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The HALO Project

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He had said it with a smile. 

“W-wait a minute. Back up.”

“Hm?”

“You… tore your own arm off? Did that... how did that feel?”

“About as great as you’d expect.”

“So, like-“

“Excruciatingly painful.”

Another flash of whitened teeth.

Soft clanging of metal debris shuffled beneath his feet, accompanying the thoughts as he recalled them. He had decided before the trek that he would omit the gorier details for their sake – and his own. He needn’t delve into what it felt like when deep-set wires snap from a body, battered, berated, beaten…

His hand rubbed the shoulder joint where flesh and bone ceased and metal began.

“Are you sure you want to do this? You could have told us the story at the base.”

“I’m fine.”

He could tell his attempt at reassurance did little to quell their unease, catching the side-eyed exchange of worried glances between Vaughn and Sasha. Real subtle.

“Look, I’m fine Vaughn, alright? I just… I guess I’m curious what’s left of it now.”

Fiona didn’t want to come with. She had heard it all before, and for once believed what he had told her at face-value – a miracle, really. If it hadn’t been for Vaughn, for Sasha, the two people who searched for him when he was as good dead, he may not have owed this tired story to anyone anymore. But he did them.

A mountain of rusted rubble obscured the path before them. Twisted beams and broken plates and fractured pipes entwined into a gnarly metal maze. Vaughn, familiar with the terrain of wreckage, silently ventured ahead as Rhys and Sasha studied his movements and followed diligent behind.

“Careful, your arm.” Rhys extended out a gentle hand to shield the crude cast holding her arm to her chest.

“Damn watch,” muttered Sasha half-heartedly under her breath, leaning into him. “The engraving should have read: ‘Letting you down one last time.’”

“Well, to be fair, it did save your life.” Rhys chuckled at her stubborn scorn. Somehow nine million dollars and the gift of life still wouldn’t be enough to amend a betrayal in Sasha’s eyes.

“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” Sasha said, cautiously gripping her arm tighter as her foot slipped on the smooth incline of steel panels. “Go ahead with your story.”

“Right… well, after I separated with my arm I realized I could still see Jack. In my head, you know. He couldn’t strangle me anymore which was some small relief I suppose. He was just… making threats, fantasizing about my death, fun stuff to think about when you’re sitting there armless. I actually tried to stab him with a piece of glass… I don’t know why I thought that would work. You can’t stab a hologram.”

Leaning his back against one side of the rubble, Vaughn extended out a leg to push aside a stack of panels, creating a triangular tunnel for Sasha and Rhys to traverse through. Emerging from the other side, Rhys recognized this all now, the toppled digistructed cars and caved-in statue heads. They were close.

“How did you get rid of him?” Vaughn asked after letting the debris he held up tumble into the dust with a huff.

“Well, I figured… a hologram can’t be stabbed but… but I can.”

“What?” Sasha and Vaughn exclaimed in unison with upturned brows.

“Listen, it’s not as bad as that sounded. I just used the glass to cut out my port and… and then I used it to dig out my ECHOeye.”

“WHAT?!”

“Okay, maybe that was as bad as that sounded.”

“Rhys, that port was a 4-inch hole in your brain connected to more than a foot of wire in your eye!” rushed Vaughn, always with a knack for numbers.

“Yeah, that part wasn’t so fun,” Rhys admitted, unknowingly grazing the port on his temple with a tentative finger. “I had to pull out the wire through my eye. Jack was actually on his knees begging me not to.”

To his surprise, a hand brought down his wandering fingers and held them by his side.

“But you had to.” Sasha’s voice and grip were so firm, so assured – another reason she was everything he was not.

Skeletons in Hyperion uniform awaited them by the side of their path. Rhys’ eyes wavered to the sky, to the ground, to Vaughn, to Sasha, everywhere but to the bodies sprawled in the dust.

“That’s what I keep telling myself.”

The tall shattered glass windows of Jack’s office towered over the wreckage like a beacon. Feeling fled from Rhys’ body as his silver hand pointed at the horizon. “It’s over there.”

Sasha’s hand squeezed tighter, pulling him from numbness. He knew what it meant. Another ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ that he would deny before persisting forward.

“Let’s keep going.”

Time had allowed freshly fire-torn wreckage to turn slightly sand-weathered ruins. Featured at the epicenter was an impaled and limp Hyperion YellowTM cyber arm, a hanging decoration stupidly sticking out against the landscape. 

Vaughn shook his head. “Wow you… really weren’t kidding about the arm thing.”

“I know, can you believe it? I actually thought yellow looked good on me. Losing it was the best thing I ever did, though Fiona would probably tell you it was the tie.” Rhys approached the arm, poking at it with his new one. “Atlas Silver* is much more my color.”

“Yeah, but I mean… Rhys, your arm – “

“Looks great in Atlas Silver*.” Sasha hurriedly rushed to finish Vaughn’s sentence. “Trust me.”

“Well, you are the Atlas Silver* expert around here.” Oblivious to the exchange, Rhys turned to face Jack’s partially ransacked cabinet. “Loader Bot already called Dibbs on the Conference Call, but there was some other interesting stuff Jack had in his trophy case, if you wanted to peruse.”

“Don’t mind if I do!”

Sasha wasted little time examining every scrap of distinguishable metal from the dusty shelves. Vaughn nudged at Rhys’ arm, motioning him further from her earshot. “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Yeah, of course. What’s up?”

“Remember the last time we talked alone, back at that biodome while you were trying to find us a way in?”

Rhys combed his hair through his fingers. “Oh yeah, and you brought up something about a party and we bro-hugged it out. How could I forget?”

“Right, anyways I told you how great you were at playing it cool through everything. That’s what you’ve always told me to do, ‘play it cool’, and – and to be honest that’s how I think I’ve survived as long as I have down here. You don’t become a leader of former Hyperion refugees and not play it cool. I think you’re still great at it, new Atlas President and all.”

“Aw, well thanks Vaughn, I apprec—“

“But I think you should stop.”

The conviction in his statement cut the wind from Rhys’ lungs.

“W-what do you mean stop?”

 Vaughn rested his hands on his hips, pondering a moment. “Why did you want to bring us here?”

“You can’t answer a question with a question.”

“Come on! You’ve been ‘playing it cool’ this whole time, we can tell. Doesn’t it bother you even a little bit to see your arm just like… dangling… over there, and…. it’s really disarming.”

“The past is in the past, Vaughn. Atlas is a fresh start. Yeah, I mean… I’ll remember it, it happened, but it doesn’t define me, alright?”

Vaughn’s blue eyes pierced into him, indignant still. “Okay, fine. But why come back here again?”

“I – I don’t…” His thoughts were suddenly jumbled, static.

“RHYS! How do I look?”

He could not have been happier at the sound of the excited voice from the other side of the office.

“Sasha! You look—“

Great, awesome, amazing, pretty, beautiful, goddamn gorgeous; all words he had intended to say. Not the ones he said, however.

“-- not good! Take that off!”

“Hey! Fiona was the only one who got the cool gun, now she’s the only one that gets the cool hat?” Sasha pulled the plum velvet cowboy hat down even tighter around the volume of her hair, clearly to spite him. “I don’t care, I’m keeping it!”

Rhys cringed at the sight. “Okay, but that hat belonged to Handsome Jack’s girlfriend.”

“Oh ew.” Sasha never swiped something off so quickly. “I’ll have to wash it.”

“You’re still keeping it?”

“I dunno. I feel like it suits me.”

“Well, maybe you should keep looking. Anything else over there?”

Rhys took a step towards her.

Crrrack

 He was halted by the sound of shattered glass. Lifting up his boot, he recognized the small fractured frame, Hyperion YellowTM, and a picture of a little girl trapped inside.

“Who’s that?” asked Vaughn, watching as Rhys picked it up to inspect it.

“Jack’s daughter, I guess. Kinda told me about her when we were in his office.”

“I didn’t even know he had a daughter.” Vaughn wiggled the loose picture from the frame, holding it up closer to his de-spectacled face. Sasha soon joined his side.

Rhys shrugged. “Neither did I, he didn’t like anyone knowing about her. I think he called her his ‘Angel.’”

“Do you know where she is? Did she go down with Helios?”  

“No she… she was already dead. Jack found out about it in the Helios database. She, uh, killed herself, apparently.”

“Aw,” Vaughn could finally focus his sight on the sunny freckles and smiling blue eyes. “That’s sad. She seemed sort of happy here.”

“Yeah, I thought so too,” Rhys conceded, staring down at the empty frame in his hand. Almost empty.

Engraved center in the frame backing was a rectangular shape, smooth and shined and untouched by gritty Pandoran dust. Inside the shaped outline were etched letters, nearly translucent, the near-white lavender font only visible when the angle of the light had glanced upon it. Rhys rotated the frame left and right under the bright sun, eventually piecing the word HALO enclosed in a wide oval. With his natural hand, he wedged a fingernail between the rectangular engraving, prying it out of the frame. The smooth shape gave, releasing from its cut-out sheath.

“What’s that?” Sasha asked, as Rhys dropped the frame to examine the thin dark silver brick.

“No Idea. Looks like a… a drive or something. But I don’t see how to enter it anywhere.”

Vaughn scratched at his beard. “Bring it back to Helios, maybe you can find out what it is in what’s left of the database.”

“Good idea, Vaughn.” Rhys pocketed his discovery, just before noticing the sword that was equipped on Sasha’s back. “What’s that?”

“A katana.”

“… Okay. I thought guns were more your speed.”

Sasha pulled the sword from the sheath and waved it wildly in the air. “Oh definitely, but I thought it was going to be fun to show people. Maybe it’s a collector’s item, who knows?”

“Good point. Let’s grab anything else we need and go.”

“Not just yet,” Sasha shook her head, “you never told us how your story ended.”

Rhys wringed his hand in his robotic one. “Oh, yeah. Well, uh, not much more to it really. After I ripped out my cybernetics I crushed the ECHOeye… didn’t want Jack to get out again. Then I passed out here a while, not sure how long exactly. Eventually I came to and took the rights to Atlas from Jack’s trophy case. I wanted a fresh start. I found my way back to the biodome and began patching myself up and rebuilding Atlas. Just recently I was trying to make amends with you and Fiona, you know, over the whole leaving-me-on-Helios misunderstanding.”

“We didn’t mean to leave y-“

“I know that now. Loader bot kidnapped us but was in, like… a really weird disguise.”

“Like, the weirdest,” Vaughn interjected.

“Thanks Vaughn, yes, like the weirdest. Anyways he made us talk about how we found Gortys. Really cleared some things up, I think.” He folded his arms against his chest. “And then you know the rest.”

“I’m… I’m sorry we didn’t find you earlier.” Sasha adjusted her cast, wincing at the pain. “I can’t even imagine how you felt after all that.”

Vaughn raised his hand. “Me too. The Children of Helios would have been more than happy to help you out.”

“Yeah that… T-that still makes me a little uncomfortable.” Rhys turned his back to the office, resting his eyes on the Hyperion bodies amongst the litter of rubble, then to the moon.  With the sun setting and painting the sky in a dusty bronze, the view of Elpis and its craters had never glowed brighter. Maybe it had. No one would have been able to tell if it had still been obstructed by that towering space station.

“Let’s get back to Helios.”

“Wait, Rhys, what do you think I should I do with this?” Vaughn still clung to the image of Jack’s little girl in his hands.

“It was Jack’s. Leave it here.” Rhys continued down the office steps, not about to wait up on them.

Vaughn reluctantly opened his hand to let the wind take it. The picture swayed briefly in the breeze as he left, finally coming to rest in the sand beneath an impaled Hyperion YellowTM arm.

 


 

*Trademark Pending

Chapter Text

 

                                                       

“Read ‘em and weep, girls!”

The winner slammed her pocket aces on the table, gathering the toppling pile of makeshift chips into her corner. Collective sighs greeted her victory.

 Athena’s losing cards scattered across the table. “You do know you have nine million dollars to bet with, right?”

“I know! Isn’t it great?” Fiona fanned a wad of cash, flipping through each bill with her finger. “Add that to the loot Sasha nabbed and we might as well have the ten million we wanted in the first place.”

“Do you know how many lunches you can buy with that kind of cash?” asked Yvette as she grabbed the remaining cards from Janey and shuffled the deck.

“That’s an… oddly specific measurement of money.” Fiona arranged her many towers of chip stacks. “Vaughn would probably know.”

“It was more of a rhetorical question.”

“Oh.”

She lifted her new hand from the table. A Queen of Spades. A Jack of Hearts. A good hand, at least without another literal ace up her sleeve.

By her turn, Janey picked up her two cards, grimaced, and pushed them away. Fiona did not have to be a master at reading people to know Janey’s poker face was awful. Unlike her fiancé, whose stone cold face was neigh impenetrable.

“When are the others getting back anyways?” Janey asked, her sweet voice thick with an Elpian accent. “They’ve been gone a while.”

“Eh, I’m not worried.” Fiona kicked back her seat and rested her boots on the table. “Rhys and I travelled a hundred dimensions just to get back to Pandora; he can find his way back to Helios.”

“A hundred dimensions?” Athena’s poker face gave way to curiosity. “What exactly was in that Vault?”

 “Some portal chest thing that took us to a different dimension every time we opened it. Let me tell you there are some things out there I never want to see again – including Rhys blubbering like a baby.”

 “Rhys was crying?” Yvette poorly hid her grin, almost as if she enjoyed the thought.

Fiona nodded. “Oh yeah. He kept screaming stuff like ‘how will we ever get back?’, ‘I don’t want to die here!’, ‘Fiona, you are so much better than me at everything, please save me!’”

“I never said that.”

The four turned to find a disgruntled Rhys, arms folded across his chest, trailing behind Sasha and Vaughn at the room’s opening.  

“A-at least not that last part.”

He dismissed himself from the conversation with haste, focusing his attention to the computers stacked in the corner of the room. Vaughn kneeled on the ground besides him, striking flint above a charred circle of leftover firewood.

“Fiona, you better not be betting all our money away,” Sasha chided, positioning herself behind her sister to sneak a peek at her cards.

“Are you kidding? I’m doubling it.” Fiona placed her chips on the table, one by one, clanking with the rhythm of striking flint. A hefty bet at one thousand in chips and Yvette and Athena folded their hands, begrudgingly pushing the pot towards her. “See? Just won with a queen and a jack.”

“Yeah, great. Hey check out this cool sword!” Sasha interrupted the game, unsheathing the katana from her back with her good arm and extending it out over the poker table.

The sharpened steel reflected the light of dying day and catching fire into Fiona’s eyes. “Where’d you get that?”

“Jack’s office, or what was left of it. Does anyone want to buy this off of me?”

“I-“

“We’re saving for our wedding, sorry.” Janey interrupted her fiancé, restricting Athena’s eager hand in her own. “We’ve already lost too much to your sister here.”

 “Come on guys, I don’t want to carry this everywhere,” Sasha nearly returned the sword to its sheath before Fiona stopped her.

“Wait, what about Yvette?”

“Me?” The ex-Hyperion scoffed. “What would I do with that?”

“Think about it. Last time I saw you, I knocked you out cold with a fist to the face,” Fiona said, following with a quick apologetic smile. “Sorry about that, by the way.”

“I might have deserved that, at the time.” Yvette’s face flushed some shade of red. “But what does that have to do with a sword?”

“Fiona’s right,” Athena said. “Here on Pandora you have to learn how to survive, and to do that you have to learn to make do. I have a shield, my mercenary experience. Fiona has her wits and sharp eye. Sasha has her guns, Vaughn has his leadership. Rhys has…”

The women turned to Rhys, slamming a rectangular brick into the keyboard and uttering silent curses every few attempts.

“… his, uh, charisma.”

“Oh, you don’t have to sugar-coat it. No one is more surprised than I am that Rhys is still alive,” Yvette said, shaking her head. “But you really think a sword is my key to survival?”

“Never said it was.” The Vault Hunter raised her shield above the table. “I didn’t choose a shield to protect me, but it’s what I have. If a sword is what you’re given to survive out here, take it. Anything is better than nothing, especially when all you have now is the shell of a hated space station and some sunbaked accountants.”

“And learn how to take a punch,” added Fiona, waving a half-hearted fist.

Yvette sighed, resigned, and shuffled through the depths of her pockets. “Fine, fine. Since you guys won’t let up. This means I’m out of the game, now,” she said, forking over her stash to Sasha. She gripped the katana’s handle, her wrist shaking under the weight. 

“You’ll need practice, but you’ll get the hang of it,” Athena assured her, glaring down across the chips and cards on the poker table. “We should end the game anyways, before Fiona steals all of our money.”

Yvette side-eyed the con artist. “Someone definitely owes me a lunch for this.”

“What about a… knuckle sandwich? Eh heh.”

“Enough with the punching jokes.”

“Sorry.”

Fiona collected her loosely earned winnings and joined her sister near the roaring fire, courtesy of Vaughn, and soaked in the heat that night had stolen. Holding her open hands to the fire, Fiona noticed Rhys behind the crackling flames, still struggling with the computers.

“What’cha doin’ there?”

“Nothing, just… trying to find a file.” Rhys’ fingers furiously pecked at the keyboards, accompanied by the faint beeping alarms of failed security clearance.

“Rhys found a computer drive in Jack’s office,” Vaughn explained. “There might be something about it in the Helios database.”

Fiona’s eyebrows furrowed as she pushed hanging hair from her face. “I thought we learned Handsome Jack and computer drives don’t mix well. Especially for you.”

He didn’t respond. Perhaps a stinging pang of guilt caused her to bite a lip and fiddle with her fingers. Perhaps she crossed a line with Handsome Jack, with Rhys. A burning stare from her sister confirmed it, but she was not about to apologize either.

Athena, Janey, and Yvette joined them by the fire, eyeing Rhys as he continued to type and occasionally pause to inspect the drive.

“Where’s uh… where’s Loader Bot and Gortys? And Cassius?” Vaughn asked, noticing the headcount was suspiciously low, and attempting to lure away tension.

Fiona lay back as she recalled their whereabouts, her palms cool against the steel floor. “Loader bot and Gortys took a tour around Helios – I believe those two deserve a cute night out together. As for Cassius I think all the action might have worn the poor guy out and he called it in early for the night.”

Vaughn shrugged. “Oh, that’s good, I guess. Does he know where all the beds are – “

“FOUND SOMETHING!”

Their company jumped at Rhys’ sudden outcry, finding the computer screens were littered with dozens of flickering windows all labeled ‘HALO’.

“What’s that?” Fiona asked, standing herself up.

“Hmm, still seems to have some serious security on this thing. Must be some top secret project – has to be, the way I found it. But I was able to hack into the lower level information files.”

He enlarged a window for the others to read.

 

The HALO Project

Professor Nakayama – in collaboration with Handsome Jack – embarked on the HALO Project exclusively on Handsome Jack’s orders after he witnessed the successful Artificial Intelligence integration in his own image. The new project required a unique subject. Nakayama was granted special access to restricted intelligence in an effort to create the most comprehensive Hyperion database system in history.

UPDATE: Upon subject’s death, the HALO Project will continue. All necessary data from the subject has been collected, and construction is underway. A prototype of the project has been given to Handsome Jack. Efforts have been pushed on his orders.

UPDATE: Upon Handsome Jack’s death, the HALO Project will continue but will not receive adequate funding for full completion. The prototype will be remotely updated. Testing will soon begin.

UPDATE: Upon Nakayama’s death, the HALO Project has been discontinued. Results inconclusive. Security level has been lowered.

 

“All this for some failed Hyperion database system? That’s a little disappointing.” Rhys clicked through several more windows but none presented more information about the project.

Fiona swiped the silver drive from the keyboard, squinting at the translucent label. “What’s this then?”

“Maybe it’s the prototype they gave Jack.” Rhys opened his hand for her to return it. “I don’t know how to activate it – not really sure if I want to. But we can’t leave it in Helios.”

“Oh yeah? What are you going to do with it?” She placed the drive in his hand, watching as he slipped it into his coat pocket.

“Not sure. But having a Hyperion project around Helios just seems like a bad idea. I might be able to find out more if I can install it on my isolated Atlas computers. There’ll be less damage that way if it does turn out to be another homicidal AI.”

“Can’t you just scan the thing with your robo-eye?”

“I-I… No, I can’t,” Rhys stuttered, “It doesn’t work like that anymore. My replacement cybernetics aren’t connected to the ECHOnet.”

“Alright, whatever, do what you need to. But if it’s something that’s gonna try to get us killed just don’t get me or Sasha involved. We’re done with Atlas and Hyperion and all their harebrained projects after this.”

“Uhhhhhh…” Rhys and Sasha started in unison.

“’Uh’?” Fiona asked, glancing between her sister and the company man. “’Uh’ what?”

Sasha spoke up on his behalf. “Yeah, uh, about that… Rhys offered me a job at Atlas while we were walking back from Jack’s office. He said I would make a good weapons tester and I could help him design new prototypes.”

“Of course he did.” Placing her hands on her hips, Fiona shot a burning glare into Rhys. He was quick to return the favor.

“What? It’s a good opportunity for her. I mean, a good paying job working with guns. It’s a perfect fit. I thought you wanted a better for her than conning the rest of your lives.”

She opened her mouth to utter a usual snide quip but… he had a point. Nine million dollars from Felix was enough to spare them a lifetime of hustling poor saps for extra cash, but that was all they knew. Now that she had dedicated herself to a life as an aspiring Vault Hunter, she had left her sister in Hollow Point searching for mundane jobs. Sasha deserved better than a life cooped up in a cave on the outskirts of Pandora’s Badlands – even if that meant she chose it with Rhys, working under a ruined corporate name.

“Fine. Just don’t get her involved in whatever this is.”

 “I can take care of myself, Fi,” Sasha cut in.

She glanced down at Sasha, the fire illuminating her face in a golden hue. Fiona’s eyes wandered to the cast, snug and tight, nestling a broken arm underneath her chest.

“I know. We’ll talk about it more in the morning.”

Vaughn stood suddenly, clapping his hands together. “Well, this has been an exciting day! Loader Bot and Gortys returned, we kicked Vault Monster ass, Sasha came back from the dead, good times. Definitely stories to tell the grandchildren, right? But I think we should, uh, hit the hay now.”

He paused, receiving blank stares from the group. “Right, okay, let me show everyone to the sleeping rooms we have.”

The team shuffled to their feet and followed Vaughn into a connecting hallway, lit along its length with blinking buttons. Fiona waited for the others to pass, rubbing her eyes in admitted exhaustion. She knew Vaughn’s eager suggestion was meant to avoid further conflict, but a night’s rest in a real bed after a week of sleeping in dust and drool and duct tape sounded like a good idea.

Instead, Athena gripped Fiona’s arm, firmly holding her by the fire while the group continued onwards.

“I wanted to talk to you. Alone.”

“Athena? Can this wait until morning?”

“No.” Athena peeked over Fiona’s shoulder, ensuring the group had disappeared within the darkness of the hallway. “It’s about my marriage with Janey.”

“I thought you wanted to get married?”

“Yes, of course I do, but…” Athena sighed, pacing around the dwindling fire. “There are certain things I have to give up first.”

“You mean Vault Hunting?” Fiona remembered the betrayal in Janey’s voice back in Scooter’s shop. Athena loved few things in life, but she loved Janey, and she loved Vault Hunting. At some point she would have to choose between the two.

“Yes. I’m… grateful, you invited me and Springs for this Vault mission. I think this might have to be my last.”

 Fiona shrugged. “That’s okay, right? You and Janey seem happy together. You shouldn’t risk that doing something so dangerous.”

“You’re right. Are you willing to risk it?”

“What?”

Athena pulled an ECHO from her belt, shoving it into Fiona’s hands. “Play the message.”

Fiona’s finger wavered over the play button before pressing down with a teal-painted nail. Flickering sound waves flashed onto the screen as a sprightly male voice emitted from the device.

“Testing… testing… is this thing on… Oh! Hey, this is a recorded message for Athena, ex-mercenary of the Crimson Lance. This is X-Ray –specialty weapons specialist. Y’know, I was an ex-something too… ex-Slab, before Hyperion fell outta the sky. If you’re hearing this, we’re interested in hiring someone with your skill to join our team of Vault Hunters.

“Truth is, one of our own is retiring – can you believe that? Retiring on Pandora. Bless the guy, but Doppler will need a replacement. Says he’s heard about what you can do and wants to train ya in what he knows. I gotta say you’ve got an impressive rap sheet. Can’t complain.

“Anyways, the coordinates to the meeting point are on the ECHO. We’ll be waiting for ya there for three days. If you don’t show your face by then I guess we’ll assume you aren’t interested. But you really shouldn’t pass this offer up. X-Ray signing out.”

The ECHO cut from the message, and the screen reappeared with a digital map. A blinking diamond marked the path. Fiona shook her head. “Why are you showing me this?”

“Because I got that message yesterday, and it will still be valid tomorrow. I wasn’t going to go through with it, not when I promised Janey I was going to quit my line of work. I’m getting married. But you?” Athena pushed the ECHO closer to Fiona’s chest. “This seems like the perfect opportunity to learn more about Vault Hunting.”

“Me?” Fiona replayed the message through her head, searching for a loophole. “They said they wanted you. I’m not you. I can’t do half the stuff you can.”

“Which is why you need this. Look, I’ll record a message on the ECHO explaining my absence and vouch for you. If they don’t like the offer, they’ll leave. It’s worth a shot if it means you can learn how to fight besides real Vault Hunters.”

“Do you even know these guys?”

“No, never heard of them. But that’s not an excuse.  Anything is better than nothing out here.”

Fiona traced the buttons on the ECHO with her finger. Everything was moving so fast. Normally that would bode well for a con artist, with a sleight of hand and a trick of the eye and everything would fall in her favor. No – things don’t always go according to plan. The dreams of escaping Pandora, sipping fruity drinks with Sasha on some nicer planet’s beach, those were never going to happen. Not on a fault or misfortune of their own, just a change in plans.

She closed her eyes, sensing the Vault of the Traveler’s pulsing glow in the bleak distance. Those hundred dimensions danced across her eyelids like a slideshow, never one lingering long enough for her to grasp where she had been. Towering grass concealing hungry eyes. Bubbling lava. Precarious mountain cliff sides. A suffocating purple void. Maybe she missed one in the panic. Unbeknownst to Rhys, she was no less terrified than he was.

Her fingers left the ECHO and searched beneath the cuff of her sleeve for the fold of a card. Pinching the corner, she tugged the ace from her sleeve and unfolded the worn thing, the ‘A’ nearly rubbed off with use. Athena’s face slackened at the realization.

“You cheated.”

“Con artist.”

Fiona folded the ace again. She reluctantly opened her hand to let the wind take it. The card swayed briefly in the breeze, finally coming to rest in the low burning remains of the campfire.

“I was a con artist. I want to be a Vault Hunter.”

Chapter Text

                                                  

Knocking on the sisters’ door was exactly like flipping a coin – at least in his mind – which was why his clammy fist hovered parallel to the locked metal frame. It was uncertain how long he had stood there as morning sun trickled through cracks of the hallway, his knuckles pressed white against peeling yellow paint, but the longer he delayed it, the longer he delayed the inevitable sour turn of the coin. Besides whichever sister opened the door, he would also inevitably wake whichever one was snoring like a buzz saw, sending vibrations under the door through his boots. Hopefully, he would be greeted by the more merciful one.

Rhys inhaled and retreated his closed hand from the door, ready to thrust it forward. The door opened as he did, and his fist made contact with something very different from metal.

“Ow! Wha- Rhys, what the hell?”

“Sasha! I didn’t – shit, I didn’t mean to do that!” Rhys attempted to rub Sasha’s forehead where he had knocked on her skull, but her hand flung his away.

“Shh! Keep it down, Fiona’s still sleeping. What the hell are you doing standing out here? You didn’t think I could hear you hyperventilating?”

“I-I wasn’t… hyperventilating…”

“You were breathing like a wounded skag. It’s bad enough I live with Fiona’s snoring.”

Sasha jutted a thumb over her shoulder, inviting Rhys to glance into the room. The bed immediately behind her hosted a lumpy, contorted blanket, barely covering the limbs that twisted in wild directions beneath it. Fiona’s mouth hung wide – not drooling, to her credit, but snarling with every obscene guttural utterance.

“That’s um, yeah… yikes.”

“Yeah.” She nestled her healthy arm under the casted one, looking back at her sleeping sister. “But she had a long day yesterday. She gets that way when she’s too tired. So, what do you want?”

“Vaughn asked me to get everybody up for one last goodbye. He wants to make the day special, you know?” Rhys mirrored Sasha, crossing his arms. “Since we’re leaving today?”

“For Atlas? Yeah…” her voice trailed off.

“You don’t have to sound so excited.” Rhys shook his head, flashing a faint smile. “Hey, it’s not like we’re leaving forever. You’ll visit Fiona in Hollow Point and I’ll come back to Helios to visit Vaughn. Cassius might visit somebody… maybe… probably not.”

“That’s going to be difficult when Fiona’s not in Hollow Point,” Sasha said, staring intently at the ground. Her white tank top wrinkled as she shrugged her shoulders. “She’s accepting a new job today too, hanging out with a bunch of Vault Hunters.”

“Okay, I might be wrong, but I think I’m sensing a little hostility.”

She was silent a while, her eyes continuing to aimlessly scan the floor. “I don’t know.  I should be happy for her, right? Maybe it’s just… knowing all our plans to get off Pandora aren’t happening as soon as we thought.”

“Well, I have some ground property on Eden 5, you can come with me to – “

Witnessing her frown downturn further prompted a revision in his statement, “You and Fiona can still travel together, and you guys have the money.”

“It’s not about the money anymore. It’s what we want that’s changed.”

Rhys understood full well the feeling.

Sasha laughed, attempting to relieve her tension. “I guess… it’s like what August said. Plans change.”

“Yeah, right. August.”

During their travels to find the Vault, Rhys had not been too concerned about August. Concerned about the gun he too readily aimed at everyone’s head, yes, but not the status he held as Sasha’s unstable ex-boyfriend. But hearing her mention his name now, even after all the time they spent apart, caused his pulse to quake in his chest.

“Well, I’ll meet you in the control room.” His exit strategy wasn’t the most graceful he realized as he quickly shuffled off down the hallway, Sasha strangely glaring at his back. But then again, goodbyes were never his specialty.

 


 

 

The click of locking metal, followed close by heavy footsteps, were the only sounds she could distinguish from reality. Her mind ran unusually blank. With no dreams to entertain her in sleep, the cushiony nest of blankets and pillows offered a drifting comfort.

“Fiona? Fi, get up.”

The words filtered through her ears but did not register. Her half-conscious hands fumbled for the blanket’s hem, tugging it further above her chest in defiance.

“Oh you – fine.”

Slim fingers dug into the blanket, clutching the folds between the knuckles, and ripped the fabric from the contours of her body. Fiona’s previously sprawled limbs recoiled, the room’s cold musky air assaulting her vulnerable skin. “Hey! Give that back!”  Slurred speech tumbled from her lips as she desperately wrestled the blanket from her sister’s hands. Her sight was still blurred, her eyes fogged over with bleary sleep.

“We’re getting up now. Vaughn wants us all to meet up soon, before we leave.”

Sasha’s voice proved colder than the air. Fiona surrendered the blanket and sat up, stretching her arms and back. “What’s up? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Sasha said, shrugging her jacket over her shoulders and fixing her headband. “I’m just… sad to say goodbye.”

Fiona was not entirely convinced by her answer, but dropped the subject anyways. “I know, but hey, it’s not like we’re leaving forever. I can come visit you at the biodome.”

“You sound like Rhys sometimes.”

Resting the tips of her fingers above her chest, Fiona breathed an insulted gasp as she leaned back in dramatic pose. “You can’t expect me to not take that personally.”

Sasha didn’t respond, sitting on her bed and clumsily slipping on her shoes with one hand.  That familiar stinging guilt from last night built up in Fiona’s chest again.

“You know, I don’t really think Rhys is that bad. I even told him in the Vault, I thought we made a great team.  I’m just giving him a hard time, mostly to make up for everything we had to go through.”

“That wasn’t entirely Rhys’ fault. We were the ones that were conning them out of ten million dollars. And the Handsome Jack thing… I don’t blame him now, not for all of that.”

 “What, you don’t blame him for waiting until the last minute to tell us about it?” Fiona threw herself from the bed, fully awake, and started to scavenge the room for her clothes.

“I mean, he was right, we did react badly.” She managed to crack a smile, picking up her sister’s hat from the floor and flinging it towards her. “But he stayed with us. Jack nearly killed him, anyways. I think that probably makes up for any wrong he did.”

“You’re just sweet on him,” Fiona teased, adjusting the black hat to cover her bed head.  Dismissing and diverting was her best method of avoiding the issue. “You should probably know I gave him my ‘blessing’. It’s obvious he’s had a thing for you. Though, now that he’s your current employer, I’m kind of starting to regret it now.”

 Sasha buried her reddening face in her hands. “Fiona…

“Hey, it’s your fault for telling me the flower story. And I never thought you of all people would take a corporate job.”

She lifted her face, shaking her head. “Me neither. I gotta say, even though Hyperion was a horrible, bloodthirsty corporation, I did love that view. The biodome is different but… it still seems like a world away from Pandora.”

Fiona fastened the finishing touches of her outfit – the tightened straps of her boots, the knife holster hugging her thigh, the laced strings of her collar. “Athena said the best thing about Atlas was their amazing lattés. I’m just saying, maybe there’s more to working at a place than their little perks.”

“It’s not just the perks, Fiona. You’re leaving me to run around Pandora looking for Vaults, and we never got to see a world other than this. Taking this job might be my best chance to get off this rock and do something with my life, with or without you.”

Both their eyes widened.

 “Ah, so that is what this is about.”

“Fi, it’s not like that. I know what I just said was a little harsh, but – “

“No. I get it. I haven’t been very considerate of what you wanted, have I?”

“Like I said, I didn’t mean it like that.” Sasha tended to her arm again, a forming habit. “You have bigger and better things to do. Maybe I’m just jealous… or maybe I think you’ve outgrown me. I don’t know. I just want a dream to chase too.”

“I don’t blame you. Things are different now. But we’re sisters; I’ll never ‘outgrow’ you.” Fiona ginned, trying to lighten the mood, “You’re stuck with me, like it or not.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. Come on, let’s go before Rhys tries to wake us up again.” Sasha still feigned a friendly tone, but Fiona knew better than to press her further. She stood up from her bed and opened the door, welcoming in the sunlight that blinded Fiona’s unadjusted eyes.

 

The sisters traveled in silence through the blinking corridor, following the heated sunlight on their faces. It wasn’t long before they heard the rumble of the buzzard’s engine roaring above voices – some jovial, some tired, some serious. Though, one rose from the rest, flooded with concern.

“Fiona?” The high, robotic voice approached her at the lip of the hallway, accompanied with unmistakably distraught angled lids. “You’re all going away?”

“Oh, Gortys,” Fiona started, kneeling to the little robot’s level and shifting into a gentle tone, “we’re not going away forever.”

“That’s what I told her!” Rhys interrupted, standing beside Loader Bot.

Gortys’ voice wavered as she stared at Fiona’s boots. “B-but we’re a team. We’re friends. And friends stay together, right?”

“Of course we are. We’re all friends.” Fiona glanced at Rhys a moment. He met her with a slight nod before she continued, “But we have different adventures to go on right now. We’ll see each other again, I promise.”

She didn’t respond, instead rolling into Fiona and embracing her calves with thin arms. “I’ll miss you.”

Fiona’s heart melted at the gesture and she returned the affection with a pat on her head, “I’ll miss you too, Gortys.”

Loader Bot spoke in his mechanical monotone. “Gortys and I will stay here at Helios and the Vault of the Traveler. We will meet here when you are done with your adventures.”

“Sounds like a plan, LB,” agreed Rhys.

After Gortys broke from the embrace, a slight wave from Athena and Janey, standing at a distance from the rest, caught Fiona’s attention. The pair motioned the late-arriving sisters wearing eager smiles across their faces – natural from Janey, nothing short of unexpected from Athena.

“Uh, what’s up guys?” Fiona hoped her suspicion was not revealed in her tone.

Janey grabbed her wrist as well as Sasha’s and pulled them towards her with barely-concealed excitement. “Before you all take off, we wanted to ask you two something!”

“What is it?” Sasha mirrored the excitement, leaning in with anticipation.

“Well, we were wondering if you wanted to be…” unable to contain herself, Janey released their wrists, fanning her hands in the air in a ‘ta-da’ motion. “Our bridesmaids!”

Fiona turned to Athena, surprised to see her with expectant wide eyes, as supportive of the idea as Janey was. “A-are you serious? Of course!”

Sasha nodded. “Definitely! It’ll be fun!”

“Great! Woo, that’s a relief. I wasn’t sure what you’d say, being off on all your travels and such. It’s still a long ways off, but it’s good to know when the time comes. That reminds me, Fiona, Athena told me about that Vault Hunter group you were going to meet up with. I’ll be happy to drop you off there with my car.”

She sensed her sister’s soured expression, but Fiona pretended not to notice. “Yeah, that sounds good. Thank you.”

“Not a problem for our future bridesmaid.”

“You still got that lucky bullet of yours?” Athena inquired, handing her the ECHO presumably with her pre-recorded message.

If she were being honest, the bullet had nearly slipped her mind. Of her time training herself to survive as a Vault Hunter in Pandora’s desolate environments, she had never found the need. After a while, rakks and skags and psychos all proved easy enough to put down with a few well-placed elemental shots. Even with more testing adversaries, none were worthy of that bullet. Her fingers wandered to the small pocket she had sewn special into her jacket, finding the hard steel shell still sitting inside. “I have it.”

“Good. Remember it.”

“I will.” Athena’s advice was likely meant with good intentions, but Fiona couldn’t help but find her reminder rather ominous.

“Okay, my turn!” Rhys interrupted the gathering with Vaughn and Yvette by his side. “Don’t think you can leave without saying goodbye.”

It took Fiona a moment to realize he was talking to her, and not Sasha. “What, you mean me? I thought you’d be happy to get me out of your hair.”

“After what we’ve gone through? Look, we might have gotten on each other’s nerve every once in a while… a lot… okay, every single day we were kidnapped together. But like Gortys said, we’re a team. I figured at least a proper farewell was in order.”

The sides of her lips slipped into a smirk. “Fair enough.” She opened her hand for a welcoming handshake, offering it to Rhys. He shook his head.

“You can do better than that.” Rhys outstretched his arms to either side. “Come on, bring it in Fiona.”

Her initial instinct was to resist his suggestion. Maybe a week of spitting and punching and insulting him conditioned her that way. Glaring first at Rhys’ chrome hand, and then to his golden, inactive eye, she reluctantly conceded. With a hesitant step forward, she wrapped her arms around his slender body. “Fine, you lying Hyperion jackass.”

Rhys let out a single genuine laugh, perhaps along with some surprise, and returned the warm albeit awkward embrace. “Thanks, you scheming Pandoran scum.”

Another lingering thought crossed her mind. She turned her head and lifted herself to her toes, nearing her mouth at his ear level, and whispered, “Be careful, don’t let that blessing go to your head. And make sure… make sure she doesn’t get herself killed again.”

With another slight turn of her head she witnessed Rhys’ expression fall into seriousness, just as he let her go. “I’ll try.”

“Ah, and don’t forget these!” Vaughn stepped in, unknowingly shifting the mood once again, and handed everyone a small satchel. “They’re little going away gifts, mostly with food and ammo. It’s the least we could do.”

“Thanks, Vaughn. You didn’t have to do that.” Fiona tugged the string-tied opening of her bag loose and rummaged through its contents. Fruit – of course, what else would it be? Ammo – to her pleasant surprise they were exclusively pistol rounds, personalized for her gun of choice. And a single slip of paper, which Fiona pulled from the bag to read its frilly cursive.

U.O.Me

One lunch for Yvette

 

“I had to make sure you didn’t forget.” The note’s author laughed as Fiona read it and lifted a curious brow.

“Noted. Good luck, Yvette.” This time, her offer for a handshake took, and she was relieved that Yvette spared her from another awkward hugging session.

With a last bro-fist from Vaughn and a parting wave from Cassius, the final person that remained for her goodbye was her sister.  Sasha lips were sealed tight refusing to speak first, but she didn’t need too. Faint rouge framed her eyes and the green of her irises glistened like watered emerald; it was a telltale sign of her anger, or sadness, or usually and in this case, probably both.

“Sasha,” Fiona said, “I know we’re going our separate ways but… I’ll still be there for you when you need me. That won’t ever change.”

A breathy laugh escaped from her sister. “I know, Fi. You don’t need to make this so dramatic. I hope you take care of yourself out there.”

“You too.” Fiona couldn’t help glancing at Sasha’s cast once more, instilling guilty self-consciousness in her sister. It was no secret Sasha’s near-death experience made their parting a tale in caution. Entrusting Rhys with Sasha’s life was, in retrospect, questionable. Rhys could barely ensure his own survival. But as long as she knew he was one more person that wouldn’t let her make stupid sacrifices in her absence, it was a back-up plan she was willing to take. With a motherly gentleness, Fiona carefully avoided Sasha’s broken arm and pulled her in for one last hug, one she wanted. It was never a promise she could do this again.

“Are you ready to go?” Athena asked after Fiona had satisfied her goodbyes. Janey had already hopped into the driver seat of the car, starting up the engine to rival that of the buzzard.

“As I’ll ever be.” Fiona revolved the barrel of her derringer and pushed it back under her sleeve. With unsure hands, she climbed into the gunner seat and sat down on the newly remodeled upholstery.  

“Now, that ECHO has my message for the Vault Hunters. Show it to them if they have any questions about you,” Athena shouted over the engine. “If you ever find yourself in need help, you can call me. But try not to.”

Athena always did have a way with words.

“Oh, and if you should run into a woman named Lilith, don’t mention me.”

“Why not?”

The gladiator scowled, resting her rough hands on her hips. “Bad business there. Best for you not to get involved with the lot in Sanctuary. You’ve already met Brick and Mordecai. Their team may be the best Vault Hunters on Pandora and have the power of two sirens, but they can hold grudges. Especially Lilith.”

Fiona smiled. “And you don’t?”

Athena raised her eyebrows, impressed with the retort. “Fair point.”

Fiona scanned the heads of her friends in Helios, talking and laughing and ready for the rest of their lives, free of trepidation.

“Fiona,” Athena spoke again, as if she sensed her worry. “When I said you’ll do fine out there, I meant it.”

For once, her reassuring words provided actual reassurance. Fiona tipped her hat, giving a nod to Janey. “Thanks. I hope you’re right.”

Janey stepped on the gas and whisked Fiona away from Helios with screeching tires and a cloud of dust. The figure of her sister became harder and harder to distinguish as they drove towards the morning sun, until even Helios itself disappeared behind the horizon.

 


 

 

“Oh, here, let me help you.” Rhys took hold of Sasha’s hand, offering her balance as she entered the buzzard seat. They had asked Janey to install more seats in the buzzard so they wouldn’t have to cling onto the edges of the flying vehicle. Unfortunately, it seemed she could only install one additional seat in its narrow frame, meaning Sasha, Rhys, and Cassius would have to get comfortable.

It would be a tight fit, sure, but he was curious if they could fit one more. “You know, my offer still stands.”

Vaughn responded with a confident shake of his head. “Nah, I can’t just leave the Children of Helios alone out here. Someone’s gotta lead them.”

When Rhys had offered Sasha an Atlas job during their trek back form Jack’s office, he had also extended a similar offer for an accounting position to Vaughn. He was sure he could predict their reactions – Vaughn with an enthusiastic acceptance, Sasha with a reluctant decline. Yet, they both acted so different than the vision in his head, he was ashamed he didn’t know his friends nearly as well as he thought. It was clear to him that he wasn’t the only one who had changed during their separation.

“Well, maybe when we get Atlas up and running again, I’ll hire some of these guys back too. You know, if they’re not too afraid of clamping their ‘corporate shackles’ back on.”

Vaughn beamed. “Rhys, the Children of Helios idolize you. As long as Atlas doesn’t become a tyrannical overlord like Hyperion was, I’m sure they’d be more than willing to take any jobs you might have. I might think about it too, as long as I can do more than tabulating numbers all day.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Rhys, in an oddly sentimental mood, hugged his friend for a last goodbye. He wasn’t about to hug Yvette, but a friendly salute and wink would suffice.

“Come on, Rhys. Let’s hit the road… or -or air, I guess.”

“I’m coming, Sash.”

Rhys climbed into the buzzard and took the central seat next to her, gripping the steering controls. Cassius followed, and the discomfort of cramping three people into a two-person seat became immediately apparent.

“Good luck!” Vaughn yelled over the buzzard’s engine, waving as the vehicle lifted from the ground and hovered in the air. With a faint smile, Rhys waved back, before pressing the controls forward and propelling the buzzard towards their destination.

 

Chapter Text

                                                             

“Is that… Hollow Point?”

“Mhmm. Why?”

Sasha dangled her left leg off the side of the flying buzzard, scarcely paying the cave below any mind as she answered Rhys’ question.

“There’s a huge radio tower sticking out of it. I’m not the only one who sees that, right?”

“No you are not,” Cassius confirmed.

“That’s Radio Hollow Point,” Sasha answered, upholding a sense of indifference in her home cave. “The station really expanded after the new managers came in. It’s definitely not the same since I worked there.”

“You worked at a radio station?” Rhys asked. “I didn’t know that.”

Without skipping a beat, Sasha snapped from her hazy look and placed a finger on an imaginary earpiece, smoothing her voice like cloth under iron. “Good evening Hollow Point! DJ Rakk Attack here with your wave in the cave. Coming up: your daily dose of ‘What the Hell, Hyperion?’ debates. But first, your favorite Pandoran hits.”

“So it’s an anti-Hyperion channel.” Rhys chuckled, silently wondering how defensive he would have been if she had told him this on the day of the botched Vault key deal.

“It was an anti-Hyperion channel. New managers came in and upgraded the area the station covered for miles outside of Hollow Point, and changed the subject from anti-Hyperion to anti-corporations. There wasn’t much point blabbing about Hyperion once Helios fell. At that point I started to take up delivery jobs for Janey.”

Rhys turned the knobs on the buzzard’s radio, tuning through static and faint stations broadcasting in foreign language. “Guess it would be a good idea to listen to what criticisms they have about corporations, being the president of one. What’s the frequency?”

“You’re listening to my- their station? I mean, you can. I just don’t think their music selection is as good as mine was.” Sasha gripped onto the sides of the buzzard, wearing an expression caught somewhere between envy and flattery.

“I don’t doubt that. Wait, I think I got it.”

The radio emitted blaring static before a young woman’s voice arose from the noise, calm, warm.

“Good afternoon, Radio Hollow Point listeners. This is Wave in the cave. Today, on the anniversary, we pay our respects to Helios: the old branded symbol of Hyperion’s tyranny and oppression now lost somewhere in the deserts of Pandora. Vault Hunters have scoured the wreckage searching for abandoned riches – finding no Hyperion survivors. We people of Pandora are free to claim back what is ours. Even after all this time, no official word of cause has been identified. But one thing is for certain: this planet is in debt to the brave soul that sent Handsome Jack’s legacy crashing into flames.”

“Maybe we should change the channel…” Sasha meekly suggested, attempting to slip her fingers onto the knob, but Rhys kept a firm grip on it.

“We at Radio Hollow Point are currently recruiting experienced Vault Hunters to infiltrate the Helios base. Fame, fortune, and exclusive interviews at our station await you.”

“I hope Vaughn’s alright,” Rhys muttered, soliciting a soft stare from Sasha.

“He’ll be fine. Vaughn’s kept them safe this long. He’s not going to let his guard down now.”

“Yeah… yeah, I guess you’re right.”

 “We’ll be right back after this.” The woman’s voice cut out. Replaced instead was a swelling electronic ringing, soon accompanied with an ethereal melody and pulsating beat. It was the start of a song, the start of… something. Perhaps the long-awaited beginning of a new story.

 


 

 

Fiona found some comfort listening to her sister’s old radio station as her body rocked with the vehicle. Though, the musical beat did not completely drown out Janey’s ramblings about colors, dresses, venues, budgets, dishes, invitations, flowers, accented napkins. As guilty as she was that she couldn’t focus her attention on Janey’s wedding plans, her mind was overflowing with enough worries and what-ifs to consume her, and the last thing she cared about was the arrangement of the bouquet she would be holding months from now.

Spanning out for miles, every direction held nothing but golden desert sand. Rough patches of rocks slipped under the tires, and her body trembled with the violent vibrations they sent through the metal frame of the car. Janey paused from spouting her plans after the vibrations shook her voice, or perhaps she noticed Fiona’s prolonged disinterest. No matter. Fiona wondered how long it would be until they reached the rendezvous point. For the time being, she found solace in the song, in her revolving pistol, and in the moon, stationary and constant.

 


  

Elpis remained in Rhys’ view, seemingly much closer now that he was airborne. They were well past Hollow Point now, aided by the speed of the buzzard, but the song still clearly came through. Misty lavender skies painted the mountainous landscape in rich purples, hiding the horrible Pandoran things that lived in the cliff sides under an array of beautiful shades. The moon’s circle craters and sprawling cracks radiated a rosy glow, cutting the mist into rays of white and pink light.

                                                 

Rhys glanced in Sasha’s direction as she swayed to the beat of the music. If she still wore her dreads long her hair would be rippling with the breeze now; cropped short it left her neck and collarbone exposed, offering a new rendition of her signature wild Pandoran style, yet reserved. Matured.

The higher altitude did not fare kind temperatures as they continued north. The air hung with the bitter, biting mist and frost, and Sasha curled into herself to protect whatever areas of skin were not covered from her outfit. Rhys gripped the edge of his custom coat. Careful not to nudge Cassius, he peeled it off from his damp underclothes and offered it to her.

Sasha met him with a firm shake of her hand and wave of her hand. It was too late. Rhys had already draped the coat over her shoulders, enveloping her in the thick black fabric. She smiled, wrapping the borrowed coat snug around her neck, all too quickly resigning. That is, save for a lump in one of the pockets that irritated her. She removed from the crevice the small HALO drive.

The music was dying now, the swelling ring making one last encore before dropping from their ears. Sasha held up the drive, reading the inscription.

“You think it needs a password?”

Rhys shrugged. “I wouldn’t know what it would be. But maybe… if Jack set the password, I could take a few guesses.”

The radio host’s voice returned with spreading warmth. “Hello Radio Hollow Point listeners, this hour we’re taking track requests from the audience. Call in and we might play your – wait, it looks like we’ve got a call.”

The static shifted to an incredibly high, happy voice, though it would be far from described as pleasant.

“Well hi! If it isn’t the F#&@ING radio station that played that one F@&#ING song I really F#@&ING hate last F%$&ING week!”

Cassius, Rhys, and Sasha shared in confused stares.

“Oh god… listen, ‘anonymous’, you’ve called us three times this week to complain about it.” It was amazing how quickly radio host’s voice transformed from a warm, calming tone into that of an annoyed teenager. “Stop it.”

“If you just did your F&%$ING job, I wouldn’t have to call every F%@#ING day to tell you not to play F%$#ING terrible music! Play something good, like dubstep!”

“Wow, you’re right,” the host continued, “You’ve really opened my eyes. It looks like I know exactly what song to play next.”

“It’s about F&$@ING time!”

An electronic melody began – one Rhys immediately recognized, awakening memories of work on Helios during its early construction.

“Now playing: ‘MainFrame.’”

“NOOOOOO! YOU, MA’AM, ARE A MENACE TO SOCIETY! F@#$ – “

“Oops, sorry folks, looks like we lost contact with ‘anonymous’. Please enjoy today’s musical selection.”

The music introduced clapping, digital beats, and a bubbly female voice singing to the mix of already dangerously-catchy-yet-irritating combination of sounds. Rhys pushed the knob, killing the music.

“Let’s… let’s not listen to that.”

Sasha agreed, though Cassius crossed his arms wearing a face of disappointment. “Aw, I was rather enjoying that song.”

“Ugh, fine.” Rhys switched the radio back on, turning the volume knob to absolute minimum. The music remained loud enough to appease a bouncing Cassius, but soft enough for Rhys and Sasha to comfortably talk over the volume. “So yeah, a password. Let’s think.”

Sasha rubbed her chin, assuming the position of deep thought. “Well… if Jack set it… I got it.” She cleared her throat and raised the drive up to her mouth. “’I’m Handsome Jack. God of Crap.’”

“Nice one.”

“Hold on I got another one. ‘I’m Handsome Jack… ass.’”

“You know as fitting as those all are, I don’t think Jack would say that about himself, much less set it as a password.”

“Yeah, they’re jokes genius.”

“Gotcha.”

Rhys took the drive from her, contemplating a viable password. “Let’s see, uh… ‘I am the Hero of Pandora.’” Nothing. “’Hail to the King.’” Nothing. “’Kiddo’?” Nothing.

“Your turn again.” He relinquished the drive to Sasha. Thinking about things Jack would say already stirred an uneasy pinch in his stomach. Saying them out loud, even more so.

“Well, we found this in that picture of his daughter right? Maybe it’s something he would say to her.”

“That’s… not a bad idea, Sasha.”

She tried again. “’Angel.’” Nothing. “’Darling.’” Nothing. “’Light of my life.’” Nothing. With a short blow of air to remove the bangs from her face, Sasha dawned on one more genius possibility. “Umm… ‘Enhance’?” Nothing.

“Wait, w-what about… uh…” Rhys hesitated, “’I… I love you.’”

Nothing.

“It was a good effort, buddy. But I don’t think someone like Jack is capable of love.” Sasha placed the drive back into Rhys’ coat pocket. “We can figure it out later. Are we almost there?”

“We should be getting close now,” said Rhys, grateful for the buzzard. It cut the week-long trek by foot, one he first endured after Helios crashed, to one day by flight. He was also grateful that the song had ceased playing, as they seemed to finally escape Radio Hollow Point’s broadcasting range.

Snow began accumulating on the front of the buzzard and melted near the heated vents. The biodome stood tall in the distance, illuminating bright sapphire and pink through the mild storm. Home. Strange, that Rhys could call it that.

“Here we are. Dome sweet dome.” Rhys nudged the controls downwards, landing the buzzard softly on a patch of snow next to the entrance. Cassius and Sasha leapt out and stretched their legs, Rhys followed soon after. The walls surrounding the biodome were high, defended with coursing orange energy along the top, but the gate itself was left wide open. Not the best defense strategy. He could recall the exact inflections of Jack’s first few words as an AI. ‘No turrets, no automated defenses... it’s like Atlas is just begging us to take it.’ Mentally, Rhys made a note to upgrade Atlas’ Automated Security System – or as Vaughn so eloquently labeled it, Atlas’ ASS.

“It’s just as great as I remembered,” Sasha said, awed, hardly waiting a moment before wandering into the bioluminescent jungle. Rhys found it a challenge keep up with her, despite his longer strides.

“Oh yeah, I figured… I figured we could take a scenic route through here before… b-before I show you the prototypes I’ve been working on and- and… you are going really fast.”

“Am I? Sorry.” She stopped underneath the shelter of a twisting tree, allowing him and Cassius catch up. Sasha adjusted her arm beneath the cover of Rhys’ coat. “I guess I’m excited to be back here again.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“You said you had prototypes? What kind?” Sasha asked in that wide-eyed way that sent his mind running blank.

“Uhhh… the gun kind?

“No shit. What kind of guns?”

Rhys combed his fingers through his air. “Oh, right. Mostly SMGs, some pistols, a few sniper rifles. Though I’ve been working on a few different prototypes than just guns. I’ll show you when we get inside.”

“You had me at SMGs. Let’s go!”

Sasha tugged on Rhys’ sleeve this time, ensuring – whether he wanted to or not – that he wouldn’t drag behind her swift pace. He glanced back at Cassius, walking leisurely, who only returned raised eyebrows and some sort of smug grin. Rhys wasn’t sure what that meant.

They ascended the stairs to the front door. Instead of a lone button to allow access to any run-of-the-mill passerby, a number keypad replaced the rudimentary security measure.  Perhaps he was somewhat apt defending the place. He would have rather installed something biometric – retinal scanners for example, which were already in place at several of the other buildings within the dome. Of course, Fiona had proved that’s passable too. He tried not to think about a year-old eyeball potentially sitting somehow preserved within her pocket as he punched in the key code.

The heavy doors flung open to reveal the main entrance area, an area Rhys affectionately referred to as the Hub. It was much more than that – Rhys had spent many months using the Hub as a workshop, researching and building and testing new prototypes. Yet, other than the scrap metal and slightly less-than-fresh fruit piling at the edges of the room and the shattered hole in the glass window overlooking the jungle (courtesy of Brick), the area remained largely unchanged.

Rhys approached the table by the Customization Station that displayed a few of his newer prototypes, two SMGs and a sniper rifle. Pride wasn’t quite the feeling that swelled in his chest when he looked at them. Built mostly from the scrap he scavenged around the dome, parts were misshapen, ill-fitted, or missing altogether. Most of his first gun prototypes he swore would never see the light of day. Never mind that the better parts he did find he devoted to reconstructing his complex and nerve-sensitive cybernetics. Still, with the company’s meager earnings he was able to invest in a few digi-struct orders of quality materials that he incorporated into the guns currently on display. They were no Conference Calls, but for what he had, Rhys considered them impressive, especially for someone who had never fired a gun – a real gun – in his life before Atlas.

Sasha gripped one of the SMGs – the flashiest, decorated with a number of amber lights along the barrel – with her good arm and inspected the gun’s nooks and crannies. “This looks nice. It’s a little heavy. What are the stats on this one?”

“High damage, high fire rate, shock elemental effect,” Rhys recited. “I’m not sure what the reload speed is; I ran out of SMG ammo.”

“What kind of Atlas CEO doesn’t have SMG ammo?” Sasha teased, reaching for Vaughn’s gift satchel slung behind her back. “Luckily Vaughn stocked me up on some SMG rounds.”

Rhys laughed. “Oh yeah, my bag didn’t have any bullets. Just fruit. And… interesting artwork from the Children of Helios in my image. I’ll need to burn those later.”

Sasha reloaded the gun and aimed at an innocent piece of fruit sitting on the table.  With the pull of the trigger, she sent chunks of unsuspecting blue produce flying through the air with a swift electric burst, and sent the back end of the gun ramming into her ribs.

“Agh! Recoil! Recoil is bad,” she grunted as she dropped the gun to the floor in reflex, nursing her arm again. “Really felt that one. How on Pandora were you able to put bad recoil on an SMG of all things?”

Rhys retrieved the gun from the floor, placing it back on the table. “Sorry, I’ll work on that. Are you okay? Did it hit your arm?”

“I’m… just sore. Maybe I’m still a few weeks off from weapons-testing condition, if your sniper rifle is anything like your SMG was.”

“Yeah, we should wait until your arm’s healed.”

Sasha shrugged. “Well, you mentioned other prototypes besides the ‘gun kind’. Could I test those?”

Rhys kicked open a chest resting near the table, revealing a tossed pile of metal rods. “I’ve got some prototypes here for a line of stun batons. I’m a little more familiar with those, but it’s hard to find just the right calibration for the shock damage. They’re not exactly ready for testing. And then there’s a line of ‘companion bots’ I wanted to try out…”

“’Companion bots?’” Sasha asked.

“Yep, the inspiration is right behind you.”

Sasha whirled to face the table again, this time noticing a lump of singed red and silver scrap metal hastily arranged and welded into a vaguely familiar form. “Wait a minute, is that – “

“Dumpy, yes.”

“What happened to him?”

Rhys smiled, if only briefly. “Believe it or not, the little guy rescued me from Jack’s death chair. Of course the death chair vaporized him within seconds but it was still a- a valiant effort, a noble sacrifice, you really had to be there. Anyways, after the Jack ordeal I tried to collect all of his parts from Jack’s office and have been working on him here ever since but… I really don’t think he’s going to pull through.”

Sasha flicked at the wild exposed circuitry that escaped in coils from Dumpy’s body. “No, it doesn’t look like it.”

“Which is why I wanted to build a line of Atlas companion bots that would work a lot like Dumpy – minus the incomprehensible screeching – for help in tight situations. In his memory, you know.”

“That’s… admirable of you, I guess. But is there anything here ready to test?”

“N- no, that’s the problem.”

Sasha huffed. “So that’s it? I’m out of the job until my arm heals?”

“You can work with me, young lady!” Cassius enthusiastically suggested, in the corner of the room where no one had noticed he was standing, as usual. “I might need your assistance with my research of paralytic and hallucinatory effects of invasive species of plant life.”

“I’m uh… no thanks, that’s okay,” Sasha graciously declined the offer, which somehow seemed more dangerous than weapons testing.

 “I think I have an idea,” Rhys started. “You can advertise. You were a radio DJ, right? I need to spread the word about Atlas being back in business, maybe get the attention of some gun-makers to hire. You can broadcast about Atlas over the radio at the security tower.”

“That actually sounds like a good idea. I’ll do that!” Sasha grinned, already making her way towards the doors leading into the biodome elevator. “Let’s go!”

Her eagerness was endearing, but not what Rhys had in mind. “Wait, now? It’s the middle of the night.”

“I figure it’s a good time to test it out when there won’t be much of an audience. You know, warm up, get used to the recording station. I’m probably a little rusty. You coming, robo-boy?”

“Uh, sure, hold on. Cassius, do you want to come with us?”

Cassius shook his head, smiling that same off-putting smile. “No, you two go on. I know another way. I’ll catch up with you.”

“Suit yourself.”

Rhys and Sasha entered the elevator, overlooking the expanse of glittering canopies and floating spores as they descended to the jungle floor.


 

 

They traversed most of the pathway in silence, captured by the beauty of the biodome. Rhys had become accustomed to this view over time, of course, but Sasha’s innocent wonder reawakened those tucked-away memories he saved for himself. The best part – the ones he had with Sasha were Jack-free. It was a luxury Jack actually allowed him then, until the whole possession, ass-slapping fiasco.  At least Rhys could now admire the wild mushrooms that splattered the landscape with striking colors without reading the Jack-O-Pedia of their unfortunate implications.

“Hey, I just want to say thanks.” Sasha kept her eyes focused on the path ahead, but Rhys could recognize the discomfort painted across her face, even from one side.

“Thanks? For what?”

“For… not treating me like I’m so fragile. I swear, the way Fiona kept looking at me when she was leaving, you would think I was made of porcelain or something.”

Suddenly, Rhys understood her chomping-at-the-bit demeanor, the rush she was in to start something at Atlas. He couldn’t pretend to know what it was like to die. But the Sasha that walked besides him now existed only on borrowed time. After so narrowly avoiding death, she had something to prove to Fiona, perhaps even to Felix, that she wasn’t some reckless girl alive on a fluke.

“She’s your sister, Sash,” Rhys said, finding rare sympathy with Fiona. They were, after all, the ones that swooped to Sasha’s side together. “It’s kind of her job to worry about you.”

“I know she cares about me. But after everything... she should still know I can handle myself. You seem to know that, anyways.”

“Of course. You’ve saved my ass plenty of times now to say anything otherwise,” Rhys said. “But you gotta admit, the over-worrying is probably a natural reaction for a sister, after all that’s happened.”

Sasha sighed and halted their trek besides a cluster of glowing pink mushrooms, casting her face in stark shadows.  She finally lifted her heavy lids to meet Rhys’ gaze with her own. “I mean, I don’t think I would treat her like that if it had been her who came back from the dead. I know she can survive out there on her own. I don’t know. Do you… would you worry about me like that?”

“Uh, I think you’re forgetting about the part where I tried to cry over your body in a last-ditch effort for magical storybook healing powers.”

“Right,” Sasha laughed. “I guess I was wrong, that was like one of those stories.”

She ushered him to follow her again, continuing to weave between the ferns and fungus and floating specks of glowing light. The security tower emerged from their view of the tree tops.

“Thanks anyway, for the job and everything,” said Sasha. “I think you’ve got some pretty good ideas. I’m actually excited to start on some of them.”

“Aw shucks, you mean it? Still need the funding to even start those projects though. I’ve been making small investments, sure, but it’s far from easy when you’re rebuilding an entire company from the ground up.”

Sasha furrowed her brow, this time assuming a real pose of deep thought. “How much would you need?”

Rhys chuckled. “For everything I want to do? Hundreds of millions, at least. But to start testing some real prototypes, hire more staff, maybe… two million.”

“I have two million.”

“Yeah you – wait, what?” He had nearly forgotten she and her sister had become multi-millionaires overnight. That didn’t make her offer any less incredulous.  “You’d be willing to lay down two million dollars of your con money for a company you started working for a few hours ago?”

Sasha shook her head. “Well, not all at once. I only have four-point-five million to spend.”

Yeah right, ‘only.’

She continued, “I could give you the money you need to start production, as long as I get some return on investment. Maybe I can get Vaughn to figure all that out. What you have now won’t cut it. And it was the Hyperion money you were going to give us for the fake vault key, seems only fair we split it like we were planning to do at that Atlas facility.”

“You don’t have to do that. If Atlas fails, I don’t want that to hurt you. Financially, I mean.”

Sasha smiled. “It’s not going to fail. I think you can do something great with this. I believe in you Rhys.”

It was the same thing she said on the broken bridge to the security tower. If he recalled correctly, he managed to screw that up too, clinging onto a failing structure for both of their lives. But she never let him fall.

“If that’s what you really want to do with it, I guess I can’t stop you,” Rhys conceded. “I’ll try not to blow it on ice cream or more ground property on one of the Edens.”

“Honestly, that doesn’t sound half-bad either,” she said light-heartedly, before pointing to a structure in the near distance. “There!”

Reaching the security tower seemed so much easier than the first time he had found it with Sasha. Then again, they also skipped the life-threatening fall, detour through an unfamiliar jungle, and disturbance of the local flora details of that journey.

The two stepped onto the security tower’s lift platform, and Rhys flipped the power switch on the control panel to start their ascent. “It doesn’t need the jump-start from the stun baton anymore. I rewired the power.” Sasha leaned over the railing as he explained, watching as the ground fell from their feet much faster than the spore-slow pace it had in the past. “Oh yeah, and I bumped up the speed on this thing too.” For the best, he thought, given Sasha’s boundless enthusiasm that barely restrained her from climbing up the security tower herself – not too different from the way she willingly jumped down several stories into the underground Atlas facility when he brought up the possibility of looting weaponry. Perhaps Felix’s watch really was on the mark.

The lift reached the top and came to a jostling halt. Doors to the security tower flung open to reveal a wall of screens projecting camera feeds and three rolling chairs, one occupied by a cross-legged Cassius clutching to a potted plant.

“Okay, how the hell did you get here before us?” Rhys interrogated, taking the center seat besides Cassius.

“You got me,” Cassius said, unfolding his map of the facility and holding it up to Rhys’ view. “By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Alright, whatever. Sasha, are you ready?”

Sasha happily took the remaining seat on Rhys’ right, scanning the panel connected to the radio tower. “You’ve ever done an interview before?”

“Like a job interview?”

“No,” she answered as she rummaged through crates of stashed-away audio equipment. She tore apart the tangled knots of electric cords that had ensnared the microphones. “Like a radio interview.  It’s less about getting hired and more about getting your name out to a large audience.”

“No I was never… uh… important enough to do a radio interview…” he admitted, distracted by the dust-covered microphone Sasha was setting up near his face. “I’m going to be speaking into this?”

“Yes, very observant.” Sasha pulled out two more microphone sets and installed one first on Cassius’ side of the computer panels, then one on hers. Her nimble fingers fiddled with the knobs, adjusting the dials like a sewer to a quilt – fast, deliberate, and confusing to an on-looking novice.  A final touch, a heavy set of headphones she slipped over her headband, and she was ready. “Alright guys, on air in three… two…”

Rhys waved his arms desperately to stop the countdown. “W-wait! We’re doing this already? You’re interviewing me on air?”

“Yes. You’ll do fine, just follow my lead,” she assured him, before mouthing the word ‘one’ and flipping the switch to the blinding, constant red light. Labeled beneath it: ‘ON AIR’.

“Good evening Radio Hollo-… Radio Atlas listeners!” The slip into a show host voice was seamless for her. The transition to Atlas, not so much. “I’m here with new-and-improved Atlas CEO Rhys! You heard it here folks, Atlas is still alive and kicking. In fact, the CEO might have some news for you out there interested in taking up a job at one of Atlas’ many remote sites. But first, Rhys, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”

“Uh… w-well… I’m, um…” Where to start? The childhood of a selfish boy who printed business cards for fun. The teen and college years of a self-absorbed douche and his power-hungry adventures with his best friend. His obsessive adult ambitions to climb the corporate ladder of Hyperion, complete with a shady Eridium deal and a few invasive cybernetic installments to his name, all in a shallow attempt to follow in the footsteps of a famed mass-murdering asshole. Or the story of that armless, eyeless wanderer, isolated and reduced to nothing more than a scavenger with a fancy corporate title that meant shit if he died of infection, or skags, or the countless other ways someone can get themselves killed on Pandora. Nothing he could say would paint himself in a flattering image, and Sasha’s expectant staring was doing him no favors in choosing a plot. “I, uh… Dr. Cassius here can probably tell you about himself first!"

“Oh, uh, okay…” Sasha said, reluctantly turning to the doctor. “Cassius, can you tell us more about yourself and what you do here?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Cassius cleared his throat, preparing to utilize his unmatched skill in story-telling. “I was born on a cold night not unlike this one – “

“Can we… skip to a little later in your life?” Sasha asked. “Like when you started working for Atlas.”

“Very well.” Cassius sighed, resting his potted plant on the control panels. “I was hired by Atlas many, many years ago after I finished my botanical degree as a Horticultural Artifacer. I conducted my research on a a variety of planets Atlas assigned me to, each with their own unique ecosystems and wildlife. But none so interesting as the ones I would find on Pandora.”

“You mean as deadly,” Rhys interrupted.

Cassius smirked, leering at the teethed plant that squirmed in his pot. “Deadly. Interesting. Beautiful. They’re all the same, really. But I digress. I chose to stay on Pandora to do my research, which was fairly easy at the time when Atlas was pouring all of their resources into this planet in search for a Vault. You must understand, Vaults were all the rage back then. Still are, I suppose. I didn’t much care for them then, but the fascinating properties of the Eridium that came from within the Vaults did provide special opportunities to observe the effects on Pandora’s wildlife.“

“So you did Eridium experiments on animals?” Sasha asked.

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of it. It was purely observational research from non-influenced occurrences outside the dome. Eridium is far too dangerous. We still don’t fully understand what it is or what it can do. The effect it can have on creatures and plants and even us is far from natural. So far only Sirens possess any sort of ability to naturally interact with Eridium. Of course, the late Atlas Commandant Steele of the Crimson Lance robbed us of that research by going off and getting herself skewered by a Vault monster.”

“Wait, Atlas had a Siren?” Rhys asked. He had never known much about Sirens, except that they were rumored to be all-powerful goddess-like beings, and that Jack desperately wanted them dead.

“Atlas used to be commanded by a Siren. I never crossed paths with that department though, I’m sure Steele was a lovely lady. The only Sirens we know of now are lethal Vault Hunters who would most likely rather kill a researcher before allowing research on them. Especially if you’re an Atlas employee, or Hyperion for that matter. But like I said, that’s not my department. Plants are my area of expertise.”

“Um, Cassius, what is it that you have there?” Sasha pointed to the plant, aggressively writhing and nearly uprooting itself from the soil that constrained it. “It looks… unhappy, to say the least.”

Cassius picked the pot up again, proudly displaying the demonic sprout to his captive audience. “This is ignis fatuus. Or, by its common name… it actually doesn’t have a common name, nobody knows about it yet.”

“So, uh, what does it do?

Ignis fatuus is an incredibly dangerous species, evolved to afflict the most agonizing pain in its victim. One touch can send a grown man into madness. The toxins it secretes seep into pores to enter the bloodstream, gaining access to the brain. From there it attacks all sensory and nervous system operations, causing mild paralysis, possible seizures, and intense delusions and hallucinations that originate from the subconscious. A typical attack will last only but ten minutes, but it will seem much longer to the victim who will be experiencing their deepest, darkest fears with dubious connection to the outside world.”

Rhys wheeled his chair further from Cassius. “That is… absolutely terrifying. Why did you bring it in here?”

“I wanted a chance to explain my findings to fellow researchers who might be listening and interested in joining Atlas.”

“You do realize you didn’t need to actually bring it inside to do that, right? We’re broadcasting over the radio. No one’s going to see the damn thing.”

Cassius stared long and hard at the pot as it started to crack along its side. Furious roots pounded mercilessly against it. “I suppose you’re right. Hold on, I’ll be a second.”

He stood from his chair and took the pot – currently a ticking time bomb – into his now-shaking hands.  With a hurried pace he opened the doors and started the lift to descend from sight, silently cursing all the way. And Rhys thought he was bad at exits.

Sasha started, tapping her microphone to clear the dust. “Well, now that that’s… happened… Rhys, can you tell us about your plans for Atlas?”

“Right, Atlas.” Rhys straightened his posture, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt to his elbows. “Well, this Atlas is a fresh start, you know? Not just for the company. We’re working on developing a line guns of course, some stun batons and a little something I like to call ‘companion bots’. We'll see if that name sticks. So anyone who would be interested in contributing their talents to these goals for Atlas would be a welcomed addition.”

Sasha smirked, content behind the comfort of a microphone. “That’s great. Just one more thing before we wrap up.”

“Sure, shoot.”

“Oh, it’s not a question.” Sasha lifted her mic to her mouth, gazing off into one of the computer screens. “Since he won’t admit to it, Rhys here was from Hyperion.”

The hair on his neck prickled up; his mouth shot open to interrupt her, but Sasha continued without notice. “When I met him, he was about as much of a greedy Hyperion stooge as they come. Then he got stuck here on Pandora, the last place he ever wanted to be. Let’s be honest, it’s the last place anyone ever wants to be. But he trusted me, some local Pandoran he hardly knew, with the only weapon he had to defend himself down here. He refused to sell out his best friend when Hyperion offered him his cushy job and a share of ten million dollars – I saw it myself! And, over time, we eventually became a team… maybe something like a family. I learned that, when you spend a certain amount of time with someone, you see a side of them that you may not have been expecting.”

“Listen, I am as much against Hyperion and bloodthirsty corporations as anyone else whose lives have been ruined by the chaos they cause here. I know just hearing the name Atlas will make some of you turn off the channel… become afraid of another Helios. But Rhys will make sure Atlas is different. If I can believe it, you can too.”

She finally turned in her chair to glance at Rhys, beaming. “DJ Rakk Attack, signing off.”

Her finger searched for the ON AIR switch and killed the hot red light that had burned into Rhys’ eyes. Without the light holding him hostage at the microphone, he stood from his chair and anxiously paced the security tower floor. “Wh- why did you say that? I-it’s a death wish, is what it is. No one will want to work for me if they know I was from Hyperion!

“Calm down, Rhys,” Sasha said, her grin falling into a grimace. “That’s why it had to come from me. No one here would trust an ex-Hyperion CEO if it they weren’t endorsed by a Pandoran. People like redemption stories. They eat that crap up. So a ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

“Oh, then it's nice to know my life is just one big story for everybody’s enjoyment! Hah-hey kids! Gather up by the fire and listen to the tale of Rhys, the Hyperion asshole who trusted Handsome Jack and killed thousands of his own coworkers but is somehow the goddamned hero for it!”

The edges of Sasha’s eyes were brushed with a ruddy hue. “Hey! I didn’t mention Jack or what happened to Helios for a reason, you know. You think I want to remind you of that?”

“Well, it’s what I have to live with. So j-just, I don’t know… just stay out of it.”

Sasha had had enough. She stormed from her seat, tore the black overcoat from her shoulders, and pushed it into Rhys’ chest, knocking air from his lungs. “Fine. Here’s your stupid coat. I don’t want it anyways.”

Rhys’ fingers grasped at the coat, strung with stress from every nerve. Her footsteps continued behind him. Heavy. Sharp. Cold. Daggers plunged into his already empty chest. Nice one, idiot. Cool moves.

“W-wait,” he managed to utter from the depths of his sore chest. He turned to find Sasha underneath the archway of the doors, back-turned and stiff – one foot on the lift, one still inside the security tower. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

Sasha didn't respond, instead turning her head slightly to raise an expectant ear.

“I-I appreciate what you said earlier… about me. A-about, you know, not being like what you expected. The feelings were mutual. Are mutual. You surprise me all the time… in- in a good way! I mean, you're a weapons tester, radio DJ, and a two-million-dollar investor all in one day. That’s pretty impressive. Look, what I’m trying to say is, I… I need you, okay? I just can’t do this on my own again. I’m sorry.”

The edge of her jaw softened as she finally turned her face to his. Lips loosened into a delicate curve, a smile, if barely there. A nod.

“I forgive you.”

With that, she completed her step onto the lift. The smirk she wore remained on her face as the doors slammed shut, leaving Rhys alone in the room with some light in the dark.

A pocket of the jacket he still clutched in his hands flashed sudden blinding white, synced with soft beeping. Rhys reached into the pocket to pull out the HALO drive. The ‘O’ of the word was a ring of pearl neon light, stirring within him some strange, conflicting sensation – inviting, warning. It was a button, and it was begging to be pressed.

With a tentative, metal finger, Rhys pushed down on the ‘O’. One side of the drive fell away, replaced instead with a protruding silver jack from within, and surrounded with a spiral of hovering purple light. Just the perfect size for the port in his head.

“What in the…”

The HALO drive had activated – randomly, Rhys would have thought, if he hadn’t realized Sasha just found the password.

Chapter Text

“So, this is the Highlands.”

Fiona leaned over the seat railing, soaking in the scenery. Hills rolled over each other in luscious greens and warm yellows. Cool streams divided the landscape and sent a gentle mist into the air where rocks birthed rapids. The bastion city of Sanctuary guarded the piercing blue sky, overlooking the land teeming with beauty and life. No, they weren’t in Hollow Point anymore.

“Impressive, eh?” Janey said, eyes unwavering from the road ahead. “Gotta be on the lookout for those stalkers though. Bastards are nearly as tough as the kraggons back home.”

“Noted.” Fiona spun the revolver from under her sleeve, searching for any sign of the sneaky creatures possibly lurking in the grass. She glanced back up at Sanctuary. Surely the seasoned Vault Hunters up there wouldn’t be so anxious about such a routine adversary. What a poor excuse for a Vault Hunter she was proving herself to be.

“Sanctuary’s real something, isn’t it?” Janey interrupted her thoughts again. “Don’t let Athena scare you with all that Lilith talk. The people up there can be nice… well, er, nicer than average. Moxxi’s real sweet. She made the transition into Scooter’s garage easy for me. Even forgave me for some of my… um… advances, in the past.”

Fiona caught Janey’s blushing. “Advances, huh?”

“Like I said, that’s in the past now,” she rushed. “And so is Lilith’s grudges. It couldn’t have been easy for her, after Roland’s death. Handsome Jack really did take everything from her. God, I can’t even imagine.”

Janey continued along the worn dirt road, humming along as the car jumped at every small bump and crack. Fiona felt her stomach twisting now as they pulled up onto a steep hill guarded by an isotope tower. No, she wasn’t facing Lilith, or Brick and Mordecai for that matter. But the contract was still with Vault Hunters, possibly just as capable of being Handsome Jack killers. To be the one to put a final bullet into Jack’s skull… now that would be an occasion for a lucky bullet.

The hills turned from green to red. The grass and soil beside the road were stained with blood and the limp bodies of stalkers. Fiona had never seen them up close before. Their teeth were snared and menacing even in death, and their painted wings sprawled out along the ground like fallen kites.

“Guess someone already took care of ‘em for you,” Janey said, the cheer in her voice submitting to a more cautious tone. “Chin up, we’re here.”

The car came to a stop by an abandoned gate and shack. Fiona jumped out from the gunner seat, her body still vibrating after sitting above a running engine all day. The ground felt uneven beneath her.

“I don’t like this,” she admitted, leaning against the car for support. “We’re too trapped here. On this side we have a huge cliff face, on that side, there’s a sheer drop that would kill us, up ahead there’s a closed gate, and the only way out is back where we came, where someone already shot up a bunch of stalkers.”

“Ah, Fiona, you’re too paranoid. You sound like Athena sometimes.” Janey chuckled, giving Fiona a solid pat on her back. “You’ll be fine.”

“I’d feel better if they were here already. Where are they anyway?”

The wind whistled in the valley. Dead stalker wings flapped serenely in the breeze. Nothing else moved or made a sound.

“Maybe they – “

A massive gunshot echoed through the valley. The ricochet of a sniper bullet off of the car, just inches from where Fiona stood, sent her flying to the ground.

“Sniper! Get down!” Fiona pulled Janey to cover behind the other side of the car. More deafening gunshots rattled their nerves as holes were drilled into Janey’s new paint job.

“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do!” Janey shouted above the gunfire. “Where do you reckon it’s coming from?”

To answer her question, Fiona peered into the side-view mirror, angling it to view the top of the cliff side. A shrouded figure stood at the top, surrounded by a halo of sun.

“He’s up there but I can’t get a good shot. I’d be too exposed.” Fiona scowled, searching for anything that could play a part in their escape. The drop off was a death sentence, and getting into the unprotected gunner seat of the car would leave Fiona a sitting duck if they were to drive away. The shack was promising – it was cover, as flimsy as it was, but it was an angle that would give Fiona a well-aimed shot. “Alright, I’m gonna make a distraction and then make a break for the shack there,” Fiona said, pointing it out to Janey.

“What?! You’re gonna get yourself killed is what you’re gonna do!”

“If I can’t take out a single bandit, I don’t deserve to call myself a Vault Hunter! Just give me a second!” Fiona broke the mirror off of the car and held it up above her head towards the sniper on the cliff. She squinted against the sun and aimed the mirror at the sniper’s eyes. Sure enough, the next shot was several feet off, and she could hear a short cry from the cliffside.

“Idiot.” Fiona shoved the mirror into Janey’s arms. “Cover me if he makes another move. Shine the sunlight into his eyes if you have to.”

She sprinted from the cover of the car towards the dilapidated shack. The sniper attempted a shot that embedded into the closed gate. Another bullet exploded the side of the wooden door frame, sending splinters of debris into her path as she entered the shack.

“Shit!” Fiona took cover in the darkness of the shack, holding her right arm. A piece of shrapnel was protruding from her jacket, surrounded by a growing stain of blood. She didn’t have time to worry about it now. Fiona carefully peeked through the small shack window. The bandit was already lining up his next shot to her head. She ducked just in time to avoid the next blast of wood shrapnel. Janey was still shouting and shooting at the sniper behind the car, but he didn’t seem to be paying her any attention.

Between the gunshots, Fiona was alerted to another noise emitting from the darkness of the shack – static, as if from a radio. She looked into the opposite corner of the room where a glowing ECHO lay on the ground. Shouting began to emerge from the static, loud and panicked.

“X-Ray? X-Ray, answer me dammit!” The voice was nearly as gritty as the static that surrounded it. “There’s a bandit in the shack with you, did you take care of her yet or do I have to save your ass again?”

Fiona’s heart raced, realizing she wasn’t alone. The ECHO illuminated the shape of a boot besides it, roughly the size of her head. She followed the faint outline up the man’s body to distinguish his features hidden within the dark corner. He was sitting in a chair, arms folded across his chest, legs relaxed and shoulders slouched. The face was obscured by a Nomad’s mask but the soft snoring confirmed it – the man was sleeping.

“X-Ray! I’m giving you to the count of three before I come down there!” The ECHO continued to blare. X-Ray. That was the man that arranged the rendezvous with Athena.

Fiona slowly approached the ECHO and picked it up off the floor. She whispered into the communicator as she pressed the button to respond, as if whispering would matter around a man who could sleep through sniper gunshots.

“Who are you?” Silence. The gunfire ceased. After a few moments, the voice from the ECHO returned.

“What did you do to him?”

“Nothing. He’s – “ she paused, contemplating the advantage of telling the truth. “He’s unharmed, but that can change.”

“You’re not in the position to make demands, missy.” The voice was grave. “Who are you and how did you find us?”

“You mentioned ‘X-Ray’ earlier. Is this man in here X-Ray?” Fiona aimed her pistol at the sleeping man, just in case.

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

“He’s unconscious.”

“Dammit! What the hell did you do to him?!”

Fiona ignored the question. “Is. He. X-Ray.”

A short silence followed as he contemplated his answer. “He is.”

“And who are you?”

“Doppler. Now do you mind telling me who the hell you are?”

“Doppler and X-Ray, huh?” Fiona lowered her gun and chuckled to herself. If only Athena could see the shitshow this rendezvous was turning out to be. “I’m the Vault Hunter you’re looking for, morons.”

The voice snapped back. “Bullshit. We called for Athena. You ain’t her.”

“Maybe if you stopped shooting at me for ONE MINUTE and come down here, then I could explain why she isn’t with me.”

“This better not be a setup.” Another pause. “Fine. Tell your lackey to stop shining this damn light in my eye and I’ll come down. Just don’t do anything to X-Ray.”

Fiona ran to the doorframe, waving at Springs for her attention. “Janey! Stop! He’s coming down!”

Janey nodded. Doppler continued on the ECHO. “Did you just call her ‘Janey’?”

“Yeah. Janey Springs. Why?” Fiona asked. Doppler didn’t answer her. She watched as he strapped the sniper rifle to his back and descended from the cliffside. His moves were deliberate, practised, as if he had climbed up and down this cliff a million times before. He dropped to the ground with a final huff, then sauntered towards Fiona. His walk had the slighted self-assured swagger to it, but there wasn’t much else to read about him. His face was completely covered in linen bandages, save for his eyes and mouth. Instead, a wide-brimmed hat shaded his eyes, and some sort of contraption was strapped around his mouth, similar to the ones Fiona would find on Psycho masks she looted. His figure was also hidden beneath layers of bulky clothing and coats, though she could guess without all of his clothing he would be fairly tall and slim. Finally, Fiona’s eyes were drawn to a keyboard strapped to Doppler’s forearm, with rows of blinking multi-colored buttons.

“Okay. I’m down here. Let me see X-Ray and then we can sort out who you are.” His voice was more gravelly than Fiona could tell through the ECHO, though it was obvious now that whatever was covering his mouth had something to do with it. He pushed her aside as he entered the shack. She didn’t follow and opted to watch from outside.

“Dammit Ray, what happened,” he grunted as he nudged the man’s body with the butt of his rifle. Another soft snore escaped the Nomad mask. Doppler immediately smacked the man awake with a backhand. “YOU’RE SLEEPING?!”

The man in the chair frantically bolted to his feet. Fiona didn’t realize just how imposing he was now that he was standing up – his head hit the ceiling, and his lumbering sent shivers through the wooden floorboards. His shoulder plate sported skag spines so long they stabbed into the walls around him.

“Doppler, what –“ X-Ray took a moment to compose himself, noticing Fiona just outside. “Is this Athena? Did I miss the rendezvous?”

“No. This isn’t Athena. I have no idea who this woman is. And if you had kept watch in the first place we wouldn’t have been in this situation.”

“Yeah, you would have killed me,” Fiona muttered. Doppler turned sharply on his heel and marched towards her, shoving an aggressive pointed finger in her face.

“YOU shouldn’t have been here in the first place. You could have been dangerous. I took the necessary precautions.”

“By trying to kill Athena’s replacement? Oh, you’re right. That’s really smart, huh?”

Doppler growled, but the man in the Nomad mask burst out into a hearty laugh. “I don’t know who she is but I like her already.”

“Shut up,” Doppler snapped, before addressing Fiona again. “Alright, now for the last time, who are you?”

“I’m Fiona. Athena wanted me to join your Vault Hunter team in her place. She gave me this message to give to you.” She handed him the ECHO Athena gave her. Doppler took it and played the message.

“This is Athena. I know you were expecting me to come, but I no longer live a Vault Hunter’s life. Instead, I sent Fiona. Fiona… isn’t a professional Vault Hunter. Far from it. She used to be a con artist. I’ve mentored her in the past, and I know she still has a long way to go.”

Fiona stiffened as she felt Doppler glare into her. Wasn’t Athena supposed to be helping?

“But she has potential,” Athena continued, “and her wits and resourcefulness make her more valuable than she even knows. She’s also a crack shot. She’s reliable in a fight and her determination and bravery is greater than some real Vault Hunters I know. In fact, Fiona’s already successfully hunted for a vault by the time I’ve recorded this. She knows the danger that’s involved in this job.”

That’s better. Fiona flashed a smug smile at Doppler, though he only stared back, seemingly unconvinced.

“Anyways, I’m getting married soon, and I can’t join your team even if I wanted to. Fiona isn’t a full-fledged Vault Hunter yet, but I know she could learn if you give her the chance. I would strongly urge you to accept this offer. Athena, signing out.”

“See?” Fiona said, “Athena said – “

“I don’t care what Athena said,” Doppler interrupted her, throwing the ECHO to the side. “I wanted Athena to take my place. I don’t want you.”

“Doppler, don’t you think you’re being a little harsh?” X-Ray spoke up, placing a hand on his comrade’s shoulder. “She’s got potential. I don’t think Mirage cares that she’s not Athena, she just wants someone competent enough for you to train.”

Doppler shook his head. “This isn’t Mirage’s decision. It’s mine. And I don’t want her.”

Janey approached the meeting from behind Fiona, keeping her gun ready by her side. “What’s all this then? Who do you think you are, shooting at us for nothing?”

“Janey,” Doppler started, “Athena said she’s getting married. That’s why she can’t join us. That true?”

“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Janey asked.

“No. I’ve only seen you on the new Catch-A-Ride stations, but I know you have connections with Athena.”

“Well then you’d know we’re getting married. So yeah, that’s all true.”

Doppler put his hands on his hips, pacing in thought. “And you wouldn’t want to join us, either?”

Janey laughed, but not in her usual, genuine way. “Me? I’m the reason Athena’s retiring from this dangerous job, why do you think I’d do it myself? You’re really rejecting Fiona like this?” She waited for Doppler to respond, and when he didn’t, she moved forward to stand only inches away from his face. “Listen here, mate. I don’t know what kind of operation you run here, but it’s a shameful one if you’re gonna pass up on a woman like this. Hell, she just outsmarted you with nothing but a mirror!”

“She did?” X-Ray asked, hold back from laughing again. “Oh man, I missed too much.”

“Shut up!” Doppler ordered. “That’s exactly why I don’t want her. She’s too smart for her own good. She used to be a con artist, which means she can’t be trusted. A team can’t function if there’s no trust.”

Janey laughed again. “No trust? Mate, even a couple of Hyperion stooges learned to trust her. If that doesn’t prove something about her, then I don’t know what does.”

Fiona wasn’t sure if she imagined it, but Doppler seemed to relax his stance, and his grip on his gun strap loosened. He still stared at her for a tense moments before he spoke again.

“If you're so certain about her then... maybe.”

“Maybe what?” Fiona asked.

“Maybe. I’ll bring you to our base and see what Mirage thinks of you. That doesn’t mean we’re saying yes yet.”

Fiona shrugged. “I thought you said it wasn’t Mirage’s decision?” She didn’t know who Mirage was, but whoever they were, she figured they must be the leader, not Doppler.

“Look, if you’re going to keep being a smartass, you can kiss this offer goodbye.”

“No, no, no,” both Fiona and Janey rushed in unison. Fiona extended a hand, “I’ll take the offer.”

Doppler weakly shook her hand before turning to the gate, digging into his many pockets for the keys. “Good. Janey can’t follow you anymore. Only you can come with us through the gate.”

Fiona turned to Springs, extending out another hand to shake. “Thanks, Janey, you really saved me on this one.”

“Be careful, Fiona,” Janey whispered, ignoring her hand and embracing her instead. “I don’t know about these guys.”

“Yeah, me neither.” Fiona left her with one last smile and wave before following Doppler and X-Ray through the opened gate. Doppler closed it shut behind them, and Fiona could no longer see the car she had arrived in.


 

The group walked in silence to a nearby opening in the cliff face. Fiona thought it was a cave until she could feel a breeze come from within and nearly blow her hat off and into the valley. She swiftly grasped at it, wincing as she did. Without the adrenaline that dulled her pain during the shootout, the shrapnel in her arm became harder to ignore.

“Before we go through this tunnel, can I mend this a bit?” Fiona asked, motioning to the wood that pointed from her arm like a skag spine. X-Ray shook his head under his mask at the sight of it.

“That’s been in you this whole time? That's badass. No worries, I got just the thing.” X-Ray took a large syringe filled with a glowing red liquid from a pouch around his waist. His gigantic faceless figure readied the needle over her. Fiona stepped back, intimidated by the sight.

“Oh, I see, you… ah, hold on.” X-Ray took a step back himself, putting the syringe back in his pouch. Carefully, he removed the large nomad mask from his head. The barely-visible slot for his vision gave way to kind eyes, brown and warm like his skin tone, framed by creases that could only form on a jovial face. They weren’t wrinkles either – the man couldn’t have been any older than Sasha. Curly black hair peeked out of a green beanie and crowned with a visor of intricate and layered tinted lenses. He flashed a natural white smile.

“See, I’m not so scary.” He took the syringe out again. “You seem new to these meds. You’ll have to get used to them in our line of work, unfortunately.”

Fiona gulped as he approached again with the needle, but offered her arm to him anyways. Her forearm rested in his large palms, and he quickly pulled the shrapnel out. In the same motion, he stuck her with the needle and injected a quarter of its contents into her bloodstream. She bit hard against her lip to keep herself from screaming. Whatever was in the syringe, it burned like a fire ignited underneath her skin. Hesitantly, she looked at the wound. Or, where it used to be. In place of the gash was now a reddened scab - throbbing, but no longer bleeding.

“What is that stuff?” Fiona asked, checking her arm again in case her mind was playing tricks on her.

“I, uh, I don’t really know. You should ask Dr. Zed.”

“Is he a real doctor?”

“That’s up for debate.”

Doppler tapped his foot impatiently against the tunnel floor. “Are you done now? Can we get on with this?”

X-Ray rested a reassuring hand on Fiona’s shoulder, moving her through and into the tunnel. He moved the visor on his head onto his eyes, fiddling with the many lenses before he settled on a combination that satisfied him before all went black around them. Only X-Ray’s gentle hand guided Fiona through the darkness.

“So, I take it that visor of yours allows you to see in different conditions, like in the dark, is that right?” Fiona felt she may be too inquisitive, but she couldn’t help herself around a new team of Vault Hunters.

“Yep. In the dark, through walls, in chests, through organic matter, through smoke clouds, you name it.”

“How practical is that in a fight?”

“You’d be surprised. I’ve found many hidden enemies, rare loot, and secret entrances we wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. Besides, that’s not my only speciality. I also create radiation weapons. Think corrosive weapons, but much more lethal to organic enemies over time.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Fiona said, thoughtlessly spinning her gun to the corrosive setting.

“Oh, it is. But I’ve managed to dial the settings so only specific targets are hit. It used to have an area of effect, and boy, I found out the hard way that my friends didn't particularly like fighting both enemies and radiation poisoning at the same time.”

“How do your friends feel about it now?”

“They’re dead,” X-Ray responded casually. “This was back when I was with the Slabs. Brick didn’t appreciate my weapon modifications and eventually kicked me out because they were killing too many of our own men.”

“Oh.” Fiona desperately wanted to change the subject. “You mentioned Brick. You know, I’ve met him.”

“Yeah? How was that?”

“I stabbed him with an icicle and shot him in the toe, then he punched me in the face.”

“DAMN. You survived a punch from the Slab King himself? I knew you were special!” X-Ray broke into contagious laughter again, slapping his own knee at the thought. “Good! Brick deserved to be brought down a notch or two.”

“What’s wrong with Brick?”

“Oh, nothing, really. He’s just stubborn and set in his ways. Thinks he knows best but he doesn’t. I’m glad I left anyways, Mirage accepts me for who I am.”

“Can you tell me about Mirage? I figure if I’m going to meet them I should know how to make a good first impression.”

“You can’t make a good first impression around Mirage,” X-Ray answered her, much more serious than his previous tone. “She has a good sense for reading people, even if they’re full of bullshit. Though, I feel I should warn you, she is a Siren, so you really don’t want to bullshit her anyway.”

Fiona bit her lip again. This wasn’t just a ragtag team of misfits scrounging together a Vault Hunter team, as she had thought. To fight alongside real Siren! She could only imagine the power that would feel like. The anxiety of meeting her tied knots into her stomach.

“But anyway, enough about us. What about you? What are you all about, Fiona?”

“Well, I – “

“Ah, ah, ah,” Doppler cut her off. “I don’t want to know a thing about you until we take you to Mirage.”

“Why not?”

“Because if she doesn’t say yes then I don’t want to waste my time with you. Besides, talking can be dangerous on Pandora.”

Fiona scoffed. “Talking? I’m a con artist, all I know how to do is talk!”

Doppler settled deep into his gritty voice. “Then we’re going to have a problem.” The man hiked further up the tunnel, setting a quicker than Fiona and X-Ray, as if he couldn’t bear to be confined with her any longer.

“What’s his problem,” Fiona whispered to X-Ray, wondering how much she really wanted this job after all.

“I know he can be… abrasive. That’s just how he is with all new people. He has trust issues.”

“Trust issues? He said it himself, a team can’t function without trust!”

“Yeah, so he only wants people he knows he can trust. I know it can be frustrating. You just need to do something to show him you’re trustworthy.”

“I don’t have anything to prove to the jackass,” Fiona spat. “He should prove he’s trustworthy too.”

X-Ray sighed. “It’s… complicated, Fiona. You don’t know what he was like when Mirage found him in Oasis. You know the bandages, the hat, the voice modulator?”

“So that’s what that is.”

“Yes. He needs them all to survive. When Mirage found him, she said he was in such a sorry state that she couldn’t even look at him.”

“God, what happened to earn that reaction?”

“Mirage won’t say. The current theory is that Doppler was caught in a sandstorm when wandering Oasis looking for buried treasure. The sand shredded his skin, eyes, and throat. He could barely see or talk when he sought her help. No one else had helped him. Everyone else cast him aside like he was some sort of diseased skag. So, now you know why he has a hard time finding trust.”

Fiona looked ahead. The light at the end of the tunnel was beginning to shine through, creating Doppler’s silhouette as he continued to scout the path. “What did Mirage do then?”

“Mirage is stern, but she's a kind soul beneath it all. She bandaged him, hid his wounds from the world, and helped him create a voice modulator so he could finally speak. Of course, these are all the stories we were told. This happened way before my sister and I joined them.”

Fiona shielded the sunlight from her eyes as they passed the threshold from the tunnel’s edge and into new territory. Her eyes adjusted to find the same breathtaking views from the highlands, only this time, the hills bolstered a metal fortress. The facility sprawled far across the landscape, dotted with tall cranes hoisting Hyperion crates and rakks building nests on the tops of them.

“Now I know what you’re thinking,” X-Ray said, anticipating her reaction, “Why are we at a Hyperion base? Well, it was a Hyperion base. Specifically, it was the Hyperion Wildlife Preservation, although it wasn’t. Really, it was a site for Jack to order cruel slag experiments on the animals here. But not anymore. After Helios crashed, we decided to reclaim the base, and the power we hold as Pandorans over our own planet and its creatures. Fiona, I’d like to welcome you to…”

X-Ray strutted to the edge of the cliff overlooking the base, outstretching his arms to the view, as if presenting the world before her as a personal gift. “Reverie!”

Chapter Text

                                                                

“You just can’t get enough of me, can’t you, kiddo?”

Rhys folded his arms across his chest, admiring Elpis from the confines of Handsome Jack’s office. It was so serene up here. One could almost forget it was a moon full of murderous creatures and raging scavengers, not unlike the planet it orbited.

“I never come here for you, Jack. I’m here for the view.”

“Oh, is that what you told yourself when you took Vaughn and Sasha to what was left of this place? Nah-hah, I’m messing with you, Pumpkin. I get it,” Jack conceded, mirroring Rhys’ posture. “It’s a hard view to beat.”

They both stood in revered silence, watching as Elpis slowly rotated behind the glass window. Rhys grew tense. He knew Jack couldn’t stay quiet for long.

“So, kiddo,” Jack inevitably spoke, “when are you gonna stop pretending you’re something you’re not.”

“Stop trying. You and I both know you’re not real. You’re just a nightmare that won’t leave my head.”

“That really cuts me deep, Rhysie. If I weren’t an AI I might have felt that.”

“You’re not an AI anymore. You’re a bad memory.”

Jack scowled, moving between Rhys and his view. He didn’t appear as a blue-tinted hologram anymore, just the flesh-and-blood Jack that Rhys had known before he left Helios.

“Nah, nah, nah. We’ve gone over this. Whatever I am – the remnants of the AI you so ruthlessly murdered, the memories you can’t forget, the amalgamation of all the Jack propaganda you ever grew up with, whatever, I’m very much real. I’m part of you, and you’ll never escape that however hard you try.”

“You’re not real. Why else would you only show up when I’m asleep?”

“Ah, well that’s simple – everything that matters is subconscious now, Rhysie. You don’t see me when you’re awake because you don’t want to. You don’t want to be reminded of who you are or what you did. But when you’re asleep you always come back here with me, because you know that’s where you want to be.”

“What, you’re a therapist now?” Rhys waved him out of the way, trying to catch another view of Elpis. “Stop analyzing me. And my name is Rhys.”

“Oh, big guy, huh? Sasha comes into town and suddenly you’re too important to remember who got you here in the first place.”

“I got myself here. If you got your way, I would be dead right now.”

“Who helped you break into my office? Who stashed the deed to Atlas on that trophy shelf? No, if it weren’t for me, Wallethead would have killed you a long time ago, or you would have returned to your desk job as a pitiful little code monkey. Killing me was your biggest mistake.”

“No, trusting you was my biggest mistake.” Rhys left the window and descended the stairs to the trap door. “You can keep talking all you want. You can’t do anything to me.”

“Can’t I?” Jack flickered from his spot and reappeared above the trap door, blocking Rhys’ exit.

“You can’t. You’ve tried before. I just wake up.”

Jack laughed – a menacing, insincere laugh – and placed both of his hands on Rhys’ shoulders. “Oh, you’re sure right about that, Cupcake. But let me just ask you this one last question before you go.”

“What is it?”

Jack tilted his head down. His intense stare burned into Rhys with a rage he’s never seen before. Jack’s fingers dug deep into his shoulders, clenching like a bird’s talon and inching towards his neck. “What the hell are you doing with my daughter?”

 

Rhys bolted up from his pillow and grabbed at his neck. It was drenched with sweat. Again. He escaped from his twisted sheets and ambled to the sink nearby, splashing his face with cold running water. The mirror above the sink painted him in the ghastly green morning light – pale, haggard, dripping with his own perspiration. It was time to surrender to the old routine.

He smoothed out the hair that hung in his face, sweeping the strands over his head and securing them in place. Next, he pulled on his black shirt, watching as the sleeve devoured the gaudy blue Helios tattoo that stretched from his left hand to his chest. With the collar popped, all he had left to adorn was the jacket, and then it would be as if Jack had never happened.

Except – there was that familiar lump in the pocket, poking into his chest. Rhys pulled out the drive, inspecting the new insert port again in the daylight. It was the same silver-lavender as the HALO logo on the drive itself, with the same dangerous allure that seduced Rhys into pressing the blinking ‘O’ button in the first place. The insert port was Hyperion model, incompatible with the old Atlas tech Rhys worked within the biodome, but plausibly compatible with the port in Rhys’ head.

Daughter. Of all the nights Jack had haunted his dreams, not once had he mentioned his daughter, not until last night. It couldn’t just be a coincidence. Could it? It is called the HALO drive after all, and halos only belong to angels…

Rhys gasped as he finally recognized his reflection in the mirror. In his lingering thoughts, he had lifted the drive closer to his head port, at the brink of inserting its contents directly into the circuits of his brain.

He shoved the drive back into the pocket it came from. Why did he do that? Was Handsome Jack not enough to convince him that Hyperion drives should not be plugged into his unwary skull? For all he knew, putting that drive to his port could have been the equivalent of putting a loaded gun to his temple with his finger on the trigger. Whatever it was, whatever it did, it was too dangerous to keep in his possession. Someone else needed to carry the burden of the HALO drive, preferably someone that didn’t have a Hyperion-compatible port in their head.

He left his bunker and entered the HUB to find it was as he had left it the night before. Cassius was tinkering with something in the corner, fruit and guns lay haphazardly on the table, and Dumpy was still a lifeless mess of cords.

“Where’s Sasha?” Rhys asked.

Cassius pried a fleeting glace away from his work to answer him. “She grabbed breakfast and said she was going to the security system. Seems like she has a lot of plans for the radio station.”

“Cool. Cool. I’ll just go… talk to her, then…” Rhys backed out of the HUB, leaving Cassius to himself alone and in the waning dark.

By the time Rhys arrived at the security system tower, Sasha had already set to work calibrating the radio and searching the computers for audio files. Amongst the furious clicking on the keyboards and turning of the dials, it became apparent Sasha had not yet heard Rhys enter the room. He didn’t want to break her rhythm – her determined energy was a hypnotic sight to behold – but he finally resolved to interrupt it.

“I was – “

“Uh, this is Rhys recording. Day… one? Yeah. ECHO log, day one.”

Rhys found himself interrupted by… himself. Both he and Sasha gawked at the image of Rhys that flickered onto the screen. In her frantic search for audio files, Sasha must have opened the video logs Rhys recorded after Helios crashed. His state was even ghastlier than he remembered, with a stark white complexion that bleached his face up to his eyes, framed in dark purple circles. Dried blood was caked to the side of his head and to his shredded Hyperion vest around the disturbingly empty arm socket. Crude bandages were applied to the holes where his robotics used to be, and where the Pandoran landscape had left him battered on his trek to the biodome. His movements were sporadic and shaken, still shell-shocked from everything that led up to the recording.

Rhys’ face flushed, embarrassed by the stranger on-screen, though Sasha remained oblivious to his presence behind her. Morbid curiosity kept either of them from shutting the ECHO log down.

“I made it. N-never thought I would. Thankfully there were p-plenty of guns in the wreck to defend myself with, but It didn’t really help when I c-can’t hit the side of a rakk hive. If this Atlas thing works out, guns that can aim themselves will be the first thing I’m making. A guy can only take so many r-rakk claws to the face.

Now that I think about it, I’m looking at this s-sheet of paper and I’m starting to wonder how legal this is. I can just take the deed and it’s mine forever, right? Ah, it doesn’t m-matter. Laws never seemed to matter on Pandora.

Anyways, I figure I should p-probably rebuild my arm first before anything else. I thought I wanted to rebuild my eye first but… things are really hard to do with only one arm. At least I can still see with one eye. I can’t even carry what I n-need with one arm. The digi-struct machine still works, but I don’t have any money on me r-right now, so I can’t just buy a new arm. I’ll have to scrounge up some parts around here to make something work first. I’ll worry about making it look good later. Y-yeah. I’ll do that.

As for why I’m recording this, I dunno. I guess I want to feel like if I don’t make it, there’ll be some evidence that I was here. You know, j-just in case Vaughn or someone out there is still alive and wanted to look for me. P-probably not, though. Maybe I just want to feel like I have someone to talk to. I can kinda see how people can go crazy on this planet now.”

The video abruptly cut into the next one. This time on-screen Rhys sported a scrap-metal skeleton arm, barely functional and little more than a placeholder to fill the void of that empty arm socket. The dried blood had since been scrubbed off, and he was no longer stuttering or shaking, but he was no less dishevelled than he was before. Over a week straight of working on his own arm had left him drained of the energy to even eat or shave. Facial hair had begun to sprout on his sunken face.

“ECHO log day nine. I’ve finally got an arm… um, I guess. Doesn’t do much, but at least now I can do basic tasks. Silver lining.

I’m trying to get the radio working – see if I can call for help or get a hold of Vaughn, if he’s still out there. There’s a lot of interference, though. Just static really. No one’s there. Not Vaughn, not Fiona, not Sasha.

But I uh… I still see Jack. Just when I’m trying to sleep. He’s like a ghost that won’t stop haunting me. I know it’s probably stress and everything. I crushed the ECHOeye that he was in, anyway, so he’s gone. He’s gotta be gone. I just can’t help replaying what happened in my head. It’s like I’ve never left his office. It’s like… It’s like my arm’s still strangling me.

And, a-and maybe this is a little sick… but I’m kind of relieved I can still see Jack. Even if he keeps trying to kill me in my dreams, he’s someone I can talk to. I’m so tired of being alone here. He’s insufferable but talking to him gives me a break from being stuck inside my own head all day. I dunno. Like I said, it’s sick but… I dunno. Maybe he’ll go away soon and I can finally forget everything.”

The ECHO log one again transitioned suddenly to the next one. Now, Rhys had a superficial eye implant and head port, connected to no working circuitry. Whatever hair was left on his face after a hasty shave was patchy, as if hacked away with little care. He had finally changed his clothes – in place of his vest, blue shirt, and tie, he wore a loose-fitting grey button-up that exposed parts of the blue Helios tattoo underneath. His hands were on his hips as he paced the room, agitated.

“ECHO log… shit, what day is it? Twenty-five? Sure, let’s go with that. Who cares?

I still see Jack. I still see him. I know I said I was relieved before but… I’m so tired of getting strangled in my sleep. He won’t leave. Fiona, Sasha, Vaughn, everyone else in my life has left me, so why, of all people, won’t he do the same?

And w-why… why did Fiona leave me? She told me she wouldn’t leave me. What happened? Did they even hesitate? Did Sasha just go along with it? I mean, I know they were a couple of con-artists, but… but… I really thought we were a team. I thought at least Sasha would care enough to stay and… well, what did I expect? They’re con-artists. This is what they do. Sasha did it to August, why wouldn’t she do the same thing to me, some ‘wretched Hyperion stooge’?

I guess I should count myself lucky. All the other Hyperion stooges… god. They’re all dead. And… I did that. I killed them. I mean, they were all assholes, sure, but I was one of those assholes once. Why should I live and become the CEO of Atlas while they all die just because I was stupid enough to bring Jack’s AI into his own office?

Oh god, this SUCKS! All I can do is ask myself ‘why’? Why do I still see Jack? Why did Fiona and Sasha leave me? Why did I live while everyone else I knew on Helios died? But there’s never a freakin’ answer! It’s just me and my barely functioning body and my barely legal Atlas deed! There’s no one else to blame! And as much as I want to blame Jack, I know he’s not really there. He can’t give me any answers I don’t already know.

I’m really trying. I’m trying not to be Jack. I told him I wanted to fix Pandora – the right way. I wanted to make life better for the good people that live here, but it’s so hard to see that now. Every minute that I spend on this hell planet is torture! I’ve almost died here more times than I can count! You know, sometimes, part of me thinks that monster was right! Maybe if this whole planet burned to the ground, everyone would be better for it! No one could leave me for dead ever again!”

The on-screen Rhys stomped towards the counter and flung the heaps of scrap metal he had piled on it onto the floor with one furious sweep of his primitive robot arm. The video cut out and returned to static. That was the last ECHO log.

Rhys was paralyzed. It was an eternity since he had recorded those logs. Repressing that anger, that hopelessness, that desperation, that was the only way he finally managed to move forward afterwards. It was a trail he had blazed steadily for the past few months – always in search of the silver lining, never looking back. If he did, he knew he’d end up right where he used to be, screaming ‘why?’ into an ECHO log until he rambled like the genocidal maniac he so stupidly used to idolize.

Sasha’s sniffling snapped Rhys out of his daze. Through all the ECHO logs, she still hadn’t realized he was standing behind her. Wiping her face on her sleeve, she turned off the computers and rose from her seat. Then she saw him.

They stood, frozen, reading each other’s faces for a glimpse of a reaction. Sasha was the first to break the silence.

“Rhys…” was all she could muster at first. She approached him gradually, cautiously. “You saw that. Did you really feel that way? About Jack? About… about me?”

He wished he could tell her, firmly, ‘no’, but Sasha deserved better than a lie.

“I… I didn’t know what to feel. At the time, I just convinced myself of any answers that could justify what had happened to me.” Rhys admitted. “You gotta believe me, Sasha, I don’t feel like that anymore. Not about any of it. I was just in a… I was in a dark place.”

Sasha raised her hand to his face, cupping his cheek in her soft palm. It was the gentlest touch Rhys had ever received – warm, safe, assured – he melted into her hand. She continued, resolute. “I never want you to think you can’t trust me, Rhys. I’m sorry we had to leave you back then. But we’re here for you now, okay?”

He nodded his head in affirmation. “I know, Sash.”

Sasha smiled, taking her hand away from his cheek. “And I’m sorry for snooping through your stuff. I was just looking for music and sounds I could use for the radio broadcast. Opening that file was an accident.”

“Yeah, I figured as much.” He wrung his hands together. “I forgot I even recorded those things. A few too many hits to the head must have wiped my memory of it.”

“What were you in here for, anyway?” Sasha asked.

Oh, yeah. The HALO drive sat in his pocket, heavier than he remembered. He intended to pass that burden onto Sasha. That was the best option. He trusted her, and without a port in her head, she wouldn’t be in any danger either. Only, after watching his ECHO logs, after witnessing the burden those old videos had placed on her to reinforce his own faith and sanity, he couldn’t bear to burden her with anything else. He took her hand in his and smiled. “Just wanted to see what you were up to.”

That infectious energy of hers had reinvigorated as she pulled Rhys to the radio and flipped it on. “You won’t believe this,” she started, tuning the channels, “but we’re already getting some responses from that broadcast last night. I mean, granted, they’re mostly delirious bandits that think they’re genius gun designers for hire, but some might be promising leads! Here, there’s another message coming in now. Shh, let’s hear it!”

Sasha turned up the volume. A familiar female voice started to come in through the static, though Rhys was unable to place where he had heard it before.

“Hello,” the voice started, “this is a message for Atlas CEO Rhys, come in. Atlas CEO Rhys, do you copy?”

“Yes! Yes, we copy!” Sasha confirmed. “Introduce yourself!”

“This is Wave, from Radio Hollow Point.”

Sasha’s enthusiastic smile dropped faster than Rhys could blink. A faint scowl grew in its place. “Oh, yes. I’m familiar. What’s your message for Rhys?”

“This isn’t so much a message as it is a warning.” The once pleasant voice soured. “Pay attention, and this can be easy for you.”

She paused, waiting for a response, but neither Rhys or Sasha knew what to say. She continued. “For too long Pandora has suffered under malicious corporate rule. DAHL, Atlas, Hyperion. They’re all one in the same, all exploiting the fragile lives on Pandora for their own profit. Well, we won’t stand for it anymore. We will not allow Atlas to gain more power over this planet, and that starts with you, Rhys. You were Hyperion once, and you will be Hyperion again, and a new Atlas paint job will not change that. You are not fooling us.

So, we offer you a chance to surrender peacefully. You and your Atlas employee Cassius will have until the sun sets to turn yourself into us. After that, you will be put to trial, and you will answer for your crimes. You may find this unreasonable, but I assure you, this is more humane than anything any corporation has ever done for a single Pandoran. If you and Cassius do not comply, we will use force against you.”

Rhys snatched the microphone away from Sasha. “Oh yeah? You think you can just threaten me? You don’t know me, you don’t know what Atlas is anymore. This company is going to be so much different than you think it’s going to be.”

“Doubtful,” Wave retorted. “I bet you looked up to Handsome Jack, huh? You saw his murderous rage and thought he was a hero. You Hyperion stooges are all the same. You’ll be his resurrection.”

 “I… N-no, you’re wrong! He’s dead, and there’s no way he’s coming back! I made sure of it!”

“What do you mean by that, Hyperion?”

“I crashed Helios!” Rhys regretted the exclamation as it poured from his mouth, but he was too incensed to cover it. “Jack’s AI was loose in the system and I couldn’t let that happen! He would have killed so many more Pandorans if I let him live! You don’t even know!”

A silence. Sasha shook her head and shot a half-disapproving, half-horrified glare. His heartbeat skipped in his throat. A bitter swallow did not ease his nerves.

“That changes things,” Wave replied simply. “We thought whoever crashed Helios was a hero, a champion worthy of reward. But now we see. Helios was crashed by a selfish salary-man so enraptured with Handsome Jack that he killed his own hero just so he could become him, without competition.”

“Are you NUTS?! That’s what you got out of that?!” Rhys felt Sasha’s grip on his arm, restraining him from his own outburst. He took a deep breath and soothed his tone. “I used to think Jack was a hero, you’re right about that. But, when I saw how much he hurt the people I cared about, I woke up. You don’t know how much I’ve sacrificed to keep Jack dead.”

“Are you sure? Because it sure seems to me like he isn’t dead, not as long as you’re still breathing.”

Sasha attempted to pry the microphone from Rhys’ clasped fingers. “Let me handle this, Rhys. Please. Keep your cool. She’s just trying to get to you,” she whispered. Rhys surrendered the microphone.

“Listen,” Sasha pleaded, “We’re not hurting anyone. Atlas barely even has a gun on the market. Rhys is not the man you think he is. You’ve got this all wrong, so now we’re giving you the chance to back down. We’ll forget this ever happened. We’ll go our separate ways, and we won’t fight you.”

“Our offer is non-negotiable,” Wave said shortly. “You have until the sun sets to surrender or there will be consequences. Do not underestimate us. Oh, and by the way Sasha, or DJ Rakk Attack, rather – I was a big fan of your work on Radio Hollow Point. But you were always too soft. It’s such a shame you’ve aligned yourself with this company. However, we do not want to harm you. If Rhys and Cassius have any respect for you as a native Pandoran, they will surrender, and you will be spared.”

Sasha jumped to her feet, leaning into the microphone. “Wave, you can take your offer and shove it up your – “

It was Rhys’ turn to grab the microphone from her grip. “What happened to ‘keep your cool’?”

Wave ignored the exchange. “I urge you all to consider this warning. We will be in touch soon.”

The radio transmission ended, and static occupied its absence.

Sasha slammed on the power button, shutting off everything but the lights. “What the hell was that, Rhys? You can’t give them more reason to hate you more than they already do!”

“Hey, I’m not the one that broadcast I was Hyperion in the first place.” Rhys folded his arms, creating a shield across his chest, and across the HALO drive. “I know I said I appreciated your help last night, and I do, but I never wanted anyone to know I came from Hyperion.”

“Oh, but you’re okay with everyone knowing you crashed Helios now?”

“I’m sorry I did that. But what difference does it make? Now that they know I’m Hyperion, I’m always going to be the bad guy to them anyways.”

Sasha placed one hand on the counter, supporting her leaning body as she let her head hang defeated. “Rhys, arguing with each other isn’t helping anything. We have to tell Cassius, and then we have to find someone to help us. Who knows what kind of force they have? I can’t fight with a broken arm, and no offence, but I don’t really trust you and Cassius to defend yourselves.”

 “No offence taken.” Rhys pondered a moment, mentally running through the list of capable help. “What about Zer0? They had our backs at that death rally, right?”

“Not really,” Sasha retorted. “They were more interested in skewering Bossonova than keeping us alive.”

“Okay, fair, but consider this: Zer0’s really, really cool.”

 Sasha rolled her eyes, then laughed. “You just want to geek out over them again.”

“N-no, I think they’d be good help.”

“Rhys, we have no idea where Zer0 is, and even if we did, there might not be a way of convincing them to get here on such short notice.”

“Hm, buzzkill,” Rhys mumbled. “Fine, who are you thinking of?”

“Well,” Sasha slipped into a sheepish smile, “I do have an idea. She’ll help us, and she’ll get here in time, but she isn’t going to like it.”

“Why not?”

“Uh, well… because this is Atlas.”

Chapter Text

                                                                         

The soft cushion of grass beneath Fiona’s feet succumbed to the firm footing of a steel bridge and a gate threshold that led to Reverie. Bypassing Hyperion gates – once formidable bastions or super-corporate technology and power – took nothing more than a bio-scan of X-Ray’s fingerprint. The gate doors swung open to reveal a vast maze of steel scaffolding and green pastures, where packs of skags freely roamed. Fiona twitched a finger on her pistol. Somehow, X-Ray noticed.

“They’re not hurting anything, Fiona,” X-Ray assured her as he led her across the bridge behind Doppler’s lead. “The animals here were subjects of slag experiments. Ever since Jack died and Hyperion disbanded, the creatures have been tamer. You know, now that they don’t fear for their lives.”

A pair of rakks squawked overhead. Their flying patterned intertwined like ribbons, exchanging playful pecks as their paths crossed. Fiona returned her pistol back underneath her sleeve.

“You said you joined with your sister, earlier,” Fiona started, pretending she wasn’t still in awe of the scenery. “Is she the fourth member of the team?”

“Oh, yeah!” X-Ray exclaimed, a wide smile brimming on his face as he spoke of her, “That’d be Wave, my little sister. She’s a little spitfire, but I’m proud of her.”

“How old is she?”

“Seventeen,” X-Ray said, and upon the raised eyebrow Fiona wore, quickly added, “Ha, I know that’s young, but she’s not the youngest Vault Hunter out there. She can hold her own. She’s survived more than you know.”

Fiona hung her head and stared at the ground as it passed by her feet. “Yeah, so has mine.”

“Oh, you’ve got a sister too, eh? Younger or older?”

“Younger. Her name is Sasha. I… I don’t think she really wanted me to come here today.”

“Protective, huh?”

“Something like that.”

A silence fell upon Fiona and X-Ray as they walked beside each other, fidgeting with their hands. It was obvious to her that their sisters had filled their heads; with worry, with pride, with a melancholy reminiscence of carefree childhood days.

“My sister had the skull-shivers,” X-Ray whispered. “Back when we lived in Overlook.”

“What are skull-shivers – “

Fiona’s question was cut short as she crashed into Doppler’s back. He had halted in his tracks.

“Shut up.” Doppler ignored Fiona and pointed to his colleague. “Stop giving this stranger an exposition dump of our backstories. Don’t think I didn’t hear about the little story you told her about me in the tunnel. For all we know she’s only temporary – Mirage can say no and then what? We send her off into the world with all of our secrets? That’s not a risk I want to take.”

X-Ray puffed his chest. “It’s not a secret and I don’t care if she’s temporary. Maybe I just want to talk to someone who has a sister and can relate to what I have to say. At least she’ll tell me about herself - more than what you’ve ever done.”

“You know enough about me, X-Ray,” Doppler carried on across the bridge, now bringing his attention to Fiona’s direction. “And don’t think you’re innocent in this. You’ve got to learn to shut up just as much as he does. You’re almost as bad as Claptrap.”

Hurling a snide comment would only prove his point, so Fiona settled for a roll of her eyes. She waited for Doppler to return his focus on the road ahead, then leaned into X-Ray and whispered in her lowest voice. “So… what are skull-shivers?”

X-Ray snickered and replied in an equally whispered tone. “What are you, a kid passing notes at school behind the teacher’s back?”

“I didn’t hear an answer.”

His gleaming smile dissipated. “Skull-shivers is a brain disease that the people of Overlook suffered from while Hyperion ruled over it. Caused people to stutter, black-out, die…” X-Ray trailed off while his eyes searched the ground as if recalling the scene as it played at his feet. “My sister caught it. I tried to raise the money I needed for her medicine from my Slab missions but – it just wasn’t enough. Thankfully, Mirage and Doppler found us around that time and took care of her while I was with the Slabs. Eventually, the Vault Hunters from Sanctuary came by and got her the medicine she needed, I finished my last Slab mission, we helped Mirage take over this place, yadda yadda. Point is, I owe Mirage and Doppler a lot. Wave might not be alive right now if it weren’t for them.”

“What about–“ Fiona choked the question in her throat. She already knew what his answer would be – it was her answer; it was everyone’s answer on this hellhole of a planet. Yet the question slipped out of her mouth anyway. “What about your parents?”

“Gone,” X-Ray replied, short and bitter. “Handsome Jack made sure of that when he raided our home in New Haven. God, seems like a lifetime ago.”

“Handsome Jack found a way to ruin everything, didn’t he?” Fiona gazed up at Elpis. “He ruined our lives too.”

“How so? If you don’t mind me asking.”

A huff escaped her as she remembered that hallway of monitors, Handsome Jack’s visage littering each one, hurtling threats to pry from her Rhys’ whereabouts. How could she begin to explain that? An AI of Jack sabotaged their vault hunting plan and wrought terror upon Helios’ inhabitants before they perished in a life-shattering crash. That was the end of it, but the beginning? She already spent several days bound in tape and forced at gunpoint to explain how that all began, and she didn’t feel like repeating herself. “It’s… complicated. But our parents were already out of the picture by the time he came along.”

“Orphaned too, huh?”

“Long time ago. Though Sasha and I found a… surrogate father, I guess you could say. Felix. He taught us how to be the best con artists in the business. He gave me my gun and hired Athena to train me. We owe him a lot, too.” Literally. The debt was nine-million dollars, but she omitted that figure. “My sister… Sasha might not be alive right now if it weren’t for him, either.”

“What, uh… what happened to him?”

“The same thing that happens to everyone,” she lied. Felix disappeared for a reason, and to blow his cover would render all of his efforts in vain.

X-Ray presented a slight bow to pay his respects. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m sorry too.”

Fiona froze. She pressed her fingers against her lips, smudging faint lipstick. They had been sealed. So why, then, did she just hear an apology in her own voice? “I didn’t say that.”

“Didn’t you?” Her disembodied voice asked, dripping with odious condescension.

“Doppler,” X-Ray scolded, “don’t do that to her.”

Doppler turned to face them; his finger poised on the keyboard fastened to his forearm. He spoke, no longer in the gravelly, filtered voice that Fiona knew. Instead, his modulator emitted her own voice, artificial yet convincing. “I’ll do what I want. That’s what she’ll do anyway.”

Fiona fumed. “What the hell? You’re just going to mock – “

“Mock? No, this isn’t what this is.” Doppler advanced towards her, leaving little room between them. “This is a lesson. Do you see how easy it is to replicate you? To steal your identity before you have time to think? Of course, you would, you’re a con artist. You replicate identities all the time. But I bet you never consider it ever happening to you.”

“What’s your point?” Fiona tapped an impatient foot against the metal bridge. “I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”

Doppler stepped back, took a breath, and announced in a volume so great that Fiona rushed to cup her ears with her hands. “I’m Fiona! I think Handsome Jack is the greatest hero of our lifetime! Hyperion would have saved the lives of Pandora! The Helios crash was the most tragic event Pandora will ever know! Death to all bandits, psychos, and Vault Hunters in Sanctuary!”

“Quiet! Are you trying to get me ki-“

“Trying to get you killed? Yeah.” Doppler shrugged. “That’s the point. When you talk too much you create a target on your back.”

X-Ray took a hesitant step between them. “Alright, I think she gets it, man.”

“Stay out of it,” Doppler warned, pressing another button on his keyboard. His voice modulator adjusted to the new voice, bright and cheerful, and just like X-Ray’s. “Don’t forget, I can give you this lesson again, too.”

X-Ray resigned from his protest, but Fiona wasn’t about to do the same. “This doesn’t prove anything! You’re just being an asshole!”

“I don’t think I’ve made a clear enough example, then. You know who talked too much for his own good, Fiona?” Doppler pressed a large, yellow button on his keyboard. His voice modulator screamed in a high ringing tone before settling into the next voice. Air fled from Fiona’s lungs when she heard the unmistakably irreverent bravado. “Handsome Jack.”

The rakks overhead screeched – their graceful gliding, once disrupted, swiftly devolved into jagged spirals.

“You know how Handsome Jack lost to the Vault Hunters of Sanctuary? Because he talked too much.” Doppler leaned in, impassioned, almost as if Handsome Jack’s voice had bestowed upon him the power to launch into a maniacal rant.  “The Guardian Angel that was working for him sent the Vault Hunters to Opportunity to steal a voice modulator from a body double. With that, they replicated his voice with the propaganda recordings that he broadcasted to the city.”

The rakks fought in the air, slashing each other’s wings with desperate claws. The skags that roamed on the fields below the bridge vigorously pawed at the ground, at their own heads, at the foundations of the bridge. A chorus of anguished roars erupted in the highlands.

“Uh, Doppler,” X-Ray started, gazing up at the distraught rakks, “I’m thinking maybe your Jack voice is making the creatures panic.”

Doppler ignored him; his furious glare, though shaded under the brim of his hat, was locked on Fiona. “The Vault Hunters used Jack’s voice to bypass the highest security area with a voice-activated password. Once they were inside, they killed his secret weapon, the Guardian Angel herself! His own daughter! A Siren! She died – HE died in that god-forsaken volcano – all because he just couldn’t shut the hell up!”

A rakk divebombed Doppler, finally finding the source of Jack’s voice to release its wrath upon. While he struggled in the mess of contorted leathery wings, Fiona's was whisked off her feet by the other rakk. In a panic she kicked her legs below her, frantically searching for the metal footing of the bridge. Her toes caught the edge, but it was too late. The rakk broke away from her. She watched the pair of beating wings rise into the air – or, was she falling?

By the time she realized she was most definitely falling, her body had already impacted the ground. She blinked her teary eyes open to squint at the sky above her, painted in vibrant oranges and pinks. The mud and grass of the field had softened her landing - if only a little. She groaned as she stirred her arms and legs. They weren’t broken as far as she could tell.

Another hard thud alerted her to the fresh body that landed beside her. She found Doppler laying in the same position, his arms and legs sprawled out and limp in the mud. A harsh moan escaped his modulator.

The distinct gunshots of an assault rifle rang out above their heads. Fiona watched as the shells from X-Ray’s gun glimmered in the light of the setting sun, cascading like golden raindrops. Still standing on the bridge, X-Ray delivered a final shot, and the last rakk fell dead at her feet.

“What the hell just happened?” Fiona groaned, forcing her sore limbs to stand herself up.

“I think it was Doppler’s Handsome Jack voice!” X-Ray called out from the bridge. “When the animals were experimented on, they had to listen to Jack’s voice over the communication system the whole time. I think Doppler triggered some sort of fight-or-flight response in ‘em!”

“Oh, good,” Fiona mumbled, turning to Doppler as he remained motionless in the mud. “Guess you need to learn your own lesson. Your talking almost got us killed.”

Doppler’s chest heaved for a labored laughed. His default voice returned. “I hate you. You know that?”

“You haven’t exactly tried to hide it.”

“Uh, guys?” X-Ray pointed to a pack of skags prowling in the field nearby. The big ones raised on their haunches, roaring into the early evening air. Fiona studied the smaller ones that circled on their flanks, eyes red with fury.

“Okay, right,” Doppler grunted. He pulled himself to his feet and brushed himself off, though that did little for his jackets still dripping with mud and dead grass. “I’ll handle this.”

“You’ll handle this? There’s like, at least a dozen skags – “

A flash of light interrupted her. At yet another press of a button, Doppler’s figure divided into three – one solid, permanent Doppler stood before her, while two half-transparent clones materialized by his side. With twice the firepower, the Dopplers sprang at the skags with SMGs, pistols, rifles; barrels glowed red from the never-ending heat of bullets. Waves of skag bodies crumpled on the soft soil and folded into themselves, legs twisted and caked with blood and guts and mud.

In the commotion, Fiona spotted a lone skag in the far left of her vision. It hid in the grass, snarling, waiting for a moment to pounce on the corporeal Doppler while he was distracted by the rest of the pack. It found one.

The skag lunged towards the masked Vault Hunter, jaws agape, ready to sink its teeth into his neck and tear his head from his shoulders. As if by instinct, Fiona snapped her pistol from her sleeve and fired an incendiary shot into the skag’s open mouth. It collapsed to the ground before Doppler’s feet, writhing, roaring as a fire burned in its skull, then stilled. Doppler paused to gave Fiona a nod over his shoulder before promptly returning to the massacre.

Eventually, even the badass skags fell to Doppler’s clones. He waited for the corpses to cease twitching before he recalled the silent holographic replicas. Fiona gawked at the dead skags in amazement. “That was amazing. How did you do that?”

“Practice. Anyways, let’s get out of here.” Doppler glared up at the bridge, where X-Ray had been spectating. “Mind giving us a hand here, buddy?”

X-Ray shrugged. “I don’t see a way up from here.”

“Okay, well, mind coming down then? We could use the help.”

X-ray took a step towards the bridge’s edge, ready to jump down. Except... he never did. Instead, a wide, devilish grin grew on his face. He took a giant step backwards. “Nah.”

“’Nah’? What do you mean ‘nah’?”

“I mean, this seems like a great trust-building exercise for you two. Roughing it together in the Wildlife Preserve? Learning to fight like a team? Who am I to take that opportunity away from you?”

Doppler stomped his foot in the dirt like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “Dammit, Ray! She’s not on the team, yet! I told you!”

“Maybe she’ll prove something to you!” X-Ray leaned over the bridge to face Fiona. His arms overflowed with common loot. “As for you, Fi, you’ll need some gear. What do you need?”

“I-“

“You seem like a Jakobs kind of gal to me. Here.”

Fiona rushed to catch the guns that rained down from the bridge. Altogether, she counted a Jakobs pistol, an assault rifle, and a sniper rifle.

“Hm, what else…” X-Ray mumbled as he searched through his pack. “Oh! A shield! Here, take my old one. Nothing fancy to it but it regenerates pretty quickly.”

Fiona equipped the shield as he requested. He didn’t give her much say in the matter.

“Alright, I’ll meet up with you guys at the holding cells. Good luck!” X-Ray departed with a final two-finger salute as he disappeared from view, continuing along with the safety of the bridge.

Doppler muttered something about Ray being a sunuvabitch, and Fiona, for once, was inclined to agree with him. Thanks to X-Ray, she’d spend her first night on the Vault Hunting team with the only member who, so far, hated her guts.

“Come on,” Doppler said, “It’s gonna get dark soon. There’s a Hyperion locker room up ahead. We should be able to take shelter there for the night.”

“We’re not going to the holding cells like X-Ray said?”

“We are. It’s just going to take a much longer time to get there now, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to try to shoot stalkers when it’s pitch black outside. Better to wait the night out first.”

Fiona nodded and followed Doppler’s lead. They clambered onto a large steel pipe that acted as a ramp into the decrepit Hyperion-branded room. The walls were lined with lockers already broken into and left ajar. Only an ECHO remained, discarded on a table.

“Hm, I don’t remember this being here before.” Doppler took the ECHO and played it. First, only heavy breathing could be heard, unnerving Fiona and Doppler alike. The breathing soon burst to a tirade, delivered by the voice of a seemingly unhinged old man.

“They don’t understand me! They don’t! ‘Enough with the shields, Monty,’ they plead. Oh, they’ll learn. They’ll learn what shields can really do. I'll sic Python on them, and then they’ll come crying back to lil’ ole me, begging me for a shield. And you know what I’ll say? Piss off!”

Doppler sighed as the ECHO transmission ended. “Oh no.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Monty.” Doppler raised his hand up and under the brim of his hat to hold the bridge of his nose. “Guy that used to be part of the crew of refugees we took in here when we took over the preserve. We kicked him out because he got a little crazy when his ‘pet’ thresher that he named Python – which, by the way, was already dying of slag poisoning – escaped the holding cells. Also, the guy was just… weirdly obsessed with shields.”

 “And this is a problem… because?”

“Because now I know he’s holed up in the preserve somewhere and we’re gonna have to find a way past him when we’re done resting here for the night. He’s crazy, but he’s not to be underestimated.”

“Oh, great.” Fiona rolled her eyes. “Sounds like fun.”

Doppler didn’t respond. He placed the ECHO back down on the table and sat down on the cold floor, leaning his back against one of the lockers. With a trained flick of his finger, he tilted the brim of the hat down to completely cover his face, shielding his eyes from whatever light there was remaining of the day. “Get some sleep. You’ll need it.”

Fiona awkwardly joined him, laying down on the hard steel ground and intertwining her fingers across her stomach. She mimicked his finger flick and tilted her hat over eyes. Duct tape and Rhys’ shoulder was more comfortable than this.

“Got any advice for me before we head out tomorrow?” Fiona asked, distracting herself from the chill that ran along her spine.

“Yeah, don’t die.”

“I’m serious.”

“I am being serious.”

“Ugh! You’re ridiculous.”

“And you’re cocky.” Doppler paused, then continued. “You’re also… insecure. You don’t seem to know what you want to be. Of course, that’s unsurprising for a con-artist who dons a new façade at the drop of a hat. But for a Vault Hunter? You better figure out who you are when you’re a Vault Hunter, and soon, or you’ll never make it.”

Fiona was grateful her hat covered her face because her expression surrendered visceral fear. “What do you mean by that?”

“You saw what I did today, with my digi-clones? That’s my skill. Every Vault Hunter has a special skill that sets them apart from the bandits, the scavs, even other Vault Hunters. You were amazed by it. Makes me think you don’t have a skill for yourself. Maybe you just don’t know yourself well enough to know what it is yet.”

“Says the guy who hides his face.”

“Hey!” Doppler snapped. “You heard X-Ray; I need this stuff to survive. I still know who I am underneath all of this. It took a long time, but I’ve made my peace with it. You need to make your peace too.”

“Well…” Fiona searched for some witty rejoinder but came up short. “Thanks for the advice, anyway.”

“Don’t mention it.”

The two of them readjusted, attempting to find a comfortable position beneath the cover of their hats. The squawking of rakks faded in a decrescendo. The creatures of the preserve retired to their high-hanging nests while dusk settled upon Pandora. The sky transformed from pink to purple, to blue, and finally, to black. For the first time that day, Reverie was silent.

Chapter Text

                                                                  

Athena downed a deep drink from her mug of steaming-hot latte, which she nuzzled between her interlocked fingers.

“You’re lucky you got the latte machine running again.” Athena took another sip. Whipped cream residue lingered on her lip before she wiped it away. “Might not have agreed to this job if you hadn’t.”

Rhys, Sasha, and Cassius crowded around the table in the Hub, watching as Athena lounged by latte machine and continued to gulp from her mug. Sasha chuckled. “Well, we appreciate the help, anyways.”

“You have Janey to thank too. I ran the job by her after you called me. She said as long as I’m just an extra security measure, she’ll let me do it.”

Athena shifted her attention to Rhys. Dumpy lay lifeless on the table in front of him with wires barely contained within unpainted steel panels. Rhys paid feigned interest in the conversation while he rhythmically drove nuts and bolts into the little robot. Athena cleared her throat to catch his attention before she continued. “Rhys, this IS just a security job, right?”

“Hmm, what? Yeah… security… all it is…” Rhys kept at his handiwork.

“I want you to understand why I’m asking this.” Athena straightened up and set her mug on the counter. “Rhys?”

“Mhmm, go on…” He prepared the soldering iron. “I’m listening…”

“Atlas raised me to kill. I was the best assassin in the Lance, hell, on the planet. Eventually, I was so good at killing people that they stopped seeing me as human and started treating me like a machine. Emotionless. Cold. Efficient. For a while, I thought maybe they were right. Then I found my sister, Jess.”

Rhys nodded and melded two wires together on Dumpy’s circuit board. Sister, right, he heard that story before. Occasional sparks of red-hot steel and copper flashed in his focused stare. He appeased Athena with only hums and nods as she droned on. The dim orange light of the setting sun steadily receded across the table and provided him with a burning image of passing time, the final grains of sand in an hourglass. Dumpy was more important. The Atlas Security System was more important. The day was almost gone, and time was of the essence.

Only a sharp thrust of Sasha’s elbow into his ribcage could tear him from his project.

“Ow! What was that for?” Rhys asked as he massaged his tender side.

“Were you listening to anything Athena just said?”

“I mean, I’ve heard it already.” Rhys adjusted his posture, finally focusing on the mercenary in front of him. “You were tricked into killing your sister so you got revenge. It’s not complicated.”

“By Atlas,” Athena replied in a smug monotone. “Which you happen to be the new CEO of.”

 “Yeah, the new CEO of,” Rhys scoffed. “You know I had nothing to do with what happened to you before.”

“That’s true. But this? Asking me to fight for a company that took everything from me? You have to promise me something in return.”

Rhys grimaced. “Promise you something? I already said I’d pay you. What more did you want?”

“It’s not that kind of promise, Rhys.” Athena bore into him with a melancholy stare. “I’ve spent my whole life watching the world corrupt around me. I watched as Atlas abandoned principles while pursuing their arrogance and greed. I watched as Jack spiralled from the brave hero fighting for Elpis’ salvation into the vengeful madman bent on Pandora’s annihilation. I’m not going to stand by and watch anymore. Too many innocent people are dead because I didn’t take action sooner. I need you to promise me you won’t turn into old Atlas. I need you to promise me you won’t turn into Jack. If I suspect you are, I will not hesitate to kill you if I have to.”

“E-excuse me? Kill me? T-that’s, that’s just – “ Rhys struggled to find an appropriate reaction.

“Athena, we hired you to protect us,” Sasha intervened. “Killing Rhys isn’t exactly protecting him.”

Athena remained firm in her stance. “I’m not asking permission to kill him. I’m asking for his guarantee that he’s not going to turn out like every other warmongering CEO the universe has ever known… with the exception of Torgue, I suppose.”

“No, okay? Why are we even talking about this? It’s all a waste of time!” Throwing exasperated hands into the air, Rhys motioned towards the glass windows of the dome. “Look outside! It’s almost dark and we’re arguing over things that are pointless! I feel like I’m the only one that’s taking this seriously!”

“I am taking this seriously. You need help and I can give it to you. Your promise is my condition.” Athena grabbed her mug again, sipping the latte while she awaited his verdict.

Petulant, Rhys crossed his arms against his chest. “Absolutely not.”

“It looks like you don’t need me, then.”

“Rhys, we need her help,” Sasha started in a softened voice. “You don’t want to be like Jack anyways. Maybe you should just swallow your pride and promise her this. Like you said, we’re wasting time.”

“She just threatened to kill me, Sasha! This isn’t about ‘swallowing my pride.’ Are you really siding with her on this?”

“No, of course not! But… it’s not an unreasonable thing for her to ask from you. You could at least agree until we don’t need her help anymore.”

“How confident can I be that she’ll help me in the first place if I know she'll kill me whenever she thinks I deserve it?”

“May I propose a solution,” Cassius announced, reminding everyone that he was, in fact, still in the room. “I may not be standing here today if Fiona hadn’t convinced Athena to offer me another chance. Even with my Atlas affiliation, Athena, you found it in your heart to spare my life. I have to believe there’s a part of you that does not want to punish people based on the transgressions of others.”

“Where are you going with this?” Athena asked.

“I’m suggesting that, should the time come that Rhys gives you a reason to think he’s turning into old Atlas, or Jack, or whatever you’re afraid of him becoming, you should tell him, and give him a chance to live so he can learn from it.”

“Thank you, Cassius!” Rhys graciously said. “Finally, someone with some sense about this.”

“And then if he doesn’t learn from it, you can kill him,” Cassius finished.

“Wait, what?”

Athena ignored Rhys’ confusion. “Yeah, I could accept that much.”

“Well, I mean, that’s still – “

Sasha cut him off. “Sounds reasonable enough to agree to. Right, Rhys?”

The pressure of their expectant gazes forced his cooperation. “Fine! If this is what it takes. I promise I won’t become like Jack or whatever. At least as long as I can get your promise you won’t just kill me when you feel like it.”

“Deal.” Athena offered a hand to shake on it. He accepted the offer, shook her hand, and watched as she wiped the sweat from his clammy palms off on her pants in subtle disgust.

“Alright, well, now that that’s finally over with, I’ll need you to scan your fingerprint into the bio-scan so you can have security clearance. You too, Sasha.”

The women nodded and lined up to the bio-scanner. Sasha pressed her thumb to the screen and waited for a green flashing light of confirmation before removing it. She stepped aside for Athena, only to find the mercenary frozen and staring intently at her thumb.

“Uh, Athena? Something wrong?” Sasha asked.

“No. Don’t mind me.” Athena reanimated and placed her thumb to the scanner. The green light flashed. “This all just feels… strange. Being an Atlas employee again.”

“If it helps, you’re more of a third-party contractor,” Rhys reminded her while he gathered Dumpy, his tools, and his stun baton into his cradling arms. “Come on, let’s get to the security tower. We can monitor the security cameras there.”

 


 

 

The four Atlas personnel took their seats in front of the security monitors. Rhys pointed to the monitor at the top right, displaying a monochromatic image of the outside gate comprised of several horizontal lasers that connected the high walls.

“They should show up on this screen first. I worked on the gate today so that it’s rigged to open with a bio-scan. They shouldn’t be able to get past it. If they do, there are automated turrets along the walls too. And of course, we have Athena if they somehow get past that.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Athena approved. She reclined in her chair, polishing her shield to a reflective shine.

“What if they get past Athena?” Sasha asked, unsatisfied.

“That’s about as far as I got,” Rhys admitted. “The turrets inside the biodome aren’t automated anymore after I disabled them for Gortys’ energy chassis, and I didn’t have the time to automate them once I was done with the gate. But Athena’s got everything else covered.”

Sasha sighed. “I just want to be prepared.”

“Yeah, I know, I told you that’s what I’ve been doing all day.” Rhys poked at Dumpy’s body on the counter in front of him. “I was hoping to get this little guy up and running too, for an extra measure. I don’t think that’ going to happen.”

Cassius interrupted them with a tap on the monitor. “They’re here.”

Their eyes locked onto the scene from outside. The outline of a bandit technical car materialized behind the gate of lasers. A petite woman jumped out; her heavy black boots kicked up a cloud of dusted snow from beneath her feet. With confidence, she strode towards the camera at the gate. Upon a closer view, it was clear the woman was only a teenager. Black strands of hair fell from her head in an asymmetrical cascade – one side was cut to the length of her cheek, the other side rested at her chest, and the hair in between smoothed the transition.  Her wide, youthful eyes were worn down with heavy lids and dark bags, a stark contrast from her pallid face. Dark, think brows furrowed as she surveyed the gate, shifting the silver ball piercings that rested just above them. She adjusted her headphones before raising a comically large megaphone to her thin lips.

“This is Wave,” the woman spoke. “Rhys, Cassius, if you’re hearing this, then this is your chance to surrender to us peacefully.”

Rhys pressed on the button for the biodome intercom. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Fine, then.” Wave’s professional demeanor devolved into the passive-aggressive, sassy tone of a teenager. “We can do this the hard way.”

“You can try, but you ought to know we’ve got a badass Vault Hunter protecting this place,” Rhys boasted. “You should probably just turn around and go back to where you came from.”

Wave smirked. “That’s cute. Just one Vault Hunter? We’ve got two.”

The teen signalled to the technical parked behind her. Another figure, tall and graceful, emerged from the vehicle and sauntered into the camera’s light. Her tan face was framed with swooping curls of light bobbed hair, while the rest fluffed from her head with the volume of cotton candy. Jawline, cheekbones, and nose were sharp, long, and angled, duplicated by the mirror lining the inside of her high blade-edged collar, but it was her captivating narrow eyes that pierced into the camera. The woman lifted her left arm, revealing a maze of glowing tattoos that ran along her lean muscles in a paisley sort of pattern, ending at a silver cuff that braced her wrist.

Wave returned the megaphone to her face. “And one’s a Siren.”

Athena's shield dropped to her lap as she leaned into the monitor. “Oh no.”

“Oh no?” Rhys asked. “That isn’t exactly instilling a lot of confidence right now.”

Athena shook her head. “This isn’t a joke, Rhys. That’s a Siren. Do you have any idea how powerful they can be?”

Wave continued. “This is your last chance. Surrender now or we’ll take you and Cassius by force.”

Rhys hesitated; his finger hovered over the intercom button. With all his meticulous planning and security reinforcement labor, he hadn’t accounted for a Siren in his calculations. Even with Athena’s help, he could no longer guarantee he could keep everyone safe. Perhaps surrendering was the only sure way out.

Sasha sensed his hesitation. “No, Rhys. You are not doing that,” she commanded. She reached over his hand and pushed the button instead, addressing Wave herself. “We are not surrendering.”

 “Ah, DJ Rakk Attack.” Wave's face livened at her voice. “That’s too bad. But I admit, I’m looking forward to meeting you in person.”

“You’ll have to get through the gate first,” Sasha mocked.

“If that’s what you want. Ready?”

The Siren stepped to the gate, resting her tattooed hand on the wall next to the laser projectors. In a low, calming voice, she spoke. “Executing Phase-shift.”

The laser projectors dematerialized, disappearing into a digi-structed void. The gate was open.

The automated turrets mounted to the wall reacted to the breach, unloading rounds of bullets at the two trespassers and depleting their shields. They dove behind the cover of their vehicle. After a swift swap of weapons, they responded with ceaseless corrosive gunfire. The turrets succumbed to the barrage and collapsed into a pathetic heap of acid and metal.

Rhys jumped to his feet. “No! Shit, no, no, no. That was the only thing we had!”

“Not the only thing.” Athena stood and unsheathed her sword.

“A-are you crazy? Did you see what they just did? They’ll kill you!”

“I’ve taken on two Vault Hunters before,” Athena said, stoic maybe, but with a hint of trepidation.

“I don’t recall you winning that fight,” Rhys retorted. “And neither of them were Sirens. I mean, that one just vanished my gate into thin air!”

 “Look.” Athena jabbed the point of her sword at the monitor. The women were moving past the gate and into the biodome, weapons drawn and trailed by a small horde of armed goons. “The more we talk about this, the less time we have. I’m going out there.”

Rhys grabbed her arm before she took another step. “Wait! Wait, okay? Just wait a minute. I-I can think of something. Just let me think.”

Athena searched his face a moment, contemplating, then nodded. “You have until they breach the main doors.”

Rhys dashed to the monitors, flipping through each screen, frantically searching for something to spark an epiphany – a safe haven, a weapon, something. The HUB, the broken bridge, the elevator, the Gortys facility, the variety of mushrooms and trees, all flashed by his vision in an instant.

Sasha furrowed her brow, watching the intruders intently on a static screen. The pair had ascended the stairs to the HUB, and the Siren already begun her work on removing the barrier of the main doors. “Whatever you’re looking for, Rhys, you should hurry up.”

“Yeah, I know, I know.”

He returned to the camera view of the building that once housed Gortys’ energy chassis. It was the only building in the dome equipped with full security. The turrets were formidable, not as flimsy or exposed as the turrets at the gate, but not automated. No, they would need to be controlled remotely, via controls at the security tower.

“I’ve got an idea.” Rhys turned to Sasha. “You still have that Atlas Silver?”

“The SMG? Yeah, I still have it. Why?”

Rhys dug into his back pocket, retrieving his stun baton. “Here, I’ll trade you for it. You can’t fire a gun with your broken arm anyway. This’ll work better for you.”

Sasha reluctantly took the baton and handed him the SMG. “Okaaaay… and why do you need this?”

“Athena,” Rhys directed, “take Sasha and Cassius to the Gortys facility. The turrets there aren’t automated, but I can control them with the security systems.”

It took only a moment before Sasha understood. “Rhys, you are not staying here.”

“Someone has to control the turrets. I’m the only one here that knows how.”

Sasha clasped onto his arm and shook him with the sleeve of his jacket. “Don’t be stupid! If they find you here alone then you’re dead!”

Rhys continued, wounded by her trembling rage. “We don’t know that. Besides, I can’t risk you getting hurt. N-not… not again. I promised Fiona.”

Exerting her strength, Athena managed to pry Sasha from Rhys. With a rare, gentle look, Athena waited for the final confirmation that this was her order. He nodded. “You’ve got a communication device synced to an earpiece. I’ll let you know where they are on the camera footage.”

Cassius wordlessly followed Athena, departing with a remorseful glance at his CEO. Sasha, meanwhile, continued her rant while Athena escorted her through the door. “Let me go! Rhys! You’re going to kill yourself! You can’t!”

Rhys forced a smile meant to be reassuring, though more likely it was anything but. “I'm only doing what you would do. I’ll be okay.”

Sasha’s mouth hung open as if to cry out another defiant plea, but the door shut between them before he could hear it.

He was alone, surrounded by the dim light of the monitors. I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay, he repeated to himself as he inspected the Atlas Silver now in his possession. It was an impressive model – expertly balanced, artistically crafted, and ultimately useless in his untrained hands. True, SMGs required less aim than other gun types, but still, it required some ability to use effectively. Rhys sighed, already missing the comforting grip of the JR4000. At least he had a few fencing lessons he could lean back on with his stun baton. The decision wasn't about him, he reminded himself. The decision was for Sasha's sake.

Returning to the security footage, Rhys flipped through the camera views until he found Athena, Sasha, and Cassius forging a path to the Gortys facility. Athena swiped her sword across the fungus and foliage in front of her like a scythe. Cassius pulled at what remained of his hair, pleading with her to spare the plant life in her search for the most direct route.

Rhys glanced at the HUB camera; some of their goons lingered in the room and welcomed themselves to the fruit stash on the table, but Wave and Mirage were no longer there. In another round of camera views, he parsed through each one for a sign of them. Eventually he caught their movements at the edge of the elevator camera, where they had just finished looting the crates at the ground floor and started their trek into the jungle.

Rhys put a finger to his earpiece. “Athena, come in.”

“What?” Her breath was labored. In the background, he could hear the swipes and slashes of her blade through vines and mushroom stalks.

“They’re not too far behind you. I think they’re headed your way now. Keep a lookout.”

“Copy.”

From the footage, Athena appeared to have picked up her pace, forcing her way through thick bushes and weaving between the trunks of trees. Sasha and Cassius mimicked her patterns, occasionally throwing a cautious glance behind their shoulders. No other camera had been alerted to the intruders’ position.

“I see the Gortys facility,” Athena said. Her head perked up above the bushes to confirm the building’s distance from their location. “Where are they now, Rhys?”

“I’m trying to figure that out, but I haven’t found anything yet. I’ll let you know.”

Rhys continued clicking and clacking away at the control panel, cycling through security footage and preparing turret commands. Sasha’s voice emitting from one of the monitors snapped him from his routine.

“Do you guys hear that?” She asked. “Sounds like… music? It seems like it’s getting closer…”

Indeed, a pulsating tone began to overtake her voice. Something flashed into their camera view, then flashed out again. Rhys blinked. Surely it was his imagination. Nothing moves that fast.

A figure appeared in front of Athena, materializing from nothingness, and aimed a pistol at her shield. The Siren laughed. “Are you the Vault Hunter he hired? Funny. You know, a gun is usually a better idea out here than a gladiator shield.”

“You’ll see about that,” Athena grunted. With a powerful wind up of her arm and body, she hurled her shield – a blur of red and black – at the Siren. Like a phantom, she disappeared before the attack could reach her. The shield returned to Athena as if nothing had been hit at all.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.” The Siren revealed herself again, this time behind Sasha and Cassius. “That was rude. I was just giving you some advice.”

Athena moved in front of Sasha; her shield raised to her chest. “I don’t need it.”

“Everyone needs advice. How would anyone reach their true potential if they never tried to improve?”

Athena replied only with a livid glare while the pulsating tone grew ever louder. Rhys’ fingers twitched on the control panel.

The Siren conceded to Athena’s refusal to respond. “Not much of a conversationalist, I take it? Alright. Let’s cut to the chase, then.” She ushered another figure to emerge from the depths of the jungle.

“Sorry if this is loud,” Wave apologized, finally flipping a switch on her megaphone to kill the deafening tone. “But I find echolocation so useful in situations like these. We might not have found you at all otherwise.”

“Oh, how tragic,” Sasha sarcastically spat.

“We told you we didn’t want to hurt you, Sasha,” Wave reminded her. “Just hand Cassius and Rhys over and we’ll leave you alone.”

“Where is Rhys, since we’re on the topic?” The Siren asked, motioning towards Cassius. “I’m guessing this isn’t him.”

Sasha squinted, lifting her lips in disgust. “None of your business.”

The Siren vanished. Before Athena could react, she rematerialized only a footstep behind Sasha. Her height was impressive when compared so closely to another's; she was taller than even Rhys.

“Oh, but it is my business.” The Siren’s face encroached in on Sasha’s, eyes intense. Her pleasantries had run out. “Any business that dares to choke the life from this planet is my business. The way I see it, from where I’m standing, you are a traitor to Pandora. Atlas has corrupted you, turned you into a corporate zombie. All bravado, no soul. And right now, you are in the way of my business. Wave may have a fondness for you, but I have no such attachment.”

Athena – as if anticipating his next words – acted before Rhys could give the order. Her crimson blade swung just above Sasha’s head where the Siren’s chest had loomed over her. Yet again, the attack hung in dead air. The Siren flashed out of existence.

“My name is Mirage,” her disembodied voice began, shifting across the landscape, leaving only the rustle of leaves and snaps of vines as evidence of its source. “You have witnessed my power as a Siren. But I am nothing if not generous. Consider this is your last chance. Surrender the Atlas employees to me.”

“Forget it!” Sasha roared at the wind. Athena braced her feet into the frosted dirt, ready for a fight.

“Athena!” Rhys cried into the communicator. “Get them to the Gortys facility! I can’t help you when you’re out in the open!”

“I’m working on it!”

Mirage reappeared no sooner than Athena had answered him and locked a talon grip onto Cassius’ arm. Even the mercenary’s trained reflexes could not dispatch the Siren before she dodged the sword’s blow. She cloaked herself and Cassius both.

Sasha and Athena spotted the pair a second later standing by Wave's side and in the jungle path Athena had just cleared. Mirage released the scientist to Wave, who locked his wrists together with steel handcuffs.

Athena took the brief opening to push Sasha through the jungle terrain and towards the Gortys building. “Go! Go! Go!”

Rhys watched as Mirage began her chase, flickering in and out of existence like a flame, gaining considerable ground with each blink into the invisible void. Her cheerful laugh echoed while she moved into this mysterious space. This was a game to her, and Athena and Sasha were prey to be played with.

The pair finally staggered out of the bushes and into the clearing before the Gortys entrance. Athena pulled her to the bio-scanner and thrust a thumb onto the screen, waiting for green. Waiting for green. Waiting for green. Waiting for green.

The screen flashed green. The door flung open. Mirage sunk sharpened nails into Sasha’s flesh. Broken bone cracked and splintered under the pressure of her grip. Sasha gasped and screamed from the pain, an anguished sound that only amplified once she entered the invisible place Mirage dragged her into.

Rhys and Athena could only cry out her name in the confusion.  

A rumbling crackle, like low thunder, erupted in the dome. Bright blue pinwheel of dancing electricity emerged from a point not far from Athena. In a final blinding beacon of light, Sasha and Mirage emerged from the nothingness. Mirage’s twitching body flew back into the jungle and skidded to a halt in the mud.

“Sasha?” Athena asked, approaching her carefully. “Are you okay?”

Sasha stood smiling, despite her obvious pain. With her good arm, she waved the activated stun baton high above her head in full view of the security camera. “Thanks, Rhys! I promise to give it back!”  

Rhys couldn’t choose whether to laugh or to cry. Relief washed over him. The decision to entrust her his best weapon for defence was vindicated by her escape. Whatever happened to him, whatever the consequences, that decision was worth it.

Mirage stirred. With weakened arms, she pushed her torso from the ground and labored her legs to bend beneath her, steadying herself on her fours. Wave had finally caught up to them, surveying the scene before she offered help to the Siren to her feet.

“Don’t worry about me,” Mirage forced the words from lungs still gasping for air. A trembling arm rose from her side, pointing to Sasha and Athena. “Just get them!”

Wave lifted her megaphone to face the pair of them. Sasha scoffed. “What’s a megaphone gonna do – “

A booming sound wave exploded from the instrument, revealing itself as an augmented audio gun. The two were launched backwards by the concussive energy through the open Gortys doorway. They impacted the hard metal interior lift. Sasha screamed again after landing on her broken arm. Yet another, separate scream stabbed into Rhys’ head like a needle. He pulled the communicator piece from his ear to hear only the ringing of the broken device.

“Athena!” He shouted her name into the device but received no answer. The intense sound wave had interfered with the tech – all communication with Athena was down. Only the audio from the cameras remained.

Broken communication did not stop Athena from completing her orders. She spared no time regaining her composure and slamming on the lift controls, sending them down further into the haven of the Gortys chassis room. This was their chance. Rhys primed the turrets to lock onto the doorway.

Wave barged into the building, now armed with a Jakobs sniper rifle. She spied Athena and Sasha exposed like sitting rakks while descending the lift. With her signature smirk, she raised the scope to her eye and took aim at Sasha’s protector...

The high-pitched ringing of locking turrets had penetrated her headphones. She pushed them down from her head to her neck, freeing her ears to find the source of the sound. Her heavy-lidded eyes widened once she recognized the industrial steel turrets, stationed like a council above her head, ready to rain gunfire judgement down upon her.

In a frantic dash, she slid back behind the doorway, narrowly avoiding the bombardment of bullets. She switched her weapon to a corrosive sniper and attempted to peak around the doorway to take aim at the security turrets. Rhys would not allow her the chance. The various angles of the turrets yielded no advantage, no angle for attack.

Mirage had since found her footing and limped to Wave’s position. “What’s this?”

“The turrets, ma’am,” Wave answered over the boisterous gunfire. “I can’t get a good shot in. Even if I could, these aren’t the same turrets we found at the gate. These are made of stronger stuff. One corrosive shot isn’t going to do anything.”

“I see,” Mirage said, waving her tattooed hand over the bio-scan panel outside. “I can’t shut them off here. The power source for the turrets don’t originate from this building, it seems.”

“That means they’re coming from another building, right? Which means someone has to be controlling them?” Wave asked. “And the only one we haven’t found is Rhys.”

Rhys gulped.

“You’re right, Wave. Impressive,” Mirage lauded her apparent protege. A sudden wince betrayed her posh demeanor and she hurried an arm to clutch her side. “It’ll take a little bit for me to recover. But I have a plan. I’ll take Cassius back to the technical and rest a while. Meanwhile, I want you to search for the power source of the turrets. Find that, find Rhys. I’ll join you when I can.”

“But what about – “

“Forget them,” Mirage said. “I know what I said earlier. But they’re not who we’re here for.”

“Right,” Wave agreed. She reequipped her megaphone and started on her quest like a bloodhound on the scent. While Mirage wandered back to the HUB with Cassius in tow, Wave gravitated towards the trail Athena had forged from her jungle trek... the trail that led directly back to the Rhys.

Rhys paced the security tower and scoured his brain for another plan. He clenched the communicator with both hands and pressed it to his mouth. “Athena? Come in. Athena? Come in. Athena? Come in.” He repeated her name in knowing vain, but the repetition comforted him, lulling his thoughts into a rhythm, a pattern, a forming idea.

The Siren wasn’t invincible. Whatever magic she had done to Sasha, wherever she had pulled her into, it had been stopped with a simple shocking jab to her side. Besides, Sirens were still human, right? And human muscles naturally react to jolts of electricity…

He stopped his pacing and turned to Dumpy. For nearly a year Rhys had worked on the little robot, but he had never recovered from the damage Jack’s chair had caused him. The faults were obvious, at first. Rhys patched him with new circuitry, new sheet metal, new coding. Yet, even after Dumpy received all the parts he needed to function, he remained stubbornly unresponsive. If it was as simple as hacking into his ancient reactivation protocols, that was beyond of Rhys’ current cybernetic capabilities. Whatever Jack had done to his systems to spring the Atlas security bots to fight by his side at Old Haven did not exist anymore. Not after he crushed his ECHO eye, anyways.

But it might still exist in the HALO drive.

No. He surprised himself with how quickly his mind rejected the thought. Not again. Never again.

That drive – that burden – weighed down in his jacket pocket again like a ton weight on his chest. A deal with the devil. A solution at a cost.

Rhys checked the security footage. Wave was within eyesight of the security tower. She travelled fast, and she marched with purpose. He had to make a decision and he had to make a decision now.

He shut down the power to everything but the monitors. Disabling the lift would buy him some time, at least until Mirage returned to sabotage the Atlas systems against him. Pulling the HALO drive from his pocket was a betrayal of his own body. Muscle, bone, and wire ached against it. He leaned over the control panel and shut his eyes, nauseous and hyperventilating, trying to think of anything to quell his nerves. Sasha’s soothing green eyes filled his vision. She smiled – a sweet smile so foreign on Pandora –  as he placed a flower in her hair. For a moment, nothing else in the world existed but him and Sasha. Not Wave, not Mirage, not Atlas, not the HALO drive.

“Rhys!” Wave’s declaration snapped him from his daydream. He could decipher from the screen that she had arrived outside the security tower, megaphone in hand. “It was a clever trick, I’ll admit. But you’ve had your fun. Once Mirage finds us, you’ll have no choice but to come out. There WILL be consequences for resisting.”

Rhys sucked in deep breaths through gritted teeth and steadied the drive to his head. His doubt, his anxiety, his fear, all drowned in a fading chorus until a singular voice emerged, guiding his decision by the hand. In a final leap of unwarranted faith, he drove the silver rod into his port.

 


 

 

“Hello? Who are you? Where… w-where am I? Is this… am I… real?” 

 

 


 

 Rhys sat up from the floor and grasped at his pounding head. Through his blurred vision he checked the closed doors and the security monitors, confirming Wave was still waiting for Mirage outside.

“Rhys.”

His dizzy head swirled at the sound of his name. Finally, his unfocused gaze rested on a purple blur in front of him. The blur outstretched an open hand. He reached instinctively to take the seeming offer of help, but his hand met with nothing but air.

“What?” A woman’s soft voice asked. The blur retracted its hand. “What… am I?”

Rhys struggled to balance on his feet. As his consciousness returned, the blur gained increasing detail to its form. It was a hologram of a woman. Half of her head had been shaved to accommodate two odd metallic implants, and the other half was shrouded in dishevelled hair, bunched and loosely gathered at the ends. Her slender neck was encumbered with a mechanical collar and her body was constricted with a tight suit laced with tubing. It was her eyes, large and curious, that confirmed his suspicions; this was Handsome Jack’s daughter, the little girl trapped in a yellow picture frame lost in the rubble of Jack’s office. Yet, this realization was soon dwarfed by another one, evidenced by an arm of glowing tattoos and wings of glimmering digital code sprawling from her back.

“Y-you’re a Siren?”

“I – well, yes, but what am I right now?” The woman asked again.

“Oh, right.” If he had a dollar for every time he had to deliver the news to an artificial intelligence that they were an AI based on the brain scan of a dead person, he’d have two dollars. Which is not a lot, but it seemed weird it would happen twice. “You’re an AI I just downloaded into my head, I’m pretty sure.”

“An AI…” She inspected her hand again. “The HALO Project.”

“Yeah, whatever that is.”

The woman’s face fell sullen. “Rhys, where’s Jack?”

“Uh, well he… uh…” Rhys rubbed the back of his head, nervously threading his fingers through his hair.  “Hold on. How do you know my name?”

“You’re in my database,” she stated simply. “You’re a Hyperion middle manager for the Securities Propaganda Division on Helios. You applied for ECHO arm and eye implants three years ago after a successful Eridium deal on Pandora. You report directly to Mr. Henderson.”

“I think your database might be a little outdated if that’s all you have on me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m not exactly Hyperion anymore. And Henderson’s dead. Most of the employees from Helios are now, actually.”

Upon the news, the hologram burned him with a horrified doe-eyed stare. “Where’s Jack?”

A motion on the monitor caught Rhys’ attention. With regained regality in her posture, Mirage had finally returned to meet Wave outside the security tower. She waved a hand over the lift’s control panel and jumpstarted the power as if it were mere child’s play. The two started their ascent.

“L-listen, Angel, right? I’ll tell you where your dad is after you help me out, okay?” Rhys said in an attempt to placate the AI.

“How… how do you know Jack is my dad?”

“I uh – “ The lift arrived at the door. Panic stole his breath. He gasped between his sentences. “I-It’s a long story. Right now I need you to focus. It’s important. There’s an Atlas robot on that counter there. Can you use my cybernetics to hack into its subsystems?”

“I can try. Why do you need it?”

A tempered fist banged on the door. The room erupted with piercing metallic rings. “Rhys!” Wave announced after the knocking. “You have five seconds to come out, or else we’ll come in.”

“That’s why!”

Angel obeyed. The AI raised her arm and her tattoos emitted striking silver light against her lavender body. Like a marionette, Rhys’ robotic arm followed the exact movement. His ECHO eye blinked, transitioning from deactivated amber to glowing purple. Power surged through his circuitry.

With renewed ECHO access, he scanned Dumpy’s subsystems and identified the reactivation protocols. Under Angel’s practised control, Rhys’ cyber arm waved over the robot – just as Mirage had done to the lift’s power grid – and sparked life into him. Dumpy’s singular eye flickered to yellow, then purple, while his jets propelled him off of the counter and into the air. Once Dumpy gained equilibrium and evened his hover pattern, he turned to Rhys and awaited a command.

Rhys nearly lost control of the robot in his unrestrained celebration. “Ha! We did it! He’s working again!”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” Dumpy screeched.

A confused Angel recoiled at the racket, but Rhys reassured her. “Oh, you have no idea how sweet that sound is to my ears right now.”

“You’ve made your choice! We’re coming in!” Wave shouted from behind the door. Their time was up. Rhys and Angel steadied their arms in an offensive pose, ready to signal Dumpy’s attack protocol.

Mirage spoke, loud enough to hear beyond the layers of metal. “Executing Phase-shift.” The steel of the door vanished at its epicenter, revealing her iridescent hand. Particles continued to digitalize and disappear in a growing diameter until the doorway was completely cleared, as if no door had ever stood there at all. Against the bioluminescent backdrop of the jungle, Mirage cast an imposing and dark silhouette; the form was only broken up by the light of her tattoos.

Rhys felt Angel’s power slip from his fingertips, receding from his hand into his forearm… from his forearm into his shoulder…

He turned to the AI to find her arm had gone limp and her tattoos had dimmed. “Uh, Angel, what are you doing?”

“That’s… my phase power.”

“What are you talking about?” He noticed Dumpy’s body wobble in his flight. His eye flickered, as did Rhys’.

“Phase-shift is my power,” she repeated, searching the silhouette in the doorway for an answer. “Is that me?”

Mirage took a step towards them, her pink eyes burning with a murderous fury. The click of her heel against the floor plucked at Rhys’ strung nerves.

“That’s not you!” Rhys yelled, using whatever power he retained over Dumpy to keep his wavering body afloat. “Please, Angel! Focus!”

Mirage lifted her pistol, taking aim at Rhys’ head.

“How do you know that?” Angel asked. “What if I’m –“

“BECAUSE YOU’RE DEAD!”

With the last shred of power and patience Rhys had, he ordered Dumpy to fire. A dart shot from the robot’s dying body. Like a bullet, it whizzed through the air and embedded itself into Mirage’s exposed shoulder. The Siren’s limbs spasmed and convulsed, accompanied by the strobing flashes of the electrocuting dart. After the initial shock, her body tumbled to the ground and froze into an unnatural pose.

Wave rushed to Mirage’s side, kneeling down to check her pulse. “Mirage! Are you okay? Oh god, what did he do to you?” In the faint light of the computer monitors, Mirage’s angled features were far more pronounced, seemingly paralyzed in a confused and pained expression.

Angel released a sharp exhale, assuming a hologram had lungs to exhale with. “That’s not me.”

Before Rhys could answer her, Wave rose to her feet and aimed her megaphone at him through teary eyes. “You’ll answer for this, Hyperion.”

“W-wait, wait! We can talk this through! No need to – “

Rhys was interrupted by a sonic blast slamming into him like a runaway train. He thought Angel might have called out his name in the second he had been sent violently hurtling backwards. It didn’t matter. His head crashed into the monitor screens behind him, shattering the only light in the room, and casting his body and his mind in darkness.

Chapter Text

                                                                     

“Get up.”

The words hit Fiona’s ears at the moment a swift swipe of a boot hit her arm. She lumbered from her warm spot on the ground to return a glare to the man who had kicked her. His mysterious frame was outlined by the morning light flooding in from the open window.

“You snore,” Doppler added. “Just so you know.”

Fiona leisurely stretched her limbs within the reach of the morning sun, soaking in the warmth of a new day. Doppler tossed her pack into her sprawling arms and she scrambled to catch the gear tumbling from the pack’s open mouth. “Hurry up,” he demanded, “I don’t want to be here longer than we need to be.”

With a roll of her eyes, she forced still-groggy feet to steady her stance. The pack swung inelegantly over her shoulder and stole her balance for a few moments before she adjusted her weight again.

“Here.” Doppler grabbed her hand, dropping an earpiece in her open palm. “It’ll keep up communication in case we get separated out there.”

“That’s funny,” Fiona said as she placed the earpiece, “thought you’d want me to get lost.”

Doppler shook his head. “Believe me, as much as I want that, I also don’t want to be on Athena’s bad side if I lose you.”

Again, Fiona inspected the man’s face, searching for any telling feature that could betray his disguise. His eyes were the only parts of his face not completely covered by bandages or the voice modulator strapped around his mouth, yet they remained shrouded by the wide black brim of his hat. She could only surmise that they were intense eyes, more blue or green than brown.

“How do you know Athena, anyway?” Fiona asked, eyes locked with his.

“No personal questions.”

Before she could respond, he turned to the gated door behind them and rolled the gates back. A vast green field stretching out a mile between them and the ex-Hyperion facilities. Purple gooey masses dripped from towering rock formations that jutted from the landscape.

“Careful,” Doppler warned, pointing to the bubbling blobs. “Those things are stalker piles. By the looks of it there’s gonna be a bunch of ‘em. Since X-Ray’s not here, we don’t have any way to see the stalkers when they cloak themselves. Get a shock weapon ready and stay alert.”

Fiona spun the sleeve pistol’s barrel between her fingers. The blue light along the barrel indicating shock elemental damage landed on a click. “What’s a shock weapon going to do against these things?”

“Stalkers have natural shields. Shock damage depletes their shields faster and keeps them from cloaking.”

Doppler slapped a firm hand against Fiona’s back, nudging her across the threshold from the safety of the Hyperion locker room and into the sun-drenched field.  Through a squinted gaze she scanned the grass beyond her feet, readying her sleeve pistol as she trekked forwards. Doppler followed close behind. From her peripheral, she spotted several hastily-posted orange caution signs, with large misspelt letters scrawled on their faces reading “Invisibl ASSHOLES” next to silhouette images of stalkers.

Static rose from Fiona’s ECHO comm. Without looking, she reached for the comm on her belt, only to find the texture of an empty leather holster on her fingertips. A quick search confirmed the comm was instead on Doppler’s pack.

“Hey! That’s my ECHO!” Fiona snapped. Doppler snatched the device from his pack as Fiona reached for it, leveraging his height to keep it from her grasp. “What are you doing?!”

The static transitioned into a voice, the same kooky voice that Fiona and Doppler had heard on the comm they had found the night before. “Ah, I see you from here! Looking to get to Reverie, are you? Well, you’ll need to get past me and ol’ Python to do that!”

“Monty,” Doppler started into the comm, his gritty voice short and impatient. “I don’t know where you are or what you’re up to, but I’m not looking for a fight.”

“Ah, Doppler. Why is a sorry excuse like you out here in the wild preserve? Thought you had bio-access into the facility. You know, the place YOU kicked me out of.”

“I do. I just… took an unexpected detour.” Doppler shook a head at Fiona, resting a hand on his hip. “I’ve got a guest here. I don’t want trouble. I just need to get through.”

A hearty cackle erupted from the comm. “Oh sure, sure. But I’ve got a little fetch quest I need you to do before I’ll let you through.”

“I’m not doing – “

“Great! Glad you can do this for me.” Monty interrupted. “Ever since YOU kicked me out of Reverie, I’ve found a nice little exhibit Python and I can live in. But Python’s still not looking so great, I think he’s getting a little homesick for the great wilderness he came from. So, I’m thinking you can grab a shrubbery while you’re out there, just to liven the place up a little for him, you know. Remind him of home.”

Doppler rubbed the bandaged-covered bridge of his nose. “A shrub- alright, I’m not getting you a shrubbery. Your thresher is sick because it was slagged. Shrubbery isn’t going to fix that.”

“You dare suggest I don’t know my own Python?!” Monty growled; his already unstable train of thought had derailed in frustration. “I-if you don’t come here with a shrubbery, then you’ll have to… have to… face another trial! I don’t know what it is yet but you’ll regret it!”

“Yeah, cool, cool.” Doppler hung up the ECHO comm. A new message blipped on the screen. Listed under the headline “Quests” was an empty checkmark and a note reading “Collect a shrubbery”.

“Damn, Monty put it on your ECHO,” Doppler said. Beneath the quest, he entered a new quest titled “Arrive at Reverie.”

“Why don’t we just get the man a shrub?” Fiona asked. “There’s plenty around here.”

“I’m not giving Monty the satisfaction of seeing me do whatever ridiculous thing he wants me to do.”

“Okay, well, at least I’ll take this back in the meantime.” Fiona snatched the comm from his hand and swiftly pocketed it before he could react.

Doppler sighed and crossed his arms, regarding her with a contempt usually reserved for spoiled children. “Listen, I took your ECHO for a reason. I’ll need you to – “ His hands tightened their hold on his arms. Every muscle in his body froze. “You hear that?”

In the distance, grass rustled and bounced in alternating clumps. The tall blades contoured the invisible dancer – wing-like limbs crawled and bounded across the field, swiftly approaching their position.

Doppler pushed Fiona with enough force to knock her to the ground. In the same moment, the screeching stalker lunged into the air where Fiona had just stood. The creature, now uncloaked, blocked the sun above her as it pounced over her head.

Uprooted grass rained down from the stalkers impact, where its claws had dug deep into the ground. Rounds blazed from the Maliwan SMG Doppler had equipped, sinking electric bullets into the stalker’s translucent shield while it recovered from its failed attack. Its hungry eyes remained trained on Fiona.

With no shield or cloak, the stalker made another desperate leap at Fiona. The screeching, thrashing body toppled her over into the grass and onto her back. Claws slashed above her face; only her shaking and outstretched arms kept the stalker from sinking them into her skin. A slip in her grip. A claw buried into her shoulder, ripping her black jacket and drawing blood through the fabric. The searing pain rippled through her body. Gritted teeth and a rush of adrenaline gave her strength enough to keep gnashing jaws inches from her face.

The rough, scaly skin of the stalker began to stiffen and crystalize in her grasp. A staggering cold sensation repulsed her hands from the creature, leaving her helpless as she watched the once lively thing become a statue mounted above her. With a final deafening scream, the stalker was completely encased in a thick layer of ice.

Doppler kicked the stalker, shattering the ice statue into chunks as it collapsed on the ground around Fiona. “Fun fact about stalkers, they love the taste of ECHO comms,” he said, assessing the damage to her shoulder. “That’s why I was keeping your ECHO until we crossed the stalker field. Better to keep their attention on me than on new meat like you. So, do us both a favor and trust me.”

“You…” Fiona squinted at him against the sunlight. Her vision was blurring – she couldn’t tell if it was the fault of the pained tears that had welled up in her eyes or the slipping consciousness as blood drained from the claw wound. “You haven’t given me much reason to trust you.”

“I know.” After the inspection of her shoulder, Doppler rubbed his hand behind his covered neck. “You have any healing hypos on you?”

Healing hypos. Fiona remembered the large syringe X-Ray had stuck into her arm after her brush with shrapnel. “No. I didn’t see any in the supplies X-Ray gave me.”

“Figures. Guess he thought I’d take care of it.” Resigned, Doppler produced the same syringe from his pack. He measured the dosage of the red liquid before lining the needle up to Fiona’s shoulder.

Fiona put a hand up and signalled him to stop. “Wait. Let me do it.”

“Let you do it? You’re bleeding out. Have you ever used one of these yourself before?”

“No.” Through her agony, she managed a smile. “But a Vault Hunter’s gotta learn sometime, right?”

It was faint, but Fiona could swear Doppler had laughed. “Fine,” he said, handing her the syringe. He rested a finger against a tender spot on her shoulder, between two deep claw marks. The touch was slight, yet elicited a sharp wince from Fiona’s paling face. “I know, it hurts. I just need to show you where exactly you need to inject it. Right here.”

“Got it.” Summoning the last bouts of her consciousness, Fiona focused on the exact spot Doppler had shown her, ignoring the blood that quickly pooled there. With a heave, she thrust the needle in and pushed the crimson injection into her bloodstream.

The medicine took immediate effect. Within a minute of injection, the claw marks had stopped bleeding and had already begun to scab. The pain had numbed – it wasn’t gone, but it was dull enough to allow Fiona to regain composure.

Doppler helped Fiona to her feet once she was ready. “Now, you’re going to be weaker with all the blood you lost,” he started. “The hypo will help with that, but you will be a little dizzy for the next hour or so.”

He was right – once on her feet Fiona fought gravity to maintain her balance. The world was spinning around her. She stared at the ground to realign her focus, noticing the icy stalker chunks that littered the grass.

“What was that? The ice thing?” Fiona asked, kicking at the chunk closest to her feet.

“Oh, that?” Doppler patted at a gun in his pack, large and emblazoned with cyan light. “Cryo. It’s ice elemental damage. Not as popular on Pandora as it is on Elpis.”

Fiona raised a brow. “So, you’ve been to the moon?”

A long pause followed as it seemed Doppler was internally cursing himself for his own loose lips. “No personal questions.”

“You have been to Elpis, then.”

“I said no – “

“If you hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have taken so long to answer,” Fiona interrupted. “I’m a grifter. I know a lie when I hear one.”

Doppler sighed, defeated. “Fine, okay, I’ve been to the moon.”

“Are you from the moon?”

“No.”

“Did you like it on the moon?”

“No.”

“Then why did you go to – “

“Enough.” It was Doppler’s turn to interrupt. “No more personal questions. And I’d advise keeping as quiet as possible from now on. I’d like to be able to hear these invisible assholes coming.”

Fiona blew hanging hair from her face, watching as Doppler continued on through the grass. They had only traversed for a few more minutes before static once again rose from Doppler’s pack, this time from his own ECHO communicator. He tore it from his pack and rushed a whispered response. “Monty, if you keep drawing all this attention to us over the ECHO, I swear- “

“Monty?” Replied X-Ray’s familiar voice. “Wait, you ran into Monty? Thought you kicked that old kook out months ago.”

“Oh, X-Ray.” Doppler relaxed, though he maintained his whispered hush. “What do you want? We’re kind of busy in the middle of the stalker field. No thanks to you.”

“Just calling to check that our new recruit hasn’t died yet!” If Fiona weren’t in pain, she might have found X-Ray’s inappropriate cheeriness amusing more than irritating.

“Not yet, but she will if you keep using the ECHO. You know how stalkers get around these things. I’m hanging up now.”

“Wait! Hold up, Doppler.” X-Ray’s jolly demeanor dropped, replaced with a seriousness Fiona had only heard when he was reminiscing about his sister. “Mirage and Wave aren’t at Reverie. I asked around once I got here and apparently Wave pulled Mirage for a job she found out in the tundra.”

“So, what’s the problem? They go on jobs without us all the time.”

“Well, Wave just called.” X-Ray’s voice was so low Fiona had trouble understanding his words. “Said Mirage is in bad shape, but her stuttering is so bad with her skull-shivers that she couldn’t elaborate. She said we need to be ready with medical help when they come back in a few hours. I’m just thinking, Doppler, maybe this isn’t the best time to be bringing in fresh blood. Sounds like Mirage has more important things to deal with right now.”

Doppler stopped in his tracks. Tallgrass swayed in the breeze, caressing his knees as he pondered at the ECHO comm. “I’ve got to retire, X-Ray.” Doppler said, as softly and melancholy as Fiona could ever expect his voice modulator to allow. “We’ll see what state Mirage is in when she gets here, but I need a new recruit. If that’s Fiona or someone else I don’t care. I’m doing this with or without her approval.”

“Why do you need to retire so badly, Doppler?” X-Ray pleaded. “I don’t know, you seem healthy to me. Relatively speaking. And hey, listen, I like Fiona. I really do. But we need YOU on the next mission, especially if Mirage and Wave aren’t gonna be able to come with us.”

Doppler sighed. “I’m going on the mission.”

“But you said - “

“I know what I said before. I changed my mind. If - and I mean IF,” he emphasized, glaring at Fiona before he continued, “we take the new recruit in, I want to train her in action.”

X-Ray released a strained laugh. “That’s sure noble of you, but the mission’s uh… it’s pretty important, Doppler. Mirage is counting on it. I don’t know if it’s something we should leave up to a trainee.”

“It’s not your call to make.”

“Doppler…” X-Ray trailed off, lowering his voice further. Fiona knew this was not meant for her ears, yet for some reason, Doppler kept the ECHO comm openly between them. “Listen, is it Mirage? Is she why you want to leave? I know she’s been different since the Siren powers but she’s still herself. Maybe if you talk to her…”

“Don’t lecture me about Mirage. I know her better than any of you.”

X-Ray conceded. “Okay, okay. Just think this through a little more is all I’m saying. I'm hoping she’s done enough to prove herself to you.”

“I just told you, I don’t care what Mirage thinks,” Doppler snapped.

“I wasn’t talking about Mirage,” X-Ray said. “I was talking about Fiona.”

With that, the communication died, and Fiona and Doppler were left huddling around the ECHO comm with only the wind filling their ears. Their eyes met. A pang of guilt stabbed at Fiona’s throat. She knew exactly what it was. The guilt of burden. The guilt of inadequacy. The guilt of disappointment. All the guilt she felt when Felix had first taken her and her sister in. Her feet fought the urge to turn around, run away, forget this adventure ever happened. What right did she have, to take a place in a team of Vault Hunters when she had no action skill to speak of? Surely this adventure alone had proved to Doppler enough that she wasn’t cut out to replace him –

“You’ve got something to prove. Now’s your time to prove it.”

Fiona blinked. “What?”

Doppler squinted in return. “Prove it.”

He put two large, gloved hands on either of her shoulders and spun her around to face the expanse of field in front of them. Her poor condition sent her vision spiralling before she could notice the disturbance in the distance – a wave of grass that moved beneath the feet of some invisible creature. She heard the snapping of jaws.

Her fingers scrambled to find the trigger of her derringer. A shot fired from the barrel. The electric round buried into the dirt in front of the stalker’s form. The bending grass dodged left and began sprinting towards her. The sound of snapping and gnashing teeth filled her ears. In instinct, her feet tried to tear her from her rooted position to flee, to live, but Doppler held Fiona firm to the spot.

“Don’t run. Focus.” Doppler’s advice rang hollow in her ears. Her heart beat faster, pushing the limitation of her weakened state. Sweat rolled from her hair and into her face.

She breathed. Fiona closed her eyes for a moment, centring her world upon this one spot. Her stance straightened. Her eyes opened to reveal a spectre of the stalker – not the real stalker, but a vision of where it was going to be in the coming seconds. In the time it would take for her to catch another breath, the stalker would move forward and lunge in the air just as the other had done, with the momentum to carry it just in the way of a well-placed pistol shot.

She breathed. She fired.

First, she saw was a tendril of electricity that coiled around the stalker like a snare. The shock damage, along with the embedded bullet, broke the shield to reveal the stalker from beneath its cloak. The creature fell to the ground with a terrible scream. Its claws dug into the earth in a tantrum.  

Fiona saw it again, the spectral vision of its next move: a daring swipe at her legs. She lifted a foot into the air and brought down her heel onto the stalker’s skull just as it attempted its attack. She felt it first; the collapse of shattered bone beneath her boot. Then she heard the sickening crunch.

Somehow, squealing and writhing, it was still alive. Blood flowed from its broken and unhinged jaws. Fiona fired a mercy bullet into its head, and the creature finally ceased.

“Impressive.” Doppler released her from his grip. “It’s like you knew what was going to happen. And your accuracy… perhaps that’s your skill. Foresight.”

“Thanks, but I could have died, you know,” Fiona said, reloading her pistol. Secretly her heart swelled - mostly from the coursing adrenaline, but also with a slight sense of… she couldn’t place the word. Fulfilment? Purpose?

“But you didn’t.”

With a smile, Fiona rolled her eyes as her gun clicked in place. “You sound like Athena.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Doppler shrugged, before equipping his cryo weapon from his pack. “We’re in the nest now. There’s more of ‘em, see?” He pointed to the horizon where dozens of more indents in the grass began to move towards them. “I have the ECHO. I’m trusting you to cover me.”

Fiona hardly gave a nod of hesitant confirmation before Doppler charged into the fray, activating his digi-clones and unleashing a shower of frost upon the hoard of invisible enemies. The shimmering layer of ice particles illuminated their shields against the bright sunlight. Stalkers became like white phantoms dancing through the field. Fiona may have even considered the beauty of it, had the frost not also rendered the stalkers as walking bullseyes.

Electric bullets sparked across the field, lighting Fiona’s and Doppler’s faces in a blue hue as they sprayed their fire into the newly visible figures. While the digi-clones remained silent during their slaughter, Doppler’s voice grew above the gunfire. Laughter. Not maniacal or sarcastic or feigned. Genuine, happy laughter.

The last of the stalkers fell into the tangled blades of bloodied grass, resting in their nest-turned-graveyard. Doppler released an empty magazine from his gun and pushed in a new one as he syncronized the reload click with the words “Blap-blap!”

“Blap-blap?” Fiona asked with a laugh. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“No personal questions,” Doppler responded, though with such a jovial tone she understood this particular reminder was not meant to be taken seriously. “Nah, it’s just a thing I say when I complete challenges like this. It’s… fun. God, I almost forgot what that felt like.”

“Still…” She scrunched her nose. “Blap-blap.”

“Don’t like it? How ‘bout this?” Doppler pressed a button on his forearm keyboard. Fiona bristled at the sound of her own voice, disembodied, ushered through the filter of Doppler’s voice modulator. “Blap-Blap!”

“Ugh, stop it. It sounds even worse when I say it.”

“Yeah, I thought so.” Doppler returned to his default voice. “Come on, let’s loot the nest and get out of here. The door to Reverie should be just beyond the hill here.”

Fiona raised a brow. “You know, there are some bushes around here. Maybe we can pick one up for that Monty guy, just in case.”

“What did I tell you? I’m not gonna degrade myself by lugging some stupid plant up a hillside for his entertainment.”

“Alright, have it your way.”

After sifting through some of the lesser guns and items the stalkers had been hoarding, Doppler and Fiona continued up the hill. Large boulders jutted from the ground, creating solid footholds to climb upon and further their ascent. Doppler climbed first, extending a hand to help Fiona elevate besides him.

“So, what made you want to be a Vault Hunter anyways?” Doppler asked. His voice, though still roughened by the tin modulator, was lighter than it had been before.

“I thought you said no personal questions.” Fiona flashed a mischievous smile. When he responded with a chuckle she conceded. “Well, to be honest, I just feel like this life… suits me."

This conversation felt familiar, and Fiona soon realized why. A battle had been won, and she found herself walking up an incline in search of something promised, side-by-side with an… ally. She was far from calling Doppler a friend, as she considered Rhys, but it felt eerily similar to her conversation in the Vault of the Traveller. “After Athena introduced me to it… I don’t know, I feel like Vault Hunting has opened more opportunities for me than conning ever did.”

“Well, you’re in rare company,” Doppler said. 

Fiona wondered if she heard that right - wasn’t that what Rhys had said?

Doppler mounted another boulder before continuing. “I, uh… I never wanted to be a Vault Hunter.”

Fiona inhaled sharply, though Doppler didn’t seem to notice. She had asked no personal question. Doppler offered this information on his own accord.

“I was kind of thrown into it if I’m being honest. I had no idea what I was doing. Athena showed me the ropes though, so I guess we have that in common.” He shrugged, taking Fiona by the hand and hauling her up. “Vault Hunting is how I survive out here. Having a group kept me sane - well, as sane as one can be living on Pandora - but I don’t have friends. I don’t like the life I’m leading, Fiona. But you do. You… you have friends, I mean, if Janey and Athena’s word was anything to go by. And most importantly, you want to be a Vault Hunter. I need someone like you.”

There was a pause. In theory, Fiona felt she should be flattered. Instead, she felt more confused. “Why does having friends matter to you?”

“You’re gonna need them here in Reverie.” Doppler and Fiona finally reached the peak of the hill overlooking the Hyperion facility. Beyond a field of large metal supply crates stood a wide hanger door to the base. It was open, yet a stout old man wearing a burlap sack and a long unkempt white beard perched in front of the entrance. A shield bounced beside his hip, radiating a rare pearlescent glow that seemed unnaturally shiny against the grime of the man it was equipped on.

“Or else you’ll end up like Monty, and your best friend will be a sick thresher,” Doppler finished.

Monty cupped his hands to his mouth, amplifying his call towards the hill. “Well, Doppler? You get the shrubbery I asked for?”

“No! Of course, I didn’t get you a shrubbery.” Doppler mumbled the last of his sentence just as a ping uttered from Fiona’s ECHO. The screen read “Quest Failed.”

“That’s a shame, that is! Was really looking forward to some authentic decor for Python. But hey, I’m a generous lad! And I think I’ve come up with another task that’ll barely be a bother to ya. Just come down here and I’ll tell you.”

“Where’s Python?” Doppler tensed; his hand readied on the handle of his pistol. “This sounds like an ambush!”

Monty wagged a bony finger. “Not an ambush, a conversation. If you say the wrong thing then it might be an ambush, who knows?”

“Sounds like you’re not gonna give us much of a choice if we want to get through.”

“Afraid not! But please, don’t fret!”

Doppler turned to Fiona and whispered, “Alright, this is clearly some sort of trap. Just play along for now but be careful - Python is a thresher. The damn things burrow into the ground and attack when you’re most vulnerable.”

“Why don’t we just… take care of Monty? He’s right there,” Fiona tried to gesture her plan with a finger gun. “You have a sniper rifle, right?”

“I appreciate the uh, straightforward approach there, Fiona, but you don’t understand. You see that shield he’s got on his hip? A sniper bullet isn’t gonna penetrate through that quick enough before Python comes around.”

Fiona nodded and followed Doppler down the hill. Paranoia crept through her nerves, twitching her ears towards any twig that snapped and any rock the rolled beneath their feet. A slight rumble trailed their path. The ground was alive and calculating their next moves.

The pair met the field’s edge where grass and dirt gave way to the steel panels of the facility. Monty greeted them with a smile, revealing yellowed, rotten teeth. “Ah, the visitor. Nice to finally meet you in person. Too bad about the shrubbery, I was sure you would have come across one in your adventure here. But that’s all water under the bridge now. I have a new proposition for you: I ask you three questions, and if you answer them correctly, I’ll let you pass.”

“Uh… suuure,” Fiona shrugged. “Sounds easy enough.”

Doppler shook his head. “Don’t underestimate him, it’s gotta be some sort of trick – “

“Hey! Did I ask you? No! Wait your turn!” Monty snapped, before returning to Fiona. “So, are you ready, dear?”

“Shoot.”

“What… is your name?”

“Fiona.”

“What… is your quest?”

“To enter Reverie.”

“What… is your favorite color?”

She snorted. Surely it couldn’t be this easy. “Red.”

“Oh, very well, off you go.” Monty stood aside, leaving the entrance to Reverie open. Fiona took a hesitant step forward, then another. No traps, no catch. 

“It’s okay, Doppler!” Fiona confirmed, waving him on. “It’s easy!”

“Fine,” he sighed as he crossed his arms. “Let’s get this over with.”

Monty tapped the tips of his fingers together and chuckled. “Excellent. Let’s begin. What… is your name?”

“Doppler.”

“Highly doubtful, but I’ll allow it. What… is your quest?”

“To enter Reverie.”

“What… is the airspeed velocity of an unladen rakk?”

Doppler paused a moment, before letting out an incredulous breath. “How the hell am I supposed to know that?”

“Oh, wrong answer!” With that, Monty snapped his fingers. 

The ground beneath their feet trembled fiercely - Fiona would have compared it to a moonshot. Earth erupted between them. A towering figure blocked the sunlight that once poured into the entrance, with a texture Fiona could identify as worm-like. Coarse and spiny, the creature rotated its four bulbous eyes searching for its prey. Thrashing tentacles whipped from its body in a wild attempt to grab at Doppler, synchronized with the accompanying tentacles that burst from the ground around its center. One wayward swipe sent him flying backwards.

“Doppler!” Fiona ran towards the field, derringer in hand, but was blocked by the thresher's massive size. At this proximity, she could see the slag sickness that plagued its body - viscous purple substance oozed and dripped from every orifice. Python’s eyes were glazed in a purple film, and its tentacles labored under the weight of the slime.

“Don’t!” Doppler reached a hand out to Fiona, signalling her to stop. His shield was breaking, eaten away by the slag that was splashed onto him with Python’s attack. “Slag’s too dangerous! Just keep going! I’ll handle it.”

Doppler dodged behind one of the supply crates. Monty returned gunfire towards his direction, and bullets ricocheted off the Hyperion-grade metal.

Fiona shot an electric bullet into Monty. The same coil of electricity that she had seen break the stalker’s shield wrapped around Monty, only this time, the shield remained. He turned towards her with a hysterical laugh. 

“You think some little shock bullet is gonna take this shield down?” He gestured to the shield on his hip. “Made this myself! Better than anything you’d find on the market. Now run along, little lady, before you get hurt in a fight that isn’t yours.”

Meanwhile, Doppler peeked over cover with his shock SMG and sprayed rounds into Monty’s form, returning his attention towards him. The shield had cracked in some parts, but otherwise showed no signs of weakness. 

Monty whistled, and one of Python’s branching tentacles burrowed into the ground. It reappeared behind Doppler and whipped him with another slagged attack. With no shield left, the slag soaked into his layers of clothes as he struggled to catch a breath.

Fiona inspected the size of her sleeve pistol and compared it to the size of the thresher. No, this time Felix’s gift wouldn’t do. She swiped her pack from her back and sifted through the new guns X-Ray had given her; none were elemental, but the Jakobs assault rifle would have enough raw damage to distract Python from Doppler’s vulnerable position.

With a click, she loaded the rifle’s circular magazine and aimed the barrel at Python’s exposed eyes. The gunfire was not as clean or exact as Fiona was used to from the pistol, and the power of each shot thrust the rifle relentlessly into Fiona’s injured shoulder.  Still, she persisted, and with every consecutive shot, she could see the rising fury in the remaining eyes that weren’t shredded by her fire.

Monty cursed, turning once again towards her and releasing a grenade from his belt. “I told you, stay out of this!” He lodged the pin between his teeth and pulled, counted to three, and threw the live grenade at her feet. 

Despite her swift reaction to dodge it, the grenade activated a gravitational pull and pulled Fiona back into its blast radius. She hardly had a moment to cover her face with her arms before the grenade detonated; thresher spines exploded in every direction. 

Once the damage was done, she uncovered her face to find a spine just an inch away from piercing her eye. The other spines were also suspended just before reaching her body, caught only by the shield X-Ray had given her the day before. At once, her shield broke, and Fiona sat in a pile of spines that fell limply to the floor.

Fiona’s attack had given Doppler precious spare moments of recovery. He equipped his cryo gun and froze the offending tentacle in place. Python screamed as Doppler kicked the frozen limb apart, shattering it into chunks.

Lacking a shield, Doppler crawled behind the safety of a crate. Fiona had done the same inside the facility, waiting for the shield to regenerate. For the first time, she could see the inside of the building - the walls were lined with huge vacant exhibits. The cages were home to overgrown grass and stains of dried blood and residual slag. Speakers were mounted to every corner. This was where Jack held his slag experiments.

An epiphany.

“Hey, Doppler,” Fiona started over her earpiece, the one she was given before they had started their trek across the stalker field. “You said Python was experimented on here?”

“Yeah! Why? I’m a little busy here!” Doppler was out of breath and was nearly drowned out by the sounds of thresher screams and gunfire.

“I think I have a plan to take down Monty.”

“Well, let’s hear it then! Even with my digi-clones I don’t think we would be able to break that shield before he could regenerate it.”

Fiona watched as the scene unfolded before her eyes. Her plan was executed in a spectral vision, one step following the next, until she could see every prediction of what would happen. It could work.

“Okay, hear me out. If you deploy your digi-clones and they distract Python, you might have enough time to run and grab Monty. Then - “

“I’m sorry, did you just say GRAB Monty?”

“Yes, pay attention,” Fiona snapped before she continued, “then you’ll need to use your Handsome Jack voice. It’ll get Python angry, just like the rakks yesterday. It’ll want to attack anything in your direction, including your new human shield…”

“Monty. And the slag might just be enough to break his shield.” Doppler’s breath was getting heavier. “I don’t know, there’s a lot riding on the assumption that Python would turn on its own friend.”

“Trust me.”

A pause. “Okay, Fiona. I trust you.”

Two Doppler clones burst from behind the cover, rushing towards Python with the loudest guns and grenades at their disposal. Together, they ruptured another of Python’s tentacles. The thresher screamed and spewed slag upon the Dopplers, their semi-tangible forms barely reacting to the rain of slime. They let the slag pool at their feet.

Python was distracted.

Doppler leapt over the cover of his crate and rushed for Monty. Bullets from Monty’s shotgun bit into Doppler’s shield as he sprinted through the grass; stray shards of buckshot buried into his chest. 

He staggered. He clutched a bandaged arm to the wounds. He yelled, fueled by the pain, and continued his charge forward. 

Monty scrambled to reload the cumbersome barrel before his bloodied foe could reach him. By the time the ammo clicked into place, Doppler knocked the barrel towards the sky and sent the buckshot flying down like rain around them. He locked his arm around Monty’s neck, and with the same hand, pressed a yellow button on his modulator keyboard.

“Hail to the King, baby!”

Handsome Jack's voice projected from Doppler’s modulated mouth as if he were Handsome Jack himself. It was one thing to copy the man’s voice, but to capture his bravado, his arrogance, that was something else entirely.

Python’s eyes swirled in their sockets, frantically looking for the source of Jack’s voice.

“Hey, I’m over here, ugly! I said hail to the King!” Doppler repeated.

“King? I didn’t vote for you!” Monty cried as he writhed in Doppler’s grip.

The thresher, upon hearing the voice again, uttered a passionate hiss. Every tentacle beat the ground with a raging fury. Its eyes rolled to Monty and Doppler, glazed yet restless, conflicted by the sight of its friend and the voice of its foe.

Monty struggled in Doppler’s chokehold, managing a raspy plea. “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”

Doppler tightened his grip, continuing to address the feral thresher. “That’s right, pumpkin! It’s your old pal Handsome Jack! What are you gonna do about it?”

Another scream erupted from Python so anguished that Fiona’s blood ran cold. Then, as the madness had finally overwhelmed it, it swooped its gaping mouth down onto the pair. Doppler ducked backwards fast enough to avoid the clamping jaws that enveloped Monty; he was not fast enough to avoid a serrated tooth that slashed through his shoulder. His gloved hands held back the hot rushing blood. Through tears, he watched as the thresher ate its owner whole.

“Oh, that’s, uh... I didn’t think that was going to happen,” Fiona whispered in her earpiece.

“Fi… help…” Doppler responded; his voice was still locked into Jack’s.

The two weak words Doppler dared to speak had returned the creature to its frenzy. Python reared its head again, finding “Jack” motionless in the grass. Easy prey.

Just as Python opened its hungry jaws again, Fiona unleashed a round of assault rifle bullets into its remaining eyes. They burst open like balloons filled with slag.

Now blind, the thresher whipped a tentacle in her direction. She saw it - where it was, where it was going to be. With a dashing start, she slid underneath the tentacle and shot up into it with her derringer. Fire damage. Its flesh burned away from spiny cartilage. The beast recoiled.

In a moment that seemed to move in bullet-time, Fiona aimed one more incendiary shot into Python’s screaming mouth. The slag bubbling from its throat ignited. An explosion within its body illuminated red and orange beneath its thick skin. A final groan escaped Python as its towering form toppled back into the earth it had emerged from.

At first, Fiona could only hear her own heart pounding within her ears. The pounding soon gave way to slow, labored clapping. Doppler raised his applauding hands in the air.

“I’ve got a deal for you…” he started, still in Jack's voice. He coughed violently into his modulator; blood leaked through the tin filter. “I’ll tell you how badass that all was… as long as you keep me from dying…”

Fiona rushed to his side, already opening his pack in search of a healing hypo. She grabbed the last from his stash and twisted off the cap of the needle. Just as he had shown her, she lined the needle up to the untouched skin just beside his torn flesh. A push into his shoulder and a release into his bloodstream. He groaned and slammed a fist into the ground, trying to beat the pain.

A minute passed. Already, his breathing had stabilized and his bleeding had stopped. “Alright Fiona, a deal’s a deal. Oh, hold on,” Doppler said, as he adjusted his voice from Jack’s to his default. “That was badass.”

Fiona answered with furrowed brows. “My plan almost killed you.”

Doppler held up a finger to correct her. “Almost. But it didn’t. When you’re a Vault Hunter, any plan that almost kills you but doesn’t is a good one. And your plan? It was badass.”

“Well, you know,” Fiona said with a smirk, “this all wouldn't have happened if you had just gotten the man a damn shrub.”

“That's fair.” 

Fiona helped Doppler back on his feet. He wobbled, using her for support. They turned to the diseased carcass of Python.

“You know, I bet there’s some loot there,” Doppler said. “Why don’t you take a look before we go? You earned it.”

Fiona nodded and carefully left Doppler’s side. The loot was far from pleasant to find, hiding behind rotting thresher limbs or in pools of slag and blood. Eridium and money were the most appealing to her - easily pocketed and always high value. Yet, this time around, a grenade modification with a purple glow caught her attention. She brushed off the guts from its label and read its description.

“The Hole-y Hand Grenade. Pull the pin and count to three,” Fiona read. A devilish smile crept across her face.  “This is the one Monty used on me. I’m keeping this one.”

“Good. Now if you’re finished, follow me,” Doppler said as he ushered her into the corridor to Reverie. Fiona obliged, stuffing the grenade mod into her belt.

They passed the empty exhibits Fiona had seen and into an engineering room filled with massive whirring machinery. Doppler attempted to pry Fiona’s attention from the machines and towards the door ahead. “Listen, Fiona, once we go through that door and into the main base we might not get another chance to talk alone, so there are a couple of things I need to say to you first.”

“Um, okay?”

“First, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve done more than prove yourself today. I’ll vouch for you if Mirage has any hesitation.”

“Well, thanks." 

“Second, I suppose I can give you back your ECHO now. But on one condition.”

“Condition?” Fiona asked. “It’s my ECHO. I shouldn’t need a condition to have it back.”

“Usually I’d agree with you, but in this case…” Doppler anxiously trailed off as they came ever closer to the door. “Look, I trusted you today, and it saved my life. Now I’m just asking you to do the same for me. Please, trust me.”

She hesitated, staring at the ECHO that he held firm in his bloodied hand. “Fine. I’ll trust you. What’s the condition?”

“Promise me you won’t call Athena. Not yet. Not until I tell you to.”

“Call Athena? Why would I call – “

“Sasha is okay,” Doppler said, transferring the ECHO from his shaking hand into hers. “So is Rhys.”

Hearing her sister’s name from Doppler’s modulator catapulted Fiona’s nerves into a panic. “W-what?” She managed to choke out.

“I know how this must sound but I need you to listen carefully to this next part: you have to pretend you don’t know Cassius, okay? I’ll try to tell him to do the same thing once he gets here.”

Fiona inspected the message log on her ECHO. A call was logged that morning, at a time when Fiona was still asleep and snoring in the Hyperion locker room. The call was sent from Athena’s ECHO. It had been answered.

“What did you do?” Fiona asked, rage filling in her throat.

Doppler’s eyes had downturned – a look of guilt, perhaps – before he tilted his hat further down his face to conceal them. “No personal questions.” 

He opened the door to Reverie.

Chapter Text

                                                            

 

Rhys knew when he was dreaming. The unnatural purple radiance of Elpis through Jack’s office window was the first sign. The second sign was the way that light cast a hazy halo around Jack who, content in his throne and with feet kicked back onto the desk, flashed Rhys a cold smile.

Even in this dream, the one he’s had hundreds of times, something was off.

“Jack?” Rhys asked, approaching the desk. “Where’s your mask?”

“You tell me, kiddo.”

Despite years of worshipping Handsome Jack, Rhys knew little about his origins. From what he remembered, Jack wore the mask to hide a hideous scar that the bandits – Vault Hunters, Rhys corrected himself – had given him during his quest for power. Yet, the Jack sitting in front of him was not bearing a scar either. His face was instead younger, brighter, marred only by the soul patch perched below his lip. Grey no longer streaked his hair. His sneakers and many layers of clothing had been replaced with boots and a jacket both made of brown leather. This wasn’t Handsome Jack as Rhys had known him, this was Jack, the low-level Hyperion programmer.

“You’re not, um…”

“Not what you were expecting, right?” Jack asked, tapping his boots together to a beat. “I suppose you have my daughter to thank for that.”

Rhys shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

Jack tapped a finger to his temple. “You really don’t think shoving that drive into your head did anything to your ol’ noggin there, buddy? I’ll let you in on a secret: my AI was nothing compared to the HALO Project. That drive was designed to be a complete Hyperion database compatible only with Helios’ state-of-the-art supercomputers, not one guy’s teeny tiny brain. You’re lucky you only installed a prototype. If the data file was any larger, then maybe more memories than just me would have bled through.”

“Wait, you’re telling me you look like this because I, what, absorbed Angel’s memory of you somehow? And what does Angel have to do with Hyperion’s database anyways?”

“You don’t know jack shit, don’t you?” Jack laughed, rolling further back into his chair. “Angel IS Hyperion’s database, you idiot. Until she died, she was in charge of everything; every piece of intel, every new lead, every bit of dirt, it all went through her. She had a brain the size of a planet. Made yours look like a… hmm, what’s a good analogy here? A peanut? Nah, too cliché. I’ll work on it.”

“How would you know that about Angel? You’ve always told me things I already know. Now you’re telling me something completely new.” Rhys’ face, once contorted in his confusion, relaxed upon a realization. “Unless… some of the database merged with my memory of you, too.”

“Hey, good job,” Jack congratulated, extending mocking applause. “Maybe peanut was too harsh. Walnut, maybe? Anyways, the point is your brain is still way too small to hold all four of us.”

“Four of us?”

Jack tilted his head back in a dramatic exacerbation. “Come on, Rhys, you can’t ask stupid questions like that after I say something nice about you. Count us on your fingers, if that helps. You, me, Angel, and Hyperion. There’s not enough room in your minuscule brain for all of us – I mean, just look at me. I’m like the Frankenstein’s monster of too many memories mashing together. Sooner or later someone’s got to go, and if I know my Angel, it’s going to be either you or me. Hell, maybe even both of us.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Look, Angel’s intelligence is clearly out of your league,” Jack said as he turned his chair to face the window, grabbing Angel’s picture from his desk as he did. “There will come a day when she’ll decide she can’t be contained anymore. Maybe she'll take control over your body like I tried to do. Maybe she'll figure out something even more genius than that. Who knows what she'll do? But hey, don’t feel too bad. She’s outclassed me too… betrayed me with every trick she had.”

Rhys kicked the ground while mulling over his words. “Yeah, but, you’re you. I’m sure she had a good reason to do whatever she did.”

Jack paused. The silence grew uncomfortably long as Rhys stared at the back of Jack’s chair, silhouetted against Elpis’ glow. Jack caressed a thumb across the picture frame.

“Hmm, yeah, of course you would say that,” Jack finally said, accompanied with a grim chuckle. “Guess I could say the same about you. Maybe you and Angel are two peas in one backstabbing pod.”

In an instant, Jack spun the chair to face Rhys again. The shadows cast over his face left only the light of his narrow eyes and a deep frown. “But remember, Angel is my daughter, and she’s more like me than you’d think.”

Rhys clenched his fists and backed away towards the trap door. This was the dreaded part. Any moment now, Jack would notice his exit attempt and intercept it. Large hands would creep around his neck, pressing harder and harder until he would wake sweating and short of breath.

Another step. Jack remained in his throne perfectly still, his dark eyes locked on Rhys.

“What, no strangling this time?” Rhys taunted, taking another step. “That’s unlike you.”

“Oh, trust me, kiddo. I want to.”

Rhys’ boot was almost on the door. “Then why aren’t you?”

“Angel’s gonna so much worse to you than I ever could.” Jack smiled. “Just give it time, you’ll see.”

Finally, for the first time since Helios fell, Jack allowed him to open the trapdoor and place a foot on the ladder’s rung. Rhys gulped as he continued, one foot after another, until the light of the office faded and he was enveloped by the darkness.

 


 

 

His vision slowly returned from the black abyss. Despite a sliver of sun on the horizon, the sky remained painted in the dark plum of early morning. The stars and moon danced across the canvas. With a groan, he adjusted his jaw against the rumbling steel beneath his head.

“Hey, you. You’re finally awake.”

Angel’s voice alerted him to her lavender digital form floating by his side. She sat hovering above the steel ground, knees pulled into her chest and vibrant silvery wings draped against her back in rest.

“Angel? Where are we?”

She quickly put a finger to her lip, signalling Rhys to stop speaking. Her finger then pointed to a figure behind him.

It took more effort than Rhys expected to turn onto his other side. His jacket and waistcoat had been stripped from him, and his hands had been cuffed behind his back with a mechanical lock bar. The smell of burning fuel and the faint breeze in his hair was evidence enough that Rhys was in a moving vehicle.

By the time he turned to face the other side of the vehicle’s bed he suppressed an outcry that urged into his throat. The Siren Mirage – paralyzed into a contorted form – was staring into him with wild eyes.

In the faint light of morning, Rhys could discern more details from her appearance. Her head was cushioned by the volume of her short pillowy pink bob, and her blue siren tattoos contrasted against her golden skin, as tan as the sands of the Pandoran desert. The colors she wore were soft and muted mauves and silvers and roses, yet every other facet of her was severe and sharp. Her jawline was strong and joined into a point at the apex of her chin. Cutting cheekbones distinguished her diamond face shape and further accented her straight, long nose. The lines of her face were equally hostile as they were beautiful.

Even paralyzed she managed to assault Rhys’ senses. A polished silver cuff on her tattooed wrist reflected the sunlight and flickered it like a laser-pointer into his eye. Her sickly-sweet perfume, pungent as a desert flower, clouded his head and churned his stomach. But it was her eyes, narrow and glowing pink, that disturbed him most. They wildly danced in her sockets, signing her consciousness as well as her silenced fury.

A purple, digital film filtered over his vision. Data and loading screens filled his peripherals. His ECHO eye, for the first time since he ripped it out of his head, was connecting to something. An information profile appeared next to Mirage.

 

[ECHO EYE 1.2]

ANALYSIS COMPLETE

Mirage

Age:30

Resident of Overlook. Previous residence: Oasis. Origins unknown.

This article is a stub. Please help the Hyperion database by expanding it.

 

Angel huffed. “Damn. I mean, darn. I wanted to learn more about her, but I can’t even connect to the ECHO net. It’s like you said, this information is all outdated. ECHO eye 1.2 was a version even earlier than the one you had installed.”

“Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Rhys rushed as he tried to blink the ECHO eye profile away. “I didn’t give you permission to use my eye. Don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry, but you had an inactive ECHO eye. I thought I was helping by reactivating it.”

“Well, maybe I wanted to keep it that way.”

“Quiet,” Angel hushed. “Mirage has been like that for a few hours now, but she might be able to still hear you. Try to whisper. I’ll hear you.”

Rhys scooted himself to sit against the side of the technical bed. Blood rushed from his head, spinning his view on an axis until he could use Elpis as a focal point. He now saw two other vehicles driving behind the one he was held in. One, tilting with the weight of a large canon strapped to its bed, struggled to keep pace. The other was filled to the brim with an arrangement of illuminated potted plants. He caught sight of Cassius’s balding head lying between the variety of foliage.

Angel did not wait for him to recover before she began bombarding him with questions.

“So what’s going on here? How did you find me? Am I a prototype? How outdated is my database?”

“Alright hold on, let’s do this one at a time, okay?” With a deep breath in and out, Rhys began. “I don’t know what’s going on here anymore than you do. I found your drive in Jack’s office, in an old picture frame. I’m pretty sure you’re a prototype for… whatever it is the HALO project is. From what I found on the project it sounds like the prototype stopped updating after you died, so your database is at least two years behind, I think.”

Angel’s voice dipped into a whisper. “Jack’s dead, isn’t he?”

Whatever stability Rhys had recovered had fled him; he sucked in air and choked on his own inhalation, coughing and sputtering while he stalled his answer.

“It’s okay, I know,” assured Angel in a soothing yet solemn tone. She looked up at Elpis, bright and unobscured. “I’m dead. Helios is gone. Pandora’s still here. I know Jack would have rather died before he let all of that happen.”

Even behind his back, Rhys managed to tug on his robotic pinky in a nervous tick.  At least she had taken the news of his death with more grace than Jack ever did. “I’m… I’m sorry about your dad. I mean, not really, but kind of?”

“Don’t be,” Angel said shortly. “Tell me, was it the Vault Hunters? Did they kill him?”

Rhys nodded.

“Good.” Resolution rang in Angel’s voice, confusing Rhys further. “And me? Did the Vault Hunters kill me?”

Rhys cocked his head, recalling what AI Jack had told him. “I don’t know for sure. You helped the Vault Hunters betray Jack, but I think you… um, you killed yourself.”

A smile emerged on Angel’s sunken face; Rhys repulsed at her reaction.

“My plan worked. I actually did it,” Angel whispered, staring at her hands. “I’m free.”

“W-wait, excuse me?” asked Rhys, pushing the volume limitations of his whisper. “What happened to you? Dying would free you from what, exactly?”

“A lifetime of servitude.” The answer barely escaped Angel’s lips before her smile dropped. She studied Rhys. “You knew I was Jack’s daughter but you didn’t know I was a Siren. You knew that I had died but you didn’t know how or why. How do you know about me?”

 “I, well, that’s, um,” came the words that tripped out of Rhys’ mouth. “Your, uh, dad. He told me about you.”

One of her eyebrows raised quizzically. “My dad – Handsome Jack – told you about me?” When Rhys nodded, Angel answered with an incredulous shake of her head. “That doesn’t make sense. I mean no disrespect, but Jack wasn’t one to confide his deepest secrets to anyone, let alone a middle manager.”

“You’re probably right,” Rhys confirmed. “But the circumstances were… different.”

 “How so?”

He sucked air in through his teeth while he deliberated how much information he should trust with the new AI. To Jack’s point, she was still his daughter. There was no telling what she would do to secure her new chance at life.

“The real Jack was already dead.”

His answer did little to quell Angel’s confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“You think you’re the first AI I’ve ever installed in my head?” Rhys asked with a biting tone. A fit of familiar anger, dormant for so long, suddenly swept over him. “You know, in retrospect, I should have known better than to plug in Professor ‘Crazy-Jack-Cloning-Asshole’ Nakayama’s ID drive. But hey, I was desperate at the time and I thought maybe it could help me! It never does! I don’t know why I keep trying it, things only end up worse for me!”

“You installed Jack’s AI?” Her eyes, once trained on Rhys, grew wild and panicked as she searched the world around her. “Is he still here?”

“No.” With a grimace, he gazed at the moon. “I killed him. You know, again. I had to crash Helios to do it. I'm not even getting into what I did to my arm… and my eye.”

Angel halted her panicked search and returned to Rhys with a horrified stare. “You… Helios…”

“Yeah, I know,” said Rhys. “It’s a lot of people, right? Call me as bad as Jack, I don’t care. I did what I had to do to keep him from controlling… well, everything. So, you know, don’t try the same thing.”

 “Me?” Angel asked. Confusion mixed with indignation. “You needed my help. You installed me. I didn’t ask to be activated.”

“And I didn’t ask you to activate my ECHO eye either, but you did anyway. That’s what Jack did too. He’d use any part of me that was useful to him and throw away the rest.”

Angel’s stubborn look had faded but did not soften. Years seemed to add under the bags of her eyes. “I understand. Jack hurt you, too.”

He didn’t respond, though the curious “too” echoed in the silence.

“I want to help you,” Angel said after a sigh. “I’ll prove it. See those cuffs you have on? It’ll only require a simple digital bypass code to release. Now, if you allow me access to your arm subsystems, then – “

“Forget it. I’m not giving you control of my arm. That’s how it starts.”

“I’m not Jack.”

“Good for you, but I’m not taking chances this time!”

From his other side, a new voice entered the fray. “Who are you t-talking to, Hyperion?”

The cone-shaped barrel of Wave’s megaphone prodded at his head. He tilted away from the modified weapon, meeting Wave’s burning stare while she loomed over him in the gunner’s seat. He was struck by how similar her features were to Angel’s. Her pale face was framed with an asymmetrical cut of cascading black hair, and her silver-grey irises juxtaposed against the dark circles that hung below her eyes.

“Speak,” she commanded.

“I’m not talking to anybody.” Rhys managed a half-smile. “I just… talk to myself when I’m stressed.”

“Aw, poor little corporate overlord is s-stressed,” Wave mocked, resting the megaphone on her shoulder. “I wonder how Mirage feels after what you d-did to her, Hyperion.”

“I’m not Hyperion.”

“Yes, you’ve said. I just d-decided I don’t care. Atlas. Hyperion. DAHL. You’re all the s-same to me. Parasites that need to be purged from the p-planet.”

“Look,” Rhys started, sitting straight, “what do you want? Money? Guns? I’ve got some property on Eden-“

 “Keep your blood money. I want j-justice.”

“Justice for what? I didn’t do anything to you before you barged into the biodome.”

Wave scrutinized Rhys with squinted eyes. “You were Hyperion. You were p-part of a system that irreversibly s-scarred this planet and everyone on it. Including m-me.”

“Yeah, well I didn’t exactly come out unscathed either,” Rhys retorted.

“You?” Wave feigned a hollow laugh. “You have n-no idea.”

“You don’t know me.”

The megaphone whipped from her shoulder and returned to his head. The monotone of Wave’s voice was replaced with stuttering anger. “I know y-you! I know all you s-suit types! Pandora’s j-just another v-vault to you! More money, m-more fame! M-meanwhile everyone who l-lives here has to bear the b-burden of your wars!”

“Uh, are you okay?” Rhys asked, motivated by curiosity more than concern.

“Oh, m-me?” A cracked smile spread across her face. “D-didn’t think you would c-care. But s-since you asked. Hyperion ruined m-my town of Overlook with its Eridium m-mining operations a few years back. The slag runoff gave s-some of us b-b-brain disease. It’s called s-skull shivers. It’s why I s-stutter. I need m-medication to treat it, or else I’ll d-die. It’s b-been a while since I t-took it, I guess. Just another example of h-how your corporate s-system scarred us all.”

“Overlook. That sounds familiar," he said as he attempted to recall the name from memory.

“Rhys…” Angel interjected; her expression sullen. “That’s where you finalized your Eridium mining deal. The one that paid for your cybernetics.”

His chrome cybernetic arm suddenly weighed heavier than it used to. “I didn’t mean… I…” he murmured, staring at his feet. The Eridium deal was not his proudest achievement at Hyperion, though it was his most lucrative. Still, he had managed to move on, even when Vaughn complained about the long nights his conscience kept him awake. Rhys slept well enough. He never researched what consequences that mine would have on Pandora. At the time he didn’t care. That was the Hyperion way.

“Now,” Wave began, oblivious to his internal crisis. “I have a few q-questions for you. F-first, what is this?” On her lap, she dug into his waistcoat pocket until she revealed the HALO drive from within. “It was in your h-head when we f-found you. What’s in it?”

“It’s, um, it’s a system update,” Rhys stumbled, still reeling from his thoughts. “Cybernetics were a little outdated.”

“Cute s-story,” she said with a knowing smirk. She stood up, propped the megaphone to her mouth, and yelled into it. “STOP THE CAR!”

The car and the other vehicles in the convoy screeched to a halt, kicking up clouds of dust behind them. Rhys braced himself against the side of the technical to keep himself upright.

Wave shoved the waistcoat into a bag hung over her shoulder and hopped out of the gunner seat, landing on her feet between Mirage’s paralyzed figure and Rhys. She snatched the scruff of his collar and lifted him from his seat and to his knees, dragging him across the car bed. Despite his grunts of protest, she shoved Rhys over the side and onto the rocky desert floor below.

He barely had time to spit the dust from his mouth before she took his collar again and forced him to his feet. Eyes locked on him, Wave took a few paces backwards and adjusted a dial on her megaphone underneath the cover of her turquoise and indigo wool poncho. “Wanna t-try that again?” she asked, aiming the megaphone at him with one hand and holding up the HALO drive in the other. “What is this?

“I told you, it’s a system update.”

A deep horn emitted from the megaphone. Wave shook her head. “Aw, well, y-you know you’re lying. Now that we’re on s-solid ground, I c-can use this to sensor y-your heartbeat. I know w-when you l-lie. So, I’ll ask one m-more time: what is this?”

Rhys looked to Angel, now hovering by his side, who returned a shrug. He then looked to Cassius, sitting among his plants in the other car, who also returned a shrug,

“It’s… it’s an old database prototype I found,” Rhys half-admitted. “Nothing very helpful on it.”

Ding! A bright chime rang from the megaphone.

“F-fine.” Wave nodded her begrudging approval. “You’re n-not lying. Was that s-so hard? N-next question.” She reached into the bag, pulling out the lifeless body of Dumpy. “W-what is this thing and what d-did it do t-to Mirage?”

 Rhys glanced back at the Siren frozen in place. “Okay, well, this isn’t going to sound good but uh… I have no idea.”

Ding!

“What!?” Wave burst. “H-h-how do you n-not know?! H-how can I f-fix her?”

“Um, I uh, I don’t know. Doc, you got anything?”

Cassius frowned. “Dang it, Rhys, I'm a botanist, not a doctor! I mean, I am a doctor, but I'm not that kind of doctor. I have a doctorate, it's not the same thing. You can't help people with a doctorate. You just sit there and you're useless.”

 “Yeah, that’s not helping.” The cuffs binding his wrists were the only thing keeping Rhys from crossing his arms in his signature pout.

“Well, what do you want me to say? ‘It seems your friend is suffering from artificially induced hemispherical obdormition’?”

Rhys, Wave, and Angel returned blank stares.

“Paralysis,” Cassius clarified.

Rhys rolled his eyes. “Why didn’t you just say paralysis?”

“Because she’s not technically paralyzed. The contortion, the blinkless eyes. All signs of a toxin called Thanatopsol.”

“Wait!” Wave cried. “You’ve s-seen this b-before?”

“Yes.”

In unbridled glee, Wave jumped from her interrogation and ran towards Cassius’ car. “Can you f-fix her?!”

“If we were in my lab, yes. But out here I must rely on whatever plants you collected from the biodome before you so rudely carted us off. For your friend’s sake, let us hope you brought the right ones.”

Their voices faded while a familiar feeling washed over Rhys. Hadn’t he been here before, missing clothes and stuck in the ruthless Pandoran desert with a fresh AI in tow, all while an oversized gun waved at his head?

He stared into the blood-red sun on the horizon. Wave was preoccupied with Cassius, and the rest of her goons were dozing off in their car seats. Last time Rhys made a daring desert escape, he made it only with the help of Jack’s AI and a well-timed Loader Bot rescue. He wasn’t about to let Angel into his subsystems, and Loader Bot would be of little help while at Helios. But maybe there was still a chance.

Rhys took a step forward.

“Ah, ah!” Wave whipped her megaphone back towards Rhys’ direction. “D-don’t even think about it! I’ve s-s-still got more questions f-for you before we drive off t-to Reverie.”

Figures. Rhys took a step back.

“Good. Now, who w-was that V-vault Hunter that you hired b-back there?”

“Who, Athena?”

Ding!

Wave’s eyes, already wide, grew another size. “Athena? N-n-no, that’s impossible. Doppler s-said she d-destroyed all of old Atlas. Why would she w-work for you?”

Rhys shrugged. “I’m not old Atlas. I also paid her. Did I mention that was an option, because if that’s what it’s going to take for you to leave me alone – “

“Shut up,” Wave commanded. “I s-s-said I don’t want your b-blood money. We operate on p-principles. Apparently, Athena d-doesn’t anymore. She must have t-turned down the job offer we g-gave her a few days ago, then.”

Rhys opened his mouth for a snarky rejoinder just as the implications of what Wave had said sunk in. Wait. Didn’t Fiona just take a job that Athena turned down?

“That r-reminds me, how did you c-convince the once s-staunchly anti-corporate DJ Rakk Attack to h-help you, the n-new CEO of Atlas?”

Angel covered her hands over her mouth. “You’re the CEO of Atlas?”

Ignoring Angel, he continued to entertain Wave’s questions. “Because we’re friends.”

Ding!

“H-how?! You m-must of brain-washed her, or b-bribed her, or b-b-blackmailed her, or – “

“Or maybe I just care about her.”

Ding!

“Liar! You CEOs n-never give a s-s-shit about anyone on Pandora! This thing m-must be c-calibrated wrong or s-something.” Wave scrambled with the dials on her megaphone. Her stuttered mutterings poured from trembling lips.

“Here! L-let’s try this again.” She aimed the megaphone back at Rhys, taking a step closer. “Lie to m-me.”

“What?”

“I w-want to know if the d-d-detector is w-working right. L-l-lie to me!”

For a moment, Rhys considered it. The Hyperion Rhys would have gladly obliged and donned his best company face – the one with an uplifted brow and indulgent sneer – before he lay on a thick layer of schmooze to whatever bullshit he decided to say.  Yet, in this moment, he saw a girl unravelling at the seams, near tears with rage, shaking with a disease he had cursed her with. There was no corporate charm strong enough to disguise that.

“No, I’m not doing that. Look, I’m sorry… I’m sorry about what happened to Overlook.”

Ding!

“N-no you’re n-not! You’ve got t-t-to be l-lying! Lie t-to me, d-d-dammit!”

Wave took another few steps until the megaphone was flush against Rhys’ chest. Petite and frail, she stood even shorter than Vaughn. With reluctance, he blinked to activate his new, or rather old, ECHO eye database.

 

[ECHO EYE 1.2]

ANALYSIS COMPLETE

Violet

Age:15

Resident of Overlook. Previous residence: New Haven. Exposed to slag runoff and diagnosed with Skull-Shivers. Estimated 5 months to live without access to medication. Moved to high-priority as a slag experiment subject. Set to start tests at the Hyperion Wildlife Preserve in 2 months.

 

Rhys grit his teeth. The Eridium mine made her the perfect prey for whatever wicked experiments Jack was planning for his slag subjects. A rung on the corporate ladder would have been the torture of a teenage girl, had the Vault Hunters not intervened.

He offered a remorseful glance. “I’m sorry about what Hyperion did to you, Violet.”

Ding!

“H-h-how do you know m-my…” The stuttering, this time, was not entirely the fault of the skull-shivers. “S-s-stop it! Stop! My d-detector is b-b-broken! It has t-t-to be!

Wave pointed her megaphone to the ground, tinkering with the dials once again. A deep, constant rumble began to play from the funnel. Her hands hesitated on the knobs while she processed the new sound.

“That’s not r-r-right. What’s g-going on?”

Everyone in the convoy turned to face the red sun rising on the horizon. A small, black spot grew at its center, along with a distant sound of a high-power engine. From her belt, Wave released a Jakobs’ pistol and aimed the scope at the unknown object, magnifying her view of whatever was swiftly approaching their way.

“S-s-shit…” Wave whispered before gathering everything in her pack. Once again, she grabbed Rhys by his collar, and with an unexpected strength yanked him back into the car bed as she climbed in.

The steel bed reverberated against his skull as he fell in. Angel flickered from his sight.

“Ow! Hey, what’s going on?”

“Shut up, H-H-H-Hyperion!” Wave could barely spit her demand before turning to her driver. “H-h-hit it!”

Tires kicked up sand and dirt in their haste. A wall of dust erected between them and the mysterious figure. Rhys struggled against the jerking movement of the car, waiting for the dust to settle for a better glimpse of whatever was following them.

His ECHO eye activated. “Enhance.”

The digital overlay zoomed in on the object, enhancing the resolution as it did. Gradually, Rhys began to see it in increasing detail; a vehicle. A Catch-a-Ride technical. A woman standing on the hood holding a shield. A driver with one arm in a sling.

A grin grew on Rhys’ face. “Athena! Sasha!”

Wave sneered at his cheering and clambered into the gunner seat. “I d-don’t know w-w-what they think they’re d-doing, but I’m n-n-n-not going to l-let them t-take you before we’re d-d-done with you.”

Her message was hardly understood between her severe stuttering, but the shells that flew from her machine gun made it clear. The bullets ricocheted off Athena’s glowing shield, now close enough to see without the help of his ECHO eye.

“Wave!” The driver shouted. “Should we use the canon?”

She shook her head. “N-n-no! It’s n-n-not ready yet. J-just k-k-keep your eyes on the r-r-road. I’ll h-handle this.”

Flashes of light from the gun barrel strobed across Rhys’ face as he watched Athena buffer the rain of oncoming bullets. A mechanical hum sang from the shield with each deflected bullet; the red halo of energy around it grew brighter until it became just as strong and as crimson as the backdrop sun.

With a vigorous throw, Athena launched the charged shield into the gun itself, splitting the machine gun barrel perfectly down its center. The two halves separated into twisted curls like butter. The shield stopped once it reached the gunner’s seat, inches away from Wave’s dazed face.

In one leap – and one hardly necessary flip – Athena cleared the distance between their vehicles and landed solidly on the bed next to Rhys and Mirage.

“G-g-get off m-my c-car!” Wave aimed her megaphone atAthena and turned another dial. Prepared, Athena plunged her sword into the steel beneath her feet and clung onto the handle. The soundwave flung her legs into the air, but it was not enough to wrench her from her anchor.

While Wave reloaded, Athena regained her footing and pried her shield from the remains of the machine gun, blurting orders meanwhile. “Rhys! On your feet! You’ve got to jump back to Sasha’s technical!”

“Jump?!” He peered over the side of the technical. The velocity of the jagged rocks, unforgiving dust, and sharp brush beneath the tire tracks dizzied his vision. “No way! That could kill me! And I’ve still got cuffs on!”

Scoffing, Athena pulled him to his feet with as much strength and impatience Wave had when she had done the same. She removed her sword from its anchor hold and turned him to face away from her in the same motion. With one precise heave, the sword cleft the cuff in twain. The two halves of the mechanical bar rolled off his wrists and piled with a clang at his feet.

“There, no cuffs. Now jump!”

“N-no!” Salvaging composure, Wave pulled the Atlas Silver – Sasha’s Atlas Silver - to Rhys’ head. “Y-y-you’re n-not g-going anywhere!”

With a trembling finger pulled the trigger.

Ting!

The red glow of Athena’s shield filled Rhys’ vision. The tings of ricocheted bullets continued as Athena shouted over the raucous.

“Rhys, jump or I will throw you! I swear I will!”

“Wait, Wave still has my stuff! I need it!”

“I’ll grab it! Just jump!”

One more time, Rhys glanced behind his back towards the ground that roared below. The gap between Wave’s car and Sasha’s was possible to jump, but not impossible to fall into. He would have to trust Sasha not to let him fall.

He wrung his hands. “O-okay, fine, let me just… get ready…”

“Oh, for crying out loud!” Athena spun on her heel and equipped the shield to her back, protecting against Wave’s gunfire. Two rough, trained hands gripped Rhys by the scruff of his collar and the back belt of his pants. Before Rhys could protest, he was lifted off his feet and hurled him into the open air with a furious swing.

The next second passed by Rhys’ eyes in a blur. The jaws of the desert, gaping beneath him at high speed, triggered a distinct memory of the boosted caravan and the shoe that betrayed his rescue in Fiona’s hand.

That second, filled with terrified screaming, ended with an abrupt landing on a steel hood.

“Rough landing?”

Rhys pulled himself up to see Sasha through the windshield in front of him, her eyebrows cocked in a playful expression. Despite the chilled terror that just ran through his every nerve, he warmed at the sight of her.

“Well, don’t just lay there. Get in!”

She didn’t have to tell him twice. Rhys scrambled through the open windshield, breathing a sigh of relief as he finally sat in the upholstered leather seat next to Sasha.

“I left something for you in the glove box,” she said, smirking as she maneuvered the car with one hand. He clicked the latch open on the glove box and the familiar black cylinder of the stun baton tumbled into his lap. “I expect the Atlas Silver back, now,” she added.

“Yeah, that might be a little difficult at the moment,” said Rhys, biting his lip as he watched Wave wield the gun against Athena’s shield. “Athena’s working on it.”

“Then while she’s doing that, we’ll get Cassius! Hold on to something!” Sasha shifted gears and slammed a foot into the accelerator, jerking the steering wheel as she did. The sharp turn of movement nearly sent an unfastened Rhys flying into her broken arm, had he not heeded her warning and caught onto the frame of the windshield.

Her vehicle drifted towards the other car, a self-contained jungle concealing Cassius among the leaves. “Okay, Rhys. I know this is scary for you, but I’ve got one good arm and Athena’s keeping Wave busy. You’re gonna need to get over there and get Cassius.”

“ME?! I couldn’t even jump out of a car by myself, how am I supposed to do this?”

“I don’t know! You’ll figure it out.”

 Rhys emerged from behind the windshield frame, placing an unsteady foot on the rattling hood. This is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy, he repeated to himself. Clearly Cassius thought the same, watching Rhys venture into the open with disbelief.

Wave caught sight of Rhys. Black hair whipped in her face in a flurry; wild eyes shone with each bullet that ignited sparks off of Athena’s shield. Any resemblance of the pitiful little girl he had confessed to was gone. Her rage only grew with the immediate realization of what he was trying to do. “N-n-no! Y-y-you can’t t-take h-h-him! H-h-he has t-to f-f-fix Mirage!”

Out of Athena’s reach, Wave aimed the Atlas Silver at Sasha’s technical. A round of bullets peppered the steel Rhys stood on, forcing him back into the passenger seat. She did not stop. Gunfire continued to shred the car’s metal siding until a stray bullet found its home in the rubber of the front tire.

The steering wheel thrashed under Sasha’s grip. She fought the whipping inertia of the car as it skid left and right, losing all control and speed. The distance between them and Cassius – and Athena – was growing larger.

“Athena!” Rhys shouted, perfectly aware of the imminent irony. “Jump!”

“But your stuff – “

“Just jump!”

Athena abandoned her cause and reequipped the shield to her back, dodging Wave’s shots as she sprinted to the edge of the vehicle. She pushed off into a leap.

In a blink, the ECHO eye calculated her trajectory, her velocity, and her inevitably failed landing.

Before Sasha could stop him, Rhys dove onto the hood once again. Driven by adrenalin, he stretched his robotic arm over the edge until he was perilously close to falling off himself.

Athena understood. With an equally-outstretched arm, she caught Rhys’ hand. The rest of her body slammed into the side of the car with uncharacteristically little grace, but what would have been a death sentence without Rhys' help was now merely a scratch.

Rhys helped Athena up and onto the hood beside him. Sasha applied the brakes. The three of them watched as Wave’s convoy – including a helpless Cassius – continued forward with impressive pace.

“Thanks for the assist back there,” Athena said, resting an assuring hand on Rhys’ shoulder. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help Cassius… or grab your things.”

Rhys gazed into the horizon, this time in the opposite direction of the rising sun. Wave’s convoy had nearly disappeared; shrinking specks driving into what was left of the night sky. Cassius, The Atlas Silver, and Dumpy were all significant losses, no doubt, but it was the HALO drive Rhys wished he could have saved. There was no guarantee he could remove Angel from his head without it.

His silence was enough answer for Athena. “Well, I think Janey keeps a spare tire somewhere in these things. I’ll go ahead and change the tire. You and Sasha should catch up. You don’t know how worried she was about you.”

He didn’t want to know. It’d save him from feeling from any more guilt. Still, he nodded and slid off the hood opposite Athena to stand on solid ground.

“Are you okay?” Sasha asked, rushing from the car to inspect Rhys for damage.

“I’m fine, just a little –“

Sasha’s fist rammed into the flesh of Rhys’ arm.

“Ah-aha ow! What was that for?” He asked, rubbing the spot that would surely bruise come next morning.

“That’s for your stupid self-sacrifice plan at the biodome! What were you thinking? Athena and I only came back for you because we saw you were still alive on the security footage. You can thank Janey for sending us a technical through the Catch-a-Ride in short notice. Who knows what could have happened if we didn’t come back for you?!”

“You’re right, you’re right. I just didn’t want anyone else getting hurt. I’m sorry I – “

Breath forced from his lungs as Sasha embraced her good arm around his torso.  She buried her face into his chest, her anger quickly subsiding into relieved laughter. “You were right, too. That was something I would have done… I have done. I guess we’re even now.”

Her laughter was contagious; he released his tension through a fit of chuckles. He wrapped his arms around her, resting a cheek against her hair. “Thanks for coming back. You’re amazing, really.”

In instinct, Rhys pressed a kiss against her forehead. He lingered there for a moment as he realized what he was doing. Dammit. Did she even want this much affection? Were his cool moves too cool? With a nervous glance down, Sasha’s beaming face quelled his fears and he laughed once more.

“Alright, you two,” Athena said, clapping two grease-stained hands together and breaking up the reconciliation. “I’ve fixed the tire but we’re too far behind them now. We can’t go after them and we can’t stay here. The biodome is too obvious to hide there anymore. Any ideas on where we should go now?”

Sasha started. “The Gortys facility in Old Haven is still abandoned, right? Maybe we can hide out there.”

 “Not a bad idea,” affirmed Athena. “Though, I might have left a bit of a mess after my last job there.”

“If you mean the piles of dead Crimson Lance soldiers, then yes, you did.”

Rhys’ attention seized at Athena’s mention of a “last job”. Athena turned down a job. A job she offered Fiona.

“Oh,” Rhys said shortly, returning his hands to a wringing position. “That reminds me, we might have another problem.” Besides the HALO project, he wanted to say, but his dragging feet would cross that bridge when he got to it.

“What else could there possibly be?” Athena asked.

“That group of Vault Hunters you sent Fiona to join? I think that might be Wave’s outfit.”

With incredulity, Athena crossed her arms. “No way. I sent her to meet up with some guys named X-Ray and Doppler.”

The name Doppler rang like a bell in his brain. “Wave mentioned a Doppler.”

Doubt washed from Athena’s face, painting it pale. Before Rhys and Sasha could react, she extended the antennae of her ECHO device and rapidly navigated through various screens until she could dial a connection with Fiona’s device.

“Fiona?” Athena asked. For once her stoic voice revealed an anxious tremor. “Fiona? Come in. Come on, Fiona, pick up.”

A burst of static erupted from the ECHO before Fiona’s voice gradually rose above it. “Athena? It’s me. What’s going on?”

“Where are you right now?”

“Reverie.”

Rhys whispered to Athena. “Wave mentioned Reverie too.”

Athena searched her map for the location name ‘Reverie’ while she continued. “Are you alone?”

“Uh…” A snore filled the background. “Yeah, no, there’s someone else sleeping in here.”

“Who is it?” Sasha asked. “Sounds just like your snoring, Fi.”

Fiona offered a feigned laugh. “Ah-ha, funny. Who said that?”

“Uh, Sasha? You know, your sister?” Her brows furrowed as she stepped closer to the ECHO. “It might be hard to hear me over the ECHO.”

“Oh, Sasha! Yeah, that must be it,” Fiona continued. “Anyways, I’m in this room with a new teammate, Doppler. I’ll step outside if you need to talk in private.”

“That’d be for the best,” instructed Athena. “We need to tell you something about your new team.”

“Oh?” The blaring snores became more and more distant until the lock of a door shut them out completely. “I’m alone now. I’m ready.”

Athena took a breath. “Well, let’s start with this. Have you met anyone named Mirage or Wave yet?”

“Me? No, not yet. But X-Ray’s talked about them. Maybe a little too much.”

“Right, well Mirage and Wave attacked us at the biodome. Rhys hired me to protect him and Sasha. They’re okay. I made sure of it. Your new team did manage to capture Cassius, though, so if you see him you have to pretend you don’t know him. Get out of there as soon as you can.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Fiona interrupted, “that doesn’t make sense. Why would they attack you?”

Rhys finally joined in the call. “Wait, no one’s talked to you about any plans to destroy Atlas yet? It sure felt like taking down me and my company was their sole mission in life.”

“Destroy Atlas? Why would they need to do that? Who’s talking right now?”

“I don’t know, you tell me, Fi!”

“I… I-I’m…”

“Sorry, that was harsh. It’s just been a long day. It’s Rhys.”

“Rhys… sorry, you said your company?”

“Yeah. Atlas.” Rhys glanced at Sasha, wearing the same confused squint. “Fiona, you alright?”

“I’m fine. This is just a lot to take in. I guess I’m surprised Athena’s working for Atlas again.”

“Believe me, I know,” Athena said, closing a map that returned no results for ‘Reverie’. “Listen, I can’t find your location, so get out of there when you get the chance. You’ll be in danger if they figure out you have a connection to us. We’ll be at the Gortys facility in Old Haven. Meet us there.”

“I don’t know if I can do that. Not without raising suspicion, at least. I have an idea though. If Mirage agrees to it, Doppler’s taking me to an important mission at the Helios ruins. Once we’re done there, I might have an opening to escape and join you guys.”

“What? Helios?!” Rhys burst. “You can’t let them go anywhere near there! If they hate me this much for being Atlas, who knows what they’ll do to Vaughn or Yvette if they find them! Not to mention what could happen if they find the Vault of the Traveller.”

“Alright, calm down! This is a lot. Just let me think. Let me think.”

“What, going do some more of your ‘visual thinking’?”

“Hm? Yeah, sure. That.”

Fiona’s ECHO returned to static as she pondered over the new information. Softer than before, she spoke again.

“I think Doppler might be able to help.”

Rhys huffed. “No, no way. You can’t trust anyone from that little cult of theirs, Fiona.”

“It’s okay. We can trust Doppler. He knows Athena.”

Athena shook her head as if Fiona could see the gesture. “I don’t know anyone named Doppler.”

“No… I suppose you wouldn’t. Alright, fine. I’ll stay safe and find an opening. I’ll call you once I get out.”

Fiona hung up, cutting short Sasha’s goodbye. Her lips curled, dipping to signal her apprehension.

“She sounded off.”

“She did,” Rhys agreed. “She wasn’t mean to me at all.”

“I’m serious. It takes forever for her to learn to trust anyone. It doesn’t make sense that she would trust this Doppler guy so quickly.”

“Let’s hope they haven’t already begun brainwashing her.” Rhys meant it in jest, but Sasha’s stern glare wiped the smile from his face. “Hey, I’m sure she’ll be fine. She can take care of herself.”

“She’ll have to, for now,” Athena concluded. “We’re no help to her out here. Come on. Let’s head out.”

Rhys helped Sasha into the passenger seat of the technical and followed in after her. With Athena in the driver’s seat, their drive to Old Haven would be a tight squeeze between the three of them.

Six of them, Rhys remembered, mentally counting on his fingers: Athena, Sasha, Rhys, Angel, Jack, and Hyperion.