It’s easy as 1-2-3,
As simple as do re mi,
Food for you and me, yeah.” – Elia’Solar vas Rannoch (Blue Universe)
Invictus was dry—at least, it was dry in the capital city Shastinasio, which was located in the drier north of the planet, far away from the infamous jungle. Or at least, infamous throughout the heirarchy, as Cicepia explained—a Tribute to Turian stubbornness.
“And I used to live there,” she said with a sigh. “I…lost my husband there.”
“Octavius.” Elias leaned forward so his arms were resting on the table of the conference room.
“Yes. Octavius. There were sightings of Cerberus ships in the area and he volunteered to go after them. I…saw his ship after it crashed to the surface. There was…nothing left.”
“Did you want to look into—” Sync started.
“Not really,” Cicepia said. “There’s nothing left but bad memories on the planet for me now.”
“Anything we should be concerned about?” Elias asked.
Cicepia shook her head. “Not that I can think of. The pirates mostly keep to the jungles.”
Sync nodded and stood up. “I’ll go guide us in,” he said. “Elias, coming to scan for reaper signatures?”
“Aye aye, Captain.”
On the bridge, Elias slipped into the padded leather seat before the sensor console. “All right Pi,” he muttered inside his helmet. “Let’s find this reaper portal—have you found any other locations in Mimic’s data core?”
“No, Creator Elias. This appears to be the last one.”
Elias frowned, even as he set the ships sensors to scan for the familiar signatures of unsynthesised husks. It was strange and slightly troubling the way his fingers flew over the holokeys, muscle memory already drilled by endless repetition from the war. He could almost hear the foghorn like sound of a giant energy beam charging. “That’s way too easy, Pi,” he said. “Way too easy. Why are there only three? If this was the start of an invasion, there’d be more portals in many more places—more strategic places than Invictus. Why not Palavan? Or Earth for that matter?”
“I can run the analysis again, but I have been unable to locate any other tears in the entire milky way galaxy.”
“And how many other galaxies are out there again?”
“Current estimates suggest—”
“That was rhetorical, Pi.”
“I do not, in fact, have an ass, Creator Elias. You on the other hand—”
From the synthetic there was only a smug silence.
It took a while to get permission to dock at the Shastinasio Space port, and Elias felt the heat of the desert sun though the material of his envirosuit. The inhabitants of Invictus appeared to be living with deliberately low tech cooling solutions of passive cooling towers, canopied sails covering walkways and hardy green roofs topping their buildings. Fountains were everywhere, and he wondered what it would be like to take off his helmet and let the water droplets fly into his face. Rain. He’d never experienced rain. Not fully.
The turians here dressed the same as everywhere in the Hierarchy, probably with something denoting their rank in society. Elias had never asked about that. He could also see Batarians and quite a few Drell, who probably came in search of a drier climate. The Batarians had adopted loose flowing white robes as their outer wear. With the collapse of the Hegemony in every universe they’d visited so far, Elias had noticed the Batarians had been fastest to break away from pre-war stereotypes and embrace new ideas, cultures and people. It was almost human the way they were adapting. Human. Huh. Across a bustling bazaar he could the toothy grin and red eyes of a Vorcha. Well, no one adapted like a Vorcha.
One thing he couldn’t help noting was the Turians on Invictus were noticeably rounder than any he’d ever seen. As they swept through the streets scanning for reaper signals, they passed a pair of golden arches in the shape of a big M that Elias was familiar with, but had never visited. There was a queue out the door, and many Turians were leaving with brown paper bags printed with red and yellow. A large poster in the window read: “Our burgers are 100% Levo Protein Earth Beef!”. Another featured an animated video of a coy female biting into a burger. “Mmm, So that’s what chicken tastes like,” she said amongst obvious sounds of gastronomic enjoyment.
“McTurian’s,” Cicepia said, glancing up at the sign. “What’s that?”
“Garbage from what I understand,” Elias said. “Human import.”
“Tasty Garbage,” Sync said. “That you should never eat, but…”
Cicepia turned to look at him. “But?”
Sync shrugged. “It’s cheap, fast, tasty and addictive.”
“Even after all their changes, it’s still high in sugar and they add lots of cheese,” he explained. “It’s additive.”
“This one thinks its gorgeous.”
Turning, Elias saw Anar stuffing fries into his cloaca. “How did you get those so quickly?”
For a floating jelly creature with six tentacles, Anar managed to give a very believable shrug. “The small child only wanted the toy in the SmileyMeal,” he said. “She was happy to give her fries to this one. She called it Mickey T’s.”
Sync’s expression froze for a moment, and his good eye blinked. “Of course she did,” he said blandly.
“How is that even—”
Wordlessly, Cicepia pointed towards a giant billboard nearby which had been playing an advertisement. It was monochome and made of very simple line drawings showing a scene of domestic bliss.
“Ice cream!” the little Turian child was crying, her big eyes shining with joy.
“That’s right dear, made with milk from real levo-protein cows. Have you had your DexToC today?”
Inside his suit, Elias’ jaw dropped as his own voice started single a jingle, which he recognised as an earth classic from the Jackson Five.
“Well, I guess we know what my sellout alter ego has been doing,” he said, just loud enough for everyone to hear.
“DexToC?” Arkara grunted.
“This one believes it is a poorly made up brand name.”
“Diet supplement. Allows Dextro-based life to digest Levo-based proteins?” Elias said as several screens of information popped up in his helmet display. “I’m not sure if it provides extra enzymes or actually reconfigures amino acids or…hmm…”
“There are three different conspiracy theories about how it’s being used to mind-control the Turian population.”
“What about the Quarians?”Anar asked.
Cicepia shook her head. “What Quarians? Most of them died in the battle for Rannoch.”
“Oh, right. This one forgot that happened here.”
“Brought to you by the FOTG,” Elias said. “Wait a minute, FOTG? Friends of the Galaxy? Again?”
“Why not?” Cicepia asked.
Elias shrugged. “I just find it strange that there’s two groups in both red and blue universes with the same name that sprung up around the same time given how different the universes actually are.”
“This one thinks you should remember you won Citadel’s Got Talent in three different universes that we know of,” Anar said.
Elias grimaced at the advertisement. “With advertorials like that I’m not sure how.”
“They look so happy.” Cicepia’s voice was neutral and her stance relaxed, but Elias thought he could see a tightness in her jaw that hadn’t been there before.
“They’ll have type two diabetes in no time,” he said cheerfully.
“Or they may invent types three and four,” Anar added.
Cicepia turned her back on the billboard, the tiniest flicker of dark energy shrouding her fists. “Have you found the portal?”
Tapping on his omni-tool’s holopad, Elias cleared the extranet windows and went back to his datasweep. “It seems to be south of us.”
“Let’s go there then.” Without waiting to see what the rest of them were doing, Cicepia turned and marched down the footpath, nearly knocking down a few teenagers who failed to scramble out of the way in time.
“Good idea?” Sync suggested looking after the Turian.
Hurrying after Cicepia, they found her standing still in front of a small child, who was clutching a Hanar plush toy and looking up at her with large eyes. “Mama?” The toy fell to the ground.
“Talia? Wh-what are you doing here? Are your grandparents here?”
“They’re inside.” The child looked up at the McTurian’s Fast Food Restaurant nearby.
Cicepia knelt down and Elias could see her reaching out almost unconsciously towards her daughter. “You’ve grown so big now. Still have that Blasto toy?”
“Uh huh,” Talia grabbed the toy, and held him out to Cicepia. Somewhere from within its fuzzy centre, a squeak emerged that reminded Elias of Anar in his more hyper moments. “Why are you here, mama?”
“Ah…” The seconds stretched for eternity and Elias could almost see Cicepia struggling for an answer.
“Talia? Talia? Where did you run off to this time?” The glass doors of McTurian’s slid open and an older Turian couple walked out. Turian civilians. Elias was always intrigued by Turian civilians. If nothing else, there were nearly as mythical as the earth unicorn, with the military hierarchy spreading into all facets of their life. The couple had matching facepaint, and were wearing what Elias had come to think of as Turian jumpsuits – quasi-military outfits in one size fits anybody—although that philosophy appeared to be getting tested by the new portly builds the population of Invictus was showing.
“Talia, you shouldn’t run off on your own like that,” the woman said with a smile. “I’m sorry she—oh.” Her eyes met Cicepia’s and her demeanor changed. Her smile remained, but the rest of her face backed away from it slightly.
“Cicepia,” the man said neutrally. “What are you doing back?”
“I’m here on business,” Cicepia said, in what Elias had come to think of as her ‘C-Sec’ voice.
“I see.” The man’s unblinking gaze didn’t waver. “Come along Horoponia,” he said eventually.
“But, mama,” Talia said, pulling back as the woman—Horoponia—attempted to steer her into the restaurant. “Can’t you stay for dinner?”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Horoponia said.
“We’ve discussed this dear. Your mother’s trying to…get better and needs us to leave her alone right now.”
“Are you still sick, mama?”
“I’m getting much better,” Cicepia said with a smile that was almost as fraudulent as the one on Horoponia’s face. “I hope you’ve been getting all the messages I’ve been sending you.”
Talia’s tiny brow furrowed. “Messages?”
Horoponia scooped Talia up in her arms. “All right Talia, we need to go now,” she said as she rushed into the restaurant.
“It’s okay sweetie. I’ll see you again. I promise!”
When the doors snicked shut behind them, the man remained, his arms folded across his chest. “Cicepia, we agreed you shouldn’t be seeing her.”
“I didn’t know you’d be here, Lucidis. Why aren’t you on Palavan?”
“I changed jobs to support my family.”
For a moment they stood and stared at each other before Cicepia sighed. “And that involves letting her eat this junk?” she asked gesturing towards the restaurant.
“This is a treat,” Lucidis replied. “She had a small test today and did very well, so Horoponia and I decided to take her out for ice cream. What business brings you back here?”
“Special galactic security mission,” Cicepia said with a shrug. “Top secret. I’m afraid I can’t go into detail.” Cicepia blinked and took a deep, steadying breath. “And you are taking care of her?”
“As best we can. We are her grandparents, after all.
“And you’ve been giving her my messages?” The edge was back in her voice.
Lucidis coughed. “We…didn’t think it would be best—”
“For her to know her mother still loves her?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Not to my face.”
“For her own good we needed to keep her and you separate. It doesn’t do her any good to be wondering where you are and what you’re doing.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’d like to banish me out of her life just like that,” Cicepia snapped her fingers.
“Well you banished our son from our lives,” Lucidis snapped, his voice rising.
“That wasn’t my fault,” Cicepia said woodenly. “I had no control over what happened.”
“You had control over what you did afterward.”
“I wasn’t in a good place then.”
“And you are now? Not letting your temper get the better of you? How do I know you’re not going to attack me right now? In front of all these people?” He paused, and when Cicepia said nothing, he continued. “We’re doing this to protect her—and you.”
“I don’t need protecting from you.”
“I think we’re done here,” Lucidis said.
“I do too,” Cicepia said. “Just make sure you treat her right.”
“She’s doing great,” Lucidis said, as he turned on his heel and headed back into the restaurant and the others caught up to Cicepia, who was standing at the entrance, her hands bunched into fists.
“What was that about?” Sync asked.
“Nothing,” Cicepia said, her eyes still on the restaurant windows. “Let’s focus on the mission.”
“That didn’t sound like nothing,” Arkara rumbled.
“I’m fine. I just…we should get going.”
“Are you sure you’re okay leaving your daughter like that?”
Cicepia wheeled around to face them. “Did you just hear me say I’m fine?”
“Suure,” Elias drawled. “That doesn’t mean we believe you.”
“Just give me something to punch. I’ll get over it.”
“You’re not going to do us any good if your head isn’t on the mission,” Sync said. “It’s almost as bad as having overheating cybernetics.”
“Is that your official diagnosis, Doctor?”
Sync grinned roguishly. “Absolutely.”
Over the top of them, the DexToC jingle started again. “Did you want me to swan in and try to find out how she’s really doing?” Elias asked. “The other version of me is recording another…jingle…on Omega so it shouldn’t be too hard to pull off.”
“You’d do that for me?” Cicepia asked.
Elias shrugged. “I can try.”
“Okay, um. Thanks. I appreciate that.”
“Arkara, you up for playing bodyguard?”
“Elia’solor nar Ashru doesn’t go anywhere without security,” Elias said seriously. “In any universe.”
The Krogan grinned slowly. “Sure. I can do that.”
Five minutes, one costume change, and an armoured krogan helmet later, Elia’solor vas Rannoch nar Ashru strode out from the Chandris Hotel and walked across the plaza and into McTurian’s. Almost immediately there were screams and he was nearly mobbed by Turians with acne. Acne. Not something he’d previously associated with Turians given their face plates, but apparently it was a thing. With Arkara’s assistance he pushed his way into the restaurant, where he was soon signing everything from napkins to Smiley Meal boxes. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Talia, sitting in the far corner with Lucidis and Horoponia, the older Turian shaking his head. Somewhere between the McNugget box and the McBeast paper tray liner, Lucidis got a call on his omni-tool and rushed out of the building.
“Lucidis is leaving by the back exit,” Elias murmured into his comm. “Trail him if you want. Horoponia and Talia are still in the building.”
“On it,” Sync said.
Looking up from where she was playing with her ice cream, Talia’s expression changed from one of glumness into an excited smile as she pointed at him, tugging on her grandmother’s sleeve.
“Pi, any idea what she’s saying?”
“Creator Elias, I’m unable to pick up anything on your audio sensors with the volume of the crowd. Talia is also facing the wrong way for lipreading software.”
“How about Horoponia?”
“I believe she said ‘that’s nice dear, eat your ice cream’.”
“Arkara, let’s work our way over there,” Elias said flicking to the secondary comm channel.
“Yes sir, Mr. Elias sir.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
It took about five minutes of small talk to get around to the other side of the restaurant, although thankfully that didn’t involve under garments. Actually, he didn’t think Turians wore undergarments. They didn’t go as far as Quarians did with their envirosuits, but playing Turian and Volus space had always been less…embarrassing in terms of leaving stacks of clothing behind. Clothing. Straightening his performance jacket, he again marvelled at how easy it was to change identity just by wearing something over his envirosuit.
“Negative on Lucidis,” Sync said. “He flew off in a skycar. Cicepia doesn’t know where he lives or works.”
“Okay,” Elias said just as he made it to the corner table where Talia and her grandmother was sitting. When the little girl noticed he was there her eyes grew wide and she gasped, her spoon tumbling from her fingers to hit the table with a clatter. “Hi, what’s your name?” he asked, squatting down so that his face was level with hers.
“Talia,” she said.
“Are you enjoying your ice cream?”
“Can we help you dear?” Horoponia asked. “You’re causing quite a ruckus.”
Elias smiled, “I know. I can’t really help that, it seems to follow me around.”
That got him a smile in return. “I understand, dear. Talia, it’s not polite to stare.
“But he’s Elias,” Talia said as if that was a winning argument right there. “Are you going to sing?”
“Oh…maybe, I’m not sure if they’d let me here.”
“Talia we shouldn’t take up too much of Mr. Elias’ time. I’m sure he just came in to get something to eat.”
“Oh.” Talia picked her spoon of the table, dipped it into her ice cream and held it out to him. “You can have some of my ice cream.”
“That’s okay, I don’t want to take your ice cream. Tell you what though—how about I give you a little sneak peak of something that hasn’t been released anywhere yet?”
The spoon hit the table again, ice cream and all as Talia’s hands clapped together excitedly. “Oh yes, please!”
“I guess that would be all right,” Horoponia said. Elias grinned. He knew the Turian grandmother was well aware saying ‘no’ wasn’t really an option at this point.
“Great!” he said, handing over a small data cube, complete with artwork for his version of So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. “What are you going to do later today?”
“We’re going to watch Blasto!” Talia said excitedly.
“Blasto?” Elias’ gaze flicked to Horoponia.
“She means the cartoon. It’s her favourite show.”
“I have a secret to give to you too!” Talia said.
“Now Talia, I don’t think that’s a good idea—” Horoponia started.
“I’m very good at keeping secrets,” Elias said quickly.
“This is less of a secret and more of a…vibrant imagination,” Horoponia said clicking her tongue.
Elias turned his head and cupped his hand to his suit’s audio receptors. “You can whisper it,” he said using stage whisper himself.
“That’s enough, Tal—”
He was sitting in front of himself. And he was short. The plastic seat was hard beneath his thighs and the air was cool against his skin. He could feel the weight of the soft toy in his lap and the taste of ice cream in his mouth. Her mouth. A flash of memory filled his mind. He could see Talia as a little girl, running around a park with red grass and autumnal leaves heaped in piles that Talia was jumping into, keeping just ahead of Cicepia’s hands. Then a male Turian picked Talia up and swung her around in the air. ‘Papa’, the memory insisted. The memory faded and Elias could see himself in the restaurant, head turned to one side and just starting to fall backwards towards the floor. Then he was back in his own body, catching himself against the table edge with Arkara helping him to his feet.
Rising to her feet, Horoponia wedged herself between them, “All right Talia, we need to go or we’ll miss Blasto!” she said brightly. Grabbing the hanar plushie in one hand and Talia’s hand in the other, she all but dragged the little girl out of the restaurant, Talia hanging on to the single in her free hand, and glancing back over her shoulder towards him.
“Are you okay, sir?” Arkara asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Elias said. “Let’s go. I think I need some air.”
Pushing ahead, Arkara cleared a path through the crowd and they crossed the plaza to the hotel, where one quick change later, Elias slipped out the back entrance leaving the hordes of fans out front.
“Well?” Cicepia asked when he and Arkara finally caught up with the rest of them.
“One moment,” Elias said. “Pi, please activate the tracker in that data cube.”
“Of course. Tracking now.”
“They’re heading northwest,” Elias said. “I’ll have an address once they stop.”
Overhead the screen that had been showing the DexToC commercial switched to a news sting, and then the smiling face of Liam Vethanil Musie filled the screen, all white teeth and orange suit.
“Breaking news—there has been a sighting of singing sensation Elia’solor vas Rannoch on the planet of Invictus. This amateur footage shows the singer’s fans rushing into the Centenniary Plaza Micky T’s restaurant to catch a glimpse—or an autograph—from the winner of last year’s Citadel’s Got Talent.” Suddenly Liam’s smile wavered. “And in more breaking news, there are reports of explosions and an attack at the DexToC factory in the south of Shastinasio, Invictus’ capital city. Several employees have been reported missing and there has been this unverified image of what appears to be a reaper husk from what is supposedly the factory security cameras. Company officials and Invictus security have declined to comment. We’ll bring you more as this story develops.”
“Which direction did Lucidis head in when he left McTurian’s?” Elias asked.
“South,” Sync said. “Why?”
“I think I know where the portal is.”