A/N: It's been a while... :P The intro to this gave me a real headache and I'm still not pleased but here we are anyway.
They had entered the Tafeno system in search of the Archon and his flagship, the Verakan, but on arrival things became much more complicated.
Sara had thought she would feel elated when she discovered the salarian ark. Foolish as it was, she had dared to hope... Seeing it tethered to the ship they were currently hunting had crushed the air from her lungs. Instead of elation she felt fear, cold and sickening. There were some 20,000 -odd souls aboard Paarchero, and they were in the clutches of the kett. Thoughts of the kett facility on Voeld had flooded her mind, making her fingers clumsy with nerves as she readied her equipment to board the ark.
The Tempest had docked with Paarchero and found the ark undamaged, its systems on standby. The salarian Pathfinder, Zevin Raeka, was miraculously still alive, hidden in a stasis pod among the general population to keep her safe from the kett. After waking her, Sara, Peebee and Cora infiltrated the Verakan and helped rescue Raeka's crewmates from the kett so the salarians could work to free Paarchero while Sara and her team continued with their own mission. They fought their way through the kett ship in search of the Archon's personal chamber, where they hoped to find a remnant relic depicting Meridian.
"The Moshae had better be right about this," Sara spoke as the last kett soldier dropped to the floor with a bullet in its brain. "That relic had better be in there." Ahead of her the heavy metal door panels to the Archon's chambers gleamed in the orange light of the hallway they had been fighting in, the lock shining a careless green. Kett bodies littered the floor, dark green blood streaking grey metal. Where gunfire and shouting had filled the corridor only moments before, now there was a strange silence. It pressed in on Sara's ears, a kind of uncomfortable pressure.
"I get the feeling she's right about most things," Cora replied, pistol still held at the ready as she surveyed their surroundings with quick, precise motions, wary of reinforcements showing up.
Sara grunted in reply, standing up and moving away from the console she had been using as cover. The machinery spat sparks now, damaged during the firefight. "Okay, come on, let's get this over with," she said, hurrying along the hallway, hopping over bodies and fallen weaponry. Peebee reached the door first and waited for Cora and Sara to catch up with her before she palmed the door release.
The panel hissed open and they jogged through, into a large room, dimly lit by various glowing consoles and screens and even a bizarre bulbous tank filled with a vaguely luminous swirling green liquid. Sara's eyes struggled briefly to adjust to the gloom after the fluorescent white brightness of the rest of the ship.
"Ryder, caution-" SAM started, but it was too late.
Sara uttered a startled gasp as her body locked in place. Her muscles seized, frozen in place by some invisible force field. No, not invisible. She could see a faint orange shimmer moving over her body.
"It's some kind of Immobilizing field?" She spoke with effort, straining to force her limbs to obey her, to break free of the effects through sheer will alone. She found she could move her head somewhat, not that that small motion would be any help…
A faint hiss across the room signalled a door opening and Sara's head snapped up, eyes drawn towards the noise as a figure entered through a shadowy doorway.
"It's useless to struggle." Sara felt her blood run cold, ice radiating outwards from her core as a prickling of trepidation raced down her spine. The Archon strode towards them through the gloom from the other side of the room, followed by a Destined in glossy red armour.
"Oh, brilliant," Peebee grumbled behind Sara.
The Archon's gaze flicked over Sara as he approached, appraising her. His expression was unreadable.
"I've been in this forsaken cluster for decades," the Archon continued, pacing slowly around the three trapped women, watching them as though they were specimens caught in a cage, "surrounded by amoeba." Sara felt the soft hairs at the back of her neck prickle as the kett disappeared from her view, moving behind her. "Then you arrive- a human able to do the unthinkable." He circled back around them to stand in front of Sara, looking down at her with cold, pale eyes. Sara grit her teeth and forced herself to maintain eye contact, feeling hatred and revulsion simmering in her gut in a sickening cocktail. "You even evaded me. Such an unlikely rival, it was almost invigorating to have one," a flicker of annoyance crossed his face as he paused. "And yet... it's a fitting end."
Sara gave him a bitter smirk. "Awww, I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm really not..." She replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.
The Archon blinked once, slowly, deciphering the tone in her words, then snapped one hand out and gripped her throat tight. Sara felt her skin crawl at his touch, his palm warm against her throat. Faint panic as he began to squeeze and breathing started to become an issue. Her pulse jumped erratically against one claw, betraying her mask of angry calm.
"Hey, back off, asshole," Cora snarled from behind her.
The Archon ignored Cora and tipped Sara's head first left, then right, inspecting her curiously. Sara mustered her frostiest glare, but he didn't seem to notice. Instead he lifted his other hand, in which he held a cylindrical object that was at once alien and bone-chillingly familiar. He jabbed the syringe into the back of Sara's neck. She gasped involuntarily at the sudden flash of pain, felt something cold enter her bloodstream as he depressed the plunger. Then he withdrew the needle and released her throat. The back of her neck burned where the needle had pierced her skin and she ached to rub the tiny wound, but her limbs still refused to cooperate.
"A first sample," he said, as though that explained what he had just done. Sara bit her tongue against a million questions, refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing that whatever he had just done to her was vastly more terrifying than being stuck in an immobilizing field. "Your testing begins now. I will learn your secret soon enough." Something akin to a smile twitched at his lips.
His brows dipped in a sudden frown, and he inclined his head, listening. "Report." A pause, then, "await my arrival." Sara realized he was speaking to someone over comms. The salarians must have been pinpointed.
The Archon's attention returned to his prey. "Save your strength, human," he taunted her.
"I've got strength in spades," Sara spat. Not her best retort, but the situation at hand was demanding the attention of most of her mental capacity. Witty comebacks could wait.
The Archon watched her a moment, then turned and strode across the room, Destined in tow. Sara heard the doors whisper open, then closed again, and they were alone once more.
"Raeka must have run into trouble," Cora commented.
"She's got nothing on us..." Sara replied bitterly. "SAM? Ideas?"
"I'm sensing a biological transmitter in your bloodstream now, attempting to neutralize it," SAM spoke through their shared comms for all to hear.
"That can wait," Sara told him, though she dearly wished it could be number one priority. The fear made her tongue feel thick in her mouth, left a metallic taste. What had he done to her? "We need to get out of this like yesterday."
A moment as SAM studied their prison, then, "the containment fields only interact with living matter. If you expire, the field around you will extinguish until manually reset. As you know, my access to your physiology allows me to enhance your vital signals when required. I can also do the opposite."
"Holy shit," Sara muttered under her breath, understanding instantly. She cleared her throat, trying to keep her voice level as she clarified, "so... If you shut down my life signs- if you kill me- the field will disappear?"
"The one holding you, yes. Then I would attempt to resuscitate."
The silence of her companions was a physical thing, pressing into her shoulders from behind. She could feel them staring at her in shock.
"Right. ...are there any other options?" Sara asked hopefully, though she knew the answer already.
"None that I could determine."
Sara was silent for a moment, thinking it through. But what choice did she have? They couldn't exactly hang around waiting for the Archon to return and decide to free them out of the goodness of his heart. "All right, let's do it." She hoped she sounded braver than she felt.
"What?" Peebee cried incredulously. "Ryder, no, bad plan! Bad. Cora, tell her!" She appealed desperately to the sole voice of reason amongst their fireteam. Cora, that reliable bedrock of logic and calm amongst the Tempest crew. The one that kept Sara in check when she came up with her hare-brained schemes. Like, for example, allowing an experimental AI to murder her.
Cora was having trouble finding her voice over the wild fear tying knots in her chest. She swallowed hard, cleared her throat. "The alternative is staying here at the Archon's leisure." Her words came out dull, flat. They left Peebee speechless.
Sara breathed in through her nose, let the air out slowly through her mouth.
Forget bricks, Lexi was going to shit an entire building when she found out about Sara's latest wild plan.
She heard SAM's voice, soft and clinical, usually so calming, "stopping your heart..."
Sara tried to swallow the mounting panic, heart rate skyrocketing in response to her AI companion's statement. There was a lump in her throat and her mouth had gone dry. He was going to kill her, switch her off.
"Now." SAM was going to ki-
There was nothing. She no longer existed. Sara was dead.
Cora schooled her features into a mask of icy calm as the field holding Sara suddenly shut off and the Pathfinder collapsed to the floor like a rag doll. She clenched her jaw, her heart throbbing painfully against her ribs as she stared down at her best friend, no longer vibrant and mischievous but now a corpse. Beside her she could see Peebee's eyes were wide with fear.
"Wow, she's really gone, huh?" The asari asked loudly, too loudly, trying to disguise her panic with casual words.
"Yes," Cora replied simply, not trusting herself to say any more. She could hear the waver in even that simple word.
The seconds ticked by, painfully slow. Eons passed. "SAM...?" Cora asked, a warning tone creeping into her voice, heralding the start of panic. Why wasn't Sara moving yet?
"Stimulating the cardiovascular core," SAM said. A beat, then, "zero activity."
"What?" Peebee hissed sharply. "I said it was a bad plan! No one ever listens to me!"
"Now is really not the time, Peebee," Cora snapped.
"Stimulating the cardiovascular core..."
Sara felt weightless, lost in a blackness so complete that she saw nothing. But she didn't feel any fear, only a warm calm. And then an image flashed through her mind, a bright spark in the darkness. And another. And another. Flashes of memories blurring and churning together into one long seamless stream. Mom, Scott, Dad, Mom, friend, Scott, school- wake up Sara - Dad, firefight, Mom, hospital, family - come back.
The Tempest, her crew, fiery red hair and-
And her eyes snapped open as she gasped, sucking in a great lungful of air and struggling up onto her elbows.
She puffed out a breath, feeling her heart pounding behind her ribs. Adrenaline made her limbs tremble. She sat up with her forearms resting on her knees, flexing her fingers and waiting for the shaking to subside.
"That's twice now I've come back from the dead. I can't say the experience is improving," she quipped breathlessly.
"Try not to make a habit of it," Cora remarked drily.
"Ryder, I just want to say that being your friend is stressful," Peebee announced, her voice strained.
"Aw, Peebs," Sara grinned over her shoulder at the asari as she climbed to her feet. "That was almost an admission of a meaningful relationship!"
"Also, I hate you, and never call me 'Peebs' again," Peebee continued.
"Sure thing, Pelessaria," Sara replied and winked at her.
Peebee gave a growl of frustration. "Lemme out of this stupid field so I can kick your ass!"
"I second that statement," Cora said.
Sara ignored them both as she glanced around the room for a way to break the stasis field holding her friends in place. "SAM?"
"The terminal in the corner will allow you to manually override the field," SAM told her.
Sara looked up, bright eyes darting around the room until they found the terminal SAM had mentioned. "Brilliant," she rushed over and glanced at the keyboard, and then the terminal screen, puzzling over the kett script. Directed by SAM she entered the combination of keystrokes required and was rewarded by sounds of relief from Peebee and Cora behind her as the immobilizing field released them.
"That was great," Peebee said, rolling her shoulders and stretching her neck from side to side. "Let's never do it again."
"Agreed," Cora said, looking over Sara to visually check her friend had returned from the dead in one piece.
"Can you two stop agreeing with each other? It's freaking me out," Sara commented, blue eyes flicking between the two women.
"She's got a point," Peebee said, looking sideways at Cora and propping one hand on her hip.
"No comment," Cora replied with a grin.
Sara sighed and headed across the room towards the door the Archon had left through minutes before. "Come on, we've got a mission to finish."