Emma looked at Scott. Dark rings circled his eyes as he yawned wide. She frowned. “Just go back to bed.”
“But there is still so much cleanup to do,” he protested. “And I want to look in on Sara.”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’ve just saved the Hyperion. Nobody likes an overachiever. Dr. Carlyle is taking good care of Sara, you don’t need to supervise him.”
Scott grimaced as he sank back onto the edge of the bed, pressing a hand against his ribs. Emma snorted. “Hero of Meridian ought to move a little easier than an old salarian woman before heading out into the public. You’re not going to outrun any reporters in your state.”
“Cora is your second, and she is already running things,” Emma interjected.
Scott sighed and leaned back onto the bed. “All right, all right, you win. Since when you’ve gotten so sensible.”
“I’m always sensible, you just can’t see it,” she said as she shuffled through the datapads on his desk. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for.
“Are you here to mock me? Or are you here for something else?”
She snorted. “I’m here to check on you, making sure you’re alive and all that.”
“Actually, that first part is true but I’m also here to see if Cora might need me for anything.”
“She is so competent that she got it all covered.”
“I’m not surprised. Even I, the Pathfinder is apparently made redundant.”
Emma snorted before finally huffing. “I’m bored.”
“Welcome to the club.”
She sank onto the bed next to him. The bed sunk a little under her weight. “You’re supposed to rest, not be snarky.”
Scott chuckled. And soon Emma couldn’t help but join him. “What about Jaal?”
“What about him?” Emma asked.
“He could use your help,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, he is busy with meetings, endless meetings. Nothing I can do there. Point me at a kett, I’ll shoot it. Meetings? Count me out,” she said, lying on the bed, legs dangling off the edge. “Well, unless it’s Tann you want me to fire an arrow at?”
“Oh please no, I’ll never hear the end of it. I swear he’ll be complaining the arrow isn’t smack in the centre of his forehead or some shit.”
Emma laughed, curling onto her side. She sat up when the door to the Pathfinder’s quarters hissed open. It was Lexi. A frown creased her brow as she laid eyes on Emma. Guilt like she was a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar washed over her.
“Who is it? The Pathfinder is closed for business at the moment,” Scott drawled.
“It’s your doctor,” Lexi replied as she strode into the room. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I am,” Scott protested from his position, flat on his back.
“I meant sleeping,” Lexi said,
“Oh, but I can’t be sleeping all day. I’m not Sara.”
Emma stood, quickly shuffling towards the door. She wanted no part of the doctor’s berating. She was mobile, way more than Scott at any rate. She didn’t need to hang around for this.
Lexi raising an eyebrow at Emma. “You too. How are those bruises looking?”
“They are fine, Lexi,” she said, one foot across the threshold. “Scott, rest well. I’ll see you around.”
“Traitor!” Scott shouted as she made her escape.
Emma paced. She walked, deliberately putting one foot exactly in front of the other. Angara voices drifted over from beyond the row of human height planters that divided the room into two. She wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, she was just waiting for Jaal to finish before they could grab dinner together, but she couldn’t help pricking up her ears when she heard Evfra’s voice.
“Jaal, the science station in the Rohvir system has gone dark,” the Resistance leader said, his voice calm despite the gravity of the situation.
“Kett?” Jaal asked, his voice laced with concern.
“Unlikely but I cannot discount the possibility. You have a squad of fighters on ground at Meridian. I need you to lead a team. Go down to Momairus and investigate.”
“But Asa’s team down a person. Given the situation, I don’t think it is good to go down understaffed.”
Emma shuffled closer as their voices dropped lower. A mission! That excited her. Maybe she could go on the mission. After all, she was a skilled fighter. And she was here, available and extremely bored.
“This cannot wait. They have gone dark more than 48 standard hours ago. Sending a team from Aya would take far too long.”
Jaal hummed. “Yes, I agree. I’ll handle it.”
“Good,” Evfra said.
The telltale hum of the QED disappeared as Jaal dismissed the connection. “You heard all that?” he asked, pitching his voice to carry.
Emma stepped past the planters. “You knew I was here?”
“Well, everyone else is still out celebrating the death of the Archon. I figured you’re the only one looking for me.”
“So about that mission,” Emma drawled, approaching Jaal.
He looked at her with brilliant blue eyes, earnest and cheeky at the same time, a smile tugging at his lips. “Yes.”
“I heard you’re down a person on your team.”
“Traditionally Resistance fighters work in a team of five with a team leader. Asa’s team is down one. He took a bullet to his leg during the fight. There is no way he can join this mission.”
Emma rested her arms on her hips and cocked her head. “Well, you’re looking at your new team member.”
Jaal grinned. “You're my first choice,” he confessed. “Taoshay.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks as she quickly bumped her shoulder against his to hide her embarrassment. “Come on, let’s go get the others.”
“You’re that bored, huh?” he asked, lacing his fingers between hers.
Emma stiffened at first but relaxed quickly. Even though they were alone, angaras’ penchant for public displays of affection was something she was still trying to get used to.
Of course, nothing went as Emma imagined.
Asa eyed her. She was a tall and buff angara with a deep tanzanite purple colouration. Cool eyes raking Emma from head to toe, evaluating. She snorted before turned to Jaal. All that was missing was an eye roll.
And so apparently I’ve failed the sniff test?
Emma ground her teeth together, fighting back the urge to demand satisfaction. She had nothing to prove, secured in her abilities. Jaal had her back. She had stood shoulder to shoulder with the Pathfinder when they took the Archon down. She had dark bruises across her back and torso to prove it.
Instead, she hung back. Eyes tracking the gestures Asa was making at Jaal. An index finger jabbing in her direction multiple times. She frowned but forced herself to take a deep breath and turned to look at the other Resistance gear equipped angaras.
“Ryder?” one of them asked.
He was tall and slender, the complete opposite to Asa. A sniper rifle strapped to his back and a pistol to his thigh. He had the wiry muscles of a person who could run forever. Emma nodded.
“Name’s Tak, Sovi Tak,” he said, offering her a slender hand to shake.
Emma lifted her arm in the traditional angara greeting. Tak’s eyes lit up in surprise. “I’m honoured to meet the Pathfinder. Orshan and Ershiar come meet the Pathfinder.”
Her face fell, she cleared her throat as she watched the other two approached. Orshan, stocky and muscled, his eyes narrowed upon catching sight of Emma. Ershiar, on the other hand, was lithe and the shortest among them. She cocked her head and offered Emma a smile.
“I’m not the Pathfinder,” she said. “Scott is the Pathfinder, I’m Emma.”
Tak’s face fell and waves of disappointment literally slammed into her face. “Oh,” he said before perking up. “Are you his twin?”
Orshan frowned and nudged Tak. “You’re still star-stuck over the Pathfinder? He is just a human like all the other humans we have met. Noisy and full of hot air, I bet he is getting the celebrity treatment while we’re the ones who carried him to victory.”
“Hey!” Emma growled, stepping into Orshan’s space, almost bumping into him. “He might not have single-handedly eliminated the single largest threat in the cluster, he might have had help, but he paid a heavy price for this victory. So did his twin.”
“Oh? Then who are you?” Orshan sneered, “Some other human also named Ryder?”
Heat burnt her cheeks. She was adopted but so what? She was every bit a daughter of Alec as Scott and Sara were. Before she could retort, Ershiar pushed Orshan away. “Just stop it, you’re being an asshole. Look, the boss is here.”
The three of them straightened and turned towards Asa. She looked supremely unhappy. A baleful glare shot in her direction was all the cue Emma needed. She bit her lip and straightened to her full height, which wasn’t very much among the angaras. Still, she wasn’t about to keel over and let herself be shat on.
“This is Emma Ryder, sister to the Pathfinder. She will join us on a mission to Momairus,” Asa said, glancing at her assembled team.
Orshan shifted his weight from one foot to the other but displeasure clear on his face. Asa’s gaze bore into him. “Ama Darav will lead the mission. And he has vouched for Ryder.”
Tak and Ershiar nodded in acknowledgement. Orshan glanced at her. “You’d better follow orders, rookie.”
Emma bared her teeth. Jaal stepped to her side and growled, “Watch your tongue, she has gone toe to toe with the Archon. You have not.”
Orshan’s original deep blue colouring darkened. Asa glanced at Emma, lips curling as if it was her fault. “Get your gear and move out!”
Momairus looked horrible. That was her first thought as soon as the dull brown planet veered into view. Splotches of black swirled with brown, shaped into a round orb, Momairus hung against the deep cold of vacuum. She shivered, icy fingers ran down her spine. Taking a deep breath, she suited up.
Emma snapped on the buckles of her helmet, testing it to make it had a tight seal. It would be horribly comical if she survived the horrors of the Milky Way, found a family to belong to, gave her heart to a special man only to suffocate on Momairus.
The Scourge had taken a lash to Momairus’ surface, stripping it not just of a breathable atmosphere, but grinding down all noticeable features on the surface to mere nubs. All that remained was a barren ball of boron and carbon.
“Why is there a science outpost here, anyway?” she asked, taking her first steps on the planet.
“I go where the boss tells me.” Ershair shrugged and fanned out from the others, rifle at the ready.
Emma sighed, kept her bow lightly nocked and followed. Her eyes fixed on Jaal. He was bending over, heads together with Asa, running over last-minute plan changes. Her boots crunched on loose stones as the squad of six moved out.
The science outpost went from a blip on her omni-tool to a physical structure in the distance. Leaving the shuttle a distance out from the outpost was probably the prudent thing to do but that meant walking. Emma’s single stride was probably half of an angara’s. She went from walking in the middle of the formation to keeping an eye out on their tail. Orshan sniffed at her as he walked past her. Emma sighed and trudged on.
She was vigilant. Eyes scanning the horizon, fingers loose on her bow but muscles ready to launch into action instantly. There was nothing. But it didn’t stop the clenching in her gut. Something didn’t sit right here.
Maybe being bored on Meridian is preferable.
But she knew she wouldn't have allowed Jaal to go on a mission without her. It was her job to watch his six. A scruff of a boot against rock made her whirl around. It was Jaal. She huffed, “Don’t do that.”
His eyes crinkled through his helmet’s visor, amusement danced across them. “I know this is a tough bunch but they are good,” he said. “And I’m confident in your skills.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she chuckled.
Simply talking to him drove the unease away. His smile, his easy laughter but most of all, his thoughtfulness. He cared genuinely, in a way that’s different from Scott and the rest.
Jaal saw through her like she was a book waiting for her first reader. He didn’t mend her, or healed her, but he accepted all of her, all the raw edges and rough surfaces. And in the mere months they spent together on the Tempest, he tempered her razor sharp corners with an all-encompassing acceptance that left her breathless.
Emma straightened as Asa’s voice came through the comms. “Ama Darav, I have something you need to see.”
“Duty calls,” she said.
Jaal gave her squeeze on her shoulder before leaving, though she couldn’t feel it through the layers of ceramic plates and compression under suit underneath, she appreciated the gesture anyway. She jogged to catch up with the others when Asa gave the signal to stop.
“What’s going on?” This question she directed at Tak and Ershiar.
Tak gestured towards his omni-tool. She and the others crowded around the device. “I was just doing passive scans as I scouted ahead. I picked up a distress signal.”
“From the outpost?” Orshan rumbled.
Tak nodded. “But that is not the strange thing. It’s coming from somewhere under the outpost.”
“Isn’t this outpost just a small one?” Ershiar asked, looking through the information packet they received. “Just a single level?”
“That’s the weird thing.”
All of them nodded sagely amongst themselves. The niggling sense of wrongness grew stronger in the pit of Emma’s gut.
“All vehicles accounted for,” Emma reported.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Orshan muttered under his breath.
“Whatever it is, it isn’t an attack of the ordinary kind,” Emma said, gesturing at the structure. The exterior scrubbed raw and rugged by the elements but otherwise it was pristine. There was no sign of a battle anywhere.
The outpost had a long tunnel that led to the garage and from there to the entrance proper. Every inch of the place was fortified with multiple layers of reinforced steel.
Orshan looked at her flatly. His gaze communicated his opinion of her input perfectly. She returned the stare with relish.
“Ershiar, up front,” Jaal commanded. “Open that door. Rest of you, be ready for anything. Emma and Orshan, I want you both up high.”
“Can she even keep up?” Orshan sneered.
She bit off the sigh that was at the tip of her tongue. Instead, she gave Jaal a very professional roll of her eyes. “Can you keep up? That’s the question,” she heard Jaal ask as she loped off to find a spot overlooking the heavy double doors.
Emma could feel Orshan’s glare even though he was clear across the large garage. She ignored him and kept her eyes on Ershiar. Hands ready on her bow, half expecting a kett to rush out between the doors. But when the holo-lock cycled from red to green, there was nothing behind them.
She stood and rejoined the others before Jaal could give the word. All the while, she heard Orshan muttering into the comms, something about co-ordinating actions and not moving ahead on her own.
The heavy doors sealed behind them. Tak announced, “The air is good.”
Everyone heaved a sigh of relief and released the seals on their helmets and took a breather. No matter how much the helmet was there to protect, it got really claustrophobic to keep it on for hours on end.
Emma took the time to replenish the oxygen canisters on her suit as Orshan and Tak took guard at the doors. Jaal and Ershiar huddled together trying to gain access to the rest of the outpost. It was a security checkpoint of sorts.
“What science outpost requires such high security?”
“Ones that have decades of being hunted by the kett,” Orshan spat.
Emma frowned. “Yeah sure, but this is a science outpost. You’re not doing weapons research here are you?”
She cocked her head, facing Tak. “Are you?”
“Such information is kept to a need to know basis. For operational security we don’t just share this with everyone,” Asa replied.
“So this could be a weapons facility, a mining operation or an imprisonment camp for kett for all we know?”
“Oh, definitely not the last one,” Orshan said.
“Why is that?”
“We don’t imprison kett,” he growled, flickers of a suppressed rage in his eyes. “We kill them.”
She turned and looked at Jaal, his fingers were flying across his omni-tool while Ershiar was also working on hers. The uncertainties of the mission didn’t help to ease her the growing sense of danger. It made her antsy but without a clear enemy to focus her attention on, she could only hover and pace. Minutes passed, Jaal and Ershiar were at an impasse.
“I think we’ll have to try a more direct approach,” Jaal said.
Ershiar nodded. “I don’t understand why the system is rejecting all our IFF codes. The core database might be corrupted.”
“We don’t have the time to rebuild the database. The distress signal is coming from inside the base, we have to move forward,” Jaal replied. “Do it.”
From Emma’s point of view, Ershiar merely bent over the console and hit a single key. An alarm blared as the lights snapped off, plunging them into darkness.
“What the fuck,” she muttered, immediately slamming her foot into a console as she tried to shift closer to the others.
“Watch it!” Orshan growled, brushing passed her.
“Contact! Contact!” Tak shouted. Gunfire erupted, seemingly from all corners of the room.
Emma flinched and couched behind the console she stubbed her toe on. She wanted to lift her bow and take aim, but she couldn’t see a single thing. The angaras didn’t seem to have a problem in the pitch darkness.
“Some light here!” she shouted. “The human can’t see in the dark!”
“Working on it,” Ershiar replied, her voice curt and tight.
A cry of pain rang out from somewhere in front of her. The darkness forced her to stay put. Being utterly useless and helpless infuriated her.
Rifles roared to life next to her ear. Sparks of yellow lit up her corneas in painful brilliance. The stench of spent bullet filled the air. Emma couched and forced herself into as small a ball as possible. If she couldn’t help, she’d rather not get shot.
As the lights flickered back on but in a bloody red, drenching the walls and the people, a flash of fear rocked her to the core. She squeezed her eyes shut, shuddering. Images of another science outpost of time past with alarms screaming pressed against the back of her eyelids. She growled, teeth bared against old memories and fear that threatened to drag her back to a place of horror, a time of impotence.
“No!” she shouted as she slammed her fist against her face.
“Ama Darav, what the fuck is she doing?” Asa spat, a hand clamped down on her shoulder, pulling at her.
Emma snarled and wrenched her arm back. The pain had jolted her back to reality. Blood drenched, no it is just the fucking lights. Get a fucking grip.
She rose, eyes surveying the scene before her. Turrets had unfurled from all corners of the room and were firing at them. Everyone had hastily found cover and were attempting to fire upon them. Tak was down, hands clutching his thigh while Ershiar had couched by him rendering first aid though she was bleeding heavily from her arm.
Emma’s jaw tightened. Targets secured, arrow nocked, she let it fly.
The doors slid shut behind them.
“Status!” Jaal barked.
“Tak and Ershiar are down!” Orshan shouted.
“No, Sir, I can go on,” came the instant protests.
Emma hurried over, popping one of her spare medi-gel packs into Tak’s suit. As soon as his suit’s medical suite took over and injected the blood clotting and analgesic into his bloodstream, he relaxed visibly. He groaned but gave her a tight smile. “Thanks. That was a good shot back there.”
She nodded, eyeing Tak’s blue coated armour critically. “I don’t think you should continue.”
He grimaced, trying to rise to prove her wrong. “What’s wrong with you?” Emma hissed, pushing him back onto the ground. “Your leg will not take your weight.”
“You’re a soldier, you know when you’re a liability.”
“Ryder is right,” Ershiar said.
Orshan had popped the armour piece off her arm and was busy staunching the bleeding. Asa came over and glanced at the downed pair. “Boss,” Ershiar greeted, struggling to school her face out of a grimace.
Asa shook her head. “You two are not going anywhere.”
“You can’t walk,” she said, pointing at Tak. “And you can’t shoot,” she said pointing at Ershiar. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Emma got up to her feet and left the angaras to it. She found Jaal starring down the corridor. His face tight and worried. “Hey,” she asked as she approached. “Are you ok?”
Jaal shook his head. “I’m fine. My shields held. What happened just now?” He bent a little to look into her eyes. “You froze back there.”
She shook her head. “Just bad memories hitting at the wrong time.”
The worry in his bright blue eyes didn’t fade, but he nodded. His gloved hand brushing against the reddening patch on her face. “You hit yourself real good back there.”
Emma chuckled, leaning away from his hand a little. The pressure on the swollen part of her cheek stung. “Hopefully, my brain will stop throwing random shit at me.”
Jaal straightened, looking at the red holo-lock that barred their way back to the lobby. Ahead was a sprawling atrium, with multiple corridors leading to more rooms and labs. Emma slapped a hand on the holo-lock. It flickered and glowed a stubborn red. “There is only one way forward.”
She bit back a sigh. “I’ll never complain I’m bored again.” This wasn’t exactly how she liked to spend the rest of her day. But she’d rather be the one at Jaal’s back than trust it to anyone else no matter how capable they were.
Jaal chuckled, but Asa cut the moment was short when she called out to him.
“I’m leaving Orshan with Tak and Ershiar. They will work on hacking the doors. According to our blueprints, this is our only way in and out of this place. We’ve cleared all the automated turrets, they should be safe enough.”
He nodded. “All right, Asa take point. Emma you take the rear, move out.”
It didn’t take long before it went from disconcerting to creepy. Under bright white lights, the outpost felt sterile and clean, more akin to a hospital than a research facility. But red drenched and with the dull flat tone of a pre-recorded message started playing over the speakers, it got real disturbing.
“System malfunction, personnel are advised to evacuate.”
It went on and on. And it grated on Emma’s nerves. This mission was cursed from the start.
I will never be bored again.
“How many personnel are there supposed to be here?” she asked.
“Twenty,” Asa answered promptly, without having to check.
“And how many have we seen so far?”
“None,” Jaal replied.
“Where the fuck are they?” Emma asked. That’s the question isn’t it?
She had taken to hitting her armoured hand against her thigh to keep herself here. Every repetition of the message she could feel the claws of her past reaching into her mind.
“Why are you doing that?” Asa asked.
“Bad memories, keeps me here.”
Asa grunted. “Try biting your tongue. It’s quieter.”
Emma stiffened, that had the ring of experience to it. “Ok,” she replied simply.
Maybe she is warming up to me.
“This way you will not alert our enemies.”
It wasn’t a moment too soon. As they rounded a corner, a beeping rang out, loud and shrill. Something small and round rolled to a stop at their feet.
“Grenade!” Asa shouted.
Emma had expected her to step back behind cover, instead she pushed Jaal aside and jumped towards the grenade. Her eyes widened as she recognised what the angara was doing. Emma growled, “Stupid woman!”
She had powers, but it wasn't born from an exposure to element zero. She didn’t glow blue. She put her mind to it and things happened. A quick jerk of her hand, clenching her right hand into a fist in a grasping manner, Asa flew bodily backwards as if yanked. Emma pulled her left hand upwards, cutting through the air. Her focus on the tiny black object that could easily take them all down. As Jaal barrelled into Emma, slamming her down onto the ground, the grenade exploded. Asa cowered hands over her head while Jaal shielded her with his body.
There was nothing beyond a flash of light and a boom rocking the ground, rattling the walls. There was no shrapnel or debris.
“What happened?” Asa gasped, bewilderment clear across her face even through her helmet.
Jaal offered Emma a hand. As soon as she got her feet planted firmly on the ground again, she whirled on Asa. “Do not do anything so stupid again,” she growled before stalking down the corner the grenade came from carefully.
Asa glanced at Jaal for answers. All Emma heard was Jaal’s rumble of pride and pleasure, “I told you she can take care of herself, and well, and then some.”
Resistance got tougher and tougher. But the trio found their groove. Asa and Jaal took the lead, while Emma remained at their rear, firing arrow after arrow at the turrets. Eventually Emma stopped using her bow, her arrows didn’t survive the impact against hard metal and plastic. If they were fighting kett, she might have been able to retrieve half but against stationary turrets the points were damaged or the arrows were taken out in the small blast when the turrets failed. Thankfully without her bow, Emma wasn’t unarmed, she had her telekinesis and her pistol. A twist of her mind, she crushed turrets and punted grenades back where they came from easily, creating a barrier was a piece of cake. But even she had her limits.
“How big is this base?” she panted.
“This is a sizeable compound,” Asa shot back, firing over her cover.
Emma ripped a turret off its mount with a flash of her hand. It sailed in a wide arc taking out the other turrets in a single pass. She straightened and sighed. “We can’t do this forever.”
Jaal consulted his omni-tool. The blip on his map ever so slightly larger, they were ever so slightly closer. “The distress beacon is close. Hopefully, we’ll get answers soon.”
Asa took point again. And they moved out.
It was a subtle change. Emma noticed Asa lifting her head, sniffing the air. She tried to do the same but detected nothing worrisome. The air filtered through her suit smelt the same. Asa shot Jaal a look. He nodded. Emma sighed. “Something you need to enlighten the human?”
Asa’s head dipped in apology. “The scent of blood is getting stronger.”
“And it’s coming from the direction we need to head in.”
Dread curdled like spoilt milk in her gut. Emma tightened her grip on her pistol and nodded. “Lead the way.”
Step by step, they walked on. Streaks of blue blood became apparent. Bodies, or more accurately body parts littered the floor. Every door lining the corridor had a menacing red holo-lock. The toneless drone to evacuate had faded away. But the absence made the situation all the more eerie.
Emma swallowed and scanned the bodies. “What could have done this?” she whispered.
Jaal crouched over one of the more intact bodies. His hand brushed the eyelids of the fallen to close them. His shoulders tense as he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. She placed her hand against his back wordlessly, wishing she could give him a hug. But all she could do was share this moment of grief with him. His head dipped in acknowledgement before he straightened.
“Six accounted for,” Asa reported.
“I’ve got five,” Emma said.
“Six more for me,” Jaal added as he took in all the names on his omni-tool. He sighed, his face a mix of sorrow and anger. “That leaves three more.”
“Let’s bring them home,” Asa said clapping her hand on Jaal’s shoulder. “And give their families closure.”
He nodded, determination burnt in his eyes. “Let’s go. We’re almost there.”
Corridor after corridor, room after room. It didn’t make sense that this facility was manned by a mere twenty. It was too large. And the automated defence system was crazy tight for a science outpost.
Then, there it was.
The red-lit pathways contrasted strangely with the green holo-lock. The sight sent alarm bells ringing in Emma’s ears, though the actual one had long fallen silent.
“Orshan, come in,” Jaal called out into the comms.
Static. It crackled in Emma’s ears, loud and ominous. She kept one hand light on her bow, other curled and uncurled over the grip of her pistol.
“-arav,” a voice came through the static.
Jaal cocked his head to the side, trying to make out the words.
“Boss,” the voice called again, “Can you hear me?”
“Reading you, Orshan but there is something interfering with the comms,” Asa interjected. “What’s the status?”
“Tak and Ershiar are holding strong. We got the doors unlocked so the way out is clear.”
“Good job, hang tight. We’re almost done,” she said. “Asa, signing out.”
The connection dropped after with a high-pitched whine. Emma winced, dialling the audio output down. Jaal looked at them before turning back to the only way forward. “Come on, we may have survivors inside.”
Emma bit her lip. Jaal had an eternally optimistic outlook, but she wasn’t built the same. Life had taught her otherwise. Some might say she was a pessimist, but she preferred the term realist. Hope was his gift to her, a path that didn’t involve violence, loneliness. He was a shining beacon that light the treacherous road before her. For that, she would defend his ability to remain hopeful.
Beyond the door was the control room. Someone must have activated the outpost’s automated defence system. That meant survivors and hopefully once they got inside, they’ll get some answers. She pressed her shoulder against the door frame, Asa took the other side. Jaal slammed his palm on the holo-lock.
Emma was expecting a hail of bullets, a barrage of grenades or even some poisonous gas.
But there was nothing.
Asa darted in, hunched over and swift despite her height and bulk. Emma followed closely behind. The control room was silent. The red lights ended in the corridor behind them. Inside, it was bright, white and clean. Where was the person who was controlling the defence system?
“Got one,” Asa called.
Emma joined her and saw another bullet ridden corpse on the floor. Soon, they found the remaining two other personnel.
“This doesn’t make sense,” she blurted. “Everyone is accounted for. Whoever killed them would have deactivated the system. Why leave it activated?”
Jaal frowned, running his scanner over the bodies, adding more names to his list. He grimaced and shook his head. “Asa, get the defence system down. I don't want to run through an obstacle course on the way out.”
Asa moved quickly to take a seat at a console and started tapping away.
“Orshan, come in,” he called.
Static crackled through the comms again. It varied in pitch and volume. Emma frowned. In its undulating white noise, she seemed to be able to make out words. It sounded like Shelesh, but different enough her translator was registering it as just noise. She must be hearing things. Sighing, she took up position near the secondary exit next to Jaal while Asa was clear across the room furiously working away.
“Yes, Commander,” Orshan’s voice came through.
“Prep for departure. No survivors, radio the news back to HQ. We will be coming back once we deactivate the defence system.”
Jaal looked at her, his eyes tired and his face grim. Emma reached out and took his hand, giving it a small squeeze. Their hands fit awkward with their armour on but the pressure seemed to give him a little assurance. “You did your job. It was a long shot anyway,” she whispered.
He nodded silently, tightening his hand over hers; his breath, a soft huff through the comms. “Still it hurts. These twenty angaras were upon the dawn of a new era for us, now that the Archon is dead. And they fell to some enemy unknown. They could have been celebrating with us, they should have, but their families will mourn their losses instead.”
“But you are giving them closure. They know their loved ones have fallen and are not kept wondering what happened forever.”
“You’re right. You always know what to say,” he sighed, lifting his eyes to meet hers. “How do you know what to say all the time?”
Emma snorted. Words were far from the best weapon she wielded. Her bow and arrows, sure. Pistols and rifles, no problems, but words were a mystery. Before she could respond, Asa cursed, “Shit.”
Jaal straightened. “What is it?”
“The system isn’t coming down and-“
“Look out!” Emma shouted, pushing Jaal down to the ground as a storm of bullets raked across the space he had occupied.
“That!” Asa shouted as she returned fire.
Emma pressed her shoulder against the nearest cover and peaked out. Droids. Where they fuck did they come from? Bodies of metal and carbon fibre were entering from the secondary exit she and Jaal were next to. All of them gleaming and shiny, their legs hinged like the angaras, wielding rifles and grenades with ease. All of them had a strange emblem on their forehead. it looked nothing like she had ever seen. But this was no time to ponder about it, they were rapidly being overwhelmed.
She fired her pistol sparingly relying on her telekinesis to do the heavy lifting. Jaal shouted, “We can’t let them cut off our exit! Asa, we’ll try to lead the droids away. Get your ass back to the others, hold the exit.”
“This is an order!”
“Ancestors,” the curse came frustrated and angry. Clips of ammo slid across the floor. Asa’s eyes met hers, fury and determination in a single glance. “Don’t die!”
“I don’t intend to,” Emma retorted as she scooped the clips up, sharing them with Jaal.
Jaal looked at her, adrenaline coursing through his veins. “Ready?”
“Always!” A barrier flung out like a battering ram. It sent the droids barring Asa from the way they came slamming into walls. “Go!”
Asa took off without further prompting, she slammed her fist on the door as she went. The holo-lock flickered from green to red. Emma’s gut tightened as static flooded their comms.
Through the white noise, came words. Words that were now more familiar, but her translator kept glitching on them. Jaal’s face paled.
“What is it?” she asked urgently, sending another wave of droids against the wall.
He shook his head. “No time, later. Let's go.”
And they took off out the secondary exit with droids pouring out of the ducts chasing them.
Deeper and deeper. The static chased them. This time coming from the embedded speakers that lined the outpost.
Droids leapt over obstacles with ease, gunning one down and another took its place. They were an endless swarm that had no trouble keeping pace. But Emma wasn’t a machine, and neither was Jaal. Her thighs were burning, her lungs heaving but still she pushed herself on. Stopping meant death. And she had no intention to fucking die here.
“I’ll never be bored again, ever,” she gasped.
“This isn’t the time to make such promises,” Jaal retorted.
“Never. Bored. Again,” she shouted as she punched a hole into the nearest door with every word.
The holo-lock flickered out. The static swell, screeching in displeasure.
“Through there!” she yelled, her ears pierced by the auditory assault.
Jaal’s powerful arms tugged against the powered down doors, she slipped through the gap with ease. But he was too big to fit.
“Go!” he yelled. “Leave me!”
“Fuck no!” Emma’s scream was defiance and fury made manifest, she reached through the door, trying to forcibly yank him through.
“I can’t get the doors any wider!” he shouted, hunching down as bullets impacted his shields. “Go!”
“No! You are not doing this to me!”
With a snarl curling her lips, she shoved with her powers, heedless of the effort it took, passed caring how she felt dizzy right after doing it. The door groaned and moved slightly. It was enough. Jaal pushed his way through the gap, armour scraping against the door, scratching and buckling under the force.
Emma unleashed another blow and warped the door so that it bent in on itself. Sealing them away from the droids outside. Even through the thick door, she could hear the angry clicks and whines coming from the gears and servos of the droids.
She whirled around only to see the business end of a rifle. The droid stared at her emotionless, a dead piece of plastic and metal with power over her life. With less time it took to form a thought, it pulled the trigger. The bullet drilled into her chest, shattering her hastily erected barrier. She gasped as the blow forced the air out of her lungs.
Jaal wrestled the droid onto the ground and put three shots into its chest before wrenching its head out. He was by her side faster than she could blink. The pain flashed across her chest as she sat up.
“Medi-gel,” he stammered, “you need medi-gel.” His hands were shaking as he fumbled for his spare pack.
“Jaal,” Emma panted.
“No, no, lie down. Let’s get the chest plate off so I can see.”
His hands stilled, her chest plate already popped off in his hands. The under suit had a spot blackened but there was no bleeding. Emma sat up and took Jaal’s trembling hands into hers. “I’m fine. The armour did its job.”
Wide eyes starring as he tilted the chest plate to have a closer look. There was a dent and crack lines radiating from it. “It will bruise, nothing more.”
He looked at the blackened spot that was right over her heart. His hand quivered as he gently placed his hand over it. Emma winced as his fingertips brushed against the contusion that was already forming underneath her suit.
“You almost died,” he muttered, his eyes couldn’t quite lift from her would-be wound.
Normally she would have been flattered, even savouring the touch, but this was different. Emma straightened. This was a line of thought she had to head off immediately. She shifted into a sitting position and cupped his face with her hands. “Jaal, look at me.”
His hand warm against her chest, his head dipped even lower.
“Look at me.”
He bit his lip as his breath hitched.
“Damnit, Jaal. I am not dead. I am here. Look at me!”
This got his attention. Tears were standing in his eyes as he looked at her. She pulled her gauntlet off and brushed his tears away. “I’m here,” she whispered as she pulled him into a hug.
He nodded as he buried his face into her shoulder.
How long they stayed that way she didn’t know. All she knew Jaal was clinging onto her like she was his lifeline. By the time his hands loosened up, her back was protesting. She grimaced as she secured her chest plate again.
“Come on, we got to get our asses out of here,” she said. “There is something going on here beyond just a science experiment gone wrong. And this isn’t the kett.”
She shuffled over to the droid that Jaal destroyed and kicked it. “That’s what you get for scaring my gentle giant,” she growled under her breath.
Jaal offered her a smile as he inserted a fresh clip into his rifle.
“Whatever that’s going on, it has something to do with that,” Emma said, pointing at the emblem. “And that voice in the static. What the hell did it say?”
He took a deep breath and shook his head. “It’s Shelesh but not at the same time. It’s a dialect I've seen only in our history books. It’s a dead language.”
Emma cocked her head. “What did it say?”
“You should not be here. You should leave.”
“Comms are down,” Jaal reported.
“Figures, what else can happen?” Emma sighed, rubbing her eyes. “Remember how I complained about being bored? Next time remind me the consequences of being bored.”
How long had it been since the start of the mission? Hours definitely. Her body was reminding her her need for food, water and rest. But they were deep in enemy territory.
“Asa is with the others, hopefully they went for reinforcements,” Jaal went on, giving up on his omni-tool.
“Yeah, I’m not worried for them. Asa got things well in hand,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “Come on, we got to find a better spot. It isn’t safe here.”
Jaal nodded and they left through another door he had hacked open. It was quiet. No whirl of servos, no clicking of metal against metal. Emma glanced at him. He lifted his shoulders in a shrug but kept a tight grip on his rifle. They walked single file, Jaal in the lead, she taking the rear. More doors were unlocked, even more were outright de-activated, no power running to them. None led back towards Asa and the others. Every single one was drawing them further into the bowels of the outpost.
“We have gone beyond the blueprints Evfra gave me,” Jaal whispered, his eyes darted about, surveying the massive doors that stood before them.
“What does that even mean?” Emma hissed.
“That means we’re stepping into the unknown. Someone sanctioned building whatever is beyond those doors.”
“And you’re sure this is the only way forward?”
Jaal nodded. “Come on. It’s interesting at the very least.”
Emma rolled her eyes, suppressing the shiver running down her spine.
Somewhere from deep inside there was a groan as long dormant gears rolled and ground against each other. His hand reached out and took hers. A small squeeze to steady her as much as it steadied him.
As they stepped beyond the threshold, Jaal gasped. Surprise, shock and awe in a single exhale. Emma’s eyes looked up, the ceiling went higher and higher. It opened out into the sky, a transparent reinforced glass dome protecting the inside from the elements. Metal surfaces transited to rocky ones. It was a sprawling natural cave beyond the door, it wasn’t built by anagara hands. In the centre, right under the dome, was a lift, a flat platform led downwards into the core of Momairus.
“Extremely not boring,” Emma whispered, feeling like she was stepping on hallowed ground. She took a couple of steps and stumbled. Knees slamming onto the ground, she hissed. “Shit, I’m getting sloppy.”
Jaal helped her up, slinging his rifle onto his back. He stepped towards the lift. His eyes narrowed to slits as he basked under the sunlight.
Right, angaras need the sun. Emma sighed, her muscles relaxing. Exhaustion was an anchor that she had been dragging around. If the sun is up, it means we have been running about for over 24 hours. It’s no wonder I’m so fucking tired.
Her stomach growled angrily. She rummaged about in her pockets for ration bars she had stash there. The bar was crushed flat, more ooze than bar now, but she didn’t care. She had eaten worse things. Helmet off, she stuffed the contents into her mouth, but before she was halfway through her ears caught something. Emma stiffened.
“Jaal! Move!” she shouted. “To the lift!”
Helmet and ration bar forgotten, she raced towards the lift, grabbing Jaal as she went. He was sluggish as if rousing from a deep sleep. “Come on!”
Angry clicks and whines echoed. Gunfire erupted in their wake. Jaal blinked and started to pull his own weight. He outpaced her and reached the console. Slamming his palm on the controls did nothing. “Ancestors! Work damnit!”
Fingers flying across his omni-tool as he hacked into the controls. Emma pulled up a barrier tight around them. Her brow creased in concentration as she felt every single bullet thudding into her shield like a jolt up her spine. “Hurry,” she gasped.
Seconds went by like hours. When the lift shuddered to life, Emma couldn’t help cheering a little. Jaal returned fire and droid bodies were falling down into the crater and landing on their platform, smashed. As they descended, gunfire ceased, daylight receded, taking away hope of a quick extraction.
It started with awe and wonder. Soaring structures dominated the world below. Elegant curves and bold pillars stark against rough edged rocks. Jaal stared with tears in his eyes, gazing at the unmistakable angara statues guarding the gates to a whole city. A city hewn from the crystal encrusted rocks, standing tall, weathering years, decades maybe even several millennia underground in the dark.
An entire lost city underground.
“What the fuck is this place?” Emma whispered.
“I don’t know,” Jaal said, reverence made his voice hush.
But that wore off quickly. Despite the city being hidden for who knew how long, it still had power and breathable air. But nothing else. The only thing it had in abundance were droids. All of them bearing the emblem. Neither one of them had time for more than a few hours of snatched sleep before they had to move. From one building to another, from one room to another, hours of cat and mouse games with machines that needed neither sleep nor sustenance.
Emma staggered into the room, paying attention only to the telltale sounds of servos and gears. There was none inside. She exhaled, exhaustion weighing heavy across her shoulders. “Jaal, in here.”
The once tall and proud angara used to have a healthy pink-purple hue, now looked almost grey. It was a day or three since either of them had seen the sun. But Emma didn’t need it like Jaal did. He stumbled and fell, landing with a grunt. Arms pushed valiantly against the floor, but his head smacked back onto the floor when his hand slipped; his helmet long lost to the droids. Emma scrambled over and dragged him in. With a quick shove of her powers, she shut the doors behind them, sending another wave of vertigo through her body.
The moment the doors were closed, she slumped back onto the ground, eyes squeezed shut, next to Jaal. She sighed. Her stomach had growled half-heartedly, finally resigning itself to its continued neglect. Those she could tolerate. It was the pounding headache that was dead set on drilling through her head and it was the complete lack of energy that was the most worrisome. One wrong move around the droids meant a bullet. And Emma wasn’t ready to resign herself to death in this underground city.
Just a nap, just a short one.
She closed her eyes, but her brain buzzed.
Get up, secure the room.
She groaned, pressing a hand against her temple.
Check on Jaal. He is worse off.
Her pulse throbbed in time to her heart under her hand.
Get up! You can rest when you’re dead.
Emma opened her eyes. It was blurry from the meagre tears her eyes decided to waste the little moisture her body had left. She blinked and pushed herself onto her elbows. “Jaal,” she said, her voice was metal dragged across sand.
No respond. Her heart rate quickened. She pressed a hand against his neck. His pulse was still thrumming through his skin. It was weak but steady. Her sigh was a long exhale.
Not going to be bored anymore. I take that back. I want something boring now, please.
Emma worked up enough strength back into her limbs to get back on her feet. It was only then she properly looked at their temporary shelter.
To call it a room felt like an insult. It was a vault, a library. Rows upon rows of shelves lined the walls. Emma walked up to the nearest one, fingers brushing against the slates that were arranged on them. Picking one out, she scanned it with her omni-tool. The result just came back unknown compound. The material was paper thin but surprisingly dense and stiff. The edges were blunt and rounded, the surface glass smooth and opaque.
“What is this?” she whispered.
The library remained silent.
Emma wandered to the centre of the room. A lone console dominated the space. There was a slot and it fit the slate perfectly. She shrugged and inserted it. It glowed and lights beamed up from the middle of the console. Images thrown into the air like a holo-screen. She gasped. An image of a creature gesturing and speaking, as if in an educational vid, played. Eyes wide, she stared. The creature looked like an angara but their colouring was all wrong. They were all pale white with markings in luminous blue. Their voice light and almost lyrical as their language floated like music.
She startled, hands instantly up ready to blast whoever it was into kingdom come. “Shit, sorry. Jaal, you should be resting.”
He grimaced. “Rest will not do me much good. I need the sun. But this,” he turned and gestured at the vid. “is incredible. Our people but different.”
Jaal’s steps were unsteady as he walked towards the console. “You know the distress signal is coming from this very room,” he said glancing at his omni-tool.
Emma cast a critical eye on their surroundings. “But there is nothing here.”
His words hung in the still air like an omen. Jaal stumbled and braced his arms against the console to break his fall, the images disappeared. Static erupted from all around them. The voice was back, this time screaming words Emma now recognised was from the same language as the vid. Jaal collapsed to his knees, hunched over from the auditory assault. Whatever it was doing, it affected Jaal way more than her, but it was by no means comfortable for her. Ignoring her own pain, she hurried over to him, one arm around him in a futile attempt to take the agony away, the other held up ready to take anything on.
Through the roaring white noise, Emma heard the voice change. No, it was still screeching like nails across a chalkboard, but the language was slowly turning into something her translator could parse.
“What do you want with us!” she shouted, fury and frustration batting away her weariness like it was a wet paper bag.
“Intruders!” the voice shrieked.
“You forced us here!” Her hand trembled from the effort of keeping her guard up. “If you want to talk, stop screaming!”
“Our people yet not ours entered and defiled the Sacred!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Entered without permission. Touched, took and harvested what didn’t belong to them!”
“What are you? Are you a survivor here in this city? Did you activate the distress beacon? Are you in distress? Please, I just want to get out of here. Let us help you!” Emma begged. There was nothing else she could do. Dry sobs rocked her body as she clutched Jaal closer to her, his body trembling as he weathered the torment.
“I persist after the People had perished. I tire but I persist in my duty. I defend, I protect.”
“No, please,” Emma gasped. Communication was one way. She had no means to learn the ancient language, to make herself be understood. Her breath caught in her throat when she felt Jaal fall limp against her. Her hand pressed against his neck to find the pulse weak and thready.
Whatever she was speaking to, it was no organic. That much she was sure. Maybe it was an AI tasked with protecting the city, gone mad with eons spent alone. And the scientists must have somehow found the entrance to the city, like any normal curious person took a peak, inadvertently unleashing the AI upon themselves. The droids must have been part of its defence mechanism. What could a mad AI do but lash out?
Emma touched her ears when she felt something wet coming from them. Her finger tips came away with blood. Jaal groaned, his eyes fluttering, pain still lancing through him even though he was unconscious. Her jaw tightened. There was no choice, returning to the surface was their best bet. It was stupid to think there was shelter here.
High-pitched whines of servos and gears shrieked from beyond the shut doors. “Fuck, no,” she hissed, hoisting Jaal up. “Wake up, Jaal. Please. I can’t carry you.”
She straightened but her strength already sorely tested had completely ran out.
“I tire but I persist.” the voice repeated, this time softer.
“You might be in distress but I can’t help you. You’re tired? I’m fucking exhausted!”
The droids were coming. With the revelations she had learnt here, there was no shelter in the underground city. Her only way out was back to the surface. It didn’t matter if a million droids stood between Emma and the lift, she would reach it. Jaal needed the sunlight.
Regret tasted bitter on her tongue as she remembered the information packet Scott had given her on the angaras. The thousand-page document was too much to run through. She remembered something about angaras felling into a coma if they went without sunlight for too long. Jaal could be dying for all she knew and there was nothing she could do about it.
Muscles corded as she dragged Jaal onto her back. Her knees ached, her head pounded, her back protested. It mattered not. She was a fighter, a survivor. She refused to lie down and die like all the others.
Teeth bared, lips curled, Emma roared her defiance.
“I eliminate intruders,” the voice boomed, this time deadpanned and void of emotions. “And then I rest.”
The doors caved in and droids poured into the library.
Limbs trembling, throat raw from screaming, body sore and completely spent but still she endured.
Emma looked like a mummy wrapped with a mishmash of under suit, bare skin and shattered ceramic plates of her armour. She twisted as the droid fired, too slow. The bullet glanced off her armour. Another chip, another crack, another piece of armour fell. Yet another crumb on the trail she had left as she made her plodding way back to the lift. It was the only place that had access to the sun.
Get to the sun. Jaal will be fine. All he needs is the sun.
Her right arm raised, she made a fist and a quick jerk splaying her fingers wide. The droid jerked once and it went sailing through the air, impacting the far wall. Emma directed her attention to the next droid and the next and the next. They were relentless but she persevered.
Her goal was singular.
A bang rang out. She jerked around and flinging the offending droid away. The tiny piece of projectile seared a furrow across her arm. She allowed herself a grunt, a moment’s pause before she went on putting one foot in front of the other.
Protect Jaal. Get him to the sunlight
She leaked red. She could no longer tell which hurt more. She was a walking throbbing bruise. Muscles screaming, head pounding and vision blurring. Nothing mattered. She walked on. One hand raised ready to crush the next droid in her way.
This isn’t pain. It’s just a mild irritation.
Her pistol long discarded, ammo spent killing machines that didn’t feel, couldn’t be reasoned with. Her bow slung across her chest, she couldn’t quite bring herself to give it up despite how meaningless it was now without any arrows to shoot.
One more step, just another step.
Jaal slipped from her grip. He fell, face first onto the ground. “No!”
Emma pulled his arm over her shoulders. Jaw clenched as she fought gravity. “Come on!” Jaal barely budged. Her strength was found wanting.
Digging deep into a well near dry, she grunted as she lifted him with her powers. Carefully she settled his weight back onto her back, her spine curled upon on itself, her bones groaned. Despite the effort, his armoured feet were dragging on the floor.
What she didn’t see was the trail of blood she was leaving behind.
Close, we’re so fucking close.
Her weary head lifted as she caught the glint of light reflecting off metal. The lift was within sight. The way was clear. Her lungs heaved as she picked up the pace. “Almost there, Jaal. We’re almost there. I will get you home.”
Static burst out around her. “I eliminate.”
“Fuck no. You’re not going to stop me,” Emma growled.
Droids marched, whirls of gears approaching from behind.
As much as she wanted to run, she couldn’t. Her limbs were lead, and she refused to leave Jaal behind. He might be in a coma, he might already be dead for all she knew. But she would never ever leave him behind.
Raising her arm up high, a shimmering barrier formed around them. She was not taking any chances. A hail of bullets slammed into it. She grimaced as every single one felt like a million needles stabbing into her brain.
When it happened, Emma felt it rather than see it with her own eyes. The barrier shattered, the energy dissipating like a rubber band cut, rebounding back against her. Her knees buckled as it lanced through her head and down her neck. Jaal went tumbling. She went down without breaking her fall, her skull bounced against the hard ground.
Eyes opened but not seeing, vision doubling and then tripling the foes before her. She blinked once, twice, seeking Jaal. There he was, prone on the ground. His chest rising and falling unevenly. A trickle of blue blood staining his armour. Her heart squeezed. When did he get hurt? Was it from the fall? Was he shot? Thoughts race through her mind, every single doubt and fear made her gut churned. A shadow fell over him. Her eyes traced upwards. It was a droid. Her pulse quickened as she fought to rise. The barrel of a rifle aim against Jaal’s head.
The static grew louder. Emma roared.
One elbow braced against the floor, she stretched a hand out. She didn’t know what she did. The droid standing over Jaal got eviscerated. Servo, gears, wires and bits exploded.The shockwave swept through the entire space, hitting the waves upon waves of incoming droids.
The static shrieked in fury.
Machine versus human. It should have been a forgone conclusion. But the ancient AI had not counted on Emma Ryder. She was no ordinary human. But what made her extraordinary weren’t her powers but her tenacity, her grit and her will. Mistakes and failures had marked her life, not all of them her own making, but this was one she wasn’t willing to let happen.
His head was pounding. Someone was breathing raggedly nearby. Grits of debris scrapped against the floor underfoot. Then, a crash. That jolted him. His eyes flew open, blinking rapidly to clear the fog from his mind.
He remembered the bitter taste on his tongue when they walked away from the sunlight, the fear of the eternal sleep, the weariness that went beyond exhaustion. He remembered falling. He remembered Emma’s pleas. He remembered fighting against the encroaching darkness. Then, nothing. It was dark; it was empty; it was nothingness.
Arms pressed against the cold floor, he pushed himself upright. His limbs moved as if he was fighting against quicksand. He grunted, lifting his head. Everything was bright.
A barrier stood between him and the explosion. A pair of legs, slender and familiar, trickles of blood trailing down them. Grunts of exertion, hisses of pain, defiant gasps of breath. His eyes traced upwards and upwards, seeking.
There stark against the bright light, a soft halo around her battle form. Arms up, teeth bared, his darling one fought. She was his protector. Realisation slammed into him. She had dragged him all the way back to the sunlight and waited for him to recover, without relief, without knowing if it would work. Fierce pride and giddy joy gave energy to his weary body. She flung wave after wave against the droids with seemingly endless strength. She took his breath away.
“Emma,” he whispered.
She stiffened. Catching his barely audible exhale despite the roar of battle, she turned. Her unique blue-orange eyes met his. Bone deep exhaustion shone through laced with a fury he had never seen before. Her face softened, a smile tugged at her lips half-heartedly, recognising what she saw.
“Jaal.” The softest sigh of relief.
A spray of red burst from her chest. Her eyes widened more in surprise than pain. Her back arched backwards as she fell. The bullet ripped through her under suit easily, drilling into her frail human body. A grunt, a gasp and she slammed onto the floor.
The glass dome overhead exploded. Glass shards showered down. Jaal dragged himself over to her, shielding her against the debris. His attention focused entirely on keeping pressure over the wound, fighting to keep her lifeblood from spilling out of her body. Switching over to battle mode, pushing the horror of what his action had done, he quickly cataloged her injuries. Bullets had dug furrows into her flesh. Some were still bleeding, others dried. Her lips cracked, her head lacerated, her body completely and utterly spent. He forced back a sob threatening to overwhelm him.
“Come in, Ryder!” a voice crackled through their omni-tools. “The extraction team is on its way down. Hang in there.”
Jaal recognised the voice. It was Evfra. “Hurry!” he screamed. “Ryder is down. I repeat Ryder is down!”
His hands sleek with her blood. His throat raw from begging. His head throbbed, his vision blurred, his muscles screamed for mercy, but he refused to give up.
People came. They surrounded him, rifles and bullets beating back the tide of droids. Battle roared around him. Voices shouted, hands tugged. Jaal struggled against them.
“Jaal! We got to go!”
Focus snapped to the voice, drowning out the ringing that had invaded his head. Asa, her tall frame yanking him to his feet. His knees refused to lock, his hands grabbing at her armour to keep himself from falling.
“Emma.” A single word that carried all his fear, his worries, his soul-crushing panic.
Asa looked at the limp, bleeding body already being worked on by a medic. One medic looked up, he shook his head once before deploying the stretcher from his pack. Her grip tightened around Jaal’s arm.
“We got to go now!”
Jaal was half carried as he stumbled beside Asa. His eyes staring at the pair of medics carrying his Taoshay ahead of them. Asa clinched a line onto his armour.
Without warning, he got yanked into the air. He lifted his head to find more Resistance fighters were at the top, covering their exit, lifting the rescuers back to the surface. Evfra was standing at the lip of the shattered dome.
How long were we here? Long enough for Evfra to get here? How long did Emma protect me?
As soon as his feet found solid ground, he stumbled into the shuttle they took Emma to. The shuttle slammed shut behind him and rumbled to life. Where they were going, Jaal didn’t care.
“How is she?”
Nobody answered. The answer was plain to see.
Eyes closed, lips apart, skin pale and ashen. Red where none was supposed to be. Her armour removed, under suit sliced opened. A pair of angara hands pushed down against her chest, over and over and over. Bones crunched, but the medic went on.
Jaal bit back a strangled cry. Emma, don’t do this!
Time ceased to have meaning. Needle after needle of drugs pumped into her veins as her heart was forcibly made to beat again only to lose it again. The whine of the monitor was all he could hear.
Emma floated in this eternal bubble of emptiness.
But it wasn’t always so. Sometimes jolts of lightning rippled across the sky, lighting up the dark but those always fade. Other times it was echoes of far away voices calling, coaxing and pleading, but those too went away.
There was only one constant. A mild current ran through her little bubble. Turning everything a brilliant blue. At first it was weak, it came in pulses. Later, it was stronger, and it went on for longer. The blue light always came with music and a persistent voice. Melodies that dipped and raised, a voice that whispered deep and low. It was familiar but warped by time and distance. It begged, it pleaded, and eventually even it fell silent.
But it always returned. Again and again. Each time it tugged at her a little more, a little harder, a little further. There was something about the voice that roused her strength she thought was no more. It prodded her to get up. Something inside her yearned for it despite not understanding.
But it was hard. Her bones weighed more than she could lift. And she was tired, so very weary. Still, the voice called. She had to answer. She had to.
And so Emma got to her feet again. She dragged her body towards the voice. Forward and only forward. One foot in front of the other. She would get to the voice, eventually.
Light and shadow danced. They flickered like flames. Heat and cold burnt in different ways. Beeps, hisses and an infernal ticking. Something soft underneath her fingertips. Hands larger than her own lifted her arms, moving the joints slowly and deliberately. A calm electricity dancing across her skin. Soft music played in the background.
It was familiar.
Emma fought to open her eyes but her eyelids were lead. Frustrated she huffed but her chest just rose and fell in steady intervals almost as if she wasn’t in control.
Why am I not in control? What is happening?
Her brain churned through the fog but it stuttered to a halt over and over again at the empty blanks in her memory. She remembered defeating the Archon. She remembered feeling bored on Meridian. Then, not.
What came after? It was a deep yawning chasm. But it wasn’t completely empty. As she gazed into the gaping crater, there were flashes of fear and fury, pain and agony.
After… just one overriding thought - Jaal.
Emma jerked. At least she thought she did, but she managed no more than a twitch. Movement ceased. Light seared her retinas. She groaned, regretting the decision.
“Emma,” a gasp exhaled in relief and wonder. “I’ll be right back.”
While the person was gone, Emma tried again. This time the searing dropped to a more manageable level, whoever it was had dimmed the windows. She sighed but realised she couldn’t. There was a tube secured to her lips, into her mouth and down her throat. She groaned, frustrated and utterly uncomfortable, lifting a hand to tug at it only to stop to look at said arm. It was completely swathed in bandages, IV line trailing into it.
“Shhh… I’m here,” the voice returned, her eyes foggy from a drugged sleep, saw only a blurry blue figure. “Relax, the doctors will get it out soon.”
She didn’t need to see to know who it was, the familiar rumble of his earthly tones, the buzz of his touch calmed her instantly.
An entire medical team swept in, brushing him aside, her eyes only sought his. They ran scans, they poked and prodded her. Luckily they didn’t ask her many questions, her throat was raw from the breathing tube. By the time she was left alone again, it was hours later. And she was exhausted.
But as tired as she was, she couldn’t rest till she found him. Scott was speaking to Jaal in the corner as the medical team finally retreated. He nodded at her. “Rest, recover. We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said before squeezing Jaal’s shoulder and leaving.
“Jaal,” she rasped, her hand reaching desperate for contact in a manner she couldn’t understand.
Quiet footsteps approached, a five fingered but fused on the last two, brushed her hair from her face. A low grade bio-electricity buzzed across her skin. Then a sob cut through the air. Her gentle giant bent over, pressing his forehead against her as she cupped his face, eyes closed as tears streamed down his face.
“Emma,” his voice broken, his eyes reflecting how much this had taken a toll on him.
The doctors told her. She died over the skies of Momairus, only brought back by the sheer willpower of the medics and drugs. Later, stuffed into a stasis pod so that she stay breathing long enough to reach Meridian for life saving surgeries. The bullet had grazed her heart before taking a bouncing detour inside her rib cage. Paired that to the chronic level of dehydration she had been going through, the overtaxed levels she had pushed herself and the other injuries, her body went into shutdown. It was too much for a body no matter how unique, how augmented Emma’s was to go on.
Jaal was there for all of it. No amount of cajoling from Scott or yelling from Asa and Evfra could pry him to seek treatment he needed. And when the doctors declared she lived, but the trauma was bad enough she needed to be put into a medically induced coma to allow her body to heal. Jaal was with her every day, every possible moment.
He was her tether to the land of the living. Without Jaal calling for her, she would have remained in a coma and slipped away forever.
Tears sprang from her eyes unbidden. She had caused him so much pain when all she wanted was to protect him. Sobs shook her frail body as pain wrecked through her healing flesh, she groaned. Stricken, Jaal straightened, ready to hit the call button for the doctors again. But her fingers clung onto his shirt, pulling him down with surprising strength.
“Don’t go,” she whispered
“I’m not leaving.”
His fingers brushing against her face, taking away her tears. “I’m sorry,” she muttered over and over under her breath. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
Piano keys tinkled in the background as the music continued to play. A clear voice sang.
You think that I nearly lost you
When the doctors tried to take you away.
“It’s me, it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have left you alone,” he growled, his voice cracking.
“You were in a coma, there were droids everywhere. I was so scared that I’d already lost you.”
But like the night you took my hand beside the fire
Thirty years ago to this day
Jaal wrapped his arms gently around her, pulling her close, willing to feel his warmth. “I’m here,” he whispered, nuzzling her hair. “Without you, I won’t be standing here. You can never lose me.”
You swore you'd be here 'til we decide that it's our time
Well it's not time, you've never quit in all your life.
Emma pressed her face into his chest, taking a shuddering breath to steady herself. When she looked at him again, Jaal pressed a kiss against her forehead. “I can’t lose you,” he confessed.
So just take my hand,
you know that I will never leave your side.
“You won’t,” she promised.
You're the love of my life,
you know that I will never leave your side.
The day had taken a toll on her strength. As her eyelids slid shut, Emma kept a firm grip on Jaal’s hand. “I swear I’ll never be bored again,” she whispered.
Jaal chuckled, the joke now bittersweet. “I’ll be afraid if you ever got bored again.”
Her small smile tugged at her lips. “The AI got it right you know?”
“Static screaming is the new in thing?”
“No,” she snorted, opening her eyes to meet Jaal’s.
“We tire but we persist.”
Lyrics taken from The Gambler by Fun