“The law is only a defense against those who agree to be bound by it.” – Thane Krios
Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Somewhere in the distance, liquid was falling off something and hitting the ground. Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. It was a regularly irregular sound that came from somewhere up ahead in the emptiness of the cargo hold.
“I wish I’d bought that new omni-tool now,” she muttered, as she pulled out her gun. Not that it would do her much good. She was a decent shot. She could hit a target in the firing range just fine. But out in the field she relied upon her voice and her biotics more than she relied on her gun. When she’d been working with partners, or a squad, her lack of expert marksmanship hasn’t been an issue. Now, as she stepped towards the source of the sound, it suddenly was one.
Beneath her, the floor was slick with something that puddled underfoot, and she nearly slid off her feet. Squatting down she ran her gloved hand through the liquid, and found it damp, warm, and sticky, with a salty tang in the air that registered immediately in her nostrils. Blood.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. It was louder now, and suddenly there was more dripping, beating an irregular staccato onto the floor. First it was two drips, then three, then more than she could make out individually until it sounded as though something was being poured onto the floor and splatter, and the blood was rising, now around her ankles as she slogged through it, trying to find the far end of the cargo bay walls. She needed light.
Holstering her gun, he pulled out a flare and lit the end, and found herself nose to nose with…herself.
“Boo!” the other Cicepia said with a toothy grin.
Cicepia nearly dropped the flare, but instead stepped back, pulling out her gun instead. Her doppleganger wore a red dress. It wasn’t as revealing as the clothes the Asari often wore, or as full as some of the human styles she’d seen, but it was a design that took the best of that silhouette and made it into something that screamed ‘Turian’. Absently, she noted the angular panels and stitching. You’d never be able to find that in the shops.
“Who-” she started.
“I’m you. Sort of.”
“What did you find there Cicepia?” Another voice asked. It sounded like she did when she played back her interrogation tapes. You always sounded different when recorded as opposed to in your own head. Moving so that she could see both figures without having to turn her back on them, Cicepia saw another doppleganger, dressed in a dazzling emerald green dress of a similar cut to the first, and with glowing green eyes.
“What is the meaning of this?” Cicepia asked.
“You tell us,” Green Cicepia said. “You’re the one who brought us here.”
“I did no such thing. Why do you look like me.”
“Because we are you, silly,” Red Cicepia said.
“Quit pulling this shit. What’s going on?”
Red Cicepia cocked her head to one side. “Oh, Cicepia, Cicepia,” she said. “If only you knew.”
“The truth about Octavius of course.”
“What makes you think you know any more than I do?”
“We know plenty. Plenty,” Green Cicepia said, walking forward, seemingly unconcerned her shins were pushing through the blue-black pool of blood they were standing in. “But it seems like you know a bit about us as well. Been busy doing some snooping. Or at least, getting someone else to do your snooping for you. Smart, Cicepia, well, almost.”
“No it is smart,” Red Cicepia agreed. “Just not as smart as us.”
As the doppelganger in read turned her head, Cicepia saw a familiar bullet wound in the head. She’d snagged a copy of the autopsy reports. Her autopsy reports. It seemed like so long ago now.
“At least I’m not dead.”
Both of her other selves grinned. “Some things are worse than death, dear.” Green Cicepia said.
“Why am I here?”
“Because you need to learn when to leave things the fuck alone,” Red Cicepia said. “I should have. But at least I didn’t abandon my daughter.”
“That was all you,” Green Cicepia said, nodding. “You foisted her off your your grandparents years ago. No wonder she’s gone.”
“You’re a failure, Cicepia,” her dead red self said. “A failure as a mother, a failure as a C-Sec Officer, and all this snooping and half truthed lies? You’re a failure as a Turian. You can fool everyone else, but you can’t fool us.”
“No, you can never fool us.”
“Does it help you fall asleep at night? Telling yourself it’s all for a good cause? That the ends justify the means?”
“That’s what Cerberus told itself.”
“Shut up both of you!” Cicepia snapped. “I’m here for Talia. And you’re in my way. Or I’m in my way. I’m not really sure, but here’s the thing: I don’t care who or what gets in my way, I’ll get it out of my way if I have to. And that includes myself.”
“Are you sure that’s what’s best for her?” Green Cicepia asked. “A washed out deadbeat mother like you?”
“And aren’t you on some dangerous mission to regain some sense of pride and possibly fucking die in the process? You’ll let her risk all of that?” Red Cicepia said.
“Sounds like someone’s nominating herself for mother of the year there.”
“Move,” Cicepia said. “Or I’ll move you.”
Both Cicepias grinned, and biotics flared around them. “Fucking dare you,” Red Cicepia said.
Cicepia felt the blood pound in her head and she flicked her hand forward, and the dark energy swirled down the familiar neural pathways as a mass effect field sprung into existence, pulling both other Cicepias into the air.
“Cicepia, put me down this instant!” Red Cicepia snapped.
“I don’t care if you are me, I’m going to find my daughter!”
“Cicepia, this is Elias. You’ve got me in a singularity. Now put me down.”
Elias jumped when he heard the cargo bay doors shut behind them, and then he flicked on his night vision. It hadn’t exactly been standard issue, but it had been the one thing he’d recovered from his father’s suit back when…. Well. Back then. In the greenish monochrome of night vision, the cargo bay looked smaller than he thought it would, a narrow, room empty of anything—including his companions.
“Pi, where’d everyone go?” he asked.
“Crea—or —lias ias ias -a-wry tet tet ette…” Pi’s voice glitched out into static.
“Pi, are you all right?”
“Ssom— ng oong ge ge ger tet tet why ne ne…”
Elias hurriedly checked his suit, clamping down on all the seals and switching the suit into a sealed, envirosuit mode. There didn’t seem to be any mechanical or software malfunctions.
“Pi, this really isn’t the time.”
“I’m sorry, Pi is unavailable right now.” The voice was still male, but it was…chirpy. Pi never did chirpy.
“Who am I talking to then?”
“I’m sorry, Pi is unavailable right now. I’m sorry, Pi is unavailable right now.” The voice changed in pitch and speed, distorting through the vowels and sentences, like Jamak when he overdid it with that vintage record player Elias had got him once upon a time. “I’m sorry, Pi is unavailable right now. I’m sorry, Pi is unavailable right now. Pi is unavailable right now. Pi is unavailable right now, r-r-right now…”
Sighing, Elias gave up and looked around, and saw his name on the walls. Or two of them, anyway.
It was as if his vision was a spotlight, picking up words written in blacklight pen. Only his vision wasn’t a spotlight and night vision typically relied on the infra-red spectrum, not the UV spectrum. On the right hand wall, he could see his name written out in smooth, cursive script with lovehearts and other whimsical doodles. On the left, the writing was angry jagged, and contained words like “sucks” and “die”. It was like fan mail. On walls, with weird hallucinatory visual tricks.
On a hunch, Elias tried calling the Endurance.
“Greetings, this is the Ashru. Please state your name.”
Elias paused. The Ashru had been decommissioned and was now the centre of a thriving town on Rannoch. They were mining bauxite and studying plant symbiosis as well as cashing in on tourists looking to see the Ashru after he’d made it on Citadel’s Got Talent.
“Elia’solor nar Ashru,” he said eventually.
“Elia’solor. You’re returned to the fleet.”
“…sure. Why not. Let’s go with that.”
“And what knowledge have you brought back that will better the lives of the Quarian people?”
Elias shut his jaw with a click. No-one ever went back to the same ship upon completion of their pilgrimage. That was the whole point of the pilgrimage. Rite of passage, useful salvage and genetic diversity. “A chemical compound that allows dextro-protein based lifeforms to safely consume and derive nutrition from levo-protein food sources.”
“That sounds very useful indeed. Welcome back to the fleet, Elia’solor.” The hatch he—they—had entered through opened into the stark light of a Quarian liveship.
“Thank you,” Elias said. “Keelah Selai,” and he ran in the opposite direction.
Of course, as fate would have it, he ran straight into a mass effect field and found himself being pulled up into the air.
Surely hallucinations didn’t do that too.
Twisting around in the field he saw Rayne, her arm outstretched and a look of determination on her face.
“You…cheated!” she snarled, her face contorting in rage.
“You know I know that you can’t actually do that, right?” Elias said. “You mentioned it in your interview about military service and how you never learnt how to do that.”
The image before him flowed and morphed, flowing in a strangely organic fashion between Rayne’s form and that of Cicepia. What the hell was in that dust?
Thanking the ancestors for developing the in-suit neuro control interface, Elias brought up the commands for the ventilation system and turned on the cargo bay extractor fans. Stealth was compromised at this point, and as if to emphasise the point a burst of automatic gunfire rang in his ears. Blinking, he tried to focus on where the shots had come from, but he couldn’t see anyone. It was probably Anar or Arkara.
He hoped it was Anar or Arkara.
The room was dark, and Anar could feel the dusty air of the Cargo hold clinging to his skin.
“Someone really needs to clean up in here,” he muttered. “Did this one mention it doesn’t do well in dry conditions? This one always finds it needs far too much moisturiser after desert missions.”
The door clanked shut behind him, sudden enough to push air currents into the room, causing the dust to swirl in eddies that he could feel around his tentacles.
“Solid waste excretions, Elias, you could have provided this one with some warning,” Anar said.
From the quarian there was no reply.
Rising up towards the ceiling, Anar turned started to glow. Or sing. Colour, pattern and intensity were simply ways to communicate complex ideas at speeds far beyond that of vertebrate speech. A conversation with an alien took almost a hundred times more slowly than between hanar, and it was almost a relief to shout at the speed of normal speech after spending years without contact with other hanar. As his form flickered through white-blue and a pattern of bright yellow green, he lit up the rows of military green crates below. And no one else. But they were just there. He heard thunder rumble somewhere outside, the sound muffled by the ship’s hull, but he couldn’t see any footprints. Arkara would have left footprints in the dust. The perfect rows of crates gave him the shivers. They were very much perfect, aligned to the millimetre it seemed. Despite the ground being covered by a thick layer of dust the crates were pristine, sitting perfectly on the dusty floor as though they’d been placed but a minute ago. By flying people.
As he floated over the rows he heard a boom, as if something had slammed into one of the crates. Floating closer, he found one that was just slightly out of line with the others, but there was no indication of anything hitting it from the outside.
“This one’s hallucinations are getting out of hand,” he muttered. “This one needs to speak with Doctor Lennox about tampering with this one’s serum.
As he picked up his song again, he started hearing a similar song—an echo in a different voice, humming along with him. Stopping, he let the song and light fade, and the echo stilled, picking up again only when he did.
Behind him another booming sound drew his attention to a different crate, now out of line with the rest of its precise row. Clutching his rifle he floated down to the crate, aimed his gun at the lid, and used two free tentacles to throw the lid open, aiming the barrel of his gun at the inside of the crate.
The crate lid fell to the ground, raising a cloud of fine, grey dust. The crate was empty. The humming continued, but was now overlain by another sound—a sobbing. Probably humanoid, and probably male. Floating back up to the ceiling, Anar followed the sound. The room ended, and narrowed to a corridor. In the doorway was a humanoid figure, humanoid in shape with purplish blue skin.
The sobbing stopped, and the man turned towards Anar, shielding his face from the glow of Anar’s bioluminescence wit a three fingered hand. “Anar?” the figure said. “What are you doing here?.”
For a moment, Anar simply stared at his friend, taking in Chris’ sunken eyes and gaunt frame. “Is it really you this time?” he asked.
“Is it really you this time?” Chris asked, his lower lip trembling.
Anar lowered his gun. “Of course, numbnuts.”
A semblance of a smile crossed Chris’ features. “It is you. Anar, we have to get out of here. I’ve been searching for an exit for ages and…I don’t know where I am.”
“What happened to you?” Anar asked. “This one has been searching for you…everywhere.”
“I don’t know,” Chris said. “I don’t…the last thing I really remember is the merc job, and then…I was here. And I don’t know where ‘here’ is, or how to get out. It all looks the same.”
Anar glanced around for chains or restraints, but found none. Starting forward he paused. “How did you get here?” he asked.
“I told you I don’t know! I don’t remember!”
“This one knows that feeling.”
Chris reached out and grabbed Anar’s tentacles. “You’re not going to leave me, right? Please don’t leave me. I don’t know how to get out and I want to go home. I want to go back to our game and back to the way things were!”
“There is no going back, Chris. Not for this one, anyway.”
“No…” Chris said. “Don’t say that, please don’t say that, I thought you were real. You always say that!” Turning, Chris bolted away up the dark corridor.
“Okay,” Anar said. “This isn’t the normal hallucination.”
Around him a rumble built, low and slowly crescendoing. It was a familiar laugh, a familiar, maniacal laugh.
“Let this one out!” Anar yelled, pounding the wall with two fisted tentacles. “Let this one out!”
Bringing his tentacles to his bell, his skin flushing crimson red as he tensed, grabbing his gun and firing at the ceiling. Bullets were good. Bullets were good. Bullets shot things. Shooting this was good. Shooting him was good.
Above him the ceiling cracked and buckled, and a body fell from the ceiling—a human woman, with red hair and a redder dress, soaked in blood.
Anar stared, dropped his gun and sank to the ground, his tentacles going out to cradle the limp form, her body still warm to the touch. “Fuck you Simon!” he swore through his sobs. “This one will end you it swears!”
He should put her down. He knew she should put her down, pick up his assault rifle and go and find Simon. But he couldn’t. Running footsteps from the corridor made him look up. Maybe Chris was coming back. Out from the darkness, he saw a humanoid figure, but as it came closer into the light of his bioluminescence, he saw a familiar blond man in a green jacket, face contorted in crazed glee. Letting go of his fallen love, Anar tilted his thrusters and flew directly at the madman, tentacles outstretched to strangle.
“Run, run, run, as fast as you can,” Simon cackled. “You can’t catch me.”Simon’s footfalls where heavier than Anar would have thought, and the man bowled him over, rolling into a predatory crouch as he rounded on Anar. “I’m the gingerbread man.”
“When did you become a wall exactly?” Anar grunted as he righted himself in the air. Simon just grinned, watching, and Anar drew himself into a defensive posture. “Make your move.”
“Make my move? My move? What are you on about this time?”
Anar started to circle, using his anti-grav thrusters to keep a wary eye on his adversary.
“This one isn’t very good at fighting walls—but even walls make mistakes eventually. So make your move.”
“Anar, I’m not wall. I’m a krogan. You should know this.”
Anar paused, and the form before him flickered and suddenly Arkara was standing in front of him, in full battle armour. “Oh,” he said. “You’re a lot harder than this one remembers.”