The Merry Adventures of Steve & Hayden

Part 1

A sea of sand reached out as far as the eye could see. The sun bore down, causing small beads of sweat to build up along Steve's hairline, despite his hardsuits cooling system. For a moment he considered getting his helmet out of their nearby shuttle. Erinle was a dying planet that didn't see much action outside of its spaceport. There was little worry of anyone searching the endless stretches of desert for the countless graves Eclipse had filled.

There in the desert, distant from prying eyes, Steve and two other Eclipse mercs sat in folding chairs beneath a brown canopy. Their two charges, a 13 year old boy and a middle-aged woman, weren't afforded such a luxury. Their skin blistered and peeled from a long day of being exposed to the harsh sun as they sat in the open, atop the scorching hot sand. A large hole about six feet deep was dug a few yards away from them.

"Please..." the woman pleaded, "Water. My son needs water."

Steve smiled at the woman and took a long, gluttonous swig from his water bottle, allowing some to spill down his chin. "What do you think?" he asked, looking over his two companions, "Think they deserve it?"

A shorter human with a shaved head scrutinized the mother for a moment from the comfort of her chair. Her shaved head was decorated with small scars, each a badge of honor from a previous battle. Karen had worked alongside Steve since he first became involved with Eclipse. She was cruel, cold, and efficient. Over their many years together, they had formed quite the strong bond. They were a perfect team. "What has she done for us?" Karen asked coyly.

"Good point." Steve leaned forward, placing his forearms against his knees. He leveled his gaze upon the terrified mother. "What have you done for us?"

"He's just a boy!" the mother shouted, "He hasn't done anything to anyone!"

The third Eclipse member, a salarian by the name of Varrok, tossed an open bottle of water towards the pair. It landed in the sand about half way to its target, spilling a large portion of its contents. Varrok had only been with Steve and Karen for a few months, and neither particularly liked him. He just wasn't a good fit. But they didn't have much say in the matter, so they made the best of it.

"No use to us dead. Not yet, anyways." the salarian said indifferently and went back to poking at his omni-tool.

The mother quickly rose from the ground and, despite the massive fatigue she must've felt, bridged the gap to the bottle in record time. She didn't bother drinking any herself. Her son argued, but she tilted the bottom of the bottle upward as he drank, making sure he swallowed every last drop. Steve smiled to himself. He wondered if his own mother would have been so brave in the face of death. Would she have fought back the men that tried to hurt Steve all those years ago on Gagarin Station? He pushed it out of his mind. It wasn't worth dwelling on questions without answers.

"What a buzzkill." Karen teased.

A number of beeps in quick succession indicated that their orders had arrived. The salarian leaned in closer to the other two and tapped a few commands into the haptic interface above his forearm, causing an image of an asari to appear on the screen before them.

"He says he doesn't have the money," she began, looking offscreen for a moment, presumably at the subject in question, "Do the wife first. We'll see if that loosens his wallet." There was no emotion in the asari's voice. When you remained in their line of work for so long, emotions became a liability. You functioned on orders. Nothing else mattered.

A voice screamed out from the other side of the vid call, begging the asari to stop. It was a pained, desperate scream. The scream of a man who had no other options. Maybe he had the money. Maybe he didn't. It wasn't Steve's concern. The man owed the wrong people money, and they hired Eclipse to get their credits back by any means necessary. A quick probe of his bank accounts came up empty handed. That's where Steve and his goonsquad came in. When the standard Eclipse finesse just wouldn't get the job done, they took over. It wasn't personal. It was business, and business is never personal.

"I'll do her." Karen sighed as she rose from her chair and marched towards the prisoners with Varrok at her flank. Steve remained in his seat.

The young boy quickly put himself between his mother and the approaching mercenaries. "Leave her alone!" he commanded. His mother gripped the back of his shirt tightly, hoping to keep him in place as tears streamed silently down her face.

Steve felt a sharp twinge of pain shoot through his forehead. The surefire sign of another migraine.

Varrok held his arm up, giving the asari and her prisoner a clear view of what was going on. Even from where he was, Steve could hear the asari's prisoner pleading.

"I said leave her alone!" the boy repeated and charged at Karen, breaking free of his mother's grip. The veteran mercenary backhanded the boy effortlessly, slamming a gloved fist into his jaw and sending him sprawling in the sand. His mother leapt from her seat. At first, Steve thought she was going to attack Karen. The mercenary must have thought the same, as she immediately backpedaled and drew her pistol, readying to fire at the woman. Instead, the mother threw her body over her son's, shielding him. "No!" she cried out, "Please, don't hurt him! I'll do whatever you ask, just don't hurt my son!"

Another sharp pang shot through Steve's forehead. Memories of Jump Zero flooded back to him. They were just kids, no older than the young boy in the sand. They didn't deserve the torture they were put through. Steve didn't deserve the torture he was put through. But the students always stuck together, often putting themselves on the line to protect one another. Steve reminded himself that none of that mattered anymore, but the throbbing in his head disagreed.

Karen grabbed a fist full of hair and dragged the woman off of the boy. "Get in the hole." the mercenary demanded.

"No... Mom, you can't..." pleaded the young boy.

"I love you so much, Hayden. I love you so, so much." the woman sobbed, reaching out and pulling her son's head against her own as she planted a kiss on his cheek. She jerked away swiftly and crawled towards the hole like a wounded animal.

"Good girl." Karen mocked.

"Cover your eyes, Hayden." the mother ordered as she descended into the hole. The fear in her voice slowly drained away. She drew all the courage she could muster as she stared up at her executioner and the pistol that was leveled at her head.

The young boy crawled towards the edge of the hole and reached a hand down towards his mother. His chest spasmed with each wailing breath, but against his mother's behest, his eyes remained glued on her.

"Cover your eyes!" she begged. "Please Hayd-..." her sentence was cut off by the short whistle of Karen's weapon. The man on the other end of the call released a high pitched bellow just before Varrok ended the call. And then there was silence. The boy remained speechlessly perched at the edge of the hole, gazing down toward his mother as tears dripped from his chin. Karen and Varrok returned to their seats. The rhythmic throbbing in Steve's head quickened its pace.

"You can take care of the kid." Karen said. Steve nodded. It was the first time a kid was involved, but Steve would follow his orders. The throbbing intensified.

Part 2

It wasn't long before the tears stopped. Hayden just looked silently into the hole. Motionless aside from the slight rise and fall of his chest. Varrok remained focused on his omni-tool while Karen inspected and cleaned her weapon. Steve just stared at the boy. The throbbing in his head felt like a jackhammer going off. Its rhythm sped up, matching the pace of the boy's breathing. Steve knew that, even if the boy's father managed to pay, Hayden would never be the same. This would change him. Haunt him. Steve tried to convince himself that it would make the boy stronger.

Suddenly, before Steve could even process what was happening, the boy was on his feet and charging at the three mercs. Karen chuckled to herself and smirked at Steve. Varrok looked away from his work, curious about the boys intentions. Steve stood up and took a single step forward, striking outward with his palm just in time to catch Hayden in the solar plexus, sending him onto his back and gasping for air.

"Nice try kid." Karen said, returning her attention to the gun in her lap.

Steve dropped to one knee and clasped a gauntleted hand around Hayden's throat, pinning him to the sand. The boy thrashed out at him, kicking and swinging with each limb. A wild blow caught Steve in the jaw, causing the throbbing in his head to grow more severe. The boy was a fighter. Just like Steve. A combination of fear and intense hate nestled in the boy's eyes as he continued to struggle against Steve's grip. In the pitch black of Hayden's pupils, Steve could've sworn he seen his own reflection. He was no better than his own tormentors. It was right at that moment, as the shock from the sloppy punch reverberated through his very being, that Steve decided to spare the boy. To spare himself.

Steve released his grip and stood up, returning to his seat. The boy rolled onto his side and coughed as he struggled to suck air into his lungs. The familiar chirp of Varrok's omni-tool caused Hayden to recoil in fear, kicking up sand as he crawled backwards, away from the mercs. Varrok pressed a few buttons and the familiar face of the asari appeared on the screen.

She sighed, as if exhausted from the whole experience. "He still maintains that he doesn't have the money." she grunted. The man could be heard sobbing and apologizing in the background to nobody in particular. "Bury the bodies. We'll take care of him and begin collecting any valuable assets from his home to make up for the clients loss."

"We're not killing the boy." Steve said as he stood and took a few steps towards the boy. The pounding in his head matched his quickening heartbeat, causing him to close his eyes for a moment. Thump. Thump.

"It's not up for debate." the asari shot back, "This is an order."

"We're not killing the boy." Steven maintained, turning to face the other two mercs who were now on their feet and out from under the canopy. Varrok allowed the interface on his omni-tool to dissipate. The look on Karen's face said it all.

"Don't do this, Thumper." she said, "It's not worth it. You don't even know the kid. Don't throw your life away for nothing. Please." she begged.

As his two allies cautiously approached him, a shine slowly enveloped Steve, like heat rising off asphalt in the summer. Thump. Thump.

"She's right, Steve." the salarian said, "Not worth it."

"We've been through this a hundred times. Why now?" Karen asked, unaware of the large cloud of sand beginning to hover above the ground behind herself and Varrok.

"He's-... He's me." Steve said, glancing briefly at the boy. He no longer saw Hayden. In the boy's place, was a 13 year old Steven, huddled in the corner of the barracks back on Gagarin Station.

Karen stared past Steve, at the young boy. "You're confused, Thumper. You need your meds." Karen said, putting her hands up, palms outward, in a non-threatening way, "You're not thinking clearly right now."

"You're wrong, Karen. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am thinking clearly." Another cloud of sand raised from the ground at the mercenaries flanks. "Nobody's hurting the boy." Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Karen lowered her hands. A defeated look overcame her as she realized there was no rationalizing with him. "I won't be able to protect you from this." she whispered. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Varrok made a sudden move for the weapon holstered on his thigh, setting Steve in motion. Steve clapped his hands together in front of himself, causing the clouds of sand to converge on the pair of mercenaries from three directions. The tiny grains hit them with surprising force, rending the flesh on Karen's cheeks and forcing the salarian to throw his hands up to shield his face. Steve used the opportunity to swiftly draw his Tempest and fire a short burst into Varrok's face, effectively ending the salarian's life.

The glow around Steve grew larger, more prominent, as he rushed towards Karen, striking her in the chest. The short woman sailed through the air, crashing against the windshield of the nearby parked shuttle, splintering the glass into thousands of little shards. She weakly rolled off of the hood of the vehicle as Steve made his way over to her. She tried crawling, but there was nowhere to go. Steve turned her over, onto her back, and knelt above her. His eyes shot to her hands; her left was over a large shard of glass protruding from the side of her neck, the other clutched at the collar of her hardsuit.

"H-...Help me..." she begged, releasing her grip on her hardsuit and reaching arbitrarily towards Steve.

Steve put his hand over hers and used his palm to drive the glass deeper, causing a fountain of blood to shoot up, painting the woman's face.

"Shhh." he whispered, "We're doing a good thing. This is the right thing."

Karen opened her mouth to speak, but only a sickening wet gurgle left her lips.

"Shhh. Just breathe." he comforted, balling his fist and hammering downward violently on the shard of glass with the bottom of his hand "Close your eyes and breathe. We're doing the right thing" he repeated.

She stared up at him, tears welling up in her eyes, as if to ask "Why?" but all that escaped the corners of her mouth was a steady stream of crimson.

"This is our redemption." Steve explained, "I'm sorry you can't be around to see it through with me, Karen. We-... I can undo the wrong we've done."

She slowly removed her hand from the fatal wound and clasped it over his. She continued to stare distantly, unblinking. A short wheezing left her chest, a death rattle of sorts, before silence permeated the air once again.

Steve's body went slack as he sat above Karen, the only person he had ever truly allowed to know him. Lonliness crept throughout his body. Throughout his mind. Karen's right hand sat lifelessly against the compartment on Steve's hardsuit he used to store his medication. Thump. Thump. Thump.