The loading ramp finally closes, blocking the the Archon’s flagship from view. As the Tempest preps for an FTL burn, Gwen Ryder staggers in the with the shift in a-grav and doubles over, panting, her shotgun overheating in her grip. Not only do her muscles ache from the exertion but so do her mutated nerves from the strain of her biotics. There’s a sullen twinge in her skull that warns of an impending headache.
There’s also an ache in her chest, like a ghost clutching her heart in its phantasmal grasp, but she knows that one’s a figment of her imagination.
Gwen clips Silent Partner to her back and hits the seals on her helmet, enjoying a deep breath of recycled air. At least it hasn’t bounced her own awful breath off her helmet and back into her face. Beside her, Liam and Jaal do the same.
“What a victory! We struck a blow here the Archon won’t soon forget.” Jaal is positively radiant at their victory, wearing his heart on his rofjinn—and it’s hard to tell which one is brighter.
“Yeah,” Gwen agrees, and hopes neither of them notice how out of breath she is. “And we got Meridian’s location.”
But of course Liam has to notice. Now there’s a thin line of tension threading his eyebrows together as he looks her over. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s get you to medbay. Lexi can check you out.”
Jaal glances between the two of them. Even if humans are downright reserved by angaran standards, he’s picked up enough by now to notice the way Liam hovers near her. Or maybe neither of them are as subtle as they like to think they are. Always a possibility. “That would be wise,” he says. “I admit, I was preparing myself in case you could not be revived.”
“Lucky for us, SAM makes a good paramedic,” Gwen says.
Liam rests a hand on the small of her back and leads her through the cargo bay. She can’t feel his touch through layers of ceramic, but something about the gesture sends a skitter of warmth through her. He must shoot Jaal a look over her shoulder, because the latter breaks off to gather the others and give them the run down of what happened. It’s usually too informal to qualify as a debrief by Alliance standards.
In the corridor, she says, “Liam—”
“Doc first. Everything else can wait.” It’s the crisis specialist in him, prioritising the most vital task, pushing everything else away until it needs to be dealt with.
The razor-thin press of Lexi’s mouth telegraphs that she already knows about Gwen and SAM’s little escape artistry. As she ushers Gwen towards the nearest bed, Liam is politely yet swiftly evicted, and he retreats with a final glance in Gwen’s direction. For once, she can’t decipher his expression.
“Get out of that hardsuit so I can take a look at you.” Lexi turns away to check over her already-prepared equipment.
The icy disapproval radiating off the good doctor puts a dampener on what’s usually a welcome experience, keying the code to power down her hardsuit. Finding the releases on her hardsuit, Gwen starts with her limbs before splitting open her torso armour. The Heleus Champion hardsuit—a combined present from the Nexus and the angara—has a few catches in strange places that still trip her up when she’s tired. Like now.She’d like to punch whoever put the toggles for her breastplate halfway down the back. Her brewing headache flares when she bends over to peel off her boots, and they hit the ground with two sullen thunks.
Her undersuit follows with more difficulty; when Gwen almost topples off the bed Lexi steps up to help free her arms from the sleeves. Left only in a standard issue crop top and shorts, Gwen has no defence against Lexi’s glare.
For all her visible frustration, she’s still gentle as she initiates a body scan, starting with Gwen’s heart. Oh yeah, she knows already. “Pathfinder. SAM killed you. Yes, he brought you back, but what if he hadn’t?”
The AI himself jumps into the fray. “I cannot learn without the Pathfinder. That would be like killing a part of myself.”
Lexi briefly glances up at the ceiling. “You’re lines of code. You can’t die.”
“Woah, there.” Gwen holds up her hands. “I know what we did was was… unorthodox, but it worked. He didn’t hurt me and he isn’t going to.”
“Thank you, Ryder.”
There’s a beat of silence as both women register that SAM called Gwen by her name rather than title.
Lexi’s exhale cuts through the momentary quiet with the precision of a scalpel. “Look, I’m not against SAM. But my job is hard enough without an AI stopping your heart. Even to save your life.” Her omni-tool beeps, indicating it has finished its examination. She peruses the results, and her soft exhale might qualify as a sigh. “Your heart rate is elevated and your electrolyte levels are dangerously low. There’s also the matter of the foreign compound in your bloodstream.”
Oh. Right. Gwen had nearly forgotten about that with all the other drama taking precedence. But there’s an itch under her skin where the veins are prominent. Every beat of her heart, which was a victorious drum mere moments ago, is now a traitorous sound. Every beat cycles the neurotransmitters through her bloodstream. At the time the Archon’s little present hadn’t felt like a big deal in the face of being captured and having to let SAM kill her to free them, but now it has her undivided attention. What if it’s changing her from the inside out, figuring out a way to exalt her? What if it’s doing something worse?
“Turn your head this way.” With a gentle touch to Gwen’s chin, Lexi can examine the injection site. “No swelling and minimal inflammation.”
Gwen resists the urge to scratch her neck. “So about these neurotransmitters…”
“They are for monitoring purposes,” SAM says. “I have been working to deactivate them, but progress has been slow due to prioritising more immediate tasks.”
She still fights a shudder. Monitoring. “The sooner you can switch them off, the better.”
Gwen watches as Lexi ties the tourniquet and draws a blood sample, if only to prove to herself she isn’t suddenly afraid of needles. There’s not getting comfortable in a medbay, especially not while the doctor frowns over the bloodwork.
“From what I can tell, the neurotransmitters will break down and be cycled out of your system. If they were purely for monitoring purposes they should have no lasting impact. I’ll give you an immunobooster to speed up the process, but I want you to remain here overnight for observation.”
Gwen fights a groan. It never helped with Dad. “Really? I’m fine, doc—”
“Nobody is ever ‘fine’ after dying, even temporarily.” Steel threads through Lexi’s tone. Credit where credit’s due, her doctor voice is impressively stern. “I need to monitor your heart for signs of permanent damage.”
Brooking no further argument, Lexi attaches the electrodes and sets up a saline drip—and from the way she’s been clucking over the crew’s caloric intake, Gwen suspects there may be some supplements may have been sneaked into the bag as well.
“Dr T’Perro.” SAM’s voice floats around the medbay. “I apologise for for any distress I have caused you.”
Lexi sighs. “And I’m sorry for calling you ‘lines of code’. You’re more than that, even if you don’t have the cells to prove it.” She cleans up the medbay, slow and methodical, and the ritual of it seems to take the remaining edge off her frustration. “Pathfinder, get some rest. Don’t leave that bed. Doctor’s orders. Dinner should be almost ready.” And then the door whooshes shut behind her.
Since ‘remaining in bed’ and ‘lying down’ are two different things, Gwen sits on the mattress with her knees loosely pulled up to her chest and rests her forearms on her knees. First thing, she writes her customary email to still-comatose Scott. This is one of the rare times it isn’t spam, but she doubts he’ll ever read it—he’ll probably mass delete all two hundred or so messages from her when he finally checks his email. She’s still working on convincing SAM to take a picture of Scott’s face when he sees his inbox.
Subject: Guess What I Did Today
Hey little brother
No, I didn’t fight a metal three-legged metal thresher maw. That was last week. Today I boarded the Archon’s flagship, snuck into his quarters to find something valuable, and stole the salarian ark from under his nose. Good times.
Wake up soon. Please.
Your big sis
Hitting send never has the same satisfaction in space, knowing it has merely queued as part of a tightbeam data package to transmit the next time they’re in range of a com buoy.
Gwen fiddles with her omni-tool, paging through the panes, opening a fresh document for a post-action report, but she’s too fidgety to get the words down. So she pings Liam. You’ll be relieved to hear I’m still alive.
She gets a response a scant forty seconds later. Would have been embarrassing, surviving the horror show of the Archon’s ship only for Lexi to kill you. She just walked by. Does not look happy.
We sorted it out. She told me and SAM to get a new party trick.
Now there’s a pause.
The next message alert isn’t a reply from Liam but a quick message from Cora. Jaal’s report from the Archon’s flagship sounded pretty rough. Hope you’re doing okay.
Doc’s tied me to the bed, but it’s just precautionary. I’ll be up and Pathfinding again by tomorrow.
Gwen drums her fingers on her knees, looking about the softly lit medbay for something to occupy her. But while the information panels on the walls are filled with scrawling text and anatomical diagrams, she can’t decipher the medical jibberish. There’s no escaping her thoughts, or the AI literally sitting between them. For all that the medbay has the peculiar stillness that comes from the absence of life, she isn’t alone.
“Hey, SAM? Can we talk?”
“Of course, Pathfinder.”
Gwen rubs her breastbone, feeling the tiny tremors of her heart through her skin. “I can’t believe we did that. That was— well, I guess we’re both lucky I trust you.” She closes her eyes. “I trust you. You have unfettered access to my physiology and I trust you.”
It’s not that she didn’t know what it meant when SAM made his suggestion, what he was asking from her—but. But without the containment field suspending her in the air, without the foreign hum of the kett ship, without the ugly scents of rust and antiseptic reminding her what kett do to prisoners, she can fully appreciate the scale of the risk.
One of the many distinguishing features between VIs and AIs is the latter can understand of the complexities of organic expression. “Yet you are concerned, Pathfinder.”
“I just didn’t realise you have the ability to kill me is all—” She draws in a sharp breath and pinches the bridge of her nose. To her dismay, her eyes are wet. “Dammit.”
One second draws into two. Three. An unusually long processing time for SAM. “Your shipmates also posses the ability to inflict lethal damage on you, yet you have shown no concern about this.”
The tears recede as quickly as they surfaced, but it feels like something has shifted in her chest. Relieved a point of pressure. “It’s not the same, SAM. They might be able to shoot me, or break me with their biotics—or in Drack’s case break me with his bare hands—but they aren’t sitting on a kill switch that could turn off my heart. If they did, I’d be freaking out because I don’t like the thought of anything having that kind of power over me.”
Another pause. “I have observed that humans are often discomforted when reminded they may not control their own fate. As a survival instinct, it is logical, and exponentially increases the value of trust.”
She shifts on the mattress. Picks at a loose thread in the sheets. “If it makes you feel better, I’m glad it’s you out of every living being in the galaxy that could have the Gwen Ryder Kill Switch.”
“I believe I understand what you are trying to say, and I appreciate the sentiment.”
“I just— I do trust you, SAM. You’ve had this power the entire time and never abused it. You’ve done nothing but help me, and my dad before me. I’ve just been thrown for a loop and I’m still regaining my balance.”
“I understand, Ryder. A degree of trauma is to be expected given the circumstances.”
Again with her name. “And SAM? Thanks for reviving me.”
Her omni-tool pings. She checks Liam’s message. Just putting this out there. Had a friend in HUSTL, Dondi. We were on the job one time when she got hit with a piece of rebar. Four minutes dead, but we got her into emergency stasis. They’re so good at patching us up she was back in a week, but she shouldn’t have been. You don’t just walk off something like that. She ended up disappearing for five months. Came back different.
A follow up: What I’m saying is take your time. Dying isn’t something you can just shake off.
She replies. Received loud and clear. Can you swipe me dinner? I’m starving and hospital food sucks.
You’re not under quarantine? Want to know if I should prepare for Lexi’s wrath.
Nah. As long as we don’t trade blood, we’re fine.
Not ten minutes later, the door parts to reveal Liam balancing a tray laden with her biotic-sized ration.
Gwen arches an eyebrow. “Well, well. I didn’t know the Tempest had such a good-looking nurse.”
“Only for you, Ryder.” Liam sets down the tray on the bedside table and chuckles at the exceedingly loud grumble from her stomach.
“I lucked out, then.” Smirking feels halfway normal, so she enjoys it.
His gaze travels from the IV line to the needle taped to her hand. It’s a tether, and an obvious one when it isn’t medically necessary. “What’s the verdict?”
“Not good. Doc might have to amputate.”
Liam can’t help the quirk of his mouth that betrays his amusement, but there’s something grim behind his eyes—gone in a heartbeat, leaving her wondering what she saw. “You must be feeling all right. Then again, I bet you could joke on your death bed. So maybe not.”
Unbidden, her thoughts skip to the day her mother dies.
Nope, not going there. She shoves the memory into a box marked To Be Dealt With Later, Hopefully Never. “Me? Joke about something serious? It’s almost like you know me, Kosta.”
This time Liam returns her grin, and at that moment Gwen loathes the monitors because the beat of her fluttering heart is recorded for all to see. And he knows it too, the bastard, if the fresh mischief in his eyes is any indication.
Gwen scoots back on the mattress and pats the space in front of her. Liam doesn’t need to be asked twice, hopping up so fast he winces. Gwen isn’t the only one who was roughed up today. He rests a hand on her knee and she goes one better, leaning forward to cup his cheek. It mirrors another day, another mission, another aftermath.
Funny, just how good a simple touch feels. What had Liam called it? Normal.
He drags in an uneven breath and closes the gap. Their kiss is slow and relieved, and Gwen can feel herself start to decompress. The second kiss is an affirmation they’re both still alive, and the third pure whimsy.
An imminent crick in her neck forces her to withdraw, and she leans forward to comfortably rest her head on his shoulder. With any remaining adrenaline drained from her system, she’s left slumped in lactic acid and fatigue.
His fingers ease the tie out of her hair, then trace gentle circles on her scalp. “How are you feeling?”
Liam’s smile is more amused than relieved. “Good. Now how are you really feeling, without the bullshit?”
Yeah, she deserved that one.
Gwen pulls back, his hand sliding free of her hair, and settles against the headboard. “Worn out. My biotics took a pounding. It was a hard fight, before even thinking about the part where I died today…”
Liam’s fingers tighten reflexively on his thigh. “Speaking of, word of warning: you die again, I’m taking it to HR as emotional abuse. Stop it.” But there’s something of a laugh threading through his tone.
Gwen holds a hand over her heart. “Scout’s honour.”
Her stomach decides now is the moment to remind her of its existence—loudly.
Liam chuckles. “Sounds like you’ll have a mutiny on your hands if you don’t fill that belly.”
Home is the only place where Gwen has never felt self-conscious about her biotic appetite. Even in the peacekeeping corps it was still unusual for someone her size to pack down so much. It had been a sign that she was different, even if the Alliance was the one place that actively sought out biotics. But her stomach waits for no awkwardness. Besides, Liam has never seemed bothered by it.
With her mouth full, Gwen waves a hand to indicate Liam can take what he likes, but he shakes his head. “You need it more than I do.”
It’s a simple reconstituted affair of mystery meat and vegetables, weeping a greasy fluid—and her mind’s eye conjures the yellow liquid in the containment tanks, and the things that floated in them. Test subjects. People.
Suddenly her hunger feels distant.
“Something wrong?” Liam’s gaze, warm and concerned, pierces her fugue.
Gwen shoves her spork in the diminished pile of reconstituted potato. “I don’t know if I made the right choice. Sure, we saved those krogan from exaltation, but we lost another Pathfinder.”
“Hard calls all around.” Liam squeezes her shoulder and waits until she meets his gaze, dark and steady. “We’d have lost people either way. But we’d have saved people either way, too. Don’t forget that.”
When the job entails saving people, it’s an expectation, not an accomplishment. “It’s not the call my dad would have made. He’d have prioritised the more valuable asset.”
Except the one time he didn’t—and it cost him his life.
“You aren’t your dad. Ad you don’t have to measure yourself against him all the damn time.”
Gwen goes back to her meal with decidedly less enthusiasm. Still cleans the plate, knowing she’ll regret it if she doesn’t. Liam dumps the tray on the bedside table while Gwen scoots over to let him sit beside her, back to the headboard. He drapes an arm around her shoulders and she curls into his side. Freshly showered, he smells of soap and something uniquely him.
Tucking her head under his chin, he lets out a heavy exhale. “Seriously though, I had no idea SAM could do that.”
Gwen chuckles once. “Neither did I.”
“Don’t know if I could have done that, let an AI effectively kill me. Even if he said he was going to revive me afterward…”
What was it she’d said right before SAM stopped her heart? Three’s usually the charm, and this is only strike two. “If SAM loses me, he, well, loses out. It’s a kind of symbiosis.” It isn’t something she usually brings up, heeding SAM’s advice to keep the extent of their connection quiet. But the cat’s out of the bag on that one. It’s also out of the containment field it was trapped in, so Gwen won’t count it as a loss.
Liam eyes her sidelong. “Human-AI relations aside, that’s still a hell of a thing.”
She draws her knees up to her chest. “Yeah.”
He looks up to the ceiling, the gesture the crew have taken to when calling on the resident disembodied AI. “SAM? Thanks for saving Ryder. I owe you one.”
“You do not owe me anything. One of my primary functions is to assist the Pathfinder in the field.”
“Still appreciate it. Everyone deserves thanks for doing good.”
It’s quiet but for the beeping equipment and their mingled breathing. The medbay is cast in soft greys and blues, similar to Alliance ships, and finally the familiarity of the decor is comforting. It might also have something to do with the man beside her. She settles more comfortably against him, feeling his ribs expend with every breath, and he idly traces a pattern on her shoulder with one finger.
In fact, she is halfway asleep when SAM chimes, “Pathfinder, Dr T’Perro and Suvi are on their way to the medbay.”
It’s all the warning Gwen and Liam need to put a respectable distance between them.
Besides SAM, Gwen isn’t really sure who else knows about her and Liam. But they’re not ready to go public yet—or rather, she isn’t ready. Liam’s made it clear he’d be happy to shout it from mountaintops, but only with her permission. Maybe her Alliance training holds strong, warning her of the dangers of fraternisation. So even if she suspects Lexi already knows, everyone present is going to pretend otherwise.
By the time the doors whoosh open, Liam is occupying a seat beside the bed while Gwen fills the free space on the bed.
Suvi bustles in, Lexi at her heels, her omni-tool a glove of gold. “Feeling all right? You were clinically dead for a few seconds.”
“I’d say I’m feeling pretty good for someone who was clinically dead for a few seconds.” Gwen almost shrugs, but thinks better of it when Lexi’s face pinches.
“I have something you need to know. We detected a some kind transfer between you and the flagship while you were being revived. SAM believes the information shared was… memories of yours.”
Ice runs down her spine.
The black space between her last breath and her first gapes, filled with dizzying flashes, figures, faces retrieved from the recesses of her brain. “The Archon saw my memory flashes?”
“Memory flashes?” Liam repeats.
“That part about your life flashing before your eyes when you die? Is a lie. I had these… flashbacks when I was revived.”
He smirks. “One mystery of the universe down.”
She shakes her head, more perturbed than she’d care to admit. “I could barely make sense of those memories and they’re mine. Good luck to the Archon if he wants to decipher them. I think I remembered my goldfish’s funeral.”
Liam’s snickers aren’t loud enough to drown out Lexi’s sigh.
Suvi’s mouth tightens with worry. “Whatever the Archon injected you with allowed him access. Our connections were wide open when SAM… killed you.”
The weight of three pairs of eyes is almost too heavy. Gwen draws in one breath, then another. “Well. I think I just gave away how badly we need Meridian.”
“And storming his flagship didn’t?” Liam shakes his head. “This one isn’t on you, Ryder.”
“I thought you needed to know sooner rather than later,” Suvi says. “I’ll let you rest now. Call if you need anything.”
She and Lexi vacate the room. Gwen watches the door even after it shuts behind them. She fluffs herself out like a small bird on a lonely perch and tries to fight the yawning dread that sits in her chest, as heavy as a black hole. The disjointed flashbacks slip through her fingers, as fragile and formless as sand, the more she wracks her brain. What did the Archon see? What did she give away?
“Take it easy.” Liam covers her hand with his own and she realises she’s been twisting her fist in the sheets.
“It’s—” she sighs, short and tense. “What a wonderful way to cap the day.”
Liam shifts from the chair to the edge of the bed, perching lightly in case she wants more personal space right now. Always sweet, that one, even if she doesn’t have the headspace to appreciate it right now. “I know it’s a lot, and I know I have no clue what it’s like to have someone else watch your memories like an old vid collection. But I’m here.”
Gwen lets her head thunk on her knees with a groan.
The thing about creeping dread is that it inevitably pounces. And in that moment heat rushes through her body, followed by a flash of ice. A shudder starts deep in her chest, originating from a spot just below her heart. She grabs fistfuls of hair, tight enough to sting. Sometimes having SAM perpetually peering over her shoulder is too much, let alone having her nemesis witness something so raw and personal.
Liam pulls himself the rest of the way onto the bed and wraps her in his arms, running a hand up and down her spine. It gives her something to focus on, something real, something now, something to make a new memory. He croons through her shakes, that she’s safe, that they’re safe, and her alarm fades under his steady reassurances. She bumps her shoulder against his in silent thanks. But even so, the disquiet doesn’t fade. It sits in her chest, an ink-black blob of concentrated anxiety.
“You,” Liam says, gently yet firmly, “need some time off. Remember what I said about Dondi.”
“We need to go to the Nexus,” she protests. Having never been a stickler for protocol, she isn’t entirely sure why she’s defending the same workaholic system that chewed up both her parents. Maybe it’s the gnawing dread that Andromeda won’t wait for Pathfinder Ryder to be ready. Not kett or colonies or politics.
“Good plan. Go to the Nexus, blow off some steam at Vortex.”
It isn’t what she means and they both know it.
But it’s tomorrow’s argument. Tomorrow’s problem. Right now Gwen makes a vague noise that could be interpreted as agreement and curls against Liam’s side. He presses his lips to her hair and whispers something that might be a please be all right.
I usually write all chapters of a fic before posting, but since this is an expansion of a one-shot I’m flying by the seat of my pants. It’s a nail-biting experience and because of it I can’t promise steady updates.
Their victory doesn’t last past the Nexus’ airlock. None of the leadership are impressed with the Pathfinder’s strike against the Archon—worse, they all refuse to sign off on a journey to Meridian. Gwen trudges down the stairs after her fellow Pathfinders Hayjer and Sarissa. Their show of solidarity had been surprising, if she’s being honest, but she’ll never turn away anyone who actually shows a little faith in her.
Any disappointment at the bureaucrats upstairs evaporates when Tann’s aide calls out, “Excuse me! Urgent message for Pathfinder Ryder. Your brother is awake.”
Even with the Nexus’ stable gravity well, not to mention her mutant nervous system that can sense any gravitational shifts better than her inner ear, her brain insists the world is tilting sideways. A sudden hope swells in her chest, pushing all her internal organs to the side, so heavy she almost staggers under the weight.
“Go,” Hayjer says. “We’ll resume this later.”
No need to announce their intentions to go against a direct order while inside Tann’s office, after all. Even if the aide is now permanently in Gwen’s good book for passing on word of Scott’s condition.
Sarissa doesn’t say anything. Whatever the fallout of revealing she left Matriarch Ishara to die, it probably hasn’t been pretty. But she inclines her head and steps aside to clear the way between Gwen and the door.
Gwen takes off at a dead run.
The two tram rides take entirely too long, the smooth motion of the car juxtaposed against her shaking hands. That damned music grates on her ears more than regular elevator music, if that’s even possible. The weight in her chest that she’s carried all this time feels heavier than ever, knowing Scott’s on the Hyperion, so close and yet so far away. Gwen stands gripping a handrail rather than sit; if not for the other occupants she’d pace, safety be damned. But no, Pathfinder Ryder is a symbol of hope and therefore should remain dignified in public blah blah blah.
When the Hyperion’s internal tram finally stops at the cryo bay, Gwen is squeezing out the doors the moment there’s a wide enough gap.
It’s always chilly in the infirmary, which is conveniently located near the cryo bay. Points to the ark’s designers for forethought. But in the tradition of medical facilities everywhere, it’s brightly lit and sterile silver, with only the six hundred year old artist’s renderings of the golden worlds to alleviate the monochrome decor.
And there’s her brother, sitting up in bed. Eyes open and everything. He might still be pale under the cold infirmary lights, but consciousness returns a vitality to his face that’s been missing for months. Even with that hideous standard-issue gown tenting out around him, she’s never been so happy to see him.
He looks up in time to see his sister almost crash into a gurney. His brown eyes are as familiar as the eyes that stare back in the mirror. “Gwen! Took you long enough.”
“No running,” a med tech barks and Gwen slows to a power walk, dodging around two nurses. Carlyle doesn’t even bother to hide his amusement as she finally makes it to Scott’s bed.
“Touchy-feely time!” And without giving Scott an opportunity to refuse, she throws her arms around his shoulders. He smells of sweat and antiseptic and something powdery, and admittedly the juvenile sister in her is expecting a headlock at any moment. But Scott just pulls her closer, arms tight around her, and rests his head on her shoulder.
It’s hits her all over again that they’re the only two Ryders left. Despite his tight embrace, a part of her feels hollow. Maybe it strikes him too, if his sudden hitching breath is anything to go by.
Gwen plops onto the bed beside him. “Good to hear your voice again, sleepyhead,” she says, but there’s too much emotion in her voice to properly tease him. Clearing her throat, she tries again but this time it’s even worse: genuine relief. “I missed you.”
The corners of Scott’s eyes crinkle when he smiles, and for a split second she can see the shadow of their father in his features. “Missed you too, dork. Didn’t mean to oversleep, I promise.”
“You never do and yet here we are,” she quips.
Something in his face shifts as what’s meant to be a tease lands as a jab. “I hear you’re the Great and Honourable Madam Pathfinder now.” His voice changes pitch just slightly on the last syllable. Something that would go unnoticed to anyone except his twin.
It isn’t like all the other times when people expected the original Pathfinder Ryder. This is personal.
Time to lighten the mood, because humour pretends to fix everything without ever touching the underlying problem. “Come on, Scott. It’s not like that.”
“Uh huh. Sure.” A frown knits his black eyebrows together. “Thought Cora was next in line after Dad?”
“She was,” Gwen admits. “I don’t know why Dad transferred authority to me. It was unfair to Cora to be shortchanged like that, but we worked it out.”
Scott hums and gives that little half-shrug they use exclusively to mean ‘Dad is Dad. Who ever knows with him?’ “So I guess I’ll give you a pass on telling me we found home.”
Her boots become simply fascinating all of a sudden. She clears her throat. “We have five outposts now so it’s kind of true…?”
Scott gives her The Look, unique to disgruntled Ryders. “Nice try. But it wasn’t true at the time.”
He’s not wrong. Gwen scuffs the sides of her boots together. “I’m sorry. I… I’d just told you about Dad. I couldn’t pile on even more while you were in a coma. If it had been me in that bed, would you have been able to drop those bombshells on me?”
His face twists in a grimace, but he loses the grip on his resentment. “We won’t ever know how that would have played out. I’m just…” he sighs, shifts on the mattress. “Look, I know you like to remind me at every turn that I’m your little brother, but you don’t need to coddle me. I’m a Ryder. I can handle it.”
It’s in their blood. Or expected to be in their blood. Some days—hell, most days—it’s hard to live up to.
“I’m sorry,” Gwen says, and means it. “Nobody knew when you were going to wake up. I didn’t want to set you back.”
“I get it, sis. I do. But…” Scott’s determination is such a familiar sight she aches. Boy, has she missed him. “No more secrets.”
“No more secrets,” she echoes. “We need to watch each other’s backs. And I’m looking forward to seeing people’s faces when they realise there are two Ryders in the galaxy.”
At that, Scott laughs. Maybe not loudly, when his throat is too scratchy from disuse, but it’s still the most beautiful, healing sound in Andromeda. “They won’t know what hit them.”
Her commlink chimes. “Pathfinder Ryder? This is Hayjer. We have an idea about Meridian. Please stop by the tech labs when you can.”
Right. Meridian. The fruit of their strike against the Archon’s flagship. Until twenty minutes ago it had been important.
Gwen takes one look at Scott and knows what her priorities must be. She taps her commlink. “I’m sorry to do this, but can you give me an hour?”
Hayjer’s response is immediate. Either because he cares or because salarian processing speed outstrips that of a human’s, she’s not sure. “Of course, Ryder. When you’re ready.”
Scott has one eyebrow raised through the whole thing. True to Alliance training, she’d pressed two fingers to her ear to indicate a radio conversation, even if exterior radios have been phased out for the aural implants. “Trouble for the Honourable Pathfinder?”
There’s something in his tone that gives her pause, like a thorn catching on her skin. It’s easier to ignore it. Ignore the bait. “There’s always trouble. I’ll tell you more later—after we’ve gotten out of trouble. Loose lips sink ships and all that.” He’s about to protest, because of course he is, but Gwen has already settled more comfortably on his bed and drawn one knee up to her chest. “Besides, I have more important things to tell you.”
“Oh yeah?” Scott scoots forward, any resentment smoothing away as his interest is captured.
She gives him a rundown of the situation, of the golden worlds that aren’t golden, the Remnant and their vaults, the five outposts the Initiative has established, the angara and the kett. Scott absorbs all this with an ever-deepening frown, occasionally asking her to expand on something or another.
Then he draws in a breath. Fiddles with the blanket. Meets her eye and asks, “What happened to Dad, exactly?”
“I—” No matter the magnetic force of his gaze boring into her cheek, she can’t look into his eyes. Dad’s eyes. “The atmosphere on Habitat 7 was messed up and the air toxic. Dad managed to activate the Remnant tech to stabilise the planet, but must have triggered a defence mechanism because we got tossed off a cliff. My visor smashed and—” And she’s back there, throat tight and burning, lungs about to burst in her chest, a molten pain lighting up her every nerve. Raindrops dripping through her shattered faceplate to her cheeks. And the colours: sickly wisps of yellow weaving between splashes of magenta and blue, swirling and rippling in vibrant eddies that hurt to look at.
No one ever mentioned the colours you see as your brain dies one neuron at a time.
“Hey, hey. Stay with me, sis.” Scott throws an arm around her shoulders, yanking her sideways to bump their heads together. More than enough to knock the flashback out of her head.
Weird to think it had been the first time she died, but her heart had stopped again just yesterday. Gwen has to tamp down on the laugh that threatens to prove she’s lost it.
Don’t think about it.
Swallowing, she pulls away from the safety of Scott’s arms to finish the story. It takes several long moments to find her voice, to spit out the damning words. “Dad… gave me his helmet.”
Most people have been entirely too understanding. As much as the Nexus leaders’ judgement had stung, there had been a masochistic satisfaction to dashing herself against those rocks. No, Gwen wasn’t ready to be Pathfinder. No, she shouldn’t have been the one who survived.
And now the only other living Ryder, the only person in the galaxy whose opinion on Dad’s death matters, is watching her with a growing darkness in his eyes.
And then he reaches out to grip her shoulder.
She covers his hand with her own, squeezing gently when his eyes glaze over.
“I’m sorry, sis.” Now it’s Scott’s turn to be the one who can’t make eye contact. “I should have been there. For Dad. For you… afterward. I almost can’t believe he sacrificed himself like that.”
All the defensive preparations she’d made, knocked aside so cavalierly like Drack tossing a turian through a window on Kadara. Her throat closes over and she wants to glare at him for being so understanding, dammit. It takes two attempts to clear her throat enough to manage words. “Dad cared more than he let on. More than we knew. He had these private logs… you’ll want to hear them.”
It’s probably sad how shocked she’d been the first time she’d heard her father’s gravelly rasp: “Times like these make you wish you told your kids you loved them more often… or ever.”
If she has that log saved on her private terminal on the Tempest to pull out on a rainy day, well, it’s between her and SAM.
Why did she only learn about this after Dad’s gone, robbing them of any chance to mend the old hurts?
By this point Scott has half-unpicked the hem on the sheets, he can’t stop fiddling. “I guess that’s all we have left of him.”
Gwen tries not to say it. She really does. “Hit me if this sounds too corny, but we still have each other.”
Scott hits her. Gwen laughs and it feels good.
They sit cross-legged with their knees bumping, canting their heads towards each other so their whispers won’t carry. This next part needs to stay private, even if Carlyle is already throwing them suspicious glances from his nearby workstation. “That’s not all,” Gwen murmurs. “Dad… was keeping secrets.”
“Oh?” Scott leans so far forward they almost knock foreheads. “Do tell.”
The exact nature of SAM and her connection to him has been something of a secret, even if the Tempest crew know about the little heart-stopping trick. But her twin is the one person she’ll keep no secrets from. He’s a Ryder, and this is Ryder family business. So she explains everything, even the misadventure on the Archon’s flagship.
Scott grips her wrist. “Shit. Are you all right? Should you even be walking around? There’s a bed free next to mine.”
“I was cleared this morning. No long-term effects that Lexi could find. I’m fine.”
From Scott’s incredulous expression, it’s clear she needs to stop saying ‘fine’ because nobody buys it. Liam’s face springs to mind and she shoves it aside. But at least she can distract Scott from her most recent brush with death with another tidbit. “That’s not all. There was at least one secret backer involved with the Initiative who apparently threw tons of credits at the project. The only name I have is ‘the benefactor’. They recruited Dad into the Initiative, but he and Jien Garson had suspicions. And then Garson was murdered—”
“Keep your voice down!” she hisses. They both glance around guiltily. Two med techs glance in their direction, and a recently-thawed woman is watching with open curiosity. Carlyle is also keeping an eye on them, but they already knew that. Satisfied they aren’t being eavesdropped on, she murmurs, “‘Died in the Scourge’ is the official story. But SAM and I went digging. There’s enough evidence to show she was murdered.”
“Shit,” Scott breathes. “You think this benefactor was covering their tracks?”
“Possible, but in all honesty we don’t know. Dad’s memories might have more.”
He starts, recoiling a fraction. This close, she gets a macro-level view of his shock, of the muscles shifting in his face, of his pupils contracting. “What do you mean Dad’s memories?”
Oh. Right. She hasn’t gotten to this particular weird part yet. There’s been of many of them already. “Dad had SAM encrypt some of his memories. We’ve been unlocking them… speaking of. SAM?”
SAM answers over their private channel. “Yes, Pathfinder?”
“Can you access that last memory yet?”
“One moment. I can, but there is an added layer of encryption.”
In one of the miracles of the human brain, her intuition jumps to an old bit of intel. “I think I know how to get around that.”
From Scott’s expression, SAM looped his implant into the conversation as well. “Then let’s go.”
Consumed by fresh energy, Gwen hops off the bed. When Scott makes to follow, Carlyle appears as surely as if he was conjured. “Hold it. You aren’t fit for duty, sir. You need to take it easy.”
Past Carlyle’s elbow, Scott turns his big brown eyes on her in the most pitiful puppy dog eyes she’s seen since they were seven. Big sis to the rescue. Gwen rests a hand on Carlyle’s shoulder. “I know it’s important Scott rest, but… there are some of Dad’s affairs we need to resolve ASAP. Please, Harry. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”
“You absolutely would, because no one in your family is capable of sitting still when they’re supposed to.” But the corners of his eyes crinkle with amusement, which is hopefully a good sign.
“Beside the point.” Gwen breezily waves a hand. “How about I make you a deal: the next time I wind up in the infirmary, I’ll obey your every order.”
If there’s one fundamental truth of the universe, it’s that a doctor’s smile is cause for concern. Harry Carlyle’s in particular. “Well, there’s no better deal than that. In that case, I can think of one way this can work…”
Apologies for the massive delay! In truth this chapter has been written for a while but I struggled editing it, so I'm just going to post it and be done with it. You'll be happy to learn that I used the last week of NaNoWriMo to work on this instead of my novel, so there shouldn't be a huge delay between the next update.
CW for panic attacks.
“This is ridiculous,” Scott mutters.
Oh no. This is fun. Gwen picks up the pace and the wheelchair squeaks, the IV bag swaying on its hook. Most passersby take one look at them—at Scott’s murderous expression and her gleeful one—then make themselves scarce. “Don’t be such a drag, little brother!”
She takes the corner with enough speed to almost fishtail, the wheels briefly losing traction on the polished floor. Scott swears and clutches the armrests as the IV bag wobbles dangerously, its contents sloshing like a storm in a bottle. “Warn me!”
Gwen laughs, the sound pulling from her chest, and she feels lighter than she has in weeks. Months, maybe. “If that grumpy face doesn’t clear up I promise I will do donuts.”
Scott snorts. “How can you tell what my face looks like? You’re behind me!”
“I just know. Twin magic senses.”
He snorts again. “Bullshit.”
By the time they reach SAM Node they’re both grinning, their bickering revitalising them both. The door unlocks of its own accord to welcome them inside. SAM’s matrix emits gentle currents of blue that eddy in an alien rhythm, throwing ripples of light on the walls like waves reflecting off the ceiling of a sea cave.
Carlyle probably intended Scott to remain seated for the entire venture, but the only one who might dob him in is SAM. Gwen offers a hand to help him out of the wheelchair and supports his weight—too light, too frail—as they stand before SAM’s core.
“Hey, SAM,” Scott says. “Long time, no see. Not that it feels that long.”
SAM’s matrix shivers. “Hello, Scott. It is good to see you awake at last.”
“Yeah, I hear my sister’s a walking disaster without me.”
Gwen groans. “You’re… not wrong.” In the middle of an alien galaxy, with alien rules, and some things never change. Funny how his sass makes her feel better. “SAM, you said there was an added layer of encryption. Dad and Jien Garson had a code word: fulcrum.”
SAM flickers. “That worked. These are the last memories your father encrypted. The first is from the final planning stages of the Hyperion’s departure.”
“So how does this work, exactly?” Scott shifts from foot to foot.
“SAM can use the implant to show one of Dad’s memories. It’s… weird at first. Not at all like watching a vid when you’re seeing the world through his eyes. SAM, can Scott watch the memory too?”
“Yes. His implant is functioning as normal.”
Scott’s face scrunches. “Watching one of Dad’s memories… strange, but here goes.”
Even with SAM giving them a moment to mentally prepare, that half-second when SAM Node fades to a grey void makes something in her chest clench. Disconnected from her body, Gwen’s first thought is always to panic and flail, but instead she focuses on the sensations coming into focus.
The seat beneath her is uncomfortable, the padding flattened after so many years supporting Alec Ryder’s backside. Seeing through Dad’s eyes throws her internal spatial awareness. Dad is taller than her, sits differently to her, fills the space in a way she never could. If the memories were purely visual, it would be easier than being stretched to fill his being, so her too-large hands rest on the hard tabletop and her feet press flat against the ground.
There’s always an odd disconnect, her eyes wanting to stray around the room, wanting context, but only the object of her father’s attention is in focus: his terminal screen. Or, more accurately, the flashing green light alerting him to an incoming call.
The room is windowless. One of the lights is broken, never repaired since they no longer had the credits. Dad’s desk is in a state of organised chaos, but she has no time to feel smug about it when a chime alerts her to an incoming call. It takes her a moment to recognise Dad’s office, when the angle is unfamiliar—she never had reason to sit in his chair after her fourth birthday.
One of her hands—Dad’s hands—presses Accept Call, and a turian’s face fills the screen. From the wear in his plates, he’s probably as old as Dad. And those eyes. Deep blue, darker than any human shade, and dulled with a weariness intimately familiar to old vets. His face strikes a chord of familiarity—maybe it’s the blue face paint—as well as a sense of gratitude that conjures a nauseous sense of wrongness.
Her dad speaks, and it still hurts to hear his gravelly voice again. “Castis. Thanks for calling. Not a lot of people still admit to knowing me.”
It has to be Dad’s reaction to Castis. She stops resisting, lets that odd prickle of gratitude flow through her, and some of the nausea fades. How she can be nauseous when she’s disconnected from her stomach is a mystery. It also sucks.
Castis grunts, the burr of Dad’s translator imbuing the sound with a tinny edge. “I owe you. Those were good days on the Citadel, Alec. I checked with my son, Garrus. He works there now. C-Sec.”
“And?” Dad leans forward in his seat, just slightly. Gwen only notices because her spatial awareness shifts, the terminal becoming ever-so-slightly bigger. The chair doesn’t creak. It’s too afraid of Alec Ryder.
“He says the Council thinks Commander Shepard’s story is bogus.”
Castis’ mandibles flutter then press against his jaw. “Privately, I’ve heard they’re starting to wonder.”
Time slows as Dad processes this, the world slipping out of focus into eternity. But from the call log only 1.53 seconds have passed. While Dad’s thoughts couldn’t be recorded, a coil of unease tightens in the back of her mind, its wires sharp enough to cut. “This... threat.” Dad picks his words slowly, with care, his old military precision demanding he find the most accurate term. “They’re called ‘Reapers’?”
If Dad had been worried—
Castis nods. “Shepard’s word for them. Something about a cycle. An extinction event that happens every 50,000 years. Galaxy-wide. And supposedly the alarm’s about to go off again.”
That hadn’t been in the recruitment brochure.
A galaxy-wide cleansing would be impossible, should be impossible—
What could be powerful enough to—
How could Dad believe it—or believe it enough—to jump their family to another galaxy—?
But there’s no time to give that revelation the freak out it deserves when the memory pulls her along.
Castis’ mandibles flare again. If not for his weighted gaze, it could be mistaken for amusement. “I know. But according to Garrus, Shepard’s as level-headed as they come. She takes after you—an N7. So, if the commander says these Reapers are coming, I don’t want to be around to see them.”
Dad grunts. This time Gwen doesn’t want to know what’s going on inside his head. Being an N7 had been the cornerstone of his identity. He’d know that anyone honoured with the stripes has to be damn good at their job. Reliable. “Thanks, Castis.”
The feeds cuts out. But instead of taking a moment to sit and process, he immediately answers another impending call, grumbling under his breath. “Popular today.”
Gwen resists the progression. It’s too fast and she needs time to think, dammit, but Dad was never known for being easy to keep up with, even after death. She can no more control memory-Dad’s actions than she can touch a star with one finger. He says without preamble, “I checked around. There might be something to this.”
The face on the screen changes from a turian with green face paint to an asari with whorling tattoos. Even though their voice is feminine, it’s guaranteed to be a voice changer. The benefactor sighs. “If there is a war, the scramble for resources would be on a scale we’ve never seen before.”
Dad straightens his shoulders. His voice is an avalanche. “You once said the Initiative would be ‘salvation’ for a lot of people. So you knew this was coming.”
It’s the same tone that could send Gwen and Scott hiding under the nearest furniture. But the benefactor must be a serious badass because they aren’t remotely ruffled. “I knew something was coming. In theory. Shepard made it real. The arks must be underway before any fighting starts. We can’t get caught in the crossfire. We’re going to be all that’s left of civilisation.”
The vidcall ends with an agreement to speed up the time frame, discussing minutiae for the Hyperion’s departure that make Gwen’s brain blur. After the benefactor cuts the call without even a goodbye, Dad leans back in his seat. His attention skips across his desk without taking it in, and Gwen resists the abrupt change in focus—her brain is still trying to make the image focus on what she wants to look at.
Dad leans back in his seat, and the chair warbles a sigh in her father’s stead. “I suppose that went well enough.” His gaze rests on SAM’s router. One second drags into two, then three. “SAM?”
At once his matrix bursts to life. “Yes, Pathfinder?”
“Track down my kids. Tell them their old man needs to talk—it’s urgent. And SAM?”
A chill runs through her. Somewhere, somehow, a foreign shock echoes across the void, mirroring her own. Scott—it has to be. But then the collision of disbelief and hope leave her lost, floundering in a roaring current.
SAM’s voice sounds too loud, too close, too real. “She remains in stasis. As you hoped, it has suspended the progress of her disease.”
Mom’s alive. She can’t be alive—she died, the whole family was at her deathbed, Dad had never been the same after that day—
And yet Dad says, “When they load the pods on the Hyperion, make sure hers is there. Don’t use her real name.”
“Do you have a recommendation for her alias, Pathfinder?”
“Hmm… Elizabeth Reilly. I’ll tell the kids when the time is right.”
The scene starts to blur out of focus and Gwen wills it to end faster so she can find Mom. But instead of releasing her to her body she’s yanked, hard, into another memory. Her first awareness is of a heartbeat, hard and frantic and loud. Hers. No, her father’s.
Recognition knifes through her.
Gwen sees herself laid out and gasping, seeing the stars through a shattered visor. Dad’s hands are a brief blur in his line of sight, and the release of his suit seal sounds like a roll of thunder. The first bite of Habitat 7’s toxic air sears his nose and throat, but his hands remain steady as he fits his helmet over her head.
Through the tinted visor, she can see the whites of her own eyes. Realisation. Shock.
Her own memory breaks through the cracks. She can feel that first breath that pulled oxygen into her lungs while simultaneously her lungs are roasting and pressure builds in her head. She feels gravel bite into her hand as Dad watches her hand flex in the dirt.
Dad wheezes, “SAM, transfer Pathfinder access… encrypt memories…”
Dad runs his thumb along the edge of the helmet, near her jaw. Behind the plexi, Gwen’s own face is twisted and wild-eyed as she drags in heaving breaths. “There’s still hope for your mother…”
He keeps his eyes open for as long as he can. Long enough to see her collapse into the dirt. Long enough that his vision blurs into a haze of yellow and brown, a smear of white and blue.
The combined force of both memories is too much. Every nerve in her body is molten gold, dying, while a star goes supernova in her chest—
When the vaulted ceiling comes into focus, she doesn’t understand how she’s alive.
And screaming, apparently.
“Breathe, Gwen! Breathe!”
Her fingers claw at the dirt, but it’s too hard—no, it’s cold flooring. She focuses on that, thinks alive with every breath of sweet recycled air.
Someone pulls her close and she wraps her arms around Scott and they’re both shaking. She whimpers out a laugh. The reality that she’s died twice sits on her weight with the crushing weight of a black hole, warping the walls of the room and slowing the whirl of her thoughts to an exquisite pain.
Scott is only better by an inch: his eyes are wild and wet, shoulders heaving with every gasp for clear air.
SAM’s voice, simultaneously near yet distant. “I apologise for the distress this has caused you both. Alerting Dr Carlyle—”
“Wait!” Gwen gasps. “I’m just— just—”
Scott’s arms tighten around her. “We just… need a moment.”
The blue tendrils in SAM’s matrix waver as his processing exceeds his usual response time. “Your distress exceeds acceptable parameters. Medical attention is advised.”
Drawing in a deep breath, then another, Gwen wills herself to squash the raging grief and focus. She and Scott are sitting on the ground clinging to each other as if the floor is a raft in the storm waters of the rippling light from SAM’s projection matrix. “SAM. We’ll be okay. I promise. We just need some time to— to be broken. Please.”
By now SAM’s matrix is fluttering almost as quickly as her heart. Maybe trying to make a point.
Between the two of them, they stagger to Dad’s quarters and flop on the bed. The sheets are crisp and cool against her fevered cheeks, and have lost all remaining traces of Dad’s scent.
Gwen hiccups at the thought and curls against Scott. His arms are her only anchor. She doesn’t remember falling asleep or waking up—only that when she scrounges the willpower to crack open her swollen eyes, it’s to the sight of Dr Harry Carlyle standing over the bed.
Gwen coughs. Her throat feels thick and hoarse, like it did after Habitat 7—from tears or toxic air or both. “Um. Hi.”
He looks down at them with one eyebrow raised. “I take it your afternoon nap had something to do with your breakdown in SAM Node? A delayed response to your misadventure on the Archon’s flagship, maybe?”
She sucks in a sharp breath. “How did you— SAM, what did you do?”
“I informed Dr Carlyle of your whereabouts. He was concerned when you did not return to the infirmary in a timely manner. I felt it prudent to explain the factors involved in your current state.”
Before she can declare a hundred-year grudge, Carlyle intercepts her irritation. “Doctor’s dream come true. A back door who can tell you where your patients are hiding and what they’ve gotten into this time. Don’t look so glum. It means SAM cares about your well being.”
Beside her Scott wakes all at once, startling when he doesn’t recognise the room. At a touch from Gwen, he settles—and notices Carlyle himself. “Uh. Hi, doc.”
At least Carlyle laughs. “No doubt you two are related. You even have the same guilty expressions. Now let’s get you both checked in to the infirmary.”
“Wait!” Gwen cries. “I just came from an infirmary. We’re fine. A little tired, but fine. And I have my Pathfinder duties to attend to.”
She’s already wasted enough time. The Archon could be reinforcing Meridian right now. The longer she screws around, the more danger her crew faces. Not to mention she’s no doubt missed her meeting with her fellow Pathfinders.
“Absolutely not,” Carlyle says. “By all rights, I shouldn’t clear you for duty until you’ve been through therapy.”
“The Archon isn’t going to wait while I lie on a couch and blab about my issues,” Gwen presses.
“And you’re not going to save the Initiative if you have a breakdown in the field.”
Yes, well, about that. “If you want to get technical I, uh, already got that over with in SAM Node. So… can we go?”
“Nice try, but at a minimum I should examine you both. At least one of you will be herded back to the infirmary, I promise.”
“Not it,” Scott says a half-second before Gwen.
Being examined by Dr Carlyle is always something of an experience. She already knows most of his tricks, but it’s always disconcerting when your doctor blithely tells you your eyes are so bloodshot they might need to be replaced.
Carlyle looks far too amused. It’s how he gets revenge on his terrible patients. “Just checking you haven’t suffered any cognitive effects from your latest misadventures.”
Gwen shakes her head, incredulous.
His conclusion: “You’ve both overtaxed yourselves. It’ll be easier to keep you both penned in here than to transport you back to the infirmary, so count yourselves lucky. No buts. Scott, you need to recover from moving around before you should’ve. Gwen, I’ll give you a certificate to wave in the face of anyone who demands the Pathfinder get back to work before she ought to. Not to mention I can lock the door.” Carlyle gives them both one last warning look. “Neither of you leave that bed. I’ll know if you do.”
The door hisses shut behind him, and the controls bloom red. SAM’s handiwork. Gwen rolls to shove her face in the pillow, muffling her groan. The fabric feels scratchy against her salt-stained face. Exhaustion has smothered the last of the panic with a grey fog that’s seeped into every nook and cranny in her body. Not much of a surprise she feels wrecked, honestly.
Beside her, Scott lifts himself on one elbow. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m no longer compelled to scream bloody murder, which is a plus.” On the heels of the joke, something compels her to blurt, “I can breathe again.”
Scott’s arm tightens around her shoulder. In all honesty, getting out of bed sounds like an atrocious idea. She just wants to roll over and hide under the blankets until she doesn’t feel so small.
Gwen gently prods his ribs. “What about you?”
He lets out a long gust of air, throwing one arm over his face. “That—wasn’t what I expected to see. About Dad…”
“I’m sorry, Scott. If it hadn’t been for me, he’d still be here. If my stupid helmet hadn’t cracked…”
Scott blinks once, twice, and almost controls the quaver in his chin. But he reaches out to grip her shoulder, an anchor for them both. “Not your fault,” he says roughly. “It was just bad luck. Dad… made his choice. Now we have to live with it.”
Not for the first time, she wonders if he was able to process Dad’s death while in a coma. Or maybe watching Dad die through his eyes spring-boarded straight over denial. He squeezes her shoulder, and she remembers their honesty promise. There’s nothing to do but take him at his word.
Doesn’t help the freshly-reopened wound in her chest, though. Absolution comes far too easily when she’s the reason their father is dead.
“Ryders?” SAM’s voice, more contrite than she’s ever heard him. From his router at the terminal array, his matrix springs to life. A curious choice when he never has to be ‘physically’ present to participate in the conversation.
Gwen rolls onto her side, but ends up wedging one arm under her ribs and getting stuck. “Yes, SAM?”
“I am sorry for the distress you both suffered. I did not know the contents of the memory before you unlocked it.”
Scrubbing a hand over her face, she makes a valiant attempt at untangling the thorns from her heart. So she can say, honestly, “I know, SAM. It was just… a lot to deal with.”
SAM’s matrix ripples on Dad’s desk, throwing gentle blue light across the shelves, Dad’s coffee machine, all the knick knacks that stand in silent testimony to Alec Ryder’s life. And they’ll remain here until she can stomach the thought of cleaning the place out.
Scott sucks in a breath. His eyes go wide and he sits up so fast he sways. “Mom…”
Awareness burrows its way into her heart. There hadn’t been time before to take it all in, but now—
“Mom is in stasis? Alive?”
SAM says, “Alec blocked all knowledge of this memory. I now recall his directive to put Ellen into stasis. He hoped it would halt further progress of her disease until a cure could be found.”
Scott’s eyebrows furrow. “But it had done so much damage… she was on her death bed.”
“Stasis has halted the spread of Ellen’s disease. I have checked her vitals and they remain steady.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Scott swings his legs over the side of the bed, and not even the blood rushing from his head can hinder him. “Let’s find her pod!”
“Releasing Ellen from stasis would trigger her disease. Alec had hoped that new scientific insights in Andromeda might provide answers. As it stands, our journeys in Heleus have provided a great deal of genetic knowledge that may one day lead to a cure.”
The impact feels like a bruise under her skin, aching with the knowledge that Mom is alive but no, she’s still as good as gone. For the moment, at least. Resting a hand on Scott’s arm, Gwen says, “All right. Just— keep her safe, SAM.”
Scott adds, “We lost her once. We can’t lose her again.”
“My original purpose was to ensure the survival of Ellen Ryder. It is a mission I hope we will one day fulfill—together.”
An incredulous smile dances on her face, thanks to the spark of hope that has been newly rekindled in her chest. “SAM, this is the best news I’ve heard since Scott woke up.”
‘Mom’ and ‘alive’ are not two words that have gone together in a sentence for years, and she’s suddenly giddy at what this all entails.
“Dad had no right to keep this secret from us. That’s our mom.” Scott’s jaw clenches. “I don’t know if I want to shake his hand or punch him.”
“Alec did not want to raise hopes prematurely. This is the reason you were made Pathfinder, Gwen—to see the process through. In addition, he entrusted his knowledge of the benefactor and the Reapers to you lest they be forgotten.”
That puts a dampener on her mood. Not entirely, but enough for the sting of bitterness to sour her mouth. “So it was nepotism. Pure and simple.” She’d wondered if it had always been the plan to pass the rank on to her or Scott, or if he’d panicked in his last moments.
“Regardless, you have excelled in the role.”
Gwen sighs. “Love you too, SAM.”
Figuring that Carlyle must be safely on the tram and there’s no danger, she slides off the bed and pads over to the terminal array. The displays have all been dimmed to the lowest setting—SAM’s handiwork, no doubt—and she only raises the brightness enough to make out the scrawling blue-green writing of the file SAM has opened.
Scott’s voice follows her. “Reapers… I remember hearing about that conspiracy theory. At least, I thought it was a conspiracy theory.”
“Yeah, the part about the Reapers being the cause of the Protheans’ extinction made waves around the archaeological community. No one knew what to make of it. Then Shepard was KIA and it all died down.”
Scott comes to a halt beside her, scowling at the terminals. “I guess if Dad bought it, there had to be something to it. What can you tell us about the Reapers, SAM? Did Dad learn anything else?”
SAM scrolls through one of the open reports to images from the Battle of the Citadel.
“A Spectre operative in the Milky Way, Commander Shepard, launched an investigation in 2183 into the existence of an ancient race known as ‘Reapers’. According to Shepard’s information, the Reapers invade the Milky Way every fifty thousand years to destroy any advanced organic life. Shepard claimed the Reapers’ return was imminent.”
Every Nexus radio broadcast has to this day faithfully reported the comm buoys in the Milky Way remain unanswered.
“If this is true…” Scott blows out a breath. “So there was an ulterior motive to the Initiative all along.”
The question sits heavy on Gwen’s tongue. For the first time she’s not sure if she wants to know the answer. The scale of destruction is beyond comprehension. She’s poked around plenty of Prothean dig sites. If it had been purposeful—and premeditated—then no wonder so little survived.
They’d always known that they’d never see the Milky Way again, that by the time they woke up their homeworld would have changed beyond recognition, but—this is different.
What will the next species dig from the rubble of Earth or Palaven or Thessia?
Gwen wets her lips. Steels herself. “SAM? Has there been any contact from the Milky Way?”
“Several transmissions were detected and rerouted to your father’s console, then wiped from general communications. Their implications are… troubling.”
Gwen knows she often colours SAM’s responses with her own perceptions, reading sarcasm or brevity where none exists. But this time there’s an unmistakable disquiet in his voice.
That, more than anything, is what worries her.
She trades a look with her brother. Scott is wan, one hand gripping the back of Dad’s chair, white knuckled. and not just because his atrophied legs are shaking.
Gwen ushers him into the chair. Then they listen to the emergency transmissions.
Threat Code Saber One. After her years in the Alliance, just hearing it sends a chill down her neck. She’d never thought it would be declared for real.
Somehow, the turian distress broadcast is worse. In the Alliance, they’d always known the Hierarchy would be the greatest potential threat. To hear them shouting, panicked, sends a spear of ice through her gut. The recording captures an awful noise that resonates in her bones, jostling the gristle in a physical approximation of nails down a chalkboard. Dread in auditory form.
The Hyperion hasn’t detected any further transmissions since.
The Milky Way could be gone.
Liam’s family is back there.
“Shit.” Gwen runs her hands through her hair, tangling in knots, and several black strands come loose between her fingers. There’s a loud humming in her ears, buzzing like ten thousand insects.
“Good word for it.” Crossing his arms, Scott scowls at the terminal array. “We can’t just sit on something this big. But people will panic if this gets out.”
Gwen thinks of her crew, and Meridian, and their mission.
Tell them when the time is right, Dad had said.
Maybe there’s more of her father in her than she’d realised. Maybe keeping secrets runs in the family. “We’re about to go into a high-risk mission that could determine whether the Initiative lives or dies. Nobody can afford distractions right now.”
“Least of all you.” Scott grips her shoulder with surprising strength. “While you’re out there, don’t worry about me. Just promise me you’ll come home.”
Exertion is taking its toll on Scott; his fingers tremble against her skin. He’s so much leaner, his shoulders narrower. Between the coma and a biotic metabolism, these last few months haven’t been kind to his body. So Gwen steers them back to the bed, and cites her own frail condition when Scott shoots her a look. But his irritation is dampened. Numbed.
Scott looks up at the ceiling. “Not that we had anywhere else to go, but… no wonder Dad was so insistent. You think he’d have knocked us out and dragged us to Andromeda if we’d refused—?” his breath hitches, his composure cracking like glass under the pressure of grief.
Knowing how it can take you by surprise, Gwen reaches out to grip his shoulder. To give him something to anchor himself when the distant fog peels back from his eyes. “Maybe. Or maybe he’d have just told us about the Reapers. I’d have packed up right away if Dad bought that kind of ghost story.”
It can’t be real. But that sound in the transmission—
Reapers plus Milky Way equals—
They fall into a pensive silence, fuelled by this new, damning knowledge. Scott leans into her side and she slings an arm around his neck. No sass about looking after her baby brother. In the quiet, the chime of Gwen’s omnitool sounds like a church bell. Front and centre is a message from Cora:
SAM informed me of your house arrest and deferred several non-critical tasks to me. He was close-mouthed about the reason. Are you all right? If you need anything, let me know.
The other message is from Liam, with an earlier timestamp.
Not trying to hover, but word is you’re in medbay. Whatever it is, hope you’re better soon. I’m here if you need me to sneak you anything or bust you out.
What did she ever do to deserve this man?
“What’s with the face?”
“Nothing.” Gwen shuts down her omnitool.
She isn’t ready to give Scott the ammunition that is her new boyfriend. Although it might have come up in one of the emails she sent him. If he slogs through them all, he deserves to know.
But instead of latching onto her defensive response, Scott peers up at her. “Talk to me, sis. You lost it after seeing Dad’s—” He swallows. “I know it had to be bad for you. You already lived it once.”
“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad for you too.”
His smile is thin. “I asked first.”
She sighs. “I just… I miss him. Might sound weird considering he was barely there to begin with, but this was supposed to be our chance to start over. Ryder family vacation, destination Andromeda—we don’t do anything halfway, you know? But he chose to— to die for me.”
Scott grips her shoulder, suddenly fierce. “If he’d let you die, I’d never have forgiven him.”
Gwen chokes back an undignified noise. Swallows. “He chose to make me Pathfinder when I shouldn’t have been, and all any of us have left are pieces.”
Gwen lets her head thunk on Scott’s shoulder. “I missed you. It’s hard being the only Ryder.”
Scott wordlessly wraps an arm around her.
The twins wait out the remainder of their prison sentence with more napping than either of them care to admit. When Carlyle is satisfied that they can move without suffering a breakdown, he clears Gwen and carts Scott back to the infirmary.
Not five minutes after Gwen has been declared fit for duty, she receives a dozen messages flagged urgent. She waffles around Scott’s bed, fussing over him while he takes it with poor grace.
But she can only procrastinate for so long, so she gives Scott a weary salute. “Duty calls.”
Scott’s mouth thins, but he nods. It’s always duty pulling them away in this family. “While you’re gone I can look into this benefactor and the Rea— other stuff.”
She touches his arm. “Be careful, Scott. Someone managed to whack Jien Garson, the most important person in the Initiative.”
“Back at you, sis. Nothing I’ve heard about the kett or the Archon sounds good. And beating him to Meridian? Is going to piss him off big time. Be careful out there.” Scott grips her elbow.
“Will do. You’re a Ryder, so do the family proud and be a terrible patient for Harry. He needs to be kept on his toes.”
Scott laughs. “Will do.”
Gwen spends the tram ride reading emails and mumbling to SAM. One day she might learn how to subvocalise properly, but it is not this day. Rather than report to Tann or the Tempest or anywhere else she should be, she asks SAM where Liam is.
She finds him in the docking bay, leaning on a balcony railing, and takes off at a run.
“Liam, I need a hug!”
Even with minimal warning. He’s ready to catch her, arms circling her back, ready to be knocked a step back by the force of their impact. As she buries her head in the crook of his neck, he says,. “Got you covered.” There’s laughter in his voice, a welcome sound.
He pulls back first, but doesn’t let her go. Just draws back enough to see her face. “Heard you had another stint in med bay. You doing okay?”
“Scott’s awake and my mom’s alive,” she blurts. “In stasis!”
And she’s swept into another hug as Liam whoops. He doesn’t even know her mom, but his joy is sudden. Genuine. He pulls her tight against his chest and Liam plants a kiss on her head and who cares that this is going to make the rounds through the news feeds.
“Must’ve been a shock for you! How are you taking it?”
“‘Shock’ sums it up pretty well. I… I spent years mourning her, but she wasn’t really gone. Not permanently. Not yet, anyway. Dad is— was too stubborn for his own good. He never accepted she was going to die and pulled some strings.”
And now they’ll have to explain to Mom that Dad had died instead of her.
That tempers her joy like nothing else can.
“Stubborn, eh? Can’t imagine where you get it from.”
That pulls Gwen back to the present. She makes an indignant squawk.
Liam’s eyes crinkle as he chuckles, so she can’t remain annoyed. Then his face softens. “This is something. Good, right? There’ll be some hard times, too. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it. And I’ll be with you the whole way.”
What did she ever do to deserve this man? “Thanks, Liam. It’ll be a long road before we can even wake her up.”
“It’s family, right? Always important.” For a half-second, his expression twists.
Of course. She’s an idiot. Of course. Liam’s family is six hundred years away with no return trip. And from the way he spoke—cried at night—they meant the world to him. No wonder he’s so excited for her.
For a moment Gwen’s thoughts skip back to Dad’s quarters, and to the emergency transmissions from home. But Liam’s face is vibrant, his dark eyes warm with mirth.
She can’t crush that. Not yet, at least. Not without something solid to prove what happened in the Milky Way—one way or another.
Liam nudges her. “Something on your mind?”
She nudges him back. “Just the weight of the entire Initiative. You know, the usual.”
He makes a sympathetic noise in his throat. “Feeling better, at least?”
She smiles and takes his hand, linking their fingers together. “Yeah, I am. Next stop, Meridian.”
At last, an update! I'm not entirely satisfied with this chapter but I need to stop tweaking it and move on.
Some days Gwen can’t believe the Tempest’s captain’s quarters are all hers. Its size is practically obscene on a ship, where space is almost as valuable as air. As such, there’s plenty of room for two. Which is why Liam is in her bed.
Technically, there’s room for about four or even eight people, but she doesn’t want her crew crowding her bed. They’d do it, too, given half the chance. Drack in his pyjamas isn’t something Gwen wants to contemplate, so she turns her attention back to her bedmate.
Liam’s head rests on her chest, his ear pressed to her heart. He’s taken to that since the Archon’s flagship. When she’s quiet and still, he’ll brush his fingers over the pulse point in her neck or her wrists, shifting beside her until he can feel her soft exhales on his skin.
Gwen runs her fingers down Liam’s bare back, tracing his smooth muscles, and he twitches.
“Sorry for waking you,” she whispers.
He mumbles something into her skin, one hand finding hers to entwine their fingers. “You got any shut-eye yet?”
Staring at the ceiling, Gwen shakes her head.
Liam draws in one breath, two, then he shifts. Opens his eyes. “All right. Hit me.”
“It’s okay. You’re sleeping.”
“And you’re not.” His hands skirt along her sides, burning through her shirt. “We need you at the top of your game. My job is to make sure you’re okay, and I take it seriously.”
She feels a rush of affection for this man. “I’d crash and burn without you.”
He gives her a cheeky smile. “I know it.”
Her squawk of outrage has him laughing.
“There we go,” Liam says. “Bad mood broken. Ready to talk?”
Since she wants him to get some rest, and he won’t until he’s satisfied, there’s no reason to draw it out. “Just nervous about everything. Fate of the entire Initiative? No pressure.”
“We’ve got you, and you’ve got us.” Liam presses his lips to her collarbone, then skates along to the base of her throat. “You’re not doing this alone. That’s a promise.”
Curling her fingers around his jaw, she urges him up so she can kiss him properly. Their kiss is warm and sweet, an affirmation of the present and a promise of better things to come. They part just enough for her to look him in the eye. “Thank you, Liam.”
Okay, maybe that helps. A lot. They settle again, somehow more entangled than they already were, which deserves an award. The blue warp of FTL casts ripples of light across her quarters, a deeper hue than SAM’s orb. Since they’re in space, Gwen has the window displays on to take full advantage of the view. Someone had spent a lot of credits on the hull cameras and window-like projectors, so it seems like a waste not to take advantage of it.
Gwen watches the blue ripples and thinks.
It’s going to be odd settling down. The ‘living in their new home’ step of the plan is the part she’d never given much thought to, not even in the Milky Way before learning what a mess this cluster is in. Despite its name, the Tempest is a sanctuary in the storm. It’s a little pocket of habitability adrift in the vast, unwelcoming void. Space isn’t designed to accommodate living things when they’re so needy and fragile. But apparently all sentient species desire to sail among the stars, and some are stubborn enough to make it. The hum of a drive core is the sound of home. How can she keep her boots in the dirt when the stars still call?
But the Initiative needs more than spacecraft, with their fragile, artificial systems. No, they need the stable gravity well of a planet to invite them home. With Meridian, they’ll have that chance.
Gwen snuggles closer to Liam and he shifts to accommodate her, dropping a kiss to her bare shoulder. Under the stars, they drift together.
A week later, everything goes to hell.
Gwen twists, expecting to see the Archon himself behind her on Meridian, but no. Only Liam and Peebee stare back at her, concerned.
No, the Archon’s in her head.
“All Heleus will be exalted or, one by one, your worlds will die—starting with Eos.”
The moment her connection to SAM is severed, her self is split by pain, heart losing its rhythm.
“SAM? Tempest?” The world blurs into blue and black and green as Gwen doubles over. “What’s happening?”
And the Archon’s voice rasps in her ears like talons down the inside of her skull. “I believed you a fitting rival, but you are a false thing. A lie.”
Nonono. Not now. We were so close.
“Fall to darkness, Pathfinder. You were almost worthy.”
The ground swims ever closer as she sucks in one last breath to stave off the rock pressing down on her chest. It doesn’t help.
The void swallows her, and she’s so
The black lightens to blue shapes shot with green. Blinking doesn’t help her eyes focus on the ceiling any faster, but she does it anyway.
Liam’s face swims into view, and she realises her head is resting on his lap. “Hey.” It rides on her exhale, barely more than a whisper.
Gwen gets a front row seat to his expression shifting like sand, almost too fluid to recognise. Fear, shock, relief, something she doesn’t dare put a name to. The corners of his mouth tip up, but his eyes are too frantic for it to be a smile.
“Hey yourself.” Liam looks up, and Gwen realises she can hear something banging. “She’s awake!”
That elicits a louder bang and a squawk. “Ryder!” All of a sudden Peebee is beside her, occupying the other half of her vision. “You won, okay, there’s no need to keep trying to one-up me.”
“What happened?” Her voice is still too shaky. Going to need to work on that.
“Thought I’d lost you, that’s what.” Liam runs his fingertips along her hairline, careful not to catch any hairs in his armoured gloves.
For once, Peebee doesn’t make any sign of disgust. She still ruins the moment, though. “The Archon hijacked our comms, then you collapsed for a minute. We couldn’t raise the Tempest or anything.”
Gwen draws in a breath—and realises SAM’s still gone.
The enormity of what’s happening bears down on her; it feels like leaning too far over a yawning abyss. Not even summoning Dad’s frowny spirit can make her sit up. Only fear can, surging through her nerves like conductive fluid, channelling the dread that whispers the names of everyone who’ll die if she doesn’t move, now.
Liam puts a steadying hand on her shoulder, on the cusp between supporting her and pushing her back down. “Take it easy.”
“Okay.” Gwen puts a hand to her forehead as the world spins. “The Hyperion’s dark. SAM with it. We need to get back to the Tempest first.”
“But how?” Peebee demands. “You might be the only one who can interface with Remnant tech, but even you need SAM to do it.”
Gwen grits her teeth. “We need to get back.”
Now that her regularly scheduled fit of dying is out of the way, she only has room in her mind for Scott and SAM. For Mom, still asleep in the Hyperion.
She’ll crawl to that damn console if she has to.
But she doesn’t, because Liam hauls her to her feet. Gwen manages to lodge herself between him and the console because her knees refuse to lock and her legs refuse to co-operate. She holds out her hand over the console.
Gwen’s fingers meet the same resistance as they always do, some energy field above the keys registering her input. Only now does she realise how much of the heavy lifting SAM does. But she’s a biotic, dammit, and she knows how to move things with her mind. Remnant interfaces are mostly mental, and this one sears her neurons, scanning for her will.
Dad always hated the phrase ‘iron will’. Said iron was too soft, too malleable, for the word to denote strength. She has to be stronger than that. The weight of the interface bears down on her with the gravity of a star, squeezing her brain inside her skull until the pressure threatens to pop her eyeballs.
All that effort for just a few keys to depress. The connection fizzles out. She staggers, gasping, stars igniting and dying before her eyes.
Liam catches her weight. “Woah, woah. Easy. Let’s sit you down.”
“Help me stay upright,” she gasps, wavering in his grip. “We need to get back.”
Before he can protest, she tries again. The pattern is there, she can see it in her mind, the familiar rhythm that translates to open sesame. The keys on the console depress, one by one—
Then one of the keys refuses to budge, and Gwen doesn’t have the strength to force it.
Closing her eyes, she draws in a shaky breath to ward off the swell of panic. Interfacing with Remnant tech requires willpower. Control.
She fixes one thought in her mind like a star: open.
The keys depress again and the door begins to cycle open. She throws everything she has at it—open, you’ll open, even if it’s the last thing I ever do—and pushes past the pain.
A flare of pain behind her left eye causes her to lose focus, and the door slams shut.
Gwen’s knees give out and she gets a faceful of the console. Her head hurts front and back, from her nose and implant. Her heart thunders loud and panicked in her ears.
Liam hauls her up, her head flopping against his neck. “Ryder, don’t. It’s too painful. We can find another way out of here.”
She tries to struggle. “I need to get back!”
Halfway between Gwen and the door, Peebee says, “Ryder, if you die this time, I think you’re dead-dead.” Her voice is soft, echoing through the vaulted space.
Gweb just grunts.
Liam snaps, “That’s not happening. No way. So just… take it easy. We’ll find another way out of here.”
Gwen clutches at the console when he tries to haul her away. “He has Scott. He has SAM. He has the Hyperion. I need to get back!”
Liam scowls. His hands close over hers, squeezing until she thinks he’s about to peel her off the console, but then he sighs. “All right, but you only have so many tries left in you. Take your time, focus, and get that door open.”
She draws in one breath. Two. Every beat of her heart makes the molten pain behind her eyes pound. It centres in her implant, spinning outward like blades cutting through her brain. Nothing can steady the spinning world. She can only trust Liam to be her anchor.
He shoves her energy drink into her hands, and she wonders when he grabbed it off her belt. It tastes worse than usual, revoltingly sweet, but she obediently sips until she feels like she’s going to hurl if she drinks any more.
Last try. Gwen holds her hand over the console. She strains under a planet’s worth of pressure pushing her down, down, the connection searing her nerves as she pushes her hand through the sensory field. She doesn’t look up or open her eyes. Just thinks open with every fibre of her being—
A whoop breaks through the ringing in her ears. “You did it!”
The connection breaks. She can taste blood.
Liam adjusts his grip on her as she slumps against him. That planet sitting on her chest can go away any moment now. “Keep breathing.” His voice might be worried, but it still grounds her. “That’s it.”
Peebee darts to the door, checks the coast is clear, then doubles back to scoop up Gwen’s helmet. “Now that’s out of the way, how are we getting her back to the ship? Humans aren’t supposed to be that pale, are they?”
“I’ve got a plan.” Liam shifts to put her in a fireman carry, but she grabs at his shoulders.
“I’m going to puke if you throw me over your shoulders.”
He thinks for a second, then hooks an arm under her knees and around her shoulders to lift Gwen into his arms. Over-the-threshold isn’t a standard emergency carry, but her wobbly stomach is thankful. At her pitiful noise of protest, he says, “You got us out of here. Now let us do the rest.”
Gwen’s comm crackles and she winces. But it isn’t the Archon back to gloat. “Pathfinder team, are you there? Come on!”
She’s close enough to Liam she can feel his exhale of relief. He says, “Tempest, we read you. Tell Lexi Ryder’s hurt and doing weird stuff without SAM.”
Lexi responds so fast she must have been listening in. “What injuries does she have? And define ‘weird stuff’.”
“Collapsed, then unlocked a door on her own after she woke up.”
“Send me the physiological readouts from her hardsuit.”
Since Liam has no arms free, Gwen sends the access codes for her hardsuit’s medical systems to Peebee, who forwards her vitals to Lexi.
Her only response: “Get Ryder back to the Tempest. Now.”
The ground crew waits on the landing pad. Lexi rushes to Gwen’s side, medkit in hand, and starts scanning at once with her omni-tool. “You can’t keep doing this, Ryder.”
“I don’t do it on purpose,” Gwen protests.
Liam and Peebee usher her to the ramp to medbay, but she refuses to go further. “No. We need a plan, first.”
Liam’s mouth hovers near her ear. “Lexi’s going to patch you up, okay? You’ll be all right.”
No amount of coaxing changes her mind, so they compromise by letting her sit on the ramp with Lexi beside her, medscanner sweeping over her, while the rest of the team is gathered on the landing pad.
Ignoring Lexi’s warning look, Cora steps forward. “We’re getting reports from across the cluster. Kett ships everywhere are on the move.”
Gwen doesn’t look up. “The Archon’s gunning for Meridian. He takes it, and he’s going to shut down all the vaults if we don’t submit to exaltation. Starting with Eos.” her voice is pathetic, appalled. “The Archon’s been planning this since his flagship. He used me.” She thought she’d outmanoeuvred him, but no. He must have been laughing the whole time while she, like an idiot, thought she could win.
Dad wouldn’t have fallen for this. He wouldn’t be proud of her now, getting their entire family abducted.
Gwen’s too tired to deal with her crew’s reaction, even if she should mediate their indignation and outrage. She has to wonder if the Archon gleaned Eos’s importance from her memory flashes too, or if his intel is that good. She doesn’t know which one’s worse.
When Gwen finds her voice, it cuts through her crew’s chatter with laser precision. “Do we have anything on the Hyperion?”
Cora answers, “Its projected course is to Meridian. The real Meridian.”
“And the Nexus? Do we know what happened to it in the fighting?”
Vetra says, “All my sources say the kett focused on the Hyperion. They sent an assassination squad to Operations, but Kandros locked it down before they caused too much damage. The Nexus leadership had already been evacuated before the kett got there, anyway.”
“Why focus on the Hyperion instead of the Nexus? It’s the Initiative’s centre of power in Heleus.” Drack makes a noise of disgust. “Bah. He’s playing games, which means he’s convinced he’ll win.”
Gwen closes her eyes. “He wanted SAM and Scott. With them, he can control the Remnant.”
Cora makes a noise of disgust. “That’s how obsessed he is. I suppose we should be grateful he ignored what an easy target the Nexus is.”
“Grateful?!” Gwen welcomes outrage and its rush of false strength. Tremors wrack her hands, and she prays they’re from rage. It gives her enough to let go of Liam without wobbling as she bears down on Cora. “He has my family and I’m supposed to be grateful?”
Cora holds her hands up in a placating gesture. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. But it would be even worse if he’d destroyed the Nexus and slaughtered our leadership on top of everything else.”
Before Gwen can snap back, Lexi intervenes. She pushes Gwen back down onto the loading ramp far too easily. “I understand you’re distressed, but you need to rest.”
Running a hand over her face, Gwen tries to grab hold of her fraying nerves. The hot sting of tears burn her eyes, and she wills it away even as acid mangles her stomach.
Voices raise around her like the swell of the tides. Liam says, “We’re not letting that stand. Be ready to move.”
“Wait.” That’s Cora, providing counterbalance as always. “We need a plan.”
Peebee says, “Stop ship, kill jerk.”
Cora makes a noise of frustration. “With what?”
Vetra says, “He’s got the Hyperion. That’s how many thousand hostages?”
Drack rumbles, “How many worlds does he destroy if we don’t move?”
Gwen tunes it out. Their voices drift over her, syllables detaching from meaning like a radio losing signal to static.
Okay. Hyperion, gone. SAM, gone. Scott taken hostage, but too valuable to kill. And yet the goal remains the same as it was this morning: Meridian. The odds are bad, so Dad would say change them. They need something to compete with the Archon’s fleet.
“Kallo,” she breathes into her commlink, “I need the transponders of the ships we launched earlier.”
“Uh, yes, Pathfinder.”
Her omni-tool blinks with the transmitted data. Since even Liam’s been suckered into the argument, nobody notices her make it to her feet and shamble to the edge of the landing pad. Gwen’s no stranger to space stations, having grown up on the Citadel, but the view is breathtaking. Even with a malignant orange limb of the Scourge twisting around one side of the station, sinking its poisonous tendrils deep into the city structure, the alien metropolis is majestic. No Prothean ruin could compete, not even the derelict planet-city of Feros.
Her command for SAM to find another manufacturing console dies in her throat.
For the first time, she’s on her own.
“Ryder!” Lexi rushes to her side. “What part of ‘stay put’ don’t you understand?”
“We landed in a shipyard,” she says, low and breathy. “So let’s summon a fleet to take on the Archon.”
Vetra hums low in her throat. “Could work, if we find the right console.”
Gwen is promptly barred from any further missions until further notice, courtesy of Lexi. Liam stays by her side, of course, and Suvi sits on her other side to relay information from Cora’s team. Without SAM to guide them, they have to make do with guesswork and whatever they can reach without interfacing with any Remnant tech.
Gwen may or may not be dozing on Liam’s shoulder when her commlink squawks. “Ryder!” Peebee’s excitement is infectious, even through her comm. “We found a way into a command hub. Meet us at this navpoint.”
Gwen’s squad is spread out along the route, keeping hallways—streets?—clear of any Remnant. One by one they fall in to build a wall between Gwen and any potential threats as they close in on Peebee. Even if her nap helped, Gwen hates how much she has to rely on Liam to help her move around.
Peebee’s navpoint sits on a balcony of sorts overlooking what looks like it could be a manufacturing plant, an apartment complex, or anything else. Although she’ll still bet it’s a shipyard. The console stands in the middle of the balcony, where Peebee bounces on her heels.
Gwen uploads the transponders of the scout ships she’d launched earlier. Then she draws in a deep breath.
“Take your time,” Liam says.
She has to be strong enough.
Gwen stretches her hand, probing at the pre-programmed commands in the terminal. Mentally sifting through the impressions of each task, she finds the one she wants. Initiate vessel construction.
It feels like pushing a boulder up a mountain to force the console to obey her command. She hears something grind and she’s not sure if it’s the console or in her ears. Gwen can feel the signal sent through the factory network. Something rumbles underfoot, whispering in the walls.
Rise. Go. Follow the scout ships.
She fixes the image of the kett armada in her mind, branding it to the order with her will. Destroy them.
She holds that thought until black bubbles press against her consciousness, threatening to pull her under. The connection breaks and she slumps, gasping. A bead of hot copper is sucked into her mouth. Raising a hand to her mouth, she realises her nose is bleeding.
“Easy, Ryder,” Liam says. “Whatever you did, it was enough.”
When the station stops spinning, Gwen can see the first of the ships, fighters and frigates, lift off from the shipyard.
Peebee bounds to the railing to watch. Her awed voice floated back to them like a bell in a quiet chapel. “Look at them…” But then she makes a distressed noise. “All those ships, being sent into danger.”
Gwen hates how stupid she sounds while she’s pinching her nose, but can’t let go and get more blood everywhere. “They’re glorified meat shields… metal shields? Anyway, they should…” she sways dangerously.
“You can’t keep this up,” Cora says softly, supporting Gwen’s other side.
“And you shouldn’t,” Lexi says over the comm.
Gwen closes her eyes. “They’ll— they’ll go to Meridian. Enough should make it through the Scourge. The kett don’t have a Remnant IFF, so these’ll target them.”
“But we do?” Cora asks.
Smiling has somehow become an exhausting task, but Gwen does it anyway. “Administrator privileges.”
The moment is ruined when Liam picks her up to carry her back to the ship. Her crew falls in around her, with Cora and Drack at the vanguard, Vetra watching their six, Peebee sticking close for once to cover Liam’s side, and Jaal close enough to touch Ryder’s shoulder when she gets restless. Gwen barely convinces Liam to let her walk with her arm around him before they reach the Tempest. Moments later, Lexi corrals her into medbay. Lexi only wins because Liam, Gwen’s human crutch, takes the doctor’s side.
Gwen sighs. “Oh, medbay, how I’ve not missed you.”
“And I’ve not missed you occupying one of these beds,” Lexi says. “Armour off. I’ve waited too long to examine you properly.”
Liam helps extract her from her hardsuit, then he’s evicted, leaving Gwen to spend the entire examination trying not to fall asleep. Lexi coaxes her into eating two protein bars, then permits her to leave provided she goes straight to bed.
Before Gwen makes her not-so-hasty escape, Lexi says, “I know we have to face the Archon now, but you need to be careful. There’s only so much your body can take. Get all the rest you can before we reach Meridian.”
Gwen means to go to bed. She really does. But when she enters her cabin, something is wrong in her peripheral.
SAM’s router is dead.
She doesn’t know why she bothers, wasting her remaining energy on crossing the room to her desk, but she does. Hitting the buttons to reset the connection, her heart hammers on the inside of her ribs, a fragile and defiant beat that says I’m here, I’m alive.
Gwen has to plant her palms on the table as the world pitches hard to port. She hopes it’s the Tempest manoeuvring but suspects otherwise. A high pitched whine lances her ears.
It’s quiet but for the soft plink-plink-plink of blood dripping on the tabletop.
Dammit. The muscles in Gwen’s neck scream as she tips her head back to stem her newest nosebleed. A single, low beep from the router reclaims her attention.
Error: connection could not be established. Contact administrator.
Disappointment hits her low in the gut like a blow she could see coming but was too slow to dodge.
SAM, she thinks, knowing he can’t hear her thoughts and never could, please be okay. Do the family proud and give the Archon hell.
A laugh bubbles up in her chest, absurd and borderline hysterical. All the months she’d been uneasy contemplating the AI in her head, and here she is literally dying without it.
Speaking of dying, Gwen shambles off to bed before anyone can find her collapsed on the floor. She blinks awake when the door cycles open to reveal Liam. He’s still dripping with water, his shirt hanging oddly from his haste to throw it on.
“Still alive,” she says, and promptly kicks herself at the expression that twists his face. “Sorry.”
The door hisses shut behind him, returning her quarters to gentle darkness. “Jokes aside for a moment. Humour’s for coping and all, but your ticket has almost been punched so many times it hurts.”
She’d known how much it bugged her crew when she made light of her near-death experiences, but she hadn’t wanted them to worry. Hadn’t wanted to concern herself, either, by taking it seriously. “I’m sorry, Liam. I’ll stop with the ‘hey, I died!’ jokes.”
“Just… give me some time to process the last one before you go dying again.” Liam sits at the edge of the bed to take off his boots. “Heard from Bradley. Podromos is going to throw in however they can. Advent, too. They’re not going to let one more colony on Eos die. Plus our other outposts and the angara plan to pile on. It’ll be a party.”
“Good. Every ally helps.”
“It’s looking good. Real good.” His last boot thunks to the floor and he looks at her. “Are you okay? Because I get that this is our one shot and all, but… it’s important to me that you’re okay.”
“I’m not okay,” Gwen says, and hates how her voice cracks. “But I don’t have time to be. Like you said, one shot. Just the fate of the Initiative plus my entire family riding on this.”
Leaning over her, Liam cups her cheeks in his hands. “This isn’t your fault. But we’ll fix this. Promise.”
Damn, she wishes she could believe him. “I know.”
His smile is gentle. Knowing. “You don’t have to believe it tonight, but you’d better tomorrow.”
Gwen tries to roll over and only makes it halfway. Liam’s hands steady her, settling her on her side. Half-blocked by the pillow, she mumbles, “Can you take out my amp?”
“Can do.” He eases off the bed to find hand sanitiser, and she realises he’s been paying attention.
Gwen shivers when his fingers brush over her implant. Besides various medical personnel, the only person to touch her implant is Scott. They’d gone through surgery together, recovered together, trained together.
She squeezes her eyes shut.
Liam braces one hand on her neck, then pauses. “Uh, that’s not going to be comfortable, is it?”
“It’s okay. Grab the amp and yank.”
Despite her instruction, Liam is careful as he pulls out the amp. The moment it’s unseated from the socket, an itch in her teeth she hadn’t realised was there fades. With the pressure in her head easing from black-hole density to planetary gravity well—no, don’t think of SAM’s quip about Remnant gravity wells—some of the tension leaves her neck.
“Where’s the case?” Liam holds her amp gingerly between two fingers.
“You can leave it on the bedside table. I’ll need to disinfect it anyway.”
He takes a moment to turn the amp over in his hands, eyeing it with mistrust as he calculates how far it shouldn’t go inside a human skull. “Does it hurt?”
“Can’t feel it. Well, not physically. It’s like this low-level charge in my nerves when I first plug it in. Surgery was a bitch though.”
“I’ll bet.” Depositing her amp on the bedside table, Liam joins her on the bed. He curls against her side, one leg thrown over hers, his head resting against her shoulder. One hand settles on her ribs, near her heart. “Still the most hopeful sound in the universe,” he says. “But I’m going to report you to HR for emotional abuse.”
“I didn’t die this time.”
“No, but it was close enough to. While you were—” Liam draws in a shaky breath. “Didn’t matter that we were trapped. All I could think was that I couldn’t lose you. Not yet. Not again.”
Gwen opens her mouth—but realises she can’t offer any reassurances. She’d grown up thinking her dad was invincible, only to be proven wrong.
“Liam,” she says instead. “No matter what happens… I love you. And I have to save my family. My people. Everyone the Archon’s hurt.”
“And after,” he adds, with a ferocity that takes her by surprise, “it’ll be a proper start for us. Time to make a home here.”
Gwen can picture it, too. A prefab on Eos, since Liam has a soft spot for their first colony, for just them. Maybe a pet or two. Lunches with the family—of both the blood relation and found family varieties.
And yet she’ll give it up in a heartbeat if it means saving Scott and SAM. If it’s what she has to do to end the Archon.
Gwen runs her fingers over his back and prays they’ll have an after.
Waking up sucks.
Light filters through Gwen’s eyelids, casting them a pale pink-grey, matching the haze of pain from what’s apparently her body. Sounds begin to register, faint and echoing. They don’t sound right.
She realises she’s not on the Tempest.
Gwen’s bolts upright. Cringes at the stabbing in her side.
“Do not be alarmed, Pathfinder.”
Gwen sucks in a breath. “SAM!”
In the next bed over, Scott twitches but doesn’t wake.
Right. She should keep it down, especially when she’s seemingly talking to herself.
“I am here, Pathfinder. You are on the Hyperion, which is currently situated inside Meridian.”
Gwen flops back on the bed, heart hammering in her ribs. The medbay’s lights are dimmed to mimic a night cycle. “I’ve never been happier to hear voices in my head.” She hopes no one’s listening in or HNS will have some juicy gossip to spread.
“Voice. Just mine. If you hear any other voices, you should consult Dr Carlyle or Dr T’Perro.”
“Ha. Smartass.” Curling on her side, Gwen tries to find a position that doesn’t hurt so much. Emphasis on tries. Lexi wasn’t wrong when she said the magical stimulant would feel like hell once it wore off. “Are you okay?”
“I have suffered no permanent damage as a result of the Archon’s interference.”
“Good.” She glances to her left, where her twin lies. “And Scott?”
“He is recovering from his ordeal.”
Satisfied, she slumps back onto the mattress. “Sleeping in, you mean.”
“On the contrary, he woke first.”
That pulls a laugh from her, like boots from quicksand. It’s a freeing feeling. “That never happens.”
Gwen glances around the medbay, which is full of patients from the battle but otherwise quiet. Carlyle is hurrying to her bed, no doubt alerted by SAM.
“Good evening, Pathfinder.” Carlyle frowns at his omni-tool as he interfaces with the monitoring equipment. “Or maybe that should be ‘good morning’.”
“I’ll settle for being awake at all.”
Carlyle chuckles. “None of that. I won’t have your dad rising from the dead to yell at us for not taking proper care of you.”
Gwen makes a noise in her throat, and Carlyle, bless him, knows what she means.
He shuts down his omni-tool. “Well, nothing looks dire, provided you sleep it off.” He leaves her with a warning. “Do avoid any pillow fights with Scott, okay?”
“He’s sleeping, doc. What do you take me for? Someone who’d whack my brother with a pillow while he’s defenceless?”
Carlyle arches an eyebrow.
Gwen raises her hands. “Sheesh. Scout’s honour.”
As much as she hates to admit it, just thinking about throwing a pillow at Scott’s bed makes her feel tired. If she sleeps now, she won’t need to later, when everyone’s awake. Theoretically.
She’s just gotten comfortable when she hears, “Gwen.”
She cracks an eye open, realises eye contact is impossible, and closes it. “Yes, SAM?”
“I must apologise for the events of Meridian—”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. None of us realised what the Archon was up to.”
“I took on the regulation of too many of your vital functions. Had I not, you would not have been at risk of death.”
At that, Gwen pauses. “What matters is we’re all alive and the Archon’s not.”
“I must disagree. My primary function is to assist the Pathfinder. You almost died as a direct result of my actions. As such, I must interrogate my processes that led to this situation.”
“SAM, please don’t beat yourself up over this.”
“Your life is my responsibility. Alec entrusted it to me.”
Gwen’s eyes slide open. Something swells in her chest, as dense as a rock and elastic as a balloon. “Don’t worry. Scott and I were never able to live up to his expectations, either.”
“You are mistaken. He was proud of you both.”
And that balloon-rock hybrid lodges itself in her throat. Goodie.
Luckily, either SAM isn’t expecting a response or it senses she can’t respond. “I must reduce my interference with your body’s processes.”
Gwen realises that means no more combat enhancement, probably. “We’ll work it out, SAM. For now, I’m glad to have you back.”
“Thank you, Gwen. I am glad to join you again.”
Rolling over, she tries to get comfortable. Between her various injuries and the starchy bedsheets, it’s harder than it sounds. Despite her prickling eyeballs, they won’t shut.
Gwen glances around. All clear. As long as SAM doesn’t rat her out, she’ll be fine. Easing her legs over the edge of the bed, she grips the IV stand for support and scoots it over to Scott’s bed. Then she clambers in beside him, nudging him to make room. Scott stirs but doesn’t wake.
This close, she can feel how thin he is. Fresh lines have been scored around his eyes that not even sleep can erase, the only physical marks of the Archon’s torture. That’s something he’s going to need time to bounce back from. SAM, too.
When Gwen next opens her eyes, the lights have changed to daytime brightness. Scott is still out, drooling onto the pillow. She dearly wishes she had her omni-tool so she can take pictures. She also wishes she brought her own pillow.
The medbay feels fuller by day, packed with survivors from the battle. She’s never seen it so full. On top of the injured, new personnel have been released to care for the injured—or replace the dead. The upshot is that wtih so many full beds, there are fewer doctors to chase after her and Scott.
All of a sudden, Gwen’s smacked in the face.
Scott flails again, twisting up in the blankets. She grabs his arm and gives him a gentle shake. “Scott. Wake up. It’s just a drea—”
He lurches up, eyes snapping open. He trembles, from either lingering exhaustion or fear.
She squeezes his wrist. “Hey, hey. You’re safe, okay?”
Scott’s eyes dart to her. His gaze is as familiar as her own in the mirror, but there’s a blankness to it that chills her. Then he blinks, and he can recognise her. “Gwen?”
“Glad you remember my name,” she says breezily.
“Gooey,” he mutters.
“Scooter,” she retorts. Of all the dumb nicknames they devised for each other over the years, these are the least offensive.
Scott snorts. He tries to stretch and cringes, falling back onto his elbows.
“Ugh. Feels like someone plugged a power cable into my headjack.”
Gwen knows exactly what he means. The skin around her implant still feels raw. And she hates Scott knows the feeling too. “Scott, I’m sorry for what the Archon did to you.”
“Not your fault,” he says without missing a beat. “Hell, I knew what was going to happen when SAM and I sent that pulse to reset your implant.”
Gwen frowns at that. Precisely nothing of the fighting on the Hyperion has made its way to her ears, probably because she’s been out of it for who knows how long. No point debriefing an unconscious Pathfinder. “What do you mean?”
Scott shifts onto his back, which wedges her between his arm and the bed railing. “One moment I hear the alarms like everyone else, the next SAM’s in my head telling me you’re dying half a cluster away… but I can save you if I’m fast enough.”
She sits up on one elbow, looking down at her brother. Ironically, he’s never looked more like their father than he does at this moment. That grim determination is all Dad’s. Saying so would probably offend him. “That was you?”
Eyes half-closed, he smirks at her. “You’re welcome.” Then any good humour dies as his gaze slides to the ceiling. “The kett knew exactly where to find me once we send the transmission.”
He’d put himself in the crosshairs for her—
“Don’t give me that look, Gooey. You’d have done the same damn thing if our roles were reversed.” He presses a fist to her shoulder, slow enough to get around Carlyle’s ‘no tussling’ rule. “You’re not dying on some backwater planet out there.”
Gwen returns the gesture, bumping his shoulder with her fist.
“Besides,” Scott adds, “the Archon would’ve found me eventually. This way there was someone who could swoop to the rescue.”
“You’re welcome,” Gwen says, but feels too distant to inject the proper amount of smugness into it.
The Nexus was supposed to be safe, dammit.
Now that it’s all over, she can contemplate all the ways things could have gone wrong but didn’t. That sounds like a good use of energy. Scott pokes her a few times, but then he falls asleep again, and she’s alone with her thoughts.
Lexi is frustrated with Gwen’s bed-hopping, but Carlyle takes it as a win that they didn’t make an escape attempt in the night. Still, they usher Gwen back to her own bed. And just in time, too, when Liam arrives as soon as visitor hours open. She’d have never lived down being caught showing affection to her brother.
“He’s back again,” Scott chuckles.
Gwen casts a slanted look in her brother’s direction but has no time to question him before Liam stops by her bedside.
“Glad to see you awake, Ryder,” Liam says, but it’s his relieved grin and soft eyes that really speaks to her.
She grins back. “Yeah, well, I’m not the one who makes a habit of oversleeping.”
“Better to oversleep than get up before you have to,” Scott retorts.
Liam glances between them. “Back to normal already, I take it?”
“Whatever qualifies as normal theses days,” Scott says. “My sister getting hospital visits is new.”
Okay. After Gwen and Liam’s ‘I can’t believe we’re alive’ banter—which Scott was more than close enough to hear, considering he’d been leaning on her—discretion just went out the window. “Scott, this is Liam. Liam, Scott.”
“Nice to see you up and about as well,” Liam says.
“It was my record best sleep in,” Scott replies. “You and my sister are an item, right?”
“Scott!” Gwen hisses.
Liam just grins, looking all too proud. “You bet.”
“Good. Because if you two were still in the awkward denial phase, I’d lock you both in a closet until SAM confirmed you’d sorted it out.” With a sudden smile, he adds, “You might want to know Gwen’s ticklish.”
Liam laughs. “Filing that one away for later. Thanks.”
Gwen isn’t quite sure who to direct her glare at, so she blanket douses everyone and everything with the heat of her ire. “You know, I’d almost prefer macho posturing. ‘I’ll kill you if you hurt my beloved older sister’ and all that.”
Scott snorts. “I’m saving that for when I look a little more intimidating than a pretzel. Also, twins. You’re not older.”
“By two minutes!”
“That’s how time works, dumbass!”
The normalcy does more for Gwen than any assurances the Archon’s really dead and they’re all safe now.
When Gwen and Scott can walk without bringing down the wrath of a doctor, they visit the cryo bay. Third-wave colonists are already being thawed, to the marvel of Meridian and the cleanup of a battle they know nothing of. The kett aren’t a real threat to them, not after Heleus’s victory here. The new colonists are vibrant and hopeful, easy to spot compared to the survivors of the Initiative’s hard pioneering days.
Gwen and Scott meander to their mother’s cryo pod.
“Watching the Hyperion almost plough off a cliff was…” Gwen rests a hand on Mom’s cryo pod. “Can’t say it was just Mom I was worried for, but she definitely crossed my mind.”
“Yeah…” Scott stands by her shoulder, sandwiching her between his heat and the cold of Mom’s cryo pod. “You know, I’ve been wondering…” He bows his head. Swallows. “It kills me to say it, but should we ever thaw her out? This isn’t what she wanted.”
Gwen can’t breathe from the dread that sweeps the floor from under her. It takes her several moments to find her voice. “It’s all academic right now. Even if we find enough research to pave the way to something that’ll manage her condition, AEND isn’t a priority.”
Scott sighs. “We wake her up, and what then? Dad’s dead, we jumped to another galaxy to possibly avoid dying in our old one, and the kett want to exalt us all. You think she’ll be pleased to learn that Dad couldn’t ever let her go? No matter how many times she told him to? I— I want my mom back, but this isn’t what she wanted.”
Knowing he’s right doesn’t make the stone of grief and disappointment hurt any less when it lodges in Gwen’s gut.
They part ways after that, needing time alone with their thoughts. Gwen gets where Scott’s coming from, but the idea of cutting life support threatens to crush her. She retreats to Dad’s quarters—the only place she can go, unfortunately—and curls on the bed. It’s hard to ignore her family’s history haunting the room.
Gwen rolls onto her side and plays pre-installed omni-tool games until her eyes glaze over, but the hard wad of grief remains lodged her chest. At least she’s not cleared for duty yet, so she can take a night of tossing and turning.
Lucidity returns, for better or worse, when SAM slowly turns up the lights in a passive-aggressive manoeuvre to get her up at a respectable hour. Rolling onto her back, Gwen stares at the ceiling. “SAM, is there any way to take a… backup of you? If you aren’t constrained by mortality as organics know it, why not take advantage of it?”
“It would be possible. However, it would require resources we cannot spare, and this backup would not have any of my experiences beyond the point the backup was made. This backup may develop in a way divergent from my own evolution. It would not be me—if I am the sum total of my experiences—as you currently know me.”
“Right. Keep that one on the backburner, if you’re comfortable with the idea.”
SAM pauses, which is unlike him. “My experiences with death have always been filtered through the perspective of organics. I observe, but I am not threatened. The Hyperion’s hijacking and subsequent crash is the first time I have been in danger.”
“If you need to talk, I’m here.”
“Thank you, Gwen. For now, I will organise my thoughts while you heal from your recent trauma.”
SAM might not judge her experiences, but he’s the only one. Everyone has an opinion on what her recovery—and Scott’s—entails. The doctors continuously call her back to conduct scan after scan, documenting the effects of playing with Remnant tech.
And then even SAM remarks on their private channel, “You interfaced with Remnant devices without me.”
“Didn’t have a choice, SAM. I kept it to a minimum.”
A beat. Then: “You summoned a fleet. Doing so nearly killed you and may have permanently marked your physiology.”
Oh, so SAM only refrains from judgement when he experiences things with her. “Yeah, well, emergency.”
“It was necessary, but it may not have been wise.”
Her mind skips to a day many months—has it only been months?—ago in Eos’ vault when they’d disturbed the ruins with hope and desperation. SAM said the same thing of Dad on Habitat 7.
“And we won, so what’s the big deal?”
“The implications are great, particularly when compared to the Archon’s attempt at interfacing with Remnant technology. Doing so obliterated his consciousness. The long-term effects of an unmediated connection are still unknown.”
Gwen hates it when he answers her rhetorical questions.
Gwen and Scott wait at the Tempest’s meeting room, both with their arms folded. The window projectors are switched off for the illusion of added privacy.
Scott shifts on his feet. “Ready?”
“This was your idea,” she mutters back.
She had, and she feels guilty about it. In fact, the only thing that makes her feel more guilty is the thought of calling it off.
When the first of her crew start to trickle in, her gut clenches.
“Scott, good to see you up and about.” Liam claps his shoulder as he passes. He takes a spot on Gwen’s other side, leaning on the conference table to check out the displays. Nothing on them betrays the topic of the upcoming talk, and for good reason.
When her entire crew circle the table, watching her and Scott with varying degrees of hidden—or not-so-hidden—curiosity, Gwen draws in a breath.
Funny how her crew usually have to be shut up before she can start a team meeting, but maybe the dourness peeling off her and Scott is enough of a warning. It can’t be because her crew have finally learned to behave.
Gwen looks from face to face. Even Lexi managed to secure an hour off duty in the Hyperion’s medbay to be here. They’ve all been through hell together and made it out intact. She doesn’t want to be a downer so soon after resolving the last disaster, but she owes them this. “What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room. I mean it.”
“What was that? Tell anyone that passes by? Got it.” Gil smirks.
She knows he’s joking. She does. But she still pulls a page from Dad’s book and stares at him until the silence itself squirms.
Gil might have an excellent poker face, but only when he’s playing poker. “Right. Not that kind of mood. Got it.”
Drack snorts. “What crawled up your ass and died, Ryder?”
“Really, Drack? I’m serious for once and you think something’s wrong with me?”
“You tell me.” He turns his head to fix one yellow eye on her. The pupil is dilated. Maybe he’s seen enough in his thousand years to sense danger now.
Well. Off to a good start here.
Gwen takes a breath. “First of all, you know I investigated Jien Garson’s death a while back?” At the round of nods, she says, “She was murdered. I still don’t know who did it.”
“Dammit.” Liam shakes his head. “How come we couldn’t protect the single most important person in the Initiative?”
Gwen answers with, “Because something is going on behind the scenes and we don’t know what.”
Liam’s expression hardens. “Good move telling us. In these kinds of conspiracies, if you keep this to yourself, you end up on the hit list. Spreading the truth is the only way to be safe.”
Vetra makes a noise of irritation. “You watch too many vids, Kosta.”
Before that can spark an argument, Gwen moves the conversation along. “While we’re on the topic of bad spy vid plots, there was a mystery backer called ‘the benefactor’. They’re the one who recruited my dad and Garson believed they were the reason assassins went after her.”
“Why?” Cora asks. “Who stood to gain from her death?”
“Tann,” Drack rumbles.
Peebee blows a raspberry. “Wasn’t he eighth in line? No way he orchestrated seven deaths to get his job.”
“I wouldn’t rule anyone out just yet,” Drack says.
SAM chimes in with, “As these events occurred before the Hyperion found a berth at the Nexus, it is impossible anyone on the ark was involved. There could, however, be agents aligned with the murderer among the Hyperion’s population.”
Gwen says, “Right now we don’t have answers. Keep your eyes open, everyone.”
“Is that everything?”
Gwen trades a look with Scott.
“That’s a no,” Lexi says.
The corner of one of Scott’s eyebrows kicks up on a ‘go on’ gesture.
Gwen looks around the table, wishing she could be anywhere but here. “There was an ulterior motive to the Initiative.”
Drack’s eyes narrow. “Define ulterior.”
SAM winks into existence on the conference table “Ulterior: something beyond what is seen or known; intentionally conceal—”
“Not what I meant, blue ball.”
Gil chokes on a laugh. “You know that—”
“Not now,” Cora cuts in before her attention slides to Gwen. “Well, what is it?”
Gwen draws in a breath and directs her words at SAM. It means she can pretend she’s looking at her crew. “Anyone heard of Reapers?”
Vetra snorts. “That conspiracy theory? Made the rounds a few years back, shook up a few economies and smuggling rings netted more work out of the uncertainty.”
“But if you’re bringing it up…” Suvi’s hands are tight around her mug. “What does that mean?”
Jaal, who’s remained quiet so far though the airing of the Initiative’s dirty laundry, looks from face to face. “What are these Reapers you speak of?”
Cora says, “A conspiracy theory that a race of ancient AI was going to kill everything in the Milky Way.”
“But it was just a conspiracy, yes?” Kallo asks.
Gwen can’t summon the words, each one a soldier too scarred and weary to march on demand. When her denial isn’t forthcoming, a pall falls around the table.
Cora retreats into her commando training, standing at parade rest with a face made of stone. Lexi’s gaze is horrified, while Peebee shifts on her feet and glances around as if the Reapers might drop out of FTL right now. Drack is grim golem looking extinction in the eye as krogan have for the past thousand years. Suvi clutches Kallo’s shoulder either to give comfort or stay upright or both, while he blinks several times, no doubt processing the situation much faster than anyone else.
Gil’s casual lean on the conference table has turned into a white-knuckled grip on the hub. Vetra scowls at the displays, mandibles tight against her jaw while she wrings her talons. Jaal is somber from the unspoken despair clouding the room, while Liam—Liam, he’s almost eerily restrained, with his arms folded across his chest and an unreadable expression.
Gil swears. “You can’t be serious. That one’s beyond even my level of absurdity.”
Opening her omni-tool, Gwen burrows through several layers of encryption to reach the recordings she’d saved. “The Hyperion detected a few transmissions from the Milky Way. They were forwarded to my dad and deleted from the comm buoy.” A few clicks and she’s synced her omni-tool to the meeting room speakers.
First the Alliance’s, then the Hierarchy’s.
Liam leans on the conference table with his head bowed. “Anything after that?”
Gwen wishes she had any answer but the one she gives him. “Nothing. I’m sorry.”
Cora’s face is stone. “The Initiative was founded so we wouldn’t go extinct?”
“Seems like,” Scott says. He folds his arms across his chest; only Gwen can see his hands balled into fists. “Makes sense when you think about it. Why else pour all these resources into reaching Andromeda when less than one percent of the Milky Way is charted?”
“Our dad also did some digging on the Reapers,” Gwen says. With another wave of her hand, the holoprojector blooms into life with figures and reports. “I haven’t had a chance to go into all the files, but something hit the Milky Way, and the profile fits.”
“Can I be dismissed?” Liam asks. For once he isn’t vibrating with emotion; his face is eerily blank. Only the fine tremble in his hands betrays him.
Gwen nods. “Go on.”
He takes off down the nearest ramp without a backwards look. It takes every ounce of discipline instilled in her to not follow.
No, she has a duty to all of them. If Liam wanted her company, he’d stay.
“So how do we move forward?” Suvi asks, stricken. Liam isn’t the only one who left family behind in another galaxy. “With… with all this?”
Gil folds his arms across his chest. “We have to tell people, of course.”
“Not so fast,” Cora says. Her poise hasn’t broken, as smooth as a rock formation that has been blasted by centuries of wind. “If word gets out, there’ll be widespread panic—”
“So you get to decide if the rest of us have the right to the truth?” Drack retorts, fixing one eye on her.
“Yeah,” Peebee says. “You can’t just lock this away for no one to find!”
Time for Gwen to step in. A part of her wants to slip away, follow Liam, but her duty is here. Frustratingly. “Settle down, everyone.We don’t know what happened in the Milky Way. For all we know, they won and they haven’t sent any victory broadcasts our way.”
Drack snorts. “Optimistic, kid.”
Jaal says, “Perhaps a better question might be whether these Reapers would pursue you to this cluster.”
They might have just doomed the angara to death-by-Reaper instead of death-by-exaltation.
“Unknown,” SAM says. “To date, there has been no indication of pursuit from the Milky Way, although we must remain cautious. All reports suggest the Reapers’ technological prowess rivals if not outstrips that of the Remnant.”
“Well,” Peebee says, “Ryder could always conjure up another navy if need be.”
“Not unless it’s our only option,” Lexi cuts in. “That level of interaction with Remnant technology will take its toll.”
Jaal’s gaze skips across the display, searching for anything that might give him answers. “I need to report this to Evfra.”
“Will he keep this quiet?” Gwen asks.
“No. He will prepare for another war, as he must.”
Dammit. Well, Gwen’s about to find out how much Jaal really trusts her. “For the moment, I have to ask you hold off telling him. We need solid information first and I’m still investigating.”
He snaps, “My people might be at threat, Ryder—because of your people.”
While it isn’t a good look among a human chain of command, Gwen lets her emotion bleed into her voice for Jaal. “I know! But the only people who knew for sure about the Initiative’s true purpose are dead. I’ll have monitoring posts pointed at the Milky Way, and if they detect anything we’ll tell the angara immediately. But for now, I’m asking for enough time to find all the pieces to this puzzle.”
Jaal stares her down, his eyes an unblinking electric blue. Then he sighs. “It seems our people will continue to face death together. You fought the kett with us, so we will fight the Reapers with you, if need be.”
Gwen looks around the table. “I know this is tough news to hear and we only have questions. What I said at the beginning still stands: don’t breathe a word of this outside this room. I’ll leave you all to your thoughts. Dismissed.”
If the mood weren’t so dire, Gwen would enjoy the fact that this is the first time her crew waited to be dismissed. Since it is dire, she only has a moment of grim amusement that an apocalypse back home is what it takes for them to behave.
When only Scott and SAM remain, she shoves her hands in her pockets and blows out a noisy breath. “That went well.”
Scott bumps his shoulder against hers. “Given the circumstances, that was downright tame.”
She thinks of Liam, back turned, walking away, and wants to run after him.
SAM says, “It adds a new perspective to the Initiative. All living things seek to thrive, but there is greater significance when they are at threat of extinction.”
Gwen sees the Hyperion ploughing towards the cliff again. If they’d died—and SAM would have been rendered nonfunctional with them—then only the humans scattered across their outposts would be all that’s left of humanity.
Granted, ten thousand doesn’t sound like enough, either. There are—were—billions of humans on Earth alone, let alone the rest of the galaxy.
It means they have to find the quarian ark, despite the warning to stay away.
Someone must have tampered with climate control because it suddenly gets chilly. Rubbing her arms, Gwen asks, “You think they fought off the Reapers back home?”
SAM replies, “Unknown.”
Scott’s answer is slightly less depressing. “N7s are tough. And that commander was also a Spectre. Probably the best kind of person you’d want leading the charge.”
“Good point.” They huddle around that thought like a campfire in a blizzard. At least SAM doesn’t interfere to remind them how reality works.
Not quite, anyway. “I have observed that organics often ignore the chances of success of a given venture. Yet instead of hindering their efforts, it often acts as a bolstering force.”
Scott chuckles once. “We rely on luck. And hope.”
“I believe I understand now.”
Scott leans on the table beside her. “I keep thinking of the Citadel. The photos from the geth attack were bad enough. Remember when we’d sneak off the Lower Wards?”
“And that time when Mom and Dad freaked out because they couldn’t find us?”
He laughs, a freeing if wistful sound. “Or the time we vandalised that relay statue on the Presidium and Dad had to pull strings with C-Sec to bail us out?”
She snickers and gives him a shove. “That one was all you, Scott.”
“And you were my co-conspirator,” he shoots back. “Equally guilty in the eyes of the law.”
They fall quiet.
Scott sighs. “I can’t stop wondering if it’s all gone. Changed? I was prepared for that. But gone…” His eyes are dark. “The kett may have been dumb enough not to blow the Nexus out of orbit, but if you wanted to steamroll civilisation, you’d go for the centre of government.”
“Whoever controls the Citadel owns the relay network,” Gwen adds. “It’s not the kind of target anyone with a lick of strategy would ignore.”
“Exactly.” Scott stares at the table.
Looking wan, Scott shuffles off to bed. Gwen suspects he goes quietly because he’s going to sleep in the Pathfinder cabin. Which leaves her alone at the conference table, awkward and exhausted. Mostly exhausted.
Gwen’s going to have to check in on everyone after they’ve had some time to process it. Except for one she plans to visit right now. Preoccupied with what to say, she doesn’t register her trip to the storage room until she’s blocked by the door.
It’s locked. It’s never been locked before, not once.
Gwen shifts on her feet, considering options. Knocking would be awkward. Creeping away and pretending she never bothered to check in would be worse.
Bracing herself, Gwen touches her fingers to the red panel. Being a storage room, the door isn’t equipped with a door chime, but the mournful tone it makes to deny her entry should alert Liam.
One minute passes. Two.
Gwen’s on the verge of turning tail when the panel turns green, and the door hisses open. Liam stands on the other side shirtless, sweaty, water bottle in hand. Something in his face shifts when he registers her. “I know what you’re here for, Ryder.”
She wonders how many pushups he’s done.
“Can I come in?”
He stands aside, and the door snaps shut behind her. Closed off in the storage room, she feels a sudden electric tension, like standing too close to Scott when he’s mad and flaring, the hairs on her arms prickle. The room smells of sweat, tears, and broken dreams.
Liam takes a swig from his water bottle, then pegs it at the sofa. “I knew they were gone. I knew it. I knew that when I woke up, they’d be gone—”
“But not like this,” she finishes softly.
His mouth turns down. “How long have you known?”
“Just before we left for Meridian the first time.”
Liam turns away, and she doesn’t know what that means. “Everything’s been off the walls since then… okay, can’t blame you.”
Gwen can’t help her sigh of relief. “I couldn’t tell you, but I couldn’t not tell you, either.”
Ugh. That sounded better in her head.
Liam makes a low noise that could be agreement or disagreement. “Hell of a thing. Made the right call back there to not sit on this. Longer you wait, harder it gets to say. And we have the right to know what we’re all out here for.”
“Liam.” She intercepts him at his next pass of the room, and he unconsciously angles himself to face her. “I’m going to do everything I can to find answers about the Milky Way.”
His eyes soften, if only a little. “Appreciate it. Not that I’ll know what happened to my family or HUSTL, but…”
“I understand.” Gwen kisses his cheek.
Tugging Liam with her on the couch, she puts her back on the armrest and pulls him against her. Liam curls into her, resting his head in the crook of her neck, and she wraps her arms around him.
Gwen hopes it helps.
At last, he says, “So. Andromeda. We survived. We’re here to stay. We just dramatically upped our chances of staying alive.”
Gwen kisses him, gently, and he caresses her cheek. “We’re carrying the hope of two galaxies. We just kicked the Archon’s ass. We’ve got this.”
For now, it has to be enough.
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