Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love – Charles M. Schulz
Anar was in the cargo hold, talking to Drimi about invading the asari’s space when Sync’s voice came across the PA system.
“Ladies, Gentlemen and Anar, we have arrived in the universe of Synthetic Destruction,” Sync said. “We really need to start getting better names for these alternative universes. Local time is 10:52 Galactic Standard Time. Ship time remains at 0915 hours. We jump to Elias’ Synthesised universe in 24 hours exactly. Please don’t get yourself arrested in the meantime, thanks.”
“Did the doctor just make a joke at this one’s expense?” Anar asked.
Drimi looked over from where he was stacking crates up against the far wall. “Do you really consider yourself a gentleman?”
“Only on special occasions.”
“Then maybe not,” Drimi said, flashing the hanar a grin. “To be honest I think he’s rediscovering his sense of humour since meeting you guys.”
“This one would be happy to assist. It knows lots of jokes.”
“A human, a turian and a quarian walk into a bar. The volus just walks under it.”
Drimi grinned. “Why don’t asari wear miniskirts?”
Anar paused. “Why don’t asari wear miniskirts?”
“They prefer going commando.”
“Really? This one thought they just had a thing for black leather.”
Drimi blinked. “There’s a difference?”
“This one supposes you have a point. How many asari does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“Two,” Drimi said primly. “But how do you fit them inside the lightbulb?”
“You’ve heard that one then.”
“It’s a classic,” Drimi said. “What do you get when you run a hanar through a peanut processing plant?”
“Peanut Butter and Jelly,” Anar said. “If you’re a human from the United North American States. Hey—” his communicator pinged. And kept going. “This one thinks it needs to answer these.”
Drimi’s grin faded a little. “Your girlfriend?”
Anar sighed as he bolted out the cargo bay doors heading at what would have been a clanking run if he not for the shock absorbers he and Chris had built into the motorised knees of his mech suit. Bringing up his comm he forced himself to stop clenching his tentacles and called Cyrus, the call dropping through almost immediately.
“Cyrus, are you there?”
“Loser? You’re calling me? In the morning? This must be important. Heard you vanished after shooting at concert you were taking your girlfriend to. And a turian shot by a sniper rifle, not a weapon used by Loser. Unless—”
“Shut up, Cyrus. This one doesn’t have time for your guessing games. Get enough men to this one’s apartment to get the weapons out of storage. Including the ones behind the wine fridge. The code for the locks is 245 alpha bravo zulu. Get them out, get them on a truck, and get them to commercial docking bay Omega 72. This one will meet you at the apartment. Do not argue with this one. Just do it.”
There was a pause at the other end of the phone line. “Sorry, I was busy calculating cost of programming an explosive nasal passage virus. What did you say?”
“Guns, this one’s place. Get them to docking bay Omega 72. There’s a ship there called the Endurance and they’re all going on board.”
“Sorry, explosive nasal passage virus is proving far too messy—and doesn’t work on hanar. I’m considering an alternative to work with mucus lining on the hanar epidermis. Dehydration is showing as possible side effect. I think that’s acceptable. Far too busy to run around moving guns.”
“Put down the petri dishes and get your ass over to the armoury. This is serious.”
“Serious?” There was a pause. “You’ve never been serious before. Are you feeling unwell?”
“This one will reach down your throat and let you develop an antidote to hanar toxins if you don’t hurry up.”
“I created an antidote years ago. Took about half a day. It tastes of strawberries.”
“You hate strawberries.”
“Hm. Suppose I should help then. Be there soon. I think I also have time to upgrade antidote flavour to chocolate.”
Anar’s apartment was in a rougher area of the wards, where reconstruction had barely begun. After the battle of Earth, most of the galaxy’s resources had gone into rebuilding the Citadel itself, along with the mass relay network. Even now, some three years on, bits of it that hadn’t burnt up upon entry into Earth’s atmosphere were still being washed up on beaches all over that world. Anar had never been to Earth. As he took the slightly rickety, but immaculately finished elevator up to his apartment, he wondered if he’d get there on whatever madcap adventure the quarian lounge singer was taking them on. Stepping out into an airy corridor, he remained amazed at the way the Citadel looked. Always. No matter how poor the neighbourhood, it always looked amazing, thanks to the keepers. Pushing open his apartment door a strange smell filtered in through the mech’s air ducting. Cookies. Tricey never baked. Well, nothing edible anyway.
In the open plan kitchen a large head turned to look at him.
“With surprise: You have returned,” Otto said.
Running feet from the bedroom turned into a running redheaded human woman and suddenly arms were wrapped around his mech.
“Anar! I was so worried about you. I was calling the police, they said they didn’t have any leads, I called all of your friends. Where have you been?”
Opening the blast shield, Anar exited the mech and wordlessly wrapped his tentacles around his girlfriend. The scent of her hair filled the olfactory receptors at the base of his tentacles and he found he was shaking as she tenderly stroked his bell.
“Honey? Are you all right? Are you hurt?” Soft fingers brushed over a long jagged scar on the end he had come to think of as his ‘face’ and—
The room was burning, and he lay on the floor, his levitation implants sputtering and misfiring. His tentacles writhed helplessly as blood seeped out onto the plascrete floor from a wound on his side. He could dimly see bodies in the wreckage of the furniture. Bodies and body parts and the air was thick with smoke and the clashing scents of alien blood mingled with the oppressive heat.
Above him a man’s face swam in and out of focus, wild eyes and unkempt hair slicked back with grease and a once fine shirt splattered with stains although whether food, blood, dirt or some other substance Anar never knew.
“I said it, didn’t I? I said you were going to die, jelly.”
“Listen, listen…she’s about to scream. Can you hear her scream? Simon says can you hear her scream?!”
It tore through his body, hot and accusing in its pain and fear. His tentacles clenched and the left rear levitation implants sputtered, pushing him a few inches off the ground.
“Oh no, no, no, that’s not allowed, jelly. We’re playing my game! My rules!”
The barrel of a pistol lowered until it was pointing directly at his flesh. “Simon says die.”
There was a clank in the kitchen, and Anar jumped back, his levitation pack sending him careening into the roof, where he clung to the pendant light for a moment before bringing himself back down to his usual just above head height hover.
In the kitchen, Otto had hit a hot tray against the door of the heating unit.
“Apologetically: I did not wish to intrude but Tricey was upset. And when people are upset I bake.”
“Anar, did you want to lie down?” Tricey asked.
“No, this one…will be fine,” he said. “Several armed men are about to come into this place and remove stores of weaponry. This one will be helping them. You need to stay out of the way—I would prefer you not to get hurt.”
“Honey, I don’t understand…”
“This one knows, but there isn’t time to fully explain,” he said as he went over to a picture of Mount Ahshan on Kahje and pushed it aside, revealing a recessed button in the wall which he struck with a balled tentacle, and the shelves next to the painting moved downward on a perfect cantilever, revealing a flat table with a selection of pistols and his backup assault rifles.
A compartment behind the wine fridge held a cache of frag grenades, and a cavity in the wall between the kitchen and the bedroom housed assault rifles, sub machine guns and racks of thermal clips. There were clips in the feature wall behind the bed, along with no less than three heavy pistols within tentacle reach.
“You had grenades under the bed?” Tricey squeaked.
“These are activated by software,” Anar said. “You have always been safe here, Tricey.”
From a hidden compartment in his wardrobe, he withdrew the microfiber harness he used when he wasn’t in the mech, which had a leather look and feel, but none of the animal cruelty associated with it. Four men, or at least, for males entered the apartment without bothering to knock, each carrying a large packing crate. They wore nondescript street clothes just the unacceptable side of shabby and had the gruff machismo that had characterised Anar’s time in the Eclipse mercenary group. What they didn’t look, was C-Sec, and even with his back turned, Anar could see Tricey’s face as she stepped wordlessly into the kitchen where Otto was still standing before the most recent batch of cookies, a red stand mixer still coated in the sheen of butter and flour. An older salarian strolled casually into the apartment, his head turning this way and that, taking in his surroundings as only a blind genius could.
“Ah, female. Human. You must be Tricey. Or Beatrice. Not to fret, we should have everything out of here quickly, including the smelly mercenaries. I told them to shower, but you know vorcha. One day we’ll have vorcha smelling like flowers for a generation. Just for fun.”
The salarian paused and sniffed. “Is that… hint of cocoa, roasted nuts, sucrose, butter…small hint of hydrogenated vegetable oils…am I smelling cookies?”
“Proudly, they are chocolate peanut butter,” Otto said. “Baking is good for the soul.”
“Chocolate peanut butter,” the salarian said. “Yes, I can see how that would work. Smoothness of chocolate, richness of butter and crunch with the toastiness of roasted nuts. I’d like that flavour combination,” and he walked over to the kitchen and helped himself to two of the largest cookies on the cooling tray.
“It’s about time you showed up, Cyrus,” Anar said floating into the kitchen.
“Well it’s not as if you provided advanced notice. I got here as soon as I could with maximum discretion under circumstances. Still, men had to leave projects unfinished.” Cyrus sniffed. “Messy.”
“Advanced warning wasn’t possible this time,” Anar said. “This one apologises for that.”
Cyrus waved a hand dismissively. “This is an amazing cookie. Just the right amount of crunch and additional salt crystals sharpen the flavour.”
“Thank you,” Otto intoned in his monotone voice. “It is my dream to open a restaurant someday.”
“We may have to keep you around,” Cyrus said, taking a third cookie. “I think every ship needs a good cook aboard it. It’s good for morale. During the reaper wars, good food had measurable affect on morale even when other variables were taken into account. Up to thirty percent in some cases.”
Anar moved over to Tricey, as the men began to make their way out of the apartment. “This one knows—I know—you have a lot of questions.”
“So…you’re not a C-Sec officer?”
Anar sighed and looked towards the door, where the batarian was hauling the last crate out of the apartment. “Get them to the ship,” he said. “This one will meet you there. Take some more cookies if you need them.”
“We’ll take the long route. No need to around suspicions,” Cyrus said, taking two more. “What is your name, sir?” he asked, turning to the krogan who had just finished wiping down the bench.
“With respect: My name is Otto.”
“Otto. Not a typical Krogan name, but then, you don’t have typical krogan speech patterns. Raised on Dakuna? Orphan? Your adoptive parents must be ver proud. I like him,” Cyrus said, turning back to Anar. “You should keep him around. My lady,” he said to Tricy with a florid bow.
“Circumspectly: I will leave now. I am sure you both have things to say to each other that require privacy,” Otto said.
“Well in that case,” Cyrus said, and reached over to pick up the cooling rack. “I have a proposition for you, Otto. And I think we should discuss it over more cookies.”
“Will you come with this one to the park?” Anar asked when he was alone with Tricey in the apartment. “This one will explain everything. I promise.”
She nodded, but Anar could see the confusion and fear in her eyes. Turning to his mech he jumped into the cockpit, and opened up the hatch at the rear. It wasn’t a big mech. At least, it wasn’t much bigger than a large Krogan, but Anar took up surprisingly little space when his tentacles were coiled around him, and there was easily room for a lithe person like Tricey in the mech. Wordlessly, she climbed inside, and sat on the other side of the oversized seat that Anar had on the inside, and they made their way to the park where they’d had their very first date—the date where the picture on she had given him for their anniversary had been taken, and Anar saw her eyes drift over to it where it sat near the control panel.
When they got to the park they wandered for a while, until their feet took them back to the oak tree they always sat under, by what Tricey had always called a duck pond, only there were never any ducks. Anar still didn’t know what a duck was. Something from earth apparently. They sat down, Tricey leaning up against the tree staring out over the water and Anar on his back with his tentacles on his stomach. It was the only way he could see properly, really.
“This could be the last time time we get to do this,” he said softly.
“What are you saying exactly, Anar?” she asked, not looking at him.
“Were you ever married? Before you met this one?”
He saw her frown. “No. I never met the right person. Before…you know.”
“Those men in the apartment. They’re ex-Eclipse mercenaries. They run a small private security company here on the Citadel, not big and not loud, just quiet and efficient. They’re not bad people—they just want a new start. The salarian with the visor is their Commander, and is also ex-Eclipse. As is this one.”
“So…you’ve been lying to me.”
“By omission,” Anar said. “This one never said it was with C-Sec. It just never corrected you. This one—I—was afraid you wouldn’t speak to me if you knew. Do you remember when we met?”
“I try not to.”
“This one was not with C-Sec then. It was not under orders. It was looking for its friend, Chris. But instead it—I—found you. And you are as amazing and strong and resourceful now as you were then. And this one is a criminal. And a murderer. But this one found something worth starting again for. This one found you. This one will find Chris. This one thought that was enough but…things have changed.”
He told her everything then. The device, the concert, the seat beside him suddenly being empty and and crackling electrical energy that became a wormhole to another universe where the sodas were fizzier and husks walked amongst the people of the Citadel as equals, or at least, technically as equals. He told her of the reaperised volus shock troops and of meeting the singer Elias, a male asari and a krogan with a pocketful of plant seeds that were irresistibly attractive to a strange, flying, synthetic construct that chewed holes in weak points within the space-time continuum and how that apparently made sense but the enkindlers only knew how that worked. He certainly didn’t. But he could see it in the greenish tint on the quarian’s eyes and the skin of the people who weren’t wearing a dampener, and there were reapers—actual reapers—striding around a Citadel that looked as sleek, beautiful and as thriving as he remembered it being before the war.
“There was destroyer in a fun fair,” he told her. “Children were climbing over it, gripping its legs as it lifted them through the air from one ride to another. Elias says they’ve been helping. Cicepia says they help in her universe as well, and they do seem to, but they glow blue there and apparently Commander Shepard controls all of them. They are bent to his will and guard them as he did. And there aren’t many quarians where she’s from and the krogan are dying out, but…there’s another universe out there, where things are worse—where the reapers won. And it’s tunnelling into all of our universes and threatening to let them through to harvest us—all of us. And here’s the thing—we can stop it. This one and the others can seal the wormholes…and that means that this one has to try.”
A warm hand gripped one of his tentacles. When they’d first started dating, Tricey had asked if he had a dominant tentacle, like the way that she was left handed. It had taken her a while to adjust to a his multidextrous nature, but now she just went with it. “Thank you for telling me the truth.”
“There will be no more secrets,” Anar said. “No more lies. This one swears. I swear.”
“All right,” Tricey said. “We’ll talk about it when you come back.”
Anar took a deep breath and rose in the air, although he didn’t let go of her hand. “Time to be a hero then,” he said. “For once. Would you like to come and see the ship?”
Her smile was small, but it was a smile. “I think I’d like that.”