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we got mouths to feed

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James double-checked that the dust shields on his prosthetics were tightly closed as he started flipping buttons to start up some heavily armored vehicle. He could almost hear the rugged electronic components complaining as they whirred shut, cooling fans shutting off; the base’s electricity was on the fritz again and both the people and the technology had been straining under the heat for the past two days. But outside, dust was worse. James thought fondly back to the days of temperate weather and familiar people and buildings.

But this was Pandora, where everything came with a steep price and existence was always a patch job of some sort. Atlas at least hadn’t yet fallen to the level of the locals. If the Crimson Lance ever found themselves in dire enough straits to need duct tape to hold their guns together, it was James who had failed them.

Exiting the base proper, he nodded to a few soldiers standing guard. One—a young man James recognized, though he couldn’t have told you his name—had his submachine gun in one arm and his toddler in another. Anywhere but Pandora, this would have been unacceptable conduct, but here, James could sympathize. He didn’t like it, but he could sympathize.

Most employees stationed on Pandora, whether they were soldiers in the Crimson Lance or researchers, had made the smart decision and left their families behind on better, safer worlds. But the few who loved—or hated—their spouses and children enough to drag them out here? In their shoes, James wouldn’t have left his child out of his sight, either. Not even with the fortified walls of Atlas’ civilian settlement, concrete two feet thick and strung with electrified wire.

James had given the order himself to take in the refugees streaming from the abandoned Dahl mines, and he didn’t regret the decision for a moment, but it brought with it its issues. Like any settlement that had suddenly grown, it was now harder to defend than the Lance had thought to plan for, but the new population also brought with it a reminder of a uniquely Pandoran problem: people who stayed here long enough… changed.

Whether it was toxins in unfiltered water, the scattered alien ruins, or a simple, human response to the traumas of surviving—he couldn’t call it living, not in good faith—in such a lawless place even by the typical standards of the Borderlands, the refugees who made it to their gates were… odd. Erratic. Superstitious. Prone to violence.

Atlas had accumulated its fair share of criticisms over the decades, and James could acknowledge that. But one thing Pandora did very well was highlight what it did provide: Order. Security. A light in the darkness of a gods-forsaken planet.

The people in the village gave him a wide berth as he passed, scattering around the vehicle as he drove very carefully through a main road that was only technically wide enough for a car. Space was tight, despite the desert that stretched out in all directions, when you were trying to minimize the perimeter that needed to be defended. The growing population necessitated the adoption of rickety scaffolding, a second storey of hastily-constructed concrete and rebar built atop the ceilings of the little shacks already present and making impromptu tunnels of entire sections of the narrow road.

Some food stalls had popped up along the roadside, selling gods only knew what, and graffitied ad-hoc signage peppered the labyrinthine walls. One new bit of graffiti pointed an arrow towards a garage clinic, “DOCTOR (MEDICAL)” scrawled half-legibly beside it. That was fantastic news; the Dahl refugees were all still trying to regain their footing, and adjust to finding themselves under the guardianship of a rival corporation, but they were adjusting. And James now had proof to bring his superiors that despite the high cost of accepting refugees, it had directly benefited Atlas’ employees. Previously, the only medical care in the village had been a vending machine filled with syringes of epinephrine, adrenaline, and narcotics.

This in mind, and with the hope that James’ contact truly had what he thought he did… Atlas would surely be willing to transport a few of Dahl’s civilian employees off-planet when the supply ships returned. James didn’t think people had to earn their worth, but even the number-crunchers had to admit this was good for the company, especially once they got the PR department on it.

It would just depend on if James was right.

For every Dahl refugee James’ people had come across while turning over the abandoned mines and outposts following the company’s sudden retreat, dozens more had scattered into the desert, forming into loose groups and fighting over weapons and access to the medvacs Dahl left behind when they abandoned the planet, organic digistructor terminals that served as the only real guarantee of survival against the harsh conditions and nightmarish creatures that roamed the planet. The Hyperion company had recently begun to recognize the economic potential in extorting vulnerable borderlands populations, and setting up shiny reverse-engineered medvacs they branded ‘New-U stations’ which would only respawn someone if they had enough money in their bank account.

This hadn’t inspired any net positive cultural changes.

There are more bandits every day, Commandant Steele had said in one of her last calls. Or bandits in the making. The only law out there is that the strongest take what they want.

James couldn’t really disagree. Not all of the villages cropping up supported themselves by raiding anyone who came close, but usually you only found out about those ones after they’d been slaughtered by villages who did. It didn’t paint a hopeful picture of the future.

Steele’s distaste for them hadn’t stopped her from authorizing ‘reasonable’ payments to some of the more reasonable groups for tasks ‘too dangerous’ to risk Atlas personnel on. It left a bad taste in James’ mouth, and he wasn’t sure if that was because paying them seemed like implicitly supporting their tactics (he’d watched a local chief skin her second in command alive once, while her bandits cheered her on from the sidelines), or if it was the explicit statement that these people were expendable.

Then there was Beacon.

The Beacon of the Vault was a settlement well west of any of the corporate outposts on Pandora, built into a cliff studded with more of the strange alien architecture that covered Pandora, so that James had no idea how big it really was. He had no idea how long it had been there. Would probably still have no idea it existed if its leader hadn’t left ECHOes near some of the Dahl camps inviting anyone looking for sanctuary to come.

Beacon, the ECHOes explained, kept to itself. Promised a relatively safe life and a better way of being. And protected that promised life with very big guns.

The man who ran Beacon was called Ozpin. He wore a suit too well-maintained and dyed too deeply green to ever fit in with Pandoran fashion and he exuded an air of quiet certainty. Of calm in the middle of Pandora’s chaos. Those who lived within Beacon’s high, glowing walls talked about him as if he was their personal savior. He told James his people weren’t bandits.

James remained unconvinced. True, he found that the bandit issue was more complicated than what Steele’s memorandums suggested, but Ozpin’s followers went out to raid supply caravans and attacked rival tribes, and James privately suspected they were behind the disappearance of at least a few Atlas scouts. They weren’t entirely unprincipled, James would give them that, but all that meant on Pandora was that he had never seen one of Beacon’s so-called Grim Huntsmen immolate another completely unprovoked. Hardly high praise, especially as James suspected it was only the case because Beacon’s leader refused to allow the adoption of the New-U technology among his followers.

Ozpin took issue, he said, with what that kind of functional immortality could do to a person’s moral compass. James couldn’t get that piercing stare out of his head; the strange idea that Ozpin was peering at his soul and itemizing it, making him acutely aware of his own account in the New-U System.

And James clearly had been found lacking. “It is society’s obligation,” Ozpin had told him then, with a certain intensity, “to not simply seek ways of cheating death, but of promoting safety.” He sighed, resting his hand lightly on James’ chest. They were the same height, and Ozpin’s eyes were so bright they seemed to glow. “You have a good heart, James. I could only wish I had it. But life without death… is no life at all. You would do well to remember that.”

Nothing about the encounter had been overtly threatening; Ozpin never was, the few times they’d met, and the Beacon of the Vault may have been one of the only places on Pandora outside of Atlas territory he could walk down a street apparently unarmed and not risk an attempted mugging. But something about Ozpin and his odd little doomsday cult set James on edge. There was something off about the whole thing, about the oddly familiar designs engraved on Ozpin’s cane, about the careful, reverent note in his voice when he spoke of the Vault.

“All due respect,” he’d told Ozpin, and meant it. “My duty is to keep the people under my protection alive. I take that very seriously. And I'll do whatever's necessary to ensure as many of them make it off this planet as possible.”

Ozpin had given him an understanding smile that hadn’t reassured him at all and started back towards his desk, leaning heavily on his cane. “Perhaps,” he’d told James without turning to look at him, “you should also consider the possibility that that day will never come.”

James’ hand tightened on the wheel at the memory. To this day he still wasn’t sure if that had been a threat. And yet here he was, heading right back into the viper’s nest, like a godsdamned fool. Or like someone who could afford a respawn if things went bad.

The gate to Beacon sat at the top of a small hill, so the glow of the alien sigils that covered the wall was visible for miles at night. And, of course, so any intruder was visible to their snipers. James pulled over the top of the hill and swung himself out of the car just before it rolled to a complete stop.

The four guards—or rather, the four dirt-streaked kids wearing makeshift leather armor and armed with oversized guns that had clearly been cleaned much more recently and thoroughly than any of the kids themselves—silently assembled in front of the gate as he approached. One of them, a heavily muscled boy with close-cropped hair and what looked like a greatsword strapped to his back, turned to the side and said in a low voice, “Get back inside, Ruby,” and for the first time James noticed another kid, who definitely hadn’t even hit puberty yet, watching him with undisguised curiosity. A rusty old garden sickle had been duct taped, for some reason, to the end of the barrel of the Dahl sniper rifle she had slung carelessly over one shoulder. It must have been taller than she was.

Damn it, Ozpin. ‘Not bandits’ his ass.

But his attention was caught again by the lead teenager stepping in front of him, blocking his view of the kid.

“You here to join?” she asked, not quite hostile. There were strings of beat-up plastic pearls around her neck, and her free hand drifted past the three grenades on her belt to the glowing digistruct holster behind them. She rested her hand on one of the quick-draw buttons.

He held his hands up to show he wasn’t holding a weapon. She didn’t relax. He sighed. “I’m—” he paused, before continuing, “James Ironwood. I need to talk to Ozpin. We’re—friends.”

She gave him a highly skeptical once-over, and he was acutely aware of the fact that his clothes were obviously much newer than anything these kids were wearing, even if he’d left his uniform back at the base for this. “Sure,” the teen said. “You’ll have to come back later. We’ve been told not to let anyone in.”

“On pain of death,” Ruby piped up from against the gate, as though it were a very impressive detail that shouldn’t be left out.

Ruby,” a long-haired girl hissed at her urgently.

“You heard the girl,” pearl necklace said, gesturing with her submachine gun. “Nobody has to die today. Just head on back to wherever you came from.”

“I don’t think you understand,” James told her. “I’ve been here before. I’m an ally.”

She shrugged. “Maybe. But we’re not authorized to make exceptions.”

“Can you get someone who is authorized?”

“Nope. Our supervisor’s off ECHO. Sorry, dude.”

“Better luck next time!” the other girl said earnestly. Her three friends didn’t smile with her.

“Hey! Mr. Ironwood!” That was Ruby again, pushing her way around the kid with the sword. “My uncle Qrow’s on a mission in the highlands, real close to here. If you’re really friends with Ozpin, he can let you in.” She pointed her rifle at him, almost casually, and James couldn’t decide how menaced he should feel. “He will kill you if you’re lying, though. He’s really strong!”

James leaned away from the threatening blade of the makeshift scythe. Even if she didn’t take a shot at him, tetanus wasn’t a joke. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he told the girl solemnly. “How do I find this uncle of yours?”

“I can update your ECHO with his last waypoint!” she said helpfully, swinging the rifle back up and over her shoulder. James watched the arc of the blade carefully.

This was without a doubt the strangest conversation he’d ever had, but he needed to get into Beacon soon and he didn’t want to fight these kids. So. He sighed and took his ECHO off his belt, holding it up carefully when all four teenagers levelled their guns at him and navigating to the map function. Ruby trotted forward and peered at it, and then quickly punched in a series of codes, her fingers leaving streaks of dirt and grease on the screen.

‘Real close to here’, as it turned out, was a two and a half hour trip through skag-infested brushland following the arrow Ruby put on his HUD’s compass. He’d had to leave his car behind an hour in when the engine had stopped smoking and started actively licking flames around the hood. Fucking skags.

Two hours in, he’d started coming across the bodies. Bandits, from the mismatched collection of weapons and armor. And whoever they’d been fighting hadn’t been messing around. James stepped carefully around a bandit whose gun arm had been shredded and ripped in two from the force of whatever bullets he’d been hit with, and half his face blown off to leave the twisted remains of his jawbone exposed. The spray of blood on the ground beside the corpse’s mouth where he fell suggested he hadn’t been lucky enough to go out instantly.

All of the bodies had clearly been gone through for anything valuable. Pockets had been left inside out and jackets thrown carelessly next to them. Most of their weapons had either been partially disassembled and discarded or were missing entirely. Classic bandit activity. James reached into his coat and readied his handgun as he continued on. Just in case.

The trail of dead bodies was clear enough James only occasionally double-checked his HUD in case he was after the wrong spree killer. It led him into a ramshackle village made half of scrap metal and deconstructed crates, in the kind of disrepair that suggested it never hadn’t been. Most of the buildings had windows boarded up with just a small slit to aim a rifle through, birdshot pock marks peppering nearly every exterior wall, and absolutely decimating the padding of a chair that’d been put up on a roof for a lookout. A thick trail of blood led underneath a sheet metal walkway overhead of one of the narrow footpath alleys, as though someone had been dragged there. James brought his gun up and inched slowly, carefully forwards, putting his back to a wall on one side so he could peer around the corner.

Someone had been dragged, all right. A bandit was crouched over a bloody body that had had its stomach slashed open, muttering lowly to himself with one hand inside the wound. A mask covered the man’s face, hiding his eyes, but he didn’t move or stop speaking as James watched. Godsdammit, he’d been following a psycho.

He lowered his gun in favor of priming one of the grenades loaded in his prosthetic arm, thinking fast. If this was Qrow, he needed him alive and he needed him cooperative. How the fuck he was going to do that, he wasn’t sure. The cute little categories people had made up to describe your different flavors of bandit may have been simplistic, but none of the descriptions of ‘psychos’ had included the ability to have a conversation. The stories were a bit preoccupied describing what they would do with your face.

Little girl with a sniper rifle. Of course. James didn’t know what he’d expected, really.

He shifted, and winced when his foot audibly snapped something underneath it. The bandit looked up and waved a gun lazily in his direction without taking his other hand out of the corpse. “Fuck off and get your own. This one’s mine.”

James held his grenade hand out at the ready, but considered. If he’d already lost the element of surprise… He tucked himself back behind the wall and called out, “Are you Qrow?”

“Who’s asking?” It wasn’t a friendly question, but James didn’t hear the telltale ticking of a grenade, either. That might be a good sign.

“James Ironwood, of the Crimson Lance. I was told you could help me talk to Ozpin.”

“The fuck does Atlas want with Oz?” the bandit sneered.

“Nothing,” James admitted. “Only me. He and I have been… in communication.”

“Huh,” said Qrow, almost to himself. “So that’s you, then.” Then, “You can come out from cover. I ain’t gonna shoot you.” James could hear the sound of Qrow’s digistruct holster engage, as if he was proving his point. A bloody hand popped out from around the corner of the wall, Qrow crooking his finger in a ‘come hither’ motion.

…All right. James was choosing not to dwell on the uncanniness of this entire conversation. Especially when he finally came around the corner to find Qrow crouched back over the body, prodding thoughtfully at its stomach. He glanced up and gave James a long look, then said, “What kind of asshole wears all white?”

James frowned. “I like these clothes.”

Qrow gave him an obvious once-over and said, unimpressed, “They’d look better with some blood on them. I like a man who’ll get his hands dirty.”

James looked at Qrow, his own hands buried in viscera, and thought, of course you do.

He cleared his throat and instead of giving that comment a response, asked, “What are you… looking for?”

Qrow paused, both hands now back in the body. “Oz sent me to get some fancy chip these guys stole, and this asshole swallowed it. I didn’t think it’d be so fucking hard to find once he was dead.” He sounded almost embarrassed about admitting it.

Oh. Was that all? James started patting his pockets down before taking out a small, all-purpose magnet he kept around. You’d be surprised how often it came in handy to have a magnet on hand. Like when finding small electronics inside someone’s gut, apparently.

He held the magnet out to Qrow and said, “Try this.”

Qrow looked at it, managing to give the impression of peering even through his mask. “I’m not gonna use a magnet on a chip. It’ll wipe it.”

“Right, because it’s going to work so well covered in guts.”

“It might!” Whatever he was going to say next was cut off by a loud crash as a beat up car (not James’) crashed through one of the buildings adjacent to them, excited screaming coming from inside as the occupants pointed toward them. James heard Qrow give a sigh before carelessly tossing a grenade out into the street, catching the car under the front wheel and flipping it back through the building. The screams suddenly became considerably more pained, and then went silent.

Qrow looked out into the street for a moment afterward, and then wordlessly grabbed the magnet from James’ hand.

There were more bandits on the way out, and fewer bodies littering the ground. Someone had gotten their hands on a digistructor terminal. “Thanks for nothing, Hyperion,” Qrow murmured uncharitably once they’d dealt with them.

‘They’ was a strong term. Qrow’d had to stop and reload about ten seconds into the new firefight, and by the time he’d gotten back into the fight James had taken out the rest of the bandits with a few unerringly well-placed shots. Some people didn’t understand why he always used handguns in place of admittedly more powerful or more rapid-firing guns, but there was something to be said for perfecting a single type of weapon, and James was rather proud of what he’d managed to achieve with his over the years.

Qrow holstered his gun and gave a low whistle once he spared a glance for James’. “You did all that with an Atlas gun?” He reached up and pulled the mask off of his head to better look around at the carnage. “Damn.

Oh, James thought, looking at Qrow. Underneath the mask, even covered in blood and chunky bits that James didn’t want to think about too hard, Qrow was… very attractive. He turned back to James and gave him a questioning smirk and James suddenly wished he’d missed some of those bandits so he could see Qrow in action.

Maybe Pandora was getting to James, too.