completed. “Okay, I’ll let you know when I figure it out myself.”
Zane took off his jacket. It was hot in the ticket office, and he was working with a feverish intensity. The double vision of SNTNL’s view of the tunnels and his own coding screen would have made him dizzy if he wasn’t so used to it.
“That’ll do. Break number one fixed. The second one is in a tunnel across the floods… sendin’ you a shortcut now.”
“You’re the shortcut king,” Amara’s voice purred in his ear, the echo distortion subtle but present. No matter how innocent her words were, just the timbre of her voice sent a shiver down his spine.
“Hey now, not when it matters,” his eyes flicked back and forth between inputs.
Amara stepped out into the floods, rendered in tones of gold and yellow in the daylight hours. Her footfall sent rings out into the smooth mirror of the shallow water. This torn-up city was even more vacant and haunting when she was out here alone.
She made for the access point downriver, picking up into a jog and hearing her own splashing strides and breath echoing between the concrete barriers. A familiar glint caught her eye by the water’s edge - a flash of color and sheen that she recognized like her own reflection.
She veered off course to meet it, prompting an immediate “All right there, lass?” from the operative who tracked her.
“Yeah. I think I see some… eridium. Just out here for the taking, like on Pandora.” Amara brought herself up short by the spike of crystal. It was a beautiful crown-shaped chunk of purple stone, breaking through the mud against the wall. The sample she had brought to Tannis had been broken off the corpse of a slag wolf. This was the first eridium she had seen out in the urban wilds. “We must be near the vault.”
She heard a sharp intake of breath from her partner. She felt it too - the pulse of excitement conjured by the word. Hey, it was what they were out here for. Helping the downtrodden of Promethea was supposed to be a side gig.
Eridium always kindled an almost worrying level of excitement in the siren. It was so mesmerizing in its iridescence, the energy locked inside swirling just below its surface. Amara tried to avoid using the stone for its power-enhancing properties, knowing its addictive curse. Her own necklace was a testament to her willpower. Still, she wasn’t above a little gleeful hoarding when the stuff was just there for the taking.
“Crystals to crack!” she sing-songed to herself, smashing the cluster with her bare knuckles. She grunted at the sharp little pain, shaking out her hand even as she scooped up the broken pieces. Eridium was a sought-after currency on Sanctuary III, and this haul could buy her all sorts of frivolous things.
“Ye broke it with yer fist, didn’t ye?”
Zane laughed. “I’ll give ye a nice wrist blade fer that. Can’t go a-riskin’ the moneymakers.”
Amara crouched down, frowning at the water around her ankles. “Hey, there’s some purple floating in the water here. Looks like an oil leak.”
He shifted into a more serious tone right away. “Slag?”
“Maybe. I’ve only ever seen it in Maliwan guns. Do you think they could have been shooting down here? I don’t think they could have made this much of a spill just from one firefight.”
There was a pause while Zane accessed the city map. “Yer on the other side of the wall from some Atlas factory buildings. Currently inoperational, no surprise... Could be weapon slag, no record o’ Maliwan occupation, though..”
Amara scanned the wall. Another access point was low to the water’s edge, just big enough for a body to fit through. She splashed over, careful to not let the thickening violet sludge touch her skin. “What’s this?”
Another pause. “Factory drainpipe.”
The siren gave the tin output a kick with her boot. “We might want to have a little chat with Rhys, find out why slag is dripping out of an Atlas facility.”
Amara and SNTNL fixed the second line break without COV interruption. This power cord hung suspended between buildings on the other side of the floods, on the edge of the Lectra City neighborhood. Amara felt more at home here, away from the central commercial district of the metropolis. These structures were built lower and denser, reminding her of Partali. Her gaze wandered over the rooftops as the drone finished its work.
“All set.” Zane’s voice brought her back to the present.
She dropped down from the roofline, catching herself with a grunt on the waiting pavement. SNTNL came to rest on her extended hand. She clipped it to her leg, turning in the direction of the base camp.
Framed between fire-gutted cars on the vacant street stood a huge slag wolf, eridium mutation giving it the size and hulking silhouette of a military truck. Both of them froze, stilled by surprise. It looked like an old god in the wrong neighborhood, a vault monster placed on a city block.
In the distance, another wolf howled.
Their eyes met and held - both of hers and all nine of the wolf’s. We will fight, and you shall die, the creature seemed to say. Amara saw the churning tension in her opponent’s haunches, muscles shifting, power collecting in those back legs. Zane said something on the link that she couldn’t hear. All she could focus on was her own inner voice, hissing I’m out of grenades over and over again.
She felt her own power collecting, forcing its way through her veins and flowing out of her palm. She snapped her wrist, heart sinking with the attempt to corral the beast with a phasegrasp.
“Amara? Ye all right?” He repeated, a note of concern in his voice.
Her white electric fire flared and sputtered out, licking at the slag wolf’s haunches like a lighter running low on fuel. Too big. Can’t hold it.
She turned to run. The street below her feet tore away, becoming the back alleys of Partali. She was a teenager again, sprinting away from a fight she wasn’t ready for. The thudding gait of the wolf behind her was terrible in its weight, the damp fur and twisted paws with claws that dragged and threw sparks from the pavement.
“Flynt?” Amara snarled into her echo. “I need to pick up a grenade launcher next time we loot.”
“What’s goin’ on?” Zane’s voice was almost unrecognizable, transformed by urgency and what she could only interpret as... anxiety. She would have been flattered if she wasn’t running from a giant mutant.
“Mm, there’s a big fucking dog chasing me,” she grunted, breathless. She took a hard turn around a corner and vaulted over the carcass of a cyclone car. The information was met with a string of curses from her partner’s disembodied voice.
Behind her she heard a panting and the sound of a heavy body striking metal and bolting onward.
“Let the drone go,” Zane snapped. “Let ‘em eat it. Then get the feck out of there.”
“Don’t get crazy,” Amara was panting as hard as the slag wolf. She threw herself into a tight alley, betting her life on the hope that it couldn’t follow her. The gamble paid off - the wolf slid to a stop and snapped its narrow jaws after her, unable to fit between the walls. Its hot breath ghosted across her skin as she backed up, stumbling over rubbish piles. She looked around, picking a garbage can to give herself a boost. With some effort she was able to scale the wall to the rooftop.
She peered over the edge of the gutter, meeting the white eyes maddened by frustrated aggression. The wolf began to pace. The angles of its crystal spurs caught the neon light from Lectra City’s advertisements.
“I’m up out of its way now. Not sure how I’m going to get down again, unless you packed some raw meat in my bag without telling me.”
“Fast travel’s back online.” Zane’s voice evened out, joined by the tap of his keyboard in the background. “There’s a terminal on the corner. Can ye see it?”
Amara pulled out her sniper rifle, looking down the scope. She saw the yellow-painted post. Now she just needed the time to reach and operate it. Swiveling, she fired a burst at the slag wolf. It made hardly a dent, and elicited a deep growl. Of course I would run into a boss fight without Blondie. Or anyone else.
“I can see it. Have a look at my friend here, he’s in the way.” The siren unclipped SNTNL, switching it on and letting Zane see through its mechanical eye. The drone fired its beam at the creature, enraging it further.
“Oh, feck . Jus’ hold tight, I’m comin’.”
“Hold on.” Amara lowered her rifle, slipping her fingers into the pocket of her vest. They brushed against the smooth edges of her eridium shards. She shouldn’t. But…
Maybe just this once.
The siren closed her hand over the crystal. A dog can be trained to carry a dead game bird in its jaws, soft enough to leave the skin unbroken. The same dog can sink its teeth into flesh to rip and tear. So it was with eridium - Amara could touch without taking, but now she chose to take.
The power flowed out of the shard and into her body, delicious, welling up and overflowing. A supernova inside her heart. Her siren tattoos flared purple, her eyes filling corner to corner with burning light. Six ghost arms fanned out like wings behind her, and she seized the slag wolf with a phase sphere the size of a garage.
Zane’s words were faint in her ear as she dropped to the street, feeling her feet strike the ground like she was dropping onto a feather bed. She snatched SNTNL out of the air and sprinted to the fast travel, violet light already leaking away as the eridium subsided.
The operative was waiting for her on the other side as she rematerialized in the Underground. He seized her in a hug as soon as all of her atoms were back in their rightful place.
“That. Were. Badass .” His voice was muffled against her shoulder as he rocked her back and forth. “And feck me fer suggesting ye go out alone.”
Amara was surprised by the embrace but melted into it, enjoying the hand he rested on the back of her neck. She could see his gear abandoned in the ticket office behind him.
“How else were you supposed to fix the power?” She watched the purple fade from her tattoos, which were blushing into fire orange again. All these element changes were going to give her whiplash.
“Ah, right - just about ta finish that up, got a wee bit distracted by yer… situation. Come’n see.” He walked backwards, pulling her along.
Lorelei, passing by with a crate, paused upon seeing them. “Oi, you’re back! Everything go well?”
“Mission success,” Amara chuckled, rolling her eyes. “I need a grenade restock, though.”
Zane, still holding Amara’s hand like she was about to fast travel away again, waved Lorelei and Kris over to the office. The three of them loomed over his shoulder as he crouched back over his laptop and made the final keystrokes.
There was a popping noise from down the tunnel, steady and approaching. When the sound caught up with the bend in the tracks, they saw it was the subway’s normal lights clicking back on. With an electric sigh, turnstiles lit up, heat vents switched on, and cheerful illumination and warmth flooded the Underground. The refugees stopped their separate tasks to look around, clapping and whistling.
“This is amazing,” Kris crowed. “We can move people now with the network, and move supplies with the train cars…”
Lorelei high-fived the operative. Zane had an undeniable smirk on his face. Amara quirked a brow at him.
“What else do you have in that brain of yours?” She bumped his shoulder with her knee. He laughed.
"Check this out." The operative was gleeful, setting his echo out flat on the tiled floor and activating his holo-map. "This is the map I made o' the Underground, ye’ve seen it."
The familiar snaking tunnels rotated in transparent red. His audience leaned close, the light reflecting on their faces.
" Here's the municipal maps I accessed an’ layered on top." Zane tapped a key and the blue skyscrapers and streets stacked up. "An' here is a lil’ schematic I lifted in the Maliwan security breach. Records of enemy occupation."
Clusters of neon lime dots scattered across the blue like buckshot. Certain buildings switched their color alignment to reflect the new threat, entire blocks and highways flooding with green.
"Notice anythin'... interesting , over here?" Zane pinched his fingers over one area and pulled them apart. The map zoomed in.
Lorelei gasped with delight. "The biggest Maliwan camp, right over an empty sewer line. That's bloody brill , man!"
Kris looked back and forth between his leader and the smirking vault hunters. "I don't get it."
Zane's fingertips danced over the tunnel. "We go in, line the ceiling with charges, an' then -"
"Boom." Amara's smile was vampiric.
"Collapse the street above. Quick way ta clear out the rats."
“I like this new plan / very violent and cool / impressive scheming.”
They were on the third floor of an abandoned office building that overlooked the Maliwan camp. A difficult spot to reach without drawing unwanted attention, but feasible when guided by Atlas’ top agent. Zer0 stood by the window, one hand on their SMG. The vault hunters had watched them cut down about a dozen enemy fighters on their way over, using only the humming digiblade in their hands.
Zane was lounging on what once had been a boardroom table, one leg resting across his knee in the most casual pose ever seen by a wartime council. The group was rounded out by a restless Amara, pacing by the table, Lilith, Lorelei and Kris on echo link, and the hologram presence of Rhys Strongfork.
“Just make sure no one sees you, Killers. It’s vital that Maliwan doesn’t know your identities if we want to make our plans work later.” It was clear that the Firehawk hadn’t expected such extensive extracurricular activities from the vault hunters.
“Dun’ ye worry. They won’t be seein’ our faces, nor anythin’ else in this life after Minty-Fresh sets the charges,” Zane drawled. Lorelei expressed tinny approval at the nickname from the tunnel below the street.
“Are we gonna talk about the slag coming out of his factory?” Amara finally came to a stop, perching on the table across from Zane and boxing in the projection of the little blue CEO.
“Hey, like I said, big fan of the plan, still not sure what the heck you’re talking about.” Rhys held out his hands, one flesh and one steel, in a gesture of surrender. Amara leaned close, narrowing her eyes at his miniaturized head. She reached out a hand as if to pinch and crush it symbolically.
He wilted under her gaze. “I mean - I don’t know why the slag was leaking into the drain floods. That’s… really not cool. I don’t know if it’s a leak from damage in the factory, or if it’s from some bad corporate oversight -”
“Oversight.” Amara’s voice was flat. “That leads to mutations like the thing that chased me through Lectra City. I was almost dog food.”
“If that slag has been contaminating wastewater for the past year there’s a big chance it explains the, you know, slag wolves,” Kris added helpfully, his first contribution to the group chat.
“Are ye processing eridium in there, lad?” Zane’s voice was cool as it cut through everyone’s muttered opinions on mutant wildlife.
“Mmm…” Rhys looked over at Zer0, who gave him an almost imperceptible nod. “Yeah. There’s a lot of naturally occurring eridium in that part of town, so we - Atlas - have been harvesting it and trying to prototype an elemental weapon. You know, since Maliwan pretty much has the market cornered for that.”
“Well, it’s safe to say we know where the vault is, then.” Lilith’s tone suggested that she couldn’t care less about Atlas’ future product lines, or anything else that wasn’t beating the COV to the punch. “Let’s get back to the matter at hand. Blowing up a whole camp of Maliwan.”
“Armed and ready, ma’am,” Lorelei reported. “Setting charges now.”
“Best of luck!” Rhys gained some of his cheer back. His agent walked over to collect the echo housing his image, switching the call to audio.
“I will be outside - removing any survivors.” Zer0 threw a digital ;) in Amara’s direction as they left.
Zane set up by the window, offering a spot in an office chair to the siren. “What’re ye smirkin’ about, lass?”
“Zer0 is hot.” Amara grinned at him, sharp-toothed and bright eyed. She was in the mood to tease him a little. Zane took the bait, mildly outraged.
“Ye can’t even see their face!”
“They’ve got a nice figure.”
“Ye don’t even know if they’re human .” The operative’s eye twitched.
“They really know how to use that sword.”
“Aye, swords are crackin’, but really? Zer0? Hot?”
“Don’t have a conniption, Flynt.” It was very difficult for Amara not to laugh. The way Zane was turning red made her eyes water with the effort. He seemed to notice her expression and calmed down several degrees.
“Charges are set!” Lorelei’s voice sang out in their echo links, sobering them up.
“Clear out o’ there,” the operative barked, putting his eye to the scope of his rifle.
For a tense moment they waited, frozen. The Maliwan fighters continued to move like ants below.
Lorelei’s breathless voice reassured them. “All clear - let’s blow this block to hell.”
3, 2, 1…
Zane watched with an impassive eye as the street crumbled outside. A boom rattled the windows and the furniture around them. They were a safe distance away to view the destruction, and the explosives had been set according to his instructions to avoid weakening the structure of the other tunnels.
What a day , he thought, as the pavement was consumed by flames from below. Forget preferring to do missions alone, he’d be damned if they ever went out in the field separately again after that slag wolf fiasco. And speaking of teamwork - this may be the largest scale group operation he’d ever been a part of, much less led. Power was restored to the refugees, and with this Maliwan camp destroyed they could start to reclaim the city, one neighborhood at a time.
This particular district was a good place to start. There was a hospital a block away that was sorely needed, and it would do the wains good to see some sunlight after months underground. There was no need to ask himself if he’d gone soft - he’d always been soft, when it came to people who lived outside the game of crime and extralegal punishment. This was just his first opportunity to do some real good.
His gaze slid over to the siren beside him, watching the explosion unfold with laser focus. Okay, if he was really honest with himself - always a painful experience - it wasn’t his first opportunity. It was simply the first opportunity he’d felt motivated to seize.
Amara was mostly responsible. That heroism was rubbing off on him, her concern for the little people caught up in conflicts and politics they’d never asked to be a part of. He could stop pretending it was any other reason, at least to himself. Now that the Maliwan forces on this block were swallowed up in fire and ash, and he could hear the cheering from the echo line of Lorelei and Kris and all the Prometheans beside them, and the exuberant howls of Rhys and his Atlas soldiers, the congratulations of Red Team from across the city, Lilith and Tannis and Ellie adding their enthusiasm from orbit to the chorus - it was only Amara’s smile that felt real. Like he’d rewarded her faith in him.
For about the hundredth time that day, Moze’s words reverberated in his brain. In case you ever wondered why we weren’t paired together for a team - that’s why. Was it worth the risk to try and make something more out of a partnership that was undoubtedly the best of his life?
The siren gave him a wide grin, grabbing him in a hug as the reports came in (perfect explosion containment, no Maliwan survivors, no civilian casualties.) He held her, chin resting on spikes and hands wrapped around her bare waist, and decided that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take that chance.
1. The coffee machine on Sanctuary III used to be in Ellie’s garage on Pandora. That’s why it’s got a little dust flavor going on. Spicy!
2. Sorry, real-life electricians - anything inaccurate about Zane’s power-grid hacking efforts are due to ancient Eridian secrets plus future sci-fi tech. Promethea’s energy source is some combo of Saurian fossil fuels, starlight, eridium crystals, big underground cables, prayers to the guardians, bargaining, hamsters running on wheels….