So I’ve been playing Mass Effect Andromeda blind. And I’ve been intending to upload that as a Let’s Play. And yes, I play gay men where possible because after spending nearly twenty years pretending to be straight I don’t see why I should have to do it in a video game. Bioware, as a studio has been one of the video game creators at the forefront of representation, and Mass Effect Andromeda is the fourth instalment of their flagship sci-fi series, and the second game in that series to include gay, lesbian and bisexual romance options. Bioware’s fantasy flagship, Dragon Age, has had gay, lesbian and bisexual romance options included in all three games.
Although records have since been scrubbed from the internet, it is an open secret that both Kaiden and Ashley in the original Mass Effect were originally written as bisexual, with romance tracks for both male and female Shepards, down to their lines being partially voice acted. This eventually came full circle in Mass Effect 3, where they became, once again, romance options for Shepards of either gender. So why was the content cut? Time seems unlikely, since most of the content was already there and shipped, and the official reason for the lack of gay male representation from the developers was “we didn’t have any gay men on the team, but one of the sound engineers is a lesbian so we have the asari”. The asari, of course, are a monogendered alien race that appear to be attractive females to any dimorphic sentient species in the milky way, and pretty much play directly into the heterosexual male fantasy of two hot women getting it on, but it’s not two women – it’s a woman and a monogendered alien. The excuse of “we couldn’t find a single gay man anywhere to talk to in the studio – or the city the studio was located in” rings hollow, as did the idea that somehow, having one lesbian allowed them to keep Liara as a female Shepard romance option, but not Ashley.
Then we had Dragon Age 2, a game with faults, and the dudebros got freaked out by having a guy hit on them, and Mass Effect 2 followed with a suspicious lack of any gay male romance options at all. In short, the history of the Mass Effect franchise has been one of exclusion, and frankly, homophobia, whether for reasons of marketing or the developers being deliberately or accidentally exclusionary. Given the lack of representation in Mass Effect 2 and constant fan interest, accidental exclusion seems unlikely.
Mass Effect 3 was better. And it seemed like vindication that Mass Effect was finally moving it a more inclusive direction akin to the Dragon Age series. There were still issues – such as in the Citadel DLC where Shepard and Kaiden go upstairs after Kaiden cooks a steak dinner – and if you play as MShep, it’s obvious that they’ve animated FShep, and then played them on MShep’s body – because clearly gay men react to foreplay as women, right down to assuming they have breasts. It’s a tiny moment, about five seconds tops, but it’s…indicative of a lack of caring. A notion of “this is good enough for gay men and those men and women who play them in a video game”. And with Mass Effect Andromeda, this appears to have continued despite a change of project leads. I’m not sure if it’s completely fair to Bye Felicia Casey Hudson, or if he was just the poor schmuck who had to defend the business decisions to make Mass Effect a playground for the straight male dudebros and them only, but well, community anger does tend to gravitate to the man in charge. And if nothing else, he doesn’t appear to have fought that decision.
And it wouldn’t be an issue, really, if Dragon Age hadn’t continually kept showing how it could be done well. Honestly, it seems to me that Dragon Age is where Bioware takes risks and experiments, and Mass Effect is their safer, mass market juggernaut that’s more carefully controlled, but after the representation in Dragon Age Inquisition, I had high hopes for Andromeda, especially when the developers confirmed that they were including queer chracters and they were happy with the balance of options provided.
And really, I’m disappointed. Really disappointed. Feeling betrayed might be closer to the truth of the feeling, but let’s be honest, Bioware doesn’t owe me a great gay male romance. They don’t have to write one that is of the same prominence, depth and character as the romances they write for straight men, or women, mostly straight men. But they implied that’s what they were making. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe when they said they were happy with the balance they’d struck with the romances, they were happy with the heterosexual male romance options being the most detailed, the most nuanced, and everyone else can fuck off because the heterosexual male romance was the only one they really cared about. And given that gay men didn’t get any depth, or squad banter, or mission dialogue and the least screen time and fade to blacks more consistent with Jade Empire than Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age Inquisition, I can’t help but think that for the Mass Effect Andromeda game developers to be HAPPY with the balance – they have to be homophobic.
Whether that is actively homophobic and trying to work in a company that isn’t and they’re actively working to make the gameplay experience worse for gay characters, or whether they’re just clueless straight men who think that by having a ‘gay character’ around they’re being inclusive along the lines of separate but equal the way that America pretended was racial equality for a long time is open for debate, but they have to be one of the two. There is no way they could genuinely be happy with the balance of the romance options if they actually cared about equality for sexually diverse people and the representation of those people in their game. If that were the case they’d have created a game that shipped at a point which didn’t need the promised ‘Improvements to male romance options for Scott Ryder’, coming over the next two months, to quote GM of Bioware Aaryn Flynn.
While they’re at it, they seem to have promised to improve the hamfisted treatment of their (presumably one) visible trans character—again, something that wasn’t needed with Dragon Age Inquisition shipped. That development team just got it right. So why can’t Mass Effect?
Why is Bioware satisfied with producing exclusionary sci fi games, but strives for equality in its fantasy games? Why does Bioware accept homophobia, whether latent or active, in its Mass Effect development team? Why after four games has it been unwilling or unable fix that singular issue in its Mass Effect development team? Why should I pre-order any Mass Effect game if it’s going to lie to me in its marketing now? Mass Effect is a great universe and the only shooter I’ve ever really loved, even if I had to wait three games before its development team decided people like me were allowed to visibly exist. And sure, they don’t have to do that – lots of games don’t. But lying about how progressive they are to get the dollars is really not cool.
An argument in progressive circles at the moment is that outrage is great and makes us feel better (heck I’m writing this for catharsis so that I feel better), but if we want people—or game studios—to get better, we have to let them. The issue is that after four games, my patience is running a bit thin. And I don’t see why I have to wait ten weeks for the game I was promised I was going to get out of the download. And now I’m torn, because my immediate choices appear to be stop playing the game, including my Let’s Play and hope the promised patch will actually deliver something better than the heteronormative bullshit that whoever okayed the Andromeda storylines seems to think is ‘sufficient’ for people who play anything other than a straight man in their game. It might not. It might still be crap, the way the non-heterosexual sex scenes are still heterosexual animations played on different bodies that don’t actually move the same way. Or I could play the unpatched version and then HAVE to play a second run to see the (hopefully) better content. And maybe the game has enough replay value that I’ll be okay with that. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I shouldn’t have to make that decision. It shouldn’t be acceptable for a triple A studio to ship a game that forces its players to make that decision. Not because I’m demanding it, or other players are demanding it. It shouldn’t be acceptable because in the society we have, and the one that Bioware is saying it supports, it should be unacceptable on the basis of its own Quality Assurance.
And I’d like to skip this bullshit and get to the point where I’m living in that world. That fantasy world that’s more compelling than anything I’ve played in Mass Effect Andromeda so far. Honestly, until that happens, I don’t think I’m going to get very far in my Let’s Play. In fact, I’m tempted to stop playing until I get that better content. Or maybe I should demand a refund and refuse to give them my money until they deliver on the balance they apparently promised.
And next game, I think I’m going to wait until I see whether they do deliver before I hand over any cash.
Recently, I’ve been popping up all around the internet doing guests posts as part of a blog tour for my new Novella,Better with Bacon. The story itself follows David and Patrick: two best friends who have the chance to deepen their relationship. There’s just the question of Patrick’s ex showing up in his life. His very pregnant ex.
When Patrick’s long-term girlfriend Li Ling dumps him just as he’s working up the nerve to propose, he ends up drunk on David’s couch—and later in David’s bed. Although initially reluctant to pursue anything beyond a one-time drunken tryst, David throws caution to the wind during an intimate dinner, where the two men also discuss Patrick’s dream of entering the food industry. Just as the friends-turned-lovers are settling into their new romance, Li Ling calls Patrick—she’s pregnant.
Convinced the announcement spells the end of their love affair and a return to their platonic friendship, David flees to Sydney to escape his heartbreak. But upon his return to Melbourne, David discovers the situation hasn’t gone the way he’d expected. There might still be a chance for David and Patrick’s dreams to come true if they can forgive each other’s mistakes and move forward.
“Hard to see big picture behind pile of corpses,” – Mordin Solus
Getting into the compound had been easier than expected. After cautioning Otto about his speech patterns, they had set out, the storm dying down enough that sand wasn’t an issue. The voice modulator had helped them talk their way through the front gates, but Arkara was surprised the others had gone along so quickly with the gate guards comments.
“And these aliens are your servants?” he’d asked. “You’ll have to chain them.”
“I’ll deal with them once we’re inside,” Elias had said as the krogan threw down some electronic locking collars with long chains.
Sync was visibly suffering in the heat of the afternoon, but had waved off any offers of assistance.
The layout inside the compound hadn’t changed, and Arkara didn’t need the map Elias generated from his scans of the area to know that the market was in the south western quadrant near the warehouses and the main living areas were in the east. The large dormitory style buildings to the northeast were new, but they were built of stone as reinforced plascrete just like the older buildings. Anar’s mech strode towards them as she took in the number of females and children that were evident in the camp, but the women sat quietly or walked with their eyes looking down, shrinking back whenever one of the men walked past.
“This one is glad to see you all again,” Anar said, even as Cicepia yelped.
“Stand still,” Elias muttered. “These locks don’t respond well to wireless commands.”
“They have a wireless interface?” Cicepia asked.
“No, but they have an electromagnetic field,” Elias said. “If I can get the right opposing fields nearby I should be able to trigger them to unlock.”
“Or you could just re-program them,” Sync suggested.
“Not out in the open without being obvious, I can’t.”
“Do it later,” Arkara said. “We need to go speak with her,” she added, and walked up to one of the females, who was seated on a bench rocking an infant in her arms while several youngsters played on an sturdy playground nearby.
“Why her?” Elias asked.
“Because she’s closest and not under armed guard,” Arkara said.
The woman was dressed in civilian clothing, with a structured robe, hat and veil in an off white colour with red embroidery, and cringed away when Arkara tapped her on the shoulder.
“Sorry,” Arkara said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to know what sort of processing you go through for this cure—and what are the tests they put you through first.”
The woman lowered her eyes and clutched her baby to her chest. It was clear that she understood the question, but for some reason was unwilling—or unable—to respond.
“What have they done to you?” Arkara asked, her eyes narrowing.
The woman looked around, glancing sidelong at some of the nearby males, who were regarding her with some interest—and a watchfulness that Arkara could only describe as threatening.
“Otto, come over,” Arkara said through her communicator. “Make it look like you’re asking the questions.”
The cook walked forward, bringing the others along give the leashes weren’t very long.
“With understanding: What can I do to assist?” he asked.
“Just stand there and try to look imposing,” Arkara hissed. “And stand between her and those males to block their view.”
Otto bristled, loomed forward and folded his arms. “With Anger: You must keep your hands to yourself and know who is boss.”
The female stared at him for a moment, uncertain fear warring with amusement on her face.
“It’s okay, he’s with me,” Arkara said. “We just want to know what’s going one here.”
“I’m not allowed to say what happens during processing,” the female said, and Arkara was shocked to hear her own voice being spoken back at her. She heard Sync gasp and stared at the other woman, noticing that she had Arkara’s amber eyes. If not for her helmet, the other woman could well have thought she was looking into her own face.
Arkara took an involuntary step back, nearly bumping into Anar, who was standing just off to her right. “What have they done to you?”
“Find us in the dormitory after sundown,” the female said glancing towards the large, new building complex. “When there are less of them around,” she added meaningfully.
“I’ll need a face veil,” Arkara said. “I don’t normally wear one.”
“The men insist,” the woman said softly, and Arkara didn’t think she’d ever get used to hearing herself. It was bad enough listening to recordings of her own voice. The woman got up and walked over to a building, returning shortly with a pile of cloth that she pushed into Arkara’s hands before walking off towards the playground.
By now, the sun was sinking low on the horizon. “We should find somewhere to sleep for the night,” Arkara said to the others. “I need to find out what’s going on here.”
“Was that…you that we were just talking to?” Sync asked. “It sounded like you.”
“Looked a bit like you too,” Cicepia observed.
“Cloned tissue?” Elias suggested.
“I don’t know,” Arkara said. “And I can’t begin to guess.”
“This might make it easier to blend in though,” Cicepia said.
They holed up for the night in an empty storage shed, and the cool of the desert night gave them all some respite, especially Sync.
“You need a better cooling system if you’re going to run around with those cybernetics,” Elias said as he popped the lock on Sync’s collar.
“I’ve never been somewhere this hot before,” Sync said. “How do the geth manage heat like this?”
“Venting,” Elias said. “And thermo regulation built into their platforms. It’s not dissimilar to the one I use in my own suit.”
“But I thought your people created the geth before your immune systems weakened—before you needed the suits.”
“Sure, but we still had work suits,” Elias said. “These modern suits are just refinements of the technology we already had.”
Sync nodded, and munched on a muesli bar that Anar had distributed to the levo-protein people from his mech. “I’ll have to look into that once we’re back on the ship.”
Elias nodded and walked over to Arkara, holding out a two clear hemispheres that were as delicate as flower petals. “Here,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll need them now, but I made you some contact lenses. They might help if you run into someone you know.”
“Like the Clan Chief?” Arkara said, picking them up. They looked tiny in her large hands, and felt strange going into her eyes, but it felt even stranger being out of her armour. She wasn’t used to going without it in enemy territory, and the Thek compound was definitely enemy territory.
“Like the Clan Chief,” Elias agreed, pulling up his omnitool and making a few adjustments to something on her new omni tool. “All right, I’ve linked you up so that you’ll be able to relay video to me and—” Elias stopped as a presence loomed in the doorway—the guard from the gate was staring in at them. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Anar slip into the back hatch of his mech, and was thankful the hanar had parked so that the hatch should have been out of sight from the doorway.
“Has your female presented herself to the Chief yet?” he asked.
“She is resting,” Anar’s augmented voice came. “She will present herself in the morning.”
“So she is weak?”
“She is to perform the Rite of Purification tonight,” Anar said. “Does Clan Thek take a change of clan fealty so lightly as to forget the rites of all Krogan?”
The guard bristled. “You dare insult clan Thek?”
Otto charged up then, and smashed his forehead into the guard’s helmet, sending the smaller male stumbling backwards. “Do not speak to my lady in such a tone!” he said with a fair approximation of emotion in his voice.
“You dishonour Thek with your presumption,” Anar said. “Tell the Clan Chief our female will present herself in the morning.”
As the guard scrambled away and Anar closed the door, Otto rubbed at his headplate. “Painfully: Ow.”
Arkara laid a hand on his shoulder. “Well done,” she said.
“With slight regret: That was a rash action. I am not sure why I did it.”
“Well it seemed to work,” Arkara said with a smile. “I’d say there’s a fair bit of krogan in you after all.”
“With feelings of turmoil: I am not sure if I have just disappointed my parents or made them proud.”
“I think you made them proud,” Arkara said, and Otto blushed. Then she slipped out the door and headed over to the women’s complex.
As she joined the women as they were herded into the dorms, Arkara noticed that a lot of them had the same eyes as her, although not all of them. Once inside, the women were able to remove their veils, and Arkara found that many of them had her face. Indeed, she could see that there were only about six different faces amongst the twenty or thirty individuals who were tucking in their children. She also noticed that each one had a number tattooed on her right wrist. Looking around, she approached one of them that looked like the woman she’d seen earlier.
“Did I speak to you earlier today?” Arkara asked.
The woman stared at her in confusion. “No,” she replied in Arkara’s voice.
“Show her your hands,” Elias’ suggested quietly. “You don’t have a number.”
“Can I get all of you together please?” Arkara asked. “I need to speak to you—all of you.”
The woman backed away. “Why? What are you planning?”
Arkara held up her hands, trying to appear as non-threatening as possible. “I just want to work out what they’ve done to you all—and why you look and sound like me.”
The woman peered at Arkara’s wrists and her eyes widened. “Are you the original?” she asked.
“What do you mean original?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” the woman said. “If they find out you’re here they’ll kill you.”
“That’s nothing new,” Arkara said with a shrug. “They’ve been hunting me for years.”
“We came—well, some of us came—from you.”
“I left years ago,” Arkara said. “How is this even possible?”
The woman looked down at the floor. “We are not true krogan,” she said, shame dripping from every word. “We were made from you.”
“Made? You mean…created?”
“They wanted more fertile krogan, so they made more.”
“Who did? Who is this ‘they’?”
The woman looked around, almost instinctively it seemed, and then lowered her voice. “Mr. Cyrus,” she said. “He’s a salarian.”
“Anar? Did you know about this?” Arkara asked through her omni-tool.
Through the video link she saw Anar drift into view, stuffing the mouth under his belly with cheez puffs. “About what?”
“Elias, do you have any idea what this means?”
“It sounds like they’re cloning fertile females—including you,” Elias said. “And I suspect these tests are simply a ruse to find more fertile females to clone. But more to the point—Sync can you isolate Dr. Lennox in the med bay?”
“On it,” Arkara could hear the human’s voice even though she couldn’t see him. “Hopefully he’s still in there.”
“Is that what they’re doing?” Arkara asked. “They’re not helping women overcome the genophage?”
The clone shook her head. “I believe they’re only looking for fertile females. But if this is what it takes to survive, we have to do it.”
“Not this way,” Arkara said. “There has to be a better way.”
“Change of leadership?” Cicepia suggested.
“Cicepia’s right,” Elias said. “The technology itself isn’t bad. Just perhaps the way it’s being used.”
“Do we have the right to impose a leadership change just because we find the customs here objectionable?” Anar asked.
“To end the enslavement of these women, I’ll act first and debate later, thanks,” Cicepia snapped.
Elias sighed. “We still need more information—and our best source is sitting on board the Endurance.”
“Are you sure it’s the same Cyrus?” Anar asked. “This one has never heard of Cyrus being familiar with cloning technology.”
“He’s salarian and a medical doctor,” Elias said. “Chances are good.”
“But he’s on the ship,” Anar protested.
Arkara turned back to her clone, who was staring at the video from Arkara’s omni-tool in fascination. “Is Mr. Cyrus here? On Tuchanka?”
“I don’t know,” the woman said. “I was made years ago.”
“How many years ago?”
That was two years after Arkara had left Tuchanka, burning down the Thek science facility in the process. It made her wonder if she missed anything. Through the video screen a stream of chatter could be heard.
“Drimi, keep Cyrus locked in the med bay,” Sync said.
“Uh, sure thing boss—um, Sync,” Drimi’s voice was softer. “What’s this about?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’m isolating the med bay systems so he can’t override the lockdown. Keep an eye on things up there, okay?”
“As far as this one knows, Cyrus seeks redemption for something that happened during his time with the Eclipse Mercenary gang,” Anar said. “Both of us did things we aren’t proud of in those days.”
“Then I’d say his past just caught up with him,” Elias said. “Once he’s contained we can ask him about it.”
“This one would appreciate that,” Anar said. “Cyrus has always been good to this one, although he does tend to be impolite when directly questioned.”
“With surprise: Doctor Lennox has always been very kind to me,” Otto said.
“I think we should deal with Cyrus after we’re done here,” Cicepia said. “One problem at a time.”
“But if this is the same Cyrus, he may have information as to what’s been going on here,” Elias pointed out.
“Assuming he’ll tell us—can we trust him?”
“This one has found him trustworthy in the past,” Anar said.
“Look, we have two options,” Elias said. “Either we get information from Cyrus and possibly find a back way into this cloning facility, or we go straight through the Clan Chief. We might have to deal with him anyway, but it could get bloody. I don’t know about you but I’m not keen to go up against a battleline of charging krogan.”
“I want to take out Targev,” Arkara said. “He’s a lousy pyjak just like his brother was. I just don’t know if we could walk out easily afterward.”
“It’s your call, Arkara,” Sync said. “These are your people.”
“Politely: if the women in that building are clones of you then they are your family,” Otto said. “They are your sisters. What do you think is best for them?”
“To be free to live their lives,” Arkara said promptly. “To be their own persons. That’s not going to happen under Targev’s watch.”
“This one believes the Clan Chief will use his numbers to take over Tuchanka once enough krogan are born,” Anar said. “You are looking at the future of the krogan if we let things be.”
“I don’t know,” Elias said. “That’s a highly limited gene pool. You need more than six females to repopulate a species even with redundant systems like the krogan have.”
There was a pause as everyone stared at the quarian.
“What? I was looking into livestock farming methods as potential data to bring back to Rannoch.”
“Thoughtfully: I doubt the minds behind this enterprise are thinking scientifically.”
“No,” Elias said. “I’m also wondering whether they built in other traits into the cloning process.”
“Such as?” Arkara asked.
“Um…pliability?” Elias suggested. “None of the women have your feisty nature.”
“Targev probably wanted people easier to control,” Arkara said.
“That trait could get passed on to their children,” Elias pointed out. “Between inbreeding and a change in temperament, I’m not sure we’re looking at the salvation of the krogan race.”
“There’s something to be said for constantly replenishing numbers though,” Anar said.
“It’s not going to win against reapers,” Elias retorted.
Arkara sighed. “No, it isn’t,” she said. “Let’s talk to Cyrus.”
From space, Tuchanka looked red and angry, with swirling storms of dust and sand, some of which were visible to the naked eye. The retrofitting of the Endurance had taken two days, and while Elias, Sync and Drimi had worked on those, Anar had gone with Cicepia to find Officer Shields, hoping they could convince the turian husk to join them on their mission, only to come up on a dead end. Apparently the Cicepia from the synthesised universe—or Green Cicepia, as they’d taken to calling her—had been campaigning to have Shields fired. According to Blue Cicepia, it appeared to be a combination of prejudice against synthesised husks and an attempt to increase her own power within C-Sec by scapegoating another.
“I don’t think I like her much,” Cicepia had said, her voice tight as they’d returned to the ship. They’d asked Elias to try to track him down through C-Sec’s network of surveillance cameras, but Shields had clearly known where they all were—and how to avoid them. More worryingly, all of Shield’s electronic presences, from social media right down to his banking, had been cleaned out, and nearly all traces scrubbed clean from the extranet. It had been a dead end.
Now they were orbiting the krogan homeworld, homing in on coordinates Elias had provided from his analysis of Mimic’s memory cache.
“What’s the error margin on those calculations?” Sync asked as he lowered the Endurance onto a sandstone plateau.”
“Twenty three point one four klicks,” Elias said after a moment’s pause.
“Can you narrow it down?”
“Now that we’re here, yes,” the quarian replied. “I can scan the area to locate the portal…just as soon as this sand storm clears up. About the best I can tell you at the moment is that it’s somewhere to the north.”
“In the clan compound?” Sync asked. “I’m reading a fortified settlement up ahead.”
“I don’t know,” Elias replied. “Which clan territory are we in anyway?”
“Thek,” Arkara said bleakly. “I can smell them from here.”
“Really?” Drimi said. “That’s some nose you have there. I can’t smell anything. Hey boss do you think I should check the air filters again?”
“Cool your jets biker dude,” Mridi said. “That was hyperbole.”
“Oh. Right. I knew that.”
“Arkara, if you know the clan, maybe you can talk to them?” Cicepia suggested.
“They want me dead,” Arkara said. “I don’t think I’ll get very far if I go in.”
“More than the turians?” Cicepia asked.
“Oh yes,” Arkara said. “With me it’s personal.”
“It could be worse,” Anar said. “You could be Salarian.”
“True,” Arkara said.
“We could just wait for the storm to clear, bypass the clan entirely and find out where the portal is,” Elias suggested.
“We should still scout ahead,” Arkara said. “Otherwise we’ll find ourselves waist deep in thresher maws and that’s only fun if you’re male. And krogan.” She glanced sideways at Otto, “And not raised on Dakuna.” It was the most words Anar had ever heard her say.
“This one will go,” Anar said firmly. “It is not afraid of thresher maws.”
“Really?” Elias asked.
“Perhaps a fingerling.”
With his blastshields up and helmet on, the sandstorm wasn’t much of a bother for Anar, although he hoped that none of the sand would get into any of the servos that controlled the arms and legs of the suit. The view was both impressive and monotonous. There was sand, stone, rubble, sand, stone and more sand, and while he caught occasional glimpses of the mountains or cratered landscape, the storm obscured almost everything. Only the blinking of his compass point told him which way to go. He pushed along what appeared to be a dirt road—or at least, a flat expanse of baked rock marked with tonka truck tracks—and soon found himself in the shadow of a walled compound, a lookout on top pointing a gun at him, a snarling varren pacing at his heels.
“Be careful,” Arkara’s voice sounded inside his mech. “The clan tend to shoot first unless you give them a strong challenge—or another reason to let you live.”
“You there,” the krogan yelled. “You wear no clan markings. Who are you and what is your business here?”
Anar had hoped that the walk up to the compound would have helped him work out what to say. It really hadn’t. Momentary lost for words, he grabbed at the first thing that crossed his mind. “Survival,” he said, remembering to turn on the krogan voice modulator just in time. Maybe he should pretend to be a Blood Pack merc.
“Here to barter,” Anar said. “You’re looking at the goods,” he said, and tapped his chest.
The krogan pointed his sniper rifle at Anar’s chest. “Why are you really here?” he asked. “Are you here to steal our females?”
A rumble in the distance saved Anar from having to answer, as a the roar of a powerful and well maintained engine rang in their ears. The point of the krogan’s rifle moved away from him, and Anar turned to see what appeared to be a brand new, sporty tonka zip across the landscape, racing through the sand and pulling up to the wall. By the time it arrived, the wind had fallen somewhat, and when the door of the truck lifted up like a wing, the human man who stepped out didn’t get an immediate faceful of stinging sand.
His hair was dark, but bleached in what Anar suspected was a dye job, and his teeth were even and the white that only came from cosmetic dentistry, according to the magazines that Tricey read. He wore shades reminiscent of an oil slick and a bright orange suit that would probably have stood out on any other planet’s surface. He held a small, leather briefcase in his right hand, and as he stood up, he squared his shoulders and grinned up at the krogan, who was now aiming its sniper rifle at him.
“Friend krogan! I’m here to interview you Clan Leader.”
The krogan cocked his head, and appeared to be talking into a communicator. With the gun off him, Anar walked closer to the gate, and Liam Vethaniel Musie threw a set of keys at him. “You there, take care of her. She’s barely two months old.”
For a moment, Anar stood still, keys in hand. Then he nodded. “Sure…sir. Absolutely,” Anar climbed into the truck and lowered the vehicle door just as the gates opened and the reporter was waved inside, Anar driving in slowly. He pulled into an empty space with other vehicles and stepped out, heading back to find the reporter. They were nosy bastards and if he was lucky he’d find out something worth knowing.
“This one has entered the Thek compound,” he said softly into his communicator.
“Thanks,” Liam said, tossing Anar a credit chit. “You want to make some extra creds?”
“Doing what?” Anar asked.
“You any good with a video camera?”
“He doesn’t like the camera drones,” Elias murmured. “Strange he didn’t bring a cameraman along.”
“Maybe he wasn’t allowed to,” Arkara rumbled.
“Th—I am familiar with the technology,” Anar said in response to the reporter’s question.
“Good,” Liam said, and handed him the briefcase before turning and walking towards the largest building in the compound. “Follow me then.”
Anar always found it took him some time to get used to using two hands rather than six tentacles, but he managed to juggle both keys and briefcase before trudging after the human, looking carefully around the compound as he did. The buildings were made of stone, plascrete and sturdy pre-fab modules. By the looks of it several generations of construction lay one atop the other, and he could also see scorch marks and the charred remnants of blacked timber on here and there. Some of the walls were pitted from gunfire, and throughout the streets, young krogan toddlers waddled, crawled and generally got underfoot. He lost count after he hit thirty something and felt a growing unease settle into his stomach.
“Arkara, were there a lot of children around when you left?” he asked.
“No. Why do you ask?” Arkara replied.
“This one is observing a large number of youngsters in this compound. More than this one thought possible given the genophage. They have stubby fingers. This one finds them mildly disconcerting.”
“The females are also very…docile, if you get what this one means.”
“Now you’ve gone from weird to unsettling,” Arkara said. “See if you can find out more of what’s going on.”
“This one is following the human reporter who hosted Citadel’s Got Talent. This one believes the human is going to speak with the Clan Leader.”
“Liam Musie just walked into the Krogan compound?” Elias asked. “Things must be going downhill if he’s taking jobs roving the galaxy.”
From several metres ahead, the reporter turned around “Come on, keep up, man,” he said.
“Coming sir,” Anar said, and picked up his pace.
The guards let them into the Clan Leader’s compound, where a particularly vicious looking krogan lounged on a rude throne of crumbling stone. Heavy scars were gouged into his head plates and his eyes were highly alert and fast moving, darting in immediately on the newcomers with a mixture of calculating cunning and arrogance. Reaching into a compartment, Anar pulled out a small vial and drank down the mixture inside, shuddering slightly at the taste. He’d seen that look before, and it was not one he had wanted to see again, on any species.
The room was more of a courtyard, or possibly an amphitheatre, ringed by towers in various states of ruin and containing a large statue of the leader himself, which easily rose three stories into the air, and was possibly bigger than the monument on the citadel.
“Thek Targev,” Liam said, and handed over a small piece of cardboard with a flourish. “My card.”
The seated Krogan took the card, glanced at it and threw it into a nearby brazier, where a fire was cheerily burning.
“Let’s get this straight, human,” Targev said, leaning forward on his throne. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t care who you are. You are here at my will, and you will report only what we want you to. If you don’t like that, I’ll deal with you accordingly. And I’m not exactly sure what that will mean. Every other squishy ‘news’ reporter has agreed with my terms. Got it?”
Liam looked up from where he had been inspecting his nails and flashed a charming smile. “Crystal clear. Shall we get started?” he asked. “This is my cameraman,” he said, waving towards Anar.
“And bodyguard,” Anar added, turning up the growl on his modulation software. Opening up the briefcase he pulled out the video camera. Turning it on, he pointed it towards the dais, and turned it on, trying to sync it up to his omni tool feed to the Endurance.
“What’s taking so long?” Targev asked. “Buttons too small for your paws?”
Liam turned and snapped his fingers. “Yo, uh, Charlie, you ready yet?”
“Nearly boss,” Anar said. “And it’s Rana, remember?”
“Sure,” Liam said, and then plastered on his best smile for the camera.
“Good morning galactic citizens! I’m here on Tuchanka reporting on an amazing development. Most of you are aware of the challenges facing the great and powerful krogan people, but it seems that one clan has found a way to beat the odds. I’m here with Clan Leader, Thek Targev of what will surely become the most powerful clan on all of Tuchanka. Tell me, Thek Targev, what exactly are you doing that is so revolutionary?”
“We have found a way to combat the genophage.”
“You mean a cure.”
Targev paused. “Yes.”
“That’s amazing. Are you going to share this cure with all krogan?”
Targev threw his head back and laughed. “Only the strongest krogan are worthy of this cure.”
“So, there’s an…audition process?”
Targev frowned. “The cure only works on females. If any female wishes to join clan Targev she will receive treatment for the genophage—if she passes our tests.”
“And what do these tests involve, exactly?” Liam asked.
“They find out when they arrive,” Targev said, leaning back against the back of his throne. “That is all I will say.”
“Right,” Liam said brightly. “Well you heard it here. Any krogan female willing to take a chance at fertility can come and join the Thek clan. This is Liam Vethaniel Musie reporting from Tuchanka—back to you in the studio, Ed. Got that, Rana?”
“Good. That was relatively painless,” Liam said, turning to the clan leader. “Thank you for speaking to me.”
Thek Targev grunted and waved them away.
Anar cut the feed and put the video camera away, following the human out of the compound and back towards the sports truck. “Good show, sir,” he said.
“You too,” Liam replied, handing him another credit chit. “You’re not a local boy, are you?”
“How’d you know?”
“Your armour doesn’t have the Thek clan markings.”
“Thanks for your help, Rana,” he said as he took the suitcase and got into his car. “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
“Maybe so,” Anar agreed.
“So I think we have a way into the compound,” Elias’ voice came through his speakers. “You know, assuming we want to get inside.”
“We do,” Arkara said firmly.
“Well, they say any female is welcome to go in for the cure.”
“They’ll recognise me,” Akara pointed out.
“Not in your armour,” Elias said. “I can also make you some contact lenses to change your eye colour. You can also use a voice modulator to make your voice sound different.
“We could just head straight for the portal and bypass all of this,” Cicepia suggested.
“No,” Arkara said. “Targev’s doing something to my clan. And I don’t like it.”
“Sure, sure,” Cicepia said. “I was just saying.”
“Bring Otto when you come,” Anar suggested. “You might need him to get past the front gate.”
“Can he fight?” Elias asked.
“Yes,” Anar said. “He can definitely fight.”
“Outside of video games,” Cicepia added.
“He hunts for game,” Anar said, recalling a chat they had had in game during a slow period. “He can shoot.”
“I am trying to find myself. Sometimes that’s not easy.” – Maralyn Monroe
He was in the kitchen, trying not to cringe at the video being displayed on the side of his helmet. “The me in this universe actually did a dance remix of Physical?” he said.
“It would appear so, Creator Elias,” Pi replied inside his helmet. “On the bright side, you do appear to be remixing yourself live.”
“He’s remixing himself live,” Elias corrected. “Him. Not me.”
“You do look remarkably alike.”
“Ha, bloody ha ha,” Elias muttered. “Keelah, couldn’t he have chosen a better song?”
“That song filled the number one spot for ten weeks in America in nineteen ninety one,” Pi pointed out.
“I can’t believe he beat Rayne T’kai with that nonsense,” Elias said, as the camera panned to a shot of his constant rival in all three universe’s seasons of Citadel’s Got Talent.
“Punk isn’t for everyone,” Pi said neutrally.
“Electro dance isn’t either,” Elias grumbled.
“I’m sure he’d feel the same way about your rendition of My Favourite Things,” Pi said blandly.
“One day you’re going to have to explain what’s so bad about The Sound of Music.”
“I don’t like puppets. Especially not the ones with strings.”
“Are you talking to your drone?” Cicepia asked, striding into the room.
“Absolutely,” Elias said, “It helps to talk one’s thoughts out loud sometimes.”
“Does it talk back?”
“Absolutely, Officer Altus,” Pi said, and Elias was glad his face mask hid his smirk.
“I didn’t find anything about Arkara,” Elias said, dropping his voice. “She really doesn’t seem to exist over here. Anar exists and hangs out with shady characters, but he pops out of nowhere a few years back. It’s like he didn’t exist until the war ended.”
“New identity,” Cicepia mused.
“That would do it,” Elias agreed. “What did you find out?”
“That I’m dead in this universe,” Cicepia said, dialing up a cup of tzanga from the beverage dispenser. “Arkara shot me at your concert.”
“Oh…that was her? Right.”
Cicepia turned to stare at him. “You knew?”
“It was in all the news feeds,” Elias said with a shrug. “I just didn’t put it together with her. Do you know why she did it?”
Cicepia sat down at the table, crossing on knee over the other. “The Shadow Broker hired her to,” she said simply “I think the me in this universe was…crooked.”
“From what I can see, yes. I found some hidden files on her computer. It looked like she was trying to find the Shadow Broker’s identity.”
Elias laughed, and then paused. “Wait, seriously?”
“She had a contract for a killing—would have made a lot of creds.”
“Who hired her?”
Cicepia grinned. “You know, I was hoping you’d be curious.”
Wordlessly Cicepia handed over a piece of paper. “Access codes,” she said.
“Never send them digitally,” the turian said with a grim smile.
“You want me to trace the personal details of someone trying to put a hit out on the Shadow Broker?” Elias asked.
“Are you saying you can’t do it?”
Elias grinned behind his mask. “Oh I’m sure I can. Just making sure you’re sure about sending me up against cashed up paranoia. But hey, I don’t really exist in this universe, right?”
“Of course you do, you’re just…doing club remixes from what I’ve heard.”
“Don’t start,” Elias said, pulling out a datapad and getting started. He never used his internal systems for something like this. Too risky. “But I will be using your identity and passwords to access the systems here.”
“No, you’re using hers,” Cicepia said grimly.
In the end, the cybertrail took him through several darknet forums and a private server where he found one name: Diana.
“No last name?” Cicepia had asked.
“We’re lucky to get a first,” Elias replied. “And that’s assuming our billionaire was either dumb enough or arrogant enough to use their real name.”
I’m not entirely sure what she was doing, but a lot of it wasn’t her job,” Cicepia said, taking a sip of the hot beverage. “Frankly, it creeps me out a little.”
“Well you could—” their conversation was interrupted by the sound of footfalls coming up the staircase.
“This is some ship,” an almost familiar voice said. Peering out into the hub of the ship, Elias saw a slender asari in a russet and gold dress walk up the ramp followed by Arkara. He also saw Drimi exit his quarters and turn towards the elevator leading down to the cargo hold.
“You have to get this on vid,” he said, and moved to the doorway to watch.
The new asari—who Elias was certain was Arkara’s friend Mridi—locked eyes with Drimi.
“Oh,” she said.
“My,” he said.
“Goddess,” they finished together.
“And there you go,” Arkara said from behind her friend. “Do you believe me now?”
The two asari stepped towards each other, and then began circling, each appraising the other—her with her slinky dress and heavy bracelets and him in cargo pants and a leather jacket.
“Pick a number,” Mridi said.
“W,” Drimi said with a grin.
“Oh my Goddess.”
“You’re thinking what I’m thinking,” they said in unison. “That’s freaky. No, that’s really freaky. Stop that!”
Mridi turned to Arkara, “Girl, I think I need to sit down.”
Drimi shook his head “Boss, got any of that beer left?”
“It’s Bud,” Sync said.
“Whatever. I’ll just have to drink two.”
Drimi hadn’t taken more than two steps towards the kitchen when an unfamiliar redheaded woman walked onto the ship, Anar floating in behind her. Her hair was loose and fell in ringlets over her shoulders and her eyes were green and slightly uncertain. Sync froze when he saw her, his mouth falling open and the lights from his cybernetic implants taking on a purplish tinge.
“Tricey these are the people this one told you about—Everyone, this is Tricey. This one has told her everything,” he added. “But it felt seeing you would provide reassurance that this one has told her the truth. The truth is important. Isn’t that right, Doctor Sync?”
“Uh…” Sync stammered.
“The Captain’s not a man of many words,” Elias said, as Tricey stared at him taking in the light show without comment.
“The doctor recognises you from his universe,” Anar said softly. “It is why…I asked if you’d been married before.”
“Ah,” Tricey said, but her answer seemed reflexive more than anything else. Elias wondered what that was like—to have someone you loved look at you with no memory of you at all.
“The doctor wished to know if you were happy,” Anar said, and Elias noted how one of his tentacles was wrapped around her hand. “I felt I couldn’t answer on your behalf. He’ll probably wish to speak with you once he recovers.”
“Sure,” Tricey said, letting go of Anar’s tentacle and walking over to Sync. “So…you’re the captain of this ship?”
For a moment Sync’s hand stretched out towards her as if to cup her cheek and then he paused, and lowered his arm. “Yes. Can I…speak to you in private?”
It seemed to take a moment for his words to register, and Elias could see Tricey’s eyes darting over Sync’s features, roving over the man’s face as though searching for something.
“Is there a version of your in this universe?” she asked. “From what Anar’s told me there could be, I think? There’s something…familiar about you.”
Behind them, Anar curled his tentacles around each other, and then stopped, deliberately letting them dangle freely to the floor.
“I…don’t know,” Sync said. “I don’t think I’m alive in this universe, to be honest.”
“Oh. I’m…I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I didn’t know me here so… please come this way. There’s something you should see.” He walked off towards the rear of the ship, where the sleeping quarters were, and Elias knew he was headed for the locked door.
“So,” Drimi said as they all stared after Sync and Tricey. “About that drink.”
With the exception of Anar, they were all in the mess when Tricey came running back down the corridor, and Cicepia was striding forward to intercept her.
“Tricey, is it?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t…I just can’t. I need to get out of here. Anar? Pleae?”
“This one—I will be right with you,” Anar said, but Cicepia placed a hand on his bell as he moved to go after her.
“Anar you need to get her to see a doctor.”
“This one needs to get her home,” Anar said.
“Sync’s wife died from a terminal illness. Depending on how alike people in these parallel universes are…your Tricey could have the same thing.”
Anar paused and looked at Drimi, “Is that true?”
“It’s true,” Sync said, walking slowly back into the main deck.
Anar paused. “This one can’t tell her now. She’s already dealing with enough as it is. Perhaps you could give me details later, Doctor and I’ll pass them on at a more appropriate time.”
Sync nodded and Anar made his way out of the ship after his girlfriend.
Outside Anar floated over to his girlfriend, who was leaning against his mech, her arms folded across her chest.
“Why did you bring me here, Anar?”
“This one wanted you to see the truth,” Anar said softly. “It didn’t want it to just be words.” Floating over to her, he wrapped her in a hug. Slowly, her arms came up and embraced him, although it seemed as though her heart wasn’t fully in it.
“Why is this happening?” she asked. “Is it so wrong that I want to go back to when things were just…normal?”
“This one has asked itself the same question. But from what this one has seen, this universe is about to get very dangerous. When this one disappeared from the concert, it was attacked by volus husks. It appears the reapers are not done with their harvest yet.”
“No,” Tricey shook her head. “No, that can’t be true.”
“This one wishes it weren’t.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she asked, unshed tears shining in her eyes.
“Because this one has to go away, and it doesn’t know for how long. If we don’t act now, it could be too late by the time everyone else notices.”
“But why does it have to be you?” Tricey asked. “Why do you have to go?”
“This one doesn’t have a choice. The disc Chris gave this one before he was…taken, is reaper technology.”
Tricey’s eyes widened and she took a step back from him.
“This one is scared too,” Anar said. “But if it has the ability to stop it from destroying this universe—and others—it will do whatever it can to keep you safe. And if that means this one does not return alive…then it won’t.”
“So, what are you saying about us then?”
Anar reached into the mech and pulled out a little black velvet box, hinged on one side. “This was to be your anniversary present, except this one forgot to bring it.”
“Anar, we said no presents.”
“You bought concert tickets,” Anar pointed out. “This one procured this.”
Slowly, he reached out and placed the box in her unresisting hand. “This one requests you do not open the box until one of two things happens,” he said. “Either when this one returns, or if you feel in your heart that this one has perished.”
Tears were flowing down her face now, and Tricey made no move to wipe them away. She stared first at the small box, then at him, and she nodded, clutching it to her chest. “We’ll talk when you get back.”
“That’s this one’s girl. Come on, This one will take you home.”
Tricey shook her head. “It’s all right. I need the walk.” She looked towards the entrance of the docking bay where an aged salarian was leading a group of men of various species towards them, some guiding crates along on hovertrolleys. “You have work to do.”
Cyrus waved at Anar and ushered the men into the cargo bay doors and they were soon installing weapon racks and unloading Anar’s armoury into the space Drimi had cleared with mercenary efficiency—which is like military efficiency but without the rules and regulations regarding facial hair. He was still in conversation with Otto, but stopped before Anar could hear what he was saying. A flicker of red light told Anar that Cyrus was scanning the ship with his visor.
“Interesting. Design incorporates salarian engineering with human. Also appears you have quarian stealth drive adapted from SSV Normandy design but missing key battle systems. Has potential. If I had studied engineering, I would help.”
“Respectfully: Mr Anar, Doctor Lennox has suggested I apply for the position of cook on your ship. Whom should I speak to in regards to that?”
Anar waved a tentacles. “This one would prefer you to just call it Anar. There are no titles among friends. This one suggests you speak to the Captain inside. His name is Sync.”
“I’ll get the armoury sorted and then investigate your med bay. Hope it’s state of the art,” Cyrus said with a sniff.
“You’re coming with us?” Anar asked.
Cyrus sniffed. “Maybe. I haven’t decided yet. Will let you know in a few minutes.”
“Captain, can I have a word with you? It’s important.”
They were back in the mess, and Cicepia had just returned from what Elias assumed was a grilling of Arkara’s friend Mridi. By the looks of things, nothing had gone well and the asari was now talking to the krogan in a low voice.
Sync looked up, his eyes puffy and red and his hand shaking slightly where he gripped his beer bottle. “Can it wait?”
“I don’t think so,” Cicepia said.
Sync sighed. “All right. I’ll meet you in the conference room.”
“Wow,” Mridi said when the two had left. “Does supercop always have a stick up her ass like that?”
“Pretty much,” Arkara said.
“Huh, takes all kinds I suppose,” she said. “And that man she left with is the captain you say?”
“Well, he’s pretty cute,” Mridi said. “And sensitive too.”
“Mridi. No. Just…no.”
“I’m just saying,” Mridi said, holding up her hands. “So you all are going off to save the universe I hear? Sounds like fun.”
“Universes,” Drimi corrected.
“Whatever,” Mridi said. “When are we leaving?
“I don’t know, that’s up to the Captain,” Arkara said.
“Okay. I’ll go and talk to him then.”
“Uh, wait,” Drimi said. “You’re planning on coming with us?”
“Of course, honey,” Mridi said. “Do you have a weapons and armour specialist on this ship? No? I didn’t think so. Just because you can point a gun at someone doesn’t mean you know how to take care of it.”
Drimi shook his head and picked up another beer.
Shortly afterwards, Cicepia left the conference room and headed aft towards the sleeping quarters, and Mridi rose to her feet, a determined look on her face and a datapad in hand.
“Excuse me, Captain Sync? I’m Mridi. Well, the other Mridi—” the conference room door snicked shut behind her.
“I’ve got some things to take care of,” Elias said. “See you later.”
Drimi waved him away and Arkara merely grunted, and set fire to her drink before gulping it down.
As he headed towards the common lounge, Elias turned on the video feed from the conference room, tuning in just in time to see Mridi bat her eyelashes at Sync.
“…thought I’d slip you my resume,” she said, bringing up a document on one of the many screens in the room.
“Oookay,” Sync said. “So how much of this is fake?” he asked.
Mridi’s eyelids stopped mid flutter. “I beg your pardon?”
“Did you just call me a liar?”
“No, no, honey. You do not get to call me a liar.”
Sync shrugged. “You’re Arkara’s friend, right?”
“Yes,” Mridi said, coolly. “Her best friend.”
“If she’ll vouch for you, maybe we can see what you’ve got.”
“Well, maybe I don’t want to work on this ship,” Mridi said. “It seems to me that you aren’t very good at treating your employees decently, maybe I should—”
“Whoa, whoa,” Sync said. “Who said anything about employing you? We’re just trying to stop the reapers from killing everything.”
“And? What about payment? Living expenses, parts, tools, wear and tear…”
“Pay? Why don’t you go ask Elias. He’s pulling the finances together for this adventure.”
“Elias? Who’s Elias?”
“You know, Elia’solor nar Ashru? The singer. He was in the mess just now.”
“No! You’re not serious.”
There was the swoosh of a door opening and Mridi’s voice echoed down the corridor. “Arkara!” she yelled.
“This fool man is telling me Elias is funding this mission? Is he for real?”
“Girl, you have been holding out on me and that is not cool,” Mridi said. “You and I girl. We’re having a chat after this about sharing.”
“Okay,” Arkara said, pouring herself another drink.
“Well,” Mridi said brightly, turning back to Sync. “I think we’re done here,” she said, and swept out of the room with a haughty grace that Rayne would have been proud of.
“Creator Elias, the asari’s estimated arrival time is ten seconds,” Pi said inside his helmet.
“Thank you, Pi,” Elias said, killing the video feed and settling down on a coach, pulling out his own datapad of technical specifications just as Cicepia stepped out of Arkara’s room, glancing around furtively. She froze as she saw him and then forced herself to relax, crossing her arms nonchalantly across her chest.
“Pi, do a sweep for new wireless signals will you?” Elias asked. “We might have to crack encryption too.”
He could feel Pi gearing up for an ‘are you sure?’, but Mridi was already sweeping into the lounge area.
“You,” she said, pointing a finger at him. “Are you the Elias? Don’t hold back on me now.”
“He’s an Elias,” Cicepia said, “I don’t know about the Elias.”
“Different universe, similar person. Better music,” Elias said.
Mridi gasped. “That…I mean…”
“I think there’s three of me,” Elias added.
“Oh…three of you?”
“Well, I haven’t met the other two yet, but I think so, yes.”
Her walk reminded him of the femme fatales in the black and white earth movies Corbin liked to watch, her hips swaying as she stalked forward. Keelah it was good to have an envirosuit in awkward situations.
“Anyway, I’ve been a big fan for a long time and I heard you’re the one who’s, ah…sponsoring this trip?”
“In a matter of speaking, yes.”
“First of all, I just want to say I’m very grateful for everything that you’re doing to save the galaxy and all, and I just wanted to show you my resume,” she said, holding out her datapad. “You’re going to need someone who can make sure you’re out in the field with the best weaponry and armour and the best mods available outside of proprietary research labs. Plus I have a degree in fashion, so I can make sure you’re at the cutting edge of style. Can’t save the universe without looking our best, now can we? Best foot forward, as I always say.” Her accompanying giggle was nervous, stopping abruptly as she pulled herself together, and her hands trembled only slightly as she handed over the pad.
A blue light flickered in his helmet. “Creator Elias, her heart rate indicates—”
“Please don’t,” Elias replied softly as he took the datapad and flicked through it.
“Very well her gal—”
“And I don’t want to know about her galvanic skin response either,” he added.
“Creator Elias, you have not been romantically involved with anybody in over eighteen months,” Pi said. “Physical and emotional intimacy is healthy for organics.”
“She doesn’t want romance, Pi,” Elias said. “She wants a fantasy.”
Mridi’s resume was more of a portfolio, with finished products, some technical schematics which included some new alloying techniques he hadn’t come across before. After a moment he was aware that Cicepia had walked over and was reading over his shoulder.
“Very impressive work…Mridi, yes?”
“Yes,” the asari said brightly. “I’m the pretty one.”
“So, I see,” Elias said blandly.
“Um, yes, so…I was wondering what sort of budget we’re talking about for something like this? If I were to sign on as your weapons, armour and modding specialist, what would be the hourly rate?”
Elias smiled and handed her his pad, helpfully pre-loaded with the contracts he’d already passed out to the others. It was a modified boilerplate from Jamak, with payment and sponsorship rates that were probably a bit on the low side and included the standard appearance waivers, but it had some beefed up merchandise fees as well as a privacy clause that Elias insisted was included in all of his contracts. That said, his contract also prohibited any footage or images of him outside of his envirosuit being published, but that probably wasn’t going to be an issue for anyone else so far.
“Payment depends entirely on the ratings, my dear,” he said as she took the pad.
A slow smile spread across her face. “I like the way you think,” she said. “Ooh, is this whole thing going to be filmed?”
“Yes it is,” Elias said, contriving to relay that confirmation with as much nonchalance as possible.
“Do we get to give confessionals and everything?” she said. “Because I’ve got some things to say about some people around here,” she said, glancing pointedly away from Cicepia.
“I’m sure that could be arranged,” Elias said, making a note to see if Jamak though that would help or be too cheesy. Then he decided not to mention them at all and hope Mridi forgot about the whole thing.
“Are these actually going to work?” Cicepia asked. “They look so…showy.”
Elias shrugged. “She’s better than me,” he said.
“Really?” Cicepia said, looking Mridi up and down, taking in the iridescent dress and three inch heels. “Well, I’m sure her services will be useful then.”
“Honey, you seem to be doubting my abilities,” Mridi said, placing one hand on her hip as she stared at Cicepia. “Do you have a problem with asari, dear?”
“Not at all,” Cicepia said. “I just didn’t take you for the technical sort, but if Elias thinks you’re as good as you say you are then I’m sure you’ll be an asset to the team.”
Mridi smiled at her, in an ‘aren’t we playing nice’ kind of way. “So these are your rooms, Mr. Elias?” she asked brightly.
“Oh no, this is the common room,” Elias said, making visual copies of the venting work Mridi had done in an attempt to increase thermal clip efficiency. “We’re all in smaller individual rooms leading off from here.”
“Oh. Wait, are they putting you in the same type room as everybody else?”
Elias shrugged. “We’re saving the galaxy, Mridi, we all have to make sacrifices.”
She sighed. “You are so noble, Mr. Elias, of course. So…I just sign here?” she asked, pointing towards the bottom of the contract.
“And fill in your contact details,” Elias said. “We’ve had to come up with very rough descriptors for each universe as well. Interdimensional law is a bit tricky, but we’ve already established credit chits cross universes remarkably well. I’ll send you a copy and forward the other to the production company.”
She smiled and handed the tablet back to him. “Well, I’ll just go get my things and be right back. See you soon,” she said as she left the common area, head held high.
“Do you think she saw the ‘not responsible in case of death’ clause?” Cicepia asked after she’d left.
“I hope so,” Elias said. “It was highlighted. And in bold.”
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.”
“For you shall kneel, and tell me that you love me. And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.” – Danny Boy. Traditional Earth Ballad
Sync was in his quarters getting ready for bed when there was a knock on his door.
“Who is it?” Sync asked.
“It’s me boss—uh, Sync.”
Reflexively Sync reached for his shirt, and activated his synthskin holo with a flick of his wrist. “Come in Dri,” he said, pulling his crumpled shirt over his head. Ain’t it a little late for visiting though?”
Drimi sighed as he stepped through the door, letting it snick shut behind him. “It is, but I thought you needed to see this,” he said, holding out a small, framed holo.
“What is it?” Sync asked, taking the frame.
“This is a holo of Anar and your wife.”
Sync stared down at the holo, thoughts clamouring in his head.
“It is her, isn’t it? That is Beatrice?”
Knees suddenly weak, Sync sat back down on the edge of his bed. “This can’t be right. This isn’t possible. She… I mean…”
“I didn’t recognise her immediately, but I remembered going through your wedding photos and…I just thought you should know.”
The lights in Sync’s cybernetic implants flashed red. “I need to go speak with that hanar,” he said, his knuckles turning white where he gripped the frame.
“He doesn’t know, boss,” Drimi pointed out. “You told me he—and she—are from a different universe.”
Rising from the bed, Sync stormed out, heading towards the elevator, Drimi hot on his heels.
“Boss are you sure you need to—” Drimi stopped when Sync shot him a look. “Okay, okay, just…try to think before you speak, all right?”
He found Anar in his mech in the cargo bay, tentacles crossed before him, as if waiting for something.
“This is you in this holo?” Sync demanded, holding the frame out towards the hanar. “How do you know this woman?”
“Why do you wish to know?”
“Just answer the question.”
“Very well. That is indeed this one in that holo. You can tell by the scar. The woman is Beatrice, although everyone calls her Tricey, including this one.”
Sync let Anar take the holo and then reached forward, grabbing two of his tentacles and all but yanked him out of the mech suit. “Is she happy?”
“Is she happy, damn it?”
“This one requests you relax your grip.”
“Answer the damn question!” Sync demanded, giving the hanar a shake.
“This one has been drinking and would like to not have any accidents—”
“I’ll give you accident,” Sync said, pulling back his right arm to give that hanar a solid thumping.
Suddenly there was a pistol in his face. “Get off me!” Anar said, his modulated voice strangely placid yet angry at the same time.
“Whoa, whoa,” Drimi said, stepping forward and trying to push the two men apart.
“This one apologises,” Anar said in a calmer voice and the pistol lowered. “It does not react well to being grabbed.”
Sync took a deep breath and forced himself to relax his grip. “Please answer the question, Anar. Is she happy?”
“Last time this one checked, yes. She is happy.”
Sync’s cybernetics faded back to their normal pale blue. “Thank you. That’s all I needed to know.” Then he turned and took the lift back up to the main deck, passing through the common areas where Cicepia and Arkara were both loitering, attempting to look unobtrusive. He walked past both of them, ignoring their furtively curious looks and used his cybernetic eye to stare into the digital lock on the last room, slipping in through the door and letting it lock behind him. Drimi would tell them what they needed to know. He knew that.
The room was as it was when he’d left it. The way he always left it. A double bed was pushed up against the far wall, next to a sealed display case containing a floor length emerald green dress in a classic cut that apparently never went out of fashion. On the port side of the ship was a rack upon rack of computer chips, and on the starboard side was a small desk, a shelf of expensive, leatherbound journals, the kind you had to write in with pen and ink, all full of words he usually couldn’t bring himself to read. There was also a trophy case. He knew without looking what was in there. Accolades for contributions to science. For advancing knowledge for…
Beatrice lay on the bed, cold and unmoving.
His omnitool enveloped his hand in a shimmering encasement of kinetic energy as he smashed the case, sending glass fragments and trophies falling to the floor. He stared at them for a moment and then crawled onto the double bed, onto the quilt cover that had lain without crease over the mattress for years. The sheets didn’t even smell like her anymore.
According to his internal clock it was 1000 hours ship time when a knock on the door roused him from a fitful doze.
Stumbling over to the door, he managed to avoid the shards of broken glass and used his omnitool to unlock it, and the door slid open to reveal Cicepia.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s you.”
Sync saw Cicepia’s eyes dart around the room behind him, and he resisted the urge to walk out and close the door behind him.
“We were just deciding where to go next,” Cicepia said. “And we thought the Captain should be involved in that decision.”
Sync opened his mouth to say ‘I’m not the Captain’, but the words stuck in his throat. “Sure,” he said, stepping out and locking the door behind him.
“Hey,” Cicepia called as he strode through the common area. “You can drop the attitude. I get what you’re going through, it messes with your head, but we have a mission and we need to get it done.”
Sync paused. “What do you know about what I’m going though?”
“You lost someone you love,” Cicepia said. “And now you find out they’re alive in a different universe, but they’re not yours? I know how that feels.”
“It’s not the same, C-Sec,” Sync said as he walked off. “Not at all.”
When everyone had gathered in the conference room, Sync motioned to Cicepia to speak since she seemed to have an idea of what was going on.
“We seem to have two courses of action open to us,” she said. “We can jump back to Elias’ universe and retrofit the ship now, or we can jump over to Arkara and Anar’s universe in case there’s any loose ends to tie up there?”
“How long will it take to upgrade the ship?” Sync asked.
“Days,” Drimi said. “At least two or three given the amount of things we want to do.”
“Yes, but we don’t know what sort of reception we’re going to get in Anar and Arkara’s universe,” Elias pointed out. “I’m not really comfortable going there without a stealth drive.”
“We don’t attack people on sight just because Shepard destroyed synthetic life, you know,” Arkara said.
“You might not, but do you think we can just jump an unregistered ship into the Citadel’s space and not be shot to pieces?”
“This one was meant to pay rent yesterday,” Anar said. “It would like to not be evicted from it’s apartment.”
“I probably have enough eezo stashed away to build that drive if I have some help,” Drimi said.
Sync looked at Elias. “You have schematics for that?”
“Absolutely,” Elias said, waving a hand over the conference table. “It looks like this,” he said, and a complicated engine sprung up in the centre of the table’s holo projector.
“We can have that done by dinner time if we can minifacture a few key parts,” Drimi said. “I assume you can integrate it into our system though? I can build it, but I’ve no idea what we’ll need to run it. Well, not much of an idea.”
Elias nodded. “I’ve worked on these before so I shouldn’t have any issues.”
“What about the rest of us?” Arkara rumbled.
“Oh don’t worry,” Drimi said. “There’ll be plenty of heavy lifting for everyone.”
“And um…do you think you can sweet talk the right people into giving us flight clearance over the theatre?” Elias asked Cicepia. “We might also need you to do some fast talking when we get to Anar and Arkara’s universe.
“That could be tricky,” Cicepia said. “Arkara am I even a C-Sec officer where you’re from?”
“I don’t know,” Arkara replied blandly. “I haven’t exactly encountered you in my universe.”
“Well, I guess I’d better go and find out when we get there,” Cicepia said.
Nearly six hours and several solder burns later found Sync at one of the terminals in the engine room, with both Elias and Drimi underneath the eezo core of the engine.
“Okay, boys, do you have it right this time?” he asked.
“Yes, I think so,” Elias said a moment later.
“Think?” Sync said. “Do you remember what happened last time?”
“Hey, I’m a software guy not hardware,” the quarian protested. “I’d like to point out my emergency shutdown worked perfectly.”
“Requiring a manual restart of half of our systems,” Drimi grumped.
“Triple check the wiring?” Elias suggested.
“All right, all right, point the flashlight over here would you?”
Sync drummed his fingers on the edge of the screen as he waited. “Come on guys, less making out and more work please.”
“I’m wearing a helmet,” Elias said.
“Well, safety first. Well done.”
From beneath the engine there was silence.
“Was that a joke?” Drimi asked. “An actual joke? Elias did he just make a joke?”
“I’d say that was a joke, yes,” Elias agreed. “Doesn’t he do that?”
“No.” There was the hum of thrusters and Drimi’s hoverboard pulled out from beneath the engine, followed shortly by Elias. “Wiring’s fine. Now who are you and what did you do with Sync?”
“Don’t listen to him, man, it was a good joke,” Elias said, wiping his hands with a rag. “Now…”
Sync hit the start button and both Elias and Drimi jumped away from the engine with alacrity.
“Goddess, give a guy some warning,” the asari said.
Sync grinned and clapped his hands together. “Look at her boys,” he said. “She’s humming.”
Indeed, the drive lit up like a Christmas tree, gentle white lights playing over the room.
“This calls for a drink,” Drimi said, opening one of the engine cooling thanks and pulling out two bottles of asari honey mead and a Turian Muslam cider for Elias. Taking the bottle, Sync toasted their success as he leaned back against the console, watching the lights play over the metal surfaces of the engine rooms. The mead was sweet on his tongue and the deck thrummed beneath his feet. He closed his eyes and half listened as Drimi and Elias chatted on about music—something about jazz. A warmth washed over him that was only partially due to the alcohol, and he basked in it like a cat when he realised that someone had asked him a question.
“Beg your pardon. I was…miles away.”
“I asked what we do now, Boss,” Drimi asked, draining his beer.
“That depends on whether Cicepia’s got us our flight clearance yet,” Sync said. “Once she gets that, we jump to Arkara and Anar’s universe and get things squared away there before we go hunting reapers.”
Drimi shuddered. “You say that so casually,” he said almost accusingly.
Sync shrugged. “Running around and screaming about it won’t help us none. Besides, we’ve all done it before.”
“I was personally hoping not to have to do it again, myself,” Elias said. Watching the quarian drink wasn’t as interesting as Sync had hoped, as it seemed to involve a straw. He was looking forward to seeing how eating solid food worked.
“I’d drink to that, but no more than one in the engine room,” Drimi said. “How does this universe jumping portal thing work, anyway?”
“We get mimic and the reality collider into the silver sun theatre and use a computer program to activate both,” Elias said. “Then we link the ship to coordinates on the far side of the wormhole and jump through.”
“And the people in the theatre?”
“We’ll literally walk across into a different universe.”
“Well, I’m assuming I’m going to be one of them to make sure the portals open and close correctly.”
“And what about getting mimic down there? You know, until you showed up, I honestly thought mimic was a glitch in Sync’s synthetic eye.”
“Oh thank you so much,” Sync said. “Now the truth comes out.”
Drimi grinned. “I didn’t want to bruise your delicate male ego.”
Both Sync and Elias stared at the asari. “What?” Sync asked eloquently.
“What, I can’t say that just because I’m transitioning?”
“I’m going to be flying the ship,” Sync said, carrying on the conversation as if nothing had happened. “How do you plan to get mimic down to the theatre?”
“Oh you know,” Elias said. “The obvious way—I thought I’d bribe it.”
Arkara stood patiently in the carpeted theatre, plush and red underfoot as it had been when they arrived. There were still no body outlines in the holographic chalk C-Sec used these days. Stepping up to the centre of the room, she held up a handful of seeds and forced herself to remain still when a holographic image of mimic nuzzled at her fingers. It looked like a fanged, lizard with a spiky ruff, a bit like a tiny flying thresher maw even. She knew it was a hologram, but the idea that it was there even when the hologram wasn’t present was a thought she tried very hard to forget, especially when she was in the shower. Admittedly, she didn’t take her seeds into the shower, but still.
The strange construct was tame compared to the crackling lightning show that would have made her hair stand on end, had she had any. As it was, it made her teeth itch and crackled across her armour before earthing itself into the ground through her boots. As Elias stepped forward with the reaper artefact, a circular portal opened, edged in red and expanded until she couldn’t see the edges anymore. Following the quarian as he walked forward, she blinked, and there was a holo-chalk outline of a single body. Probably turian. She squinted up at the catwalk where she had been lurking, aiming her sniper riple down at her universe’s version of Officer Altus. Definitely turian.
“Someone got shot here,” Elias said as he turned around, and she saw red lines of energy crisscrossing their way over space like embroidery.
“Only one, and not much blood. Not reapers.”
“Still,” Elias said. “Let’s leave by the stage door to avoid notice by the public—or C-Sec.”
“You know where the—of course you do.”
“Captain, you through?” Elias asked through his helmet comm. “Right. Find a dock and I’ll make my way over. I think Arkara has some things to do?” he turned to her for the last sentence.
Arkara nodded, her omni-tool was already pinging madly with messages
“Okay,” Elias said. “Sync will send you the ship’s docking port once he finds one. I’ll see you back on board.”
He led her out a side door and left without adding ‘and if you don’t come back I’ll track you down and drag you back’, and she found herself blinking in the artificial lights of the Silverlight Strip. Arkara hadn’t met many quarians before, but they were decidedly strange. Trusting. Or possibly he just judged she’d rather not sit by the sidelines as the reapers poured out to complete their grisly harvest of intelligent life. Correctly, if that was the case. Quarians were weird. Which wasn’t the point. The point was that there were at least twenty messages from Mridi—her Mridi—that were fast pinging her inbox.
There was also a sedate message from an unknown number that simply said “Arkara darling, congratulations! Come see me as soon as you can.”
That would be Shias Lazeen. The Salarian had always been good for the odd job here and there, and Arkara was looking forward to the credits. In this case she might well end up spending it all though. If she was going up against reapers it might finally be time to replace her crappy out of the box omni-tool with something with a bit more grunt. Heading back along the familiar corridors of the wards to her apartment, she called her best friend, who picked up on the second ring.
“Girl! Where the fashkh have you been? I’ve been worried sick for two days. Two whole days! I thought they were going to pull your body from the presidium lakes, or you’d end up in the keeper protein vats or something! I went and filed a missing persons report and everything—not that they’re looking very hard.”
Despite herself, Arkara smiled. “Mridi, I can take care of myself, you know that. I just had some business to take care of and I had to drop out for a bit. You didn’t need to file a report.”
“Well you didn’t reply to my texts, you didn’t answer my calls, what did you expect me to do?”
“I’m sorry, Mridi. I didn’t mean to worry you, but you know what radio silence means.”
“Yeah, but you could have given me some warning first! What was so important that you have to radio silent anyway?”
“That’s…a bit of a story actually. I’m not sure I can talk about it like this-”
“Fine, I’ll be right over,” Mridi said, and Arkara could see her friend’s expressive hands waving through the air in her mind’s eye. “Are you hungry? I was just going to get some food and I know you never have decent food at yours.”
“There’s a new human place that opened up recently—Chinese I think? You love spicy, don’t you.”
“Don’t answer that girl, I know you love spicy. I’m just talking to hear myself think you know that.”
“Do you have any requests? Anything you really want to eat? Do you know Chinese food at all?”
“Well, no, but-”
“Okay, that’s fine, I’ll figure out something.”
Arkara sighed. “I’ll see you soon,” she said, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Arkara had been home for half an hour before the knock on her door came, and she’d had time to gather a few changes of clothing, her spare weaponry and a few other essentials she’d packed into a footlocker before beginning the transfer of music to her new omni-tool. She’d bought it on credit, but she knew she was getting paid shortly. Besides, if things went badly, she might not even be footing the bill.
Mridi breezed in, all bustle and dramatic hand gestures. “Girl, I am so sorry I’m late. This matriarch in front of me was taking forever to order. I mean, lemon chicken or sweet and sour? What’s the big deal? It’s the same chicken with different sauce right? You could at least go a Gong Bao Ji Ding or a Chicken and Cashew, right? And then she found out that the sizzling platters were only an eat in thing unless you have your own platter at home and I wanted to be here as soon as I could and I completely forgot to get chopsticks. Wait, you don’t use them, so that’s fine. You still have forks right?”
“It’s all right, Mridi,” Arkara said, getting out the plates and cutlery. “You’re not late at all.”
“I have been freaking out so much,” Mridi said, as she sat down and scooped half of a spicy white noodle dish onto Arkara’s plate, a layer of chilli oil and mince pork tumbling out after, coating the noodles with its reddish sheen. “You have a lot of explaining to do. In fact, you are going to sit there, and explain everything to me—and you know why you’re going to explain everything to me? Because we are best friends, and best friends tell each other everything.”
“Fine,” Arkara said. “You won’t believe me though.”
Mridi popped a crispy wonton into her mouth, crunching through the crisp skin with satisfaction. “Try me.”
I flew into Japan after spending pretty much a whole day travelling. My flight arrived at 7PM local time and I figured it would take a while to get my bags, get through customs, and get out into the city proper. It looked like a good hour on the train from Narita Airport to Shinjuku, where I’d organised to stay at a capsule hotel for the very first night of my trip. I wasn’t meeting my mate Brendan until the Saturday of the long weekend—we’d booked an AirBnB fifteen minutes from Shinjuku by train, and given my interest in tiny living, I’d always wanted to check out the capsule hotel phenomenon in Japan, and I’d ended up booking into the Shinjuku Kuyakushomae capsule hotel as it was listed as ‘newly renovated’ and was close to where I needed to be the next day anyway. Strangely, my friend, fellow author and Queermance committee member, Nicholas G. Frank found me a the shuttle bus service at Brisbane Airport.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“Tokyo,” I said. “You?”
Turns out, he was headed to a music festival (Fuji Rock). It had been a last minute decision.
“Who are you flying with?” I asked.
“Me too.” We compared tickets, and were on the same plane. “What are your plans when you reach the city?”
“We’ve got an AirBnB in Shinjuku in a few days. I just booked into a Capsule hotel for the first night and I figured I’d work it out from there.”
“Me too. Which hotel did you book into.”
Nicholas shrugged. “The first one that came up when I googled it,” he said.
I opened my travel document wallet and pulled out my reservation printout. “That’s what I did, although I looked up some reviews on TripAdvisor and stuff.I’m in this one.”
He looked at the flimsy piece of paper with its thin, black, printed script. “That’s where I’m staying.”
Finding the hotel was as easy as buying a local sim card, entering the address, and letting Google Maps direct us to it, complete with instructions to cross at upcoming zebra crossings. I don’t know how much work has been put into maps by the team in Japan, but it’s years ahead of what’s available elsewhere, and I’m really looking forward to it. The was…emptier than I expected, although we had arrived at the start of a long weekend. Walking through the streets in the shorts I’d changed into on the plane, the hot muggy humidity of the Asian summer hit my winter weary bones with a very welcome heat. There was neon everywhere, and even at nine o’clock on Friday night there were open stores full of shoppers, although, it was only select stores as I was to find out later. The streets were wide and clean, and I couldn’t see any litter as we pulled our cases along the concrete and asphalt. The streets were mostly quiet, and I saw very few cars as we pushed into the heart of Shinjuku, my phone eventually leading us to a tall building of grey-brown render, passing a donut shop, a British Pub, and a giant yellow sign with a cat on it. It could have been a cat cafe—I never went to check. Then we were piling in to a wood paneled elevator, and out into the bright, clean lobby of the capsule hotel.
For those of you not familiar with them, Capsule Hotels are essentially giant dormitories where possibly hundreds of people sleep in semi-private ‘capsules’ each about the size of a single bed. There’s enough room to hold a mattress and a TV screen, and you can just about sit up if you’re not very tall. Each capsule is offered some privacy by a curtain or screen that blocks off the entrance, but they’re sized for Japanese people, and I saw some feet sticking out the ends of other capsules and longer (okay, taller) westerners may want to research the bed length before booking in. While they minimise on private space, capsule hotels provide a fair amount of common space. The one I went to had a lounge for relaxing, working, socialising and was connected to the in house canteen offering a quick feed at a reasonable fee (800 Yen for a meal or thereabouts). There was also a coin laundry, phone charging stations, free wifi, the ever present vending machines, and a complete Japanese onsen, or bath house. A quick side note – this particular onsen won’t let you in if you have tattoos, unless you cover them up with a big bandaid or something. Traditionally tattoos in Japan are the domain of the Yakuza and as such carry connotations of organised crime. That said, there are other capsule hotels and onsen around that don’t have this restriction, so check the rules before booking your own stay.
Onsen provide a shared bathing experience. You take off your provided pajamas (you left your clothes down in the locker when you first checked in), and put them in a little cubby along with your large towel, and take your smaller wash towel into the shower area with you. The shower area is a low counter with multiple wash stations positioned along it, each comprising of a plastic basin, shower wand, wash soaps and a stool for sitting on while you clean yourself. There are typically more abrasive washcloths (think a plastic loofah in cloth form), toothbrushes, toothpaste and razors nearby if you need them, but there’s no privacy. If it’s not busy you may find a station away from everyone else, but chances are you’ll be flanked by other, nude male bodies (I have no idea if the female onsen are similar but my research suggests they are), and you’re expected to clean yourself before you head into the the soaking pool of your choice. The Kuyakushomae capsule hotel has three pools-hot, warm and cold, although I spent most time in the hot pool unwinding after the flight and the trek through Tokyo itself. And yes, this is where I confirmed that Japanese guys don’t shave. Manscaping below the neck appears to be a western obsession.
Whenever you’re soaked enough—or tired enough—get out, dry yourself off and put your PJs back on—or if you’re feeling particularly modest, some of your own clothes—and head into the lounge to chill, work, or eat and otherwise just hang out and socialise before heading to your capsule to sleep. Things to be aware of if you do decide to go with the capsule experience:
It pays to be organised. You’re going to have to stash your luggage downstairs in your locker or on a luggage rack if your travel case is too big for the provided lockers. You also don’t really want to be leaving valuable electronics lying around in the open shelf cubbies. I recommend ensuring you have whatever you want to use in the lounge in a ‘lounge pack’ ready to go—so spare undies and a t-shirt if you feel more comfortable wearing them, phone, laptop, chargers, adaptors, a book etc. Go bathe, grab your gear and head up to the lounge. You’ll need to return to stow things away before bed, and frankly, the fewer trips you have to make, the less stressed you’re going to be.
Remember that the capsule hotels pretty much do provide all requisite toiletries. Originally created for Japanese businessmen who missed the last train and needed somewhere to crash before the next day of work, capsule hotels provide just about everything you need to get through one night to the next day in the office. You can also get a cheap shirt and a new tie at nearby convenience stores so you don’t have the same clothes as yesterday. You can afford to leave the toiletries out of your lounge kit if you want.
While capsule hotels are cheap options for tourists and popular for their uniqueness as well as their low cost, you will be kicked out during cleaning times, usually somewhere around 10 to somewhere around 4. You can’t go back in. You can’t go and chillax. You can’t even access your luggage unless you’re paying the fee to access the space as a day guest (assuming the hotel opens as a day bath house). So plan accordingly.
Onsen are not hook up joints. Sorry boys. There are specific gay onsen that are also saunas, and some may even allow you to stay overnight, especially if you have a private room, but don’t come in looking for sex. I’m not sure what would happen if you did, but if you have and can let me know, please feel free to share.
The next morning I discovered that Tokyo is a bit like Hong Kong in the morning – nothing is open. With two hours to kill between leaving the breakfastless capsule hotel and my scheduled meet up with Brendan, Gregory and I set out on foot, him leaving his bags at the Capsule hotel where he planned to stay another night, and me dragging some twenty five kilos of luggage behind me as we walked through the emptiness of a morning after in a nightlife hotspot. With neither Gregory nor I wanting to go for a vending machine breakfast, we wandered around looking for food—eventually going for a 24 hour Ramen place where we discovered that the Japanese vending machine ordering system worked differently to what we were used to back home—and then went coffee. Gregory’s a bit addicted in his own words, and if he goes too long with a caffeine fix he starts getting headachey. Now coffee hasn’t really taken off in Japan, as you might expect from the culture that brought us the tea ceremony. There are few western cafes, if any, and the most western places we stumbled across were bars that either weren’t open, or were advertising an early morning beer or whisky, along with old American music sung by crooners from an era before I was born. Eventually we found a Starbucks. Now I’m a good Melbourne boy, but I’m not a coffeeholic. I don’t really drink it, but I know what good coffee is supposed to taste like and the smell of burnt coffee grounds not being cleaned out of a machine. People like me are the reason Starbucks, with it’s high sugar, high cream and overpriced ‘coffee’ never really made it in Melbourne. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the counter and ordered an iced coffee.
What I got, was an iced coffee. As in black coffee. Cold. With ice. No added sugar. I found out later that some Americans complain that ‘it’s not the same as it is back home’. They’re right. It’s better. I’d actually go back for a coffee, and not just for the sit down. At the front of the store was a polite chalkboard sign asking you to please find your seat before ordering and to be considerate of others and not spend too long on your computer or phone. Basically, you can still stay as long as you like and they won’t turf you out, but even Starbucks isn’t immune to the ever present throng of people in Tokyo. Gregory and I stayed for nearly an hour, before I left o meet Brendan at the TOHO cinema
“There’s a big statue of Godzilla there,” he said. “You can’t miss it.”
There was, and no I didn’t.
Giant Godzilla at TOHO Cinemas. I found it by accident, actually
Brendan is an English teacher at a school out in Nagano, which is (apparently) 2-3 hours north of Tokyo by train. Hopefully I’ll get to see it on a subsequent visit. I know him through National Novel Writing Month, and we met during his most recent stint in Melbourne between overseas jobs. He’s been in Japan on and off for five years and although he speaks the language, his pronunciation is apparently bad (according to the primary school children he teaches) and he has trouble reading much of the written Japanese as it mostly uses the complex pictoral characters known as Kanji, which are pretty much identical to the traditional Chinese characters used in Hong Kong and south eastern China. Japanese does have an alphabet of sorts (the kana script) which shows a reader how to pronounce a word, but this is rarely used outside of teaching children, and it doesn’t always include paces or other punctuation, so telling where one word stops and a new word starts can be an issue. In Brendan’s words, Japan is still a wonderfully confusing place he doesn’t ever think he’ll get a handle on. I think that’s why he loves it there, and I can understand that.
Our first stop was Harajuku, because that’s where the Japanese street fashion is found. Or at least, that’s where we both knew we could find Japanese urban street fashion. Japan is full of shopping malls, as is the rest of Asia, and those malls are full of the same big international brands—GAP, Diesel, Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Shisheido, Svarovski, Agnes B… the list goes on and on. They’re almost all overpriced for the actual item of clothing you’re buying, because at the end of the day, you’re paying for the brand. You’re paying for the social cachet of being seen in an Armani Exchange T-shirt with the big AX on the front. And if that’s what you want, fair enough, go nuts, you’ll love it. Personally, I’ll stick to finding the tiny hidden stores with quirky designs and one off pieces that don’t cost a fortune, but add a flare to your wardrobe that will be seen in the mainstream brands in a few years’ time. I found the first piece in a tiny basement shop that had clothing racks outside and staff looking like hippies with baggy pant, beanies and dreadlocks. Inside was an eclectic mix of vintage pieces, flouro pop culture shirts and shoes, and a giant inflatable penis stuck up in a corner for no apparent reason. There was also a pair of platform boots with a clear plastic hollow heel, stuffed with barbie heads, oversized t-shirt jumpers with bits of other tops sewn on to weight it down and give each one a unique look and texture, and hidden in the corner, a simple, raw linen shirt straight out of a steampunk portrait. I’d found my people.
In the other stores, I found a lot of different textures put together into one garment, and there were lightweight jackets in jersey (T-shirt fabric) which went some way to explaining how people could wear them in the humid heat of summer. I also found that there was a definite American iconography trend happening in Japanese fashion, with flag inspired prints that personally made me a little uneasy. That might explain why I bought so little. After walking through Harajuku, Brendan and I went to check out the Meiji shrine next to Harajuku station. The walk to the shrine was magical, a gravel path leading through old trees tall and dense enough to make you feel like you’d stepped out of the city and into a forest far away. I could smell the richness of decaying leaves and the green smell of vegetation and moss. It was only the crowds, my awareness of my location and a brief flash of neon through the trees that reminded me I was at the heart of Tokyo. More cities need spaces like this.
I didn’t buy a lot in Japan, just that shirt, some Jackrose boots and…okay, I went to Akibahara because it’s a geek paradise, even if I’m not the right geek to be too excited by it all. Brendan and I had walked through one of the megastores, up past the claw games and figurines and up to the arcade heavy with cigarette smoke and found the gamer guys wearing white gloves as they tapped the various buttons or in some cases, panels around the screen of their favourite game. We also wandered through a giant electronics mall just for fun, where I nearly bought a handheld scanner, and a kobo—I really should get one of those ebook readers—but eventually decided against it on account of the voltage difference between Japan and home, and Brendan went to ask bout the next Final Fantasy game release, which I have to say, looks amazing graphically. And then, after not buying anything and having a lunch of amazingly good curry, we wandered back to find the flea market we’d spied on the way to lunch. The first table had wallets, and looked about normal, if perhaps slightly nicer than what I’d see in other places, and it also had card holders in leather, pleather and metal, with velvet interiors and a magnetic clasp mechanism. I now have replaced my old vistaprint card case with an embossed vinyl piece with an asymmetric corner cut showing the shiny metal beneath. And it cost 500 yen.
Me, Brendan and some of our housemates at Totoro House, Japan.
There were funky printed tees with anime references neither of us got, there were toys, merchandise and a small totoro toy that would have been incredibly impressive had we not been staying in totoro house with giant stuffed totoros that could have been bigger than us. Possibly. There was also a lot of second hand clothing. Now the thing about the Japanese is that they take care of their belongings and their shared spaces. I remember being on the express train from the airport and looking at the seat in front of me and seeing a cupholder. It was a pull down, flimsy cupholder that tucked away into the back of the seat. And if it had been in Australia, they’d all have been broken. Similarly, at the AirBnB totoro house, there was a set of nonstick cookware and a non stick frying pan, and it was all in pristine condition. No scratches, no divots, no banged up twisted handles and bits stuck to the side. We used them to make blueberry pancakes, spending about fifteen minutes in a 24 hour supermarket trying to find salt, but the point is—the Japanese take care of their things. Second hand furniture, second hand clothes, they might as well be brand new. There’s bookstores out there that preserve and sell second hand manga. The clothing in the street was, at worse, ‘designer distressed’. And I found a pair of worn denim shorts with a kickass Japanese print around the top. For 1000 yen. With a waistband size that fitted me. That pair is now at the tailor’s as while the waistband fits, the legs don’t quite fit. Still, hopefully they’ll be one of the best pairs I’ve ever owned. I also saw some amazing leather bracelets and armbands that were styled to look like dragon scales, crests and claws, but at 18,000 yen apiece I couldn’t justify the cost. It would have been totally worth it if I was going to wear them more than once or twice at fancy dress parties though. It’s a bit sad knowing I’ll never see that artist or his work ever again, but I’m happy to know it’s out there, and it’s available somewhere in the world.
If you like cityscapes, I recommend heading over to the Tokyo Skytree, which is a giant shopping mall with a tall viewing deck that rises into the sky, curved windows jutting out to give you a 360 panoramic view if that’s your thing. You can also be a cheapskate like me and just head up to the 30th and 31st floors of the shopping mall, and get a decent, if not quite as lofty view without having to buy a ticket. Once you’re done there, you can wander to the far end of the giant shopping mall, past the pokemon centre (no, I didn’t go in) to the Sumida Aquarium. I found it crowded, but well, find me a place in Tokyo that isn’t, and while it was beautiful, some of the exhibits seemed painfully small, specifically the ones housing the seals, lionfish, octopus and goldfish. Indeed, a fair few of the goldfish in the larger displays were up at the surface, mouths opening to the air above. That’s a clear sign that there’s not enough oxygen in the water for all of them, and while it could be a deliberate thing on the part of the staff to make the display look full at all water depths, it struck me as cruel. Still, the tropical fish tanks were beautiful, all neatly planted and carefully trimmed to present amazing underwater landscapes in the famous amano style that originated in Japan, and there was a display of garden eels I’ve never seen anywhere else. You can see some of it in the video I shot of the aquarium below.
In terms of eating, well, I’ve already said find out where the locals eat. The two best places I ate at were a Gyoza place and a sushi train restaurant. Usukawa Gyoza Senmon Shibuya is a few minutes walk past the Shibuya scramble, apparently one of the busiest intersections in the world that tourists come to stickybeak at. I was there on a weekend, and it was still a scramble, but I think it might get busier on a work day. The thing about Japanese food is that it’s plentiful in Melbourne, so when Brendan asked if there was anything I really wanted to try, the biggest issue was the part where I’d already tried most of the cuisine. What I really wanted to do was eat them as the Japanese did. We literally were walking past the Gyoza place, with its big sign out the front of the building.
“We could have Gyoza,” Brendan suggested.
“Gyoza!” my head snapped around instantly.
“Okay, so I guess that means we’re going there.”
This is a local gem that had a queue in the evening—thankfully after we’d got in and taken a larger table near the back—but no tourists were visible other than ourselves, just a lot of locals. They have English menus, polite staff and great food – I recommend the grilled gyoza for the crispy bottoms and chewy tops. You can order them by the half-dozen, or do what we did and order them in mountains-big plates of 20, 30 or 40 gyoza. You can order them boiled, deep fried, or, as already mentioned, grilled, which is the equivalent to the pan fry you may be familiar with from a good Chinese dumpling restaurant, and honestly, the only real way to go in my opinion. I also recommend the Mokano dessert (the more expensive own down the bottom of the menu). It’s a sugar cone shell filled with matcha ice cream, red bean paste, glutinous rice dumplings and drizzled in maple syrup along with a powder of some sort. I don’t know what it was, but I had it on a few other dishes and it was amazingly tasty. Sort of…all the Japanese dessert flavours on one plate and it was a great finish to the meal. I will say it’s not a great place for vegetarians, although there are definitely places where vegetarians are probably catered for, unless the soup stock you ramen comes in has meat in it. Also, smoking is permitted inside, as smoking is still one of the trendier vices in Japan. It might have something to do with the insane work hours the Japanese regularly pull. One thing you’ll easily miss is that you can store bags in the wooden ‘feature wall’ behind the seating. It’s actually bag cupboards. If you’re sitting away from the feature wall, look under your bench seat for a plastic basket, which is there to help you stow your bags away under the seat.
The sushi train restaurant was picked because, well, it’s such a gimmick in Australia and I thought it would be nice to experience the gimmick without the gimmicky price tag and some amazing Sushi, and we ended up at a Ganso Zushi restaurant—part of a chain, but not one of the ones known to tourists. In fact, we could only find it on Google maps searching with its Japanese name, rather than using English. Marked as a local hotspot, it definitely fit the bill. Sushi trains are still gimmicks in Japan, but they’re not gimmicks that you pay through the nose for. Here, plates of the freshest sushi range from 95 to 600 yen, and the price is based off the price of the fish in the markets, not the type of fish or the treatment of it. The basic 125 yen plates are as amazing as the 600 yen plates, and you can spend as much or as little as you like. For somewhere between six and ten plates apiece our respective bills came out to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 odd yen, but you could probably spend more or a bit less if you chose.
This is what stacks of plates a Sushi Train restaurant should look like–one that doesn’t break the bank to boot.
Expect to be shoulder to shoulder with locals and don’t expect English menus. Tea is made yourself from matcha powder-scoop one (tiny) teaspoon into your ceramic teacup and hold it under the spigot nearby, there’s a black button at the back you want to push the cup against to get the hot water to flow into your cup. Be careful not to overfill, and the matcha will sediment down the bottom – you can either top up with more water to dissolve that or add more matcha to taste. There’s also a container of soy and a large container of pickled ginger, so help yourself. The Wasabi will come around on the conveyor belt, so grab that before it passes.
Highlights for me included salmon sushi that had been lightly grilled (look for the slightly more opaque flesh and browned skin), an octopus sushi with a black pepper sauce, and a pickled horse mackerel sushi, strangely all plates costing between 125 and 200 yen. If you have a good command of Japanese, you can order specific plates from the chefs if you don’t see them on the train, but if you do see something on the train that you like, you may want to grab it. Once it’s gone it may be a while before the chefs make more.
It was awesome to be able to enjoy a dining experience as it appears in Japan, rather than the overpriced gimmicky versions that have attempted to pop up in other countries, and, in my opinion, largely failed to capture the excellence of the original. As I said, you can find this chain elsewhere, but for a taste of local living, head to Nakano, take the north exit and walk into the giant plaza, past the McDonalds and look to your right. You can also check out the rest of the bazaar like structure, or head out east to the next street over which is full of more restaurants to explore. I didn’t have time to poke around, but maybe on another trip I’ll have more time to explore.
After dinner there’s lots of options in terms of places to go drinking—if I drank I’m sure I could recommend places, but I don’t, so Saturday night found Brendan, Gregory and myself at Big Echo Karaoke in Shibuya, spending about AUD $50 a head for 2 hours of unlimited (non-alcoholic) drinks and all the songs we could cram in. We picked Big Echo because they have a pretty big selection of English songs, some with great Engrish lyrics written on screen. Brendan recommended 2 hours, “because it takes at least an hour to get into it” and he’s right, it totally does. Karaoke in Japan is all done in private rooms, so don’t expect to be up on stage in a bar in front of strangers, and try to go with friends. And if you pass by an open door and hear the B52’s Love Shack being belted out at top volume, you’ve found the Aussies.
I limited by time in Japan to the long weekend because I wasn’t sure how well I’d get around by myself—Brendan was on Japanese work schedules and getting any time off was tricky at the best of times—and my command of Japanese was non-existent. A lot of people indicated English was becoming more common, and in the wake of the Asian Financial crisis, slowing economy and more recently the Fukushima disaster, Tokyo’s economy had become more welcoming of foreigners by necessity. There’s also apparently a push to make it even more foreigner friendly in the lead up to the Olympics in 2020, but in any case, there was enough English spoken for me to easily navigate the city, both on signage and spoken by the locals. I did notice on my last night there were a group of tourists at the vending machine ordering menu of the rice bowl place I’d stumbled into, speaking to each other in Mandarin, and using English to communicate with the waitstaff. I can’t speak for other languages, but English appears to have become the tourist Lingua Franca, so if you’re able to read this, you should be okay, but there’s a number of free translator apps, Japanese-English Dictionaries and if you’re keen, I recommend the Memrise app to help you learn a few basic Japanese words to help you out. You can find all of these, along with at least one of the many train system maps, in your smartphone app store. Just make sure you bring a phone charging battery—you’ll chew through data like no tomorrow, especially if you use Google Maps or TripAdvisor to navigate to places of interest—and I highly recommend you do. It makes getting around much easier when you don’t have to stop and try to ask for directions, or work out where you are in the jungle of steel, concrete, glass and neon. I’ll definitely be back to Japan in the future. I know there’s a lot more to do that I didn’t get to, and other cities to explore. But for now, it was off to Haneda Airport by monorail, and on a plane bound for Hong Kong.
I’ve been recently reminded that immersing yourself in a foreign culture is an act of bravery. It may not seem like it to the seasoned traveller, but leaving the familiar for the unknown where you don’t peak the language or read the signage can be scary, overwhelming, and panic inducing for the best of us. It’s why I recommend travelling with friends, or travelling to meet friends where they live. Having someone else to panic with helps a lot, and if one of you stuffs up and the other doesn’t it can help a lot. Having someone who’s at least familiar with the lingo and can recommend a few places can also help you relax, enjoy your new surroundings, and hopefully boost your confidence to where you believe you can do things yourself. Local friends are also a good source of up to date local knowledge, which you might otherwise never uncover.
It’s easy to get the usual tips about Japan and Tokyo – it’s hot during the summer, cold during the winter and your best bet is to take the train everywhere, but here’s the top ten things I discovered that you may not find via Internet searches – or may get conflicting advice about depending on what site you visit and how old the forum threads are that you end up looking at.
1) Don’t blow your nose in public. It’s considered rude.
Admittedly, no one will call you on it—the Japanese are largely too polite—but it’s not a done thing. Polite people run to a bathroom, enter a toilet stall and blow their noses there. Possibly with the sound effect option playing if it’s a high end loo—the one that masks embarrassing bodily function sounds. Also, while it’s recommended to carry a handkerchief for mopping sweat of your brow in the heat and drying your hands if you get them sticky or messy after a meal (even Burger King has a sink to wash your hands outside the bathroom, but drying your dripping digits is your problem), don’t use your handkerchief for blowing your nose. That’s what tissue packs are for.
And what, I hear you ask, do you do if you’re stuck on a train with a runny nose? Sniff. It’s what polite people do.
2) You can use your own phone, you just can’t make phone calls.
Once upon a time, Japan used its own phone network technology hat was completely incompatible with handsets from most other countries (possibly with the exception of Korea and America, I’m a bit hazy on that one), but now thanks to the forces of Globalisation making more phone models standard across multiple markets, your modern smartphone is going to work both at home, and in Japan. That said, unless you’re a resident in Japan with a fixed adress, you’re not going to be able to get a prepaid SIM card with a phone number to make and receive calls. What you can get is one with data, so ensure you and any friends you want to keep up with have a messenger or VOIP app like Facebook Messenger, SkyPE or Whatsapp to keep in touch. To chat with your local friends, you can also use email. Japanese email each other rather than text, so even if your local mates don’t have data, they should still be able to send and receive email. They’ll be weirdos with very good, specific reasons for not having data, but that’s why you love them, right?
Anyway, get a SIM with data and use it. Google Maps is your friend for getting around, especially given it’ll tell you specific directions like “take the zebra crossing” when walking from wherever you are to where you’re going. You can get a tourist SIM card from convenience stores at the airport, or in vending machines in the arrivals hall. You can also hire and use pocket wifi, but that’s cumbersome, requires charging and returning once you’re leaving. To me, a SIM card is the easier option.
3) Vending Machines are strictly money in first.
In western countries, we’re used to selecting what we want, and then offering payment to the machine, whereas in Japan it’s strictly insert your money first, select your product(s) second, and then pull the lever requesting change once you’re done ordering. This is important because many restaurants use vending machines to take orders—you put in your money, select your meal item(s) and hand in your order to the waitstaff. They then seat you and bring over your food and you’re not hassled with the bill at the end of the meal. I’m guessing this in turn allows them to turn seats over much more quickly than other countries’ restaurants, which is sort of a necessity when a restaurant has limited space, or is operating in a 24 hour environment and aggro tourists or dining and dashing can be risks.
4) Cash really is king.
You’ll need Yen to access the vending machines. None that I saw took credit cards, and I don’t think many took the commuter rail cards either (more on that later). Personally, I load up a travel card to avoid carrying stacks of cash around. My Qantas Frequent Flyer card handily acts as a travel card, and I understand Virgin’s Velocity card does too, but if yours doesn’t you can usually get one from your bank. Sometimes post offices sell them too. Anyway, once overseas, find an ATM at the airport and withdraw local currency, and you can often use the card as a Mastercard or Visa debit card. However, card isn’t accepted everywhere in Japan—and almost never at vending machines—and you’ll need cash. Sometimes the local ATMS won’t recognise non-Japanese issued cards though, so make sure you get out enough to cover your day to day expenses when you can. You may also want to exchange enough money for a SIM Card and a train ticket into the city before you leave your home country. About 10,000 Yen should cover the initial expenses if you’re taking the express train, but you can get away with less—and the express train ticketing office does accept credit card.
5) Get a Smart Card for train travel. No it doesn’t matter which one.
Tokyo has two major rail operators, and they have competing smart card systems. There’s JR Rail’s Suica and the competing Pasmo card, although I don’t know who owns that one. I strongly advise you to get one. It costs 500 Yen and you get (slightly) discounted travel across the Tokyo rail network. More importantly it saves you time as you won’t have to purchase a single use ticket before each trip.
Here’s the really important part of this tip: you can recharge either card at either card’s branded recharge kiosks. I repeat: you can recharge either card and either card’s branded recharge kiosks.They don’t look like you can based on available signage, but you can. Just pretend your Pasmo is Suica (or vice versa), march up to the machine, press the button for English instructions (it’ll be the one saying ‘English’ in, well, English) and charge up your card. The system will refer to your card as the brand of the kiosk, because no brand wants to recognise their competitor, but it’ll do the job and you can be on your way through the train network. If you really get stuck, ask the staff at the information desk or hanging around the ticket machines. They’re genuinely there to help you, up to and including pushing the buttons on the machines it’s too confusing or overwhelming for you—or if you’re feeling harried by the growing line of locals behind you pointedly being too polite to say anything about how slow you’re being. Okay, I made that last bit up. Someone would probably have offered you assistance before it got that bad.
There’s a rumour you can return cards at the airport for a refund, but if so, I missed it completely. According to some netizens, you’re supposedly able to return Suica cards at Narita airport and Pasmo cards at Haneda, and based on that I got a Pasmo card. Of course, now I have a small souvenir to add to my collection of travel cards. If anyone can verify or bust this rumour, I’d like to hear from you.
Regarding taxis: don’t bother. The roads in Tokyo are busy, windy, small and often overtaken by pedestrians anyway. Trains are typically faster, as well as cheaper.
6) Bring your passport when you go shopping.
Tokyo is a shopping Mecca. Maybe I arrived just in time for summer sales, but everything was discounted. As a tourist, however, you can avoid paying the 8% sales tax at certain ‘tax free’ shops if you bring your passport. It’s a lot of paperwork, so there’s usually a minimum spend, but many places will waive or refund the tax on items for tourists. Just expect to hang around for a good five minutes while they sort it out and staple a little form into your passport. The form and its staples will be removed by customs when you leave—be sure to approach the desk after they scan your hand luggage for all the illicit items you’re not meant to take on planes, but before you head through immigration.
Speaking of sales tax, all items in Japan are listed as Price+Tax, even if the shop doesn’t offer a tourist tax-free discount. Expect to pay an additional 8% at the till in more stores and restaurants compared to the price you may be looking at on a price tag.
Ganzo Sushi Train in Nakano. You won’t even find this one on Google unless you search in Japanese.
7) Eat where the locals eat.
The best food I had in Tokyo was at local haunts where foreigners were virtually unknown whether they had English menus or not. My friends and I were certainly welcome wherever we went, but unless someone had shown me where to go, I’d probably never have looked twice at the places I ended up eating at. Even if you subscribe to the ‘pick a place at random’ theory of eating, you’re likely to end up somewhere with a ground floor entrance, and sometimes the best places are up one or more flights of stairs.
Apps like TripAdvisor are mostly for tourists and ignored by the locals in Japan. The two best meals I had were at places barely ranked on the app. One was listed at a ranking of 5000 sometime out of 6000 in Shinjuku, and the other wasn’t on the app at all – I just added it. Google is a bit better, but not all places will be listed on a non-Japanese language search. I’ve said it about Hong Kong and it remains true for Tokyo—you can’t beat local knowledge. If you have or happen to make friends with someone who knows the area, ask them for advice. You’ll be glad you did.
Note that it’s still legal and acceptable to smoke in many businesses over in Japan. You’ll find some places have smoking and non-smoking sections, but you may also find it’s the next table lighting up, or the smell lingering in the stairwell, or at your hotel. You can seek out non-smoking places (I don’t know how to identify them, but you can try) and with hotels you can request a non-smoking room, but if you’re a non-smoker like me, you may just have to deal.
8) Don’t Tip
In Japan, good service is a matter of being polite and a cultural imperative. Tipping isn’t expected and you could find a rather perplexed cashier attempting to return your money because you’ve overpaid, and they couldn’t possibly charge you more than your bill. Some of the more refined establishments will expect a service charge, but that’ll be added to your bill when you receive it—apparently. Clearly I never went to any places like that. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say tipping is an insult, but I got the distinct impression that to the Japanese, amazing and courteous service is the baseline expectation, not the exception. Just treat them with the same courtesy and respect and you’ll be fine.
9) Don’t walk and eat. Or drink
One of my Japanese friends used to do this thing in Australia where she’d happily walk along with a water bottle, but when she wanted to take a drink, she’d stop, take a swig and then start walking again. This is not that. It’s a bit more subtle and easy to miss unless you know about it, but I can’t write this without thinking of her. If you get a snack or a bottle or can of drink, don’t keep walking and eat or drink. Food and beverages are to be consumed in one place—typically the place of purchase if not at home and disposed of thoughtfully. You’ll notice there’s very little litter, and very few bins around Tokyo for exactly this reason. Even where there’s a vending machine, the expectation is that you drink or eat there, dispose of any garbage at the bins provided nearby, and then move on.
If you do see someone walking and eating (or drinking) chances are they’re a tourist.
On the subject on bins, Japan recycles and you’ll usually need to sort your trash into ‘paper/burnable items’, ‘bottles and cans’ and ‘other’. Some restaurants also have receptacles for uningested liquid to help with the recycling process.
10) Tokyo really isn’t that crazy
There’s a story about Japanese people who romanticise Paris, expecting the city to be charming, picturesque and the people warm and friendly and wonderful. The reality when they arrive hits rather hard, and while we can all giggle at silly people expecting a city to be like it’s portrayal in the media, my friend Brendan has reported similar disillusion amongst Anime and Manga nerds arriving in Japan and expecting the heightened reality of Anime to be the reality of the city. In Harajuku I saw two people in crazy, over the top outfits, and a lot of people with specific styles in very well put together outfits, complimented by carefully applied make up and hair product. Tokyo definitely has subcultures and some of those have specific fashion styles. But it’s full of normal, everyday people going about their business with a slightly different cultural flavour to what you may be used to. Just don’t expect it to be the city of Anime. Or a city of Anime nerds. While you’re gushing over Anime, please remember that for the majority of Anime, fangirling and fanboying over a series is the equivalent of someone being obsessed with Captain Planet, Scooby Do or Inspector Gadget. That’s not to say don’t do it—just don’t come in with the expectation that everyone in the country is going to be like that, or that they’re somehow representative of everyone in Japan, and you’ll be fine. I also didn’t witness multiple bows before exiting a room, or men shoving people onto trains, but that last one is because I came and left during a long weekend. I’ve been assured it really does happen.
My best advice is to come in with an open mind and try to leave your expectations of what Japan is behind. You’ll find out what it is when you arrive. And after all, isn’t that the point of travel?