“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” – Albert Einstein.
When the door slammed behind Arkara, she jumped, and immediate turned on the light on her omni tool, dimly lighting up the mounds inside the room, and the absence of her companions. The light was wan, and flickered, casting more shadows than revealing details of objects. Her foot pushed down on something soft, and she pulled back, crouching down to see what it was.
The body was smaller than her foot, with a naked form and only tiny, bony nubs on its head and back gave any indication of the headplates and hump that might have grown. Its soft hide was covered in tiny scales and was a mottled yellow and green. It’s eyes were an opaque, cloudy white and it was still damp with amniotic fluid. Bits of membrane and eggshell clung to it and as she glanced around, she realised that’s what all the mounds were made of – thousands upon thousands of Krogan stillborn. Off in the distance, a white-blue light flickered, and it looked like there was a corridor on the far side of the room, off beyond the mounds of the unborn dead. Picking her way across the room was a slow process, as she moved carefully, shuffling her feet forward rather than crush the corpses around her.
When she finally reached the hallway, she found the light was coming from a cloning tank, set into a recess in the wall, and the either the power to the tank was on the fritz, or the the light was going. Staring up the hallway she saw all of the tanks had flickering lights, and in each tank was a clone of Khel Ghyal, each wearing her face. Their face. As she approached the first tank she stared into the bubbling liquid, the clone’s eyes opened and stared at her through raging red pupils. The clone’s expression didn’t change, but it held her gaze with its own, unblinking eyes. It followed her as she stepped back and on towards the next tank. Each clone’s eyes opened and glared at her in silent accusation and keeping a wary eye on them, almost made her miss the ceremony at the end of the hallway. It was a makeshift dias, with an archway made of welded steel with rose vines growing up around it from pots at is side. There were rows of empty chairs and a broad shouldered, male Krogan in a formal black and blue suit standing before an Asari in a grey dress.
“Well, hey there Arkara,” Mridi said. “Fashionably late to your own wedding?”
Krogan weddings were non existent affairs, really. The genophage had made mating a matter of racial survival and genetics, not love or feelings. Those krogan who found love in the arms of other races—typically asari—would adopt whatever rites they had, but this? This wasn’t normal.
She took a hesitant step forward and felt the swish of fabric against her legs. Looking down she found herself in an embroidered red silk brocade dress, the gold thread glinting in the light of her omni-tool. It was what the krogan of old had traditionally worn according to Ghyal. Although whether that was during wedding ceremonies was debatable, and Arkara either hadn’t had a lot of time to read, or had forgotten what she’d read prior to leaving Tuchanka for the first time. Then the groom turned, and she saw the half-destroyed face of Thek Targev, his smile wrecked from the shotgun blasts that he’d taken to the face. When he turned towards her, arms open in greeting, she could see the grey of Mridi’s dress through the hole in his skull.
Turning, Arkara bolted back down the corridor of cloning pods. She’d take the stillness of the unborn over the walking corpse that was Targev any day.
“This can’t be real,” she muttered as she put her head down and bolted, only to slam into something soft and rather squishy.
Panting, she turned and saw Mridi, still in her grey dress and sprawled out on the floor, rubbing at her head. “Ow, girl, what was that all about? Where are you running off too?”
“This isn’t right,” Arkara said, staring at the asari. “How’d you get ahead of me?”
“I’d like to know when you become a wall exactly?” Mridi asked, pulling herself to her feet.
Somewhere in the background, fans started up, and she could hear the whisk-thud of industrial fans pulling the air past both of them. In the walls, the lights on the cloning pods flickered out, leaving them lit only by the eyes of the clones and Mridi’s biotics. Only biotics didn’t really give that much light. There was a sheen and a glint arond the biotic controlling the mass effect fields, sure, but for all that they didn’t produce a lot of light. Arkara blinked, and suddenly the clones and tanks were gone, and she could see Anar, wobbling slightly as he thrust into the air, tentacles splayed before him threateningly.
“Make your move,” Anar said slowly.
“Make my move? Why would I need to do that?”
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 he shuddered and relaxed. “Oh,” he said. “You’re a lot harder than this one remembers.”
“Um…thank you, I think.”
“You’re not like the other hallucinations,” Anar said. “But you can go away now.”
“What? Other hallucinations?”
Anar drifted forward and poked Arkara with a tentacle. “Oh. Please forget this one mentioned that.”
Somewhere in the room behind her they both heard Elias’ frustrated voice. “No, that’s Cicepia, she’s Turian.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Arkara said. “It sounds like the others need our help.”
“Yeah,” Red Cicepia said. “You kinda look like Rayne, but I know she can’t muster the force of will for a Singularity, and she didn’t walk into this junker of a ship, so…yeah. Logic says it’s you. Plus you know, who else would be weak enough to fall for whatever this is?”
“Talk if you like, I’m not falling for it,” Cicepia said, and focused her mind, creating a warp field that would weaken make it easier to attack her red doppleganger. Just as the blue-black glow settled around her form, she disappeared.
“Where did you go?”
“Uh, it’s a tactical cloak, sweetie. You know, that little thing I mentioned I fixed recently?”
“Quit that patronising attitude.”
“Cicepia, dear think. We all came through the door, but disappeared right? We’re all here. We’re all still here, but we’re seeing different things. I gave your daughter a music cube with a tracker in it. We tracked her to your parents—no wait, your in laws’ place? And then we came here.”
Green Cicepia suddenly looked at her, with an odd look on her face. “What is your problem this time? Can’t handle yourself not being perfectly blue?”
“Oh,” Elias’ voice came. “And now you’ve got Sync.”
In the background, Cicepia heard the slow swish of fans, and blinked. The blood that had pooled at her feet drained away to reveal a dusty metal floor, and she saw Sync floating in the air in her singularity. She didn’t see Elias but then, she wouldn’t, based on what he’d said. Snapping her fingers, she dropped the singularity, allowing her friends to fall to the floor.
Sync looked up at her and scowled. “You want to come onto my ship, and beat the shit out of me?”
Closing his eyes, Sync switched his vision to infra red. “Okay everyone I can see if we don’t want to use light—” he started, and then realised he was alone. Ahead of him were two long rows of tables piled with stuff, the one on his left piled high with artificial limbs, ranging from solid plastic mannequin parts and wooden hinged arms through some of his early models of titanium and omnigel alloy and a few that were covered in synthskin, including a fully articulated foot. Off to his right he heard an organic thumping sound, and glancing at the other row of tables he saw organic parts. There was brain, intestines, lungs and his vision was drawn to a heart, somehow still beating.
“This guy is a sick bastard.”
“Do you like my work?” a familar voice asked.
Sync pulled out his pistol and aimed towards the voice, his vision tracking a human man who was walking towards him, a heavy pistol aimed directly between Sync’s eyes. He was dressed in a lab coat, the front stained with some sort of brown.
“Al! Where is it?”
“Where’s my ship, Al?”
Sync’s mouth fell open, “I—”
“I thought we were friends. I really did. Alabond Finston and Dane Anderson would solve the enigma of death itself, but then you…you thieving bastard!”
“Dane… you got to understand man, I needed to save her. I needed to save my wife and I needed your machine to do that and I needed a way out and the only one that I had any chance of getting away in was the ship.”
“My ship! Not ‘the’ ship! My ship!” the pistol jabbed forward, and Dane’s finger tightened on the trigger.
“Okay, okay, your ship. Your ship was the only escape route I had.”
“Escape? You escape and leave me holding the bag? Do you know what you put me through? The questions, the ethical implications the… how could you do this to me, Al? How could you do this to her?”
“Dane, I promise I’ve changed, man. I’ve met some people. They’re good people and they’re really smart. I can fix this. I can get you your ship back once we’re out of here—I can. We just have to find my friend’s daughter first and—”
“I don’t believe you.” Dane’s face was drawn in sadness, anguish and resignation. “I don’t believe you.”
“I’m going to count to three,” Dane said. “And if you don’t tell me where my ship is before then, I swear to God I’ll blow your brains out.”
Something clicked inside Sync’s head. Dane was human. Dane didn’t like his experiments in Cybernetics. Dane was a non-cybernetically enhanced human in a pitch black room with no light. “Dane how can you even see me?”
“No really, how can you even see me?” he asked as he carefully took a step to the right. Dane’s arm didn’t move, and his gun continued to point into nowhere.
Sync stepped quietly backwards and to the side, raising his own pistol to point at his onetime colleague.
“Three,” Dane’s head turned to look straight at him and his hand moved so quickly Sync didn’t have time to react as the gun fired and there was a searing pain in his head and then nothing.
He awoke with a start, his face stuck to the pages of a book and a crick in his neck. He must have fallen asleep in Beatrice’s room. Her dress was still there, displayed behind glass, and he glanced down at the green journal, bound with real leather. He’d read it so many times but her words always gave him comfort.
I could hear a circular saw cutting through something. I’m sure it was flesh and bone. I haven’t smelled burning flesh since the reaper war, but I remember it vividly. I was lying on a table, I think it was a padded table, and all I heard was the whir of the saw starting up. He was there, in a white lab coat. I remember his new hands were complete, bands of omnigel on a titanium alloy frame. For lightness, he’d said, but I heard his footsteps before I saw him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He smiled. “I’m going to make you better,” he said, his artificial eye red while his smile was white, toothy and even. “Trust me.”
“Al, no, stop this, please…”
“Shh,” he said, leaning over me. “It’ll be all right.”
I struggled, or tried to, but he held me down, and then I felt the sting of a syringe, and—
Sync slammed the book shut and stared at the embossed cover. He’d never done that. He’d never, ever done that. Slowly, gingerly, he pried open the covers of the book again, and stared at the blank pages inside. They were all blank, without any writing on them at all. Perplexed he grabbed for another journal, only to find it empty, and then another, and another. All blank. All of her words gone. Glancing around the room, his eyes fell back to the glass display case and written on it in black ink were three words: Al, please stop!
Dropping the books, Sync edged towards the door, feeling his hands tremble. Behind him, the door swooshed open, and he fell backwards, his feet tripping over a tray outside the door, sending burnt peanut butter and chocolate cookies flying everywhere. Burnt. Otto didn’t burn anything in the kitchen. Someone was in the kitchen. The door to Beatrice’s room closed, cutting off his view of the defaced case, and staring at the familiar metal door it was easier to focus on reality. Taking a deep breath, Sync went to see who was in the mess hall, although he passed no-one in the corridors of the ship. Inside the kitchen, things were…floating. There was another tray of burnt cookies, as well as kitchen utensils, cutlery, and an assortment of soda cans and cheezy puff bags that had shown up when Anar had come on board. Walking towards the cookies, Sync found himself being picked up in a mass effect field, and he twisted in the air to see Mridi standing in the corner of the room, the sheen of dark energy surrounding her as she controlled her biotics. Grinning at him, he closed her fist and he, along with everything being held up into the kitchen, slammed painfully onto the floor, and he barely had enough time to bring up his own barrier to cushion his fall.
“You want to come onto my ship, and beat the shit out of me?” he asked, glaring up at her as he rose to his feet.
“Excuse me?” Mridi snapped. “I just got you out of that thing and now you’re snapping at me?”
“Hey Miss Temper-tantrum, we don’t know what he’s seeing. Quiet you,” a third voice said.
Looking back he saw Cyrus climb off the floor, although he was certain the Salarian hadn’t been there previously.
Sync went to use his new omni-whip but his omni-tool sparked and almost seemed to short out.
“Sync, snap out of it,” Cyrus said. “We don’t have time for this.”
“Snap out of what, Cyrus? I just got attacked by that damn asari over there.”
“No, that’s Cicepia. She’s a Turian. I’m Elias. We didn’t bring Cyrus with us onto the other ship, remember?”
“What are you doing?” Turning to the doorway, he saw Anar, in his mech, flanked by Dane.
Sync looked at his onetime ally, the memory of last night’s dream still fresh in his head. “What you are doing here Dane?”
“Dane? Who’s Dane?”
“Sync thinks he’s being attacked,” Cyrus said. “By Mridi, excepts that’s Cicepia. You can see that’s Cicepia, right?”
“Yes, of course,” Anar said.
“Oh good! That’s a relief.”
“Cicepia?” Sync stared at the Asari.
“Yeah,” Mridi said. “Have been this whole time.”
Sync stared around at the people in the mess hall. “Elias, you’re using a tactical cloak?”
“And you two?” he asked, gesturing towards Anar and Dane.
“This one is Anar,” Dane said, raising a hand towards his chest. “She is Arkara.”
Sync slowly looked between the other four. “I remember…going into a freighter looking for Cicepia’s daughter, right? Did that happen?”
“We’re on the ship,” Cyrus said, although his voice was slower than the Salarian normally spoke. “Right now.”
Sync blinked, and the bright lights of the mess hall faded into dark emptiness of a cavernous cargo hold, the only light coming from Anar’s bioluminescence a Arkara’s torch. “What was that?” he asked.